How much does God expect of us

22.4.2010: Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, RavennaThere is, to me, a gut-wrenching moment during every wedding mass that kind of shocks me even though I’ve witnessed it many times. The man stands there in front of God, priest, and family and vows that he belongs to the woman until they are put into a grave. The woman then stands there in front of God, priest, and family and vows that she, too, will belong to him until they are put into the grave. They are making their every breath together a sacrament, each moment a temple. It always takes me aback, that men and women, knowing how much marriage demands, still consent to take that risk together. After a while, in these marriages that have endured for so long, they may not even know that they are doing it, so closely are their souls shaped to each other.

The expectation for marriage is that the spouses give everything they are in a mutual sacrifice of love. Often, the scriptures speak of our relationship with God as a marriage covenant. So, how much does God expect of us?

If we go back to the Old Covenant, God had expectations for the Israelites. He gave them the commandments, showed them how to build the temple, and even gave them cultural and dietary guidelines to set them apart from the other nations. One expectation was that, each year, the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies to make a sacrifice for the sins of the people. The Holy of Holies was a perfect, cube-shaped room at the center of the Temple. It was the place where the glory of God spilled across the threshold of heaven, and to encounter that awful glory without being prepared was dangerous. It was only the high priest, and only once per year after he had meticulously prepared himself and made sacrifices for his own sins that he would enter. But the blood sacrifice he offered was not his own. It was from a lamb. The old covenant was not yet a sure path to salvation and the sacrifice had to be repeated each year because it did not quite meet expectations. It was a substitute for the real thing. The high priest did not give everything. He was not fully committed.

The problem was that the sacrifice needed to be perfect, a total gift of self without sin or blemish, and no human had been able to live such a life. What God was doing through the Old Covenant was slowly teaching us through symbols what it means to worship, to be holy, to be swaddled in the love of God. It also teaches us the cost of sin – blood must be shed and sacrifices made.

This is why the 2nd person of the Trinity took on human flesh, so that he could step in and, as our great high priest, become that lamb, a sacrifice which cost him everything. It made of him a bridegroom who vows My body is yours, My blood will spill out to the last drop for you.

You and me, well, we’re still imperfect, but we can now unite our imperfect sacrifices with his perfect sacrifice. And this we must do, because it’s what love demands. The gift may be small, it may be the equivalent of the poor widow’s coin, but our small gifts, when united to love, take on infinite value.

Throughout the years, Christians have taken this expectation seriously. Take, for instance, a woman named Julian in Norwich, England in the 14th century. She became an anchorite, meaning that she allowed herself to be walled up inside a little room in the Church and she never came out again. She had a small window through which she watched the mass and people brought her food, but essentially what she chose was a living entombment. She did it not because she was crazy, but because she loved Jesus very much and was so committed to him that she never wanted to leave his presence.

Following up on the marriage metaphor, the vows that the couple make are really brought to life by the arrival a baby, the living embodiment of how the two become one. I am amazed to watch a mother with her baby, how much of herself she gives. She feeds that little baby, loses sleep, and goes through so much physical sacrifice that it cannot help but seem the mother would do absolutely anything for that child.

These human relationships that are so inspiring draw their vitality directly from our relationship with God and help us see what he deserves and what we rightfully owe him. The answer cannot less than that we owe him everything, both because he deserves it and also because a heart that is truly in love desires to do so. There is no counting the cost. Every last coin is donated.

What we give may be large, it may be small – and hopefully it is clear that this is about much more than money – this is a matter of total commitment. And I know that sounds daunting, right, but when we compare it to a marriage, that helps me at least to understand what we’re talking about. It isn’t a cult, or a demand that you give Epiphany all your money, or wall yourself up in the cry room, it an invitation to respond with your whole heart to God’s covenant, stepping completely and unafraid into the Holy of Holies.

While she was in that room, Julian had a vision. Jesus told her, “If I could suffer more, I would suffer more.” Julian notes that, “He did not say: If it were necessary to suffer more, but: If I could suffer more.” In other words, Our Lord is totally committed, even beyond what is necessary.

