Saturday, August 24, 2013

Gratitude and Self Knowledge

 "My commandment is this: love one another as I have loved you."

Today's antiphon from Morning Prayer helped to crystallize what should be
for me a daily prayer: Lord, help me love others as you have loved me.

Our pastor recently left for his first assignment as an ordinary; he is now the Bishop of El Paso. Reflecting with friends on what he left as a legacy to our parish, and no doubt to the whole diocese where he has resided for 40 some years , I concluded that his ability and desire to love people, even if they don't love him back, stands alone.

No one is perfect: no pastor, no vicar, no Bishop, no parishioner, and God help me, I am certainly not perfect.

But my weaknesses are magnified when I can't love the people who show me where I fail. I prickle and bristle, and like the three cats who live in our house, I want to hiss when I feel threatened. Or worse. I want to strike back.

But Jesus told us to love one another. Jesus loved until he took his last dying breath; "Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do."

I used to marvel at the way Bishop Mark could do that. And his love for others has at last begun  slowly to illuminate my way. It has been the way of the cross all along, and perhaps I have been avoiding the cross. Bishop Mark once told me that there is never any way around it. He said it calmly and with a smile on his face. And I used to wonder how he could be so calm in the face of daily difficulties.

But lately I have begun to realize that he is right. And the  way to carry the cross of Christ is to begin by praying for those who are the most hurtful, or damaging, patronizing or demeaning. Pray for the ones who use verbal sticks and stones to wound, who devise means of gaining the upper hand or who seek to destroy whomever stands in their way. Pray for the ones who simply don't like you and never will. Pray for the saints and the sinners, for Paul and Peter and Judas Iscariot, for the thief on the cross next to  yours, and ask God to help you if you are too weak to begin.

And then the cross becomes more bearable.

The cross is truly a means to closeness with Jesus.   

I am thankful for those who have been the means of showing me how little I have loved, and I am thankful to our Lord Jesus Christ for showing me how to begin again.

Pray for me, please.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Catholics and Purgatory

From the  Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1030  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.

1031  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 (1439) and Trent 1563.) The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.

I had great admiration for purgatory long before I became Catholic. It always seemed to me to be a blessing, a merciful granting of extra time and insight for the spiritually slow (myself being among them!) so that heaven could be entered without snickers from the saints already there.  I figured that if I couldn't be a Mother Theresa while on earth, it was going to take some extra work in purgatory to make me presentable when I finally (I hope) get to meet her.

The Bible is filled with stories and expressions of God's mercy, healing and bringing to wholeness and new life. They form the backdrop for the church teaching on purgatory. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well (John's Gospel, chapter 4: 1 -30.)

The story of the Samaritan woman is rich with meaning, and has threads that can tie together a number of different topics. But I especially appreciate the element of mercy expressed in this story. This mercy is extended toward a woman, a foreign woman, a woman who is a notorious sinner. 

The story begins :  "A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (4:7)

It was FR. Robert Barron (  who pointed out, in way that moved me, the implication of these words of Jesus, "Give me a drink."  From our perspective it might seem that Jesus is being a bit imperious here, asking for a favor from a lowly woman, a woman he had never met. The spirited modern woman is likely to say, in response, "Get your own drink!!" 

It reminds me of my very first job, fresh out of college. I worked in the undergraduate library at Cornell University, as the periodicals assistant. The director of the library, on my first day, warned me about keeping the coffee pot nice and clean, when I made the morning coffee, so that it would not taste bitter. "Bah humbug" was my interior response.  "I have a recently acquired BA in music, not in coffee-making, thank you very much. Clean your own coffee pot." Fortunately I was wise enough to keep those thoughts to myself. 

So why is Jesus asking this woman for a drink? Was he a male chauvinist, or perhaps just very very thirsty, or was it the custom of his day, to ask strange women to fetch water?

Fr. Barron puts the question on different footing. Far from being a one-sided request on Jesus' part, a favor asked in order to benefit Jesus, Fr. Barron says  the request is an invitation to the Samaritan woman for her own salvation, an invitation to try a new way of living, a way that is more about giving than receiving. "Give me a drink."

"Do something generous, something sacrificial, something for someone other than yourself, and do it because of me, for I am God himself, here to draw you toward your eternal salvation. Woman, give me a cup of water."

It is an act of mercy to show someone how to love, how to give, how to be deeply happy. Behind each one of God's actions we can find the same great magnanimous, merciful love, a love that calls us out of ourselves.

From a life of adultery, Jesus has called a woman to a life of charity in his name. But it is a life, not an instant make-over.

And that is the sticking point.

For all of us who have somehow, by grace caught a glimmer of the truth revealed in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, there lies ahead a lifetime of learning  how to give cups of water in Jesus' name. It is a slow process, this schooling in sacrificial living. Too many opportunities for self-indulgence await us, our hearts are too often assaulted by pride, or wounded by others. So we stay within the walls of our inner domiciles, tending to our own needs and letting the world go on around us.

