Gratitude Attack

autumn_leaves

Every year, as the days grow shorter and the skies grayer, I feel immense gratitude. The crisp autumn air, brilliant leaves rustling on the trees, and gusty winds bringing them swirling down to crunch underfoot – it all makes me immensely happy.

It makes me so happy that, during this season, a certain angle of the sun on the pane can literally send my heart into a gratitude attack. My heart overflows with joyful prayers of thanks for the blessings of family and friends, food, clean water, power, transportation, and shelter.

And, every year, this season draws me into a deeper love for the Creator of all of this beauty too. I see the delicate leaves, loved into existence for one short season, at their full glory, swirling down. I think of my soul, my life, all of us, just a “breath” in the span of history, so small, yet so significant because He loves each of us into existence too. As I gaze at the intricate patterns the leaves draw upon the air in their final abandon, the words of St. Ignatius come to mind, “Few souls understand what God would accomplish in them if they were to abandon themselves unreservedly to Him and if they were to allow His grace to mold them accordingly.”

And so I pray:

Dear God,

Creator of the autumn winds,

You cool the summer sun

And paint the autumn hues.

Teach me,

Like the beautiful swirling leaf,

to abandon myself ever more unreservedly to you.

Give me the grace

To allow the breath of your Spirit

To direct my path.

That my swirling journey would intersect at your will

And my landing be at your will.

And that, at every moment,

my journey might bring

greater glory to you, My God.

Amen.

In all created things discern the providence and wisdom of God, and in all things give Him thanks. St. Teresa of Avila

 

My heart your home – Watermark

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I Choose Love

I was talking with a friend the other day and he was reciting an endless litany of all of the bad things going on in the world right now: terrorism, horrible refugee situations, the plunging stock market, eroding race relations, the selling of baby body parts, unstable international affairs, etc. He concluded, “Things just aren’t looking good.”

I had to disagree. Yes, there absolutely are a lot of horrible situations in the world right now – situations that we cannot ignore and that we are called to address. We must respect the dignity of human life in every way we possible and this includes helping those experiencing poverty and those without home or nation. We must be living witnesses of respect for people everywhere of all races, nationalities, and creeds, young and old, born and unborn. We must see the reflection of the God who made us in the face of each of our brothers and sisters. We must recognize that we are all one human family and do all we can to alleviate the suffering of our brothers and sisters.

Sometimes, however, we are far away and we don’t feel we have the power to change such situations. We can fall into hopelessness.  We can despair that “the world is falling apart.”

The problem is that hopelessness and despair deny the reality of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection.  Jesus said, “I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” John 16:33

Jesus offers Hope when everything around us seems to be falling apart. Jesus offers the warmth of his Love when the world seems barren and destitute.

In his August 16, 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here,” the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of Love in elegant words of timeless import:

“And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. And I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces …to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love.”

Love is the way.

An ocean away, at nearly the same time in history, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina said, “Don’t spend your energies on things that generate worry, anxiety and anguish. Only one thing is necessary: Lift up your spirit and love God.” Likewise, St. Mary McKillop said, “Do what you can with the means at your disposal and leave all the rest calmly to God.”

Suffering in life is inevitable. There have always been and will always be atrocities and strife. How we react to these difficulties is our choice. We can turn away from our suffering brothers and sisters or we can live in love, encountering, respecting, and serving others compassionately. We can be crippled by fear and worry or we can lift up our hearts in prayer and trust that the God of Love hears us.

Myself?  I choose Hope. I choose Love.

“Set A Fire” – Will Regan & United Pursuit Band

Really, people?! How do you not recognize Him?

Every year, when I hear the Gospel passages about Mary not recognizing the resurrected Jesus at the tomb and the apostles also not recognizing Jesus when He joins them on the way to Emmaus, I imagine myself saying to them, “Really, people? How do you not recognize Him?! How can it be that you were with this man every day for all those years and you don’t know Him? How can you have completely given up everything in your life to follow after Him and you still don’t know who He is? You were with Him at Golgotha and still you don’t know Him? How can this be?”

Was it that He looked different? Perhaps. Maybe it was something more though too.

