A Garden of Faith

Springtime gives me hope. Every year as the earth blossoms into new life, I’m filled with gratitude for the beauty of creation. Spring affirms change and growth and renewal. It reminds me in a million different ways that I have been made “a new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). So many of the familiar flowers and shrubs in our home landscapes have long traditions as living reminders of our faith. I’m sure most of us have at least a couple of these examples in our gardens, but we might not know their histories.

Probably the most beloved flower of all is the rose. St. Ambrose tells us that the rose grew as the greatest and most beautiful of all the flowers in paradise. It flourished there without thorns until sin entered the world. The rose then grew thorns to remind man of his sins but it retained its beauty and fragrance to remind us of the splendor of heaven. A red rose is the symbol of martyrdom, of giving our life for our faith. A white rose symbolizes purity. Roses are often associated with the Virgin Mary. A rosary is a series of prayers which we present to Our Lady like a garland of these most beautiful flowers.

Most of us know the story of St. Patrick and the shamrock. As a missionary to the pagan people of Ireland, Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate how the three Persons of the Holy Trinity exist as One. Americans often confuse shamrocks with clover, but the shamrock is a lovely green plant that is much larger than the tiny clover and makes an excellent bedding plant.

Holly is a staple of most American home gardens. The waxy green leaves and bright red berries make it a favorite at Christmastime. Legend has it that the holly was used to make Christ’s Crown of Thorns and the bright berries reflect the drops of His Precious Blood which the painful Crown produced. Its evergreen beauty reminds us of the promise of eternal life in Christ and His promise to be with us in our darkest trials. The old poem, “The Holly and the Ivy” contrasts the two plants and their symbolism.

Laurel is another beautiful shrub that comes in many varieties. In ancient times, the winner of a race or other athletic competition was rewarded with a crown made of laurel leaves. It reminds me of having run the race of faith that St. Paul mentions. Laurel symbolizes triumph as well as chastity. Several orders of nuns wear wreaths of laurel on the day they make their final profession of vows and many sisters choose to be laid to rest wearing a laurel crown, as well.

One of my favorite flowers is the columbine. Brilliant blue, it’s a real show-stopper. Another name for columbine is “Our Lady’s Shoes” which comes from a legend about the origin of this flower. After the angel Gabriel had come to Mary at the Annunciation, she left to share this good news with her cousin, Elizabeth. As her feet touched the earth on her journey, columbines sprang up in bloom at each footstep. What a wonderful story! Columbines remind us of the joy that Mary felt knowing the Savior of the world was on His way.

Lilies are hardy perennials that multiply rapidly and bloom their hearts out. They have been seen as symbols of purity and chastity for centuries. You’ll frequently see lilies in paintings of Saints who died as virgins. St. Joseph, the husband of Our Lady, is often depicted holding a lily—both as a symbol of his own chastity and in his role as the protector of Mary’s virginity. The fleur-de-lis is a variety of lily that was adopted by King Clovis of France when he was baptized. This familiar 3-petaled bloom went on to become the symbol of French royalty and of France itself. An early bloomer, the fleur-de-lis is a sweet, fragrant addition to any garden.

So many flowers and shrubs have been linked to events in the life of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Do a little research for stories about daffodils, bleeding hearts, Passion flowers, and marigolds to find more about your “faith garden,” These are just a few of the many reminders of the love of Christ and the faith of His followers. Plant a corner of your garden with some flowers or shrubs that will pull you closer to our Creator. He made a Garden for us all, once. And the beauty of springtime is a reflection of that first, perfect garden.

The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden.”
—–St. Thomas More

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Being Angry With God

Most of us have been angry with God.  We can all recall circumstances in our lives when we’ve been overcome with emotion and directed our wrath to the Lord.  We lose a loved one and in our grief we lash out, demanding to know why God would do such a horrible thing to such a wonderful person. We’re caught up in the emotion of our grief and we demand an explanation.  We have to find a logical or at least an understandable reason for why this happened.  Sometimes, when we’ve calmed down a bit, we look back at our anger with God and we’re shocked and ashamed.  We feel guilty for being angry with the Lord.  We see our anger as a sin.  But, is it really?

