Language Learned, Passport Packed

Sunday, March 17, 2019:

This morning, the Second Sunday in Lent, Fr. Gabriel, our parochial vicar, began his homily at 10:30 Mass with, “How is your Lent going?” For the first time in a very long time, I felt as though I was fully prepared to say, “Good!” For a few weeks before Ash Wednesday, I thought about Lent and how I would live it this year. I wanted to enter Lent fully prepared to get as much as possible out of it. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to live a more prayerful life, and for me, that meant approaching Lent slightly differently than in the past.

Years ago, in my first career job after college, I was inspired by my roommate to attend daily Mass during Lent. For an early riser like my roommate, this didn’t seem to me like much of a sacrifice, but for a first-class night owl like myself, it was huge. I maintained this practice during Lent for many years after, but eventually, it fell by the wayside, partly aided by the birth of my two children. So, this year, on Mardi Gras night, I stunned my family by announcing that I would be getting up at 5:00 every day to go to daily Mass before school. I don’t think for a single moment they believed me.

After a week and a half of attending 6:30 AM Mass, and sitting in a relatively empty church filled with silence, I found myself really tuning in to the homilies. At morning Mass, particularly the 6:30 Mass, the homilies are shorter and much more focused. The celebrant’s main point has been sharpened and honed, better for sending out to people on their way to work. Much like poetry, these homilies demonstrate the idea that every word must count.

foreign languageLast weekend, our pastor Fr. Lee said something in his homily that really struck me: “The language of heaven is prayer.” As a language arts teacher, the metaphor of learning a language before traveling to a foreign place was not lost on me. If we, as Christians, are all on our path to heaven, and we’ve never been there before, do we need to learn a foreign language before arriving? Is learning how to pray our instructional course for our journey to heaven?

passportIn a subsequent morning Mass, Fr. Gabriel extended the metaphor. He first spoke of how important a passport is, particularly a US passport when traveling abroad. He said that if we were going to be traveling to another shore, a shore of perfection, we must be sure to have our passports in order. I reflected on his homily on my quick walk next door to school. The travel metaphor is an effective tool for my own Lenten journey.

In today’s second reading, Paul said to the Philippians (3:17-4:1), “Their minds are occupied with earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven…” As Christians, we all want to “go to Heaven,” something we’ve been taught since we were very young. Connecting this abstract idea to something concrete like traveling to another country is a bit easier. scotlandWhen I traveled with my parents to Scotland in 2000, where my maternal grandparents were born and raised, I got a passport, made flight reservations, purchased good walking shoes, and chose my weeks’ worth of clothing very carefully. I made sure to pack something wrinkle free and dressier to meet my mother’s extended family. I filled my carry-on with snacks and a book to read on the long plane ride. I brought small hospitality presents to hand out to our hosts.

I planned seriously for that one-week trip. These Lenten readings and homilies have made me think: am I planning seriously for my journey to Heaven? Have I learned the language of Heaven? Have I prepared carefully for my trip? Will my passport be in order?

Working for twenty years in the legal field, I did not think of prayer much during the day. I worked hard all day drafting and negotiating contracts and legal documents. My daily goals were quite different, finalize legal documents that would protect my employer. Sure, I said my prayers at night, and I went to Mass every Sunday, but was I actively learning the language of Heaven? Since becoming a Catholic school teacher in 2007, however, I pray many times throughout the day: morning prayer after the Pledge, the Angelus at noon, and the Act of Contrition before dismissal. We have school Mass every Friday at 9:00. Going to Adoration on Thursdays is just a few steps away in the convent chapel before I get in my car to head home. All school year, we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation the last Monday afternoon of every month. Every Friday during Lent, we walk around the church following the Stations of the Cross. My prayer life has been enriched greatly through my vocation as a Catholic school teacher. My daily goals now are to help make our students saints, to teach them how to navigate the path to Heaven.

Even though we are still early on in this season of Lent, I already feel that the blessings I am receiving outweigh my sacrifices. I do feel that I am preparing for my journey to Heaven. I practice daily the language of Heaven and my passport is in order. I receive the Eucharist daily to sustain me on my way. My response to Fr. Gabriel’s question this morning, “How is your Lent going” is most decidedly, “Good!”

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The Battle of Evil against Good

my favorite color is octoberIt’s mid-October and lots of my bookish friends are reading scary stories or mysteries that have elements of the supernatural lurking about. In my 8th grade classroom, we read a short story recently that is classified as science fiction but in many ways represents the materialistic and selfish ways of many in today’s society, making it seem like realistic fiction.

Richard_MathesonRichard Matheson wrote many short stories and screenplays for two well-known television shows from the 1960s: Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. Edgar Allan Poe, Matheson’s favorite author, wrote many strange and creepy stories that gave Matheson the perfect basis for writing his own pieces of thought-provoking literature. In the science fiction short story “Button, Button,” the reader is invited into Norma and Arthur Lewis’s apartment to witness a marital argument over a button—just a button—which sits under a glass dome and does not appear to have a function or job.

