His Wounded, Miraculous Heart

He’d always been the kind of guy who’d done the right thing.  His dad had seen to that.  He’d been raised in a strict home, and a religious one.  But instead of finding his parent’s morality and church-going ways restrictive or irritating, he flourished in them.  He and his brother Andrew were both good kids, the kind of sons parents prayed for.  He grew into a large man, with a heart to match his frame.  Quiet and unassuming most of the time, he was a man of few words, the kind of guy who let his deeds speak for themselves.  Both he and Andrew had joined their dad in the family seafood business.  It was hard work but it let them all be together, working shoulder to shoulder each day earning an honest living.  Before long, he’d earned and saved enough to buy his own boat.  And with that financial security in hand, he felt able to marry his childhood sweetheart and begin a family of his own.  He and Andrew remained close though and together with another childhood friend, Phillip, they and their families spent lots of time together in their small hometown.  They often talked about their faith in God, which was important to all three men.  But the church of their childhood wasn’t always completely fulfilling to them anymore.  Something was missing.  Andrew especially was a seeker.  He often sought out others’ opinions on religious matters.  He’d found a new preacher he wanted his brother to hear, and one afternoon they both went to listen to him speak.  This preacher, John, was an amazing man, full of love for God and so unlike what they were used to hearing in church.  It was exciting for them.  But it was the preacher’s cousin who would change both their lives forever.
When John’s cousin, Jesus first met Andrew’s brother, Simon, he told him his name would be Peter (John 35:42). The big fisherman from Capernaum was being called by God to become a fisher of men.  And on this rock, this Peter, Christ promised to build His Church (Matthew 16:18).  Peter’s big heart allowed God’s gift of faith to confess Christ as his Savior before any of the other Apostles (Matthew 16:17).  So wholehearted is his commitment that when Christ later asked the Apostles if any of them wanted to leave Him, Peter can only say, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”(John 6:69).  In Jesus, Peter found the Messiah, the Lamb of God.  And in Peter, Christ found a heart large enough and strong enough to be the foundation of faith for the whole world.  But Peter’s heart, like all our hearts, was a wounded one.  We don’t know the source of his pain, but we see and hear his hurts lived out in the Gospels.
For some reason, Peter found it difficult to forgive.  Someone must have seriously hurt him.  His parents?  His wife?  Her mother, who shared their home?  When he asks Jesus, “Lord how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?  As often as seven times?” (Matthew 18:18-19).  We can hear the hurt in his voice.  And haven’t we all felt like Peter felt that day?  Wronged by someone we loved and finding it hard to let go of the hurt, we hold onto our anger and resentment until it eats away at us.  On some level we can even enjoy the self-righteous feelings of being a victim.  Yet, as Christ told Peter, we must always be willing to forgive one another.  Forgiveness is a decision we make, a habit that we continually have to practice and strengthen, with God’s help and love.  And ultimately, it was this gift of Christ’s love and mercy that transformed Peter from the simple, wounded fisherman into Christ’s first vicar on earth.  What Jesus did for St. Peter, He offers to do for you and for me—to lead us out of the darkness of our resentments and anger into the sweet freedom found in His forgiveness.  His love transforms our wounded hearts, if we only allow Him in.
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover the prisoner was you.”
                                                —Lewis B. Smedes (1921-2002)

Priestly Celibacy

We live in a sexualized culture. This is hardly news to anyone with a television, a DVD player, or access to the internet. Images of sexuality, in all its’ forms and expressions, are constantly before us. And yet, as Christians, we are called to lead lives of chastity. Single people are commanded to remain celibate. Married couples express chastity as the total committment to their spouse, in body, mind, and spirit. A sacramental marriage encompasses sexuality in all the fullness and self-giving of a shared love which is open to the gift of new life.

 Living a chaste life in our modern world is a strong expression of our faith in Christ. In the Roman Catholic Church, men who are called to the priesthood promise to remain unmarried and to live, as all single persons should, a life of celibacy. This is not a doctrine or dogma of our faith, but has been a traditional practice since the early Middle Ages. There are exceptions to this tradition, including the many Catholic priests outside the Latin Rite who are married men.

