Well done good servant

It’s been a tough week. For two years we knew this was coming, yet it still seems surreal. It’s not really discussed because it’s such an unpleasant topic, but death comes to all of us.

My 88-year-old Dad started to decline rapidly last week. While he could no longer stand up or walk and had trouble feeding himself, he still was a participating member of the family. Then he had trouble sitting up, his kidneys had started to fail and he started getting confused and agitated. I was blessed to visit him and tell that I loved him before he was bedridden, slipping in and out of consciousness. And then we waited for the end… and waited… and waited. It took almost four days before he finally breathed his last. I prayed to St. Joseph, the patron for a happy death. I prayed to Pope Saint John Paul II, who also suffered from Parkinsons’ just like my Dad. I also prayed to Fr. Hamilton, a fabulous priest that I miss. I prayed for them to help my Dad make the transition. Every morning and every evening and at times throughout the day, why was he lingering so long? It was like he was the Energizer Bunny, just going and going.

At one point during the vigil at his deathbed, I took a few steps back and just pondered the situation. As one in the physical realm, I see that he is physically lingering, his breathing gurgling yet in some way still strong. But we are not just in the physical world. We have a soul, what’s going on with his soul? Only God knows that, and God knows what He’s doing. Perhaps what appears to us as lingering is really the opportunity for the soul to prepare itself. Who am I to wish that Dad’s life be cut short because I feel uncomfortable watching and listening to him breathe? What mattered most was that he was well cared for, not in pain, and never alone.

Taking in Dad laying in the bed and space around it, I began to pray. How many times I have prayed the Hail Mary, yet now when I got to the end of the prayer, it was hard to say, “…now, and at the hour of our death.” Yet in that moment, I had a sense that he was surrounded by angels and saints and they were joyful and excited. Here I am with tears down my cheeks while they were happy. And why wouldn’t they be? They were getting ready to welcome him to his final home. 

Death may be an unpleasant topic because we are so fully immersed in a physical world. Would it be easier if we knew just what awaited us on the other side? Maybe. Perhaps in a physical realm, we would not be able to grasp just what the spiritual realm has to offer. Or just knowing would not be satisfactory to us and life in the physical realm would lose its meaning. 

I know Dad’s soul is in the hands of Jesus. I hope He has said to him, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy.” (Matthew 25:21).

Just like Noah

One of the few and regular times I step out of the house is when I shake out the mat that sits under Vera’s litter box. The other day in doing so, the deck was still wet with the rain that had fallen earlier in the day. I thought of an odd parallel to Noah, who braved 40 days of rain, months of waiting for the waters to recede, and having numerous animals to care for and clean up after during that time. 

In pondering deeper, I imagine Noah as a role model for us in this time of sheltering in place. While many can still go outside for walks or some exercise, keeping the required distance from others, the majority of the time is spent sequestered within our homes. We may complain about it, but Noah had it worse: 40 days of heavy rain to the point where everything flooded. Perhaps I should thank God for every sunny day during this trying time. 

Noah had to care for, not only his immediate family, but also wild and tame animals and birds. While our pets provide us with much affection and causes for laughter, some behaviors may irritate us more quickly than usual because of the monotony of our circumstances. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to make sure, on a full ark, each animal and bird, and each having its own personality, was fed and its area clean. I am very glad Vera is in my life and keeping me company, but then again, I’m very glad it’s just her. And every time she starts meowing constantly because she deems it feeding time, I need to remember that she’s just a cat and has no idea why I’m home all the time. 

I think the biggest parallel with Noah is trust in God. “Noah did just as the LORD had commanded him.” (Gn 7:5) While Noah knew there was going to be a flood, he did not know how long he was going to be on that ark. After 40 days of rain, the waters took months to recede enough to leave the ark. Noah had to trust God throughout that time. I’m sure he had good days along with days that he had some doubts. In our time of instant gratification and thinking we have control over our lives, our current circumstances can be downright frightening, frustrating, or a combination of both. After a week or two, we just want everything to go back to normal. But events like these unfold slowly. Perhaps that’s to give us ample opportunity to learn that God is in control and to practice trusting Him.  

