Sunday, December 15, 2013

Conditions for True Joy

“Man should take joy as seriously as he takes himself.” 
            So wrote German priest Fr. Alfred Delp, in his reflections for Gaudete Sunday, 1944. This Jesuit had a particular affinity for Advent, the season of waiting and preparing for God's coming to us.
            Living in Nazi Germany, he knew all too well how one could question, “Is there any point bothering about joy? On that third Sunday of Advent, whose theme is joy, he encouraged belief in the possibility of true joy:
            “[Man] should believe in himself, believe in his heart and in his Lord God, even through darkness and distress—that he is created for joy.... We are created for a life that knows itself to be blessed, sent, and touched at its deepest center by God Himself.
“The conditions for true joy have nothing to do with the conditions of our exterior life, but consist of man’s interior frame of mind and competence, which make it possible now and again for him to sense, even in adverse external circumstances, what life is basically about.”
       Delp knew something about “adverse circumstances.” An outspoken critic of the Nazis, he had been arrested and tortured; he wrote these words from a Berlin prison, wearing handcuffs day and night and awaiting his execution.
       No wonder then, that he would ask: “How should we live so that we are capable—or can become capableof true joy?”
       Still a pastor, Fr. Delp did not ask merely for himself. He wrote reflections from his cell, which were smuggled out and shared with his flock. The answer he gives in part is this:
         “Joy in human life has to do with God. Creatures can bring us joy in various forms and can provide an occasion for joy and rejoicing, but the actual success of this depends upon whether we are still capable of joy and familiar with it. And conditional upon our personal relationship to the Lord God. Only in God is man fully capable of life.
            “Holiness and happiness intrinsically belong together.”


From Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings; 1941-1944, a collection of Fr. Delp's Advent reflections published by Ignatius Press.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Resisting a Commercial Christmas

Every year, my husband and I strive to escape from the all-consuming consumerism that has come to characterize this season. 
      I know there are plenty of other parents out there who struggle to keep Christ at the center of the celebration of Christmas. One wonders where the custom of giving gifts even originated. It is apparently a more recent phenomenon that arose in the West.
      It makes sense, on the one hand, considering that Jesus said, Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me. Since we can't give Him material gifts on his birthday (something we typically do nowadays with our friends and family), we give them instead to our loved ones, in whom Christ resides.
     But He also resides in the poor, who need material gifts far more than most of us do.  And the Church tells us we are to make a "preferential option for the poor". What exactly that looks like in each person's life will differ, but it doesn't mean forgetting the poor or putting them in last place.
     Don't we all admire those rare folks we hear about who opt not to exchange gifts with each other, but instead use that money to give to the poor? Some also spend Christmas serving at a soup kitchen.
     A variety of reasons, however, might make that not work for other families. There's also certainly a place for showing our loved ones love on that day too. 
     While there's nothing wrong with giving material gifts to our loved ones, still many of us really don't need any more stuff. Our homes are already so stuffed we're running out of places to put it all. 
     Moreover, Mother Teresa of Calcutta noticed that we of the West are spiritually poor. Just about everybody could use some help in his or her spiritual life.
      Here then are ten counter-consumer-culture gift ideas. Some are gifts that help the spirit. Others, by costing less, reserve some funds for the less fortunate while challenging the must-get-the-lastest-gizmo mindset. Some fit both categories.
  1. As I said last week, one can support a monastery or convent by purchasing their goodssuch as Mystic Monk Coffee, Trappist Abbey Bakery desserts, or handmade rosaries & sacrifice beads from the Franciscan Sisters. Also check out what your local religious goods store has available.
  2. How about a book from a publisher like Ignatius Press, PaulineSophia, or Catholic Answers? Some of them also carry music, movies, religious artwork, and children's books. You can support wonderful apostolates while giving a terrific gift.
  3. A subscription to Magnificat or Word among Us can really aid a loved one's Mass and prayer times. Or a subscription to Catholic Answers magazine, Catholic Digest, or other magazine can help with living the faith on a daily basis.
  4. Ornament made from old Christmas cards
  5. Homemade gifts seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur, but I'm not sure why. My kids had fun last year making decorative, fun, and/or useful gifts that were all the more meaningful coming from their hands. Our tradition growing up was for the kids to make "bourbon balls" as gifts for our extended family.
  6. Create your own couponsanything from giving a massage, to a home improvement project, to making dinner, to a lunch date, to whatever you can think of.
  7. Spiritual gifts are another beautiful option: pray a holy hour for someone and send them a card (many adoration chapels have pre-printed cards available). Have a Mass said for someone at your parish or by your favorite religious order.  Alone or with others, gather a spiritual "bouquet" of prayers for someone and list them on a card.
  8. Create a personal gift. Compose a poem or a song or a heartfelt letter telling of your love for someone or how much they mean to you. Delight grandparents with recordings of their grandchildren singing Christmas carols or videos of the toddler's latest achievements. Grandparents, in turn, could record themselves retelling favorite family tales, or parents, reading a favorite story. Or dig out those photos and put together an album or scrapbook of wonderful memories (no need to go overboard buying scrap-booking paraphernalia).
  9. With the great variety of fonts and decorative papers available these days, one can print and frame lovely renderings of Scripture passages, such as 1 Corinthians 13 ("Love is patient...") or Colossians ("Bear with one another...").
  10. We tend to think a gift must be new, but our ancestors knew the value of giving something of their ownan heirloom or item with sentimental value.
  11. Give the gift of yourselves: Open your home and your heart and invite someone who might otherwise be alone on Christmas. Bake a cake for baby Jesus and don't forget to sing "Happy Birthday."
     Whatever we do, let's make sure to spend some time with the Birthday Boy. And while we're at it, let's ask Him what's on His wish list this year and strive to give Him something He'd like for His birthday.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Keeping Advent Well

