So You’ve Soiled Yourself. Now What?

So You’ve Soiled Yourself. Now What?

The Gospel reading this Sunday is the parable of the sower (note the name, I’ll come back to that). I’ve used this passage to open retreats with teens for many years. The message I add to the parable isn’t exactly mind blowing: listen to the explanation of the parable and consider which of the four types of soil represents you.

These are generally Confirmation retreats so I assume they have heard the Word the parable refers to—that God loves them, made them for life with Him, and that we reject His love by disobedience and sin, but He sent His Son Jesus to set us free from sin and give us hope of eternal life by his Death and Resurrection. Then we examine the four types of soil.

There’s path soil. The devil snatches the seed up before it can even grow. This represents a hardened heart, much like the hard-packed soil of a dirt road. Hearts harden for so many reasons but these reasons all tend to have something in common with the road: they’ve been walked on, run over, trampled. And it’s often done by people who don’t know they’re doing it, sometimes by “church” people. The scar tissue of life’s wounds builds up and the seed cannot penetrate. They become cynical about God’s goodness and even His existence.

There’s shallow rocky soil. Crops sprout up quickly but have no root so they wither. This person isn’t shallow, but their faith might be. The reason for the shallowness can be found in a confusion between faith and feelings. When persevering in faith feels good, faith seems strong. But when the positive feelings dry up (as they do) there is nothing of substance left to feed the growing faith. I see this in people who come home from a retreat, conference, mission, or bible camp on fire for Jesus, but the fire is partially the result of an emotional roller coaster. The first speedbump—an argument at home, a friend who questions or mocks, or a personal setback—derails the whole thing.

Then there’s thorny weedy soil. The first two were dark, so I have fun with this one. You can do this too. I tell them think of everything obligation they have. Raise your hand and keep it up if you go to school. Raise the other hand and keep it up if you have a job. If both hands are up raise a leg if you have commitments to family, friends, sports, arts, academic clubs, social media, hobbies, etc. The list goes on and on until every one of them has two arms up, two legs up, is bobbing their head and shimmying in their seat. Then I ask, how do you look doing that? In a hundred times doing this exercise there are two answers I always get. First, they say foolish. Second, like a puppet. The simple message is that the things in life that are supposed to be enjoyed shouldn’t make you look like a foolish puppet—they shouldn’t control you. They have heard the Word and desire to accept it and live it out, but honestly believe they just don’t have the time or energy. Faith goes on the back burner and promptly begins to die. In the very least it bears no fruit.

Finally, there’s good soil which has been tilled, cleared of rocks, and weeded. It’s not soil that was never trampled, was never shallow and never had thorns or weeds. It represents the one who cooperates with the sower to allow rocks to be removed and make room for genuine faith. With the sower they make sure that their trampled heart, though scarred, remains open by hope. And in genuine love they put weeds and thorns in their proper place. Rather than loving things and using people, they love God, love others, love themselves, and use things.

This is absolutely true. Each of us has the responsibility to cooperate with grace in perfecting our hearts to receive the Good News with joy so we can bear fruit.

But that’s not what this parable is about.

Jesus refers to this parable by name, and He doesn’t call it the Parable of the Four Types of Soil. He calls it the Parable of the Sower. It’s not about us, it’s about Jesus.

The seed is the word of God and Christ is the sower. I’m not a farmer, but I know that seed is valuable. After all, the farmer could have eaten it, or sold it. He certainly wouldn’t toss it anywhere, especially in places he knows it won’t grow. I don’t think Jesus is trying to tell us that He’s a careless farmer. The Parable of the Sower is about God’s desire that everyone be saved. His love for us is abundant and lavish—even reckless. It is a gift we cannot earn. We all have those times when faith is shallow, or forgotten, or even shut out by a hardened heart. Jesus is still there.

Good soil or not, God provides His Word and the grace to receive it with joy because He loves us. The only proper response is to ready our hearts, be hearers and doers of the word, and bear fruit.

