Monday, May 14, 2018

Lessons from the Rosary

The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary - centered on Christ's passion and death - can be daunting. They are in fact so full of sorrow that some may be discouraged from praying them. When asking my children to pray with me on a Friday, my daughter has sighed, "They're so sad."

Yes, so sad but so full of hope. Here are a few realizations I've had while praying these mysteries:

The Agony in the Garden

Even if we do not battle certain conditions such as Bipolar Disorder, panic attacks or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, all of us know what it is like to go through periods of mental agony caused by uncontrollable circumstances in our lives.

Christ did not suffer from mental illness and all circumstances were in God's control, but our Savior experienced such mental, emotional, and spiritual agony in the garden while facing his arrest, torture and Crucifixion that he sweated blood. 

So I firmly believe that in the darkness and loneliness of our own very personal and sometimes dire mental struggles, we can be sure He knows what we are experiencing and never abandons us.

The Crowning with Thorns

We each must bear a crown of thorns occasionally in our lives, but unlike Christ, we usually weave them for ourselves. What strikes me most strongly when I contemplate the one woven by others which Christ wore, is that he bore it in silence.

Too often we feel the urge to defend ourselves verbally, to validate ourselves in the face of what we perceive as misunderstanding, to cut others down in order to raise ourselves up, or to express our disapproval or air our own interpretations, and often in so doing we cause division in our families or increase tension with our fellow human beings. Our words so often accomplish nothing, because they are self-serving.

After situating the thorny crown on Christ's head, the soldiers mocked Jesus in outrageous fashion when he was already suffering horribly from the scourging at the pillar. They struck him. They spit on him. They wrapped him in humiliation.

And Jesus was silent. He did not rebuke or refute. He did not challenge or chastise or even judge.

Would we be able to do the same? Can we manage sometimes to hold our tongues under our own crown of thorns? Can we, as a spiritual work of mercy, bear wrongs patiently in imitation of Christ?

The Crucifixion

Our parish priest asserted recently that if ancient Romans were to view all the crosses in Catholic churches in the world today, they would be astonished ( and appalled?) at our passionate embrace of it, for the cross was designed to and still does represent everything we most fear: humiliation, nakedness, torture, suffering, death.

Where is the hope in that?

If one simply contemplates the guilt - ours, in fact - that put Christ there and does not remember the Resurrection, then the cross does not inspire hope and fortitude, causing instead the guilty, and unrepentant, to turn away. 

This perfect means of torture and humiliation that early Christians were hesitant to embrace, however, is the perfect means of redemption. It challenges and demands change from those who gaze upon it in earnest, and it inspires gratitude in hearts who gladly remember the One Who paid the price for our salvation.

Gratitude. We are guilty, yes, but Someone loved us enough to bear the stripes and the condemnation in order to regain a life of grace for us. He took a symbol and instrument of shame and suffering and made it the beautiful instrument of salvation. Only God Himself can do such a thing.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Unpopular Virtue

No one can make me cry like Jesus.

Simply thinking about Him, what He has done and continues to do for us or hearing others' testimony can choke me up. I cry often at Mass in joy, gratitude and sometimes in pain when I am crying out to Him because I feel anxious or am struggling and frustrated, and long ago I gave up trying to conceal those tears (most of the time). Lately, I have also been keenly aware of God's generosity to my family, so every new kindness elicits emotion.

And then there are times when I cry because I have walked in the desert, surveying my own sinfulness and its effects.

A few days ago I was thinking again that I didn't keep Lent well this year. What has come from it? I asked myself. But I have experienced transformation, just not through sacrifice; it came about through a simple prayer I uttered three weeks ago.

Only a few times in my life have I have received a quick or immediate answer to a short prayer uttered once. Help me to grow in virtue, I asked God. I didn't realize in that moment how serious He was about it.

By the next afternoon I was in the desert in spirit and in reality, present at my own mini judgement. Sitting on gravel and bricks near the cactus border of our front yard in the gentle breeze and strong sunshine, I felt miserable, for God had shown me where to grow in virtue by showing me how I had lacked a particular virtue for much of my life.

That one is modesty.

For years I have lied to myself about what it means to be modest so I can pursue my own desire for attention and affirmation. A celebrity stated that if she reveals a lot of skin on top, then she is more conservative on the bottom and vice-versa, and I seriously thought that was a good policy. For evenings out with my husband I convinced myself that I could wear whatever I liked because I was with him. I told myself that as long as I was not trying to get others to view me in a sexual way that I was not sinning even if I chose to dress in sexy manner. (Yes, I am still trying to unravel my logic there.) Modesty is fluid based on environment and circumstances, I convinced myself. As a woman I had succumbed to the loud and incessant message in our culture that sexy equals beautiful, and that a woman should reveal as many of her attractive physical assets as possible to the world.

