Not too long ago, I began training in Level I of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I’ve heard a lot about this model since my college days, but had little frame of reference since I’ve never seen it in a parish or school setting. I recently have been feeling called to focus more intentionally on catechetical models for younger children, so I finally took the plunge and attended a course. Prior to the training, I was a little worried that I’d become one of those “brain-washed” catechists who is convinced that CGS (and consequently everything Maria Montessori) is The Only Way To Do Things. I’ve heard stories and had some experiences of people who are so enchanted with this method that they can’t seem to visualize any other way to engage and teach your children– and sorry, folks, that just makes you annoying– so, one goal of mine was to try and keep a level-head during the experience. At the end of the week of training, here is the brief reflection I wrote:
CGS is not a magic bullet. It won’t solve the deep crisis of division and apathy in the Church today. It will not automatically get fallen-away families back in the pews. But CGS does seem to offer something that other models of catechesis does not: it regains the physicality, the essential embodiment of our faith. Our culture is so confused about the meaning of our bodies and of creation. We are no longer interested in liturgy because we no longer understand the language of embodied signs. Gestures, postures of prayers, and sacraments/sacramentals have lost their referents in a world that has forgotten about REDITUS. We have forgotten our origins and therefore our destination: our telos. When presented without drippy sentimentality (which is so obvious to even the smallest [children]), CGS brings children face to face with the wonder and joy of a creation which was made for them and which invites them personally to eternal, bodily Beatitude.
So, what do you think? Am I brainwashed yet?
Have you ever had experience (either as a catechist or recipient) of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd? What did you love? What did you not love? I want to hear!
Each week in our Formation Sessions (i.e. Religious Ed Classes), I collect question and comment slips from the students. Then, I choose a few of those questions to send to parents as a reflection and conversation starter at home.
From the parent email archives:
In our class last week, we talked about Works of Mercy and Justice. Many thanks to Dn. Anthony, who reviewed the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy for us, as well as 7 Principles of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). We then did an activity where small groups read through a current news article and discussed which principles of CST were at stake and what a response of mercy would look like. At the end, I got a series of interesting and important questions like:
Why do we do works of mercy as part of our religion?
How do we actually USE the works of mercy in real-life situations?
Why doesn’t everyone always do works of mercy?
Amen to that last question! Can you imagine a world where everyone did acts of mercy for others ALL THE TIME? Yet we avoid doing them from selfishness, from blindness to the needs of others, out of a mistaken sense of what really needs to happen in this situation, or sometimes even from fear. This why it is so important for us to *practice* doing works of mercy on a routine basis– being selfless isn’t something that comes to us overnight. It must be practiced. It must be learned. We must be trained not only to be First Responders to those in need, but also to learn to SEE need, because it is very easy to be oblivious to other people.
But there is nothing particularly “religious” about the idea that people should help other people. So why do we cover these things in our Faith Formation class? Why are they a key part of our Catholic Faith? St. James has a pretty clear answer. He writes:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked, or lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Faith as a private sentiment is not really “alive.” If we truly believe that God created us in His image and likeness and wants us to love Him and serve one another as the Body of Christ, then this belief will never be content with standing by and expressing our wishes and thoughts that things go well for others. NO! Our faith– the content of our belief and the resulting relationship we have with God– compels us to ACT. Jesus went out to those in need, to heal their bodies and their spirits, and likewise he sends US out to those in need, both physically and spiritually. The list of Corporal and Spiritual Works is based on the teachings and actions of Jesus Christ, Himself. When we are baptized, we are given the grace to follow this example of Christ in our own unique way, in the particular situations life brings us.
But maybe there’s an underlying question here about whywe need our Catholic Faith at all, if Jesus just wants us to do nice things for other people? Isn’t the basic message of the Gospel that we are all God’s children and we should be nice to each other and get along?
As attractive as this position is in our modern world, where tolerance and pluralism are seen as universal values, we have to state boldly that this type of thinking is not only mistaken– it is completely contrary to the Gospel message.
