Springtime is stirring (we hope!) in north Georgia. The dark rainy days of winter are slowly slipping away into memory and every day sees new blooms in our gardens and the woods around us. A thousand shades of green will soon blanket the hills and ridges as sleeping buds burst forth to find the sun. I know how they feel. I’m feeling that same longing for the new life of spring, too. These weeks of Lent prepare us for the true Light of Easter. We’ve been walking to Jerusalem with our Lord, through the good times He’s shared with His friends and now as we will be with Him through His Passion and the Cross of Good Friday. Spring is about changes and new beginnings. And change is painful.

But change is also hopeful. A new beginning opens a world of possibilities. For me, writing is like that. I’m old-fashioned and use a pen and paper writing everything in longhand. Sitting down with a blank white page in front of me is at once a gift and a burden. I can write whatever words I want to write and that’s a marvelous gift. But that freedom brings with it the burden of choosing which words to write and in what order and for what purpose. This is very much what Easter is for us as well. The sacrifice of the Cross opens heaven for us again. After original sin entered the world through our first parents, a gulf of separation kept us from knowing God as He created us to know Him. He wanted to be in an intimate relationship with each one of us, every moment of every day. So He had to build a bridge from His throne to our hearts. And He imagined that bridge in the form of a Cross. A simple wooden cross that would reach from the depths of our sins to the heights of heaven.

The hope of the Cross of Christ is our greatest gift. Through Him, we have the new life we long for–here and for all eternity in heaven. But the joy of the resurrection comes with the exquisite price of Golgotha. Easter is meaningless without Good Friday. In our culture, we often skip anything that smacks of sacrifice or suffering. We want to get straight to joy and happiness. But one look at the life of Jesus shows us how we are to live. And no time in His life is more revealing than this week. He spends time with His friends. He spends time in prayer. He helps those around Him with what they need. He keeps His heart open and His eyes fixed on Friday. He is motivated by one thing and one thing only: love. As we journey towards this Easter Sunday, how well do our lives reflect the hope of Jesus’ gift of the Cross? Like Christ, do we live a life full of prayer and service to others? Are we open to helping those around us when they need help? Does love motivate the decisions we make? If you’re like me, you probably have a ways to to. And that’s exactly when Jesus loves us most—when we still have a ways to go and we choose to make that journey with Him.

If you’ve been away from Christ, today is the perfect day to come home to Him. He’s waiting for you in the sacrament of confession. He’s waiting for you in the celebration and sacrifice of the Holy Mass. He’s waiting to give you the hope and the joy that He purchased for you on the Cross. Spring is the season of new life and light. Christ is calling you to return to Him and receive the new life that only He can offer.

“Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to Me with all your heart..”—Joel 2:12

A Holy Lent

One of the many great things about being a Catholic is that we have a rhythm in our faith lives.  Each season of the Church evokes a different spirit within us and our worship is enriched and deepened by the regular changes in focus and feel.  In Advent, we prepare for the gift of Jesus at Christmas.  During Christmas, we celebrate Christ’s coming as the great Light foretold for generations.  Today begins another season, that of Lent.  You probably saw various news reports this week about Mardi Gras celebrations around the country.  Unfortunately, most people have lost the connection between “Fat Tuesday” and today, Ash Wednesday.  The celebration of Carnival, literally “leaving meat”, originated as a kind of counterweight to the austerity of Lent.  Carnival also points to the exuberance of Easter and the joy of the Resurrection, which is still yet to come.  During Lent, we journey with Christ, walking to Jerusalem with Him, as He prepares for His Passion and Death on the Cross.

St. Augustine helps us to understand what Lent is all about when he writes:  “The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire.  You do not see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when He comes, you may see and be utterly satisfied.”  Lent is an exercise of this holy desire.  Most of the time, our lives seem to be filled with the “distractions” of everyday living:  work, problems, and anything that takes our minds off our work and our problems.  None of these things are bad in themselves, but they can keep us from seeing what we really long for.  Lent is a time to put aside some of these diversions and get in touch with the true Object of our longing that St. Augustine wrote about.

