Wednesday Witness: Who Are You Pointing To?

The Superbowl was this past Sunday. Midway through the evening, social media exploded with critiques of the halftime show, which apparently featured two high-profile female performers in various states of undress dancing provocatively while sharing a medley of their musical hits.

I am not sorry we missed it.

I won’t rehash what I’ve read on the subject. The reason we did not watch was because a year or two ago, after repeatedly venting about the content of the halftime show and even some of the commercials, we agreed as a family to stop watching. When Superbowl Sunday rolls around, we prepare the usual snacks and treats, gather around the TV…and watch a movie.* We are not big football fans, and it occurred to us that it was a waste of time and energy to watch a game we didn’t particularly care about in order to see questionable commercial content and to be subjected to yet another pop-culture skin flick. It wasn’t easy to take that first step “out of the loop,” but honestly, we haven’t regretted it.

This is not to say you can’t enjoy football or the Superbowl. But I was struck by the volume of social media posts, articles and commentary that began with some variation of, “Thanks for exposing my child to X, Y and Z during the halftime show. They shouldn’t have to see that.”

They don’t have to see it—and as consumers and parents, we have the power and the responsibility to ensure they don’t.

Providentially, the next morning, the daily gospel was Mark 5:1-20. Bishop Robert Barron’s scripture reflection focused on the age-old practice of scapegoating: projecting our anxieties and anger onto a particular person or group of persons in order to preserve unity in our community. Bishop Barron suggested that we could interpret the numerous demons possessing the man living among the tombs as all the fears and frustrations of the people in that territory. They may not have liked the demoniac, but they knew him. They had a scapegoat. When Jesus sets him free and casts the demons into a great herd of swine, the people do not rejoice that their neighbor has been restored to his right mind. Instead, they are afraid and beg Jesus to leave.

How often are we uncomfortable with seeing and claiming our part in the evils of the world? How comforting it is to see someone else as the villain—to gawk, point and howl at wickedness instead of changing something in our own lives to prevent its spread!

How many years in a row did I shake my head at the garbage on our television but resist cutting the cable?

In last Sunday’s bulletin, I referenced Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. This morning I read his account of learning that war was again breaking out in Europe:

There was something else in my own mind—the recognition: “I am responsible for this. My sins have done this. Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too…” It was a very sobering thought, and yet its deep and probing light by its very truth eased my mind a little. I made up my mind to go to confession and Communion on the First Friday of September.

I knelt at the altar rail and on this first day of the Second World War received from the hand of the priest, Christ in the host, the same Christ Who was being nailed again to the cross by the effect of my sins, and the sins of the whole selfish, stupid, idiotic world of men.

I have to admit I was caught off guard when I read this—the vehemence with which Merton incriminates himself, and at the same time, the sense of relief he feels in coming to terms that he is in company with all of mankind, all to blame and all loved and redeemed by Christ.

There is an image often shared with children: When you point at someone else, the rest of your fingers point back at you. My wish for myself and all of you is that, as often us possible, we point to Jesus.

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* This year, appropriately enough, it was an annual favorite: Groundhog Day. I understand a Jeep ad based on the movie was one of the highlights of Sunday evening.

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Blogger’s Note: This post first appeared as part of the Wednesday Witness blog series on the St. Michael Catholic Church website.

Called to Another Country

“The land you are to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come…” – Deuteronomy 11:10

I am reading The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography of Thomas Merton, a broken and sinful young man who grew up between the World Wars, converted to Catholicism in his 20s, and ultimately became a Trappist monk and priest. Merton is complicated, and his later writings indicate a potentially dangerous attraction to Buddhism. But externally, at least, he never left the priesthood or his order, and his conversion story is a profound and thought-provoking read.

Merton regrets that he did not have the sense to embrace the life of grace the Lord was providing on the day he joined the Catholic Church. Following his baptism and first Holy Communion, he returned to the life he led before—as an aspiring intellectual and writer—except with a few spiritual practices added to the mix: He attended Mass on the weekends and sometimes during the week, went to Confession more than once a month, and engaged in spiritual reading on a fairly regular basis.

To my eyes, that list reads like the makings of a strong disciple. Merton saw it differently: “A man who has just come out of the hospital, having nearly died there, and having been cut to pieces on the operating table, cannot immediately begin to lead the life of the ordinary working man. And after the spiritual mangle I have gone through, it will never be possible for me to do without the sacraments daily, and without much prayer and penance and meditation and mortification.” Continue reading

The Better Part

Nearly everyone I talk with these days agrees with me: The summer is flying by, in part because our families are so busy.

A friend has an acronym for BUSY: Burdened Under Satan’s Yoke. We may object that the numerous things we are doing are not evil, but are good and perhaps even important. But we would do well to ask ourselves, are they necessary?

Necessity is a high bar, when you think about it. As animals, we have very few absolute needs: food, water, shelter, and the like. As humans, made in God’s image, we have a few more: freedom, community, love. Meeting these needs for ourselves and our families requires effort on our part—but for the person of faith, there is a hierarchy: God, spouse, children, everyone else, everything else.

Which of these things are we spending time on these days, and in what order? Continue reading

Call and Response: Embracing the Already of Christ’s Saving Act

Blogger’s Note: This was my final paper for the fourth semester of the Catechetical Institute, “Prayer: The Blessing Given and Received.” In this reflection, we were not only to discuss the final pillar of the Catechism, but the book and Institute as a whole. After two years of study, the Class of St. Padre Pio graduated this evening, following Mass with Bishop Kettler presiding. 

The fourth pillar of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) calls us to deeper relationship with our heavenly Father who loves us and redeems us by the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus, and the actions of the Holy Spirit in the world today. This relationship is cultivated through the gift of prayer, “a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” (CCC 2558), approached “‘out of the depths’ of a humble and contrite heart” (CCC 2559). We are creatures, completely dependent on God’s love and mercy, not only for salvation, but for our basic needs, our next breath, our very existence. Even our desire to pray is prompted by the One who desires us, seeks us, spies us from afar and runs to greet us with great joy and love.

As with the previous pillars, I was struck by how much of the “work” of prayer is in God’s hands, not ours. We bear it like a burden at times, but it is He who beckons and inspires, who teaches us what to pray for and in what order (CCC 2763), who knows our needs before we express them and even when we can’t express them. It is He who changes us in prayer, not the other way around. I was also drawn again to His proximity: We sometimes cry out to Him as though He dwells a long way off in Heaven, but that Catechism reassures us that the heaven in which God dwells—“Our Father who art in Heaven”—is less elsewhere and more elseway:

This biblical expression does not mean a place (“space”), but a way of being; it does not mean that God is distant, but majestic. Our Father is not “elsewhere”: he transcends everything we can conceive of his holiness. It is precisely because he is thrice holy that he is so close to the humble and contrite heart.

“Our Father who art in heaven” is rightly understood to mean that God is in the hearts of the just, as in his holy temple. At the same time, it means that those who pray should desire the one they invoke to dwell in them (CCC 2794).

So we are not only immersed in God, but He in us—the Holy Spirit is not only as close as oil on skin, but so thoroughly fills us that, in truth, our only escape from Him is an act of the will in which we reject His love and refuse to turn back to Him. He who has the power to save us desires my salvation more than I do myself! Continue reading