Is Your Christianity Showing?

Every once in a while, it’s a prudent spiritual practice to take a hard look at ourselves. Thankfully I’m Catholic and I have a confessor/priest who is a valuable aid in doing this. He knows my sins and my struggles. As a convert, I know that we humans can often be either too hard on ourselves or too easy on ourselves. My confessor can be objective about my faith journey. He listens and directs me, keeping me focused on conforming my will to that of the Lord.  

A good way to prepare for confession is to meditate on the Ten Commandments. Apply each one to your life and pray that God will open your heart to any way that you might have strayed from them. One of my college theology professors (a joyful Cistercian priest) told us to add this question to our preparation: “What would my life look like if I lived like I truly believed in Jesus Christ?” This has been such a great aid to me over the years. It makes me look, not only at my failings and sins, but also at my attitudes and even more—am I living in the joy of Jesus?

Keeping His commandments is doing what Jesus has taught us (John 14:16). These days it seems that the idea of sin has ceased to be relevant in our modern culture. It’s this sort of nonchalant attitude that leads many people away from God. There IS objective sin and we know what is is because God has told us. He’s also told us that the love we give to one another is the greatest of all His commandments (Matthew 5:43-48). Obedience and love. 

Is this what our life looks like? Are we living in obedience to God and sharing His love with others? It’s only through God’s grace that our lives can be transformed. The Sacraments impart God’s grace to us in Baptism, Holy Communion, Confession, and Confirmation. In them, we encounter the fullness of God’s love for us in the Church He established. But we’re called to go out into the world to transform it and not remain within the Church walls. It’s easy to love the folks who love us, but that’s just the beginning of our Christian mission.  

Your family, your friends, and the members of your parish might testify that Christ is important to you. But what about the other people in your life? Would your boss agree? Do you treat your coworkers with love and respect? Could someone look at your Facebook posts and know the love of Jesus? Does your neighbor experience the love and joy of Christ through you? How are you serving your community, including the poor, the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned, and the marginalized?  

This isn’t easy. Without the strength and guidance of the Holy Spirit, it’s impossible. The great Saints know this, that’s one reason they’re Saints. If you think you can’t do it alone, you’re on the right path. You can’t. But He can. And accepting the gift of God’s grace is the most important decision you’ll ever make. Sometimes the hardest thing for us to accept is that God really and truly loves us and loves us right now, just as we are, in the midst of our messy lives.  

Whatever God gives and permits: temptation, being tried by people, hurt or abuse, or any sort of trouble—He gives and permits it for our good, either to cleanse us of our sins or for our growth in perfection and grace.”

           —St. Catherine of Siena

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Recycling Our Pain 

Sitting in an airport the other day, I overheard a couple who were sitting behind us speaking with their adult daughter. The mother was almost in tears as she described a recent incidence of vandalism at their vacation home. Evidently someone had destroyed a portion of fencing and had thrown the wooden boards onto her flower bed. What caught my ear was that she kept repeating, “I just don’t understand how something like this could happen to us.” She was literally about to cry. Admittedly I don’t know the whole story. Maybe there are other circumstances or issues involved. I don’t know. What I DO know is that bad things happen every day to the nicest and least-deserving of people, all over the world, in every nation, at every moment. If you’re a human being, bad things are going to happen to you.

Certainly, we Christians aren’t exempt from this. It might be shocking to some television evangelists, but even Christians are going to suffer in this life. Read about St. Paul, St. Peter, and the other Apostles. Google folks like Nero, Decius, and Diocletian who gravely persecuted the early Church. If we follow Christ, we must also follow in His suffering. And with joy. Of course, the source of sin in the world is our first parents’ rebellion in the Garden. All the pain and suffering since then has that same beginning.  

Along those lines, it’s been said that there is no original evil in the world. Everyone is just recycling pain. Think about that for a moment. We’re so eager to recycle things, but it seems also that we go out of our way to recycle that old, original pain of sin as well. My goodness, just look at the news these days. But you know what? Thinks have always been sinful and rough. Even for Christians. Especially for Christians. Jesus told us to expect this. His life on earth was an example of innocent suffering. We can’t despair and wonder, as the lady in the airport did, “Why is this happening to me?”

We have to take up our cross and follow Christ (Matthew 16:24). And do it with joy, confident in the love of our Savior. One thing that always helps me to do this is to do something for someone else. Nothing helps me to connect with the joy that is often hard to find in our broken world than helping another person. Cook a meal. Drive someone to the grocery store or doctor’s appointment. Ask your parish secretary who might need a ride to Mass. Visit a local nursing home and spend an hour with someone who never has visitors. You’ll be shocked at how many older folks never have any company.  

Take out your earphones and listen to the world around you. Listen to your own thoughts for a change. Turn off your phone and allow yourself to really feel what you’re feeling. Take a look at the people in your life right now. Listen to them. Ask them questions. What are their dreams? Their fears? Their loves? What can you do for them and with them? Being truly present with the people around us is one way of carrying our cross. For many of us, it’s the most important way we’ll ever have to share the love of Christ. Few of us are called to the mission fields, but we’re all called to love and serve our family, our friends, and our neighbors. We don’t have to continue to recycle the pain of sin. We don’t have to be what the world says we’ve become. We can be love.  

“…In the world, you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”

             —John 16:33

A Welcoming Parish 

Whenever we travel abroad, one of the highlights of our trip is attending Mass in a different country. From the largest cathedral to the tiniest chapel, the beauty of the Mass and the presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist is always there for us. Over the years, we’ve encountered good homilies and bad homilies, guitars and cymbals and majestic pipe organs and choirs. Some churches looked more like conference rooms than sacred spaces. But we’ve also worshiped in beautiful, uplifting churches where art and music were a foretaste of heaven, even aside from the Mass.

