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)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mike's Prayer

Dear Theophilus,

As parents my wife and I are constantly wondering how we’re doing in raising our son. We sometimes find that we’re asking ourselves: “Are we getting it right?” Every so often our nine-year-old son Michael comes up with something that tells us that the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

This past Monday was one of those moments. As I was sorting through the myriad of papers (tests, letters, homework, etc.) that he had stuffed in his backpack, I came across a prayer he had written. I was astounded by what he had written. So with his permission, I’ll share it with you here:

Dear Lord, God,

Help us face the many abysses of evil.
Lord, thank you for our families and friends.
If we have disobeyed you in the past days of the New Year,
please let us remember that we are "all yours".
We are not perfect and let us not be judged in life by those who need prayers.
Help us know that you are there.


Needless to say I was absolutely floored. Days later I’m still amazed at how he understands his relationship with God can be on so many different levels. Michael’s prayer reminds us of how we need God in every aspect of our lives:

Protection from evil;
Thanksgiving for the many blessings in our lives;
Repentance for our sinfulness;
Acknowledgement that we must help one another through prayer; and
A longing to know God.

Our Catholic faith is a dynamic part of who we are as a family. We try to infuse it in everything that we do, from great family celebrations to the most mundane of daily chores. Between evening sports activities, homework and friends, we wonder sometimes if the message is getting through. It’s in moments like these that my wife and I know that God is working through us.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lectio Divina

Dear Theophilus,

Inspired by Archbishop Cardinal Collins, lately I have come into the practice of Lectio Divina as a part of my daily prayer life. This has grown out of a desire to read and meditate on the daily readings set out by the Church. 

An ancient tradition, dating back to Origen in the Third Century Lectio Devina can be simply translated as either Holy or Sacred Reading, referring to one reads and meditates on Sacred Scripture. This understanding of Lectio Devina is reiterated by Cardinal Collins in the introduction to his book Pathway to our Hearts, where he is quick to point out that Lectio Devina should not be approached as a course in Bible study (exegis). Although Cardinal Collins recognizes that Scripture study is important, he reminds us that Lectio Divina is meant to be a prayerful encounter with our living God through the inspired word of Sacred Scripture. 

There is no official format for Lectio Divina, however, there are certain elements that will help one get the most out of this spiritual practice. Reading, prayer, meditation and contemplation are all a part of Lectio Divina, however, the order you do these in depends on the amount of time you have to dedicate to Lectio Divina and finding a formula that works best for you. Since I can only dedicate 15 minutes to my daily Scripture reading (unlike the 45 minute Lectio Divina sessions Cardinal Collins offers monthly at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto), I follow the simple formula of prayer, reading, and then combine my meditation and contemplation. 

I start with prayer to focus my mind and settle my heart. I find that this helps me ready myself to receive the Word of God and to meditate on how He is speaking to me. The prayer is usually quite simple, I either allow the Holy Spirit to guide my prayer: Lord, please allow me to hear your will for me today in your word; or I will recite the words of the prophet Samuel: Speak Lord, your servant is listening. If I am feeling particularly agitated, I may even recite a decade of the Rosary. 

My heart and mind ready to listen to the Lord, I turn to the passage I have chosen to read that day. I usually read the Bible readings for the day, but there are other times when I feel I need to return to Sunday’s Gospel throughout the rest of the week; and still other times there is a particular passage that I feel is pertinent to my life right now. Since Lectio Divina is meant to be a prayerful encounter with God through Scripture I read the passage slowly and out loud, imagining that I am proclaiming the Word at Mass. I let the Word linger on my lips, savouring what God is saying. Searching for what God is trying to tell me. 

This is where meditation and contemplation on the Word comes in. I will often read, re-read and read the passage again. There will be key phrases and words that jump off the page for me. There are times when I have returned to a reading and God has prompted my attention in a new direction, peeling back the layers of his will for me. Usually I am surprised by how there is something in the reading that speaks directly to something going on in my life. I have even laughed out loud when the Lord has offered me a solution to a problem that I had not thought of, but with His help seems so obvious. 

