Religion in America

Over the few weeks a lot has been written about the most recent Gallup poll on religion in America.  The gist of the survey is that fewer Americans identify themselves as Christians and, of those who do, fewer are claiming membership in mainline protestant denominations and Catholicism.  The headlines have also focused on the increasing number of folks who say that they are atheists.  Some writers sound almost despairing in their review of the survey results.  It’s as if the end of Christianity is just around the next corner.  Others have analyzed the numbers in any way they can that will shore up their own particular beliefs and prejudices.  I’ve been reading the survey and many of the varied commentaries on it and have come to my own peculiar conclusions.

It’s not that I don’t think information like the Gallup poll can be informative.  But for me, the responses to the survey are even more interesting than the survey itself.  To begin with, what do these survey results have to do with our faith?  Evidently, it’s enough to make many writers and chroniclers wring their hands in anxious worry.  But I think they’re wrong to worry, at least about this.  The Church is not a spreadsheet.  And we’re led by a Shepherd, not an accountant.  There’s a danger in looking at faith through corporate eyes.  We forget that the world’s rules don’t apply to followers of Jesus Christ.  If we allow them to, then we’ve truly lost our way.  Getting us lost is what the world is always trying to do to us.  And we can’t allow it.  

Christ never told us that the Church would enjoy the favor of history.  He told us just the opposite.  “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves”(Matthew 10:16).  “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet”(Matthew 10:14).  Since the earliest years of the Church, there have been those who have left and those who have rejected Christ outright.  Heresies come and go like the wind.  The faith of Christ isn’t easy.  Many find it too hard to bear.  We have to remember that the only measuring stick for the Church is that tree on Golgotha’s hill.

Jesus has promised to always be with His Church and that the Holy Spirit will always protect and guide His flock.  Did He promise that the Church would never see a decline in members?  No.  And we also have to remember that the United States, which is where the survey was conducted, isn’t the center of the world.  His Church is bearing fruit in great numbers in other countries, especially in what we call “the third world.”  The African continent has a vibrant and growing Church, despite terrible oppression and outright murderous attacks on its members.

The Church is only as healthy and strong as each one of us.  If folks are leaving the Church, we have to look at the example each one of us being for Christ.  The world will know us by the fruit we bear:  love, charity, kindness, joy and peace.  Are we so muddled and lukewarm in our own journey that we are no longer a light in the darkness?  If we drift away from the Sacraments that Jesus gave us, how can we keep our eyes fixed on Christ?  If we aren’t on our knees before Him in Adoration, how can we be surprised when no one else is?  Our faith is not about polls or surveys or spreadsheets—it’s about relationships: my relationship with Christ and with my neighbor.  We have to remember His words above all—“…apart from Me, you can do nothing”(John 15:5).

“So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s foolishness.”
—I Corinthians 1:23

Loneliness

I’ve written before about my grandfather’s suicide, which happened many years before I was born.  I’ve shared how I think it affected our family, even to this day.  I wasn’t prepared for the reaction that my words encouraged. I had struggled with publishing our family story because I didn’t want the legacy of my dad and grandfather to be changed in any way by my writing. But I shouldn’t have worried. Instead I’ve heard many stories of other families whose lives have been altered forever by suicide. Beginning in 2009, suicide surpassed car crashes as the number one cause of accidental death in the United States. Everyone knows someone who has died in a car accident so it follows that we all know someone who has taken their own life. Many of us have loved people who killed themselves. And all of us are left with questions.

Is suicide always a sin? The short Catholic answer us “no.” In order for an action to be a mortal sin, the person must 1) know the action is sinful, 2) deliberately and freely consent to the sin, and 3) the action must be gravely sinful. Most people in most circumstances would know that suicide is a grave sin. But there are reasons that can keep a person from being able to make a clear, informed, rational choice. We can imagine so many situations and life events which can conspire in a person’s soul and can affect their ability to think clearly and mindfully. Their thoughts and emotions may have been very impaired at the time of their death. You may have known they were in difficulty. Or maybe you didn’t. Maybe their suicide came as a complete shock—a moment of unbelievable, unknowable loss. We try and understand how they came to want to end their lives. We may never really know the answers to our questions. We wonder if somehow we missed the signals they might have been giving—of despair or hopelessness, or of the plans they were making to escape their pain.

