Why I Love Holy Water

We begin our human lives in a salty sea inside our mother’s womb.  Water is our first home.  In the most basic biological sense, water is life.  Our bodies are about 75% water, the same as the earth on which we live.  Most of us could live for about a month without food, but only about three days without water.  Water is what keeps us going.  In Scripture, we know that God chose water to cleanse the earth of sin in the great flood.  The ark built by Noah saved the souls of the 8 people who would rebuild humanity.  God helped the Jewish people escape slavery in Egypt by leading them through water.  We know that water is esteemed by the Lord because of the role water plays in our sanctification.  Christ is the Living Water which alone can satisfy the deepest thirst of our souls for truth and hope and love.  Before Christ, the ritual washings and purifications of the Jews prefigured the cleansing power of the Sacrament of Baptism.  Our Lord was baptized by His cousin John, who announced that day that Jesus is the Lamb of God (John 1:29).  Water is our entry into the Church.  Through Baptism we are marked as a child of God, a member of His royal family.
Which brings us to why I love holy water.  To begin with, there’s nothing magic about holy water.  It’s what the Church calls a “sacramental.”  It’s not a Sacrament itself like Baptism or Confirmation, but it is a “sacred sign which bear(s) a resemblance to the Sacraments” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1667).  Most Catholic Churches have a baptismal font in the entry of the building to remind us that it is through Baptism that we come into God’s family.  The font is filled with water that has been blessed by a priest.  You may also see smaller holy water fonts at the inner doorways to the nave, or seating area.  Catholics dip three fingers of their right hand into the water in the fonts when they enter the church.  We pray the Sign of the Cross and reverently bless ourselves “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  The blessing the priest gave the water is attached to it.  So using holy water to bless yourself or your children or your home conveys that same blessing.  Devoutly blessing yourself with holy water remits venial sins.  This is powerful stuff.  Sometimes I think we take holy water for granted.  Listen to this, which is from the prayer blessing the water and describes the power it has to “…put to flight all the power of the enemy and be able to root out and supplant that enemy and his apostate angels.”  There’s a reason demons flee from holy water—it reflects the goodness of God and evil abhors love and mercy and hope.  If you don’t keep holy water in your home, get some.  Use a clean sealed bottle and bring some home.  I have a personal font by the front door.  I bless myself when I leave and when I come home.  The Church encourages us to bless ourselves and our family members.  You can use holy water to bless your home, your family, your car, your pets, your meals.  If you’re sick, you can add a few drops to your food.  Remember, holy water isn’t a magic potion.  Like other sacramentals, it prepares us to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Holy water helps us to remember how much God loves us.
I love holy water because it reminds me of my Baptism.  I was nineteen and I’ll never forget the joy of knowing God’s love and mercy had made me as white as snow.  It was knowing how much He loves me and wants me to know and love Him.  When I bless myself, I remember His love anew.  I love holy water because it makes me look differently at the ordinary things of the world.  God uses ordinary things like water and oil, bread and wine, and transforms them into extra-ordinary creations.  He wants to do the same thing to me and to you.  Holy water is as powerful as our faith in Christ.  It is the mercy and forgiveness of God.  It makes demons flee in terror.  It refreshes my soul.
I read once that love is an act of continual forgiveness.  That means God is continual forgiveness, since God is love.  Every time I use holy water, I remember how much God loves me and forgives me, every day, every moment.   When we don’t take advantage of the goodness of holy water, we miss out on this gift of blessing God has given to us.  I don’t know about you, but I need His blessings.  I need all of them.  And I especially need His mercy and forgiveness. That’s what holy water reminds me.  That I’m loved and I’m forgiven.  Thanks be to God.
“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”                —Mark Twain

