Catholic Exchange: When Advent Feels More Like Lent

This time of year can present challenges to all of us as we approach the Christmas season. More and more Catholics are trying to slow down and enter into the period of waiting and preparation in the Advent season. As the secular Christmas season continues to spiral out of control, a lot of people are seeing the wisdom of this season of stillness and waiting.

The problem is that, for many of us, Advent can begin to feel more like Lent than Advent. We may find ourselves wrestling in the desert rather than waiting silently by an empty manger. The state of the Church in the past few months in the United States, and in many other countries, has resulted in a Lenten period all its own due to the abominable crimes that have come to light. So it isn’t all that surprising that many Catholics are feeling like they are in Lent rather than Advent at present.

What do we do when Advent feels more like Lent? 

If you, like me, entered into Advent and woke up in Lent, don’t worry. God is working in us to bring about much needed healing and growth that will be necessary for growing in holiness. There will be times in our lives, even as we prepare for the joy of Christmas, when we will have to wage interior battles. These intense periods often feel like a wrestling match because it is in these times when God is asking us to give something up or to give something over to Him that only He can heal or resolve. We desperately want to do it ourselves, but in reality Our Triune God is the only one who can resolve these areas of our lives. We are called to trust in Him and relinquish our grip.

The stresses of daily life, health issues, grief from the loss of a loved one, habitual sin, damaged relationships, the scandals rocking the Church, marital struggles, and a whole host of other situations can lead us to a period of aridity and struggle in the desert. The long nights of late fall, the frenetic energy of this time of year, and the suffering we carry means that this time of year can be particularly difficult for many of us. For those with no family or friends to celebrate the holidays with, the loneliness can become unbearable.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Come Christmas, Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Sacred Scripture is filled with unlikely messengers. Men and women who are never the “right” messenger. They are too old, too young, too male, too female, not from the right town, not a priest, they are a priest, not a king, they are a king. There’s always something wrong with them according to their listeners. As we work our way through this final week of Advent towards the great feast of Christmas, we see many of God’s messengers who were simply cast aside or ignored because they didn’t fit the mold the listeners wanted. God works through those who are willing and often those are the people we least expect, but the people we need the most in that given moment. St. John the Baptist paved the way for us this past Sunday, but many did not like the message and he met with a prophet’s death.

Come Christmas it will be rough and tough shepherds in the field who will see and hear the heavenly hosts and “make haste.” It is the King of the Universe made flesh who will be placed in a food trough in a town that means House of Bread who will become our heavenly food. He is a king with no palace and no visible army. He is the prophet whose message is too difficult to bear and the priest who sacrifices Himself. Like the prophets before Him, He will not be the right messenger for many. When we focus too much on the messenger and not the message, when we allow ourselves to be blinded by our own fears and prejudices, we fail to see how God is working and we promptly ignore or get rid of the messenger and the message.

God works most efficaciously through the Sacraments and the prayers of the Church, but He works most prevalently in our daily lives through the people around us. It is in our neighbor that we see the light of Christ dwelling within. It is often our neighbor who is a messenger carrying a message that we need to hear, but they aren’t the messenger we want from God. We want God to operate on our pre-defined terms, which is the exact opposite of how He typically works in our lives.

Parents, for instance, often know that God uses our children to speak to us. There have been many times when I have made a mistake as a mother and God will use my daughter to remind me to do better. In our busy and distracted age it is often children who remind us to look up and look out at the beauty around us. God works through our spouses, our parents, brothers, sisters, friends, priests, and complete strangers. He seeks to reach us, but often we do not pay attention or we ignore it because we don’t like the messenger He chose in a given situation. How can he or she be the one God chose to deliver this message? Why her or him? It doesn’t matter. God chose them.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot because God asked me to be one of His messengers in a situation that is rather extraordinary. In fact, I still don’t understand why He chose me other than the fact that I was willing to do what needed to be done at all costs. That seems to be the requirement of doing God’s will and delivering a much needed message to someone. I am a fighter by nature and I’m willing to do what is necessary for charity when God asks it of me. That is all His doing. My willingness is the only reason I can somewhat understand why I was asked, but as is often the case, I wasn’t the “right” messenger. In fact, I’ve seldom been the “right” messenger. Most of us are never the “right” messenger in the moment we are asked to share what God wants us to share and so we can only hope that we’ve planted the seeds we were supposed to and pray and wait.

There is so much division in the Church right now that all we focus on is the messenger. They are too much of a bishop, too much of a priest, not a priest, not a member of the laity, too much a member of the laity, a woman, a man, a young woman, an old woman, a young man, an old man, and this goes on and on. We do not truly see one another as brothers and sisters. We see one another as “other” and so we continue to push one another away in fear, anger, blindness, and we allow the Enemy to create greater division between all of us. We allow the communion we share to be damaged or destroyed. We allow fear to destroy charity, forgetting that “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).

When are we going to stop and start listening to the message? Will we be able to hear the message come this Christmas if we are too focused on the message bearer? Do we focus so much on the message bearer themselves that we cannot see how and why God is using them to bring His love to us? Why do we not see the messenger as our brother or sister in Christ? We all do it. We all ignore the message because we don’t like the messenger or the message.

We don’t want the Divine Love to break in too much into our lives. We only want it to be just enough, but God never works with just enough. He pours Himself infinitely out upon us. We have to open ourselves up to Him. We have to turn the faucet on so the Divine Love can flow both within us and out towards others. Yes, He works with what we are able to handle, but often we don’t think we can handle as much as God knows we can handle. He seeks to stretch and challenge us in ways that are needed for us to progress in holiness. It hurts because we fight it. We think we can’t do it because we lack faith and trust.

When we come to celebrate the Christmas Liturgy together in a week’s time, let us open up our hearts, minds, and souls to the great Messenger, the Son of God, who came to dwell among us in order to unite us to Himself, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. The one who draws us into the Triune Love where our ultimate joy, peace, and fulfillment lies. Let’s see His messengers with the eyes of faith and charity rather than focusing on whether or not the priest is gifted in homiletics, the homily is well written, or the delivery is subpar. Let’s look at our neighbor who bears the imago Dei and allow God to show us His great love in a time of great pain, fear, and division. God loves us through our neighbor.

It is not us versus them. We should not assume or think the absolute worst in our neighbor. We need to remember that any division in our hearts comes from the Fall and from the Enemy. God does not seek to scatter. He seeks to draw us into deep, abiding communion with Him and with one another. God is not the God of fear. He is the God of peace. He will challenge us, but in ways that invite us to go deeper into His mystery and to go deeper into the Divine Love and love of neighbor.

Let’s pray for the fortitude to answer God’s call when He asks us to be one of His messengers. There’s usually a cost involved for us, some are small and some are much larger. Being a messenger requires sacrifice, especially since we will often be reviled, ignored, or cast out. We are all in good company when we look to Sacred Scripture and the saints. More than anything, we have Christ who was betrayed, abandoned, and crucified for us.

This Christmas let’s begin to work towards our neighbor rather than discarding or ignoring the messengers God places in our own lives. From one messenger to another let’s seek to open ourselves up to what God wants to show us through the people around us. Let’s take off our blinders, turn from fear, and bask in the glorious light God radiates to us through others. It is through the glorious message of Christmas that God reaches down to us, so that we can reach up towards Him and out towards one another.


Advent Talk: Preparing for the Comings of Christ Through Charity and Mercy

I recently presented an Advent talk to my parish on preparing for the comings of Christ by growing in charity and mercy. I will be adding more video content as time goes on. I hope you have a very blessed Advent!

P.S. I know some of my thoughts only apply to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. ;o)

Catholic Exchange: Our Need for Stillness in Advent

The liturgical year, in union with creation, often shows us what we need most throughout the year. We begin Advent and the new liturgical year in late fall. It is a time when those of us in the northern hemisphere experience stillness, quiet, and a sense of waiting in creation.

