Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Do I Know You?

I've noticed an interesting thing when we are taking a long drive on a family trip, or I am on the road for work--when faced with two options for gas, food, and bathroom break and it is between a big-name place (Wawa, for those of us here in eastern PA), and Joe Local's Service Station, I'll always choose the big name guy. My wife also feels weird using the bathroom in a ramshackle place. In theory I'm a 'buy local' guy, but in practice the psychology of comfort chips always fall on what's corporate and impersonal. Why?

I used to shop occasionally at a local food exchange store in Delaware, the kind of place where you bring your own bottle to fill up olive oil and where you can buy barley in bulk if you wanted it. I had gotten to know the lady who ran it and she was cool, nice, and very community-minded. She ran workshops on making kombucha and soap and the like. She was on a first name basis with many of her customers. For people looking for the local-experience, this woman was doing her darndest to bring it back and provide it. 

I stopped going after a while though, because honestly sometimes I just wanted to get my shopping done and not have to make a special trip, or maybe I was tired of paying a premium for the experience. Like I said, I'm a supporter of the local economy in theory, but in practice I'm not up to par and am probably contributing to the breakdown of the fabric of our society by where I spend my dollars. If I'm honest, I think I'm just a lot like many other people of my generation that are suckers for marketing. 

When I see a big Wawa sign, I get brain signals of "comfort" "familiarity" "home." When I pull up to a Joe's Service Station, I get signals of "danger" "unknown" "too intimate." Why? I think it stems from a kind of comfortable impersonalism that is becoming commonplace in our interactions, our schools, and our churches. I can run in and get a coffee and be out in 30 seconds. I can accidentally clog the toilet and not be completely mortified that I will run into the owner in town somewhere. Etc.

I read an article recently that Millennials today engage more with their smartphones than actual human beings. They are having sex with each other less, don't know how to date, and as I see on campus, they may be sitting right next to one another in the lounge and text-exchanging instead of talking or interacting face-to-face. I'm young enough to be somewhat text-savy, but old-school enough that I still like to pick up the phone and call someone (a no-no for millennials) and get to know people in person (preferably over coffee). Most of us now, though, are bowling alone.

Where this impersonalism gets me is in church. Catholics have a kind of Wawa-mentality when it comes to our Sunday obligation, I think--most want to "get in, get out", anonymously if possible, and not engage too much. Churches used to be the hubs of the local community. You identified with which parish you went to, you met people you might eventually marry there, and you know where to go for help when you or someone you know needed it. I have tried on occasion smiling and saying, "hi, my name is Rob" to people at church after Mass, but it's usually seen as kind of weird and intrusive. 

So, I'm both part of the problem in my big-box consumer mentality that is so easy to fall into, and also recognizing that the kind of impersonalism that is comfortable for us is not always healthy for a society or the church as a whole. We need connection, and connections happen when people let down their guard and get to know one another, even when it means being vulnerable (at the appropriate time). Families are so isolated today, it makes our lives raising children harder when we are so disconnected from other support networks. 

What do you think? Is there a solution?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Young Evangelizers

I got my shipment from Saint Paul Street Evangelization a few weeks ago--a sandwich board, 250 rosaries, and 100 miraculous medals. I haven't found a date that worked to hit the streets yet, so they have just been sitting for now. I was working in the garage on a project when I saw the box and got an idea.

Now, for those who may or may not know, as a family we have received many graces and blessings from the wearing of the miraculous medal. We don't treat it as a charm or superstition, but a sacramental (something set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to increase devotion, and through these movements of the heart to remit venial sin). We all wear one--Deb and I, and the kids (well, when they aren't losing them).

We were on our way to Mass and I grabbed a handful of miraculous medals on chains, and fished out two and gave each kid one. I encouraged each kid to pray and ask the Holy Spirit to ask them to reveal someone at church to give the medal to, someone who may really need it or someone who God really felt could benefit from having one. "You guys have a mission," I told them on the winding road approaching the church, "you are young evangelizers and God has a job for you."

