Editor’s Note: Post originally published on January 20, 2018.
To be honest, I did not think I have the strength to even write about anything today. I thought exerting any real mental exercises and strain today would lead to my incapacitation. What am I talking about? Am I being overly dramatic? Perhaps, I probably am not in a good frame of mind at this point of the week. Let me at least try to explain my situation and I can let you be the judge of that.
Over the course of the past week, I’ve experienced the funeral of my grandfather and persistent fevers and severe flu-like symptoms from everyone in my family including: my three young children. I’m nearly exhausted the amount of PTO I’m able to utilize for this month―and possibly the next month. Both my wife and I are sleep deprived. I’m definitely past the point of exhaustion and almost crossed the line of delirium.
I’ve really struggled in my spiritual life the last week. Frankly, my relationship with God has been fractured and virtually nonexistent. Sure, I could point to several valid (but are they truly!) reasons for why I have not relied on God during my time of turmoil. Some of you may be quick to forgive me—others maybe not. Ultimately, I need to ask Our Father in Heaven for forgiveness.
Suffering Bears Fruit
Doubt, despair, hopelessness, destitution, weakness in faith, and spiritual sloth have been the fruits of my suffering. Jesus Christ clearly teaches in Luke 6:43-45,
43“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit.44For every tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not pick figs from thornbushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles.45A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.
My reactions to the suffering I encountered this week are an indictment on my spiritual resolve. The one benefit to my failings in my spiritual life is that one thing is clear – I’m at a crossroads. I can either choose the path of sanctity through redemptive suffering or I let wallowing in self-pity dominate my attitude and view suffering as purposeless.
When Suffering Redeems
The central event of human history is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His redemptive suffering ties together the fabric of reality. Every person is given a choice: to accept the cross gracefully or flee from it. Sometimes people choose the cross during a significant watershed moment in their life – like Saint Paul’s conversion. Most people have to choose the cross of Jesus Christ daily. This choice is the most important choice in our life. This choice determines whether we are a saint, a child of God, or sycophant of the world.
Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said,
“Suffering will come, trouble will come – that’s part of life; a sign that you are alive. If you have no suffering and no trouble, the devil is taking it easy. You are in his hand.”
I need to be continually reminded that suffering is part and parcel of living. Only by joyfully taking up my struggles and uniting them to the redemptive suffering of Jesus’ suffering, death, and Resurrection will I truly find moments of peace during the storms of life!
Help me [us all] to remember in these troubled times
The cross you carried for my sake,
So that I may better carry mine
And to help others do the same,
As I offer up (my sufferings) to you
For the conversion of sinners
For the forgiveness of sins
In reparation for sins
And for the salvation of souls. Amen
Editor’s Note: Post originally published on January 13, 2019.
The legendary Italian artist Michelangelo once purported, “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.” I once traveled overseas on a college trip around Europe. One of the stops our tour group was in Rome. Seeing Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel certainly allowed me to encounter the mysterious and awesome presence of God. My sublime experience in Rome lasted only a few minutes and occurred over a decade ago. I am extremely grateful to have seen with my own eyes one of the greatest and most beautiful works of art in all of human history.
Fast-forward ten years and a lot has changed in my life: I am married with four children, and in the workforce. While life brought me many struggles since that moment in Italy, my Catholic faith is stronger and more real because of those trials. Throughout much of 2018 I wrote frequently about my wife and I’s struggle with despair, loneliness, and sadness at the loss of our unborn children. Losing a child, you never could hold takes an indescribable toll on a person’s mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.
A Christmas Miracle Child
This Christmas season our family was blessed with the healthy birth of our daughter. From the onset of the pregnancy complications developed. God interceded and saved our daughter from being miscarried. He accomplished it through the power of prayer and healing graces of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Our parish priest administered this sacrament to my wife. In my post, Containing Joy—Rainbow Baby After Miscarriage Maelstroms – The Simple Catholic, I talk about the struggle be joyous throughout the pregnancy. Hope always permeated our thoughts, but we tempered our joy just in case our daughter did not make it to term.
God’s Peace in the Pain
After my wife’s contractions got frequent enough for the delivery doctor and nurses to arrive, a calming presence overcame me as I gazed into my wife’s eyes between her painful contractions. An otherworldly peace entered that delivery room. Joy, peace, and confidence radiated from my wife’s eyes in the moments before our daughter was born.
Skeptics may doubt Divine Providence had anything to do with our experience in the delivery room. All I can speak of is my experience and that was an encounter with a reality, call it what you will, whose origin is not of this earthly existence. Long anticipation of seeing, hearing, and holding our daughter seemed to have time at a standstill those short minutes before the arrival of Avila.
