In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul made reference to the Spirit being given to us as the first installment. In fact, he said, “But the one who gives us security with you in Christ and who anointed us is God; he has also put his seal upon us and given the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.” (II Corinthians 1:21-22) It is a safe bet that the meaning of the first installment of the Spirit escapes many of us. But St. Paul mentions this installment, promise or pledge of the Spirit several times in the New Testament. As such, it must have some importance. It also begs the question: If there is a first installment, then is there a second installment or others to follow?Quite often our relationship with Christ is characterized in marital terms (i.e. parable of the wedding banquet etc). But the suggestion throughout the New Testament is that we are only “engaged” to Christ on earth. The wedding day comes when we enter heaven.Engagements can be dissolved, but marriages can never be. And this is where the “first” installment of the Holy Spirit comes in. It is kind of like an engagement ring. Through baptism and the Sacraments, we are given a pledge or a promise from God that he will always be faithful to us. And if we are faithful in return, a wedding is sure to follow. As St. Paul said in Ephesians, “In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God's possession, to the praise of his glory.” (1:13-14)However, before we had received the promise of the Spirit, we were married to another; that is, to the law of sin and that which it leads to, namely, death. But in order for this “marriage” to be dissolved, Jesus Christ had to give up his body in death. Interestingly enough, St. Paul uses an analogy of divorce and remarriage to drive the point home:“Are you unaware, brothers (for I am speaking to people who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over one as long as one lives? Thus a married woman is bound by law to her living husband; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law in respect to her husband. Consequently, while her husband is alive she will be called an adulteress if she consorts with another man. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and she is not an adulteress if she consorts with another man. In the same way, my brothers, you also were put to death to the law through the body of Christ, so that you might belong to another, to the one who was raised from the dead in order that we might bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:1-4)Just as the death of a husband’s body releases his wife to marry another, so too does the bodily death of Christ release us from the law of sin and death. Notice that immediately after giving this illustration, St. Paul continued by using the words, “In the same way…” As if to say, that just as our bodies are the sacramental material or stuff that binds (or releases) a married couple in their indissoluble union, so too does the body of Christ and our body bind us together as one. But first Christ had to die. That was the first step. Then he gave us his Spirit as if to propose to us. And if we are to accept his proposal, the Holy Spirit is given to us as the first installment, promise or pledge. Again, even after receiving the promise of the Holy Spirit- which initiates our engagement to Christ –we have the freedom to “call off the wedding.” That is, we can always walk away. It isn’t until our bodily death that our engagement with Christ (assuming that we have been a faithful fiancé) transforms into a marriage, never to be undone.This is where penance, fasting and acts of self-denial take on a new importance. These spiritual exercises are a rehearsal for our wedding day. But they are also a reminder that we are no longer wedded to the flesh, the world and Satan. Indeed, whenever we accept suffering from the hand of God or whenever we initiate spiritual sacrifices such as fasting, we call to mind and prepare for that second and final installment of the Spirit when we will enjoy God’s fullness in heaven.
Have you ever asked why was St. John the Evangelist was the only Apostle to stand at the foot of the Cross with the Blessed Mother and other female disciples? The other Apostles, overcome by cowardice, fled for a reason. Indeed, they had reason to be frightened. After all, there were real dangers being in associated with Christ-crucified. At worst, they could have been charged of treason and blasphemy as a kind of accomplice to Jesus; a partner in crime, so to speak. And at the very least, the Apostles could have been thrown out of the synagogue and forbidden to worship in the Jewish Temple. With these dangers lurking, the Apostles were wholly unprepared for martyrdom. They were understandably overcome with cowardice. But St. John the Evangelist was different. Fr. Cornelius Lapide, a sixteenth century Scripture scholar, said, “John alone remained fearlessly and firmly with Mary at the cross, amidst all the insolence and reviling of the Jews. He therefore deserved to be adopted by Jesus as His brother, and to be put in His room as the son of the Virgin Mother.” For John, the willingness to die with Christ on the hill merited a special gift. And that singular gift was the Mother of God. As an early Christian writer, Theophylact, said, “The pure is entrusted to the pure.” And as another early Christian theologian, Nonnus, paraphrases it: “O Mother, thou lover of virginity, behold thy virgin son; and on the other hand He said to His disciple, O thou lover of virginity, Behold a virgin who is thy parent, without giving thee birth.” Just as two virgins were given to each other by God with the betrothal of Joseph and Mary at the beginning of the Gospel story; likewise, two virgins were given to each other at the end of the Gospel story on hill. In fact, it was this virginal purity that occasioned the heroism of St. John and the Blessed Mother. With moral purity, heroic love is possible. And it is only love and a clean conscience that inspires martyr-like strength. Mind you, it wasn’t the men who boasted of dying with Jesus that made it to the hill on Good Friday. Before Pentecost, the other Apostles were marked by conventional wisdom and human prudence. For Nathanael, he just couldn’t believe that anything good could come from Nazareth. Peter, it can be argued, bought into the nationalized idea that the Messiah should be a warrior-king who would triumph over Rome. With this, he tried to dissuade our Lord from identifying himself as the Suffering Servant. For Philip, he failed to grasp that Jesus, as the Son of God, was one in being with the Father. This is why the Apostle asked our Lord at the Last Supper: "Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us." And of course, even after most of the Apostles had seen the Risen Lord, it wasn’t enough for Thomas. He doubted until he saw Jesus with his one eyes and touched him with his own fingers. These human imperfections may explain why Nathanael, Peter, Philip and Thomas were nowhere to be found on Good Friday. They did what human prudence dictated: they hid! They played it safe!But the child-like innocence of St. John, the beloved disciple of the Master, inspired something beyond human prudence and conventional wisdom. After all, it was he – the only Apostle out of the twelve – who exposed himself to all sorts of dangers! And it is no coincidence that this same Apostle wrote about God’s love more than any of the sacred writers of the New Testament. It was this "beloved disciple" of the Lord who understood the secret of heroism; and what lies behind heroism is pure, unadulterated love. This kind of love helps us to see in the darkness. In fact, in his first letter he wrote, “Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall.” (I John 2:10) And on Good Friday, he did not fall because he was already a sharer in that light.Can it be that in some small way the young Apostle shared in the purity of Mary? And that moral purity of these two virginal souls is that which made them blind to dangers and all of the foolish dictates of conventional wisdom. As St. Bernard wrote to his former pupil, Pope Eugenius: “What is more precious, what more calm, and what freer from care than a good conscience? It fears not losses, it fears not reproaches, it fears not bodily tortures, for it is exalted rather than cast down by death itself.” Moral purity allows us to see the true value of things; what ditches are worth dying in, which ones are not. It helps us to lay hold of our reward in heaven and even the benefits of a virtuous life on earth. It takes for granted that no material gain or social advantage can be a worthy substitute for peace of soul...a peace that comes from knowing Christ. And with this, the soul does not flinch from suffering and even death.This is why St. John the Apostle was the only Apostle who was brave enough to climb the hill with our Savior on Good Friday. This is why he was blessed to inherit the Mother of our Lord as his own mother. St. John rose above the limitations of his apostolic companions on Good Friday because he, like Mary, was pure. And purity makes heroic love possible.
“Ecce Homo!” Pilate said to the crowd. That is, “Behold the man!” Behold the man, the Christ, who stands alone and rejected by his people.To be an outsider and misunderstood is the lot of God’s closest friends. As far as I know, there is not a single canonized Saint who was not rejected by their own in some way and hence felt alone at some critical juncture in their life. Jesus warned as much when he said he came to bring not peace but the sword. The Lord’s chosen instrument of pruning and purification is quite often being excluded by those closest to us. By far, the worst pain is to be endured during spiritual desolation; that is, when the soul feels totally abandoned by God himself. In this instance, the soul can be so deprived of the “sense” of grace that she deems itself to be denied of God’s mercy. Not a few Saints were tempted with despair; the feeling of being totally left behind by their Best Friend. Consider the patriarch Joseph, one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Although God guaranteed that he would be blessed in several dreams he had, he was sold into slavery by his own brothers. For twenty long years it seemed as if God abandoned him. But he was later elevated to prime minister of Egypt. As such, he was in a position to save his family from starvation. Moses, the great legislator of God’s law, was driven out of Egypt by Ramesses II for forty years. But he too would rise up and lead hundreds of thousands of Hebrews out of slavery.Before his anointing as king of Israel, David did not fit in with the rest of brothers. This is why he would shepherd the sheep by himself. Again, it was not his brothers that Samuel anointed the second king of Israel, but David, who was overlooked by his own father and siblings. "Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart." (I Sam. 16:7)The prophet Elijah, for his part, was not welcomed in the so-called band of prophets. The only real companion he had was his disciple Elisha.As for the minor prophet Hosea, he was instructed by God to marry a prostitute named Gomer (she was to symbolize the infidelity of Israel), this, only to be rejected by her later on. Indeed, the character and greatness of these patriarchs, kings and prophets of the Old Testament came about through the rejection of their own. Rejection and banishment was no less the chosen instrument used by Christ in fashioning his Saints. Just to name only a few, there was his own family- the Holy Family –who had to flee Israel in order to take refuge in Egypt so as to escape the wrath of King Herod. And centuries later there was St. Thomas Becket, St. Thomas More, and St. John Fisher who were rejected and martyred by their English countrymen. And we cannot forget Pope St. Gregory VII, a champion of Church reform. He managed to get the State off of the Church’s back, but was eventually driven out of Rome by King Henry IV only to die in exile. About seven hundred years later, St. Alphonsus Liguori was kicked out of the Redemptorist order; the religious order he himself founded. In more recent times, the Lord continued to set men and women apart for his work through the very same means: that of trials and rejection. St. Edith Stein, for instance, was a convert from Judaism to Catholicism. As such, she was estranged from her own people- most notably her own family -because of her faith in Christ. St. Padre Pio was forbidden by the Vatican to publicly exercise his ministry for ten years. Unable to minister to his people, he became a prisoner of his friary. And there is Bishop Fulton Sheen, arguably the most gifted evangelist of the twentieth century. According to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Bishop Sheen was an outsider with regard to his brother bishops. He never quite belonged.After becoming familiar with God’s friends in Scripture and the Saints to follow, this recurring phenomenon of being excluded by our own should not surprise us. Our Lord himself said that no servant is above his master. And what did the Master say as he was dying on the Cross? He uttered the memorable words of Psalm 22: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Quite often the friends of God feel estranged, not only by their own people, but by God Himself. A wonderful book that captures this feeling of being alone in the desert is The Spirituality of the Old Testament. We discover that by no means are we singled out as if something unusual was happening to us. Instead, we are reminded that following in the footsteps of our Savior- at times a lonely walk -is the path many prophets and saints have traveled. The author, Paul Marie de la Croix, writes as about this holy abandonment: “[S]ouls cease to understand the reason for the trials that afflict them and believe they are separated from God forever...divine conduct seems utterly incomprehensible, even extremely arbitrary and unjust. Everything bewilders them, causing uneasiness, anguish, obscurity. They more they seek God, the more deeply hidden He remains; the more they desire Him, the more he rejects them...they experience a reversal of God’s relationship to them. They seem to be permanently abandoned or even rejected, though divine favor and friendship had been theirs before.”But as St. Francis de Sales once said, "An ounce of desolation is worth more than a pound of desolation." Through rejection and humiliations, we are given the opportunity to possess God for his own sake; to love the God of gifts over the gifts of God. To be sure, through the wine-press of suffering, we come to better understand our own sinfulness and unworthiness to have our prayers answered. The feeling of being entitled to his gifts and favors- the most common of faults–gives way to humility and gratitude. This is why we must never wince, never draw back when faced with the possibility of offending people by speaking the truth d doing God's work. Indeed, we may be rejected and excluded; we may have to eat lunch by ourselves in the cafeteria; we may risk losing a job; we may lose friendships and disappoint colleagues; and though it pains us very much, we may be ostracized from our family. On Good Friday our Lord stood alone before his people as a rejected king. From the Thursday night to three o’clock Friday afternoon, God the Father- as if to side with the angry crowd -had appeared to reject his only begotten Son. Alone our Lord Jesus stood before Pilate and his people. A true outsider!
