Monday, December 29, 2014

An Unexpected Honor for TWIH

I just received the link to Pete Socks' (The Catholic Book Blogger at Patheos) Top 10 Picks for 2014 and was completely surprised and honored to find my Through, With, and In Him: The Prayer Life of Jesus and How to Make It Our Own listed among them! I find it listed among the books of good friends like Dr. Kevin Vost and Jared Zimmerer, as well as authors who helped form my own faith, such as Scott Hahn. Let me just humbly say, "Thank You, Lord. Thank you for using such a poor instrument to write about such a mighty subject. May it be of benefit to Your children."

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Tim Staples' "Behold Your Mother" - Book Review

I have enjoyed listening to Tim Staples on Catholic Answers-Live and by CD for at least fifteen years now. His knowledge is encyclopedic and his sincere love for Scripture and those seeking answers reverberates in Tim's voice. Let me assure you, the same holds true for his writing. Of the sixty-some books I own focused on Marian belief and devotion, Behold Your Mother stands out as the most comprehensive, popularly-written apologetic among them.

Tim is a specialist at laying out the biblical basis of the Catholic Faith, and he puts that finely-honed skill to work answering every conceivable question a non-Catholic might have about our Marian beliefs: her identity as the Mother of God, mother of Christians, subject of prophecy, immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, role in our redemption, assumption into heaven, heavenly intercession, and queenship. He frequently enhances our understanding of pertinent biblical passages by taking us behind the English translation to the original Greek. He also provides documentation showing how Scripture was interpreted by its earliest readers - the ones closest in time to the apostles. 

Elements that (especially) stood out to me:
  • How belief in Mary's perpetual virginity acts as a safeguard to the sanctity in which we hold marriage, the sacraments, and religious life.
  • The number of errors (historical and present day) that stem from denying Mary the title "Mother of God"
  • In-depth analysis of the title "Full of Grace" (Kecharitomene in Greek)
  • The significance of Fathers and Doctors of the Church identifying both Christ's humanity and Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant
  • How Mary is revealed as the New Eve not just at the Annunciation, but at the Cross
  • The symmetry between the Holy Family's flight into Egypt and that of the Woman of Revelation 12 into the desert
  • 200 years before we had a New Testament canon, we have written testimony from Christians on three different continents that Mary was recognized as the New Eve
  • Why Romans 3:10 ("None is righteous, no, not one...") does not contradict belief in Mary's immaculate conception or sinlessness
  • What passages like Ruth 3:9, Ezek. 16:7-8, 2 Sam. 20:3, and Deut. 24:4 have to teach us about the non-conjugal nature of Joseph and Mary's marriage
  • How the annunciation witnesses to Mary's superiority to angels, in the order of grace
  • A plethora of verses showing how Christians are meant to cooperate with Christ in bringing salvation to others
  • A clear presentation of the Catholic Church's teaching that Mary remained a virgin, not just before and after the birth of Jesus, but in the very act of giving birth (in partu)
I have read theology for decades, but that last point was not brought to my attention until three years ago. Tim's is the most thorough discussion I have read on the subject, and it will leave you with no doubt that the miraculous nature both of Christ's conception and His birth are matters of Catholic Faith.

Behold Your Mother is an amazing resource, and I simply can't recommend it highly enough. If, in the future, the Lord Jesus grants my desire to write about the heart of His Mother, you will surely see Tim's work well represented in the footnotes!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Of Swaddling Clothes and Grave Wrappings

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, the "disciple whom Jesus loved."  Today's Gospel reading came from the end of John's Gospel, from his Resurrection narrative.  It may seem a strange choice for the Christmas season, but while at Mass I recognized a profound symmetry at work.  Let me share a couple of lines with you:
"They both ran, but the other disciple [John] outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping down to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came ... and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on [Jesus'] head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple [John], who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed." (John 20:4-8)
For John, seeing Jesus' discarded burial wrappings was a sign; it allowed him to grasp the truth that Jesus had been raised.  This takes us right back to the shepherds at the time of Jesus' birth.  The angel said, "This will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."  For both John and the shepherds the wrappings acted as a sign.  For the shepherds it was Jesus' presence in the bands; but for John, His absence.  And both signs occurred in caves to which the men had been sent - the first was the cave of the Nativity, and the second was the rock-hewn tomb. In the first Jesus had been laid in a manger, most likely also carved from rock; and in the second Jesus' body rose from the rock slab on which it had been lain. I of course am not the first to see this; you can find it woven into the icon of the Nativity at left.  God's sense of symmetry is truly beyond words.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Hey Friend - Worshiped An Idol Lately?