 Jesus Christ never married. Among His Apostles, He called both single and married men to serve Him and found His Church. Jesus tells us that some men renounce marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of God. “Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Matthew 19:11-12). Christ saw the celibate life as a special and privileged calling, one for which not all men are suited, but one that gives glory to His Kingdom. St. Paul certainly supports the celibate life as a calling from God when he writes his first letter to the church at Corinth. Some early Church Fathers wrote in support of a celibate priesthood, including St. Cyril, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine.

A priest gives himself completely in service of the people of God. Pastors serve as “Father” to their flocks, shepherding and guiding them throughout all of life’s joys and sorrows. The priest is the representative of Christ. In this respect, a priest understands his identity by following the example of Jesus, who lived His life in perfect chastity and obedience. The priesthood is a holy calling, something set apart from the rest of the world. Just as Christ gave His life for His Bride, the Church, so too does every priest offer up his own life for the good of Christ’s people.

 Most Catholics do marry, and all Catholics venerate marriage as a Holy Sacrament, an action of God’s grace in our souls. It is precisely the holiness of marriage that makes celibacy so precious, for only what is good and holy in itself can be given up for God as a sacrifice. In a poor comparison, just as fasting presupposes the goodness of food, celibacy presupposes the goodness of marriage.

 “The priest is called to be the living image of Jesus Christ; the spouse of the Church” (Pope John Paul II). His celibacy is a radical act of love freely given, in total committment to the Saviour of the world. His life, like that of Christ, goes against the culture of the day. Our priests are examples to us of a life poured out in service. Over the centuries, these men have brought billions of people to Jesus Christ. Through their service, they established the largest charitable organization on the face of the earth: The Catholic Church. They compiled the books of the Bible. Priests established the world’s first legal system in the Code of Canon Law, which is still in use today. We owe the college and university system of education to the work of faithful priests. The world’s first hospitals and medical centers were founded by priests and brothers of the Catholic Church. Priests work as missionaries in every country on the planet and thousands of them have been martyred for their faith. From the lions of the Roman Coliseum, to the despots of communist China, and the terrorist-murderers of Iraq, these faithful priests continue today to fearlessly lose their lives in sacrifice for Him. And they baptize our babies, hear our confessions, bury our loved ones and bring us Christ Himself at every Mass every day around the world. The history of the Catholic Church has, in large part, been the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the lives of His priests and the flocks they serve. As Catholics, we celebrate the dedicated men who answer God’s call to His priesthood and who offer everything they have to His glory.

“Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart, celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.” –Paragrah 1579, The Catechism of the Catholic Church

What’s Your Price?

My first job after graduate school was as a psychotherapist in a small town in west Texas.  I worked for a public mental health agency and we were missioned to serve all the psychological needs of the community.  We saw anyone and everyone that walked through our doors.  It was a great learning experience for me.  One of the aspects of our clinic was that our fees were based on our client’s income.  The more they earned, the more they paid.  But no one left without paying something.  The idea was that people tend not to place value on things they receive for free.  So even our poorest clients would pay something for their therapy sessions, even if it was just a dollar.  And if they didn’t keep their appointments, they would still be charged.  Very few would no-show their sessions this way.  This arrangement didn’t come close to meeting our operating expenses, but that wasn’t the point anyway.
After all these years, I think our assumptions about value and worth were right.  Life has taught me that people tend to not value things that come to them without a price.  When something is valuable to us, we take better care of it.  We make sure it doesn’t get damaged and, if it does, we have it repaired.  We use it for the purpose for which it was made.  We don’t let others misuse it.  Last Sunday’s Mass readings included one from the first letter of St. Paul to the church at Corinth that really brought these truths home to me:  “You were purchased at a price” (I Cor 6:19-20).
Thank about that for a moment.  “You were purchased at a price.”  You are so valuable that God bought you with the life of His only Son.  What would you purchase with the life of your only child? Can you even imagine that kind of love?  And yet that’s how much God loves you.  In the midst of your sinful life (in the midst of my sinful life), that’s how much God values and loves you.  He loves you more than you can understand, and with a love that is beyond your human comprehension.  Knowing this should call each of us to have a conversion in our hearts and in our lives.  We belong to the Lord.  He has claimed us as His children though the sinless blood of Christ.  All that we have, all that we are is His and His alone.  Every breath we take is a gift of His generous love.  This knowledge has big and practical consequences for us:

1.  All human life is precious and must be treated with dignity and respect from the moment of conception until natural death.
2.  Parents have a duty to raise their children in His Church, teaching them about God’s great love for them and guiding them in the way of that love.
3.  We must love one another as God loves each of us.
4.  Our bodies belong to God.  They are the temple of His love for us and should be treated with holy respect.’
5.  Every day is a gift from God and so we must spend it doing good and working for the benefit of others.
6.  No one is outside the love of God.  Even if we don’t like them, God loves them ferociously.
7.  No one is unable to be redeemed.  No matter the sin, no matter the sinner.  We are ALL the prodigal children of the Father.  By His mercy, we seek His forgiveness.  Through His grace, we are saved.
8.  God has never been closer to you than He is at this very moment.  If you’re still reading this, it’s only because God is calling to you.  He longs for your friendship because “you were purchased at a price.”  He has valued you above and beyond anything else in the universe. You are the treasure of His Sacred Heart.
What’s your response to this sort of overwhelming love?  How do you begin to be grateful?
“God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.”                                    —                                                                           St. Augustine (354AD-430AD)

An Extravagant Love

They were Jesus’ closest friends.  Mary, her sister Martha, and their brother Lazarus lived in the village of Bethany, not far from Jerusalem.  They’re mentioned several times in the Gospels and Jesus loved the time He spent in their home.  Bethany was a refuge for Him that allowed Him some time away from the crowds where He could quietly enjoy His dearest friends and closest disciples.  So it wasn’t surprising that He would want to be with them on that particular Saturday evening just before the Passover feast.  He knew that it would be the last Sabbath of His human life and He wanted to spend it with His friends.  As the day ends, they’re enjoying the intimacy of a family meal, reclining together as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus serve as their hosts for the evening.
Our eyes follow Mary as she offers food and drink to Jesus and His Apostles.  She knows them all well by now, giving each one their favorite morsels and making sure everyone has all that they need.  Mary’s presence in the Gospels is central on only three occasions and in each one she’s seen sitting at the Lord’s feet.  We remember when her sister Martha becomes angry because Mary doesn’t help serve Christ and His friends on an earlier visit.  While Martha cooks, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to Him speak (Luke 10:38-42).  Next, Mary is crying in sorrow before Christ at the death of her brother, Lazarus (John 11:32), and tonight, as she brings a special offering to Christ (John 12:1-8).  Tomorrow, Jesus will leave them to ride into Jerusalem as the crowds wave their palm fronds shouting, “Hosanna!”  But tonight, they are at home, enjoying each other’s company.  As dinner ends and everyone talks and relaxes together, Mary slips out of the room.  When she returns, she’s carrying a small pint jar of a costly perfume.  Worth a year’s wages, the perfume called “nard” was used in Jewish homes in times of celebration, marriage, and to anoint the dead.  Tonight Mary would unknowingly use it for all three of these purposes.
As she kneels before her Savior, Mary lets loose her long hair and anoints Jesus’ head and feet with the costly mixture.  It’s an intimate and tender moment of extravagant love.  Imagine it unfolding between them.  Smell the rich, delicious fragrance of the perfume running down over His shining hair.  It envelopes His Body with its delightful aroma.  His flowing tunic is soon drenched with its pungency.  Wherever Jesus goes over the next week, the perfume will go with Him.  The fragrance of that love will cling to Him into the Passover; into the Garden of Gethsemane; into Herod’s hall; into Pilate’s courtyard; even into the cruel hands of the men who cast lots for His robes.  Just as Jesus had foretold that evening, Mary’s gift of love would be remembered throughout time.  With every lash of the scourge on His back, Mary’s gift was remembered.  With each nail driven in His flesh, her love was felt.  The sweet fragrance of her extravagant gift stayed with Christ as He hung on the Cross and poured out His own gift of life for our salvation. One gift of extravagant love followed by the ultimate extravagance of Love Himself, dying for you and for me. Mary teaches us the disciple’s way; how to serve others, love others and adore Jesus. Don’t hold back, don’t count the cost.  Be with Him.  Do for Him and for all those He loves.  Don’t just give a little of yourself—give everything.  Give your most precious gifts.  The Lord sees them and loves you for them.  Pour out your love for Him wherever and whenever you can.  Let your very life be that precious fragrance our Lord breathed in that night at Mary’s house in Bethany.  And pray that you’ll hear the same incredible words she heard Him say about her:  “She has done a beautiful thing to Me.” (Mark 14:6)
“For we are the aroma of Christ….”    –II Corinthians 2:15

