Deep cleanse

How often do you pay attention to what you are eating? Perhaps you like to plan your meals in advance, but I tend to be one who  is more reactive when I eat. Lent for me is an opportunity to not only approach food differently, but also to approach my relationship with God differently.

“Give up” is one phrase associated with Lent. It sounds so negative and it also sounds very hopeless. If you don’t know what follows that phrase, it seems we are already defeated. But that’s not what Lent is about at all! Just like we put our whole body into weekly worship at Mass (standing, sitting, making the sign of the cross, etc.), we put our whole body into cleansing ourselves spiritually. For some people, they specifically fast a whole day just to cleanse their digestive tract. But in reality, since all of the body is dependent on what we eat, it actually affects all of it. Catholics use methods like fasting (although with a bit more mercy than not eating anything for 24 hours) as a tool to gain insight on what is the center of our focus. If our focus is not on God and doing His will, we will slowly drift away from His presence. 

Fasting for Catholics is only required two days within all of Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting means eating only one full meal and two “snack” meals that don’t add up to one full meal. However, for every Friday in Lent, the Church requires us to abstain from eating meat derived from land animals (such as beef, chicken, or pork.) However, seafood & eggs are okay. This abstinence is yet another tool in the Church’s wisdom to make us conscious of what we are doing and when we are doing it. While it is using tactile methods, the objective is spiritual in nature. The idea is not about saying, “I can’t have meat”, but rather about saying, “ Jesus sacrificed His Body for me” as we eat our fish dinner. It’s a physical reminder for us to pray, to reach out to God, and to reflect on how we can better do His will. 

While we feed our bodies with food, our minds, emotions, and souls are fed with our experiences, and specifically what we choose to do. While some are addicted to food, others are addicted to social media or being the center of attention. The Church may not have specific guidance for Lent, but does encourage us in fasting, praying, and almsgiving. We can use these tools to set guidance on our social interactions, pray when we are tempted, and make a donation to a charitable cause as a form of consequence if we exceed our commitments. Another option could be to “pay” for each minute we spend on social media. Perhaps each week we send a donation to a different Catholic charity for the time spent. If fasting from social media sounds too difficult, how about abstaining from the normal channels we follow and add some Catholic channels that will encourage us in our Lenten journey.

Lent is a time, not to give up, but to change our thinking. It’s a time to be conscious of what we are doing and saying. It’s a time to re-evaluate what’s truly important in our lives. It’s a time to add spiritual practices to our daily life, not just for the Lenten season, but as a challenge for us to see how our daily lives can be shaped to God’s will, and if we are open to incorporating a new practice. Ultimately, it’s a time to cleanse the surface litter in our lives and go deeper with our relationship with the Lord.

Shades of love

This past Sunday’s Gospel from Luke hit rather close to challenges I’m facing. “But rather, love your enemies and do good to them…” (Lk 6:35) But what exactly does it mean to love one’s enemies?

The Magnificat® had a wonderful reflection of the Gospel from Maria von Trapp (yes, that von Trapp who  inspired the Sound of Music). She talked about how one grows learning to love. First we love our parents and siblings. Then we learn to love our school and the friends we meet there. And as adults, the loves of our lives change yet again. “It is perfectly amazing how many shades of love move a human heart during one short life,” von Trapp writes. 

Love is a word that we, at least in the English speaking world, throw around way too often. I love my cat, Vera, but I also love chocolate, yet those loves are very different. Neither of these loves are the same as what I have for my family. I remember from my schooling days that the Greek language had three different words for love: eros, philia, and agape. Eros is used for romantic love, philia is for friendship, and both have an aspect of self-interest. Agape is the odd one out; it stands for the kind of love that is self-sacrificing. 

