Sunrise or sunset?

How do sunrises and sunsets correlate to the spiritual life? 

A few days ago I had a commitment that started rather early in the morning. This required me to get up earlier than usual and as I opened the curtains in the dining room, it was still quite dark outside. I assembled my breakfast, tucked in to eat, and as I raised my head from the grace before meals prayer, the sky had been transformed into a beautiful kaleidoscope of color above the trees. I am not a morning person, at least not by choice. I usually grumble when I have to get up before the sun has risen. It just seems too early for me. Yet as I took in the splendor of the color display, I realized the only reason I was able to enjoy this celebration of nature was because I did get up early enough to see it. 

The colors of the sunrise made me start thinking about sunsets, which seem way more popular. Sunsets seem a much easier sell: a sunset dinner cruise, a hotel room with a sunset view, or a house for sale may boast of a deck with a view of the sunset. Why? Because most people are awake when the sun sets. In our world of artificial light, we’re no longer tied to the rhythm of the sun in its rotation, but rather the 24-hour measure of time to which the world subscribes. If our schedule allows, we can sleep right through the sun rising. Schedules may require us to arise before the sun, but in the hectic rush to get ready in the morning, we may not spare the time to sit and watch the sun come up, even while multitasking by eating breakfast. Sunsets can get ignored on a regular basis as well, but if we were going to choose to watch one of them, it would probably be a sunset, since it wouldn’t require too much extra effort on our part. 

Sunrises can be compared to the spiritual life and sunsets to the secular life. We live in a secular world, there’s no escaping it. It’s very easy to focus on those things important to the secular life since we are bombarded with messages everywhere we turn: on billboards while driving down the road, on television, in social media, in entertainment, etc. But if we want to have a spiritual life, it’s not enough to live each day, but rather we need to make a special effort to seek a relationship with God. Just like if we want to see the sun at its rising we need to get up while it’s still dark, a relationship with God calls us to step out of the everyday and converse with Him in prayer. It’s taking action to do His will. It’s being open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t take much to see the sun rise, just a commitment to waking up early enough and to take the time to look at the horizon and the sky. Similarly, living a spiritual life doesn’t take any more than being committed to spending time with God and allowing ourselves to be transformed into the best version of ourselves. 

A sunrise promises a new day, gives light for us to see, brings feelings of life and hope just like the spiritual life. A sunset can be equal in its beauty, but when the last of the light fades, we are in darkness, the temperature usually begins to drop, bringing a sense of an ending and of time slipping away. A life lived in a purely secular fashion can seem just as beautiful, but the light does fade and that life is entombed into the dark. Each day we have a choice to live our life like the sunrise or the sunset. May our lives be lived like heralds of the sun bringing light and color into a world of sin and darkness. 

Calm surrender

While watching a recent episode of Cesar Millan’s show, Better Human, Better Dog, it occurred to me that dog training and spirituality have some commonalities. 

While I’m not a habitual watcher of the show, I have seen a number of episodes and am familiar with many of the techniques that Cesar demonstrates. In any of the shows I’ve watched, the theme is always to have the dog achieve the “calm surrender” state. It seems like magic when Cesar gets a barking dog to just sit down next to him and not be disturbed by the people around it. That calm surrender state does not change the personality of the dog, but rather allows the dog to be around other animals and people and able to interact with them in a respectful way. It seems much like what God asks of us: to allow God to be our center and for us to surrender ourselves to His will. When we do that, it does not make us any less than who we are, but makes us more of who we’re supposed to be because we’re fulfilling the role God intended for us. 

While Cesar Millan makes it look easy for dogs to get into the calm surrender state, for Christians trying to surrender their will to God seems a lot more challenging. Or maybe it’s just me, but as much as I try and pray for that willing surrender, I do get nervous and anxious about situations and future events. I may tell God that I’m putting it all in His hands and then minutes later I find myself thinking about that same issue again. Perhaps it’s God giving me the opportunity to practice, then again, with the amount of practice I’ve had, why am I not an expert by now?!

