Life & Leisure

Blessed are Those Who Suffer

“In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). This verse has brought me consolation amidst the trials of my life for a long time. At the age of four-and-a-half, I was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer. It was a huge shock to my family. I did not have a normal childhood, to say the least. I am very blessed to have had the support of my family, friends, and doctors to help me through my treatment at such a young age. After going through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and physical therapy I was prognosed to be cancer free. Yet, I still deal with the effects of battling cancer at such a young age. I have some physical limitations, and I still deal with the reality of being robbed of part of my life by a serious illness. Throughout the years, I have revisited the reality of suffering. Below, are some of my reflections. Though I have spent time thinking about this topic, I still struggle with embracing suffering each day. I hope my thoughts can deepen some of your own reflection on the problem of pain.

Suffering, toil, and death, are the price of the fall of man in Genesis. God tells Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you, and you shall eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19). Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes. People experience it at all stages in their life. It can be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. Often, we feel alone in our suffering because we think that we are the only one experiencing such hurt, that no one understands what we are experiencing, and we do not see a purpose in our suffering.

Thankfully, Christ is a mend for all of those concerns. He comes to carry our crosses with us; He took all of our suffering upon Himself on the cross; and, He gives meaning to our suffering by giving it an eternal purpose it through His passion, death, and resurrection. Jesus’s life is a model for us to “deny [ourselves] and take up [our] cross daily and follow [Him]” (Luke 9:23). Throughout the Gospels, he sacrifices his public image and personal comfort, embracing the more humble and selfless path. Ultimately, it is his submission to this way of life that leads him to fulfill the Father’s will. Through his suffering and death on the cross, He redeemed all aspects of mankind, including our own suffering. Our adversity can participate in His salvific mission and His sacrifice. St. John Paul II advises us that, “Jesus Christ has taken the lead on the way of the cross. He has suffered first. He does not drive us toward suffering but shares it with us, wanting us to have life and to have it in abundance.” We can give our daily sufferings to Him, that they may participate in His cross. Better yet, we can offer them to Our Lady who can perfect our gift, and present them to Jesus more perfectly that we can.

Blessed are they who suffer well. I have been reflecting on this phrase recently. It seems to fit well with the other labels in the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:3-12). Suffering is to live out the Beatitudes in this world because they are a humble, uncomfortable lifestyle. In our society, suffering has become very taboo. Ironically, we lament the suffering of those less fortunate than us; yet, we flee from it, whenever it comes our way. Nonetheless, there are those who bravely accept the suffering in their life, knowing that it is actually good for them. St Teresa of Ávila tells us, “we always find that those who walked closest to Christ were those who had to bear the greatest trials.” In the same paradoxical way that true love is the giving of oneself for the good of another, welcoming suffering is the way by which we become detached from our pride and selfishness, and are formed more perfectly into who we were made to be. St. Mother Teresa echos the words of St. Teresa of Ávila when she said, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.” I often find that when I encounter a homeless person, they seem to be some of the most grateful people that I have met. I believe that their suffering helps them to see the world more clearly because they have fewer comforts and distractions to blur their understanding of who they are.

I have witnessed a similar effect in my own life. As I mentioned, I still deal with some physical limitations from the brain cancer that I survived as a child. For example, some daily tasks are a bit more difficult for me to accomplish than for other people to complete. Often, I deal with bitterness towards and jealousy of others who do not have to deal with the same struggles. But, when I try to be thankful for the many abilities that I do have, instead of focusing on the few crosses that I bear, I am able to find meaning in the midst of my suffering. Similarly, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, wisely noted, “when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Many things do not cause us to suffer of their own power. Rather, we perceive them as such. I am not trying to say that certain things do not cause harm to us. There is a difference between causing actual detriment and causing temporary discomfort. For example, a weapon surely causes harm; but, a short sickness, or a stressful time at work, cause discomfort. When we encounter challenging circumstances in life, we should not run from them just because they are difficult. We should accept them, knowing that Christ redeemed our suffering to lead us and others to heaven. We should not choose to see these challenges as suffering; instead, we should strive for joy in the midst of our trials. It does not come easily; but, with dedication to taking up your crosses daily, you can begin to better see how Christ is using those sufferings as a part of His eternal plan to bring you to heaven.

I would encourage you to take some time to meditate on what crosses you have in your life, how you deal with them now, and how you can unite yourself more with Christ. Then, he may help you bear them; and, he may show you how they are there to help you become more like you were made to be.

Prophetic Invitation

There’s something fresh about turning the calendar page over to December. Just like there’s something fresh about the first week of a new Advent. In many ways it’s a blank slate—as we ease into the most celebrated month of the year, December eases in quietly with its pinkish sunrises and orange-purple afternoons. Like the Holy Spirit, Advent moves quietly into our lives, waiting to be known. A whole year has steadily crept by while we attended to the things that required our attention, and we have returned to this familiar place once again.

