Monthly Archives: February 2011

Some Questions About Prayer: Part 6

The Question

6) How do you notice and identify the small things that shows you God’s love specifically to you?  (such as what events occur that make you stop and think)

My Answer

6. It’s a matter of being aware, and perhaps not looking too hard. There was a Friday when I woke up late, felt generally rotten, had zero inclination to do my Latin homework, and was of a mind to be a grouch, blow off class, and stay in bed while surfing the internet forever. However, after I had halfheartedly poked around online for about 15 minutes, I got the stubborn notion that I really needed to do my work. By that time it was too late to have made decent inroads into the translation and I was still feeling sluggish, but I instructed myself that I should at least check the class website. I did. It turns out that class that day was canceled. For some reason, not having to worry about class and homework that day was just the thing I needed to refresh myself and work on some other neglected tasks. Happily, I washed my dishes, did some laundry (two things which generally require desperation mixed with deep shame to get me to do), and went to the Newman Center. I went to daily Mass, had some conversations that were extremely beneficial, and even was able to go to Adoration. I was able to decompress, regain some balance, worship God, and feel much, much better. Was it coincidence that class was canceled that day? I don’t think so. I think God knew that I needed it very badly, and that it would bear wonderful fruit, which it did, so He arranged it.

Spiritual comfort comes from God. When I am quickmarching to class in the morning because everything went wrong and I am in a bad mood, and the crosswalk light that ALWAYS starts flashing when I am 15 feet away actually becomes a walking man right when I approach the curb so I don’t even have to slow down, I thank God for the little things He does for me, and I feel better. God loves us and isn’t above giving us small presents to cheer us up and strengthen us for the battle against sin and despair that is life. Just like a loving husband or dear friend will surprise us with little love notes in the dresser or unexpectedly picking up the tab at a nice restaurant, God bestows us with constant reminders of His care. When I am at Mass, and return to my pew after having received the Blessed Sacrament, I can feel His presence and glory within me, radiating out, and it feels like an embrace.

Sometimes we go through a difficult time or make a painful decision, and then are left wondering whether it was even the right thing to do, and it isn’t until afterwards that God covers our lives in sticky notes saying, “YES! This is why it was good to do it, this is what you have learned, this is how pleased I am that you carried out My will even though it was not easy.” After ending a relationship, maybe it’s easier to see why the other person was not good for you. After healing a rift in a relationship with a good friend, maybe you realize the good influence that person has on you. After not giving up on a job even though it is irritating, arduous, exhausting, or inconvenient, maybe you find that there are many insights you have learned about life and about yourself.

All that is good comes from God. It behooves us to be able to recognize what is truly good, and give Him thanks and praise.


Some Questions About Prayer: Part 5

The Question

5. How, what, when, why do you find yourself reading the Bible? (4 questions there)

My Answer

5. How: How do I read the Bible? Hmm. I’m not sure what kind of a question that is. Thoughtfully, I guess. Depending on what I want from it, I’ll read larger or smaller sections. Some people read the Bible cover to cover over the course of a few days or weeks. I tried it one time and it wasn’t for me.

What: What do I find myself reading in the Bible? All sorts of things. It depends on what I’m looking for. I like reading Proverbs in huge chunks, because not only is it very insightful, but some of them are fairly amusing. My favorite book is probably the letter of St. Jude, so every so often (at least once a year) I re-read it. My favorite psalm is 22.

When: At this point, I’ll use the Bible as a reference guide. I’m familiar enough with the major stories, parallels, and insights that I don’t feel the need to pick it up, flip it open, and go. Sometimes I’ll do that anyway though.

Why: I read the Bible for information, consolation, guidance, teaching, corroboration, and encouragement. Honestly, reading the Bible is not a major part of my spiritual life. I should probably incorporate it more, but I don’t feel the need to since everything else I do steeps me in Scripture either directly or indirectly anyway.

