Gifting to God

God is lavish with His gifts to us. He didn’t have to create us, but He did — and He hasn’t stopped there. Moment by moment, He showers blessings down upon us. He has even given His most precious gift to us, His Beloved Son, Jesus. Is there any gift we can give to Him?

It’s very overwhelming when we try to consider how much God has blessed us in our lives. We think about the gifts of friendships, or even those who have crossed our paths for a short time and left a warm fondness in our memories. We think of all the happy occasions we have celebrated and even some regular ordinary days that were just delightful. I don’t think it’s possible to be able to inventory all the blessings just from our own lifetime! God is a role model of generosity; we really can’t give more than He gives to any one of us. Is it possible to give God a gift at Christmas? After all, it is His birthday, shouldn’t He receive a gift from us?

Looking to the Gospels for inspiration, I found where Jesus once remarked, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) Since God created everything, that seems like a tall order, not to mention a totally new dimension to re-gifting. Yet a recent Advent reflection I read used the analogy of a coin from this Gospel reading. It talked about how a coin minted in a kingdom has the image of the king on it. It went on to say that God will only recognize our actions if they are in the image and likeness of Jesus. While we can’t give the blind back their sight, we can be their eyes. We may not be able to heal a sick person, but we can provide a little comfort to ease their pain and be a shoulder for them to lean on. We cannot forgive another’s sins, but we can forgive those who have wronged us and show mercy to them. 

As Catholics, we are all called to love one another. You may think you are because you’re nice to people. Being nice is but an atom in the element of love. To love someone is to sacrifice a bit of ourselves for their good. Like a parent who gives up their own time to spend time with their child, we must sacrifice our time, our talents, and our resources in loving others. When we give of ourselves out of love, especially to those less fortunate than ourselves or to strangers without reward, we are acting in the image of Christ Jesus. 

We’ve passed the halfway mark in Advent and preparations for Christmas will soon heighten to a frenzy of activity. Let us make the time and effort to be a gift to another. Maybe it’s a phone call to someone who may be lonely. Perhaps it’s participating in supporting a food pantry. In whatever way we can, let us  give God a gift of ourselves by mirroring the love and generosity He has shown us in His Son Jesus.  

Unexpected gifts

One type of gift that can be received at Christmas is the unexpected gift. It’s the type of gift that we don’t know we need, but really end up enjoying.

Most gifts are unexpected, unless you specifically instruct  expected givers exactly what to purchase. However, for those that know us well, it goes both ways, as those gifts to us can be a reflection of the giver. My Mom (and perhaps most mothers?) is a person for whom I struggle to find the right, unique gift. The gift I’ve found that suits her needs best is a desk calendar, and each year I create one from my travels throughout the year. Mom knows she’s getting a calendar, she may not know what pictures will be in it, but it’s not a big surprise when she receives it. 

We all have a list of people with whom we expect to exchange Christmas gifts. We may receive a gift from someone outside of that list, but those unexpected gifts are not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the actual gift itself when you open it. The kind that makes you pause when you realize it’s something that you wouldn’t have ever bought for yourself, and you’re not quite sure what to do with it. I’m not talking about ugly sweaters or sports equipment you will never use. Unexpected gifts can be anything: a wearable article, a kitchen gadget, a book to read, a tool for a hobby, or even a knick knack. What makes the unexpected gift special is that it fills a void that we didn’t realize was there. 

Christmas comes every year, yet it can be an unexpected gift. We are all familiar with the Nativity as a story, but have we opened up our hearts to the gift God has given us all — His Son as Savior? A recent Advent reflection reminded me that unless I realize my sinfulness and that I need to be saved, Jesus’ coming becomes just a story. Jesus did come at a particular point in history, not when everything was right in the world, but in the midst of hardship. He came in poverty to share the burdens of life with all. He came not just for the people of that time, or for those who went before them, but for all people and across all time. Jesus came for you and for me, knowing that we are sinners and that we turn away from Him on a regular basis. Yet He does not give up on us. His mercy and forgiveness are unexpected gifts from a God of Love. 