No, this isn't a post about the tripe that Catholics worship idols such as statues and icons. I have never met, nor even heard of, a Catholic who practices such nonsense; and the Catechism debunks the anti-Catholic allegation with a concise explanation (CCC 476-7; 2129-32). I have, however, met a number of Catholics - and other Christians - who choose to worship a god of their own making instead of the God Who reveals Himself to us in Christ. This came to me very forcefully a few years back in a conversation with a friend.

We were talking about something we had seen in the news and, in connection with the coverage, my friend expressed his agreement with a behavior that both Judaism and Christianity has always recognized as a sin. (No need for me to name the behavior, other than to say it is in the sexual/procreative sphere. There are an increasing number of troubling behaviors being celebrated in our culture; and the point I seek to make is applicable to all.) Because both of us are Catholic - and knowing that my friend attends Mass each week - I asked him how he could reconcile that with what God had said on the matter. I mean, Scripture clearly says that this specific behavior is a gravely serious sin. His response really troubled me - "I simply don't believe that. The God I believe in wouldn't say that."

"Whoa!" (mentally, in my best Joey Lawrence voice). My friend, I realized, had fallen prey to not just moral relativism, but - subconsciously, to be sure - idol worship. Instead of worshiping God as He is (as He revealed Himself to Israel and the Church), he had substituted his own idea of God. Now, before we go condemning my friend, we have to admit that each of us has been guilty of that at some point in our lives (and maybe we are right now...Catholic social teaching is challenging and seems to have elements that rub people of all political persuasions the wrong way). Often times, it is simply because of lack of knowledge. God's revelation of Himself and His will often have not been adequately proclaimed to us and so, we fill that void with our own notions. What we do after being  presented with the Truth, however, is decisive for our life with God.

 "But you realize," I continued, "there's only one God...I don't have my God and you have yours. He exists, objectively; and His stance on what behaviors are, in themselves, sinful doesn't change depending upon what you or I think. When God reveals His mind to us - and that's what we have in Scripture - we have an obligation to live it out."
"Yeah, but we Catholics aren't fundamentalists," my friend answered; "We interpret the Bible."
"You are correct," I said, "that we aren't fundamentalists, but by that we mean that when we read Scripture, we pay attention to what type of literature we are reading - history, poetry, apocalyptic, etc. - to understand what the author truly meant to say. Poetry expresses the truth differently than a book of history. Genesis, for example, tells about the creation of humanity in symbolic language; it is not making scientific claims.  But, once we understand the genre, and understand what God and the writer of Scripture meant to teach then we are absolutely bound to it. So, when St. Paul was inspired to write a pastoral letter and label [this behavior] a sin, telling his readers that it could separate them from God for eternity, that is God's word to us; and we really are obligated to obey it."

"But [this behavior] really has to do with two people expressing their love for each other, and isn't that what God is all about?"

"That's just it," I tried to explain.  "God is love. He is true love, and He is trying to teach us how to love.  If He says that something is sinful, then be assured that how ever loving we might mistakenly feel it is, it is not so in reality. We want to see things as they really are, not as we imagine them to be. God only has our best interests at heart."  My friend wasn't able to bring himself to reconsider his stance on this particular issue, at least not at that moment. But we remain close friends, and that tells me that he was willing to listen...and that's a wonderful first step!

