September 6, 2017

A "Strong Catholic" Adrift

One of the things I most enjoy during visits with my family in Southern California, is visiting the little beach town nearby.  Main Street lies between Pacific Coast Highway and the pier and is lined with restaurants, cafes, pubs, boutiques, ice cream parlors and art galleries.  The shops are all individually owned and have a low profile, preserving the small town community feel of the place.

One of our favorite cafes on Main Street

On a recent visit, my little girl and I turned in to a shop that sold art and nick knacks all about angels.  I noticed a good many statues and pictures of St. Francis and the Blessed Mother as well, and wondered if the owner might be Catholic.  I asked the lady behind the counter.  She was the owner and said, "Yes, I'm a strong Catholic!"

"Perfect!” I thought.  I asked if she happened to know if there was a Saturday evening Mass at the church, which is just one street over (we had only been there for Sunday morning Masses in the past).  She said she did not know the schedule, as it was not her parish; she went to the church a few towns down the coast, though her mother is a parishioner at this one.  Well, as I love her church as well, I asked if hers has a Saturday evening Mass.  She did not know.

You see, she only went to Mass on Christmas.  I don't remember exactly how the conversation went from there, but it must have involved my mouth hanging open or something, because she assured me several times that she is "a strong Catholic."  I mean, she must be, right, because she has a shop just for things about angels?

Everyone’s favorite line from the movie, The Princess Bride, passed through my mind: “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  But I refrained from letting it pass by my lips.

I'm sure I urged her to consider more frequently availing herself of the source and summit of her Faith - because that's the kind of person I am (i.e. one who spurts out things on any occasion).  But, she has to keep her shop running and that takes most of her time.  She must be very busy, because she admitted she doesn't even always have time for yoga!!

We walked out and uttered a prayer that this lady would grow in her faith and feel a longing to return to the Sacraments.

I'm sure we all know or come across people who grew up Catholic and still identify with the Church, but don't seem to know or do a thing about it.  They haven't left the Church, but they're not in it.  It's like they have fallen overboard from a ship and are floating along in a life preserver.  The name of the ship is printed on the life preserver, so they still feel connected.  And they have no idea what they are missing or at what peril they are drifting out to sea.

It was so astonishing to me and I still think about her (and pray for her).  How can someone be so sure and proud of her affiliation with the Catholic Faith, but simply refuse to respond to the invitation Jesus issues to live it?

Somewhere something went wrong with the catechesis people like her received.  Probably, they were never evangelized.  I’m not the first person to consider the cause.  Who knows?  But what can we do for them now?  There may be many answers to this (start discussions about the Faith, give a good example, challenge them) and they differ for each person.  But the one thing we can do for every person we meet in this situation is to pray for them.

And yet, though this is a sad state of things, it is also a sign of great hope.  The angel lady has not left the Church.  She still sees herself as connected in a “strong” way.  She feels she has a relationship with God through His Church.  And she does.  She has surely neglected it and is missing out on the riches He offers.  But hope knows that there is a rope connecting her life preserver to the ship, the bark of Peter.  And she will be drawn in, unless she herself cuts this line.

This is illustrated through Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited.  As her father lies on his deathbed, resisting reconciliation with God, Julia explains to Charles how G.K. Chesterton shows this theme in his Father Brown mystery (I know, I’m trying to explain someone in a novel explaining a novel to illustrate my point!):
“Father Brown said something like ‘I caught him’ [the thief] with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

In Brideshead, her father did, ultimately reconcile (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s still well worth reading).  This is not merely fiction.  It happens in real life again and again.  We can count on it when we pray and trust in God’s mercy.  Our heavenly Father, more than anyone else, desires that these stray sheep return to His fold.  In the context of the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, Our Lord says, “And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it [on] the last day.”(Jn. 6;39)

You see, we were made for union with God and are attracted to Him.  Why do you think the angel lady’s shop is devoted to angels and contains statues of the Mother of Our Lord?  Her heart is yearning for God, but she has been distracted by other things at present.  A twitch upon the thread will bring her back.

