Able-Bodied

good-friday-2264164_1920Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:27

Over the past three years I’ve been blessed to serve as faith formation director for our parish and to write a monthly column in our church bulletin. I’ve tried in that time to urge us all to discipleship: to cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus every day, listening and responding to what he asks of us, seeking the lost and leading them to heaven.

It’s a big job, to be sure, but we are not alone. We are one body, with Christ as our head. Through the Apostles, the bishops, our priests, and our baptism, His mission of saving souls has been given to each of us. Individually we are ill-suited to the task of redeeming the world, but together?

Together we are unstoppable.

We are strong. Twenty-two hundred families strong. We have the strength of the first-time mother bearing life big and round as the world beneath her heart and lungs; the bleary-eye father who sleeps little and talks less, but drinks coffee in the predawn darkness and heads to a job he tolerates for the family he loves. We are strong with the prayers of our elders in faith: paper-skinned ladies and shuffling old men, praying through the pain of fallen children and failing health and busted systems and a broken world. We are strong with Mass-going, Jesus-adoring teens and noisy children climbing over pews and running in the aisles and generally treating God’s House as their own—praise Him for that misperception! We are strong with the sacraments: with Sundays made long by baptisms, and solemn Eucharistic liturgies, and too many confessions for our number of priests.

We have the strength of history: a growing Catholic school and three Catholic churches before this one, each bigger than the one before, yielding vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

We are able-bodied, because we are His body: hardened by work and walking together, strengthened by prayer and fasting, fearless and capable, even unto death.

We are that Person. Do you see Him in us? I do.

Too often, however, we fall short. We struggle to find new volunteers and exhaust those we have. We do what’s immediate or comfortable for ourselves, out of guilt or necessity, without asking what God wants of us. We each pull our own direction, and the tension holds our parish suspended, neither falling behind nor surging ahead.

Imagine what we could achieve if each part of the Body—each organ, muscle, bone, and cell—found his or her purpose and did just exactly that one thing, to the best of his or her ability. Imagine that Body, with Christ’s head guiding, Christ’s blood coursing through, Christ’s own flesh sustaining. Imagine that Body, working wonders in the world.

Together we are unstoppable. What’s stopping us?

The Great Improviser, or One Blesséd Thing After Another…

I remember watching an improv comedy group with friends in college. Each member of the troupe was a whirlwind of wit and creativity, responding instantly to audience suggestions, random props, and fellow comics’ off-the-cuff reactions.

After more than an hour of nonstop hilarity and laughter, the group took its bows, then the members spoke briefly to the audience about how they do what they do: How they keep the laughs coming at such a breakneck pace when even they aren’t sure what will happen next?

The basic answer was so simple: Say yes, and

Whatever the situation, the idea, the inane detail added by the last castmate as he passes the scene to you, say yes, and build on it. Anything else — a no, a but, a hesitation, a rejection — derails everything. The joy of improv (for both performers and audience, I’ll wager) is in the way that it embraces the unknown and absurd and builds on them, laugh upon laugh, until the entire humorous edifice is revealed and the leader says, “Aaaaand scene!”

Say yes, and build on it. Embrace the situation and move forward. Such a simple trick — but it requires practice. (If you don’t believe me, get two friends and try Three-Headed Broadway Singer.)

It strikes me today that this is good advice for life, as well. This world is tilted, spinning, ridiculous in so many ways, and at times life appears to be, as an old saying goes, “one damned thing after another.” But it’s not. The sequence of events is not damned, but blessed.

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28

God, in fact, must be the Great Improviser, to work out  His plan among so many free-willing, fallen creatures who are constantly doing the dead-wrong thing. God’s providence, it seems to me, must be a resounding, eternal, “Yes, and…”

Fr. Mike Schmitz shares great perspective on discerning God’s will for us, in which he reminds us that, even in scripture, when God’s appears to be taking His people by the hands and leading them, still less is known than unknown. In particular, he reminds us that, after being told by the angel Gabriel that she will bear the Son of God, Mary says “Be it done unto me according to your word,” and the very next line in scripture is, “Then the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:28).

Mary is left to improvise: to build upon that yes and each yes after, until the entire astounding edifice is revealed and the Master calls out, “Scene!”

Like Mary, we don’t know what’s coming: what incredible, impossible, unwieldy, absurd situation we may encounter, this moment or the next. But our response matters. In fact — since the universe is beyond our control — our response is all that counts.

It’s so simple, though it takes practice: Step with joy into the unknown. Say yes, and build upon it.

Memento Mori, or Don’t Get Comfortable!

Last week I shared a humorous post about my general lack of physical fitness, in which I declaimed, “I am weary from too much rest—so comfortable it hurts.” At the time, I meant this merely in the physical sense, but this morning the spiritual meaning resonates.

We are creatures of will and intellect, but inertia is mindless. An object at rest tends to stay at rest, and so, too, a man who behaves like an object. When we rest, we often “veg,” which is to say we give up our human and even our animal nature in exchange for potting ourselves, mindlessly, in the sun. Bloom where you’re planted is a mantra today, but we are not flowers or fruit trees. It feels good to soak the golden rays, but, lacking chlorophyll, we are not fed in this way—not for long! We are planted only at the end, and then under a stone.