Of course,I don’t want to have enemies, but if there is friction in a relationship, I think it’s safe to say that we need to take extra care. While another may not perceive us as an enemy, when a verbal argument is launched, it’s very hard not to immediately respond in defense of ourselves but Jesus is calling us to do that and more. I don’t think His directive on loving our enemies is limited to just doing good for them. In fact it’s the whole last portion of the Gospel: stop judging, stop condemning, forgive, and give gifts. When others want to pick a fight with us, it seems impossible for us to do what God is calling us to do. Here we fall into the pit of pride, thinking that we, all by ourselves, need to deal with the issue. We forget to lean into God, asking Him to help us to forgive, to turn judgment over to Him, and to walk the path He wants us to walk. 

Unemotional is a word von Trapp used to describe the love for our enemies but I’m not sure I agree with that assessment. While our initial reaction can be highly charged with emotion, letting God in to help us in a confrontation will cause the emotional surge to change from anger to peace. We will cease calling them enemies and instead see them as fellow children of God, to be treated with dignity and respect. I do agree that loving our enemies is not a feeling, but rather an act of the will: specifically ours and God’s. Perhaps this is why God allows these challenges in our lives, so that we can become closer to Him and be more like Him. 

Lastly, agape is the  kind of love that all Catholics, all Christians, are called to love the whole of mankind. Let us pray for God’s assistance so that we can change our hearts, and perhaps make the lives of those we interact with just a bit better. 

Dignity for the image of God

All people have been created by God in His image and likeness and if we truly believe this, we have the obligation to treat everyone with dignity. While doing research on the corporal works of mercy, I realized that so many of them have to do with treating others with dignity: the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the imprisoned. 

Since most of us have experienced sickness to some degree, it is very easy for us to agree, and even champion for, treating the sick with respect and compassion. However, many have not experienced true poverty, and most have not been homeless or imprisoned, thus it is harder for us to put ourselves “in their shoes.” Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46) has made it abundantly clear that how we treat people will be the measure by which we are judged. 

I find it fascinating that giving food and drink are two separate commands. One would think that if I give food to the hungry, I will also be offering them something to drink. Yet each is a separate action. While these are two of the corporal works of mercy, perhaps some of the meanings transcend the literal meaning. What does a person thirst for besides water? Perhaps knowledge, justice, purpose, or God, and many of these alternate thirsts can be quenched within the spiritual works of mercy. 

In the version of the Bible I was using, one of the commands is to “welcome the stranger” but in lists I found online, this was often translated as shelter the homeless. Welcoming the stranger sounds much easier to do; even a shy person can gather enough courage to smile and say hello to someone they don’t know. But sheltering the homeless sounds much more intimidating, and much more costly of our time. It may cause us to go outside of our comfort zone. There are as many reasons that people find themselves homeless, and while we may feel secure in our homes, circumstances could turn against us and we could very easily find ourselves with nowhere to go. 

Perhaps the most challenging corporal work of mercy is visiting those in prison if we are unfortunate to have a friend or family member who has been incarcerated. However, it can be equated to visiting someone who is ill. And yet, for others visiting a prison is not merely stepping outside of our comfort zone, it’s more like being catapulted into an area that is downright terrifying. Could it be that the choices the prisoners have made thus far have been due to being treated with a lack of dignity and respect? If we were to participate in a prison ministry, could we give God the chance to show us Himself in these fellow human beings? 

With Lent coming up in a few short weeks, now is the time to refresh ourselves with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and see how we can challenge ourselves to give our time and resources to bring dignity to those who are suffering. Let us ask God what He wills for us; His answer may surprise you!

Cushion life

Sometimes my cat, Vera, reminds me of Jesus. Though I may be tired, upset, frustrated, angry, or any other emotion and when I look over at her, she’s asleep on a cushion. 

