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!

God’s Love Is Mercy

“Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God.”
– Jesus to St. Faustina
Devotion to Divine Mercy is not every Catholic’s thing. Some people struggle with the image of Divine Mercy: Jesus, His right hand raised to bless and heal, His left indicating his heart, from which rays of red and white, symbolizing blood and water, pour forth as a fountain of mercy for souls. Every version I’ve seen has been a bit mysterious and unsettling—which seems appropriate, given that it’s a vision of the resurrected Christ.
Some don’t like the chaplet, which is simpler and more repetitious than the rosary. Some consider the visions of a poor Polish nun to be private revelations: fine for her, but not necessary for us (even though she is a saint and was canonized by another saint).
And some struggle with the emphasis on God’s mercy, seemingly at the expense of His justice or even over His love. At first blush, saying that “mercy is God’s greatest attribute” (Diary of St. Faustina, 300) appears to downplay the seriousness of sin and the need for repentance. It suggests—much to the comfort of some sinners—that God will invariably forego His justice. It seems presumptuous.
But let’s think about what love, justice, and mercy actually are. Love, we are told, is willing the good of another regardless of the cost to yourself. Justice is giving another what is due. Mercy is often regarded as a bridge between these two: sparing someone just punishment for his or her benefit.
Because God is infinitely good, justice requires complete goodness from us in return. That is God’s due. But we are all sinners, and even the smallest sin stands in stark contrast to God’s infinite goodness—a grave injustice toward One who loves us perfectly.
What is our due as a result of this? Condemnation. We ought to suffer, not out of retribution, but as the natural consequence of our sins.
So God’s mercy does not deny the reality of sin or the need for repentance. Instead, it depends on these things. Without the grave reality of sin and the suffering that justly results from it, we would have no need of mercy. God’s mercy exists because of sin. There is no other reason.
But how can God be perfectly loving, perfectly just, and perfectly merciful—all at the same time? And how can mercy be God’s greatest attribute, when Scripture tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8)?
Look at it this way:
  • If God is love, then His very nature is to will our good, whatever the cost to Himself.
  • What is our good? Ultimately, it’s the end for which we were made: union with Him.
  • What is the cost to Himself? He sacrifices His claim against us for sinning against Him—He shows us mercy.

By doing this, it appears that God abandons justice in favor of love. But how can He do this, if He is perfectly just? Doesn’t sin demand punishment?

Yes, sin demands punishment. But with so much sin against so perfect a God, who could possibly bear it? Who, except God Himself?

So He becomes flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, living, suffering, and dying for us—willing the good of each of us at whatever cost to Himself. God’s perfect justice demands a perfect price be paid, so He pays it Himself. His love is mercy.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God loves us to death. All that remains for us is to return the favor.

Who Is This Mary?

When Brendan came home from college for Easter, one of the first things I noticed was a coarse metal chain around his wrist. It is a sign and reminder of Marian consecration, a total gift of self to God through Mary—a symbol of slavery, but of a good and holy kind—which says he is devoted to doing God’s will in the most perfect way he can, and that he is following his Blessed Mother’s lead in this.

Our local church has undertaken a parish-wide push for Marian consecration this month, using a 33-day self-guided mini-retreat published by Fr. Michael Gaitley as the book 33 Days to Morning Glory. Jodi, Gabe, Emma, Trevor, and I have undertaken this journey together, in hopes that we, too, will be chained to our Lady in mid-May.

The daily readings in this book are short, but thought-provoking, helping us to better understand why Catholics so venerate and so often turn to the Virgin Mary. What struck me this morning is this question: If Mary was sinless, married to a saintly carpenter, and raising a sinless Son, how is it that she was not known better in her day? I know how drawn I am to certain families in our community—families that strive for holiness even as they struggle with all the typical family dysfunction. How is it that Mary and the Holy Family didn’t have a constant throng of people at the door?

Several answers come to mind. First of all, perhaps people did flock to the house in Nazareth, but in the same way we do today. Perhaps they were exactly the sort of family that neighbors were drawn to: mothers confiding with Mary during play dates and nap time, men seeking Joseph’s advice as he worked in his wood shop, parents nudging their children to get to know Jesus because He seemed like a nice boy. Perhaps people realized they were an exceptional family, just not the Holy Family.

