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.

On Doing Things I Didn’t Think Were Possible

Almost two weeks ago, Taryn’s husband and I did something I never would have imagined ten years ago: we ran a half marathon.

Ten years ago the inaugural Fargo Marathon was run on a 32-degree day, complete with snow, rain and the omnipresent North Dakota wind. My future wife and sister-in-law ran the whole marathon while my widowed (future) father-in-law ran the half marathon with another future sister-in-law. I cheered the runners on with my future brothers-in-law and a single nephew while trying to keep warm.

Ten years later, the weather was slightly better (overcast and in the high-30s-to-low-40s) and roles were reversed. Paul and I ran the half marathon, as did my brother-in-law and new mother-in-law. I was the grizzled veteran of the group, having run exactly one Half Marathon, last September. The others were first-timers. Our wives cheered us on with our kids while my father-in-law, slowed by hip surgery, open heart surgery and age, “only” ran the 10k.

About 5 years ago I began talking about running a 10k or maybe a half marathon. Overweight with high blood pressure, I needed a reason to run but all I found were reasons not to.  I was too busy, my knees hurt, running wasn’t my “thing”… Last spring I signed up for a 10k and ran my first half marathon in September, happy to finish.

I enjoyed the challenge and the run, so I upped for the Fargo Half Marathon on Mother’s Day weekend. My wife (and the mother of my children) opted not to run, so I had to do this one by myself. Luckily, I had piqued Paul’s interest enough to where he signed up and committed to running. Having an accountability partner, though a few hundred miles away, helped push me forward. At some point in my training, I committed myself to somehow shaving off almost 10 full minutes from my September race time and finishing in under 2 hours. I knew it was going to be hard and quite frankly – I didn’t know if it was possible, but I kept running.

The running was good for me, it was good for my family. It tested my resolve and forced me to be disciplined in my exercise, diet and the pace of my runs. It turned out to be good for my health too.

On race day, Paul and I got to run the first 2.5 miles together before deciding to make our moves. I comfortably passed the 2-hour pacer and continued pulling away. I had to smile to myself as I watched Paul pull even farther ahead – so much for the rookie taking it easy (1:46 finish time for him). I met my wife and Taryn along the course, who were cheering along with the kids, my nieces and nephew. Seeing them along the way provided a huge emotional and mental boost.

However, toward the end of my run the doubts as to whether my goal was possible began to creep in as I tired, my feet began to get sore, my back was aching, and my knee was stiffening. Offering up the aches and pains and struggles only gets you so far – in a two-hour run your biggest opponent is yourself. As I got closer to the finish line, I considered lowering my goal – just crossing the finish line, walk or run, was an accomplishment. There were no more family members along the path, my friends and family weren’t going to finish the race with me or for me – I needed to do it myself, and they’ll be happy for me no matter what time I made.

As the Fargodome got closer, with the finish line inside, I made up my mind to finish strong.  I picked up my pace and rounded the north end of the Dome into the home stretch. I opened my stride as much as possible and pushed with all I had left. To my surprise I wasn’t squeaking in at 2 hours exactly – I actually had time to spare and crossed the finish line in a sprint at 1:57, shaving off nearly a full minute per mile and 12 minutes off my last half marathon. I had run well.

The training and the running on race day continue to strike me as incredibly similar to the spiritual life. St. Paul, of course picked up on this 2000 years ago. From the discipline, the communal support, the struggles and the ultimate fact that you’re the only person who can get yourself across the finish line, running is a profound metaphor.

Right before the half marathon started, I prayed for the grace to run well and finished that prayer seeking St. Paul’s intercession. After crossing the finish line and collecting my breath, I was handed my finisher’s medal. on the back was inscribed the following:

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is marked out for us” Hebrews 12:1

We all have a race that only we can run and the finish line for that race is Heaven. Its not easy getting to the finish line and there will be a million aches, pains, distractions and excuses to keep you from getting there. But nobody said it was easy. Just like running a half marathon, you’ll need perseverance and to run so as to win. And remember, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” Phil 4:13.

St. Paul, pray for us

From former to new ways of life

Its funny how often we say or hear things in Mass without realizing how often we say or hear them. When I went to Italy, I was struck by how often in Mass the priest concludes prayers with “forever and ever.” When you hear “per seculi e seculi” over and over again in Mass, you realize how often it is said – or at least how catchy it is.

The same goes for a phrase in Mass I picked up and reported on toward the end of Lent. “From former ways to newness of life.”  It makes/made sense in the context of Lent – where we strive with disciplined prayer, charity and almsgiving to convert, turn away from sin and be more closely united to Christ.

But the call to conversion has continued in Masses since Easter.  The Prayer After Communion repeatedly asks for God’s grace to turn from former ways to newness of life. To my ears and eyes it seems  like its been at least once a week – most recently in today’s Prayer After Communion.

