Because Nothing Matters, Until Everything Does

Allison recently wrote a good post about soccer and sports. I want to be clear: This is not a rebuttal to her post. I agree with much of what she had to say in that post, and with many of the comments as well. But forget sports, school work, home work, our careers, our relationships, our involvement in society, our intelligence, our physical gifts or impediments for a second. None of it matters unless our love of Christ is the center of our existence. For as Qoheleth says in Ecclesiastes, all is vanity. However, when we are Christ centered people, then everything matters.

You may remember from an earlier post that I hinted that I am a gearhead. I willfully dismantled a perfectly good engine in my Mustang in an effort to make it better, stronger, faster. I did this before I became a Catholic. I have always had an interest in motors, engines, airplanes, trucks, etc. I was just born with this attraction and with mechanical ability. So, new exhaust manifolds, intake manifold, cylinder heads, fuel injectors, camshaft—all were removed and replaced in my driveway with hand tools and moxie back in 1999.

Just to see if I still could, I swapped the cylinder heads on the motor again in 2002 (after my near brush with death). And actually, I had blown a head gasket and took that incident as an opportunity to add ported and polished heads.  That is an example of clear, focused, gearhead thinking for you. In 2005, I drove this car 2100 miles across the country from California to our new home. She is a runner and one spirited pony. And none of this matters for my salvation. That is, until it did.

A few months after our move, she (cars are feminine) broke down and I couldn’t figure out the problem. I started her up one day and she was running really rough. I opened the hood, checked the spark-plug wires, fuel injectors, sensors, etc. All was fine. But still, the motor had a wicked shimmy and was seemingly trying to tear herself off the motor mounts. Have I lost you with all the gearhead jargon? Sorry. Long story short, I put the pony to pasture for a while because I was busy with other chores, like building a stair-case and contemplating swimming the Tiber.

Eventually (over a year later) I finished the home improvement projects and decided to tackle the engine problem again. Knowing my limitations though, I took it to a professional. I learned early on that throwing money and personal labor at problems a professional can diagnose quicker and cheaper is silly. The problem? The harmonic balancer was slipping off the crankshaft key.

The balancer is a big counterweight that dampens the vibrations in the mechanical workings of an internal combustion engine. It probably went a little off kilter when I swapped the camshaft, and eventually it manifested itself as a wicked shimmy. See this photograph? The balancer is that thingy that looks like a wheel on the end of the crankshaft. Without the balancer, centered perfectly on the crankshaft, the engine will tear itself apart. With the balancer in place, the engine will run smoothly.

At the time my car’s motor broke, I was wrestling with my practice of Christianity. I knew that up to this time in my life, Christ definitely had not been the center of my existence. I had pushed him way out on the periphery. Of course, by doing that, the big counterweight that should have been my center was removed. Thus all the other moving parts in my life were vying for the central position. As a result, I was running as rough as my Mustang motor had been with the broken balancer. So this idea popped into my gearhead–Joe Sixpack mind: Christ is our harmonic balancer.

The idea of having Christ at our center isn’t mine, it is God’s. And this handy little diagram isn’t my idea either. But until the motor in my Mustang broke, I didn’t really “get” the ramifications of not having Christ as the center. This incident with the harmonic balancer was when theory and practical application came together for me. It is why I understand that putting sports, or anything else for that matter, at the center of your life instead of Christ will lead to oblivion.

Is this the shortest parable on record? I don’t really know, and truthfully, I haven’t checked. If it isn’t, though, it’s close.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.
Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is recorded as having said this in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 13). And there we all are as Catholics and Christians—yeast to be mixed in with the flour of the rest of the world so that the mixture is leavened and the loaf can rise. In the same Gospel, while giving His Sermon on the Mount He also says,
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.
The Desert Fathers chucked everything and headed into the desert to pray and wait. I don’t have that option because I was called to be a father and a husband. And I understand that I am called to put Christ first in my life. I have found the Catholic Church to be the place where I can do this most effectively. And all of my God-given talents and abilities are to be put to good use and for His greater glory. The same is true for my wife and our children.
So be it sports, school work, home work, careers, relationships, involvement as citizens, our intelligence, our physical gifts or impediments, et cetera, et cetera, with Christ in his rightful and central place in our lives, everything we do, or think, or say, matters for our salvation.
Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War was not a Catholic or a Christian. Heck, he couldn’t have been because he lived in China around 500 BC. But I think he would have made a good Catholic Christian and he would understand where his loyalties must lie as a disciple of the True King. Note this saying of his,
The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.
The same is true for us privates and gearheads too.