The key to understanding the widow’s gift is in the story of the other widow, the one who gives her last flour to bake bread for the prophet Elijah. She gave it and then waited to starve and die. And here we have a symbol for the Eucharist, the Bread of Life to which we give everything and through which everything is given to us.

Have we given everything we have to Jesus, or are we holding anything back? Where are the sins we are hesitant to give up? Be brave and place your last coin at his service. Give the last of your wheat to him and find that, in return, he offers you the bread of eternal life.

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Where are our miscarried babies and why we pray for them

download (4)The month of November begins with All Saints, in which we celebrate the lives of the great heroes of the faith, then we have All Souls, in which we pray for the souls in purgatory who will one day be saints but aren’t quite there yet. These two days set the tone for November as a month to remember the dead. It’s a good time to visit the cemetery or take a moment at our shrine and write in a name and pray for the names already there.

So, that is two categories of people, the saints with whom we celebrate and the souls in purgatory for whom we pray, but there is another precious part of our family, and these are our infants who have miscarried. I think because our society struggles so mightily with the status of infants in the womb that we don’t quite know what to do. The Church affirms with all her heart that babies in the womb are human beings from the very moment of their conception and that our status as sons and daughters of God does not begin only with birth, or viability, or a certain, arbitrarily decided mental and physical development. We are all loved and cherished, no matter who we are, from conception to the grave. But this fact can be overlooked when it comes to miscarriages, so the infants aren’t given a funeral, the parents never tell anyone, the child is never named.

I want you to know that, if you or anyone you know is ever in this position, come to the Church. We will give your child a funeral, and pray for your child. That baby is a member of your family, now and forever. If you have had a miscarriage, you are a mother, you are a father, and we will always remember your child.

In Catholic theology, there has been some back-and-forth about the state of a child’s soul who has not yet been baptized. We know that these children are in a state of happiness and they are in the presence of the angels. They’re not in purgatory because they’ve never sinned. On the other hand, we also know that baptism is the sacrament of salvation, the ordinary way in which we gain entrance to heaven. So where are our children?

Yes, baptism is the ordinary means of salvation, but God is not limited by his sacraments. In the Catechism it says, “With respect to children who have died without Baptism, the liturgy of the Church invites us to trust in God’s mercy and to pray for their salvation.” The liturgy it is referencing is the funeral mass for children, and the prayer is this: “We entrust the soul of [this child] to the abundant mercy of God, that our beloved child may find a home in his kingdom.”

So the Church prays that the child be granted entrance to heaven. This prayer is possible because we can receive the sacraments by desire. So, for instance if you were in a state of mortal sin and could not receive communion, you would stay in your pew and make a spiritual communion, asking Jesus to feed you, and he does this. His grace overflows into our lives in all sorts of mysterious ways. Baptism is said to occur by desire in, say, an adult who has declared that he is going to be baptized and is preparing for it. If that adult dies before baptism, he’s said to have already received the sacrament by desire and is considered a Christian. Infants receive baptism because of the desire of their parents, and that desire is at least implicit from the beginning. So our prayer is that God show his mercy and honor that desire. We believe that he will, because in fact, he shares that desire. He is our great high priest and he offers sacrifice for us. Here is what Jesus says: “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” So what we have with unbaptized infants is a firm hope that they will be brought into heaven.

There is precedent for this in the Scriptures. St. John the Baptist was said to leap in his mother’s womb when he sensed that Jesus was near, and from that moment his original sin was removed. In other words, he received a baptism of desire.

Because so much of life is hidden from us, it is good to hope, even if all we can manage is to sit in silence, for the saving help of the Lord. No one knows why some are called directly to the bosom of Christ and others spend a lifetime on earth before heading home. Because of the grief of separation and feelings of helplessness, our hope must situate itself in the unseen promises of God.

