Spiritual Thoughts on the Desert

The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert in preparation for entering the Promised Land, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before beginning to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God. In the early Church (as the threat of martyrdom waned) the desert became a place that was sought for spiritual renewal. As Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire and become more publicly acceptable there was a much greater temptation to mediocrity/lukewarmness. The early flame of lives transformed by the Gospel seemed to be less bright. Christians such as St Anthony the Abbot sought out the desert as a place to reconnect with this early fire. I think we face the same challenge today, and thought I’d share some thoughts about entering our yearly desert of Lent:

  1. The desert was a place where some of the noise and clutter of daily life was set aside. Therefore, it could be a special place of encounter with God in prayer. Jesus often prayed to his Father in the wilderness. We need this nourishment of prayer, too. Why do we stay away from it, or see it as a burden? Imagine someone that is a coffee drinker—coffee to them is seen as a source of life that helps them to enter into the day rather than a burden or obligation that must be laboriously accomplished. It is true that prayer at times includes an aspect of “spiritual combat” (petition, etc), but if this is our only experience of prayer then perhaps we are being called to include more relational prayer in our spiritual life. Find or make space for prayer, and spend time in conversation with God. Receive from his grace, and renew your desire for the life of Christ.
  2. However, the desert is also a place of trial, and this may be why we stay away from it. By stripping away distractions it brings us face to face with some of our difficulties and the challenges of silence. We become more aware of our unhealthy attachments or addictions. As we encounter these difficult truths, though, we can allow God to work to truly heal us. We invite the grace of God into this practice of discipline and seek freedom for love and fidelity. Why are we afraid of silence, or spiritual discipline? What might this reveal to us about what is in need of healing?
  3. Finally, the desert is a place of preparation. Christianity is not a religion that seeks suffering as a final goal, or the annihilation of self. Instead, as our freedom grows the love of God and neighbor reach more profound depths. We enter deeper into communion with others while becoming more fully that person we were created to be. The desert wasn’t the final stop for the Israelites, Jesus, or the saints. Instead, it was a step to something greater to come

God bless!

What are the traditional practices of Lent?

The traditional practices of Lent are drawn from Matthew 6: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Jesus warns about doing these for the wrong reason, but gives this instruction assuming that his disciples will be practicing these three exercises! I think they work together to complement each other and allow Lent to truly renew us.

Prayer simply refers to conversation with God. It has times when it is done in common (for us, especially Mass or the other sacrament), and also in the silence of our hearts. We should have a plan for both. Furthermore, I think adult prayer needs to include some time of reflection/meditation. Spiritual reading (Scripture, a saint, etc) or devotions (eg the Rosary or Stations of the Cross) can help with this. If you are feeling discouraged at prayer I encourage you to seek out someone’s advice. I think we can expect the depth of our conversion to God to match the depth of our prayer!

Fasting means deliberately setting something aside, especially food. The Church gives the simple direction of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, along with abstaining from meat on each Friday. We can fast in other ways by setting aside other things (I think “screen time” is a good candidate here) and seeking a more simple life. I think a good practice is to always fast for a purpose. For example, Pope Francis has asked that our sacrifice on the Friday of the first full week of Lent be offered for peace in the many ongoing conflicts throughout the world, particularly those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. When we feel the absence of the thing we are fasting from we can be reminded to pray for this intention.

Almsgiving refers directly to giving money to the poor, but in general can include any of the works of mercy. The “great commandment” includes both love of God and love of neighbor, and so naturally I think both need to be included in a well-planned Lent. It is easy to focus primarily on ourselves even in our spiritual life. One way to approach this is to look for opportunities in the week ahead on Sunday (or even in the day ahead during the morning), and set some small resolution.

Finally, I want to mention a couple of things that I think can help with Lenten goals in general. First, if we can set resolutions as part of a group of family/friends I think that helps us to persevere. Second, I think we should check-up with ourselves occasionally and reformat goals if need be so that a bad stretch doesn’t de-rail us completely. The goal is to invite God into our lives in a transformative way, and to work with His grace to bear good fruit. God bless!

The Epiphany and Seeking God

My favorite reflection on the feast of the Epiphany comes from GK Chesterton. [Side note: the Epiphany is the day we commemorate the visit of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings to Christ. In the Church it represents in general the public revelation of the identity of Christ, so can also include Jesus’ baptism or the wedding feast at Cana, his first public miracle]. The reflection comes from his book Everlasting Man—a book that deserves a post in itself! I found it dense and a little difficult to work through, but very rewarding.

Chesterton writes about the way mankind has watched the stars. The panorama of stars at night has been an encounter with transcendence since time immemorial. It has spawned mythologies, stories, and legends. He sees the primordial myth as the belief in some “great sky god,” which over time becomes developed into a whole pantheon of deities, heroes, and the like. On the other hand, he points out that the night sky has also inspired the work of astronomers and physicists. The movement of the stars has been a fascinating mystery for scholars to puzzle out.

