Monday, February 09, 2015

Sharpen Your Rosaries With Scripture


Praying the Rosary, as magnificent and sweet as it is, can be challenging to the new convert and seasoned Catholic alike. Common to both is one big difficulty: a lack of focus.

Normally, as we make our ring around the Rosary, we should be meditating on the individual scenes of the joyful, sorrowful, luminous, or glorious mysteries. We should rehearse them in our minds and ponder them in our hearts, blending them into our own spirits, so that “we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise.”

I was an adult convert to the Church, so when I first began praying the Rosary, it took a little while to memorize the vocal prayers and recite them all properly. I was so intent on “doing it right”saying the right words at the right time while navigating the beads—it felt that concentrating on the mysteries at the same time was nearly impossible.

But it was possible. After sufficient practice, I could go outdoors for a 30-minute nighttime stroll and think deeply on the mysteries while reciting the vocal prayers. Those were rich experiences: staring into the starry sky in the cool of the evening; lifting my heart to the Lord; finding a good pace with a peaceful rhythm in my breath, my fingers, and my thoughts.

Fast-forward a few years. These days, I can still struggle with focusing on the mysteries in prayer, but for different reasons. The vocal prayers are so ingrained in my muscle memory that the words just pour past my lips, and my fingers slide expertly over the beads, but my mind wanders from the mysteries. During the Hail Marys, my mind can go from updating my task list to planning my workout routine to thinking, “I really like blueberry pancakes!” Depending on the day, it can be a real fight to focus.

Nevertheless, I know I’m not alone when it comes to distraction. Don’t tell me you don’t occasionally have the same struggles. While some saints used to enter into mystical ecstasies while praying the Rosary, Saint Therese of Lisieux admitted in her autobiographical Story of a Soul,[B]ut when alone (I am ashamed to admit it) the recitation of the Rosary is more difficult for me than the wearing of an instrument of penance. I feel I have said this so poorly! I force myself in vain to meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary; I don’t succeed in fixing my mind on them.” Later she realized her efforts to focus were pleasing to our Mother.

In my own efforts to focus, one very helpful aid I’ve come across is the Scriptural Rosary. The Rosary is plenty “scriptural” on its own, but a “Scriptural Rosary” is one in which you read a verse of Scripture (relating to the present mystery) before each of the ten Hail Marys. The effect is that, as your mind begins to stray, each Bible verse that’s read before a Hail Mary gently draws you back to the mystery, sharpening your focus and coloring the mystery with God-breathed Scripture. It becomes the food to nourish your meditations.

My wife and I often pray this way together at home and in the car, but it’s also ideal for families with children, who are not always known for their laser-beam focus. Kids can take turns reading the Bible verses while the others say the vocal prayers.

Give it a try. You can buy Scriptural Rosary booklets from Catholic bookstores, or download one for free as a PDF or MP3. Follow along and see if it doesn’t help your meditations. You owe it to yourself and your family to once again take up this powerfully biblical prayer—but this time with your mind fixed and focused on each mystery of the Rosary, sharpened one verse at a time.

Friday, February 06, 2015

The Purpose of Life


Years ago I would listen to CRI's Bible Answer Man radio broadcast on the way home from work, and host Hank Hanegraaff would often say, "Christianity is so deep, you could drown in it; yet it is so simple, a child can understand it." I like his ability to distill profound truths into pithy proverbs.

That truth about Christianity resonates for me again after reading St. Teresa of Avila last night and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger this morning. I like reading people with deep hearts and deep intellects so I can at least catch a glimpse of what they see and hopefully reduce it to language and concepts that I can understand, making it my own. They are good at seeing the complex and reducing it to words. I just hope to feed on the crumbs I'm able to catch from their table. I miss a lot.

But I do know the purpose of life is to be in right relationship with God, and the essence of that relationship is love. In love, God made us from nothing. Our response to that love, collectively and individually, has not been to reciprocate with all our love, but to have an inordinate love for ourselves and created things. And in love, He pursues us and picks us up, like a shepherd going down to free a wayward sheep that is hopelessly entangled in thickets. Only through His saving action can we be restored to right relationship with Him. We are not to be restored only to the original position of our first parents Adam and Eve, but to an even deeper and more perfect union with Him. Our "religion," therefore, is to rightly view the physical, natural world as good, but to view its Creator as better, and to respond accordingly—aligning our hearts and actions to this reality. Stripped to its simplest element, religion is rightly ordered love.

If we refuse this love, God will not coerce us. He's not a Cosmic Rapist. If we finish this life separated from God, in His kindness He will let us continue in the afterlife as we have chosen, forever reaping the same frustrating, miserable, painful effects of our disordered love. It's what we call hell.

On the other hand, if we die in a state of grace—that is, if we have even an imperfect love of God—He will allow that love to grow and reach its fullness, purifying us of anything that is not perfect love. Forevermore we will be able to see face to face the object of our love: the Lover of our souls, God our true Father. That's what we call heaven.

