Able-Bodied

good-friday-2264164_1920Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:27

Over the past three years I’ve been blessed to serve as faith formation director for our parish and to write a monthly column in our church bulletin. I’ve tried in that time to urge us all to discipleship: to cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus every day, listening and responding to what he asks of us, seeking the lost and leading them to heaven.

It’s a big job, to be sure, but we are not alone. We are one body, with Christ as our head. Through the Apostles, the bishops, our priests, and our baptism, His mission of saving souls has been given to each of us. Individually we are ill-suited to the task of redeeming the world, but together?

Together we are unstoppable.

We are strong. Twenty-two hundred families strong. We have the strength of the first-time mother bearing life big and round as the world beneath her heart and lungs; the bleary-eye father who sleeps little and talks less, but drinks coffee in the predawn darkness and heads to a job he tolerates for the family he loves. We are strong with the prayers of our elders in faith: paper-skinned ladies and shuffling old men, praying through the pain of fallen children and failing health and busted systems and a broken world. We are strong with Mass-going, Jesus-adoring teens and noisy children climbing over pews and running in the aisles and generally treating God’s House as their own—praise Him for that misperception! We are strong with the sacraments: with Sundays made long by baptisms, and solemn Eucharistic liturgies, and too many confessions for our number of priests.

We have the strength of history: a growing Catholic school and three Catholic churches before this one, each bigger than the one before, yielding vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

We are able-bodied, because we are His body: hardened by work and walking together, strengthened by prayer and fasting, fearless and capable, even unto death.

We are that Person. Do you see Him in us? I do.

Too often, however, we fall short. We struggle to find new volunteers and exhaust those we have. We do what’s immediate or comfortable for ourselves, out of guilt or necessity, without asking what God wants of us. We each pull our own direction, and the tension holds our parish suspended, neither falling behind nor surging ahead.

Imagine what we could achieve if each part of the Body—each organ, muscle, bone, and cell—found his or her purpose and did just exactly that one thing, to the best of his or her ability. Imagine that Body, with Christ’s head guiding, Christ’s blood coursing through, Christ’s own flesh sustaining. Imagine that Body, working wonders in the world.

Together we are unstoppable. What’s stopping us?

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.

Dante, or Three Things to Love About the Divine Comedy

Blogger’s Note: Several years ago, I agreed to my friend Jacqui’s challenge to read 15 Classics in 15 Weeks. I continue to press forward, this being number 13 of 15, and at this point 15 Classics in 15 Years seems quite doable…

Late last week I finished reading Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in its entirety for the first time. I had read excerpts for different classes over the years, and have read a little about the great work. The book itself was something of a pilgrimage through hell, purgatory, and heaven. This is my least favorite of the thirteen classics I’ve read so far as part of this challenge, and was tough sledding at times. Nevertheless, I do agree that this is a great literary work and worth the effort to complete at least once.

Without further ado, Three Things to Love about Dante’s Divine Comedy:

  • The Ambition. Dante the poet takes us on a journey through the Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradisio (Heaven) with Dante the Pilgrim in order that the fictional Dante may change his ways and be saved. Each of these three journeys are told in verse, thirty-three cantos each, with each canto approximately 140 to 150 lines long. Along the way he meets ancient and more recent historical figures, who comment and prophesy on the political and religious turmoil of Dante’s time and place, along with sharing their own experience in the world and in the afterlife. The running commentary on the political machinations and rivalries in Dante’s home was the least interesting aspect of the book for me, but it is nonetheless impressive how much he weaves into this ambitious work.
  • The Creativity. The denizens of Hell and Purgatory, in particular, suffer in hundreds of ways peculiar to their specific sins and attachments. Dante’s Hell is hellish, disgusting and terrifying at times, culminating in an immense figure of Satan, not surrounded by flame, but eternally frozen in ice, suffering for his own sins. The journey through Purgatory is hopeful, but not easy, as imperfect souls labor to let go of those earthly things that weigh them down. Heaven, to me, was actually the least interesting of the three, in part due to the poet’s continued insistence that the beauty of the place was beyond his words and ability — but persevering to the end, to full union with God in the beatific vision, has its rewards. The last few cantos are lovely.
  • The Deep Belief. This, to me, is the greatest aspect of Dante’s masterpiece: the depth of theology, of faith, of true belief. Dante believes in the reality of Hell, and he puts people he loved in this world in that place of torment because of their sins. He peoples his poems with friends, contemporaries, nobles, and popes, explaining how and why each fell or rose, and when Dante the Pilgrim is asked to testify to his own faith, the lines resonate as the poet’s own sincere profession. Who knows how accurate a portrayal of the afterlife these poems are, but Dante gives us much to contemplate as we navigate this world.

