Friday, December 17, 2010

Spiritual Reflection for Christmas

I wrote this for a practice homily and thought others might like to read it:

Imagine you are with the shepherds in Bethlehem. It is winter, when the days are very short and the nights very long. The sun has been down a long time now, and the air is crisp and cool and clear, and you can see the stars. You are sleepy and would like to take a rest, but you know you must stay awake to tend the sheep. You never know what might be prowling about in the dark looking for a lamb supper. Everything is quiet. You and the other shepherds are the only souls awake at this time of night. But tonight there is a certain tension in the air. You assure yourself that there is no need for alarm, but it just feels a little bit different. You want to fall asleep, but you know you must stay alert to watch the sheep. Then all of a sudden, the cool night sky is filled with brilliant light. You see the figure of powerful shining creature- you have never seen anything like it. You wonder if you are seeing things. Then the creature begins talking to you. Now you are terrified. But he tells you not to fear, but instead to go to Bethlehem, for a savior has been born. You will know it is him when you find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. You don’t quite understand what he is talking about, but figure you had better do what he says. Then all of a sudden the entire sky erupts with other heavenly creatures – the light is dazzling, overwhelming, but beautiful. Music fills the sky and echoes off the hills. The sound of the angel’s rejoicing transforms your fear into anticipation. You must go and find this infant savior. You and your shepherd friends set off running for Bethlehem to see for yourself this wondrous happening.

When you get there you pass by a stable built into a cave. It doesn’t seem like it would be the place for an infant savior to be born, but you get a strong feeling that you need to go in a check it out. As you enter, you are met with the smell of hay and straw, and the scent of animals. To your nose it is not a bad smell, you are after all a shepherd. It’s the organic smell of life, of the creatures you care for every day. There is ever so slight a sense of trepidation, but you feel at ease entering the stable. The air is cold and damp, but you feel warm inside. Then you notice that there is a young woman and her husband here in the stable. The woman is very beautiful, but you can see fatigue in her face. You realize she has just given birth. She looks at you with warm, welcoming eyes. It is almost as though she expected you to be coming. You are struck by the depth of her gaze, and how very joyful it is. She shifts her gaze to the manger that is next to her and you follow with your eyes.

To your surprise, you see that there is a newborn baby lying in it. He is loosely wrapped in flowing cloth, but you can see his face. He is so new that his skin is still red and his eyes are tightly shut. You marvel at his tiny features. You watch as he breathes in and out on his own, he has only been doing so for a short time. You marvel at how delicate and fragile he is. For a moment it strikes you that this is not the place for a baby. A baby lamb, yes. But not a baby human. But he looks so peaceful that the thought quickly passes. You gaze upon him for a long time and your heart is filled love. You love him, but you feel even more powerfully that he loves you. After you have been there for awhile you realize you have forgotten all about the child’s parents. You’ve also forgotten about yourself- the fact that you are roughly dressed and arrived unannounced. Seeing the purity and innocence of this tiny child, you are reminded of your own imperfections. But you feel like you can be with him anyway. You wonder if his mother is getting uncomfortable having you here. So you look over at her: She is still smiling at you. Her look says that she is happy that you are there, and that she wants you to be with her baby.

You smile back at her. And you smile at her child. An inexpressibly peace descends upon you, and deep joy swells up in your heart. This is no ordinary child, this is no ordinary mother, and this is no ordinary night. Something has changed, and your life will never be the same again. You leave the stable that night brimming over with joy. You can’t hold it in, you have to share it with everyone. Jesus Christ, the Savior, has been born!