As I reflected on that conversation a few more thoughts occurred to me: 
  • These false images of God that we construct are violations of the First Commandment. They truly are acts of idolatry. Those who try to "interpret" away the portion of God's revelation recorded in Scripture frequently appeal to the "spirit" vs. the "letter" of the law. Well, this is the spirit of the First Commandment! Any time we construct an image (silver, gold, or mental) and bow down to it (by giving it our obedience), we give worship to a false god and commit idolatry
  • The prophet Isaiah said some scathing things about worshiping idols: 
    • "You [idols], indeed, are nothing and your work is nothing at all; whoever chooses you is an abomination." (Is. 41:24)
    • No, [idols] are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their images are empty wind." (Is. 41:29) 
    • "All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame." (Is. 44:9)
  • The idea that Jesus did away with the "harsh" requirements of the Mosaic Law, and in effect rubber stamped any behavior we deem to be loving is absolute rubbish.  Jesus said that He did not come to abolish Israel's law and prophets, but to bring the to fulfillment, or completion (Mt. 5: 17). And if we look at how Jesus went about turning people from the letter of the law to its "spirit," we will quickly discover that the spirit of the law is a hundred times more demanding than the letter! (Thank goodness for baptismal regeneration and the gift of the Spirit to make it possible!) Just look four verses after it speaks of Him bringing the law to fulfillment: 
    • "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hellof fire." (Mt. 5:21-22) 
    • “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Mt. 5:27) 
    • “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other..." (Mt. 5:38)
Oh, if only Jesus had allowed us to stay at the letter! But His intention is to make us like Himself - images of the Father. "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). But that is all dependent upon our faithfulness to God as He is, as Jesus has revealed Him to us - and not as we imagine Him to be.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bringing Lent Home with St. John Paul II - Book Review

It is the beginning of Advent, so why am I reviewing a book about Lent?  Well, with Ash Wednesday arriving on Feb. 18th, this new release from Donna-Marie Copper O'Boyle is going to make an amazing stocking-stuffer for the readers on your Christmas list! (See? I've got your back.)

Honestly, Donna-Marie's newest is much more than a "book" - pages read and then retired to a shelf. It is a means of bringing our beloved pastor, Pope St. John Paul II, into our homes and allowing him to lead us through another Lent, joining ourselves to Jesus in His Passover. As you know, wherever John Paul went, he was accompanied by the Blessed Mother; and I am sure that you will find that to be equally true when you bring him into your home.

As a mother of five, Donna-Marie is keenly sensitive to moms' and dads' responsibility to help their children grow in the spiritual life. With that thought at the fore, she has crafted daily meditations and activities appropriate for the entire family. Each day contains (1) a reflection for parents to engage in prior to beginning prayer with the children; (2) an excerpt from John Paul II's audiences or writings for the family to read aloud; (3) a family prayer time; (4) a story from John Paul II's life; (5) and then a daily suggestion for how the family can fast, give alms, and offer short individual prayers throughout the day. It is ingenious. Allow me to share a few examples:
Parent Reflection
There is so much to accomplish in the course of one day, and we sometimes fly from one activity to the next worrying that we won't get everything done...Try to read St. John Paul II's words several time today. There is so much meaning in them to ponder. Help the children understand them. Perhaps you can discuss them for a few minutes at dinner tonight.

John Paul II's Words (read during brief time of family prayer)

...Seek to penetrate the meaning of [Jesus'] crucifixion if you do not want to be ashamed of it; the meaning of his wounds, if you want yours to heal; the meaning of his death, if you want to gain eternal life; and the meaning of his burial, if you want to find the Resurrection. - General Audience, June 2, 2004

Today fast from wasting time or procrastination...

Have the children draw a picture or make a card for someone they know who lives alone and try to deliver it soon.

Prayer (to be used throughout the day)
Jesus, I trust in you!
What I found especially ingenius of Donna-Marie was how the stories she shares from John Paul's life take us chronologically from his birth (shared on Ash Wednesday) straight through to his own personal passion and death (on Good Friday) and his canonization (Easter Sunday). It is such a powerful way of reminding us that Jesus is recreating His earthly life in each of us. And walking with John Paul through the most horrific events of the last century, not to mention personal tragedies, allows us bear our own crosses and see how the glory of Christ's Resurrection is shot through even the darkest of experiences.

"Joy" - that's the word that keeps coming to mind for this book. It planted joy in my soul, that same joy that beamed from the eyes and smile of John Paul II, the same joy our Blessed Mother surely had gazing upon her Son, Jesus. Bringing Lent Home with St. John Paul II - it is quite the treasure.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Glory of the Crusades - Book Review

This past April, Pope Francis called upon the international community to stop the murder and displacement of Iraqi Christians by ISIS. My mind immediately went to the eleventh century and Pope Urban II's call for European Christians to intervene in the Seljuk Turks' slaughter of Christians in the Holy Land. 

