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We are in the season of “thankfulness.” While it would be nice to think that we appreciate everything we have and that we are always grateful, most of us benefit in taking the extra step of stopping and appreciating more formally. But expressing gratitude for the good things in our lives can lead to confusion, sometimes.
There are many things in our lives that we refer to as “blessings.” My children are healthy; I see that as a blessing. I have never truly struggled to provide for them, I see that as a blessing. I am married to a good man; I see that as a blessing. This is not to say that those who have sick children, broken marriages, or struggle in their daily lives are not blessed. It is simply my way of recognizing that all good things flow from the goodness that is God.
Sadly, our culture often sees blessing—gifts freely given—as rewards. So the assumption naturally follows that if I do not have the same blessings, I am being punished. And worse yet, if I am suffering in this life, I am being punished. This is a natural, human response. But it is not true.
I was recently reading a book that touched briefly upon the prosperity gospel, which teaches, very simply, that Christians are entitled to a good life because they are Christians. So they should expect material success in life, because they are faith-filled followers of the Lord. It is a comforting line of thinking that if we are good and follow all the rules, we will live the good life, financially speaking. But, in truth, it is a fairly shallow vision of God. God is not Santa Claus, depositing presents for us because we have been good. God is a Father; He desires good things for us. But He also recognizes that we were not created for this world.
Treasures in this world are temporary; He is forming us for eternal life. God sees us as whole creations, body and soul, and His gifts are meant to nurture both. Catholics can be swayed by the good feelings the prosperity gospel invokes, but there is very little of it that reconciles with Catholic doctrine.
Very often, Catholics find themselves falling for a different, but equally misleading and erroneous understanding of God’s plan in our lives. The gospel of “if.” If I had prayed one more Rosary, if I had taken my children to daily Mass, if I had said more novenas, then….then my life, my pain, my problems would be resolved. If I was a better Catholic then I would not be sick, would still be employed, and have complacent children. It is that missing prayer, the forgotten devotion, the candle unlit—that is the source of my struggles and my pain.
This too is a shallow vision of God. He is not the great score keeper in the sky, deducting blessings for lack of prayers. We do not earn God’s love. We do not pray our way into His good graces. That undermines the concept of love as something freely given. And it undermines the concept of prayer. Prayer is not a currency. It is communication. It is built upon a relationship, not rewards. It is hard. We see ourselves living “by the rules.” Doing the right thing. And yet, we do not always see the benefits. Or at least, what we think the benefits should be.
We see someone’s success and wonder why God does not bless us similarly. What are we not doing? How have we displeased the Lord? Why? When things go well in our lives, do we live in fear? Waiting for “the other shoe to drop?” Trying to do everything right so that God does not get mad at us and take away His gifts. But that is not how God sees us. He wants us to be happy with Him in Heaven. So all that He gives, or does not give, is towards that end. How does this help us grow and progress towards the next life? He does not give so that He can take away. He loves us. He cares for us. He does not desire harm to come to us. He does not retaliate against us.
Look at the Book of Job. At first glance it seems to be a horrible read, the just man suffering through no fault of his own. And that is heart wrenching. He did everything right and yet he suffered greatly. His wealth was not guaranteed because he was a good man. He did not fail to pray enough and therefore suffered great loss. He suffered due to circumstances beyond his control. He was not responsible for the pain in his life. And that should be extremely comforting to all of us.
It seems odd to speak of someone’s suffering as comforting, and yet that is how we should look upon the book of Job. There are many messages contained within, but maybe the most important is that our suffering is so very often the result of the world we live in. It is not the failure to pray one more Rosary or tithe one more percent. It is life. We all suffer and we all struggle. It is not always punishment. Sometimes we have to suffer the consequences of our poor judgment, but often we just have to struggle.
That, to me, is the most important take away message of the Book of Job. Life is not fair. We cannot prevent pain in our lives. And through it all, God is there with us. Our burdens, our sufferings, and our heartbreaks are painful. But they are not because God is angry with us. And, more importantly, God does not leave us in these dark times. He does not move closer if we pray more, we just hear His voice more clearly. The more we unite with Him, the more we feel the reality of His presence in our lives—the never abandoning, never changing presence. He is with us all and loves us all. And that is something we all can be thankful for.
