Friday, December 14, 2012

Lessons from Jane Eyre

I'm sure many of you would concur that there are few things as delightful as a good book.  There's something just absolutely wonderful about having a book you can't put down.

I had been reading non-fiction lately, which is informative and enjoyable.  Yet, for me, it just doesn't touch the heart or awaken the imagination in the same way as fiction.  

So, it was a bittersweet feeling a few days ago when I turned the final page of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.  There was much to like about the book--the romance, the stunning diction (descriptions of the summer evening or the moon at night were downright poetic), the surprise twists and turns of the plot!

But the best of all: the message.

There are a number of beautiful themes interwoven throughout the novel, but there is one that I found particularly striking and, while Bronte penned the work more than 150 years ago, it still speaks strongly to this generation and culture.

[Warning!  Spoiler alerts ahead!  If you haven't read Jane Eyre yet, I strongly urge you to make a dash for the nearest library and pick up a copy!]

Now, for those of you familiar with the plot, Jane (an orphan poor in both money and love) finds herself a position tutoring a young girl, who is cared for by the wealthy, proud, independent Mr. Rochester.

Jane--an astute, forthright girl, but very plain in appearance--falls in love with her employer.  Against any expectation on her part, Mr. Rochester discloses that he, too, has fallen deeply in love with her!  Jane could not have wished for anything greater and immediately accepts his proposal to marriage.

However, a glitch soon appears...on their wedding day, nonetheless!  Mr. Rochester, it is revealed, is already married!  It was a loveless marriage, one in which he entered recklessly at the deceptive urge of his father and brother.  His bride turned out to be mad and even attempted to murder him.

Mr. Rochester proposed a solution: he and Jane could escape to a white-washed villa on the shores of the Mediterranean where they could live happily together.

But Jane, of course, immediately sees the moral wrong in this scheme: "Sir, your wife is living: that is a fact acknowledged this morning by yourself.  If I lived with you as you desire, I should then be  your mistress: to say otherwise is sophistical--is false."

Mr. Rochester does his utmost to persuade Jane that his first marriage is far from what marriage should be and, if Jane should leave him, he would fall into the deepest of misery and may well meet his own destruction.

What other course can Jane take?  She is without family, without money.  She has no place to go, no job in place.  Before her is presented her very dream-come-true: to be with Mr. Rochester, to receive his love and to love him in return.  

It is an interior struggle of the greatest magnitude:

"...while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him.  They spoke almost as loud as Feeling and that clamoured wildly. 'Oh comply!' it said.  'Think of his misery...remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair--soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his.  Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?'

But Jane soon came to her conclusion and firm resolution:

"Still indomitable was the reply--'I care for myself.  The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.  I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.  I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad--as I am now.  Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; involate they shall be.  If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?'"

Now, here explicitly is where I see the strong message to us today.

Like Jane and Mr. Rochester, many couples find themselves deeply in love, but for a variety of reasons, either they are not married or cannot be married.  Before looms an easy answer: they can cohabitate.  They can live together--in all appearances as husband and wife, but not in truth.

Sometimes the idea to cohabitate makes a great deal of sense.  Perhaps one needs to leave his or her current living situation and doesn't know where else to go.  Maybe they want to "test" the relationship before entering into marriage.  Circumstances might be that cohabitating is the (seemingly) only way to stay in the same locale.  

Certainly, to Mr. Rochester, living together with Jane, despite their unwedded status, was the best solution.

Jane knew, however, that greater than either their feelings, their desires, their plans was the timeless principles and laws that govern marriage: principles not open to change, manipulation, or exception.  And as hard and as difficult as it sometimes may be to respect those God-given principles of marriage and sexuality, it is what we are called to do.

Jane rejected Mr. Rochester's recommendation because she respected the institution of marriage and, as she said, she cared for herself.  She saw that living with Mr. Rochester, unwed, was to live a lie.  She was created by God for a higher purpose.  To give of herself completely to a man to whom she was not married was to speak a lie.  

