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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Courage, Trust and Riding a Bike...

Riding a bike in firemen boots...
"Do you know what courage is?" I asked my 8-year-old son in frustration, after repeatedly trying to get him to trust that I wouldn't let go of his bike seat if he started pedaling.  "It's when you're afraid but you do it anyway."

"Everybody is afraid of something," I continued, "But courage means you trust in God and do it anyway."  (Pot up the Hoosiers or Rudy theme song here!)

Except, the record player would play a few promising and uplifting notes, before sounding like the needle scratching across vinyl (Did I just date myself?).  My son looked at me blankly (like if asking internally, "What the hell is he talking about?"), pedaled once, and put his foot down.  He just wouldn't trust me!

Our younger daughter, who is 11, gave it a shot.  She tried reasoning, telling him that when she learned to ride, I held the seat of her bike and didn't let go until I was sure she was balanced and pedaling.  She then began coaxing him into pedaling over to her, who stood a few feet in front of him.

He couldn't do it.  His foot would hit the pavement involuntarily, sort of like Pitbull saying "Dale" in one of his songs.

Notwithstanding his apparent willingness and determination to learn, it wasn't working.  And, to me, it started to feel all too familiar.

It's taken me several tries to teach my kids to ride a bike.  My oldest daughter learned with my father, after several failed attempts with me.  Our middle girl, also took a couple of tries and frustrated efforts.  And, my son, well, let's just say, the last time, which was about a year ago, ended with him stumping off, yelling, "I don't want to ride a bike!  I don't ever want to ride a bike.  I don't care!" (He's a bit dramatic.  It must be from my wife's side of the family!)

And, so now, here we were again, at his own request, after Sunday Mass.  Yet, no matter how I or his sister tried, he wouldn't trust me to hold his bicycle upright.  

It was exasperating.  My patience was waning (a common denominator in all my failed attempts at teaching my kids to ride a bike!).

Maybe, I waited too long!  I learned to ride a bike on the day I got one, when I was about 5-years-old. My uncle took the training wheels off, put me on the bike and told me to pedal.  I ran into the wall of the front porch of our house but got up, took the bike down to the front yard and started pedaling again.  After falling several times, I learned.  Unlike my son, my parents say I wasn't afraid.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall...
In fact, I was fearless as a kid (not that I knew any better!), to the point where, at about the same age, maybe a bit younger, I thought I was Superman and, thinking I could fly, jumped off the top of the stairwell that led to the roof of my Great Grandfather's house.  I was immediately introduced to gravity, while tumbling on my head, shoulders and back like Peter falling down the stairs in Family Guy.  I ended up with a huge bump on my forehead (but no broken bones!).    

Getting back to our story, I left my son practicing on his own in the driveway, one pedal, foot down, two pedals, foot down, one pedal, foot down, two pedals, foot down, and so on, as I went to light the barbecue to cook dinner.

It was Divine Mercy Sunday and, as I sat there with a glass of wine in my hand and burgers on the grill, thinking about how little trust my son had in me and how little patience I had with him, it hit me.

"Jesus I trust in you."  The words that St. Faustina Kowalska had inscribed on the image of Christ, as He had appeared to her, inspiring the Divine Mercy devotion.  We had just heard about it at Mass.

My son wouldn't trust me and I was too impatient.  Yet, here I was at the tender age of 52, at a crossroad in my life, since soon my kids will be going off to college.  I have thirteen, maybe, eighteen earning years left in life (God willing!).  I have debt up to my eyeballs, like Stanley Johnson, the guy in the Lending Tree commercial (sans the two-story, four-bedroom house and country club membership).  I have little savings, despite a good paying job that, while earning more than my parents ever did (together), will never afford me three college tuition, and wondering, where do I go from here, like the old Alan Parson Project song, Games People Play, queried.  So, I have to ask myself, do I really trust in Jesus? Do I follow His lead, even if it means taking the road less traveled and having to crash and scrape my knees a few times along the way?  Or, do I constantly stop and put my foot down like my son? Moreover, how impatient is God with me, as I am with my son for his lack of trust?

