Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Strength of a Woman

"The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way -- precisely by reason of their femininity -- and this in a particular way determines their vocation....
"A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting, strong because of the fact that God 'entrusts the human being to her,' always and in every way, even in the situations of social discrimination in which she may find herself. This awareness and this fundamental vocation speak to women of the dignity which they receive from God himself, and this makes them 'strong' and strengthens their vocation....
"In our own time, the successes of science and technology make it possible to attain material well-being to a degree hitherto unknown. While this favours some, it pushes others to the edges of society. In this way, unilateral progress can also lead to a gradual loss of sensitivity for man, that is, for what is essentially human. In this sense, our time in particular awaits the manifestation of that 'genius' which belongs to women, and which can ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance: because they are human!"

Blessed John Paul II,
On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, 30

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mothers of the Secret Pain

Today, I would like to tell a story about an event that happened some years ago.

It is pertinent to what many of us in the United States commemorated with sorrow, prayer, and penance last week. But it also pertains to a reality that is worldwide.

Its a story about the mysterious and enduring bond between a mother and her child.

Some would have us believe that this bond can be cast aside or terminated by a procedure that in reality is a terrible act of violence. This act, known as abortion, succeeds in killing an innocent human being.

But it fails, utterly, to break the bond between the mother and child, a bond that is more profound than physical death.

The mother remains, in the depths of herself, mother of the child that never sees daylight. She remains a mother, and she lives with this fact no matter how much she may deny it, and even if no one else knows about it. The relationship remains; it is greater than any human power, and it cannot be unmade by any human power.

These mothers are everywhere; they live on your street, they pass you on the sidewalk or in the aisles of the grocery story, they are your co-workers, they are sitting in the subways you ride, they are at the gym, the restaurant, the tennis court, the pool. They are in every crowded room, in the building where you work, they are your doctors, lawyers, teachers, classmates, they are members of your church, they are your friends.

They are often accomplished women; they may be full of warmth, genuine affection, and empathy. They may be social, outgoing, witty, expressive and full of laughter and smiles. They hide from us their dreams and their tears. Sometimes they succeed in blocking it from their own awareness for years. But it never goes away.

Millions of these people wander through all the world: the mothers of the lost, the mothers of the nameless ones. We hear statistics, and we should remember that behind every one of those numbers there is a mother who has failed, and who carries the weight of that failure. It has become her awful burden. But it also remains as a possibility for hope.

The relationship between mother and child remains, and so there is the possibility for reconciliation and healing. Still, the mother needs help. She needs someone to listen to the agony and sorrow that pour out of her soul. She needs to know that she is loved, not in a condescending way, but in a humble companionship that affirms that we all depend on an ineffable and inexhaustible mercy.

I hesitate to tell this story, because it touches upon a kind of suffering so profound and so personal that I do not wish to presume to expose anyone's pain "from the outside." I tell this story only because I am willing to share the burden with them, and walk with them on the road to healing.

There are roads to healing, and I believe that we must devote much energy and sacrifice to building up these roads and being companions with those who are traveling them. We must indeed seek out so many who don't even know these roads exist. There are so many who bury their anguish, distract themselves, and pass through life with a dark sense that their loss is forever, that they carry a deep and excruciating pain that must remain hidden, that they cannot speak about even to themselves.

But there are roads to healing, and places of healing. We must all do what we can to help people find the way. We must invite them to be with us and to walk with us on the path of Love. But there is no place on this path for the self-righteous, for we all stumble, and we all fail in our responsibility to accept and bring to fruition the gifts that have been given to us.

We cannot "help" anyone except out of the awareness that we ourselves need forgiveness and healing for so many things. Our task is not to put ourselves forward as superior to others, but rather to indicate--in poverty and humility, but also with unshakable conviction--where hope can be found.

Who am I to speak of any of this? I'm just a poor man with a blog, a disabled man, still crushed by the fact that he is incapable of doing the job he loves. What do I have to offer? I've tasted the bitterness of life, but I have been healed and wounded (in a different way) by Mercy; I have a heart, I can listen, I am not shocked or surprised by anything, and I condemn no one.

I know that every person I meet is broken and yet loved by an Infinite Love. I haven't always known this. I've had to learn it, and I continue to learn it every day. This story is about a particular moment in this learning process, a moment that has grown deeper with time and the unfolding of events. Here is the story:

