Rivers of Living Water

Why do Catholics go to Mary? (February 27, 2016)

Who is your go-to person in the Holy Trinity?  I think most of us have one.  Sometimes, I suppose, it changes, depending on what we are going through or a particular stage in our life.

In addition to the Holy Trinity, some people have their favorite saints, or feel particularly drawn to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Maybe it was my education, but I have always tended to favor Jesus.  Mary must not have been particularly taught to me as a kid, because aside from relating to her from my position as a mother, I have not given her a whole lot of attention.  Until now.

I know that our popes, and many (maybe most) of our saints have an affinity for Mary.  I started thinking about this when I heard something about if you want to be a saint, or grow in holiness, you need to be close to Mary.
So, I decided to give Mary my attention.

The question was, “How do I go about getting closer to Mary?”  I know that just knowing about someone is not the same as being in relationship with them.  There are surely plenty of ways I could learn about Mary, but that was not my primary objective.

But, I decided, it probably is a good place to start.  So, using the Formed.org site my parish purchased for our congregation, I started watching a video presentation for Lent, given by Matthew Leonard.

All I can say is, Wow!  

The connections he makes in scripture about the role of our Blessed Mother is amazing.  He parallels passages from the Old Testament to the New Testament, identifying Mary as the Ark of the Covenant, and explaining dogmas about her such as her perpetual virginity and her assumption.

I’ve always loved the description of Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant.  I like to think about her carrying Jesus within her own body, her breath sustaining him.  In her womb, she nourished him with food for life and after she brought him into this world, she cared for him with a mother’s love.

With my head swirling with all things Mary, I had an interesting awareness come to me during Mass recently.  Mary’s Yes! to the angel was her acceptance of Jesus coming into her body.  Every time we say Amen! to Holy Communion, we, too, are saying Yes! to Jesus coming into us!

We are renewed in our experience of this encounter with Jesus, but we also are called upon to give him life in our world today.  Our own breath, in testimony to him, continues to give life to his name.  Like Mary, our love for Jesus is personal.  It’s an intimate union, one being with another. 

Another thought about Mary came to me that has had a big impact on my understanding why so many great saints were connected to her.  My belief was always, “Why go to Mary when you can go directly to Jesus?”

This question, I now realize, came from the assumption that the only reason to approach Mary (or even Jesus for that matter) would be because we want something from the person who is most able to give it.

This has nothing to do with being in relationship, I now realize.

We do not turn to Mary (nor Jesus) simply because we want something from them.  We turn to them out of love.  In thanksgiving.  And in the case of Jesus, pure Adoration.

So, we turn to Mary not because she is in the best place to whisper to Jesus everything we want and get it for us, but because she is the perfect model through whom we can see what being in relationship with Jesus looks like.
God created her special—immaculate—so that her unity with Christ can reveal to us the union of God and man in a relationship of love.  We are one with Christ, as Mary was.  

In Jesus, we have been redeemed and have eternal life, and in Mary, we have the encounter that prepares us for the journey.  Our relationship with the Blessed Mother is essential and cannot be separated from her relationship with her son, for the two are eternally together so that we, too, may one day enjoy perfect unity with them in heaven.

Are you like Jonah? (February 15, 2016)

I hate to admit it, but in reading the Book of Jonah the other day, I realized there are times when I am Jonah.  Maybe you see yourself in him as well.

God sent Jonah on a mission.  He told him to go to Nineveh.  Jonah promptly set out for Tarshish.  He didn’t want anything to do with the mission God was sending him on. He thought if he just hopped on a ship he could hide from God, but when a violent storm came up and everyone on the boat started crying out to their God, they found Jonah fast asleep in the hold of the ship.  They woke him up and told him to start calling on his God.  Quickly they identified Jonah as the root of their problem because he was trying to run away from God.  Just as quickly, Jonah suggested they throw him overboard.  They hesitated, but eventually asked God for mercy, believing they had no other choice, so into the sea they tossed him.

This is a very short book of the bible, but there is much more to the story.  I would encourage you to read it through to the end, but for right now I would like to focus on the beginning and the lessons to be learned there.
I say I am like Jonah because there are times when running away from a task God has given me to do seems much easier than enduring the challenge.  
How do we know what we are to do without the direct voice of God saying “Go, do this?”  How do we know if we are at the mercy of our own human spirit which at times allows pride to lead us and at other times fear?  How do we know whether the enemy is the one encouraging us to flee from the task at hand?
St. Ignatius has given us a help in his Spiritual Exercises.  He has identified three movements of our soul that we must be aware of if we are to discern God’s will for us.

The first is our human spirit.  It can be led by our psychological needs and fluctuations, by pride, selfishness or even our conscience.

Then there is God’s spirit.  God’s spirit will always draw us closer to him.  If we are acting like Jonah and trying to run away from the mission God has given us to do, this is not of God.  Any movement in a direction away from God should be dismissed.

Finally, there is the evil one.  This one is very tricky because, due to our human weaknesses and desires, we can be convinced that movement on this inclination is good.  We can be convinced through reason that this is the way to go.
It takes a great deal of prayer when one is in discernment.  St. Ignatius discourages us from making a decision in the midst of what is known as desolation--those times when we feel down or far from God.