Yes, it is absolutely true that Jesus wants us to serve one another, but we cannot relegate His role in Salvation to that of a mere moral teacher. He is God. He gave Himself up for us so that we could be freed from the bondage of sin which plagues all peoples and prevents us from serving and loving as we should. Without the graces of Baptism and the other Sacraments combined with the guidance of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the Church, we are simply not equipped to know the proper way to serve because our goals and our visions are merely human. The Works of Mercy challenge us to SEE as God SEES, which was a big theme of our Gospel reading last weekend. What many people miss in their eagerness to simply Do Good Stuff is that God’s love and care for His children is aimed at getting us to heaven, not towards making a heaven on earth.
Jesus told his disciples, “You will always have the poor with you,” (Jn 12:8a) so unless we are ready to call Jesus a total liar, we have to admit that we will never be able to solve all the world’s problems in this life. Yet this does not alleviate our responsibility to serve and to see Christ in others at all times and in all places (Mt 25:31-46). Thanks to the historical Christianization of our Western culture, there are many humanitarian goals we can share with our brothers & sisters who do not follow Christ, but we must be prepared to perform works of mercy even when they seem to go against the grain of our ever-growing “Good-Without-God” culture. A lot of prayer, humility and courage are needed to serve in the way Jesus asks us to. We will risk being misunderstood. We will risk being despised by other people who think they know better than we. Jesus warned us to be prepared for this: “Remember the word that I said to you: servants are not greater than their master. If [the world] persecuted me, they will persecute you.” (Jn 15:20)
In light of these reflections, try to talk about the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy as a family. See if you can think of ways these Works are consistent and coherent with our culture– and try to think of ways or instances where they might come in conflict with that culture. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Feed the Hungry- serve a meal at a soup kitchen. Take a homeless person out to a fancy dinner.
Give drink to the Thirsty- pass out bottles of water on Boston Common. Fight for Justice for Flint.
Clothe the Naked- donate to a local shelter. Give your coat to someone on the street.
Shelter the Homeless- serve or donate to your local shelter. Keep an extra Guest Room ready and invite a homeless person to stay the night.
Visit the Sick- volunteer at a hospital or nursing home. Volunteer to live in a leper colony.
Visit those in Prison- spend time at a local prison or juvenile detention center. Write letters to inmates.
Bury the Dead- attend funerals for people in your community. Fight for burial rights for aborted children.
Instruct the Ignorant- volunteer as a tutor or coach. Be willing to tell people at school and work about Jesus.
Counsel the Doubtful- be ready to provide personal testimony of God’s role in your life
Admonish Sinners- tell a friend or coworker that cheating/stealing is wrong. Stand up to those who gossip or speak ill of others.
Bear Wrongs Patiently- do not lash out when someone spreads a rumor about you. Take undue criticism without losing your temper. Do not hit or yell at your brother/sister for taking your things.
Forgive Offenses Willingly- give people a chance to make up for their errors. Do not hold a grudge against the friend who stabbed you in the back or told a huge lie.
Comfort the Afflicted- go out of your way to spend time with outcasts, people who are bullied or may be contemplating suicide
Pray for the Living and the Dead- make a Holy Hour for your friend who needs healing or help. Do not assume that Grandma is in heaven– pray for her to be released from purgatory (if she is already in heaven, she’ll still be happy for the prayers!)
When we settled in to our new parish in the ‘burbs a couple of years ago, the first task we set for ourselves was to get to know the pastor. Our second task was to get “involved,” which for us meant volunteering to teach Religious Ed, and scoping out the choir.
The problem with getting to know the pastor was that he didn’t seem to stick around long after Mass. He would shake a few hands and then quickly dart back to the sacristy long before the pews were empty, which is no easy feat when people are halfway out the door by the Sign of Peace. He wouldn’t even stick around after the weekday Masses, which were considerably smaller and populated by a very non-threatening set of parishioners. So one Sunday, when I saw a small opening to catch him before he left the church, I ran across a couple of aisles and I sort of… well, cornered him.