Speak, O Lord, as we come to You
To receive the food of Your Holy Word.
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us;
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness,
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us 
All Your purposes for Your glory.

Teach us, Lord, full obedience,
Holy reverence, true humility;
Test our thoughts and our attitudes
In the radiance of Your purity.
Cause our faith to rise; cause our eyes to see
Your majestic love and authority.
Words of pow’r that can never fail—
Let their truth prevail over unbelief.

Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;
Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us—
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
That will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we’ll stand on Your promises,
And by faith we’ll walk as You walk with us.
Speak, O Lord, till Your church is built
And the earth is filled with Your glory.

 

 

 

 

Perfect Love Casts Out FOMO

Perfect Love Casts Out FOMO

Last week Jesus consoled us and commanded that we have no fear. Not even a fear of death. He wasn’t talking about an emotion. We have very little immediate control over our emotional response to things, especially things we don’t often encounter like our lives being threatened. The word He used still exists in English—phobia. When we say someone has a phobia we almost always mean that their internal fear or anxiety translates into action which is disproportionate to the thing they fear.

Being creeped out by seeing a spider in your bathroom isn’t arachnophobia, but burning down your house and moving to another continent is. Sometimes when I talk to people I have this internal conversation critic who seems to think every word out of my mouth is The Dumbest Thing Ever Said, but I wouldn’t dare minimize the suffering of someone with actual social anxiety by calling mine a phobia. It’s just an annoying worry with little power over me—anyone who knows me knows I keep on talking anyway. No, the fear Jesus forbids is of the sort that dictates our behavior—a fear that can make us choose to do and be less when Christ invites us to greatness.

For us, discipleship doesn’t carry fear of death (for now). Instead we suffer from a spiritual FOMO. FOMO means fear of missing out. It’s a word coined in 2004 that immediately became overused and annoying. But it is a real phenomenon. Some people think social media is to blame. We see posts of our friends and family at the Best Party Ever or the Best Concert Ever and we get a sense of anxiety over our loss for doing something less important like going to work or taking care of family. It makes people fail to see the good things right in front them while they worry about the other things they could be doing. For some people, it results in a failure to commit to doing anything at all because what if it’s the wrong thing? For most, it means a nagging feeling that there’s always something better than the present moment.

FOMO is nothing new though and it’s much older than Facebook or Instagram. Spiritual fear of missing out goes all the way back to the Fall. The serpent convinced Eve that God was holding out on her and Adam.  God had promised paradise, but what if he was holding out? They feared, they disobeyed, and the rest is history. Come to think of it, maybe FOMO isn’t that much older than social media. I can’t help but notice the logo on my phone: an apple with a bite out of it.

When we fear that life in Christ isn’t the greatest good, that it will make us miss out on something better (what could be better?) we become less. Saint Irenaeus said, “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” We fall short of the Glory of God if we give power to fear of missing out on comfort, or a chance to shore up our ego, or to achieve acceptance and worldly success, or any number of lesser things. We fail to be fully alive.

This is the point of the first part of Sunday’s Gospel.  It sounds harsh, I know. On the one hand, I think Jesus is saying to love him more than even our own family to drive home the point that He is the greatest good. If we’re supposed to love Jesus more than we love our own mom then you better believe we’re supposed love Him more than we love Sunday sports, political ideology or money.  Loving Jesus more than our parents, more than our children, and more than our own lives doesn’t convey their unimportance, but it demonstrates Jesus’ absolute importance. It’s not a command to not love mother and father, sons and daughters, and ourselves, but an opportunity to love them more by loving Him more. In other words, if, as disciples of Jesus, the upper limit of our capacity to love is measured by how much we love Christ, then seeking to know and love Him more can only mean we will love others more, especially mom and dad, the kids, and ourselves.

