Dear Father: Our Church Needs Your Priestly Zeal

Bless me Father, because I am so annoyed with you.

I attended Mass at your parish this past Sunday. I’ve worshiped there before, although this was my first Mass with you celebrating. I hope I simply caught you on a bad day, but fear that might not be the case.

From your first remarks before the congregation, with that sad mixture of anger and boredom, I sensed trouble. Your homily seemed to lack heart, exuberance, even much insight. And you read it — yes, it was obvious you were simply reading — in such a flat, monotonous style that I wondered if you truly believed any of the words on the paper.

Later, you read through the Eucharistic Prayer so quickly that I wondered if instead of reliving the Last Supper, we had hit the drive-through of a holy fast-food restaurant.

Did someone upset you at an earlier Mass? I wish you could have forgiven them. Have you become sensitive to so many folks looking comatose in the increasingly empty pews? I’m sorry so many of the “faithful” are less than faithful.

Here’s the thing, though: Father, we need you. Those folks in the pews need you. Those folks no longer in the pews need you. My kids and my grandkids need you. And, Father, I need you.

I wouldn’t think badly of you if you have had occasional bouts of second-guessing your vocation. We all do at one time or another. God asks the same of all of us — love Him with your whole heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. But God asks it of you and your brother-priests perhaps in a more relentless way, perhaps, than the rest of us, and you aren’t honored much for it.

Here in the U.S., we set aside a Monday in May to remember the military men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice of dying for their nation, and another day in November to honor who responded to a call to military service. Now more than ever, people seem willing to say “thank you for your service” to any member of the military or veteran.

We never have a day set aside to say “Thank you for your service” to our priests, even though in profound ways they have died to a certain way of life and made numerous sacrifices. Yours often is a thankless job, one getting harder, too, because fewer men are responding to the call to such sacrifice.

Father, I’m sure you want to shepherd your flock well. As a Church, we have asked so much of you, and we have no choice: We look to you for encouragement and motivation and advice. We expect you both to convince us of the value of the sacrament of Penance and hear our confessions; we expect you to celebrate multiple Masses on Sundays as though each one is fresh. To bring us Mass in the morning and then attend parish meetings late into the night, and perhaps stop by the hospital at some point in between, or assist the CYO, or the CCD, and to wear the friendliest of faces as you do it. We expect your undivided attention and your perfect resistance to every temptation that comes your way, and your resolute good cheer even in the face of the residue of past sins committed by other priests.

And most of the time, we don’t even ask you to dinner, or invite you to breakfast after Mass.

When you decided to give your life to service for the Lord and His people, much of this never entered your mind. Please know, I’m praying for you, for every man like you.

St. Paul wrote this to some early Christians who faced often-overwhelming trials: “Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality.(Romans 12:11-13)

Father, we need you. We need you to be our spiritual leader, on fire for the Lord, in order to feed our poor flames. We need your zeal, to show us you care and help us understand why we should care. We need you to help us spiritually navigate our way through this increasingly secularized, polarized, angry, misunderstanding world.

Father, the “holy ones” need to know, love and serve Jesus better. Please, help us, starting this Sunday, by showing us it all matters to you, too. May God bless you. And thank you. Thank you for your sacrifice, and your service.

(This piece written by Mike first appeared at www.aleteia.org.)

Posted in Your Fellow Pilgrim Tagged with:

Scared into Isolation by Depression’s Shadow

In a uniquely American tradition, thousands of people gathered this past Thursday morning in the town of Punxutawney, PA., to wait for a distinctly unscientific weather forecast.

Punxutawney Phil, star of the Groundhog Day celebration every February 2 for 131 years, emerged from his den just after sunrise, although it took the crowd’s chanting of “Phil! Phil! Phil!” to awaken him. At 7:20 a.m., town officials declared that Phil saw his own shadow and was frightened back into his den. That is supposed to signal six more weeks of winter weather.

In a way, I can relate to the little Pennsylvania rodent. He has his shadow; I have my depression. The darkness forces each of us indoors.

Indeed, “social isolation” appears on the official list of symptoms when a doctor assesses whether a person has major depressive disorder, or clinical depression. Using the Mayo Clinic as a source, I compiled these categories and details of some of those symptoms:

Mood: Anxiety, apathy, general discontent, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings or sadness.

Sleep: Early awakening, excess sleepiness, insomnia or restless sleep.

Whole body: Excessive hunger, fatigue, loss of appetite, restlessness, weight gain or weight loss.

Behavioral: Agitation, excessive crying, irritability or social isolation.

Cognitive: Lack of concentration, slowness in activity or thoughts of suicide.

That list includes a wide range of behaviors and attitudes. In some ways, diagnosing depression requires both the knowledge of science and the subtlety of art from a doctor. With enough persistent symptoms — present for at least two weeks — a person could qualify as having the mental illness. Many of those symptoms are difficult to pin down exactly, such as anxiety, apathy, fatigue, lack of concentration. Others such as insomnia, excessive crying and loss of appetite can be discerned more concretely.