Many years ago, when I was a graduate student living in Texas, I used to meet on Saturday mornings with a church group. We would pray the Rosary together in front of the local Women's Health Clinic. It was a small building with a path from the sidewalk directly to the front door. Next to it was a parking lot.
We were gathering in a public space in front of the clinic to pray. We also brought literature from a nearby Crisis Pregnancy Center, where some of us had connections. The brochures of the center were not shocking or upsetting. They offered other possibilities, concrete possibilities for pregnant mothers facing all sorts of difficulties. They offered committed personal support, as well as financial and other life-situation support, real support for the mother and her child.
Many pregnant mothers are driven to desperation because they don't know that there are people who will stand by them and help them. And it can be very difficult to reach these mothers to offer this kind of help. For us, the only practical way was to approach, gently, the women who were walking on the sidewalk from the parking lot to the clinic entrance, listen to them and talk with them if possible, or at least hope that they would take the brochure and consider it.
What we had to offer was real help, from a network of good and loving people. Its sad this offer was sometimes misunderstood, and that it was necessary to present it in such an awkward manner. But here were these women, these pregnant mothers, wrestling with so many pressures and influences: the pressures of insecurity and self-image, of society's expectations, or even the pressure of those who were supposed to be loving and taking care of them. Or perhaps they were ashamed, or angry, or afraid, or simply allowing themselves to believe the lie, and falling into the abyss of violence that opens up under the thin veneer of apparently easy solutions offered by this brutal and manipulative society. In such circumstances, one must risk offering help, even at the price of being awkward or misunderstood.
Not many women came to this particular clinic on Saturday mornings, as I remember. Still we prayed. Sometimes our turnout was small too. On this one Saturday morning, it was just myself and a little Hispanic woman who barely spoke English. After a little while, she told me that she had to go.
It would just be me, alone, with the brochures. It hardly seemed worth staying. But before she left, the woman held out a card to me and said, "take this."
The card had a picture of Jesus on it, patterned after the painting of St. Faustina, with the inscription "Jesus I trust in You." There were prayers on the back of the card. The image was of the blood and water pouring forth from the heart of Jesus. The image of the Divine Mercy, the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness and healing. Mercy.
Today, this icon, its prayers, and the chaplet of mercy are central to my life. But back then I did not know much. I thought, "Oh, another one of these cards; I have some of these at home and I really don't need...." But I took the card and thanked her. I wanted to be polite. After a moment of fiddling with the card, I stuck it in my back pocket and forgot about it.
Really, I just wanted to go home. I was not an experienced "sidewalk counselor" and I am not confrontational by nature. As I mentioned before, offering this literature was awkward. It was a gesture all to easily misunderstood.
Then a car pulled into the lot and parked. A woman got out of the car and began walking towards the clinic. I was terrified. "Why am I here by myself!?" I thought. But somewhere in the midst of all this I remembered that I was not alone. I represented the Pregnancy Center; I was there on behalf of a community of people who cherished the mother and her child, and were dedicated to fostering this relationship--with friendship and with material assistance--from the beginning. So I held out my trembling hand....
The woman was smartly dressed, and walked with a confident stride. She was probably in her thirties. I felt a certain relief just looking at her. And then she gave me something like a smile, and said, "Oh you don't need to worry about me. I'm just here for a pregnancy test." She looked at me with a bright, benevolent face and nodded to me.
I won't deny that I breathed a sigh of relief. She seemed kind, and very self-assured. A few minutes later she came out the door, and seemed to nod and smile at me again. I smiled back as she walked toward the parking lot. And I remained standing there, with my brochures and my rosary beads, looking at the clinic and thinking about how I really should be going home. The place was closing soon and there wasn't any reason to hang around....
"Excuse me," I heard suddenly, from the parking lot. "Excuse me, I want to ask you a question."
I looked over at the parking lot, and there she was, the nice woman who had come for a pregnancy test. She was sitting in her car with her window down. She must have been waiting in the car for several minutes, but I had not noticed.
"Sure," I replied.
"Who the hell do you think you are?"
 I was taken aback. "Sorry, what?" I replied, a little confused.
The kindness and the smile were gone. Instead it was controlled (but very strong) anger and confrontation. "Who the hell do you think you are?" She yelled from the car.
Oh boy, I was thinking. This lady sat in the car for five minutes and then decided to have an argument with me? As I said, I'm not the confrontation type, but I knew my facts and I was ready to have an argument if that's what she wanted. So I walked toward the car in the parking lot and said something like, "What do you mean?"
The woman's features had changed. Her expression was full of righteous anger, and she was positively intimidating to this graduate school kid who spent most of his time reading books. Still, I went right up to the window of her car.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" She roared at me. "Trying to impose your beliefs on other people!"
I can't really explain what happened inside me at that moment. Part of it, frankly, was that I didn't want to get into a verbal slugging match with this lady. She was angry with me, I thought. But there was also something else; something inside me gave me the sense that this frequently hashed out "argument" that seemed about to begin wasn't really an argument. It was something else.
Who do I think I am? I wondered. Not much, but I am here to represent the pregnancy center. I don't  even work at the pregnancy center, but I'm here to deliver their invitation, their offer of love.
And then some very gentle, unpremeditated words came out of my mouth. I spoke without any tint of argument, and I realized that I was speaking sincerely: "We are here to offer opportunities for the mother and the child. All we want to do is to love both the mother and her child."
She was not impressed, and continued to speak angry and confrontational words that I don't remember. Again and again I said (as if I were somehow being moved to say it), "All we want to do is to love both the mother and her child."
"All we want to do is to love both the mother and her child."
Her anger began to abate slightly. "Well," she said, "You don't sound like most pro-lifers I run into!"
I was not going to go down that road. I only had one thing to say, and every time I said it, it came straight from the heart and filled with some mysterious compassion that was not my own. Love.
"All we want to do is to love both the mother and her child."
"Well," she said, "if more pro-lifers talked like you, maybe people would listen." She had calmed down, and was making an effort to continue her remonstrative tone.
I didn't know anything about who she may have encountered in the past. I just kept listening to her, and spoke quietly about giving help and love and support to the mother and the child. I was just a kid barely out of college who didn't know much about life, whose own heart was crying out for mercy, leaning at the car window of a professional, accomplished woman who looked like she could have been any of the women that I see every day.
It seemed like she was having a burst of temper about issues and people who bothered her. But she was cooling off. It was clear that, really, she was a nice lady.
She was just a human person. 
I was someone who gave out literature for the pregnancy center. I didn't work there. I was someone who read (and occasionally wrote) articles, and voted pro-life. I also prayed and carried signs. I'd prayed at many clinic buildings, but someone else was almost always giving out literature, trying to communicate with the women, the mothers. All of these were worthwhile activities.
I knew the issues. I had read many things. I certainly had empathy for the poor women, in a kind of abstract way. 
But I had no experience whatsoever to prepare me for what was about to happen. I had no idea.... 
"All we want to do is to love both the mother and her child."
The falling water came suddenly, like the bursting of a dam. The water gushed. Suddenly this woman was crying and sobbing, crying with a deep sadness, weeping, sobbing. I was stunned. What was happening? I had never in my life seen a person weep with such desperation and pain and sorrow.
I said nothing, but I found that I was not "uncomfortable" or embarrassed. I simply stayed there with her, present to her, a companion to her anguish. At some point I had begun to realize that grace was at work. This was grace. I was a stupid sinner, but it didn't matter. The Holy Spirit wasn't being picky. God wanted this woman to know that she was loved.
She slowly struggled, attempting to regain the control that she had practiced for so long. She struggled, kept weeping, then breathed and tried to speak to me.
"When I was... ... ... in high school... ... ... ... ... I had... ... ... ... I had an abortion."
And she wept more. And with the tears she continued, "my parents... I was so afraid... I just couldn't tell my parents... I couldn't...."
Then she looked at me with her great wet eyes and asked, "What can I do?"
I didn't know anything about the beautiful ministries that help women to find healing after abortion (see links below). This was many years ago; I'm not sure what was even available for something like this. I certainly didn't know about it. I stood in front of the unimaginable pain of another person who was seeking something from me. Where had it all come from?
"Love the mother and the child."
Love. Was it really so powerful, after all? Was this what was at the root of everything, this starvation for real love? What would we discover if we could all see behind the faces of one another for a moment? How poor we are in front of each other. We want to love and be loved, but the hunger seems overwhelming. Its not surprising that we are so afraid of life, so afraid of love, so afraid of one another. Such a vast hunger. How can we be fed? What do we have to give?
"Ask God to forgive you," I said, "pray to God and ask Him for forgiveness." The words came very simply. Ask God.
And then I suddenly remembered. The little Hispanic lady. She gave a card with the image of Divine Mercy. The image of Jesus. It was in my back pocket. I grabbed it.
"Here," I said. "Take this. Pray to Jesus. Ask Jesus to forgive you."
"I will," she answered, looking at the card, at that Face. "Thank you."
"I'll pray for you," I said.
"Thank you." And she drove away. I don't remember, but its possible that the motor had been running all along.
She drove off into the enormous city, so many years ago. I never saw her or heard anything about her again. I am ashamed to say that, over these many years, I have too often forgotten to pray for her, for this woman, this broken mother whose name I never knew. I pray for her now.

Since then I've come to know quite a few women who have had abortions. They are among my friends and family. I probably know many more than I realize, because there are so many, and it remains such a secret pain in a society where "everything is permitted but nothing is forgiven."