There comes a time when parents simply want some quiet time to themselves. Handling the rigors of parenthood by meeting the temporal and spiritual needs of our children can take a physical and spiritual toll. This carnal desire is something almost every parent goes through. It is not a sinful desire per se for a parent to seek a retreat or respite of sorts from his or her children. What can lead this desire toward the stages of sinful behavior is the intention of deliberately removing ourselves (isolating) from caring and teaching our children. A subtle but troubling trend I have witnessed over the last several years is the parental desire for some peace and quiet replaced with the act of parents isolating themselves from their children. What I mean here is a gradual separation of the spiritual, emotional, physical and psychological relationship between parent and child. Whether the reason is work, family structure (i.e., singleparent family), working parents or the daily distractions that come from daily living, the intimate relationship between parent and child appears to be gradually eroding for more reasons than the ones just mentioned. By nature, children desire to be near their parents—it is part of the protective nurturing process all children seek. When this parent-child structure is interrupted the alternatives may not always be spiritually healthy and in a worst-case scenario lead to direct isolation which then becomes the norm of parenting. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (“CCC”) reminds us that the Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. … The relationships within the family bring an affinity of feelings, affections and interests, arising above all from the members’ respect for one another. The family is a privileged community called to achieve a sharing of thought and common deliberation by the spouses as well as their eager cooperation as parents in the children’s upbringing (“CCC,” 2204-2205). The Sin of Isolation In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul tells us that we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly makes bodily growth and up-builds itself in love (4:15-16). Our identity as parents rests in our understanding and willful intent to place Jesus Christ at the center of everything we do, especially our parenting. every time a parent asks, “What should I do about my son?” I immediately tell him or her to first begin to be genuinely present. It is very important that a child knows that his father and mother are there both spiritually and physically. The ease by which one can fall into what I call the sin of isolation from their children is why the virtue of presence is so important. When isolation begins to occur, the child will, more often than not, direct his attention toward something that will draw his desire away from his family and replace it with another outlet, typically one involving social media. Saint John Paul II reminded us that the family finds in the plan of God the Creator and Redeemer not only its identity, what it is, but also its mission, what it can and should do (Familiaris Consortio, 17). This means that our actions as parents are intimately called to re-echo Christ. One facet of this action is to bring Christ into the home in prayer. When we invite and initiate a relationship with Christ within the home, it strengthens the family unit and provides a spiritual base by which the family can withstand the sin of isolation. Parents must regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons. Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity and disinterested service are the rule (“CCC,” 2222-2223). A recurring theme on the family found in the “Catechism” is the practice of showing respect to our children. This act of love is very important in avoiding the sin of isolation because it reaffirms the Christian anthropology of the family. This means that the parent child relationship was not created to be isolated from one another. Addressing the Sin of Isolation A sound and practical way of avoiding the sin of isolation is by being present to our children, especially in prayer. Children desire reassurances from their parents, which include their physical presence. The process of accompaniment between a parent and child involves the simple act of recognizing the dignity of the child. This act of love dispels any temptation to isolate ourselves from our children because we see them as authentic gifts from God. One of the surest ways to dispel parental isolation is through the practice of intercessory prayer. Simply put, intercede (pray) on behalf of your children and offer them to Christ. At the heart of the act of intercessory prayer is the deliberate act of the will to think of someone other than yourself. You place the intentions of the person before yours and in this case our children before us. The gift of intercessory prayer is that it allows us to always be present with our children and that is exactly what our parental call is all about.
Why did my older children insist that the new baby’s name must be “Joy?” It was the strangest thing: one day when I was still pregnant, my four-year-old son got it into his head that “Joy” was the baby’s name and he has not backed down since. When guests refer to her by her real name, he or my two-year-old will adamantly correct them that she is to be called “Joy.” They have been so insistent that our family has just given up and officially given her that nickname. Meanwhile, her real name is Catherine. It is odd because Catherine was never a name I felt drawn to—it was not even on the list for consideration with my other daughters. Yet as soon as I found out that this baby was a girl, I knew that that was her name. We never seriously discussed any other options. I did not feel like I was choosing a name for her as much as it seemed like I was just articulating the name she already had. I wondered if perhaps there was a reason for this, so I prayed to know if there was any particular saint named Catherine whom she was supposed to be named after. Soon after I said that prayer, a package with a painting of Saint Catherine of Siena arrived in the mail. My uncle had been traveling Italy. He just so happened to be in Siena on the day she was born so he got the picture of the famous saint for the baby. He did not know what day she was going to be born—it was just a “coincidence” that he was in Siena that day. I figured that was probably an indicator that she was meant to be named after Catherine of Siena, but wished I had a little more certainty. Then, while researching something unrelated, I came across the biography of Catherine of Siena. My jaw dropped when I read: her family gave her the pet name of Euphrosyne, which is Greek for Joy. I guess that answers the question.
