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That we can inhale and exhale, consume food and drink, create things with our hands, think things with our brains, witness beauty with our eyes, take in the scents of our surroundings, or choose to walk left or walk right is a funny reality, is indeed very strange.
Of course, it’s entirely normal as we experience it. But at the same time, all of those things which are so easily taken for granted are really quite peculiar. Our lives are constantly in motion. From the moment of our conception, at least some part of our being remains constantly–voluntarily or involuntarily–moving.
What’s more, our lives are in a constant state of alteration. Though much of it is gradual, like learning to walk or spending years in school, significant portions of our lives will undergo sudden–even violent–change, even (at times) to the point of death.
An example: The family in which I’ve grown up in has been blessed with mostly good health. Two of my four grandparents are still living, with the two deceased having gone gradually, a result of slowly depreciating health. But in mid-July 2012, I had cracked a beer and was headed out to enjoy the evening sun on my parents’ patio when the phone rang. On the other end was news that my mom’s aunt, on her drive to see a play and visit us, had been in a car accident and died.
It was a jarring time, to say the least, but as some years have passed it’s caused me to stop and ponder every now and again the life we’ve been given; more importantly how quickly it can end and what that means for how we ought to spend the time in between.
I’ve always liked the Garth Brooks song “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” mainly because Garth is the man. But also because the first half of the chorus provides a striking parallel to the spiritual life and addresses this very question rather poignantly:
If tomorrow never comes
Will she know how much I loved her?
Did I try in every way to show her every day
That she’s my only one?
Replacing the woman in this scenario with God, it’s a sobering thought for anyone, and is especially so for us Christians. While salvation is a free gift from God (yes, Catholics believe this too), it’s the work that we do — the attitude of our interior life, how we act toward others — that puts us in a state to allow us to decide whether we desire heaven – eternity with God – or desire (according to our actions) hell – eternity without God.
Questions like, “Do my choices matter?” or “What choices do matter?” or “Is there something waiting for us after we die?” are asked by children, or by good buddies around a fire after a few beers too many, but how often is it something that we really think about in a sober and mature state?
Ask yourself: When was the last time you sat for even 5 minutes and thought about nothing but what would happen to you if you died tomorrow?
If it hasn’t been recently, it’s probably worth it to do that now.
Whenever a group of people gathers in Aspen, Colorado, the reason typically has little to do with matters of faith, and is perhaps often devoid of faith altogether. But with a new movement beginning at Aspen’s local Catholic parish, that may become the case less and less.
In the heart of downtown sits St. Mary’s Catholic Church, its white steeple towering over most buildings in Aspen, keeping watch on the quaint mountain town. Both priest and flock at St. Mary’s are extraordinarily vibrant, simultaneously solid and joyful, and eager to share the love of Jesus Christ with the people of Aspen. It’s as if Christ himself was repeating, as He placed such a parish amidst Aspen’s aggressively secular culture, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Aspen Catholic is the initiative that blossomed from a cultivated passion for evangelization at St. Mary’s. Led by her pastor, Fr. John Hilton (known by many as The Pedaling Priest), and Judy Dunn, Director of Aspen Catholic, last weekend saw over 60 individuals gather to greet the Lord, meet each other, and “Encounter Mercy.”
Here’s some takeaways from a fantastic weekend in the mountains.
Creation is meaningless without God
Dr. Jonathan Reyes, one of the weekend’s featured speakers, quoted C.S. Lewis in his presentation Saturday evening, noting that every human being will outlast the mountains and valleys: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
Bishop Robert Barron often talks about the Creation story as a liturgical procession, as if each piece spoken into existence by God had its place in a giant cosmic liturgy. The final part of any procession – in the Mass, for example – is the priest, the presider of the liturgy whose duty it is to direct and care for all who walked before him. In the great Creation story, Bishop Barron notes, this is man, the culmination of God’s creation, made in the image and likeness of the Creator Himself.
What this analogy implies at its core, especially when pondering how each portion of Creation takes its place in such a procession, is order and meaning. With every piece of the procession being intentionally placed, we can intuit that there must be a mind – God – from which that intention came. Remove God, and we’re left with a by-chance progression, brought together accidentally and left utterly devoid of any meaning whatsoever.
Especially in a place like Aspen, finding truth and beauty in its fullness must start here, with an understanding that life, all that we know, is intelligible, important, overflowing with meaning, precisely because it was spoken into being by God.