The words of our parish priest that day came to mind, "The Lord is so much better to us than we actually deserve.  He gave up His life for us, even though we offend Him all the time, even though, we killed Him."

A sense of shame overcame me; not enough to stop grilling or sipping wine, mind you, but shame nonetheless. I prayed for more patience with my son and vowed to teach him to ride a bike and to stop putting my own foot down with God.    

I sometimes feel like the father, whose son Jesus heals of an evil spirit in the Gospel of Mark, who says, "Lord, I do believe!  Help my unbelief."

As for my son?  Talk about God's mercy!  I guess, He didn't want to test my patience any longer.  By the time I got home from work on Monday, he was riding a bike by himself.  He apparently had more trust in my Mom!...

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

We Hurt Because We Love...

"The only mended heart, the only complete heart, the only healthy heart, is the one that's been broken."   -- Peter Kreeft.

I heard this one recent morning on my way to work and thought of the Bee Gees 1975 classic, How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?, where Barry Gibbs sings, "Please help me mend my broken heart and let me live again."

Yet, pain and sorrow are what make us human.  We hurt because we're human.  As the great Author and Philosopher Peter Kreeft points out, a heart that's never been broken, is a heart that has never loved.  And, a heart that's never loved, is a heart that's never lived or experienced a true encounter with God...       

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Fulton Sheen on the Cross and the Resurrection...

"The Cross had asked the questions; the Resurrection had answered them... The Cross had asked: 'Why does God permit evil and sin to nail Justice to a tree?'  The Resurrection answered: 'That sin, having done its worst, might exhaust itself and this be overcome by Love that is stronger than either sin or death."

-- Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in Lent and Easter Wisdom.  Sheen was a priest, author and one of the first televangelists in U.S. history.  He hosted a prime time television show in the 50's and 60's.  His cause of canonization to be declared a saint of the Church was officially opened in 2001, and, in 2014, Pope Benedict XVI recognized him as "Venerable Servant to God," for a life of heroic virtue.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Ignatius of Antioch and the Way of the Cross...

St. Ignatius of Antioch...
It is one thing to say you are willing to die for your beliefs but it's another to actually do it.

As far as I'm concerned, that's the true measure of a man; having the faith and fortitude to stand up for one's beliefs, even at the risk of certain peril.

Knowing, as William Wallace put it in Braveheart, "Fight and you may die.  Run and you will live; at least awhile."

It is a quandary Christians have faced since St. Stephen was stoned to death in the Acts of the Apostles and one many are still facing today in different parts of the world.

Yet of the possibly millions of Christian martyrs around the globe during the past two thousand years, including St. Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in Auschwitz, when he heard the man beg for his life because of his family, and the priests and faithful buried alive in Communist China, who went to their deaths singing and praising the Lord, as the dirt was thrown into their graves, there may not be a more legendary symbol of faith and courage than St. Ignatius of Antioch, the first century bishop, who was instructed in the faith by the Apostle John and was ordained a priest by the Apostles Peter and Paul.

St. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, one of the most important cities in early Christianity, for almost 40 years.

During the Christian persecution of the Emperor Trajan, St. Ignatius, being the leader of the Christians in Syria's capital city, was arrested and condemned to die in the Roman amphitheater.  He was chained and marched overland through Asia Minor, then put on a ship and, after various stops, finally brought to Rome to be fed to lions.

What made St. Ignatius forever woven into the fabric of Christian history is the seven letters, or epistles, he wrote to the different communities of faithful and to his loyal friend St. Polycarp (who was also later martyred), as he was being taken to his certain demise in Rome.  The letters were preserved (and still available today) and considered by some as inspired writings before the canon of the Bible was assembled.

In the letters, he dissuaded Christians to try to stop his martyrdom because he was willing to die for Christ.  In fact, he encouraged them to pray for it, "Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God."