They held their medals in the pockets, and I kept encouraging them to pray about who God wanted them to give it to. When it came to time for the sign of peace, Monica turned to the woman behind us and extended her hand with the medal, which the woman took. She looked at me and I nodded "it's for you," just as someone had left a medal for us, maybe unknowingly, when we found it sitting in a pew at mass down at the beach.

David waited a little longer, til after the final blessing, when we were walking out. There is a man with Down's syndrome who collects the hymnals from people as they leave the church. David looked up to him and handed him the medal, saying "this is for you." The man took it and said thank you.

You know, Catholics have the world's best kept secret--the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Sacraments, and invitation to Eternal Life through baptism and being a member of His Holy Church. Someone gave them a priceless pearl and it is sitting in the garage or the attic somewhere in a box filled with junk, just waiting to be discovered. This is the Gospel seed. Seeds can last for hundreds of years if stored properly. But until they are planted, they are just seeds--not plants, or vines, or trees yielding fruit.

What if through our actions, taking seriously our baptismal commission, we were able to encourage someone to take that seed out of the box in the attic, out of the seed pack, and plant it outside. Maybe they don't do anything to it right away, but maybe taking it out of storage is the first step. Eventually by grace they are moved by the miracle of an unfurling of a tiny plant pushing its way through the soil from the seed kernel. They decide to water it, and as it grows, add fertilizer. Before they know it, it has matured and brought forth that first fruit that never would have been tasted had it remained just a seed. Eventually, when enough trees are planted, you get something like this:

Both of our children, like all of the baptized, were charged with a commission today; they were given a single seed to plant somewhere. Only God knows if it would bring forth fruit. But they were good and faithful servants, and I hope this little experiment is helping to foster a spirit of evangelization among our family.

We have to be intentional, in our own lives of course, but also with how we pass on the faith to our children, and how they pass it on to others. It takes grace, work, prayer, and living by example. Children approach the commission innocently, with a healthy amount of trepidation but without all the baggage that many of us carry. Our future as a church, and as a human race, depends on God. All he is asking us to do is take the seeds out of the seed pack, and plant them, and encourage others to do the same. He does the rest. As St. Mother Teresa said, we are not called to be successful, only faithful. Unless we start, we cannot hope to finish the race (2 Tim 4:7).

Sunday, August 20, 2017


Every fall I drive out towards Lancaster county to visit the orchards. There is one particular farm I go to to pick up bushels of "seconds"--slightly imperfect tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, pears, apples, peaches that I get at a significant discount because they are not show-worthy. But I end up using them to make stews and jams and stuff anyway, so looks and bruises aren't that big a deal to me.

I have to be careful that this acceptance of "second-fruits" doesn't spill into my relationship with the Lord.  Seconds are okay for me and my purposes, but as I read through Scripture, it seems apparent that we should not adopt such a disposition towards God. God doesn't want leftovers or seconds--whether with our time, talent, or treasure--nor should we make it our practice to offer God such things. These are just a few passages from the Old and New Testament that came to mind as I reflected on giving God the best:

Without Blemish

Exodus 12:5: "The lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats."

Choicest Cut

Genesis 4:4: "In the course of time Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the ground, while Abel, for his part, brought the fatty portion of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor."

First Fruits

Deuteronomy 26:1-2: "When you have come into the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you as a heritage, and have taken possession and settled in it, you shall take some first fruits of the various products of the soil which you harvest from the land the LORD, your God, is giving you; put them in a basket and go to the place which the LORD, your God, will choose as the dwelling place for his name."

Clean and New

Matthew 27:59: "Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in clean linen and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock."

Costly Extravagance

Matthew 26:6-9: "Now when Jesus was in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil, and poured it on his head while he was reclining at table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant and said, "Why this waste? It could have been sold for much, and the money given to the poor."

I'll admit God's economy is not natural for me. I was raised to eschew risk; money was to be carefully cultivated, controlled, and used wisely and prudently. When my mom cooked, it was always "just enough" for the five of us, and some leftovers. My dad would say, "too much of anything is no good," which was wise in many ways, but also belied a kind of measured control. Generosity towards others was, unfortunately, not something we grew up with either.

