As we approach the end of the "24 Days of Thanksgiving" journey, here are four more reasons to give thanks from November 17 through November 20.
November 17: Give Thanks for St. Elizabeth of Hungary
Today is the feast day of another wonderful saint, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Like St. Margaret of Scotland yesterday, St. Elizabeth of Hungary was also royalty.
Ponder: She was born a little more than 100 years after St. Margaret of Scotland, in 1207. She married Louis of Thuringia, and they had 3 children. Elizabeth lived a life of simple service, choosing not to indulge in luxury or ignore the people whom she could help. She is also an example of a person who chose to turn personal tragedy into a life of service.
Elizabeth wore simple clothing and spent her time ministering to the sick and helping the poor. She is known for her saying, " How could I bear a crown of gold, when the Lord bears a crown of thorns? And he bears it for me!" Sadly, Elizabeth's husband died after only 6 years of marriage and her husband's family mistreated her, even finally forcing her to leave the palace. Her husband's allies came to her help, however, and she was reinstated since her son was the legal heir to the throne.
In 1228, Elizabeth joined the Secular Franciscan Order, spending the remaining few years of her life caring for the poor in a hospital which she founded. Elizabeth’s health declined, and she died aged only 23, in 1231. She was canonized just four years later.
Elizabeth is often portrayed as a young woman with loaves of bread in her apron, as a reminder of the many loaves of bread she distributed to the poor daily. Sometimes she is shown with roses, instead of bread, pointing to the many miracles attributed to her soon after her death. She is the patroness of widows, brides, Catholic Charities and the Secular Franciscan Order.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the life and example of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. We pray for her continued intercession for the country of Hungary. May we follow her example of faithfulness, even in times of great distress. Amen.
November 18: Give Thanks for Warm Clothes
Ponder: When the wind picks up outside and you can hear it whipping around the door, let's be grateful for warm earmuffs like these.
When the temperature drops, and you know you have outside chores/walks to school/drives in cold cars, let's give thanks for warm mittens like these.
When your nose turns red and starts stinging about 5 minutes after you go outside, let's give thanks for scarves like these.
When the flowers fade from sight and those first frosts settle in, let's give thanks for warm winter coats.
Let's be grateful for all the warm clothes that we have and give to those who don't.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the many ways you keep us warm, from warm clothes to warm hearts. May we never take these gifts for granted. Amen.
November 19: Give Thanks for Second Chances
Our pastor likes to say that "Our God is the God of Second Chances," (or third, or fourth or even 78th!)
I saw the second-chance mentality in action a few years ago, when I was waiting for a 3rd grade class who were lined up for Reconciliation. One little child asked "Is Father going to judge me and be mad?"
"No," her catechist answered, "He is speaking for Jesus, who is very happy that you are coming to talk to him. You just have to say anything that you feel sorry for."
The young girl nodded, then sighed. "I'm glad I'm doing this." she said. "I have a deep sorrow to talk about."
Putting aside wondering what "deep sorrow" such a young person could possibly have to confess, it was nevertheless inspiring to see such a small person reflect on her actions. She realized she had done something that she wished she had not done, and here was her opportunity to go and make it right.
Ponder: The idea of second chances is not new. In fact, the Old Testament is filled with stories of God giving second chances. That's why there are so many covenants. But one thing that we do often overlook is that in order to be reconciled - to God, to our neighbors and within ourselves - there has to be repentance. Repentance is the key that opens the door of mercy. Only those who realize they have done something wrong, can then also decide to repent of it. It seems rather obvious, but it's surprising how often this step is missed. Then, of course, true repentance is also followed by a change in behavior. Sometimes this change is the real barrier to repentance. We are sorry, sort of, just not enough to change.
As the liturgical year draws to its final few days, and the Mass readings continually focus on the end times and the 2nd coming of Christ, it's good for us to remind ourselves that we don't have to get everything right, all the time and every time. Our God is the God of Second Chances, and as long as we are willing to trust the mercy of Christ, we can always start over.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for your endless mercy and willingness to forgive. Keep us close to you, so that we will seek forgiveness and teach us to imitate you in forgiving others. Amen.
Nov. 20: Give Thanks for Ushers
Ushers? That's an odd thing to be thankful for, right?
But, if you think about it, aren't ushers the quintessential symbol of the servant? They are the largely unnoticed helpers who glide about in the back of church, only coming forward at the appropriate times. If you didn't already know the names of the same ushers you see every weekend, you probably still don't know them. That's how ushers are. They quietly serve.
Here are some of the things I saw the ushers do this past weekend:
-a child was coughing (and coughing and coughing) during Mass. Suddenly, a friendly arm reached into the pew, offering a cup and a bottle of water to the child.
-latecomers to Mass became the most important people in the world, as the ushers arranged to find seats for them (and they were friendly about it, too, as though now Mass could REALLY start because these wonderful people had arrived!)