Bishop Robert Barron once stated, “Begin with the beautiful, which leads you to the good, which leads you to the truth.” Our joy-filled yet anxious laden pregnancy delivery began with the beautiful―the news of the conception of our daughter. That beautiful news led to the good. Good through the form of good friends, family, and priests praying for us on this 9-month journey.
Finally, the good of fellowship and prayer led my wife and I to the truth― this reality is not the sole mode of existence. The God who is above humanity’s total and complete comprehension decided to reveal himself in the material world. God became man in the person of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in Bethlehem, and I had the privilege of encountering the peace of the Holy Spirit that early morn in the hospital room before and during the birth of my daughter!
“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”
January 6th is the traditional date for the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany in the Catholic Church. This year the dioceses in the United States have celebrated the feast on Sunday January 2nd.
The word epiphany means “manifestation” or “revelation”. In the context of the Catholic Church, it relates to the arrival of the Magi (Wise men or Three Kings) and visiting the Christ child. It is one of the most important feasts of the liturgical year because God is revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.
I attended the Cathedral of the Epiphany, in Sioux City, IA, in the early days of my married life so this feast has special significance to my family. My oldest son was baptized in that church, and we formed the foundation of our family’s faith life as members of the Cathedral of the Epiphany.
From Meticulous Study to Marvel
While we sing about the Wisemen as Kings (We Three Kings is one of my favorite Christmastime songs) it is more apt to describe the travelers as Magi. They studied astronomy (mixed with a bit of astrology). The noticed something in the night sky and the unusuality of the Star intrigued them to journey East and stopping in Bethlehem. A more detailed description of the Magi can be found in the Related Links section at the end of this article.
Studying a subject as large and mysterious as the universe (represented by the night sky) puts into perspective our littleness. According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI from his 2011 homily on the Feast of the Epiphany, ”
Probably to their (the Magi) amazement, they were obliged to note that this newborn Child was not found in the places of power and culture, even though in those places they were offered precious information about him.
On the other hand, they realized that power, even the power of knowledge, sometimes blocks the way to the encounter with this Child. The star then guided them to Bethlehem, a little town; it led them among the poor and the humble to find the King of the world.
God could have arrived as a scientist, or a mighty ruler, or a political leader. Instead, he chooses to humble himself in the form of an infant. The Magi receive the gift of wonder and awe from the Holy Spirit and persist in following the Star. They continue to receive gifts (of humility and reverence) even as they gift the Christ-child with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Epiphany Foreshadows Pentecost
The manifestation of Jesus to the Magi is a pivotal event in the liturgical calendar. The Magi represents the non-Jews. It is often taken for granted the fact Jesus is a savior for all mankind, but it was a novel concept to ancient Jews. The deacon at my parish hammered home the point that the Epiphany is about the salvation of mankind as a people. “Statistically speaking, you and I, are likely not descended from the Jews, so the Feast of the Epiphany is a reason to hope,” he proclaimed in his homily.
Jesus Christ revealed himself to the world at first as a baby and later in his public ministry he is more specific with his identity as being God. It is a wonderful feast to recall how Christ unites a confused and broken world.
I started listening to the Bible in a Year podcast by Father Mike Schmitz. Day five centered on Tower of Babel in Genesis 10-11. The pride of humanity spurred the creation (attempt) of an early skyscraper reaching the heavens.
Building a large tower is not bad in itself. Father Mike points out throughout church history Christians build massive basilicas and cathedrals for the glory of God. The key difference is Nimrod (the king of Babel) and his people’s ambition to make a name for themselves and not seek excellence in the name of God.
God Brings True Unity
Humanity’s pride leads to God scattering them by confusing the language. Generations later the event of Pentecost (the arrival of the Holy Spirit) reverses the effects of Babel. Peter and the Apostles are able to communicate the Good News in different languages. True unity doesn’t occur through human efforts but by humbling oneself and serving others for the glory of God.
The Magi don’t seek earthly ambition to prop up themselves. God’s manifestation to the Wisemen opens up the way for the Holy Spirit being revealed to the whole world on Pentecost.
How God Revealed Himself this Epiphany
The first Epiphany of Our Lord occurred over 2000 years ago. But this feast is as relevant today as it was for the Magi. God plan of salvation unfolded over time. It didn’t occur instantly nor stop with a singular kind of people. God is Love and desires to bridge all of the brokenness back into unity with Himself.
