Earlier today, a coworker complained about the weather and I chimed in, "I know. I really, really hate the winter. I just hate it." A moment later I felt a pang of guilt. Do I really hate part of what God has created?
Today's daytime prayer, from the Liturgy of the Hours, includes Psalm 74. The psalm is a harrowing lament in which the Psalmist cries out to God for mercy as enemies are destroying his entire civilization. The Psalmist recounts to God all the various atrocities crashing upon His people. Toward the middle of the second half, the Psalmist pauses, as if to remind himself more than to remind God, "Yours is the day and yours is the night. It was you who appointed the light and the sun: it was you who fixed the bounds of the earth: you who made both summer and winter."
With further reflection, and speaking with a friend over lunch, it occurs to me that this time in life is turning out to be a real period of waiting. Waiting for God to act is never easy. That's why we so rarely do it, I think. The Israelites were watching their civilization be torn down all around them by violent invaders; I am only flummoxed by the bureaucracy of the graduate school I hope to attend. The Israelites were desperately hoping for salvation; I am only waiting to hear about a career move, or a living situation. The Israelites were being murdered and plundered in their own streets; I am only receiving a premium increase on my car insurance. In perspective, my situation isn't so bad as theirs, but I think the same basic lesson applies.
This time is appointed by God for His purposes in my life. It might feel like my life is stuck and going nowhere, but many seeds lay dormant in the winter that sprout in the spring. Provided one has taken all the steps and undertaken all the actions that one prudently can, all that is left to do is to wait. I'll do well to remember that God made the wintertimes of life as well. Maybe it's best to curl up by a fire, dig into prayer, and wait for the wintertimes of life to pass.
Our Lady of the Snows, pray for us.
Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (Jan 25)
St. Paul's conversion becomes in our mind the very prototype for a conversion to our holy Faith because of the dramatic change he underwent. From killing Christians to proclaiming Christ seemingly overnight, if the account from Acts of the Apostles is read without interpretation.
In reality, things weren't quite as decisive as all that. Firstly, tradition holds, and the his letters themselves seem to indicate, that St. Paul spent several years in Arabia between his initial conversion and the beginning of his preaching (Gal 1:17). During this time, the zealous and violent Pharisee was transformed gradually into the zealous and gentle Apostle.
Moreover, it must be borne in mind that Saul the Pharisee did not knowingly oppose God. Quite to the contrary, according to his own best natural lights, Saul was passionately obedient to God. His problem was not caring for God too little, but knowing Him too little. "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" the Pharisee was asked. He responded with a telling question of his own, "Who are you, Lord?" (Acts 9:4-5). It hadn't occured to him earlier that the Jesus whose followers he hounded might actually have been God. The radical repositioning that changed Saul into St. Paul was, at least firstly, a recognition. He didn't change his mind about God, but about Jesus, by recognizing Him to be God. Most of us need a much more radical conversion, because even if we recognize Jesus to be God, we do not recognize God to be God - that is, we make ourselves God while paying mere lip service to the Creator. While Saul was mostly in error, we are mostly in a much more serious spiritual problem - hypocrisy.
All that said, Saul's conversion into Paul was radical and shocking enough to alarm and amaze the Christian communities he encountered (Acts 9:21). And even though his vocation needed maturation and testing in the harsh Arabian desert, his zeal was never dampered and he immediately began to preach the One whose disciples he had murdered (Acts 9:20).
Most of our conversions don't happen with the apparent pace of St. Paul's. The Holy Spirit works in all of us, but what was patent in St. Paul immediately is latent and subtle in most of the rest of us. Gradually the Holy Spirit molds and kneads our soul, strengthening from without and supporting from without. The rate of our growth is exactly equal to our willingness, and a major work of the Holy Spirit is to increase our willingness, our attitude of obedience to God. Those unbaptized persons or unconfirmed Christians who seek admission into Holy Church and so receive her holy sacraments manifest the same sort of obvious conversion that St. Paul did. Still, all of us need ongoing conversion, and some of us, even while practicing the Faith externally yet need a much more radical conversion.
I thought it would be fun to include a roughly chronological list of some cool converts who have already departed this life for the eternal, coming from different walks of life throughout the ages. Many of them paid a steep price, even martyrdom, for their integrity and commitment to Christ. May they be rewarded for it, and may we imitate them! If you can think of others, please tack them up as comments!