Many of us who grew up in the Catholic faith were told that confession is good for the soul. However, as children preparing for the Sacrament of Confession, most of us were rather anxious about entering the darkened confessional booth and sharing our deepest, darkest secrets with the parish priest. Once we entered the confessional, despite being nervous about using the correct liturgical wording and format, we quickly discovered that it was fairly simple and straightforward, and we wondered why we had been so fearful. Nevertheless, we were in no hurry to return to the confessional booth. As Catholics, we are only obligated to confess our mortal (serious) sins to a priest once a year. Mortal sin kills our supernatural soul and severs our relationship with God. Although the number of Catholics partaking of the sacrament has steadily decreased over the past four to five decades, there has been a recent trend among Catholics to confess more frequently in order to sacramentally receive God’s sanctifying grace and thus deepen our intimate relationship with God. Unfortunately, there has been great misunderstanding about the Sacrament of Reconciliation (the name to which it is most often referred) which has kept many Catholics from receiving this vital sacrament. Most of the confusion stems from the erroneous belief that Catholics are confessing their sins to a man (the priest). But, the priest acts in Persona Christi, that is in the person of Christ. So we are confessing our sins to Christ. In addition, during the past several decades people have developed a decreased sense of sin. Rather than acknowledging and admitting to sin people rationalize and deny sin. Not only does rationalizing mitigate and eliminate the perception of sin, but it often leads to more serious sin. In Matthew 9:6 (NABRe), Jesus says of himself, “But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Then Jesus exercises His authority when He says to the paralyzed man, “your sins are forgiven.” This passage concludes by informing us that the crowds were awestruck and they glorified God, “who had given such authority to human beings.” Jesus was given the authority to forgive sins by His Father. On the night of the resurrection, Christ appeared to the disciples and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:21-23, NABRe). As we can see in this passage, Christ instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the Church. After the resurrection, Jesus knew that He would no longer remain with the Church in human form as He would be ascending to heaven to sit at the right hand of His Father; therefore, Christ conferred the power to forgive sins to His disciples in order for the Church (which would be the continuation of His presence until the end of time) to offer forgiveness to generations in the future. According to Archbishop Fulton Sheen in “Life of Christ,” “Just as Jesus’ own human nature was the instrument in His divinity in purchasing forgiveness, God would forgive sins through men, who were the appointed ministers of His forgiveness.” Therefore, the power of forgiveness and reconciliation has been acquired by the price of Christ’s blood. Sin not only disrupts our relationship with God, but it damages our relationship with others in the community (the Church). Despite being cleansed of original sin through baptism, Christ knew that human beings by nature were imperfect and would continue to sin. Christ’s plan for rectifying this was to establish a sacramental mechanism for man to repair his relationship with God and with his fellow man (the Church) for sins committed after baptism. In seeking and receiving God’s forgiveness, we sacramentally receive God’s mercy and grace. Grace is a gift of the Spirit that sanctifies us and justifies us. According to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (“CCC”), “grace is participation in the life of God” and it “introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life.” When we partake in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we obtain the following benefits: 1. Through the examination of conscience, we are forced to recognize our shortcomings and faults. By confessing our sins aloud, we overcome pride. We are thus reminded that we are imperfect beings who need to rely on God in order to overcome our sins and to grow spiritually. 2. When we are forgiven, our guilt is erased and the heavy burden of sin is lifted from our shoulders. We are pardoned from eternal punishment incurred by mortal sins. In addition, we are remitted, in part, from temporal punishment for venial sins. Through the healing power of forgiveness and reconciliation with God and the Church, our peace of mind is restored and we experience spiritual consolation. 3. Jesus’ call to conversion is made sacramentally present in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We regain our baptismal grace and heal our wounded ecclesial communion. This permits us to become more holy, more saintly, and more conformed to the image of Christ. Through sacramentally receiving Gods’ mercy, we are encouraged to be merciful to others. 4. With our conscience purified, we receive the Holy Spirit’s gift of counsel, which enlightens us to resist temptation and evil and to make the right moral choices. When our self-control is tempered, we are more determined to follow God’s Will. This reinforces us spiritually for living the Christian life. 5. By placing ourselves before God and asking for His mercy, we are preparing ourselves for the particular judgment at the conclusion of our lives. According to the “CCC,” it is only through choosing conversion that we may be granted entrance into the Kingdom of God. Christ instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation as the proper avenue for the forgiveness of sins and to reconcile us with God. Since we were created by God and for God, He wants to have an intimate friendship with us. When we understand that the Sacrament of Reconciliation restores us to God’s grace and full communion with Him, we should fully embrace the free gift that our loving God has bestowed upon us in this sacrament.