Leaders like Alexander the Great, Mohammad and Napoleon rode their horses with armed men to triumph their enemies. But Our Lord, on Palm Sunday, rode a colt into Jerusalem in order to be conquered. This was to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah: "See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, Meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass." (Zechariah 9:9) The same animal that was used by Mary and Joseph to escape from the wrath of King Herod when they fled to Egypt is now used to transport Him right into the hands of his executioners. Yet, ironically, it was the so-called execution of Jesus that was instrumental in conquering the world. As Fulton Sheen said, "If He Who took the worst the world had to offer and conquered it, then evil shall never be victorious again."Interestingly, colts are used for pilgrims, not for worldly conquerors. Christ was declaring Himself to be a king and a pilgrim; but not of this world. His throne was not to be established in Jerusalem or Rome. In fact, He already had a throne; it exists in heaven! And as a pilgrim-king, He had no interest in worldly power. The appearances of his colt would suggest that he came not to conquer using swords and military might like Mohammad; instead, His weapon is His own Word. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read: "Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account." (Hebrews 4:12-13)Moreover, the pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem were from all over the world. In fact, the majority of Jews lived outside of Palestine (Israel) in the first century. On Palm Sunday, for instance, many came from Egypt, Syria and Persia. To attend the Passover Feast every year was a religious obligation imposed upon every Jew; no matter how many miles they had to travel. And it was the foreigners -- this crowd of mixed foreigners and natives -- that heard about the resurrection of Lazarus and all the wonderful things the Lord Jesus had done. Arguably, it was they -- the pilgrims and visitors -- who proclaimed Christ to be the "Son of David" as He, like King Solomon (son of David), rode a colt into the City of David.Earlier in His public ministry Jesus said that a prophet is not accepted in hometown. In fact, many of his opponents i.e. the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes, were Jews from Judea; not too far from Nazareth. But many of the visitors in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday were neither from His hometown nor even from the same country. As such, they did not share the same prejudices that His countrymen harbored against Him. And it would seem that the adoring crowd who greeted our Lord in Jerusalem represented the Gentile world that would eventually welcome a Jewish Messiah. The Gospels tell us that they cried out:"Hosanna!Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come!Hosanna in the highest!"Indeed, on Palm Sunday it was as if the City of God and the City of Man were being represented in Jerusalem. There were people who wanted to make Jesus their king and there were others who wanted to kill Him. At any rate, the "hosannas" that were shouted on Palm Sunday would be squelched by louder voices who would shout "crucify him!" on Good Friday. No doubt, Our Lord made an impression on the Apostles that Holy Week. For years to come the Apostles, that is, the first Bishops of the Church, would have to remember that they could not afford to get too comfortable with the perks that attended their status as religious leaders. After all, they saw that within just a few short days that praises can give way to condemnations. Such is the fickleness of human respect. And it deserves mentioning that Our Lord said at the Last Supper that a disciple is not above his Master. That is to say, what happened to Him would also happen to them.This is a great lesson for anyone who is called to be a leader. In order to lead we have to resemble the Pilgrim-King. If we seek God's approval first and set our eyes on heaven, then it will make little difference whether people hold us in high regard or despise us. As such, the disciple of Christ will be unimpressed with the false promises of worldly ambition and human respect as he pursues his heavenly reward.
When Christ died on the Cross, Mary lost a Son and John lost a friend. For them, the Passion of our Lord was more than a religious drama. They had to endure the loss of a Loved One. And it would seem that the same conditions of life and death would apply to them as it had applied to countless people before them; the main condition being that human flesh would serve as a barrier between the living and the dead. Because of this barrier, those in the flesh despaired of having any relationship with deceased loved ones after death. But on Good Friday, when Christ gave up his spirit, the Temple veil or curtain tore in anticipation of what would transpire on Easter morning. Indeed on that morning, the veil of human flesh, which was thought to separate the living and dead forever under the Satan’s dominion, was taken up and glorified by Christ. With this, the destiny of souls- the happiness of heaven and the misery of hell –would be revealed to mankind. In the years to come, the Apostles, Martyrs and Saints would bear witness to immortality of the soul. However, before the time of Christ, life after death for the ancients was not a well-established belief. In fact, the conventional wisdom was that when the body expired, that was the end of life. As far as most were concerned, deceased loved ones were forever a thing of the past, never to be seen again. As such, death was the cause of considerable grief and despair. The Jews, on the other hand, believed in the immortality of the soul but the afterlife, nevertheless, was an enigma to them. They did not have a clear conception of heaven, purgatory and hell. Hades, often mentioned in the Old Testament, was a doctrine (similar to purgatory) that held that there existed an abode of the dead; a temporary holding place for the righteous and the wicked who would later inherit their reward or punishment. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, in his work, Discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades, represented the Jewish idea of the afterlife as understood in Old Testament when he wrote the following: "...Hades is a place in the world not regularly finished; a subterraneous region, wherein the light of this world does not shine; from which circumstance, that in this region the light does not shine, it cannot be but there must be in it perpetual darkness. This region is allotted as a place of custody for souls, in which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute to them temporary punishments, agreeable to every one's behavior and manners.” This, no doubt, is a murky account of the afterlife. But the book of Wisdom (written some 200-300 years prior), which the Catholic Church honors as the inspired Word, gives a more luminous account. In fact, the closer we get to the birth of Christ, the more developed the Jewish doctrine on the afterlife becomes. In any event, the book of Wisdom provided rays of hope; that the soul outlives the body; that the friends of God do, in fact, see another day- a happier day! –after their death: “But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace. For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality…In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble…” Then, during the public ministry of Jesus, the immortality of the soul was more clearly expressed in his parables and teachings. In fact, it served as the main incentive for living a holy life as well as laying down one’s life for God. Even on the Cross, Our Lord preached that physical death is beginning of everlasting life. He told the Good Thief that he would be with him, on that very day, in paradise. But the living proof that death is not the end of life was when our Lord had risen from the dead and appeared to his family and friends during the forty days that followed. The Resurrection of our Lord is a living reminder that our life and death has great meaning. It is a reminder that life itself is but a prelude to a more blessed life in heaven; one that is reserved for the friends of God. As such, it gives the average person a real, tangible hope that the veil of human flesh does not permanently separate us for those loved ones, who, through death, are no longer clothed in human flesh. Indeed, the Resurrection not only gave courage to Martyrs and strength to Saints, but it gave inspiration to soldiers who would be called to die for their country. One such soldier was a man by the name of Sullivan Ballou. He was a major of the Rhode Island division during the Civil War. Through a kind of premonition, he felt as though he would die during the first battle of Bull Run. In fact, that is what happened. But a few days before the battle, on July 14, 1861, Sullivan, a husband and father two boys, took the opportunity to write to his wife Sarah. He knew that death would not forever deprive him of seeing his wife. He wanted his wife to know that even though his lifeless body should lie on the battle field, his soul would never be far from her. Sullivan Ballou’s faith inspired one of the most touching love letters in U.S. history. It reveals why he could lay down his life for, not only his country, but for his family. Towards the end of the letter, he writes: “If I do not [return] my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness...But, O Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again....” The hope of meeting again those who passed before us is the greatest of consolations- the greatest of gifts –that the Risen Lord came to give us. He makes the veil of human flesh a little thinner, a little more transparent so that in faith we can almost see the friends of Christ, our loved ones, waiting for us and praying for us on the other side of the veil.
