Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Saint Peter and Saint Paul

On today's Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, we might reflect on how these two holy men spent their lives spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, how they suffered and sacrificed, how they taught and encouraged and even scolded when they had to, how they inspired and loved all those around them. And we would be right in doing so, for all of this is true. That is exactly what Saint Peter and Saint Paul did in their Christian lives, and we should strive to imitate them.

We should also remember, though, and Saint Peter and Saint Paul were not perfect, far from it in fact! Saint Peter was a lowly fisherman who seemed scared to death when he first experienced one of Jesus' miracles. After lowering his nets on Jesus' word and catching so many fish that the nets actually began to break, Peter fell down and exclaimed, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (see Luke 5). Certainly he was showing humility here in the face of such miraculous greatness, but Peter was probably pretty frightened, too, as well he naturally would be, for such a miracle demands a significant response of faith and action. Indeed, Jesus tells him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Peter's fear was evident again when Jesus invited him to walk out on the water (see Matthew 14). He was quite confident at first. “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water,” he said. When Jesus replied, “Come,” and Peter took his first few steps out onto the sea, his confidence faded in a hurry. He sunk. Like a rock. At least he had the sense to cry out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus caught him immediately, gently chastising him for his lack of faith.

One of Peter's shining moments came in the district of Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked him and his fellow disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (see Matthew 16). The other disciples gave some stock answers they had heard from their companions. Jesus pressed further, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter piped up, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My father in heaven.” Jesus went on to give Peter his new name and inform him, “on this rock I will build My church...I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven...” Things were looking pretty good for Peter right then, but that didn't last too long. Only a few minutes later, when Jesus began to speak of how much He would have to suffer in Jerusalem, Peter took the Lord aside and actually rebuked Him with the words, “God forbid it, Lord This must never happen to You.” Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” This was not Peter's finest moment to be sure. He had gone from the rock on which Jesus would built his church to “Satan,” an adversary of God's plan, in probably less than ten minutes.

Peter's worst memory, though, was probably from the day he denied Jesus three times. Only a few hours before Peter had sworn that even if everyone else left Jesus, he would not. Then, out of fear, he denied knowing Him three times, even cursing and swearing an oath that he never knew this Man. When the cock crowed, reminding Peter that Jesus had predicted his denial, Peter wept bitterly. He had fallen hard, and he knew it.

Saint Paul began his interactions with Christianity in a much deeper denial than Peter's brief, fear-based betrayal. Paul, when he was still called Saul, hated Christians. He heartily approved the stoning of Stephen and led a severe persecution against the Church. Acts 8 refers to Saul “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women” and putting them in prison. To Paul, Christianity was against the will of God, and he was going to do everything in his power to stamp it out of existence, all the while “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9). This hostility lasted until, on a certain road to Damascus, Paul dramatically met the Risen Jesus, and his whole life changed.

If these two imperfect, sinful men, Peter and Paul, could end up faithful followers of Jesus Christ, great apostles and teachers of the Gospel, and saints, there is hope for all of us! Jesus continued to love Peter and Paul even in the midst of their brokenness, and He loves us, too. He raised up Peter and Paul, using even their slightest cooperation to make them into faithful, loving disciples, and He will do the same for us if we open our hearts to Him and allow Him to heal us and guide us. As imperfect as we all are, Jesus never gives up on us, just like He never gave up on Peter and Paul. May we respond to Him as they eventually did and offer Him our whole lives in love and adoration.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, pray for us.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Prayer on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Dearest Jesus, Moses reminded the Israelites how, for forty years, God directed their journey in the desert; please direct the spiritual journey of Your people and bring us ever closer to You until we are all home with You in Heaven for all eternity.

Dearest Jesus, God tested the Israelites in the desert to see if they would keep the commandments; please help us to persevere when our faith, hope, and love are tested that we may always keep Your commandments and grow in love for You and our neighbors.

Dearest Jesus, the Israelites ate manna in the desert, but we have access to Your Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist; may we always receive You with reverence and love.

Dearest Jesus, the Scripture reminds us that “not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord”; please open our ears to hear Your words in the Scripture and in daily life, open our minds to understand them; and open our hearts to love and follow them.

Dearest Jesus, God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt; please bring us out of slavery to sin and death.

Dearest Jesus, God made water flow forth from a flinty rock for the people to drink; please make the water of life flow in our hearts.