-doors were held open
-pathways were created for the altar servers
-after everyone was seated in a very full church, an elderly woman with a walker made her way into the narthex. She was noticed by an usher, who immediately welcomed her and went to ascertain her needs. Should she be seated in the front? Did she need to be near the bathroom? The usher found out the woman also needed a seat for her caregiver, who arrived a few minutes later. Somehow, two more seats were located, and the pair were led to them.
-during communion, the eucharistic ministers were led straight to 3 different people, in different parts of the church, who were unable to walk to communion themselves. The ushers had found these people earlier, told them not to worry and that they would be taken care of, then followed through on that promise by bringing the ministers to them.
Ponder: Watching these people go about their work was truly witnessing a sign of the Kingdom of God. They are all volunteers, who sign up and show up faithfully. They are not helping for their own glory, not in any way. They just want to help people so that everyone can have a good experience of Mass; can participate and pray well and have an encounter with God. Everything in their ministry is about everyone else and everyone else's needs.
The show "Everyone Loves Raymond" poked fun at Raymond's father, in one episode. Ray accused his dad of only wanting to be an usher so that he could hang out in the back to gossip and skip praying. That may be true in the show, but on reflection, have you actually ever seen most ushers blow off what's happening in the Mass? The exact opposite seems to be much closer to the truth. Most of the time, the unseen ushers are very much aware of what is happening, and they maintain an attitude of respect.
Wouldn't it be something if more of us acted like ushers, not just at Mass, but especially when we leave the church and go out into the "mission fields?" Next weekend, notice those men and women who give up their time to serve everyone else in the church, and think about how we can imitate them.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for ushers, whose faithful service helps others to worship you. Amen.
-Fifth and Final Part 5 coming soon!-
Continuing the "24 Days of Thanksgiving" theme, here are three more days to Give Thanks.
November 9: Give Thanks for Basilicas
November 9th is the day we remember the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. To be specific, the Lateran Basilica is the Basilica of St. John Lateran, in Rome. Why would this dedication make it into the liturgical calendar, and why is it important?
Ponder: First of all, we have to realize that church buildings, simply in and of themselves, are signs of hope. There's a story told of an atheist person who would drive by a large church each day. Even though she herself did not believe, she said, she was glad to see that building every day because it meant that there were people in this world who did believe. She didn't feel that she could pray, but she was glad there were people who could. That understanding is the most basic understanding of what "church" is - a community of believers who gather to have an encounter with the living God.
Sometimes just the act of gathering together is enough of a witness. At my parish, we remember the story of an 80-year-old man who spent years driving by our church. One day, he just pulled in. He said he did it because every time he drove by, there were cars in the parking lot - night and day. He decided that if that many people thought this church was worth showing up to, maybe there was something worthwhile going on there. He eventually came in to see for himself, and he stayed.
Churches are also the physical places where we hope to find God. One of the members in my choir told me the story of how, through having this sacred space available, she essentially converted herself to Catholicism, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Our parish has a day chapel where the Eucharistic tabernacle is kept. It is open most of the time so that anyone can just drop in, whenever they need. This friend of mine drove by our church every day on her commute. At the time, she was going through a very difficult period in her life, and one day, it all came to a head. She suddenly had a desperate, overwhelming need to just be in a church, any church, and she thought of “that Catholic church she passed every day.” Surely, they would have a safe space to pray. She wandered in, sat down in front of the Blessed Sacrament, gazed at the life-sized crucifix on the wall, and burst into tears. She found enough peace in this small, quiet place to return, once, twice a week. After a few months of sitting with Jesus, she had the sudden revelation that “this place must do some type of worship on Sunday,” so she started attending Mass. When she told me her conversion story, it was two years after going through R.C.I.A. and being received into the Church, and it all started with finding a simple, physical space.
But on November 9, we specifically think about one church. There are a couple of the reasons why we remember and celebrate the dedication of the Lateran Basilica. This church is actually the seat of the Bishop of Rome, i.e. the Pope. The basilica features large sculptures of the 12 apostles, who are each shown holding symbols of their martyrdom. This church is a reminder of the call of every baptized person to spread the Good News, as well as the universal call to holiness. Secondly, being designated a basilica means that it holds a special place in the hierarchy of churches, so to speak. Basilicas can be fitting destinations for a pilgrimage and are usually of larger proportions and have more ability and tendency to adapt to the needs of pilgrims. So, for example, many basilicas have programs or festivals that encourage religious visits, pilgrimages and retreats. A visit to a basilica is an event, a celebration. It is a special thing to do within the spiritual life. Basilicas encourage and invite us to step out of ordinary life, and focus more fully on the transcendent, at least for a little while.
As Catholics, we designate our places of worship as holy places, as special places set apart. This, too, is a sign of the ultimate temple, the new Jerusalem that will be made up of living stones. So, for this gracious reminder, let us give thanks.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the skills and abilities you gave us, so that we can imagine and build such wonderful places of prayer and encounter. Help us to carry this gratitude in our hearts. Amen.
