Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Why be a Christian?

In another lifetime, I purchased Bertrand Russel's Why I Am Not A Christian. I have to admit that I put it on my book shelf and there it has sat ever since. I bought it thinking that I'd like to hear what the other side has to say. I know personally after studying a myriad of different philosophers and their respective thought, that I was pushed further into believing that there must be a God. I'm sure we've all had moments of doubt, or as the Church likes to call it, conversion. So what drives people to develop a deeper relationship with God? Looking back, and even reflecting on my current journey, good prayer is hard. I usually compare the spiritual journey to training for something physical, like weightlifting or a marathon. I still can't imagine what it must be like to run for 4 hours or bench press 400 lbs, but it didn't stop me from trying running or lifting weights. Not being able to imagine what it must be like to accomplish these Herculean tasks must be a nonstarter for a lot of people. So it is with being an engaged Catholic. So many people must see the transition necessary from their everyday lives to that of a religious person as overwhelmingly daunting. Just the thought that we'd have to change anything in our lives, or to give up even the most minor things, seems anathema to us. No matter the reason, there is a reluctance. As Saint Augustine said, "Make me a saint, just not yet."

So what makes someone begin on the spiritual path? Is it out of desperation? Does one have to hit rock bottom? Or does it take a divine revelation that they are broken and need healing? Well, in some cases yes. But I think there's another entrance. It makes me think back to freshman year of high school. I tried out for the football team. Why? I wanted to be a football player. I couldn't get over how cool the upperclassmen looked in their pads and helmets, the taped knuckles, high top cleats, playing under the lights. I knew I wanted that to be me. I did not grow up in a "sportsy" household. I barely even watched football. I had absolutely no idea what it would entail to go from a grade school soccer player to a high school football player. Everything was new. The first thing you notice is that getting used to wearing a helmet hurts. The next thing you notice is that practice seems impossibly long. The next thing you notice is that you have to run everywhere; you have to do it with 10 extra pounds of equipment on, in late August. I won't lie. Football camp is miserable. Two to three practices a day will make anyone start to question their decision. My high school didn't cut anyone from the team, but a lot of guys weeded themselves out pretty early on. Pretty much in that first week. I don't know what drove me to make it past the quitting point for those other guys. There were other guys on the team that seemed to just love it. There were other guys that had a special gift for perseverance. I was neither of those. But what kept me going was their example. I wanted to keep at it until I loved it, or at least got past the dreading going to practice every day.

I think that's how it goes for Christianity. It is our witness to the joy of the Gospel that inspires others to begin that journey. Right now, I have the privilege of watching our candidates go through RCIA. In case you didn't know, it is a year long process. It involves weekly meetings, serious discernment and a lot of prayer. I don't know the numbers on how many seekers "wash out" before Easter Vigil. I have to imagine that there are a certain number that choose not to continue at some point. I think the ones that persevere, however, are the ones that see the light at the end of the tunnel. They have some example that they look to, to see that the journey is worthwhile. This finally leads me to the big question. Are fewer people sticking out the journey, because the ones that are on the path aren't obvious witnesses? Are we leading joy-filled lives? Does someone look at you and say, "Man, now there is a happy Christian! I want some of what they have!" My hope is that we are the cool upperclassmen. We are the people who's lives are so joy-filled, so blessed, that another person can't help but wonder what it's like to have God as an integral part of his or her life. Let's always keep that in mind, that those on the outside looking in have no idea what it feels like. They have to have examples to look toward to begin to imagine.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

October, Month of the Rosary

Full disclosure: I'm stealing this from Father Mike's homily during the Mass to open the PREP (or CCD for us old-school types) semester. In my experience, stealing someone else's work is the highest form of flattery.

There is so much to be said about the Rosary. It's literally a weapon given to us by Our Lady. I can't say enough about it, but Fr. Mike said it better than I ever could. He talked about something that I never before considered. When we reflect on the mysteries, do we ever stop to reflect on how they mirror our own lives? As an aside, he was speaking to parents of children and was using the Joyful Mysteries as the example. The Annunciation is the same joy we felt when we found out we were going to be parents. The Visitation is when we wanted to tell everyone the good news. The Nativity is obviously to joy at the birth of our own child. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is paralleled beautifully in the Sacrament of Baptism.

