The Drought Inside

  
Our little corner of Georgia is in the middle of an extreme drought according to the weather folks. This is unusual for us since we usually average more than 53 inches of rain each year. By comparison, Seattle only gets 38 inches of rain. Yeah, it rains a lot here. In fact, it’s a temperate rainforest. But not this summer. Grass crunches when you walk on it. Trees look tired and are dropping their leaves. Gardens are parched and the ground is hard and cracked. And it’s pretty much what everyone is talking about, even in this wild election year.

Between the drought and the politics, it feels like a desert on the inside, as well. Our reservoirs of hope are in a drought too. We’ve been assaulted with terror attacks, both at home and around the world. We’ve seen our police targeted and murdered. Everyone seems on edge and even minor conflicts quickly escalate to violence. Our words are sharpened and accusatory and we aren’t listening to one another. Like the desert, every step we take is dangerous. You have to be on guard against rocks and holes and even snakes. What used to be comfortable and lush and full of life and nourishment is a dry, thorny, unfamiliar landscape.  

Some of us don’t let these rough times change their lives very much. They go about their routine as if they live inside a protective bubble. Others let what’s going on around them turn them inward. They withdraw and go quiet, rarely reaching out. It’s almost as if they’re hibernating until it passes. On the other end of the spectrum, bad times make some people lash out. Their tempers are short and anger becomes their go-to response. Don’t venture too close or you might find out just how angry they are.

I’m usually one of those bubble people. When the stress of bad times surrounds me, I typically let it bounce off. This isn’t to say that I’m not affected by it, but I don’t let it turn my world upside down. I’m the encourager, the glass-half-full one, the one-day-at-a-timer. But this summer has been hard. This hot, dry summer with all its shootings and murders and carnage both here and abroad—it’s been too much to bear. And then last week, an elderly French priest had his throat slit at the altar while he was celebrating Mass. Two young Muslim men who knew him, who lived in the neighborhood, murdered him in cold blood. The shock of this slaughter of an innocent old man was the last straw for me.  

I know that Christ calls me to mercy and forgiveness. I believe that with all my heart. But right now, I just can’t do it. Not yet. Today everything feels dry and lifeless. God’s life-giving mercy, His ever-flowing stream of love seems like only a trickle in my heart. I feel like the parched, dry earth outside my window. I pray for the grace to forgive the terrorists, to comfort the cop-killer, to pray for those who are working for our destruction. But today, this day, Im struggling to accept that gift. 

I know what our world has always been a hostile place. I know that evil always seeks to destroy the good and true. I know innocent people have always lost their lives at the hands of others. But right now I’m letting it get to me in ways that it usually doesn’t. I have faith that “this too shall pass”(surprisingly not from Scripture). I know that this broken world, and my own broken heart, are held lovingly in God’s hands and that His love will conquer. Right now, I’m in the desert, though. Our Lord and many of His saints saw value in time spent in the desert and I will, too. Prayer, fasting, and penance often transform drought into life-giving waters. That’s my prayer on this hot, dry afternoon. Dear Lord, send us Your peace. Amen.

“Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony.”

         —–Psalm 6:2  

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Women and the Priesthood 

  
Tim Kaine, the presumptive VP-nominee for the Democratic Party has stated more than once that he believes women should be ordained as Catholic priests. This issue comes up from time to time in the Church. It was 8 years ago that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Decree of Excommunication here in the US because some folks attempted to ordain a woman to the priesthood Being excommunicated isn’t something that happens every day. Excommunication is a serious action, which impedes the reception of the Church’s Sacraments in cases of particularly grave or serious sin (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1463). 

God loves women. He chose a woman to bring Salvation to the world through Mary, the mother of God. Women have played important roles in the Church since the early days of Christ’s public ministry. Jesus went against the Jewish norms of His day by involving women publicly in His life on earth, as His cherished friends. It was Mary of Magdala who was chosen by God to be the first person to see the risen Christ and to spread that good news to His loved ones. Nearly all of the non-Jewish religions of Christ’s day had female priestesses, so choosing women for this role in His Church would have been socially-acceptable, especially in ministering to the Gentiles. But He didn’t choose women to be priests. He chose only men. Through these 12 men, a direct line of Apostolic succession has remained in the Catholic Church until today.

