February 25, 2017

Why is Lent Forty Days?

Putting aside that the numbering is not exact, we generally talk about Lent being forty days.  Like me, you have probably wondered "why forty?"  What's so special about forty??  The obvious answer is that Our Lord spent forty days fasting in the desert before He began his public ministry.  He set apart that time to prepare Himself and as an example for us.  So, that's what we should do.

During this time He was tempted by the devil in three ways.  He ate nothing - nothing!! - for forty days!   But that wasn't more than our Savior could handle, of course.  Following His example, we enter the desert of Lent for forty days.  We fast - well, we give up chocolate, anyway.  We take on extra mortification, prayer and alms giving, leaning on His power to overcome the devil's temptations both during this penitential season and those that traipse behind us all the days of our life.

Jesus then went out!

He spent forty days alone and fasting and then He went out and made public what He was about.  He was about redeeming the world from the effect of original sin: spiritual death.  And His mission was to make possible a new birth for us.  We are made new by inserting ourselves into His mystery.  This is a daily conversion - and Lent is our yearly reminder to begin again.

But still, why did He choose forty days for His preparatory retreat?

We can again look farther back, to the Old Testament Israelites.  God laid patterns in human history in the story of His chosen people - that we follow in our own lives even today.  When Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt, they spent forty years in the desert en route to the promised land.

What the heck were they doing along the way???  It's not really that far!  I checked.  I'm not sure where they were coming from exactly, but from Egypt to Jerusalem - not even at the shortest distance - is about 270 miles.  I did the math and at a stroll pace of 20 minutes per mile, walking eight hours per day, taking off the whole weekend (even though weekends hadn't been invented yet), a person could traverse this distance in under two weeks.  So, even if they cut the walking time per day in half, prepared gourmet meals each night, stopped at every point of interest to gawk, and painted a giant group selfie with pigments naturally derived from the local desert plants and minerals, they should have been able to pull it off in a year, tops.  But forty years??

At the same pace, one could literally circumnavigate the Earth (24,901 miles) - on foot - ten times (assuming bridges or the ability to walk on water)!  

What took them so long?  It could be that they grew accustomed to doing things a certain way and couldn't envision arriving somewhere.  Maybe they found a comfortable place that they really liked, even though it wasn't where they were destined to be and was nowhere as good as their destination was for them.  Perhaps it seemed like too much trouble to tromp along with their families, belongings, livestock and that heavy ark of the covenant, so they settled for good enough.

None of these reasons would surprise me.  They are some of the same reasons we don't carry on in our journey of sanctification.  The history of salvation - from the Garden of Eden, through the people of Israel to the Mystery of Christ -, is a pattern the Father has shown us for sin and redemption.  What they did, we do.

Or, just maybe there is more hidden in Holy Scripture than theologians can uncover.

Maybe the specialist we need to interpret much of Scripture is a comedian - steeped in Jewish culture and proficient in Hebrew.  (I've always longed to hear the Bible read by an old Jewish guy from Brooklyn named Lenny.)  It's possible that the journey did not actually take forty years, but only seemed to, what with all the murmuring, grumbling and complaining.
"The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our kettles of meat and ate our fill of bread! But you have led us into this wilderness to make this whole assembly die of famine!”
 There is a lot of good material for the right kind of humorist here!

But I think it probably did take forty years.  Because there is another, more basic template for the number forty that goes back even before God's chosen people.  It goes all the way back to the garden - that first of the gardens where all the important stuff has happened - the Garden of Eden.  When Adam and Eve sinned through pride and disobedience the curses that came upon them along with spiritual death were to work to bring forth food and pain in childbirth.

Everything that followed has been an effort to get back into grace with God.  He has patiently taught us (often kicking and screaming) to trust Him and has given us the grace to finally do it.  Our Savior made the grace available; we must avail ourselves of it.  The real promised land is heaven.  To enter, we must be re-born in grace through faithful obedience to God's will.  This process of growing in sanctity is a period of gestation for our re-birth as a new creation in Christ.

