Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: finding God in all things

As the cover states, this book by Jesuit Father William Barry is meant to be a Companion to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  The Spiritual Exercises are notes or directions for spiritual directors, who help people to examine their conscience, rid themselves of inordinate attachments, and to find the will of God for themselves, forming a personal relationship with God “and living in harmony with God’s creative purpose for (them).”  “Ignatius presupposes that at every moment of our existence God is communicating to us who God is, (and) who we are in God’s sight … but we are not always conscious of the presence of God” --- but we can be.
 The Spiritual Exercises are broken into four weeks (which, depending on the individual, can take months or even years to complete).  The weeks focus on sin and healing, understanding Jesus’ love for us, His death and resurrection, and finally, “The Contemplation to Obtain Divine Love” --- knowing who we are in God’s sight.
This book is a summary of the focus of an Ignatius-based spiritual discernment exercise, but it has many insightful comments which benefit anyone.  One of the first things the author notes is that many people seek spiritual direction, but cannot accept it because of preconceived bias.  “People who have been abused physically, psychically, or sexually may carry around gravely distorted images of themselves in relation to authority figures and especially God.  Many people have also been hurt badly by tragedies.”  The first chapter of this book is titled:  Can I Trust God?: Healing Life’s Hurts.  It provides great insights for a spiritual director to begin a difficult conversation.
The chapter on sin mentions how God “knows that we have not lived up to His hopes and dreams for us,” and our sorrows in realizing that He loves us tenderly anyway.  I especially liked Chapter 8: The Struggle Between Jesus and Evil.
In Chapter 8, Ignatius speaks of Satan’s worldly temptations:  “The first step will be riches, the second honor, and the third pride.  From these three steps the evil one leads to all other vices.”  Fr. Barry then gives an example of a university professor: first a student, then with a doctorate, and then one in a position of prestige and honor.  He works on a research project, but “the numbers do not add up,” but the data could be fudged.  “Has he succumbed to the pride that would say ‘I desire to be at this university; I’ve earned it’?  If he has, then the temptation to falsify the data will be almost overwhelming”.  From riches to honor to pride, this was a good example of the temptation that many of us face:  “the belief that one deserves what one has, and the honor and respect one receives.”
Countering the temptations of Satan, Ignatius presents the program of Jesus:  charity.  “To seek to help all, first by attracting them to the highest spiritual poverty, and should it please the Divine Majesty, and should he deign to choose them for it, even to actual poverty.  Secondly, they should lead them to a desire for insults and contempt, for from these springs humility.  Hence, there will be three steps:  the first, poverty as opposed to riches; the second, insults or contempt as opposed to the honor of this world; the third, humility as opposed to pride.  From these three steps, let them lead people to all other virtues.”
Satan’s three steps:  riches, honors, pride, then falling to all other vices.  Jesus’ three steps:  spiritual poverty, insults or contempt, humility, then the advance to all other virtues.
Fr. Barry presents Ignatius’ words on how we choose to lead our lives:  it is our choice, yet he also presents a view that it really isn’t.  We choose the route of sin: our desires for ourselves.  But, as Fr. Barry explains, Ignatius’ definition of Spiritual Poverty does not define it as being a choice, but rather as an “indifference”.  “One so loves God that everything else is in proper perspective … We try to live in the real world in which all is a gift.”  Ignatius says we should live as grateful people.  “Notice once again that Ignatius does not believe that anyone should choose actual poverty on his or her own … but Ignatius suggests that I leave the choosing to God alone.  I can ask to be chosen for the life of actual poverty, but I leave the actual choosing to God.”  Like poverty, Ignatius suggests that we might desire insults or contempt, but we are not to bring them upon ourselves; we are to remain indifferent to their happening.  But why would we even desire insults and contempt? -- Because they are “opposite of the honors of this world, (which) are very dangerous.”
I desire to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world.
“Truth to tell, the wealthy and the powerful as well as the town whore and the village drunk are potentially good so long as they aspire after spiritual poverty.”
