The half way point of Lent is a time period when many people begin to cave into their Lenten promises. I know for me it is a struggle. I gave up negativity and fast food. Though in giving it up I find myself with a lot of extra time. I have spent more time in prayer with God during these forty days.
The Latin word for Lent, quadragesima, literally means forty days! However, this number does not mean much to the average person unless they understand the significance of the number forty in Scripture.
God and Geography
The number forty is also attached to particular geography: mountains and deserts. When one thinks of these places words such as desolate, barren, alone, and harsh might come to mind.
God seems to have a close presence to individuals in the Bible in these settings. Take Moses for instance, in Exodus 24:18 when he stays on the peak of Mount Sinai for forty days and nights. It was here that Moses met God and received the Ten Commandments.
Elijah also met God upon a mountain, after traveling for forty days and nights. On the mountain, Elijah faced strong winds and an intense earthquake. But he continued to hold steadfast in faith and met God in a quite whisper.
How often do we let the “noises” of daily life distract us from God?
In this modern world, people hate the quiet and constantly surround themselves with “things” (cellphones, internet, television, etc.) to keep from silence.
Importance of Fasting
During Lent we are called to a life of fasting. While Christians should always be fasting in some degree throughout the year, the Church urges us to reflect upon it more deeply.
The first thing Jesus does after His Baptism is to fast in the desert for forty days and nights. Probably weak from hunger, He is tempted by the devil. But Jesus fails to give into worldly pleasures. It is this example that all Christians are called to in Lent. By giving up things from this world, we can center our life back onto Christ.
Though it may feel like you are on a mountaintop or in a desert thirsting, know that Lent is not a time for punishing yourself with guilt. In fasting one learns to give up unnecessary and sometimes harmful objects or habits and grow into a closer relationship with Jesus.
Hopefully at the end of Lent, we can all say that we truly experienced God in a deeper way, like Moses and Elijah did on the mountaintop!
According to the great Italian Saint Philip Neri, “There is no surer or clearer proof of the love of God than adversity.”
His message certainly stands in stark opposition with what the modern world tells us will bring love. Creating viral videos on YouTube, increasing our followers on social media platforms, and possessing the latest Apple technology appear to be channels by which 21st century humanity may achieve happiness. Suffering is so medieval or ancient times!
Why does man need to suffer when technological advancements will eliminate disease and human ailments in the future?
The Christian approach to redemptive suffering stands counter-cultural. What is not necessarily controversial is surprise and intrigue. Less than a year ago, I discovered the unconventional St. Philip Neri. In fact, I learned that the Italian priest is actually the patron saint of joy and humor!
Mark Twain once wrote, “Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.” As a Catholic, I contend with his claim that humor is the greatest blessing, as that belongs to the gift of the sacraments (especially Eucharist and Confession), the American author was correct that good-natured wit and jocosity help humanity. At the end of a stressful day at work, what normally infuses life into my wife and I’s day, and sometimes week, is comedy.
Levity, lightness, and wit dominate Philip’s letters and maxims. He loved to banter with his friends and later in life even with notable Church leaders like St. Charles Borromeo and his friend CesareCardinal Baronius. Along with being the patron saint of joy and humor, I will briefly detail three reasons why Philip Neri could be your patron saint as well!
Humility Makes Us Human
A manager of mine once gave me interesting advice whenever he came across negative experiences from customers. “Remember the Q-TIP method—Quit taking it personal!” Perhaps it is because of the interesting mental imagery that came to mind or maybe my ears were clogged with earwax that I needed to keep using the “Q-TIP” method before I started to take that advice. A more likely answer is that setting my pride aside and listening to others is easier when reading the wisdom of holy individuals such as St. Philip Neri. Neri states,
“When a man is reproved for anything, he ought not to take it too much to heart, for we commit a greater fault by our sadness than by the sin for which we are reproved.”
