Robbing Myself of Joy

joyAs a woman, I try very hard to maintain ‘control’ over my life. I’ve written about this – repeatedly. Its very difficult to try and maintain order amidst chaos of running a household without some element of ‘control’. I recently wrote about my attempt to instill the virtue of ‘meekness’ in my life. Its not very easy.

I had the blessing of being able to bake biscotti with the Dominican Sisters recently. They are an amazingly joy filled group of women of which I am still trying to determine exactly how I can abscond one or perhaps all of them to come and live at my home. Of course, that’s not the answer nor is it possible. I know that I must be a source of joy for my family. Ultimately, their joy must come from within, but – as a mother – I must be an example for joy by revealing the sources of joy to them.

While baking biscotti, I talked with Sr. Maria about my virtue paper I had received on the weekend of the retreat. She explained to me that meekness isn’t necessarily what we believe it to be, but truly means ‘having an appropriate response’. We didn’t have much time to delve into that further, but I appreciated her insight into the definition. It had given me much food for thought and I have contemplated it during my day to day activities since that encounter. One of the most ‘appropriate responses’ to any given situation is joy.

Over the holidays it occurred to me that I had ‘lost’ my joy. Its funny, but we forget that we are capable of joy until we experience it – even if only momentarily. I had realized this because of two experiences when I felt true joy – one was with theDominican Sisters baking biscotti. The other was during the Liturgy of the Eucharist during a Sunday morning Mass. It was the Sunday morning of my retreat weekend with the Dominican Sisters.

I had returned home on Saturday afternoon and went to Sunday Mass at our local Parish. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist while on my knees in prayer waiting to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist, I felt a joy in my heart that I had never felt before during the Eucharist. It was a feeling as though I might burst inside at the excitement and anticipation of receiving our Lord and Saviour. I looked around and saw everyone looking so serious as they filed their way up the aisle to receive the Holy Eucharist. It dawned on me that, while quiet contemplation and humility are appropriate responses to preparing to receive the Eucharist – so is joy. I could barely contain myself. My face almost hurt from smiling so wide. That feeling has returned during subsequent Masses, though not as intensely as that very moment. It was a beautiful gift of grace from God to reveal the love and joy He wants for us to feel and can receive through the power of the Sacraments.

Sadly, I allowed myself to be robbed of joy over the holidays by what was a less than appropriate response to something entirely beyond my control. We had travelled to be with my husband’s family and were looking forward to visiting with them as it had been some time since we had been together. Our little family hadn’t been back to visit for a major holiday since the passing of one of his sisters in May, 2011. It was a bit of a milestone for us. One of his sisters had suggested hosting a lovely Christmas Eve dinner at her home. His parents had booked a photographer for early that afternoon in order that we might have family photos done since everyone would be together. Again, another milestone since the last family photo we had included his deceased sister just months before she passed. On the morning of Christmas Eve, we received an email from his sister hosting the dinner to advise that she had left town with her family to be with her husband who was away on business and unable to return for Christmas. She wanted to surprise him and take her kids to be with him. The email indicated that they had just landed and she was sorry for any inconvenience it would cause.

My response – I was livid. I was over the top and almost out of control livid. My anger completely overtook me – and I let it. In the middle of an absolutely crazy month of projects, I had done all of our Christmas shopping and wrapping early in order that we could pack everything and take it with us to his family’s Christmas. While we were only traveling for a few days, I packed for my kids and myself and took care of all the necessary details for our road trip. I did this with a sinking feeling in my heart because all I really wanted to do was stay at home and be in our comfortable little abode. I have been feeling anxious and overwhelmed with managing the work on my plate and the details of Christmas and planning a trip nearly put me up over the top. Needless to say, when I heard of part of his family’s decision to leave town without advising anyone after the efforts we had made – I felt utterly betrayed.

‘How could someone invite someone to come and spend the holidays and then leave after they arrived – and without telling them?’

I was ready to pack up the car and head home. I was a mess. My kids were upset at seeing me upset so I packed myself up and went out for a drive trying desperately to figure out how to pull myself together. I drove around looking at Christmas decorations. I even went to the Mall to try and find Christmas spirit there (not exactly an ideal choice on the day before Christmas!). I finally felt marginally acceptable to be around and decided to return to my husband and our kids at his parents’ home. I turned to prayer. I was so closed off to receiving any gifts of grace at that exact moment that even God couldn’t break through my armour of anger. I was still highly volatile and really not ready for prime time. I hadn’t yet been convinced I was even going to participate in the family photos. What was the purpose? Not even everyone was there!

When I returned, I saw the sadness in my daughter’s eyes and realized that I needed to get it together. I had allowed my joy to be robbed and it was robbing her joy. I was being entirely selfish and entirely inappropriate in my response. Yes, I had reason to feel angry – but I had no right to allow it to consume me such that it would destroy how everyone else was feeling. We were all disappointed and sad. I picked out a present from under the tree for my daughter to wear so she’d have something new and pretty for our dinner.

We ended up at my sister in law’s house for the photos and dinner. We did what we could to make the best of it. We took our family photos with our marginally sincere smiles and we enjoyed the company of those who were there.

Had I been a bigger person – or perhaps a little less overwhelmed to begin with – I might have responded in a way more in keeping with the idea of ‘meekness’. It was a great lesson in ‘joy’ because it was a moment where I allowed myself to be robbed of my joy. Christmas is about celebrating the birth of our Lord and Saviour. I had lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas. I had lost sight of my children and what Christmas meant to them in the excitement of seeing their cousins again. I had lost sign of what it meant to my husband to be with his family who were still there. I had lost sight of what it meant to be ‘meek’ and allow myself to feel joy.