A happy life requires encounter – encuentro
Perhaps the most valuable building block from the weekend was Dr. Reyes’ talk of encuentro (the Spanish form of “encounter,” it turns out, is much richer in meaning).
The Feast of St. Cajetan, a huge celebration each year in Argentina, was a favorite of Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio before he became the 265th Successor of Peter. Despite having to miss the annual August celebration in 2013, his first summer as pope, the Holy Father sent a video message to the pilgrims making the trek to the Shrine of St. Cajetan in lieu of processing with them.
Referring to beggars on either side of the road during the pilgrimage, Pope Francis had some intriguing questions for pilgrims:
I sometimes ask people: “Do you give alms?” They say to me: “Yes, Father.” “And when you give alms, do you look the person you are giving them to in the eye?” “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t really notice.” “Then you have not really encountered him. You tossed him the alms and walked off. When you give alms, do you touch the person’s hand or do you throw the coin?” “No, I throw the coin.” “So you did not touch him. And if you don’t touch him you don’t meet him.”
For all we know, as Dr. Reyes pointed out, that person on the side of the road hasn’t heard so much as their own name spoken out loud in weeks, maybe even months. How easily do we take for granted such seemingly small things?
Looking someone in the eye, touching their hand, speaking their name – This is what Pope Francis means when he says he wants a “culture of encounter.” This is encuentro. Every Christian – every human – ought to be striving for this, because encuentro is how we allow Christ to reach us, and how we ultimately come to live life to the full.
A healthy prayer life is within reach for anyone
The weekend’s other featured speakers, Dan Burke and Dr. Anthony Lilles, focused heavily on prayer and the “mysticism of mercy”, particularly through the wisdom of St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Faustina, and Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity (hipster saint alert – you’ve probably never heard of her).
But since an active prayer life can’t be had with the wave of a wand, practical tips always help, even for the most seasoned of prayer warriors. Dan gave six pieces of advice – three elements and three conditions – that improve the quality of one’s prayer life in the measure that they’re present in a person’s life.
Sacred time and sacred space must come first in order to regulate when and where we pray each day. Even 15 minutes daily is a sufficient start, as is a small space in one’s house reserved solely for prayer. The third element, sacredattention, is all about cultivating a “focus on God and God alone” while in prayer. Though it requires nurturing, sacred attention means, as Dan mentioned, removing “iAnything” from the space where you pray – nothing that will distract yourin order to enter effectively into prayer.
If the elements involve ordering the space in which one prays, the conditions – clarity, community, and accountability – refer to the ordering of one’s life in general. Clarity is the rule of life by which we live: The things we do and don’t do, music we do or don’t listen to, etc. Community is a reminder that no man is an island, demanding that a person find other people, even a small group, in order to grow in the spiritual life. Finally, accountability involves both the external – a commitment to attend Confession on a schedule – and the internal – a daily examination of conscience where we ask “How have I loved you today, Lord, and where have I failed?”
Attentiveness, surrender, and willingness to suffer are absolutely essential
As it turns out, there can be no such thing as a Couch Potato Christian, if indeed a person is serious about their prayer life and relationship with the Lord. Dr. Lilles drew out this idea by explaining three different ways in which the spiritual life requires action.
Attentiveness to God’s grace working in our lives is important because we live in a temporal reality. Because time is precious, missing and not accepting an opportunity to receive grace is a moment we lose forever. As Dr. Lilles mentioned, we can never get that grace in that way ever again.
Surrendering to the will of God is tied up in our ability to trust. Dr. Lilles pointed out what St. Faustina learned through her encounters with Jesus in the Divine Mercy: Misery is the only possession that we humans own entirely. As our Lord said to St. Faustina, “Daughter, give me your mercy, because it is your exclusive property.” How can we ever truly and freely give a possession to another unless we trust them completely?
The willingness to suffer, is obvious if only by our call to follow Jesus in all things. The spiritual life is no walk in the park, and it was never supposed to be. What’s more, Christ’s mandate to “take up your cross and follow me” implies a need for an active disposition when dealing with all three. Attentiveness, surrender, and suffering are things that require a continuous “yes” to God.
As Dr. Reyes rightly noted, “The only way the Devil can beat a Christian is to get a Christian to quit.”