November 10: Give Thanks for Good Shoes
Ponder: Maybe the boots pictured above aren't exactly what you think of at the words "good shoes," but when the weather turns cold the problem of keeping your toes warm suddenly gets a lot more attention. We've probably all had the experience of freezing, wet feet, and the accompanying thought of wondering just how quickly one can get frostbite. A pair of good, warm, waterproof shoes goes to the top of the list of Important Things I Really Need Very Soon after you discover that you don't have any.
For most of us, good, warm shoes are a given. If we don’t have them, we can get them. But the next time you pull yours on, take a moment to give thanks for them.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the shoes we have that keep our feet warm, so that we can continue our daily tasks. Amen.
November 11: Give Thanks for Hot (and Clean) Water
Ponder: Here's something else we so often take for granted - instant hot, clean water. Just imagine a life with no hot tea or coffee. And during these colder days, just think about not having a hot water heater. Ice shower, anyone?
Think about washing clothes or even dishes. Do you remember being in grandmother's kitchen, watching her fill up the sink with hot water from the kettle, so that she could wash the dishes? It's amazing just how much easier our lives have become from previous generations. We don't have to build a fire to warm the water, or even keep the fire going all day in the wood stove. We just turn on a tap and wait a few moments. Or if we're in the kitchen, we can just zap the water in the microwave for 30 seconds.
Not only that, but in most cases, we don’t spend a single thought on whether or not the water in our taps, kettles and fridges is drinkable. We just assume it is, because in reality, it is. However, if you’ve ever lived through a bad storm or other crisis when the water suddenly goes out, one quickly realizes just how often we take clean water for granted. Wouldn’t it be something if we could be grateful before the outage, not just after? Clean, hot water on demand - just another small thing that makes a huge difference, and for which we can give thanks.
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for the gift of clean water whenever we need it, whether hot or cold. Help us to ensure everyone has this gift of life. Amen.
This November, I wanted to do something different. Something intentional and deliberate, in keeping with the passing of the year. Since Thanksgiving falls towards the end of the month, and right before the end of the Liturgical Year, I decided to try to read about, think of or just notice at least one thing each day to be truly grateful for, as a contemplative exercise and as a discipline to center my thoughts on God. Here are the first 8 days.
November 1: Give Thanks for the Saints
What would we do without the constant intercession of the saints? What a wonderful day November 1st is, what a blessing, to be able to stop and recognize them and think about meeting them in person one day in the next life.
Ponder: "In the saints, we are continually coming into contact, not with a diminished life continually curtailed by mortification, but with life at the moment of its pristine outpouring, with life at the moment of its burgeoning splendor: with life itself - a wellspring we are only now discovering...
A hero gives us the illusion of surpassing humanity. But the saint does not surpass it: he assumes humanity; he strives to realize it as well as possible...He strives to come as close as possible to his model, Jesus Christ, the One who was perfect man, who was man with perfect simplicity, who was man to the point of disconcerting all heroes." -G. Bernanos
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for all your saints, and for the many paths to you they have illuminated. We look forward to the day when we will meet them in person, with you, in glory. Amen.
November 2: Give Thanks for Purgatory
Purgatory, the ultimate place of redemption from the God of Second Chances. We especially think about Purgatory on November 2nd, All Soul's Day.
Ponder: “If a soul were brought to see God when it had still a trifle of which to purge itself, a great injury would be done it. Yet, a great happiness is granted to the holy souls as they draw nearer to God. For every glimpse which can be had exceeds any joy or pain a man can feel. The holy souls clearly see God to be on extreme fire with love for them. Strongly and unceasingly, this love draws the soul with that uniting look, as though it had nothing else to do than this.” -St. Catherine of Genoa
“Purgatory basically means that God can put all the pieces back together again, can create wholeness, so that we can see that we all belong together in one enormous symphony of being.” -Pope Benedict XVI
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for your gift of Purgatory. We pray for all who are there. Amen.
November 3: Give Thanks for Falling Leaves
Ponder: We are thankful for that crunch, crunch, crunch of the leaves underfoot, for the scritch, scritch of the rake across the grass as those leaves are gathered in and moved into great heaps and piles, and for the delighted shrieks of the children who fling themselves into those same piles with unbridled happiness.
These are the sounds that tell us that summer has passed and the year is drawing to a close. Time is passing, the year is ending. It’s the coldness of the fall air that causes the leaves to change colors, reminding us that strife can also produce beauty.
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for the beauty of your creation, seen in the leaves, the grass, the children, and the people who enjoy it. We pray for the grace to notice it and be reminded of your own beauty. Amen.
November 4: Give Thanks for Fall Skies
The sky looks a little different in the Fall. It takes on a deeper shade of blue, and seems to stretch out into eternity. The summer sky, on the other hand, is warm and welcoming and friendly. It invites you to be happy, to drink some sweet tea and stay a while.
