Friday, August 31, 2012

Lino Rulli - On Being a Sinner

Dear Theophilus,

It usually takes me a few weeks to write about a book I’ve read, so it says a lot about Lino Rulli’s Sinner that I feel compelled to write about it the day I turned the last page.

I think I enjoyed Sinner so much because I could identify so closely with Rulli’s experiences. You only need to change Italian for French-Canadian and I think I could almost step right into Rulli’s life. OK, maybe my dad didn’t leave his job-for-life career to become an organ-grinder, he went into car sales and real estate instead. But with only a couple of years separating us, by the end of the book I felt like I could have been one of the many friends that Lino grew up with.

Another aspect of The Catholic Guy’s book that makes it easy to identify with is that Rulli makes no excuses for being human. He knows the Catholic standard is a high one, if not impossible, but if we all make an attempt to live by it and acknowledge our failings, the world will be a better place. Rulli puts his failings into a plain language that every Catholic guy can understand, helping us to recognize that it’s OK to have human failings, so long as we turn back to God in search of forgiveness.

Sinner is full on lines that have the reader thinking to themselves: “Hey! That’s me! I’m a sinner too, and if Lino believes that God can forgive him, then I guess I will be forgiven too; just so long as I don’t take that forgiveness for granted.” Some of my favourites include:

Lots of people put their failures in the not-god’s-plan category instead of the I-suck-at-that category.

When I think of God as a loving parent, that’s when I realize what a jerk I can be. And what a disappointment. And how sorry I really am. So I get up, shake the dust off, and try again.

To be honest, I’d rather not ever go to confession again. But that would mean I’m done with sinning. So in other words, I’ll be going to confession until I die.

In truth, being Christlike is scary.

I fought, I struggled, and I won – and I didn’t give into temptation. Not exactly on my way to canonization, but I’m always grateful to god when I don’t fall.

I’m sure you get the point… there’s one good line that brings Rulli’s experiences into a Catholic perspective towards the end of each chapter. The best part is that he does it in a style that is down-to-earth and absolutely hilarious.

Although Sinner is all about Lino Rulli’s life, it isn’t.  Rulli finishes his collection of memoires reminiscing about winning his first Emmy Award and the prayer he said the next morning:

I’m a sinner, God. I don’t deserve anything you’ve given me. I’m sorry for all the times I’ve failed you, and all the times it’s been about me instead of you. But I’m just grateful you’ve forgiven me. I’m grateful you love me. And please give me the will to keep fighting. I know that stupid Emmy shouldn’t mean anything to me, but it means I did a good job. It means my peers said, “Well done, Lino.”

As a catholic guy and a sinner, I hope I can have the courage to say the same prayer.

As for the book Sinner: Well done, Lino.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Greeting God in Each Other

Dear Theophilus,

Walking my dog through the park the other day I stopped to have a short conversation with Neshka (Agnes). I had never met Neshka before, but we still had a nice chat. What started the conversation was that both of us took the time to say “Hi!” to one another.

This conversation and how it started reminded me of my time in Germany almost 20 years ago. Living with a friend just south-west of Munich we decided one day to go on a bike ride through the forests surrounding the village. After I blew past a small group of hikers going the other way, I got an earful from my friend about how it’s considered common courtesy to at least greet people when you cross their paths. In Bavaria, I was told, the standard greeting is Gruess Gott! or Greetings from God! This greeting is so prevalent that it’s much like saying Bless you! when somebody sneezes.

After I reflected on the words, Gruess Gott, however, I realized just what a beautiful gesture this really is. You’re not really wishing greetings from God for that person, but rather you are greeting God in that person. You are saying that you recognize the image of God within them.

Sometimes that’s all that we need: somebody to recognize the image of God within us, unlocking His love and warmth in our hearts.

Neshka and I both took the time to see God in each other. Although our conversation was brief, the smile on my face lasted all day.

Gruess Gott!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Flesh of the Son of Man

Dear Theophilus,

Last Sunday’s Gospel and homily by Fr. Charles got me to thinking about the words of Fulton Sheen in his book Life of Christ. With his usual great insight, Fulton Sheen teaches us that if we are to truly listen to what Christ has to say in the Gospels, then we can really only draw one of three conclusions:

  1. Christ was telling the truth;
  2. Christ was a liar; or
  3. Christ was a madman.

I’ve used this teaching in my World Religions while juxtaposing the religions of the world to Catholicism. I told my students that it was possible for anybody to start a religion. In fact, I told them that that morning I had decided to start a new religion called LeBlancism and that I was god. I then told them that they had to take this as truth because I am not a liar and that I am definitely not a madman (to which a voice from the back of the class chimed in to everyone’s amusement: “That’s a matter of perspective, sir.”)

