Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Vertical Life

Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. - Genesis 3:19
When I was discerning religious life, God shared with me a moment of grace that helped me to put things into perspective.

I was visiting a religious congregation in California and as I walked around the grounds of the convent alone, I stumbled on the cemetery where their sisters are laid to rest. The sisters were buried with their gravestones facing each other as if they were standing in choir, reciting the daily office. When I saw the white stones gleaming in the sun, for a moment God gave me an outside view of my life.

To my surprise, it was not horizontal as I had been envisioning, it was vertical.

Instead of seeing life as something that began with my birth and would end with my death, I saw it as something that began much earlier than my birth in the timeless mind of God. I realized that who I am is so much bigger than just my life on earth. In some mysterious way, I realized that my life on earth would determine who I was eternally. I suddenly had the desire to stop running away from my vocation and get down to business because I had already wasted so much time living for myself instead of for God.

On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we will return. This reminder is not morbid but rather a reminder to refocus our lives on what matters. God should be all that we live for, if we are living for anything else, we are wasting our life on Earth and endangering who we are supposed to be eternally.

In some ways our life now is a preparation for one moment, the moment of our death. In the moment of our death, we are either ready to see God or not. This is not usually something that is decided in that moment but in every moment of our lives leading up to it.

One person who lived her life for God was Sr. Cecilia Paula. I did not know her but as the sisters around me mourned her recent death at the young age of 57, I could see that she had lived a life centered on God. She left a beautiful video reflection on death that I would like to share with you. You can find the video of her last wishes at Sr. Helena's blog.

May we continue in the Lenten spirit with our impending death in mind. We do this not in order to focus on death but to focus on life - eternal life. We hope and pray that this will give us motivation to cut out the things in our life and heart that are keeping us from centering our lives on God.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Mimi

Death, the greatest evil that humans can ever experience came to my grandmother Nancy last afternoon. When I heard earlier this week that she was dying I went to the chapel.  I did not know where else to go. Some may expect a person who is entering religious life to piously thank God for the passage of a beloved family member into eternal life but this was not my response. Deep grief and intense pain was all I felt. As I blindly felt my way around in the abyss of despair that evening, I questioned everything, including the existence of God.

Some may be shocked at this reaction, but I think that when one enters into the reality of death and experiences the evil of it, one is shook to the core. Death is not beautiful. Eternity with God beyond death is beautiful, but life being snuffed out is not beautiful. God is life. Death, like sin does not have its origin in God.

When death happens to someone we love we question God. He is omnipotent, why did He allow life to include this gruesome reality?

I am comforted by the response I found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question ... There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil. (CCC, 309)

This answer may seem like a cop out to some. The Catechism has an amazing way of summing up the mysteries of life and faith with clear ease and I expected a neat and tidy paragraph responding to my pain. But I was left with something better. Go back into your faith the Catechism was saying. Live your faith to the fullest. It is only in your Christian faith that you will find an answer.

My grandmother was 90 years old. She lived a beautiful life and in her last years she was pure love. God truly transformed her as she made her way to meet Him. He prepared her for meeting Him by giving her a heart that loved like a child, with vulnerability and depth.

I do not know where my grandmother is now. The only thing I know with absolute assurance is that there is a God. I know this God. And I give her to Him with trust and hope. I give her to Him with the knowledge that my God is the God of resurrection. My God is the God of life.

Goodbye Mimi.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Following the Trinity

Now this is the Catholic faith: We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance; for the person of the Father is one, the Son's is another, the Holy Spirit's another; but the Godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one.   - The Athanasius Creed

The Trinity has been the focus of my studies recently in class and in life. But I realized today that my journey with the Trinity began several years ago when I was walking down a country road in Costa Rica. It was on that road that I suddenly realized that a personal God existed and that my life needed to change.

