The “Symbol” of the Eucharist

As a convert to Catholicism I don’t share many of the “growing up Catholic” memories of many of my friends. I wasn’t taught by nuns. I didn’t go to Catholic school. I didn’t grow up getting into trouble at Mass or choir practice. I didn’t get to wear the adorable little white dress and gloves for my first Holy Communion. I don’t miss those great old Latin hymns or women wearing chapel veils. Although I do LOVE the old Latin hymns and women wearing chapel veils. I came into the Church in 1977 at the height of guitar Masses and liturgical “experiments.”  The music and practices of “my” Catholic Church have kind of always been a hot mess. I even know all the words to “Lord of the Dance.”  Unfortunately. So when other Catholics reminisce about the “good old days” before Vatican II, I think: meh. I didn’t become Catholic because of the beautiful architecture or music or liturgy of bygone years, though I LOVE all these aspects of our worship. I became Catholic because of the Holy Eucharist. And throughout the decades of bad music, ugly vestments, school closings and scandals, the reason I remain Catholic is the Holy Eucharist.

The Church teaches us that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith (Catechism, para. 1324). Jesus teaches us this same truth in the beautiful “Bread of Life” discourse in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. As our Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said: “Without the Eucharist, the Church simply does not exist.” Nothing could be truer. God gives us the most precious gift of His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity to nourish and sustain us on our earthly journey. The Eucharist is literally the beating heart of our Catholic faith and our loving Savior. Yet every Sunday only about 25% of Catholics attend Mass to meet Him there. And you want to know why? Because of what was found by a recent Pew Research Center poll that questioned Catholics about their faith. It revealed that almost half of American Catholics believe that the bread and wine we receive in Holy Communion is a SYMBOL of Jesus’ Body and Blood. A symbol. Granted, I don’t know if the Catholics they questioned were practicing Catholics. But honestly, I wouldn’t  be at Mass myself if I thought the Eucharist was a mere remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. There’s a famous Flannery O’Connor anecdote that beautifully sums up my thoughts and feelings. At a New York dinner party where Miss O’Connor found herself the token Catholic, she sat quietly listening to the erudite conversation of the other guests. At one point a lady turned the conversation to the Catholic faith. Among the thoughts she shared was that the Eucharist was a “pretty good” symbol. This prompted Flannery to remark at once, “We’ll, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it!”  I couldn’t agree more, Miss O’Connor.

Why would anyone want to be Catholic if not for the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist?  It would be lots easier to be Episcopalian where you could enjoy beautiful music and liturgy without the “restrictions” of Catholic teaching on contraception, an all-male celibate priesthood, and same- sex “marriage.” Or how about one of those generic Christian mega-churches where the building is fitted out like an IMAX theater, the charismatic young pastor dresses like a rock star and you can enjoy a latte in your comfy theater chair while the music blasts to a hallelujah crescendo? No worries about going to confession or divorce and remarriage, just a free and easy Christian “lifestyle.”

Because of the Eucharist, the Catholic Church continues to exist in spite of every reason it shouldn’t still be around. And without the Eucharist, like Pope Benedict said, the Church would cease to be. And I’d be among the first out the door.  So it’s no wonder so many Catholics don’t attend Mass on Sundays or have left the Church altogether. They aren’t being taught the Truth of the Eucharist. If 45% of Catholics believe the Eucharist is just a symbol, they may as well sleep in on Sunday morning. I would. So no matter how you feel about your parish’s choir or vestments or pastor or youth programs or parish council, remember this: Jesus Christ waits for you at every Mass. In person. He longs to meet you intimately in Holy Communion and to share His eternal life with you. This is the greatest gift of our Catholic faith. We must hear this truth preached in our Sunday homilies and see reverence for the Blessed Sacrament shown by our priests and deacons. We need Adoration Hours in every parish and adult catechesis on this most central belief of our Church. We must be reminded that the God we worship is there on the altar before us, truly and wholly present in the Sacrament of Holy  Communion. People leave the Church when they believe the Eucharist is a “pretty good” symbol of Jesus. If they knew the Truth as Christ taught, we wouldn’t be able to build enough new churches and schools to keep up. Christ gave the keys to the Kingdom to St. Peter, our first Pope (Matthew 16:18) and that same key is in every tabernacle in every Catholic Church in the world—“Jesus, my Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

“Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me and I in him.”

