Friday, August 22, 2014

Bless You - It's Not Just for Sneezes




Dear Theophilus,

I’ve been getting a few strange looks lately. This is nothing new, really, I think the world has always seen me as a little off-kilter (when I came home from living in Belgium, I was in the habit of kissing male friends on the cheek instead of shaking their hand).

Lately, though, I think I’ve been making the people I meet in my daily travels a little uncomfortable. Although I’ve always tried to see the image of God in everyone that I meet (see my previous blog post on Greeting the Image of God in One Another), I find that sometimes I need to pinch myself as a reminder that God has a plan for each and every one of us in His Creation. So lately, when parting ways with someone, I try to say “God bless,” instead of “Goodbye,” or “See you later.”

Family, friends and colleagues have hardly batted an eye at this new expression that I’ve added to my vocabulary. Some of them are probably surprised that I didn’t start saying “God bless” sooner. They know me, and they know that I’m on a never ending quest to not only make God the centre of my life, but the centre of everybody else’s life as well (or at least plant the seed of Christ in their hearts). When parting ways with family and friends with a “God bless”, I am increasingly being met with a “God bless you too.”

It’s the strangers in my world that seem to be a bit taken aback by the words “God bless.” Whether it’s at the check-out counter at the grocery, hardware or convenience store (or bus, or restaurant, or wherever else I happen to have a short conversation with someone); once I receive my change and we are parting ways, I’ll say, “God bless.” These two little words and a brief moment of eye contact are usually followed by a blank stare and an awkward silence. After this momentary hiccup, some will smile back, while others will simply turn away to the next person in line.

In many ways, I understand this discomfort when confronted with the words God bless. Western society has trained us not to talk about God. Since everything in the world today has become relative, it comes as no surprise that God has become relative too, and He is something (not even someone) reserved for our private lives, not to be mentioned in public. Yet, there seems to be a strange comfort that comes across the faces of the people I meet when His name is spoken; like we’ve shared a great secret that shouldn’t be talked about in the open, but we wish we could. With the others, those who look confused, scared or indifferent; at least I know I have planted a seed with them, and with time and proper nurturing, hopefully this seed will grow into something great.

The other little expression that I have that raises eyebrows until people get used to it is “God willing.” As I leave school at the end of the day, invariably someone will say, “See you tomorrow,” to which I always answer, “God willing.” I think it’s a bit of a culture shock for most to openly admit that, like everything else, our comings and goings are dependent upon God, even the more devout Catholic teachers that I work with found this troubling at first. Especially when we are younger (which seems to be 80 and under these days), we all assume that we will be back at work tomorrow, that we hold our destinies in our own hands, and that it’s the decisions we make that bring us back. Truly, however, God has a plan for us, and if that plan does not involve work tomorrow, then we will not be there. One of the best laughs I’ve ever had at school was upon arriving one morning and a colleague looked me straight in the eye and said, “I guess God wanted you back here today too.”

A final thought on the words we use when we take leave of one another; my Portuguese father-in-law refuses to say “Adeus” (Adieu or Adios) when saying goodbye, he would much rather say, “See you later.” For my father-in-law, saying Adeus means that the next time we’re together, it will be in the presence of God and not on this earth; something he’s not ready for yet.

I do fervently hope, though, to one day be in the presence of God with my father-in-law, my wife, son, the rest of my family and all those who are created in His image.

God willing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Sabbath Made for Us



Dear Theophilus,

I have always dreamt of taking a sabbatical. Of the places I would go, the books I would read, all of the writing I could do… Unfortunately, silly things such as the mortgage, car payments, and groceries always seem to get in the way. But all of these responsibilities have not gotten in the way of my family taking mini-sabbaticals in the form of a yearly holiday, and even weekly when we celebrate the Sabbath.

I find it funny how the world rejoices in taking time off for a sabbatical, yet rarely takes time off to rejoice in the Sabbath (the very root of sabbatical).

Sometimes I think we forget that God created the Sabbath for humanity, so that we could take a break and revel in all that He had created. In fact, the Sabbath was the very first full day that humanity enjoyed in all Creation – God created humanity at the end of the 6th day (and saw that it was very good (cf. Gen 1:27-31) before …

And on the seventh day God finished the work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all the work He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that He had done in Creation. (Gen. 2:2-3)

I know Genesis states that God rested, not humanity, but remember that Christ calls us to be just like the Father: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:48) And since God rested on the Sabbath, then we too should rest on the Sabbath – but how often does that happen in our digitally connected world?