The beautiful thing is that I have been able to reflect on what I have learned and it has provided me a reminder of being aware of those things that can bring joy – and hopefully be reminded to not rob myself or others of joy in the future. I stop and look at my beautiful children and find joy in their laughter. I look at the beauty of my surroundings in nature and find joy in the canvas that God has painted for me to look at. Perhaps most importantly, I can attend Mass and experience the joy that comes through the gift of grace received in the Eucharist.

‘Thy will be done.’

Some weeks ago, on Election Day, our parish offered last minute Eucharistic Adoration for the day. We only offer Adoration on Wednesdays every week, but a special request was made as it was Election Day and our Priests very kindly agreed. Given the anxiety, I decided to go – not once, but twice – that day. I went for a short while in the afternoon to offer up prayers. Admittedly, those prayers were for what *I* wanted the outcome of the election to be. Sort of a ‘request’ of God.

As the day progressed and turned into evening, I felt more anxious and sick to my stomach than I had in some time. I couldn’t watch the returns and was determined to entirely tune out the mainstream media as they’d already made their preference for President known for over four years. Our family ate dinner and I felt overwhelmingly restless upon finishing. I had not signed up for a specific hour of adoration, but decided to go back to the Church again and stay as long as needed in order to return to a place of inner peace.

I should clarify and note that the place of ‘inner peace’ had been missing for quite some time. Several months in fact. Perhaps even as much as a year. It had become particularly bad as I was finding myself suffering regular bouts of insomnia where I would wake in the middle of the night with my mind racing through roughly as many topics on Wikipedia and doing so at the speed of sound. To make matters worse, I would drift back to sleep sometimes only minutes before needing to wake up for the day. These sleepless nights weren’t regular – but they were consistent.

I did what any good Catholic would do during times such as these… watch TV or go on the internet. I would pray now and then, but only very briefly. It wasn’t anything deep or meaningful and ended up being more rote than anything. I’m not entirely sure what I was trying to accomplish other than I knew that someone – likely my husband – would ask me in the morning, ‘Did you try praying?’. Of course – other than saying the ‘Our Father’ and some other prayers in a very rote and meaningless way – I hadn’t.

As I made my way into the Sanctuary, I thought about the craziness taking place in the country that day and how much it was contrasted by the calm and quiet at our Church. There were several people already there and they were those whom I would expect to be there praying.

I knelt down on the floor at the end of the pew. The stone floor felt cold and hard but the light was warm and the entire mood inviting. I prayed for God to guide me. I asked Him to share with me for what He wanted me to pray. I moved off the floor and made my way into the pew and knelt along the kneeler. I could feel Jesus’ presence so strongly that night. I took my rosary out of my purse and began to pray. I listened quietly to the intentions that God placed on my heart and began to realize the importance of prayer as a moment of conversion.

Yes, God wants us to pray. Yes, He wants to hear our petitions. But He also wants for us to  be moved in our prayer. He wants for us to experience ‘conversion’ and to move away from ‘my will be done’ and move towards ‘thy will be done’. None of our prayers come as any surprise to Him. God always initiates prayer through an offering of grace. It is up to us to receive that grace and act upon it. He wants us to spend that time in conversation with Him and not only share with Him our petitions, but to listen to Him speak to us in the silence of our hearts.

I saw the beauty in this so clearly during my prayers on this night. Instead of praying for one candidate to win over another, I prayed for a return of our country to His will. I prayed for our country to turn its eyes back to Christ and to accept Him into our lives and to let Him lead. Of course, He’s given us all the grace that each of us need to do that. He *wants* desperately for us to love Him and share our lives with Him, but we – as a nation – have decided that *we* know better and that our time here on earth is more important than our time spent in eternity. We have become the result of the instant gratification that we have been sold through mass marketing.

My prayers that evening became God’s prayers for us instead of what *I* wanted. I could see within myself, at that very moment in time, the conversion that was taking place during that period of meditative prayer. I listened still and quietly and heard God speak to me over and over and over again through the thoughts he placed in my mind and on my heart. I didn’t write it down at the time, but it is clear as day in my mind and I’ve already begun to act upon it in several different ways. I hope to continue to be able to do so as the days pass.

What was, however, the most powerful experience for me was His leading me in prayer. As an ‘organized Mom’, I have difficulty letting go of being in control – its counter to what society tells us we need to do! I learned that if I was willing to let go and let God be in control, even if it was just leading *me* in prayer, beautiful things happen and we experience His grace and His mercy. We can experience the beauty of conversion.

All the grace we need.

One of the ways in which I know God is trying to talk to me is when I see or hear the same message over and over and over and over again. I say that He is ‘trying’ to talk to me because often times it takes a good smack upside the head for me to pay attention. He is, however, always there and always speaking to each and every one of us.

The message to me of late has been about ‘grace’. As I look back in recent times, I see moments where the idea and concept of grace is placed in front of me on several different occasions, but in my infinite stubbornness – I refuse to acknowledge or see them.

The trend started with my husband noting – repeatedly – that everything is grace. As a wife, I – of course – thought, ‘Yeah, yeah honey… everything is grace. Pass the peas please.’