But by grace, and this is important, we keep seeing that woman at the well, we keep hearing the call to holiness. We pick ourselves up and crawl slowly outside of our tortoiselike shells trying all over again to live as the saints we are each meant to be.

And in those graced attempts lies our salvation. Because, at the end of the day, at the end of our mortal span, God who knows our hearts, knows our longings says, in effect, "I will not let your failure to be holy be the last word. I will take you  in hand at your day of death and I will cleanse you and purify you and bring you into my eternal rest at last."


It is not the most beautiful sounding word Catholics use, but it is one of the more beautiful teachings.

It is grounded broadly in the entire proclamation of the Gospel, though there are more particular scriptural references.  The Catechism mentions II Maccabees 12:45 (46), and also First Corinthians 3, special emphasis on verse 15, and First Peter, 1:7. 

We are to be tested by fire, but I don't think of that as a kind of horrible pain that will char us. It is rather a fire that shows us through its complete burning away of our need to be selfish how to keep our eyes on God.

Because keeping our eyes on God is the point of heaven.

Heaven is the place where our egos will mercifully let go of their strangle-hold on our wills, where selfishness will give way to charity, where love of God will finally out- do love for ourselves. Heaven is not after all an eternal golf game, an eternity of chocolate, or an eternity of anything that we think is pretty nice to have here on earth. Because, when you think about it, an eternity of anything other than God just isn't all that enticing. In fact an eternity trying to get a small ball into a small cup in the ground from far distances sounds a lot like hell to me... but then again I am no golfer.

No, heaven is all about God, and being in his presence, and if we after all, seek to be with God, then by grace he will see to it that we get there. And he gives us purgatory because he knows a human span is not enough time for most of us to do the job.

Purgatory is God's extra gift of love.

May we all learn to receive it with grateful hearts.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Why I am Blogging Again

The handful of friends who read this blog have asked me, over the course of the past year, why I stopped writing. I couldn't answer the question; I simply didn't know. It all just petered out and I found I had nothing to say, or nothing to say publicly.

There are many fine Catholic blogs available, written by men and women who know more, are more saintly, more adept, more patient...more everything than I am.

But they are not me. And the moment of insight that led me to restart my humble entries for Sent To Be occurred when I recalled one day my daughter's first day of kindergarten.

She was standing near the door to her classroom, one among many new students entering for the first time the big world of reading and math and learning to share, learning to sit quietly, and to do homework . (Yes,  homework...a ridiculous notion for kindergarten but that's another blog entry.)

A small boy stood outside the door weeping, unwilling to enter his new classroom. His mother bent down quietly encouraging him to cross the threshold.

My daughter went over to him, peeped under the hood that was pulled over his face, and said "I can see you! Come on in. It's OK. Don't be afraid."

And with those words, he went in while his mother prayed a prayer of thankfulness for this little girl who had held out her hand at the right moment.

It was a small thing for my daughter to do, really, but so important for that child and his mother. The boy's mother mentions that incident to me frequently, and reminds me how much they love my daughter.

If my reflections about faith and Catholicism can encourage even one shy person to step across the threshold of faith and enter more fully into the church, I will be pleased. It will be the result of the Holy Spirit more fundamentally; I will have been the scribe. But I can't think of any better reason to write, as limited as I am.

My entries are for you, dear friends, and for Jesus. And I offer them humbly.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Prayer Is Powerful

This afternoon I saw some friends  at Staples who happen to be from Mexico. They told me about their recent move into a rented house; they now live close to our house. My friends are a part of a "hidden" community of people who were driven from their native Mexico by the violence of the drug trade, and they came without going through the usual channels. Their community is large in this area. These dear people have a stable family life, close relations with one another, and they are deeply religious. They are living as responsible citizens in every way except one: they lack legal permission to be here at all. Yet I cannot find fault with them. Given the circumstances of their lives back in Mexico I would probably have fled as well. 

I  pray for these friends and for all families  who are living in our midst without the security of citizenship. They do many jobs that are low-paying, yet they don't complain.  They are grateful for the opportunity to live away from the violence, the poverty and the oftentimes terrible living conditions of their native counties. Yes they are here without legal papers. But they need our prayers.

To the people who condemn the illegal entry into the US of so many people I put a question. Have you considered that the drug lords who cause so much of the violence and disruption of civic structures in Mexico, and drive the illegal immigration northward, would not have an illegal business to protect if so many American citizens did not use illegal drugs?  When is the last time you heard a public figure condemn illegal drug use? How about a teacher? A movie star? A major athlete?

