Making Your Life a Masterpiece

Crashing a Party at the Vatican: 

St Peter's at nightI don’t usually crash parties at the Vatican, but that’s effectively what I did last week! It was Sunday night at the Taverna Angelica (an excellent restaurant in what is otherwise a culinary black hole surrounding the Vatican), and I walked in at about 7:30 pm to join some friends from out of town for dinner. After a  glance around the tiny establishment, I realized that I had just walked into the midst of an impressive gathering of American Catholic intellectuals. And when I say “Catholic intellectuals”, I mean “heavy-hitting Catholic intellectuals:  I think that the only heavy-hitters not present were George Weigel and Archbishop Chaput! Everywhere I looked I saw writers, theologians, bishops and cardinals.

So, I felt a little out-of-place as I walked through the erudite crowd to join my friends. When I found them, they were also marveling at the number of diplomas and credentials filling the restaurant. One of them looked at me and said, “Did we walk into a First Things meeting?”

I did not mean to disturb the event, but I was wearing my Roman collar and speaking English, so everyone I bumped into assumed that I was a part of their party. Even though I explained why I was there, and it was not my intent to capitalize on the initial misunderstanding, I did end up exchanging cards and meeting a number of very interesting people involved with influential Catholic institutes and think tanks. The highlight was meeting Dr. Robert P. George, the renowned Catholic professor of jurisprudence from Princeton.

Humanum

humanumI soon found out that the high density of Catholic-American brainpower was due to a conference taking place at the Vatican that week called “Humanum: International Interreligious Colloquium on The Complementarity of Man and Woman”. The event, hosted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and sponsored in part by the institutes represented at the gathering I had stumbled upon, was organized to produce a joint declaration on the importance of traditional marriage.

Later on, I went to check out the colloquium’s web site and was instantly impressed by its quality. The event’s video was a highly attractive compilation of images, testimonies, and pithy statements, all in defense of marriage. It is well-worth taking the time to watch it. (You can find it at this link: http://humanum.it/en/.)

The Cathedral

The part of the video that struck me the most was on a sculpture bycathedra Auguste Rodin known as The Cathedral. They interview Fleur Nabert, an attractive and articulate sculptress, who powerfully describes the masterpiece:

He put [the hands of a man and a woman] together with a very delicate gesture where they are slightly and gently touching each other. They are forming a perfect architecture, a kind of sanctuary, between the two hands. It looks like there is nothing [between them], but there is everything!

Ms. Nabert goes on to say that Rodin’s Cathedral makes a powerful comparison: just as the great cathedrals of Europe were constructed to be splendid spatial reminders of God, so marriages are “constructed” by the effort of both spouses to be relational, human reminders of God.

When a man and woman come together in the sacred bond of marriage, it is so much more than a legal agreement to live together. It is the joining of two immortal persons who through their love for each other participate in God’s life-giving and creative power. When men and woman come together in matrimony, they create a dwelling place for God. Within the sanctity of their exclusive, unitive, and procreative bond, they offer an image, a sacramental icon, of the loving and  creative union of the Holy Trinity.

notre dame apseThis is how marriage can be seen truly as a work of art. There is so much more to marriage than daily domestic grind: it is actually a masterpiece in progress. The more the couple works together in love and self-giving, the more beautiful there union becomes as an icon of God’s love and as a dwelling place of His presence.

As one beautiful Nigerian mother put it in the video: “Marriage is your own project for the world.” Its beauty is not just for the couple, nor even for just the family; it is meant to be a splendid proclamation of the beauty of God for the whole world to see.

Your Life, Your Masterpiece

michelangelo_-_creation_of_adam-29p8ptcBut this is not exclusive to marriage: it applies to all vocations. Everyone, whether married, single, or clerical, is called to live a beautiful life of love, one that announces God to the world. Ms. Nabert summed it up aptly at the end of her interview: “All of us can be creators of masterpieces of goodness, beauty, and spirituality.”

Whatever your state in life may be, remember that you are called to make it into a masterpiece of God’s love, one sacrifice, one task, one ordinary day at a time.