I have begun number fourteen of fifteen classics, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with that great opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is a long book, but engaging— I hope to be done within the month!

Summer School

Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest,to labor and not to ask for reward, save that of knowing that I do your will. 
– St. Ignatius of Loyola

This has been the shortest summer of my life.

I realize that speaking about summer in the past tense is part of my problem. But this summer, in particular, has emphasized how brief our time in this world actually is.

It has been a summer of firsts and lasts. Our first child graduated high school, so after his last wrestling banquet, prom, and awards night (and his first trip to the doctor for stitches), we attended our first graduation and registered for classes at the University of Mary for the first time. My own age doesn’t bother me much, but Brendan’s does—I can’t figure out how he could be leaving for college when I’m only just out of college myself.

June and July were relentless, planning and preparing for events at church and on the home front. On July 23, Gabe and I left for Poland with a group from three area parishes to join 2.2 million other pilgrims in Kraków for World Youth Day. It was a beautiful, faith-filled, overcrowded, and exhausting trip, packed with numerous graces and more than a few trials. We returned on Wednesday, August 3, to a house full of guests getting ready for Brendan’s grad party/college send-off on Saturday. On Sunday Jodi and I had our marriage blessed with a number of friends unknown to us when we got hitched 20 years ago, then went home to clean up from the party before Vacation Bible School, which started Monday.

Finally, on Thursday of VBS week, I left with Brendan for the Jesuit Retreat House in Demontreville. After the noise and chaos of the previous few weeks, three days of silence and reflection alongside my soon-to-be college-bound son seemed just what I needed.

On Thursday night, one of the priests advised us to pray specifically for whatever grace we hoped to gain from the retreat. Here I made a mistake: I had been anticipating rest and recuperation, but in that moment, my soul blurted out, “Intimacy with you, Jesus—I want to be close to you!”

I went to bed Thursday night expecting to sleep soundly and long for the first time in weeks. Instead I tossed and turned and woke multiple times, stiff and store and thirsty. In the wee hours of the morning, as the sky began to pale, a single verse from the Gospel of Matthew took root in my head: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Matthew 8:20).

My eyes opened. I had prayed for intimacy with Christ and had been given the smallest taste: I was lying awake, exhausted, aching, and alone, with no one to talk with but my God. I prayed. I gave thanks for this new perspective. I slept peacefully, if briefly, until the sun rose.

This lesson—that intimacy with Jesus brings both suffering and peace—is not particularly profound, but it is important. Like a child, I had desired the benefits of heaven and God’s love without considering deeply what might be required of me. I think we do this often. Heaven sounds great if admission is free.

The retreat master offered another lesson, throughout the weekend. He told us to remember that the Holy Spirit is the Consoler: God does not motivate through discouragement, but encouragement. He wants us to take heart, not lose heart—and if He gives us a rock, it’s to build, not to bloody ourselves. Whether we seek intimacy with Jesus or not, things will change, people will come and go, time will fly, death will come. But with Christ, we can take heart: He has walked this road before, and it leads home.

O Jesus, our life here is short, and we cannot save time, but only spend it. Help me not to hoard the blessings I’ve been given, but to share them, and to pour myself out completely in union with you. Amen.