Dearest Jesus, St. Paul asks us if “the cup of blessing that we bless is...not a participation in the blood of Christ?” and if “the bread that we break is...not a participation in the body of Christ?”; please make our hearts resound with a firm “yes” as we recognize and proclaim Your Real Presence in the Eucharist.

Dearest Jesus, St. Paul also tells us that we are one body; please increase our love for one another.

Dearest Jesus, You are the living bread that has come down from Heaven, and You give Your flesh for the life of the world; please cleanse our hearts so that we may receive Your great gift worthily.

Dearest Jesus, many of Your followers turned away from You when You declared "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink”; please give us the grace of holding fast to Your promise and never turning away from Your love.

Dearest Jesus, You said that whoever eats Your flesh and drinks Your blood will remain in You and You in him; please remain in us always and allow us to remain in You.

Dearest Jesus, You promised that those who eat the bread that You give will live forever; please give us eternal life with You in heaven after a life of devoutly receiving Your Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist.

Amen. Alleluia.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Recommended Reading

As a dedicated bookworm, there are times when I feel the need to share my literary discoveries. What follows is a list of a dozen books I've recently read or am currently reading and a brief reaction/review on each of them.

1. Unplanned by Abby Johnson and Cindy Lambert – This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Author Abby Johnson was once a director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas. After watching a live, ultrasound-guided abortion, she experienced a dramatic change of heart and is now a leading pro-life advocate. Along with narrating her experiences, Abby provides a behind-the-scenes look at the deceptive tactics of Planned Parenthood. Highly recommended.

2. Murder at the Vatican: The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes by Ann Margaret Lewis – The three short stories in Murder at the Vatican showcase the brilliant detective skills of the famous Sherlock Holmes, but they also feature the wisdom of Pope Leo XIII, who appears as a main character in two of the three tales. The third story stars another well-known detective, G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown. This is an enchanting book that encourages the reader to learn much more about Leo XIII.

3. The Craft of Theology 
by Avery Dulles – In The Craft of Theology, Avery Dulles explains his concept of “post-critical theology” and discusses the relationship of theology to the modern world. This is not an easy book, but it is worth the effort for anyone interested in the theological disciplines.

4. Athens and Jerusalem: The Role of Philosophy in Theology by Jack A. Bonsor – I have to admit that certain chapters in this book drove me crazy because of the author's uncritical acceptance of the historical-critical method. On the other hand, the book offers a good explanation, complete with helpful examples, of the relationship between philosophy and theology.

5. Harry Potter's Bookshelf by John Granger – I love all of John Granger's Harry Potter books, but this one is becoming a special favorite. Granger discusses the Harry Potter series using the “iconological” method of interpreting literature and its four levels of meaning, surface, moral, allegorical, and anagogical. The results are fascinating. Along the way, the author explains the impact of the English literary tradition on the Harry Potter books, featuring several classics as diverse as Jane Austen's Emma and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

6. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – This is one of the classics that I always intended to read and never got around to, but now I'm slowly working my way through it. It's an exciting story, but it doesn't hold my attention quite as much as I had hoped. Still, I'm glad to be reading it.

7. The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma – This enchanting book chronicles the “Reading Streak,” during which the author's father read aloud to her for over three thousand consecutive days, from the time she was nine years old until she left for college. The book is a wonderful tale about growing up with reading and the importance of reading books together as a family. Highly recommended.

8. Introduction to Christianity by Benedict XVI – Despite its title, Benedict XVI's Introduction to Christianity is not for new Christians or those exploring the Christian faith for the first time. It is a rather difficult, intense, scholarly treatise about the fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and it is well worth the effort needed to read and comprehend it.

9. Repotting Harry Potter by James W. Thomas – James W. Thomas, a college English professor, addresses this book to the serious re-readers of the Harry Potter series. He goes through each of the seven books, pointing out fun facts and deep meanings readers may have missed the first time around. This book is just plain fun.

10. Reasons to Believe by Scott Hahn – In Reasons to Believe, Scott Hahn explains elements of Catholic faith using what he categorizes as natural reasons, Biblical reasons, and royal reasons. This book is a must read for all Catholics, especially those who teach the faith to others or who must respond to difficult questions about Catholicism.