It makes sense, after all. Christ’s Crucifixion wasn’t then end of His salvific work, and though the disciples rejoiced upon seeing Him, they too still needed strengthening and conversion to spread the good news throughout the world.

I fully expect this theme to continue into Ordinary Time – or at least I won’t be surprised to hear it when it comes up. I am surprised, however, that its taken me so long to recognize and meditate on this beautiful call to conversion in the Mass.  So as Easter moves on, lets all move on with our Resurrected Lord from former ways to newness of life and proclaiming the Good News with our lives.

PS- speaking of “newness” please pray for me on Saturday morning – I’ll be running my second half-marathon… with Taryn’s husband, who’s running his first (he’d probably appreciate prayers as well). 

With Dad…again

Recently the kids were asked by a friend of ours who teaches pediatric physical therapy to under go “evaluations” so her students could look put the kids through ordinary kid-stuff like throwing balls, kicking balls, running, jumping, hopping on one foot.

The PT Students watched the kids do the activities assigned and then reported back on everything form patience, to ability to follow directions to physical ability to complete the task and how well they completed the tasks based on their peers.

My kids did well on their tasks, but the future doctors of physical therapy were particularly impressed with the throwing and kicking abilities of the kids. In their reports they offered hypothetical reasons for why the kids performed as they did. The students reported that my kids reported that they “routinely throw ball with dad in the backyard.” And proceeded to elaborate on the impact of that seemingly mundane activity on the tests they undertook.

I was rather humbled and stunned when reading that report. I had never thought that simply tossing the ball for fun would have such an impact from a developmental point of view. Maybe its because I’m a guy and I had never thought that deeply about my interactions being so significant. All I remembered were the countless hours playing catch or variations of it in the backyard with my dad, and how much I enjoyed those hours.

Yet studies continue to show that the interaction of kids with their fathers, especially “masculine” activities like playing ball, matters.  Around Opening Day of baseball this season I read an article from the Washington Post that lamented the decline of youth involvement in baseball across the nation. One of the key factors they mentioned for this was a lack of fathers playing catch with their sons.  One interviewee reports ” I never knew my dad. Your dad gets you your first glove, your first bat…” Field of Dreams is one of my favorite movies and I know very few men who can watch the final scene of the movie with dry eyes because baseball is passed on and in that, so too are not just measurable physical skills, but memories, bonding… as James Earl Jones says earlier in the movie, “it reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

Like baseball, Faith is passed on, and the father’s involvement in faith is indicative of how the kids will receive the Faith. You can’t play catch with a bible, but by modeling what mature Christianity looks like, you can plant seeds which may one day blossom in your kids. Not everyone of us is called to play baseball, but we’re all called to holiness. And there’s no better way to start showing that the path to holiness is a worthy endeavor than by walking it with Dad.

 

Treasure Hunting

I just finished a Do-It-Yourself retreat by Fr. Michael Gailtey called Consoling the Heart of Jesus. I cannot speak highly enough about this beautiful book, it has truly revolutionized my prayer life and my relationship with Jesus. In fact, I would rather you stop reading this post and go out and buy it right now! It’s that good. And no, I’m not getting compensated for saying that, I promise.

Until you have time to read it, however, there is one piece of the retreat that I want to share with you. In one section of the book, Fr. Gaitley writes about consoling Jesus by consoling the members of His body. He speaks of having a “merciful outlook” in which we strive to see each person as God sees him. He writes, “What does God see? He sees the beauty of what he created. In an unrepentant sinner, he still sees a vocation to greatness even if it’s tragically entombed in a hardened heart.” We are called to go “treasure hunting” to find the treasure hidden deep inside each human being and to help bring it to the surface.

It doesn’t sound like a new idea; of course we’re supposed to see the good in people. But I find that I usually tend toward one of two extremes, neither of which is the “merciful outlook”. I look at a difficult person and either write them off as a lost cause or attempt to ignore their faults and pretend I don’t see them. But neither judgment or ignorance are the answer. “The merciful outlook doesn’t pretend that sin and annoyances aren’t there… it just makes a strategic choice to go past them… It chooses mercy over justice.” What a calling! It’s not just “loving” our enemies, but really LOVING our enemies. Finding the treasure that God placed in their souls. Rejoicing in the gifts they have been given, even if they are buried deep or tarnished almost beyond recognition. The treasure is there, and we get to look for it!

I have had the chance to apply this teaching most often in my own household. Of course I would never call my family my enemies, but there are times when I feel like my kids and I are on opposite sides of a battlefield. It is in those moments that I try to consciously make the decision to seek out their treasure. No it’s not easy, and often I’m unsuccessful, but I now have a name for my mission, and that makes it a lot easier to keep trying.

I wonder what would happen if we approached everyone in this way. Instead of digging in our heels and yelling louder than the next guy, wouldn’t it be great if instead we dove in and looked for their good intentions, their passion, their love? It’s there, no matter how deeply it has been buried. Let’s go find some treasure!