On not knowing the hour

Our family recently suffered one of the great crises facing practically all 21st Century Americans… yep, our computer crashed.

As the Jesuit political philosopher Fr. James Schall once said to me, “from crashed computers, spare us O Lord!”

We’d known it was coming. The stalling during loading of webpages, timing out of applications…but we kept pushing off what we knew we needed to do. Finally, close to 8 years after we brought the computer home, it crashed for good.

Being too cheap or frugal to just go out and buy a computer while we had one that still worked (for the most part), we had prepared for the moment. Like a wise and prudent contemporary American we backed up photos, files and documents shortly before it crashed. Yet we didn’t know exactly when it would happen, so when it did we still had a minor surprise. “Oh! Finally…”

I had been soliciting thoughts from a few technologically savvy friends over the last few months, so I at least had a place to begin looking for a new computer without too much panic. We probably lost a few minor items in the crash, but nothing majorly important. We had been vigilant, alert.

About the same time the computer crashed, the pregnancy resource clinic where my wife was working underwent a major leadership change that resulted in the entire local clinic’s staff either resigning or being terminated. Here too, however, we’d seen this coming in many ways, so on the day it all came to a head, the staff suffered only a minor surprise, “Ok, well it’s happening now…” The staff had been preparing for this moment, so when the axe fell they all knew their next step and took it.

In the midst of both these events, we had also been working on financial and estate planning for our family and began implementing some changes and taking some actions to protect, better utilize and secure our assets and investments. I had even sent a text message of satisfaction to John once we had things in place – it sure felt good to know I’m helping to take care of my family.

I light of all this I can’t say I was too surprised when, at the same time as everything else I mentioned, we had the reading from Luke’s Gospel during the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time about the vigilant servants and the admonition to “be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” A couple weeks later, in the Gospel for the Thursday of the 21st week in ordinary time, Christ admonished us in the 24th chapter of Matthew to “stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come…you also must be prepared, for at an hour your do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”  The very next day’s Gospel came from the very next chapter in Matthew’s Gospel and read, “stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

It got me thinking, how am I preparing for that hour – an hour I can’t expect. We had prepared for the computer crash, we had prepared for job change, for our family’s financial future. But what had I done to prepare for the hour I know is coming, but will likely have no advance notice of?

When I was younger I used to enjoy speculative theology – adding up the numbers in the names of contemporary political leaders to see if they “add up” to the Antichrist; reading about obscure apparitions and personal revelations issuing dire warnings for the Church and the world; trying to compute certain dates at which times the world would break into the final battle; pondering whether the Third Secret of Fatima had indeed been fulfilled or not… It was fun, made for exciting theo-drama, but it was distracting. I was more into the action and politics of what these events may mean- there was even something a bit fearful in them: an exciting fear of the unknown. Yet I was missing the true message the Gospel, of the apparitions. They are all calls for preparation – not for some immanent Armageddon, but for my Salvation.

Christ comes to me daily; how do I respond? Do I open the door and allow him in? Have I made a good confession recently? Am I trying to amend my life? Have I made the little conversions in my heart every day that are necessary to grow closer to Him? Christ calls me closer not out of the excitement of an adrenaline rush or fear of flames bursting from the skies, but out love.

Responding to that Love and making those spiritual preparations are way more important than backing up my computer files, job issues and financial planning, and they need revisiting regularly. Revisit them now, before its too late!

PS – Not a great segue on this post, but please pray for my wife and I as we’ll be travelling to Chicago for work next week. Thanks!

 

And all the people said “Amen!”

I’m still coming down off of a spiritual high from my silent retreat last weekend, and I’m not really ready to write about it yet. But…I wanted to share a great little tidbit from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, from his 1968 book, Introduction to Christianity. It’s about the word “amen”.

[Amen] embraces a variety of meanings whose interplay and differentiation go to make up the subtle grandeur of [this statement]. It includes the meanings truth, firmness, firm ground, ground, and furthermore the meanings loyalty, to trust, entrust oneself, take one’s stand on something, believe in something; thus faith in God appears as a holding on to God through which man gains a firm foothold for his life. Faith is thereby defined as taking up a position, as taking a stand trustfully on the ground of the word of God.

That is just awesome. Definitely going to remember that the next time I utter the sacred word, “Amen!”

Deplorable? Or Irredeemable?

NOTE: This post is not political. For reals.

In this whirlwind of an election season, it’s challenging to keep on top of each new twist and turn in the U.S. presidential race. Even for someone like me, who is regularly plugged into various political newsfeeds and podcasts, it’s not easy. One item that has staying power for me personally, however, is Secretary Clinton’s remarks at a fundraiser in New York last week, where she uttered the now-famous phrase, “basket of deplorables.”

