Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Daily Gift

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My proposal to my fiancée did not go how I planned it. I'm sure plenty of guys can say the same in today's day and age where proposals are often choreographed with more extras than a Cecil B. DeMille epic. There is pressure to infuse as much meaning as possible into the moment. In my case, I proposed, as planned, in front of the Blessed Sacrament on St. John Paul II’s first feast day. Instead of being private, however, it ended up being in front of fifteen other random strangers in the chapel – my fiancée's personal nightmare.  

As our engagement proceeded, I was surprised by the feeling of normality. I had those periodic “Woah, I'm getting married” moments, but in general, the monumental life change I was preparing for seemed very much matter-of-fact. “Of course I'm marrying Maureen, it would be weird to think otherwise.” Now for someone who never ceases to seek the profound in anything less than the weather, I was alarmed at what I was feeling about my own betrothal. This should be a time of being overwhelmed at the depth of what I was entering into with this woman I loved and instead I felt very matter-of-fact about it all. Something had to be wrong with me, my maturity, the engagement, something.

As I reflected and prayed about all of this, two things occurred to me. It was entirely appropriate for me to feel this way, but it also signaled that I needed to grow. I thought of two concepts that St. John Paul II wrote in his Theology of the Body. The first was the sacramentality of the body and the second was the body as a task.

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A sacrament, as we all remember from our second grade religious education classes, is “an outward sign, instituted by Christ to give us grace.” Sacraments are those visible things that not only point to invisible things, but also really make those invisible realities present or efficacious. For example, when someone is baptized, the symbol in the rite is one of being washed. Yet, the physical pouring of or immersion into the water, is not merely a sign of what God is doing, the physical action actually brings about the spiritual action. Sacraments efficaciously make present the very things they signify.

John Paul takes this truth and then applies it to the body. Man and Woman are made in God's Image and Likeness. God, who is a Trinity of Persons, exists as a constant and complete gift of self. Being made in his Image as male and female, this gift-reality is written precisely into our bodies in our relation to one another. 

Man, in fact, by means of his corporality, his masculinity and femininity, becomes a visible sign of the economy of truth and love, which has its source in God himself and which was revealed already in the mystery of creation. Against this vast background we understand fully the words that constitute the sacrament of marriage, present in Genesis 2:24: "A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." (19, 5)

So, in a certain sense, there is a sort of “naturalness” to the idea of getting married. There is a certain matter-of-factness that one should expect with this because God created us to be a gift to this other. It is in our very nature to be gift, just as it is in our nature to eat, sleep, exercise, etc. So, there should be a certain “of course” quality to my betrothal.

And yet, we know almost by instinct, that there is something wrong with staying simply in the realm of the “of course.” We know that marriage is on a higher plane, even if marrying her seems as natural as breathing to me. It is, but we also need our growth from the sacrament of marriage itself to come close to grasping marriage's reality. John Paul simultaneously affirms that man already has written into him this reality of gift, and that the body is also a task for men and women. Yes, my body, as it was the moment I was born, was given to me as a sign of my interior reality to be a gift to another, however, my body is also an assignment. I must grow into the reality that I am:

The Creator has assigned as a task to man his body, his masculinity and femininity; and that in masculinity and femininity he, in a way, assigned to him as a task his humanity, the dignity of the person, and also the clear sign of the interpersonal communion in which man fulfills himself through the authentic gift of himself. Setting before man the requirements conforming to the tasks entrusted to him, at the same time the Creator points out to man, male and female, the ways that lead to assuming and discharging them. (59, 2)

My task is to, in a sense, become who I am. I'm not there yet. There is a depth written into my creation as a man to more fully become a gift and to more fully enter into this communion of persons with my beloved who also has a depth written into her creation and must more fully become a gift to me. The body reveals to me that this is who I am, but it also educates and leads me to a fuller depth of this mystery. A maturation needs to take place:

In its masculinity or femininity the body is given as a task to the human spirit. By means of an adequate maturity of the spirit it too becomes a sign of the person, which the person is conscious of, and authentic "matter" in the communion of persons. In other words, through his spiritual maturity, man discovers the nuptial meaning proper to the body. (59, 4 emphasis mine)

And so, while it is the most natural of things for me to enter into marriage with my fiancée, the reality of what we are doing goes to the very heart of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. By entering into this matrimonial covenant, we continue this “pedagogy of the body” by the revelation of the communion of persons not only to ourselves but to the rest of the world. Our wedding and our married life together is a sacrament of this reality of who and what we are created to be, but also stands as our task to more fully become that reality.

