Friday, March 31, 2017

Day 30: Murder by Death

Last week when I was teaching CCD I covered the sacrament of Reconciliation and discussed mortal vs venial sin. I think it was the first time these 5th graders were hearing about it. Now, like purgatory and veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the differentiation of sin into categories of severity is a distinctly Catholic theology, one that Protestants would refute. The theological basis draws from the first letter of Saint John:

"If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing a deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly." (1 Jn 5:16-17).

Mortal sin kills the life of grace in us; it is deadly to the soul. A sin must meet three criteria to be considered mortal or serious enough to bring damnation:

1) the sin must be a grave matter
2) one must have full knowledge of it and its severity
3) and deliberately consent to it

'We should all realize that no matter where or how a man dies, if he is in the state of mortal sin and does not repent, when he could have done so and did not, the Devil tears his soul from his body with such anguish and distress that only a person who has experienced it can appreciate it.' --St. Francis of Assisi 

For the Catholic, mortal sin requires the sacrament of Reconciliation to be restored to God's friendship. One should also refrain from reception of Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin, lest they "eat and drink condemnation on themselves." (1 Cor 11:29).

Now, this is serious business, but we have to balance it with not falling into extreme anxiety or scrupulosity. "Let the wicked leave their way of life and change their way of thinking. Let them turn to the Lord, our God; he is merciful and quick to forgive." (Is 55:7). But it also means not keeping a mental and spiritual 'status check' of our souls, for venial sins can be like the little bytes of data that slow down a computer, accumulating over time and darkening the soul, weakening it and opening the door to mortal sin.

Sometimes it's just good to get back to basics. Lent is primarily a season of repentance and penance. What is repentance and penance? Let's not make it too complicated. Repentance is sorrow for our sins. Penance is our efforts to make amends for our wrongdoing and to repair its effects, while realizing it is Christ alone who forgives us and there is nothing we can do to earn or deserve heaven.

Regular confession helps us to live in the life of grace. Remember....priests have heard it all before, there is nothing you can tell them that is new. They can never, ever, under pain of excommunication, reveal what is told in the confessional, and the priest acts in persona christi ("in the person of Christ") so it is truly Christ who hears and forgives us through the authority given to the priest by Christ himself "to loose what is bound."

So this Lent, do yourself a favor: Make an examination of conscience, using the Ten Commandments as a guide for this "spiritual self-inventory". Go to Confession and be blessed with God's mercy. There is nothing you have done that is beyond his mercy. Do penance to restore what has been damaged. And rejoice that your name is written in heaven with the elect, for there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than 99 righteous. (Lk 15:7)

"He is merciful and quick to forgive." 
(Is 55:7)

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Day 29: The Feminine Genius

My first exposure to contemporary art was as a teenager, through a textbook my mom brought home from the community college where she worked. I remember studying the pages for hours...iconic work from artists of the past hundred years or so leaving their impressions in my visual memory. There was the detailed lithography of Albrecht Dürer, the hexing intensity pen and ink of Khäthe Kollwitz's "Fettered Man", Picasso's blue series, as well as work by Pollock, Monet, Van Gogh, and others.

One piece I remember etched in my mind was Willem de Kooning's "Woman" series. It is a jarring abstract series of portraits--the female subject is consistently portrayed with a fangy smile, massively oversized breasts, and slashing swipes of paint. I am not a seasoned art critic by any means, but the general consensus of his work in this series is that there is an underlying expression of hostility and anger towards the female subject. Jackson Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner (a fellow abstract expressionist) described these works as vessels of de Kooning's "hatred and hostility towards the female," "offensive in every possible sense."

The degradation of the female form in de Kooning's "Woman" finds a contemporary equivalent in the "artistic expression" (I use the term tongue in cheek) of pornography. Pornography cares nothing about nuance, beauty, form--it is animalistic and reductionist. It isolates body parts for "money shots" and quickly discards the 'object' when gratification is complete.

When Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer, was interviewed in 1989 by Dr. James Dobson, he noted that while he was in prison, without exception every man he came in contact with who was in prison for violent crime was deeply consumed by pornography. It was also the common thread among serial killers. For Bundy, it started innocuous enough with soft-core magazines, but in time escalated to hard-core and sexualized violent exposure. There is something about it that harbors great anger and resentment towards women, that seeks to dominate and exploit.

Sexual violence is by no means a new phenomenon. We even see it in the bible, with the rape of Tamar by her half-brother Amnon, son of King David. Amnon was so frustrated because of his sister Tamar that he made himself ill, for she was a virgin, and it seemed hard to Amnon to do anything to her" (2 Sam 13:2). He was consumed with a perverted passion, and once he obtained the object of his lust, "he hated her with a very great hatred." (v 15).

Some might argue that pornography gives men an outlet so that rape and sexual violence against women might be lessened, but anecdotally I'm not sure that is really the case, especially on college campuses. When pornography is the aquifer from which young men are drawing their sexual information and ways of relating to women, even if it doesn't directly increase direct violence against women, it indirectly poisons the well with sexual disfunction, impotence in relating emotionally with women in relationships, and healthy, integrated sexual expression in marriage later down the road. The eyes through which women are viewed have become cloudy, the view distorted.

Saint Pope John Paul II was a huge proponent of the unique and privileged place of women in history, that there is something unique and special about women by their very nature that should be upheld and celebrated. He wrote in his encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem about the "feminine genius." The qualities of such feminine genius in women--receptivity, emphasis on the person, empathy, protection of life, sanctity, and modesty--hold the antidote to the culture of death we currently live in.

Nowhere are such qualities more divinely embodied and perfected than in that of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She holds such an esteemed place in the Church because she is the mother of God and the mother to all. She was receptive to her calling--"I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to be according to thy word"; she emphasized the person of Christ himself; she was empathetic, making the long journey to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth while pregnant herself; she protected the fruit of her womb with her very self; she was a model of sanctity by her obedience and docility, and modest in her perpetual virginity. Men can look to her as a model of faith and obedience, but women especially can find in her the embodiment of what it means to be a woman, the feminine genius.

When Bruce Jenner was voted "woman of the year", the age of confusion and ideology we are living in was driven home. Women everywhere should be offended that a man would receive such an "honor." What a sham. No man can ever take the place of a woman, and no woman can ever substitute for a man. God did not make us this way. He created us in his image and likeness, male and female.

The characteristics of what makes men men and what makes women women can hold a kind of fascination for young men and women who are growing up in age of so-called 'gender fluidity'. Something is definitely lost when we abandon order for confusion, that which is natural to man for that which is unnatural, and debase our sexual functions to that of animals. But it can be regained by refocusing on those models of perfection for what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman--not in truncated caricatures of masculinity that reduce manhood to growing a beard or dominating a woman, nor in contemporary deficient models of feminism that seek to minimize, discount, or trade the feminine genius, but to celebrate and elevate that which makes women women, especially that most unique ability to bring forth life and regeneration into the world. The antidote to the culture of death is life itself.

"God has assigned as a duty to every man the dignity of every woman."

--Saint John Paul II

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Day 28: This Is Us

Deb and I are watching a show on NBC called This Is Us. I'm not usually big on network TV, but this is actually a well-written and well-cast show, touching and relatable. It tells the story of a family: a mom and a dad who are pregnant with triplets in the late 70's. Two of the babies make it, and one dies. That same day a baby was brought in who was abandoned, and they adopt him to "make three." The show weaves flashbacks of the mother and father with the present-day lives of their now-adult children in their mid-thirties.

It is always amazing to me that siblings from the same mother and father can take such different trajectories in life, be infused with such different personalities, gifts and talents; and yet, like the church, we are all one family.

I have two brothers. My younger brother lives in Boston with his wife. He is a computer guy, and whenever I call him up because my internet browser is slow he will be the first to tell me he has no idea what the issue is and that I should just try restarting my computer or that maybe it is time to buy a new one. When we were little, he liked things the way he liked them. He had an entourage of stuffed animals and a well-worn blanket he was always sniffing. He was sensitive growing up and very sweet. He is still, with a great group of friends. He loves the Red Sox, craft beer, and running, and I'm thankful he has found someone to go through life with to enjoy those every day things.

