Set Out in Hope

several months ago, after the birth of our twins, I was in a bit of a funk. The writing seemed to be on the wall: my days as a Catholic school teacher were likely numbered. One of the great ironies of Catholic education is that a teacher’s salary can’t put that teacher’s kids through Catholic school. So a primary breadwinner like myself had a choice to make: do I continue to stay in the classroom and gradually lose ground financially, or re-tool and start off on a new career path at the not-so-tender age of 32?

The last year or so has been challenging as I wrestled with that question. I began to flail about, seeking for answers, a way out of our predicament. Our family was financially stable, but the forecast a few years out didn’t look promising. Once the thought of a career change entered my head, however, I panicked (inside, anyway!) and felt a little desperate. It was my wife–my good, holy, praying wife–who brought me back down to earth.

We were looking over our budget one night in November. She could tell I was agitated, anxious about the future. She looked at me calmly and said, “We have time. We are doing just fine. We just need to make a plan.”

I took that thought to prayer, and over the course of a few days, everything became clear to me; I had been making plans in despair. My chief thought had been, “We are on the brink of some kind of disaster” [not true!]. I’m convinced now that that sort of anxiety was definitely not of God. So, how to proceed? One again, my wife came to the rescue. When I was preparing for informational interviews in various fields, she told me, “Be confident. Most of all, be honest.” That commitment to confidence and honesty, which she so sagely suggested, steered me away from despair and anxiety and toward something quite different–hope.

As the months progressed, and my informational interviews, research, and preparation turned into true job seeking, it actually became fun. I had time, I had resources, and there was no rush. It wasn’t a desperate situation, but a chance to hope–to look to the future, confident in God’s mercy and love. And what a blessing the transition has been!

After this experience, I explore my anxieties when they surface. Is this my conscience, warning me against evil? I think. Or is this a useless kind of worrying, which paralyzes me? The first comes from God…the second certainly does not!

Review: Manual for Spiritual Warfare

Several months ago I saw a rash of news in the Catholic blogosphere about Dr. Paul Thigpen’s new book, Manual for Spiritual Warfare. I received it as a present for my birthday, and now that I am traveling more for work, it has been the perfect book to bring on the plane. It’s a small, beautifully bound prayer book with a tassel bookmark:

Gorgeous!

The first third of the book is an overview of the concept of spiritual warfare. For anyone who has read deeply into the lives of the saints or done a decent study of the New Testament, this shouldn’t be anything new. However, the last 2/3 of the book is divided into several categories of prayers and edifying reading as the reader seeks to live a life of virtue and root out vices, whether they be big or small. Included in this section is a set of meditations on the Rosary, over 50 pages of excerpts from the lives of the saints, and many traditional and modern litanies.

The book is rather pricey (around $30 from the publisher), but it’s so sturdy and useful that it is worth it. This book is quickly becoming a favorite alongside the Ronald Knox translation of the Imitation of Christ. Both are short hardcovers, wonderfully printed, which feel great in the hand and can be thrown into a backpack, purse, or work bag at a moment’s notice. Both also focus on the life of prayer and the daily struggle between good and evil. You won’t find much in either book that’s deeply theological, but instead intensely personal reflections on what it means to be toiling in the spiritual life, traveling toward heaven.

The Thorns

A couple weeks ago I was praying the Rosary early in the morning when my three-year-old son sat on my lap and joined me. As a meditative aid, I like to pray with The Rosary of Pope John Paull II nearby. Each mystery in the book has an image depicting the mystery, a quote from scripture and a quote from the Catechism. At the particular moment I was praying the third Sorrowful Mystery, the Crowing of Thorns. There was an image of Christ with the crown pressed onto to head, drops of blood dripping down and Christ sorrowfully looking up to His Father in heaven.

