Our Hidden Decay

It was a day like any other day.  The sun came up right on time.  The sky was a deep blue and everyone seemed in a good mood. Buses and subways were filled with commuters making their way to jobs in the city.  The morning news shows were their usual mix of news, sports, and celebrity gossip.  It was just another day in America—or so we thought.  Then, in the space of just a few hours, thousands of Americans were brutally murdered.  Innocent people, killed without a chance to plead for their lives. One minute, full of life and and hope and the promise of tomorrow and the next moment—a horrible and violent death.  Innocent lives, lost forever.  And all of us are diminished by their loss.

No, I’m not describing 9/11, although the scenario is much the same.  I’m describing every single day in America.  Because every day in our country 3700 Americans are violently killed by abortion.  It’s 9/11 every day here, in the greatest country on the face of the earth.  We’re not under attack by Al Qaeda or terrorists from Saudi Arabia or Somalia.  It’s not an organized sleeper cell that’s killing us, but a culture of death that we’ve allowed to infiltrate our land.  We’ve invited them in and given them a home and protected them by our Supreme Court rulings.  And we wonder what’s wrong with the country we love.  We wonder how we’ve gotten so off-track. We wonder why families are disintegrating and why half of all marriages end in divorce.  We’re puzzled when we read statistics about adultery and abandonment.  We shake our heads at stories of child abuse or wife abuse. The #MeToo movement is exposing sexual trauma in a way we’ve never seen before. We’re shocked to hear that the elderly are neglected or mistreated in their nursing homes.  And we allow the treasure of our hearts, of our very lives—our children—to be destroyed each and every day by abortion. Can’t we see the connection between these murders and the state of our American families?

Our country is like a beautiful apple that is lovely to look at and admire, but is rotten at the core.  Death lives at the heart of America and we all must take responsibility for that. We’ve forgotten the values we were founded on which placed God and the gift of life as our anchor and our morning star.  We’ve allowed what is easy to replace what is right. We need an awakening in our land and in our hearts.  We must remember how we all felt that on that September morning—remember the horror and the shock and the outrage. Remember how it felt to know that so many thousands of our fellow Americans—innocent people—had been murdered so senselessly and were now lost forever.  That’s the horror of abortion every day in the greatest country on earth.  We’re in the midst of another election season. Please pray that our President and the political leaders of our country will protect human life from conception until natural death.  And pray that God will have mercy on us all.

“America you are beautiful . . . and blessed . . . . The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless. If you want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then America, defend life.” – St. John Paul II (1920-2005)

Glimpsing Heaven

It’s a beautiful fall day.  The sky is a deep azure blue without even the trace of a cloud. There’s a soft breeze gently shaking the reddish-gold maple leaves on the tree in the backyard.  I can smell the tang of wood smoke from the fireplace a few houses up the street.  Somewhere a dog is barking.  I’m thinking of the dinner that I’ll share tonight with a dear sweet friend.  It’s one of those moments in life when you smile, take a deep breath, and whisper a prayer of thanks to God for all His many blessings.  Having your health and your family, good friends and the beauty of creation all around us IS abundant grace and goodness.  As the sign says, life is good.

Yet this life is just a pale imitation of the joys of our life to come in heaven.  C. S. Lewis describes life here on earth as life in the “shadowlands” as if all the beauty and wonder of creation is a mere hint of what life in heaven will be like.  He doesn’t mean that life on earth is somehow less real or any less amazing or miraculous or heart-stoppingly beautiful.  It IS a wonder, in all its depth and complexity.  From the tiniest butterfly to the full majesty of a Beethoven symphony–we are surrounded by and immersed in indescribable beauty.  But heaven is and will be, immeasurably more beautiful.  How do we know this?  Because heaven is where all the beauty in this world comes from.  God is the source of everything that’s good and true and beautiful.  From Him comes every good thing we know here:  a mother’s loving touch, a bluebird’s song, the soft velvet on a Christmas stocking, fresh apple pie, the love between a husband and a wife.  Everything we hold dear and cherish so deeply and reverently is just a hint of the beauty we’ll know in His presence.