I will then finish my meditation with an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be.

My Lectio Divina complete, I find renewed strength to take on the day. I take courage in knowing that God has a plan for me, and that I am setting out to do His will.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Every Mass is like High Mass

Dear Theophilus,

As a family we like to start school breaks (Christmas and summer) with a little get-a-way. We find our holidays to be more relaxing because there is a distinct break between work and down time with the forced relaxation that a hotel stay brings. It’s nothing extravagant, just a couple of nights in a hotel with a pool in downtown Toronto, with someone to make the beds, cook meals and do the dishes for few days.

Each year one of the highlights is attending High Mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral.

One of the reason’s my son likes going to the cathedral because his name is also Michael, so he feels a certain link with the church, like it’s his very own. He also likes looking for the Archbishop’s tasselled hat hanging above the altar. And the look of awe in his eye when he saw Thomas Cardinal Collins processing in was only matched by his excitement when he realized we would received communion from his Eminence.

Personally, I find a certain enchantment with the sacred beauty that Mass at the cathedral entails. There is all of the sacred art – murals, stained glass, the gold gilded tabernacle; which all focus the mind towards God (unfortunately all hidden behind restorers’ scaffolding on our December visit). When the 100-voice strong choir from the acclaimed St. Michael’s Boys’ Choir School sang the Gloria, I closed my eyes and imagined that this must be as close as earthly possible to the Angels’ refrain on the night of the Nativity. Added to this was the sweet scent of incense, and I felt that I was participating in something sacred.

I was so moved and excited by the whole experience, shortly after Mass I sent a text message to a friend: High Mass at the Cathedral with the Cardinal. AWESOME!!!!!!

To which he replied: Very cool … our Mass parish priest … no power … still awesome …

I was dumbfounded. He was so very right! Yes, all the sacred beauty and enchantment of the cathedral Mass are wonderful, but what is truly awesome, the source and summit of our faith, is the Eucharist. Whether it is celebrated on the altar of the humblest of chapels or under the Dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, the core of the Mass is the same. We are called to partake in Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist. AWESOME!!!!!

Friday, November 29, 2013

You don't eat meat?

Dear Theophilus,

A few weeks ago I was honoured to attend an event being held for a good friend’s brother. With my friend being of Italian heritage, there was quite a spread set out when it was time to eat: lasagne, alfredo pasta, veal, sausage, rapini, Caesar salad, and on the table went. Unfortunately for me, it was Friday, but I still quietly loaded up on the vegetarian options. As I got to the end of the table, an older gentleman asked me, “What, no veal? No sausage?” To which I simply answered, “Hey, it’s Friday.” After he had swallowed his amazement, my new found friend replied, “Yeah? I try to do that too.” That was all that was needed to be said, and then we went our separate ways.

I know the Catholic Church no longer obliges the faithful to fast and abstain from meat on Fridays. In fact, the only obligatory days of fasting and abstinence are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (cf Youcat #345, CCC #2042-2043). In Canada, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops teaches that although Fridays are still considered a day of abstinence, if one performs a particular act of charity, penance or piety outside of their normal behaviour, this can replace the act of abstinence.

Still, I try to follow the old rule of abstaining from meat on Friday. It may seem archaic, but I see it as doing my part in keeping God’s covenant. Despite all of my sins and shortcomings, I know God still loves me, and He forgives me through the sacrament of reconciliation. So really, is going a day without meat too much to ask on my end?

Much like Eleazar, who refused to even pretend to eat swine’s flesh to save his own life (cf 2 Macc 6:18-31), I too could probably fake it. Use my morning prayers as a sign of piety, or drop $5 in the poor box so I can have wings with my Friday beer. But I’ll know, and more importantly God will know that I’m just looking for a loophole in his Covenant law.

Although it may be awkward at times, I’ll continue try to be like Eleazar, trying to keep up my end of the Covenant. However, as a seafood lover, the difficulty won’t be in the abstaining from meat, but rather in the explaining why.