Advent is a time of preparation for receiving the gift of Jesus Christ. One way to prepare is to look at all the gifts God has blessed us with and discover those unexpected gifts among them. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge our weaknesses and ask for the Lord’s help in the sacrament of reconciliation — an unexpected gift of His grace. 

A gift of socks

The news has been reporting it’s important to buy early this year because supply chains have had issues bringing merchandise to restock. Even my Mom informed me she wasn’t buying anything for Christmas since anything she did try to order is not available. There are many different considerations when determining what to purchase as a gift. Given the circumstances, I’m thinking this year may be filled with gifts of practicality. 

I recall as a child that any gift of undergarments and socks didn’t really seem like a gift. Afterall, these were things that I received throughout the year because I needed them. As adults, we often joke when trying to guess what is inside a package — is it socks or an umbrella — even when  the package looks like it would contain neither. Yet wearable items like shirts, sweaters, jackets and hats are every bit as serviceable and can be received with much appreciation; minus any negativity. While I would never think to give undergarments to friends, I have given socks before, not just plain white ones, but ones with unique patterns that made me think of the person I was giving it to. Socks can be a fabulous way to show one’s personality or even bring a bit of cheer with vibrant colors and motifs. I even gifted my niece this year with socks. These, however, were not any that I bought in a store; I handknit them myself.

The gift of socks is a gift of practicality. Who doesn’t wear socks on at least some occasion? Giving the gift of socks says, “I want you to use these.” While there are different sizes in socks, they will mold to a person’s feet, and there is much more forgiveness when it comes to figuring out the size (and there is much comfort in a new pair of socks). But why all this talk about socks? Because sometimes God gives us the gift of socks. God gives us every breath we take, every beat of our heart, and every thought we are able to think. You may respond, “Well that is just what makes us alive, what kind of a gift is that?” That would be God’s version of a gift of socks. He didn’t need to create us, yet He didn’t stop with our creation; He continues to give us everything we need to be alive. We also need to be born into a family, that too, can be another gift of socks. There are many more practical spiritual gifts God gives us that cannot be lost, eaten by the washer/dryer, or worn out from overuse. We use them so much, we don’t even realize they are a gift. Yet if God was to limit us to one pair or take it away entirely, we would very soon realize how precious this gift is to us. 

So as we commence this Advent season, preparing for Christmas, let us think about the gifts we have already received from God. Let us take a deeper look into our everyday lives and appreciate all that He has provided to sustain us. Thank Him too, for all the opportunities He opens to us that allow us to participate in the gifts He gives, both to ourselves as well as to one another. And if you receive the gift of socks this Christmas, smile a heart-filled thank you to the giver and thank God for both the gift and the one who gave them to you. 

Final step: a saint

The final step, and goal for all Catholics, is to be a saint. Some will be declared a saint by the Church, others will remain known to those in heaven, for that’s what being a saint is all about: living in the presence of God in heaven. 

As we close out the final week of the liturgical calendar, the Gospel readings for daily Mass remind us to be vigilant for the end — be that the end of the world or the end of our lives. This reminder harkens to the celebrations that began the month, the feast of All Saints and the memorial of All Souls. While we may be waylaid in purgatory to cleanse us of any residuals of sin and heal us of any scars caused by it, we know that we will make it to heaven. We can help the souls in purgatory now by our prayers and acts of charity. Likewise those in heaven are cheering us on and interceding for us. We look to those named saints as role models for our lives and provide spiritual guidance of how to do God’s will. 

Being declared saints first requires living the missions given by God, putting God first in life and sharing His gifts with others. As Bishop Barron says, “Your life is not about you.” Exit living in the ego and accept the role God gives for participating in His will. Illustrating a connection with God by charity in life, perhaps after passing from this life the cause will be taken up to propose sainthood. After passing through the various steps of Servant of God, Venerable, and Blessed, it is with another miracle attributed to intercession of the candidate that the final review and approval of the pope completes the journey to being canonized as a saint. 