It is as St. Augustine famously said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in Thee.”

The entirety of the quotation from Augustine’s Confessions is too beautiful not to put down here.  And as you read it, I ask that you make it a prayer, a twitch upon the thread, for all those who are drifting about in the lukewarm sea in life preservers with the name of the Church indelibly stamped on them.  That they may not be lost, but shall rise again on the last day.

Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we men, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you – we also carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”

August 13, 2017

When Someone Falls From Grace, Help Them Up!

I once heard someone say, “When a person has fallen from grace, don’t kick him down.  Help him up!”

It sounds so obvious, but we really do need to be reminded.  We see it all around us.  “Did you hear what she did???”  Shock and outrage are often our response to accounts we see on the internet, hear on the news, discus with gossips.  It’s all gossip, really.  And how do we respond?  “I’m shocked!”  “How terrible!”  “He should be locked up!”

Even when it is someone in our own circles or family, we want to believe we would never do likewise.  We’re better than that!  And it’s easier to continue believing so when the gap between us and them remains large.  So, we kick them down.  “You see, he’ll never learn.”

Don’t we like to see prisoners treated harshly?  Don’t we root for the bully to get some of his own back?  Don’t we love it when the movie bad guy not only gets caught, but is annihilated by the hero?

What is the matter with us?!?

But I think most of us also love – and I mean really love - when the hero shows mercy beyond the desserts of the villain.  It makes the hero better.  Occasionally it even makes the villain better as well. Isn’t that part of what makes us love The Lord of the Rings, the recently released Wonder Woman film, dare I mention the Gospels??  Talk about stooping down to lift others up! And Our Lord uttered from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

I cringe whenever I see the meme that says, “Everything happens for a reason . . . sometimes the reason is that you’re stupid and make bad decisions.”  Okay, I cringe after I laugh, but I cringe.  It might be true, but it hardly gives us superiority!  If we’re smarter and able to make better decisions than another person, that actually puts us in a position to help them.  What does it say about a person who criticizes someone for not doing what they aren’t able to do?

I suggest we challenge ourselves to rise above the petty feeling of superiority we get standing atop a heap of failures, by reaching down to give them a hand up.  Are we afraid they will fail again?  They will – just like we do, too.  Seven times seventy!  Are we afraid they will succeed – and then we’ll look worse than we did in comparison to them?  Well, that’s just silly!  Would we think a teacher is smarter if all his students failed?  On the contrary.

Can you imagine a father bringing his four-year-old son out to play basketball and sneering at the little fellow because he couldn’t get the ball into the basket?  Most of us would not think him a very good father.  We wouldn’t make fun of the little fellow as a failure for being unable to reach the hoop as well as his tall father.  Rather, we would admire the sort of father who lifts his little boy up to the hoop so he can learn to play basketball and have fun with his daddy.

Isn’t it the same when we hear of a heroic person who lowers herself to help even strangers?  Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Calcutta) is still one of the most universally recognized and admired figures for giving her whole life to just that work: serving the poorest of the poor.  And her religious order still attracts many young women to this life of dramatic mercy.

You may not be called to such a community, but there are many opportunities all around us to extend mercy to those who have fallen from grace.  Often, that means giving tangible help, a kind word, good advice.  Always it means praying for them.  But first, it means seeing who we are to them – and who we are to those who have shown us mercy.  Foremost among these is God, of course.  If we have received God’s mercy, it will be harder on us if we fail to extend mercy to our neighbor.  Remember the parable Jesus told about the servant whose debt was forgiven, who then had his own debtor thrown into prison until he paid the debt (I always wonder just how they’re supposed to do it from there anyway).  When the master learned of that servant’s harsh treatment of the other, he again held him accountable for the original debt, withdrawing his mercy.  We invite this response when we pray the Our Father: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In her short story “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” Willa Cather poignantly illustrates the life crushing pettiness of those who revel in the failure of others.  The nothing men of a nothing town gathered at a funeral to malign and criticize the every failure of the young man brought back in his coffin – as they did everyone who left the town to better himself.  The crushing speech bringing to light their snivelly evil was given by a man they had previously brought down to their level and was now a drunk, corrupt lawyer who did their dirty legal wangling.  He knew from experience and observation that it was they themselves who planted the seeds of failure in the young men they enjoyed criticizing when the failure bloomed.  The story leaves the reader with a creepy feeling of disgust toward those men who kicked down those who had not only fallen from grace, but their falls were the result of being tripped by those very men.