God, however, was trying to make a point and I wasn’t seeing it so He spoke a little louder by having one of our sessions of ‘Catholicism’ by Fr. Robert Barron speak about the ‘Communion of the Saints’ of which my biggest takeaway was that the saints were virtually overflowing with grace. It was a beautiful reminder of His intention for ALL of us to become saints in our lives here on Earth.

The Catholicism session may have been a reminder, but apparently I *still* wasn’t getting the message so He spoke a little louder and sent me on a 24 hour retreat with the Dominican Sisters of Mary. It was their very first retreat here in Central Texas and I knew virtually nothing about it until after I registered and even then I was still fairly in the dark only looking up where the retreat center was the morning of the day I was to drive to it and discovered it to be much further away from home than I had thought! I had received the agenda only a day or two before the retreat was to take place and discovered that it was to be centered around the theme of – you guessed it – grace!

While on the retreat, each of the women were given a little gift from the Sisters. It was a sheet of paper on which a particular virtue was written. They had given them to each of us with the idea that we could meditate on them for the next 24 hours we would be together, or even for the entire Advent season. The little sheets of paper were all placed in a basket and passed around among the women who had been told that they could either search for a virtue in which they knew they were struggling, or perhaps leave it up to the Holy Spirit. Working hard to let God be in the driver’s seat, I decided to it be a Holy Spirit moment and closed my eyes and picked my paper out of the basket. My virtue – meekness. I am an organized control freak to put it politely. I knew that the Holy Spirit was calling on me in a big big way. That little sheet of paper which may have seemed like such an ‘insignificant’ gift may have been one of the best gifts I have ever received. It serves for me a constant reminder of my need to trust in God and His will.

Over the weekend, Sr. Maria noted that

God gives us enough grace in each and every day to become a saint.

Tonight I had a beautiful example of God’s grace and my need to focus on meekness – as well as the way in which we are able to see God’s unending and merciful love in a lighthearted and humourous way as we accept the grace that he unceasingly bestows upon each and every one of us.

This evening our Parish held out Advent Reconciliation Service. As we arrived at the Church I had an organized Mom moment and thought that we should find a place close to the one of the confessionals as we arrived so that when the mad rush to line up for the various Priests scattered around the Sanctuary took place we would already be seated in a primo spot and would be in line! ‘Brilliant’, I thought. God, however, had His own ideas. And I’m pretty sure he was looking at me and thinking of that slip of paper I’d received this weekend with the word ‘meekness’ on it – and laughing. Not in a spiteful way, but in a knowing and fatherly way that said ‘Oh, my dear, how quickly you forget.’

As the various Priests were introduced and our Pastor noted where they would all be located, I realized very quickly that he went through the entire list and didn’t say who would be in the confessional to which I had so ‘brilliantly’ placed my family. No, he hadn’t said it would be because there would be no Priest in our confessional. A name was posted on a sign on the window, but that name had not been called and was clearly not going to be there. This, of course, led to a mad dash across the Sanctuary to get to another line… and hopefully a short one. The one that I *thought* was short had nine people ahead of us. Because I am ‘organized Mom’, I did the math in my head and estimated that it would be on average between 5-10 minutes per confession – leaning more toward the 10 minute average which would see us there for roughly an hour to an hour and a half. Of course, there were several behind us in line – so we wouldn’t be last.

During the course of our waiting, I spent time reading and also reassessing my calculations regarding how long we would be waiting.

‘There are many young people ahead of us in line. They don’t like to be in there very long.’ I thought. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so long after all. I looked around the Sanctuary at the other lines and saw people who had come into the service late and were already in the pews praying their penance.

‘Ugh’, I thought, ‘I was here first.’

I realized as I stood in line that, while I had just been to confession on Friday, I might build up enough sins just standing in line with my children to be able to have enough to confess again myself! As the evening progressed and the lines got shorter, people bounced from line to line trying to find the one that would move the most quickly. I, of course, didn’t pick quite so well. People behind us left our line and moved to shorter lines. They came back after their confession and told those still waiting behind us that they had already made their confession and fulfilled their penance. Even my daughter jumped ship for a faster moving line with her friends.

In the end, it came down to my son and I and one other person in line behind us. I noted to her that there was still a Priest in another room nearby and that while he was with someone at that moment, there was no one waiting. She noted that she really wanted to see the specific Priest for whom we had been waiting in line.

In went my son in front of me. Then I went in. My son was very patiently waiting for me when I finished. My husband and my daughter had left a little earlier as she had homework to do and I didn’t want her to have to wait around needlessly and then be up late.

As I picked up my books and purse off the floor where my son had been sitting, I looked up and out around the Sanctuary. It was empty. Absolutely and completely empty. I saw one other Priest who was getting up from his spot and getting ready to leave. As I stopped and looked around, I laughed. I saw the humour in God’s gift to me.

I had spent the early part of the evening ‘planning’ for how we would get in and out of there quickly and easily. Didn’t happen. I then spent my time in line feeling frustrated and trying to figure out how long we would be there. For the record, we were there longer than I had anticipated. The Service ended at about 7:25 and we left at roughly 7:20. We had waited for two hours.

There is a saying that goes like this:

If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

Tonight’s experience couldn’t have been a more perfect example of this idea. I envisioned God above looking down and chuckling at me thinking, ‘You just don’t get it do you? You are NOT in control.’