Social isolation fits into the latter group and can pose one of the more obvious manifestations of the illness. My experience indicates that my depression has intensified when I am isolating — from people or even from myself. I avoid parties, even those involving family or close friends. Sometimes, the big parties are easier to handle at such times because it’s much more possible to “isolate” in the midst of a lot of people by simply going off in a corner and silently sipping a glass of sodie.

Isolation can involve more than the bigger, more formal gatherings that pop up during the holidays or unique celebrations like a graduation or birthday. I have times that I cancel lunch with a good friend, or stay in my cubicle at work rather than engage in small talk with colleagues, or stay in bed rather than attend Sunday Mass, or even remain upstairs in my bedroom rather than go downstairs for dinner with my wife, children and grandsons.

Then there is the odd “isolation from self.”  In such moments, I do everything I can to distract myself from everyday life. I park myself in front of the TV all day. I read a book. I get very, very quiet. What I don’t do, at least not much, is write or pray. Those activities involve thinking, spending time with myself in my head.

When I’m depressed, I avoid everyone possible — including myself. When I see that shadow that is depression, I beat a hasty retreat back into my isolated den.

How do I and others familiar with this behavior force ourselves back into the welcome company of society, especially loved ones? I don’t have that answer. Yet.

Posted in Confronting Depression

Even the ‘Worst Sinner’ Can Change the Label

Once, in a confessional, I told a priest that I considered myself the worst sinner I had ever known — not really for the bad things I had done, rather more so for the thoughts I have conjured and encouraged in my head.

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard that,” he said. His smile quickly disappeared; his face turned stern and serious. “You need to not think that way. That’s pride, thinking you’re the ‘best’ at anything or the ‘most’ of anything. And pride is a bigger sin than most of the stuff in your head.

“Besides, if everyone knew all the things we think every day, we might all be in jail.”

That priest was acknowledging that he also can carry the label of “sinner.” The people I admire most, they’re sinners. Pope Francis famously once described himself by saying “I am a sinner.” Family, friends, people I pass on the street, the greatest saints of past, present and future — all are sinners.

I am well aware of my every thought, too many of which surely offend God. So I routinely say “The Jesus Prayer.”

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I’ve discerned that many of my persistent sins have less to do with action than about the notions that foster such behavior. Remember that Jesus warned we commit adultery in our heart just by looking at another man or woman with lust. Remember that Jesus cautioned that as we judge others, so will we be judged ourselves.

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” states that sin ” is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor … (and) wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. … Sin is an offense against God. … It is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods,’ knowing and determining good and evil.”

Talk about the sin of pride: how often I have unwittingly tried to act like a god by judging other people. Frankly, prejudging — forming an attitude based only on superficial triggers — can be just as sinfully toxic to our souls. I have realized that about myself. Even now, I catch myself looking at a person and noticing specific things somewhat unconsciously. I see race and age. I observe appearance and subtly register whether the person is well-dressed or unkempt, thin or overweight, able-bodied or physically handicapped.

I want to believe none of those observations influence what I say or how I act or even what I subtly presume about the person, because I am fully aware that God created each of us with the same love. That said, despite any progress I’ve made, I’d be foolish to assume I’m always successful.

Case in point: tattoos. There was a time that I rarely saw a man and almost never a woman with a visible tattoo. When I did see a tattoo, I didn’t really think less of a person, but I did make the assumption that they had been in the military or belonged to a motorcycle group or, well, something different. I figure CEOs or students or stay-at-home moms or schoolteachers or almost anyone else wouldn’t have a tattoo. I’m not proud of that, but it was a truth.

Now, the truth is so different. Tattoos are everywhere and might appear on anyone. I’ve learned not to make any assumptions. I have learned not to judge people for any reason at all, not to treat one person with any less respect than another because in doing so, I am directly offending God.

Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers, you did for me.” He didn’t say you did it for someone like Him or someone whom He loves. He said if you serve another human being, then you directly serve Jesus Himself.

Still, I stumble. I am a sinner. But I have acknowledged my sins. I have resolved to try not to offend God again. As a result, every time I walk out of the confessional I am a forgiven sinner, an absolved sinner.

That is a label I joyfully embrace.

(This piece originally appeared as the “Man of the House” column in The St. Louis Review.)

Posted in Your Fellow Pilgrim Tagged with: , ,

Brutal Week, But That’s Okay

I love Fridays under normal circumstances – especially between 4:30 and 5 in the afternoon, when I can pack up and leave the office. But last Friday (January 20)  proved particularly more welcome than most of those normal Fridays. I had a brutally difficult week and really needed it to end. And yet …

I am grateful that week.

I know, such an attitude makes little sense on the surface, especially since this challenging week seemed to fit rather snugly into my brutally difficult stretch of life that dates back quite a few months. Complicated by various stresses and potholes, my depression generally has held me captive in a world constantly clouded by sadness and frequent despair since as far back as late 2015.

The last six months or so have felt particularly burdensome. As an illustration, consider that I posted 90 pieces of my writing to this website during the first half of 2016 – 17 in June alone – many of which other websites around the country published first. In the seven months since then, I have written a total of 14 pieces.