Aspen Catholic’s “Encountering Mercy” retreat was a fantastic experience and a perfect example that the Holy Spirit is alive and well, working and guiding His Church in the most unlikely of places.
Keep Aspen Catholic on your radar as they hold more retreats in the coming months. The people at St. Mary’s in Aspen are doing great things, and you won’t want to miss out.
One of the most picturesque views in Montana comes into focus when rounding the bend on eastbound Interstate 90, about 6 miles from the historic city of Butte. On the towering East Ridge overlooking the city sits the third-tallest statue in America: a 90-foot-tall homage to the Blessed Virgin Mary, brilliantly white and perched 3500 feet above the valley floor.
Her story began in 1979 with Butte resident Bob O’Bill, whose wife was nearing death from cancer. O’Bill, who for many years worked as electrician in one of Butte’s surface mines, prayed that his wife be healed, and promised to build a 5-foot statue of Mary in his yard if God answered.
When his wife made a full recovery, O’Bill and his friends set about to fulfill the promise, but the plan soon developed from a small statue in a yard to a massive icon on a mountain.
An important note: During all of this, Butte – once a mining boomtown, the world’s top copper producer, and the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco – was suffering through its worst economic recession ever. Mining companies had left not long before, jobs were scarce, and morale in the most Irish city in America was at an all-time low.
And yet, through backbreaking volunteer labor, unparalleled generosity, and more than a little dose of the miraculous, the statue of Our Lady was finished in 1985, just over 30 years ago. The details of this amazing story parallel perfectly with lessons we hear over and over again in the life of Christ and in the life of the Church:
1. The builders, like the Apostles, were just regular guys.
Bob O’Bill and his mining buddies, by the world’s standards, were nobody special. Leroy Lee, for example, the man who designed and welded the statue’s three pieces, brought no design experience and a grade school education to the table. But since when does God care about the world’s standards?
It was fishermen and tax collectors, not society’s elite, who became Jesus’ disciples. And the builders, like the Apostles, more than made up for it in their faith and their desire to follow the will of the King.
2. The Lord provided.
What that community lacked in economic wealth, it made up for in generosity. Virtually every piece of the project was donated: the land on top of the East Ridge, the heavy machinery needed to cut a road up the mountain itself, the cement base for the statue, and (most of all) the labor.
As more men lost their jobs due to the recession, they gladly lent their time to pushing the project forward, while the volunteers’ families held benefit dinners and bake sales to make up for any intermediate costs. Even the placing of the three-piece, 60-ton statue atop the mountain, requiring a National Guard unit and Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane, was given to them.
3. It was in their lowliness that they triumphed.
Throughout the centuries, in the life of nearly every saint and the story of almost every culture, the sense of the divine is highest when the individual or group is at their lowest point. The moment when all seems lost, when the world has dealt us its death blow, God’s grace is able to flow through in its freest form.
Butte, an aging titan of a fallen era, had been brought to its knees. Families struggled to put food on the table. There seemed to be no way out. And yet, at that very moment and in those very circumstances, a community was able to hope for something. Only then could this monument have been built, for surely in better times such a project would have been thought unnecessary or frivolous.
“It only could’ve been done in Butte,” O’Bill recalled.
4. The miracles. Oh, the miracles.
The best part of the story. Leaving aside the sudden recovery and healing of O’Bill’s wife (seen in the video below), the sheer number of pieces that fell into place are astounding.
When panic set in with how the crew would pay to fuel up their seemingly abandoned donated heavy equipment, every tank was found to be completely filled with gas.
On the day of completion, when Mary needed to be flown to the top of a normally gusty and windy East Ridge, the air was eerily and peacefully calm, with no wind to speak of.
And when the middle piece of the statue, the biggest and most awkward to carry of the three, caused the helicopter to careen sideways in midair and lose altitude, the pilot was able to somehow recover without dumping the load, eventually setting the piece safely atop the base and bringing tears of joy from those watching below.
These, of course, are only a few examples.
“Everything we asked of Mary up there, we got,” said Jim Keane, one of the builders.
So if you’re looking for a pilgrimage that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, make a drive to Butte this summer. Stop at Pork Chop Johns for lunch, then catch the shuttle from the Butte Plaza Mall up to the top. Always watching over us with her maternal gaze, Mary really is a sight to behold.
The 1999 movie Office Space is one of American film’s greatest cult classics, poignantly depicting mundane office life through the eyes of fed-up workers at a typical 90s software company.