Yes, we can always take better care of one another. If a friend or family member makes us wonder if they might be considering suicide, we should ask them. This is an act of love. Your care and concern might be the very thing they’ve most hungered for. There are resources in every community that can help someone who’s hurting and desperately sad. We’re connected to each other and the Lord binds us together in His holy communion. That binding isn’t just symbolic but is a true “oneness” that exists in Christ and His Church. It means that we bear with one another through all difficulties and we stand with one another in our pain. We pray for the hurting and the lonely in our midst. Loneliness may be at the heart of so many of our world’s hurting ones. St. Teresa of Calcutta thought so. She said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”

Who do you know that is lonely?  The widow down the street. The young man living on his own. The retiree diagnosed with a return of his cancer. Our lives are knit together through Christ’s redemptive love and He commands us to love one another (John 13:34-35). This is not a theory or idea. This is how we love: by being Christ to our neighbor. It means taking the time to get to know the people in our lives. It means introducing ourselves to the new faces at Mass and taking an active part in the ministries in our parish that serve others. Stewardship is more than dropping an envelope in the offertory and getting up to lector every month or so. A steward cares for God’s creation and that means caring for the vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Ask the young man to your family table. Offer to drive the widow to Mass next Sunday. You may be the light they’ve been searching for. And pray, always pray. A Rosary for their intentions can open the floodgates of grace. And help is out there. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a network of more than 150 crisis centers around the country. Calling 1-800-273-8255 can get free, confidential and local help for anyone who’s suffering and depressed. Don’t miss the chance to be the love and the help someone needs when they need you the most. You’ll be sharing the love and the hope of Christ and His Church. And you just might save a life.

“They help each other and say to one another, ‘Be strong.’” Isaiah 41:6

The Wounds of Christ

There’s an old saying that goes no matter what we humans have accomplished on this earth, there are only 5 that are eternal. What are they? The 5 wounds of Christ. All of the Savior’s love for you and for me is revealed in those wounds. His pierced hands and feet and the gash in His side made by the Roman soldier’s spear shout out: “I love you and I forgive you!”  These wounds that we made with our sins are in heaven today. The angels and the saints are gazing upon them now as Christ sits with His Father in glory on the throne. Of all the wonders of this world, Christ chose His wounds to take back home with Him. They are precious beyond price and we should treasure them for what they are.

Catholics have a long and rich devotion to the Sacred Wounds of our Lord. We love the Crucifix of Christ with Jesus’ Body as a holy reminder of His sacrifice and love. We kneel and pray before the Crucifix just as if we were before Him on that Good Friday noon in Jerusalem. Those hours he spent wounded for us on the Holy Cross are the “high point” of His life on earth. As the Servant, He literally poured out His life to save you and me. In His wounds, Christ is most truly and fully- revealed. “For this reason I came into the world (John 12:23).  His wounds are the most intense revelation of His relationship with the Father. In them we see the full unfolding of God’s plan for our redemption, laid before the foundation of the world. The wounds are perfect sacrificial love–agape–which holds nothing back and offer nothing less than everything.

Other Christians sometimes think we Catholics have a kind of morbid fascination with the wounded Christ perpetually hanging in agony on the crucifixes in our churches and on the chains around our necks. They might prefer the bare cross instead. But I think when they do this, they’re missing out. They see the suffering Christ and want to move on to Easter morning, putting Good Friday in the past. But in truth, Christ’s perfect love for us is an ongoing sacrifice—a total and constant giving of the Son to the Father, for our sake. The wounds of Christ are the slaying of the Lamb. He lives in a state of holocaust, not as a mere historical moment in 33 A.D., but as His state of being, inside and outside of time. This is why the Mass is a re-presentation of Christ’s ongoing sacrifice, not merely a symbolic remembrance of a meal shared with His friends. This is why His wounds, and what they are and what they mean, should be ever-present to us.

