Emotions versus sin

It was a tough week and I felt frustrated and wanted to cry. The more I thought about curling up into a ball and sobbing, the more I became angry with myself, since there really wasn’t any “good” reason to cry. I didn’t like this battle that was brewing up inside me, so I took it to God.

In telling God about how I was feeling, I started to realize how we have categorized emotions as being good or bad. Crying is what little babies do, since they can’t do anything else. While it’s accepted in children, it seems to be accepted in very limited circumstances as adults. We’re supposed to just “deal” with whatever comes our way. Yet, just like infants, the world can sometimes overwhelm us beyond our ability to explain or even to process. While one or two things may not be upsetting, when you have four or five things, from different areas of life happening all at once, sometimes a good cry is what is needed. No, it won’t change the circumstances, but it can be cathartic. It allows us to pause and to do something, especially when the events around us are out of our control and influence. While there are many emotions that can prompt us to cry, the action of crying can be beneficially soothing and calming.

Anger is another emotion that has bad connotations. However, it is not the emotion itself that is a sin, but rather how we react to the anger that can lead us astray. When we feel anger bubbling up, rather than grabbing the closest thing and hurling it across the room, acknowledging that we are angry is one step to diffusing questionable behavior. Another is to identify why we are feeling this way. Anger may really be many little things that have built up. Anger seems to kick in when we have reached our capacity of processing little events impacting our lives. All too often it seems the switch is turned on by another person’s actions, yet if we really stop and think, whatever the other person did is really not an offense that deserves the emotion. Most times our anger outbursts are not of the righteous sort resulting in overturning money tables at a temple. Yet we shouldn’t be afraid to turn to God when we are angry. Jesus knows and experienced all of the emotions during His time on earth. The emotion of anger is nothing to be ashamed of, but if we don’t turn towards God to help us through it, our actions may be regretful.

God has given us the gift of different emotions. While the thought of being happy all the time sounds nice in theory, if we only had one emotion, happiness may not be it. It is times of pain, anger, and suffering that allows us to appreciate and embrace the times of joy, peace, and happiness. And no matter what our emotions are, they are most welcomed to be expressed and shared with God. He can truly take whatever emotions we have and help us to grow into the best versions of ourselves.

Deception of control

It’s that time of year again. Watching TV can be painful, especially the ads. No, I’m not talking about election season, although that does run a close second. I’m talking about Halloween. I can’t even watch the Food network, as the creations they are making compete with one another for the most foul and goulish edibles. Why must it all be so horrifying and distorted?

As I was flipping through channels trying to avoid the offending commercials and shows, I started thinking about what is it that makes people like this kind of thing? The closest I can get in thinking about this genre is the Harry Potter series; and the most unique aspect of the stories is the magic. In essence, the stories are about a boy who is learning how to control, not only himself, but also to manipulate what he comes in contact with: circumstances, things, people, etc. Yet even with this power, albeit very rudimentary due to his inexperience, life is not easy for him. Even the adults with their superior skills must face their own issues and trials. So why is magic so fascinating and desirable to us?

What is magic? It depends on the person; for one it’s about changing a frog into a prince. To another it could be spinning straw into gold. For others, like some characters in Harry Potter,  it could be endless power and domination over others. The allure of magic is that we can seemingly have whatever we desire. However, magic is not real. We sacrifice something real for the perception of an altered existence. Yet this attempt at controlling our environment ends up making us slaves to something not real and we will never be happy with the way things are. Magic is deceiving ourselves in what we want. Magic is a distortion of reality under the disguise of control. 

In all our efforts to get what we desire and to change what’s around us through magic, we miss what we truly have. We miss the beauty of the little things that can bring a smile. We miss the big things because we are looking for something else. We miss the true joy of being in the moment with those around us. God has given us the ability to think and to reason. With those tools, we can appreciate everything that crosses our path, accept what we cannot change, and assist in the transformation of what we can. God wants us to participate with Him in bringing His Kingdom to those we encounter. It’s a transformation to God’s will, not ours. 