I introduced myself and pointed to my adorable family across the way. “We’re new,” I explained, and I puffed myself up with Midwestern Hospitality Pride as I said, “We’d love to invite you over for dinner some time. Would you like to visit our home?” The man immediately stiffened up, averted his glance a few times and said, “Well, it’s Lent. I’m busy.”
I was taken a little by surprise, but quickly followed up: “Oh, well, then maybe during Easter?”
“That’s very busy, too.”
My Pride Feathers were ruffled. “So you’re busy for all of Lent and all of Easter? All 90+ days?”
“The whole time?”
“Yes. I have to go now.” And he shuffled off.
I. was. miffed. I was full of outrage. How could he be so RUDE?! To not even consider our invitation? To just rush off like that with not even a ‘thank you’?
I took a job at another parish and that was that. I wrote him off. In my mind, he was simply a rude (or at least very tactless) priest that I didn’t have to worry about any more.
Until the other day when I was talking with my mom and she mentioned a pastor who had served at our parish in Indiana about ten years ago. “Did you know,” she asked me, “that he never had a cook because he didn’t eat? The ladies at the church said he would just have a small tin of anchovies every morning for breakfast and then he would fast for the whole rest of the day.”
I had never heard this before. “Every day, really?”
“Yes. Apparently he wouldn’t even accept invitations to go to parishioners’ houses or out to dinner because he was fasting. He never told anyone, but the old ladies who helped out with various things around the rectory said it was because he fasted all the time.”
Here was something I had never considered: that maybe a priest would decline a dinner invitation without giving a legitimate reason because he wanted to keep that reason private. Maybe that parish priest who shot me down was fasting, too. Maybe he has serious dietary restrictions or allergies and doesn’t want to explain or make requests. Maybe he has some form of social anxiety that I don’t need to know about. Or maybe he’s just rude.
But the point is: I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s rude or anxious or the holiest-fastingest-priest in the MetroWest. Whatever his reason for declining our invitation, it remains his reason and most likely had absolutely nothing to do with me. I know for a fact that people have thought I was a cold, rude person, but I willingly chose to let them think I was rude in that moment rather than opening myself up and being vulnerable. Perhaps that is not the best choice to make, but the takeaway is: sometimes my Midwestern Hospitality Pride needs to do a little self-check in the mirror. I’m very grateful that during this Lent, when I myself have been very busy and could hardly accept a dinner invitation if it were offered, was reminded of this priest and given the chance to see how I failed to be charitable in my assertive attempt to be “hospitable.”
You’ve found the online home of the “Summa Momma”: Catholic catechist, speaker and retreat leader!
Christina Valenzuela, OP (religious name: Mrs. Zelie Margaret) is a wife, mother and Lay Dominican with a passion and zeal for teaching adults and families about the Catholic faith. She has worked in college campus ministry, taught middle- and high-school confirmation classes, RCIA, led adult discussion groups and lectures and planned and directed numerous retreats.
Whether it’s a single lecture event, a series of talks or a retreat, the “Summa Momma” would love to assist your parish, school or group with your efforts for the New Evangelization!
Currently, Christina is only scheduling appearances within 90 mins. of Boston. If you are farther away and would still like to speak about the possibility of helping with your event, please don’t hesitate to be in touch!
NFP and Christian Accompaniment Maronite Servants of Christ the Light: Dartmouth, MA, July 2018
Participant: Panel on “Catholic Parenting in a Post-Christian World” Portsmouth Institute for Faith and Culture: Summer Conference, June 2018 Panel moderated by Brandon McGinley, Editor at EWTN Books
“The Anchor of Hope in the Barque of St. Peter” Lay Dominican Regional Meeting, October 2017 How did St. Peter experience and communicate the theological virtue of HOPE in his life and ministry? How does Pope Francis’ recent catechesis on hope build on and add to the legacy of his predecessor? This talk blends Biblical exposition, prayer and theological reflection.
Theology of the Body and Genesis 2 Northeastern Catholic Women’s Group, February 2016
An exegetical look at how the ideas of “original solitude” and “original innocence” inform our lives and relationships today. What Truths about marriage and mankind are revealed through the story of the Creation of Adam and Eve?