In 1859, just a few miles north of Green Bay, the Blessed Virgin appeared to a young woman named Adele Brice. As if to anticipate the spiritual drought that would hit the Midwest just a hundred years later, Our Lady gave instructions to little Adele on how to turn the hearts of sinners to her Son. And although she was commended for receiving Communion earlier that morning, the heavenly visitor expected more from her. Indeed, fulfilling her religious obligation by assisting at the Mass, although absolutely essential, was not enough to bring about the change of hearts in North East Wisconsin. She said to Adele:“I am the Queen of Heaven, who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same. You received Holy Communion this morning, and that is well. But you must do more. Make a general confession, and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners.”The Queen of Heaven, who also came to be known as Our Lady of Good Help, uses early Christian methods in making disciples of her Son. By offering her Communion to the Father, Adele was rehearsing for her own day to day sacrifices; the spiritual sacrifices needed for the conversion of sinners. Christ, who eternally offers himself at the altar from heaven, traces out the vocation for each and every disciple. Whether it be doing penitential acts of self-denial or corporeal works of mercy, the human body is always bound up with these acts of love and sacrifice. This is why St. Paul wrote the following to the Romans: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1) No doubt, Our Lady of Good Help instructed Adele to teach the children what they should know for their salvation. But before a missionary endeavor could bear fruit, Adele would first have to pray for the conversion of sinners and offer her Communion to the Lord as a kind of spiritual sacrifice. This would lay down the needed foundation for teaching people their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross and how to approach the Sacraments. With each apparition, Our Lady fashions her children into a very specific kind of discipleship. It is not enough to be a certified teacher or a trained evangelist. It is not enough to know the Faith. As with Adele in Wisconsin, she required more from the three children at Fatima; more than just learnedness. For instance, she asked Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco the following question- and only this question: "Do you wish to offer yourselves to God, to endure all the suffering that He may please to send you, as an act of reparation for the sins by which He is offended, and to ask for the conversion of sinners?" "Yes, we do." said the children. "You will have to suffer a lot, but the grace of God will be your comfort.”Love and suffering is the motif that gives shape to the way in which the Mother of Jesus Christ forms disciples. She, like no other, places her Crucified Son right at the center of evangelization. Indeed, our wounded Savior is at the heart of making converts. And if souls are to be saved, his life must be reproduced in each of his disciples.The Blessed Virgin, in various apparitions, did not invent a new way of making disciples. No. It is taken straight from the New Testament. For instance, we find that love is not only an obligation imposed on all believers, but it is something that reconciles sinners to God. Indeed, sanctified human love saves:“By kindness and piety guilt is expiated, and by the fear of the LORD man avoids evil.” (Proverbs 16:6) “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 1:8) “Whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:20)What also saves, what also builds-up, is a suffering infused with a love for God and neighbor. No doubt, suffering by itself is impotent. It is a mere waste. But Our Lord transformed this human experience and elevated it. He even likened his Passion to a cup and a baptism, i.e. liturgical channels of grace (Matthew 20:22 / Mark 10:38). And after making such an unusual reference, he promised that the two Apostles, St. John and St. James, the Zebedee brothers, would also drink the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism as Our Lord would. In other words, their suffering and sacrifice too would be transformed into liturgical-like channels of grace for souls. Again, this is evidenced throughout the New Testament writings:“[F]or whoever suffers in the flesh has broken with sin.” (I Peter 1:1) “For as Christ's sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation…” (II Corinthians 1:5-6) “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (II Corinthians 4:12) “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Colossians 1:24)The Christ-bearing pastor, the Christ-bearing evangelist, the Christ-bearing teacher and the Christ-bearing missionary is one who also bears the scars of Christ; this, by begging God for the conversion of sinners, by exposing oneself to ridicule and by offering spiritual sacrifices behind closed doors. The Saints instinctively knew that words, however eloquent, and kindness, however warm, were woefully insufficient for the making of converts.St. Edith Stein, even with her genius and eloquence, discovered this to be true for her. In a letter to Sister Adelgundis, Saint Edith Stein wrote, “Prayer and sacrifice, in my opinion, are much more crucial than anything we can say.” This was in reference to their former professor Edmund Husserl who was also the founder of phenomenology. Husserl happened to be a convert to Lutheranism from Judaism. St. Edith, on the other hand, was a convert from Judaism to Catholicism. Naturally, Husserl and St. Edith, both geniuses in their own right, discussed their differences as to what following Jesus Christ meant for them. But after several conversations with him, she came to this conclusion: “After every meeting with him, I come away more convinced of my inability to influence him directly and feeling the urgent necessity of offering some holocaust of my own for him.”It would seem this is what Our Lady is trying to tell Catholics who really want to glorify God. It is not what we do or say that is the most decisive factor in making disciples. Rather, it is what God does with what we do or say that really makes the difference. By making spiritual sacrifices or offering holocausts of our own, we place our words and deeds more firmly in the Hands of God so that He can use them as He wishes.
What Mental Prayer is Not:Unlike yoga or other Eastern spiritual practices, meditation, in a Catholic context, cannot be reduced to a technique. It is not like a gadget in which certain buttons are pushed so as to get a result. Neither can it be said that mental prayer is simply a methodology in which certain steps are carried out in order to produce a certain effect. No. Christian meditation is deeply personal in that it largely depends on the spiritual and moral disposition of the Christian towards God. For instance, the person who is addicted to pornography or practicing contraception will not draw the same fruit from mental prayer as one who is faithful to the moral law. Holy desire, a repentant heart, the capacity to love and a virtuous life determines how much we get out of mental prayer. Having said that, there are common principles of mental prayer which guide us along the way. The ones we will consider have been practiced among the Saints throughout the centuries. Faithfully and consistently applied, these principles of mental prayer will, as Fr. Edward Leen said, “prepare the soul for the action of the Blessed Eucharist.” The union between the soul and Christ is but the happy result.Three Important Principles:Meditation is nothing other than thinking about Christ, an aspect of his life or some spiritual truth. When a diamond specialist examines a diamond, he looks at all of its facets and sides. Shimmering different colors from each angle, the diamond reveals something new about itself as it is manually rotated under the light. Mental prayer essentially does the same thing. It considers some aspect of Christ's life or spiritual truth by looking at it and studying it. It then submits the many aspects of our life as we know it- with all of its disappointments and promises –to the Light of Christ so that the good and the bad may be seen for what they really are.Nevertheless, the starting point or even the primary reason to meditate is not focus on the self but rather to immerse oneself in the life of Christ. It is only after his words and actions are considered do I move on to the contents of my own life. As such, the Christian who meditates accordingly has, within his possession, an unshakable standard by which to measure his life by. Incidentally, this leads us to the three principles or signposts of mental prayer:a) Considerations: A consideration is a mental act in which the subject matter is “considered,” thought about or meditated on. The subject matter can be any part of Christ’s life, a Scripture passage or a spiritual truth taken up by a Saint. Of course, the most common expression of these spiritual considerations is when the rosary is prayed or when one reads Scripture. Again, like a diamond specialist, the one who meditates on the life of Christ should use the imagination by placing oneself in the scene or by asking questions or by drawing parallels to previously read Scripture passages. Don't just think about it and move on. Study the mystery or spiritual truth at hand. Probe it! Delve into it! Ask God questions! Whatever you do, do not be passive.As it pertains to spiritual reading, the content should be relatively short. One reads not only to learn but to assimilate and retain the truths at hand.b) Admiration: Meditation or spiritual reading has love for its purpose; not just knowledge. This is why it is important that the content of our meditation should lead us to admire Christ in a new and an inspiring way. This point cannot be overstated. Too many theologians or intellectual types within the Church become satisfied with mere knowledge. The more they know, the better off they are…so they think. No. As the spiritual classic. Imitation of Christ, reminds us: "It is better to love the Holy Trinity than to know how to define it." Although meditation is a vehicle of learning- aided by the Spirit’s gifts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom –still, the greatest of all virtues is love.c) Resolution: The inspiration to love God and neighbor must have some concrete application or else it will not take hold in our lives. Resolutions must accompany my meditation or spiritual reading. The question we should ask ourselves is this: In practical terms, how can I act on these spiritual considerations today? Meditation without a resolution is like a soul without a body. It is nothing but a good thought or intention. Therefore, resolutions are the means through which spiritual truths become incarnate in our actions.The Three Faculties of the Soul:The three principles mentioned above are general guidelines on how to have a productive meditation. Of course, there are other factors to consider such as the preparation phase. Nevertheless, if the Christian can manage to get the basics down, he or she will make progress in the spiritual life.The Desert Fathers that meditation accommodates each of the three faculties of the soul. And the three faculties (or parts) of the soul are as such: the intellect- for seeing or perceiving God’s truth and goodness; the will- for obeying God’s will and carrying out his plan; and the memory- for remembering God’s truth and goodness. But with each purpose for good there is a corresponding vice. Due to our fallen human nature, the intellect can be burdened with ignorance; the will, with laziness; and the memory, with forgetfulness. Meditation, according to the Desert Fathers, shores-up the three faculties of the soul by allowing the intellect to soak in the truth of God, the will to be inspired by and to act on God’s love, and the memory to recall the goodness God has bestowed on the individual. With this, the Christian possesses a lasting awareness that God is near and ready to act on his behalf. This is the chief fruit when the seeker of Christ makes progress in mental prayer!
The Screwtape Letters is a book authored by C.S. Lewis. Released in 1942, Lewis incorporates his spiritual and theological insights into a correspondence between the Devil, who goes by the name of Screwtape, and his demon nephew named Wormwood. The “Enemy” Screwtape refers to time and time again is, of course, God. Although the book is technically fiction, it is, nevertheless, non-fiction in that it illustrates real spiritual principles based on a solid understanding of human nature and the spiritual world. In fact, although C.S. Lewis was an Anglican, he drew inspiration from many Catholic sources. This is demonstrated by the uncanny tactics Screwtape advises Wormwood on. As for these tactics by the Devil, The Screwtape Letters does a commendable job in adapting them to many ironies of the spiritual life. And to be sure, many principles of the supernatural order, much like the natural order, defy conventional wisdom. One such principle is that the road to hell is paved by sins that are subtle and socially acceptable. In tempting humans, the Devil reminds his nephew of the following truth: “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,...Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”The road to hell is not paved primarily with drama such as crimes, genocide and earth-shattering events. It does include that, of course. But it is more often the case that the spiral downwards begins with an uncontested thought or a desire that is seemingly harmless; but then ends up carrying us in a direction that is contrary to God’s will or what is morally wrong. As St. James wrote in his letter, “Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.” To drive this point home, St. John the Apostle reminds us that there is such a thing as deadly sin; deadly because sin ruptures our relationship with Christ and hence kills the life of grace in the soul. Such a phenomenon is every bit as real as physical illness and death; but unlike physical illness and death, spiritual and moral decline is ever so subtle. The reason for this is due to the fact that the effects of grace can outlast the life of grace from within. But before you know it, life is not quite the same after a series of sinful choices has been committed. Although we are not quite conscious of it, the bad choices we make – the sins we commit – has changed us. Soon enough, we think differently, speak differently and act differently. In fact, there is a spiritual law that says that the more you sin, the less you know you are sinner. In the book, The Screwtape Letters, the Devil, known as Screwtape, is mindful of yet another spiritual principle. Unlike the first, this one glorifies God and is therefore a threat to the demons in hell. Yet, like the first, it defies conventional wisdom. He advises his nephew, Wormwood, that when a believer feels abandoned by God, this is by no means a victory for hell. It could be that the Lord has withdrawn all interior spiritual consolation and exterior supports in order to test that believer and hence make him greater than he once was. Screwtape writes: “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”Indeed, when it is stripped down to its very essence, we find that the love of God is an act of the will. If everyone is running headlong towards the abyss, it will take an act of the will – motivated by love of God – to go in the opposite direction. In fact, running against the strong current, where friends, family members and society are carried away from the Gospel, is a lonely business. This holy non-conformity can involve the loss of friendships and strained relationships. And in so doing, one can feel even abandoned by God Himself. But when one rises above this by doing the right thing and remaining loyal to the Lord – even in his confusion and sense of abandonment – the believer demonstrates his credibility of godly devotion, not only to people, but to the spiritual world as well. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians, “For as I see it, God has exhibited us apostles as the last of all, like people sentenced to death, since we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and human beings alike.” (I Corinthians 4:9)Such a believer that has been tested, as gold is by fire, can accept all things from God. In the spiritual classic, The Dialogue, God the Father informs St. Catherine of Sienna that the faithful disciple of His Son "holds all thing in reverence, the left hand as well as the right, trouble as well as consolation, hunger and thirst as well as eating and drinking, cold and heat and nakedness as well as clothing, life as well as death, honor as well as disgrace, distress as well as comfort. In all things he remains solid, firm and stable, because his foundation is the living Rock." To be sure, such a disciple becomes quite useful to the Lord because his fidelity is not dependent on agreeable circumstances.What we learn from The Screwtape Letters, therefore, is that the strong currents that lead to hell are quite subtle. And those who carried by it are not, at least initially, alarmed by it. Like those passengers on the Titanic who were unphased when the ship hit the iceberg, fatal blows to the life of grace can feel like a little jolt to those who are not paying attention. Yet, their ship is in danger of sinking, nevertheless. On the other hand, the road to heaven is paved by “unseen” heroic actions of fidelity just when all seems lost to the devout Christian. Indeed, the Saints tell us that we can make the most spiritual progress just when all seems lost. And when we feel abandoned by God and yet love Him anyways – and although we may feel lost and even backsliding – this is a sign that our feet is firmly planted on the road to heaven.
“Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.” These were the words of the Roman Emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius in the second century A.D. What the pagan philosopher stated in theory, the early Christians did in practice. Death was an enigma for pagans, but for Christians, it was seen as the road to eternal life. This is why the early Christians were full of hope; even as they were being led to their execution.Indeed, the most celebrated of the early Christians, that is, the confessors and martyrs, never looked back. Their eternal destiny was ever impressed upon their minds. For what they sacrificed in this life would be paid back a hundred-fold in heaven. Such was the Lord’s guarantee. And it was this guarantee that indelibly linked sacrifice to love for the early Christians. As Fr. Lorenzo Albacete said,“The link between love and life is sacrifice. Sacrifice is self-giving, the surrender which manifests love and renders it fruitful in abundance. The Gospel confirms this: the only way for man to gain his life is to lose it, to give it up, to sacrifice it. Sacrifice is an act central to man. The personal act performed by man at the moment of death is sacrifice.”For the early Christians, sacrifice made daily acts of charity and even heroic love possible. Not only during state-sponsored persecutions was their sacrificial love displayed, but during the plagues that would decimate whole cities in the Roman provinces. St. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, around the year 260 A.D., wrote a tribute to the brave nursing efforts of local Christians, many of whom lost their lives while caring for others:“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbor and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons and lay men winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”This heroic love not only impressed the pagans (most of whom had fled these plagues), but also Roman Emperors. After all, wherever sacrifice and love was practiced, there, new life flourished. This is why the early Christians displayed a serene confidence when faced with adversity and death. It was the Christians in large numbers, not pagans, who smiled back at death. This serene confidence in Christ and the eager anticipation of eternal life was exceedingly attractive to on-lookers. From it flowed a large number of conversions. This "smile" was captured in a letter by Tertullian, a Father of early the Church (around 200 A.D.). It was a letter addressed to a Roman official who, like Marcus Aurelius, executed Christians. He reminded those who persecuted Christians of the following truth:“You will never destroy our sect! Mark this well: when you think you are striking it down, you are, in reality, strengthening it. The public will become restive at so much courage. It will long to know its origin. And when a man recognizes the truth – he’s ours!”That holy and serene confidence of the early Christians is the heritage of all Christians! We just have to remember to use it. Indeed, when we learn to smile amid adversity – even back at death – then the people of the twenty-first century will long to know the origin of such hope. They too will inquire. And when they recognize the truth, to borrow from Tertullian, they too will be “ours,” or better yet – HIS!
If God were to stop listening to our prayers, he would be just in doing so; our sins against him would be sufficient to merit such a response. Yet, when he does deign to answer our petitions, his mercy is at work. It is important to remember that his helping hand, which reaches down from the heights of heaven, is not compelled by justice nor is it merited by what we deserve. No. the help we get, which proceeds from his Fatherly love, is totally gratuitous.But even when our prayers seemed to be ignored, it is for our good. Sometimes we ask for things that are not good for us or if they are good for us, the Lord has something better in mind. The Lord reminds of this truth in the book of Isaiah: "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.”Still, when we experience the silence of God or when we petition the Lord for some favor and it goes unanswered, a kind of desolation sets in. The silence of God can be quite painful because we have come to rely on him the most. Indeed, it can feel as though he is leading us to the brink of despair. All incentives to be thankful, all reasons to hope and all of those circumstances which formerly lent themselves to happiness appear to be suspended…beyond our reach. With this, we become acquainted with what seems to be divine justice; we are getting what we deserve while Divine Mercy seems to be fading away. If you are experiencing the Lord’s “silence,” you are not alone. In a kind of solidarity with our crucified Lord, nearly all canonized Saints have experienced this kind of anguish of spirit. Patriarchs, Prophets, and Apostles were forced to become acquainted with it. Indeed, through this holy abandonment their love for God was put to the test. We would find no better illustration of this than in the book of Lamentations:“I am one who has known affliction under the rod of God’s anger, one whom he has driven and forced to walk in darkness, not in light; with poverty and hardship…He has left me to dwell in dark places like those long dead. He has hemmed me in with no escape, weighed me down with chains; even when I cry for help, he stops my prayer… He has made me eat gravel, trampled me into the dust; My life is deprived of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; My enduring hope, I said, has perished before the LORD.”It is as if the Lord was the accuser and tormentor of this prophet. The complaint about how God is treating the author of Lamentations closely parallels the Phoenician woman who persistently pleaded with Jesus to heal her daughter from a demon. Initially, she was met with what seemed like a rude stiff-arm from our Lord. But she refused to back down. Finally, Jesus rewarded her faith and perseverance. Her daughter was healed.Yes. God will often “stiff-arm” his closest friends for a period of time so that our love for him may be purified from self-seeking motives. And yes, he may leave us destitute; he may allow us to fail; or he may send us trials so that we do not become spoiled sons or daughters. No doubt, he stirs the waters of our soul so that we will yearn for him and even look forward to a better, more fulfilling life in heaven.You may have heard the saying: It is darkest before dawn. Forest fires quite often lay everything to waste. After such natural disasters, all color, all beauty, all life seems to disappear. Nothing but ash and death remain. But from this loss comes new life and vegetation. It is as if the forest was purged so that its trees, flowers and plants could grow more abundantly.The same applies to human suffering. I have heard many accounts of this phenomenon where life in abundance emerges from desolation. In the midst of the crisis or loss, God’s answer presents itself. Peace and joy, even in extreme pain, are mysteriously offered by God for the taking! And a light of heaven and a peaceful hope, once believed to be gone forever, pierces through the darkest of times. The irony is that what appears to be a total loss, what appears to be a total failure and what appears to be the gates of death closing in on us are but the instruments God uses to bring about new life and a new found happiness.For those chosen souls who suffer a great deal, Christ and his Holy Mother trace out for them a path leading from despair to hope: The author of Lamentations, as bad as it seemed for him, was inspired to recall God’s goodness and mercy. He traveled down this same path:“But this I will call to mind; therefore I will hope: The LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness…It is good to hope in silence for the LORD’s deliverance… For the Lord does not reject forever; though he brings grief, he takes pity, according to the abundance of his mercy; He does not willingly afflict or bring grief to human beings.”Silence is the language of God. And in silence we wait for him so that when he speaks we may listen and then act. But we must wait patiently even though the wait can be unbearable at times..But as long as uncertainty and darkness endures, we have to remember that the Hand that disciplines or permits adversity is the same Hand that heals and builds up again. This is the Mystery of the Cross! When it is accepted for the love of God and even the love of neighbor, then our lamentations will undoubtedly turn into joy. Rest assured that at the appointed time the Lord will clear away the fog. Indeed, the day will come when he will break his silence. “Good is the LORD to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him; it is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the LORD.”Lamentations 3:25-26
“It lies in the very nature of man that something must be supreme, something must take the place of the divine when this has been excluded; and this substitute for God, according to a predominant philosophy, is the State.” When Cardinal James Gibbons wrote these words in 1919, this predominant philosophy had already a strong foothold in Europe and in Russia. And historically, what disposed people to surrender their liberties to ambitious political rulers was religious uncertainty. The first century, when our Lord walked the earth, was no exception. In order to show just how religiously uncertain the world was, our Lord brought his Apostles to Caesarea Philippi. This city was named after a Caesar Augustus and King Herod. Its population was predominantly non-Jewish, that is, Gentile and pagan. One of its main attractions was a cave embedded in a huge rock formation; or as the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, said, “a great cavity in the earth.” This was a place where many gods were worshiped. A pool of water existed in this cave, the depths of which were unknown. For the pagans, this measureless depth symbolized the bottomless pit of Hades. Their rituals would consist of throwing their sacrificed animals into this pool in hopes that their gods would be appeased. Later, after the Roman Empire annexed this land, Roman temples were to be built in front of this cave to honor their gods; which included a cult dedicated to Caesar Augustus. In the Roman Empire during the first century, emperors were given divine status.In Caesarea Philippi, where religious uncertainty was ostentatious, Jesus Christ posed a question to his Apostles; this, to demonstrate how religious certitude can be had. He asked: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The Gospel of Matthew continues: “They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’” (Matthew 16:13-19)Our Lord, by renaming Simon, son of Jonah, “Rock,” was drawing upon a long standing Old Testament tradition. In the eighth century B.C., the Jews, descendants of Abraham, had fallen away from the worship of Yahweh, the one true God, and turned to other gods. From amidst this religious confusion, the prophet Isaiah raised his voice and told them to return to the rock from which they were hewn; the rock being father Abraham. It was on this rock where God's lighthouse shined the light of truth in the Old Testament era. This is where the standard of truth was to be found.Hence, in order to express the permanence and reliability of God's instrument of communicating truth, Jesus used the biblical image of a rock to name Peter. In fact, the name “Peter” itself means Rock in Aramaic. In the Old Testament, the term “rock” was originally applied to God. But as we mentioned, it also was used by the prophet Isaiah in reference to Abraham: “Listen to me, you who pursue justice, who seek the LORD; Look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the pit from which you were quarried; Look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth...” (51:1-2) Hence, in the Old Testament, the name, “Rock” was not exclusively applied to God; it was also bequeathed to Abraham as well. It had a two-fold connotation of fatherhood and security from evil and error. Like the patriarch, St. Peter was to inherit this name, “Rock,” near the huge rock in Caesarea Philippi. Again, within this rock was a hollowed cave where the multitudes from many nations worshipped false gods. But upon a new Rock, a Rock that would be made into a mountain, our Lord would build his Church. This Rock or Stone would strike down the Roman Empire with a spiritual sword as the prophet Daniel prophesied: “But the stone that struck the statue [the iron statue represented the last of the great pagan empires...the Roman Empire] became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” (2:35) About this mountain Isaiah said, “The LORD'S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it...” (Isaiah 2:2-3)In the centuries to come, nations would stream toward this mountain to receive the knowledge of God. Indeed, the ministry of St. Peter continues to this day through Pope Francis. From him comes the religious and moral certainty amid a confused world. It is the same Rock that Abraham represented; it is the same Rock upon which Christ built his Church; and this Rock is none other than God himself. As our Lord promised, the gates of hell would not prevail against it. If hell cannot prevail against it, neither can the culture of death and all that it represents.Western Civilization, if it is to retain the blessings of God, must return to the Rock from which it was hewn. From the ministry of St. Peter, better known as the Chair of St. Peter, the truth about God, life, love, sex, marriage, contraception, abortion and euthanasia can be known with certainty. From the Church, as St. Irenaeus once said, comes “the breath of immortality and the enkindling of life anew.” But the further we drift from this rock…from this mountain…from this chair, the further we drift from all that sanctified and civilized the West. As Cardinal Gibbons said, the alternative to the supremacy of God is the supremacy of the State. The life of grace and the moral law that comes from Jesus Christ was the nemesis of religious uncertainty. Inseparable from religious uncertainty is the prevalence of human cruelty and incivility.There are many opinions about Christ today and what he actually taught. Nevertheless, the truth of faith and morals, so necessary for our stability and happiness, is to be found coming from the Rock upon which Christ built his Church.
