If you are looking for my blog titled, The Contemplative Catholic Convert, you are at the right spot.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me (Revelation 3:20).

It's already started. In some places, 2011 has walked boldly onto history's stage. Where I sit, on the west coast of America, her entry is only hours away.

More accurately, the year is 2011 A. D., which stands for anno domini -- Latin for "year of our Lord [Jesus Christ].” Two thousand and eleven years ago, on a silent night in the Jewish town of Bethlehem, God slipped into human history and made Himself incarnate. The Triune, Almighty and eternal God became a human being we call Jesus. Born to a Jewish virgin named Miriam -- better known as Mary – God-incarnate grew into a man who then took our sins upon Himself to a cross.

And there He died in our place so we would not have to experience eternal death.

There are other calendars used by different cultures and religions; Chinese, Muslim, Indian, for example. But the de facto calendar, the calendar around which virtually the entire planet's history revolves for reference to notable events, for business transactions, correspondence, and mundane affairs are measured from that event 2,011 years ago. That is why historians date events prior to God's incarnation as B.C. – before Christ, and those occurring afterward as A.D. – the year of our Lord. Modern attempts to camouflage God’s divine intervention into our history with terms like B.C.E. for "before the common era," and C.E. for "the common era" serve only to illustrate how deep, wide, broad and unbroachable was God's intervention into the affairs of humankind.

That cataclysmic event 2,011 years ago was not something that simply ‘happened.’ For centuries, God promised through His prophets His incarnation would change history. For example, more than 700 years B.C., the Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote of Jesus: Unto us a Child is born. Unto us a Son is given. And the government shall be upon His shoulders. And His name will be called, Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace (Isaiah 9:6-7). And neither is it a surprise that so many people scoff at that seminal event. Here’s what King David wrote 1000 years B.C.: Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the lord and against His Anointed, saying, 'Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us’ (Psalm 2:1-3).

And so here we are, you and I, on the cusp of another calendar year marking the anniversary of when God became a man so men and women might become godly. Beginning tomorrow, January 1st, virtually all people, languages, religions, and cultures will begin marking their days, their events, business transactions, and their personal histories from the time when God personally and physically interacted with humanity. We are on the cusp of a new year, a new beginning, full of . . . full of . . . well, only God knows what 2011 will be full of.

But I do know this: You and I are also on the cusp of a uniquely wonderful opportunity for a new relationship with our eternal and almighty Creator and Lover. New Year’s Eve, or for some of you as I write this, New Year’s Day, is a perfect time to begin that relationship.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sacrifice and Contrition

For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise (Psalm 51:16-17, NASB).

The king had it right, even when most had it wrong. David knew it was easy to offer an entire flock of lambs on the altar in Jerusalem, but what did it accomplish if he didn’t offer that blood with humility? Or, as Thomas a Kempis would write many centuries later: What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?

And so King David realized, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart . . . .”

As I pondered David’s words, I wondered what a contrite heart looks like.

Maybe it looks something like what Pope Clement IX prayed for: Lord, I want to do what you ask of me, in the way You asks, for as long as You ask, because You ask it. Maybe it means going on when I want so much to stop; keeping His commandments when I want to deviate “just a little”; being swift to confess even my venial sins – and being just as swift to repent. Maybe contrition means I am grateful to have the opportunity to make myself God’s slave; to know that life is not at all about me, but about Him; and that I must often force myself to do His will when His will is not the same as mine.

It’s easy for me to approach the Eucharistic altar at which the priest re-presents Christ’s sacrifice of body and blood. But I find it not so easy to do so with a consistently humble and contrite heart. That takes a special grace from God.

For which I pray daily.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Reason We Say 'Merry Christmas'

In the thirty-eight years I've attended Christmas morning services, I don't remember thinking much about the nativity crèche. After all, I'd seen the Infant, His parents and shepherds hundreds of times in churches, on front lawns and beneath Christmas trees. They blended long ago into the season's background. But a several Christmases ago, as my wife and I knelt at an altar, waiting to receive Holy Communion, the plaster figurines in front of us caught my attention. And I knew why.

My gaze had shifted for a moment to the crucifix behind the pulpit. It loomed thirty feet above the altar and suddenly brought the Christmas crèche into a new and sobering perspective.