Over the past few years I have indeed gradually grown in modesty, because I began suspecting that my style of dress lacked something - literally -  but I still rebelled against what I might term "church modesty". Conservative attire is not my best friend.

However, God gave me the outside view, if you will, in answer to my prayer. I saw the bad example of my immodesty for my children on several occasions; it struck my heart. I realized that I may have caused others to sin by my dress and behavior as a young woman, then a young mother, and even with my husband on those many dates, and that deeply troubled me.

Currently, in our world we are seeing the backlash against predatory men, and I am so glad that the culture (please, God, may it continue!) is changing for the better. But each new moment in which I find myself feeling intense anger against such men and their vile behavior and asking myself why they as a sex are so prone to violence and lust, I also find myself examining the other side, reflecting on how many women choose, including myself on occasion, to continue to portray themselves as sexual objects in mass media and everyday life in order to gain attention and to feel valuable. I believe that, too, must change, because how we dress speaks to how deeply we value ourselves. Do we believe we must first and foremost be sexy to satisfy the male's expectations, to feel worthy of praise and to make any gains in this world on the way to our goals? Or do we choose to direct others' attention to our hearts, minds and talents?

Though it was painful, I have been pruned this Lent, and I intend to strive now to respect the sacredness of my body by choosing modesty.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. John 15:1-2

Friday, April 21, 2017

Jesus in the Everyday

As I was praying the Rosary yesterday and reflecting on the mystery of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36), I had a small revelation.

Christians long to see Jesus' divine glory, to know Him as perfect fulfillment, to be taken out of the chaos of this world for a while to stand in the pure light of the Redeemer.

We have those moments, those glimpses of our Lord while seeking him faithfully. They fill us with awe and shore us up in our faith amid numerous struggles.

But the Transfiguration was something that lasted only a short time here on earth. After that awesome event, Christ and his disciples descended the mountain and began walking the dusty roads of earth - of human experience - again.

Where do we find our Lord for most of His public ministry in the Gospels? We find Him with humanity in their joy and suffering. He celebrates a wedding with family and friends (John 2). He shares countless meals with persons of high social status and those deemed merely "sinners"(Mark 7: 36-50). He walks with a terrified father to the bedside of his sick girl (Mark 5:21-24). He feels pity for a poor widow who has lost her only son (Luke 7:11-13). He frees a woman discovered in her sin and publicly shamed (John 8:3-11). He blesses little children and hugs them (Mark 10:13-16). He is there and calms Martha in her stressful work, showing her what is more important (Luke 10:38-42). He asks a woman, ostracized by her community, for a drink at a well in the midday heat (John 4: 4-26) He weeps on the way to a friend's tomb (John 11:33-35).

God made man, He experienced our humanity.

I believe that in between our rare but cherished glimpses of the Transfiguration, Jesus is with us fully on the dusty, often painful road of life, just like that famous poem "Footprints in the Sand". Like the man in the poem - a poem beloved by my Grandmama - we often don't recognize the presence of our traveling companion in the mess and stress of the everyday. But He is there. We shouldn't wait for the Transfiguration to acknowledge Him. Instead, we should reach out our hands confidently to the One who loved us so much that He was willing to experience our humanity all the way through terrible suffering and violent death - to the One Who redeemed it completely after His resurrection when He ascended, fully human and fully divine, to heaven.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Why, Lord?

Have you ever been tempted to cry out with King David and with Christ, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22, Matthew 27:46)

Or perhaps even to exclaim with Jeremiah, "Why did I come forth from the womb to see sorrow and pain, to end my days in shame?" (Jeremiah 20:18)

And then there is Job who lost so very much and says, "Man born of woman is short-lived and full of trouble." (Job 14:1)

Being human is hard. It's a tough gig.

When I said this to a counselor friend, she added, "Yes, and no one gets through unscathed."

At the very least we all wish our precious children would. The problem of evil becomes excruciatingly personal when it affects them.


We get into the habit of comparing our family's or our personal burdens to those that others carry. But suffering is suffering. Pain is pain. And we all have our cross to carry up a hard hill.

It is easier, I believe, if we are following Christ up Calvary, eyes on our beautiful Redeemer, remembering that he chose a criminal's cross for our sake - and that He now helps us with ours when we ask for His strength, love, peace, and courage.

God in Jesus Christ has given suffering meaning. We carry our crosses, and we unite our suffering to His, knowing full well how he can transform it for the sake of others and for our own lives, too. After the Passion and Crucifixion of our Lord, there is Easter morning.

If suffering had no meaning, if it was not redemptive at all in all its many forms, then human existence would be nearly intolerable at times.

