Sunday, October 27, 2013

Way Better Than You

" Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. "Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee [an expert of the law], and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself: 'O God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of humanity -- greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.' But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, 'O, God, be merciful to me a sinner.' I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." [ Luke 18: 9-15].

I am so humble, so retiring, that at times, when I have attended an event, people have sworn that I was not even there!

The truth is, all of my humility comes from being a witness to all of the extravagant pride expressed by my family.

You see, I grew up with people who used to say the very things that the Pharisee said, in his so-called prayer.

My own mother used to repeat with pride how much she paid in taxes, and how the amount she paid was probably more than anyone else paid. Somehow, she felt that this made her a better person than all of those "losers", who did not have enough income to pay so much tax.

She used to disparage the Christians who attended church regularly. She said they were hypocrites, since they were the adulterous ones, who were having affairs behind their spouses' backs. They were the ones who disobeyed the law, but who pretended to be so holy, as they sat in the front pew at church every Sunday. She would tell me that the people who always went to church needed God more, since they were the ones so incapable of accomplishing anything on their own merits.

Then, there was my father. He thought that our English heritage made us superior to everyone else. He had nasty and vile names for every ethnic group on the planet. He judged others merely by their country of origin, not by any true knowledge of who they were as an individuals.

The more my parents insisted on elevating themselves over others, the more embarrassed I became. The more I shrank into myself.

Every night at the dinner table, I heard the litany of self-promotion, such as, "Thank God, I am not like the rest of humanity." I did not want hear any more superior pronouncements from my imperfect family. Who had appointed them the arbiters?

I used to want to stay invisible for this reason. I hated how humans judged each other. Would I be judged that way? Would I never be good enough for anyone?

Out of intense dislike for self promotion, I have become humble. I have been called unassuming, gentle, modest, quiet, self-effacing. I call myself a Nobody, a Nothing. I do not want anyone to notice me. I prefer resting in a forgotten corner.

And yet, I have come to find out that God not only notices the humble, He actually selects them as His messengers. God elevates the lowly. He praises them, glorifies them.

I have been reading lately about Moses. We think of him with as a man with a thick mane of curly hair, a dramatic figure with fiercely determined eyes and a strong grip on the rod of God.

But, in fact, Moses was a reluctant hero. When, In Exodus 3, God calls to Moses out of a burning bush that is never consumed by fire, Moses reacts in fear. Moses hides his face, "for he was afraid to look at God."

When God calls Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt, Moses says, "Who am I that I should bring them out of Egypt?" ( Exodus 3: 11).

When God tells Moses to invoke His name when convincing Pharaoh to let his people go, Moses says, "But suppose [Pharaoh] does not believe me or listen to me?" (Ex. 4: 1).

Even when God gives Moses the miraculous power to turn his staff into a snake, Moses points out his limitations, saying, " I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." (Ex. 4: 10).

Then God says, " Now go, and I will be your mouth and teach you what you are to speak", (Ex. 12).  Even then, Moses says, " O, my Lord, please send someone else!" ( Ex. 4: 13).

The humility of Moses prefigures the humble origins of the disciples, and even of Jesus Himself.

I myself have asked my pastor, 'Why would God choose ME? I am only a woman, a wife, a mother, an ordinary citizen.'

And my pastor has told me, 'So was Mary.'

And Jesus was "only a carpenter."

And the disciples were only fishermen.

God, in His infinite wisdom, can challenge us. He can promote us. He can, recognizing our humility and humble origins, choose us to prove His Divine strength, through us!

And so, now, when God calls me, I am going to try to teach myself not to say to Him, " I am afraid. Who am I to do this? Who would believe me? Pick someone else. You cannot mean that you have chosen ME. For I am a Nobody."

God makes us in His own image. We ARE somebody. We are all His messengers.

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Persistent Widow

" Jesus told His disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always, without becoming weary. He said, ' There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being. And a widow in that town used to come to him and say, 'Render a just decision for me against my adversary.' For a long time, the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought, 'While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me, I shall deliver a just decision for her, lest she finally come and strike me.' The Lord said, ' Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to His chosen ones who cry to Him day and night? Will He be slow to answer them? I tell you, He will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?' " [ Luke 18: 1-8].