The great Anglican convert John Henry Cardinal Newman, who led about 100 Anglican clergy into the Catholic Church, once wrote, "the whole system of Catholic doctrine may be discovered, at least in outline, not to say in parts filled up, in the course of his seven epistles."

St. Ignatius, who was the first to record the term, "Catholic Church," which means universal, when referring to the Christian Church of the First Century, in his writings, wrote, among other things, about Church hierarchy, the importance of the bishop in the lives of the faithful, the sacraments, and most especially, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

At this time of year, as we commemorate Good Friday and venerate the Cross and Jesus' ultimate sacrifice for the redemption of the world, may we consider St. Ignatius of Antioch, most of the Apostles, St. Stephen, St. Maximilian and all the Christian martyrs through the annals of history, who have imitated Christ to the fullest by way of the Cross, in giving up their life for their faith.

As St. Paul wrote in the Letter to the Philippians, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."...

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Champion Fighter, the Loss and Life Worth Living...

Down and out...
In many ways, Ronda Rousey was to Women's Mixed Martial Arts Fighting what Clubber Lang was to movie boxing in Rocky III ; a ferocious competitor, who beat most of her opponents in the first round and was so dominant that ESPN once called her the "Best Female Athlete EVER."

At the ripe old age of 29, she was on top of her sport, having been crowned the Ultimate Fighting Championship's Bantamweight Champion in 2012, appearing on magazine covers, starring in Hollywood movies and TV shows, and becoming UFC's highest paid fighter (and that includes men!).

She had looks.  She had success.  She had fame. She had fortune. She had respect.

Then came Holly Holm; a preacher's daughter, who was more experienced but much less touted, despite having been a boxing and kickboxing champion.  Holm was a consensus underdog in the bout and the only question was whether she would make it past the first round.

Clubber was one mean dude...
As it turns out, Holm did get past the first and, in the second round, she pulled a Clubber Lane versus Rocky (first movie fight) herself, knocking out the heavily favored Rousey.  It was like Buster Douglas (the man who first defeated Mike Tyson) all over again.

While doctors and trainers attended to the battered, bloodied, toothless (she lost a tooth!) and confused Rousey on the mat on that November night in Melbourne, Australia, Holm raised her arms in victory. She had stunned the MMA boxing world and become the unlikely UFC Bantamweight Champion. Who'd have thunk it?  (In fact, it was so improbable that Holm lost the title a few months later!)

Rousey, meanwhile, was left despondent and broken.  Her rising star coming to a crashing halt almost as fast as Rick Perry's 2016 presidential aspirations.  And, as she sat in the corner of the medical room she was taken, she admitted to talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, last month, that she considered ending her life.

"What am I any more if I’m not this?  And I was literally sitting there and thinking about killing myself and that exact second I’m like, ‘I’m nothing, what do I do any more and no one gives a [expletive] about me any more without this."

It was a somber and earnest admission that sadly, reflects the thinking of many people in our society; who define themselves by what they do.

Short lived  champ Holly Holm...
As I read about Rousey's comments several days later, I was dismayed.  How could someone so young, attractive and successful think about ending her life, because, she lost a fight?  Really?  Is that what her life was relegated to?  

The more I pondered the question, the more I thought that it all comes down to a lack of fulfillment, regardless of her many accomplishments.

It reminded me of St. Thomas Aquinas' four substitutes for God; money, power, pleasure and fame, all of which Rousey apparently had (at least from the outside looking in).  But, there had to be something missing.

I don't know about Rousey, but, as I reflected on my own life, what was missing for a good part of it, and no matter how much I tried, I could never fill it, was God.

Several weeks ago, our parish men's group held a discussion on the topic, "Who am I" and I couldn't help but think of Rousey.

