What is Divine Mercy Sunday?

The second Sunday of Easter (i.e., one week after Easter Sunday) is celebrated in the Catholic Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. The day has had a long history as a special occasion since it is the “octave” (eighth day) of the great feast, including celebration for the newly baptized. Also, it corresponds to one of the Biblical apparitions. The Gospel read at Mass is always John 20:19-31, which recounts Jesus’ appearance to the Apostles after His resurrection. It includes Jesus’ initial words of “Peace be with you,” and when He breathes the Holy Spirit on the Apostles to commission them for the forgiveness of sins. Another important part is the absence of Thomas and his statement that he will not believe the resurrection until he sees the wounds. Jesus appears the following Sunday to make this revelation, which corresponds to this second Sunday of Easter.

The specific Divine Mercy devotion comes from St Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun that lived from 1905-1938. She received many messages in prayer of Jesus’ desire to spread the truth of His mercy throughout the world. She recorded these in her diary, but was always very cautious about discerning to make sure this was truly the will of God. Over time her writings were approved, and have borne great fruit! Considering the World War that occurred during her life and the second that came just as she was passing, there certainly was a great awareness of this need for mercy. She wrote many beautiful prayers and reflections which have helped many (including myself!) to gain a great awareness of the greatness of Divine Mercy. She commissioned an artist to draw an image of Christ with rays of blood and water coming forth from His heart (as happened when He was pierced on the Cross) as a symbol of this mercy, with the phrase “Jesus, I trust in You” written at the bottom. In particular, her message was very dear to Pope John Paul II, who officially introduced the title into the liturgy.

To return to the Gospel of the day, we see the way that Jesus pours out His mercy on the Apostles (who were well aware of their lack of faithfulness during His suffering and death), and at the same time commissions them to go forth and spread this mercy. I think this is such an important truth—the awareness of God’s mercy in our own life is a powerful foundation for our mission in the world. I encourage you to learn more about her if this message is of interest to you. May we continue to open ourselves to the mercy of God, and to spread this to the ends of the earth!

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!

What is practical atheism?

In earlier posts I have discussed atheism from a theoretical perspective. However, I think the bigger presence of atheism actually exists in what might be called “practical atheism.” In other words, it means that we may profess belief in God in our words, but not show evidence of it in what we do. I sometimes call this the “alien test.” If an alien were to observe our life, what would they list as our priorities? Would they see an impact of faith on a practical level?

Pope Francis addresses this in his Apostolic Exhortation Joy of the Gospel under the name “practical relativism.” He writes, “This practical relativism consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist” (paragraph #80).  I think this disconnect is one of the biggest challenges for us personally as believers, and in fact one of the biggest challenges to passing on the faith. I am thankful to God for places where I can see that God’s grace has borne fruit in my life, but also am aware of many other times where I can fall into this attitude!

We admire the transformation that we see flowing from the lives of holy men and women. We want to be part of the good things that are happening in the Church. But, this asks of us a true step of faith to change priorities and habits. It requires discipline and encountering the Cross, but the alternative is slavery to the senses and a life that does not bear fruit. It is a joyful thing to encounter the truth of the Gospel, to let it transform our life, and to bear good fruit. Is there anywhere in our life that we see we might give a counter-witness against the Gospel? What change might we feel called to make?

God bless!

What is reconciliation?

Reconciliation is a name given to one of the seven Sacraments (also called Confession or Penance), but this post is actually about the concept that underlies the name. The concept of reconciliation is about putting things back in right relationship. The fruit of this is peace—St Augustine calls peace “the tranquility of order.” In other words, when our relationships are ordered correctly it brings a joy into our life. This is a key part of the “peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27), and goes much deeper than mere comfort or pleasure. Likewise, it isn’t the illusion of peace that comes from ignoring problems. The joy of reconciliation comes from truly encountering and resolving the source of division. We can speak of this in three different levels: reconciliation with God, with others, and with self.