Button, Button unitMatheson’s short story “Button, Button” did have a job, however. Using the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden as his starting point, Matheson creates an allegory that clearly shows the reader exactly what greed and temptation can do to a weak person. Norma dreams of many things: a cottage on the island, a car, a better apartment, nicer clothes, a trip to Europe, a baby. Arthur keeps telling her these things will come in time; they will achieve their dreams together, but Norma can’t let it go. She is intrigued by the button and its immoral promises. She rationalizes and tricks herself into believing that pushing the button will bring them BOTH happiness, not just her. “It’s for us,” she says as she pushes the button.

st michaelIn the Catholic faith, St. Michael the Archangel was sent to defend Christians in battle with the devil. It’s a shame Norma did not know the prayer to St. Michael. Perhaps the warrior archangel could have stopped her from making the biggest mistake of her life.

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us.

Invite Him to the Storm

imageOne of the things I love most about being Catholic is the ability to practice my faith anywhere, anytime. I’ve attended Mass in nearly every state and country that I’ve visited. Sometimes it has been in a foreign language, and while listening to the homily can be a challenge, I know the parts of the Mass so well I can easily follow along, responding quietly in English. I also always carry my Magnificat with me so I can read the readings and prayers, no matter where I am.

imageWhile visiting a friend in beautiful Fort Myers, Florida, I attended Sunday Mass at the Church of the Resurrection of our Lord. The celebrant was Fr. Oliver Toner, an old (his adjective, not mine) Irish priest, whose lilting accent and demeanor reminded me of one of my favorite priests of all times, Msgr. Oliver McGready, another Irish priest I was blessed to have as pastor of my parish church for over ten years.

imageThe Irish are always ready with a good story to make a point, teach a lesson, or simply just to entertain. Fr. Toner was no exception. The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time were from Genesis and Colossians, with the gospel coming from Luke. The church bulletin advised that the day’s readings were to “address the importance of persistent prayer.” It’s no surprise that this message was especially poignant, given the unrest and discord in the upcoming presidential election as well as the recent spate of violence and brutal killings in my home state of Louisiana, in Florida, in Texas, in Germany, and just recently, in France, where an elderly priest was beheaded while celebrating morning Mass.

imageFr. Toner’s homily focused in on a specific type of prayer, not one of asking but of thanking. His advice was to thank God for the negatives in our lives, not just the positives. In his typically-Irish way of using homey, intimate stories, he illustrated this with several examples. One was that of being called out to give last rites to a woman who had suffered a massive heart attack. The doctor, a golfing buddy of his, advised him that the prognosis was dire as the heart attack had damaged three-quarters of the woman’s heart. On his way out of the emergency room, he was approached by the woman’s husband who was seeking comfort and solace. Fr. Toner told him to pray, and in his prayer, try thanking God for his wife’s heart attack. The man thought it was crazy to do so but felt he had nothing to lose so he did. Months later, Fr. Toner was visited by the man and his wife, who had indeed recovered from the heart attack.

Fr. Toner told several other stories with similar threads, one including a blocked sewer pipe, which brought a laugh from the congregation. He didn’t just tell stories, however, he backed them up with a powerful passage from scripture, 1 Thessalonians 5:18. “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” In other words, thank God for everything, positive and negative.

imageOn the surface, this seems counter to what we have been taught in our prayer life. As a teacher, when I pray with my students, whether it be before a field trip, before a big exam, or before a rehearsal for the school play, I always tell them to thank God for the blessings He has bestowed on them and only then should they ask for what they need or want. Fr. Toner offered a different template for prayer, one which I will bring back to school with me this fall: ACTS. This simple acronym focuses our prayer efforts in four easy steps. “A” is for acknowledge God as our Father and worship Him in adoration. “C” is for confession of our sins which we bring to Him for healing and mercy. “T” is for thanksgiving, but Fr. Toner shared that perhaps we should think of trust instead, putting our trust in Him to help us through our ordeals. It is at this stage of prayer that Fr. Toner suggested we thank God for the negatives in our lives. Finally, “S” is for supplication, where we turn to God with our requests.

imageWhy should we thank Him for the problems in our lives, for the large and small crosses we feel we have been given to bear? Fr. Toner was ready with the answer to this. He wrapped up his homily by telling the congregation that God is waiting for us to give Him control, for choosing obedience over free will, for allowing Him to embrace the evil and transform it. Fr. Toner said simply, “Bring God into the storms of your life. God can surprise you.”

Reflection and Renovation

Exciting news for me! One of my essays, Reflection and Renovation, made the front page of a local regional newspaper that publishes news about our area’s Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington.

As this is a newspaper for parents, faculty, and students of Catholic schools, this essay has a spiritual theme based on the current liturgical season of the Catholic Church, Lent. If you enjoy HGTV’s hit show Fixer Upper, you might enjoy my lead in for this essay.

Check it out! Would love your feedback!