Friday, December 27, 2019

Lessons from The Odyssey

Our oldest two children are students at a classical school.  I am learning so much vicariously through them about classical education and wishing that I could also be a pupil there.  (My public school education has left me sorely lacking in many areas, I'm afraid.)  

The school sponsored a book group during the summer and one of the pieces of literature selected was The Odyssey.  Well, despite my best intentions, I never got to the book study.  But I resolved to read it anyway.  

Five months later, I did!  It was a bit of an odyssey itself, really.  But I stuck with it and I am happier for it.  The sheer relevance and longevity of this writing makes it something I knew I wanted to read.  It is the second-oldest piece of literature, the first being The Iliad, also written by Homer.  Homer wrote The Odyssey near the end of the 8th century BC.  That is a mind-boggling long time ago!  

It is amazing to me that, despite the vast span of time between then and now, so much of human nature has remained the same.  Temptation, honor, hospitality, family and marriage, fidelity, intellectual prowess, home--these themes belonged to the Greeks just as much as us today in the 21st century.  

The book's protagonist is Odysseus, a valiant leader in the Greek army.  He and his troops are on their way home to Greece after having won victory in Troy.  However, their path home is filled with obstacles.  Meanwhile, back at home, trouble brews as a group of suitors feasts on Odysseus's food and wine, each vying to woo and marry his wife, Penelope.  

There is much one could say about The Odyssey, but my lens for interpreting the text came from the question posed for the book study: Is Odysseus a Christ-like figure?

Certainly, Odysseus's journey home could be an allegory for the spiritual life.  Odysseus is introduced in the first line of the book as a man "of twists and turns."  So is his (and our) journey.  As we struggle to go to our true homeland (heaven), we face countless distractions and temptations to turn off course.  Consider some of Odysseus's obstacles.  Odysseus is detained by the nymph Calypso on her island.  Despite her captivating beauty, Odysseus desires to go home.  He cannot leave, however, because he lacks a boat and a crew.  We need a boat and crew, too.  Like the ark that kept Noah and his family safe, the Catholic Church is like a boat or ship that carries us toward God.  (Many Catholic churches even look like inverted ships, with the high peaked ceiling like the bottom of the ship.)  We are traveling somewhere and the Church will get us there.  However, we cannot go alone.  Just as Odysseus needed a crew, we need the mystical Body of Christ: our champions in heaven (the saints) and the believers here on earth. 

These are external difficulties Odysseus faced, but there were internal battles, too.  The hero must grapple with the effects of his own pride.  In one famous adventure, Odysseus and his men are captured by Polyphemus, a Cyclops.  Odysseus wittingly outsmarts him and manages to save himself and his men.  Unfortunately, escape isn't enough; Odysseus wants credit for his cleverness.  As he sails away, Odysseus yells to Polyphemus, announcing that it is he, Odysseus, who tricked him and blinded him.  With this information, Polyphemus invokes his father, the god Poseidon, to vindicate him.  Poseidon then prevents Odysseus's return for the next ten years!

Other vices cause further delays.  Odysseus receives a gift from King Aeolus: a bag containing all the winds.  This would surely have brought him home quickly, but his crew becomes filled with greed.  Thinking Odysseus is secretly hiding gold, they open the bag to take some for themselves.  The winds all escaped, causing a terrible storm that destroys any progress they have made.

When Odysseus meets the witch-goddess Circe, he is filled with lust.  Love of comfort and pleasure keep him there with her for one whole year.  

Then, when they are finally close to home, Odysseus's crew--ignoring his warning--intemperately feasts on the sun god's sacred cattle.  Immediately thereafter, they suffer a shipwreck, which only Odysseus survives.

Pride, greed, lust, intemperance: these are just a few of the vices that can detain our spiritual journeys.  Despite his setbacks, Odysseus persevered in his efforts to return home.  May the same be said for us as we journey home to heaven!  Like him, may we keep returning to our goal, despite the detours we may wrongly take.  

Nevertheless I long--I pine, all my days--to travel home and see the dawn of my return.

