Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Sign Of His Love

I believe in the Lord, Jesus Christ.  I believe in His willing crucifixion, as a sign of His love.  I believe in His presence in His Church as a sign of His love, and I believe in you, my friends … as a sign of His love in the world today.
It’s taken me years to appreciate more fully that I am meant to be a sign of God’s love in the world, that in some mysterious way He is part of me, and that through me He acts.  Through me he would act, and perhaps do important things in this world, acts of His love, if only I didn’t let MY will and desires block His way.  His will is to love all those whom He brings into contact with this earthen body; so often, however, my will is to love myself first.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus proclaims.  “I know My sheep, and My sheep know Me.”  But sheep are dumb and so easily distracted, and confused.  And some wander off, lost.
I know what Jesus thinks about those lost sheep: Even for one, He will go searching and leave the 99 behind.  I wonder sometimes, however, about that one, and those 99:  What are THEY thinking?  Jesus called the one a “lost” sheep, but what does that one think of his situation?  Pondering this, I think that the one who has wandered off likely does not consider himself lost, at least not in the beginning.  He does not consider himself in any danger, or he would not have set out from the flock.  No, I think he honestly thought that there was a better place to go, or at least there might be, and so he left to “check it out.”  Considering our society today, and our Church, there is no doubt that many are wandering off, thinking something might be better just over the horizon --- some are so confident, in fact, that they call to the others in the flock: “Come!  Follow me!  I know of better fields.”  I think they choose to wander in sincerity, perhaps even thinking themselves in service for others of the flock (without daring to say it, they think of themselves as good shepherds).  What they don’t ask themselves, in their confidence, is: “Why do I think I know the way, and neither the Shepherd nor the 99 do?  Why do I think I am so special in my knowledge?”
That’s a problem today.  So many people think themselves special:  “I know the way,” they would shout.  Or: “Certainly I, more than anyone else, know the way for me.”  They don’t stop and seriously consider:  Wouldn’t many of the 99 think the same thing?  I don’t think they see themselves as bad people, wanting to go astray and leading others astray.  It seems a natural and right thing (in their minds) to do, to want to do what it takes to make themselves happy.  But unfortunately, they don’t consider that there are others, doing what comes naturally to themselves also, doing naturally what would make them happy --- but they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, who define their happiness as eating the sheep.  In looking to lead, or even being one of the ones led astray, they don’t consider the possibility that there are wolves.  And they can’t see themselves in the mirror, and so they can’t possibly consider a horror:  that perhaps it’s they, who might be the wolves.
A great problem in the world today is the Self, the “I” that wants so much, and societies which proclaim that the wanting-for-self-first is a good thing.  So many in our society claim the Self, the one, the “I,” is so important, and they must wander where it wishes.  And they don’t see wolves anywhere, nor safety in the flock, nor the Good Shepherd.  They don’t see because they don’t sincerely look to see.  They think they know.
This independent streak is hard for a man to overcome.  In democracies it once was proclaimed that you CAN GET all you want, if you sacrifice for it.  But so often now others say: “No, you DESERVE all you want, just ask.”  And the good of the flock, and the good of The Shepherd, are left behind, as they wander toward the lure of “happiness for myself.”
The Catholic Church is blessed in having a leader who is defined as the successor, the lieutenant if you will, of the Good Shepherd.  While many in society loudly proclaim: “Follow me; I can make you happy,” the pope’s job is to proclaim all the louder: “You don’t have to wander in searching for happiness, or try to build it.  It is here already, already built.  And it will not just give you a promise of earthly happiness, but the reality of eternal happiness.”
As one shepherd of the Church retires today, a job well done, another springs up in his place, charged and taught by the original Good Shepherd: “Feed My sheep.”
There are some who proclaim that it is the pope who is the wolf in sheep’s clothing, as they say: “Follow me instead.”  I would only ask anyone so disposed to think, to have reason and logic and ask: “Is not it the wolf’s desire, naturally, to also strive to get what he feels is good for himself?  I beg you to look at the popes we have had, who you yourself have seen:  Do they look like someone who is getting what he desires?  Are all their travels, sufferings, humiliations in the world something any wolf would seek?”  Pope John Paul II lived up to the task he felt assigned him by the Holy Spirit, in spite of his sufferings at the end.  “Would Jesus come down from the cross,” he asked.  But now Pope Benedict XVI steps down in retirement, in humility, saying that he no longer is the man the Holy Spirit tasked to lead the flock, nor the one strong enough to wander the mountains looking for the one lost sheep.  In doing what they were called to do, did either of these men look like they were doing this challenging work for their own benefit?  Or was it for the flock?
No, these were faithful servants of the Good Shepherd.  In love, they laid down their lives and their wants, for Him.  (If you should doubt this, just read the words of JPII before he became pope.  He had great plans for his life, plans which he thought would make him happy, and yet still do the work of God.  And yet he humbly put those plans aside, for God’s plans.)
I pray that the next pope will live up to the standard of his predecessors, in love of that First Shepherd and His flock, and be a sign of His love to the world.        