As I was reading an art essay in the February edition of the Magnificat® on The Miraculous Draught of Fishes by Peter Paul Rubens, I started to think about the times in the Gospel that places Jesus in a boat. Besides the one depicted in the painting, the first one that came to my mind was when the boat was sinking and the disciples had to wake Jesus up because he was sleeping through the storm that was about to sink the boat. The other instance that quickly came to mind was when he was walking on the water and intended to pass the boat by, but they thought he was a ghost and in an effort to prove he was not, Simon walked on water towards him. While we don’t have an exact record of every moment in Jesus’ life, I’m hoping the events that were recorded were due to the extraordinariness of what took place. It does make me wonder if these were the only events that took place at sea, or just the most amazing, or most repeated ones?

The essay prompted a deeper study of the painting. Much of the detail goes unobserved since I’m reviewing the copy that’s only as big as what fits into one page of the Magnificat®. The essay called out the movement of the fishermen and the strain on their muscles as they wrestled with the large catch. I began to think of the correlation of life without God’s presence or His guidance. We work so hard and while we may not strain our muscles, we do tire out without anything to show for it. Yet when we follow God’s direction, not only are we blessed, but we have to work harder than we can ever imagine. God’s blessing is so overwhelming, we can’t keep it to ourselves, we can’t even receive it all ourselves! We need to share it with others, ask others to help us with the blessings He’s given to us.

Even when we are following God’s guidance, there will be storms in our lives. We may wonder where God is, thinking He’s a ghost and passing us by or asleep while we live in terror and fear. All emotions have their purpose, but they are not meant to overcome us, but to instead caution us. Sometimes we need to step out of the boat into the tossing, stormy seas, and be bludgeoned by the wind. Yet if we keep our focus on Jesus and not the wildness of the elements around us, we too can walk on water. And for the times when we think Jesus is sleeping? He’s even more aware of what’s going on in our lives than Vera is of what’s going on around her as she’s sleeping. On occasion I may be able to leave Vera napping, but usually she knows when I leave the room and if she hears me elsewhere or I don’t come back to the room when she expects me, she will come and find me. Most times when I think she’s fast asleep and the moment I get up from my chair, her eyes pop open and she watches what I’m doing. If my cat does that for me, I know Jesus is many times more attentive to the details in my life. 

A life with Jesus doesn’t mean there won’t be any trouble or hard work. It means that when we pursue a relationship with Him, He will always be with us, supporting us through the wild storms of life and blessing us with the help we need to share His blessings to those in need. 

Clutter soul

It doesn’t matter how big, Jesus just needs an opening.

It’s been a challenging and overwhelming time at work. After a particular difficult Friday, I was disappointed that I had to schedule a meeting first thing on Monday to address some issues. It’s easy to say, “Leave it in God’s hands,” or, “Don’t think about it.” And I know worrying about it won’t make it any better; all it does is make me feel even more stressed. Yet even with that logic, I couldn’t let it go. I just kept turning it over in my mind, again and again all weekend long. I, who pray the Surrender Novena regularly, was having a hard time accepting this suffering.

Ever since I started the new job, there has been negativity towards the new application being implemented. Each time we reach a milestone, I think we finally have turned a corner and things will get better, only then to feel like the headwinds have increased to the next range on the hurricane scale. I was feeling very useless. My prayers were focused on being able to communicate better, to keep from seeing the naysayers as my enemies, and to help me forgive them of the hurt I was feeling from all the stress.

Upon awakening on Monday, dread filled my stomach; I was not looking forward to my first meeting. As I was asking for help, trying to turn it over to God, I felt like my soul was cluttered. I spent so much time worrying and rehearsing what I was going to say and the points I needed to make that there didn’t seem to be much room for anything else. Yet all Jesus needed was for me to recognize how much I needed Him and needed to open up to Him. If He could give sight to the blind, heal the lame, and bring the dead back to life, I believe He can take my cluttered soul and tidy it up. 