His wounds are nothing less than life itself for us for from them spilled His Most Precious Blood, our salvation and our hope. In this way, the Sacred Wounds are the “porta caeli”, the doorway to heaven. St. Paul knew this to be true. When he wrote to the church in Corinth, he emphasized the sacrifice, the woundedness of Jesus.  “When I came to you, announcing to you the testimony of Christ, I did not bring exalted words or lofty wisdom. For I did not judge myself to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). Through His wounds we receive the New Covenant of the Lamb and the graces we need for salvation. From His wounded side flowed the blood and water (the Eucharist and Baptism) and the Church is mystically born in these two Sacraments.

Over the centuries, many saints have venerated the Sacred Wounds, from St. Bernard of Clairvaux to St. Francis of Assissi and his friend, St. Clare. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively about Christ’s wounds. But it’s in “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis where us “struggling” saints can read a valuable lesson. “If you cannot soar up as high as Christ sitting on His throne, behold Him hanging on His Cross.”  Thomas encourages us to rest in Christ’s wounds, to abide in them, to hide ourselves in them. I’m not a philosopher and I’m certainly no theologian. But I can behold Christ on His Cross and when I do, I know how much He loves me. I know my sins wounded Him and I know His loving sacrifice is saving me from what I truly deserve. In His wounds I see His glory and His victory over sin and death. And if Jesus did so much for me and loves me so much that He keeps the wounds I gave Him and has them still in His Body at this moment in heaven—can’t I spend a few moments thanking Him prayer?

“Holy Mother, pierce me through,

In my heart each wound renew

Of my Savior crucified.”

     —Prayer in Honor of the 5 Wounds

“…by His wounds we are healed.”

—Isaiah 53:5

Becoming Catholic

A friend of mine recently told me that at her small Evangelical church the ladies make baskets of homemade cookies each Sunday. These goodies are handed out to any visitor attending their church that day. In exchange, the ladies get the visitor’s name, address, and phone number and arrange a home visit with them the following week. Their cookie ministry is the opening salvo in an orchestrated outreach to welcome people into their church and invite them to become members.  My friend shared that she believes it is an important part of her Christian faith to actively welcome new members and to help interested individuals and families to join their church. As for membership, the person has only to publicly state their desire to join and they are accepted as members that same day. There’s not even a baptismal requirement since her church doesn’t teach that baptism is necessary for church membership.

Becoming Catholic is, to say the least, a bit of a different story. We have a process lasting between six or eight months during which persons desiring to become Catholic meet in a group setting for prayer, instruction, and guidance. This is called RCIA or the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. It’s modeled on the practices of the very early Church and has been more widely-implemented in the last 20 years or so. Back when I joined the Church in 1977 the process was a bit more informal. Okay, it was a LOT more informal. As a college sophomore with a year of Catholic theology and philosophy under my belt, I met three times with my local pastor before receiving the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and first Holy Communion–all on the same day. There was no exhaustive instruction in Church history or dogma, no in- depth discussion of the Sacraments, no time for reflecting on what it meant to journey from my Southern Baptist roots to the Church of Rome. I swam the Tiber in record time and arrived in St. Peter’s Square hardly knowing what I’d done. It was exhilarating and overwhelming. And it was wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me though. I certainly don’t fault the pastor (now deceased) who took me in. At the time, he was doing exactly what most every other Catholic pastor was doing. But my lack of preparation took me years to sort out. To begin with, I thought my becoming Catholic was a private matter between me and The Lord. My understanding of salvation and redemption remained very Protestant. I was confused about the Saints and about Mary. Purgatory had me flummoxed and confession scared me to death. What had drawn me to the Church was the Holy Eucharist and that’s what (Who) I clung to. But my early years as a Catholic were a kind of blur of questions and uncertainty. Thankfully, I was attending a solidly Catholic university surrounded by faithful professors and priests who formed my faith community. And I was able to study in Rome, which never hurts.

