Christ’s Invisible Mother

  We had enjoyed our morning at the museum whose special exhibition of Italian painting and sculpture was both beautiful and moving. It was a bit crowded, but folks moved along pretty easily, listening to their headphones describing the artists and their works. We were about two-thirds of the way through the exhibit when we found ourselves just behind a trio of teenaged girls. Instead of headphones, they talked quietly among themselves at each new painting or sculpture. It was refreshing seeing them so interested in the art in front of them. We moved into a large gallery with several groupings of statues. I watched as the girls approached a life-sized model of the Virgin Mary with her arms raised in blessing. I looked in my guidebook for some info on the artist and overheard one of the young ladies say, “That’s a weird looking Statue of Liberty!” Her two friends agreed with her and they quickly moved on to the next group of works. What??? The Statue of LIberty? How could they not recognize the most iconic woman in the history of the world?

As a Catholic, the Virgin Mary is a central figure in the story of salvation. She is the pure handmaid of the Lord, chosen by God to be His own mother. Who can understand that? She’s the Virgin who is also the Mother, as well. Who can comprehend that? She’s the Queen of Heaven, given to me as my own mother, by her Son and Savior as He hung on the Cross. And yet, these girls can’t recognize her. I realized that their lack of knowledge shouldn’t surprise me. For the majority of non-Catholics, the Virgin Mary isn’t just unfamiliar—she’s invisible.  

Raised in the Baptist church, I remember our simple Christmas play. Each year some young girl would silently kneel by a manger with a doll in it while other children sang carols. That was the extent of the Blessed Virgin’s role in my faith formation. We weren’t taught about the Annunciation, or how she said “yes” to God’s plan for the Incarnation. I don’t think I really believed she was His mother, just a sort of caretaker. I didn’t know about her perpetual virginity, or her example of faith as Christ’s disciple I didn’t learn about Cana or that she was there at Pentecost. In fact, I’d never even thought of her keeping watch at the foot of the Cross, watching her beloved Son suffer and die for us. How could a good Southerner leave “Momma” out of the story? Unbelievable.  

I’m sure some protestants downplay Mary because anything about her seems “too Catholic.” And there’s still quite a bit of anti-Catholic prejudice hanging on. Others believe that Catholics worship Mary or somehow believe she is a demi-god. We don’t and she isn’t. We don’t attribute anything to Mary that God Himself doesn’t give to her. Our relationship with her is a perfect example of the communion of saints in which we followers of Christ participate. We ask her to pray for us just as we ask our family and friends on earth to pray for us. In the end, I’m not sure why Our Lady remains unknown and unloved by so many other Christians. It’s as if we could somehow offend God by loving and honoring His mother. I can’t imagine that.  

When I think of the young women in the museum, I’m sad for them. At a time in their lives when they’re discovering their feminine identity in the world, it’s a shame they aren’t looking to Mary as a role model. By opening herself to the will of God, a poor Jewish girl brought salvation into the world and became the Queen of heaven. Her humility and obedience to the Creator changed the world. Any young woman who is feeling adrift can look to Mary as a perfect guide. The last words she speaks in Scripture are wonderful advice for all of us: “Do whatever He tells you to”(John 2:5). Teach your daughters (and sons) about the Virgin Mary. Don’t let them journey through their lives without knowing the Mother of Jesus and her love for them.

Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.”

       —St. Maximilian Kolbe 

Mercy & Forgiveness 

“…and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”(Matthew 6:12). The mercy of God is freely given to all who follow Christ and the words of this prayer which He taught us. God forgives us as we forgive others. We pray this at every Sunday Mass, letting the familiar words form in our mouths as we have done since childhood. We are confident in them. They have become a pillar of faith. And like the pillars that support the church, we often ignore them, or peer around them to see other, more interesting things. 

We forget that God’s mercy depends on our mercy to the people who have wronged us. We sing songs about His amazing grace, but rarely include themes of our own mercy in our hymns. Our forgiveness hinges on our willingness to forgive other people. If we hold onto grudges and slights, we condemn ourselves. Mercy is an exchange of God’s grace, like living water that flows into and out of a sacred pool. The Dead Sea collects all the water from a great and flourishing area of land, but it has no outlet. And because of that, it is lifeless and saline. We’re like that, too. If all we do is accept God’s mercy without sharing it with others, then our own spiritual life begins to die. Oh, but forgiving others is so hard. Yes, it’s hard. In fact, it’s impossible. Which is why we can’t do it without the Holy Spirit. Only God can help us to love like He does and to forgive like He forgives. We have to grow in humility so that our pride doesn’t interfere with His grace.  

