Beyond This World

My mother suffered a series of strokes before her death several years ago. Already enduring a second bout with cancer, she was spending much of her days watching television news, which had become a favorite activity during her long illness. But after that initial stroke, she didn’t so much watch the television as watch a spot on the wall about 2 feet above the screen. This would go on for hours. She would smile and nod as if she agreed with whatever it was she saw there, but since she couldn’t speak, we were never able to find out what that was. We all long to know what we’ll experience once we die. The veil which separates our earthly life from the one to come seems thin at times. We love those stories about near-death experiences. The Church teaches us that after we die we experience a personal judgement before God. But what will that be like? Who will we see? Will we recognize our loved ones there?

Steve Jobs was raised by his adoptive parents in a home without much religion. He studied Buddhism for a bit, but he also described himself as an atheist, or an agnostic. Yet, when he died in 2011, his wife provided him with a Christian funeral. We might not know what he believed, but we know that his family revealed his last words to be: “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow!” What was he seeing? Who was he seeing? He seemed impressed, and a bit awed.  

We’ve all heard the story of the country doctor making a house call to one of his patients. The doctor always took his dog with him on these visits, and his pet would sit patiently outside the door. That day, the dying man asked his doctor if he knew what death was like. In answer, the doctor opened the door and his dog gleefully bounded into the room. “You see this dog?” asked the doctor. “He didn’t have any idea what was on the other side of this door. All he knew was that his master was in here waiting for him. And that was enough.” For a more poetic insight, J.R.R. Tolkien has the wizard Gandalf describe death like this: “The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns silver glass…and then you see it. White shores. And beyond…a far green country under a swift sunrise.” To me, those are both beautiful images.  

The Church also teaches us that it’s prudent to meditate on death. We look at our life in relation to its ending and we take things like sin and repentance more seriously. Sin has eternal consequences, and life is so precious and brief. One of my favorite authors, Pat Conroy died a couple of years ago and he reflected on how short our sojourn is on this earth. “Why do they not teach you that time is a finger snap and an eye blink and that you should not allow a moment to pass you by without taking joyous, ecstatic note of it, not wasting a single moment of its swift, breakneck circuit?” Indeed. We’re too often distracted by distractions, and we look up and another year has passed us by.

I found this reflection which I think beautifully illustrates both the mystery and the joy of passing into eternity. I hope you’ll enjoy it:

“And this is the consolation—that the world doesn’t end, that the world one day opens up into something better, and that we one day open up into something far better. Maybe like this: one morning you finally wake to a light you recognize as the light you’ve wanted every morning that has come before. And the air itself has some light thing in it that you’ve always hoped the light might have. And One is there to welcome you whose face you’ve looked for during all the best and all the worst times of your life. He takes you to Himself and holds you close until you fully wake. And it seems you’ve only just awakened, but you turn and there we are, the rest of us, arriving just behind you. We’ll go the rest of the way together.” 

—-Scott Cairns

We All Know One

Everyone has an Eeyore in their lives. He’s the perpetually downcast, hopeless little donkey in the Winnie the Pooh stories. And while he’s the ultimate downer, we can all identify with him, maybe we even ARE the Eeyore in our circle of friends. Spending time with one of these folks can leave you exhausted, because all of your energy is spent trying to fill their bottomless pit of despair. Ugh. And yet there’s something endearing about old Eeyore. He’s like all of us on our worst days—that dark, secret, self-absorbed part of us that sees no reason at all to get out of bed, much less to rise and meet the day with gratitude and hope.  

But hope is the fruit of our faith in Jesus Christ. Hope is being confident in the promises of Christ, knowing with certainty that He will never disappoint. To live without hope is to, in effect, reject the salvation that Jesus died to offer us. If we’re hopeless, we’re no different from the unbeliever. And it’s an easy habit to fall into, and a dangerous one. A quick look at Holy Scripture makes it pretty clear that if we follow Christ, hope should be the anchor of our lives. In Hebrews, we read that hope is “the conviction of things not seen”(11:1). Hope is not a feeling nor is it merely wishful thinking—hope is a conviction. St. Paul writes that hope is an “enduring virtue”(I Cor. 13:13) and that “love springs from hope”(Col. 1:4-5). Hope is that gift which allows us to understand and persevere through suffering, pain, and disappointment (Romans 5:2-5). “Hope does not disappoint”(Romans 5:4). And maybe the most profound teaching of all is in St. Paul’s letter to Timothy: “Jesus Christ is our hope”(I Timothy 1:1). To be alive in Christ is to be infused with the virtue of hope—not like Pollyanna, but like any of the great Saints who lived in hope despite suffering, torture, and death. Hope takes us out of ourselves and places our hearts at the foot of the Cross. 

But we have to cultivate the gift of hope, just as we exercise the virtues of faith and charity. And sometimes, we get it wrong. Here are a few ways to know if you’re an Eeyore:

1) You’re fearful and anxious—a “worrier.” You are afraid of life’s challenges and opportunities. You fret excessively about money, status, or what others think of you. You have unfocused fear that sometimes paralyzes you into inaction.  