I've also learned about the tremendous healing work done by ministries such as Project Rachel and Rachel's Vineyard (please click these links, look at them, and go to them if you or someone you know has need). Forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing really can happen for mothers, and also for their husbands or boyfriends (i.e. fathers), or anyone else who has shared in this kind of trauma.

Please pray for my friend in the parking lot on that day long ago, and for all mothers of the secret pain.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What is Really Worth Living For?

Any claim about God and the great merciful events of His incarnation and redemption become very difficult to propose in a social milieu that exalts subjectivism and personal relativism regarding the meaning of things. Realism is the presupposition for Christianity. A realist attitude affects in a very basic way how we approach questions in life and evaluate things.

Realism looks at a thing according to every aspect that it “evinces.” Realism seeks constantly for and attends to the evidence that the thing itself presents regarding the things own inherent significance and value. A realist does not, therefore, bend the evidence manifested by things and situations within the circumstances of life in order to support his ideology or his subjective desires. He does not ignore pieces of evidence that contradict his pre-established view or wish about how something ought to be.

Because he is interested in the objective truth that is indicated and manifested by things, he is willing to follow these indications, to discover new truths, to have his vision of reality increased and deepened. And because he is obedient to the truth, he will embrace the truth that is thus manifested to him even if it seems inconvenient or makes demands upon him. He will not try to rationalize, explain away, or ignore anything that is made clear to him by the evidence. He will embrace the conclusion that follows naturally from the evidence rather than exaggerating the importance of unessential points that perhaps remain obscure in order to have a pretext for evading this conclusion.

Many people might still agree today that the realist attitude described above represents the ideal for how a human being ought to live his daily life. Nevertheless, it is singularly difficult for many people today, especially in the affluent West, to be genuinely realistic in their attitude in front of anything that might require them to change their way of behaving.

Certainly it is always difficult for frail human nature to accept the challenge of personal (i.e. moral) maturity. The realistic attitude about man is richly aware of the fact that man is a sinner, and that his personal resources are fragile and in need of both internal and external supports. The problem today, however, is made much more acute by the fact that people today are systematically mis-educated in the relativist, subject-centered attitude and in the pride and rationalization that go with it.

We are taught and are surrounded by a culture that constantly impresses upon us the idea that our human fragility is actually strength, our foolishness is wisdom, our instinctual whims are genuine judgments regarding what is good. Moreover, this attitude reigns almost without opposition in the highest realms of human perception, namely the realms of ontology and religion, where man must grapple with the most fundamental truths about the world and about his own personality.

Nevertheless, some aspects of the attitude of realism remain alive in any person who possesses any measure of sanity. Human beings by nature are so “attuned” to reality that even the subjectivist attitude cannot assert itself as a social proposal by appealing to raw selfishness. Rather, it inevitably seeks to justify itself theoretically--in other words, to say, “it is objectively true (i.e. it is proper to the objective reality of how man’s intellect and will operate) that man determine for himself the meaning of things.”

This implies that there is at least one thing that man does not determine for himself, namely, his alleged power to determine the ultimate significance of everything for himself. This power is universal; it is the “right” of every man, and indeed a “given” of human existence. Thus even the relativist, self-centered view of life is led inexorably to give some objective account of the nature of the human person.

It is inevitable that human beings, whether they admit it or not, will affirm at least something to be real, to be an objective meaning and value for which it is worth living. The question, then, cannot be escaped: "What gives meaning to our lives? What is really worth living for?"

Monday, January 28, 2013

St. Thomas Aquinas: A Tribute to an Enduring Wisdom

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. This is no obscure medieval monk. The appearance of St. Thomas on the landscape of the university of Paris in the middle of the thirteenth century was nothing less than the beginning of a new epoch in the history of the Church. He was the great expression in the West of the essential harmony of faith and reason.

As he taught and wrote his famous theological treatises, he drew upon Aristotle and reoriented Plato and Augustine so as to build a philosophical foundation of metaphysics and epistemology that remains fundamentally important today.

One can indeed say that in his articulation of the metaphysics of Esse and in his integrated epistemological realism that does justice to the interplay of sensation and spiritual intelligence, St. Thomas has laid down the foundations for authentic philosophical as well as theological development. Although Catholic theology is far from monolithic, the best and most coherent contemporary efforts to understand the human being, the world, and the mystery of God have as their touchstone the metaphysics and epistemology of St. Thomas. He insures that thinking, no matter how adventuresome it may be in its unfolding, does not lose its bearings.

For a time after the Second Vatican Council, it seemed as though this great Catholic Doctor was destined to be forgotten, drowned in a sea of secular humanist ideologies, moral relativism, and psychoanalysis. But St. Thomas is making a strong return. His greatest twentieth century follower recognized in Thomas's principles a fountain of creative insight that made it possible to engage contemporary issues. Jacques Maritain predicted, in the midst of the post-Conciliar turmoil of 1968, that Thomas's foundational contribution would endure:
"St. Thomas..., humbly and without putting in a claim, brought metaphysical wisdom to the most basic and universal degree of intuitive grasp possible to reason. A metaphysics of 'esse,' a metaphysics born from the intuition of the act of existing--and whose primary object is this primordial and all-embracing intelligible reality--has the capacity to welcome, recognize, honor, set to rights all that is" (from The Peasant of the Garonne, 1968).

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Young Man, Do You Want My Advice?

Lots of people who used to be boys have turned into bonafide grownups. These guys have degrees, and growing families, and professional accomplishments. And they still have all their hair!

Its inspiring to see the enthusiasm and dedication of the younger generation. Its a great thing, this energy. I remember the nexus of youthful energy and budding maturity. This is a great time of life.

Thank God for this life, young man. Spend it well, engage reality, build up the good. Be full of gratitude for each day, each moment, for your wife and your little children. Be engaged, but don't get lost in mere activism. Lift up your heart to God in prayer and ask Him to shape you into the person He wills you to be.

So you are turning 27, 28, 29 or even 30, and you think you are "old"? Ah well, you have reached an important mark in your maturity, but the coming years promise to be great and constructive steps in the formation of your own personality, and your development into someone who helps to form others, to pass on the experience of your own life to your children and their generation.

The next twenty-some years, God willing, will be constructive. But that does not mean they will be successful in the sense you may now imagine. I say this not to discourage you, but to assure you that you can live and endure many difficult things and still be enriched, and remain young at heart.

I don't know if I can give you "advice," my young friend. I hope you have your aspirations, love for your wife and family, and a strong commitment to your work. Make sure to be there for your kids as they grow up. And get ready to have some twists and turns--some adventures--over the next twenty-some years.

You have to test your strength, because that's how you learn its limits. I hope you will achieve some things, but I know that you will discover that the horizon of your own life is greater than anything you can reach.