There are times when we are forced to take a break from it all. It could be that our bodies begin to shut down through illness. There are times when we simply can’t keep our eyes open because we’re exhausted. Sometimes we just find ourselves somewhere where we can’t stay connected and the world has to wait until we return (although, to our humbling, it seldom does).

This was the case my family found itself in when we spent a week at a cottage at the beginning of August. My wife and I are blessed in that we are both teachers and enjoy an abundance of down time through the summer (there are moments between September and June when we don’t see this as much of a blessing, but we knew that before we even started our careers), but even with all that down time, we find we are increasingly busy through the summer months catching up on everything we put off during the school year, along with new jobs that always seem to come along. We find that we’re just as attached to the internet (via computer, phone and tablet) through the summer as we are during the school year, and now that our son has hit his pre-teen years, he seems to be as connected, if not more, than we are.

So a week at the cottage with no WiFi was a blessing of a forced sabbatical.

We still had our phones to keep in touch with family, but not being able to check e-mail, Facebook and Twitter took a few days to get used to. Being able to see the number of interactions without being able to follow-up on them had me twitching the first day or two, but then I learned to ignore them and revel more in the beauty of God’s Creation spread out before me.

Instead of staring blankly into my phone’s tiny screen, here are a few of the things during that week that was set apart (made holy):

·         Read Scripture and sip coffee beside a lake so calm it was mirror-like;

·         Pray and meditate deeply on the Rosary with my son;

·         Have Wildlife-Wednesday where I came to within 10 feet of loons, turtles, a crane, snakes, frogs, chipmunks, squirrels, geese, fish, and a lake otter;

·         Canoe and chat with my son for over an hour each day;

·         Paddle-boat with my wife;

·         Have water-noodle fights with my son;

·         Fish off the end of the dock;

·         Read in a mission church the size of my classroom.

By no means is this list definitive, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, but I found as the week went on that my pulse slowed, my shoulders relaxed and I enjoyed the leisurely pace of our mini-sabbatical. Gone were the worries of meeting deadlines, getting to appointments and the frustration of once again being invited to play an internet game.

This mini-sabbatical gave me a deeper appreciation of what the Sabbath really is: holy time, hallowed time, time set a part to truly appreciate what God has created and to thank Him for the countless blessings in my life.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Being a Donkey for Christ




Dear Theophilus,

A little over a year ago, when I was still teaching the World Religions course at my high school, I invited Asha Frost, a childhood friend to come and speak to my class about Native Canadian spirituality. Asha is a homeopath who has also studied Ojibwa spiritual and healing traditions, not only as a part of her practice, but also as a part of her own heritage.

Among many items, Asha bought in her medicine pouch and explained the meaning and significance behind each item, as well as its purpose in Ojibwa spirituality. After answering many questions, Asha led us through a smudging ceremony and a guided meditation, which proved to have some interesting results.

The guided meditation that Asha took us through involved getting in touch with our inner animal spirit. In a similar way to how a Catholic guided meditation will help us calm our souls and lead us to Christ, Asha took us on a calming journey through the forest to meet an animal spirit that was waiting there for each individual. Not everyone in the room met up with their animal spirit, those that did shared that they had met up with deer, wolves and even a black panther. Of course there was the expected snickering when I shared with the class that I had met up with a donkey (the snickering was probably egged on by the fact that I played to my 16 year-old crowd by using the synonym for donkey that also describes my posterior).

I didn’t think much more of my spiritual meeting with the donkey as Asha finished her presentation and answered the kids’ questions, but I have pondered its meaning off and on over the past months. Wanting to dig a bit deeper, I did a little research, and was surprised by what I found out.

The donkey is considered to be among the most gentle and humble of all the animal spirits. An attachment to the donkey spirit signifies a spirit of servitude and wanting to help others. I also learned that of all the animal spirits in Native Canadian spirituality, the donkey is the one that is linked to Christ.

