Blest to be poor in spirit

The first Beatitude: “Blest are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3) is one that I found troublesome to understand. But when I heard Bishop Barron explain the ‘poor in spirit’ as those who are not addicted to good feelings, it made much more sense. Our society seems to expect us to always be happy and if we’re not, we feel that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.

I had several days recently that were rather trying; nothing horrible, I was just perceiving everything as requiring a Herculean effort. Why did even the simplest of tasks seem so difficult? I kept praying and asking for help, yet it seemed as if I was moving through semi-solidified gelatin. With the expectation of needing to put on a good face, or be required to answer probing questions of what’s wrong, my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual energies were depleted by the end of the day. Instead of having a good night’s sleep, my sleep pattern was interrupted, resulting in the next day my waking up tired or cranky, or both. I started to think, “What’s wrong with me? Why is this happening?” The expectations I had for myself were not being fulfilled, and I felt like I was doing everything wrong. I was still praying, yet the words seemed hollow.

While I felt like I needed to put it in God’s hands, what exactly was I putting in His hands? What kind of intercessory prayer should I be praying? Because I felt like I was making poor choices, how could I ask God to fix something that I was responsible for? That was not fair to God. But that is a very human way of looking at life. God wants everything: our good and our less than stellar selves. The days were a hard slog to get through, and it was very difficult not to dig myself further into darkness by casting poor judgements upon myself. Then while at Mass, poor in spirit kept coming into my head and I realized what I was going through was an exercise to strengthen me for when I’m not my happy, smiling self. 

Everyone has times when not for any particular reason, they’re just not happy. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong or needs to be changed, but rather to stay the course and take things slow. It may mean that you need to go half-speed, and that’s okay. Some chores may only be half-done or not completed at all, and that’s okay. You may feel that you are lazy and making bad decisions, and saying prayers without meaning them, but it’s important to keep trying and to continue to ask God for support. These types of days don’t last forever and they are helpful in strengthening our compassion for others. While you may not feel very blessed as you journey through those cloud-filled days, the sun is still shining on the other side of the clouds and eventually the clouds will break. No matter how far away God seems to us, He is always walking the way right beside us.

When we allow ourselves to experience a full range of feelings throughout our human lives, and allow God to guide us through each, our lives are truly blessed. We can appreciate the happiness and joy of life because we experience even the days that are a struggle. Our lives are not summed up into one day or the feelings we had on any particular day. And we may never fully know or understand what God can do as we allow Him and His will be done, as we muddle our way through those dismal days. But  perhaps when we look back on our lives at the end, we may see the exquisite masterpiece God has painted, using the shadowed-times to punctuate the times of vibrance and full-color. 

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

Mystery of Mary

In the month of May, we celebrate all mothers, including Mary, the Mother of God. As I was praying the rosary recently, I began to ponder just on how much mystery surrounds her.

As Catholics, we believe Mary is truly 100% human, and only human. Mary does not have a divine nature like her Son. However, she has been blessed with the special gift of being immaculately conceived, which means the stain of original sin was not upon her from the moment of her conception. And while Mary always had free will like the rest of humanity, she didn’t suffer from concupiscence, the inclination to sin. We can all relate to what it’s like to fall and how easy that is! However, it is hard to imagine what it would be like if we did not have even the inclination to sin. How hard is it to resist temptations when you are in a state of pure grace? Mary’s humanity makes her one of us, yet her sinlessness is a mystery to us. Perhaps being blessed with such grace allowed her to lean on God when she was tempted, rather than her own judgment, so that she always sought His will and was able to resist any temptations. 

Mary’s ability to walk with Jesus through His Passion and Death leaves me in awe of her and her strength of character. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for her to see her Son so brutally treated. While the Gospels remain silent on any reaction she may have exhibited, it could only be her deep faith and relationship with God that allowed her to participate in the events as a witness. I’m sure there were copious tears, but did she wail in anguish? Did she want to take Jesus’ place on the cross, or did she know it had to be Him? Even if Jesus had to be condemned and die on the cross, did she wonder if He had to be scourged or crowned with thorns? 