So much for The Odyssey as a spiritual allegory.  Is Odysseus a Christ-like figure though?  I could not quite see the similarities until Odysseus finally arrives home.  He quickly learns that the suitors have taken over his estate, using up his food and wine and trying to seduce his wife.  Odysseus, the rightful owner, has returned to claim what is his own.  The goddess Athena disguises Odysseus as an old man so the suitors will not recognize him at first.  He enters his home a beggar, ridiculed and taunted by the suitors.  But later, through a plan devised with his son, Odysseus reveals himself and kills all the suitors, as well as the maids who were unfaithful.

There are certainly some parallels here.  Christ came to earth disguised, too.  He was mocked because His enemies did not recognize Him as the true King.  Christ came to save what is His own, His lost sheep being led astray by false rulers.  The unfaithful maids also calls to mind the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.  No one knew the exact hour that the Bridegroom would come, so all had to be prepared.  The foolish virgins, however, did not have enough oil.  They left to buy some and missed the Bridegroom.  They were then shut out.  

But the key difference, the one which I think disposes Odysseus as a Christ-like figure, is the difference between justice and vengeance.  Christ is our just and merciful judge.  He did not come to condemn, but to forgive.  Even on the cross, when He is most offended and disrespected, Christ offers forgiveness.  Blood and water pour forth from His open side as a font of mercy for us sinners.  

Odysseus, however, has not returned home to execute justice.  He seeks vengeance and is driven by hatred.  The suitors are clearly guilty of wrongdoing: they have stolen from Odysseus's estate, courted his wife, and plotted to murder his son.  They should be punished for their misdeeds.  However, the retribution in the form of murder seems to exceed the wrongdoing, especially since some of the suitors are less guilty than others.  The suitors even beg for mercy, promising to repay Odysseus for what they have taken from him.  He replies:

"Not for the whole treasure of your fathers, all you enjoy, lands, flocks, or any gold put up by others, would I hold my hand.  There will be killing till the score is paid.  You forced yourselves upon this house.  Fight your way out, or run for it, if you think you'll escape death.  I doubt one man of you skins by."

Thanks be to God that, through His grace, our nostos (homecoming) to heaven will be to a God who is "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" (Psalm 103:8).

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A Perfectly Imperfect Christmas

As a wife, mother, and hostess, I want everything to be just perfect at Christmas time.  Christmas lights, Christmas cookies, Christmas cards, Christmas tree, Christmas clothes for the kids, Christmas presents—I feel this pressure sometimes to make everything the best that it can be, to create a “magical” kind of Christmas day.  I know much of this comes from my own struggle with pride, but I realize our surrounding culture plays its own role, too. After all, aren’t we told that this is supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year?” There are a lot of expectations to meet.
There have been a number of Christmas days in the past, filled with all kinds of festivities, when, at the end of the day, I faced a strange realization: among all the celebrating, I didn’t really pray.  My normal times of prayer were consumed with the busyness of Christmas. It’s a realization that still makes me extremely uncomfortable. No, I did not pray my rosary or have time for mental prayer on Christ’s birthday because … I was too busy making the celebration of His birth perfect? 
I think the devil can take many of our good intentions and twist them into snares for us.  Wanting to celebrate Christ’s birth is a wonderful desire. But celebrating in such a way that distracts us from what we are actually celebrating is to our own detriment.
I had a conversation with someone a few weeks ago that I still think about.  The friend I was talking to said that she remembered a couple of years ago when a family member was in the hospital and they weren’t sure if he would be home for Christmas or not.  At the last moment, he was discharged and able to return home. My friend described, “I was driving to CVS that Christmas Eve night, going to pick up a prescription the hospital ordered.  And I thought to myself, ‘This is one of my favorite Christmases.’” Maybe, she could say, it was one of the most perfect Christmases.
The first Christmas was—by many standards—far from perfect.  Our beautiful Nativity scenes maybe, in some ways, disguise for us the severe reality of that night.  It must have been down-right harrowing as St. Joseph desperately tried to find a place for Mary to give birth.  Our Lady and St. Joseph had to make do with a stable for their housing. Our Lord’s crib was a feeding trough for animals.  There was a tyrant making preparations to kill the newborn child. None of this was comfortable or convenient.
Yet, God designed the way He wanted to enter our world.  He could have done it any of numerous ways. This is the one He chose.  And if God chose it, it is perfect.
Maybe Christmas cookies with burnt bottoms, Christmas cards with children who aren’t all smiling, Christmas clothes that are wrinkled, Christmas lights that flicker because one bulb burnt out, a Christmas tree that is too skinny—maybe all these imperfections that I’ve worked so hard to eliminate, actually in a strange way contribute to the perfection of Christmas.  The imperfections remind us that we aren’t perfect.  We’re not going to get it all right.  We need a Savior.  
And if I can let go of some of my controlling desire to make things “perfect” this Christmas, I will probably have more time to focus on Christ who is Perfection.
Interestingly, my favorite part of Christmas day (aside from Christmas Mass, of course) is something incredibly simple.  On Christmas morning, before we gather around to open presents, we place the infant Jesus in the manger. Then we all sing “Happy Birthday” to Him.  Each year it never fails to make me feel a little teary-eyed. When we strip aside all the festivities, that’s what it all comes down to: the birthday of Our Lord.  We are celebrating Him.  
Happy Birthday, Jesus.

