Why I’m Forgiving These Darn Birds

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One of the best parts about spring is the opportunity to open house and car windows to welcome in a refreshing breeze. In the last few weeks, the open windows have supplied another delightful gift; the chirping of nearby birds. My mornings in the last few weeks have consisted of drinking coffee near an open window at 5:30 or so, listening to the birds sing their morning hymns while the rest of the world slumbers. It’s a sound which is both beautiful in itself and which serves as a much-needed reminder that summer is on the way.

Unfortunately, it’s a sound that has also caused great pangs of frustration in the depths of my soul (slight exaggeration). I’m not annoyed by any painful screeches or rambunctious cacklings: the birds around these parts have been pretty gentle on the ears. Nor am I envious that these winged creatures don’t have exams to study for or papers to write as the semester draws to a close. I’m frustrated because they left when the going got tough and they’ve returned now that the conditions are not only bearable, but downright gorgeous.

Granted, I recognize that the birds needed to fly south for the winter not merely to avoid discomfort, but to avoid almost certain death. I realize that most birds are not made to survive the harsh winter months and must flee out of a biological necessity. Still, I’m tempted to passive-aggressively call out to my fowl friends, “It’s good to have you back! We missed you during the most miserable time of the year. I’m sorry to hear you only had four-star reservations in Palm Springs the last few months. Looks like we were both suffering!” Luckily, with the help of God’s grace, I’ve recently been able to let go of this tension in my heart and find the grace to forgive these darn birds.

This healing process started when I was praying with the passage from the third chapter of Daniel where three men are thrown into a blazing-hot furnace for refusing to worship the god and statue set forth by King Nebuchadnezzar. Though they were thrown into the white-hot furnace, they were able to walk amidst the flames untouched and unharmed as they sang praises to the glory of God. Fire in the Scriptures often calls to mind the theme of refinement. This can be found in Peter’s first letter when he writes how “now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pt. 1:6-7).

As I prayed on these passages, I realized I don’t always do a good job of allowing myself to be refined by the flames. I’m often like Peter in that, when things are going well, I make such promises to the Lord as, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!” Then, hours later, I can betray him at the first sight of trial. I can praise the Lord when I recognize the many blessings he’s bestowed on me, then angrily blame him minutes later when I face some sort of agony. I’m always amazed at how readily and consistently the Lord welcomes me back in his patient mercy. As I reflected on how I tend to flee from the Lord when the going gets tough, I was more readily able to sympathize with these birds.

However, this did not immediately lead to forgiveness on my part. In my mind, the birds still owed me. I could sympathize with their southbound flight, but I reasoned that they were still in some way in my debt. This continuously stirred up within me minor feelings of bitterness and resentment and I found myself incapable of fully enjoying their tender tweets.

This led me to consider the true meaning of forgiveness. In the last year or so, I’ve had conversations with several people who have been wounded in ways far greater than I’ve ever experienced. The ways in which they’ve been betrayed and harmed puts my plight with these birds to shame. Each of them are in the process of forgiving folks who have radically shattered their lives. If anyone has a right to hold someone in their debt, it would seem to be these folks. Yet each of these individuals I’ve spoken with have a desire and are working towards forgiving these people. Why?

I think, on a much more serious scale, it’s for the two reasons I’m trying to forgive these birds. First, as crazy as it sounds, there’s a refreshing sense of freedom we experience when we free someone from our debt. As I’m now able to rejoice in the sounds of a nice spring day while remaining free from feelings of bitterness and resentment, so too are folks who forgive people once in their debt experiencing a newfound sense of freedom. Un-forgiveness offers a false illusion of freedom and power, yet it actually can become enslaving and inhibit the healing process. (For a beautiful testimony on forgiveness, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGrbtma7LgE )

Second, as I eventually found it in my heart to forgive the birds based on the fact that I too have fled in tough times, so too are folks finding it in their hearts to forgive others when they look to the Cross. St. Matthew was a tax-collector who knew a thing or two about financial debts. In his version of the Lord’s Prayer, we could translate one of the lines from the original Greek as: “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mt. 6:12). The reality is that your and my sins put us in God’s debt: a debt that could not be repaid on our part. Jesus’ death on the Cross was the moment where God himself took our place in order to free us from this debt and open to us the gates to eternal life. If God could forgive us our infinite debt, how can we not imitate that mercy and forgive our debtors? (See Mt. 18:21-35)

To forgive, then, is more or less to say to someone, “What you did was not right. I may never forget what you did. Because of this action, justice demands that you be in my debt. However, in imitation of the mercy God has bestowed on me, I will choose mercy over justice and release you from my debt. I refuse to be enslaved by the bitterness of a grudge and instead choose the freedom and healing that come with forgiveness. I forgive you.”

Birds, I no longer consider you to be in my debt. I’m looking forward to hearing your chirps as we enjoy this beautiful weather together. I forgive you for leaving and welcome you back as I, too, have been welcomed back time and time again into the merciful Heart of the Lord.

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This Lent, Give Up Being A Wimp

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At only eighteen years old, Blessed Chiara Luce Badano was dying of a rare form of bone cancer. She spent the last year of her life in a hospital going through round after round of chemotherapy and radiation. Her beautiful head of hair and healthy figure were quickly replaced with a buzz cut and an emaciated body. To make matters worse, it soon became clear that the cancer was inoperable and terminal. Her friends and family looked on in utter helplessness as the beautiful teenager before them prepared for her departure from this life. Yet, through it all, Chiara maintained a soft glow in her eyes and a sense of joy that inspired those who visited her and continues to inspire folks who read her testimony to this day. When a lock of hair would fall out, she would hold it up and pray, “For you, Jesus.” She was so sure of Jesus being present with her in her sufferings that she would frequently pray, “If you want this, Jesus, I want it too.”  On October 7, 1990, she passed away with these final words to her mother: “Bye mum, be happy, because I’m happy.”

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I’ve recently been reflecting on the decision she made, in the midst of her great emotional distress and physical agony, to refuse morphine throughout her treatment. Her reasoning? “It reduces my lucidity and there’s only one thing I can do now: to offer my suffering to Jesus because I want to share as much as possible in his suffering on the cross.” For many, this reasoning of hers can sound naïve, misunderstood, absurd, and even downright insane. I, for one, question whether I would have this desire and this courage in such a situation. However, I believe this decision and the rationale behind it can teach us at least two valuable lessons as we enter into the Lenten season.

First, Chiara’s peace in this time of vulnerability serves as a great inspiration for us. These days the word “vulnerability” is generally equated with “emotional vulnerability” and typically evokes the image of a support group sitting in a circle passing around a box of Kleenex’s. I’m not knocking support groups, but this is only one manifestation of vulnerability. The word “vulnerable” comes from the Latin word “vulnerare” which means “to wound.” Thus, vulnerability literally means “able to be wounded.” A common example of vulnerability involves opening up about something you have a strong emotional attachment to, but there are other examples. For instance, a man who gets down on one knee to ask a woman for her hand in marriage places himself in a vulnerable position. In that moment on one knee, the man is opening himself up to the possibility of rejection; that is, the possibility of being “wounded.” He could avoid the possibility of being wounded with rejection by never asking, but that would also mean he’d have to avoid the possibility of rejoicing at hearing her say “Yes.” This is precisely the point: we cannot experience true, lasting joy and fulfillment if we are not willing to embrace moments of vulnerability.

We may be able to acknowledge the truth of this maxim in theory, but many of us still struggle with putting it into concrete practice. If you’re wondering how well you embrace vulnerability, ask yourself, “In what ways and how often do I numb myself from facing the harsh truths of reality?” When pain (physical or interior) rears its ugly head, we very often turn to some degree of numbing. Even something like grabbing a bag of Sour Patch Kids at the checkout lane because it’s been a bad day (speaking from experience) is a minor form of numbing. Numbing or “taking the edge off” in and of itself is not always a bad thing, but it can escalate into a big problem. Such numbing outlets that have become pretty commonplace in our culture are excessive alcohol consumption, recreational pot smoking, excessive gambling, obsession with social media, viewing pornography, and other sources of obtaining a brief dopamine high that may bring temporary relief. The problem, as we all know, is that this temporary numbing never fully satisfies us or gets rid of the problem we’re trying to run from, which is a realization that discourages us, which causes us to numb the pain of that realization, which doesn’t fully satisfy us, and the vicious cycle continues. What most people don’t realize (or, if they do, they don’t want to admit) is that numbing ourselves from a vulnerable state (that is, facing head-on the opportunity to be wounded by the harsh truths of reality) numbs us from the possibility of attaining the joy and fulfillment we’re longing for.

Research professor Brene Brown, known for her world-famous TEDTalk on vulnerability, flushes out this observation in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. In her section on numbing ourselves from vulnerability, she writes, “Numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” If you still need convincing on this point, just watch Disney Pixar’s Inside Out.

When Chiara came face-to-face with excruciating pain and the foretaste of death, she had a decision to make: numb the pain with morphine, or embrace a painful and vulnerable state. As we know, she chose the latter. She courageously embraced the state of vulnerability not because she particularly enjoyed suffering (none of us do), but because she must have known that numbing her suffering and avoiding a state of vulnerability would somehow prevent her from experiencing joy and love at the deepest level of their being. Had she been doped up, the final words to pass her lips, “Be happy, because I’m happy” would have lost some of its credibility.

This leads to the other point that Chiara demonstrates through her heroic virtue: her decision to embrace this state of vulnerability was firmly rooted in love for another person. There’s something about suffering that has the capacity to draw us closer to others and, conversely, there’s something frightening about the idea of suffering alone. There’s a special bond that can be formed between two people who love one another when one or both persons are suffering. As I wrote in an earlier blog post What Refugees Taught Me About Love, Part One on the descending nature of agape love: “Love impels us to cry out to the suffering beloved, ‘I will take your place! I will take your sufferings upon myself.’ What mother would not look upon her cancerous child and say, ‘Lord, spare his life and take mine instead!’ What husband would not look upon his wife while she’s in great pain and say, ‘If only I could take on her sufferings and give her my own health.’” Chiara had such a great love for Jesus who suffered on the cross out of love for her that she desired “to share as much as possible in his suffering on the cross.”

Now if Chiara had this beautiful desire to avoid numbing her pain in order to share as much as possible in the sufferings of Christ, how much more should we expect Christ, who is Love, to avoid numbing his pain in order to share as much as possible in our sufferings? The reality is that he was presented with that very opportunity. In the first place, God becoming Incarnate and taking on the weakness of human flesh was the ultimate act of vulnerability (that is, allowing oneself to be wounded). In that state of vulnerability, he was eventually arrested, beat, spat upon, scourged, humiliated, crucified, and pierced with a lance. “Ability to be wounded” here would seem to be an understatement. As he dangled from the Cross, the crowds urged him to miraculously “come down from the Cross” so they could believe that he truly was God (Mt. 27:42). The irony was that he is God, and God is Love, and descending agape Love does not come down from crosses, but “comes down” precisely for crosses.

Throughout His Passion, Jesus was offered the chance to numb his pain. St. Matthew recalls, “They gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall. But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink” (Mt. 27:34). St. Mark also attests, “They gave him wine drugged with myrrh, but he did not take it” (Mk. 15:23). We can infer that this decision was an act of great love on his part, just as Chiara’s choice to willing embrace the sufferings that came with vulnerability was an act of great love.

This Lenten season, don’t settle for just giving up chocolate. This Lent, we have the chance to “give up” being wimps who constantly numb every source of  suffering. We have the chance to embrace rather than avoid vulnerability and lovingly share in some of the sufferings Christ underwent for us on Good Friday. We will no doubt be wounded in this state of vulnerability, but we must cling to the hope that this will lead us to a greater rejoicing in the reality of the resurrection. I pray that, whatever you do (or don’t do) this Lenten season, you are able to draw nearer to the pierced side of Christ’s flesh. For it is in contemplating the pierced side of Christ that, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.” May the beautiful witness of Blessed Chiara Luce Badano inspire us in walking this path of love- a path of love that is not for the faint of heart.

“At this point I have nothing left, but I still have my heart, and with that I can always love.”
-Blessed Chiara Luce Badano

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‘Silence’ and the Value of Humiliation

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(WARNING: Contains major spoilers)

Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.” -Shusaku Endo (Silence)

The recently released film Silence, based on the 1966 historical novel by Shusaku Endo, has stirred up quite the array of reactions. Some walk away from theaters disgusted, others inspired. Some have discouraged everyone they know from seeing it, others are convicted that everyone needs to see it. And then there are those who just aren’t quite sure what to make of it. It would be unrealistic for me to try to address and respond to every difficulty people are having with the film. What I have set out to do in this post is draw parallels between characters in this story with characters both in the Gospels and in real life to highlight the value of humiliation.

A brief synopsis of Silence may be helpful here. The film/novel takes place during the persecution of Christians that really did occur in 17th-century Japan. Two Jesuit priests (Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garrpe) requested to enter into this hostile territory in secret because they had heard rumors that their beloved and zealous mentor, Fr. Ferreira, had apostatized (that is, renounced his faith in Christ) amidst brutal persecution in his most recent mission. The two young priests set out to disprove these rumors and minister to the Japanese Christians who were living their faith in secret. When word got out that the priests were in Japan, the Japanese government punished the local Christians with brutal forms of torture and death. When they finally captured Fr. Rodrigues, they also had him undergo severe bouts of torture.

The cruel irony was that Fr. Rodrigues himself was not crucified, forced to dangle upside down in a pit, drowned, burned alive, or have boiling water continuously poured on his flesh like the Japanese martyrs experienced. Instead, he was told that they would continue to torture the Japanese Christians in these ways until he apostatized. What made it even more difficult was the spiritual battle inside Fr. Rodrigues’ soul where he experienced the frustrating “silence” of God at a time when he needed Him the most. When the sufferings of the faithful finally overwhelmed Fr. Rodrigues, he gave in and apostatized. He lived the rest of his life comfortably in Japan where he was forced year after year to renew the public denouncement of his faith.

