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Sunday, June 22, 2014

St. Thomas More; Obedient Even Unto Death...

"I die the King's good servant, but God's first."  

-- St. Thomas More is one of my favorite saints and subject of one of my favorite classic films, A Man for All Seasons.  He was a 16th Century Oxford scholar, author and lawyer, who became Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of King Henry VIII, and was martyred for refusing to render alliance to the King over the Catholic Church. 

At the time, King Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry his lover, Anne Boleyn, and when Pope Clement VII denied him an annulment, he broke away from the Church and started his own; the Church of England, upon which he declared himself as spiritual head. 

He demanded loyalty from his subjects, especially those in authority, and submission from the clergy.  Those that didn't, including More and St. John Fisher, a Catholic Bishop and close friend of More, were thrown in prison.  As higher profile officials, who refused to succumb to King Henry's pressure, they were tried, convicted of treason and eventually executed. 

St. Thomas More was a devout husband and father, a man of conviction, righteousness, courage and honor.  He stood up for his beliefs despite the consequences and never wavered from being true to God, the Church and his conscience.  

In the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is described, "Though He was a Son, He learned obedience by the things which He suffered."  St. Thomas More experienced some of that suffering during his imprisonment, separation from his family, unfair trial and execution.  He followed in the footsteps of Christ, who was obedient even unto death.   

Thomas More has become a symbol of conscientious objection ever since and, today, with governments infringing on religious rights all over the world, he is more relevant than ever.

In his book, Render Unto Caesar, Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, Archbishop Charles Chaput writes, "Thomas More persuades the modern heart not because he wanted to die but because he didn't.  He used all of his skills to avoid martyrdom, but he refused to escape it when the price came down to the integrity of his faith... More obeyed his conscience because he knew he was obligated to obey God first... His sacrifice was not an act of self-assertion... It was an act of obedience."       

Upon the scaffolding before his execution, More is said to have uttered the quote above, "I die the king's good servant but God's first." He was beheaded on July 6, 1535.  Four hundred years later, he was canonized a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1935 and declared "Patron of Statesmen and Politicians" by Pope John Paul II in 2000.  

Interestingly, when Pope Benedict XVI spoke before the British Parliament in Westminster Hall in 2010, it was reportedly the first time that a Roman Catholic was allowed to speak there since St. Thomas More's trial.

The Catholic Church celebrates his feast day on June 22nd.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sex, Marriage and Candid Conversations...

Fr. Larry making his point...
At a recent men's conference, nationally known speaker and author, Fr. Larry Richards said, "Yes, I am a 54-year-old virgin but don't laugh.  I know most of you are married and, after five years of marriage, you're probably as celibate as me!" 

A roar of laughter came from the crowd; understanding well what Fr. Larry was talking about.

In fact, as I recently told a gay friend, if opponents of the redefinition of marriage would only get this point across more effectively, the "gay-marriage" movement would dissolve in a heartbeat!

It's true; life has a way of complicating our sex lives.  Between kids, family obligations, work, responsibilities, stress, and the fact that couples are waiting longer to get married (I was 33, the same age Jesus was crucified, when my wife and I got hitched; not that I'm comparing the Crucifixion with my wedding but...), it's often hard to find the time and energy for a healthy sex life; which, let's be honest, is the lifeline of any healthy marriage. 

With that in mind, several weeks ago, the marriage covenant group my wife and I belong to held a candid and animated discussion on sex and marriage, which was led by a local OBGYN, who regularly counsels young couples getting married on the subject.

Since we have couples in our group that have been married longer than the doctor leading the discussion, it led to some hilarious banter and enlightening comments on what they do to put a little spice on their sex life and why couples need to overcome any obstacle to make intimacy a priority in their relationships.

By the sound of some comments, it must get easier when children get a little older and more independent and are out doing their own thing (I hope!), instead of coming into your bedroom in the middle of the night because they had a nightmare, aren't feeling well, or just want to sleep with mom and dad, which at our house is at least a couple of times a week; and, of course, it's usually on weekends!

It can be challenging.  Just as difficult for us, as I shared in the discussion, is that my wife and I practice Natural Family Planning, better known as NFP, and have  limited windows of opportunities to be intimate during a given month. 

