Book Break: Hope Is the Last to Die

In 2016, I was blessed to travel with my son Gabe and STMA Catholic Youth Ministry to World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland. Southern Poland is a wonderful place for a Catholic pilgrimage; so many ancient and modern saints lived and died in so small a region that every day it seemed we visited another sacred site in another blessed city. The big three, of course, were 20th century saints: St. John Paul II, St. Faustina Kowalska, and St. Maximilian Kolbe.

In the case of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we were blessed to visit his religious community at Niepokalanów as well as the concentration camp where he gave his life at Oswiecim (Auschwitz). I say blessed truly, but not in the typical sense of the word. On a sunny summer day, Auschwitz is still and green and peaceful as an cemetery, but still more somber and hushed; the fences, ruins, and the dreadful sign above the gate, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Free You), bear silent witness to the cruelty of which humanity is capable.

As we left the camp, we passed a small booth selling items commemorating the place—most prominently, a book entitled Hope Is the Last to Die by Halina Birenbaum. Born Halina Grynsztajn to a Jewish family in Warsaw, she survived the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi occupation, followed by four prison camps in succession:  Majdanek and Auschwitz in Poland, and Ravensbrück, and Neustadt-Glewe in Germany.

I bought the book, as the most appropriate way to recall the place and what happened there. I finally found the courage to read it this Lent.

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Perfection Reconsidered

This post appeared as a column in the Sunday, March 20, 2022, issue of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin.

Last Saturday, my bride and I went to morning Mass together. In the gospel, Jesus admonishes His disciples, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

I’ve always taken this to be a tall order—impossible, in fact, for anyone but God alone. It almost always makes me feel small, weak, and inadequate to the task. These feelings may be true, but do not seem particularly helpful when it comes to striving for sainthood.

But Father Joe tweaked my thinking with his homily Saturday morning.

“Notice,” he said, “that the Lord doesn’t say, ‘Do everything perfectly,’ but ‘Be perfect.’”

He went on to explain that, with our fallen nature, we cannot expect never to make mistakes—but that we should do the best we can in every circumstance, striving to love as God loves.

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What ‘God Is Love’ Looks Like

I’ve been thinking lately about what is means to say that God is love. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, “Love is willing the good of the other as other.” If God is love, then God’s very nature is to will the good of each of us, at all times and eternally. A couple weeks ago, the story of the hemorrhaging woman from St. Mark’s gospel struck me as a profound illustration of what this looks like in our world.

You’ve heard the story: Jesus is traveling with a large crowd of people to the home of Jairus, whose daughter is dying. With the crowd pressing from all sides, a woman suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years approaches Him from behind, with profound faith in who Jesus is and a deep hope that if she can just touch His cloak, she will be cured.

She succeeds in touching Him and is instantly healed.

Mark 5:30 tells us, “Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out from him, turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who has touched my clothes?’” Unlike other gospel healings, there was no initial conversation between Jesus and the woman before the miracle takes place. So did she somehow heal herself by tapping into His power while He wasn’t looking? Of course not—the God of the Universe is not commanded or controlled by His creatures.

So what happened here?

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A New Christmas Poem

I have a story in my head, of an old shepherd minding the camp while the younger men take the herds out to graze. At first I thought to tell the whole story in verse, but that proved to be too much. Then I began to write the story, with little bits of verse by the old shepherd, interspersed throughout. That also proved too much to finish by today. But the bits of verse hung together fairly well, so I polished them up a bit this morning. The story will come as I have time.

The Shepherd’s Rhyme

by Jim Thorp

O fallen are the souls of men and death the sinner’s doom

And who but you, O Lord of all, can make the desert bloom?

And who but you, O Lord of hosts, can split a winter’s night

To flood the weary world below with wonder, warmth, and light?

The heart, a stony seed within; a man, the dusty ground

And who but you, Creator blest, can make new life abound?

And who but you, O Lord above, our sunshine and our rain,

Can soak and swell a shrivelled soul and make it sprout again?

The crocus blooms, the rocks rejoice, the dry rills run with water

The heavens ring: A king! A king! is born to virgin daughter!

c.f. Isaiah 35

Don’t Let Your Limp Become Your Crutch

A few weeks back, I had a conversation with my sister Jill. Among other things, we talked about my distance from our folks in Michigan. I must have confessed my insecurity around being a good son and a good brother, and Jill called me on it. She told me she had heard me say that before and shared that while it may be true, I should be careful about repeating it too often, because we can’t progress if we stay tied to past problems, behaviors, sins, or weaknesses.

My mind has returned to the conversation numerous times since, and I believe she is right. My limp was becoming my crutch.

Let me say that again: My limp (insecurity, a problem I have that I struggle with) was becoming my crutch (something I lean on to help me excuse bad habits and get through the day).

Several years ago, when my spiritual director said I was insecure, I bristled immediately—a pretty sure sign. He warned me at the time that it would continue to surface, and that the important thing would be to acknowledge it and move on.

Somewhere along the way I forgot to move on. Instead, I lean into the limp: Instead of struggling against the insecurity, I resign myself to being insecure.

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