How God Graceful Jolted Me From Meditation to Prayer

          In my early twenties I began rising early to spend morning ‘quiet time’ in meditation and prayer before starting my day. In reflecting on these initial years of morning prayer and meditation, I can see now how God led me through a series of H U G E ‘baby steps’ that formed the foundation for and set the table regarding the real prayer and spirituality that was to come later in my life.

Perhaps the first ‘baby step’ that God graced me with was creating the desire to pray daily in my heart! In my early twenties prayer for me was simply a discrete activity that happened only when I was scared, in trouble or very, very ill!!! Of course I also prayed when I went to Church, the problem was that I only went to church on Easter and Christmas at the time!!! The idea that prayer could be a dialogue and become a constant reality in my life was foreign to me.   I knew nothing about the power of prayer, the various kinds of prayers one can offer or of the many blessings that comes with developing an active prayer life, despite growing up with a mother and grandmother who were prayer warriors. Like many other fundamentals in life, gaining a REAL knowledge about what works in this area will only come by committing to and doing it yourself…

When I first started rising early for ‘quiet time,’ my focus was not on prayer at all but actually on meditation.  Believing that I could wrestle spiritual truth and power from heaven by force and hard work [a common Pelagian and heretical belief], my initial early morning spiritual forays were decidedly not Catholic or even Christian! Prayer was simply a twenty – second ‘intro into and exit out of’ my morning meditations, which focused on tapping into latent occult powers rather than getting to know God or growing in holiness. My primary motivations for prayer were Santa Clausian or Big Brotherish at best: to either get what I wanted or to cover and protect my ass! I was blissfully ignorant and completely indifferent to what prayer actually was, and especially what it could do to and for me…

However all this changed after experiencing some initial success in dabbling with the occult.  It was a series of   G R A C E D  events – realizing that my experiences of occult ‘gifts’ were actually ‘demonic contacts and portals to hell,’ beginning to lose control of my newly found ‘inner’ life, seeing what happened when I called out Jesus’ name during an occult meditation or when one had gone awry, etc. – that basically scared me straight back to Jesus and flipped my morning spirituality from meditation to prayer!!!   I immediately dropped those occult/new age meditations and refocused my spirituality – both my spiritual reading and my morning quiet times – back to Catholic practices centered on scripture and prayer.

Back in my early twenties I was like so many in the world today – I knew God existed and atheism was not my problem…   My problem was accepting all that came along with that belief in God – beliefs like…   …I should commit to and work at living morallyinstead of primarily getting paid in life, or that I should serve others with my gifts and talents instead of focusing on constant pleasure or becoming rich, etc..   As a child I had learned of God’s goodness, His expectations for us to love others and, via grace, that each can embody and live out of God’s love through our unique gifts to love and serve others. My problem was accepting as true the consequences rejecting God’s offer….

You see, despite growing up on Chicago’s South Side and accepting as ‘fact’ all forms of violence and evil against myself, people and community, I had somehow bought completely that secular and New Age teaching of universal salvation! This is the belief that God’s love is so great, that in the end it even overcomes God’s justice, effectively eliminating for us any and all moral, spiritual and communal requirements to love as God loves in order to be saved. In acknowledging the world’s evil as real, grace led me to also consider and acknowledge its source – Satan – as real. After dabbling in the occult confirmed both Satan’s existence and that the ongoing war for my soul was real, the reality scared the living #@$%&! out of me!!! Now accepting these spiritual realities as truths, by grace I refocused and flipped my morning spiritual script, elevating prayer to a place of prominence over meditation. From that time on, I have limited all meditations to classic Christian meditations which focuses on Christian themes and the Life of Christ.

I believe many good hearted people today are following the same path and making the same mistakes that I initially made – dabbling in occult meditations to unlock latent spiritual potentials so as to gain success in the natural world, instead of choosing the hard walk of faith.  This hard path of following Jesus and walking by grace and faith, transforms our spirituality and its goals to that of serving, giving oneself away and growing in holiness – by grace and in imitation of Christ.

Unfortunately, many Catholics erroneously believe as I once did: that they can – free of any risks because God is all good and all love – develop their own ‘blended spiritualities, which combine traditional Catholic spirituality and the New Age.’   In doing so, I believe many experience what I have discussed above: a subtle refocusing on what a specific meditation can grant one as a spiritual gift versusthe real growth in one’s understanding of and deepening life of prayer.  Please note how this New Age spirituality almost always focuses on gaining or developing some ‘spiritual gift’ in hopes of doing some future good.  It does not require ‘faith in  God’ or present moral requirements like loving others in our relationships or ‘using our gifts in a holy way’ as prerequisites for receiving these gifts.

In working to develop and created an adult Christian spirituality, please, please, pleeeeeeeease do not be fooled by the empty New Age promises of some special spiritual knowledge or of some special spiritual gift that one can receive via meditation!!!!  Please reject these empty promises of acquiring and using either special spiritual knowledge(s) or special spiritual gifts to gain ‘wordly’ success in exchange for loosing your soul!  In your spiritual reading, please select readings that examine what growth in prayer really looks and feels like instead of how you can ‘unlock and develop’ latent potentials [I suggest the Doctors of the Church].

In your meditations, always keep a scriptural focus and remember that Jesus’ life and the Gospels are unparalleled meditation material for the believer. Finally in your spirituality, please remember that you are NOT ALONE on the path, that you are ACTIVELY IN A WAR and that winning both our daily battles and the war only requires PRAYER! Without a doubt, prayer alone is the greatest spiritual tool in our spiritual toolbox, not meditation. It is prayer, not meditation, which opens, transforms by grace and frees our hearts to love and serve as God’s only Son has modeled for us… So, focus on growing in prayer during your spiritual quiet times and, continue to pray on my fellow Christian soldiers…

On St. Paul’s Invitation to Pray Always

 

In chapter five of the New Testament’s Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul invites the believer to ‘pray without ceasing.’  Have you ever considered taking this invitation seriously? As a Christian adult with an active spirituality and deepening prayer life, has learning how to pray without ceasingever been  – a real spiritual goal for you?   If not, don’t feel too bad or beat yourself up about it, because you are not alone!!! Many – erroneously – believe that it would be easier getting a PH.D in a foreign language than learning how to pray constantly!!!!  When seeing Paul’s invitation, unfortunately many Christians are all too ready to dismiss it as just ‘another one of those scriptural impossibilities,” like loving our enemies.

However, just like that ‘impossible’ commandment’s call ‘to love always,’ this is one of those Gospel invitations that, over time, can pick and nag at one’s soul…  Why is this so?  My belief is that as we spiritually mature, the Holy Spirit empowers and leads each soul to that place where, by faith and grace, the impossible now becomes very plausible, possible, and doable – like loving one’s enemies!!!  While most realize that loving our enemies will not beeasyto achieve or always enjoyable, most also come to understand that it [loving our enemies] is something we can grow in and come to live out by grace!

In the same manner, the Holy Spirit confirms that  – by grace and faith – it is also some how possible for us to comfortably and to constantly ‘walk, talk and live in communion with God.’  The lives of the Saints testify to both God’s willingness andour human ability to, by grace, eventually live and walk in union with God.

Even in acknowledging the power of faith and grace, you may still be asking yourself, “How is thispossible or even achievable? Can I reallyspiritually pull this off – with bills, relationships, school, kids, family-work & health issues plus my money sometimes being funnier than a stand up comic? Where or how do I even start?  How can I grow my present spirituality of sporadic and occasional prayer experiences to that of finding it as the living continuum and background to my daily life?”

I apologize for NOT having a ‘one size fit all’ answer to that question… …I sure wish that I did!!!  However, what I can offer to you now is the onespiritual practice and method that God gave me as I first pondered this question years ago.  God’s response to my question was the following: just repeat – throughout the day– the two fundamental ‘first steps’ of any basic prayer: a) remembering God and then b) being with/sitting in God’s Presence. My response to God’s answer led me to begin linking these two stepsto ‘specific daily activities,’ like eating, using the bathroom, walking to and from the car, etc..

In reality, many ‘do these steps naturally’ when walking into a church, preparing to read scripture or to pray before a meal, etc.. They allow us to ‘slow down and turn off’ to both the world’s exterior and our own, inner noise.   Now, with inner stillness and quietness restored, we are able to turn within and to prepare our hearts and souls to both ‘return to and to receive God’s Presence.’  Most of us start prayer with this ‘returning to and remembering of God’because unfortunately, we generally find ourselves in thatplace where we have forgotten or even outright abandoned God, as we busied ourselves throughout the day.

These steps are arguably, the two most elementary required for any real prayer. As such, despite each being a profoundly simple spiritual exercise, each one can also be astonishingly difficult or even impossible to achieve on any given day. For a variety of reasons, any given day it can be very difficult finding and taking that 3-4 minutes to quiet our minds and to still our hearts. It can also be equally as hard simply to remember and think about God on some days…

Some argue that they are simply too busy at work and in life to even tryintegrating prayer into and throughout their day…  Okay, I get it – kids, work, social life, family, health issues, etc. – your life is very full!!!  So… just use the dead & in-between-times of your day to pray!!!! Link these two basic prayer steps – remembering God and placing yourself in God’s Presence – to a variety of simple activities performed daily.  Over time, the practice will eventually train and make ‘normal to you’ both returning to and remembering God throughout your day…

As you learn how to remember Godand to be with God throughout the day, your ‘discrete acts of prayer’ will gradually morph into a constant dialogue, feeling, turning to and ongoing REAL LIFE experience of God!!!  You will look up one day, to find that somehow, you are now – by grace – living an experience of God, prayer and your spiritual life in/as a living continuum!

What could this practice look like in real life? Well, by linking these two steps to simple activities, [like walking to/from your car at work, before and at the end of every meal, when using the restroom and when walking down a specific corridor/staircase, etc.] your spiritually really begins to adds up!!!   Using these ‘dead times’ to remember God is like throwing spare change into a huge coffee can over the course of decades…  Here’s the math: add 2 (to and from the car just once) + 6 (3 meals a day x 2) + 2 (using the bathroom 2x) = ten + times you will find yourself practicing ‘returning to and placing yourself in God’s Presence’ each day.  Wow!!! For many, I bet that’s a heck of a lot more  ‘turning to and remembering God’ than they are presently doing!!!!!

In the good 2 or 3 month struggle (at the minimum) it will take to transform these dead times into regular ‘periods for prayer,’ you will find out more about yourself and your faith life than even you might reallywant to know!!!!  For instance, you will find out that you have more time than you thought available for prayer…  you will also come to find that your inner world (mind and heart) are actually much so more undisciplined than you E  V  E R  thought they were!!!

You will also come to see and know much better those topics which are most difficult for you to stop ‘thinking about’ or ‘feeling in your heart.’  As you experience the frustration of finding out how undisciplined your mind is you will also come to know – in a new way – the joy of KNOWING that you are soooo much more than just, your mind – as many think today!!!

I have not even begun to mention the insights, feelings, blessings and joys that God will lavish on you – simply because God won’t let you out give or out loveHim!!!!  It is simply impossible to ‘out work’ Jesus in trying to develop and deepen our prayer lives with God…

I am not going to mention the personal benefits and transformations – at work, home and in one’s relationships – that you will begin to experience, simply because nowyour mind and heart is spiritually growing (exponentially) as it becomes so much more disciplined and grounded in God’s love than it E V E R was before!!!

The fact is, that we are often ignorant of just how undisciplinedour minds and hearts actually are – until we try establishing a simple spiritual practice like this – remembering and sitting in God’s Presence seven to ten times daily.  With this practice, we will come to realize the importance of learning how to listen to God and for God in our lives…

…And, as we develop our spiritual ears to hear and to listen to God throughout the day – in nature, strangers, family members, in our feelings and through our random thoughts/ memories – somehow by grace, we slowly begin to believe in and experience that which we once thought, was impossible. Only by taking a leap of faith to hope, believe and work at creating that which St. Paul said was possible by grace – of praying unceasingly – will it become a reality in our lives.  May the Lord grant you the grace to consider making St. Paul’s invitation your spiritual goal for this year.

On Findin’ Character Kickin’ In…

You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.
Henry David Thoreau

            In this, my third year of transition from teaching as a vocation, I decided this spring to leave my garden fallow. In over 20 years of living here, I’ve never left my backyard untouched – twenty four years to be exact.  In these 24 years, I have grown vegetables, grown watermelons, grown various flowers and flower gardens int he soil and in outdoor pots, etc. The most consistent and yearly undertaking of mine throughout these two decades is to establish four rose garden which contain roughly a 15 – 20 beautiful rose bushes. I have one along the house and another in the rear yard, with two  – a square and a circular rose garden – as centerpieces to the yard.  They have been planted as testaments to my four beautiful daughters.

Almost a year ago in August, I began a chaplain residency program in a suburban hospital.  If you know anything about a residency program, you know that it can kill you both physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  In addition to the long hours and overnight calls, I was also driving at least 3 1/2’s hours a day to and from my place of employment. In light of this grueling schedule, this spring I decided – for the first time – to leave the garden fallow. I decided to do nothing – not to reseed the grass spots left after a winter of my dog Jay’s defecating, not to plant any new rosebushes where a few from past years may have died, not even to purchase any cheap annuals to plant in the planters or even to buy and sow an $8 bag of wildflowers amongst the remaining roses bushes.

In my 24 years living here, I have slaved over this backyard: last year alone I roped off 95% of it from my dog Jay and proceeded to rake and reseed up to 50 different dead spots made from his first winter of taking complete ownership of it by usingeveryareaof it as his personal toliet. Last year I also sowed annual wildflowers amongst the roses and planted annuals in pots as I normally do, etc. This spring I began to notice and now, have finally realized as I sit here in the middle of the summer and having completed the residency program, that my backyard is still – without the work being put in – absolutely beautiful.  The perennials that I planted along the southern fence – and struggled with over the last two years – have all return and are the fullest they’ve ever been.  Each of my rose gardens, save for two or three rose bushes which did not make the winter, are all full and in bloom.  This second summer, even without re-seeding it, my lawn looks fabulous.  And finally, to top it all off, the annual wildflowers which were not supposed to return, have returned and filled the places they were last year as if they were perennials or as if I had resown them anew this spring!

~Morning Prayer is like Breakfast for the Soul –

Who Wants to start the day hungry?~

            What’s happening in my garden is also happening in my prayer life.  Having to leave very early in the morning to drive almost 2 hours through traffic to get to work at 8 AM, I had to let go of my morning prayer routine in order to enter into and complete the residency program.  Of course, yes I did pray a rosary and listen to the daily Scriptures in the car and then pray a podcast on the morning drive (Day Breakon the Relevant Radio App), but this morning drive time prayer was at times difficult and rarely gave me the comfort/peace  that taking an hour in the morning did for the last 30 + mornings of my life.  Now, having completed the residency I’m finding that my prayer life and garden is also very much intact.  All the work and time – by the grace of God – that I put in over the years has formed a spiritual character which was grounded in and formed by graced regular habits of morning prayer. Now like my garden, I’ve lost nothing in this time away at all… In this time of stepping away to grow and respond to God’s call in a new way in my life, I’ve not lost a single iota from the great gifts received by regularly integrating prayer into my morning over the years.  Like my garden where the flowers have changed over the years, the prayers and spiritual exercises have also changed, yet the overall character of the whole – my morning prayer time and spiritual garden – has remained, arguably even growing deeper in the time I stepped away.

In short, a lifetime of habits have formed a character which, “kicked in” and continued to grow on that graced trajectory already set, even though I had no time to put in the work as I was accustomed to. I’m sitting here now in my yard as I write this, reveling in the power of God’s grace to build character through the daily struggles, even in a sinner like me.  Praise Him!

In Praise of Our Mothers on Mother’s Day

I believe that for most orthodox Christians, their love of and for God the Son, Jesus, is arguably more paramount and more demonstrably expressed than their love of and for God the Father!!!  Why is this the case?

I believe the answer is very simple: Fathers have, can and are often experienced – at least traditionally – as being the more distant parent who both lays down the Law (The Ten Commandments) and who also brings justice to bear on all those who break it! Fatherhood’s traditional Law Giver/Defender/Judge persona and role in the family has often reflected and been experienced as more of an Old Testament – Yahweh like power and authority figure for many.  Of course, I beg that you please don’t get me wrong – as for the purposes of this essay, I make these simplistic generalizations – because my mother could lay down the Law and tear  a new hole in my butt when necessary, like many moms could, would and often did!!!

However, I also knew instinctively that my Mother did and always would, until the day she died – be the first person in line to embody the love of Jesus Christ for me in my life!!!  Whereas my dad had clear laws, limits and expectations (and quietly, so did my mom), I saw and knew that my mom – from her daily work and sacrifice – was the one who was gonna gather the disciples to teach me…  Who would walk throughout Palestine to find and heal me…  And was the parent who would be unjustly condemned, yet still willfully choose to carry and climb that Cross on Calvary for me – just as my Lord and Savior Jesus did!!!  If my dad was God the Father, then my mom was DEFINITELY Jesus, God the Son!!!

That is why on this Mother’s Day and on all Mother’s Days, we celebrate our mothers – and all who have mothered us – by carrying us in their wombs… by feeding us at their breasts…  by cooking, cleaning and dressing us in this school of life… by listening, caring for and healing us when we have been hurt, misunderstood and abandoned…  And by embodying and teaching God the Father’s Laws in a simple-to-understand and down-to-earth manner.   Today we remember, cherish and honor our mothers, who have willingly and truthfully – laid down their lives and climbed the Cross – so that we may not just have life, but that we might have it abundantly!!!

Let your praises sing out the joys of Motherhood today!!!  As God the Son, Jesus, is the only one given that we might be saved, so often are our mothers – our first known Saviors – who have given their very bodies and souls for our lives!!!

On How Many Atheists and Christians Live Similar Beliefs…

Of course, as anyone knows, most atheists, by definition, do not believe in what the overwhelming majority of humanity has generally called, God.  As a matter of fact, atheists are historically and numerically a small minority compared to us who do believe in God.  Its my belief that at the heart of atheism lies the belief and lived reality, of simply choosing to do one’s own will, and not being accountable to anyone or anything but one’s self and one’s desires. If we briefly examine and compare the difference between one’s stated beliefs and one’s lived beliefs, I believe that the historical and numerical divide between atheism and what many today take as ‘Christian living’ is actually much less than many of us would like to admit!

A person’s stated beliefs, like one’s fundamental political or business, moral and social perspectives, can and do often change, grow and mature over the course of one’s life – especially if one is not super rich enough to evade many of life’s inevitable and very concrete daily struggles.  Our stated beliefs are those we proclaim openly in and to the community; they allow others to generally understand ‘who and what we are about’ or ‘what angle’ we are coming from: democratic, republican, Christian, atheist, conservative, liberal, feminist, etc. They allow others not only to better understand and/or to categorize us, but also, to some degree, to hold us accountable for our behavior in reference to these beliefs.

A person’s lived beliefs can be very different from one’s stated beliefs, and as such, by definition they are often not openly stated or shared with the communities that we are apart of. Lived beliefs are those we allow to truly guide how we live; those beliefs we struggle to willfully practice in our relationships and community lives. We have to hope, plan, seek and look for ways to practice our true lived beliefs.  Lived beliefs, if they are different from one’s stated beliefs, are generally hidden from most in the community.  To find them out, one often has to be ‘outted’ regarding them – with proof – before that person can be held accountable by the communities in which they live. Classic examples of this are the serial thief or the serial adulterer, both who publically proclaim their beliefs of respecting the property and personhood/relationships of others, only to eventually – be outted by proof – of what their real lived beliefs actually are.

What does this mean for the Christian? Well, it means that atheists are correct when they say that most Christians are hypocrites, except for the most holy among us (and that is probably notyou or me yet)!!!

It also means that those who are publically Christian in name, but who have no intention of acknowledging and prayerfully destroying their hypocrisy are very similar to atheists: they practically refuse to acknowledge and utilize the gifts of grace and the Holy Spirit given at baptism, which can actually transform them into a different – much holier person.  In short, though publically Christian – for whatever reason(s) – they always willfully choose to do their own will and refuse to live by and be held accountable to anyone or anything except their self and their desires.  It means they have truly accepted and live out the hypocrisy we have all been born into.

It also means that true Christian believers are those who not only recognize their hypocricy and failure, but who also – through the gifts of grace and the Holy Spirit received through baptism – prayerfully work daily toward reaching that hope, goal and day when their stated beliefs will actually become their lived beliefs. True Christian believers accept and acknowledge, but fight to change and eliminate the hypocrisy we find ourselves living in.

That day – of finding ourselves different from the atheists and being a true Christians – comes only by grace and often, after years of prayerfully picking up our crosses daily and striving to make God’s will our own by strugglin’ to live out the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ Laws of Love first and foremost in our lives.  Often, it comes only after years of prayers, when our prayer by grace has changed from being a discrete act done at church or before meals, to a real, living dialogue with God throughout the day…

On that day, our other naturally stated beliefs, like being good capitalists in our business dealings, good republicans or democrats, feminists or progressives, conservatives or liberal, etc. will no longer come first in our lives or will be argued forby using our Christian faith.  Like all the true saints, they will not fall away, but will seen and evaluated in light of our relationship with God.  As our publically stated Christian and lived out beliefs become one, all will see and understand the true love of God that we are both stating and living from.

On that day, we will no longer worry about being held accountable for what we really believe and will be willing to suffer for it as the real true Christians – the saints – have and are doing today with their very lives.

On that day, the community will increasingly recognize us as true, authentic and genuine Christians – the persons God has called us to be – as we lose the natural hypocrisy that we are born into and that has many living like true atheists.

On Working with Our Unforgivable Sins…

Eons ago, when I used to teach high school religion to sophomores and juniors, invariably the subject of purgatory would come up since it was a Catholic classroom.  I let my students go back and forth, arguing for a while about almost every post death experience…  Almost always, every post life possibility was vehemently argued for, except for purgatory. We’d have the reincarnation group making their arguments, and of course we’d have both Catholics and non-Catholics passionately arguing for only heaven or hell as afterlife possibilities.  Of course we’d always find or hear one or two novel perspectives that were unique to the persons themselves, etc. After about 15 minutes of discussion and arguing, the students would pause and ask  about my perspectives – especially whether I believed in purgatory or not.

I always answered the question in the following manner: first, I compared myself to all those who’ve taught and tried to live the faith in the past, sharing that I did not believe that I was in a league with most of them – especially the St. Paul’s and Mother Teresa’s of the world, and if these were examples of people who went straight to heaven – I can honestly say, “I’m not there (walking in holiness as they did) yet!!!” However, I quickly added, that by faith and by grace I believe and truly hope that I wouldn’t go to hell either!!!!!  As is the case with theological arguments, despite making good sense, it was unconvincing and didn’t move the hearts of many students.  After briefly stating that argument, I then hit them with a second gut punch, which caught many of them off guard…

I asked my students to take three or four minutes to envision both the worst people they believed who ever lived in history and their own personal worst enemies.  If you know anything about teenagers, this was easy for most… After giving them three or four minutes to silently picture and identify those in both categories, I often saw in the eyes and on the faces of some of my best students, a gleefully hate that could virtually wish death with just a glance!!!  After all my students silently identified their enemies, I had them imagine suddenly dying and finding themselves at the pearly gates.  And then I instructed them to imagine the Archangel Gabriel welcoming them into heaven, opening the gates, only to see their most hated enemies standing right there before them!!!

The sheer look of utter confusion and disbelief on most of my students faces was no surprise to me!  Exactly at this moment, I asked them, “What’s wrong?  What are you feeling?”  Few were able to articulate the confusion that they felt amidst their passionate feelings of hate.  I immediately questioned the class, asking “What do you think the Archangel Gabriel will say to you, precisely at this moment?”  Not a single student would answer the question…   Then I’d say, “He would point his finger away from the pearly gates and say, ‘Go… …you are not ready yet, because you have not yet learned to love your enemies…” Then we would read the Poem of Gerontius together…

As a high school teacher, I used that story to explain the Catholic teaching about purgatory – how we, in fact, can be saved by God’s grace but still not yet ready to enter into eternal life.  Now, as a hospital chaplain and Christian writer, I share it with you my readers to highlight that which few Christians want to contemplate: our personal list of unforgivable sins that each one of us must learn how to forgive, if we are going to make it into heaven.

Taking this example to its very realistic conclusion, who will stun you when the pearly gates are opened?   Will the pearly gates open up and you see a serial rapist? Will the pearly gates open up and you see a murderer or a mass murderer?  Will the pearly gates open up and you see a sexual abuser?  Will the pearly gates open up and you see a lifetime abuser of drugs and/or alcohol?  Will the pearly gates open up and you see a serial adulterer or perhaps a child molester standing inside of them?  I believe that the answer to each of these questions regarding whether those who have committed our specific unforgivable sin will be able to somehow get into heaven, is yes!!!

You/me/we will probably see some of our worst enemies –  people who have committed our specific brand of unforgivable sin(s) but who have then repented – in heaven!!!  Given the story and message of the Good Thief who died on Calvary with Jesus and the Great Love of God that Jesus modeled and shared in His Gospel life, death and resurrection,  the Christian – who is really Christian – must say yes…  …at least to the hope and possibility of forgiveness being given to those we hate the most!

This brings me back to the central question of this essay: what is on your list of unforgivable sins?  …And how can we learn and grow from having them?

Can you and have you even identified what’s on your list?  Have you identified the sinner you  are least ready or willing to love by forgiving?  Or do you think you can die in and with your hatred of your enemies and STILL get into heaven?

Acknowledging and identifying your personal list of unforgivable sins is one possible starting point for learning about how to grapple with, learn about and to eventually live out that Gospel call to love our enemies.

It also can be an important starting point to begin learning about how to grapple with, learn about and to eventually live out the Gospel call to forgive others – as God forgives us.

Loving our Enemies and Learning to Truly Forgive –  is truly, the very hard, heart work which can, by grace and prayer,  lead to the very real healing in and of our hearts.  It is that graced work which can unlock our minds, hearts and will, freeing us to love again and to love in new and greater ways than before.

The Gospel call and spiritual work of loving our enemies and learning to truly forgive, starts with acknowledging our specific challenges regarding these Gospel invitations in our daily prayer lives.   Doing so can lead to both the restoration of important relationships and the loosening of those past shackles that still seek to binds us in our lives…

I invite you to first, sit down…  And to write out your list…

And then – each day – to begin praying over it and, more importantly, to begin praying – by name – for those who have sinned in these unforgivable ways against you and against those whom you love.

Despite realizing that you are not a murderer, serial rapist or adulterer, etc., you too may come to the day when you begin to acknowledge and pray about the probable fact, that, perhaps you too, have done the unforgivable in someone else’s life and are on somebody else’s list…  …And that you too, may need to be forgiven for what another deems as, unforgivable.

 

http://www.newmanreader.org/works/verses/gerontius.html

 

 

 

On Giving the Gift of A Grateful Heart to Your Dad…

While visiting my daughter Layla in Cape Town South Africa on Father’s Day 2017, my wife and I attended Mass near the hotel we were staying at. At the end of the Mass, the priest invited all present to give their father the gift of a grateful heart. To make such an invitation would be ludicrous on Mother’s Day, for who doesn’t love their own mom? In fact, if you find a person who bad mouths their own mom – calling out her sins on any day of the year (even with good reason) – then you’ve also probably found one of the loneliest persons in the world who has very few, in any, friends!!! If we are called to gloss over and ignore anyone’s sins, then the first person on that list most certainly should be our own mom!!! (Ok, a bad Catholic joke: Reference the Immaculate Conception! (lol)). All mothers are to be proclaimed as royalty on Mother’s Day, but this is not so, for Father’s Day. As we began walking back to the hotel, the priest’s invitation stirred a variety of insights and feelings within.

My initial thoughts recalled the many general conversations I have had with other fathers about how we, as a group, have been generally ridiculed, scapegoated, and portrayed as immature fools by the culture and media – and also about the myriad of caustic effects this reality has had on our relationships and family lives!!! When discussing the powerful ability of culture to inform and guide the perspectives of the masses, it is easy to acknowledge this, as a fact, especially when talking about foreign countries with different religions and cultures. Coming closer to home, it is also easy to acknowledge, as fact, this reality about ‘other’ Americans – especially when they are of a different socioeconomic class and/or region.

However, when the cultural argument is applied to a topic that touches our own heart and soul – when the shoe fits on our own stinky foot – it is all to easy to discount and discredit this reality as a fact. All of a sudden, we find ourselves babbling about our own freedom and ability to break with and to not be formed by the very same culture that we regularly acknowledge to blind and cripple others! As our culture continues its focus on highlighting and educating us to the contributions of women in our society and challenging the historical ills of patriarchy, it is a shame to see that so many good men in general and specifically the vocation of fatherhood itself has somehow been slammed and denigrated in the process.

 

After pausing my inward reflection and briefly sharing with my wife, she agreed that it is hard for many to link the two words, gratitude and fatherhood – given the absence of fathers from the lives of so many. This comment led me to reflect on my own life, where my own father was present for the first seven or eight years, and then disappeared until I was almost grown. Even with my dad present those early years, my experiences of him as a father was unduly colored until I became a parent. By what? …Yes, his actual absence, the cultural narrative surrounding fathers in general and finally the malicious, one sided narratives that my mother shared about why he was gone. To make long story short (as she would always say), he was simply crazy and she had to save us from his madness. She never shared and we never knew what the specifics about his “craziness and his madness” was really about. My mother was a strong minded and forthright woman with nine living brothers, so verbal and physical abuse definitely was not the issue…

It was not until much later, when I was married 7+ years and talking with my mother about leaving my marriage because of contrasting parenting styles and monetary standards, that she actually confessed the truth and shared openly about her part in the divorce. I sat in stunned silence as she took almost full ownership for it and even stated that, in retrospect, yes it was in lots of ways a big mistake. I had never questioned my mother, at least regarding this issue… …but, then who can question the queen in their life, unless he is the King? The late sixties and seventies of my childhood were times of great cultural change and as divorce became acceptable, it offered many professional women with income opportunities to break free of their marriages, whether for good or for bad… As she simply stated that night, how many divorces have you ever heard about, that was caused by the woman? Men have written their stories in books called history, whereas the stories of women – herstory – is often passed down orally in the lives of the children. After sharing her story, she paused quietly to let it sink in.

Then she hit me with that Mamma Queen back hand slap question that I was completely unprepared for: what do you really want, especially since you are claiming to be a Christian man of faith? To be right or to be married? She stated how the latter would require continual compromise, sacrifice and love, even if it was not received in kind. These are real faith aspects – ones that she simply chose to no longer give in her marriage, whereas the former only required her opinion, money and the support of her ‘crew.’ Reviewing the life I experienced without my dad’s presence, I knew the answer to that question and recommitted that night to ‘faithfully loving’ for the long haul. I simply would not permit my daughters to suffer the harsh realities that often accompany an absent dad – like having my kids call someone else, dad. Somehow, mamma had done it again: she slapped some sense into my hard head and changed my mind, helping me to see the light – that being right was being married…

 

After arriving back at the hotel in CapeTown and beginning to write this reflection, my daughter highlighted the point that an absence of the father in the family, for whatever the reason, will almost always lead to a resentment towards him in the lives of the children. Her comment resonated with me on many levels. I thought about those families and marraiges that are punctuated by absence: those married to career military men, world traveling executives or workaholic fathers… I suspect that over time, despite bringing home very much bacon, these fathers also come home to very real resentment – from both the wife and kids. Layla’s comment reminded me that absence in family life does not always make the heart grow fonder, for either the children or spouses, but often simply makes it grow cold and indifferent… Unfortunately and on some level, being absent in some measure (for good reasons) has always been a part of the historical reality of being a father: he must leave and go to fight that war, work that job, hunt and gather, etc. The real absence, sacrifice and costs associated with being a true father, are rarely appreciated and are truly often misunderstood by most, until they become fathers or loves a good one.

In a short hand written letter given to me by my daughter that Sunday, Layla thanked me for “my commitment to unconditional love that has made me an amazing parent.” She went on to say, that she was “grateful for my presence, patience and support every day.” Her letter and love, as does all that has transpired since that night twenty years ago when my mama backhanded me with that question, has confirmed both how truly ignorant I really was about the reality of real fathering and also how God’s grace and Spirit has stepped in to lead and guide me to the truth.   By God’s grace, I was able to not only accept the contextual limitations of the relationship that had formed between my dad and myself by his death, but to also move forward not hating but praying for his soul – as I do for my mom. By staying married and allowing myself to be “beat down” by parenting (that’s both and understatement and another essay), I have grown to identify, know and appreciate “the dad side of me” that my father passed on – both genetically and through our limited relationship. There is still more work to be done in this areas for me, but the hard work that began the journey to having a grateful heart for my father, was started years ago.

My prayer this father’s day is that this tough work, of listening to and really understanding the often hidden truth about his story and his account of absence, can continue in earnest for those families struggling with the absence of fathers.   My prayer is that we begin to acknowledge the complex relational, cultural and historical factors that have shaped and that continue to shape our sometimes warped and very incomplete perspectives of real fatherhood. My prayer is that some – just a bit, of the thick coated love slathered on our mothers – may be increasingly spread to our fathers as we prayerfully open our minds and hearts to the rarely understood and complex reality that is fatherhood. My prayer for our world, is that one day – soon – it will be just as ludricrous for a priest to stand up on Father’s Day as it is now on Mother’s Day, to ask that we give the gift of a grateful heart to our fathers.

Happy Father’s Day!

Living in the Presence of God

Presented to: St. Thomas the Apostle Community in the 2017 Lenten Series: The Ten Minute Catechism on 3/27/2017

Topic: Living in the Presence of God

My comments today can be found in and come from the writings of the saints

I.  The Saints on God’s Presence[1]

I choose the saints as my starting point because “they describe with unnerving clarity the impossibility of hiding from God or escaping his presence.

The Saint’s writings also emphasize the loving, supportive and inspiring reality that God’s omnipotence brings to the soul, especially in its struggle against sin.

­­­____________

“WE avoid the eyes of men, and in God’s presence we commit sin. We know God to be the Judge of all, yet in his sight we sin.”

Ambrose

“One who remembers the presence of God is less open to other thoughts, especially bad thoughts. As long as we believe that God sees us, we are restrained from daring to sin before such a Witness and Judge. In two ways the presence of God is an antidote again sin: first, because God sees us, and, secondly, because we see God.”

St. Ignatius

II. The Saints: On the growth of God’s Presence in our lives…

A.  On experiencing and living with another presence, other than ourselves, in our lives…

Two common experiences of this are worrying over something and being in love. When there is  an active and personal love in our lives, whether of another person(s) or a profession, causes, etc., our inner voice and daily conversation begins to dialogue about and to focus on this ‘other’ and “all things related to (this) my love” rather than the normal media narratives and our simply own personal issues.  Early on, in the experiencing of a new love is often when this most pronounced  change in one’s inner life occurs…

… one often spends lots of time – mental and heart time – thinking about ways to  share and to build that love, while often also reflecting on and idealizing the future  possibilities of themselves with or in their new love.

Like a real love, worrying can wreak havoc on both the time management and focusing abilities of our inner capacities. An unexpected and unprecedented family or health crisis can cast a shadow over one for months, afflicting  both the head – in the constant seeking of solutions – and also in one’s heart – with some   form of affective suffering, aching or grieving.

Both love and worrying can have a dramatic impact on the mental narrative    running in both our heads and the feelings in our hearts, often dragging the latter on a wide ranging rollercoaster of emotions and  flowing passions.

The very realness of ‘another presence’ found in our active worrying and loving is one way of conveying the realness of God’s Presence that we are talking about today. A Presence that in our seeking to find, somehow finds and surround us with Its Holy Presence… And pervades our thoughts and hearts with It’s Loving Presence bringing hope in and active faith to continue livin’ and strugglin’  in love…”

B.  How God’s Presence may grow and change in the person, according to the writings of the Saints….

The change and growth we are discussing usually accompanies one as they begin and progress through the first or Purgative Stage of Prayer the prayer life…

In this initial stage of prayer…

  1. One actively begins responding to God’s invitation to grow in prayer and holiness, often after a conversion experience, when one ‘takes ownership’ of one’s religious and spiritual life, beginning a life long practices of…

Service Work          Prayer               Almsgiving         Personal Discipline/Mortification

Prayer is linked to discrete activities throughout the day: am rising/pm reclining   (Examen), prayer before every meal, prayer when using the bathroom, prayer   during travel to/from destinations/ am reading of scripture and daily review of  that reading/ praying for those in need throughout our day… Forms of prayer  used: mostly oral and some conversational.

In addition to prayer, one often begins practicing some form of mortification – spiritual disciplining of one’s self in reference to our senses: taming the tounge,  tempering/moderating our physical appetite(s), caring for our bodies and the bodies of other we live with, etc.

Initially: one begins talking/fighting/struggling with oneself through out the day to return to God via prayer and to practice one’s chosen devotions, acts of kindness and personal disciplines. By grace and whether one realizes it or not, this initial struggle builds within the person, the willingness and resolve to return to God’s presence.

As the struggle to pray and reform our sinful choices continues over time, by grace it (the struggle) eventually becomes the norm, or at least, the struggle eventually becomes the background and context of our daily inner life, replacing a former inner life of selfish and oriented inner dialogue – that was often about our desires…

As one begins to have some success praying throughout the day, the forms of prayer we can utilize expands: oral/vocal prayer continues as conversational/dialogical increases as we find new ways to “be with God…”  We begin to pray for those we see in passing with obvious needs and to praise Him for the blessings witnessed during the day….

As God leads the person through this stage, subtle changes begin to occur with in one’s internal conversation: one’s inner voice is no longer only or primarily conversing with oneself, but it is increasingly directed to and finds itself in some form of dialogue with God throughout the day: about one’s failures, hopes, disappointments, etc. If the conversation is with one’s self (not directed to God), it is often about or in reference to its chosen spiritual goals…

Over time, and as one transitions to the 2nd phase of the spiritual life, one is now praying and dialoguing with God throughout the day and often in a myriad of ways…  One is now, by grace and save for mortal sin, living generally in an awareness and Presence of God. Forms of prayer used: oral/ conversational and now increasingly, the prayer of walking in and being in God’s Presence, etc.

Summary: One begins this phase with an interior life that is composed mostly of talking/conversing primarily  with one’s self in one’s internal conversation, but eventually ends the first phase of the spiritual life transformed, experiencing, perceiving and living more constantly and comfortably in the Presence of God in their internal life…  Guided and spurred on to grow by the Holy Spirit, one’s inner life moves from a singular presence  of you alone – occasionally praying and crying out to God – to eventually a constant dual presence of you and God, in a living dialogue…

[1] Jill Haak Adels, The Wisdom of the Saints: An Anthology. Oxford University Press: New York. 1987.