I have often wondered what this passage of Scripture could possible mean? The judge in this parable is fully secular, lacking in compassion for the lowly widow, and slow to respond to her cry for justice.

Is not the Greatest Judge, God Himself? How can God be compared to a corrupt secular judge?

In the Quest Reflection Booklet for Small Christian Communities, the commentary on this Scripture says, " If a dishonest judge can be forced to render judgment by the persistence of a woman who simply will not give in to the apparent hopelessness of her situation, the gospel asks us to wonder how much more an infinitely loving God will be drawn into our prayers." [ (c) 2013].

This Scripture asks us, How much will you pray? How much will you persist?

I remember a time in my life, when I prayed unceasingly for years. This was because the prospect of becoming a mother seemed hopeless for me.

So many of my family and friends were getting married and having children. I got married, but I was married for so many years, and I remained childless.

This was a long time spent wandering "in the desert"!

I used to hate to go to the mall to buy pajamas, because you had to walk through the baby department to get to the sleep wear department.  Just that walk alone, through the baby department, felt like a slap in the face. I would suddenly start to feel depressed, seeing all those adorable baby outfits.

I used to see women who were expecting a baby, and I would say to myself, 'I really believe that I could be just as good a mother as they will be. So, God, why is it that I am denied this blessing for so long?'

I thought maybe I should try to fix this situation myself. I gave up on caffeine. I started exercising and taking vitamins. I ate a better diet. I consulted various doctors. I had testing done.

My husband and I even bought a home big enough for raising children.

Finally, I began realizing that my situation was pretty hopeless. I began to fear that I would never become a mother.

Then, I asked a friend-- a Christian-- what do you do if your situation seems hopeless?

She gave me a copy of the Novena of St. Jude to pray. St. Jude is the patron saint of the hopeless. I figured, that pretty much summed up my situation-- hopeless.

Now, I was still on the fence about joining a church. I was not Catholic then. But I believed in God (and still do).

Every day, I followed a new routine:  I set the alarm early. I went for a walk as the sun was rising each day. What a beautiful way to renew my hope, in the dawn of a new day!

Once I got home from my walk, I made coffee. As the coffee brewed,  I faced the kitchen window in the direction of my church. At my kitchen window, I had hung a cross that I had fashioned out of Palm Fronds, from Palm Sunday that year.

Every morning, I would pray the Novena. When it came time to state my Special Intention, I prayed, "God, and St. Jude, I pray for a happy, healthy baby to raise, in Jesus' name." When I said, "In Jesus' name", I meant that I would teach my child to know Jesus and to follow Him. How could God deny me that Intention?

Now--- I prayed this Novena and Intention daily for TWO YEARS! If I ever forgot to pray it one day, I prayed twice the next day.

Was I foolish? Or filled with Faith? Or desperate?  Maybe a bit of all three.

I began to feel after awhile, like I was nagging God. What would His reaction be, that I was being such a "pest"? Eventually, would He call down to me and tell me, 'Enough already! I KNOW what you want!' ?

Maybe He really was "working on it", only I did not see anything happening. How could I trust that something was happening behind the scenes, when I could not see it?

Every day became the same to me. Every day, I determinedly asked God for the same thing, using the same words. Every day, I told my husband, as we were drinking our morning coffee, 'Maybe today is the day we find out if our baby is coming.'

When our son was finally born, after 15 years of married life, a friend asked me, 'HOW did you wait so long, with no complaint, no anger, no hopelessness, no despair?'

I told her, it was because I had Faith! I really did trust that God would handle this problem for me.

This Scripture asks, How much will you persist? But Jesus also asks, " When the Son of Man comes, will He find Faith on earth?" In other words, Jesus asks, not just, 'How much do you ask', but also, 'How much Faith do you have?'

It took far longer than I expected to become a mother. Nothing happened in the way that I expected. It was God's way, God's timing.

But, in the end, our son was born. And he really is "happy, healthy and raised up in Jesus' name! " He serves at our church. He serves and protects his friends at school. He reads his Bible. He has a strong sense of justice. He is a gift!

