Thursday, February 25, 2016

Facing Our Fears with 5 Smooth Stones

Dear Theophilous,

I’ve gotten into the habit of listening to the cd’s put out by Lighthouse Catholic Media whenever I drive to and from my parents’ house. The ride is an hour door-to-door, which is perfect since the talks are also usually 45 minutes to an hour long. Doing the drive almost weekly for the past 20 years, I know the road well enough to be able to give the talks enough attention while still driving safely.

On the most recent jaunt to my folks’ to drop off my son for a “sleep” over, we listened to Mark Hart’s talk Facing Your Fears. My son loves listening to the Lighthouse cd’s and about 20 minutes into the ride he piped up from the back seat: “This guy’s quite a comedian!” A few minutes later we added our own comedic genius when Mark challenged his audience to meditate on what we would become the patron saint of once we got to heaven (God willing). Mark himself claims that he will become the patron saint of turning off lights in empty room. I couldn’t resist dropping the well-intentioned barb, “I’ll be the patron saint of flushing un-flushed toilets!” To which my son retorted without missing a beat: “And I’ll be the patron saint of not flushing toilets!”

As much as we are all called to become saints, Mark Hart’s talk went much deeper. He talks about how our fears keep us from becoming the saints we are meant to be. He likens our fears to the Philistine giant, Goliath; and that like David, we need to slay our giants, our Goliaths, our fears if we are to become the saints God has called us to be.

Although we all know the gist of the David and Goliath story, many of us don’t necessarily know all of the details. By divine providence, this story from the 1st Book of Samuel provided the readings of the day for the week leading up to when I heard Mark Hart’s talk.

The story of David and Goliath can be found at 1 Samuel 17:32-51, and I won’t re-write the entire story here; but there are a couple of verses that I would like to highlight:

As David and Goliath squared off, the Philistine giant taunted the Hebrew shepherd boy, “Am I a dog, that you would come to me with sticks?” (1 Sm 17:43) Goliath then cursed David, threatening that he would leave him for dead; carrion for the birds. (1 Sm 17:44)

The giant, shield bearer before him and sword in hand, must have cut an imposing figure. It’s no wonder that none of the Israelite soldiers wanted to take him on. In the same way, our fears can also seem insurmountable, and we will do whatever we can to avoid them, instead of facing them head on.

We must answer the taunts of our fears the same way David answered the taunts of Goliath: “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts.” (1 Sm 17:45)

As Mark Hart puts it so clearly: “We don’t need to tell God how big our problems are; we need to tell our problems how big God is.”

That’s exactly what David did, he told Goliath how big God is.

We all know how the story ends… David slays Goliath with his sling and he cuts off the Giant’s head. But how did he do it? How did this ruddy youth, a mere shepherd boy, bring down the giant, a professional warrior who was armed to the teeth?

He put his trust in God.

When Saul saw that David was adamant in facing down the giant, he had him kitted out in his own personal armour. As a shepherd and not a warrior, however, David wasn’t used to the armour, could hardly walk in it, and refused to wear it (1 Sm 17:38-39). Instead, “David took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch.” (1 Sm 17:40)

This is how David faced Goliath. Not with royal armour; not with the king’s sword; but with 5 smooth stones. This is how God calls us to face our own giants, our fears; not with the armour and sword of this world, but with the 5 smooth stones he provides for us.

So what are our 5 smooth stones provided by God to fight our fears?

I would propose that they are:

Ø  Humility;
Ø  Wisdom;
Ø  Virtue;
Ø  Courage; and the
Ø  Grace of God

I think that humility needs to be the first stone we place in our pouch. Too often our pride gets in our way and we see needing others as a sign of weakness. We would rather face our fears alone and fail, rather than admit that we have fears to begin with. We would rather cower in fear than put ourselves in debt to the Lord. Although David stood alone before Goliath, he was humble enough to know that he could not defeat the giant with out God’s help – “This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand” (1 Sm 17:46). It takes a bigger person to admit that they are frightened, that they need help, that they need to put their trust in someone. In order to slay the giants of our fears, in all humility we need to say: Jesus, I trust in you!