There’s a medieval poem called “Pearl” that I think I’ve talked about before. In it, the poet grieves the death of his very young daughter, who he called Pearl. She is his treasure, taken from him, he says before she had even learned to pray her Lord’s Prayer. Lovesick, he sees her in a dream. His only desire is that she would be with him again. And what loving parent would say otherwise? But she speaks and in her childlike wisdom turns his world upside down. We are not our own, she says. We belong to God. And if we are pearls of great price, in order to redeem us God has paid that price, and if He now has one more pearl with him in heaven, she says, “I am wholly His.”

Pearl is a perfectly structured poem, every line, every syllable falls into place except for one, extra line that sticks out. The line reads, “Jesus on his faithful smiled.” Every pearl has a spot, an imperfection, and this extra line is the “spot” in the poem. In you and me the spot is our sin that leads to death, in this world that suffers the illness of sin, it is lives cut short and the mystery of the human condition. Yet the flaw does not mean that we are given up for lost, for in its darkness we find the Cross, Jesus our redemption, and so the spot is folded into the texture of our lives and becomes a mark of the goodness of God. As he looks upon his children, he smiles.

Whatever happens in life is folded into God’s goodness, and this is why we hope, why we pray, and how we declare today that although we may be separated for a time from those we love, nothing slips through his hands, and we are never alone, even in the womb we leap for joy to be near Jesus. How much more joy will we find waiting for us when we are gathered up to the saints.

And Jesus said, you are not far from the Kingdom of God.

How to expand your limitations

jesus-heals-blind-manThe prophet Jeremiah speaks of how the Israelites were led into captivity with tears in their eyes and in their midst was a moonless darkness. They were blind, lame, and homesick. These were the Chosen People of God, who had been delivered out of Egypt with great and terrible miracles, who had received the law on Mt. Sinai amid an awful display of divine power, who had built the Temple and seen it filled with the presence of God. They had watched as Moses radiated with the brightness that lingered from a glimpse at the face of God, a beatific vision that no one has ever been granted this side of Heaven. The Scriptures tell us that the light slowly faded on the countenance of Moses, but the source of the light is as luminous as ever, the face of God is an eternal dayspring, and although we only see it indirectly by shadow, we do see it. We have a nostalgia, a longing to see more clearly. And yet, the Israelites were marched away from that light in chains, the shadows covering their feet as the sun set behind them.

Bartimaeus shared in this darkness. He was born into it. Because of this, he was sensitive to even the smallest hint of light, and his very soul grasped the nearness of Jesus, the light of the world. He cries out. Not once, but repeatedly. There is a lesson for us in his actions.

When I look around, I see a lot of people who are seeking the light. They’re looking to find their place in the world, make their mark, discover a solution to human violence and loneliness. We are taught to dream big, to destroy conventions and define our own existence, and whatever that looks like, the key point, the secret to success, is to not let anybody else make you feel guilty. In your unfettered choices there is a supposed freedom and fulfillment, an escape from the darkness we all stumble through.

Look, you all, I had dreams. I was going to play point guard for the Chicago Bulls. I was going to write the great American novel and save future generations of schoolchildren the agony of having to keep reading Moby Dick. Those dreams are fine, it’s part of who we are to shoot for the moon, but they’re so rarified that we would be wise to not assume that simply because we want it to happen that it will happen. When we end up with a different result, that isn’t a failure. We all so desperately want to put our character flaws and sins behind us, to be bold and generous and friendly, and then in real life we get stressed out and indulge in bad habits and greed and impatience. That doesn’t mean you and I cannot make it; it means we have a path to travel. No matter where you are on that path, if you’re taking the next step forward, you are a success.

This is what Bartimaeus does. He accepts where he is at. He is in darkness, but in the darkness he cries out to God. This is the best sort of prayer, one that accepts human limitations, that is realistic, but still has a firm hope that darkness is not our destiny. He seeks redemption not in wild, fantastic dreams in which he is the hero who defines his own existence – instead he turns to Jesus, he turns to the light. When we accept who we are honestly, then we are set free to seek Jesus.