                          —John 6:57

The Grace in a Good Book

I love to read. I guess that’s not much of a surprise since I also love to write. I can’t remember NOT knowing how to read. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on my daddy’s lap when he’d come in at the end of his workday. We’d read the newspaper together. When I started school, I remember my first grade teacher announcing that we were going to learn to read. I walked to her desk, convinced there’d been some kind of grave mistake and I asked if I could go on home, since I already knew how to read. That didn’t quite work out as I’d hoped. Thankfully the world of books has never let me down. And the more I read, the more I know what I like.

Two of my favorite authors reward me with characters and stories that engage me on many levels, challenge what I think and believe and make me take a new look at myself. Dean Koontz is known as a writer of suspense thrillers. I love his stories because he’s so adept at describing our suffering in this broken world and the grace that we’re offered to get us through and transcend it. His characters are sometimes weird and strange but then, so am I. There’s always hope and redemption in a Koontz book. Plus, he creates great dog characters which is always the mark of a good writer, in my opinion. I mean if you can understand dogs, you must have a great world-view.

My other favorite writer is Flannery O’Connor. As far as I’m concerned, she’s in a class of her own. So much has been written already about the characters and themes in her stories. I relate to her on a very personal level. She’s a fellow Georgian, a fellow Catholic (as is Dean Koontz) and a fellow odd-duck. Or maybe I should say “peacock” since she raised those birds on her family farm in Milledgeville. She suffered from lupus for many years before eventually dying from it. I watched my own mother battle the same disease for the last decade of her life. So Flannery and I share some things in common.

Every time I read her stories or letters she surprises me. She never fails to make me laugh, too. I love her understanding of human nature and how even in our most sinful moments, the possibility of supernatural grace never leaves us. The presence of Christ permeates us and the world and nothing can separate us from that. And there’s the real rub, isn’t it? If Christ really is the Son of God and He really did die on the Cross and rise from the dead to save us, then EVERYTHING is changed by Him. O’Connor seizes on that “supposition” and shocks us with her crazy Southern (is that redundant?) characters. No sinner is beyond God’s redemptive love, not even the most lost of us. And if Christ isn’t God and He didn’t suffer and die to save us from getting what we all deserve—-then nothing matters. Go and do what you want and live as hard and as fast as you can because your only goal is pleasure before it’s lights out.

Koontz and O’Connor are just two examples of Catholic writers who reveal God to me. Through using their gifts and talents, I can see the actions of grace in unexpected people and situations. Both writers use the grotesque and bizarre, the misbegotten and the twisted to shock us out of our everydayness. They don’t tapdance around sin or redemption: they shout it out loud and point with grand gestures just to make sure we don’t miss it. They highlight the worst in us so that the Light of Christ shines all the brighter. And that’s what we’re all called to do in our lives. We can’t all be gifted writers like these two, but we can use our own talents and vocations to let Christ shine through us.

If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw everything away and follow Him.”
–from “A Good Man Is Hard To
Find” by Flannery O’Connor

“Evil is no faceless stranger, living in a distant neighborhood. Evil has a wholesome, hometown face with merry eyes and an open smile. Evil walks among us, wearing a mask which looks like all our faces.”

