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. 

Sitting and waiting

For the first time, since I learned to drive at 16, I am without a car. Nothing bad has happened, it’s just that my lease on my current car ended and the one I am purchasing won’t be in until the end of the week. This has  given me time to reflect on waiting and preparation, and aptly so since the Church’s theme of the final weeks of the liturgical year is preparing for the end. 

Since it’s just me, I have no other choice but to drive anywhere I need, or want, to go. (Until now, of course.) Now I have to rely on the goodness of others to get me where I need to be. I’m very grateful that I am a full-time remote employee, working from home, so I don’t have to worry about a daily commute. However, any church functions that I participate in, as well as Sunday Mass, I’ve asked others to be my “wheels.” My friends are wonderfully supportive; and we’ve used the opportunity to attend craft fairs and go out to dinner, since they needed to drive me around.  This has really been a blessing which I truly appreciate. 

Even with these wonderful encounters, I don’t want to be rude to my friends by making them wait for me if I’m not ready at our rendezvous time. My goal has been to be ready 5 or 10 minutes early, just in case they arrive earlier. In reality, I have been ready much earlier than that, and thus I’ve had to wait. I didn’t want to start anything that I couldn’t quickly put away. I didn’t want to be in another area of the house, in case I didn’t hear them when they arrived. I was concerned about picking up any one of my hobbies as I can get so lost in them that I might lose track of time. The sensible thing was to sit and wait, looking out the window. I was ready. I was prepared. And then my mind began to ponder.

When one is prepared and waiting, especially for something that is imminent, one is on hyper alert, looking at every flash of movement and ready to spring into action. Is this what God expects of us in terms of readiness when our final moment on earth happens? Does our human nature allow us to be that hyper vigilant for extended periods of time? If we’re going to live another 10, 20, 50 or more years, how can we be prepared for our final hour? Unlike waiting for a ride, our final moment will not wait until we are prepared, we won’t miss it, nor inconvenience someone if we’re not ready. Perhaps to be ready for the end is not so much about being hyper vigilant, but rather to be vigilant in our day-to-day, recognizing the opportunities God gives us to be His hands, His feet, His ears, and His smile to those we meet. When we seek to do His will, we’re not waiting for Him to come to us, we’re actively seeking Him out, spiritually walking towards Him. 

Perhaps that’s what it means to be prepared for the end: to walk the journey towards God, looking for Him in every person we encounter and letting His love flow through us to others. If we always see life as a path that leads to God, then there is no sitting and no waiting for the end, there’s just the action of living and witnessing to all we meet along the way. 

Preparing for the end

November is the time in the calendar year that is the end and the beginning for the Church. It’s the end of one liturgical year cycle and oftentimes is the beginning of the new liturgical year. There’s much that the Church feeds us during this month.

The month starts out, November 1st, with the most appropriate feast there is when considering the end: the Solemnity of All Saints. The goal for all Christians is to become a saint, that is to be face-to-face with God for all eternity. This celebration is for all those in heaven — both known and unknown. Some may be our ancestors! In 20 generations, which would be about 400 years, we each have approximately one million ancestors. Have you ever considered seeking intercessory prayer from one of your great grandparents or another ancestor? If you’re not comfortable reaching out to unknown family members, there are plenty of saints from which we can ask assistance. This month is a great time to pray a novena to our patron saint or a saint that we admire and would like to emulate. Even if there is no official novena prayer, praying an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be asking for their intercession over the course of 9 days during the month is a wonderful way to focus precious prayer time.

Hot on the heels of the saints, the Church celebrates All Souls day on November 2nd. This day is for all those in purgatory who are being cleansed of the stain of sin. This is our opportunity to pray for the ones who have come before us, both family and friends, and to offer charitable deeds on their behalf. While not obligatory on this day, Mass is the most perfect prayer we can offer and participate in, and a wonderful way to remember those we love. This opportunity is a reflection in two aspects: those that have gone before us, and ourselves who may one day also require the same purification process. If we take the time in prayer to focus on how we can improve our relationship with God, we can begin to make the necessary changes now. Even St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians urged, “Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2) 

Preparation for the end continues in the daily Mass readings and especially on Sundays. The Gospel themes include a discussion of the resurrection and the destruction of the Temple before the final feast of Christ the King, which is celebrated on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. The readings remind us that although we are living in a tangible world, our destiny is beyond what we can experience with our senses. They are not meant to scare us, but to prompt us to actively prepare ourselves for what’s next to come, no matter what stage of life we’re in, as we do not know the hour or the day when we will be called by Jesus to eternity. So how can we prepare for the unknown? The mystery of eternity seems daunting and it’s understandable if we want to ignore it and not dwell on it. Yet the best preparation is a relationship with God, and continuing to practice trusting in Him and His will for us. This is done many times a day in the choices we make. The celebrations of these feasts along with the scripture readings for these last weeks of the liturgical year give us the opportunity to reflect and focus on our relationship with God with a special emphasis on our eternal salvation rather than our day-to-day needs. 