2) You’re a complainer. A hopeful heart is one that is grateful and praises God even through the bad times. Without hope, every small bump in the road of life is an injustice.

3) You blame other people for your problems. If you’re not living in hope, it’s easy to point fingers at others whenever things don’t go your way. Your family, your teacher, your boss, your ex—it’s their fault that things are a mess. You constantly compare yourself to others, and are perpetually disappointed.  

4) You’re a drama queen, or king. Hopelessness exaggerates any small suffering in your life. It’s the worst, the most horrible, the most unfair (fill in the blank) ever! You are easily discouraged and you look to others for sympathy and affirmation.

5) And maybe the clearest sign of failing hope is pride. A prideful heart tries to do everything for themselves, rather than giving God control and embracing His will. Humility and hope go hand in hand. The more we grow in humility, the more we rely on Christ for everything and, as we know, He never lets us down. Want to be more hopeful? Pray for humility.

Faith, hope, and love are virtues that we need to exercise through prayer, fasting, and sacrifice. Ask God to increase your hope. Surround yourself with hopeful, encouraging people. Read about the Saints who are examples to us of great hope and ask them to pray for you and to help you to grow. Remember all the blessings God has given to you. Gratitude grows hope—the more grateful you become, the more hopeful you’ll be. Our Lord holds our future in His hands, and we needn’t worry or be anxious.

“Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”

        —-St. Pio of Pietrelcina


The Ones We’ve Lost

One of them might have cured cancer. Another one could have flown us to the stars. One of them might have helped the world find a way to peace in places that have known far too much war. They would have been doctors, farmers, mothers, fathers, teachers, firemen and priests. They might also have been burglars, layabouts, swindlers and yes, even murderers. But every one of them had been created in the image and likeness of God. They were known by Him before all ages and loved by Him beyond all knowing. Fifty-eight million Americans. Lost.

It’s been 48 years since the Supreme Court decision which effectively made abortion legal in this country. The justices based their decision on an understanding of a woman’s right to privacy. Abortion was found to be a private decision. But it is not. Many women are coerced or even forced by husbands, boyfriends, or parents into having an abortion. Many may have an abortion because they can’t see any other option for themselves. Every woman will remember the abortion they had. Most of them will come to say that they regretted their decision as the years went by. Abortion kills a child and it wounds everyone else. And it has wounded our culture as well.

Abortion allows us to see all human life as less sacred and more disposable. We begin to see assisted suicide as a right and we form groups to support legislation to make it legal. We hear talk about death panels and we’re no longer shocked. We begin to withhold food and water from the terminally-ill so as to hasten death. We abort babies we see as imperfect. China has murdered a generation of women through gender-based abortions. Minority women in America have a disproportionate number of abortions. Yet we condemn racism or sexism in other contexts. Abortion is anything but private.

And yet, there is hope. God’s mercy can heal the heart and soul of any woman who has chosen abortion. Anyone who has encouraged a woman to have an abortion, driven her to the clinic, assisted in the procedure, or promoted abortion—all are offered God’s mercy and forgiveness. No sin is beyond the reach of His love. There is hope for the unborn when their fathers accept their responsibilities and support the mother of their child. In many ways, the rise in abortions parallels the decline in faithful fatherhood.

As a Church we must welcome and support mothers in need. We can’t just shake our heads and preach about sin. We must be God’s mercy to them. We have to open our hands and help. We have to support pro-life programs that offer real help to moms in crisis. We have to support adoption. We must elect politicians at all levels of government who will protect life from the moment of conception until natural death.

As individuals we have to do all that we can to transform our culture, one person, one heart at a time. Pray. Vote. Protest. Fast. Offer sacrifices and perform works of mercy. When we do nothing in the face of evil, will we also be held accountable for it? Be a defender of life, a voice for the child who has no voice, a friend to the woman considering an abortion. Welcome her and her baby into your pew, your home, and your prayers.

“Lord God, I thank you today for the gift of my life,
And for the lives of all my brothers and sisters.
I know there is nothing that destroys more life than abortion.
Yet I rejoice that you have conquered death by the Resurrection of Your Son.
I am ready to do my part in ending abortion.
Today I commit myself
Never to be silent.
Never to be passive.
Never to be forgetful of the unborn.
I commit myself to be active in the pro-life movement,
And never to stop defending life
Until all my brothers and sisters are protected,
And our nation once again becomes
A nation with liberty and justice
Not just for some, but for all.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
—Priests for Life

God Reveals Himself

All of us long to know God. It’s been said that there is a God-shaped hole in the hearts of men. I believe that’s true. We seek Him out — in His scripture, in His Church, in the beauty of creation, and in one another. And if we truly and humbly search for God, He never disappoints us. Lately, I’ve been reading about people who claim to have encountered God in their dreams, in visions, and through His angels. This can be a confusing journey full of hazards and dead-ends. Thankfully I’m blessed to have guidance along my way in the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

The Church teaches (and has taught for many centuries) that the public revelation of God ceased upon the death of St. John, the last living Apostle. Jesus Christ was and is the complete and total revelation of the living God. Nothing can “add to” to the Word of God in His beloved Son. As the Catechism states,”….no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ”(paragraph 66). So do Catholics believe that God no longer reveals Himself to us? Of course not. We come to know God throughout our lives in and through our prayerful participation in the Church He left for us. We enter into His family at Baptism. We encounter the grace of His mercy in Confession. No more intimate knowledge and experience of Christ exists than in our communion with Him in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. Our Confirmation infuses us with the gifts and guidance of the Holy Spirit. God reveals Himself to us in our reading of Sacred scripture and in our prayer life which is a true fount of His love and grace. The Holy Spirit inspires and teaches us in the Sacred Tradition of His Church. God is always reaching out to us and pulling us closer to His Sacred Heart.