It is a good exercise to think a moment before uttering our shock, our distain, our judgement on those who are pathetic, who are sinful, who have fallen from grace.  Hold back our accusation, our ridicule, our kick.  Won’t it make us all not only feel better, but to be better to lift them up instead?  If we need inspiration to do so, we need only to look up and see the hand of divine grace reaching into the depths to raise us up again. 

August 7, 2017

Eight Ways to Be a Better Godparent

It is an honor to be asked to be a godparent.  But choosing a godparent is not merely a way to honor a friend or relative after the birth of a child; it is an invitation to take on a big responsibility in the child’s life.  No, you are not expected to raise the child in the event of the parents' early demise.  That is taken care of by their will.  The role of the godparents is more on the spiritual side.  As my nine-year-old daughter put it, "The parents help the whole child grow up and the godparents help the child's soul grow up."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “Baptism is the sacrament of faith.  But faith needs the community of believers.  It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe.” (CCC 1253)  The godmother and godfather will ideally be fixed points in the spiritual life of the child.  They are a small, chosen church community for that particular child, regardless of changes of parish and location.  They hold the great responsibility of assisting the parents to help the child to grow spiritually.

So, if you have been honored by an invitation to be a godparent, you’ll want to take your responsibility seriously and be faithful to the promises you made when that baby was baptized.  Here are a few practical ways you can ensure you assist in the spiritual growth of that child and represent the Church community to him or her, whether you live close by or not.

1.   Actually pray daily for your godchild

If you aren't already in the practice of daily prayer, this would be a good time to start!  A routine time will make it easier to remember and be consistent.  Perhaps first thing in the morning (by which I mean, after you've had your coffee!) or before dinner at the end of your grace before meals.  When you are at Mass, be sure to remember your godchild when you receive communion.

2.   Remember your godchild's baptismal day

This is a date you really ought to know.  Chances are, you were there and dressed up for it.  If you don't recall the date, ask the child's parents.  They may have to look it up or call the parish where the child was baptized, but this is a date you should celebrate with your godchild.  For the godparent, the anniversary of the child's baptism is an even more important date to commemorate than their birthday.  Celebrate both, by all means, but if you're going to forget one, let it be the birthday.

Some simple things you can do to observe the day would be to have a Mass said for the child's intentions and send a Mass card.  A nice letter reminding them of the momentous event that happened that day and encouraging them in living the Faith will go a long way toward building your relationship.  At the very least, a phone call can be made.  If the child is still too young to care about any of this, his parents will appreciate it.  If you're close enough to visit, you could have a little party.  Cake and even a gift related to the Faith are a wonderful way to celebrate.

If your godchild is no longer a baby, it’s not too late to begin a tradition of remembering them on this special day.  They might love to get to know you or it could be a way to help them back to living their baptismal promises if they have strayed.

3.   Teach them to renew their baptismal vows

Their baptismal anniversary would be a good time for you to teach your godchild to renew their baptismal vows.   Just as we do at Mass on Easter, everyone present renews their baptismal promises at the same time.  Here are the questions for you to print out.

V. Do you reject Satan?
R. I do.
V. And all his works?
R. I do.
V. And all his empty promises?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
R. I do.
V. God, the all-powerful Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and forgiven all our sins. May he also keep us faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
R. Amen.
(This is a family service that is directed by one of the parents. The family members renew their baptismal vows and sprinkle themselves with holy water,)

4.   Light their baptismal candle 

If it hasn't been long since the baptism, the parents may still know where the baptismal candle is.  Their baptismal birthday celebration is the time to bring out the candle and light it, ideally when the baptismal vows are being renewed.  If you no longer know where the candle is, just order a new one to use for their anniversary celebration.  Order one for yourself, while you're at it!