Friday, November 1, 2019

God's Hospital

My husband and I find our children sometimes like to play a certain game.  I’m not sure exactly what it is called, but its main premise is to dump as many toys as possible onto the floor.  I knew they were in the midst of this game one day when I overheard our son say, “Mom’s not going to like this.”

Oh, was he right.  I entered the bedroom to find the floor scattered with dinosaurs, baseball guys, duplos blocks, and a mishmash of game pieces.  

I was—justifiably—angry.  The children know we have certain rules in our house and intentionally making a mess (for the sake of making a mess) is definitely a violation of those rules.  The kids knew they were wrong and promptly said they were sorry. I forgave them, of course.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.  They were forgiven, yes. Yet, the mess remained.  It still had to be cleaned up and fixed.

Something similar happens to our souls.

When we go to the sacrament of Confession, God always forgives us our sins, no matter how grave.  Our eternal punishment is removed and we are restored to right relationship with our God. But, like the mess in the bedroom, sin leaves a kind of mess in our souls.  The sins are forgiven, but there is still work that needs to be done.  

For one thing, there may still remain the tendency or desire to commit the same sinful act.  Sins leave the soul lacking in love. And then there is need for correction. I forgave our children for the mess they made, but they had a punishment: clean it up!  We, too, as God’s children receive temporal punishment for our sins. This is just and it is also love. Loving discipline directs one to what is good. Just like a child, we also need to be corrected through punishment when we willingly and knowingly disobey our Father.  

We must be purified.  Pope Benedict XVI said, “Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table in the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing has happened.”

The question is: when will we be purified?  Sometimes it is in this life.  Other times, it is in the next.  

Let me explain.  On November 1, we celebrate All Saints Day, a joyful occasion when we remember and thank God for our friends in heaven (the Church Triumphant).  The saints are our heroes: they’ve won the race and are now cheering us on.  They have been purified: there is no mess in their souls!

If you look at the lives of the saints, you’ll find a common theme running through their varied life stories.  Whether the saint be a martyr from the fourth century, a wife and mother, or a prisoner at Auschwitz, they all share a commonality: suffering.  More than miracles or mystical prayer, the shared experience of these souls in heaven is that they all suffered. It wasn't something they had to unfortunately "deal with" during their day, an untimely obstacle along the rosy path of life.

No, they embraced the suffering.  They united their suffering with the suffering of Christ on the cross—some, like St. Padre Pio, to the point of even bearing Christ's wounds.  They allowed that suffering to purify them.  It was what made them saints!

They chose to be purified now, here, on earth.  Through suffering they became detached from all sin and made reparation for any damage caused by their previous sins.  Thus their love for God was so pure that, at the moment of their death, they entered directly into heaven.  

Then we come to November 2: All Souls Day.  This is the day when we especially pray for the souls who were not fully purified here on earth.  These are the souls in Purgatory, a word that itself means "purifying." The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that Purgatory is a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

The Church has always upheld its teaching on Purgatory and we find support in sacred Scripture for this doctrine.  For example, in the Old Testament we read, "Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out ... Thus made atonement for the dead that they might be free from sin” (2 Maccabees, 12:26, 32).  

The Church Fathers also professed belief in Purgatory.  St. Augustine, in his Confessions, relates how his mother, St. Monica, asked him to pray for her soul after death.  She said to him, "Lay this body anywhere at all. The care of it must not trouble you. This only I ask of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you are."