Being Bella

There’s a red-tailed hawk that lives in my neighborhood.  I don’t know if it’s a male or a female, but I’ve imagined her to be a lady.  I’ve even named her.  Bella.  She’s big and fierce-looking and every time I see her, which is at least a couple of times a week, I smile.  She’s usually perched on a fence post or power line, her intense eyes scanning the ground for her next quick bite.  She’s been around here for several years now and I like to think of her as “my” hawk.  I look for her every day and it’s reassuring to see her there.  I admire her for being out there, in all kinds of weather, just doing what she was created for.  When I see her, I think of the complexity and beauty of God’s creation.  And that all of us have a place in His garden.
So many of us struggle to find our place in the world.  Families suffer through divorce and estrangement.  Relationships get broken and sometimes are never healed.  Siblings drift apart from one another.  Parents struggle when their children are victims of illness or drug use.  Church families can fracture and grow cold when gossip and distrust take root and are allowed to grow.  Being human means living in a broken world.  Lots of folks try to make their own sense of things and find their own way through their problems.  We see them chasing wealth and possessions, trying to fill the void in their hearts with acquiring things.  Maybe they do okay, on some level.  But that never worked for me.  Giving my life to Christ allowed me to find my own place and to have peace in knowing that He is in control of everything.  But unlike Bella the hawk, sometimes I don’t cooperate with God as fully and flawlessly as she does.  Bella can’t sin.  Her hawk’s will is perfectly conformed to her life and the part she plays in God’s creation.  Whether she’s soaring over the hayfield looking for mice or plucking at her feathers as she rests on the fence post, everything she does perfectly lives out her role in the world.  Bella can’t be anything less than the perfect Bella.  Whereas, I can stumble and sin and mess things up, again and again.
Thankfully, God knows my wounded heart very well.  He knows how weak and sinful I am.  And He loves me.  He gave me free will so that I can make choices on my own.  This is one of the things that makes me (and all of us) different from the hawks and other animals.  Free will allows us to freely love and freely serve Him, but it also allows us to make wrong decisions and wrong choices–choices that go against the will of God, and therefore go against what is good for us.  These selfish choices are sinful.  God will forgive us our sins and welcome us back to Him in the Sacrament of Confession.  He saved us; He is saving us; He will save us.  Thanks be to God!
Whenever I see Bella, I thank God for His love and grace.  He created a beautiful world, full of extraordinary and gifted creatures.  When Bella soars high against the clear blue of a September day, she proclaims the goodness of the Lord.  She has a particular and special role to play in creation and she does it perfectly.  She reminds me that I too was created for God’s purpose and pleasure and the only way I can truly live out that purpose is to let Christ have His way in my heart.  I have to remember and embrace the beautiful words of St. John the Baptist:  “He must increase; but I must decrease”(John 3:30).  Allowing Christ to increase means putting Him first in all things—in every relationship, in every decision, in every moment of every day.  It means picking up the cross that God made just for me and following Him with joy, wherever He takes me.  It means embracing whatever pains or sufferings in my life as Jesus embraced Calvary and offering my pain up to Him, for His purpose.  The more I decrease the more Christ lives in me and through me.  I become a child of my Father and in His joy, He lifts me up.  Like Bella, I rise above everything that binds and shackles me and drags me down.  He gives me a perspective I could never have on my own — an eternal perspective.  Like Bella, I can rise up and see things in a new light, in the light of Christ.  I have the freedom that only Christ can give.  Bella reminds me that God’s blessings are never-ending and He has great things in store for me, and for you.
“If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me.”
                                             Psalm 139:9-10

Call No Man “Father”? Really?