I think of this as an “Epiphany” reflection because he connects this with the two groups that come and encounter the infant Christ—the shepherds and the Magi. The shepherds represent a group that probably sat around the campfire at night looking at the stars, and can embody the first sort of seeker described above. In their stories and mythologies about the constellations there is an expression of a desire to encounter an otherworldly creature here among us. The mythologies bring the transcendent down to earth and make it tangible (even if only in imagination). The Magi are also star-gazers, but with a different desire. They have some study of the nature of the movement of the stars, but have been moved to a deeper question. Beyond just wanting to know *how* the stars are moving, they want to know *why.* What is the significance of this new star that they have seen? This inspires them on their journey.

Both find the answer in Bethlehem. The Shepherds encounter God-with-us, Emmanuel—not just in the imagination but in the flesh! Likewise, the Magi encounter the deeper meaning to which their study has led them. Both groups have moved from an experience of wonder (the stars of heaven), to a search (one by imagination and another by study), and finally to an encounter.

This presentation by Chesterton always reminds me of the saying, “atheism began with the invention of the street light.” In other words, as light pollution in cities blocked our ability to see the stars, we lost the sense of the transcendent. The deeper questions don’t matter as much as we are consumed with everyday things. This isn’t to say that the astrology/mythologies inspired by the stars are a sufficient argument for God left to themselves, but they are a spark to the search. The awe that they inspired led the Magi to the *search,* which led them to the encounter. The Magi had real questions, and wanted to search for the fullest answer. I think this teaches us that having questions about God/faith/etc is not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t something that we just have to hold without thought or reflection. Instead, those questions can lead to encounter. Too often, though, we let the questions die on the vine. We don’t follow them far enough. Often “questioning my faith” means at best reading a couple of Facebook articles or something (I recognize the irony of writing that on a blog that links through social media!). What we need is the search of the Magi, that followed the question. We need to spend time with the best and most profound explanations available—whether by speaking with a knowledgeable person, reading a book, listening to talks, etc. This is how we truly engage the question.

What about us—what questions do we have? How have we followed them? Through them, may we seek an encounter with the Lord.

What is my favorite Christmas movie?

There are plenty of Christmas movies that I enjoy and highly recommend, but with no doubt my favorite is the Muppet Christmas Carol. I have watched it every year for quite some time, and it is always as good (or better!) than I remember. It has become part of our family tradition. At some point, after the Masses and dinner, we gather and watch it together. I love the songs and humor. I love the joy of Fozziwig’s party (and excellent commentary by Statler and Waldorf). But, what I think sets it apart is the way that it combines these elements with the spiritual depth of Dickens’ original work. The narrator (Gonzo) and Scrooge (Michael Caine) largely follow the words of the book, which adds a seriousness that blends very well with the fun. It continues to inspire me to conversion of life and to the joy that comes from living the Gospel. If you get chance, check it out. God bless!

What is the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe?

The title “Our Lady of Guadalupe” comes from an event in the life of St Juan Diego in Mexico in 1531. He was walking to church for Mass on the Immaculate Conception and passed by the hill of Tepeyac (near modern Mexico City). He saw a lady standing upon it, who called to him and introduced herself as the immaculate Mother of God. Mary asked for a church to be built on that hill where God could give his blessings (this was before the Christian faith was widespread in Mexico). She sent him to the bishop with the request. The bishop asked for a sign before he would accept this message, and at the same time Juan Diego’s uncle fell very sick. Juan Diego was torn by his sense of being an unworthy messenger and the needs of his uncle, and so tried to avoid the task. But, Mary encountered him again and assured him with the words, “Am I not here? Am I not your mother?” She directed him to some flowers that had bloomed on the hill (out of season for December), and so he gathered these in his tilma (a cloak made of cactus fibers) to present as the sign for the bishop. However, when he lowered the tilma to release the flowers, the image of our Lady of Guadalupe appeared upon it (the name comes from a title she was heard to say which refers to the act of crushing the head of the serpent, as in Genesis 3:15). At this, the bishop accepted the message as authentic and the church was built. Juan Diego stayed on as the caretaker, with the general public not knowing his role in the events until after his death. It became a place of great pilgrimage and the tilma with the image is still intact in the Shrine in Mexico City, despite almost five centuries (and the first few of those without any form of preservation).

The impact of this encounter was massive. It made a statement that God desired to be present here, and in communion with the people here. As in the “original Advent,” Christ was about to come to birth, and Mary was carrying his presence (see Luke 1:39-46). Mary had appeared to an indigenous, humble man. She had likewise arrived in an appearance that the people of the time would recognize, as one of them. The continued presence of the tilma throughout the centuries has corresponded with the continued faith in what it represents: God with us. It presents both a comfort and encouragement to us, and also a reminder of who we are called to be. We encounter the love of God, and then this encounter develops into a relationship. By discipleship we allow God to form us in His own image (rather than seeking to remake God in our own image). Then, we are sent out as Christ-bearers into the world.