Jesus teaches us about this when He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”(Matthew 5:3). We have to know our own sinfulness and spiritual poverty in order to have a heart that is open to grace. You’ve got to know how very much you need the love of Christ and that, without Him, you’re lost. That realization can be hard for some folks. It goes against our modern ideas of self-sufficiency and pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Spiritual growth isn’t like that at all. Becoming more like Jesus means becoming less self-reliant and more dependent on Him. It goes against the wisdom of the world.  

Forgiving others isn’t an emotion, it’s an act of the will; a decision that you make. You don’t have to “feel” forgiving to forgive. And it’s not forgetting what was done to you—that’s denial. You don’t become a doormat. Forgiving is letting go of your right to be right. It means letting go of your right to revenge. God is in charge of justice—not you. And forgiving doesn’t mean that the other person has to admit they’re wrong. You forgive, no matter how they act towards you. This is about your relationship with God. Jesus forgave people who hadn’t repented and maybe never would. And we have to do the same. Every time you think of that person who has wronged you, say, “I forgive you”—whether you mean it or not at that moment. And then pray the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Pairing these two together reminds us how very much we need God’s forgiveness and how entwined that mercy is with our forgiveness of others. Our Lord never intended for us to live our faith in isolation. He lived His life in a family and a Church and He left us a Church in which we may journey together, forgive together, and learn to love together. And every Sunday Mass we stand together and pray,”…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Amen.  

Dear Lord: Show me the way 

Most everyone knows St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her work with the poorest of the poor. But unless you’re Catholic, you might not know of another modern day saint named Josemaria Escriva. He was a Spanish priest who died in 1975 and he was recognized as a saint in 2002. He is called “the Saint of ordinary life.” He wrote extensively about living each moment in service and in holiness. He believed that every vocation in life was a path to sainthood and his writings are a challenge to each one of us to live our faith to the fullest. Because he lived in our time, he’s easy to read. One of his most famous quotes challenges me every day.  

“Don’t say: That person gets on my nerves. Think: That person sanctifies me.” Ouch. That really hit homes for me. It makes me look too closely at my own heart and my own sins. And it feels so much like something Jesus would have said. Of course, that’s how saints work. They think so little of themselves that our Lord can speak through them. This quote gets to the core of our relationship with other people and reminds me of something the Alabama nun, Mother Angelica once said: “If it wasn’t for people, we’d all be saints.” That one always makes me laugh, but it also reveals a great truth about our faith and our struggle to live it each day. Christianity exists in relationships. The Holy Trinity itself is a relationship. Our salvation is a relationship. We live out the Kingdom of God in our relationships with family, friends, and neighbors. Reading the Gospels, we see how much of Jesus’ time and teaching was spent in healing broken relationships.. How we accept and love other people is the fruit of our faith journey.  

And that’s why that quote from St. Josemaria really speaks to me. “Don’t say: That person gets on my nerves. Think: That person sanctifies me.” Rather than just getting annoyed by that tedious coworker or the teenager who never listens to you—we can use those moments as opportunities to grow in grace. Ask God to show you what part of yourself needs working on, as if the other person is a spotlight on your faults, pointing them out to us. How can I grow in humility? How can I let go of the times that person has hurt me? How can I use this moment to become more patient? Like we hear in Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Our relationships with other people are opportunities to grow in grace and to become more like Christ. But like every other aspect of life, we have to invite Jesus in to show us the way and to reveal to us how He wants us to grow.  

Every time someone “gets on your nerves,” it’s the whisper of the Holy Spirit inviting us to grow in our faith. Rather than an emotional knee-jerk reaction to being irritated or angry, recognize the moment as a chance to practice a virtue that you need to grow. You can’t do this without the help of the Holy Spirit. So pray that the eyes of your heart will be opened to see that part of you that’s being “sharpened” by the other person. This prayer by Thomas Merton is one of my favorites:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.  

Be Informed & Vote 

Well, it’s election time again. If you’re like me, you’re worn out from the campaign ads and primaries and debates, and all the drama. But we should also remember to be incredibly grateful for the opportunity to participate in the election process. And (dare I say it?) proud to be an American, a citizen of the greatest republic in the world. For all the things we might dislike about the election process, we are blessed to be able to freely vote for the candidates of our choosing. So many have fought and died to give us this right and to protect this freedom for millions of others around the world.  

When we consider the candidates and platforms, we need to be informed about each person’s positions and opinions. Good citizens should be able to explain their choice and not just vote by party or emotion. Furthermore, Christians are called to vote with an informed conscience. After all, we’re meant to be bearers of the Light in a dark and hostile world. In other words, we should take our voting clues from the Gospel, not the media, or the pollsters. There are so many important issues, foreign and domestic, that we have to consider. Some are critical; others, not so much. 

