Monday, October 24, 2016

Living a Balanced Life

“Love thy neighbor as thyself”
It seems our culture so stresses “love yourself” first; it’s even taught to our kids in schools --- although the word love isn’t often used there, instead they’re taught about “rights”.  Love is something freely given to another; “rights” must be en-forced to be given to us.  Now, loving yourself is not a bad thing; Jesus and His Spirit is present in each of us; it’s what makes human life so important versus other animal life.  We were each created in God’s image.  Loving that image is proper, but that commandment (above) notes that we are not to love ourselves alone.  And, as the commandment puts in proper sequence, our neighbor should come first.  But loving ourselves is a natural thing, and loving our neighbor is not, so the commandment says seek to put him first, to help put a proper balance in your life and your actions.
The culture we live in should help us to put a proper balance in how we love our neighbor versus how we love ourselves.  Our family, our church, our country, our laws and our history all form a surrounding of culture in which we live, and that culture should help us lead a good life, a life in proper balance in this world.  But if our culture becomes toxic, like polluting the water a fish lives in, life becomes more difficult.  It is a struggle to live as we were meant to live, as we were created to live.
In our country, our culture is becoming toxic.
No man alive thinks he is the devil; every man things he acts for the good.  There are, however, many books written about discernment of spirits, and one of the things these books explain is that the devil, who DOES exist, works through our desires to do good things.  He convinced Adam and Eve that the forbidden fruit was a good thing --- for them.  He convinced the Jews and the Romans that killing Jesus was a good thing --- for them.  You noticed the dashes after those “good things”; they represent a “but …”, and they point to the selfishness of the actions, the out-of-balance perspective of the actors.
It is easy to be tempted into that out-of-balance perspective, especially when the culture, the things that help you make your decisions are themselves becoming warped or diminished.  Families are broken.  Schools devalue the history of our country.  Our laws are viewed as unjust.  Those meant to protect us are thought of as our torturers.  And God is not there.  How do we decide what is a good and proper thing to do, when our culture is broken, when we are alone in making our decisions of how to and who to love?
I think the answer, the solution we must pursue to make things better, to put better balance into all our lives, is to look at the basic theory of what we are trying to balance:  with whom in our world are we trying to balance our lives?
I wrote that it is between us and our neighbors, but that is a false perspective, for God is here too.  The proper balance in our lives is not properly prioritizing loving actions between our neighbor and self, but between God, neighbor and self.  God is not something that surrounds us as part of the culture, like water around a fish, God is part of us.  You cannot talk of man without talking of God.  We have forgotten that we are not alone.  We are like Thomas who said Jesus can’t be here unless I can touch Him and His wounds.  But He is here.  We and our neighbor exist because He wills it, and if we can’t accept that, balance in our lives is indeed most difficult.  Our life is not totally about self, to the exclusion of the other two, nor is it about neighbor exclusively, nor even God exclusively.  Our life is about a proper focus, a proper balance, a proper love, of all three.
A wife cannot love her children while ignoring her husband.  She cannot love her husband while ignoring her children.  They are a family, and love must be given to all, in the proper balance.  That is family.  We are part of God’s family.  “Come to me as little children,” --- and we must not think we are the head of God’s family.
Unhappiness in the world today, our unhappiness, is largely because our culture --- with the temptations of the devil --- has said we are the most important person in any relationship; we must put ourselves first; we have a “right” to be treated with love.
And our “right” is wrong.
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You must be as little children”
I think we have all seen (or at least can imagine) the small boy who walks into the huge cathedral, with its vaulted ceilings, Renaissance paintings, huge statues and shining stained glass windows.  The small boy bends his head back looking upward, and his eyes open wide:  “Wow,” he says.   Or imagine the same small lad walking into the huge wedding reception hall:  giant chandeliers hang from the ceiling, banners bedeck the walls, and flowers are everywhere, and he draws a deep intake of breath:  “Oooooooo”.  And he holds his mom’s hand for comfort, in this strange awesome place.
Cut to another young lad, entering those same surroundings.  He doesn’t look at them,  rather he pulls at his mother’s hand, and falls to the floor screaming: “I don’t want to be here; I wanna go home!’  Perhaps he stares angrily at his mother, pulling on her dress:  “I’m hungry.  Let’s go.”  Or perhaps he just says one word:  “Noooooooooooo!!!”  I think we have all seen this child also.
Now look at Jesus’ above words again: “You must be as little children.”  Who do you think He is referring to between the two boys described above?  In our culture today, the attitude of the second boy is not only common, but it is even common among college kids and adults:  “I want things my way!! Give me what I want!”  The brokenness of the second child is NOT the child Jesus says we must become.
If we can see that brokenness in the second child, why can’t we see it in our culture?
But I give you an example of one more young boy.  He lives in a remote village somewhere in the world.  His parents died of AIDS or some other illness; he lives with a former neighbor.  He works hard all day to find food; he prays at night with his neighbors; he is happy.  He smiles a lot.
Now imagine this child waking up one morning and he is in your body.  What would he see and think?  Regarding your things, I think he would be in awe, even at the least of them.  You have a bed!?  There is food in your house!?  You can imagine so many shocking things to him as he goes through your typical day versus his.  “You have so much,” he would think.  But he would feel things too.
Why are you so unhappy because that person was mean to you?  Why aren’t you happy with all the people who know you?  Why do you feel alone, with so many people around you?  Why don’t you pray at night with your friends --- and you can even go to God’s house to pray; it is so close.
Our culture has given us a strong tendency to act like that bratty child I described.  Things we have may appear awesome, as the foreign child would agree, but things don’t bring happiness, and even he would notice.  A proper balance between God and other people --- and things --- does.  Even an uneducated poor child of Africa would know that.  Why is it so hard for us to understand?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

