“Through your infinite mercy… destroy in me all my cruelty; give me your mercy, transform me in your mercy, and let my life be a life only of works of corporal and spiritual mercy for the benefit of all.” - St. Vincent Pallotti
If one goes online right now, he or she will find many uplifting posts on social media. But all too often, there are also cruel attacks aimed at one another—even by practicing Catholics. Yet, as St. Vincent Pallotti reflected on and experienced, God is infinite love and mercy. In and through our experience of God’s mercy and love, we are challenged to live both out in our interactions with others both physically and online. As St. Vincent Pallotti attested to, the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are fundamental to our growth and spiritual lives.
Everyone knows there is suffering of all sorts in our world. Why would a Christian want to add intentionally to that suffering? Sometimes, this can be done unintentionally through sins of omission. As we say at Mass during the Confiteor, we ask forgiveness for “what I have done and in what I have failed to do.” Doing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy can aid us in examining our consciences. We can then seek forgiveness and mercy from God, especially in the frequent celebration of the Sacrament of Penance which helps us experience more deeply the infinite mercy and love of God. From there, we go forth witnessing to others what we ourselves have experienced.
Pope Francis reminds us: “Mercy towards a human life in a state of need is the true face of love” (Angelus, July 14, 2019). Instead of causing suffering, we are called to compassion—to suffer with another. This is not easy, but practicing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy will assist us in learning and living a compassionate, merciful, and loving way of life in Christ. May we pray with St. Vincent Pallotti to be transformed in God’s mercy for the benefit of all.
May the charity of Christ urge us on!
“The beginning of all effort is the recognition of what is.” -Romano Guardini, Learning the Virtues That Lead You to God, 1963
Professional athletes do many appearances while playing. We get paid to show up at fundraisers, youth camps, watch parties, and promotional events. Something that is practically a guarantee when attending these appearances is one or more sets of parents coming up to tell us about their child who plays soccer. Often these conversations are quite enjoyable, but almost inevitably, there are a few who want to talk about how their son or daughter was short-changed in their youth soccer experience. There is a lot that these parents say to us, but the consistent element is: my child didn’t succeed because of some external factor.
This may very well be the case for some of them. It is equally true, however, that it is certainly not the case for all of them. Much of the time the boy or girl just wasn’t good enough for a particular team, level of competition, or system of play.
The point of this post is not to drop the heavy hammer that many kids run out of the athletic ability rope and should give up. No, this post is about the absolute necessity of taking an honest stock of where someone actually is--especially for the spiritual life.
Romano Gaurdini says that “the beginning of all effort is the recognition of what is.” The reason for this being that you cannot begin making the effort to improve unless you start with who you already are.
Any professional athlete will tell you that it is far more helpful to be taught how to assess and address weaknesses rather than to pretend they don’t exist. In fact, most professional athletes are fairly obsessive about identifying areas in their game where they can improve. If I determine I’d like to be a better shooter with my right foot, for example, then I must begin with the harsh—but necessary—reality that I can barely complete a pass with my right foot. If I never acknowledge my current ability, I’ll constantly run into problems—poor technique, inadequate fundamentals, and so on. I’ll never become a strong shooter without addressing the plain truth of my current ability. This is a skill that requires disciplined practice and will never simply be acquired because I want it to be so. First comes acknowledgment, then a plan for improvement, all for the hope of becoming a good right-footed shooter.
This same principle can and should be applied to our spiritual lives. Just as improvement can only take place in athletics by beginning with where an athlete currently is, spiritual advancement can only begin by taking an honest assessment of where one currently is in relation to God. This means you’re far better off admitting that you struggle to pray for 5 minutes and taking that to God than wondering when you’ll receive the Stigmata. It is far more helpful to search deep within yourself and locate and name your pride, selfishness, ego, envy, or lust than only present to God your most pious and holy thoughts. He knows your heart already—He’s just waiting for you to know it as well.