Before my conversion, I believed in something akin to God. I was quasi-spiritual, investigating all sorts of different religions, but meanwhile making a wide ring around Christianity. I had absorbed a common secular view that most Christians are ignorant, uneducated sheep and I refused to associate myself with the religion.

I wanted to be “spiritual” but I did not want anything to do with Jesus, I had heard His name too much. I was full of arrogance and sought spiritual novelty, (a common disease among the prideful).

When I believed that God was an It, spirituality merely took a periphery place in my life. After all, why is it important to pursue God if He is not pursuing you? But the moment I realized that God had a personality, He loved me, wanted me to know Him and had a plan for my life, that was the moment my life changed.

The moment God revealed Himself to me as a personal God; I began to know the person of the Trinity who is called the Father. I knew that God cared for me, protected me and looked after me. I knew that God is not male in the same sense that my earthly father is male but I did know instinctively that “He” was the proper pronoun to call God, when a pronoun is needed for this awe-inspiring being that transcends all categories.

I slowly began to get to know this Father. I stayed with the Father for a long time. Even after moving into the Catholic Church, I stayed with Him and did not think much about the other persons of the Trinity, including Jesus. I was in good company after all; this is where good Muslims and Jews and other non-Christian monotheists stay, with God the Father, who is the “source and origin of all divinity.”  

But God was not satisfied with this. He began to reveal Himself to me through the person of the Holy Spirit. I met the Holy Spirit most powerfully when I was confirmed a few years ago. By God’s grace, I actually felt the action of the Holy Spirit in my body at the moment of confirmation and described it later in a poem, part of which is below:

The oil drips down my forehead
I can feel the Spirit sinking into my soul,
I breath deeply
My pores widen
The Spirit, like the oil, sinks into my being
Making Himself a home
He finds the fire of my Baptism,
It is ablaze.

It was only later that I read this line in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Holy Spirit, whose anointing permeates our whole being, is the interior Master of Christian prayer.” I love the word "permeates" to describe the presence of the Holy Spirit, this is exactly what I felt when I was confirmed.

God saved the best for last when He finally saw that I was open enough to learn more about His son Jesus. He did this through several things, the most important being Eucharistic Adoration. It is impossible to spend time in a quiet room with Jesus and not get to know Him.

He also reintroduced His Son through a movie that I knew from childhood but had not watching in years: Jesus of Nazareth, (best movie ever). One Lent I watched this entire movie and I finally was reunited with the man I was in love with as a child, this God-man who still magnetizes people 2,000 years after his death and resurrection.  I entered into the magnetism that is the person of Jesus Christ and I have never stepped out. 

Only God could charm the world like Jesus has. Only God could save us from death. I knew instinctively that all of these persons I had met within God, were all the same God. The God who called me out of darkness, the God who knit me in my mother's womb, the God who died to save me.

This Lent, let us enter into the mystery of the Trinity. 

The Father who gave His son Jesus to die for us. Jesus, whose very name is a prayer, the God-man who came to save us from our sins and reunite us with His Father. The Holy Spirit who permeates our being, if we allow Him, teaching us how to pray.

We deserved eternal death for our sins but God took our place. God allowed nails to be driven through His hands and feet, a crown of thorns to be placed on His head, because He knows and loves each and every one of you. Enter into this mystery that is God, Creator of the universe, dying on a cross. Let us allow this mystery, the forgiveness of our sins, wash over us and fill us with gratitude this Lenten season.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Lent is coming, are you ready?

Our Lenten readings begin with the temptation of Jesus in the desert. In the video below, Fr. Barron discusses how we are tempted in much the same ways that Jesus was:


"The devil tries to order our lives toward something other than our Creator...."

We are all meant to enter the desert with Jesus during Lent and confront the ways that the devil is tempting us to center our lives on something other than God.

C.S. Lewis' book, The Screwtape Letters illustrates this idea. In it, a "senior" devil gives advice to another devil telling him that mediocrity is really their goal for every person they tempt, the most sure-fire way to get someone to hell. The senior devil advises that it does not make sense to lead a person to really serious sin because there is always the danger they may have a dramatic conversion and become a saint.

