An Incarnational—and Infectious—Start to My Advent

sheldon sickness gif.gif

The weeks preceding Christmas—Advent—usually have the perception of being a magical, jovial, and anticipatory of the birth of the Christ-child. While certainly, my Advent began with an anticipation, it lacked marvel and apparent joy. Instead of initially thinking about preparing my heart and mind for the Lord, I juggled the infectious side effects of projectile vomit and diaper explosions. Both of my sons came down with the stomach flu over the weekend.

throw-up gif.gif

Nothing tests a parent’s patience, will-power or love of their children quite like a continual cleaning of bodily fluids. On top of the symptoms of the stomach flu, my youngest son is also recovering from an adenoidectomy (see below diagram if you never heard of that organ before–as I never did prior to this surgery!) Because the flesh is healing behind his nasal cavity, my two year old’s breath has smelled like death since the surgery and apparently it may take up to three weeks for his rotting-breath odor to be gone!  What a start to the New Liturgical year!

Adenoid

Too often society places pressure for the perfect “holiday” season: all the gifts must be precisely wrapped and laden under the Christmas tree in a tidy order, the Christmas meal has to be cooked to the exact temperature and paired with the appropriate side dishes depending on the main dish, and family members need to behave–especially your “estranged/weird” uncle [or aunt or other unique relative you may have]. Honestly, I fall into this fallacy almost every year myself. This year was no different. I hoped to be able to take my entire family to Mass to celebrate the First Sunday of Advent. I wanted to show my kids the beautiful Advent wreath and talk about the particular reasons the priest wears purple, or “FATHER IS DRESSED IN PURPLE” as my daughter would shout with glee. Sadly, none of that happened. Because of my priority as a parent, I had to miss this Mass to care for my ailing family.

missing mass gif.gif

After taking some time to reflect on the apparent failures of the weekends, I realized maybe God was preparing me for something greater—Advent really is all about preparation for the coming of Christ. Revisiting the birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, showed me that the arrival of Jesus did not occur in the ideal standards, at least according to the world’s standards. Luke 2:7 details how Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem “too late” and the innkeeper denied them a room at the inn. Instead, of giving birth in the amenities of indoor comfort, Mary had to give birth to Jesus in a humble way—in a simple stable. American novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote the following about the Incarnation,

Man’s maker was made man that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that Truth might be accused of false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.

god humbled himself.jpg

By becoming a human Jesus was able to encounter the entirely of the human condition save for sin. In my children’s pain, suffering, tiredness, and thirstiness this past weekend, Christ was with them in a unique way as he already suffering all those things during his 33 years on Earth.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 463, “Belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of Christian faith: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” The season of Advent is not about preparing for the “perfect” Christmas where Mary and Joseph get a room at the inn. Rather, Advent is about preparing for the birth of Jesus Christ. His birth took place in the messiness of the stable, his Passion and Death took place on the messiness of the Cross. While not everything in my life will be neatly fit in my control, after this incarnational and infectious start to Advent, I had the privilege to be graced with the gift of perspective and opportunity to serve my children as Christ served the world!

Back to Basics

back to basics.jpg

According to American author Anthony J. D’Angelo, “Don’t reinvent the wheel, just realign it.” The continual focus on progress, change, movement, and improvement dominates 21st century humanity. Continued desire to improve on limiting stress, furthering personal and career goals may be inherently good; however, a person reaches a point when the trajectory of progress cannot ascend any higher. Ernest Hemingway wryly wrote, “Never confuse movement with action.”

Throughout history and literature, quick and unbridled progress poses the danger for a quick fall back to mediocrity and a starting at square one. The Great Depression in the 1930s happened on the heels of an epic economic boom, Greek literature warned of Icarus soaring too close to the sun—and eventually his wax wings melted and he fell to his doom. Personally, I too notice that whenever I experience a successful season in my life I have to be wary of being puffed up too much with pride. I start think too boldly—leading to the error of becoming a braggadocio!

michael scott fly gif.gif

As a Catholic, my faith plays a strong shaping force in my world outlook and daily life. According to Lumen Gentium the primary goal of all faithful is to grow in holiness, the Council Fathers declared, “Therefore, all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive (no. 42). I never truly pondered it before, but I recently realized that Jesus’ parables and teaching examples often included planting, gardening, and farming references because plant growth takes time—it is slow, but steady. Likewise, our growth in virtue and moral excellence needs to be watered with essential elements. The growth need to be natural, steady and sure for the progress to be permanent. Ascendency towards one’s goals whether that be moral, work, or exercise related poses a threat of a great fall. To avoid any backpedaling, it wise to return to the fundamentals of success. Below are three basic activities that helped me limit stress, decrease my negativity, and improve my relationship with others.

pride vs. humility.jpg

  1. Prayer: Saints wiser and infinitely holier than myself, always proclaim the importance of prayer. Perhaps no one else discussed the importance of prayer more plainly than St. John Chrysostom, “It is simply impossible to lead, without the aid of prayer, a virtuous life!”

 

Over the past couple of months, my wife and I committed ourselves to a regular, steady prayer routine. Before putting the kids to bed, we pray a decade of the Rosary. According to St. John Paul the Great, “The Rosary is the storehouse of countless blessings.”  His words ring true with crystal clarity—the graces I received have been immeasurable. My manager noticing the changes in my demeanor at work told me, “Matt, you have had a tremendous month. I notice a great calmness within you over the past few months.” I almost was tempted to pull out my scapular—strong Marian devotion—to show my manager that what has changed did not occur on my own power. To cite John Paul II again, “Prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history.”

  1. Exercise: Along with daily prayer, renewing my focus on regular exercise greatly helped sustain the progress I made. Because of the changing of the weather, I have get creative with my workouts. Actually, not truly that creative, I just call upon Shawn-T with his T-25 fitness program that I watch through the Beach Body channel on my Roku. Jabbing, hopping, and twisting my arms, legs, and core in my living room I feel replenished with energy after the under half-hour workout session. Not only does exercise help with the body, it reinvigorates my mental capacity and energy for the rest of the day.

 

  1. Reading Renaissance: Those of you that have followed The Simple Catholic will be aware that one of my strongest passions and loves in this life consists of the written word in the form of books. The only hindrance for me from purchasing and amassing more and more books is because I would either have to buy more bookshelves or take time away from reading to make a bookshelf myself. It is quite the predicament!

lighthouse books meme.jpg

In all seriousness though, reading, and specifically reading good books from good authors, reignites my desire to become a better person. Late American essayist E.P. Whipple wrote this beautiful description for books, “Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time.” Reading books, especially the classics, allows the reader access to the thoughts, intellects, curiosities, and inquiries of history’s greatest minds. The foundation for all success is being humble to realize someone else is always smarter and wiser than yourself. After reading Fulton Sheen’s Remade for Happiness and C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, this fact was reaffirmed.  Surrounding yourself with the wisdom and insights of those men and women before you will only enhance your ability to become the best version of yourself.

Progress is not bad, in fact, it is necessary in an ever changing world. In order to survive and flourish, you need to learn to adapt to changes. If you have found strategies or things that have already proven to help you develop into a healthier, stronger, and more virtuous version of yourself keep doing those things! Go back to the basics as often as needed. My revisiting of my basics—prayer, exercise, and reading— continues to provide me stability for a successful [and hopefully sanctifying] life!

Reconciling Free Will with God’s Omniscience: Evidence form Fulton Sheen and My Life

Among the perennial questions that mankind asks involve freedom. With the increasingly new information scientists learn about human biology and DNA that gets passed on from generation to generation, it is natural to wonder: how much control or freedom do I actually possess in my life? Over the course of history the greatest of literary works—Oedipus Rex and Macbeth to just name a couple— centered on the debate of freedom versus fate. When things did not go my own way, I recently struggled with having fleeting thoughts about fatalism— the belief that human actions happen through necessity and a result humans ultimately lack free will.

A year and a half ago, I wrote an article titled Reconciling Free Will with God’s Omniscience: Evidence form C.S. Lewis and My Life. Since publishing this originally in 2017, I have noticed that more search engine results came up on the topic of free will, God’s knowledge, and how to resolve these two seemingly diametric views. If God is all knowing and knows the outcome of every event in an individual’s life, do we truly possess free will? Or are humans fated and not in possession of the ability to be permitted to act on their own accord? Because a lot of attention centers on this topic, I feel compelled to write again on this subject.

While I still experience feeble moments of struggle to reconcile God’s omniscience with human freedom, hope is not out of reach. I am stronger in my belief and understanding. This is through the graces of the Holy Spirit along with my own continued pursuit of truth and sharpening my intellect through reading of people much, much wiser than myself. Most recently, I re-discovered the superb sagacity of Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Through the clear writing of Sheen, specifically his work Re-Made for Happiness, and my own humble experiences as a father I furthered my understanding that it is possible to reconcile the apparent Catch-22 between free will and divine omniscience!