5.   Remember your godchild's Name Day

Get to know your child's patron saint and help celebrate their name day!  You can ask the parents if they were named for a particular saint.  A quick Google search will turn up that saint's feast day.  That is the “Name Day” of all those named for that saint.  It's possible that the parents their baby a traditional name, but didn't have a particular saint in mind.  Encourage them to choose one that they think will be a good example for their child.  If the name is one that is made up or doesn't have a saint associated with it at all, just choose a patron saint who seems appropriate for some reason.  Celebrate that saint’s feast as the child's Name Day.

Again, having a Mass said for the child is the greatest of gifts.  It may seem boring to a child now, but its value is immeasurable!  Go ahead and get them a treat or a gift!  Have a little celebration for their Name Day.  Catholics have so much to celebrate!

6.   Faith related gifts

Now that you know their patron saint, you may find books, statues or holy cards about that saint.  Why not surprise your godchild with them sometime?  It is another way to stay in touch and build a relationship with them, as well as bolster their faith.  If the child is small, here there are some really cute toys and books that will help instill a love for holy things.

7.   Refer to yourself as their Godparent

Be sure your godchild actually knows who you are as they grow up!    It is not unusual for parents to choose a godparent for their child who they are close with at one time in their life, but who then become separated by distance.  Do stay in touch as you can.  Try to cultivate a relationship with the child that outlives the one you have with their parents.  Point out the reason for your special relationship with them when you are together or through letters.  If you're a close relative, you may always be remembered as Aunt Carol and the godparent/godchild relationship may go by the wayside.  Be sure to set yourself apart as a sure companion along their spiritual journey.

8.   Attend their reception of first Sacraments

First reception of the Eucharist is a very special day for most Catholics.  Be sure to be there for your godchild to show that you are with them along this journey.  But also find out how you might help prepare them for important sacramental firsts.  Ask their parents when they will be preparing for their first confession (also an important event, but seldom celebrated with panache), first Holy Communion, and Confirmation and ask how you might aid them.

Pick the suggestions that will work for you and your impact as a godparent will be multiplied!  If you pick all of them, then your godchild may well become the envy of all his siblings.  But, more likely, his parents will adopt some of these beautiful practices into their family observance of their Faith.  And all will be richer for it.

[Disclaimer:  These are simply suggestions.  Even I don't do all these things and I only have one godchild!!  Please add them to your life as your personality and level of overwhelm allow.]

August 1, 2017

Beyond St. Francis: More Saints for Animal Lovers

Did someone accidentally eat your pet?  There's a saint for that!

When we think of a patron saint for animals and animal lovers, St. Francis usually comes immediately to mind.  He's probably pretty busy.  There are several other saints who will pop up when you do a search for patrons for animals and animal keepers, too.  I discovered that some of these have their patronage due to events in their lives that simply involved animals (like St. Anthony of Padua preaching to fish).

Even more remotely, a saint’s symbolism might include animals for other reasons and they then they became patron of that animal.  St. Ambrose of Milan, for instance, was known as “the honey tongued doctor” because of his eloquent preaching, which led to the beehive appearing in his iconography, which led to him being known as a patron of bees, beekeepers, and candle makers.  That seems like a stretch to me.

I have put together this list of saints who actually liked, loved and even kept animals as pets.  Some are even known for their kindness to wild animals.  Many have healed and even restored life to animals that had died!  When your pet needs healing or a behavior adjustment – or if you need help convincing someone to let you get a pet, these are saints who will understand when you ask their intercession.

st. Anthon Abbot

St. Anthony Abbot  
Pigs, Domesticated Animals
(4th century, Egypt, Feast day: January 17)

Officially a patron saint of domesticated animals, Saint Anthony is often depicted standing next to a pig.  The story goes that he cured a pig, which thereafter followed him everywhere.  His feast day is often celebrated with a festival and blessing of animals to ensure the good health and fertility of the animals.