“Salvific Beauty: God and Art” Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Tech Catholic Community, Lent 2015
For adults: can be done as a three-part series or a single lecture. Here we explore the ways in which we encounter the Divine through art in all its forms. In particular, these presentations encourage adults to use art for prayer, meditation and “training” (or: askesis) in the Christian life.
Talks for Parish Groups:
“Say Not I Am Too Young”
A talk for confirmation candidates, encouraging them to use the Gifts of the Holy Spirit to serve the Church and the world. No one is too young to follow Christ!
Marriage and NFP Great for marriage/Pre-Cana retreats, this talks explores what the Church teaches about the Sacrament of marriage and the meaning of sexual intimacy within marriage. Can also be modified for middle- and high-school students.
I feel like I just finish a marathon that was made up entirely of sprints. *Whew!* Thank you for patiently waiting for me to finish this latest NFP Newsletter. Please be in touch if you have any questions!
A few weeks ago, my middle school class talked about Prayer. One of my goals as a Youth Minister is to try to engage parents more, so I’ve been sending out session recap emails in the hopes that the conversations we start in class can continue at home. I use question/comment slips from the end of class to not only glean some insight into how the kids are responding to the material, but also to let the parents know what questions their kids come up with. I try to choose a good question that is fairly representative of the class as a whole. Here is the Q&A portion of the email I sent out to parents after that session on Prayer:
One very astute middle-schooler asked this week: “I learned that some people have trouble with praying. I want to know if Jesus had trouble with praying.”
We talked in class about Luke 11:1-13, where Jesus’ disciples ask Him to teach them to pray and He gives the example of the Our Father. Let’s take a look at some other Bible passages in the Gospel of Luke which talk about Jesus’ prayer life:
Luke 5:16– “[Jesus] would withdraw to deserted places and pray”
Luke 6:12– “[Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer with God.”
Luke 22:39– 46- “He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’”
From these passages we know that Jesus liked to pray. He was in the habit of going off to be by Himself in prayer, so the disciples were accustomed to having Jesus leave for a little while and then come back. Sometimes they were invited to go with Him, but this prayer on the Mount of Olives is really exceptional because it shows us how intense Jesus’ prayer life was: “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.”
Have you ever had that happen? Have you ever been so wrapped up in prayer that you began to sweat blood? Not I. So it seems that Jesus didn’t have difficulty praying in the sense that we, who are less than perfect, do. Jesus had a strong connection with the Father (He is the Son, after all) that made prayer come naturally to Him and made Him aware of times when He needed to pray. He *wanted* to pray a lot! But that doesn’t mean that prayer was a happy-go-lucky romp through the meadow. This prayer at the Mount of Olives is not an easy one. Jesus is really struggling, because He knows what must be done. He knows what is going to happen with his betrayal and His arrest and being put to death. He even asks the Father to take this suffering (this “cup”) away if there could be any other way to accomplish the goal of Salvation. But Jesus, since He is perfect in all things, is our perfect model in prayer because even though He is frightened and REALLY struggling, He says, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Jesus understood, and He teaches us to understand, that if we really truly believe that God is as good and great as we say He is, then doing His will is the best and greatest thing we can do. That doesn’t make it easy. That doesn’t make it easy for us to come to God in prayer and wrestle with these things, but it’s what we should aspire to.
So to answer this question: Yes and no. The struggles of an imperfect pray-er (like ME!) are very different from the struggles of a perfect pray-er (Jesus!). My struggles are more like: “How can I make time to pray? Why do I get frustrated feeling like God isn’t listening? How can I make prayer a habit? How can I be less selfish in my prayers?” Jesus had that stuff figured out because as a sinless human being who also happened to be the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son), He was a lot more advanced in prayer than I, but that doesn’t mean that His prayers were always easy. God doesn’t always ask us to do what is easy– so if we open ourselves to doing God’s will, we have to be prepared for the possibility that it will be difficult. But we learn from Jesus’ example: even when what we do and receive in prayer is difficult, we should still say “Yes, Lord, Thy will be done.”