Since both of us work hard, especially my wife, who after getting home from her day job, does homework with the kids, does laundry, teaches Zumba, and cooks dinner, what happens regularly is that she is exhausted by the time I come into bed (or so she says!).  Other times, I may be exhausted since I get up at 6:40am to work out in the morning and she' watching a show on TV (Not that you'd be able to tell by my svelte physique), or worse, we get into a fight the day we can and are not in the mood (In fact, sometimes we agree to avoid any controversial conversation on days we can to avoid getting into a fight!).  It's not easy.

I often joke that from marriage to the priesthood wouldn't be such a big deal for me.  Ok., so maybe I would have to learn to live alone, think of others instead of myself, be more humble and acquire some discipline, but, as far as celibacy, as Fr. Larry said, it would not be such a big stretch!

My wife and I have an ongoing joke and discussion with the group about laundry.  It's been a sore spot in our marriage for years.  My wife absolutely hates doing the laundry (although she has embraced it and offered it up to God in recent years) yet, after years of complaining (without much reaction from me; outside of internally thinking: suck it up, already!), I decided, after attending a recent retreat, to offer to do the laundry twice a week (It was like the heavens opens and the host of angels started singing!).  I've been doing it ever since.  (And actually enjoy it, though let's keep this between us!)

During the meeting, I shared, in my own self-deprecating humor, that even after volunteering to do the laundry twice a week, I was still not getting any! (Let the violins start playing here!) My wife quickly stood up and chimed in, "You've only been doing it for less than two weeks!"

But, all joking aside, there's something to be said about abstinence within a marriage.  It shows self-restraint and that, unlike animals, we can control our carnal passions.  St. Joseph was a chaste spouse (of course if the Godman was conceived and born from my wife's womb, I'd be gunshy myself!) and many couples practice abstention in their relationships.

But, as I noted before, sexual relations are a fundamental, if not essential, part of most healthy marriages because it enjoins a couple both physically and spiritually in the most profound way; in fact, more than any other single act or sign, which is what God meant our vocation to be; sacramental.

Taking our vows...
In his book, Be A Man! Becoming the Man God Created You to Be, Fr. Larry writes, "Both males and females reflect the image of God, but in different ways.  Our physical bodies are very different, but they are complementary, which is a glorious thing.  Male bodies and female bodies fit together; they become a whole person when they become one.  God created us that way on purpose."

If you consider the profundity of that union; just think that God creates life through it.  We become participants in God's creation!  In a sacrificial and self-giving way, a man gives his "life" to his wife when he does so freely, fully, and without restrictions, and a woman opens herself up to receive that life, when done freely, fully and without restrictions.  Two flesh become one and then become three (about nine months later!). 

In his Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II wrote that through the sexual union a husband and wife, enter into the innermost life of the Holy Trinity, who is family.  We become reflections of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the human family.  It's where we get outside of ourselves and learn to love like God loves. So Jerry Maguire was right when he said to Dorothy Boyd, "You complete me!"

John Paul also said that the ecstasy we experience during climax is but a foretaste of the ecstasy that we will experience when we're in heaven.  How do you like them apples?  (Let's just say, I really wanna get to heaven!) 

Sex is also a unifying bond within marriage and what happens to us is that, when, because of one thing or another, a few weeks go by without it, a corrosive tension starts building between us.  I can sense it in the way we interact with each other and our children.  There is this underlying conflict which is palpable and can be deteriorating, if we let it.  It happens to many couples.

In his classic, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis makes a great point on virtuous deeds which applies well here.  He writes, "Active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened.  The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel."

So, let us start acting like we feel (as often as possible!) so as to not start feeling like we act; it's what God made us for; to love!...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Lessons on Fatherhood from My Dad...

Dad and me...
According to national figures, sixty-three percent of youth suicides come from fatherless homes, eighty-five percent of children that show behavior problems come from fatherless homes and seventy-one percent of high school dropouts come from fatherless homes.
And, that’s just a small sample.  The statistics are alarming; from the percentage of people in prisons, to rapists, to poverty levels, crime and a host of other social maladies, they all appear to be heightened by the same constant; the lack of a father or father figure in a child's life. 

We are living in a nation where, because of divorce and children being born out of wedlock, more than 4 out of 10 children live without dad in the home and it jumps to as high as 7 out of 10 in the inner city and poor neighborhoods.
In other words, we have become a fatherless nation and, as a result, have pierced the very fabric of any society, which has always been the family.

With that in mind, I wanted to share some thoughts on fatherhood.  