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Getting Things Done…with God

Growing up Air Force:

I grew up in an Air Force family, so I always lived near or on a military air forcebase. My childhood took place underneath the roaring engines of F-16’s and the whirring propellers of C-130’s; my friends were officers’ children, and all of us were marked in one way or another by the military ethos of our parents.

Growing up, most of the men I knew were either engineers or pilots, all very driven individuals whom I admired a great deal (my father especially). I loved their discipline, dedication, resourcefulness, and efficiency. I loved going on base and watching the jets take off and seeing the airmen running here and there, fulfilling their respective missions. Even though I was just an “Air Force brat” (as we were humorously called by our parents), I liked to think that I was a part of the team; I always felt at-home on base and dreamed of one day being an officer like my father.

Even though God had different plans for me, I joined the seminary with a lot of the values that I picked up by osmosis in my childhood milieu.  Thanks to my military father and my dedicated mother, I had been brought up to be a man who took his job seriously and disciplined himself to get things done. “Make it happen!” my dad would tell me when he assigned a task: no excuses were accepted – just a job well done.

Learning to Work with God

Now that I look back, I am very grateful for the high standard that my parents held me to because it prepared me for the real world; but I am even more grateful for the faith they imbued me with. They gave me a solid human foundation upon which grace can act, and they gave me the faith needed to be open to grace in the first place. The challenge left to me was learning how to rely on God while not relying too much on myself and my own virtue.

One day, during my pastoral internship in New York, I learned a lesson that taught me that every time you put God first and your own productivity second, it pays off. It was a busy day for me; I was in Midtown Manhattan running around fulfilling different assignments that my boss (a very energetic priest) had assigned me. My errands took me to the Upper East Side which I got to via subway.

As I came up out of the stop at 68th and Lexington Ave, a thought came to me: “Why don’t you take a break to pray a little while at St. Vincent Ferrer’s?” St. Vincent’s is a gorgeous Neo-Gothic church68th (my favorite in the city actually), and on any other day I would have been very happy to stop in and pay Our Lord a visit, but this particular day, I had way too much going on. I had an appointment 10 blocks north of the subway stop, so I was not too keen on walking three blocks in the opposite direction.

But after thinking about it for a moment, I made a quick “what-the-heck” decision and went to pop into the church. As soon as I walked in, I was happy to be there. St. Vincent’s interior is beautifully decorated with exquisite wood carving and impressive Gothic stonework. The light that filters through the blue stain glassed windows fills the apse, sanctuary, and nave with a calming aura. As the doors closed behind me, the traffic noise became a distant buzz and I allowed myself to be engulfed by the peaceful ambiance of my favorite urban oasis. I knelt down before the Lord, placed my head in my hands, and put my problems and worries into His.

St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church
St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church

After some time of calming serenity, I took my leave and stepped outside. As I left, I remembered that I had been asked by the priest to call someone who lived outside of the city. Walking down the front steps of the church, I pulled out my phone and started looking for her number in my contacts list, but as I was doing so, I heard someone call my name.  I looked up, and, believe it or not, the very person whom I was about to call was walking towards me!

Now, just think about it for a moment. I was in the middle of a city with over 8,000,000 inhabitants, and I just happened to bump into someone who did not usually go to the city in the first place. On top of that, I bumped into her just as I was about to call her! If I had stayed inside the church just a little longer, I would have missed her completely, as would have happened if I had not visited the church at all. The chances of us meeting at that exact moment were infinitesimal.

With that providential coincidence, God taught me a valuable lesson: give Him priority, and He will get things done for you. I gave Him a little bit of my time, and He did not ignore the small sacrifice. He is never outdone in generosity, so He made things a little easier for me that afternoon by saving me a phone call.

Rich Dividends

Prayer is a reward in itself, but we should not be surprised when God chooses toimage reward us for it. The next time you pass by a church, take a moment to step inside and greet the Lord, no matter how busy you may be. Have no doubt: in one way or another, your small time investment will yield rich dividends!

