Category Archives: devotionals

Obedience

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Some words are as old fashioned as my grandmother’s butter churn, words like clew (ball of thread), fandangle (useless or purely ornamental thing), popinjay (a parrot), and scapegrace (a rascal). A word not yet archaic but in danger of becoming so is the word “obey,” especially when used in reference to human behavior. Obedience is a good quality to have in children, employees, soldiers, and subordinates. However, it seems to cut so much against the modern, egalitarian grain that when we hear it commended, it can have the same effect as running one’s fingernails down a chalkboard. (Chalkboard is another word in danger of becoming archaic.)

The Rule of St. Benedict begins with the archaic word “hearken” in Dom McCann’s translation. It means “to listen intently to” or “to obey,” and it appears in the imperative mood: Listen! Obey Obedience is a virtue not only for children and employees but also for monks, nuns, and anyone trying to live a spiritual life. In fact, St. Benedict, at the very beginning of his rule, speaks of the “labor of obedience” and the “strong and shining weapons of obedience.” Obedience is described as both a means of returning to God and an instrument of spiritual warfare with which we fight for him. Renouncing one’s own will is one of the most difficult things to do. It’s no wonder St. Benedict refers to it as labor. The word calls to mind images of chain gangs and delivery rooms.

What makes obedience joyful, though still difficult, is the knowledge that the one we obey is a “loving father.” It is unclear whether the reference is to God or the abbot. Likely it’s both, since the abbot (from the Aramaic “abba,” meaning “father”) stands in the place of God. Loving parents make it easier for their children to obey. The same principle applies to all leaders, whether employers, teachers, military officers, abbots, or abbesses. In God’s kingdom, love and obedience go hand in hand. With love, obedience still isn’t easy but it’s less likely to become extinct.

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Ineffable Mystery

Ethiopian Trinity Icon

Pop quiz. What is the sum of 1+1+1? You’re thinking three. That’s correct in mathematics but not in theology. When it comes to the nature of God, 1+1+1=1!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Holy Trinity an “ineffable mystery” (CCC, 251). This mystery, taught in embryo in Holy Scripture, was birthed through the theological controversies of the first three centuries of Christianity. In 325, the Church Fathers at Nicea formulated the doctrine to combat the Arian heresy which taught that the Son and the Spirit are merely created beings. As Catholics, we profess every Sunday our belief in One God who exists eternally in three Persons when we recite the fourth-century Nicene Creed. Easy to say. Difficult to grasp.

We shouldn’t be surprised that some important truths of the Christian faith are difficult to explain and understand. The same could be said for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Logically, you’d think 0.999… would be just a tiny bit less than 1, but mathematically they are equal. There are many truths that are difficult to grasp!

Why should we believe in this difficult teaching of God’s Three-in-Oneness?

First, we should believe the doctrine of the Trinity because it’s true. While the doctrine of the Trinity surpasses human reason, it does not contradict human reason. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition both attest to its truth. The doctrine has stood the test of time, and the overwhelming majority of Christians in the world believe and profess it.

Second, we should believe the doctrine of the Trinity because it’s important. The Son and the Holy Spirit have been sent into the world to reveal God to us. God is love (1 John 4:8). The Son and Spirit are also love, because they are God. If the Son and Spirit were mere creatures, their ability to reveal God to us would be limited. Because the Spirit and Son are God, they can reveal the Father’s love to us in its fullness. When Jesus died on the cross, he wasn’t merely a martyr suffering unjustly. God was hanging on the cross, suffering with us and for us to show us his love. When Jesus, along with the Father, sent the Spirit to abide with us,  he didn’t send a created being that was lower than God. He sent us God himself. If the Son and Spirit were created beings, then God would be distant. Thankfully, the Son and Spirit are God, and we can relate to God the Father through them.

Happy Trinity Sunday!

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Queen of the Apostles

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Although the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title “Queen of the Apostles” first appears in the sixteenth-century Litany of Loreto, the concept is much older. In fact, its roots are biblical. Like Jesus, the Church was born of the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the Day of Pentecost, considered the birth of the Church, the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles gathered in the Upper Room. St. Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, tells us the Apostles were there praying “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14).