We see that both Mary and the disciples were in a state of emotional desolation. In John 20:11-18 we read that Mary, “weeping,” was so overcome by emotion at the tomb that she did not recognize the angels or Jesus for who they were. The disciples too, on the road to Emmaus, were feeling emotionally desolate. “They stopped, looking downcast” after having recounted to Jesus that they “were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:13-35). Both Mary and the disciples were so besieged by sorrow, so deeply entrenched in their loss, that they could not see past it to Jesus present with them.

In his book, The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living, Father Timothy Gallagher, OMV, speaks of the Ignatian practice of discerning the workings of God in our lives. His words, although addressed to the modern day reader, could just as well be applied to the Mary at the tomb and the disciples on the way to Emmaus. He writes:

“Though they feel separated from God, persons in spiritual desolation are not in fact separated from God who is ever “Emmanuel,” “God with us.” Ignatius is highlighting a fundamental characteristic of spiritual desolation; while it endures, any felt consciousness of God’s loving presence is weakened or absent, and such persons feel as if they were separated from God.” (p. 66).

Fr. Gallagher explains that God allows this kind of spiritual desolation so as to teach us. “Ignatius understands that when we faithfully resist spiritual desolation we “learn” spiritual lessons highly useful for our spiritual journey” (p. 68).

So, what is it that Mary and the disciples, who were suffering from both emotional and spiritual desolation, were supposed to learn? What is it that we can learn from their experiences? How are we to see Jesus present when we are blinded by emotion or when we just can’t sense His nearness?

It seems that there are many answers to these questions contained within the Emmaus story (Luke 24: 13-35):

  1. Remember Him. The disciples were “conversing about all the things that had occurred.” They did not forget Jesus. They kept Him in mind.
  2. Confess.  Don’t be afraid to tell Jesus the truth. They confessed to Jesus that they really thought he was going to be the one to redeem Israel. They confessed to him their disappointment.
  3. Believe. Do not be like the disciples who recount the resurrection story to Jesus Himself and are reproached by him. “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
  4. Ask Him to stay. “But they urged him, ‘Stay with us…so he went to stay with them.’” They asked and they received what they asked for…and more.
  5. Break bread with Him. “And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.” It was only when they broke bread with Jesus, that their eyes were opened. They could not see him for who He is before that moment. We cannot get by in the faith journey without the sacraments – confession, communion – they complete our faith.
  6. Recognize the workings of the Holy Spirit in the heart and in the Word of God. “Then they said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” When their eyes were opened, they could see God at work in their lives.  Spend time with the Word of God and call upon the Holy Spirit to enlighten you as you read the Word.
  7. Go forth together and spread the Good News. “So they set out at once…(and) recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  Eucharist and community are essential to the faith journey and, once the Truth is “made known,” we cannot keep it to ourselves. We must go out and share – the Good News impels us to go forth.

It appears that there is no simple answer to my question, “Why do you not recognize Him?”  Mary and the disciples had a lot of walking to do on their faith journeys before they could get to the point where they could recognize and see Jesus in truth.  The same is true for us.

So, as we journey forth this Easter season, let us learn from the journeys of Mary and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Let us not end our journey in despair, but rather, ask the Holy Spirit to open our own eyes to see with the eyes of Christ and love with the heart of Christ so that we will always recognize His presence in our lives.  Let us recall the wise words of St. John Paul II, “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and Alleluia is our song!”

Christ is Risen by Matt Maher

I was really not into Lent…

For years, I really was not into Lent. It was a sad time. I really just wanted to fast-forward through those forty days and get on to Easter.

A few years ago though, I was on a “purposeful living” kick. I was attempting to be present in each moment. As we entered Lent, I realized I would have to be present in Lent. So, I prayed that I might be able to accompany Jesus in His suffering that Lent. I resolved to live Lent purposefully – to be present with Him in His pain.

In my prayer I envisioned myself crouched down, ready to receive a football – I said “all right, I’m ready. I can take it. I’m with you, Jesus.”

You know that old adage, “be careful what you wish for because you might just get it?” Ooh. Let me tell you, be careful what you pray for too because you may just get it – and more.

What was I thinking? 

It was the hardest Lent of my life. Every kind of hardship, difficulty, and temptation arose. At one point, I wondered why I even believed in God – a concept that previously would have been completely foreign to me. All kinds of things arose, one after the other – like a barrage of cannonballs – and I felt like I just wasn’t strong enough to handle them. I prayed, “Oh God, I think I prayed the wrong thing. I’m really sorry. Can you take it all away? I think I’m not strong enough to do this Lent thing with you.”