Since I started work as a Youth Minister this past summer, I’ve been completely swamped with varied and sundry tasks, so my blog has been pretty neglected. I realized recently that it’s not that I haven’t been doing any writing: I just haven’t been posting it!
So I’m going to try posting some of the Q&A articles I send out to parents of my high school Confirmation Candidates. After each formation session, I ask the students to submit comments and questions to me, from which I select one or two to answer in my weekly parent emails. Here are the questions from this week, after our session on “What is the Mass?” Enjoy!
This week, I got a couple of interesting and related questions about Mass, primarily about why we go. One person asked: Why can’t we just pray at home? and another asked: Why are we supposed to go to Mass? We aren’t hurting anyone if we don’t.
Good questions, both of them. I’ll start with the second one first. Let’s think about it this way:
There are a lot of things we are supposed to do just because they are good for us, regardless of how they may or may not impact other people. If you go to the dentist, they will tell you that you “need” to brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss regularly. They say that you “need” to do this not because it will hurt someone else if you don’t, but because it will harm YOU. Your health will be at risk. Maybe you’ll get gingivitis. Maybe your teeth will get cavities. Maybe they will rot and fall out. A good dentist will tell you that you “need” to do these things because he/she is concerned for YOU.
So, you should brush and floss because it’s good for you. But just because you aren’t actively hurting someone by neglecting your oral hygiene doesn’t mean that no one is affected by it, either. If you don’t brush and floss, you will have stanky breath. And I bet a lot of people would want to stop hanging out with you as much. It would be unpleasant for them, so they might choose to stay away from you. Maybe your best friends will be able to overcome their revulsion, but the choice you make to stop brushing your teeth will make it very difficult for them on a regular basis. It will strain your relationship.
I hope you get the analogy here. Attending Mass is something we need to do because it is “healthy” for our soul. Think of it as spiritual hygiene. No one will get hurt if we don’t go to Mass, but if we avoid taking care of our spiritual health, eventually we are going to spiritually stink. If we choose to not put God in a prominent place in our lives, if we choose to neglect the gift of the Eucharist (which helps cleanse us and protect us from the inclination to sin), then we will gradually build up some spiritual plaque. We’ll get some spiritual gingivitis, which might lead to some spiritual cavities and maybe some spiritual teeth will fall out. The temptation to sin is always there, but it’s really easy to overlook. It’s really easy to say, “I don’t feel like going to Mass this Sunday. I’ll do it next Sunday.” It’s really easy to say, “I don’t feel like flossing tonight. I’ll do it tomorrow.” But next day turns to next day turns to next day and all of a sudden, you realize you haven’t been taking care of those basic hygiene needs for quite a while now.
So, you are supposed to go to Mass because IT IS GOOD FOR YOU.
But you are also supposed to go to Mass because ALL OF US are contractually obligated to do so through our baptism. Nowhere and at no time will the Church ever say that non-baptized people need to go to Mass. It’s not an obligation for you if you’re not part of the Church. But if you are, going to Mass on Sunday is a Precept of the Church. Weekly Sunday Mass attendance is the absolute minimum we “need” in order to grow in faith, holiness and communion with one another as fellow Christians.
Which leads to the second question, “Why can’t we just pray at home?”
I hope the assumption here is that OF COURSE you can (and should!) pray at home, but that’s not enough. None of us are allowed to fall into the trap of thinking that we have a completely private relationship with God. Through your baptism, you become part of God’s FAMILY. God adopts you as a son or daughter through the Church, so that you are joined with LOTS of other people! Like it or not, we’re all in this together.
St. Paul talks in his letters about how we are all united in baptism into the “Body of Christ.” He says “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” (1 Cor 12:12-13a) When we come together at Mass to meet our own bare minimum of individual spiritual health, we come as a member of the Body of Christ—the Church. Some ancient Christian communities took this membership so seriously, that you had to get special permission from your pastor to be away from Mass on Sunday. If you were traveling, you needed to clear it with your congregation first, because it meant that when your community gathered on Sunday they would somehow be INCOMPLETE… because you weren’t there. ALL the members are needed in order for the community to worship God AS A COMMUNITY of faith—as a family.