The Church gives us the time to prepare ourselves for eternity, to take inventory and resolve to make necessary changes in our lives. The result will be a stronger relationship with God and allows us to “ring in” the new liturgical year with open hearts and minds.

Catholic Girl Journey

Unique salvation

In this past Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 13:22-30), Jesus was asked, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” It’s an interesting question that doesn’t get answered. But perhaps it is a question that can’t be answered. 

Other Christian denominations ask, “Are you saved?” as a tactic to start their evangelization. The basis for this question is to find out if a person has accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and if so, they have all confidence that they will be saved and have a place in heaven. This predicates that salvation is based on one, single act at a point in a person’s life. The issue with this assumption is that one may reduce life down to one moment in time, but  how can one select which moment upon which they should be judged? The question of who will be saved (or how many) is really irrelevant since it seeks to be the judge or the measure of salvation. We want to compare ourselves against others, and as long as we align on the side of being saved, we can wag our fingers at others and laugh at their misfortune. 

Jesus’ answer to the question in the Gospel is not an exact count of salvation, but rather how to approach the journey of salvation. We know we do not earn salvation; it is only through Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection that the door of salvation has been opened. He has created a path for us. But what does that path look like? Some will look at the Ten Commandments and say that is the measure of salvation. Others will use the precepts of the Catholic Church as a checklist of what needs to be accomplished in order to be saved. But salvation cannot be reduced to a checklist. It’s not a report card upon which you are graded. 

“He answered them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.’” Strive is a verb denoting action that has etymological roots to that of “fight” as in “battle.” Does this mean we need to fight God in order to gain entrance to heaven? No, we don’t need to fight God, we need to fight ourselves: our pride, our wanting to pass judgment on others, and our desire to be god of all we encounter. We are not strong enough if we try to do this by ourselves (which is a form of pride) but instead only when we humble ourselves to let God lead us and to be the person God calls us to be. Our salvation is a summary of our life journey. Yes, there will be times we will fail, but there will also be times when we succeed. It is not a single moment in time, but rather a continual yes to God, turning towards God and seeking Him and His will for us. This life journey will transform us, if only we open ourselves up to Him. 

Every person is called to follow Jesus. Every person has the possibility to be saved. By having a relationship with Jesus, we can discern what He is calling us to do. Our salvation is unique to us because we are all called to serve Jesus differently. The commandments, the precepts, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are all guides to help us find our role in God’s plan of salvation. A life spent following Jesus is a life of action, of doing, of being. And after a lifetime of action and battling ourselves, we humble ourselves once more to leave it to God’s merciful judgment to determine if we will receive the everlasting gift of salvation. So the real question is not “will I be saved?” but rather “Jesus, how can I participate in your salvific will for me?”

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. 

Grape leaf and bunch of grapes gilded on a church door in Israel

Best wine

I was reminded recently of Jesus’ first miracle which took place at the Wedding Feast of Cana and found in John’s Gospel (2:1-11). I love the detail about how the head waiter comments to the groom about saving the best wine until after the guests had already been drinking an inferior one. When I look at that statement with a logical mind, I think, “Of course, it was water turned into wine by Jesus. He’s not going to make something inferior.” However, I think there is a deeper meaning to the wine being of better quality. Jesus as the bridegroom of the Church has been taught throughout Church history and the marriage of heaven and earth is through the salvation efforts of Jesus. 

The wine at the Wedding Feast of Cana can be viewed as a symbol of our life, and when we complete our life on earth, the life that comes next is far superior. Jesus did remark to His mother that His time had not yet come to perform miracles, yet he proceeded in doing so. Was it because His mother was insistent, to the point of directing the wait staff to follow the directions Jesus gave them? Or was it because He could use the opportunity to teach people that while they may enjoy life now, a far better life is yet to come? 