But the Fall sky reminds you of the End of Things. The clouds are thin and stretched out, and they draw us into contemplation. It's a crisp, bittersweet blue; a thin but strong blue.
Ponder: The Fall sky invites you to breathe deeply. In. Out. In. Out. Especially on those days when the breeze is fresh enough that you can almost drink it. It invites us to "Wake Up!" Be alert! There's a reminder of the Truth, a sense of expectancy, a world that is preparing for something, a drawing in. For those who see with the eyes of faith, this is a great blessing. We know that one day, we , too, will be part of this great gathering-in, this home-going. We are a people on a pilgrimage. One day, the pilgrimage will finish. We will reach our Journey's End. And for this, we must give thanks.
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for the fall skies that remind us of our eternal home and our ultimate destination. We ask for your help in getting there. Amen.
November 5: Give Thanks for the Gift of Faith
Ponder: Faith is a gift. Some people have it in abundance, and others struggle to hold on to the little bit they have. Who knows why some people have so much, and others have so little? It's a mystery. Perhaps the reason, at least partially, lies in what we do with what we've been given. If exercised, does faith grow and strengthen? If ignored, does it gather dust and eventually disappear? It would seem so.
I spotted this truck driver on my daily commute recently. This driver would belong to the first group, the group who has a great deal of faith. Let's give thanks that he was given so much! So much, in fact, that he posts saint stickers on the back of his truck as a public witness and a public prayer. What an inspiring sight to see on a very ordinary truck, on a very ordinary day.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the gift of faith. Help us to see you in everything and help us to bring you everywhere. Grow the gift of faith in us. Amen.
November 6: Give Thanks for Cinnamon
Ponder: Cinnamon is around so much this time of year. It's in drinks, potpourri, pies - even decorative broomsticks. The idea of sprinkling cinnamon on top of a hot cup of coffee is just delicious, mouth-watering and even heartwarming. Think of the scent of cinnamon baking in an apple pie or simmering on the stove with clove and oranges. Is there any other smell that is more welcoming, that just says HOME in capital letters?
And now we even know that cinnamon has health benefits! It's loaded with antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory properties, may cut the risk of heart disease, and can help lower blood sugar levels. Some studies have shown that it may even be helpful in preventing cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Read more about the Benefits of Cinnamon and decide for yourself. *
It seems like cinnamon is truly good for the body and soul. Have you ever thought to stop and thank God for this simple spice that we use so often yet don’t always really, truly notice? It makes us wonder - what other simple, ordinary things do we overlook each day?
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for the gift of cinnamon and all those small, simple things you give us that we so often overlook. Help us to see how extraordinary the ordinary things are. Amen.
*Disclaimer: I am not offering any medical advice, just an observation. Consult your medical provider for guidance.
November 7: Give Thanks for Chrysanthemums
Ponder: Here's another unsung hero of the Fall - the chrysanthemum. It's everywhere during this season and is usually taken for granted. Chrysanthemums sort of fade into the background - the backdrop to pumpkins and gourds. They don’t take center stage; they fill in the background.
But the chrysanthemum is such a perfect symbol for the harvest season. It comes in a myriad of colors, with tons of blooms on every stalk, and each blossom itself is just stuffed to the brim with petals. Everything about it shouts fullness, abundance and plenty. It even has a lovely, delicate scent - not too overwhelming, always refreshing and sweet, and the blooms last for a couple of weeks, to boot. Just a lovely symbol for the Fall; showcasing humility and plenty at the same time. If you get the chance, bury your nose in a fresh chrysanthemum. Breathe in deeply, and let your gaze linger on the beautiful color of the blossom. And give thanks for this simple, sweet, unsung hero.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the sweet and simple blessings, the little notices and adornments you send us to cheer us along our way. Amen.
November 8: Give Thanks for Pumpkins
Ponder: What would Fall be without the pumpkin? Can you imagine no pumpkin pies or pumpkin bread? Or no bright orange balls of color in the fields, the grocery stores, or front doors?
Pumpkins just inspire happiness, just by being themselves. They instantly create a feeling of home and abundance. The bright orange color is a flash of warmth against the cold weather, reminding us of memories of gathering together in the past, and giving us hope for gathering again together in the future.
Plus, there's that very cave-man like feeling of fear of scarcity still hidden deep within us. When the cold weather comes, will there be enough food for everyone? Pumpkins alleviate this primal fear, because they themselves are such a plentiful food - pies, breads, soups, even the seeds can be used for food. And, each one can feed so many people! If we were lucky enough to grow up in a home where food was plentiful, pumpkins have the ability to connect us to that deep feeling of love and satisfaction.
But at the same time, we know there are many people who do not and will not have enough food to eat this winter. So, let's make sure that pumpkins also remind us to provide, according to our means, food for those in need. A bag of groceries dropped off to your local food pantry will do the trick and consider keeping some non-perishable snacks in your car to hand out as you drive around.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the abundance of food we enjoy. Help us to remember and provide food for those who do not have enough to eat. Amen.
