Tag Archives: cross

Dying to Self

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
—John 12:24

IMG_7355Dying to self means letting go of all the attachments that keep us from God; it is a purging of all that is not love. This means loosening our grip on our own plans, our desire for comfort and convenience, our tendencies toward selfishness and sin.

We can try to be the boss of our own lives, or we can give Jesus permission to call the shots. If we let Jesus take control, we will face the Cross, but we will also begin to see everything in our lives through His radiant Light.

Only when we throw ourselves upon God’s providence will we find ourselves—our true selves, who God created us to be. Dying to self is not an act of self-abasement but rather an act of faith—that when we cut away all the clutter we will find goodness underneath, that in the core of our being we will find the presence of God. Indeed, this dying to self is the seed of our salvation.

By abandoning our own agenda, we open our hands to receive the truest desires of our hearts. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and He will give us gifts greater than any of the earthly attachments we cling to.

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.
Featured image: PD-US

Something Greater

I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.
If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
you would not have condemned these innocent men.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.

—Matthew 12:6–8

Cross_in_the_Wilderness_by_Frederic_Edwin_Church,_1857_AD,_oil_on_canvas_-_Museo_Nacional_Centro_de_Arte_Reina_Sofía_-_DSC08680Throughout Scripture, we find stories where God asks someone to give up everything for Him. Countless prophets and disciples are asked to separate themselves from earthly attachments, leave their old lives behind, and start from scratch. Why does the God of mercy require such extreme sacrifice from His people?

God uses these experiences of sacrifice not as punishments but to prune our hearts and allow us to grow into who we were created to be. He asks us to let go of our attachments in order to prepare us for a greater mission; to increase our dependence upon Him; to replace our earthly perspective with a heavenly one; and to give us a testimony of the God Who has walked with us and sustained us through every desert, Who has shouldered the crosses we bear.

Jesus does not desire sacrifice for its own sake but to make room for something greater. He sacrificed everything for us as a means to show His mercy. He endured torture, betrayal, wrongful conviction, and death for love of us. He entered into our human condition, sharing with us an intimate closeness. And in doing so, He has redeemed all of our sacrifices, transforming them into pathways of His mercy.

In light of Jesus’s sacrifice, our sufferings are not burdens holding us back but graces lifting us upward toward the Cross of salvation. Sometimes, He requires us to let go of good things so that our hands are open to receive great things. His claim is a bold one: that He Himself is greater than the temple. Greater than the temple! What seemed like blasphemy to the Pharisees is in fact a profound truth: there is no offering more sacred than the Body of Christ, no sacrifice greater than the Mass, and no act of devotion more powerful than His Passion.


Image: Frederic Edwin Church, Cross in the Wilderness / PD-US

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.

Making Sense of Suffering

By guest writer Sarah Coffey.

Why do we suffer?

I’ve wrestled with this question and with God for a long, long time. It’s still a struggle sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit.

If God is so good, and if God loves me like He says He does, then WHY do I have to fight a chronic illness? Why do I have to watch my family members suffer? Why did my grandfather have to die a slow death from cancer? Why did my grandmother have to suffer so much with loneliness and illness? Why did her death have to be slow and painful, too?

I’ve never understood suffering. The first time I came face to face with people telling me that suffering is redemptive is when my husband (who was at that time my boyfriend) lost his mother unexpectedly. I read things about suffering. Catholic things. Things written by literal saints.  They told me that suffering — the pain of losing someone, the pain of seeing someone else hurt, and your own hurt be it physical or emotional — can bring you closer to God. It’s redemptive and salvific.

But suffering didn’t do that for me — it didn’t bring me closer to God. Instead, it made me quite frustrated, and even mad at Him.

This was not just a battle I faced every so often, when a big life event like someone becoming sick, hurt, or dying occurred. No, this was something I faced every month for the past several years as I battled the effects of endometriosis and severe PMS (medically diagnosed as PMDD, which goes WAY beyond typical premenstrual mood swings) plaguing me every four weeks and many, many days in between.

Relentless pain, emotional turmoil, and at times, the feeling of being incredibly depressed for days that interrupted almost every facet of my life and relationships. It made me constantly say WHY, God, WHY do I have to deal with this, when you could so easily will it away? Is this fun to you? Am I just not faithful enough, tough enough, strong enough to deal with this, because this sucks so much?

My dislike — no, loathing — of suffering went on until a few months ago when after it looked like just about every feasible medical option for treating the ridiculous effects of this awful illness had been tried and found wanting. That’s when, by God’s grace, I finally relented in my anger and took this struggle to the foot of the Cross. I prayed that if this was a struggle I had to deal with, that God would give me the grace to carry it better. That He would help me understand this Cross and have peace with why I had to carry it. Just as with St. Paul wrote, that God won’t take away the thorn in our side, but He’ll give us the grace to deal with it: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

My answer, my help in understanding this suffering and all others came in the form of a talk by none other than Fulton Sheen.

I watched a clip of him giving a talk, in his lofty, articulate, awesome voice about a time he had a toothache as a child. To paraphrase, he was a young boy and he HATED going to the dentist. But he developed a severe toothache — an abscess, even. He hid it from his father as long as he possibly could to put off going to the dentist, which he HATED and wanted to avoid at all costs. But his father eventually found out. And took him to the dentist.

Now, mind you, this was the dentist’s office in like the early 1900s. So you can imagine the kind of suffering that went on in there when you came in with an abscessed tooth. Fulton Sheen talked about how, as the dentist began to work on fixing his tooth, Sheen became so upset at his father, wondering why he wasn’t helping him, protecting him, sheltering him from this immense suffering of the dentist treating his tooth.