My son looked at the image and asked if that was when Jesus was about to die and I confirmed that was shortly before. He thought for a minute and, no doubt inspired by Dora the Explorer or Word World or a similar children’s show, he asked me if we could jump into the picture and take the thorns off Jesus’ head. He explained to me how those thorns must have really hurt Jesus and he wanted to help Jesus by taking the thorns off His head.

I thought it was a cute and told him unfortunately we couldn’t jump into the picture to help Jesus, but that Jesus suffered those thorns because he loved us. But within the past couple weeks I’ve realized that there do exist opportunities to take the thorns off Jesus’ head.

By seeking to bring joy to those around us, we too can alleviate pain and suffering. It doesn’t mean we take away the pain and suffering, after all Christ still needed to forgo the Way of the Cross, but I doubt Christ would have refused the desire of a child to take away a few thorns to suffer along the way.

The thorns were in addition to painful, a mockery of Christ’s kingship, a mockery of the Truth. Another way I’ve become aware of helping to take off the thorns is to suffer in solidarity with our fellow Christians across the world. I’ve mentioned this in the past numerous times, namely when ISIS began broadcasting its high-profile executions in Iraq and Syria a year ago. The Knights of Columbus have recently announced a new effort to support the Iraqi and Syrian refugees and news has broken recently about the treatment of American Kayla Mueller’s treatment before she was killed in Syria, African emigrants continue dying on the high seas in astounding numbers if they’re lucky enough to escape the grasp of Islamic militants on their way – thus, the plight of our fellow Christians is back in the limelight.

However, not much has changed for them in the past year – fewer Christians remain on the Nineva plain than ever before; refugee camps are overcrowded; the refugees don’t trust the Kurds or state governments charged with their security; and the West, or at least our country, has become largely indifferent since ISIS no longer has American journalists to killing behead. While Bruce Jenner is awarded and applauded for his courage and our president sets up emissaries for GLBT rights across the world, the beleaguered and dismayed Christians in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya ask why we have abandoned them.

Do our actions mocking the truth and the severity of their situation? Lets take the time to help remove some of the thorns from Christ’s head. We can’t take them all off, but whether its a smile to a neighbor, a donation to help refugees, or fasting with and praying for our fellow Christians suffering across the world, I doubt such an act of charity will go unnoticed.

Meet Kieran

Last Saturday, August 1st, my family welcomed our newest son into the world, Kieran John.

IMG_1714

He decided to crash his oldest brother’s birthday and has been well received and well-adjusted so far at home.

I think names are important – and an opportunity to evangelize too. I like to have names that tie into tradition, inspire and have meaning. In light of that, and for those who care, here’s a narrative of my newest son’s name:

My wife’s family traces it’s roots back to Ireland and I’m a sucker for Irish names. Despite my very Irish name, Ryan Michael, there’s not a lick of Irish in my blood. There were two Sts. Kieran, each considered to be one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Kieran the Elder was an assistant to St. Patrick. He was a hermit who built a small cell in the wilderness and who’s life attracted numerous monks, resulting in a monastery being constructed. Legend holds that he was ordained a bishop by St. Patrick and then sent ahead of Patrick to the mountains and woods of central Ireland to plant the mustard seeds of the Gospel. Like St. John the Baptist sent ahead of Christ, Kieran clothed himself in animal fur and skins. Like Sts. Francis and Anthony, Kieran’s earliest and most receptive disciples were allegedly the animals of the woods in which he lived.

The other St. Kieran, a contemporary of the Elder, was also a founder of a religious community, building (literally with his own hands) the monastery of Clonmacnoise, which served as a major center for learning in medieval Ireland, surviving Viking raids and the Anglo-Norman wars; as I like to say, Kieran’s monastery fought the barbarians not with arms, but with the intellect by preserving faith and reason.

Those who know me know I like the wilderness, the mountains, and the woods (so, naturally I live in North Dakota) and I like to pretend to be a philosopher, filling my mind with books on faith and reason, hence it seemed like a good fit, for it had some meaning.

