On Getting God’s Special Gift this Christmas!!!

Advent can be a very special time of the year for Catholics.  It is that brief time allocated each December for us to reflect on the past year as we simultaneously prepare ourselves to receive – in some way – God anew!  

Each year, God’s Christmas Gifts will come to us in a myriad of different ways over the course of our lives: from finding new or restoring broken relationships with family and friends, to getting that grade or job that we wanted, etc.   At every age and stage of our journey, whatever  gift God  gives or allows to manifest in our lives, we can truly rest assured that 1) they are the best gifts available for us…  2) they are given to be used in and for the community.

If you think about it, the best gifts are almost always those that will somehow address bothwhat we needand also what we want in life!!!  I believe that God, knowing our hearts and the journeys that we are currently on, seeks to give each one of us just such a gift each year – one that will address boththe desires of our hearts and the needs for our lives… 

Unfortunately, I also believe that each year some of us will fail to receive God’s Gift simply because we did not take or make the time in Advent to prepare for it…  To dream of and to see it… To hope for it…  To name, pray and to ask for it, even with that molecular sized faith of ours…

In Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet found in Matthew Chapter 22, it is at verse 11 where we find out that the one who did not adequately prepare and dress for the Banquet was thrown out!!!  

In the same manner, I believe many Christians are thrown out of God’s Christmas Gift line each year simply because they have refused to adequately prepare to receive it…   

Who knows, maybe they think that they DON’T need to prepare to receive God’s gifts…  Perhaps they are simply spiritually unaware and ignorant of God’s desires to actually give them gifts each year (really?)… Or, can it possibly be, like our own first-world-spoiled kids and grand kids, that they simply believe that they deserve and should be given these gifts, without preparation…

Who are the Blessed? Reflecting on Luke 14:15-24

“Who Are the Blessed?”

In Chapter 14 of Luke’s Gospel, when a bystander comments that “those who will dine in the Kingdom of God are blessed,” Jesus furthers his insight about ‘the blessed’ by sharing the parabolic image of the Great Feast, in which all are invited.  Using this parabolic image, Jesus reveals a profoundly simple, yet defining characteristic about these ‘blessed people’ who will later be dining together in the Kingdom…

What is this simple, yet defining characteristic of the blessed? 

Well it is definitely not being the smartest, the richest, most articulate or socially connected in the community, that’s for sure…  Based on the parable, I believe it is simply their willingness and readiness to be used by God – right here and now – instead of waiting until later… In this reading, the key characteristic of ‘being blessed’ is having a willing and open heart that is centered on loving and building God’s Kingdom, instead of being focused on acquiring money, power, pleasure, success, etc.

This is why Jesus uses the examples of successful business persons needing to examine products and to complete purchases before coming to the Great Feast…   This is also why He uses the common example of newlyweds needing to attend to their spouse’s concerns before coming to the Great Feast…

…Both are examples of people with hearts that are so focused on, directed towards and consumed by their natural love(s), that these loves can hinder, enslave or even blind them from hearing, seeing and living out the FULLNESS of God’s call in life: to love God with all one’s heart, soul and mind and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

In this parable, we see Augustine’s theology personified which talks about and defines sin as a warped natural loved, in which one inordinately loves the gift and not the Giver of gifts.

What are the take away messages from this Gospel?  

First, that even naturally good loves like successful businesses, families and marriages can possibly enslave and blind us from deepening our love of God and growing in holiness, if they are not loved correctly, that is, in God and through God.   The blessed know this and will guard their hearts choosing wisely what to love & how to love what they do, for they know that the heart is a doorway to the soul.

Second: in acknowledging that sometimes what we love and how we love are opposed to God’s will, we must learn how to let our heart and our loves be openly discussed, critiqued, shared and tried in the fire – of life by others and God.  Our heart open to love + time + relationships + grace =  a life that is purified, transformed and finally reflects God’s image to the world.  The blessed know instinctively that in offering their hearts and selves to the world, they will be broken and run over by many but saved in the end by Christ.

Finally, the last take away message from this parable is that ‘the blessed’ are NOT so because of the eternal reward they will receive in the Kingdom, but because of their willingness and ready hearts to struggle, work and to build God’s Kingdom here and now, each day.

Be Blessed!

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 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.

Being Single, Religious or Married – Is there and easy way out?

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As a single Catholic man in my early twenties, I remember first hearing God’s call. Up until that call, God was a warm and fuzzy possibility, whom I occasionally praised and worshiped at Mass – when it fit into my schedule (like never) – and to whom I prayed only in my dire need…   Despite a lifetime of random teachers, preachers and ‘old folk’ telling me – often out of the blue – that God had a plan for me, I often ignored this truth and their prophetic words and like most early twenty-something’s, focused on finding and living out my own plan for life.

However, when God busted into my life and unquestionably confirmed both His reality and call to me, I was forced to sit down and reevaluate the plan I had chosen for myself. God didn’t spell out His plan for me at that time; God simply called me to work and prepare my heart and soul for it and to trust that more direction would be given later. This preparation was necessary, for apart from Moses and maybe a few others, God’s plans for us are almost always invitations, which we can freely accept or deny; they are rarely ultimatums eliminating our free choice. As God knew, I had a lot of work to do if I was to accept His plan for me.

