The Great Virtue of A Small Kindness

kindnessThere are reports out this week that on October 20, 2013 the Catholic Church will canonize Pope John Paul II, declaring him to be among the saints in heaven. His life exemplifies virtue on a heroic scale, from his work against Naziism, to his fearless proclamation of the Gospel in the face of communism and his legacy as our beloved Pope. His contemporary and friend, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta is also on the path to sainthood. Most of us remember her tireless work in the poorest of India’s slums giving food and care to the desperately ill and dying. For her, sharing God’s love with the poor was the path to her holiness. Saints over the centuries have come from all backgrounds and experiences. Soldiers, sailors, monks, social workers and even fishermen and tax collectors have answered the Lord’s call to follow Him. Their daily journey to become more like Christ are important examples to us of how to live like Jesus wants us to live. Their stories are valuable to us. We don’t have to try and imagine or guess how we should live as Christians—the saints can show us the way.

But here’s my problem with sainthood: I stink at it. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be a saint. My purpose on this earth is to know, love and serve God in this world and to spend eternity with Him in the next world. This is a fundamental teaching and belief of my Catholic faith. We are ALL called to sainthood. And like the old song says, “Lord, I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in!”  But I’m much better at being a sinner than at being a saint. The saints seem to be so far away from my messy, harried, self-centered and very un-heroic life. I struggle with sin all the time. I neglect my prayer life. I’m impatient. I know what I’m supposed to do, but I so rarely do it. Oh I have my good days, even my good weeks. Days when I pray and read Scripture and think holy thoughts. And then I leave the house. I’m late. There’s traffic. I spill my coffee. I forget the dry cleaning. How can I be saintly in this crazy gerbil wheel that I live in every day?

The good news for me and for you is that we’re NOT Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul. God created each one of us as singularly unique individuals. He doesn’t expect us to be anyone other than who we are. God wants us to be the very best version of ourselves, not some knockoff version of someone else. That’s at once a relief and a challenge. God doesn’t expect most of us to move to India and become nuns. What He does want for us is that we invite Him into every moment of our lives. In many ways, that means getting out of the way and allowing the Holy Spirit to do His work in your heart. For me, this is a kind of sainthood that I can imagine in my own life—right where I am now, with all my flaws and shortcomings. And there IS something I can model from Mother Teresa every day. I can be kind.

Kindness is one of the gifts if the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) that St. Paul says marks us as Christians. Kindness. It’s one of those things we learned in kindergarten that can transform the world. Kindness calls us out of ourselves and puts the needs of the other before us. When were kind we don’t expect any form of repayment or recognition. Kindness is love that overflows our hearts and embraces the other person. But kindness is more than just being nice. Nice implies a kind of agreeableness and even a sort of simpering cooperation. That’s not what kindness is. When you’re kind you act in the other’s best good. You give the beggar a meal or a coat or a pair of shoes instead of a bottle of whiskey.  When you’re kind you give the single mom an evening of babysitting instead of another stuffed toy. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for someone is just to share a smile or an encouraging word. Kindness is putting whatever the other person needs first, not necessarily just doing what feels good to do. Kindness reaches out and meets the other person right where they are. It’s exactly what Christ does for each one of us.

Kindness is a good start towards sainthood. When you can’t imagine yourself in a far-flung mission field, maybe it’s because your field is much closer to home. Maybe you’re called to kindness. Be kind when you drive. Give more of your time to help others. Don’t gossip. Stop complaining. Smile at a stranger.  Hold the door for an elderly person. Clean up after yourself. Decide to be joyful. Call someone that you know is lonely. Give without counting the cost.

“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”
                                                     —Blessed Mother Teresa.

Christ Suffers With Us

crucifix in darknessThis has been a tough week here in America. Our digital age makes the news constant, up-close and graphic in ways our parent’s generation could never have imagined. We saw the backpacks and the victim’s faces seconds before the explosion. We saw the determination of the law enforcement officers as they surrounded the second suspect. We watched a family video of the huge explosion in Texas and heard the anguished cry of a little girl, “Daddy, I can’t hear!”  And we waited and watched as our elected officials and their staff faced the fear of yet another onslaught of deadly poison in the letters they receive every day. And with our 24-hour news cycle, it’s hard to get away from the never ending barrage of human suffering. Heartbreaking loss. Families and lives shattered. Anxiety. Fear. Anger. Grief. Yes, it’s been a tough week.

I wear a small gold crucifix on a chain around my neck. I never take it off. I’ve worn it for so many years that most of the time I don’t realize it’s there. But as the events of this week unfolded I reached for it several times. I touched it and could feel the outline of the cross and the crucified Body of Christ. I felt His arms outstretched and His head hanging to one side. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about my little crucifix. That is, if you can imagine that there nothing remarkable about the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. Suffering. It seems this week was full of suffering. And somehow, when the news got to be too much, I could reach for my crucifix and feel…what? Better?  Not really. Comforted? Not exactly. What I truly felt was that He understood.