Your spiritual journey will rarely be in a linear or upward trajectory. It involves curves, backsteps, and countless zigzags. Think the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness. God revealed Himself in an interesting way to me this week of the Epiphany. In the story of a dog being turned into a toy by a wizard because he lacked manners. I’m referring to Tolkien’s endearing children’s tale: Roverandom. I began reading my kids this short story yesterday. I want to complete a few pages a night. And my ultimate goal is to have Roverandom serve as a springboard to Tolkien’s other work (notably The Hobbit).
God revealed Himself in a wonderful way during the reading aloud of this silly and enchanting story. My kids grew quiet and attentive. Something about J.R.R. Tolkien makes me ponder Truth, Goodness, and Beauty after reading any of his works. I’m convinced his imagination and storytelling is necessary to manifest Christ in the lives of others.
Start this Epiphany Tradition Now
Finally, the Feast of the Epiphany has inspired me to follow a longstanding Catholic tradition of marking your home’s door with a blessing. You may have seen the formula: 20 + C + M + B +22 pop up on your social media or parish bulletin. The initials stand for the names of the Wise Men: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. The numbers bookending the formula represent the current year. And the pluses represent the cross. I also learned that the C, M, and B have another meaning. In Latin, it is short for Christmus mansionem benedicat (“May Christ bless the house”).
Invite Jesus into your home this Christmas season and look to Mary as your guide towards the Son. God will surprise you in how He shows up in your life.
Epiphany Blessing (One of Many Versions)
Leader: Peace be to this house, and to all who enter here.
One or more of the following prayers maybe said:
May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.
God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Savior. Amen.
Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Savior. Amen.
As participants take turns making the inscription, the leader says:
The three Wise Men, [C] Caspar, [M] Melchior, [B] and Balthasar followed the star to Bethlehem and the child Jesus  two thousand,  and twenty years ago. [+ +] May Christ bless our home [+ +], and remain with us throughout the new year. Amen.
January 3rd celebrates two important events: the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus and the anniversary of the birth of J.R.R. Tolkien. As a Catholic obvious the former has to take precedence, I mean Jesus is the center of the Catholic faith. However, I think it is ironic, maybe even providential, of the placement of the great English literary figure’s birthday within the season of Christmastide.
Creation Leads to the Creator
The famed creator of Middle Earth himself was a devout Catholic and belief in Jesus Christ permeated his entire life. I admire Tolkien because of his creativity, devotion, and ability to invoke joy into my life simply by reading his works or striking up a conversation with a random stranger about his life!
According to the Baltimore Catechism paragraph 215, Catholics honor saints because
“We honor the saints in heaven because they practiced great virtue when they were on earth, and because in honoring those who are the chosen friends of God we honor God Himself.”
The excitement, peace, and joy I receive when reading, researching, or talking about Middle Earth ultimately is aimed at a higher reality. A deeper reality of full communion with God in Heaven! Tolkien once wrote, “After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’.”
All of creation act as signposts pointing to God’s existence.
The same is true for the hidden or not so hidden Easter-eggs contained in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The date of the formation of the Fellowship—that is, the group of representatives of Middle Earth races—actually is December 25th!
The Little Way of the Hobbit
Much of Tolkien’s theology, whether he would have wanted to admit it or not, reminds me of the spirituality of The Little Way of St. Therese of Lisieux. Her path towards holiness consisted of relying on God’s mercy and forgiveness while seeking ordinary daily actions to show love of God and neighbor.
The French saint wrote, “Miss no single opportunity of making small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.” Whenever I read and reflect upon that quote I am also reminded of the following words of Tolkien, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
Fantasy and Tolkien geeks now well that the bearer of the One Ring [the embodiment of temptation] was a hobbit. If only one word would suffice to describe a hobbit to individuals not too aware of this fictional Middle Earth race it would be diminutive. Littleness, at least in appearance, is the chief trait of the heroes of The Lord of the Rings.
Even the smallest person can impact the future
Like St. Therese of Lisieux, Tolkien recognizes that the smallest person can have a great impact on human history. The greatest event in human history is the Incarnation—God being man in the person of Jesus Christ in the form of a little baby.
I honor J.R.R. Tolkien today because his “complex”, extensive, and intricate sub-creation of Middle Earth provokes a sense of joy in the little acts done in great love and sacrifice. Ultimately, after reading any of his works, I am reminded to be grateful for creative genius not as a worship of the fantasy author. Instead, I honor him as he points me to the Real and Truth Author of All of Reality!
“At the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” –Philippians 2:10-11