I used to wonder if this whole subject mirrored the chicken-or-the-egg quandary. Which comes first: I feel better mentally, so I write a lot? Or I write a lot, therefore I feel better mentally? After months of having plenty of writing ideas only to begin a piece and find my mind blocked from squeezing out more than a few paragraphs, I know that my writing requires at least some semblance of decent mental health.

The whole thing hasn’t made for pleasant feelings. I love to write; I miss it. Worse than that, I have let people down. The folks who operate the other websites for which I contribute surely have grown tired of waiting for me. I lost a monthly paying opportunity with a magazine and in the process really let down someone I considered a good friend. Other writing offers have come and gone.

And every once in a while, people who have been regular readers in the past have dropped me email saying they miss my work. Work? No, writing isn’t usually work for me. Again, I really miss it.

Yearning for an absent something can hurt. The pain really ganged up on me this week.

My journey began last weekend, when I began to write a piece for the St. Louis Review. I had a Tuesday morning deadline that I absolutely had to honor; I started the process several days early knowing it wouldn’t flow smoothly, and the fact that my heart chose my sinful nature as a subject might not have helped much. Thank goodness I didn’t have to work at the office Monday, Martin Luther King Day; I hope the late civil rights leader and preacher would have been proud with the Review column I finished that day.

Tuesday morning proved standard depression operating procedure for me. I couldn’t get out of bed. Well, not without a great effort, that is. I finally found the strength from God and rolled out of the sack an hour and a half after my alarm clock first buzzed. A bigger roadblock lay ahead, as my usual half-hour commute to work took two hours and could have been worse. Police shut down the interstate less than two miles from my office building because of an accident. I sat in my car on the highway a long time before transportation officials directed me toward a detour.

Getting to work late made for a load of guilt; I have had trouble staying on top of things lately, thanks in part to high volume, in part to my health and in part because I simply haven’t worked as efficiently as I should. So Tuesday provided some more stress.

Maybe that stress messed with my sleep a little that night. At least at the beginning. I had a lot on my mind the first three hours I lay wide awake in bed. Along about 2 a.m., something else became my big issue. Severe stomachache, pounding headache, nausea, alternating hot and cold — welcome, flu bug. I spent all of Wednesday in bed and, once I finally managed to fall asleep, slept about 21 of the next 24 hours.

I was still weak when I got up for work Thursday morning. Every time I stood up, I felt lightheaded. I didn’t have an appetite. That turned out to be the least of my concerns that day. Somehow, I had messed up my lower back during the previous 24 hours. As the day progressed, the pain increased to the point that I couldn’t get out of my chair without feeling dizzy and wincing out loud.

I had no idea how I might get through Thursday night, including how I might sleep and make it through Friday at the office. Thank God for a heating pad. Thank God even more for a son-in-law who is just a few months away from graduating from Logan University and becoming a full-fledged chiropractor. Tom worked on me that evening; he’s really good at what he does.

The back still was stiff and painful Friday morning. I still felt a little weak with little appetite. Work still felt like work. I still found myself grateful the weekend nearly had arrived.

But when I looked back on the previous several days, I really couldn’t complain.

That accident on Interstate 270 in the St. Louis area Tuesday included two passenger vehicles and a semi-truck, all of which caught fire. The incident occurred at 8:30 in the morning; the highway didn’t reopen until 3 that afternoon. One man, 58 years old, was pronounced dead at the scene. Two other people went to the hospital in serious condition.

Depression, writer’s block, flu, back pain, work stress … My week wasn’t so bad. After my time at work ended and the weekend rolled around, It got in my car and drove safely home to my family. I’m alive.

I’m writing.

And I’m saying a prayer for Rick Matteson, the gentleman who passed away in that crash, and his family. Please pray with me.

Posted in Your Fellow Pilgrim Tagged with: , ,

My Lesson: Be A Door Of Mercy

I noticed a curious phenomenon shortly after the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy began in December. Virtually every day, in something I read or heard, the word “mercy” appeared. The reference was purposeful at times, something written or said relating to the Jubilee Year. Other times it was in a selection from Scriptures that seemed noticeable because the word was prominently on my mind.

More often than not, the word just seemed to show up. It’s like God wanted to make sure nobody missed the opportunity Pope Francis offered to all of us. So as the Church heads into the home stretch of the Jubilee Year, I’ve started looking into the spiritual mirror to see what my soul has learned.

Have we been paying attention?

In a 2013 homily, the Holy Father said: “Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think — and I say it with humility — that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.”

It’s a message that often registers only in hindsight.

I remember one beautiful spring evening many years ago. I was standing on the back deck at our first house and grilling some cut of beef for dinner. I had been working long hours; it was a rare evening at home for me. I should have been enjoying some down time, but … I had been struggling with my absence from a lot of things involving Donna and our four children. For a moment, I looked through the glass patio door into the kitchen. There, Donna was preparing some other part of the meal. Music was playing; the kids, surrounding the table, were laughing and just being kids.

In a way, I still felt separated, guilty. But I looked more deeply at the scene and saw beauty, joy and a certain holiness in my family.