After coming clean with God about my complete and utter spiritual wimpiness, I opened a prayer book to the Anima Christi prayer. I had seen the prayer before, but this time it seemed to jump off the page at me. I resolved to pray it every time a difficulty arose. Things got easier. It became my “go to” prayer that Lent. In fact, it became one of my favorite “go to” prayers of all time.

_____

ANIMA Christi, sanctifica me. Corpus Christi, salva me. Sanguis Christi, inebria me. Aqua lateris Christi, lava me. Passio Christi, conforta me. O Bone Iesu, exaudi me. Intra tua vulnera absconde me. Ne permittas me separari a te. Ab hoste maligno defende me. In hora mortis meae voca me. Et iube me venire ad te, Ut cum Sanctis tuis laudem te in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

SOUL of Christ, sanctify me. Body of Christ, save me. Blood of Christ, inebriate me. Water from the side of Christ, wash me. Passion of Christ, strengthen me. O good Jesus, hear me. Within Thy wounds, hide me. Suffer me not to be separated from Thee. From the malicious enemy, defend me. In the hour of my death, call me. and bid me come unto Thee, that with thy saints I may may praise Thee for ever and ever. Amen.

_____

The more I prayed this prayer, the stronger I felt. The more I prayed it, the more I realized too that the Christian faith is less about taking things upon ourselves than handing them over to Jesus. He already suffered for us. We need to trust that He has suffered perfectly and hand every trouble and every difficulty over to Him. In all things, we are made strong in him – not by our own power – but though His sacrifice.

Yes, He wants our presence, we remember him asking his disciples to wait and stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane. He has already done the suffering and dying though. He wants to give us Easter.

This realization was a transformative moment in my faith journey. Everything became easier, I felt lighter. The hardships, difficulties, and temptations still kept coming at me, but they didn’t rattle me. I felt grounded in Him because I was both painfully aware of my own limitations and also wonderfully aware of His complete abilities. Praying this prayer led to a gift that I couldn’t have prayed for – an unshakable confidence in Him.

During that same time, I came across a musical setting of the Anima Christi by composer Msgr. Marco Frisina of the Diocese of Rome. The harmonies are gorgeous and it remains, to this day, one of my favorite pieces.  Truly, it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Having studied classical and liturgical music myself, I have come to regard Frisina as one of my favorite composers of the modern era.

So, before a recent trip to Rome, I remarked to a friend, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if somehow I could hear some of Frisina’s music while I was there?” It was a completely “blue sky” thought – a totally unlikely happenstance.

The fact is though, God always speaks the language of our hearts – and He happens to know what’s in them too.

While attending Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, I heard familiar harmonies. I whispered to the woman standing to my right, “Isn’t that Marco Frisina?” “Si,” she replied. There was Msgr. Marco Frisina himself conducting the Anima Christi. Tears welled up in my eyes. I had prayed to accompany Jesus through Lent that year and found strength through this prayer. Now, I was sitting next to the composer, conducting a live performance, of this most beautiful setting of this prayer. It was like a gift just for me. Only God knew what I had prayed, and only He could know what an incredible gift it would be for me to hear this prayer that had been pivotal in my faith journey, in live performance, while sitting right next to the composer. It was a gift beyond words.

At that moment, I realized more than ever before, that God hears each one of our prayers. Each one of us is loved. Each one of us is cherished. He loves us so much that He wants to fulfill even the deepest desires of our hearts.

I sat there with tears streaming down, completely overwhelmed by His love.

As we enter this Holy Week, let us realize that this Love is offered to each one of us – He waits for us to come to Him so that He can give us His love.

As we contemplate His ultimate sacrifice this week, let us remember that we have nothing to lose in going to Him except our own suffering, pains, and troubles. We can accompany Him, and in the silence of our hearts, lay down our burdens at the foot of the cross.

Believe me, there is no better offer.

Setting of Anima Christi by Msgr. Marco Frisina, Performed by Choir of the Diocese of Rome

God and the VIP Treatment

So I went to my local coffee shop to get a coffee this morning. I paid and my number was immediately called. The funny thing was, there was a line of ten people in front of me waiting for their coffee too. As I came from the back of the line and was handed my coffee, those still waiting looked at me as if wondering how I “cut the line” and got such VIP service.

