Category Archives: Communion of Saints

“Pray, Which Leg Comes After Which?”

A centipede was happy quite
Until a frog in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised her mind to such a pitch,
She lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.

When I was a child, my mother gave me a A Child’s Book of Poems.  I still have it and use it occasionally with my own children. The poem quoted above puzzled me for a very long time. In fact, it wasn’t until I was much older that I resolved my confusion.

I could not figure out why the frog wanted the centipede to talk to God about her legs. It almost seemed that the frog expected the poor bug to ask God in which order she should lose her legs as she was being eaten. What a strange poem. I didn’t get it.

It was the word “pray” that threw me off. I only understood the word in the modern sense. I had not yet read any Shakespeare or Old English and “pray” could only mean “talk to God” or “worship God” in my mind. The day I realized that “pray” could also mean “I ask you,” it all fell into place. The frog was teasing the centipede by asking her to explain how she walked with so many legs. “I ask you, when you walk, which leg comes after which?” Aha!

I had a similar epiphany during my reversion from Protestantism back to Catholicism. I had been told by well-meaning Protestants for over 20 years that it was wrong to pray to Mary and the saints because it was idolatrous to worship them. When I finally remembered that “pray” can also mean “I ask you,” it all fell into place. Asking a saint for intercession is not the same as worship. Not even close. If asking someone to pray for me was worship, then why ask my friends, my family, my pastor or anyone else to pray for me? Shouldn’t I go “straight to God” with everything?

Actually, it’s even possible to ask God something without worshiping him. An atheist could ask God, “If you really do exist, would you please give me a sign?” but that would not be the same as worshiping God. “Prayer” and “worship” are not synonyms.

“But, the saints are dead people,” I was told. “They can’t hear you or respond to you. How could they hear all the prayers of everyone? They would have to be divine!” No, they would not have to be divine, but they would need divine assistance. With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible. The saints are certainly “with God!” In fact, except for Jesus, the saints are the most perfect part of the Body of Christ.

Physical death does not amputate people from the Body of Christ. They become more perfect than you or I. They are perfectly righteous. “The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:16) Why would I not want to ask Mary and the saints to pray for me!? (I need all the help I can get!)

Jesus is the “one mediator between God and man,” but, as part of his body, we get to share in that one mediation by praying for each other, sacrificing for each other and loving each other. This doesn’t change when we die and go to Heaven. It only gets better. Through him, with him and in him we live and move and have our being.

Now I see the beauty of praying to the saints. I ask them for their prayers. Together, we go straight to God with our requests. Together, we worship God. Best prayer partners I ever had.

Pray, will you not also pray to the saints?

 

Incidentally, while the A Centipede poem confused me, the W poem on the same page immediately became one of my favorites:

The king sent for his wise men all
To find a rhyme for W.
When they had thought a good long time
But could not think of a single rhyme,
“I’m sorry,” said he, “to trouble you.”

–James Reeves

The Little Flower Strikes Again

A few years ago I discovered St. Thérèse de Lisieux (The Little Flower) through her book Story of a Soul.  I fell in love with her “little way” and her desire for the vocation of love.  Since then, I notice her showing up in my life in various ways.  Sometimes, it’s very subtle, like noticing a small flower in the grass.  Other times, it’s more obvious that she has been an influence in my life, even before I knew who she was.

I haven’t piloted an aircraft for several years.  When I was actively flying, I did have some close calls.  Suffice it to say that some of those incidents could have had disastrous consequences.  I refuse to call it luck.  I was being watched over.  I sensed it.  Naturally, I thanked God for protecting me (and whoever else was involved).  Only more recently have I had the awareness that, through God, others were also pulling for me.

There were loved ones on Earth and in Heaven who were praying for me.  The book of Hebrews tells of the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us.  The saints that have gone before us reside within the heart and mind of God and intercede for us through the singular mediation of Jesus Christ.  I was being prayed for.  The family of God, the Communion of Saints, was praying for me through Jesus.  Today, one of those prayer warriors was revealed to me.