As I stood in line with my two children – both of whom were incredibly patient – I began reading ‘The Better Part’ written by John Bartunek LC. Its a wonderful book on prayer. On one of the pages he notes

Mass media stimulates the surface of the mind, but the constant rapid flow of images and information militates against going deeper. Meditation provides a respite from frenzied mental stimulation and gives the soul a chance to simply love and be loved in the intimacy of spiritual embrace.

I thank God for the many graces He provides including the the many reminders of where He is calling me to listen and grow, and especially for the opportunity provided through the retreat to stop, slow down, listen and be willing to receive His unlimited supply of graces – and then through His love and mercy this evening give me that gentle and light-hearted reminder that I need to carry over what I learned while on retreat to my day to day life.

Dear Kids of the United States

Dear Kids of the US,

On behalf of the adults in this country, I’d like to apologize for our role in messing you up. It occurred to me to today that if you listened to the government we elect, you’d have no idea what we expect of you.

As of this year, we have new ‘anti-hunger’ federal guidelines that limit your high school lunches to 850 calories including 2 oz of protein which has left you – well, hungry. While we have told you we don’t believe you can manage your food intake, we have also told you that you can obtain sterilization (without a co-pay!) at age 15 without parental consent (of course, your parents will likely find out when they open their health insurance statements).

At 16 you are old enough to careen through town in control of a vehicle weighing thousands of pounds, but not old enough to legally obtain alcohol. At 18, you are old enough to vote and sacrifice your life for your country by joining the military, but still not old enough to legally obtain alcohol. We tell you that at 25 you are old enough to represent us in the US House of Representatives, but you are still considered a ‘child’ according to health insurance laws.

In municipalities like New York City, no one is permitted to buy soft drinks in sizes larger than 16oz and schools are not permitted to administer pain relief such as Tylenol to children without parental consent. So, if you have a headache and they can’t reach your parents, you’ll just have to deal with it. The school can, however, help you if you think you might be pregnant by administering ‘the morning after’ pill to children as young as 14 without parental consent.

On behalf of those to purport to be ‘adults’ in charge. I do sincerely apologize.

Christ knows we are capable. Why don’t we?

The other day I had a wonderful conversation with a dear friend about self-confidence and self-doubt. The world is full of individuals who have tremendous amounts of doubt in their abilities –  its both sad and disheartening. We are products of our surroundings and our upbringing, which can be both good and bad. Children raised in a home with unconditional love and given the opportunity to thrive grow up to be loving and confident adults. Those raised in homes with little to no love and made to believe that they are incapable of achieving certain things or that its not worth it to try because the obstacles are insurmountable are the victims of a great injustice – they are taught not to be confident. Worse, they are taught not even to try and never have an opportunity to feel the satisfaction of success. Conversely, there are those children out there who are coddled to such lengths that they never experience the opportunity to fail. From the heartbreak of failure comes learning.

We learn best when we don’t achieve our goals. Watching the London 2012 Olympics is a beautiful example of this idea taken to its extreme. The men and women from around the world who have travelled to compete in London are the best of the best. They have achieved their goal of competing at the very top of their game. They didn’t, however, get to London without some degree of failure along the way. Listening to the stories of the athletes, time and time again we hear the idea that someone barely qualified or someone had lost several races prior to their local qualification. These athletes have learned from their failures. They have felt the heartbreak and pain of not succeeding. They have taken that experience and used it to modify their training or their performances such that they might instead succeed the next time.

Aside from being struck by the sheer number of athletes who very publicly professed their Christian faith and thanked God first in their post-win opportunities to speak, it was inspiring to see cross after cross around an athlete’s neck or see them make the sign of the cross before competition. The idea that these Christian athletes would be successful or that many of the athletes would be Christian makes perfect sense. I had never put two and two together before and thought about the idea that as an athlete one needs to believe in their ability to push beyond seemingly insurmountable odds and push themselves to their fullest potential in order to achieve their goals. One has to believe that within them exists the ‘perfect’ athlete, but they have to work to find that deep within and that it is by the grace of God that they are able to identify what is required to bring that perfection to the surface. Making the sign of the cross before competition or thanking God first after competition is a recognition that it is God who gave them the ability and that it was through His graces that they were able to find it within and work to express it to its fullest.

It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. – John 15:16

Some time ago, I wrote a piece about going to hear Matthew Kelly speak. He told a beautiful story about Michelangelo carving David from a slab of imperfect marble.

When asked about the statue, Michelangelo noted that he had not carved David, but that God had helped him chip away the excess stone in the block of marble so that David could be revealed – but that he had always been present inside the stone.

Christ knows that within each of us is our own beautiful self – just like David inside the block of marble. Doubting that beautiful self exists is a doubt that God did not create us in His image, which – in turn – suggests that we think that God is somehow imperfect.

God doesn’t make junk.

Our faith in God as infinite love and infinite perfection is a pathway to our believing in ourselves and our own abilities. While we may not be able to create the universe or exist across all space and time, we sell ourselves short by suggesting that we can’t do something or we can’t try something. It is our worldly upbringing and those with whom we surround ourselves who convince us that we are something less than what God created us to be. If one believes in God as all-powerful and that He created us in His image, then it is not a stretch to believe that we too can be powerful and capable human beings if we take the time to stop and pray for God’s graces in helping us to find those gifts and talents within.

Let us today and everyday take time to pray for those who have been negatively impacted by those around them such that they may open their heart to God’s graces, find that beautiful self within, and trust in God to be there with them as they find the courage to move forward with the God given gifts they have received.