Ignatius proposed meditating on three classes of persons, all who have legitimately acquired a large sum of money.  “The first class would like to do something. They may talk a great deal about what they should do, but they do nothing. … The second class also wants to get rid of the attachment, but they decide how they will handle it.  They will regularly give to the poor.  The third class wishes to get rid of the attachment, “but they wish to do so in such a way that they desire neither to retain nor to relinquish the sum acquired.  They seek only to will and not will as God our Lord inspires them. … The third class wants to do their level best to find out what God wants them to do with the money.”
“Ignatius wants retreatants to open themselves to what God wants and then to beg for the grace to choose what God wants. … Only when we have discerned what God has chosen for us, do we have a choice of whether we will choose it or not.  We must beg God for the grace to do so.”
If only we each had a spiritual director who could help us see, believe, and live those words.
I greatly enjoyed this book; I trust it will be a great aid as I begin classes in a couple of weeks to help me become, if it is God’s will, a spiritual director.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Discount People

We all know what a “discount store” is, and what items marked “at a discount” are.  In a word, the items being sold there are “cheaper,” marked at a lower price than that found in other stores or on other days.  They’re “on sale.”  But we also all know or perceive something else:  they are inferior.
When we see items “discounted,” we assume they are “cheaper” in price for a reason.  We assume the quality or desirability of the item has somehow justified the lower price.  “Well, with that crazy color, no wonder no one wanted to buy those shirts at the original price.”  “Well, look at the size of that pile!  Just how many spare tire jacks do they think a person needs?!”  Or, “Well, you shouldn’t buy those canned goods; they’re all dented.”  The fact that some discounted items are marked “as is” just re-enforces our perceptions that discounted items are defective in some way.
But despite our perceptions, some discounted items are not defective in any way.  They’re just different.  Sometimes they’re different in the manufacturing process; a more efficient process enables lower prices.  Horseless carriages were once discounted as were wireless phones.  Because they were not correctly perceived, they were thought inferior.  Electric cars are discounted and subsidized today; perhaps someday they will be looked at as a bargain or a necessity.
People also are often discounted in our perceptions of them, and of their value.  Most often we use the word “just” to voice our perceptions.  “They’re just slaves; they’re just Irish;” or, “they’re just Jews” are words from our history.  Our perceptions of those groups of people have changed over time, but other perceptions of people, people who we discount, persist.
“They’re just kids; it’s just an embryo; they’re just old people,” are not uncommon words today.  This morning’s scheduled mass was cancelled as the priest had a last minute emergency to attend to, and so a communion service was held, presided over by “just a deacon.”  That’s what I thought, as he walked out onto the altar.  What I didn’t think about were the years that man studied in preparation to become a deacon, nor the hours or days he made himself available --- often at the last minute --- to serve people like me, “just” me.  And that, I now perceive, is the crux of the matter:  while we discount some people as being “just this” or “just that,” thinking of them as in some way inferior or defective compared to ourselves, we never discount ourselves.  I am never “just me.”  This is a problem we all have.
It’s called “pride.”
The slaves, the Irish, and the Jews were thought defective or inferior by people of pride, who thought themselves better.  When you put yourself on a pedestal, everyone is below you.
I’ve meditated on this subject in the past, about how few of us think of ourselves as evil, or even as sinners.  “We are good people who want only good things,” we think.  I’ve sure the good Christians at the time of slavery, or of mass immigration, or of the concentration camps felt the same.  “We’re good, and they … well, they’re defective in some way.  They are worth less.”  And we don’t want things, or people, that are worthless.  After all, “We have our pride!”
We look back at slaves and other discounted humans and think we are past such misconceptions of the value of human beings.  We are wrong.  If we look to the root cause, pride, we must concede it has not been eliminated in this world, and in fact it has been elevated from the number one vice to the number one virtue in our society.
Everything is about “you” in our society.  “You” have rights; “you” deserve this, and “you” are important.  And with the constant re-enforcement of society, we come to perceive that compared to others we ARE better, and so what we want is better.  And those other people?  Somehow, they are defective, and we can discount them, and their ideas.