From a logical perspective, it makes sense that if God preserved Mary from original sin from the time of her conception, then He would also save her body from corruption after her time on earth was completed. If original sin brings death to us until the end of time, then Mary, free from all sin, would be the first — and immediately so — to benefit from Jesus’ opening heaven by being assumed into heaven both body and soul together. More of a mystery for me is her crowning as Queen of Heaven and Earth. It’s quite amazing that a mere human being can bestow such a tremendous title. How can the human brain understand all of Earth at any one particular time, let alone Heaven and Earth through all eternity? Yet Mary continues to be our Mother, appearing countless times all over the globe and throughout the generations. Perhaps by the special grace of her immaculate conception and her continual reliance on God throughout her earthly life, she is able to be more human than what we think of when we use those words. Perhaps she is realizing now what we hope to realize at the end of time when our bodies are reunited with our souls and we live in the presence of God for all eternity. Maybe it’s our mortality and/or our persistent sinfulness that blocks our ability to plumb the true depths of the mystery of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth.

As May unfolds like a flower, let us offer prayers of thanksgiving and praise to God for granting as our spiritual mother, His most perfect creation. Let us pray to Mary, too, seeking her intercession to emulate her reliance on God no matter how difficult the circumstances she found herself in. And let us pray her psalter, the rosary, diving into the mysteries she shares with her Son, for the intentions of all those who have shown us motherly love. Happy Mother’s Day!

But she stayed

The Gospel from last Sunday (Jn 8:1-11) about the woman caught in adultery has haunted me for the past few days. While there are many pieces to ponder and various levels of spirituality one can glean from it, I keep tripping up over one very obvious yet very subtle fact: the woman stayed standing in front of Jesus.

Most times in the Gospel readings there are minute details that a person can read through and totally not catch the depth of the meaning. But sometimes they can be frustratingly lacking in detail. We do not know the woman’s name or the circumstances of how she was caught in the trap of the Pharisees. Was she set up? Did she agree to be part of the plan? Did she make a habit of committing adultery, or was this the first time? Who was her husband? Was he in on the plan? John did not include any of these details in the account, perhaps out of mercy to her, so that we can’t invoke her name or her situation. 

One by one her accusers walk away and she is standing alone before Jesus. Could she read? Did she know what He was writing on the ground? Did she even know who Jesus was? Yet she stood there until He addressed her. Her response is just two short words acknowledging that no one had condemned her. She neither pleaded her innocence nor her guilt. Perhaps she was curious as to what Jesus would say, now that she survived the mob of vengeance. While it’s beautiful to hear Jesus saying He doesn’t condemn her either, He does give her a directive not to sin again.

We need to keep this story in mind as we celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. We stand (or sit, or kneel) before Jesus (who is personified by the priest) and while we don’t have a mob of people declaring all our offenses, we do await the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the priest’s response: the counsel, the penance, and the absolution. In the most beautiful words, the absolution is like Jesus’ response to the woman,  “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

Perhaps because I correlate the woman’s interaction with Jesus to the sacrament, I am curious as to what happened next for her. What did her husband say when she returned home? How did other people treat her after that? Was she shunned or did others forgive her once they found out that Jesus forgave her? Maybe most importantly, how was she changed by her interaction with Jesus? Did she become a follower? Alas, there is no more written of her, so we will never know in this lifetime. 

Even when comparing this account with the sacrament of reconciliation, I still marvel that she stayed standing after all her accusers left. I wonder if I had been in her shoes, would I have stayed there? Or, once I knew I was not going to be stoned, would I have walked away? Would I have waited until Jesus addressed me? Or would I have been too embarrassed by what had happened to want to have any sort of interaction with Him? Being branded an adulteress, perhaps she knew that Jesus was different from any other man she had ever met. Perhaps she heard about His healings and wanted to be healed as well. 

May we all have the courage of this adulteress to stand in our sin before God, seeking His healing mercy and the grace not to sin again. 

Fatherhood

Jesus taught us to call God, Father. While He is Almighty, Lord, and Creator, Father indicates a much more intimate relationship with us. It’s a bond that begins at the moment of our conception and lasts beyond the grave and into eternity.

God doesn’t just tell us something without giving us examples. While there are many fathers within the story of salvation history, not many are worthy to lift up. Abraham is the father of many nations. Yet he let Sarah convince him of doubting God’s ability to fulfill His promise of an heir and had him use her maid servant as a surrogate. Jacob preferred his children from Rachel over those he had with Leah, which caused strife within the family. And while David did find favor with God, he, too, was not the best model of fatherhood. 