To understand how Fulton Sheen’s three conclusions relate to Christ, we need to revisit the Gospel reading for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time:

Jesus said to the people: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The people then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides 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 6:51-58)

Jesus did not back down from this statement. He did not soften it by saying he was talking metaphorically or symbolically. He steadfastly repeated that salvation is to be had by eating His flesh and drinking His blood. In his Catholicism series, Fr. Robert Barron points out something that makes this statement even harder to swallow (pardon the pun); that if we return to the original Greek of John’s Gospel Jesus does not use the verb phagein (to eat) but instead he uses the verb trogein (to gnaw or devour), indicating the way we should approach the Eucharist. Since the Eucharist is the life giving bread of Christ’s flesh, we must devour it, relishing the sustenance it brings to our souls.

Keeping this in mind, it’s not surprising that many fell away from Jesus, refusing to follow him because they saw him as either a liar or a madman. The emphasis Christ put on this Eucharistic teaching, however, tells us that this cannot be a question of perspective – that there is only one conclusion that we can draw from Christ’s words:

He was telling the Truth!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Embracing The Church and New Media

Dear Theophilus,

It was with some trepidation back in July that I reactivated my Facebook account and created a Twitter identity. I had been thinking about doing this for some time as a way to increase my blog readership – a sort of casting wide my Apostolic net. I had been holding back out of a fear that my obsessive-compulsive nature would turn me into a social media addict. In the end, I’m glad I made the decision to re-join the social media world as blog traffic has jumped from 86 page views in June to 752 and counting in August. All the while I’ve been able to respect my personal boundaries of not becoming physically attached to my computer with the need to see every tweet as it comes in.

The catalyst to my entry into the brave new world of social media was Brandon Vogt’s book The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishop’s Who Tweet. I had come across Brandon’s book via his own website, which I had stumbled upon from another blog, to which I had arrived from…. you probably understand the wayfaring workings of the web.

Vogt’s book isn’t a How To guide to spreading the truth about Catholicism on the web, but rather a compilation of short articles by Catholics on the web sharing their inspiration, methodology and experiences (both good and bad). The contributors to The Church and the New Media reads almost as a who’s who of the Catholic internet presence: Fr. Robert Barron, Jennifer Fulwiler, Marcel LeJeune, Mark Shea, Taylor Marshall, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Scot Landry, Matt Warner, Lisa Hendey, Thomas Peters Shawn Carney, Timothy Cardinal Dolan and Seàn Cardinal O’Malley. Their stories of blogging, tweeting and podcasts are interspersed with sidebars that tell the stories of other individuals who have been touched by Catholic Evangelization in the digital world or lists of other sources for others called to the Catholic mission on the new frontiers of social media. Scot Landry, Matt Warner and Lisa Hendey also directly address how Dioceses and Parishes can use new technologies and media to recapture the lost sheep who have gone astray, bringing today’s connected generation back into contact with the Apostolic Truth of the Catholic Church.

The Church and the New Media  has something to speak to all Catholics in the digital age. Whether you are a serious blogger or just trying to find your voice in the digital wilderness or a Pastor looking for new ways to engage your congregation, there are stories of how others have done it to inspire your evangelization. All that is needed is the same courage the Apostles drew on to tell the Gospel story in a land that doesn’t always want to hear it.

To this end I invite you to join the conversation as we go forward together to discover the mysteries and truths of our Catholic faith by following The Fisherman’s Shoes on Twitter (@fishermansshoes) and liking us on Facebook.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Emotion of Prayer

Dear Theophilus,

I’ve been dwelling a lot on my prayer life of late – something I’m sure you’ve noticed by the subjects of my recent posts. This is probably because I’ve had a lot more time to devote to prayer since I’ve been on holidays. I hope I’ve created enough good prayer habits that they’ll carry on once I’m back at work. All of this dime thinking about prayer and it’s uplifting effects brought me back to piece I wrote a few years ago, and I thought to share it with you. It was inspired by a forgotten guest on a forgotten late-night radio program who delved into the idea that contemplative prayer is more of an emotion of love of the Lord than of simply reciting memorized prayers.