Purgatory is God's hospital for souls.  It works just like a hospital does here on earth.  A patient in a hospital realizes that he or she is sick and needs a cure.  He or she recognizes that a cure will come only through suffering—surgery or a medical procedure.  The infirm person willingly proceeds with the suffering, knowing that it is for his or her ultimate good and in hope for full health one day.  Similarly, the souls in Purgatory (the Church Suffering) await the ultimate cure: the bliss that is the Beatific Vision.  Father Benedict Groeschel writes in his book After This Life that Purgatory “heals it [our sinfulness], cleansing the human soul, gently and lovingly making us into the beings God wants us to be.”  

St. Catherine of Genoa says of Purgatory, 

"The Almighty is so pure, however, that if a person is conscious of the least trace of imperfection and at the same time understands that Purgatory is ordained to do away with such impediments, the soul enters this place of purification glad to accept so great a mercy of God.  The worst suffering of these suffering souls is to have sinned against divine Goodness and not to have been purified in this life."

Joyfully, there is only one door out of Purgatory and that is the door into heaven.  But until the purification is complete, the soul will experience a suffering "more painful than anything a man can suffer in this life" (St. Augustine).  The souls in Purgatory suffer because they see so clearly the evil of their sins and sin's effects. They seek the peak of the mountain, but must make the painful ascent, shedding their sins and sinful desires as they rise to the top.  

While being purified, these holy souls in Purgatory cannot earn merit for good works.  They cannot hasten their ascent to the top.

This is a teaching we affirm at every Mass when, following the consecration, the priest prays in the Second Eucharistic Prayer, "Remember our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again; bring them and all the departed into the light of your presence."

Who are these "brothers and sisters" for whom we pray?  Not the saints in heaven—prayer will not help them, as they have reached eternal happiness.  Not the souls in hell—prayer will not help them, as their unrepentant sins have damned them to eternal punishment.  We pray for the souls in Purgatory, who were not purified here on earth and must therefore be purified later.

Then we come to a somber realization.  We are each given suffering, every day, in a myriad of shapes and sizes.  How will we use that suffering? Will we squander it? Or will we use it for the atonement of and reparation for our sins?  Will we be like the saints who embraced their suffering and were purified through it?

That's what we can do now.   C.S. Lewis—in The Great Divorce— said that we begin to choose—today!—our eternal destination.  Heaven and hell begin on earth, through the decisions we make about how to live our life.  We are the Church Militant, journeying toward our goal of Heaven, like soldiers marching onward to victory.

Right now we can allow our suffering to purify us.  

And right now we can help those in Purgatory.  

Remember, they cannot help themselves: they cannot hasten their ascent to the heavenly mountain.  But we can! Through our prayers and by offering up our sufferings, we can hasten their way to heaven.  

We all have loved ones who have died.  Don't assume that they are in heaven because, if they are in Purgatory, they need your help.  Offering our suffering, our prayers, our work, any difficulties in this life is a way to show these departed ones our love.  My own family has gotten into the habit of praying for the souls in Purgatory immediately after we say our grace before each meal.  We pray: “And may the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”  

Also consider having a Mass offered for someone who has died.  Mass is the highest form of prayer and worship here on earth, so there are many graces that flow from this practice.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “From the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.”

We can (and should) remember the souls in Purgatory every day, but most especially now, in the days following All Soul's Day.  

Each day from November 1 until November 9 we can gain a plenary indulgence for a soul in Purgatory.  An indulgence is the remission of temporal punishment due to sin. The Church has an infinite treasury of merit (good works) “stored” up, so to speak.  These merits are from Christ’s Passion and death, as well as the good works of our Blessed Mother and the saints. So an indulgence is the exchange of spiritual goods from the treasury of the Church to a particular soul—in this case, the indulgence could be applied to a soul in Purgatory.  A plenary indulgence is extremely powerful: it removes all temporal punishment due to sin, allowing a soul in Purgatory to go to heaven!  

In order to obtain this plenary indulgence, one must:

1. Visit a cemetery (any cemetery will do; it need not be the one where your loved one is buried).
2. Say a prayer for the particular soul for whom you wish to gain the indulgence.
3. Attend Mass the same day.
4. Go to confession within 20 days of the cemetery visit.
5. Have a spirit of detachment from all sin.
6. Pray an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the intentions of the Pope.