“Our Father, Who art in heaven….”  Jesus gives us the most perfect of all prayers when His disciples ask Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1).  The image of God as our Father is a constant one throughout Holy Scripture.  We are the children of God; He is our Father.  The title of “father” is applied to other persons in our lives, other than God the Father.  Some Christians cite a verse in St. Matthew’s Gospel as a reason for denying this title to any person other than God.  In this verse, Jesus says:  “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).  Does Jesus really mean that we are never to use the word “father” except when addressing God?  Of course, it seems evident that He is not forbidding us to call our male biological parent “father.”  Holy Scripture repeatedly makes reference to biological fatherhood.  Most famously perhaps in Exodus 20:12 when God Himself commands us to “…honor your father and mother…”  It’s pretty clear that Christ wasn’t talking about our biological fathers when He was discussing our use of the title “father.”
Another use of “father” in Scripture is in reference to spiritual or religious leaders.  It is in this sense of the word that Catholics confer the title of “father” to priests of the Church.  Scripture has many references in this regard.  One review shows 144 occasions in the New Testament when the title of “father” is used for someone other than God.  The patriarchs of Israel, Jewish leaders and spiritual leaders are all called “fathers” in the Gospels and the Letters.  While Abraham was the biological ancestor of the Jews, Jesus also taught of Abraham’s spiritual fatherhood.  He once told a group of Jews that they were not Abraham’s “children” at all and that he was not their “father” because they were not of the same spirit as Abraham (John 8:37-44).  St. Paul refers to Abraham as “father” seven times in Romans 4:1-18.  When St. John writes to the spiritual leaders of the early Church, he refers to them as “fathers” (I John 2:13-14).  “I write to you, fathers, because you have known Him that is from the beginning…”  St. Stephen refers to the Jewish High Priests as “fathers” (Acts 7:1-2).  Most notably, St. Paul refers to spiritual leadership as “fatherhood” when writing of Timothy as “my own son in the faith:(I Timothy 1:2; II Timothy 1:2 and 2:1).  St. Paul writes to the church in Corinth to remind them that he is their spiritual “father”:  “I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you.  For though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus, I have begotten you through the Gospel”( I Corinthians 4:14-15).  Surely Sts. Paul, James, Stephen and John weren’t all in error in their understanding of Christ’s instructions about our “fathers.”
What Jesus was referring to in St. Matthew’s Gospel was the sin and pride of some scribes and Pharisees, who loved to be called “teacher” or “father.”  Their pridefulness pointed to themselves rather than to God the Father as the source of their authority.  When we understand the fatherhood of our spiritual leaders as subordinate to the Fatherhood of God, we come to a much truer sense of our Catholic priests as our “fathers.”  Catholics are following the examples of the Apostles by calling our priests “Father.”  In doing this, we recognize and honor a great gift God has bestowed on His Church:  the spiritual fatherhood of the priesthood.
“God, who alone is holy and who alone bestows holiness, willed to take as His companions and helpers men who would humbly dedicate themselves to the work of sanctification. Hence, through the ministry of the bishop, God consecrates priests…”   Pope Paul VI (1897- 1978)

We Were Created To See God

A woman in Utah sees a figure of Jesus on the side of her barn.  A Michigan family burns candles in front of a leather shoe on which they see the face of the Blessed Virgin.  You’ve probably heard stories like this. Christ on a piece of toast.  Mary in a water-stained concrete overpass.  We might find these stories funny or even shake our heads and wonder about the people involved.  Psychologists tell us though that we’re hard-wired to see human faces in the things of the world.  Wallpaper prints or linoleum patterns or leaves or rocks.  Who hasn’t looked up at the sky and seen a face in the clouds?  Scientists say our brains see faces as part of an evolutionary adaptation to see and protect babies.  We’re naturally drawn to faces because faces reveal our humanity in the midst of the dangers and chaos of the world around us. 
Or maybe there’s another reason.  Maybe it’s something much more profound than evolution and more miraculous than psychology.  Maybe we see Jesus on a piece of toast because He created us to seek Him.  And not just in church, but everywhere in the world.  It’s His creation, after all.  So it makes sense that we see Him or His mother in the world He made for us.  Why wouldn’t we see God in the things of the world?  It would seem much more miraculous if we didn’t see Jesus all over the place.  When I run across one of those “Jesus in a water stain” pictures, I admit that most of the time, I can see Him, too.
Our hunger for God leads our heart to find Him.  But we can never confuse seeing an appearance of an image of the Lord with an authentic relationship with Him.  It’s like confusing pleasure with happiness.  You can go to Mass every Sunday, support the work of the Church financially and with your talents, wear a crucifix around your neck and call yourself a Christian—but if you don’t know Jesus, you’re still lost.  God made us to know Him.  And we know Him by spending time with Him.  Just like in any relationship, you get to know someone by talking, by listening and by being open and available to allowing them into your life.  Your relationship deepens and matures as your hearts become vulnerable to one another.  Prayer is the starting point.  Reading the Gospels allows the life of Christ to unfold in words.  Mass is the public prayer of the Church and frequent Holy Communion brings the very life of God into our hearts.  We call this “grace.”  We were made for it.  Our lives have meaning through it.  Our eternity depends on it.
Jesus says to us, “I have come that you may have life and have it to the fullest”(John 10:10).  Imagine that for a moment.  He came to earth as a little baby for us.  Why?  Because our first parents had broken our relationship with God and He loved us and missed us.  He wanted us back with Him.  And so He came.  Why?  So that we may have life.  Life!  Because without Him, all we have is existence—passing time in a body until death claims us.  But with Christ comes life.  We live with meaning and purpose.  We awake from the stupor of our self-centeredness and inhale the rich, deep, everlasting essence of God’s love for us.  We’re alive!  Fullness of life, too.  Not just merely life, but life to the full. Life lived for Christ and in Christ is fully-lived.
From a piece of toast to eternal happiness in the love of Jesus Christ — sometimes I wonder how my mind works.  Perhaps you do, too.  But if you’ve read this far, I think it’s a safe bet that you’re a fellow pilgrim on the journey with Christ.  We are His disciples, set free through the Cross to love Him and our neighbor with a heart overflowing with His grace.  He didn’t promise us an easy road, but He did promise to always be with us along the way.  He made us to long for Him.  He created us to yearn for His love and grace.  And He wants nothing less than everything you are.  Rejoice!
“You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
                                                                     —St. Augustine