The road to sainthood may be fast, happening in mere decades in earthly time, or can linger across the centuries. Canonized saints included the poor shepherd children of Fatima (canonized in 2017) and the Queen of Scotland (canonized in 1250). From the first martyr, Saint Stephen, whose death is documented into the Acts of the Apostles, to Saint Teresa of Kolkata, who died in 1997 and was canonized 19 years later in 2016, the lives of the saints are documented across the span of Church history. Young, old, rich, poor, laity, and religious, there is a saint for each person to find a kindred spirit. 

While it is good to have a spiritual mentor, let us not forget that God calls us to our own mission in His will. He has put us in this time and place to be His hands and voice. Our goal may be to be a saint in heaven, but let us not seek the glory of being declared a saint, but rather accept God’s purpose for our lives and let His glory shine through all the way to heaven. 

Blessed

On the road to sainthood, the third stage is beatification . This changes the person’s title from Venerable to Blessed.

In order for a person to be beatified, a miracle needs to be attributed to their intercession. This can be misinterpreted as the saint causing the miracle, but closely reading official documents clearly indicates that the miracle is via their intercession. Why the distinction? Because only God can perform a miracle. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a miracle is a scientifically inexplicable occurrence by the grace of God through the intercession of a Venerable or Blessed. Often in recent times, an unexplained healing has occurred to a person having a disease or malady to which there is no treatment. By praying to a singular Venerable and seeking their intercession, when a miracle occurs, it seems likely that the Venerable is in heaven and able to intercede on our behalf. Rigorous investigation is conducted by both medical professionals as well as the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. If the investigation proves in favor of the Venerable, the cause is presented to the Pope, who will grant the beatification. A special prayer, Mass, or Divine Office may be authorized by the Pope for the candidate, who is now considered Blessed.

How long does it take to be beatified and made a saint? It depends. In researching those with the title of Blessed, I found Blessed Notker the Stammerer. Notker was born around 840 and died about 912. He was beatified in 1512. It took this Swiss monk 600 years to be beatified. And he has remained at that title for over 500 years. Will he ever achieve the title of saint? Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask. Does it really matter if he’s declared a saint here on earth? If he is in heaven, he is with God and he is a saint. Our declaration of him as such means little to him now. In a way, his longevity as a Blessed is an excellent opportunity to look at the how’s and the why’s of sainthood and the process involved in declaring a person a saint. The Church put this process together to avoid declarations of saints by popular sentiment. The Church requires the proof of a miracle so that when we look to a person as a role model of faith, we can be assured of God’s approval. After all, it is God who performs the miracle. 

Yet the process of beatification can also occur quite quickly. Just last October 2020, Carlo Acutis was beatified. This 15-year-old from Italy died in 2006 of leukemia, but left a legacy of devotion to the Eucharist. Carlo is best known for documenting Eucharistic miracles around the world and cataloguing them onto a website, miracolieucaristici.org. The miracle attributed to Carlo was of a young Brazilian boy with a serious birth defect. The boy and his mother attended a prayer service the parish priest organized to encourage his congregation to seek Carlo’s intercession for whatever healing was needed.  The boy was cured immediately after the prayer service and leaves little doubt as to whom to attribute the healing intercession

The road to saint illustrates that the candidates, whether they are Servants of God, Venerables, or Blesseds, seek God’s will in all things. They can only intercede for us; God is the true miracle worker. Their elevation to Blessed is not a glory to them, but rather a glory to God. We thank the Lord for each and every miracle.

Venerable

There are several steps to being declared a saint. It can be a process that takes decades or even centuries. The prerequisite for the process is death. Once a person dies, the diocese at a local level will gather evidence to submit to the Vatican. The hope is that the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints will determine the person’s life is one of heroic virtue. With their recommendation, the Pope will review and declare an upgrade of their title from Servant of God to Venerable.