God doesn’t want us to have an isolated relationship with Him. He wants us to have a personal relationship with Him, but that personal relationship is always mediated within and supported by the larger community of the Church. He calls us to come together to worship Him. Like any good Father, He wants to have a good relationship with all of His children, but He also wants his children to love one another and get along. He wants them to have a relationship with one another, because that’s how we grow in holiness.
Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, one person strengthens another.” We become better sons and daughters of God when we take the time to worship our Father together. When we receive the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, we are not only more closely united to God (which keeps us spiritually healthy!), but we also strengthen our bonds with one another—with the other members of the Body of Christ.
Please note: This page and its resources are not substitutes for formal NFP instruction, nor are they intended to be. This page is not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Boston or any of the methods of NFP which are detailed below.
What is NFP?
Natural Family Planning (NFP) is a large umbrella term for any method of regulating births that uses natural, fertility markers to determine when a woman is capable of getting pregnant. All NFP methods follow the same general pattern:
The differences among methods lie in which fertility cues they employ, how detailed the observations of those cues are, and which rules are used to determine the start and end of fertility each month (the couple’s “Fertile Window”). Methods can also vary based on the expected relationship between client and teacher, so when you are looking for a method, be sure to choose one that suits YOUR lifestyle and needs.
How you use NFP may change over time and will vary from couple to couple. For a couple looking to postpone pregnancy, they follow rules to avoid intercourse during their fertile window. For a couple looking to achieve pregnancy, rules are applied to target their fertile window. The degrees to which you accurately observe, chart, interpret signs -and- follow rules for your method will help determine the efficacy of that method.
What’s your method?
I am a certified teacher of the Boston Cross-Check method, which teaches couples ways to use the fertility markers listed below separately, or in various combinations, to suit their desired efficacy and planning needs. We use:
– Basal Body Temperature
– Hormone monitoring using the Clear Blue Fertility Monitor
– Cervical Fluid (with optional cervical checks)
– Personal chart history
– Basic cycle formulas
With the BCC method, you will work closely with your instructor to learn all of these fertility signs and figure out which combination works best for your body, your lifestyle, and your fertility goals; however, this is not the only method available! By comparison, you can also check out:
“The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith. For this reason the family home is rightly called ‘the domestic church,’ a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity.” CCC #1666
Is your parish or school looking for ways to encourage and empower parents to live out the vocation to nurture their domestic church? Invite families to participate in a workshop! Together, parents and children will experience the symbols, prayers, and habits of our Catholic faith and be equipped to live these cultural expressions authentically in their home.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!: Advent Music and Craft Time
Immerse your family in the beautiful prayers and symbols of Advent! Through prayer time around the Advent wreath, music and crafts, we prepare our hearts for the twofold coming of Jesus at Christmas: both as the infant Christ, and in His second coming as Christ the King.
+Pray for us!+: Saints as Intercessors
Families are invited to nurture the practice of calling on our brothers and sisters in heaven through story and craft time. Learn about the lives of 6 beloved saints (including the patron of your church or school!), how to recognize them and their symbols in religious art, and create your own prayer cards to take home.
MORE WORKSHOPS ARE IN DEVELOPMENT! Contact me if you’d like to create something special for your community!
Every month our chapter gathers for a community meeting, where our Religious Assistant (a Dominican sister) usually gives a Gospel reflection. Today, Sister was not able to attend the meeting, so I offered this reflection for our chapter. I share it with you all tonight: may we all strive to be athletes of God!