Above all, be faithful to God. Things may get downright crazy. That's one thing that I know from the last  twenty-some years that are now behind me.

My experience shows that pieces may fall into place...and then fall apart! And then come together in a different way, and then there are new challenges.... It's God's plan for your life: follow it, or hang on to it, or crawl in the dark through it, or even get frustrated and say (pray) to God: "What kind of a plan is this? What's the deal here?" Just keep going. Stay with Him. Don't give up.

I hope you enjoy the fruits of your labor, but the seasons will vary, and there will be storms. My wife and I are both academics; we got married later than you (but going on 17 years ago) and still had five kids. I prayed, worked hard and established my career as a college professor, a writer, and an editor. I accomplished many goals. And I loved my work.

Then I got sick.

No matter how we may feel in advance, none of us are ready for a train wreck. We must trust in God, and that can be difficult. Trusting in God is a life-long learning process.

Sometimes you lose the career you love most. Its humiliating. Period. You've been flattened, and its not your fault. But its gonna be along time before you stop blaming. yourself. every. single. day.

And even if, like me, you get to keep your nice fancy professorial title, it doesn't help much, because you're disabled. That's that. You can't do what you want. You have to depend on other people. Humbling.

But God really is at work in you. Even if that brings ZERO consolation, its a fact. Never give up.

And you can't go through this alone. If you suffer, she suffers. But your marriage and family can be (and are meant to be) strengthened by these difficulties. New dimensions of marriage open up, and you both need to work hard, make sacrifices and forgive each other every day for a lot. But if you are faithful, you will discover that the sacramental bond is real, it is inter-personal, it is the grace of Christ's Spirit and it keeps you together, and it is a very tough thing. The sacrament of marriage is strong; it is built to last. You have to depend on it.

Spousal love means so many things that have never even entered your dreams. It will humble you. You will find that there is no place to be selfish in marriage, and this too is a life-long learning process.

Of course, when doors close, windows can open. My wife became a Montessori teacher, she loves it, and (of course) she's really good at it. The "death" of my "established career" ended up being the "birth" of hers. Our kids go to (or have been through) the school. I am well enough right now that I go to the office and help with the students and also do my own work (I refer to myself sometimes as "writer-in-residence" and other times as "interactive media consultant").

You may even surprise yourself by what you do, and where it leads you.

When I got sick, I did was was "natural" for me; I wrote about it. Some friends circulated some of what I wrote, and it eventually landed at a publisher who said, "can you give us more of this?" It ended up being a popular book, published in 2010, that continues to sell and seems to help a lot of people.

I had written academic things, and I had (still have) projects in the works. But I never planned to write a book like Never Give Up, and I almost didn't. It was slow, one step at a time, and "not my idea." I just had the sense that it was God's will, and I just took a step and then another and then another.

The irony is that the book is perhaps the most important work I have done in my life thus far. It turns out that God doesn't believe in "disability." But we have to do things His way.

And we don't know much about that "way". We don't know what's coming. We may all get dumped off the fiscal cliff. We may be washed away by a hurricane, or caught up in a war, or just pushed in new directions by the dramas of children and adolescents becoming young adults. We still have to "plan ahead" as best we can (that's human nature and human responsibility), but the grain is never safe in the bins.

The way this plays out in our circumstances is how God teaches us to trust in Him. But my words about this are not worth much. Trust is a relationship with God that must be lived. It is a relationship that you are able to live.

So live it. Trust God in everything that comes.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Death Opens To Something Completely New

But how do we Christians respond to th[e] question of death?
We respond with faith in God,
with a look firm with hope
founded on the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So death opens to life,
to eternal life,
which is not an infinite doubling of the present time
but something completely new.
Faith tells us that the true immortality to which we aspire
is not an idea, a concept,
but a relation of full communion with the living God:
it is being in his hands, in his love,
and becoming in him one with all our brothers and sisters
that he has created and redeemed,
with the whole of creation.
Our hope, then, rests in God’s love
which shines on the Cross of Christ....
This is life that has reached its fullness,
life in God;
it is a life that now we can only glimpse
as one glimpses calm skies through the clouds.

Benedict XVI (Homily, 11/4/12)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A New Kind of Hope

Yesterday was the great feast day of St. Agnes of Rome, a twelve year old girl of noble family at the beginning of the fourth century. She openly professed her Christianity and died a martyr, which is certainly extraordinary in itself for a young girl. But there is another reason why Agnes is regarded as one of the great saints of the Church.

Carved statue of St. Agnes from the shrine at St. Agnes Catholic church in Arlington, Virginia.
Agnese Janaro was baptized in this church over 14 years ago. Was it really that long ago?!

The earliest accounts praise St. Agnes's heroism and her purity. Clearly she made an astonishing impression on those who witnessed her martyrdom and communicated her story. The traditions that come down from various sources, and that are reflected in the ancient liturgical texts for her feast, indicate that even before her martyrdom this young girl had already given over her life to Jesus in a total dedication--one that would inspire and shape the personal identity of countless women over the next 1700 years.

Agnes had consecrated her virginity to Christ, not for a term of service like the vestals of pagan Rome, but forever. She sacrificed her natural vocation to be a wife and mother in this world and embraced a life of virginity as a witness that God alone was the love of her heart. Christ would be her true husband, and as His bride she would begin to reflect the glory of the life of the resurrection by remaining a virgin, by being entirely for God and God alone, offering Him her entire identity as a woman.

But this was not her idea. It was He Himself who had called her. In the liturgy, Agnes says, "My Lord Jesus Christ has espoused me with his ring; he has crowned me like a bride."

There is no disparagement of earthly marriage here. Marriage itself serves as a sign of what she found, and finds its own fulfillment in being this sign.

Rather, something happened to this twelve year old girl, Someone revealed to her a new kind of life, an eternal life that was already dawning in that moment of her heart, a life and a love worthy of all she had and all she was, worthy of following exclusively, a life greater than any human hope even as it fulfilled the promise hidden in all hopes, a life that could not be broken by all the power of the most powerful Empire the world had ever known, a life greater than the whole universe: eternal life in communion with the God who is Love.

"I am espoused to him whom the angels serve; sun and moon stand in wonder at his beauty."

It was this Beauty that made her utterly fearless. It was a Beauty that so filled this child that all the connivance and energetic cruelty of the powers of this earth could not prevail against her freedom, even when they dedicated all their deception and all there brute force to crushing that freedom.

They did not prevail.

Now, Agnes of Rome sings in glory, in the company of a multitude of women who followed as she did, into martyrdom, into the prayer and silence that seeks Him alone and in so doing lifts up the cry of the whole world, into an exclusive devotion to Christ wherever He is found, seeking to bring comfort to His heart, seeking Him as missionaries, teachers, care-givers, companions and servants of the poor, workers of mercy. St. Agnes leads the song that brings sweet breezes of consolation to the weary, and the strength of a new kind of hope for all of us in the face of every danger and every kind of violence:

"What I longed for, I now see; what I hoped for, I now possess; in heaven I am espoused to him whom on earth I loved with all my heart."