1. Sagacity from Sheen: Although every book I have read of Archbishop Fulton Sheen impressed me, as of right now, Re-Made for Happiness tops them all. Chapter 13 entitled Hope specifically resonated with me. I got so excited after reading that chapter that I called my wife and declared, “This is the most amazing chapter, I have ever read of perhaps any book ever!” Whether this is a premature hyperbole, that is a debate for another time, nevertheless, I strongly recommend reading his entire book as soon as possible. In the meantime, I hope to provide an adequate highlight of his treatment on hope, free will, and God’s omniscience.  According to Fulton Sheen, “Remember that in God there is no future. God knows all, no in the succession of time, but in the ‘now standing still’ of eternity, that is, all at once. His knowledge that you shall act in a particular manner is not the immediate cause of your acting, any more than your knowledge that you are sitting down caused you to sit down, or prevents you from getting up, if you willed to do it” (p. 161).

Being outside of the space-time continuum, God is not contained within the constraints of time. Our ability to judge knowledge depends on succession of events, day by day, moment by moment. Divine omniscience does not fit into the box of time. Sheen goes on to say, “Because there is no future in God, foreknowing is not forecausing” (p. 162).

2. Insight from Infants [and beyond]: As a parent I have known my children since the moment of their birth. I gazed [lovingly, not creepily—so do not worryJ] at them while rocking them to sleep, watched them slowly grow, develop, and learn about the world around them. The more I learn about my children the more I am aware of the outcome of the choices they will make. Let me give an example. For instance, my youngest son has developed a fond affection for toy cars, actually wheels in general. Possessing the intimate knowledge of my son’s [all my children’s] interests, patterns, and needs allows me to have an ability to now the outcome of a choice posed for them. This “foreknowledge” does not limit their freedom.

Together the examples from Fulton Sheen and parenting helped deepen my ability to reconcile the apparent chasm between God’s omniscience and human free will. Ultimately, these examples fall short in fully explaining the natural of divine knowledge. Nevertheless, I am still at peace with these explanations.

I realize that I am a mere part of creation and my Creator is infinitely greater and more loving than I may possibly imagine. This endless wonder and awe about God is a gift. Let us not quiver at the omniscience of God but joyfully ponder it every day!

Expect Nothing Gain Everything

Author Chris Tiegreen wrote, “Thankfulness is difficult to express when one starts with an attitude of entitlement.”  From my experience, I noticed that whenever people claim to deserve everything– I am including myself as the prime perpetrator of this attitude— rarely do things work out. Since my family starting praying the Rosary on a nightly basis, my attitude and approach to situations outside my control began to change.

After several months in a row where I went into work with high expectations, I quickly discovered rarely did the reality match my ideals. Anger, resentment, frustration and negativity came forth from my unrealistic anticipations. Falsely equating high expectations with my desire to be entitled to high production metrics and quality scores caused me to dive into a den of despair. Oftentimes, I came home from work with these feelings still churning inside me. Lacking patience, I lashed out at my family whenever the kids made messes or my wife made excessive requests for help. I sought to control all facets at home in hopes to gain a sense of control in the workplace. Ironically, by expecting everything oftentimes I gain nothing but disappointment and distress.

Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed, “Everything is a gift from God: it is only by recognizing this crucial dependence on the Creator that we will find freedom and peace.” Shifting my mindset to viewing all things in life as a gift greatly helped lift my gaze upward and in turn raised my hopes. The Blessed Virgin Mary is the most perfect role model as someone who graciously accepted unexpected news that the world would consider an upheaval—an unexpected pregnancy in the most unexpected of all situations!

With my wife being pregnant with our rainbow baby, we viewed this child as a total and completely free gift from God. Moving away from the entitlement mindset, I am able to embrace, ever so slowly, this gift of the sustained and healthy pregnancy. St. Therese of Liseux declared, “I understood that love comprises all vocations – that love is everything, and because it is eternal, embraces all times and places.” Without love all else in life ultimately is moot. Humanity truly deserves nothing. Nevertheless, the Creator of the Universe granted life and even became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Since my move away from my selfish, entitled, greedy mindset, I seek to thank God for the blessings in my life. I ask the Holy Spirit for the graces to continue with this mindset and I pray for you to encounter the same joy that gratitude brings as well!


“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” –G.K. Chesterton

“Gratitude comes naturally when you take so much responsibility that you expect nothing except what you’ve earned through hard intelligent work and always see where you can improve.” –Anonymous

Fortress Mentality—Why Creating a Stronghold Keeps Negativity at Bay

Growing up, I enjoyed constructing blanket forts in the living room or playing under the deck with my siblings in our dirt-laden bunker. Something about forts invokes nostalgia. Security and strength also are words that immediately come to my mind when I think of fort [and fortresses]. Over the past few years, I have noticed an increased anxiety, not only from myself, but from society as a whole. Americans enjoy the pleasure of living in a wealthy and free society—privileges not afforded in other places and times. My aim here in this post is not to analyze the causes for the increased angst. That I will leave to professionals in psychology, medicine, and psychiatry. Instead, I am going to share a couple reasons why retreating to my cerebral citadel as opposed to actively engaging the stress inducers has worked for me for the past month. Please be aware, that while this approach may work for me I am in no way endorsing a fortress mentality being a miracle-cure method to fending off fretfulness for everyone.

1. Defense Beats Offense Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote,

Negativity can only feed on negativity.” From personal experience, I know that negativity only grows when you give attention to it, too much attention will lead to negativity consuming your life. Fighting negativity with an offensive attack does not work. I came across this anonymous quote that stuck a cord on this subject, “When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the fire department generally uses water.” Different approaches are necessary when battling stress and negativity in your life. An image of a faucet comes to mind when complaining controls my life. Last month, I allowed my emotions to get the better of me: both at home and work. Frustrations about unmet expectations caused grievances which poured out like water running from an open faucet.

To combat my weaknesses, I simply went to source—my words and shut off the valve of verbal complaints. This month instead of vocally sharing my grumbles aloud, I created a laconic lock for my tongue. According to James 3, the mouth and tongue act as a gateway for various despicable behaviors. Keeping our words bridled is key to stopping negativity.  The Apostle writes in James 3:2-5,

If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also.a 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies. 4It is the same with ships: even though they are so large and driven by fierce winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination wishes. 5In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions.

2. Fortifying not fleeing: The brilliant Albert Einstein once declared, “Stay away from negative people. They have a problem for every solution.” Sometimes turning away from the stresses and negativity going on in life gets equated with running from your problems. Withstanding the temptations to give into the negativity that surrounds you displays strength.

Known as fortitude, courage is the foundation upon which virtue and the ability to withstand the assault of pessimism is built on. Author Maya Angelou succinctly states, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Shifting my mindset toward stoicism and fortress-like greatly helped me weather the storms of stress.

Becoming more self-aware of my vocal complaints, grumbles, and murmurings prevented me from stumbling into the sea of stress. Distancing myself emotionally from the “bad” or “negative” experiences I faced in the workplace or at home helped me to move more quickly onto the next task or event of the day. The image of a fortress best represents for me the virtue of fortitude and ability to block negativity.


“But you, O man of God, must flee from these things; and strive for uprightness, godliness, good faith, love, fortitude, and a forgiving temper.” –1 Timothy 6:11

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.2 Timothy 1:7

The Morning Everything Went Wrong…and Why I Didn’t Freak Out


Me [on the cell phone]: “Honey! Just what? I just got locked out of my car! And I am locked out of the house too.

Wife: “We cannot afford a locksmith today. You don’t get paid until tomorrow.

Me: I will try my credit card.

Wife: I am leaving work to at least let you in the house. Maybe we have a spare key.

Me: Thank you! But, I am pretty sure we don’t have any extra keys…


To say that my morning began a little off course or on the wrong footing is a big understatement. More accurately, Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day better describes the beginning of my Thursday. After my door dilemma, I make a few fast errand stops at the grocery store and the library before coming home again for my 2 year’s back-to-back speech and occupational therapy sessions.

Because of having to wait for the locksmith to free my keys from the car I had to really rush. My final errand was the library where my son toted around merrily a plastic box of toys. As we started to leave the library atrium, he tripped over his shoes and face planted on the floor—crying ensued and his lips started to seep crimson blood. Having no napkins, I could do nothing except for rushing my toddler to my vehicle and pray that the bleeding stopped before I would be able to get to wipes at home.

The morning smoothed out for my toddler, at least, as he did tremendously well during his therapy sessions. I still felt the busyness and wayward nature of the morning still pursue me as I had to make several phone calls to settle things with my student loan and an application on another loan my wife and I applied for recently. The off-kilter day continued a bit even when I arrived at work. My anticipated meeting with my manager on my monthly progress was unexpected cancelled and moved to the following day. Oddly enough, as someone who normally desires—actually craves—routine and regimen, I was fairly calm considering the maelstrom of morning madness! Certainly out of my natural character, upon reflection I came up with the following three reasons below for why I didn’t freak out.

1. Past Suffering Helps Present Pain: The great American Helen Keller once declared, Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved. Being born both blind and deaf, she overcame more than the average person. However, suffering if part of this fallen world. Past suffering from years, and months ago, helped prepare me for the stresses of yesterday. Former President Harry S. Truman stated, “The reward of suffering is experience!” We can learn how to cope with or overcome present pain from lessons in the past.

