Thursday, December 31, 2015

Prayer Life - Use it or Lose it

Dear Theophilous,

Use it or lose it!

I’ve heard this expression countless times in my life applied to countless situations.

The context I can probably speak to the best about this from experience is language. In my youth I was blessed enough to be able to travel and live across Europe; experiences that needed me to become somewhat proficient in a number of different languages. At one point I had a fairly good command of at least 5 languages beyond my native English. Over the years, however, as my need to use some of these languages has diminished, so has my ability to speak them.

Use it or lose it is also an expression often used in reference to muscle. Again, speaking from middle-aged experience, my increasingly sedentary life has also led to decreased muscle mass. I prefer to acknowledge this phenomenon by explaining that my weight has migrated from my cyclist thighs to my gut.

I think the same can be said of our spiritual lives – as we pray less and less, our spiritual life will have a tendency to atrophy.

Unfortunately, not many people see their spiritual life in the same vein as their physical or linguistic abilities. Many approach their prayer life like riding a bike; that you can hop on and off at will and the experience will always be the same. That said, if you haven’t ridden a bike in a while, I wouldn’t suggest the Tour de France (let alone just a stage of this fabled race) be the place to start up again.

Still, time and again, we hear of people abandoning their prayer life because they didn’t have a beatific vision during Grace Before Meals. Even the most holy of saints will tell you that prayer life takes work – work that isn’t always immediately compensated. Blessed (soon to be Saint) Theresa of Calcutta, herself, spoke about going through years of spiritual dryness.

As we turn the calendar on another year, many people (myself included) take this opportunity to make resolutions to change their lives for the better. The New Year’s resolutions that fail by the end of January will be the ones that set their sites on achieving the Champs Élysées or the Transfiguration overnight. The resolutions that will succeed in changing lives are the ones that see the journey is made up of many small steps.

If a renewed prayer life is your New Year’s Resolution, know that you are in my prayers. As you embark on this journey, I would encourage you to remain focussed on the small steps of the journey while always keeping the final destination in mind.

A great tool I would suggest is the Honor Your Inner Monk app for your smartphone. This app will provide you with 2 short daily prayers (morning and afternoon), needing between only 1 to 2 minutes of your time each. Always short, but always relevant, they are the small steps needed to take you through your grand tour towards heaven.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Why Be Catholic?

Dear Theophilous,

I’m what most people would consider a cradle Catholic, more or less. Shortly after I was born I was baptized at St. Anselm’s parish in Toronto. Even though it wasn’t their home parish, they had gotten married there, and thus the decision to have me baptized there. I don’t think any of us have ever been back to St. Anselm’s since.

I also have vague recollections of my sister’s baptism when I was 3, but most of my early childhood memories are of Sunday School at the local United Church. It wasn’t until I was 9 years-old and my mom went through the RCIA program that we started attending St. John Chrysostom and I made my first Reconciliation and Eucharist. From that point on, for all intents and purposes, was raised a cradle Catholic.

During those formative years, if you had asked me Why I was Catholic, I would have given the question about a 10-second thought before answering, “Because my parents are.” Actually, growing up in the Catholic school system, it just seemed natural that everybody and their parents (and their parents’ parents) were Catholic. It was just the natural order of things.

As I’ve been mellowing in my old age, however, I’ve been giving more and more thought to the question Why be Catholic? It’s a question I’ve heard discussed by a variety of different personalities on The Catholic Channel on SiriusXM, giving much food for thought. It’s a question I knew I had to answer once I saw it emblazoned on a banner in my mother-in-law’s parish in London, Ontario.

I know the answer, “Because my parents are,” will no longer hold water when it comes to defending my Catholic faith, so I narrowed it down to three key reasons:

  • The Eucharist
  • The Truth
  • My Family

The Eucharist

The Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly states that “The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life.” (CCC #1324) The Catechism tells us how all other sacraments, and all other life in the Church are bound up in the Eucharist and oriented toward it. How could they not be? This is the body and blood, soul and divinity of our Lord and Saviour. Really, the Eucharist is the be all and end all of what it means to be Catholic, and in my mind, what it means to be Christian.