How amazing! I never thought to reflect on my own life while praying the Rosary. But how fitting, to see our own lives in the journey of  Christ through the Rosary, which is essentially a journey through Holy Scripture. I started thinking about all the times that I felt close to Christ through that filter. I saw my sufferings in the Sorrowful Mysteries. I saw the great gifts of grace I received throughout my life in the Luminous Mysteries. I felt the hope of the Resurrection promise in the triumphant moments of the Glorious Mysteries.

This new view really inspired me to appreciate the Rosary in a whole new way. I just wanted to finish this up with my two favorite recent revelations about praying the Rosary. The first is that it's contemplative. I think when people first engage the Rosary, they see it as repetitive. I know I fell into that trap. An exercise that bestowed grace, but something that was to be completed. A task that I needed to get through, like push-ups. Essentially saying, I'll be happier with myself when they are done. What I found though was that the repetition settled my mind and let me think deeper thoughts, to hear things that one can only here when his or her soul is quiet. The second revelation is that praying the Rosary is a form of Lectio Divina.

The what now?! Allow me to explain if this is a new term. Lectio Divina is an ancient Catholic practice, that dates back to the early Middle Ages. The most basic explanation is that one uses a reading from the Bible as the backbone of his or her prayer. The best analogy I've heard is that it's the foundation of our prayer skyscraper. You don't build the penthouse first. I know from my personal experience, and from what I've heard for others, that it's hard to go right into the highest form of prayer, which is conversation with God. Sure, we can talk to God, but conversation is also listening. Many people get discouraged when they don't hear God in prayer. The problem is that we're not tuned in to listen to him. Think of your own earthly experience. It's hard to listen to someone until you're prepared to listen. My wife can try repeatedly to tell me something important while the Flyers are on, but there's little chance that I will even remotely begin to grasp what she is trying to tell me. But I digress. Let's tie this back into the Rosary. The Mysteries of the Rosary, as well as the majority of the prayers, are taken from scripture. The Bible is the inspired Word of God. If we want to hear what God is saying, we have his words right in front of us! By starting there, by focusing on how God speaks we can begin to tune in to hear his voice. God speaks to us first through written word, and then he speaks to us in conversation! For me, it's like reading the book before you go see the movie. Anyone who has read Lord of the Rings, knows how different your experience was of watching the movies than someone who had not.

I won't insult your intelligence by expounding any further on the just how wonderful the Rosary is. I know you know how to use Google. But do yourself a favor and do some homework on this collection of 5 prayers, set in 5 decades in 4 sets of mysteries. It is so simple, yet so profound.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Faith in Action 2

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how our love for God translates to action. That we are moved by the love of the Father to care for all of his children. Twice this week (and hopefully again this Sunday), I've had the pleasure of hearing Marie Joseph speak about perhaps one of the most important ministries in our area. She is the founder of the Legacy of Life Foundation. This organization operates two centers, one in Bristol and one in Center City. The centers exist to aid men and women who are dealing with the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy. Marie spoke of the many situations that make it difficult to welcome a new life into the world. The people seeking the services of the center may be financially disadvantaged, homeless, in transition, or lacking the support of a partner. Mostly, they feel alone and afraid. As powerful as her talks were, I was particularly moved by a poster that is now at the front left of the church. It is a collage of pictures of all the babies that were born through the efforts of the center. Perhaps some of the babies on that poster would have come into this world regardless. But to see all of those hundreds of beautiful smiling faces, it hit me that many of them would not. They are real human beings. Their tiny, happy, little hopeful faces are all blessings to the world that may not have been. It hit me hard. I was no longer thinking about faceless fetuses. I was no longer seeing a political or legal situation. That's when it hit me:

Pro-Life is not about a supreme court decision made 40 years ago.

Marie was so optimistic about my observation when I shared it with her. She said plainly, "Some day when that decision is reversed, we will be in such need for all of those that viewed this as a purely political issue to show up at our doors and help." It really got my wheels turning. We can do so much for our brothers and sisters that really need our help. Allow me to be frank. Laws do have the impact of protecting those they seek to protect. But we know that drug use, violence, theft all still exist in our society even with laws that seek to prevent them. The same will be true for abortion. Laws cannot dictate morality, only what is legal and illegal. Even if one is pro-choice, my hope is that he or she can still see the good in helping someone not be coerced into their decision based on their situation. Without an alternative, many feel that there is no choice, despite in their heart wanting to bring that life into the world. The real answer is found in our hearts. We must love everyone enough to want to help them in what could be the most soul-testing moment of their lives. This is about people, not about politics.