Everyday 9/11

It was a day like any other day.  The sun came up right on time.  The sky was a deep blue and everyone seemed in a good mood.  Buses and subways were filled with commuters making their way to jobs in the city.  The morning news shows were their usual mix of news, sports, and celebrity gossip.  It was just another day in America—or so we thought.  Then, in the space of just a few hours, thousands of Americans were brutally murdered.  Innocent people, killed without a chance to plead for their lives.  One minute, full of life and and hope and the promise of tomorrow and the next moment—a horrible and violent death.  Innocent lives, lost forever.  And all of us are diminished by their loss.
No, I’m not describing 9/11, although the scenario is much the same.  I’m describing every single day in America.  Because every day in our country 3700 Americans are violently killed by abortion.  It’s 9/11 every day here, in the greatest country on the face of the earth.  We’re not under attack by Al Qaeda or terrorists from Saudi Arabia or Somalia.  It’s not an organized sleeper cell that’s killing us, but a culture of death that we’ve allowed to infiltrate our land.  We’ve invited them in and given them a home and protected them by our Supreme Court rulings.  And we wonder what’s wrong with the country we love.  We wonder how we’ve gotten so off-track. We wonder why families are disintegrating and why half of all marriages end in divorce.  We’re puzzled when we read statistics about adultery and abandonment.  We shake our heads at stories of child abuse or wife abuse.  We’re shocked to hear that the elderly are neglected or mistreated in their nursing homes.  And we allow the treasure of our hearts, of our very lives—our children—to be destroyed each and every day by abortion.  Can’t we see the connection between these murders and the state of our American families?
Our country is like a beautiful apple that is lovely to look at and admire, but is rotten at the core.  Death lives at the heart of America and we all must take responsibility for that.  We’ve forgotten the values we were founded on which placed God and the gift of life as our anchor and our morning star.  We’ve allowed what is easy to replace what is right.  We need an awakening in our land and in our hearts.  We must remember how we all felt that on that September morning—remember the horror and the shock and the outrage.  Remember how it felt to know that so many thousands of our fellow Americans—innocent people—had been murdered so senselessly and were now lost forever.  That’s the horror of abortion every day in the greatest country on earth.  We’re in the midst of another election season. Please pray that our President and the political leaders of our country will protect human life from conception until natural death.  And pray that God will have mercy on us all.
America you are beautiful . . . and blessed . . . . The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless. If you want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then America, defend life.” – Pope John Paul II (1920-2005)

“Can I Carry That For You?”

