Lent: A Time for Spiritual Fitness

Lent is a time to get spiritually fit and our souls in shape for God. I’ve outlined some activities you can do during Lent to prepare your soul for Easter.

The season of Lent is already here.  This means that it is time to prepare our hearts, minds, and souls for Easter.  Think of this as your spiritual equivalent of a New Year’s resolution.  It is time to get our souls in shape so that we can fully embrace our faith and Jesus’ love.

In the Gospels, Jesus spent forty days in the desert before starting His public ministry.  In that time, He prayed and fasted.  But He was also repeatedly tempted by the devil.  In a similar way, Lent poses many temptations and challenges for the modern Catholic.  We live in a world that no longer values self-sacrifice.  The idea that someone would deliberately deny himself something is a very alien concept in a society where you can get anything you want whenever you want.  But the point of fasting, sacrifice, and preparation during Lent is to clear out our hearts and minds of all these material goods and make room for God.  Like a diet, Lent is a time to clear our souls of all that “junk” we accumulate in our daily lives (work, money, politics, wealth, power, etc.) and really focus on our faith and relationship with God.  While it is so easy to treat a day in Lent as just another, normal day, let us really make an effort to make these days extraordinary by taking more time to examine, prepare, clean, and mend our hearts for God.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, prayer is our spiritual exercise. So below I have prepared a Lenten spiritual fitness checklist.  And like any exercise program, I’ve divided it into different levels so you can go at your own pace.  The clock is ticking folks so lets get moving!

Beginner:

  • Give up something you enjoy (chocolate, cookies, coffee, television, video games, etc.).  Whenever you have a craving, fill it by saying a prayer.
  • Arrive early or stay after mass on Sunday and say an extra prayer.
  • Actually sing the hymns and speak up during responses at mass.  Participate!
  • Find an annoying habit or sinful behavior that you do.  Make an earnest effort not to do it.
  • Go to confession at least once.
  • Do not eat meat on Friday.  But that does not mean you should go out and have a lobster dinner either.  Remember, this is a time of sacrifice.
  • Pray daily.

Intermediate:

  • All the beginner tasks.
  • Meditate on a mystery of the of the rosary daily.
  • Read scripture daily.
  • Go to the Stations of the Cross at least once.
  • Go to adoration at least once.
  • Fast once a week.
  • Learn something new about the Catholic faith by reading the Catechism.

Expert:

  • All of the intermediate tasks.
  • Pray all four mysteries of the rosary daily.
  • Fast twice a week.
  • Refrain from having or going to large, boisterous parties.  Instead, use that time to pray.
  • Make plans to meet with your parish priest in a non-religious setting.  Get to know your priest outside of Church.  Remember, they are human beings and like social events too.

And here is a little motivation from the ultimate spiritual fitness guru, Pope Benedict XVI:

Lent, A Time for More Intense Prayer and Penance

Pope Urges Fight To Do Good This Lent

It’s always a good time to visit and shop in the RosaryMeds Store.

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Rosary Meditation: The First Glorious Mystery

This week’s rosary meditation centers around the First Glorious Mystery — Jesus’ Resurrection.  After Jesus’ death on the Cross, the Roman and Jewish authorities thought that they had taken care of that “troublemaker.”  However, despite His death, the solid rock walls of the tomb, the large boulder sealing the entrance, and the guards, nothing of this world could silence the Truth of Jesus Christ.

Jesus rose from the dead showing us that our earthly death is not the end of our existence.  We are more than just physical beings in that we have eternal souls.  Jesus calls everyone to a new life with Him for all eternity.  We should all remember that our lives here on earth are only temporary.  What’s a few decades on this planet compared to the infinity of the next life?  I’m not saying that our earthly lives are unimportant.  We must make the most of what God has given us and live to the best of our abilities.  But we should remember that there is more to our existence than what we can see and hear.

If we are eternal beings, why do so many of us live as if our entire existence is bound to this world?  The news is filled with accounts of people trying to accumulate as much wealth and power as they possibly can regardless of the effects.  We live in a culture where people live only for the moment without regard for the consequences in this life, let alone the next one.  We continually commit all the oldest sins in the book (lie, cheat, steal, lust, greed, anger, envy, etc.) as if they were virtues because we have this misguided notion that as long as no one finds out, we did not do anything wrong.  As humans our faith is inherently weak.  We hear that there is more to our existence than this world.  We might even say we believe it.  We proclaim it every time we pray The Creed.  And yet, we frequently do not have enough faith in those words to put away our sinful ways and fully embrace the life of grace to which Jesus calls us.

A priest on ETWN once told a parable that I think communicates this mystery’s message quite well.  He likened this world to a giant land bridge.  The bridge is so long and wide that it appears more like a continent than a crossing.  We hear that at the end of the bridge there is a place more glorious than whatever we can imagine.  And yet, so many people, not believing what lies ahead, build their entire kingdom on the bridge.  They believe their castles and treasures are all they need and they ridicule those who do not built their own castles but continue on their journey.  The kings shout, “Don’t you know there is nothing on the other end?  Why don’t you build yourself a castle and gather as many riches as you can?”  However, one day the oceans rose and submerged the land bridge taking all the castles with it.  The travelers, always packing lightly and moving with haste, made it to the other side safely while the kings drowned trying to hold on to as much treasure as possible.

The moral of the story is that those who only live for this world (the bridge) might not make it to the other side (Heaven).  It is those who remember that bridges are not permanent and always make their focus the “other side” who will make it into Christ’s kingdom.  So, are you a king or a traveler?  How many times are you like the kings and do not believe that there is more than what you can see, hear, and touch?  How many times do you live only for this world despite the calling that Jesus desperately wants you to live for His kingdom in Heaven?  He rose to a new life much like we will rise to a new life after our earthly death.  The question is, will you be so bound by the treasures of this world that you did not make room in your heart for the treasures of Heaven?

This mystery makes clear that Jesus conquered sin and death, rose to new life, and He calls us to a new life with Him.  He gives hope to everyone who tries to live honestly and faithfully despite the hardship it causes in a world that values immediate gratification.  Those who are truly faithful realize that there is nothing that can be gained here on earth that remotely matches what can be gained in Heaven.  We should pray that we gather the strength to live for Jesus’ kingdom in Heaven despite all the temptations that bombard us to live only for this world.  We must also pray for those who live only for this world and do not have the faith that a much better life lies ahead.

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Pop Quiz

Pop quiz!  Can you honestly answer these questions without looking them up?

  • Can you name all 10 Commandments (bonus if you get them in order)?
  • How many sacraments are there?  What are they?
  • What are the three parts of the Holy Trinity?
  • Who are the four Gospel writers?
  • Who was the first pope?
  • What are the four dogmas about Mary?

How many did you get right?

  • All of them: Someone’s been reading their catechism!
  • Some of them: There’s always room for improvement.
  • None of them: Boy howdy!  We have some work to do.

I’m guessing that most of you fell in that middle category (myself included).  As I was driving today it hit me just how little I know about my Catholic faith.  While far from being a great theologian I should at least know the basics of something that is supposed to be of great importance to my life.  When you think about it, countries and societies are drawn along very few lines.  We group each other mainly along gender, ethnicity, and religion.  So if being a Catholic makes up a large part of who I am why do I know so little about it? And not just me, but it seems like everywhere you turn you see and hear people who do not know the basic foundations of Catholicism. We see it from the “casual Catholic” to even very educated priests.

The basis for our faith is very simple — a love for God.  But how can we love Him and His church if we do not make the effort to really know Him? We go about saying that we are Catholic without knowing what defines the Catholic faith.  Think about it like this.  Would you marry someone after your first date?  Of course not.  In order to love someone you need to know him or her.  A relationship requires a commitment of time and attention.  Of course there is that spark; that little indescribable feeling you get when you are around someone you love.  But that does not completely replace the knowledge of one another that is required for a strong relationship.  The same goes with our relationship with God.  Prayer is that “spark” which moves us closer to God.  But prayer alone cannot replace learning, knowing, and practicing our faith.  We have a much fuller relationship with God when our prayer is matched with understanding the basis for those prayers.

It is of growing importance and urgency that Catholics really embrace their faith and learn it.  No doubt you probably know that many people are leaving the Catholic Church.  While many do not leave the faith for another religion, many stay in name only and do not actively participate. We have all heard descriptions like “Christmas and Easter Catholics”, “Buffet-style Catholics”, “Casual Catholics”, etc. I believe that a lack of knowledge about Catholicism has created this mass exodus. People are losing that strong foundation in their faith, rooted in knowledge and understanding, to the point where the Catholic Church really becomes meaningless in their lives.

