Archive for January, 2013

One common problem I have encountered both in my own personal prayer time and in giving spiritual direction is the tendency toward perfectionism when praying.  It’s definitely important to have a structured prayer time, but it is just as important to learn to be flexible and allow the Holy Spirit to direct your prayers.

Naturally you want your prayers to be personal and meaningful, but if you get distracted it is easy to get discouraged and feel there is no value in your efforts. But even if you spend 30 minutes praying and your mind wandered aimlessly the entire time, your endeavor was not in vain.  Even if your time was dry and unproductive, by placing yourself in the Lord’s presence, you still receive his grace and blessings. Praying without distractions is virtually impossible; as St. Teresa of Avila explained, “taming our active mind is like Photo: Don't leave home without it. <3trying to tame a wild man in an attic”.  Instead of letting the distractions disturb your peace, take the opportunity to pray for the people or situations that popped into your mind.

The reason why the rosary is so valuable is because the combination of reciting the Hail Mary and Our Fathers, and meditating on the life of Christ actually train your mind to focus more effectively and to push out distractions.  The more you can train your mind, the more contemplative you become. It also helps to have a crucifix or other religious object as a focal point, or to have a candle or instrumental music to help you concentrate and keep your mind from wandering.

Sometimes we feel we must do our prayers perfectly in order to please God.  For approximately twelve years I worked six days a week at my bookstore, and routinely attended morning mass.  Certainly I received a tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit during those years from receiving the Eucharist daily, but if I missed a day, I felt I was somehow disappointing God.

My husband has worked nights and weekends for the last decade, and sometimes as I was heading out for mass, he would invite me to have coffee with him.  Perfection reared it’s ugly head and at first I insisted mass was more important.  But then in prayer I heard God speak into my heart and remind me that my marriage is a sacrament as well.  Since we work opposite schedules, and mornings were the only time we Mature couple having coffee on porch Stock Photos - Image: 12745943had together, I started having breakfast at home, only attending mass during the week on Friday mornings, when I lead the rosary.  By following the nudge in my heart, our marriage has grown even stronger.  Our morning coffee is the favorite part of our day!

Throughout our spiritual journey our prayer life will evolve.  For many years I kept a long list of prayer intentions and prayed for each person by name.  But now as a Marian Servant my daily commitments include the rosary, Liturgy of the Hours, and meditation with scripture for 30 minutes.  At first I felt I wasn’t doing my prayers adequately, as I no longer had time to pray for each intention personally; then of course I realized perfectionism and pride were creeping in, and that God was well aware of the intentions in my heart.

I finally got it through my thick skull that it wasn’t necessary for me to mention my friends and family by name daily.  It’s important to be open to changes God wants to make during your prayer time and adjust accordingly whether he wants you to end a certain novena or start a new method altogether, such as the consecration to Jesus through Mary, or perhaps lectio divina .

Many years ago I started praying the St. Bridget prayers for my family; when the Fifteen Prayers of St. Bridget are prayed for an entire year, they are supposed to be a powerful way to convert hearts.  My mother was a fallen away Catholic, and I recited this efficacious set of prayers for her intentions, but gave them up after six months because of time constraints.  Then five years later my life slowed down, and I decided to resume these beautiful prayers with the intention of praying them for another entire year.  At the end of six months of reciting them daily, I felt a nudge that my year was complete, and I no longer needed to pray them.  At first I was confused and uncertain, because my perfectionism was telling me I hadn’t done it correctly.  But God reassured me that He is not confined to our finite sense of time, and that He is timeless.  I realized that while we humans are finite beings living in confined chronological order, God is eternal.  “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8).

The Blessed Mother was sanctified at the moment of her conception, even though Jesus hadn’t even been born yet, much less died on the cross to bring us salvation.  But God is boundless and has the ability to juxtaposition prayers and events.  Since God is not restricted by our limits of time, He took Jesus’ death on the cross which brought us salvation, and applied it to Mary’s conception decades earlier.  God is omnipotent and can easily access the past and the future. We can remember the past and look forward to the future, but unlike God, we are firmly planted in the present.

