The gospel reading about Jesus cursing the fig tree befuddles me at best, leaves me disoriented at worst.
WHY DID JESUS CURSE THE FIG TREE?!?
“Poor tree”, we chime in.
But let’s not look at this too literally. Mark was careful to mention that the tree was alive (healthy) but not bearing fruit. But really… who can blame it? It wasn’t the season for figs!
However, look carefully: the before-and-after of the fig tree serves as bookends to the cleansing of the Temple in Mark’s gospel. This juxtaposition is a clue.
Could it be that the fig tree is a representation of Israel — a chosen people called to be a light to the world?
In the eyes of God, Israel MUST produce fruit, in season and out of season — only because of the extraordinary grace that was given to them!
Shortly after Jesus cursed this fruitless fig tree, He went in to clean out the Temple. A real BOSS Jesus was, for it was not the job of a nobody to chase people out of the Temple; that was the High Priest’s job!
Similarly, we called to be healthy trees and produce fruit regardless of our circumstance. But are we (Temples of the H.S.) plagued with sin just like how the Temple was a messy marketplace that made no room for worshiping God?
Do we know what is holding us back from producing fruit all year round?
Do we blame our circumstances (the season of life) that we are in and say: “It’s a really rough time in my life, how can I possibly bear fruit?”
In many ways, we’ve been given the grace to bear fruit all year round. We have access to the sacraments and the sacramental grace that the Eucharist provides us every day!
When was the last time you allowed Jesus — the real boss! — into your holy temple (your soul and body!) to clean you out?
When was the last time you went for Confession?
Let us remember that God wants to be with us, and that when we cooperate with His graces, we too can bear fruit and be a light for others even in our sufferings, because God is the source of all things good.
He will use us even when we’re “out-of-season”; all we’ve to do is to let Jesus IN to clean us OUT so that we can bear fruit!
Conversion and reversion stories never fail to fascinate. Stories of how and why a person freely decides to embrace the Catholic Faith, or return to the Catholic Faith of his or her childhood after having freely rejected it, are intriguing. Such stories edify Catholics in their Faith, giving them more reasons to love it. For open-minded non-Catholic readers searching for truth, these stories open up more avenues for the search.
Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro tells a unique reversion story. Its subject matter is not a canonized saint or a famous apologist, but Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero whose writings played a major role in the Philippine struggle for independence from Spain during the 1890s.
Every Filipino learns in school about Rizal’s life and writings. Inevitably, we learn that at one point in his life, he studied in Europe, got exposed to Enlightenment philosophies, became a Freemason, wrote about the abuses committed by the Spanish friars in the Philippines, and was shot by a firing squad on accusations of treason against the Spanish government. His novels, which we also study as part of the basic education curriculum in the Philippines, present the Catholic Church in an unflattering light: lustful, avaricious, cruel, and power-hungry friars; caricatured depictions of superstitious piety of ordinary folk. Most of the heroes of the novels are free-thinkers; in one chapter of the first novel, one of them scoffs at the Catholic doctrine on purgatory and indulgences.
We also learn that before he was executed, Rizal signed a written retraction of his anti-Catholic writings, but historians debate his sincerity in signing it. Rizal’s admirers seem to think that retracting his anti-Catholic writings would reduce his greatness, and surmise that he signed the retraction only out of convenience – an odd position to take about someone whom one is presenting as a hero worthy of emulation (and which, for me, does not make sense because the retraction did not save Rizal from the firing squad).
However, it is documented that before he was shot, Rizal went to sacramental confession four times and contracted a sacramental marriage with Josephine Bracken with whom he had previously been cohabiting. In one of his last recorded conversations before he was shot, he serenely asked the priest accompanying him if he would go to Heaven on the same day if he gained a plenary indulgence.
Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro traces Rizal’s spiritual journey from the piety of his childhood, through his estrangement from the Catholic Faith and his immersion in Enlightenment thought, to his return to the Faith of his childhood before he died.
The author, Fr. Javier de Pedro, is a Spanish priest who fell in love with the Philippines, having lived and ministered here for many years. He has doctorates in Industrial Engineering and Canon law and, according to those who know him, is a Renaissance man like Rizal himself. Thus, he brings to the book a valuable perspective: that of a Spaniard who knows and loves the Philippines and Rizal a lot, who has done extensive research about his subject matter, and who, as an experienced priest in the confessional, frequently encounters the tension between sin and grace in souls.
Indeed, the book is detailed, well-researched, and reveals the author’s thorough familiarity with Rizal’s writings, which the author refers to as “mirrors” of Rizal’s soul.
The book presents not only the life and thoughts of Rizal, but also his historical context, including the intellectual trends in fashion in the Europe where Rizal developed his ideas. Thus, the book is valuable not only as a source of spiritual edification, but also as a work of history. It avoids the common pitfalls of isolating Rizal from the historical context in which he lived, and of giving the impression that Rizal’s thoughts remained static and did not develop throughout his life.
