Ten Years of Writing 

Sitting here at my desk, it occurs to me that this is my tenth year of writing these reflections. I started out teaching Catholic beliefs and practices in nearly every essay. Back then, the questions and comments I received in emails, on Facebook and on Twitter were asking for more clarification on what we Catholics believe and why we believe it. But since those early days, more and more people want to know about things like mercy and hope, and what happens to us after we die. I want to take that change as a good sign.  

We see so much evidence that folks no longer have guiding religious beliefs. Fewer attend church. More couple are divorcing, or never bothering to get married at all. Maybe people are beginning to think more deeply about what life is about, what God is about, and if today is all there is. When I sit down to write, I pray that God will use my words to reveal His glory and to share the love that He has given me and wants to share with my readers. This brings me to the question a lady asked me last week. “Why do you write?”

It wasn’t a new question for me. I think about it a lot. And I come up with a different answer almost every time. I think it’s important for every writer to know why they write. Also, for doctors, and pastors, and truck drivers, to know why they do what they do, too. We should value our limited time on earth enough to know how we’re spending it. Here are some of my answers. 

My favorite, and the first one to pop into my head when my friend asked me, is a quote by Flannery O’Connor, someone whose writing I love. She said, “I write to discover what I know.” Until I put my thoughts down on paper, I’m not really certain what I know or don’t know. Writing helps sort things out, especially complicated subjects like baptism and the Eucharist. I may think I’m clear on something, but writing helps me, and hopefully my readers, see things more clearly.  

I write because there are a lot of misunderstandings about being Catholic. We don’t worship Mary, or pray to statues, or believe we can work or buy our way into heaven. We do believe that Jesus left us a Church and that His Church gave us the Bible. I hope my writing can help my readers better understand what it means to be Catholic.  

I write because I love interacting with my readers. They make me a better writer. They make me a better person. I hear their stories of faith and doubt, of courage and fear and heartbreak. They share their prayer requests with me, which is a wonderful gift. Writing connects me to a community of believers and non-believers that I’d otherwise never know and I thank God for that.  

And lastly, I write with the hope that someone’s heart might to opened to the great love and mercy of God through these little seeds that I sow. I write because I love the Lord and am so humble and grateful for the opportunities that writing allows me to share that love. No sin is too great for the mercy and forgiveness of God. Please join me in saying a special prayer for that person in your life who feels far from God today. And pray for me, that my words might be used by the Lord for His great purpose. Thank you so much for your faithfulness.  

“All writing comes by the hand of God. “

          —Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Beauty

Several weeks ago, I visited Iceland for the first time. The landscape is rugged and rocky, but there are lots of trees too, which surprised me. Out of the city, you can drive for miles and only occasionally see a house, but you’ll see lots of sheep and ponies. It is exquisitely clean and the air smells fresh and stubbed with pine. We went on several evening excursions into the countryside with the hopes of seeing the aurora borealis, the “northern lights.” Truth is we could have stayed in town because this year was an exceptional one for viewing the lights even through the blur of city light pollution. The lights appear when charged particles from the solar winds interact with the earth’s atmosphere. That’s the science of it. But nothing prepared me for the awe of it.  

It would begin with a flicker of neon green near the horizon. Our little group stood watching, cameras ready. Then a huge curtain of yellow flowing light seemed to spill downwards to the horizon. The trees around a nearby lake were silhouetted with the background of glowing sky. It was breathtaking. Swirling colors of orange and yellow-green with a burst of red or even bright blue kept us turning and pointing to one another. It lasted for hours. Over the next few nights, as our guides took us to several viewing spots, our little group got to know one another. We were from Italy, Australia, Germany, and the United States. On Sunday, two of us went to Mass at the Cathedral in Reykjavik, while the rest shared brunch. That evening, out in the country, we were quietly watching the light show. It was our last night. One of our group was sharing some of the technical aspects of the aurora. He obviously knew quite a bit about it. For me, though the science of it was interesting, it was the sheer overwhelming beauty that transfixed me. This huge celestial light show was like a peek into heaven.  

That’s the thing about beauty—it calls to mind the Creator. There’s a wonderful C.S. Lewis quote about it: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty comes from…” To me, that’s what happens when I experience beauty. It engenders in me a desire to know and to experience the source of that beauty. It’s like seeing a beautiful painting and wanting to meet the painter. Only I know that the creator of the aurora is also my Creator. I can’t imagine experiencing the splendor of these northern lights, or an ocean sunset, or a snow-covered woodland and not being in awe of the One Who created it. And with that awe comes reverence, the deepest respect and honor imaginable for our Lord, Who in His goodness made everything for us, out of love.  

