Tag Archives: sacraments

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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Lessons Learned From Yardwork, pt 2

Okay, so yesterday I talked about my helper in the landscaping rock removal project.  Today I am going to talk about my neighbor.  Those four years when our yard was not in optimal shape, I would look at my retired neighbor’s lawn and cringe.  I started to call it Disneyland, because it was always so nicely manicured.  And I would wade through my own weedbeds and feel like the folks next door were secretly glaring at me through their windows thinking, “I can’t believe we have to look out our windows at that yard.  Maybe we should put up a fence!”

I should clarify right away that the couple next door could be most genuinely kind people that God ever made.  It is clearly my pride that 1.) thought enough of myself to think that the whole neighborhood gave a hoot about my yard, and 2.) didn’t think enough of my neighbors, who probably just thought, “wow, they have a lot going on over there”.  I am getting better.  I am going easier on myself and actually trying to tap into their expertise for advice, which they are always happy to give, but never offer.

Anyway, back to the rock bed.  After my helper abandoned ship, I remembered that my wonderful neighbor had offered to loan us his wheelbarrow if we ever needed it.  Seeing as my Home Depot bucket could only hold about two shovels full of rocks before it got to heavy for me to carry, I jumped when I saw him in his driveway.  We went back to his shed where he not only had a wheelbarrow, but offered me a very solid metal rake and a shovel.  Holy cow, those tools made a HUGE difference!  Earlier, my first attempts at shoveling had proved fruitless because the rocks were so ground in.  But after raking them, they came up easy.  And having the wheelbarrow meant I could actually get a decent amount of rocks loaded before having to dump them on the side of the house.  The project that moments before had seemed eternal now was moving along at a workable pace.

The right tools.  Are you using them in your difficult situation? Of course, for us Christians, the primary one is prayer.  There is a funny correlation in my life between my deepest moments of self pity and my lack of prayer.  How do we expect to keep our eternal perspective, to experience God’s love or the peace that passes all understanding if we are cut off from its source?? And we Catholics have the amazing privilege of the grace of the sacraments.  Reconciliation to free us from the bondage of sin and Eucharist to fortify us in grace.  And don’t forget about Baptism and Confirmation which fill us with the Holy Spirit’s gifts, or the needed vocational grace of Holy Orders or Marriage.  Also, there is study, where we go deeper into our faith so we can come to love God better by knowing him better, and the support of Christian friendships.  Without these tools, at best we plug along patiently picking one handful of rocks at a time, making record-slow progress.  At worst, we simply give up, faced with the impossibility of completing something way beyond our capabilities.

If these tools make our burdens so much lighter, why don’t we always avail ourselves to them? Back to my neighbor situation.  One huge one is pride.  I can do this myself, I don’t need your stinking help.  Another can be a form of pride which is that we assume things about God that aren’t true.  Like me with my yard, we assume God is wagging his head at what a failure we are, and we are afraid that our requests to him will be met with an “I told you so”.  We don’t realize he understands exactly why our yard is such a mess, and is waiting to lend a hand to get it cleaned up.  Or maybe we had just never considered that there was a better way than a pair of gloves and a four-year-old’s dump truck.  Whatever reason, when we recognize that we are off track, we need to equip ourselves.  As I mentioned yesterday, uniformity with God’s will is not just something we “muster up”.  It is a work of grace that comes as a result of using these tools on a regular basis.

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The Supers Are Among Us

Just when we thought he couldn’t get any cuter.  He discovered superheroes.

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You may have thought that he was a preschooler, but really he is a defender of justice and freedom.  This is him in his super suit.  Note his power belt, boots and mask (to hide his secret identity).  Bed time has become the most exciting time of day.  Mind you, we spend all day saving people, but at bedtime, properly attired, things really step up a notch.  To say he is obsessed may be an understatement.  And we are happy to encourage him.

This interest of Isaac’s has led him to the inevitable question: are there any real superheroes in this world?  Initially, we talked to him about firefighters and police officers, who are legitimate people-savers.  But recently, as we talked about the sacrament of Holy Orders with our 7th graders, it clicked: who are the real supers among us? Priests!  And not just in a “self-esteem-boosting” kind of way.  Check out these very real parallels:

Superheroes get their powers from some physical change… a spider bite that fuses arachno-DNA to their own, the effect of the Earth sun on alien orphan, etc. A priest is made priest by the act of ordination- an ontological change. An indelible mark on the soul.  Priests are priests forever, even if dismissed from the clerical state.

Superheroes wear “super suits” when performing herioc acts to define what they are doing and hide their identity.  Priests wear vestments when offering the sacraments, especially the Eucharist– also to hide themselves.  When administering sacraments, they are IN the person of Christ.

Superheroes’ jobs of saving the world are very taxing on their personal relationships, especially romantic ones (I love the way the Spiderman movies tackled this topic!).  Priests are celibate for this reason– sacrifice for their Bride, the Church.

Superheroes have, well, superpowers (duh).  Priests’ superpowers are way cooler than x-ray vision, super strength or even the ability to shoot webs from their hands.  Priests can forgive sins, bring people into God’s family, confer upon people the Holy Spirit and turn bread and wine into Jesus’ Body and Blood.

Superheroes save people from death.  Priests can save people from eternal death.

Why do we have a shortage of priests? I think because the vocation is often presented as: Priesthood=be a nice guy who can’t get married and does some nice things for people here and there.  Who wants to sacrifice their whole life for that? Where’s the adventure? Where’s the sense of what’s at stake? We need priests in order that the rest of us may live a sacramental life of grace.  What’s at stake is salvation!  When it comes to saving the world, more is done at the altar of each daily Mass at each little parish than a bazillion fundraising rock stars, or five trillion government programs could ever hope to do.

So, yes, we will encourage our little superhero to pursue the noble pursuits of peace and justice, motivations placed in his heart by his Creator.  And we will teach him to hold in high regard those true “supers” in our midst.

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