I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory…
…They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations
as an offering to the LORD,
on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries,
to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD. – Is 66:18, 20
When I sat with the readings this week, I immediately started to picture these few verses from Isaiah, where we hear of the gathering of every nation and every language on earth in one large parade towards Jerusalem as none other than the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Over the past few weeks we who have been following the Games have seen Michael Phelps swim for his 23rd Gold Medal. Usain Bolt from Jamaica boasts a perfect 9 gold medals over three Olympic Games. Kenyans, Ethiopians, Japanese, Chinese, North Korean, South Korean, Brazilian, brown, black, white and every color in between—all of the best athletes from every nation, speaking every language, gathered in one place to challenge one another, test their skill and hopefully come out victorious. I love these fraternal gatherings because imperfect as they are, they give us a small glimpse of what Isaiah’s vision of that parade of nations could look like.
And this is the same imagery that carries over to the Gospel today, where Jesus says: “And people will come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south, and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 13:29)
These are beautiful images, which call us to remember that God does not want to exclude a single person from this invitation to Heaven. Through Christ, He opens the path to eternal life with Him not just for the Jewish people, but for the entire world. Yet the big question remains: If everyone receives this invitation, how are so many barred from entry at the door? It’s one thing to be invited: but how do you actually get in to the Master’s house? If it’s not enough to know the master, let alone eat and drink with him and listen to his teaching in the streets, what more must we do?
In a rare lectionary feat, it seems the second reading can shed some light on how to get into that house—and if you’ll continue to humor me, I’d like to approach it again through the lens of the Olympics. How does one get to the Olympics? Training. You discipline your body and sacrifice in many ways so that not only are you good enough to compete, you are good enough to win. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes: “Therefore, I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it a slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:26-27) At the end of his letters to Timothy he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) He uses the imagery of the athlete to describe the training he puts his body and his soul through in order to keep the faith and win the crown of heaven. This is actually picked up in various ways first by the Church Fathers, then the desert fathers: the type of athletic training an Olympian, a gladiator or a warrior would undergo was called “askesis” in the Greek, and it is where we get the term: asceticism. We hear of that training directly in the Letter to the Hebrews today as Paul talks about the Father who disciplines us—
“At the time,
all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.” (Heb 12:11)
I am sure the Olympic athletes would agree.
And like a good coach, like a great Father, God doesn’t just train or discipline everyone in the same way. The marathoner requires very different discipline than the sprinter; though their activities look much alike—they are very different. Our Christian lives, our lives as children of God, may look very similar on the outside, but we know that they are very different. God calls to us and challenges us in unique ways, wanting us to be the very best version of ourselves—and therefore he trains us all in different ways.
He doesn’t want any repeat saints.
There’s already a St. Catherine of Siena. What God really wants next is a St. Catherine of Boston.
Yet in this singularity and uniqueness, God has also decided to put together some “teams.” Our families, our parish community, our friends. Sometimes we are called to train together; and certainly as Lay Dominicans we share some common training ground: prayer, study, community, apostolate- these are the ways in which God, through Dominic, has put together a good training regimen for our little team—our family. At times we may be very sympathetic to Paul in this reading today: some times our four pillars may seem a cause not for joy but for pain—we are rightly challenged by this way of life. If it were easy, there wouldn’t really be a point, would there?
So today I’d like to take a few minutes for us to reflect in the quiet of our hearts on the ways in which God disciplines us. Take to heart this image of you as God’s athlete—God’s champion—like the martyrs of Rome whom Eusebius called the “athletes of religion”, we are part of that great parade of nations called to the Heavenly Jerusalem. Set your goal on that narrow gate, which is, in fact, the person of Jesus Christ and with that single goal in mind, think about:
What training regimen has God uniquely set before me in order to achieve that goal?
What challenges has He thrown my way, in big ways and in small ways?
Where are my victories?
Where are my failures?
What little acts of discipline does God ask of me in order to strengthen me?
To make me more myself? And will I accept them?
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus said, to which Paul coaches us: “strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet!” (Heb 12:12-13)
+LORD, as we continue along this path of training, make us strong. Do not let us grow weary in the face of hardship or challenge—show us the narrow gate and give us the fortitude to strive for it, no matter what. Make us your champions, make us your athletes, so that we may join your children from every corner of the world in the great parade of saints. Amen.+