God has given each of us the gift of free will. We have the freedom to choose. Our choices are what shapes us and the path we walk. It’s rather ironic that we look to control those around us and make choices for them, when the all-powerful Almighty God allows each of us to make our own choices. The God who is Love itself has given us an example to follow. Why give up freedom of choice and truth for the chains of control and deception?  

Can you hear me now?

Early in this millennium, a television ad phrase became quite famous, “Can you hear me now?” Perhaps the phrase may have been infamous, as many understood the challenges of trying to have conversation on a mobile phone, only to be told they were unintelligible. For me, I get the feeling God is asking, “Do you trust Me now?” 

Recently I experienced a delightful opportunity. Shortly before, in reflecting on various circumstances in my life, I felt like I came to the realization that I had unfair expectations of others. It seemed to me that I had two choices: I could let go and move on, or I could let myself linger in the what-ifs and wish-it-could-bes. Expectations are hard to let go. Similar to other negative thoughts, they are rather sticky and every time I think I’ve been successful in letting them go, they turn up like a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I know it’s a work in progress, so when the delightful opportunity presented itself, it was like God presenting me with a gift and the question, “How about now?” It was a moment of pure joy and the reminder that I needed not to try and plan everything out and that where I am is where God wants me. 

I’ve been praying the surrender novena for a few years now. Yes, the same 9-day prayer, repeating it over and over every 9 days. Perhaps because I am working on it, I’m a bit more cognizant of God’s blessings when I trust Him. It’s like the carrot that’s placed in front of a horse to encourage each step. God is our biggest cheerleader; He wants us to succeed, especially when it comes to strengthening our relationship with Him. I am very grateful for the blessing God has bestowed on me. I know the scope of trusting in Him needs to grow wider. I can’t place a limit on what I turn over to God. I need to turn everything over, big and small, and let Him direct it. The blessing isn’t one of completion, but rather of trying to make the right decision and being blessed with positive feedback. This delightful gift is just a small foreshadowing of other blessings just waiting for me as my trust in God grows. 

I don’t know if trusting in God will ever be completely easy for me. I don’t know if it will ever be automatic or if I will always need to work on it. What I do know, is when I do trust in Him, the results are surprisingly delightful!

Come and be remade

The parable of the wedding feast in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 22:1-14) used to trip me up when I would hear it. After all the originally invited guests decline their invitations, the servants are sent out “into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.” Yet the host ends up tossing out one guest for not wearing the appropriate attire. 

My logical brain used to think the host was acting unfairly. If the people who were invited to come were asked on the spot to come immediately, since the feast was ready, how could the guest be dressed appropriately? The answer was so obvious and stared at me from the text. In a way, it’s like a simple math problem. There were many guests invited at short notice, yet only one was singled out for not wearing the correct clothing. If that wasn’t enough, the big hint is that the person is speechless when asked about his costume. He didn’t say that he didn’t have the clothes, or didn’t have time to change, but rather allowed his silence to condemn him. The only way one could be singled out would be if that person chose not to change his attire. It must have been that the servants not only invited those from the main roads, but provided them the means and opportunity to change. 

Since the feast is a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, we have to understand that nothing in our closets will be sufficient for such an event. In fact no material item will be available to us there. It is our souls that will be dressed in the thoughts, words, and deeds of our lives. Every single one will appear as either dark, dirty stains or bright, dazzling colors. How many thoughts do you have in a day? Do you pay attention to how they move you closer to God or turn you inward to selfishness? Just that thought alone is overwhelming! Yet we should not lose hope, for just as in the parable, God is forever giving us an opportunity to change. What it all hinges on, is our willingness to change. You may say this is just the way I am, I don’t need to change. But that is an excuse to have your own way. Maybe you say that change is too hard; and indeed it is! But if you’re trying to do it all by yourself, it only makes it harder. You need to reach out to One for whom all things are possible. Maybe you think that God should accept you as you are. God does love you here and now, but He doesn’t want you to settle for something less than perfection. He gives us His servants, the angels to guide our way. He gives us the tools and opportunities we need to better ourselves, to be able to put on those wedding garments and be properly dressed in heaven.

God invites us to come to His lavish and extravagant feast. He asks us to come and be remade into the image of His dearly beloved Son, Jesus. He sends His angels to meet us and provides the clothes we are to wear. Will you accept His invitation? Will you choose to change your garments and dress in a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors or will you enter dressed in stained rags?  