The trees are bare and have shed their autumnal splendor. They now stand dormant, waiting for spring. The flowers are no longer blooming. The bird song is is much softer and only heard on occasion. Many animals have gone into hibernation for a “long winter’s nap.” The earth has entered into a period of waiting and expectancy. Even the long darkness of night that grows until the Winter Solstice points to a waiting upon the dawn.

During Advent, the Church is inviting us into a period of stillness, quiet, and peace as we wait on the comings of Christ both in the Parousia and as the Messiah at Christmas. Even though we are a redeemed people, we still wait upon the Lord and His triumphant return at the end of time, which could happen at any hour. Paragraph 678 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that His Second Coming is viewed as “imminent.”

We are to prepare for His coming through leading holy lives and growing in love and communion with the Most Holy Trinity and one another. All of us are also preparing to celebrate the great feast of Christmas when the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, took on human flesh and dwelt among us, but there are also other ways we are waiting on the Lord right now.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

People Do Change, We Must

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Image: Wiki Commons

There is an adage in our culture that is prevalent in movies, books, even daily conversations. It is: “People never change.” It is even quite common for Catholics to make this statement. If this is true, then we are all in trouble. Scripture and our Faith tell us otherwise. People deeply attached to sin and disorder are made new in Christ. Individuals who have been discarded, abused, hurt, sick, lost, and committed great evils do indeed change. We underestimate how much seasons of illness impact a person. We also forget that people carry very deep wounds that only the Divine Physician can heal. It is much easier to live in our assumptions and presumptions about people and constantly compare them to their failures or weaknesses, but this is wholly unjust and is a sin against charity. Authentic love is constant regardless of these failings. It does not accept them, but love is not revoked in the face of failures either.

Anyone who makes frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance (Confession/Reconciliation) comes to realize how weak they truly are and how much they need Christ. It is true that we tend to fail in the same ways over and over again until God provides the grace and we need to develop the habit of the virtue necessary to overcome a certain vice or character flaw. This means that change is slow and on-going. Very few of us have radical conversion stories. Even St. Augustine’s Confessions demonstrates the struggle each person has with particular sins. It is easy to forget that our progression in holiness is dependent on God’s working within us on His timeline, not our own.

There are indeed times when changes must happen rapidly. This takes place when tragedy strikes or an unexpected and life-altering diagnosis occurs. In those moments we are faced with monumental decisions about ourselves, our loved ones, the people around us, and the future. These times tend to reveal the best and the worst in us and we have to fight for the best to win. Our self-centered Fallen nature will rear its ugly head when what we wanted is either impossible or irrelevant. We must pray for the strength to persevere when we would like to give up and to embrace God’s will over our own. Very few people go through their entire lives without wanting to give up in the face of tremendous adversity at least once or twice or a hundred times.

Change is actually inevitable. I am not the same person I was even three years ago. There are aspects of my personality that do not change, but a fog I walked in for 3 years lifted and I could finally see myself again. I came out of that fog higher up on the path and stronger for it despite the misery I endured. We walk in valleys and up to, and on, mountain tops in this life. We become different depending on what we face, but the deepest reality of who we are as created imago Dei does not change. Our unique incommunicable and unique personhood is not lost in the face of tragedy, illness, mental illness, abandonment, and suffering; rather, we are refined and the unique person we are is made more beautiful in God’s furnace of love.

This refinement only works if we desire joy and if we learn to embrace the hardships and sufferings that will come our way. It is a process and we will fail to accomplish at times and struggle with self-pity, anger, and frustration. We must fix our eyes on Heaven and remember that this is temporary. Each moment of every single day we are moving towards Heaven or hell. We know intuitively when we have made the wrong choice, unless we have completely deadened our conscience. Every step in either direction changes us into the person we will be in the next life. If we choose not to change in either direction that is also a choice and the wrong one.