It’s incorrect to call her remark a gaffe, since she’s been using the phrase at fundraisers since August and used it on Israeli television a little more than a week ago. But it’s not actually the word “deplorable” that has stuck with me. It’s a comment a few beats later. Read it in context, emphasis mine:

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”

I’ve tried not to read too deeply into these words of hers, but the use of the word “irredeemable” to describe a group of people struck me as odd. Just a few weeks ago, I listened to a great interview on the New York Times’ Run-Up podcast with Secretary Clinton’s spiritual adviser. Burns Strider speaks with her nearly every day on the campaign trail, and describes Clinton as a deeply committed Christian. I am not one to judge another’s spiritual life or worldview, and in all charity, I hope that Secretary Clinton did not truly mean that the people she was referring to are irredeemable.

I’m not here to question Clinton’s motives, though. I’m here to ask–in the stress of daily life, in the crush of economic competition or the speedy pace of modern society–have I labeled, either implicitly or explicitly, other people as irredeemable? I’m certain that I have. And have I thought or uttered a phrase like, “They are not America”? Again, I’ve certainly done so, though the phrasing might be a little different.

What’s the harm in calling someone else irredeemable? The heart of the matter is this: doing so is an affront to human dignity and calls into question God’s saving power. When I think or say it, I am basically judging that someone else is so far from God that they are not worth saving. I’m denying the divine spark that lives in that person’s heart, “othering”  them to the point where I feel no compassion for them at all.

Again, do I think Secretary Clinton meant this? Not at all–she’s in the election fight of her life, and like it or not, American politics calls for a little bit of “othering” now and then. But I am thankful, in a way, that her poor choice of language made me take a look at myself and helped me to identify some of my more Pharisaical tendencies.

Romans 3:23 reminds us that “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” And all lesser means of redemption have passed away, since “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood…” (Heb 9:12). It’s my duty to spread this news, to remind those that I find easy and difficult to love that we can all be redeemed. Not because we are worthy, but because He loves us.

Rugged Rosary is beautiful, sturdy, and I love it!

My wife got me an awesome present for Father’s Day, and now I’m praying the rosary more. If you have not done so already, be sure to point your browser to Rugged Rosaries. These amazing pieces, made out of either parachute cord or chain link, are weighty in the hand, gorgeous to behold, and nigh indestructible. If you travel a lot or are just clumsy and therefore hard on your possessions, consider getting one. Because beautiful things can lift us up to God! I’ve already gotten several comments on how sturdy and pleasant to look at mine is.

rugged rosary

Saint@gmail.com

Earlier this week, I received an email from the head of our parish men’s group. He encouraged us to say some prayers for a man I’ll just call H. H is one of the oldest members of our group and a kind, generous, and funny man. (I wrote about him back in early July.)

H didn’t need our prayers because he was sick or because he was in trouble. His birthday is coming up, and we wanted to present him with a spiritual bouquet. To this end, we were encouraged to email H on his birthday and let him know we had been praying for him. What a nice thing to do for such an extraordinary man, right? But it gets better.

H’s email address is essentially his full name and the number 11 tacked on at the end. But this number isn’t a reference to his birthday, age, or anniversary. It’s a reference to the fact that there are ten saints in the Catholic Church with that name…and he wants to be the 11th. 

Once I learned this, I didn’t smile or laugh. I know this man, and considering his boundless love, generosity, and prayerfulness, I know he means it in earnest. He is set on becoming the eleventh St. H. Our group leader ended his email with this line, “Let’s help him achieve his goal.”

I’ve been thinking about that line all week. Let’s pray for this man, and help him become a saint. It’s a suggestion that sums up the perfectly-lived life: He prayed for others, and he helped them become saints. Imagine a family, a church, a neighborhood, a country focused on praying for each other and helping everyone become saints. What an incredible image, and what a thing to strive for in daily life!

So, God bless H, and may he have a happy birthday. And above all, may he be a saint!

 

“God is looking at you, and He is not ashamed of you.”

This weekend I traveled to my favorite Saturday afternoon confession spot, only to find signs posted on all the doors of the church: “No confessions or Mass this Saturday.” Undeterred, I referenced masstimes.org and found a parish a mere mile away offering confession at the same time.

Upon my arrival, I was struck by the beautiful altar, the bright stained glass, and the prominent Polish flags. It was unclear which confessional was going to be used, and as I stood in the aisle indecisively, an old priest in a Roman collar and blue sweater came out from the sacristy. I knew him from reputation–the oldest active pastor in our archdiocese. At a spry 90 years old, he kept telling the archbishop he wasn’t finished being a pastor yet, and the folks at the chancery let him stay on long past his mandatory retirement date.