Monday, February 25, 2013

Why Am I Such A Failure?

I am a sinner; it has taken me many years to really appreciate that fact, and to understand its meaning.  But … Jesus expects me to be a sinner at times, and that is something I’m still coming to grips with.
Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.  (Lk 6:36-7)
It was the final mass at our parish by the little Italian priest, before his transfer to a new location.  He spoke, in his heavily accented voice about the gospel this morning, and forgiveness.  He said he once asked a group of teenagers: “What should you be thinking of first, as you begin your examination of conscience before Confession?”  (He said there was silence in the room, as the teenagers probably thought it was a trick question.)  “As you begin your examination of conscience the first thing you should be considering,” he said, “is the love and mercy of Jesus.  That’s where you begin,” he said.
In just a few short sentences, Fr. Fortunato went on to explain how we can’t begin to consider our sins without first considering Jesus.  Jesus --- God --- did all that a man can do out of love; He gave everything for us, including His life.  He showed us how much He cared for sinners; they were among His best friends, yes, friends.  Even Judas who He KNEW would betray him, he gave the responsibility of the purse, He broke bread with him; He washed his feet.  He gave us the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the father who waited for him to return home.  In this story, He told us that He waits for us, too.  And waits, and waits, and waits.  That’s love, and even when the Prodigal Son comes home and wants to apologize and ask forgiveness, the father quickly brushes past the talk of sins, and looks to celebrate, in love, the son’s return.
That, the kindly father explained, is what we should be thinking about when we approach Confession.  Even as he counseled me personally last week, he reminded the small congregation that the most important thing in our relationship with God is God, not us, not our sins.  He is a loving, a merciful God.  And so when we think about our lives and ask in a despairing way: “Why am I such a failure?” God quickly moves to answer: “Yes, I’m glad you are concerned about that, but let’s plan for the future all the good things we will do together.  Let’s talk about the celebration of you and I being together, such a wonderful thing.  The past is the past; let’s talk about the future.”
If we approach Confession with the attitude that the good father counsels, first thinking about how good and merciful Jesus is, then our sins are put into a better perspective.  Yes, they are an affront to this good and gracious God who would give us everything.  Yes, they are a rejection of all He offered us, and still does.  But no, He doesn’t want to sit and dwell on it, nor does He want us to.  “Okay,” He seems to say, “We’ve grown apart.  So let’s sit down and talk about how we can grow together.”
The title to this post is wrong, as is the thinking of anyone who would say those words.  It is incorrect to say: “Why am I such a failure?”  The correct words are: “Why WAS I such a failure?’  The moment you say the words recognizing your sin and your misuse of the gifts of God, at that same moment God is there with you, quick with His love and quick with His mercy.  When you acknowledge your failure, you should also acknowledge the arms around you, the hug being given.  Go ahead and confess your sins; it is a good thing to do.  But before you do, consider the man, the God, you are confessing them to.
You are never a failure in His eyes. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

