The Witness of Fertility

“Wait…how many kids do you have now?”

That was … is… the question I get all the time. Maggie and I are expecting our 4th child in late July. I know, I’m late to the club. I figured we’d wait and see how the Yanteses and Rogerses handled it all before we got there. *kidding* But when you tell people, they are happy for you at first but then, like Jim Gaffigan says, after three kids people stop congratulating you and just begin to treat you like you’re Amish…

In late January we went to a wedding in Montana for one of Maggie’s best friends from high school. We had just began to make the news public around that time and Maggie and I figured we owed her friends some sort of an explanation why she’d be heading to bed early and waking up sick in the mornings..and high altitude probably wasn’t going to cut it. So we told her friends.

The reactions were interesting to watch and hear. We were never offended and often amused, but there was a pattern. The guys would all assert the child(ren) they had was enough (or too many)…and their wives would get silent, sip their drink, and maybe get enough (liquid) courage to muster, quietly, “one more wouldn’t be so bad…”

Reasons would be offered- kids cost too much, too busy at work, have other things to do before more (or any) kids – but yet neither my wife nor I ever asked anyone if they wanted more kids or why they didn’t want any more kids than they had. It was a built-in reaction to the news that we were expecting our fourth: “Congrats to you, but I could never have that many kids, and let me tell you why…” They could’ve stopped at “congrats” or even “I could never,” but continued anyway.

What struck my wife and I is that we never thought there was anything particularly impressive about our decision to have another child, yet the news of our pregnancy seemed to be something radical. A radical witness maybe.

Sometimes my wife and I feel like we don’t do enough to serve as witnesses to our faith. We’re not serving enough at church; not helping enough in the community or with that project… especially when we compare ourselves to those around us who are involved in everything. Yet what dawned on us in Montana was that maybe all we need to do is to just be authentic witnesses to the joy of life in living out our marriage vows. Maybe that is enough to shine the light of the Gospel wherever we may be.

So while you may be feeling like you’re not doing enough, you may be doing more than you realize!

Ten Years Gone

Ten years and one week ago today, St. John Paul II died in Rome. Ten years ago yesterday, I was part of the crowd that bade him farewell in St. Peter’s Square at his funeral. I chronicled that morning in a series of posts last year.

I mentioned then that I’ve tried to make sense of that experience numerous times in the ten years since. Its only taken me ten years, but it’s starting to materialize. It started with John R. Wood’s Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Mission and concluded a few weeks ago with Mass being celebrated using the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation I.

I used to try an “read” into the experience a command or calling to do something great, like to covertly undermine the Nazis, write a treatise on the theology of human sexuality, maybe bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Maybe commission a new version of the catechism or canon law, travel the globe bringing Christ to millions… if nothing else strive to live my life in a manner where I have tons of heads of state at my funeral and hundreds of thousands packed in or around the place of my funeral… But JPII had already done all that. What was left for me?

Wood writes in his book that his goal is to hear hear the words, “well done my good and faithful servant” at the end of his life.  The end of the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation I says, “Help us to work together for the coming of your kingdom, until at last we stand in your presence to share the life of the saints, in the company of the Virgin Mary and the apostles …”

On the Monday after St. John Paul II died, I viewed his body in St. Peter’s and walked back toward the exit and happened to stop at the altar beneath which St. Pius the X is buried. I was baptized in the parish of St. Pius X in Babbitt, MN, my parents were married there and my grandparents still attended there. The thought of that pope and the ties to my family made me think of John Paul II’s own family and I imagined the joyful reunion with a mother who died when he was only 8 years old, his beloved older brother who died when he was 12, his father who died when he 20 and a sister he never met. I imagined many joyful tears shed upon such a reunion. Orphaned an alone at 20, John Paul II famously entrusted himself to Our Lady, totus tuus. Therefore any heavenly reunion would only naturally include her presence and if hers, then surely her Son’s Presence. Recalling my physical location at that moment in St. Peter’s Basilica, I couldn’t imagine our great saint would be shunned by any of his predecessors, St. Pius X included, and imagined a line of Holy Popes reaching back to St. Peter, ready to shake John Paul II’s hand and pat him on the back.

I glanced back at Pius X’s tomb and wondered what he would say to John Paul II. What would his parents say to him? The only thing that I could think of that came close to making any sense to say to John Paul II upon his arrival in Heaven was, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Matt 25:23.

What’s left for me? What am I supposed to walk away with, ten years gone from one of the most incredible experiences of my life? The only thing I can come up with is a renewed desire to want to hear those same words the master said to his servant in Matthew’s Gospel.