Looking back, it’s a wonder I remained Catholic through those early years of my infancy in the faith. For everyone who complains about how hard it is to become a Catholic let me just say: savor your journey through RCIA. Every parish doesn’t have a 5-star program, but allow yourself to be immersed in the process anyway. If you’re being called to the Catholic Church, it’s Christ who is calling you and He’ll be there with you every step along the way. You can enrich your experience by becoming a part of your parish’s faith community even before you’re a full member. Go to Mass every Sunday and make a holy hour of Adoration as often as you can. Read the Catechism and write down your questions. Read some of the Gospels every day and listen to what Jesus might be saying to you in them. Make friends with the parish secretary–she or he knows everyone in the parish and all the programs and ministries that might interest you. The priest’s schedule might be very busy but his secretary can be a great resource for you.

And remember that the journey to becoming Catholic isn’t just about you and God. Catholicism is a family of faith that includes your RCIA group and sponsors, your pastor and lay ministers, the parish and the larger diocese, the worldwide Catholic Church, plus the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory. We’re all in this together. Be patient with us and with yourself. Remember that most RCIA programs begin in late summer or early fall and usually meet every week until Easter when you’ll receive the sacraments and come into full communion with the Church. Call your local parish and ask about their RCIA schedule. Your months of preparation will lay a fertile groundwork for a lifelong faith.

“About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they are one thing…”

—-St. Joan of Arc

Forgiveness

In our relationships with one another we treasure those people who know us and love us.  Lifelong friends and family who know all our strengths and failings and love us anyway are trusted and beloved gifts.  Without this core of love and support, we can easily lose our way.  We rely on them to keep us grounded, to encourage us, to call us out when we go off course, to listen to us and to stand with us in good times and in bad times.  To be truly known by someone else, we have to make ourselves vulnerable to them.  We can’t hide our thoughts and feelings if we seek intimacy.  Those we allow inside our hearts are the ones whose words and actions can most hurt us, too.  I love reading about the friendship between Jesus and Peter in the gospels.  Of all the relationships in Christ’s human life, the one He shares with St. Peter intrigues me the most.  Peter has such a big heart—a God-sized heart—and he loves deeply and fiercely.  His heart also leads him to poor judgments at times, and deep, painful regrets.  Jesus knew his friend’s heart perfectly because He created it.  I think it was his big heart that Christ loved so much and it was that same bigness of heart that allowed Peter to hear the Holy Spirit and know that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah.

Jesus had been living in Capernaum, Peter’s hometown on the sea of Galilee, when He began His public ministry.  You have to wonder how well the two men knew each other before Christ called Peter and his brother Andrew to be His first disciples.  I love that Peter heard Jesus’ call to follow and “at once” he and his brother followed Him (Matthew 5:20).  Friends that don’t hesitate to come to us when we need them are the very best kind.  All of us have that short list of true friends and family that we call on in bad times to help us and in good times to celebrate with us.  Christ called Peter and Peter left everything behind—family, home and business—to come with Him and enter into the deepest and most transformational relationship he’d ever know.  Peter was there by Christ’s side throughout His ministry.  It was Peter’s faith that Christ loved so much that He made him the “rock” upon whom He’d build His Church (Matthew 16:18).  Peter was there with Christ at His Transfiguration (Luke 9:27-36).  Peter’s faith allowed him to step out of the boat and walk on the water towards Christ—at least for a few steps (Mark 6:45-52).  Yet Peter had his weaknesses as well.  Oftentimes he got Christ’s teachings a bit wrong, but our Lord was patient and forgiving with Peter, just as He is with each one of us.