As a Catholic I’ve learned all I know about suffering from the life of Christ. Oh I’ve known the loss of loved ones, and the pain of illness, and the suffering of betrayal. But even the worst of my pains pale into nothing when I consider the Cross. This is a great truth of our faith: that the suffering Jesus knows our pain. He knows what it feels like to lose a dear one in death. He knows our human worries because He became one of us in all things but sin. And “all things” means that He knows our anguish at lives ended too soon, of families left homeless, of communities broken by loss and strife. This isn’t some theoretical understanding. Death by crucifixion was torture. We get the word “excruciating” from the Latin word meaning “to crucify.”  Jesus knows our suffering, oh yes. And He not only knows it, He transforms it.

I’m not writing this in any attempt to convince an atheist that God is with us in our pain. I’ll pray that the Lord will work on their hearts for that. This reflection is for those believers who find faith hard in the face of human suffering like we’ve seen this week in our country. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross redeemed us and set us free. But God never promised that His suffering would put an end to our pain and loss. Calvary didn’t negate original sin, Calvary made our salvation possible in spite of original sin. The fruits of that sin will remain with us until the end of time—but in Christ we can find meaning, purpose and value in our suffering.

This is why you’ll find more crucifixes than crosses in Catholic Churches—because in a crucifix we see the ultimate act of love and compassion. In the crucifix we see the Lord transforming suffering into eternal life. Calvary is the supreme act of finding good in evil. The Cross of Christ is the only way we can understand why bad things happen to good people. When we see little children shot in their classrooms, we need to remember Christ crucified. When innocent bystanders lose their lives or limbs through terrorism, we need to remember Christ crucified. When an entire town is fire-bombed by an industrial accident, we need to remember Christ crucified. Love DOES win in the end. Because Love gave everything on the Cross.

“He did not say you would not be troubled, you would not be tempted, you would not be distressed. But He did say you would not be overcome.”
                                                     —St. Josemaria Escriva
                                                          (1902 – 1975)

Me and the Rosary? Well, it’s been rough.

rosary2One of the prayer practices most associated with us Catholics is praying the Rosary. Even if you don’t know anything else about Catholicism, you’re familiar with folks, especially old ladies, fingering that rope of beads as they mumble some prayers. That’s about all I knew about rosaries when I became Catholic in 1977. I was going to a Catholic college back then and as soon as I was baptized I ran out and bought one. My favorite professor was an old Dominican priest and he blessed it for me. I learned the prayers so I could say them from memory. The problem was, I very rarely did. I liked the idea of the Rosary but actually praying it kind of left me frustrated and a bit confused. Here’s what I mean.

For those of you who might not know, the Rosary is a series of prayers centered on the Our Father and the Hail Mary. There are five groups of small beads (the Hail Marys) that are separated by larger beads (the Our Fathers). Depending on the day of the week, you meditate on 5 different events in Jesus’ life while you pray the 5 decades of the Hail Marys. These are called “mysteries” and include things like the birth of Jesus, His crowning with thorns, and the Resurrection. To me, the combination of the Hail Marys and the life of Christ is like looking at Jesus through His mother’s eyes. It’s a beautiful way to meditate on everything that Christ has done for us. The Rosary is like giving Jesus and Mary a bouquet of beautiful prayers–roses from my heart–which is where it got its name. What a beautiful way to pray. But I couldn’t do it. I felt guilty because I just couldn’t make myself pray the “most Catholic” of all prayers. I love Jesus and I love His mother but the Rosary was always a chore. I was easily distracted. I couldn’t keep my mind and heart centered on the mysteries while I was also saying the prayers. My mind wandered. I fell asleep. I looked for excuses not to pray it. Eventually I just quit altogether. I was more comfortable reading Scripture and letting the Lord open my heart to inspire my prayers. Mostly I just learned how to talk with God. My prayer life was okay–not great–but okay. Years might go by before I’d try another Rosary and realize again that it just wasn’t for me.

God was patient and helped me to grow in faith. Over the years He led me to understand something most Christians know early on: prayer isn’t about warm fuzzy feelings. Prayer has very little to do with how I feel or how I’d like to feel. Prayer is how God molds our hearts so that we can love like He loves and forgive like He forgives. Prayer works on us like the potter works the clay. In some mysterious way prayer makes us more and more like Jesus. Do I understand how this happens? No. Was I created to understand this? Maybe in heaven but not now. And I’m perfectly okay with that. I’m no theologian. I’m just a little soul trying to follow Jesus. When I realized that, the Rosary suddenly opened up to me. Now when I pray it, I let Jesus do all the work and I just follow Him, holding His mother’s hand. I quit struggling and started cooperating and the graces I began to receive increased. And the greatest of these graces is humility.