My youngest brother lives in California with his wife and daughter. He works in Silicon Valley as an audio engineer. Growing up he loved music. He was in a band, played guitar, but always just had a really sharp mind and fascination with how things worked. I did too, but the difference was he was focused and worked hard at what he loved. While I was out hitchhiking the world and living the hobo life, he was setting up internships and finishing up grad school and getting his career in order. I always admired his analytical mind and his ability to succeed in his niche and find satisfaction in it. I think I was always kind of secretly jealous of all the engineering guys at Penn State, because they had their act together (unlike me) and seemed to have a pretty good path laid out for themselves. I know I wasn't cut from the same mold, that my mind kind of worked like that but that I would never be able to cut it, or maybe I just didn't want to work at it. Whatever the reason, I never felt that way about my brother. I was just always so very proud of him and impressed that he was able to work hard and turn his passion for sound into a great career at one of the top companies in the world.

Our family was not without drama. One night in our mid-twenties when we were all home for Christmas, I was not well, my mind was not well. I was at a low point in my life with no direction and not much going for me. I saw my middle brother as the embodiment of normalcy, a normalcy that eluded me, and it burned me from the inside out. In a sudden fit of irrational rage, I seized upon him by the neck until my dad came and tore me off of him. He did nothing to deserve it, and I still remember the fear in his eyes.

Not long after that I moved out and rented an apartment in town and a job as a waiter. A few months later, I would be in Maine...I had hopped a bus to New York, then another one from New York to Boston, couch surfed for a few days there, then another bus from Boston to Portland, then hitch hiked the rest of the way up the coast to a friend's cottage, where I stayed until I overstayed my welcome and had to find a place to rent.

I rented a room from an old lady in Camden, eating at the soup kitchen every day and going to the local library, and it was there that I first started to really wrestle with some serious demons. I was sitting in a rocking chair in my room one night, when my mom called me to tell me my dad was in a psych hospital, after suffering a psychotic episode of mania in a parking lot, and would I come home. The police came, they thought he was on drugs, because he was incoherent. He would tell me later he was trying to form words, but they wouldn't come out right. It was the same hospital I would find myself at not long after that.

I have good memories too. One trip my youngest brother and I took over a Thanksgiving break. We drove the old Saturn up to Vermont to hike the Long Trail in the Green Mountains for a few days. We listened to Modest Mouse on the drive up, and stayed in a cheap motel and ate big pancakes at real diners. I handrolled my cigarettes, and we took breaks in lean-to shelters, our boots resting on the crusted snow, and talked about religion and faith in God, and how hard it was for him to believe, and how desperately I wanted him to know what I knew. Everything was so quiet. The snow was a thick quilt of white.

I am grateful my parents stayed together during hard times, that I grew up with a mom and a dad in an in-tact family. I know not everyone has the same opportunity. Even though family can be messy at times, it is comforting to know I can be myself around them, that things do get better, and that we all generally like each other and get along and respect differences, and are in each other's lives in one way or another--even if we are spread out across the country. I guess when I was watching This Is Us tonight, it resonated with me that they are simply telling a story of a family, both immediate and extended, from the past to the present, for better or for worse, and made me think about my own.

Thank you, Lord, for the gift and love of family!

"Since God's plan for marriage and the family touches men and women in the concreteness of their daily existence in specific social and cultural situations, the Church ought to apply herself to understanding the situations within which marriage and the family are lived today, in order to fulfill her task of serving." 

(St. Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio)

Monday, March 27, 2017

Day 27: Power Hour

"A thousand years of enjoying human glory is not worth even an hour spent sweetly communing with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament." --St. Padre Pio

I wanted to make at least one holy hour this Lent, an hour spent before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. I got the chance today after work at a small 18th century chapel near our house. The floor was uneven, the pews creaky. It was so peaceful, the sun filtering through the stained glass windows, hearing birds chirping outside on the coat tails of spring. Aside from a couple other old ladies, I was alone.

Kneeling down to the be with the Lord gives such rest. You don't have to do anything or be anything your not, just yourself. It is completely disarming, like sitting on a bench with someone you love who has known you your whole life. He is truly present--body, blood, soul, and divinity--in the Eucharist. You need eyes of faith to see Him there, sitting quietly at the feet of the Lord of the Universe in a sleepy chapel.

But it can be hard to make an hour. I feel like I should be doing something. I watch the clock. I literally have to just glue my butt to the pew and turn the time over to the Lord. I doze, which is ok when I thought about St Therese of Lisieux doing the same during prayer and reasoning that children fall asleep in their parents' arms all the time.

Every saint knows that there is power in the Eucharist, and that Holy Hours are time well spent. Ven. Fulton Sheen made a commitment to spend a Holy Hour every day of his life after hearing the following story:

"When the Communists took over China, they imprisoned a priest in his own rectory near the Church. After they locked him up in his own house, the priest was horrified to look out of his window and see the Communists proceed into the Church, where they went into the sanctuary and broke into the tabernacle. In an act of hateful desecration, they took the ciborium and threw it on the floor with all of the Sacred Hosts spilling out. The priest knew exactly how many Hosts were in the ciborium: thirty-two. 
When the Communists left, they either did not notice, or didn't pay any attention to a small girl praying in the back of the Church who saw everything that had happened. That night the little girl came back. Slipping past the guard at the priest's house, she went inside the Church. There she made a holy hour of prayer, an act of love to make up for the act of hatred. 
After her holy hour she went into the sanctuary, knelt down, bent over and with her tongue received Jesus in Holy Communion, (since it was not permissible for laymen to touch the Sacred Host with their hands.) 
The little girl continued to come back each night to make her holy hour and receive Jesus in Holy Communion on her tongue. On the thirty-second night, after she had consumed the last and thirty-second host, she accidentally made a noise and woke the guard who was sleeping. He ran after her, caught her, and beat her to death with the butt of his rifle. This act of heroic martyrdom was witnessed by the priest as he watched grief-stricken from his bedroom window. 
When Bishop Sheen heard the story he was so inspired that he promised God he would make a holy hour of prayer before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament everyday of his life. If this frail, little child could give testimony and witness to the world concerning the real and wonderful Presence of her Savior in the Blessed Sacrament, then the Bishop was absolutely bound by all that was right and true, to do the same. His sole desire from then on was to bring the world to the burning Heart of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament."

We spend time with those we love. The saints know this. In our harried day-to-day, Jesus tells us to take his yoke for it is easy, and his burden light (Mt 11:30). If you haven't yet this Lent, think about making a Holy Hour, at least once. As Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, "Perpetual adoration is the most beautiful thing you could ever think of doing."

"This is my body." 
(Mt 26:26)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Day 26: Refiner's Fire

When I went on my first interview for my first "real" job at a university in 2009, I wasn't used to interviewing (I was living in a bus the year before, for Pete's sake). Up until that, my jobs had been delivering newspapers, waiting tables, washing dishes, painting propane canisters, servicing swimming pools, working in a greenhouse, editing engineering blueprints, processing transcripts, making lattes at Starbucks, teaching 7th graders, and case management.

I didn't prepare for this particular interview, I just kind of winged it. I also didn't wear a tie or suit, just a button down dress shirt. I didn't really know what to expect or what kind of job it was, if it called for it or not, so I dressed down and treated the whole thing kind of casually (I know, I know). I presented well, but totally did not dress the part. To this day, I was amazed they hired me and that I was so oblivious to the oversight. Even though I was good for the job, I obviously had not gotten the "interviewing 101" memo, and it's embarrassing (thought forgivable) to think about it now.

I relay this story as an unsteady metaphor. If we're honest with ourselves, we treat the idea of heaven rather casually, don't we? We just assume we will go there when we die if we are "basically good people," and that we don't really have to prepare when we face God at our personal day of judgement. We'll just kind of wing it and trust that God will understand that we belong there just because. People down below on earth will be saying, 'he's in a better place now' at our funeral.

It can be a complete faux pas if you ever tell a (Protestant) Christian friend you are praying for their dead grandmother, husband, uncle, etc. They recoil at the suggestion--the Bible is clear that there is Heaven and there is Hell, and that's it. People in heaven don't need prayers, nor do those in Hell, since both are permanent, unchanging states.