Of course, since I have only been in the game for thirteen short years and in that brief time have amassed my fair share of Costa Concordia-type mishaps (Sans the tragic loss of lives or pulling a Captain Franscesco Schettino, the guy who said, to hell with this, and jumped ship before the cruise ship sank, leaving his crew and passengers to fend for themselves!), time would be better spent sharing memories and lessons from my own father, to whom I owe the little I know about what it means to be a loving father, the role of a dad and how fatherhood relates to God by his example.

In fact, I can't write about fatherhood without writing about God, the source of all human fatherhood, since earthly fathers are but an imperfect reflection of the Heavenly Father.  And, often times, a child's perspective of God is influenced by the example of their biological or adoptive father.

In my case, I can honestly say that my dad taught me unconditional love of family.  My dad is the product of divorce, at a time when it was not very common.  Consequently, he did everything he could to make sure my mom, brother and I felt loved, protected and provided for.

I also learned commitment and sacrifice.  Not only did he bring us to the United States with just the clothes on his back, like many Cubans fleeing Communism, but he always chose family over personal aspirations, whenever they conflicted with time away from his wife and kids. 

After the initial struggle of working two and three jobs when we first arrived to make ends meet and send me to Catholic school, once we got a little settled, his spare time was always spent with us.  

I recall many Saturday mornings in Port Chester, NY, when he would take my brother and me to the park to hit us ground balls and fly balls and pitch us batting practice during the summer. 

It continued when we moved to Miami to get away from the cold weather and for a chance for him to work as a civil engineer, which was his livelihood until we came to America.  And, once we started playing organized baseball, he and my mom never missed a game.

I also have fond memories of him taking me to work when I was about eleven or twelve.  My uncle owned a gas station and, for a time, my dad was helping him by working as a mechanic.  For several months, he opened and closed the business on Saturdays.  

I recall waking up in the early morning hours, when it was still dark out, having breakfast and going to work with him.  We would open up the shop and I would help customers pump gas and wipe their windshields all day for tips.  I used to get 25 or 50 cents.  Every once in a while, I would even get a dollar!  My mom and brother would come by in the afternoon to be with us and to pick me up but I always wanted to stay until closing.  For me, it was an adventure.  For my dad, it was a chance to spend the day with me. 

My dad worked hard all his life.  He did everything from working at a factory, to a short stint as a mechanic with my uncle, to window blind installation (which came in handy when my wife and I installed blinds at our house!), to door-to-door sales, to selling space on cargo containers for South and Central America.  He never was able to work again as a civil engineer, since when we moved down the company that offered him the job went out of business and he had to latch on to whatever was available.  

Through it all, he taught me humility, loyalty and fidelity, discipline and mercy, piety, patience, humor and an appreciation for what God had given us.  He never complained or showed bitterness.  He led by example and was always there for my brother and me.

In fact, there were so many times that I needed him and he came to rescue me without hesitation; the time in high school when my friends and I got a flat tire on the way home from a party and didn't know how to change the tire, or the night I was trying to make a U-turn on a side street on my way home from a date, after it had rained all day, and got stuck in the mud on the shoulder of the street.  I spent over an hour trying to dig my car out and it only got worse.  The tire sank deeper into the slimy ground.  Finally, covered in wet dirt from head to toe, I walked to a nearby Burger King and called my dad (there were no cell phones at the time!).  It was like a Duck Dynasty episode!

Even today, whenever I have an issue with my car, I don't call Triple A, I call my dad!

Now, I'm sure there were times of disappointment as a father; the day I got an earring and my mother asked my brother, in all sincerity, if I had joined a gang, the night I got home plastered after drinking with buddies and, when I lied down to go to sleep, the room started spinning and I threw up on my bed and probably the biggest doozy, the night he had to bail me out of the Broward County Jail (see blog here), but, even though he would always talk to me and give me sound advice, he never let his disappointment show. 
In his book inspired by the Rembrandt painting of the parable, The Return of the Prodigal Son; a Story of Homecoming, which is one of the most profound spirituality books I have ever read, Fr. Henri Nouwen writes:

“The heart of the father burns with an immense desire to bring his children home.

Oh, how much would he have liked to talk to them, to warn them against the many dangers they were facing, and to convince them that at home can be found everything that they search for elsewhere.  How much would he have liked to pull them back with his fatherly authority and hold them close to himself so that they would not get hurt.