Like a painter imagining the first strokes on a new canvas, or a child who’s awakened to a fresh blanket of snow. What now?! (And this is the challenge, isn’t it?)To overthink our approach to this fresh and beautiful season, is to skim over the preciousness of its newness, yet to plow forward with no intentionality is to miss the point entirely.

So where’s the in-between? [Here’s the good news.]

Advent as a season IS the in-between. We’re awaiting the already and not yet. Preparing ourselves for the arrival of the Word made flesh. Our willingness to step foot into the newness that is

Honor the space between no longer and not yet. –Nancy Levin

Advent is special precisely because it is that ripe place of no longer and not yet. We become something new in the in-betweeness of this growing place. When we allow our hearts to be melded by expectation, hope and the possibility of the incarnation we cannot help but be changed into something new.

The Prophet Isaiah describes the transformative scene:

All nations shall stream toward it;

many peoples shall come and say:

"Come, let us climb the LORD's mountain,

to the house of the God of Jacob,

That he may instruct us in his ways,

and we may walk in his paths."

For from Zion shall go forth instruction,

and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,

and impose terms on many peoples.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares

and their spears into pruning hooks;

One nation shall not raise the sword against another,

nor shall they train for war again. –Is. 2:3-5

We know from experience that the prophets represent a voice in the wilderness, a lonely voice in the crowd. This continues to be the case. As Christians we feel the tidal wave of Christmas hoopla creeping into this Advent time of preparation, blurring the distinction between our time for readying our hearts and allowing our hearts to embrace the waiting. As Ronald Rolheiser describes:

“Celebration is a paradoxical thing, created by a dynamic interplay between anticipation and fulfillment, longing and inconsummation, the ordinary and the special, work and play. Life and love must be celebrated within a certain fast-feast rhythm. Seasons of play most profitably follow seasons of work, seasons of consummation are heightened by seasons of longing, and seasons of intimacy grow out of seasons of solitude. Presence depends upon absence, intimacy upon solitude, play upon work. Even God rested only after working for six days!”

Culturally we can anticipate a feast, but we have lost the art of sustaining it. If we are to get back to the practice of feasting as a celebration of the arrival of the Christ child, our posture of preparation must look prophetic in a way that stands alone in the cultural Christmas explosion that begins in early November.

Each of us is called to this place of preparation in a way that is distinct. The important part is not what that preparatory posture looks like, only that we find a method to sustain that preparation. Resources for these kinds of preparations abound (and it’s never too late to begin). Little Blue books, Blessed Is She Advent journal, USCCB, Creighton University’s Praying Advent, etc. Find a practice that suits you and allow the work of the season to flourish within prophetic witness.

Hygge. Of the Heart

I think that we sometimes as Catholics don’t give our trendy culture enough of a fair shake.  I know I have my antennae up when I’m reading a trending article laying out a philosophy for life, and for good reason.  A lot of that stuff is junk, but every once in awhile there is a little pearl that sparkles in the rubbishy pile.  Recently there have been a couple of particularly interesting forces pulling the younger generation- simplicity/minimalism and Hygge.  They both seem to go hand in hand and I think that they (with prudence and moderation in mind) offer 1) a new way to live out the gospel imperative in the modern world, and 2) a new openness to certain elements of the gospel.

Let's start with the concept of Hygge.  Hygge is difficult to translate, but it is a Danish concept that includes comfort, intimacy, and “cozy togetherness.”  The Danish are statistically the happiest people on earth.  They point to this philosophy of life as one of the primary principles in their secret recipe for rampant happiness.  Hygge conjures up images of roaring fireplaces, warm socks, fluffy throw blankets, deep conversations with friends, games of charades, soul food, hot cider, etc. to the Danes.  It dictates what they do on nights and weekends and how they relate to their friends.

While there is a lot to be said about the exterior practice of Hygge, I want to talk about Hygge of the heart- prayer and divine intimacy with the Lord.

I had a vague experiential knowledge of Hygge when I first heard about it, and while Christmas lights, warm cocoa, etc. did come to mind it was my first experience of the interior life that really defined the feeling of contentment Hygge is supposed to be all about.  

In college I had a massive conversion while praying the rosary during commercial breaks on Christmas break.  My guilt caught up to me and I wagered that a few decades might help eke me into purgatory.  When I got back to college and eventually found myself sitting in the Newman center chapel after weeks of contented rosary-praying and guilt-ridden everything else, I felt all at once like I was in over my head and cozily at home.  When I started to pray I felt like I was finally doing what I was meant to do my whole life.  But I had no idea what I was doing, so I started glancing around and seeing what other, holier people do in prayer.  I watched how they postured themselves, I noticed when they closed their eyes and where they looked when they didn't.  I took notes on how to genuflect more holily.  But most of all I tried to take note of what they were reading.  At that time St. Faustina’s diary was making its way through the ranks of devoted Newman-ites, and after a couple of nights of inquiry about her story and who she was, I rush ordered my copy of the diary.  