St. Blaise

St. Blaise
Wild Animals
(Second century, Armenia, Feast day: February 3)

St. Blaise was known to have cured diseased wild animals that came to him of their own accord for healing, but never disturbed him in prayer.


St. Brigid
Cattle, Chickens, Boar, Fox, Cow All Animals
(Died 523, Ireland, Feast day: February 1)

Loved animals, gave sanctuary to a wild boar, turned a fox into a loving pet for the king, was kind to dogs, was followed by a cow.  Under her care, her master’s dairy prospered, even though she constantly gave away his produce.  She is a patron of cattle and poultry farmers.

St. Colette

St. Colette
All Animals, Lamb, Birds
(Died 1447, France, Feast day: February 7)

St. Colette loved and cared for all animals.  And they loved her, too.  She had a pet lamb that followed her everywhere, including to church.  Birds flew about her and she is said to have understood their communication.

St. Francis of Paola

St. Francis of Paola
Fish, Lamb, All Creatures
(Early 16th century, Calabria, Italy, Feast day: April 2)

Well, you’ve got to love St. Francis of Paola!  He so loved animals that he was known to resurrect at least three.  This story is amazing.  He had a pet trout, called Antonella, that swam in a pool.  It seems that a visiting priest, unaware that the fish was a pet, caught it and took it home to eat.  He had begun frying poor Antonella!  Fortunately, St. Francis noticed Antonella’s absence and sent a brother to get it back.  Alas, Antonella was about to be eaten and the unawares priest, annoyed that his lunch was being reclaimed, threw the cooked fish to the ground, whereupon it broke to pieces.  Upon receiving the cooked and broken pieces of his pet, St. Francis put them in the pool and prayed, “Antonella, in the Name of Charity, return to life!” – and it did!  The fish began to swim happily about again.  This miracle was witnessed by several people.

Oddly enough, this was not the only time an animal St. Francis Paola loved was rescued from mistaken diners.  He had a pet lamb, Matrinello, that was not only cooked, but consumed by nearby workmen.  Upon discovering the tragedy, St. Francis raised up his lamb from the bones and fleece, which had been flung into an oven.

So, if someone cooks your canary, St. Francis Paola is who you should call on!

St. Isidore the Farmer

St. Isidore the Farmer
Birds, Animals
(Died 1130, Spain, Feast day: May 15)

St. Isadore was often moved by pity for the suffering of others and his generosity rewarded with miraculous multiplications of food.  His care extended even to the birds of the air.  On a cold winter day, he came upon a flock of starving wood pigeons on his way to the mill with his master’s grain.  He emptied half the sack of grain for the birds, but when he arrived at the mill, the sack was again full and was ground into a double portion of flour.

St. John Mecias

St. John Macias  (Also spelled Masias)
All Animals
(Died 1645, Peru, Feast day: September 18)

It was reading Mary Fabyan Windeatt’s book about St. John Masias that I learned of his compassion and tenderness toward animals, including healing their injuries and disease.  Since then, he has become my go-to saint for intercession regarding animals.  Here is another story about his care for creatures.  While John was filling a trough with water he had drawn from a deep well, the sheep he was caring for fell into the well!  He could not reach the animal to help, so he prayed the Rosary that God might provide a miracle to save it.  The water began to rise until John could lift the sheep out and then again receded.  Again John knelt in a prayer of thanksgiving.

St. Kevin of Glendalough

St. Kevin of Glendalough 
(Died C. 618, Ireland, Feast day: June 3rd)

There is a story of a blackbird building a nest in St. Kevin’s hand.  The kind saint held his hand out until the eggs hatched and the fledglings left the nest.  As they say, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush!

St. Martin de Porres

St. Martin de Porres 
All animals, Cats, Dogs, even Vermin
(Died: 1639, Peru, Feast day: November 3rd)

St. Martin’s compassion toward the poor extended to all animals.  He was known to find homes for stray animals, healed ill ones and even preferred to make a deal with the vermin that were gnawing the altar cloths.  He asked them to stay out of the sacristy and kitchen and live across the garden where he would feed them daily.  Both parties kept their end of the deal.