St. Justin Martyr, Ss. Perpetua & Felicity, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Martin of Tours, St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Stephen the King of Hungary, St. Juan Diego, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Alphonse Ratisbonne, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Buffalo Bill, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oscar Wilde, Fr. Robert Hugh Benson, G. K. Chesterton, Fr. Ronald Knox, Sigrid Unset, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Day, Max Scheler, Dietrich von Hildrebrand, Edith Stein, Jacques Maritain, Salvador Dali, Graham Greene, Walker Percy, Valery Goulding (nee Monckton), Adrienne von Speyr, Malcolm Muggeridge, Thomas Merton, Andre Frossard, Rene Girard, Christopher Lasch, Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, Catherine Doherty, John Wayne, Lord Alec and Lady Merula Guinness, Bob Hope
Coincidentally, this post is my 100th on the blog. Happy reading!
St. Paul and all other Holy Converts in Heaven, pray that we ourselves be converted.
The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is located in Brookland, a neighborhood in the Northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. It is also located in my heart. It's a little bit away from anywhere I've ever lived. My home in Rockville is about 35 minutes away - that's the closest, so it's always been a bit of a trip, a mini-pilgrimage if you will, to go there. The Shine has something like 53 chapels devoted to different images of Our Lady as well as its great main chapel and its beautiful and large, yet homely and intimate Crypt Chapel in the basement. It has a whole chapel for hearing confessions, and another for the Blessed Sacrament. It is a wonderful place to go to make a holy hour, preceded by Mass and confession, as I did today.
Sometimes I let the beautiful, emotional Mother of Sorrows chapel draw me in. It's Pieta, which I feel superior to Michaelangelo's (in effect if not technique) is absolutely gripping. A youngish Mary holds Jesus in her lap with his lance wound facing the penitent man at prayer before the altar. She leans over him with her chest heaving and her face plunging forward and upward, toward heaven, but her eyes are closed gently and she refuses to be consoled, because her Child is no more.
Sometimes I drift into the Virgin of Guadalupe chapel. The walls are all done in mosaics, showing the Virgin of Guadalupe flanked by processions of men, women, and children bearing her gifts and homage. Among them are recognizable saints, especially saints from the Americas: St. Juan Diego, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Katherine Drexel, St. Rose of Lima. But there are many more people whose identity is known only to the artist, if even to him. They are the nameless multitudes of Christians drawn into the life of holiness by the beauty of their Lord's mother.
Sometimes I make my way into the Our Lady of Lourdes chapel, which is a walk-in replica of the Grotto of Lourdes. It feels something like a cavern or a basement, and very much reminds me, when I close my eyes and let my heart see, of the Grotto. It is quiet and dark - the sort of place to which Jesus frequently retreated to pray. It never occured to me until this moment that on such nocturnal retreats He may have met His mother, already in prayer, praying for Him and His ministry. Perhaps they shared hopes and worries in those quiet, nearly wordless meetings. Sitting in that chapel, very much like at the Grotto, it is very easy for me to close my eyes, open my heart, and simply feel with Mary, my mother.
At the apse of the great chapel, there is a massive mosaic of our Lord, the Son of Man, returning in glory at the end of all things. He holds his muscular arms aloft like a traffic cop stopping cars. His blond hair is blonder than blond - it dazzles. His blue eyes are fiery and passionate. He has a halo made of flames blazing from his brow. Needless to say, He does not look happy at what He is finding at the end of all things. While few of us love Jesus the Just Judge as much as we love Jesus the Good Shepherd, the mosaic certainly is a reality check about our relationship with he who "will come to judge the living and the dead."
The liturgies at the Shrine are always conducted with the utmost reverence. Sometimes the singing is singable, and other times I, at least, cannot sing along - but then, the singing is beautiful enough that maybe it is better just to listen. The confessors have always been gentle and patient priests, prudent and straightforward, eager to help the penitent (well, in my experience at least) to change his ways. On the whole, each of my trips there (I must have made a hundred over my lifetime) has been spiritually restful.
I highly recommend a trip.
St. Anthony the Abbot
Religious (Jan 17)
Anthony had had it with the worldly world. He'd had his fill of treasure and trifles as a well-to-do young man. He was born in 251 in Egypt, in the midst of persecutions. He survived those, and even more bitter persecutions at the end of the same century. When he was about 20 years old, while a peace reigned and persecution of the Christians tapered off, his parents died. Within the year, when he went one time to pray in church, he heard a preacher speaking about the rigors that the Apostles endured, and that even the contemporary generation's parents had endured, for the Christian faith. How easy it had become to be a Christian. The preacher spoke about our Lord's admonition to the rich young man to sell his possessions so as to follow him more perfectly. The words resonated with Anthony as if Jesus had been speaking right to him.