As our family, alone in our neighborhood (probably alone in our city, maybe even our state—it is awfully hard to find purple lights, after all), puts up our Advent decorations today, I think of my friend Joan. She, who is a thousand times more organized than I, once told me that she aimed to get all her Christmas shopping done before Advent. That way she could focus on the spiritual aspects of the season, getting her heart ready for the coming of Jesus. 
     Every year, I think that would be such a great thing to do. And every year I remember it just before or just as Advent begins. *Sigh.* 
      Well, it's not too late to make some liturgical new year's resolutions. Here are some ideas:
  1. Put out a bowl of straw next to the creche as a reminder to make little sacrifices for Jesus, putting a straw in his manger for each one. Aim to make it very cushy for him by Christmas.
  2. Commit to some extra prayer this season, a few times a week if not daily. Pay Jesus a brief visit at a church during every shopping expedition, for instance. Pray Advent prayers every evening, especially the O antiphons.
  3. Simplify as much as possible. Buy everyone something yummy made by some monks or cloistered nuns, for example. That will make shopping much easier, while also supporting a very worthy cause, a part of our larger, Church family.
  4. Think about what you can give Jesus this year for his birthday. He probably wants something super personal--like that little corner of the heart that self is clinging to--rather than something material.
  5. Don't forget the poor. Whatever we do for them, we do for Him.
  6. Think outside the box. Consider if there is some self-indulgent tradition that you or your family could replace with a new, more outward-oriented tradition.
  7. Hold Christmas parties during the Christmas season rather than during Advent.
Come, O come, Emmanuel!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Secret to Balance

A month ago, my new doctor told me to try to find stress-free time: ideally two hours a day, I was "to relax, with the intention of doing nothing."
    I was incredulous. How could I possibly do that?
     When people learn that I have six children, they often say, "I don't know how you do it all!" And I usually respond, "I don't." But that doesn't mean I don't keep trying (and failing). There are never enough hours in the day to take care of everything.
      What weighs most heavily on me is the challenge to get in as many hours as a freelancer as I should, especially with a toddler in the house. It's makes keeping my priorities straight quite the struggle. I keep trying to put God first, then my family, then my work, but that order always seem to be flipping over. It's like trying to balance an egg on its tip.
      The doctor (also a friend) clarified that praying counted. Also exercise. So did playing with the babyas long as I didn't plan my day at the same time.
     A light turned on. This was an opportunity to do what I should do anyway. A way to get that priority egg back upright.
     But putting this into action would require some trust. (This is yet another example of a pattern I've noticed. Every time I think I've learned to trust God, He comes back with, "Oh yeah? How about now?" and ups it a notch.) 
     To do this would mean that I'd really need to entrust my time to the Lord. Trust that if I didn't get to everything, including my paid work, it would be okay. Trust that He would provide for us, or give us the grace to get by with less.    
     So I've been trying to sit with my little one during breakfast, rather than use it as a chance to check my email. (She's not much of a conversationalist yet, but I believe spending that time  communicates something important to her.) I'm getting to daily Mass more often, getting my prayer time in earlier and (thanks be to God) with better concentration. I'm trying to remember not only to love my kids indirectlyby helping to provide for them and washing their clothes, making their meals, etc.but also to love them directly, by spending more time with them. I'm running in the park a few times a week.
     And it's working. I not only feel better physically, but in every other way too. Most importantly, I feel more at peace, and that's got to be better for my family, and be a better witness to Christ's presence in my life.