Believing in the Eucharist isn’t easy. It never was. Even those who knew Christ and followed him daily had a hard time. During the Eucharistic Discourse in the Gospel according to St. John, when Jesus tells His followers they need to eat His flesh and drink His blood they grumble, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6:60) And then when Jesus reiterated our need for the Eucharist, “many drew back and no longer walked with Him.” (Jn 6:66).

Knowing the Eucharist, understanding the Eucharist, loving the Eucharist; none of it is easy; but one you do, it is the most beautiful thing on Earth. I’ve heard it said that if we truly knew in our hearts what the Eucharist contained – wild horses could not keep us away from it. Some of the most profound moments in my life have come before the Blessed Sacrament, my heart physically pulled towards the Tabernacle; the ache of my suffering eased by the sacrifice on the altar; the tranquil warmth that fills me when I consume the Eucharist.

It is through the Eucharist that I love that I have come to know Christ’s love for me, a sinner.

The Truth

If the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, our faith hinges on a single question that Jesus asks us: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29, Mt 16:15) How we answer that question changes everything. C.S. Lewis tells us we can answer this question in only in one of three ways: that Christ a liar, a lunatic, or He is Lord. Personally, I pick the third option each and every time.

Whenever defending doctrine or explaining a point of faith, I like to begin the discussion by asking this very question. The starting point with Christians is that He is Lord, God, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. (If this isn’t the answer, there’s a whole other conversation that needs to take place). If Christ is God, then we have to take what He says as the Truth – like it or not.

Christ Himself tells us, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (Jn 14:6) It’s not a boast – it’s a simple fact.

There are a lot of Christ’s teachings that are difficult, even more so now in the 21st Century than they were in the 1st Century (and look what they did to Jesus back then). When we propose that our truths are better than Christ’s, are we then not presupposing that we are greater than God?

The Truth that Christ gives us in His Gospel is like a beacon in the dark. The Truth guides us to the joy of eternal life in Him. The seas may be, and usually are, rough; but the guiding light of Christ’s love and Truth bring us to safety. Instead of binding us up, the Truth liberates us to not worry about the raging waters around us, but to take comfort in the safe harbour we are going to enter.

My Family

The joy of faith is not something to be kept in secret, a lamp hidden under a bushel basket; rather, it is to be shared freely. I love the expression: Don’t just keep the faith. Give it away!

I always teach my students that the true meaning of Love is “to want what is best for the other.” If I truly love my wife and if I truly love my son, how could I ever imagine to keep from them the beauty I have found in the Eucharist and the Truth? There is nothing I want more for them than the love of God.

This is how the faith has come down to us over 2,000 years. Passed from generation to generation, parent to child. I can’t think of any better gift I could give my son, a gift that will not only last a lifetime, but for all eternity.

Why Be Catholic? Is a question I had never given too much thought to, but it’s a question which defines who I am; who my family is.  This is a question I no longer run from, but embrace and am proud to answer.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Crying the Confiteor

Dear Theophilous,

I’ve always been a little bit on the sappy side. Ever since I was a kid, it hasn’t taken a whole lot to get me to tear up. At a very young age I learned why they called them tearjerker movies, but I never could really understand why there were tearjerker commercials on TV. Even today, if there is the least bit of emotional sentiment being expressed, I find my eyes begin to well up and I need to choke back the tears.

As I’ve gotten older, I have become better at keeping my emotions in check as my surroundings dictate. I really need to be caught off guard by a film I’m showing in class for the tears to come (can’t be letting the kids see me cry). If I do feel the tears starting to come, usually the classroom is dark enough for me to get to the door and step out into the hallway until I can get things back under control.

In other words – I don’t cry in public…

…until one day this past summer.

During the summer holidays I like to get to daily Mass at least once a week. The day of the week changes based on what we’ve got going on, or if I can get myself out of bed in time; but I do make the effort to get there at least one day through the week. I like the simplicity of the daily Mass, and I like the quiet. I especially like the quiet (in particular those moments of silence when music fills the void on Sundays – not that I mind the music, it’s just sometimes silence is nice too).

At this one particular daily Mass in the middle of August, as the 2 dozen or so of us in the congregation were saying the Confiteor the tears started coming, and there was no way I could stop them.

The long and the short of the whole story – I realized what I was saying, and I realized how unworthy I am of God’s mercy.

Although it has taken me a while to get up the courage to share this with you, dear Theophilous, I would like to share the Confiteor with you, and then take you through the thoughts that stirred so much emotion.