A note about the Blue Bible Books: This is my name for the four blue binders fill of the Children’s Crusade booklets. They were made in the 1950s by two Maryknoll Sisters who visited the Holy Land before the order went off the deep end. The booklets start with some explanations of God, and then proceed to the bulk of the work, which is the Bible rewritten for Catholic children. It includes discussion of how different Bible passages are connected, how the Bible and Catholic beliefs intertwine, and also some question-and-answer sections with the priest who guided the project, Father Ginder. After the Bible stories, the booklets alternate recounting the lives of many major saints with sections of a sort of Catholic encyclopedic dictionary. I read the Blue Bible Books cover-to-cover hundreds of times. They are very old and threatening to fall apart, but they are still the most valuable Catholic biblical resource I have ever come across, because even though they were written for children, they were written at a time when people knew that children could understand very sophisticated concepts as long as they were adequately explained. Therefore, there is no watering down, whitewashing, or omission of “difficult” subjects.

Someday I will find the complete collection in better condition, buy it, and scan all the pages so that when the original eventually wears out, as all material things do given enough time, it will still be preserved for ages to come.


Some Questions About Prayer: Part 4

The Question

4) What extras do you do (ie fasting or persistent prayer) have you done [sic] and how effective has it been for you?

My Answer

4. Of late, I try to keep to meatless Fridays throughout the year (except fish and capybara, of course). I do not eat before Mass on Sundays, and I try to keep the old 3-hour fast before Mass on weekdays. If the latter doesn’t work out, I still keep the currently-in-force one hour fast. I try to pick appropriately challenging penances during Lent; they vary according to year. I have gone on retreats in the past, and look forward to going to more at some point. Recently I have rediscovered for the first time the power of Eucharistic Adoration. I have gone to two Holy Hours at the cathedral, and sometimes attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

As to their “effectiveness”… they enrich my spiritual life, deepen my understanding of, connection to, and relationship with God and His Church, help me develop a better awareness of the unseen reality, and ground me when otherwise it feels like my life is a ship at sea during a maelstrom. “How” effective they are is not easily quantifiable. They ARE effective. Rather like grating cheese, how effective the grater is depends a lot on how much work effort I put into it. If I lightly and halfheartedly wave the cheese near the grater, nothing gets done at all. If I press firmly and work quickly, the grater is very effective and I grate all the cheese in no time. Likewise, if I merely recite words like a magic formula, putting no thought, feeling, or intent in it, then I’m not going to receive many graces from it. But if I concentrate, focus, and really put some effort into directing and devoting my thoughts to the divine, then God will give back 100 fold.

Traditional dietary regulations such as fasting and abstinence foster in me a concrete sense of religion influencing my life. Especially when I find myself in a position where the meatless options are scarce or unappealing, or not as appealing as the meat options, it reminds me that I am giving up something I enjoy, something convenient, for the sake of the glory of God. It may be a very small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things, but it makes an impact in the day-to-day, when it counts.

Choosing a personal sacrifice during Lent in addition to meatless Fridays means that I have to evaluate myself and my life in the light of holiness and spiritual growth. Just like a teacher assigning homework does so in order to consistently remind the student of the things he learned in class and reinforce those concepts, my Lenten resolution keeps in the forefront of my mind the action, sacrifice, or particular special devotion that I have set myself. It is an additional reinforcement that my beliefs affect all of my life, all the time. It reminds me of the things I need to work on – charity, attention to holy things, defeating temptation. It’s all training grounds, because they are small things, for the larger battles against stronger temptations.

Retreats are excellent because they give me a literal chance to leave all my problems behind, and put a great deal of distance between myself and distractions, worries, and worldly affairs. It gives me a chance to think about events, people, and ideas without them being in front of me, with all their biased persuading power. It also gives me a chance NOT to think about them – again, because they’re not in front of me – and instead focus on myself and God.

I’m not sure I can do justice to Eucharistic Adoration and attending the Extraordinary Form of Mass here. Perhaps I will tackle them in a later post.


Some Questions About Prayer: Part 3

The Question

3) What does your prayer life / devotional consist of?

My Answer

3. My joke is that usually my prayer life consists of “HELP HELP HELP HELP HELP Oh, thanks.” It’s actually more than that. This will be in no particular order.