My Life is Out of Control!

As I opened the Sweetest Day cards I realized that I had forgotten this secular “feast day”, and I rushed out to purchase cards.  And so I was thinking about these card-exchanging friends and our closeness --- or lack of it on their part and mine --- as I later drove to the chapel for my late-night adoration.
My brights were on, but perhaps my mind was dim as I drove down a dark and narrow stretch of road --- when a deer raced into my path.  I slammed on the brakes and all the books and things on the front and back seats crashed to the floor.  Missed it, but only by a few feet, and I wondered who was more scared, me or it.  Looking back, I realize my thoughts then were only momentarily interrupted by this perhaps life-threatening moment, but perhaps on another night they may have gone in a different direction.
Perhaps on another night I may have become angry and ranted: “You crazy deer!”  Perhaps I may have wondered what it was thinking or where it was going.  Or perhaps I may have sought some significance in its crossing my path:  Was this a warning?  Was this (not hitting it) a blessing?  Was this something to ponder for some deeper significance?
But none of those things happened tonight.  A deer crossed my path --- and was gone, and so were my thoughts of it.
It was easy to put the deer out of my mind, in part, because I have absolutely no control over its actions.  Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have chosen to hit the deer with my car, any more than I could have chosen to make it my pet.  It did cross the path of my life, but I was not in control of it.
I think sometimes the people we meet are like that, but we can’t treat them that way.  If people enter our lives for any length of time we think that perhaps they have some purpose for us and/or we for them, and we expect them to act in a certain way as a result of our paths crossing.
We’re surprised when our BFF becomes only a BF, or when our children grow up, or when friends or family move on to another stage of their life --- which no longer includes us, or includes us to some lesser degree.  We think they’ve changed, and that upsets us because our lives have changed as a result --- and their actions are beyond our control, even as the deer racing away into the night was beyond mine.
That Liturgy of Humility Prayer I pray each night is hard because it says, in essence, that it is okay if others move on with their lives, if I’m not included, if I’m not respected, if I’m not considered important to them --- as I once was.  It even ends with the prayer: “That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should.”
That is the prayer of humility:  that is the life of humility.  I want friends.  I want to be respected.  I want to make a difference in the world.  I want to be loved.  All those things, however, are dependent on others’ freely-given actions.  Regarding others’ actions toward me, my life IS out of control, because they are out of my control.
We often find that hard to accept, our wants from others not being fulfilled, their behaving not as we would wish.  Especially among the young these days, not having things their way is a culture shock, and they seek safe havens from their anxieties.  But it should be no shock; it has always been this way:  the only life and actions I control are mine.
But --- and this is a HUGE but, I can and should influence (not control) others by my actions.  I can choose to love God and pray for His graces to influence my actions in a virtuous way.  I can freely love others, and be grateful if some love me back; and I can accept that some may not.  I can cross the paths of others and can try to be a positive experience in their lives, even if only briefly.
My life is never truly out of my control.  I control it with every action I take, and it is how --- the attitude --- with which I take those actions that can change the world, the world I live in.  I can act in love.  The Gospel and teachings of Jesus have been summarized into one word:  love.  It is how to live our life, giving love as Jesus did.
Choosing to act with love puts us in control.  And not expecting a response, or accepting any which come, calms our anxieties.  Today some naively ask the government to take actions to calm their anxieties, but a government cannot love us.  We can bring love into our lives; God IS Love.  He showed us how to live our lives in loving, and expecting nothing good in return.  That’s His eternal reward for us, all the good we could ever want. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

What Should I Do?