The second stone we need to pick up and put in our pouch is Wisdom. How can we trust in God if we do not know His ways? The wisdom with which we arm ourselves cannot be boastful or arrogant – it needs to be the humble wisdom of understanding the difference between right and wrong; knowing that God’s way is always right, whether we understand or like it or not. If we have wisdom in the ways of the Lord, then, like Mark Hart says, we can tell our fears just how big our God is.

“There can be no Virtue without temptation,” is a quote from St. Augustine that has become almost a mantra for me. The devil prays on our fears. Satan knows that our fears are the chink in our armour; a weakness to be exploited through temptation. I find that the more I give in to a particular temptation, the greater my fear grows. By leading a life of virtue, a life that is in many ways harder than a life of vice, I can face down my fears and move on to the bigger and better things that God has called me to. A virtuous life is one that grows out of both humility and wisdom; the knowledge of His ways and the confidence to trust in Him.

Every day I pray for the smooth stone of Courage. Every morning before we leave the house, my son and I pray for the courage to be a light of God’s will in the darkness of the world. Let’s face it, the world must be a dark and scary place if even St. John Paul the Great proclaimed the presence of a Culture of Death. If we don’t have courage, how can we ever face our fears? We will remain paralysed, unable to move, unable to find the joy God has planned for us. Like the stones we’ve already placed in our pouch, courage is built upon the stones that have gone in before it.

It is the Grace of God, however, that is the stone that slays the giant of our fears. David himself recognizes this in Psalm 124 when he sings: If it had not been for the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive. (Ps 124:2-3) St. Paul reiterates this when he writes: But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me has not been in vain. (1 Cor 15:10) And of course there is the ubiquitous citation: If but for the grace of God go I; meaning that if it were not for the will of God, I too would have suffered. It truly is the Grace of God that defeats our demons. Demons, Satan and the temptations they play with our fears are greater than this world, and it will take God’s grace to defeat them, but we have the hope of knowing that our Lord will deliver us from our enemies.

The world is a dark and scary place, and our fears can seem bigger than ourselves. However, when we put the 5 smooth stones of humility, wisdom, virtue, courage, and God’s Grace in our pouch, we can face down our fears and win, just like David faced down Goliath and was victorious.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Roll up the Rim for Lent

Dear Theophilous,

There can be no virtue without temptation.

In his brilliance St. Augustine gave us many quotes, but lately this has become one of my favourites. Each time the notion to sin pops to mind, I silently whisper this mantra, and I feel my will strengthened. If I’m to be honest, though, there are times when I need to shout it to save myself.

In a similar vein, it has been an ongoing joke in our home over the years that we know when Lent has arrived, because it’s also time to Roll up the Rim to Win!

People from across Canada will understand the reference to the annual promotional event by the nation’s best-loved coffee shop (and cultural institution). Through February and March every year, Tim Hortons restaurants offer their clients the chance to win one of millions of prizes (ranging from free coffees and donuts to a free car) by simply looking under the rim of their throwaway paper cup.

The inside joke in our home is that this promotion always coincides with the penitential season of Lent – a time when Catholics are called to cut back and sacrifice as a way to prepare for Christ’s Passion and enjoin ourselves to His suffering on the Cross. Timmies seems set on derailing our efforts as our next up will be the big winner, and if it isn’t, at least we’ll be assuaged by the fact that we’ve won a free sweet.

What’s a poor, penitent Catholic who’s trying to cut back on their caffeine or calorie intake to do?

There is no virtue without temptation.

The suburban Catholic high school where I teach has come up with an ingenious way to take part in this yearly slice of Canadiana while still heeding Christ’s call to the Corporal Works of Mercy. There’s a basket in the main office for winning coffee cup rims, which are then donated to a local homeless shelter. Each week a dozen or so coffees and donuts go to those who need them most. In the years that the school has been collecting winning rims, no one has ever donated a car, but I’m sure the shelter would never say no to the winner keeping the car and making a cash donation of 10% of its worth.