One of the reasons why his apostatizing came as a surprise to many of the viewers (I could hear people gasp in the theaters) was because of how Fr. Rodrigues’ persona was portrayed throughout the film leading to that point. Martin Scorsese, director of the film, wrote a foreword in the recent edition of the novel. There he explains, “Sebastian Rodrigues represents what you might call the ‘best and the brightest’ of the Catholic faith…stalwart, unbending in his will and his resolve, unshakable in his faith.” Based on Fr. Rodrigues’ attitude and actions, one would think “he will be the hero,” “the Christ figure, with his own Gethsemane and his own Judas.” When Fr. Rodrigues realized the difficulties he was faced with were not the ones he expected or prepared for, he began asking God, “Why am I being kept alive? Where is my martyrdom? My glorious martyrdom?”

The film and novel flesh out these prideful intentions even more painfully in his thoughts towards a local man, Kichijiro. Kichijiro is portrayed throughout the film as the Judas/Peter of the story. Though he was once a “strong” Christian committed to enduring martyrdom like Peter, who had told Jesus at the Last Supper, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be…I will not deny you,” he too had apostatized and lived in great shame. When Fr. Rodrigues came to Japan, Kichijiro went to confession to the priest and asked him for absolution for his earlier act of betrayal. However, soon after his confession, he told the authorities where Fr. Rodrigues was hiding out and was rewarded three hundred pieces of silver (calling to mind the thirty pieces of silver Judas received). Sickened by what he had done in a moment of weakness, he came back to the imprisoned Fr. Rodrigues for confession once more. Fr. Rodrigues reluctantly absolved him with “a bitter taste on his tongue.” He looked down upon Kichijiro as “weak” for falling so frequently while considering himself as “strong” for remaining faithful. He then reflected in the novel, “Men are born in two categories: the strong and the weak, the saints and the commonplace, the heroes and those who respect them. In time of persecution the strong are burnt in the flames and drowned in the sea; but the weak, like Kichijiro, lead a vagabond life in the mountains.” When he himself apostatized, he reflected on the weakness he’d previously perceived in Kichijiro and finally came to the revelation, “I wonder if there is any difference between Kichijiro and myself.”

One of the main takeaways for me from the story was the humbling realization that I am more like Judas and Peter than I often am willing to admit. I’d like to think that I could persevere through any trial, that I could die a martyr’s death, that I have a strong enough friendship with Christ to never betray him. Yet, though I have never formally renounced my faith in Christ, I “betray” him every day when I sin. I can often take on the prideful, self-reliant attitude of Fr. Rodrigues that I am “strong” while looking down on others as “weak” (or at least weaker than myself). Much like the Pharisee in Luke 18, I tend to subconsciously pray, “God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of humanity: greedy, dishonest, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). I go back to confession again and again, even though I pray at the end of the Act of Contrition, “I firmly resolve with the help of your grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” It’s in those times that the Lord gently (or sometimes not so gently) leads me into encountering my own interior poverty so that I can honestly say, “I wonder if there is any difference between Kichijiro/Fr. Rodrigues/Judas/Peter/the tax collector and myself.”

This revelation is not meant to encourage us to self-condemnation to the point of despair over our sinfulness. That hopeless despair is unhealthy and has no value. What encountering our interior poverty should do is lead us all the more to Christ our Divine Physician. For he himself said, “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners” (Luke 5:32), for “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do” (Matthew 9:12). After Peter denied our Lord three times, Jesus did not abandon him to wallow in the overwhelming reality of his sinfulness but sought him out and led him to repentance. The tax collector who, unlike the prideful Pharisee, cried out, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” was held up as a model for us since “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).

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A 20th-century “real-life” Jesuit priest by the name of Fr. Walter Ciszek faced a similar revelation during his time in Soviet labor camps and prisons. He felt the Lord call him to leave the safety and familiarity of his parish in Poland and head to Soviet Russia to minister to the Catholics being placed in the labor camps. He recounted in his book He Leadeth Me one moment in this time that set the stage for a life-altering experience. After spending five torturous years in a Soviet prison camp, on a day in which he felt weak and, “prayed for the Spirit to move [him] and felt nothing, feeling abandoned by God,” he finally gave in to the interrogators’ commands and agreed to renounce his faith. He recalled, “I was despicable in my own eyes, no less than I must appear to others. My will had failed: I had proved to be nowhere near the man I thought I was.” (“I wonder if there is any difference between Kichijiro and myself.”)

He follows this up with a crucial observation:

“I was ashamed because I knew in my heart that I had tried to do too much on my own, and I had failed. I felt guilty because I realized, finally, that I had asked for God’s help but had really believed in my own ability to avoid evil and to meet every challenge. In a way, I had been thanking God all the while that I was not like the rest of humanity, that he had given me a good physique, steady nerves, and a strong will, and that with these physical graces given by God I could continue to do his will at all times and to the best of my ability. In short, I felt guilty and ashamed because in the last analysis I had relied almost completely on myself in this most critical test- and I had failed.”

It almost sounds like a page out of Fr. Rodrigues’ journal (and did you catch the tax collector reference?). However, how Fr. Ciszek continued from that point on set him apart from Fr. Rodrigues and helped him identify more with the tax collector. (As a reminder, the tax collector, mindful of his sinfulness, had cried out, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” and our Lord commented, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).)

As he continued reflecting on his great act of betrayal, Fr. Ciszek wrote:

“God must sometimes allow us to act on our own so we can learn humility, so we can learn the truth of our total dependence on him, so we can learn that all our actions are sustained by his grace and that without him we can do nothing. Learning the full truth of our dependence upon God and our relation to his will is what the virtue of humility is all about. For humility is truth, the full truth…And what we call humiliations are the trials by which our more complete grasp of this truth is tested.”

It was through that humiliation of betrayal that Fr. Ciszek was faced with the invitation that had been offered to the tax collector, Peter, Fr. Rodrigues, and Judas, yet was only taken up by Fr. Ciszek, the tax collector, and Peter: to resist the temptation to despair over his own sinfulness and instead turn to Divine Mercy once more. This act of repentance could only be possible through humility of heart.

After his act of betrayal, Fr. Ciszek “turned to prayer in fear and trembling. I pleaded my helplessness to face the future without him. I told him that my own abilities were now bankrupt and he was my only hope.” It was then that he was consoled by the thoughts of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Fr. Ciszek referred to this revelation in prayer as “a conversion experience, and I can only tell you frankly that my life was changed from that moment on. I knew that I must abandon myself entirely to the will of the Father and live from now on in this spirit of self-abandonment to God.” This kind of decision could only come, he admitted, “by the experience of a complete despair of my own powers and abilities that had preceded it.” From that moment on he knew “I could no longer trust myself, and it seemed only sensible then to trust totally in God.”

He took back his offer of betrayal to the Soviet guards and was sent to labor camps for fifteen years as a punishment. He endured those years with a newfound sense of God’s consoling presence that was only made possible through the painful humiliation of the weakness of his own will. After his release from the camps, he reflected once more, “No matter how badly the humble man fails, he will reckon his accounts with God and start over again, for his humility tells him of his total dependence on God.”

Here’s my point: Humility consists in seeing the truth of who we are and who God is. Through humiliations big and small, we can come to find that we are not as strong or holy as we thought we were. After we are humiliated we are left with two choices: forever wallow in an isolated, secretive despair at our sinfulness like Fr. Rodrigues and Judas chose, or humbly repent and seek God’s mercy once more like Peter, the tax collector, Kichijiro, and Fr. Ciszek. Seeking to grow in humility does not mean desiring to scrupulously condemn ourselves over every little flaw we find, but to rely on God’s presence and strength in a way that opens ourselves up to having our egos deflated. Silence shows how all of us, even the “strongest,” are capable of being brutally humiliated, but the Gospels and Fr. Ciszek’s story serve as a more inspiring model of the hope we can still have in God’s mercy on our pursuit towards sainthood and of the value of humiliation.

[Leave a comment below if you have anything to add to the discussion. Be sure to subscribe for all future posts on this blog.]

Top Fifteen Books of 2016

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In 2013, 2014, and 2015 I shared my favorite books I read in those respective years. Here are the top fifteen books I read in 2016 along with a one-sentence description of each book. (Follow me on Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/13386635?shelf=read )

15. Father Elijah: An Apocalypse by Michael O’Brien.
An apocalyptic novel depicting the life of a faithful priest entrusted with an important mission as the end times draw near.

14. The Mystery of Joseph by Fr. Marie-Dominique Phillippe
Striking, prayerful reflections on the foster-father of Jesus.

13. The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
One of the most critically-acclaimed novels from the 19th-century covering a wide array of themes and ideas.

12. The Way of a Pilgrim by Anonymous
A short novel that follows a pilgrim around as he discovers the beauty of the “Jesus Prayer” in the midst of seeking out the meaning behind St. Paul’s exhortation to, “pray without ceasing.”

11. The Mystical Body of Christ by Fulton J. Sheen
A wonderfully crafted teaching on the nature of the Church from the beloved 20th-century priest, author and speaker.

10. The Art of Being a Good Friend by Hugh Black
Timeless advice on how to cultivate meaningful friendships.

9. The Drama of Atheist Humanism by Henri de Lubac
An intelligent investigation by the great 20th-century theologian into the downfalls in the atheistic humanism philosophies present in our world.

8. Healing by Dr. Mary Healy
A theological/biblical exploration into the reality of Jesus’ healing power and the ways in which it still reaches people today.

7. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The “children’s story” that has something to say to all ages.

6. The Meaning of Tradition by Yves Congar
A brilliant teaching by the renowned twentieth-century theologian which unveils the beauty of what the Church is referring to when she uses the word, “Tradition.”

5. Silence by Shusaku Endo
A novel following a missionary priest who endures great sufferings amidst the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan (now a major motion picture).

4. He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek
Raw, down-to-earth life lessons presented by a priest who had spent twenty three agonizing years in Siberian prison and labor camps.

3. Into Your Hands, Father by Wilfrid Stinissen
A brief, yet powerful spiritual read on the importance of abandoning ourselves more fully into God’s Divine Providence.

2. Come Be My Light by St. Mother Teresa with Brian Kolodiejchuk
A commentary on the private letters St. Mother Teresa wrote on her spiritual life with a special emphasis on the interior sufferings she endured.

1. Charles de Foucauld by Jean-Jacques Antier
A powerful biography on the incredible life of the 20th-century martyr.

What were some of the best books you read this year? Feel free to leave a comment below. 

Rediscovering Beauty

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God speaks to man through the visible creation. The material cosmos is so presented to man’s intelligence that he can read there traces of its Creator.
-Catechism of the Catholic Church #1147

It all started when I was about to doze off in the chapel. One cup of coffee proved to be an insufficient dose to sustain me during my 6:00 A.M. Holy Hour this morning. I must have looked super holy with my head bowed and eyes closed, but in reality I was striving to use the little strength left in me just to stay awake. It was then that I remembered a specific task I had assigned to myself for the day: “Find at least one beautiful thing and allow it to move your heart to God.”

A little background here might be helpful. I’ve recently been struck by the claims made in the “Catholic world” (more specifically the ideas of Hans Urs von Balthasar as advocated and explained by the hosts of the podcast, “Catholic Stuff You Should Know” and by Bishop Robert Barron) regarding the importance of acknowledging and promoting beauty in theology. The basic idea is that in every created reality there exists, to certain degrees, a sense of truth, goodness, and beauty about it (referred to as the three transcendentals). God himself contains the fullness of these three transcendantals in its purest form, so everything we can observe in creation that exudes one or more of these qualities is a kind of reflection of God. Thus when we recall a time when our heart was moved by the goodness exhibited by St. Mother Teresa, we should recognize in that moment of captivation an invitation towards exploring the fullness of pure Goodness: God. The same goes for truth and beauty as well.

The problem is that true beauty is often misunderstood and thus underappreciated in our society and in our Church. Beauty tends to be associated with adjectives like “pretty” or “visually appealing,” which leads to an abuse of the phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For instance, if beauty were merely “pretty” or “visually appealing,” then I would not call an old, wrinkled, hunched-over Albanian woman named Mother Teresa “beautiful.” Yet there is something about her that radiates something I can’t adequately put into words.
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So, what do we mean when we call something “beautiful”?

That’s what I’ve decided to explore. For at least the next two months, I’m going to try to open myself up to the beauty that surrounds me on a daily basis. I want to discover the different doorways God places in my daily life to have an encounter with him. I’ve been keeping a Beauty Journal to keep track of these encounters in order to train myself to take notice of the beauty present in what would have otherwise been simply looked over as ordinary or mundane.

That was where I found myself in the chapel this morning. When I slightly lifted my head up, striving to be open to the ways in which God could speak to me through beauty, my eyes landed on the back of the pew in front of me. I’m in the chapel at least once a day every day so I’ve seen the back of a pew before. Yet I never observed it with such intentionality as I did in that moment. I found myself struck by the patterns of the growth rings.
black-walnut-sealed-790It wasn’t really visually appealing or “pretty,” yet there was something about it that really captivated me. In one sense the pattern of the growth rings was ordered, in another sense it wasn’t. There was a sense of order in so far as the whole pattern did not seem chaotic, yet it wasn’t a perfectly symmetrical, aligned, equally distributed order. It retained a sense of “natural-ness,” so to speak. The wooden structure itself had been sanded down, glossed over, and shaped into this structure by man, yet the pattern present in the wood was something that had not been forged by man. There was something that remained from its time as a tree in some distant forest despite the many changes it had undergone. The more I thought about that, the more fascinated I became.

It reminded me of a fingerprint.
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Our fingerprints also have a sense of order about them, yet they’re not cookie-cutter perfectly ordered. There’s a uniqueness to every set of fingerprints such that no two fingerprints in the world are exactly the same. The pattern of a fingerprint, like the pattern of the growth rings on a piece of wood, is not shaped, altered, or even designed by man. It is one of the intrinsic things about me that remains the same despite other changes I may undergo over the span of my lifetime.

