Tender Hearts

I’m a weeper. I thought about using the word “crier” but that implies something rather dignified and demure. Picture a tight shot of a beautiful Ingrid Bergman as a perfect tear slides slowly down her flawless cheek. This does NOT describe me. I weep. Great gasping gulps of air in between baleful bellows and bursts of waterworks. Imagine a Bigfoot howling underwater and you’ll have a pretty good idea. And I weep at lots of stuff. Sad songs, of course. The National Anthem, certainly. Puppies. Kittens. To be honest, almost anything, given the right mood. It’s been this way all my life and I blame it on my grandfather. He was what we in the South call “tender-hearted.” Every summer my family would make the long drive to Texas to spend a week or two with him and my grandmother. At the end of our time with them, we’d pile into the car for our drive back to Georgia as my grandfather stood weeping and waving to us in his driveway. He was my kindred spirit.

Someone with this personality trait, like me, has come by it naturally. It’s part of our makeup, of how we relate to the world. It’s probably part genetics and part how we were raised and the examples set for us by the people in our lives. Knowing that my grandfather and I were both teary types always made me feel closer to him. It also made me feel a little bit better about the waterworks. But there’s a different kind of tender-heartedness that’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. In this way, our hearts are conformed to the heart of Jesus.

Jesus was definitely tender-hearted. But not the merely weepy type like me and my grandfather. Jesus cried for his friend, Lazarus. And then He raised him from the dead. He wept over Jerusalem. And then He suffered and died for her salvation. He tenderly poured out His life in the Holy Eucharist the very night that the men with whom He’d shared it would abandon and betray Him. Yet “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Jesus’ tender heart is courageous and strong. Throughout His public ministry, both His heart and His mission proclaimed love, mercy, and holy purpose. “I have set my face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7). His tender heart led Him to the Cross.

To have a heart that is tender and open like Jesus’ Sacred Heart, is also to conform our will to His will. His tender love was a love that called a sin by its name and with the clarity of His light and justice. Jesus was tender to the sinner but never soft on sin. We’re called to follow Him. Our hearts must be just as eager to root out and name our own sins. A tender heart is one that is frequently tilled and weeded by our examination and repentance. Frequent confession is a great “tenderizer” as the Church knows and teaches. Tender hearts seek Jesus in prayer, which is our lifeline to a relationship with Him. We learn to deny ourselves so that we can become more like our Lord, who poured out His heart in love for us. And so we are also charged with service and giving of ourselves. Among the primary acts of our service is to forgive. Tender hearts reach out to those who have wronged us and offer them mercy, like our Lord does. We give our hearts away despite knowing that sometime they’ll be trod upon. We look at Christ’s courage in loving and trusting others and we imitate Him. Tender hearts don’t carry grudges. We are vulnerable to the pain caused by other people and we love them anyway. Even when we’re hurt, we remain sensitive to the pain of others. We comfort, we console. We mourn with those who grieve. Tears shed out of love for another’s pain are precious to Jesus. We shed them freely.

I’m thankful for those early memories of my sweet grandfather who cried for me as I left him each summer. He showed me I wasn’t alone in being quick to cry out of love. When someone called me “tender-hearted” I felt close to him and it made me feel less different. My life is richer for it and my faith is nourished by my tears. You’ll know when you see me at Mass—I’m the one at the end of the pew, always looking for a tissue.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
—Ephesians 4:32

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The Beast Inside

Anyone who has spent any time in the woods has probably seen or heard something they can’t quite explain. The sound of a branch breaking when nothing is there. The call of an animal that you’ve never heard before. A strange-looking track you can’t identify. The feeling that you’re being watched or followed. Later, safely back home, you think things over and wonder what you just saw or heard. A bear? a mountain lion? Bigfoot? Zombies?

Our human story has always been shot through with monsters. We’re fascinated with scary stories or tales of the “unknown.” We cover our eyes at the terrifying parts of the movie, but we open them just wide enough to see the vampire show his fangs. We’re scared, but we’re also attracted. Why does the shadow in the woods frighten us and at the same time, draw us to it? Why does the girl always take the flashlight and go down the creaky basement stairs? She goes because, like each one of us, she’s a monster, too.

One of the reasons we’re so fascinated by the bogeyman in the woods is because sometimes we feel and act like a wildman ourselves. We let our emotions get the better of us and instead of being rational and reflective, we scream and wave our hands in the air. We feel like picking up a club and running amok. But we don’t. At least most of us don’t. That fleeting moment of “monster-me” goes away pretty quickly. But we remember what we’re capable of. Those out-of-control impulses help us transform a shadow into a zombie in the closet. Or a ghoul in the basement. After all, if there’s one inside of me, why wouldn’t there be more out in the world?