Just shut up and listen.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book I picked up at Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma called ‘Praying the Bible – An Introduction to Lectio Divina‘ by Mariano Magrassi. Its a wonderful book in which I hope to learn more about ‘praying’ the Bible instead of ‘reading’ the Bible. Its been wonderfully informative thus far.

This morning I spent some time reading the chapter on Concrete Dispositions in which Magrassi talks about preparation for Lectio Divina. One of the dispositions on which he focusses is ‘Dialogue’ about which he explains that the reading of scripture is a dialogue between two people – God and the reader.

When I read, he speaks to me. When I pray, I respond to him. (p. 78)

What struck me, however, was the reminder that God speaks to us first.

The whole Bible stresses the primary of the divine initiative. Augustine says that we would have not sought God if God had not first sought us. It was not Israel who chose God, but God who chose Israel. Speaking of love, John observes that it was God who first loved us. The same must be said of that primordial reality, the Word. God is not only someone who listens to me. Before that, he is someone who speaks to me. The Word is the act by which he takes the initiative: he seeks me, enters my life, takes hold of it and molds it through the power of his love. It is, in a way, the central point of God’s intervention in human life. Our history becomes sacred the moment he intervenes in it.

As I read this, I felt a pang of personal ‘guilt’ as I realized that I have stopped listening to God recently. Its not that I haven’t been ‘praying’ per se, but my prayers have not been a dialogue with God. Over the past several years I had been very good at listening to God and maintaining that dialogue, but more recently – I’ve been doing all the talking.

It struck me that I’ve become somewhat stunted in my spiritual growth in the same way a child or young person can become stunted in their own maturity. As children grow and learn more about themselves and the world around them, they come to a point where they believe that they know what is best for them and that the things that we – as parents – have to say are very ‘nice’ but not entirely necessary. They are kind suggestions, but they need not be taken to heart or given serious consideration as the child believes that they know what is best for them based on their own experiences. It hit me right between the eyes – I have become that child of late.

Its not so much that I don’t follow the 10 Commandments or respect and fully love my faith. I know that the 10 Commandments were not called ‘commandments’ and not ‘suggestions’ for a reason. My spirituality, however, has shallowed somewhat in the sense that I have been going through the motions but without any real or deep intentions. I have continued to believe and practice – but the practicing has been lacking at best and fairly non-existent at the worst.

Does that make me a fraud for trying to write a blog about being a Catholic convert? No – quite the opposite. It makes me a human being on a real and true faith journey in which one will not always be fully immersed in their beliefs to the fullest extent possible. I need to be fully honest about where I am on my faith journey at any given moment in time and know that I am not alone in these experiences.

Thankfully, however, God had us spend a couple of nights along our vacation journey at Clear Creek Monastery and had me stumble upon this wonderful book so that he could give me the good whack up the side of the head that I needed. The whole book has been wonderful reading and has me very excited to return to my Bible with an eager and open heart and prayerful mind, but this chapter in particular has helped me to stop and consider where I most need to modify my behavior.

Too often, God is seen only as an object of faith. All I have then is a set of truths to memorize, rather like dry grammar. I cannot enter into communion with the living God. No, he is first of all the subject of the relationship. God ones to meet me and addresses me through the free and sovereign initiative of God’s love. Then for me, as for Abraham, God has a face and a voice. God called me by name and speaks God’s Word to me. And I fall on my knees before God like Thomas, with a cry of faith, “My Lord and my God.”

With regard to prayer in particular:

… the two participants are the soul and God; the initiative must belong to God. What he says must matter most. We could even say it is the ONLY thing that matters. Thus prayer is first of all listening – listening to someone who speaks in Scripture.

Magrassi explains that prayer that does not begin with the Bible is inconceivable. Here is what I had been missing entirely – I had stepped away from my Bible. This hasn’t been an intentional act, but one that had simply ‘happened’ through the basic acts of ‘life’. Fr. Larry Richards is known for saying

No Bible, no breakfast. No Bible, no bed.

I had always thought that this was a nice discipline, but didn’t understand – until now – the considerable importance summed up into that simple statement. I had thought it something one should ‘do’ to be a good and faithful servant, but had no real understanding as to ‘why’. As I read the chapter in ‘Praying the Bible’, I realized that prayer and the Bible go hand in hand which led me to understand why I had felt a spiritual void. My morning prayers in the Magnificat had been put by the wayside recently meaning that I have had no daily connection with Scripture. I am abundantly aware that this has to change.

Scripture is a letter. Unlike a book, a letter always bears a personal message.

In my own life, I had put aside the importance of reading the personal letters that God wishes for me to experience as part of my faith journey – not just read, but fully experience.

On a larger scale, however, I was also struck by the idea that we, as a society, have stopped listening and have become stunted in our growth. We have decided that we would prefer to life perpetually in a state of childhood whereby we insist that we know best and need not consider that there is a power greater than ourselves that set out to love us first, as our parents love us, and guide us to a greater joy and happiness than we could know if left to make our own decisions without experience or wisdom. One only has to glance at the world around us to realize that we have made a conscious decision to stop listening.

Thankfully, however, I had an opportunity to stop, shut up and have listen to God by reading the book he placed before me and recognize its intention for me as a gentle nudge back onto the path in which he knows will lead me to a more peaceful and meaningful existence. It may not always be ‘easier’, but it will be the one that God intends.

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

… and don’t hesitate to remind me to shut up and just listen.