My grandmother died when I was three, but when I was an adult I asked God if I should pray for her.  Two days later my sister unexpectedly handed me a rosary with these words “when our grandmother died I was given a box of her things, and for some reason I pulled it out and found this rosary, and felt I should give it to you”.  I was stunned!  I knew it was no coincidence, and obviously God was affirming my desire to pray for my grandmother, and He certainly was able to take those prayers and bestow them on her, even though she had died over thirty years earlier.

I’m absolutely sure the St. Bridget prayers were effective, even though the year of recitation was split up; by “coincidence”, my mother died on July 23, the feast day of St. Bridget!  This was definite confirmation that I was following God’s will, and not my own will.  When you are prodded by the Holy Spirit, try to find confirmation through scripture and spiritual direction to make sure you are properly discerning God’s will.

Related articles:

Fifteen Prayers of St. Bridget

Reflection on Mary and Martha


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Purgatory and Hitler

Purgatory…Perhaps one of the least understood teachings of the Catholic Church.  “Where is that teaching in the bible?”, many ask.  Virtually all Catholic doctrine is rooted in scripture, and purgatory is no exception.  In 1st Corinthians 3:13 we’re told “…the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it.  It will also be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one’s work…But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss: the person will be saved, but only as through fire”.

Virtually any scholar will agree the “Day” is unquestionably considered to be judgment day.  In the second century St. Origen explains “For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones; but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated from the body? … It remains then that you be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God to those who can comprehend heavenly things is called a cleansing fire. But this fire consumes not the creature, but what the creature has himself built, wood and hay and stubble. It is manifest that the fire destroys the wood of our transgressions and then returns to us the reward of our great works.”

The word purgatory in Latin is “purgare” which means, to make clean, or to purify.  The Catholic Encyclopedia defines purgatory as “a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.”  

But, one might argue that Jesus died so that our sins are forgiven; and indeed when we call upon the name of Jesus and repent, our sins are absolutely forgiven.  However, we may have to do penance for our sinful actions; one way this occurs is through our suffering here on earth.  For example, if someone breaks my window and asks for forgiveness, I would offer it freely.  But if they turn and start to walk away, I would point out they would need to pay for the repair of the broken glass.

Revelations 21:27 reminds us “…nothing unclean will enter it (heaven), nor anyone who does things that are detestable or false, or tells lies.” First let me emphasize that purgatory isn’t a separate place; it is actually part of heaven, but not a half-way point between heaven and hell.  In John 14:2 we know there “are many mansions in heaven”; purgatory can be compared to the utility room, or mudroom in a home.  Before entering a house, we shake the dirt from our shoes to stay as clean as possible.  Purgatory is our chance to be cleansed and stripped of our lies, greed, anger and lustful actions before entering paradise and our new life with God.

Purgatory is a blessing God has given his children as a second chance to atone for their wrongful actions committed during their lifetime. We are called to be “in the world, but not of the world” (John 17:14); in other words to remember we are sojourners on earth for a short time, but our final destination is heaven.  The secular world behaves in ways opposed to God’s Commandments, but Jesus calls us to be radical and instead put others’ needs first, to “store up treasure in heaven” instead of on earth.  Yet many of us are carnal, materialistic and selfish, forgetting life here is simply the train ride to our true home.  So if we are too attached to our possessions, or suffering from addictions, purgatory is where the soul detaches from self-centeredness, love of money and other worldly ties.

God created us in his image and likeness, but through original sin and our own faulty choices we become tainted and profane. To be reborn and join the saints in heaven, we must be purified and restored. Think of a day after working hard in the garden weeding and pruning; of course we would take a bath before going to bed to wash away all the dirt we accumulated.  This bath may seem like a punishment, but truly is for our benefit.  The punishment at death is Hell; permanent separation from God. Since purgatory is part of heaven, we are firmly surrounded by God’s presence throughout the entire purification process.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.  The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.  The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent.”

Many fathers of the Church refer to purgatory.  Tertullian mentions prayers for the dead; Gregory the Great speaks of those who after this life “will expiate their faults by purgatorial flames,” and he adds “that the pain be more intolerable than any one can suffer in this life”.  St. Cyprian of Alexandria mentions “expiation and purification” of our sins before and after death.  On the tombs of the early Christians in the Catacombs were engraved hopeful messages asking for peace in the afterlife, and early tradition mentions the faithful community gathering annually around the graves of their loved ones to make intercession for the deceased.