We’re all a mix of good and evil, of light and dark, of angel and beast. Humility keeps us aware of how broken we are. Humility whispers to us: “Without grace, you’re just another one of the walking dead.” It’s pride that tells us that it’s that OTHER person who is sinful and selfish and short-tempered. Pride tells us that we’re just fine, that our sins are few and tiny. Or else it tells us we’re so sinful and lost that God could never ever forgive us and welcome us into His arms. Pride is the soul-killer, the life-taker, the sin that can transform us into one of the walking dead.

The Catholic writer Michael Kelly says that there is a clear line that separates good from evil and that line runs through the middle of my heart and of your heart. The grace of God calls us to be the light of the world and our own pride uses every chance to put a bushel over that light. We see that same struggle going on in our Church, in our country, and in our world. We change the world by allowing God to change us. The Sacraments give us life in Christ, and they increase our humility. You never see a humble vampire or zombie, do you? Immersed in Sacramental grace, we keep pride at bay and share the Light in a world of shadow and darkness. Pray for humility, for the grace to be aware of your sins and to seek forgiveness in Confession. Take your monster to the closet of confession and leave it there. God loves monsters.  

Not all the monsters have fangs.”

                     —–Jack London 

The Saints We Need

A young man that I know is considering becoming a Catholic priest. He’s a junior at a fine college, studying electrical engineering. He’s been offered graduate scholarships to some of this country’s most prestigious universities. He’s handsome, athletic, and has a great sense of humor. In short, he’s one of those guys you could easily imagine happily married with kids, making a six-figure salary and living in a gated community on a golf course. But he believes that God has called him to another kind of life, a radically different life. He believes that Jesus Christ has called him to the priesthood. While his friends are dating and planning for life and work after college, this young man spends his weekends visiting seminaries and volunteering at a local soup kitchen.

Two thousand years ago, a group of men also heard the call of God to His greater purpose. Simple men, flawed and imperfect men, whose “yes” to God changed the world. They left their lives, their jobs and their families and, owning almost nothing, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving and hostile world. For living out their call, they were imprisoned and tortured. They were killed for their belief in Christ. Their lives were laid down for the Savior they loved and Who had loved and died for them. Looking at this young man I know, I can see some of that same commitment and faith which empowered the Apostles to become more than the fishermen or tax collectors they had been before their calling. Does that make this young man unusual in today’s world? I don’t think so.

Young people want to change the world. They want to give themselves over to a great cause that will give meaning and purpose to their lives. So why are so few young people being called to religious life today? Why do we have a shortage of priests in America? In my own opinion, it’s because we Catholics aren’t teaching our children the Gospel of Christ. To begin with, we don’t know our own faith well enough to discuss it with our children. We can’t expect a couple of hours of religious education classes each week to ground our kids in the faith the Apostles died for. We have to know and to live out our faith each day as examples to them. When they come to us with questions about Jesus or His Church, we need to give them the right answers, or at least know where to find the right answers. Talking about Christ and our faith should be a natural part of family life, as natural as talking about school or sports. And yet how many of us have talked with our kids about Christ during the last week?

While family life is the garden that grows vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the larger Church also has to live up to her responsibility as the depository of our faith. Sunday homilies need to challenge us more. We need to leave Mass inspired by the truth of Christ and convicted of the changes we need to make in our lives in order to live out the truth of His Gospel. We need more Jesus and less Oprah, more courage to live as Christ and less fear that what we say or do as Christians might offend someone. Sometimes the truth isn’t easy to hear, but truth is what saves us and transfigures us into the God we adore. The Church needs to focus less on appearing “relevant” to a modern congregation and courageously proclaim Christ crucified. If we preach the Gospel, we’ll have vocations to the priesthood. If we live out that Gospel, we won’t be able to build enough seminaries to hold all the men called to serve Christ and His Church. We need fearless leadership within the Catholic Church in this country, to stand up for the Gospel, to challenge the Church to preach Jesus Christ to the modern world. As Catholics, we should pray that God will send us this leadership, these shepherds who can guide us out of the doldrums of the past generation. Throughout the history of our Church, God has raised up Saints among us whenever His Bride is in need of reformation. May our prayer for the Church our children will inherit be: “Lord, send us Your Saints!”

“Here am I; send me.”

—Isaiah 6:8

Throw Off Your Cloak

I don’t know about you, but Easter always makes me feel renewed. After six weeks of Lent and then the drama of Holy Week, Easter comes along like a long deep breath of fresh air.  It’s as if the whole world inhales and drinks in the sunshine and new life of His resurrection.  Easter affirms and strengthens us like no other season. Easter invites us to shake off our old ways and put on the white garment of our baptism.  Every Easter Christ invites us again to follow Him.  That need for a connection with God is hard-wired into us. As St. Augustine ways, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.  So how do our hearts “rest” in Jesus?  There are several examples in the Gospels that show us how different people find their rest in Christ, but this is one of my favorites.