When I thought about it, this made perfect sense. Christ himself taught us that if we want to be great in the ways of God, we need to humble ourselves in servitude to others - that is why after he washed the Apostles’ feet at the Last Supper Christ said, “I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are the messengers greater than the one who sent them.” (John 13:15-16)

Something else about the link between Christ and the donkey absolutely floored me. Through my research I learned that all donkeys have a very particular marking on their shoulders. On their grey hair, donkeys have a dark brown line that runs along their neck and spine, while another dark brown line runs across their shoulders, forming a cross on its shoulders. It’s little wonder that the teenager at the local petting-zoo looked at me funny out of the corner of his eye as I excitedly pointed this out to my wife.

The cross on the donkey’s shoulders is just in front of where one would sit if they were riding this humble and docile beast. It would have been this cross that Mary would have looked at during the long ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as well as Christ as he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem; reminding both of them both of his merciful mission for humanity.

The more I meditate on my meeting with the donkey, the more I realize I want to be like him. Not only do I need to strive to be more Christ like, humble and servile; but I want to be like the donkey, carrying Christ to the world.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why Read Catholic?




Dear Theophilus,

A long, hectic and somewhat adventurous school year now over, I can now turn my attention back to one of my joys in life – the written word. Through the school year, I often find the physical, intellectual and emotional demands of teaching so overwhelming that I rarely have either the time or energy to read, let alone put a few coherent thoughts together for this blog; this past year even more so due to the demands of a new position and a new curriculum to teach.
 
All of this said, at the beginning of every summer I look forward to diving into the pile of books that have been sitting on my bedside table (sometimes for months) as a part of my summer morning routine. This got me to thinking about the content of this year’s particular stack of books, and how they made their way onto my reading list. I essentially asked myself why I read what I read, which lead me to ponder the deeper question: Why read Catholic?
 
Why read Catholic, indeed? With the vast number of titles available at Chapters/Indigo, Amazon or Barnes and Noble, why should one go out of their way to read Catholic titles on Catholic subjects? I think the answer is quite simple: the best way to get to know one’s faith is to defend it, and the best way to defend one’s faith is to get to know it – I find the best way to do this, and to have the reference on hand when needed to defend the faith, is to read Catholic.

Much like the daunting task of trying to choose a title when you walk into a mega-bookstore, knowing where to start your Catholic reading journey can seem overwhelming at first as well. The best piece of advice here would be to ask around, talk to someone you know (friend, pastor, catechist, spiritual director) for some authors and titles they think you might enjoy. Think about what you would like to learn from your reading: Church teaching or prayer life. Some of my favourite authors on these subjects include: Scott Hahn, Fr. Robert Barron, Karl Keating and Fr. Mitch Pacwa.

With the vast selection of s authors, styles and subjects, keeping your reading list on track will also require some effort. In a conversation I had with friend PatrickSullivan recently I went down the list of titles I had read over the past few months or that I intend to read this summer; the list ranged from St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body to The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living (which is more theologically sound than the title lets on). Patrick used terms such as eclectic and diverse to describe my reading list, I personally prefer the word scattered.

Patrick likened the process of reading Catholic to building a house, you need to build a sturdy foundation first, and then move upwards. What I`ve been doing is placing a brick here, and another there in a very disjointed fashion, with nothing to link one to the other. To get the most out of reading Catholic, you need to have a plan, a blueprint for your house. Once I get through the eclectic list on my bedside table (which should be around Christmas) I`ll sit down with Patrick and draw up my blueprint.

Finally, finding the Catholic titles you want can also prove to be a bit challenging. When standing bug-eyed in the religion section of the mega-bookstore it`s next to impossible to know which authors/titles are Catholic, and in a smaller bookstore they may not even be there at all. For this reason, I find knowing a good on-line Catholic book seller is essential; my favourite being Catholic Chapter House.

Sunday evenings at our house are known as wine and theology time, where I sit down with whichever book I’m currently reading and a glass (or two) of red wine. Now that the summer months are here, I encourage you, dear Theophilus, to also slow down, pour yourself a glass of your favourite libation, and read Catholic.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Mind is Like an Umbrella ...




Dear Theophilus,

When I was in university I had a typical student car. It was a 10 year-old Volkswagen Rabbit diesel, a certain shade of mottled brown with a mustard interior. Unlike my present VW diesel, there was nothing turbocharged about the 4-speed manual transmission; indicated by the 1-2-3-E stamped on the gearshift – and according to my sister, the E didn’t stand for excellerate (sic).