Tending the garden

Recently one of the readings from Isaiah reminded us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.” (Is 55:8) Our reflections are limited due to our humanity. Even when we pursue a life of faith, it can be difficult to recognize God’s work and will unfolding. We apply earthly success and accomplishments as our expectations. And if God’s thoughts and ways are beyond us, certainly His timing is very different than ours would be. 

Reading the full passage from Isaiah, we hear that God sends rain and snow to water the earth to make it fertile for plants to grow and produce the harvest. It’s not just one time that it rains or snows, and it’s not just one drop either. As much as plants need water, they also need a proportionate amount of sunshine. Plants take time to grow, needing insects and birds to pollinate the flowers that will bear the fruit. Snow and vegetation seem like opposite ends of the spectrum. Usually snow indicates winter and dormancy in plants, especially those that bear produce. Yet, it is both the rain and the snow that God sends that makes the ground fertile. And just like with the plants, our efforts to live a life according to God’s will take time. We also must face the possibility that the harvest of God’s will may be beyond our own lifetime. 

The analogy of the plant is very simplistic, and while we grasp the general meaning, we need to remember the plant has a singular purpose. Human life is much more complicated and the focus is on relationships: with God, our families, our friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. It’s as if each relationship is one of those plants that is watered by God. To do God’s will, we need to tend each plant in the garden. How successful are we in bringing the love of God to each of these relationships? Rather than looking externally for success, perhaps we should look at our everyday interactions and try to bring a little extra joy to our encounters, taking time to listen to what others are saying, and being present in the moment. Maybe we need to do a little weeding and remove the negativity that creeps into our thoughts and words. 

God lavishly showers blessings down upon us. Rather than rejecting them for not meeting our expectations, let us look upon the things, people and events placed on our path as opportunities to reflect God’s love and cultivate the Kingdom of God on earth. 

Beautiful music

Recently I read a reflection correlating humankind to musical instruments. Being an eclectic music lover, that image has been turning over in my mind. There is truth in that correlation from a few different perspectives.

Thinking of humanity as one giant orchestra makes sense. While sometimes the noise we make is a cacophony of sound, at other times we can make beautiful music together. In order to make such music, we need to embrace who we are. If we are a bass and wish to be a trumpet, no matter how hard we try to sound like a trumpet, we will never achieve that sound, even if we play the same notes as the trumpet. Yet when we embrace our truest self, the one God made us to be, we find our unique way of contributing. When we find this voice, we can reach the high notes and the low notes and everything in between. The charisms that God has given us are like the sound of an instrument and the way it is played. We can’t ask for different ones, but we can ask to understand what we have been given and how we can use our gifts to fulfill God’s will.

If we each have our own set of charisms as instruments, then God’s orchestra is indeed varied and diverse. While it is nice to hear a piano or a violin playing, the music is much richer when more instruments are involved. As more instruments are added, they take on different roles within the music. While the piano is percussive in its nature, it can also take the melodious lead or support the other instruments in harmony. The bass most often has a joint role as it keeps time with the drum beat, yet with a note on the scale that forms a chord of music together with the other instruments. While we can appreciate solos, the best music is often heard when many instruments play in harmony. 

How incredible is it that all music is from a seven note scale! Seven is considered a holy number (the seven-day story of creation). While there are a number of “in between” notes, the sharps/flats, and many octaves of the scales, only frequency differentiates one C note from another. While music has evolved over time, there are still new songs being created daily. What seems so restrictive, with a little creativity, can produce limitless possibilities. Even  the cymbals that only have one note can either produce a famous musical exclamation mark, or be used to create a sense of movement, depending on how they are played. 

Beautiful music is created when practiced musicians play under the direction of a skilled director and listen with awareness to the instruments around them. When we embrace the gifts we have been given, practice using them, and look to God to guide us, and work in harmony with each other, the spiritual music we create will reverberate throughout eternity. 

Unshakable foundation

The Gospels are a treasure trove. Sometimes what may seem like a minor detail can speak volumes or take Jesus’ message even deeper. However, we need to be on the watch for these jewels and when we see them, go back and ponder them, looking at them from different perspectives. Last Saturday’s reading offered one of those gems.