At the time, as a child, it didn’t make sense to him. But his father knew that ultimately, even if he protected his son from this momentary suffering of going to the dentist, which he really hated and didn’t want to do, it would be very bad, would result in even more suffering, and at that point in time could eventually have caused serious illness or death if left untreated.

Fulton Sheen’s father allowed him temporary suffering for his ultimate good.

And it sort of clicked after I listened to this story. God doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer no more than Fulton Sheen’s father enjoyed watching his little boy writhe in pain in the dentist’s chair. For Fulton Sheen, his father allowed suffering because it was for the good of his ultimate health. For us, God allows suffering because it’s for the good of our souls.

When I heard suffering presented in this way, I was able to finally pray, Lord I don’t like this suffering. In fact, I HATE IT. But if this is for the betterment of my soul, I trust in you, I trust that you, the loving Father that you are, know what is best for me, and that you’ll give me the grace to bear it.

It became so much easier to carry that cross.

Peter Kreeft wrote, in Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, that “Nothing more powerfully helps us to bear pain than the realization that God wills it.” And I can say that in my own life I have experienced that this is true.

Not more fun — as the struggle was and still is definitely there. And I. don’t. like. it. But seeing it as something God allows for my ultimate good — something that can help me grow in faith for the sake of my eternal salvation — helped make me less bitter and more at peace.

I was challenged again by this as I watched my grandmother suffer in her last few weeks of life. And in watching my family members suffer, too, as they experienced her suffering at her side. Those questions crept back: Why, God, why do you allow her to suffer so much? Why can’t you just take the pain away?

But I am not God. So I don’t know why these things happen. But He does know why. And His ways are higher than mine. And just as Christ’s suffering led to the resurrection and the promise of eternal life, God allows our suffering to bear the fruit of our redemption — even though we probably can’t see it now or even until after our own death.

Our sufferings here on Earth make sense if we trust that there is something after this earthly life. If there’s nothing after that, then suffering means nothing. It is just endless pain and sadness and sorrow and heartbreak. But if there is something beyond this, as Jesus promised and as the Church teaches, then our suffering has so much meaning. Because God wills it for sake of our eternal salvation.

Peter Kreeft also wrote, “… God in His wisdom wills that we suffer because He sees that we need it for our own deepest, truest, most lasting good, or the good of someone else.” For our own deepest, truest, and most lasting good. May this truth help us to take suffering to the cross, and say Lord, use this to mold my heart even more into Yours so that I may spend eternity with You.

_____

Originally published at Sarah Coffey.

Sarah Coffey is a convert to Catholicism who enjoys delving into Church history and the Theology of the Body. She is blessed with a wonderful family, husband, and a cat named Stella (as in “Ave Maris Stella”, of course).

Lady Liberty and The Statue of Responsibility

Man’s Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl would have to be classed among the most profound works of the twentieth century. A survivor of both Auschwitz and two concentration camps affiliated with Dachau, Frankl — a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist — reflects on his holocaust experience and in the face of it responds to life and its meaning.

Frankl lays bare the human condition at its lightest and darkest, best and worst. Boldly speaking about the imperative of life to find meaning, even and especially, in the face of suffering. His experience gives him license to speak rawly about universal and personal truths, lending it something of the prophetic. Despite his own sufferings and ability to maintain a sense of moral integrity during those testing years, he writes honestly, but without resentment against his oppressors, and without taking the moral high ground against those who compromised themselves under the weight of the Nazi jackboot. His sharing challenges our modern sensibilities—pointing out not the demands we should make of life, as we are taught to, but the demand that life makes of us.

There is so much one can take from this work, of what is really an introduction to Frankl’s Logotherapy. For a Christian, a Christian reading of the text is inevitable. The mystery of the Logos, the Word, and the Cross, seeps through the words on every page.

The Cross as Reality

Through Frankl, the Holy Spirit can help us recapture the true meaning of the Cross in our postmodern landscape where that meaning is all too often deconstructed, institutionalised, privatised and novelised. For the Christian today, faced with the crossless standard of secularism, the Cross runs the risk of becoming nothing more than an identity-concept, an intellectual corner stone, a symbol to muse upon and defend—a point of difference, instead of a reality and mystery to be lived and breathed and believed in.

It’s an imperative for every generation and age to rediscover the truths of our faith, particularly the Cross, which always has and forever will run against the grain of the status quo. The Cross will never be cool, and if in certain pockets it ever does become trendy, it could only be a kitsch version of it. It’s a mystery far too great and gritty to be reduced to something bite-sized or to something that merely flashes on a billboard or dangles upon a neck. It will always be more.

The Wisdom of the Cross speaks uniquely in every age to those with ears to listen (Mt 11:15), but the message remains the same—a call to discover the meaning of life in Christ by shouldering his yoke of love and burden of responsibility.

Liberty & Responsibility

In Part II of Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl says the following:

Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth… Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.[i]

With such a simple proposition Frankl says many things…

Freedom without responsibility is arbitrary, aimlessly egocentric and condemned to meaninglessness. It’s a license for a self-autonomy void of consideration for the other. It’s the kind of freedom that allows an S.S. soldier to push a woman into a gas chamber. Sure, he might find meaning in doing so, but such subjective meaning is arbitrary, false and without substance. One of the many reasons it is exposed as such is because of its inability to register with universally held human values.

Yet what is freedom with responsibility? It is a yielding to the summons of life to be responsible, to take responsibility in the here and now, in fulfillment of one’s vocation.[ii] It demands one’s search for meaning, and one’s execution of their responsibility necessarily supplies it. It is the kind of liberty that rendered the woman being pushed into the gas chamber—St. Edith Stein—free to lay down her life of her own accord (Jn 10:18) despite being forced to die. Sent to the gas chamber but going freely, in her words, “For my people.” It is the kind of freedom that discovers and begets meaning even in situations intended by forces of tyranny to be vacuums of meaninglessness for its victims.