The pastor’s perspective is another valuable element of the book. The author shares his insights and analysis on what contributed to Rizal’s estrangement from the Catholic Faith as well as what helped him find his way back to it. Thus, the book also serves as a cautionary tale on what may lead a soul away from the Faith, as well as a guide on how to help oneself and others regain the Faith when it has been lost.
I appreciate the author’s affection for Rizal even as the author points out Rizal’s missteps. In the Prologue, the author refers to Rizal as someone “for whose soul I am now raising a prayer, even if I am convinced that he received long ago the welcome of the Father to the house of Heaven.” The author understands Rizal and acknowledges Rizal’s legitimate grievances against certain clergymen that arose from Rizal’s real experiences. The author is careful to base his insights on Rizal’s spiritual journey on verifiable facts and texts, and emphasizes that in the end, Rizal’s spiritual journey is an mysterious interplay between his freedom and God’s grace.
The book is a compelling read. I especially like the narration of the last days of Rizal, where the author describes recounts details such as the parallel Christmas celebrations of Rizal’s family and the Spanish guards of the prison where Rizal was incarcerated (Rizal was executed on December 30, 1896). That chapter is full of drama and humanity.
Unfortunately, the book is not widely available. As of now, the only place I know where it could be bought is the bookstore of the University of Asia and the Pacific here in the Philippines (inquiries may be made here). In fact, one reason I reviewed Rizal Through a Glass Darkly was to change this by promoting interest in the book.
Indeed, the story in Rizal through a Glass Darkly deserves to be more widely known. It is of particular interest to Filipinos, but it is of interest, too, to everyone else. It is a touching story of a talented man with great ideals and who is credited for a lot of important things, who was at the same time a flawed human being who committed grave errors but eventually found redemption. Like every other conversion and reversion story, it is fascinating.
After going to Confession at the Cathedral, on several occasions my boyfriend and I have been blessed to be able to bring blessings to others there.
For instance, we met a middle-aged man who had suffered two strokes and found it very difficult to walk, but he perseveres in going to Confession and Mass every week, and tries to keep working where he can. We were able to give him a lift home and help him up to his very high-rise apartment.
On another occasion, I bumped into an acquaintance in the queue. After we had made our Confessions and said our penance, I chatted with him and discovered that he was looking for work. I was then able to link him up with another friend’s father who needed an assistant for his business.
In Italy in places like Pisa, the town hall and the cathedral are often located near each other. Cathedral squares functioned as meeting places where people conducted their daily business.
In today’s churches, we too can find mutual support in the Body of Christ by providential meetings and conversations.
I’m sorry for my sins, but I’m glad I was at Confession!
Together with “exciting” and “joyful”, “stressful” is a word that is associated with the days leading up to Christmas and with the Christmas season itself. Increased rush hour traffic, shopping lists and parties to squeeze into tight budgets and schedules, tasks lists in the preparation of the Christmas dinner, caroling rehearsals, and year-end work to wrap up in the office all pile up at this time of the year. One is tempted to ask, “Is Christmas worth it?”
The antidote to all this stress of the season is to readjust one’s idea of a perfect Christmas, and to aspire for a contemplative one: one spent lovingly gazing at the Holy Family in Bethlehem, and reflecting on what must have been the sentiments of Mary, Joseph, and the adoring shepherds and Wise Men.
Given that the frenzied holiday environment is not conducive to contemplation, a contemplative Christmas does not just happen. It must be deliberately pursued. Here are some suggestions to achieve a contemplative Christmas:
1. Do not skip Advent. The point of this penitential, yet hopeful, season is to prepare for Christmas through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The Sacrament of Penance is a great way to spiritually prepare oneself for Christmas during the Advent season.
2. Schedule pious practices scattered throughout the day: spiritual reading, praying the rosary, fifteen- or thirty-minute periods of silent prayer, daily Mass if possible, and other pious practices one likes.
3. Convert Christmas preparations into prayer. For example, while choosing, buying, and wrapping Christmas gifts, one can pray for the recipients. The same thing can be done while writing Christmas cards, shopping for and cooking the Christmas dinner, or taking the family out to see the city Christmas light displays.
4. Offer up the inconveniences of the holiday season. There will always be reasons, big or small, to complain about the holiday season. Perhaps it is the first Christmas after the loss of a loved one, or perhaps the holiday season aggravates certain family issues, or one is suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Perhaps on some days, the increased rush hour traffic just gets to one’s nerves. Perhaps one is an introvert for whom the thought of attending just one more party is a trial. Fortunately, all these inconveniences borne with a smile can be pleasing gifts to the Christ Child.
5. In relation to the previous suggestion, think of what the Holy Family had to go through. Thinking about Mary and Joseph having had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem with the available roads and transportation at that time, and with Mary about to deliver a baby, helps one to put on a serene smile as one endures rush hour traffic from work to that obligatory party with one’s relatives.