There’s no denying the difficulty of taking up our cross daily to follow him, even in a nation where free exercise of religion is supposed to be unrestricted. When we should be more engaged in prayer, or doing spiritual and corporal acts of mercy, or fulfilling our Sunday obligation to attend Mass, it is all too easy to let spiritual FOMO slip in. The Catholic life, the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ, is not easy, it is not popular, and sometimes the temptation to be less than our calling is overwhelming.

Maybe that’s the rationale for the second half of Sunday’s Gospel. We are commanded to show hospitality, especially to fellow disciples, especially the little ones (maybe they’re little because the weight of their cross has crushed them). They, like you, are walking a hard road. They too struggle with fear of missing out—a nagging feeling that might not be a true doubt in God’s goodness but still represents a persistent anxiety that this isn’t the right path. We need to help carry each other’s crosses. That could take the form of a note of encouragement, a warm greeting at Mass or on the street, prayer for our fellow disciples, fellowship and time spent together simply being present to and loving each other–there are countless examples. None of us can carry our cross alone, so I’ll end by taking my own advice:

Please know that I am constantly in awe of the sacrifices you make to be fellow disciples. Your sincere love for Jesus and His people encourages me. Sunday is my favorite day of the week not just because I get to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, but also because I share it in communion with you. There’s no place I’d rather be than in His presence and I am blessed to be there with a family of which you are part. The Body of Christ truly is beautiful and I have genuine affection for each of you. I hope that your example of faith inspires people Monday to Saturday as much as it inspires me on Sunday.

In Jesus and Mary,

Frank

 

 

Divine Mercy and the Sacred Heart

Divine Mercy and the Sacred Heart

This Friday (June 23) is the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. The following was initially written for Divine Mercy Sunday but is completely appropriate for the Sacred Heart. The Sacred Heart is a devotion that recalls Jesus’ immense love for each person. He became man and entered into every aspect of our reality except sin. He suffered disappointment and loss, betrayal and abandonment, and endured emotional, mental, spiritual and physical anguish to break through the walls of self-exile we had put up to separate us from His love.

Because of the Incarnation the Sacred Heart is a human heart. God’s love crosses a bridge to really, truly be with us. Crossing that divide is what makes Divine Love Divine Mercy. Saint Thomas Aquinas said mercy is, “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him.” (Summa Theologiae, II-II. 30.1) Compassion means “to suffer with.” Divine Mercy saw our misery and was driven to climb down into the deepest darkness of a fallen world to suffer with us and draw us to His Sacred Heart.

 

Divine Mercy

 

“God’s mercy is like water, it always flows to the lowest place.”

                                                                                                –Father Michael Gaitley

 

I know this is true, because I have experienced it firsthand.

 

In the fall of 2012 I enrolled in a monthly theology certificate class offered by The Theological Institute for the New Evangelization. It was more like a monthly retreat than a class. I do not mean to downplay the scholastic rigor of the course. Indeed, I was taught a great deal about my Catholic faith and, more important, I discovered how little I knew. But the context of the learning was deeply spiritual and directed all learning not just to the head, but to the heart as well. Those eight Saturdays were like an oasis in a desert.

At that point in my life I had been in a spiritual and emotional desert. My wife and I lost our first-born son Ronan in 2006 and as much as I’d like to claim that I handled the loss with strength and dignity, I must be honest and admit that my coping was anything but strong or dignified. I was in a pit, in the desert, and in my blindness and deafness I remained mostly unaware of my own pitiful plight. I apologize, but I’m opting to spare you the details regarding the nature of the hole (holes) I had dug. As much as I’d like to write a Saint Augustine style Confession, I’m afraid I lack the courage. Besides that, I think we all know to some degree what it looks like to deal with pain in all the wrong ways.