When I recall that moment, I can hear God say, “They loved you. They still do.” And I know His mercy.

I’ve always thought of mercy as one of God’s attributes that we can’t completely understand and certainly can’t duplicate among humans. God is love, but He is more than that. He is perfect and complete love. And out of that love flows mercy. Imperfect, fallen creatures that we are, we don’t deserve to be the focus of perfect love — yet we are. That is perfect mercy.

In trying to wrap my spirit around that, I found enlightenment in “Misericordiae Vultus,” the Papal Bull in which Pope Francis declared the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. “Misericordiae” is Latin for mercy, derived from the Latin words misereri (to pity) and cor (heart). Think about that. In God showing mercy toward someone, the Latin could be translated to say “His heart pities you” or “His heart goes out to you.”

God’s heart goes out to you.

Still, if in this Jubilee Year we have learned only to appreciate God’s mercy, then we have missed most of the purpose. Consider the thousands of Doors of Mercy scattered throughout the globe. Every diocese has had an opportunity to open an official Door of Mercy, so people in that region have been able make a pilgrimage, a journey that includes physically walking through the door and thus walking more closely with God and “discovering moments of grace and spiritual renewal,” the pope stated. “The Holy Door will become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons and instills hope.”

We have several in our archdiocese. The only one through which I have ambled is the front door of the chapel at the Carmelite Monastery on Clayton Road, which I visit a few times each month. Every time I prepare to enter the chapel, I look at the decorative doors and recall that Christ told us there is one way for God to shower us with His mercy.

“Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus said, “for they shall receive mercy.”

We need to hold out our hearts to others. We need to console, to pardon, to instill hope. For the Year of Mercy to have any real impact, each of us should become a Door of Mercy.

Posted in Your Fellow Pilgrim Tagged with: , , ,

The Power of Kindness in a Great Battle

There are subjects many people want to avoid. For instance, how often have you heard that it’s a bad idea to talk about religion or politics at family parties — unless you want things to get uncomfortable really quick. There are a host of other things people from which people want to steer clear because it actually will make them uncomfortable. Some of those subjects carry a stigma. The longer we stay silent, the more the stigma is allowed to thrive. I don’t like that.

So … you have depression. I don’t mean that you’re feeling down, that you have “the blues.” We’re not talking about “situational depression” – though that certainly feels deep and profound and painful, and it could well trigger a longer-lasting depressive episode.

The depression you’re feeling right now, this is a longer-lasting depressive episode. It started so long ago that you can’t remember the beginning, and when you look ahead to the horizon, all you can see is horizon. There’s no end in sight.

So … what do you do?

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.” (Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians 5:22)

It’s really hard, isn’t it? Every day. Getting out of bed can feel like moving a mountain. Getting a shower requires even more energy, energy that you simply can’t muster until late in the afternoon some days. You’re crying. You have physical pain – your head, in your arms and legs, stomach trouble. You feel hopeless, useless, unlovable. You feel alone … and lonely.

So … what do you do?

(Jesus said) “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.” (Gospel of Luke 6:35)

When I speak to groups about depression, people often ask my advice about how to battle the illness from within ourselves. When I’m on a radio program or when I receive emails from people who have read something I wrote about depression, I frequently get questions regarding what a person with the illness should do to cope, to feel better.

I’m not a psychiatrist or a doctor of any kind; real blood and sharp needles make me queasy. I’m a good listener, but I’m not a psychotherapist or any other kind of professional listener. I have a journalism degree, which makes me a profession asker and listener. I never took a master’s level class in college in any field, and I never took even one psychology class as a undergrad. My son has a psychology degree. That means nothing when it comes to having answers to those seeking advice and guidance.

All I have is experience – 14 years with depression and anxiety. Make that 14 years and counting. The fact that I still have the illnesses shows I don’t know of any stroke of magic that will make everything disappear.

Yet I don’t want to let people down. So I give advice, perhaps even nuggets of wisdom gleaned from 14 years of paying attention. Get a complete physical every year from your primary care doctor and have the doc check for thyroid problems, vitamin D deficiency and several other things that can cause depression. Meet with a psychiatrist, who will understand medication treatment. Meet regularly with a psychologist, who can help with talk therapy. Exercise. Check your diet, cut back on fast food and diet cola. Make sure you are sleeping adequately. Spend time with a spiritual director.

I could say more. But you can read almost all of what I have to say by checking what the professionals and experts have said and written.

When I speak to groups or talk on the radio or respond to emails, eventually I get to one important piece of advice that people might not hear anywhere else. In many ways, it’s the most important aspect of my personal treatment and coping technique. It’s advice that comes directly from the mouth of Jesus in the Gospels, from the thoughts of whoever authored the Book of Proverbs in the Bible’s Old Testament.

My advice is as common as love: Do something nice for another human being. Be nice to someone. There is great purpose to be realized in an act of kindness. Again, that’s something common enough to cut across all cultures and religions and lifestyles.

“Lord, when I feel that what I’m doing is insignificant and unimportant, help me to remember that everything I do is significant and important in your eyes, because you love me and you put me here, and no one else can do what I am doing in exactly the way I do it.”