While the meeting was actually more pleasant than I anticipated, definitely far from perfect, but not the disaster I was expecting. The day still had a few rough spots in it.  Perhaps it will take a few more decades of me praying the Surrender Novena before I can confidently leave everything in the Lord’s capable hands. Maybe I should expect miracles to happen more often. What I do know is that God put me in this situation for a reason, not for punishment, but because I have gifts that can be of great benefit. I may not know while I’m in this position the specifics of God’s will, I know that as long as I lean on Him and ask for His grace and blessings, He will see me through, especially in the most trying of moments. 

Yes, my soul can get cluttered with me holding onto grievances and anxiety, yet God is always there to help me. It doesn’t mean He’ll make it all sunshine and roses, but it will be a bit brighter and convey His special peace.

Life challenge

It’s easy to believe in a cause that is just. The difficulty is finding a way to support that cause fully, not just the immediate efforts, but the long-term effects of the changes that result.

After hearing about the recent Pro-Life March in Washington last week, an announcement on the local Christian radio station I listen to caught my attention. The World’s Largest Baby Shower supports five Virginia pregnancy centers by supplying the most needed items. I smiled when I heard that message and thought that it would be a good idea to participate. I then remembered how many donations pet shelters received in memory of Betty White on what would have been her 100th birthday. Suddenly, the thoughts collided in my brain: what if every year on the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children (i.e. Respect Life Day), we all donated to these pregnancy crisis centers? 

In this throw-away culture, there may be some people that consider children as things to have, as opposed to unique individuals that deserve dignity and respect. When women are pregnant, the decisions they make aren’t just for themselves, but for their unborn children as well. Pregnancy crisis centers help with education, counseling, as well as some medical testing, so that expectant moms can make life sustaining choices both now and in the future. This may be especially important when women are surprised to learn they are pregnant.

It is important to continue to march on Washington, as well as to pray outside abortion clinics. It is equally important to help women and families who do choose life by decreasing the cost of medical and material needs associated with children. If we believe that every person matters, from conception to natural death, then we need to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in how we can demonstrate this belief. For some, it may be participating in the march every January. Others may be called to volunteer their time at a pregnancy resource center. Still others may be called to support these efforts with financial donations. We all have our part to play in supporting life for all, not just for those whom we may know. 

It’s never too late to show your support. I challenge you to open your heart to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. What can you do to support life? 

Grape leaf and bunch of grapes gilded on a church door in Israel

Water jars

They were just standing there; tall sentinels watching over the wedding festivities. Once their purpose of ceremonial washings was already completed, they didn’t seem to have any purpose. Until Jesus put them to use. 

The wedding feast of Cana was the Gospel proclaimed last weekend, and is such a well-known story, that sometimes the details get lost. If there were six stone jars holding at least 20 gallons each, those vessels could practically be used as seating options! Most likely they were probably used at the beginning of the ceremony for the participants to draw water out of for the ritual cleansing. And then the party began, and, as typical in ancient times, it went on for days. The lack of wine meant several things: the party was about to end, the bridegroom and his family did not prepare sufficiently for the party, and/or the family did not have the funds to procure enough. Imagine how embarrassing it would’ve been to start one’s newlywed life being the laughingstock of the community! 

I read one commentary on the Gospel reading that mentioned there would have been wine casks from what had already been distributed. But Jesus did not choose them. Rather, He chose the vessels that were specifically intended to be for the ritual cleansing as identified in Leviticus. Oddly enough, stoneware was the only material that could come in contact with ritually impure items and not be rendered unusable. Clay vessels, if tainted, had to be smashed and no longer used. Stoneware jars were like mini cisterns that kept the ceremonial water for washing, usually around a town’s synagogue or in the houses of priests. It’s from this “pure water” that Jesus turns an embarrassing situation into a non-event. Jesus keeps this celebration of uniting two lives into one going, not just for a few more hours, but potentially a few more days. After all the wine that had been already consumed, only God knows if all the wine Jesus provided (120 gallons?) was consumed or if some was leftover. 