Other similarities are discipline and boundaries. Dogs need to learn how to behave within “the pack.” When in a family of humans, the humans are the leaders and set the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior, like not jumping up on a person as they walk through the door or getting right into a person’s face. The simple “shushing” sound that Cesar makes is incredibly effective for dogs to respond to a simple chastisement. When practiced consistently, dogs not only learn what’s allowed but they also enter into the calm surrender state in lieu of acting out. Unfortunately, even with the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes, practicing a Christian way of life is easier said than done. I have many good intentions, yet there always seems to be some reason that I find blocks my ability to act. When it comes to checking social media or relaxing by watching television, I seem to find the time to do those activities. But I’m in good company, as even Paul wrote to the Romans, “The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” (Romans 7: 18-19)

Perhaps the difficulties I face are because I’m more of a cat person, or at least more like my independent Vera, who insists on affection only when she wants it and loudly protests my lack of attention if meals are not provided on time. I wonder if I’m limiting my interactions with God to the routine prayer times and only petitioning God instead of rounding out my prayer with adoration, contrition and thanksgiving. Although when Vera curls up in my lap at the end of day and purrs herself into a gentle snore, any mischief she may have gotten up to is quickly forgotten. Even more generous is God, as His mercy is readily available to me in the sacraments. 

Dogs, cats, and fellow creatures can teach us much about the spiritual life. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons God provided such an incredible amount of diversity on earth. Each person can relate to some animal and find that special bond of understanding that defies description. Truly knowing another creature — their habits, their personality, and their instincts — can give us a unique perspective in our relationship with God. 

Moving forward

The tree has been stripped of ornaments and all is put away. Twinkling lights are nowhere to be found. The home seems rather barren without the trimmings. The Christmas season is over and it is back to the ho-hum of ordinary time, or is it?

The Christmas season officially ends with two great celebrations: Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus. The Epiphany celebrates the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. Guided by the light of a star, these wise men, who were outside of the covenant of Israel, sought the child and brought Him gifts signifying His Kingship, His Divinity, and His sacrifice. While we cannot celebrate Christmas every day, at least with the same intensity as the day itself, the season of Christmas reminds us that the light of Christ shines and lights our way towards Him. It reminds us that we are all called to follow Jesus, inviting those who have lost their way or wandered far from Him to return again and seek His light. And when we have a true encounter with the Lord, we are changed and we move forward, not returning the same way we came, but seeking the alternate route that keeps the presence of Jesus with us daily. 

It may seem a bit rushed to celebrate the magi’s visit to an infant one day and on the next day celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist when He was an adult, but we do need to remember that the liturgical year includes all of Jesus’ 33 years on earth. For many years I thought the Christmas season ended with the Epiphany, but a homily from one priest a number of years ago, urging the congregation to keep the Christmas decorations up until the Baptism of Jesus, corrected my understanding. Upon reflection, this is the perfect ending to the season and a great way to move into ordinary time. Jesus’ baptism reminds us of our own baptism, that we were made new by the waters, washed clean of our sins. It’s what marks us a Christians: those who follow the way of Jesus Christ. This remembrance of not only Jesus’ baptism but also our own gives us the path forward. It may seem like we’re returning to ordinary time, but in reality, we are continuing our journey of faith. We have come down from the mountain of celebrating Christmas and are now walking the path towards our next encounter with God. 

Most of our lives are spent in ordinary circumstances, and that’s okay. It helps make seasons like Christmas and Easter so special; they are like punctuation marks in the stories of our lives. They give us hope and help us keep our relationship with God strong. Ordinary time does not mean God isn’t with us, but rather it gives us the opportunity to seek Him, praise Him, and thank Him for all the ways He’s present to us on a daily basis. The celebratory seasons give us perspective of how to live a journey of faith in ordinary time; we take these shining moments as we move forward in and with the light of Christ. 

New horizons

One doesn’t begin to be a Christian because of an ethical decision or a great idea, but rather because of an encounter with an event, with a Person, who gives new horizons to life, and with that, a decisive orientation.

Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican City, November 13, 2007

What a way to start off the new year of 2023! Father Mike Schmitz and Ascension have teamed up again for the Catechism in a Year podcast. While it has only been a few days, I’m excited to say that I’m still on track with it.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (or CCC for short) is the reference for what Catholics believe. It is quite a sizable book and breaking it down to read over the course of the year, especially after doing the Bible that way a few years ago, makes it much more approachable. The current CCC is the fruit of the Second Vatican Council, which has been tweaked just a bit since it was first released. While I have read the CCC previously, it has probably been close to two decades since I’ve studied it. I very much enjoyed reading the Bible in a Year with Fr. Mike and appreciate his ability to provide insight to the readings each day, which he does equally as well with the CCC.   

In preparation, I did purchase the Catechism from Ascension Press and it came with a handy  Catechism at a Glance visual overview. Similar to the Bible timeline that comes with their Great Adventure Bible, this Catechism overview breaks down the four parts to highlight the sections,  chapters and articles of faith or topics covered. This is a great way to familiarize oneself with the material that will be covered. It also gives a timeline of the references of the nine resources from which the CCC is derived. The catechism book itself is beautifully produced, but my only critique is that the cover is white. I’m glad I have a reason to pick it up each day and read it, otherwise I would be inclined to leave it on the shelf to protect its beauty.

It’s a bit bittersweet that Pope Benedict XVI passed away on the eve of a year that thousands will be reading the CCC. As a priest and as a theologian, Fr. Ratzinger was a participant of the Second Vatican Council and no doubt played a role in the production of the current Catechism. I initially heard the quote from Pope Benedict XVI from Bishop Robert Barron in a reflection of the Pope’s life he gave on YouTube. I love the concept of a “new horizon” as it evokes a reorientation from the path we are on to a new path with a new destination when a person chooses to have a relationship with Jesus. Taking the time to walk through the catechism in a year is the opportunity to make sure that my faith compass is pointing in the right direction. 

Every day we have the choice to journey towards God and with God. May the Lord illuminate our path in the days of 2023 to a new horizon full of hope and love.

Twinkling lights

Christmas is here! It’s a wonder-filled scene to see all the twinkling lights: on the trees, on the houses, and decorating the churches. These small little lights play a big part in the celebration both visually as well as in meaning. 

Our modern age forgets what it’s like to live by the light of the sun. Since the dawn of man, most work was completed during daylight hours, which in the summer was plenty of time, yet in the winter,  the short amount of daylight limited what work could be completed. The ability to create and somewhat manage fire helped to extend the day, but firelight is not as illuminating as daylight, even on a cloudy day. Man adapted to a way of life lived by the sun during the day and the moon and stars at night. The passage of time could be identified by the phase of the moon and the constellations in the night sky. As man began to travel, these heavenly luminaries would guide his way consistently. 

A new twinkling light in the night’s sky was noticed, probably by most people, not just the three travelers, or magi, who visited Jesus. The difference is that they studied the meaning of this new light and found it to be the announcement of a royal birth. These men have been called wise men, and indeed, that is a title that suits them  and salutes the action they took upon learning what the rising star meant. They didn’t have to travel the distance to visit the baby, they could have sent an envoy. Or they could have just ignored it, since the baby was a foreigner to them, a person who would be of no consequence to them. But they opened themselves up to encounter God and they were changed because of it. 

All these tiny lights at Christmas remind us that we are to reflect the light of Jesus to others. We are like the thousands of little twinkling lights in the night sky in comparison to the main light of Christ. Our lights form spiritual constellations for others to find their way to Jesus. Our light is transformative, not because of who we are, but that we allow ourselves to be transformed by the Light of the world. Without the convenience of electric lights, the world in winter would be a very dark place. Christmas is the celebration of the light of little baby Jesus coming into the world to lead us out of the darkness of the winter night and into a world of hope, light, warmth, and love. May the spirit of Christmas inspire you to twinkle and share your light with those around you. 

Just like cookies

It’s the final days of Advent and the big rush to get ready for Christmas is on. In the middle of this rush, we need to take the time for God, He can enlighten us in the simplest of ways, as long as our hearts and minds are open to Him.