I kind of wondered too, given that I don’t have a VIP coffee card.

I do know though, that every time I walk into this place, they look happy to see me. Even when I’m in a pre-caffeinated, bleary-eyed, unbrushed-hair kind of state. It’s kind of like Norm on “Cheers.” They are always so animated in their greetings as I enter.

I thought about this as I walked out clutching my warm cup. It brought to mind the word “mercy” – God’s mercy. A timely thought, I suppose, given that Pope Francis just declared the coming year to be a “Year of Mercy.”

It has taken me a long time to figure out what the word “mercy” means. For a long time, it was a kind of obtuse term that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. I could only understand it in the sense of a king pardoning a subject.

I remember actually researching what the word meant. I read that you can exchange the word “mercy” with “God’s love” and it means about the same thing. As I read this definition though, I thought, well then why don’t we just write “God’s love”? Why do we still have a word “mercy”? There’s got to be more to it.

I think there is more to it. I’m slowly starting to understand what mercy means but I think understanding comes from experience of it. Mercy has to do with God’s action towards us because of His love for us. With God, every single one of us receives VIP treatment – whether we are in fact a VIP or a person that the world would view as a most unimportant person. St. Augustine said, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” We are all loved completely by God – all desired completely by Him. We are all VIP’s to God.

Mercy is like that excited greeting, that VIP treatment, that gets us to the front of the line for no reason.  We don’t need to have done everything exactly right, we don’t even need to have waited our turn. We can go to God as we are, a complete mess, and He’s just as excited to see us as if every hair were perfectly in place. When he sees us coming he is overjoyed to see us – he rushes to greet us at the end of the line. Pope Francis says, “God does not wait for us to go toward Him but it is He who moves toward us.”

Pope Francis also said, “God always thinks mercifully.” That’s because God operates out of love. We operate out of our own sense of what we think the order ought to be – but God’s ways are above our ways. We might be standing at the back of the line saying, “I have to wait my turn,” but God may pick us out and say “I choose you now.” It is we that need to open our minds to God and allow Him to work in the ways that He works – which always surpasses our own human sense of reason.

Pope Francis, who can talk endlessly about God’s love and mercy, also said,  “The Lord is always there waiting to give us His love; it is an amazing thing, one which never ceases to amaze me!…He is indeed waiting for you; He asks of you only the courage to go to Him.”

Go to Him.

Let Him give you the VIP treatment.

 

“God always forgives us.  He never tires of this.  It’s we who get tired of asking for forgiveness.  But He does not tire of pardoning us.” – Pope Francis

Losing the Masks this Lent

I was reading something that Marilyn Monroe wrote and it really resonated with me.

Monroe wrote, “I’m finding that sincerity, and to be [as] simple and direct as I’d like, is often taken for sheer stupidity.”

There is truth in her words. Sincerity and simplicity are not often-prized in modern times.  Rather, from the time we are small, we are taught control – which often claims sincerity and simplicity as its casualty.  We are taught to control our words, deeds, actions, goals, and dreams.  We are taught that we can control our destiny and our entire world.

As we grow and realize that this is not actually always possible, we develop masks to cover those places where we feel less adequate or where we feel afraid.  Nearly everyone develops these masks.  There is a multi-million dollar industry built on the sale of self-improvement books that teach us how to project power and confidence in the boardroom – and every other area of life.  They teach us to “pretend until you become” and “fake it until you make it.”  They teach us how to survive by putting on masks of power and of control.

Yet, despite our best efforts to maintain control, hardships still arise.  As much as we may try to project confidence and control our destinies with positive thoughts and illusions of power, difficult things still happen.  How is one to reconcile this?

The problem with “masks” is that this mentality, this projection of control, completely closes the door to God.  If we try to control everything and mask those things we fear we can’t control, we leave no opening for God to work in our lives.

Yet, whether or not we admit it to ourselves, God knows our minds and our hearts: LORD, you search me and you know me: you know when I sit and when I stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. You sift through my travels and my rest; with all my ways you are familiar. Even before a word is on my tongue, LORD, you know it all.” (Psalm 139)

God knows what is under our masks.  It is in this place of sincerity and simplicity that God works without hindrance.  He is at home in our unabashed fears and in our unencumbered happiness.  St. Therese of Liseaux, contemplating ways to get to heaven, spoke of her “Little Way.”  It is a way of simplicity. In St. Therese’s “Little Way,” there are no masks – just overflowing love for her Creator, the desire to please Him in her every deed, and an openness to receiving His gifts.

One of the most common ways that God helps us to “lose the mask” is through illness and other hardships.  Countless saints, including St. Therese, St. Francis, St. Faustina, St. Padre Pio, and St. Ignatius, all learned through illness.  St. Ignatius lost his health in battle and during the long and painful months of recovery, came to the realization that he was not in control.  He dropped the masks of wealth and power that he had inherited at his noble birth.  It was during this time, that Ignatius wrote his famous prayer of surrender to God, the Suscipe.  This prayer represents a total offering of the self to God.

Suscipe

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,

All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.

To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.

Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.

 

The more I pray this prayer, the more I realize how completely counter-cultural it is. The Suscipe represents a return to authenticity and simplicity – a removing of the masks before God. Essentially, what we are saying when we pray it is, “Here I am, Lord. I realize that I am dependent on you for every breath.  I offer myself to you totally and completely. I surrender my mask.”

In Latin, “suscipe” means “to receive.”  The beautiful paradox is that the more we give to God, the more we ourselves receive.

Perhaps because it presents an opening for God to work in our lives, each day I pray it, I also think of different things I should be handing over to God.  I offer whatever is weighing on me and whatever is making me happy that day.  As I pray it, I often find concerns that I didn’t even know were there rising to the surface of my consciousness.  I hand these things over too.

Praying the Suscipe almost always gives rise to further prayer which, for me, generally goes something like this:

Lord, I give you my joys, sorrows, victories, defeats, pains, consolations, and everything in between.  I give you my imperfections. 

Lord, please sort it all out. You know what’s best for me.  If it is your will, Lord, replace my fears, sorrows, and sufferings, with your love, joy, and peace.  Let me not hold onto things that weigh me down but let me hand them over to you. You are my strength in weakness. 

Even my dreams and aspirations – you may have better ones for me.  Let me not hold too tightly to these.  Keep my eyes and ears open to your designs for my life.  I am an empty vessel.  Fill me with whatever you choose – words, deeds, actions – according to your will, not mine.

Help me to see you at work in my life, Lord.  Open my eyes, my ears, my heart to recognize all of the ways in which you are working in my life throughout the day. 

Allow me to accept your love.

Allow me to accept the gifts you want to give me.

Allow me to accept the abundance of your gifts. 

Allow me to use these gifts you give me in word and deed for those around me too. Work through me in all things for your greater glory.

Praying the Suscipe creates a sacred space in our souls where we ask that “perfect Love” to “cast out all fear”; a place where we allow His mercy and His love to permeate our beings. It is a place where we come to the profound realization that, in the end, and every day in between, He is really our only strength.  In our weakness, He does make us strong.

This Lent, give Him your masks. Give Him all the fears that they cover.  Be weak in Him and let Him make you strong.

This Lent, open yourself to the Love that He is dying to give you.

Impermeable Love and the Call to Relationship

Have you ever seen two young people who are in love? It sometimes appears that they are in their own little world. Absorbed in their love for each other, they seem unaware of what is happening around them. Their focus is solely on one another. They seem, in this state, to be floating through life.

God’s love for each one of us is like this. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays His head against us.”

God loves each one of us and focuses on each one of us as if there were only one of us in the world. By human standards of comprehension, this amount of love is completely incomprehensible – especially considering He loves everyone He has created, down through the ages, in this same way.

And, like young lovers in their own little worlds, God’s love is impermeable. Like this love, His love, makes us lighter, burdens fall away.

Unlike the love of young lovers though, His love never waivers. Neither floods, nor war, nor even death can take us from His love.

If we accept it, His love is the only constant – through life or death – for all eternity. When one accepts His love and surrenders in trust to God, His love is impermeable. His love encircles us and guards us.

But we must accept it. St. Augustine said, “Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst and ours.” It is a two-way relationship. God waits expectantly for us to accept Him and His love.

There really is no better offer – but we must trust Him – and accept the offer.

“God is indeed waiting for you; He asks of you only the courage to go to Him.” – Pope Francis

Jesus' love