Shepherding in Cassock

When I donned the cassock for the first time as a novice, it took me a while to get used to it. Believe it or not, going up and down stairs without tripping on the hem was a challenge at first, but, after some practice, I mastered the technique. It also took

Two confreres and I in cassock in Piazza Navona
Two confreres and I in cassock in Piazza Navona

a while to get used to being in a formal uniform almost all the time. The cassock is not supposed to be worn for outdoor physical activity, but on a few occasions, I have had to make exceptions, like the night of Pope Francis’s election when I ran full-speed in cassock to get a spot in St. Peter’s Square.

Not long ago, I found myself making another exception. Our seminary is located on the outskirts of Rome, where fields and open spaces are much more common than they are in the historic center. By Italian law, sheep are allowed to graze on any unused field, so the local flock frequently helps itself to the grass on the periphery of our property.

From time to time, I have come across the flock and spoken with the shepherd, who is a very nice broad-faced fellow. As his sheep graze, he likes to sit in the shade and talk on his cell phone, but he is always accompanied by a pack of Maremma Sheepdogs, Border Collies, and assorted mutts who bark at anyone who even thinks of getting close to the flock. He tells me that he tends about 600 sheep who are all doing well, grazie a Dio.

image

After lunch one day, I was walking down by the fields with a confrere when we suddenly heard bleating. We looked down and saw a lamb that was separated from the rest of the flock by at least 300 yards. The shepherd and dogs were nowhere to be seen  (quite unusual), so, being the kind-hearted seminarians that we are, we decided to guide the lost lamb back to the flock.

We did not want to pick up the lamb for fear of dirtying our cassocks (this turned out to be a very prudent decision, since the lamb let loose a couple of times), so we both positioned ourselves behind to guide him in the direction of the other sheep. The idea was to slowly move towards the flock, forcing the lamb ahead of us.

It turned out to be easier said than done. Every couple of yards, the lost lamb would do an about-face and run directly away from  flock, forcing us to re-position ourselves and try again. This went on for quite some time until we finally got the lamb close enough to a ewe that was not far from the edge of the flock.

Cane_Pastore_Abruzzese_Abruzzo
Maremma Sheepdog

Reflecting a little later on this event, it occurred to me that perhaps God was trying to teach me a lesson for my future ministry as a shepherd of souls. My experience with the lost lamb was similar to what Christ goes through with his own lost sheep. When we stray, he positions himself to gently guide us back, but often we stubbornly run in the opposite direction. He always respects our freedom; he never grabs us nor forces us to go the right way. But he doesn’t give up – he loves us too much for that. He stands by us, reminding us through our consciences that we are straying. If we return, his joy is more than we can imagine.

I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. – Luke 15:7

imageAs I was thinking this over in the little chapel by my room, I realized a very interesting coincidence: the Gospel passage during the community mass that morning had been  the parable of the Good Shepherd in Luke 15!

I took that as a sign that my experience of shepherding was not an accident…and that in the future, I will be doing more of it, albeit in a slightly different way.

Surfing with the Spirit: Two Lessons Learned on California’s Coast

Surf’s Up!

SurfingI have lived most of my life east of the Mississippi, but two of my best summers were spent on the West Coast, in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area. Naturally, no one can be so close to the coast without going to the beach, so during those summers I spent a lot of my down time enjoying the sun, sand, and surf – although I enjoyed the latter less than the former two. My first time at a California beach, I enthusiastically went clad in a wet suit and armed with a surfboard, quixotically thinking that I would be able to surf by the end of the day. Little did I know.

Surfers have developed a rich vocabulary for describing different nuances of their pastime, one of which is a noun-turned-verb: “to pearl”. I am not sure of its etymology, but I soon became all

"Pearling"
“Pearling”

too aware of its meaning.  “To pearl” is to lose one’s balance while on top of a wave in such a way that the front of the surfboard tips downward depositing the surfer and board into the trough below. As you can imagine, the higher the wave, the deeper the trough, the more painful the impact – especially with a 6-foot surfboard attached to your ankle. I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time “pearling” and ended my day with numerous bruises and a new appreciation for the power of the Pacific Ocean.

