The Days Dwindle Down

It’s officially autumn, even though here in the South it doesn’t feel like it. We like to hang on to the heat and humidity just as long as we can. But no matter what we do, the subtle signs of autumn are creeping in each day. The heat fades fast once the sun sets and the mornings are cool. Our gardens, which were lush and flourishing just weeks ago, are dried and barren, their summertime bounty long gone. Acorns and nuts have fallen to the ground and drawn the squirrels out of the trees to collect a winter’s groceries. Apples are ripening in the orchards. It won’t be long until the dogwoods turn red and the air will be spiced with the smoke of burning leaves. Fall isn’t here just yet, but we can feel it coming.  

There’s something melancholy about autumn. It’s a season of endings. Vacations are over. Long, lazy days are done. All our summer dreams have faded. Fall means getting back on a schedule, buckling down to business, and getting serious about things. The world around us is preparing for the cold winds of winter, Things are slowing down, conserving energy, taking their time.  

Falls reminds us that everything in life and in time must come to an end. From the moment we were conceived, our life has been unwinding and eventually all our earthly hours will be spent. Autumn brings us this message every year. In the flaming gold of the poplar or the blazing red of the maple, there’s decay and death lurking beneath those glorious colors. In fact, it’s in their dying that the beautiful colors burst forth.  

People often complain that “life isn’t fair.” And it isn’t in many ways. Good people suffer while bad people prosper. Relationships break down. Families fall apart. But in one profound and universal way, life is indeed quite fair and equitable to every one of us. We’re all going to die. Death is that one inevitable event that each of us has to confront and experience. It’s the most level of all the playing fields. And no matter how hard we try to distract ourselves from thinking about it, it’s coming for us all.  

It’s a good season for reflecting on endings. And it’s a good season for repenting and making things right with the Lord. For Christians, death is the end of our earthly lives and the opening of the door to eternity with Jesus Christ. If you’ve been away from the Sacraments, now is the best time to return, to experience God’s mercy in confession and His nourishment in Holy Communion. In these shortening days, when the sun slips more quickly over the horizon, we’re drawn ever more to the One True Light Who dispels all darkness. As we’ll soon gather for feasts and celebrations with our family and friends, let’s be reminded to prepare for the coming of that Star in the east that will show us all the only way out of death.  

“…It’s a long, long while from May to December,

But the days grow short when you reach

September.

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to 

flame,

One hasn’t got time for the waiting game.”

          —Maxwell Anderson

                “September Song”

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Finding Jesus 

It’s my honor to share this reflection from my friend, Fr. Nicholas Blackwell who is a Carmelite priest in New York. I know his words will touch your heart, as they did mine. 

Finding Jesus

For the past few days, I have sensed that my soul is deeply at peace—a “peace of God, which transcends all understanding (Philippians 4:7)”, and I find myself wondering what to do with it. To whom shall I extend this gift of peace, which was, no doubt, planted in me by the Lord? I feel ashamed before Jesus, and I confess to Him that I have been hoarding this heaven-sent gift. I haven’t yet put it to any good use. Tell me, Lord, I asked, what must I do with it?

Within minutes, Jesus responded. While standing side-by-side in a long line at Wendy’s just afterwards, next to a homeless man, all bundled up in several layers of clothing, with a blanket wrapped around to protect himself from the cold, he suddenly leaned to one side and fell over, hitting the floor hard. Instinctively, I reached down to lift him up and, as I got him back to his feet, our eyes locked. What a biblical presence of gratitude began flowing within me! A rush of joy welled up inside me, realizing that this man—a stranger—had allowed me—a passerby, to help him regain his dignity! I knew at that moment that I had just encountered Christ, and I could feel precisely what Simon of Cyrene must have felt when his eyes met Christ’s on the Via Dolorosa! 

The Incarnate God

As Christians, we believe that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God, which is why we are called to love our neighbor with our whole heart, because God is present in them. As he ordered his food, I noticed his blanket was being dragged in a puddle of soda that was left on the floor. When he walked to his table he left a wet trail of soda behind him. Then an image from our Lord’s passion came to me. While Jesus was caring His Cross, He was covered with blood, and Jesus would have left a trail of blood behind him. Jesus allowed His precious blood to be split on the ground (the blood of not only a man, but the blood of God also). I knew I had to sit by this man.