Many protestants point out purgatory can’t exist, since the “good thief” was promised by Jesus “truly, truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  First, Jesus did not immediately go to heaven; if you recall, he stayed in the tomb and wasn’t resurrected until the third day.  The study note in the New American Bible considers this to mean “Luke’s understanding that the destiny of the Christian is to be with Jesus” at some point.  Second, since purgatory is part of heaven, the good thief may have spent time in the refining fire of purgatory before entering other mansions.  Or he may have bypassed it completely, joyfully joining the angels before the throne of God. God alone judges us on “the Day”, and determines the purity of our heart, deciding if we are in need of more cleansing.

Now you ask, what does Hitler have to do with purgatory?  My “Hitler Theory” is that Jesus certainly promises “everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life”, John 3:16, the famous scripture verse we see prominently displayed at baseball games.  But since Revelation tells us “nothing defiled shall enter heaven”, and indubitably Hitler and Stalin were some of the most depraved men in the history of mankind, it makes since these two vile men could be saved, but as scripture explains, “only as through fire“.  In the ‘mudroom’, their hatred and perversions would be removed, allowing them to enter the hallowed and magnificent dwelling of their heavenly Father.  If they called on the name of Jesus before they died and were ‘saved’, it makes perfect sense to me they would undergo a purging of the ‘stain of sin’ before they could enter into the impeccable, flawless realm of heaven!

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Last Sunday was the feast day of Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the magi from the east.  “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star his star at its rising, and have come to do him homage.” They arrived bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”  Matthew 2

We don’t really know the exact number of wise men, or their actual profession. Tradition calls them the three kings, although they were probably scientists or astrologers. The gifts were symbolic of Jesus’ mission; the gift of gold meant that Jesus was royal, as gold was normally reserved for royalty.  Frankincense was rare and used by the Jews in the Temple as incense, which burned continually on the alter. The smoke from the incense represents our prayers rising to heaven. Since the Jews only used frankincense at the altar, it reinforced their belief in Jesus’ divinity.

Myrrh was quite valuable and was mostly used as a perfume for burial to help prevent the smell of decay.  Sometimes it was mixed with wine to deaden pain, and was offered to Jesus when he was crucified. Myrrh symbolizes bitterness and suffering, and was prophetic of the suffering and death Jesus would endure.

The star of Bethlehem was a harbinger to the magi of the importance of the impending birth of the messiah.  Many others witnessed the star, but only a few understood it’s significance.  The magi were scholars who spent much time studying and meditating, and were spiritual men eager to seek out God.  They were familiar with the prophesy in Numbers 24 “a star shall rise from Jacob”, and the Jewish promise of a savior to a world darkened with sin was appealing.

These learned men knew precisely the implications of the new star that suddenly appeared one day in the eastern sky.  They enthusiastically made preparations to follow the bright beacon as it moved toward the west.  Can you imagine the scorn of their families and friends as they blindly followed this vision?  These courageous men had no GPS or map, no directions to reveal their path.  Their only guides were the prophecies of Daniel and the mysterious, steady beam of light.

Finally after a long, arduous journey, they reached Jerusalem, but must have been confused and disheartened when the star disappeared.  The magi inquired from the townspeople where they could find the newborn king of the Jews, which must have terrified his listeners, fearful of King Herod’s wrath. Eventually they obtained an audience with King Herod, whose scribes pointed them to Bethlehem, as the predicted birthplace of the prophesied “king of the Jews”.

It’s surprising that not one scribe or Pharisee accompanied the wise men, considering their familiarity with the prophecy.  Perhaps they were frightened of Herod’s thirst for blood and his plan to murder the future newborn “king”.  And too, many of the scribes were hypocritical and worldly, their hearts lukewarm and cold.  The long awaited messiah was soon to be born just a short five miles away in Bethlehem, and these callous religious leaders were largely indifferent!