John Paul II didn’t set out from Krakow with the goal to tear down the Soviet Union, to commission a new catechism, to travel to 6 continents, to chum with future saints or to rub shoulders with politicians. If those were his goals, he may never have became a Priest, much less Pope. He sought only to be faithful and to seek holiness. Any other title he received in his life mattered little, only that of “good and faithful servant.” And so it should be for me and for you. For the follow up to those words, “well done my good and faithful servant,” is the invitation to “come, share your master’s joy” where we will stand with Our Lady, the apostles and all the saints, John Paul II included.

 

A Good Lent

Holy Week… Holy Thursday… the end of Lent… already? How did we get here so soon?

I thought it had been a good Lent. Or at least a better Lent. But I hit that rough spot, where I gave in, bent the rules, broke my disciplines just a little bit because… I’d been doing so well, so far. It’d been a good Lent.

The gaze of my Lenten disciplines shifted from solidarity with those suffering in the Middle East and the Cross of Christ which will be raised tomorrow to me; to what I had done. I needed to be reminded of how weak I am, because we all do.

Maybe Lent was dry for you. Maybe it was bad. Maybe it was a good Lent. Maybe you wonder whether it was all worth it.  I have found strength for the past week in the prayers and the readings of the Mass. A few in particular have stood out to me and I’d like to share them with you as we enter the Triduum. (All emphases mine)

“I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength, yet my reward is with the Lord, my recompense is with my God”  Isaiah 49:4, Mass, Tuesday of Holy Week

“If I glorify myself, my glory is worth nothing; but it is my Father who glorifies me…” John 8:54, Mass, Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent

“O God, by whose wondrous grace we are enriched with every blessing, grant us so to pass from former ways to newness of life, that we may be made ready for the glory of the heavenly Kingdom…” Collect, Mass, Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent

“Strengthened by the blessing of your Sacraments, we pray, O Lord, that through them we may constantly be cleansed of our faults and, by following Christ, hasten our steps upward toward you…” Prayer after Communion, Mass, Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent

“Help us to work together for the coming of your kingdom, until at last we stand in your presence to share the life of the saints, in the company of the Virgin Mary and the apostles, and of our departed brothers and sisters whom we commend to your mercy…”  Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation I

Lent isn’t about what we can do when we put our minds to it, its about what we can do with God’s grace. That cleansing is a process; a daily battle, and it doesn’t end with Lent. For when Lent ends, we have an opportunity everyday to continue the work of cleansing our faults with the God’s grace so to pass from former to new ways of life so that, when this life is done, we may be ready to stand side by side with the saints and face to face with God in his glory.

May the graces of the Triduum help us all along that path and may you have a Blessed Easter. And on this, the tenth anniversary of his death… St. John Paul II, pray for us!

Draw Me

At Palm Sunday Mass, our priest surprised us all by giving a homily about the donkey. It’s not like there was any shortage of content to choose from, we did read the entire Passion narrative and all. But the donkey it was. Imagine, said our priest, if the donkey had decided the crowds were cheering for him, laying palm branches to cover the path for him! In his pride, he would miss out on his entire purpose. His job was not to be the Savior, it was to humbly carry Christ, just as it is our job to carry Christ to the world.

I often get overwhelmed with the thought of trying to explain my faith to unbelievers, to convince them of what I know so deeply to be true. The homily on Sunday was a perfectly timed reminder that it’s not about what I am doing at all, it’s about humbly carrying Christ to the world so He can do His work in everyone I meet. It’s about trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide my words and shine through my actions. That sure takes the pressure off!

But that still left me wondering, how do I carry Christ? It’s not like I’m actually a donkey who can physically haul Jesus from one place to another. So what do I do?

In The Story of a Soul, St. Therese writes about praying for her spiritual brothers, two missionary priests. She worried about how to bring all of their needs before Jesus in prayer, because she felt responsible for them. Then she made a beautiful discovery: when we draw close to God, we automatically take with us those who are close to us. She wrote, “In drawing me, draw also the souls I love. The simple words, ‘Draw me’ are enough! When a soul has been captivated, …she cannot run alone. Every soul she loves is drawn after her- a natural consequence of her being drawn to You.”

There was the answer I was looking for! If I want to be a witness to God’s goodness, if I want to bring souls to Him, the only thing for me to do is to draw closer to Christ! I don’t need to worry about saying the right words or acting the right way. I just need to become as holy as I can. The great saints always had swarms of followers, not because they were necessarily the most charismatic or eloquent, but because they shone with the light of Truth. The closer I draw to God, the brighter that light shines in me, and it will pour out on everyone I love.