Bartimaeus is a blind beggar we see sitting on the road near Jericho (Mark 10:46-52).  We remember that Jericho is a sinful city that the Israelites had to conquer in their quest to possess the Promised Land. The early Christians would hear this Gospel story and associate Jericho with sinfulness.  Then we learn that Bartimaeus is blind. Being blind was a terrible affliction in Biblical times because you couldn’t earn a living to support yourself and your family.  You had to beg.  Begging is an act of profound humility.  You are saying to the world: “I can’t make it on my own.  I need your help.”  And that’s what Bartimaeus did when he heard that Jesus was passing by—he begged Him for help.  “Jesus, Son of David, take pity on me”(Mark 10:47).  The people around him told Bartimaeus to be quiet, but he didn’t listen to them.  He kept begging Jesus to help him.  So Jesus stood still and called for Bartimaeus to come closer.  Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, leapt up, and ran to Jesus.  Christ asked him, “What do you want Me to do for you? And the blind man said to Him, “Master, that I may see.”  Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you whole;”  And immediately, Bartimaeus could see and he began to follow Jesus.

This encounter between the blind man and our Lord can teach us a lot about what it means to live in God’s grace.  First, we have to know we are sinners.  Like Bartimaeus, we can’t see the good, the true and the beautiful.  We’re weighed down in the dirt by our sins.  When we can acknowledge our sinfulness, we know the only way out  of it is to beg for help.  We can’t fix ourselves.  This is a real temptation in our “self-help” culture.  But it’s not the Lord’s way.  The only way to gain our sight is to beg.  And we have to persist and never stop asking.  This can be uncomfortable because friends and family, like the crowd around Bartimaeus, don’t think we need to look to Christ for help.  It goes against our cultural self-reliance.  And it’s exactly what Jesus loves. When we call out to Him, He stands still.  Christ is the center of creation, the still point of the turning universe.  Everything revolves around Him.  He calls to Bartimaeus—just as He calls to each one of us.  The Greek word that expresses that calling is the same root word as the word for “church.”  Christ calls us into His Church.  It’s never just a “me and Jesus” experience as some may think.  Our calling is to love and follow Him in the context of His Bride, the Church.  And when He calls us we should respond like the blind man does, by throwing off our cloak (our sins, our doubts, our old ways of doing things) and leap up to go to Jesus. Bartimaeus doesn’t hesitate or ask advice or call a committee meeting:  he hears the call of Jesus, he throws off his old life and he runs to Him.  And then Jesus asks him the central question of his life and of our lives.

“What do you want Me to do for you?” Imagine if your Savior asked you that right now.  What would you tell Him?  Think about that for a moment.  What can Jesus do for you right now, today, right where you are in your life?  Bartimaeus tells Jesus that he wants to see. This is a great answer!  He wants to see like Jesus sees.  He wants to BE LIKE JESUS.  And Jesus tells him that his faith has healed him.  When we run to Jesus and accept His calling, following Him wherever He leads us, His grace will make us whole.  Christ frees us to become all that He created us to be.  But that freedom comes with a great price–the Cross.  When we embrace Jesus, we must also embrace His Cross.  Easter is the great invitation to leap up, throw off our old ways, pick up our cross and follow the Lord.  Our faith has healed us. His Cross has redeemed us.  Alleluia!  Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him, everything else thrown in.”

                                              —–C.S. Lewis

Change is Painful

Springtime has finally arrived 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 are blanketing 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 past few weeks of Lent have prepared 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 go. 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

Dying a “Good Death”

“A good death.” You hear that said in Catholic families who are facing the loss of someone they love. Non-Catholics usually have no idea what this means. This is because a) most folks could never imagine death or any of its trappings to be “good” and b) many non-Catholics believe that their salvation is assured beyond any doubt. As usual, we Catholics have a rather different understanding of both death and our salvation.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven at our baptism. We are initiated by those waters into the new life of Christ and His Church. We know as well that we will sin after our baptism. Jesus knew this too, which is why He instituted the sacrament of confession. While with His disciples, “[Jesus] breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained ‘ “(John 20:22-23). From the beginning, the Apostles began baptizing and healing and forgiving sins. Confession has been a function of our priests since the very earliest years of the Church. So confession is something God wants us to make use of whenever we commit serious sin. In it, we encounter His mercy and forgiveness. We remain in God’s grace when confession is used regularly. Through it we receive His sanctifying grace which helps us to resist sin.

We confess because Jesus told us to and because He empowered His Apostles and their successors to share His forgiveness with us. Like St. Paul teaches, we know that our salvation is a gift which, through sin, we can abuse and lose. “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall” (I Corinthians 10:12). Our faith must take root and work in our lives or it is a gift that is lost.