Anger is an emotion.  It flows out of our humanity and isn’t consciously willed.  You don’t get cut off in traffic and “decide” to get angry with that thoughtless driver—your anger is upon you without you thinking about it.  If you read some of the Psalms, you’ll soon realize that David was often angry at God. Read Psalm 22.  David has an intimate relationship with the Lord and in intimate relationships, you don’t try to hide your feelings from the other person.  Honestly sharing your emotions is a key to the bond you share.  David couldn’t have hidden his feelings from God if he’d tried.  So David owned up to his feelings.  He cried out to God in his anger and despair.  You don’t encourage trust and intimacy by shrouding your heart.  But after David expressed his anger to God, the Psalm show that he didn’t just stay in that wrathful place.

After David genuinely rails at God, he gets it out of his system.  He moves on.  In Psalm 22, David moves through his anger, to praise. He gets back to his right relationship with God.  And isn’t this what happens in our healthy relationships?  We get angry with our spouse, we express it, get over it, reconcile, and move on.  A friend wrongs us, we hash it out, we work through it, make up and go on with our friendship.  The relationship we enjoy with God is like this, too.  Sharing our genuine emotions with our Creator and Savior is a great gift and reveals our “family” relationship with Him.  Yes, our anger also reveals our own brokenness and it shows how little we truly understand His love for us. But God knows our hearts and loves us anyway.

In some ways, our anger reveals how much we love God.  After all, we reserve our strongest emotions for the ones we love the most.  But we can’t allow ourselves to remain in that anger.  Emotions like anger, are involuntary.  But allowing ourselves to continue in anger is a choice we make.  And choices can be wrong.  There comes a time when our anger at God does become sinful. David reveals a way for us to move beyond anger and that way is through repentance and gratitude.

The moment we turn our thoughts to all the many blessings of God, our anger turns to sorrow and from sorrow, to praise.  Gratitude takes all the air out of our wrath.  For me, I move from anger, to tears, to praise.  My tears are the sorrow I feel for being mad at the One Who has given me everything.  I offer them to Him and He accepts them, over and over again.  We’ve been through this before and, sinner that I am, we’ll probably go through it again.  That’s how true love works.  Its’a journey that is so much deeper than fleeting emotions.  I know that God understands my anger and I know as well that He wants more for me than that.  Only His grace can heal me.  Your anger with God doesn’t surprise Him.  He knows you loved your friend who died unexpectedly.  He understands the anger you feel at your broken marriage.  Don’t feel guilty over that genuine anger.  But, like David, don’t make your home in it, either.  Let it out and move on.  Thank God for all the love you still have in your life and trust Him to give you even more.

“For He has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch.  He did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.  I will offer praise…”
—Psalm 22:25-26

Keep It Simple

We can take something as simple as “love your neighbor” and make it incredibly complicated. Those of us who follow Jesus Christ know that love is the heart of His message and He went about showing us how to live that love during His ministry here. We see Him healing sick people, bringing dead people back to life, comforting folks who are grieving and befriending folks most people avoided, like tax collectors and lepers and adulterers. And He ate and drank a lot, with anyone He could find. Loving other like Jesus loves seems pretty simple when we read the Gospels, but when we look around today, sometimes it feels like Christianity is more of a business than a love affair.

And that’s understandable since any time a group of people come together for a common purpose, an organization will grow up to provide oversight. Girl Scouts have troops, baseball players have teams, churches have pastors and bishops. But I’m not talking about churches or denominations. This is about how we Christians, as individuals, have made our faith overly-complex. I’m pretty sure none of the twelve Apostles had advanced degrees in theology. And yet they took what Jesus had taught them and the grace He shared with them—-and changed the world.

Love your neighbor. That’s what Jesus did. His neighbors were the people He came across in His daily life. They were His family, the folks at the synagogue, the fishermen and farmers and shepherds that He encountered each day. They were the sick people who came to Him to be cured and the Pharisees who came to Him to condemn Him. He met them in the moment, where they were, with an openness of heart. He listened to what they had to say. When they were in the wrong, He corrected them. Remember, “go and sin no more”(John 8:11). How about “you serpents, generation of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell?”(Matthew 22:33). He cut through all pretense and social convention to meet their needs.