–from “The Mask” by Dean Koont

Looking Towards Home

The older I become, the more time I spend thinking of my past. I guess middle age has that effect on some of us. My grandparents did it and my parents did it and now it’s my turn. I can be driving down the highway reviewing my plans for the day when a song comes on the radio and instantly, I’m seventeen again without a care in the world. Or I smell a distinctive aftershave and I’m immediately a little girl, sitting in my daddy’s lap as he works on the newspaper crossword puzzle. Memories. The veil that separates today from all those yesterdays seems to be getting thinner and thinner. I think a lot about my childhood home. I hear the cows mooing in the backyard pasture. I taste a salted tomato, still warm from the sun. I see my mom cooking our supper or my brother tossing his football.

These kinds of memories are often called “nostalgia.” This is a Greek word that means “longing for home.” That rings true for me, as I was blessed to come from a loving home. Maybe for others, that nostalgia may be for whatever time or place in their lives that represents a safe and accepting place to them. Memories like this are often most aching when we experience the death of someone we love. Standing at my mother’s graveside, the past, the present and the future are all together in that one spot. I remember her from the past. I miss her now. And I anticipate seeing her again in heaven. I am nostalgic for that moment. God has designed us to have that homesickness for heaven because that’s why we were created. I suppose I’m thinking of heaven more these days because as I age, more and more of my family and friends have already made the journey. Sorting through my mother’s things after she died, I came across her address book. Most of the names in it were crossed out. As we lose the ones we’ve loved in this life, our eyes and our hearts turn ever more often to those distant hills that shelter our forever home.

I think the saints are consumed with that yearning for heaven. Their lives are extraordinarily fixed on the eternal presence of the Lord. Like St. Paul, they feel that powerful pull to the home they’ve never seen. He wrote about the Jewish saints like Sarah and Abraham and Noah saying, “…they were longing for a better country, a heavenly one”(Hebrews 11:16). But so many of us have an impoverished idea of the reality of paradise. Who among us longs for an eternity of playing harps on fluffy clouds? Surely the earliest Christians did not die as martyrs for this boring reward. No, we can see what they imagined heaven to be from the paintings they left for us on the walls of the catacombs. Their heaven was a beautiful garden, filled with children and animals playing together, with parties and banquets and feasting and singing. It was a real, living Garden of Eden. Heaven was their home and they were willing to lay down their lives to go there. In St. John’s Revelation, we can see what the Lord showed to His beloved disciple. “I saw an angel standing in the sun. He cried out in a loud voice to all the birds flying overhead, ‘Come! Gather for the great banquet of God’ “(Rev. 19:17). It’s a party alright. One filled beyond our knowing with an over-abundance of joy and love: with our Lord. We’ll be with our loved ones and with new friends, with the angels and the choirs. And there’ll be surprises, because our God is a god of surprises, after all. We’ll be free of sin, which is everything that has limited us on earth. As Dr. Peter Kreeft has said, “Jesus is our best indicator of Heaven.” What a wonderful place to live! No wonder we long for it so deeply. He is our beginning and our end, our Alpha and our Omega. “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together”(Colossians 1:17). That includes you and me. As we journey through Lent this year, let’s focus less on giving something up and more on loving and serving Jesus and the people in our lives. Let’s keep our hearts moving to our heavenly home, with joy and gratitude.

“Oh my delight, Lord of all created things and my God! How long must I wait to see You?”

—St. Teresa of Avila

(1515-1582)

Choose Hope

Hope. Sometimes we forget that the season of Lent is all about hope. We tend to focus on penance and fasting—on what we’re “giving up” for Lent. But what purpose is any of it if we’re not living in the hope of the Resurrection? Hope looks forward, to the future and to our true home in heaven, living in the presence of Christ, Who never changes and Who never fails us. These days we seem divided and adrift as a country. But we needn’t be if we live in hope. And, if we chose to see it, hope springs up all around us. The empty tomb is lived out in the simple choices that each one of us makes every day. Seeing these choices for what they reveal about our hearts is one of the joys of the reflective time of Lent.  