He welcomed me back to his confessional, where I saw two chairs nearly touching each other, an open Bible, and a card with a Scripture verse printed on it. We sat down, knee to knee, and he started by asking me a little about myself. I shared my age, my marital status, my number of children, and he nodded his head and said, “Okay, that’s enough to go on. Let’s begin.” I confessed and he counseled me at length–about my duties as a husband and father, about my prayer life. He asked me how much time I spent in silence each day, and whether or not I set aside time for “God to speak and tell you He loves you.”

Right before he absolved me, the priest asked if I would look him in the eye. I did, raising my head to match his gaze as he slowly stood, joints creaking. The priest placed his hands on my head, and he intoned the words of absolution. His was a merciful and loving gaze, as though there were no place he would rather be than in this confessional, absolving me of my sins. And when he finished, he simply said, “God is looking at you, John, and He is not ashamed of you.”

His words didn’t hit me like a bolt of lightning; instead, they slowly wound their way to my heart like sunlight working through February snow. I experienced the slow spread of warmth through my body, and I couldn’t do anything but nod and say, “Okay. Okay.” The priest gave me a hug and said, “That’s it. You’re done. Go forth! Go forth!”

***

I’m a traditional man. I prefer to have my confession heard with the screen between me and the priest. But I had forgotten how powerful the laying on of hands can be. This priest definitely knew the power of human touch. His request that I look him in the eye during absolution was an act in personae christi. He not only called on the power Christ meted out to his Apostles to forgive sins, he dared me to look into his face and see Jesus’ love for me. It was a courageous and tender act on the priest’s part, and I will always be thankful to him for it. I hope, in my most difficult moments, I recall his face, and the love of God beaming forth from it like sunshine.

Making our own Cisterns

A few weeks ago, an image from the prophet Jeremiah piqued my interest:

‘Be appalled at this, you heavens, and shudder with great horror,’ declares the Lord. ‘My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water…Why go to Egypt to drink water from the Nile? And why go to Assyria to drink water from the Euphrates?’

-Jer 2:12-13, 18

This is part of a much larger passage, in which the Lord indicts Israel for forsaking Him and instead running after foreign gods. But this image was particularly striking since I came across is on a 100 F day here in Minnesota. God describes Himself as “the spring of living water,” and foreign idols as “broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” For those living in the Holy Land in ancient times, the cistern was necessary to sustain life. These large basins, carved out of solid rock, would catch rainwater and keep it cool and pure until it was needed in the summer months. But a cistern, like a drinking glass or cooking pot, is useless if it is cracked. (You can read more about cisterns in the Bible here.) In fact, a cracked cistern is worse than useless, since rainwater that trickles into it is wasted.

If we dig into this imagery a bit more, the first sin God mentions, that of “forsak[ing] the spring of living water” is a foolish action. Imagine walking away from a spring of cool water at an oasis and wandering willingly into the desert instead. It’s certain death if you lose your way. But the second sin is somehow even more foolish. Not only does Israel wander into the desert, but Israel takes the time and effort to carve out a cistern. Since Israel is in the desert, it’s unlikely that rain will ever fill the cistern, but even if it does, there is a crack in the bottom and that water is going to drain away. Again, it is a death sentence.

A 1700 year-old cistern in Jerusalem (not cracked!)

A 1700 year-old cistern in Jerusalem (not cracked!)

These Biblical images perfectly capture the folly of idolatry, which was an ever-present threat to Israel. The nation was surrounded on all sides by cultures offering the false promises and false gods. These days, the threat of false religions might be muted a bit, but idolatry of another kind is common. Whether it’s the love of money, food, or recognition, we are tempted to set something up in place of God. We still turn away from the spring of living water to wander in the desert, and we are still sweat to build our own cisterns.

This image of choosing–between the spring or the cistern–brings into sharp focus the obstacles in my own life. These are the things that might seem useful or pleasurable in the moment, but after I spend time at them, I am still restless or unfulfilled. In the past few years, there are times where I have been stressed, tired, or lonely and turned to some kind of true time-waster: binge-watching Netflix, eating for pleasure’s sake, etc. It’s not that films or food are bad in and of themselves, but using them as tools to assuage loneliness or stress is a futile exercise. I walk away from those excessive activities feeling restless. Contrast that with prayer or free time spent with my kids. At first glance, it’s simply more work than turning on Netflix, but it also brings with it a sense of deep peace and fulfillment.These are the things in life that constitute springs of living water. They are inexhaustible sources of contentment, peace, and well-being.

In just one short month, I will be going on a silent retreat to spend some serious time alone with God. I am so excited to sit next to Him, my spring of living water, and simply be at rest. That spring will never dry up. I will always be sustained by it, provided I resist the temptation to wander in the desert and build my own cistern.

St. Jacques Hamel, pray for us!

