Monthly Archives: September 2009

5MM: The leaf that toppled my tomato plant

This year I attempted something that I never imagined I could accomplish: I grew tomatoes from seeds. Partially due to my neighbors’ magic potion they fed them while I was on vacation earlier in the summer, (I’m pretty sure), they have grown taller than me. I have even gotten some tomatoes off of them, though they are slow to make the transition from green to red. After a good harvest in mid August, there is now a new class on the vine, all green, playing beat the clock with the impending frost. I have my heart set on eating those remaining 15 or so tomatoes!

So, imagine my dismay when I went out on the deck yesterday to find one of my plants completely toppled over! Apparently, my makeshift method of propping up the 5-ft-tall plant finally gave out. That last leaf grew which was too much for my dear plant and it fell over, caging and all.

I have been working on my moral theology homework this week, where we have been studying virtue. Virtue is a habitual inclination to do the good. And, like a tomato plant, is built over time. Yes, we get supernatural grace for supernatural virtue, but grace still builds on nature. The ordinary way we gain virtue is through practice. We need to get used to doing a good act over and over, in all kinds of different circumstances.

The same is true for vice. We slowly build such a habit by practicing the bad act, over and over. Which is why we should not be surprised when a dysfunctional relationship suddenly boils over, or a situation which seemed under control yesterday now seems out of control. Like my tomato plant, it was just one leaf away the whole time we were adding vice to vice and it finally fell over.

Once we build up a habit of vice, we need to back peddle through all the acts we’ve built up, and that is hard! Grace aids greatly, but the acts still need to be committed rightly, over and over.

Well, after cutting off every branch that wasn’t already nurturing a tomato, I got my plant back up yesterday. Today, though, I have a more real-world situation to deal with before it bubbles over. Can you say a quick prayer for me for courage to practice virtue? Thanks!

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5MM: Beware of Millstones

Having been inspired by a friend of mine’s new family blog where she sets a timer every day to sit at the keyboard and make some notes about her life, I have decided that would also be a good idea for me. I have a ton of ideas for posts sitting in my draft folder because I am “too busy” to put aside time to develop them well. Though I believe it is important to put time into my writing, I simply don’t have much of it right now, so I will attempt to not let the good be the enemy of the perfect. I may not be able to write every day, but I will try to at least get to it a few times a week. The clock is ticking… so here goes!

As someone who gets paid to teach the faith to young people, yesterday’s Gospel sent chills down my spine: Anyone who leads a little one to sin would be better off sleeping with the fishes. It’s one of those moments that doesn’t dovetail nicely with the idea of a hippie Jesus who just goes around telling people to be nice. And to add to this Bizarro Jesus thing, he starts talking about cutting off our feet and plucking out our eyes? What the heck?

I think it’s pretty simple. Jesus takes sin really seriously. After all, that’s the whole reason he came down from heaven to suffer continuously for 33 years, culminating in the most humiliating, agonizing death in human history: he wanted to save us from sin!

The fact that this is lost on us as 21st Century Catholics is due to the fact that we have lost a sense of sin. This is a great tragedy in the modern world. We shook off guilt decades ago thinking it would liberate us, but it has done the opposite. Sin always enslaves. Reconciliation always liberates. Jesus came to be our Savior, and when we deny that we are sinners, we exclude ourselves from his services.

See, when Jesus talks harshly about sin, it’s not to condemn us, but to free us. He’s like a family having an intervention with an alcoholic: listen, bud. You have a big problem. I love you too much to let you drink yourself to death. If he needs to be candid and blunt, it’s because we need it told to us like it is. Not so we can sit around wallowing in shame, but so we can move from shame, to forgiveness, to joy, to mission.

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The Scholarship

Imagine a young orphan, living in destitute poverty.  This infant is taken in, loved with great tenderness and when old enough, is enrolled into an elite  boarding school.  This school is home to the brightest minds in the known world, most of whom are also extremely kind and wise.  Every opportunity is provided this child, completely free of charge. 