In an opposite strain, the fact that there is only a Statue of Liberty speaks loudly and immaturely of rights, and little of responsibility. It’s indicative of the attitude of the modern western man who first and foremost asks himself, not “What are my responsibilities?” but “What are my rights?”

There’s certainly a place for Lady Liberty but without Lady Responsibility she is like that personification of folly in the Book of Proverbs, who without the wisdom of responsibility leads men astray after the fancies of their own will, for “her steps follow the path to Sheol, she does not take heed to the path of life; her ways wander aimlessly” or we might say—meaninglessly (Prov 5:5-6).

What is this Statue of Responsibility?

We all know well what the Statue of Liberty looks like. Yet what might the Statue of Responsibility look like? There can be no doubt about it. The Cross. History has supplied us with the image, and God with its unexpected force of meaning brought about by the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, who shouldered to the peak of Calvary the responsibility humankind owed to God and to itself. And where humanity failed to shoulder its dual responsibility, the humanity of God Incarnate succeeded.

Yet such success was not carried out to deliver us from our responsibilities, but it was carried out to enable us to fulfill them in He who has gone before us—by His strength, His grace and His love.

This is not because God is a Father who demands we earn our salvation by the sweat of our brow, but because to exercise our freedom to live responsibly is the only way to enter into this salvation. A salvation from sin, which is our inability to be perfectly responsible on our own, so that we might be enabled free to love—which is freedom to be responsible, to find meaning, purpose and dignity, not just now and in the face of the grave, but hereafter and beyond the grave.

The Statue of Responsibility is the Cross, and specifically, it is the Crucifix with Jesus nailed to it. Here a flaming torch is not held in the hand, but rather a heart burning with love, consumed by responsibility. The voice from this statue does not declare His rights, but rather invites each Mary and John, each woman and man: “Come to me all you who are weary and overburdened, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. Pick up your daily cross and follow me.”[iii]

Here the promised rest is not a false comfort secured by the abandonment of personal responsibility. It is that peace of heart and mind the world cannot give—infused by Jesus into one’s soul, and which begets a meaning no nail of suffering can destroy. It is the symptom of embracing one’s cross. The vertical beam representing one’s responsibility to God, and the horizontal, one’s responsibility to one’s neighbor. It’s not a cross without both these beams, and Jesus invites—commands even, that we shoulder it.

Easy and light? Ridiculous it’d seem. Offensive even. But isn’t that the strange miraculous power of love, that it really is madness to the rational observer, yet pure sense to the one afflicted by it… the one liberated by it? That after all is love—not emotion, but embraced responsibility.

The Ultimatum of Life

In the context of considering the divergent extremes human nature can take in the face of the worst kind of suffering, Frankl writes:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.[iv]

He is not saying we deserve or don’t deserve the sufferings we get, but from the Christian angle—the Cross is there, looming large in the midst of our lives—we cannot escape it. Most of the time it makes its presence felt through little things. Yet sometimes the experience of the Cross is deeply felt, and at times it can be experienced as unspeakably terrible, a result of human evil or sickness, in such a way that its reverberations never leave us. Yet whatever form the Cross takes in our lives, it can either be something that crushes and corrupts us with the bitterness of resentment, leading us to lash out at the world with hatred; or a rare and testing opportunity to grow in depth—to be drawn deeper into meaning, into our humanity, and deeper into the Mystery of God who is our Holiness.

In other words, the Cross is surely forced on our backs by circumstances we can’t control, but we can decide whether it is an occasion that will crush us and break us, or an opportunity to carry it with Jesus for love of God and man.

It’s an ultimatum posed to us by human life itself, and Jesus the Life takes it and eternalises its meaningfulness beyond the human sphere. An ultimatum to choose to be crushed by the cross or to carry it, and our response is up to ourselves as individuals. “Let him deny himself and take up his cross” (Mt 16:24): it’s all in the singular because the proposition is profoundly personal. We cannot judge our neighbours, nor probe their motives, nor are we even capable of discerning the difference between being crushed by the cross and carrying it, for these things can look identical to outward appearance. No, it’s a matter for ourselves to consider, and at most, to invite others into an awareness of this summons. Thus our place is to use our often shoddy discernment not to judge, but to discern how to act as a Simon of Cyrene, instead of a shouting, flagellatory Roman soldier who only makes the crosses of others heavier.

One person may be paralysed and haunted by the profundity of their cross, and it may involve the severest kinds of trauma; or one may be able to meander along under its heaviness, and no doubt life will involve moments of both. Yet whoever we are, whatever our cross, the underlying truth is that to be able to bear and carry the Cross we needn’t be professionals who can run circuits with our cross, but we must simply accept it, even if it takes a while, in the faith that God can use this suffering–big or small–to make us better people, to teach us how to love, to give Him glory, and to help save souls.

The option is there, to either suffer meaninglessly in vain or to suffer meaningfully with purpose. To invoke the Name of Jesus is enough to inject our pain with infinite and eternal value.

“May Raise Him”

Frankl then elaborates:

Do not think that these considerations are unworldly and too far removed from real life. It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards. Of the prisoners only a few kept their full inner liberty and obtained those values which their suffering afforded, but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.[v]

“Man’s inner strength may raise him” indeed. Perhaps in our strength we cannot all rise above our outward fate—prisoners as we are of our own weaknesses. Then on the matter of sin—there is no way anyone can rise above that by their own strength. Just as well. God can achieve all these things, and in Christ Jesus, He has already raised us higher than “man’s inner strength may raise him”. The reality of this resurrection awaits us in our cross: those two beams of responsibility which are far from abstract. For already they weigh upon us and demand our response in the very moment we occupy. We need not search for meaning nor liberty elsewhere. In this respect our Statue of Liberty and Statue of Responsibility are really the same thing, it’s the Cross, through which God in Christ mediates the gift of the liberty of grace through our embrace of responsibility.