Now, through God's grace, we can atone for our sins and perfect our love for God.

Now we can aid the suffering souls in Purgatory.  They will be so grateful to you! As Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “As we enter Heaven, we will see them so many of them, coming towards us and thanking us.  We will ask who they are and they will say: ‘A poor soul you prayed for in Purgatory!’”

Now we can try to bypass Purgatory and aim for heaven, where we will see God face-to-face.

Holy Mary, Refuge of Sinners, grant us the strength and grace of God to act "now" so that "later" will find us adoring God in heaven, in the company of all the angels and saints!  

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May the souls of the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Morgan, Deli

I suppose I had known him for my whole life, but I first met him when I was a freshman in college.  I was working as a cashier at Price Chopper. When I was in the middle of an order, someone came up to me and hastily handed me a small, folded piece of paper.
"Thanks," I said, surprised, as the deliverer quickly rushed away.  I opened the note to see in a scrawled script a brief message: You will do well here.  It was signed: Morgan, Deli.
I didn't recall meeting a Morgan before.  During my break, I went over to the deli to do some investigating, but to no avail.  I kept the note in my cashier apron's pocket and, after a few weeks, forgot about the strange occurrence.
It was then midterm time for the fall semester.  Unfortunately, I was scheduled to work the evening before my big history exam.  I was a bit beside myself: I had hoped to spend the whole night finalizing my test preparation but where did I find myself? Scanning groceries.  Great … just great.
During my break, I sat myself in the little eating area of the store where I lamented my lost study time and seemingly inevitable failing grade.  I glanced up to see a man sitting a few tables away, carefully watching me. He smiled and approached my table. "You look sad about something. What's wrong?"  I proceeded to tell him my troubles and he listened most graciously. As my break neared an end, I asked his name and he replied, “Morgan.” 
I had found the author of my mysterious note. 
We spoke several times after that initial encounter. On one instance, Morgan noticed the Miraculous Medal that I was wearing and excitedly showed me his medal, enthusiastically sharing with me his devotion to our Blessed Mother.
It came to pass that I transferred to a new store and, as such, no longer saw Morgan. Time went by and I forgot about him. I began to forget about other things, too—it was a dark time in my faith journey and my relationship with God became lukewarm as I questioned and challenged long-held beliefs. 
My life was on a collision course and it manifested itself quite concretely a few months later during, of all times, Holy Week. Driving home one afternoon down my quiet, rural street I prepared to turn left into my driveway. As I turned, seemingly from nowhere bounded a truck that inexplicably attempted to pass me on my left as I turned. 
The truck hit my car and swerved off the road while my car spun in place. Dazed and shocked, I managed to drive my car into the driveway, the front bumper dragging along the road as I numbly realized that the truck had missed the driver’s door by a matter of feet. 
Shaking, I exited my car and watched the driver of the truck also exit his vehicle and then abruptly begin sprinting down the road away from me (I was later to learn he had stolen the truck).  Alone and frightened I stood as another car approached the scene of the accident. The driver stopped and came toward me. 
It was, of all people, Morgan. 
As he walked, I saw a Crown of Thorns in his hand, which he said he would be using for the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. He stayed with me as I called the police and helped me until everything was resolved. 
The last memory I have of Morgan was that Easter Sunday morning.  He attended the same Mass as me and I remember, driving home, watching him walking alone down the sidewalk, the sun on his back.
In retrospect, I see the bizarre car accident as a metaphor for my faith life at the time.  It was in danger and about to crash. This was God’s intervention at a crossroads to warn me and encourage me to choose to follow Christ… and Morgan was the messenger.
Did you know that the word angel means "messenger?"  I have no proof either way, but I really do wonder whether Morgan was my guardian angel in human form.
But, wait, you might argue.  That’s a nice story and all, but do angels really exist?  Aren’t angels fantasy or myth, the stuff of Lifetime movies or children’s stories? 