How do we love like He loves? This is one of the great questions we should be asking ourselves every day. It never gets old to ask it. And it never feels as if we know the full answer. Maybe the answer is one of the things St. Paul was writing about when he said, “For now, we see through a glass darkly…”(I Corinthians 13:12). While that may be true, right now, we’re here on earth, trying to love, trying to get it right. So I have a challenge for all of us this week. This week, we’re going to love like Jesus.

Let’s talk less and listen more. When we’re tempted to judge, let’s remember our own sins and lay that rock back down. When we see a problem that we can solve, let’s solve it. Pick up the trash, hold open the door, meet up for lunch, visit the nursing home, and make that overdue phone call. Connect with the friends and family and neighbors that we’ve been neglecting. Mend the fence. Right the wrong. Forgive the slight. Help someone else when it isn’t convenient or easy. And then keep that helping to yourself. Be a pushover this week and see how it makes you feel. As St. Ignatius prays, “Lord, teach me to give and not to count the cost.” Just for this week, let’s try not counting the cost of our love—either in time or in energy or effort. Just for this week, let God keep score of how well we’re doing.

I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, He will NOT ask, “How many good things have you done in your life?” Rather, he will ask, “How much LOVE did you put into what you did?”

       —-Mother Teresa of Calcutta

When Praying Is Difficult

The 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

What Can You Do? Nothing.

You can never be good enough. You can never be kind enough. You can try as hard as you can, but you’ll never be humble enough or generous enough or merciful enough. You can strive every day to be patient and long-suffering, but it won’t work. You’ll never make it, no matter how virtuous and “good” you are and how hard and tirelessly you try.

You see, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more.

Unlike all other religions, from Islam to Buddhism to animism, Christianity teaches its followers that God loves them totally and completely, just as they are. His love for you and for me is dependent on NOTHING that we can ever do or say. His love is His Nature and is contingent on nothing else.

Accepting this fact is life-changing. This is pure, unconditional love and most of us find it a radically-new experience. Only the love of parents can mirror in a human way the perfect love of God for His children. Far too many of us believe that we’re not worthy of this kind of overwhelming love. Somewhere deep inside of us is a list of stuff we think we have to do in order to MAKE God love us. I have to read the Bible more often. I have to tithe. I have to volunteer for more ministry work. Nope. To repeat: there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more. He already loves you perfectly. All you have to do is to accept that love.

There’s more good news, too. God is not impressed when you think you aren’t worthy of His love. In fact, there’s NOTHING you can do that will make God love you any less. Think about that for a minute. Probably you’ve always believed that when you do bad things, what we call “sin,” it makes God love you less. But it doesn’t. God IS love—–it’s His very Nature. He can’t not love you, no matter what you do or what you think of yourself.

Does your sin disappoint the Lord? Sure it does. It offends Him and it distances you from Him when you choose to sin. If it’s a serious sin, it can cut you off from a relationship with Him and endanger your immortal soul. It’s serious. But even in the middle of your worst possible sin—–God loves you just the same. One of my favorite Scripture verses promises us this: “…while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”(Romans 5:8). Before we even knew Him, He suffered and died for us on the Cross. That’s incredible love. It’s beyond our human imagination. And I think that’s part of why we can’t consider ourselves worthy of His love.

We please God when we take Him up on that love. When we turn away from our sin (repent) we find Him already there, already and always there, waiting to welcome us into His friendship. He’s never been anywhere else.

His love calls us into loving each other. This means loving even most the unlovable among us. That means loving sinners. Just like you and me. And it means forgiving people who have wronged us, even if they don’t apologize and even if we’re still angry or hurting. Forgiving others is being like Jesus, and when we love and forgive one another, it pleases Him.

Sometimes it’s tempting to make our faith really complicated. But the heart of it is pretty simple: to love and forgive others as Christ loves and forgives us. We’re in the Easter season now and Easter is all about His love for us and how much He wants to know us and have a relationship with us. We Catholics believe that Jesus rose from the grave on Easter morning. He wants to raise you from the dead, too. He wants you to know that you ARE good enough and kind enough—that none of your sins have changed how much He loves you. He wants you to know that you belong to Him, and you always will.

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.”

St. Augustine (354-430 AD)