Sunday, February 28, 2016

What Does Jesus Teach Us?

You know, out of the many thousands of books I have read, I have settled upon only a few to read regularly, each night.  I read their meditations and reflections day after day and, like reflecting on the Gospels, it seems these books continue to provide me new wisdom --- and comfort --- even from pages which, over the years, I have read many times.
Last night in Divine Intimacy I again read these words --- as if for the first time:
“Jesus expressed Himself only once in
these words:  Learn from Me.
How often have I reflected, and even written here, the importance of coming to know this Jesus better, of reading and contemplating the Gospels, the words of saints and the reflections of Bible scholars, so that we can know this Jesus --- as much as humanly possible.  But for all our efforts, that IS the rub:  we can never fully know Him, even more so than we can never know another human being, for He is beyond mere human; He is God.  “Who can know the mind of God?”  Yet that is the path to happiness in this life, and eternal life, to know and do His will.
So for all my reading and prayers and learning, I became aware again last night that for all His examples, for all His parables, and for all His admonitions, Jesus only once said:  Learn from Me.
“Thus we will be in peace, undisturbed by the desire to be better than others, undisturbed by the humiliations
which may come to us.  The fruit of humility is interior
peace, for Jesus has said:  Learn from Me,
for I am meek and humble of heart,
and you shall find rest to your souls.
--- Divine Intimacy, P317
In addition to all the spiritual reflections I read and consider, I can’t help but hear of the many earthly matters which consume us all.  We are alive and living in this world, and so I read of political matters (and their stomping on moral issues), and of disintegrating marriages and families.  I read of jobs lost and the prevalence of pornography.  I read of husbands who think they know more than their wives, and wives who think they know more than their husbands (and who are often married to each other), and yet for all their “knowing,” the one thing they almost certainly don’t know is humility (and I was, I humbly admit, there also). I read of so many people with so many woes, but only on rare occasions do I read of joy.  Joy is not lacking in this world, nor is it impossible to find --- whoops, no, no, NO!  Those are the wrong words; stated correctly it should be said:  There IS joy in this world and it is not impossible to accept --- the difference in the wording being who we perceive is providing the joy for us, ourselves or God.
Accepting joy is like accepting the fact that we never really grow up, not really.  As a child we found joy and peace in the care of our parents --- even if only when we were a baby, before we felt “grown-up.”  We all remember the rebellious teen who says to his parents: “But you don’t understand …”  But, of course, they do.  It’s just that the teen is growing up and experiencing things he was never taught, which is something which happens to everyone, because every life is different.  The teen thinks his experiences are new, and so something his parents “don’t understand.”  And regarding HIS experiences, that is true.  That’s because some lessons can’t be taught by our earthly parents; they are lessons which come from our heavenly Father.  We think that we go beyond the lessons of our earthly parents and must live our lives beyond the comforts and joy they gave us as babies, but we will never go beyond the comforts and the joy offered by our heavenly Father.  We can never say to Him: “But You don’t understand,” for He absolutely does understand.  But in our pride we find the lessons that He continues to teach hard to accept.
At some point most of us think “we are all grown up,” and we want to start giving directions to our own children, or to those we work with, or to those we call friends, or even strangers.  Our intents are good.  We wish them well.  But if we only listen to each other we will lose the joy of our childhood in God the Father, and never find it again.  There are some things we can only learn from our Father; we can’t teach each other.  “You must become as little children,” Jesus says.  He is telling us we are never “grown up” in the eyes of our heavenly Father --- and this is a good thing.  He loves us as His little children, always!  He may admonish us to teach us, but always with love.  It is a lesson many of us forget, and sadly some have never learned.  We never grow up, or old, in His eyes.  And like a Father, He is always teaching us, if we can stifle our pride and ego which thinks we know it all, and we must be the teachers of others. 
Learn from Me, Jesus says only once in Scripture.  I guess it must be one of the most important things, one of the most basic things, like teaching a baby how to walk or talk --- or not soil itself.  Learn from Me:  Humility.
Learn from Me; only that one thing is stressed.  How hard can it be to learn just one thing?  And yet, it is like learning that we will never grow up; that all our understanding about growing up, about aging, is all wrong.  It’s like we’re told to believe in something which defies what we see with our own eyes:  we DO grow up, get old and die.  But that is exactly what Jesus is telling us is a false understanding.  We NEVER grow up in the eyes of the Father, because we will never be like Him, never be smarter than Him, and we will never grow old, and WE WILL NEVER DIE, because He died for us.  It is a hard, yet most important thing to learn.
Can we humbly accept that?  Can we accept that we are never totally in control, never totally right?  Can we accept even our pains, our sorrows, and despite them trust that our Father will “make all things better?”  This acceptance, this learning to accept, this humility, is from our heavenly Father.  It is something our earthly parents could not teach us; it is something we will be learning all our life. 
The ways of Satan say: Learn to be great; you can be like God.  The ways of God say:  Learn to be humble, you can be like Me.  
Who’s your teacher?

