Five Steps to Peace: Step 4 – Live Fully in the Present

c34df16eec044c5399f9d7e1aa3e7d95We all know that feeling: Sunday afternoon, the weekend is dwindling away, and only a few hours stand between you and work. The Friday-night relaxation that turned into Saturday-afternoon laziness has already faded into Sunday-evening ennui,  soon to become Monday-morning anxiety as you leave the happiness of weekend leisure to re-enter the unpleasantness of the work-week.

We all get that feeling every time something good is about to come to an end, be it the weekend, vacation, or the holiday season. It may be mollified when more enjoyable things are soon to come, but there will always be those moments when you realize that the good times won’t roll forever.

“Do not Worry about Tomorrow”

Even though we will always have to wake up to unpleasant realities (at least while on earth), the good news is that it doesn’t have to be so miserable when we do. The key is to stop worrying about the future and learn to live the present to the full.

463341065_52ab94963bWorry, depression, and anxiety do not come from God. Rather, they come from a disordered way of seeing things, that of thinking that we are the only ones in control.  If we were the only ones in control, then yes, we would have a good reason to be worried. But thankfully, that is not the case – God is the One who is really in charge.

Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?…Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil. – Matthew 6:26-27,34

“Do not worry about tomorrow.” These are words straight from the mouth of our Lord: do we truly believe them? How much time and energy do we waste either worrying about the future or re-hashing the past?  God has so many blessings that He wants to give us, but to receive them, we have to be where He is: in the present.

Waking up to Beauty

After an unusually cold and wet winter, it is finally spring in Rome. The sun is out, birds are chirping, lizards are sunbathing, and new life is all around. Not long ago, I was walking along the edge of the woods on our seminary grounds, engrossed in my own thoughts and problems, when I heard some commotion and high-pitched bleating coming from somewhere in the trees. Being someone who loves animals and nature, I thought about indulging my curiosity and investigating, but I decided against it telling myself that I had too much to do.

Our new seminary mascots!
Our new seminary mascots!

Later that day, a confrere who had walked by that same spot shortly afterwards told me that I had missed seeing a she-goat from the local flock who had just given birth to a kid. My friend had done what I was too distracted to do: he took the time to marvel at the beauty of God’s creatures and the miracle of new life.

This is what it means to live the present fully: instead of living in our heads with our thoughts and problems, we should live in the here and now, relishing the beauty that it has to offer. When we live in our heads, we isolate ourselves from the beauty that is all around us; but when we take the time to “smell the roses” and bask in the sunshine, we open ourselves to the shower of blessings that God is always pouring upon us.

Opening Ourselves to Infinite Blessings

There is no limit the blessings that God wants to give us, but we often hinder His generosity by being too distracted to receive it. His unlimited supply of gifts could be compared to having a generous and wealthy uncle who insists that you ask him for help whenever you need it. In fact, he does more than insist: he sets up an account for you and tells you continuously that it gives him great joy to share with you – all you have to do is make the withdrawal. How many of us would allow ourselves to be too distracted by our problems to avail ourselves of that generosity?

meadowIn the same way, but so much more, God wants to give to us and does give to us; all we have to do is open our eyes of faith and accept what he has to offer. God will take care of our future problems if we simply let go and focus on the ones at hand. Each day is bursting with blessings, but we have to live in the present to receive them.

Acts of trust in God’s blessings are essential to living in the present because there are always an infinity of “what-ifs” waiting to swarm our imaginations if we allow them. Most of these “what-ifs” are nothing more than energy-sapping variables that are simply beyond our control. To live in peace, we must learn to leave those variables in God’s hands and focus on the few that are within our limited spheres of influence, all of which can only be handled one at a time in the present.

prayer-at-work-300x208The next time you catch yourself getting wound up about everything that may go wrong, turn that moment of anxiety into an opportunity to open yourself to God’s blessings. Take a deep breath, make an act of trust in God (which can be as simple as saying, “Jesus, I trust in you”) and then, peacefully and calmly, return to the task at hand. You will be amazed at how much more smoothly your future will go if you leave it in God’s hands and live fully in the present.

