Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year

Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year

On a plane ride a few weeks ago, I found myself seated next to the founder of a Protestant church. He laughed because he was sandwiched between two Catholics, a married man who had been in Catholic seminary for a little while on his right and me, a Catholic high school Theology teacher, on his left. The conversation was pleasant, but the pastor shared one thing that seemed rather significant to me. Although he founded and now pastors an extremely contemporary church, he said his personal prayer is quite liturgical. This point fascinated me because it spoke of the true desire for liturgy is woven into the fabric of our beings.

As humans, we are bound to worship, whether our focal point is God or something else varies for the individual.  Perhaps overly simplified, the liturgy is our communal worship, the traditional rites we follow to offer praise, thanksgiving, and supplication to God.  Of the various liturgies in the Catholic Church, the highest is the Eucharist, the Sacrament of sacraments.  Beyond the structure of this liturgy is the structure of the year.  Too often I take for granted the beautiful gift that is found in the yearly passing through the major points of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Several years ago, I heard it said that in the Church’s wisdom she developed the liturgical year to satisfy mankind’s love of change and stability.  Having never before thought of it like that, I experienced a new perspective of something that had always been present in my life.  In delving into the rich rhythm of the liturgical year, I have discovered that the feasting and fasting, as well as the ordinary and extraordinary times, provide a healthy balance in life.  Since humanity often tires of the same thing, the Church moves us through different seasons to celebrate and recall the different parts of the mystery of Christ.  Yet constant change is difficult and so the seasons are cyclical, each new year of grace seeking to lead us deeper into these same mysteries of Christ but in a fresh way.

While the Gregorian calendar tells us a month is left of this year, the liturgical calendar is reminding us that a new year is close at hand.  Personally, I like that the two calendars that govern my life are slightly off-center.  It reminds me that I am in the world but not of it.  As a follower of Christ, it calls me to acknowledge that His grace should cause me to see the year in a different way since my sight is imbued with an otherworldly perspective.

With the Church in the first days of a new year, let us consider the gift of the changing liturgical seasons.

Advent: Waiting for Christ’s Coming

The year starts off in joyful anticipation. Joining our hearts and minds with the Israelites, we wait for the coming of the Messiah. Yet knowing that Jesus has already come and ascended, we wait for His Second Coming at the end of time. This pregnant season of waiting calls to mind St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:22-25.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

We do not wait without a purpose. As parents of a newborn prepare for the child’s birth, so we make our hearts ready for Christ’s new birth into our hearts and our birth into eternal life. While Advent is culturally forgotten or seen merely as a time of wrapping presents and sending Christmas cards, it should cause us to remember that we need to make Him room, in our hearts and in our lives.

The best Advent I have ever had was the semester I took an Old Testament Scripture class in college. For months we made our way through salvation history, learning about the covenants that God repeatedly offered man and the ways humanity broke those covenants. We ended the semester with a unit on the prophets and, for the very first time, I encountered a taste of the longing that the Israelites must have experienced. Scripture passages that I had heard before were filled with a new life, a new pleading that God would send a Redeemer. While I knew the Savior had already come, I experienced the “wait” in a new way and thus experienced the joy of Christmas in a new way. Continue reading “Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year”

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Nothing Again Would Be Casual and Small

Nothing Again Would Be Casual and Small

Each Sister of Life wears a medal that has inscribed on it a fragment of poetry by Fr. John Duffy.  The line is from the poem “I Sing of a Maiden” and it speaks about the Annunciation.

“And nothing again would be casual and small.”

The author is speaking of the Blessed Mother conceiving Our Lord.  Yet the fact that the Sisters of Life carry this line near their hearts makes me think it must relate to their lives and my life, too.

Generally, though, my life feels casual and small.  Despite my desires for great and wonderful adventures and experiences, much of my life is composed of the ordinary and seemingly insignificant.  What does it mean that nothing is casual or small?

In a way, I think Jesus speaks to this when he remarks on the widow’s gift to the temple treasury.  Jesus and the apostles watch people come and give large gifts of money, but the poor widow puts only two small coins into the treasury.

Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.  

