“Let’s go to Bethlehem” — The Shepherds’ Tale

I wanted to write one more post before Christmas.  I really thought I would be able to get something out last week but two small boys really just suck up all available time and energy.  I don’t have a lot of time and I’m sure many of you are already in party mode.  But I would appreciate it if you could just entertain one more rosary insight before diving into the egg nog.

Gerard van Honthorst Adoration of the Shepherd...
Gerard van Honthorst Adoration of the Shepherds, still influenced by St. Bridget (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rosary mystery that relates to Christmas is an obvious one — The Third Joyful Mystery, The Nativity.  I want to focus on a group of people in this mystery that I don’t think get a lot of mention in Christmas homilies — the shepherds.  To recap from Luke’s Gospel:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.

Remember, being a shepherd nearly 2000 years ago wasn’t an easy job.  A shepherd spent day and night taking care of sheep in all sorts of environments.  You couldn’t just run off and leave the sheep unattended or else some wolves would have a very grand feast.  While they worked in groups, I’m sure a few shepherds leaving created a huge burden on the others.  So you have to picture the sense of awe they felt when they saw that great company of the heavenly host in the sky and how deeply the spirit moved them to go and seek out the baby Jesus.  They risked their livelihood to catch a glimpse of Jesus, the newborn king.  After all, I’m sure the “angel excuse” wasn’t going to hold up very well with their employers if the sheep were eaten by wolves.  But they were filled with a sense that seeing Jesus was something unique and important.  Their jobs, while important as well, could wait for a bit.

Georges de La Tour: Adoration of the shepherds...
Georges de La Tour: Adoration of the shepherds (1644) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s learn from the Gospel’s shepherds this Christmas.  For just a few moments, whether it is a week, day, or just a few hours, cast aside your fears and worries in your life to just bask in Jesus’ presence.  Just trust in the Lord that the world won’t come crashing down because you stopped and took a few minutes to pray.  Like the shepherds, you don’t need to come bearing great gifts.  You just need to give your time and attention and most importantly, show a little faith.  Christmas is chaotic, I get that.  It’s not always easy to escape our responsibilities of work and family.  But I hope we can all just take a few moments to just be with Jesus in prayer and allow Him to remind us what’s truly important — God’s love and a sense of hope for a peace, both inner peace in our souls and an exterior peace with each other.

Merry Christmas!

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Synod on the Family — A Messy Process

As many of you know, I’m a software engineer.  My career revolves around analyzing the business needs of my employer and designing and implementing a software solution.  Although my job title has the word engineer in it and my degree is in a science, the software development world can be an undisciplined, unscientific mess.  Someone who doesn’t understand software development might be a little uneasy with the number of bugs that are introduced in the process, the amount of code that gets thrown out or rewritten, and how different a final product will look from the initial concept or prototype.  Personally, every good idea I have usually stems from five bad ones — some being immediately dismissed while others I worked on a bit before realizing they weren’t a good fit for what I was trying to accomplish.

I see a lot of parallels between my experience in writing software and the recent Synod on the Family.  A lot of commentary and fuss has been made over the midterm report.  It shows a process where it may appear bishops are make statements and decisions contrary to Church doctrine in topics like divorce and homosexuality.  We have to remember that this report isn’t the finished product nor a definitive statement upholding or changing Church doctrine.

The synod is like a piece of code in progress.  Sometimes I just have to write a few lines of code to steer my thinking in the right direction.  Similarly, I think the bishops have to bring up topics and lines of thought, not with the intent of those thoughts becoming the final word.  Rather, it steers the dialog in different directions to find the right path — the truth of Jesus Christ.

While I’m a little uneasy about the statements being reported, I’m also glad that they are at least being mentioned.  It wouldn’t be much of a synod if the bishops sat down and just regurgitated Church teaching, patted each other on the back for their rote knowledge, and went home.  Again, in the software world I would be highly skeptical of a code’s quality that was completed quickly with no revisions.  How do we know that the developer took into account all the scenarios and details?  Why didn’t he integrate any feedback from his colleagues?  Similarly, the mentioning of ideas that run counter to the Church’s teachings shouldn’t be seen as a challenge to the doctrine but as part of the exploration of these broad and complex topics.  I want my bishops to leave no stone unturned in their search for truth.

Father Robert Barron, who is often very level-headed about topics like this says it best in his recent article:

One of the great mysteries enshrined in the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church is that Christ speaks through the rather messy and unpredictable process of ecclesiastical argument. The Holy Spirit guides the process of course, but he doesn’t undermine or circumvent it. It is precisely in the long, laborious sifting of ideas across time and through disciplined conversation that the truth that God wants to communicate gradually emerges.

The interim report on the Synod represents a very early stage of the sausage-making process and, unsurprisingly, it isn’t pretty. Two more weeks of discussion will follow; then a full year during which the findings of the Synod will be further refined, argued about, and clarified; then the Ordinary Synod on the Family will take place (the one going on now is the Extraordinary Synod), and many more arguments and counter-arguments will be made; finally, some months, perhaps even a year or so, after that, the Pope will write a post-Synodal exhortation summing up the entire process and offering a definitive take on the matter. At that point, I would suggest, something resembling edible sausage will be available for our consumption; until then, we should all be patient and refrain from bloviating.

Now, I would also be naive to think that there aren’t some bishops guided more by politics than the Holy Spirit in this process.  I think that’s part of the reason why this interim report was released to the public — so that some bishops could score some political points with the Church’s critics.  It’s their way of getting some political cover by implying, “You see!  I did try to represent your viewpoints but the magisterium didn’t listen.”  Unfortunately, I think some bishops are aiming more to increase the Church’s likability by bending her teachings to the whims of society and not through explaining her truths.

I don’t think there will be a radical rewriting of Church doctrine when this is all over and many of the bishops know that.  So those who may have ulterior motives other than fostering dialog may want their viewpoints made public so that they can become a talking point or be used in a counter argument in future debates.  Unfortunately, our society (the media in particular) has an uncanny way of turning “this was mentioned in the synod” into “this is what the Catholic Church believes.”  And over time, the context certain statements were made in will be completely lost and all you’re left with is a soundbite from Nancy Pelosi quoting the interim synod report and misrepresenting Church doctrine.

Nancy Pelosi, Representative from California.
The media’s “goto” person for Catholic teaching.

Like St. Simeon in the Fourth Joyful Mystery of the rosary, we must show patience for this process.  St. Simeon had faith that he would one day see God’s Chosen One.  We too must have faith that the truth of Jesus Christ will not only reveal itself, but will burn more brightly when held up against weaker ideas.  We pray for patience with the Church, both personally and for a patience from the greater society to not misrepresent the Church’s teachings.  We also need to pray for the bishops and all those taking part in the synod that they let the Holy Spirit guide their thoughts and actions.  And we must pray especially for those bishops who may treat their vocation as a political office rather than spiritual shepherds.

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Expecting the Unexpected — How God Answers Our Prayers

Lately I have contemplated prayers, intentions, and how God answers our requests for help.  On the Catholic Answers forums, I see so many people angry or saddened because they feel so distant from God and they wonder if He isn’t hearing their prayers.  I understand how easy it is to feel discouraged when the news headlines are filled with stories of violent crimes, wars, and civil unrest not to mention the unreported hardships we all face about our jobs, family, finances, relationships, etc.  You look at all the problems in this world and it is easy to conclude that God just doesn’t care.  However, what I think happens more often is that we fixate on a specific solution and completely miss how God actually answers our prayers.

Here’s an example of God answering prayers in unexpected ways taken from my own experiences.  Like many people, I pray in a general sense that I may be stronger in the seven virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.  But how do I know God hears me and answers my requests to be a better person?  After all, nothing really seems to change in my day-to-day life that indicates that I’m stronger in any of those areas.  I don’t wake up and say, “Thanks God!  I feel more diligent today!”  So how does God answer my prayers?

I remember all the days and nights I spend with my 1.5 year old son.  I play with him when I come home from work although I’m tired and just want to relax in front of the television.  I try to read his favorite books to him for the hundredth time with the same excitement as the first time.  It’s exhausting work at times.  But then it hits me.  All those times when I pulled out a little more energy to be there for my family, I was demonstrating acts of patience, kindness, and charity.  I asked God for strength and He answered by giving me an opportunity to exercise virtue.

I would say that one can only dream babies acted liked angels, but that assumes a parent could ever get some sleep.

Next, let’s look at a story that made the news rounds lately.  There is a picture circulating around the internet of a wife carrying her double-amputee husband on her back.  Jesse Cottle lost both his legs after stepping on an IED while serving in the Marines in Afghanistan.  In rehab, he met his wife, Kelly.  In an interview on Good Morning America, Jesse said that he wouldn’t change anything that happened to him because if he hadn’t lost his legs to that IED, he never would have met the love of his life.

God always answers our prayers but not always in ways we expect.

I’m not sure whether Jesse is an overtly praying man, but I’m sure he must have had some very low moments after his injury and asked God to somehow improve his situation.  But God just didn’t miraculously grow Jesse’s legs back or change the IED blast so he didn’t lose them in the first place.  I’m sure many of us in Jesse’s situation would look for those specific answers from God if we were in that situation.  And we would probably be saddened when God didn’t physical heal us.  But God often answers prayers in unexpected, but better ways.  Sure, God could have physically healed Jesse.  But then Jesse never would have met Kelly in rehab.  While what happened to Jesse was tragic, God brought about a greater good by touching the hearts of two people, instead of healing the legs of one.

What RosaryMeds Do I Need?

What rosary mystery doesn’t involve God working in some unexpected way?  The whole New Testament is the account of Jesus saying and doing unexpected things.  Sometimes He did the unexpected to great fanfare like performing miracles.  And other times Jesus’ unexpected nature upset people, especially the scribes and pharisees when He challenged their practices and authority.  When you pray the rosary, meditate that God’s ways aren’t always our ways.  When it comes to God, expect the unexpected.  For example:

  • The Annunciation (First Joyful Mystery): God chose an unwed teenager to be the Mother of God.  Mary may have been physically poor, but God raised her up to be rich in spirit.
  • The Nativity (Third Joyful Mystery): The King of Kings was born in a stable.  Like His ministry, Jesus’ birth was marked not by earthly power, but by humility.
  • The Proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven (Third Luminous Mystery): When Jesus proclaimed that He was the Word made flesh, people chased him out of town.  How many times do we get upset when God shows Himself in unexpected ways in our lives?
  • The Crucifixion (Fifth Sorrowful Mystery): Jesus died and redeemed us all.  People challenged Him by saying that if He was really the Son of God, He could save himself.  But Jesus knew that it was far more important to save our souls than save His body.
The Annunciation, by Francesco Albani.
The Annunciation, by Francesco Albani. “How can this be, for I know not man?”, Luke 1:34 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember, God’s ways are not our ways.  But that should be a reason to rejoice, not for disappointment.  God sees the big picture.  So shouldn’t we rejoice that someone who sees and knows everything is looking out for us?   Do you have any stories to tell of how God answered your prayers in unexpected, but ultimately better ways?  Leave a comment.

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A World on Fire

There has been so much happening at the intersection of politics and religion lately (it’s a block down the road from the intersection of crazy and truth).  We have the Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage, abortion standoffs, international issues in the Middle East, Obamacare’s HHS mandate, scandal after scandal, and immigration reform debates.  Political developments seem to come in so fast that if I took the time to write in depth about any one issue, a dozen more would come to the forefront before I could publish it.  So I will leave it to the political news sites to report on the details of these stories.  They have the resources and the audience to go into much more detail than I ever can.  I will stick with what I know — rosary prayer and meditation.

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Overwhelmed by all the bad news lately?

I think it is so easy to read the current headlines and get discouraged.  One would think that the world is on the brink of falling apart completely.  What is wrong or evil are considered virtues.  What was once thought of as good and decent are now seen as hateful and intolerant.  Common sense seems to be in rare supply.  Humanity appears to be in a tailspin from which there is no recovery.  But that type of thinking assumes that the current state of the world is somehow drastically different from the past.  It assumes that there was a time when all was good and peaceful in the world and that recent conflicts are the exception to history.  But can you think of a time in human history when everything was fine?  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the world has always been a violent, hostile, and illogical place, especially towards truth, values, and faith.

If you want to see how cruel this world can be to those of faith, you don’t need to look any further than the mysteries of the rosary.  First start with the easy ones — the Sorrowful Mysteries.  Each mystery shows how humanity treats the source of truth and love, Jesus Christ.  He’s betrayed in the First Sorrowful Mystery, scourged in the Second, crowned with thorns in the Third, carries a cross in the Fourth, and is crucified in the Fifth.  Not exactly a pleasant view of how humanity treats people of faith is it?  You can look at other mysteries too if you want to see how hard it has been to live morally.  When you pray the First Joyful Mystery, imagine how difficult it must have been for Mary, an unwed teenager, to learn that God called her to bear His Son.  Meditate on the Third Glorious Mystery and picture the apostles locked in a room out of fear of being found and killed by those who crucified Jesus.  History shows that following God’s plan often presents more challenges and defeats than victories.

End the end, we win!
How does it end? We win!

So what are we, as people of faith, to do?  Do we cast off our religious values and embrace the trends society embraces?  Do we hide our faith so that we don’t offend anyone?  Do we go on the offensive and use every dirty trick in the book to force a better world?  Again, we only need to look as far as the rosary.  When confronted with the difficult challenge of God choosing Mary to bear His son, she humbly puts her faith in His plan.  The apostles, when confronted by a hostile world, found strength in the Holy Spirit to proclaim God’s Word.  And Jesus, in the Sorrowful Mysteries, endured the torture and insults the world flung at Him.  Even at His lowest moment in His Passion, Jesus never stopped loving and forgiving.  Jesus practiced what He preached even in His most difficult moments.  And so God calls us to act like Mary and say yes to His plan even when in conflicts with the social norms of our society.  We must remember, like the apostles, the Holy Spirit empowers us to proclaim God’s Word.  And Jesus calls us to imitate Him and live according to His truth despite the suffering the world will heap upon us for doing so.

It isn’t all suffering and defeat.  To end on a positive note, remember that this world and our lives are only temporary.  The entirety of human history is but a blink of an eye compared to the enormity of the afterlife.  The problems and turmoil of today, while they may seem large to us now, are nothing compared to the joy and happiness of Heaven.  That isn’t to say that we can turn a blind eye to this world and its problems.  But we must keep everything in perspective.  We fight the good fight but our goal is Heaven, not this world.  Remember, the crucifixion isn’t the last rosary mystery.  We have the entire Glorious Mysteries after that where Jesus conquered death and prepared a place for us in His kingdom.  Our end is not tied to a Supreme Court ruling or the HHS mandate.  Our end is not summed up by bills, laws, and elections.  Our final end is praising God forever in Heaven.  Keep that in mind the next time you read the Drudge Report and feel like throwing your chair out the window in despair.

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Transforming the Rosary from Chore to Joy

“But I don’t want to clean my room!”
“Do I have to clean the dishes now?”
“But this show is almost over! I’ll take out the trash once it’s done.”
“But I’m not tired!”

I think nearly all parents hear excuses like these on a near daily basis. They engage in a constant struggle to instill a solid work ethic in their children and have them focus on others’ needs and not just what they want. But it is just as easy for adults to fall into periods of laziness when we don’t always choose what is best for us or for others. We cheat on our diets, we skip exercise, and we procrastinate on tasks like paying bills or conducting household maintenance in favour of watching television or browsing the internet. And I think we all have a tendency to skip or race through our prayers, especially the rosary. Although we may love the rosary generally, we are often no better than children when we find excuses to avoid praying it.

English: A sterling silver Catholic rosary. Fr...

This past Lent I felt like I received a lot more value from my rosary meditations all thanks to a few simple tweaks to my prayer routine. The biggest change came from thinking of a specific intention for each “Hail Mary” I recite. Praying for a specific intention combated that tendency to go into mental “auto-pilot” and start reciting the words more as worthless incantations than focused prayer. This habit of offering specific intentions started in earnest when I adopted a Catholic cardinal for the papal conclave. While I was praying for Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez of Mexico, I also offered intentions for family members, friends, and priests as well as presented my thanks for all that is good in my life and remorse for my sins.

Are you scared about the seemingly daunting prospect of coming up with an intention for each bead in a rosary? You would be surprised how easily one intention acts as a seed for many others. For example, when I pray the Second Joyful Mystery, The Visitation, I start by praying that all expectant mothers raise their children to know God’s love. That intention leads me to pray for the change of heart of all expectant mothers who are considering abortion. I then find myself praying for sidewalk counselors and those who pray in front of abortion clinics. That leads me to think about the change of heart of those working in the abortion industry. I follow with prayers that politicians (particularly Catholic ones) who publicly support the abortion industry let the Holy Spirit into their hardened hearts. Once I started attaching a few intentions to those “Hail Marys,” the rest came pouring in.

This Lent I also rekindled my love of rosary guides that contain scripture passages and commentary on each mystery. When I’m tired and feel like racing through the rosary, I often want to hide my rosary books in a drawer and forget they exist. I rationalize that I have already read them repeatedly and cannot derive much more use from them. Why do I need to reread the Bible verses of the Transfiguration or the Miracle at Cana? Why do I need to read commentary and meditations I’ve read a dozen times already?

Prayer

I am so glad when I do convince myself to read and integrate a guide into my rosary prayers because I discover something new every time. While the text stays the same, it speaks to me differently because I live through new experiences and the world at large changes every day. For example, I never would have thought back in January that I would now be praying for Pope Francis. Or maybe the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery of Jesus carrying His cross will have a more personal significance to me after a difficult day at work. The same scriptural passages, commentaries, and meditations take on different meanings each time I read them. And these new ideas then manifest themselves as new intentions that I pray on each rosary bead which in turn makes me think of even more intentions, thanksgivings, and remorses. The rosary is no longer a static set of prayers, but is a dynamic dialog with Jesus, Mary, and the saints.

Looking for a good rosary prayer guide?  Try mine!

I believe that when people criticize rosary meditation, they envision someone mindlessly chanting the same phrases repeatedly. They invoke Matthew 6:7 — “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” What the critics do not understand is that the rosary is not “babble” when you put forth specific intentions, sorrows, and thanksgivings before our Mother Mary who then strengthens your prayers before her Son, Jesus Christ. When Mary gave humanity the rosary, she did not intend it to act as a medium for mindless incantations but instead she wants us to really make it our own. And when we pray the rosary as Mary intended, we no longer see it as a chore to avoid, but as a moment of peace and joy in our busy lives.

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