The Italian saint writes frequently about the importance of humility and the joy that comes as a result of asking for that virtue from the Holy Spirit. Pride is considered to be the vice opposed to the virtue of humility. St. Philip Neri spoke about hubris in this way, “Excessive sadness seldom springs from any other source than pride.” God did not intend for humanity to be sad, but we were made to experience joy and communion. Excessive joy, the opposite of sadness, would spring from the reverse of pride—humility.
Along with the importance St. Philip Neri attaches to the humility, a virtue necessary for growing in the spiritual life, his writings demonstrate an attractive simplicity to living life. Living in today’s world we all could certainly learn to live with less. I particularly struggle with excess—binge watching Netflix, eating fast food, or struggles with too much negativity. According to him, “Avarice is the pest of the soul!” Learning about this joyful saint through his writings help limit these unhealthy desires in my life.
Wading through the mires of trials, self-doubts, and obstacles certainly seems confusing. I came across a gem of spiritual advice from St. Neri. In regards to tackling on the pressures and temptations of the world he wrote, “Persons who live in the world should persevere in coming to church to hear sermons, and remember to read spiritual books, especially the Lives of the Saints.” Weekly attendance of Mass helps sustain us through tough times. While at Sunday Liturgy, Neri provides a simple, but profound insight to combat the devil. He urges us, “at communion we ought to ask for the remedy of the vice to which we feel ourselves most inclined.” His pithy and modest maxims show that living in holiness need not be complicated.
Delight in Difficulties
Another hallmark of the writings of St. Philip Neri is his focus on satisfaction gained through encountering suffering with grace. He realizes that truth of redemptive suffering contains the path to authentic joy. The Italian priest penned, “Nothing more glorious can happen to a Christian, than to suffer for Christ.”
Our joy gained via difficulties does not originate from man. Neri reminds us that the Holy Spirit is the cause for our continual peace and joy in trials. The Enemy’s primary weapon is suffering in hopes we fall into despair. The opposite of despair or sadness is humility. According to Neri, “One of the very best means of obtaining humility, is sincere and frequent confession.” Whenever I receive those sacramental graces poured forth in the medicine box any suffering I encounter turns sweet instead of sour.
Over a year ago, I accidentally stumbled across the unconventional, yet witty life and works of St. Philip Neri. Humility pervades his writings. While you may not acknowledge it now, we all truly need to learn more about being humble in the age of “selfies”. The wit and cheerful tone of Neri’s letters will prompt the natural urge to pursue truth in the Cross of Jesus Christ. Joy and humor enliven the spirit. St. Philip Neri proclaims, “The cheerful are much easier to guide in the spiritual life than the melancholy.” If you prefer an easier, but still true, path to living Gospel maybe you should take up the Italian priest as your patron saint!
Below is a letter I dedicate to our Lord Jesus Christ in celebration of his birth, December 25, 2020 Anno Domini.
Dear Baby Jesus,
In a stable, 2000 years ago, a seemingly ordinary infant was born. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, shepherds and kings from afar learned about His incredible presence. God uses the most common of circumstances to work the greatest of all miracles–the Incarnation. God so loved the world He sent you–His only Son– to bridge the great gulf, the separation caused by sin.
Wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger, you my king took the form of mankind. I have heard the Nativity story dozens of times. This Advent I feared I would took your origin story for granted. Instead, I am grateful for the opportunity to gaze on the Nativity scene through new eyes–not merely of a follower, but also as a father.
My children are a reminder of your goodness, truth, and beauty. Seeing the twinkle in their eyes when they gaze at the Nativity Scene at home or church is priceless. The smiles on my kids faces as they color “presents” pictures for my wife and I remind me the true reason for the season!
People are born everyday on this earth, but only once a year do we remember the greatest birth of all.
Jesus my servant king, Emmanuel, Prince of Peace, God-hero, I adore you and celebrate with my family and friends the anniversary of your birth. I pray that my heart is enlarged to make room within the inn of my soul for you, my family, friends, and people I meet daily!