Are we mediocre in our response to God's love? 

What is diverting our attention from our Creator? Are we in danger of living a life where our focus is on other things and other people, even during the few hours a week that we may be in a place of worship? 

Fr. Barron points out that we often seek things outside of God in sensual pleasure (sex, but also food, entertainment, etc), honor, and glory (self-centered living) - all of the things that Jesus was tempted with in the desert. 

Even the smallest things can be seriously diverting our attention from God - coffee, Facebook, our iPhone. How many times a day do we think about getting our coffee fix or checking Facebook in comparison to how many times we think about and converse with God? (It was not long after I kept thinking of potential Facebook statuses in mass that I realized I really needed to take a break from social media for a while).

Dear friends, let us enter this Lenten time with enthusiasm and passion. Let us strip ourselves these forty days of at least one thing in our life that lead us away from God. After the initial pain of letting go, we will start to feel a peace that is not found in anything other than living for and with God.

What is God asking you to let go of? 

It is usually the one thing you are holding on to the tightest.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Being Catholic

Many people seeing the strange outward trappings of the Catholic Church, learn superficially of some of her teachings or upon seeing its members’ sins automatically assume that the Church is a purely human institution that is misguided and backward thinking. Unfortunately, some Catholics believe this as well but many continue going to Church because they rightly recognize that the Eucharist is the most important bond that they can possibly have to Jesus.

After learning more of the theology of the Church, I found some of the reasonable explanations for why I followed the inner wisdom of my heart and made my way back to this Church that is so ridiculed in our modern times.

The Church is not simply a human institution, or a “religious Enron” as a man visiting our bookcenter recently angrily insisted. It is hard to understand this when we focus on the failings and serious sins of the human members of the Church but we must continually remind ourselves of the reason for the existence of the Church.

God loves us each in a deep and unfathomable way but our relationship with Him is never purely individual. He has always willed to save us not as one person but as a people, united in the Holy Spirit.

It is the Church that can bring about this unity that binds us together through a common profession of faith, celebration of sacraments and apostolic succession. These three things are what keep us from falling apart, from spinning off into breakaway groups and losing part or most of the deposit of faith that Jesus gave us in Scripture.

You may rightly be saying - but wait Catholics have a lot in their tradition that is not directly from Scripture. That is true. The concept of the Trinity, accepted by virtually all Christian denominations, was not fully developed until 325AD. Does this mean that it was not found in Scripture? No. It simply means that the Holy Spirit is still speaking to us, helping us to understand Scripture and to learn more about God through the Church, through the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church.

That being said, the Church cannot subtract or change the teachings of Scripture. This is very important in our modern day and age when there is a huge amount of pressure for the Church to change with the times, even if it is opposed to Scripture and Jesus' teachings.

While the Church cannot subtract or change Scripture, it can add to the teachings of Scripture. This does not come from the authority of the Church but rather the authority of Christ. The Church is not here to add dogmas willy nilly but rather their primary purpose is to preserve what Scripture and Jesus has given us and if you look at the bulk of Catholic teaching, that is what it does. Given that, when the pope does declare teachings that are Scriptural but not directly found in Scripture,  the addition is not mechanical like a room being added to a house. Peter Kreeft likens the Church’s Sacred Tradition to fruit blossoming on the tree of Scriptural truths; it is not a human addition but rather a divinely inspired discovery (i.e. the Immaculate Conception) revealed to the Church from the love of God.

The Church is also holy, not because all of its members are holy but because the head of the Church, Jesus, is holy and He pours His holiness on us so that we can be shining examples of holiness in the world and lead others to Christ who we are imitating. Mother Teresa is an example of this holiness that the whole world recognizes.