In the famous painting of Pentecost above by the artist El Greco, Mary appears in the middle of the Apostles. Even though she is neither an apostle nor a priest, she too received the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by a flaming tongue above her head. She wears both blue and red. Blue symbolizes her virginity and red her motherhood. In her dual role she encourages all women: those called to the married life and those called to remain single. Mary’s presence in the Cenacle is more than coincidental. Without her there would be no Church. She is the spiritual mother of all the Apostles and their successors. Indeed she is mother of us all.

It is therefore appropriate on this Pentecost Sunday to pray with Saint Vincent Pallotti (1795-1850) this prayer to Mary Queen of Apostles:

Immaculate Mother of God, Queen of the Apostles, we know that God’s commandment of love and our vocation to follow Jesus Christ impels us to cooperate in the mission of the Church. Realizing our own weakness, we entrust the renewal of our personal lives and our apostolate to your intercession. We are confident that through God’s mercy and the infinite merits of Jesus Christ, you, who are our Mother, will obtain the strength of the Holy Spirit as you obtained it for the community of the apostles gathered in the upper room. Therefore, relying on your maternal intercession, we resolve from this moment to devote our talents, learning, material resources, our health, sickness and trials, and every gift of nature and grace, for the greater glory of God and the salvation of all. We wish to carry on those activities which especially promote the catholic apostolate for the revival of faith and love of the people of God and so bring all men and women into the faith of Jesus Christ. And if a time should come when we have nothing more to offer serviceable to this end, we will never cease to pray that there will be one fold and one shepherd Jesus Christ. In this way, we hope to enjoy the results of the apostolate of Jesus Christ for all eternity. Amen. 

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Freedom from Fear

Jesus_ascending_to_heavenThe Ascension (1775), oil on canvas. 81 x 73 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

At 15, Lisa started becoming very anxious following her parent’s divorce. She and her younger brother lived with their mother and saw their father weekly. The arrangements were amicable. Shortly after the divorce her father had a stroke and was in the hospital for several weeks. Within weeks, Lisa started getting nervous when her mother went out to the shops—even for short periods (under an hour). She texted and rang her mother every 3–4 minutes to ask if she was alright, and when she was coming back to the house. Lisa’s story, related on a British medical website, illustrates a psychological condition called Separation Anxiety. It’s an extreme form of a common problem: the fear of abandonment. Many of us have worried about losing a loved one. It’s a common fear.

In Acts 1:1-11, the resurrected Jesus returns miraculously to his Heavenly Father: Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, tells us as the disciples were watching “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (v. 9). I wonder if the Ascension of Jesus filled them with wonder or fear. Probably both.

The first lesson of the Ascension was taught by angels who appeared to the disciples and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (v. 11). The ascension gives believers hope in the Second Coming. What goes up must come down. If Jesus had simply stopped appearing to the disciples, it would have created doubt about his promise to return.

What about Jesus’s promise to remain with his disciples? “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). How does the Ascension square with the Lord’s promise to remain with us? Jesus returned to heaven but his presence remains in several ways.

Because he is God, Jesus is present everywhere, even if we cannot see him. Theologically this is called omnipresence. His presence extends to all places. To God the Psalmist sings,

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea.

We see Jesus’s presence in creation and we hear it in the Word of God. In the pages of Holy Scripture, Jesus speaks to us and we meet him in its pages.

Jesus is also present to us in the Eucharist. The bread and wine of the Sacrament becomes his body, blood, soul, and divinity. It is our communion with him. The word “communion” comes from Latin, formed by the prefix com- (“with” or “together”) plus the root unus (“oneness” or “union”). In the Eucharist we become one with Jesus and each other.

Finally, Jesus is present to us in the Holy Spirit. Before ascending to heaven, the Lord promised to send the Comforter. This promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (which we celebrate next Sunday) when the Spirit blew through the upper room like a hurricane and flaming tongues appeared. Since then, he lives inside all believers. In baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “the water of Baptism truly signifies that our birth into divine life is given to us in the Holy Spirit” (CCC 694). The Bible says, “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 6:4). We should have no separation anxiety, knowing that we have been made children of God.

On this Ascension Sunday, let us remember Jesus remains with us.  Because he is with us, we can have confidence and freedom from fear.

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No Greater Love

ITALIAN MOTHER AMONG SIX TO BECOME SAINTS IN MAY

Today I held our first grandchild, a healthy baby boy, born May 2. Our daughter Natalie is still recovering from a long and difficult delivery. Despite the complications we are thankful to God for the outcome. Things could have turned out far worse.

Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962) was an Italian wife, mother, and pediatrician. She was also a devout Catholic and member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society who volunteered her time serving the poor and elderly. Gianna embraced motherhood and family life. In 1961, while she was pregnant with her fourth child, doctors found that she had a fibroma in her uterus, meaning she was carrying both an unborn baby and a life-threatening tumor. Her options were limited. She could abort the baby to save her life and preserve her ability to have more children. She could have a hysterectomy, saving her life but killing the baby and excluding the possibility of having more children. Finally, Gianna could have the tumor removed which would give the unborn baby a chance to live and preserve the possibility of future pregnancies but would present the greatest risk to her health. She chose life. On April 21, 1962 (Holy Saturday), Gianna gave birth to a baby girl named Gianna Emanuela, but the mother died a week later of septic peritonitis. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). In 2004, Pope St. John Paul II canonized Gianna Molla, declaring her a saint.

Love is self-sacrificing. It puts the needs of others ahead of one’s own needs. And not just in heroic actions like that of St. Gianna Molla. God calls us to “love one another” in ways both great and small.

O God, who out of a motive of pure love gave your only Son for my sake, teach me to give myself wholly to you in the service of others without counting the cost, knowing that love is its own reward. Amen.

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The True Vine

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Christ the True Vine (icon), 16th century,  Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Greece.

I read in the newspaper this week there is a global wine shortage caused by unusually cold and wet weather in Europe, resulting in the smallest grape harvest since World War II. This wine-related news was on my mind as I read the Gospel for this fifth Sunday of Easter (John 15:1-8). In this passage, Jesus uses symbolic language of the vineyard to explain his relationship with his followers. In one of his famous “I am” sayings, our Lord describes himself as the “true vine” and encourages his disciples to “abide” in him. Abiding in Jesus results in bearing fruit. Those who do not bear fruit are removed from the vine.

How do we abide in Jesus? That is, how can we stay connected to him? This question gets to the heart of salvation. To be saved initially, under normal circumstances, we must repent, believe, and be baptized. To maintain our salvation, to stay connected to Jesus, we must repent, believe, and confess mortal sin whenever we become aware of it. The consequence of not staying connected to Jesus is catastrophic: “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (v. 6). Although troubling, the language of damnation is unmistakable here.

In the very next verse after the Gospel reading, Jesus says “Abide in my love” (v. 9). Thus, Jesus equates abiding in him with abiding in love. In 1 John 4:8 we read, “Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” Love is not a sentimental feeling, but a self-giving, self-sacrificing action. If you want to know what love looks like, gaze at Jesus on the cross!

Jesus reveals his love to us through his Word, which tells of his sacrificial death, and in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The same Jesus who said “Abide in me” meets us in the Sacrament of his body and blood. The vine is both a Christological and a Eucharistic symbol. As Catholics, we believe that “in the communion . . . the faithful receive ‘the bread of heaven’ and ‘the cup of salvation,’ the body and blood of Christ who offered himself ‘for the life of the world’ (CCC, 1355). One important way to stay connected to Jesus and his love is through frequent reception of the Eucharist.

Although there may be a shortage of wine this year, there can never be a shortage of God’s love.

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The Prodigal Leper

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Healing a Leper (ca. 1650-1655), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The following parable was inspired by Mark 1:40-45.

There once were two lepers. One obeyed the Law of Moses, keeping far from other people. The other broke the Law of Moses by going up to a healer and begging to be healed. After the healer touched him and cured him of his leprosy, he sternly warned the man not to tell anyone about his healing. The healer told him to obey the Law, show himself to a priest, and offer an appropriate sacrifice for his healing. Again, the man disobeyed. Instead of going to the priest and offering a sacrifice, he blabbed to everyone about what the healer had done, even though the healer told him not to. As word spread of the leper’s healing, people flocked to the healer so much so that he had to stay in lonely places outside towns.

One day as the healer was wandering alone he saw in the distance the leper who obeyed the Law of Moses. Upon seeing the healer, the leper began to shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” The healer tried to approach the leper to heal him, but the man ran away.

The healer stood there dumbfounded. He was able to heal the sinful leper who broke the Law, but he couldn’t heal the righteous leper who kept the Law.

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