These suggestions will not eliminate holiday stress. But they are tried and true ways to convert the holiday frenzy into true, meaningful, joy that comes from contemplating the Holy Family at Bethlehem. Regardless of what one must endure during the holiday season, a contemplative Christmas is always a happy Christmas.
Sin is not wanting too much, but settling for too little. It’s settling for self-gratification rather than self-fulfillment.
— Scott Hahn, First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity
It should have been better that all the stars should have fallen from Heaven than that one soul should have ever committed a single venial sin.
— Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman
“Sins of the flesh, let us remember, are at the bottom of the scale. The Church says self-righteousness is at the top. Therefore, I’m in a lot better shape than some of my feminist and establishment Republican enemies.”
That part made me wonder about his grasp of Holy Scripture and the Catechism, not to mention Our Lady of Fatima’s sobering warning:
“More souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.“
A friend of mine chimed in: “Sins of the flesh rank lowest in Dante’s Inferno and also Bishop Barron agrees in his CD Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Lively Virtues.”
I replied: “Indeed, lust of all the sins is most akin to love, Dante notes. But when you really love someone, offending them in any way is just downright bad. And no matter what degree of Hell someone is in, it’s all really bad ‘cos it’s eternal separation from Love. So on one hand it may be technically right to say one sin is not as bad as another… On the other hand, they’re all terrible and we ought to scram from every one!”
Sometimes when we are in a state of sin, it is tempting to compare ourselves to other sinners, thinking, “At least we’re not as bad as they are!” But isn’t that really the pinnacle of self-righteousness? Isn’t it akin to the attitude of the Pharisee who thought himself better than the publican? (Luke 18:11)
It’s like a sick person comparing himself with others in hospital: “At least I’m not as poorly as that man!” or worse, “What’s the point in getting well, we’re all going to fall sick and die in the end anyway.” He’s still stuck in hospital, and comparing himself to another patient just creates a false sense of consolation. Instead, it would be better to focus on his recovery, comparing his current condition with the healthful one he hopes to be in.
When in sin, therefore, let us take the example of Christ and the saints as our standard, and lean ever more on God for the strength to strive for holiness: confessing our sins, performing penance, and amending our lives.
For all have sinned, and do need the glory of God. Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption, that is in Christ Jesus…
— Romans 3:23-24
To confess your sins to God is not to tell Him anything He doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the bridge.
— Frederick Buechner
God does not judge Christians because they sinned, but because they do not repent.
— St. Niphon of Constantia
To say that God turns away from the sinful is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.
— St. Anthony the Great, Cap. 150
Be ashamed when you sin, not when you repent. There are two things: sin and repentance. Sin is the wound, repentance is the medicine. Sin is followed by shame; repentance is followed by boldness. Satan has overturned this order and given boldness to sin and shame to repentance.
— St. John Chrysostom
As we sat in the confession queue one Saturday afternoon at the Cathedral, my (newly-minted Catholic) boyfriend remarked to a friend: “I’ve never seen a church with a section where everyone’s sitting together and we all know we’ve screwed up in one way or another.”
Indeed, the sacrament of Confession is an incredible gift. As Catholics, we understand conversion to be the work of a lifetime, not just a one-off event. We are not in Heaven yet, and we are not perfect. Just as we make mistakes and hurt one another in our human relationships, so do we make mistakes and wound the Body of Christ when we sin. Baptism brings us into communion with God, but we still have to grapple with the consequences of the Fall: “a darkened intellect, a weakened will, and an inclination towards evil” (concupiscence). The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh weak. (Matthew 26:41)
As a human body requires medicine to facilitate its recovery from disease, so does the Body of Christ require reparation to cleanse and reunite its sinful earthly members. Confession is an injection of sacramental grace, a booster shot to strengthen us and repair the bonds we break when we act selfishly, sinning against Love.
If you stand in need of the Divine Physician, do not delay – He is waiting to revive your soul today!
Jesus hearing this, saith to them: They that are well have no need of a physician, but they that are sick. For I came not to call the just, but sinners. – Mark 2:17
We are all earthen vessels – imperfect, shaped too much by the world around us, easily cracked, not very beautiful – but nonetheless holding a heavenly treasure. That treasure is God’s love.
As earthen vessels tended by God’s loving hands, our cracks are healed through the Sacraments of Confession, Eucharist, and the Anointing of the Sick. Eventually, we will become golden chalices, perfected by the refining fires of Purgatory where demons and temptations can no longer interfere with our purification.
– Good News Reflections
“Abuse (and the trauma that results from it) causes not only the anxiety of meaninglessness and the anxiety of guilt, but also the anxiety of non-being.