Jane took the harder path.  She literally fled temptation, leaving Mr. Rochester that very night.  She wandered, homeless and without a cent to her name, and was forced to succumb to begging.  

This is the extreme she went to, in order to preserve the sanctity of marriage.  To what extremes are we willing to go?

When cohabitation seems like the best solution, remember that the easy way is not the best way.  Jane eventually found her happy ending--an ending far happier than if she had succumbed to Mr. Rochester's pleading. The latter, too, came to see the grave error in his prior thinking and came to praise God for Jane's courage in holding to the truth.

Though another path may require greater financial burden or even physical separation from your beloved, the sacrifices you make in not cohabitating will be greatly rewarded by a purer, more honest love.  

And, while it may not happen right away, I am certain that when you keep the law of God, He will lead you and your beloved to your own happy ending.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Saint Ho Ho Ho

Every year, it felt like an endless night.  I would lie awake in my bed and watch my clock slowly track the hours passing by.  Though I strained to hear a noise or creak, the house was always silent and still.  

Through the early morning hours, I didn't dare leave my bed or make a peep.  It was entirely possible that, silent as the house might seem, he was just down the hallway in the living room, going about his work.

And then the excitement as my brother and I ran down the hallway later that morning: the presents under the tree!  Santa had been there!  He had come to our house!

Now I am the parent and I find myself facing difficult decisions.  Last year it was easy: Mary was not yet one-year-old and was more preoccupied with eating ribbons and bows to bother about presents, let alone the gift-giver.

This year, it's quite different and I'm not sure quite what to do.

As vivid and fond as my memories may be of Christmas morning, there is another memory I have, just as vivid but certainly not fond.

My second grade class was sitting in our school's library.  The students were roaming about finding a book or two to take out and I was by the couch, flipping through a story.  Billy D. happened to abruptly announce then, "There is no Rudolph."  

Perturbed, I couldn't forget his declaration and, immediately upon arriving home, confronted my Mom. She and my Dad sat me down and confirmed my worst suspicions: no Rudolph, no Easter Bunny, and worst of all--no Santa Claus.

I was devastated and bewildered: my parents had lied to me?  How could they be so hurtful and deceitful?  I resolved that I would not do the same to my children one day.

But, as the years passed, while I never fully forgot the terrible feeling of disappointment, I gradually weakened in my resolution.  I observed that some children weren't so scarred.  My sister, for instance, thought it quite clever and somewhat humorous that my parents played Santa for all those years.

The dilemma is more complicated when I consider the nature of Christmas.

Easter is much simpler.  Yes, the Easter Bunny visits, but his gift is relatively small and simple.  He is a nice addition to the day, but he is easily not the focus.  The centerpiece is where it should be: Christ, risen from the dead!

Christmas, though, is another matter entirely.  

Speaking from my own experience, when I was a child, I must confess that in complete honesty, my primary focus on Christmas was presents and Santa Claus.  When I awoke Christmas morning (not that I really ever slept that night), my immediate thought wasn't that this was Christ's birthday.  It was, rather, on whether the Barbie motorhome lay under the tree for me.

It was only after the presents that the religious nature of the day became a factor when we all went to Mass, which was nice, but still somewhat of an unfortunate interruption from playing with one's new toys.

In my child's mind and in our society at large, Santa Claus rivaled Christ on Christmas Day.  

When we go to the store, it's Santa's image plastered everywhere, not Christ's.  At the library, 98% of the Christmas books lining the four book shelves are about Santa Claus.

Christ's (true!) story in Bethlehem with shepherds and angels is largely overshadowed by Santa's (false) story in the North Pole with elves and reindeer.  

Now, to be clear, I don't mean to demonize Santa.  Santa, on the contrary, is a saint.  Saint Nicholas was a real man, a very holy man, who is now in heaven and whom I hope to meet one day.  