2. Monkish Methods: My primary objective this week was to limit complaining. If something frustrated me, I really made an effort to act as a mute monk in the situation. According to St. John of the Cross, “Whenever anything disagreeable or displeasing happens to you, remember Christ crucified and be silent.” Reflecting on the simplicity of this basic truth helped reframe my mindset when “everything” didn’t go my way.

Cardinal Robert Sarah also promotes the monkish method of silence as well. In his book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise Sarah purports, “Man must make a choice: God or nothing, silence or noise.” There is no middle ground for the red-hatted Prefect for Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. This hard-lined approach toward negativity and complaining worked wonders for me so far! Reticence reverses resentful thoughts. Peace and tranquility ensues and takes place of the former chaos. Sarah beautifully compares silence to visible icons by saying, “Silence is an acoustic veil that protects the mystery… a sort of sonic iconostasis”

3. More Help from Mama Mary: Along with adding a “silencer” to my spiritual weapons against complaining and gossip, a healthy dose of praying a decade of the Rosary nightly with my family protected me against the wiles the Evil One set me that Thursday morn. St. Josemaria Escriva boldly claimed, “The holy Rosary is a powerful weapon. Use it with confidence and you’ll be amazed at the results.” There is a reason Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a common title the Blessed Virgin Mary—she is a perfect advocate in times of trouble!

Silence in trying times and refraining from complaining takes strength. Such power cannot originate from within the self. Looking to the witness of the saints, most especially the Mother of God we are provided hope to adopt a properly pious mentality in times of confusion and suffering. Cardinal Robert Sarah again speaks of the importance of silence, “Without silence, God disappears in the noise. And this noise becomes all the more obsessive because God is absent. Unless the world rediscovers silence, it is lost. The earth then rushes into nothingness.”


“The Rosary is the ‘weapon’ for these times.” -Saint Padre Pio

Re-Gaining a Sense of Voyage in Life

As a child I had a fascination with maps, geography, and the idea of being on a quest. My favorite books to read as a kid included the famous Greek epic The Odyssey and the Redwall Series by English author Brian Jacques. Both included a sense of adventure whereby the main character(s) trekked across dangerous terrain and met obstacles to overcome (external and internal struggles) before eventually arriving at their destination at the end of the story. The word odyssey actually means journey, pilgrimage, or trek.

As a father of four [one is in utero!], I am able to reacquaint myself with the sense of life as a voyage. Frequently, I lose sight of reality as the flood of daily temptations, confusion, and struggles assail me. My 5 year old daughter definitely got her penchant for atlases from me. Almost every day, she asks me, “Daddy! Can you please get me paper and markers for me to make a map?!”  Cartography reigns supreme in my household—especially on rainy days!

The other day I read an article online that referenced the importance of returning to a sense of voyage. A quote from St. Thérèse of Lisieux stuck in my mind after I went on with the rest of my day. The Doctor of the Church wrote, “The symbol of a ship always delights me and helps me to bear the exile of this life.” Her words convey a truth that I always wanted to communicate but was not able to fully articulate—something about sea travel points to a higher reality. Perhaps it is because we named our child Noah, named after the Old Testament figure who crafted the ark, that I tend to have boats on the mind—at least subconsciously. Or maybe, there is something innate in each of us that desires the continual movement that travel affords us. St. Augustine famously declared, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you [God].”

Here is a well-written and easy to understand article on the connection between Noah’s Ark and its prefiguring of the Catholic Church: https://catholicexchange.com/ten-ways-noahs-ark-prefigured-church. Some highlights include that just as the giant boat housed the holy individuals of Noah and his family, so too, does the Catholic Church safeguard individuals striving for holiness against the dangers of the deluge of temptations!

Another important point that stands out regarding the maritime theme is that life is bearable when we look to the Promised Land—Heaven—as our destination. When times get tough, during the turbulence of life we look beyond our vehicle, and outside of ourselves toward the horizon—toward the rising of the Sun [Son]!

Every quest involves dead-ends, treacherous terrain, and wild beasts [physical and/or spiritual]. Fellowship is essential for any journey—just ask Frodo the Hobbit!

Reacquainting myself with the fact that life is truly a voyage helps to remind me that I am not only in the journey. God provided helpmates along the way, namely my wife, children, and the saints such as St. Thérèse. When life gets your down and despair sets in please be reminded that you still have a road ahead. You have the ability to pick the road on this pilgrimage of life—make life more joyful by following the witness of the holy ones before us!