Posted by: liturgicalyear | February 17, 2015

Preparing for Lent

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday; and each year at this time, the ways I’ve slipped in my faith life and daily practice as well as challenges in my family always seem heightened. Through that I see God’s providence. The season of Lent always arrives at a critical time.

I don’t know how you prepare yourself for Lent, but I often reach much further than I can achieve. Behind that overreach is a sincere desire, and within each of these strivings is the instinct for holy striving because, ultimately, the only fulfillment of our baptismal promise is sainthood. The corollary is likewise true: in our failures to achieve our self-defined goals toward holy striving, we realize even greater humility. This can make Lent a see-saw experience: going up in holy striving and crashing down in human humility. No doubt we learn something valuable in both the ascent and descent.

The Hallmarks of Lenten Practice with Practical Application

The three hallmarks of Lenten practice: prayer, fasting and almsgiving point us to the three categories on which we need to reflect to live out our Lenten strivings.


We need to take on renewed commitment to prayerful devotion. Make your goals specific such as, I will pray the Rosary each day. If you already do that, add the Divine Chaplet at 3 PM. Consider the noon-day Angelus. Begin your day with a Daily Offering prayer. End your day with an Act of Contrition.

If these basic Catholic prayers are already built into your habits, consider adding the Rosary of the Holy Wounds or the Chaplet of the Holy Wounds.

Try to attend Daily Mass; and, if this is not possible, pray with the Mass readings each day and read about the saint of the day. You can find these online and in phone apps, and you can get a booklet each month to help you pray with the daily liturgy of the Church through Magnificat publications. The Church has established the rhythm of how to live lives of holy striving through countless prayer practices, spiritual readings, and devotions, but all of these begin in the rhythm of the daily Mass devotions.

Read this section of the Catechism on the role of prayer in a Christian’s life.


The call to fast during Lent is modeled after Jesus 40 days of fasting in the desert following his baptism and directly preceding the beginning of his visible ministry. The principle behind fasting involves curbing our worldly appetites so that we can shed the distractions that keep us from focus on the divine in our lives. At the most basic level, the call to sacrifice foods is about disciplining self-control which is the nexus for all the virtues.

On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we are to fast not only from meat but also from our three meals and snacking. We are to eat only one full meal; and, if we eat anything at the two other meal times, these two smaller meals combined cannot equal one full meal. There is no snacking on Ash Wednesday, but there are no limits to liquid intake. Of course, those who should not fast include children, the elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers, and any others for whom fasting would harm their health. For the rest of us, the fast on these days, teach us that we can shed even that which we think we “need” to help us focus more inward to the spirit and to remind us of Christ’s sacrifices. We also learn solidarity with the poor.

Throughout Lent, one must abstain on Fridays from meat and meat products. Of course, this does not mean one should spend a fortune on expensive fish delicacies on Friday. The principle to follow is sacrifice from that which fills us up. A humble, simple meal on Fridays is essential.


Alms are material gifts that help the poor. We also know that we give by our time and talents as well as by our money and material goods. The principle here again is sacrifice: We are to sacrifice something of ours to help others in need. This helps us train our attention beyond our own needs and to focus on the needs of others.

Through our prayers, fasting and almsgiving practices we are to attune ourselves to the divine and to all the holy people God has placed in our lives. We are to dig deep in order to reach beyond — to sacrifice in order to depend more on God and to build up the Kingdom in the lives we can touch.


At the heart of preparing for Lent lies Confession, and Confession should frame your Lent. Try to go the first week of Lent, and go again before Easter. Shedding your sins is the precondition to living a holy Lent. And, as you move through Lent, you will uncover more and more of your sins. By the time you get to Easter, you will glimpse more fully the Grace to which our journey of repentance leads us.

May you grow in Grace during your Lenten journey. Strive for holiness in your Lenten practice, and know that God honors our holy strivings. Know also that you will fail; remain steadfast in your efforts, and do not despair when you fall. Cling to our Lord in your ascents and in your descents, and know that the see-saw nature of Lent blesses you in your strivings and in your falls.


Posted by: liturgicalyear | August 25, 2014

The Inner Work of Divine Strengthening

i can do all things through christ icon

We all know that the journey of Christian living involves suffering. We know that God allows some suffering and that he saves us from others. We know His angels protect us. Yet, other than miracles, how does God strengthen us? Reflecting on this is essential to understanding some of the ways God answers our prayers.

This selection from yesterday’s  Psalm reading popped out at me:

When I called, you answered me;

you built up strength within me. (Psalm 138:2-3)

We know that God is all-powerful. He defeats demons. He sets trees on fire without burning them to ash. He lets three children go into a fiery furnace and remain unharmed.  He parts the waters. He defeats enemies. He gives sight to the blind. He heals the sick. He restores life to the dead. These miracles are the stories of our faith. And the miracles are re-lived daily in our world and in our lives.