Bartimaeus is healed and, once he is able to see, he doesn’t hang out where he had been hanging out. He gets up and he follows Jesus. In other words, within his limitations, just as he is, he turns to God and finds his vocation. The same will happen with us. I realized, for instance, after I tried to write a novel that I really couldn’t do it. I realized that I didn’t have enough practice in the craft of writing and perhaps don’t have the attention span for sustained work like that. That’s why I like writing homilies, they aren’t too long. They say there’s a fine line between a homily and a hostage situation, so I try to keep it a reasonable length. St. Ambrose used to have the ushers lock the doors at the beginning of the homily so no one could get out. I’ve been tempted.

It’s an interesting connection, the connection of weakness and vocation, because Bartimaeus begins to see his vocation even while he is blind. He senses it in the approach of Christ. The monks at Silverstream Priory comment that, “Every time a man experiences his infirmity, it is an invitation to run to Christ. Or, if you are too weak and too weary to run to Him, or to walk to Him, or even to crawl to Him, you have only to call upon His name, and He will run to you, saying as He did to Bartimaeus, the blind beggar…“What wouldst thou have me do for thee?”

We find our vocation in our natural, God-given strengths, yes, but we also find our vocation in relying on the strength and grace of God and seeing where he will take us that is unexpected. If you would’ve asked me at age 18 if I could be a priest, I would’ve said no way. I’m introverted, shy away from controversy, and would get so nervous to sing that my throat would tighten up and I’d almost suffocate. But here I am. Why? Because Jesus. That’s it. It’s pretty awesome.

When we accept who we are including our limitations and flaws, cry out to God, and seek our vocation, does he this amazing thing – he enlarges the boundaries of who we are. Bartimaeus expands his desire. It occurs to him that he doesn’t need to be blind. Jesus is right there! So he cries out in persistence and prayer. We don’t always know how to pray or what to pray for or where God is leading us, but it is incredibly helpful to ask him to expand your desire. To simply spend time seeking the brightness of his presence. When we do that he runs to us, saying what can I do for you?

Prayer often begins in darkness. The Israelites finally repent and begin their journey home. Bartimaeus cries out. You and me? If we too accept who we are with humility and honesty, turn to Jesus to find our vocation, and allow him to lead us, just wait and see how much light floods into our lives and how much he will do for us whom he so dearly loves.

Links

A sampling of the stuff I’ve written over the past few months

Into the Halfway House – Called to Communion. My conversion story. Posted today on the 7 year anniversary of my reception into the Church

The Purpose of Education – Dappled Things. Thoughts on homeschooling and what we can learn from them

Let St. Margaret Mary Alacoque help you develop self-confidence – Aleteia

What Bert and Ernie can teach us about friendship – Aleteia

Saturn is still eating his children – Dappled Things. Continuing thoughts about the clergy abuse scandal

Why making (and changing) birth plans is important – Aleteia. The gripping tale of our crazy pregnancies

 

Prudence is the most important virtue we don’t think about

ParadisoAragona-1200x700If God offered to answer a prayer you want, any prayer, what would you pray for? If you could have any one thing, would it be wealth, long life, beauty, world peace?

In the book of Wisdom, the author says, “I prayed for prudence.”

That gives me pause. When is the last time I ever prayed for prudence? Or wisdom? To know God’s will? Prudence, the scriptures tell us, is better than scepter and throne. Without prudence – power, intelligence, beauty – we won’t be able to use them in a healthy way, they will use us, they will destroy us. We see it all the time – pop stars, actors, people who inherit great wealth at a young age – it seems like they have it all, and yet if they have the world but lack of prudence they aren’t happy, they become captive to their success and come to a bad end. Prudence is the most important.

So, what is it?

Prudence is often misunderstood, which is why St. Teresa of Avila says that, in a soul seeking perfection, people may consider that something in them, “is a fault which perhaps is a virtue.” The saints may be mocked for being weak, or too modest, or lacking in ambition, but actually, out of prudence, they have identified spiritual gifts as most important. Their lives are arranged by a different standard of success and that choice is misunderstood.