Bl. Mary Bartholomea de Bagnesi
Cats, Song birds
(Died 1577, Italy, Feast day: May 28)

Blessed Mary Bartholomea de Bagnesi could be called an early cat lady.  She loved cats and they loved her back.  In addition to the people who sought out the Dominican tertiary for her room, cats also visited this holy, bedridden woman.  They even guarded her pet songbirds and were known to bring her cheese when she was hungry!

St. Philip Neri

St. Philip Neri
(Died 1595, Italy, Feast day: May 26)

St. Philip is said to have had an affection for all creatures and kept a pet cat, Jeoffery, which he carried around Rome with him.  When he sent word from out of town, he would ask after his pet.

St. Roch

St. Roch (Also known as Rocca)
(Died 1327, France, August 16)

Again we see that the saints’ love for God is manifest in their compassion toward people, made in God’s image, as well as toward animals, God’s creations.  As a pilgrim, St. Roch came across and cared for victims of the plague.  He himself contracted the disease and took to a forest to die, but was cared for by a dog that brought him food.  He eventually recovered and is now the patron saint for dogs.

Pope St. Sylvester

Pope St. Sylvester 
Domestic Animals, Bulls
(Fourth century, Rome, Feast day: December 31)

As icons of this early pope show, he is known to have resurrected a bull and is a patron of domestic animals.

St. Veridiana

St. Veridiana
(Died 1242, Italy, Feast day: February 1)

St. Veridiana shared her hermitage cell with two snakes, which she fed from her own meager rations.  I'm sure this will endear her so someone!

St. Vitus

St. Vitus (Also known as St. Guy)
Horses, Horned animals, Dogs
(Died 1012, Belgium, Feast day: June 18)

Because the site of his forgotten grave was revealed by a horse, St. Vitus is invoked for protection of horses, stables, horned animals.  On his feast day, a festival and procession was held at which horses were blessed.  He also happens to be patron of oversleeping, so if you have an animal that gets up late, St. Vitus may be able to help!

July 17, 2017

Go Ahead and Be a Quitter! But Be a Prudent Quitter

“Don’t be a quitter!”  It’s a phrase frequently used to encourage – or belittle.  It goes along with that silly challenge to “Go outside your comfort zone.”  But I have been a longtime believer in quitting – when it’s appropriate.

We all like to be comfortable and avoid difficulties.  I’m not advocating following a plan of seeking an ever more comfortable life and eschewing challenges of all kinds.  I am, rather, suggesting that this (and all) advice should be evaluated with prudence, self-knowledge, and a grain of salt.  That which is the right course of action for someone else, may not be the right course for you.  It is valuable to learn to make wise decisions regardless of the opinion and choices that others sanction.

Neither am I suggesting that you be contrary and “Go against the flow” as a matter of course.  That might also lead to bad results, depending on the particular flow you happen to be in.  I am suggesting you practice the virtue of Prudence.  Prudence is one of the cardinal – or, pivotal – virtues.  It is “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it,” (CCC 1806).  Obviously, prudence is a really important virtue to develop in order to guide your growth in all the other virtues.  In fact, it is known as “the charioteer of the virtues” (CCC 1806).

I was hoping to give a gamut of examples of times I had quit and been happy, times I had quit and regretted it, and times I had persevered and had become a better person through doing so.  But, honestly, though I know my life is replete with examples of all those, the only ones that come to mind are the times I have quit with great results!  I know following through on a commitment is to be done whenever morally possible.  I’m sure I have grown in that other cardinal virtue of fortitude by practicing stick-to-it-iveness in many, many situations.  I have surely learned my lesson from staying a stupid course just in order to not quit.  But none of these stand out!

