Gratitude Begets Gratitude

Gratitude Begets Gratitude

Do you know what it takes to get a compliment from a senior?  You keep them after class under the threat of a detention and listen to them try to get out of it.

Some students are just harder to love than others.  It isn’t impossible to love them, but the effort that goes into desiring to love them is significantly more.  So when a student that fits in this category pushes matters too far, I have to reflect more about the consequences that behavior should incur.  Because part of me wants to go all out and give them a harsh consequence.  The cumulation of past difficulties with that student or the tension of the particular day must all be weighed to guarantee that the punishment given fits that individual crime.

Yet I’m certain that just as some students are harder by nature to love, some teachers must fall into the same camp.  I can definitely acknowledge that I’m not the most loved teacher and I am pretty convinced that I never will be.  That doesn’t generally bother me because I’ve experienced life in a rather similar state.  High school and college didn’t find me as the most popular person around; therefore, I didn’t expect something magical to happen when I started teaching.

Despite not being the most loved, I do find comfort in being loved by some.  As an introvert, that is all I really need anyway–a few people who see under the often reserved exterior.  Those glimpses of love and appreciation from students does far more to boost me than they know.  At the end of the school year, a student stopped in with a present for me and she thanked me for my patience over the past year.  A few students wrote appreciation letters when given the chance for teacher appreciation week.  Another student chose to write his own addition to the journal entries I assigned.

That last one perhaps struck me the most.  Continue reading “Gratitude Begets Gratitude”

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Lent: When You’re Little Enough that No Virtual Window Shopping is a Sacrifice

Lent: When You’re Little Enough that No Virtual Window Shopping is a Sacrifice

Something I gave up for Lent this year is online shopping.  Yet I’ve come to realize in the past week that buying too much stuff isn’t the most prevalent problem.  Yes, I could probably fill a six-foot bookshelf with the stacks of books piled around my room.  The thing that is harder than not buying things is not even looking for them.

My younger sister jokes that for fairly large purchases (like a food processor or an iPhone) I start talking about them six months before I get around to buying them.  I’ve never been much of an impulse buyer.  But this Lent I’m giving up browsing, shopping, and slowly placing items in random online shopping carts.  I have had to catch myself at least two or three times already from following links to Amazon or sites with random household products.

Why am I doing this?  There are two primary reasons: I spend unnecessary time scrolling through websites and I don’t like what looking at so many material things does to my heart.

The first is the lesser of the two.  It is important, though.  Time is a treasure for which it is difficult to account.  The minutes can slip away quickly as I look at what other books will fit nicely into my library.  Or as I scout out birthday presents for family members in advance.  If I am continually feeling like I don’t have enough time, then perhaps I need to evaluate how I invest my time.

But that second reason, that is probably what caused me to stop with the shopping and browsing.  We live in a very materialistic world, but I’ve always felt fairly simple.  That simplicity, though, seems to be more an idea than a practice.  And I don’t like that it seems to be a quality I think I have but actually do not.  Gazing at all of the things I don’t have yet might like to, makes me feel unsatisfied with what I currently have.  Continue reading “Lent: When You’re Little Enough that No Virtual Window Shopping is a Sacrifice”

Overjoyed

Overjoyed

It is human nature to have favorites.  As a teacher, the same holds true.  I often tell my students I’m not supposed to have favorite classes or students.  Several classes will guess that they are my favorite, but I can never tell them if they are correct or not.  Usually, there are multiple things I appreciate about each class as well as aspects I wish they would change.  Yet, as a human, I look forward to some classes more than others.  Gone are my first year teacher days of feeling ill at the thought of a particular class.  For a variety of reasons, some classes make me a little less excited to teach them.