Mark 12:43-44

In a simple comparison of amounts, is the widow’s gift small?  Yes.  What makes it stand out to Our Lord?  The fact that despite her poverty, she still gives everything.  

Most of us are comfortable giving generously when we know we will still have ample for ourselves.  And I’m not going to lie and tell you that I live any differently.  While I donate money, I do not “give until it hurts.”  I give when it is comfortable or when I feel like it or when I remember.  Generosity is not a hallmark of mine.  When I was in elementary school, my dad would give my younger sister and I an allowance.  Conservative in nature, I always pocketed my money and saved it for a future purchase, probably a book or something.  My younger sister would spend her money nearly immediately, stocking up on some candy or treat at the gas station convenience store.  Yet while she was quick to spend, she was also quick to share.  I, on the other hand, would primarily buy things for myself and was slow to share them with others.

Jesus is commending the poor widow’s generosity with her finances, but I think there are deeper truths we can discover here.  Things that might point to how nothing is casual or small.  Several weeks ago, this was the Gospel at Mass and I left identifying myself largely with the widow.  Not because of her generosity, but because of her apparent littleness. Continue reading “Nothing Again Would Be Casual and Small”

Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church

Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church

In college, I took a course called “Theology of the Church” and the professor made certain to cement a specific truth in my mind.  He spoke frequently of how the Church is the spotless Bride of Christ, without blemish or error.  Yet he spoke just as often about how the Church is stained and tarnished, filled with sin and weakness.  Each Catholic must come to terms with this dichotomy if he or she desires to fully understand this living organism we call the Catholic Church.

The saints are beautiful models of following Christ and seeking holiness in the midst of a chaotic world.  For most of the difficulties we face in life, we can turn to a specific saint who had similar struggles.  There are saints who had difficult relationships with their parents or children, saints who were falsely accused, saints who had superiors who treated them unjustly, saints who lost loved ones, saints who experienced poverty, saints who struggled with drinking or drugs, saints who battled anger and violence, and saints who people thought were foolish or incapable.

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Yet we know the Church is not merely comprised of saints.  I belong to the Church and I am most definitely not a saint yet.  So while it is easier to focus on the virtues and gifts of the saints, we also know we are a Church filled with sinners.  We have sinners in the pews, in the choir, in the streets, at the altar, in the diocesan offices, in the Vatican, and in the chair of St. Peter.  Each of us, on our journey to become the saints God desires, must fight our own battles as we acknowledge our sinfulness.  The goal is not to make perfect masks that cover up our imperfections.  Rather, we seek to let Christ into our deepest sins and allow Him to transform us.

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It is with this knowledge of myself, as a sinner striving to be a saint, that I can recognize this reality within the Church herself.  She is perfect: Christ instituted her, the Holy Spirit guides her, and the Father welcomes her members into Heaven, one by one.  Yet she is us: flawed, broken, dragging our weary hearts to Calvary and to Heaven.  All of the romantic notions I have about the Church and her beautiful, soul-shaking theology necessarily contrast painfully with the reality of the Church that I see around me.  Reality is certainly not so romantic and not so obviously beautiful.  Nonetheless, it is still the Church I love.

When we encounter scandal in the Church, it is helpful to remember this inherent dichotomy, one that existed from the beginning of the Church, yet one which will end when we are purified and in Heaven.  While I love quite fiercely different humans within the Church, I also know that my love for the Church is not solely based on these humans.  My spiritual director is wise and I find myself able to share the workings of my heart with him.  My pastor leads me to a deeper understanding of how to encounter Christ in the daily moments.  Yet even should these priests fail me, I would not stop loving the Church.
Continue reading “Saints and Sinners: The Indelicate Reality of Christ’s Church”

Farewell to a Pastor

Farewell to a Pastor

Jesus and the prophets spoke to the people of their times in ways that enabled the listeners to understand.  They used examples and situations that were relevant.  Growing up on a sheep farm, the numerous references to sheep struck me as particularly insightful.  Many of my classes have heard stories of how sheep aren’t the brightest and how fitting I think that is in relation to humans.  Yet for all the ways that sheep seem dim-witted, they have some great qualities that make them endearing.