Remaining with Jesus

Finding a seat by him was not hard. People seem to avoid him like the plague; many people (as it seemed to me) did their best to avoid looking upon him. I watched as he just sat with his food in front of him for a while looking at it, as if he was giving thanks for this gift he has received. Then he began to take huge bites of his burger, but he chewed it very slowly, because he had so few teeth in his mouth. When he finished his food, he removed the lid to his coffee, as he was about to open the creamer he dropped it and just stared at it on the ground. He knew if he reached for it, that he would fall again. Seeing this I got up from my seat, picked up the creamer, and gave it to him. Our eyes met. His eyes were so cloudy and blue, like you were staring up at a mildly cloudy sky. I felt so humble that God gave me this opportunity to help him.

Seeing Jesus

This man is one of God’s children. With that thought I almost cried, in fact my eyes began to water. All I felt was a wonderful spirit of gratitude. This man had one blanket. I have three. This man had one coat. I have three. As I finished up my meal I noticed he kept looking out the window and ever so gently he would occasionally shake his head “yes.” I have no idea the thoughts that were going through his head, but I knew God loved him, and I knew in my heart I loved him too. Now, God does not desire or will that His children would suffer, like this man obviously has, but suffering comes about through our own sinful choices. This homeless man is undoubtedly not a perfect person, but even during his suffering he can change lives. He changed mine, by simply allowing me to help him when he needed it. Love could enter the world through that man. God decided to make Himself known through that man. Finally, God gave me the eyes to see that He dwelt in that man. Jesus said to His disciples, “love one another as I have loved you.” For a finite period, I could live that command and I ask Jesus to give me the grace to continue living life like that! 

    —Fr. Nicholas Blackwell 

(If you enjoyed this reflection, please visit Father’s website at thefrankfriar.com. He also posts on YouTube and in podcasts as the Frank Friar.) 

O Come, Let Us Adore Him

If you’re a Christian, you can’t help but imagine what it will be like to finally be in the presence of Jesus. We think of it as a wonderful, overwhelming moment of love when all our troubles end and we gaze upon our Savior. Even more overwhelming to imagine is that He will also be gazing upon us, looking into our eyes and our hearts with the Love that only He can impart. There will never be a more perfect love than what we see in His eyes. Surely that will be a glorious day.  

The thing is, you don’t have to wait until heaven to gaze upon Jesus. In my parish, we have Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament. What’s that? Let’s look at the words Jesus used at the Last Supper when He instituted the Holy Eucharist. “He took a loaf of bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them saying, “This is My Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” And He did the same with the cup after supper saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in My Blood”(Luke 22: 19-20). If we believe the words of Jesus as the Gospels record them, then we know the bread and wine truly become His Body and Blood. This is our Holy Communion at every Mass. Some of HIs Body is reserved in the Tabernacle near the altar. This Presence of Christ remains in every Catholic Church around the world. In Adoration, the Body is placed in a vessel called a monstrance and placed on the altar. We can come into the church and pray in the presence of Jesus Christ. 

Let me tell you about my own experience. The first time I went to Adoration was way back in the ’80’s. I was a fairly new Catholic and really had no idea what it was all about, but I went anyway. There were a couple of other people in the church at the time, silently praying. I kneeled down, looked at the Blessed Sacrament on the altar and still had no idea what to do. So I prayed. I read the hymnal. I made a grocery list in my head. It took many visits to Adoration for it to sink into my hard head and heart that the Lord Himself was there in the room with me, sharing His time with me, waiting for me to recognize Him, hidden in the appearance of bread on the altar.  

That began a love affair with Adoration. How could it not? One famous description of what this devotion “feels” like is that you are looking at Jesus and He is looking at you. It really is that heavenly moment that most of us try to imagine, when we are together with our Lord. Sometimes I pray, or read Scripture, or say a Rosary, but most of the time I’m just there with Him, sharing an hour in His presence. Maybe it sounds boring, but it isn’t. When I’m there with Him, I don’t always need words at all. I usually stay an hour or so, but sometimes it feels like five minutes. And yes, I have fallen asleep on occasion. Just like the Apostles who couldn’t stay awake with Him in the garden. In Adoration, it’s not so much about what I do, but just that I’m there. I ask Him to change my heart in that old Catholic prayer: make my heart like Yours, dear Jesus. Take away anything in me that isn’t You.  