If the thought has ever popped into your mind of reading some of those old Catholic Classics you've heard about but never quite gotten around to, have I got some good news for you!
Popular Catholic publishing house, Ascension Press, has just introduced a new podcast called "Catholic Classics." Hosted by two Dominican friars, Fr. Gregory Pine and Fr. Jacob Bertrand Janczyk, the podcast does just what its title says - it takes a work considered to be a classic of Catholic literature and walks you through it, step-by-step, page-by-page, in daily 20-to-30-minute segments.
The podcast kicked off on October 24, 2022, with the first book, Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales, and is currently only on day 8, which means there's still time to tune in and read along. Also, every podcast is recorded, so you can go back and relisten at your convenience. The entire podcast for this book will run for 43 days. Just imagine! Reading through a tremendous book like Intro to the Devout Life in only 43 days, guided by two Dominicans. This is like taking a college course, in terms of quality, but without the research papers, pop quizzes or any of those nasty finals, and let's not even mention the typical cost of a college class.
Although it is true that works considered Catholic Classics are not easy reads, they are certainly formative ones. These are the books to spend time with. They will form your soul, challenge your conscience, and strengthen your Catholic thinking-muscle. You can travel with a master guide, in this case St. Francis De Sales, and hear and learn from him the insights he followed that brought him, ultimately, to sainthood.
The podcast is free to listen to on your favorite podcast app, or you can listen directly from Ascension Press's website. At Ascension's website, you can also purchase a copy of the translation being used which is an "updated translation of St. Francis de Sales’ original text that features the full English translation (which is not included in all commonly available translations), language updates that make the text accessible without changing its meaning or message, and expert commentary from podcast hosts Fr. Gregory Pine, O.P., and Fr. Jacob Bertrand Janczyk, O.P." It's available for $29.95.
This podcast would be an excellent candidate for anyone still thinking about taking the "Back to School, Back to Learning" challenge. With Advent and the start of the new year only four weeks away, now is the perfect time to jump into some deeper Catholic waters and contemplate the "devout life."
These days, the Frankenstein icon is one of the most important to consider, because it is everywhere, running rampant. Although the man-made creature is usually referred to as "Frankenstein," it's real name is "the monster." At least, that's how Dr. Frankenstein referred to his creation in the classic book Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Written by Mary Shelley and published in 1818, this famous tale tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young, ambitious doctor who conducts experiments in electricity on decaying tissue for the purpose of reanimation. As we all know, Dr. Frankenstein is successful in patching together a human on the lab table, composed of body parts from several different dead people, and he also successfully reanimates this being. However, his joy in the success of his experiment is very short lived. He gazes upon his new creation with a look of horror and abhorrence, an obvious and marked change from the look of love and joy which God bestows upon Adam in the Garden of Eden. Scripture tells us that “God looked at everything he had made and found it very good.” Adam and Eve were especially prized by God, as they were not only the first humans, but they had also been made in God’s image, a distinct elevation granted to humanity. Yet, in contrast, when Dr. Frankenstein looks upon his creation, he not only does not pronounce it "very good," but he desperately wishes he had not made it in the first place, and he seeks to rid himself of it. Thus begin years of threats, suffering and pain - not just to Dr. Frankenstein but also to his family.
Dr. Frankenstein discovers for himself this great secret: the creator always puts him or herself into their creation. This is part of what it means to be made in the image of God. We participate in God’s ability to imagine and create, although more as co-creators or sub-creators, since we cannot make anything appear out of nothing, as God can. The life of the creation is drawn from the life of the creator. Unfortunately for Dr. Frankenstein, he finds that he is just not that great, and so, neither is his creation. Dr. Frankenstein is a flawed human, seeking to replace God, and his creation reflects that truth. In contrast, God can look upon everything he creates and proclaim it "good" and "very good." Why? Because God himself is the source of good. Everything he thinks, touches or creates will draw from his own energy, his own being, and copy it. No matter how often or even the type of creation, whatever God creates will be good.
It is important for us to realize, then, what it means to say we are "made in his image." This certainly means that we, like God, have the ability to create. This creative ability is seen in marriage, with the ability to create new people, but it is also seen in other aspects as well. For example, if a person creates a company, that company will by default receive the spirit of its founder. So, if the founder is generous and God-fearing, seeking to build the Kingdom of God, those who work for him or her will experience an environment of respect and collaboration. The office environment will reflect the principles and spirit of the founder. When that company grows, the bottom line will not be the only driving decision. Things like safe-working conditions and environmental considerations will also be taken into account, as part of our role as stewards of God’s creation. Granted, since no one is perfect, it is unrealistic to expect any office or business or school to be perfect, either. That being said, we've all experienced the difference of spirit in different places.