Naturally, I wanted to read up on the subject. Hillaire Belloc's The Crusades had been on my shelf for over a decade, but something in the style kept me from going past the first few pages. I'm happy to say that I had the opposite experience with Steve Weidenkopf's The Glory of the Crusades (Catholic Answers Press, 2014). I sailed through it in the course of a weekend.

You are probably wondering about the use of the word "Glory" in the title. Weidenkopf certainly doesn't glorify violence. He using the word in its original Hebrew sense, meaning "heavy in weight." In the preface he explains, "To recognize the glory of the Crusades means not to whitewash what was ignoble about them, but to call attention to the import in the life of the Church" (p.14).

Weidenkopf is a fantastic story teller, and he uses that talent to rather effortlessly lead the reader, in just over 240 pages, through six centuries of crusading history. In this sweeping narrative we are introduced to characters such as Godfrey de Bouillon and Richard the Lionhearted, as well as saints like Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. King Louis IX of France. 

What I value most about this book is the way it unmasks the many myths about the Crusades - that they were wars of aggression, motivated by greed, the first movement in European colonialism. Weidenkopf shows how these false characterizations arose in the Reformation and Enlightenment. He provides a good review of the early Church's view of military service and the requirements of a "just war," contrasting these with Islamic jihad.

When you finish this book, however, I doubt that you will have a triumphant feeling regarding the Crusades. You will understand the noble motivation that set them in motion - defense of pilgrims to, and Christians living in, the Holy Land - but you will see how frequently participants' fallen natures led them astray. There are many bright spots to be sure: acts of courage and sanctity - as well as divine providence, as at the Battle of Lepanto. More often than not, however, you will be reading accounts of failure, both moral and military. 

Weidenkopf's The Glory of the Crusades is a marvelous history - concise and eminently readable. Given the state of the world today, and the conversations going on around us, we need a reliable guide to understanding the religious/military conflicts of the past.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Pope Francis & Cardinal Burke - A Flashback to Peter & Paul?

With all of the press coverage on the synod this past week, I had several opportunities to hear from my former shepherd here in St. Louis, Cardinal Burke. I wrote about Cardinal Burke in one of my first blog posts and how I admired his ability to take stands that were unpopular in the culture at large (even among large swathes of his flock) - but completely faithful to Christ and his duty as a shepherd.

When the release of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family's relatio post disceptationem (report after the debate) earlier this week caused tremendous confusion throughout the Catholic world, Cardinal Burke felt compelled to speak up as to how the relatio did not faithfully reflect the bulk of the conversation engaged in by synod participants. The Vatican released a new, more precise English translation days later; but it did little to allay the difficulties seen by synod participants.

In his interview with Carl Olsen, Cardinal Burke said:

"The document lacks a solid foundation in the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium. In a matter on which the Church has a very rich and clear teaching, it gives the impression of inventing a totally new, what one Synod Father called “revolutionary,”teaching on marriage and the family. It invokes repeatedly and in a confused manner principles which are not defined, for example, the law of graduality."

The relatio was largely seen as being in agreement with Cardinal Kasper of Germany's proposal to change the Church's discipline that those who had divorced and remarried (without having their first marriage investigated and found to be sacramentally invalid) were unable to present themselves to receive Holy Communion (see Mt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 11:28-32). Over the past year, when giving interviews, Cardinal Kasper had presented his proposal as representing Pope Francis' own wishes for a change in discipline. The release of the relatio - granted, only a working document - was still taken by the mainstream media as a confirmation of this.

When Cardinal Burke was asked about how important he believed it was for Pope Francis  to make a statement reaffirming, for the faithful, the ancient, orthodox teaching of Christ and the Church on this serious matter, the Cardinal replied:

"In my judgment, such a statement is long overdue. The debate on these questions has been going forward now for almost nine months, especially in the secular media but also through the speeches and interviews of Cardinal Walter Kasper and others who support his position. The faithful and their good shepherds are looking to the Vicar of Christ for the confirmation of the Catholic faith and practice regarding marriage which is the first cell of the life of the Church."

And I have seen how the mainstream media has pounced: "Cardinal Burke at odds with Pope Francis." No.  The Cardinal retains his complete allegiance to Pope Francis as the Vicar of Christ. In his words, at every step, Pope Francis has articulated Christianity's ancient understanding of Christ's words on the indissolubility of marriage, as well as how marriage is constituted by the union of man and woman.  What Cardinal Burke has given voice to is the confusion he sees being expressed among the faithful, in response to the relatio and its coverage in the media; and how the Cardinal sees Pope Francis' silence as adding to the misunderstanding. It cannot be easy for Cardinal Burke to say that, but I believe he does so out of a sincere love for Pope Francis and the entire Church.

