Training season

Happy first day of training season! While that may sound rather odd, the season of Lent can be compared to athletes in training. Discipline, practice, and focus are very similar to fasting, almsgiving, and prayer —  the three things the Church calls us to participate in as we prepare for Easter. 

Lent begins and ends with a day of fasting. This discipline requires us to be mindful, first of what day it is, and secondly how much we are eating and when. For the minimum fasting requirement, one full meal is allowed with two minor snack opportunities to maintain strength. Both fasting days also require abstaining from meat, as do all Fridays in Lent, although fasting is not required except for Good Friday. In addition to mindful eating, Lent is also an opportunity to practice self-control. Why does it seem that when we can’t have a particular food, that’s when we crave it even more? Some may complain about it and non-Catholics may scoff and tease us for our efforts, yet are these restrictions any different from those an athlete willingly assumes in training? Do they not need to be mindful of what they are eating so that their bodies can perform to their highest abilities? While our eating may not be fueling us for a marathon, it’s the combination of training body and mind together, reminding us that we are more than just spirit and intellect, and that our physical nature does play a role in our spiritual life.

Almsgiving is older than the Church itself. While it should not be limited to just a Lenten  activity, it is in this season that we are called to especially live out the charity we profess. While typically  we think of money or food being donated to the poor when we consider almsgiving, opening up the definition to include offering our time and talent to help those less fortunate is definitely putting love into practice. One definition of practice is “ to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient.” Athletes don’t become professionals just because they say they are. They need to practice their sport until they become proficient, and even then, they continue to practice and hone their skills to become the best they can be in their sport. Lent is a time for us to practice being Catholic at an even deeper level. It’s not just about the basics anymore, it is doing works of charity.

Prayer should be something we do as easily as breathing. However, when was the last time you paid attention to how you were breathing? Maybe if you had a cold or allergies, you become all too aware how much your body needs the oxygen that you breathe in. Just like an athlete picks a particular skill to focus to improve, we are called to focus on our prayer life during Lent also. There is no shortage of chaplets, novenas, and specific prayers in Catholicism that we can include in our daily prayer time. Perhaps given the amount, it can be too intimidating to choose! If pre-written prayers are not your cup of tea, perhaps the focus could be on perfecting your own method of prayer, maybe investigating a new one like the ACTS method (Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, and Supplication). 

Instead of looking at Lent like something to endure, or live through to get to Easter, let’s take the opportunity this year to treat it as though we are athletes for Jesus Christ and this is our season to train. GO TEAM!

10 aspects of a relationship with God

People don’t like to be told what to do. While rules and laws help avoid chaos, keep order, and try to make things fair for all, our instinct is to try to bend the rules or find a way around them. God gave us the 10 Commandments to help us have a relationship with Him. What if, instead of the “thou shalt and thou shalt not,” these commandments were written in a way that expresses how to build a relationship with Him? Perhaps they might have read:

  1. I want to help you in your relationship with me. My essence is in all of creation, but it’s only a small part of what I created. Don’t confuse what you see for me. Seek a relationship with me.
  2. Language is a gift that allows us to communicate. When you speak poorly, especially using My Name in an unholy and evil way, it’s disrespectful of me and of my creation. Choose your words carefully; mean what you say to bring praise and love to creation.
  3. My desire to be with you is so intense, I want you to take one day a week to spend it in my loving embrace. Rest in me. 
  4. Male and female I created them, each with unique charisms that reflect aspects of my nature. I have chosen a man and woman united in a holy union to  give you life and be an example of my love to you. Love your parents and any siblings I give you. Your well-being and the well-being of both human and Christian society depend on healthy family life.
  5. All creation reflects me in some way, even those who deny me. Love all without distinction from conception to natural death. Love and care for yourself, too. 
  6. Love is a fundamental vocation that reflects my love to you and enables you to experience my joy in love. Chastity maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love I placed in you. Respect the sacred bond of marriage.
  7. I bless all in varying degrees based on their needs. Give thanks and be content for the blessings you are given. Respect the property of others and the integrity of creation. 
  8. When you speak truth, you honor me and bring honor to yourself. In all you speak, let truth be revealed for my praise and glory. Respect the reputation and honor of all. 
  9. Purity of heart and modesty protect the intimate center of the person. Living in community is a shared experience, but not everything is meant to be shared. A marriage union is sacred and blessed by me. If you are married, look within your own union for sexual fulfillment and you will find honor and blessing. 
  10. Be content with what I have given you in blessing. When others share the blessings they have received from me, honor their choices. Abandon yourself to my providence; thirst for me with all your heart and you shall be filled.

When we look only at the actual words of the 10 Commandments, we can be quick to say that we are following them. But when we look deeper and use them to tune our relationship with God, we see there’s a lot more room for us to improve. Prayerful reflection of the Catechism (part 3, section 2) can guide us deeper. God didn’t just hand over the laws for us to follow without any assistance. Wherever we see a need for improvement, all we need to do is ask God for the help of His Grace. 

