Catholic Girl Journey

Wisdom of a paradox

Jesus ate and drank with sinners. His parables included giving more to those who had, and taking away from those who had little, as well as a landowner who paid the same full day’s wage to each worker no matter how long they toiled. And the ultimate paradox, is that through His crucifixion, Jesus saved us, giving eternal life to those who believe. With the bible littered with these examples, how are we to ever understand them so that we can apply the lessons to our lives?

I was knitting recently and started pondering that question, as knitting busys my hands so that my brain can think. Theological ideas can be hard to grasp even when they are straightforward, so wrestling with contrary ideas can be even more complicated. In a pause of my thought process, I turned to my knitting pattern, actually a chart of stitches, to confirm yet again that I was following it correctly. It was then that I realized how much knitting had in common with the paradoxes of the bible.

In knitting, there is really only one stitch, it just depends on which side you’re viewing it. On the “right” side, it is a knit stitch, but that same stitch on the reverse is a purl stitch. By including the reverse, or purl stitch in patterns, all various designs are created. Advanced knitters manipulate these two stitches to create lace, cables, bobbles, and all sorts of shaping. But in the end, it’s all just one stitch.

Then there is the pattern chart, like the one I was using. The “right” side, or that which faces out, starts at the bottom left, and the first row is read from left to right. The even rows are the back or “inside” of the garment and in a chart are read from right to left. Charts often indicate that a blank square equals a knit stitch on the front but a purl stitch on the back. That means reading from left to right on an odd row, I’m knitting the stitches and when I’m on an even row, or the back side, I’m purling those stitches. Why is the chart written that way? So that you can see what the final result of the pattern you are knitting will be.

Putting the lessons from the seemingly contradictory bible passages into practice is like knitting from a chart, only we may not see the whole chart, only the next ‘stitch’ we need to make in our lives. Or we may forget that above and below that knit stitch on the right side of the garment are purl stitches, the ‘backside’ of the knit stitch.

I’m not the first to struggle these seemingly illogical teachings. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, acknowledges that some teachings can be difficult to a logical mind, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the  Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor 1:22-25) Like following the knitting chart pattern, while we may see the big picture of the results, it can be confusing to try to understand the details in the same way. One has to keep on knitting before the chart begins to make sense, usually as the pattern starts emerging. Faith, hope and prayer keeps us open to God’s wisdom, allowing us to get a stitch or two deeper in His mysteries and teachings.

Catholic Girl Journey

Don’t scratch

No matter how many drapes or towels used at the hair salon when I have my hair cut, there always seem to be a few cut hairs that find their way between the collar of my shirt and my skin. After a recent trim, I felt itchy the whole drive home. I so wanted to scratch the itch. I knew that in fifteen minutes I could change my shirt and wipe away any remaining hairs. With every urge to scratch, I reminded myself how close I was to relief. However, the thought of Saint Thomas Moore also came to mind. He wore a hair shirt as form of discipline and penance. Here I was trying to put up with some discomfort for a short amount of time, and this man purposefully welcomed being uncomfortable.

It was only after his death that it became known Thomas wore the hair shirt as penance for his own sins and the sins of his country. King Henry VIII had declared himself head of the church in England so his marriage to his first wife could be annulled.  St.Thomas refused to approve and was eventually imprisoned for it, but he added to his own suffering by enduring this personal penance.  The garment was made of rough cloth, possibly from goat’s hair. The ancestor to this clothing is the sackcloth that is mentioned in the Old Testament. It was worn close to the body to remind the wearer to resist temptations of the flesh. Used by both religious and lay people, it was a rejection of luxury and comfort, and a reminder of the sufferings of Jesus. As Thomas was a man of means and power, and a close adviser for the king, wearing this shirt helped to keep him humble and to remember that he was, “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

I wonder how he got used to wearing it, or if he ever did. Did he begin wearing it for small amounts of time to build up his tolerance? Did he have skin issues as a result of all that irritation? This kind of penance calls me to rethink the comforts in my own life; how attached am I? I don’t know if wearing a garment that irritates the skin is for everyone, but are there other penances that could be just as effective? As we are all unique in God’s eyes, I wonder if we each have our own penances based on our weaknesses and temptations?

The saints provide great examples for us and help us in our moment of need. They challenge us to reflect on our actions and our relationship with God so that we keep moving closer to Him in our daily lives—sometimes embracing discomfort rather than seeking relief.

Catholic Girl Journey

Instant change

I was preparing to lector for a daily Mass, and the reading happened to be Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-20). Part of my preparation is to read out loud, and hearing this powerful passage made me take a closer look.

The writer of Acts does not shy away from bold statements, and the chapter begins, “Now Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord…” It’s clear that Saul doesn’t just dislike the disciples; he wants to put an end to this group known as The Way, even if it means killing all the followers of Jesus. However, the official letters he requested from the high priest were not for putting them to death, rather that, “he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.” Perhaps he had hoped that these followers could be reconditioned or convinced to return to the proper Jewish practices. Perhaps it’s this passion, this zealousness for God, that makes room in his heart for conversion.

Saul’s encounter with Jesus came in a blinding flash of light that caused him to close his eyes and fall to the ground. In this vulnerable state, Jesus spoke to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The encounter leaves him blind, requiring his fellow travelers to lead him by the hand into Damascus. For three days, he was left in prayer, he neither ate nor drank. What must have gone through his mind during this time? There was probably a good amount of ‘what have I done’ during his meditation. But perhaps all the exposure to the disciples’ teaching started to sink in, including the debates Stephen participated in prior to his martyrdom which Saul witnessed. Is there a deliberate connection between the three days that Jesus spent in the tomb and this three day hiatus in Saul’s life? When he was baptized, Saul’s old life was washed away and new life in Jesus’ resurrection took root, so that “he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.”