I really did not want another cesarean (“C”)-section. I asked everyone I knew (and even those I did not know) to pray, that I would be able to avoid the procedure that had lengthened my recovery period so dramatically after having my twins (only 15 months ago). I enlisted all my favorite saints and assured new saint recruits that they would be listed among my favorites in gratitude for their intercession. Saint Therese sent me a rose to let me know she had my back and my little ones added their powerful intercessory prayer to every family rosary. But in the end, God said no. Every factor that needed to fall into place to allow for an attempted vaginal birth after C-section (VBAC) fell through. I had been given little glimpses of hope, contractions starting the morning I needed them to but stopping instead of intensifying. Every spark of hope became a source of torture, like someone holding an iced cappuccino (my severe prego craving) in front of my face and whisking it away just as I reached out for it. I stared at the rose from Saint Therese and almost wished I could send it back. I was hurt and felt so abandoned by a Heavenly Father who had so often given me more than I deserved. How could He say no to something that would clearly be better for my family and me? Why would He want to increase my suffering? I knew He loved me, so it pained me knowing that the Lord of my heart, the One who could easily move mountains and make paths in the desert, was choosing not to move this baby out in a way that would be less traumatic for my body and would end up laying a heavier burden on my family. "I can't believe He's not answering my prayer," I told my husband. My husband's response was, "He always answers our prayers." My eyes were burning with tears at that point. "But His answer is no, so it doesn't really feel like an 'answered prayer.'" Then God brought me to the garden of Gethsemane, at least mentally. Every time I prayed my mind was filled with the image of Christ begging His Father to save Him from the suffering that lay ahead—praying and weeping with such intensity that His sweat and tears became drops of blood. "Father, if You are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but Yours be done" (Luke 22:42). And so I wanted to joyfully pick up my cross and follow Him, but I could not—because I am weak, because I hate pain, because I liked my plan for how things should go MUCH more than the plan God had for me. I was comforted to see that even Christ could cry out with the voice of humanity and be struggling with the sacrifice He was being called to make, but I realized fully being His follower would mean that I also would have to say, "Thy will be done," and find a way to offer the trial at hand for the good of others. Do not laugh at me, but first I needed to grieve. I had to grieve the loss of MY will. As pathetic as it may seem, I went through the five stages of grief within two days. I experienced denial, fantasizing about secretly giving birth at home or devising some sort of plan to avoid the inevitable. I hit up the anger stage. I was so mad and frustrated that I took it out on ... well, puzzle pieces. Usually, when I would find the kids' stray puzzle pieces I would locate the proper box and put them away but not this time! I took those babies and whipped them into the recycling bin, "HA! Say bye, bye!" (I know pretty lame, but we do have too many incomplete puzzles). I bargained with God (along with all my enlisted saints) and assured Him I would write a very flattering blog about how He always comes through in the end, if He would just make a way for me. Next, I just gave up and entered the depression stage where I cried hard, distanced myself from everyone and generally felt sorry for myself. Finally, I reached the coveted stage of acceptance and here is where I began to ask those around me if there was something that was weighing on their hearts for which I could offer my disappointment and impending recovery period. I offered my pain in hearing no from God and asked if He would in turn say yes to the other women I knew who were hoping for a vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC), as well as all those women who were praying for safe and healthy deliveries. Because in the end, God's ‘no’ to one thing is often a huge ‘yes’ to something else. A friend of mine who prayed for years that God would fill her womb with a child was met with a firm ‘no’, but elsewhere another woman was bringing several children into the world (in spite of not being able to care for them) and those children are now in my friend's arms. Had God said ‘yes’ to her, in her desire to mother her own biological children, she would never have considered adopting the little ones God had intended for her. I do not fully understand why God said ‘no’ to me. I know there is a ‘yes’ somewhere. Perhaps I would have ruptured if I had attempted the VBAC, which could have caused serious harm to our newest little member, Callista Therese (I obviously got over my disappointment regarding the rose), or me. I may never know the reason, but I do think that in surrendering my will, perhaps I was able to offer more than I otherwise could have. Thanks be to God, Callista arrived safely in May twentieth. Being the month of Mary, I am grateful to have been able to follow the example of Our Lady in her submission to God's will, that I could come to echo her fiat: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to Thy word" (Luke 1:38).
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