At first the child loves the school, reveling in learning the ABC’s and soon fascinated by his own ability to read words, and then sentences.  He loves the lessons on nature and science, math and music.  As he grows older, however, the child becomes a teenager, then a young adult.  In this process of high school and college, the young man develops some boredom with the school which soon develops into complete apathy.  Perhaps there were some difficulties with lessons for which he did not seek adequate help.  Perhaps he resented having to sit in the classroom on a nice day.  Maybe he grew weary of the effort good education exacted from him.  Whatever the reason, he begins to routinely skip class. When he does occupy the chair, has not done his homework, and therefore cannot participate or contribute to the discussion.  This feeds his indifference and contempt. 

Slowly he has convinced himself that the school is not all he thought it was as a naive child, and part of the way through college, he drops out completely.  Since he has rejected the education offered him, he returns to the kind of depraved existence he was rescued from as a baby.  He still considers himself an alumni of the school, but often refers to it with sarcasm.  The school which offered him every opportunity has become the butt of his most vicious jokes.

A sad story to be sure.  Not only for the young man, but for the benefactor who paid his tuition all those years.  Even if you figure on the low side of $10,000 per year for 12 years, you are looking at a $120,000 pricetag.  That is a lot of money spend gratuititously by a stranger, rejected and scorned.

In this parable, the young man is all of us, in varying degrees.  And the school is the Church.  Let me explain.

The Church is the means by which Jesus desires to save all men.  It is not an add-on, a place to come “do” Christianity or a set of artificial beaurocracy set in place by white-bearded old celebates.  She is a living, growing organism.  So much so that we call her the Body of Christ.  This is a metaphor in a certain sense, but is more literal than we give it credit for.  We are all part of Jesus himself when we are in the Church.  That whole thing Jesus told Peter about the gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church and sin being bound and loosed? As Catholics, we believe it.  The Church is a gratuititously free gift from Jesus to us, an ark which brings us aboard out of our sin and depravity through our Baptism. 

So, like the young man, we are saved through Baptism, snatched from poverty and nurtured with Sanctifying grace.  But she does not stop there.  The Church is the meeting place, over two millenia, of the best and brightest minds of civilization.  The saints nurture us in our understanding of Truth, and through their holiness invite us to delve deeper into the mysteries of God.  It must not be forgotten that all these brilliant folk are not moved on their own power, but by the Holy Spirit who guides and  inspires their thought and virtue.  Perhaps most importantly, what they teach us is not primarily academic.  They teach us about what it means to be human, how to live in right relationships and most importantly, what is our final end.  They lived the drama of human existence with heroic virtue and offer to tangibly help us along our own path.

These same saints paid for this education of ours with their suffering.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”.  This is not exactly the same reality as would be seen by a country’s military, however.  We owe our existence as a free nation Washington’s men, and our continued unity to Lincoln’s, and our freedom from Nazi’s to the brave men of World War II.  Christian martyrs, on the other hand conquered only themselves.  They do not seem to be doing anything, really.  The Romans were not immediately overthrown from the grace released by the Christians they burned as torches to light the outskirts of the city.  Evil appeared to have triumphed.  And so it is in every day and age that the workings of Christian martyrdom, bloody and unbloody, costs so much but pays out invisibly.  This is precisely because it is offered in communion with the hidden sacrifice on Calvary. 

This is the saddest part of our analogy.  It could perhaps be conceivable to reject gifts and treasures of many faceless thousands of people (how easy is it to take advantage of the “government” or a “big corporation”?).  But the primary donor that we reject when we treat the Church with contempt or indifference is Jesus Christ.  A totally free gift, of tremendous magnitude, for our own salvation rejected, scorned, or perhaps just taken for granted.