Two thousand years ago, few people in Bethlehem recognized the importance of the stable where Joseph and Mary snuggled their newborn son. It's not hard to understand why others missed its significance. It wasn't the kind of place you'd expect to find anyone of importance.

The stable was not like the pretty pictures printed on Christmas cards. The grueling journey to Bethlehem left Joseph and Mary tired and hungry. They longed to find a place to bathe and for a warm bed. Instead, they arrived in a city of strangers, and Joseph raced in vain from inn to inn, desperately seeking a comfortable place for his wife to lie down. You know the story. They couldn't find a room in the local inn, so they settled themselves for the night in a darkened corner of a stable, to the smell of manure and rotting straw.

But in that stable, Almighty God took the form of a helpless Child and stepped into humanity to reconcile you and me to Himself. The miraculous birth in that dirty place heralded a cataclysmic transformation in the relationship between us and Himself. No one in that little town of Bethlehem knew it, but humanity's destiny revolved around that manger – and Calvary's cross looming in its shadow.

Three decades later, beneath that cross, the manger was a distant memory in Mary's heart. The Child-grown-to-be-a-Man now hung on a splintered, bloodstained crossbeam. It looked nothing like the smooth and polished cross towering above the altar in front of me. On Calvary's cross, Jesus' back lay ripped open by Roman whips. Blood from the roughly woven crown of thorns caked on His forehead. Nails holding him to the wood sent waves of searing pain across His hands and feet. Thirst ravaged his throat. His strength slowly slipped away as he struggled to breathe. Meanwhile, soldiers jeered, religious leaders mocked, and his friends and family wept.

No one on that hillside knew it, but as Jesus suffered and then died on that cross, God launched the second of His three-phased plan to rescue us from the even more horrible destiny our sins had guaranteed us.

The crèche is about the Savior's birth; the cross, about His death. The crèche cradled God's incarnation; the cross tortured Him. The crèche is about God's Son born into our world; the cross, about Him paying sin's judgment and dying in our place. But without the third phase – the empty tomb – the crèche and the cross would be meaningless. Without the empty tomb, no one would have hope for life beyond this one. No one would have assurance that we have a heavenly Father who loves us, grieves with us, yearns for an intimate relationship with us.

The crèche, the cross, and the empty tomb brought God's plan of reconciliation and redemption to completion. Because of that Divine Triad, Christians can know with absolute certainty that their sins can forgiven. The crèche, the cross and the empty tomb is God's irrevocable declaration that those who believe with obedient faith the Baby of the crèche became the Man on the cross and resurrected Savior, we have God's promise of eternal life (see John 3:16).

As I received Holy Communion that morning, I prayed I would never again see the crèche simply as a reminder of a long-ago Bethlehem birth. I hoped – and continue to hope to this very day – it will always remind me that God really does love the world so much that He gave His Son to die in our place.

I hope it always reminds me that His birth, death, and resurrection is the reason we say, "Merry Christmas!"

Monday, December 20, 2010

My First Christmas

It’s been thirty-eight years since December 24, 1972. I can easily bring to memory the image of myself kneeling by my bunk in the barracks on the Yokosuka (Japan) Naval Base. That moment was the conclusion of something I had started two months earlier – or, better said – that moment was the conclusion of something God had started in me two months earlier.

It was October, Yom Kippur – the Jewish Day of Atonement. The day when Jews around the world look to God for forgiveness of their sins. I was sitting in another Navy barracks – this time in San Diego – thinking about my life, morose because of what I had become. I remembered the people I’d robbed. The drugs I regularly used. The young women I’d turned into whores. My baby whom I killed in the abortion clinic.

In the open diary on my lap I wrote these words – words I’d never before prayed, words that spilled from a very remorseful soul – “Oh God. Forgive me for my past sins. And look with tolerance on my future sins.”

I knew myself too well to believe I could escape who I was. And I knew better than to promise God I would never sin again. All I knew to do was plead for mercy. And in my prayer, God began the work He would conclude two months later.

Shortly after I arrived in Yokosuka, I borrowed a book I’d heard about from a Christian acquaintance: The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey. God used it to change my life.