While this is true about the unchanging permanency of Heaven and Hell, Catholic Christians acknowledge a third state after death known as purgatory. What is it? To the ire of Christians who discount it as a Romanist invention--despite the fact that it was believed since the earliest years of the church til today--purgatory is a state after death in which the soul is undergoing purification. Souls here are truly suffering (the Church Suffering, as it is known) but not for all eternity--they are bound for Heaven after the period of purification. These souls belong to people who died in a state of friendship with God (not in a state of mortal sin) but who were not completely freed of sin and its effects during this lifetime. Think about it like a young boy who throws a baseball through his grandmother's window out of anger--he is sorry for it, she knows it and forgives him--but there's still the broken window to deal with. This is the effect or consequence of our sin.

While it is true the word purgatory does not appear in the bible, neither does the term trinity, and yet is is a theologically accepted belief, that of three persons/one God. There is a good explanation here:

A study of the history of doctrines indicates that Christians in the first centuries were up in arms (sometimes quite literally) if anyone suggested the least change in beliefs. They were extremely conservative people who tested a doctrine’s truth by asking, Was this believed by our ancestors? Was it handed on from the apostles? Surely belief in purgatory would be considered a great change, if it had not been believed from the first—so where are the records of protests? 
They don’t exist. There is no hint at all, in the oldest writings available to us (or in later ones, for that matter), that "true believers" in the immediate post-apostolic years spoke of purgatory as a novel doctrine. They must have understood that the oral teaching of the apostles, what Catholics call tradition, and the Bible not only failed to contradict the doctrine, but, in fact, confirmed it. 
It is no wonder, then, that those who deny the existence of purgatory tend to touch upon only briefly the history of the belief. They prefer to claim that the Bible speaks only of heaven and hell. Wrong. It speaks plainly of a third condition, commonly called the limbo of the Fathers, where the just who had died before the redemption were waiting for heaven to be opened to them. After his death and before his resurrection, Christ visited those experiencing the limbo of the Fathers and preached to them the good news that heaven would now be opened to them (1 Pet. 3:19). These people thus were not in heaven, but neither were they experiencing the torments of hell.

Sometimes I get the question in my CCD class, "Why did Jesus descend into Hell" as is stated in the Apostle's Creed? More accurately, "Jesus descended to the dead," that is, Sheol (in Hebrew), the "place of the dead" in the Old Testament where people went after they died, both the just and the unjust, separated by an abyss--the section for the unjust being 'Gehenna' where they were suffering by fire. (See the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Lk 16:19-31). The sin of Adam and Eve closed the gates of Heaven, and the souls of the just who had died before the Christ came waited for their redeemer in this 'place of the dead' or temporary quarters in scripture.

Catholic Answers goes on:

Some have speculated that the limbo of the Fathers is the same as purgatory. This may or may not be the case. However, even if the limbo of the Fathers is not purgatory, its existence shows that a temporary, intermediate state is not contrary to Scripture. Look at it this way. If the limbo of the Fathers was purgatory, then this one verse directly teaches the existence of purgatory. If the limbo of the Fathers was a different temporary state, then the Bible at least says such a state can exist. It proves there can be more than just heaven and hell. Likewise, Scripture teaches that purgatory exists, even if it doesn’t use that word and even if 1 Peter 3:19 refers to a place other than purgatory.

What is the correct approach to have when someone we love dies? We trust in God's mercy and pray for them, for the repose of their soul should they be in purgatory. When I think about my own life, I am no saint, and will need all the prayers I can get after I die. I do not want people 'celebrating my life' at my funeral or telling stories or . I want them on their knees pleading with God to release my soul, to purify me, offering prayers on my behalf, that I may be with Him sooner. Remember--purgatory is not a doomed place. We can rejoice that we are destined for Heaven even in that state after the "last penny is paid" (Mt 5:26; cf Lk 12:59)

Christ refers to the sinner who "will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matt. 12:32), suggesting that one can be freed after death of the consequences of one’s sins. Similarly, Paul tells us that, when we are judged, each man’s work will be tried. And what happens if a righteous man’s work fails the test? "He will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire" (1 Cor 3:15). Now this loss, this penalty, can’t refer to consignment to hell, since no one is saved there; and heaven can’t be meant, since there is no suffering ("fire") there. The Catholic doctrine of purgatory alone explains this passage. 
Then, of course, there is the Bible’s approval of prayers for the dead: "In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the dead to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin" (2 Macc. 12:43–45). Prayers are not needed by those in heaven, and no one can help those in hell. That means some people must be in a third condition, at least temporarily. This verse so clearly illustrates the existence of purgatory that, at the time of the Reformation, Protestants had to cut the books of the Maccabees out of their Bibles in order to avoid accepting the doctrine. 
Prayers for the dead and the consequent doctrine of purgatory have been part of the true religion since before the time of Christ. Not only can we show it was practiced by the Jews of the time of the Maccabees, but it has even been retained by Orthodox Jews today, who recite a prayer known as the Mourner’s Kaddish for eleven months after the death of a loved one so that the loved one may be purified. It was not the Catholic Church that added the doctrine of purgatory. Rather, any change in the original teaching has taken place in the Protestant churches, which rejected a doctrine that had always been believed by Jews and Christians.

Trust me when I say it is more prudent for us to make amends, to repent and do penance, offer reparations to those we have sinned against, in this life than in the next. Those who are considered saints have indeed gone straight to Heaven after death for lives of heroic faith and works. They took seriously their mission on earth, trusted in God's mercy and forgiveness and power, and were good and faithful servants (Mt 25:21, 23) who have been rewarded for their obedience with eternal life. It is something we should all aspire to model. If we miss the mark, though, God in his great mercy offers those who die in his friendship yet who are still 'unclean' and not yet ready to meet him, this period of purification before the great banquet feast, so that they may come clothed in all white and freed from every impurity.

I know this is a hard pill for non-Catholic Christians to swallow, and many will not believe still because it does not square with a sola-scriptura theology. But it has been the tradition of the Christian church from the beginning until the time of the reformation. What if it is true?

So, please, pray for me now, that I may know my hidden sins and repent of them in this life. That I may make amends for the wrongs I have done, in this life. And should I die tomorrow, keep the flowers and eulogies and instead offer a mass, prayers and fasting, for my soul, that my most-probable stay in purgatory may be short and I might be with my Savior sooner than later. Dressed appropriately.

"Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way of everlasting." 
(Ps 139:22-23)

Day 25: Behold

Our children have learned the Our Father (the Lord's Prayer), and can recite it. This makes me happy. Jesus taught the disciples when they asked the Lord to teach them how to pray:

"This, then, is how you should pray:
Our Father in heaven, 
hallowed be your name, 
your kingdom come, 
your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us today our daily bread. 
Forgive us our debts, 
as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
And lead us not into temptation, 
but deliver us from the evil one." (Mt 6:9-13)

God is not a taboo topic in our house. We realize our kids's brains are like sponges at this age, so we want to take advantage of it as much as possible to fill their heads with good things and not bad things. We try to limit TV to Veggie Tales and relatively benign kids shows, and I try not to play my DMX cds when the kids are around or in the car. We read children's bible stories at night before bed We are trying to 'normalize' prayer and curiosity about God so that it is not an anomaly kind of thing the way it was for Deb and I growing up. It takes some intentionality, which is a little awkward at first, but soon becomes the new normal.

David is a curious boy, and gets into existential mode from time to time. The other night he asked Deb with a note of panic, "Who is going to go to Heaven first?" 

"We don't know that answer, David, only God knows" Deb told him.

"What if all of you go to Heaven before me??" he replied nervously.

Before she had a chance to reply, he added,

"Our family is small. Can we have a bigger family? Maybe a brother?"

She was a little surprised.

"Well, let's pray about it, bring it to God in prayer."

"God, can you give us another baby?"

The feast of the Annunciation was Saturday, which commemorates the visit of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in Lk 1:26-38 in which she is told she will be the mother of God. The fate of all humanity hinged on Mary's 'yes' is something to pondered and awed by, since, theologically speaking, she had the free will to say the unthinkable 'no' to God's plan for her life--carrying the Son of God in her womb. But she did say yes, and worthy of honor and veneration. "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." A virgin conceives--literally, the definition of the impossible. 

The angel Gabriel assures her when she responded with wondrous incredulity ('how can this be, since I am a virgin?'. "Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age," he tells her "and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God." (Lk 1:36-37) The final line in the episode of the annunciation is short and stark: "then the angel left her" (v. 38). After the comfort and reassurance of the angel, she is then alone with the precious cargo she is carrying. She seeks comfort with her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with John the Baptist.