Anthony sold his parents' estate, leaving only what was needed to provide for himself and his sister. He began to practice an increasingly austere and simple lifestyle, and after about fifteen more years quit the city altogether and moved into a cave in the wilderness. People drawn to his gentle modesty, wisdom, and wit followed him into the desert. His great hope had been to withdraw into the desert so as to find quietude for prayer, solitude for Jesus. His plan was not altogether foiled. The men who gathered around him began to live a life that was both collective and isolated, gathering for meals and Mass, and retreating again into secluded meditation and prayer. He wrote a rule for his brothers to order their life in common, and is known as the Father of Monasticism.
We each of us live in a very busy world, with a great deal of stuff - possessions, appointments, responsibilities. These burdens can crush us down, like the thorns in our Lord's parable, choke off our growth in Christ. It behooves us prayerfully, in conversation with trusted and spiritual friends, and with the advice of a spiritual director, to pare down our lifestyles, to simplify, and to cut back so that we can make time and space for Jesus. A great help in living a recollected and balanced life, as well as obeying the Third Commandment (remember the Sabbath, anyone?) is the Desert Day.
A Desert Day is a day by one's self, with Jesus. It might be at a retreat center or on a trail in the mountains. It really can be anywhere that will not intrude on our inner recollection; venues with lots of advertisement, music, flashing lights, etc., are straight out, mind you. Nice gardens, churches, quiet boardwalks in small towns - these might do. During the Desert Day one should make a real effort to attend Mass, make a holy hour, meditate on some spiritual reading, stroll about and take in the air, and let Jesus know what's going on in your life. Jesus will speak back to you if you let Him, but because He doesn't want to be a boor, he won't shout. He loves you, and lovers love to whisper in your ear. So if you want to hear Him, you must be quiet and listen closely.
St. Anthony the Abbot, please help us build a little monastery in our soul so that we, like you, can live with Jesus day and night. Amen.
So over the weekend I went to one of my favorite spots to get out and away, to think and pray, to read and have a private little picnic: Great Falls National Park in Potomac, Maryland. It's just a few minutes from my house and it's easy to do for just a couple hours. It needn't take even a full afternoon. This time, while hiking on the Billy Goat Trail (which is pretty rocky and craggy, right along the river) I stopped for lunch, and then hiked back to the C & O Canal Trail, where I walked a few miles up to the Great Falls overlook. Staring at the raging waters, I was taken with them. They are not as big and majestic as Niagra Falls, to be sure - not by a longshot. But they are homely and they are ours. And whoever jumped in or was dropped into them would certainly be destroyed. The Great Falls are a lot like reality in that way. Our own little corner of reality is homely and we can take it for granted. It is beautiful, though, and if you take it seriously, will be fulfilling. If you treat reality, real life, the world, like a game for your own amusement by your own rules - you will almost certainly end by killing somebody.
Another thing I noted was that after all the turmoil of the Falls, further downstream, things turn more or less placid again. Life is like that. Things get hard sometimes. Real hard. You think they will break you. But you hang on, ask Someone for help, and in the end, he leads you to rest by still waters. There, you can eat your ham sandwich and read your book in a bit of peace for a while. So to speak. Eventually, we hope, He will lead us into an everlasting rest. But in the meantime, hold on tight. It'll probably be a wild ride.
I think a large part of the Christian life, at least for me, is about learning to trust God and go with the flow - to let Him steer the ship. By that I mean both to prioritize my decisions based on my best estimate of His will, and also to remember that whatever happens, He's still God and ultimately, He's still calling the shots. Since He's smarter than me and loves me more than I love myself, that's not an entirely bad thing. It's just bad for the ego. Or it may be good, depending how you look at it.
A novena is nine days of prayer in imitation of the Apostles, the Bless Virgin Mary, and many disciples, who gathered together to wait and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room after Our Lord's Ascension (Acts 1:12-14). Longstanding tradition holds that they remained in the room praying for nine days, and that it was on the ninth day that they were visited by the Holy Spirit who has stayed with the Church ever since.
January 22 is the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, against the better judgment of most citizens and 48 state governments. The number of unborn children deliberately killed increased from a trickle to more than 1 million per year. On that day each year, tens and even hundreds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life gather in Washington, D.C. for the annual March for Life, to register our protest against the current situation: the legality of criminal immorality. The "protest" is shockingly joyful - lots of children, mostly young people, tons of happy laughter, prayer, and song. If you are unable to get into the city for the event, you might join us in prayer. A great way would be to start a novena today - the last of the nine days would be January 22.
The late Holy Father John Paul the Great proclaimed Our Blessed Mother, the Virgin of Guadalupe, to be the Protrectress of the Unborn. She is also the Empress of the Americas, and so we are under her spiritual "jurisdiction." Remember "For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds," (2 Cor 10:3-4). Let's pray to her to drive out all the demonic powers that rule our nation and saturate it in filth, cruelty, and murder. Here is a simple, easy prayer you might recite for your nine days' prayer.
