Tag Archives: Providence

The Spiritual Value of Sleep

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,/ Chief nourisher in life’s feast. – Macbeth

We all know that sleep is a physical need, but I think that few  of us realize that sleep is just as much a spiritual necessity. When we sleep, we not only allow our bodies to regenerate, but we also allow our souls to rest. Sleep has spiritual value.

Scripture confirms the fact that God often does important things during sleep. For example, in Genesis 2, God made Eve after placing Adam into a deep sleep. In Genesis 15, God make’s his covenant with Abram while he is in a deep sleep. On numerous occasions, from Jacob to St. Joseph, God spoke through dreams to people in their sleep. The greatest work of God, the salvation of mankind, took place in and through the “sleep” of Christ upon the cross and in the tomb.

Jacob’s Dream, Jose de Ribera

Throughout Scripture and Western literature, sleep has been compared often to death, and when you stop to think about it, the similarity between the two is indeed striking. Every night, when we lie down to sleep, we become, in a way, dead to all that is around us. We lose consciousness and we give up our power to react immediately to whatever may happen. We also give up our ability to work and to make money, so perhaps this is why so many of us avoid sleep or consider it, at best, as a necessary inconvenience.

Sleep does not fit with the self-image that many of us have, especially those of us with Type-A personalities who yearn for success. We hate to be out-of-control, so we deprive ourselves  of sleep and strive to be like Tim Cook (CEO of Apple) or Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks) who apparently do just  fine with only 4 – 5 hours of sleep a night.

While there is in fact a very small portion of humanity (1 – 3% of the population) who actually can function on only four hours of sleep a night, the rest of us need to accept the reality that we need 7 – 9 hours a night, and this is not a bad thing. In fact, our need for sleep is an opportunity for spiritual growth. Here is what I mean.

When we allow ourselves the sleep that we need, we accept the fact that we cannot always be in control. This simple admission of truth is the pre-condition for a deeper spiritual act: ceding control to God and abandoning ourselves to His Divine Providence. We can turn the simple act of going to bed into a moment of trust by saying a repeating the prayer of Jesus Christ on the cross, before he entered the sleep of death: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) By doing this, we make our acceptance of the physical needs of our bodies coincide with an acceptance of our dependence upon God. The more we do this, the more we grow in trust, a virtue that is indispensable for growing in union with God.

When we trust in God, we give Him the freedom He needs to do great things in our lives. Just as He created Eve for Adam as he slept, so will He do great things for us when we accept our personal limitations and trust completely in Him. The fact is that sometimes the best way to accept your personal limitations and trust in God is simply to go to bed and get a good night’s sleep.

Try it out: the next time you are exhausted but feel the need to keep working, resist the temptation to be Superman. Put everything into God’s hands, sleep on it, and try again the next day. You will be surprised out how much more effective you will be.

“Charged with Grandeur”: the Universe and You

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out, like shining from shook foil. – Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

The Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo
The Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo

Shortly after arriving in Rome four years ago, I went to the Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, to attend the weekly address of Pope Benedict. I was just getting over my jet lag and feeling a little overwhelmed by the newness of living in a foreign country, so it was a welcome surprise to find myself waiting for the Pope next to a friendly American Jesuit. He introduced himself as Fr. David Brown and we began chatting; since it turned out that we knew people in common (it’s a small Catholic world) and had similar interests, we hit it off right away.

Visiting the Vatican Observatory 

Since then, Fr. Brown has come to be a great friend and mentor who is always more than willing to host me at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, where he is a resident astronomer. Like the fictional Chesterton character with whom he shares a name, Fr. Brown’s unassuming and kind demeanor hides an incredible intellect: not only is he a brilliant astrophysicist with a doctorate from Oxford, but he also speaks Spanish, Italian, and French fluently. I love visiting with him and benefiting not only from his vast intellectual knowledge, but also from his spiritual wisdom, which is no less extensive.