But the Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on holiness (obviously). There are many holy people of other faiths and religions but because the Church provides the strongest means to holiness through the graces of the sacraments, people are given a greater opportunity to become holy within the confines of the Church. I know this sounds arrogant but truthfully it is the opposite. It is because of this teaching that I realize that whatever sanctity I gain in this life, it comes from Jesus and the graces He gives me through the Church, it is not due to my ability to discipline myself in the spiritual life or any of my talents or gifts. I can attribute it all to Jesus, who pours His graces out on me, through the Church.

The Church is catholic or universal because God is universal. He is Truth and Truth does not apply to one person or one nation, it applies to the entire world. God is THE universal truth, which is why His Church must be universal. It cannot be confined to one part of the world or only applicable to one kind of person. It is easy to become narrow in our thinking, to focus only on the United States or one group of people or on particular aspects of our faith that are relevant to our world view. Catholics are not exempt from this problem. But we are a universal Church, heading towards heaven together, not country by country or issue by issue.

You may be saying what about other Christians who are not Catholic, are you saying they are not part of the Church? Not necessarily, the Catholic Church recognizes that the Body of Christ extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. But there is only one Body of Christ. Division is not from the Holy Spirit, and there is only one Truth - God. Therefore, what divides us must have answers and we must strive together to find these answers, to find unity in Christ who is the Truth.

Many people, including many Catholics, refer to the Church hierarchy with disdain and anger but if it were not for the continuity of apostolic succession from the apostles to our current pope, where would our Church be today? Gone. Jesus knew what He was doing when He established apostolic succession. It is not because He is a fascist or because He thinks men are better than women, it is simply because He knew what would work. He is God after all.

So, Jesus chose twelve male apostles, He told Peter that He was particularly important and upon Him, Jesus would build His Church (Mt 16: 13-19). These apostles of Christ chose successors to pass on the message of Jesus and that is how apostolic succession was established. Contrary to a lot of current thinking about the hierarchy of the Church, it is not by nature backward or dictatorial, it is simple there to continually adhere to the teachings of Jesus Christ as put forward in Scripture. That is why the Catholic Church does not change with the winds of popular opinions. The Church has to stick with what has been given to us.

The Church is not just an outwardly visible institution on earth. We are all united in Christ together and not just on earth. The Church is composed of those people here on earth, in purgatory and in heaven. That is why Catholics ask for saints’ prayers, it is the same for us to ask St. Therese to pray for us as it is to ask our Christian brothers and sisters on earth to keep an intention in their prayer. We are all one family and we are in this together.

Some of you may be asking – this is all nice but what about non-Christians – how do they fit in this picture? The Catholic Church clearly teaches that there is no salvation outside of the Church, meaning you cannot enter heaven without being a member of the Church. This has been a teaching from early Christianity and Jesus Himself said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). But it is really important to understand that this does not mean that non-Catholics or Christians cannot be saved. The Church teaches that people who, through no fault of their own, do not know Jesus and understand what He has done for them, can still enter heaven. This is pretty obvious to me but I am astounded by how many people think that the Catholic Church believes all non-Catholics will go to hell. This is simply not true.

But, this does not mean that those people who DO know Jesus are off the hook though. The Church does not dare say that everyone automatically gets into heaven because God is merciful, (although some Catholics will tell you differently). But Jesus Himself does not say that everyone is saved - "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it” (Mt 7:13). If Jesus Himself says that many are not entering heaven, He does not tell us this to scare us but out of love, the love of a Father for His children. And it is this same love Jesus gives to us that impels us to share Christ with others. We do this because we want others to share in the joys of Christ, not because we are positive that their religion or faith will not lead them to heaven.

If you have read to the bottom of this post and are not Catholic, I congratulate you on your tolerance! I hope that everyone who reads this will come to understand the Catholic perspective better and I hope that what I write only leads to unity because God wants us to be together on earth to prepare us for a life of being together in heaven.

May God bless you dear friends.

This blog post inspired by readings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Catholic Christianity by Peter Kreeft (highly recommended!)