In the Romantic era, when Frankenstein was published, the Greek god Prometheus had become a symbol of the solitary genius who sought to advance the human race by his own efforts, especially in the field of science, which was just beginning to establish itself as an authority. However, like the original story of Prometheus, the modern Prometheus dares to go beyond what he should and ends in tragedy. So who, then, is the real monster in Frankenstein? The reanimated corpse or the man who seeks to take the place of God? The words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, a scientist in the movie "Jurassic Park," are appropriate here: "Just because we CAN do something, doesn't mean we SHOULD."
When God creates, it is an outpouring of his divine love, an invitation to return that same love back to him. As St. John Paul II reminds us in his Letter to Artists, as “Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” We may not all necessarily be gifted artists like Michaelangelo or Botticelli, who produce masterworks, but we each still nevertheless have the capability of producing a masterpiece. In these last few days of October, let's take an honest inventory of all areas of our lives and ask ourselves: What are we engaged in creating? Is it a masterpiece, reflecting divine love, or a monster, reflecting merely ourselves?
St. John Paul II, pray for us, pray for the works we do, and help us to craft lives that are pleasing to God. Amen.
Quick - what song comes to mind when you think of a "werewolf?" Michael Jackson's THRILLER!!! That iconic music video propelled MJ into the limelight and became the standard background music for every Halloween gathering since.
A werewolf is a funny creature. It's half man, half wolf. It is forced into existence due to circumstances beyond its control, ie. a full moon. In most werewolf tales, the person who becomes a werewolf is also a victim. Once he turns into this monster, he is absolutely unable to access his rational mind. He becomes a killer completely out of control. In the morning, after the moon has set, there is typically plenty of remorse for the havoc and destruction wrought the night before. Yet, nevertheless, in another month that same person will transform and repeat those same actions. The mayhem is going to take place again in the future. The werewolf does not change and never really leaves.
The Spirit of Violence
To me, werewolves have always represented the spirit of violence. Although we don't actually see a human transform literally into an animal, we have all seen humans become so overwhelmed by the spirit of violence that they act like savage wolves, bent on destroying and killing. This can range from domestic violence to gang violence, to school shootings. Our times are tragically and woefully full of examples of werewolf killing sprees.
Although Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was meant to be a mostly lighthearted, goose-bump causing, rocking song, it also revealed a deep truth about human nature. Put just about any of us in the right situation, for an extended period of time, and the werewolf within will explode. We will give it permission to escape.
It is especially appropriate to consider werewolves this month, since October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Statistics tell us that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have been or are being physically and violently abused within their home. That’s a lot of abuse going on, and most of it is hidden. In my own parish, we put up “safety signs” in the bathroom stalls of the church and our parish center. Each sign has small slips of paper on the bottom with the number to call for help. These slips of paper can be torn off and slipped into socks or shoes, the one place that is usually safe from being searched. I will admit - the first time we put these signs up I considered it more of an exercise in solidarity, to get the word out and remind people this could be going on. I didn’t really think there was much need for Domestic Violence awareness in my large, affluent, suburban parish. Then I watched in dismay and horror as one by one, the slips of paper disappeared over the next month. Now, we routinely replace the signs all year and add speakers and other events to our October programming. Our thinking has changed from “It's not happening here, in our community” to “Everyone knows Someone.” The werewolf shows up frequently in the lives of many, and although we may not be grabbing any torches and pitchforks to drive it away, we can’t just ignore these visits either.
As I wrote in my last article, Halloween gives us the chance to reflect on what keeps us from being saints, from joining the “cloud of witnesses” we celebrate the next day, November 1st. We could ask ourselves: What circumstances force the werewolf out of me? When do I seek to destroy another's spirit, soul, reputation, opportunities or even body - regardless of the devastation or consequences it might cause?
The Spirit of Peace
To combat the spirit of violence and usher in a spirit of peace, let’s dwell on these words of Henri Nouwen, "Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone's face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come."
Hail Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us and for all those who suffer from violence.
Bang! The front door closed with yell.
“Mom! It’s Spooky Season! It’s time to decorate!” my son announced in great excitement as he came into the front hall. Rushing past me, he ran up the stairs to start getting the Halloween decorations down from the attic. Was this an elementary aged boy, looking forward to candy and costumes? Nope. He was in his early 20s, home from college for the weekend, and just as excited about Halloween as he was 10 years earlier. Watching him work, I once again took a moment to think about this holiday.
Over the years, Halloween has presented me with quite a quandary. What’s the right way to celebrate it? Should it be ignored? Should we jump in and enjoy it? Should we ignore all the ghosts and ghouls we see and focus on the next day, All Saints, and those in heaven?
The Friars of the Atonement refer to October 31 as the Vigil of All Saints. I think that’s a helpful way to approach it because that brings out the reality of the feast day, namely its connection to the triumph of the saints over sin through participation in the saving work of the Trinity. If we look carefully, we can even see that same slow journey in our own lives, and we can see it especially clearly at Halloween.