Brennan Manning, author and former Catholic priest

“When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.”

the Dalai Lama, Buddhist monk

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

Leo Buscaglia, motivational speaker known as “Dr. Love”

A couple of years ago, I was talking with a woman who was enduring a particularly difficult depressive episode. It was early in the afternoon. I was searching for an idea that might help turn her day into something that felt valuable. “What are you doing the rest of the afternoon?” I asked. She replied that she was going to bake some cookies so her daughters had a snack when they got home from school.

“Why don’t you make a couple of extra batches?” I said. “Then when you pick your girls up from school, you can give each of their teachers a bunch of cookies, just as a thank-you.”

The next day, she told me she had taken my advice. The teachers were beyond grateful; they were touched at the woman’s thoughtfulness. And, the woman told me, it turned that day from utterly miserable to something better. Not great, but better.

Because she, for one day and in the lives of two teachers, found some purpose. Her kindness had made someone else feel good.

Kindness provides purpose to two human soul — the giver and the receiver.

So try it when your day is difficult, when the depression has you avoiding people, when you feel completely inept at everything and useless – do something nice for someone. If you’re in the drive-through line at a fast-food restaurant, pay for the meal of the car behind you or for several cars behind you. That’s happened to me before, and it made my day. You can buy a card for someone you know struggling in life and write a note of encouragement.

You can clean out the dishwasher, walk the dog, call someone whom you know is lonely, offer to help an elderly person do their grocery shopping.

I know that will take some effort.  I know that effort isn’t easy to muster when in the throes of depression. But try. Please. Reach out and embrace the opportunity to give meaning to your life. When you feel your life has meaning, that you have a purpose of any measure, it will give you a reason to wake up in the morning and battle to get out of bed.

Many days, getting out of bed is half the battle for someone with depression. Claim victory in that battle. Be kind.

Posted in Confronting Depression Tagged with: , , , ,

“O Lord, Nourish This Starving Beggar”

I apologize. To each of you; to all of you.

First, I’m sorry for what clearly is a lazy approach to this piece of writing. I have a feeling that everyone who tries to blog consistently for their own website has endured a substantial stretch of time with inconsistently producing new pieces of writing. And to feel like they have actually written something, they start a new blog post by saying something like “I’m sorry I haven’t written much lately …” followed by a few excuses. I plead guilty of my lazy approach to this piece.

This has been a tough summer. And it might not improve any time soon.

June was perhaps the most productive blog-writing month in my seven roller-coaster years since creating this website. I don’t know what inspired that prolific period. It wasn’t completely unprecedented in my writing life. When I was at writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I was known frequently to write thousands of words daily. But June was something unusual for my online writing life. Not that I ever lack the words. I have a theory about myself as a writer these days …

I write to think.

I haven’t stopped thinking these last few months. In fact, I feel like my mind is more crowded than usual, with ideas and musings bouncing all over the place. Normally, writing helps me organize the mental chaos, make some sense of it, learn from it. Yet since the end of June, I have averaged five pieces a month – about a third of my goal. I feel like I’ve made an unofficial promise to regular readers, occasional readers and just people who happen to find my online home that I will consistently produce things both in the area of depression/mental illness and Catholic Christian faith. That’s not even taking into consideration the other websites I have promised to supply regularly with blog pieces.

Frankly, I’ve just gotten really busy with the things that more powerfully demand my time and attention. Most time-consuming is my “day job,” my duties at a major financial institution as a supervisor of financial advisors. That work pays my bills today and, I hope, for quite a few years to come.

And my mental health has been a factor. I have been on intermittent leave status at my day job for quite some time, and there have been days when I couldn’t go to work or at least couldn’t make it until early afternoon.

I haven’t always had much time to write. If I did have time, I tried to use it for more urgent needs: Dinner, or answering long-overdue emails, or catching on life with my wife, my dad, my children … Or I spend time in prayer.

I haven’t been really good at that last thing, either. For some reason, I consider my writing as an “extra” in my days, and I shouldn’t. Remember, I write to think. Sometimes, it feels, I write to live and breathe. Unfortunately, I also treat prayer as an “extra” some days. Not that I don’t pray at all. Every day, I send God a bunch of intercessory prayer and I thank Him, nonstop and profusely, for just about everything. Every day, I conduct ongoing conversations with God about anything and everything. But I like to carve out special time daily for Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer and some meditation, then hopefully praying a rosary and a few other favorite devotions. I confess that I don’t always fulfill those desires if I’m really busy or – alas – if I’m really tired.

I apologize, God.

I have a feeling He understands. He won’t give up on me. I hope you understand as well; please, don’t give up on me, either.

Allow me to propose a new motto involving my writing:

I write to pray. I think to pray. I do everything … to pray.

When I read things said and written by the saints or other truly holy women and men, I observe that is what they did. Every word spoken and written, every thought they had, all were meant to edify God, communicate God, praise God. To that I truly aspire.

As an example, I give you a prayer once offered by Blessed Louis de Blois, a 16th-century Flemish monk and mystic. When I first read this, my heart soared, and it continues to do that each time I re-read it. I hope it resonates with you as well.