We see hope when a teacher takes the time to comfort a crying child whose home life is hunger, loneliness, and harsh words. We see hope when a young man in prison receives a letter filled with kind words and encouragement, tucked inside a new Bible. We see hope when a young mother, despite pressure from her boyfriend, decides to keep her unborn child. We see hope when a man who has been away from the Church for decades is welcomed and consoled in the confessional by a kind and patient priest. Oh yes. Hope is surely here, if we see it.

“Hope is the life of the soul,” writes Dr. Peter Kreeft. Hope isn’t wishful thinking, or a merely optimistic outlook on life. Real hope, Christian hope, is the solid conviction that God has a plan for my life. Hope is knowing that He is in charge of everything and that He will see me through every trial—even the trial of my death. Hope is the risen Christ, the empty tomb, and life everlasting. Hope gives us strength to trust in God and not in ourselves. “Our God is thus a God of promises. And He keeps every one to the letter,” says Dr. Kreeft. We see that hope when an elderly couple, homebound and frail, share a meal and hospitality with the family that lives next door. We see hope when a businessman spends his Saturdays working with homeless men, helping them to fill out job applications and develop interview skills. We see hope when a parish welcomes two refugee families and provides them with housing and settlement support. We see hope when a husband and wife choose to adopt a child.

Hope connects us with one another and helps us to realize that we are all on this earthly journey together. “Hope builds bridges between faith and love, between conservatives and liberals, between present and future, between earth and heaven,” writes Dr. Kreeft. Hope asks of us to care for the needy among us, to reach out beyond our prejudices and to see the face of Christ in our neighbor. Hope gives us the courage to leave our fears in God’s hands. Hope calls us forth to love. We see hope when a teenaged girl is rescued from sex-trafficking by a group of dedicated nuns. We see hope when a small boy witnesses his mother love and care for his dying father in their home, day after day, for months on end. We see hope when a brother and a sister reconcile with one another after years of resentment over a now-forgotten slight. We see hope in the life of a woman battling breast cancer, who faces each day with courage and joy, inspiring those around her to do the same.  

We show hope to others when we live a life of gratitude, no matter our circumstances. Because we know that our God is always in charge, caring for us and drawing us to Himself. We know that today and tomorrow and all eternity are in His loving grasp. Hope is not an abstraction or a concept. Hope isn’t an intellectual exercise or a naive belief in some make-believe Candyland of our own design. Hope is as real as the nails in His sacred hands, as solid as the rock rolled away from His grave, as everlasting as God Himself. Hope isn’t some “thing”—as Pope Francis told the people of Mexico: “You have asked me for a word of hope–what I have to offer you has a name–Jesus Christ.”

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find til after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to the other country and to help others do the same.”

              —-C.S. Lewis 

Kindness & Politics

 

Politics. This election year we see and hear political discussions all the time and everywhere around us. Many of us may complain about the number of ads on tv and the “other guy’s” candidate, but if we’re really honest, we Americans love us some politics. And that’s a good thing, because political decisions and issues are how we live out the reality of our Republic in daily life. We’re blessed to live in a country in which every citizen, with few exceptions, can vote freely for the candidate of their choosing. Many millions of people around the world don’t share these freedoms. But sometimes we allow politics to become a source of angry or hurtful words. This is especially true in our online relationships. We feel so strongly sometimes that we allow our words to hurt others. Instead of debating our political differences, we attack the person with whom we’re engaging. What I find most disturbing is that I see fellow Christians saying or posting hurtful words about one another.  

It’s easy for us to get emotional about politics because, like religion, it speaks to our fundamental beliefs, to what we hold most dear. We tend to blur the lines between “debate” and “attack” when someone disagrees with our political views or our faith. After all, if we didn’t truly care about our politics and our faith, we wouldn’t get upset if someone disagreed with our views. And it’s good for us to care; good that we feel deeply about how we view the world and our place in it. What we can’t do is to allow our emotions to override our charity. When we do that, we’ve become like an unbeliever.  