As one who has given talks at diocesan engagement encounters, led Cana marriage programs at the local parish and personally advised spouses who were in distressed and broken marriages, I have come to learn over the years that fewer people are being prepared for the demands of marriage. What used to be common sense, as far as making relationships work, has become uncommon; something that doesn’t come quite as naturally to us anymore. After all, Hollywood and the entertainment industry at large so emphasizes and even glorifies the first phases of romantic and sexual love that it completely ignores self-denial and the virtues that are required for a life-long marriage. Perhaps, this is why so many television programs are centered on unmarried or divorced/remarried couples. Hollywood produces these kinds of television shows and movies precisely because this is all they know! Indeed, their lifestyle and values leads to a total disillusionment of that "forever kind of love", the kind of love that comes natural to couples who do really “fall in love.”This, of course, is not a recipe for success. What is needed, in part, for a happy marriage is to live by a hierarchy of values or priorities: God being the first priority, the spouse being second, children third, parents fourth etc. Married couples make many mistakes when this divinely ordained order is not observed. Some of these mistakes, no doubt, have to do with in-laws.Inevitably, the in-law factor comes into play in every marriage. In some marriages, in-laws are blessing; yet, in other marriages, they are a burden. And it is unfortunate that many people do not realize before the wedding day that to marry a person is to marry his or her family. Indeed, when man and woman say “I do,” they make a vow to more than just one person.This is where a solid spiritual formation pays off. One of the advantages of having the Cross of Christ as the standard by which we live our lives is that it disposes us to make sacrifices for loved ones. With this spirit of sacrifice, we better understand what ditches are worth dying in and which ones are not. As such, a married person will have to ask him or herself this question: Second to God, who comes first in my life? Who comes second? And so on. The way this question is answered can make or break a marriage. In fact, it is surprising how many spouses want to please, as their highest priority, their own mother, father, brother or sister; even against the wishes or well-being of their own husband or wife. Also common among married couples is the mistake of making the children the highest priority; even above that of their own spouse. I'll never forget a picture I saw in someone's kitchen. It reads something like this: "The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother." How true! And yet, for a good number of married couples this proverbial truth is not observed.How many times have we heard a husband (or wife), for the sake of "peace," not get involved when his spouse is being verbally abused or infringed upon by an immediate family member? How many times have husbands or wives failed to mediate the concerns of their spouses to their own biological or natural family? And when I say mediate, I mean defend the legitimate concerns and the best interests of the spouse.Marriage implies that a man and a woman graduates, if you will, from the family he or she grew up in; this, in order to become "one" with their spouse. This oneness is an indissoluble union- composed of two distinct personalities -that God himself has fused into one thing! Moreover, this union, according to two thousand years of Catholic teaching, is second only to God. Therefore, anything that threatens that unity is suspect, including a disgruntled mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law, or sister in-law!I am especially critical towards men because I believe that in Western Civilization many of them have become soft. My interpretation of Christian masculinity is that a man should be the first to sacrifice, the first to take the lead and the first to take action. But quite often they wince. Sometimes, they even fail to act like men because they, at least emotionally, never left home. For this reason, their loyalty to their mother (or father) lacks a manly independence. The end result is that husbands choose not to defend their wives out of fear of displeasing their own parents or relatives.Sadly, the "momma's boy syndrome" can put a lot of stress on a marriage. Yet, I have to say, women can be equally guilty of this dereliction. In any case, not standing up for number one, namely, one's spouse, is symptomatic that we have lost sight of the proper order of things. Moreover, it shows that we are not accustomed to make the proper sacrifices needed in order to keep marriages intact; even if it means confronting relatives.Being a disciple of Christ implies that doing God's will and doing the right thing just might upset those closest to us; especially family members. Perhaps, this is why Jesus said, "Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." [italics added]Notice Jesus did not draw the line of division between husband and wife. There is a reason for that! He will not divide what he himself has united. But in order to preserve what Our Lord united in the bonds of matrimony, sometimes the husband or wife has to engage in uncomfortable disagreements with other family members and hence draw that line in the sand! Therefore, stand up for the number one person in your life and put his or her needs first. It is your God-given duty!
People from all walks of life are making predictions about the future. Most of these predictions are pessimistic and downright bleak; some justifiably so. For instance, economic decline and political instability are causes for concern for a lot of people. Another question that seems to linger is: What is tomorrow's generation of Americans going to be like? Are they going to be equal to their mission of keeping liberty, democracy and progress alive?If these concerns weren’t enough of a downer we can pick up the New Testament and turn to the Second Letter to Timothy where St. Paul issues the following warning: "But understand this: there will be terrifying times in the last days. People will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious, callous, implacable, slanderous, licentious, brutal, hating what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, as they make a pretense of religion but deny its power." (II Timothy 3:1-5) Needless to say, the people in the last days don't sound very good. This is another cause for concern.Unfortunately, these negative predictions are likely to induce spirit of melancholy and discouragement among Christians. Yet we know (or should know) that such a disposition of mind is not from God. If you read the writings of the Saints you will find that what the Holy Spirit impresses upon the soul is one of peace and hope.Take for instance the early Christians. They had witnessed the collapse of the Roman Empire- the greatest of all empires at the time. Yet, the people of God were full of hope, pressing forward to the future, anticipating a better day. What inspired this? It was their consciousness of eternity and the eventual coming of God's kingdom. This happy truth preoccupied their thoughts and it captured their affections! They knew a better place awaited them. This hope not only inspired heroic acts of martyrdom but it led to the greatest civilization to ever have existed – the Christian civilization. If you take a closer look at the annals of history you will find that the Christian vision and imagination provided incentives for creativity and innovations. Indeed, the widespread belief that life really begins when we die also inspired a generous spirit of sacrifice and a spirit of magnanimity to try new things and to take risks for the glory of God.I see a similar pattern among today's remnant; that is, among today's well-formed Catholics who, no doubt, are few in number. Nevertheless, I believe that Catholics of today who know and love Christ – who accept all that he taught – are the most solid and well-rounded Catholics we had in a few centuries. Like the early Christians, today's follower of Christ is becoming more keenly aware of what he is being saved from. God's answer always accompanies challenging times. In the latter times, according to St. Louis of de Montfort, that answer is the witness of Christians, especially that of the Mother of God.St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716) was one who saw the importance of Mary's witness. He had come to realize just how important devotion to her would be in the modern era. In fact, he predicted that she would play a bigger role in future centuries (and indeed she has through her various apparitions). He argued that just as the first coming of Christ came to be realized through her, so too would be his Second Coming. One startling prediction, among others, is that, according to St. Louis, the Muslims would be converted to Christ. Most Christians know that the Jews must be converted before Jesus Christ comes again. But few know of St. Louis's prophesy about the Muslims. Perhaps the vision in the book of Revelations, where the Woman clothed with the sun is depicted with the moon under her feet, is an indication of this.In any case, in the book, True Devotion – a book that popularized the consecration to the Blessed Virgin – St. Louis speaks of the Christians in the latter times in a very praiseworthy and reverential manner. By the way he pays tribute to them, one would think he was writing about the early Christians. Certainly, there are a lot of challenges the Church is now facing. However, St. Louis de Montfort gives us a reason to believe that underneath all of the bad news and dire predictions, God is in control. Through Christ's loyal followers, he is calmly unfolding his plan. He compensates for the losses in the Church. Yes, he has an answer when such losses seem to get the upper hand. Below are several quotes from his book, True Devotion. If you read just a few of them you will a get a good sample of St. Louis de Montfort's peek into the future. As to the Christians in the latter times, he says,• These are the great men who are to come; but Mary is the One Who, by order of the Most High, shall fashion them for the purpose of extending His Empire over that of the impious, the idolaters and the Muslims.• They will carry the crucifix in their right hand and the rosary in their left, and the holy names of Jesus and Mary on their heart.• They will bring to the poor and lowly everywhere the sweet fragrance of Jesus, but they will bring the odor of death to the great, the rich and the proud of this world.• Thus the most fearful enemy that God has set up against the devil is Mary, his holy Mother. It simply means that Satan, being so proud, suffers infinitely more in being vanquished and punished by a lowly and humble servant of God, for her humility humiliates him more than the power of God.• Lastly, we know they will be true disciples of Jesus Christ, imitating his poverty, his humility, his contempt of the world and his love. But when and how shall this be? God alone knows. For our part we must yearn and wait for it in silence and in prayer: "I have waited and waited."Whether these quotes pertain to Christians of today or tomorrow, I do not know. But St. Louis de Montfort gives us reason to believe that God will have an answer to all the troubling predictions we hear about. What is more, if these Christians are members of tomorrow's Church, then, there is reason to believe that the Mystical Body of Christ is destined for better days.