Many who haven’t seen the movie may know it from its popular quotes like “I believe you have my stapler” or…
But the movie’s most iconic scene comes when the main character and two coworkers finally have enough of the never-functioning office printer.
The trio takes the printer out into a deserted meadow, tosses it to the ground, and begins to mercilessly pummel the machine with kicks, punches, and strikes from their trusty Louisville Slugger. Each takes his turn, and little is left of the inkjet by the end.
Though I haven’t watched the movie itself in several years, this scene sprung to my mind recently when watching a talk given by the ever-brilliant Bishop Robert Barron (because of course it did). Bishop Barron was talking about what he calls the “YouTube Heresies” — those topics frequently misconstrued in the comment section of the bishop’s popular videos.
One of those “heresies” involves atheists and agnostics often pointing the finger at the so-called vengeful God of the Old Testament through a story in the first book of Samuel, Chapter 15.
Saul, the king of Israel, had been ordered by God, through the prophet Samuel, to wage war on and entirely exterminate the nation of Amalek, which had ambushed and harmed the Israelites (God’s chosen people) in the book of Exodus on their way out of Egypt. Saul led his army in a successful battle, killing nearly everything save for Amalek’s best livestock, as well as their king, Agag.
Though Saul was satisfied with his victory, as well as the spoils he had taken from the Amalekites, Samuel was irate upon finding out what Saul had done. Reminding Saul of the order to eradicate the entire nation of Amalek, Samuel had all of the livestock killed, then (yes, this is in the Bible) had Agag brought before him where he “hacked Agag to pieces.” (1 Sam. 15:33)
The Word of the Lord…
So, a prophet of God brutally kills a man, and there’s supposed to be a parallel to office workers in a movie smashing a printer to bits?
As is always the case, there’s more to this Old Testament story than meets the eye.
The nation of Amalek, as the Church has understood it since the very early centuries, stands for sin. Samuel’s insistence to Saul that all of Amalek be wiped out is illustrative of God’s desire for us to be wholly pure, to aim and strive for complete and perfect union with him — which, as it were, is precisely what heaven will be.
What good is it, Bishop Barron says, for a husband to say to his wife, “Honey, I promise to be faithful to you 95 percent of the time!” or a person to say, “I promise to not kill my neighbor on 364 days of the year!” It’s an absurdity when we put it in those terms, but it should make similar sense when applying it to the more subtle areas of sin in our lives.
The printer, like Amalek, needed to be utterly destroyed, lest it be repaired and be able to rise again, causing renewed printer-jam anguish in the lives of lowly office workers.
And so it is with sin. It requires a radical decision on our part – one that asks us to leave nothing behind and to allow God to root out the entire problem, not just 95 percent of it. We should take a leaf out of books of Samuel and the Office Space trio, then, and begin to look at our sin with repulsion, striving to smash it to pieces daily through things like prayer, fasting, attending Confession and receiving the Eucharist.
God gives us the baseball bat. All that’s left for us is to use it.
NOTE: This column appears in full at Spokane Faith & Values. It has graciously been given permission for reposting at MtnCatholic.com.
When I think of religious misconceptions and the Catholic Church, I legitimately have to stifle a laugh as I think to myself, “Where do I even start?”
It’s almost as sure a thing as death and taxes, in my experience, that misconceptions abound about the Catholic Church — what she believes, the ramifications of her members behaving badly, whether or not her teachings are outdated. One could look anywhere and find them.
A quote from the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen has always said it best for me:
“There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
It’s a very intriguing statement, when you think about it, and I believe it’s profoundly true.
There should be no doubt that the Catholic Church is a tour de force in our world, and has been for centuries. For better or for worse, everyone who’s been to a university, been treated in a modern hospital, or lived virtually anywhere in the world has been affected, directly or indirectly, by Catholicism.
One example is Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last September; for those days, the American public was treated to the “most positive news week I have ever seen,” as one writer put it.
But two questions still remain: Why should I care? And how can the good things matter when so much bad has been done by the Church over the centuries?
Let’s be honest, moms always tend to know what’s best for their kids. From the time we’re little to far past adulthood, mothers in our lives always have the sage advice to make our lives better.
Even if it’s frustrating, even if we don’t understand it in the moment (if ever), and even if we just don’t want to do it, following mom’s advice usually leads to this reaction:
This is true of our human moms, grandmothers, aunts, etc. But it also applies to our OTHER mother: the Church.