The virtues and the spiritual gifts are interior treasures, they adorn the soul, and thus they are more permanent and more valuable. One simple definition of a virtue is that it is a constant and firm habit for the good. A virtue is part of our character, it shapes who we are.

There are many virtues, but the Church has identified for us 7 that are particularly important. You may have memorized these. Here they are: temperance, justice, courage, prudence, faith, hope, love. The first four are called the Cardinal Virtues, from the Latin word cardo, meaning “hinge.” These virtues are the hinge upon which the other virtues depend. Temperance means moderation in all things. Justice means to give to others what they deserve, courage means remaining firm to your conscience in all situations, and prudence is a form of practical wisdom. The Greek word for prudence is phronesis, meaning, “to think.” The three other virtues – faith, hope, and love – are called the theological virtues. They are the natural completion and companion of all of the natural virtues. The greatest of these, we know, is love.

Prudence is the most important of the natural virtues, and the medieval writers often called it the Queen of the virtues, because it connects abstract knowledge to a concrete situation. It helps us to apply the other virtues in our everyday lives. It helps us to see more clearly, which is why Dante compares it to the sun. It is the light by which we see clearly. A prudent person not only has book knowledge but also a lot of wisdom and good instincts in applying that knowledge. It isn’t just knowing the correct result we want to achieve, it is know the correct way to get there.

To give you an example, this is why a priest should never tell you who to vote for or what political party to align with. When it comes to governance, Christians have certain moral goals. We want social justice, and freedom, and to promote the common good. Those are abstract ideals that we all agree about, but practically speaking how to achieve those is a matter of prudence, and here we have differing ideas. A priest can confidently tell you that we must promote social justice. That’s a firm teaching of the Church. What I might not have is more prudence than you.

To connect this with our Gospel reading, the rich young man had a certain decision to make about his wealth. He needed prudence. We all have decisions to make. Will I volunteer for this? Should we have another child? Public school or private school? Do I need to apologize or reach out to a friend who I seem to have hurt?

Every day we require prudence. We don’t acquire it by magic, but through actively working for it. So how do we become more prudent?

First, practice! Experience is practical and even when we make mistakes if we are willing to learn from them that is the biggest factor in becoming prudent. This is why our parents and grandparents are the best source of wisdom. It’s like when you’re a kid and your mom tells you to take a jacket because it’s going to get cold later, but you don’t listen to her and then later you get really cold and wish you had a jacket (I played out that exact scenario a few weeks ago. I got really cold). She has prudence, kids are still figuring it out (I hope you’re listening, kids). But you learn. Over time you learn how to examine a situation and make smart, good decisions.

This relates to the second thing, be willing to take counsel. It takes some humility to admit that mother knows best, but it is true. As a priest, I constantly bug other priests for advice. What do you do when this happens? Have you ever tried this, how did it go? What’s working for you in your parish? I’m sure I’m super annoying but I don’t care.

Third, because prudence is a practical virtue it involves real-life situations. It helps to have the knowledge, too, because we need it as the basis for decisions. If you don’t know Church teachings about social justice, how are you going to apply those teachings and choose the best political candidate? We don’t want to be acting on impulse or uninformed opinions, we want some solid basis for our choices. Get rid of prejudice. Be humble. Listen. Learn. Seek the truth even if it’s uncomfortable.

Fourth, be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. We don’t need to rush into decisions and we shouldn’t only rely on human sources of knowledge. Pray and God will help you.

Pray for prudence. Ask God to guide you to sure answers, to desire the right things, to see the correct path. This is what the rich young ruler lacked. He had followed every law, he had all the money, but he had no practical wisdom, and so he turned down the greatest deal of his life. He chose wealth over Jesus.

If you could have anything you want, seek prudence. Seek virtue, and most all seek the one who is all goodness and all virtue, to know him better, to love him better, to value him alone as your greatest treasure.