Inward Growth, Outward Witness

1 Oct

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Embraced by God, Part 4

 Brandon Vogt is a 28-year-old Catholic husband and father. He is a blogger, public speaker and author. In May 2011, he was one of ten Americans invited to the Vatican to dialogue with Church leaders about the use of new media in the interest of the mission of Christ.

In the spring of 2014, Brandon joined “Word on Fire,” Father Robert Barron’s very relevant and successful ministry.[i] He is now internationally known for his expertise fostering faith through modern digital communications.

Brandon began to grow in faith in his first years at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

He was at FSU with Kathleen Floegel, a devout Catholic. They were sweethearts in high school. It wasn’t just puppy love—they are married and parents of a growing family.

At the university, he began worshipping at the FSU Wesley Foundation. It was there that he began to develop a personal relationship with God. Vance Rains, the Methodist pastor at FSU, was instrumental in Brandon’s spiritual development.

Brandon says, “For most of my life, I never met a rigorous God who made any sort of demand on my life. And I never encountered an intimate God who ravished me with deep love or an epic God who waged war against evil for my sake. The church I grew up in cared for me deeply. It encouraged kindness, and presented the basic, biblical stories to me. But I never really experienced anything transcendent.”

He began to hear God’s word in worship; the Scriptures took on new and deeper meaning. He discovered that “God was a Lover on a relentless pursuit” – the total surrender of one’s heart, mind and soul to God.

At FSU Wesley Foundation, Brandon found a “resurgence of classical spirituality” and discovered Catholics like Augustine, Chesterton, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day.

As he read and studied these authors, he “couldn’t avoid a nagging theme: the Catholic tradition lurking behind” the inspiration of these writers.

           “How,” Brandon asked himself, “could Chesterton and Augustine be so right about everything but their religion?” He discovered that the Eucharist was an echoing theme in all of these Catholic writers.

The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and the unity of the people of God by which the Church is kept in being. It is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father and the Holy Spirit.

CCC, No. 1325, from Eucharisticum mysterium , 6

Brandon said, “The Eucharist really catalyzed my probing. It was an unavoidable hinge. Many of the holiest saints claimed the Eucharist as their fuel.”He discovered that the Catholic Church proclaimed the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of her Faith.

He didn’t want to believe in the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Jesus – his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. But the “earliest Christians believed in the Real Presence, as did the great saints and many of the most brilliant theologians and spiritual masters of today.”

He said that once he found that the Catholic Church “had the real presence of Jesus pulsating at the center of her Faith, I was hooked.”

At the Easter Vigil In 2008, Brandon Vogt was received into the Catholic Church. Present were Kathleen and his Methodist pastor and friends from the FSU Wesley Foundation.

Looking back, says Brandon, without God’s constant pursuit and what he learned and experienced along the way, without the community of faith, the sacraments, the saints, and a big dose of Divine Providence,” God for him would have always been a “declawed kitten.”

And now, he says, “I’ve been caught by the Lion who has always been in pursuit.”

 

 

[i] Word on Fire, www.wordonfire.org

Hanging by a Thread

23 Sep

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Embraced by God, Part 3

It Takes Honesty to Receive Mercy

“Repentance—how ‘cool’ it is!” That’s one lady’s response to salvation.

“Judy” is a woman who knows the great gift of mercy. She also knows the freedom and joy of changing her life, of finding the healing balm of repentance.

She calls her story, “Hanging by a Thread.”

Judy’s story is one of gradual separation from God—without even realizing it—and God’s loving mercy in receiving her back. It is about the importance of prayer, even when your prayer life is minimal. It is about the need for direction and correction as we mature. It’s also about patiently and gently guiding young people toward God’s truth about faith and morals.

She says “I was born into a large Catholic family. We faithfully attended Mass every Sunday.

“Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, catechesis was weak. I don’t remember being taught about the beauty of the Church or the Mass.  I don’t recall being encouraged to have a relationship with God. My faith was a Sunday thing, not a part of my whole life.”

Coming of Age

She came of age in the 70’s, and although relatively sheltered from what was going on among her peers, things changed when she went to college. At first, she attended Mass regularly. She had strong Catholic influences in the families with whom she was associated. But faith was “a Sunday thing.”

She got her own apartment and “with that freedom I could experiment. And I did.  I do ’t remember being taught about the value of purity and chastity.  My parents never had the talk about the “birds and the bees”.  And the culture at the time encouraged sexual promiscuity.  Even older women, who loved me like a mother, were very supportive when I shared my plans with them for exploring things with my boyfriend.  Oh, how I wish they would have corrected me rather than affirmed me.