But God seems reckless by comparison. He doesn't give "just enough"--He fills our cup to overflowing (Ps 23:5) and just keeps pouring. He doesn't meet out blessings and graces like a stingy penny-pincher. He wants us to have life, and life abundant (Jn 10:10). He commends a woman who breaks an alabaster jar full of costly perfume to anoint him. The disciples are thinking practically (sell it and give the proceeds to the poor, that would be better!). Joseph of Arimathea did not use a burial linen picked up from Good Will to wrap Jesus' body or a leftover family tomb--everything was new and reserved for him. God's people are called not to offer leftover scraps from the fields, but first-fruits, first-cuts, unblemished animals for the sacrifice. God deserves the best, because He did not spare what was of most value to Him for us--His only begotten Son.

God is not stingy with us. Let's remember not to be stingy with God.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Darkness Before Dawn

I first came across reference to The Tytler Cycle at Msgr Pope's excellent post titled "The Eight Stages of the Rise and Fall of Civilizations" a few months back. It offered perspective and a sober analysis of our current state of affairs as a democracy.

Where would you say we are? 

One interaction with a millennial today and I think we can rule "Courage" out. Perhaps the founding of our country in the 18th century would be the truest expression of "Liberty"--but not now. In an age of polarized wealth and 1% oligarchs, "Abundance" does not ring true for many Americans. You could make the case for "selfishness," but I think we're passed that, along with "Complacency." We've even moved beyond "Apathy," I would argue, and moving out of the tail end of "Dependency." I would argue, as an American society, we are entering into a period of true bondage. 

The original "Benedict Option" of the time of the founder of western monasticism, St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century (you could argue earlier, with St. John Cassian in the 5th century), emerged during a time when Christians were becoming comfortable and complacent. The persecutions had largely ceased under Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 AD and those seeking a more rigorous life of self-denial and penance fled to the desert. Later centuries saw similar periods of complacency, decay, and revival. 

The "cycle of democracy" in the Tytler model above has a cycle life of about 200 years. That would put us about on course to finishing up and coming full cycle.

I try not to be a fatalist, but the times, they are a-crazy. The writing seems to be on the wall. If we are truly entering into the darkness of bondage (final stage), we will have quite a storm to weather as a democracy. I love our country and our unique model of a Republic, but I also really do not think things are getting "better." The sense of virtue wedded to civic responsibility is all but lost among 99% of the population, and once gone it is almost impossible to recover except through destruction and rebuilding among the ruins. The Left has gone off the deep end, and the Right with all their talk and love of liberty and freedom has failed to couple it with virtue and so it is destined to be impotent, since the only way our Republic stands and the American Experiment works is when we our ideals of liberty are bounded by virtue. Trying to find civic and moral virtue in government today is like trying to find a winning Powerball ticket.

These are dark, stained and sordid days we are living through. But I have hope. Not hope for this world or for our democracy, but an eternal hope for a home in a kingdom not of this world. What other recourse do we have? Our period of bondage, the "labor pains" of a new birth--not in a new age way of thinking, but a true eschaton, where we should not hope for (but also not be surprised at) the demise of our democracy.

If our inability as a society to have reasoned discussion with those we disagree with beyond emotionalism and party slogans, and recognize the Natural Law, among other things, is not apparent to you now, it should be. I think we are passed the point of no return.

At the darkest hour, dawn is just on the horizon. The rainbow comes after the flood...for those on the ark. But you have to get on. Our hope is in Christ, and our ark is His Church, founded on the promise to Peter that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. "Do not put your trust in princes, or in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation" (Ps 146:3-5). Like the disciples, we ask when all turn away towards destruction, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life!" (Jn 6:68).

So hold on, and wait like a centurion for the dawn. It's going to be a bumpy ride. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Waiting For Your Son

If anyone asked me what my favorite parable in the bible was, and I could only choose one, it would be the parable of the Lost Son. Quite simply, the personification and indignity of God's love for His children in this story never gets old for me.

