Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Gate is Narrow and the Way is Hard




Dear Theophilous,

Every week when the local paper shows up at the door, one of the first things I do is flip to the back and scan the obituaries. Whenever I get caught doing this I’ll glibly reply that I was just making sure my name wasn’t there and I can continue breathing.

Joking aside, I have noticed an interesting trend from obituary writers, most of who use opening lines such as:

… has gone to reside in the Lord.

… has become another angel in heaven.

…has joined mom/dad in heaven.

Reading the obits these days, it seems as though everyone gets into heaven and no one is going to hell. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we all don’t go to the Lord, we do since He is our final judge, but it seems that we think we have already figured out what His verdict of our loved ones will be.

This is our calling, and this is our hope; that we will be reunited with our Lord in paradise. This is something I pray for everyday; for myself, for my family, for my friends and for those who have no one to pray for them.

Yet, in a world that’s rife with evil, we need to acknowledge the existence of hell. We need to recognize that not everyone accepts the will of God. We need to understand the truth behind one of Christ’s most difficult teachings; a lesson I’m certain it pained him to share:

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Mt 7:13-14)

This teaching of Christ struck me recently while I was reflecting on my misspent youth, and I realized the irony of the titles of two of my favourite songs from my teenage years: Highway to Hell and Stairway to Heaven. It seems these two rock bands understood Christ’s teaching on traffic flow. Even within the songs’ lyrics we can see hints as to cosmic battle for souls:

No stop signs
Speed limit
Nobody's gonna slow me down
Like a wheel
Gonna spin it
Nobody's gonna mess me around
Hey, Satan
Payin' my dues
Playin' in a rockin' band
Hey, mamma
Look at me
I'm on the way to the promised land

I'm on the highway to hell
Highway to hell

(excerpt – Highway to Hell – AC/DC – 1979)


To which the answer would be:

If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now,
It's just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There's still time to change the road you're on.

(excerpt – Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin – 1971)


Intentional or not, these songs fit so nicely into Jesus’ teaching on salvation.

The pathway to destruction is wide and easy, very much like a highway. Although it may not be the Autobahn without a speed limit, once we get rolling along that highway to perdition it becomes very hard to slow down, change lanes and take the off ramp. And Satan makes no bones about it, even though he promises you greatness and pleasure in this life, he promises neither joy nor comfort in the life to come.

The pathway to life is hard, just like spring cleaning or climbing a stairway that seems to go on forever (or an eternity). However, be not afraid, don’t be alarmed, because the May queen, Mary, is here to help. Christ’s mother draws us closer to Him with a simple phrase: Do whatever He tells you. (Jn 2:5)

There’s till time, dear Theophilous, for both of us, as well as the whole world, to change the road we are on; to find the narrow gate; to take the way that is hard; and to climb the Stairway to Heaven.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

We are Being Watched




Dear Theophilous,

I always liked the aliens on The Simpsons. The drooling one-eyed monsters with glass bubble helmets that continually laugh at humanity’s ineptitude. Can you blame them for laughing; they’re watching Homer Simpson after all.

This gives me to wonder, though, if they were watching me, what would they see?

If I were being observed by Martians, what would they hear me say? What would my day-to-day actions tell these extra-terrestrials about who I am and what I believe? If an outsider’s only glimpse of my life was during Sunday Mass, would they know I was in the presence of the most sacred; the Real Presence?

Believe it or not, this notion is not as far fetched as it may seem. It may not be aliens, but we are being watched. As Catholics, and more so as practicing Catholics, we are held to a higher standard; and much of the world is watching, either waiting for us to trip up, or, more hopefully, waiting and wanting to follow our lead.

This was made very evident to me at the Easer Vigil this year. Since I had helped out a couple of times with the RCIA classes, I was fortunate enough to get to know the catechumens entering the Church. I was flattered when one of them asked me to stand in for his absent sponsor, but I was even more floored by the comments another catechumen made to me at the reception afterwards. I was told that although this new friend had learned a lot about the faith from our conversations, it was from watching me at Mass that he had learned about the sacred.