Praise we to God in the Highest and Alleluia for our Savior’s arrival.
With great love and gratitude,
Your adopted son,
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
Editor’s Note: Post originally published on June 16, 2017.
Emotions ran high in my family yesterday. I struggled with a stressful situation at work and my son fell off his bike and scrapes his knee—a meltdown ensued. Feelings are part of the fabric of what it means to be human. I am not proud to admit this, but I have greatly failed in keeping my feeling in check during the past couple weeks.
On my drove to work this morning, words from a Christian song over the radio jogged a thought I had about prayer and our communication of God. I pondered how natural it is for humanity to complain when things do not go your way. How do we overcome the sin of complaining? Listening to the song lyrics I realized the answer is incredibly simple—cry out to God!
Using examples from the Scriptures, excerpts from Saint John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, and my own personal experiences I give 4 reasons why “crying out to God” is not complaining but rather an essential part of the spiritual life.
Lesson from Lamentations
Latent within the Old Testament, Lamentations is not among the first books that pop into my mind for having spiritual insight. I usually think of Proverbs or the Book of Wisdom. Lamentations is a collection of five poems that act as a woeful reply to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Both individual and communal prayers of sorrow are found in this book. For my purposes today I will only focus on Lamentations 3:19-31 (click on link to see the full Bible passage) which contains an individual lament.
The inspired writer of Lamentations speaks directly to me in this passage. His words, “Over and over, my soul is downcast,” calls to mind my state of mind and relationship with God over the past several weeks. I was downtrodden and I frequently wanted to give up. Interestingly enough, I actually pondered the fact that there is a glimmer of hope in my situation. The writer of Lamentations is prophetic again when he states, “I tell myself, therefore I will hope in him. 25The LORD is good to those who trust in him, to the one that seeks him; 26It is good to hope in silence for the LORD’s deliverance.”
Crying Out to God in Psalm 22
According to Mark 15:34, Jesus cries out to the Father in similar fashion as the book of Lamentations and myself when I encounter the stresses of life. The evangelist writes, “And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”* which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These words used to befuddle me.
I have since learned that Jesus was invoking the psalmist’s lamenting words in Psalm 22. The psalm begins as a sorrowful prayer to God but similar to Lamentations 3 it ends with hope [see Psalm 22:23-32]. Reading these words, the Holy Spirit connected the dots for me on this subject. Verse 30 references homage toward God on bended knee and I already was planning on talking about how lament leads to kneeling before God even before I read Psalm 22!! The movement of the Holy Spirit is mysterious yet true.
Dark Night of a Soul
Saint John of the Cross was a great mystic of the Catholic Church during the 16th century. His spiritual work Dark Night of the Soul is as relevant today as it was when it was originally written. I will only focus on the dark night of the purgation of our senses and tie it to the theme of crying out towards God. The major characteristic of this dark night is the soul finding no pleasure or consolation in the things of God. I find myself occasionally in a “spiritual rut” where I do not receive consolation or experience direct joy from God.
St. John tells us to not worry,
“It is well for those who find themselves in this condition to take comfort, to persevere in patience and to be in no wise afflicted. Let them trust in God, Who abandons not those that seek Him with a simple and right heart, and will not fail to give them what is needful for the road, until He bring them into the clear and pure light of love” (Chapter X no 3).
Like the writer of Lamentations, John of the Cross, reminds us purgation is necessary to increase our holiness and awareness of God.
Skinned Up Knees Leads to On Bended Knee
This week my wife and I added training wheels to our son’s first bicycle. We taught him the fundamentals of pedaling and coaxing him when he got frustrated because they were “too heavy”.
Things were going well. He gained momentum and cruised on our neighbor sidewalk for about 50 feet.
Suddenly he hit a raised section of the sidewalk and toppled off his bike. Tears immediately streamed down his face. My wife added a Band-Aid and after a few minutes of reassurance had him get back on the bike to try again.