On the night before His Passion, Peter and Jesus experience a turning point in their friendship.  At supper, Christ foretells the betrayal that will lead to His arrest.  Peter is adamant that his faith in the Lord would never be shaken.  Jesus pointedly tells Peter that is about to deny Him not once, but three times.  Peter contradicts and says “Even though I should have to die with You, I will not deny You (Matthew 26:35). Of course we know that Peter does deny Christ three times that morning, just as the Lord had said he would. Peter’s heart is broken when he realizes what he’s done to his Savior.  We read in St. Luke’s gospel of an intimate, tender moment in their friendship.  Just as Peter has denied Christ for the third time and the guards are leading Jesus away in chains, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61).  Think about that look for a moment.  The cruel words have just left Peter’s mouth, the cock has crowed and now he’s looking into Jesus’ eyes, with the full impact of his denial hanging in the air between them.  Peter knows what he’s done. Christ knows what he’s done.  But in His look is no accusation or judgment.  His look is full of love for Peter.  And seeing Love looking back at him, Peter breaks down into tears, his heart overflowing with sorrow for what he’s done.  Christ returns love and mercy for denial.  We can even imagine that there is hope in Christ’s eyes, the hope of Peter’s redemption.  What Jesus does for Peter in that moment is what He does for each one of us in the Sacrament of Confession.  He meets our sins with His overwhelming forgiveness.  He embraces our weaknesses with His great mercy.  Like Peter, we may expect condemnation, but Christ surprises us with acceptance and with love.  No sin is beyond His forgiveness.  Nothing we could ever do will make Him turn His face from us.  This is what Peter saw when He looked at Jesus.  And Jesus saw His best friend whom He loved with all His heart and for whom He was about to give His life.  This is a moment that He offers to each one of us in Confession.  Love. Mercy. Forgiveness.  No matter your sins or how long you’ve been away from the Sacrament.  He is waiting for you there.  Christ is the One Who knows you best and loves you most.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

-St. Peter.

Precious Cargo

I love airplanes. I’m old enough to remember when flying was fun and a bit of a luxury.  You dressed up in your best clothes and were treated to real food and drinks.  You were pampered and looked after.  There were usually plenty of empty seats in the cabin and you could enjoy your flight in peace and quiet.  Nowadays?  Well, you know what flying is like today.  But there’s still something almost miraculous about seeing a jumbo jet rumble down the runway gaining speed.  At what seems like the last moment, the nose lifts up and floats skyward, leaving the earth behind.  Driving near the airport this morning I saw a jet gaining altitude and flashing white and silver in the sun.  And I thought about who might be on board..

A businessman, of course.  Flying to a meeting with a potential customer.  He likes his job but hates the time he misses at home with his wife and children.  They’re growing up fast and he’s not there for enough ballgames and birthdays.  His wife resents the time he spends on the road.  He wishes it didn’t have to be this way.  But he has to travel to make enough money to keep the family going in the way they like.  He looks at his watch and feels the pressure of his career and his family weighing inside him.  Please God, he prays, help me close this deal.

There’s a woman in her twenties with a six-month-old baby in her lap.  She’s nervous and worried.  This is her first flight.  But she’s even more worried about her baby.  She hasn’t been gaining weight and she cries a lot.  Her doctor is sending her to see a specialist.  What’s wrong with her little girl?  She pulls the baby close and kisses the top of her head, closing her eyes to the tears she feels stinging inside.  Please God, she prays, please make her be all right.

The pain in the older woman’s back makes it uncomfortable to sit very long.  She’s anxiously looking at the seat belt sign, hoping it will go dark soon and she’ll be able to get up and walk around.  That helps the pain.  When she gets home, she’ll get back in her routine and will walk every morning on the beach with Gus.  Thinking of her big old Rottweiler makes her smile, despite the pain.  Her son had given Gus to her when he’d had to go away.  That’s where she’s been on this trip, seeing him.  He has so many problems and she feels mostly useless to help him.  But he likes her visits and so she goes.  God help my son, she prays.

In every seat, on every flight, in every plane each day, there’s a person made in the image and likeness of God.  Each one has a rich and complicated story.  Everyone struggles with problems and with pain.  Each one of us is so very much more than we appear to be on the outside.  The businessman who’d rather be at home.  The young mother struggling to find a cure for her sick child.  The retiree returning home from a visit to see her son in prison.  We live in a broken and hurting world.  Adam’s sin has left us all wounded.  We carry scars inside us.  Every soul is a tender mystery of love and need.  Every one of us is a broken heart in need of Christ’s redemption, mercy, and love.  So when you look up into the blue sky of spring and see the silver flash of a jet headed from somewhere to somewhere else—say a prayer for the souls onboard.  You don’t know who they are, but God knows each one of them, You don’t know what their problems or needs are, but God surely does.  Some of them are His good friends, while some of them don’t yet know Him.  In both cases, they are His beloved children.  Ask the Lord to keep them safe on their journey.  Beg Him mercy for their sins and healing for their sorrows and pains.  You might be the only person praying for someone on that plane and your prayer could make all the difference in their lives.  As Christians, we’re family and we’re called to care for one another.  When we pray for our brother or sister, we affirm our family ties and we show our love, as He has asked us to love (John 13:33-34).  When we pray, our love and our prayers are pleasing to God.