Monday, October 4, 2010

September

I got back to Rome on Sept. 9th. It seems like a long time ago already. I am grateful for the time at home, especially the time with family and friends. I was really edified by the goodness I found in them. My first week back was spent in workshops on pastoral counseling. It was taught by a professor from the seminary in St. Louis. It will be pretty useful when the time comes- people come to a priest looking for help with a lot of things, and I feel a little better equipped having at least been exposed to some basic counseling skills. The workshops were all held in the basement level of the college, so in spite of the material and presentation being excellent, I was feeling pretty cooped up by the end of the week.
Fortunately, we were able to get out of the house the following week: my entire class went on retreat at a retreat house on the mediterranean coast close to Rome. I made sure to go swimming every chance I got. I noticed that it is a lot easier to float in salt water. It was a week-long silent directed retreat. We took our meals in silence, had Mass together, and otherwise spent the days in prayer and reflection. Each day we would meet with our spiritual director to receive guidance and biblical passages to pray with. The whole point of the retreat is to just spend some time with the Lord without all the distractions of everyday life.
After retreat we had a week of preaching workshops. The focus for these was to learn how to preach at weddings and funerals. It is harder than one might think, or so I discovered. The priest who taught us is from the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. and was a very good storyteller. This made the time pass more quickly.

Having worked hard all week preparing practice homilies [we can't preach for real yet], my classmate Fred Gruber and I took a little pilgrimage out of Rome to the shrine of Our Lady of Good Counsel. It is about an hour bus ride to the East, in the hills of Lazio. The story is that the image pictured below was miraculously transported from Albania to Genazzano, Italy, and placed in this church in 1470. Needless to say, the Albanians have great devotion to this image. John Paul II as well as Mother Theresa have both visited this shrine. Also St. John Bosco. I read a prayer of Mother Theresa that was posted on the wall that said something to the extent of "Blessed Mother, please come back home to Albania", so she seemed to think the story was legitimate. The Augustinian brothers who care for the shrine invited us to pranzo[lunch] with them, so naturally we obliged them. I had never really met Augustinians before so it was a new experience. And lastly, we have a little garden here at the NAC. I planted some eggplants from seed in my room last February, put the seedlings in the ground in April, and left for America in June. I assumed they would die from neglect, lack of water, and extreme Roman summer temperature. But much to my surprise, they made it and have eggplants on them. Someone must have watered them. I never had eaten eggplant before coming here, but it is really quite good. If you fry it in oil it just soaks it up like a sponge. I suppose it probably doesn't have much nutritional value, but it sure tastes good. Since the temperature is so mild during the winter here, I'm going to try and grow some cold weather crops over the winter. This Thursday all of the men in the 4th year will be ordained deacons at St. Peter's Basilica. It is an exciting week for everyone at the seminary. Next week school starts for the rest of the house [I started today since I go the the Holy Cross], then we'll settle into a normal schedule again, not to be interrupted until Christmas.

I thank you for all of your prayers for me. I don't think we realize how much we can help one another by our praying of each other. Know that I pray for all of you in my daily prayers.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Summer in Devils Lake



To fill in the missing pieces since the last post: At Easter I made a retreat in the French village of Ars, the home of St. John Mary Vianney. He is the patron saint of all priests and more personally, my confirmation saint. It was nice to spend time in his church and to walk through the countryside of the people to whom he ministered.

Then I returned to Rome to finish out the school year: a month and a half of concerted effort and much prayer helped me learn a lot of theology... and some humility. Apparently God's idea of exams going well and mine are two different things.
Exams finished, I took a sigh of relief and traveled to Madrid, Spain. Everyone told me I'd be roasting hot in mid June in Madrid. But that wasn't the case, in fact, I really regreted not bringing a sweatshirt along.

Naturally I stopped in every church I could. I was impressed by Spanish piety, and moved by their statues and paintings. The statue of Our Lady above and the sculpture of the dormition of Mary are presented here in the same configuration that I found them in the church of St. Isidore, patron of farmers.

I spent as much time as I could at the Prado museum- I especially liked a painting of the Visitation by Raphael and the Annunciation by El Greco. They really moved me to prayer. Good religious art leads one to prayer because it is so beautiful.

On June 20th I returned to the land flowing with milk and honey, a.k.a, North Dakota. After two weeks at home with the family I began work at the parish in Devil's lake where I'll be until the end of August. My job here is basically to follow the priests around and learn as much as I can from them. It has been a great experience so far. Yesterday I was with the pastor as he annointed and gave the apostolic pardon to a woman with cancer who was very near death. It was very moving to see the power and comfort to be found in that sacrament.