Anytime Jesus speaks, things happen. His words have power. So when, in the Gospel of John, Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my sheep,” he’s instructing his Rock to build up his Bride, the Church, the one that Jesus promised would never (read again: NEVER) be prevailed against, in order that His flock would be well nourished and well instructed, as a mother instructs her children.
And so, here are four life obligations from both our earthly moms and our mother, the Church, that are sure to lead you to a better, happier life.
1. Clean your room (Go to Confession)
One of the classic traits of a mom is an obsession with making sure our bedroom is clean. What is it about moms and requiring a clean room? Instead of just an insistence that we not have anything on the floor, I’m willing to bet that this command is at least rooted in an understanding that a clean living space is not only healthy, but makes life quantitatively better. The more the junk piles up, the more stressful it is to walk around it, the harder it is to find important things, and the more we’ll just want to shove it to the side.
The same goes for regular Confession. Yes, the prospect of “cleaning out our souls” before a priest can be inconvenient and a little scary. And yet, the more we avoid it, the more the junk piles up, and the harder it becomes to find our heart under it all.
Cleaning our rooms and going to Confession both take a certain amount of courage, and both require a leaning in against discomfort. But both, as anyone who’s consistently done so can attest, are worth it.
“Confession is an act of honesty and courage – an act of entrusting ourselves, beyond sin, to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God.” – St. John Paul II
2. Eat your dinner (Receive the Eucharist)
If there’s anything like pulling teeth, it’s getting a kid to eat his dinner. And yet, moms know that without food, their child will literally die (after a while, of course). And so it’s worth it to them to continue battling, to continue persuading, to continue imploring the child in order to get that nutritious goodness into their offspring’s belly.
Likewise, the Church will always be there, waiting patiently like a mother does, but not letting us off scot-free if we shirk our duty to receive the Eucharist. It’s not because we have, as my own mother would say, the Meanest Mom in the World, but rather because our Mother Church knows that we will literally perish without it.
“If Christ did not want to dismiss the Jews without food in the desert for fear that they would collapse on the way, it was to teach us that it is dangerous to try to get to heaven without the Bread of Heaven.” – St. Jerome
3. Be nice to your siblings (Practice truth in charity)
Of everything that can prepare you to be a saint, having siblings has to be at the top of the list. And it’s one of a mom’s great battles in life to navigate the bickering, bothering, and occasional punch in the nose. Sibling rivalries are a fact of life, and the more kids there are, the more those rivalries tend to crop up. Left unchecked by mom, there would be a full-on mutiny in the house in a matter of hours. But a good mom works on her kids, always correcting, always guiding, sometimes with futility, but with a consistent effort that usually bears good fruit.
The Church’s job is about a billion times harder (almost literally…), so that’s why She gives us the constant call — demand, even — to be charitable to our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. It’s difficult at first, because there’s about as many different personalities in our heavenly household as stars in the sky. But the Church, in her wisdom, is persistent. We have Confession for when we fail, and we have prayer to help us continue to grow. The coffee and donuts help to foster good relations, too.
“Charity is that with which no man is lost, and without which no man is saved.” -St. Robert Bellarmine
4. Call your family (Pray)
We’re only in the comfort of our homes for so long before we must venture out into the great unknown. In our time of growth as children, we rarely need to call our family, because our family is always there with us. But the second we leave the house, in a big way that lifeline is gone unless we pursue it for ourselves. Thankfully, mom makes it a priority to make sure you KNOW that you need to call and fill the family in on how you’re doing. Still, it’s your prerogative to call them, or to at least pick up the phone when it rings.
As a priest I know always says, “This is just like the spiritual life.” Prayer is almost identical to the concept of calling our family. When we’re little, prayer is practically done for us — we’re taken to Mass, we’re led in the saying of grace around the dinner table, someone helps us say our night prayers — so we rarely need to take our own initiative, (and when we do, it’s usually adorable).
But once we reach a certain point in life, we need to take our own initiative to “call our family” in heaven and pray. And unless we do it on a regular basis, our relationship with them – and, subsequently, our connection to what created us — will wither. But the Church, in her great love for us, gives us SO. MANY. options to choose from. We only need to pick one and start.
“Persevere in prayer. Persevere, even when your efforts seem barren. Prayer is always fruitful.” – St. Josemaria Escriva