I was briefly skimming through a book about saints before taking it downstairs to put on the shelf.  I just happened to open it up to the page that lists the patron saints of various professions.  I wasn’t even looking for anything in particular.  If I would have been looking, I would have looked alphabetically under “Pilots.”  Instead, my eyes just happened to fall upon the words “Air Crews.”  One of the patron saints of air crews listed there was Thérèse de Lisieux.  Thank you, Little Flower.

 

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Just One Of The Guys

Recently, my wife and I were invited to an information meeting for those who may have a calling to be permanent deacons.  People at church have been suggesting to me for some time that I may have this calling.  This is something that will require a good bit of discernment over time.  I don’t know if I have the call to be a deacon or not.  What I do know for sure is that I am called to be a follower of Jesus, no matter what.

I had a good conversation with a deacon who shared some of his thoughts about his vocation.  It struck me when he said, “Since being ordained, I’m no longer one of the guys.”  People treat him differently now.  For example, men who ordinarily might share an off color joke or make some unseemly remark speak more cautiously around him.  I suppose this is a good thing insofar as it shows some reverence for his ordained status and his representation of Christ and the Church.  It may also reveal their guilty consciences and highlight their need to conform their minds to Christ.  Or, maybe they are simply being “courteous” by trying not to offend the deacon as a person.

In any case, it occurred to me that we are all called to serve Christ.  We are all told to be living sacrifices and to let our minds be conformed to Christ.  Ordination may set certain men apart for specific purposes in the Church, but it does not make them “more called” to serve Christ than the layman.  Therefore, it seems to me that a deacon should always be “one of the guys” because “the guys” need to be striving for holiness as much as any deacon, priest, bishop or pope.  There is nothing that says a Christian man is exempt from living a holy life unless he gets ordained.

There is also a perception that, if a man has a keen interest in “spiritual matters,” or he possesses certain gifts, he must be called to some ordained status.  Maybe, maybe not.  All men and women are called to have a keen interest in following Jesus Christ.  Devoting one’s entire life to Christ is not reserved for priests, deacons and nuns.  It is for all of us.

Adding to a perceived “spiritual gap” between clergy and laity is the notion that canonized saints are something other than ordinary human beings.  We see their pictures and hear their stories and we believe they are not us.  The irony is that the very reason we are supposed to be mindful of the saints and in touch with the saints is that we are supposed to emulate the saints.  They are not there to show us a lofty ideal we can never reach.  They are there to show us and to tell us, “If we can do it, you can do it!”  The saints are not “the exception” they are “the goal.”  They show us what we as Christians are expected to be.  That is why there are so many saints from all walks of life.  They are us!  They are cheering us on!

It seems to me that if a deacon is living a holy life, and is surrounded by men who are striving for the goal of sainthood, he will feel like he is “one of the guys.”  Maybe God is calling me to be a deacon.  I don’t know yet.  He has already called me to be a Christian man, a husband and a father.  He has called me to follow him, no matter what.  I want to be “one of the guys” for Jesus, ordained or not.

Going Directly To God

Catholic prayers, liturgies and Sacraments begin and end with the sign of the cross and the words, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen (so be it).”  We do not simply tack these words on for dramatic effect.  They indicate that we live and move and have our being in the Holy Trinity.

The claim that Catholic Christians somehow circumvent Jesus or do not go “directly to God” is a myth spread by ignorance of Catholicism and sometimes overt, anti-Catholic sentiments.  Even when we ask Mary and the saints for intersession, we are only able to do so through the one mediator, Jesus Christ.  We (including the saints in Heaven) boldly approach the throne of the Almighty Father through the mediation of the Son and by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Mary: More Than A Part In A Christmas Play

I know why it bothers people when Catholics make such a big deal about Mary.  It used to bother me, too, even as I was being raised Catholic.  God sent Jesus to take away our sins.  Case closed.  Why bother with anything else?  So, Mary got picked out of billions of women to be the mother of Jesus.  That’s why all generations are supposed to call her blessed, right?  It’s like winning the lottery or something.  “Wow, you’re so blessed to be chosen!”  That was the end of it.  Turns out that’s just part of the reason.  There’s a lot more to Mary than a part in a Christmas play.