From the first pages, I was hooked. Lindsey quoted dozens of prophecies in the Jewish Old Testament about the first Advent of Messiah Jesus. The virgin birth of Jesus (Isaiah 7:14); the One who would be called Mighty God and Everlasting Father (Isaiah 9:6); The crucifixion of Jesus (Isaiah 52:12-53:13);  Israel’s Messiah who would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9); Israel will one day look “upon Him whom they had pierced” (Zechariah 12:10); The new covenant (new testament) that God would establish with Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-33); the "Son of Man" who would be given everlasting dominion over all creation from the “Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7:9-14).

The prophecies went on and on and on. Scores of them. Page after page.

I closed the book, stunned by what I'd read, and a surge of revelation swept through my mind: The one whom non-Jews call, “Jesus” is my Jewish Messiah. More than that, God the Father gave Jesus to die in my place – to pay the penalty my many sins deserved. Jesus’ blood bought my forgiveness.

I could really be forgiven. For everything I had ever done.

Everything.

I knew instinctively what I needed to do. I put the book aside, knelt at my bunk, and said simply, “God, I believe Jesus is the Messiah.”

That was it. No long-winded discourse. No confession of sins. No asking Jesus to be my savior. Just seven words. But God heard my heart. He knew with those few words I committed myself to follow Jesus. To obey Him. To do whatever He told me to do.

Before the last syllable left my lips, God had changed me. Completely. From the inside out.

I rose from my knees – and suddenly panicked.

I never owned a Bible, much less, knew what is in it. In fact, the only verse of Scripture I’d ever remembered hearing was, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” As soon as I rose from my knees, that verse popped into my mind and fear gripped me. What if I’d just committed idolatry?

I went back to my knees and said, “God, if I’ve just made a mistake, please show me.”

I waited. And I waited. Still on my knees, I waited for an answer. But the relief I had felt when I’d told God about Jesus remained with me. And so I stood up, as committed as ever to obey Jesus. I walked to my desk, pulled a bag of marijuana from my top drawer, and flushed it down the toilet. I pulled my stack of pornographic magazines from my footlocker and threw them in the dumpster behind my barracks. My language also received an immediate dose of bleach. The four-letter words I had for years used to punctuate my sentences were gone. Just like that. In a moment. Like the twinkling of an eye.

My life was so suddenly different, when I returned to work two days later, my curious co-workers gathered around me and asked what had happened. And I joyfully told them: Jesus happened to me.

On December 24, 1972, I knew nothing of Church doctrines about salvation, the Trinity, the Sacraments, or any of the most simple teachings of Christianity. All I knew was, I was a sinner and I needed a new life and a clean slate.

I didn’t know the term, but I needed to be born again.

And God, in His overflowing compassion, heard my Yom Kippur prayer, and on Christmas Eve, brought me His answer.

As I sit here, thirty-eight years after it all began, reviewing in my mind where I’ve been and where I am today, I realize afresh that I am an illustration of God’s mercy and grace. And I think of St. Paul’s words to Timothy: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

So, what's my point in sharing with you my story?

It's this. If God’s patience and compassion extended to St. Paul; If His patience and compassion extended to me -- even after all I’ve done, the half of which I didn't mention here . . .

Then His patience and compassion will also extend to you. Whoever you are. Whatever you’ve done. Or how often you’ve done it. He will never, ever, reject the penitent.

Thanks be to God for His indescribable mercy.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Bible Reading Plan

I posted this piece some time ago, but after thinking about it, I thought it might be helpful to some readers if I posted it again.
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I read at least two chapters each morning from the Old Testament (OT) and two each evening from the New Testament (NT). Each sitting takes about 15 minutes, or 30 minutes/day. That pattern gets me through the OT once a year (maybe 13 months if I am slow), and the NT three times in a year. I place a check mark in my Bible’s table of contents to help me keep track of what I’ve read and what I need to read.

For new readers, I recommend only partial readings of books such as Exodus, Numbers, and 1 Chronicles because the chapters that I don't list below contain pages of laws and family genealogies, etc, that can become tedious to read – and (more important) possibly discourage continuation. I deleted Leviticus from the list for the same reason. Furthermore, I did not list below all of the various chapters in several OT books that include litanies of names, regulations or laws. As you read, you will find them for yourself. I suggest you skim through them your first time or two through the Bible.

I am NOT suggesting those chapters/books are not valuable. I have read those entire books many, many times. But for a first-read, I think it more important to first get the “big picture.” On your second and subsequent readings year by year through the Bible, you can read the chapters you omitted here.

