Your Daily Sacrifice of Love

handHeartHere are a few things that make me crazy:  being stuck in traffic; poor customer service; unloading the dishwasher; those cards that fall out of magazines; littering (possibly including those cards that fall out of magazines); and people who don’t listen.

Here are a few things that can make me holy:  being stuck in traffic; poor customer service; unloading the dishwasher; those cards that fall out of magazines; littering (possibly including those cards that fall out of magazines); and people who don’t listen.

Seeing a pattern here?  Good. Whatever causes me to suffer, a little or a lot, can be offered to God and He can take our offering and use it for His good purpose. We Catholics call this “redemptive suffering” or in more everyday terms “offering it up.”  All religious faiths try and make sense out of suffering. Whether it’s karma (Hinduism) or the result of sin (some televangelists) we can all agree that to be alive is to be acquainted with suffering, whether great or small. Catholics understand suffering (and sin and death) as a result of original sin, when our first parents disobeyed God in the garden of Eden. Since that time, God has allowed us to suffer for our benefit. We may not know while we are suffering what that benefit might be but we can usually see His purpose for it when we look back at our past trials. Maybe He allowed it so we’d become more dependent on Him, or maybe by our suffering we’d correct those behaviors or attitudes that had led us away from His path for us. The bottom line is that we’re all going to suffer in this life. The question is: how are you going to handle it?

Christ suffered betrayal, mockery, humiliation, abandonment, was beaten and scourged, spat upon and nailed to a Cross to die. If God Himself suffered so much, we shouldn’t expect not to suffer. As Christ offered Himself to the Father, so must we. We are the Body of Christ and our love for Him unites us in a profound and mystical way. When we offer our sufferings back to Him, He sanctifies them. In that way, we participate in Christ’s redemption of the world. St. Paul writes about this when he says: “…whereof I Paul am made a minister.  Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His Body, which is the Church” (Colossians 1:23-24).

Redemptive suffering means that you offer God whatever you might be undergoing and allow Him to make use of it. No pain or disappointment or inconvenience or sadness ever “goes to waste” in this economy of salvation.  This has changed my life in a profound way. I’m not perfect at it by any means but “offering it up” has set me free from so much of what used to burden and annoy me. Those things that I said “make me crazy” in the first paragraph are small examples of what I can let go of. Every time I do, I grow a little. I offer my impatience as a gift to the Lord. If I’m inconvenienced by slow traffic, I give this tiny “suffering” for Him to use as He will. When customer service fails me, I say a prayer for the harried telephone rep and give it over to God. When I walk by trash on the sidewalk, not only can I pick it up and give that act back to Him, I can ask for His blessing on the one who threw it down. Nothing is lost to the Lord if we offer it back to Him in love. We can ask Him to use our suffering in a particular way, if we want to. “Lord, please accept this pain (or whatever our sacrifice might be) to help bring my co-worker to know Your Son…”  We learn to accept our suffering with peace and we ask God to use it for something good. This is truly taking up our cross and following Jesus.

Living in this sacrificial way transforms our pain and suffering into redemptive acts. It reminds us how we are all connected as members of His Body. For me, it helps me grow in patience and in humility. It helps me react more thoughtfully. It helps me to whine less and be more thankful. It unites me to folks for whom I might never have otherwise offered a prayer. I have a long way to go in learning to “offer it up” but it’s one of the great blessings of my Catholic faith. In my own small, deeply-flawed way it helps me to be just a tiny bit like Jesus. As St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) wrote: “I have had crosses in plenty–more than I could carry, almost. I set myself to ask for the love of crosses–then I was happy.” Amen!