And yes, I still have that cross, fashioned from Palm Fronds. The cross is now in my son's special treasure box. And I have told him, that he must keep that special cross forever.

" Be always thankful, pray continously, give thanks, whatever happens." [ 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18].

[Related Posting, " Putting the Last First", August 25, 2013.]

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jesus Heals

" On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was traveling through the region between Samaria and Gallilee. As He entered a village, ten lepers approached Him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying,
'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!' When He saw them, He said to them, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.' And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He lay at Jesus' feet and thanked Him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God, except this foreigner?' Then, He said to him, ' Get up and go on your way; your faith has saved you.' " [ Luke 17: 11-19].

I grew up in a home with no Love and no Faith. I felt, even as a child, like an alien in a foreign land.

We stopped attending church after my grandmother died. It wounds the soul to be told as a child that it is necessary to go to church, and that there is a God; only to be told at age fourteen, that there IS no God. I would ask to go to church and was told, "We don't do that any more."

It wounds the soul to fear not being fed dinner. I remember at age five, realizing that, on certain nights, there would be no dinner, and that I would have to find food another way.

It wounds the soul to be told that Nana was Irish, only to be told, "We are English"; and, "The English are superior." 

It wounds the soul to ask often, as a child, for an expression of Love, only to be asked, "Why do you ask for this?"

A few years ago, when my father had died, and my best friend was dying way too young, and my mother was terminally ill, I finally had to face that I needed healing.

This hit with a vengeance, especially when my chronic lung disease came roaring back, at that time of so many deaths. Suddenly, I entered the medical world, of lung tests, breathing meters, doctors, inhalers,  medicines that tasted vile. And still, I could not breathe.

For the first time in a long time, my world was upside down. There were times that I did not know what day it was. So many things that I thought were "right", seemed suddenly, horribly wrong.

At this point in my life, when I had not received Communion in decades, I turned to a priest. I was not sure where this would lead. All I knew was that I was miserable.

The priest told me to meditate and pray. I kept "hearing", " Only say the word and I shall be healed." The priest told me that this was the call to the Eucharist.

But what needed healing? And what did the Eucharist have to do with it?

I was beginning to see that it was a lot more than my lungs that needed healing.  It was a lifetime, a world of hurt.

This is what happens in the story of Jesus and the lepers. All ten are healed by Jesus, physically. But you notice that nine " keep their distance".

Only one makes the effort to approach Jesus. And that one is a foreigner. He is an outsider. He appreciates more than anyone, the power of a healing gesture.

You know, there is healing. And then, there is Healing.

I usually hate asking for help. In my childhood, asking for help meant breaking my habit of staying below the radar. If you got noticed in my world, you got hurt.

When I turned to the priest for help, I knew that I needed to get closer to God. All of the things that I was battling, going back to the earliest times of my childhood, were too much for me to battle alone any longer. As the priest sat at his desk in his office, writing out a Scripture for me to reflect upon, I had this image that he was like a doctor, writing out an Rx.

Indeed, on EWTN, Father Andrew Apostoli has said, " Adversity prepares you to receive the Holy Spirit".

I began to see that there was a big hole in my heart. Soon, I began to ask God to help fill that hole.

In this parable, ten lepers were healed. But, only one leper was transformed both physically, and spiritually. This man ran to Jesus. He did not keep his distance. And Jesus said, "  Your faith has saved you!"

Being wounded, body and soul, is a terrible thing. But the need for Healing has brought me closer to Jesus. I did decide to choose a church and to convert. I did decide to follow Jesus. In a very emotional moment, I did receive the Eucharist again.

Every time I receive the Eucharist now, it is a transforming experience. I am overcome--physically and spiritually-- with feelings of God's grace, and with Healing from Jesus. I say, Thank you, for the blessings I have received.

 And I have been stronger ever since.

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Mustard Seed

" The apostles said to Jesus: 'Increase our faith.'  He replied, ' If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea', and it will obey you.  " [Luke 17: 5-10].