This week (January 27 through the 31) was Catholic schools week. It has been demonstrated time and time again that the Catholic Church can do a better job of educating children than the State and with less money. But in addition to celebrating the real value of Catholic education, it would seem appropriate that Catholics discuss why their schools continue to close. In the 1950’s, for instance, the Catholic Church educated 12 percent of children in America. That percentage has dwindled down to less than 5 percent. The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) reported that between 2000 and 2006 nearly 600 Catholic elementary and secondary schools closed. This was a 7 percent decline. Nearly 290,000 students left. (Andy Smarick. "Can Catholic Schools Be Saved?") I can go on about the statistics of decline but I think it would be more useful to discuss those underlying reasons why the Church has suffered this setback. For our purposes, there are two factors that deserve our attention. 1. First, the crisis of Catholic education can be traced to the decline of religious vocations. In 1917, Pope Benedict XV said, “[T]hings are preserved through the same causes by which they were brought into being.” She seldom gets the credit for it but universal education was brought into being by the Catholic Church. Indeed, the unprecedented revolution of Catholic education during the first millennium of Christianity sprung from the monasteries that multiplied throughout the Middle Eastern and European landscape. Prior to this, in ancient pagan civilization, education and literacy existed for the chosen few. Even the teachings of Greek philosophers were made available to those few men who could afford to study philosophy. Yet, with the emergence of Christianity, things would change. Christ said let the children come to me. Under his mandate, bishops, priests, monks and nuns set out to make Christian education available to everyone- children as well as adults! From this inspired initiative came forth catechetical schools, parish schools, cathedral schools and universities. Indeed, it was these institutions which played a significant role in civilizing the once-barbaric continent of Europe. And that mission to bring the light of the Gospel to the people was sustained by the sacrifice of religious brothers and sisters until the mid 1960’s. Due to their call to celibacy, the cost of employing them would be minimal. Fast-forward to 1920: Before the crisis of priestly and religious vocations rocked the Church, 92 percent of Catholic schools were staffed by the religious, that is, nuns, priests and brothers. However, in the post-1960’s era, the majority of teachers in Catholic schools would be occupied by lay people. With this development, tuition cost skyrocketed. After all, behind just about every lay person is a family to support financially. Given the legacy of Christian education of the monasteries and religious orders- and the revolutionary effects it had on Western Civilization -and given the manifold benefits of having the religious at helm in Catholic schools, perhaps we can entertain the idea of having a more vigorous and visible campaign by parishes and dioceses around the world to promote religious vocations. No doubt, this is a long term goal. But it is one that needs to be pursued if Catholic education is to be preserved by the cause which brought it into being.2. The second factor that deserves our attention is that in the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century Catholics understood that they had competition in terms of educating children. That competitor was none other than the public school system. In fact, public education was more than just a competitor. It was believed that a secular education posed a mortal threat to the mission of the Catholic Church in saving souls for Christ. For instance, the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia edition stated that public schools are an “imminent danger to faith and morals.” And just four years later in 1921, Cardinal James Gibbons made the same observation: “The spirit of our people in general is adverse to State monopoly, and this for the obvious reason that such an absorption of control would mean the end of freedom and initiative. The same consequence is sure to follow when the State attempts to monopolize education; and the disaster will be much greater inasmuch as it will affect, not simply the worldly interests of the citizen, but also his spiritual growth and salvation.” In 1882, Fr. Thomas J. Jenkins published a book called, Judges of Faith: Christian vs. Godless Schools. It was an extensive survey of bishops around the world as to their position on public schools. It is important to know that in America there was a consensus among bishops that a secular education is an infallible instrument of bringing about a secular society. And as for Christians, a religiously neutral school would naturally breed religiously neutral children. As Fr. Jenkins said, “No practical Christian ever becomes unfaithful. So creedless, neutral schools, breed creedless children; indifference to God and virtue is the surest precursor to infidelity in practice…” These creedless schools, as Fr. Jenkins put it, was perceived to foster a secular worldview among youth, one that is narrow and one-sided. In 1884, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore stated the following: “A one-sided education [i.e. secular] will develop a one-sided life, and such a life will surely topple over; and so will every social system built up of such lives...” So here we are. In 2013 there is no shortage of talk about the sustainability of the American dream. Yet, Catholics in America have a distinct advantage they are not using. They could look back to the writings of their spiritual ancestors and compile volumes of warnings about the very thing that is troubling both the Church and the nation today. A century ago, popes, bishops and priests warned us about the perils of a State-run education system and what it would portend for the salvation of souls and the nation's welfare. But we Catholics have yet to give it the attention it deserves. If Catholic education is to burrow its way to the light, Catholics will have to once again rediscover those causes which it into being and become ever vigilant with regard to those obstacles that stand in its way. A good place to start is to ask ourselves: "Is there something our spiritual ancestors saw that we are not seeing?"
The church of Athens was one of the last churches to be established in Greece. According to one theologian, it came into being around the year 500 A.D. One possible reason for this was that Athens was full of intellectuals. No doubt, they are usually the toughest bunch of people to evangelize. Quite often, they suffer from intellectual pride and furthermore, they have a greater capacity to justify evil; more than the average person.The city of Athens just happened to be the home of the Areopagus. This is where intellectuals would gather and discuss the philosophical ideas and issues of the day. One day, St. Paul decided to join these high-minded men who prided themselves on sophisticated language and abstract theorems. However, on this particular occasion, preaching to the Athenians for St. Paul was more of a lesson in the art of evangelization than anything else. It would seem that he learned a painful lesson of “what not to do.”When he preached in Athens, he decided to limit himself to the lowest common denominator. Instead of preaching Christ-crucified, he took a philosophical approach. This was something he would later regret as evidenced in his two letters to the Corinthians. In fact, he appealed to their poets and spoke of the God in general terms and the future resurrection. The Apostle even paid them a compliment by saying the following: "You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.” It was a beautiful oration but one that bore little fruit in terms of conversions. True enough, he did walk away with two new followers: Dionysius and Damaris.The book of Acts reports that St. Paul then made his way to Corinth. Before he arrived in that city, it would seem that he had plenty of time to mull over his speech at the Areopagus. Perhaps, he even weighed what he could have done differently. After all, his message to the Corinthians had a whole new flavor to it. It is more explicit on what was foolish to the world instead of what was only appealing to it. Talking philosophically about God, in a style agreeable to the Greeks, was probably more eloquent, but it certainly was less effective. The real power of the Gospel emanated from the mystery of the Cross.St. Paul, with new vigor and determination, told the Christians in Corinth that he was, for now on, going to “proclaim Christ-crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” He may have shied away from this unconventional approach at Athens, but he resolved to shy away from it no more! In fact, he was at pains to contrast the foolishness of the Cross with the refined wisdom of the Athenians when he said the following:“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside.’ Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?” (I Corinthians 1:18-20)The point St. Paul raises takes us back to our Lord’s criteria in selecting his Apostles. Can it be that Jesus Christ chose twelve men from humble origins precisely because intelligence, if unredeemed, is a hindrance to salvation every bit as riches are? Some would argue that simplicity and child-like trust are harder to come by among intellectuals. Nevertheless, an intelligent Saint is better off than an ignorant Saint; this, because intelligence and knowledge are gifts from God, whereas ignorance is an absence of those gifts. In any event, we as Catholics can learn a lesson from St. Paul; especially as we address pressing matters such as religious liberty and the right to life. When we appeal to the public and even make our case to the State in favor of religious liberty, we often limit ourselves to natural law terminology. No doubt, this is an attempt to highlight the common denominator we have with the people. For instance, we say that Catholic agencies cannot distribute contraception because it is a “matter of conscience.” Or when an argument is made that life begins at conception, we might limit our appeal to the science behind it. This is all well and good. Nevertheless, this approach, as much as it appeals to the familiarity of the public, is, in my opinion, inferior to the apostolic and patristic approach. When they made their case to their audience, what stood out in their evangelization were God’s rights and God’s will. No doubt, Jesus Christ, Son of the Eternal Father, was their emphasis. He was the centerpiece of their message.For us, to hold fast to Christ’s teaching that using artificial birth control is against God’s plan for married couples and, as such, is offensive to him, is foolishness to the world. Still, we should proclaim it loud and clear anyways. However, because of the potential ridicule or the fear of being ostracized from the mainstream, Catholics distanced themselves from this moral truth…and many others for that matter. Due to the reluctance to offend, we sometimes couch the argument in terms of “conscience rights” and hence speak very little of “God’s rights.” To be sure, liberty will increasingly be unintelligible and intangible if we do not make a connection between liberty and God’s rights; God’s rights being the jurisdiction he has over every single human being. After all, it is because every person is created by God, for God and in the likeness of God that no government or hostile party can violate human rights. Erase God from the equation of life and liberty, and what you are left with is the survival of the fittest, the strongest and the loudest.The lesson that St. Paul learned in Athens also applies most fittingly to the Church in America. When Catholics make the foolishness of the Cross the mainstay of their message; when repentance from sin is the condition upon which people become a follower of Christ; and when we unapologetically articulate those moral doctrines that society deems to be foolish and outdated, then we will see gains similar to those of St. Paul "after" his disappointing visit to Athens.