There was something about the patterns of the growth rings in the wood and the complexity of my fingerprints that truly captivated me today. Neither of these two things are all that visually-pleasing or pretty, yet I encountered something truly beautiful the more I reflected on it. I suppose you could say I was able to sense God’s fingerprints in creation.

Then, as I looked up from the pew in front of me, reflecting on what I had just realized, I all of a sudden was struck by how much wood there was in our chapel. In addition to the wooden floors below my feet and the wooden pews,
fullsizerender-12there was also a wooden altar, wooden choir stalls, and a wooden backdrop to the sanctuary in front of me.
fullsizerender-11When I left the chapel and went upstairs to my room, I noticed that we had wooden stair railings.
fullsizerender-10 I got to my room and set my books on my wooden desk,
fullsizerender-1grabbed a sweatshirt from my wooden dresser,
fullsizerender-2closed my wooden closet,
fullsizerender-6grabbed some vitamins out of my wooden sink cupboards,
fullsizerender-3 draped my rosary over my wooden bed frame,
fullsizerender-5grabbed a pen off of my wooden bed stand,
fullsizerender-4grabbed a textbook off of my wooden bookshelf,
fullsizerender-7closed my wooden door,
fullsizerender-8walked down the hallway and passed numerous wooden windowsills
fullsizerender-9and wooden walls,
fullsizerender-13sat down in class at my wooden desk, and began listening to my professor teach from a wooden podium.
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I never realized how much wood surrounds me on a daily basis because I wasn’t “looking” for it. Until I purposely sought to look for all the different ways wood surrounds me in the seminary, it was simply taken for granted. This is why I’m excited to spend the next two months (at least) trying to daily keep myself attentively open to encountering beauty. I have no idea what I’m going to learn along the way. I still can’t even fully describe what “beauty” is so I don’t know how I’ll be able to stumble across it. But I have the intuition that this is something I need to work on. Something the world needs to work on. Because as the renowned 19th-century author Dostoevsky put it, “Beauty will save the world.” Beauty cannot be merely associated with so-called “beauty pageants” any longer, nor can it be limited to merely visually-pleasing or pretty pictures on Instagram of sunsets and waterfalls and mountain ranges. For if we cannot see beauty in the face of our neighbors and/or the poor that we encounter each day because they are not “pretty,” if we cannot see beauty in the image of the crucifix because it is not “visually-appealing,” then we do not really know what beauty is.

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Von Balthasar reminds us of the urgency of this need to rediscover true beauty when he writes, “We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it…[Yet] we can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

Will you join me on this journey of rediscovering beauty? Consider keeping a Beauty Journal, try to make an entry at least once a day, and reflect on whether that encounter with beauty somehow led you to encounter God.

The Final Blessing

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Update: Monsignor Tom Villerot passed away December 5, 2016, just weeks after this post was first written and shared. Please say a prayer for the repose of his soul

~ ~ ~

Ninety-nine years ago, Our Lady of Fatima appeared in the miracle of the sun, America entered WWI, J.R.R. Tolkein began working on his opus magnum, The Silmarillion, and Monsignor Tom was born in Detroit, Michigan. If you do the math, you’ll notice that as a priest he’s prayed Mass on Sunday at least 3,800 times (again, that doesn’t include daily Mass), he’s heard at least 10,000 confessions, and, if he’s prayed the Liturgy of the Hours all five times a day for at least thirty years of his seventy-four year priesthood, that means he’s opened up his Breviary prayer book at least 50,000 times.

In the first year of major seminary at Sacred Heart, seminarians are sent out to visit and pray with patients and residents at local hospitals and nursing homes. I had the chance to visit with Msgr. Tom on a few occasions this semester at a local nursing home. Our conversations generally revolved around the Detroit Tigers, our families, and our time in the seminary. I’m convinced that five years from now I will forget almost every word of our conversations, yet I hope I never forget our final encounter.

A group of us seminarians all squeezed into his room this past week to say our final goodbyes before we began our assignment at a local hospital. He wouldn’t let us go before running through his usual selection of stories from his childhood and seminary days. When he told us about the time his dad broke out the belt once he caught him smoking cigarettes as a youngster, we laughed aloud together. When he shared the lessons he’d learned the hard way as a priest, we drank in every bit of wisdom that flowed from the chalice of his heart. As our time together came to a close, we asked him if he could give us a final blessing. He was more than eager to do so and sat up in his wheelchair. His eyes closed and his head slowly began to droop as he prepared to enter into dialogue with his lifelong Intimate Friend. His tone of voice softened as he spoke, “Father…”

Suddenly, the sounds of the P.A. system calling for assistance in Room 213, the scraping of the wheels of walkers trudging through the hallways, and Wolf Blitzer’s voice blaring from the TV in the next room all began to fade. Silence took the place of time as this humble shepherd led us into the presence of the Eternal God. We all leaned forward a bit so we wouldn’t miss a single word.

“Father,” he began again, “we ask you to bless these men.” He paused. Perhaps he was taking the time to craft the perfect prayer in his head before speaking it aloud. Perhaps he was trying to find the right words to convey to us the goodness of God. Perhaps he simply couldn’t function as quickly as he used to and was using all the strength he had in him to stay focused on this one prayer. When he finally spoke again, his words did not flow together cohesively. It took a great amount of attention on our part to discern what words he was trying to say amidst his mumbling.

Eventually, his focus turned from addressing God to addressing all of us. He slowly lifted up his head so he could look each one of us in the eye. I will never know with certainty what it was that he saw when he looked at us. Did he see in us the younger version of himself: young men passionate to give our lives in service for the Lord while still naïve about the crosses that will come our way? Did our presence remind him of how quickly the time had gone for him? Was his heart filled with regrets as he considered all the ways in which he could have done more over the years to love God and others? Whatever it was that he saw, it caused a tear to run down his face and dangle from the tip of his nose.

“Keep up the hard work,” he told us. “It’s worth it.” His face relaxed a bit and a small glimmer of light twinkled in his eyes. Though his body was still in 2016, his mind had suddenly been calmed by a brief visit to the 1920s. “When you were kids, maybe you used to play Mass.” At this we all chuckled. “But soon…” All of a sudden his face began to scrunch up. He brought his fragile hands together and raised them slightly off his lap. His voice broke into a higher pitch as he spoke, “Soon you will be able to say, ‘This is my body.” He sniffled. “This is my blood.” His head and hands slowly drooped back down and only the sound of his sniffs could be heard. We all looked with great admiration on this faithful servant. While he thought of the right words to end his prayer, I quickly prayed in my own heart, “Lord, grant that I may have Msgr. Tom’s perseverance. May I cling to you to the end.”

When he raised his head again, he looked each of us in the eye one more time. His gaze pierced right through the shortcomings, the insecurities, and the worries that surrounded our young hearts. Though he is practically blind, he had developed a vision of another kind over his lifetime. He saw something in us that we could not see ourselves that prompted him to conclude, “You guys are the light of the world…You are the light of the world.” He paused once more, knowing he had said everything he needed to say, and lifted up his right hand. “And may the blessing of Almighty God…the Father…the Son…and the Holy Spirit…come down upon you…and remain with you…forever.”

“Amen.”

~

Homes for the elderly should be the ‘lungs’ of humanity in a country, in a neighborhood, in a parish; ‘sanctuaries’ of humanity where those who are old and weak are cared for and taken care of like a brother or a sister. It’s good for you to go and visit senior citizens! Young people, who sometimes seem so miserable and sad: Go visit an elderly person and you will become joyful!”
-Pope Francis

 

There Will Be No Pumpkin Spice Lattes In Heaven

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There are many ways of coming to the conclusion that fall is finally here other than checking the calendar. Those of us who appreciate a cold brew noticed that Leinenkugel’s “Summer Shandy” has been replaced with “Oktoberfest”, the nature-lovers have observed the paintbrush of green leaves has seemingly been slowly dipped into an invisible bucket of red or yellow paint, and Instagram/Twitter/Facebook users have seen more than their fair share of poorly-filtered pictures of people venerating their beloved pumpkin spice lattes.

Fall is officially here and the transition into a new season brings forth a mixture of emotions. Those who despise Jack Frost are not amused by fall’s trademark contributions of apple cider, doughnuts, and array of colors; they see right through fall’s attempt at distracting them from the impending doom of the winter season and shake their fists in fury. Those who have mastered the art of being grateful in each present moment do not focus their attention on the pros and cons of the past or the future seasons but are trying to live in the present circumstances with great optimism and appreciation. I tend to naturally adhere more to the first view. As I strive to take on the mentality offered by the latter approach in order to stay sane in these upcoming months, I also find comfort in the fact that there will be no pumpkin spice lattes in Heaven.

We’re all familiar with the age-old analogy regarding the rhythm of the seasons. There’s something about the cycle of the four seasons that speaks to the cycle of our lives and the life of all that grows from the earth. Summertime tends to be associated with fruitfulness and life, fall is associated with the process of change (most notably towards death) and last call for harvesting, winter is associated with death, and spring is associated with renewed life.

We see hints of this relationship between the seasons and the stages of life in Scripture when we read, for instance, Song of Songs 2:10-13,

“Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come…the fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.”

We find something similar in Luke 21:29-30,

“Consider the fig tree and all the other trees. When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near…”

Fall/winter is a time of dying and death and the following spring/summer is a time for rebirth and fruitfulness.

Now consider these two incredibly similar visions of Heaven brought forth first by the prophet Ezekiel and then from the Book of Revelation:

“Then he brought me to the bank of the river, where he made me sit. Along the bank of the river I saw very many trees on both sides. He said to me… ‘Along both banks of the river fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail. Every month they shall bear fresh fruit, for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.”
-Ezekiel 47:6-12

“Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of its street. On either side of the river grew the tree of life that produces fruit twelve times a year, once each month; the leaves of the trees serve as medicine for the nations.”
-Revelation 22:1-3

Will there literally be trees in Heaven that will appear exactly as has just been described? Possibly- but that’s not my takeaway from these passages. My takeaway is that in Heaven we will no longer experience death or the process of dying/intense suffering. That’s something we will only experience on earth and in purgatory. The idea that “their leaves shall not fade” and that “every month they shall bear fresh fruit” brings to mind another passage from Revelation which speaks of our hope in everlasting life:

“Then I saw a new heavens and a new earth…I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.’ The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.'”
-Revelation 21:1-4

Though this life is filled literally with the repeated cycle of all four seasons and we experience spiritually/emotionally what tends to be associated with each season at various times in our life, the whole of our earthly lives can be described as a journey from the springtime of our youth to the wintertime of our death. Heaven is a time of sharing for all eternity in the glory of Christ’s resurrection; the rebirth of springtime and the fruitfulness of summertime.

In Heaven, therefore, there will be no death, there will be no fall, and thus there will be no pumpkin spice lattes.

 

Why I’m Starting To Dig Classical Music

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[WARNING: I am not a wine connoisseur. If you place a glass of red wine in front of me, I will not swish it around, inhale it in, and say (with a pretentious accent), “Splendid: an angular wine. The sweetness and hints of cedar-wood give it a cigar box flavor and there appears to be a hint of oak. I would say this opulent, velvety wine must be a 1942—no—1940 from the Trebbiano grapes of Italy.” I would probably take a few sips and say, “Dang, this is a lot better than boxed wine.”

Similarly, I know next to nothing about classical music. I cannot yet tell a Baroque from a Romantic, a viola from a violin, a canon from a concerto. Yet when I listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6, I can still be rendered speechless and think, “Dang, this is so much better than bro-country.”

Those who boast much experience with and knowledge of classical music, you have been warned.]

 ~ ~ ~

About a third of the way into the 2011 film Tree of Life starring Brad Pitt, there is a fifteen minute scene that depicts the great drama of creation from it’s beginnings to the first stages of human life. Accompanying the stunning cinematic effects is some pretty epic background music. The first installment features an opera singer whereas the second installment is solely instrumental. The richness of the music in both cases is a tantalizing supplement to the special effects.

Not surprisingly, the director Terrence Malick is not the first person to want to express the intricacies of the unfolding of creation through music. In fact, we can find someone who took such an approach all the way back “in the beginning.” Yes, I’m speaking of none other than the author of Genesis.

Almost all of my readers have read, at some point, the creation story in Genesis 1. Most people recognize that the genre of this passage is not a literal, scientific explanation of the origins of our universe. We need not believe, for instance, that the author wished to teach us that God created the world in six twenty-four-hour days. With careful studying, the reader can pick up on some rather intriguing features in the passage. The following is a modified (underlined, different spacing, italicized, bolded) version of a snippet from the passage which should show that the author was trying to tell us something more than just what we find on the surface:

 And God said,
Let there be light,’
and there was light…
And God SEPARATED the light from the darkness.
God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said,
Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters,
and let it SEPARATE the waters from the waters.” …
And God called the expanse Heaven.
And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.”

Notice the patterns? The rhythm? That’s not a coincidence. The ancient Israelite’s saw this account of creation in Genesis as a liturgical hymn which culminates in the seventh day when God creates the Sabbath. Think of the structure of a modern day pop song. There’s generally a verse, a chorus, a new verse, a repeat of the chorus, a bridge, and a repeat of the chorus. We can see in the Genesis account of creation a kind of hymn being shared with us. The first verse deals with light and darkness, the second verse deals with the waters and the heavens, yet there is a chorus of sorts that repeats in both days and brings about a harmonious unity.

There are many other Scripture passages which convey this understanding of the wonderful ordering of creation in such a poetic manner. Several of the Psalms, which were written as lyrical/poetic hymns of praise to God, touch on these themes. Psalm 96, for instance, proclaims: “Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them. Then let all the trees of the forest rejoice before the Lord…” Psalm 139 states, “How precious to me are your designs, O God; how vast the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the sands.” And who could forget the canticle from Daniel 3:52-90 which includes, “Mountains and hills, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. Everything growing on earth, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. You springs, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. Seas and rivers, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever.”