The package of documentation is quite rigorous and requires sealed or certified originals to ensure authenticity. The Vatican Congregation spends as much time as it needs to pour and pray over the received information, conducting interviews and reviewing the person’s life from many different perspectives. This review occurs in two stages, first by a group of theologians then by the cardinal and bishop members of the Congregation. There are fourteen Venerables identified by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). 

While preparing a presentation about saints for RCIA, I stumbled upon the story of Venerable Pierre Toussaint. He was born a slave in Haiti, was brought to New York by his master’s wife, and allowed to train as a hairdresser. He was so successful that when the family fell on hard times, he was able to provide for the family that owned him. He was freed at the age of 41 and continued his charity, not only among the poor but also donating in the building of Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in the early 1800s. The story is told that at its dedication when he was refused entrance because of his race, he apologized and turned to leave but was stopped by another usher who recognized him and immediately invited him into the building he helped finance. Both Pierre and Old Saint Patrick’s crossed my path again when “The Oratorio: A Documentary by Martin Scorsese” about the roots of opera in New York City aired on PBS. I was delighted to see Pierre’s story included as part of the history of this church.

In reviewing the life of Venerable Fulton John Sheen, I was surprised to see his birth year as 1895, which seems so long ago. Yet he is no stranger to modern conveniences, as he pioneered television evangelization back in the 1950’s when there were only three channels available. His charismatic style mezmorized viewers both Catholic and non-Catholic alike. To date, he’s the only American bishop to win two Emmys for Most Outstanding Television Personality. Numerous times have I been researching Catholic topics and Google suggests one or two of his Life is Worth Living episodes on YouTube. I alway seem to end up watching in rapt attention, even when it is only in black-and-white! The way he passed on tugged at my heart, as he died in his chapel during Adoration. I don’t think there could be a better way to go.

These two men are another example of the diversity of people and lives within the Catholic family. Each continues to impact people today: Pierre through the support he gave to Old Saint Patrick’s and Bishop Sheen with his television programs. In the Communion of Saints — both named and those on their way, it does not matter if we are separated by a few decades or a century, we are still connected as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. 

Servant of God

November is the end of the liturgical year for Catholics and our focus turns towards the end of time. The readings for Mass take on a sense of ugent remembering for what awaits us at the end of life. It should not be surprising that the month starts with the feast of All Saints. The Church in her wisdom draws our attention to those who are cheering us on from their place in heaven. Yet the path to being declared a saint has several steps, the first is being named a Servant of God.

The process for sainthood begins at a local diocesen level. After a person who has the reputation for living a life of holiness dies, an investigation into their life begins the process of potentially being declared a saint. During this investigation, the person’s life is examined to determine if their life reflected a pursuit of improving their holiness and heroic virtue. Every aspect of their life is reviewed, any correspondence, writings, journals, and the like are scrutinized. While a person’s past may contain some less-than-holy times, it is how the person responded to those times that matters: did they repent and seek a closer walk with God? Once a cause is opened at the diocese level, the person receives the title of Servant of God

I read Black Elk Speaks way back in my college years as part of a Native American Literature class. I remember enjoying the book with its rich details of tribal life. And in researching people who are considered Servants of God, the name Nicholas Black Elk caught my attention. Wondering if the two were related, I was surprised to find out they are one in the same! In reviewing the website supporting Nicholas’ cause, I was amazed to find that he embraced Catholicism and had become a catechist to his people. While it was sad reading his disappointment in how the story of his life only included, as he referred to it, his pagan life, his passionate embrace of God was still equally refreshing. He was proud to be a catechist and the story of his life is not complete unless one includes all of it. He lived about 20 years more after the book was written, and from a Catholic perspective, those were the best years.

I read He Leadeth Me over several months during weekly Eucharistic adoration. It is an amazing reflection of the spiritual struggles of Servant of God Father Walter Ciszek, S.J., who was born in Shenandoah, PA (my parent’s hometown.) After ordination, he served in Poland and made his way into Russia, where in 1941, he was captured as a “Vatican spy.” He spent 20 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps in Siberia, working in dehumanizing and soul-sucking conditions. Yet even here, Fr. Ciszek was able to minister to his fellow inmates (mostly in secret.) And long after his family thought he was dead, his family began to receive letters from him after his release and he was returned to the United States in 1963. 