Baking and Christmas, for me, go hand-in-hand. I have had to cut down from the seven different kinds of cookies I make, since being a remote worker means I no longer have an office to distribute the goodies, but there’s still plenty that I make and give as gifts. I always challenge myself to try one new recipe each year and over the years the other varieties have changed from what I originally made. In my first apartment on my own, I made the same recipes my Mom did and that I liked. Now there are only two that are from my childhood. While I don’t remember which Christmas my Mom gave me her Mirro Cooky Press (no that’s not a typo, that’s actually how they spelled it), I have been making the spritz cookies each year ever since; that’s probably about half my lifetime. Over that timeframe I learned my one brother-in-law, who isn’t overly fond of cookies, actually liked them and would choose to eat them. Each year he gets a whole tin of spritz cookies from me. 

As I was pressing the cookies out, I became nostalgic thinking about how long it’s been since I’ve been making these cookies. While I have learned many lessons about being efficient in making them, the process is far from perfect. It seems the first few cookies just refuse to stick to the cookie sheet, requiring my intervention. Sometimes that means just a little coaxing to cut the dough from the press and the shape looks like what it’s supposed to be, a wreath. Others are very stubborn and I end up with little pieces that I do my best to reassemble. Some do come out nicely and cut well with a simple twist of the press. I noticed this year that even the nice ones needed a bit of “hands-on” from me — tapping down the pointed tips that are formed when the press is lifted up. “What a needy bunch I have this year, “ I thought, “always wanting a bit more love from their maker.” It was this thought that made me think of my Maker and what kind of cookie I am to Him? Am I the kind that He has to reassemble, or am I more like the ones that just need the rough edges smoothed out?

There are times, as I slide the cookie sheet into the oven, that I wonder how many nice cookies I’ll have, and will I have enough to package up in gifts? In terms of volume, there are plenty to give away, but one wants to give out the nice ones, not the misshapen ones. There is a bit of baking magic that happens in the oven, as only the most difficult ones are the oddballs of the batch. Yet, those oddballs taste every bit as good as their prettier neighbors. The gift packages may not win any baking consistency championships, but somehow with the red and green sugars sparkling on them, the majority of the spritz cookies convey my love and the spirit of Christmas. Isn’t that the true meaning of Christmas: the Love of God takes human form to restore our relationship with our Maker through the Holy Spirit? Won’t we one day sparkle and shine in heaven after our rough spots are smoothed out and our imperfections removed in purgatory?

The oddball of the first batch is my quality assurance tester. Again, I am amazed that a few simple ingredients can come together and make music in my mouth. I wonder if God feels similar whenever we choose to do His will and assist others in their needs?

I never realized how much we are like cookies: we are all beautiful in our own unique way and tasty too! We should never give up on the oddballs, since God doesn’t either. Lastly, we need to be open to God to allow Him to reveal Himself to us in all the little things we do. May you and yours celebrate Christmas with the love and sparkle of the Spirit!

What’s your song?

We are halfway through Advent, and this is the week to rejoice! However, it’s not the readings from Sunday’s Mass that have me thinking, but rather the Psalm from the feast of the Immaculate Conception: “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds.” (Psalm 98)

It can be very easy to just go with the flow of scriptures at Mass, especially when we hear them over and over again. But this time hearing that Psalm, this question came to mind: what new song would I sing for God? One could take that question very literally and think about how to craft a song. However, I am not a songwriter, neither in lyrics nor in melody, so I leave that to the experts. I do believe, however, that we all sing our own unique song to God in the actions we take and the choices we make on a daily basis. Perhaps the song that we create is not so much ours, but rather the effect we have on others. Do others cry out to God against us? Or do they praise Him for our deeds we do in His name? Is it a sorrowful song of lament, or is it a joyous song of celebration? Would there be a way for us to tell or is this song one for God’s ears only?

Another perspective would be the types of prayers prayed make up our song to God. Would the song reflect the angels’ “Glory to God in heaven” or would it be more like the Beatles’ “Help?” What kind of lyrics would it include? A line about a friend who is sick asking for healing or maybe the right plumber to call when the shower doesn’t work? Would the refrain proclaim the “Holy, Holy, Holy” from all the Masses participated in, or the “I don’t want to do that” response to invitations to a deeper relationship with God? 