I’m a sinner.  I can’t do anything to save myself.  I’m weak and very prone to fall, over and over again.  I’m attracted to all kind of stuff that’s bad for me.  I’m lazy and self-centered.  I’m impatient and easily frustrated with other people. I procrastinate.  I fall time and time again.  I just can’t seem to get it right.  I try and try and I’m never able to be good.  Most days it’s all just too much for me to bear and too heavy a load for me to carry.
“Can I carry that for you?”
I worry about everything.  My family, my job, my health, the future. I imagine problems that don’t even exist.  Then I worry that some day they might exist.  It’s easy to find enough to worry about these days.  The economy.  Jobs.  Terrorism.  Crimes in our neighborhoods.  The next epidemic of something horrible and unseen.  Lots of times I lay awake at night and worry.
“Can I carry that for you?”
The world tells me to try harder, to do better, to work more,  The world says all I have to do is get up earlier, stay later and work weekends.  There are even some preachers who say that if you love God the “right” way He’ll give you lots of money and new cars and a big house.  They call it the “prosperity gospel.”  But I never knew Jesus to preach that kind of gospel.  The world says I have a god inside of me that I can find if I do yoga and meditate and imagine good things in my future.  It’s a lot to remember and a lot of work.
“Can I carry that for you?”
I’m thankful I don’t have to rely on myself, no matter how good my intentions might be.  I’m thankful that Christ wants to take away my every burden and worry, every one of my sins and failures.  I’m thankful He knows my weaknesses and loves me in spite of them.  He knows every one of my sins and still He loves me beyond measure.  He knows how frail my spirit can be and so He gave me His Church to be my support and guide.  He feeds me with His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist.  He forgives my sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  He comes to me as the Good Shepherd longing to find me and bring me home to Himself.  Jesus loves me in spite of my unloveliness.  He cherishes me as His beloved daughter, no matter how often I stumble and fall.  All my burdens and worries are lifted in His love for me.  No matter what may come my way, He’s there at my side to help me through.  The world is full of lies and misinformation.  The world is about “self-help.”  Our Catholic faith is about “Jesus, help me.”  You can’t think or dream or wish or work yourself into a better version of who you are.  Only Christ can transform our contrite hearts into what He desires for us — eternal life with Him in heaven!
“In the world, you will have trouble.  But take courage, I have conquered the world.”  Matthew 16:32-33

The Jesus Prayer

Two men go to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray.  One stands by himself and begins to pray in a loud voice:  “God, I thank You that I am not like other people:  thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week.  I give a tenth of my income.”  The second man stands off to the side with his head bowed, beating his breast.  He cries out to the Lord:  “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  When Jesus shares this parable, it is the tax collector who is justified in God’s eyes because he asks the Lord for mercy, while the Pharisee wants to earn his way to heaven by his own goodness (Luke 18).  This heartfelt prayer of the humbled tax collector is the basis for The Jesus Prayer, which has been a popular devotion in the Orthodox Churches for many centuries.  The words of The Jesus Prayer are based on Scriptural texts:  the cry of the blind man sitting at the side of the Jericho road, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Luke 18:38); the ten lepers who “called to Him, ‘Jesus, Master, take pity on us’ ” (Luke 17:13); and the cry of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:14).
The most common form of the prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  A longer version is:  “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The first mention of The Jesus Prayer is found in the writings of St. Symeon (994-1022 AD) who was a Byzantine monk living in Galatia.  He wrote of the importance of a personal relationship with Christ with its foundation in a rich and constant prayer life.  The Jesus Prayer was practiced in Eastern Orthodox communities as a way of integrating praying into every waking hour.  St. Gregory of Sinai suggested praying this prayer in rhythm with one’s breathing.  To do this, inhale on the words “Lord Jesus Christ” and exhale while praying “have mercy on me.”  Praying in this way will help focus your thoughts on Christ and help keep distractions at a minimum.  Many people use The Jesus Prayer to help settle their hearts and minds before beginning another devotional practice such as praying a Rosary or meditating on a passage of Sacred Scripture. 
For the Orthodox monks who developed and passed down this prayer, it was a way of leading their hearts into God’s presence. This isn’t a prayer to obtain something from God, but rather it is a way of learning to be with God.  It was never taught as a “quick fix” or an easy path, however.  The Church fathers emphasized patience and perseverance.  The content of the prayer is, after all, Christ Himself.  An anonymously-written 19th century Russian book called “The Way of the Pilgrim” is an excellent introduction to The Jesus Prayer.  It’s the story of a man traveling through Russia who is trying to put into practice the instruction of St. Paul to “pray without ceasing” (Thessalonians 5:17).  As he discovers The Jesus Prayer, his spiritual journey is deepened and transformed.  This prayer is deceptively simple—just seven words.  “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  Yet it opens our hearts and lives to the Lord in a deep and profound way.  When we pray these words, we are saying to God:  “I am open to You.  Take my life and have Your will with me.  Your will, Lord, not mine.”  Being with Jesus in this way is being at His mercy.  This is exactly where we, as children of God, long to be and hope to be.  We desire with all our hearts to be so close to Him that His will and our will are the same.  It’s a prayer almost beyond words in its depth and intimacy.  Praying these simple words can easily be done during the course of anyone’s busy day, keeping our hearts and minds focused on Christ’s love and mercy while we work, or drive, or stand in line.  Whenever we turn our hearts to Him in this way, we’ll discover that He is already close to us, longing for our attention and conversation, waiting to give us whatever we most need.  “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
“This prayer is possible ‘at all times’ because it is not one occupation among others, but the only occupation:  that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus.” 
            —The Catechism of the Catholic Church