"And He said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.  
 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:11-32)

There are three featured characters in the parable: the younger brother, the older brother, and the father. Most of us identify with one or the other brother: either one who is breaking the rules or keeping them, one who is a "bad boy" or a "good boy." There have been many expositions and commentaries on this parable, so I won't repeat scriptural exegesis.

I will say that my own experience has always led me to identify with the younger son: leaving home for a foreign country, taking an early withdrawal on his inheritance, squandering it and losing everything, getting homesick in a pagan wasteland, and making the way back to where he started. I never really "got" the older brother because it wasn't my story, but I have known many "older brothers" who played by the rules and did things right the first time. Older brothers have their own struggles, though, so I don't want to canonize them, as that is not really the heart of the story.

No, at the heart of the story is the father's love. He loves both sons. When his younger leaves the nest, the father's heart is in search mode; his eyes eternally scan and rest on the horizon. When he does see the son making his way back, it is "from a long way off" (15:20). He is "filled with compassion", not pride or the desire to lord over his son's wrongs (which would be within his rights) or spurn his homecoming. He runs out. Runs. Completely undignified and unbecoming out of love for his son. "He was dead, and has come to life again." His joy knows no bounds. Slaughters the fattened calf, finest robe, throws a party.

Like I said, I was always a son, and a son to a father who really did personify and helped me understand God the Father's love for us. Not in catechesis or formal instruction, but as a living model of self-sacrifice, self-abasement for my sake, and overwhelming affection. While I can't begin to recount everything he has done for me, since there has been so much, the deepest memory I have was calling him from a payphone somewhere in New York state the summer after graduation, having walked there from Pennsylvania. "I think I want to come home," I said. Six hours later, he was there. Seeing him as I approached a general store in the middle of nowhere (where we had planned to meet), feeling shame myself for failing to complete what I had set out to do, I was overcome, and he was too. He came for me. He was there. He didn't even think twice about it.

While I was a exclusively a son for 32 years of my life--thought as a son, lived as as son--now I am also a father. I am called to be there for my son (and daughter) in a way that personifies the Father's love for him. Even though he is only five years old, I can see things now that I will probably see later in his life as he strikes out--the big emotions, the periods of shame, the stubborn resolve, the way he collapses in an embrace of a hug, as if he can finally rest in love. It is the kind of privilege that brings one to their knees, to be a father. I thank the Lord that I have a model in my own dad to emulate in this life, and a Father and Son relationship to meditate on and ponder in scripture that personifies a love that empties itself so completely that its depths can never be plumbed, never fathomed in entirety.

What does love look like? It means giving them freedom to leave, to reject your love. It means continuing to love when they take their inheritance and run, saying "I wish you were dead" as the door slams on the way out. It means scanning the horizon day after day, waiting for their call. It means dropping everything and hopping in the car and driving, night and day, day and night, when the call comes, and shelving "I told you so's" in exchange for embraces steeped in tears of gratitude for even the chance to embrace. That death has not in fact won over this case, that this soiled and stained son from the grave is real and alive, and that no party is too great, no calf too fat, no robe too fine, for a redeemed life and family reunited once again.

Friday, August 11, 2017

What Have You Put Before Me?

Idolatry is such an abomination to the Lord. It is the greatest of mortal sins. God puts its prohibition first, before any other commandment: "I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me." He simply cannot tolerate it.

Yet if I'm honest with myself the gods that I have made, the worthless golden calves I have had fashioned to retain control in my life, to take the place of God and His sovereignty, themselves make a spiritual death sentence justifiable. The things we put before God will be our downfall.

What or who we worship tells us a lot about who we are as people. Our idols are always tied to our deepest fears. The man who chases his whole life after money, accumulating wealth and building bigger barns to hold all his grain, assuages his conscience by reveling in the pleasures it gains, "eating, drinking, and being merry" (Lk 12:19), thinking he has cheated death and poverty, yet it comes to him anyway; he is nothing but a fool in the end. The woman who places her children before the Lord, has made an idol of them, for God Himself did not spare even His very own Son to accomplish His work, and the Lord himself said that he who does not hate his own children and yes even his own life is not worthy to follow him (Lk 14:26).