My mind immediately goes back to the disagreement between Paul and Peter recounted in Galatians.  Paul, who had nothing but respect for Peter, and recognized the preeminent authority entrusted to him by Christ (Gal. 1:18; 2:1-2, 7-10), took issue with Peter's behavior.  Yes, Peter who had so clearly articulated God's welcome of the Gentiles into the Church - and without need for them to follow the ceremonial portions of the Mosaic Law - was behaving as if those things were necessary...and in the process, causing confusion.  And so Paul tells us how:

"...when Cephas [Aramaic for Rock, Peter] came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, 'If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?' We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:11-16).

Cardinal Burke's words should be understood in this same way. And please, I hope no one is jumping to the wild conclusion that papal infallibility is being called into question!  As all of us know, papal infallibility applies only to the Pope's official teachings, (1) as the Successor of Peter, (2) addressed to the entire Church, (3) on matters of faith and morals.  Cardinal Burke is simply pointing out what he believes to be a negative effect of Pope Francis' silence on a matter of great importance. The Pope and the Cardinal are brothers, intent on serving the same Master. In their heart of hearts they both want what is best for Christ's flock. You and I should pray that the Lord remove every obstacle that might stand in the way of that goal. Pray for Pope Francis, and please pray for all who, with him, and under his authority, share the responsibility of shepherding the Lord's flock.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Lord Loves a Sharp-Dressed Man

"Lord loves a workin' man" - so saith Navin R. Johnson, of 1979's The Jerk. I am sure Navin was right, but today's Gospel reminded me that the Lord also loves a properly attired-man. 

In Matthew 22, the Lord Jesus compared the Kingdom to a king who threw a wedding feast for his son. When the invited guests ignored the king's invitation and murdered his servants, the king sent his soldiers to burn their city (an image of Rome's sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., in response to the repeated actions of its leaders). The king then dispatched more servants:
"'Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen" (Mt. 22:9-14).
As in the parables of the wheat and the tares (Mt. 13:41-42), and the net containing both good and bad fish (13:47-50), the parable of the wedding feast reminds us that Christ's Kingdom on earth, His Church, is made up of both the righteous and unrighteous. Professing Jesus as Lord and Savior and receiving Baptism are incredibly important, but they are just the beginning.  To enter the wedding banquet - the life of Heaven and the establishment of the Kingdom in power at the end of time - we have to put on the right garments, and towards the end of the Book of Revelation we are told what they are:

"'Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure'—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, 'Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb'" (Rev. 19:7-9).

Proper wedding attire = righteous deeds.  A well-dressed man and workin' man are one and the same! (I always felt Navin was a lot more clever than people gave him credit for.)  Or as James concluded, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (Jas 2:24).

If you want to read more about the synergy between faith and works, you may want to look here and here.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Radio Replies - Catholic Answers Edition (Book Review)

Radio Replies is more than a gem; it’s an apologetic gold mine.  Father Charles Rumble was the original Catholic radio apologist in the 1920s and 30s. His answers to a whopping 4,374 questions were originally published as a three volume set.  Todd Aglialoro (editor of Catholic Answers Press) has now produced a one-volume abridgment consisting of 836 answers to the most important questions facing today's apologist.

I was thrilled that Catholic Answers retained Abp. Fulton J. Sheen's Introduction to the First Edition. (Sheen was but a “lowly” Monsignor at the time). You are no doubt familiar with his quote, “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church...” Well, this is the source! By themselves, Sheen’s nine pages are worth the price of the book: “If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world…Look for the Church which is accused of being behind the times, as our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned.” The Introduction is a masterpiece and yet, only an appetizer to the feast that follows.

Father Rumble used his immense knowledge, keen reason, and razor-sharp wit to succinctly answer questions as relevant today as they were almost a century ago.  He tackled questions of faith and science, God’s triune nature, the Incarnation, sacraments, authority of the Church, and Blessed Mother.  He answered the same questions of morality – contraception, euthanasia, overpopulation, abortion, suicide – that we face on a daily basis, even addressing matters of social justice.  I found myself amazed, time and again, at the way Rumbles’ answers became part of our modern apologetic patrimony. Like Catholic Answers-Live today, no topic was off limits.