What does this have to do with my growing appreciation for classical music? While in prayer the other day, I realized that a great symphony surrounds me at all times. God, the Great Composer of the universe, has placed certain people in my life to form a piece Beethoven never could have conceived of. Some people in my life take the role of a violin, some take the role of a trombone, others a piano, a harp, or a bass. Still others are a clarinet, a flute, or a bass drum. When I’m in my Trinity class and my elderly, Jesuit, Irish-version-of-a-hyper-Clint-Eastwood professor is yelling at all of us about the Modalism Heresey, I can hear the pace of the score picking up as a rambunctious trumpet suddenly steals the spotlight. When I’m in a chapel filled with seminarians facing Our Lord in the Eucharist just a few feet away, my soul rises up with the peaceful chords that glisten off the strings of a cello (until someone sneezes).

When I’m caught up in a Shubert piece I’ve never heard before, I experience a sense of unpredictability. Unlike a pop song where I can quickly pick up on the words of the chorus by the end of the song, some classical composers seem to be a little more evasive. As I listen to a classical piece I can pick up on patterns here and there, but I can’t guarantee that the piece won’t all of a sudden shift into a minor key and slow down considerably within three measures. At times the piece seems chaotic and I think, “Where did that come from? Where are we heading?” Yet after a period of time, if I’m listening attentively, I can usually recognize, “Ah, so that wasn’t as random as I thought it was. It really did serve some purpose after all.” What seems in the present to be a moment of chaos ends up being classified, in retrospect, as merely unpredictable. From my experience, what appears to be chaotic generally entails a sense of unpredictability, but unpredictability does not necessarily entail chaos.

And so it seems to be in the symphony of my life. I have had some people contribute one lousy note to the score. Some people have been present for a measure. Some have merely blended in with the masses while some have had a solo all of their own that has captivated my attention for an extended period of time. I have wept as some who had made a significant contribution to the experience stood, took a bow, and walked off the stage with what appeared to be no intent of returning. In these moments I can fall into despair, thinking that the symphony has come to an abrupt halt and the Conductor chose to culminate this overall aesthetically-pleasing work, filled with a wide range of emotions, into the faint buzz of a lone kazoo. If I don’t keep the entire symphony in mind, I can think that I’m drowning in a whirlpool of meaningless chaos. If I can recognize that God has ordered the universe in some sort of symphonic manner and, with even greater attention and love, ordered our lives in a symphonic manner, I can see a confusing duration as being simply unpredictable, not meaninglessly chaotic. It is in those moments that I must keep my eyes fixed on the Baton of the Conductor, faithfully playing the notes placed before me measure by measure.

This is why I have started to listen to classical music. The yearnings of my heart for the transcendent are guided upwards by the beauty that emanates from a well-written symphony. A sense of order and rhythm that sometimes takes a strenuous attentiveness to notice reminds me of the invisible realities at work in our visible universe. The frustrations I have regarding the unpredictability of life is abased.  Life regains meaning. There is a reason to keep going. This present moment serves a purpose. Everything that has led to this point has served a purpose. In the end, when the Divine Conductor takes His bow and the angels and saints offer their applause, the magnificence of the piece will finally hit me. I will recognize the value of every note, every instrument, every rest. In that moment I will desire nothing more than to bow down in humble adoration for all eternity.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.’ The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” -Revelation 21:1-5

 

Why Mary Matters

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St. Teresa of Calcutta, who wrote into the Rule for the Missionaries of Charity that her Sisters “should use every means to learn and increase in that tender love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament,” once said, “I make a Holy Hour each day in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. All my sisters of the Missionaries of Charity make a daily Holy Hour as well, because we find that through our daily Holy Hour our love for Jesus becomes more intimate, our love for each other more understanding, and our love for the poor more compassionate.”

I had the opportunity recently to pray a Holy Hour with some Missionaries of Charity stationed in the Detroit-area. All four of them were originally from India and three of the four couldn’t have been taller than five feet. They graciously welcomed us into their chapel which was a simple, cozy living room in a building located in an inner-city neighborhood. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed and the Sisters prayed Evening prayer and a rosary before entering into a half hour of meditation.

Towards the middle of the rosary the doorbell rang. One of the sisters answered the door and guided a young, blind girl into the room. The Sister sat the young girl down next to her and went back to kneeling on the hardwood floor, gaze fixed on Jesus in the Eucharist. The young girl must have had some sort of autism because she constantly reached out to touch and re-touch the hem of the Sister’s habit (reminding me of the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, “People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed” (Matthew 14:35-36).)

The window at the back of the room was open and we could hear the neighborhood kids playing outside. Every once in a while the kids would laugh and the girl would turn her body in their direction, laughing as though she was in on whatever was happening. Whenever she got distracted she would reach back and grab hold of Sister’s habit to find her bearings. When her body turned too far to the side and she began making noises, the Sister would gradually nudge the girl’s knee, causing the girl to turn back towards the Blessed Sacrament. The Sister would then go back to adoring Our Lord with a smile on her face.

As I reflected on the beautiful sight before me, I couldn’t help but think of the role Our Blessed Mother is meant to play in all of our lives.

A traditional analogy compares the relationship between Mary and Jesus to the moon and the sun. Though the sun is always shining, there are times (most notably at night) when we are not able to see it. However, we have faith that the sun is shining when we see it reflected off the moon. The moon produces no light of its own, it merely reflects the light of the sun in order to bring that light to us in the darkness. In a similar manner, God is always present to us but there are moments when that truth appears questionable. Instances of “darkness” cause us to wonder whether we have been abandoned. In those times we can turn to Mary, who perfectly reflects the light of her son, and ask that she guide us to Jesus and comfort us while we wait.

What I saw in this Sister was a clear example of Mary’s motherly guidance in our lives. She took the hand of a blind girl and led her into a room where the presence of Jesus was radiating in a special way. I imagine that she whispered into the girls ear, “Jesus is right in front of you, I promise. Let’s sit here and let Him love us.” The girl may not have been able to see the “Son” shining, but she frequently grabbed hold of the Sister’s habit which, like the moon, reminded her that she was not alone in the darkness. The Sister would nudge the girl when she started to stray too far from Jesus, just as Mary attempts to lovingly nudge our hearts back to her son when we’ve wandered too far off His path. Then the Sister would go back to adoring Jesus in the Eucharist with a smile on her face; the same gaze that Mary must have as she looks upon the face of her son in Heaven.

This is why each of us needs to grow in our relationship with Our Blessed Mother. She knows and loves Jesus in a deeply intimate way; a way only a mother can know and love her son. The example of obedience, trust, and faithfulness she portrays in the Gospels give us all something to emulate. We need her prayers as we strive to follow God’s will and seek to know and love Him more and more each day.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

The Stem

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There was a time when noise was not
And silence enveloped the world.
Then came a word, “Let there be light!”
Noise shattered silence’s reign,
Yet silence remained.
Noise did not replace silence
Any more than a child replaces her mother upon entering into the world.
Noise was the eventual budding of the stem of silence.
There was no tension, no rivalry between the two.
They both beheld each other with such reverence and awe.
Silence wept as she listened to Chopin and Mozart
And noise always looked forward to finding rest in her mother’s embrace.
But this is hardly the reality we observe these days.
No, we have plucked noise from her stem.
We have pit the two against each other
And have decided to exult that which blooms.
After all, it is said, noise propels us forward in “progress”
While silence holds us back.
Noise liberates, silence imprisons.
Noise frees us from our worries, silence drags us into a lonesome depression.
Therefore we must allow noise’s mother to die, her stem to wither.
And yet, in all of this, there is more at work in man’s heart than mere dissatisfaction with silence.
There is a fear of silence that has crept into our being.
To enter into silence is to surrender control and predictability.
When silence enters a conversation,
She is seen as a small flame that needs to be put out by the waters of noise
Before it spreads and destroys the ego.
As a result, noise has been trained to hate her mother and see her as a threat.
It was thus that noise appeared to have taken over our world,
Leaving silence to vanish quietly into the night.
Noise became a sign of the developed world
And silence became associated with outcasts on the mountains of distant places.
They were allowed to cling to their ancient treasure,
But there was an understanding that they would never be welcomed
Here in “the real world”- “the world of noise.”

~ ~ ~

This was the world Brother John was born into. As an infant, he was left on the doorstep of a monastery. The brothers took him in, raising him in the life of a monk. When he was of age, he acquired his own habit and became more immersed in the life of these rebellious outcasts. He prayed for an hour each day before breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bed in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. He prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary, and a Lectio Divina with the community daily. When his chores had been completed and he had some free-time, he would write poetry, read a spiritual classic, walk the monastery grounds, or take a brief nap.

It was a life of solitude; a life of peace.

One summer evening, Brother John knocked on the door of his prior.

“Come in.”

Fr. Charles had been staring at the crucifix he’d hand-carved in his days as a novice. He placed it on his desk and looked up with delight at Brother John. Their eyes barely met, for Fr. Charles-in his old age-could not lift his head above his shoulders for very long.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Father. Am I interrupting?”

“Not at all, come.”

Brother John took another step inside and closed the door behind him.

“Father Joseph had asked that I speak with you this evening.”

“Ah, on the feast day of our patron?”

“Precisely. Father–” he paused, thumbing the rosary beads on his habit, “through spiritual direction with Fr. Joseph, I have discerned that God is not calling me to take the next set of vows. I will be leaving the monastery.”

Fr. Charles nodded slowly, the peaceful gaze remaining. His eyes shifted to a nearby chair.

“Sit.”

Brother John sat in the gentle glow of a nearby desk lamp. He lightly tapped his fingers on his lap, waiting for Fr. Charles to speak. Fr. Charles remained silent, peering into Brother John’s eyes. There was no hint of condemnation, only admiration. He then took a deep, wheezing inhale and spoke, “You’ve been discerning this for quite a while.”

“Yes.”

“For a year now.”

Brother John hesitated, “…y-yes.”

Fr. Charles beamed. “My son, I have been keeping a close eye on you. One day last spring you were strolling by the garden and you looked so unhappy. I thought maybe you were just experiencing some  minor spiritual desolation. But then I saw you reach the edge of the hill, looking down at the family that lives across the valley. I got up to make my tea, came back, and you had not moved a muscle.”

Brother John began to blush. Fr. Charles’ eyes gleamed. With his hands resting on the arms of his chair, he leaned forward slightly- his head drooping to the left.

“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

“I know, Father. I just…I don’t want you to feel betrayed, after all you’ve done for me.”

“My son, what I want for you more than anything else is your joy and your peace. That is something only God’s will can provide. If His will is to take you away from me, then I will not stand in His way.”

Brother John looked down at his feet. Part of him wished Father’s voice would have a hint of anger or even indifference in it. He hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to abandon someone who cared so much about him.

“Father…I am afraid.”

“Good, that means you’ve discovered God’s will.”

“…well, yes. I suppose. But there is something that’s been keeping me up at night. I don’t know how to live in that other world. This is all I have known from birth.”

“What do you mean, ‘That other world?'”

“The world of noise.”

Fr. Charles closed his eyes, gently stroking his beard. Brother John was tempted to fill the silence by explaining further, but he knew better. He kept still and waited. After what seemed like hours, Fr. Charles took a deep, wheezing inhale, reached for his cane, stood, and began to hobble across the room. He picked up a copy of the Bible from his bookshelf and placed it on the desk next to Brother John.

“Genesis One.”

Brother John opened and looked up obediently.

“What did God create on the first day?”

“Light.”

“The second?”

“Sky.”

“Third?”

“Land and sea.”

“Fourth?”

“Sun, moon, stars.”

“Fifth?”

“Animals.”

“Sixth?”

“Man.”

Fr. Charles tapped into his renowned passion for teaching as he began to explain, “The first three days, God laid a foundation. The next three days, He built off it. The sun borrowed light, birds filled the sky, man and lesser animals occupied land and sea.”

Brother Charles was slightly frustrated at the seemingly condescending approach Father had decided to take. He’d learned all of this in his fourth-grade catechism class. He tried not to show his impatience.

“Before there was noise, Brother John, there was silence. Just ask the land, the sea, and the sky.”

Brother John simply nodded, not knowing how to respond. Fr. Charles delighted at the chance to continue.

“Our world, and it is one world Brother, has forgotten that fundamental truth. People think there are two separate worlds; a world of noise and a world of silence. You yourself hinted at this just now. No, there is one world, and silence and noise were meant to live together in harmony.”

“I realize that, Father. What I fear is that, living amidst noise constantly, I too will forget that truth. That fear has pierced my heart. How do I prevent myself from idolizing noise?”

“You must learn to find God in the noise. Yes, He speaks to us most clearly in the silence. Never abandon your daily time of silent prayer. But Our Lord is present in the noise as well; He is Incarnate! You can find Him in the wailing of a baby, the pleas of the poor, the mindless chatter of the man sitting next to you on a bus. He is in here,” he pointed to his chest, “and He is out there,” he pointed out the nearby window. “Where you are, there He is.”

Once again, silence was all Brother John could reply with.

“Come here.”

The two embraced. Brother John began to weep silently on Fr. Charles’ shoulder.

“This is all I have known. I am afraid.”

Father Charles backed away, clutching Brother John’s wrist firmly. With his other hand, he pointed his wobbly finger at Brother John. “What you have known is the Lord. He will remain with you wherever you go.” Brother John smiled through the tears. “Silence has something she wants to say to the world concerning her daughter, Brother. Go, and do not be afraid.”

They embraced once more and Brother John walked back to his cell for the last time.

~ ~ ~

The next morning, Brother John awoke earlier than usual. He folded up his habit, placed it on his bed, and changed into a white t-shirt and blue jeans. He gathered together his Bible, spiritual journal, and rosary and exited the only home he’d ever known.

When he entered the garden, he indulged himself in a favorite past-time of his: he took off his sandals and walked through the edge of the garden barefoot. He loved the feeling of soil squishing beneath his feet. It was a gentle reminder that he came from dirt and to dirt he would one day return. As he exited the garden the dew of the grass brushed the dirt off his feet, causing him to shiver. When the numbness in his feet went from refreshment to penance, he slipped his sandals back on.