One of the most helpful exercises for high-school, collegiate, and professional athletes is to watch film in order to identify strengths and weaknesses. The team watches the most recent game in order to see what needs to be addressed that week in practice. This same concept can migrate into our spiritual lives—we look for points of departure and development in order to draw nearer to God. This practice is not to discourage but to improve. There’s no shame in acknowledging ourselves as we really are. In fact, God can really only begin to heal us once we acknowledge where we are hurt. The Physician cannot tend to our wounds unless we let Him see them.
Several days ago, I was talking to my wife about this concept and she brought up how watching film for athletes is similar to the examination of conscience recommended by the Church. Examining one’s conscience on a regular basis is like looking back over the tape to see the strengths and the weaknesses—the graces and the sins—in order to grow. Then, with this self-knowledge, we can go to God, say thank you, and ask for forgiveness, trusting in His merciful love. God looks down on us and loves us as we are, but He also promises that His love is transformative. He looks down and says, “I love you,” while at the same time calling us higher. He wants us to identify what is so that we may cooperate with His grace and begin the beautiful work of improvement. This we call sanctification.
May we all be willing to look at ourselves honestly—as we really are—so that we enter into the effort that is the fight of faith (cf Jude 3), trust that God’s grace is sufficient (see 2 Cor 12:9), and become the saints Jesus Christ died for us to be.
"For freedom Christ has set us free." -Galatians 5:1
In light of the upcoming celebration of freedom in the United States on the Fourth of July, I was pondering the meaning of freedom as I went to Mass recently. Freedom is not only a word, but a way of life that many Americans hold to be holy and sacred.
To begin, what is freedom? What does it mean and entail? The misguided and misinformed definition I once held is that I form my conscience to what I see fit, what I subjectively see to be right and wrong. Along with the culture, I often asked, “What is truth?” This proved to be a heavy burden to bear throughout my life, and I often found myself in state of restlessness and worry.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "’God willed that man should be left in the hand of his own counsel, so that he might of his own accord seek his creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him" …Freedom is the power to act or not to act, and so to perform deliberate acts of one's own. Freedom attains perfection in its acts when directed toward God, the sovereign Good” (1743-1744).
Furthermore, each of us also has a conscience which, when properly formed and applied, can lead to our ultimate freedom.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1776 continues, "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God.." The conscience is not something that we lay upon ourselves, but something that God inscribes on our very being. Our conscience is not up to interpretation, not up to the current fad, but a gift given by God to His children, in love, to know what is right and wrong—to know how to walk justly and thus live freely.
In the Mass I attended, the priest answered my questions about freedom by explaining that freedom comes from a well-formed conscience, from knowing where we are going, whom we are serving, and ultimately from knowing what truth is. A well-formed conscience frees us from the ties of the world and binds us to the truth of Christ, helping us see the world through the lens of truth.
The Church beckons the faithful to seek truth, question, find answers, and ultimately find freedom by living in the truth. As Christ himself said, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” By conforming our minds and hearts to Christ, we better form and inform our conscience. As daughters and sons of God, this faculty is ours, it is written on our hearts. In this formation, we can reason and determine what is right and wrong, what leads to the path of joy and peace, and who we are. The conscience then frees us to choose the good, and when we fall, to repent and seek Him again.
This Fourth of July, let us ask the Lord to show us the path to a well-formed conscience to live a life of freedom. May we ask ourselves where we are forming what we believe, what truths we hold sacred, and if God will enlighten our minds to show us the path of freedom. Let us rejoice knowing that "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 17).
January, as the first month of the new calendar year, is for many people a time to start fresh. And January 2019 in particular seemed to be the month of intense home decluttering. This is probably due to the advent of the Netflix show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” I have friends and relatives who had never heard of Kondo’s bestselling book before the streaming show debuted, and yet I have watched them become KonMari method adherents, filling my social media feeds with success stories about the household clutter they are donating or dumping.
Amid all this physical decluttering, I find myself wondering how often we take time to do some spiritual decluttering as well. Especially for myself—I strive to maintain a ruthless-but-not-obsessive attitude about household clutter. But do I regularly declutter my soul outside of going to confession every month or two? And when I do attempt spiritual decluttering, do I approach it with the same kind of enthusiasm about ridding my soul of the things that are holding me back from God?