A couple of weeks ago, I was facing this feeling of not looking forward to a particular class.  It wasn’t dread, but I was definitely not excited for them to fill my classroom with their boisterous selves.  On Tuesdays, I have “contemplative time” with my classes, ten minutes of silent prayer with a reflection or Scripture passage given as the means to enter into prayer.  I’m a little dense, so it took a while, but after a few classes, I recognized that this meditation was speaking to me about that less-than-ideal class.

My dear friend, I am overjoyed to see you.  I am with you speaking to you and listening to you.  Realize that I am truly present.  I am within your soul.  Close your ears and eyes to all distractions.  Retire within yourself, think my thoughts, and be with me alone.  

My Other Self: Conversations with Christ on Living Your Faith*, Clarence Enzler

The word overjoyed stood out to me after several readings.  Clarence Enzler wrote this book as though it is Jesus speaking directly to us, that we are Christ’s other self.  After considering the beauty of Jesus being overjoyed to see me, I began to desire that this was my response for that particular class.  When I come to the Lord with all my worries and failings, He is always pleased that I have entered into His presence.  I want this to be my attitude toward this class.  Each day, I want to be overjoyed that these particular students are coming into my classroom and sitting in my presence.  Recognizing Christ dwelling within them, I want to respond to them as Christ responds to me, even with my less-than-ideal heart. Continue reading “Overjoyed”

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”

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”

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”

Maranatha!

Maranatha!

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  (The Summer Day, Mary Oliver)

We are on the brink of something new and something old.  Hundreds of years have passed since the birth of Christ and yet we have never before been in this place, at this time, with these graces being offered.  What will we do with it all?

Never again will I be right where I am right now.  And part of me rejoices that this will not always be my lot because I eagerly look forward to the future.  I want my life to change and be different than it is now.  Yet in some future day, I may look back at right now and realize only then all that was good about this time.  I do not want it be that way–I want to, right now, recognize the blessings of this moment, subtle though they may seem to my slow heart.

How is Christ being born into my life this day?  How is He striving to shake up the world I’ve known for twenty-six years and say, “Behold, I am doing something new”?  The graces He offers me today are not the same graces offered yesterday or the day before.  They are always new.  Jesus doesn’t offer left-overs, but rather He offers what is most fitting for the moment.  He only ever offers the best to us.

In a special way, Christ is offering the gift of His birth this weekend.  I cannot go to Bethlehem and see Him be born, but I can experience His birth in my life.  Scripture is living and effective.  It is not a nice story from hundreds of years ago, but rather it is a living reality now.  How am I the innkeeper, refusing room to Jesus?  How am I a shepherd, kneeling before a king yet uncertain of what He is asking of me?  How am I St. Joseph, following the promptings of the Lord when He speaks to me?  How am I the wise man, leaving home in search of a king for my life?   Continue reading “Maranatha!”

Into the Wilderness

Into the Wilderness

“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…'” (Isaiah 40: 1)

For some reason, Jesus is really intent on going into forests and deserts.  As I am looking at this passage, one I have heard numerous times, I am struck by His desire to go to the wild places.  A bit comically, I begin to imagine Jesus delving into the thick underbrush of a forest or having a road built into a stretching expanse of sand.

What is that wilderness He wants to dive into?

Ah.  My heart.  

It is a wild place, overgrown with weeds and bad habits.  Other places are deserts, barren and uninhabited.  Jesus wants to enter into those places.

I find myself attempting to redirect Him.  “Look, Jesus, a lovely little valley!  Come admire this place that has it all together, a place that isn’t messy….Oh, a lively garden, teeming with life.  Isn’t this nice, Jesus?”  He looks at these places, smiles at me, and then heads back into the desert.

But, Jesus, there is nothing to see there. Continue reading “Into the Wilderness”

Hope’s New Life

Hope’s New Life

There is that lovely feeling rising up in my heart.  It is refreshing and enlivening.

What is it?

Hope.

The promise of something new.  The promise of change.  The desire for tomorrow to surpass what was done today.