These Least Brothers of Mine…

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? — James 2:1-4 

Last night Jodi, Brendan, and I joined a friends of Brendan’s and his parents at Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis to celebrate their senior year, their acceptance into the college(s) of their choice, and a backlog of birthdays. Fogo is a carnivore’s paradise, with such an abundance and variety of fire-roasted meats that I kept thinking of Scripture’s forgiving father ordering the slaughter of the fatted calf to celebrate the prodigal son’s return. Server after server stopped by our table with skewer after skewer of beef, pork, chicken, and lamb, carving portions for us until we flipped our green coasters to red to signal, “No mas!” (or “não mais,” I supposed, in Portuguese).

We had a great time with the boys, and ate a delicious meal the likes of which we are unlikely to enjoy again any time soon, given the price. All the way home, however, and all through last night and today, I’ve been haunted by a man I do not know. I saw him only in passing as we looked for a place to park, but the impression he made is indelible.

We drove past the restaurant on Hennepin, and three or four blocks up, turned left to loop around and look for parking garage. As Jodi turned the corner, I saw what I thought was a youth seated on a skateboard, leaning against a building. As we drew nearer and went past, I beheld a man. In those brief seconds as we passed, this is how he appeared to me.

Ecce homo: Click to view full-size sketch.

He was legless, in a grubby t-shirt and dark pants cut short and sewn shut or folded under. His face was of no obvious age, but worn and creased with hard living, and his thin hair stood up in patches from his scalp. I saw that his left hand was on the sidewalk to stabilize and propel himself. His other arm was raised as though gesturing — it ended abruptly in a rounded, red stump several inches short of where his right hand should be.

Brendan saw him, too. We discussed briefly how hard it must be to live in the city, presumably on the streets, in such a condition. Then, determined not to spoil the boys’ celebration, I dropped the subject. We turned left again, backtracked a few blocks, parked, and went in to feast.

As we ate, surrounded by such abundance, I thought of him. As we paid for our decadent meal, I thought of him. As we left Minneapolis in a rush of cars, under the yellow glare of a thousand street lights, I thought of him.

Today it occurred to me that maybe some sense of injustice over the pleasures we enjoyed at dinner exaggerated his state in my memory — but I believe that was the Devil trying to lull me back to complacency. When I showed the sketch above to Brendan, he said it’s what he recalls, too. A few moments on Google turned up this brief newspaper article: apparently he’s been downtown at least since this spring.

Perhaps he is a homeless vet our country has forgotten. Perhaps he is a junkie. Regardless, no man deserves to live with their last good limb pressed to pavement, unable to see above the hoods of the stopped cars as he crosses the busy streets. How will he stand to move about the city in winter, when the salt and road grime stings his fingers and the wind bites his cheeks? Does he take the bus? Who helps him get aboard? How does he keep his skateboard with him, use the restroom, avoid those who would cause him harm? How will he survive?

Had we been walking past, not driving, I’m not sure what I would have done for him. How could I have helped? Given money? To what end? Traded shirts with him? Perhaps, on the feast day of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, I would have stopped, hunkered down, and acknowledged him, eye to eye, man to man.

Or perhaps I would have avoided eye contact and kept walking, then muttered a guilt-ridden Hail Mary under my breath.

On the way to church this morning, I urged the kids to try offing the Mass for someone in particular, to see if that helped them focus their prayers and remain present the entire time. I committed myself to offering the Mass for this man, whom we drove past and may never see again, but who has cracked my stony heart. I had not previewed the readings for this Sunday; now that I’ve heard them, I am convinced the Lord is working on me. While it is not sinful to enjoy in moderation the pleasures of earthly life — food and drink and friendship — we must not be blind or unkind to those who seem unlovable. If we prefer the company of others to the company of those in need, we fail to follow Christ.

Lord Jesus Christ, you teach us, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Help me, Lord, to hear the cries of the poor and to show kindness and mercy in word and deed. Forgive those times I have failed to love those you love, and strengthen me to do the hard work of charity among these “least brothers” of yours. Help me to step outside my comfort zone and serve and comfort them in prayer, word, and deed. Amen.

Blessed Mother Teresa, pray for us.