Because He Didn’t Promise Us A Rose Garden

Come Easter Vigil, I will have been a Catholic for two full years. It seems like it has been longer than that,  and shorter at the same time. Perhaps because I feel so at home, it feels like I have been a Catholic forever. But then the saying goes, Time flies when you’re having fun, and it feels like I just got on this ride.

Notice, I said that I feel at home, but I don’t always feel comfortable. How could I? Bearing crosses and confronting your true self and your sins is tough work. It takes humility, which hasn’t been a popular virtue in the world since the very beginning and doesn’t come naturally to me. Add to this being constantly tripped up by temptations and how is this comfortable? [Read more…]

Because of J. D. Salinger, Unlikely as It Seems

J.D. Salinger died yesterday at the age of 91 and, full disclosure, I’ve never read The Catcher in the Rye. Nor have I bothered getting detailed autobiographical information on Mr. Salinger. I can only say that his work had an effect on my prayer life, thus proving once again, to me anyway, that God continues to work through the secular in unexpected ways. [Read more…]

For All the Saints: Macarius the Great

When I was going through the RCIA program as a candidate, the need to choose a Confirmation name came up. The director of the program and my sponsor both gave me some suggestions (including St. Francis Xavier, as I recall).

I liked what I read about him, but he didn’t seem right for me. I thought a lot about it. I realized that I was choosing a friend in heaven whom I could ask to pray for me. That is a special trust, so choosing this person haphazardly wasn’t in the cards for me.

By this time in my journey, I had come across the Desert Fathers & Mothers. I love these people! Such stories, such sacrifice, such practical sayings! All very motivating to a guy who, despite all my earlier objections to Catholic Christianity, found himself standing in the recruiting office saying “sign me up.”

I really enjoyed what they had to say about living our faith. But one of them stood out to me most, and I knew he was the patron saint for me: St. Macarius the Great. His feast day was yesterday (January 15, so I humbly apologize for not getting this post up sooner, Abba!).

St. Macarius is known by other sobriquets as well: Macarius the Great; Macarius the Wonder Worker; Macarius the Elder. As for me, I just call him Abba Macarius when I ask him to pray for me. He once said this about prayer:

Abba Macarius was asked, “How should one pray?” The old man said, “There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need and he shows us his mercy.”

Amen to that! Here a few other stories and wise sayings to give you a taste of my patron:

A brother once came to the abbot Macarius and said to him, “Master, speak some word of exhortation to me, that, obeying it, I may be saved.” St. Macarius answered him, “Go to the tombs and attack the dead with insults.” The brother wondered at the word. Nevertheless he went, as he was bidden, and cast stones at the tombs, railing upon the dead. Then returning, he told what he had done. Macarius asked him, “Did the dead notice what you did?” And he replied, “They did not notice me.”

“Go, then, again,” said Macarius, “and this time praise them.” The brother, wondering yet more, went and praised the dead, calling them just men, apostles, saints. Returning, he told what he had done, saying, “I have praised the dead.”

Macarius asked him, “Did they reply to you?” And he said, “They did not reply to me.” Then said Macarius, “You know what insults you have heaped on them and with what praises you have flattered them, and yet they never spoke to you. If you desire salvation, you must be like these dead. You must think nothing of the wrongs men do to you, nor of the praises they offer you. Be like the dead. Thus you may be saved.”

Wow, talk about learning to be dead to the world. Sheesh-ka-bobbers!

