From forsaken to praise

Have you ever heard the first few words of a beloved song, and instantly know not only the rest of the words but the meaning of the song as well? The fourth set of Jesus’ last words are the Israelite version of a popular song; one that travels from the depths of nothingness to glorifying God.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Matthew 27:46

Taken at face value, these words are uncomfortable to hear and seem downright scandalous to be coming from the mouth of Jesus. If Jesus is the Son of God, the Second Person in the Trinity, how can He be forsaken or abandoned by God the Father? It doesn’t seem possible! Why would Jesus waste His precious last breaths speaking something that can seem blasphemous?

Yet Jesus is not spouting some random words, but is quoting the songs that were popular to the Israelites of Jesus’ time: the Psalms, or more specifically He quotes the beginning of Psalm 22. It is The Prayer of an Innocent Man, attributed to David, and contains four sections. The first 12 verses are very sad, yet they mirror what happens at the crucifixion. “All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer…” (6) describe the actions of the crowds at the crucifixion in all four Gospels. “You relied on the Lord — let him deliver you…” (9) is recorded in Matthew, “He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him.” (Matt 27:43)

The second section of Psalm 22, verses 13 through 22, contains a description of one who is dying, “Like water my life drains away..” (15) as well as descriptions of those watching. It’s not just the people the Pharisees have convinced to deride Jesus, but also the Roman soldiers when it references “…they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.”(19) These two sections are very sad to read; and joy seems to be as far away as another planet. 

Sections three and four of the Psalm are all about praising God. They are such an about-face, that one reading it may wonder if the last two sections belong with the first two. “For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.” (25) If the Jews watching heard Jesus and started thinking about the Psalm, did they remember this line? Or, as it conveys in the Gospels, are the words  misunderstood, thinking that Jesus is calling out for Elijah because this Psalm would have been too descriptive of what was happening? Was this an invitation, to those who knew the Scriptures inside and out, to be challenged one last time by Jesus, but not in condemnation, but rather as an invitation, to repent and praise God? 

The fourth section of the Psalm seems rather prophetic with phrases like, “All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God…” (30) This seems to convey that the ancestors are dwelling before God in eternity. Perhaps it’s the very last verse that sums up what Jesus is accomplishing by dying on the cross. “The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.” This is the whole mission of the Apostles and all who have followed in their footsteps. By our words and deeds we proclaim the love Jesus has for us, including to die and rise from the dead, so that there is no place where His love cannot find us and to know we won’t be trapped in death forever, but rather can be in the presence of God. 

What starts as a depressing topic is turned around to be a source and call for joy. I wonder if any of those at the foot of the cross realized what Jesus was saying —  either at the moment or after the resurrection — and came to believe in Jesus? However, Jesus’ words are not meant for just those who lived at that time, but are meant for us to ponder as well. Do we turn away from sin, seeking God and praising Him for all that He has done for us? Or are we like those around Jesus who mistakenly hear something else so that we don’t have to think about the damage our words and actions can cause? 

At the foot of the cross

The third set of the last seven words of Jesus is addressed to His mother, Mary, and Saint John the Beloved Apostle. These words take a little family and transcend their relationship throughout all generations. 

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.

John 19:26-27

Mary and John stood  at the foot of the cross. They could  do nothing but watch and pray. Yet, they are there for Jesus, to support Him as a family does when one member is suffering. They are the witnesses of His final hours, and  while it is painful to watch, this is the reason Jesus came to earth — to suffer, die, and rise for the redemption of our sins. They have the courage to stand amongst those who believe this is the end of the disturbance that Jesus has brought about with His teaching. I would have thought they would be fearful for their lives as well. But perhaps their love for Jesus was stronger than any fears they may have had for their own lives. Maybe it’s because John was the single Apostle to stand at the foot of the cross, that he was spared a martyr’s death that all the other Apostles eventually faced. I can only imagine the trauma and emotional strain of watching a beloved friend be executed in such a brutal manner that  the price of this witness may have cost him more than a martyrdom would have.

The exchange that Jesus directs from the cross has long been taught by the Church: it’s at this moment that Mary becomes Mother to the Church and Mother of All. John is the sole representative of all the Christians that shall live in the ages that follow. John receives Mary and cares for her needs for the duration of her lifetime. However, Mary’s needs have not stopped there, but rather they have been transformed to care for all God’s children, and directs us to do God’s will in the charity we share with our neighbor. Likewise, we continue John’s work by seeking her intercession and guidance to draw closer to God.

Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant. She carried Jesus within her womb and raised Him, protecting His young life and supported Him during His ministry. Once again she is called to accept God’s will as she watches her precious Son slowly die in agony. Her pain is as sharp as a sword, just like Simeon predicted all those years ago when Jesus was first presented in the Temple. One could even ponder as to whether or not she knew what would happen and how things would end. Yet even if she did know about Jesus’ inevitable crucifixion, His resurrection needed to follow His death. Each moment Jesus hung on the cross must have felt like a lifetime. But Mary had declared herself the handmaid of the Lord and she trusted in Him, no matter the cost. 

Let us ponder what it means to stand in support of Jesus on the cross. Is our love for Him stronger than our fears? Do we seek to do what God calls us to do? Do we trust God even when it seems that the worst possible thing is happening? Calling out to Blessed Mother Mary and St. John, let us ask for their intercession as we progress through this Lent and pick up our daily crosses.

Stealing into heaven

The second set of the seven last words of Jesus were addressed to one of the men being crucified with Him, the man commonly referred to as “the good thief.” Let’s take a look at Jesus’ response to that man and dive deeper into the possibilities of what prompted it.

“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:43

Merriam-Webster defines amen as an interjection that is “used to express solemn ratification.” When Jesus uses it, it’s like putting the whole phrase on a billboard of flashing lights with lots of exclamation marks. It calls our attention in a big way and makes us take careful notice of what is being said. This is not just for the person being addressed, but rather for all of us.

“I say to you…” is very simple phrasing, but carries a great weight to it. The “I” in this case is really the great “I AM,”  the one who is the cause of all life. The word “say” is very humble and perhaps a more illustrative word to use is “declare.” Jesus makes it very clear that what comes next is absolute for this man, beyond any shadow of doubt. 

In this physical realm that is measured in time and space, having a delineation of time, the word “today,” indicates the immediacy of the action that’s about to take place. Jesus assures the man that He will be joining him in the most perfect state of bliss there is: the paradise that is heaven. This thief seems to be stealing one more thing, bypassing any purging and going directly into communion with God. 

For those still on earth, this can seem an outrage, after all this man even admitted to his crimes. Surely he must be punished! (As if being crucified was not punishment enough?) If we look at the preceding verses, 39-42, the man does three things that most people spend their whole lives trying to do. First, he acknowledges Jesus as God, but not in a statement of belief but in correction to the other man who is also being crucified with him. His chastisement is a teaching moment for all of us, that even in difficult situations, we can and should speak up for the Truth. Secondly, the man admits that the crucifixion is just punishment for the crimes he committed; he is indeed taking responsibility for the sins he committed. Lastly, he petitions Jesus, not for forgiveness or to go to Heaven, but humbly asks just to be remembered. Perhaps he is struggling to forgive himself for the actions that have put him on the cross. Since he believes in God, I don’t think he would doubt God’s ability to forgive, but rather seeks a lesser blessing. He is, before all the world, changing from a thief into a saint. 

Jesus’ powerful response reminds us all of what a life spent seeking a relationship with God is all about. It illustrates that while we have breath within us, it is never too late to turn back to God, acknowledge our sins, and pray. While the man still had to deal with the trauma of such a painful death, knowing that upon its cessation he would be welcomed into heaven must have restored his hope and eased his mind. Even in His final moments, Jesus brings healing and comfort to those who acknowledge Him. 

In this time of Lent, let us look at the example of this “good thief” and see where we need to humbly repent of our sins, turn back to God, and spend time in prayer — both for ourselves as well as for others. 

The last words

The Tre Ore, or Three Hours of Agony, is usually a reflection of the last words of Jesus on Good Friday, conducted between noon and 3 PM. Rather than try to squeeze a reflection of each phrase into one post, I thought it would be better to spend each week this Lent reflecting on just one of the seven last phrases Jesus spoke on the cross. 