We are not defined by what we do professionally, how many awards, titles or accolades we earn, or how much money we have in the bank.  We are not defined by our looks, our possessions, our sexual orientation, or how much power we wield.  We are defined by who we are; children of God, made in His image and likeness, and as such, endowed with a God-given dignity that can never be erased by any failure, no matter how great (even losing a Championship fight), or sin.  And, that, to me at least, is reassuring and gives my life meaning and purpose.

I may never achieve what Rousey has accomplished (although my wife and I are working hard on getting me to my ultimate fighting weight!), or having as much success or notoriety (Not that I would look good on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swim Suit issue but, you never know).  Nevertheless, I have something that maybe Rousey lacks, at least according to what she conveyed.  I have a sense of happiness and fulfillment that can only be filled by God.  I know that God loves me for who I am, no matter what I do or fail to do.  Hence, I have nothing to prove except to myself.

The eye of the tiger...
In the interview with Ellen, Rousey went on about that fateful loss, and the thought that made her come to her senses, "I looked up and I saw my man Travis [Browne] was standing up there and I looked up at him and I was like, ‘I need to have his babies. I need to stay alive.’ I was like — really, that was it."

She continued, "I did a lot of thinking and I was like, why did this happen?  Why did it have to happen like this?  I do believe all the best things happen from the worst things."

We only have to look at a Crucifix to see how insightful that last statement is.  To paraphrase Bishop Robert Barron, "From the most grotesque instrument of torture ever conceived by man comes greatest joy ever known to humanity."

Now, four months later, as she recovers and looks forward to her rematch with Holm (Or Miesha Tate, who defeated Holm), where she will surely try to channel the Clubber Lang from within, it is evident that, after all the anguish and pain, Rousey once again seeing that, as the old Fulton Sheen show was named, 'life is worth living.'...

Check out the interview with Ellen...

Monday, February 22, 2016

Workplace Conversations on Confession and the Priesthood...

The Confession by Giuseppe Molteni 1838
"Confessing to a priest?" the man said dismissively, as we were about to start our editorial meeting at work.  "I haven't gone to Confession with a priest since I was 11-years-old!" (Mind you, the man is pushing 60!)  He went on, "I knew too many priests who were scoundrels and I ain't about to confess to no scoundrel priest.  No way!"

"It's not the priest who forgives your sins," I offered, as some co-workers listened in, "It's God using the priest."

"I know.  I know.  I confess.  But, I confess directly to God, not a priest," he shot back.

At that point I kind of floundered and, like a civil servant employee who doesn't want to deal with the unruly customer any longer and says "next!" to the following guy in line, I moved on to the task at hand; our meeting.

Although, the man was raised Catholic, he was obviously touting the Protestant party line against Confession.  And, to me, it sounded all too familiar.

I remember a time in my life when I probably felt the same. Not the scoundrel part, mind you, but the confessing to God part of his argument.

In fact, in a 25 year period, from the time I started high school until I was about 41, I went to Confession a grand total of one time.  I remember because it was on my wedding day!

I was one of those people who was, for some reason, a lot like the man I was talking to, angry at the Church, angry at the Pope and the clergy, maybe even angry at God. Why?  As I look back, it was probably for putting all these rules and restrictions on my life.  Rules and restrictions that I wanted no part of; not so much for prohibiting murder, lying or stealing but for trying to interfere with my sex life!  But, as they say, if God is not the lord of every aspect of your life, He's not the lord of any.

In essence, I think the man I was talking to was doing what I did for so many years; finding justification for my behavior so I could continue to do it.  Many people do that. We make excuses about the way we live to the point, where we start believing our own arguments, even when it contradicts what we know deep down inside.  It's human nature.

For me, that's one of the strongest arguments for the need to confess our sins to a priest.  Jesus understood that, left to our own devices, we could and would justify just about anything we did.

"It's not that bad," we tell ourselves. "Other people are doing much worse."  Which may be why, after the Resurrection, Christ gave the Apostles the power to forgive and retain sins.  Of course, the only way they could do that was for people to confess their sins to them! It's a practice that goes back that far.    