I have taken advantage of his invitations to visit the VaticanThe bright light of a solar flare on the left side of the sun is seen in this NASA handout image Observatory on a couple of occasions and I always leave very impressed. On one occasion, he took me up to one of their massive telescopes to look at the sun. After putting on the sun glass and focusing, he let me take a peak, and I was mesmerized by why I saw: despite the 93,000,000 miles of distance, I could see the surface of the sun, make out sun spots, and distinguish solar flares. It was incredibly beautiful.

Looking at the sun that day was more than a cool experience: for me, it was an epiphany. If the sun is so mesmerizingly beautiful, how much more must be the God who created it!

An Amazingly Calibrated Planet

We live in an incredibly fine-tuned universe. Everyday, we see the sun rise and we see it set, but seldom do we take the time to consider that if the sun were even slightly closer to us, or if it were even slightly larger, the Earth would be incapable of supporting life, and we wouldn’t exist.

In his book, Miracles, Eric Metaxas spends an entire chapter marveling at the very fact that our life-supporting planet even exists; when you think about it, it truly is a miracle! As he puts it,

Our existence is a statistical and scientific virtual impossibility. That may sound far-fetched, but it’s what the most advanced science now leads us to conclude: that the odds are stacked so dramatically against even a single planet in the universe possessing the proper environment to support life that the existence of this planet and life is an anomaly of an impossibly high order. 

downloadThe Earth is a complex and amazingly delicate reality. For our planet to be capable of life, there is a huge amount of conditions that have to be met, and each condition allows for only the most infinitesimal margin of error. If Earth were just slightly larger and had just slightly more gravity, toxic gases such as methane and ammonia would remain too close to the surface for life to be possible. If Earth were just slightly smaller, water vapor would dissipate leaving a virtually waterless planet. If it rotated just slightly slower, our nights would be too cold and our days would be too hot. If it rotated just a little more quickly, winds would reach insupportable velocities.

A Fine-Tuned Solar System

Additionally, there are a number of conditions that need to be met in our solar system for our fragile planet to be able to exist. For example, if it weren’t for massive Jupiter, Earth would be hit a thousand times more frequently by comets and comet debris. Thanks to the fact that our humongous neighbor has 318 times the mass of Earth and thus 318 times the gravity, many comets that come anywhere near us are absorbed into its gaseous depths; but in most cases, it simply deflects incoming debris away from our solar system.

We also owe a lot to the moon. Since it has just the right size and is409950main_image_1538_946-710_Moon_NASA just the right distance from the Earth, it stabilizes the Earth’s rotational axis at its current optimal angle, without which we would not have our seasons nor our relatively stable temperatures.

If the moon were just a little bigger, we would be dealing with hundred-foot tides, which would make coastal cities and maritime travel impossible. If it were slightly smaller, the tides would not be strong enough to cleanse coastal seawater and replenish its nutrients.

Marveling at the extremely fine calibration of our universe, we cannot help but be moved to worship its Creator.

Deum Creatorem venite adoremus! 

The Creator of the Universe and Your Father

hands-440But here’s an awesome thing to think about: all the attention that God put into creating the universe is no less than the attention that He put into creating you! Just as He perfectly planned every detail of the solar system and set it up just right, so has He planned out your life and guides you towards eternal happiness.

The reflections on our fine-tuned universe were taken from Eric Metaxas’ book Miracles, which I highly recommend as a faith-inspiring and wonderfully entertaining read.

God-Encounter 2: The Drug Dealer

85On Ash Wednesday in downtown New York City, everyone who is even remotely Catholic turns up to get his ashes.

For a time, I lived and helped out at a church near Times Square. The pastor was an enterprising little Asian priest who knew how to get things done, especially on Ash Wednesday. With his army of volunteers, he transformed the church basement into a prime location for getting ashes New York-style: in-and-out in five minutes. With equally New York-like mercantile savvy, he provided ash-getters plenty of opportunities to spend their money for a good cause by setting up an easily accessible religious book shop.

Our pastor’s keen business sense was complimented by an even keener awareness of the opportunity that Ash Wednesday provided for conversion and repentance. He had a special area set up for prayer in front of the Eucharist and he strategically placed priests in locations where they could be easily approached for advice or for confession.