If this sounds like doom and gloom, there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Remember that our simple prayers can transform even the most hardened hearts amongst us. I truly believe that a single prayer, said earnestly, has the ability to reach millions.  Remember, the Catholic Church started with one man and a dozen apostles.  And with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, there is no limit to what a few people can achieve.  If we make an earnest effort to learn our faith we will see greater returns on that investment than we can possibly imagine.   Because that knowledge, combined with prayer, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit has the power to save souls.  And in the end, that’s what truly matters.

If that was the pep-talk, it is now time to discuss strategy. What can we do to grow in faith and love for God?  After all, we do not transform from couch potato to St. Thomas Aquinas overnight (if you do not know who he is, consider learning about him as your homework).  Here’s a very simple start — read the Bible.  I know, it’s a huge book that will take forever to read right?  Well, you may not have all eternity to read it, but a lifetime should be plenty of time for most of us.  I’m on year three of reading the New Testament and I’m almost done (just three more chapters to go). It’s amazing how much more you get from the Bible when you read chapters in full as opposed to hearing snippets in daily or weekly readings. The foundation of the faith is all right there at your fingertips waiting for you to discover it.

Not ready to give up your couch potato ways? That’s all right, me neither. I really enjoy watching television and browsing the web. But I know I can carve out a few minutes to enjoy some Catholic programming or read some Catholic news. In the long run, I am much better served keeping up to date about the Church than watching reruns of “Friends” and “Seinfeld”.  There are many great Catholic video and radio channels on the web that you can access almost anywhere.

Two feeds I like to watch are the Catholic News Agency:






And the Eternal World Television Network:



Happy learning! Remember, millions of souls depend on it (no pressure or anything).

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Is God One of Your Friends?

I’m taking another break from my usual rosary meditations to talk more about my thoughts on prayer in general.  Why?  For starters, the remaining mysteries are ones that require a bit more thought and personal meditation in order to present them in a meaningful way.  Also, while meditating on the holy rosary is an important part of our prayer life, it is also important to understand our motivations for prayer so that we can get the most out of it.

Have you ever heard of facebook?  That’s fine if you have not and don’t worry, I won’t go into too much detail or pitch its many uses.  It is a social networking web site where you build a community of family and friends.  One of its most-used features is that you can broadcast your status to others in your network.  People use this to express anything from small, mundane details of their lives to announcing important events.  Different status updates include:

  • “I don’t feel like studying right now.”
  • “I’m sick.”
  • “Wish me luck on my big date!”
  • “I just finished my taxes and I can enjoy life again!”
  • “I just came back from the doctor’s office and I’m waiting on my test results.”

What I find most interesting is the ease in which we share every detail of our lives with one another.  We have no problem expressing our joys, disappointments, angers, frustrations, and gratitude to each other whether it is on a social networking web site, the phone, email, or in person.  And the reasons we broadcast are just as diverse as the content of the messages.  Perhaps we need advice on a particular subject or problem.  Maybe we have a big announcement or we are excited about something and we want everyone to know.  But I think we update our status, regardless of the message’s importance, mostly because we want to feel connected to one another.

Unfortunately, we often cut God out of our daily status updates.  While we seem to have no problems informing people about everything we do, we shy away from discussing our hopes, fears, frustrations, and gratitude with God.  Perhaps we figure that since God is omniscient and He already knows everything about us whether we inform Him or not, maybe we don’t feel like bothering Him with our daily problems.  However, the purpose of relating our lives to God is not for His benefit, but for ours.  Just as social networking sites connect us to each other, prayer connects us to God.  And we are not only connected to Him, but His network of saints, angels, and the Church.  That’s one powerful network!

It is so incredibly important to build our relationship with God through earnest prayer.  When we vocalize our worries and frustrations we also open ourselves to His intervention.  How can He help us if we don’t ask for His assistance?  In the Gospels numerous people ask Jesus for healing and forgiveness and He never refused them.  But the healing required them to first make the effort, approach Jesus, and ask Him for help.  As we learn in the Gospel of Matthew 7:7,  “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”  We must make the effort to talk to God through prayer if we are to receive His guidance and graces.