…mind-control is the perfect metaphor for emotional abuse. Maybe it’s because the human will is so core to what it means to be, that if you take it away—whether through physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, social or financial coercion—you violate a person’s humanity on an elemental level. You take away that person’s ability to say I am.” —Maylin Tu, “Jessica Jones, Abuse, and ‘The Courage to Be’”, Christ & Pop Culture
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” —1 John 4:18
Abuse makes the victim feel as if she is dirt, worse than dirt – just something to be used, abused and discarded. It violates her sense of self and her identity as a person made in the image of Love.
In my experience, abusive people have grown up with over-controlling parents, or absent parents. When they have not received love from the people who brought them into being, children are in danger of growing up thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. They internalise the idea that they were not worthy of being loved unconditionally. If they do not heal, they are prone to inflicting pain on others in a misdirected search for justice and reparation. We are meant to be loved.
Patterns of Sin
“Give your children these two things: roots and wings.”
Over-controlling people are dominated by fear – fear of the world, fear of the unknown. When they demand that their children conform completely to their narrow vision, it pinions the growing wings of the child, suffocating him and sending him the message that he’s not good enough as he is, but has to become something else in order to appease his parents and be loved. Fearful parents are in danger of bringing up children malformed by fear, unable to strike out on their own paths and swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other – fearfully appeasing people when they ought to say no, or controlling other people whom they deem weaker than themselves.
Absent parents deny their children an identity rooted in nourishing love. How often do you hear friends gushing over a baby to a parent, “She’s just like you!” We are stamped with the features and mannerisms of our parents; “we are of our parents before we are of ourselves.”1 I have watched people with absent parents look for love and attention in all the wrong places,2 hungering for the nourishment denied them in their earliest years. They become desperate for a resolution, something which can fill the aching void in the core of their being.
St. Paul reminded the Romans: “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father).” (Romans 8:15). When you have an identity rooted firmly in Christ, confident in the loving providence of God and His steadfast abiding presence no matter where you go in life, you are able to break free of any crippling chains handed down from your imperfect parents. It is true, you may have to struggle with the vestiges of generational sin throughout your life – but Christ is there with you in the struggle, purifying you and using your weaknesses as openings for grace.
Love is the Rule that Gives Freedom
“Your family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, and imagination must be summoned constantly to keep any relationship flourishing and growing.” —Jim Rohn
True love respects the free will of the person. The gardener may prune the plant now and then, but he allows it to develop naturally in its own time, fertilising it and watering it with dedication while it transforms energy from the sun into its own food, glucose. Likewise, God the most loving of parents may permit us afflictions to prune us of unhealthy attachments or attitudes – He may allow us to go through a trial, even a trial that seems to wrest us from Him, only in the end to bring us back safely, after which we realise that half the suffering could have been avoided if we had just trusted more in Him.
Like a gardener practising companion planting,3 God sends us good friends who help us flourish. He fertilises our souls with the nourishment of the scriptures at every Mass, and He waters them with showers of blessings – it is a blessing to even be alive and breathing! But like a gardener, God allows us to develop according to our nature, through which He too is quietly working. What is our nature? It is to produce the sweet food, the life-sustaining glucose, of Love.
“Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such.” –Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate in it intimately.” –Pope John Paul II
“To the extent that we fail to grasp what love really is, it is impossible for us to give adequate philosophical consideration to what man is. Love alone brings a human being into full awareness of personal existence. For it is in love alone that man finds room enough to be what he is.” –Dietrich von Hildebrand
“You asked for a loving God: you have one… not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.
When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care? Does any woman regard it as a sign of love in a man that he neither knows nor cares how she is looking? Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved. Of all powers he forgives most, but he condones least: he is pleased with little, but demands all.” —C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Sin Leads to Non-being
“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide, To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost
Sin “wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’” (CCC #1849) Evil warps or destroys what is good. As pests consume crops and blight a garden, sin corrupts a person’s soul, dividing it from God, the source of all life and love.
Fr. Chris Ryan MGL writes:
“God’s unfailing offer to all human beings is the gift of Himself, which is the gift of His unconditional and unfathomable love. However, God utterly respects our freedom, which means that we can reject this love. This rejection can continue in and through further actions that deny or reject love to the point that such a choice, such a rejection, becomes fixed, irrevocable. Hell is thus not a punishment imposed upon the human person but is rather, the definitive outworking of the human person’s decision to define themselves in isolation from God and others. Hell is self-exclusion from Heaven.
Hell, moreover, is not a place. Rather, it is non-relationship. Hell is “where” the possibility of all relationship is ended… Heaven is other people – people living in a rich and vibrant communion with each other and with God. Hell is actually definitive loneliness.”4
When I was fourteen, my father brought home a pamphlet from church about abortion. I had already watched a video on abortion when I was eleven, in school (my non-Catholic schoolmates are against abortion to this day). But suddenly, the horrendous enormity of not existing struck me full in the gut, and I began to weep inconsolably in front of my parents, sobbing, “What if I had never been born?”