St. John Fisher

Fifty-four men stood between the King and what the King wanted most in the world.  That’s a dangerous place to put yourself, yet these men know the risks and the price they’d likely pay for their stand.  Fifty-four men stood in the way of King Henry VIII’s divorce and all fifty-four paid with their lives.  Perhaps the best-known of these martyrs is St. Thomas More, the Chancellor to King Henry who was made famous in the play and film “A Man For All Seasons.”  When Henry wanted to marry Anne Boleyn he was already married to Catherine of Aragon.  The Pope had told Henry that their marriage was valid and could not be annuled.  This enraged Henry, probably because no one had ever said “no” to him before.  So Henry set about making himself the head of the Church of England, and making up his own rules about marriage.  But there were men in England who didn’t believe that an earthly king could change the truth about marriage that Jesus had taught and that the Church had upheld for fifteen hundred years.  Some of them, like Thomas More, were very powerful and important people in English politics.  Others were some of Henry’s oldest and dearest family friends, like John Fisher.
Fisher was born in Yorkshire, England in 1469 to a middle-class merchant family.  He was educated at Cambridge University where he earned his doctoral degree in theology and later served as chaplain, professor and University president.  As a priest, he served as the confessor of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII.  John Fisher loved the university and loved being a teacher, but his heart and soul were devoted to the priesthood and he spent much of his personal time and resources working for and with the poor.  With King Henry VII’s patronage, Fisher was named Bishop of Rochester in 1504.  Later that year he was elected Chancellor of Cambridge.  He also served as the personal tutor of Crown Prince Henry, who would become King Henry VIII when he inherited the throne of England from his father in 1509.
John Fisher was the trusted priest and counselor of Queen Catherine of Aragon, King Henry’s wife.  He argued in defense of her character and of the sanctity of the royal marriage when Henry sought to divorce her so he could marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.  Henry never forgave his old friend for his public opposition to his private desires for a new wife.  Fisher objected to Henry’s actions to dissolve his sacramental marriage based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Church that marriage is for a lifetime.  Henry ordered Fisher to acknowledge that he, the King, now led the church in England and not the Pope.  When John Fisher refused, Henry had him imprisoned and seized all his personal property.  In 1534, Henry required all members of Parliament and all state officials to sign the Act of Succession which acknowledged that any children born to Henry and Anne Boleyn would be the heirs to the throne.  Fisher refused to sign and was sent to the Tower of London on April 26, 1534.  Pope Paul III named him a Cardinal of the Church in May, 1535, probably in hopes of getting better treatment for him in prison.  Unfortunately, Henry was outraged by the Pope’s actions and refused to allow Fisher’s Cardinal’s hat to be brought to England, declaring that he would send Fisher’s head to Rome, instead.  Tried and convicted of treason, Fisher was beheaded on Tower Hill on June 22, 1535.  Frail, elderly and nearly blind, he was so weak that he had to be carried from his cell.  Clutching his copy of the New Testament on his way to the scaffold, he spoke his last words:  “Christian people, I come to die for the faith of Christ’s Catholic Church…I desire you to help me that I faint not in any point of the faith.  And I pray God save the King and the realm.”  He then knelt down and prayed quietly before the executioner delivered the final blow.  His body was placed on a pike and thrown into a rough grave without a funeral.  His head was stuck on a pole on London Bridge before Henry had it thrown into the Thames.  King Henry went on to have four more wives.  St. John Fisher was canonized in 1935 and is an example to us all of someone who was willing to lay down his life for the truth of Christ.  Who among us today speaks out for the truth?  Do we defend life and denounce abortion?  Do we defend chastity and modesty?  Do we stand up for marriage as a sacramental bond between a man and a woman?  Or do we fall in behind whatever is easy and politically-expedient instead? 
“Where are now the kings and princes that once reigned over all the world, whose glory and triumph were lifted up above the earth?”  —St. John Fisher (1469-1535)