Let’s look at two of our sources of truth: Sacred Scripture and Church Tradition.  The Bible is very clear about angels: they exist and they are powerful. At the major moments of salvation history, angels were present.  An angel guarded the gate to the Garden of Eden after the Fall of Man. Angels appeared to Abraham to share the news that he and his wife would bear a child.  Later, an angel stayed the hand of Abraham when he prepared to sacrifice his son. The archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to share the message that she had been chosen to become the Mother of the Savior.  Then, at the Savior’s birth, angels danced and sang for joy in the midnight sky. Angels ministered to Our Lord after Satan tempted Him in the desert. They likewise comforted Him during His agony in the garden. The morning of the Resurrection, it was an angel that announced that Our Lord was alive.  When Our Lord ascended into heaven, an angel encouraged the apostles to return to Jerusalem and their ministry. An angel aided St. Peter in escaping from prison. When Christ comes again, the angels will trumpet His glorious return.
Christ makes clear the reality of angels.  He says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father” (Matthew 18:10).
Church Tradition has similarly been clear about the existence of angels.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition.
But, if we need further evidence, just consider for a moment the order and hierarchy of the natural world.  Think about all of the creatures that exist, starting with a single-cell organism, all the way up to the complex human person.  There are so many creatures along the steps of that hierarchy. Analogously, why wouldn’t God do the same in the supernatural world?  At the bottom is man (body and spirit); at the top is God (perfect Spirit).  What fills in the space between those two? Angels.
Angels are all around us, even though we may not be aware of them.  Most times, we cannot see them. Unlike us humans, angels are pure spirit: they have no body, no matter.  Because they have no body, angels are neither male nor female. They also can never die, since they have no body that can be destroyed.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness.”  Sometimes, guided by the misinformation given in movies, people think that we humans become angels after we die.  However, an angel is an entirely different species from people. Humans can’t become angels, though it would help us to try to act like them!
We often think of angels as chubby little cherubim, sweet and innocuous.  But in reality, angels are supremely powerful, fearful (in a good way) and “awe”-some.  Consider this: just about every time an angel appears in Scripture to someone, the angel immediately reassures, “Do not be afraid!”  
Angels are pure intellect: they know perfectly and immediately. (This is why, in art, angels are sometimes depicted as heads with wings on either side!)  Let’s say that I’m trying to learn how to sew. How would I go about that? It would be a process, right? I would need to maybe watch some YouTube videos, take some classes, practice, make mistakes and correct them, etc.  My knowledge is gradually acquired. An angel, in sharp contrast, knows instantly. As Peter Kreeft in his book Angels (and Demons) writes, “They are more brilliant minds than Einstein.” 
The word angel means “messenger.”  It describes more what angels do, than what they are.  As messengers, they have various roles. Actually, there are nine different levels (or choirs) of angels:
Seraphim: this is the highest level of angel.  The word Seraphim means “the burning ones.”  These angels burn with the greatest love of God and exist to contemplate Him.
Cherubim: Cherubim means “fullness of wisdom.”  These angels adore God as well, but specifically for His wisdom.
Thrones: Just like an earthly throne brings to mind a king, the Thrones contemplate God’s kingly power. 
Dominions: These angels have power (dominion) over the angels below them. 
Virtues: They receive orders from the Dominions to guard the universe. 
Powers: The Powers work with the Virtues, specifically in combating evil. 
Principalities: They care for earthly kingdoms and countries.  For example, the United States has its own Principality to care for it! 
Archangels: They are messengers of very important news from God to man.  For example, Gabriel, who appeared to the Virgin Mary, is one of the archangels. 
Angels: These are the guardian angels.  Every person has a guardian angel to protect and guard him or her.
Our guardian angel in an incredible gift from God.  From the moment of your conception, there is an angel by your side at all times.  That angel’s whole purpose is you!  Isn’t that an incredible thought?  God has created an angel for the sole purpose of protecting, guarding, and watching over you! 
Sometimes angels intervene in our lives in a miraculous way.  Maybe my Morgan was indeed an angel. When angels appear this way, it’s as though they are putting on a very realistic costume.  We see this in Scripture in the Book of Tobit, when the Archangel Raphael appears as a man to help Tobias and his family. 
More often though, angels help us behind the scenes in quieter—though no less potent—ways.  Your guardian angel may give you strength in a moment of temptation. Or maybe sometimes you’ve had a sudden inspiration or idea.  Its source could be your guardian angel! Also, your guardian angel prays for you before the throne of God in heaven.  
The Church has two special days devoted to angels.  September 29 is the Feast of the Archangels (Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel) and October 2 is the Feast of the Guardian Angels.  Take these days to thank God for the gift of the angels! And remember, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).  