“O Spirit, Whom the Father sent

To spread abroad the firmament;

O Wind of heaven, by Thy might

Save all who dare the eagle’s flight.

And keep them by Thy watchful care

From every peril in the air.

—“Eternal Father, Strong to Save”—1940 US Episcopal Church version

The Name of God

I’m confounded by something that’s been happening to me since my twenties.  Though my given name is “Judith” I’ve always been known to family and friends as “Judy,” which has been just right as far as I’m concerned.  “Judith” sounds far too grown-up for the person I imagine that I am.  But something odd began to happen once I was out of graduate school and working as a psychotherapist.  People began to call me “Miss Judy.”  It started out slowly enough.  The occasional bank teller.  The seldom-seen convenience store clerk.  Then I noticed even some of my friends and family were doing it, too.  Where had this odd title come from?  And who had given it to me?  It sounded strangely antebellum to me.  Out of a different age.  And I didn’t much like it.  I never said that I didn’t like it, though.  People seemed to just naturally want to call me “Miss Judy.”  Last week I was introduced to the mother of an acquaintance at a luncheon.  This woman, who is about my own age, had adopted me as—-that name.  In a matter of minutes!  I don’t understand it. And it’s gotten me thinking about names and titles and things.  Why do we call people what we call them?  And, of course, all the names of God.  Does He like them all?  Is there one He prefers above the rest?  And what do all His names tell us about Him?

Our God is one God in three distinct Persons–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Each of these Persons has their own Name.  In the Old Testament, by far the most common name of God is “Jehovah” which is used more than 6000 times.  Others, like Yahweh, Adonai, Eolohim and El-Shaddai are also used.  Jehovah comes from the Hebrew meaning “to be” or “He Who is.”  It reminds me of the passage in Exodus where God reveals Who He is to Moses by instructing him to tell the Israelites that “I am that I am”(3:14).  To me, this is God’s profound “unmoved mover” philosophical name.  All existence flows from and rests in Him.  In God, creation both comes into being and is sustained in being.  God wills the universe and everything and everyone that is in it. I like knowing that God thinks of me at every moment—and has since the beginning of time.  We can all rest in that knowing.  Our Lord loves to think on us and from that, we draw our very lives.

The Second Person of the Holy Trinity is the Word of God, Jesus (John, Chapter One).  Jesus means “God saves” and is the name the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary (Luke 1:31).  Jesus is both Who God is and what God does.  He saves.  Whom does He save?  “…all who call on the name of Jesus (Romans 10:13).  The name of Jesus is the name of salvation.  St. Paul holds the Holy Name of Jesus to be above all other names as he writes in Philippians (2:10) “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow…”  We Catholics have a beautiful prayer called the “Litany of the Holy Name” which meditates on all the beautiful names and titles given to Christ (“the anointed One”).  Glorious and tender names like “brightness of eternal light,” “meek and humble of heart,” “good Shepherd” and “King of Glory” among many more.  It’s no wonder meditating on the Holy Name of Jesus has been a centuries-old prayer tradition in the Church.  In that Name is our life and our hope.  Our redemption.