When Christianity is seen as an exclusive and singularly privileged religion by its adherents, history demonstrates that it does well. In fact, one can argue from history that to the extent Christians professed their faith in Christ as being wholly unique- not only a faith unlike others but a corresponding morality unlike others –conversions were never wanting. This defies conventional wisdom, to be sure. But the truth is that with high standards Christianity grew by leaps and bounds even when state-sponsored persecutions were unleashed by the Roman Empire. Fr. Raoul Plus, in his book, Radiating Christ, S.J. captured the genius of having high spiritual and moral standards. He wrote the following in 1944: “There is no need to be afraid of asking too much. What attracts the young especially is the hard task, the difficult exploit. If you want volunteers for easy work, they are not enthusiastic. When faced with a choice of a religious order, souls that have a vocation seem by instinct to adopt those orders which are more fervent and more exacting. Similarly, souls will only enroll themselves in the service of a leader or an organization if they see that there are sacrifices to make and hard work to do.” Our Lord capitalized on the attractiveness of such an appeal when he demanded from his disciples their very lives. He wanted everything from them! To bury a deceased loved one or to even say farewell to one’s family had to give way to following him. And this, more than anything else, was symbolic of the kind of conversion he required from his followers. In the Gospel of Mark he prefaced the kerygma with these revolutionary words: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15) To “repent and believe” hardly seems revolutionary. But it was to the ancient pagans! To believe all that Christ taught without exception; to observe his moral law as a condition of being his disciple; and to be exclusively devoted to him while manifestly rejecting the gods of the Greco-Roman world [also known as Hellenism] was preposterous to ancient pagan sensibilities. Michael Green made this very point in his book, Evangelism in the Early Church (1970, 2003). He argued that Christian conversion- especially as it pertained to belief, morality and the exclusive claims that Christianity made on its adherents -was not only a scandal, but it was an enigma to the ancients. It simply was unknown to the unbaptized world. As for belief, Green said, “In the first place, Hellenistic men and women did not regard belief as necessary for the cult.” “So long as the traditional sacrifices were offered,” Green continues, “so long as the show went on, all would be well. You were not required to believe in the deities you worshiped: many people like Lucretius and Juvenal scoffed at the stories of the traditional gods but they were careful to continue the sacrifices on which on which the safety of the state and the well-being of society were held to depend.” Keep in mind that intolerance to religious error is a Judeo-Christian thing. The ancient pagans, on the other hand, did not subscribe to a creedal religion. The worship of certain gods was rarely fixed and religious tolerance was a social necessity. Hence, to be selective as to what one believed about the gods was entirely consistent with being a “good pagan.” But Christianity was different. It inherited an imperative for doctrinal purity from Judaism. Christ said to his Apostles to make disciples of all nations by “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” About four centuries later, St. Augustine, as with the early Christians, took our Lord’s words, “all that I have commanded” quite seriously. He said, "There can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by our Lord and handed down by Apostolic tradition." Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that there was an expectation in the early Church that all of what Christ commanded was to be believed and obeyed.“Secondly," Green adds, "Hellenistic men and women did not regard ethics as part of religion. It made little difference to your behavior whether you were a devotee of Mithras or a worshiper of Isis.” That’s right. Being a priest or priestess in ancient Greece did not necessitate high moral standards. Even the Greek philosophers were wanting in virtue. As regards to Plato, he “condemned drunkenness but approved of it on the feast of Bacchus. In the ‘Republic’ he recommends infanticide and a community of wives.” (James Cardinal Gibbons, Our Christian Heritage 1889) It is a Christian invention that religion and morality go hand in hand. Even the charge of hypocrisy that is often leveled against the Church nowadays is only possible because it was the Church herself that made belief and morality to be inseparable. Thanks to her, the creed that one professes is expected to correspond to the morality one lives. And all who wanted to join her ranks during those first centuries had to make a clean break with their immoral past and embrace a life of virtue. No half measures, partial commitments or nominal Christians were countenanced. “For whoever keeps the whole law,” wrote St. James, “but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it.” (2:10) Fidelity to all of God's laws gives credibility faith. Morality and faith cannot be divorced. Indeed, this is yet another reason why conversion was an enigma to the ancient pagans. “The third reason why the idea of Christian conversion was so surprising to Hellenistic people,’ Green writes, “was the exclusive claims it made on its devotees. Christians were expected to belong, body and soul, to Jesus, who was called their master…” It’s not just Michael Green that makes this important point. E. Glenn Hinson, in his book, The Evangelization of the Roman Empire: Identity and Adaptability (1981) also brings to the fore this idea of exclusivity. Hinson said, “What was built into their corporate life was the exclusivism of the monotheistic covenant…The institutional forms, developed gradually in response to the challenge of enlisting and incorporating new converts, did much to inculcate and sustain the exclusivism of Christianity.” This Christian exclusivity was expressed in ancient liturgical prayer known as the Gloria. The Gloria was added to the Mass during the second century; not too long after St. John the Apostle died. The prayer ends with the following exclamation: “For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.” If one were to read between the lines it might read something like this: glory only to the Holy Trinity and to no other gods! But to refuse worship or even honor of other gods was considered to be the height of arrogance and intolerance. Yet, the early Church flourished in spite of it; even in a highly pluralistic civilization.
If we but consult the past, we can anticipate the future. And what does the past tell us about children? Before Christ, children were not people; at least in the eyes of the world. In his book, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, author O.M. Bakke draws our attention to just how callous adults were toward children. Indeed, an appalling indifference was quite prevalent in the most civilized parts of the ancient world. In fact, there were very few legal and social protections for children. For instance, the father of the house was the arbiter of whether his children lived or died; whether they were cared for or abused; and whether they were kept or sold. Bakke adds, “Children and slaves were the father’s property, just material objects. To a very large extent, he could treat his wife, his children, and other household members as he pleased, without any fear of legal consequences.” This, of course, gave sanction to violence against children and sexual exploitation.Lloyd de Mause, a source referenced in the same book, reminds us that what we call “abuse” in our day was mainstream phenomenon in the antiquity. He said, “[T]he child in antiquity lived his earliest years in an atmosphere of sexual abuse. Growing up in Greece and Rome often included being used sexually by older men.” In ancient Greece, home of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, man-boy sexual relationships (this was called ephobe love) were far from being taboo or considered “abusive,” rather, it was a social rite of passage in Greece. Kenneth Dover, author of a book on homosexuality in ancient Greece, gives us four key insights about this socially accepted man-boy relationship:(1) that most homosexual activity among free urban citizens in Greece took the form of pederastic relationships between adult men and boys aged twelve years and over; (2) that such relationships were considered normal and natural; (3) that neither ethics nor legislation forbade or penalized this form of sexual activity…(4) that this form of homosexual activity was seen as noble, as a natural part of growing into adulthood….”This coldness towards children on the part of adults- and even parents -in the ancient world derived, at least in part, from the high mortality of rate among children. Approximately 50 percent of children in the ancient world died before the age of ten. With this probability, parents often expected at least some of children to die in the early years. Such an expectation fostered in parents a kind of detachment from their children. Sadly, in pagan antiquity there was no religious belief to offset this unfortunate development. The fact is that children were seen as a liability because of their vulnerability and their inability to reason. As Bakke argues, “Children were not only considered to be weak in the sense that they lacked logos [i.e. the ability to reason]. The Romans held that they were physically weak, particularly vulnerable, and exposed to sickness.”For this reason it was not uncommon for people to see children as a sacrifice, a burden and a mouth to be feed. Even the widely known Roman philosopher, Cicero, exhibited an appalling indifference towards the death of his granddaughter. He even referred to her as a “thing.” Naturally, this indifference towards children led to the common practice of abortions, infanticide and “baby exposure” (i.e. literally, throwing babies away…taking them out to the garbage). Without blinking an eye, another Roman philosopher by the name of Seneca justified the killing of post-born babies under the guise of “reason.” He said, “We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. Yet it is not anger, but reason that separates the harmful from the sound.” Sure enough, archeologist Lawrence E. Stager and his colleagues saw evidence of this practice about two thousand years later in one of his excavations in Italy. He said they made “a gruesome discovery in the sewer that ran under the bathhouse…the sewer had been clogged with refuse sometime in the sixth century A.D. when we excavated and dry-sieved the desiccated sewage, we found [the] bones…of nearly 100 little babies apparently murdered and thrown into the sewer.”With this historical context in mind, we can better appreciate what Jesus Christ means to the dignity of children. He took their lot in this world and retrieved it from the sewer. How often have we heard the words spoken by the angel Gabriel to the St. Zachariah (Lk 1:17) in the Temple that the Messiah will “turn the hearts of fathers toward children”? The promise that fathers would turn their hearts toward their children upon the arrival of the Christ is taken from the book of Malachi. And have we ever asked ourselves what that passage means? It would stand to reason that father’s hearts were not turned toward their children; that somehow their hearts were not in the right place; that their hearts had grown cold toward them in the absence of grace. But when father's hearts turn away from children, society follows suit.Unfortunately, ancient pagans chose to focus on the limitations of children, thus casting them as a liability to society when in fact they were the very opposite: the future of society and a blessing from God! What was overlooked was that the more children there were the more hands existed to assist with labor, the more minds there were to invent and the more souls there were to love.In contrast to the ancient pagans, the early Christians revolutionized the way the world looked at children. Scripture reminded the people of God that children were heaven’s blessing; that from conception to natural death children they are, as Pope Pius XI would say, a "true microcosm, a world in miniature with a value far surpassing that of the vast inanimate cosmos." Just as the slave was equal to his master at the foot of the altar, so too children were endowed with equal dignity to their parents. After all, they were created by God, for God and in the likeness of God just as their parents were. This is biblical truth is the basis and surest guarantee for human rights and the dignity of life. What is more, the early Christians saw to it that all who would aspire to follow Christ had to become like little children; this, in order to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, all that was noble about children, such as their innocence, unquestioning faith and simplicity, were raised high for the world to see. And in so doing, men and women learned to see children as people; something that was quite foreign to the ancient pagans. Although Christmas is behind us, the crèche, or any Nativity display for that matter, takes on great symbolic value in our day. After knowing how children were treated in the unbaptized world, the following words from the prophet Isaiah will never sound the same to me: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us.”