Just up ahead rested the log which overlooked the valley to the east. Brother John had become acquainted with this log over the past year as he daydreamed of a new life; a life which was now becoming a reality. He had arrived just as God had painted the first strokes of light on the canvas of the sky. A breeze whispered through the trees and an orchestra of crickets and bullfrogs played all around him.

When enough light had reached his corner of the world, he took out the Bible from his bag and opened it to the passage he’d bookmarked the night before:

As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
-Luke 10:38-42

He closed his eyes in an attempt to open the eyes of his heart. With those eyes he looked upon Jesus, Mary, Martha, and the family in the village. He recalled Fr. Charles’ remarks and sat with them in light of the Gospel reading: “There is one world,” “Harmony,” “He is always there.” He was reminded of the confusion he’d felt after hearing Fr. Charles’ closing remarks: “Silence has something she wants to say to the world concerning her daughter.”

“What could that mean,” he wondered. Meditating on those words in silence for a half hour revealed n further insights and Brother John began to feel discouraged. When he opened his eyes, he saw a single daisy in the distance. It was a peculiar sight. After all the visits he’d made to the log, he’d never noticed the lonesome daisy. He walked over to it with fascination. “What are you doing here all alone, my friend,” he thought. He plucked the stem out of the ground and held the flower in his palm. As he gazed upon the daisy, it all came together; Brother John realized his place in the world.

He went back to the log and pulled out his spiritual journal from his bag. After looking at the daisy one last time, he began to write:

There was a time when noise was not
And silence enveloped the world…

~ ~ ~

What Refugees Taught Me About Love, Part Two

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When my time with the Karenni refugees came to a close this summer, I wrote a blog post on a great lesson I learned from them about the nature of love. It’s been a month since I’ve last had a meal consisting of rice, spices, and sake with some of God’s most precious children and I still find myself learning new things based on the experiences I had with them. Recently, God pierced my heart with another revelation of the ways in which the Karenni taught me about love; more specifically, about God’s love for me and my inability to properly respond to that love.

At the beginning of last school year, a group of around fifteen brother seminarians and I all piled into our rector’s office. We had yet to be assigned to an outreach project for the school year. Our rector listed off all of the opportunities: “We need someone who can teach religious ed at St. Agnes parish,” “We need a pair of guys who would be willing to lead Bible studies on campus every Tuesday night,” etc. At the mentioning, “We need a pair of guys who would like to work with refugees that live in the area,” my ears perked up. There was a noticeable stirring in my heart, as if God was trying to say, “This is the one I have prepared for you from the foundations of the earth.” When I found out not only that I would be assigned to this outreach but also that a close friend of mine would be joining me, I felt overjoyed. I was surprised at just how excited I was to delve into an environment filled with so many uncertainties. I immediately went to the chapel to thank God for the upcoming mission, to thank Him in advance for the many blessings I had confidence He would bestow on me through the refugees, and to pray for those I would be serving.

I had not yet met the Karenni and could not even locate Burma on a map, yet I was already looking forward to the opportunity to love them and to lose myself in their lives. I felt what I imagine a father would feel upon finding that his wife is pregnant; speculations (driven both by joy and a fear of the unknown) on what the future will hold and a great love for a child whom he has not yet laid eyes on. It also brought to mind stories I’ve heard from seminarians who begin praying for their future parishioners before they are even assigned to their first parish.

The adventure began and, admittedly, it took a long time for me to feel comfortable around the Karenni. It felt strange just entering into their daily lives with a desire to love them, especially since many of them had no idea who we were or why we wanted to spend time with them in the first place. This in turn caused myself and my fellow interns to constantly reflect on the questions, “Well, what am I doing here,” “What kind of difference will my presence make,” etc. Eventually their trust in the authenticity of our motives removed many of the barriers of suspicion they may have had on their hearts and true friendships began to be formed.

As I shared in “What Refugees Taught Me About Love, Part One,” the time I spent this summer developing those friendships and meeting new families entailed a variety of unforeseen struggles. It was in this classroom of love that I learned first-hand the true meaning of com-passion: “to suffer with.” Recently I’ve been reflecting on the dynamics of my friendship with one of the young adults in particular (I’ll refer to him as “Nate”). I’ve come to see just how similar my relationship with Nate looks like my relationship with God.

Nate, along with a majority of the other Karenni refugees, did not respond to my love (or attempts at loving) the way I had expected and desired. He seemed to remain indifferent towards any words of affirmation I gave him. Small gifts seemed to be unappreciated. He didn’t seem to want to spend a ton of time together. It was hard to read him and this led to some bouts of discouragement. Yet I desired to spend time with him, to affirm his existence, to let him know how much I cared about him in whatever way I could communicate that. I had been praying and fasting for him for so long- even from before we’d met. I had so much love I wanted to show him but I often felt like he wasn’t being open to receiving that love and he certainly didn’t seem to be reciprocating it.

It was at this point in my reflections that God whacked me over the head with a spiritual-2×4: I am Nate when it comes to the spiritual life. Here’s why:

St. John reminds us that God “first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The words in the book of the prophet Jeremiah depict this heart-piercing reality when God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). This calls to mind the image from earlier of a father loving (in some sense) his child even before he/she is born. The child is loved before he knows he is loved. The child is known before he knows he is known and before he knows the one who knows him. I experienced this sense of God’s love in reflecting on the love I had for Nate before I had even met him; a love which was purified and which grew deeper as I got to know him over the year.

Because I approached the summer with the intention of “loving the Karenni and losing myself in their lives,” I was willing to take that journey of love wherever it led me; even (or, more appropriately, “especially”) when love led to some sort of sharing in the Cross of Christ. Very often the causes of this suffering were my own human weaknesses and my inability to love as purely as I am called to. Yet one of the hardest parts for me during those times of suffering was knowing that Nate and the rest of the Karenni didn’t even realize what they had caused me to go through. A mixture of their own personal hard-wiring and the upbringing they had in their culture led them to be a people difficult for me to love through no fault of their own. As a result they did not and could not know the lengths I was taking to stretch my heart in an attempt to envelop my heart over theirs.

With all this being said, I can say with great confidence that I am like Nate in at least two ways: 1. I have been loved by God before I knew Him or knew of His love for me, yet 2. So often I fail to acknowledge that love in my daily life and forget what my unresponsiveness to His love led to.

1. Each and every day I find myself trying to explore the depths of God’s knowledge and love of me. I would have to say that the first time I really got a glimpse into how real this knowledge and love for me is was when I was on a retreat in ninth grade. Yet I was tapping into a knowledge and a love that had been present before that moment. It had been present before I attended my first Sunday school class. It had been present before my parents first whispered the name of Jesus into my ear as an infant. It had been present before I was born. As a result, my love for God at every point in my life is a response by it’s very nature. My love is like the “Polo” to His eternal “Marco.” He has taken the initiative to love me first, which requires that I open up my heart to receive, to soak in, to rest in that gift, and then respond. Consequently, I follow Him because He has called me and not vice-versa. As Our Lord says in John 15:16, “It was not you who chose Me but I who chose you…” It became clear to me that I have been loved by God in a way not too dissimilar from the way Nate was loved by me.

2. Yet, also like Nate, I fail every day to acknowledge that love as it ought to be acknowledged and I take the Cross for granted. I set aside about two hours every day specifically for prayerful purposes. Of those two hours, I relish in the incredible gift of God’s love for me and the knowledge He has of the depths of my heart for a total of maybe three minutes on a good day. It’s not that I don’t care about God, I just don’t give Him the time, the thanksgiving, and the service to Him in my neighbor that He deserves. I simply take for granted the fidelity of His love and only appreciate it when I go to Him and don’t feel it as strongly as I once did.

By the same token, I will never be able to fathom what my sins put Him through. Once in a while He shows me glimpses of my contribution to the Cross and it sends chills down my spine; not just because I realize that my sins were responsible for the shedding of His blood, but also because, based on the way I live my life, it would appear as though I could care less.

I think an example of God’s great mercy is the fact that I am not capable of grasping just how ungrateful I am for God’s decision to empty Himself to become a man, to be scourged, to be crowned with thorns, to be humiliated, and to be crucified for me. I go through most of my life failing to acknowledge what I know of His love and failing to thank Him for the love which I will never be able to fully realize and thus unable to be properly appreciative for. Though my love is nowhere near as selfless and pure as Our Lord’s, I experienced a lesser degree of this kind of suffering and hidden love in the ways I tried to reach out to Nate. I’ve come to realize that if I’ve been responding to God’s love in that manner for all these years and He still hasn’t given up on me yet, I must pray for that same stubbornness of heart to love those whose reciprocity is not as I think it should be.

I pray that you would all find your own Nates so that, in recognizing your good intentions and your failures to love as purely as you’d like, you too would be able to explore God’s great love for you. In closing, I wanted to share a quote from my good friend Pope Benedict XVI on this important lesson we can learn in the classroom of love:

“In the love-story recounted by the Bible, [God] comes towards us, he seeks to win our hearts, all the way to the Last Supper, to the piercing of his heart on the Cross…Nor has the Lord been absent from subsequent Church history: he encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist…He has loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love. God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has ‘loved us first,’ love can also blossom as a response within us.”
-Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

‘Suicide Squad’ and the Prodigal Son

The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad

The Youtube Channel “How It Should Have Ended” offers humorous alternate endings to popular films. For instance, their alternate ending for Finding Nemo involves Marlin forgetting how to get back home once he’s finally found his son. The alternate ending for 300 involves King Leonidas falling down the bottomless pit when his Sparta-kick misses the messenger.

I’ve often thought of alternate endings to certain passages in Scripture. For instance, what would have happened if Lazarus was never raised from the dead? What if Peter had never stepped out of the boat and onto the water? What if John the Baptist had kept his mouth shut about King Herod’s unlawful marriage? I think this is a helpful spiritual exercise because it leads us to a better appreciation for the way things actually did unfold in the Gospels.

One passage in particular continuously calls me back to consider it’s alternate endings: the parable of the prodigal son. We all know the story. A young man demands his share of his father’s inheritance before the appropriate time. He then goes off to a distant land and squanders it all on “a life of dissipation.” When he hits rock bottom, unable even to have his share of the pods that the swine feed off of, he decides to return home and declare to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”

The fact that the father welcomes his son back in a merciful embrace, throws a feast for him, and refuses to treat him as a mere servant should shock us. Our fallen human nature longs to receive mercy, but is often hesitant if not strictly opposed to letting others receive the same degree of clemency. Many times we find ourselves inclined to favor justice over mercy; we romanticize Gandhi’s quote, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” but in practice many of us seem to demand, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

With that being said, it’s rather easy to picture an alternate ending to the parable of the prodigal son. We can imagine the young man, who rudely requested his share of the inheritance and squandered it in a foreign land, returning to his father suggesting that he be treated like a hired servant and having his request granted. Perhaps the father, in his anger and disappointment, becomes tempted to send his son away, effectively disowning him, but decides to keep him around to get some free labor out of him as a punishment. If the father had an “Eye for an eye” mindset, he could have very easily treated his son however he wanted under the guise of justice.

This alternate ending that I have in mind seems to me to be very similar to the premise and character development of the recent film, Suicide Squad. The “Suicide Squad” is a team of antiheros/villains from the DC Comics world. This collection of super-villains is recruited by a secret government agency to carry out dangerous missions in exchange for shorter prison sentences. The reason they are referred to as the “Suicide Squad” is because the conditions of the missions they are sent on are considered suicide missions due to the high probability of death. This is a seemingly brilliant idea for the agency since everyone on the Squad is a prisoner, which means if they succeed in the mission they go back to prison and if they die then there’s one less villain in the world to worry about.

So how is this film like an alternate ending to the parable?

It seems to me that the main villains that make up the Suicide Squad represent the role that the prodigal son would play in the alternate ending to the parable because they have all messed up and are now living the life of a servant. The film begins with a glimpse at each criminal in their respective cells of a penitentiary. It’s interesting to note that Will Smith’s character, Deadshot, is given a mystery heap of junk called “loaf” for dinner- calling to mind the pods that the swine fed off of. Eventually an intelligence operative by the name of Amanda Waller assembles the team and sends them off on a series of missions under the command of Colonel Rick Flag. For his own protection, Flag requests the bodyguard services of a martial arts expert named Katana. It soon became apparent to me that Waller represented the father and Katana represented the elder son in this alternate ending to the parable.

Amanda Waller

Amanda Waller

Waller represented the role that the father would play in the alternate ending because she most clearly embodies the philosophy of “justice over mercy.” She constantly reminds the Squad of their past in order to justify her treatment of them. Their identity has forever been stained by their criminal activity and their  dignity, according to Waller’s treatment of them, has been reduced to the point where they are merely disposable means to accomplish her ends. Their value is not inherent, it’s determined by the level of services and skills they can offer (which is why one of the characters, El Diablo, resists the opportunity to join the Squad and defiantly states, “I’m not a weapon. I’m a man.”). She implants bombs into their necks which could be detonated at any moment that they tried to disobey orders. Thus they were treated like slaves with no choice but to obey a master who literally held their lives in her hands. She keeps constant watch over them, similar to the image that atheist Richard Dawkins has of God as a “surveillance camera in the sky or the small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move.” This is the picture of a father who, upon the return of his prodigal son, agrees to distance himself in a master-slave relationship and constantly reminds the young man of the ways in which he’s failed.

Katana

Katana

Katana represented the role that the elder son would play in the alternate ending because she teams up with the father-figure, Waller, in resisting the implementation of mercy. In one flashback, we see Katana hold up a sword to a man she found out had been involved in the murder of her husband. He pleas for his life to be spared, but she replies, “Criminals don’t deserve mercy” and kills him on the spot. In the actual parable, the elder son has a hard time rejoicing in his father’s reaction to his brother’s return because, as he tells his father, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.  But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.” Thus it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to imagine the elder son in the alternate ending being satisfied with the kind of father-figure described above. As the father begins to treat the prodigal son like a slave, I could see the elder son with a smirk on his face, muttering under his breath, “Criminals don’t deserve mercy.”

It’s truly mesmerizing to realize that we could very well have been in the same situation as the Suicide Squad members. If we had a Heavenly Father like Waller, life would be downright frightening. We would be constantly looking over our shoulders, afraid of disappointing the “surveillance camera in the sky,” without a shred of hope for a merciful response to our poor decisions. We would pray for a second chance, but would believe that a third, a fourth, a thousandth chance would be out of the question. Luckily we have a Father who sent His Son to die in our place; a Son who, after being scourged and crucified for a crime He himself did not commit, cried out from His deathbed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We have a Father who sent visions of His Son to a Polish nun named St. Maria Faustina Kowalska in the twentieth century in order to share these and many other quotes on His Divine Mercy:

-“My Heart overflows with compassion and mercy for all,”

-“Child, do not run away from your Father; be willing to talk openly with your God of mercy who wants to speak words of pardon and lavish his graces on you. How dear your soul is to Me! I have inscribed your name upon My hand; you are engraved as a deep wound in My Heart,”

-“My mercy is greater than your sins and those of the entire world. Who can measure the extent of my goodness? For you I descended from heaven to earth; for you I allowed myself to be nailed to the cross; for you I let my Sacred Heart be pierced with a lance, thus opening wide the source of mercy for you. Come, then, with trust to draw graces from this fountain. I never reject a contrite heart.

Divine-Mercy

Yet all of us still have a Katana lingering around in our lives; a voice that tries to convince us, “Criminals don’t deserve mercy.” We are surrounded by a society that seems to favor justice over mercy. The evil one wants to convince us that our sins cannot be forgiven. He wants to convince us that our Father is like Waller in hopes that we will be afraid to ask for a second, a third, a thousandth chance.

Don’t be fooled.

Instead, acknowledge that idea as merely an alternate ending to the way the parable, a depiction of our Father’s boundless mercy and love, actually unfolds.

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’  But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast,  because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.”

 

Fat Momma and the Spontaneity of Charity

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When I was thirteen years old I watched a reality TV show called, “Who Wants to be a Superhero,” hosted by former president of Marvel Comics Stan Lee. A handful of contestants invented their own superhero and tried to make the case that they deserved their own comic. Each week a series of challenges would sift out those superhero-wannabes who lacked truly heroic virtue (or who couldn’t come up with a catchy theme song). One of those contestants was a woman who developed a superhero alter ego named “Fat Momma.” Fat Momma’s super powers included growing five times her size when she got angry and certain abilities that were only activated if she ate a doughnut.

In the first episode, Stan Lee gave the contestants a challenge that he described was “a race to the finish.” The contestants were given the impression that the winner of the challenge would be the one who made it to a specific destination first. However, near the finish line was a young girl crying, “Help me, I’m lost! I can’t find my mom.” Several of the contestants, including Fat Momma, sacrificed a decent time in order to ensure that the little girl was taken care of. Not surprisingly, helping the little girl was the actual challenge all along and those who ignored the girl, even if they had the fastest time, faced the possibility of elimination.

That gutsy decision made by Fat Momma has stuck with me all these years. This past week I was reminded of her heroism as I reflected on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).

You’ve all heard the parable before. A man was jumped by a group of robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. Two people saw him and decided not to help him, but the Good Samaritan, “moved with compassion,” decided to care for him. As I reflected on this passage recently, I found myself drawn to the wording of a particular verse. Luke begins describing the various reactions to the sighting of the beaten man by writing, “A priest happened to be going down that road…” The original Greek translation conveys the notion that the priest was travelling down that road, “by chance.”

What struck me as I reflected on that choice of wording was that the priest, the Levite, and the Good Samaritan were not planning on encountering the beaten man that day. “Happened to be” and “by chance” seem to suggest that the three men were somewhat surprised to see the man on the side of the road. We’re not given the impression that the men had just blocked off a chunk of time to go out and help the destitute on the streets. Rather, the opportunity was presented to them at a moment’s notice and any act of charity on their part would have to be spontaneous.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical “Deus Caritas Est (God is Love)”, refers to this parable when he comments on Christ’s commandment to love God and  neighbor. The request to define “neighbor” was actually what prompted Our Lord to share this parable in the first place. Benedict, by analyzing the parable, helps make the definition of “neighbor” and the notion behind “love your neighbor” more concrete when he writes:

“Until that time, the concept of ‘neighbor’ was understood as referring essentially to one’s countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor, The concept of ‘neighbor’ is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract, and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now” (15).

Very often I find myself guilty of only performing acts of charity during schedule times. “Next Saturday from 1:00-3:00 I will help at a nearby soup kitchen.” “Tomorrow I will visit the refugees for a few hours.” I methodically schedule times where I know I can be charitable. The problem is that, in the moments in-between, I unconsciously consider myself “off the clock”. I think, “If it’s not in my planner, there’s no need to pursue it. What I already have planned out is enough; it fits my acts-of-charity quota.” I’m so caught up in looking-ahead to the next planned-out moment of service that I pass by all of the opportunities I have to serve in the present moment; as Benedict wrote, “my own practical commitment here and now.” I neglect the spontaneity of charity.

But am I not just as guilty as the priest and the Levite from the parable? Am I not just as guilty as the contestants other than Fat Momma were? They had their eyes set on something in the distance and consequently neglected their call to service in the present.

Our Lord was faced with the same temptation to ignore the needs of the present moment, yet His spontaneous charity consistently prevailed. The wording of Luke 19:1, “He came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town,” tells me that his upcoming interactions with Zacchaeus was, shall we say, unscripted. I’m sure there are many other moments throughout Our Lord’s life where He originally “intended” to pass through towns or pass by individuals on his way to a destination He had in mind but, like the Good Samaritan, was frequently “moved with compassion” and gave Himself fully to the person right in front of Him.

I’ve found that this principle applies not only to concrete acts of charity, but also prayer. Very often I schedule time to pray, such as my daily Holy Hour, Mass, my daily rosary, and praying from the Liturgy of the Hours. Those are set times where I am able to remind myself of God’s constant presence and to quiet my heart for a period of time to converse with Him. Unfortunately, I don’t find myself praying spontaneously throughout the day nearly as often as I’d like. Unless it’s a time specifically designated for prayer, I don’t take the opportunities I could to offer up a brief prayer of thanksgiving, to talk to God about how my day is going, to offer-up an instance of suffering, or to just meditate on the name of Jesus.

This is just one of the many reminders you and I need in our fast-paced, materialistic, success-driven, secularized, Western world to immerse ourselves more fully in the present moment. The more present we can be in each present moment of our lives, the more readily we can perform acts of spontaneous charity and prayer. May Our Lord, the Good Samaritan, and maybe even Fat Momma be our guides in this life-long endeavor.

What Refugees Taught Me About Love, Part One

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“The word ‘love’ is so misunderstood and so misused.”
-Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta

This past year I’ve been working with Karenni refugees from Burma who now live in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had the chance to develop friendships with a few of the families throughout the school year and felt called to continue serving the Karenni community throughout the summer. I went from devoting two hours of service a week during the school year to around thirty hours per week in the summer. I didn’t know exactly what the summer mission would entail as it had never been attempted in this area before. I had no idea where exactly I was heading or how exactly I would get there. The only real objectives I had was to love the Karenni and to lose myself in their lives. I trusted that God would take care of the rest.

I now look back on this summer mission as a classroom of love. It was a privilege to be able to spend my summer amidst such precious and kind-hearted individuals. Yet, if I had known in May what the refugees were going to teach me about love, I may have never signed up to stay for the summer.

When Blessed Mother Teresa began serving the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, she experienced a profound case of spiritual desolation. She would go to prayer and would not feel God’s presence with her. She had an immense longing for the Light of the World to shed rays of peace in her soul, but all she encountered was darkness. This went on not just for a few weeks or months; this dryness in prayer was present throughout the entirety of her mission; fifty years. Among the adjectives she used to describe the state of her interior life were, “lonely,” “abandoned,” “hopeless,” and “rejected.”

Spiritual directors attempted to bring her some comfort by reminding her of the writings of St. John of the Cross on what he calls “the dark night of the soul.” Certainly she acknowledged the idea that the feelings of separation were meant to help purify and expand her heart, but it’s a concept that is more easily appreciated in retrospect than in the moment of suffering. Eventually a spiritual director helped her to consider the purpose of her trials from another perspective; a perspective which radically transformed her understanding of the purpose of her mission.

The spiritual director helped her to note the striking similarities present between her personal spiritual life and the lives of those she served. One author observes, “The condition of the poor on Calcutta’s streets, rejected by all and abandoned in their pain, was, she claimed, ‘the true picture of my spiritual life.’ She had reached the point of complete identification with her people with their misery, loneliness, and rejection.”

As Mother Teresa began delving into this great mystery, she helped her sisters rediscover the nature of their work and the purpose of their vocation. She once wrote:

“Try to increase your knowledge of this Mystery of Redemption. This knowledge will lead you to love, and love will make you share through your sacrifices in the Passion of Christ. My dear children, without our suffering, our work would just be social work; very good and very helpful, but it would not be the work of Jesus Christ, not part of the redemption. Jesus wanted to help us by sharing our life, our loneliness, our agony and death. All that He has taken upon Himself and has carried it in the darkest night. Only by being one with us has He redeemed us. We are allowed to do the same: All the desolation of the poor people, not only their material poverty, but their spiritual destitution, must be redeemed, and we must have our share in it. Pray thus when you find it hard, ‘I wish to live in this world which is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help them, to take upon me something of their suffering.'”

Elsewhere, she adds, “We must experience poverty if we want to be true Carriers of God’s love. To be able to proclaim the Good News to the Poor we must know what is Poverty.”

I came across these passages at a very difficult point in the summer mission. I’d been having some fun times playing soccer, going fishing, making movies, and having Bible studies with some of my friends within the Karenni community. The honeymoon stage that made me feel like “loving them” would  only cost me my time (and a little gas money) eventually came to a grinding halt. I was soon thrown into the purifying furnace within the Sacred Heart of Jesus to learn how much love really costs.

First, I experienced a prolonged period of spiritual desolation. Every day I prayed for at least one hour to keep my thirsting heart satiated by the Spring of Living Water. I longed to cling to a Constant amidst the many uncertainties in my life. However, at a time when I needed Him the most, it felt as though He wasn’t with me.  It quickly became a source of discouragement. To a significantly lesser extent, I experienced the same interior trials Mother Teresa faced, including feelings of loneliness, abandonment, hopelessness, and rejection.

Second, I began to feel just as distant from the Karenni as I did God. Serving them was not as easy as I had imagined it would be. Because of age restrictions, cultural differences, my own weaknesses, and frequent instances of miscommunication, it became more and more difficult to spend time together. Plans were canceled at the last second or, because they had misunderstood me, they would not be present at their house when I came to visit. Hardly any adult could speak English, which meant I could not spend time with them unless I had a young person to translate. People my age had summer jobs and would sometimes be placed on call, never knowing exactly when they would be going in. I would sometimes go several days in a row without even getting to see any of the Karenni. I felt like (as I shared in an earlier post) a failure.

Thankfully, a friend was able to show me an important relation between these two phenomena. He reminded me that spiritual desolation is a way in which God is able to purify and expand our hearts. It is in those times that we must realize how dependent we are on Him. Our main desire has the chance to mature from wanting the good feelings He can give us to wanting Him alone. It is a time for Him to reveal the true motives of our hearts to see if we will stay with Him even when we’re not getting warm, fuzzy feelings from encountering His presence. In a similar way, I was going through a kind of desolation in my relationship with the Karenni community. I knew that instead of just crossing my arms, pouting, and waiting for them to come to me, I had to reach out to them all the more. As Mother Teresa exhorted, I had to truly “love until it hurts.”

That was when I met So Meh.

So Meh is twenty-three years old. I met her on my Saturday “pioneer day” when I try to meet and visit with a handful of new families. When I walked into the apartment I saw So Meh sitting in a seemingly uncomfortable position. It soon became obvious that she had some sort of physical and mental disability. As I began speaking with her (through a translator), I found that she rarely gets the chance to leave her apartment. She has never gone to school. She has no friends. She spends most of her days just watching TV. I repeat, she is twenty-three years old.

My heart immediately went out to her and she soon became the focus of my prayer. As I reflected on her debilitating condition and my challenges in prayer and in the mission as a whole, I happened to pick up a copy of Come Be My Light; the book that shares Mother Teresa’s interior struggles in her own words. It was at that moment that everything began to come together.

I could relate better to So Meh, who had daily experiences of loneliness, rejection, and hopelessness, because I myself was experiencing those things interiorly. God was humbling me to prevent me from developing a Savior-complex. He had me experience in some way what Karenni individuals experience daily so that I wouldn’t treat them like a living museum; taking pictures of fascinating “exhibits” and pitying their circumstances as I kept my safe distance. It was God’s way of transforming my heart to allow for, in Mother Teresa’s words, a “complete identification” with the Karenni.

I thought about a lifeguard having a pool of people entrusted to his care. One day he sees a person drowning at the bottom of the pool and feels the urge to help. From his platform he throws a lifesaver onto the surface of the water. Then he pats himself on the back, tweets about his good deed, and goes back to scanning the pool. This, unfortunately, is how I feel I approached the summer mission in the opening weeks. I soon discovered that God was calling me to jump from the platform of safety and immerse myself into the pool of uncertainty. Was not one of my objectives for the summer mission to “lose myself in their lives”? I had to meet people where they were at, and that would require taking their sufferings upon myself in one way or another. As Mother Teresa wrote, “Let us share the sufferings of our Poor, for only by being one with them we can redeem them; that is, bringing God into their lives and bringing them to God.

Love embraces sacrifice. It cries out to the suffering beloved,”I will take your place! I will take your sufferings upon myself.” What mother would not look upon her cancerous child and say, “Lord,  spare his life and take mine instead!” What husband would not look upon his wife while she’s in great pain and say, “If only I could take on her sufferings and give her my own health.”