Five Steps to Peace: Step 3 – Make the Best of Your Circumstances

1207-TR-WR02.01About seven miles off the western coast of Ireland, a lonely island looms out of the sea, the tip of a massive oceanic mountain. Fifty-four acres and 715 feet high, Skellig Michael is now home only to a colony of Northern Gannets, but there was a time when this remote outcropping hosted more than seabirds. For over 600 years, it was home to Irish monks seeking complete solitude and spiritual freedom.

Skellig Michael has always fascinated me. Even though the monastery has been unoccupied since the 13th century, just thinking of  those determined hermits continues to be an inspiration. I marvel at the desire for God that drove them to embrace such a life of radical separation from the world.

Living in a world that idolizes freedom, the idea of constricting oneself to a tiny islet can seem ludicrous, but I think that we can learn a very valuable lesson from those austere Celtic monks: peace and happiness do not depend on the circumstances in which we find ourselves but on the attitude with which we choose live those circumstances.

Flesh and Spirit

We humans are bi-dimensional beings of both flesh and spirit, and this bi-dimensionality touches every aspect of our existence. Because of our bodily dimension, we are always partially curbed by material circumstances such as time and space, but because of our spiritual dimension; we are never fully limited by these circumstances: we are always capable of transcending them and transforming them into conditions for spiritual growth.

We have two different types of freedom: one that is related to our materiality and the other to our spirituality. Material freedom is the absence of material constraints: it is freedom of movement, freedom of time, freedom from hunger, and freedom from anything else that can limit our bodily well-being. Spiritual freedom, on the other hand, is the absence of those things that can hinder our spiritual flourishing, in particular our lower passions and the vices that result from them.

Although both types of freedom are necessary for our integral well-being, spiritual freedom has the priority since it is necessary for achieving eternal life. Due to the superiority of spiritual freedom, it is worth sacrificing some material freedom in order to become more spiritually free.

Ancient hermitages on Skellig Michael
Ancient hermitages on Skellig Michael

This is why the monks of Skellig Michael limited their own material freedom so severely: the harsh discipline of their environment helped them build the virtues needed to be free from all that could lead away from God. Although they were physically confined to 54 acres, they were spiritually soaring, because they put the North Atlantic between themselves and anything that could distract them from God.Their material limitation was the condition for their spiritual success.

Although very few of us are called to such radical measures, all of us find ourselves in limiting circumstances; you could say that we all find ourselves on our own “skelligs”. Part of Christian life is accepting the hardships and difficulties of our lives as a necessary condition for achieving closeness to God:

If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. – Luke 9:23

In my own case, my “skellig” is the discipline of the priestly vocation: in order to grow in spiritual virtue, I have “confined” myself to live a life of poverty, obedience, and chastity. I have voluntarily accepted the horizontal limitations imposed by the these three evangelical counsels in order to be free from what could otherwise distract me from achieving the vertical freedom of spiritual growth.

Accepting your “Skellig”

Saguaro-NPS-cactus-flowers-6The key to finding peace is learning to love the “skellig” on which God has placed you and allowing yourself to flourish there. Some skelligs are smaller than others, but one thing you can be sure of is that the one on which you find yourself is perfect for you. God knows what you can handle, and he knows exactly what you need to grow in spiritual freedom.

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. – Viktor Frankl (Holocaust survivor)

Peace comes when we choose to take advantage of the good things at our disposal rather than longing for what is not. How ridiculous it would be if someone walked into a restaurant and, instead of sitting down and looking at the menu, chose to stand at the window and look at all of the other restaurants that he is missing. We would obviously call that person foolish!  But, unfortunately, many of us do the same thing in the way we live. Instead of settling down and seeing what is available to us already, we tend to waste time and energy yearning for something else.

No matter how constricting our personal circumstances may seem to be, they can only hinder our spiritual freedom if we allow them. Peace comes when we choose not to bang our heads against the wall trying to change things that will never change; it comes when we accept the life that God has given us and bloom where we are planted; it comes, when we choose to focus on how we can flourish rather than fixating on the deficiencies of our circumstances, which will always be plentiful.

freeman3Let’s take advantage of these last two weeks of Lent to calm our spirits and seek the peace and spiritual freedom that come when we content ourselves with what God has already given us, trusting that He will provide whatever else may be lacking.