St. John the Baptist and Religious Freedom

Today is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, otherwise known as the Jesus’ cousin and the man who baptized Jesus in the Jordan. Today is also the first Sunday of ‘Fortnight for Freedom‘, the two week period of prayer, study, catechesis and action regarding the threats to religious freedom. How fitting that the Feast of St. John the Baptist would be celebrated during this Fortnight as St. John the Baptist epitomized the importance of religious freedom and what can happen when an all too powerful government dictates what may and may not be acceptable in terms of religious expression.

St. John the Baptist was first described to us when Mary first goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, upon courageously and obediently saying ‘yes’ to the Angel Gabriel when he tells her that she has been chosen by God to bear His son. In Luke, we are told

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

The baby to which the passage refers is Elizabeth’s son, John. We learn from various writings that John was a bold man who preached the truth. He lived as a hermit in the desert and was known to be somewhat eccentric. Some time around his thirtieth birthday, he began to preach fervently about the importance of penance and baptism for the forgiveness of sin – even baptizing Jesus. His following grew and grew and was a great threat to Herod Antipas. John was never one to shy away from truth and honesty – and never one to be quiet about sharing this in a very public way. As such, John spoke openly against the adulterous and incestuous marriage of Herod to Herodias, the wife of Herod’s half brother Philip. Herod had John arrested and imprisoned for speaking out against him. John’s life ended at the wish of Herodias’ daughter, Salome, who requested his head be served on a platter to her mother.

While the conditions of St. John the Baptist’s death differ from the threats to religious liberty we face today, there are similarities that can be drawn here in the US and along the lines of what Christians around the world – particularly in the Middle East – face as a result of publicly expressing religion. St. John the Baptist told the truth about Herod and Herodias. Herod didn’t arrest St. John the Baptist only because of what he said, he did so because Herod was a threat to his power and St. John the Baptist had an ever-growing ministry of followers who turned toward truth and honesty and disavowed corruption.

The recent HHS Mandate in the United States which requires that individuals, companies, hospitals – and everyone other than a Church – pay for and provide health insurance plans that cover the free distribution of contraception, as well as include coverage for sterilization and abortion inducing drugs. The only organizations exempt from this mandate are organizations that serve ONLY people of their own religion. The US Council of Catholic Bishops noted that even Jesus wouldn’t qualify for exemption under the requirements as outlined by the Department of Health and Human Services.

As a result of this mandate, 43 different religious organizations have filed suit against the Department of Health and Human Services (ironically, headed up by a professed pro-abortion Catholic, Kathleen Sebelius). Many believe the lawsuits are about contraception – but they aren’t. The lawsuits seek to argue that the Department of HHS steps beyond the bounds of the US Constitution by declaring the definition of ‘religious expression’. The US Constitution States:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

The First Amendment declares is that a) Congress may not establish a religion (keep in mind what had been happening in England at the time the colonists left to settle the United States) and, equally important, b) that Congress may not prohibit the free exercise of religion. The second part of the statement is extremely broad and what the current lawsuits are using as a basis to fight the Obama Administration and the Department of HHS. Perhaps the best example describing this violation is Marc Barnes’ description he provided here:

The free exercise of religion is violated both by what you take away from a religion, and by what you force a religion to do. If members of a religion are forced by the government to perform actions contrary to their beliefs, they are no more free than dogs.

The second part of his first sentence is key – you violate the free exercise of religion not only by what you take away but always what you FORCE THEM TO DO. In this case, religious freedom is being violated by forcing individuals and organizations to pay for and offer products and services (purchased from a private entity!) against which they have a moral obligation.

Thankfully, we have a court system in the United States against which we can file a grievance and hopefully resolve the issue in a peaceful manner. Following the news in the Middle East and Northern Africa, one can see that we are truly blessed to live in a civil democracy in which religious freedom is, for the most part, respected. We must pray during this Fortnight for Freedom that we continue to be blessed with religious freedom and that our brothers and sisters here in the US understand the importance of awareness and action in keeping our religious freedom safe. We must also pray for the expansion of religious freedom to those Christians currently persecuted and dying as a result of the expression of their religion.

We can all benefit from taking a moment to asking St. John the Baptist to intercede on our behalf for an expansion of religious freedom around the world, as well as a strengthening of religious freedom here in the US. After all, St. John the Baptist knew first hand what happens when the government is free to dictate the definition of freedom of expression.

Life Lesson # 1,559,342 – During difficult times, prayer can be… difficult.

Life has been full lately and full can be good. Or, full can be challenging. In recent weeks and months, its been the latter. Truth be told, its really been a tough year. Our family has run the gamut of stress and anxiety inducing situations – death of a family member, loss of a job, issues at school with children – the whole nine yards. That said, I didn’t sit down to write this as a pity party. Not at all.

I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle.  I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much. – Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

I know in my heart that this too shall pass and that God is working all of these experiences in the life of my family for greater good. At times I’ve stopped and pondered what life might be like during these challenging times without faith. Would I feel despair at the thought that this really is all for nothing and that, at times I would think ‘life sucks’ and not have any hope that there was any purpose in my suffering? Would I feel as though life had its ups and downs, but that there was nothing beyond this earth – no possibility of eternity in the beauty of the afterlife? How would I ever possibly lift myself up at moments of despair if this is what I believed? Why would I ever try thinking that it was just how life was and that I would likely have to deal with difficult times again and again and again.

