Deep within each one of us there is a hunger and a thirst. We all experience this yearning of the soul—a heart that burns with longing—but we do not always recognize for what we yearn. We can spend years trying to satisfy this yearning, yet never be satisfied.
Saint Augustine expresses this reality so beautifully, “Thou move us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.” He included this prayer at the beginning of his spiritual autobiography, “Confessions.” Its placement emphasizes the importance of this discovery by Saint Augustine in his life after years of searching in all the wrong places.
Saint Augustine was not always a saint. He spent a portion of his life, maybe like you and me, in pursuit of what he incorrectly thought would satisfy his hunger and thirst. We all know the story of his mother, Saint Monica, who spent many long years praying for her son–a son who refused to submit to God and the Catholic faith, a son who lived with a woman who bore him a son out of wedlock. Such is the love of a mother for her child. In grief, compassion and concern for her son, Saint Monica never failed to pray with urgency, persistence, faithfulness and hope for her son to come to faith.
Saint Augustine gives us a glimpse into what was taking place in his life during those years:
“Late have I loved You, O Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Late have I loved You! And behold, You were within me, yet I was outside, and there I searched for You; deformed, I plunged amid those fair forms which You had made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those beautiful creations held me far from You, which, unless they were in You, were not at all.“You called and cried out to me; overcoming my deafness. You shone upon me and set aside my blindness. You breathed fragrance upon me and I drew in breath and panted for You. I tasted, now I hunger and thirst for You. You touched me and I burned for Your peace.”
Here he speaks of the burning deep within his heart and recognizes that it was God he sought all along. But in his deformity, he sought for those pleasures and beauties of creation instead of the Creator—and so his hunger was not then satisfied.
Reflect a moment on this. How many times have we made the same mistake? Have we sought to satisfy our hunger with material pleasures and riches, even good things, failing to see that our yearning is for God who alone can satisfy our deepest desire? Very likely, just like Saint Augustine, we have had a mother who prayed for us, beseeching the good God to open our hearts to Him.
In the end, the breaking open of the Scriptures by Saint Ambrose of Milan and the good Saint Monica’s prayers touched Augustine’s heart and opened the door for Christ to rush in.
God’s Call, Our Response
We are called by God to a life of faith and holiness. Each one of us will have to give an account to God for how we responded. In my diaconal ministry, I encounter many people who are in search of meaning for their lives; they are in search of the God who called them into existence. By the time I meet them, they may have acknowledged in some vague way that it is God they seek, but where will they look and how will they find Him? A few have the wisdom to ask in humility, “Why do I feel this way?”
One of the greatest truth about “Man’s Search for God” is that it is truly God who first searches for him. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (“CCC”) 2567 explains, “God calls man first. Man may forget his Creator or hide far from his face; he may run after idols or accuse the deity of having abandoned him; yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.”
Saint John of the Cross explains this first movement of God toward us in “Living Flame of Love.”
“In the first place, if a soul is seeking after God, the Beloved is seeking it much more; if it sends after Him its loving desires, which are sweet as a pillar of smoke of aromatical spices, of myrrh and frankincense, He, on His part, sends forth the odor of His ointments, which draw the soul and make it run after Him.” (From the “Works of Saint John of the Cross,” translated by David Lewis; Living Flame of Love, Stanza III).
This is so reassuring. We do not have to travel far to find God. He is beside us always, calling us to Him by His grace.
A few years ago, I met a man while running the trails in a nearby park. I had paused beside a pond, deep in a valley, to pray my mid-afternoon prayers. I had just taken out my breviary when Sam approached. I had noticed that he was standing a short distance away. Assuming that he was taking a break, I returned to my prayer. When I had concluded and made the closing sign of the cross, Sam came and stood by me. Apologizing for disturbing me, he asked if I was a priest or something. I smiled and silently November/December 2018 Shalom tidings 7 prayed a Hail Mary for help and said, “I am a Catholic deacon, Deacon Mike, can I help you?”