We don’t hear much about “reverence” anymore. Maybe that’s because no one models reverence for us. When our worship is little more than a rock concert led by a motivational speaker in blue jeans, there’s little sense of awe. And we’ve become poorer for it, in my opinion. We’ve become dulled to the transcendent and we reduce miracles to biology or coincidence. We value noise over silence, and appearance over substance. Tomorrow, we’ll chase the next big thing. What we can’t see, what many refuse to see, is the beauty of a universe created for us, begging us to be still, to look around us, and to be embraced by our Creator. We spend our short time on earth gazing down at a screen when all of heaven is falling down in sheets of light around us. Lord, have mercy.  

“Beauty will save the world.”

                    —-Fyodor Dostoevsky 

On Connie Mack and The Catholic Church 

The first time I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame, I nearly ran over Pete Rose. Driving too quickly around a corner, he suddenly appeared at my right front bumper. Slamming on my brakes, I grinned a little and waved at him. He smiled and waved, never missing a step as he continued across the street. Good Lord, I thought. I almost hit Pete Rose. And this wasn’t to be the highlight of that trip to Cooperstown.  

Like most museums, the Hall keeps the vast majority of its treasures behind glass. You can look at Ty Cobb’s famous spikes, or Babe Ruth’s uniform, but you can’t touch them. I understand, of course. As I made my way past all the cases and displays of baseball history, I contented myself with putting my face to the glass, adding my smudges to the scores before me who had come to worship “our game.” Bats, scorecards, baseballs, catcher’s masks, photographs and trophies were all there on display. To look at, but not to touch. Then I turned a corner and saw an old wooden bench off by itself. Above it was a small plaque. I read what was on it, sat down carefully onto the bench, and burst into tears.  

It was Connie Mack’s bench. If you don’t know him, Connie Mack played, managed, and was a Major League owner from 1886 until 1954. His teams won 5 World Series and he managed the most wins in Major League history. As a manager, he’s known for wearing a suit to games and sitting on a bench outside the dugout. He had sat on this very bench. It really wasn’t much to look at, but for a baseball lover like me, oh what it meant. I was touching something touched by a legend of the game. It was, for me, a very powerful moment.  

And it reminded me why I’m a Catholic. Bear with me now. When I was a Protestant, my faith was grounded in Scripture and preaching. It was a solid enough foundation, but I needed more. It seemed to me like the Jesus of the Gospels was being kept all clean and shiny behind glass. We learned about a Savior Who hung out with tax collectors and whores, Who enjoyed good wine and a laugh with His friends. He cured people with spit! But on Sunday mornings, I felt like Jesus was being kept at arm’s length—wonderful to look at, but don’t touch. Like the treasures in Cooperstown, if you’ll allow me to make that stretch. But as a Catholic, I experience Jesus in the most intimate union of all in Holy Communion. My senses are overwhelmed with the scent of incense, the feel of holy oils, the beauty of the stained glass, and glory of the statues of my Lord and His family and friends. My heart is raised to heaven with the ancient and beautiful music of the Mass. And my Lord becomes a part of me in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.  

I know it’s asking a lot of you to let me compare Connie Mack’s bench to the Catholic Church. But think of the woman in Matthew, chapter 9 who had been sick for 12 years. She had great faith in Jesus to heal her. She could have just asked Him for healing, but she wanted to touch the hem of His garment. She had faith that that simple touching would heal her. And it did. Because Jesus willed her to be healed in that way. He created us as sensual beings, not as pure spirits. He became a man, like one of us, even though He could have saved us in any way that He willed. Just as he could have brought me to Himself in any way that He willed. He gave us His Church. He gave us the Sacraments,. It was through the Catholic Church that Jesus called me to follow him and His Church continues to nourish and sustain me in all my senses, my intellect, and my will. I live my life in great gratitude for that calling. (P.S. Connie Mack was Catholic, too).  

For she thought: If I just touch His garments, I will be healed.”

           —-Matthew 9:21

Music in the Woods

On a warm spring day last week, I decided to take my writing project and go to “the park.” For the million or so visitors who come to our corner of Georgia each year, it’s the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. But for those of us who live in its backyard, it’s just “the park.” Fifty-three hundred acres of lush woodland, walking trails, and open fields riddled with cannons, stacks of cannonballs, and monuments to the soldiers who fought and died there. Driving down a tree-lined road, you feel enclosed and almost as if you’re in a green, underwater tunnel. It’s wonderful. I found a quiet cove and made my nest in it. I’d been there an hour or so when, over the sounds of the birds, I heard bagpipes.  

They were so loud that I should have been able to see the pipers, but I never did. They played tunes I didn’t know. Their plaintive notes were sad, but also comforting. Like having a good cry, when you really need one. I listened and looked for almost a half hour, but never saw the musicians. Sitting there, I felt homesick for something, but I wasn’t sure for what. It was a beautiful spring day and I was blessed to be spending the afternoon in one of my favorite places. There was a soft breeze and the trees and fields were alive with birdsong. And then, this gift of haunting, mysterious music filled my heart to overflowing. Perfect. That’s what it felt like. So much beauty and emotion in this moment, this place. So where was my homesickness coming from? Why was I longing for something or somewhere that I couldn’t even put into words? 