Expanding our family has been the talk du jour between Deb and I lately, but to hear it come from David so innocently definitely gave us pause.  The thought of making the jump from 2 to 3 is a little intimidating, not to mention the various risks and fears. The assurance from Gabriel to Mary gives us comfort; after experiencing miscarriage, it is taking some trust and hope for us that this would be God's plan for our family. We are resigned to whatever his will is, but the temptation to fall back on controlling and living in fear and non-openness is always there. Mary is the perfect model for us, for her response without hesitation--"let it be done to me as you have said," resigns herself to the divine will in docility and trust. If we don't trust God, who can we trust? We have no other recourse, for He is the author of life. His promises are true; he is worthy of trust. All praise be to God most high, who gives and takes away...blessed be His holy name!"

"Nothing is impossible with God."
(Lk 1:37)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Day 25: Come and See

Our parish priest is seriously ill, and we don't know when he will be back. We love our priest--he's orthodox and relatable. We've had him over for dinner, and he has blessed our home when we first moved in. Thankfully there are some nearby Salesian priests who can fill in for masses and things. But his absence is felt.

When we used to attend Mass in Delaware, there was a poster from the Diocese of Wilmington vocation office hanging on the wall. It pictured the seminarians in formation for the priesthood in the diocese: there were six young (and not so young) men. I remember thinking for as big as the geographic area was (all of Delaware plus the Eastern Shore of Maryland, 240,000 Catholics and 57 parishes in all), this just did not seem sufficient.

Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha remarked in 1996 on the reason for the curiously large amount of vocations to the priesthood in that diocese:
"I personally think the vocation "crisis" in this country is more artificial and contrived than many people realize. When dioceses and religious communities are unambiguous about ordained priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines these calls; when there is strong support for vocations, and a minimum of dissent about the male celibate priesthood and religious life loyal to the magisterium; when bishop, priests, Religious and lay people are united in vocation ministry—then there are documented increases in the numbers of candidates who respond to the call.  
"It seems to me that the vocation "crisis" is precipitated and continued by people who want to change the Church's agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching of the Pope and bishops, and by people who actually discourage viable candidates from seeking priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines the ministries.  
"I am personally aware of certain vocation directors, vocation teams and evaluation boards who turn away candidates who do not support the possibility of ordaining women or who defend the Church's teaching about artificial birth control, or who exhibit a strong piety toward certain devotions, such as the Rosary."  

Strong vocations depend on a number of factors, but the Archbishop makes it clear that four in particular are crucial:

  • no ambiguity about the role of the priest
  • strong support from the community of believers
  • minimization of dissent
  • being united in vocation ministry

I have such a deep respect for good priests, and have known quite a few as well. They have been given the apostolic authority from Christ himself to do what no one else can do in their place. There is no such thing really as 'retirement' for many priests, they aren't rolling in dough, often are not respected in the general culture but viewed with suspicion or outright derision, are oftentimes stretched thin with responsibilities, and can be isolated if not living in community with other priests.  But for many that I have known who know they have truly been called to this particular vocation, there is deep joy and satisfaction. They would not want to be anything other than a priest.

I still remember the first invitation from my campus priest to "Come and See" and explore the priesthood over the course of a weekend at nearby St. Vincent Archabbey. As a new 19-year old Catholic, that simple invitation set off a 10 year journey of discernment for me that ultimately did not lead to the priesthood or religious life, but was invaluable to my spiritual formation.

I catch myself sometimes holding back, reserved about praying that David would be a priest. Is that really the life I would want for my son? Wouldn't he get lonely? What about the derision he would face? I love and respect priests and the sacrifices they make for their flock, but would not be willing to offer up my son should God call him to that life? Not willing to pray for it? There is some double standard there. 

Vocations can be fostered by prayer. It depends on prayer, in this culture that is so anti...anti-life, anti-religion, anti-family, anti-truth. The man who chooses to follow Jesus, should he be called to priesthood, is called to something unique, mystical, and invaluable. They deserve all the encouragement, support, and prayers we can muster.

"You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek."
(Heb 7:17)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Day 24: An Hour a Day Keeps the Devil Away

[Sorry folks. I just inadvertently deleted everything I've been writing for the past hour about Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen and making a Holy Hour as a Lenten devotional. I don't know how I did it, but blogger really screwed me tonight, and I'm too tired to try to retype everything. Maybe it was the Lord's way of saying 'Not tonight, Rob!"]

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Day 23: Let Your Yes Mean Yes

This afternoon I was talking to my dad on the phone. He asked me to stop by their house and take in the mail since they were away. He had reminded me earlier in the week as well. I assured him I would. I had a busy day and got caught up with things. I left work. Didn't take in the mail.

Seems like a little thing and it kind of is, but it can stand for something bigger too: what he asked me to do was not important enough in my mind to do, I told him I would, and I didn't follow through. My 'yes' was not 'yes.'

Jesus tells a parable of two sons (Mt21:28-32). He went the first and said,

"Son, go and work today in the vineyard."

'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. he answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go.

'Which of the two did what his father wanted?'

"The first," they answered.

"I tell you the truth," Jesus said to them "the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him."

Words are cheap, aren't they? It doesn't matter what you say, and well-intentions aren't really important at the end of days. What matters is that you take Jesus at his word and do what he asks of us: repent and believe. Isn't this the whole of Lent, what we are called to with the ashes on our forehead: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel!"

"Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no." 
(Mt 5:37)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Day 22: This Is My Son

My wife and I read a book years ago called The Five Love Languages. The premise is simple but profound: people experience love in different and unique ways, and typically we tend to think that how we feel loved is everybody feels love. Not the case, though.

My wife's love language is quality time. If she is getting time with me, if I am making time for her, she knows she is loved. She feels it.

I like quality time ok, but it's not a huge deal for me. Gifts I'm not real big on. Acts of service I can do without. Physical touch is important to me. But nothing makes me feel loved than to receive words of affirmation from my wife. "I love you. I'm proud of you. I respect you." It can literally turn my day around when my wife makes a point to tell me these things because she's speaking my "love language."

Have you ever noticed in the first chapter of Genesis, when God is giving his great monologue while creating the heavens and the earth ("Let there be light..."), there is a curious line:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our own image, in our likeness..." (Gen 1:26)

While I'm sure there are various exegetical explanations for the plural 'us', one that strikes me is that of the pre-existent Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons. One God. Existing together in a "communion of love." A divine mystery. The Son was pre-existent to being born of the Virgin--that is, he existed before time and space. For in John's gospel we read that

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning." (Jn 1:1-2)

The Son loves the Father and the Father loves the Son and affirms him. In Mt. 3:17 at Jesus' baptism a voice from Heaven said,

"This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."

And again in Mt 17:5 at his Transfiguration:

"This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!"

What am amazing affirmation. It goes such a long way for a father to say to his son, "I love you. I am proud of you. I believe in you." It carries such weight. My father did it for me often, and I try to do it with my son too. Not just sons even, but daughters especially as well. Listen to the observations of Dr. Meg Meeker in her book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters:

"I have watched daughters talk to fathers. When you come into the room, they change. Everything about them changes: their eyes, their mouths, their gestures, their body language. Daughters are never lukewarm in the presence of their fathers. They might take their mothers for granted, but not you. They light up--or they cry. They watch you intensely. They hang on your words. They hope for your attention, and they wait for it in frustration--or in despair. They need a gesture of approval, a nod of encouragement, or even simple eye contact to let them know you care and are willing to help."

Sometimes we need to be pushed. Self discipline, yes. Sacrifice and focus, sure. But sometimes even the hardest-edged CEO or the winningest World Series pitcher sitting on a stack of accomplishments finds herself or himself sitting in their office looking out at the skyline and just wanting to be told by his or her dad that he is proud of them. That he loves them. That he is well pleased with them. Such words hold such weight because of who they are coming from and for what they mean to the one receiving them.

You may not have had that growing up. But you can make a difference for your own children if you have them by making it a point to affirm them regularly. If you don't have kids, but are married, affirm your spouse--husbands love your wives and tell them you love them; wives, let your man know you respect him and are proud of him. It can literally turn a man's life around. If you are single, consider mentoring a child in need of guidance and affirmation. You can bring a light into their world. When someone believes in you, you never know how far they will take that affirmation into their adult life.