However, the story of St. Nicholas has been gravely stripped of its historical truth and replaced with a secular mythos involving Rudolph, elves, and a flying sleigh.  Many people encourage the idea of Santa Claus, without ever realizing that Santa Claus was a holy bishop who helped the poor and desired all people to know and love God.  This mis-identification is, I think, somewhat demonic.

Even the words we use make it easy to betray the true nature of things.  In many cultures, people refer to December 25 as the "Nativity of Our Lord."  Here we call it Christmas.  Christ's name is certainly there, but how much easier it is to overlook.  Santa Claus the same--how many children know that those words actually mean "Saint Nicholas?" 

When the story of Santa Claus (not Saint Nicholas) looms large, the gift-giving and receiving become so central that the reality of God coming to earth in poverty is easily forgotten.

So I really struggle with what to do.  On the one hand, I want Mary to know the joy and excitement of Christmas.  But, here's the catch: what is going to give her joy?  

Presents--liable to be broken, lost, forgotten--are passing pleasures.  

The figure of Santa Claus may bring her happiness in her younger years, but how can I really rationalize that happiness bought with the price of lies?  Let's be honest: there is no man in a red suit coming down our chimney to deliver Mary toys made by the elves of the North Pole.  Not going to happen.  So, even with the best of intentions, I will be lying to her if I say this is what occurs.  

If she believes a man in a red coat delivers her presents on Christmas, only later to discover that he does not, why then should she not question other people in whom she believed?  What is to stop her from doubting her faith in God?  

So, that's not lasting joy.

The lasting joy we can give to Mary is helping her know and love the little baby born on Christmas Day.  So, it seems our job is to do what we can to ensure that this is the central focus, attention, and attraction on December 25. do we do that?

Let's take it item by item.

1. Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas.  
There is nothing wrong in believing in Saint Nicholas.  Quite the opposite: we should believe in him, because he does in fact exist! Actually, I have started praying to him and asking for his help in making the right decisions on these matters!  

We are going to do our best to stress the true identity and story of Santa Claus.  Chris and I refer to him exclusively as "Saint Nicholas."  Mary is catching on, though she prefers to call him "Saint Ho Ho Ho."  Close enough, for now. :)

As for what transpires Christmas Eve night...we are thinking that we will tell Mary that Saint Nicholas helped us get her presents.  We bought them, put them under the tree--but Saint Nicholas helped.  That is, after all, true!  I am sure we can count on his heavenly intercession.

With regard to a sleigh, coming down the chimney, putting the presents under the tree: I just have a real hard time telling Mary St. Nicholas does these things when, in fact, he does not.

2. Gifts
How does a parent strive to make Christ's birth the focus of Christmas, as opposed to the presents the child receives?

It seems the best way to confront this problem is to control the quantity of gifts.  Chris and I decided that we (with Saint Nicholas' help) would give Mary three presents on Christmas morning, in imitation of the three presents that Christ received from the Magi.  (And one of these presents would be something practical, like a dress to wear on Christmas Day.) Plus, we are going to ask our parents to only give her one present.  Chris and I plan to exchange one present each as well. 

After all, Christ spent His birthday in a rather impoverished setting.  I'm not saying presents are bad, but they must be carefully handled or they take over.  I speak from experience.

3. Emphasis
As parents (especially of a toddler), we have pretty good control over what our daughter reads, watches, hears, and learns.  We can decide to tell her about Rudolph or about the Annunciation.  We can read her a book about St. Nicholas or Santa Claus.  

So, Chris and I are going to do our best to put the emphasis where it should be this Advent and Christmas.  We already have a few traditions for Christmas morning I would like to continue.  For example, before anyone opens presents, we place the Christ child in the manger and all sing "Happy Birthday."

I have heard of other families baking a birthday cake and serving it as dessert after the Christmas meal.

Even now, when we see lights outside or spot a Christmas tree, I say to Mary, "Look!  Everyone is putting up decorations for Jesus on His birthday!"

I feel pressure this year to make the right decision on these matters.  It's a good pressure: I'm not stressed out about it, but I do see this as a critical sort of year.  Mary is old enough to comprehend what is going on and I want to put down a very good foundation on which she can build an understanding of "Christmas."  I want to build holy traditions.