 I grew up in a home without Faith. My grandmother died when I was age 14. It was then that my parents stopped taking me to church. They labeled Christians as losers and hypocrites. They banned church; and they spoke of God as if He were only a pathetic myth for the gullible. My mother used to say that, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." As if Faith and church were invented by powerful men, to keep the lower classes deceived and meek. As if . . . .

After my parents took church away, I made my Faith as small as possible. I tried to make my Faith invisible, because if no one could see the Faith that I had, no one could take it away from me, right?

If my parents got into a heated discussion about faith and religion at the dinner table, I became mute. I was afraid that if I admitted what I thought about God, that they would turn against me. I was never sure what punishment I would get, but I was never brave enough to find out.

My childhood was filled with fear. I grew up in a war zone, only the war was a battle of mother vs. father, brother vs. sister, father vs. daughter, mother vs. daughter.

In that house, no one ever hugged me or said, " I love you." I received either no touch whatsoever -- or harmful touch.

My mother could turn cruel in an instant.

My father seemed always to be seething mad. He could not seem to work out his anger with my mother. So he took it out on me.

At the hands of a sibling, I was bruised, locked into my room, called ugly every day. My room was booby trapped. When I cried, my parents told me that I was "too sensitive."

It was when I came home as a twenty-something, to announce that I was marrying a Catholic, that I felt their full fury. This was a Battle. Out in the open. About Faith. My parents told me point blank to find someone else. They refused to stand in the receiving line at my wedding. After my wedding, I took to wearing a gold cross, but I hid it under my shirt.

Almost ten years later, a dear relative became sick. He had to go to the ER. Suddenly, he was admitted to the hospital. 

After an inital x-ray, the doctors announced that they strongly suspected cancer, and a particularly
virulent form of it. If diagnosed, he would be dead in a few months. I found myself sinking into despair.

I had fought for so long. I had left home, I had earned degrees. I had done all the right things. I was fighting all these Losses in my life. No warm, loving mother. No gentle father. No sibling(s), as an ally.

Now this!! It was Un-fair. Where was God?

One day, the phone rang. It was my mother-in-law. She asked how was I doing, with this relative so sick? I burst into tears.

She said, " Do you have faith that everything will be okay?'

I snapped at her, " I HAVE no faith." I felt that my Faith had been shrunk down so small over the years, that it had become eroded, made invisible. What good was it?

I feared that maybe God really was a mirage. Or that He had forgotten me. He KNEW that I had no loving father or mother or brother. And for Him to take away my dear one?! That was IT.

My mother-in-law said to me, "Well. I have enough Faith for both of us." And she told me that she was going to pray and that I was going to pray with her. And she was going to put my prayer intention on the Prayer Network at her church. And then this dear one would live. I was so shattered, I almost did not believe her words to me.

We waited for what seemed forever, for the date of exploratory surgery.

The day of the surgery, I was at home, waiting for word. Suddenly, the phone rang. It was the doctor. The shadow on the x-ray was not cancer. It was only an infection.  My dear one would be fine!

I burst into tears, I sobbed so hard, I could not speak. I praised God!

And this was the first time that I knew that the tiniest bit of Faith is enough. We do not need to pray, " Increase my faith."

God has given us all the Faith that we need. That tiny seed of Faith that I had hidden inside of me all those years was still there! That bit of Faith had done its work!

That Faith is not found solely in church. That Faith is not found solely in the gold crosses that we wear. That Faith is inside us. No one can take it away. And that Faith inside us is always enough.

(c)  Spiritual Devotional 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Precious Life

 [Culture of Life Sunday is October 6, 2013].

Pope Francis, in a long interview with the Jesuit Journal Civilata Cattolica said, about Catholic moral teachings on topics such as abortion, " The teaching of the Church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. We have to find a new balance. The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."

In a subsequent talk, Pope Francis, during a papal audience with Catholic gynecologists, called abortions, " a symptom of today's 'throw-away culture.' " Pope Francis said, " Every child that isn't born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord. Things have a price and can be for sale, but people have a dignity that is priceless and worth far more than things."

 Pope Francis' recent comments on the new direction of the church have set off a firestorm of controversy, both amongst Catholics and outside the Church.

Many say that his two talks, as excerpted above, are contradictory. Commentators say, you cannot emphasize, and de-emphasize Catholic moral teaching, all at the same time. You cannot have it both ways.

