Invisible

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 

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Risk Your Heart

I’ve been blessed with a very good friend whom I love dearly and who never fails to build up my faith and teach me how to more fully follow Jesus Christ. She’s a wife, a mother, and a grandmother who works full-time and volunteers at three different charities. Somehow she also finds time to be a great cook, a talented painter, and her house looks like something out of “Architectural Digest.” She kind of makes me sick—-but in a good way. Being around her calls me to do greater things. She lifts my heart and spirit in so many ways. This woman’s whole life is a prayer to God. And that’s her dearest example for me. Her life is so full of good fruit because her heart is always seeking the Lord.  

Over the years, I’ve learned about her prayer life by watching her live it. She doesn’t particularly enjoy talking about prayer, she’d rather just pray. But I think we all need to know more about prayer, so with her blessing, I’m sharing some of what she’s taught me. Learning to pray is like beginning any relationship. It develops over time and deepens through growing intimacy. There are times when it seems no one is listening to you, but this is a deception. Our Lord is always there. Are you? 

Begin the day with prayer. Catholics pray a “Morning Offering” in which we give thanks and offer our day to God, in our words, our thoughts, and our actions. We beg Him to do His will through us. My friend finds ways to “pray without ceasing” throughout her day. These ways are not new prayers, with many of her favorites well-known to most Catholics. She says she’s a “dabbler” and doesn’t pray the same way each day. Her secret is to keep at it.  

Just pray. But what does that mean? It means opening your heart and mind to God. It means seeking Him out and inviting Him to breathe His Spirit into you and to know you. It’s an active reaching out to Him. And it’s a quiet and receptive listening to His leading you into a deeper and more intimate relationship with Him. Praying is loving the Lord with your thoughts and emotions as well as your intellect and your will. It’s a process of surrender and submission in which we discover our purpose in life. Prayer is building a relationship, but not like a relationship with another human being. People can disappoint us. People can betray and deceive us. Building an earthly relationship contains within it a seed of doubt. That’s why we treasure our lasting friendships so much. True friends are priceless. But a relationship with the Lord is built upon the rock of Truth. He will never disappoint us. He cannot betray our trust. With God, there is no doubt of His love and faithfulness.

The only risk in our relationship with God is that He will transform us into the person He created us to be. We risk being truly and honestly and completely known by someone, and still loved by them. We risk having to change, to conform our will and our actions to that of our Blessed Savior. And there will be pain in that changing.  

Ultimately, when we love God we risk giving ourselves away. Loving God makes it hard to walk by a hungry person. It makes it hard to ignore a homeless family standing on the side of the road. Love makes it hard to keep ourselves safely self-involved. This explains why my friend spends her life away in the love and service of others. And how her ceaseless praying is at the center of all that humility and sacrifice. The more she prays, the more she loves, and the more she has to share with others.  

So, pray. And ask others to pray for you. Ask the Saints to pray for you. Ask the Blessed Mother to pray for you. Read the Gospels. Choose a chapter and read one every day. Ask God to reveal Himself to you in that chapter. Pray your way through the Psalms. These are the prayers that Jesus prayed, after all. Pray the Angelus at noon each day. When you get ready for bed, review the day you’ve had and see those things you could have done differently, and with more love. Go to confession. Spend time in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Take the risk to give your heart to the Lord in prayer. 

“The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love.”

            —C.S. Lewis 

On My Nerves

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

Hope

After so many hours of terrible waiting and pain in the darkness and rubble, the little girl was pulled alive from the wreck of her Italian home. Saving her gave the rescue workers hope that others still needed them, and so they went on digging and listening, searching for other survivors. In the convent, the sisters were injured and bleeding. Only two of them had survived, scared and trapped and unsure if anyone was around to hear their cries for help. They were afraid. Using her cellphone, one of the sisters sent goodbye messages to her family, believing she was about to die. But she didn’t die. A worker from their convent rescued them. 

In Louisiana, neighbors with boats went around saving neighbors without boats in the recent floods. They pulled them through windows and off of roofs and lifted them out of the dark water. They took their dogs and cats along, too. They wrapped them in blankets and gave them coffee and sandwiches. It wasn’t their job to rescue people, but they did it anyway. Because that’s what neighbors do for one another.  

The firefighters have been battling in the hills and canyons for months now. The heat and drought and winds make it hard to get ahead of the flames. So many fires in so many places. This part of California, with all its homes and ranches and horse farms is a tinder keg of desert scrub. In the 120 degree heat, the firefighters cut brush, build fire breaks and help people and animals evacuate. They’re nearly always in danger themselves and they’ll work until the last fire is out and the ashes are cold.  

Every day across the world people are reaching out to help one another. Some in big ways—like in an earthquake or a flood or a wildfire. But many, many more are in a million other small ways that never make the headlines. And it’s in those million small connections that love and mercy live. That’s where and how the Kingdom of God is built. J.R.R. Tolkien and I agree on that. He writes that where some folks believe “only great power can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folks that keeps the darkness at bay.” Oh, yes, Mr. Tolkien, once again, you’ve got things right. 

Because for every headline rescue, there are a million of those “small acts” of kindness and love. And they save lives, and spirits, too. They give hope and joy to countless people every day, all over the world. And I believe it is in these person-to-person non-headline kindnesses that the mercy of God is most fully revealed in our world. And every day, each one of us is called to participate. Called by the King of Kings, no less. This is how we share in the Hope of Christ.  

I know the world looks like a mess. On the face of things, it seems broken beyond repair. So it can be easy to hide behind all sorts of masks and excuses and we can choose to stay on the sidelines. But not if we follow Christ. Being a Christian means jumping in with both feet and engaging the chaos and darkness of the world. And our armor is the armor of God (Ephesians 6:11). It’s not by taking a pass, but by meeting life head-on, in the trenches, and reflecting the light of Christ to others. You might not see your name in the headlines, but you’ll be building the Kingdom of Heaven—person to person, moment to moment, heart to heart. Choose hope!

“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

             —St. Augustine