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Luke 23:34

This text is often referenced when we are urged to forgive family and friends who have become estranged to us, or who have caused harm to the relationship we have with them. It is lifted up as the model for all Christians: to forgive others, regardless of what they have done to you, up to and including death. However, our human nature continues to grasp for control over situations and experiences; we may say we forgive another, but end up holding on to the hurt and sometimes using it as a weapon against the person who originally wronged us. In trying to avoid future hurt, we want to be the first ones to strike in defense of ourselves. 

True forgiveness calls us to not only let the hurt go, but to let God be the judge — that is to give God control of that relationship. Those who offend us may not realize the hurt they have caused, and at the same time, we may not realize what the offender has going on in their life that made them say or do what we found offensive. While this does not excuse their actions, we cannot correctly judge another as we do not know what was in their mind and heart. 

Forgiveness of deep hurt takes not only time, but Divine intervention. It’s not something we can immediately will ourselves to do. The feeling of being hurt can be overwhelming. We may even call to mind this text, but waves of hurt continue to wash over us, threatening to drown out any possibility of forgiveness. Did Jesus feel this way on the cross? Is that why He made sure to speak these words aloud, so that we could follow in His footsteps of asking the Father to help us when we want to forgive others when our pain is too great? 

It’s all too easy for us reading this line over 2,000 years later, to feel entitled to judge the actions of the Jewish leaders and the Roman soldiers. They crucified an innocent man and we have a tendency to condemn their actions. We want to shake a pointed finger at them and tell them how bad they are for killing Jesus. Yet Jesus pleads to the Father on their behalf, asking for mercy since the people involved didn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening. How can we condemn the leaders and soldiers for their actions, when Jesus and the Father have forgiven them? Perhaps these words are also meant for us not to judge those who did treat Jesus poorly and to forgive them as Jesus and the Father did. Maybe this is the first challenge for us as Christians: to take that wagging finger and point it back to ourselves, as it is our sins from yesterday, today, and tomorrow that required Jesus to be put to death. 

To forgive is to literally give up the claim of punishment or revenge. Forgiveness is truly a gift of love. It takes both prayer and practice. During this Lent we can reflect on where we need to practice forgiveness in our relationships and pray to Jesus and the Father to help us give this gift to others so that we can begin to repair the broken relationships and perhaps be forgiven of the wrongs we have caused to others.   

Spice up Lent

Have you ever thought of Lent as the season of “No”?  That’s the way it seems sometimes: no meat + no big meals + no spending = no fun. Is that really the outlook the Church is asking us to take for the next 40 days? 

In the Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18), Jesus tells us how we are to approach this sacred season, “… anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.” Even Jesus knows that when you look attractive, you feel attractive, and that produces a radiance of positivity. Lent’s not just about making sure you groom yourself, it’s about challenging yourself to go beyond how you actually feel and tapping into the divine support that Lenten practices can bring. 

The Church asks us to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday as well as all Fridays of Lent, including Good Friday. This requires us to pay attention to what we are eating and what day of the week it is. We could take the approach that it is a checkbox we just need to check off, saying we  ate no meat for each of the meals throughout the day. This does not mean that you need to limit yourself to baked fish and boiled potatoes each of these days. Why not challenge yourself to a cuisine that you may not be familiar with: tofu lo mein, sushi, or aloo gobi. Even a mild, Indian-spiced dish can put color on your cheeks! 

Just as we pay attention to what we are putting in our mouths, we can also pay attention to what we are putting into our minds. Perhaps what we sacrifice, or give up, during Lent is consuming information that does not grow our relationship with God: spending excessive time on social media, reading and/or watching TV or streaming service programming that does not align with the Catholic faith, or prioritizing other activities at the expense of spending time at Mass or in prayer. And just like trying some unique cuisine, sampling different prayers can take a bland relationship with God and turn it into a vibrant, life-giving one that exceeds our expectations.. 

Praying, fasting, and almsgiving are the three hallmark activities of Lent. It’s possible to spice up the first two, but how does one make almsgiving attractive? Perhaps one could make a game of it: every time you reach for your phone, you put a quarter in a jar (either physically or virtually – I wonder if they have an app for that?). Maybe it’s by challenging a relative, friend, or colleague to participate in an activity with you and compete to make the largest donation. Since time is money, maybe volunteering at a soup kitchen could take you out of your comfort zone and offer new insights into how you can contribute to your community.