Adoration isn’t magic—it’s worship. Because Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist on the altar. Our churches should be filled to the rafter. They surely would be if we were giving away hundred dollar bills. Yet many pass by the Creator of the universe, searching for whatever they think will make them happy. Spoiler: nothing else will. I invite anyone to open the church door and come inside. Come and see the Lord. Come spend a few minutes in the presence of our Savior. He’s waiting for you there in the Eucharist. He offers you peace and acceptance. In a world that’s full of conflict and pain, He is love and healing. Come, let us adore Him.  

How many of you would say: I should like to see His face, His garments, His shoes. You do see Him, you touch Him, you eat Him. He gives Himself to you not only that you may see Him, but also to be your food and nourishment.”

      —St. John Chrysostom (349-407 AD)

Old Time Religion 

I know that many of you reading this aren’t Catholic, but I think you’ll find we have some common ground here. What I’m writing about today is the way in which we worship the Lord. In many protestant churches, there’s an ongoing discussion about “traditional” or “contemporary” worship. We Catholics are also involved in a somewhat similar (but not equivocal) discussion. Some Catholics are drawn to the Traditional Latin Mass while others prefer the Novus Ordo Mass, which is a more modern liturgy. There are some important differences between these Masses but both are valid and a Catholic is free to attend either one, or both. We all have our preferences and today, I’ll share mine. Please do remember that both Masses are the public worship of our Church and it must pain our Lord to see any division arise between the members of His Body.  

Let me begin by saying that I entered the Catholic Church during my college years in the late 1970’s. These were the years of guitar Masses, liturgical dancing, holding hands, and a lot of “improvisation” in the Liturgy. Of course, I didn’t know how awful any of that was because it was all I’d ever known. I believed those college Masses were the definition of Catholicism. I didn’t know anything could be better because it was already the most incredible thing I’d ever experienced as a Christian. Because in the Mass was the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. They could have had clowns riding unicycles and I’d have still been kneeling at the altar in tears, because my Lord and Savior was there, in the hands of the priest, and I was able to receive Him in Holy Communion. As the years passed and I grew in the faith, I began to seek out the Traditional Latin Mass whenever I could. I didn’t immediately understand its attraction, but here are the reasons I continue to love it.  

1. It’s beautiful. The altar is dressed with fine linens and lace. Candles flicker off the sacred vessels. The vestments worn by the priests, deacons, and altar boys are the best we can offer to the Lord. Likewise, the people in the pews wear their best. There is a sense that we are in the presence of the Almighty and we want to offer Him the finest we have. 

2. The Mass is our focus, not the priest, not the choir, nor any of us in the pews. As the priest faces the altar, like the congregation, we all join together in offering our prayers to Him. So often, in the Novus Ordo Mass, it becomes a “priest show” as our eyes focus on what he’s doing and not the offering of the Mass.  

3. There is holy silence. Oftentimes it seems we are uncomfortable when there’s “nothing happening.” We have to fill each second with words or music or it feels wrong. Being silent in the presence of God is a very ancient and holy practice. I don’t know about you, but I need that and it is a vital part of the TLM.  

4. Latin calls me out of what’s familiar and leads me into the sacred. I’m far from completely literate in Latin, but I use the Missal and make my way along with everyone else. This unfamiliar and ancient tongue transforms the words of my mouth from rote responses into conscious affirmations. I pay attention. I listen more closely. I like that my public worship of God doesn’t use the language of the marketplace or the boardroom., but uses words at once more intimate and more universal.  

5. The music in the TLM is also ancient and beautiful. The voices and instruments surprise me with unexpected harmonies and images. This isn’t top-forty stuff, thank goodness. I wonder why we so often settle for mundane music when we can have the melodies of the angels instead. The Lord deserves our best in everything, after all.  