Don't underestimate the power of words of affirmation.

"The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands." 
(Jn 3:35)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Day 21: No One Wants To Be A Fool

I have been reading about the lives of two holy men and women (one saint, one blessed) with not-so-holy beginnings.

Olga, princess of Kiev, lived in 10th century Ukraine. After a rival prince murdered her husband, she avenged him with a bloodbath. Some Drevlians she burned alive; others she burned. As for Prince Mal and 500 of his most prominent nobleman and warriors, she invited them to a reconciliation banquet, waited until they were drunk, then slaughtered them all. Finally, she attacked the Drevlian capital, burned it to the ground and sold the survivors into slavery.

[*um please don't hurt me*]

She traveled to Constantinople at the age of 75 to meet with the Byzantine emperor, but while there experienced a conversion. She asked to be instructed in the Christian faith and be baptized. When she returned to Kiev she brought carts piled with liturgical vessels, vestments, relics of the saints, Bibles and other sacred texts to establish Christianity in he home region.

But it didn't take. Her people overwhelming rejected Christianity and killed the missionaries. Her family refused to convert, her son claiming that Jesus Christ was a god unsuitable for a warrior prince. She died believing she was a failure. It wasn't until years later under her grandson St. Vladimir that the faith planted by Olga took root and flourished in the region.

Bl Charles de Foucault was born in 1858 in France. He was raised in a Christian home but drifted away from his faith and took up traveling, adventures, and women. But eventually he resumed the practice of his faith after meeting devout Jews and Muslims in his travels. He joined the Trappists but left and was eventually ordained a priest. He traveled to Morocco to found a religious order to minister to Muslims, Jews, Christians, and people of no belief at all, but no one in his lifetime really joined him and he lived alone in the desert among the Tuareg nomads making nary a convert until he was shot to death in a raid from a neighboring tribe.

Failure is close to my heart. I attempted to hike the Appalachian Trail after high school and came home after New York state with my tail between my legs. I tried to live as an urban hermit in a school bus and failed. I quit my job and tried to make it as a writer. Fail. I started a business and that failed too.

It stings, failure. Makes you think your life is one big waste, that you would have been just as better off doing nothing and you would have fared better than a year or lifetime of work that you put in. When things don't bear fruit in your life, its hard to feel they ever will.

No doubt what feels to be a colossal fail in my life is evangelization, sharing the Christian faith and hoping maybe someone, somewhere, will give it a home. Thank God at least it is in His hands. Sometimes the Way just gets lonely, like you wish you had more people walking with you, and you wonder what your life is going to amount to if you keep going down this foolish path of following Jesus, betting the house, and you look back and realize ain't nobody following you, you are flapping out there in the wind by yourself.  Nobody wants to be a fool, ridiculed or ignored or treated as a leper. And yet that's so often the fate of those who follow Jesus. Who would choose this life??

And yet there's something else. Something beneath the surface, behind the curtain, that we just. can't. see. in this life. A promise for those who persevere. The foolishness ultimately counts for nothing, for this temporary world is not our final home.

I still get lonely. I start feel like a failure as a Christian and a failure for being a Christian. I don't think Jesus ever doubted his mission--he knew he was, who loved him, and what he had to ultimately do. But those standing with him at the foot of the cross were few and far between. But that day of the crucifixion...I can't help thinking the disciples feeling that pit in their gut. They had bet the house. And lost. It would be a long, sleepless three days before they would realize that the story wasn't over.

"For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness. But unto us who are saved, it is the power of God." 
(1 Cor 1:18)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Day 20: The Noon Day Demon, Revisited

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds. I was reminded of this when a Catholic woman I know on Facebook lost her son when he took his own life a couple weeks ago. I have had friends and family of friends who have lost their lives in the same way. It is an eternally tragic occurance.

Of all the books I have read on clinical depression, none is more comprehensive, personal, and exhaustively researched in my opinion than Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. When I was in the throws of one of the most cruel and overstayed visits from the unwelcome mid-day guest, it was, quite literally, my atlas for navigating an illness that was both new and frightening. I read simultaneously seeking understanding and solace. A strictly clinical book would not have sufficed. An overly-personal or anecdotal account I would have cut through as ripe trite. Anything resembling religious reading would have been lost on me at the time.

Solomon's book was an amalgamation of all of the above. He had street cred as an author and New York Times contributor, and I connected with his thoroughly journalistic style. His illness was bonafide, and its manifestations severe and gritty, but never dramatized overtly (unlike Andy Behrman's memoir of his manic escapades in Electroboy.) His research was substantive, his interviews deft; the book was a multi-year project of both clinical and personal significance.

Anyway, I happened upon the well worn and dog-eared copy of the book on my bookshelf this afternoon and was leafing through when I came upon an interview I no doubt connected with at the time I came across it for the first time. It as if the author had found my journal and copied it word for word in uncanny fashion, for I had experienced verbatim the very thing he wrote, at the same age:

"A year or so after graduating from college, Frank was at the movies when his first depression hit him. 
'On the way home from a movie, I realized I was going to drive into a tree. I felt like there was a weight pushing my foot down, like someone was pulling my hands around. I knew I couldn't drive home because there were too many trees that way and they were getting harder and harder to resist, so I headed for the hospital.'"

I still remember the day I experienced the exact same thing. I had just graduated college about a year before and was living with my parents. I had taken a job as a youth counselor at a juvenile detention center, but was in such a heavy depression that I couldn't manage the work, and felt I was putting both myself and the kids in my care at risk. And so I resigned after only a week or so, and although the supervisor admired my transparency, I felt like a failure, and that such a failure was heaped on top of my already clinically depressed self so as to tip the scales towards destruction.

On the drive home on 611, I passed a row of sycamore trees, and felt the same tug, the same weight on the gas pedal that Frank felt. I was propelling the car forward faster and faster, and it was all I could do to keep the steering wheel from pulling right against my will and connecting the front end with the trees. I was only about a half mile away and managed to grit my teeth and make it home, throwing myself exhausted and spent from the white-knuckled experience of resisting self-annihilations onto my bed, not to emerge for a few days. It was the closest I had felt to not being in control of my body, as if I was temporarily inhabited by a demon of sorts. It was so strange, so scary, and so hard to understand for someone of sound mind who has never experienced such a thing.

When I read stories of demon possession in the bible, it can be tempting to draw parallels between the "fight for your mind" (and it is a fight, a literal matter of life and death) that takes place for those in the throws of depression, mania, acute anxiety, schizophrenia, etc, and the evil spirits that take hold of one's body as seen in the bible. I generally resist this temptation. Although I believe in the reality of demonic possession (and the ability to be healed from such legitimate possession through the rite of exorcism), I am firmly in the camp that recognizes mental illness as mental illness (to be treated clinically), and demonic possession as demonic possession (to be treated spiritually), distinct from one another. Science, medicine, neurology, psychopharmacology, psychotherapy...all can and should be utilized for treatment of mental disorders in the same way science and medicine can be used to treat bodily ailments, cancers, infections, etc.

While the human body is complex, the brain--the seat of consciousness--is infinitely moreso. Psychiatry is still a rudimentary science in many ways that relies on subjective markers of progress (i.e., "how are you feeling today, on a scale of 1 to 10?") and pharmaceutical trial and error. We are only scratching the surface in the field of neuroscience and "brain mapping," and an expansive horizon remains. Although we usually endure such a misguided accusation, Catholics are not, in fact, anti-science. I am hopeful about research and treatment for future generations of those who suffer from imbalanced neurons and receptors in their brain, and those whose physical lives may be saved from the irreparable tragedy of suicide.

It has been about 15 years since that experience driving home from the juvenile detention center, and by God's grace things have changed substantially. I have been symptom free for almost seven years; I take my medication religiously and see my doctor regularly. I try to exercise and limit substances that would interfere with the serotonin and dopamine levels in my brain, as well as doing my best to manage stress and keep it to a minimum. I gritted my way through grad school, even though there were times my mom had to pick my up from my apartment and physically take me to class, wait outside for me to finish, and drive me back. I have managed to be steadily employed for the past ten years or so in my field, get married, have children, and while mental illness is more like a cancer in remission--never really 'cured' in the traditional sense--I do live a relatively quote-unquote normal life in spite of it.

