The Shadowlands

It’s a beautiful fall day.  The sky is a deep azure blue without even the trace of a cloud.  There’s a soft breeze gently shaking the reddish-gold maple leaves on the tree in the backyard.  I can smell the tang of wood smoke from the fireplace a few houses up the street.  Somewhere a dog is barking.  I’m thinking of the dinner that I’ll share tonight with a dear sweet friend.  It’s one of those moments in life when you smile, take a deep breath, and whisper a prayer of thanks to God for all His many blessings.  Having your health and your family, good friends and the beauty of creation all around us IS abundant grace and goodness.  As the sign says, life is good.
Yet this life is just a pale imitation of the joys of our life to come in heaven.  C. S. Lewis describes life here on earth as life in the “shadowlands” as if all the beauty and wonder of creation is a mere hint of what life in heaven will be like.  He doesn’t mean that life on earth is somehow less real or any less amazing or miraculous or heart-stoppingly beautiful.  It IS a wonder, in all its depth and complexity.  From the tiniest butterfly to the full majesty of a Beethoven symphony–we are surrounded by and immersed in indescribable beauty.  But heaven is and will be, immeasurably more beautiful.  How do we know this?  Because heaven is where all the beauty in this world comes from.  God is the source of everything that’s good and true and beautiful.  From Him comes every good thing we know here:  a mother’s loving touch, a bluebird’s song, the soft velvet on a Christmas stocking, fresh apple pie, the love between a husband and a wife.  Everything we hold dear and cherish so deeply and reverently is just a hint of the beauty we’ll know in His presence.
There we’ll know the One Who dreamed of a sunset and made it real; Who breathed upon the waters and made the crashing waves.  We’ll be face-to-face with the source of all Beauty.  We’ll still love everything and everyone that we’ve loved in life, but in a way that will make our five earthly senses seem fuzzy and clouded.  St. Paul says this very thing when he describes the difference between our earthly perceptions and our heavenly ones:  “Now we see through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am known” (I Corinthians 13:12).  We’ll see with new eyes, hear with new ears and in every way experience life, real life, as we’ve never known it before.  When we speak of heaven, we use the language of faith because we don’t yet have the experience of it, though we hope to.  Love leads us to imagine what it will be like.  Love calls us on an autumn afternoon to close our eyes and thank Him for all this beauty, here and now and all around us.  If this perfect October moment, clothed in splendor, is just a shadowland of our true home in heaven–then how wonderful heaven will be.  And how dearly we must treasure this life and these days we’re given to walk with Him and know Him —and follow Him as He leads us home.

The Journey of Faith

There’s been a renewed interest lately in pilgrimages with the release of the move “The Way.”  Directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, it’s a story about The Way of St. James.  This pilgrim’s path has existed for more than a thousand years and is one of the most important Christian pilgrimages.  Travellers walk from any number of starting points in Europe and make their way to Santiago de Compostela on the coast of Spain.  Legend holds that the bones of St. James the Apostle are buried in a shrine on the city’s main square.  “Santiago” is Spanish for “St. James.”  The earliest records show that Christians were walking to Compostela as early as the 8th century and probably even earlier.  Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims spending months or even years walking through all kinds of weather and enduring many hardships just to get to a shrine–but why?  Why put yourself through all that just to pray in front of some old bones?
For Catholics, pilgrimages like this one can be an act of penance by which we show sorrow for our sins.  By giving up our own daily comforts, we can participate in the suffering of Christ and offer our penance for our sins.  We also want to be in the presence of holy people, like the Saints and so we find comfort in praying in the presence of their relics.  Just like we pray together with our earthly faith family each Sunday, we can pray with our heavenly family when we visit shrines like Compostela.  But mostly, pilgrimages aren’t about the bones or relics at all—they are about the journey.  And not only the exterior journey of sights and people along the way (although they can be amazing), but it’s more about the interior journey of the heart.  Being a pilgrim means being on the way to something holy, something life-changing.  More accurately, a pilgrim is on the way with some One Who is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6).  The first pilgrims were the Magi who travelled many long miles to see the baby Jesus and pay Him homage.  A pilgrimage always involves a journey, both the physical traveling and the journey of the heart towards God.  In the fourth century, Christians began making the journey to Jerusalem to visit the holy places of Jesus’ life.  Basilicas had been built on the sites of His birth, burial, and Resurrection and believers were drawn there to worship.  During medieval times, pilgrims began walking to Cologne in Germany, to Compostela in Spain and to Canterbury and Walsingham in England, as well.  Today, Catholic youth travel on the pilgrim’s way every two years when they meet with the Pope at World Youth Day.  This year’s journey led to Madrid and in 2013, they’ll meet in Rio de Janeiro.
Travelling to God and with God is an ancient practice.  From Abraham’s journey to Mamre and Moses’ walk up Mt. Sinai, we long to go and be close to Him.  We talk of our lives as “our Christian walk” and describe our faith as “our journey with Christ.”  Like the disciples that Jesus met walking on the road to Emmaus, there’s something about being a Christian that draws us out of ourselves and pulls us to a new place.  With Him, we leave our old selves behind and “put on the new man” (Colossians 3:10).  It was during Christ’s own pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover that He won for us our salvation.  We’re all on the pilgrim’s road, all of us walking our own way towards eternity.  But are we using our time on earth as a faith pilgrimage to bring us closer to God?  Maybe we need to ask ourselves—Where am I going?  Who is walking beside me?  What’s the purpose of this journey, of my life?  Who is leading my way?

