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

‘I Can’t Love You Enough’

A while back I was counting my blessings in prayer, reflecting on my life and my family. I was struck by how differently things have turned out than I would have predicted, and how much better than I ever could have orchestrated myself. I remember choking up a bit (which happens more than I like to admit), smiling to myself and God, and saying to Him, “I can’t love you enough!”

When I said it, I meant, “I love you so much for all the great things you’ve done in my life, and even that isn’t adequate!”

But as soon as I heard my words, it struck me another way: I cannot love You enough. I am unable to love You, Lord, in the way that I should. You have given me everything; You lived and died for me…and I can barely find time to say thank you, let alone seek to do Your will.

I am unable to love You as I should, Lord.

That thought struck me again late last week, as we prepared to head to Bismarck for our oldest son Brendan’s graduation. As I reflected on it, I saw two paths I could take from there.

The first is well-worn and dusty; I have traveled it many times. It’s the path by which I try to pray harder, do more, use better words, cram more in. I try to earn my way into heaven through my own effort…and time and again, I fall, because I can’t love Him enough.

The other path is so little traveled that flowers grow, so that you almost dare not take a step. It’s the path by which I acknowledge the truth about myself: that nothing I can ever do can repay my debt to God for loving me into being and dying to save my soul. I learn to humble myself and submit to His plan, in which He saves me because I can’t love Him enough.

The first path leads to exhaustion, failure, frustration and despair. The second leads to freedom and peace. Which one, do you suppose, leads to Him?

Heart First: The Spirituality of St. Francis de Sales

“Since the heart is the source of actions, as the heart is, so they are. … I have wished above all else to engrave and inscribe on your heart this holy, sacred maxim, LIVE JESUS!” — St. Francis de Sales

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St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal by Valentin Metzinger, Wikimedia Commons

From the outset, let me say I am no expert, nor even a novice, in the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. I’ve read just enough to be dangerous now. I was confirmed as a twenty-something husband and father of two, taking the name of St. Francis as the patron saint of journalist and writers. I knew a bit about the man, and almost nothing about his teachings.

Several years later I read probably his most famous book, An Introduction to the Devout Life, which is a practical guide for lay people pursuing holiness, whatever their state or station. I remember it being thorough, simple, solid, and encouraging. Under his direction, sanctity seemed challenging but achievable.

Then a couple years ago, I discovered a book in library at Demontreville while making a silent retreat: Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction. I barely scratched the surface of the lengthy introduction during our down time at the retreat, but I knew I needed to read it. I tracked down a copy on eBay, and over the past few weeks, finally finished the the introduction and began to read the letters themselves. The more I learn about the approach of the “Gentle Doctor” to prayer and holiness, the more I see God’s providence in my choice of patron. Continue reading

All Is Gift

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I wanted to tell you yesterday all the things I’m grateful for this year. I rose at 4 a.m. to stretch, pray, and write—but the Bearded Wonder (my eldest son Brendan) is home from college and rose at 4:30. We sat in flickering candlelight and visited for a couple hours, until Jodi got up to start the turkey. Then I left her and her boy alone and greeted the dawn with Bruno. Our walk was unusually peaceful: silent except for the whine of the distant freeway; we saw a total of four cars, a jogger, and a neighbor with the same idea: walking his dog in the quiet of the new day.

The rest of the household was stirring when we returned home, and the rest of the morning was spent going to Mass (the Feast before the feast) and preparing for dinner. We cooked, we ate, we watched the Lions get trounced by the Vikings. (Sorry, fellow Lions fans: to me, the game didn’t feel close.) My folks were supposed to be here, but Mom got sick and they returned home—we arranged for a friend to bring them Thanksgiving dinner, and enjoyed a beautiful, grateful phone call with them in the early afternoon.  We laughed and listened to music; we napped, walked Bruno again, and ate pie.

And yet, when evening fell, I felt unsettled. The one thing I hadn’t done was write. So while the family played games in the dining room, I attempted to journal. Instead I listened to Jodi and the kids joking, arguing, and laughing together. After a while, Brendan stepped away from the games and took up the mandolin, picking and strumming snippets of songs we knew. I closed my journal and vowed to write this morning.

* * * * *

Today Brendan turns twenty. I rose again at four, acutely aware that I have now been a father for two decades—nearly half my life to date!—and unsure about what that means for me. I went downstairs to let Bruno out; stepped into the cold, black morning, and breathed in the clean air. I need to write, I thought.

About what? About all of this.

I brought Bruno back in and shuffled into the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror to see myself. At 4 a.m., I look lived in: a little worn and disheveled, sagging here and there, but comfortable and still functional. I leaned in closer to peer into my own eyes—windows to the soul, they say—and in an instant, they filled with unexpected tears.

Gifts. All of it—my bride in our bed, our beautiful offspring, the pup downstairs. Our aging suburban split-level. The still unfinished tree house out back. All gifts.

I am working harder these days for less money, and yet I feel better—freer—than I have in years. Gift. We have friends who never get sick of our company, family who love us, and a great God in Heaven who keeps the very rhythm of our hearts in time with His own. All gifts.

The tears brimmed but didn’t fall; my chest swelled but didn’t burst. Sure signs that I have not yet fully grasped the magnitude of my situation: the all-powerful and ever-present Creator of the universe is making room enough in me so He can dwell there. The One who is Love is carving a God-size hole in me, chipping away, flake by flake, at my stony heart.

* * * * *

With all the many gifts I enjoy in this life, perhaps the thing I am most grateful for this year is perspective. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Look around you. Have you seen this place?

Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? — Job 38:4-7

We are so very blessed and have done nothing to deserve it. Sure, we’re good people, as far as that goes. But lots of good people suffer, and a fair number of not-so-good people seem to thrive. I cannot earn these blessings or somehow make them happen—I cannot avoid illness, accident, or tragedy—any more than I can make Brendan’s beard grow. I can only look on with wonder and thanksgiving, and join my song to Mary’s: The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name!