The Virgin Mary is a testament to this truth. She is the eminent member of our race raised into immaculacy from the moment of Her conception; sanctified, liberated into union with God, from the get-go. She only rose higher with leaps and bounds into this sanctity through Her profound union with Her Son – realised through Her responsibility to God and man, a responsiveness to Him the God-Man. A union made manifest and typified by Her standing by Him at the foot of the Cross—the True Statue of Liberty and Responsibly.

Lady Liberty & Lady Responsibility

Our Lady can thus rightly be called Lady Liberty and Lady Responsibly. For other than Jesus, who else knows better the twin-beams that make up the Cross? That dual responsibility to God and neighbour which crushed Her Heart in a pain worse than death? She was with Jesus in the face of His Cross, and we need Mary in the face of our own. She can teach us how to carry these beams, and calling upon the Name of Mary–confident in, and obedient to the fact that Jesus has given us to Mary, and Mary to us—is enough to realise Her maternal presence and aid already at our disposal.

As Lady Responsibly She will help to hold on to the splintery wood of the Cross, in the face of every kind of interior and exterior hardship. As Lady Liberty She will help us to do so with love, peace and even joy.

The United States has its own Statue of Liberty, its own Lady Liberty—without a signifier of Responsibility—a gift from the French, and all as a sign of national independence. Through faith, may we allow the Holy Spirit to erect in the land of our soul the real and everlasting Statue of Liberty and Responsibility, the Blessed Cross, and its accompanying Lady, a dual gift of God, and a testament to our freedom as pilgrims whose life and citizenship in Jesus, through Mary, is not of this “mortal coil” on earth but in that “undiscovere’d country” where angels smile,

To rest forever after earthly strife.
In the calm light of everlasting life.[vi]

[i] Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Part II, 154-155, full text available from archive.org.

[ii] Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Part II, 130.

[iii] A loose synthesis drawing from Mt 11:28-30; Lk 9:23.

[iv] Ibid., Part I, 87.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] John Henry Newman, Lead, Kindly Light (1833).
Other references, Hamlet, and Phil 3:20.

At the Foot of the Cross

As I looked upon the cross today, I asked myself: would I have stood at the foot of the cross?

St. John Resting on Jesus, Sacro Speco Monastery at Subiaco, Fresco

A friend once asked me, if I could be anyone at the passion scene, who would I be?

In a heartbeat, I said I want to be like St. John.

He was at the cross, bound by a deep love for Christ. Even when the the world deserted him, even when all his disciples and supposed friends left him, he was there. He didn’t care that the world would think he was crazy for standing up for Christ.

He knew (and possessed a very deep understanding as to) who Christ was, and if we read the entire gospel of John, it is self-evident that John knew the divinity of Christ from the beginning.

I want to be like John, he saw the Truth of the Word, the Logos made flesh from the beginning.

He saw the Truth in everything Christ did. He saw everything (always) in relation to Christ, and therein lies true Wisdom: To love Christ and to order everything in your life in relation to Christ, our ultimate end.

___

Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.

The Sanctifying Cross of Marriage

Mark 10:1-12

In this Gospel passage, Jesus talks about Divorce.

Growing up I never thought much about the sacredness of married life. My family was pretty much dysfunctional (this MIGHT be an understatement) and I never thought much about the importance of family — in fact I detested it.

I (shamefully) remember asking my mom one birthday — it was my 7th — for her to divorce my dad as my birthday gift. I did not think it would be a problem — after all, when someone is aggressive to you daily, you leave him… right?

To that she gave a response I’ll never forget for the rest of my life: “This is a cross I must carry.”
Honestly, I thought she was mad for wanting to endure this hardship.

On hindsight, that was her living out her vows of marriage and that planted in me a seed of perseverance and faithfulness to God. It was the wisest thing anyone ever said to me.

The Pharisees quoted the mosaic law and questioned why Moses allowed for divorce. But Jesus explained that God’s intention for our state in life — whether married or single — was to be saints.

“Marriage of Mary and Joseph.” From an early 1900s Marriage Certificate.

Being a saint entails that we rely on the power of God to overcome hardship before we rely on the power of man.
Moses had only permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts.
Male and female are indissolubly united in one flesh in marriage — a sacred and binding union — until death.

Marriage vows are so sacred, and such exemplars of what it means to love truly — you vow to love unconditionally every single moment of every single day, you vow to give yourself totally for the good of the other person. THAT is true love.

After all, from a Theology of the Body (TOB) lens, our entire faith is based on the idea of God wanting to marry us! He — in the person of Jesus Christ — is the groom and we the Church are His bride; the cross the “nuptial bed”. Just like how Jesus was humble to death  on the cross, couples must learn to adjust in humility for the marriage to grow and experience success. Many failures in marriages are due to:
– lack of humility
– stubbornness
– lack of prayer life

Back to my mom: she may not be educated in theology or the doctrines of the Church. But she is (sure as sure can be) in possession of the Truth and I believe that she is the epitome of what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus.

Prayers for all my married friends, that you realize that God has called you to be saints in your vocation as married people, and may God grant you the graces to be faithful to the end.

___

Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.

Spiritual Envy

In the Gospel on 23 May, the Apostles witnessed other people “driving out demons” and they grew jealous. John asked Jesus to stop them, but Jesus did the exact opposite, saying: anyone who is not against us, they are for us.

Everyone has the right to use the powerful name of Jesus for something good and noble.

Therein lies the beauty of Christianity: Jesus is for everyone, not just for ourselves. It is in sharing Jesus with others that we experience true joy.