Yet, by God's grace our crosses can make us more compassionate, more patient, and, astonishingly, more grateful. By God's grace that cross can inspire us to become far richer in the supernatural love for God and others known as charity.

But it is still a cross, rough and weighty. It's okay, I think, to sometimes ask, "Why, Lord?" as David, Job and Jeremiah did.

Why did this happen to my child? Why this cross for her?

Why do our angels, given charge over us, not intervene more often, even without request? Is it because free will, ours and others, is paramount?

Why did such a terrible thing happen to a really nice person?

Why is it so darn hard to overcome my weaknesses when I know how I should change?

Why is there so much evil and chaos in the world when God is loving, merciful and good and we are made in His image?

We don't get our answers, it seems, in this life. But, miraculously, if we persist in hope and love, we are able to praise God even in our distress and uncertainty as the king, "blameless and upright" servant, and prophet did.

Bless the Lord, my soul;
all my being, bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, my soul;
and do not forget all his gifts,
Who pardons all your sins,
and heals all your ills
Who redeems your life from the pit,
and crowns you with mercy and compassion,
Who fills your days with good things,
so your youth is renewed like the eagle's. (of David, Psalm 103:1-5)

Sing to the Lord,
Praise the Lord,
For he has rescued the life of the poor
from the power of the evildoers! (Jeremiah 20:13)

Then Job arose and tore his cloak and cut off his hair. He fell to the ground and worshiped.
He said,
"Naked I came forth from my mother's womb,
and naked shall I go back there.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
blessed be the name of the Lord!" (Job 1:20-21)

Friday, March 3, 2017

Dust and ashes...and transformation

It's the first Friday of Lent, and I'm already feeling the weight of these forty days. I never quite feel like I have done what I hoped by the end in defeating bad habits, snapping the attachments to worldly desires, and becoming much stronger in practicing virtue as a Christian.

I know my defects quite intimately at this point in my life, and I wonder why I have not gained greater mastery over them by now. My pride enters in as I become discouraged with my present state. And my pride enters in again as I reflect on how often I need to apologize to a loved one because of my poor habits, my perpetual weakness.

That pride is a real issue, showing a lack of trust in God's grace. It's something I need to shed these next few weeks, because I see how it hinders my relationships with those I love, with God, and with myself. Truly, I really need to fast from that pride, from selfishness, from unnecessary or hurtful words, and from my chronic emotional venting.

How is Lent, this long penitential period, helpful? Why do we need it? Why do I need it?

Life is all about the seasons

Blow the horn in Zion!
Proclaim a fast,
call an assembly!
Gather the people,
sanctify the congregation;
Assemble the elderly:
gather the children,
even infants nursing at the breast:
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her bridal tent.
Between the porch and the altar 
let the priests weep,
let the ministers of the Lord weep and say:
"Spare your people, Lord!
do not let your heritage become a disgrace,
a byword among the nations!
Why should they say among the peoples,
'Where is their God?' "  Joel 2:15-17

In the Old Testament there were periods of feasting and fasting ordained by God. In our own lives, based on the current of our circumstances, there are periods of joy/peace and sadness/worry. Though some question how fasting and abstinence can be transformative when a church is "making you do it", I question why a community would not indeed be better off practicing sacrifices, praying and giving to the poor more abundantly as a body? We're all in this together!

Lent is an observance of Christ's 40-day fast in the desert (Matthew 4) after his baptism, so it is entirely appropriate that the church as a community would follow the Lord on that journey before celebrating his resurrection.

The joy of Easter

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their way,
and sinners their thoughts;
Let them turn to the Lord to find mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways - oracle of the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
my thoughts higher than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:6-9

I never in all my life appreciated Easter as much as I do now after observing Lent. The joy I have at Easter is quite different from the complacent feeling I had of old when the day would pop up on the calendar with no preparation on my part. Since I started honoring Lent, I have realized that preparation is everything. This period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving - though never without its struggles for me - makes one see Easter as it truly is: the most important and joyful day on the Christian calendar.

It's a journey

For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance. Timothy 4: 6-8

Life is a journey. We make mistakes. We celebrate successes. And then we fail again in the same old pattern. The point is that we don't give up. I would be lying if I claimed I never dreamed of giving up - on my dreams, on my responsibilities, on something as small and nettling as housework to something as big, beautiful and challenging as my faith. But I don't. I journey on. We all do, bravely. Our paths are undoubtedly circuitous and often wind back on themselves through the brush, but when we fall and scrape our hands and knees and splatter mud in our faces, we strive to get back on the right track. This season is about turning back to God, something we have to do again and again in our lives unceasingly. Lent is a reminder of this awesome, exciting, daunting, difficult, hopeful, communal, blessed, charitable, familial, grace-filled journey of life in which we seek to become the best of ourselves, conquering our weaknesses with much love and support from friends, family and God and growing in goodness and peace, helping others - most importantly, the poor - along the way.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Unknown God

I never understood the Greek gods. Their mythology was interesting, yes, but the gods themselves often seemed to embody the worst of human attributes: lust, jealousy, capriciousness, mendacity. Zeus was the least sympathetic. He mostly, it seemed, sported with human beings for his own pleasure, thinking nothing of rape and deceit. The only one I could consistently admire in school was Athena, governing by reason and standing for justice. As for the other gods? Justice seemed a doubtful thing in their dealings with mankind and each other as portrayed in numerous tales.