Redemptive Suffering

I started my New Year with a nasty stomach bug.  I don’t mean the kind you get from drinking too much champagne.  Unfortunately, I mean the feverish, nauseous, icky…well, you know what kind I mean.  In between trips to the bathroom, I was thinking about suffering and God.  I’ll admit that most of my “sickroom theology” was little more than the prayerful plea, “Lord, please make this stop!” But when the worst had passed, literally, I was able to think a little more clearly about the problem of suffering.
Everyone suffers. Since the fall of our first parents in the Garden, being human means enduring pain.  Life brings suffering and loss of all kinds, disappointments and unhappiness.  Original sin brought death into the world.  All our human sufferings are kind of “little deaths” that we endure for living in a fallen world.  But for Christians, this fallen world has been redeemed by Jesus Christ and His sacrifice has also redeemed suffering.  Catholic theology teaches us that pain and suffering are never willed by God.  As a father sometimes allows a child to suffer the consequences of their actions, God allows us to suffer so that we can grow in spirit.  Whether it’s for our correction, or to encourage us to lean more fully on Him, we can always trust that His grace and love will see us through the hard times.
Catholics also know that our suffering can do us good when we allow it.  We’re called to imitate Jesus, to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27).  Like Him, we must take up our own crosses and follow the Way of Sorrows that He walked before us.  Suffering unites us to the pain Jesus endured for our sake.  As we are all members of His Body, our particular sufferings can not only bear spiritual fruit for us, but for others as well.  We are all in this vale of tears together.  “If one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it…”(I Corinthians 12:26).  God wants us to depend on one another because we are all His adopted sons and daughters:  His family.  Our sufferings, great or small, aren’t punishments but opportunities.  An illness, a job loss, a difficult relationship—all these are ways we can connect with one another in prayer, support and sacrifice.  We can weave a tapestry of community when we do this.  This filial love is pleasing to God because it reveals the love of Jesus in our lives.  Parents feel a wonderful sense of devotion when they see their children helping one another out and sacrificing their own wants for that of a sibling.  God must feel the same way when He sees us loving, helping, and praying for one another.
Beyond being a worldly support for our brother and sisters, we can offer God our own pains and sacrifices as well.  This is the Catholic practice of “offering it up” with which u may be familiar.  We believe that in God’s economy of salvation, no pain or suffering is lost or goes unmerited if we offer it back to God.  Our whole lives are called to be an offering to our Lord. When we offer Him our pains and sufferings we conform our souls and our mortal bodies more closely to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  We offer Him our pain for our own spiritual good and for that of other people, too.  In some mysterious way, God allows these sacrifices to benefit others (Colossians 1:23-24).
And so the next time you’re ill or stuck in traffic or your computer crashes or your favorite shirt is ruined in the laundry—accept it peacefully and patiently. Ask God to use your pain or discomfort in whatever way and for whatever intention is His good purpose, either for your own life or in the life of someone else who needs His help.  This isn’t easy to do, but it’s a habit and practice of many Saints in history, so that’s good enough for me.  Redemptive suffering allows us to participate as God’s co-workers in His plan of salvation.  Like Simon the Cyrene, we help Jesus to carry His Cross on the way to Golgotha (Matthew 27:32).  One of the great joys of our Catholic faith is knowing that Christ is always with us in the midst of our pain and in the loneliness of our sufferings.  He has known it all and borne it all before and His desire is to be invited into every moment of our lives, to share it with us and to show us the way through.  The love of Jesus calls out from the Crucifix to each one of us, no matter our pain and asks us to lay our burdens at the foot of His Cross.