11. The First Apology by Justin Martyr – I'll admit that Justin Martyr's writing will seem rather dry and difficult to most people, but it also offers a fascinating glimpse into early Christianity. Pay special attention to chapters 65, 66, and 67 on Christian liturgy. Justin's description of the Christian sacraments and worship will sound very familiar to modern Catholics.

12. Letter & Spirit Volume 3 edited by Scott Hahn and David Scott – The Letter & Spirit journals are collections of scholarly essays about Biblical theology. They are not easy reading, but they are deeply meaningful, fascinating, and rewarding.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reflections on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

As I was going through the readings for today's Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, I was struck by how much they tell us about God. Our God will always remain a mystery beyond our understanding, but He graciously condescends to reveal Himself to us in ways we can grasp, at least a little.

In today's first reading from Exodus, Moses is meeting with God on Mount Sinai after the Golden Calf incident during which the Israelites “exchanged their glorious God for the image of a grass-eating bull” (Psalm 106:20). Needless to say, God was not at all pleased with this turn of events, but He allowed Moses to plead with Him for the people (training Moses' heart to love more deeply in the process). He punished the people for their idolatry but remained with them as their God. In our portion of the story, God, after having taken pity on the Israelites, declares His great Name to Moses and announces that He is “a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” And indeed He is. He could have destroyed the idolatrous bunch on the spot, but instead He mercifully gave them chance after chance after chance. No matter how many times the Israelites sinned and repented, God forgave them and brought them blessings. He was always faithful, even when they were anything but. He does the same for each of us. Every time we repent of our sin, God forgives us. He shows Himself to be merciful and gracious, kind and faithful. He punishes us by allowing us to feel the consequences of our sinful actions, just like He did with the Israelites, but He always gives us another chance and remains our loving God.

The responsorial psalm, which is actually a selection from the Book of Daniel, reminds us several times that our God is “praiseworthy and exalted above all forever.” God is worthy of all our adoration. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, all-beautiful, all-wise, all-merciful, all-just, all-holy, all-everything. Our response can only be that of awestruck praise and worship for the God Who sits on His “throne upon the cherubim.”

St. Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, assures us that when we mend our ways and live in peace with others, “the God of love and peace” will be with us. God is always the God of love and peace, even when we are at our worst, but when we open our hearts to Him and make a serious effort to follow His command to love Him and love our neighbor, He will pour His grace out upon us, and we will feel His presence and be able to enter into an intimate, personal relationship with Him.

Today's Gospel, John 3:16-18, further emphasizes God's great love for us. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” God wants us with Him for eternity. He desires our company and our love so much that He made the ultimate sacrifice. The Son, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, became man, suffered, died, and rose again in order to show God's great love for us and to open the gates of Heaven for us. We all know this. We have been taught these truths since we were small children, but have we ever stopped to really think about them? To reflect deeply on how much God loves us?

As the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity draws to a close, spend a few minutes in prayer, thanking God for being Who He is, Three in One and One in Three, but also merciful, gracious, kind, faithful, forgiving, awesome, and filled with more love than we can ever really understand.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mini Meditation

In today's Gospel reading from Matthew 6 (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus tells us, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

With these words, Jesus is reminding us that prayer is not a show. Apparently, in Jesus' day there were people who liked to pray in the most public of places, and they probably spent more time looking around to make sure everyone else noticed them than they did actually praying. For those people, “hypocrites” Jesus calls them, “prayer” was an opportunity to announce how wonderful and holy they were and how they were following God's law. They were not talking to God and deepening their relationship with Him. Filled with spiritual pride, they were putting on a performance, and their reward was exactly what they were seeking, attention from other people.

“But,” Jesus continues, “when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” While there are certainly many benefits to finding a quiet, private prayer space, Jesus isn't telling us that we must always pray hidden away in a closet some place. After all, as devout Jews, Jesus and His disciples all prayed publicly in synagogues and the Jerusalem Temple. What Jesus is getting at here is that prayer should be an intimate, personal encounter that comes from the heart, from that secret, inner room inside each one of us where we meet our God. When we pray, we must close our doors by focusing on God, not on other people. We must strive to give Him our full attention and devotion. Then, Jesus assures us, our Father will repay us. He will hear and answer our prayers, and even more, He pour His grace into our hearts and shower us with His love.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost - A Prayer

Holy Spirit, Who came with a noise like a strong driving wind, blow an abundance of God's grace into my soul.