What made this particular VW distinctly mine was the way I decorated the interior. I had the requisite national flag hanging from the rear-view mirror (I had just spent a year studying in Belgium); where the ceiling upholstery had fallen, I had stapled it back up in concentric circles; I also had a variety of toys and postcards glued to the dashboard.

Written on one of the postcards was the saying: The mind is like an umbrella, it works better when it is open.

I thought this was particularly clever, as did most of the people who sat in the passenger seat. The obvious purpose of an umbrella is to keep rain off of one’s head (something that had become quite evident during my time in Belgium), and the obvious way to do this efficiently is to open up the umbrella. The mind is the same: the purpose of the mind is to think, and the most efficient way to do this is to open one’s mind to new ideas, and then to think on them.

What was missing from the postcard cleverly glued to my dashboard was the notion that there are times when it’s better to have your umbrella closed. This is self-evident to anyone who has tried to walk their dog on a blustery day. Trying to balance the leash, a poop-bag and an umbrella torn by the unruly wind; something has got to give – and personally, I know it is better for me to come home a little damp and with the dog, than dry and without. 

There are other times, too, when the purpose of an open umbrella is quite counter-productive. Nothing lifts the spirits better on a cold drizzly day than to see the clouds part and the sun’s rays peek through. The immediate reaction when this happens is to close your umbrella and turn your face towards the sun, closing your eyes and basking in its glowing warmth. I don’t think it would take too much to convince you that in this particular instance, the umbrella works better when it’s closed.

While reading G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics, I was reminded recently that the mind, like an umbrella, can also work perfectly well when it’s closed; that it shouldn’t be left perpetually open. Although he doesn’t make the umbrella analogy, Chesterton wrote on the real purpose of having an open mind:

Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.

I think Chesterton’s analogy is much more beautiful, and much more truthful, than that of the umbrella.

As a bit of a gourmand, I like to eat. Even more so when a meal is especially savoury. I try to use all of my senses in eating: allowing the scent to awaken my taste buds; devouring the plate set before me with my eyes; finally holding a morsel in my mouth, rolling it over with my tongue, not only tasting it, but savouring the texture as well. And like my mother always told me, I eat with my mouth closed.

So it should be when we open our mind to a new idea. We need to take it in, close our mind around it, and mull that new thought over. Like new foods, new thoughts can be delicious to our intellect. When that is the case, we want more and more of the same, closing our mind around something that is solid, something that is beautiful; the same way we would close our mouths around a dish we find pleasing to our palate.

Unfortunately, this closing of the mind on something solid, the savouring of an idea that is particularly pleasing to the spirit, is frowned upon in our modern western world. Whenever we try to stand for our principles, to express the beauty that is the Truth, we are told not to be close-minded, to open up to new ideas.

The problem is that it’s quite difficult to open the umbrella of the mind in today’s society. With the advent of the internet and the proliferation of self-expression in social media, the flow of ideas is much like that blustery day when I try to walk the dog with my umbrella. In fact, most days the torrent of ideas flashing around Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere is more like a hurricane than a blustery spring shower. Ever tried opening an umbrella in a hurricane?

Then there are times when we find that ray of sunshine and the warmth that it brings. This is when the winds die down and the clouds part and God’s light illumines our world. When we find God’s Truth in Creation, we need to close our umbrella and bask in the warmth He brings to our souls.

Like Chesterton, who opens his mouth to close it on something solid and savoury, we need to open our minds to the Word of God, closing it on something that is more solid and delicious than any food found on earth.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Parents as First Evangelists




Dear Theophilus, 

Home is where the heart is. Home is also where the seeds of Christ are sown. Home is the first line of evangelization. Home is the Ecclesia Domestica. 

This has never been more apparent to me than this beautiful long weekend where Canadians (at least in Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan; according to my calendar) celebrate Family Day. Although we usually try to incorporate activities with our extended families on this weekend, this year we’ve also relished in the blessing of having the whole weekend to our immediate family. Each of us has had time to follow our own personal pursuits (writing this blog for example), while we’ve also come together for some great quality time both indoors and out. 

I always marvel at how God works in our lives, and this weekend has been no different. Our Family Day weekend began on Thursday night as my wife and I were able to attend a seminar at our parish on How to Raise Catholic Children – which our pastor aptly renamed: How to Raise Children Catholic. Fr. Charles’ talk could be summed up in one word: Eucharist. The source and summit of our faith must also be the source and summit of our family lives. 