“Go forth in peace, for you have followed the good road.”—St. Clare

Be Careful What You Read

What sort of books do you read?  Do you ever think about how they affect your thoughts and your actions?  Listen to the stories of four people whose lives were forever changed by what they read.  The first one is a soldier, a real “man’s man” who came from a wealthy family with lots of political contacts.  Their influence could have kept him behind the front lines, but he loved being in the heat of battle and so he fought.  He was seriously wounded in one of those fights and was forced to spend many months recovering from his injuries.  Bored and restless as the weeks went by, he asked for something to read to help pass the time.  He was given a copy of “The Life of Christ” by Ludolph of Saxony, a German priest.  In reading it, he found himself transformed and lead to read the Gospels with a new and deepened understanding.  When he was back on his feet, he didn’t return to the life of a soldier, but instead devoted himself to a life of prayer and service.  Later, he was called to religious life and he founded the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits.  St. Ignatius of Loyola heard Christ calling to him through reading His life story.
As a child, she loved reading stories about missionaries who spread the good news of Christ in far-off lands.  She went on to become a nun and a schoolteacher, teaching the daughters of wealthy families in exotic India.  One day, while taking a train trip she experienced God’s call to serve the poorest of the poor in the streets of Calcutta.  She founded a new order of sisters called the Missionaries of Charity and today they work in slums and inner city neighborhoods around the world.  Her selfless love of the poor earned her the Nobel Peace Prize.  We know her as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
His father was a city bureaucrat who never went to church.  As he grew up, his mom never stopped praying for him, but he liked drinking and staying out late with his friends.  Still, he was a good student and he got a job teaching at a prestigious private school.  He lived with a woman for many years and they had a son together.  After reading the life story of St. Anthony of the Desert, he had a conversion experience and was called to the priesthood.  He later became a bishop and Doctor of the Church.  St. Augustine’s best-known work is his life story, his “Confessions.”
She was born into a Jewish family but had become an avowed atheist in her teenaged years.  On a vacation one summer, she read the biography of St. Teresa of Avila and was called by Christ to a life of faith.  A few years later she became a Carmelite nun, like St. Teresa.  The Nazis came to power in her native Germany and in order to protect her from them, her order sent her to a convent in the Netherlands.  When the Nazis invaded, she was taken to the death camp at Auschwitz where she was murdered in the gas chambers for being born a Jew. Edith Stein, who had become Sister Teresa Benedicta was martyred in 1942 and made a Saint of the Church in 1998.
Words have power.  What we read can affect us in deep and powerful ways, even if we might not be aware of it at the time.  Feed your mind with words that nourish and sanctify you.  But be careful what you read—you might just become a saint.

Sacramental Marriage

Catholics believe that marriage is a sacrament, right up there with baptism and the Holy Eucharist.  We believe that God loves marriage so much that He imagines marriage as the intimate, deep and abiding love relationship that He longs to share with each one of us.  He describes our life with Him in heaven as “the marriage feast of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:7).  In our lives, there is no other relationship which comes as close to our union with Christ as our relationship with our spouse.  In marriage, two people become one flesh, and participate with the Lord in the creation of new life.  Of all the sacraments, marriage is the only one which has existed since the Garden of Eden.  Jesus had strong words about marriage when He was asked about it.  Over the centuries Jewish practice had allowed marriage to devolve into little more than a civil contract which could easily be broken.  But Jesus revealed the sacramental nature of marriage when He taught His disciples that marriage is between one man and one woman and that their union can never be dissolved through divorce (Mark 10:6-12, Luke 16:18).  Jesus condemned remarriage after divorce as an adulterous act.
This was a hard teaching for the Jews who heard Jesus’ words and it is a hard teaching for us today.  It’s hard for us to hear because we’ve forgotten what marriage means as a vocation and path to holiness.  We meet someone, fall in love and get married.  Often we marry outside the Church.  Often we marry hastily, without truly making a sacramental and lifelong commitment to our spouse.  When problems arise or the flush of the honeymoon fades, we react by thinking of our lives in a different way, in a single way.  We may have an affair.  We may live a life that is separate from our spouse in many ways and before long, one of us leaves.  In divorce, God’s dream for our lives as a union of love and sacrifice, of giving ourselves to someone else who desires the very best for us, is lost.  Today we know that half of all marriages end in divorce.  Sadly, even though Catholics uphold Jesus’ teaching about the permanence of marriage, half our Catholic marriages also end in divorce.  This must break God’s heart.  All Christians are called to remember Jesus’ words about divorce and to cherish marriage as a gift from God, created to draw us closer to Him.  This is a daunting mission for us in a culture which no longer values God’s vision and plan for marriage.  Fewer and fewer people are choosing to be married, preferring instead to live together.  In a few years, more children in America will be born to unwed mothers than into a home where their parents are married.  Fewer and fewer children grow up with their father living in the house with them.  Single mothers are much more likely to raise their children in poverty, and poverty brings with it a multitude of problems which we all know too well.  The truth is that culture and society will never save marriage because neither culture nor society values it.  It’s only God Who wants the very best for us and it’s only through Him that marriage can be saved.
The Eucharist must be the center of our lives as Catholics.  Only Christ can transform us into the partner our spouse needs and deserves.  We have to pray together with our spouse every day because a sacramental marriage always involves three persons:  the husband, the wife, and the Lord.  We need to spend time together reading God’s word.  In the Gospels, we hear Jesus’ plan for our lives and our salvation.  We learn what it means to be His disciple and follow Him.  We need to attend Mass together every Sunday as a family.  Sharing in the public worship of God with our faith family strengthens and binds us around the table of the Lord.  We can face the trials of life when our faith roots are strong.  And we need to recognize and minimize all those things and people in our lives that detract from our marriage.  Whether it’s too much time at work, too much alcohol, or too little honest communication, we have to b committed to our marriage and our family, first and foremost.  We have to believe, as Jesus does, that our marriage is created in God’s grace and for His great purpose in our lives.