Some of us fall prey to spiritual and intellectual pride. Sometimes we say that we are always working for Jesus and that we know Him very well. It is exactly in this that we are not true followers of Christ.

We need to recognize the good in others and not grow jealous. In our world today, there are so many of us who grow jealous when others around us do something good. We get jealous that WE were not the ones who did the good deed, that WE didn’t get the praise and credit.

But the real call to the cross is this. Can we put our selves (ego) down and raise others up, are we (really) happy when others do good things in society? Can we feel true joy that someone out there is contributing to the good in the world?

We need to be generous in attitude — appreciating that someone out there is continuing the mission of Christ.

Prayers today for those struggling with spiritual pride. May you have a generous heart and rejoice in the fact that others in this family of Christ are continuing His Mission!

___

Originally posted at Catholic Rambles. Image: PD-US

Learning by Rote: Creativity and Discipline in Life and Prayer

One day, a home-schooled Anglo-Australian made a rather ill-informed statement on Asian education to his house mate, despite my presence: “Asians can’t be creative because they go through rote learning.”

Interiorly, I thought of all the great poems I was expected to memorise in primary school back in Singapore: immortal lines by Wordsworth, Shelley, Stevenson, Benet – poems which we copied out and illustrated. I can still recite them today, and I still own that cherished personalised poetry book. Then I thought of the poetry I have been composing since I was eight. (One poem garnered a college prize last year.)musicrose

I also thought of a primary school classmate, whom I have not seen for almost two decades. She was a virtuoso pianist, her nimble hands flying over the keys, producing marvellous, magnificent music. She could not have created those magical sounds without hours of persistent practice.

Incidentally, the ubiquitous USB thumb drive was invented by a Singaporean.1 It was also a Singaporean company which invented the mp3 player interface, way before Apple came along with its iPod.2

Recently I attended the annual Spirit in the City conference in Brisbane. Fr. James Grant SSC, the founder of Chaplains Without Borders, remarked upon the high attrition rate of Pentecostal communities. They run on emotion, and they can’t sustain it, he explained, whereas the rate of conversion to Catholicism is slower, but most converts remain for the long haul.

The transmission of the Catholic faith is a combination of rote learning and personal encounter which together bear fruit in true joy and creative love that lasts through the vicissitudes of life. We memorise the devotional prayers of the Holy Rosary, which sustains us in the contemplation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, deepening our relationship with God by the recollection of salvation history. We memorise the liturgical prayers and actions of the Mass, which conforms us to the Person of Christ through the Holy Eucharist. Without these anchors of a shared prayer life steeped in scripture and tradition, the Church would fragment into individualistic, emotionally-driven sects. At the above-mentioned conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane declared, “The Church is not a sect.” We are Catholic, which is to say, universal.

rosary_plane-fultonsheen

From this rich deposit of faith, saints and musicians through the ages have been able to compose exquisite prayers and hymns which we continue to use today, such as Aquinas’ Adoro Te Devote (“Godhead Here in Hiding”) or Tantum Ergo (“Down in adoration falling”). Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin, Palestrina and Vivaldi were inspired to compose sonorous Mass settings which are still being performed in secular concert halls.

Discipline is required for disciples to become truly creative – it is the paradox of saints, that they are at once fully themselves as unique unrepeatable individuals, and fully conformed to Christ, living life to the fullest (John 10:10) in the image and likeness of God the Supreme Creator. Love is creative, and love is the discipline of the Cross. Jesus took His time – 33 years – to grow and mature into a man strong enough to bear the Cross; we too take time to develop habits which mould our characters so that we may bear Christ to others, bringing a breath of Heaven into the most hellish situations. St. Damien of Molokai was thus able to minister to a colony of lepers, dressing ulcers, building a reservoir, homes, furniture and coffins, and digging graves. St. Maximilian Kolbe was thus able to lead condemned Auschwitz prisoners in singing hymns of praise while they starved to death. Love continues to create and renew life even in the face of destruction.

Returning to my original conceit, it is necessary for all students to memorise the alphabet, then master grammar, vocabulary and syntax, and remember phonemes, in order to communicate effectively. It is the discipline of rote learning that enables masterful creativity, whether in literature, music, science or prayer. Just as we may strengthen our bodies through a series of set exercises, so we strengthen our minds and spirits through habitual learning and spiritual exercises. The more we exercise, the easier it becomes to keep doing so; let us then rise to today’s challenges, and carry our crosses together on this narrow path to life eternal, remembering the example and teachings of those who have gone before us, not least God Himself. For it is things we learn by rote, that is, by heart, that we can draw on to fashion into a new expression of love. Only God can create ex nihilo, out of nothing.

Let us be who we are, and be that well, so as to honour the Master Worker, whose handiwork we are.
—St. Francis de Sales

How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints!
—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Images: Pinterest; Allison Totus Tuus Family.

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1 Bernice Tan, “ThumbDrive inventor out to prove he is no one-hit wonder”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 2010.

2 Arik Hesseldahl, “Apple Vs. Creative Tech”, Forbes; “Apple pays Creative $100 million in iPod-related lawsuit”, MacTech; Anton Shilov, “Creative Awarded with MP3 Player User Interface Patent”, Xbit Laboratories.