While the spectre of the phantasm always seems to lurk, he is for now benign. Is he resting, gathering strength? Has he gone away to make a home somewhere else? I don't know, and though I do not live in fear, I never forget. I guard my mind as if it were kin. For when your mind turns against you, how can you put it to death in duel and come out unscathed yourself? May God be praised for the gift of health--both physical and mental. I am so grateful for it.

"But Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God." 
(Lk 9:42-43)

Day 19: Coming To Terms With Temptation

When I used to do a lot of driving in my past job, it was hard to stay awake on the long stretches from Baltimore or North Jersey to home late at night. When I would start to doze (a terrifying prospect when you are driving at 70mph), I would slap my face, or roll down the windows, drink some soda or coffee if I had it, yell and sing...whatever I could do to make sure my eyes stayed open until I got home. A sweet night of sleep when one is tired is a blessing, a respite from the world and necessary for our functioning. You can only go so long without it.

In Lk 22:39-46 we find the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to his sentencing and impending crucifixion. He has asked his friends to stay awake with him for comfort during his agony (which was so great his sweat became "like drops of blood falling to the ground" (v 44)), and implore them to "pray that you will not fall into temptation." (22:40). When he arose from prayer, he found the disciples asleep. "Why are you sleeping?" he asks them and again reminds to "get up, and pray so that you will not fall into temptation" (22:46).

In Matthew's gospel, the disappointment of Jesus in finding his friends succumbing to sleep is more pronounced. He asks them to keep watch with him, but find them asleep not once, not twice, but three times. "The spirit is willing," he laments, "but the body is weak." (Mt 26:41)

One of the lies of the Devil during periods of intense temptation is that if we will only give in to it, it will leave us alone. Or, more forcefully, that we cannot in fact be free of temptation unless we give in to it. This is a lie. And yet, when our flesh is battling against our spirit because they are seeking opposite things (the flesh seeks its own fulfillment, while the spirit seeks to do those things of God which it is called to do), it is almost formulaic: discomfort and suffering ensues.

I will give a somewhat personal example. Singledom can be a real burden for people. One can be forgiven for thinking during times of temptation "if only I was married, I could have sex anytime and be free from this hardship (of being sexually abstinent)." 

I have found this to be somewhat inaccurate, though. While sex makes its rightful home in a Christian marriage, there are times when sexual intercourse between spouses is just not possible--due to illness, or distance due to work travel, for instance. Men can find such periods of abstinence beneficial...for a time. But after a certain point it becomes a real strain, both physiologically and emotionally. It is not fun and it is not enjoyable. While some people may make concessions (masturbation, contraception, or sexual activity other than intercourse) as a 'work around' during such periods, the Catholic understanding of sexual morality does not allow for this. Sex is both unitive and procreative, and the two aspects can never be separated intentionally. You literally hit a wall, then, everywhere you turn for relief: "can't do this, can't do that...well, what can we do??" It would be one thing if we were unaware, but we know the teachings of the Church and can't feign ignorance, can't get a pass, without committing sin, no matter how convincingly the devil whispers in our ears twisting words, as he did so long ago in the Garden of Eden to our parents "Did God really say..."

We are in one of these periods in our marriage now where we are being called to a somewhat extended time of restraint. I literally don't know what to do some days. Should I take a cold shower? Go for a run? You can only shower and run so much. I don't want to seek sexual gratification outside of my wife obviously, and so it takes diligence to control thoughts and fantasies. Over time you can get worn down and cranky, like the disciples trying to keep their eyelids open. That's when a dangerous case of what I call the "F It"'s comes on stage. F it, I'm getting a burger. F it, look up the porn. F it, I'm going to bed angry. It's a dangerous place, spiritually, because you're essentially throwing in the towel, refusing to fight and endure suffering for what you know to be right. It's also, curiously, those times when I have told prayer to have a seat outside so that I can let sin in the house. That's no coincidence. 

Suffering is a dirty word in our culture. We're encouraged to euthanize rather than witness suffering, abort rather than endure the hardship of unplanned pregnancies, divorce and seek happiness elsewhere when it no longer becomes possible in a marriage. These are big temptations of eternal moral weight, but lesser temptations--to buy and consume on credit rather than go without, for example, or hold a grudge to our grave--operate in the same manner. Sometimes you just can't avoid suffering, and when you try, you perpetuate the cycle. You buy into the lie that giving in will make it go away.

Lent more than any other time is spring training in self-discipline for the higher purpose of sanctification--being made holy. "Be holy because I, the LORD, am holy." (Lev 20:26; 1 Peter 1:16). I have managed to do ok without coffee (my voluntary discipline) even though I live for coffee, and fasting and not eating meat on Fridays is uncomfortable but totally doable. But the no sex thing (not chosen, due to circumstances, having nothing to do with Lent (ultimately)) is hard hard hard. It is a real test for me personally. The times where I refuse to go to war for my spirit--as David did when he preferred to stay back and have a vacation day on the palace rooftop--and endure the hardship that waits are the times when I have been tricked and chosen the flesh rather than fully embracing my cross (a cross which may be different and unique to all of us).  

I don't respect men who shirk suffering and duty in exchange for comfort and self, and I don't respect myself all that much when I do the same. Thankfully our weaknesses can serve a purpose as well--to keep us humble, so that we do not operate under the illusion that we can do anything apart from God's grace. Learning the Devil's cunning ways can help us recognize what we need to do to not fall into temptation, as the Lord encourages us. But in trying to do what is right, sometimes that means the inescapable task of picking up our cross and carrying that sucker uphill, when all we want to do is leave it by the roadside, or pass it to someone else. Jesus shows us how to do it. He gave us the example and sanctified it. All we have to do is follow. And if we're serious about it, it's gonna hurt.

"Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me, this thorn in my flesh. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." 
(2 Cor 12:9)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Day 18: Free of Charge

Driving back from Maryland this afternoon on 95, I noticed what seemed to be a relatively new thing: EZ Pass "Express" Lanes. You basically pay a voluntary toll for an express lane, and the rate fluctuates depending on how much traffic you are avoiding by taking it. It's kind of like flying first class (for driving). I'm not opposed to this kind of pay-to-play set up, but it does smack of interstate gentrification: those who can afford to can cruise along for an extra $17.59 while the rest of us schmoes idle in gridlock. So it goes.

Whenever I encounter pay-for-privilege setups like this, I am reminded of the radical nature of the Gospel. Jesus the Christ extends the invitation to salvation to all who believe. Free of charge.

I am not ashamed of the gospel, writes the Apostle, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. (Rom 1:16)

Caste is irrelevant. Background is meaningless. What you look like, how much money you have, what your race is, your gender, your education, your degrees, your occupation, your handicaps, what neighborhood you live in, what you've done...Salvation is available to you. To YOU! Free of charge!

The prophet Isaiah extols us,

"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! 
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. 
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and east what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare." (Is 55:1-2)

It costs nothing to be baptized. You can eat and be nourished every day on the Bread of To repent of your sins, receive absolution--no charge. Experience a joy no one can take from you, which no circumstance can snuff out. Sit at the feet of wisdom and learn. No expectation of payment for services rendered.

Free and available to all is the Gospel. It costs nothing--and yet, paradoxically, the Gospel will cost us everything.

It may cost us our family:

"If you come to me but do not leave your family, you cannot be my disciple." (Lk 14:26)

It may cost us a comfortable life:

"Foxes have their holes and the birds of the sky have their nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head." (Lk 9:58)

It may cost us our life itself:

"For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." (Mt 16:25)

But Jesus turns no one away. Not children:

"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these." (Lk 18:16)

Not prostitutes:

"She brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears." (Lk 7:36-50)

Not swindlers:

"Zacchaeus, come down immediately, I must stay at your house today." (Lk 19:5)

Not even the masses:

"They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat." (Mt 14:15)

You see when we have everything we need we tend to think we have no use for coach class gifts.  "No thanks," we say, "I'm good." That is why it is so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.

A treasure of infinite worth is yours, a pearl of great price. Free of charge. No one is turned away. It will cost you everything you have. All you have to do is ask for it. Will you lay claim to your inheritance as an heir? What will it take for you to believe?

"Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." 
(Rom 8:17)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Day 17: Blinded By The Light

My dad walked over to my office around lunchtime today. We drove down to South campus and took a little hike in the woods. The snow was crusted over from the recent storm; we were the only ones around.

As we walked, we reached a point where we hiked up a hill and were in an open field. Everything was white. So bright. When I got back to my office my eyes hurt from squinting. It took a little while for my pupils to go back to normal.

It made me call to mind the gospel reading from this past Sunday: the story of the Transfiguration in Mt 17:1-9. It's a peculiar story, one that obviously shows Jesus' manifestation of glory, his full divinity, but a story I never really connected with for some reason, or gave much thought to. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain by themselves.

"There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light."

Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus

"Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah."

But when the voice of God comes to them from a cloud saying "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" they fall down, terrified. When they arise, there is no one there but Jesus.

In our house, we have a saying: God is #1. Before all things. M.I.P (Most Important Person)

"Daddy, I love God more than you," David said to me tonight, hoping maybe I would get upset.

"That's good!" I say.

"Mommy, I love God more than you," Monica says, mimicking her brother.

"Yes, that's right!" Deb replies.

It's our effort to not put God equally alongside others, just one tent among many: Job, family, bills, God, sports, school. When we do this we are like Peter wanting to set up little houses for each thing, not knowing what we are saying. No, God first, all things in their rightful place following that.

Every now and then we will experience those moments of transfiguration in our lives when we are utterly blinded by God's glory, get a taste of the afterlife for a very brief moment. I don't think we could handle much more, for those are 'mountaintop' experiences reserved only for close friends of the Lord. They remind us that Jesus is more than a good teacher, a noble ethicist, a prophet or a king. He is God made manifest in the flesh...and he LIVES!

"He is before all things, and in him all things hold together."
(Col 1:17)

Day 16: Junk Mail

Like most people, I can smell SPAM from a mile away. Not the unholy canned-meat of yesteryear, but those unwelcome and impersonal robo-emails hawking minute-loans and adult webcam sites and Viagara at 70% discount. I don't even read them, they just go right in the delete bin.

Contrast this when I get an email from a friend, or better yet, a letter in the mail. There is a trust there, a relationship and foundation, that makes fertile ground for me hearing what they have to say. It's not coming from a stranger, and not unwelcome either.

When I get spam, I know someone is using me. They are casting their net wide with the hopes of catching a few gullible fish by chance. They don't care about me. They don't even know me. They don't personalize their email, it's a generic template. And yet they are sending me an invitation to wire them money to some Nigerian bank account? No thanks.

One of the most heart warming stories in the book of Acts for me is that of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip is on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza when he meets an Eunuch and stays near his chariot. The eunuch is reading Isaiah the prophet, and Phillip asks him if he understands what he is reading.

"How can I," he says, "unless someone explains it to me?"

The eunuch asks about the prophecy in Is 53:7-8, and Philip tells him about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said,

"Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?"

And so they stop the chariot and Philip baptized him.

I like this innocent story because it encompasses a few key issues involved in evangelization: curiosity on the part of the eunuch, prayerful listening and gentle prompting on the part of Philip, companionship, trust, instruction, accompaniment, and the impartation of grace through baptism.  Though Philip was initially a stranger, by the end of the encounter he no longer was. He didn't see the eunuch as a body to be counted, but as an individual whom he was called to attend to by the Spirit, personally.

I don't like feeling used, and I am discerning in whom I trust, so I am sensitive to people's wariness when it comes to the gospel message and how it is delivered. With something so important as our salvation, the source needs to be credible, and the witness sincere. The street corner preacher may serve an ultimate purpose, but he is kind of like a spammer. I personally would need to be in relationship and trust someone before I would listen to what they say.

Maybe you are that person, curious about something you've read or come across, but not sure you understand. Or maybe you are that person whom the Lord has placed on your heart to attend to someone with instruction, to walk with them. In either case, a reassurance is when the joy of salvation--whether through baptism or through coming to faith and understanding--is mutually shared by both parties, that both rejoice equally. Then we know the words of St. Paul are being fulfilled:

"Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn." 
(Rom 12:15)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Day 15: The Baptist Wardrobe

Despite having all day to write today (snow day), I found myself doing anything but writing. Instead I was going through my closet and saying, 'I think it's time for a change.' And by change I mean, 'I think I want to donate everything and try owning three shirts, three pairs of socks, and one pair of pants.' 

I go through this every now and then. It's appealing to me to pare down my wardrobe minimalist style, a kind of superfluous challenge to live within self-made boundaries, and makes sense on some levels (and doesn't on others): my clothes are a mix of Goodwill, Banana Republic, and Old Navy. I'd say I wear the same 20% of the clothes I own 80% of the time. I like some variety depending on my mood, though, and am not in any kind of crazy executive position and have to wear black turtlenecks every day because it's one less decision to make. We also have a decent amount of space.

Soo...for the time being, and as a trial, I am focusing on quality over quantity. I went out a limb and bought three pairs of Darn Tough merino wool socks (@ $18/pair, made in VT, lifetime guarantee, odor-resistant, fast drying) from Campmor and am donating all my old K-mart cotton crew socks and nylon dress socks to Goodwill. I am also donating about half of the rest of the clothes I wear 20% of the time (as a result, I am 'donating' half my allotted closet space that will be freed up to my wife). I suppose I could also put them in a giant tupperware bin temporarily in the garage, in case the experiment fails and I want to go back to my old wardrobe). I'd like to pare down to 3 tee shirts, one pair of jeans, one pair of work pants, three pairs of dress pants, 5 dress shirts, one long sleeve shirt, two sweaters, a couple v-necks, one pair of shorts, one pair of workout clothes. Just because.

I don't consider Lent a superfluous challenge, though, or a typical self-improvement regimen. What could be more serious or important than growing in love and service to the Lord? What could be more worthy of our attention? I love the season, because it gives an objective opportunity to prune out what distracts, 'work out' spiritually, and focus on what is important.  Sometimes that means getting rid of some things, having a bit more structure and confines than what we are used to, for the sake of something greater and deeper, and rousing ourselves from spiritual complacency.  It's not like we are called to undertake anything too burdensome (occasional times of fasting and abstinence, increased prayer) or for too long (a month and a half). It's totally doable, but pushes us to think and act differently. 

My Lenten routine is pretty basic and very minimalist: 

  1. Wake up at 5:30am. 
  2. Go to side room/prayer station. 
  3. Light candle.
  4. Find daily mass readings for the day (1 Old Testament reading, 1 Gospel reading) and spend a few moments reading the Word. 
  5. Then maybe a few paragraphs from some spiritual reading (currently it is "Uniformity to God's Will, a thin treatise by St. Alphonsus Liguori). 
  6. Then I set my timer for ten minutes and offer prayers for the particular person I am praying for that day. 

On Friday we abstain from meat. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we fast. Try to make it to Confession once a week. 

Every day I write. 

I'm afraid if I undertake too much, I will set myself up for disappointment. So I keep it minimal and go above if inspiration strikes. But the daily structure helps set the season apart from "Ordinary Time" (as it's called in the Liturgical Calendar).

So there you have it, a day in the Lenten life! Lent is an opportunity to simplify and refocus our spiritual lives (more prayer, less sin), and the clothes experiment is just something fun to do to maybe simplify my everyday life in some small way (more deliberateness, less clutter). After all, all John the Baptist owned was the hair-shirt on his back, and the sandals on his feet. And he had a great life eating locusts and wild honey in the middle of nowhere and ushering in the Kingdom of God before he was jailed and had his head cut off and served to the King on a platter. 

Plus I'll do anything to cut down on laundry. Let the pruning commence!

"Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!" 
(Mark 1:3)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Day 14: One Hundred Hours of Solitude

I grew up being outside. When I was in grade school in the eighties my brothers and neighborhood friends and I would spend every chance we could--from after school to dusk, and every weekend pretty much--doing something outside the house. Roller hockey, tag, baseball, you name it. We were also in the woods down the street from our house a lot--building bmx ramps, damming creeks, making forts. We went camping in Rhode Island as a family, made trips to Mount Washington in New Hampshire, and spent weeks at the beach, biking, and hiking in Cape Cod, Mass.