Maybe it’s just me, but I do tend to hum and make up songs, albeit silly ones, when I’m happy. One example is when my cat, Vera, rolls onto her back and shows me her “pretty belly.” I’m not sure which is more annoying to her: me singing about her belly or stroking the super soft fur on her tummy. She’s a good sport to let me pet her before she pulls my hand towards her head to rub there. This is a simple, joyous pleasure to spend a few moments with my cat. That joy is what Advent is all about, seeking God and finding joy in the journey. It’s also about reflecting on our lives and changing our “tune” to be in concert with God’s will for us. Our introspectiveness should result in a new song, especially when it acknowledges all that God has done for us in His “marvelous deeds.”

Rejoice! The Lord is near! Now is the time to seek Him out. Raise your voice in song — by prayer or action. Rejoice always in the Lord and sing of His deeds that are truly marvelous!

Preparing to receive

The herald for the second week of Advent is the greatest herald in the Bible: John the Baptist. His message is to prepare oneself for the Lord’s coming. As his cry travels down through the centuries, it’s deeper than just preparing for a visit from Jesus, it’s preparing to receive Him deeper than we ever have.

Advent is a time to prepare, yet many times we think we need to do all the preparations ourselves. Decorating, cooking, baking, and visiting — it’s all up to us to do. But is it really? Some people can receive a material gift with genuine appreciation, even if it’s not something they want, however, when someone offers to lend a helping hand, they are waved away. The volunteer is offering their gift of friendship, of time spent together, and of lightening the workload, even if it is an activity that is enjoyed. So why is the offer to assist rejected? For many it is a matter of control, if I want something done a certain way then I need to do it myself. I think this is a reflection of our culture where the focus is on what I want and how I feel. If we open ourselves up to receive the gift of aid, then we may also receive the gift of a different perspective. It may lead us to a deeper appreciation of Jesus, the Christmas season, and our relationship with the volunteer.

For some people who are capable of the activities we do to prepare for Christmas, having help may feel like we are taking it from someone who truly needs it. Christmas is a great time to volunteer to help those less fortunate than us. But people who offer their assistance know that we have the means (the time, talent, and resources) to accomplish our tasks. They are asking to be part of our lives, to share themselves with us. In accepting their gift of time and companionship, we are learning how to extend our focus beyond ourselves and to experience the world through another’s eyes. When we understand how to receive the gift of another’s time, we are better able to be compassionate and reach out to others who are in need. And that gift of friendship is the opportunity God provides to us so that we can practice having a relationship with Him. Jesus is continually calling out to us to be our Friend, to receive Him in the Eucharist, and to accept the salvation and redemption He won for us through His death and resurrection.

If John the Baptist didn’t think he was worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals, how can we think we can receive Jesus if we haven’t practiced being a friend to others? We are called to practice imitating Jesus by having relationships with those who come into our lives — both in our families as well as the friends we encounter across the various aspects of our lives. Friendship works both ways: by being a giver of what we have, and a receiver of what is offered to us. Let us use this Advent to prepare to receive Jesus by receiving those who offer the gift of time and self to us.

Beginning with the ending

Happy Advent! Did you miss that it started on Sunday? If you only paid attention to the readings, especially the Gospel, you may have thought you were still at the end of the liturgical year. In fact, why in the world would the Church choose such a Gospel for the beginning of Advent? Perhaps a better question to ask is: what is Advent? Yes, it is the preparation time before Christmas, but it is more than that. Advent is preparing for all the comings of Christ, only in reverse order: tomorrow, today, and yesterday. 

First the Church, through the Gospel readings, asks us if we are ready for Jesus to return; not someday in the future, but right now. Secondly, in having four weeks to prepare, the Church gives us the opportunity to “scrub our souls,” to utilize this new (liturgical) year as the time to get our spiritual lives back on track with a deeper relationship with God. Lastly, by celebrating His Incarnation, we remember when, “in the fullness of time” Jesus walked on the earth like you and I. Matthew’s Gospel passage (24:37-44) has Jesus asking His disciples of His day (and all who will follow Him through the centuries) if they will be prepared when He comes again. Jesus is heralding the end of time here at the beginning of the Church’s year. But even the “end of time” is a beginning as well — it’s the beginning of eternity with both body and soul as we anticipate the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment.