I am so very grateful for my faith and my belief that God permits things that are challenging to happen to us. He doesn’t ‘make’ them happen – but He does ‘let’ them happen. Being a merciful God, He also provides us with the tools to be able to navigate our way through and beyond our suffering. Not only that, but He also provides us with the wisdom we need to be able to learn of the lesson that is being provided for us. In every challenging experience, there is a lesson to be learned. Both of these ideas provide me with great comfort as it provides a purpose to suffering and difficulties in life.

I have to admit that my prayer life has been lacking – seriously lacking. I say ‘daily prayers’ and pray the morning prayers from the Magnificat, but have been unable to fully concentrate on anything that I’m saying or that comes to my mind. This could be partially due to the fact that I have not had much time to truly stop and slow down. I am being reminded that at the time that I most need to pray, prayer is hard.

It is difficult to pray when one is busy or one’s life is full. It is doubly difficult when one’s life is fully AND one is struggling. During our times of struggle we sometimes ask ourselves, ‘Okay God, why is this happening to me? And when is it going to end or get better?’. That can be indicative of times when we most need Jesus, but when we are most conflicted in our prayers. We *need* to pray, but it can be difficult to want to spend that time in prayer because we may feel abandoned by God. I like to believe that this is part of God’s desire to remind us of His role in our lives. By having us struggle, it requires us to want to lay our struggles at His feet and ask for His favor – not because He wants to see us suffer, but because He wants to remind us that He is there to love us.

That said, for me – right now – its a struggle. These days, I am being reminded of three things as I stumble my way through my challenges. First, I am reminded that God has a wonderful sense of humor. There are moments when I have to stop, look up in the sky and say ‘Really? Are you serious?’. Thankfully, at those moments I remember to stop and laugh. Laughing can be much better than crying. Second, I am reminded that God has faith in me. As Blessed Teresa of Calcutta says in her quote above, God never gives us more than we can handle. At the moments I’m feeling most overwhelmed, I’m doing my best to stop and remind myself that God must *really* have some serious confidence in my ability – and if He does, then I must be confident of my own ability too. Its very comforting. Finally, I am reminded that we are presented with the same situation over and over and over in our lives until we get it ‘right’. While there is much in my life that is presenting challenges that is beyond my control, there is much that I can manage – and I know that God is presenting that situation to me again in order that I can learn something from my experience.

Through these challenging times, I look around at those I know and at strangers on the street and realize that I am, in spite of this little valley in life right now, truly blessed. This past week has given me the chance to see the beauty in my children’s maturing as they make good choices throughout their day. We have friends who are struggling with financial issues, health issues, divorce and all sorts of other struggles. While running yesterday morning we passed what appeared to be a homeless fellow in a wheelchair with only one leg.

Challenges in life are real, and they can lead to stress and anxiety. Many smaller challenges combined can seem far greater than the true sum of their parts. Life can be difficult. The question becomes ‘How to move forward?’. For me, the solution has been taking small and incremental steps – particularly in my prayer life given that prayer can be a powerful force in moving through the tunnels of which we sometimes feel that there is no end.

Yesterday morning as I was driving to my run, I prayed as I always do in the car. Its not very peaceful or meditative, but I take what time I can these days! During my prayer time in the car, I found myself feeling anxious and unable to focus on my words or anything I was going to say. Usually I am led by the Holy Spirit and I always find that comforting. Yesterday, the Holy Spirit couldn’t seem to find me on the GPS. The best words that I could form in my mind and utter from my lips to pray were ‘God, please help me make it through today.’ That’s it. God, however, knows what I need and understands where my head and my heart are at right now. He understands and knows that, sometimes, that’s the very best I can do for a prayer.

Those few words seemed to sum up my approach these days which is to eat the elephant one small bite at a time. I remind myself that I don’t have to have everything resolved at once, but I can certainly approach those items which are in my control first and work toward moving through the dark tunnel they present with the most simple of prayers.

Blessed Mother Teresa spent a great majority of her life feeling as though Jesus was *missing* in her life – she did not feel His presence. She did, however, persevere in her ministry and continue to pray seemingly unceasingly. She is a wonderful role model for those of us who find ourselves struggling with prayer at the very moment when we need it most as well as a reminder that simplicity and minimalism can often be vastly underrated.

The truth really does set you free.

This past week my family went on a vacation to the beaches along the Florida Gulf Coast. We have driven this route several times and are familiar with the speed limits and also the speed traps along the way. I’ll admit, I’ve never been one to drive slow but have only ever received two speeding tickets in my many many many (far TOO many!) years of driving. I also have friends who are police officers who have given me many suggestions for managing my speed along highways. As a result, I never go more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. I must be getting old, because lately my average has been roughly 5-7 miles per hour over.

As we were on our way to our vacation, we drove along a particular stretch of interstate highway along the Atchafalaya Basin (amazing – I spelled that without having the spell check correct me!) where the speed limit is 60 mph. I know that there are often police along the raised highway so I set the cruise control at a cool 65. There were four cars clumped together with me in the left lane and two immediately behind and the fourth car a bit further back in the right lane. I saw the police car up ahead and as I passed I saw him hit his brake lights and knew that he was going to pull me over. I slowed down and got into the right lane as he drove up behind me. I pulled over to the side of the road and he motioned for me to get out of the car. I did so with my driver’s license and insurance in my hand.

I should note that I have a very healthy fear of the law and shake when I get pulled over. It makes me very nervous. I walked back to his car where he stood in front of his bumper and he said, “Ma’am, I clocked you doing 74 when the posted speed limit is 60 mph.”