When I began to pray with St. Faustina I began to experience an interior kind of Hygge.  I imagined myself in her convent, so small yet so immense because of the implications of what she was receiving and how she was praying.  The whole world fit in the walls of her cell, and she had access to the heart of Jesus and a duty to pray for every soul.  The intimate way that she talked with Jesus jumped off the page.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but guessed that a saint was a pretty good model for prayer so I started talking to God informally like she did.  I borrowed a word here and there and wove in my own sentiments.  I felt like I was in a cozy cabin in the woods, hidden away from the world I was trying to reject outside the chapel walls.  It was cozy for lack of a better word.  I felt communion with the person of Christ and weirdly with the other people independently praying in the chapel while I was.  

The transformation was barely noticeable.  I found that when I read the diary that I was reading some of the sentiments resounding in my own soul.  I was wandering the corridors of my own “inner monastery.”  I was actually praying with the Saint and even borrowing some of her zeal as I prayed.  But when I left the chapel the “cozy” feeling started to remain with me.  I found that my room, my workplace, my classrooms, etc. all had that cozy feeling.  I retreated into my heart where God and I were building a meeting place together.  God’s presence was the ultimate Hygge.  Even in the struggles and the dryness and the strife and pain of my rapidly changing life, I kept finding myself drawn to that place and experiencing a mysterious happiness.

I found Hygge of the heart in prayer.  The Danes may have found a great way to achieve a certain level of happiness but the saints have found the real Hygge in prayer.

In the next article I’ll talk more about the external ramifications of this philosophy for Catholics.

Feast of the Guardian Angels

Aside from the guardian angel prayer, my next closest association with this feast is its affiliation with planting bulbs. While working for the Franciscans, one of the biggest parish festivals we celebrated was the last weekend in September. Part of this celebration was a fundraiser that included the selling of bulbs…tulips, gladiolus, daffodils, etc. The idea is intended to be both a seasonally-appropriate way to support the youth programs, and a way to get fall planting on the calendar for Midwestern gardeners. I didn’t come from a family of gardeners, so this fall planting business was new to me, but the association has stuck.

It turns out that these bulbs go into the ground at the end of the growing season, when the soil is about to freeze and be covered by snow. They are buried and all but forgotten. In the springtime, however, they are the first to appear—almost startling green and hardy.  They offer the first splashes of color to a barren landscape, and welcome source of nourishment for pollinators. They are literally life-giving  and the metaphor smacks of the Paschal Mystery.

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At the time, I lived in an apartment and thoughts of planting and yards were a bit beyond my lived experience. Maybe you’re in this place too—where you’re ‘adulting’ in different ways that you see demonstrated by parish festivals and involvement. It’s not uncommon for there to be a wealth of opportunities for youth retreats, mom groups, Knights of Columbus breakfasts; blood drives/food drives/diaper drives, rosary-makers, nursery helpers and the occasional young adult outing. (Thanks goodness for the gift of communities like CBC, am I right?!).

If I may, I hope to offer a word of encouragement and invitation for this contingent of the Church, because I think the work and presence of young adults within the worshipping community is not all that different than that of the work of the bulbs—in that it represents the beautiful and welcomed blooming of seeds long-since planted.

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As a person who has experienced this interim in church life, no longer a youth--still discerning what comes next, I have dabbled in all kinds of church ministries/classes/events. At worst I felt a little vulnerable, a lone-ranger of sorts because I was trying on roles in the church to see what fit me. At best, I was welcomed and made to feel a valued and contributing presence in the community. This is important discernment work, period. Like all discernment work, it is a growing experience and it is a fabulous way to do some inner-work identifying who it is God is calling you to be in and for the world.

Speaking as a parent of small children, it does my heart good to see this kind of exploration in any parish. Maybe planting is your thing, maybe it is social justice, maybe you offer piano accompaniment, middle of the night adoration shifts, help with youth group, visiting the homebound, serving as a Lector or Eucharistic minister. Whatever it is, it is powerful for me to see young adults in positions of service and leadership among the ranks of seasoned parishioners. It is powerful for my children, too.

Like the bulbs planted on the Feast of Guardian Angels, the fruit of this quiet work you are doing offers a breath of fresh air for the body of believers, and a quintessential bit of the practice of discernment. Thank you for the ways big or small that you contribute your gifts to the whole of the community—we are blessed because of it.

 

Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom His love entrusts me here, ever this day [night] be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.



 

Work.

With Labor Day coming up, I thought this would be a good time to meditate on work- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Work in and of itself is good.  Consider these quotes by St. Pope John Paul II on work:

“Through all these surroundings, through my own experience of work, I boldly say that I learned the gospel anew.”

“Work is good for us. Through work we not only transform nature, adapting it to our needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as human beings and indeed in a sense become more human.”

“The Son of God became man and worked with human hands…. So we know, not only by reason alone but through revelation, that through their work people share in the Creator’s work.”