What does stand out is one of my favorite and often thought of memories of the freedom of being allowed to quit.  It happened the summer I turned nine.  I attended a summer camp with my sister and two cousins.  This was not the summer “camps” of today, which are essentially week long classes to keep kids out of their parents’ hair for a while.  This was real camp.  This was cabins, sleeping bags, and a mess hall, a lake, arts and crafts with pine cones, camp counselors, woods, campfires, the works!  I remember gathering in the mess hall to sing “camp songs” like “The Cat Came Back.”
The only real and distinct memory I have from this week or two away from home is the first day my group went to the pool.  I was not a strong swimmer and was anxious in pools.  Really anxious.  But, I was also a rule-following goody-goody.  We were told to get into line to go up the ladder of the high dive and jump in.  Frankly, this terrified me.  Here we were, supposedly having fun at camp and I just wanted to go home now!  But, afraid to talk to anyone (I was a very timid and anxious child), I dutifully lined up, climbed the ladder in turn, and plunged to my probable death by drowning.  I had no choice.  It was what was required of us.  To my surprise and disappointment, I did not drown and sputtered my way to the side of the pool to climb out and get in line again.  They had told us to get in line to jump off the board, after all.  As I stood there dripping wet and crying in line, a nice counselor came to me and asked why I was crying.  I admitted that I did not want to jump off the high dive.  Her answer was the voice of angels singing.  She gave me a happiness unanticipated.  Freedom from a life sentence!  “Well, honey, you don’t have to!”  What could be better than this revelation?!  I’ll tell you what could be better.  Not only was I released from the sentence of jumping off the high dive, I was actually offered a choice of what I would do instead!  Not just a choice between the expected options of swimming or sitting it out.  She asked me what I would like to do instead.  Without hesitation, I asked if I could go to arts and crafts.  She escorted me over to that building herself!  I was engulfed by a relief and gratitude that I feel to this day!  (Thank you, kind counselor!)

My thoughts go back to that day whenever I am faced with a situation that I dread, that fills me with anxiety – and then I realize, there is no moral reason why I must remain on this course.  I don’t have to!  This provides a freedom not only to quit, but, sometimes to stay and keep at it.  Sometimes, the best inducement to carry on in a challenging task, is the knowledge that you are free to choose to quit at any time.  But, sometimes, it really is more prudent to actually quit, when noting but “not quitting” is to be gained by persevering in the project.

It is vastly more important to know yourself than to live under the tyranny of a popular catch phrase.  Rather than “Don’t be a quitter” exercise the prudence to know when it will make you happier to quit and when it is a better course to push through to the end.  Instead of stepping “outside your comfort zone” because you were told it’s what you ought to do, be aware of your level of comfort – and your level of anxiety.  Your gut reaction usually gives good advice.  Do accept challenges to grow, but not at the cost of violence to your weaknesses.

Sometimes it really is okay to make silly crafts out of pine comes instead of jumping off the high dive.

July 3, 2017

Humility: The Unachievable Virtue

Everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled;
and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

Luke 14:11

Humility is a rather slippery virtue.  It's one of the most important to have, but it's impossible to achieve.  Once you set out to become proficient in humility, it has dissolved!  If you strive to grow in it by your actions, the moment you check to see how you're doing, you prove your lack of it!  So, how does one get around this annoying catch 22 to become humble?  Good question.

Part of me wants to shrug and assure you I am not your best consultant on the matter.  On the other hand, I'm probably as good companion as many along this invisible path to a destination that can only be seen using our peripheral vision - if at all.  You know, the blind leading the blind or misery loves company or some such cliche.

Humility is difficult to try to become, but it is not difficult to see what it’s like.  There are ample great works of spirituality and theology describing humility in detail, as well as the oh, so familiar signs of its absence.
One I recently enjoyed is a tiny little book called Humility: Wellspring of Virtue by Dietrich von Hildebrand.  It is actually an excerpt from this great man’s much larger (and therefor, less likely to be read by me), Transformation in Christ.  Besides the ease of size, it’s a fun book to read as von Hildebrand excruciatingly etches out the hair-splittingly fine distinctions between the manifold offenses against the virtue of humility.  