Jesus is our hearts’ desire and we can know His heart by spending prayerful time in the Gospels.  He shows us there how can be like Him and how we can know and serve God.  This is our Lenten journey.  Christ is our example of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — the three traditional pathways we walk during Lent.  His withdrawal into prayer, His practice of fasting and His acts of charity, mercy, and healing should be our Lenten exercises as well.  When we abstain from meat on Fridays, when we spend regular time in prayer, especially in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament, and when we reach out to help others, we are putting aside some of the selfish diversions of our lives.  When we imitate Christ in these ways, we allow Him to change our hearts and we prepare to honor what He has done for us through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

We each choose what we will get out of every Lent.  As we are marked today with ashes on our foreheads, we hear the words of the priest urging us to turn from our sin and return to the Gospel of Christ.  How we choose to do this, to turn our hearts to God, is up to us.  This turning back to God, in Greek “metanoia”, is what we do every Lent and we do it again today–in the midst of all the diversions in our lives, in the midst of our own sinfulness.  God comes always to fetch us back to Himself, to our hearts’ desire, our holy longing for union with Him.  “God means to fill each of you with what is good, so cast out what is bad!  If He wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go?  The vessel must be emptied of its’ contents and then cleansed.”  St. Augustine (354-430 AD)

Lent is a season of cleansing and of preparation. It’s a time of putting things aside and clearing things out so that we can once again see what and Who is most important to us. Lent can be a “spring cleaning” of the heart and it can reveal to us the rooms inside that we’ve not yet invited Christ to come into. Renewing and refreshing, Lent is a joyful time if we only allow our Lord to take control and fill us with His holy love.

A Tiny, Toothless God

It’s a pretty common thing these days. Lots of people do it. Even some churches are into it, actually. So I though I’d put together some pointers for you, if you’re interested in trying it.

How To Domesticate God

1) Try to ignore Him, if you can. When He calls to your heart in that voice you know, don’t seek Him out. This approach worked pretty well for St. Augustine for many years.

2) Don’t read His book. It’s full of His promises and describes His plan of salvation. It has lots of small words like “love” and “faith” and “cross.” Pretty boring.

3) If you do come across some of what’s in His book, it can be fairly easy to ignore it. Especially things like the 10 Commandments and the parts of it where He describes Who He is (John Chapter 6), His Church (Matthew 16:18) and how to live (Matthew 16:24-26).

4) Forget about “sin.” So long as no one gets hurt, who are we to judge? While you’re at it, don’t believe in hell or the devil either. That’s so 14th century.

5) When someone dies, imagine them in a lovely, mist-filled landscape with no cares or worries. Or even better, imagine nothing at all. Like when a candle flame burns out. It’s over.

6) Think of Jesus as a really cool teacher who was everybody’s BFF and who never said anything that would offend anyone or bring anybody down.

7) If you do somehow find yourself thinking of God, imagine Him as your personal concierge. He’s on-call 24/7,always smiling and never makes any demands on you.

8) Be fearful and afraid. Of everything. Be afraid to fail, be afraid of rejection and disapproval. Be fearful of not being loved and of being alone. Let your fears be your guide.

9) Worry. Try to be strong and confident and do it all yourself. Read lots of self-help books. But in the end—just worry.

10) For goodness sake, don’t pray. Or if you do, let your prayers be quick and superficial. Maybe it’s best to wait until bedtime and limit your prayer life to telling God what you want and when you want it. Pray small.

11) Believe that any sins you have are so bad, so heinous, and so “special” that God could never forgive you. His mercy is no match for your sinfulness. You are a lost cause.

12) Don’t go near the confessional, naturally. Let your sins pile up and do everything you can to keep your heart guarded and far away from Him. Mercy and forgiveness can reveal His face to you and you don’t want that.