How does this common childhood experience relate to the spiritual life? Oftentimes we get metaphorical “skinned up knees”. Gossip in the workplace or stressful family events damage our relationship with God. True growth is not without pain—both in learning to ride a bike and deepening our spiritual life. Having undergone lots of skinned up knees in learning to ride my bike it makes it easier for me to be on bended knee in prayer to thank God for going through the school of trials to learn more about Him.
The difference between complaining and lamenting is the former lacks the virtue of hope. Complaining is more self-centered in orientations whereas prayers of lament focus communication with our Divine Creator. Do not be ashamed to cry out to God but remember that while it is a necessary step in the spiritual process– it is only the beginning. May we always ask the Holy Spirit to lead us toward prayers of thanksgiving after a season of lament!
Editor’s Notes: Originally published September 22nd, 2017
Over the past few weeks, life has been throwing stress-filled curveballs at me. Reeling from anxiety, anger, and frustration, I recently went to the spiritual medicine box—Confession—to gain sacramental graces to help me grow in patience and perspective. I experienced a true transformation in my life this week in the days following my reconciliation with God, the Church, and my fellow man. September 21st, 2017 became a new launching point for my spiritual journey. Excited for this re-start on my path toward Christian holiness, I will provide a few reasons why this date holds a special place in my heart.
Anniversary of the Publication of The Hobbit
Eighty years ago, on September 21st, 1937, The Hobbit—an essential item on any fantasy fan’s bookshelf—was published. Eight decades later the tale of J.R.R. Tolkien still instills wonder in its readers.
Regrettably, I did not explore Middle Earth until my mid-20s. Over the past five years, I have read The Hobbit twice and The Lord of the Rings trilogy once.
A true literary treasure is measured through its ability to stand the test of time. Nearly a century later, I would say that Tolkien’s work passes with flying colors. Characters within the story seem to speak directly to me. For instance, the dwarf Thorin tells Bilbo, “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” How easy is it for us to lose memory of the importance things in life? I forget fairly quickly. Tolkien reminds me to look for the hidden joys in my life. Perhaps, an unexpected journey is in store for me starting September 21st, 2017.
Happy Holiness Day
Along with the anniversary of The Hobbit, September 21st is the feast day of my patron saint—St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. Before his “coming to God moment”, Matthew worked for the Roman equivalent of the IRS. Hatred of paying government taxes is an innate principle built into humanity. Palestine 30 A.D. was no different. What courage and faith it must have taken Matthew to leave his luxurious, high paying government job?
Tax collectors were considered traitors to the Jewish people. They basically did the Roman government’s dirty work of extolling individuals for money. I always imaged how Matthew would fit in with Jesus’ motley crew of Apostles. Was he accepted right away? Did trust issues exist?
While such questions are purely speculative, but I find pondering the transition of Matthew from a hated tax collector to an evangelist helpful in my relationship with my patron saint. I too struggle to fit in at times, yet I am gifted with the ability to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ just like St. Matthew! September 21st is the beginning of my re-commitment to evangelize through my writing, family life, and volunteering at my parish. I hope to exhibit the same steadfast faith as Matthew did when Jesus said, “Follow me” (Luke 5:27).
September of Sacraments
Together with my patron saint and favorite fantasy jubilees occurring on the same day, the month of September started as a transitional month for my family and I. My wife began a new job, our children started to get in the school routine, and changes galore occurred at work. Through the grace of God and ability in our hectic scheduling, and mostly due to my serious need for divine assistance I went to confession twice this month.