The name of Jesus that is dearest to my own heart is “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”  A prophetic title first used by Isaiah (7:1-8; 15) it is the name St. Matthew references in his infancy narrative (1:22-23).  God with us.  Jesus is God with us, in us, living through us.  In the Temple, there was a beautiful seamless curtain which enclosed the Holy of Holies which was, for the Jews, the very presence of God Himself in the Ark of the Covenant.  At the moment of Jesus’ death on the Cross “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Matthew 27:51).  Everything that had separated us from God under the law was made accessible to us through grace, through Jesus.  He opened the way to heaven for us by opening His arms on the Cross.  God with us.  Emmanuel.  Every Advent season begins with us singing my favorite Advent hymn:  O Come O Come Emmanuel.  Whenever we sing those words it reminds me that He, my Lord and Savior, is with me.  He left heaven to save me and you–to ransom captive Israel, as the hymn says.  To love us and to take us home to heaven. These days, we can forget just how very much God loves us and that, no matter the chaos that is around us, God is always in control. He has a plan for us. He has a plan for our world. Emmanuel is always with us and for us.

“…for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name.”

—Luke 1:49

Making Disciples

He sat reading the letter over and over, with unbelief and a little dread.  After all, this was a letter from the Pope himself, and he’d rarely been the subject of a papal communication.  The Holy Father was ordering him to go to France and preach the Gospel there.  Leaving his Italian home would be hard, but he was a priest of God and would go wherever he was needed.  He’d take a friend and fellow-priest with him as well as a treasured deacon.  Folding the letter, he put it away and set about getting ready for his mission….and praying.

Six months later, he and his two companions were standing on the banks of the Seine, looking down at an island in the middle of the river.  That was the spot they’d chosen to plant their church.  The village of Paris spread out before the three men. Some barracks for the Roman troops who were there.  A scattering of support buildings like stables and kitchens.  Lean-to rooms of wattle and daub in small groupings on the low hills with communal cooking fires outside, where the villagers lived.  Animals and mud everywhere.  And the smell.  The churchmen knew they had their work cut out for them.  This was a place where native religion mixed with Roman idolatry.  The soldiers occupying this area were hostile to Christianity.  The pagan Celtic people, the Parisii, were a violent tribe who fought the Roman occupation at any opportunity and had made it clear they didn’t need a new God.  Paris was a violent, hostile community.  It was perfect ground for sowing the seeds of the Gospel of Christ.

The priest and his two assistants spent much of their time each day trying to get to know the villagers.  The men of the Parisii were often away, hunting for deer and boar in the forests.  The women had small vegetable gardens which supplemented any meat the men might bring home.  Wheat and barley were grown to make beer with a little of the harvest used for making a coarse bread.  It was a community perpetually on the edge of starvation.  Working so hard just to stay alive, the Parisii had little time or interest in listening to the priests talk to them about Jesus.  They had their own gods of earth and sky and their own holy men to lead them.  So Bishop Denis and his companions, Fr. Rusticus and Deacon Eleutherius set about using charity as their example of Christian faith.  But both the Roman soldiers and the villagers remained suspicious and hostile to the newcomers.

For nine years, St. Denis and his companions endured many hardships on their mission of bringing Christ and His Church to Paris.  They were often imprisoned by the Romans under the Emperor Decius since Christianity was illegal and seen as a threat to the Empire.  They were also beaten and imprisoned by the local pagan priests as well, who were angered by the converts St. Denis made among the village people.  As the number in his flock grew, St. Denis and his helpers became the victims of more severe beatings and longer imprisonments.  They were scourged, racked, thrown to wolves and starved.  Finally, in or around the year 275 A.D. the local Roman governor Sissinius ordered the three men to be killed.  They were taken outside the city to Mars Hill, now called Montmartre, and were beheaded.  The story of St. Denis, Bishop and Martyr, should have ended there.  But it didn’t.