The other important aspect of vocalizing our thoughts through prayer is that we begin to better understand how God will answer us.  God always answers us, but because we do not understand the true nature of our problems we cannot understand His solution.  It is like someone handing you wooden boards, nails, and a hammer and you do not know what you need to build.  When we begin to formulate our concerns in prayer we won’t overlook or dismiss God’s response.  If we pray continuously to God then we are always on the lookout for His response in whatever form it may take.  Similar to my thoughts on prayer as spiritual exercise, when we include God in our network of family and friends and talk to Him constantly, His influence grows in our lives.

Let us learn from the example of Don Camillo — a fictional Italian priest who talks to Jesus Christ regularly as you would to a friend or relative.  Don Camillo is far from perfect.  He has a short temper, steals, and fights with the local, communist party members.  But take note on how he has a very personal relationship with Jesus and allows the Lord to guide him especially when he finds himself in a difficult situation.  If you have never seen the movies or read the books, I highly encourage you to check them out.

Let us go out and really work towards incorporating God more into our lives through prayer.  Let us not be afraid to include our Lord, Jesus Christ into our inner circle of friends and family.

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Rosary Meditation: The Third Glorious Mystery

Holy Spirit Stained Glass

This rosary meditation reflects on the Third Glorious Mystery — The Decent of the Holy Spirit.  The apostles, scared of suffering a similar fate as Jesus Christ, hid in a locked house.  Suddenly, a strong wind came through and tongues of fire appeared above the their heads.  Strengthened with the gift of the Holy Spirit they went out and made bold proclamations understood in any foreign language.

Many of us have heard this story before.  In fact, we often pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us through our daily lives.  We ask for just one good day where we don’t make any big mistakes at work.  We ask the Holy Spirit to be with us as we take that big exam.  We ask that we say all the right things to all the right people.  In short, we ask the Holy Spirit to make our lives easier and not screw up in any large ways.

But what gifts does the Holy Spirit really give us?  Is the Holy Spirit supposed to be a sort of spiritual cheat sheet to give us the answers to life’s big problems?  How many times do we ask God or the Holy Spirit for a “favor” with the only purpose to make our lives easier?  Like the Second Luminous Mystery, we have the tendency to only ask for God’s gifts when it will somehow help us out.  For example, how many times have you uttered a small prayer when buying a lottery ticket?  Like a little child we like to tell God that we’ll be good if He just helps us out this one time.  That, of course, is missing the entire point of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit does not come down to magically change the world to make our lives easier.  As much as we may wish it, the gifts do not “pave over” all of life’s obstacles so that we may continue living any way we wish.  The world in which the apostles lived did not magically change after they received the tongues of fire.  The people who wished them harm were still there.  Those who crucified Jesus did not vanish.  Nor where the apostles filled with any more knowledge than what they had learned from Jesus’ own words.  After all, did they not already have experience preaching the way of Christ when Jesus was still alive?

The real gift of the Holy Spirit is courage to do God’s will.  When it comes down to it, we all know the basics of right and wrong.  Very few of us deal with those moral edge cases on a daily basis if at all (my prayers go out to those that do).  We know the Ten Commandments and we have an understanding that Jesus’ way is one of love.  And yet, often we fail to act on that knowledge.  But there are those times when we do the right thing even when we know doing something different would be a lot easier.  I think those are the times when the Holy Spirit is driving us the most in our lives.  In short, if we resolve to live God’s will — to choose good over evil and right over wrong the Holy Spirit will give us that little push in the right direction.

I do not want to reduce the Holy Spirity to just one characteristic.  Instead, I think we should look at courage to do God’s will as one of the gifts we often overlook.  Let us pray and reflect that the Holy Spirit will give us the courage to do God’s will even if it makes our earthly lives more difficult.  The next time we think about taking an easy way out of a difficult situation, let us look to the Holy Spirit to lead is back to what is right and face whatever consequences come our way.  After all, God never gives us challenges we cannot handle, is more than generous in His gift of the Holy Spirit, and is infinitely forgiving when we fall short and sin.  Armed with knowledge of Jesus’ teachings, courage from the Holy Spirit, and God’s forgiveness, what do we really have to fear from this world?