I Want To Be A Frog

As a young child, I recall overhearing the adults talking: “It’s a fact we just have to accept, that we’re all going to croak someday.”  I didn’t know then that “croak” was slang for dying, but I did know that frogs croaked.  And so when I heard that we’d all croak someday, I thought: “I’m going to turn into a frog!”
That was a strange thought, but even as a young lad I thought about a lot of things.  And so I thought about a frog’s life, as I knew it:  sitting on a lily pad all day in the sun, sometimes eating a fly (I wondered if they tasted good?), and going for a swim if it got too hot.  That didn’t seem like such a bad life, and so it was that I decided: I want to be a frog.
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There is an article in the March edition of First Things magazine by Gilles Bernheim, Chief Rabbi of France.  He writes about the Jewish point of view regarding the issue of homosexual marriage, a topic of much interest in France these days.  But he also tries to understand the gay community’s point of view, since it so often happens that where “gay marriage” has been legalized in some states or countries, few gays participate in what they so strongly advocated.  So why pressure so strongly for this recognition?  The rabbi learned that “in the place of sexual identity, which is considered a thing of the past, queer theory proposes the notion of a ‘sexual orientation’ chosen by each individual based upon the gender that somehow defines his or her interior being.  Queer theory defends the idea that one can be physically masculine but psychologically feminine, or the reverse.” 
This was the first time I had ever heard of this philosophy, and it seemed to explain many things for me.
If sexuality were a chosen mental state, then if you reject my sexual identity, you reject who I consider “ME” to be; you reject my very being, for I am who I think I am.  Now, if you reject a mentally delusional man who states he is the king of the United States, this is looked upon as well and proper, for he is not.  But the “queer theory” says if you reject my chosen sexuality, you are rejecting me the same as you might reject Jews or some other chosen religious mindset.  “I am who I think I am,” they seem to be saying.  And even further: “You have no right to reject who I think I am.”
If this is their understanding, I can better understand the gay vehemence for acceptance.  But my understanding a viewpoint or way of thinking does not mean I have to agree with it, and that is where it seems much foolish debate goes on in our culture.  Because you choose something, a way of thinking, you wish me to respect it and you.  But you are assuming that all ways of thinking and choosing are good and deserve respect, just because someone says so.  I disagree with that assumption.  Not all deliberate thoughts --- or actions --- are good.
I can drive up to a red light and stop, and see that no cross traffic is coming for miles in either direction.  Sitting there, waiting at the red light, seems to me to be foolish.  I don’t like that red light.  I don’t think it should be there.  It may be legal, but I still don’t like it for it is contrary to the way I want to go.  If that red light were a gay person and he perceived my attitude, he might well say I hate him (some might say I have a phobia against them), and my dislike is a hate crime.  A hate crime?  It’s a red light, not a person.  In this country it is legal to hate things, like a light pole, or even actions, like its changing from green to red.  I also hate loud commercials, but that doesn’t mean I hate people who act in them.  I hate cell phones ringing in a movie theatre; I don’t hate people who own them.  I hate the actions that gay people proudly proclaim they do --- and many heterosexual people do them also.  I don’t like red lights in the middle of nowhere, or cell phones ringing in theatres, or homosexual activity because I don’t believe the physical entities doing those actions were made to do them.  Even as a hair dryer was not made to work in a bathtub --- major problems can result --- so major problems can result from other things --- and beings --- being used not as they were made to be used.  You can’t ignore their physical being.  And especially in man, you can’t treat him as only a mental being, for he is not an angel, he has a body, too.
If my physical body can be ignored in who “I choose” to be, then my choosing to be a frog should be permissible, as should be my frog-like actions.  If I can “choose” my sexuality, then I guess I can also choose my race regardless of body appearances --- why can’t I choose to be a black man, even if my skin is white?  If my physical body is not as important as my mindset, why can’t I choose to ignore laws based on physical aging, like laws on driving age, voting, drinking, military service, and being elected president?  At age 35, cannot I have the mindset of a 40-year old and be president?  At age 50, cannot I choose to play with blocks all day and have the mindset of a 5-year old, and so choose to enter First Grade again?  If my body is what my mind says it is, regardless of physical being, why not? 
Or do you hate me?
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I am not a frog.  I cannot choose to be a woman if I have a man’s body.  I can’t get accepted under a racial preference law by saying I choose to be black.  There are many things I can’t choose to be if I, in fact, am not.
I can’t choose to be a saint, if all my actions say I am a sinner.  And if I, a sinner, were to appear at heaven’s gate saying: “I am one of the ‘chosen’ ones who chooses heaven,” I know the likely response.  He will say: “I do not know you.”  Despite whom I wish to think I am, it is my actions which will define me.
And accusing God of a “hate crime” for keeping me out of heaven, probably won’t get me in.  I’d probably have a better chance of getting in if I said I were a frog.
The problem with a person who feels he is hated for his actions --- whether they be sin or not --- is that the person doesn’t know he is loved.  I read these words tonight:
There is a relationship between love and discipline:  the weak person refuses discipline in as much as it seems a rejection (not just of his actions, but him); only the loved person can accept discipline (of his actions) as a means to grow closer to the source of love.   The Virtues, Or The Examined Life, by Romanus Cessario, O.P.  p58