Because, even in those rare moments in our lives when everything is just perfect, deep in our hearts we know—-this is NOT as good as it gets. We know that we come from a place that is different from our lives here on earth. Different and perfect in every way, but not alien to us. For how can our true home be alien to us? I think the magical moments we have here on earth are magical because they remind us of where we come from. And that makes us homesick for heaven.  

Sometimes we try to imagine what heaven will be like. I’ve heard descriptions of it that put me to sleep. That make me say, “If that’s heaven, count me out!” It sounds dull and flat and well, boring. But that couldn’t be further from the truth of it. For in our heavenly home is all the love that has ever been created. There is all the sweet mercy and acceptance of a thousand lifetimes. And there is all the beauty, for heaven is where all the beauty comes from. Peaceful. Exciting. Mind-blowing beauty. We know it. We remember it. And we were made to return to it. To return to Him. Our Source. And our Father.  

So the next time your throat catches when you hear a beautiful song. Or you get teary-eyed at a stunning painting. Or you feel overwhelmed at the sight of a baby’s smile. Or even if you feel homesick when you hear bagpipes playing in he spring woods….imagine that feeling, but a million times over. And that will give you just a hint of the pure, enduring joy that God has created for us in heaven. This world can be ugly, and full of pain and sin. But it is also very beautiful, because it’s a reflection of our real home. He left heaven to live here with us and He died to open the doors of heaven for us. We are so very grateful. 

“I see the heavens opened.”

                             —-Acts 7:56 

The Church of Weed 

No. That joint you’re smoking isn’t a sacrament. 

You may have seen some recent news reports about a self-described group of “nuns” in Merced, California who call themselves the “Sisters of the Valley.” Pictures of them show the women wearing a kind of dark blue habit with a while veil while they tend marijuana plants. Let’s be clear, these women are not Catholic and they are not nuns. In fact, the seven women say they are “against religions.” They were founded in 2014 and they raise and process marijuana for medicinal use in balms and ointments. They claim that the hemp plant is their “Holy Trinity” and soon plan to move their operations to Canada.  

Other cannabis “churches” have been founded around the country in several states over the last few years. Indiana, Florida, and Ohio also have communities whose “worship” centers around smoking weed. Just this past week, the “International Church of Cannabis” opened in Denver. Cloaked in many of the symbols of traditional Christian worship, they use words like “sacrament,” “priest,” “ministry,” and “spirit.” At this point, the legal entanglements of mixing worship and weed are still being worked out, even in pot-friendly Colorado. Right now, the church is regulated as a private club and is only open to registered members. But that will probably change over time. All sorts of crazy “religions” have popped up over the centuries and that trend shows no signs of slowing down.

People yearn for God. They seek out Beauty, Truth, and the Eternal. They invent ways in which to experience Him. They reject His Church because it makes demands of them. It asks them to confess their sins, repent, and sin no more. It asks them to follow God’s commandments and submit their will to the will of Jesus Christ. But that’s hard and means self-denial. It’s lots easier to dress like a nun (without any sense of true religious vocation), call yourself “Sister” (without any true commitment to community), and claim that hemp is your “Holy Trinity” (without any understanding of what is holy or god-like). It’s like children playing a make-believe game without any mature understanding of what they’re doing. But, unlike the innocent play of children, this sort of imitation is hollow and sad. 

It’s sad because they long for an experience of God but they reject the grace that He longs to give them through the Sacraments of His Church. They seek self, not a relationship with their Savior. Each of our souls was created to be nourished by the grace of Baptism, Confession, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist. Nothing short of these will satisfy the spiritual hunger which the Lord created within us. As more communities embrace the legal use of marijuana, the number and variation of these sorts of “churches” and communities will probably continue to grow. Just as we see so many seeking God in the things of the world, they need our prayers as well as our living example of loving forgiveness and mercy. How many of us have wandered down the wrong road before we were led to Jesus Christ? We pray for them as we do any brother or sister who is lost, that they may find the Truth of His salvation.

“One road leads home and a thousand roads lead into the wilderness.”

                ——-C.S. Lewis. 

Risk Your Life

Easter is the ultimate truth of the universe. Every other truth is dependent on the fact that Jesus Christ died and rose again. He offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for all our sins. Through His death and resurrection, we have been given eternal life. Everything has changed. Everything has been made new (Revelation 21:5). Everything. Including you and me and how we live our lives. This isn’t a philosophy. It’s not a theory. Our salvation is a Person. A real, historical Person. He has transformed the world and all that it’s in it. The power of Easter is utterly and completely and shatteringly true. Easter is the power of creation itself given to each of us as a gift from God. Yet so often we fail to accept it. We trudge along with downcast eyes, burdened by life, acting as if Jesus never defeated death. We don’t realize that He has set us free.  