Why on earth did the Greeks choose such gods? I've wondered. Perhaps they were looking for an explanation of human beings' erratic, unruly, spiteful, belligerent, unfaithful, licentious behavior. But why would they not create stories about gods that inspired men and women to be far better than they found themselves? Not just stories about being strong, conniving, victorious or great in the art of war, or, conversely, stories about our continual defeat and unfortunate proclivities. No. Human beings need stories that inspire and teach us to be kinder, humbler, more selfless, to set our judgement on character, not looks, to be far more faithful and generous, to have courage in the face of evil.

In Chapter 17 of Acts Paul addresses the Athenians. Pointing out their shrine "to an unknown god".he proceeds to tell them who He is - the true God "who gives to everyone life and breath and everything".

This God - in a radical move prompted by unfathomable love - didn't pour his rage out upon us for continual disobedience of his law but sent his only begotten Son to save us by suffering and dying for us, vanquishing sin and death in a final sacrifice as only God-made-man can.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 

1 Corinthians 1:22-25 (NAB)

He is the Word through whom all things came to be, yet when he came to humanity, he came in the form of a slave, a defenseless baby born to a poor family among animals in a stable. His birth was announced first to lonely shepherds, considered the lowest workers in society. He grew into a man who habitually touched the untouchable, preached to the ostracized, gave grace and respect to those who had no sure place in society such as women and children and blind beggars. He freely associated with sinners and promised redemption if we would repent and follow him, taking hold of his cross just as the woman with the unresolved blood issue reached out and touched his robe in faith that she would be cured.

This God who endured suffering and torment in the flesh? Who experienced pain, hunger, poverty, homelessness, rejection, and loneliness just as humankind does and still conquered evil?

That is the God I want. I want to grow and become like him. Though I find myself bogged down by many of the bad traits depicted so often in Greek mythology, I want to be better, and so this gentle, compassionate, healing, forgiving, humble God - who was crucified and then rose again, taking our human nature to heaven with him as he opened up the way for us - is the One I will follow.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help. 

Hebrews 4:14-16 (NAB)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Praying for strangers

There was a fascinating and uplifting article in the Sunday edition of the Arizona Republic by their regular columnist Karina Bland. In it she wrote of a surgeon's experience one very early morning of trying to reach the wife of a man suffering from a life-threatening injury. The number he called was the wrong one, and he ended up speaking with a woman he thought was the wife, but she was a stranger who did not know the man at all.

When he apologized and hoped the lady could fall back into sleep, she asserted that she had no intention of doing so. She was going to rise and pray for this stranger in critical condition.

Her words touched and inspired the surgeon.

Was it the wrong number? I think God was using the surgeon to ask that particular woman to pray for this man at that time, and she responded.

There have been many such stories that I've read or heard. There have been books written about the power of a stranger's prayers, about God's promptings that initiated those prayers.

Why, we may ask, does God need us to pray for each other at all? He is God, after all. He can intervene if it's His will, if He truly is the all-powerful God we proclaim to the world.

It has to do with free will, I believe. God does not move us around like pawns or alter our circumstances without our participation. Our choices, our actions of mercy and compassion, and agreement to be the humble hands and feet of God for each other are the means by which He manifests His love in this world. In such ways, God uses us to save each other daily by the "yes" we give to His invitation. And he saves and strengthens us through our efforts for others.

We can say no. We can ignore. We can pass by. We can choose to do absolutely nothing.

But many of us often do not.

Prayer may seem like next to nothing in some people's opinion, but it is an act of will - just like when the leper told Jesus that if He willed it, He could heal him, and Jesus answered, "I do will it. Be made clean."

Prayer is also an act of faith. Jesus asserted often, "Your faith has saved you." We move mountains when we cooperate with God - for ourselves and for others. But faith is the lever.

That is why I try to take a moment to say a prayer for a child's safety when I receive an Amber Alert on my phone, When I heard recently that a young man who attended my older kids' school passed away over the New Year's weekend, I wept for the family, and I prayed for his soul and for his loved ones. When my kids and I see an ambulance or fire truck pass, we say a short prayer. It is what we can do. It's all we can do. But I suspect it's effects are much greater than we know.