I go to Mass every Sunday, holy day of obligation, and some other holidays (such as Triduum and Thanksgiving). I also go to daily Mass at the Newman Center when I can. I pray before Mass, I pray the Mass, I pray during Mass, and I pray after Mass.
I pray the rosary, but not much on my own. I prefer to pray it with at least one other person because it helps me focus better. Ditto for the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Once I prayed the rosary outside an abortion clinic with the bishop.
I pray before meals, adding “And may the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen. St. James Matamoros, pray for us all” at the end of the usual grace.
I pray to St. Jude in particular when I am brushing my teeth and/or using mouthwash because I have his holy card stuck in the bathroom mirror, and I’m staring at it the whole time anyway.
I say the Hail Mary whenever I hear an emergency vehicle or a police car go by.

Prayer for me is an ongoing conversation that I pick up anytime I want to. It ranges from casual and letter-like (“Dear Lord, this class is really boring. You know that I need it to bring up my GPA though. Please give me the strength to come to class tomorrow”) to singing hymns that are prayers while I’m walking through campus, to praying the formal St. Michael prayer whenever I am feeling strongly tempted or spiritually beleaguered. I will pray to various situationally-appropriate saints to pray for me or other people, depending on the circumstances. For example, if I know someone is going into a situation where they will most likely be treated badly because of their faith, I will pray to St. Sebastian to pray for them, since he had to face down martyrdom by being shot full of arrows – for courage under fire. That aspect also helps reinforce the sense that as human beings, we’re all in this together – the saints love us and want us to get to heaven, so they’ll help out when we ask them. They were, when they were alive, right where we are now, so they know how difficult and confusing life can be, and what a struggle it can be to keep doing the right thing.


Some Questions About Prayer: Part 2

I received an email asking me lots of interesting questions about prayer in general and my prayer life in particular. I share the answers here for the perusal of all, and, if you are motivated, you are welcome to reply to some or all of the questions in the comments.

I will be posting my answers one at a time, to prevent teal deer overpopulation as well as to help keep the discussion on track.

The Questions

1. What does prayer mean to you?
2. What do you consider to be the mode/communication method that God communicates with you (other people, gut instincts, random thought or events, Bible, etc)
3. What does your prayer life / devotional consist of?
4. What extras do you do (ie fasting or persistent prayer) have you done [sic] and how effective has it been for you?
5. How, what, when, why do you find yourself reading the Bible? (4 questions there)
6. How do you notice and identify the small things that shows you God’s love specifically to you?  (such as what events occur that make you stop and think)
7. Are your prayers more conversational, spontaneous, Scripture based, or the ritual Mass prayers?
8. How has your prayer life changed?  Beginning – middle – now
9. How do you deal with prayers and the concept of ‘Thy will be done’ and that prayers might be going against that?
10. How do you distinguish between a ‘no’ and ‘maybe later’ answer from God?

My Answers

2. What do you consider to be the mode/communication method that God communicates to you (other people, gut instincts, random thought or events, Bible, etc)

Let’s start with how I wish God would communicate with me: ENORMOUS NEON SIGNS. However, God is classier than Las Vegas. It seems to me that He prefers the subtle kind of obvious. I do not think God limits himself to any one mode of communication with us, His people. Reading the Bible, and most especially the various lives of the saints, makes that very clear. As for me, I have experienced God communicating with me in many ways. In fact sometimes it seems as though He is trying to hammer home the same message using all sorts of different methods. However, it also depends on me to have eyes to see and ears to hear what God is trying to get across to me. I have to make sure that I am aware of my surroundings, that I am actively engaging God in prayer (because if I’m not in conversation with Him, then I’m probably not paying attention to what He might be saying), and I definitely have to make sure that I am letting myself see and hear, particularly if I think that what He has to say is not what I want to hear.