I do not, ultimately, see Pope Francis' two statements as contradictory. In fact, one statement supports the other.

The Church's moral teachings, such as on abortion and the death penalty, are Rules, yes. But these Rules stem from Jesus' first commandment, which is to love one another.

We cannot love one another if , quite simply, we are putting each other to death, whether through war or abortion or the death penalty or violence.

We also cannot love one another if we ceaselessly point out each other's moral failings. Being a Christian does not mean immediately pouncing on another's sins with a superior attitude of "Gotcha!"

Our awareness of the Rules must be tempered with Love.

God does love all of us, with Infinite Love. The very fact that He has given us life alone, is proof enough. The life which He has given us is precious. It is a priceless gift.

I have learned this through many traumatic experiences during my lifetime:

When I was three years old, there was a fire in my grandparents' house. No one was injured, but I was terrified when I saw my grandmother's favorite chair charred and unrecognizable from the blaze. For years afterwards, I cried every time I heard a fire engine, because I knew that someone might die. At the age of three, I had come to know the fragility of life.

When I was four, I almost drowned in a neighbor's pool. As I sank below the surface, I could see air bubbles. I said to myself, that is my air; this is what it is like to drown. My mother's arms pulled me out to safety.

When I turned thirteen, my mother and grandmother told me that I had almost died, as my mother was giving birth to me. My mother had almost died as well. Knowing this about my birth changed my life forever. Each and every moment of everyday became precious to me. After all, I might not have lived at all. I decided to fill each waking moment with purpose and determination.

When I was eighteen, I was home alone. I went upstairs to take a shower. A short while later, my parents came home to find a policeman at the front door. He said that there was a robber in the neighborhood, who had tried to break into the house when I was in the shower. Once again, I was blessed to be alive.

When I was twenty-two, I was away at university. A stranger forced his way into my apartment and tried to kill me. Before long, I felt myself losing consciousness. For no "earthly reason", he stopped strangling me and left the building. I had seen my future life pass before me; and I so wanted to live! By God's Grace, I was spared.

When I was a young mother, I was bringing my toddler son home from the park, in his red wagon, when a sudden wind shear hit. A massive tree fell in our direction. I ran for our lives. I dragged the wagon, carrying my young son, as hard as I could. My arms ached, I was shaking.The tree fell within feet of us, bringing down live electrical wires. We were surrounded by danger, but we were safe. A neighbor told me that I surely have a Guardian Angel.

When my son was in preschool, I went out in the back yard one day to do some weeding. But the day was far hotter and more humid than I expected. I quit after a few minutes and went inside. Only a few moments later, a huge ash tree toppled over, right where I had just been standing. Once again, it was a miracle that I was alive.

The message of my life, over and over, has been that life is precious. There is absolutely no inevitability that we even have this life. No inevitably that we will continue to live from one minute to the next.

A few years ago, my father awoke one spring morning, had a cup of coffee with my mother; then suffered a massive heart attack, upon which he immediately passed away. I thought my dad was as healthy as the next man. And yet he lost his life abruptly, in a matter of moments.

My life-- Life itself-- is precious. I came from a cruel and abusive family. Even though, as a child, I went hungry, I was cold, I was afraid in my bed at night, I was bruised and injured, I was rejected and abandoned, I became depressed, I shut down, I stopped trusting people for a time-- no matter all that.

My life is still precious, because God loved me enough to give me another chance at life-- over and over again. Even an extremely difficult, down, dark day is a blessing simply because I opened my eyes to another day. I am breathing! I am alive!

If you come close to losing your life so many times, that you almost lose count, then suddenly, everyone's life becomes precious, miraculous, as well.

A human being is a marvel-- an amazing, breath-taking creature of beauty, made by God, loved by God. God knows each one of us, and every hair on our heads, He knows our every thought, He knows every cell of our being. How can we reduce that preciousness to mere Rules?

No, each human being on this planet is an awesome expression of God's Love. Each one of us is a prayer, a sacred mystery, a gift to be treasured.

We ought to treat each other this way.

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2013. All Rights Reserved.