And so there began a time of promiscuity that lasted about two years. Along with promiscuity came contraception.

“During that time I stopped attending Mass. I don’t think I realized what was happening.  We can so gradually move away from God, and by the time we realize how far away we are, we can be truly lost.”

Judy says she “went from a naïve young woman to a foul-mouthed ‘woman of the world.’ I thought I was liberated, grown-up, cool.  But now I see how foolish and lost I was.  I ended up moving in with my boyfriend, who would later become my husband. He, too, was a non-practicing Catholic.”

Judy became pregnant. The doctor suggested a legal abortion. She and her boyfriend chose that option. “So I chose abortion and ended the life of my child.”

During the next twenty years, Judy was away from the Church. She and her boy friend married.

“I attended church only when I was home with my parents. Still, I remember praying every night.  It was just the simple, memorized prayers of a child—Our Father, Hail Mary—but I know they were the lifeline to God that kept me connected throughout that time away.

Hanging by a Thread

“There is a saying, ‘hanging by a thread.’” Judy said. “That’s what I envision with me and God. When I was baptized, there was a thick, strong rope connecting me to God. Each time I sinned, a thread from that rope was cut.  Eventually, all that was left was a thin string between me and God.  That string was prayer.”

After about ten years, she became pregnant again but the baby was lost in a miscarriage. Later, she conceived again—about one year after she began her journey back into the Church.

Judy says that is August of 2000, she “went to confession for the first time in more than twenty years, confessed the sin of abortion (and many others, of course), and began to make it to Sunday Mass on a regular basis. About a year later, in September, 2001, my son was born.  And I knew, throughout my pregnancy, that he would be fine. I had no fear of miscarriage or anything else.”

Slowly, God was calling her back.

She began to explore her Catholic faith. She attended “Why Catholic?” She began going to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. “I don’t think I ‘got it’ but I was there.  I began reading and learning.  And once that began, I had a hunger and couldn’t get enough.”

Three Levels of Conversion

Judy refers to her conversion as having three levels.

“My first conversion was of repentance—recognizing my sins and confessing them. Then, it was an intellectual conversion—learning my faith. Now, the third conversion is one of heart—falling in love with God. This is the best part!”

Judy’s story concludes with this:

“I know that God loves me as only our Father can love. I feel like Molly Ringwold at the end of the movie ‘Sixteen Candles.’  She has a crush on a popular, rich boy and has no hope of him even thinking about her.

“But at the end of the movie, she comes out of church after her sister’s wedding and there he is, sitting on his fancy car. He waves at her and she looks around to see who he’s waving at, but she’s alone.

“She points to herself and says, ‘Me?’ He replies, ‘Yeah – you.’

“That’s how I feel about God and me. He sees me, some nobody who has offended him in so many ways.  And he waves to me.  I look around to see who he’s waving at because surely it isn’t me!  But it is.

God wants me!

How cool is that!”

Judy discovered that healing and spiritual growth are found in the Church, its Sacraments, and in the embraces of those who also believe.

 

 

I Surrendered

20 Sep

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Embraced by God, Part 2

My surrender to God followed years of alcohol abuse and severity in my family relationships. I had lived with a degree of self-hatred. I was not what I pretended to be. I acted holy—but I was far from being holy. I claimed belief in God and the Gospel, but did not live a committed Christian life.

I knew who I was as a drunk and a fake, but I did not know who or what I would be if I gave up alcohol, if at last I truly surrendered to God.

I would pray earnestly, “Lord, heal me so I can be like other people and stop after a couple of drinks.” But I consistently heard my conscience echo, “Go to AA.” I refused, telling God that I was not like all those drunks.

But I was.

The Painful Decision

And finally, at five a.m. on September 2, 1977, I surrendered. I decided to go to AA. I was afraid and quite anxious: Will I really be able to quit? What will other people think of me?

I went to an AA meeting and went home feeling better than I had felt in many years. I lost all desire to drink—and I have never missed it at all. (However, God in his goodness invented nonalcoholic beer just for me and others like me.)

For all those years I never realized (or admitted?) that alcohol was making me less secure, more depressed and less capable of love.

I had been blindly searching for the peace and joy that comes from intimacy with God.

How Achieve Intimacy?

Seeking to grow in intimacy is very personal. Each person must find his or her own way. However, you don’t achieve intimacy as though it were some goal you frantically pursue.