For the next hour, Sam and I sat beside the pond and talked, cried a little and prayed together. He was a life-long Catholic and a husband and father. He loved his family very much, but something was missing. As it turned out, Sam and his family had not truly welcomed God into their home. Both Sam and his family were restless and he did not know why. His wife took the kids to Mass, but he did not go very often. He could not totally keep from thinking of his faith and his God.
I shared with Sam that our meeting was not an accident … nor was his restlessness. Many of us, at times, choose to ignore God and go our own way—yet God never ignores us and He never ceases to call us to Himself. These words made a positive impact on Sam, thanks be to God. When we parted, he was at peace and resolved to ask both God and his family to forgive him.
I am certain that God orchestrated the encounter that day. I was following the example of a good friend when I decided to take my breviary with me that day. Sam had no idea why he had decided to visit the park that day. It was the sight of me praying from that book that arrested Sam’s attention. We laughed as Sam recalled a memory of seeing a priest back home pray from a book “just like yours” while he walked in a park. Even my quick prayer to Mary was an actual grace prompted by God.
The Gift of Faith
Faith is God’s gift to us. Our thoughts turn to God because God Himself has placed that thought in our heart. As Saint John of the Cross would say, it is not our doing at all—this thought we have of God, it is His work, His loving call to us. We were made by love for love. The invitation from God that first turns our mind and heart to Him and prepares us for conversion is a prevenient grace and is not conditioned upon our holiness or our works. It is a gift from the Father who created us and desires all good things for us.
But God’s invitation requires our response. We are free to say yes or no. I pray to God that one day each one of us will respond with our own fiat. When we believe and are baptized, then we are infused with the three theological virtues—faith, hope and charity—that make us members of His family, the Church and enable us to live a life pleasing to the Father.
“Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that He has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because He is truth itself. By faith ‘man freely commits his entire self to God.’ For this reason, the believer seeks to know and do God’s will.” [“CCC” 1814]
There are many different ways in which we come to faith. For many of us, it was within the family that we were first introduced to the faith, where we first encountered the risen Lord and came to believe. For others, it might have been a friend or even a stranger who God placed in our life to be a witness to His love. In all cases, it is the grace of God that moves us to Him if we will say yes.
So great a gift must be treasured and nurtured. We begin our life of faith as spiritual children. Conversion does not end there. Through the practice of the virtues (particularly humility), prayer and participating in the sacramental life, each of us is called to a mature faith of prayer and holiness.
Lord Jesus, I believe in You, increase my faith.
© is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Mike is assigned to Saint Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the director of adult education and evangelization. He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference, the chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference and chaplain to the Saint Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries. Reprinted with permission.
What has now been coined “Black Friday” usually marks the official beginning of the season called “Christmas Shopping.” This year I began getting online shopping notices a few days before Thanksgiving, then discovered that Black Friday was followed by Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. For many of us, I am afraid the weeks before Christmas are reduced to parties and hectic shopping. It does not have to be that way. It should not be that way. In my family we have taken a different approach—we have rediscovered the season of Advent. The final weeks of ordinary time leading up to the Feast of Christ the King and the beginning of the Church’s New Year in the season of Advent can be a time of spiritual renewal. The readings and symbols of the liturgy point us toward those last things, those things of ultimate and eternal significance. It is the season where our prayer is, “Come, Lord Jesus. As You came in history, so come more fully into my life now and prepare for when You will come again at the end—at the end of my life—at the end of history.” Hope: A Theological Virtue Meditating on the coming of Christ should stir up hope within us. I am not thinking so much of the hope that is simply wishful thinking: I hope I do well on that test. I hope it does not rain on my fishing trip. I hope my sick mother gets better. I hope I get an iPhone for Christmas. No, the hope we are invited to grow in during Advent is the theological virtue of hope. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” defines hope this way: “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire and await from God eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit to merit it and to persevere to the end of our earthly life.” Hope is a virtue, which means it is a habit or disposition. It is the habit of trusting in God and having confidence in God and His promises no matter what we see with our physical sight. As a theological virtue it concerns our relationship with God. Our relationship with God is founded in, lived in and expressed in hope. We relate to God in hope. Why? Because we cannot see God. We cannot see eternal life and we do not YET experience the fulfillment and happiness that awaits us with God. Saint Paul says, “Though we do not see Him, we believe in Him, we trust in Him, and we are confident— hopeful—that He will guard what we have entrusted to Him until that day.” Longing for Fulfillment Christian hope concerns our longing for and expectation of fulfillment. We can all relate to the experience of feeling unfulfilled. In our personal lives we are not the people we hope to be. We wish we were more patient, more disciplined, more pure, more self-controlled, more disciplined, more faithful, more generous and more bold and courageous. In our relationships we long for more. We experience disappointment in our relationships, we feel let down, we wish there was there more unity, less strife. We wish our relationships were more selfless, less competitive. We long to be known completely and loved unconditionally. Hope is the steadfast turning toward our true fulfillment, which is supernatural happiness in God. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” If we set our hope on anyone or anything other than God—even the best things in life, i.e., family, marriage, friendship—we will be disappointed, unsatisfied and unfulfilled. We will never in this life, on this side of death, on this side of heaven, find the fulfillment for which we long. This is why we need hope. If we understand that only in union with God will we find the happiness and fulfillment for which we were made and that we long for, we will pray ever more earnestly in this advent season: “Maranantha, Come Lord Jesus.”
What is the difference between drifting along and letting God do His will in your life? I have not really pursued many of my life goals because I love God and I want to please Him by doing what He wants me to do in my life. Should I be living this way? Is this a wrong approach to goals in life and doing God’s will? One thing that it sounds like you are getting absolutely right is the concept of “God’s will in all things.” It is vitally important for us to understand a couple of key things with regard to God’s will. The first is this: not everything that happens is the result of “God’s plan.” Sometimes, when tragedy strikes, or a person experiences suffering, or a loved one dies, a well-meaning (but erroneous) person will say, “This was part of God’s plan.” Again, this is not necessarily true in all senses. In creating a world outside of Himself, God put certain “laws” in place. He created physics and chemistry and the material world which operates according to the way He created it. But one consequence of this is that not everything that happens in this world is a result of God’s having directly willed it. Because of this, we have to realize that God does not “cause” all things to happen. In addition, human beings (and angels and demons) have free will and can choose things that are clearly contrary to God’s will. We need to understand the difference between God’s “perfect will” and God’s “permissive will.” God’s perfect will is when God directly wills a thing to happen or not happen. This is always immediately and ultimately for the good. God’s permissive will is when God allows a thing to happen. This is not necessarily an immediate good. In fact, God often allows evil things to happen. He does this for a couple reasons (that we know of). First, God allows evil things to happen in order to preserve the gift of free will that He has given us. Second, God allows evil because He knows He can bring about a greater good. At this point, it is important to note that God does not cause evil to bring about a good (that would be evil and impossible for an all-good God to do). Rather, God allows something to happen that is contrary to His will because He knows He can use this for an even greater good. If this is true, then it follows that we can trustingly submit to everything that happens to us as falling under “God’s will.” Either it is a good that He directly willed or it is an evil He allowed to happen, through which He can bring about a good. For this reason, your having “let things in life happen to you” is not entirely a bad thing at all! In fact, many people would be greatly blessed if they began seeing the events of their day as falling under God’s will more often! Yet, while