When I pray the Rosary I let Jesus show me His life while His mother gently reminds me that I’m completely dependent on her Son for everything. I need this every day. And in ways I don’t understand, the Rosary works on my soul like no other prayer or devotion. I don’t know how God does it but then I don’t know how He made the moon and the stars, or parted the Red Sea, or transformed water into wine. I don’t understand how He can bring love out of hate or good out of evil. And I don’t have to understand my redemption to know that God loves me enough to send His only Son to die for me and save me from my sins. The Rosary is just another facet of the mystery of His love. When I pray the Rosary I’m participating in the redemption mystery. It’s simple and it’s beautiful and I have no idea what I’m doing. But I know the One Who does.

         “The greatest method of praying is to pray the Rosary.”
                                                        –St. Francis de Sales
                                                                (1567 – 1622)

Chastity. Yes, I Said That.

pearlOne of the most beautiful and powerful passages in all of Holy Scripture was proclaimed to us this Easter week.  We heard how some of Jesus’ women friends went to His tomb on Sunday morning and discovered that the stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away.  As they went inside and couldn’t find His Body, two angels appeared to them and asked them the most remarkable question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5).  Indeed.  Why would anyone poke around in a mausoleum and expect to find anything or anyone BUT bones and burial cloths?  Of course we know that, in their own way, the angels were telling the women that Jesus had risen from the dead.  But what else can we learn from their intriguing question?

Scripture often equates sin with death.  “The wages of sin is death…”(Romans 6:23). “The sting of death is sin” (I Corinthians 15:56).  The fifth chapter of Galatians lists a bunch of sins that can keep us from eternal life in Christ.  We see another such list in the sixth chapter of I Corinthians.  And let’s not forget the Ten Commandments.  We know that Jesus conquered death through His Passion, Death and Resurrection.  His victory assures our eternal life if we love and obey Him.  Thus, St. Paul can ask, “O death where is your victory?  O death where is your sting?” (I Corinthians 15:55).  For those who reject the love and mercy of the Lord, eternity is the punishment of hell separated from God and a result of their own choosing.  I became a Christian and specifically a Catholic in order to be saved from the punishments I deserve.  Being outside the will of God is indeed, to be dead already.  Sin brings with it death as real as the bones and funeral wraps of any cemetery.  To enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through His Church is to choose the life that He purchased for us on the Cross.  But it’s not a free ride.  He told us: “If you love Me obey My commandments”(John 14:15).  This means all of them, even the ones you don’t like.  Even the ones that make you uncomfortable or uneasy.  Even the ones our culture tells us are old-fashioned or outmoded.  The truth of God never changes.  Kingdoms and countries may come and go but God’s truth is constant.  No matter what culture cries out for, the Church must preach the truth of God or she ceases to be His Church.  This is the reason the Catholic Church rejects abortion, artificial contraception, fetal stem-cell research and euthanasia.  Even when sin, like abortion, is legalized and promoted by civil authorities, it’s still sin.  The Church teaches the truth revealed to her by Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Anyone who claims to be a Christian but who teaches against the truth of the Gospel will be held accountable, not by the Church, but by the Lord (II Corinthians 4:2; Ephesians 4:17; Matthew 15:13-14).  This includes any church or religious leader who does not uphold chastity.

Wow.  There’s a word you don’t hear much anymore.  Being chaste is the call of every Christian, whether single or married, straight or gay.  Chastity is faithfulness of mind, heart, a body.  If we’re married, we live out our chastity through our faithfulness to our spouse.  If we’re not married, we live our chastity through remaining celibate.  Single people live in the love and will of God through their celibacy.  Marriage is a Sacrament, not a civil union.  For Catholics, marriage is always between one man and one woman. Single people, straight or gay, live celibate lives.  To live otherwise is to deny God’s truth and to be disobedient to His will.  Some people may find this harsh, but it’s no more harsh than the teaching against murder or theft.  We don’t repeal the law against murdering someone because people are inclined to kill. And we don’t make theft legal when people are attracted to stealing. These truths remain true no matter how folks feel about them. Being born with same-sex attraction is a burden that may be the door through which someone discovers the meaning of their life and their purpose in God’s plan for creating them as He did. We all have these burdens and they’re all different and they’re all incredibly painful. But how we deal with our particular sinfulness is our choice. We can remain in it and let our lives become dead things. Or we can choose life in Christ.

When people say that the Catholic Church is against same-sex “marriage,” they’re right. But when they say the Church is against people who are gay, they’re wrong. Like any good mother, the Church wants her children to do the right thing but she doesn’t stop loving them whatever happens in their lives. The mission of the Church is to win souls for Christ. In that role she has to preach the truth of Christ without fear or compromise.

We are all sinners: single or married or ordained, gay or straight. Sin deadens our hearts and souls. As a Church, we must support one another in love and correct one another in charity. Only through the Christ and His Church can we claim the promise of the Cross. Only by being conformed to Christ through the Sacraments can we find the peace the world can never give us. When we look to our culture for the answers to eternal questions we need to remember what the angels asked that first Easter morning: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

“The safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. “
                                 C.S. Lewis