The lives of these two men cannot be more different, more diverse. Both answered the call from God to fulfill the purpose He had for their lives. Each is a model for us in how to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. No matter if they are officially declared a saint or not, we can ask these holy men to intercede for us in our moments of challenge and affliction. 

To fear or not to fear

At this time of the year, fear seems to be something everyone is excited about. However, the fear of being afraid and scared with Halloween horror festivities is what people are looking for nowadays, not fear of the Lord.

In reviewing the definition for the word fear, there are two very opposite meanings. One is to be aware or anticipate danger. This definition fits the etymology of the word, as its origins seem to trace back through Old Saxon for “lurking danger,” Old Norse for “evil, mischief, plague,” and possibly sharing a verbal based from Indo-European of per, meaning “test or risk” (which is from where the word peril comes). None of these would fit the second meaning which is a feeling of respect and wonder for something powerful. “Fear of the Lord” falls into the second definition.

It seems strange to associate a word that has strong negative connotations with God, yet Fear of the Lord is not just an idea thrown about in religious circles, but is a gift of the Holy Spirit. In researching where in the Bible Jesus says not to be afraid, I found not just a few instances, but a whole webpage with 365 citations within both the Old and New Testaments that express that sentiment! If the Bible has a verse for everyday that tells us not to fear, why does the Holy Spirit give us the gift of fear? 

Perhaps it’s best to dive even deeper into word meanings, specifically that of the word danger. One of the meanings is “exposure or liability to injury, pain, harm, or loss.” If we focus on the word loss, we now get closer to what Fear of the Lord really means. This gift serves as a warning system to realize how precious our relationship with God is and to be concerned to lose it through sin. Through this realization, we are called to be sorrowful for our sins, seeking to turn back to God to ask for his forgiveness and repair the damage that our sins cause. It also prompts us to contemplate God’s love for us. He is constantly seeking us out and bringing us closer to Him. If we receive this gift with an open heart we will be able, through God’s grace, to cultivate the virtue of humility. As we seek to embrace the gift, we also look to share it with others and it motivates us to bring others to a relationship with God. 

Fear of the Lord is also counter-cultural in our time. It calls us to recognize the supreme goodness of God and all of the gifts He gives us. This is in contrast to what many advertisements would sell us in doing whatever we please. When we place God at the center of our life, living in fear and humility, we’re no longer obsessed with trying to obtain feelings and things that society tells us we need. Our culture also likes to emphasize the negative aspects of fearing God from a justice and punishment standpoint. Yet we are the ones who seem to be keeping “score” of our own detriment. Yes, we need to be sorrowful, repent of our sins, and lean into God’s grace to avoid sinning again. We need to learn from our mistakes but not dwell in them. If God can forgive us, we need to forgive ourselves as well.

When we are receptive to the Holy Spirit’s gift of Fear of the Lord, all other fears within our culture and society fade from our focus. “The fear of the Lord is like a garden of blessing, and covers a man better than any glory.” (Sirach 40:27) Not just in this season of Halloween, but everyday, let us open our hearts to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, unwrapping them thoroughly and putting them to good use, most especially the Fear of the Lord gift.

Life pursuits

I think most Americans are familiar with the line from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But as Catholics there is one pursuit that ranks above these, the pursuit of holiness.

When we think of a holy person, we immediately think of the saints. But they lived  life on earth just as we do, facing all the temptations that we face. Sometimes they succeeded in the battle against sin and sometimes not. Only two people lived without sin: Jesus and His Mother Mary. There may be a priest or religious that we may consider as holy, chalking it up to their vocation. But holiness is not limited to those professing religious vows. All baptized Christians are called to a holy way of life that will result in eternal happiness with God, and thus also becoming a saint. So what does it mean to be holy?