God doesn’t make mistakes. He came to save us through Christ at a precise moment in history and through the exact people He had chosen as His own. The priestly tradition of the Jews, a male tradition, was part of His salvation plan from the beginning of time. The passover lamb of the Jews, always a male, prefigured the role of Christ as the Paschal Lamb and perfect Sacrifice. Jesus is the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world. The argument is sometimes made that, if Christ were alive today, He would choose women for the priesthood. Here’s a news flash, Christ IS alive today. He comes to us at every Mass when He becomes for us, the Bread of Life. He lives and acts in His Church who has taught from the time of the Apostles that the priesthood is a Sacrament reserved only for baptized men (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1577).

Each Sacrament established by Christ has two elements, form and matter. The form of the Sacrament is the way in which it is enacted. For Baptism, the “form” is the words used to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The “matter” of Baptism is water. In the Holy Eucharist, the “form” is the words of consecration spoken by the priest when he echoes the words used by Jesus at the Last Supper in the breaking of the bread and the offering of the cup. The “matter” of the Eucharist is the wheat bread and the grape wine. When someone is ordained to the priesthood, the “form” of the Sacrament is the bishop’s laying on of his hands onto the man desiring ordination. The “matter” of the Sacrament is the man himself, who has responded to God’s call of service as a priest. Just as the Church could never substitute something else for the bread and wine used in the Holy Eucharist, or for the water used in Baptism, the Church can never allow the “ordination” of women. The “matter” of this Sacrament is, and always must be, male. The Pope himself can never allow women to be priests. “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (Saint John Paul II, 05-22-94).

This is not an issue of justice. It’s not unjust that men can’t give birth to babies. It’s a gift reserved for women. Likewise, it’s not unjust that women can’t be ordained. It’s a Sacrament reserved for men. No one has a “right” to the priesthood. Men are called by God Himself to this life. In Jesus’ humanity, He was a man. His gender was not an accident, because the Church is His bride. The priest reflects Christ whenever he celebrates any of the Sacraments that Jesus gave us. Women generously serve the Church in many important roles every day, and have done so throughout history. There are different roles within the Body of Christ, as St. Paul tells us. Men and women are equal in the eyes of God, but this equality is not synonymous with sameness. What a boring Church that would be! God blesses us in our unique roles and we are called to embrace that uniqueness and celebrate our varied gifts and graces. We give Him glory when we are most fully ourselves in His service, whatever our role may be. And we pray that those who struggle with these roles, in any way, may experience the love and guidance of the Holy Spirit in their lives and may return to full communion with His Church.

“I have separated you from other people, that you should be Mine.”

       —Leviticus 20:29 

Her Beautiful Hands

  
The first time I met her I was sick with a fever. We’d been traveling for days and I was dragging. She welcomed me into her home and nursed me back to health. Now, whenever I see her, she feels my forehead with her well-worn hands and says, “There now, no fever today,” as she smiles up at me. At five-foot-nothing, she has to look up to most everyone. Small and wiry, Gran is a bundle of energy, even now in her late eighties. And she gives that energy away, to everyone she meets.  

She lives in a stone cottage with a thatched roof that was built by her great-great-grandfather. Until 1965, it didn’t have electricity. Gran still likes to make tea and soda bread on the turf fire, although she has a modern kitchen. All 6 of her children were born in this house, just like Gran was. Her husband died here almost 30 years ago. Gran has some chickens and a milk cow, but the rest of her farm is rented out for cattle and silage. She has flowers on every windowsill and patch of ground and a few tomatoes and cucumbers growing in a tiny greenhouse. There are probably a thousand other cottages like hers in this corner of Ireland, but not one of them is more full of life and love than Gran’s house.  

I asked her once what kept her going, especially after her husband’s death, all these years ago. We were shelling peas in the sunshine behind the kitchen. Her hands flew down each pod as the peas dropped into the pan on her lap. She smiled down at her work and, not missing a beat, answered,”Because my life doesn’t belong to me. It’s meant to be given away.”  