Holy Spirit, Who appeared as tongues of flame, set my heart on fire with love of God and other people.

Holy Spirit, Who rested on the disciples and filled them, rest in me, fill me, and change me from the inside out.

Holy Spirit, Who enabled the disciples to speak in tongues, give me the words and the courage to proclaim the Gospel.

Holy Spirit, Who allowed all those listening to the disciples to hear the Gospel in their own language, open my ears so that I may hear Your message everywhere, even in the most unexpected places.

Holy Spirit, Who gathered people from diverse regions and backgrounds into the Body of Christ, lead all Christians to unity.

Holy Spirit, Who teaches us to say “Jesus is Lord,” give me the strength to live what I profess.

Holy Spirit, Who gives different kinds of gifts, help me to use what You have given me to know God and serve others

Holy Spirit, Who was breathed out by Jesus, breathe into me the breath of eternal life.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Prayer Journals

I've been keeping a prayer journal for over ten years and before that a personal journal since seventh grade, and it has been one of the most rewarding and enlightening experiences of my life. Maybe you are frightened away from prayer journalling because you think you can't write well or don't have anything worthwhile to say. Or perhaps you may have experimented with a pre-printed prayer journal, like those found in Christian bookstores or as templates online, only to find yourself becoming bored or repeating the same things over and over while trying to fill in all the blanks correctly. The kind of prayer journalling I'm going to recommend in this post (and the kind I've been practicing for over a decade) is much freer and will lead you to a stronger, deeper, more intimate relationship with our Lord Jesus.

So let's get started. The only thing you need to begin a prayer journal is a blank piece of paper or a blank word processor document. It's that simple. Write or type the date at the top. To increase the personal nature of your journal, you will want to address Jesus directly. I write each of my journal entries in the form of a letter, beginning each with “Dearest Jesus”.

What comes next? Whatever you want to tell our Lord! A couple things to remember... Grammar and proper writing style doesn't matter in a journal like this, so don't worry about writing perfectly. Jesus will understand you, and no one else is going to see anyway. Also, keep your journal in a safe, private place far away from prying eyes. If you are typing on a shared computer, you may want to protect your document with a password. Here a few ideas to get you started on your prayer journal journey:

1. Simply tell Jesus about your day. Did you enjoy a special surprise? Perhaps the was more akin to a mild (or worse) disaster. Thank Him for the former and offer up the latter. Try to see His hand in the events of the day. How might He be working in Your life?

2. Pray for someone. Describe that person's situation to the Lord (yes, He already knows, but tell Him again anyway; He doesn't mind, and it will help you see Him as the Friend that He is), and ask Him to bless and help that person and even to wrap a warm blanket of love around him or her.

3. Pray for yourself. Is there something you really need or want? Tell Jesus. He will respond, maybe not with the answer you want or on your timing, but He always answers.

4. Express your frustrations. Let it all out. Jesus is the best listener you'll ever find. He won't snap back or get upset with you, but you might find that by the time you are done with your rant, you'll see the situation more clearly and feel quite a bit calmer. That's His grace working in your heart as you talk to Him.

5. Confess. Tell Jesus You sins. Be honest with Him when you've messed up, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. He will forgive you. Of course, this type of confession does not replace sacramental confession, which provides an outpouring of graces when approached with sincerity and is necessary in the case of mortal sin. Journalling can also help you examine your conscience before sacramental confession.

6. Reflect on Scripture. Chose a passage that speaks to your heart and ask the three “big questions,” namely, “What does this text tell me about God?”, “What does this text tell me about myself and my life?”, and “How can this text enrich and deepen my relationship with God?” You'll be amazed at the insights the Lord will provide as you open yourself to His Word and make an effort to discuss it with Him friend to Friend.

7. Tell Jesus about something that struck you, for good or for bad, from a book, movie, TV show, news report, website, or other source. Did the piece make you hopeful, joyful, confused, or angry? Take your feelings to the Lord in prayer.

8. Praise the Lord! Tell Jesus why He is so wonderful and thank Him for everything He has done for you. Really count your blessings.