“The church is convinced that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth…. The church considers it her duty to speak out on work…. It is her particular duty to form a spirituality of work which will help all people to come closer, through work, to God…. This Christian spirituality of work should be a heritage shared by all.”

But in the age of rampant workaholism and equally rampant arrested development, our approach to work can be troublesome.  We are living in a divided time.  We bemoan the same fault lines all the time- secularists vs. religious, leftists vs. right-wingers, millennials vs. just about everyone else.  But there might be a more devious debate raging that we don’t often notice:  the place of work in our lives.  Total work vs. the quietists.

A friend of mine recently drove to a small, middle-of-nowhere town in Nebraska to watch the eclipse.  As he waited for the big moment he was floored.  The farmers’ machinery was buzzing along as if it was a normal day.  Cars were bustling on the highway.  People were working everywhere.  Then the total eclipse came and there was silence for a full two minutes.  Then as soon as the sun peaked out a little bit the whir of engines began again.  He couldn’t believe that workers couldn’t pause even a full five minutes to appreciate the phenomenon.  This is a society of total work.

I heard another story about a wealthy man from China who endured weeks of torture for housing a secret Catholic parish in his house.  The authorities interrupted a mass going on in his house and he rushed the congregation and the priest out before they could get caught.  Throughout all that torture he never gave up the name of the priest.  The authorities let him go and he immigrated to America.  He lived the American dream, opened his own restaurant, and started to see it thrive a bit.  He put in long, hard hours. Understandably his daily mass attendance wavered, but incredibly a few years into his business venture he had completely lapsed in his practice of the faith.  The speaker telling this story came to this conclusion:  what torture could not drive out of a man the American culture did.  Torture could not cause this man to become an apostate, but our American work ethic did.  And we applaud stories like his all the time.  This is a society of total work.

But at the same time we all know people who are so offended at not receiving a promotion every couple of years or a raise every month or so.  They aren’t rewarded for just showing up and they take offense.  Instead of keeping their noses down, working harder, and earning their raises and promotions they go off to another job.  They don’t learn and improve, they escape, so they can better validate their own opinions of the injustice done to them.  They won’t confront their laziness. This is the society of quietism.

I remember buying my first iPhone my senior year of college and purchasing a 2 gig data plan.  The salesmen assured me that I would never need 2 full gigs.  That was crazy.  No one used their phone that much.  Three years later I saw a video with the statistic that the average American will spend four full calendar year's worth of time on their phone in a lifetime.  Four wasted years!  We all basically die four years early.  It takes time off of our lives, because that’s not life.  This is the society of quietism.

Total work- meaning calculated by hours work, sweat poured out, goals achieved, productivity goals made.  It is a frantic work from sun up to sundown until utterly exhausted, the workers collapse in a heap.  Their state is constantly activity and equally constant exhaustion.  Even, maybe especially, Christian workers are inundated with this philosophy, but it becomes even more assiduous with the illusion of the cross of Christ adorning it- the heresy of good works.  Activism pushes Christ off the throne of their hearts.  There’s a constant sense of anxiety in the worker's mind.  Am I working hard enough?  Should I be doing something else?  I should, what else should I be doing?  Who is working harder than me?  Who notices?  It goes on and on.

Quietism- a passive withdrawn attitude or policy toward the world or worldly affairs.  The quietists are content to sit on their phones, tune out from outward reality, and in the Christian sense, to think that this is living on a deep level.  They fly by life, expecting to somehow be absorbed into greatness without lifting a finger.  These are tourists, the people who believe if they read a mountaineer's blog that they are somehow mountaineers themselves or if they read up on leadership practices that they are somehow a great leader.  They’re not a people of sweat, but a people marked with deep anxiety that their lives may be wasting away because they haven’t achieved what they want with their lives.  

These two profiles of course aren’t the only ones in our society, but they are two dominating strains.  When they meet it is toxic.  Judgement, complaining, guilt-tripping, backbiting, societal pressures, etc. abound.  

I’m sure, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can all identify with thoughts, opinions, and feelings from both aisles.

Invitations.

Truth be told, I love an invitation to celebrate with anyone who is seeking to join the church. As a cradle Catholic, sometimes I envy the experience of those who have an impactful, dramatic conversion story—at least one in which they played a role. I am an emotional mess at Easter Vigil as I witness the humility and desire on the faces and in the posture of the elect who are actively responding to their invitation (even more so, if I have been lucky enough to learn about that journey in some way).

On the other hand, I treasure the fact that I was claimed for Christ long before I was able to do it for myself. I am grateful for the grace, the guides I’ve been given, and the foundation ‘ever ancient, ever new’ that lays too-big a framework, one that necessitates growing into. Being on the lookout for the Reign of God which is already present and not yet come is a lot to ask of anyone—infant or otherwise. The two baptismal experiences are distinct, one no better than another, yet we each have a conversion that is constantly at work within us whether we have grown up in a church or have been ignited with new zeal.