“Each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”
                                    –Blessed Pope John Paul II

Advertisements

When Praying Is Hard To Do

prayed for messiahThe longer I write the more I realize how much writing is like prayer. Writing is something that connects me with God and allows me to hear His voice. Like prayer, writing is a habit that has to be developed over time and like prayer sometimes it doesn’t come easily. Both actions are disciplines of the spirit and both can help us to grow in holiness. Being holy means being the person God intends you to be. Writing helps me to use a gift He gave me and to use it to glorify Him. Like prayer, writing requires preparation and work. Of course we’re not all called to be writers. Some are given much greater gifts. But all Christians are called to pray. In fact I’d go so far as to say that if you don’t pray you aren’t a follower of Christ.  Prayer has to be at the center of our lives. Our faith is based on our relationship with Jesus and without prayer, we can’t know Him.

So if God made prayer so central to His plan for our salvation, why can it sometimes be so hard to pray?  After all, if He made our hearts in such a way that we yearn to know Him, you’d think prayer would come as naturally to us as breathing. Sometimes it does. Most of us are great at praying when we find ourselves in a jam. Up against the wall. At the end of our ropes. Between a rock and a hard place. Remember the old saying about there being no atheists in foxholes. When life–ours or someone we love–is on the line, we’re filled with the need to pray. Our words and pleas and promises to Him overflow and we talk with Him nonstop. That is, until the crisis passes. When the terror of the moment is over, many of us quickly revert to our non-prayerful ways. Perhaps a few of us will experience that crisis as an invitation to a continuing relationship with God. That brush with whatever terror we experienced (death, divorce, unemployment, war, homelessness, etc.) may have opened our hearts to hear Him and allowed Him to draw us close.  Most of us, however, are drawn to the Lord through the regular, everyday, even unexciting details of our daily lives. The Church, in her wisdom, has made most of our liturgical year into “ordinary” time. And while ordinary time refers to those numbered Sundays outside feast and penance, it’s a reminder to us that we can and should encounter God in the regular rhythms of our daily lives.

Consider a significant relationship in your life. Maybe it’s your spouse or a good friend or a sibling you’re especially close to. I’ll bet some of the most meaningful moments you’ve experienced with them are when you’re just enjoying an ordinary day in their presence. Deep love and intimacy are often revealed most clearly in everyday moments. Sharing a meal. Watching a sunset. Being comfortable and at ease in the silent company of a person you love and who loves you back. If that’s true in our human relationships, we can also see that in our prayer relationship with Jesus. The times we can feel most closely-engaged with Him in prayer can be in spontaneous and simple ways each day. The ordinary-ness of our daily prayers are no less valuable than those dramatic, emotionally-charges prayerful “highs” that are few and far between.

The saints tell us a lot about prayer. After all, being saints, we know that their relationship with Jesus bore great and eternal spiritual fruit. Look at St. Joseph of Cupertino. His prayer life was so extraordinary that he frequently levitated several feet off the floor during prayer. But few of us fly around the room during prayers. St. Francis of Assisi, and in our own century, Padre Pio both bore the stigmata or the wounds of Christ as they prayed. St. Isidore and St. Alphonse’s Liguori often appeared in two distant places at the same time while at prayer. But these are the exceptions.

Most saints were like most of us. Sometimes prayer came easily and made them feel close to God. But at other times prayer was a chore. Many of the saints experienced spiritual deserts where their prayer lives seemed pointless and felt as if God had left them alone. We know that Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta struggled with this. For many years she experienced a “dark night of the soul” in her prayer life. Yet no one doubts her spiritual greatness or the fruits of her vocation. This woman knew Jesus well.

We’re each unique creations. Each one of our journeys with Christ is a unique calling. Some of us may fly in ecstasy to Him but the majority of us won’t. We’ll come to know Him in the daily routines of our ordinary lives, sometimes in joyful exuberance and sometimes in peaceful silence. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t think you’re “doing it right.”  Ask the Holy Spirit to help you pray. And keep at it. Go to Mass and Confession. Fast. And don’t wait to start praying. The only way to get better at it is to pray.

“I pray because I’m helpless.”    —C. S. Lewis