Five Steps to Peace: Step 2 – Keep Your Eyes on Heaven

Boston MarathonA few years ago, I got it into my head that  I wanted to run a marathon. I started a training program and ran and ran for five months straight – long runs on the weekends and short runs during the week. When the big day came I was bursting with energy and practically biting at the bit to take on the 26.2-mile challenge. After so much training, I was in the best shape of my life.

I went to the starting line with the idea of sticking to a pace of 9 minutes per mile, but since I felt so great, I allowed my enthusiasm to get the better of me and I committed the most typical mistake of first-time marathoners: I started way too fast. I was knocking out 8-minute mile after 8-minute mile and things seemed just fine…until mile 18 when I hit the wall hard. My legs cramped, my vision blurred, and my head felt light. Eight-minute miles became 9 minutes and then 10 minutes and finally 11 minutes. I was hurting. The only thing that kept me going was thinking about the finish line. When I finally hobbled across and received my medal and a cold Gatorade, I felt like I was in Paradise.

Focusing on the Finish

If life is like a marathon, Heaven is the finish line. Life is tough and we will doubtlessly hit the wall numerous times during the course of our earthly existence, but if we keep our eyes on the goal, one day we will be able to say with St. Paul, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7)

To keep our eyes on Heaven, we need to constantly remind ourselves that we are pilgrims on a journey, and we have to keep in mind that goodness of our life on Earth is just a preview of  what is to come.

This is me hobbling to finish in mile 26. All that matters is that we make it!
This is me hobbling to the finish in mile 26. At least I made it!

This is easier said than done since it is so easy to get entirely caught up and engrossed in the here and now. When I was in that last stretch of the marathon, it was very hard to stay focused on the finish line because I was caught up in the suffering of my rebelling body. My whole world seemed to be comprised of cramps and sore feet, so it was all that I could do to keep my mind focused on the goal, which seemed so far away no matter how much closer I got.

The water breaks were what helped me stay focused. Every mile or so a table would appear on the horizon with smiling volunteers handing out cups of cold Gatorade. I would walk through those water stops, enjoying the cool drink and re-motivating myself to make it to the finish. If I had tried to push through those stops, I certainly would have collapsed. Each water break was a little taste of the finish that provided me with the mental energy that I needed to keep going.

Staying Heaven-Oriented

In life, breaks are essential. If we allow ourselves to be engulfed in the more unpleasant aspects of our earthly existence (work for instance) and if we just try to soldier onward without resting, we will eventually collapse, physically or emotionally or both.

It is crucial that we allow ourselves times to taste and savor the goodness that awaits us; we must allow ourselves the leisure to detach from the mundane activities that consume us and do things that are more heavenly. We need to be free to contemplate what is to come.

To be Heaven-oriented is to be beauty-oriented, so it isfinish-line indispensable that we take time to contemplate beauty. Beautiful music, beautiful art, beautiful cinematography, beautiful nature: all of the finer things of life are essential for helping us remember the finest things that are yet to come. Contemplatively walking through the woods, visiting an art exhibit, or listening to a symphony are all examples of things we can do to contemplate beauty and orient ourselves towards Heaven.

It is also very important to remember that leisure is not just about regaining energy in order to go back to work: rather, leisure is about re-focusing on our final destination, on what we were really made for. We should dedicate at least part of our evenings, weekends, and vacations to remind ourselves of the beauty to come. We should use these times to remember that we are spiritual beings en route to something incredibly awesome.

“Eye Has not Seen”

We cannot imagine the beauty of Heaven, but the beauty of this world foreshadows it. When we encounter beauty, like that of a gorgeous sunrise or a moving symphony, we are touched and our hearts are tugged; a desire for something more is aroused. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

We do not merely want to see beauty…We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty that we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.

The beauty of this world is but a faint reminder of what awaits us.