As long as pride exists --- and it will always exist in man --- there will be a tendency to see ourselves as better than others.  And as long as Christianity exists, Pride will be labeled a sin, and Charity --- true love of neighbor --- a virtue.  Jesus came to earth to show us how to love our neighbor, every human being.  As a God on earth, He still said all men are created equal in His eyes, none discounted versus another, none defective.
And so as long as Christianity exists in our hearts, will we avoid thinking:  they’re “just” Democrats, or Republicans, or liberals, or conservatives?  And will others avoid thinking: they’re “just” Christians?

Sunday, August 17, 2014


On Saturday, I drove two hours to attend the mass at which two sisters made their Profession of Perpetual Vows.  Invited by the men from the Fund for Vocations which I support, it was a blessing to be asked to attend --- an opportunity to do God’s will, I thought.
The drive began with my body feeling anxious --- perhaps I had too much coffee with breakfast.  I took a pill to relax, which worked after a while.  Despite printed directions, I had some further anxieties as I watched for the proper exits and turning points --- but they were needless worries.  I arrived in plenty of time, entering the parking lot just as those who invited me were also arriving, and so we entered the small cathedral in Saginaw Michigan together.
The mass and commitment ceremony were attended by Cardinal Rigali and two bishops, along with the forty or so sisters of the order.  The parents of the two young ladies and about a hundred or so others also attended.  The ceremony itself was very moving and brought tears of joy to my eyes.  It was good that I was there.
In his homily, the bishop spoke about commitment to community and its importance --- and its decline in our society.  “’Selfie’ is a new word added to Webster’s Dictionary this year,” he said; they’re pictures we take of our self, alone or with people around us.  “It used to be,” he lamented, “that we’d ask a neighbor or even a stranger to take our picture, but we don’t talk much to strangers, or even our neighbors anymore.  We do so much alone.”  He didn’t say so, but I perceived in him sadness to some degree, that it now takes a special vow to live in community, replacing that which was once called “just being neighborly” and caring about one another.
After the mass and ceremony, all were invited to a reception in the building across the street.  My friends asked me to go with them.  “No,” I said.  “I don’t know anyone there, and I have chores to do at home.”  (I felt going there would be to partake in food and gratuitous socializing, and an unnecessary focusing on me on this day of the sisters’ joy.)  And so I said a goodbye to my friends and drove home to cut the grass.
I now think I was wrong in my declining to attend that social gathering.
In the quiet of the adoration chapel late Saturday night, I again thanked God for the two new sisters, and prayed for their joy, and God’s, at their vows.  But as I lay before the Lord my thoughts drifted to the journal I had begun this week.  “Yes,” I thought, “this attendance at the vows ceremony was a great ‘God Opportunity’ presented to me.”  I would make note of it in my journal writings for today, with a check mark next to it --- an opportunity given me, and correctly answered.  But then, unbidden, came further thoughts, about the question inviting me to the reception.  Someone had asked me to go somewhere, and I turned down their request.  Was this too a God Opportunity, but one I hadn’t considered?  Why had I turned it down?  And looking at my response, I saw I turned it down because of me --- my desires and, perhaps, my false humility.
I thought I was being humble, not wanting to attend and have anyone waste any focus on me, feeling compelled to make polite conversation with me, a stranger in their midst.  Excusing myself, I thought enabled greater focus on the sisters.  “I’m just being humble,” I thought.
What an egoist am I!
There, in the quiet of the chapel, my eyes were opened.  Going to the reception I was afraid would cause people to focus on me?!  No!  Going to the reception was an opportunity for ME to focus on people, and on those two sisters in particular.  The invite offered for me wasn’t God’s Opportunity for me to receive some pleasure for myself, but to GIVE some pleasure to others.
Opportunities from God, true opportunities, aren’t there so I can receive some love, but so that I can GIVE some love.  Giving love requires someone be there besides me --- but I chose to go home, alone.  My eyes were opened, I think, to better being aware of real “God Opportunities” in my life.  They are first and foremost opportunities to be with other people, people whom God has put in my life, and I should willingly accept invites to be with other people.  Whether I am tired, or it is noisy, or even if they are people I don’t particularly like being around, how can I love my neighbor if I first consider myself?  How can I love my neighbor if I avoid him, choosing to be alone?