Monday, January 21, 2013

One Great Fellowship of Love

In Christ there is no East or West.
In Him no North or South,
But one great Fellowship of Love
Throughout the whole wide world.
This is the only way.

[The Cross] is a telescope
through which we look out
into the long vista of eternity,
and see the love of God
breaking forth into time.
It is an eternal reminder...that love
is the only creative, redemptive,
transforming power in the universe.

...let us join together
in a great fellowship of love
and bow down at the feet of Jesus.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
November 17, 1957

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Late-Boomer Memories

People born in the early sixties have a special span of experience and memory. We are the last of the "baby-boomers," and we still have a feel for the world of our parents and grandparents. We were the first children of the global village, growing up with multimedia, including new and exciting things like color television and stereo.

We were the guinea pigs of the late '60s cultural upheaval. Our school teachers were (or had been) hippies or protesters or (at least) progressive civil libertarians. We were educated in experimental classrooms with unusual projects and methods (sometimes very confused methods). But we also grew up in fully integrated schools and hadn't the slightest idea why anyone could have any kind of problem with that.

We remember gasoline at 29 cents a gallon (and that's "leaded" gasoline). We remember getting up early in the morning to watch the Saturn V rockets launch Apollo 7, 8, 9, 10, and of course that "one small step for a man...."

We may remember some of the assassinations of 1968 (I don't). We remember George Wallace. We remember the Beatles breaking up. We remember things like: 45 rpm records, i.e, "singles;" "High fidelity;" Going to drive-in movie theaters with our parents; "Waterproof" watches; Bleachers at the ball park were 65 cents a ticket for kids under 16.

Burgers were 25 cents at McDonalds. A pack of baseball cards was 10 cents. We heard about the "end" of the Vietnam War, a few months after Nixon's "landslide" victory in 1972, promising "peace with honor."

We knew that folks were always protesting but we didn't really know why. We Catholics remember the "Interim Mass" in English, and then that tremendous Sunday when the priest told us that there were some "changes" (the one we remember best is "and also with you" !!)

We were looking forward to the celebration of "the Bicentennial." The air was polluted. Everybody smoked, everywhere. The big new thing was Quadraphonic. And Eight-Track players.

And nothing, nothing, NOTHING was made in China!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Confession: A New Beginning in Grace

Last week I wrote about the sacrament of Reconciliation, and how great a gift it is for anyone who wants to live a faithful Christian life. I recently revised that post a bit; you can click on the title to see some new reflections woven in with the old: (Confession: Encountering The Mercy of Jesus). I also thought it would be worth reflecting on that more radical effect of this sacrament: the forgiveness of serious sins and a new beginning in grace brought about by the mercy of God. This is neither a treatise nor even an exhaustive reflection. Its a blog post. Here are my thoughts:

We think of confession primarily as the sacrament that restores the life of grace to baptized Catholics who have lost it through the spiritual death of serious sin (i.e. mortal sin). And this is indeed true. How many of us have wept with gratitude when being reconciled to God after foolishly abandoning Him in pursuit of something that seemed so good, but turned out to be false, bitter, and empty. We abandoned God's love for our own folly or pride or self-indulgence. But God never stops loving us, and He calls us to come and let our hearts be filled with His love once more.

There are so many people of recent generations who were born and baptized Catholic, but lacked the catechesis that forms the eyes, the mind and the heart to recognize Christ in the Church as the real truth of life. So they went their own ways (sometimes for many years), and eventually found themselves cheated by the false promises of sin, and trapped in an ugly and self-destructive life.

For long lost "cradle" Catholics (and other baptized Christians who run from Christ and travel many roads, but in the end find their way to the fullness of Catholic faith), the sacrament of Reconciliation is the place where they find God's mercy, and where they can leave their heavy burdens. The sacrament of Reconciliation is the open arms of a father who has never ceased seeking and longing for his child to return home.

Herein lies its magnificent testimony to God's inexhaustible mercy and love given by Christ through the Church. We can do more than just beg for God's mercy in private prayer (although we should do this also, so that the Spirit will lead us). We can go to a place, and receive that mercy now.

Many of course fear that they cannot leave behind their sinful habits. They know that their struggles have only led to failure. The problem is that they are struggling by themselves.

Go to confession and let Christ take on the struggle with you and in you. Trust in Him. It may take time and you may fall again. Go back again. You are not alone. You have a home now. Let the priest guide you. God does not "run out" of mercy. Through the grace of the sacrament, Jesus will forge an new freedom in you.

Go to confession today. Go during the time when confessions are offered. It can be a very simple thing. Or else, call a Catholic church and arrange to see a priest. He is but a poor instrument of Christ, but he is a guarantee that Christ is here for you, right now. Let Jesus love you. Come home.

I have known in my own life the beauty and the peace of "coming home." I'm far from perfect (see the previous post), but I know where to find Jesus. I know that I need Him. I know that nothing in this world can compare to the embrace of His mercy.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Walking in the Afternoon

The sun is shining. The air is warm.

There is goodness.

Goodness will endure.

The storm and show of evil is not the final word.

All the clatter that shakes our thoughts

will not be silenced by a better idea.

Our hope is that hope has an answer

that whispers like the still small voice.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Poverty of Who I [Still] Am

Here it is mid January 2013 already. Its hard to believe that its been almost two years since I began this peculiar literary exercise. Among other things, blogging is a kind of workshop for writing. It feels personal, but its also "out there" in a way that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago (I remember, because I kept detailed written journals from 1990-1992). Since there is at least a potential "readership," I shape what I write here in certain ways.

Clearly, I'm not afraid of being repetitive. This was my post from one year ago today, January 16, 2012. I could easily have written the same reflections today, using pretty much the same words (except I don't have the energy to write so much text today). Here we find the same person with the same preoccupations. Its also digital data that I can scoop up and toss out into the blogosphere again, so that someone might stumble upon it in a fresh way. Without further ado, take it away, last year's JJ:

I put myself out and push myself into relationships with other people, but I am not receptive. I'm always in a kind of desperation, like I'm trying to invade the other person's interiority with all of my large, clumsy, awkward personality and then do everything I can to impress, to amaze, to draw out some reaction, to somehow get the other person to love me, because in the end I just need to be loved, so badly.

I want to be loved. And I am so afraid of being alone. This is the poverty of who I am.

Other people don't usually regard me as pushy or obnoxious. If anything it's the opposite: I don't "promote" myself enough. This may be true in the professional sphere. And with people I am "nice," accommodating, non-controversial, and always leaning on my sense of humor. I also use my intelligence to illuminate things, to encourage and inspire. But in all of this there is a "push" of myself, which comes out of the abyss of the poverty of who I am. In everything I say and do there is always this cry that says, "Please love me, accept me, approve of me, affirm me."