Of course holiness is not an easy goal, but it is the only goal. So I’ll continue to take one step at a time, and like the donkey I will bring Christ to the world.

Rough Edges

I used to be really holy.

I jest, I jest. But back in college, I was pretty sure I had it all figured out. I went to daily Mass as often as I could, I did volunteer work, I chatted about theology and philosophy with my friends and classmates, and I generally believed myself to have few major character flaws. I was patient, empathetic, peaceful, charitable. Sure I had bad days, but those came mostly through no fault of my own.

Fast forward a decade. The virtues that I prized in myself seem to have flown out the window! Patience? Gone. I lose my temper with my children every day. Empathy? It’s difficult to muster that feeling when your child is crying because of a self-inflicted wound after falling off the chair that you told them to sit on instead of stand on at least a hundred times today. Peace? Charity? Why do these virtues seem so hard to practice now? They were once so easy.

But you know what the big difference was back then? I wasn’t really cultivating those virtues as well as I thought. Patience was easy when I could bow out as soon as a situation got too trying. It was easy to be empathetic when I could choose to not answer the phone until I was in the mood to show empathy. Yes I was making progress toward virtue, but at my own pace, not God’s. Then He gave me children.

I imagine myself as a rock with a lot of rough edges. Back before kids, I worked on smoothing those edges whenever I wanted to, and never so much that it became painful. Now my kids are working on my rough edges in ways that I never could have imagined, and it’s HARD. They are not on my schedule. They want everything from me all the time. While I feel like I fail way more often than I succeed, I realize God is working on my heart. Every time I am given the option to choose patience instead of impatience, empathy instead of annoyance, He is giving me the chance to smooth away that roughness.

I see my shortcomings so much more clearly now. This Lent, my eyes have been opened to the jagged edges of my heart, and I am trying to gratefully accept the opportunities God sends my way to make them smooth. It is hard. I fail a lot. I want to give up. But I get up again, and every time I do, my rough edges are worn away just a little bit more.

Fraternity

Last weekend I got the opportunity, thanks largely to 3 wonderful wives and 55 understanding dairy cows, to spend a couple days with three of my closest friends from my seminary days. In what’s become somewhat of an annual tradition, we’ve been meeting in Fargo and road tripping to (of all places) Grand Forks, North Dakota to watch hockey. Probably the last place most people would think of going for a getaway at the end of winter.

“Catching a hockey game with my buddies” is the machismo explanation for the weekend expedition and its something that people “get.” But, for me at least, the hockey game was an afterthought. The Ralph Englestad Arena is a remarkable college hockey venue, the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux won both games and we enjoyed great food at a couple of our favorite local haunts, but we would’ve enjoyed each other’s company anywhere.

A little over a year ago John posted on the lack of Platonic male affection. About the same time I read an Acculturated post on the decline of male friendship.  I realize more and more I’m blessed with a core group of male friends and that male friendship is something that is increasingly hard to find. It says much about our society when people raise an eyebrow when they hear you and your buddies are going away for a weekend of “bonding” (as my wife calls it). Its as if rounds at the bar and a poker night are okay, but this “weekend of hanging out” er… not so much.. or are suspect at best.

As the Acculturated article reflects, “male friendships, we’re taught, are about finding or fleeing women; they are not valuable in themselves.” The problem with the tv-watching, card-playing, bar-hopping, overly-sexualized scene of friendship pictured by many is that it doesn’t open us to being able to “to see people as individual eternal souls when we are face-to-face with them, in close contact” as John wrote in Advent of 2013.  In The Guys, I’m blessed to have found male friends who don’t value my friendship because I or they “get” something of it, or because it “frees” us from our wives and children for a weekend, but because I know they care for me as an individual eternal soul, despite all my shortcomings.

My favorite parts of last weekend are the same as any good weekend – sitting around visiting, catching up, sharing good food and drink, and rekindling the memories and the bonds of brotherhood which first united us many years ago. Since those days we’ve stood by each other at our weddings and welcomed each other’s children into the world; we’ve laughed and cried together; we’ve hugged; we’ve faced highs and lows; cheered each other on and faced uncertainty together – but I know the guys will be there for me; they always have been.

The victorious hockey games were bonuses, but the journey we’ve made together this far and the road ahead of us are the true treasures. As the motto of the seminary that brought us together says, ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum: Behold how good and wonderful it is were brothers dwell as one.