But I am very unexperienced in these matters and would welcome your wise input!  

How do you handle Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas?
What do you do to keep your Christmas Christ-centered?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Smells, Bells, and What They Tell - Part IV

For earlier posts in this series on the sacramentals, please see here, here, and here!

Now, before highlighting some of my favorite sacramentals, I think it might be wise to address some common objections people at times put forth on this topic.


Sacramentals are not magic.  They aren't bargaining chips or special charms.  

The whole key to using sacramentals is one's interior disposition.  Remember that sacramentals work subjectively.  Their efficacy is dependent upon the user's inner attitude and faith.  

If I approach a sacramental with an attitude of, "If I do this, God will do ____ for me"--well, that's kind of missing the whole point.  The purpose of a sacramental is to call to mind the presence of God, to adore Him and love Him, to implore His assistance.  

Pride says, "By using this sacramental, I will make God do this favor for me."  Humility says, "I am weak and need all of God's help, so I will have recourse to this sacramental to call upon His mercy and assistance."

Faith must always be put in God, not in the holy medal, rosary bead, or holy water itself.  These latter objects are mere conduits, not the source, of grace.  

There must always be a proper ordering of importance.  God is foremost and the origin of all goodness. Sacraments are the primary means of receiving God's grace.  Sacramentals are secondary means.  Therefore, when using sacramentals, one should avoid placing more attention or trust in them than one should.


Did the Church invent sacramentals?

Well, they are instituted by the Church, yes.  However, they also have strong Scriptural roots.  Sacramentals appear all throughout sacred Scripture!

Let me provide two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New.

"4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived." (Numbers 21:4-9)

"The Brazen Serpent" by Peter Paul Rubens

Clearly, the bronze serpent did not, itself, cure anyone.  To believe so would indeed be both superstitious and pagan.  It was God who cured the people, but He used the occasion of the bronze serpent.

The serpent was a sacramental!

Here is an example from the New Testament:

"And God worked more than the usual miracles by the hand of  Paul; so that even handkerchiefs and aprons were carried from his  body to the sick and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went  out." Acts, 19:12

Paul's handkerchiefs and aprons brought about cures.  They were sacramentals!

"St. Paul Preaching in Athens," by Raphael (1515)

These are just two of many examples from the Bible.


It is true that many sacramentals were first used by pagans, but these objects were, you could say, a manifestation of a common religious unconscious, rather than a formal pagan creed.

Incense, candles, and medals were first used by pagans, but so was another sacramental that most people use: the wedding ring.  And we don't consider that pagan.

Now that we have defined sacramentals and discussed some possible objections, let's examine some specific sacramentals!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Smells, Bells, and What They Tell - Part III

(This is part of a series on sacramentals.  See here and here for the previous posts!)

Now, what, exactly, constitutes a "sacramental?"  What falls under that category and how does it get there?

Well, there are actually four different kinds of sacramentals:

1.  Pious Objects.  This is the kind of sacramental people usually think of when they hear the word "sacramental."  Rosaries, scapulars, holy cards, holy water, candles, ashes, palms, holy medals, salt, wedding rings--these are all sacramentals.

2.  Prayers.  Yes, prayers are sacramentals!  I always thought a sacramental needed to be a physical object--not so!  The Angelus, Confiteor, litanies...these are all considered sacramentals.

3.  Sacred Signs.  Sometimes sacramentals are physical motions.  Think of making the Sign of the Cross or genuflecting before the Tabernacle.

4.  Religious Ceremonies.  Often, a specific part of a sacrament is considered a sacramental.  For example, during Confirmation, the bishop will extend his hands over the Confirmandi.  This extending of the hands is a religious ceremony and a sacramental, in and of itself.

Sometimes, a sacramental will fall under more than one type.  Consider the rosary, which is both a pious object and a prayer.  
Let's examine the most well-known kind of sacramental: pious objects.  How does an object, say a rosary, become a sacramental?