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Matthew’s Gospel today is also about timing and not knowing what (or whom) is coming. St. Matthew urges his audience to ‘stay awake’ through the not knowing, when we will be called upon to welcome the Christ— in hopes that we might be found attending diligently to both the invitations we have received and the vocations we have been called to. Sometimes this means the less glamorous long-haul, other times it means immediate readiness.

Today is the day I was baptized 33 years ago. I remember nothing of it, and feel a little disappointed about that. I have of course heard stories about it and have been to the church since then. To my delight and amusement, my dear college friend (and once fellow environmental studies major), is now the Pastor of that parish.

But that was before I honestly came to terms with the gifts I had been given and the course load I should be taking, and how perhaps I was meant to be engaging with more people—fewer trees. Before my heart had been broken by folks living on the margins, and before I worked in young adult ministry or began writing, or raising babies.

Aren’t these sorts of discoveries exactly what is meant by the phrase: “God draws straight with crooked lines?”  My priest friend is a campout-leading, bee-keeping pastor in the North woods—two charisms, one fiat. Seemingly dormant seeds planted, geminate right on time. (Whether or not we are aware). These are the details or our stories, and all of them are laden with significance.

We know it isn’t about whose got great stories; only how we live the stories we have been given. The Christian person should be in a continual state of conversion, or we run the risk of becoming stale, irrelevant. Sometimes the most intriguing stories of conversion are of those who have been plodding along faithfully and have come to a different/deeper/more specific place of living than the one from which they began.

Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!

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Tonight over dinner I will re-light the candle, the light of Christ, given to me to be kept burning; a practice I’ve only recently begun. I will marvel with the knowledge that I have been claimed and that my participation in this faith story is asked of me as actively today as it was 33 years ago. There is no passivity in this invitation—there never was.

Saints Who Knew How to Adventure

To be a saint doesn’t mean you have to be lame, rigid, and secluded all of the time - though there are many times when reverence is the appropriate response to God. To be a saint, however, does mean you fully live the adventure that God has placed in your life. In the life of most every saint, even in one as sweet and gentle as Therese of Lisieux, as we will see, there has been a holy recklessness, a sense of adventure, and a great cosmic mission. The saints are the ones that teach us about the adventure that the Church has for us. Today, I’d like to point to some adventures God might have for us if we decide to follow Him more recklessly in the examples from these three saints: Gabriel Possenti, Francis Xavier, and Therese of Lisieux.

 

Gabriel Possenti

Francis Possenti, born in Assisi on March 1, 1838, was seriously ill as a child, and many illnesses recurred throughout his life. As a young man, he grew up to be a superb horseman, hunter, and excellent marksman. Francesco Possenti had been the fanciest dresser in town as well as the best dancer. Engaged to two girls at the same time and a great party-goer, he caught the attention of many people in his day, especially women.

During his school years, he became very sick, Mary came to him in a vision, and he promised  that if he got better, he would dedicate his life to God. St. Gabriel Possenti got better and forgot about it. He got sick a second time, had another vision, and made the same promise, but again got well and forgot his promise. During a church procession a great banner of Our Lady, Help of Christians, was being carried. The eyes of Our Lady looked straight at him and he heard the words: "Keep your promise." Shaken and in fear of his soul, he remembered his promise, changed his life completely, and entered the Passionists.

 

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Given his lifestyle, he shocked his family by announcing after his graduation that he was going to become a Passionist monk. No one believed him and expected him back within a few weeks. He stayed in the monastery, to their disbelief.  One day Garibaldi's mercenaries swept down through Italy ravaging villages. As the marauders attacked, the monks prayed in the chapel and Possenti, who took the name Gabriel, heard a young woman screaming in terror. Not about to allow the assailants to do any harm to a woman, he genuflected, left the chapel, approached the man, and pulled the gun out of the marauder's holster and held it to his head until he freed the woman.

After freeing a young woman from a would-be rapist, St. Gabriel Possenti confronted the onrushing brigands waving revolvers. To demonstrate his excellence in marksmanship, he fired at a lizard that happened to be running across the road and blew its head off it with one shot. After this, he was able to take command of the situation and ran the entire band of mercenaries out of town. Not one human was harmed by Possenti while he saved the city.

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Those who were with Gabriel when he died on February 27, 1862 of tuberculosis reported that at the moment of death, he sat up in bed and his face became radiant as he reached out to an otherwise unseen figure that was entering the room. It was the opinion of his spiritual director, Father Norbert that Saint Gabriel had seen the Virgin Mary at the very moment of his death. He is remembered for his deep veneration for the Mother of Sorrows and his unwavering patience throughout his deadly disease. In 1908 he was beatified and canonized in 1920. He is the patron of Catholic youth in Italy. His grave still attracts many pilgrims.