Grace Can Time Travel

We all have regrets.  Those things in our past we’d change if we could.  Maybe it’s a relationship we let slip away from us.  Or that job we didn’t take in the career we’d always been drawn to.  Perhaps we spoke harsh words to a friend that we’d wish we could take back.  Or maybe it was something we didn’t say or do that could have mended a broken heart, or healed a wounded relationship with a family member.  Sometimes we might even imagine going back in time and changing things.  We can fix what we wished had turned out differently and make everything right.  But would it?  Even if time travel was available and we could go back and change things, what effect would our meddling with the past have on the present?  It’s an intriguing fantasy that’s inspired thinkers and writers for ages.
In all of human history, only one person has experienced a kind of rupture in time.  And the story surrounding her is both miraculous and rooted in everlasting love.  You’ve heard the term we use to describe it but many of us, even many Catholics don’t understand it.  It’s the Immaculate Conception.  No, it doesn’t describe Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of the young Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-38).  While Christ’s Incarnation was indeed divine, the Immaculate Conception describes Mary’s own beginnings in her Mother Anna’s womb. My point isn’t to compare our own human regrets about the past with the actions of God in Mary’s conception.  God has no regrets because His divine will is perfect in all things.  And since He exists outside of time, everything and every moment is perpetually present to Him.  But talking about time and the past and traveling “back” to “fix” stuff makes it a bit easier for us to understand God’s unfolding plan of salvation.  So my flawed analogy about time travel is just that:  flawed. 
Since the beginning of the Church, Mary’s title of “full of grace” (Luke 1:28) was celebrated and contemplated. She was the vessel chosen by God to bear His Son, the Ark of the New Covenant, Who is Christ.  How “full” of God’s grace is “full enough” to bring Christ to earth?  Completely full.  Free from all sin, even the stain of original sin which we inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve.  Over the centuries, the Church’s understanding of God’s grace in Mary’s conception deepened.  Finally in 1854, Pope Pius IX wrote a beautiful document called “Ineffabilis Deus” which defines the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  The very title “indescribable God” expresses our human graspings at the truth of God in our limited abilities.  I have to share a bit from the Pope’s description of God’s love for the Blessed Virgin:  “He [God] attended her with such great love, more than all other creatures, that in her alone He took singular pleasure.  Wherefore He so wonderfully filled her, more than all the angelic spirits and all the Saints, with an abundance of all heavenly gifts taken from the treasury of the divinity, that she, always free from absolutely all stain of sin, and completely beautiful and perfect, presented such a fullness of innocence and holiness that none greater under God can be thought of, and no one but God can comprehend it.”
Did Mary need Christ for her salvation?  Yes.  The dogma of the Immaculate Conception reinforces that all salvation is through the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.  How God accomplished that saving grace in Mary is a singularity of His love.  Mary was the first person saved through the Cross.  Here’s where our early discussion of traveling back in time comes in.  Christ’s victory over death and sin was applied by God to Mary at the moment of her conception.  Original sin never stained her spotless soul. Did God have to do this?  No.  He did it purely as a gift of love for her.  Of course even time itself is no constraint to God since He invented it.  Out of love, God’s grace is always sufficient and in Mary, His grace was most fully-realized.  She continued to grow in grace throughout her life, cooperating completely with God’s will in the Incarnation and life of her Son, til the very end as she stood at the foot of the Cross.  Her life was and is, an overflowing of God’s grace.  Across time, beyond time, the love of God beckons to us, calling to us to offer us His lasting peace.  God’s love isn’t bounded by time or space or sin or death.  His endless love seeks out a very small and humble home:  your heart.
                      “…You renew the face of the earth.”  — Psalm 104:30