The second portion of Luke’s Gospel caught my attention.  It was about the two foundations (Lk 6:46-49). Because the example given captures our imagination, it’s very easy to skim over the initial words of Jesus, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, listens to my words, and acts on them.” The example of the two foundations that follows, while helpful, is only in support of what He expects of us. He makes it very clear that if we call out ‘Lord,’ yet remain trapped in our own selfish needs and do not listen, He cannot help us. He states three specific steps that we need to take.

Since Jesus is no longer visible on earth, how is it that He expects us to come to Him? The language we use to describe the action required  may include words like turning towards Jesus, seeking Him, reconciling with Him. They all convey an initial action of moving away from our own self-interests and desires. We realize that what we think we want, or even already have, does not satisfy us or bring us peace. This moving beyond ourselves and looking toward Jesus is the first step we need to take.

Our world is full of sounds, which we may or may not hear, simply because there are too many of them. Jesus is asking us to listen to His words. That’s the second step.  Listening takes humility, since we need to park our own thoughts and feelings and concentrate on what is being said. We need to absorb the message of the words and let it infuse our thoughts, words, feelings, and understandings. 

When we turn to Jesus and allow His commands to penetrate deep into our being, our whole outlook changes. This transformation allows us to then act upon what we have pondered in the words we hear from Him. Instead of using our own perspectives as the measure of how we interact with the word, we become like Jesus instead, and bring the kingdom of God to earth in our small way. This action becomes the third step. 

The more we turn away from ourselves and look to Jesus, the more we listen to His calling and respond by acting in harmony with God’s will, the more our foundation is built on the most solid of rocks. Jesus doesn’t promise that we won’t have any storms in our lives, but if we follow His three-step process, we can be assured that no matter the storm’s wind speed or water surge, our house of faith will stay strong.   

Time bound

I was not looking forward to Labor Day weekend. Since my dad was born in early September, we always celebrated his birthday then. This was our first year without him and I wasn’t sure how the weekend would go. 

The Sunday prior to holiday weekend, my mom commented that the 29th marked the fifth month since his passing. Since they were married for over 65 years, I can understand that her loss is measured more acutely than mine. It’s a sobering thought that within the space of a week, we remembered my Dad on the two limits of life: birth and death. But those limits are what humans place on life because that’s the measure we understand.

I planned a visit to the columbarium, as I was concerned that the weekend would feel empty and odd. While I knew I would be missing him, at least visiting his resting place could provide a sense of peace that I did something. Yet while I was there, I kept wondering what did the birthdate mean any longer? The birthdate is only when he was born into the physical world. His death date, however, is when he passed into eternal life. At that moment, my human mind could not wrap itself around this concept and I kept trying to push away the thought. 

Part of human nature is to measure and categorize. Since we cannot usually tell when the moment of conception occurs, the next big milestone is birth. We measure our whole life against that single day. It’s a memorial for the living to mark the passage of time. However, once a person is no longer with us, the birthday no longer has significance since the person is no longer bound by time and space. Birthdays become rather bittersweet: recalling memories of previous birthdays and marking how old the person would have been.

In contrast, the Church often celebrates saints on the day of their passing. Perhaps this is why the thought kept niggling at my brain. Maybe the better day to celebrate is the day of a person’s passing. While we won’t know if that person is in purgatory or heaven, we hope in the mercy of God and anticipate his or her reception into the beatific vision. Loosed from the bonds of time and space, our loved ones are in a unique position to be both close to us and close to God, petitioning Him on our behalf. 

Whether we celebrate a birthday or the death day, or even both, our time-bound humanity can only measure the gain or loss of a person. But no matter if the person is a named saint or a family member, it is our memories of them that cast deep impressions on us and help us to strive to become better versions of ourselves. Perhaps one day they will be the ones to greet us on our death day as we pass from this world into eternal life. 

Embracing the mystery

Routine is the enemy of mystery, especially when it comes to God. While it is important to set time aside daily for God, it can easily fall into a routine habit that we check off as completed. However, if during our scheduled time with God we sit in wonder and awe, there may be a surprise that awaits us. Recently my reflection on the Sign of the Cross took me deeper than I ever expected.