In this new year’s spirit of decluttering and simplifying, we tend to think about the kinds of things in our homes that we no longer need: toys missing essential pieces, gifts we will never use but feel too guilty to donate, soccer participation trophies from third grade. But we should also think about the kinds of things that make up ‘spiritual clutter’: useless smartphone games that waste hours of our time, social media accounts that just fuel jealousy and resentment toward our peers, junk food binges that disrespect our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. What are the things that our minds, our bodies, or our souls cling to that do not bring us closer to God?
In Luke’s Gospel, Simon, James, and John “leave everything” to follow Christ. We also are called to leave everything and follow Christ. But what does everything mean when we live in the twenty-first century with all of its modern conveniences? We are not all called to join a mendicant order, to become cloistered nuns, or to become missionaries in the far-flung corners of the world. We still need shelter, food, clothing, and dignified work. But along with striving to make our homes oases of calm in a chaotic life, so too should we strive to make our souls oases of peace in a fallen world.
If we really stop to think about it, spiritual clutter is as ubiquitous as and more detrimental than physical clutter. Everywhere we turn, there are bad habits and ill-formed attachments that keep us from deepening our relationship with God. And just like physical clutter, spiritual clutter is a deeply personal thing. We can choose to ignore it, but—like its physical counterpart—spiritual clutter will eventually take over our lives until we dread even peeking into those areas that are the messiest and need the most work. But we must look inward in order to grapple with the things that keep us from following Christ—especially if we dread what we will discover about ourselves.
When the metaphorical pile of spiritual clutter seems insurmountable, it is good for us to remember that we are not alone in our endeavors: God is there beside us, calling us to engage with him in the sacrament of Penance, which itself is spiritual decluttering. With its thorough examination of conscience and its outpouring of God’s grace, going to confession not only absolves us of the sins that clutter our hearts, but it also bolsters us to overcome those temptations in the future. And, with God’s grace, the spiritual clutter that accumulates in our hearts will slowly begin to seem more manageable and less insurmountable, until one day we realize that the things that had once seemed to control our lives are no longer more than a passing temptation.
As the new year continues on and we declutter more of our physical homes, let us remember to give equal attention to our spiritual homes.
Question for Reflection: What are some things that are cluttering your spiritual life?
If you could only take three things on a desert island, what would you bring?
A common question at parties, dates, and job interviews, it’s not so different from what we might ask ourselves during the season of Lent. Lent, as our Catechism says, is “a span of forty days when the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”
Just as the “desert island” question invites us to stop and consider what we really need and want in life, Lent invites us to consider our truest desires, what matters most, when it comes to uniting ourselves to Christ Jesus.
To help us answer this question during Lent, our Catholic tradition gives us three spiritual keys, known as “penitential practices,” namely, Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.
Before deciding what to “give up” during Lent, first “pick up” a new way to pray. Be specific: pick a time, place, and form of prayer. Don’t commit to more than you can do, but don’t be afraid to stretch yourself some.
Lent primarily focuses on the practice of penitential prayer, humbly acknowledging our sins with sorrow and contrition, and turning our hearts back to God’s forgiveness and mercy. One example found at most parishes is the Stations of the Cross, usually hosted every Friday during Lent as a way of reflecting on Christ’s Passion and death. Other daily spiritual exercises might involve reciting the Seven Penitential Psalms, or making a heartfelt Examination of Conscience and Act of Contrition. Don’t forget Lent is a powerful time to receive the Sacrament of Penance (also called Reconciliation, or Confession).
Penitential prayer isn’t meant to leave us discouraged, but should increase our desire to love and serve God. The Psalmist sings, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God” (Psalm 42:2-3). Lent is a kind of “spiritual desert” that highlights our thirst for God, which may lead us to experience what the saints of our Church call “dryness in prayer,” times when we lack feelings of comfort and consolation. Rather than a sign that God isn’t listening, as Mother Angelica and others have described, dryness in prayer can be a gift and invitation to find our deeper satisfaction in God alone. In the words of Msgr. Charles Pope, dry and difficult prayer teaches us to seek not the consolation of God but the God of consolation.