But the lasting impression of churches we’ve visited is the welcome and acceptance of the various parishioners. It makes me feel like a “secret shopper” when we approach the doors of a church, always wondering what we’ll find and how we’ll be met. Our current trip to Scotland included a Sunday Mass that I won’t soon forget. We were in the Highlands in the area around Inverness. We’d spotted this particular parish church earlier in the week while out exploring the neighborhood. It was, as they say, a “wee kirk.” Made of old brown stones that looked softened by the years and the weather, it was surrounded with pots of colorful flowers. Standing at the front door were two men who welcomed us with smiles and handshakes. They asked where we were from, where we were staying, and where we wanted to sit in the church. They walked us inside, introducing us to other members of the parish as they guided us through the narthex. They pointed out the restrooms and invited us for coffee in the parish hall after Mass. Everyone we met was friendly to us. The couple in the pew in front of us turned and introduced themselves, pointing out the missal and hymnal we’d be using. They also asked us to come for coffee.  

The Mass was reverent, the music simple but well-chosen, and the homily was moving. As we left, we stopped in the hall for coffee and spent almost an hour talking with dozens of friendly parishioners. These were not the taciturn Scots you might expect. We were invited to dinner but had to decline the warm hospitality. We won’t soon forget the warm, welcoming people of this little parish.  

In my “secret shopper” response that I might write to their pastor, I’d tell him that their well-kept grounds and landscaping caught our eyes. Even a modest church is welcoming if it’s clean and well-maintained. Having greeters outside the front door is especially nice for visitors. They were folks with a natural gift of making us feel a part of their community almost immediately. And they did it without shoving a handful of ministry brochures, visitor information, or church bulletins in our faces. They didn’t abandon us at the door, either. They made sure we were introduced to other folks and then comfortably seated for Mass. When we saw them again at the coffee hour, they spoke with us again.

Every church seeks to be welcoming to new people. Some are good at it, some aren’t. This little church is a gem. They’ve kept things simple, but effective. And it centered on seeing visitors as being worthy of welcome. We weren’t ignored, but we weren’t treated as mere numbers, either. We felt like fellow members of the Catholic family, whose presence in their parish was valued and noted. It made going to a new church feel a lot like home. And isn’t that what all churches are hoping for?

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

             —Romans 15:7

My Last Nerve

She is easily offended. Folks who don’t share her political beliefs offend her. If you don’t have the same religious faith as she does, it offends her. She’s mad at anyone who owns a gun or who eats meat or who eats meat killed with a gun. She likes letting other people know that they are offending her, too. She proudly stands on what she believes is the moral high ground. She likes the view from up there. But she doesn’t seem very happy or contented.  

We all have people in our lives that get on our last nerve. Maybe they’re family or maybe they’re a friend. Maybe it’s someone you work with every day. Maybe it’s one of your neighbors who plays their music too loudly. Maybe it’s me. Whoever it happens to be and whatever it is that they say or do to upset us, we allow them to suck the joy right out of our day. Most of the time, the person is just as joyless as they try to make others.  

There’s a Saint who wrote about people that we react to with annoyance. He’s one of my favorites because he cuts right to the heart of things. He’s a 20th century Saint who died in 1975 and his name is Josemaria Escriva. He was a Spanish priest and one of the very first quotes of his that I read in college has stuck with me throughout my life. “Don’t say: That person gets on my nerves. Think: That person sanctifies me.” What? Even that annoying guy who cut me off in traffic? And that overbearing lady who thinks she knows everything? That neighbor who is constantly doing things to disturb my peace and quiet? Yep. That person. And your sister who still gets on your nerves and your in-laws who think you’re not good enough and your boss who never has a kind word for all your hard work. Every one of them is in your life for a purpose—to test you, to refine you, to help you to grow in grace. 

In contrast, a contemporary of St. Josemaria was the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He famously wrote: “Hell is other people.” Unfortunately we see so much of this world view around us these days. Folks are easily offended, quick to become angry, always ready to place blame. Sounds hellish, doesn’t it? But think how different things would be if we accepted the daily annoyances and offenses as St. Josemaria advises us to do. Our little gripes can be seen as promptings of the Holy Spirit for us to practice virtue. We can be transformed by the very people and circumstances that we usually react to with anger, impatience, selfishness, and pride. Cut off in traffic? Say a quick prayer for patience and for the safety of the other driver. Annoyed by a neighbor? Ask for compassion and understanding. We never really know what the other person is going through. Feeling ignored by your boss? Pray for humility. Jesus never sought the approval of others and neither should we. Pride is a sin which goes against the humble heart of our Lord. For all the flaws our human nature exhibits, there’s a corresponding virtue which God will provide the grace to heal, if we only ask Him.  

Do you believe that hell is other people? If you do, life will be a pretty unhappy journey for you and the people around you. But if you allow the Lord to put people and situations in your path to challenge you and to offer you the opportunity to grow in grace, you’ll become more and more like Him. Ask for grace each and every day, each and every hour. Beg the Lord to show you His face in every person you meet. In this way, we can help to sanctify one another. We, as followers of Christ, prove just how wrong Sartre really was. Hell isn’t other people, it’s failing to see how connected we are to one another. We’re the Body of Christ, not the separate individuals of Christ. We’ll transform our hostile and dysfunctional culture when we place our hearts and souls at His service, in humility. We’re all in this together, after all.

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

      —–St. Teresa of Calcutta