Purgatory: The Antechamber of Heaven

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know” — ‘Even so, sir.’”
C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

Indeed, the most terrible thing for the soul is the inner tear produced by a love that, because of these still not completely annihilated impediments, sees his perfect possession of God delayed…
Purgatory is a crescendo of love and pain that leads to heaven, the perfect happiness. The souls in purgatory do experience great joy, similar to that of the Heavens, and also experience an immense pain, similar to that of Hell; and one does not remove the other.”
St. Catherine of Genoa1

My sister, if you desire God’s justice, you will have God’s justice. The soul receives exactly what she looks for from God… You do a great injury to God in believing you’re going to go to Purgatory. When we love, we can’t go there.”
St. Thérèse of Lisieux2

Purgatory, as the name suggests, is a state of purgation, a purification of the soul.3 From the earliest days of the Catholic Church, Christians prayed for the dead – we know this from inscriptions in the catacombs of Rome.4 There is no need to pray for those in Heaven, and there is no point in praying for those in Hell. The belief in a state of purification after death comes from the Jewish tradition: 2 Maccabees 12:46 says: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.”5

Sometimes people have the misconception that Purgatory is equidistant between Heaven and Hell. Hell is the state of eternal separation from God, the source of all life and love. Those in Purgatory are united to Christ, as the Church Suffering – that’s why they are the Holy Souls. They are infinitely closer to Heaven and the Church Triumphant than those in Hell could ever be; they rejoice, for they have been saved. Their pain is like the pain of being almost with the person you love more than anything in the world; it is the pain of deep longing for perfect bliss.6

Souls in Purgatory rely on our loving prayers to enter into the presence of God. The Museum of Purgatory in Rome houses artifacts of purgatorial visitors pleading for the intercession of the Church Militant;7 the booklet Read Me or Rue It by Fr Paul O’Sullivan records similar visitations.

“Halloween” is short for “All Hallows’ Eve”, the night before All Saints Day. It was an old English custom that people would beg from door to door for a “soul cake” and in return, pray for the family’s dearly departed – the origin of today’s “Trick or Treat” (and possibly donuts). Today, faithful Catholics continue the beautiful tradition of a novena for the souls in Purgatory, praying in cemeteries during the month of November, which is dedicated to the Holy Souls. By this, we may gain indulgences for them. We also cultivate the habit of praying the short Eternal Rest prayer each time we pass a cemetery.8

One may even perform the Heroic Act of Charity and dedicate everything to the Holy Souls.

In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.” (CCC 1475)

In a vision, St. Gertrude the Great was told by Our Lord that reciting the following prayer with love and devotion will release 1,000 souls from Purgatory:

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus,

in union with the Masses said throughout the world today,

for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere,

for sinners in the Universal Church,

those in my own home and within my family. Amen.

Holy Mass

Now, many Catholics think that we have to go through Purgatory, but St. Thérèse, a Doctor of the Church, said that it is not mandatory.

Do not be afraid of going to purgatory because of its pain, but rather long not to go there because this pleases God who imposes this expiation so regretfully. From the moment that you try to please Him in all things, if you have the unshakable confidence that He will purify you at every instant in His love and will leave in you no trace of sin, be very sure that you will not go to purgatory.”
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

God is purifying us throughout our lives by the crosses He gives us,9 the crosses which divest us of self-love, attachment to worldly goods, or sin – the crosses which open us to receive His salvific grace, the gift of Himself. Of course, it is very difficult to die in a state of perfection unless you are martyred, but as the saying goes: if you aim for the moon, you’ll land among the stars. Don’t aim for Purgatory – aim for Heaven!10 For Heaven is perfect union with God.

Purgatory, of course, is not someplace any of us are supposed to end up. God calls each of us to purify our lives of every sin while we are still alive here on earth. Indeed, we are called not only to purify our lives of every sin, but to purify the universe of every consequence of every sin we may have committed.
— Steve Kellmeyer, “Nailing Christ to the Cross: Explaining Purgatory and Indulgences

Purgatory was rejected by our Reformers, as undermining the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement; for it was taken to be the serving of a sentence by which the guilt of Christians was in some way worked off.
Such an objection has no force against the teaching, that we have a pain to pass through, in being reconciled to truth and love. And we may as well call this pain purgatorial, having no other name to call it. It seems strange, indeed, that so practical and pressing a truth as that of purgatory should be dismissed… Nor is it that ultimate fire is scriptural, while remedial fire is not. Remedial fire was taught plainly enough by St. Paul to his Corinthians.
Austin Farrer, Saving Belief (1964)

Purgatory is not… some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishments in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God [i.e., capable of full unity with Christ and God] and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. …What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.
— Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (1988)

All Souls Day is unique among our liturgical feasts, because while all others celebrate members of the Church Triumphant, this one day of the year is dedicated to the members of the Church Suffering. It is also known as Soulmas, just as we have Christmas, Marymas, Roodmas, Michaelmas, Childermas, Candlemas, Hallowmas… it just wouldn’t be a feast without the Mass, the Heavenly Banquet where we receive the Bread of Life and the Chalice of Salvation. Remember to have Masses offered for your dearly departed! There is no greater gift on Earth or in Heaven, for this is God’s gift of Himself, His supreme act of love gathering us all into one family and one Body. Each and every Mass is a foretaste of Heaven, a cosmic outpouring of the purifying fire of Love.

Christ revealed to St. Gertrude that a single Mass offered for oneself during life may be worth more than a thousand celebrated for the same intention after death. After your death, you cannot change the conduct of your life on which your particular judgment is based (Matthew 25). You can only submit to the cleansing power of God’s love, the application of Christ’s sacrifice to your soul. That is why the dead depend on us for prayers for we as the living members of Christ’s body have been entrusted with the solemn duty of caring for our brothers, in life and in death; we have been granted the grace to participate in bringing God’s kingdom to birth throughout all Creation, visible and invisible. Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace.

Of all prayers, the most meritorious, the most acceptable to God are prayers for the dead, because they imply all the works of charity, both corporal and spiritual.
— St. Thomas Aquinas

When we do ourselves up in costumes and tromp through the streets on Halloween, we are marching in a kind of Veterans’ Day Parade in honor of the sinners who went before us, not yet into glory but into the painful, therapeutic shadow it casts outside its doors.
John Zmirak, “My High Holy Day“, CatholiCity

We have loved them in life, let us not forget them in death.
St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787)

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Image: Signum-Crucis.