As we pray for people living without the citizenship we all enjoy, perhaps we might also pray for a halt to illegal drug use, and for  a new vision of life that finds joy in  spiritual realities that are far more powerful than drug induced fantasies. It just might go further towards helping with the "immigration problem" than any solution we have come up with so far. Prayer, affter all,  is powerful.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Largeness of Purgatory

Converts to the church can sometimes miss things, though we tend to have the big picture pretty well in mind. I still have information gaps that I'm not aware of until someone brings them to my attention. It''s  a bit like those tags from the store on a new garment that you forget to snip off.  You wear your new shirt unaware that everyone can tell it's a size 8 from the sale rack at Marshall's. Eventually a friend, or a spouse more likely points out the oddity.

 I learned only recently that I can ask for prayers at my parish for all my  deceased non-Catholic relatives.

"Did you think only Catholic souls are in purgatory?" my pastor asked.

Sometimes what should be obvious is overlooked.

 Where else but purgatory could my deceased protestant relatives be? Well, I suppose there are two options, but I'll stick with purgatory, though Grandma Brink might be in heaven, dear soul that she is.

 But, you see, purgatory is only spoken of by Catholics, and I had not, until these recent moments of illumination, made the mental and spiritual journey to collect my relatives from their protestant constructs of the after-life to deposit them in their rightful place, in purgatory. I have prayed for them, to be sure. But I have not entered their names into the book of remembrance  that we bring out each year in our parish for the All Souls mass. And that is a telling omission.

The good God, as Saint Therese liked to say, overlooks the barriers his children make that keep them at a distance from one another and from him while they are on earth. In a magnificent gesture of mercy and love, at the time of death,  he sweeps us  into his arms with a loving embrace, purifying and cleansing each of us of our misconceptions, limitations, short-sightedness, so that in heaven we will be one with the saints and angels, indistinguishable by our past fears and sad lapses, united as pure and holy children of God. The days of church division will be past, wiped out forever by the fire of divine love.

It gives me joy to bring my family with me on my Catholic journey, even if they are reluctant travellers.  The dear ones in purgatory, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, have already discovered the treasure of the fullness of the faith, and are I am sure yearning for the fulfilment of  their journey, eternal life with God. My prayers now will include the added  dimension  of acknowledging that we are even now fellow travellers, no longer strangers, but sisters and brothers in the faith, destined for a shared life in eternity.  

That is a great blessing, indeed.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why I Love My Country

Today we began the day like many other families -peeling potatoes, dicing apples, basting turkey and cleaning up the house. When our guests arrived we paused to say hello and then carried on with preparations. Making mashed potatoes and slicing turkey are always reserved for the last minute at our house so that we can enjoy them at their peak.  I tend to think that mashed spuds are quite tasty a couple of hours after they come off the stove, but my purist husband and daughter hold out to the last minute.

After my husband announced that it was time to eat we did just that, with a great deal of thanks I might add, for the bountiful meal provided.

So it was a typical wonderfully Thanksgiving, with food, family and friends, and time to watch the Cowboys afterwards.

But after everyone left, pronouncing the day a success, we three sat down in the living room to watch Pumpkin Chunkin, a sport, or should I say a contest, that to me says " we are in America" .

Pumpkin Chunkin.

I had never heard of it until my more informed daughter and husband turned it on and settled right in. I mean, it's not as though I was planning anything special for the evening... but a show called Pumpkin Chunkin?

 It is not a sport for the elite. And the participants are not highly trained athletes who listen to relaxing music as they pace about, preparing for their turn on the field.   The game, or sport, call it what you will, takes place in a corn field and its premise is fairly simple-minded, as all good games are. If you can throw a pumpkin farther than anyone else you win. The variety of pumpkin- throwing machines, from trebuchets to air guns elevates the game from being a backyard Sunday afternoon sort of activity to something more serious. After all, these pumpkins travel three quarters of a mile.  But it is what it is, a game that is all about throwing pumpkins as far as you can using a variety of instruments that won't destroy the pumpkin on lift-off.  Simple and elegant. Something good minds can turn to without being corrupted by the effects of a culture gone to the dogs.

And perhaps most important of all, there is no one telling those pumpkin chunkers that they can't heave pumpkins to kingdom come.

America truly is the land of the free and the brave, the land of Pumpkin Chunkin, and I am proud to be a citizen. I am proud that we are not too sophisticated to want to throw pumpkins about, yet not so dumb that we can't design fairly good machines in our spare time that will throw the pumpkins long distances. Yes, I know that trebuchets have been around a long time, but I bet those French people  in the Middle Ages never thought of using them to hurl pumpkins for fun. And air we are talking some sophisticated methodology.

Yup, I am proud to be an American, and even though I can't throw a pumpkin myself more than a foot or two, I will never eat pumpkin pie again without thinking of those who give up all their spare time to throw pumpkins so that the rest of us don't have to. We can just put up our feet, sit back and watch them do it.