We have to be honest with ourselves, just as we have to be honest with God. I think Simon and Garfunkel put it best in The Boxer when they sang, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” This does not merely mean that we hear only part of the message because we don’t want to have anything to do with the rest. It also means that we can make ourselves hear what we want to hear, even when it isn’t really there, and we can disregard what is actually being said because we don’t want it. God’s messages will be consistent with Him. God is all goodness and light. Will He tell us that it’s ok to do wrong, thus confirming us in our sin? No. It is very important to cultivate a relationship with God so that we know more about Him as He is, and not how we want Him to be. That’s how 80,000 different Christian churches get started. “I don’t want to worship a God who tells me that X is a sin, or that I should be doing Y. Hey! I’ll start my own church, and worship a God who tells me X is fine, and that I don’t have to do Y if I don’t want to!” Poof, there appears on the street corner the First Southern Church of the Affable God and His Non-Threatening Sheepfold.

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Some Questions About Prayer: Part 1

I received an email asking me lots of interesting questions about prayer in general and my prayer life in particular. I share the answers here for the perusal of all, and, if you are motivated, you are welcome to reply to some or all of the questions in the comments.

I will be posting my answers one at a time, to prevent teal deer overpopulation as well as to help keep the discussion on track.

The Questions

1. What does prayer mean to you?
2. What do you consider to be the mode/communication method that God communicates with you (other people, gut instincts, random thought or events, Bible, etc)
3. What does your prayer life / devotional consist of?
4. What extras do you do (ie fasting or persistent prayer) have you done [sic] and how effective has it been for you?
5. How, what, when, why do you find yourself reading the Bible? (4 questions there)
6. How do you notice and identify the small things that shows you God’s love specifically to you?  (such as what events occur that make you stop and think)
7. Are your prayers more conversational, spontaneous, Scripture based, or the ritual Mass prayers?
8. How has your prayer life changed?  Beginning – middle – now
9. How do you deal with prayers and the concept of ‘Thy will be done’ and that prayers might be going against that?
10. How do you distinguish between a ‘no’ and ‘maybe later’ answer from God?

My Answers

1. What does prayer mean to you?

My first thought is that prayer is a form of communication just as speaking and writing are forms of communication. It has its own parameters, characteristics, freedoms, and limitations. Prayer has a more limited audience than other forms of communication – for example, if you and your best friend are together, you could communicate by speaking or by passing notes, but you can’t pray silently to your friend and expect the message to be received. Prayer is interesting because it can use other forms of communication. You can pray by writing, pray by speaking, and pray by thinking (silent prayer). You can probably even pray by semaphore or interpretive dance or morse code, but that might get pretty dicey. Deaf people might pray using sign language, if they want. Some people will talk about how certain actions they do are prayers, and I don’t necessarily disagree with them, but it involves shades of meaning and conceptions of prayer that I don’t want to delve into here.

I suppose prayer might not be defined so well as a particular medium of communication. Perhaps it has more to do with content and recipient. Traditionally, prayers have been lumped into four groups: prayers of praise and/or adoration, prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of expiation (wherein we acknowledge our sinfulness and express our contrition – rather like having that apology conversation with someone we have wronged), and prayers of petition (wherein we ask for stuff). As for the recipient, we pray to God, the angels, and the saints.

I want to make an important distinction here. Prayer is not the same as worship. Prayer is merely communication. People can pray insults just as easily as they can speak them. Praying to someone does not equal worshiping someone. It is confusion over this distinction that creates all kinds of false accusations from mainline Protestants and assorted others. I pray to Mary. I do NOT worship her.


The Saving Power of the Liturgy

(… But maybe not in the way you think.)

I am interested to perhaps the point of obsession with liturgy because it played the leading role in why I am Catholic today. Herein I will tell the story of my falling away from, and then return to, the One True Church.

When I was growing up, I went to a parish and a Catholic grade school attached to the cathedral which were basically stuck in the 1970’s. I saw the felt banners, listened to the clown homilies, gathered around the altar during the consecration, raised my hand in blessing, watched the liturgical dancers, clapped for everything, sang along to the guitar music, and (after I quit receiving on the tongue due to a couple spirit-crushing episodes) shambled up to Communion to punch my Catholicism ticket. I did it because it was what I was supposed to do. I was fairly amenable to it – I like singing, I find Scripture interesting because of the Blue Bible Books*, and I very much like ritualized actions. However, I had no problem with letting my mind wander during most of it.