The key is all in the blessing of the priest.  

Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Govert Flinck

Lay people (everyone besides an ordained priest) can certainly bless objects, and we should!  You've probably blessed your food before your meal.  However, when we bless an object, our blessing is a sort of plea to God.  

A priest's blessing is another matter altogether!  When a priest blesses an object, that blessing brings a guarantee that the prayer will be heard.  This is because the priest is a man consecrated to act in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church.  Through his blessing, the prayers of the universal Church (all around the world, in Purgatory, and in heaven!) are then attached to the sacramental.

So, after a priest blesses my rosary, whenever I pray using that rosary, my prayer is certain to be heard by God and it is linked with the prayers of the Church.  The rosary, after his blessing, becomes a sacramental.

There are numerous reasons why we should have recourse to the sacramentals.  Here are the most compelling effects:

* While always remembering that sacramentals do not save souls on their own accord, they are a means for securing heavenly help.  Sacramentals move God to give graces that He would not have otherwise given.

* They are very powerful in driving away evil spirits.

* They deliver the soul from sin (though, to be clear, only the sacrament of Confession will remove mortal sin).  St. Thomas Aquinas states that, "The episcopal blessing, the aspersion of holy water, every sacramental unction, prayer in a dedicated church, and the like, effect the remission of venial sins, implicitly or explicitly."  In other words, if I piously bless myself with holy water, that sacramental will bring about the removal of any venial sins from my soul--even if I am not consciously asking God to do so!  

* They may be used to obtain temporal favors.  For example, a farmer may ask a priest to bless his field to pray for an abundant crop.  Cars may be blessed before a long journey. 

* Many have indulgences attached to them.

If we should need more reasons, consider that Our Lady, when she appeared at Fatima in 1917, was holding two sacramentals: a scapular and a rosary!  

Statue of Our Lady of Fatima

The variety and use of sacramentals is extensive: a father sprinkling his child's bed after he had a nightmare, a mother using blessed salt to bake some bread, kissing a Miraculous Medal for peace, the numerous blessings the Church offers for water, salt, oil, candles, bread, cars, houses, children, pets, engaged couples, wedding rings, pregnant mothers, wheelchairs, fishing tackle, cheese, and even beer.

Why, you might ask.  Why bless these seemingly ordinary things of everyday life?

Well, the truth is that we must sanctify all parts of our day through divine grace.  God wants us to be wholly holy.  Prayer shouldn't take place only in the Church or when we are on our knees.  We must call to mind the presence of God when we're in the office, washing dishes, paying the bills, and stuck in traffic.  

Through the sacramentals, we can pray at all times, in all places.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Smells, Bells, and What They Tell - Part II

(This is the first in a series on sacramentals.  Here is Part I.)

Before we delve into the smells and bells themselves, perhaps it would first be helpful to step back and consider the theology behind a sacramental.  

Why is it that Catholics light candles, bless themselves with holy water, make the Sign of the Cross, pray with rosary beads, and wear holy medals?  

Is this mere superstitious recourse or simply habituated responses?  

Well, no.  These sacramentals have been around for a long time (as in, even going back to Moses!) and they have a rich, beautiful meaning.  

In a sentence, we have sacramentals because these physical items and gestures signify something greater and, in having recourse to them with the right intention, God actually works through them to bestow His grace upon the soul.

Sacramentals, as the name suggests, have a close relationship with the sacraments.  Yet, there are clear distinctions, which may help shed greater light on the role and purpose of the sacramentals.

Sacraments are outward signs, instituted by Christ, for the reception of supernatural grace (the greatest of graces!).  Christ is the principle celebrant of each sacrament.  Thankfully, the sacraments work ex opere operato (from the deed done).  This means that they are efficacious regardless of the minister: they always produce sanctifying grace by virtue of the rite employed.  There are seven sacraments and they are necessary for salvation.

Got that?