But why is this a problem? I am surrounded by loving, accepting, affirming people. Why, then, am I restless? Why do I feel "unloved"?

Pathology plays a part in this, undoubtedly. I describe it in my book; it is something I call "the cloud" (see Never Give Up, pp. 18-28 []). But "the cloud" has been brightened considerably, even since I wrote the book. My restlessness goes deeper than any pathology. It goes right to the root of who I am. I am a person. I need to be loved. And I need to love.

Where does this all end?

Of course I know the answer from the Catechism. I do not want to underestimate the fundamental importance of this basic knowledge: that I have been created by God, that God loves me, that union with God is the purpose of my existence. Yes. Millions and millions of people walk the earth and do not know this truth about themselves. That stirs something else within me, something that remains in many ways confused, but that is gradually taking hold of me and changing me.

But it takes time. I ask forgiveness from my wife, my children, my family, and my friends--indeed from all the people God has placed in my life. There is something here that echoes the desire that Alyosha discovers inThe Brothers Karamazov: the desire "to beg forgiveness from everyone, for everything." And I am willing to forgive, yes, to struggle on the path of forgiveness. Forgiving but begging too, because I know that I have not loved enough.

Jesus, I bring to You my broken heart,
broken by the desire to be loved
and the confusion over how to love well and truly.
O Lord, forgive me.
I have not loved You as I should,
and I am self-seeking and divided in all my relationships.
How can I love people truly,
with the "detachment" that recognizes that they belong to You alone,
and also with the passionate attention
that recognizes in each of them
the beauty of Your image and the glory of Your redeeming power?
Jesus, open my heart to receive Your healing mercy.
Change my heart,
and make me silent,
patient, and tender,
full of awe and wonder and gratitude
before Your gift of Yourself to me
and to every person I meet.
I am so in need of healing.
I am so in need of conversion.
Have mercy on me,
and make me the person You will me to be.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Hair, Hair, Everywhere

How do you even open this thing?
Slowly but surely, this is becoming a house full of women.

I am thinking this as I watch various heads of hair being combed and brushed, tied and untied, twirled and braided and unbraided. Hair, hair, hair, hair, long glorious rivers of hair. Mommy combs Lucia's hair while unweaving a tangle here and there (a process which Lucia seems to think is some form of torture). Teresa brushes it to one side, then swings it back, fiddles with it, brushes it again.

Josefina has gone to sleep. But earlier, she was perched above Mommy, behind her in the chair, "fixing" Mommy's hair. Josefina can still "perch" and wiggle her way into places already occupied by grown ups. The others are too big for that.

We're not going anywhere right now. Just sitting around the living room on a January evening.

Feminine mysteries. The bunching and braiding. The pins and clips that have to match with an outfit (huh?). Fuzzy hair bands all over the house (in various colors). Its destined to increase more and more as they grow (even though we're determined keep the bling level under control). I'm convinced that some of these hair gizmos defy the laws of physics.

How does that clip open? How does it stay shut?

We are a low frills family. Still, I think that each girl has her own bag just for hair stuff. (And the women reading this are saying, "of course, what's so complicated about all this?" But the men understand my perplexity.)

When John Paul's hair gets more than an inch long, all he wants is a haircut!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Beloved Son

The feast celebrated in the West as "Epiphany" (highlighting the Magi) is observed in the East as the "Theophany," centered on the baptism and especially the manifestation of the Trinity: the voice of the Father, the Beloved Son, the Spirit in the form of a dove. Later, in the West, we added an additional feast of the Baptism of the Lord on the Sunday following Epiphany.

Here is, in any case, the culmination of our celebration of God's showing Himself to the world. Henceforth Jesus will bear witness to His Father in the Spirit, from Galilee to Judea to the Cross. God has entered our history in all the depths of His love. He reveals His Glory; He reveals that He is Love.

When You, O Lord were baptized in the Jordan 
The worship of the Trinity was made manifest
For the voice of the Father bore witness to You
And called You His beloved Son.
And the Spirit, in the form of a dove,
Confirmed the truthfulness of His word.
O Christ, our God, You have revealed Yourself
And have enlightened the world, glory to You!

Troparion, Theophany,
Byzantine Liturgy

Friday, January 11, 2013

Confession: Encountering The Mercy of Jesus

I finally had the chance to go to confession, fulfilling the desire I had last week on my birthday (see post dated January 4). I am 50 years old. I made my first confession when I was 7 years old. A lot of confessions. A lot of mercy.

It is a wonder, really. Here is the same Jesus who said to the paralytic, "your sins are forgiven." Now this same Person says this surprising and seemingly impossible thing to me two thousand years later, through the ministry of a priest.

It is a sacrament, a mystery of God's love that happens at a specific time and a specific place; a gift of grace that I receive in a historical way, from Jesus through a man who extends the priesthood of Jesus and His saving love through all space and time so that He reaches me and my particular sins. His healing reaches down to all my ingratitude and forgetfulness, which I try to express to Him in a particular way, with particular words.

It is an encounter between my fragile conscience and the Infinite Mercy of God.

I try to go to confession every month. But not because I think I have broken my relationship with God by grave sin every month. I don't have to go every month. So what's the point of my going to regular confession?

First of all, I hardly trust in my own assessment of my soul, however honest and thorough it may be. "But who can detect all his errors? From hidden faults acquit me. From presumption restrain your servant and let it not rule me. Then shall I be blameless, clean from grave sin" (Psalm 19[B]:12-13). Wretched man that I am. I throw myself upon the mercy of God! In this sacrament, however, we are not required to produce an impossible self-analysis. We are called upon to accuse ourselves as best we can, and trust in the merciful love of Jesus.

Of course, trials and temptations abound, and I know that I am as capable as Peter (or Judas) of betraying Jesus. "He that thinks himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).  I beg that the Lord sustain me in His mercy. I pray that He give me the grace to be faithful to Him.

With trust in the mercy of Jesus, I make my monthly confession. It is what is sometimes called a "devotional" confession. I think it is important to emphasize the value of this sacrament not only to restore the life of grace when lost through serious sin, but also for those who are walking with Christ, and living the life of grace. Such persons are far from "coherent" in their Christian lives. They need the grace of this sacrament to heal and strengthen them against falling away from Him, to preserve them from becoming lukewarm, and just to let Jesus go to work on all the weird stuff that still distracts and preoccupies their lives.

I love regular confession. I know that it is such a blessing to take out of myself and give to Jesus the stubborn mistakes, the childish impatience, the petty irritations, the mediocre vanity, the laziness, the nippy little rash judgments, misperceptions, and self-satisfaction that constitute 99% of my daily life.

Its true that I don't have to confess any of these things. They're not grave sins. But there's not a whole lot of positive stuff going on with my actions either. I still live mostly for myself, afraid to go beyond my own limits. God has given Himself to me, but where is my love? Why is it so small?