Old people: get ready. Sick people: beware. All other people: buckle up and look both ways before crossing the street, because you never know from one moment to the next when it will be your turn. Your duty, then, the only thing that makes sense, is to get real: to love God with all your mind, heart, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Really, it's so simple, a child can understand it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Being Catholic Matters


“Catholic” is not just one among many acceptable religions, philosophies, or even Christian denominations. To think a person’s church or religious affiliation is unimportant, as long as he is generally “good,” is to overlook stark incompatibilities between the Catholic Church and other religions.

Consider Protestant and other non-Catholic Christians. While through their connection to Catholic Tradition, they have inherited sacramental baptism, possess the apostolic writings (the “New Testament”), and desire to follow our Lord, they have serious deficiencies and obstacles due to their imperfect union with the Church. There are real, practical consequences when one rejects the full deposit of Christian faith.

During Eucharistic adoration I often marvel, “Wow. Right now I am three feet away from my Creator. The one featured in the New Testament and foreshadowed in the Old, the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount, who healed lepers, who forgave the adulterous woman—who forgives me!—I’m looking at Him right here, right now! My Lord and my God!”

I assure my Baptist friends that I don’t worship Mary, despite the high regard in which we as Catholics hold her, even as we offer her our petitions in prayer. I’m careful to differentiate between reverence and worship. In fact, I point out, the Church explicitly condemns the adoration of any person or thing other than God. But I also say (to their shock) that when I’m at Eucharistic adoration, I fully worship the Blessed Sacrament before my eyes! That round, bread-like thing inside the monstrance is actually Jesus Himself!

Here’s the deal: If the Church is wrong about the Real Presence, then we are to be pitied for our primitive, unenlightened, stupid idolatry; we are guilty of worshiping the creation rather than the Creator. If, however, the Church has simply transmitted what Jesus taught her—that the Communion Host actually becomes His body, blood, soul, and divinity—then our Protestant brethren are missing out on a ton of life-giving graces that Jesus offers through the Mass.

Our beliefs have consequences, and we cannot afford to be indifferent toward them. Truth corresponds to reality; therefore, truth really matters.

There are other examples.

Due to sin and distraction and weakness, our prayers can be hindered. But we know that “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much,” and we know we have recourse to Mary and the Saints—our family of “prayer warriors.” They will intercede for us. I know some of my prayers have been answered because of saints joining their prayers to mine. But, due to incorrect beliefs, Protestants generally don’t ask for saintly intercessions.

If we don’t believe in prayers for the dead, we’re not going to pray for our deceased loved ones. Consequently, if they are suffering in purgatory, our incorrect belief may delay their entrance into heaven.

Where certain Christian denominations reject baptismal regeneration—the belief that baptism actually restores new life—it’s not uncommon to postpone one’s baptism until his teens or twenties. That’s dangerous behavior based on wrong belief.

Rejection of the Church’s moral teachings (about marriage, contraception, homosexual unions, in vitro fertilization, self-abuse, etc.) leads to untold human suffering. It demonstrates the truth of Natural Law.

Examples could be multiplied all day long to illustrate the same point. The dogmas of our Catholic Church are not arbitrary. They are not her “best guesses.” They are not denominational flavors, subject to our spiritual palate’s taste.

No, she is tenacious about her teachings precisely because they are true—because they are the full deposit of faith entrusted to her by Jesus and the apostles.

So be sure to conform yourself daily in mind, body, and will to the teachings of Christ’s Church. By regularly cultivating a Catholic conscience, you will be equipped to share the unabridged gospel with confidence and conviction, with humility and genuine love toward others.

Being truly Catholic matters in real ways. It’s our sure salvation.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I'll Confess . . . and So Should You

I've often found it difficult to go to a priest for the sacrament of Confession. Pride, shame, embarrassment, despair, repeat offenses—all these can be obstacles to confessing sins.

But understanding Confession makes it a lot easier, and can even make a person desire Confession. Like cleaning a wound, the temporary discomfort is worthwhile after experiencing the healing joy, peace, and confidence in knowing Jesus has forgiven you through the priest.

Yes, it is through the priest that Jesus Himself forgives.

Jesus shares the power to forgive
The origins of Confession are found in John 20:19–23:
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

It is significant that this was Jesus' first interaction with His hand-chosen disciples (the apostles) after His resurrection—on the very same day. If it seems to you like He was establishing a means to distribute the forgiveness He had just obtained for us through His death and resurrection, you're right. He was. It continues today through the successors of those very apostles—that is, our Catholic bishops, and priests who are authorized to assist them.

Forgiveness initiates healing
Strictly speaking, however, forgiveness is not the end goal. Don't think our sins simply need forgiveness in a forensic sense, a legal acquittal of guilt. This acquittal is absolutely necessary, but there's more to it. Our objective is to not merely be declared clean, but to be clean—to be healed.