It’s interesting to ponder how Jesus transforms these Old Testament jars into a New Testament miracle. One perspective is to see the old order, and habits, passing away for what Jesus is instituting. Ceremonial washing is good, yes, but living life and celebrating it, which is what the wine represents, is far better. We may look at the people in the Bible or even the saints throughout the ages and say that we can’t be as holy or do the good deeds that others have done. Yet Jesus takes these jars that were largely ignored and repurposed them. He gave them new life in abundance, and He wants to do the same for us. We cannot change water into wine any more than the stoneware jars could. But when we let Jesus into our lives, anything is possible. 

Rather than watching the world go by, let us offer ourselves as vessels for Jesus to bring new life into the world. And don’t be surprised to find yourself the life of the party. 

Called by God

As we begin ordinary time, we hear  the Gospel reading of Jesus calling the apostles. We may wonder at their response of leaving their work as fishermen, as well as leaving their families to follow Jesus. Do we think that being called by God was just something that happened a long time ago as recorded in the Bible, or do we realize that it continued to happen throughout salvation history and even happens today?

God calls us by name, each and every one of us. He has a mission for us, which could be one special purpose or many different tasks. When He calls us, He speaks His Word to us, and so it is through Jesus via the Holy Spirit that we hear His call. God knows us because He created us; He knows our strengths and weaknesses. He knows how we can be instruments of His will and grace. He allows each of us to choose how to respond to Him. He calls us, but do we answer?

In reflecting upon the call of God, I think of the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. Participation in these are responses to God’s call to become part of His divine family. In Baptism we are named and anointed, marked with an indelible seal of God’s grace. Confirmation completes the sacrament of Baptism with yet another anointing, an additional name, and receipt of the  gifts of the Holy Spirit. Each of us receives our own special recipe of the fruits of the Holy Spirit that make us unique individuals and enables each of us to do God’s will. When we respond to God in an open and positive attitude, He blesses us with what we need. Just as God created each person, He calls out to everyone, regardless of whether they’ve received the sacraments of initiation or not. 

Baptism and Confirmation are one-time events where we respond to God’s call, but His calling does not stop with those two sacraments; He calls us each and every day, and even multiple times throughout the day! How can we respond to Him? Prayer and witness. Through prayer, we develop our relationship with God. We learn how He speaks to us and we come to understand His will. Prayer helps us discern how we will answer God’s call.  We may be His disciple by becoming a witness to Him through our words of praise, our loving actions toward our neighbors, and/or by being an intercessor for others in need of support.

One example of God’s call can be our vocation: single, married, or religious life. When we hear God calling us to a particular vocation; we can respond by accepting it with humility and trust, or we can choose to do what we think is best. Regardless of our choice, God will continue to bless us with His grace and love us through both good times and difficult times. He will continue to call us to do His will in the daily events and circumstances of our lives. May each of us listen carefully for the sound of His voice. Can you hear Him now?

Beginning again

Merry Christmas! Yes, we are still in the Christmas season, even though liturgically the feast of Epiphany was celebrated on January 2nd this year. The birth of Christ so close to the calendar change gives us time to celebrate the awe and wonder of God becoming man and heralds to us start anew. 

The Son of God born of a woman gives His message a personal invitation. God isn’t shaking His finger from afar in judgment. He didn’t just show up as a fully grown man to tell us what to do. He came to live with us, starting the way we all start out: as a wee babe. It’s hard not to feel compassion for an infant. We hear the story of His nativity and rejoice with His parents, the shepherds, and the Magi. He gathers us into the story of His life — His mission, and we follow Him throughout His ministry. He changed the world with His life, death, and resurrection, but it all starts with Jesus being born in Bethlehem. He was at the beginning of creation, and becomes the beginning again with His nativity. 