There are dozens more reasons that I seek out the Traditional Latin Mass when it’s available. Certainly our Lord is present in either Liturgy. I appreciate the reverence of the TLM, the sense of holiness and awe, and I keep returning to it again and again. But I’ll always love the Novus Ordo Mass, as well, since it was my doorway to the Eucharist. It was this Mass that answered my heart’s longing for God.  

Late have I loved You, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved You.”

                  —–St. Augustine (a convert like me)

Is Your Christianity Showing?

Every once in a while, it’s a prudent spiritual practice to take a hard look at ourselves. Thankfully I’m Catholic and I have a confessor/priest who is a valuable aid in doing this. He knows my sins and my struggles. As a convert, I know that we humans can often be either too hard on ourselves or too easy on ourselves. My confessor can be objective about my faith journey. He listens and directs me, keeping me focused on conforming my will to that of the Lord.  

A good way to prepare for confession is to meditate on the Ten Commandments. Apply each one to your life and pray that God will open your heart to any way that you might have strayed from them. One of my college theology professors (a joyful Cistercian priest) told us to add this question to our preparation: “What would my life look like if I lived like I truly believed in Jesus Christ?” This has been such a great aid to me over the years. It makes me look, not only at my failings and sins, but also at my attitudes and even more—am I living in the joy of Jesus?

Keeping His commandments is doing what Jesus has taught us (John 14:16). These days it seems that the idea of sin has ceased to be relevant in our modern culture. It’s this sort of nonchalant attitude that leads many people away from God. There IS objective sin and we know what is is because God has told us. He’s also told us that the love we give to one another is the greatest of all His commandments (Matthew 5:43-48). Obedience and love. 

Is this what our life looks like? Are we living in obedience to God and sharing His love with others? It’s only through God’s grace that our lives can be transformed. The Sacraments impart God’s grace to us in Baptism, Holy Communion, Confession, and Confirmation. In them, we encounter the fullness of God’s love for us in the Church He established. But we’re called to go out into the world to transform it and not remain within the Church walls. It’s easy to love the folks who love us, but that’s just the beginning of our Christian mission.  

Your family, your friends, and the members of your parish might testify that Christ is important to you. But what about the other people in your life? Would your boss agree? Do you treat your coworkers with love and respect? Could someone look at your Facebook posts and know the love of Jesus? Does your neighbor experience the love and joy of Christ through you? How are you serving your community, including the poor, the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned, and the marginalized?  

This isn’t easy. Without the strength and guidance of the Holy Spirit, it’s impossible. The great Saints know this, that’s one reason they’re Saints. If you think you can’t do it alone, you’re on the right path. You can’t. But He can. And accepting the gift of God’s grace is the most important decision you’ll ever make. Sometimes the hardest thing for us to accept is that God really and truly loves us and loves us right now, just as we are, in the midst of our messy lives.  

Whatever God gives and permits: temptation, being tried by people, hurt or abuse, or any sort of trouble—He gives and permits it for our good, either to cleanse us of our sins or for our growth in perfection and grace.”

           —St. Catherine of Siena

Recycling Our Pain 

Sitting in an airport the other day, I overheard a couple who were sitting behind us speaking with their adult daughter. The mother was almost in tears as she described a recent incidence of vandalism at their vacation home. Evidently someone had destroyed a portion of fencing and had thrown the wooden boards onto her flower bed. What caught my ear was that she kept repeating, “I just don’t understand how something like this could happen to us.” She was literally about to cry. Admittedly I don’t know the whole story. Maybe there are other circumstances or issues involved. I don’t know. What I DO know is that bad things happen every day to the nicest and least-deserving of people, all over the world, in every nation, at every moment. If you’re a human being, bad things are going to happen to you.

Certainly, we Christians aren’t exempt from this. It might be shocking to some television evangelists, but even Christians are going to suffer in this life. Read about St. Paul, St. Peter, and the other Apostles. Google folks like Nero, Decius, and Diocletian who gravely persecuted the early Church. If we follow Christ, we must also follow in His suffering. And with joy. Of course, the source of sin in the world is our first parents’ rebellion in the Garden. All the pain and suffering since then has that same beginning.  