The theme of idolatry, of God's people being idolatrous and co-mingling with idolatrous people, is a common thread that runs throughout the Old Testament. But we see it in the New Testament quite a bit as well. In listening to the Book of Acts in the car,  this issue of idolatry came up and can be seen in Paul's encounter with the metal workers in Ephesus, whose business making idols is being threatened by the spread of Christian worship (19:23-34):

23 About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 25 He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”  

28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. 30 Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31 Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.  

32 The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33 The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. 34 But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

I noticed a few things in listening to and reading this passage:

  • There's going to be losers here. The metalworkers of Ephesus' pocketbooks were being hit; Paul's ministry was affecting their business. "You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business." Things get real when they get personal, and when it becomes a matter of money on top of that, even more so. Their livelihoods were at stake, since pagan worship was unequivocally incompatible with Christian worship, and if Christianity were to spread, they would be out of business.

  • The crowd gets whipped up into a confused frenzy. "Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there." The get furious and begin shouting slogans: "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!"

  • A man named Alexander is put before the crowd by his fellow Jews to make peace and distance themselves from the Christians who were causing so much trouble in the area. If it is the same Alexander, he is mentioned in 2 Tim 4:14 as an enemy of Paul, so you would think the opportunity would have been well used. But "when the crowd realized he was a Jew" they shout him down, they can't think straight so strong is their identity politics rooted in their particular populist group. 

  • Artemis was considered the goddess of fertility. This was a big deal, and Demetrius states that Artemis "is worshipped throughout the province of Asia and the world." Yet Paul, speaking on behalf of all Christians, says that "gods made by human hands are no gods at all." Idol making for fertility control is big business.

As I caught snippets on the news of the so-called "Women's March" in Washington last year, it was like a modern day Ephesus. Some observations:

  • It was a thinly cloaked Planned Parenthood march. They realize that the Christian faith stands in opposition to their imperatives. Like the idol makers in Ephesus, abortion is big business, and the industry recognizes threats to their livelihood. Lobbying, drumming up public support, aligning themselves with the Democratic's all for the purposes of preserving their business. "We receive a good income from this business." (19:25)

  • The "Women's March" was a confused mismatch of groups all shouting different things, whether it was Ashley Judd's rambling "poem" recited from stage or the various ideological banners flying at the march itself. "Many did not even know why they were there." (19:32)

  • They shouted down pro-life women, like Abby Johnson, and pushed her into the street. What are you even doing here? You are not welcome here. "When they realized he was a Jew..." (19:34)

  • Abortion may be framed as a "right," but it is really about control. People will literally worship at altar of Planned Parenthood to retain the rights to fashion their own reproductive idols, and react violently when the thought of it being taken away makes an appearance. "There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”  (19:27)

This is just one example of the time of great confusion, idolatry, and apostasy we are living through. But we don't even have to look outside of ourselves to see what idol worship has been placed ahead of God and His statutes, for we are guilty ourselves. Money, security, good name, our family, our children, our livelihood, our addiction to comfort, our phones, our full stomachs. Remember: anything you place ahead of God is an idol before God, and hinders our relationship with him and compromises our walk as disciples. 

So be honest with yourself: what have you put before Him? Fast and pray, and ask God to reveal it, root it out of the darkness, confess it and leave it on the altar. For nothing, nothing, is more important than Him, and anything that claims to be is not of Him. The idols in our lives may look different from person to person, but they all deserve to be trampled under foot and left behind, so we can follow Him more closely on the way to Calvary.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

My Interview With Doug Connolly For Catholic Phoenix

Have a listen! My phone reception is horrible for the first half (I was doing the interview from the garage), so if you can get through that it gets better the second half after I step outside. You can also download in iTunes, or listen online:

Monday, August 7, 2017


This evening (morning?) at 11:59am, something snapped me out of the clutches of sleep. It wasn't my kids or my wife, it wasn't a dream--it was just a strong sense that I need to get up to pray for something or someone. I've experienced this from time to time. On January 18th at 2:42pm I was working in the garage and felt the need to stop what I was doing and pray for an evangelist friend I know. She told me later at the exact time I was praying for her she had made the decision not to travel through what later ended up being an ice storm.