Catholics teach and believe that there are some issues which are of ultimate importance when we enter the voting booth. These are sometimes called “the non-negotiables” meaning that it would be immoral for any Catholic to vote for a candidate who supports one of these positions. It’s not that cut and dried, of course. For example, someone running for a position on the local tax board who also supports abortion could still be a moral voting choice because local tax boards don’t usually make any decisions regarding abortion. But these five issues become more and more critical the “higher-up” you go in government. They are extremely important in the office of the President, of course. Here are the foundational issues which must inform our votes:

1) Abortion. Life is a gift of the Creator and all other rights are dependent on it. When we actively support candidates who vote to fund and uphold abortion, we bear the moral consequences of that action. If we believe that God truly formed us in our mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5) then we must vote for candidates who oppose abortion.

2) Euthanasia. It follows then that the gift of life is precious and we must do all that we can to protect the lives of the most vulnerable among us. This includes the unborn, the sick, the elderly, and those nearing death. Just as God chose our birthdays, it is up to Him to call us home to Himself. We must vote to protect all life from conception until natural death.

3) Embryonic Stem Cell Research. This is a medical procedure which uses fertilized human eggs (babies) to conduct medical research. Any good which this might accomplish is negated because embryos are created and destroyed in the process. Adult stem cell research, on the other hand, doesn’t destroy life and has produced many promising medical treatments.  

4) Human Cloning. This is the attempt to manipulate human embryos to produce genetic copies. Fertilized embryos would be created and destroyed in the process.  

5) Same-sex “marriage.” Despite its legality, Catholics reject any notion of marriage which is not a sacramental union of one man and one woman. Gay “marriage” contradicts God’s plan for marriage as outlined in Holy Scripture and reflected in Christ’s relationship with His Church.  

So. Do your homework and know where your candidates stand on these vital issues. And vote. It’s a precious gift. Lastly, trust in God to see our country through these next four years.  

“In this world, you will have trouble. But take courage; I have conquered the world.”

      —–John 16:33

Prayers For Kathy 

I was in high school before I ever met a Catholic, at least that I knew. In those years, a Catholic family moved into our school district and the mom became our high school secretary. Three of their five daughters were close in age to me. Throughout those years I had been reading about and visiting a variety of Christian churches on my own faith search, trying to understand their beliefs and trying to find somewhere that I felt at home. A couple of my girlfriends and I attended a weekly evangelical Bible study which opened the Scriptures for me in a way I hadn’t known before. Still, the Bible study wasn’t a church and I wanted a church I could accept.  

I’d never visited a Catholic Church, but the more I read Scripture, the more I was interested in the history of the Bible and how it came to be written, compiled, and passed down to us. The more I read, the more I knew I had to learn about Catholicism. And one day, in my world history class, I had an opportunity to do that. We were studying European history and you can’t do that without studying the Catholic Church. In that class with me was one of “those new Catholic girls” named Kathy. Pretty and always smiling, she served as our Catholic expert and for several days she did a great job explaining the history and beliefs of her Catholic faith. I remember how she explained what a Rosary was and how the prayers for it came from the Gospels. She even brought in a small bottle of holy water, which our class full of Baptists and Methodists looked on as some rare and magical potion. Kathy was great and she answered our questions with grace.  

Fast forward a few years and I was enrolled in a Catholic university by then and I knew I was going to join the Church. I had never been baptized and my local priest led me in personal instruction to prepare me for the Sacraments. As the time for them came nearer, I realized I had a problem: I needed a Catholic godparent. So I called our high school secretary and she gladly agreed to serve in that role. She and Kathy came to my Baptism and Confirmation. I was so happy that the two of them were there that day to share my joy.  

Kathy and her family became a treasured memory of my journey to the Catholic faith, even though we lost touch over the years. Through Facebook, I knew that Kathy had married and had a family and that one of her daughters had entered religious life. The joy on their faces in the photos Kathy posted was obvious. Now here’s where you, my wonderful readers, come in. Kathy was in a very serious car accident last week. She’s been in ICU in a great deal of pain since then. She’s already undergone several surgeries and there will be more. Her sisters have kept us updated on her status, which is a blessing for everyone who knows and loves Kathy and her extended family. I’d like to ask each of you to pray for Kathy’s healing. Please ask the Great Physician to relieve her horrible pain and to allow her to get the rest she so desperately needs. I know that every family has someone who may be hurting right now, but please spare a few moments to include my friend Kathy in your prayers. I know without a doubt that she’d do the same for you. And I thank you for your charity.  

A Prayer For Kathy 

Lord, look upon my friend with eyes of mercy. May your healing hand rest upon her, soothing her pain and curing her injuries from her car accident. May your life-giving powers flow into every cell of her body and into the depths of her soul, cleansing, purifying, restoring her to wholeness and strength for service in your Kingdom. Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.