If there isn’t such a basket at your workplace yet, dear Theophilous, I would challenge you to put one out. Not only would the excited water cooler chatter of who’s coffee was a winner continue, there would be the added joyful glow of know the winnings were going to those who need it while our Lenten sacrifices remain intact.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

From Cafeteria to Google Catholic

Dear Theophilous,

I think we’ve all heard of the term Cafeteria Catholic; referring to the kind of person who picks and chooses which Church teachings to follow and ignoring the ones they’d rather do without. The term comes from the same kind of whimsical approach most of us take when getting lunch at the cafeteria; perhaps choosing the daily special over the cellophane wrapped sandwich, or maybe this time we’ll take the red Jell-O instead of the green.

The sad thing is, we all probably know of at least one Cafeteria Catholic. There’s Uncle Fred who likes to take his Eucharist without the obligatory side of yearly confession. Or maybe there’s your pew neighbour who’s there every week, she coos at the babies being baptized and loves Pope Francis, but she also thinks a woman should have the right to choose abortion.

Unfortunately, when we try to show these folks that Catholicism is a smorgasbord rather than a cafeteria, where every last teaching is to be not only eaten, but also savoured, we’re usually shouted down for trying to force-feed them.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed an even more disturbing trend when it comes to Catholic teaching; something I would like to call Google Catholicism.

Let me explain…

My brother-in-law is in the last year of his radiology residency. Like all doctors, although his speciality is radiology, during his residency he has had to do stints in all areas of medicine from paediatrics to gerontology and everything in between. Early on in his residency he spent some time in the ER of a major downtown hospital. When I asked him about this experience, he said the worst part was that most patients that came in had already self-diagnosed from the internet, and that they were telling him the treatment he was supposed to prescribe. It seems that 30 seconds on Google supersedes 12+ years (at that particular moment) of university education.

A parallel can be extended to the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, himself, even likened “the Church as a field hospital after battle.”

From having watched and meditated upon the goings-on at the recent Synod on the Family; it’s left me wondering if the Church is a field hospital where the patients, and in some cases even the nurses, are telling the surgeons what treatments to prescribe. Those who were once Cafeteria Catholics, who picked and chose which teachings of the Church to follow to suit their needs, have now become Google Catholics, telling the Church which teachings to change to suit their needs.

The biggest hullabaloo seemed to centre on the question of Communion for divorced and re-married Catholics. Although there is a recognition of a state of sin (cf Mt 19:3-8; Mk 10:2-9 and Lk 16:18), the proponents of this practice, and others, seem intent on flying in the face of Christ’s teachings. The Magisterium is right in saying that there are simply some teachings that cannot be changed, because they come from Christ Himself; yet there are still some, both inside and outside the Church, who insist they know better.

On this matter, as well as any other (especially homosexuality), the pat argument of the Google Catholic is to trot out the ubiquitous Pope Francis quote: “Who am I to judge?” Although correct in that we do not have the right of final judgement on a person’s soul, we do have a responsibility to judge each other’s actions so as to best help one another present the best case possible when it comes to our final judgement. Added to this problem is the fact that this quote is usually wildly misused, misunderstood and presented out of context. Pope Francis himself recently explained: "On that occasion I said this: If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person?" (cited in New Catholic Reporter) In this statement there is a notion of love for a sinner seeking mercy; a seeking out of the Lord and a willingness to follow in His ways of repentance.

Just as there is an inherent danger to our physical health when we self-diagnose and self-prescribe off the internet without the foundation of a sound medical education, so too is there an inherent danger to our spiritual health when we self-diagnose and self-prescribe for our sins. Being a Google Catholic can be great, if you allow it to open the doors to the smorgasbord of Catholic teaching. However, if you insist on being a Google Catholic to put yourself ahead of Christ and the 2000+ year cumulative teachings of the Church He founded – then you’re playing with fire.