Who wants to think of the end of the world as we know it? Isn’t it nicer to think about Jesus coming as a wee babe over 2,000 years ago? The nativity story brings both joy and peace, wouldn’t it be better to just focus on that? Or maybe it’s focusing on the gifts we’ll get, I mean give, at Christmas; that’s a better line of thinking, right? How about instead of thinking of giving  gifts, we think of the holiday’s receiving aspect? We enjoy it when our friends and family delight in receiving our gifts, but how joyful are we to receive what is given to us? From the ugly sweater to the tool we will never use, it’s the thought that counts, right?  But do we receive those gifts well? Do we appreciate the thought, time, effort, energy, and cost the givers spend in preparing our Christmas gifts? Perhaps this year we can challenge ourselves to be content with whatever we receive, and to receive it well. That means with all the love and appreciation that  we have in the relationships we have with the gifters. 

When Jesus was born at Bethlehem, there were very few who were happy to receive Him: His parents, a few shepherds and three foreigners. Is the world any more welcoming to Jesus now? For us Catholic Christians, do we celebrate His birthday or do we use the day to celebrate our material and consumer-driven world? Jesus comes to us every day that Mass is said; do we joyously greet Him as we receive His Precious Body in the Eurcharist? And if Jesus came at the end of the world today, how would you receive Him? Would you be ecstatic to see Jesus or would you feel not truly ready to meet Him? This is what Advent is all about: preparing to receive Jesus in every way He comes to us: yesterday, today, and always until the end of time. 

St. Paul cautioned the Romans in his letter to stay awake and that salvation is closer today than when they first believed. Time is marching ever nearly to its end, which is the beginning of life eternal with God. Now is the time to prepare. Now is the time to turn to God and seek a relationship with Him, to seek to do His will, and to be open to receive all the gifts He wants to give us. 

King or president?

We are in the last days of the liturgical year, heralded by celebrating the feast of Christ, the King of the Universe, last Sunday. In our modern era, do we really understand — and accept — Christ as our King?

Earthly kings, just like other parallels to the sacred, are imperfect reflections of a relationship with the divine. Ever since God led the Israelites out of Egypt, God intended to be King of the people, sending judges and prophets only when the people went astray. However, by the time of Samuel, the people were so consumed with mirroring their surrounding countries, that they asked Samuel for God to designate a king to lead them. While Samuel was quite unhappy about this, God allowed it, but not without first clarifying the consequences of this request. (Spelled out in 1 Samuel 8:10-18.) A king would  take the best of everything and require the people to do his bidding. The king makes all the decisions and the people of the realm are but mere servants,  carrying out whatever tasks his majesty declares. 

Today in many countries, the ruler is not a single person, but rather a government of elected officials who collectively make laws.  In these countries it is necessary to have a single person represent them and that office is held by either a president or a prime minister. Here in the United States, it has been almost 250 years since we rebelled against a monarchy, so how can we claim Christ as our “king”? Or is it easier to correlate Him as our spiritual president? Do we “elect” Him to the office because we agree with His teachings? Or do we feel we can pick and choose what we like and don’t like, because that’s the perspective we have for our government? Do we complain about what God has — or has not — done in our lives, as if He answered to us and our rights and wants are the only things that matter? Do we view God in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality? 

For a freedom-loving country, it can be hard to recognize God as the supreme ruler of our lives. Letting go and letting God lead us, even when we do want to choose it on an intellectual level, can still result in a struggle against one’s will. It can seem like we say, “Yes, God, but…” rather than submitting to His will instead of ours. SImilar to rights of the king as identified in 1 Samuel, God does require the best of us; He wants our first fruits. Yet unlike an earthly king, God does not hoard what we give Him, nor use it trivally. Rather He receives it, multiplies it, and shares it not just with ourselves, but with others as well. We don’t receive back what we give, but we receive it transformed and elevated in a way only the Divine can do. Even knowing all this, and that what we can receive will be better than what we give, we still struggle with God as our only  King. 

We are blessed that Christ is a merciful King, understanding our human nature and quick to forgive us when we seek reconciliation with Him. It may be a struggle of our wills, but through prayer, petition, and the grace of God, Christ can be King of our lives.