My plans to infuse meaning into my proposal to Maureen didn't work and my time of betrothal has been less a matter of being overwhelmed by the gravity of it all and more an ordinary day to day affair. From what I know of family life, that's probably an experience most of us have. We go to work, make the meals, do laundry, mow the lawn, but written into each of these very normal mundane affairs is this reality that while doing them, we are being drawn to consider this life as a gift. That married life, in the normal day to day, is a task given to us to live out more completely the reality that in these moments of picking the kids up from school and untangling the Christmas lights I am living for another  - and I'm receiving from another. And just like my proposal, the truth of this reality is already there, it doesn't need a grand scheme to infuse it with meaning. This gift-quality of life isn't just part of life, it is life. I am nothing else but gift, and only in pursuing this as task, can I truly become who I am.   

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Throwback Thursday

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"Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it." - St. John Paul II (Redemptor Hominis no. 10)

Saturday, May 23, 2015


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For the past two years I’ve been participating in a men’s ministry entitled That Man is You!  The presenter of each week’s content is a man by the name of Steve Bollman.  He doesn’t pull any punches in the sense that he readily shares some of the lesser known aspects of Catholic theology and spirituality.  At times this means that he loses guys in attendance at the parish hall at 6:15 am watching the DVD, but it also has the effect of raising important questions for guys during the post-DVD small group table conversations. 

One term that has come up repeatedly over the sessions is “concupiscence” (kon-kyoo-pi-suh ns).  It is a difficult word to pronounce without some practice, and even with practice! 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as “human appetites or desires which remain disordered due to the temporal consequences of original sin, which remain even after Baptism, and which produce an inclination to sin.”  The U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults mentions it as our “inclination to sin which shows itself in what is sometimes referred to as a darkening of the mind and a weakening of the will, that is, the inability to know clearly the right or wrong of an action and/or the lack of strength to resist temptation and always to do the right thing no matter how hard this is.” 

What was new to me though was what I recently learned by looking in the index of the 2006 edition of the Pauline Books and Media publication of Michael Waldstein’s translation, introduction and index of Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.  Saint John Paul the Great used the word “concupiscence” 340 times over the course of the four years that he was sharing his Wednesday catechesis with the world!  That works out to make it the ninth most used word in the whole body of work. 

Here’s how it breaks down:
“Body” – 1319 times
“Meaning/Significance/Importance” – 625 times
“Marriage” – 502 times
“Love” – 465 times
“Heart” – 408 times
“Person” – 382 times
“Mystery” – 373 times
“Truth” – 342 times
“Concupiscence” – 340 times

To give you an idea of some other important words:
“Flesh” – 330 times
“Church” – 326 times
“Dimension” – 297 times
“Creation” – 281 times
“Theology of the Body” – 100 times

So, what really struck me was that every other frequently used word in the TOB is a positive term.  Concupiscence sticks out like a sore thumb, and must have a lot to do with our coming to understand the “adequate anthropology” that St. JPII wanted to impart to us. 

"Scream and shout" by Mindaugas Danys is licensed under C.C. by 2,0
Sure enough, as I was meditating on this factoid of word frequency I began noticing things about my children’s behavior which ultimately led me to remember the most obvious detail of my own conversion to Christ: left to my own devices I do what I want! (à la Cartman from Southpark)  What is crazy is that no one has to teach us this at any point in our life…ever!  We are all very inventive when it comes to riffing on the theme of sin-sick selfishness.  It’s always lurking just around the corner of our inattentiveness to God’s grace due to a lack of a real prayer life.  We never get to set the toggle switch on our soul to “cruise control”! 

Concupiscence (and therefore in a reverse engineering kind of way all of TOB and the Gospel of Jesus Christ) is a universal reality experienced by everyone (Original Sin anyone?).  Spend 20 minutes around any toddler from any region of the globe and it’s guaranteed that they will all do the same selfish behaviors that stem from overwhelming inclinations to dominate, ignore, horde, hit, bite, scream, etc. 

Right in line with this phenomenon is the reality that I experienced as a young boy and immature man.  When no one educated me in the way of love, understood as “making a sincere gift of myself” (Gaudium et spes 24:3), I used the powerful gift of my masculinity to turn inward on myself and away from God and neighbor.  Not until I was five years into living life as a weekly Mass attending, baptized and confirmed Catholic making use of regular sacramental reconciliation was I spiritually/socially/physically in a consistently good place with God, others and myself.  

Whenever I share this detail of my past with other men, I hear, read or see them confirm my reflection.  No one had to teach us to lust, dominate, use, manipulate or waste time, money and energy on ourselves!   Rather, all that darkness simply came flowing out from within us because apart from the divine physician we are truly ill.  We need to be healed from the inside out (Mk 7:20), we need to be taken back to the beginning of God’s design for us (Mt 19:8).  This is why TOB is so important, beautiful and life changing if you allow it to be the vehicle for encountering Jesus Christ risen from the dead today!     