It was in this context that I sat one Saturday morning listening to Dr. David Franks open the class with a meditation on a scriptural passage. I don’t recall which, though I think it might have been from Hebrews. During the reflection, he made the point that we were getting better all the time—that if we honestly reflected on where we are now compared to the past we would see that we were improving every day. He said it so earnestly and with so much love. And it made me furious to hear these words. Not furious at him, no. Dr. Franks was and is one of the many instruments God used to call me to life again. And I wasn’t furious at Jesus either, because I desperately wanted what Dr. Franks said to be true and even in darkness I knew Jesus was the only way it could be. I wasn’t even upset at myself because, let’s face it, if there is one person I am always good at understanding, bearing patiently, and forgiving, it’s me. All I know is that I was sitting there, trying to contemplate words that should have been a consolation, yet I was festering with rage. How could I be getting better? Doesn’t he know how wretched I am? I couldn’t understand my reaction and it took quite some time to understand why.

The “why” was fear.

Because mercy is like water.

Let me explain. God’s mercy, like water, seeks out the lowest place. His Love for every human person draws Him to those most in need of His mercy. Mercy is what Love looks like when it meets our brokenness. It flows to the lowest point, cleanses, soothes, refreshes, and heals. Jesus’ mercy, poured out for all from His pierced side, flows infinitely. It is not a mere trickle moistening the wall of the pit but an immense ocean. When we first encounter His mercy it consoles. But as the waters rise, He desires that we be swept up in them. His mercy is not there to make the pit comfortable, but to draw us out of it to new life, abundant life—to freedom.

But that first moment when the deluge of Divine Mercy causes our feet to lose contact with the bottom is frightening. I fought it with anger (among other things) because I did not know where the tide would take me and I didn’t care to find out. God’s timing, however, is perfect. Around the time of hearing Dr. Franks’ words, I also came to understand true devotion to the Blessed Mother. Nothing quiets fear and anger quite like the love of a mother. By the intercession and guidance of the Mother of Mercy, I could let go and trust in the mercy of Jesus. It didn’t matter so much what I had done or how wretched I wrongly believed I was (with apologies to “Amazing Grace,” no human being is a wretch). Mercy, not me, was doing the work of making me better day by day—of lifting me out of the pit. Divine Mercy does that for each of us.

The world needs mercy now more than ever. I pray that you will be like Dr. David Franks, and bring mercy to those who need it. And I pray that you will have no fear of letting the infinite ocean of Jesus’ mercy take you wherever it might.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Standing on this mountaintop
Looking just how far we’ve come
Knowing that for every step
You were with us
Kneeling on this battle ground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful
Kneeling on this battle ground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful
You are faithful, God, You are faithful
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone
Carried by Your constant grace
Held within Your perfect peace
Never once, no, we never walk alone
Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful
Every step we are breathing in Your grace
Evermore we’ll be breathing out Your praise
You are faithful, God, You are faithful

A Mass Within the Mass

A Mass Within the Mass

If the Last Supper was the very first Catholic Mass, then this week’s Gospel reading has to be the second one. The middle 22 verses of Luke 24 contain almost all the significant elements of the Mass we celebrate today. It begins with a procession, not from the back of the church to the altar, but from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Along the way, the two disciples meet Jesus, though they don’t know its him. They introduce themselves, explaining their heartbreaking situation (the introductory and penitential rites). They tell the stranger all that Jesus said and did, leading up to His suffering and death, and show confusion and doubt about the Resurrection account offered by the women at the tomb. Jesus, still unknown to them, breaks open the old testament (the first reading and the psalm) and shows them how the scriptures were talking about Him (the second reading and the Gospel). He helps them to understand how the Word of God applies to their life (the homily). Sensing Jesus is leaving, the disciples petition Him to stay (the prayers of the faithful). He obliges and stays for supper–taking bread, blessing and breaking it. (Liturgy of the Eucharist and Communion). Finally, they see it is Jesus. In awe and wonder, they ask how they could have possibly not known, “Were not our hearts burning while he spoke?” Saint Luke tells us that they set out to Jerusalem at once to announce the good news, but I’m sure they stayed through the announcements, final blessing and all four verses of the closing hymn.