As Lent is a preparation for celebrating New Life in Christ at Easter, it is also a time when we pray ardently for catechumens, who will be born again in baptism at the Easter Vigil Mass.  Our hope for ourselves is also a new start - to become new again.

Lent is a pregnancy for all this new life that Christ the Savior brings about in His Church.  And, pregnancy lasts forty weeks.  And that, I think, is the real reason that Lent is forty days.

February 21, 2017

Impatience? I Don't Believe It Exists!

Many of us seem to lack patience.  Is patience even a thing?  Doesn't everyone you know confess to being impatient?  Red lights, long lines, other people's lack of understanding - these things cause us throw our hands up, roll our eyes and fly into a rage.  I'll bet it is one of the most frequent things priests hear in confession.

But what is impatience really?  Is impatience even a thing?  Are we confusing not liking to wait with impatience?  Imagine a situation that would normally cause you to become what you call impatient. It really comes down to not getting what we want on our schedule, doesn't it?

What does your impatience look like?  For some it involves bad language and rising blood pressure.  For others, maybe hitting something or yelling.  Still others may close up stiffly and sulk.  A strain on our patience generally brings out the toddler in us.

I don't think impatience is a thing in itself at all.  Confessing it could be a waste of time.  Like many a medical "syndrome", impatience is a catch all word for the many forms Pride may take when waiting is involved.  It is the grown-up version of a two-year-old meltdown.  And it's time we grow out of it.

Did I really say confessing impatience is a waste of time??  Well, it could be!  If you're not working to understand what it really is and root it out, confessing "impatience" might just be giving you permission to carry on acting that way and confessing it again and again.  And again.

When you think of patience, what do you imagine?  What would patient person look and act like in a situation that usually brings out the impatience in you?  You probably imagine someone with a serene countenance, maybe even smiling gently.  If it's as simple as smiling - a genuine, relaxed smile, as opposed to a finger-tapping, smirk - then what is keeping us from just practicing that when our patience is tried?  It's going to take more than a gentle smile to overcome this.

Because impatience isn't just impatience, it's pride.  It is giving in - in a flash of temptation - to the belief that I am above this!!  I am too important to wait!  I want it now!!  ME!!

How can we expect to overcome these tendencies toward pride if we don't call them by the right name?  How can we pray for patience to replace impatience, when impatience is just a label we put on the real collection of specific sins that cause our ugly reaction when we are called on to wait?

We should pray for patience - it is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, mentioned in Galatians 5:22 - 23.  Like impatience, patience may be a collection of the virtues that we lack in those situations.  And we should also identify, pray for and practice those virtues which, when we develop them, will crowd out the old, prideful response we recognize as impatience.  These virtues begin foremost with humility and include the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance as applied to the situations that bring out our raging self-indulgent tempers.

In justice, we should consider who we really are in the big scheme of things.  We are not God.  We owe Him all that we are and to our neighbor we owe the respect for his human dignity.  Practicing temperance will allow us to grow in our ability to do without satisfying our every desire.  Fortitude will enable us to go longer and stronger in our resistance to the temptation to want it now.  Prudence gives us the ability to respond rightly according to reason.  We ought to pray for - and practice - these virtues and ask the Holy Spirit for the fruit of patience as evidence that we are growing in them.

We should also confess our occasions of impatience, but perhaps it would be more fruitful and life changing to confess the deeper roots of our impatient behavior.  Think of the actual occasions of your impatience.  Was it really haughtiness?  Was it thinking yourself better than someone else?  Was it giving in to anger over a frustrating situation?  Try to identify the specific sins you usually lump together as impatience.  Confess those.  Perhaps then, it will gradually cease to be the sin we take back to confession again and again.  And again.