However, my experience is that God follows his own advice, as in when Jesus tells us to go into the quiet of our room or closet to pray to God, so as not to be prideful by showing off before others. How many miracles does God perform quietly? I think of the late night when I pulled onto a highway and did not see the semi-truck barreling down next to me, when I felt my entire car pulled to the right to safety. Or how many times did I notice after the fact — hey, that was my prayer answered! Miracles are ongoing.

But my experience leads me to believe that most of the work God does to build up His kingdom lies within us, the work he does inside of us to “build up strength within.” When we experience deep grieving, we have to stretch within to absorb the pain so as not to cry without end. As we take in those pains, the grief feels like it literally stretches our insides. We grow bigger within, stronger, more flexible, more able to hold the burdens we carry.

How many times have we suffered broken hearts from those we love. When we’re young, we suffer unrequited love and breakups. In marriage, we suffer slights, we learn to adjust, and our children are bound to break our hearts as they learn to manage their own free wills.

I think of when bones break. Doctors tell us that, in healthy people, the bones heal stronger than they were originally. Our hearts do the same. It’s as though our tears fill those cracks that form, and God transforms these into a mortar to restore wholeness. We can all point to moments of despair when we feel weighted and broken. And we can all point to experiences when we felt healed and when we felt lighter as Christ carries our burdens.

Ultimately, the Eucharist is our infusion treatment. As we take in the Precious Body and Blood, we are transformed, built up from within. This is the sustaining Grace that heals our brokenness and patches us up as we continue our Earthly journey. The more Christ strengthens us with his saving life within, the stronger we become in learning to love like Him. In the process, we become healed of the scars of sin and restored to a wholeness that reflects the divine image. It’s the work of a lifetime, which will most likely continue through Purgatory until we are healed, whole and ready to meet our Lord face-to-face in our heavenly home.

In today’s Mass reading, Saint Paul affirms that the suffering we endure helps us find our way home to heaven:

Accordingly, we ourselves boast of you in the churches of God

regarding your endurance and faith in all your persecutions

and the afflictions you endure.

This is evidence of the just judgment of God,

so that you may be considered worthy of the Kingdom of God

for which you are suffering. (2 Thessalonians 1:4-5)

Consider this song by Steven Curtis Chapman: His Strength is Perfect.



Posted by: liturgicalyear | August 17, 2014

Healing Demons

Christ and the Canaanite Woman - c.1784 Germain-Jean Drouais

Today’s Gospel (Matthew 15: 21-28) is so clear on Jesus’ power over demons. The mother of a girl possessed of demons appeals to Jesus to heal her. She approaches with utter confidence, even though she is not a Jew. Jesus first reminds her that he’s here to save “the lost sheep of Israel,” but her response enables a shift in Jesus: “but even the dogs eat the scraps from the table.” She likens her family to the dogs who live on the margins of the chosen family, the Israelites. Jesus heals her daughter within the hour.

What are the demons in our lives that need healing? I also have a daughter who needs healing; and, while I know Jesus holds her in his arms, the healing is less visible. I say less visible rather than not happening yet because I trust in Jesus, and I know that most healings take place beyond what we can see. I can’t know fully the work He is doing in her life. But I have to trust in that ongoing work.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains clearly the source of demons in the fallen angels who chose to follow Lucifer, the great rebeller against God. The fall of these angels created spiritual warfare. Yet, while this battle rages on, the Catechism clarifies the limits of Satan’s power:

The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God’s reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries – of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature- to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but “we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.” (395)

The message here is clear: Satan has limited power, but his demons can cause serious injuries to people’s spiritual nature and physical health. This mystery is a part of the story of human history here on earth, one that requires our constant prayer vigilance.  

In addition, the Fall of Adam and Eve led initially to our death; but, after Christ’s saving work, we still retain the tendency toward concupiscence. This is the tendency to favor lower order goods rather than higher order goods. The lower order goods are often the immediate satiation of our vices — indulging in anger, overeating, being wasteful, giving up. The higher order goods require self-control, sacrifice — keeping an eye toward heaven, obeying God’s commandments.

So we have this dual battle at all times: the battle within us caused by concupiscence and the spiritual battle that rages around us. We need faith like the woman who likened herself and her daughter to the dogs worthy of the scraps shared by the chosen. And we need to call on our guardian angels to fight the good fight and keep us from temptation and harm. Speak to the angels out loud, or even quietly, for angels cannot read our thoughts in the same way as God.

Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits with care, ever this day (or night) be at our side to light to guard to rule to guide.

Also call on St. Michael the Archangel who leads the battle against the demons:

St. Michael the Archangel,

defend us in battle.

Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.

May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,

and do thou,

O Prince of the heavenly hosts,

by the power of God,

thrust into hell Satan,

and all the evil spirits,

who prowl about the world

seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.