Our purpose in this life is to be a saint. We are made for goodness, truth, beauty, and happiness, but we can only attain those gifts from God if we relinquish ourselves and allow Him to dwell within us. We must choose each day to change for the better. When we fail–which is inevitable–then we ask God to pick us back up and march ourselves back to the Confessional. Change only occurs if we never give up. The Enemy wants us to stay face down in the mud sobbing about our failures or our lost dreams. We have to say “no” and get back up. Thankfully, God gave me a rather stubborn personality. This is good and bad, but I am thankful that it makes me less likely to stay down for long.

I love to hike and I love mountains. I grew up in Montana so the Rockies are deeply embedded in my psyche. I love living in the Appalachians, but there is a rugged, strange, dangerous, awe-inspiring, and compelling quality to the Rockies. The idea of the holy mountain we are climbing in this life is an old image. It’s found in the Old Testament since God was understood in relation to specific mountains i.e. Moses. Purgatory has also been called a holy mountain. Anyone who has hiked on granite peaks like the Rockies knows that there are long ascents, slippery shale crossings, snow, run off, mud, sudden afternoon thunderstorms, not-so-friendly wildlife, random summer snow storms, and winds. The views are phenomenal and they provide strength to continue onward when the climb becomes steep. Those who climb mountains like Mount Everest know that as you go higher the more treacherous the trip becomes.

The spiritual life seems to be similar to these treacherous climbs. The attacks, temptations, and reality of our weaknesses come to the forefront the more we climb. The Enemy changes tactics on us and at times we can mistake light that is really darkness (St. Ignatius of Loyola). The hidden places of darkness within us that we didn’t know about or never wanted to confront come out into the light. They have to so that God may shed His healing light and wipe away every darkness within us. Many of the saints experienced greater attacks from the Devil and struggled mightily with interior darkness as they continued the ascent. They relied solely on God amidst profound desolation.

The higher we climb, the more God reveals to us that we must give our entire selves to Him alone. The path becomes more difficult as we are asked to detach from more and more in this life, so that it is Christ who dwells fully within us. This takes a lifetime to accomplish since we are attached to much, some of which we don’t realize until we are faced with it at certain points on the journey. In our sinfulness, we do not realize that this detachment is the path to joy.

To be Catholic is to change. To be human is to change. There are relationships that may never fully heal and some people may choose the wrong path, but they are changing as they age. It is impossible not to. The deep changes, the necessary changes require God’s grace in our lives. The pruning away at the dead branches weighing us down becomes greater and greater as time goes on. In the end we may feel like a rose bush cut to the root, but any gardener knows the rose will come back in greater glory after an intense pruning. The same is true of us. With each new pruning, we change for either good or bad. It is up to us to rely on God in leading us to the good as we battle our selfishness and our own plans that are not united to His will for our lives.

We must also remember that people are not required to change in the manner we desire. We cannot force our will upon other people and make them into something in our own image. We must pray for others who have hurt us or who we may not agree with at times, but we cannot turn them into something they are not. God has plans for each individual based on the gifts and personality that He has bestowed upon us. Not everyone in the world is meant to be like us. Thank God for that! The last thing we need are carbon copies of me all over the world. In humility, we should recognize why people are meant to be different from one another. Oftentimes people will be upset when we make changes for the better, when we progress in holiness. Christ promised this too! Not everyone will understand, but we must continue on the path that He has laid out for us.

A very blessed last week of Advent to you as we wait in hope for the celebration of the coming of Our Savior at Christmas and while we wait ever watchful for the day He returns at the end of time.