In the Old Testament, to be holy was to be set apart from the everyday, the ordinary, and to be dedicated to the service of God. God is what made things holy, His blessing and His grace. Israel, as a nation, was to be holy — set apart from the rest of the nations and called to live according to God’s commands. Israel, however, struggled in this endeavor. They sought a king to rule them, just like the other nations around them. Interaction and intermarriage with those nations exposed them to other religions. They soon began to practice them and failed to keep God’s commands. 

How can following God’s commands make us holy? That’s not quite the right question to ask.  We cannot make ourselves holy by what we do, but instead we need to participate and respond to God. We need to seek a relationship with God. If we ask how we can seek this, the answer is by following the Commandments, especially the first three.

First, in order to seek God, we need to put Him first in our daily lives. We need to reach out through prayer, being open to His response. While we may pray through words and speech (or thought), God can answer in a myriad of ways: in another’s response to us, in coincidence, in a surprise or in an unexpected event or encounter, etc. Secondly, we need to be mindful of our speech. What we say indicates our attitudes towards that of which we are speaking. If we deny God’s ability to help us, He will respect just that, even if deep down we wish that He would. If we throw around God’s name, or even the name of Jesus Christ, as if it is like any other word, we abuse any relationship we have with Him. Thirdly, we are called to take time weekly to dive deeper into our relationship with God, dedicating time spent with Him in the Mass as well as other spiritual practices. Lastly, we need to follow all other Commandments and Beatitudes, as a relationship with God does not mean excluding or ignoring everyone and everything that bears the signature of the Creator. 

If we want happiness in our lives, if we want to live free, then we need to pursue holiness first throughout our life on earth. The result will be to have the best life there is: eternal life spent in the presence of God.

Prayer community

To pray a Catholic prayer is to pray in community with the whole Church: past, present and future. If we mean what we say and say what we mean, we truly are a Catholic — that is universal — Church.

I pray it when I first wake up in the morning. I pray it during morning and evening prayers as I follow them with the Magnificat. I pray it during the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. The Our Father is a prayer given to us by Jesus Himself. Yet, as a single person praying all by my lonesome (except for my cat Vera), I continue to start the prayer with Our. I don’t start it as My Father, but Our Father, indicating more than just me. Why is it so important that we call God as Our Father, especially if we want to have a personal relationship with Him? But watch any two-year-old with a toy they claim as “mine” and it makes perfect sense for the Church to continually remind us that we are a family of God. I may be saying the Our Father in the comfort of my home, but someone else could be walking to work and saying it at the same time that I am. Or a Mass on the other side of the world may be reciting the same lines that I am at the same time I do. It’s rather amazing to think we join others across the globe as we all pray the same prayer, even if it’s in a different language.

While the Our Father may be the most obvious of Catholic prayers, it was the Grace before meals that really got me started thinking about the language used in them. “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” I say this prayer before each meal, and I started to notice all the plural references. I tried changing it up so that it used singular language, but I would inevitably leave one word as plural, usually the “our”. For this prayer, I thought about using the excuse that I was praying on Vera’s behalf as well, but she usually eats before I do and she only gets morning and evening meals. So who are the “us” we are asking to be blessed and who is it that is receiving the gifts of nourishment? It was then I realized that the most basic of prayers had Our as the first word. Even in the Hail Mary, we ask her to “pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.”  

We could be exclusive and say we are only praying using pluralistic language on behalf of other Catholics, but I think it goes beyond who we know, beyond our denomination as Roman Catholics, and even beyond Christianity itself. While we may be joining other like-minded individuals even if we are unaware they are praying the same way, our pluralistic language is inclusive to all God’s children, regardless of creed, perhaps even beyond the boundaries of time and space. Likewise, any prayers said by those who came before us, along with those that will be said in the future include a plea to God on our behalf. God, who is beyond time and space, gathers all our prayers together. In His Love, He unites us and our prayers. Those who wish for singularity, wish separation from the prayer community and run the risk of imitating Satan, the one who scatters. 

Through prayer, we are never alone before God. Let us mean the words we proclaim to include all of God’s children, drawing strength in numbers from those praying along with us.