February 14, 2017

A "Little Less" Lent

I arrived at Mass this Sunday to discover it was Septuagesima Sunday.  What’s that you ask?  It’s the third Sunday prior to Lent, and it marks the beginning of two and a half weeks of preparation for Lent itself.  Septuagesima means seventy – for the approximately seventy days until Easter.
Next Sunday will be Sexagesima (60) Sunday and the final Sunday before Ash Wednesday will be Quinquagesima (50) Sunday.  As our pastor explained, it’s like the bells that toll prior to the start of Mass to call the folks from their worldly duties to turn their minds and hearts to those of heaven.  Fifteen minutes before, then ten, then five.  Hurry!  Get ready!  It’s almost time!
The Christian year, the Christian’s life and the history of God’s chosen people tell the same story in circles of repetition and remembrance.  Printed in our worship aid, it is laid out like this:
“The number seventy corresponds symbolically to the number of years the people of Israel spent in Babylonian exile prior to arriving back in Jerusalem, paralleling for us as Christians our time spent on earth prior to our final goal – heaven.  The number for forty, Quadragesima, is the name given to the first Sunday of Lent and the season itself, connecting the forty days our Lord spent in prayer, fasting and penance to our journey of forty days (excluding Sundays) through the season of Lent.”

Hurry!  Get ready!  It's almost time!
Does the imminent approach of Lent make fill you with trepidation? Are you wondering what to do to make it a good one?
People always talk about giving up something for Lent.  It is often chocolate or sweets.  Sometimes it is a bad habit or small sin.  Others suggest not giving up something, but instead, taking on something.  It could be an extra devotion, daily Mass or a good deed done daily.
Traditionally, what is prescribed during Lent is prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  Besides obligatory fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the details are left up to the individual. 
I offer you another way to look at Lent.  Rather than giving up or doing a thing, why not think of Lent as going to the gym for your soul?  Get pumped up this Lent!  What will make your soul stronger for the Big Event?  What is the spiritual exercise that will help you grow in the virtue in which you’re a bit of a weakling?  Do that a little more.
But don't just rush in and expect to lift that heavy weight.  If you haven't been able to succeed in that virtue before, what makes you think you'll conquer it simply because it's Lent and you've had ashes rubbed on your forehead?  Of course there’s extra grace in Lent, but recognize your weakness and begin from where you are. Just add one pound to what you’re already lifting.  As you grow stronger, add another.
Enter into the season.  Let your behavior reflect that some activities are more fitting than others during this time.  Lent is a season to observe.  Observe the cross.  Observe the mercy.  Observe peacefulness.
Begin by recognizing your own littleness and need of mercy.  Do you have a hard time completely giving up things?  Do a little less.  A little less convenience. A little less pleasure.  A little less fun.  A little less self.  And a little more.  A little more prayer. A little more almsgiving.  A little more spiritual reading.  A little more love.
There are many ways – besides giving up a thing – that you can observe a “little less” Lent and a “little more” Lent.  I can think of many and I’ll bet you can think of even more that will help strengthen your will, deepen your soul and make your heart grow in love.
Here are some to get you started!
Turn down your thermostat a couple of degrees.  Turn off your car radio on one trip.  Drive the speed limit.  If you do have treats, eat a little less than you would like.  Get 10% more done diligently at work, school, or home.  Give generously when you give.  Do that one job that your spouse likes done, but you hate to do.  Get all the laundry folded by the end of the week.  Leave the closest parking space for someone else.  Say something nice about that person instead of something mean.  Go to Mass one more time during the week.  Use a dull tea cup instead of the pretty one.  Pray an extra decade of the Rosary.  Put that thing away rather than just setting it down there.  Wash the floor for a change.  Use less sugar in your coffee if you can’t give it up entirely.  Buy Fair Trade chocolate, coffee, tea, sugar or spices next time (it costs a little more and your extra sacrifice helps respect the dignity of the people at the other end of the production, so it’s a little way to give alms!).  When you think of someone, make it a prayer (whether you like that person or not).  Buy a package of new socks and underwear to donate along with your old stuff.  Oh, and go to confession!
One more thing: Smile.
Do you know what Mother Teresa said about smiling?  “Smile at each other. Smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other - it doesn't matter who it is - and that will help to grow up in greater love for each other."  
You don’t have to be a spiritual heavy weight to benefit from Lenten practices.  Begin now, during these weeks before Lent, to prepare yourself to get into condition.  As the church bells ring, calling you to a closer union with Our Lord, turn your mind to the things that can strengthen your love for Him in little ways each day.