The middle of the night is a hard but good time to pray, often born during periods of inner crisis, as the quiet drapery of dark silence envelopes everything and you are alone with God, "pondering on your bed, being still." (Ps 4:4). St. Pope John Paul II, as a young Karol Wojtyla, remembers waking up in the middle of the night and seeing his father kneeling in the dark, praying silently. For a busy family man, this is sometimes the only part of the day/night when we have the opportunity for an intimate moment alone with the Lord.  Or sometimes, He just rouses us from sleep for His purposes.

The problem is when it's the middle of the night and you are dog tired the clutches of sleep are strong. At midnight, my eyes opened, but my body was chained to the bed by grogginess. All I wanted was to drift quietly back to sleep, but I had a nagging sense I needed to get up. The war of the senses began to rage hard, the flesh and the spirit, "for the Spirit gives life, and the flesh counts for nothing" (Jn 6:63). At the center was the will. I needed to exercise the will for God's purposes, and it was so so hard at that moment.

During this struggle I remembered what I had heard about the "Five Second Rule." It's the idea that

"Because of the way your brain is wired, when your thoughts and feelings are at war, when there is a discourse between what you know you should be doing and what you feel like doing, your feelings are always going to win. If you don't feel like doing it, you're not going to do it. If you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill the idea."

Sure, it's a secular principal, but I decided to adopt it for my spiritual life, the way Augustine adopted the philosophy of Plato to the Christian life. When you are being called to action, and your flesh and your spirit are at war, act within the first 5 seconds. Otherwise things get infinitely harder and you are more prone to lose the battle, "For to will is present within me, but not to do good." (Rom 7:18)

In my time spent at the monastery, we would rise at 4am for Matins (Vigils) as part of the Divine Office. It was always so hard, but eventually I got in the rhythm of it. It was also customary temptation when working in the fields or the orchard or in the workshop, to hear the bell for prayer, and want to ignore it if you were right in the middle of something, to finish it or say "just a few more minutes." But it was good practice to drop whatever it was you were doing when the bell rang, as a matter of obedience, and make your way to the chapel, for nothing should be above prayer.

Though wounded and weakened by original sin, and often opposing or subverting reason, the will can still receive God's grace, co operate with it, and love as God loves. When we encounter resistance and suffering in doing what God wants us to do, it is because we are so unaccustomed to it, and love comfort so much. Our will to do the good can often be like a hoe or rake left outside and overtaken by weeds and brambles because it is hardly ever used. We are no longer slaves to sin, but we often return to such disobedience like pigs to the slop, on account of this perpetual war we are fighting within ourselves to subject the will to right reason, for

"I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not." (Rom 7:18)

The will is not good thoughts or noble intentions, but the action of assent. And when exercising it for God's purposes, it really can hurt, like a flabby unused muscle in a Crossfit workout. In the case of rising from sleep, getting out of bed to pray in the middle of the night, I needed to "physically move", and then most effectively within those first five seconds of receiving the prompting to get up, lest the foggy mist of sleep envelope and drag me back to the ether of suspended consciousness.

When the Lord nudges or gives you an impulse to do something, to take action, to pray--don't hesitate. Ideally, respond immediately, but at the very latest, within five seconds. Otherwise your brain might hijack your will and snap you back into place. The Devil would like nothing more than to keep you from carrying out God's will when He calls. So be extra vigilant and willing to suffer discomfort, and take heart that He will give you the grace needed to carry it out. You never know who may be saved by your prayers in such a moment that may have otherwise passed you by!