The Catholic Church celebrates the Nativity of Jesus as an octave, that is eight days celebrating the feast as if each day is the feast itself. The eighth day of that feast just so happens to be January 1st, the first day of the new calendar year. How perfectly providential that we begin a new year — we begin again, as we are still celebrating the feast of Christmas! While any day and time is acceptable to change and start something new, to begin a change in January adds a sense of order to whatever change we are focusing on. It’s almost as if there is an energy that we can tap into to help us as we begin again. While some may call it a resolution, to “resolve” to change errant behaviors, I think if we embrace words like begin and start, the hopefulness those words bring can help support us in our changed ways. We also need to be cautious not to try to change too many things at once, as that can be overwhelming and hamper any progress. If we pick one thing to start, to begin again, and let that change lead us to other changes, we may find ourselves much more successful than we ever thought possible when we first started out. 

In these first days of January, while we finish celebrating the 12 days of Christmas (which started on December 25th), and end liturgically with the baptism of Jesus, let us pray for guidance as to what areas need a new beginning in our own lives. As we consider aspects of our spirit, mind and body, we can rest assured that no matter where we start, the other areas of our lives will be affected by beginning again. 

Thank you, Jesus, for allowing me to begin again, and with the support of Blessed Mother Mary, please help me make the necessary changes in order to become the best version of myself. 

Sound bites or Cliff Notes?

As the year 2021 comes to a close, I saw a post for those participating in the Bible in a Year podcast by Fr. Mike Schmitz, asking what key takeaways were learned. I had to reflect quite a bit on that question, as there was a lot of information over a long time!

I have been reading the daily Mass Scriptures for over a decade. Yet when one reads the Bible in chronological order, there’s much more to the story that is not presented within the Mass readings. It’s almost as if they are the sound bites of salvation history. You get the overall summary with the really important events highlighted, but not enough information to connect the dots to make a coherent picture. While I write this blog, I still have a few days left in the podcast series before I can confidently say I’ve read the whole Bible, but even still, it seems that the Bible is more like the Cliff Notes of salvation history. It tells a lot of the story and some of the backstory, but it still is only a portion of the whole. 

The Bible covers thousands of years and countless people but may only be slightly larger than an in-depth biography of a single person. The Bible also includes various types of writing, some are historical accounts, some are poetry, while others are instructions for worship and living. All the books, however, are in support of the history of salvation and how it unfolds, not just in history but in our own time as well. Even the pieces of Scripture I was familiar with from the Mass readings took on a different perspective when read in context with the stories that surrounded them, especially in the Gospels. I can understand if people who only occasionally come to Mass don’t feel a strong connection with God. They don’t have enough information to form a lasting connection — a relationship — with Him. But even weekly and daily Mass attendees have an incomplete picture of God and their role in salvation history. I don’t think it’s enough to read all of the Scriptures once to perfect a relationship with God. I think it’s something that has to be continually pursued, perhaps in varying ways, in order to have a fuller and richer relationship with God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

If the Bible is the Cliff Notes of the salvation history story, is there a way to read the full story? At this point, I don’t think we, as humans, can. It would take several of our lifetimes to read an in-depth biography on each person who played a part in it, if those biographies are even available. I think a full understanding of salvation history can begin only once we encounter God after our death. But in order to participate in that history, we need to study the Cliff Notes version, aka the Bible. In some ways reading the Bible is like washing with clean water; even if we don’t understand it all, by being immersed in the story, we can find the parallels with our lives and the answers and guidance to some of the questions we have for our lives. Each time we have an encounter with the Bible, we seek a deeper relationship with God. Each time we allow ourselves and our actions to be shaped by the Bible, we open ourselves up to being instruments of God.  

If you haven’t read all of the Bible or are looking for a scripture study, I do recommend the Bible in a Year podcast, even if it takes you longer than a year to complete. With the New Year right around the corner, perhaps one resolution is to become more familiar with the Bible. If the whole BIble is too intimidating, try picking a few books that you’re less familiar with and read those. God has given us this wonderful tool to get to know Him better. Let’s use it for all its worth!