Also last week, I mentioned that our family is pursuing Marian consecration. Thus far Fr. Gaitley’s book has focused on three saints who, in their separate but similar ways, gave themselves completely​ to Christ through Mary: St. Louis de Montfort, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Mother Teresa. What struck me this morning was the sense of urgency each of these saints has:

  • St. Louis de Montfort advocated Marian consecration as “the surest, easiest, shortest, and most perfect means” to become a saint.
  • St. Maximilian Kolbe formed his Marian “army,” the Militia Immaculata, with the express goal of bringing the entire world to God through Christ under the generalship of Mary, and to do so as quickly as possible.
  • St. Teresa of Calcutta sought to satisfy the thirst of Jesus for souls and love, and to do this in the best possible way.
Notice that none of these three were satisfied with merely doing a job, or even doing it well.They sought to hear God’s call, to answer it daily, and to act with urgency, in the best way possible to bring about His will. They were not sedentary, physically or spiritually. They did not bloom where they were planted, because they never permitted themselves to be planted. They acted, each moment, as Mary would—as Christ would!—with great love, and with their eyes fixed upon eternity and the fate of the souls they encountered.
Too long have I acted as though good enough is good enough, as though I have time to spend (or not) as I please. If sainthood is the goal, let us pursue it with vigor. God willing, we’ll have eternity to rest!

Fool for Christ: An Easter Reflection

Such fools, these followers of Jesus. Witless tradesmen, traitors, cowards, and louts, smelling of dust and sweat and fish—with a carpenter to lead them! The honest one, Nathanael, spoke well when he asked, Can anything good come from Nazareth? Yet even he was smitten—by a wandering woodworker!

And then what? This Jesus rides into Jerusalem like God’s gift to humanity, picks a fight with the scribes and scholars, and blasphemes before the high priest. Who could stand for it? They had him flogged and humiliated, beaten within an inch of his life—they gave him every opportunity—and still he would not repent. So they had him crucified.

Great wickedness demands great atonement.

Such disciples! Most of them fled when God’s arm was revealed. Only the young one, John, stuck it out to the end. His mother was there, too, I hear. Poor woman. She raised him right, by all accounts, and this is her thanks: a criminal in an early grave. She must be proud.

They’ve been in hiding since. What would you do, if you left your home and livelihood to follow your heart’s desire, only to see it crushed completely and come to nothing? They say he worked wonders: fed the masses, healed the sick, even raised the dead! But how could that be, unless he came from God Himself? And why would God would allow his servant to be profaned so publicly, so completely—on the Passover, no less! Why could he not save himself?

Unless…

But no. Nothing short of bodily resurrection could make up for so great a loss. For the man Jesus to redeem Himself and his followers, He would have to burst from that tomb of his own accord, bathed in light and breathing God’s own spirit, baptizing in fire as the beheaded Baptist foretold, with angels as His heralds and judgment on His lips. He would have to show Himself victorious over not only worldly powers, but over sin and death itself.

Some say he will. Just imagine: the stone rolled back, an empty tomb, the astonished guards. Imagine the embarrassment of the Romans, the recriminations among the Jewish leaders, the joy and wonder among His followers.

Mercy! Who could stand before so great a Redeemer as that?

On that day, may every knee bend at His holy name. May He find a people worthy to be called His disciples.
And may I be one of them.

Book Break: The Spiritual Combat

Dom Lorenzo Scupoli’s The Spiritual Combat was recommended to me by a friend many years ago, when I was first looking into my patron saint Francis de Sales’s spiritual classic An Introduction to the Devout Life. First published in 1589, Fr. Scupoli’s book was required reading for those whom St. Francis de Sales advised, and he reportedly carried in his pocket a copy given to him by Fr. Scupoli himself.

Over the past several months, I’ve been reading and reflecting on The Spiritual Combatduring adoration. I will warn you up front: It is not an easy read. The language and structure are archaic and complex at times, and Fr. Scupoli takes sin, Satan, and the possibility of Hell uncomfortably seriously (as we should, too). Take your time; read a section and reflect on it. Re-read if necessary. This is a book the rewards patience and prayer.

I believe it will reward repeated reading, as well. Each “chapter” reads like a short reflection building upon the previous. I have read all of these reflections now, but find that, in my own spiritual life, I’m still focused on the first few reflections. Early in the book, Fr. Scupoli insists that in the battle for souls, we must fight or die—but victory can only come from recognizing our own spiritual weakness and putting no trust in ourselves and our own abilities. We must recognize our overwhelming tendency to fall and put all our confidence in a loving and merciful God, without whom we can do no good, but with whom we cannot fail.

I don’t live like that. Most days I still try to get by on my own steam and get frustrated when I stumble or fail. So in terms of spiritual combat, most days I’m still reminding myself of my weakness and striving to distrust me and trust Him instead. When this becomes habitual, it may be time to read this book again!

My edition ends with a shorter work also attributed to Fr. Scupoli, A Treatise on Peace in the Soul. This is another old fashioned, hard-hitting, and practical work, much shorter than The Spiritual Combat, and for me, much easier to apply as a whole to my day-to-day life. The overarching theme is the importance of maintaining peace in the soul and responding immediately to worries, anxieties, and fears that disturb us, recognizing that these are tools the Enemy uses to separate us from God. I read this part in about two sittings and found myself much refreshed and with much to think about and apply, even as a raw recruit to the spiritual combat.

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Blogger’s Note: The cover on my edition is the one pictured. As a former wrestler and father of wrestlers, this image of Jacob wrestling the angel alone is worth the price of the book! Also: toward the end of the post at the following link is my brief reflection on Introduction to the Devout Life, another great spiritual book.