Oh Virgin of Guadalupe, Mother of our Unborn Lord and our Mother, Protrectress of the Unborn and our Empress, we appeal to you, our Queen, to take back authority of over our nation. Drive out from it, we pray, all the evil spirits that are bathing our land in the blood of the unborn and who threaten our elderly fathers and mothers. Bring repentence and healing to all who have been harmed by these sins. Protect us from worse evils, and strengthen us for spiritual warfare. Overturn the evil false laws of abortion and euthanasia that allow lawlessness to reign in our land so that we may build a just and peaceful order. Please help us to prepare for the earthly return of our King, and make us fitting for the majesty of the same Christ our Lord. Amen. Hail Mary... Glory be...
The rapidity of our immediate response may sometimes differ in our inward dedication and our outward actions.
A keen distinction must be made between our inward dedication to God and to His kingdom in ourselves and in others, and our action proper (on ourselves and on others). The call of God once perceived, our response cannot follow quickly enough. We should immediately and unconditionally respond to the sequere me [Lat., "Follow me"], giving ourselves to God without demur or reserve as did Mary: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word." All hesitation here would be a perilous error.
But this unhampered inward dedication to God does not by itself involve the performance of all single acts which it entails in a general and essential sense. Particularly does this caution apply to extrinsic and public action, that is, the works of the apostolate.
Certain saints – among them, as we have seen, St. Francis and St. Anthony the Hermit – immediately drew the full consequences from their conversion. But this is a great privilege of grace. Our sense of discretion must enlighten us about whether we may take the decisive step with its full implications at once, or had better remain for a period in inward maturing. There exists a danger of skipping over necessary stages.
Sometimes it also happens that a sincere but not so highly privileged Christian, instead of awaiting a more unmistakable and concrete call of God, overreaches himself in a kind of natural enthusiasm and anticipates certain acts fraught with grave obligations, without being able to posit them with a true inward decisiveness. Many converts immediately want to enter a religious Order, though they lack actual vocation and have not measured the whole significance of such an enhanced dedication to God.
The Church knows this danger; that is why she requires an adequate interval of inner maturing for all great steps in a religious life. Unless a particular and rare grace makes up for it, man needs an appropriate space of time for all deep and great things.
The attitudes deep things require cannot, in general, attain their complete validity and reality except after a period of organic development, whose length varies greatly according to each case. For every deep, fateful word there is a fullness of time in which alone it can be legitimately and fruitfully spoken. Anticipate it hastily by acting without discretion, and your utterance will be shadowy, devoid of maturity, and invalid. Again, let the “destined hour” pass unused, and you will no longer be able to speak that word except in an empty and purely formal fashion.
It is touching to read how the chamberlain in the Acts of the Apostles hastens to be baptized by the deacon Philip; for him, thanks to a special grace of God, the destined hour – the fullness of time – was at hand there and then. But the Church by no means modeled her general practice in admitting converts upon these cases, recorded in apostolic times, of an instantaneous and definitive conversion.
On the contrary, in the first centuries she imposed on the catechumens a long course of preparation through the successive stages of which they had to pass before being admitted to Baptism. Even today, every adult baptism must be preceded by a certain period of instructions and maturing. As regards the preparation for monastic life, the Church only allows the taking of temporary vows at first; final vows require a preparatory stage. Nor does she admit a definitive private vow of virginity without an antecedent temporary one. Thus, in forming these decisive resolutions concerning our inner and personal life, too, we must exercise holy patience, and accord time the significance in human affairs with which God has invested it…
Notwithstanding all our zeal, then, we must observe the obligation of patience even as workers in the vineyard of the Lord. With careful discretion we must try to perceive the striking of God’s own hour for our work to start in His vineyard rather than insist, in a spirit of natural enthusiasm and impatience, on determining it by ourselves. Suppose we are animated by a glowing zeal: if, at the same time, we have patience, we may be infallibly sure that we no longer live by our nature but by a supernatural principle of life.
A buddy of mine, a close friend, after spending a week visiting a fairly austere Franciscan order, hoping to find his vocation there, remarked to me, "I might have a vocation to join them; but I think a vocation needs time to grow inside of you." Wise man, my friend.
I overslept the 6:30 a.m. Mass at my own parish this morning, and so went to the parish by my office for the 8:00 a.m. Mass instead. Even before he could be seen, the door was heard to clatter loudly, complete with the tell-tale clumsy shuffling and huffing and puffing. There was a whiff of cigarette smoke and I knew it was the Smelly Man; without even intending to, I smiled. God is so merciful.