Not being a priest, I was assigned ash duty with a confrere. I stationed myself with ashes, ready for a long day of reminding the People of God that “from dust they came and to dust they shall return.”

A Reluctant Ash-Getter

About midway through the morning, as my ash-covered thumb was635598855312440450-161626591 just beginning to ache, two guys got into line; the older of the two was probably in his late 40’s or early 50’s with a frank look and callous-covered hands, the type of burly New Yorker that you would find working hard at a construction site. Following behind him was a bling-adorned, younger man in his twenties who was making it loud and clear that he did not want to be in church. The older guy told him to shut-up and get his ashes.

I gave both of them ashes, giving the younger a smile and pat on the shoulder.

As the older guy went to buy a raffle ticket at the book shop, I noticed the younger one hanging close by me. Thinking that he may want to talk, I left my confrere to handle the line (which, thankfully, had died down) and went to chat.

An Unbelievable Story

Just a quick glance was enough to know that this was a street-hardened kid: his young face was worn with premature suffering, and deep black bags flanked his crooked nose. A diamond-studded cross hung on a gold chain against the background of an obscenely designed t-shirt, while an expensive leather jacket and sagging baggy pants convincingly completed his gangster-look. His eyes constantly wandered, shooting from place to another with suspicious unease.

I broke the ice with a light comment, and asked him where he was from. He responded that he was from Queens and told me that the only reason he was in church was because his friend forced him. Despite his tough-guy aura, I could tell that he wanted to talk, so I asked him more about himself. He slowly opened up and began to tell me his life story. What he had to say astonished me.

“My mom and dad were the streets,” was one of the first things he said about himself. His real father was doing life at Attica and his real mother was hopelessly addicted to crack.

He grew up in the projects, and, as a young boy, saw things no kid should ever have to see, the worst of which was the violent death of his brother whom he saw be executed by a rival gang. I will not go into the details that he shared with me, but you can only imagine the horror of such a traumatic event.

Deprived of his only real guardian and guide, he eventually joined a gang himself and started dealing drugs.

“I did what I had to do.  I needed the money.”

Attica State Prison

The police caught him, and he went to prison for five years. During this time, his only consolation was his wife who remained amazingly faithful to him, despite the fact that he had had a kid with another woman. Every month of his incarceration, she traveled a total of 12 hours on bus to visit him for one.

She waited five long years for him. When he finally got out, they had only a few weeks together before she was tragically killed by a drunk driver shortly before Christmas. She had just given her husband a present. He finally brought himself to open it three weeks later – it was a diamond-studded cross.

“What does it mean when the bullet jams?”

He looked at me with tears welling in his eyes and told me that he had been so devastated by his wife’s death that he tried to kill himself.

“What does it mean when you shoot yourself and the bullet jams?” he asked.

The response came automatically: “It means God didn’t want it to happen!”

As he shared with me his life of suffering, his distress became intense. I invited him to come with me upstairs to pray in the church. He accepted, and as we went up the stairs, he told me something that I had already noticed, “I can’t look people in the eyes.”

“You can look Christ in the eyes,” I responded, “He loves you more than you can imagine.”

For the first time in the entire conversation, our eyes met.

We ended up talking for well over an hour, and I could sense that thehugging-jesus Holy Spirit was at work. The young man began to settle down, his eyes averted mine less and less, and his expression became calmer. I encouraged him to keep coming back to church, to allow Christ to be a part of his life. He told me that he would.

The time came to say good-bye, and he said something that said a lot about how he had entered the church that morning and how he was leaving, “You might have just saved my life.”

Again, the reply came automatically, “I didn’t! God did.”

We live in a hurting world, so it is likely that we will have encounters like this with broken and suffering people. We must look at those people with the eyes of Christ and strive to allow Our Lord to work through us. Sometimes, all it takes is a smile or a pat to initiate a conversation that could change a life forever.

Five Steps to Peace: Step 5 – Stop Clinging

imageLast summer, I had the opportunity to spend some time with confreres who live near San Jose, California. When I told a businessman friend that I would be spending several weeks in Silicon Valley, he got very excited and insisted that I visit Google: “Those tech companies are changing the world! Be proactive and meet people there!”