This, my friends, is the great mystery of the Incarnation and the Cross. Our Lord left the safety of Heaven to “lose Himself” in our lives, into our woundedness, into our poverty. As Mother Teresa wrote, “Jesus was sent by His Father to the poor. To be able to understand the poor, Jesus had to know and experience that poverty in His own Body and Soul.” When a murderous king caused his family to flee the country, Jesus took upon Himself the sufferings of every refugee. When He was abandoned by His friends, rejected by humanity and put on a Cross, He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” In doing so, He took on our feelings of abandonment, rejection, and hopelessness. He allowed Himself to be crucified so that we would see the greatness of His love which said to us, in effect, “I will take your place! I will take your sufferings upon myself.” Because that’s what true love entails.

The Cross is the tool we must use to descend into the wounded-ness of the poor and the suffering. We cannot settle for comfortably loving others from a distance. We can say we love the poor, that we love all of humanity, but only the scars we bear will prove it. Shame on us if we escape this world unscathed by a love that calls us to take on, in some way, the sufferings of those we love. I agree with Venerable Fulton Sheen that on the day of our Judgement, Our Lord will ask each of us, “Show me your hands. Do they have scars from giving? Show me your feet. Are they wounded in service? Show me your heart. Have you left a place for divine love?”

The only real objectives I had for the summer mission was to love the Karenni and to lose myself in their lives. So simple, yet so much more difficult than I could have possibly imagined.

And I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

I am filled with consolation, and despite my many afflictions my joy knows no bounds.
-2 Corinthians 7:4

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Finding Dory, Independence Day, and the Mass

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Whenever I come home over summer or Christmas breaks, I always end up recalling childhood memories with my family. Sometimes old pictures or family videos resurface and I laugh as I watch the moment when I crashed my bike into a bush or find the picture where Chuck E. Cheese made me cry so much that I turned red in the face. Other times, when we’re around the dinner table, conversation is bound to bring up embarrassing moments of the past (like when my pants fell down when I was jump-roping in gym class in third grade). Certainly we all have some memories we wish we could forget, but there are also some memories we have that we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives.

As if recalling these individual memories weren’t enough, I’ve had a few events occur in these last few days which have given me a greater appreciation for the beauty of memory: Watching Finding Dory, celebrating Independence Day, and attending Mass.

[Warning: Contains some spoilers] We’ll start with Finding Dory, the sequel to the 2003 Pixar hit, Finding Nemo. In Finding Dory, the beloved protagonist Dory seeks to be reunited with her parents whom she was separated from as a child. Because Dory suffers from short-term memory loss, she spent most of her life unaware of her family’s whereabouts. Eventually her memories trickle back and by the end of the movie she’s able to be reunited with her family again. The act of remembering played an important role in helping Dory find her way home where she belonged.

This past Monday, America celebrated Independence Day. This is also an event in which memory plays a crucial role. Where Dory utilizes personal memories she has of historical events she’d been a part of, we Americans “remember” our country’s declaration of independence from the British monarchy on July 4, 1776. None of us were there for the signing of that famous document, yet we still celebrate that event every year as a memorial. In addition, understanding the roots of our country tells us something about ourselves and helps us better appreciate our American citizenship.

Yet this past Sunday I had the opportunity to participate in the memorial of the single greatest moment in human history; I went to Mass and encountered the re-presentation of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. It happens every time we go to Mass. The priest, acting in persona Christi, repeats the words of Christ who said at His Last Supper, “Take this, all of you, and drink of it. For this is the chalice of My Blood, the Blood of the New and Eternal Covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME” (emphasis added). Jesus did not simply say “Remember me” and leave it up to us to decide how we wanted to recall the Paschal Mystery. If it were up to us, we’d probably settle for something like fireworks and hot dogs once a year to recall the crucifixion of God-made-man. Instead, Christ instituted the precise way that His sacrifice should be recalled until the end of time; the Mass. The theological term for this active participation in this unique act of remembrance is anamnesis.

Like Finding Dory, the Mass uses memory (albeit in a different variation) to help us be reunited with our Heavenly Home as we find ourselves surrounded by the communion of saints, our Heavenly Family. Like Independence Day, the Mass recalls a historical event we weren’t physically present at to help us rediscover our spiritual roots and thus better appreciate our deepest identity as beloved sons and daughters of God.

However, there’s an even greater mystery involved in this concept of anamnesis. The Mass isn’t merely a memorial of a past event. The late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen explains: “…the Sacrifice of the Cross is not something which happened nineteen hundred years ago. It is still happening. It is not something past like the signing of the Declaration of Independence; it is an abiding drama on which the curtain has not yet rung down.” How is that possible? He continues, “If a motion picture reel, for example, were conscious of itself, it would know the drama from beginning to end, but the spectators in the theater would not know it until they had seen it unrolled upon the screen. In like manner, Our Lord on the Cross saw in His eternal mind the whole drama of history, the story of each individual soul, and how later on it would react to his crucifixion; but though He saw all, we could not know how we would react to the Cross until we were unrolled upon the screen of time.”

Christ went through the Paschal Mystery two-thousand years ago, but because His sacrifice was eternal in nature it is still being made present to each of us today. If you’re interested in seeing how we can “remember” in such a beautiful way the single most important event in human history, go to Mass this Sunday keeping these themes in mind. Through anamnesis, God will draw you closer to your Eternal Home and help you rediscover your roots, thus revealing to you your deepest identity. You can gaze on Our Lord present in the Eucharist and tell Him what Dory says to Marlin in Finding Nemo, “When I look at you, I can feel it. I look at you and I’m home. I don’t want that to go away. I don’t want to forget.”

You’re A Failure…And That’s OK

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Imagine that tomorrow you’re driving home from work and you receive a text message from your mother: “Come to the hospital ASAP.” Your mind starts playing through all of the possible worst-case-scenarios as you think, “What’s happened? Who’s hurt?” You arrive at the hospital and are escorted to a room with your mother and siblings. They’re all gathered around your father who is lying on a gurney. “What happened,” you ask. The nurse shares that your father was in an accident that was so bad, he’s now in a coma. He can’t move, he can’t react to anything you say or do, but he can still hear everything that’s going on. In a sense, he’s still “there.” You ask, “How long will he be like this?” You’re told that there is no certainty to that answer, only estimations. It will most likely be weeks, but he could wake up in a matter of days or months. However, there’s a 1% chance he will never wake up.

Here’s my question for you: Your father will appear to be unresponsive, like he’s not “there”, for an indeterminate amount of time. But he can still hear everything that’s going on and you have faith that he’s still aware of your presence. How, if at all, do you spend time with him from that moment on? Do you wait at home until he wakes up and you can communicate with him more easily, knowing that there’s a 99% chance that he will wake up eventually? Or do you vow to spend a set amount of time with him every day even though it will be difficult holding the hand of someone who doesn’t seem to be holding yours back, even though it will seem unproductive speaking into his ear about something as mundane as how your day went? Will you remain with your father even though it will appear on the outside to be a fruitless endeavor?

If you truly love your father, you will still spend time with him. You’ll hold his hand, you’ll speak with him, you’ll simply be with him even though you don’t seem to be getting anything out of your interactions. Because that’s one of the things that true love entails: loving for the sake of the other and not for the feelings you get out of it.

When I experience periods of spiritual desolation, when prayer becomes dry and I don’t feel like God is with me, I picture this scene in my head. I imagine God allowing me to see himself as my heavenly Father in a coma. I know in my head that he will wake up eventually and that he’s listening, but he tests my heart by asking, “Will you still stay with me? Will you remain with me for one hour every day even though it doesn’t feel like I’m responding to you?” As I learn to say “Yes” to that invitation, I begin to learn what it means to love. I start to evaluate my relationship with God not so much on the external factors of my prayer (“God didn’t say anything to me today,” “No Bible verse stuck out to me today”) but rather on whether I’m striving to consistently choose to love God for who He is even amidst the discouraging external factors.

Some of us have experienced something similar to this in prayer before, but almost all of us have faced this challenge in our efforts to serve others. Many teachers, missionaries, social workers, and a countless number of service-oriented professions have experienced feelings of worthlessness in their work. Have you ever been working with a patient/student/client and thought, “Gosh, I wonder if my time with this person is actually making an impact on them at all”, “Man, I’ve been with this person this whole time and they don’t seem to have grown at all since Day 1,” or the more simple and synthesized question that crosses all of our minds at one point or another, “Why am I here?”

In a culture that instills in us a desire for instant self-gratification and the idea that our worth is based on what we can accomplish, we often get frustrated when we can’t see the fruits of our labors right away. We truly want to make an impact in the lives of others, but we get impatient when the impact doesn’t seem apparent or doesn’t progress in the way we originally envisioned it. By worldly standards of success, we appear to be failures. And that’s ok.

Many of us have heard the quote attributed to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “God does not require that we be successful, but faithful.”However, there’s another saint you should get to know who experienced failure throughout his entire life; Blessed Charles de Foucauld.

After an incredible conversion experience at the age of twenty-eight, Blessed Charles decided to devote his entire life to the service of God and to the poor. He spent the late years of his life living as a solitary monk in the Sahara desert surrounded by a majority Muslim population. In his lifetime of complete abandonment to the will of God and love for all those he met, he produced no visible fruit. He tried fervently to found a religious order but was consistently denied permission to do so. He tried to get brothers to join him in his ministry, but no priest was willing to keep up with his radical lifestyle of self-denial. As a priest he only baptized one person his entire life; no one else he encountered in his ministry ever expressed a desire to convert. His dedication and work-ethic earned him nothing in terms of earthly success. He appeared to many as a failure.

Yet now as people look back on his life they are inspired by his patience and his complete abandonment into the hands of the Father. Conversions today, a century after his death, have been attributed to folks reading about this simple monk’s life. Three hundred and forty fraternities of the Little Brothers and Little Sister of Jesus, the order Blessed Charles wished to start during his lifetime, have now been formed and provide service to the poor around the world. And Blessed Charles never got to see any of this take place. What was the secret to his perseverance? He followed God’s will and loved others for their sake and not for what it would mean for him and his legacy. He did not judge his success on the immediate fruit his efforts bore, otherwise he may have sank into a deep depression in the face of his constant failures. He simply remained steadfast in his love and knew that if God wanted growth and fruitfulness to come about, it would come about in His time and in the way in which He wanted it to come about.

To those of you struggling in prayer, just spend time with God. The “success” of prayer is not based on accomplishments or good feelings you get out of it so much as it is rooted in a deep sense of communion and fidelity.

To those of you who have dedicated your life to the service of others, be you teachers, missionaries, counselors, etc., do not be discouraged by what you perceive to be a lack of results/progress. Do not be discouraged by thoughts of uselessness just because you can’t see the fruits of your labor right away. You may see it down the road, or you may never see it. In either case, you’ll find that all you can do is carry on, loving for the sake of the other, trusting that this is the love we were created to give and receive. To the world you may appear to be a failure…and that’s ok. We are not called to be successful, but faithful. We are called to have a pure, self-giving, no-strings-attached, persevering, selfless love for God and others. Love calls for sacrifice, and sometimes that sacrifice entails not being able to see the fruits of our love right away. Love can make us look like fools and it can make us look like failures…and that’s ok.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld

Blessed Charles de Foucauld

On Leaving and Being Left Behind

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At times we have left others behind.
At times we have been left behind by others.

The question I have spent time reflecting on recently is: Which of the two tends to be more difficult for us to grieve through?

The answer might not end up being universal. I will not pretend to have infallible revelation on a topic that resonates so deeply in our hearts. As we will see in this essay, there are various circumstances and factors that need to be considered. However, for the sake of a compelling read, I will argue that it tends to be more difficult for us to be left behind than it is to leave others behind (most notably in the life of a missionary-disciple). I will compare the difficulties present in both circumstances while I try to fathom some of the most intriguing mysteries of the human person, citing Scriptural evidence along the way.

First, I will go on record and claim that both the experience of being left behind by those we love and the experience of leaving others who we love behind evoke a need to mourn. We are relational beings and breaking ties with those we love will always be difficult to certain degrees. We can be assured that if it is not difficult to say goodbye to someone close to us (either by leaving or being left), we are either refusing to acknowledge the pain we feel, we did not truly love the person to begin with, or we have some sort of wounded-ness (perhaps from our upbringing) that prevents us from loving deeply and meaningfully. By emphasizing being left behind I am not trying to make light of leaving others behind in any way or suggesting that it is therefore easy to leave others behind. For instance, I would argue that it can tend to be easier to break up with someone we are dating than it is to be dumped, but it does not follow that it is therefore easy to break up with someone.

Second, I wish to address what I noted earlier, namely that there are so many circumstances and factors that influence a reaction to a goodbye. For instance, “leaving” could be moving twenty miles away or it could be moving on to the next life. In such a case, it would be unfair to compare you leaving your friends because you’re moving twenty miles away as opposed to being left behind due to a friend’s death. Another factor is that you’ll have different levels of affection and attachment to those you leave behind or are left behind by. It would be unfair to compare you leaving a job where you were treated poorly by people you never fit in with as opposed to your best friend from high school moving halfway across the country for college. You can probably think of a lot of other variables that could bring forth exceptions to this observation I’ve made. For the sake of this essay, you may want to consider scenarios which have similar levels of attachment and other notable circumstances.

Now we can take a closer look at what happens when we leave others behind. In the context of discipleship, leaving others behind is generally expressed in terms of obedience to God’s will: “I am leaving this wonderful group of Honduran kids because God is calling me back to the US to finish my education.” “I am leaving behind these incredible parishioners because God, through my bishop, has called me to be the pastor of a new parish.” When I can follow what I believe to be God’s will, there is some sense of “doing.” In these moments I realize that I’m in submission to His providence and it gives me a sense of powerlessness, but at the same time God invites me to cooperate in His plan for my life. Thus He gives me some sense of “doing.”