This past weekend, we celebrated the feast of St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and the husband of Mary. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, the actions of Joseph illustrate love and trust much more than any description could. Joseph is open to God’s word, even when it comes to him in a dream. He had made up his mind to divorce Mary after her pregnancy was revealed, but instead welcomed her into his home once he understood it was God’s will. He took his family into Egypt to wait out Herod’s reign, and provided for them in a foreign country where he knew no one. Perhaps the most poignant of all, he witnessed by example that children are not ours, but rather belong to God’s will when Jesus stayed behind in the Temple during their annual trip to Jerusalem. Joseph was love in action, fully trusting in God. We think of him as the silent type, since no word of his is recorded in the Bible, but perhaps he was a very chatty man and spoke eloquently. Perhaps he enjoyed singing while he worked with wood in his carpentry shop. However, out of all the men recorded in the Bible, Joseph is the best example of fatherhood, because of what he did.

For some, considering God as “Father” can be difficult. Yet, as I was pondering this blog, I realized that I consider myself a “pet parent.” I regularly refer to myself as “Mommy” when I’m talking to Vera. Why do I consider myself a “mother” to Vera? Because I care about her well-being: I feed her, interact with her, and clean up after her. Her snuggles and purrs convey her appreciation and put a smile on my face. If I can do that for my cat, how much more does God do for us? The best way we can show our appreciation is to trust in Him and His will for us. Saying “Thanks Dad” daily to God the Father, well that’s just the start of what we can do!

Dignity for the image of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cushion life

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

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

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

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

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

Life challenge

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic Girl Journey

What do you call her?

It was a single meow, but I knew exactly where Vera was and what had happened. She ran into the powder room as I was cleaning and I didn’t realize it before I shut the door. She had finished exploring and was ready to come out. The meow almost sounded like a question, and was almost like, “Mom?” Without saying a word, I released her from her enclosure with a smile on my face. Perhaps it was because of the feast of the Assumption this month, but my action to free her made me think of how Mary intercedes for us.

According to a document I found posted on the Secular Franciscan Order – USA website, Mary has at least 143 titles associated with her. I believe there are probably many more, as my favorite, Our Lady of Czestochowa, and Pope Francis’s favorite, Our Lady Undoer of Knots, were not listed. Many do invoke her assistance, as Helper of All in Danger, Lady of Good Help, and Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces. Those titles remind us that we can ask for her aid whenever we are in need. It is not surprising that we may be in awe of her, as she is known as Immaculate Conception, Mary Queen of Angels, and Sanctuary of the Holy Spirit, which can be daunting to ponder. 

Perhaps the most controversial, Theotokos or Mother of God, was not so much about her, but about who Jesus really was. The Council of Ephesus clarified the Church’s teaching about Jesus being both human and divine and through this mystery, we can call Mary by this quite awesome title. For over a hundred years before that council, the question of Jesus’ nature — human or divine, was called into question. Several councils, from 325 through 431 A.D. addressed the unity of Christ’s humanity and divinity from different aspects until the last, which named Mary as Theotokos. But this is what Mary does best: lead us to Jesus. Mary is the Star of the Sea of life as we journey in faith towards our heavenly homeland. She is the Seat of Wisdom waiting to give Good Counsel to those who seek a closer relationship with God. She is the Aqueduct of Grace, pouring out heavenly gifts to those in need. 

Of the 143 titles listed, 19 of them contained the word “Mother.” As the humble Handmaid of the Lord, I believe the title Mary likes most is Mom. She is happy to be the Mother of the Mystical Body and Mother of the Church, which allows all Christians to call her Mom. As we celebrate the solemnity declaring her bodily presence in heaven, let us call out to her, asking her aid in releasing us from whatever enclosure we find ourselves trapped in, or blockage we have encountered in our relationship with Jesus.

Catholic Girl Journey

To infinity and beyond!

“To infinity and beyond!” is the motto for Buzz Lightyear, the astronaut from the Toy Story movies. After binge watching various tributes to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I was thinking, that should be the motto of us all. 