Reconciliation with God is both the first step in our relationship with God, as well as a continuous part of the process. Union with God is a true relationship, and therefore has a necessary connection with the truth. It involves seeking to encounter the real God with our real self. This is part of why the Sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation is such an integral part of our relationship with God in the Catholic faith. It is so easy to let our own preferences or rationalizations to dominate when left to ourselves (both in regards to the truth about God and our own self!). Setting aside other arguments for the Sacrament, one of the basic reasons it can bear such a powerful experience of peace is this objective character. Do we want a completely honest reconciliation with God? If so, then don’t stay away from this Sacrament.

Second, Jesus constantly connects reconciliation with God with the need for reconciliation with others (e.g. in the Our Father, we pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”). Again, it is very important to bring in the aspect of truth. The first steps of resolving a conflict with another person are often establishing good will and exploring both sides of the issue. Truth requires humility in regards to our own part and patience on behalf of the other. What is really driving the source of the conflict, both from our perspective and theirs?

Finally, reconciliation with our own self is in fact an essential part of both of these processes. By this phrase I mean healing of spiritual, psychological, or emotional wounds that we may have personally. If we can’t confront the truth about ourselves then our reconciliation with God or others will be superficial. Counseling or spiritual direction can help this healing to happen more easily/profoundly, or in some cases even make it possible at all. Unfortunately many people still think of them as only reserved for extreme cases or “crazy people.” Instead, it is a good and healthy thing to talk to others! Self-knowledge helps to flow back into deeper union with God and others.

Where do you most need reconciliation? What will you do to find it?

God bless!

How do you pray with the Scriptures?

The Bible is not an ordinary book. First, it is in fact a collection of many different books. Only the modern printing press allows us to conceive of them as one volume! However, these books are bound together, we believe, by a common Author working through various human authors. Therefore, it is more than just a historical record of information. The Scriptures offer us a chance to come into conversation with the God that inspired them, which we call prayer.

I first approached reading the Scriptures primarily from the perspective of “quantity.” When I sat down to read, I was looking to see how much information I could get through. This is how I read most other books. I knew people did pray with the Scriptures but wasn’t really sure how. For me, the primary change was realizing that I should have been focusing on “quality” of reading. The goal of prayer isn’t to read over as many words as possible. It is to discover riches that are hidden and to begin to savor them. This approach is classically called lectio divina (“divine reading”). It focuses on entering into the texts as a treasure house for prayer. A theological study of the Bible supports and nourishes this reading, but it stands distinct.

Divine reading begins by selecting a text. Again, the goal isn’t quantity, but quality. We read over a section and continue until we come across an idea or phrase that strikes us. It is important to be watchful, because we do not know when the Lord will speak! We begin to meditate and reflect on this. Maybe we imagine ourselves in the scene. We think of the way that it gives insight into our past, present, or future. We think of its implications for us. But, prayer can’t remain at only the level of personal consideration. When we turn this reflection into a conversation with God, it becomes prayer. Maybe the meditation inspires us to expression of praise or thanksgiving; maybe petition and intercession; or, maybe even to express sorrow for some event. We speak to God about our meditation on this passage. Then, we listen for a response. Contemplation refers to this phase of God’s response to our prayer. It is important to have some times of silence. Our goal isn’t just to fill up the space with our own thoughts and words. We need room for God to work. There is a need to be open if God is going to direct our prayer somewhere, and not to try to force the conclusion we want. If we find our attention wavering, we can return to the earlier steps and move back and forth. This cycle of reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating forms the structure of lectio divina. It may happen over the course of five minutes, or an hour. In this, the riches of the Scriptures can be opened to us in a new way.