The same Abba Macarius while he was in Egypt discovered a man who owned a beast of burden engaged in plundering Macarius’ goods. So he came up to the thief as if he was a stranger and he helped him to load the animal. He saw him off in great peace of soul saying, ‘We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.’ (1Tim.6.7) ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (Job 1.21)

Ahem, I get a lump in my throat just reading that one. I personally am so far away from this level of spirituality that any help I can get from a friend like this is more than welcome! And then I found out he wrote twenty-two homilies too. Did he really write them? Or did someone else write them and use his name (much as the writer of Ecclesiastes leads us to believe he was King Solomon)? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. They are powerful homilies, and I feel duty bound to share them with you.

They have titles like the following:

That God alone is able to deliver us out of the bondage of the wicked ruler.

Christians ought to go over the course of this world with care, that they may attain the praise of God.

There is a wide difference between Christians and the men of this world.

The gifts of grace are preserved by a humble mind and a ready will, but destroyed by pride and sloth.

How the soul ought to demean herself in holiness and purity towards her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

Christians that are willing to improve and increase ought to force themselves to every thing that is good.

If you think these titles are wise sayings unto themselves, you owe it to yourself to read the homiles yourself here. You’ll be glad you did!
Happy belated Feast Day Abba Macarius!

Because of the Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

I am sitting in a friend’s house in Southern California surrounded by books one minute into New Year’s Day. My friends are devout Catholics and have many volumes that are of interest to me. Everything from The Cure D’Ars: St. Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney to a pamphlet entitled Confession: A Little Book for the Reluctant.

There are books here, and in my public library at home, covering the whole spectrum of Catholic Christianity. I could spend weeks, months, a lifetime reading through these selections. And I intend to do so. This quote by Horace Walpole sums up my experience since I started this journey in 2006:

The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and in a thousand things well.

Which brings me to the title of this post, taken from a book in the library here written by the physicist Richard P. Feynman. I’m not really interested in Feynman’s book, but his title is apt for my purposes: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. With the Bible and the Liturgy of the Hours in one hand, and volume after volume of great works that illuminate them both in the other, I find myself a happy Catholic ready to celebrate a Happy New Year.

St. Augustine’s Confessions ? Barely got past the dust cover, so that is on my “bucket list” of Catholic books to read. Aquinas? Looking forward to it. I’ve read de Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet, and that is outstanding. Webster likes the Catholic fiction like Kristin Lavrinsdatter, while I really enjoy the nonfiction works of the Early Church Fathers.

I’ll probably read this one this year as well: , The Grunt Padrethe biography of Lt. Vincent Capadonno, USNR, a Roman Catholic Chaplain who was awarded the Medal of Honor serving with the 5th Marines in Vietnam.

Learning about our Faith is a real joy. What is on your Catholic-book bucket list for this year? Now, to bed and up early for the Tournament of Roses Parade. Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

Because Going To Mass On Vacation Is Easy II

If you think that I have already had my fair share of going to Mass on this trip to Southern California, you would be wrong. In fact, I can’t get enough of what the Church has to offer, even when I am on vacation.

I have a confession to make: I go to daily mass as often as I can. And trust me, it isn’t because I feel “holier than thou” doing it. I feel relieved when I go. For those of you who can’t go daily because of time constraints or lack of opportunity (no parish nearby), I can understand. But in my case, there is a parish within walking distance from where I work and it holds Mass daily at 12:10 p.m., right in the heart of my lunch hour. So I usually just go.

Before I was Catholic, it never even dawned on me to go to Church every day. I heard about this practice when my wife told me her aunt would go daily (years before I became a Catholic) and I distinctly remember thinking to myself what a waste of time and energy! Get a life, people! But now, I see what she was up to and I think I understand.

So, I wake up each morning and start my day by reading the Liturgy of the Hours and the daily Mass readings. This has become a routine for me too, after being welcomed into the Church. It gives me great consolation to pray the LOTH and sometimes it ignites the spark for a post, or two. But it doesn’t supplant the desire for receiving “my daily bread” in the form of the Eucharist.