The traditional acclamation for the day is, “¡Que viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! – ¡Que viva!” “Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe! – May she live!” (similar to the cry of ¡Viva Cristo Rey! – Long live Christ the King!). The acclamation emphasizes that this is a faith of life. Christ is no longer dead, but continues to live. The saints continue to live with Him. We are invited to enter into this same life. God continuously invites us to an encounter that can blossom into a new life. May He live in us, and us in Him. ¡Que viva!

What is Catholic about Halloween?

On the surface there isn’t much that looks Catholic (or even religious) about Halloween. One of the most basic elements is, though—the name! It is a shortening of the phrase “All Hallows’ Eve” (“e’en” and “eve” are both short forms of “evening”), which in turn indicates that it is the evening before All Saints’ Day (“hallowed” is another way to say “holy,” as in the Our Father “hallowed be Thy name”). It forms part of what might be called the Fall Holy Week! Like the celebration of Easter in the Spring, we have a whole run of special days.

October 31st, as the vigil for a major feast day, is a time in the Catholic liturgical cycle to prepare and/or begin to celebrate the coming day. Parts of the current cultural celebration flow from other sources, but still the opportunity remains to keep this context in mind. A classic way would be to spend the first part of the day as a time of preparation (maybe by setting aside time for prayer/reflection, making a sacrifice for the day, or doing work of mercy), and then spending the latter part with a celebration/thanksgiving!

On November 1st (a holy day of obligation for us) we take a moment to commemorate all of the saints in heaven—named or unnamed. We give thanks God for the gift of their holiness, we ask for their prayers, and we seek to learn from their lives. I’ve already mentioned this a number of other times on this blog, but I have found the communion of saints to be a tremendously strong help in the spiritual life!

November 2nd is generally referred to as All Souls’ Day in the US (or Día de los Muertos in Spanish), and on it we commemorate all of the faithful departed. We pray that by the purifying power of the Redemption of Christ they may enter into the full company of the saints (I’ll have to post more about praying for the deceased another time!). Black vestments may be used, which is not to signify despair but rather compassion for the solemnity of the loss of a loved one (like waiting with them during the night for the dawn). As with a funeral, the priest may also wear white vestments (signifying the Resurrection) or purple (which we wear in times of purification or petition). There is a special indulgence (again, something for another post!) if we visit a cemetery to pray for the deceased in the week following. Finally, in this spirit of compassion, many places also include prayers for those who have lost loved ones in the past year on this day. All Souls’ is a fitting time since it falls just before the start of the holiday season (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, etc), which can be especially difficult after a significant loss. Consider reaching out to someone you know that might be in need of support, or searching for support if you are struggling.

I encourage you to enter into these holy days. The liturgical calendar of celebrations gives a powerful way to let our daily life enter into harmony with our life of faith! It gives us moments to renew our devotion or to focus on particular needs. May we support each other this week through the Communion of Saints!

Who are the archangels?

September 29th is the feast day for the archangels in the Catholic Church. We list three- Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Michael is referenced in the Old Testament book of Daniel (chapters 10 and 12), the letter of Jude in the New Testament, and the book of Revelation. Gabriel also appears in Daniel (chapters 8 and 9), and in the first chapter of Luke (appearing to Mary and Zechariah). Raphael appears in the Old Testament book of Tobit, and is sometimes connected with the angel in John 5. They represent three ways that angels serve in the Scriptures: to protect, to announce, and to heal. I’ll let St Gregory the Great take it the rest of the way! (From Homily 34)

You should be aware that the word “angel” denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message. Moreover, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels; and those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels. And so it was that not merely an angel but the archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary. It was only fitting that the highest angel should come to announce the greatest of all messages.
  Some angels are given proper names to denote the service they are empowered to perform. In that holy city, where perfect knowledge flows from the vision of almighty God, those who have no names may easily be known. But personal names are assigned to some, not because they could not be known without them, but rather to denote their ministry when they came among us. Thus, Michael means “Who is like God”; Gabriel is “The Strength of God”; and Raphael is “God’s Remedy.”
  Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that his action and his name may make it clear that no one can do what God does by his superior power. So also our ancient foe desired in his pride to be like God, saying: I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven; I will be like the Most High. He will be allowed to remain in power until the end of the world when he will be destroyed in the final punishment. Then, he will fight with the archangel Michael, as we are told by John: A battle was fought with Michael the archangel.
  So too Gabriel, who is called God’s strength, was sent to Mary. He came to announce the One who appeared as a humble man to quell the cosmic powers. Thus God’s strength announced the coming of the Lord of the heavenly powers, mighty in battle. Raphael means, as I have said, God’s remedy, for when he touched Tobit’s eyes in order to cure him, he banished the darkness of his blindness. Thus, since he is to heal, he is rightly called God’s remedy.