To begin with, we accept that the person with whom we disagree is a fellow child of God, created in His image and loved by Him uniquely and for all eternity. Yes, even that supporter of our political foe, who stands for everything we don’t want in a President. There’s a wonderful quote by St. Josemaria Escriva to remember at times like this: “Don’t say, ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think, ‘That person sanctifies me.’” Ouch. What is it about that “other” person that grates on you enough to make you respond so harshly? Usually it’s because we see in them something in ourselves that we really dislike. They mirror back to us that most unlovely part of ourselves and, if we’re honest, we know it. And we can invite the Lord to heal us of that flaw.  

The next thing is to truly know what it is you believe and why it is that you believe it. And this applies to both your politics and your faith. When we can clearly lay out why we support Candidate X, it makes us take a close look at our beliefs and values and why we hold them. We have to be able to think logically and to state our positions with clarity and precision. We used to teach debate in our schools and for a good reason. It’s very instructive when you must defend a position with which you disagree. Try doing that with the political candidates from that “other” party. You’ll come to see pretty quickly why it is you support your favorite man or woman. And when you discuss them, you’ll be more able to speak from a well-thought-out position and not just from your emotions.  

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we must accept that it’s unlikely that any of our political arguments will change anyone’s mind. But when we allow our politics to become a hurtful attack, we DO allow it to change our hearts—and in a bad way. We are, after all, called to love and respect the dignity of every person, even those with whom we disagree. Perhaps, most of all, with these folks. Because when the election is over, we’ll all have one President and one Congress. And we have so much that we need to come together for and work together to solve. We can all pray that the Lord will guide us to choose the best possible people to lead our nation. As St. Paul instructs us to pray:

“…for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.”

          —II Timothy 2:2 

A Grateful Heart

It was one of those days when nothing seemed to go right. I got up late and the more I hurried, the less I seemed to get done. Traffic was awful with every stoplight turning red just as I approached it. Trains even timed their journeys to cross my path, too. I dropped things, forgot stuff and wasted time looking for keys and paperwork and schedules. By lunchtime, I was exhausted. I thought I could see the end of the rope that people always talk about. Just then I looked down to see that the “check engine” light on my dashboard was glowing brightly. I broke down and cried. I thought, “Lord, what have I done?” Surely I must had done something bad to be having so many trials in just one day. It seemed as if I was being punished and I wanted to know my offense. My answer came pretty quickly. I had planned my day carefully and had made a lot of assumptions about how it needed to unfold. I had my timetable ready to go. The more I sat there in my funk, the more I realized that my plans hadn’t included God.

I hadn’t started my day with gratitude. In a hurry, I’d skipped those precious waking moments spent lifting my heart to the Lord and giving Him thanks for the precious gift of another day. I was too busy thinking of all I needed to get done and adding items to my to-do list. I didn’t take the time to remember the Author of my life. After all, God has given me all that I have, including the work I was absorbed with just then. Without Him, what is there? Yet on that misbegotten day of problems and tangles and frustrations, I’d been trying to do it all myself. I hadn’t included God in my plans. Also, I was living in the future and not in the now. Gratitude is being thankful for the moment, not living in the “what’s next.”

And that’s why the day was such a mess. I hadn’t turned to Him, given thanks and offered all my works and sufferings of the day for His good use. I hadn’t asked Jesus what His plans were for my day. The Savior I daily claim to follow might just as well have been a forgotten bit of pocket lint. That may sound harsh, but any Christian whose life isn’t founded on, centered in, and consumed by Jesus Christ is just plain lost. St. Paul tells us that “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together”(Colossians 1:17). Things were definitely NOT holding together for me that day because of my own pridefulness. It’s a lesson I have to learn fairly frequently.

Some people teach a kind of Christianity that says God will give you earthly riches if you are following Him “in the right way.” I don’t remember reading that anywhere in the Bible. I believe that suffering is a part of living in this world and that being a Christian doesn’t mean you’re magically protected from hard times. Remember that 11 of the 12 Apostles were martyred for their faith. Most of the saints suffered all sorts of difficulties in their lives and they claimed their suffering as joy because it united them to His Cross. Their lives make my silly little frustrations disappear.