I’d like to end with one final note. While these four steps form the classic structure, there is an implicit fifth step that is contained in the practice. True prayer gives us inspiration for action. It doesn’t always mean starting some new routine—perhaps it might just be encouragement to persevere in our spiritual life. But, at the end of the time of prayer, it is very helpful to make a practical resolution. I think a lot of problems can come up if we ignore this. Often it leads to a separation between prayer and life. Going to prayer might become something completely divorced from everyday life, which is not healthy. Instead, I encourage you to end your prayer by asking God for a practical resolution. This resolution could be to continue a practice, change a habit, take a particular action, or even seek the answer to a question that arose during the time. It might mean some study or speaking to a spiritual director. In this final step, though, we can let the graces given through prayer take root and bear fruit.

A great resource if you would like to learn more about this form of prayer is Praying Scripture for a Change by Tim Gray. I highly recommend it.

God bless!

What led me to the rosary?

The rosary is one of the most distinctive Catholic prayers, but it didn’t come easily to me. It seemed so long, and kind of outdated. Others have concerns about devotions to Mary in general—do they lead us to Christ? In the end the rosary proved to be one of the devotions that most helped me grow closer to God—and a key step in beginning to consider a vocation to the priesthood.

When I entered college I joined the campus council of the Knights of Columbus (around November). They gave out rosaries, asked us to carry them, and encouraged us to pray them as often as we could. I did begin keeping mine in my pocket but never prayed it. I don’t think I had prayed a rosary since Sunday school, but it did intrigue me. I knew other people prayed the rosary and spoke highly of it. So, when it came time to pick a Lenten goal in the spring my mind went back to the rosary. I had a sense it would be a good thing to do, and a little sense of responsibility since I had not followed through on praying it yet. I set a goal to pray it each day during Lent.

At first I had to look up the instructions online. I knew the basic prayers by memory, but was fuzzy on some of the details. In particular, I needed a refresher on the “mysteries” of the rosary. These are one of the keys to what makes the rosary such a powerful method of prayer. If you aren’t familiar with them, how it works is that each “decade” of the rosary is made up of an Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, and a Glory Be. During each decade you call to mind a particular event from the life of Christ or Mary (called the “mysteries”) and reflect on it. These mysteries are grouped into four categories (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious). A standard rosary consists of praying all five decades of one group of mysteries. For example, the Joyful mysteries include the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple.

It was a tough habit to start. In the beginning most of my effort was focused on the logistics (what to say and when). After a little while I began to be able to focus on the mysteries and really think about them. The set of prayers gave me a fixed amount of time to think, and something to “do” to help focus. I gradually realized that the mysteries basically took you through the life of Christ, from the Annunciation all the way through our entrance into the life of heaven. These reflections began to bring together the “big picture” for me, and I began to really think about these things. I came to understand more about what the mysteries meant and how they connected with events I was facing. It wasn’t an abstract or solitary reflection, but one carried out in union with Jesus’ mother, Mary. Thanks be to God, I was able to continue this practice throughout all of Lent, and it really changed me. It’s hard to exaggerate how much this helped me to grow in an adult understanding of my faith and in my ability to enter into conversation with God during prayer. It ended up being my Lenten practice again my sophomore year of college, and it was shortly after that when I began to consider my calling from God. Developing this serious life of prayer (even if just 15-20 minutes a day) was something essential in becoming who I am today. Providentially, I later found out the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary is the anniversary of my baptism—a connection that brings me great joy!

There are different forms of prayer, but I wanted to share this one since it was a powerful avenue of grace in my life (and in countless others over the past 800 years or so!). It can be prayed in its fuller form, or even just one decade at a time. It is a great prayer for groups or to pray alone. It can be prayed in a church, on a walk, or in the car. Each decade can be offered for a particular intention, which makes it a great prayer of petition. It is a prayer that continues to adapt with you throughout life! I really had no idea where it would lead me, but am so grateful for what God has done. It humbles me to realize how God overcame my resistance and led me to follow Him

Take the time to pray. If you don’t know where to start or how to grow, take the time to have a conversation with someone that does have a serious life of prayer. You won’t regret it. God bless!