O God, ocean of sacred love and sweetness, come and give Yourself to my soul.  Grant that I may continually long for You with my whole heart, and absolute desire and burning love, and that I may live in You.  O my true supreme joy, may I prefer You to all creatures, and for Your sake, renounce all transitory pleasures!

O Lord, nourish this starving beggar with the influx of Your divinity, and delight me with the desired presence of Your grace.  This I long and beg for, so that Your vehement love may penetrate, fill and transform me into You.

O loving Redeemer, make me burn with love for You, making no account of myself, and finding my delight in You alone; may I know and enjoy no one but You.  O overflowing abyss of the divinity!  Draw me, and immerse me in You!  Take all the love from my heart and apply it to Yourself, so that I may be dead to all other things.

My soul calls You, and seeks You with indescribable love, O delight of loving embraces!  Come, my Beloved, come, You whom I desire above all, that I may possess You within me, and that my soul, may embrace and hold You close!  Come into my soul, O sovereign sweetness, and let me taste Your sweetness, and delight and rest in You alone.

O my Beloved, Beloved of all my desires, let me find You and then hold You and press You close in a spiritual embrace.  I desire You, I sigh for You, O eternal Beatitude!  Oh, give Yourself to me, unite me closely to You, and inebriate me with the wine of Your love!

 

Posted in Your Fellow Pilgrim Tagged with:

Silence at Gethsemani: Oxygen for the Soul

20160819_080453The world is awakening in rural Kentucky, and I feel honored to watch. Especially in this place.

As they have for more than a century and a half, the bells of the Abbey of Gethsemani rang bright and early. As they will throughout the week, they summoned me to Morning Prayer and Holy Mass with the Trappist monks and my quartet of friends. The sun won’t rise officially here for another half-hour, so only a faint light in the sky is visible out the large wall of windows as we sit down for our silent breakfast.

Here, in this holy place, silence isn’t merely golden. It is the very atmosphere, what we inhale all week. Breathe in silence; exhale prayer, meditation, contemplation. Silence is the oxygen for the soul that drew me.

When communication with spoken words pauses, the senses become more acute — seeing and hearing most noticeably, but I find the soul’s sensitivity intensifies as well. I started coming here some years ago to fine-tune that sensitivity. This year, I’m counting on that developing tenderness to actually produce some results. I want to explore some important things about myself. I need to discern something. I need to decide something, and I’m giving my soul five days to get it done.

My breakfast of oatmeal and fruit has been consumed. The scene outside the dining room’s windows looks brighter. The world here, in this monastery garden, is throwing back the covers and stretching to jump into another day. I step onto the patio. Silence lives here in a powerful way.

The earth is dark brown mud and the grass is a glistening bright green after last night’s steady rain. A yellow-and-black butterfly is hard at work. It sucks nectar from a purple flower, then a pink one and an orange one. The butterfly floats off, somewhere, then returns to dutifully pollinate some more. How it decides from which flower to slurp first and then second and then third — that’s a sensitivity I don’t understand.

I walk to a metal chair overlooking the garden’s lower level and take a seat. Somewhere in a tree overhead, a bird chirps. If it had been a chair under a different tree in a different garden in a different place, I might be carrying on dialogue that would drown out the chirps. But in this place, bathing in silence, I listen. And I wonder.

purple-finch-988809_960_720Why does the bird sing?

As part of my hope for exploring, discerning and deciding, I have plans. The monks pray seven times daily; I want to join them each time, including 3:15 in the morning for Matins. I want to “unplug” completely — no texting, no Facebook, no emails. I want to pray, attend daily Mass, read, sit with God, write — retreat from the busy world outside but not take a vacation, so no extra sleeping. If I am to get any “escape,” let it be from my depression and anxiety.

On Tuesday, I nap more than two hours and spend a good bit of the afternoon online. On Wednesday, I endure a mild panic attack in the morning, take another long nap and delve into Facebook for a while. On Thursday, feeling somewhat defeated, I get another nap and trade some text messages. I fear the week is a loss, a waste. A few of my retreat friends invite me to join them praying the Stations of the Cross in that lower level of the garden, beginning a half-hour before Evening Prayer.

The Third Station: Jesus falls the first time. My Tuesday fall. Lord, have mercy on me, reads our prayer. The Seventh Station: Jesus falls the second time. My Wednesday fall. I beg you to have mercy on me. The Ninth Station: Jesus falls the third time. Help me, Lord. Tears are streaming down my cheeks. Someone had told me they would pray I find joy on my retreat. I have let them down, let myself down …

We reach the Fifteenth Station: Jesus is raised from the dead. I look down at the sculptured plaque depicting the risen Christ, in all His glory. Something deep in my heart stirs. Something deep in my soul dances.

And in the tree overhead, a bird sings.

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Why Should Anyone Desire Humility?

Some years ago, at my morning prayer group, my cherished friend Deacon Larry brought copies of the Litany of Humility. I never had heard of that prayer until that day. The men in my group trust Larry implicitly, so we dove right into reciting the prayer. We read the first line together: “O Jesus!, meek and humble of heart, hear me.” Then each of us took turns delivering the first half of each line, with the rest of us in unison voicing the second half.