Friday, August 4, 2017

God Is Looking For Dodoes

I'm listening to the biography of Mother Angelica, founder of the Eternal Word Television Network, on audio book in the car for the second time. I love her. She was a poor student in high school, came from a broken home, was racked by health problems throughout her life, and had a feisty temper. But she had great great faith. She was a great evangelist, trusting in the Holy Spirit to lead and guide her, even when it didn't make sense or was a frightening prospect. As she was known to say, "Faith is one foot on the ground, one foot in the air, and a queasy feeling in the stomach."

I also love that Mother Angelica did some ridiculous things, took risks for God. When she felt the Lord calling her to start a Catholic television network (with no broadcasting or communications experience), she didn't hesitate to get started. On September 18, 1980 already hundreds of thousands of dollars in arrears Mother Angelica was about to order a 33 foot satellite dish from scientific Atlanta at a cost of $350,000 when she hesitated: where would you get the money and what if it never came? Most would've cut their losses and run but Angelica proceeded with the order exercising what she would later call her "Theology of Risk."

"You want to do something for the Lord do it whatever you feel needs to be done even though you're shaking in your boots you're scared to death. Take the first step forward, for grace comes with that one step and you get the grace as you step. Being afraid is not a problem--it's doing nothing when you're afraid."

I was raised to eschew risk. I'm all about being financially responsible and playing it safe, being level headed and a planner and responsible, ensuring security for myself and my family. But Mother wasn't really any of this, and these things I consider a badge of honor in the world can actually act against radical faith. She loved the Lord with a childlike faith, and nothing was too good for Him, whom she trusted to provide in all things as long as she was doing her part for His kingdom. She spent lavishly on the things of the Lord, took high-stakes risks, never knew what was around the corner or the next steps until the Lord revealed it to her, and wasn't afraid to change course when it became clear she was being directed elsewhere. One of my favorite sayings of hers is her recognition of being a true fool for Christ, a "Dodo" as she called herself:

"I am convinced God is looking for dodoes. He found one: me! There are a lot of smart people out there who know it can't be done, so they don't do it. But a dodoe doesn't know it can't be done. God uses dodoes: people who are willing to look ridiculous so God can do the miraculous."

Over the years as my faith has grown, I see that the things the world esteems--financial security, playing it safe, planning the future, keeping religion and faith private and in a box--none of these things really allows God to work. Every now and then I've broken out of that pattern by the Holy Spirit, whether it's buying a school bus to live in or flying to San Francisco on an inspiration to minister to my friend Joseph Sciambra at the Gay Pride parade. Every time I have taken a crazy risk like that for Him, God has answered with great graces, opened doors, and provided new opportunities to spread the Word. The more I do it, the more I trust Him, though I have a long way to go.

Examples of a radical, trusting, child-like faith, like that of Mother Angelica's, during our lifetime proves that saints aren't mummified in the Middle Ages--they live today! Doing the great things of God doesn't depend on our power, intellect, or ability--in fact, those things can sometimes work against us--but only our faith, trust, and obedience for God to do the work through us, to use the gifts He has give us.

Thank you, Lord, for the gift of people like Mother Angelica, who recognized her faults and limitations but was not afraid to take risks for You. You can do great things through fools for Christ like her. May we all be dodoes for the Lord!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

I Used To Live In Fear. Then Something Changed.

My kids were watching Veggie Tales this afternoon, and I overheard Larry the Cucumber say something to Bob the Tomato. In this particular episode, Bob was afraid of water slides. "A life lived in fear is no way to live," Larry tells him.

I'm not sure how many years of my life you could subtract that were lived in fear and anxiety, but I'm sure it's more than a couple. I even went looking for a picture to embed in this post (as I usually do) from my photo albums, one in which I was seriously anxious and afraid. I couldn't find any--it would be kind of weird if I could. 

Of course we don't take pictures of these moments and if someone captures one by chance we certainly don't go posting them for everyone to  see. We keep them hidden, and for good reason--fear is a kind of nakedness. They reveal some of the deepest parts of ourselves, a vulnerability we reveal to only those closest to us and even then only in the most trusted environments. 

Fears are weird. Let me give you an example. At one point when I lived in Philly and had only had a car for a year or so (it wasn't until 2009 at the age of 29 that I really started driving on a regular basis) my anxiety got so bad commuting on Roosevelt Boulevard that I started seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist. I was also afraid of parking garages, so much so that I avoided them at all costs. I hated the feeling of being trapped and closed in.

There was a lot of shame attached to these thoughts and feelings. I think at the root of it (and this applies to many things, I believe) was the fear of public humiliation. The thought of being in a crowded city on a Friday night, trying to leave the garage and the wooden barrier not raising up because there was something wrong with the ticket with a line of cars behind me getting impatient, honking and cursing and looking like an idiot, was enough to almost drive me to the point (in my mind) of just driving straight through the barrier in order to get out. It's a silly fear, but it was very real. At least, it was in my mind. 

I know my brain is wired a bit differently and a bit more vulnerable, so I have to be sensitive to these kinds of stressors. CBT helped a bit. I can drive into parking garages now and on interstates without thinking about it too much. Beyond these esoteric but acute situational instances, though, there are deeper, generalized fears that many people share...the existential ones--the fear of rejection. The fear of losing face. The fear of loss. The fear of death. 

But fears change over time, too. When I was younger I was so so anxious about breaking down in the car in a strange part of the country on vacation, and not being able to get home. Or that there would be some natural disaster like a flood, or an earthquake that would destroy everything we had. Even a zombie apocalypse was something I was bracing for. 

In my thirties, and two kids in, my fears began to drift to something that should be a source of joy and blessing: I became fearful of us as a couple having more children. Without realizing it, I had absorbed the contraceptive mentality from the culture, one that views children through a lens of liability and burden rather than a gift from God. I was convinced we couldn't handle any more--emotionally, financially, logistically. One night at the kitchen table I googled "Catholic Babies Fear" and stumbled across a blog written by my now-friend Leila. I believe this was the particular post I came across. (Another powerful one here.) It was about surrendering your will to God as a way of abandoning fear.

Do you know what command is issued by Jesus more times than any other? It's "Fear Not." "Do not be afraid." "Be not afraid." It appears more than seventy times in the New Testament

Do you know what scene in scripture just flabbergasts me, almost to the point of l-o-l'ing? Mark 4:37-38. The disciples are out to sea with Jesus. "A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped."

"Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion."

ASLEEP! On a CUSHION! Just snoozing away lol. 

Jesus trusted his Father completely. And yet he also sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, sorrowful and afraid "unto death" before his crucifixion. He was human, like us in all things but sin. The devil reminds us of and exploits our fears. He wants us to live in them. Fear is the antithesis of trust. When you are afraid of someone you don't trust them. When you don't trust a bridge to hold your weight, you are afraid it will cave beneath you. 

When we began to trust God with our fertility, I began to no longer see babies as a threat or something to fear. Something changed when we handed it over to God. I've done the same with any concerns I have over the state of the Church or our country; over finances; the possibility of weather-related catastrophes; losing my kids; losing my wife; losing friends because of my faith; losing my job. I did it when our daughter was born because there was so much to worry about I told God outside a Wawa "it is too much. I can't. You can." I am trusting God, "casting my fears on Him, because (I know) He cares for me." (1 Peter 5:7), and working to cultivate in prayer a perfect love that casts out fear. (1 Jn 4:18). 

When things get too big, when the army is too large, when it becomes literally impossible to win whatever battle you are fighting on your own by yourself: surrender. Surrender your will and trust God, who is bigger than any problem, fear, or concern, to handle it. Pray hard and step out in faith. It takes faith and practice, but when God comes through and witnesses to His great power, it builds on itself and lays a foundation for trust, since "He did it before, He can do it again." I have a long way to go, but have also come a long way, by God's grace. I still deal with occasional anxiety from time to time. But nothing like before. Given all things, I probably shouldn't even be married, a father, employed, or even alive today if it weren't for the God that saved me and preserved my fragile mind to do His work in the world. Yet here I am. Fear is a great burden, a heavy jacket. I'm happy to lighten my load, for the sake of my life and my travels through this world, to leave it behind.