To fratres in unum!

An “Old Fashioned” movie review

The other night my wife asked me to take her out to a movie. This is an incredibly rare occurrence, so within 24 hours of the request  we had a babysitter lined up and within 48 hours of the request we were in the cinema watching Old Fashioned. Billed as the “faith-based alternative” to 50 Shades of Grey and tagged as the story of a modern couple who decides to embark on an old-fashioned courtship, its more that just that.

First off, though there are a couple cheesy and preachy parts – its surprisingly light on these for a “faith-based” movie.  Even the faith-based part is kind of a misnomer, at least compared to your run-of-the-mill Christian film. The (anti) hero doesn’t attend church because “nobody else there was perfect…so he didn’t fit in.” However, he describes a conversion experience that he says its hard to put into words “without sounding crazy” to which the (all-too-familiar nowadays) “spiritual but not religious” heroine responds, “you are crazy.” We’ve all been there though – that awkward moment right after you yourself or someone you know unexpectedly opens up about a religious experience and you’re not sure what to say next…

The description of the romance between the two main characters is also a bit misleading. The leading man, Clay,  is running from a promiscuous past which included notoriety as a producer some videos of college girls at parties, the memories of which haunt him now. He’s had a conversion but hasn’t forgiven himself and, whether out of penance or shame, he tries to lead the “perfect life” full of theories as to how to amend and move on so as to never repeat the mistakes of the past. This includes never being alone with a woman in private and the type of woman he has in mind is nothing like the one he finds in this film.

The leading lady, Amber, is also running from painful relationships in her past. Her answer is to go wherever the wind blows, never settling and moving on when things get too rough. Free spirited and not very grounded, Amber is intrigued by Clay and finds his theories humorous and unrealistic in modern-day society. She doesn’t really want an “old fashioned” relationship but is drawn to Clay.

The plot is somewhat predictable, broken guy meets broken girl, both looking for more. Yet there’s beauty in the way it shows how “messy” the world can be and especially our modern-day hookup culture. There’s no perfect character, though Clay tries hard and realizes that this only makes him boring, and there’s no perfect relationship – much like the real world. Clay’s theories are based on reflections from his past and though some may seem far fetched (“people know more about a person after an interview for a pizza delivery job than they do after a first date”) he plays the holy fool (or cynic) and his thoughts are designed to make us think critically about the dating culture of today (one of Clay’s theories is that “dating is designed to make us good dates…but then what?”).  Clay’s closest friends are a serial playboy who hosts a radio show that seems to focus only on objectifying women and a settled down man who has a daughter with the woman he lives with “but still living in sin.”  This may seem offensive to some, but Clay tries to walk a line between the two and wants something more. That idea, of wanting more, is what really resonated with me – be it singles, engaged, married, or living together I know plenty of people who feel unfulfilled with the lives they’ve chosen to lead based mostly off of sexual relationships, you see that clearly in the movie.

While Clay comes across as too rigidly puritanical (comically taking Amber to a pastor for marriage prep as a first date) and Amber may be too free-spirited, the two form a good contrast between “justice and mercy.” And besides the romance and social commentary, there’s a lot going on in the movie, and ultimately its not about what we’ve done but who we become. We’re called to become saints and “it’s not easy” as Clay says – the movie portrays that truth well. I was slightly disappointed that Clay’s goal in life is simply to be “decent” and Amber says “there’s enough greatness in the world, but not enough goodness.” Okay, but we can do better- we’re called to be great; to be saints!

The movie isn’t the greatest movie I’ve ever seen, but I’m not big on “faith-based” movies or romances and have never finished watching one saying, “wow, that was great.” Though rated PG-13, its not a movie for younger teens and even older teens would have to have a good grounding in the church’s teachings on sex and marriage before I’d recommend them going. For older teens it may serve as a thought-provoking commentary on the dating scene and hookup culture at a time when they may be exposed to them and faced with numerous, potentially life changing, temptations. Its also a good film for married couples to rekindle, or perhaps to discover, what’s truly important in a relationship. And its certainly a worthy alternative to 50 Shades if you really want to see a true romance with your date.

I’d recommend you check it out, and let me know your thoughts.

 

Retreating to the Desert

“When one desert father told another of his plans to ‘shut himself into his cell and refuse the face of men, that he might perfect himself,’ the second monk replied, “’Unless you first amend your life while living amongst men, you will not be able to amend it by dwelling alone.'”