13) Believe that you are too old or too young, too busy or too uneducated, too shy or too (fill-in-the-blank) for God to use your for His purpose. A small god has even smaller children.

These are just a few starters for making sure you keep God small and tame. The most common way Christians domesticate God is by keeping Him in a box that they only open for an hour on Sunday mornings. Don’t invite Him to share in any other parts of your life. Keep it shallow, simple, and time-limited. Don’t allow Him to change you. Don’t believe in miracles like the saving grace of Baptism, the forgiveness of Confession, or the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Refuse God’s healing of your body, mind, and spirit. Belittle the promises of God at Fatima or Lourdes or through devotion to His Divine Mercy. You never know what might happen if you give your whole heart to Jesus and abandon yourself completely to His Holy Will.

“…Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
—C.S. Lewis

Everyday Prayers

There’s a rhythm to life.  God created the universe in such a way that day follows night, summer follows spring and the sting of death is softened a bit by a newborn baby’s cry.  Every morning that dawns for us is an undeserved gift from God.  None of us is promised tomorrow.  So when we awake to a new day, our first thoughts should be gratitude to the Lord.  In the Catholic prayer tradition we call this the “morning offering,”  In thanksgiving for His many gifts to us, we offer Him back the gift of this new day.  We’re called on to make our lives “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God”(Romans 12:1).  When we begin each day by giving our lives again to Christ, His grace renews us for our work and the challenges we each will face. 

Morning prayers to God have their roots in the Jewish tradition and Christians have followed this practice for centuries.  But the most familiar morning offering is one composed a French Jesuit priest named Fr. Francois Xavier Gautrelet in 1844.  He was interested in teaching young priests the importance of offering all the moments of their day for God’s greater glory.  This is a cornerstone of Jesuit spirituality and is beautifully expressed in Fr. Francois’ prayer:

“O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world.  I offer them for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, the salvation of souls,the reparation for sin, and the reunion of all Christians. I offer them for the intentions of our bishops and of all Apostles of Prayer, and in particular for those recommended by our Holy Father this month.”  This simple prayer offers God everything we are and all that we do and reminds us of the need to pray for others and the entire family of God.  Start your day in His presence with this lovely offering.

Then, at the end of the day, we all need to examine how we used our time.  Was it for God and neighbor?  Did we give God glory?  Did we sin?  How and why?  Another Jesuit prayer practice is the “daily examen.”  We begin by becoming aware of the presence of the Lord.  We ask the Holy Spirit to help us review the events of the day just ended.  We remember the day with gratitude to God and we pay attention to what God is trying to tell us through the details and emotions of every hour.  We ask God to help us know His will and how we did or didn’t follow Him.  Be patient and allow God to reveal Himself.  Then look to the next day and pray for His grace to meet the challenges you’ll face.  Pray for hope.  A favorite prayer to end the day with is this one:  “I adore You, my God, and I love You with all my heart.  I thank yo for having created me, for having made me a Christian, and for having preserved me this day.  Pardon me for the evil I have done today.  If I have done anything good, be pleased to accept it.  Protect me while I take my rest and deliver me from all dangers.  May Your grace be always with me.  Amen.” 

A rich prayer life begins and ends with our rising and our resting.  These two prayers, or others of your choosing, help us to focus on what is important in life:  our relationship with Christ.  By beginning and ending our days with prayer, we respond to St. Paul’s instruction to “put on the full armor of God”(Ephesians 6:11).  We ask for His help and forgiveness.  We are grateful for His many blessings.  We become aware of our sins and shortcomings and beg God’s mercy and guidance.  Praying before our day begins opens our hearts and minds to Christ’s will for us.  Praying before sleep invites God to help us follow Him more closely tomorrow.  We get into a rhythm of prayer if we do this.  We put ourselves into His loving hands as He leads us along life’s journey.

“You don’t know how to pray? Put yourself in the presence of God and as soon as you have said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray!’ you can be sure you’ve already begun.” –St. Josemaria Escriva (1902-1975)