As the soldiers and witnesses watched, the headless body of St. Denis stood up.  He reached down, picked up his head, and carrying it under one arm, began walking.  Renowned for his powerful preaching, St. Denis continued his sermon as he walked, stopping at a fountain to rinse the dust off of his disconnected head.  After walking and preaching for about two miles, he stopped at a widow’s house and collapsed, finally dead.  He received his burial at the widow’s hands and later, a church was erected on the spot to house his holy relics.  The Cathedral St. Denis is a beautiful example of early Gothic architecture and is a favorite pilgrimage site for those visiting Paris.  It is the traditional burial place of French royalty.  St. Denis’ faith took him from his Italian home to a hostile pagan land.  He lived a life of charity and sacrifice as an example to the unbelievers around him.  He brought souls to Christ and for that, he met a martyr’s death.  Like all the Saints who have gone before us, we can look to his holy life as a model of courageous faith in the midst of a violent and hurting world.  St. Denis, pray for us.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19

A Daily Conversation

“Ten minutes a day.”  No, it isn’t a sure-fire fitness regimen for your resolution to lose weight.  And it’s not a reminder to limit your time on Facebook.  And you’ll never become a piano virtuoso if you just practice ten minutes a day.  But there is something you can do that will change your life in a much deeper and more profound way if you begin with just ten minutes a day:  Spend ten minutes each day in prayer.

You say you don’t have ten minutes a day to spare?  Find it!  You say you don’t know how to pray?  Learn how!  You say you’ve tried to pray before but you’ve given up on it?  Try again!  Maybe you’re thinking to yourself that praying isn’t something you need to do.  You’re happy and content, fulfilled and confident in every decision you make.  You know your life’s purpose and mission and you have no doubt that you’re exactly the person you were meant to be.  But…if you’re like the rest of us…you need to pray.  Do it.  There’s no great secret to prayer.  You just begin.  And this is what you do.

For ten minutes each day, enter into the presence of God by being silent.  For most of us, this is difficult.  In a quiet place, quieten your heart.  Quieten your mind.  You can’t hear God speaking to you if your mind and heart are full of the noise of everyday life.  This is very often the hardest part of prayer.  Ask God to help you hear Him:  “Dear Lord, teach me how to pray.”  He will lead you by the hand and draw you close to His heart.  Let Him.  Be with Him for ten minutes.  If your mind wanders, bring it back to Him.  This inattention is part of our human nature, so ask Him to help you remain in His presence.  As the days go by, you’ll enter prayerful silence more easily and remain with Him more comfortably and attentively. 

The actual “doing” of prayer is getting to know Christ by allowing Him into the details of your life.  The good stuff you’re thankful for, the bad stuff you need help with and the ugly stuff you’re afraid to tell anyone else.  Here’s the thing about God:  He already knows all your stuff anyway, but He LOVES that you want to tell Him about it.  He wants to be included in your life.  Prayer is a conversation with God.  Sometimes it’s just thinking about Him.  Sometimes it’s talking to Him.  Sometimes it’s listening to Him.  Prayer isn’t magic:  it’s a relationship.  And like any of our relationships, we have to give it time, give it our honesty and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Getting started is the hardest part.  And God knows that, too.  He’ll help.

And here’s something else you can do:  pray in church.  Spend your prayer time in a church.  What?  Why would I want to do that?  Can’t I pray at home just like I would pray in church?  Well, sure you can.  But if you’re new to prayer or if you want to deepen your prayer life, spend ten minutes a day praying in church.  It can be hard to find a quiet place, but church is a quiet place.  It can be hard to find a sacred space, but church is a sacred space.  What better place to feel the closeness of God than in His house?  If you have this intimate and quiet place available for you, why wouldn’t you take advantage of it?  Here’s an even more outrageous suggestion:  pray in a Catholic church, even if you’re not Catholic.  We believe that Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist so praying in a Catholic church is praying in the real presence of God.  Even if you don’t have this faith in the Eucharist, just try it.  Most Catholic churches are open for prayer every day and anyone is welcome to come in and pray.  I would invite you to explore this experience for yourself.  Sit quietly and allow Jesus to be with you.  Allow Him to surround you with His presence.  Open your heart to Him.  And listen.  Listen with your heart.  Let it be filled with Him.  Let Him fill it with Himself.  One of my favorite prayers is:  “Lord, take away everything in me that isn’t You.”  This is our hope as Christians, to become more like our Savior.  Our journey is a daily walk with Him.  Ten minutes a day is a good place to start.

“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

Beauty

Several years 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 scrubbed 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 that 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

Previous Older Entries