Friday, February 26, 2016

Review: How Dante Can Save Your Life

I want to say this is an exceptional book, in part affirmed by my many underlines in the text.  Most books I judge exceptional, however, have a point, a message which I can summarize, but I find myself unable to briefly express all the messages this book delivers to me.  Through Rod Dreher’s review of Dante’s Divine Comedy (done within this book) he explains how Dante, and then he himself, could live life to the fullest, as God intended for them --- but not as either had planned, wished, or expected.  Through reflection, introspection and prayer, both found “life-changing wisdom.”  And I think that is what most readers of this book will also find.

I think the words in Dreher’s Introduction briefly describe the reason for the book’s title:

·         Dante helped me understand … that I had the power to change, and revealed to me how to do so.

·         In Dante, sinners are those who love the wrong things

·         Many people lost in their own dark wood may convince themselves that the dark wood is all there is.  Some people, though, know in their hearts that staying put is to surrender to slavery.  The Commedia invites you to stand up, get moving, and become the hero of your own life.  Go into the deep, find out who you are, discover who you can be, and return to your everyday life changed --- maybe even saved.  It happened to me.  It can happen to you too.

In 27 chapters, this book follows Dreher’s and Dante’s life, as expressed through The Divine Comedy.  At the end of each chapter are a few “lessons learned” paragraphs; you will find that you need to read them over and over again, especially if you are not an underlining person like me.  But here are just a few of Dreher’s well-written words, which I did underline:

·         How much happier would young people be if they began their careers thinking not of the fame, fortune, and glory they will receive from professional accomplishment, but rather of the good they can do for others.

·         All the sinners in hell convinced themselves in the mortal life that the evil that they did was good.

·         Thinking that the solution to our problems can be found through using reason and logic alone --- the default position of bookish people like me --- may prevent us from seeing the true nature of our struggles.  Do not expect reason and logic to comprehend matters of faith and will.

·         Modern people like me want the benefits of community, but without giving up individuality and mobility.  We want the benefits of religion, but without having to submit to its disciplines.  We want traditions, but only the ones we like.  This doesn’t work.

·         Suffering comes to everyone.  What you do with that suffering determines whether or not you remain an earthbound caterpillar or metamorphose into a butterfly.  … The key to our transformation is the heart, not the reasoning mind.

·         Self-knowledge begins with the realization that the things you refuse to accept in others are often aspects of your own character, from which you must repent.

·         The workaholic can be the laziest man around if he is using his work to avoid doing the things he is supposed to be doing.

·         The heart’s quest for happiness and fulfillment comes from an ancestral memory of a primal utopia, a sense of oneness with God and the cosmos.  Stop searching; it doesn’t exist this side of heaven.  … Any hope of creating heaven on earth will end in tears.

I usually make note of my favorite books and give them as Christmas gifts.  I read this book in January, and I find that I cannot wait.  I’ve given away 15 copies thus far.  If you find yourself dissatisfied with your life --- or perhaps even more tellingly, with the lives of those around you --- you may not wish to wait either.   

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How Do I Get To Heaven?

Over the weekend I was blessed to have some insights into how the Hand of God may be working in unexpected ways.  It was a blessed weekend, and so it was not a surprise, I guess, that Monday was nothing at all like that.  It was just a frustrating day.   Life is never perfect.
I had been trying to call a meeting of some good, like-minded people to gather and plan how we might help those most in need in our area --- this seemed a Godly thing to do.  I met with the meeting presenter, who assured me of his availability this week, and so I invited others to match calendars to find the optimum date to meet.  Wednesday seemed the best date, but then one responded that he was on vacation in Florida, and then another said he had meetings all week that he couldn’t change, and finally the presenter got back to me with an emergency which had come up for him --- he couldn’t be there either.  I tried to put on a calm attitude as I emailed notice of the meetings’ cancellation, suggesting that perhaps a month from now we might better be able to plan a meeting.  (I hoped that would give enough planning time for busy working people).  Promptly came two replies:  “Much better, any day that week works but Friday,” and “Lots going on, but I will keep Friday clear that week.”  Aaaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhhhhhh!!
So, naturally after these wonderful happenings, my Monday evening Examen prayer before the Lord began something like this:  “Thank you Lord, for Your many blessings this day … and I’m sorry for my many failings.”  And then I guess I went on a bit, in words and in my heart (which he could read) about how I was TRYING to do good things, trying to love my neighbor, trying to do as he would, trying to make a difference with my life.  But despite all these efforts, I’m afraid that all I felt in my heart was that it was a “trying” day, and I felt somewhat frustrated.  I felt I had failed, and I told God.
I know the most important thing we can do in this life is to love God and love neighbor, the summary of the Commandments and the Gospel.  And I try to have that focus in my life.  It’s taken me many years to get to this point in my life with God, to get to this level of intimacy with His will.  In my last post I wrote of a young waitress who was just beginning to yearn for God, and of a sister who actually heard His voice, two people at different ends of the faith journey, of life’s journey.  I know many people between those two extremes, all wanting to grow in holiness, all in one way or another asking:  How?  How do I get to heaven?  What they’re asking is: How do I get to know the mind of God, and His will for me?  I want to do it.
In my faith journey, I sought to pray, to read, and to study what God and people much holier than I had to say about how to live my life.  And I’ve sought friends and prayer partners and a spiritual director to help me see and do God’s will.  And I’ve found consolations and believe I have found the key focus for my life, as I said, in loving God and neighbor as priority.  I want this to be the key focus of my life --- but what about frustrating days like Monday, when I was trying to do those good things, and failing?  And, quite frankly, I was frustrated I could not accomplish what I thought was God’s will.
But I was wrong.
There is a key point here which I so, so, sooooooo easily forget:  He is God; I am not.  I will never know Him or His will perfectly in this life.  IT IS IMPOSSIBLE.  I can never perfectly say:  This is what He wants me to do.  I can never perfectly say: I failed Him.  I can never perfectly know.  But if I could ever get off my high horse of thinking I CAN know, then I can begin to learn much more.  And so He taught me.
I said that yesterday night I began my prayers confidently telling God of His blessings, and my failures at loving God and neighbor.  And so I was not at all surprised when I subsequently began my spiritual readings that night that the first sentence I read seemed to confirm my prayers and understanding:
Charity is the essence of Christian perfection.
I think perhaps I even imagined a bit of spiritual warmth spread over me as I read those words, and I felt:  God knows that I am trying to love Him and neighbor.  And I felt a certain comfort.  But then I read:
But for us poor, miserable creatures, whom God wishes
to raise to union with Himself, is charity the ultimate
basis of the spiritual life?  No.
No?? What?  What!!  I stopped reading right there and looked at the monstrance and host on the altar.  What!?  Lord, I prayed moments before to You what seemed to be the most important thing in my life, my efforts at charity, and You seemed to confirm this was good.  Why, at this moment, are You putting words in front of me saying that all I thought and learned to this point is wrong?  And then I put my head down and read on:
There is something deeper still which is, so to speak,
the basis of charity, and that is humility.  Humility
is to charity what the foundation is to the building …..
“If you wish to lay good foundations,” says St. Theresa
of Jesus to her daughters, “each of you must try to be
the least of all.”
He that humbles himself shall be exalted.  (Lk 18:14)
Humility deepens the soul’s capacity to receive
the fullness of divine gifts.
-- Readings from Divine Intimacy, pp 301-3
Glancing ahead, I can see that humility is the topic all this week in the book Divine Intimacy.  Through these words, and others, which I’ll write below, it seems God is giving me a lesson:  Charity, love of God and neighbor ARE ultimate goals of this life, but there are steps we must take to be able to achieve these goals well.  We cannot just WILL, with our will, to love God and neighbor.  Our efforts will fail, or be weak.  We need God’s help.  We need to build foundations on which to base our charity, virtues needed to be part of our life, and one of the most foundational virtues is humility.  Humility is getting rid excesses in the natural love of self (which isn’t a totally bad thing, since we are made in God’s image), to make room for love of neighbor.  And love of self, pride, ego, includes those assumptions we make that “we can figure it out.”  We think we can desire God’s will, figure it out, and just do it ---- like it’s all OUR plan.  It’s not; we can’t.
And then I read other prayers and meditations last night:
So long as we continue to behave as sheep, we are victorious.
Even if ten thousand wolves surround us, we conquer and are
victorious.  But the moment we become wolves, we are conquered,
for we lose the help of the shepherd.  He is the Shepherd of sheep,
not wolves.
  If He leaves you and goes away, it is because you do not
allow Him to show His power.
-- St. John Chrysostom
Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and
anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.  (Mt 23:12)
I can only strive to please you, Lord, if I know what truly
pleases You.  And I can only know what pleases You if I study
and pray.  I need You to keep me humble, Lord, I tend so easily
to slip into that self-destructive thirst for recognition and
superiority.  That tendency goes deep --- only Your love goes
deeper.  Purify my heart, Lord.  Teach me to think first of others,
and then of myself, just as you did.  Jesus, I trust in You …
-- Readings from The Better Part, pp 265-8
How do I get to heaven?  That is not a question we can answer, no matter how strong our desire, no matter our intelligence.  Only He knows the way for us.  We must trust in Him --- and tell Him so, often.  And we must follow wherever He leads, even if it seems we are failing, if it seems we are lost.  We must trust that He makes good of all things, if we try our best.
I will continue in my efforts to love God and neighbor, but I will try to be a little bit less anxious when I fail.  I need to be humble enough to accept failure, to not achieve the heights I seek. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

What Do You Want, Lord?

But the serpent said to the woman, “you will not die.” – Gn 3:4

The devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command
this stone to become bread.”
– Lk 4:3

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.” – Jn 2:5

And a voice came out of the cloud saying, “This
is my Son, my Chosen, listen to Him!”
– Lk 9:35

I heard earlier this week that Fr. John Riccardo’s father had died.  The well-known former-CEO of Chrysler would obviously have a huge funeral, and so I did not plan to attend it.  Rather, I’d do what I often do for friends; I’d have some masses said for Fr. John’s dad.

I filled out a mass card and on Friday addressed it to Fr. John, informing him of the prayers being said by some monks for his father.  I drove to the mail drop box in town, and as I was about to drop the envelope into the mail slot …. I stopped.

I thought:  “This is silly.  Fr. John’s parish office is only a block from here!”  And so I drove to the office, went in, and handed the card to the secretary, but before I could leave she asked me: “Have you seen the movie, ‘Risen?’”  “No,” I responded, and she went on to tell me that the parish had bought out a local theatre for Saturday night and tickets were only $8 each.  (And my mind freaked out: I don’t particularly like going to movies; Saturday is my adoration night; who would I go with anyway?), as I said: “Sure, I’d love to take a couple of tickets.”  Later Friday evening I asked a friend to join me at the movie, but she said she wasn’t interested, and so I thought that, well, maybe I’ll just end up tossing the tickets.

Then Saturday morning I arrived early for my usual breakfast with an old friend.  There was a young waitress in the restaurant I hadn’t seen before, and after getting my coffee she saw me reading my morning prayers and asked if I were reading the Bible.  She then went on to say that she hadn’t been to church in a while: “I went to Catholic elementary school, but I don’t know what I believe or don’t believe anymore.”  That seemed like quite a bit to drop on a stranger, but I offered: “Well, the local parish has a Theology on Tap night at a local bar, where people get together to talk about spiritual matters, maybe that could answer some of your questions.”  “Yeh, I might do that,” she said, and she went away to wait on another customer.  But a few minutes later she was back again, standing by my table, and again speaking of her spiritual voids.  And then I recalled the tickets in my wallet:  “Do you like movies?”  She responded with an enthusiastic yes, and so I gave her the tickets to Risen, refusing her offer to pay for them.  She smiled widely and thanked me profusely, as she went off to wait on other customers.

There was a shift change, and another waitress took over for her.  She was gone.

“Fr. John’s father died, ……. She thanked me profusely.”  How did we go from one to the other?  Will the young woman hear some whispers of the Holy Spirit from our conversation or perhaps the movie?  Will this chain of events, from a tragedy to perhaps some good, carry on beyond my knowledge?  One thing I do know:  this is not something I had planned.  Did God?

The opening Scripture quotes of this posting had the devil saying: “Listen to me,” and then we read of those who loved Jesus saying: “Listen to Him.”  How do we know who to listen to?  How do we know who is asking?

The last night of our parish mission week had Sr. Ann Shields speaking on mercy.  (She is a great speaker, and we are blessed to have her as a member of our parish.)  Sr. Ann told the true story of how one cold rainy night she was pumping gas, and water came pouring down on her from a leak in the roof over her pump.  “I stood there pumping gas, getting wetter, getting colder, and getting madder,” she said.  I was steamed!!  So when my tank finally was full I stormed toward the service station office, put my hand on the door to yank it open …. When suddenly I heard a voice in my head: Remember who you are, it said.”  Sr. Ann said she paused, and then walked into the station and turned to the man behind the counter.  “And before I said a word, he leaned over the counter and softly said: Who are you?

Sr. Ann said she was shocked, and began to blubber: “Well, I’m Sr. Ann Shields; I work across the street at Renewal Ministries, and ….”  And then the man related to her how he had seen her outside in the bad weather, and suddenly recalled that things were pretty bad in his life, and he needed to get to church and pray.

Sr. Ann said that she was all bundled up that night, no sister’s garb or cross showing, “yet somehow I reminded him to seek God.  What do you think would have happened if I had come storming into that station, angry, ranting and raving?”  And then her voice went very soft: “God uses us,” she said, “in ways we don’t plan or understand, if we let Him.  The key is humility, being willing to let go of our plans, so He can use us for His.”  We don’t have to make any great plans to serve God.  We may not see any great results of our efforts.  It may even appear our prayers are not being answered.  The key is humility.  As St. Paul prayed: “Not my will, Lord, but Thy will be done.”  As Samuel said: “Speak Lord, Your servant is listening.”  We need to remember who we are.

My little action was only getting a condolence card for Fr. John, and well, who knows what that decision will result in.  Sr. Ann’s decision was to control her anger; who knows what that resulted in? 

God knows.

Were either of our actions an answer to some particular prayer we said?  No.  Were our actions a part of some big plan of ours?  No.  Did our prayer life, our studying of Jesus’ life up to this point condition us to know and act somewhat as Jesus would have?  I think so.  Did our soul hear His small still voice, and listen?

“What do You want, Lord,” is a question we all want to ask, and want answered.  But perhaps the bigger question is:  “Are we listening?”

Teach me to look at myself with Your eyes
-- Divine Intimacy, P295