God Writes Straight With Crooked Lines What about those mistakes we fret over? What about the “what if’s?” Now, certainly every sinner is capable of forfeiting plan A for plan B. For instance, a man who commits adultery and then seeks to file a divorce with his present wife is, by no means, carrying God’s plan A for him. But even in this case, God, who, from all eternity, allowed such a moral evil to take place. And in allowing this to happen, He allowed for the unfortunate circumstances to contribute to his perfect plan for the family and even for the adulterer. In so doing, plan B – being less ideal than plan A – can be comparable to plan A in God's hands. Recall the Easter Proclamation: “O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” If Christ can take the sins of humanity and bring out of it many blessings, then surely He can do it for the imperfect or sinful choices an individual might make in dating. And this leads us to the following question: Can God’s will be thwarted by mistakes? The Saints tell us, “no!” Every apparent fluke and all “senseless” suffering is either deliberately willed by God or permitted for some higher good. It is all a part of His intelligent design. No doubt, the more painful the circumstances are, the harder it is to reconcile such circumstances to God’s wise and loving counsel. For this reason, the mystery of the Cross can be a stumbling block to many of us; especially when we are blindsided by a crisis.Peace Amid WantBut here is the real crux: We know that God is everything for us; we lack nothing with Him. If, then, He dwells within our souls and is firmly within our possession, why is it, then, that we suffer so much in the absence of a spouse or a loved one? The short answer: Only a lifetime of faith, hope, love and sacrifice can translate this interior spiritual reality into a practical reality. Indeed, it is through the mystery of the Cross that hastens this translation. This is how the peace of God is attained. And it is this peace that St. Paul had come to know. To the Philippians, he wrote:“Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus…[F]or I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient. I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.” (Philippians 4:6,7,11-13)The peace of God results, at least in part, from the knowledge that all things work together for the good. Believe or not, free will is such a small part of the overall picture. What Christians do not think about often enough are all the bad things the Lord prevents from happening. Even mathematicians who specialize in probabilities say that it is a wonder that we can get from point A to point B without some accident occurring. In this unstable world of ours, so many things can go wrong. I guess that is why we have guardian angels. The Sacrament of the Moment: Our Highest VocationIn any event, it could be that a man or woman who has just turned 30 or 40 years of age and hence sees the clock ticking away, may be prevented by Divine Providence from marrying the wrong person or marrying too soon or even entering into a marriage when there are so many unresolved problems that he or she needs to work through. This is little consolation for those who are waiting on God to have their prayers answered or yearning to find that right person, but being married or single is not the most important thing. The most important thing for the Christian is to embrace God’s will as it is revealed to him in the circumstances of the moment. Indeed, the “sacrament of the moment” is to know that the present situation – be it agreeable or disagreeable – is ordained for our highest good and happiness. In fact, to embrace God’s will in each new moment is a vocation far more important than the status of being married or single. This is the means by which souls know the peace that only Christ can give. It is how true friends of God are made.But the friends of God – also known as the Saints – say that conformity to God’s will is not enough. No. We have to will what God will's. And to will what God will’s, even if it means being single for an extended period of time, we have to will being single "in the moment." The secret to sanctity and peace of soul is to will what God gives us in the circumstances of each day. This is no small feat. In fact, it can be quite grueling. It can wear us down. But it is the most mysterious and yet most liberating ambition anyone could have!Think about it: If we thank God for those things that agreeable to us, can we not also thank Him for all the deprivations and setbacks that run counter to our will as well? And is such adversity not just as good for us in the long run? If we have the faith of a Saint we would answer in the affirmative. At the very least, let us be thankful that the Lord does not give us what we want all the time! After all, how many times have we begged God for things that, in hindsight, proved not to be in our best interests.Even more so, let us be thankful for the Sacrament of the Moment. After all, this is where the greatest of treasures is to be found: God’s all-wise and loving will.Editor's note: This is the second column in a series of two. To read the first column in this series, click here.
Worldly Singles: No WorriesAlthough the married and family life has preoccupied most of my time in recent years, nevertheless, through pastoral ministry and friendships I interact with a lot of singles. Curiously, more than any other demographic that I have encountered, it is Christian single who seems to be the most anxious about their vocation. In short, they fear that they will not find that right person. On the other side of the spectrum, it is increasingly the case that non-religious or sub-religious singles deliberately choose not to get married. For them, shacking-up suffices to meet their needs. In fact, Pew Research has found that the number of people getting married since 1960 had dropped by 20 percentage points. More recently, from 2009 to 2010, in just one year, the marriage rate dropped by 5 percent. That's a lot!But as for Christian singles who want to get married- whose main ambition it is to get married -many of them have a very difficult time reconciling their current status with God’s will. Not a few of them lost their peace about their future believing that somewhere along the line they messed up and made the wrong decision, thus putting themselves outside of Divine Providence. On the flipside, their non-religious counterparts seem to go with the flow, almost carelessly. If they get married, they get married; if not, no big deal! This is attitude of those who subscribe to worldly values, anyways. To an extent, there are some understandable reasons why Christian singles seem to fret more than worldly singles about getting married.For instance, Christian singles are called by Christ to live chastely. As far as their options are concerned, “shacking-up," or just "sleeping around," just to relieve sexual tension, is off the table. For non-religious or secular singles, on the other hand, they are more likely to be sexually active or even cohabitate before marriage…if they marry at all. In other words, unlike those who aspire to follow Christ, such people enjoy the perks of marriage while foregoing the sacrifice and demands of marriage. Under these circumstances, to wait for the right person isn't as urgent for them.In contrast, Christians, by and large, put a high premium on the institution of marriage. Needless to say, their counterparts, by and large, do not…at least not as much. In short, this accounts for some of the anxiety suffered by Christian singles. Having sensed the calling to the married life, they want to get on with their life with a companion. It would almost seem that their life is on hold until they get married. Some would have you believe, life has yet to begin until this one missing piece to the puzzle is in place. To be sure, many Christian singles go through a real crisis of faith as they await the answer to their prayers. Misinterpreting God’s PlanBut there is another factor at play which takes us to the very heart of God’s will and His providence: This factor is what may be called the “Sacrament of the Moment.” The Sacrament of the Moment is a common teaching among the Saint, but too often, it is overlooked by Christian singles and those who face uncertainty. Let me explain.Many Christian singles rack themselves with anxiety over the thought they did something to “mess up” God’s plan for their vocation. They maintain that perhaps the right person came along but they did not recognize “their time of visitation;” that is, they missed that one and only opportunity to get married. Their anxiety also has them wonder if they broke up with a person they should have never broken up with. Or it could be that- given their bad luck – they think that they will never find that right person at all. In their reasoning, therefore, it is as if their belief in random chance – circumstances which lie outside of God’s control – is stronger than their faith in God’s all-powerful wise counsel.Whatever the crisis, one has to believe in one of two things: 1) Either every single circumstance is within God’s control or 2) It is not. Strangely, many Christians choose to believe the latter; not so much in theory but in practice. And in tending toward the latter, they struggle to reconcile God’s loving will – not only with supposed missed opportunities -but suffering and misfortune as well. In other words, they chalk up their trials and suffering to chance. This belief, no doubt, is inspired by noble motives. After all, they do not wish to criticize the Lord when they find themselves in a crisis. So, in order to spare God of criticism they conclude that suffering and setbacks are not of God’s doing. This assumption is quite prevalent among believers.The downside to this belief system is that if we press this reasoning to its logical conclusion, it means that adversity is meaningless; that is, the trials that we encounter were never meant to be. God Writes Straight With Crooked LinesYet, if we see that the circumstances of each day are but the manifestation of God’s plan for us, then we can also understand that what appears to be a senseless drought of romance and marital love is every bit as meaningful as getting married. No doubt, the interim period between our prayers to God and his answer to those prayers may be painful at times. But because God willed it positively (preferred it) or allowed it (with His passive will), we can rest assure that the situation we find ourselves in is good for us nevertheless!In fact, it is God’s active will that husbands and wives can find fulfillment in the vocation of matrimony in the first place. Yet, if God had not willed this, the married life would not be fulfilling to anyone. What I am trying to say is that the same God who created the institution of marriage and made it an appealing vocation to people, is the same God who has strategically called certain Christians to be single for the moment. Or, to put it another way: the same God who created marriage for the good of humanity, is the same God who withholds the calling of marriage for the good of the single person.
It would seem, then, that the people of God would follow the same course as God who, himself, was “sent into exile” at the time of the Flood till the birth of Jesus Christ. When Abraham was called by God to be the father of nations- the father of a promise – he was living in the land of Ur (close to where Baghdad is today). But in order to inherit the promise from God, he was summoned to the land of Canaan (where Israel is today). And in order to survive, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, took his family to Egypt from the land of Canaan during a famine. About 400 years later, Moses would be sent into exile for killing an Egyptian soldier. He would return decades later to retrieve the Israelites. That was the beginning of a forty year journey in the desert. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, the Catholic Church is like the Israelites in the desert, searching for a better home. When the nation of Israel settled into the land of Canaan, she prospered into a powerful kingdom under King David. As with most prosperous kingdoms, the people of God grew complacent and eventually turned to idolatry. About five centuries after the reign of David, the Jews were conquered by the Babylonian Empire. In the year 586 B.C., Jerusalem, along with the Temple built by Solomon, was destroyed. The Jews were then transported to Babylon. Strangers in a foreign land, they would come to recognize the inspired writings of the prophets who warned them of their sins and the chastening of God that would follow. Indeed, it was in their exile and plight that awoken them to their own infidelity and the veracity of God’s Word. In the fullness of time when Christ was born, the holy pilgrimage of exile would be repeated yet again. King Herod, in order to eliminate any rivals to his throne, sought the life of the Christ-child. In order to escape his wrath, the angel warned St. Joseph in a dream to take the mother and her child to Egypt. In flight, therefore, Christ, as a young child and then as a man, would twice retrace the steps of his people: First, by taking flight to Egypt as a child with Joseph and Mary. Second, by returning to the desert for the duration of forty days at age 30 in order to conquer the Evil One. Through his fidelity in fasting and a resolute rejection of Satan’s temptations, he atoned for Israel's infidelity. But it was only through the painful experience of exile that this blessing could come about.Interestingly, the Gospel of Luke characterizes the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord as a kind of “exodus.” During his transfiguration on Mount Tabor, St. Luke wrote that Moses and Elijah (both sent into exile in their own day), spoke to Jesus about his exodus. In fact, the Ascension of Our Lord is considered as a kind an exile from this world. But as Moses returned to Egypt to liberate his people after a prolonged absence, so too our Lord will return in order to fulfill his Father's promise in Psalm 2: “I will proclaim the decree of the LORD, he said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask it of me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, and, as your possession, the ends of the earth.” In the meantime, the Catholic Church can only consider herself as one in exile; never completely at home in any given country. In the early years of the Christianity, the Church understood this well. For the first 300 years, she was hated and persecuted by the Romans. Indeed, a great number of martyrs were produced. In fact, one historical source reports that out of the 30 popes, 29 died a martyr’s death. Yet, conversions to the Catholic Faith abounded. Through it all, there was something very attractive about an other-worldly society. A famous letter, supposedly written in the second century during the height of Christian persecution, captures how the early Christians saw themselves. A Letter from Mathetes to Diognetus speaks of a Church in exile; one that is not defined by any ethnicity or nationality. He writes, “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity…” Even as the Roman Empire was beginning to fall and even as the Church seemed to be in retreat, Mathetes gives the reason why the early Christians were full of hope: “As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers…They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven…They love all men, and are persecuted by all…” Even with the fierce persecution of Christians and being cast out of Roman society time and time again, the Catholic Church was full of confidence in her mission. She knew that in order to save the world, she had to be set apart from the world. Mathetes summarizes this mission as follows: “To sum up all in one word—what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world…The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens.” It is only through the age-old pilgrimage of an exile as outsiders, strangers and victims that the Church can recover her native strength. Only under this banner can she be a symbol of that future happiness that awaits us in heaven. Perhaps, this is why another Catholic historian, Hilaire Belloc, wrote about that peculiar sign for which we are to look when the Catholic Faith is on the precipice of rising again: “But if I be asked what sign we may look for to show that the advance of the Faith is at hand, I would answer by a word the modern world has forgotten: Persecution. When that shall once more be at work it will be morning.”To read part one of this column, click here.