A free life is one that reflects the truth, the love, and the power of Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter morning. It’s a life lived without fear of the tomb. And it’s amazing. Interested?

Love your family. Lay down your life for them. Celebrate the worthiness of your beloved by uniting with them in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Don’t be fooled by the world’s attempts to lure you into living with someone, or being satisfied with some other imitation of marriage. Live the Sacrament. Be open to the gift of life. Allow the Lord to involve you in creating your family in His timing, which is always perfect. Raise your children in the faith of His Church. Pray for them and with them every day. Let them see you welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, visit the imprisoned and give without counting the cost.  

Treat your neighbors as members of your family. Be honest and straightforward in your business dealings. Pay others a living wage. Involve yourself in the life of your community. Teach your children to respect the laws of our country and how to serve others in your neighborhood. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what is right and true, even if it is unpopular. Share your faith in the public square. Work hard to support your family and let your children see the value of a job well done. Give of your time, talent and treasure to support the Church. Teach your children to do the same. Be joyful in all that you do. Let your children see that even our suffering can be a blessing when it is offered to the Lord. Life can be hard and it’s often unfair, but we are just passing through this world on the way to our true home. Help your family keep their eyes fixed on Jesus by watching you follow Him.  

Never be afraid of loving. Be kind to everyone. Show mercy. Pray for the people who cause you pain. Give people second chances. Be content in silence. Put down your phone and talk. Teach your children to pray the Rosary. Make time for art and music. Seek beauty and teach your children to know true beauty. When we seek beauty, we seek God. Life your life in the joy of Easter morning, every day. Christ has freed us from the chains of sin and death. He gave us a Church to lead us to heaven. That same Church gave us the Bible, which is His holy word. Rejoice in the gift of His love and embrace a life lived in faith. Allow Him to love you as He created you to be loved. Easter changes everything.

Are you capable of risking your life for someone? Do it for Christ.”

                      —St. John Paul II 

Hidden Treasures 

Recently I’ve been sorting through some of my late mother’s things. I always kidded her about being a pack rat, but now I know how unfair that was to the rats. She saved everything. Things you might expect, like photos and letters, and things that might surprise you, like a plastic bag of prescription bottle caps. Going through the boxes of her things made me laugh and made me cry. I saw what she had treasured and mostly, that was her family. She loved us so much. And while I’d dreaded going through all those boxes, in the end, it was a wonderful blessing.  

That’s kind of how my Lent has gone this year. Usually I’m excited about Lent. I like the discipline of it and the way that I’m drawn into the readings and prayers as the entire Church journeys toward Easter. But, for some reason, I dreaded Lent this year. I dragged along with a sour face and an unwilling spirit on most days. My prayer life seemed as dry as dust. I was the worst example of a joyous Christian. Instead of accompanying our Savior, I shuffled along in the back of the crowds and complained about all the walking. I resented the joy that I saw among His friends. I judged. I mumbled. I just wanted a nap. And now Lent is almost over and everyone around me has grown in holiness and reverence and charity. I’m about as holy as that bag of bottle caps I found in my mom’s collected stuff. I’m still the same old selfish, prideful self that I was back on Ash Wednesday. I’m a total failure at Lent.  

Thanks be to God, our Lord doesn’t keep score. We can be total flops at Lent and He still loves us. We don’t have to ‘do” anything or “be” anything other than the completely undeserving sinner that we are for His love to save us. I’m good at that. In fact, being an undeserving sinner comes naturally to me. The blessing He’s given me this Lent is the gift of knowing with assurance that there’s nothing I can do to earn His love and there’s nothing I can do to make Him love me less.

Over the days of Holy Week, I’m going to be with Jesus as He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. I’ll be waving a palm frond and shouting,”Hosanna!” I’ll be there as He gives us the priesthood and the Eucharist on Holy Thursday. I’ll be the first one to fall asleep in the Garden but I’ll be there in the crowd to shout, “Crucify Him!” I’ll hide while He’s nearly beaten to death. I’ll walk up the hill to Golgotha where they’ll nail Him to the Cross. I’ll watch His Blessed Mother as her heart is pierced with sorrow. I’ll see Him die. For me. For this undeserving sinner.  

Just as sorting through my mother’s things was a chore that ended in a blessing, so has this Lenten season been for me. In each, I found a treasure of love, freely given. I wasn’t the best daughter and I’m very far from a Saint, but I know that I am loved. My Easter prayer for each of us is that we can embrace the love of Christ and share it with the people in our lives.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; HisMercies never come to an end. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.”

        —-Lamentations 3:22-23 

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