Lent is a time to remove the obstacles that keep us focused on ourselves and redirect the focus to react to the needs of others. Making sacrifices can feel painful when we dwell on what we can’t have or do, but the discipline we develop can serve us well in any area of our lives.  And, when we add in a few well-seasoned alternatives, our faith and our relationship with God can be transformed into an overflowing cup of blessings we can share throughout the year.. 

Destination: Mass

At a recent Mass I attended, they took a page out of the Superbowl playbook and gave a play-by-play explanation of the Mass. But I must admit that it was the first thing they said that got my brain pondering.

The Mass with commentary, as it was referenced, didn’t take much longer than a normal Mass, and consisted of a short, high-level overview of what was going to happen and why, followed by that portion of the Mass. The commentary was only inserted about five or six times, and gave a general explanation; no deep theology was presented, but enough to remind those who know and encourage those who don’t know to go deeper. 

The commentary began before Mass started, introducing what was happening and explaining the first portion of the Mass. The first action for Mass begins before the Mass itself, what I would consider the gathering of the congregation. However, the way it was phrased was, “You’ve arrived.” I’m sure that choice of words was used purposefully, but it was these words that made me think. If they had used the same terminology of “gathering,” I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Using the phrasing that is common to those who use navigational aids to get them to their destination really caught my attention, and if I may admit, made me giggle.

Attending Mass should be our destination, the way we start off our week being nourished by the Word of God. Mass isn’t a checklist item of something we’ve accomplished, but a participation in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Arriving at a location indicates that we are present to what is happening and our focus is on the experience unfolding. The commentary was a great way to call attention to the different parts of the Mass and to be engaged with them, to be present and participatory and not to drift off into indifference just waiting for the end to come. I’ve seen and heard many jokes about how many times Catholics sit, stand, or kneel in one Mass, yet these position changes can help us pay attention and focus on our relationship with Jesus through the various parts. 

The Mass is the closest we can get to heaven while on earth. We receive instruction from the Word of God in the Liturgy of the Word. And the summit of it all is the Eurcharist: the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus made present for us to receive in a simple, yet transformed, piece of unleavened bread. It is through the Eurcharist that we nourish our souls via this physical encounter with Jesus. Being replenished in this manner, we are then called to go forth into the world and share what we’ve received: the time, talent, love, and mercy of Jesus bestowed upon us. 

It is important to be “here and now” when attending Mass. To do this, make every effort to be aware of each portion of the Mass and its importance in your relationship with God. The more we approach Mass as a weekly destination on earth, the more prepared we will be for our final destination: heaven.

Making life tasty

This past Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew (5:13-16) calls us to be “salt of the earth.” We are all familiar with the importance of salt in cooking, but how are we to be “salt” to others?

Salt, when used properly, is supposed to enhance the flavors of the dish it is mixed within; it is not supposed to be the star ingredient. There is a fine line when adding any spice or seasoning, including salt, as you can’t take it out once you add it to the dish. Salt should be added sparingly, the food mixed well and then tasted before adding any more to the dish. This is the way I view using salt in my cooking. However, salt can also be a matter of preference. Our taste buds are unique to us and each person can taste things differently. To one person adding a particular herb or spice can make the dish unpalatable, yet another may want to add more of that ingredient and the level of saltiness is no different. In pondering what it means to be salt to the earth, my first thought is, “how do I make the Gospel taste better to others?” Yet, I’m not sure if that’s the right question to ask.

The Gospels are the Word of God from every aspect, as they are literally the accounts of Jesus, the Word of God in the flesh when He lived on earth. I don’t think there is anything I can do that can make the Word of the Almighty better than it already is. The message of how God wants a personal relationship with us so much so that He came to live among us and even died a torturous death in order to go to the farthest, scariest, place humanity can go in order to bring His Love and Mercy to all. No, there is nothing I can say that would make it any more appealing to people. 

Some may say that we need to make the message more acceptable to the age and the culture of our time. However at the time of Jesus, His ways were very shocking to the society and against the norms: talking to the foreign woman at the well, touching those with highly contagious diseases, and socializing with the outcasts of society are just a few examples. Jesus didn’t “sweeten” His message to the people at that time, but rather called them to be changed, to be converted via a relationship with Him. He would forgive sins and instruct them not to sin again, that is to say not to fracture the relationship with Him. In John’s Gospel (6:22-69), known as the Bread of Life Discourse, some of Jesus’ followers could not understand or accept His teaching about Him being the bread of life and no longer followed Him. Jesus didn’t chase them down and try to soften His message, but looked at His chosen Apostles and challenged them if they accepted what He said. If people walked away from the Word of God Himself instructing them, I can’t see how I can make the Gospel message any more to their taste. 