So much of me still sleeps in superficial preoccupations. God's life in me is hidden away, buried, constrained by all this nonsense. I am alive in Christ, but wounded. Even when I want to walk, I limp badly.

If there is anything -- anything at all -- that has real value in my life, it comes from the grace of Jesus. He really does act and renew my particular life, in such a way that it is clear to me that I must never let go of Him. But consider what He still has to work with:
Add all my misshapen semi-habits to aspire to do God's will, to be true, good and beautiful, along with some not-so-good character flaws, a quirky personality, a mind always thinking all over the place, some poetic insight and some skill for turning a phrase, a life experience with rough patches, an empathetic disposition, vast gaps of emotional immaturity, and of course a neurologically dysfunctional brain, other health problems, disability, insomnia, and just the ordinary "weight" the human condition. And I can't even begin to understand all the stuff that is going on in the "subconscious" (or whatever it is), that vast murky underworld beneath my awareness. What we have here in John Janaro is a big mess! 
And I judge other people? Its preposterous. We really have to love people. That doesn't mean we ignore when they are being self-destructive and destructive of others. It means we see them with love. Even when we know what's true and real, we don't know all that's going on inside that other person. I gather from my own experience that the inner world of every human being is basically pretty freaky. Jesus needs our love to touch deep places in the lives of others that we will never understand. If we are given some of that bread that is the Word of God, and we see someone hungry, we share it, not by bending down and offering a few crumbs, but by being with them, and sharing both the gift and our common poverty. If they turn away from us, we still have to stay -- as best we can -- and share their suffering.

For we are all poor, poor, poor human beings. Whatever our circumstances, we all have hearts made for God. We are poor and hungry and invested with a desire that refuses to die even when it turns to desperation. We are wounded and, somewhere in the midst of all our freakiness, we are longing for healing.

I am a poor Christian. How can I be a witness? Certainly not by pointing to myself and saying, "look how great I am." But Someone Else has come into my life and awakened an unconquerable hope that my poverty might be transformed into humility and love. I don't know how this will reach its fulfillment, but this hope engenders trust in Him, moment by moment, and I begin to find healing. This is something that can become visible in my poor world.

Back to the sacrament of Reconciliation: Here is a sacrament that nourishes hope in a poor man. Here is a sacrament where I can encounter the healing Christ. He wants His love to fill my whole life. This healing and transformation of my self is a slow process, but still God wants to accomplish it. In this sacrament, He offers healing and strength, as a gift that comes forth, in a specific yet ineffable manner, from the glorified life of Christ that remains concretely present in the world -- in my world. It is something real. It is a gift of His love. It is a sacrament.

Here is where I bring my poverty, because I am a poor Christian full of hope. Here I find the promise of God's mercy, the redeeming grace of Jesus, the outpouring of the Spirit, and a real step on the path of communion with Him and with my brothers and sisters in the Church, and every person that shares the path of life with me. I pray that I might rejoice again and again in this gift, this mercy, so that the joy of His life will grow in me, and become more visible and worthwhile to the others who live in "my world."

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Working a Wonder

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Our relationship with God is mysterious, and our sufferings are a profound part of this mystery. We are called to share in the infinite life and love of God; we flesh and blood human beings, who have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning even on a good day.

We are called by God to a relationship that is destined to transform us into His likeness, to “divinize” us. This is going to take some stretching, to say the least. And on top of the simple fragility of being a human being, we all have the effects of original sin and our own personal sins with which we must contend.

This is why we suffer. But Jesus has suffered for all of us, and suffers in all of us. He is the reason why redemption and glory are destined to rise up out of our own suffering, if we adhere to Him in faith, hope, and love. The grace of His Spirit reaches us especially in our weakness.

I only see the surface of my life. Deep down, God is working a wonder, and the means He is using penetrate my whole life with its joys and sorrows, and all that is yet unknown. What God wants for me is so much more, so much greater, so much more glorious and joyful, than what I think I want for myself.

Why am I afraid that I can’t trust Him?  Could I have really given myself a better life than the actual life that God has given me?  And can I construct a better future for myself than what God has planned for me? Should I not trust Him?

In eternity, we shall see all and rejoice in all. Here, we see through that dark glass called faith. Sometimes it is very dark, but we must trust God to give us what we need to sustain hope, and to grow in the capacity to respond to His mysterious Love with our own self-abandoning love.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Right Now, Right Where You Are....

Think, think, think, write, write, write, read, read, read, think, think, think, doubt, doubt, fear, fear, think, think, read, read, read, think, read, write, doubt, FEAR....

Really, its as simple as Teresa popping into the office and asking for an apple slice.

He is here.

I can't hold myself together with a comprehensive understanding of myself, or with stuff, or with anything that I try to capture with my conniving and my worrying.

Instead something happens. Someone comes. Someone Else is here.

This is what Christmas teaches me. Of all the billions of people born in human history, there is one who -- right now -- says to me, "I am the meaning of your life."

"I am what you are searching for, what you keep trying to make for yourself, in an effort that leads to desperation again and again, because you know that what you're looking for is beyond all your thinking and understanding and expression; you know its out of reach...."

"Don't be anxious. I have come to dwell with you. I am here, right now, right where you are. And I love you."

Whatever darkness you suffer, remember that He is here.

Whatever sorrow, confusion, guilt: He is here.

He wants to bring you through. He loves you.

"I have come into the world to be its light" (John 12:46).

Rejoice! Its the Christmas season. Happy Christmas Season!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"Cheap Happiness"?

Why do we love distraction so much? What are we hoping to find by chasing after so many things?

I was in Target the other day. I needed raw almonds, and they have the big two pound containers. My plan was to go in, get the almonds, pay for them, and leave the store. Well...maybe I'd peek in the electronics section, quickly. Heh heh.


Okay, where are the almonds? Oooh, books! Not much new here. Bleech. Its a bunch of garbage...oh wait, here's Political Scuttlebutt by Fred BigMouth. I wanna take a quick look at this.
Twenty minutes of reading. Then I finally said, "nah, this isn't very good."
Now, why am I here? Almonds!
Let me just check to see if there are any bargains in electronics.
On the way I pass the books and the DVDs and the clothes (let me look at those shirts over there...) and the bling and the food. Everywhere stuff is flashing, aiming for the appetites (and usually aiming low). Eat THIS!!! Giant "Creme*" Puff Poos (*artificially flavored). Sodas! Drink me, drink me, drink me!!! I have VITAMIN C. I have NO CHOLESTEROL. No sugar, no calories, drink me and be beautiful!
Movies? They're all trash, or else stuff blowing up. Two for five bucks.
Oh yeah, everywhere the magic words beckon: ON SALE! Save Money!

S.A.V.E.  M.O.N.E.Y.