So what is a “good death?” For Catholics, we pray and hope to die in the grace of God, sharing His friendship. To that end, we should go to confession whenever we’ve committed serious sin and frequently receive Holy Communion. If we are ill with physical or emotional disease we should receive the Anointing of the Sick which will strengthen us in our journey. If you are undergoing surgery, you should request this anointing. What used to be called “the last rites” includes anointing as well as confession and Holy Communion. If someone in your family is Catholic and is seriously ill, it’s important that these Sacraments be made available to them. Like many Catholics, I wear a medal that requests a priest to be called in case of an emergency. As we say, if I’m in an accident, call a priest first and then call the doctor. My soul needs healing, too.

Dying in the grace of God is a wonderful comfort to the patient and to all those dear to them. We Catholics also believe that our prayers should continue after the death of our loved one. God alone knows the fate of each soul, so it’s an act of charity to pray for the dead. We are all part of the Body of Christ and praying for one another is what families do.

Each of us should consider the state of our soul. Catholics call this “an examination of conscience.” It’s a good habit to acquire because it keeps your heart tender towards your sins. At the end of every day, think back on your actions and thoughts and words. Consider how your sins affect your soul and your relationship with God. We are all going to come face-to-face with the Lord at the end of our lives. Surely we’ll want to meet Him in a state of grace. We want to meet Him with no regrets, having lived a life pleasing to God and poured out in service to one another. Part of running “the race” (II Timothy 4:7) that St. Paul writes about is keeping close to God and allowing His grace to transform us. We live in the joy of Christ, so that when we meet Him, He’ll welcome us into His arms.

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His Saints.”
—Psalm 116:15

Jesus and Time

I think about time a lot these days. Maybe because I’ve lived through a lot of years. But also because the idea of time and how we’ve come to understand it has always fascinated me. When I was a kid, I’d search out our library for books about time-travel until the librarian got tired of me asking for new ones. Over the years, I’ve read as much as I can understand about how modern physics explains time and space. But, like many of us I guess, it’s easier to think of time in simple terms, like a river that flows on forever. We step into that river on the date of our birth and we cross out of it on the other side when we die. Our life flows along with the years as we ride down that river of time. We imagine that time had a beginning on that first day of creation in that time will have an ultimate end when Christ returns. 

God created time and He holds time in existence. But God Himself exists outside of time. Without a beginning or an end, God exists in all times, in a kind of perpetual “now.” Imagine a timeline from creation to the end of time laid on a huge, long table. God sees all of time in a single glance. Past, present, and future are all “now.” He sees all of eternity and He sees the entirety of your life, from your conception to your death. And yet, the God we serve isn’t a disinterested observer who watches us from the heavens. God loves us so much that He chose to enter into time and become one of us in the Incarnation. Eternity met time in a Bethlehem manger. Our all-powerful Creator became an infant and lived within a family. And with His conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, God changed time forever. Through His life, death, and resurrection, time itself was redeemed. The perpetual “now” of God has infused human history with His presence in ways we might rarely imagine, but through which He continues to reveal Himself to us.  

Jesus, as the second person of the Holy Trinity, has always existed. Jesus became a child in Bethlehem. Jesus exists always as the infant born to Mary, and the child in the Temple, and the young man at the wedding in Cana. Jesus is always calling His disciples to follow Him. He is always curing the sick and raising the dead. He is always celebrating the Last Supper and being abandoned in the Garden. Jesus is always being stripped and beaten, and carrying His Cross. He is always suffering and dying for us, just as He is always rising in glory and appearing to those who love Him. Jesus is always ascending to His Father, always reigning in heaven. His eternal presence in time is yet one more way that He extends Himself and offers His love to us, at each step in our own earthly journeys. Because He became one of us in all ways but sin, His life among us shares all our earthly joys, our hopes and fears and sufferings. Through His life, through His time as a man on this earth, Jesus opens the door to eternity for us. Through His life, we see the face our merciful God and by His Cross, we find our hope. Whenever we prayerfully read the Gospel, we can experience the “now” of Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection. The mystery of our salvation is at once an historical fact and, at the same time, as immediate as the air we breathe. And even more essential to life.  

Physics tells us that time and space are a mathematical function and it uses the language of math to describe it. All of that is beyond my meager skills. But I know that Jesus hears me when I pray to Him as the baby in the manger. I know that He hears me when I pray to Him as the child at His mother’s knee. I know that He hears me when I pray to Him as the young man at Cana, the rabbi in the Temple, the weeping friend at Lazarus’ tomb, and the suffering Savior on the Cross. I know that every moment of His historical life is an opportunity for me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him. In Christ, all time and eternity meet—and He invites us in, to be with Him.  

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” 

           —–St. Augustine  

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