Sidewalks and Shortcuts 

I grew up in the country. My childhood home was at the dead end of a long gravel road, surrounded by pastures and woods. We wore paths into the grass walking from our house to the barns, to the pond, and to the vegetable garden. There were chores for us to do, but there was also a great freedom in those years in the country. I first lived in an urban setting when I went away to college. Even then there were acres of woods and grass on campus to explore. The difference there was all the sidewalks.

One of the first things I noticed though, was how folks would ignore the sidewalks to cut across the grass or through the woods. We took the shortest routes, the easiest walks, the paths of least resistance going from class to class, to our dorms, or to the cafeteria. All those sidewalks were largely ignored as we made our way around campus. There’s a name for these footpaths we humans like to make. They’re called “desire lines.” I love that. Architects and planners have long been aware of our tendencies to cut corners and make our own trails. In Finland, it’s common for new buildings to go without sidewalks during their first year so that they can pave the desire lines made by the public. That seems logical and economical, too. But most landscapes, like my university, bear the marks of our walking choices when we ignore the sidewalks. 

I think of the paths I’ve followed in my own life. Without God, how far might I have wandered off into the wilderness? Even so, there have been times when I followed the wrong road. Sometimes my heart led me to a place I thought I desired, only to find out when I got there that it wasn’t at all what I’d imagined. Pretty pathways can lead to dark and dangerous places. I’ve lost friends to the allure of such journeys. We all have. The point about sidewalks and footpaths and desire lines is that they are all just means to an end. They are ways of getting from here to there. Some are more direct than others. Some are laid out for us by others, while some are the paths we make for ourselves, over the months and years of our lives. All have risks and rewards.  

What matters on our journey is that we don’t look down at our feet, but that we keep our eyes fixed on Christ. Some of us will be called to follow wandering footpaths and some will seek out sidewalks. I feel like there were many times that I walked in place, going nowhere. But I never went wrong when I kept my gaze on the Lord. He waited when I dawdled. He called me back when I got lost. And I was never alone, because He has given us His Church and His Sacraments to infuse us with grace and to keep us nourished for the journey. We have such a short time here and so much to see and to do. So many people to know and to love. So many summer sunsets and wintry snowstorms. Every second, every footfall is a chance to know love and to be love for others, to lend a helping hand, and to offer mercy and forgiveness. Much of the noise and confusion of the world fades to nothing when we remember Who made us, and that He made us for a purpose: love.  

“We’re all just walking each other home.”

           —-Ram Dass 

What We Wear

We’ve all watched President Trump and the First Lady make their inaugural trip abroad. No matter your political opinions about him, the impression he makes abroad is important for our country and our objectives on the world stage. But many media outlets have focused more on the clothes worn by our First Lady than on the politics of foreign affairs. Most everyone has reported on her stylish beauty, but two stops in particular generated a lot of discussion and even controversy.

During their visit to Saudi Arabia, Mrs. Trump did not cover her hair with a headscarf. In many Muslim countries, women cover their hair (or even their entire bodies) when in public. This is not required of non-Muslim women in Saudi Arabia, so Mrs. Trump was following the accepted custom. On their visit to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis, Mrs. Trump and Ivanka both wore black dresses and hats with veils. This is the accepted custom for women when meeting the Pope. The contrast between what they wore and why they wore it in these two countries generated a lot of chatter on social media.

Some saw Mrs. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia as somehow disrespectful since she didn’t wear a headscarf. Some saw her visit with the Pope as an affront to women’s rights and freedoms because she chose to wear a veil. In truth, neither of these viewpoints reflect reality. As a non-Muslim, she’s not bound by Muslim tradition. The Saudis didn’t expect her to wear a headscarf. On the other hand, women are expected to cover their hair when meeting with the Pope. It has nothing to do with oppressing women. This has been customary for many decades and reflects the tradition of women veiling in Church as a sign of respect and humility. Remember Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s funeral? Today, many Catholic women are again choosing to wear veils in Mass. But the reasons for women covering themselves in Muslim countries and in Catholic Churches come from two very different understandings of the feminine.  

Muslim culture is protective of women from the eyes of men to whom the woman is not related. She covers herself to remain unobserved by other men. She may not have a choice in wearing a covering. To leave her home with being properly veiled would be unacceptable..  

In Catholic culture, a woman may choose to wear a veil out of respect for the Lord. In our tradition, beautiful things like the tabernacle which contains the Blessed Sacrament, the sacred vessels used in Mass, and the altar are all covered. Like Moses, who covered his face in the presence of God, a woman may choose to cover her beauty in the presence of the Great Beauty of God in the Mass. We veil, not from the eyes of men, but for the glory of God. It’s an external sign of our desire to humble ourselves before Him. 

So the Trump ladies respected their hosts both in Saudi Arabia and the Vatican by the way they dressed. There’s no controversy in either case. Just as it was proper for the President to cover his head when he prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. We live in a casual culture where folks don’t pay much attention to what they wear anymore, even what they wear to Church. Seeing our first family observe the customs and traditions of different religions reminds us that what we wear matters and has more meaning than simple clothing. Maybe we’ll think twice when we dress for Church this weekend and leave the shorts and tank tops at home. That would be both respectful and refreshing.  

“When you honor and value yourself, you are honoring God because you are His creation: a beautiful reflection of Him.”

                   —-Unknown 

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. 

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