The name John, in addition to Kieran the Elder’s pointing to St. John the Baptist (who in turn pointed to Christ), John happens to be a name on my wife and my maternal sides of the family. I still have a grandfather living with that name, and his 103-year-old father is also still alive. But beyond our genealogical heritage there’s the spiritual heritage of John. Most poignantly, August 4th was the feast of St. John Vianney, a great saint in his own right; also it was about 13 years ago exactly that I first saw John Paul II in Toronto, an event which truly changed my life. So John fit in more than one way.

Perhaps (I hope) by chance, the Gospel on Saturday morning of Kieran’s birth was the reading of St. John the Baptist…who lost his head in defense of marriage. My second son’s middle name is Thomas, in honor of the patron of my profession, Thomas More, a lawyer who similarly lost his head in defense of marriage along with the martyred bishop and cardinal, St. John Fisher, who calmly spoke truth to power and met his death with dignified courage and blessings on his lips.

I don’t have some martyrdom complex and certainly don’t want to see my sons losing their heads, but we face challenging days ahead as Christians and we always have. Whether its John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, John Fisher, John Vianney, John Paul II, or even my own great-grandfather John, each man met the challenges of his day and found their strength in He with whom all things are possible. My ultimate hope is that my children can draw strength and inspiration from the example of the Saints with whom they share their names and, in turn, lead others to Christ by doing so.

Sts. Kieran and Sts. John, pray for us!

St. Therese of Lisieux, revisited

I’m re-reading the timeless Story of A Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography for the first time in well over a decade.  As a young seminarian, I remember thinking her words were too simple to apply to a sophomoric philosophy student;  as a husband and father, I’ve been blown away by her simplicity and deep insight.

Though I may be years removed from my first reading of The Story, I struggle with many of the same imperfections now as I did then: lust, impatience, anger, jealousy, etc. I beat myself up at times because I feel I should’ve gotten over these things in the years since. However, in Chapter Eight of The Story, The Little Flower offered this nugget I missed so long ago:

I always know how to be happy in spite of my failings and to profit from them.

Now, I have no doubt Therese Martin’s failings were nothing like mine, however if she could learn to be happy in spite of hers and profit from them, why can’t I? A few pages later she writes:

Of course one may stumble and be guilty of small faults, but love, able to draw good from everything, will very quickly destroy all that displeases Jesus and fill one’s heart with a deep and humble peace.

Would that we all may find the grace in God’s Love to be happy in spite of our failings, to profit from them, and in that Love may we draw good from everything, filling one’s heart with a deep and humble peace.

Amen.

St. Therese of Lisieux, Pray for us!

Changes, Moments of Grace

After long months of conversation with my wife, informational interviews, and job-hunting, I changed careers at the start of this month. It’s not that I was burned out from ten years of teaching; far from it! Instead, it seemed that it was time to search out a more lucrative career path, especially in light of our twin boys’ birth last summer. Originally this was a two to three year plan, but the right opportunity presented itself, and I jumped. I now work for a consultancy firm that specializes in running capital campaigns (mostly) for Catholic organizations.

Two weeks into my new career, there are a lot of things that are similar to the workaday responsibilities of teaching. There’s a lot of planning, writing, and presenting that goes into a capital campaign. But more than that, it is about building strong relationships, and once trust has been established, offering sound advice and walking with people along their particular path. The biggest change for me is the travel. Whenever I’m paired up with a client, I’m on-site with them Tuesday-Thursday. Mondays and Fridays I’m working from our house. This has its obvious up- and down-sides. The travel will be a real challenge for our family. But I received a bit of a boost today, a pair of signs that have given me great consolation.