we are able to say “yes” to God at any moment because of the fact that He is present in all things and either wills perfectly or permissively all things that are … we can also discern direction and goals. There was a kind of error in some Christian circles sometimes called “quietism” or “fatalism.” The idea there is that we ought not take any action ourselves, but just sit and wait for something to happen to us. The attraction in this posture is that we will never make the wrong decision (because we are not making ANY decisions), but the truth is that not to decide is to decide. At the same time, the decision to “be open” to God’s will is a decision! The decision to choose to accept all things as they come as a gift from God is in no way harmful, negative or a bad idea. I believe this decision should come from a place of trust and intentionality and not merely because a person is afraid to choose the wrong thing or does not like making decisions. There is also something very “God-honoring” in the process of making goals. Part of that is rooted in the way God has created us. He made us to have an intellect and reason. Because of this, we have the ability to discern the good in all of its complexity and to choose one road out of many. We can often choose any number of options and this is good. Part of conforming our will to God’s will is the beautifully complex process of making choices. We get to “co-operate” with God, not merely as passive receivers but as active participants. With this in mind, you could take a step and make a decision. This decision could be toward or away from a relationship. It could be to discern a religious community or have a conversation with your pastor about being a consecrated single. In each of these cases, you would be walking with God, using the gifts He has given you and learning even more clearly how to hear His voice. Even more, in this process you would be required to listen to God’s voice along the way and learn when He is calling you to persevere, when to adjust your direction or when to stop and go back. Think of how this dynamic interaction would bring an even greater closeness between you and the Lord!
On that luminous light in Bethlehem, when the world had fallen asleep, a mother wrapped her first-born son in swaddling clothes and laid Him in the manger. But the bitter cold pierced His tender body like a thousand knives and poor baby Jesus lay tremulous. His dear mother latched Him close to her bosom to give a little warmth, not knowing the cold He would experience all through His life. Many scurried to Him for signs, miracles and even food, but they never knew or loved Him. In the garden of Gethsemane He wept tears of blood and was deeply grieved to the point of death when He realized His sacrifice was for an ungrateful generation. On the cross at Calvary He was rejected and betrayed by those He loved, insulted and mocked by those around. The bitter cold pierced His very bones as He looked up to heaven and said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Today He waits for us in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, truly present in body and blood in the form of bread and wine. Still He feels the bitter cold. Jesus thirsts for our love and what do we give Him? There are those who still insult, mock and do terrible things to Him. Others are called His followers, but they deny Him by saying “not practicing.” Those who know Him receive Him into their hearts but look for gifts, miracles and healings and fail to love Him alone. How much more will He suffer the cold in our hearts? This Advent let us make our hearts warm for baby Jesus to take abode. Only the love of God that reaches as far as the cross can open a breach in our hardened, cold hearts. In every act of love and kindness let us pray unceasingly, “Sweet kisses to baby Jesus, quivering in the bitter cold.”
Hardship is not pleasant. It creates discomfort in our lives. It inconveniences our plans. It discourages us, causing hesitation and inaction. Yet, properly understood, hardship is one of the most valuable opportunities in the Christian life. It helps us grow in faith, personal maturity and intimacy with God. The opening verses of the gospel of Luke Chapter 5 capture almost every important insight for understanding the value of hardship, if we are willing to allow it to form us: "[Jesus] saw two boats … the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats … he asked [Peter] to put out a short distance from the shore … After he had finished speaking [to the crowd], he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing … They… filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish … seized him and all those with him … "(Luke 5:1-8). Comfort If your experience of boats is limited to luxury cruise liners, you might be under the impression that boats are comfortable. They are not. Especially if the boat is a firstcentury fishing boat. A long night of fishing consisted of bending over, hauling nets and sitting on narrow wooden seats, all while wearing wet clothes. By