“From the desire of being esteemed … deliver me, Jesus.”

“From the desire of being loved …”

“Hold on”, I thought to myself, “does humility mean I’m not supposed to want to be loved?” I can’t want that. How could anyone want that? Why would anyone want that? If that’s necessary for humility, I’m not sure if humility is for me. I continued with our group’s recitation, but the more I prayed that morning, the more convinced I felt that the writer of the prayer clearly took humility way too far. “From the desire of being honored … From the desire of being praised … From the desire of being preferred to others …”

I have admired writers ever since, as a precocious seven-year-old baseball fan, I read an adult-level biography of major-league baseball pitcher Bob Gibson written by a New York sportswriter. From that moment, I devoured every written word I could squeeze into my days. The affection included magazine features, newspaper stories and books about baseball, but I couldn’t get enough of biographies about historical figures, truly classic novels and the Bible as well. My heart and soul filled with dreams of the life of a writer.

Writers might declare that they write for themselves first and foremost, but as a writer, I craved readers, an audience that admired me just as I had admired all those writers in my formative years. I wanted people to enjoy my efforts, and I enjoyed their approval and praise. As I moved into adulthood, new passions joined my desire to be an honored writer, as I became a fiercely devoted husband, dad and Catholic Christian. I felt loved and approved; I couldn’t get enough.

That personality didn’t find the Litany of Humility to be a good fit for my prayer life. “From the fear of being humiliated, from the fear of being despised, from the fear of being calumniated, from the fear of being forgotten.”  Something about the Litany repelled me.  It was like the first time I tasted brussels sprouts as a kid  Yet the prayer attracted me because of the nutrition it provided my soul. In prayer and reading, humility clearly belonged among the basic spiritual food groups for anyone desiring sainthood. So as an act of love for my God, I vowed to privately recite the Litany of Humility every evening.

“That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. That others may be esteemed more than I … That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease … ” As time passed, the prayer embedded itself into my inclinations. I hungered for humility. “That others may be praised and I unnoticed … That others may be preferred to me in everything … ”

The publisher with a well-established Catholic company contacted me several months ago. He and his staff had liked one of my book ideas. They wanted to see a sample chapter and outline. About that same time, an editor requested samples of my writing and examples of topics I might pursue if they named me columnist in her monthly magazine, and yet another magazine asked for the same about the same time. In each instance, I assumed the movements of the Holy Spirit; I presumed success. Since seeking my first job 40 years ago, at the age of 15, I never had interviewed for a job that I didn’t land. As recently as the first half of 2015, four different Catholic websites regularly accepted my work.

“That others may be chosen and I set aside … ” During the last several weeks, the publisher informed me his staff didn’t think I had adequately developed my book idea, that I didn’t have a name recognizable enough in Catholic circles to sell a book. The time isn’t right, he said. One magazine editor said she had filled all available blogging spots with other writers; the other editor said her people weren’t ready to make a decision. In the midst of all that, I had offered friendship to someone facing great turmoil in life; that person rejected my offer.

I might have felt shattered. My already inflamed depression could have dragged me even deeper into the sadness. Instead, I thanked God for His wisdom and grace. I prayed for the people who had been chosen over me.

“That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.”

(This piece written by Mike first appeared at www.CatholicWritersGuild.com.)

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St. Therese: The Value of Suffering

As part of my formation for the Secular Carmelites, my group has been reading “The Story of a Soul,” the well-known autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. Each month, we are assigned a few chapters to read and then discuss at our next meeting. Here is my reflection on this month’s assignment: Chapter 4-5. I hope you gain some insight into this special saint, a Doctor of the Catholic Church, or find yourself inspired to learn more about the Carmelite nun know as “The Little Flower.”

“I know that Jesus considered me too weak to expose me to temptation.”

Teresa13anniI often wish that Christ would treat me as St. Therese said He treated her. That can be a danger when reading about God’s saints, at least in my experience. I find so much to admire in their devotion, their strength, their frequently uncanny holiness. That said, some of their devotion and strength seems to come so easily; I wish God would give me such a firm grasp on such virtues.

Like with the most talented and gifted athletes, the saints can make the most difficult things in life look easy.

St. Therese’s Chapter 4 in her autobiography proved most fascinating, as she revealed two key characteristics of truly holy people: the aforementioned strength against temptation and a willing acceptance of suffering.

“How I pity people who lose their souls!” Therese said. “It’s so easy to go astray along the world’s primrose paths.”

She noted that she didn’t think it would be possible for her to resist the temptations of the world if she actually felt attracted to such human delights, thus she turned that into gratitude for God not allowing her to be the least bit enticed by them. I’m more inclined to believe that those temptations indeed were present in her heart but she was so focused on her love of God that the devotion to Him overpowered the worldly temptations.

For me, the evidence comes in the fact that Therese received the sacrament of Confession. Such an experience requires having sins to confess. Even if Therese’s sins were of the venial and not mortal variety, still they were sins. I doubt she would commit the grave sin of confessing fabricated transgressions to her priest. Two of her quotations from the third chapter seem to support my theory.