It was then that I realized that it wasn’t in talking about Christ that we lead others to Him (though it can help); it’s by being a witness to His love and loving Him back. A deep genuflect entering the pew, saying a prayerful hello. A deep bow of reverence before receiving Communion. Taking time with a reading to pronounce the Word of God, not just racing through. Adoring Christ in the Tabernacle as though my life depended on it, because it does.

Other little encounters have reminded me that this reverence of the sacred, witnessing my life in Christ, goes beyond Mass.

Recently at the pharmacy the cashier commented, “Don’t I know you from 9am Mass?” After I explained that 9am on Sunday morning was way too early for my family to get to Mass, we exchanged a quick yet pleasant conversation. Imagine the image I would have given her as an involved-Catholic (lector and extra-ordinary minister of the Eucharist), had I been grumpy, surly or if my purchase had been less than moral.

On another occasion I met up with a young dad at the park. I could tell this guy was looking for his kids and their home-daycare group. I asked who he was looking for, realized they were the kids that my son and I had just asked to join our soccer game the other day. Knowing the boys’ sitter, I directed him to another neighbourhood park where I knew they would be playing. Once more there was the conversation on recognition from Church, and once more I realized the importance of having taken the time to include these kids in our game and to help another dad out.

It may not be aliens, dear Theophilous, but we are being watched. Whether it’s at Mass, at the store or at the park, others are watching to see what we treat as sacred, waiting and wanting to follow us to Christ. Since we are the Body of Christ, a high standard has been set for us in Christ, a high standard that we have been called to live up to, a high standard we can help others to achieve through our witness.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Numbers and the Bread of Life Discourse



Dear Theophilous,

I’m not someone who superstitiously puts a lot of faith in numbers. I don’t play the lottery. I won’t go out of my way to avoid the number 13. I don’t really have a favourite or lucky number (although throughout my entire recreational athletic career I have worn the number 7, that’s due more to the fact that when selecting my first ever hockey jersey I chose the sweater with the captain’s C on the front in a moment of 6-year-old vainglory). It’s just that I feel life is too short to spend my time worrying about how the numbers in my life will affect how my day plays out.

All this being said, I do love finding symmetry and patterns in the world around me; something that usually involves number games. One of my favourite number games is to find numerical links throughout Holy Scripture. A few of which (both obvious and obscure) include:

3

The Holy Trinity
The number of persons involved in Original Sin
The number of times God called Samuel
The number of persons involved in the Transfiguration
The number of angelic visits during the Nativity story

12

Tribes of Isreal
Apostles
Elect for Paradise (12x12=144x1,000=144,000)

40

Years the Israelites wandered in the desert
Days that Elijah spent on his journey
Days Christ spent in the desert
Days between the Resurrection and the Ascension

This list is very incomplete. I’m sure there are biblical scholars that have spent their careers looking at these numbers, interpreting them, commenting on them and sharing the wisdom these numbers impart.

As we work our way through the Bread of Life Discourse (Year B – Weeks 17-21 of Ordinary Time), there is another numerical coincidence that I find interesting, to say the least.

As a highlight of his teaching through the entire Bread of Life Discourse Jesus tells the crowds (and us):

Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever. (Jn 6:53-58)

The Bread of Life Discourse remains as difficult to swallow today as it was in the time of Christ:

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” (Jn 6:41)

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52)

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60)

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and walked with him no longer. (Jn 6:66)

It was during my meditation on the Bread of Life Discourse a couple of years ago that this last line caught my attention for it’s numeric value, for which I feel it bears repeating, but with a slightly different emphasis:

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and walked with him no longer. (Jn 6:66)

I doubt that it would take much commentary to make the link between the Scripture context and its numeric value. Disciples no longer walking with Christ in a verse numbered 6:66 … a number associated with Satan (the Beast) in the Book of Revelation (cf Rev 13:18). It is Christ who calls us to abide in Him through the Eucharist, His very flesh and blood; and Satan who pulls us away.