There are a lot of theological and scriptural implications about Mary that I simply did not know about.  Learning those “technical” aspects of Marian doctrine really opened my eyes.  Becoming a parent changed my outlook as well.  I can only imagine being a mother, but being a father was enough to give me a greater appreciation for Mary’s role as a loving, sacrificial, devoted, holy parent.

Being a husband also contributed to my appreciation of Mary.  One learns much about a spouse by getting to know one’s in-laws.  Becoming part of a new family is life changing.  As the saying goes, “You don’t just marry your spouse; you also marry your spouse’s family.”  Knowing your spouse’s family contributes to knowing your spouse.  It just makes sense that knowing the mother of Jesus would help a person know and love Jesus better.  That’s how families generally work.  No one lives in a vacuum.  We all impact each other’s lives.  The Church is a family, after all.

I understand my Protestant friends’ fear of idolatry, and I greatly respect it.  I used to share it.  The focus has to be on Jesus.  I agree.  It took me a long time to grasp the concept that devotion to Mary does not take anything away from Jesus.  Indeed, Mary is the perfect model of complete devotion to Jesus.  There is no other reason to acknowledge Mary except for the fact that she points us to her Son in all that she says and does.  She is everything a disciple of Christ is supposed to be.  She accepted Christ into her heart (and her body, thus becoming the Ark of the New Covenant) from before his birth until after his death and resurrection.  She never left him.  Her whole being is wrapped up in her love for Jesus.  She is “full of grace.”  She is what we are supposed to be.  Her focus is always on her Son, Jesus.

Christians are supposed to love Jesus and follow Jesus.  No human being ever loved Jesus more or followed Jesus better than Mary.  That’s why Catholics have a devotion to her.  It’s not because we think she can do something that Jesus can’t do.  It’s not because we think she is equal to Jesus.  It’s because we want to be as close to Jesus as possible, and she shows us how it is done.  Can we be close to Jesus without getting to know Mary?  Sure, but not as close.  Mary is Jesus’ own flesh and blood.  You can’t help but draw closer to Jesus by getting closer to Mary.  It’s not an act of idolatry to talk to Mary.  It’s not adding something “extra” to a relationship with Jesus.  It’s being part of Jesus’ family.  It’s about learning to know and love Jesus within the context of a family.

Incidentally, I have a great app on my phone that explains a lot about the Catholic perspective of Mary.  If you have even the slightest interest in learning more about Mary, check it out.  It is very comprehensive and easy to read.

I Can’t Open My Eyes…Yet.

Imagine going on a spelunking trip with some friends.  Deep inside the cave is pure darkness.  There is a confusing maze of passages and deep holes to fall into.  Your flashlight is your life.  Suddenly, you feel the floor and the walls of the cave tremble.  Rocks begin crashing against rocks and you realize there has been a cave-in.  As your group regains composure it becomes evident that leaving the way you came is not an option.  The search for an exit begins.

As time goes by, batteries begin to fail.  Lights become dim.  Anxiety grows.  You feel there must be an exit nearby, but the lights go out before it is found.  Trapped in complete darkness, you can only wait for rescue.  Your deepest desire is to leave the darkness and embrace the light.

After days of increasing desperation, you hear the sounds of rescuers.  The ceiling of the cave suddenly opens.  It is midday.  The sun is high and its rays pierce the darkness as it streams through the new hole in the cave.  You immediately cover your eyes in anguish.  You are distracted from the joy of being rescued by the pain inflicted by the light.  The light you so desired is now too much to behold.  It is impossible to fully embrace your freedom until you are able to accommodate the light.  There must be a period of adjustment.  You must become completely detached from the darkness before your eyes can fully see without pain.

This is why Catholics pray for those in Purgatory.  We recognize that they must endure the painful process of complete detachment from this life of sin before they can fully embrace the light of Christ.  Although they are on their way to Heaven, they must be fully adjusted to the Light before entering.  The Rescuer has reached them.  They are open to God and on their way to the Beatific Vision.  They desire to be with God, but they must be prepared and perfected beyond what they were in this life.  We pray for them during this painful state of transition, just as we would pray for someone suffering in this earthly life.