Sheep are communal beings and generally move as an entire flock.  It was rare that simply one sheep would slip through a defect in the fence.  If one had escaped, it was likely that multiple had.  I have several memories of trying to separate a couple of specific sheep out of the flock and their attempts to remain with the larger group.  Yet their desire to be in communion with others, in their simple animal way, is something that is roughly mirrored in humans.  Even as an introvert, I know I need to be in communion with others.  I want to be alone at times and yet I find an intense joy in sharing life with others, too.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.  To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.  A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:1-5)

When the sheep would wander far out into the pasture, my dad would go to the gate with a couple of pails of corn, cup his hands to his mouth, and bellow, “Sheep!”  It wasn’t really a unique call in terms of words used, but his voice was unique to the sheep.  My brother could try to imitate it, but I remember going to the pasture on days I was responsible for chores and trying to yell in the deep pitch of my father.  Generally, they were unconcerned.  After calling and several enticing shakes of corn kernels in a bucket, they would lift their heads and begin to head in my direction.  As soon as my dad calls, they start running in his direction, at near full speed.  They know the shepherd’s voice.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:11-15)

The word pastor literally means a helper or feeder of sheep.  For years, I only referred to my priests as “Father.”  And there is admittedly a beauty in that.  I love the filial sense of love and respect that is found in the relationship between a priest and his people, a father and his children.  Yet over the past couple years, I have found the term pastor increasingly meaningful.  I used to equate it only with Protestant churches and their ministers.  However, pastor means shepherd and I know the importance of the role of the shepherd.

In a world that is chaotic, the sheep need a shepherd to speak through the noise.  For the past three years, I have had the great gift to be led by my parish priest, my pastor, Fr. John.  He is a priest of my diocese, but I found myself quick to claim a closer association with him if possible.  Not simply a fellow member of the diocese, he was my particular shepherd, the one leading my parish community.   Continue reading “Farewell to a Pastor”

The Shack: A Catholic Critique

The Shack: A Catholic Critique

Spoiler: If you haven’t read The Shack by Wm. Paul Young and don’t want to know anything about it that might take away from your initial experience, please be aware this post might not be for you.  I discuss elements of the story, but I don’t give it all away.

I recently finished reading The Shack and I found it to be, as a whole, a beautiful story of how God desires to enter into our most painful situations and transform them by His presence.  The way Young depicts the interactions within the Trinity caused me to stop and consider more deeply the perfect communion found within God Himself.  In fact, as soon as I finished The Shack, I picked up Fr. Michael Gaitley’s book The ‘One Thing’ is Three: How the Most Holy Trinity Explains Everything.  After reading about the communion of the Trinity in intimate detail, I was filled with a desire to learn more about our Trinitarian God.

The general story line of The Shack is about a man named Mack who has experienced great suffering and loss.  He receives a note from God asking him to come to an old shack to spend the weekend with Him.  When Mack does this, he enters into an incredible encounter with the living God and grows in an understanding of each person of the Trinity.

The main aspects of Young’s story I found to be edifying.  It was simply some of the side details or conversations that made me wonder if he was critiquing Christianity as a whole or specifically Catholicism.  Or, at least, his perception of what the Catholic Church teaches or is.  There are a handful of elements that struck me as a direct rebuke of Catholicism.  The two I want to focus on are ritual and institution.

There is a beautiful section where God involves Mack in “devotions” after a shared meal.  Rather than producing a Bible to read from, Mack is surprised when Jesus reaches across the table, takes the Father’s hands, and speaking honest, loving words of adoration.  It reinforces the reality that devotion is entering into a loving relationship with God, not something that is merely rote or filled with words.  After another meal, Mack expects the same thing to happen.

“What about devotion?” asked Mack.
“Nothing is a ritual, Mack,” said Papa…

What is so wrong with something being a ritual?  There are a couple other places where ritual is portrayed as unsavory and in conflict with God’s desires.  I could agree with this if ritual meant that something was insincere or done merely out of habit.  However, that is not what a ritual has to be.  Sometimes rituals are the best way to enter into something that is far above us.  Like the Mass or marriage, we follow a religious ritual because we are connected to something bigger than just ourselves.

The Catholic Church is known for saying the same Mass over and over and over again.  My students will sometimes question why they need to go to Mass each week when it is simply the same thing they heard the previous week.  But if we understand the sacrifice of the Holy Mass as it actually is–the priest in persona Christi re-presenting the sacrifice of Jesus at the Last Supper and consummated on the cross at Calvary–then we would realize that nothing else would be a fitting memorial.

Yes, it is a ritual.  But Jesus also said “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Why reinvent the wheel every Sunday when Jesus has given us His very self and asks us to share in this sacrificial meal?  More than new praise and worship songs (which I appreciate in a specific context), the Mass prayed throughout the ages unites us to the earliest followers of Jesus Christ.  This isn’t a bad type of ritual, but rather a ritual that unites Christians across space and time. Continue reading “The Shack: A Catholic Critique”

Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota

Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota

Walking into my hometown parish church for Memorial Day Mass, my family settled into a pew and prayed for a few minutes before Mass started.  It wasn’t particularly early, but the quiet and stillness made it feel earlier.  The priest was praying from his breviary and other parishioners were in silent preparation for the greatest memorial feast.

I was a bit surprised to find a Camino memory surface after a few seconds in the church.  The beauty of a still morning and entering a place I regard as a home, took me back to Rabanal del Camino, arguably my favorite spot along the Way.  Enticed by a sign outside the church saying there was a Benedictine Pilgrim Guest House, we stayed in Rabanal for a couple of days.  While brief, this was far longer than any other town we saw in Spain.

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After our first night at the guest house, we walked the short distance to the church for morning prayer.  The parish church was still and cool.  Choir stalls occupied the front of the church and those of us who stayed at the guest house quietly settled into them for our community prayer.  Simply having slept in the same town for two nights made me feel like a resident.  I watched pilgrims continue their walk and was filled with a strange joy that I was able to leave my backpack next to my bed.

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Early afternoon, we gathered for lunch in the monastery, prepared and served by the lovely Benedictine priest.  Even with a meal shared in silence, it was a tangible sensation of the familial in a country where I often felt as though I simply passed through.  In the evening, we gathered for Mass and then later for evening prayer.  Mass wasn’t an unusual occurrence along the Camino, but participating in Mass in the same church with a priest who recognized me was a novelty.

It wasn’t until we stopped walking that I was able to notice how much my heart longed for the familiar.  While I enjoy adventures, I also really love home.  Being a wandering stranger for weeks at a time was difficult for my homely heart.  When we spent a couple of days in one place, I was able to experience the joy of resting and the gift of the familiar.

One evening, after we had supper at the guest house, everyone staying there took a stroll through the streets of Rabanal.  Though I knew those outside my party for only two days, it seemed we were a little family, following after the Benedictine priest who had an endearing sense of humor and depth.  A French lady happened to see our group and simply joined us as we walked leisurely to the outskirts of town.  I didn’t blame her; it is something I would have wanted to do had I not already been in the group. Continue reading “Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota”

Build Up the Ancient Ruins

Build Up the Ancient Ruins

After finishing a silent retreat, I opened my Bible to where I had some papers sticking out.  I had marked this section because of the first three verses of Isaiah 61.  They were the Scripture verses my college women’s group considered “our” passage.  While they speak beautifully about the Spirit of the Lord and how it works in us, my attention was attracted to the following verse.

“They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.”
(Isaiah 61:4)

For the first time, I read this verse and realized the great hope attached to it.  I look at the world around me and I see a lot of things falling into ruin.  This isn’t the result of one generation but of many generations over the years, the buildup of human sin over the course of human history.  Yet here in Isaiah, the Lord is promising to re-build that which is ruined.  And Isaiah isn’t saying the Lord is going to do this all apart from us, but rather that He will use us to re-build and raise up new things.

I cannot help but think that this new life will come from the way the Spirit of the Lord will move.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn…

(Isaiah 61:1-2)

When we allow the Spirit of the Lord to work in and through us, He will re-build the broken world in which we live.  I see it already happening in small ways.  On the silent retreat, I was primarily surrounded by moms, several of them visibly pregnant with another child.  It is beautiful to think of how families will be strengthened and renewed simply by their mother’s dedication to her faith.   Continue reading “Build Up the Ancient Ruins”

With the Lord, A Little is More Than Enough

With the Lord, A Little is More Than Enough

The Lord is the quintessential example of making do with what you have.  He is able to provide abundance from an experience of poverty.