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Excellent Books For Lent

The Church founded by Jesus Christ was meant for unity --- a growing unity here on earth, and an eternal unity in the Body of Christ in heaven.  It is why Jesus Christ, God, came to earth.  And so it is a major, major problem when the people of the Church act in disunity.  And in the Church today, there is much disunity.
One of the major reasons for disunity, as identified by the Church leaders, is a lack of knowledge about what the Church teaches.  If one person says the Church teaches this and another says it teaches that, there cannot be unity.  And a further critical point is the role of reason in Church teachings.  The Catholic Church teaches, as Jesus did, the relationship between faith and reason.  “So that the submission of our faith might be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit…. They are motives of creditability which show that the assent of faith is by no means a blind impulse of the mind.” (CCC 156)  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the relationship of faith and reason in some depth, and tells us what we believe.  The proofs shown in the catechism I find to be very compelling, and are cross-referenced to the bases of our beliefs, whether Scripture or Revelation or Tradition.  The foundations of what we believe are clearly put forth, and we should read them to better agree what the Church teaches.  However, it seems to me that one of the weaknesses of the catechism facilitates our disunity:  it doesn’t address well why we believe those things.  Even if the basis is: “Because Jesus said so,” for some people there needs to be this underpinning of reason.  They ask: “But WHY did he say so?”
Most people believe 1 + 1 = 2, but there are some who will question this.  Why isn’t it 1.5?  Why isn’t it 3?  Why isn’t it 2 today, and 1.5 tomorrow?  An example in the teachings of the church is that of the male priesthood.  “Yes, I can agree that Jesus instituted a male priesthood, but that was then.  Today our culture is different and there is a priest shortage.  So why today shouldn’t it be okay for female priests?”  Regardless what is taught in the bible or revealed by God, there are many who would ask why something was taught and, not knowing the answer, many assume what to them seems a logical answer.  “Things have changed; so the Church must change.” 
The Catholic Church teaches that faith and understanding can be united.  Jesus showed us how complex things can be understood by parables.  “How can God love us so much when we are huge sinners?” --- well, let me tell you the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  “I was taught the catechism in elementary school, so what else is there to know?” --- well let me tell you the Parable of the Vine and the Branches.  Jesus showed us how we can understand why.
 That is why this first book I’ll review is so important.  The One Thing is Three --- How the Most Holy Trinity Explains Everything, by Fr. Michael Gaitley is, I’ve found, an excellent book at creating example, parables if you will, to make us understand why the teachings of the Catholic Church make sense, and even further, how they all fit together.  Fr. Gaitley creates a smooth flowing book covering key doctrines of the Church, starting with: Who is God and why this Revelation of the Trinity makes perfect sense, to why God created man, to why God planned for man to be re-united with Himself in the end.  And while for me his explanations were a neat way of answering the questions of “why,” I was surprised when he explained that what he was presenting was, in fact, “old news.”  We’ve learned the basic what’s of these things in the past; Fr. Gaitley presents the why’s.  And he presents them very effectively.
In this year of faith in which we are called to self-evangelize, I put this book at the top of my list for most Christians (I’ve already given away a dozen copies).  This book isn’t complex dogma or doctrines; it gets down to reason, and simple explanations.  And yes, the subtitle of the book is correct:  it explains everything.  From who is this God, to why did a perfect God bother to create this troublesome creature called man, to why we are meant for heaven:  Fr. Gaitley presents things in a way that it all makes sense, and as such is easy to remember.  At the end, he even draws a picture to summarize it!
Put this book at the top of your reading list for this year, and Lent is as good a time as any to start it.  But of course, none of my reviews are complete without a few excerpts:
The Farewell Discourse (in John’s Gospel), Chapter 17:  In my opinion, this chapter is the greatest chapter in all of Sacred Scripture.  (If you recall my meditation on May 6 of last year titled: Take These Words to Heart, you will understand why these words in the Introduction of this book caught my attention.  He starts out assuming something it took most of my life – and a push from God – for me to realize.  And so I assumed much more good stuff would be forthcoming ---- and I was right!)
What do we long for above all else?  We hunger to be in communion with others, in friendship, family, Facebook, fantasy, or fornication.  … Given our situation of being communion addicts, God is the perfect fit!  He himself fits the hole in our hearts, for we pine for the communion of love.  God is the Communion of Love that we long for.
Starting with the basic truth, that we long for the communion of love, we note that love takes at least two.  But God must be one (Aristotle figured that much out).  So, our ideal God must be one, but if he is Love itself, it would seem that he would also need to be at least two, for love is about relationship.  On the other hand, this God is kind of disappointing, because relationships of two tend to be of the romantic kind.  But what if God were not one-in-two, but one-in-three?  It’s like the excitement when the baby finally arrives, and people are goo-ing and gaa-ing over it.  Thus, if we could come up with a God who would make us truly happy, our best bet would be to make one who is at least one-in-three, for then we’d have a God who is a Family of Love, and whose love could reach out to us: Come, join the Family!  God is Trinity, an eternal Family of Love.  What’s more, he invites us to share in his own divine love.
This simple explanation of God as Trinity and family is the basis for the explanation of the rest of creation and eternity contained in this book.  It explains, simply, many things that you, your family, and you and your God can talk about.  And it all makes sense.
The second book I’ve invite you to consider for Lenten reading is The Fire of Christ’s Love --- Meditations on the Cross, by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa.  Fr. Cantalamessa is the Preacher to the Papal Household --- he gives sermons to the popes.  And he was chosen for this position for good reason:  his sermons give you much to think about.  I’ve recommended many of his books/sermons in the past, and this one is no different.
These Lenten meditations are short (one or two pages) reflections taken from his Good Friday homilies over the years.  Each focuses on a particular, simple point about Jesus’ crucifixion and suffering --- and ours.  As Cardinal Timothy Dolan notes in his foreword to the book, “They are filled with important reminders of God’s love for each one of us.”  In reading these meditations, I find myself re-reading them, and pondering what they mean for me.  Lent isn’t just a time to change things we do, like fasting and alms, it is a time to change our hearts.  This book will be a great help with that.
It is necessary that every man experience an earthquake once in his lifetime and that he experience in his heart something similar to what happened in nature at the moment of Christ’s death. 
Heaven and earth are filled with the glory of God; only man’s heart is an exception, because it is filled with its own glory and not with God’s.  It is so taken with itself that it uses for its own glory even what was made for God --- even God himself!  And yet, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1Cor 4:7)
St. Paul wrote to the Romans: “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (14:7-8).  The greatest contradiction --- that between life and death, ever present in man --- has been overcome.  Now the radical contradiction is no longer between living and dying but between living “for the Lord” and living “for oneself.”  Living for oneself is the new name for death.
He who pronounced the words “This is my body” over the bread said the very same words about the poor.
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The third and fourth books I mention here for good Lenten readings are, well, repeats --- but I can’t help myself.  Every year I use them again and again, and each time, each year, I find something new which strikes my heart. 
Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s book The King, Crucified and Risen --- Meditations of the Passion and Glory of Christ is a series of short readings for each day of Lent.  I have been reading this book each Lent now for 10 years, and every year I find something remarkable, which touches me where I am presently at in my spiritual journey of faith.  You know I underline things in books which strike me as saying something new, or in a new way, for me.  It seems that every year I find yet something new --- again, in this book.  Give it another 10 years and I’ll probably have underlined the entire book!  But that’d be okay, because then maybe I’d fully see why this holy man who wrote these words thought them important enough for me to meditate upon.  Fr. Groeschel may now be a very old man, but his words never will be.

The final book I’d mention for good Lenten reading is not a book, but a booklet.  The Challenge Of The Cross --- Praying The Stations, by Fr. Alfred McBride is to be used for praying the stations of the cross, whether alone or in a group.  While I greatly love The Way of the Cross by St. Alphonsus Liguori --- the stations most often said at church on Good Fridays --- Fr. McBride’s stations are different in that they focus us on meeting the challenge of the cross, as it appears in our personal lives.  In particular, I found that this book talks to me, as a caregiver, most intimately.  I can see the sufferings and the walk to death of my loved one, my mother, and I walk beside her on her journey.  Fr. McBride initiates talks between me and her and Jesus, conversations of the heart as to what and why we love, even to suffering and death.  If you are a caregiver of an ill or dying loved one, or a parent, or anyone who in any way cares about his neighbor, I think you will find that these particular meditations will touch your heart and soul.  And you will better understand how much Jesus loved you then, and now.  I pray these stations every Friday during Lent.
We often speak of our Lenten journey, because we are meant to use this time to get somewhere, to get our mind and hearts in a better place in preparation for Good Friday and Easter, and Divine Mercy Sunday.  May you use these books wisely, enjoy the journey and, hopefully, never forget what you have learned along the way.