It is during these times that people spontaneous sell everything they have and leave town, or divorce their spouse, or quit their job.  It is very difficult—if not impossible—to have clear discernment when one is frustrated, angry or feeling a loss of hope.

Jonah, out of great fear of the Lord, made such a decision in a time of desolation.  It did not bode well for him, as we can see as the story unfolds. Eventually, though, when he turned to God in prayer from the belly of the fish, God saves him.

Of course, Jonah gets mad at God when God looks kindly on the repentant king of Nineveh and his people.  Jonah is so infuriated with God that he wants to die.
In the end, God basically points out that everything from God is pure gift and that God’s justice and mercy upon the people is no cause for Jonah’s concern.  This is a great reminder to us not only about jealousy, but about God’s love and mercy for his people.

And so, if we believe that God loves us, how can we run away like Jonah did?  Don’t we know that God will be with us in every good work he asks us to do?  Don’t we know that he will sustain us?

It is staying faithful when the mission is hard, through persecutions, humiliations, frustrations and even the appearance of hopelessness that the work of a disciple can be accomplished in cooperation with God.

Take up your cross today and do whatever it is that God is calling you to do, for the labor itself that is required is pure gift.

On the Challenges of Prayer (January 26, 2016)
I sat down to pray one morning, but I was distracted by a multitude of things on my mind.  Unable to concentrate, I set my bible aside and closed my eyes.  It was early morning and I was tired.  Sleep was tempting me.  Coupled with my distractibility, my attempt at prayer was destined for apparent failure.

Prayer is being in relationship with God.  If Jesus were sitting right there on my couch that morning, in his human estate, I found myself wondering, “Would I fall asleep with him present?  Would I be distracted from our conversation?” The obvious answer is probably not.  At least I would hope not.  But what destined my prayer for failure that morning are two very common obstacles to having a solid prayer life.

I heard a Cistercian monk give a presentation on prayer one time and he said that sometimes our prayer is like spaghetti.  It gets all tangled up as we become distracted. He also said that sleeping during our attempt at prayer may be just what God is giving us in that moment, what we might need—rest in him. I recently heard the advice, “breathe with God” for those moments when it seems that nothing is happening in prayer.

I usually do not feel too bad about those moments, but I do think if it happens a lot, it might be time to change our place of prayer.  It might be time to move out of the comfy chair we have grown accustomed to so that our attempted prayer conversations do not simply turn into a routine naptime.

I think prayer can be hard for adults.  It seems to be allusive.  We all know we need to develop the habit of prayer, but I wonder if we truly believe in the power of it.

I read a book recently about setting goals and achieving them (The Four Disciplines of Execution).  With a team I am working with, we set our “Wildly Important Goal” and identified the two things we needed to do to accomplish it.

This is a secular approach to goal setting, but we added the necessary element—confidence in the Holy Spirit.  We each committed to intently pray to the Holy Spirit. Our team’s goal was big.  It was bold.  It was to move on a desire we had for over a year, but had never really been able to make it happen.

Within a matter of three weeks, our goal was attained!  The day we reached our goal, I felt I had been witness to the tangible work of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, I do not think this petitioning (or supplication as it is called) is all there is to prayer.  Prayer should be much more than simply taking our needs to God and asking for stuff. Too often, I think, our prayer life gets stuck in the “Ask and you shall receive” mentality, and we leave it at that.  But prayer is much more than that.
Our supplications to God should always be a petition for his will to be done, because he loves us and what he wants for us is surely the best thing for us.  We learned that in the Our Father—“Thy will be done.” 

But prayer is also about adoring God, expressing contrition for our sins, and being thankful for all of God’s blessings.  I am not sure why we often reduce it to the supplication part alone.

How would our human relationships be if every time we met with our family member or friend, we just asked them for things?  Not very well I expect.  In our human friendships, we listen to each other.  We express how we feel and we do things for each other as well.

So one might ask, what is the point of prayer if it doesn’t change things.  Well, we can see now that prayer isn’t about changing things or trying to manipulate God, but it is an opportunity to express our trust and confidence in his will, to seek it, and to have the courage to follow it no matter where it leads.

Father-child relationships (January 11, 2016)

When I was writing for the Catholic Times, as I did for the past sixteen years, I could easily imagine my audience of readers.  I knew them well.  They were the people I worshipped with; they were grandparents, parents, converts and even, to my surprise, inmates. I found out a number of years ago that those who were imprisoned also had access to the Times.

I watched an ABC show recently about a father-child event that was held at a prison.  It was an opportunity for children to spend a day with their fathers who were incarcerated.  The impact on the children and the fathers has stayed with me for a long time.

It meant so much to everyone involved.  The fathers participated in “parenting classes” to help them for the gathering with their children.  The attitude of the children helped me to realize just how important this relationship is for them, even though the parent was incarcerated.

They had activities together and were able to hug and talk face to face.  There were two stories in particular that struck me as interesting.

One, the teenage son coming to spend time with his father, was himself on a tether.  Of course, they didn’t say why, but the father knew that he had an opportunity to teach his son about the path he was on. It was striking to see the imprisoned father with his arm around his son.  