My students are studying the roots of Christian monasticism right now in my Church History class. There are times when I think, “There’s no way for me to be truly holy, since I cannot devote myself to prayer like the desert fathers did.” No, my job, my life are always calling me away from communion with God. Or are they?

Last month Tayrn wrote about her home being her cloister, the enclosed space where she was called to find God. Lent is a reminder that, however busy my life is, I am called to find God. And I am called to perfect myself, through prayer and charity, in the presence of others. Even monks live in community–no one is able to be completely alone, that he “might perfect himself.” And it would be foolish to try, of course.

Instead, if I want a quiet, silent space to seek God, I must make it–not by shutting others out, but by making my heart that quiet place. If I wish a desert, a place swept clean of all distractions, in which to seek God, it has to be the desert of my heart. This Lent I am already realizing that my heart is not a desert, but a crowded, jumbled mess of a place. Jesus speaks to this directly, when he comments that “…it is not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart” (Mk 7:15).

But this is why I love Lent–it is a call to go back to confession, the Eucharist, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so that the heart might be made a desert, a place scoured of distractions. Jesus is in the desert of my heart, and always has been, waiting to speak to me, if only I have the courage to journey into the emptiness to find Him.

A hermitage at the monastery of St. George

A hermitage at the monastery of St. George, the West Bank.

Time again for Spring Training

Lent is back.

Gear up and get ready for the Church’s annual Spring Training.

ready_position

The discipline, the effort, the sacrifice – all in hope of the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Don’t let it get boring, don’t sink into a routine. Challenge yourself.  Like I wrote in last year’s “Spring Training” post linked above, no baseball team begins Spring Training this week with the goal of doing worse than last year – hope springs eternal at this of the year and every team believes they have a shot to make it to the top. Lent 2015 can be the best Lent yet.

Here are a few suggestions I’d offer if you’re in the “oh no, it’s Lent! now what?” stage:

1. Make the time to read the daily readings for Mass during Lent. They’re linked and easy to access at the Bishops’ website and will help walk you day by day closer to Easter.

2. Fast in solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ in the Middle East. John wrote earlier this week about the 21 Coptic Christian Martyrs. They’re tip of the iceberg; there are more who’ve died for their faith since the rise of ISIS and there will be more to come. Fast for their widows and orphans; fast for the conversion of their killers; give up some of your food for the food the martyrs will never taste again.

3. Make time this Lent to watch the Passion of the Christ … alone. You may scoff at this one. It’s not my recommendation, it’s Dr. Peter Kreeft’s suggestion. I scoffed and then my refusal to do watch it alone, bugged me so much that I gave in and watched it during last Holy Week. Its a great film, one I didn’t fully appreciate until I watched it for the first time in ten years last year. Its good to watch with others and we all may have our reasons for doing so and we tend to finish the movie and say, “man, look at what we did to Christ. We’re scum.” Yes, Jesus died for us, and we are sinners. But Jesus also died for me, and I am a sinner. Watching the film by myself put my own sins and failings in perspective. The “little” sins I commit that “aren’t as bad as other people’s sins” and “don’t really hurt anyone” really did hurt Someone. In fact, He died because of them. Jesus died for you too and, no offense dear reader, you are also a sinner. Yes, the Passion is gory and hard to watch, but why should we think what Christ suffered for you and me in reality was anything less?  The Passion provides an uncomfortable and unsettling 2-hour reflection on what Christ suffered for you and me – as it should considering our sins are the reason he suffered the way he did.

4. Get to confession. Frequently.

Now, good luck, God bless and go get ‘em!

The 21 Martyrs and Their Killers

(Note: Since the birth of my twin boys in June, I’ve had very little time for writing. I’ll be back on an irregular basis for the time being. But it is good to be back.)

It has been shocking, to say the least, following the recent news out of Libya that 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by an ISIS-affiliated group. There’s a lot of anger out there, including the Reverend Franklin Graham warning his flock on Facebook that “a storm is coming.”

More than ever, we need to pray, and I don’t mean for the 21 men who were martyred. (We should be asking them to pray for us, for they are enjoying the greatest fruits of life in Christ right now.) Instead, we need to follow Christ’s command to pray for our enemies:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

It was this kind of heroic, selfless prayer that changed the heart of Saul, who was “breathing murderous threats” against Christians (Acts 9:1). Perhaps among the killers this week, there was a man whose heart will be softened by our prayer. Let’s offer up the sacrifices of this Lent for whoever he may be, that Christ may enter his heart.