Long story short: this morning I got up at 4AM and hopped a flight to a later time zone. Soon after arriving at the client-site (a parish), I attended morning mass. The church is a gorgeous new construction, tastefully decorated, with beautiful sacred art adorning the walls. As mass begins, I am reminded rather quickly that it is the feast day of Saint Kateri. We named our oldest living child after her, as she was one of the patron saints of the summer camp where my wife and I met. So I’m thinking about this, how I need to call my daughter and wish her a happy feast day. Then, during the preparation of the gifts, the priest begins singing (a cappella, mind you!) a beautiful praise and worship song, Sanctuary. In and of itself, this wouldn’t be significant, but Sanctuary was one of the most popular songs at the youth camp I worked at. When my wife and I were both counselors, I probably heard her teach this song to young kids a dozen times. That, combined with the mention of Saint Kateri’s feast day, sent chills down my spine. There I was, at mass hundreds of miles away from my new family, embarking upon a new career path, and it’s like God wrapped me up and said, “This is right. This is okay. You’re doing the right thing.”

Later I asked the priest about this and he said he almost never sings like that, much less Sanctuary. God just said, “Sing this right now” and so he did.

It’s a good day for me, a day full of possibilities, supported by the knowledge that God is here, active, and in control.

Humbled by my kids…again

Sitting at the stoplight/ he can’t be bothered by the heart cry/ Written on the cardboard in her hand …      Jason Gray, With Every Act Of Love

Last weekend we were in Fargo, ND to celebrate a friend’s wedding. Heading to my in-laws after stopping to grab some supper, my kids, ever attentive to the people around us, noticed a man standing at the intersection of the main road and the parking lot with a guitar (not that he was hard to miss) and noticed a few cars ahead of us rolling down their windows and offering him some cash.

My eldest son, our second child, asked what “that man” was doing and what people were giving him. We politely explained that he apparently needed help of some sort and that some people were giving him money to help him. My son then immediately asked if we could too. While I quickly ensured the window child-lock was engaged, my wife explained how oftentimes the money people give to homeless or needy people begging on the street corners isn’t always the best thing for them and that we should offer a prayer for them instead. Yet as we passed by the man on the corner, my son took a look at him and then half-groaned/half-cried out, “can we PLEASE give That Man something?!?!” The car was moving, we had already said no and traffic was backing up behind us, so it was easy to drive on by. But my son’s pleading struck me – the compassion he felt and the desire from of the depths of the heart of a 4-year-old to do something tangible for “That Man” resonated deeply and weighed on me. If for no other reason than that he saw not a beggar, a bum, or a homeless drifter, but he saw straight the humanity of That Man and knew he wanted to help That Man.

The encounter weighed on me so much that the next day I drove out of my way to see if That Man was still at the corner and saw that he was. I went back to pick up my sons who both wanted to come now and help That Man. I asked them if they wanted to each give a dollar to him when my youngest asked if, in addition to giving That Man some money, we could go inside the store and buy the man a sandwich (it was supper time), a cookie and chocolate milk. Whoa, I thought, there’s giving a buck to homeless person, but really, supper and dessert? But the desire of my boys to give not cash to this guy, but to give something that they themselves would want humbled me – I was willing to give out of surplus, but where do you draw the line for some guy on the street?

So we went in and ordered a sandwich and a cookie and a drink for That Man and then delivered them to him, along with a dollar from each of the boys. It was incredibly awkward and uncomfortable for me – but it was a great lesson in humility for me, taught by my sons. I would have been content to let that man pass by without a second thought, but my sons really pulled me out of myself to help him.

I don’t know if That Man liked the chocolate chip cookie my boys picked out for him, or the turkey sandwich with spinach and cheese they were adamant that he would like, or if the two dollars were used to buy a bag of fun for the evening or a bus ticket home…but I know That Man wasn’t hungry that night. I know I do wonder about him and pray for him frequently.

I also know that as we drove away from the street corner my boys sat in silence, with little smiles on their faces looking out the window, happy to have helped someone. My eldest son then commented, “Dad. That Man said, ‘God bless you’ when we left…that was really nice of him.”

Obergefell Fallout…our prophetic moment

In His Providence, God has a wonderful sense of humor.