Stuck

Have you ever felt stuck? Maybe it was in a job, or maybe in a social gathering. Perhaps it was or is in your faith journey. It can be so frustrating and one can end up feeling like a hamster running on a wheel, going nowhere.

This past week my cat Vera had to be in her carrier twice. One day it was for a visit to the vet for her annual checkup and rabies shot. The next day she was sequestered in her carrier while the exterminator came for his quarterly visit and for the hour while the spray was drying. I’m not sure which one she disliked more, going for a car ride, which she  protests loudly, or staying at home but not able to roam about. She was very confused to be confined in the carrier once the exterminator left. I even unzipped a small opening so I could pet her, thinking that would be reassuring. It seemed to just confuse her more. 

Amid her cries for freedom, I started thinking about how it feels to be stuck in a situation that we can’t change. From my perspective, I was trying to be a good pet mom and keep my cat safe from chemicals that could harm her. But there was no way I could explain that to her. How many times has God allowed me to be in a certain situation or a certain place in my faith journey and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t move forward? Perhaps He did it because another better opportunity would be coming along. Perhaps He did it because I wasn’t ready to move on, even though I felt I was.  Perhaps he did it to keep me safe.

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.
Unless the Lord guards the city, in vain does the guard keep vigil.
It is vain for you to rise early, or put off your rest, 
You that eat hard-earned bread, for He gives to His beloved in sleep.

Psalm 127: 1-2

We may cry out to God that it’s not fair especially when we see that another is successful or starts something new while we remain where we are. Yet as Psalm 127 tells us, our actions will be in vain if we attempt to get ourselves out of our stuck situation. When we trust in God and give ourselves 100% to where we are, in time our faith journey will take us to the place where we need to be, when we need to be there.

Hiding in plain sight

The Bible is rich with details and descriptions. We often glaze over these items because the passages are so familiar. We settle for the salient nuts and bolts of a story and can miss significant meaning in the details. 

Two of my Church activities  merged recently and reminded me, yet again, details matter. The Walking with Purpose Bible study I’m attending, Beholding His Glory, starts at the beginning, the very beginning — Genesis. I noticed in my reading of Genesis that the garden contained two very important trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were permitted to eat from all trees, including the tree of life, and were excluded from only the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I found that a bit odd while reading that it was only one tree that was prohibited, since eating from the tree of life meant they could live forever! 

A few days later I was attending an RCIA class as a sponsor to a confirmation candidate and the priest in charge began the topic of reconciliation  by unpacking the fall of Adam and Eve. As he explained, after eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, humans started to pass judgement. Adam and Eve passed judgement on their nakedness, they passed judgement on their sin and hid from God.  When they encountered God, they began to blame others instead of taking responsibility for their actions. Living forever with the bitterness of judgement and blame now in the world, was not what God wanted for those He loved. Removing Adam and Eve from the garden and guarding the tree of life was for the benefit of mankind. It’s just a small detail, the second tree, but when you realize it’s there, the story of the fall takes on a whole different meaning. It also gives more depth to Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. 

The feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple was yet another opportunity to realize how important the details are. What we know of the Nativity is found in only two gospels: Matthew and Luke. Each provides different descriptions. When they are told as one story, they are usually overlapped, so that all events seem to happen either simultaneously or immediately following one another. In his homily, the celebrant pointed out that the feast of the Presentation is always celebrated on February 2nd, as that is 40 days after Christmas. Joseph and Mary would have taken Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, since Bethlehem was near enough for them to make the journey. He also reminded us that the wise men had not yet come. At that point, I remembered that in the account of the Holy Innocents, when the wise men did not report back to Herod after going to Bethlehem, he ordered that all male children under the age of 2 be slaughtered. The sequence of  Jesus’ birth, the rising of the guiding star and the journey of the wise men might have taken as long as 2 years. When we celebrate these milestones yearly, we flatten the events of the Incarnation to the point that the progression can get mixed up. It’s only when we start to take into account the minutiae that we can grasp a better picture of Jesus’ life. 

Some of the Old Testament books can make our head spin with details, for example,  Levitcus, which lists most of the laws followed by the Jews. Yet even there, when we read in the light of Jesus coming, we see the Eucharist and many of our Catholic rituals foreshadowed. Perhaps the next time we read a passage from the Bible, instead of settling for the familiar and obvious message, maybe it’s time to dive deeper and uncover the detailed gems hiding right in front of our eyes. 

Forgiving mistakes

We all make mistakes. Some are big and some are small. Some we can easily forget while others haunt us much longer than they should. We know we need to forgive others’ mistakes that impact us, but how well  do we forgive ourselves?

Our free will gives us the ability to choose, but our fallen human nature means that we won’t always make the correct decision. Some mistakes result in sin, while others are just merely mistakes with no significant impact. Hopefully we will always be able to learn something from the mistakes we make. A mistake is an event in time; you cannot go back to change it. You may be able to correct it after the mistake is made — or perhaps make amends for any damage done. Unless someone actually invents a time machine, you cannot go back and change your action. You have to live with your mistakes: major and minor, catastrophic and insignificant. 