This Lent, try doing a little more and a little less.

February 7, 2017

Making Memories

My friend Jenni posted a meme on Facebook that I found so funny.   It reads:
Please excuse the mess. 
My children are making memories.
Of me yelling at them.
For making a mess.
It's even funnier if you've seen the meme that has only the first two lines, laid over a beautiful picture of children playing sweetly.  I'm not sure where the word "meme" for these little picture jokes came from.  What I love about them is that when I find one funny - because I can relate, I know I'm not the only one who has felt that way. When I laugh at a meme I'm saying, "Meme too!"

But this got me thinking about memories and the idea of making them.  I know my mom yelled at us kids when I was growing up, but I don't actually remember any single occurrence of it.  Neither do I remember any single occurrence of making a craft or playing at something that made a mess.

So, what sorts of things do I remember - does anyone remember - from childhood?  My memories are usually of shared fun and loving gestures.  I do remember jumping from one twin bed to the other with my sister to avoid the "alligators" in the chasm between them.  I do remember helping make an epic colonial settlement out of Play-Dough with my mom and sister for my sister's fifth grade project.  It was then I discovered my particular talent for making tiny Play-Dough dogs and pigs.

My menu of childhood memories also contains a generous portion of sibling squabbles, of course, like when my sister whacked me on the head with the telephone receiver.  That was back in the days of actual dial phones, mind you, not non-lethal princess phones or the wimpy-by-weaponry-standards mobile phones of today.

While some "memories" are the result of photographs I have seen so often that I believe I remember the events, the most cherished memories are those not captured on film.  I remember in second grade I would eat my lunch alone (by choice) at school and felt so loved when my mom had cut my peanut butter and honey sandwich into four little pieces rather than two big ones (which was every time).  Even she doesn't remember that.  I have many memories of adventures with my sister, out in the hillsides and woods, exploring and often building fires to cook something over.  We were not avid campers, just free ranging kids with matches.

Riding mules up the steps of Santorini on
the Greek voyage.  I'm on the mule in back
This was obviously before vanity set in. 
I am blessed to retain the childhood memory of a Holy Week cruising amongst the Greek Isles on what looked like a pirate ship - blood red square sails to match the blood red Easter eggs, the only color they were dyed in Greece.  The fragmentary pictures held in my mind are a collage of sights, rites and culinary delights.  Even today, memories of our week aboard the Panarmethes are often brought back to me in a flash by sea sickening whiff of diesel fumes.

They say that olfactory sense is the most keenly tied to memory.  The scent of Eucalyptus leaves always reminds me of my aunt's house.  Clove cigarettes and White Linen perfume bring back images of college days - in the eighties.  Sunlight warmed pine needles give off an aroma that conjures thoughts of those free ranging days when we lived in Greece.

So, what memories are you making for your kids?  Who knows?  Probably, it's not the moments you capture in that digital database that they will never flip through as we used to flip through photo albums.  Probably it's not those big events you splashed out on so they'd have a wonderful childhood to look back on.  More likely it's the loving scent of your too long unwashed hair as you snuggled them to sleep so many nights, racing down up escalators at the mall with siblings, or the way you screamed in surprise and horror when you found that snake in your kitchen that one Mother's Day.  Oh, wait, that was me.  Kids remember the most obscure things.

Of course we love them.  And they're going to remember that.  They're going to remember things we didn't plan, things we don't remember - and some things we hope they won't.  I suppose we might worry less about making memories for them when we reflect on just what has stuck (and hasn't stuck) with us through all these years.  Take a few minutes now and then to search your own mental treasury and just remember things long tucked away in your mind.  And then go on and live a natural life, loving your kids - and, yes, yelling at them when necessary.

She probably doesn't remember this walk on the beach, but I hope the happiness of the moment sticks with her always!