So, how are we like the young man? Often as children we are open and excited about our faith.  Perhaps that is what Jesus is getting at when he tells us we should all be like children!  Often, though, when things get harder to understand we do not seek the answers to our doubts and questions as we should.  Or perhaps we get “grass is always greener” syndrome, preferring to be more like our secularized peers who get to sleep in on Sunday mornings.  Maybe we look as what is asked of us as Christians and find it too hard.  Whatever the reason, our indifference begins to feed itself.  If we are not continuing our religious education after Confirmation classes, we will not understand what is going on at Mass or why the Church teaches what she does on tough topics.  Armed with misunderstandings and diminshed actual graces, it gets easier to “tune out” the faith.  Some of us stay in this place, knowing there is good yet in the Church, but frozen against growing in virtue and love for God.  Others will, like the young man, completely check out.

So what to do?  First, we need to take stock, looking at ourselves in light of this story.  What is it that gets you “stuck”?  Sin? Confusion? Boredom? Those are fairly easily remedied through Confession, Eucharist and study.  I can’t speak for everyone in parish ministry, but I know that I would much rather spend all day in dialogue with someone having difficulty with Church teaching than one minute handling registration forms!  Seek out help in your parish if it is your questions that are keeping you away!  Some of us are in the ark, in good standing with the Church, but just need an extra dose of gratitude for the great gift she is.  In my theological study, I have found that every time I delve deeper into the mysteries of our faith, I marvel at it more deeply. 

As we enter the back-to-school season, preparing our new clothes and supply lists and writing seemingly endless numbers of checks, let us step back and remember the great School we were enrolled in from our Baptism, and give thanks for that great gift.

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The Scholarship: A Parable

Imagine a young orphan, living in destitute poverty.  This infant is taken in, loved with great tenderness and when old enough, is enrolled into an elite  boarding school.  This school is home to the brightest minds in the known world, most of whom are also extremely kind and wise.  Every opportunity is provided this child, completely free of charge. 

At first the child loves the school, reveling in learning the ABC’s and soon fascinated by his own ability to read words, and then sentences.  He loves the lessons on nature and science, math and music.  As he grows older, however, the child becomes a teenager, then a young adult.  In this process of high school and college, the young man develops some boredom with the school which soon develops into complete apathy.  Perhaps there were some difficulties with lessons for which he did not seek adequate help.  Perhaps he resented having to sit in the classroom on a nice day.  Maybe he grew weary of the effort good education exacted from him.  Whatever the reason, he begins to routinely skip class. When he does occupy the chair, has not done his homework, and therefore cannot participate or contribute to the discussion.  This feeds his indifference and contempt. 

Slowly he has convinced himself that the school is not all he thought it was as a naive child, and part of the way through college, he drops out completely.  Since he has rejected the education offered him, he returns to the kind of depraved existence he was rescued from as a baby.  He still considers himself an alumni of the school, but often refers to it with sarcasm.  The school which offered him every opportunity has become the butt of his most vicious jokes.

A sad story to be sure.  Not only for the young man, but for the benefactor who paid his tuition all those years.  Even if you figure on the low side of $10,000 per year for 12 years, you are looking at a $120,000 pricetag.  That is a lot of money spend gratuititously by a stranger, rejected and scorned.

In this parable, the young man is all of us, in varying degrees.  And the school is the Church.  Let me explain.

The Church is the means by which Jesus desires to save all men.  It is not an add-on, a place to come “do” Christianity or a set of artificial beaurocracy set in place by white-bearded old celebates.  She is a living, growing organism.  So much so that we call her the Body of Christ.  This is a metaphor in a certain sense, but is more literal than we give it credit for.  We are all part of Jesus himself when we are in the Church.  That whole thing Jesus told Peter about the gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church and sin being bound and loosed? As Catholics, we believe it.  The Church is a gratuititously free gift from Jesus to us, an ark which brings us aboard out of our sin and depravity through our Baptism. 

So, like the young man, we are saved through Baptism, snatched from poverty and nurtured with Sanctifying grace.  But she does not stop there.  The Church is the meeting place, over two millenia, of the best and brightest minds of civilization.  The saints nurture us in our understanding of Truth, and through their holiness invite us to delve deeper into the mysteries of God.  It must not be forgotten that all these brilliant folk are not moved on their own power, but by the Holy Spirit who guides and  inspires their thought and virtue.  Perhaps most importantly, what they teach us is not primarily academic.  They teach us about what it means to be human, how to live in right relationships and most importantly, what is our final end.  They lived the drama of human existence with heroic virtue and offer to tangibly help us along our own path.