If you are seeking to know God better relax, because you are already experiencing God’s touch. He is giving you that growing desire to become one with him, to live a good and joy-filled life. You are already beginning to listen, to move forward. You may want to ask God to come closer, or rather, to be more open to him.

Here is a great example of how simple a prayer can be.

There was a young boy possessed by demon. The father told Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus responded, “If I can! Everything is possible to one who has faith.”

The father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief.”

And Jesus healed the boy.

Cf Mk 9:20-29

So, you begin with prayer—from the heart. For example, you may pray something like this:

Lord, I don’t really know how to pray. But I want to know you as I never have before. Please help me, God.

That is a marvelous prayer. It confesses your weakness and states your desire. You place yourself into God’s hands—that’s trust.

Your search for God begins with a decision to know him better, to be open to his love, to try to understand what it means to love God in return.             Whatever your security blanket, give it up, surrender to God and be covered with his divine mercy.

Next, “Judy” discovers God as she “hangs by a thread.”

 

Wonferful, Wounded Humanity

18 Sep

 

Reaching Up

 

There is such beauty, comfort and power in life: the beauty of creation—mountains, clouds, the deep and light blue of the heavens.

And then, there is us, all of us spread throughout the world.

We are each a distinct creation, each of us an individual, but there is the mystery and comfort of our kinship, in our being one nature. We go about our own personal business, we each pursue individual agendas—but we all breathe the same air, travel the same highways and byways, shop in the same stores. Each of us has come to life in the same way—conceived in our mothers’ wombs, born into the world and all someday to die.

Though individuals, we are a massive movement of humanity from one day to the next, from generation to generation—a seemingly perpetual flow of life.

Each of us, creature and part creator, makes life happen. We affect and are affected by all things in life. We each have preferences—ski slopes or sunny beaches, gourmet foods or hot dogs, lemonade or beer.

But we have the regrettable ability to make a mess of what is supposed to be a perfectly good world.

Wounded Humanity

There remains for people of all nations much pain, fear, grief and suffering: the deaths of loved ones, polio, cancer, mental illness, broken families, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam “conflicts,” the tensions of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Now there are terrorism and conflicts in Afghanistan, the Ukraine, Iraq, Kuwait and Syria—as well as the nuclear threat posed by Iran. And the tensions remain with us today—including the serious challenges from Russia and China.

Need I list the domestic ailments of our nation—political division, doublespeak in government, the plight of the unemployed? The List could go on.

We must rediscover the power and wonder of belonging to and with one another, the great blessing of individual freedom which is fostered and strengthened through personal responsibility, adherence to a moral code, and the belief that truth cannot contradict itself.

It Comes with a Cost

But such rediscovery, I am afraid, will come at a tremendous cost to many modern Americans.

It’s the cost of getting real, of rejecting the lie that the individual is the center of his or her own universe. That’s the attitude of toddlers and juveniles.

It’s the cost of personal responsibility for oneself and one’s family. People must recognize the value and dignity of work—that their labors offer others what they need to live; our labor helps society become safer, stronger and happier.

It’s the cost of realizing that objective truth is not subject to change.

It’s the cost of realizing and accepting the fact that God is real, eternal, and all powerful. It’s the challenge of believing in him as he reveals himself in Scripture, especially in the words of Jesus Christ.

Next: I Surrendered to God.

 

 

 

To Spend Life Itself

31 Aug

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God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him;

male and female he created them (Gn 1:27).

 After eternal life, life itself is a great and magnificent gift. God manifests his benevolence and nourishes us with the fruit of the earth. He claims us and he builds up our spirit—our very soul and life itself—with his Word and the great Sacraments of the Church.

But, it is so unfortunate that people have lost the sense of life itself. Just consider certain TV commercials and print ads that tout shallow appeals to lure you away from the real gift of life:

“My face lift has given me a new life.”

“That (exercise machine) gave me my life back. WOW! I look and feel sexy again.”

“This (beauty lotion) makes me look younger and alive again.”

Surely there is nothing inherently evil about face lifts, exercise and looking younger. However, if you define life itself by how you feel or look, you have missed the point.

Life is a precious gift from God. He willed us into existence. He wants us to live life fully—and he wants us to spend our lives as the precious gift it is.

I say “spend our lives” purposefully. You will remember the parable of the talents (Mt 25:13-40). The master of the house gave three servants various amounts of money, each according to his abilities.  The first and second servants doubled the money to be returned to the master. However, the third, in fear of the master, buried his share of the money and earned no more for his master. The master condemned him as fruitless, unworthy and cast him out of his service.