Throughout the centuries, people have claimed to have received private revelations from God. From the very first years after Christ’s Ascension, the early Church fathers taught that private revelation should always be approached with great prudence. Men like Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Augustine all taught about the proper limits of private “knowledge” of God that persons might claim to have received in dreams or visions. And yet the Church has always been open to the workings of God in the lives of His children. “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good”(I Thess. 5:19-21). The testing and retaining is part of the authority that Christ gave to His Church and so this process is rightfully one left to the pope and bishops. St. John spoke of this authority: “We belong to God, and anyone who knows God listens to us, while anyone who doesn’t belong to God refuses to hear us. This is how we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit” (I John 4:6). Catholics believe in miracles and our Church is open to them. At the same time, any true mystic or visionary will readily submit themselves to the investigation and scrutiny of Christ’s Church because the Church acts with His authority. She is, after all, His spotless Bride.

Private revelation is never necessary for salvation. A person’s visions or writings can never “correct” or surpass the revelation of Jesus Christ. If anyone claims otherwise, he or she is in error, even if their “revelation” gains a large and popular following. We see this everywhere today. In the final analysis, either there is a Church whose authority was given it by God, or there is not. If there’s not, then anything goes and your religion is just as valid as anyone else’s religion. From the writings of Mohammed and Joseph Smith, to all the new-age mystics and seers and prophets, we have more than 33.000 different religious denominations on the planet today. Someone has a vision or a “word of knowledge” and the next thing, they start their own church. We have splintered the Body of Christ by rejecting the authority He gave to St. Peter and his successors. Surely God weeps that His family is so estranged from one another. If we are followers of Christ, we must pray and work together to come back under the same tent, to kneel together at the same altar and to profess our faith in the one, true God, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“…I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
—–Matthew 16:18

God’s Life In Us

Grace. It’s something we hear about a lot. In songs and books and sermons. But what is grace? Could you explain it to someone who isn’t a Christian? Or, for that matter, to a fellow believer? In my experience, most folks have a pretty fuzzy notion of what grace really is. Unfortunately, lots of people use grace to describe a feeling that they experience in certain situations. Grace means feeling close to God, or experiencing consolation in prayer or feeling uplifted in worship. 

In fact, grace isn’t a feeling or emotion at all. It’s the love and mercy of God, given freely and undeservedly to a believer. Grace is so fundamental to Christianity that St. Paul wrote that our relationship with Christ is “the gospel of the grace of God”(Acts 22:24). This grace is given to us first in Baptism, and then through the other Sacraments which Jesus instituted. There is actual grace and sanctifying grace, both of which justify and save us. “Grace is a participation in the life of God”(Catechism #1997). Grace is also that tugging of your heart to become more like Jesus. To love more, to forgive more, to seek forgiveness of your sins and to conform your heart to the Lord’s heart. It is supernatural because no one can do this without the grace of God.  

We share the grace of God with others when we give His love away, just as freely and undeservedly as He loves us. When we are living in the grace of God, we can’t help but share it with others. It can’t be contained. Many years ago, I knew a priest whose presence was joyful, kind, forgiving, and powerful. I watched people blossom and grow in faith around him, like flowers nourished by the rain and the sun. I was one of them. I used to think that he chose people to befriend because he saw something special in us, but now I know I had things backwards. We began to feel and behave differently because he treated us as if we were special. We were transformed by how he saw us. That’s how grace works among us.  

We are transformed by how Christ sees us. To Him, we’re His beautiful child. No matter how broken we feel, no matter what our sins might be, no matter how many times we’ve tried before and failed—in His eyes, we’re more precious than gold. Under His gaze, our wounds are healed, our sins forgiven, our hope restored. Grace isn’t some magical pixie dust. Like the Catechism says, it’s participating in the very life of God. It’s undeserved intimacy in the life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  

Grace is what gives us supernatural life. Without it, any hope for heaven is lost. When we confess our sins and receive Holy Communion, the grace that we receive is the life of God pulling us to His heart and giving us the strength and the will to lead others to Him as well. Like the priest I knew, a grace-filled life radiates love and encouragement, joy and acceptance. People will want what you have and will want to know how your life was transformed. Grace leads people to know God. What better way to spend your days here on earth than bringing other souls along on the road to heaven?

“Have you seen with the eyes of your soul how He looks at you with love?”

—-St. Teresa of Calcutta.