These same saints paid for this education of ours with their suffering.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”.  This is not exactly the same reality as would be seen by a country’s military, however.  We owe our existence as a free nation Washington’s men, and our continued unity to Lincoln’s, and our freedom from Nazi’s to the brave men of World War II.  Christian martyrs, on the other hand conquered only themselves.  They do not seem to be doing anything, really.  The Romans were not immediately overthrown from the grace released by the Christians they burned as torches to light the outskirts of the city.  Evil appeared to have triumphed.  And so it is in every day and age that the workings of Christian martyrdom, bloody and unbloody, costs so much but pays out invisibly.  This is precisely because it is offered in communion with the hidden sacrifice on Calvary. 

This is the saddest part of our analogy.  It could perhaps be conceivable to reject gifts and treasures of many faceless thousands of people (how easy is it to take advantage of the “government” or a “big corporation”?).  But the primary donor that we reject when we treat the Church with contempt or indifference is Jesus Christ.  A totally free gift, of tremendous magnitude, for our own salvation rejected, scorned, or perhaps just taken for granted.

So, how are we like the young man? Often as children we are open and excited about our faith.  Perhaps that is what Jesus is getting at when he tells us we should all be like children!  Often, though, when things get harder to understand we do not seek the answers to our doubts and questions as we should.  Or perhaps we get “grass is always greener” syndrome, preferring to be more like our secularized peers who get to sleep in on Sunday mornings.  Maybe we look as what is asked of us as Christians and find it too hard.  Whatever the reason, our indifference begins to feed itself.  If we are not continuing our religious education after Confirmation classes, we will not understand what is going on at Mass or why the Church teaches what she does on tough topics.  Armed with misunderstandings and diminshed actual graces, it gets easier to “tune out” the faith.  Some of us stay in this place, knowing there is good yet in the Church, but frozen against growing in virtue and love for God.  Others will, like the young man, completely check out.

So what to do?  First, we need to take stock, looking at ourselves in light of this story.  What is it that gets you “stuck”?  Sin? Confusion? Boredom? Those are fairly easily remedied through Confession, Eucharist and study.  I can’t speak for everyone in parish ministry, but I know that I would much rather spend all day in dialogue with someone having difficulty with Church teaching than one minute handling registration forms!  Seek out help in your parish if it is your questions that are keeping you away!  Some of us are in the ark, in good standing with the Church, but just need an extra dose of gratitude for the great gift she is.  In my theological study, I have found that every time I delve deeper into the mysteries of our faith, I marvel at it more deeply. 

As we enter the back-to-school season, preparing our new clothes and supply lists and writing seemingly endless numbers of checks, let us step back and remember the great School we were enrolled in from our Baptism, and give thanks for that great gift.

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What a Waste

I am pretty sure I will spend a good deal of time in Purgatory for the amount of food I have wasted.  I don’t mind throwing away the dregs of an Easter basket or cheese doodles and processed cupcakes left over from the grandparents’ visit.  These can hardly be considered food in the first place.  What strikes at my conscience is the times I am forced to throw away a quarter pound of expired lunch meat that I forgot about or a half of a bag of browning broccoli from the warehouse club that I neglected to prepare in time.  Then there are the hotdog or hamburger buns left from some event that mold before we have hotdogs again, or the worst- the dumping of the tupperware from the back of the fridge that is full of, now what was that?.  During the gag-inducing fridge purge I always pray for mercy.  I ask Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who would have gladly served my forgotten food in its better days, to intercede for those who go hungry around the world and in my own town.  And to win me the grace of better meal planning and discipline so that next time I clean the fridge I don’t fill the trash can to overflowing.