At the end of 1903, the Wright brothers successfully flew a plane for the first time. Within 66 years, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the surface of the moon. Flying fascinates me. I can’t say that I understand all the physics or mechanics of it, but I love learning about it. Having been born just 2 short years after the moon landing, flying anywhere is something that I’ve always known. For those who lived during President Kennedy’s space challenge decade, the various programs about the space race must seem like old history. However, for me, each special presented the events from a different perspective that was both educational and surprising. 

Perhaps because it’s not common place anymore, especially in the media, it stands out that every time an astronaut was giving a message from space, the phrase, “God bless…” was used. In the recounting the Apollo 8 mission, which occurred over Christmas of 1968, I was astonished to learn astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders had read from the first book of Genesis. I could understand if they read some of the story of the Nutcracker or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, but it seemed that the men understood the deeper significance of the moment. They knew they would be on television and that most people would be watching the broadcast on Christmas eve. In an age where science presumes to trump religion, it’s nice to know that these very educated men, who actually escaped the bonds of gravity during their lunar orbit mission, took their role seriously and brought meaning to their work.  

I mostly fly when I’m going on vacation. During my first major trips, I would pray to God that if it was my time, could I have my vacation first before He called me home. Inevitably I would be in mid-flight when I’d start to think about where I was: in a large sealed tin can, being hurled at incredible speed high above most flying birds and even the clouds, to a destination very far away. “Now is not the time to think like that,” I would chastise myself. While flying is one of the safest modes of transportation, when it fails, it does so spectacularly. It’s hard not to think about what would happen after that. I used to bemoan that if I did pass away, I wouldn’t be able to get to this place or that location on my travel bucket list. I then realized that God has created everything. How can God deny His daughter a look around the world He created? Then I thought, “Why stop at places on the Earth? Why not ask God to see the whole universe?” I can almost imagine God taking me to Saturn for an up-close look at the rings, explaining how they were created and why. Perhaps He’ll take me to His favorite vantage point to look at what we call the Milky Way. 

Some folks may have a bit of fear they will be bored when they pass from this life, but with an unknown number of other galaxies out there, I don’t know if eternity will be enough time to see them all. Buzz Lightyear may be correct in his theology: To infinity and beyond, indeed!

Backsides and belly rubs

After just over a year of being a first-time pet parent to my cat, Vera, there were adjustments I needed to make and expectations that needed to be modified.

It sounds a bit idyllic: a cat sitting on your lap, purring away. I try to encourage that in Vera and often sit in my recliner with my feet up and calling her to come snuggle with me. When she first jumps up she’ll often smell my hands, face, and hair or she’ll start kneading. But when she’s ready to settle down, I find her backside is facing me, if not practically in my face. It would be so much more comfortable for me if her head were closer to where my hands are so I can scratch under her chin, where she likes it, rather than it being down my legs. However, I’ve discovered through this behavior she is telling me she trusts me completely. It’s made me ponder my relationship with God and how much (or little!) I trust Him. But if I turn my back to Him, not out of disrespect but out of trust, how does that change things? He can still catch me if I fall. He can still guide me with whispers in my ear on which direction to take. Perhaps I can see more of where I’m going and take in more of the beauty of His creation. It may not be ideal all the time, but practicing having trust in God to the point we can turn our backs may be an exercise worth trying.

On days when I work from home, Vera often takes her afternoon snoozes near my desk. But she doesn’t curl up; nope, she lays on her back with her feet in the air and her one paw  over her eyes to keep the light out. The soft, white fur on her tummy is a siren that calls me to give her a belly rub. She usually tolerates it well, but sometimes bats my hand to her head, which is her location preference. Here, again, in this position she is communicating her vulnerability and total trust in me. To see and touch the most sensitive areas of her body, and on a regular basis, illustrates the bond we share. Do I let God see my vulnerable areas? Do I let Him give me a “belly rub” in those spots? Or do I cover them up and pretend they don’t exist? God knows me better than I know myself, so why am I so resistant to His involvement in my life except for the few things for which I pray? As much as I want to do His will, there always seems some part of me that measures it against what I want.

While we may try to humanize our pets by putting thoughts and words against their behavior, learning what the actions truly mean can not only strengthen our relationships with them, but can also prompt reflections of our relationships to dive into deeper unity with God and those we love.