When I was in first grade, seven years old, my oldest brother (14 or so at the time) started having late-night arguments with my parents about Catholicism. I went to bed before he did, but I could still hear their voices. My brother’s was accusatory, frustrated, and stony; my dad’s replies got heated sometimes. Then my mom’s low murmur would smooth over them both like oil on water, and the waves would calm to white noise again. It often kept me awake. It made me nervous, unsettled, and I remember thinking sometimes that maybe I should go out there and give everybody a hug so they wouldn’t be upset anymore, maybe I could find some pithy seven-year-old observation to tell my brother so he would understand, because that’s the way things got solved in books.

By the time I was in fourth grade, all three of my brothers had completely fallen away from the faith. I remember in class, my teacher was talking about how God will always answer our prayers. I raised my hand and said I’d been praying for my brothers for two years already and nothing had happened. I don’t remember what her answer was. That cemented a cynicism in me that had been laid the year before when, for some small-child reason, I decided that I would not fold my hands in prayer again until my brothers came back to the Church. I prayed with my arms crossed instead.

Since my brothers abandoned the faith (which my little brother later told me that he had never had in the first place) and my sister was a functional Protestant, the environment was conducive for some crises of faith of my own. The primary way I experienced my faith outside of my family was at Mass either on Sunday at our parish church or during the week at school. Unfortunately, Mass at both locations was congregation-centered instead of God-centered. Nothing at regular Masses said to me that what was going on was important, or necessary, or true. The songs were all about us. The homilies were all about the priest or deacon giving it. The decorations were all about members of the congregation – those felt banners I mentioned were the most prominent pieces of “art” at the parish church, and they were invariably massive lists of names I didn’t recognize; people  who were receiving sacraments, or who were sick or dead. They would have some thematically-appropriate illustrations: appliqued felt grapes and wheat, drops of water, tongues of flame, that sort of thing. (We had some lovely statues of our church’s patron saint, and the Holy Family, but they were in the back of the church and very easily missed.) I didn’t know we were supposed to listen to the other prayers, especially the propers because they seemed like bits of prayer stuck in here and there, directed at nobody in particular because the priest just read them straight out of the book and then went on to something else.

The children’s Masses at school were all about us, and the teen Masses at the parish were all about us. Inclusiveness, participation, and relevance were the watchwords. God got rather lost in the shuffle. I knew what the Real Presence was (lucky me; most did not), but being exposed to so many people – kids and adults, regular people and those in charge of things – who behaved as though there was nothing special about the tabernacle, nothing special about the hosts or the chalices, nothing special about the sanctuary, made me think that there really was nothing special there. There was no indication of substance, of importance, of something to make me straighten up and pay attention. The things that stayed the same were a humdrum afterthought; whatever was special at Mass was what someone had done to make it new and exciting. I didn’t know why I bothered with it.

The words of the prayers at Mass are not important if a priest or anybody can make up whatever they want to say instead. There is no reason why we should say those words and not any words we feel like saying. So why should I listen to any words, if they are all interchangeable, and the ones today hold no meaning for me? If no one else cares that God is in the tabernacle, that it is God Whom they receive in the Eucharist, that it is God Whom they pour from glass flagon to glass chalices and occasionally splatter, then why should I? On a basement level in my mind, which could tell you the answers which I have had memorized from my youth, and in my heart which then could have found no words at all, I knew that I should still go to Mass because God was there and somehow, somehow He was important. But gradually the basement light was turned off, the door was shut, then locked, and I didn’t think about it.

I shut myself off from the Mass because the schism between what I objectively, intellectually knew about it, and how people treated it, was too catastrophic for me to process. Everything became rote. I still prayed at school and with my parents, but they were words that had been stripped of substance. I continued the actions because I judged them benign and I didn’t wish to trouble my parents. Secular life was hellish as well, but that’s another story.

I seemed doomed to be a Catholic in name only, until one summer when I was visiting relatives out of state.
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