The Best Little Book You’ve Never Read

It’s the most-published book in the world after the Bible.  John Wesley listed it as one of the reasons he was a Christian.  John Newton, the Anglican clergyman who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” was said to have carried a copy of it in his pocket.  Pope John Paul I was reported to have been reading it when he died.  The basic theme of the book is simple and extraordinary:  since Jesus Christ is true God and true man, by imitating the human Jesus, we become more and more like Christ, Who is God.  The book is The Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas a Kempis in 1418.
Thomas, whose family name was Hammercken, was born in Kempen in northwest Germany in 1380.  He attended school just over the border in Holland at a Catholic school run by a group of monks known as the Brothers of the Common Life.  These men devoted themselves to lives of prayer, simplicity and seeking union with God.  When Thomas was 19 he entered their monastery in Zwolle, Holland and he spent the rest of his life within its walls, dying there at the age of 91.  Thomas’ days were filled with prayer and study, copying manuscripts, teaching novices, and offering Mass and hearing the confessions of the people who came to the monastery church.  He wrote numerous sermons, letters, hymns, and books, many of them about the lives of the saints.  By far his most famous work was The Imitation of Christ.  It’s a small book, and is divided into four chapters.  The format is that of a practical manual which lays out for the reader the “best practices” of daily Christian life.  Each bit of counsel is no more than a few paragraphs, making it easy to read and meditate on an exercise in just a few minutes.  Sprinkled within the chapters are beautiful prayers to our Lord, praising and thanking Him for help in becoming more like Him in all that we do.  Thomas was a scholar of Holy Scripture and his book is filled with Bible passages.  Thomas lays out for us the life of Jesus the man as our model for daily life.  It shouldn’t be surprising that the virtue he teaches most is humility.  “A poor peasant who serves God is better than a proud philospher who ponders the course of the stars.”  But it isn’t just a collection of proverbs.  Thomas teaches us how to read Scripture, how to use adversity for our spiritual growth, how to resist temptation, how to spiritually prepare for death and how to meditate on the sufferings of Christ.  The supreme emphasis of the book is Jesus Christ and the possibility of our own immediate communion with Him.
The opening lines of this small but powerful book are a wonderful summary of the wisdom you’ll find within it: ” ‘No one who follows Me will ever walk in darkness (John 8:12).’  These words of our Lord counsel us all to walk in His footsteps.  If you want to see and clearly avoid blindness of heart, it is His virtues you must imitate.  Make it your aim to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ.”  Available online and at most major bookstores, I’d offer only one small word of caution before you buy it—make sure you take a few minutes to read several paragraphs first.  The Imitation of Christ was originally written in Latin and there are many English translations available.  Some are easier to read than others. Find one that you like and I think you’ll soon find out why this book has been the companion of so many Christians over the centuries.  Happy reading!
“Love flies, runs and rejoices; it is free and nothing can hold it back.”  —Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)

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