1 Daniel Esparza, “3 Little-known details about Purgatory”, Aleteia; cf. Fr. Stefan, “Heaven is Hotter than Hell: A Reflection on Purgatory”, Let the Fire Fall.

2 Connie Rossini, Trusting God with St. Therese.

3 Nick Rabiipour, “What Do Catholics Really Believe About Purgatory?”, The Catholic Company.

4 Hugh MacDonald, “Purgatory”, Catholic Bridge.

5 cf. Andres Ortiz, “Where is Purgatory in the Bible?”, About Catholics; Tim Staples, “Is Purgatory in the Bible?”, Catholic Answers; John Salza, “Purgatory”, Scripture Catholic; John Martignoni, “4 Biblical Principles That Show the Reality of Purgatory”, National Catholic Register; “Purgatory”, Catholic Bible 101; S. Bonney, “Abridging the Bible – Masoretic or Septuagint?

7 Diane Montagna, “Purgatory? There’s Actually a Museum for That!”, Aleteia.

8 Gretchen Filz, “20 Ways to Pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory”, The Catholic Company.

9 Gary Ludlam, “The Devil, Purgatory, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and Embracing the Cross”, Little Way of the Family.

10 Candida Kirkpatrick, OCDS, “St. Therese’s Teaching on Purgatory”, Carmel in the Desert.

The Beauty of (Our) Fall

I love autumn because the changing leaves are so incredibly beautiful, it blows me away every year. Yet, these pretty colors do more than give me something nice to look at. The leaves demonstrate to us the beauty in death. Which sounds like a weird thing to say, but I don’t think it is.

As Christians, we’re not new to death. We as Christians are called to a life of death and resurrection. Dying to ourselves, dying to our sin, dying to our desires. Dying and being resurrected. Resurrected over our temptations, resurrected over our desires, resurrected by the Father every morning to live yet another day.

We as Christians also know that the “dying” part is no fun. It’s not fun to fall flat on our face in the face of temptation. It’s not fun to die to our desires. It’s not fun to fail and have to ask the Father for aid and forgiveness! It is certainly (for most) not fun to get up in the morning!crossinautumn

So we tend to think about the “death end of things” from a cynical perspective. A “well, that’s just the way life goes” perspective. At best, we see it as “a chance to grow.”

But I think that autumn exists to point out to us the beauty in death. While, yes, failure isn’t a great experience, aren’t we all so thankful when we come out on the other side a better person? While we don’t like laying our desires at the foot of the Cross, aren’t we all thankful when we are purged of worldly inclinations? While no one enjoys suffering, aren’t we so glad when we see how much stronger we are for it?

Death is sort of beautiful in retrospect, then. Looking back and being so thankful for those “dying” parts of our life shows us that.

Now, I am a huge proponent of our carnal, human, physical nature. I love the idea of the physical world as created for us because we are material! God gave us the world, the trees, oceans, mountains, flowers, and the seasons to help us know Him better. Perhaps it’s possible, that the beauty we all see and enjoy during autumn isn’t there just because the chlorophyll is breaking down.

Maybe it’s not some remote philosophical idea that the world “reflects creation” in its “birth in spring, flourish in summer, wither in fall, death in winter” cycle. Maybe that cycle is closer to us than we think or know. Maybe it is meant to demonstrate to us how faithful the Lord is. He is so faithful that even when we die in our daily lives, God says “even when you sin, you’re still beautiful in my eyes.” Or, “even when you die, it’s beautiful, because it’s a part of your growth.” The leaves are just God’s way of saying that without saying it.

As the last of the leaves fall, thank God for the opportunity to experience His cross and resurrection everyday in our fallen nature. Thank God for the mercy of raising us up above our sinful nature. Thank God for the beauty present in the cycles of life, even death. May our final death someday lead to the greatest and most beautiful resurrection of all!

The Beauty of the Cross

Last month, we celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross; the day in which the Church venerates the cross of Christ as a necessary instrument for our salvation. Some might see the cross as a morbid reminder of the depravity of man or a violent and unnecessary display of Christ’s passion and death. But in truth, the cross of Christ is an invitation to the heart of every Christian, the very path to his sanctification, and the truest form of love he can ever possess.

In the early days of my reversion, I read many books by famous Protestant televangelists who promoted “prosperity theology”, the false notion that God always rewards pious Christians with material and earthly gain. Their teachings seemed to promise so much – wealth, possession, position – assuring all followers of Christ an eventual life of pleasure and comfort. As a cradle-Catholic seeking the Truth of God, it seemed appealing at first – a refreshing view after a lifetime of being taught that suffering was an essential piece of the Christian life, and Sunday after Sunday of staring at a bleeding corpus nailed to a rugged cross.

I soon found, however, that this ideology of constant amenity and worldly gain for the believing Christian was not satisfying logically or spiritually. It seemed to be as phony as the toothy-grin on the televangelist’s face during his Sunday morning sermons.

What many Protestants so blatantly deny is the fundamental reality and necessity of suffering in our post-Eden human condition. They teach these prosperity theories and have empty crosses hanging over their pulpits. It appears that they completely miss the beauty and value of the cross entirely.

I tried hard for many years to build a life that would be free from suffering. It seemed attainable, especially living in our goal-oriented, do-it-yourself society where you can buy self-help books on almost any topic. I worried incessantly about every aspect of my life – my relationships, finances, and career. I tried to please everyone, including God, making sure I checked every box, crossed every “T”, and dotted every “I”. It was completely exhausting and things still seemed to fall apart despite my frantic efforts to make sure they didn’t.