As a Catholic man, part of my reevaluation included realistically examining the possibility of entering the religious life and becoming a priest (it’s okay to STOP laughing now for those who know me best). In considering the religious life, the realities of lifetime obedience to the church, becoming a person of prayer, and both living a life of celibacy and the seemingly monotonous and routine life – at least from the outside and as a layperson –of the clerical and religious life, were important factors in quickly discerning that it was DEFINITELY not for me!!! As God’s call clarified itself, I found that it did include the married life for me.

I remember looking back after this process and happily proclaiming to all how ecstatic I was that the religious life was not for me!!! No lifetime of obedience to the church… No having to become a man of prayer… No life of celibacy (I was oblivious to chaste living at this time)… And no monotonous and routine religious life! In retrospect, I bet God was laughing hilariously at my conclusions, as I didn’t have a clue at what really lay ahead of me in pursuing a Catholic marriage and family life! Yes, I was blissfully ignorant about all that the married and family life entails – especially from a Catholic perspective – and yet I was joyously excited at being called to climb this Mount Everest, despite the multitude of less-than-perfect and even outright horrific marriages I witnessed growing up.

Now, looking back over 30 years later and with over 25 years married, I too am laughing hilariously at my conclusions regarding both the married life and the religious life! As an early twenty something-year-old, who can accurately know which vocational choice is truly the most difficult? Who can really know what their capacity is to develop the specific virtues and character that, by grace, is required to successfully live any vocation in accordance with God’s will?

Over 20 years of working in Catholic high schools and worshiping in Catholic parishes has blessed me with the graced acquaintances and friendships of many nuns and priests over the years. In this period, apart from a few stragglers and ne’er-do-well nuns/priests that one occasionally encounters, the overwhelming majority of the religious that I have met and come to know are not only happy about having accepted God’s call in this manner, but notwithstanding all the crazy realities in our church during the last three decades, they will still testify to this day that they would make the same decision again if given a second opportunity.

After 25 years of marriage, I’m unsure if I’d find this same majority in the testimony of those who chose marriage (whether still married or divorced) that I’ve met in this same period.  One thing I can say in retrospect now, is that both vocations require the same things if we are to successfully live them out based on our Catholic faith.

Whether one is called to the single life LIKE JESUS (which is so often disparaged and misunderstood), the married life or the religious life – the requirements are basically the same in order to grow in holiness and fulfill God’s plan. What are these requirements?

Striving to live in obedience to the church’s teaching [Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, Jesus’ Laws of Love]. This struggle reveals our true selves and begins the process of transforming our hearts and very selves, by grace, into the persons God calls us to be. Obedience to God’s Law prepares us to successfully address the very real concerns of this life in a holy manner as it also orients and prepares us for eternal life in God’s Kingdom by creating a holy character in us.

 

Striving to become a person of prayer. Without a real and sustained prayer life, one simply can not truly come to know either oneself or God. Without the real work of developing a prayer life, our faith life and religiosity gets stuck at the level of servile and fearful obedience, never really progressing to experience or live from the very real grace of God’s love.

 

Striving to live a life of chastity and or celibacy.  In disregarding, ignoring or only trying half ass to live out the faith’s core beliefs in the most intimate and fundamental areas of our lives – our sexuality… our economics… our friendships and vocational choices using our unique gifts and talents – one will often ultimately abandon the spiritual journey as meaningless. Why? Because without entering into this personal ethical struggle, many of the faith’s core truths will be misunderstood or not experienced at all (like the fact that God love you right now just because you are you, not because of what you think you are doing for God, etc.)… Furthermore, without entering into that common Christian experience of very real failure, it is difficult to really know and experience what believers talk about when testifying to being saved by Christ!

 

Striving to enter into, endure and progress during the monotonous routines of life! I suspect even the life of an emergency room physician can become routine, especially when the drudgeries of family life – like child rearing [OMG!!! … WOW!! Regarding the constant needs of these crumbsnatchers… And I thought priests had it bad!] – and our own unique set of marital struggles [“…Damn, this @#!$%& again?!?!”] recur again and again, albeit in new ways sometime, as the years pass. If this is not a long, slow carrying of the Cross to Calvary, then I am unsure what else other than Christ’s actual journey, comes close.

 

My, oh my… In retrospect, how very wrong I was about WHAT is really required of any vocation: the single, religious or marriage and family life! Thank God that Our Savior writes beautifully poetry from the often crazy, twisted and immature lines we write for ourselves!

Yes, God’s invitation invites and requires our free response to it. Thank God, that the Blessed Trinity will provide all the graces needed for whatever journey we are called to embark on.

 

If in this reading, you are at one of life’s various crossroads – I pray for the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you in your discernment as you go forward… However, please KNOW that the Cross awaits you however you respond to God’s invitation! In our unique Crosses, we are transformed, saved and set free! Yes, God will and can write straight from our crooked lines… Our prayer here at the Strugglin’Catholic.com is that by prayerfully entering into, accepting and being transformed by the various Crosses God has placed in your life, you too will begin to see and proclaim that unique and beautiful poem of love that God is writing through you in the Book of Life!