But his love is too great to do any of that.  It cannot force, constrain, push, or pull.  It offers the freedom to reject that love or to love in return.  It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering. God, creator of heaven and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost, a Father.”  
For me, that is the heart of what it means to be a true father; a reflection of God the Father and it could well describe my dad.

I, on the other hand, regularly fall short of that image to my kids.

I remember an incident several months ago with my six-year-old son, who I spanked harder than I meant to due to frustration over his failure to pick up his room, after repeated warnings.  Afterwards, as I often do when I fly off the handle with my kids, I regretted my harsh measures.

Every night, I bless my kids with holy water and pray with them before they go to bed.  That particular night, I laid down next to him in bed and said I was sorry for being so mean.  He looked at me tenderly, hugged me, kissed me and said, "It's o.k. daddy.  It's o.k."

At that moment, I felt overwhelming shame.  However, I also felt overwhelming love; God's love coming from my son.  God the Father was telling me through a six-year-old boy that despite my rough edges, I was His beloved son.  Moreover, I felt He was also telling me that I needed to take gentle care of the precious gifts He has bestowed on me to raise and father as my own.  It is a humiliating thought.

A friend of mine often tells me that fatherhood is as much about the love and example we provide as it is about constancy in the ordinary.  It's the comfort and security our children feel when dad is there day in and day out, that he loves mom, loves them and they will always take care of them.  Because, at the end of the day, what most of us want is to be happy, to feel safe and the acknowledgement that we are beloved sons and daughters of our Heavenly Dad.

Happy Fathers' Day... 



Sunday, June 8, 2014

From Pastor's Kid to Catholic Mom...

Ken Hensley
Apart from reading, one of the things that most helped me learn and grow in my faith after my "reversion" seven years ago was listening to conversion stories and talks on Church teachings on CD's in my car. 

It was and still is a great way to make usually idle drive time into something a little more productive than listening to bubble gum music or the pontifications of opinionated radio hosts and gave me a deeper understanding of what my faith was all about after an almost 30 year hiatus.

One of my favorite speakers, and I'll admit I have many, maybe as many as I have favorite songs my teenage daughter would argue, was a former Baptist pastor turned Catholic apologist and author named Ken Hensley (No not the rock-n-roll legend!).

Using humor and anecdotes, Hensley talked about his conversion, family and fatherhood (not to mention, a great three-part series on Atheism, which I particularly like) and, during his talks, he often spoke about his kids, including a then teenage daughter named Blythe, who was very involved in her Protestant church youth group.  Blythe had a tough time adapting to her family's conversion at first, which, as often happens with converts, cost them his career, family and friends.

Blythe Fike
I was looking through Facebook one recent Saturday morning and came across an article by Brandon Vogt about a woman he discovered named Blythe Fike, who was a wife, home school mother of five children and a fellow blogger (The Fike Life).

Immediately the name, Blythe, caught my attention because of the CD's I had listened to and, wanting to know more about her, I watched a video on You Tube, and discovered she was the daughter of a former Baptist minister, who had converted to Catholicism.  (No way!)   

It turns out Blythe is Ken Henley's daughter, who eventually entered the Church, along with her husband Kirby, whom she met in the same youth group. (Yes, way!)

The young mom is now all grown up (31) and passionate about her Catholic faith.  She says doubts in the divisions among Christian denominations is what led her and her husband to start searching and reading, which ultimately led them into the Catholic Church.

In the video, she says, "To us it didn't seem to speak of the nature of God that is One and unified.  I think there's over forty thousand denominations since the Protestant Reformation... So, we just went back.  We started going back through history and what we found is Catholicism and so we made that leap."

When asked about having so many children at so young an age and if she was going to stop at five, Blythe answered, "Part of the fundamental teaching of the Church is that God is Love.  And, that love is generous and it sacrifices.  And, so, as practicing Catholics, we believe that our love and our marriage should mimic that generosity and that sacrifice.  So, we're open to what God wants to do.  We're trusting Him that it will all work out.  And, so far it has.  So, I don't feel afraid what the future holds for us.  Life is certainly crazy and it's loud but it's so good and it's really nourished our marriage in a very intense and powerful way and I would never trade that sort of bonding intense love."

She and her kids were featured in a fun and lighthearted episode of Soul Pancake's "Have a Little Faith" series, where she talks about her conversion, NFP (aka Natural Family Planning), homeschooling and her homeschool community, Confession and who God is.  Check it out: