This past year, 2020, has felt like one enormous Lenten season. I know that is not technically accurate, but it seems Easter came and went with hardly a ripple. We have all been slogging through month after month of lockdowns and restrictions.
It has also been a time of reflection for me. What am I doing with my life? How is my family? How is my spiritual life? Is God pleased with where I am heading?
All of these questions are characteristic of Lent. It seems like even in 2020’s Ordinary time and Easter season, God was trying to pull us all back to deeper meditation on what it is we are doing individually, communally, and even globally.
But yesterday was different for me, maybe for the first time in months. In the Catholic calendar, January 1st is the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.
Over Christmas, I could not be at Mass. My wife had tested positive for Covid the week before (no symptoms, she’s just fine, thankfully). So we all quarantined over Christmas Eve, Christmas, and any other Masses we might have been able to go to. But our quarantine ended Wednesday this last week.
So I sat outdoors with my parish at Friday’s Mass, seeing some faces I haven’t seen for weeks, others months. I was cantoring, and legally speaking, I am supposed to be singing alone. But we have a rebellious parish, and everyone joined in anyway, probably because they were Christmas songs. How can you not join in singing a Christmas song?
January 1st fell on Friday this year. And just like Lent has it’s own set of weeks, Fridays are set aside in the Catholic calendar as days of sorrow. We are meant to think on that Good Friday and fast from something – maybe meat or coffee, whatever is a sacrifice for us. Lent is a special time to do this, but really, Catholics are encouraged to make every Friday a little Lent.
But Feast Days trump these sad Fridays. Despite it typically being a day of sorrow and mourning, the church, in the providence of God, called us to celebrate instead. Mary is our mother which means Jesus, the Son of God, is our brother.
I am no prophet, but I think that’s a fantastic omen for the coming year. We’ve all gone through an extended season of Lent. I’m not ready to call 2021 an “Easter Year”. But on the Feast Day of a mother and child who brought light to a very dark world, I refuse to call 2021 another year of Lent.
Every now and then, a Biblical writer gives a snippet of wisdom that pulls together a host of theological ideas into a short space of words. It is like a tinny dose of a vaccine shot inside the body to help protect the whole of it (ok… bad analogy for anti-vaxxers, but you get the point).
One of these passages stuck out to me the other day and seemed conspicuously apt for our bizarro pandemic time right now.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
1 Thess. 5:16-24 (NRSVCE)
Rejoice Always…Give Thanks in all Circumstances
Is it ok to mourn the many who have died or lost their jobs during this pandemic? Of course. Can we voice our frustration? Absolutely, and we should.
But somewhere in our hearts, maybe buried deep, there needs to be at least an ounce of rejoicing – a peaceful acknowledgment that Jesus is still king and we are going to be ok because of this. We need to dig and dig until we can find that little piece of thanksgiving, not for some future time that will be, or the past that was so much better than the present, but for right here, right now.
Paul feels the need to not simply request patiently that we rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances. He does not plead with us. No, he commands us, because even though it is true that things suck right now, it is also true that there is something in all of this that we can be thankful for.
What is that for you?
Pray without Ceasing
I am embarrassed over how little I have gotten on my knees with everything going on in 2020. How lax I have been in pleading with God for this scourge to end.
Every day brings new reasons to pray. For us in the states, after months of dithering, Congress is FINALLY pushing through a bill that could bring some financial relief to citizens on the verge of losing their homes or businesses. The political climate over here is still terribly divided. Masses in many places are still not being celebrated publicly.
Even on a good day, Paul commands us to pray without ceasing. How much more should we do it when the world is falling apart?
If this seems difficult to do (and it is), something that has helped me fulfill this at least partially is to pray some of the short, powerful prayers throughout the day that have been used for centuries. Here are two.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners both now and at the hour of our death.”
“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” You could pray that one in the plural for the world as well.
You might counter that Jesus told us not to “heap up empty phrases” when we pray. Fair enough. But they are not empty if you mean them. Is there ever a minute we could not use Mary’s intercession on our behalf? Is there a minute that goes by that we and our world are not in need of mercy?
Do not Quench the Spirit
God is trying to tell us something today. He is speaking to our heart. Are we listening?
He speaks in all sorts of ways. He speaks through our pastors. He speaks through our friends. He speaks through our circumstances.
There is definitely something mystical about this, and we need to be cautious – “test everything.” God will never contradict himself by saying one thing in Scripture and Tradition and then saying something different to you personally. But we need courage in our daily lives to follow the promptings of the Spirit of God.
I confess, again, that I do not listen to him as well as I should. The day slips through my fingers and before I know it, I am lost in a YouTube video at 11pm about a guy whose comedy sketch was edited out of the Late Show with David Letterman. Fascinating, yes, but seriously, what in the world am I doing?
On the days I do listen, what a difference! I see his hand moving in one of my children, or I experience a breakthrough with my wife. I see things I didn’t know were there. I experience a depth of living that I did not have on a typical frenetic day.