For those mistakes that we have trouble recovering from, we need to reach out to God for assistance. God has written the book on forgiveness; it is the Bible. From the beginning, man has offended God and God has forgiven him. He takes the mistakes man makes and weaves an amazing story. Even with the mistakes that David made, God turned him into the greatest king Israel had ever seen. Through his descendants, God brings His own Son, Jesus, into the world as our Savior. We may never see or know the good that God has been able to achieve by the mistakes we make, but we need to trust that He can make something beautiful out of them. 

Rather than getting stuck in the moment when we realize our mistake, we must offer it up to God and ask Him to help correct it. The road may be bumpy while God is working, and His timing is rarely our timing, but God will not abandon us in our discomfort. He is walking right beside us, holding our hand through it all. To remain in misery because of a mistake is to turn away from God. He will help us to forgive ourselves, if we allow Him. 

The ultimate healing

In one of the gospel passages for weekday Mass last week was healing of the paralytic man whose friends cut through the roof to lower him into the room with Jesus. Jesus’ initial response was “Child, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:5) We often think of Jesus healing the sick physically, so this account becomes an important reminder of Jesus’ mission.

In times past, physical maladies were often equated with sinning; the worse the sickness, the greater the transgression. It was seen as God punishing those who did wrong. While we no longer believe that to be the case, God continues to allow sickness and suffering to affect change to lead to His Kingdom. Sickness can still be a powerful sign of the corruption of creation from original sin. 

When Jesus healed the paralytic man by forgiving his sins, He healed the sickness that was at the root of the man: his broken relationship with God. The physical healing was secondary and the result of the repaired bond. When we repent of our sins and turn back to God who forgives  us, we are changed. Like the paralytic, we rise from our old way of life, walking and doing what God calls us to do.

When we pray for a person suffering illness, we often pray for his or her physical healing, just like the friends of the paralytic man. It’s only natural since we live in a physical world. However, that healing is only temporary, since this life does not last forever. If the person we are praying for passes on from this life, we may think that our prayers have gone unanswered. Viewing it not from a temporal perspective but a spiritual one, our prayers have indeed been answered. The ultimate healing occurred when the person’s soul returned to the presence of God. Instead of praying for a specific outcome, we should pray that individual accepts the care of Jesus, so that He can ensure healing that will have the most benefit for the soul.

Jesus’ ultimate mission was to heal the fracture between God and man. In His birth, life, death and resurrection, He covered every realm of man’s existence — physically and spiritually, so that through His grace and mercy, we have the opportunity to spend eternity with Him. 

Just a word

With a headline of “By comparison, homilies are not too long,” I was intrigued to read the article in a recent edition of The Catholic Virginian. The article discussed comparisons, based on Pew Research of the length and the topics various Christian religions use in the homily or sermon.

Unlike the Catholic Mass, most Protestant services focus on the sermon, with average length ranging anywhere from 24 minutes to 54 minutes, according to the data from the research. The average for a Catholic homily is only 14 minutes. As Protestants don’t believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the consecration of the Eucharist, it’s logical that the next important thing to focus on is the Word of God from Scripture. I’ve noticed that the Presbyterian Church around the corner from me usually advertises the sermon topic on the signage board several days before Sunday.

All homilies or sermons can be moments of teaching. In the Catholic faith, the priest or deacon may give instruction on the season, the feast day being celebrated, or the readings of the day. Homilies can give context to the ancient customs and how to apply God’s Word to our modern lives. While the average Catholic homily may be short now, that wasn’t always the case. In previous centuries, especially when most people didn’t read, the homily was a key way for people to learn and grow deeper in their faith. While the homily can and still does strengthen our faith, the plethora of Bible studies and commentaries, stories on the lives of the saints and the saints’ own writings also provide us opportunities to grow deeper in faith in addition to attending Mass.

One of the excuses commonly used for not attending Mass is that it’s boring, with people often citing the priest and his homily.  But with the homily taking up only a small amount of time in the Mass, why would people let such a short amount of time limit them from building their relationship with God by attending Mass and partaking in the Eucharist? For those who face this dilemma, perhaps one alternative is asking God to speak to them through the homily? If they’re listening for God, they may just hear the homily totally differently than if they were listening out of politeness, or just feigning to listen. I’ve visited churches when the homily, or part of it, was used to discuss funds or the time and talent opportunities. Since I was not a regular parishioner, I see those as moments when I can ponder what jumped out to me during the readings and or just soak up being in the presence of God. Even when the priest is teaching something I already know, I find it a helpful reminder and a unique opportunity to see the topic from a different perspective.

At the very least, the homily is time to prepare yourself for receiving the Eucharist. After hearing the Word of God through the scriptures, the homily can help you reflect on God’s will for you and how you can welcome His Most Precious Body and Blood to strengthen you for your mission to bring His Kingdom into the world.