In the days, weeks, and months to come, let’s remember to be thankful for the sunshine and the ability to go outside, even just to stand outside our door. Let’s practice patience with those around us, and with those we keep in contact. And just like Noah, let us trust that God will not only see us through this time, but to help us become better persons as we navigate through it. 

The desert of Lent

Last week there was no holy water at the entrance to the church. While I expect that on Good Friday, we’re only about half way through the Lenten season. It’s just one more reminder of how different things now are.

This Lent is, indeed, a desert: no water in the fonts, no Mass with the public attending, no gatherings for Lenten talks or Friday Fish Fry. But this is no time to be sad and forlorn. God knows how it will all turn out and will give us what we need, when we need it. It may be a challenge for us to participate in a Mass that is streaming from an empty church, but what a gift it is to have technology to bring it to us! We may not be able to physically receive the Body and Blood of Christ, but we can always make a spiritual act of communion. If we don’t believe Jesus comes to us through that prayer, then it is we who limit His abilities, not that He is limited to entering us through the physical realm. It is because we are in the physical realm that He gives us His Body and Blood hidden in physical form, since it’s much easier for us to understand and connect with Him. He is calling us deeper into faith in Him.

I can’t help but think about the lepers, from Jesus’ time through Saint Damien of Molokai, Hawaii and because of the contagiousness of the disease, they could not worship with the rest of the community. They had to be kept apart to keep the disease from spreading. While this bacterial illness is now curable, it can be very easy for us to shrug off the impact it had on society. With the crisis now at hand, we are getting a taste of how life can feel like it’s being turned upside down. Perhaps the next time we hear a gospel about a leper, we can realize the compassion that Jesus had for each individual. We can take the lesson and apply it to those who have been touched by this current affliction. Perhaps with every Hail Mary we say as we make sure we wash our hands for the appropriate length of time, we can offer it up to those who most need our prayers. 

Last year I was in the midst of preparing to move from Pennsylvania to Virginia, so I felt my Lenten practices were a bit weak, since I didn’t want to commit to something I couldn’t see through during the move. I was excited to see the possibilities for this Lent in my new home parish. Now, I must admit, I feel like I have been robbed a second time in preparing for Easter. But I know God can make the desert bloom. Rather than focusing on what I can’t do or what I’m missing, I need to focus on what I can do: watch Mass online or on TV, read the Bible or a spiritual book, make all activities a prayer, and leave the results to God.

Say please

Por favor is the phrase in Spanish. S’il vous plait is the French version. In English, it’s down to a single word: please.

I was recently on a cruise and was sitting at a table with a number of people from different areas of the US as well as the UK. I noticed when the woman from the UK provided her selections to the waiter, she began with, “May I please have…” “How very polite,” I thought. As we chatted through dinner, she mentioned observing that Americans are quick to say thank you, but do not say please. I thought about this, and realized that in many circumstances, I don’t!  I think the times that I do say it, is when I’m offered something, and I accept with, “Yes, please.” But if I don’t want it, then it is “No, thank you.” As children, when we ask for something, we are often prompted to say please in order to obtain it, yet as adults, we don’t seem to include it when we do ask or, in this case, place an order with the wait staff. 

We know we’re supposed to use that word, but what does it really mean? A look into the dictionary makes the intangible term seem even more vague. Even investigating the etymology of the word suggests it comes from the Greek for flat surface! Digging a bit deeper into the English roots, I found it could also derive from the Latin placare, from which we derive the word placate. This points to soothing and appeasing. Now the flat surface reference may make sense, as one is looking to be smooth when making a request. Looking at translations from other languages, the literal Spanish translation is by favor; the French, if you please. Both of these phrases indicate the request made is not a demand or requirement, but rather a humble submission that the requestor turns over to another’s power to fulfill. 

We are encouraged to pray with confidence; God hears our prayers and answers them. He wants us to come as we are: warts, wild emotions, and all. But do we say please? Do we ask God, if it pleases Him to answer our prayers in a particular way? Do we ask by His favor to bless us? God wants to give us all good things, yet sometimes what we ask for is not in our best interest or it is not the time for us to receive it. Do we respond to Him with more of the same demand, perhaps a bit louder, as if He didn’t hear us? Or do we ask God what pleases His will in the petition we offer to Him and praise Him for whatever way He answers? 

Lent is the perfect time to ponder and to pray with the word please. Rather than asking for a specific solution, let us ask the Lord for the pleasure of His assistance in our needs. We just may be amazed at His creative solutions that we would never dream to ask of Him.

Temptation comes

Temptation comes to all of us, even Jesus! Our response to temptation varies widely, based on not just the situation, but also on our mental, physical, and emotional state.

I received a “thank you but you will not be considered for this job” email, and while I was disappointed, my initial reaction was appreciation for knowing the status. It was in the afternoon when I received the email and I continued working at my current job. Later that day, I realized that I felt like I had been punched in the gut; it was then I realized just how disappointed I was and how much I wanted that position. I tried not to wonder what it was that put me in their ‘no’ pile. By the end of the evening, I had tears streaming down my face, feeling like I had been rejected by everyone, and that no one wanted me. I tried thinking that God has better plans for me. Since I’ve been praying for quite some time about a new job, my perseverance is being sorely tested. It’s in this type of circumstance that the “enemy” can maximize the anxiety and distress. 

It can be easy to shrug off Jesus’ temptations saying that because He is God, He could respond and wouldn’t give in. However, Jesus was also fully human, and after spending 40 days and nights fasting, even Matthew’s gospel indicates He was hungry (Matt 4:2). I can’t imagine how hard it was for Jesus not to turn the stones into bread. We will never know the strength of Jesus to deny the tempter in that moment. Yet when we are in a moment of temptation, Jesus can completely understand how we’re feeling, and what we’re thinking; He walks by our side when we face these challenges, not once, not twice, but three times in succession.

When I realized all the negative thoughts swirling through my brain, I knew they had to be stopped, but I knew I was too weary from a full day of work to battle it myself. I had to seek help from Jesus, to give Him all the questions I have for my life, and to ask Him to lead me in doing the Father’s will, both in my work life and my home life. If I am meant to be in the job I’m in now, then help me to do it to the best of my abilities. If He wants to bless me with a position that I can be happier in, that’s fine too. But I will not dwell in a negative mindset, believing the worst of myself because that would be a win for the tempter. I’m sure it won’t be the last time this will occur, but I hope in future times I can realize what is happening so that I can reach out to Jesus for help.

Training season

Happy first day of training season! While that may sound rather odd, the season of Lent can be compared to athletes in training. Discipline, practice, and focus are very similar to fasting, almsgiving, and prayer —  the three things the Church calls us to participate in as we prepare for Easter. 

Lent begins and ends with a day of fasting. This discipline requires us to be mindful, first of what day it is, and secondly how much we are eating and when. For the minimum fasting requirement, one full meal is allowed with two minor snack opportunities to maintain strength. Both fasting days also require abstaining from meat, as do all Fridays in Lent, although fasting is not required except for Good Friday. In addition to mindful eating, Lent is also an opportunity to practice self-control. Why does it seem that when we can’t have a particular food, that’s when we crave it even more? Some may complain about it and non-Catholics may scoff and tease us for our efforts, yet are these restrictions any different from those an athlete willingly assumes in training? Do they not need to be mindful of what they are eating so that their bodies can perform to their highest abilities? While our eating may not be fueling us for a marathon, it’s the combination of training body and mind together, reminding us that we are more than just spirit and intellect, and that our physical nature does play a role in our spiritual life.

Almsgiving is older than the Church itself. While it should not be limited to just a Lenten  activity, it is in this season that we are called to especially live out the charity we profess. While typically  we think of money or food being donated to the poor when we consider almsgiving, opening up the definition to include offering our time and talent to help those less fortunate is definitely putting love into practice. One definition of practice is “ to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient.” Athletes don’t become professionals just because they say they are. They need to practice their sport until they become proficient, and even then, they continue to practice and hone their skills to become the best they can be in their sport. Lent is a time for us to practice being Catholic at an even deeper level. It’s not just about the basics anymore, it is doing works of charity.

Prayer should be something we do as easily as breathing. However, when was the last time you paid attention to how you were breathing? Maybe if you had a cold or allergies, you become all too aware how much your body needs the oxygen that you breathe in. Just like an athlete picks a particular skill to focus to improve, we are called to focus on our prayer life during Lent also. There is no shortage of chaplets, novenas, and specific prayers in Catholicism that we can include in our daily prayer time. Perhaps given the amount, it can be too intimidating to choose! If pre-written prayers are not your cup of tea, perhaps the focus could be on perfecting your own method of prayer, maybe investigating a new one like the ACTS method (Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, and Supplication). 

Instead of looking at Lent like something to endure, or live through to get to Easter, let’s take the opportunity this year to treat it as though we are athletes for Jesus Christ and this is our season to train. GO TEAM!

10 aspects of a relationship with God

People don’t like to be told what to do. While rules and laws help avoid chaos, keep order, and try to make things fair for all, our instinct is to try to bend the rules or find a way around them. God gave us the 10 Commandments to help us have a relationship with Him. What if, instead of the “thou shalt and thou shalt not,” these commandments were written in a way that expresses how to build a relationship with Him? Perhaps they might have read:

  1. I want to help you in your relationship with me. My essence is in all of creation, but it’s only a small part of what I created. Don’t confuse what you see for me. Seek a relationship with me.
  2. Language is a gift that allows us to communicate. When you speak poorly, especially using My Name in an unholy and evil way, it’s disrespectful of me and of my creation. Choose your words carefully; mean what you say to bring praise and love to creation.
  3. My desire to be with you is so intense, I want you to take one day a week to spend it in my loving embrace. Rest in me. 
  4. Male and female I created them, each with unique charisms that reflect aspects of my nature. I have chosen a man and woman united in a holy union to  give you life and be an example of my love to you. Love your parents and any siblings I give you. Your well-being and the well-being of both human and Christian society depend on healthy family life.
  5. All creation reflects me in some way, even those who deny me. Love all without distinction from conception to natural death. Love and care for yourself, too. 
  6. Love is a fundamental vocation that reflects my love to you and enables you to experience my joy in love. Chastity maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love I placed in you. Respect the sacred bond of marriage.
  7. I bless all in varying degrees based on their needs. Give thanks and be content for the blessings you are given. Respect the property of others and the integrity of creation. 
  8. When you speak truth, you honor me and bring honor to yourself. In all you speak, let truth be revealed for my praise and glory. Respect the reputation and honor of all. 
  9. Purity of heart and modesty protect the intimate center of the person. Living in community is a shared experience, but not everything is meant to be shared. A marriage union is sacred and blessed by me. If you are married, look within your own union for sexual fulfillment and you will find honor and blessing. 
  10. Be content with what I have given you in blessing. When others share the blessings they have received from me, honor their choices. Abandon yourself to my providence; thirst for me with all your heart and you shall be filled.

When we look only at the actual words of the 10 Commandments, we can be quick to say that we are following them. But when we look deeper and use them to tune our relationship with God, we see there’s a lot more room for us to improve. Prayerful reflection of the Catechism (part 3, section 2) can guide us deeper. God didn’t just hand over the laws for us to follow without any assistance. Wherever we see a need for improvement, all we need to do is ask God for the help of His Grace.