As the wise men left the gates of Jerusalem the star reappeared “And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.  They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.”  I’m sure these travelers were immensely relieved when their beacon glowed above them once more, giving them confirmation that their pilgrimage was initiated by God; all their efforts weren’t in vain.

The magi found their long sought treasure, Emmanuel, “God with us”, the eagerly anticipated messiah, in a plain, austerebaby jesus angles.jpg room.  They didn’t let Herod’s magnificent palace and wealth cloud their judgment, or let doubt squelch their faith or hinder their quest for God.  They trusted God and patiently waited for Him to reveal their path, step by step, day by day.  Sometimes in our lives, God deliberately lets the star disappear, allowing our surroundings to look hopeless and dark.  These experiences can build our trust and in those darkest hours is when our faith grows the most.

On Epiphany Sunday in the Atlanta Journal was an article about an incredible young man who was accused of murder when he was just 14 years old. Christopher Routh was a mature, level-headed young man with a strong faith who regularly attended church. He was a scuba diver, and his father had trained him to remain calm under pressure.  Chris had been babysitting a friend’s two year old little girl, Emily, who had been sick for a week.  She was lethargic while Chris was watching her, and then developed breathing problems.  Chris called 911, but Emily was in grave condition by the time she was treated at the hospital, and sadly died two days later.

Chris was later charged with shaking her and was arrested for causing her death; in part because he remained calm during the crisis, the prosecution tried to paint him as a cold-blooded murderer.  Through the painful and challenging year-long trial, Chris was a rock of faith for his distressed family, and would send inspirational scripture verses to his family to encourage them.

Thankfully the Routh family were able to find a medical examiner who appeared as an expert witness on Chris’ behalf, testifying that doctors had found a blood clot when little Emily went to the emergency room for a stomach virus the week before her death.  In his opinion, it was the blood clot which caused her brain to swell, eventually leading to her death.  The medical examiner explained that if Emily had been severely shaken, there would have been bruising on her chest or broken ribs. The absence of any other injuries was a clear indication that she had not been shaken or abused, and must have died from natural causes.

After the drawn-out trial the jury acquitted Chris of all charges, and he was set free.  His strenuous experience lead him to earn a law degree so that he could become a public defender, and help other innocent people.  Chris credits his faith with sustaining him during the terrifying trial.  In his deepest, darkest times, he “followed the star” and never wavered in his faith.  This resolute young man is a wonderful example for us when we are in the crucible.  We too need to follow the star and keep our eye on the “treasure” when faced with crises; when depression and darkness are so overwhelming that it feels like we will never see light again, or anxiety so severe it feels like we are losing our mind.  Every day gives us fresh challenges to unswervingly “follow the star”, and not be dismayed when unexpected obstacles appear, whether it’s the transmission on your car needing to be replaced, or simply being misunderstood by a friend or coworker.

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Mother of God; Theotokos

One of The Blessed Mother’s titles is “Mother of God”, or in Greek, Theotokos. Coming from a protestant background, the theology concerning Mary (called Mariology), can be quite daunting to follow, and difficult to accept.  The doctrine of Mary as Mother of God is probably one of the most complex.  Basically, Jesus is one person, with two natures; he is both fully human, and fully divine.  The theological term which describes this anomaly is “hypostatic union”. Hypostasis means, literally, that which lies beneath as basis or foundation.

Over a span of three centuries, from the 4th through the 6th, the hypostatic union doctrine was challenged by Eutyches, Nestorius and by monothelitism. Nestorianism taught that Jesus’ two natures were separate, which was condemned in the Council of Ephesus.  So to deny that Jesus was fully human AND fully divine, is heretical. If you follow this line of reasoning, since you can’t separate Jesus’ two natures, it’s reasonable to state that Mary is mother of both his human nature, and his divine nature.  Ergo, the only conclusion is that Mary is the Mother of God!

Fr. Benedict Groeschel once gave a lecture to a group of protestants about Mary, and laid out this doctrine, step by step.  As he concluded and declared Mary Mother of God, the audience was absolutely stunned, but the ministers all sheepishly nodded their heads in agreement.

In the gospel of John, 19:26, Jesus “saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.”