I would love to know your thoughts on The Emotion of Prayer:

The essence of prayer is not in the words that are said, the essence of prayer is in the emotions of love it evokes.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. (1 Corinthians 13:1)

The elusive and almost indescribable bliss of oneness with the Lord is not unknown to those of us who pray regularly. Although we are constantly seeking out this comforting happiness, it happens upon us on very rare occasions, and usually without warning.

If it is this emotive state that we are seeking as prayer, why then do we need to follow the rigid formality of the prayers given to us by the Church? Simply, because theses prayers help sooth our souls and quieten our minds, making us fertile ground to receive God’s grace.

For those of us who have attained this spiritual tranquility, we understand that this emotion is our prayer, our dialogue with God, and that the words of our prayers are merely the medium that has opened up the lines of communication.

For many Catholics, their only exposure to prayer is in the fulfillment of their weekly obligation to attend Mass. The Mass is seen as the highlight of prayer in the life of the faithful because its repetition of routine allows for the quietening of the mind and the opening of the heart to God’s deeper mysteries.

The understanding of these mysteries and the emotions they evoke will be as varied as the individuals who experience them, and even then, they may not be experienced the same way twice by the same individual, nor will these emotions necessarily make themselves evident each and every time we attend Mass. Whether it is a charismatic-like vision of the Holy Spirit descending at the transubstantiation, the spreading of warmth through one’s body after taking communion or the sheer pleasure of seeing the innocent rapture on your child’s face as they pray; we cannot come to these emotions of rightness without first having quietened our souls through the process of worldly prayer.

The same emotions, the same sense of rightness, the same pleasure of being at one with God can also be attained through the meditative tranquility of prayer outside of the Mass.

The repetitiveness of the Rosary allows for the soothing away of life’s worries. It helps, also, that those who still say the Rosary on a regular basis will often do so in an environment of calm and quiet. The rhythmic clicking of beads and the cadence of the words allow our minds to focus on our spiritual needs, opening our hearts to God’s infinite wisdom.

Even the snippets of peace offered by daily prayer can allow for the emotion of prayer to come through. With the habitual pause for prayer the faithful will be able to find the tranquility of heart and soul to communicate with God.

As we pray, the words of our prayer will lead us to a better understanding of God, putting our souls in a better state to receive His grace, because without God’s love our voices are nothing but “a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How to Listen When God is Speaking

Dear Theophilus,

Earlier this summer I read How to Listen When God is Speaking: a Guide for Modern-Day Catholics by Fr. Mitch Pacwa S.J. I was greatly moved by what I read, not only by the content but also by the accessibility of Fr. Pacwa’s language for the average lay Catholic. This was a refreshing change to the many books on prayer that are written at a level that puts them almost out of the grasp of comprehension. As a Guide for Modern-Day Catholics, Fr. Pacwa’s book reaches out to Catholics who want to deepen their spiritual life in today’s modern world with striking clarity.

Fr. Pacwa begins by acknowledging how difficult it is to be a prayerful Catholic in today’s modern world. Although modern technologies (television, internet, smartphones) offer us multiple ways to get in touch with our Catholic spirituality, Fr. Pacwa rightfully points out that these same technologies offer far more temptations to turn away from our faith than to turn towards it. What this does, on the other hand, is create a far greater number of Catholics who thirst and hunger spiritually, seeking to be nourished by their prayer life.

To help guide us towards a more fruitful prayer life, Fr. Pacwa starts at the very foundation of our faith: that God exists, that we can communicate with Him and that He wants us to communicate with Him through prayer. Once we understand this, Fr. Pacwa urges us forward to make the commitment of making time for prayer. This commitment made, Fr. Pacwa reminds us that we need to meet God on His terms, not ours, opening our hearts and our minds to His message of love and discipline as it pertains to His plan for Creation.

Having made the commitment to enter more deeply into communicating with God, Fr. Pacwa teaches us how to prepare ourselves to get the most out of our prayer life. First, Fr. Pacwa guides us through St. Ignatius of Loyola’s 8 Rules for the Discernment of Spirits as a means of uncluttering our hearts and minds. Our hearts and minds ready, we are then encouraged to detach ourselves, even if momentarily, from this world and to trust totally in the Lord. Fr. Pacwa remains realistic throughout this process, and reminds us not to expect transfiguring enlightenment, neither from the outset nor throughout our prayer life, as he explains, “High points of prayer cannot be sustained through every moment of every day.”