God recently sent some people to cross my path, opportunities for me to serve Him.  They had in common the anxieties that come at a crossroads in life.  They were at a point of change in their lives and wondered:  “What should I do?”  Oh, they certainly weren’t asking me that question, but they WERE asking it of God --- but He seemed quiet, and so they spoke anxiously to me of their plights.  And if God gave them any answers through me, well I certainly wasn’t aware of it, but I did add them to my prayers.
The Sunday Gospel this week was about the ten lepers, who asked Jesus to heal them.  He responded by telling them to “Go show yourselves to the priests” (as was Jewish law for those who thought themselves cured), and on the way they were healed.  But, “one of them turned back, praising God at the top of his voice, and threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked Him” (Lk 17:11-19).
Now certainly there are many things to reflect upon in this Gospel, but the thing that caught my eye --- in light of my recent conversations with strangers --- was that Jesus TOLD THEM what to do.  Then the ten went off, but one came back, contrary to what Jesus told him.  He disobeyed a direct order from God!!  And for his reward Jesus said: “Go on your way, your faith has saved you.”
So often in my life I come to point where I know change is necessary, and others do too, like the people I met.  And we ask God: “What should I do?”  But in this Gospel the ten lepers perceived what God wanted them to do, and they did it, but the story didn’t end there.  And, as I perceived on this day, THAT IS the real story to note from this Gospel.
When we pray to God to know His will for us, “What should I do,” we should first turn to the resources He has already given us:  the Gospels, the Church, prayer, and yes people He puts into our lives --- He speaks to us through all these things --- to search out His will.  They all can be a source of direction, of what we should do or how we should proceed, and many of us are open to these aids He gives us --- but we think the story ends there.  We start off intending to do a good thing, proceeding in a good way, but with our anxieties lessened we stop looking for His will, because now WE believe WE KNOW the way.
Perhaps you may recall the words I wrote last week as I reviewed the book: My Heart Will Triumph.  In my review I quoted some words of the visionary Mirjana Soldo, where she summarized the call of Mary and Jesus to love our neighbor, every one of them, because each is a spark of Jesus Himself (which is why He can inspire us through them).  Mirjana identified all the different types of people we might meet, good and bad, and said we must see Jesus in them all, and she concludes with “And, perhaps most importantly, in yourself.”
In the Gospel ten lepers heard the word of God and properly started out, but only one heard Him speak again in his heart.  He heard Jesus in himself, and knew what he must do.  He went back and gave Him praise and thanksgiving, and stayed to hear more.  That is the story of this Gospel, and the one we must hear.  We must never think we are alone in our lives; Jesus is always with us. “Those who think they can make something truly worthy of their lives depending only on their own resources shut out the authentically transforming grace of God.  What’s more, the Pharisees thought they were in communion with God.  That kind of self-deception should make each one of us take a close look at our own relationship with the Lord.  The human heart was infected with mortal selfishness by original sin.  Gratitude, the most beautiful flower, directly contradicts self-centeredness, and softens hearts.  It brings smiles and gladness.  What a pity that it is as rare as it is lovely.” (The Better Part, Meditation # 210)
In the Gospel, the one former-leper put a priority on gratitude for all Jesus had done for Him.  “What a pity that is so rare.”
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“We are so wrapt up in ourselves… anxious to be admired and to win applause and esteem … for this creature whom we love more than every other, ourself. “
“O Lord, help me to understand well that my work has eternal value only in proportion to the love with which I do it, and not to the success or failure it may or may not have … for me.”
                        --- Divine Intimacy, Meditation # 333
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This morning God gave me an example of the above reflections, how He is willing to speak to us, if we are willing to hear Him in the means He gives us. 
Last night I perceived it strange when I said my evening prayers and meditations and time seemed to have stopped.  Usually when I finish my night prayers I may have 5 minutes --- but usually less --- to read from whatever spiritual reading I have on hand.  Last night I finished my prayers and was surprised that I had 30 minutes before my adoration hour ended.  And I began reading, where I had left off, a book titled: Peter, Keys to Following Jesus (by Tim Gray).  The book provided new insights for me to understanding St. Peter, and his relationship with Jesus.
This morning, before mass, I said my morning prayers and meditations and again time seemed to have slowed, since I rarely complete them before mass begins.  This morning I had 5 minutes, and so I again opened the book on St. Peter.  Then something struck me.  Among my morning prayers I read a chapter from the New Testament and a Psalm each day.  This morning I finished 1Peter, and put my book mark at the beginning of 2Peter for tomorrow.  And then I read in the book I was reading on St. Peter these words:  “Peter wrote his Second Letter from prison in Rome, a very dark place indeed.  This is how the Church and each of us should hold on to the sufferings and glorification of Christ --- as a lamp that lights up the darkness in our own time.”
“Second Peter,” “hold on to the sufferings,” and “the darkness in our own time” were words which resonated with me.  And I thought of those people at a crossroads in their lives, and I thought of our country, and the perceptions of darkness in our times, and the fact that I was coincidently reading both the New Testament letters of St. Peter and a book about St. Peter at the same time.  THIS is an example of how God speaks to us through His word, and through those He brings into our lives.  If only we would give Him the opportunity, by reading Scripture, reading spiritual works, PRAYING (and even fasting), and looking for Him in EVERYONE we meet, we would see and hear Him, and His loving will for us.  Even, and perhaps especially, in our dark times.
As for me, I will be paying close attention to the Letters and book about Peter, and what it might mean in my life.  I am confident God has something to say to me.  “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review: My Heart Will Triumph