Everyday Martyrs

A mother stays up all night caring for a sick child.  A pastor serves his flock as father, teacher, counselor, sage and business manager—and can’t find enough hours in the day.  A family gathers from across the country to keep vigil at a deathbed.  A religious sister leaves her family to give herself entirely to Christ and His Church in the mission fields.  A husband works overtime at a job he doesn’t particularly enjoy so that his family can know a better life.  When we think of martyrdom sometimes our definition can be rather narrow.  We remember those earliest Christians killed for their faith during the persecutions of the Roman Empire.  But martyrs are all around us, in our day-to-day world as well.
Whenever we give ourselves away in love and sacrifice for another, we taste martyrdom.  Christ calls us to pour out our own lives in love as He poured His life out for us on the Cross.  Catholicism has a language of faith that speaks to this daily, voluntary self-sacrifice.  We use words like penance and reparation, mortification, fasting, pilgrimage and alms-giving.  The idea of sacrificing ourselves is uniquely Catholic.  Jesus shows us why and how.  It’s why in every Catholic church you’ll see a prominent crucifix near the altar, as a reminder of His sacrifice for us.  We know who we are as Christians because of His sacrifice.  Jesus’ human life was a self-giving sacrifice and the core of our faith is His Eucharist—the same source of love that gave strength to those first martyrs of the Church.  At every Mass since the Last Supper, we worship Him by placing our own lives on His altar.  The Mass is a celebration of our love for God, but at its’ heart the Mass is a sacrifice.  In the Eucharist, Christ is presented to the Father in praise and thanksgiving.  Christ is our eternal priest Who offers Himself up as the Lamb of God.  He is the victim once and for all and the Mass is a participation in this one heavenly offering.  The risen Christ becomes present on the altar in His Body and Blood and offers Himself to the Father as a living sacrifice.
Our everyday sacrifices of love and self-giving allow us to become martyrs in our own small ways.  “In most cases, faithfulness to Christ will not lead to bloody martyrdom, although that possibility cannot be dismissed.  More often, fidelityi is shown in the silent and heroic witness of so many Christians who live the Gospel without compromise.”  Pope Benedict went on to say that living a sacrificial life “is a peaceful battle of love that every Christian, like St. Paul must wage tirelessly.  It is the race to spread the Gospel to which we are committed even unto death” (October 28, 2007).  These words by our Pope seem particularly poignant as his faithful stand for life and human dignity often make him the easy target for media attacks against the Church.  Being a Christian means participating in the suffering of Christ, whether you’re the Pope or a farmer, a mom or a truck driver.  This “peaceful battle of love” is living every day in service to others, putting other people before ourselves, giving ourselves away.  When we pour out our lives as Jesus calls us to do, we reflect the selfless and life-sustaining love of the Blessed Trinity.  Our everyday martyrdom becomes a foretaste of Heaven itself.
“My distractions are great, but it is in Communion that I recollect myself. I have temptations many times a day; by daily Communion I get the strength to overcome them.” —St. Thomas More (1477-1535) executed for his faith by King Henry VIII