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Exercising Spiritually

I am going to take a short divergence from my rosary meditation to offer up some thoughts on WHY I think prayer is such an important part of life.  Thank you for reading my meditations on the mysteries of the rosary and there will certainly be more to come.  However, I know that there are many out there that ask, “why should I pray the rosary at all?”  While there are more reasons to pray it than you and I can possible know (and definitely more than what I can put into one article) I want to try to explain the importance of the rosary by comparing it to exercise.

First of all, why do we exercise physically?  It is hard, sometimes painful, takes time, and often we do not see any immediate, tangible results for our hard effort.  However, many of us exercise because we understand that it has many benefits:

  • Keeps us in good health and decreases the chances of illness.
  • Increases our strength and endurance for those times when we need it (like sports or work).
  • Improves our physical appearance.
  • Relieves stress.

Many of us, no matter how busy we are, make the time to exercise because we know that it is an important part of healthy living.  Not only is exercise important enough to schedule into our daily routines, but it is also important enough to spend our hard-earned money on gym memberships, equipment, clothing, and diet foods and supplements.

It is amazing how much time, money, and effort we put into physical exercise and how little we put into spiritual exercise.  Many of us somehow find an hour of our day to “hit the gym” but we cannot find one hour a week to go to church, 20 minutes to pray a rosary mystery or even 30 seconds to say a short prayer of thanks before a meal.  If the exercise analogy does not work for you, then replace that with work or a hobby (and go for a walk).  How much time do you spend browsing the Internet or playing video games compared to how much time you spend in prayer and mediation?

It is important to work out our spiritual muscles just as much as our physical ones.  When you build up your spiritual muscle you will be much more prepared when you are challenged.  Whether the challenge comes as a problem of faith or just handling day-to-day complications, you can better handle any challenge when you pray regularly.  Trying to handle difficult life challenges without a deep faith is like trying to run a marathon with only minimal training.  Sure, you may finish the race but it will be more difficult and painful than if you were adequately prepared.  But more likely, we tend to just give up when the going gets tough because we have not conditioned our heart, mind, and soul to work through life’s obstacles. 

Like exercise, you only need to put in small, but constant effort praying in order to feel results over time.  It takes 20 minutes to pray a mystery of the rosary which is shorter than the time it takes to watch a sitcom.  You most likely will not feel like a saint after a week of prayer (or a month or even longer) but it will start to change you over time.  It will change the way you see the world and your life and really puts into perspective what is really important.  I have a hard time explaining how praying the rosary has changed me.  Unlike exercise I cannot point to a certain metric that tracks my progress.  Unfortunately there is not a faith ranking I can improve.  But I know the rosary has affected me positively as seen in the way I interact with others and in just my overall outlook on life.  It has also brought me closer to my Catholic faith by making it a priority in my life.  Now my faith is every bit as important as my physical health, my finances, my family, and my career.

I could draw out the exercise/rosary analogy longer (since I love analogies) but hopefully you get the idea.  I hope these words might encourage some of you to give rosary meditation a try. 

And like many exercise programs advertised on television (like this one), I’m going to end with my prayer sales pitch:

You can change your life in just 20 minutes a day!  Increase your faith and spiritual health for no money!  That’s right, you can start living a better life and it will not cost you a thing!  Millions of people have tried this program and have seen remarkable results.  So what are you waiting for?  Go and pray the rosary today!

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Rosary Meditation: The Third Joyful Mystery

Today’s rosary meditation is the Third Joyful Mystery — The Nativity.  We reflect and pray on Jesus’ humble birth in a stable.  This is an important mystery to focus on, not just during the Christmas season, but throughout the year.  The nature of Jesus’ birth sets the stage for how He lived His life and provides a foundation for His teachings.  The Nativity provides us a clear picture on how Jesus calls us to live.

When I think of this mystery the first word that comes to my mind is “humility.”  Jesus came into this world in the humblest of surroundings.  Hundreds of miles away from Rome, the seat of power in this world, the true king of kings was born.  He was born without money, riches, or any earthly power.  He was born surrounded by peasant shepherds, not a royal court.  This humble birth was no accident as it showed from the very beginning that Jesus’ ways were not the world’s ways.  His mission was not one of earthly conquest and accumulation of power nor was it to bring the Jews out of the submission of the Romans.  Instead, He showed us the living a humble and meek life was His way and the only path to His Heavenly kingdom.