This explains why those in Purgatory are called “The Church Suffering.”  We in this life are called “The Church Militant” because we are still here fighting the good fight.  Those already in Heaven are called “The Church Triumphant” for obvious reasons.  These are three parts of one Church.  The Church is one Body, no matter where it is located.  We in the Church are told to pray with and for one another.  So, we pray for the suffering in this life.  We also pray for those who suffer the process of purging.  They are our brothers and sisters in the Lord.  We support them.

What Friends We Have!

“What a friend we have in Jesus…”  In John chapter 15 Jesus tells his Disciples that he does not consider them servants but friends.  Afterwards, he commands them to love one another.  The love and friendship of God is both vertical and horizontal, like the cross.  This is why Jesus can say, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do it to me.”  So, while a relationship with Jesus is obviously paramount, it in no way excludes the importance of other relationships.  On the contrary, a relationship with Jesus must include relationships with others.  Such is the nature of the Church, the “family of God.”  Being a Christian is never only about “Jesus and me.”  Whether we sin or behave righteously, it affects others.  We are one Body.  We are to be friends with Jesus and with each other.

Who among us would hesitate to confide in good friends when life is difficult?  Would we think twice about asking friends to pray for us?  People commonly post prayer requests on Facebook to “friends” they hardly know.  It can be even more consoling when we know that a close friend or a holy person is praying for us.  A close friend knows us well and can empathize.  A holy person’s prayers are very helpful, according to Scripture.  When the person praying for us is both a close friend and a holy person, it is a powerful combination.

Enter the Saints.  They are ready and willing to pray for us.  They are as holy as can be, and, through Jesus, they know us well.  They are family.  The fact that they have departed from this life does not exclude them from the family of God, it seals their place in the family.  Their love for humanity has been perfected.  They are not dead but are more alive in Christ than we are.  They are not aloof or disinterested in our present lives.  Nor are they secluded in some heavenly, sound-proof chamber that prevents them from knowing our plight.  They know our plight, have endured it, and have been victorious through Jesus Christ.  They are in Christ, not compartmentalized from him somewhere.  Hence, they know us because Jesus knows us.  The Saints are friends of God and they perfectly obey the command, “Love one another.”  They love Jesus and they love us.

To believe that praying to the Saints is idolatry is like saying that asking your friends to pray for you is idolatry.  To “pray” is simply to “ask,” as in, “Pray tell us, how will they fare while you are away?”  Just because it is an old use of the word “pray” does not mean it is “idol worship.”  We ask (pray) the Saints to pray for us because they are righteous, because they are part of the Body of Christ and because we are commanded in Scripture to pray for one another and to love one another.  Nowhere does the Scripture teach us to stop loving and praying with those who are in Heaven.  Scripture does tell us it is wrong to participate in the occult practice of conjuring up spirits.  Catholicism is not a big séance.  The Church does not condone superstition.  We do not ask Saint So-and-so to ring bells or make knocking sounds to communicate with us.  We simply request their prayer intercession.

We can “know” many Saints and relate to them by virtue of the lives they lived and the writings they may have left behind.  We can know of their struggles, their weaknesses, their strengths and their victories.  There are Saints from all walks of life and of all ages.  Whoever you are, there is a Saint that you can identify with on a personal level.  Obviously, Jesus knows what we go through.  Because he knows us, he has also provided other friends for our journey.  These are friends who have run the race, fought the good fight and won the victory by God’s grace.  They have much to teach us.

I encourage you to find a Saint whose life you can relate to on a personal level.  While it is inspiring to reflect upon the Saints as great heroes of the Faith, it can be even more helpful to learn how God helped them with their human vulnerabilities and weaknesses.  Jesus wants us to know that his command to “be perfect” is not out of reach.  Saints are not the exception.  Saints are the standard we are called to.  We are all called to be Saints.  Being more personally acquainted with one who has endured familiar struggles and “made it” is a tremendous spiritual help.  That’s what friends are for; to help each other be Saints.  If you haven’t done so already, become personally acquainted with a Saint or two.

As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens the countenance of a friend. (Proverbs 27:17)