I suggest you read the books in the order I have listed them. Doing so will help coalesce your understanding of important events and people. You might also find it helpful to print the following list and keep it with your Bible.

Old Testament

Genesis
Exodus (chapters 1-24, 32-34)
Numbers (chapters 10-25)
Deuteronomy
Joshua
Judges
1 & 2 Samuel
Psalms 1-72
1 & 2 Kings
Psalms 73-150
Job
Isaiah
Hosea
Joel
Jonah
Micah
Ecclesiastes
Song of Songs
Jeremiah
Lamentations
Baruch
Habakkuk
Obadiah
Zephaniah
Esther
Ruth
Daniel
Ezra
Nehemiah
Haggai
Jonah
Wisdom
Amos
Proverbs 1-15
Ezekiel 1-40
Proverbs 16-31
Zechariah
Malachi
Judith
Tobit
Sirach
1 Chronicles 10-21, 28-29
2 Chronicles
1&2 Maccabees

New Testament

Luke
Acts
1 & 2 Corinthians
Galatians
Ephesians
Romans
John
Revelation
Matthew
Colossians
1 & 2 Peter
James
Philippians
Mark
1&2 Thessalonians
1&2 Timothy
Titus
Hebrews
1-3 John
Philemon
Jude

The Jewish priest, Ezra, "Set himself to study the law of the Lord, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel" (Ezra 7).

May God help us do likewise.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Knowing my Limits

You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)


I know my limits. Take chocolate. I can't eat just a small bag of chocolate chips. I go for a bowl. And sometimes a second. That's why I ask my wife not to buy more than a small bag at a time.

Chocolate is bad enough, but lust – that's an entirely different story. That's a potential killer. I'm embarrassed to admit it took so long, but I eventually learned my limits there, too. And while I might fudge now and then with chocolate, I am meticulous to avoid situations where my eyes can open my mind to unholy images.

That's why I don't go to the beach or pools. I refuse to place myself where half-clothed women routinely stroll. I avoid cable television. Most of what networks broadcast is bad enough – but it's impossible to avoid R-rated commercials. I keep my gaze under tight control when I pass magazine racks and keep my eyes from wandering when a fashionable woman crosses my path.

The Holy Spirit will live only in a pure heart. That's one of the reasons St. Paul told the Corinthians " . . . let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God." (2 Corinthians 7:1)

As for me, I've discovered part of perfecting holiness is knowing – and living within – my limits. Which is why I often pray something like this:

Lord, how can I keep myself pure unless You reveal my weaknesses – and then strengthen my heart to obey You? Oh, Holy Spirit, make this the desire of my heart.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Holy Intimacy

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord (Psalm 139:1-4).

Psalm 139 is perhaps among the clearest descriptions of how intimately God knows us -- and perhaps more important, how much He loves us. You might want to take some time to read the entire Psalm. And while you read, be reminded, God knows our thoughts – every one of them. He knows our daydreams, our secret sins, and He hears all of our words and all of our whispers.

Nothing is hidden from Him.

Nothing.

And yet, despite His full knowledge of who we are and what we do, He offers us again, and again – and yet again – an intimate relationship with Him. This is not a Hollywood intimacy, a cheap and tawdry shadow of His holy love. This is a warmth, a closeness, an excitement possible only when offered by the Creator of intimacy -- and made possible only through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus.

Think of it! The sinless Creator became a child, who grew to be a man, who then paid the death penalty OUR sins deserved. And with His payment, everyone who offers his or her life to Jesus in repentance can know that holy intimacy.

I can’t think of a better gift to receive this Christmas.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Not a Method, but a Relationship

I posted this back in February 2010. I'm reposting it again because I have some new readers of the blog and I thought it would be helpful to them if I did so.

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Sometimes I'm asked what method I use during my contemplative prayers – which I think are better defined as meditative than contemplative. Truth is, I don’t have so much a method as I have a relationship. The distinction is not simply semantics. Relationships are built over time. Methods can be developed or copied in a few minutes.

So if asked how I mature in my relationship to Christ – which then translates for me into the process I use in prayer – I would answer this way:

1. My relationship with Christ began in 1972. I can tell you the day and the place where it happened. I recognized I was a sinner and needed divine forgiveness. Having been raised in a Jewish home and knowing nearly nothing about Christianity except that Jesus died for me, I did the only thing I knew I could do. I asked God to forgive my sins and cleanse me through the blood of His Son.