  • “He wants me to love Him because He has forgiven me not just a great deal, but everything.”
  • “I’ve heard it said that a pure soul does not love with the passion of one that has sinned but repented. What a lie that is!”

Although some of her written thoughts might indicate otherwise, Therese didn’t seem to be a woman able to completely avoid the temptations of all worldly allurements or every human tendency. She had attachments to people and things other than the divine – her father, sisters and other family members, gifts, grand works of nature, the beautiful sculptures in an Italian cemetery, the magnificent architecture and splendor of venerable churches.

Therese’s handling of those aspects of “the world” was unusual because she didn’t allow them to drag her into the world. Her attachments, admiration and even her affections for those things didn’t completely divert her heart’s desire away from God. So despite the times she stumbled spiritually in her earthly journey, her focus never wavered from things of heaven.

I credit that to the gift of surrender.

therese2-scenic4Her willing acceptance of suffering proved even more inspiring for me. Actually, I think Therese went beyond acceptance and instead embraced suffering. In that way, she has become a model for me.

That I suffer in life doesn’t make me unique. Every girl and boy, man and woman, will encounter some form of suffering during their lives on earth. Either in themselves or in loved ones, they will confront financial setbacks and dashed dreams, serious illness and death. They will be the subjects of compassion and sympathy from others. They will cry and hurt, probably feel helpless and hopeless.

Therese displayed two truly admirable (for me) and powerful traits in relation to suffering: She wanted it, and she accepted it with a heavenly grace.

The desire probably makes her stand out from most people in all of human history. What normal-thinking person would want to suffer? Presumably, the desire goes beyond the suffering that naturally accompanies every life. Therese seemed to say to God, “I will take whatever hardships you already have planned for me, but You can give me extra torment and misery.”

The story involving her First Communion impressed me. She felt so much excitement and joy that day, but immediately the next day she felt sadness that receiving Christ’s Body in that tangible way wouldn’t happen every day. (We take that blessing for granted, I am afraid. At least I do too often.) The sadness apparently was so profound that, in the same paragraph of telling the story, Therese segued into thoughts about suffering. Her sister Marie once had voice the opinion that God would care so tenderly for Therese that He wouldn’t allow her to suffer in life.

“After Holy Communion the next day,” Therese said, “I remembered this and was seized with a passionate longing to suffer. I felt absolutely certain that Jesus had many, many crosses in store for me. My soul was flooded with such consolation that I regard it as the greatest consolation of my life.

“I was drawn to suffering. It had about it a charm that delighted me, although I didn’t really understand much about this charm, for until then I had suffered without loving suffering. But from that day I felt a deep, true love for it.”

I safely can say I can’t recall longing to suffer, so I can’t completely comprehend that emotion. What suffering I have abided can’t measure that of a great portion of the world’s population. No starvation. No homelessness. No loss of limbs or living in a war zone or loss of senses. No disease that permanently disabled me or my family.

Nonetheless, I know deep and weighty suffering. I carry my crosses, and I willingly help others carry theirs. And that has transformed my spirit into one of acceptance, even of desire. There can be great spiritual consolation in suffering. Yes, there can be a supernatural charm to it, a connection with God that I’m convinced can’t be known any other way.

Knowing that charm, even loving that charm, is a great grace. I have learned that it’s not something we can acquire; it only can be a Divine gift. Therese received the gift, I think, because she disposed herself to receive it.

I also credit that to the gift of surrender.

Saintly suffering clearly involves two prongs: Desire and endure. Many of us might willingly accept suffering, especially if we ask to help carry someone else’s cross. But to actually lift that burdensome cross onto our shoulders and drag it without an end of the road in sight, that often breaks down many would-be saints.

It’s telling that Therese’s dealings with this stage of suffering in her life involved two sacraments. When she first tasted the Body of Christ, physically taking Him into herself, she hatched the hunger and thirst for suffering – or, I believe, to share more fully in His suffering, to link her burdens to His on the cross. The second incident occurred at her confirmation. “On that day,” she said, “I acquired the strength to suffer.”

The longing came from Jesus. The strength came from the Holy Spirit. If we wish to receive those gifts, the experiences and graces of Therese show us to whom we need go.

15831666-dove-symbol-Stock-Vector-spirit-holy-drawingWe need to ask Christ for the longing. We need to ask the Spirit for the strength. We then need to ask for the grace to surrender.

Well before those days of receiving the sacraments, Therese gradually had surrendered herself to God. He had been preparing her, inviting her, in subtle and small ways throughout her life. That ongoing invitation gave her an opportunity I think we all have: We can surrender. That must be an opportunity for all of us because we all are called to be saints.

Therese shows me that can result from a life of holding only loosely to things of the earth while maintaining an ever-vigilant, ever-present gaze on heaven.

Said Therese: “It’s impossible for one bound by human affection to have intimate union with God.”

To surrender, I must pray to loosen all that binds me. Thus I pray.

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Mike & Donna Eisenbath



Offering HOPE for the journey...