Contrast this with being left behind by others where there is much more passivity involved. Powerlessness and passivity is painful for us. It’s true that in both leaving behind and in being left behind there is some experience of passivity. Yet in being left behind we realize just how little control we truly have not just in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. We encounter our interior poverty. We come face-to-face with the reality that we are not the center of the universe, the only character in this play called “Life.” We realize that God has a will for the lives of every other individual we meet and many of them are being called to only be in our lives for a relatively short period of time before they (or we) move on. In addition, there can be much more psychological distress involved when it comes to being left behind as we consciously or unconsciously relate feelings of abandonment to feelings of inadequacy, repressed memories of a broken upbringing, or various other ways to misconstrue the objective truth behind the reason for the departure. On the bright side, it is in these times that we understand more clearly that Jesus is the one constant in our lives, the one Person who will never leave us. We can find comfort in the fact that He “is with us always” (Matthew 28:20)

How do we see this difference played out in the lives of the apostles and in Jesus Himself? (You will, I hope, forgive me if I inadvertently misinterpret or take anything out of context in the upcoming passages.) Let’s first attempt to observe what it was like for both of them to be left behind. John 14-17 (John’s account of the Last Supper) is a beautiful scene in which Jesus brings comfort to the apostles He will soon be leaving (in His physical body) for three days and eventually for the rest of their lifetime. Consider a few passages spoken by Our Lord which could possibly be read as an attempt to comfort the apostles who were about to experience the symptoms of being left behind:

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

“Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.”

Perhaps Jesus, who knows the innermost depths of our hearts, could sense this forthcoming pain present in the hearts of the apostles that night and it prompted him to say, “Behold, the hour is coming and has arrived when each of you will be scattered to his own home and you will leave me alone. But I am not alone, because the Father is with me.”

It appears as though Jesus revels in providing consolation to those who are experiencing the feeling of being left behind.

Now consider when Jesus was (or at least seemed to have felt in some way) left behind. Obviously any attempt to psychoanalyze the Son of God will come up short, but we can see instances where Jesus must have felt, in some sense of the term, “left behind.” On the Cross, we believe Jesus felt some sort of sense of what sin is like (“separation from God”) as He took our sins upon Himself. In His dark hour He lets out the famous line from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We know that He was left behind by most of his disciples throughout His Passion and we know a large crowd left Him after His Bread of Life discourse in John 6. We don’t seem to have a record in the Gospels of Jesus’ reactions to these events, but we may be able to assume that in His human nature there was some sense of suffering in being left behind (though, as is alluded to in an earlier passage, in His divine nature He was always in communion with the Father).

It’s a whole new ballgame when we consider the apostles and Our Lord leaving or being exhorted to leave others behind. Consider the various ways in which Our Lord reveals the conditions of discipleship as He extends the invitation to, “Come, follow me”:

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

“Let the dead bury their dead, you proclaim the kingdom of God.”

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.”

Look at the times where the Lord “left behind” others in obedience to the will of His Father. We know He left behind His carpentry trade and His friends and family as He began His public ministry. We can guess that doing the Father’s will was at the center of His life and any heartbreak He may have experienced in leaving others behind would have been somewhat relieved by His complete trust in the Father’s providence. The most notable instance of Jesus leaving someone behind, in my mind, is when He stays behind in the temple at age twelve and remarks to Mary and Joseph, “Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?”

 It is for these reasons that I am inclined to believe that it can generally be more difficult to accept others leaving our life than it is to have to leave others behind. I believe this is an essential observation that must be reflected on as we seek to better understand this great mystery of our hearts. The only solution to the pain that comes from leaving others behind and being left behind by others that will make a lasting impact in our lives is a fuller trust in the Providence of our loving Father and a deeper relationship with Jesus who is with us always.

God Doesn’t Care

BabyDad

The lights were dimmed and there was a guitar softly strumming in the background. Before me was Jesus Himself in the Eucharist, placed inside a monstrance, surrounded by the soft glow of nearby candles. It was the perfect setting for a time of intimate prayer. However, as is typically the case at certain points in my daily prayer, I found myself restless and a tad bit bored.

Before I knew it my eyes were scanning the chapel, observing the several priests scattered around hearing the confessions of young adults. I found myself drawn to a specific pairing and, I confess (pun intended), I watched as a young lady confessed her sins to a priest. There was something about her body language that I found interesting. Her feet were crossed and her legs were timidly shifting from side-to-side. She had her hands clasped together, resting between both of her knees. She was sitting far back in the chair and as she spoke she would either look down at her feet or to the ground off to the side. I noticed she would frequently pause, take a moment to think, and then continue where she left off. I’m no body language expert, but my intuitions told me that she was feeling uncomfortable, reserved, and perhaps ashamed. The way she was speaking made me think that she was trying to say everything perfectly so as not to scandalize the priest or to truly admit to herself what she had done.

I then pictured myself in the place of the priest. I thought, “If I were the priest hearing the confession of this young lady, what would I try to do or say to create an atmosphere where she could feel as comfortable as possible sharing what was going on in her life?” I wouldn’t want her to worry about scandalizing me, I would want her to be honest and authentic; I would want her to be her “true self”. I knew that the more honest she could be with herself, the more authentic of an encounter she would be able to have with the overwhelming mercy of Our Lord. This got me thinking about a very important truth in the spiritual life which I am slowly discovering as time goes on: “God doesn’t care.”

In case you’ve never heard it before or you still have trouble truly believing it, our deepest identity as baptized Christians is beloved sons and daughters of God the Father. We’re not merely creatures brought forth from a distant policeman in the sky; we are adopted sons and daughters made from love, by love, and for love. This truth is essential for understanding the meaning of our lives and providing us with the interior freedom we all desire.

Yesterday I read from Psalm 103:13-14, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on the faithful. For he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” This passage reminded me of how well my parents know me (as frustrating as that may be for me at times). They have known me from the moment of conception and they spent a ton of time observing every little movement I made as a child. As I aged they began to learn what made me tick, what brings me peace, and what motivates me. In some ways they know my “true self” better than I do. They certainly knew me better than I knew myself when I was too young to reflect on my behaviors.

To an infinitely greater degree, God the Father knows us in the very depths of our being. He told the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). He knows us better than we know our own selves and He loves what He sees. As St. Augustine puts it, “In my heart of hearts, God is closer to me than I am to myself.” Part of that knowledge entails that, “He remembers that we are dust.” Because of this knowledge of our true selves that God has, it is implied that He doesn’t care about (at least) two things: our sins and our accomplishments.

Because our deepest identity is beloved sons and daughters of a loving Father, our sins don’t make Him love us less and our accomplishments don’t make Him love us more. His love for us is not dependent on what we do or don’t do, but rather is in virtue of who we are in our very essence. He cares about our sins in the sense that He knows how harmful sin is in our relationship with Him and with those around us, but these sins do not define who we are. In the words of Pope St. John Paul II, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us…” Similarly He cares about our accomplishments in the way a  father might rejoice with his daughter after a stunning dance recital, but these accomplishments do not define who we are. Jesus himself reminded the apostles who were excited about the success of their first mission, “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

So what does this mean for us? It means we shouldn’t hide behind our sins or our accomplishments in the presence of God. After Adam and Eve ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Scripture says, “they hid themselves from the Lord among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8). The young lady I saw confessing her sins seemed to be “hiding”, in a way, from revealing her true self in the midst of her sinfulness. Yet, “He remembers that we are dust” and sees the identity of the person who lies beneath those sins. At the same time, we also tend to hide our true selves from God behind the mask of our accomplishments. We wait until we are at a B+ or better in our lives before we can let God look at us, as though He will only love us if He can be impressed with how well we are doing. Yet, “He remembers that we are dust” and sees the identity of the person who lies beneath those accomplishments. He wants us to come to know our true selves, our deepest identity as a beloved son or daughter, so that we can realize the way in which He knows us and so that we can allow Him to love us in the depths of our being.

So the next time you approach God in prayer and feel too ashamed to let Him love you because of your sins or you feel the need to impress Him and earn His loving gaze by telling Him about all your accomplishments, just remember: God doesn’t care.

Why I Didn’t Fall In Love With The Poor

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I think you can tell a lot about what a certain area of the world considers as its “treasures” by the kind of merchandise they display in their airport gift shops. Spend some time in the JFK International Airport in New York City and you’ll find Yankees memorabilia, photos of the city’s skyline, and shot glasses with the Statue of Liberty on it. Peruse the shops of one of Jamaica’s international airports and you’ll find steel drums, Bob Marley wigs, and mugs that read: “Keep Calm and Jamaica On”.

As I went through the airport of Honduras a few days ago, I noticed multiple paintings of the country’s landscape. It’s hard not to be awe-struck by the gorgeous mountains, the entrancing valleys and cliffs, and the gorgeous beach shorelines. Yet I couldn’t help but feel like the gift shops were implicitly suggesting, “Want something to remember the treasures of Honduras by? Get yourself a picture of those incredible mountains.” While I was indeed captivated by the landscape of Honduras, the gift shops didn’t have me sold. I, like St. Lawrence, had encountered treasures far greater than anything you could find in a National Geographic magazine.

St. Lawrence was martyred in the year 258 by being grilled alive. He’s usually known for his famous words, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side!” Yet the story as to how he got into that predicament is not as well known. In the year 258, Emperor Valerian of Rome was persecuting Christians, demanding that bishops, priests, and deacons be killed and that all money and possessions owned by Christians be confiscated. One day the Emperor ordered Archdeacon Lawrence to gather up and hand over all of the treasures in the Church within three days. Lawrence promptly distributed the Church’s wealth and property to all of the widows and orphans in the area. Three days later he entered the Emperor’s palace and was asked to hand over the treasures of the Church. St. Lawrence gestured to the back door to the crowds of poor, handicapped, and suffering people streaming in. “These are the true treasures of the Church,” he proclaimed.

Last week I had the opportunity to encounter the true treasures of Honduras, the true treasures of the Church: I encountered over a thousand orphans at a ranch just an hour away from what is, statistically speaking, “the murder capital of the world”. Some seminarian brothers and I were involved in numerous projects throughout the week as we lived in solidarity with some of God’s most pure and precious children. The purpose of the trip, according to our rector, was “to fall in love with the poor.” I understand the kind of vision our rector was trying to express, but I still have a problem with that phrase. I would say that, in a certain way, I did not “fall in love with the poor” during my second trip to Honduras. Let me explain.

Blessed Mother Teresa is widely known and praised by people of all faiths for her work serving the poorest of the poor in India. Yet many people feel a sense of inferiority when they compare themselves to her, saying things like, “I’ll never be able to help thousands of people like she did.” Ironically, even Mother Teresa once said something along these lines. She noted, “If I look at the mass [of people] I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Encountering one person at a time was a major driving force in Mother Teresa’s work. She was most concerned with the person right in front of her. She didn’t look out at the world in despair, thinking, “I’ll never be able to save them all.” Instead she went out and sought to serve one person at a time. She added, “I never look at the masses of my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time-just one, one, one…I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty two thousand. The same thing goes for you…Just begin-one, one, one.”

This is why I hesitate to say I “fell in love with the poor” this week. “The poor” seems too abstract, too distant. I’m sure many of us would say we love “the poor”, but in the words of Mother Teresa, “Today it is very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately it is very unfashionable to talk with them.” It is not enough to fall in love with “the poor”- we must fall in love with one poor person at a time.

I once heard a priest state: “You love the poor? Name them.” At the orphanage I visited there was a big emphasis on names. Each child would ask you what your name was and would tell you their own at the beginning of the week. They remembered your name and called you by it throughout the week and expected you to remember theirs. I still remember a gorgeous little girl who came up to about my knees looking up at me one day and asking, “Mi nombre (My name)?” I recalled, “Carmen”. Her face lit up and she hugged my shins as she let out a gentle, “Si”.

I could sense that their name gave them a profound sense of identity. Their name was all they had. When you called a child by their name, you were showing them that they as an individual stood out to you as a unique child of God.  Their name prevented them from becoming a mere statistic, just another orphan, or one of “the poor” in the abstract.

With that said, I repeat that I did not merely fall in love with “the poor” last week.

I fell in love with Carmen.

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I fell in love with Esther.

I fell in love with Elizabeth.

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I fell in love with Albert.

I fell in love with Kevin.

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I fell in love with Caesar.

These are some of the true treasures of Honduras. These are some of the true treasures of the Church. These are some of the true treasures I will always carry in my heart.

Top Fifteen Books of 2015

It’s that time of year again! Here are the fifteen best books I read this past year along with a brief summary of the book (see 2013 and 2014‘s recommendations as well). Please comment below to share what books you enjoyed reading this year.

15. Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption by Katie Davis
The true story of a high school-graduate’s decision to become a full-time missionary in Uganda.

14. Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
A novel centered on a school-shooting written in the gripping Picoult-style.

13. Come Rack! Come Rope! by R.H. Benson
A historical novel depicting the life of a persecuted priest in 16th-century England.

12. The Lord of the Rings I, II, and III by. J.R.R. Tolkien
A classic set of novels with a surprisingly high amount of Catholic symbolism.

11. Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom by Ryan Anderson
A logical and concise analysis of the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case from the perspective of a defender of the traditional understanding of marriage.

10. Lord of the World by R.H. Benson
A novel that predicts what the end times will look like for the world with a special emphasis on what it will look like for the Catholic Church.

9. The Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis
The apostolic exhortation written by Pope Francis a few years ago that encourages us to encounter our Lord and share the Good News with all those we encounter.

8. The World’s First Love: Mary, the Mother of God by Fulton J. Sheen
A beautiful set of reflections on our Blessed Mother written by one of the twentieth century’s best spiritual writers.

7. Happy are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom by Thomas Dubay
A book that helps explain the kind poverty we are all called to by observing Scripture quotes, stories from the lives of the saints, and recent scientific research.

6. Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines by Tim Staples
A well-written defense for our modern world on the Marian doctrines.

5. Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living by Fr. Timothy Gallagher
An insightful analysis into St. Ignatius of Loyola’s teachings on the discernment of spirits.

4. Time for God by Jacques Phillipe
A brief but well thought-out book to help people “get more” out of their prayer life.

3. Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla
The classic piece by Pope St. John Paul II (then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla) that explains the philosophy behind most of the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage and sex.

2. The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin
An essential “handbook” for all those striving for sainthood.

1. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri Nouwen
A book that contains reflections on both the parable from Scripture and the Rembrandt painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son.