Having learned the importance  of networking during my New York days, I took his advice and started thinking of ways to get in touch with someone at Google. However, as I worked on solving the problem, a quiet thought from the Holy Spirit snuck into the midst of my calculations and plans: “You know what, why don’t you just let me handle this one?”

My instant reaction was a “clinging” one: “What! If I am going to make this happen, I need to be proactive. I can’t just assume that it will happen on its own.” But the thought kept coming back: “Just let go and trust in me.”

So that’s what I did. I let go and I left it in God’s hands.

The next day, while at lunch with my community, one of my confreres mentioned casually, “Hey, a new friend of mine at Google just invited me for a tour. Want to join me?”

Letting Go of Amateur Personal Plans

In my own life, I have noticed whenever I start getting tense and worried, without fail, it is because I am clinging onto something.

Exams are a perfect example. Here in Rome, the university exam system is different from  that in the States. Instead of packing all of the exams into a one or two-week period, they are spread out over the course of a month, thus allowing the students several days to prepare for each one. This system has its advantages and disadvantages: although it allows us more time to study, it lengthens the agony!

Studying during

Since my arrival here, I have absolutely dreaded the exam months of February and June, the worst being the June of 2011 when I was finishing my master’s degree in philosophy. I don’t think that I had ever been so stressed as I pored over books and waited in agony for the final hour-long oral exam.

Thankfully, since then, I have learned the importance of letting go. I gradually realized that the stress that accumulated during exams was entirely self-imposed and unnecessary: it resulted from an inordinate attachment to my grades. I had created in my mind a complicated personal plan that included good grades as a sine qua non. In my mind, this personal plan, upon which all of my future depended, would come crashing down if I were to finish exams with mediocre grades.

Although exams are still far from being my favorite time of the year, it has become clear to me that I can do them with greater peace. I have learned to not cling onto the idea of getting good grades and to let go of my personal plans. Letting go has made me leave everything to God, trusting that even if I do get bad grades, he has a plan that is much better than my own.

Letting the Expert Take Over

Grasping our own plans and projects is like trying to build a house on our own with neither experience nor expertise. If we were to go through life insisting that we know best and neglecting to let God arrange things, we would be like a foolish do-it-yourselfer who insists on designing his own home, even though an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright has offered to assist him free of charge.

God has something that we lack: infinite knowledge. From all of eternity, he has known each of us thoroughly; he has known everything that can happen to us and everything that will happen.

My very self you knew; My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in secret…Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them. – Psalm 139:15-16

Living in a Grasping World

imageWe live in a world that encourages us to grasp and cling. Our celebrity-infatuated, materialistic society says that we are only worthy of notice if we meet its standards:  unless we are CEO-successful or model-good-looking, we don’t make the cut. We weary ourselves by clinging and grasping to these unrealistic expectations.

Life is so much more beautiful and peaceful when we free ourselves from the ruthless and superficial standards of the world and allow ourselves to be enveloped by the unconditional love of God our Father. There is nothing more frustrating than clinging to things that are beyond our control; there is nothing more liberating than leaving everything to God.

Letting Go as Christ Did

20140418-113223.jpgIt is providential that this post coincides with Holy Week. In his passion and death, Jesus Christ gave us the ultimate example of letting go. As Paul tells:

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-7

Our Lord did not allow  himself  to be swayed in the least by worldly messianic expectations: from the temptations in the desert to his arrival in Jerusalem, he rejected all opportunities to grasp for power and prestige. He allowed himself to be humbled and humiliated to the extreme, as Isaiah prophesied:

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. – Isaiah 53:3

Yet Christ’s humiliation and complete detachment from self were the very conditions for His glorification:

Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. – Isaiah 52:13

Christ, by not limiting himself to human standards, opened himself to God’s Plan, which20140418-112248.jpg infinitely exceeded all expectations in the Resurrection. In the same way, if we let go of our human plans and projects, and allow God free rein, what he does with our lives will far surpass our wildest dreams.

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.

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!

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


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.