I think Jesus’ humble birth contrasts nicely with another word usually associated with Christmas — “trappings.”  The dictionary defines that word as “outward decoration or dress; ornamental equipment.”  I see the trappings of Christmas all over in the amount of money spent on presents, decorations, clothes, and food.  But it’s not only Christmas were we seem to put a premium on the trappings of life.  Many of us tend to focus all year long on living in a nice home, driving a fancy car, and having that dream job.  While none of that is bad in itself, when we start to put the comforts of this world above the rewards of the next we move away from how Jesus lived His life and how He calls us to live ours.  The trappings of this life literally trap us into living only for this world which amount to absolutely nothing in Jesus’ Heavenly kingdom.

So let us pray that we have the strength to live as Jesus did — humbling and meekly.  Let us pray for the strength to not put our earthly desires ahead of our Heavenly needs.  In the end God will not judge us based on the cars we drive, the value of our stock portfolio, or what position we held at our jobs.  Those are just the trappings of this world, the ornamental decorations, while how well you followed Jesus’ path is the real substance.  Let us meditate and pray this mystery of the rosary that we can embrace Jesus’ ways as manifested in the Nativity.

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Rosary Meditation: The Second Luminous Mystery

Miracle at Cana
Image by Loci Lenar via Flickr

Today’s rosary meditation is the second Luminous Mystery — The Miracle at the Wedding at Cana.  At a wedding party, Jesus turned water into wine in His first public miracle.  This started his ministry of healing the sick, giving site to the blind, and mobility to the paralyzed.  There are two main threads that are common to all the Gospels and they are Jesus’ miracles and parables.  Why are Jesus’ miracles so critical to his ministry?  And, if He could perform all these miraculous deeds, why did He not eliminate everyone’s problems and hardships instantly?  Why do we still have sick, blind, and paralyzed people today if it is so easy for the Lord to heal someone?

In order for Jesus’ miracles to have any meaning you must understand the reason behind them.  They are not performed for the sole purpose of making peoples’ lives easier.  We cannot reduce Jesus to a mere genie who will grant us all our wishes.  They are performed in order to increase our faith and open us up to His word.  When Jesus gives sight to the blind He does a lot more than just heal one person.  The miraculous act is a sign of His divinity and power so that many more will come to recognize him as Christ our king and follow His path.  We are like children where His miracles are a way of getting our attention so that we will be more receptive to His message.  The miracles are not only for the one who is healed, but also for those who witness them so that our doubt will be transformed into unquestioning faithfulness.

However, Jesus’ asks a lot of those whom He heals.  They must make a firm commitment to transform their lives, follow Him, live according to His will, and have faith that He will guide them to His heavenly kingdom.  Luke’s Gospel talks of Jesus healing ten leapers.  Of that ten only one came back to thank and praise Him at which point Jesus said that his faith made him well.  The other nine eventually died, as we all do, so their physical healing was only temporary.  But the one who returned to the Lord received more than temporary, physical healing.  He received the gift of faith which is the true purpose of the miracle and more important than any physical healing we receive in this life.  Ask yourself, would you return and thank Him for His wonderful works?  If yes, then ask yourself how many times you have thanked our Lord for the great miracle of a new day?  For the miracle of friends?  For the miracle of family?  Many times we are the nine healed leapers who are given so much and yet we never return to thank the one who provides it all.

Do we pray for miracles for the right reasons?  Do we ask for them in order to grow in our relationship with our Lord or do we ask for them just so that our lives will be made easier?  We must remember that a miracle that only makes our lives easier is worldly and temporary and will eventually fade away and be replaced by different challenges.  Let us remember that God always hears us even when our request for a miracle goes unanswered.  God, in His infinite wisdom, knows that many of our requests only serve to make our present lives easier and would not bring us any closer to Him.  Like a good parent, He knows when to tell us “no.”  Jesus did not come to us to make our lives easier in this world, but rather He came so that we may be with Him for all eternity in our next life.  Let us pray this decade that Jesus’ miracles heal our soul, increase our faith, and lead us closer to His love.

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