Now, if Gabriel Possenti doesn’t respond to the call that God has for him, that adventure never happens and that town would not have been saved from all of the bad things that the marauders would have done. St. Gabriel’s yes to God (through Mary) changed the lives of countless people. And he was hardly in his 20s at this point. Makes me wonder what I have been doing with my life and why I might keep saying know to the adventures God has for me.

 

Francis Xavier

The next saint is Francis Xavier. He was born into a noble family in the kingdom of Navarre (a part of modern day Spain and France). The king of Aragon invaded Navarre when Francis was six years old and the fighting continued for the next 18 years. Francis’ family was much embroiled in the fighting, but to get away from it, Francis enrolled in the University of Paris. He became well known for his athleticism, excelling at the high jump. Being away from his family, the party scene was commonplace for Francis and he had many aspirations to gain worldly success. But there he also met Ignatius of Loyola.

Castle of the Xavier Family now under the care of the Jesuits

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Ignatius worked on Francis for years to get him to become more religious. Eventually, after Francis’ roommate had left to study for the priesthood, he found Ignatius as one of his only companions. On August 15th, 1534, Ignatius, Francis, and six others met in the crypt of a church just outside of Paris and made vows of poverty, chastity, obedience to the pope, and to missionary work in the Holy Land and other places around the world.

When it comes to missions around the world, it is impossible to overestimate the credit which Francis Xavier deserves. With the possible exception of St. Paul, the Church has not seen a missionary like him. His first task: bring the Gospel to the newly established territories in India. This was not an easy assignment because the “Christian” settlers in India were causing scandal for the message of Gospel because of their immoral actions with the locals. Francis Xavier also was pigeon-holed by the caste system in India. The Brahmin class tried to keep him from interacting with his heart's true desire, the poorest of the poor. Francis Xavier followed his heart and spent most of his time learning the culture and language of the people, tending to the poor, and teaching them the Christian message, often times lambasting the actions of the Portuguese settlers. Because of Francis’ adventurous efforts, however, Catholicism has a strong presence in India still to this day.

To see the real adventure in Francis’ life, we must look at his work in Japan in particular. Francis eventually made his way through many island territories, China, and found his way to the people of Japan. There Francis established missions and over the course of two years gained a number of Japanese to the Catholic faith and the Jesuit order. After establishing Catholicism in Japan, he left to go back to India leaving behind others to run the communities of Japan. In 1620, less than one hundred years after Francis established Christianity there, the Empire banned Catholicism and killed all the priests and attempted to stamp out what Francis has built. Communication was lost with all the Catholics in Japan until 1865. In that year, it was discovered that a small group of Japanese had continued ritual baptism, belief in clerical celibacy, the primacy of the pope, and devotion to the Blessed Mother. For nearly 250 years, because of “the adventures of St. Francis Xavier” and the way he built the community there, Japan had retained a Catholic presence in secret, unknown both to the Japanese government and to the rest of the Church.

 

 

Therese of Lisieux

God is not calling people to be a flock of sissies. In some ways, we are to be more like lions than sheep. Speaking of that contrast, St. Therese of Lisieux is an example of a saint who seems very gentle but actually had the heart of a lion. While it’s true it hard to see a lot of adventure in Therese’s active life, there are many quotes from her Story of a Soul that demonstrate her adventurous attitude. To start, in discovering her vocation, Therese finds what her adventure within the Church is, and in a real way it is every human being’s adventure. She says, “Then, overcome by joy, I cried, 'Jesus, my love. At last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and then I will be all things.” For Therese, the great adventure of this life is learning how to love in all the little ways. We see this clearly in this famous line that was often referenced by Mother Teresa when she says, “You know well that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions,nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.”

Therese sees this life not as a destination, but a journey of learning how to love. One day, she desires to be with Love forever, when the adventure is over. Referring to this life she says, “The world's thy ship and not thy home.” For Therese, the journey of this life is holiness, which is found in the perfection of love. To perfect love, one must be well aware of God’s desire for his or her life. “Holiness consists simply in doing God's will, and being just what God wants us to be,” says Therese. In her longing for God’s will, we see one of the most adventurous things that she has to offer us and her reckless desire for nothing shy of everything God wants of her. Even despite the ways others annoy and distract her, she endeavors to love in all things. When the trials are heavy, she reminds herself and all of us that “when one loves, one does not calculate.” If that isn’t the idea of adventure that burns in your heart, you are very much different than Therese and myself. What greater adventure is there than reckless abandon for the highest cause? Tolkien, Lewis, even Twain, Melville, and DeFoe made their careers based on the same movement of the heart: to abandon yourself to life’s greatest endeavors.

For Therese the adventure is to sail the ship of this world in a way that leads to heaven. The way to stay on course is to always be solid in prayer, even if it is challenging. She says, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” Therese was adventurous even in her approach to prayer, seeing that the process brings trial and joy which occur simultaneously.