But how could they not have seen it?

Well, Mary’s perfect humility comes to mind. I tend to want recognition when I do good work or suffer in some way. Mary, I imagine, would have drawn no attention to herself, and even moreso than our other saints (who were, in fact, sinners), she would have downplayed any recognition she received as due to God and not herself.

And finally, we sinners have a tendency to project our weaknesses onto those around us. No doubt there were those around the Holy Family and Mary who thought they couldn’t possibly be as good as they appeared. The movie The Nativity Story does a great job of illustrating the effect of Mary’s unplanned pregnancy on people’s perception of her, culminating in people scowling from their doorways as Mary and Joseph begin their journey to Bethlehem. (They can feel the eyes upon them, and Joseph jokes to Mary: “They’re going to miss us!”)

Then it occurred to me that these three thoughts might characterize our response to Mary today, as well. We may turn to her as a friend and confidant, or even as a mother, without truly considering her virtue, her proximity to God, her influence as Queen of heaven and earth—without regard for her role as the model and mold of discipleship and humanity. We might not recognize her as powerful, the new Eve and the saint closest to her Son in all respects, because all of this results from a simple, humble yes: complete obedience and submission to God. And we may simply not think she’s “all that”—however good she may be, she’s not God, so why should we let her stand in between us and the Source of life, holiness, and joy?

My answer to this last question is simple: I know how often I’ve lost God, sought Him alone, and failed to find or reach Him. I know I need help. Who better to turn to than the creature like me who loved God best and followed Him perfectly?

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.

Poured Out In Love

 

Each year during Lent, the Church focuses more intentionally on the Passion and Death of Jesus. How strange it seems that, during the very season we are trying to examine our lives and conform ourselves to Christ, we are also focused on Jesus at His lowest: beaten, humiliated, tortured. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that, to be His disciples, we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Him—but surely we can stop short of whips and spears, thorns and nails, can’t we?

We are each a unique image of God, and each called to follow Christ in a unique way: to pour ourselves out in love for those around us. Most of us won’t be called to martyrdom in the bold and bloody sense—though some of us may. Most of us won’t be called to leave behind family and friends for foreign missions or cloistered religion life— but, God willing, some of us will.
 
Instead, most of us will be called to holiness in the context of ordinary, everyday lives: working, raising a family, pitching in where we can. This may seem easier than facing blades or beasts in the Coliseum, but I’m convinced it’s not. St. Josemaria Escriva warns us, “Many who would willingly let themselves be nailed to a Cross before the astonished gaze of a thousand onlookers cannot bear with a Christian spirit the pinpricks of each day! Think, then, which is the more heroic.”
 
To make a once-for-all choice for Christ, in the heat of the moment, facing certain death and eternal glory, seems downright doable compared to 70, 80, 90 years of making a million moment-by-moment choices to love the person in front of us, in every circumstance. Daily discipleship is difficult—and it’s made more difficult when we attempt to carry crosses we were never meant to bear.
 

Think about it: Each of us is called to be a disciple, and each disciple is called to pick up his or her cross and follow Christ. But since many people choose not to be disciples, we have a lot of crosses lying around, waiting for someone to drag them away. All these crosses can make it difficult to discern which is ours. They can cause us to stumble and fall. They can cause us to neglect our own cross in a misguided effort to clear the path.  But if we take the time to identify our own cross—the one God made precisely for our particular strengths and weaknesses—and if we shoulder it and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who walks the path ahead of us, He will show us the way.

This, at last, is discipleship: Not to drive ourselves into the ground trying to do everything for everyone, but to ask God what He wants from us, to listen for the answer, and to resolve to do exactly that—to embrace the cross the Carpenter has crafted with each of us in mind, and leave the others.


Imagine a parish of such disciples, all doing exactly what God has asked of them—no more, no less—and all moving the same direction, pouring themselves out in love on a world that desperately needs it.
 
Such a parish would change the world, because unlike time and energy, love never runs out.