     Matthew Kelly, in Rediscover Catholicism, wrote, "We're not here to solve problems. Problems are here to solve us."
     Looks like that's the case with my rheumatoid arthritis. God's using it to help me along the path to heaven, and become closer to Him.
     After a long time of having almost too much work, there was a little lull in my freelance projects recently. But last night, at our annual parish patronal celebration, our family won third-prize in the cash raffle—just the amount to make up the difference.  
     He is trustworthy.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Catching Some Rays

The sun is 93 million miles from the earth—just the right distance to promote life on our planet. Any closer would be too hot; any further would be too frigid.
      This is a pretty good deal for us, because the sun happens to be absolutely essential to our earthly existence. It is, after all, the ultimate energy source for every living thing on earth. No sun would mean no plants, which would mean no animals, including us. It gives us light and warmth. Its power and beauty have fascinated mankind across time and culture.

But as intriguing as our human race has always found the sun, we have never been and will never be able to visit it. There is no substance known to man that could protect us from the intensity of its rays, if we tried like Icarus to get close to it.

      I like to think of God as the ultimate Poet, the ultimate Artist. In that light, the sun is one of His most potent creations, not merely in actual size and power, but also in beauty and symbolism. There are so many ways He is like the sun in our lives.

And just like we could never survive a flight to the sun, neither could we survive coming in our natural state into the direct presence of God. This is reflected in the Old Testament belief that seeing the face of God meant death. Not that there's anything wrong with God; rather His holiness and power, His divinity, were too much for a puny creature to bear. It would be like coming face to face with the sun, that incredible ball of fire over 100 times bigger than the earth.

       There is only one way something could come close to the sun and survive: only if that something itself was ablaze.

A number of saints have likened the love of God to fire. Perhaps because Jesus said He had come to set the world on fire and He wished it were already blazing.

       This may explain the mystery of hell and Purgatory to us when they seem incompatible with a loving and merciful God.   

       This life is our time to be lit with the light of Christ. St. Paul tells us that it is in dying to ourselves and letting Christ live in us, it is in being members of His Body, that we gain eternal life (Rom 6:3-11; Gal 2:20; 2 Tim 2:11). It is by becoming the same substance as the Son, only in having His life within us, that we can live eternally.

      The more we do that, the more prepared we are to meet Him. If we are of His substance, then as little flames we can dance in close proximity to the fiery Son. 
       The thing is, it is only in this life that we can make that transformation, that we can become fire ourselves.  In the next life, we can only burn. If we are flames of the Divine Fire, we will burn perpetually, like the burning bush, without being consumed.
       If not, if we refuse to undertake this transformation—which we can freely chose to do—then when we pass away from this earth and are then drawn irresistibly to God, the true center of our existence, we will merely get burned.

       If we have only made a partial transformation—the case for most of us—then that in us which is not of God’s substance, what is not already aflame, will be burned away, though we ourselves, St. Paul assures us will be saved (1 Cor 3:15).

       November is the month in Catholic tradition dedicated to the souls in Purgatory. Perhaps we can remember these souls who are undergoing this process, said to be more painful after death than during life. Let us pray for them and look for opportunities to make sacrifices for them, opportunities at the same time to die to ourselves and let the love of Christ burn in us, shedding light and warmth to those around us. 

For more on Purgatory, see also "Revamping Purgatory's Reputation" and "Personal Postscript".

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"Making Known His Merciful Love"

Given free rein to choose whichever religious orders I wished for the Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly article I was assigned last summer, I had to include a personal favorite, the Franciscan Sisters, TOR. This fairly new order is a beautiful fruit sprouting from Franciscan University of Steubenville, my alma mater, and I went to school with some of the sisters.
     What is immediately striking about them is their joy.

     Whenever I go back to the Steubenville area and see them around town or on campus, their peace and unusual joy is practically palpable. They move in an aura of goodness and bring with them a breath of heaven.
     This year is the order's 25th anniversary. In that time, their numbers have grown to 37, serving in a motherhouse monastery in Toronto, and three mission houses, with talk of another opening someday at Ohio University.
     The Franciscan Sisters, like many Franciscan orders, blend the contemplative and apostolic life. Their mission is somewhat broad; as their website puts it: "The heart of our life of ministry is to make known God’s merciful love, particularly among the poor, the sick, and those in need of renewal of faith." As Sister Della Marie Doyle, Vocations Coordinator, explained it to me, "Our ministries fall under the umbrella of evangelization and works of mercy. So there’s a wide variety of things that can be done."
     What that looks like in daily life ranges from serving the poor in downtown Steubenville through a thrift-store and soup kitchen, to campus ministry at Franciscan both in Ohio and its campus in Austria, to tending the sick, and leading parish missions and retreats. 
     It all begins in prayer though: "As contemplative penitents committed to works of mercy, prayer is our primary ministry. Our life and mission flow from our life of prayer," the website states. 
     "Our work is an extension of our prayer," Sr. Della Marie adds. "But it’s necessary to have that time first where you’re just before the Lord and open yourself up and it helps you to really enter into your work in a more contemplative spirit."  
     To learn more about them, visit their website or Facebook page.
     Their hand-made religious articles are also worth checking out.