And for more than 8 decades, that’s what she’s done. As the eldest of 5 children, she helped care for her younger brothers and sisters and worked on their large farm while going to school. When she was 17, she got married, and she and her husband made their home with her parents, caring for them both until their deaths. She helped her neighbors when childbirth came and nursed the sick and the dying. Her hands never stopped. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, milking, and holding babies. Gran’s life is told in her warm, wrinkled hands. As she sits by the fire in the evening, she embroiders altar linens for her parish church. One day several years ago, I was with her when there was a knock at her door. In this heavily-Catholic part of Ireland, two young Mormon men wanted to talk with Gran. She smiled and listened for a few minutes and then she pointed down across the fields to the small village she called home. There soared the spire of her Church. She said, “Look there. I can go there and sit with my Lord. I can receive His Body and Blood at every Holy Communion. Can your church give me more than that?” The young men thanked her and went on their way—with a loaf of her soda bread in their backpack. 

Gran has given me so many things over the years I’ve known her but what I treasure the most is her reminder to work hard at being generous and kind. Give your time to help others and listen twice as much as you talk. And a little whiskey at bedtime is a blessing. 

As I’m writing this, Gran is watching the evening news on her new flat-screen television. The lead story is about the terror attack in Nice. I notice that her eyes are nearly closed and her hands are busy in her lap, praying her Rosary. Probably for France, but also for her large family, now spread out over 4 continents. Those hands are always busy. Weaving a life lived for others, giving away love every day and never stopping to think of herself. I pray that God will make me more like her and I give thanks to Him for her example of a grateful servant of the Lord. Thank you, Gran. You’re a wonderful gift to everyone who knows you.

“Love does not measure, it just gives.”            —Blessed Mother Teresa

Farming My Soul

  
I grew up on a farm. We raised vegetables to sell and to eat and we had cows and pigs and chickens. The land provided for us, so long as my family provided the work. We had the food and money we needed to buy most everything else. My parents worked very hard for us and spent a lot of time planning for next year. Farmers do that. They live in the future: the next harvest, next year, the weather tomorrow and next week. I grew up learning about fertilizer and soil conversation and what made cows sick. I watched my dad repair broken tractors and hay balers. We’d get up at night to help birth a litter of piglets or a baby calf. I knew better than to make pets of any of them because in a few months they’d be on our dinner table, or sold to pay bills. The land was everything to us. We completely depended on it for our lives. As the writer Dr. Ferrol Sams said, “In the beginning was the land.” The Georgia soil and rains never failed us. As I learned a little history and my worldview widened, I realized how blessed we were. We didn’t have devastating droughts or hurricanes to deal with. Locusts and disease passed us by. We were never brought low by price collapses or natural disasters. We depended on our farm and it met all our needs. It never failed.  

We go through our lives looking for what we can depend on like my family depended on our farm. But we’re frequently disappointed in the things we find in this world. Relationships fall apart; we lose a job; our health fails. Even when we work hard and do all the “right” things, sometimes nothing seems to work out. It’s what we choose to do in those broken moments of our lives that reveals who we really are. Do we become bitter and blame others for our failings? Do we shake our fists at the sky, shouting at God? Do we turn to something like alcohol or pills to take away our pain? Or maybe we just give up, withdraw into ourselves and avoid giving our hearts away to anyone else or to any new pursuit or purpose. A spirit that is crushed by the world is a sad and hollow life. It becomes like barren earth that has been made lifeless through over use and lack of care and proper stewardship. Weeds have been allowed to creep in and deplete all the nutrients. Such a life bears little fruit. And a life like this rarely draws others into it.  

Jesus often used images of farming and shepherding to describe the Christian life. He talks about pruning and being pruned, about tending the flock and feeding the sheep and heeding the voice of the Shepherd. Anyone has farmed the land or tended stock knows how important humility is. You’re not really in control of very much on a farm. You’re at the mercy of the weather and wind, of plague and flood. You can’t will a crop into existence or demand the birth of a healthy animal. You do your best and live in hope. In that way, you are the co-creator of your crops and your flocks. It makes you appreciate the goodness of the earth and the bounty of her fields. When bad years come, and they inevitably will, you regroup and look with hope to next year’s harvest. You learn not to give up, but to trust and to keep trying. You help out your neighbor when he needs it and you count on him to help you out when times are rough.  