No one buys food at the grocery store with the intention of tossing it, or prepares a meal with the intention of putting it in the back of the fridge for three months and then flushing it.  But many of us do just that.  I read a women’s magazine article that stated Americans typically toss 10% of the food they buy.  The stat sickened me.  Not only for the fact that someone went through the trouble of growing or raising that food, or the fact that someone  is hungry right now for lack of food, but for the irony of the fact that I often stand in front of two products trying to compare cost per ounce to save a few bucks.  What good is it to double my 25 cent coupon when I am throwing away 10 dollars worth of food in one cleaning spree?  To waste food is just that: an all around waste.

If we are good at wasting valuable food, we are even better at wasting something more valuable yet: suffering.  At this point you may be thinking, “Suffering? I thought she was going to say ‘time’, or ‘talent’ or even ‘last month’s rollerover minutes’.  What good is suffering at all and how does one waste it?”  I’m glad you asked!

If you’ve read my blog before you may have heard this before, but it bears repeating.  Suffering is a deprivation of a good that one ought to have.  It doesn’t have existence unto itself, much the same as cold is the absence of heat or darkeness the absence of light.  We suffer when we do not have health or companionship or physical necessities.  Note also that we only suffer the lack of things that are proper to us.  I do not suffer for lack of wings, for example, since I ought not have them.  Lop off my leg, however, and suffering will follow. 

 Bear with me for a moment, and let’s follow this line of thinking to the end.  Think about the best good there is.  That would be God, the source of Goodness itself.  The worst suffering then, would be to be deprived of this, and for eternity.  That is called hell.  The means by which we go about bringing this worst suffering upon ourselves is called “dying in unrepentant grave sin”. 

So if it wasn’t before, it’s clear what suffering is.  And we all know that it touches every one of us in various ways at various times in our lives.  But, how could it possibly be valuable?  The answer is that on it’s own, it is not.  There is nothing inherently wonderful about loneliness, hunger or pain.  We detest and attempt to avoid it.  This is part of our defense mechanism.  But think about the minor, or even grave, sufferings you are willing to endure for a greater good.  This is evident in everything from cleaning out a child’s cut to undergoing chemotherapy.  If it’s necessary for the life or well being of those we love most, we will put up with just about anything.

This is what Jesus was thinking when He left heaven to live in suffering and poverty for 33 years only to have it all end by being subjected to the most humiliating and barbaric death on the books.  It was necessary for those He loved most.  You and me.  He understood that the worst of all sufferings for you and for me (hell, remember), could only be prevented by His life, death and resurrection.  By His death, Jesus offers the just penalty for sin, in its perfection.  He also loves the Father, in His flesh, with perfect love that we in our fallen state could not attain.  Jesus’ suffering had great worth, as it attained for us the best good– heaven!

This is where our suffering gets its merit.  Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect, but in His mercy, He leaves it open for us to participate in “what is lacking” in His own suffering.  There is room on that Cross for my deep losses and my daily irritations.  These, offered in union with the Passion of Christ, can help bring about the mission that He came to accomplish: our sanctification.  Wow.

Have you ever thought about why Mary was told at the Presentation that a sword would pierce her heart? Lucky for me my Mariology professor had.  For 33 years, she was holding that phrase of Simeon’s in her heart.  For 33 years pondering the untold suffering her son would endure.  Why would God do that to her? To prepare her, for one.  But for another, I think, because God knew she wouldn’t waste a moment of that suffering and He knew how much we would need the graces that she would merit for us. 

But how much more like me and my fridge are we usually than like our Blessed Mother? How many conversions are still waiting to be won because we responded to a difficulty with despair or anger instead of offering it as a gift back to Jesus?  Fr. Elbee in his book, I Believe in Love says, “In the apostolate, the price of souls is suffering, offered in love.” And sometimes it is the daily trials that we waste the most.  I know in my own life, my deepest sorrows have been easier to offer up than the trial of finding that my husband and son have just eaten popcorn over my freshly vacuumed carpet, again

 So, in this most busy time of year, let’s try to see our sufferings as a treasure chest of grace waiting to be released into the world.  And, for heaven’s sake, eat that meatloaf before it goes bad!

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