Why would Jesus choose flawed and sinful men to forgive and retain sins?  Only He knows but the Apostles passed on that power to the first bishops and priests and the Church has been passing it down from generation to generation ever since.

Moreover, confessing to a priest requires humility, which is the opposite of pride; the granddaddy and common denominator of all sin.  To tell another person my darkest secrets is not easy.  I don't think it was meant to be.  But, in doing so, I see myself for who I am; a flawed and broken man.  In the process, I realize my dependence on God to heal and reconcile me to Himself.

And, I'll be honest, when the priest says the words of absolution, "God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; and through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen," it feels as if the weight of the world is lifted from my shoulders.

Unlike the man at work who confesses directly to God and hears nothing but silence, through the instrumentality of the priesthood, I experience the love and mercy of God.  I know, through his words, that my sins are forgiven.   It's amazing!

The entire conversation started with another co-worker talking about her son, who is getting ready for his first Confession, in preparation for his First Holy Communion.

"They're making it like a Sacrament," she complained.

"It is a Sacrament," I interjected.

"But why are they making him go to Confession a year before his First Communion?" she asked.

"When I did my First Communion, I did my Confession that same day," another colleague stated.

I said, "Maybe, they want the kids to get used to going to Confession on a regular basis."

"Is that so that they go before they get married and for other Sacraments?" the second colleague asked.

"Actually, I try to go every three weeks," I answered.

"Are you serious?" the first co-worker, who started the conversation, asked.

"Yes," I answered,"And, working in this place, I should be going every week!"

In any case, while I was left speechless in my meeting room conversation with the man I first mentioned, if I had not been in such a hurry to move on, I would have said what I told to another man with a similar argument once (albeit in a more conducive environment); regardless of what he may think of the "scoundrel priests," you don't let the sins of men keep you from the graces that God intended for you...


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Inspiration from a Reader and a Bobblehead...

I'm going to pump you up!
Alright, so I'm already digging myself out of a hole, after promising to write more in my last blog.  I was called out on it by a reader named Norma, who wrote, "Blog more?  You've already failed, and it's only Jan. 29 ;-) I blog several times a day," and she'a absolutely right.

Unfortunately, my workload has been heavier than usual due to some personnel issues we've been dealing with and having to prepare for the upcoming ratings period starting next Thursday (which a good part of falls on me!), not to mention, employee evaluations, which have taken a great deal of my time.

I've also had to prepare a couple of discussions I led this month.  The first on Life in Christ and the Moral Law for the adult catechist class (RCIA) at my parish, where I discussed the Beatitudes, finding happiness and why we need to gear our lives towards the will of God.

The second was a discussion I led for my wife's Spanish women's group, which was only the second time I ever spoke to a group in Spanish (albeit a small group).  While, Spanish is my native language, it's not the one I am most comfortable with.  There I discussed my faith journey and elaborated on the meaning of the Mass, the Eucharist, how the Bible was canonized and the covenants that God made with mankind.  Although, it may sound all over the place, I was able to weave them in cohesively into my talk.

Still, I can also admit that those are not the sole reasons for my failure to write more often (This being just the third blog this month).  Part of it (and possibly the greatest part) has been pure and unadulterated laziness.  Sloth is another of my recurring sins in the Confessional!  Whether as a writer, as a husband, father or in fitness, which is obvious by my svelte and chiseled physique, I have a problem with inertia.

In any case, as I sit here in my home office looking at a bobblehead of a man with no shirt and rippled stomach that my wife got in the mail, as part of her burgeoning Beachbody coaching business (Doesn't every woman get a shirtless man's bobblehead in the mail?), and the toy's menacing eyes feel like they're looking at me in judgement, I realize the need to heed to Norma's admonition.

In fact, as I sit here with mister shirtless bobblehead looking at me, I think I'll go for a run as well. Thank you, Norma for the good kick in the butt.  Hopefully, it won't take me over two weeks for my next blog...