If you spend as much time on the highway as I do, or have gone on a long road trip recently, then you are probably familiar with both rumble strips and mile markers. Rumble strips are the series of ripples at the edge of the road meant to alert distracted or drowsy drivers that they are drifting to the edge. Mile markers are, of course, the signs placed in the middle of the highway indicating each mile by number—ascending on the Eastbound side and descending on the West.
Both rumble strips and mile markers are safety features. One is meant to keep you on the road, the other is meant to help you report your position. Consider how much money gets spent on these features… it’s probably a lot. They are that important. The authorities deem the cost and effort associated with these necessary for our safety, and in a very real way these help us on our highway journey.
The spiritual journey comes with safety features, too. It has its own rumble strips and mile markers that keep us on the road and point out where we are. Prayer is the rumble strip of the spiritual life, it keeps us on the road. When we pray regularly and often—when our lives become a prayer, thus fulfilling the Gospel command to pray unceasingly (1 Thessalonians 5:17)—it becomes impossible to go off the road that leads to the Kingdom. Attending to our relationship with God and meeting with his Saints in prayer highlights the edges of the road, makes us aware of the dangerous dark gully alongside it, and forms our conscience to shock us—like a rumble strip—when we get too close to that edge.
Spiritual direction is a spiritual safety feature in which we alert those who can help us of our location; just as first responders can find a person in need by using mile markers, spiritual direction helps a guide to know where we are in the spiritual life. Imagine being stranded on the highway with no way to report your position; going through the spiritual life without a good spiritual director presents the same conundrum. How can anyone can help? Whatsmore, regular spiritual direction becomes like a trusted map program that keeps us on course or helps us to navigate around obstacles. And there are obstacles, the Devil attacks—and the world presents dangers to—our spiritual journey as surely as the summer means road construction.
Rumble strips and mile markers are two ordinary safety features of highway travel. Likewise, prayer and spiritual direction are two ordinary safety features of the spiritual life. We can only expect a difficult journey without them.
You’ve probably heard a lot about God’s mercy lately. Notably, the Year of Mercy being celebrated by the Church has put a renewed emphasis on this topic for the entire world. The secular fascination with Pope Francis, who might well be called The Prophet of Mercy, has increased popular discussion of God’s mercy. Everywhere we turn, someone seems to have something to say about it—orthodoxically or not. And in our self-centered culture, it is not uncommon to encounter a person with an outlook so presumptuous of God’s mercy that he or she disregards all need of conversion. They seem to rely so heavily on the theological truth of God’s mercy—a truth the person turns into a cliché—that they regard this mercy as some kind of tacit endorsement of their favorite sins.
For example, we would probably not have to look far for the person who lives promiscuously, that friend of ours who has put off marriage to “have fun” before “settling down.” They aren’t exceptionally bad; they work hard, pay their bills, and avoid crime. But they are so comfortable with promiscuity that they seem to think it’s acceptable. Yet, through occasional admittances and other small ways, they reveal that, deep down, they know they are living wrongly. Pressed to explain what God might think of their chosen lifestyle—it is in contrast to the norm of marriage and family (or religious life), after all—clichés about God’s mercy get thrown around.
It is worth pointing out that promiscuity and marriage cannot be the right path. These two things contradict; therefore, they cannot both be right. Given that marriage and family build up society and are the physical means by which humanity continues, it is clearly preferable to promiscuity—which does not have the good of society or the continuation of humanity as its goal. We know, even without divine instruction, that marriage is a good and promiscuity is not.
It is with that inherent truth in the back of his or her mind that the promiscuous person knows he or she is doing something wrong, and that is when platitudes about God’s mercy get tossed around. Now… in light of those platitudes, are they right about God’s mercy? As a theological reflection on the nature of God, yes! But, in the stubborn refusal to change and seek conversion to what is inherently good, they are not disposing themselves to that mercy. It’s there, just like they are saying, but they are not availing themselves to it. Instead, they are choosing to shield themselves from this wonderful divine attribute with the refusal to stop sinning.
Consider it this way: God’s mercy is like a rain that never stops; it is showering on us all the time, no matter who we are or what we are doing. But, the person who stubbornly lives with a known sin is as if holding an umbrella while they’re looking at that rain. They are going through life perfectly dry under their umbrella and foolishly talking about how nice the rain feels.
Is it raining? Yes. Is the person under the umbrella getting wet? No.
And so it is with the person who presumes reception of God’s mercy while doing what they know is wrong. Mercy is always available to us, we can always accept it… but we have to put away the umbrella of sin and allow ourselves to get rained on.
Let’s be open to God’s mercy, without which we would be hopelessly lost, by repenting (“turning around”) of our sinful ways and resolving to move towards God each day. Amen.
“And even if the sins of soul are as dark as night, when the sinner turns to [God’s] mercy he gives [God] the greatest praise and is the glory of [His] Passion.”
–St Faustina, Divine Mercy in my Soul
The tide that is turning against abortion in the wake of the undercover videos is good to see. There is a palpable sense of growing disgust about what is being witnessed, at least about the harvesting of fetal body parts if not abortion altogether. While on one hand I want to say: “Welcome to reality” …on the other hand I know that we are called to conversion and must recognize the fact that it is good that people are turning toward the truth. So, while I am glad for this conversion that seems to be rising within our society, I point to the reality that I mentioned on the first hand: abortion is disgusting. But that is its very nature, it is disgusting. It is not disgusting because you have seen it, it is disgusting because that is what it is. It always has been, it always will be.
Pray for continued conversion!
Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This is a good time to call to mind the need for conversion. Just as Jesus willingly went to the cross, so too must we go to our own contemporary crosses to be united with his self-giving, to become more like him, to eventually see him as he is. The Cross was a one-time offering, but we must be united with it; we have to join Christ on the Cross in our day so that we can also join with his Resurrection.
This life is not offered to us as an adult playpen, where trampolines, swings, and merry-go-rounds are replaced with sex, food, and self-indulgent living. We can certainly make those things the focus of our lives. But they, for the sake of themselves, lead nowhere. Rather, this life is a pilgrimage, where God—especially in the person of Jesus Christ—is to be the center. Such a properly oriented pilgrimage leads to God, who is the “fulfillment of all our desire.”
We are offered this pilgrimage in order to become more and more like the One who saved us. In doing this, there is only one way: To follow his example, which includes prayer, corporeal acts of mercy, and the Cross as well. If we accept Jesus as God, as perfect, then to become like him we must be perfected.
Life is good—it is sometimes very enjoyable—it is always a call to conversion.
This Wednesday we celebrate the Memorial of St. Peter Claver, who spent his Seventeenth Century Jesuit formation in the Spanish New World. Peter was distraught by the slave trade and vowed to serve its incoming victims for the rest of his life. He would meet slave ships as they arrived in order to minister to slaves, performing spiritual and corporeal acts of mercy by baptizing, providing medical care, teaching about God, and burying the dead. Peter Claver may have introduced upwards of 300,000 slaves to God, helping them in their conversion through Jesus Christ.
A language barrier existed between Peter, a Spaniard, and the slaves coming from Africa. It might have been understandable if he hesitated in ministering to them and simply looked on in prayerful pity. But he was not deterred—and did what it took—to communicate with those whom he wished to serve. He taught about God using pictures of the Trinity and sought African interpreters that could work with him. And in true Catholic social teaching, he worked for their rights in the public square, too.
Saint Peter Claver gives us many lessons. One of these is certainly to do what it takes to do the right thing. We are often faced with difficult and seemingly impossible situations in living our faith, it might sometimes seem easier to “go along to get along.” Sometimes doing the right thing means we might lose friends, have less money, look awkward, become less accepted in the culture, or go to jail. Leading others to God in the Church, though, is always the right thing; caring for their needs, no matter who they are, is always right. May we learn from St. Peter Claver to do what it takes.
Monday’s Gospel (Luke 4:16-30) proclaimed the story of Jesus returning to Nazareth, where he fulfilled the passage in Isaiah that says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” Those in attendance famously went in one of two directions, they either “Spoke highly of him and were amazed…” or “They rose up, [and] drove him out of the town…” It might seem confusing that anyone would choose the latter. Why on earth would someone not a accept a miracle worker who clearly had power over both nature and demons? It might then seem tempting to wish that we lived back then, because we might think to ourselves: if I had seen Jesus in person, I would not questions or doubt at all… if only I had seen him.
Let’s not get caught up in this temptation to think that accepting Jesus would have been a shoe-in during his day, and that living now requires a harder choice. This very passage makes clear that those who were right there went both ways, some were amazed and others drove him out of town. Even in his time, with his miracles happening in plain sight, many still did not believe. Yet many did.
It is no less today. Many do not believe. Yet many do. People still go in the same two directions. We might infer from stories like this that it was just as easy or difficult to accept the truth about Jesus whether we lived during his ministry or if we live now. Jesus forces us to make a choice: he is either God and the only way home to the fullness of God’s presence, or he is a deranged madman. There isn’t much of a middle ground.
So, seeing as it was not much different in accepting Jesus during his time, put the temptation to wish for an easier way out of mind. Decide that you want to know God and live most fully in his presence, pray for faith, and get to know Jesus through the Tradition and Scripture of the Church—because he is as alive here as he was 2,000 years ago.
I have moved to a new room, my third in three years. This one is prime courtyard real estate, and its an end room with floor space where my neighbor’s closet would be… so, good property value. I’m hoping to remain here, there’s not much else worth the trouble of moving, and have been making some capital improvements (see below). I’m hoping for some “Rooted in Faith” money from the diocese. Fingers crossed.
We took our annual house retreat lsat week to begin the year of formation. During the course of this particular retreat, I began the customs of making 2-3 resolutions that are very attainable (pitching right over the plate to myself), identifying a grace, and setting one main goal. The idea is that, in making one or two retreats every year, I can apply these practices to help foster growth in the spiritual life.
The deepest fruits of a retreat are often private; they are usually kept between only yourself and a confessor or spiritual director, but I want to share the grace that I identified on this retreat. It is no less than this: Keep praying no matter what. My retreat began and continued somewhat sluggishly, it was restful, but almost lazy and boring. I kept plugging through community prayer and spent time in personal prayer; but I just didn’t feel much.
That’s important to note… I didn’t feel much. Prayer is not just, nor primarily, about feelings. Prayer is about elevating our hearts toward God, entering into a conversation with Him (as in any good relationship), talking to God—but also listening to Him as well. Prayer, even when it doesn’t cause good feelings, is still good for us out of love for God. Just consider that we may not feel like talking to our parents, spouse, or friends during certain stretches. But, out of love for them, we still talk and listen to those with whom we have that relationship. It is the same with God.
Any relationship dies when we do not commit to it.
I took St. Dominic on retreat with me, and I think St. Monica showed up too (you’ll see). After struggling through most of the retreat, I experienced a pay off of sorts during Holy Hour on the final day—27 August. I was reminded and called to commit to the grace of keep praying without quitting.
27 August is the Memorial of St. Monica…. praying without quitting…. yeah
Here are a couple scenic pictures from the paths at the Jesuit Retreat House in Parma, where we take our house retreats.