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!

The Catechism is not just a thorough compilation of Catholic faith and teachings for the reference of the faithful. It is also, and more importantly, a beautiful articulation of God’s revealed plan of salvation of all mankind through the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the ongoing mission of the Church— the new Body of Christ on Earth, breathed into being by the Holy Spirit, of which we are the eyes and ears, hands and feet.

  • The first pillar, The Profession of Faith, communicates what we believe: the story and plan of salvation and the teachings of the Apostles.
  • The second pillar, The Celebration of the Christian Mystery, communicates how we come to believe it: the ways in which God continues to enter into our world and lives in a real and profound way, through the sacraments, in order to save us.
  • The third pillar, Life In Christ, communicates how we live as believers: the ways in which our actions and motivations are brought into conformity with God’s will and contribute to sharing His love and building His kingdom.
  • The fourth pillar, Christian Prayer, communicates how we enter into God’s own life—“no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20)—even now, in this mortal state and fallen world.

Reading the Catechism, you can learn a great deal about God and His Church, but praying with it, you are called to conversion and conformity of heart: life with and in God. The phrases that come to mind are duc in altum, by which St. John Paul II calls us to put out into the deep, and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassatti’s  verso l’alto, calling us to the heights. We are summoned both deeper and higher, both into our hearts and outside of ourselves, in keeping with a God in Whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27), but Who also dwells within each of us, as in the tabernacle.

I admit I was surprised by the spiritual growth that has taken place during the past two years of the Catechetical Institute. Completing the pillar on prayer during the final days of Lent was, for me, a source of profound encouragement to embrace the already of God’s plan for salvation, which our instructors have so often described as “already, but not yet.” I often struggle with the virtue of hope—with trusting that God is indeed on my side, desiring my soul and actively loving and saving me. But this Good Friday evening, as my bride, my teens and I watched The Passion of the Christ together, Jesus’ words from the cross—“It is accomplished”— struck me in a new way. Jesus is not simply speaking of His personal suffering, His earthly life or His mission of salvation. He is speaking of my redemption—and unlike his disciples that first Holy Saturday, I know the end of the story: the empty tomb and risen Lord. My Holy Saturday was spent with a smile on my face and “O, how He loves us!” in my head. How could it be helped? I am coming to terms with a God who loves me personally, without question, without reason except that I am His. And that understanding is freeing.

Where do I go from here? Wherever He leads. I have a job in the Church that is bearing fruit. I have writing to do, and opportunities to evangelize families in new ways in the coming months. I desire to find ways to more actively serve those in need, and diaconate discernment may also be on the horizon.

O Lord, you have revealed the great love and mercy you have for me personally, which is a source of great hope and trust in You. Keep me each day as close to your heart as I am in this moment. Make my heart like yours, that I may love as you love. Open my heart to your will, and give me the courage to carry it out without fail. May I follow you, only and always. Amen.

Journey to the Heart: A Timeline

One of the obstacles to sharing this roundabout path to the Sacred Heart with you is that in many cases it is only visible in retrospect. The sequence is hazy at this point, even to me. So I’m going to start with a timeline, which will hopefully serve as an outline for the sequence of posts to come. Though I may not write them chronologically, we ought to be able to plug them into the timeline in the end.

Part of the reason for doing this exercise at all is that every so often someone hears me say something like, “God has me here for a reason,”  “God told me such-and such,” or “God is leading me toward X,” and asks me what that means. God doesn’t speak to me audibly, but He opens some doors—in my heart, in others, and in the world—and closes others. This timeline and sequence will hopefully show what I mean.

We begin nearly two years ago… Continue reading

‘You Wicked Servant’

Yesterday’s gospel reading was Matthew 18:21-35, in which Peter asks Jesus how often he must forgive his brother. “As many as seven times?” he says naively, thinking that would be plenty.

Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants…”

Thus begins the parable of the wicked servant, in which the Lord lays out in stark terms our duty to forgive.