At my core, I was afraid to suffer, afraid of the cross that Christ would place on my shoulders, and unsure of whether or not I had the strength to carry it. After years of this exhausting work and many talks with my spiritual director, I came to understand that I could, in no way, escape the crosses of this life, and that the more I tried, the more I ultimately suffered. It was a sobering realization met with a mixture of bitterness and relief.

After I accepted this fundamental Truth though, my life slowly became very different. I stopped worrying, stopped busily searching and trying to patch over every little crack in my life. I learned to trust in God’s plan for me, that He had my best intentions in mind, and that although I suffered, I could unite my pain to His and offer it up for the salvation of souls or for the blessings of those I loved. Accepting my cross significantly changed my interior life and led me to a greater inner peace and love for Jesus. During times where I was in so much pain that I could barely lift my head, I was able to look at the crucifix hanging over my bedroom door and see Love itself. I finally understood. And even though my cross was a terribly painful burden, I was able to tell myself, “There is beauty here in this.”

It is prideful and arrogant to think that our Suffering Savior had to endure a bloody passion and death and we, as members of His Body, can live a comfortable, convenient life free from affliction and pain and still make it to heaven. In no way can that ever be possible. I must admit, I still sometimes live my life with this idea.  I still struggle to always accept the crosses that God asks me to carry. Many times I fall or want to cast them off and run back to the empty life I lived before. We are concupiscent beings and will never be free from that temptation. But in our hearts, we must understand that we too must suffer like Christ did. However, we have hope that we will share in the glory of His resurrection, as well. In times of immense struggle, we can still cling to that promise. We can trust that God, the Creator of our hearts and our Divine Surgeon, is purifying us with His loving crosses.

He is with us, suffering beside us, and strengthening us for every step of the journey.

Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:2-5

Lessons on “With-ness” from Pope Francis

By Benhur Arcayan (Malacanang Photo Bureau) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Among all the public appearances of Pope Francis during his visit to the Philippines, the most moving was the one in Tacloban, Leyte with the survivors of typhoon Yolanda on January 17, 2015.

Another typhoon hit the place on the scheduled date of the Pope’s visit. The possibility of cancelling his flight to Tacloban from Manila was real. In the end, he decided to go on with the trip, with the pilot deciding to advance the scheduled arrivals and departures.

In Tacloban, as seen on TV and news photos, the skies were grey and the grounds of the Tacloban airport – where the gathering was held — were damp. The people wore raincoats and waited for the Pope outside in the rain. When the Pope met the people, he too wore a raincoat.

It has been said that a special raincoat had been set aside for him, but he wanted to wear one that was like what everybody else wore. It has also been said that there was a plan for him to say mass and deliver a homily inside a church and then for the mass to be televised to the crowd at the airport. But the Pope preferred to have mass at the airport with the crowd as originally planned, beneath a specially-prepared shed.

During the mass, he delivered a homily which moved most of his audience to tears. The following are excerpts:

… When I saw from Rome that catastrophe I had to be here. And on those very days I decided to come here. I am here to be with you – a little bit late, but I”m here. I have come to tell you that Jesus is Lord. And he never lets us down. Father, you might say to me, I was let down because I have lost so many things, my house, my livelihood. It”s true if you say that and I respect those sentiments. But Jesus is there, nailed to the cross, and from there he does not let us down. He was consecrated as Lord on online casino that throne and there he experienced all the calamities that we experience. Jesus is Lord. And the Lord from the cross is there for you. In everything the same as us. That is why we have a Lord who cries with us and walks with us in the most difficult moments of life.

So many of you have lost everything. I don”t know what to say to you. But the Lord does know what to say to you. Some of you have lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silence and walk with you all with my silent heart. Many of you have asked the Lord – Why, Lord? And to each of you, to your heart, Christ responds with his heart from the cross. I have no more words for you. Let us look to Christ. He is the Lord. He understands us because he underwent all the trials that we, that you, have experienced. And beside the cross was his Mother. We are like a little child in the moments when we have so much pain and no longer understand anything. All we can do is grab hold of her hand firmly and say “Mommy” – like a child does when it is afraid. It is perhaps the only words we can say in difficult times – “Mommy”.

Let us respect a moment of silence together and look to Christ on the cross. He understands us because he endured everything. Let us look to our Mother and, like a little child, let us hold onto her mantle and with a true heart say – “Mother”. In silence, tell your Mother what you feel in your heart. Let us know that we have a Mother, Mary, and a great Brother, Jesus. We are not alone. We also have many brothers who in this moment of catastrophe came to help. And we too, because of this, we feel more like brothers and sisters because we helped each other…

The Pope’s words and gestures to the typhoon survivors in Tacloban are relevant to me too. First, I have my own share of personal crosses, and while I dare not equate my own sufferings to those of people who have lost their homes and loved ones in a typhoon, just the same, the Pope’s words give me the necessary strength and wisdom I need to carry my own crosses with love.

Second, I often feel helpless in the face of other people’s sufferings. I often do not know what to do or what to say to ease others’ pain, and I sometimes use this as an excuse not to reach out. The Pope’s words and example showed me that whatever we do or say to help the suffering, what really consoles them is for us to be with them, just as Christ is with us in our sufferings. As Peter Kreeft puts it, “With-ness: that is all friendship wants.”

Being with others in their suffering does not always require riding a plane amidst a storm to where they are. It does take effort, though. For example, to listen to someone who needs a listening ear can be a big sacrifice for some people, including me. But it is something doable, and I have no excuse not to do it.

The Pope’s words and examples showed me not to use my inability to heal other people’s hurts as an excuse not to reach out to the suffering. Suffering people do not always expect others to alleviate their pain or to explain why they suffer. Indeed, suffering cannot be wiped out from this fallen world. But while we cannot take away others’ sufferings, we can accompany them – just as what Pope Francis did to those typhoon survivors in Tacloban, just as Christ does for all of us.