A few years ago, I realized something. There seems to be a progression of sorts in the costumes that children choose to wear on October 31st. Up until roughly the age of 7, most children, if given a choice, will choose happy, sweet costumes of princesses, knights, superheroes and the like. This is natural, because it reflects their stage of development. They are still in the age of innocence. But around 7 or so, called the “age of reason,” when children come to the realization that there are good things and bad things, in and of themselves, and they likewise understand they themselves can make good or bad decisions, the costumes gradually change. They get a little, or maybe a lot, darker. This is when the ghosts, vampires and zombies start to appear.
The age of 7 is also the age for First Reconciliation. Children are taught that there is sin in the world, “out there,” and some of that same sin is in us, “in here.” They intuitively understand this. They know that sin is outside of them, because they remember being hurt by a friend or family member or some life situation. They also know those tendencies are inside them, because they themselves have hurt a friend, or family member or some other life situation.
But it is rare that we are wrestling with every kind sin. Most of us struggle with the same two or three impurities, and Halloween gives us a chance to name those tendencies, to look at them in the mirror, see them and recognize them, much like the story of Rumpelstiltskin. Dressing up at Halloween can make the invisible visible, and the unseen seen, so that it can be recognized. Once we know the name of the enemy, we can start to overcome it. Over the years, I’ve invited parents to think about the costumes their kids choose, and then see if those costumes connect with their interior struggles. Here are some examples of that:
The good news is that if we accompany our kids on this journey, allowing them the space to do enough self-reflection so that they can identify what they struggle with without being overwhelmed by it, they eventually make their way through it. As they grow and mature, the costumes change again. Sometimes the princesses actually reappear, but they are older, grown-up versions. Athletic uniforms might take the place of zombies and vampires, although there is usually still some type of fake blood and/or bandages. In other words, there is a recognition that sin is real, but it doesn’t have to define them. In fact, in a child who has journeyed well, there is a great deal of hope about their costumes.
Halloween shows us that sin is real. It’s not fantasy. It’s not make-believe. It exists, and it exists Out There just as it resides In Here. But, if we are courageous enough to name our sin, and to accompany our kids in identifying their sin, the impurities separating us from God, we can also walk through them, leaving them behind to join in the dawning of the Kingdom of God, celebrating together the next morning on All Saints Day, November 1st. Halloween shows us that sin, destruction and death, while real, do not have the final word. We can keep going and pass through all of them to come out on the other side, into the glory of heaven. That’s the hope of All Hallows Eve, what we celebrate on November 1st, All Saints Day, and what we pray for on November 2nd, All Souls Day.
This Halloween, whether you dress up or not, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself: What do I need to name, what do my kids need to name, so that we can divest ourselves of them?
In my last couple of blogs, I wrote about two common symbols we see at this time of year: sunflowers and apples. Following the lead of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who wrote about the Book of Nature, we find that just about everything God creates speaks to us, teaches us about God himself and our relationship to him.
To recap, sunflowers are symbols of obedience. But obedience doesn’t mean being voiceless, thoughtless or victimized. Biblical obedience, the kind that God desires, is about willingly submitting ourselves to his rule, to be guided by him in our thoughts and actions. Biblical obedience is an external display of an internal disposition, where we listen to God and decide to do as he prompts.
Apples are connected with learning. Since they are traditionally represented in art as original sin, as the fruit that Eve picked from the Tree of Knowledge, they are symbols of learning. But it is learning that is placed under the guidance of God, a type of learning that ushers in the Kingdom of God on three levels, individually within ourselves, on the communal level in the world, and on the cosmic level, in reflecting the truth of God. This knowledge doesn’t have to be explicitly about God, it can also be implicitly used to serve God through serving others. For example, the specialized knowledge that is required to repair downed electrical lines after a hurricane, or to aid injured people, or clear destroyed buildings using heavy machinery, are all examples of knowledge that serves the common good, while it serves others.
So, what happens if these two symbols are brought together? One might end up with something like the wreath above - a seasonal example of obedience (sunflowers) and learning (apples) working together to produce something new. I made this wreath a couple of years ago, and I hang it in our Family Prayer space when it’s Back to School time, as a subtle reminder of why and how we should study. This Fall, see if you can find these two symbols joined together somewhere, and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance and growth in both obedience and knowledge.
*The instructions for making this wreath are on the Wreaths for Prayer Spaces page, if you want to give it a try!
If sunflowers are symbols of obedience, apples, on the other hand, were originally the symbols of disobedience. The apple, for one reason or another, is the fruit typically portrayed in art as what Eve plucked from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the first act of turning from God. This action set in motion the chasm between God and us and handed onto all of us Original Sin. Yet, the apple has a happy ending. Because God did not leave us to our own devices, but instead responded with mercy - first by establishing the covenants with Israel and then by giving us the New and Eternal Covenant in Jesus Christ - the apple was transformed. Now, the apple is linked to learning, which is why we see the iconic picture of an apple on a teacher’s desk. But apples are not just linked to any learning but learning that leads to Understanding and Wisdom.