If you are intrigued by this theme, take a look at this article by Dr. Rick Fitzgibbon (specifically the second to last paragraph from the bottom of the first page).

Here’s a VERY powerful video story/testimony/confession by a father about how only his second daughter’s life was able to invade his selfish-concupiscence-bubble and bring him abundant life (Jn 10:10).  Enjoy and share widely!       

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Learning Motherhood From Mary

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It probably shouldn’t be so shocking to me that our toddler daughter is interested in books.  After all, nearly every wall in our small apartment is lined with bookshelves.  We have daily read-aloud sessions, and if she hears a line or two from a particular book that I recite from memory, she trots across the room looking to retrieve it.

One such line that has come to mind as we begin the month of May, dedicated to mothers, and in a particular way to the Blessed Mother, is from a little board book about saints.  “Mary teaches us about loving mothers,” the book declares, with a picture of Mary being crowned by a smiling angel.  

The words aren’t just for children.  This month is a fitting time to reflect on what the Blessed Mother can teach all mothers about how to love the children entrusted to us.

At first glance it can seem overwhelming to look to Mary – a woman without sin – to grow in our own mothering.  We look around at piles of dirty dishes, smell another diaper in need of changing, take a glance at the quickly filling calendar and figure that the Blessed Mother – a perfect woman raising a perfect Son – has so little in common with our 21st century American lifestyle that we’re better off looking elsewhere for guidance.

But as we reflect on the mysteries of the Rosary, there are many life lessons we can learn from Mary.  We see, too, that her life was not a blissful ride on easy street.  Sure, there are no mysteries centered on smelly diapers or work-life balance, but the graces present in Mary’s life can help us to embrace the struggles and joys of our own family life.  Let’s take a look at a couple of lessons of motherhood we glimpse in the fifth sorrowful mystery, Jesus Dies on the Cross.  

It’s tempting to think that Mary knew exactly what would happen at every moment of her and her Son’s life.  We sometimes have an image of Mary giving her “yes” to Gabriel at the annunciation, knowing exactly what that “yes” would mean.  In reality, the archangel did not hand Mary a 33-year calendar to inform her of the everyday “yesses” her fiat to becoming the Mother of God entailed.  St. John Paul II, for example, wrote that Mary’s yes to God at the foot of the cross was perhaps the “deepest kenosis (self-emptying) of faith.”  Standing at the foot of the cross, she did not know how God would be victorious through the death of her Son, but she knew and trusted that good would come from evil.  
Pieta, Michelangelo - artwork in the public domain

There are many crosses in motherhood – miscarriages, children who are sick or bullied or ostracized, teenage or adult children who leave the faith, and so many more.  Yet, with Mary, every mother is called to have faith that God’s love will pour forth even amidst the most painful situations.  There is no resurrection without the cross, and Mary reminds us to trust God’s plan.

There is another poignant lesson for mothers from the crucifixion subtly portrayed in Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”  Most viewers of the statue focus on Mary’s arms embracing her Son, but a closer look also reveals her left hand open in an act of surrender.  Mary reveals the art – and perhaps the biggest challenge – of motherhood: to embrace and to be detached.  

On the one hand, a mother is called to love, cherish and care for the child(ren) entrusted to her.  At the same time, these children are not ultimately hers, nor her husband’s.  Ultimately, each child is a gift from God.  Mothers must care without being possessive. Mothers can look to Mary as an example and as an intercessor in striking this delicate balance.

In his encyclical, Redemptoris Mater, St. John Paul II summarized the way in which the Blessed Mother reveals the call of all women: 

It can be said that women, by looking to Mary, find in her the secret of living their femininity with dignity and of achieving their own true advancement.  In the light of Mary, the Church sees in the face of women the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement (#46).

At first glance it might seem that only women with biological or adoptive children have something to learn from the motherhood of Mary, but St. John Paul II would challenge us to think differently.  All women, by virtue of their femininity, are called to be mothers.  All women are called to be spiritual mothers whether or not any children call them, “Mom.”  

The human person is entrusted to women in a unique way.  It’s not that men do not love or care for people, but rather that women are able, in a particular way, to notice the needs of others and to meet them, offering empathy, a listening ear and the unique care that a particular person needs.  Men and women both love, but they love differently.  Women love as mothers.  

Whether joyful, sorrowful, luminous or glorious, the mysteries of the rosary offer us a glimpse into how Mary loved and lived as a mother, becoming both guide and intercessor for us as we seek to more fully love as a spiritual or physical mother.