During my first confession, the priests gave me this amazing penance—pray the Prayer of Humility. Humility is the virtue that stands in opposition to the vice of pride. Pride is what made the Devil fall from his celestial pedestal as God’s favored angel. Pride leads me to be an inferior version of myself. Let us briefly ask God for the gift of true and beautiful humility:
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me. From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved… From the desire of being extolled … From the desire of being honored … From the desire of being praised … From the desire of being preferred to others… From the desire of being consulted … From the desire of being approved … From the fear of being humiliated … From the fear of being despised… From the fear of suffering rebukes … From the fear of being calumniated … From the fear of being forgotten … From the fear of being ridiculed … From the fear of being wronged … From the fear of being suspected …
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I … That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease … That others may be chosen and I set aside … That others may be praised and I unnoticed … That others may be preferred to me in everything… That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…
Be on the Lookout for Your Unexpected Journey
Unexpected journeys are difficult, but the joy attained through its travel is immeasurable. Jesus tells his disciples [and us], “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). God asks us each day: will you follow me?
Starting on September 21st, 2017, I said yes! I renewed my commitment to follow His lead. Will I continue on this path? I certainly hope so, only time will truly tell. I will close with the following exchange between the hobbit and wizard before the great journey:
Gandalf: I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.
Bilbo: I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them …
Gandalf: You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back
Bilbo: You can promise that I’ll come back?”
Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same
I struggle with the sin of pride. I often hate to admit I made a mistake. Even if it is a minor one. I tend to blow the error out of proportion in my mind. This leads to me spiraling into a descent of despair. Reason goes out the window and I lash out at my loved ones.
One of the most effective saints at keeping my pride in check is Saint Teresa of Avila. I refer to her as one of the patron saints of my family. We asked for her intercession in May 2018 to protect our unborn daughter (my wife has a history of miscarriages). Since then my wife and I have sought Teresa’s help daily in our bedtime prayers.
This fall I’m am trying to get back into a regular habit of reading spiritual work. I discovered a free course on Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle featured on the Smart Catholic website. I study her work for about 20-30 minutes a day during the week.
Over the past several years I have allowed stresses at work, home, and the angst from the global pandemic and financial crises to accumulate. Like a cavity which forms over time due to improper care my spiritual life has suffered a similar hollowing out. I have developed a harder, more cynical exterior. In college, I was given the nickname “Cheese” because of my smile and excitement. I have long lost that attitude and title.
My wife called me on her way back between school buildings and I mentioned to her an ordering mistake I made at work. I tried to justify my error and planned ways on how I would tell my boss. My tone got angrier the more I talked about it and tried to rationalize how I was still blameless. The call ended abruptly because my phone’s battery died. I went back to the course on Saint Teresa and I came across a couple questions that cut through my anger.
Can any evil be greater than the evil which we find in our own house?
Wow! This question immediately pierced my hardened heart. It reminded me of Jesus’ comparison of judging others while being blinded by the log in your own eyes. In the end, there really isn’t any evil greater than the evil which we find in our own house. I’m not the Judge and I can only control my own actions and influences those people in my household.
As I pondered Teresa’s question I recalled Matthew 7:24-27. Jesus urged his followers to build a solid foundation on God and not be foolish with having a based built on sand. Judging others without any regard for my own failings is like creating a house on a shifty, weak foundation.
What hope can we have of being able to rest in other people’s homes if we cannot rest in our own?
This second question took me in the direction of thinking about the Catholic family as a domestic church. We are called to rest in the house of the Lord every Sunday but that’s a bare minimum. Our faith life is only as effective as we allow God’s grace to work in us. The simplest way to let God in is through the family life.
Can one truly rest in another’s house (and even in the house of the Lord on Sundays) unless we are able to rest in our own?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2685,
The Christian family is the first place of education in prayer. Based on the sacrament of marriage, the family is the “domestic church” where God’s children learn to pray “as the Church” and to persevere in prayer. For young children in particular, daily family prayer is the first witness of the Church’s living memory as awakened patiently by the Holy Spirit.
Teresa’s second question convicted me. Was I doing my best as a father and husband? Do I lead my family in faith consistently as of late? These are questions I haven’t taken the time to think about. The good news is God is merciful and grants me the opportunity the grace of a new grace and a continual “second” chance to improve in my spiritual life.