So at the end of my tiresome, trying day, I heard Him call to me. “Let me into your day, Judy. Share your plans and fears and frustrations with me. Let me carry the burdens in your heart and when you’re tired, I’ll carry you, too. Don’t try to do it all yourself. I love you. Let’s walk this road together.” He quietens my restless heart and gives me peace in the midst of my troubles. He restores my soul. Problems and heartaches don’t disappear if you follow Jesus—but they take on eternal meaning and joy. I pray that He’ll keep reminding me of that and that His grace will conform my will to His own, in thanksgiving and gratitude.

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
—-G. K. Chesterton

New Year, New Choices

There’s a story that’s told about two uncles and their young nephew. Let’s call the nephew “John.” We’ll call the uncles “Bill” and “Howard.” This family had lots of money, but unluckily for the two uncles, their young nephew was the heir to all the wealth—-and he was only 8 years old. But in the event of John’s death, Bill and Howard would get the entire estate. Hmmmm…… So one day young John was left at home alone while his parents went out for the evening. You see this was in the days when an 8 year-old could be safely left at home alone. On that particular evening, Uncle Bill decided to drop in for a visit. When he did, he found little John at home alone, taking a leisurely bath. Bill thought how easy it would be to increase his finances if John was to drown in his bath. And so he took his nephew in his hands and, holding him under the water as he struggled, Uncle Bill killed John. Wealth at last, thought Uncle Bill.

Now imagine for a moment that a different story unfolded. On that same sort of evening when John had been left alone by his parents, he had decided to enjoy a leisurely bath. (What 8 year-old boy does this?…but I digress). Now on this evening it’s his Uncle Howard who decides to drop by for a visit. When he enters John’s room he notices the door to his nephew’s bathroom is open. Stepping inside, Howard sees that John has slipped under the water of his bath. Small bubbles are rising from John’s nostrils and Howard notices a large bump on John’s forehead. He concludes correctly that John has hit his head and become unconscious. The rising bubbles tell Howard that the accident has just happened and that John is still alive. For now. Howard could quite easily lift John’s head above the water and save his life. As he looks at the boy, Howard considers the great wealth that would be his if little John were to perish. Hmmm….And he does nothing to save his dying nephew.

In both stories, little John dies. In the first one he dies as the result of something his Uncle Bill did to him. In the second one he dies as the result of something his Uncle Howard failed to do. Who was the worse uncle? In the eyes of the law, Bill would be guilty of murder since he actively did something to cause John’s death. Howard might be guilty of negligent homicide since he failed to something that he could easily have done to save John’s life. But let’s put aside legal questions and look at the situation in terms of sin. Which uncle is guilty of the greater sin?

At the beginning of Mass, we Catholics pray an ancient prayer called “The Confiteor,” from the Latin phrase meaning “I confess.” In it we acknowledge our sinfulness and ask for God’s mercy. We pray,”I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned; in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do…” In this prayer, we acknowledge that NOT doing something can be just as sinful as our actions, our thoughts, and our words. We call these “sins of omission.” It makes us take a closer look at all the choices we make each day.

What if we don’t share our time, our talents, or our treasure with the poor and needy? What if we don’t love the Lord with all our hearts? What if we stop praying or stop going to Mass? What if we don’t go to confession anymore? What if we don’t take a stand against abortion? What if we fail to share the good news of the Gospel with the people in our lives? A kind word goes unspoken. An act of charity, not done. “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin”(James 4:17). We all know the story of the Good Samaritan who stops to help the dying man. But do we also remember the priest and the Levite who could have helped, but chose to keep going? As we walk through these first days of the new year, may we all be more aware of the needs of those around us and may we respond in charity and generosity. Make each moment of your life an opportunity for the Lord’s love to bear good fruit for His kingdom.

“In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

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