Reading the twenty lines of this major transformation makes it seem like it happened in an instant. But it took Saul three days of being blind, praying, fasting to prepare for this baptism and his new life for Christ. He went from being the persecutor to being the persecuted. The results are the fourteen letters he wrote to the Christian communities, timeless messages that continue to be relevant to Jesus’ followers even today.

Catholic Girl Journey

From ordinary to extraordinary

Name three saints that first come to mind.

Which ones did you choose?

Perhaps some were apostles of Jesus, like Peter or John. Perhaps one was your patron saint. Another may have been a more recently canonized saint, like Pope John Paul II or Mother Theresa. Do your three saints all come from among the religious elite?  It can seem sometimes that all the saints were called to religious life of some sort. Does this mean only people who have a religious vocation are eligible for sainthood? For those in the laity, like myself, it can be a daunting thought. I was paging through a book of saints recently, and when I tried to find one that did not belong to a religious order, it was a bit difficult! Joan of Arc was one that surfaced. To my surprise, there were also a few royals listed, like Edward the Confessor of England and Elizabeth of Hungary. So it is possible for extraordinary leaders to reach heaven. But what about the ordinary folk?

Pope Francis did just canonize two such individuals: Louis and Zelie Martin. I found it rather interesting that both considered the religious life, but realized that was not what God called them to do. Louis & Zelie were called to more than just religious life, namely to bring into the world a little girl who would one day become a doctor of the Church, St. Therese of Lisieux. In living their lives focusing on God and their children, they demonstrated the love of the Trinity within their family.

God creates such variety in life, it seems logical that the diversity in His people is a part of His plan. If our daily activities can be done with care and love as an offering up to God, we can use the ordinary things of life to come closer to God. And by coming closer to God here on earth, we will be more prepared for heaven. Once on heaven, we will realize our day to day actions helped us become saints. That is extraordinary, indeed.

Catholic Girl Journey

Here today, saint tomorrow

November starts with the feast of All Saints Day, which in the Church calendar is a great time to reflect on the lives of the saints. We are counting down on the liturgical year, since a new year starts on the first Sunday in Advent. During this year end, we pause to contemplate the lives of those who have gone before us.

One year when I was  a student in a Catholic grade school, we were asked to dress up as our patron saint for Halloween to commemorate an ancient custom of “All Hallow’s Eve” as it was originally called. This was a great exercise for kids, since we had to learn more of about the saint for whom we are named. My name, Karen, is actually a derivative of the name Catherine. In the little book of saints that I had as a child, there was one listing for that name: Catherine of Alexandria. I remember being aghast reading that she had been scheduled for torture by a spiked wheel, only it fell apart instead of hurting her, so she was beheaded instead. As a youngster, that sounded terrible to me, especially since I had to dress up like her.

Now I realize there are many saints named Catherine, and it’s up to me to find the one that I can truly call my patron, someone that I can look up to and learn from. As a subscriber to Magnificat, a monthly devotional that includes snippets of writings from various saints and holy people, I have come to admire St. Catherine of Siena and consider her my patron. Her letters helped to bring the papacy back to Rome from France. She was an incredible writer and leader and was named a doctor of the Church.

There are so many amazing saints, and even if we don’t share their name, we can still consider them our patrons and ask them to intercede for us. Learning about men and women who faced hardship and worldly problems yet succeeded in living holy lives helps us to connect with them. We can learn from them how to trust in God and how we can let God lead us to heaven. We are all on the journey during this life to the next. Will we be the saints of tomorrow?

Catholic Girl Journey

Practice Makes a Saint

We’ve all heard the saying, “Practice make perfect.” So what does that mean in the life of faith?

When you think of practice, what comes to mind? Is it sitting at the piano, playing the various scales to the beat of a metronome? Or is it throwing a ball through a hoop again and again, making small changes to hand placement, balance, and body movement? Maybe it’s drawing a circle over, and over, and over again until it is perfect.

Just like any activity at which you want to become better, faith is all about practice. It’s not about doing things correctly all the time, it’s about practicing so as to continuously improve, coming closer to perfection. And just like with any other activity, you don’t tackle all the skills needed at once, but rather concentrate on perfecting one and slowly applying what has been learned to more advanced skills.

Since faith is a relationship with God, how can one “practice” a relationship? By getting to know him, by seeing God in every person, by recognizing his handiwork in all of creation. That’s why a life of faith is more than just following rules, treating people nicely or going to Church on Sundays.  It’s important to be at Mass on Sunday, not just to cross it off the list, but to be filled with God’s message, to help you hone the skill you are perfecting and to encourage you as you practice throughout the week.

Often in our culture, people who claim to be of a particular religious affiliation are held to a different standard. Part of that is understandable; it is good that a person can be known by their faith. Other times, it’s an expectation of perfection, forgetting that faith is  a journey and people can have good days and less than ideal days as they practice. It’s not an excuse to do whatever, but a call for mercy towards those that do not meet to the standards yet.

We are all on this faith journey, so it’s okay if you’re not perfect. It will take a lifetime to get to your goal. Practicing faith is continuing to deepen that relationship with God.  One day you may join Him in heaven. Since all who reach heaven are saints, then practice helps make a saint!