Last Friday, as I’m sure you know, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the U.S. Consitution requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The opinion is quite remarkable in a number of ways from a purely legal standpoint. There really are no limiting factors – the number “two” is mentioned regarding the number of adults in a marriage but as dicta, that is, noncontrolling legal discussion; religious objectors are told they’re fine to disagree with the ruling, but nothing more. From a legal standpoint, its not clear what sort of ramifications Obergefell will have, but they will be far-reaching.

Similarly remarkable was rate at which further action was offered by supporters of redefining marriage – Justice Alito already questioned the implications to religious schools in the April oral arguments, but a New York Times‘ writer opined in Time that now is the time to end tax exempt status for religious institutions. Not so much because religious organizations are bigoted, but because the ending tax exempt status would generate new revenue which the Federal government could use to take over the charitable works and services religious organizations do so well, and do it better. After all, “countries that truly care about poverty don’t rely on churches to run soup kitchens.”

Next came the more technical, legal suggestion from the ALCU, which explained why it no longer supports the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Essentially, the exercise of religion may infringe upon someone’s new-found Constitutional right to marry a person of the same sex, therefore, “it’s time for Congress to amend the RFRA so that it cannot be used as a defense for [practicing your religion].” Then came the calls for the right to truly marry who ever I want…be it one or two or four people.

By the time I came to work on Monday I was not expecting to be lectured and mocked by coworkers telling me Obergefell ins’t hurting me, so why should I have any concerns? By that time, one could hang his head in despair…or find hope. Enter God’s humor.

Monday was the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. I think I’m frustrated, or I have major concerns… what about those two? They were hung on a cross and beheaded. I don’t have it that bad, take courage and look to them for inspiration!

As if to hammer home the point, Tuesday came and with it, the Church celebrated the feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. Tacitus said that “mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished or were nailed to crosses, or were nightly illumination” in Nero’s gardens. Pope Clement said they set “the finest example of endurance in the midst of many indignities and tortures.” Again, we’re not there (yet) and should we ever find ourselves in that position, we’re in good company and many more have gone before us.

By that point, I could only laugh at the first reading at Mass – the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Sorry, I thought the Providential timing of that reading was really funny.

At Mass on Sunday our pastor gave a great homily where he highlighted that this moment in time is an opportunity for Christians to live out the Eighth Beatitude, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22). I couldn’t believe i was being mocked already a day into the week on account of something that didn’t seem very controversial last week (at least among my office co-workers). But Peter, Paul and the First Martyrs expected it and have received their reward for it…and it wasn’t really that bad for me.

May we have the strength to endure whatever is to come, in the both the short and and long term, knowing many others have suffered and will suffer worse than us, and may we do so with joy! It is our prophetic moment to witness to Truth that neither a State nor a Court can proclaim, and Who will outlast them both.

A blessed 4th of July to you all!

Waiting for Obergefell

As a Catholic attorney, I’ve been increasingly looking forward to the next two Mondays and Thursday as the Supreme Court of the United States will be issuing it’s decision in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case on one of those days. Two issues are presented to the Court:

1. Does the Constitution require states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?

2. Does the Constitution require a state to legally recognize a marriage between persons of the same-sex that was performed out of state?

I’ve been looking forward to the decision to see how the Justices will employ legal doctrines to either honor and uphold the legal definition of marriage as its been understood for millenia or to literally redefine marriage in the law. I have my own opinions on how the Court will decide, but those are for a different place and time. I’m looking forward to the decision because once the case is decided, it not going to settle much either way (in my opinion) and, instead of putting hope and energy into legal and political battles (which may be necessary), we Christians can begin focusing on building holy marriages as a prophetic and radical witness to society.