To help nourish our prayer life and to deepen our prayer experience, Fr. Pacwa encourages us to follow the 5 P’s of Prayer: Place, Posture, Passage, Peace and Passage (once again). These will come naturally to those who already have an active prayer life, but those looking to begin or enrich their prayer life need to be more cognoscente of their effect on prayer. Place is an integral part of prayer - to quiet our soul we need to quieten our surroundings; we will be unable to pray properly if we are constantly distracted by our surroundings. Equally important to place in our prayer is Posture. We need to be comfortable to concentrate on our prayers, yet not so comfortable as to drift out of our prayerful frame of mind. Passage refers to the scripture readings we use to help focus our prayer. We need to select passages relevant to our prayer intentions to properly listen to God’s answer – if we are struggling to understand how scripture relates to our prayers, we will soon forget the intentions of our original prayers. Once we make Peace with what God is saying to us through prayer about His plan for us in creation, we can then return to our chosen scripture Passage to uncover its deeper meanings regarding our lives today.

Fr. Pacwa ends How to Listen When God is Speaking by guiding modern-day Catholics through the nuances of a heightened prayer life. That to pray effectively we need to strike a balance between our emotions, intellect and will – once again returning to the ideas of detachment and meeting God on His terms and not our own. By striking this balance and accepting God’s plan for Creation and our role in it, we can then learn to trust in God to lead us through the difficult times we’re confronted with living in today’s modern society.

When we find ourselves living through a difficult moment (and this is usually when we’ll turn to God in prayer) we need to recall the burdensome yoke placed by God on our shoulders. Fr. Pacwa reminds us that, like the yoke of oxen, our yoke is made for two – one side for ourselves and the other for Christ. Christ’s side of the yoke is larger than ours since it is Christ who will take the lead for us when our burdens seem unbearable.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Making Time for Prayer

Dear Theophilus,

The Archdiocese of Toronto recently tweeted “The average commuting time in the GTA = 80 minutes! That’s plenty of time to pray the Rosary while you travel.” Keeping in mind that Toronto is the most populous city in Canada, I’m sure the same could be said about every major city across the globe. In our fast paced society, where many people say they don’t have enough time to get to Mass on Sunday, let alone pray the Rosary, we need to make time for prayer, and our daily commute is the perfect time to take a moment to converse with the Lord.

I’m not saying that commuters shouldn’t pay attention to the road as they drive to work, but the talk radio or retro-music could easily be replaced with the rhythmic reciting of the Rosary. Taking this time to pray would be even easier for those who commute using public transit, especially on the long train ride in from suburbia. I actually found myself on a commuter train at rush-hour recently and was surprised at how much quieter it was than my usual rides at off-peak hours as the people filling the car had themselves plugged into their personal music, eyes glued to novels or the glowing screens of their smartphones.

Our daily commute isn’t the only time of the day when we can incorporate prayer into our daily rituals. In his novel Fairy Gunmother – La fée carabine, French novelist Daniel Pennac writes: “The best thing about dogs is that they force you to go out and have a good think.” This is something I missed in the year-and-a-half since our last dog died and am rediscovering this summer with the arrival of our new puppy. Goldie is welcome company as I say my Rosary first thing in the morning and the 4 or 5 other 30-minute walks through the rest of the day are a perfect time to reflect on life, ask God for strength and courage with the trials of the day or to give Him glory for the day’s abundant blessings.

I also find myself at prayer while doing other mundane chores around the house, from hanging the laundry to ironing to doing the dishes. I also try to read a passage from scripture before turning out the light before bed at night. Even reading just a couple of verses is a relaxing way to end the day and prepare my mind, body and soul for sleep.

My family and I lead lives as hectic as any one else living out the suburban dream. At times we find it a struggle to balance all of our responsibilities: careers, school, homework, sports, music, etc. It would be easy to let our prayer lives slip with such a full calendar and claim Sunday as the only day we get to sleep in as an excuse not to go to Mass. Still, we revel in the quiet moments we do find through the course of our busy days to prayerfully centre ourselves on the Lord.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Athletic Signs of Faith

Dear Theophilus,

Although I’m far from being an Olympics junkie, I’ve managed to watch an event here and there, usually while having my morning coffee. Watching the Men’s 100m heats the other day I was pleasantly surprised to watch Usain Bolt cross himself and point skywards as he settled into the starting blocks. It was as if he were telling God that what he was about to do was for Him.

Bolt isn’t the only elite athlete that I’ve noticed doing this lately. Recently Luis Leon Sanchez of Spain made the sign of the cross as he won the 14th stage of the 2012 Tour de France. Also, as a soccer junkie, I’ve noticed many players making the sign of the cross as they enter onto the pitch at the beginning of a game or as a substitute – most of them from countries where the Catholic faith is still strong: Italy, Spain and Latin America.