Sin divides us within ourselves and sunders us from God and neighbor. It destroys both harmony within the soul and harmony between persons. In the end, it can kill us – forever.
Professor Eric Johnston writes:
“We live in a world of cheap grace. In a way, the amoralism of our culture is a kind of deformed Christianity. On some level, our culture believes that all sin is forgiven, that God is merciful. But our culture’s understanding of this forgiveness is impersonal. Our culture’s understanding of God’s forgiveness is just that God doesn’t care about what we do, so we needn’t even ask forgiveness. God is a very distant father.
To the contrary, to ask forgiveness is a personal encounter. Pope Francis talks about the caress of God’s mercy on our sin. We are meant, not to ignore God and our sin, since our sin doesn’t matter, but to bring God into contact with our sin, by asking forgiveness.”5
Marc Barnes wrote: “If [God] is outside of time, if He is suffering right now, then, and this is really the crux, our sins directly increase His suffering that day on Calvary, His constant suffering.”6
God the eternal Logos, Who is Reason itself, has created an intelligible universe with rules of physics, mathematics – and morals. These rules, like traffic rules, allow us the freedom to travel along the paths of life. But when we stuff up, we are bound by the consequences. Also, the repercussions of our sins emit shockwaves throughout the world, into the lives of others, even those we may never meet. Broken relationships leave wounds that are passed down through generations. Just look at Romeo and Juliet.
How do we repair this damage? God has granted us the insurance of His mercy. By participating in the Sacrament of Confession, we receive the sacramental grace not to sin again. By performing penance, we offer God our puny loaves and fish to be multiplied by His grace into nourishing food for thousands – the food which is eternal redemption, that is, God Himself, the source of Life. When we stuff up, we do what we can to make amends, to right our wrongs, and trust in God to bring healing and reconciliation in His time.
“In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” —C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain7
The Good News: We are Not Our Sin
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said in his keynote address at the 2016 Spirit in the City conference: “The pagan world is just, but merciless, with retribution. You are no more than your crime or your sin. The woman caught in adultery must be destroyed.
“Mercy is the more, seeing with the eye of God. The pagan eye always sees less.”
God became sin for us so that we may become justified in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ took on the sinful, unlovable identity of mankind so that we could take on His Divine image, the image shattered by Adam and Eve when they turned away from God, mistrusting His loving providence. Through Christ, we may enter into the life of the Holy Trinity, becoming fully alive, transformed by Love into beings who can give pure love to all the world.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. —John 10:10
Gloria Dei est vivens homo; vita hominis visio Dei: The glory of God is man fully alive; the life of man is the vision of God. —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, Book 4 Ch. 20.
My body was strung out on the couch and pain filled every part of me. This was the changing point of my life. I had thoroughly been a product of modern society, relativistic, an adherent to indifferentism, a modernist in many respects. Many until this point had regarded me as a very understanding guy, compassionate, knowledgeable of the world. In reality, I knew nothing. I was arrogant, filled with pride, and though I had love it was incomplete. I had to be completely humbled to realize my true identity and see the greatness of God who created me.
As a child, I learned like most Catholics through Sunday school. I had been baptized at birth, received First Communion, but I wasn’t instructed much beyond that. I can remember having a deep love for God, but I wasn’t taken to Church very often and I was exposed to the occult. My parents practised Santería, a practise as a child that I abhorred, but this would be my entrance into the world of the occult and my confusion about religion. As I grew up, my parents left Santería; however, my father avoided church like the plague and my mother, fearful of saints from her exposure to Santería, rejected Catholicism for what would seem like ages. I still had a love for God and would walk into the neighborhood Church on weekdays on my way home from school and pray, but I never attended Mass on Sunday. I never went to confession; in fact, I began to know less and less of my professed religion.
At the age of 13, I left home and attended school in a town in Connecticut. It was a big change from my hometown of Bronx, New York. I still felt some connection with God and prayed quite often, but wandered further and further from Him, as I had no real foundation. I took what I had learned in school and constantly applied it to my life. I was fortunate enough to have a host family with whom I stayed with on occasion and they would include me in their church-going activities. It was marvelously wonderful to be exposed to the Bible, but I had no clear or definitive understanding of it. I became ambiguous about homosexuality, premarital sex, masturbation, and many other sensitive topics. I also saw God as a method to obtain things and no longer my close friend whom I had known in my childhood. Times were becoming darker.
As I went through my high school years, I became more deeply involved in the occult, though there was always a voice trying to keep me away. I remember, looking back now, something telling me that this was all wrong. I was stubborn to say the least. I wasn’t a malevolent fellow and wished no one any evil, as best as I could remember I was just horribly confused. I practiced tarot cards, and I guess you could say that there were things which were around which gave me answers to the questions I wanted answered. That is putting it simply.