There can be no doubt: Father Jacques Hamel, the priest murdered by so-called “soldiers of ISIS,” is a martyr. He was killed in a gruesome fashion immediately after celebrating Mass, and he perished where he had spent much of his life: standing in the sanctuary of a church, close to the altar. By all accounts, he was beloved by all. A priest who knew him well stated, that he died after “…giving this act of love,” by which he meant the Eucharist. It is clear he was targeted for murder because he was a priest and a believer in Jesus Christ.

The UK’s Guardian states that his killing “…opens a new frontier” for the Catholic Church, but considering the de-Christianization of France during the Revolution, it’s not like France is a stranger to violence against priests.

Regardless of what comes next, remember: St. Jacques is praying for us in heaven, and he is rejoicing in the highest reaches of paradise at this moment.

St. Jacques Hamel of France, pray for us!

Family as School, Nutrition

Taryn, Ryan and I have quoted many times paragraph 1653 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The fruitfulness of conjugal love extends to the fruits of the moral, spiritual, and supernatural life that parents hand on to their children by education. Parents are the principal and first educators of their children. In this sense the fundamental task of marriage and family is to be at the service of life.

This passage also relates to the image of the family as the first church, the “domestic church” of our childhood. As Saint Pope John Paul II said in his December 30, 2001 Angelus address:

For every believer, and especially for Christian families, the humble dwelling place in Nazareth is an authentic school of the Gospel. Here we admire, put into practice, the divine plan to make the family an intimate community of life and love; here we learn that every Christian family is called to be a small “domestic church” that must shine with the Gospel virtues. Recollection and prayer, mutual understanding and respect, personal discipline and community asceticism and a spirit of sacrifice, work and solidarity are typical features that make the family of Nazareth a model for every home.

Right now I’m completing a 30-day meditation called The School of Nazareth: a Spiritual Journey with Saint Joseph. My wife got it for me for Father’s Day, and it’s excellent. In short daily reflections, the author guides men through what it means to be a husband and father by focusing in on the three members of the Holy Family. He calls their home the “school of Nazareth,” the place where for thirty years Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived a hidden life. So critical was this silent period in our Lord’s life that the Byzantines and later the armies of the Crusades built two churches over where they believed the Holy Family lived. They named this place of veneration The Church of the Nutrition, because it is where Jesus was nourished in his childhood.

Not being the strong, silent type, I’ve always had a difficult time getting close to St. Joseph. But now that I’m mid-way through this retreat, I’m beginning to understand more about him and why I need to ask for his prayers. Whether he truly taught the Lord of the Universe anything is up for debate, but I am starting to contemplate how he understood better than almost anyone how precious the child he was safeguarding was. Over the past few weeks, I am asking myself, “Do I treat my children as that precious? Do they know how much they are loved by both me and the God who made them?” And this thought is helping me see my children with new eyes. Saint Joseph, pray for us!

Not as the World Gives

John’s beautiful reflection and prayer from several days ago, in the wake of recent tragedies, was a necessary reminder for me of the role that we play as Christians in this fallen world. Isn’t it easy to get caught up in anger over the injustices we see every day? Especially when they are this close to our doorstep, it can feel like the world is caving in around us. People feel the need to take sides in an “us-versus-them” battle instead of standing side by side to look at the problem and move forward together. There are horrible things said, horrible acts committed against our own neighbors. It looks pretty dire.

But God sees it all… and yet he still commands us to have joy and peace. Do you hear that? God sees every injustice ever committed, every act of abuse, every tear shed, every heart broken, ever.  And yet he tells us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (Jn 14:21) Peace is not a suggestion, but a command. How is that even possible? How can our hearts not be troubled by terrible events right in our own backyard? He tells us the answer himself, “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” He does not give peace “as the world gives”, but supernaturally. Look at two saints of our church, Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, who lived and died during the holocaust; there is no earthly way that they could have remained in a state of interior peace unless it came from somewhere outside of themselves, from a source of power greater than we can imagine.

In our finite understanding, we see chaos ensuing around us and think that God can’t be bigger than this. Maybe we decide it’s easier to hide from the world in order to avoid having to confront life’s difficulties, or maybe we start to believe that it is up to us to fix things. Both responses come from a place of doubt, the subconscious idea that God doesn’t have it under control, that the maker of the universe doesn’t see or care what’s going on.

So what should we do? That is a question for each individual. I know that God does ask us to be a part of the solution, but on His terms, not ours. I believe that if we are in inner turmoil, our first step must be to seek His peace. St. Maximilian could never have managed, of his own strength, to trade his life for the life of another… and then continue to offer Mass for his fellow prisoners as he slowly starved to death. This is not the work of man, but the work of Christ.   Whatever work we are called to do, we must do it with the peace of Christ. True justice will not come about through anguish and frustration, but only through true peace, Christ’s peace.