This is where the role of parents as first evangelists, the Ecclesia Domsetica, comes in. 

As good friend PatrickSullivan puts it so well when talking to the parents of children preparing for First Reconciliation and First Communion: “Children love what their parents love. If parents love sports, then their children will love sports. If parents love the pursuit of wealth, then their children will love the pursuit of wealth. If parents love Christ, then their children will love Christ.” 

It warrants being repeated: 

If parents love Christ, then their children will love Christ. 

And children are not stupid either. They see and know the difference between what is said and what is. Too many parents will tell their children that God is important; that’s why they have their children sacramentalized like a religious checklist and drag them to church for Christmas and Easter; yet they do not live out the love of God the other 50 weeks of the year or in their daily lives. Children see this. Children understand this. 

Too often parents tell their children, “Do as I say, don’t do as I do.” Unfortunately, children would much rather do as their parents do. Parents would rather point to someone else, a saint, the parish priest or a Catholic school teacher; rather than take on the responsibility of evangelization themselves. Evangelization is hard work, particularly when the rest of society (especially in the media) tells you different. Parenting too is hard work, but through their own baptism evangelization must also be the parent’s first responsibility to their children. 

Parents must sow the seeds of Christ through the evangelization of their children. Once parents find the unbridled joy of the Eucharist, they will want nothing more than to share this with their children. Children who witness their parents fervently participating in the Eucharist (this does not necessarily mean taking an active role in ministry, but rather taking an active, prayerful role in the Mass), will want to come to know and participate in the Eucharist as well. Children who learn to love the Eucharist from an early age will garner a wisdom deeper than many adults, and they will grow to see the image of God in each human individual, treating them with the dignity that Twenty-First Century humanity so desperately craves.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

What Would Jesus Do?

 
 
Dear Theophilus,

WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? The question is just about as ubiquitous as the colourful plastic bracelets. Unfortunately, I don’t think the majority of the people asking the question would be happy with the answer.

The question, WWJD? is usually followed by the questioner citing Christ: You shall love your neighbour as yourself, (Mt 22:39) or Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (Jn 13:34) The intended meaning being that if you are a true Christian, then you will let others do whatever they please, not hold them up to a moral standard; that love must somehow equal permission.

This endemic problem stems from contemporary society’s habit to read their own perspective and opinion onto the sayings of Christ instead of reading what Christ has to say onto their perspective and opinion. As Michael Coren so aptly put it in his book Heresy, people are looking for God the Grandfather (doting and obliging) instead of God the Father (wise and guiding, yet firm with His love). We seem to have forgotten that sometimes love has to say, “No.”

The people who trot out the question, What Would Jesus Do? enrobing themselves in what they perceive to be the love of Christ, a love which will let them do their own will instead of God’s, are usually surprised by Jesus’ stronger words of love and what one should do:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5:17-19)

Guiding us to follow the Commandments God set out in His covenant with His people. That by following His law we will come to know greatness in heaven.

Christ also stated:

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. (Lk 12:49-51)

The fire Christ promises is to purge us from our sinful ways. The division He brings is between those who choose to follow Him and those who reject His law.

I know that much of what I have just written would come across as being hardhearted. That, according to what many people in the world say today, I am being un-Christian. The crux of my point here returns to what I have already said, when we quote Christ saying Love your neighbour as yourself ; are we reading our own perspective onto Christ’s words, or are we reading His words onto our perspective? Do we really understand the true meaning of God’s love?

Christ’s love for us desires to bring us to an eternal wholeness, and this is a love He calls us to share with one another. Christ’s love strives to bring us out of our sinfulness and into the light of His ways, and this is the love that He calls us to share with one another. Christ’s love accepts us for who we are, yet challenges us to change for the better, to go and sin no more; and this is the love He calls us to share with one another.

In this light when we are faced with a moral dilemma, What Would Jesus Do? is a legitimate question to ask ourselves, and others. The question calls us to a higher moral standard; a divine moral standard at that. WWJD? demands that we mirror Christ’s love by keeping others from harm, calling them from their sinful ways. Perhaps the hardest thing of all for us to do when we strive to Do what Jesus did; is to judge sinful actions without being judgemental of the sinner.

The next time someone trying to argue for permission for their sinful ways tries to take the ethical upper hand by asking WWJD? followed by the usual Jesus quote: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another; I will answer them as Jesus did: You are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. (Mt 22:29)