There are countless other options for prayer journalling. When you learn how to speak to Jesus as an intimate Friend, you will realize that you can talk to Him about anything and everything. You will feel His presence as He listens and often receive responses in ways you never would have expected. Your prayer journal will really be a loving, intimate dialogue with the Lord.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Amazon Kindle - A Review

I recently purchased the 3G version of the Amazon Kindle, and while I definitely don't consider myself qualified to write reviews about technological products, I do want to share a few thoughts about the Kindle's performance in general and about the benefits it offers to Catholics, particularly those who love to read.

I decided to buy a Kindle for two primary reasons. First, I'm planning to pursue my Ph.D. studies beginning in the fall of 2012 at Ave Maria University, and the program's reading list is massive. I simply don't have room on my shelves or money in my pocketbook for all the books I'm going to have to purchase. Amazon offers a wide selection of classic Catholic reading material in digital format for little or no money. More about that in a minute. Second, I occasionally stay for a few days at a time at a place that doesn't have Internet access. Since my cell phone is about as simple as it gets (I don't even text much less have a data plan), I end up with a bad case of Internet withdrawl. With my 3G Kindle, I can at least check my email and access a few of my favorite websites.

That being said, the Kindle, just like every other technological device, has its pros and cons. On the negative end of the spectrum, the Kindle has a few glitches here and there. Mine froze up on me a couple times and needed to be reset, which is actually very easy after I got past the panic stage and checked the Amazon user forums for advice. Further, the web browser is primitive at best. It's rather slow but not much more than my often-stubborn computer. It can't handle more than one window at a time, and the text can be prohibitively small for most people although there are ways to increase text size. Since the Kindle has only a black and white screen, web browsing works best on pages that are primarily text-based. Chatting online through an instant messenger works on the Kindle, but it's a little fussy since the Kindle's keyboard is tiny. Both ebuddy “lite” and Yahoo Messenger mobile version are good options for chatting, but users have to remember to keep refreshing the screen to see responses. I prefer Yahoo Messenger because it has a better design, and it's easier to use overall. I couldn't chat with my best friend as long as I normally do, but we could at least say hello and catch up on the news. Keep in mind, too, that the Kindle's battery life is much shorter the more its wireless features (like web browsing) are used, but the battery is easy to recharge. Most importantly, even with the slight annoyances and glitches, I can get on the Internet free of charge when I'm away from home and at least perform basic operations and keep my sanity.

Actually, I've found that the Kindle's positive aspects far outweigh its negative ones. As a reader, it's wonderful. The screen, with its “E-ink,” is easy to read and doesn't tire my eyes even when I stare at it for a long period of time. The Kindle store, which is accessible directly from the Kindle or from the computer, offers hundreds of books on every subject imaginable, including over 15,000 free (yes, free) out-of-copyright books that Amazon has designated “Kindle Popular Classics”. My Kindle is currently stocked with favorites, like Jane Eyre and Treasure Island, and other classics, like Dracula and Wuthering Heights, that I've never gotten around to reading. Actually, the sheer amount of reading material available can be quite overwhelming sometimes, but that's a good problem to have. Other Kindle books are reasonably priced, and Amazon provides frequent special offers. Currently, for instance, the “Sunshine Deals” offer features over 600 books for $.99, $1.99, or $2.99. Most of these books aren't best sellers, but there are some good reads among them. Even regularly priced Kindle books are often less expensive than paper copies. Books download to the Kindle in under a minute, and the Kindle has plenty of storage space, about three gigabytes. Amazon will archive books, too, and archived books don't use Kindle memory. In other words, the Kindle can hold more books than most people will ever read.

For Catholic readers, the Kindle, especially the 3G version, offers plenty of opportunities for faith formation and theological study. Catholic classics from the likes of St. Thomas, St. Augustine, the Apostolic Fathers, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, G.K. Chesterton, and many more are available for free or a nominal amount (like $.99 or $1.99). Books from contemporary authors like Benedict XVI, Scott Hahn, and Mike Aquilina are also available in Kindle editions. The Kindle's Internet access opens up a world of Catholic reading possibilities. The Vatican website works very well on the Kindle web browser, as does New Advent and Christian Classics Ethereal Library. I actually find it easier to read online with my Kindle than I do with my laptop or netbook because the Kindle is easier on my eyes. Plus, I'm not stuck sitting in front of my computer; I can curl up in my favorite chair instead.

Overall, while I will always own and read primarily paper books, the Kindle is proving to be a helpful device with far more positive qualities than negative frustrations. I would highly recommend it to anyone, Catholic or not, who loves to read, study, and learn.