I confess to Almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask the blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

So now bit by bit, couplet by couplet, my reflections on the Confiteor…

I confess to Almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,

Confession is nothing new. My family and I try to make a regular habit of it (though it is admittedly more irregular than regular). I had been away from the sacrament for some time, and found it difficult at first, but now I find I get antsy if we haven’t been in a while.

On this particular day, at this particular Mass, with these particular words, I began to realize just how personal my confession is. It’s not just some list to be rattled off by rote, or a pat “The usual” or “The same as last time”. This time I was acutely aware of the reality of my sins and that they hurt my relationship with God. I also became more conscious of the fact that the Father already knows my sins, and that I He would be more merciful if I came clean and repented myself.

This time I was also struck that I was confessing to the whole congregation – my brothers and sisters. Not only did my sins affect my relationship with God, but with the entire Body of Christ – the Church. It felt weird at first to be confessing to others in the congregation, but then I was comforted by the words of St. James’ letter: Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16) It brought me solace to know that no matter how great of a sinner any of us are, we’re in this together. That we are the Body of Christ, and that when one part of the body is ill, the rest of the body pulls together to heal itself.

that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,

Even on the days when I’m just rattling through the Confiteor, these lines act like a mini examination of conscience for me. My mind starts racing and I can never seem to get through the list before we’ve moved on to the next couplet.

This, however, was really the moment when I realized the seriousness of what I was saying. The moment when the tears started coming.

This time I stopped, though. I slowed down and listened to what I was saying… I have greatly sinned. There should be no trivializing of my sin. No rushing through the list to make sure I didn’t miss anything. If my sins are great enough to list, then they are great enough to have offended God. Although there is a difference between venial and mortal sin, all sin offends God. All sin drives a wedge between ourselves and the Father who loves us. All sin is great in its harm.

So then I dug deep. I recalled not only my sins of action, but also the thoughts that had germinated those sins. I also recalled the thoughts that started me on the road toward sin, but through the grace of God I was able to catch before they came to fruition; thoughts that are still sin as Christ taught us. (cf Mt 5:28)

And then there is the kicker: in what I have done and in what I have failed to do. Not only to I need to recall all of my sins, but I also need to remember when I should have done something but I didn’t. How many times had I passed the homeless on the street, turned a blind eye to someone who needed help, shirked away instead of defending the Church.

I have sinned… lots… and I have sinned greatly… and I just at that moment realized what that meant to my relationship with God and others.

And matters were only getting worse (and the tears copious) as I knew that this sinning was…

through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;

I had nowhere to hide; no one to blame it all on. These sins are mine and mine alone. I knew what I was doing (but maybe pretended I didn’t). I had made the conscious decision. It’s always a humbling experience to admit it… but these sins were my own fault and nobody else’s.

I wanted to do more than pound my chest. I wanted to wail and rend my garments. I was devastated. My sins felt greater than me, that I could not overcome them to receive God’s mercy.

Thank goodness we have friends greater than this world to help us through…

therefore I ask the blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,

A sense of calm began to wash over me. I could ask for help. All those who are close to the Lord would pray for me: Mary, His Mother; the Angels who surround, serve and worship the Lord; and the Saints, those humans who would tell you that they were the greatest sinners. They would all be praying for me, as well as for you.

With the list of sins that had just flashed through my mind, I needed all the help I could get; and the closer the help was to God, the better.

and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

And yes, I knew I had to pray for all of my brothers and sisters in Christ, because I sure knew that I needed their prayers. Just like St. James exhorted us to do, we needed to pray for one another for healing. The journey through life is too arduous to do it alone, we need one another’s help. When one of us falls, the others need to pick them up through prayer and spiritual guidance.

Reinforced with the knowledge that I had all of that prayer behind me, the tears subsided and the sniffling stopped. As we moved into the liturgy of the word, my mind and heart felt like fertile ground for the seed of God’s wisdom. And the Eucharist, my heart itself was moved to a warmth that spread through my whole body.

Although I’ve never said the Confiteor by rote since; always aware of what I’m saying, aware of the damage my sins have done; I’ve never been so acutely aware of my sins and God’s bountiful mercy for those who seek it, as I was on that August morning in a quiet suburban church.

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:


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


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


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.