Angel of God,
my guardian dear,
to whom God's love
commits me here,
ever this day,
be at my side,
to light and guard,
rule and guide.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Sister Death

Have you ever been present at someone’s death?

It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it?  One moment the person is there and the next … he or she is gone.  The person’s body is still warm to the touch. Maybe even the blood is still pulsing a little in the veins.  But that person, the unique individual who laughed and loved and lived, that person is no longer there.  

In the course of one week, our family experienced life and death.  Our son was born and, six days later, my brother died. As I worked through my contractions in one hospital, waiting for new life to be born, my brother suffered through brain surgery in another hospital, waiting for the terminal diagnosis his stage IV brain cancer gave him.  My mind is still contemplating this: life and death.  

I think about our newborn son and his life in the womb.  Since the day he was created, that was all he knew: life in utero.  The sound of my heartbeat, the feel of the amniotic fluid surrounding him, and the rocking movements of my body: his only knowledge of the world.  Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, he went through what must be the frightening, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar experience of birth. His world completely changed.  Suddenly, everything was new: a world of sunlight and his mother’s warm touch and faces that smile with love upon him.  

My brother only knew this earthly world—and maybe, some would say, in an imperfect way since Michael was born with developmental disabilities.  Last week he suddenly experienced death. Everything changed for him. He is in a new world: a perfect, eternal world. The face of God can now smile upon him.

Life and death.

As I sat beside Michael’s hospital bed in those final moments, I kept repeating to myself the words of St. Augustine: “We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!”  This world is not our home. Death does not have the final say; it is life, death … and eternal life. I found myself, even in my sadness, smiling quietly as I looked at my brother.  I saw his breathing tube, the bandage on his head from his brain surgery, the brace around his broken ribs and spine, and thought: this isn’t the end of Michael’s story. This suffering and pain is not the final chapter.  Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday and the suffering my brother has bore so courageously, with so few—if any—complaints, is earning him an eternal crown of glory.  

As the moment of death drew nearer, the nurse removed Michael’s tubes and braces.  He already looked free: God was calling him home and we were letting him go. Our family circled his hospital bed and we prayed together, “Jesus, I trust in You.”  We were praying him home.  

We are an Alleluia people.  What would we do without this precious faith?  Death would be so final, so dismal. It would be a permanent goodbye.  Yet, with the hope that Christ gives to us, we can talk about death with joy.  Michael died at the age of thirty-seven, but his soul was that of a young child—innocent and pure.  It was indeed with joy we could return that pure soul back to God. And, one day, through God’s grace, we will see him again.

In every Hail Mary we ask our Mother, “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”  God’s presence in Michael’s hospital room was palpable.  A priest gave Michael the Anointing of the Sick. Holy cards were spread on his lap while a rosary and brown scapular were placed in his hands.  Surrounded by family members, Michael breathed his last breath and died. It was a holy death. To die in God’s grace, to persevere and run the race well to the end, should be the goal of each one of us.

When we heard Michael’s diagnosis just a couple of weeks ago and knew his brain tumor to be terminal, I wondered how I could go through each day with the weight of that knowledge on my mind.  Yet, we all have a terminal diagnosis, you might say. It’s called original sin and it brought death to the world. Any of us, at any moment, could die. We must stay alert, as Our Lord urges us: we know not the day nor the hour He will call.  This shouldn’t fill us with fear. Rather, the expectation of being with the Lord and the hope of heaven should spurn us on in living holy lives. St. Francis of Assisi in his “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon” proclaims,

Praised be You, my Lord through Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape.  Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm.  Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks,
And serve Him with great humility.

Yes, through our faith we don’t need to fear death; our true fear should be of mortal sin.  If we persevere to the end, death will do us no harm, but will lead us to our true homeland in heaven.  Our Lord assures us that He has prepared a place for each one of us. I trust that Michael, in his purity of heart, is there.  In heaven, there is no more suffering or pain. In heaven we will see Christ face-to-face in an eternal embrace of perfect love.

Could there ever be a greater goal?