If the Court answers “no” to both questions presented, then marriage will need to fight on in the realm of public opinion, the media, state courts and state legislatures. I think the few states that have yet to have had marriage redefined by courts or by vote (popular or legislative) will see the issue brought up over and again until all states have redefined marriage. The swing in public opinion in favor of redefining of marriage has been unprecedented and unmatched in so short amount of time; from President Clinton signing the then-popular and bipartisan Defense of Marriage Act into law 19 years ago to widespread Marriage Amendments passing across the country 9 years ago…to today. The Court may check the winds and see that they can safely side with public opinion and answer “yes” to either question. To say “no” will take not only courage, but will risk heaping ridicule on the Court in the court of public opinion. Therefore a “no” answer promises years of battle ahead, but on a state-by-state basis.

Either way, the Christian understanding of marriage will not change and its up to us to prove that in the public square. That may require efforts in the legal and political realms and we ought to do what we can to support and execute those efforts. However, at work, in school, in the market – every day we will be called to witness to the truth of self-sacrificial spousal love. If people see the joy and truth in marriage, they may have reason to believe that there is something different about Christian marriage. Christian marriage will be increasingly subjected to scrutiny – look around us, it already is! Its in the choices that we make in our family’s lives, in our living out our vows to our spouse, that we will get to prove that there is something different about Christian marriage. We will have to make sacrifices for the sake of the Truth and they may not be easy sacrifices, but necessary nonetheless.

Those sacrifices need not be fruitless or without joy, either. Think of the early Christians who went to their deaths with joy, professing Christ on their lips. We’re not being martyred, so all the more reason for us to be joyful! Its by being faithful, joy-filled witnesses to the world that can educate our fellow men to the truth of Christian marriage.

Yesterday’s reflection in the Magnificat was from a German Jesuit priest, Fr. Alfred Delp, who was killed by the Nazis in 1945 and wrote the following:

The cliche, the label, the uniform, the slogan, the “dominant trend of the masses” – these are our rulers. And pity the one who dares to differ, to proclaim his own thoughts or use his own name.

Prayer is our way to freedom, and education in the method of prayer is the most valuable service that can be given to humankind.

Let us keep praying – sure for the Supreme Court (Justice Kennedy, anyone?) – but also for us, our marriages, and for a strengthening of all marriages.  Provide a witness and be an answer to prayer right where you are; let your witness be a service to others looking for meaning in their marriages. The alternative is to be bitter, reactive and pessimistic – and that doesn’t draw anyone to the Gospel.

Sts Thomas More and John Fisher…pray for us.

Humbled and Blind

A week or two ago I was reading the daily reflection in my Magnificat. The reflection was from Fr. Tadeusz Dajczer, a Polish priest who passed away in 2009, and he wrote:

Our faith deepens while we are being stripped of our own systems of security, of that which begets the feeling of strength, power, and importance in us. The denuding of us makes room for faith which demands our humility. By stripping us of our power and strength, God brings us closer to himself, places us in the truth and causes us to need him more…

Today’s reading at Mass was the healing of the blind man, Bartimaeus, and the reflection was from a Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an 18th Century French Jesuit, who wrote:

There is a time when God wishes to be the life of the soul and produce her perfection himself in a secret and unknown way. When this time comes, all the soul’s own ideas, lights, labors, enquiries, and reasonings are sources of illusion. And when the soul after several experiences of sad consequences of her own self-direction at length recognizes its uselessness, she finds God has hidden and mixed up all the channels of his grace in order to make her find her principle of life in him. Then, convinced of her own nothingness…she abandons herself to God so as to have nothing but Him.

I also was struck by a line at the end of today’s Gospel from Mark. it says, “Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.” Mark 10:52.

I’ve become increasingly aware of the ways God has allowed me to pursue my goals, dreams and desires, only to have my eyes opened and to be humbled at every turn, not in a shameful or embarrassing way, but in a way that makes me realize the things I thought so important, really aren’t at all.  However, I tend to move on to some other thing I think is important, only to find the same thing.

Would that I, and all of us, become like Bartimaeuses – humble and blind – who, once our eyes were opened, didn’t need to look any further than He who opened them and followed Him on the Way.