There we’ll know the One Who dreamed of a sunset and made it real; Who breathed upon the waters and made the crashing waves.  We’ll be face-to-face with the source of all Beauty.  We’ll still love everything and everyone that we’ve loved in life, but in a way that will make our five earthly senses seem fuzzy and clouded.  St. Paul says this very thing when he describes the difference between our earthly perceptions and our heavenly ones:  “Now we see through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am known” (I Corinthians 13:12).  We’ll see with new eyes, hear with new ears and in every way experience life, real life, as we’ve never known it before.  When we speak of heaven, we use the language of faith because we don’t yet have the experience of it, though we hope to.  Love leads us to imagine what it will be like.  Love calls us on an autumn afternoon to close our eyes and thank Him for all this beauty, here and now and all around us.  If this perfect October moment, clothed in splendor, is just a shadowland of our true home in heaven–then how wonderful heaven will be.  And how dearly we must treasure this life and these days we’re given to walk with Him and know Him —and follow Him as He leads us home.

“There is no other day. All days are present now. This moment contains all moments.”

—-C.S. Lewis

Redemptive Suffering

Here 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.”
                                    –St. John Paul II

The Clutter of the World

Fifteen things. In 2010 a man named Andrew Hyde gave away everything he owned except for fifteen things. He kept a pair of pants, 2 shirts, a pair of sandals, a pair of shorts and some underwear. Everything he owned on this earth fit into a small backpack. He did it in preparation for a trip around the world. He also did it to be free from the ties that bind us to the stuff that we own. He called what he did “an adventure in minimalism.”  Now several years later he’s living in New York and he owns around 60 things. Still. Can you imagine streamlining all your worldly possessions down to just 60 things? I probably own at least 60 pairs of shoes. Most of them black. I really can’t imagine living the way Mr. Hyde lives.

But I’d like to give it a try. I look around the house. Why do I hang onto things I don’t use? Why do I keep clothes I no longer wear or that no longer fit? And here’s an even better question: why do I continue to buy MORE stuff?  I remember when I was just out of graduate school and starting my first real job. I had an apartment that was barely furnished with anything except books, a stereo perched on an orange crate and a mattress on the floor. I couldn’t wait to fill it with “stuff.”  A few years later it took a team of movers and half an 18-wheeler to move my stuff across the country. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten a bit better at consuming less. Maybe. Except for the black shoe thing. But reading about Andrew Hyde has made me want to do some serious clearing-out. As a Catholic I know the story of the rich young man whose only apparent shortcoming was his attachment to the things he owned (Matthew 19:16-26).  And we’ve all heard the story of the rich man with the abundant harvest who had great plans to build new and bigger barns to hold all his wealth. Of course God knew the man would die that very night and would never need another barn or enjoy his new money (Luke 12:16-21).  When we fall in love with the things of this world, as beautiful as they are, we lose sight of our true home and happiness which is in heaven. Our hearts were made to love a Person. Only when we fix our love on the Creator do we ever find true joy. No amount of stuff will ever satisfy our hearts. There’s the old question: what is enough? The answer: just a little bit more than you have. And there’s the rub. You’ll never have “enough.”  You’ll never feel content with accumulating more, consuming more, having the latest gizmo. Your heart was made for so much more than mere “stuff.”

From a practical standpoint, our stuff is like debt. It takes time, effort, and energy to manage it—and it leaves you with less personal “capital” to “spend” on more important things. You have to clean it, organize it, store it, move it, etc. Of course it isn’t our stuff in and of itself that’s the problem. It’s our attachment to it. It’s our belief that we need more and more of it to be happy, to feel that we have “enough.”  Every day most of us go out and get more. Can you remember the last day that you didn’t spend any money on anything at all?  I can’t. Try it and I think you’ll see what I’ve discovered: other than groceries and gas, everything I buy is non-essential. I’m not talking about paying the electric bill or the mortgage, but just the “stuff” that I usually buy on any given day. I just don’t need it. I’m beginning to think about what I could do with the money I could save by not chasing “enough.”  I’m beginning to see what I could do with the time I’d save as well, not having to clean and organize and manage it all. And how so much of what I have could help out other people. Not only would I have a lot more room in my house, I could make more room in my heart too: for others, for the Lord, for my parish. I could be a better steward of the gifts God has given me. I could give more to charity. I could share more of my time with those we’re called to help.

No, I don’t think I’ll ever simplify down to just fifteen things like Andrew Hyde did (andrewhy.de/) but I can let go of something today. And something more tomorrow, and the next day. And I can stop chasing “enough.”  I can stop planning those new barns to hold my earthly wealth and use my blessings to bless others and build up treasure in the only place that matters. One pair of black shoes at a time.

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have.”
                      —Hebrews 13:5