Fasting is the spiritual practice of voluntarily abstaining from food or some other bodily need or pleasure (now we can talk of “giving something up”). Fasting is rooted in our Church’s scripture and tradition, especially in imitation of Jesus who fasted for forty days in the desert (Matthew 4:2). While the Church only asks members to fast from food on occasion, I’m convinced fasting is more relevant than ever as we live in constant temptation of becoming more gratified while less grateful, more satiated while less satisfied.
Fasting can be a practice of slowing down. This can mean we intentionally consume and do less, thus allowing God to speak to our souls with less interruptions from the myriad distractions and lesser goods that demand our time and attention. Fasting works to curb our appetites—for food and drink, yes—but also excess information (news and status updates), noise and visual stimulation (TV, video games), so as to redirect our thoughts and desires for God and restore relationships with those near us. Spend some time in prayer considering what things or activities God is calling you to fast from.
When asked, “How much money is enough” Industrialist and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller famously replied, “Just a little bit more.” The practice of almsgiving, on the other hand, can actually be freeing—showing that we can be happy with a little bit less.
John the Baptist instructed his followers, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Luke 3:11), and Jesus warned his disciples of putting stock in material possessions (Luke 18:18-30).
Almsgiving turns the spiritual fruit we inwardly gain through prayer and fasting outward into material fruit shared with the poor and those in need. One year, I chose one item a day I owned (article of clothing, book, can of food, etc.) to set aside to give to the poor through my local church’s St. Vincent de Paul Society or food pantry. I was shocked (and a little embarrassed) by how much I owned but never used. The point isn’t spring-cleaning or making room in the closet for new summer fashions, but to make room in our heart for the poor and to de-clutter the way that leads to the Kingdom of God.
This Lent, I invite you to pray about incorporating these pillars into your forty-day spiritual journey in the desert.
Usually at this point during Lent I am looking forward to the Feast of St. Joseph as a brief respite from my Lenten sacrifices. However, this year his Feast Day is on Palm Sunday weekend. With this early timing, it is easy for us to forget about his Feast Day. While more than a week away, I wanted to take some time to reflect on Joseph and remind ourselves of the example he serves for us each and every day.
Today’s Gospel (Jn 5:1-16) describes one of Jesus’ miracles in which he commands a man to “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.” Without question the man stands up, picks up his mat, and walks away telling others of the good news. This man had no reason to trust Jesus or even think that he could ever walk again, but he believed and he obeyed. This reminds me of St. Joseph who, without question, listened to God’s call. Without question, Joseph stood by Mary and Jesus as husband, father, and protector. God asks nothing less of us in our own lives and Lent is a perfect time to reflect on whether we are listening to God’s call to “believe and obey.”
We can start by going to confession. An examination of conscience can help us to see where we are not believing and obeying, while confession also gives us that clean slate that we so desperately need in order to hear God’s voice in our lives. Once we have prepared ourselves to receive God’s word, we are able to more fully align our hearts to Christ and follow in his footsteps. But this is not an easy thing to do. We will go to confession many times over the course of our lives so that we can once again learn to “believe and obey.” But this is not something that we have to do alone. Not only do we have Christ and the entire Catholic Church on our side, we also have the saints. In particular, St. Joseph is a beautiful example of living a life of faith and obedience to the will of God, as evidenced by his willingness to follow God’s plan even when he didn’t know the outcome. If we learn to live our lives as he did, then I guarantee we will continue to move closer to Christ.
As I mentioned before, the Feast of St. Joseph is two weekends from now. I encourage you to look to him for guidance and strength during your Lenten journey. His silent faith, his dedication to the Holy Family, and his role in forming and raising the Son of God gives us a wonderful example by which to form ourselves to Christ and to believe and obey without question. As we approach his Feast Day, I also invite you to join me in praying a novena to St. Joseph that we may learn to silence our hearts and listen to the Word of God during this Lenten season. This nine-day series of prayers helps us to focus our minds and hearts on specific intentions and invites St. Joseph in a special way to intercede for us.
Click here to join me in praying the novena to St. Joseph.
“Let us allow ourselves to be filled with St. Joseph’s silence!” -Pope Emeritus Benedict, Angelus, December 2005
Nicholas Shields is a Young Professional in Washington, D.C