I think back often on those years on our farm. The older I get, the more I value the lessons of living life close to the earth. We were poor, but we never lacked anything important. I witnessed the value of hard work and the rewards that come from it: a fresh tomato, a squirming pink piglet, the smell of fresh hay in the field and the long, slow evening spent reliving the day’s events. The rhythm of the farm is a lot like the rhythm of our spiritual walk. Times of harvest, followed by times of drought; planting seeds in the hope of bounty and quiet times of reflection and rest. It’s no wonder to me that the image of a perfect relationship with God is revealed to us as a beautiful Garden.  

My farm is not where I must soil

My hands in endless, dreary toil.  

But where, through seed and swelling pod

I’ve learned to walk and talk with God.” 

  —from a Novena to St. Isidore

      the patron Saint of farmers 

Do You Pray For Those Who Have Died? 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. It seems almost everyone I know has lost a beloved friend or family member in the last few months. So many others are battling cancer or some other serious illness. The specter of death lingers in our shared emails and in our phone conversations. We keep each other updated and share our fears and our hopes. And we pray. We pray for healing and comfort. We pray that the doctors will be guided by the Great Physician and make our friends whole and healthy again. Mostly, we pray for God’s will to be done, for we know that this is the prayer that never fails. And when a loved one dies, our prayers for them continue on. As a Catholic, I believe in praying for the dead because I believe in purgatory.

Souls in hell can’t benefit from our prayers and the souls in heaven can’t draw any closer to Him. But those Christians who have died and still have an attachment to sin must be purified before entering into His presence. The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen described it this way. Imagine that you have hammered a nail into a piece of wood. The nail is your sin and the wood is your soul. Once you repent of this sin, God removes the nail but the hole remains. Your penance and prayers, through the mercy and redemption of Christ, fill in this hole with His grace. So, if you die with some holes still there, you need to “get things right” before embracing Him fully. If prayers can benefit our loved ones in this life, it seems reasonable that our prayers would benefit those being prepared for heaven in purgatory. Praying for the dead is a very ancient practice which is part of the Jewish faith. Even today Jews pray the “kaddish” prayers offered for the purification of deceased persons. Jesus never taught us to stop this holy practice, though He certainly taught us to stop other Jewish rituals which He knew were vain or useless. The purification that happens in purgatory is purely a work of God’s grace and we see it as a part of the ongoing sanctifiction of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. We read the truth of this in the New Testament in several passages: Hebrews 12:1; Revelation 21:27; I Corinthians 3:13-15; I Thessalonians 5:23; and Hebrews 12:1-2. The early Church encouraged the faithful to pray for the souls of the departed. We see this in the writings of Abercius, Perpetua, Cyril of Jerusalem; Epiphanius of Salamis, John Chrysostom and Augustine. Since all these were writing between AD 160 and AD 421, prayers for the souls in purgatory were a holy practice from the earliest years of Christianity. 

Praying for the dead is a way of affirming that their life goes on, that death isn’t the end but a journey into eternal life. Praying for the dead witnesses our communion and solidarity as members of the Body of Christ. We continue to gently hold onto one another even after death through our faith and by our prayers. Praying for the dead is both a human and Christian way of saying: we have not forgotten you, we will never forget you. Our prayers remind us that we are all made one family through Christ. Back before I joined the Catholic Church, it seemed odd and rather sad to me that my fervent prayers for my loved one were supposed to cease at the moment they took their last breath. Did my love for them stop at the moment of their death? Of course not. And as Christians, we know that life is eternal. Love has conquered death and praying for those we love after they die is one of the great gifts of the Christian life. One of the most beautiful of all Catholic prayers is one we pray at a funeral Mass which, by the way, is called “The Mass of the Lord’s Resurrection.” We pray for the deceased person: “May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.” What beautiful words of love to lay at the Lord’s feet as an offering on behalf of anyone we’ve loved and who has passed on to eternal life.

“Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood Of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the Universal Church, those in my own home and within my own family. Amen.” 

–the prayer of St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1301)