Finally, Therese always tied her life’s adventure to the adventure of the cross. “To dedicate oneself as a Victim of Love is not to be dedicated to sweetness and consolations; it is to offer oneself to all that is painful and bitter, because Love lives only by sacrifice and the more we would surrender ourselves to Love, the more we must surrender ourselves to suffering,” she says. She understood the great battle within her and around her. A battle all of us are called to engage in still today. She says, “Each time that my enemy would provoke me to combat, I behave as a gallant soldier.” Even in the heart of sweet Therese there was the presence of a fierce and unruly desire to follow Christ in his Church. If only more of us would find the same adventure in our lives as sweet, small, gentle, and simple Therese found in hers!

There are so many other saints that have lived lives of adventure from St. John the Baptist, St. Paul the Apostle to St. John Paul II, the mountain loving, soccer playing, skier pope that changed the face of Catholicism and instigated the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. The point is, to be a Catholic saint means to be totally awesome. Jesus’ awesome adventure was the cross. And as Hebrews 12 states, it was because of the joy that was set in front of him that he endured the cross. The joy for Jesus was that one day he gets to be with you forever. Even though he was God and had everything, he went on a great adventure and gave away everything he had just so you could understand how much he wants to be with you. He has now asked us to follow him. To live an adventure. The Church needs great and adventurous saints to set the stage for the third millennium. It can be us. If not us, then who will it be? In our own unique way, we can live the adventure of following Jesus and becoming the great saint God intended us to be.

Traveling Between the Lines

Travel. It’s trendy. To say you’re a traveler in modern culture is a pithy way to say you are a cultured, experienced, tolerant, interesting human being whose life is fun and exciting and whose thoughts are worth listening to.

And to a certain degree that is true. Travel does wonderful things for the soul. There are images and graphics all over the Internet with the quote from St. Augustine that “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” But simply to have read something isn’t enough. As Catholics, we should strive to be excellent in everything that we do. It is not enough to read great books. In order to gain any wisdom, we must read them well, with attention and humility. It is the same with traveling. In order to gain wisdom and experience truth in our travels, we must travel well.

How do we do that? In many ways, we do the same things we do to read well. Here are four tips from an English major on traveling well.

1)   Step outside yourself.

We read books to gain something we do not already have. In order to do so we have to let our mind enter into situations we have not been in before, or follow characters who react differently to their surroundings than we do. It isn’t just about the characters we connect with, but also the ones we clash with. We have to wrap our minds around ideas that are not our own. We gain a greater understanding of human nature and all it’s nuances. In traveling, unfamiliar surroundings make it easy to feel like we are stepping outside of ourselves, because we are physically out of our comfort zones. This can create the illusion that we have actually stepped outside of ourselves. We must make a conscious effort to connect with our surroundings, even when they don’t immediately pull us in.

2)   Compare.

When you compare parallel ideas from different books they provide insight into each other. When we find things that are similar to home in a foreign place and then examine the nuances, we learn more not only about the place we are in, but the place we came from as well. In good travel, as well as reading well, our senses are heightened and we notice smaller details than we do in everyday life. When we compare these to something more familiar they open secrets about our daily life and ourselves that have been hiding right before our eyes.

3)   Read between the lines.

A good book is never just a story. The story is crafted to reveal certain truths about the world, but if we don’t pay attention to what is not obvious, we can easily miss them. As a Christian, travel should never be about escaping reality or collecting fun stories. God usually has something to teach us when we travel, but it’s up to us to be attentive to it. Be extra prayerful when you travel. This also involves being prepared. If you spend some time learning about the historical context of the places you go, your ability to read between the lines will be greatly heightened. Read a little bit of history before you go anywhere.

4)   Allow it to end.

Sometimes you don’t want a good book to end. You don’t want to leave the experience behind. But if you never close the back cover, you can’t process it in it’s completeness. The conclusion of a book can radically change the experience of the book as a whole. Travel has a designated end date for a reason. When it’s time to go home you are given a unique gift to contemplate the trip in it’s entirety, and to incorporate what you have learned into your daily life. Your day to day can be transformed when you return from a well-traveled trip, but if you try to make the experience last longer than it ought, you do a disservice to the trip and to your daily life.

Traveling is one of the greatest gifts we have been given. Embracing new people and places stretches our hearts and minds and brings growth we usually can hardly imagine. But simply changing our location isn’t enough to travel. We must read well every adventure in order for our travels to truly make us wiser.

Silence.

Listen.  That is the first word St. Benedict instructs his monks and nuns in the Rule he wrote fifteen hundred years ago.  For all of humanity's advances, especially in the last hundred years, human nature has not changed.  Men's hearts are still capable of being troubled by the unsettling burdens of life, or of being silent so as to hear the voice of God.  Thus, St. Benedict’s instruction is just as pertinent to our culture at the start of the Third Christian Millennium as it was when he was alive in the sixth century A.D.