Posted by: liturgicalyear | August 4, 2014

Trusting and Doubting with Peter on the Sea of Life

icon peter walking on water

Today’s Gospel remains that one kernel of the Gospel that stays with me through most every day. After feeding the 5,000, Jesus had sent the crowds home and his disciples set off in a boat while he went to the hills to pray. A storm came upon the disciples, and Jesus walked over water to shore them up in the faith before calming the storm. Peter, bold and faltering as ever, says he will walk to Jesus across the water if Jesus supports him. The Gospel proceeds:

Then Peter got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus across the water, but then noticing the wind, he took fright and began to sink. ‘Lord,’ he cried, ‘save me!’ Jesus put out his hand at once and held him. ‘You have so little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’ (Matthew 13:22-36)

How often do we feel like Peter, reaching out in confident faith and then doubting as soon as we notice the wind blow our way? I feel like I look up in faith and then down in doubt so often that I have spiritual whiplash!

For me, Peter is the most appealing of all the apostles. I identify with Peter. Peter was bold, fiery and intense. He exuded such strength, yet he faced fears. My love for Peter took root in a pivotal moment which led to our family’s conversion.

Accepting Peter as the first among equals and as the first pope was a vital part of my conversion. A pivotal moment in my conversion process came when Fr. Peter Stravinskas came to visit a sister Episcopal parish in a forum called “Which Way the Church?” held in Boston. The then Episcopal, now Catholic, pastor, Fr. Bradford, held this forum during his own conversion process in order to facilitate discernment among parishioners, many of whom joined him when he converted.

In his talk, Fr. Stravinskas captivated me when he adapted the Bible passage: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7) to indicate that Peter is the one knocking. We but had to open the door and invite Peter in to know the fullness of the truth.

I had my third child at the time; she was about 4 months old, and I was holding her in a little carrier in the back, after a long day of Church and travel. We had submitted questions at the beginning, and the baby was getting fussy. I knew I could not remain much longer, and I had given up hope that my question would be addressed. I walked outside and noticed that a door was open to the stairwell just below where the speakers were answering questions. I paused and poked my head in, only to hear my question read:“Do you think it is necessary for salvation for all to become part of the Catholic Church.”

I held my breath. Fr. Stravinskas’ answer was clear: “If you have come to believe that converting to the Catholic Church is essential for salvation, then it is essential.” My message was clear. My resolve to move forward with conversion proceeded, and within a little over a year my family was received at the Easter Vigil in 1994, just four days after my birthday. During the process of our preparation for reception, we had the privilege of reading through the entire (new) Catechism under the direction of a thoughtful priest, who tailored our conversion process to our needs.

In time I realized that Fr. Stravinskas’ explanation to my question consolidated complex theology in the Church. How do we hold at once the proposition that the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation — oft repeated by popes — with the reality of our fragmented age? How do we not alienate others and hold true to this doctrine? The Catechism clarifies:

“Outside the Church there is no salvation”

How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it. (CCC 846)

Peter had knocked at our door. With God’s grace, we opened that door. Peter brought with him our Savior’s very body and blood, the reception of our marriage, two more children baptised in the Church, the communion of saints, and Our Blessed Mother. It took a bit to get used to — this crowd of witnesses. The light was blinding. Crosses have preceded and followed.

But just as Peter could only hold forth walking the sea when he held steady gaze on Jesus, so the only certainty in the storm of life is beholding Jesus in the Eucharist and remaining in his Church, which has been build on a rock.

Like Peter, I trust in Jesus with such certainty that I can walk through what seems impossible — if only for that wind that always causes me to look down at all-too-frequent  moments. Over time, I pray, that I hold my gaze on the Lord increasingly more steady and trust that the storms of life will never sink me.



Posted by: liturgicalyear | July 30, 2014

Growing in prayer through suffering

“God wants us to grow in prayer. Suffering and tribulation are a school for that. When we are sick, we often don’t feel that the quality of our prayer is improving. In fact, it can seem quite the opposite. When I am in pain, or in depression, or in obsessive fear, my mind feels as if it’s tied in knots. I can’t lift it to anything, much less God…

Prayer is conversation with God, and it is God who initiates the conversation. That does not mean that we should wait until God starts speaking inside our heads. He is always speaking, calling to us, drawing us to prayer. He speaks to our hearts. We begin to hear him when we become more aware of our need for him. This is where prayer begins: when our hearts cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me!”

We always need mercy, but the awareness of that need arises and intensifies when we are suffering. One of the things that has helped me see the mercy of God at work in my own suffering is the fact that it has forced me to shut up and listen. The ear of the heart that hears God has a very simple shape.

The cry of that heart is also simple: “Help! Have mercy on me. I need you.” We may not be able to articulate these words, but that inward groaning that seeks him is the foundational response to the love he continually offers us.

We are dear to God in our weakness. He is close to us when we are suffering. He lifts us closer to him if we allow him to enter inside of that need that groans within us. He shapes us, in his way and in his time.”

John Janaro
Magnificat, Volume 15, Number 3, May 2013

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