the time Jesus gets around to speaking to Peter, the fishing is over and done. Peter is ashore, mending nets and cleaning up. Peter has had some time to stretch his sore muscles a bit, and he is certainly ready for some sleep after a long night on the water. Fishing is hard work and he is tired. Jesus, apparently unfazed by Peter’s fatigue and lack of a catch, looks at him and says, “Let’s go.” This is the first of Peter’s three important decisions. He must choose between the comfort of his bed and the discomfort of the boat. Peter chooses discomfort. Peter references Jesus as “master,” implying that he does not yet have the revelation of Jesus as the Christ. The term “master” would apply to any wise teacher. Still, Peter chooses discomfort. Convenience It is one thing for Peter to let the rabbi teach from his boat. After all, Peter ends up with a front-row seat to listen to this master, to rub shoulders with the local “celebrity.” Jesus, though, is about to “up the ante” with Peter. After teaching, Jesus basically says to Peter, “Hey, let’s go farther out and fish.” Peter, knowing that fishermen fish at night for a reason, may well have thought to himself, dismissively, “Carpenter’s son!” Jesus is proposing that Peter hit the reset button on the entire fishing operation. It takes time to row out to deep water, drop the nets, haul the nets back in, return to shore and mend the nets (again). If he is lucky, he might get an hour or two of sleep before he comes back to fish in the evening. This is the second of Peter’s three important decisions. Jesus has interrupted the rhythm of Peter’s life. At first, the cost to Peter is small, maybe an hour or two of inconvenience. But, Jesus seems almost intent on making things downright difficult for him. Peter knows that his workday begins when the sun goes down and Jesus is asking for most of the daylight hours until then. Peter chooses the harder path—again. He trusts a carpenter against his own knowledge and expertise and heads out to deep water. The payoff for Peter appears to be nothing more than a long day in the hot sun. Yet, he chooses inconvenience. Cowardice Peter drops his nets into the water and is confronted by a completely unforeseen issue that appears to threaten everything! As he hauls them in, they are so full of fish that he needs help from another boat. Luke tells us that both boats “were in danger of sinking.” This seems perplexing. Peter’s obedience has brought a super-abundant, astonishing bounty. It is so abundant that the boats are in danger of sinking. Losing his boat would spell the end of his livelihood and maybe the end of his life. Peter must choose again. He can start tossing fish out of the boat to lighten the load or even cut his own nets. Or, he can muster the courage to hang onto the full weight of God’s blessing. Peter chooses correctly for the third time. He risks everything for the fullness of the catch. Later in his ministry, Peter would need to know this lesson—increase comes at a price. The Astonishing Nature of God Luke recounts Peter’s response to the catch, which can be captured with a single word. Once again, Peter speaks directly to Jesus. Instead of calling Jesus "master," Peter calls Him "Lord." He glimpses the very divinity of Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God. It should not be lost on us that, even to seasoned, experienced fishermen, this catch of fish was astonishing. The catch was so bountiful that the minds of the fishermen could not explain it rationally. It appears that the catch was not abundant, but actually “superabundant”; that is, defying logic, reason, knowledge and natural wisdom. Understanding Hardship The Christian understanding of hardship and suffering is intimately tied to evil and redemption. Hardship exists in the world because evil exists in the world. Sin, death, disease and trauma make life hard. These things do not originate from God. Because of His redemptive love, God is able to transform hardship into bounty. He is able to turn “less” into “more.” Chapter 15 of John’s Gospel compares us to grape vines. Jesus tells the disciples in a pointed way that He prunes those who bear fruit (believers) so that they bear more fruit. Pruning, by definition, is the cutting away of that which is not necessary in order to promote new growth that produces more! And it is painful. Leaning Into Hardship In many circumstances in life, hardship is the very path to what we desire. If we listen in the way Peter did, Jesus will lead us through hardship to some kind of breakthrough, the greatest of which is a deeper, more intimate relationship with Him. Hardship has the ability to push us beyond ourselves. It helps to forge the dimensions of our character that can only emerge through difficulty. Comfort, convenience and cowardice keep us from a life that is fully alive in Christ. Discomfort, inconvenience and courage form the real substance of our “yes” to Christ. They allow us to see Jesus for who He is and—like Peter—to say “Lord.”
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