At 450 pages, Radio Replies – Catholic Answers Edition  has the apologetic girth of an entire shelf of similar books. You'll definitely want this for your collection. (Also available in e-book, at a sweet price!)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

"In Suffering, You are Perfected"

I'm not sure why; but, as I was praying yesterday morning, St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh came to mind.” I tried to remember what Jesus said to Paul after the apostle’s prayers for relief went unanswered. The phrase that came to mind was, “In suffering, you are perfected.” It didn’t sound right, but…those words…there was something to them. Were they true? Was that the gist of what Jesus said to Paul? I was getting ready for work as I prayed, so it was another hour before I had a chance to check the Bible. Reading Paul’s account again, I am touched both by its richness and how much Paul’s experience resonates with me. Let’s look at it:
“[T]o keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:7-10).

Isn’t it significant that Paul never disclosed the specifics of his thorn in the flesh? Many have speculated that it was an illness – others, a persecution. By leaving it undisclosed, however, the Holy Spirit allows us to more easily project our own sufferings and difficulties onto the thorn.

Like Paul, all of us have surely had the experience of praying for relief from some difficulty or suffering, only to have it continue on for an extended period. So what did Jesus say to Paul, and what does He wish to say to us? Is it akin to saying that God can perfect us through suffering?

Jesus’ actual words to Paul were, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I think we are justified in equating “weakness” with suffering, especially since Paul went on to link it with examples of suffering – hardships and calamities. Jesus spoke of “grace,” or “my power”, being perfected during Paul’s experience of suffering. Paul was forced to fall back upon the Lord – the very thing he and all of us need to do if we are to grow to maturity.  It is, after all, Christ’s life that we are called to live; and that flows not from ourselves, but from Him.

I have to wonder if Jesus’ message to Paul didn’t lie behind the apostle’s own message to the Philippians:
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ...and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:8-11).
You see, when we suffer, when we endure the Cross in union with Jesus, we are taking on His image in the most profound of ways. When our petitions for deliverance are met with the same silence His were in Gethsemane, and we obediently continue on with faith in the Father’s love for us, this is when we are truly conformed to the Master. Our life’s goal is being realized; we are being perfectedin the midst of that suffering.

Paul went on to say one more mysterious thing in his account of the thorn, that I want to draw to your attention.  He wrote how he came to be content in his suffering, because it was “[f]or the sake of Christ.” Paul was the one being strengthened as he was infused with Christ’s grace, and yet it is somehow “for the sake of Christ.” I would suggest that this is linked to the mystery of redemptive suffering that Paul later wrote about in his epistle to the Colossians:
"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).

There is much for us to meditate on here. I look forward to your comments.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Saved by Grace - Manifested in Both Faith AND Works

C.S. Lewis wrote how the question of what leads one to Heaven, works or faith, was like "asking which blade in a pair of scissors is [more] necessary." His words came back to me as I sat down to write about my recent meditation on Paul's words to the Ephesians:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:8-10).
We enter into a saving relationship with God through God’s grace and the gift of faith.[1] It is a gift. Nothing we did beforehand could ever merit such a stupendous gift. That is the beginning of our salvation. But notice, we were created, and then recreated in Christ, “for good works.” They are an integral part of the Christian life. When some people point out how these works have been prepared by God “beforehand,” they speak as if we have no active part to play in the process. That isn’t what Paul wrote. God prepares us for these works by providing the grace to perform them; but it is up to you and me to “walk” in them. There is activity on our parts, and this activity has a part to play in our obtaining final salvation.

Paul fleshed this out in his Epistle to the Philippians. Allow me to quote at length, so as to provide you with a fuller context for Paul’s explanation:
"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain"  (Phil. 2:12-16).
Paul taught that if we did not actively cooperate with God in producing good works in our lives, then on the day of judgment, we will find that we began the Christian life, we received the gift of faith and justification, in vain! Paul was only teaching what the Lord Jesus had at the Last Supper:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit… As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me…[M]y Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples…If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn. 15:1-13).
We can bear fruit, can obey Christ's commands, can lay down our lives - but only because Christ is living in us! We obtain final salvation through both faith and works, but both are the result of Christ's grace...and our humble cooperation. That's Scripture, and that is the Faith of the Church.  Can I get an "Amen"?