Its remarkable: you spend money, but you feel like you've saved money. What a deal! So you spend your money on stuff that you don't need and wouldn't have even thought of buying, but you walk out of the store feeling like a champion. "Look how much money I saved! See, its in bold print, on the receipt."

In reality, you exchanged your money for a bag of junk. Which you are bringing home to a house full of junk. And what is all that junk really worth?

I suspect that the "health" of our economy depends on a lot of us being suckers.

Meanwhile, I'm in Target at office supplies, checking out some pens. Pens are fun. So are calculators, and writing paper, and all these things that no one uses anymore. But I've been here over an hour! I'm going to get the almonds...right after I swing by computer accessories.
Wait, what am I doing? I'm surfing the Target. This is like wasting time on the Internet, but with legs.

I finally got my almonds in the end, and I didn't spend any money on junk, but something still bothered me. A ten minute errand stretched into two hours of what? Distraction. Mostly I'm just laughing at myself here. There's nothing wrong with "window shopping," right? And its not like I was pressed for time.

But this wasn't like strolling down Main Street. I sort of felt like I was being pulled all around the store. Distracted. Not by the trashy stuff (I don't look at those things), but by all the other stuff. Everything seemed cloying. Everything seemed to be jumping off the shelves and saying, "look at ME! I can make you HAPPY."

Its the whole "cheap grace" thing, but in a more diffused mode, because we don't even talk about "grace" anymore. The reason why its being served up, more and more, bigger and faker than ever, is that we're still looking for it. We want transcendence in a package. We want "cheap happiness"! We like to play around with artificially flavored happiness, plastic happiness, processed happiness.

We don't care if its fake as long as it looks and feels real, and as long as its a bargain. Of course, fake is fake. So we're not satisfied, and we keep buying more. That's why we have houses full of junk. That's why we have hearts full of junk (in more ways than one).

Why are we so restless? Why do we keep trying to settle for the cheap stuff? Is it because we know that real happiness can't be bought at any price?

Real Happiness is not cheap.

Real Happiness is not for sale at all.

Real Happiness is free, if we are willing to receive it as a gift. It means becoming like children. It means being humble, and that can't be faked.

It also means making room, at least in the spaces of the heart. Are we willing to let go of our junk?

Friday, January 4, 2013

My 50th Birthday: Surprised by Gratitude

Some "dead soldiers" (and some still living) from my 50th birthday party.
Looks like seltzer was popular. Of the food there is not a crumb left!
January 2, 2013 has come and gone. I more than survived it. It was an occasion of joy and gratitude.

My beloved Eileen put together a simple and intimate party with just my brother and a few friends: people who have been walking the road with me for more than 30 years. There was food and conversation, sharing of memories and expression of hopes. The kids were with us too. It was a happy time.

We had beer and wine, but as crafted beverages, taken in very modest quantities. This is how old folks party. This is how we roll.

I enjoyed a quiet time all day, but the beginning made a deep impression in me. It was a specially blessed time, a "birthday gift" I suppose, and it was a surprise. Remembering Christ is always a surprise.

I got up early in the morning, rubbed my eyes and vegetated for a few minutes (like every other morning), and then remembered the existence of God. So I started to pray, and I was drawn to thank God for my life. I felt as if I didn't have a heart big enough to contain the gratitude that spilled out.

I went to the church early for Mass, said the morning prayer of the Hours, and then -- hoping there would be confession after Mass -- found myself making a pretty thorough examination of conscience. It seemed to unfold naturally and peacefully before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, without any mischief-making by the OCD gremlins in my brain. The gremlins had the day off. Instead I was drawn to a lucid gaze on this, and that, and this, and that, and it was with sorrow that I saw -- in all my circumstances -- selfishness, grasping, and pride nipping away at so many earnest and good aspirations and efforts, and defining so many others.

Yet Jesus and His mercy were there, and so I was not beating up on myself (as I am so often tempted to do). I was repenting, and placing before God my "desire for the desire" to recognize Him and love Him well, and offering everything...even the pride. Take me, Jesus, in all this mess; love me especially in those places in my heart where I don't even know I need You.

"God resists the proud" -- I know this is true, Jesus, but I'm begging You to take me with all my pride because I don't know what to do with it. Make me humble and true. It will take a miracle, but I come to You as the blind man did, begging You to give me my sight, with faith that You -- and only You -- can work this miracle in me. And I also know that even with my repeated forgetfulness and failure, the miracle is still happening. Jesus I trust in You.

It turned out there were no confessions after Mass that day. I can still go this weekend or next week, and the superabundance of His healing mercy will be given, even if I don't "feel" it then. He will complete what He has begun.

But at the moment I felt disappointed. Things weren't proceeding according to the "script" of the penitential pilgrim on his 50th birthday (oh good grief!). I was tempted to be frustrated. Its so easy to take what God gives us and turn it into a project. But oh well. There was still Jesus in the Eucharist.

Jesus in the Eucharist, really present. Jesus!

The Eucharist is the way that Jesus "takes" us and changes us. We are afflicted by those "daily sins"--the fact that they are not grave sins does not mean we should ignore them. They damage us, distort us, and render our witness opaque. They wound and cripple us; how can we recover and grow? The sacraments are remedies that heal.

The Sacraments! Jesus in the Eucharist, always with us, giving Himself to us. Thank you, Lord!

Jesus in the sacrament of Reconciliation. We bring our fractured selves and He floods us with mercy. He restores the grace of God lost by grave sin; indeed there is no sin that is too great for His mercy.

And there is strength in this mercy that shapes the heart, that renews us and draws us beyond the daily faults that hinder (even if they do not break) our relationship with Jesus. These are the sins that we acknowledge at Mass: "I have greatly sinned...through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault." We need to let Him draw us close to His heart. Confession is not a burden. It is a blessing. Bring your troubled, anxious hearts to the fountain of mercy and healing. Go to Confession! Just go. Make it part of your life!

Its a tremendous thing to realize, suddenly, that we don't have to "do" this alone. Jesus is here for us. That's what the sacraments mean. We don't have to conjure up an imaginary Jesus in our minds so that we can "feel" His forgiveness and His strength. Jesus is here. He acts. He gets involved with our lives and makes things happen.

I'm 50 years old. I've had all kinds of thoughts about the challenges of this venerable age (see the previous post). But in the Eucharist I was given gratitude; I had a taste of the thanksgiving that is so much more than a polite acknowledgement, the thanksgiving that wells up in the center of life, with the awareness that I exist as a gift, in the image of God. And that Eternal Love is calling me to His embrace, in moments and gestures and words. I am not defined by my faults and limits (although, so often, it seems that way). The meaning of my life is this gentle calling, and the grace and mercy it contains.

Its not a one way relationship that I construct. In the Eucharist He gives Himself to me. If I allow Him to work in me, He will open my soul, and create in me the capacity to love Him. It is a love and a life that He gives to me.

The Eucharist. Jesus.

Thank you, Lord, for everything.