That was it. Just me and God. And in my ignorance of so many things religious, God accepted me where I was. And that's how it started for me.

2. Since becoming a Catholic Christian more than 30 years later, I grow in my relationship with Jesus by always bringing my serious sins into the Confessional. But it is rare for me to go through a day without praying directly to God something like the Act of Contrition for each transgression I commit, regardless of how venial it might seem to me. I try to keep my slate as clean as possible. As the psalmist said, If I hold onto sin in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.

3. Since becoming Catholic. I always receive the Eucharist with purposeful aforethought. When Moses stood before the burning bush, God told him to remove his sandals because the ground on which he was standing was holy. And so each time I approach the consecrated Bread and the Cup, I remind myself the ground on which I stand is no less holy. Doing so helps me receive Christ with a more sober and reflective attitude.

4. I spend an hour each morning with the Lord. I rarely miss a day through the year. To help myself settle into the attitude for prayer and meditation, I listen to one or two recorded Christian hymns or other worship songs. Then during that hour I read at least two chapters of the Bible. (I also read two every evening). Over the course of the last thirty-seven years I’ve read the Bible dozens of times. In addition, Scripture memory has always been an integral part of my relationship with Christ. I have memorized hundreds of verses, and can paraphrase hundreds more. This treasury of God’s word in my heart aids my meditation as the Holy Spirit brings those texts to mind to teach me something fresh or (more often) remind me of something I’d forgotten.

5. My reflections, meditations and prayers during the remainder of the hour are really birthed in my daily decisions to bring my will into conformity with Christ’s. One of the books that has helped me understand the importance of obedience is The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence.

Brother Lawrence wrote that he would not so much as pick up a feather from the ground without permission from the Lord. It is that kind of obedience to Christ, even in the minutia of daily activities, that I try to strive toward. However, I am learning such obedience does not happen in a vacuum. It requires many decisions during the day to either obey Him or rationalize why I do not have to obey. But each correct decision makes the next one easier.

Two of my favored prayer methods is Lectio Divina and St. Ignatian “imaginative” meditation.

Lectio divina is an ancient form of prayer often associated with the monastic tradition. As I read from the Bible I ask myself what the writer was trying to convey to his readers. Then I ask what the Holy Spirit might be trying to convey to me in the passage. As I ponder the questions, I mull those thoughts over and over. Sometimes I will begin memorizing a particular verse in the text and speak it back to God as a form of prayer.

Ignatian prayer uses the power of imagination to draw me closer to God. As I read through the Scripture, or consider one of the mysteries of the Rosary, I meditate on a scene that might catch my attention – the scourging of Christ at the pillar, for example. I try to imagine what it would have been like if I had been there, watching the horrible scene play out. I try to smell the dust swirling in the breezes, to hear the mob’s shouts behind me, to watch our Blessed Mother crumble with grief to the dirt as the soldier’s whip slices Jesus’ back. And as I imagine myself in the moment, I pray whatever thoughts come to my mind as I watch the scene unfold.

At other times I pray my own spontaneous prayers, or recite some of the many prayers given us by the Church. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s prayer is one example:

Oh Lord, take my freedom, my memory, my understanding and my will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.

The prayer of Pope Clement XI is another (I include only a portion of his prayer here):

Lord, I believe in you: increase my faith. I trust in you: strengthen my trust. I love you: let me love you more and more. I am sorry for my sins: deepen my sorrow. I want to do what you ask of me: In the way you ask, For as long as you ask, Because you ask it. Help me to prepare for death with a proper fear of judgment, but a greater trust in your goodness. Lead me safely through death to the endless joy of heaven. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen

One of my favorite prayers is the Humility Litany of Cardinal Merry Del Val. (I include only a portion of it here):

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, hear me.
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated,

From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
Deliver me, O Jesus


That others may be loved more than I,
That others may be esteemed more than I,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should
O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.


My prayer-life, deeply rooted in a long-term growing relationship with Jesus, is no different than the prayer lives of any other Christian during the past two thousand years who has had a passion to know Christ – not just know about Him. I hope something of what I have written here will stir you to seek more of our Lord and Savior.

It’s not about a method. It’s about a relationship.

And it's about starting sooner than later.