When I got into high school I started doing more on my own, I continued to go on long bike rides (laying out paper maps, drawing pencil line routes in, and sometimes taking off and not knowing where I was going at all) and hikes. A lot of this took place apart from big groups and sometimes it was just me and a friend. The most memorable experiences though, the ones I remember being the most profound, were the times I was alone in the natural world (and by that term I mean mountains, forests, streams, what we think of when we use the term 'nature' or 'the great outdoors').

Nature is an awesome and humbling thing. For Thoreau, Emerson, and other American Transcendentalists, nature played an integral part of their search for connection with the divine. Thoreau recalled as a young boy one of his most impressionable memories laying awake at night and, "looking through the starts to see if I could see God behind them."

God's handiwork in creation holds such a guarded and important place in my heart because I encountered him there before I even knew his name. It was 1996, and I was backpacking by myself for three days in one of those giants splotches of green (state forest) on a map of PA. This was before cell phones (not that it would have worked in the sticks of Pike and Potter counties anyway) and before I could drive. My dad drove me three hours north to a remote trailhead on the Pinchot Trail on a Friday and we agreed on a spot on a map to meet on a Sunday afternoon. It must have taken a lot of trust and faith for my parents, because there was literally no way to know if anything would have happened to me over the course of those three days, and minimal ways to get in touch.

Over the course of the weekend, it became apparent that my planning was in short supply. I had a fleece blanket to sleep in, but the summer nights were not as warm as I expected, and I shivered my way through the night, unable to sleep. My hammock also did not afford a good night sleep even if I had a warmer blanket, and so the whole night I spent on edge with the sounds of unknown creatures in the dark coming from every direction after my fire went out for the night. I didn't pack enough food and underestimated how many calories I was burning walking 20 miles a day, and burned through the Dinty Moore stew that I had rationed for two days in the first night. I didn't see any other people while I was out there in the forest, so the solitude was thick and unnerving and palpable; nor would I see another person for the duration of the three days.

The most humbling and fateful moment, though, was when I realized on Day 2 that I had lost my map. It must have fallen out of my pocket as I was hiking, and I didn't know at which point I had lost it. Keep in mind the only way I knew where I was going, not to mention where my dad was to pick me up the next day, was that glossy 11x14" piece of paper anchoring me to my tracked existence. I was instantaneously filled with dread. There was no backup, and I hadn't passed another hiker in two days. I did the only thing I could think of, which was to retrace my steps.

I also began to plead to the air. I was not a Christian, knew nothing of the LORD back then--who he was, his name. I just had a vague sense of 'maybe Someone is out there," in the way the Israelites "groaned and cried out because of their their cry for release went up to God he heard their groaning. (Ex 2:23-24). This was before the Israelites knew the LORD or the name of YAHWEH. Really, my back was against the wall, I literally had no recourse, no one to help me.

And so I kept saying, "Please, please, help me find my map. Help me find it." And I remember very distinctly a feeling of a giant hand cupping over me--I can't describe it to this day. But in the midst of this pleading, at one point after a half mile or so of walking, and quite randomly, I looked down and saw my map in the brush to the side of the trail. In that instant, I regained my life. To this day, the words of the Psalmist are my go-to prayer: "O God, come to my assistance. O LORD, make haste to help me!" (Ps 69:2)

Nature reminds me of the awesomeness of God and the smallness of man. The serene beauty holds a deadly force of power than can snuff us out quicker than we can blink without even a thought. And yet it is on the precipice of danger that we recognize that we are, ultimately, not really in control of things. That something outside of us holds us tight.

It also affords us the chance to experience solitude, of which the Lenten season is a prime incubator for and of which we as a society can so desperately benefit from when we allow it into our lives. When we have the chance to stand naked before God for a few hours or a few days, with no one to affirm us or comfort or distract us, we see who we really are and what we are really made of. In my case, a 16 year old suburban boy testing his might against himself and against the elements, I came up woefully short. But it was in that recognition of humble inadequacy that God was able to work--the teacher in his classroom--to remind me in that moment of an existential and total loss of control, that he is, in fact, the one steering the ship. His awesomeness is made manifest in Nature, and we may in fact not be as ultimately self-sufficient as we would like to think we are.

"The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder's craft." 
(Ps 19:1)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Day 13: The Wager

Does what you believe take more precedence than what you do? Is Christianity a "creed over deed" religion? The mentality seems to be that if you get what you believe right your deeds will follow en suite.

Judaism takes the opposite approach. I first encountered this when I read A.J. Jacob, the secular agnostic journalist who wrote an account of his guinea-pig attempt to live the judaic biblical mandates to a 'T' in his book The Year of Living Biblically.

"Judaism has a slogan:," he writes, "'deed over creed.' There's an emphasis on behavior; follow the rules of the Torah, and you'll eventually come to believe." 

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher, straddled this divide of creed and deed in his posthumous treatise "Pensees" ('Thoughts') with what is famously known as "Pascal's Wager." In it he proposes:

  1. God is (exists) or is not.
  2. A game is being played, where either heads or tails will show up.
  3. You must wager (it is not optional)
  4. What is the gain/loss in wagering that God is? (If you gain, you gain all. If you lose, you lose nothing.)
  5. Wager without hesitation, then, that God is.

These first five articles concern the creed--belief--that determines everything, our eternal trajectory. Reason cannot prove the case for or against the existence of God, so one must wager with belief.

What then, if one is unable to believe? In the sixth and final article, it is deed that takes precedence, in that

"Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions.  Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness." (III.233)

In Mark 9, a man brings his demon-posesssed son to Jesus. "If you can do anything," the man pleads to Jesus, "take pity on us and help us."

"If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes."

Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, 'I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!'" (Mk 9:21-24)

What do we see here? We see a tentative faith, one that brings a case before Jesus with the qualifier 'if.' (Contrast this to the encounter with the centurion in Lk 7:7 confident of Jesus' ability to heal his servant, or the bold touching of Jesus' cloak by the hemorrhaging woman in Mk 5:25, confident that if only she would touch him she would be healed).  The man is testing his wager ("if you can"), unsure and unable to believe (article 6) until Jesus presses him with the possibilities (gain) of belief.

The man puts his chips down. The deed and the creed are bound up in this peculiar, paradoxical case: the proclamation of belief (creed) is a deliberate act of will (deed)--a wager--that bets his son's life and places it at Jesus' feet. What comes first? Belief? Or the act of believing? He believes, and in doing so every possibility is open to him--including  the seemingly impossible task of overcoming unbelief!

Judaism offers an interesting perspective that as a Christian I never really thought about before, that of the importance of deed over creed, that is maybe of some relevance during Lent, and in our lives in general. When we are struggling with belief, when we have crises of faith, is there any value to say worshipping when it feels so inauthentic? Should we pray when we feel we are just going through the motions? Would we be better off abandoning these practices until we regain our genuine sense of belief, or can such practices 'prime the pump' and hold value even when we struggle to maintain belief?

The sacramental nature of Catholicism holds that God's grace is conferred in many ways, but especially so in the sacraments--(def: an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to confer grace. E.g., baptism, confirmation, eucharist, anointing of the sick, etc) and sacramentals (holy water, blessed oil, palm ashes, etc). We live in the material world--we eat and drink, go to the bathroom, have sex, etc. Water for example is not holy in and of itself, but can be made holy. Bread is not holy in and of itself but by God's power can be made to be the flesh of Christ--Christ himself: body, blood, soul, and divinity. God in taking on flesh in the Incarnation bridges the divide between the material and the spiritual; "the Son of God became man, so that man might become God."

In and of themselves sacraments and sacramentals do not constitute belief, but they can aid in the conferral of grace that helps lead to belief, aid us in our journey. Catholicism, then, lends itself to a particularly Pascalian proposition: if you don't believe, try it out as if you did, employing all the tools in the toolbox to build the house of faith. Faith is ultimately a gift from God, but there comes a point when we must put our chips down and place our bets via the will--does He exist, or does he not?

So if you are struggling with belief, pray, and ask for belief as if you believed.

If you are struggling with prayer, pray anyway, for it is in times of dryness and desolation that we learn not to rely on spiritual consolation but trust in God who we cannot see or feel.

If you are struggling to love your spouse, if your marriage is in a bad place, exercise the will to love through your deeds. Even when you don't love your spouse, anymore act as if you do. Clean the house. Make dinner. Be thoughtful. You never know--it may just be enough to prime the pump and get things back on track.

After all...what do you have to lose?