Most books I review I consider special, and have many of my underlines in them (or my weird comments in the margins).  They teach me or make me happy or speak of things in a way clearer than I’ve seen before, and so I recommend them.  This book is not like those.  It has no in-depth looks at Christian doctrine, it didn’t teach me much, nor did it have (as you might expect) any great promotion of “messages from God”.  This book is special because as I read it, it made me shed tears of joy.
Having been to Medjugorje in 1987 and seen Mirjana and the other visionaries there, this book brought back all the memories of those most special, life-changing days of my life.  This book tells the story of events in a village of communist Croatia starting in 1981, but in truth, this book is largely an autobiography of Mirjana Soldo, a most common woman, to whom the Mother of God chooses to appear --- and tell her about the current state of the world, and its future.  Mirjana notes that when she and the others saw future events they were scared, but “if we who know the future don’t let fear darken our lives, then why should anyone else?”  She tells us to pray, and trust in God.  This is a beautiful book of hope, and a call to prayer and fasting for the world. 
Hearing so many scary things about our country these days, we all need to read the uplifting words of this book to find peace.  You don’t have to travel half way around the world, as I did, to feel the blessings being bestowed in a small village there, nor to recognize the importance of the events unfolding there.   
 Read this book to find hope in YOUR heart.  The world needs this hope.
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Some of Mirjana’s simple but important words:
Living on Earth, one is usually attached to earthly things --- which is completely normal --- but when you come to know heaven, you look at the world in a different way.  You understand that life on Earth is only temporary and death is not an end.
The devil will try to convince you that following God only leads to suffering, and that living according to the teachings of Jesus will rob you of your freedom, but, I do not want to give the devil any importance.  He only has as much power as we give him, and we can only give it to him through our free will.
“You cannot consider yourself a true believer,” Our Lady said, “if you do not see Jesus Christ in every person you meet.”
We can only make a difference with our prayers and example, and only if we have love in our hearts.
Our Lady does not want us to go around preaching to others.  She wants us to talk, but with our lives, not our mouths.  She asks believers to live as examples of people who know God’s love.
Regarding the terrible war which raged for years in all of Yugoslavia, Mirjana notes that Our Lady said to pray:  Prayer had the power to change everything.  And of its impact on herself Mirjana said, this war was the beginning of one of the most intense inner struggles I’ve ever experienced:  to forgive the seemingly unforgiveable. 
And finally, I very much like these words of Mirjana:
Nothing should prevent us from seeing Jesus in other people – not differences in race, religion, politics, or trivial things like the way someone dresses or what they do for a living.  Our Lady asks us to see Jesus in everyone.  In the homeless man begging for spare change.  In the Muslim and the Serb.  In the atheist who doesn’t believe in Jesus and the Christian who doesn’t understand Him.  In the newborn baby and in the unborn baby.  In your priest, in your bishop, and in the pope.  In those who have hurt you and those you have hurt.  In the thief.  In the drug addict.  In the worst sinner you know.  And, perhaps most importantly, in yourself.  See Jesus in everyone.
As human beings, we make all sorts of excuses to circumvent the commandment of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Forgive but don’t forget, some say.  Or the Croatian proverb, The wolf changes his fur but never his temperament.
True love, however, has no conditions.