If I ever had an opportunity to see Christ’s presence in my neighbor, surely it would have been in the eyes of those two sisters.  And I passed it by.
I thought back on the bishop’s homily on “selfies.”  I didn’t use a camera, but surely I had focused a selfie that afternoon.  In my journal I’ll include a note on the reception invite, and categorize it under God Opportunities I had that day, and give myself a failing grade.  Did I really fail in an opportunity to love someone, to encourage someone, or perhaps to just smile at someone --- someone who may have needed to be smiled at?  I’ll never know, because I turned down that opportunity for a community gathering, for a selfie.
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If I love my neighbor because he is congenial, renders me service or sympathizes with me, or because I enjoy his friendship, if I love him because of his fine qualities and pleasing manners, my love is merely human, and is not the love of charity.  If I am good to my neighbor and help him because I am sorry for him or feel bound to him by human ties, my love may be called sympathy or philanthropy, but it cannot be called charity, because the characteristic of charity is to love one’s neighbor “propter Deum,” for God.  My love becomes the virtue of charity only to the degree in which the love of God enters into it, only insofar as this love is inspired by my love for God.  The more my love is based on human motives alone --- like congeniality, natural gifts, ties of blood --- the more it is simply human love which has nothing of  the merit and value of charity.  If I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor --- and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.  (1Cor 13:3)
                                    Divine Intimacy, (p.752)
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Pope Paul VI in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi described the Church as “a community which is in its turn evangelizing, meaning that those who have experienced the love of Jesus and live within the Church can and must communicate and spread it.:
                                    Encountering Jesus, by Peter J. Vaghi (p. ix)
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Lord, let me see Your presence in every person I meet.  Let me desire to be in the company of others, in community, for there I can love and serve You, present in every human being.  Let me see every encounter as an opportunity for You to sow Your seed, through me.  And let me be aware that You wait for me, in every person You place in my path.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Government Supports Catholics

Well, actually, as Fr Ed explained at mass today, the government supports all religions.  He cited a federal law which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to their employees for the requirements of religious holy days.   In the Catholic Church, religious holy days are considered Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation (like today’s Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), which are treated as Sundays.  Accommodating Catholics’ holy day requirements means that they are able to attend mass AND focus the day on the Lord --- including abstaining from unnecessary work.  He suggested that telling your employer early in the year about the four Catholic holy days of obligation which may fall on weekdays and that requesting vacation days would allow them “to make reasonable accommodations” for your absence.
For Catholics confused about the requirements of Holy Days, he suggested the reading of John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Deus Domini, the Day of the Lord.
Fr Ed also noted that the State of Michigan public schools allow for religious absences similar to the federal law.
He concluded by noting that ignorance of the Church requirements is no sin, so please don’t rush to the confessional for past lapses, if you were not aware.
But you are now.

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Yesterday afternoon I was visited by Corey Huber and Tom Cronquist, from the Matre Ecclesiae Fund For Vocations, which I support.  We had an enjoyable chat and dinner in downtown Plymouth.  Coming from a much busier metropolis, they greatly enjoyed the atmosphere of small town America, and we had some wonderful conversation about their work, and God’s work in our lives.
The Fund For Vocations assumes the college debt payments of men and women seeking to enter religious life, and if they make their final vows, pays off the debt entirely.  It is a great non-profit, and supporting it enables me to back up my prayers for priests with more concrete actions.  It’s not exactly buying a new priest, but I like to think of it that way ---- my sacrificing of my more selfish purchases, and participating in God’s answering of my prayers.
Tomorrow morning, after my usual Saturday morning breakfast with a friend, I’ll drive a couple of hours up to Saginaw, Michigan.  There I’ll join Corey and Tom at mass in the Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption, where Sister Mary Micaela Hoffman will be taking vows of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan.  She is an MEFV grant recipient.  I look forward to the blessing of seeing something I was a part of being brought to fruition. 
What I did was a little thing, but as I’ll witness tomorrow, little things can make a big difference.