When I was a young boy, I remember watching my hockey hero, Guy Lafleur, make the sign of the cross before starting a hockey game and I asked my mother why he would do that if he wasn’t in church. She told me that it was a superstitious thing that athletes do. Personally, I think it goes further than that. Just like Usain Bolt seems to be telling God that he is seeking perfection through his athletic talents, I think other athletes are also saying a special prayer to God for one reason or another. Whether it’s asking God for strength and courage before the match begins or giving Him glory after a goal or a victory, these prayers are a way for athletes to recognize God’s role in what they do.

Reflecting on this got me to thinking about my own life, my own profession as a catholic educator and how I pray to God as I go about my day-to-day routines. Do I visibly ask God for strength and courage as I begin my day, students filtering into their seats? Some days I need it more than others. Do I give thanks to God after giving a particularly good lesson or helping a student understand a concept they were having difficulty with? If it were not for the talents God gave me, my successes would not be possible.

As we revel in the athletic exploits of the Olympics, I think we need to learn a thing or two from the athletes. We need to turn to God in our day-to-day lives, remembering to lean on Him when times are hard and to give Him glory when things go well; and finally, not to be afraid to show it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Prayer and the Monkey's Paw

Dear Theophilus,

Prayer is a powerful tool, and like most powerful tools, it must be used with caution.

And so it is with prayer – keep on asking and you will keep on receiving; keep on seeking and you will keep on finding; knock and the door will be opened. Everyone who asks, receives; all who seek, find; and the door is opened to everyone who knocks. (Lk 11:9-10)

Christ promises us that our prayers will be answered. But are we ready to listen to God’s reply?

Much like the mythical Monkey’s Paw from W.W. Jacobs’ early twentieth century thriller of the same title (“The Monkey’s Paw” in The Lady of the Barge, 1906), although our prayers may be answered or our wishes granted, the consequences may not be exactly what we intended. In Jacobs’ story, Mr. White wishes on a magical monkey’s paw for the paltry sum of £200 ($75,000 in today’s figures), an amount he receives as compensation for his only son’s untimely death due to a factory accident the next day. Although the money would have been welcomed to pay out Mr. White’s mortgage, the untold grief visited upon him and his wife was without price.

As young Catholic teachers taking the mandatory course in religious education at the beginning of our careers we were told by our instructor that God really does answer our prayers, it is just a matter of how the request is made. We were told that it was useless to ask for a million dollars, a flashy sports car or a medical miracle (in the same manner in which Sergeant-Major Morris warns Mr. White to, “wish for something sensible.”), but that we should ask for the Lord’s help and guidance.

At the time my wife and I had just purchased our very first home and were excitedly awaiting moving date. However, like most young couples, we were concerned about coming up with the down payment in time. Eager to put my newly acquired knowledge into practice, I began to pray. Following my course instructor’s guidance, I did not ask God to mysteriously deposit the amount into our bank account, instead I prayed daily: “Lord, please help us to overcome the financial obstacle to buying our house.”

Keep on asking and you will keep on receiving

My prayers were answered, but not without some unforeseen consequences. We had been so excited about our new home, the day we signed the purchase agreement we had also announced to all our family and friends our new address and moving day. Now weeks before moving day we received a phone call from the people we had bought our home from asking us to postpone the closing of our purchase by a month (a right they had had written into the original contract). Saddened that our dream of moving into our first home was delayed, we were relieved to have an extra month to save up the necessary money for our down payment.

There have been other times when I have found the need to turn to the Lord in prayer. I once received a distressing phone call from my parents that my aunt was very ill. She had suffered a stroke and her liver was shutting down. My aunt lay heavily sedated in palliative care, unable to recover from emergency surgery. That night I prayed the Rosary, knowing full well that it would take a miracle for her to recover. I asked the Virgin Mother to petition the Lord to help my aunt with her suffering.

Knock and the door will be opened.

The next morning I answered the phone knowing the news I was about to hear. My aunt had passed away through the night, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. With a grieving heart I accepted God’s answer and rejoiced in knowing that He had ended her pain.

The monkey’s paw of Jacobs’ tale was cursed by a Hindu holy man who “wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so at their sorrow.” Our Lord is not so vengeful. He rules our lives with justice and compassion. Although we may not understand the replies he sends us, we must accept the infinite wisdom with which He guides us. When we make our petitions to God, we must do so with a heart and mind that are open to the answers He gives us.