Letting Go

Thankfully, God uses even painful and humiliating circumstances to speak to us, and my failed effort to surf was no exception. What he was trying to say came clear to me as I read the following quote from Fr. Walter Ciszek:

By renouncing finally and completely all control of my life and my future destiny, I was…freed thereby from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul.

Fr. Ciszek was an American Jesuit priest who lived as a clandestine

Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. I highly suggest his books "With God in Russia" and "He Leadeth Me".
Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. I highly suggest his books “With God in Russia” and “He Leadeth Me”.

missionary in the Soviet Union from 1939 until 1963.  The challenges that he faced are enough for a whole other blog (hopefully to be written in the near future), but for now I will just say that the piece of wisdom written above came to him only after many years of incredible hardship and frustration that brought him to the brink of despair more than once. All he wanted to do was bring people closer to God, yet everywhere he turned, he was rebuffed. It was not until he realized that the success of his work was up to God, not him, that he finally found peace. When he finally let go, he found serenity and freedom.

So, what does this have to with surfing? The image that Fr. Ciszek uses of “floating serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence” seemed to me a pleasant alternative to my unsuccessful attempts to harness the Pacific tide on top of a surfboard. My time at the beach, I realized, would have been so much more peaceful and enjoyable if I had let go of the unrealistic dream of learning how to surf in a single day. Sure, if I had the time and money, I could have hired an instructor and learned how to surf, but that was beyond my possibilities. I should have simply let go and enjoyed what God had seen fit to give me: a beautiful day at the beach.

Letting God be God

I experienced the positive side of this lesson late in my last summer in California. Desiring a personal retreat day, I got into the car and drove down CA – 1 to Point Lobos State Reserve, a beautiful seaside park about an hour and a half south of the Bay Area. I spent the day hiking around the gorgeous coves that can be found there, admiring the abundance of marine wildlife. The reserve includes a massive kelp forest around which a diverse ecosystem flourishes. Besides a wide variety of sea birds, I saw a large number of sea mammals as well, including seals, porpoises, sea lions and sea otters.

I enjoyed watching the animals (especially the playful otters), sea_otter_raftbut I had been hoping to see whales more than anything else. I had seen orcas before at Sea World, but I really wanted to see the massive humpbacks that dwell along the West Coast. I got fixated on this desire and started thinking of ways to make it happen, even considering the possibility of spending money to go on an overpriced whale-watching boat. But as I was getting worked up trying to force things to happen, I remembered Fr. Ciszek’s quote about letting go and trusting in God’s providence. Why ruin my day worrying about something beyond my control? If God wanted me to see whales, He would arrange it!

So, I let go of that desire and I settled down to enjoy what was already more than enough: beautiful weather, beautiful animals, and a whole day to myself. Finding a nice ledge to sit on, I got out my binoculars to watch a large colony sea lions, which turned out to be quite entertaining. Male sea lions are very protective of their harems, so they are always looking around suspiciously, barking at and bumping into any male who gets too close. As I was enjoying the spectacle, and thanking God for the opportunity to enjoy His creation, when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Grabbing my binoculars, I scanned the horizon and, sure enough, I saw a big spout:A humpback whale is seen near the coast of Mazatlan a humpback whale! It got closer and closer until it was within 300 yards of where I was sitting, moving along with slow majesty. It turned out to be the first of a whole of pod, so I ended up getting a close look at 10 in total. Someone who was sitting nearby looked at me with amazement and said, “They never come in this close!”

So, I learned that if you stopped worrying and just let God be in control, He will take care of everything – even the small little things that make us happy. As it says in Psalm 37:

Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it.

Just Let God Love You!

We waste too much energy trying control the uncontrollable when all we have to do is relax and let God love us. The next time you feel yourself getting anxious and tense about something, say a prayer and leave the rest to God. Do what is within your sphere of influence, but then forget about everything else. You will be

Floating serenly
Floating serenely

surprised at how well things will turn out when you give God room to act! He really does all the work; all you have to do is  “float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul”. That’s how much He loves you.