I do enjoy a glass of wine and I like sampling them at wine tastings. There is always an order: light white wines first, then the heavy reds, and sometimes finishing up with the sweet dessert wines. If you try sampling them out of order, it can be hard to cleanse your palate enough to taste something that is more delicate in flavor and you can’t appreciate it as much. It doesn’t indicate they are not good wines, just that the flavor is affected by what we have consumed prior to it. I can see how heaven would be a wine that is light and delicate, yet full of fruit flavor. We may think our life on earth is a glass of bubbling champagne, or maybe a refreshing blush wine. We may enjoy it while we are living our earthly life, or maybe the bubbles are too much for our taste. Whatever the situation is, the wine of heaven will be suited to our taste, and the best we have ever had.

Wine is composed, on average, of over 80% water. While it is still miraculous that Jesus turned the other amount into the elements that make up wine, He still started with the basis of water and enhanced it. That is one of the hallmarks of being exposed to Christ, you don’t remain the same person you were before encountering Him. Being God, Jesus could have turned anything:  lava or wood or some other object, into wine. Yet, He chose to turn water into wine. Something so similar in composition yet drastically different. 

Our lives are changed when Jesus enters our lives. For those who welcome Christ into their lives and seek a relationship with Him, He promises life eternal far superior than we can ever imagine or taste. Cheers!

Catholic Girl Journey

Dining with the saints

Starting out the month of November with All Saints’ Day has me thinking about the saints with whom I feel a connection. Modifying a question that pops up from time to time: if you could dine with any saint, whom would it be and why?

While that may seem like a wild question, it may not be that absurd. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, the message of God preparing a banquet feast is a recurring theme. While some may argue it is used as an analogy, even if the purpose is not meant to eat, there is a gathering taking place. In heaven, it is called the communion of saints.

Since Jesus is the only one who has come to earth from heaven, it’s hard for us who live in time and space to grasp what heaven is and what it will be like. God has given us an imagination and I can’t help but think this is to help us prepare for heaven. While we will be able to see and experience God as He is and He will be all we need, the communion that the Trinity shares amongst the three persons I would think would be mimicked by the communion of saints. Our interaction with other saints may not be to see, hear, and talk to them as we do on earth, but there would be some sort of communication between all members, otherwise we would be in total isolation.

If I was able to talk with only one saint, I think it would be Saint Peter. I would love to hear his stories, from fishing to following Jesus and how much alike he thought they were. I would love to know about his family and how they handled his career change. I also think it would be fascinating to hear how his intercession has helped people over the past 2,000 years.

If heaven does allow us to get to know the other saints in on an individual basis, it may take eternity to get to know each person. What better harmony can there be in heaven, than the communion of saints truly being a family and getting to know one another.

Catholic Girl Journey

Who art in heaven

As I was praying the Our Father recently, an odd question popped into my head: Why do we state where God is? It’s not like there are multiple gods out there which we need to differentiate. It’s not like He changes locations with the seasons that we would need to keep His whereabouts in mind. And how is it that we humans can definitively know where God is?

Heaven is not about a physical place or space, as we define location. Rather it calls to mind that God is not a being limited to our world. He is Creator of all, so His signature is on everything we see around us. That helps us to bring Him to mind and ponder what He is like. After all, what better way to get to know someone than to look at what He has created? But creation does not fully reveal who God is, rather provides us examples of what God is like. Creation can lead us to a relationship with God, but not to God Himself.

If God is not a being limited to this world, then He is beyond it. When humans first roamed the earth, they had no idea what was above the clouds, as the clouds, sun, moon and stars were beyond their reach. It makes sense that the first definition for heaven in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is, “the expanse of space that seems to be over the earth like a dome.” However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The symbol of the heavens refers us back to the mystery of the covenant we are living when we pray to our Father. … [Christians] are in the flesh, but do not live according to the flesh. They spend their lives on earth, but are citizens of heaven.“ (CCC: 2795-6) Does that mean the Our Father is not reminding us that God is elsewhere, but that we are called to live with the hope and anticipation of getting there?

Jesus Christ came down from heaven by being born of a woman and ascended back into heaven after He completed His mission (His passion, death and resurrection). He has bridged the gap between the two realms. He has taught us to keep heaven in mind when praying by using it not just once, but a second time so that we ask for God’s will to be ‘done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Heaven is not a state of mind, but a state of which to be mindful.

Catholic Girl Journey

My choice, my responsibility

If a non-believer asked you why does it matter if they believe in God, how would you answer?

I was watching a video from Bishop Robert Barron about ‘Reaching the iGens’, which concerns individuals who have grown up in a post i-phone world and the alarming number who have no religious affiliation. They are considered the ‘nones.’ He pointed out a few main considerations to think about when evangelizing to them. For instance, he mentioned seeing a billboard in California that seemed to sum up their attitude: “My Life, My Death, My Choice”… a total contradiction from the Catholic perspective, in which these are God’s choices.

The idea of having an opportunity to evangelize a ‘none’ person has me thinking of what I would say. There are so many ways to express why I believe, but most end up starting with the assumption of a belief in God, a higher power. But what about those who claim that since science hasn’t found any evidence of God, that the Bible is just a bunch of fables and tall tales like Greek and Roman mythology? I think the answer lies in society’s preoccupation with choice. Every marketing campaign starts with knowing that the consumer has a choice, they want you to choose their product. But a plethora of choices surrounds us: from the number of TV channels to ways to watch TV, to opportunities to dine out, what to make at home or even a combination of ordering from McDonalds and having it delivered by Uber. Among all these choices, how do you make a case to choose God?

“It’s my right to choose,” is far too often a defensive cry. But what if we turned that into the basis of our argument for God? Yes, we all have the right to choose, but who gives us that right? God does. He gave us freewill to either invite Him into our lives willingly or to turn away and ignore Him. However, with every choice there is a responsibility one has to accept for making that choice. For example, if I decide I don’t feel like going to work and I stay home, I have to accept the responsibility that at some point my employer is going to terminate my employment. It might not happen immediately, but eventually some disciplinary action will occur. If a person chooses to ignore God, He’s not going to go away, but at the point of their death, they must accept the consequences of this choice – eternal damnation. Would you want to wait until the point of death to realize that there is a God? God is merciful, so depending on how one lives their life, it’s still possible to reconcile with God even at that last possible moment.

I choose to believe in God. I believe that He will help me become the best version of myself. I will never reach perfection on earth, but I try because I know He’s supporting me. Even when my world seems rocked and anxiety starts creeping in, His peace is never far away. Living my life for God gives me purpose, direction and guidance along the way. I’m choosing to believe in God because I’m responsible, not just for what I do or not do in this life, but also for what happens after I die. I don’t want to wait until then to find out I should have done things differently. That reality may happen sooner than I think!

Catholic Girl Journey

Excuse me, do you know the way to heaven?

They are our constant companions. They are our lifeline to the world. They are smartphones. Without them, we would be, well… LOST.

There was a time when I would search a map for the best route to get to my destination.and carefully write down the directions, turn by turn. Then I would notate the reverse, so that I could drive home without driving in endless circles. Now, I don’t have to prepare a thing. I just type in an address and the map in my phone will take me there. Don’t like the way it’s taking me? I can turn down a different road and it will re-route me. As long as I have my phone charged up, I can go anywhere.

We put faith in an electronic gadget that it will get us where we want to go. We might get frustrated with our phone for dropping a call or sounding a notification without cause, but we trust that whatever map app we have, we can make our journey. We may make fun of the way it takes us, sometimes the long way around, but never do we really question if we will make it.

How do we make the journey to heaven? Do we trust God enough to lead us there? Or would we rather put the address into our smartphone and drive there? I don’t think of myself as a person who has to be in control all the time. However, since I drive on a daily basis, I think some of that need for control creeps into other areas of my life, like my faith journey. Can I let God take the wheel and lead me to heaven? Do I think I’ll get lost on the way? Well, if I insist on driving, I very well may get lost! But if I let God drive me, how can I ever think I won’t make it? It sounds so easy, but it does require trust on my part.

I have to trust in God’s Word. I may not be able to enter an address for heaven, but I know the way because it has been mapped out by Jesus.  “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). I need to be open to way that Jesus is directing me. I open up myself to a relationship with God through Jesus in the Mass, in prayer and in trying to follow Jesus’ life example.

It’s not about what I want, it’s about what He wants for me. I need to stop being a backseat driver, telling God where I want to go and how I want to get there. I need to trust that He will take me where He wants me to go. Sometimes it may be a direct route and sometimes it may be the scenic way. What I need to remember, is to just sit back, relax and enjoy the view and the journey.