You probably remember the story: The king calls to account a servant who owes him a huge amount of money. Since the servant has no way of repaying it, the king plans to sell him, his family, and all his belongings.  But the servant begs for mercy, promising to repay the debt in time. And the king relents—not only does he decide not to sell the servant and all he has, but he forgives the loan altogether in response to the servant’s humble plea.

The first servant then seeks out another servant who owes him money and seizes and chokes him, demanding immediate repayment. The wrath of his master is immediate and severe: The first servant is handed over to the torturers until he repays his entire debt to the king.

Consider for a moment the fact that we’ve already been told the servant had no way of paying back the money. How, then, will he ever escape the torturers?

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Living Lent as a Family

Blogger’s Note: This post originally written for and published in the February 2018 edition of the St. Michael Catholic Church stewardship newsletter.

Most of us don’t actively seek out sacrifice or suffering, and Lent is a season that encourages both: We give up meat on Fridays; we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; we are called to pray and give alms. Jodi and I spent this past Epiphany with some dear friends and discussed how our families approach Lent. Below are several of the best ideas shared that afternoon—may they spark new Lenten traditions in your own family!

Preparing for Lent

In the weeks leading up to Lent, spend time with your spouse and each of your children discussing how each of you are doing emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually. This can help you assess where you need to prune and where you need to grow. Ask: What brings me joy? What makes me anxious or upset? What’s going well, and what do I wish was going better?

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Book Break: Manalive

“Madness does not come by breaking out, but by giving in; by settling down in some dirty, little, self-repeating circle of ideas; by being tamed.” 

– G.K. Chesterton

I’ve quit believing in coincidence. When seemingly random events culminate in a meaningful way, providence is my line now. Such was the case when I was searching the Great River Regional Library website for an audiobook to accompany me to and from Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend. I searched for several titles by name, and several topics by keyword, to little avail. Then I stumbled across an audio version of G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive, narrated by athiest-turned-Catholic and Theater of the Word founder and actor Kevin O’Brien.

I didn’t know what the story was about. That it was Chesterton told me it should be good — but as I’ve said before, Chesterton can be too clever by half at times, and I’d never tried his fiction before. I put in a request for this book and for Mark Twain’s biography of St. Joan of Arc, and Manalive arrived first.

I hesitate to say too much. It is the story of an apparent madman or idiot who invades a British boarding house and turns the humdrum lives of the inhabitants upside down. Ultimately, he is accused of insanity, theft, polygamy, and murder  but how can a man as wicked as that make others feel so alive for the first time in years?

On the other hand, why would such a joyful simpleton  a holy fool  carry a revolver among his holiday luggage and playthings? Our protagonist has a mission, which sounds ominous and, indeed, mad: “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him – only to bring him to life.”

Like Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, which I reread over Holy Week, the book portrays a man who had dedicated himself to a worldview that the world has little use for and who pursues it at whatever cost. As a result, he makes us think about our own worldview and priorities. Manalive is chock full of great Chesterton quotes and paradoxes and memorable characters made moreso by O’Brien’s theatrical reading, voicing each of the characters as clearly as if he were several people himself.

By way of criticism: The work does wax poetic at times – particularly the introductory chapter – and at all times Chesterton’s presence is felt in the thoughts, wit, and turn of phrase of the characters. I would also be remiss in not pointing out Chesterton’s use of racial and ethnic stereotypes and language, particularly in drawing the character of  Moses Gould. In the context of this story, it was unsettling, but it struck me more as a product of his time than of strong personal animus. As to his actual views of minorities, I need to read more.

By way of endorsement: I listened to it start to finish on the way to Michigan, again on the way home from Michigan, and yet again on the trip back from Florida with Rose and Trev. It has climbed to the upper heights of my list of favorite stories — and if you want a fictitious explanation for why I’m leaving a good job at the church for a nebulous next step involving writing, this is it. I could not have stumbled across a better novel to bolster and encourage me in this time of transition.

That, friends, is providence.