While Catholics begin and end every prayer session with the Sign of the Cross, it is truly a prayer, prayed in both word and deed. It is through both action and voice that we enter deeper into the mystery of God. We do all things through this sign.

As we begin “In the name of the Father…,” we touch the top of our head. It’s not just mimicking where we would start if we are drawing a cross on paper, but rather an indication that He is above and beyond all else there is. It is also a reminder to ourselves to keep Him ever in mind, present to us at every moment in the day.

From the top of the head we bring our hand down to touch our heart as we say, …“and of the Son… .”  That gesture speaks of a Love so grand, it came down from Heaven to Earth, to dwell amongst us in our humanity. Yes, Jesus has a beating heart just like all of us. He took on flesh for us and He shed His most precious Blood for us on the cross. Allowing the centurion to pierce through his side, both His Blood and water flowed from His Body, a one-time act that forever lives on in the love and mercy that flow from His Divine Heart. 

As we say, “… and of the Holy Spirit,” we touch first our left shoulder and then the right shoulder. The gesture of touching shoulder to shoulder reminds us that we are never alone in this world, no matter where we find ourselves. The Holy Spirit’s reach is as wide as all of creation (yes, every single universe that is out there!). He hovers over all, between heaven and earth. This  shoulder-to-shoulder touch is almost like a heavenly hug, embracing us and welcoming us into the mystery of God. 

Lastly, we bring our hands together and say, “Amen.” This is our simple response to the amazing mystery that we just traveled through. This response means, “truly” or “so be it.” It is our assent that what we have declared and acted is true. For me the word is similar to “thank you,” since it means so much more at so many levels: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, etc. I’m just glad that our response is scripted for us; after reflecting on the power of this prayer, I don’t think I would be able to find adequate words to complete the prayer.

We may never completely understand the Trinity, but if a simple, little prayer can speak volumes, how much more can we learn if we but open our heart, our minds, and our wills to God?

Mary at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Washington DC

Hail Holy Queen

In God is our joy, through Mary, Our Queen, let us give thanks and praise!

— Magnificat Antiphon for the Queenship of Mary, August 22

When I read the antiphon that started my day last Saturday, the combination of words “through Mary” and “lets us give thanks and praise” hit me like a one-two punch. In praying through Mary as our spiritual Mother, prayers of petition are what first come to mind. How often do we raise our thanks and praise to God though her?

In ancient times it was the queen mother that wielded power by having the ear of the king. Since kings often had many wives, there was often no one, singular queen. But since a man can have only one mother, the woman who gave birth to him was the queen mother and was an intercessor with those seeking favor with the king. Jesus continues this tradition by allowing his Mother to plead on our behalf. 

Because of her humanity, approaching Mary for intercessory prayers can help mitigate any trepidation of approaching God ourselves. Even though she is full of grace and resides in heaven, we know she understands how challenging life can be, and how easy it is to agonize over even the simplest decisions. Her example of asking Jesus to help at the wedding feast of Cana illustrates how every Hail Mary we say matters to her. There is no detail small enough to escape her motherly concern. 

While we can be confident in asking assistance through Mary, shouldn’t we ask her to give God thanks and praise on our behalf? I’m sure God appreciates all the thanks and praise that we give Him directly. However, when we ask Mary to thank God for us, she takes our trivial little thank-you and shines it up so that any stain of sin is removed and only the beauty of our praise is presented to God. I imagine every rosary said, especially in thanksgiving, to be like a bouquet of 50 roses that she presents to God on our behalf. How can we not grow closer to God when we have a mother who reflects our prayers in a purified manner to Him? In praying the rosary in a meditative way, we are drawn into the major events of the life of her son, Jesus. She is like a magnet, drawing us ever closer so that when we complete our time on earth, the final distance between ourselves and Jesus can be removed and we will be one with Him. 

While God takes delight in all His creation, when we pray through Mary, we acknowledge His greatest masterpiece in humankind. Let us raise a joyful cry and ask Mary to present it to the Lord in thanks and praise!