[1] Baptism is the free gift whereby we receive salvation. It is where we profess our faith in Christ, are reborn, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The Lord Jesus taught, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5), and “[h]e who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16). Peter and Paul echoed the Lord: “Baptism…now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21); “he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Someone Broke Into Our Car

When the kids and I went out to the car this morning, we quickly realized that someone had been in it overnight.  (I forgot to lock it.)  I usually leave my wallet and cell phone in the compartment between the driver and passenger seats; but I had brought in the cell phone for an early morning call, and I had my wallet in my pocket when I came in from the store last night. Fortunately, I hadn't loaded my work laptop into the trunk either (here's to putting things off until morning!).

The thief had to be pretty bummed when all he could find to take was a small bag of change.

I have lived in my house for five years and never experienced something like this before. What really made me chuckle was the timing of the theft: Just an hour before going out to the car, I had been talking to Matt Swaim on EWTN's Son Rise Morning Show, and one of the things we discussed was Jesus' prayer, "Father, forgive them." Matt and I talked about the way Jesus taught us to pray the same way in the Our Father, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." You have to love it when the Lord gives you a chance to walk the talk. Had I not just spoken with Matt, my heart may have been in a different state.  Thanks to the preparation, however, the kids and I launched straight into our morning prayer:
"Lord, we ask you to forgive, to pardon, the person who was in our car last night.  Please make him truly sorry for what he did and cause him to turn to you, ask for forgiveness, and never do this again.  If he or his family needed that bit of change to buy some food, we ask that they receive what they need.  And Lord, we thank you that you made sure we brought everything of value into the house last night. You take such incredible care of us, Lord. I will stop leaving my phone and wallet in the car overnight, and I'll be sure to double-check that it is locked.  Thank you, Lord.  Our Father..."
I recognize that I didn't have much to forgive. It was a small lesson ... but even small lessons have their purpose. My mind went to words I reread last night in preparation for my talk with Matt:

"I know what you are thinking: when you imagine yourself on his cross, praying 'Father, forgive them' seems impossible. But baptism makes it possible! It unites my soul to his. I could never pray those words on my own, apart from the action of the Holy Spirit. But through the Spirit, through the action of grace upon my soul, Jesus can pray those words in me; and they can become mine! Each time I pray the Our Father and cooperate with his grace to forgive people their small wrongs against me, my soul grows toward forgiving those who would take my life." (Through, With, and In Him, p.76)

Thank the Lord for baby steps.

Friday, August 8, 2014

On the Wrong Side of History?

Several months back, a friend posted a meme on Facebook. It compared segregationists in the 1960's to people today who want to maintain the traditional definition of marriage. The point of the meme was how, in 40 years time, such a view will look just as ridiculous, just as morally reprehensible, as that of segregationists. In effect, anyone continuing to agree with 2500 years of natural law (running from Plato and Aristotle up through Kant and MLK) or 3500 years of Judaeo-Christian belief, will find themselves “on the wrong side of history.”

Because my friend is a fellow Catholic my initial reaction was one of sadness:  Doesn’t she know that Christ’s definition of marriage would never seek to demean anyone? It was Christianity’s cultural influence that moved society to recognize the existence of human “rights” to begin with. Didn’t anyone explain the Church’s beautiful, intricate understanding of the human person, sexuality, marriage, and children to her?

My reaction quickly turned from sadness to wanting to correct her point about how those holding Christianity's understanding of marriage will soon find themselves on the wrong side of history. The OT prophets announced, and Jesus and the apostles insisted, that God’s kingdom – God’s vision for human life and the ordering of our relationships – will ultimately be recognized by all. When Jesus returns, He will make it clear who has or hasn’t been on the wrong side of history.  But then I realized that my friend was…technically, absolutely correct. Scripture and Tradition agreed with her. All those who maintain that Christ and His Church have spoken the truth, not just about marriage, but a host of issues, will most assuredly find themselves on the wrong side of history.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church does a wonderful job of summarizing the teaching of Scripture on this point (italics added):
675   Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers (Lk. 18:8; Mt. 24:12). The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth (Lk. 21:12; Jn. 15:19-20) will unveil the "mystery of iniquity" in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh (2 Tess. 2:4-12; 1 Thess. 5:2-3; 2 Jn. 7; 1 Jn. 2:18-22). 