Sacramentals are also outward signs, but here is where the differences begin.  Sacramentals were instituted by the Church and they are for the reception of actual grace.  They prepare the soul for the supernatural grace of the sacraments.  The efficacy of the sacramental is entirely dependent on the disposition of the believer.  Holy water might produce a miraculous cure in one person, but do absolutely nothing for another.  It is absolutely subjective, based upon the one using them.  

Whereas sacraments are required for salvation, sacramentals are entirely voluntary.  No one has to wear a Miraculous Medal.  However, lest we be tempted to disregard them, we must remember that sacramentals can fill our days with God's grace and properly orient our souls to best receive the supernatural grace of the sacraments.  

We can consider them the means to live a richer, fuller Catholicism--and thus, a richer, fuller life in Christ.

Not Catholic?  Join on in!  Sacramentals are not restricted to only baptized Catholics.  In fact, non-Catholics should definitely put the sacramentals to use, as they are conduits of actual grace. 

There is a Gospel narrative that best highlights the difference between a sacramental and a sacrament.  Our Lord is traveling to the home of Jairus, to raise his daughter who had just died.  Amid the crowd surrounding Our Lord is a woman with a hemorrhage.  She touches the fringe of His garment, saying to herself, "If I only touch His garment, I shall be made well."  She is indeed cured and Our Lord commends her faith.  Upon reaching the home of Jairus, Our Lord then proceeds to bring his dead daughter back to life.

The woman with the hemorrhage illustrates the power of the sacramentals.  It was by touching the hem of Jesus' cloak that she was cured.  Her faith made her reach out to touch His cloak.  It was, of course, Our Lord who healed her (not the cloak!), but He allowed the cloak to be the means to bring about that cure.

Meanwhile, Jairus' daughter shows us the power of the sacraments.  She was dead; she could do nothing.  It was Jesus who took the initiative to perform an outstanding miracle: bringing her from death to life!  This, indeed, is what occurs in the sacraments.  Jesus transforms the soul and bestows upon it His own supernatural grace.

So, you see, sacraments are far more important.  

But sacramentals have a role, too.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Smells, Bells, and What They Tell

-       Where do you see God?

   The created world, all around us, is a sign of God's presence.  We read in Genesis that God created the light, the stars, the water, the plants and animals--and called them all good.  

You can look at an artist's painting and deduce something about the craftsman based on his work.  Well, we can look at God's masterpiece (creation) and deduce that God delights in beauty, that He esteems order, and, most importantly, that He loves us so.  Creation is indeed very good.

I once knew an atheist who had a deep love of nature.  He was a hiking enthusiast and was passionate about the outdoors.  I believe it was the beauty and goodness of creation, placed there by God, that was so attractive to him.  Through creation, God was reaching out and touching the heart of this man, inviting him to contemplate the Creator through His creation.

Lest we need any more reasons to acknowledge our physical, created world as "good," Christ Himself walked this earth.  In the Incarnation, God Himself entered our physical world in flesh and blood.  

God uses the physical world as a means to come to us.  It is effective, too, because we are physical beings.  Granted, we are spiritual beings as well (having a soul), but in our bodies, we grasp for something to hold onto, to look at, to touch and to fill our senses.

God fills this need through the sacraments of His Church.  Through sacred, physical signs (water, oil, bread and wine), He comes to us.  These physical parts of creation become conduits of supernatural grace.

But what about finding God in our day-to-day operations?  When we find ourselves in work, at school, at home, with friends--where can we find God?

God's grace is all around us and we can receive it through the "little sacraments": sacramentals.

Sacramentals are the means to sanctify (make holy) our daily life.

Just as Christ is the invisible God made visible, so are sacramentals a visible sign of God's invisible grace.

Holy water, blessed candles, scapulars, holy medals, salt--how do these seemingly ordinary, day-to-day, physical objects become a means for us to grow in holiness, to receive God's grace?

I recently gave a talk on sacramentals and I would like to share parts of it with you, dear readers.  I will be writing more in the days ahead, so be sure to check in again soon!