Do we feel this same burning in our hearts at Mass? Do we leave Mass on fire for Jesus? I don’t mean an emotional response that can burn out as quickly as it flares up, but a real sustained fire that compels us to share the good news with everyone. I’d like to humbly offer some helps to building such a fire. These are some ways to open our hearts to receive as much grace from Holy Mass as we can. They range from simple to incredibly awkward.

  1. Read the readings before Mass. This wasn’t something I did until I started selecting songs for Mass on a regular basis. It gives me the opportunity to think and pray about the themes of the Mass before I even arrive at the church. Familiarity with the readings makes every prayer and hymn come to life. You can find them online pretty easily.
  2. Respond. In December of 2016, after a terror attack on a Coptic Christian cathedral in Egpyt, demonstrators took to the streets in support of the victims. A video emerged of people not just reciting the Nicene Creed, but declaring itWhile not in English, you can hear the familiar rhythm and cadence of the Creed. The freedom we have to worship openly should be a reason to respond even more boldly, both in gratitude and in solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters. The responses we declare at Mass are an emptying of self. And, ultimately, the more of ourselves we invest in participating in the Mass, the more room we make for Jesus.
  3. Sing. I joke with my pastor that I long for the day when we have to hold a second collection to repair all the cracks in the ceiling caused by singing Jesus’ praise. It’s difficult to be disengaged when you sing. Nothing creates a sense of community like singing together. A common objection is, “but I have a terrible voice!” Then sing out! If it’s truly that terrible God might hear it and give you a better one. In the very least the people around you will sing louder to drown you out.
  4. Pray with and for each other. Here’s the awkwardness I promised. Too many Catholics, without realizing it, treat the Mass like a personal devotion. I’m guilty of this from time to time. The Mass isn’t a private prayer. It’s part of the public prayer of the Church. I have a greater Mass experience by knowing the readings, boldly responding, and singing my heart out. The reality is that I also owe it to you to do these things. As much as we should actively participate in the celebration for our own good, we should also do so for the rest of our parish family. When I mumble responses, only sing the hymns I like, and let distractions pull me from praying as best I can, I drag you down. To make the communal experience of the Mass more real, try this: Turn to someone near you before Mass and introduce yourself if you don’t know them. Now—here’s the hard part—ask them to pray for a specific intention you or your family has, and ask them if there’s anything they need you (and your family) to offer as part of your Mass intention. And then really, earnestly pray for that person.

In the Eucharist we have access to infinite Mercy and Grace! When we receive, our hearts should be burning with desire to know Jesus and to make Him known. I hope these small suggestions can be kindling for that fire.

On Deflated Hope

On Deflated Hope

Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

– Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding

I must admit, to my great shame, that I lost hope. It was for a fleeting second, and I’m not even sure it was an intentional thought. It snuck up on me. The New England Patriots had just scored making it a 28-18 game with 5:56 on the game clock in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI. They were attempting a 2-point conversion and I had this thought: “Please miss this.” I know, I’m so embarrassed. I immediately dismissed the thought but I’m still ashamed that it was even hiding in my head somewhere. But I understand it’s origin.

At that point in the game I had already begun the difficult work of accepting a disappointing outcome. I had let myself grow detached from any desire for victory and simply wanted to see my team erase some of its huge deficit to make the loss respectable. I’m not a football expert but I have gleaned some things from listening to my fair share of angry sports radio. Being so far behind, with so little time left, they couldn’t just be good. They had to be perfect. And they would need some absolute miracles along the way.

And they were perfect. And they got a few miracles (Edelman’s catch, are you kidding me?!) And I was wrong to despair. Haven’t I seen Brady and Belichick do this before? I had every reason to hope, but the difficult road ahead let despair creep in.

 I think we lose hope because of how dangerous it is. Disappointment is easier when we can brace for impact. So we settle for being “good enough” and resist anything that draws us up and out of being merely good to being perfect. Internal voices and those people around us ask the question, “What right do you have to desire and to expect perfection? You’re just so far from perfect!”