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’  Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’  They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’  And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’  

Matthew 14:15-18

In a situation where the disciples were prepared to send the crowds away, Jesus challenged them to feed them with their meager rations.  To the disciples, it was an impossible feat.  There was not enough food to provide for them all.  How could they feed thousands with food meant to satisfy a few?

The answer is found in surrendering the little to Jesus.  For Him, it is manageable to multiply the fish and the bread to be superabundant.  The same is true with each one of us.  When we surrender ourselves to the Lord, little though we may be, He is able to do far more with it then we could imagine.

You give them something to eat.  In our littleness, Christ is asking us to be streams of living water and bountiful banquets for the weary wanderers we encounter.  Yes, we are to direct them to Jesus, but Jesus living in us.  When we present ourselves to the Lord, He provides.  It is never just enough, it always more than we could have hoped.   Continue reading “With the Lord, A Little is More Than Enough”

To Be the Face of God

To Be the Face of God

The other day, I gave a test in all of my classes.  In the midst of this, I discovered a student cheating on the test.  As I spoke with the student and some details were revealed, I found that I wasn’t angry with the student.  I simply felt this incredible sadness.

I always want to be able to trust my students.  When something happens that betrays that trust, I find myself a bit frustrated and sad.  I don’t want to doubt what they tell me or question their integrity.  But they are humans and sometimes humans cheat or lie.

During the rest of the day, this incident weighed on my mind.  I was sad and disappointed with this student but also with students in general.  Cheating is something I do not understand.  Perhaps because I enjoyed school and generally like a challenge, but I could never see myself cheating in school.  In middle school and parts of high school, people thought I was semi-ridiculous for how cautiously I guarded my paper during tests or quizzes.  I didn’t want to be the unknowing person from whom others stole their answers.  Some of my students have a very different perspective.

So I began to wonder how God takes in the continually disappointing behaviors of humanity.  It is a love that I cannot comprehend because it is truly a love without condition.  My love is conditional.  I have a great affection for my students, but when confronted with their weaknesses and their imperfections, I struggle with how to move forward.  I know a single action does not define who they are, but it shapes how I perceive them.  How can the Lord look at us in the midst of every sin and love us wholly and entirely?   Continue reading “To Be the Face of God”

Unrestricted Access to My Heart

Unrestricted Access to My Heart

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
“You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Mark 10:21

It is because Jesus loves this young man that He challenges him.  By many standards, this man has done all that he has been asked to do.  He has kept the law since his earliest days.  Yet, he comes to Jesus to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Either he wants to be affirmed in how excellently he has kept the law or he feels there is something more to which he is called.

Jesus looks at him with that gaze that pierces through the heart and is filled with a great love for this young man.  The authenticity of His love compels Him to call the young man to something greater.  Jesus tells the young man to put aside everything of this world and to follow Him.  It is out of love that He invites the young man to run with reckless abandon in the race for Heaven.

Yet the man leaves saddened.  Though he follows the law, he is unwilling to set aside everything for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus issues His challenges out of love, but they vary based on the person.  Some He invites to follow Him and they cannot, refusing to leave behind possessions or family.  Others long to follow Him and He tells them to remain home, sharing the Good News among their own people.  When it comes to living in God’s will, there seems to be no one-size-fits-all approach for the Lord.  His will is customized to the individual and it often seems to be contrary to what we want.

This is why the life of contemplation is the boldest and most adventuresome of undertakings, for what could be more radical, more truly earth-shattering, than the willingness to be dismantled and created anew, not once or twice in a lifetime, but day after day?

The Way of the Disciple, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis

He is not satisfied by things done half-way.  Our souls, though we may attempt it often enough, cannot be half His.  The young man wanted to comfortably follow the law and yet Jesus calls him to a life he did not expect.  Sell everything?  Why?  Where is that in the law? 

While I may be tempted to mentally chastise the young man (Jesus was asking you to follow Him!  How could you not?!), I must admit that I am he. Continue reading “Unrestricted Access to My Heart”