This is why the Church does not label Confession as a Sacrament of "Forgiveness," but a Sacrament of Healing. Our sins not only break laws, they injure our souls and our relationship with others and God. Confession, then, is not a quick Band-Aid fix, but a visit to Dr. Jesus, our great Physician. With every trip to the confessional, we tell the priest our symptoms, our ailments, our sins, and Jesus forgives us immediately, but He also initiates a healing process of grace for our wounds. And He strengthens us against future temptations.

God is a Father who judges, not a Judge who fathers
God is not a TV courtroom judge looking to put the smackdown on us when we break rules. While it is His fatherly role to judge, we see God primarily as our loving and merciful Father who wants us to grow in our familial life with him. He knew we would still fail, and fail often, after our initial conversion to Him, so He gave us the sacrament of Confession—not to beat us up, but to lift us up. It's like pulling a child back onto his feet when he falls down learning how to walk.

Don't consider your confession a mere laundry list of transgressions, but ways in which your relationship with God (and others) has been ruptured.

We are not alone
When we sin, it affects not only us but others, even when it's not readily apparent to us. Similarly, when we repent and confess our sins, it's not just a private matter between you and the priest, but with Jesus and the entirety of the heavenly host. Be encouraged!

After His parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus said, "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:7).

After the parable of the Lost Coin, Jesus said, "Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (verse 10).

In Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, after the son came home to confess his sins against his father, asking for mercy, the father shouts, "‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry" (verses 22–24).

Just do it
We should not be afraid to confess our sins in the confessional with these things in mind. Moreover, the priest is bound by a seal under strict penalty never to divulge or even make use of anything he learns through your confession. So what happens in the confessional stays in the confessional.

Be not afraid. If you are Catholic, go to Confession and spill your guts so Jesus can heal your soul.

If you're not Catholic, what are you waiting for? Contact your local priest and inquire about how to enter, or be reconciled to, the Church. Jesus obtained forgiveness for you, personally, 2000 years ago as we reckon time; you just have to knock on His door and pick it up. Our Lord is waiting for you.

Why I Don't Like Bible "Verses"

I grew up reading the old King James Version of the Bible. I've had many of them. At 41 years old, I still have one of my earliest Bibles from when I was in the first grade. The rich leather scent of its imitation-leather cover fills my head with memories of my early encounters with Holy Writ.

But it wasn't until I started reading the New King James Version (NKJV) in my early 20s that I enjoyed reading the Bible. Before that, I "studied" mostly in that I looked up Bible verses that were referenced in sermons or in literature in order to "prove" whether they said what the preacher or article said they said. I had certain key references I remembered, wrote down, and marked in my Bible to support the beliefs I had. But I didn't always just sit down and read large portions of Scripture straight through.

Here is my theory as to why, and I think it may apply to many others without their realizing it: The way the traditional KJV text is laid out, a line break is inserted after each verse, so that each verse begins a new line of text. (The same can be said of the Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.)



This, combined with a culture of prooftexting by many Protestants and "Bible Christians," led me to view the Bible as a collection of "verses." I was actually taught by leaders in my church (before I was Catholic) that the Bible was like a giant jigsaw puzzle, that you have to assemble all the scattered verses together on a specific topic to understand the "truth." A little here and a little there, you know. Consequently, topical studies were commonplace.



In religious discussions or debates, it seemed people in my tradition ended up slinging Bible verses at their opponents, and they were met by return fire, so that it was raining fiery Scripture verses—and whoever launched the most and best verses came out the victor. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much.

At one point, I read an enlightening book by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart entitled "How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth" (as a Catholic, I disagree with certain of the writers' interpretations, but at the time, the book helped me tremendously to appreciate the art and science of biblical interpretation).

Alongside that book, reading the NKJV (and later, other versions, such as the NIV, RSV, and NAB) helped me to understand that most of Scripture is not a collection of phrases or "verses" to be culled out; rather, it is composed of individual books that follow a train of thought. That's why editors of modern translations group the text into logical paragraphs.


DSC_0078

To me, reading paragraphed text makes it less tempting to engage in prooftexting—that is, to pick out a verse (usually out of context) to "prove" a particular interpretation of Scripture. Instead, it makes it easier to see a statement within its broader context within a paragraph, which can be understood within the context of surrounding paragraphs. When considering a verse within the writer's flow of logic, understanding comes much easier. That's why I prefer studying and reading entire books of the Bible rather than culling together scattered verses from all over to make them fit the picture you think the jigsaw puzzle reveals—because, with exceptions such as the Book of Proverbs, the individual books were written with a logical progression of thoughts, in linear fashion—not as a series of standalone verses. We should read them as they were intended to be read.

Otherwise, you get silly interpretations such as this (which I once held):



To help avoid a prooftexter's mentality, there are many who prefer single-column Bibles (shown above) rather than the more traditional two-column layouts. Right now, I still like two columns for easier reading, but I don't think I am stuck on that opinion. I can understand the attraction to single-column text. After all, nearly all other books we read are shown in a single column of text.