Over the last few Sundays we’ve been hearing Matthew 5. Jesus has been laying out the structure of His Kingdom and describing the attributes of its citizens. After all, winning citizenship in the Kingdom of God is our greatest hope—far greater than the hope of winning a Super Bowl. But His demands so are hard. We are blessed when we’re poor and mourning? We should pray for those who hate us and go the extra mile when our service is demanded? We should give until it hurts? Maybe what he means is that we should generally try our best to be a good person and show kindness most of the time. But no. He clarified it for us with these words: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s enough to cause that same voice in my head that said, “please miss this,” during the game to say something similar in response to Jesus. Because if hoping for the Kingdom of God relies on my being as perfect as our heavenly Father, then part of me would rather not try. Part of me would rather accept being “good enough” and losing in a respectable way. In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks directly to that part of me:

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Jesus speaks of worrying about food, drink, and clothing and tells us not to worry about where we will get them. In some sense He is talking about literal food and drink and clothing, but He means more than that. He means that God will provide exactly what we need to be citizens who have a right to desire and expect our own perfection in His Kingdom. Brady and Belichick are a fantastic team, but they have nothing on the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The road to victory is difficult, demands perfection and seems impossible. But nothing is impossible for God. He gives us the church, where we pray for and build each other up. He gives us the Holy Spirit who makes us holy and begins the process of perfecting us. He sends miracles along the way, the greatest of which is the Eucharist—Jesus, truly present and alive in our midst. The sacraments are all miracles, Edelman-like catches that provide a spark and ignite us onward and upward.

If being perfect, as the Father is perfect, completely depends on my efforts, then there is no hope. I’m more likely to lead a fourth quarter down-by-25–come-from-behind Super Bowl comeback win. But thanks be to God that perfection and eternal citizenship in His Kingdom are not up to our efforts alone. Because we have Jesus, we can hope.

When Christmas isn’t What You Expected

When Christmas isn’t What You Expected

Three children. God is good and we were truly blessed. First God gave us Ronan, then Caleb and now a new child would change our life forever (again). And if the miracle of it all weren’t plainly obvious already the baby’s due date underscored what a gift we had been given: December 24th. We were obviously going to need a Christmas themed name. Maybe Noelle for a girl? Or Holly? After two boys we were fairly certain this third child would be a girl. We both liked the name Gabriella in honor of the angel Gabriel.

Just shy of 12 weeks into the pregnancy we learned that we had lost the baby. As our expectations for the future were dashed, the decade old wounds from Ronan’s death reopened, wounds which I thought were fairly well healed. My prayer life shrank. Mostly it shrank down to just one word: Why? If I had my way I would be waking up this Christmas morning to embrace my 10 year old son, his 16 month old brother and their newborn sibling. Jesus, why can’t I have that? I know that my ways are not his ways.   The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.  I have to trust Him.

Trust can be a bitter pill to swallow. This is especially so when our expectations aren’t met. This season can be one of such wonder, excitement and joy. But the season of light can also painfully illuminate those areas of our lives that fall short of our expectations. For so many the joy of Christmas will be accompanied by the sorrow of empty chairs, illness, addiction, divorce, discord with loved ones, financial hardship—the list seems endless. What does God say in answer to our collective why? He asks us to trust Him. To trust that in all things, even the worst things, He is working for the good of those who love Him.

Christmas is all about defied expectations. A young virgin is pregnant and her soon to be husband is not the biological father. The long awaited Messiah of the Jewish people was expected to be a mighty king like David, not a poor, temporarily homeless child born in a stable. And yet this little baby is the rival to King Herod and Caesar Augustus. The Sovereign King of the Universe was tiny, naked, cold and crying in His teen mother’s arms. The only witnesses to the arrival of the Author of Life in our midst are Mary, Joseph, some shepherds, and a few animals. Yet his birth points toward our salvation and gives hints of how it will come about. The manger isn’t a special crib for babies but a place to put food for us, the sheep.  Myrrh is an embalming oil for the dead, not a children’s toy. We hear the story so often we forget how astounding and unexpected it all is. One of the most remarkable things for me is Mary and Joseph’s trust in the Father’s plan of loving goodness. They had no way of knowing then that their difficult circumstances were part of an unfolding plan of cosmic proportion that would ultimately end on the day when their own Son would wipe away the tears from every eye. They simply trusted.