I eventually joined the United States armed forces. The branch is not important. It was here that I became more familiar with aspects of Wicca and Satanism. There were actually servicemen and women who practiced both, and no, I was not a Satanist. However, I had become vastly interested in Wicca. At the same time, I was becoming an excellent soldier. I excelled in many aspect of war fighting and leading. Slowly, but surely, I began to develop a sort of hubris about me. I felt there was a power that controlled something, but I became further from it. Years had passed and I began to look at myself and I didn’t like what I had become. I was kind at times, but I could flip a coin and become utterly ruthless. What I found more disturbing was that I longed to cause damage. I had less and less peace in my life and a voice could be heard very faintly. This voice told me to turn to God, but I was too powerful or so I thought.
My life began to slowly unravel and I sought respite. I didn’t trust Christianity, yet! I began to read works by the Dalai Lama and about different aspects of Buddhism, but something deep down told me that I wasn’t supposed to give up Christ. I know it doesn’t quite make sense, but this was how things were happening. I began to hang out with Protestant friends and attended services with them, but I wasn’t convinced or moved. I felt like it was more acting than anything. They were kind to have shared their faith with me, but it would have impressed me more if they had been living it. I had some Catholic friends whom I associated with and they brought me to Mass. As I went to the Mass, I was distressed. I said to myself: “I am Catholic? I know nothing of my religion!” Still, I hadn’t been motivated enough to do anything solid, except read the Bible on occasion.
It was toward the end of my military service that I said to myself, I have to change. I have to find God. I have to go back to the Catholic Church. The voice in me was yelling now; it was no longer a whisper. Yet, I was still obstinate. I came home from service and was contemplating entering Special Forces and in the midst of this I was struck ill. In my illness, my mind was made clear. It was like an intimate conversation with God. I knew then that I could not return to what had help make me what I was, but had to become something new. I started to read and read and read. Every book that read was inexplicably linked to the next without my intention and before I knew it, I was reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law. I was digesting the Bible and swallowing books on the saints and I just could not stop. I was like starving child eating a long overdue meal. Then the moment of truth came, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Over 18 years of sins upon my chest to offer to my Lord with sincere contrition. It wasn’t too long after this that I considered the priesthood, but one step had to be completed first. I was finally confirmed at the age of 24. However, I did not become a priest. I found my vocation was to be a husband, but this was not a decision that was taken lightly; rather I fought with myself for almost 3 years. Nevertheless, I now strive to serve in any way that I can.
I can honestly say that my life finally has light in it. The world makes sense and my place is understood, as is the infinite mercy of my Lord. Many who knew me as a soldier and know me now would say that they don’t know me. I am not the same person. I was still the guy they had known who would listen to the multitude of their problems for hours on end, but my approach toward helping them resolve their problems had changed. I looked deeper than the superficial considerations that I had previously focused upon. I now understood that there was more to the world, and what I had once held to be true held partial to no validity. They could see that I loved, but my love extends further now. They don’t understand my view of the world and why I reject so much of what modern society holds true now. My only reason is that Divine Truth demands it, and once you see it you can never go back to darkness.
“I went down to the lowest parts of the mountains: the bars of the earth have shut me up for ever: and Thou wilt bring up my life from corruption, O Lord, my God. When my soul was in distress within me, I remembered the Lord: that my prayer may come to Thee, unto the holy temple. They that in vain observe vanities, forsake their own mercy. But I with the voice of praise will sacrifice to Thee: I will pay whatsoever I have vowed for my salvation to the Lord.”
I live each day now and I am grateful. There is much more to my life than what I have shared, but sometimes we must endure that ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ and it is through the humbling of ourselves that we truly begin that conversation with God. My ignorance, my arrogance, me… I kept myself from God. I thank God for all I have been through, much of which I will probably never pen, but I am most grateful for God humbling Himself so much as to talk to me. It has been partly through this that I have begun to ponder how great His love really is.
Louis Figueroa is a father and a husband. He sees everything in life as pointing to something greater than himself. He is a cancer survivor, and suffers from a rare neurological illness, but sees that all things are opportunities to live our faith.
If you do not forgive others, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you. Jesus could have said this to the scribes and Pharisees accusing the woman caught in adultery. Take the plank out of your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your brother’s. This quip would work for them as well. But instead he writes in the sand with his finger. The Church fathers say he is writing each of their sins. Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. The only one who could condemn her is the perfect Man, Jesus, but he forgives her. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. But this forgiveness is purchased at the precious price of his blood. In respect for this sacrifice, the woman goes and sins no more.
In the garden Satan acts both as tempter and accuser. He seduces Adam and Eve into sin and then hurls their deeds back at them in the trial scene. But the accuser of our brethren has been brought down. Christ the Judge acts as pardoner. Saint Ambrose prayed, “I would fear to draw near to you as my judge, but I seek you out as my Savior.” We would perish in the fire of God’s justice, but he infuses us with grace. The law brings death, but the spirit gives life. We are not under the law but under grace. But unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees you will by no means enter eternal life. If you hate your brother, you have murdered him in your heart. Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.
Mankind is under the universal call to holiness, purgatory, sanctification. At his baptism the Christian is told, “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.” The baptismal robe is the wedding garment. Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Such are the consequences of sullying the wedding garment. This imperative to become holy drives home the importance of confession: of patience, penance, prayer.
The woman caught in adultery is often identified with Mary Magdalene. She is the only one called “The Penitent” in the Church’s liturgy. Others receive the titles of “Apostle,” “Virgin,” “Confessor,” “Martyr,” “Bishop,” or “Doctor.” Mary Magdalene is the patroness of the Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, because she is the first to see Jesus after His Resurrection and to proclaim the good news. Tradition says she even tried to convert the emperor. She thought if she could only go to him, she could tell him what she saw. He mocked the Christians for worshiping a dead man. He called their religion as ridiculous as the egg sitting in front of Mary at the table turning red before his eyes. The egg turned red, and Mary held it up. From this tradition we derive Easter eggs.
Mary Magdalene is depicted in iconography not only with a red egg but also with an alabaster jar. Pope Saint Gregory the Great remarks that she puts the very things she used for prostitution to the service of Christ. The eyes she used to lure men become a fountain of tears. The hair she used for seduction becomes a rag for His feet. The lips she used to kiss her lovers now shower His holy feet with love. The oil she used to anoint her customers now prepares Him for His burial. She puts her gifts to the service of the body of Christ. Rather than using her body as a weapon for the enemy, Satan, she gives beauty back to God, beauty’s Self and beauty’s Giver.
Have you ever had that experience of walking away from the Sacrament of Reconciliation with an almost overwhelming sense of guilt? A sense of, “Do I really deserve to be forgiven?” Considering we are taught that those who believe in Christ commit a greater crime than those who wanted him crucified when we sin (CCC 598), this free flowing sense of guilt is almost to be expected. But such a feeling is misplaced and could only exist alongside an incomplete understanding of this great sacrament.
In order to understand this particular gift of reconciliation, we must first try to understand the effects of sin. In its most basic form, sin separates us from God, both physically and spiritually. In the case of mortal sin, “it results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace … it causes exclusion from Christ’s Kingdom and the eternal death of hell” (CCC 1861). You only need to interact with the world on a superficial level to see that sin “ makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence and injustice to reign among them.” Arguably the gravest consequences of sin lay in its proliferation: “Sin creates a proclivity to sin … [it] corrupts the concrete judgement of good and evil.” (CCC 1865). An often overlooked facet of sin, however, lies in the effect it has on the Body Of Christ: The Church.
Sin wounds the unity of the Body of Christ (CCC 817) and through our own individual actions we have the capability to directly wound The Church (CCC 1422). Have you ever considered that your sins could wound the entire Church? It’s one thing to acknowledge your actions have a direct effect on those near to you, but we are taught that our actions have a direct effect on the entire Body of Christ. Confessing your sins to a priest may seem the obvious way to reconcile yourself to God, and to remove the gulf of separation that prevents communion with God, but how could you possibly go about reconciling yourself to the entire Body of Christ? Is it even possible to heal a wound that you inflict on an organic entity consisting of millions of individual believers? The answer lies in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
“Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.” (CCC 1445). Take a few moments to read this quotation again. When we are reconciled with God (through the Sacrament of Reconciliation), we are at that moment reconciled with the Church. Not just with our parish or with our local church community, but with the entire body of believers. A single individual is so intrinsically woven into the fabric of the Body of Christ, that when one approaches the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the entire Church prays for the sinner and does penance with him (CCC 1448). If this wasn’t enough (it should be), we as individuals, and the entire Church, actually walk away from the Sacrament in an inherently better state: reconciliation. We are spiritually made stronger by exchange of spiritual goods among all the living members of the Body Of Christ (CCC 1469).
We are brought back into communion with God and with the entire body of believers. All wounds are healed, and both the individual and the entire Church are made stronger as a result. We are “reconciled with all creation.” (CCC 1469). St Paul epitomized the above in his seemingly paradoxical statement to the Corinthians: “For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
How could we ever walk away from this wondrous sacrament and feel anything other than “pardon and peace”? The Sacrament of Reconciliation is nothing other than a perfect expression of unadulterated love, and I pray that each one of us leaves our next confession with a desire to share this love with others.
I am not a natural deep cleaner. Extensive projects that involve organizing minutiae, inordinate scrubbing, and rubber gloves are just not my thing. Now I’m the first person to be stressed when my house looks a mess. In fits of cleaning, I tear through the house like a hurricane tidying stray toys, wiping down counters, and shepherding dirty laundry into the hamper. I will pull out the vacuum minutes before guests arrive or re-arrange the shoes by the back door for the hundredth time. Yet, when it comes to making sure things are really and truly spotless, inside and out, I often shirk. I can honestly count the number of times I’ve cleaned the outside of my windows on one hand. I recently cleaned the inside of my fridge in a moment of Lenten intensity, and, let me tell you, it had gotten pretty bad. It’s easy to ignore the dirt and mess that few see and focus on creating a tidy appearance to passersby.
Often I find myself falling into the same trap spiritually: ignoring the real deep problems in my soul and concentrating on keeping myself looking spiritually clean. Jesus pointed out this problem in the Pharisees; in fact, He called them “whited spelchures” for following the exterior law while neglecting to have charity in their hearts (cf. Matthew 23:27). That is a very serious accusation: to be rotten at the core while appearing morally upright. I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of spiritual sloth, but all of us can suffer from it, even those who are honestly seeking holiness.
It took me almost all forty days to realize that I had taken the easy spiritual road this Lent. Instead of really examining what in my life was keeping me from getting closer to Christ, I made a few resolutions and sacrifices that would be easy to identify. I did not earnestly search my soul for the areas of selfishness and sin that were hindering my spiritual life. Then, I wondered why I didn’t seem to be making any spiritual progress.
The thing about Lent is that when we remove things from our life, we are meant to replace them with Christ. We sacrifice things that in our suffering we are brought closer to the suffering Christ, but also that we may find that the things of this world for which we hold affection are poor substitutes for spiritual things.
I forgot that this Lent. I gave up sweets and mostly replaced it with…whining about needing more sweets. I found several weeks in that, had I really done some serious examination, there was something else with a hold on me. I had been using social media as more than an occasional outlet for connecting with world. Whenever I found myself with a free or quiet minute, I was checking, scrolling, and reading every post I came across. With access to a smart phone, I was trying to escape the things I didn’t want to face in my life. When I found myself impatient with my kids for interrupting an article I was reading or wasting valuable time with my husband on the computer, I knew that a fun tool had become a problem.
Thankfully, Lent is not the only time we can make changes in our spiritual life and it is never too late to turn to Christ. I took a long look at my behavior and headed to confession as soon as I could. The sacrament of confession is the perfect opportunity to start on that spiritual deep cleaning we often ignore.
There’s a reason the Church requires yearly confession and encourages it much more often: it forces us to examine our consciences thoroughly, to admit out loud the things that keep us from God, and to turn toward Christ for spiritual rebuilding. A good confession can put us back on track and remind us not to settle for the appearance of holiness. When we peer deep into our souls and search out the things that are keeping us from pursuing Christ, we can begin the difficult but worthwhile task of working with the Holy Spirit to put our souls in order.
The condition of your soul is project that will take more than a weekend and more than a liturgical season, it is a lifetime pursuit. The Saints have told us that the road to perfection isn’t easy and that it looks different for every soul. Some are purified by great trials and others, like St. Therese, take a little way of daily sacrifice. Whatever our spiritual journey, we are all called to examine our souls, to root out sin, and seek after Christ with all we have. When we pursue true holiness, it will require everything of us , but our Savior deserves nothing less.
I’ll be honest, more often than not when I pass a homeless person or someone begging on the side of the road I give them nothing more than a smile. Maybe, just maybe, if I happen to have extra food in my car and the light doesn’t change, I’ll give them of my excess, but that’s as far as I go. Perhaps it is the time of year or the way my husband inspires me (more on that later), but I’ve been struck by beggars more lately. (Struck in the sense that I can’t simply pass them by without a notice, not struck in the sense that they are hitting my car – to be clear!)
How different am I from them, really? I may not stand on a street corner with a sign and ask/beg for help, but don’t I essentially do the same thing with God? In fact, all too often, I’m too proud to even ask God for help. I’m too proud to be found in the confessional line, instead believing that I’m not that bad off yet.
Do I know each of these people’s stories? Do I know why they are where they are? No, I don’t. My husband sees the same few people on his way home from work day in and day out. He stops to ask their name or ask them what they’d like for Christmas. When I drive by those same spots I’m excited to see the people he knows and be able to greet them by name. Knowing their name makes it all the more real for me – who am I to turn them away when God could just as easily do the same with me?
There comes a time when I give up the prideful show and stand in the confessional line. My sign may not be as visible as those on the street corners, but my sins, no doubt, bring me just as much shame. Do I want to be in that line, begging for forgiveness? Begging for mercy or for love from God? No. I’d rather do it on my own, I’d rather make my own way. Instead of turning me away, He welcomes me in, knows my name and shows me a love I couldn’t dream of. Whether on a street corner or the confessional line (or at home too proud to admit I need His mercy), there’s a beggar in all of us. Deep down I’d be willing to bet that each of us wants the mercy God offers, the tenderness of His glance, or simply for Him to speak our names rather than be passed by without so much as a second glance. There’s a beggar in me and there’s a beggar in you because at the end of the day, we are all beggars at God’s door.
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