This morning I discovered that a parish nearby has daily mass at 8:30 a.m., and having found this out at 7:40 a.m., there was no doubt where I would be come 8:30. I thank one of my wife’s friends, who we met for dinner last night (and who invited us to Christmas Eve Mass) for alerting me that there was a parish nearby: St. John Eudes Parish in Chatsworth. I did a Google search and discovered it was a whopping mile and a half from where we are staying on this leg of our trip.

It never ceases to amaze me that I am not alone at these daily Masses. This morning there were at least 60 other people there with me. I pulled into the parking lot and had to search for a place to park. The first time I went to the daily Mass back home, I was stunned to find 20 people there. I figured it would just be the priest and me.

So, whew, I got to go to Mass this morning! Now to breakfast and then off to the “adventure du jour,” the Wild Animal Park of the San Diego Zoo. World renowned, an absolute must see, the stories we were going to be able to tell and the pictures we could share! It was going to be fantastic! And then . . . we got stuck in traffic.

Chatsworth isn’t exactly a few minutes from Escondido, where this attraction is located, even if there aren’t 8 million other drivers on the road trying to get to other places at the same time. As we slogged slowly southward, I saw signs announcing how long it would take to get to certain landmarks that make sense only to people who live in Southern California. Like “91 Freeway—30 Minutes” and that is when we were still 3 miles from intersecting the 605 Freeway. Have I lost you? Probably.

Suffice it to say that the trip to the Wild Animal Park was not looking good. And I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of paying the lofty admission price and then trying to squeeze all the pleasure out of my money’s worth before the park closed in the three hours that would be left by the time we got there. I had clear visions of stress and unhappiness if this mission was continued.

So I adapted, improvised, and overcame (Marines are good at that) because the “natives were restless” (being in a car for two hours in traffic feels like eight hours when you are 13 and under) and exited the freeway in San Juan Capistrano and headed to the Mission located there. Yep—we went to Church!

We spent three and a half hours at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano and not one minute felt rushed. Ten acres of beautiful grounds, and gardens and historic ruins and chapels. I learned how the Mission was founded on All Saints Day in 1776 and how Abraham Lincoln deeded the property back to the Catholic Church two weeks before he was assassinated.

I learned too that 40 worshipers had been killed when an earthquake in 1812 destroyed the The Great Stone Church built in 1797. The ruins of that building are still amazing to see today and were decorated with a beautiful nativity scene shown here.

I learned that San Juan of Capistrano is the Spanish form of Saint John of Capistrano or, in Italian, Giovanni da Capistrano. He is pretty “hard corps” as well—known as “the Soldier Saint” because he defeated the Ottoman Turks at the Siege of Belgrade in 1456 when he was, get this, 70 years old! That is probably why he only carried a red banner and a crucifix into battle, armor and a shield being too heavy, I bet.

Although the Turks didn’t kill him, and he was victorious in battle, bubonic plague took him in the end. He had been a lawyer before becoming a Franciscan friar and a renowned preacher. He is the patron saint of jurists. He once spoke to a crowd of over 126,000—more people than can fit in the Rose Bowl—and long before there were microphones, sound systems, etc.

And we haven’t even talked about Fray Junipero Serra, who established the entire chain of Missions in Alta California. Fr. Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Every school child in California knows about Fr. Serra when they complete their 4th Grade Mission project for history class. I’m not sure if public school children complete these projects too, but I know that all the Catholic school kids do. And the Mission sells kits to help you complete these projects just like the Boy Scout shop sells kits for Pinewood Derby cars.

And my kids? They got to run around the grounds and get their ya-ya’s out on one hand, while getting to say prayers and light candles on the other. They loved seeing the koi swimming in the fountains, and the way the Spanish soldiers’ barracks were turned out. And they were amazed to see a bride and groom having their photographs made in the stunningly beautiful little chapel while hearing stories about how their Mom and Dad came here as newlyweds over twenty years ago too. They chased Monarch butterflies and later chased waves as we watched the sun set into the Pacific Ocean from the sands of Doheny State Beach. Mission (pun intended) accomplished!

Yes, going to Mass on vacation is easy. You never know where or what it may lead you to. But so far, it has always led me to green pastures while restoring my soul.


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