This Sunday, Queen of the Universe is having a baby bottle drive. There will be empty baby bottles at all of the entrances. Please take one. Take it home and fill it with your loose change. It may not seem like a lot. It's money we usually don't even think about. It sits in our car consoles, under the couch cushions, or in a jar on our dresser. It may not seem like a lot, but the cumulative power of coming together turns it into a lot. Last year, this parish alone, raised $11,000. That translates to supporting over 500 babies born last year. I can't even begin to do the math on how many fathers, mothers, brother, sisters, grandparents, etc. that now have the gift of a son or daughter, brother or sister, or grandchild. Thanks to that small amount of generosity on each of our parts. So bring that bottle back the following Sunday and know that are making a real difference in so many lives.

I'd like you to consider something larger too. Think about giving your time and volunteering for the foundation. Or think about setting up an annual donation. I even know some wonderful parishoners who have adopted through the center. If you won't be able to donate through the bottle drive, please visit their website legacyoflifefoundation.org/ You can also see, in more detail, all of the wonderful things they are doing on said website. If nothing else, when someone criticizes the pro-life movement of really only being pro-birth, you'll be able to respond with what it really means to be pro-life.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Pope Francis

I've been conflicted with something about Pope Francis. I know that if you've ever read or seen the news or been on social media, you're probably thinking that my problem lies in a sound bite about the upcoming election or an excerpt from an encyclical. But I set you up. My problem isn't with anything that Pope Francis has done or said. My conflict lies within me. Why is it that we are attracted to leaders that "walk the walk"? Allow me to expand. It seems that we desire something in those we see in the public spotlight. We love that Francis lives in the Papal apartments instead of the palace. We love stories of Saint Francis' eschewing any personal comfort. We applaud the effort of a guy like Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to join the army. There's nothing wrong with admiring people like that. I'm finding though, that we've taken it a step farther. We tend to not just admire these choices, but we've come to demand them. We now have come to expect that kind of sacrifice and full self-giving from anyone whom we deem to be in a position of great responsibility. Why does a Spartan existence have to presuppose the measure of a person?

Bigger question: Do we demand that same level of austerity in our own lives? How many of us do without? Listen, I like a hot shower and my trash picked up twice a week just as much as the next guy. I'm not being critical. I'm just wondering how much we demand of ourselves that we expect from our leaders. So, there's my conflict. How can I look at another and see their desire for comfort or wealth or power and not analyze myself with the same magnifying glass? There's a real dissonance there.

There's a two part answer to resolving that internal conflict. One, start giving others the slack I provide for myself; and Two, start turning around that proverbial magnifying glass. Have I moved into my own Papal apartment? I'm not talking about making an outward display of my unattachment. I'm talking about making a concerted effort to live simply. There's the rub, right? I know that living simply is about living unfettered, but man, do I like to think about the those fetters. I wonder what car will be my next. I think about turning my back yard into a personal retreat. I think about how good a steak tastes served to me, perfectly medium rare, by an overattentive waiter offering me a deep red that will compliment my already sumptuous meal. None of those things feel very Francis-y. The real answer lies in what I'm really asking for. My thoughts of a new car is a desire for what it can do for me. Honestly, I can do most of those things for myself. I don't really need a GPS in my console, or a bigger engine. I have GPS on my phone, and I get places pretty quickly as it is. I don't need an English garden in my backyard to find solitude, I need a quiet place that inspires me to think deep thoughts. I don't need to eat my steak in a fancy restaurant. I can cook a medium rare steak on my own grill, thank you very much.

These are just a tiny sampling of examples of things that pull at me. I'm sure I could fill an entire chapters worth of things that I don't need if I really think about the real want that I'm expressing. I think that's why we are so critical of others. It's very easy to be critical of another when they want stuff. They're not our desires. We make ours more pressing. We are merely concerned with our own happiness. In moments of true introspection, I ask myself, "If I had everything I wanted, would I still resent others for what they have?" The answer is sadly yes. When I realize that more possessions or comforts will not make me love my fellow human more, I truly put them into perspective. So there it is, we want those we look up to to have perspective. It seems hollow to hear about sacrifice from someone who has a lot. While we admire success and drive, we still secretly ask about their motives.