Now, after the fall, learning takes work and is not effortless and delightful. However, all learning - even if it is not explicitly and overtly about God - can reveal him and his ways, if pursued with humility and sincerity. St. Pio, for example, used to kneel when he did his studies as he recognized that learning algebra was still glorifying God. He viewed every subject as a necessary stepping-stone on the path that God laid out for him.
Apples are also fruit, so they lend themselves to the idea of fruitfulness. And, of course, we certainly hope that our learning is fruitful, that it gives us a way to provide for ourselves and our families, on a personal, practical level, that it gives us insight into solving problems in the world on the communal level, and that it ultimately leads us to the source of abundance and fruitfulness, God, on a higher, eternal level.
In fact, something as simple as an apple pie fully develops this idea. Think about the process of making a pie: A few apples are plucked from a tree, if you live up north, or bought from the grocery store, if you are down south. They are washed, cored, and chopped, on the way to becoming something new. They are mixed with butter, cinnamon, nutmeg and placed with other similarly transformed items; wheat that has become flour, milk that has become butter, to form something new - pastry. Don’t forget - this process is done by someone who has learned how to make a pie and has practiced it several times. After the pie is baked, those few apples will stretch to minister to several people. It will comfort some, please others and nourish all. The idea of learning at its best- taking one thing and transforming it to serve the common good through our work.
Now that the school year is well under way and thousands of students of all ages have taken up their studies again, in whatever form or fashion that may be, let’s be intentional in why and what we study and look to the sunflower and apple to inspire us to pursue obedience and true knowledge.
Creation is our first language. Before even one syllable of the ancient languages of Aramaic, Tamil, Egyptian, Sumerian and others were ever uttered, God spoke first. The words he spoke drew something out of nothing. Matter that was not there, came into being. More importantly, this matter came into being in specific and pleasing arrangements, over time. Because creation was spoken into being by God, instead of thought privately to himself, we know that creation is a communication, a self-revelation. God was saying something about himself through what he created. Unlike language, however, which is culturally or environmentally influenced and uses words to convey thoughts and ideas, creation speaks in symbols and has a universal meaning. For example, at every place in the world a mountain represents a high place, raised above the ground. No one, in any culture, looks at a mountain and thinks it's a garbage dump. Creation speaks, and has a message to us about the one who made it.
In fact, the Catechism reminds us that creation is one the ways that we can come to know God. Through reflecting on the world, starting from movement, becoming, contingency, and order and beauty, “one can come to a knowledge of God as the origin and end of the universe.” (CCC 32) St. Paul adds that “Ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (Rom 1:20) St. Augustine agreed, saying “Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky ,,, question all these realities. All respond: “See, we are beautiful.” Their beauty is a confession. Who made them if not the Beautiful One?” (Sermo 241, 2:PL 38, 1134)
Now that Fall is officially here, let’s look at a common symbol of this season, the sunflower, and see what it can say to us.
Sunflowers are symbols of obedience. They spend their entire day simply turning their faces towards the sun. Wherever it goes, they follow. It is such a simple and honest action. There is no hiding or subterfuge. They, with their broad, open faces, are completely transparent. So what, exactly, is obedience? Is it just blindly following orders? Is it really only for those who can’t think for themselves?
The idea of obedience is well-defined in Scripture as a key to being in right relationship with God. When God gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments, he says “See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse; a blessing for obeying the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I give you today; a curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, but turn aside from the way I command you today, to go after other gods.” (Deut 11:26-28) In the New Testament, we are reminded of Jeus’ example of obedience to his Father, when he prayed “not my will, but yours be done,” (Mark 14:36) as he prepared for his arrest and crucifixion. In being obedient, Jesus willingly and deliberately puts himself under the authority of God the Father, and submits to his commands.
In Greek, the word obey translates to “listen under.” It refers to a hearing and then an understanding of what is heard which results in a specific behavior. The one who obeys does so not out of laziness, cowardice or ignorance, but from a sincere desire to fulfill the will of God.
Obedience is an outward display of an internal disposition. The heart has turned towards God to follow him, and the actions of the believer reflect what is in the heart. This is what sunflowers do. They turn towards the sun, constantly and continually. They challenge us to do the same. Do we travel through our days with our heads down, not looking to the Son? Do we seek God's presence throughout the hours of the week? Do we look for him in spite of clouds and rain?
As we journey through Fall, let the sunflowers you may see along the way remind you of the love to be found in obedience, and the Beautiful One behind it.
“Sunflowers always face the sun, They make our days so bright.
And as we face the Son of God, we travel in his light.
Then joy will fill our lives on earth, though troubles come our way
He is our refuge, safe and sure, To guide us everyday.”
- “Light and Bright”, by Elma Helgason
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