Yet how quick I am to fade from hope back to disillusionment or despair.  The feelings I have that encourage change and a new direction are simply feelings: temporal, passing, ephemeral.  I made a list of dreams I want to have fulfilled in 2016 and get excited, yet within a couple days I’m ready to settle.

What I need instead is the virtue of hope, something that actually lasts.

“The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to the happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspires men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude.  Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.”    –Catechism of the Catholic Church 1818

A few months ago, I had this intense feeling of hope.  It didn’t make sense logically because what I hoped for was nowhere in sight, nor did it seem to be soon in coming.  The feeling was so strong, though, that I knew it was from the Lord.  Yet I also knew, from past experiences, that sometimes the Lord will provide an abundance of something for me because in the near future, there will be a seeming lack of that very thing.

When I started sidewalk counseling outside an abortion clinic in Pittsburgh, I was filled with overwhelming joy and peace after the first three times.  It was strange because I had prayed there for a couple years and never felt those emotions so intensely while there.  The Lord was giving me the reassurance I would need when those feelings subsided.  And they did: when the joy and peace were absent, I felt the closest I’ve ever been to depression.  I ached and felt hollow within.  If it wasn’t for those weeks of intense joy when logically I should have felt sorrow, I might have quit sidewalk counseling.  I didn’t because I knew the Lord had convinced me of my course of action through consolation.

So a few months ago, when I felt this overwhelming sense of hope (or, as I called it at the time, “joyful anticipation”), I was thankful for that gift from the Lord, yet also a little concerned for what might be ahead.  “Thanks, Jesus, for this wonderful joyful anticipation.  I love this feeling.  But…what is going to happen later?”  The hope lingered and I basked in it.  I told myself to remember this intensity of hope because it would pass, as all feelings do.

And they passed.

I found myself wishing I could quit life for a while and simply step out of the day-to-day grind.  I wanted the Lord to deliver His promise now, because I wanted it now, not later.  With the feeling of hope absent, the future no longer seemed quite as bright and cheery.  I was left wondering if I hadn’t made it all up.  Yet when I thought about what I had felt, I could still feel this deep certainty that it was true.  The thing hoped for is not yet a reality, but I know the Lord will remain true to His promises, even if I must wait.

True hope is not a feeling that comes and goes, depending on the day.  It is steadfast and enduring.  Hope persists when logic and appearances suggest that it is fruitless.  It is what the Israelites depended on as they waited for their long-desired Messiah.  It is hope that led the three wise men to journey miles in anticipation of a king preceded by a star.  As the early Christian martyrs were led to their deaths, it was hope that enabled them to look with love at the very ones who wielded the sword or the stone or the nail.

Hope isn’t a different perspective to have on life: hope is to have a new life.

“The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”   —Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI

2016 will not be the year that my life becomes perfect or where I will magically change into the person I always wanted to be.  But I do want this year to be one where I am honestly pursuing the best for myself and where the Lord’s will for my life is done more completely than ever before.  I want to read twenty-five books, learn about the constellations, travel to two new states, and many more things.

Primarily, though, my hopes rest in the Lord.  I want to venture into 2017 knowing the Lord in a far deeper way than I do right now.  I want to enter tomorrow with a deeper knowledge and love for Jesus.  I am not promised tomorrow.  All the things I long for and hope for in the future, may never be mine because I may not live to see that day.  But I am here now, and that is where the Lord desires to meet me.

“Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young.  You are our hope, the young are our hope.  Do not let that hope die!  Stake your lives on it!”   –St. John Paul the Great, WYD Toronto 2002

This year I am embracing this hope that springs eternal in my young heart.  I am taking this hope and letting it lead me into change (though it be difficult) and into newness of life.  Hope, for the Christian, isn’t optional, it is operative.

I need hope.  Not passing feelings, but real, life-sustaining, time-enduring, source from which my actions flow hope.  Anything less is insufficient.

“My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word.  My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchmen for daybreak.  Let the watchmen count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord.”  (Psalm 130)