More telling is the exchange Jesus has with His Apostles immediately after the other disciples left Him:

“Do you also wish to go away?” (Jn 6:67)

To which Simon Peter replied:

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn 6:68)

Through His loving grace the Father has given us the gift of freewill. When Christ calls us to Him in the Eucharist it is for us to decide whether we will fall away and walk with Him no longer, or will we turn to Him because He has the words of eternal life.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Our Spiritual Ebb and Flow

Image result for ebb and flow ocean



Dear Theophilous,

I have not forgotten you my friend. It has been to my great chagrin that I have wanted to write, but have not been able to. My silence has pained me. Chalk it up to being overwhelmed by the ebb and flow of life. There have been a few tumultuous storms, but for the moment, all seems to have calmed.

Wouldn’t life be great if we could constantly live in euphoric joy? Wouldn’t life be easy if we had a continual happiness with our lives and surroundings? Wouldn’t life be perfect if we could maintain an everlasting feeling that God was not only close by, but infused in us with each passing moment?

Wouldn’t it be sad if this joy were reserved only for the fleeting time we are here on earth? That is why God saves it for eternity.

We are constantly moving through our earthly journey, our sight set firmly on God, yet buffeted by the storms that arise from our freewill. In the choices we make we find ourselves moving either closer to God or further from him. Yet, He remains constant and it is us who are moving. This is the ebb and flow of our spiritual journey.

There will be times when we feel we are jet propelled towards our Lord, coming closer to Him with each breath. We can recognize, feel and see His real presence in the Eucharist at Mass. We can hear Him whisper to us in our silent prayer. These are moments we want to capture and keep in a jar, cherishing them as a prized possession.

Then there are other times when He seems far away, distant, unattainable. Mass seems rote and mundane and our prayer life barren, incapable of bearing fruit. These are the times that St. John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul.

Do not despair, dear Theophilous, as the Lord is not far. It is at these times that He is closest to us, carrying us, keeping us buoyant on the treacherous seas. It is when the ebb seems greatest that our faith will bring us closer to Him. It’s in that moment of hopelessness, when He gently whispers to us, that we will have the greatest joy in knowing that He loves us.

At this time we will rejoice in God’s love and laugh at our own despair. It is then that we will realize that with His grace we have conquered the Dark Night of the Soul. We come to trust that the ebb and flow of our spiritual journey always brings us to our final destination of eternal life in Him.

Pray for me, dear Theophilous, as I will for you.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Live - Life - Sacrifice



 
Dear Theophilus,

When our parish catechist, Patrick Sullivan, starts the parent information meeting for the sacramental preparation courses (Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation) he always begins with the line: “Children love what their parents love!” Personally, I couldn’t agree more, and this probably explains why my son loves the Montreal Canadiens (even though we live near to Toronto), playing soccer (which he properly calls: football), and why he dotes on his mother. He emulates the love that he sees.

It should have come as no surprise then that this summer at the age of 10 he decided he wanted to write a blog. He would have spent the better part of two months watching daddy frantically pound away at the keyboard, working away on multiple projects. It should also come as no surprise that the focus of Michael’s blog is the Catholic faith.

Mike has called his blog Live– Life – Sacrifice. When I asked him why, he just shrugged his shoulders, said he had never thought about it, but I guess to him, it just sounds right. So far he’s only written two blog posts, both of which plumb the depths of some pretty deep theological questions: the Trinity and Heaven’s existence.

I’m always amazed at how profound this guy’s thought process is. I think sometimes we sell our kids short; they understand way more than we think they do, and their faith has yet to be tarnished by the devils of this earthly world.

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 18:3)

Please stop by from time to time to see what wisdom this young mind has to share with us, and remember, whether you are a parent, Godparent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend or teacher – children are watching you, and Children love what their parents love.

And also remember to:


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.