Too often, we think of the many things God has given us—food, shelter, family and income. We may even thank God for the gift of Jesus, his Church and the Sacraments.

But, what about life itself—how do you, how do I, spend the life God has given us?

  • Do I ignore life itself and concentrate on the peripheral things in life?
  • Or, do I see life as a wonderful gift that I am to spend by helping others to live more fully, to help them overcome self-abasement, the oppression of others or the pains of loneliness, hunger and alienation?
  • Do I “spend” my life in the worship of God, in making this world a safer place, in keeping God close every moment of our lives?

After all, this life we live now is only a brief preamble

which determines how we are to live forever. 

Examine Your Progress

19 Aug

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Mama always told me to clean my plate–but what was that about being greedy and a glutton?

Yes, examine my spiritual progress. That sounds better than “examination of conscience?” 

It’s less threatening, less old fashioned—but alas, any way you put it, you have to reflect on how you live up to your claim to be a Christian. And one good way to do that is indeed to examine your conscience. 

A proper examination of conscience involves reflection on what you actually did right, what you did wrong and what you failed to do that you should have done.

I always like to start with what I did right—it sort of softens the blow as I progress forward. And then, after all that admission of guilt, I recall again what I did right and thank God for his help in keeping me straight in those instances, however few they may be. 

However, sin is sin. Somehow, in the last couple of generations we’ve managed to reduce sin to mere failures and mistakes. It’s so easy to dim one’s concept of reality by failing to speak the naked truth

It seems necessary, at times, to recognize the ugliness and horror of sin. This is done quite easily by considering carefully the seven deadly sins: pride, anger, avarice, greed, lust, gluttony and sloth. 

Why not take time occasionally to see how you actually do sin in any of those areas—how you sin by commission or omission, by doing what you should not do or by failing to do what you should do? 

For example: 

I am prideful—I consider myself the best person to read at Mass; or I fail to compliment and celebrate with the person who won out over me.

I am gluttonous – I overeat just for the sake of taste.

I am avaricious – I horde my money or my faith rather than share them with the needy. 

That’s the idea – but don’t fail to end on a positive note. Maybe you did share your wealth. Maybe you did not overeat. Maybe you did honor the person who won out over you.

That indeed is something worth giving thanks to God.

 

 

 

 

 

Azariah’s Prayer

16 Aug

Reaching Up

Azariah took a prophetic look at his world,

a prophet must seek and hear his God.

In the Bible’s Book of Daniel, we are treated to the prayer of Azariah. He, Hananiah and Mishael refused to worship an idol created by King Nebuchadnezzar. (Here I use their Hebrew names rather than the ones by which the pagans called them. See Daniel 1:6.)

 Because of their refusal to worship an idol, the enraged king cast them into a fiery furnace. To the king’s amazement, he saw them walking around unharmed in the fiery furnace—and Azariah prophesied about the sinfulness of the Hebrew nation and the justice of God (Daniel 3:1-31).

The Sin of the Nation

In essence, Azariah states that, as a whole, the Hebrews abandoned God. They have ignored God’s will and law, his call to be one with him and to enjoy an intimate life of grace. In spite of all he has done for the Hebrew people, God is dismissed from the depths of the human heart; at best, he is merely acknowledged by external observance of the law; at its worst, his people worship idols and profane his holy Name.

Could we not today, here in our own world, and particularly in our own United States, pray that same prayer as did Azariah? Here, where God has so lavishly blessed our nation with so many good things?

We do indeed have our own idols—the desecration of marriage, hunger for money and power, sex for sex’s sake, and the fear of aging and the desire to look forever young. Just consider carefully the following TV programs: “Dancing with the Stars,” “Bachelor” and “Bachelorette,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Naked and Afraid,” “Dating Naked,”  and that general genre).

We Need the Prophetic Voice

We need prophetic voices, in our Church and in all society, to speak fearlessly, honestly and charitably about the growing darkness in our world.  The old concerns remain and, in my mind, deserve more attention in parishes and in families: Christian frugality, sexual morality, modesty in dress and language, and corruption in government.

And, of great importance, is the responsibility to teach, not  only the things that are sins, but the source of our moral convictions and the unhappy consequences of sin.

St. Augustine was very clear about the responsibility to preach truth. He said that preachers (and I suggest parents and teachers as well) must speak the truth. If they do, and the sinner dies, it is the fault of the sinner; if they do not, and the sinner dies, the preachers, parents and teachers bear the blame.

Jesus, help us to love you purely and passionately and to trust you completely.

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