Ok, so I blew it again today. He came into church, this time, moments before the communion procession, still as blustery and smelly as ever. I've seen him at this particular Mass at this particular parish a few times before. He's clearly got a lot of issues. He always shuffles in loudly, out of breath, and clumsily. But even before you can hear him, you can smell the cigarette smoke literally ten or fifteen feet away. His hair is extraordinarily greasy and he is laden with sweat from head to toe. Today he was wearing a monstrous blue mesh eye patch that was hanging loosely off his face. He might have Tourette's Syndrome: he waves his hands and shakes his fist in the air, audibly whispering things like, "One, two, three, yes!" while the rest of the people are kneeling in silent prayer. Passing from communion, the man waves to the (embarrassed) altar boy, but then stops at the creche or the statue of Our Lady and drapes himself over the poor plaster people.
And I, the embodiment of perfection and liturgical dignity, found myself choking back disgust, and wishing that he'd just GO somewhere ELSE: "Good grief, HIM again! Why does he come HERE?" Gently the answer appeared in my mind, "For the same reason you do." Of course the man comes because he wants Jesus.
Father's homily on the day's readings (1 Jn 4:7-10; Ps 72; Mk 6:34-44) came crashing back into my heart. The first reading is the beautiful passage of John's letter than cultimates, "God is love." Father preached about the theological virtue of love, called a theological virtue because its only possible source in our lives is God, and it is the transformation into sons and daughters of God. Love powers, measures, and directs our transformation in Christ; when we are consumed by self-sacrificial charity, we will have been consumed by Christ. We cannot do this thing, love, on our own, out of our own resources. The reading from the Gospel is St. Mark's account of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Jesus takes the little the apostles have, little bread, little fish, little faith, and He makes love overflow. There remain twelve baskets beyond what was needed to feed the thousands. "Bring your heart to Jesus," Father said, "and ask him to multiply your love."
On retreat once, the retreat master gave an excellent working definition of mercy. Mercy is not permitting evil or leaving it unopposed. Mercy is not condescencion or arrogance. Mercy is not pretending that your enemies have done you no harm. In this case, mercy is not trying to convince myself that the man is not odd or disgusting. Mercy, the preacher said, is accepting a person as they are with all their flaws and experiences, and treating them gently. Mercy is to avoid breaking a bruised reed. Mercy is to try to imagine where someone's been and what's brought them to their present brokenness before we begin to deal with them. Mercy is letting someone be odd and disgusting without hating them, or treating them harshly and coldly even in the darkest recesses of our heart. Mercy is not holding who somebody is or what he has done against him.
As I left the church after Mass, I looked around. At first I was alarmed because the smelly man was approaching the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration upon the altar of sacrifice. What would he do? I tensed up, but only for a moment before the answer came: he knelt before the sacrament where, generally speaking, only the priest kneels. He waved his hands for a few minutes, counted with his fingers, and audibly whispered something to our Lord. And then he became quiet and still. As I looked around, I saw nobody else even seemed to notice him. They were only noticing Jesus. Looking back at the man, I saw he was still quiet. It occured to me that it might be the only moments of quiet and peace the poor soul will experience all day. I think he really did come to Mass this morning for the same reason I did.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, make my heart like unto thine.
With the early events of Christ's life, the Annunciation to Mary, the birth of Christ, the visit of the wise men from the East, God's fullest revelation begins. The sun itself dawns. As our Lord teaches, the full light of day begins to shine. With His death, Resurrection, and Ascension, the sunlight of God's love for us is at full noon. Since the time Our Blessed Lord ascended from the earth, the sun has begun slowly to set.
In case you weren't able to make Mass this morning, I highly recommend the readings (Jan 3: 1 Jn 2:29-3:6; Ps 98; Jn 1:29-34) to you. Especially the reading St. John's first epistle is very beautiful. Here is part of it:
The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.
Already we are adopted into being children of the Eternal Father, as brothers of Christ in the Holy Spirit. But what He wants to transform us into, if only we will let Him... that has yet to be seen. He wants to bring us from one glory to another, greater glory, as St. Paul says elsewhere (2 Cor 3:18). As we come to behold God more clearly, we are transformed in the beholding. At the end, when we "see him as he is," we will be fully, finally transformed. It is this hope of heaven that drives us Christians on in our thirst for sanctity. The purification of our hearts, our motivations, our desires, our goals, so that everything depraved is burnt out, everything extrinsic set on the back burner, and everything lesser made subject to the Greatest Good - this purification is the cause, path, and fruit of our sanctity.