Advent: What Lies Ahead

Advent: What Lies Ahead

In our culture’s mad rush to start the Christmas season, I am left feeling a bit Scrooge-like.  I like Advent.  The anticipation that gradually builds as candle after candle are lit on the Advent wreath adds to the beauty of Christmas when it finally arrives.  If we jump headlong into Christmas right after Thanksgiving, I believe we miss part of the joy of the season.  Waiting has a sweet longing to it and I want that sweetness for as long as I can have it.

As a child, I remember the eagerness as I would watch the presents beneath the tree grow as time passed.  My younger sister and I would check to find the ones with our names and then try to analyze what was inside.  It was tempting to tear the wrapping off, but we didn’t.  The soft, foldable presents were obviously clothes.  Yet the ones in boxes?  Those were unidentifiable.  We would give them a light shake and then simply wonder about what lay nestled inside for us to discover.  The waiting was half the fun.  Even if I wanted to figure out what the present was before Christmas (my competitive nature desired to win), I also wanted to be surprised.

I won’t argue that I’m extremely patient, however I appreciate waiting for something good.  When I get my mail, I am excited if I find a letter from a friend or a package that I ordered.  Yet I generally open the less fun things first, allowing the excitement and longing for the most desired thing to build.  After trick-or-treating at Halloween when I was a kid, I tried to eat my least favorite candies first, saving the best for last.  Even now, I often find myself saving a bite of the best part of the meal for the end, as if to end the meal on a good note.  Waiting doesn’t change the contents of the letter or the taste of the food, but it seems to add a bit of sweetness as I anticipate what is to come. Continue reading “Advent: What Lies Ahead”

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Honey, I love you, but being married to you is a burden

Honey, I love you, but being married to you is a burden

“Honey, I love you, really, I do.  But being married to you is a burden.”

My students were asked to imagine that a husband came home and said this to his wife.  Already, there was a bit of disdain in their eyes for the husband.

“Oh, I am?  How am I so burdensome?”
“Well, I love you, but sometimes I want to do things and I can’t because of you.”
“Like what?”
“There are a lot of attractive and smart women I run into at work and I can’t date any of them.  Sometimes I want to just catch a plane and fly to Florida for a week, but I would have to tell you first and you might want to come.  You are interesting and wonderful and I love you, but sometimes marriage is restrictive.”

Each time I told this to my students, it worked.  They did not think highly of the husband and were, rightfully so, annoyed with his list of burdens.

Wow, they gasp, he is the worst.

But aren’t these things true?  I asked my students.  He isn’t allowed to date other women, is he?

No, they reply.

Shouldn’t he talk to his wife about flying off to Florida for a week before he does it?

Yes, they say.

So what is wrong about what he is saying?  Why shouldn’t he say these things when they are true?

After very little discussion, because it seems so obvious, they tell me that he has the wrong perspective.  He isn’t focusing on his relationship with his wife, but simply all the things he cannot do because of his relationship with her.

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI

You are correct, I tell them, the husband focuses only on the restrictions of this relationship instead of the love he has for her.

But isn’t this sometimes what we do with God? Continue reading “Honey, I love you, but being married to you is a burden”

The Deepest Longing of Our Hearts

The Deepest Longing of Our Hearts

“I guess I don’t like the argument from desire because I’ve never felt a desire for something that can’t be satisfied on earth.”

As a melancholic who has nearly always longed for something beyond this world, I was a bit surprised by this admission.  My class was reviewing arguments for God’s existence and as we went over each one, I would ask a few students to share if they liked or disliked the argument.  Then they needed to voice why, perhaps the most difficult part of it all for them.

I wanted them to reflect on the arguments and see which ones they found personally compelling.  Each person is different and so I wasn’t too concerned if they liked all of the arguments or not.  Yet it is always interesting to me which ones they dislike and why.  Some other students voiced a dislike for the desire argument, but the declaration that they had never desired something beyond this world seemed foreign to me.

Melancholic that I am, I have always longed for perfection.  Ever since high school and college, that has translated into a longing for Heaven.  So as my students were voicing that they have never experienced this unfulfilled desire for something beyond this world, I was left wondering why they don’t have a longing that I never remember being without.

In my first year of teaching, I prayed frequently for death.  Not in a morbid way, but in a longing-for-home-and-yet-knowing-everything-around-me-is-temporary way.  The more I battled with my students over Church teaching, the more I wanted to be in a place of eternal Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  Yet that was far from the first time that I had felt an unfulfilled desire.  Why are my students not experiencing this also? Continue reading “The Deepest Longing of Our Hearts”

A House Divided

A House Divided

Satan, the father of lies, loves division.

It matters very little what the division is actually over.  In fact, I think the more religious-oriented the division, the more it pleases Satan.  But he will take any dispute, so long as it seeks to divide.

Knock down drag out brawls over the liturgy?  Disputes over the placement of the altar?  Feuding over Lenten fasting?  Frustrations with priests and bishops?  Sides forming over who is more Catholic than the pope?

Satan is delighted.

We spend our time considering what we think is best and we tend to lose sight of the Lord.  I’m not arguing for an “anything goes” mentality.  Far from it, I am encouraging us to focus on what is the most important rather than repeatedly increasing the divisions within humanity.

For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything dividing them. Hence, let there be unity in what is necessary; freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case.

(Gaudium Et Spes)

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis portrays Hell as a place of isolation.  The opening pages start in a town that is approaching the evening hours but seems empty of people.  Yet the narrator finds people waiting in line at a bus stop.  As the minutes pass, people leave the line because they keep quarreling with each other about one thing or another.  The town is empty because the inhabitants cannot bear to be in such close proximity to other people with all their flaws and imperfections.  So they keep moving, distancing themselves from others until they find themselves in complete isolation. Continue reading “A House Divided”

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

“I will not let Satan use my heart against me.”  

Arguably, the topic I write about most is the human heart.  This is probably because I am always struggling to come to terms with having one.  The Lord redeemed the human heart  when He became incarnate.  I am certain it provided difficulties for Him, also, but He handled all of those temptations and challenges to prove that, with His grace, it can be done.

Scripture speaks often of the heart.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt. 6:21)
“My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.”  (Ps. 45:1)
“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”  (Proverbs 4:23)
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:7)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, said, “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”  Beauty is a powerful force and both God and Satan use it for their own purposes.  It moves our hearts, sometimes against our wishes or in spite of our intentions.

Our hearts are being fought over and so I guess it makes sense that mine so often feels like a war zone.  Too often, however, the main focus can be me and not about how the Lord could be using feelings, situations, and circumstances to draw me closer to Himself.  And when the focus rests on me, it becomes a pretty dismal outlook.  In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis recognizes this tendency in a letter to Wormwood, a young demon-in-training.  “The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves.  Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the actions of their own wills.” Continue reading “Getting to the Heart of the Matter”

A Mercy Divine

A Mercy Divine

“My people, what have I done to you or how have I offended you?  Answer me!  I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but you led your Savior to the cross.  My people, what have I done to you?  How have I offended you?  Answer me!  For forty years I led you safely through the desert.  I fed you with manna from heaven, and brought you to a land of plenty; but you led your Savior to the cross.  What more could I have done for you?  I planted you as my fairest vine, but you yielded only bitterness: when I was thirsty you gave me vinegar to drink, and you pierced your Savior with a lance.”  (Reproaches of Good Friday)

Good Friday is a day of worlds colliding.  We acknowledge the death of Our Lord and our role in it, but we also recall this as the glorious means for our salvation.  The cross is an instrument of torture and yet we take time to exalt the cross, coming forward on bended knee to kiss Our Savior as He is fastened to it.

Today, we begin the Divine Mercy Novena which concludes on Divine Mercy Sunday.  After the Good Friday service, we prayed the first day of the novena.  And I couldn’t help but remember another time when I had prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet.  It was about six years ago and I stood on the cold, snowy ground of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

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For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

We had already toured Auschwitz I.  There I saw picture after picture of people who had entered that place of death.  Next to each picture was a little card that gave the person’s name, their entrance date, and the date of their death.  But the faces were what became engraved on my heart.  I had heard for years about the number of people who died in the Nazi concentration camps, but to see only a fraction of their pictures changed statistics into human lives.

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In silence, we loaded the bus so that we could go to Auschwitz II.  Here we saw long barracks and miles of barbed wire fences.  And we struggled to understand that human beings did this to other human beings.  We saw cattle cars that humans arrived in and we surveyed the watchtowers that were situated to keep all under surveillance.

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In the last few minutes of being there, we prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet.  Because what else can you do when surrounded by such a witness to the depravity of humanity?    We could only make appeals to the mercy of God.  I could not offer to God my own merit or good works because they are insufficient in the face of such tragedy.  I can only offer His Son back to Him.

Eternal Father, I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.

Kneeling during the Good Friday service and during the Divine Mercy Chaplet, I could not help but consider this again.  In the wake of the death of Jesus Christ, I can offer nothing to atone for it.  These hands were not physically there, but my sins were bought and paid for with His blood on that day.  Even if I lived a perfect life, I could not make up for what has been done.  The only offering I can make is Jesus Himself.

A couple years ago, I considered the words of the Divine Mercy Chaplet and I realized that it is truly a mercy that can only come from God.  We plead our cause by offering to God the very One we killed.  In any other situation, this would seem laughably grotesque.  Imagine a murderer asking for clemency from a mother or father by invoking the name of the child killed.  Not simply through their name but asking that through the child’s death mercy and forgiveness will be shown to the murderer.  Such mercy is what can only come from God.

Good Friday comes down to accepting that I cannot do anything.  In the Passion narrative, I am the one calling for His crucifixion and claiming that He is not my king.  And I must say those words because I profess them often enough with my life.  Good Friday isn’t about beating yourself up or trying to make yourself feel lousy.  It is about accepting the role we have played in the death of Jesus Christ.  He didn’t die, though, so that we could wallow in guilt and self-pity.  He came to make us new.  He came to utterly transform us.  He came to take every part of us and to pour His perfect mercy over all the parts of our heart that most need it, yet are too fearful or prideful to plead for it.

Christ says “Give me All.  I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You.  I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it.  No half-measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a branch here and there, I want to have the whole tree down.  I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out.  Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked–the whole outfit.  I will give you a new self instead.  In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.” (Mere Christianity, p. 166)

Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion–inexhaustible,  look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.
(Closing prayer for the Divine Mercy Chaplet)

Small Heart

Small Heart

Oh, you of little faith.  Oh, you of little heart.

Jesus is calling us to cast out into the deep.  But isn’t it easier to not?  It is easier to stay on the shallow side.  Yet we long for the depths, for the great things that can happen on the other end of the pool, the other end of the lake.  Sometimes we just wish it wasn’t so deep.

“You desire greatness, but you keep your heart small.”  The Lord told me this during my retreat and I had to admit that it was true.  I was in one of my favorite Scripture passages–Jeremiah 18–and the Lord was the potter at the wheel, shaping and forming my heart.  Over the next few days, I spent time considering the ways I keep my heart small.  I’m sure my list was not exhaustive, but there were a few convicting realizations.  The small heart is often maintained because of fear.  Fear that expanding the heart will mean pain or disappointment.  Jesus, though, is asking me to cast out into the deep.  “Do not be afraid…”  Ah, Jesus, but I am.

In conversation this past week, I came to a renewed realization of the necessity of seeking healing for the sake of myself and for others.  My small heart, if it expanded, could be a catalyst for others to let their hearts grow.  If I allow my heart’s state to be dictated by how others respond, then why couldn’t I flip that around?  Why can’t my choice to be large-hearted move others to embrace the same?  Even if it doesn’t, my internal freedom will be transforming my own heart.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)

He calls us to cast out into the deep.  Not content to simply tell us, He models the pathway for us.  He casts His net into the depths of our hearts, the places we hoped were sufficiently covered, the areas we ourselves had almost forgotten.  And He shines His light there, His mercy a mantle covering it all.  Then He turns the net over to us and asks us to do the same.  Cast deep into my heart, He says.  Go deeper, plunge further in.  In the safety of such a vast heart, we are then able to let Him plumb the depths of our own.  We will want Him to bring all to light and we won’t resist when He pushes the edges of our heart, widening the chambers to be filled with more of Him.

There is a greatness of heart that awaits us if we relinquish our clasp on our small hearts.  Give the Potter free reign over the size of your heart and follow His lead in casting into the deep.  Who knows what you will catch?