Catholic Exchange: Silence in Advent Prepares Us for the Joy of Christmas

The topic of silence has grown in popularity on social media in recent months. This is especially true in light of the various pieces written on Cardinal Sarah’s brilliant book, The Strength of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. Silence is an important topic. We are inundated with noise. This noise is not only an assault on our auditory faculties, but on our senses as a whole. The world wants to keep us distracted, busy, and living with a constant din buzzing in our ears. Why? Noise is a tool that the world and Satan use to keep us from God. It is easy to drown Him out in our daily lives by remaining focused on the endless onslaught. In reality, we cannot make serious progress in the spiritual life without silence. Saints are made in silence. It is through silence before the great mystery of God that we enter more deeply into communion with the Most Holy Trinity. That communion is what we are moving closer towards in each moment of every single day. It is in that communion that we will find beatitudo (happiness) and Heaven.

The Church understands our desperate need for silence. It is fitting that our liturgical year begins in a season of silence and waiting. As the late fall evenings lengthen towards the darkness of winter, we become more aware of the silence and stillness that are a part of the natural order of things. Creation seems to go into its own period of waiting. It is easy for us to miss what is going on around us in the busyness of the secular Christmas season. As we run around shopping for countless gifts—many of which, let’s face it, are unnecessary—attend parties, write Christmas cards, decorate our homes, and move about with frenetic energy, we can miss not only what is going on around us in Creation, but what is going on in the Church.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: What Will We Give Jesus for His Birthday?

We are now in the final days of Advent. These last days are a good time to fully prepare ourselves for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas. If we have not taken the time to enter into prayerful quiet, now is a good time to do so. If we do not enter into the preparation of Advent, there is a good chance we will miss the true joy of Christmas, because we will not have taken the time to prepare our hearts fully for the coming of Our Savior. A couple of weeks ago, my parish priest asked us a question in order to help us prepare for Christmas. He asked, “What are we going to give Jesus for His birthday?” Ever since Father spoke these words, they have been on my mind. What am I going to give Jesus for His birthday?

Whose birthday is it anyway?

To be honest, it is such a simple question, that it is often lost on us; this includes me. Often, we end up making this one of the busiest and most material times of the year. As parents, my husband and I have tried to cut back on the material and busy sides of Advent and Christmas. We spent one too many Christmases with family and friends watching kids tear into far too many gifts only to cast them aside. The desire for more, more, more was all over their faces. More of what, exactly? Things that can never in principle make them truly happy? We realized early on that we cannot hope to teach our daughter holiness if Christmas is seen as an accumulation of large quantities of stuff. We cut back to three gifts from us, which represent the gifts of the Magi. All other gifts are from grandparents and other family. Even then, it has been difficult to maintain temperance in this regard because my husband and I are rather counter-cultural in this approach.

Our reason for this refocus is because it is very easy in our culture to focus on the material aspects of Christmas. We are inundated with the idea that buying the “perfect” gift will achieve happiness for our loved ones or ourselves. Advertising campaigns have even switched to telling us that we “deserve to buy ourselves the perfect gift this Christmas.” We hear this on the radio, see it on TV, and we are bombarded whenever we walk into a store this time of year. I notice a tendency in my own daughter to want stuff and lots of it. Of course, hours or days later she will cast aside this item she had to have since it has served its temporary purpose. I have been asking God how to temperately celebrate His birth in a manner that is a balance between merriment, cheer, self-emptying love, virtuous living, and a focus on Him. Then came Father’s question to all of us, to me.

In the Latin Rite, we can easily forget that Advent is a penitential season. It is not as strict as Lent and often the penitential aspects are not mentioned, but for all intents and purposes, Advent is penitential. We are told to prepare for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas and in the Parousia. If Christ came again in the Second Coming at this very moment, would we be prepared? We are called to constantly prepare our hearts for His coming. This is a call to grow in holiness, to deepen our prayer lives, frequent the sacraments, and to consider those areas where vice rules over virtue. The Catholic understanding is not that we have to be merely “good people”. That idea comes from the post-modern heresy of moral therapeutic deism. We are called to be saints, not “good people”. In Lent, we consider something to give up to grow in holiness to prepare for the great mysteries of Holy Week. In that same vein: What is it we are going to give Our Lord and Savior at Christmas?

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.