Abstain from Every Form of Evil
Another spiritual practice that I give less attention to than I should is the examination of conscience. One priest, Fr. Sweeney over here in California, counseled us in the evening to look over our day with Jesus and ask him what he sees there. Where did I not love as much as I should have? What did I look at that took me a peg down spiritually? What conversations remain with me? Did I speak as I should have with them? Should I pray for that person?
I cannot abstain from evil if I cannot see the evil I need to abstain from. More often than not, I just don’t slow down long enough to see it. If I did, the pitfalls and stumbling blocks that pepper my day would not hinder me so much.
May the God of Peace Himself Sanctify You
Is it entirely our responsibility to make sure we rejoice always, give thanks in everything, pray without ceasing, and abstain from every form of evil? Thank God, no! We needs God’s help, and he is right there with us to give it. As St. Patrick prayed, so can we.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me.
From the Prayer of St. Patrick
When we attempt to live the Christian life in our own strength, we fail. We burn out. When we come to the end of ourselves and ask God for his grace, his strength in our lives, we mount up with wings like eagles. We run without becoming weary. We walk without becoming faint.
How often I think I am alone in all of this – especially now. Physically we have to be separated from others. Spiritually, for many of us, it feels the same.
Being an introvert, that might not bother me as much as others, but that probably makes it even worse. I can turn inward like a turtle and never come out which isn’t a good thing.
Whatever our condition, though, the God of peace is with us.
Even in Prison
It is amazing to think about these passages in light of what Paul himself actually went through. In his lifetime, he was imprisoned, stoned near to death, shipwrecked, hated by his fellow countrymen, I could go on.
Knowing how much he went through, his words mean even more. I need to rejoice. I need to be thankful. I need to pray more. I need to abstain more from evil. I need to do it all in God’s strength and not my own.
If Paul could do all this locked in a prison and in chains, we can do it locked in our homes. And I think the same comfort and peace it brought to his own spirit will come to us as well.
Hello everyone! Jessica has been kind enough to allow me to post on this blog, which I am excited to do. I’ve been enjoying reading her posts, as well as others here on a regular basis.
That’s not just me being pleasant. The site has pulled me back to it a number of times and has given me a lot of food for thought.
I wanted to share a little bit about my own faith background in my first post here (and would love to read any of yours). I am a convert to the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). My wife and I, along with our children, converted around the time Pope Francis became pope.
I grew up what you might call a Fundamentalist, though we never labeled ourselves anything. “Nondenominational” or “Baptist” might be a better description, actually. I don’t know for sure.
Whatever I was, though, I grew up in an environment that had no warm feelings for the RCC. A few misconceptions I had included the following.
1. The pope was probably the anti-Christ (or would be in league with him whenever he showed up).
2. Roman Catholics worshiped Mary. Worship of her echoes the worship of some goddess in ancient Egypt.
3. Everything written in Chick Tracts about Roman Catholics.
I ended up falling in love with and marrying a young woman who grew up Anglican, which is a bit ironic. I was as clueless about Anglicanism as I was about Roman Catholicism. I somehow missed the memo that, as she put it later, Anglicans are basically Roman Catholics, just without the pope.
When we got married, she followed me into the nondenominational, happy-clappy church I was a part of, trying to be the dutiful wife. But secretly, she missed the smells and bells of liturgical life.
The Eucharist also meant a great deal to her, which I did not understand at the time. After one of our church services, she was shocked and horrified when a friend of ours took some left over bread we had used for communion (which we considered entirely symbolic), and used it as a snack afterwards, dipping it and chewing right in front of her.
On another front, my sister and brother-in-law shocked us by leaving their nondenominational (gosh, that’s a long word) church to join the RCC. My brother-in-law had spent ten years flirting off and on with the idea of converting. Finally he did, and it was like a nuclear bomb went off in our extended family.
So many nights, all of us were up late debating Mary, the Eucharist, the pope, everything. I was not as vehement with him as others in our tribe, but I did take it upon myself to convince him he was wrong. Anybody who understood the Bible could not possibly become Roman Catholic, right?
Well, as I did my own research, visiting sites like Catholic Answers and especially delving into articles on Called to Communion, I found, to my surprise, that Roman Catholics actually do read the Bible – very much so. They had very good reasons not to believe in Sola Scriptura and to view the Gospel differently than I did.
What really threw me across the Tiber, though, was the idea that to remain a protestant, I had to believe that God abandoned his church for 1500 years until Martin Luther came along. The more I thought about this, the more it unsettled me.
Imagine the priests, theologians, and saints coming together for Ecumenical Councils through the ages, seeking to know the Holy Spirit’s mind on issues of Christology, the Bible, icons, and all sorts of other issues that were rending the church in two. The Apostle James says that if we ask for wisdom, the Holy Spirit will give it to us. Am I to believe these holy men, and by extension the church that relied on their teaching, were abandoned by God in their hour of direst need?
That was too much. It took an unbelievable amount of hubris on my part to think that fervent, praying Christians for the first millennia and a half got it wrong while we “modern” Christians for some reason managed to get it right.
It came down to Easter Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in the end. I would go into what made us veer west, but I think I have gone on long enough for one post.
At any rate, that is my story. Again, thank you for allowing me to write here. I look forward to continuing to read what everyone else posts!