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.

‘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?

Book Break: How to Be Holy

How-to-Be-HolyA few weeks ago, my spiritual director did something he’ s never done before: He directed me to read a book. This was not a casual suggestion. He said, “I want you to read it cover-to-cover as soon as possible, so if you are reading something else right now, stop.”

The book was Peter Kreeft’s How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint, which is the popular Catholic writer and philosopher’s take on (“festooning of”) a spiritual classic, Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence. I have not read the latter, but have read just enough Kreeft to know to expect a relatively quick read, light in tone, punny in humor, and practical in content. Continue reading

The Phantom Cross

A little more than a week ago, we dropped our second son Gabe off at the NET Center in St. Paul to begin training for nine months of drawing young people to Christ as a NET Ministries missionary. Then yesterday we dropped our eldest, Brendan, off for his third and final year at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.

As we sped east on I-94 last night, Jodi reflected that we hadn’t taken a photo of Bren as we dropped him off this year. The first year we took several. Last year I snapped one of Brendan and his roommate Nick for Jodi, since she couldn’t be there when I dropped him off. This time we were both there, and it was clearer than ever that our adult son has another beautiful life, mostly hidden from us. This was revealed during a brief stop  at his girlfriend Becky’s home in Moorehead for introductions and delicious, homemade double-chocolate-chip-and-almond scones on the way to UMary, by the laughter and embraces upon his arrival on campus, the excitement and shouted greetings from hallways and upstairs windows, the verbal and non-verbal shorthand between our son and his friends. He belongs there as much as in our home, and we were so subconsciously aware of this that dropping him off and driving away seemed almost natural.

It was not precisely so when we dropped off Gabe. I’ve reflected briefly on the difference when we celebrated his grad party earlier this summer: When we took Bren to Bismarck the first time, the sensation was like a long, taut line from me to him—I could not see him, but I could feel him and was acutely aware of his presence six hours to the west. But Gabe was dropped off just down the road in St. Paul, at a place he has been before. Currently he is at a camp somewhere in the woods, praying and team-building and training like countless times previously. From this perspective, this feels like no big deal—Gabe is doing youth ministry as he has for years now.

On the other hand, this time he is not coming home until Christmas and will be gone again until spring. And if he is chosen for a traveling team, as he hopes, he won’t be in any one place, but will live out of a suitcase, a van and a trailer, staying in strange homes in strange cities. Continue reading

Marriage as Covenant, Church as Marriage

Today is the twenty-second anniversary of our marriage. It has been, and continues to be, a crazy-busy, head-spinning, gut-wrenching week, so we’ve agreed to postpone our celebration until sometime late next week or the following week. It’s an important day, but also no big deal. We’re in it for the long haul.

Not long ago, one of my dear spiritual daughters asked me: If it is natural for people to grow out of some friendships over time, what about marriages? I told her that it’s natural that certain feelings toward your spouse might change over time, like they do toward anyone else. The difference is that married love is not friendship.

Love is choosing the good of another regardless of the cost to yourself. Marriage is a lifelong commitment to love one person above all others save God. Love is an act of the will. Married love is an act of the will—a choice you make, as best you can, for the good of another—every moment of every day for the rest of your life.

In this light, married couples might grow out of friendly feelings, but must not grow out of love for each other. Continue reading