The second was a very excited little girl who couldn’t wait to spend time with her dad.  It was easy to be sold on this whole event by watching how important it was to her, but then, when asked more about her father, her answer was disheartening.

She said he lies to her and she wished he would not do that; she wished he would keep his promises.  Watching this took me from a high to a low.  I started to wonder if this was good for the little girl after all.

I expect child psychologists could tell us whether or not the long-term impact of this relationship would be good or bad for the girl, but in the end, I simply could not walk away from this program without realizing the importance of fathers.
I have been told that in the legal system, even if one is not a good father, he still has a right to see his children.  I have also observed through a friend, that the courts will wait—sometimes for a few years—in the hopes that the biological parent will be rehabilitated, before they will allow an adoption to go through.

Sometimes this transformation never takes place, and the child has to live in limbo waiting for the parent to get their life together.  Years ago this happened to a friend of mine. It was sad to witness.  Fortunately, my friend and her husband persevered in patience and were able to adopt, but I expect the process had a lasting impact on their son who, as a child, went from hopefulness to disappointment, over and over again, as he waited for his father to get his life together.

Regardless of the details, it is apparent that fathers play a special, profound role in the life of a child.  Absentee fathers impact them as well.  Children will long for their father, no matter how “bad” he is, because there is something inherently important in this relationship. I could see this in the ABC segment.
Now carry that idea over to our heavenly Father, who is all good and loving all the time.  It is innate in us to desire a relationship with him and when that relationship does not exist, it has nothing to do with him and everything to do with us.

There are many who go through life with hardly a thought of our Father, the One who created heaven and earth and every one of us in it!  To be in relationship with the Father changes us entirely.

God never leaves us, even when we reject him.  He never disappoints us. He waits patiently for us.  And when we discover the reality of his presence, peace enters our life in a way we could never imagine before.  It is not that everything becomes easy for us, it is just that being in this relationship puts everything in our life in proper perspective.

God is not an imaginary friend who makes us feel good.  He is our Father.  If you do not yet know God as Father, why not begin today and take the first step toward him?

Without God, it is we who are imprisoned in a world narrowed by our own making.

Living life as a Catholic (December 28, 2015)

I ran into a former neighbor/friend in the grocery store two days before Christmas.  We visited and caught up on our families and then the conversation turned to Christmas.

Knowing she is a Christian, but not Catholic, I inconsequentially asked her what service she would be going to for Christmas.  She reminded me that she belongs to the Assembly of God church and that they do not have special services for Christmas.  Apparently, the more conservative among them (which at the very least means her father) believe that Christmas is a man-made holiday created to counter a pagan practice.

She explained that she tends to embrace the attitude of others in her particular church, that anytime you can talk about Jesus in the secular world, it’s a good thing. So we talked a little about conservatism and it reminded me of my own evolution in this regard over the years. 

When I was younger, I worked in various law offices and so my professional “upbringing” led me to be very detail-minded (which is not a bad thing). But as I grew in my faith, some semi-rigidity that came from working in the legal field carried over. Add to that, the fact that I started reading a very black-and-white Catholic resource, and I began to mostly think within lines in the sand.

Fortunately for me, in the early stages of my formation, I questioned a young priest about his willingness to have women be part of the washing of the feet that takes place on Holy Thursday. He offhandedly dismissed my question as nothing to worry about. It bothered me for awhile, as I wondered why he thought this was no big deal. 

But then, as I read more widely, I realized his thoughts about allowing women to participate in this ritual was perfectly acceptable. I quit subscribing to the Catholic resource I had been following because it became so hard line that it bordered on being uncharitable.  It still exists today, but I think it is now a much better resource than it was 30 years ago. 

But, I digress.  I do not like labels like conservative or liberal, because depending on who I am talking to, I can be either.  They are very subjective, depending on the views of the person making the determination. Labels do not fit well in our Catholic world because they eventually break down into an argument reduced to pre or post Vatican II views and practices.

But honestly, on any given day, I may feel that I am not Catholic enough because I do not have an affinity for this or that devotion, Mother Angelica, or this or that prayer practice. Other days, I may feel too religious because God is all I want to talk about!

The truth is, living life as a Catholic means having the ability to be loving towards those who judge you, or those who do not agree with you, while being true to who God has called you to be (actually, that is true for any Christian.)  We are not all the same and we should not allow others to define us. We simply do not fit neatly into boxes.  

The longer you work in the church, the more you realize that there is a lot of gray in our lives.  The trick is working in the gray while staying within the lines that exist for our own good.

One thing we should remember is that we are not self-made, as our culture would like us to believe.  We are God-made.  That means we are expected to see a wider scope of humanity, with clearer vision, flaws and all, and still love as God loves us.  It is a humble person who stands in his awareness of being one who has been created.

In the end, God is not going to measure us by labels.  He is not going to do an accounting of our acts of piety.  Speaking as one who is not very pious, I find hope in this.  But we should do whatever we can to help us grow closer to God, to grow deeper in relationship with him, and deeper in relationship with those whom he has called us to love in our role as his disciples.

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