I was raised Presbyterian, and like many protestants believed that Mary and Joseph had other children.  But when I started studying the teachings of the Catholic Church, several inconsistencies with this belief struck me.  First, in the Judaic culture, the fifth commandment to “honor your parents” was especially sacred.  Children honored and obeyed their parents in a manner unheard of in our society.  If Jesus had actual brothers (not “cousins”), there is absolutely no way that Jesus would have entrusted his mother to someone else.  And if John was actually his brother, and NOT his cousin, it wouldn’t make sense for Jesus to tell John that he was now Mary’s son.

The Catholic meaning of the above passage is that Jesus’ words “Woman, behold your son” are meant to give Mary to ALL Christians, to be their spiritual mother.

From the Second Vatican Council:

She is endowed with the high office and dignity of the Mother of the Son of God, and therefore she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth (Lumen Gentium, No. 53).

St. Augustine tells us that Mary “is clearly Mother of the members of Christ…for she has cooperated with love in the birth of the faithful in the Church, who are members of its Head.” In giving Mary to us as our spiritual Mother, Jesus is telling all Christians that Mary is our model, who will help us to listen and act on his Word.  She is the quintessence of virtue, and will teach us humility, obedience, prudence and holiness.  For this reason, Catholics affectionately call Mary “Our Blessed Mother”.

The most popular icon at my bookstore is the Mother of God, Theotokos. “Praying with icons is an ancient prayer practice that involves keeping our eyes wide open, taking into our heart what the image visually communicates. We focus not on what is seen in the icon, but rather on what is seen through it — the love of God expressed through God’s creatures.” Fr. Simon Ckuj

When an icon is created, it is said to be “written”, not painted. Icons are a form of silent prayer, emphasizing the verse to “Be still and know that I am God”. Ps. 46:10.  Icons are more than just art; they lead us into contemplative prayer, allowing God to speak to our hearts. They are doorways into stillness, drawing us closer to God. Sitting quietly, taking time to gaze on the beautiful images, helps us to encounter the mystical presence of God.  By listening carefully with the longings of our heart, we may hear God’s voice whisper softly.  Icons have a way of teaching the heart spiritual truths the mind is unable to grasp. This is partly why icons are considered “theology in color”. Icons are known as “windows to heaven”, as they help lift up our minds from the mire of humanity to the realms of heaven, where “Christ is seated at the right hand of the father” Eph. 3:11.  They come in different shapes and colors, and are symbolic of spiritual realities, making visible the invisible divine mystery.

Iconography mirrors Christology, the study of the person of Christ, primarily the Incarnation. Because God took on human flesh, He allows us to see the person of Christ, who is God.  Icons help us to experience God’s tremendous love for us in a real, intimate way.

St. John of Damascus wrote, “we are led by perceptible Icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual” (PG 94:1261a). Surrounding ourselves with these sacred images inspires us to imitate their holiness. St. Gregory of Nyssa (ca 330-395) spoke of how he could not pass an Icon of Abraham sacrificing Isaac “without tears” (PG 46:572). “If to such a Doctor the picture was helpful and drew forth tears, how much more in the case of the ignorant and simple will it bring compunction and benefit”.

Fr. Henri Nouwen speaks of the eyes in the icon of the Vladimir Mother of God: “Her eyes gaze upon the infinite spaces of the heart where joy and sorrow are no longer contrasting emotions, but are transcended in spiritual unity.”

Icons are rich in symbolism; halos and gold backgrounds bring to mind the saints who live in the presence of God’s celestial light, reminding us of the beatific world we will someday attain.  Eyes tend to dominate the faces of most subjects, reflecting their serenity.  Since we are typically drawn to a person’s eyes, this helps focus our prayer and connect our heart with Christ.  Mary’s eyes gaze upon us with love and compassion, while in some images her right hand holds Jesus, who holds the universe in his hands. By holding the hand of Jesus, she is showing the path to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Notice on the Blessed Mother’s forehead the eight pointed star.  In ancient Christian iconography it represented a ray of light, the hand of the Father who blesses from on high or the dove that came down bathed in light.  This star made it’s appearance in Bethlehem above the home of Jesus, to lead the wisemen on their journey to find the messiah.  Just as the star once guided the magi, so Mary is the star that guides the faithful.

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