So why is Jesus commanding us to be salt for the earth? We can’t change the message, what are we to do to be like salt? Perhaps it’s not what we say, but our actions that show us to be salt of the earth. Perhaps by showing how having a relationship with God, with Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit, we are enriched and live a hopeful life. It’s not about God taking away all the difficulties and smoothing the path of life for us, but rather inviting God to walk with us on our journey, asking for His support and companionship along the way. When others see us even in difficulties being able to have hope in the outcome, there is an attractive quality in that example. In going through challenges, when I say, “God will see me through this,” it’s not some trite sentiment, but rather a pale echo of the Blessed Mother’s yes to the Archangel Gabriel in that I am leaving it in God’s hands to do what He sees best. It is difficult for us to allow God to work in our lives without limiting His abilities. While it’s one thing to petition for a specific outcome, we need to be careful not to be disappointed if God chooses to answer our prayers differently. But when we truly turn our situations over to God, there is a sense of peace that we receive. This peace-filled countenance is also attractive to others and thus making a relationship with God something of interest. This is how we can be true salt to the earth, and in demonstrating the richness of a relationship with God, we are being salt to the message of the Word of God.

To be salt is not to “flavor” the Gospel or to “sweeten” the message, rather it is by living out our relationship with God that makes the Gospel, and a life lived in relationship with God, “tasty.” 

Values in CHRIST

Happy National Catholic Schools Week! This past Sunday the Church I attended brought attention to this special week by having the children of the attached grade school participate in the Masses as lectors, gift bearers, and even ushers distributing parish bulletins afterwards. But it was a detail in the deacon’s homily that really caught my attention. 

In describing what makes a Catholic school unique, Deacon Steven talked about the value system used at the school. It’s quite easy to remember, as it uses CHRIST as an acronym: Courage, Hope, Respect, Integrity, Service, and Thankfulness. All aspects of the education and social support provided by the school are formulated with these values in mind. Each day one of these values is identified for special focus. Upon hearing this, my first thought was, “That’s what I need!” I loved the idea of having one specific value or virtue to focus on within a day. Once one has a prayer routine going, it can be challenging to keep it from being ….well, routine (aka going through the motions). 

While I love using the Magnificat to frame my morning and evening prayer, it can be difficult to keep God in mind throughout the day. If we are to be Christ-bearers in the world today, living out a Christ-centric life is the goal for all baptized. We are each called to our own mission by God with the gifts and skills He has provided in us. Yet our very human nature can be a stumbling block many times throughout a day. Just like any sport or hobby, practice makes one better able to demonstrate one’s abilities. Reading scripture and talking to God is wonderful, but living a Christ-centric life does not stop with acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God. Rather it calls us to transform and share the love and light of Jesus with all who cross our path. It’s incorporating everything we learn about Jesus and the Trinity into our daily lives, allowing ourselves to be transformed by Him. 

Using a device like making Christ an acronym for a set of Christian values is a helpful tool to put into practice what we learn from Jesus. Can you imagine each day selecting a value (randomly generated perhaps with a roll of a dice?) and placing that value front and center of all you do? How much more could you bring the love of Christ to a business meeting when your focus for the day is on Courage? How could the relationship with your friends be deepened when you practice the value of Respect? Or maybe it’s Service that can help you push through a cranky attitude when you’re around your family? No, it won’t be easy, but focusing on one specific virtue during a day can help reveal where our weaknesses are and hold ourselves accountable each day. 

Lent begins in three weeks, but one doesn’t need to wait until then to put a focus on improving the practice of our faith into which we have been baptized. Now is the time to reflect on where our weaknesses are and what we can do to strengthen the demonstration of our faith to those around us. Hopefully this example either strikes a chord with you and encourages you to stay focused on living out Christ’s doctrine each day, or prompts you to think of your own version to help you shine the light of Christ into this needful world. 

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.