Eye has not seen and ear has not heard what God has in store for imagethose who love Him. (1 Cor 2:9)

When things get tough and stress accumulates, take a moment to disconnect and remember the beauty that is waiting for you. The more you take time to think of Heaven, the more you will find yourself at peace.

Five Steps to Peace: Step 1 – Trust Completely in God’s Providence

Busy-AirportOne of the longest days of my life was a 24-hour, two-layover journey from Rome to Salt Lake City. The worst part of the trip was the Paris-New York leg: thanks to the very thorough security at Charles De Gaulle Airport, I did not have time to eat breakfast, so by the time I made it to JFK Airport after a seven-hour flight, I was famished.

Letting Go of the Wheel

The food options were limited by my gate, so I ended up going to a place that I otherwise would have avoided: an overpriced grill blaring country music (nothing against country music). I did not have that much money to spare, but since I had no choice, I ordered an overpriced burger and overpriced fries and dug in, happy to relieve my hunger although worried about my wallet.

A surprise came when it was time to pay. I was informed that a couple had seen my clerical collar and had been kind enough to cover my bill; before leaving, they had even told the waitress that I could order dessert! Very grateful for the strangers’ generosity and relieved that my travel money would not be depleted, I sat back to enjoy the rest of the meal. At that very moment of relief, a song by Carrie Underwood came on the restaurant’s sound system: “Jesus Take the Wheel.” It occurred to me that when you do let Jesus take the wheel, he takes care of everything, even your wallet!

The first of the five steps to being at peace is trusting completely in God and just letting Him “take the wheel”. This step is really the most crucial: once we abandon ourselves completely to God’s loving Providence, everything else simply falls into place. It really is amazing how He provides when you let Him: He loves us so much that He not only takes care of our needs but will often give us extra gifts just to make us happy.

Child-like Trust

At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of then, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:1-4

Spiritual growth (which includes growth in peace) is the inverse of katie-in-the-air1physical growth. Humans begin their lives small and utterly dependent on their parents, but gradually they grow in size and strength and gain more and more autonomy until they are capable of being entirely independent. In the spiritual dimension, on the other hand, most of us begin very autonomous, thinking that any progress depends on our own efforts, but as we grow spiritually, we slowly begin to realize that in reality everything depends on God. We slowly diminish our autonomy as we become more and more dependent on Him; the more we trust in God, the more child-like we become.

At first glance, the thought of becoming child-like and dependent on anyone may strike us as very unattractive, but it should not. When our Lord tells us to become like children, He is not telling us to return to an immature, infantile state of being; rather, He is telling us to relate to God in the way in which we should relate to Him in the first place.

Being like a child in relation to God is far from enslaving or patronizing: it is liberating and exhilarating! The more we relate to God with child-like trust, the less we allow ourselves to be dominated by concerns and worries; the more dependent we become on our Father, the less dependent we become on ourselves and our limited capabilities.

Enjoy Not Being God

We really have only two choices: we can either go through life jesus-childconstantly tense and uptight as we frantically try to hold things together, or we can accept the fact that we are beloved children of an infinitely powerful Father. When we live according to the latter choice, the peace we experience is amazing! If human parents are willing to go to incredible extremes to care for their children, so much more will God, who loves us infinitely and possesses infinite power, take care of our every need. He leaves us with nothing to do but enjoy the ride!

We often worry ourselves ragged as if the whole world depended upon us, but as one of our seminary’s spiritual directors told us recently: “Just relax…and enjoy not being God!”

Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

Confide with Audacity

When it comes to trusting in God, we ought to do so with audacity, knowing that we are His beloved children; we are objects of His infinite love, and as such, we have every right to actually expect our Father to take care of us. We should put the pressure on Him, so to speak, by simply not worrying and leaving it to Him make things happen.

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. Walter Ciszek, S.J.

imagesThe next time that you find yourself worrying about something that you really want or need, try being audacious with your trust in God: if the situation allows, determine to leave it completely in God’s hands and “put the pressure” on Him to take care of it. I think that the results of this exercise of faith will amaze you! When you trust completely in God, He always acts.