How is this fun?  Well, I like that sort of thing (hair splitting), but it’s also kind of fun to think of people I know of who may exemplify these various breaches in virtue.  Satanic pride: “Ooo, Lucifer!  I know that one!”  Literary and historic examples abound, too.  It’s fun, that is, until you smack right up against a description that implicates yourself.  Ouch.

In this book, Von Hildebrand provides a “survey of the types of pride from the worst and most characteristic” to less harmful forms as an aid to better understand humility.  As he puts it:
 “There exist formally and materially distinct forms of pride.  As humility represents an antithesis to every form of pride, a consideration of the various forms and degrees of pride will help us become aware of the various aspects of humility, each of which expresses a negation of pride in one or another of its manifestations.” (p. 8)

I found this passage describing two forms of self-complacency particularly helpful and amusing:

 “Similarly, the less we may claim a value as representing a merit on our part – in other words, the less we, as free beings, are responsible for its possession – the more stupid it will be on our part to exhibit conceit on its score; and the more harmless from a moral point of view will be the pride of a value which (as is true of moral values) requires out active participation and effort to be realized, the more reprehensible our pride will be.” (p. 65).  

So, if you can choose between being proud of your intellect or your red hair, it is more stupid, but less dangerous to your soul to be proud of your red hair.  This is handy information!

In fact, like perusing St. Teresa of Avila’s mansions, as I read along, wondering if I’m in the second or third room, it slowly dawns on me that I’m pretty much on the door mat, scratching to get in.  These and other works might really help us to realize how lacking we are in humility, but we won’t become humble by reading them.  It is not a situation where we can “fake it till we make it”.

Here's the problem as I see it.  We can practice avoiding pride in its many manifestations and will become better for it.  We can practice those things that a humble person would do and become better for it.  But reducing pride and doing humble things in their place alone does not make one humble, because humility is not simply the absence of pride.  Humility is a thing itself.  It is a thing that only exists in the absence of pride in all its forms.  But it is more than the absence of pride and the presence of certain actions and behaviors.

It’s a good start, and by all means start doing the things a humble person would do, but it's not going to become actual humility until you don't even know you're doing it.  You could say that about many virtues - you practice until they become a strong habit of doing good without thinking about doing them.  With humility, though, it's more than just a habit, like riding a bike or brushing your teeth.  Humility requires self-forgetfulness.

So, how does one forget oneself??

Sometimes you might be so engrossed in a project that you forget you have an appointment or even to do basic things like eating or going to bed.  Has that happened to you?  Well, that’s not the kind of self-forgetfulness that leads to humility.

Von Hildebrand says,
 “true humility has its origin in our right response to God, which implies not only our awareness of the glory and omnipotence of God, and of our own creaturely finiteness, but a total emancipation from our spasm of self-centeredness in the presence of Christ.” (p. 87 - 88)

The self-forgetfulness that signifies humility can only be brought about by an ongoing, personal encounter with the infinitely good God and bears the fruit of trustful love.

A realization of our creatureliness in the face of His omnipotence, but lacking trust, might result in fanaticism (picture here a young Elvis Presley fan, being touched by the superstar and swooning) or in scrupulous fear of receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist.  While trust in God without acknowledging our nothingness in juxtaposition to our Creator, could lead to thinking of Him as a dispenser of goodies to us, His deserving children and a complacent reception of the Most Blessed Sacrament as our right.

Avoiding either skewed perception – or some other one, is not going to happen just by learning about humility.  This right relation to God (and, consequently, ourselves and others) can only be cultivated through a relationship with God.  And, a relationship with God requires spending time with Him, opening your heart to receive as well as offer.

Rather than reading about humility to become humble, try reading about Our Lord Jesus, spending time in His presence, speaking and listening to Him, meditating on His passion.  Let yourself fall in love.  Ask Him for those things that will result in the self-forgetfulness that comes from being in Love with the One Whose Love has brought you into being.

I know I can’t achieve humility as a trophy to admire in my trophy case of virtues.  But I can ask God for humility and hope He will take me as an oblivious trophy in His trophy case of saints.  Because, He’s God and can do things as miraculous as that.