This Christmas will not be what you or I had expected it to be. But with the eyes of faith we can see, despite appearances to the contrary, that our Father still has a plan for us and that plan is ultimately for our good—for a future filled with hope. Our God is with us to save us. Jesus I trust in you. Merry Christmas.

In Jesus and Mary,

Frank

 

Holy Darkness

Holy Darkness

When I was in fifth grade I went camping with my Dad. Camping was always special for us. Camping trips with my dad are among the happiest memories of my childhood. This one camping trip I remember for a couple of reasons. First, we ate the largest can of Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli (the finest ravioli there is) I have ever seen. Second, I just recently had my tonsils removed thus it had to be a more low-key weekend adventure as to avoid dislodging clots and bleeding to death (or something like that). Third, unlike most of our camping trips, which we took in the summer, this one was in December.

At night we walked down to the shore of the lake, which had frozen early that year and was covered in snow. It was a moonless night and being December the Milky Way wasn’t visible so the only light to see by came from the thousands of stars that shone weakly in the sky. They gave the sprawling field of snow in front of us a deep blue hue. The windless winter night was silent—no sirens, no car engines, no insect noises, no rustling leaves.  And I clearly remember feeling, in that darkness and silence, that I was experiencing something profoundly holy. I didn’t have that specific word for it at the time.  I just felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to God for the temporary elimination of things that so often amuse me and attract my attention, yet hide His sacred whisper which waits just beneath it all.

Sometimes I play a really strange game in my head. I say, “If I were Satan I would…” This isn’t my idea so I should get neither the credit for its ingenuity nor the blame for how weird it is. My little mental and spiritual exercise is in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (which you should read if you haven’t, followed by Peter Kreeft’s Snakebite Letters). This exercise helps me to discern some of the invisible forces that influence our world. A number of years ago I came to this conclusion: If I were Satan, I would never permit darkness or silence. TV, smartphone, tablet and computer screens would never go blank. Lights would never go down low enough to allow the heavens to declare God’s glory. Noise would be ceaseless, whether music (good and bad) or the ceaseless hums, buzzes, beeps, chirps, and whirs of modern life. Incessant chatter about nothing and constant gossip would fill in any quiet pauses. There would be no time for peaceful contemplation—the kind where we might hear Jesus speak deep within.

I think this is exactly what Satan has done, and it is working. Our world is so often full of “noise and fury, signifying nothing,” that we can barely hear our own thoughts, let alone hear the still, small voice of Jesus in our hearts. The world is blinding and loud. Compare this map to this map and you can see what effect this has on our ability to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit within us. Sometimes I wonder if we could halt and reverse the western world’s flight from God and religion by shutting off the electricity for one night every few years. That’s unlikely, and our aim as Catholics shouldn’t be to find God by shunning modern life but to find Him in the midst of it.

Advent is a season of darkness and silence that ushers in a season of light and joyous celebration. Without the former we can’t fully appreciate the latter.  By embracing silence at times we can hear what we otherwise would not be able to hear. When Katie was pregnant, she felt Caleb moving within her long before I could feel him outside. In silence we can feel the Holy Spirit moving within, even when the world tries to tell us otherwise. In darkness our eyes adjust to see even the faintest stars. In the darkness of Advent the eyes of faith adjust to see the light of Christ that shines in the darkness—the Light that the darkness cannot overcome. I pray you find time in the remaining days of Advent to be immersed in holy darkness and sacred silence as you prepare your heart to receive the Light of the World.