676  The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism (Pope Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris). 

677  The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection (Rev. 19:19). The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven (Rev. 13:9; 20:7-10; 21:2-4). God's triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world (Rev. 20:12; 2 Pet. 3:12-13).

Now, I am certainly not claiming “this is it,” and Jesus will return at any moment. Rather, I am writing to remind myself and others that, in the end, everyone who remains in the Faith will find themselves on the wrong side of history. We will look like fools to everyone around us. Our convictions will be mocked, we will be persecuted, and eventually a great number will be martyred. There will be no rapture to whisk us away to safety. No - to share in Christ’s resurrection demands that we first share His cross.

History, for Christians, has always been a roller coaster. Periods of triumph (think King St. Louis IX) are followed by periods of darkness (think French Revolution). And at the end of our earthly journey stands the cross.  That should not shock us though; we are walking the path of Christ himself. While the apostles were still basking in the glory of Jesus' transfiguration and the expulsion of a demon, he told them squarely, “The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Mt. 17:22).

Recall Peter's reaction to Jesus' prediction of the Passion. "God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you." No one wants to suffer; we don't want it for ourselves, and we certainly don't want it for those we love. Jesus' words are as jarring to us as they were to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt. 16:22-23).

Our salvation is to be caught up into the very life of Christ, his relationship with the Father. That also means that we share his relationship with the world:
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it...For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mk. 8:34-38). 

In the end, it's about love. "If you love me, keep my commands" (Jn. 14:15). We don't follow Christianity's moral claims out of a blind sense of duty, but because we love Christ and are convinced that the Faith he entrusted to his apostles is meant to bring us, to bring all of humanity, to fullness of life. To reject Christ's teachings out of a sense of shame is to reject him; and that robs the soul of eternal life.

A quote from J.R.R. Tolkien has been making its rounds on the internet, and it summarizes my thoughts well, "I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains...some samples or glimpses of final victory" (Letters 255). 

So what are we to do, lock ourselves away in Catholic ghettos and await our inevitable defeat? Tolkien sure didn't think so. Neither did Jesus nor the millenia of saints who have preceded us. We are not meant to be paralyzed by the shadow of the cross. Instead we are to be a people animated by the deep joy of the world to come, a world already mysteriously present within us.  How is that possible? There is only one answer:  Communion - literally "union with" Christ Jesus.

Jesus' entire life was lived in the shadow of His cross, and yet that knowledge never impeded the joy He took in doing His Father's work, ministering to the people. Even when the cross was mere hours away it did not prevent him from realizing one of his most profound desires. "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer...This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me...This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (Lk. 22:17-20).  He achieved union, Eucharistic Communion, with those for whom He would offer His life on the cross. 

The NT tells us that because of the joy set before Him - you and I, sharing Jesus' life with the Father, for eternity - Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame (Heb. 12:2).  Even in the midst of His horrific suffering upon the Cross, in His praying of Psalms 22, 31, and 69, Jesus looked ahead to the moment when, in the Eucharist, He would both celebrate his Resurrection and renew His union with the disciples. 

The Eucharist is where the Lord Jesus shares His life, stronger than death, with us. "Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me" (Jn. 6:57). A life of prayer, with the sacraments - especially the Eucharist - at the center, is how we can continually move forward, even in the shadow of the cross. The grace Christ give us in the sacraments imparts a peace that defies human explanation: 
[The LORD] leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul...Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me...You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.You anoint my head with oil...and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps. 23:2-6).

Whether times are good or bad, whether enduring the cross or experience some small foretaste of the resurrection, we are called to love the Lord by obeying Him and witnessing to His Truth. C.S. Lewis provided a literary example that has always stuck with me:
In King Lear (III:VII) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely "First Servant." All the characters around him...have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and pointed at his master's breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted. (The Joyful Christian, 70-71).

Blessed will we be if Christ find us faithfully doing our work when He returns. Finding ourselves on the wrong side of history is one thing, but the wrong side of eternity quite another! I do not wish that upon Christianity's worst persecutors. Let us pray, offer our Eucharists, and work as hard as we can that they too will come to know the all-surpassing love of Christ.