So, we must listen.  But to what . . . and how?  “To the master’s instruction . . . with the ear of [our] heart[s].”  There is a lot to unpack in those few words.  To submit to a master’s instruction, one must admit that he has something to learn. That is, one must have a teachable spirit.  Humility is needed in order to submit one’s will and intellect to eternal truths buried under a cacophony of “Noise–Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile” [C.S. Lewis, “Letter XXII” in The Screwtape Letters]. 

Listen - with the ear of the heart.  St. Benedict combines two disparate organs - one dependent on the other.  We use our ears to listen, but the ear cannot function if the heart's not beating; no heartbeat, no hearing.  So, we then must recognize that we are alive, and by being alive, we are capable of listening to noise, or for the voice of God.

One cannot listen if he is talking, and that is the problem for anyone who is trying to take the faith seriously and live according to it’s life-giving precepts.  It is so easy to “babble as the pagans who think they will be heard by their many words” (Matthew 6:7).  I speak from experience as one who always has something to say - to God, to my brother monks, or to anyone within earshot.  This is why a monastic vocation is such a gift, for monasteries are places that work hard to preserve silence. 

Silence is like a garden that produces the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control: (Galatians 5:22-23).  Noise is like weeds in the garden that chokes the life of the Spirit within the soul.  Silence is not a void to be filled. Rather, silence reveals a Presence that is always with us - a Presence that is Eucharistic and only revealed with the eyes of faith, a Presence in whom “we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

In these dog-days of summer when the Church commemorate the Feast of St. Benedict, may we listen to his instruction and learn to be silent so that the “still soft voice” of Jesus might draw us more closely to Himself.

The Soultion to our Searching

    I was sailing through a sea of green fields. The wind whipped the soft grass creating the appearance of undulating waves. My car was a vessel floating amongst the vastness of the open road. My course was charted in front of me, by the rough, lonely country road. Small water tanks, like mirrors reflecting the bright blue sky above, dotted the countryside. The beauty was overwhelming. Almost instinctively, I had the desire to capture this beauty, to snap a photo to preserve the image. Yet, I have often found that pictures do not do justice to a breathtaking landscape, like the one through which I was traveling. There is something deeper than the physical beauty that can only be experienced in the present. It cannot be stored and revisited days or months later. One must dwell in the moment to soak in its fullness.

Stepping into the basilica, my eyes were instantly drawn upwards. Golden light shown through the elevated windows onto the enormous baldacchino over the main altar. The central nave extended all the way to the Holy Spirit window, far in the distance. The stone colonnade directed my sight onward and upward. I stared in awe at the vastness of this sacred space. Almost paralyzed, I was unsure of how to react to such beauty. Surely, no camera is able to capture the length, width, and depth of such a space, let alone the brilliance of colors illuminating the air. Yet, around me swarmed, likes bees, hundreds of tourists with their selfie sticks waving and their camera lenses clicking. They seemed unaware of the sanctity of the space, treating it as merely another sight to see on their Roman holiday. As I processed through the many altars lining the sides of the central nave, the artwork continued to draw my mind away from my current surroundings and more toward the One whose sacrifice was re-presented each day on these altars. Upon entering the chapel with the Blessed Sacrament, the atmosphere changed. There was a lightness that touched the soul. Only dwelling there in the silence of prayer could the beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica truly be contemplated.

There is something appreciable about our desire to capture beauty. It points toward our inner direction toward the ultimate Beauty. After all, every beautiful thing participates in the beauty of God. However, earthly beauty is fleeting. Many poets lament the loss of beauty with the imagery of the changing seasons or the process of aging. They profess tempus fugit and carpe diem - that time is fleeting; therefore, seize the day.

The best way to fully appreciate beauty is to dwell in it in the moment. Not every moment in our lives will be beautiful. In fact, a majority of them probably are not. But, if we truly appreciate beauty when it does come, we will be sustained in times of desolation in the hope of another consolation. One way to actively encounter beauty is to travel, whether that be internationally, or locally. Simply moving oneself out of their current, perhaps mundane, reality can help one find beauty in other people, nature, art, and architecture. The verdant countryside and the brilliant basilica that I described earlier are just two of the countless examples of how I have experienced beauty through travel.

Although physical beauty is fleeting, there is One that never fails. By encountering the One from whom all beauty flows, we can experience a beauty that the finite world can never offer. Prayer is the way through which we encounter our God. Granted, prayer is often hard and uncomfortable. But, as with travel, God gives us times of consolation in prayer to give us hope in our desolation and remind us of His promise.

Both travel and prayer draw one out of oneself to experience something greater. We are forced to encounter the vastness of the world and our God and reconcile ourselves with them both. We must return to travel and prayer continually to relieve ourselves in the bleak times of life. The fact that beauty can never fully be captured causes us to have to seek it out again and again. And surprisingly, I have found that the more I travel and the more I pray, the easier it is to find beauty in the mundane, and even the ugly. Prayer and travel broaden one’s perspective to see things as they are and to appreciate them nonetheless.