Along those lines, it’s been said that there is no original evil in the world. Everyone is just recycling pain. Think about that for a moment. We’re so eager to recycle things, but it seems also that we go out of our way to recycle that old, original pain of sin as well. My goodness, just look at the news these days. But you know what? Thinks have always been sinful and rough. Even for Christians. Especially for Christians. Jesus told us to expect this. His life on earth was an example of innocent suffering. We can’t despair and wonder, as the lady in the airport did, “Why is this happening to me?”

We have to take up our cross and follow Christ (Matthew 16:24). And do it with joy, confident in the love of our Savior. One thing that always helps me to do this is to do something for someone else. Nothing helps me to connect with the joy that is often hard to find in our broken world than helping another person. Cook a meal. Drive someone to the grocery store or doctor’s appointment. Ask your parish secretary who might need a ride to Mass. Visit a local nursing home and spend an hour with someone who never has visitors. You’ll be shocked at how many older folks never have any company.  

Take out your earphones and listen to the world around you. Listen to your own thoughts for a change. Turn off your phone and allow yourself to really feel what you’re feeling. Take a look at the people in your life right now. Listen to them. Ask them questions. What are their dreams? Their fears? Their loves? What can you do for them and with them? Being truly present with the people around us is one way of carrying our cross. For many of us, it’s the most important way we’ll ever have to share the love of Christ. Few of us are called to the mission fields, but we’re all called to love and serve our family, our friends, and our neighbors. We don’t have to continue to recycle the pain of sin. We don’t have to be what the world says we’ve become. We can be love.  

“…In the world, you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”

             —John 16:33

A Welcoming Parish 

Whenever we travel abroad, one of the highlights of our trip is attending Mass in a different country. From the largest cathedral to the tiniest chapel, the beauty of the Mass and the presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist is always there for us. Over the years, we’ve encountered good homilies and bad homilies, guitars and cymbals and majestic pipe organs and choirs. Some churches looked more like conference rooms than sacred spaces. But we’ve also worshiped in beautiful, uplifting churches where art and music were a foretaste of heaven, even aside from the Mass.

But the lasting impression of churches we’ve visited is the welcome and acceptance of the various parishioners. It makes me feel like a “secret shopper” when we approach the doors of a church, always wondering what we’ll find and how we’ll be met. Our current trip to Scotland included a Sunday Mass that I won’t soon forget. We were in the Highlands in the area around Inverness. We’d spotted this particular parish church earlier in the week while out exploring the neighborhood. It was, as they say, a “wee kirk.” Made of old brown stones that looked softened by the years and the weather, it was surrounded with pots of colorful flowers. Standing at the front door were two men who welcomed us with smiles and handshakes. They asked where we were from, where we were staying, and where we wanted to sit in the church. They walked us inside, introducing us to other members of the parish as they guided us through the narthex. They pointed out the restrooms and invited us for coffee in the parish hall after Mass. Everyone we met was friendly to us. The couple in the pew in front of us turned and introduced themselves, pointing out the missal and hymnal we’d be using. They also asked us to come for coffee.  

The Mass was reverent, the music simple but well-chosen, and the homily was moving. As we left, we stopped in the hall for coffee and spent almost an hour talking with dozens of friendly parishioners. These were not the taciturn Scots you might expect. We were invited to dinner but had to decline the warm hospitality. We won’t soon forget the warm, welcoming people of this little parish.  

In my “secret shopper” response that I might write to their pastor, I’d tell him that their well-kept grounds and landscaping caught our eyes. Even a modest church is welcoming if it’s clean and well-maintained. Having greeters outside the front door is especially nice for visitors. They were folks with a natural gift of making us feel a part of their community almost immediately. And they did it without shoving a handful of ministry brochures, visitor information, or church bulletins in our faces. They didn’t abandon us at the door, either. They made sure we were introduced to other folks and then comfortably seated for Mass. When we saw them again at the coffee hour, they spoke with us again.

Every church seeks to be welcoming to new people. Some are good at it, some aren’t. This little church is a gem. They’ve kept things simple, but effective. And it centered on seeing visitors as being worthy of welcome. We weren’t ignored, but we weren’t treated as mere numbers, either. We felt like fellow members of the Catholic family, whose presence in their parish was valued and noted. It made going to a new church feel a lot like home. And isn’t that what all churches are hoping for?

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

             —Romans 15:7

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