No matter my past failures I am hope in God’s mercy and grace to help me renew my commitment to my family. I’m thankful for Saint Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle for cutting through my anger and tough exterior today!
Editor’s Note: This post originally published on July 20, 2018.
Saint Therese of Liseux once stated, “Our Lord does not so much look at the greatness of our actions, or even at their difficulty, as at the love with which we do them.” Part of the universal appeal of the Little Flower was her simplicity and humility when approaching the greatness of God.
As a classic over thinker and a perfectionist, I tend to overanalyze sanctity. Making checklists or reminders on my phone, I try to cram a bunch of spiritual activities into a week all the while juggling a healthy work, life, and exercise routine! I am exhausted simply thinking about scheduling confession in on a Saturday around my three children’s naptime and giving my wife time to go to the medicine box as well.
At work the stress continued. The constant barrage of complaints, concerns, and questions wear down a person. I try to give myself a few seconds rest between the hustle and bustle. St. Therese taught me three important lessons this week.
The French saint wisely stated, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.” I have previously written about the importance of small incremental steps to gain progress; however, it is always good to remind ourselves that great things start with doing the little things well.
Children learning to ride a bicycle do not normally go from training wheels to mountain/trail cycling overnight. Bumps, bruises, tears, and frustrations abound over the course of time when learning to ride a bike. The same is true in our pilgrim journey towards holiness. Missed opportunities of smiling at an annoying co-worker or your trouble neighbor does not help our advancement in our sojourn of sanctity. St. Mother Teresa matter-of-factly said, “You have to be holy where you are – wherever God has put you.” Following in the footsteps of both Therese/Teresa’s I hope to remember daily to start little—with baby steps—as a I grow in holiness.
Fueled by the Fire of Love
According to Genesis 3, the curse place upon Adam [and later all mankind] was work being toilsome and difficult. In fact, the day of the Fall may have well been history’s first Monday! All joking aside, we normally dread work because it takes away of play—an activity of something which we enjoy and love doing. St. Josemaria Escriva declared, “Either we learn to find the Lord in the ordinary everyday life or else we shall never find him.”
Very much in keeping with his spirituality, and likely a major influence for the Founder of Opus Dei, St. Therese reminds us that work need not be toilsome—as long as daily work is fueled by love. Watered by love—of God and neighbor—work blossoms into a sweet activity that paradoxically involves suffering but bring joy as well! “I understood that love comprises all vocations – that love is everything, and because it is eternal, embraces all times and places,” the sainted French nun declared.
Part of a Whole
The final piece wisdom the Little Flower of Lisieux imparted to me this week was the importance of seeing myself as a part of a larger whole. Now this is not to reduce myself to a small wheel in the cog of Catholicism—such as view is entirely utilitarian and reduces our relationship to other human beings as purely functional/technical.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 952, when speaking about the communion of saints, “Everything the true Christian has is to be regarded as a good possessed in common with everyone else. All Christians should be ready and eager to come to the help of the needy. . . and of their neighbors in want.”487 A Christian is a steward of the Lord’s goods.” As a husband and father, I learned my will must be subordinated for the good of the other members of my family.
Easily declared from my theological armchair, I struggle mightily in the midst of family life and the bustle of raising children. Here is where the example and spiritual maturity of St. Therese again teaches me. On the subject of being a saint, Therese stated, “I realized that to become a saint one must suffer a great deal, always seek what is best, and forget oneself.”
Depend on God
The youngest of nine siblings Therese learned quickly in life that she could not always be the center of attention—although she did admit in her Diary of a Soul that her selfishness pervaded her very earliest of years. The Little Flower’s constant message in her writings about her [and our] need to have a complete dependency on God our Heavenly Father helped shift my selfish mindset toward others and the Ultimate Other.
Start small, easy your daily struggle with the fuel of love, and remember you are part of a larger whole—members of the human race. These three lessons the young, but wise French saint taught me this week.