It took me a minute to pick my jaw up off the concrete shoulder and I said, “Officer, with all due respect, I promise you that I wasn’t going 74 mph.” The look on my face must have been something he wasn’t used to seeing when pulling someone over because the look on his face changed as well. I think he knew that I was being sincerely honest in my statement.

I told him, “Officer, I know that I wasn’t going 74 because I know that I was going 65 mph – 67 perhaps as I was passing another car, but I promise you it wasn’t 74 mph.”

He paused for a moment while looking at me and knew that I was telling the truth. The odd thing was that I was telling the truth – while also revealing that I had been speeding by 5-7 mph. I think he was somewhat perplexed by this but knew in his heart that there must have been a mistake. He said to me, “Ma’am, I’m going to take your word for it.” and let me go.

I got back in the car and my husband looked at me asking what had happened. As I told him, he put his hand up for me to give him a high five. “Way to witness!” he said.

The whole experience was rather interesting, but it really did make me realize what a great example it had been of the power of telling the truth – even when there is a risk involved. While I was not happy to have been pulled over with my kids in the car and had to explain to them, they were also aware of the significance of how the truth had set me free at that very moment.

The importance of consequences.

There has been much to read in the news recently about pro-life efforts taking place in the US and around the world. One of the things that reading this news online provides is the opportunity to observe a bit of a ‘social barometer’ in reading the associated comments made by readers. Of course, the general leaning of the comments will depend on many things – where the article has been published, from where it has been linked etc… In any event, the comments themselves make for fascinating reading and provide interesting insight into why people believe the things that they do.

What struck me recently was that in the great majority of comments I read from the pro-choice side there was a seeming lack of understanding that sexual behavior would result in the possible outcome of pregnancy. Does this mean that I believe that those who favor abortion don’t understand the biomechanics of sexual behavior? No. I’m not saying that. But there seemed to be a lack of willingness to accept that actions have consequences.

The arguments presented repeatedly were based on the idea that one must have the right to abort their unborn child because it was their body etc… There are comments after comments about the Catholic Church being evil in its trying to control women and how dare they tell women they shouldn’t use artificial contraception. The list of arguments as to why women must have the right to do whatever they want must not be hindered by anyone.

What appeared to be missing in any of the logic provided was the basic and fundamental idea that if one is to engage in sexual activity, the possible outcome is the creation of a new life through pregnancy. Our fifth grade daughter’s class just had a four day session at school regarding ‘responsible social behavior’ and I know that schools across the United States offer these classes, so it would be hard to argue that women aren’t aware of this concept.

This isn’t an awareness issue, its an issue of whether or not we wish to accept, as a society, that our actions have consequences. We have given ourselves a false sense of security by believing that by using artificial birth control varying in effectiveness from 70% – 98% that we will be in that range of success and that the failure rates won’t apply to us. *We* are in control – or so we believe. As someone who practices Natural Family Planning, I tell people who question my sanity for that choice that the Sympto-Thermal Method of NFP is 99% successful when practiced properly. I know, however, that the 99% is not 100% and that I could very well be the 1%. I am willing to accept that fact and understand that the only 100% method of birth control is abstinence.

Who are we kidding? Ourselves.

It has been reported that roughly 54% of women who seek abortions report that they were using some form of birth control at the time they conceived. The same study indicated that 46% were not using birth control – and of those, 33% thought they were at ‘low risk’ for pregnancy. So 54% believed that the ‘success rate’ of their method of birth control – though less than 100% actually was 100% for them.

Its as though we have forgotten or refused to believe that the 1% ‘failure’ rate of the most effective forms of birth control – or 30% ‘failure’ rate of some of the least effective forms – results in the ‘failure’ by producing a child. We have become so focused on numbers and statistics that we forget that the risk we take is the risk of of the gift of producing a new life.

At what point did we, as a society, lose sight of the consequences of our actions? Or, did we? We tell our children not to drink and drive because it might result in our getting in an accident and killing ourselves and/or others. We are even warning young people and even adults about the idea of driving just ‘slightly buzzed’. We tell our children not to do drugs because drugs alter our minds and result in lower productivity and that continued use may result in the possibility of addiction. In other words, we share with our children the consequences of a particular action. Why is it, then that we give our children the idea that sexual activity is okay and acceptable provided it is done ‘responsibly’ which involves the use of artificial contraception. Again, ‘responsibly’ doesn’t mean that its 100% fool-proof – and the ‘failure’ rate results in pregnancy.

In looking at the abstinence only success rates versus comprehensive sexual education I came across this quote:

Unlike smoking, which is always bad for you, sexual behavior is a basic human need which can be a positive experience — although it requires maturity and responsibility – Michael McGee, VP Education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America

 

The quote is absurd because it overlooks the idea that people smoke because it can be a ‘positive experience’ in how it makes you feel. The argument made by Mr. McGee is that ‘kids are already doing it so we better tell them how to be responsible about it’. Kids are already drinking underage and doing drugs too… so let’s just tell them its okay and hope that they are responsible about it? We all know how responsible the average 15 year old is right – especially when it comes to decisions that can vastly affect the direction of one’s life? I, too, was young once and recall that drinking and drugs are also ‘positive experiences’ for young people too. Sex isn’t ‘bad’ for you – he’s right. But he overlooks the most obvious and known consequence of all just as, it seems, the rest of society has in that intercourse was designed by nature to result in reproduction of the species.