by Deacon Michael Bickerstaff | February 12, 2017 12:04 am
Looking back at my childhood, I am thankful for the many gifts the good God sent my way in the form of people who knew and loved Him and chose to share that knowledge and love with me. There are so many examples from the good Catholic sisters and priests who taught me to my Presbyterian friend, James, who announced that he was going to save me from the “chains of my Catholicism!” He was wrong about the Catholic faith, but there was no doubt concerning his zealous love for the Lord. And his zeal most certainly helped me grow in my Catholic faith. I was blessed to know him.
Of all the people God has placed in my life, most of all I am thankful for my family. My mother, father and sister were those people who first introduced me to the faith—to Jesus Christ and the Church He gave to us. Their love of Jesus Christ and His Sacred Scripture, their devotion to His Blessed Mother and their love and fidelity to His Church were exactly the gifts that the Lord wanted them to pass on to me so that I would come to faith in Him. I am so thankful that my parents valued these gifts so highly that they asked a priest to baptize me as an infant so I would also grow in faith and be reconciled to God from the very beginning of my life. I am especially thankful for my sister whose love of life even in the midst of terrible physical suffering is a testimony to hope for us all.
Most important is the realization that God placed within my very being a desire for Him. Faith is His gift to me.
The catechism teaches us, “…the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response” CCC 2567. St. John of the Cross taught that if we are thinking about God, we can be sure that is because God thought of us first—that He placed that very thought of Himself within us. And so, I am most thankful to God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God’s call to each of us demands our response.
With these gifts, I began my walk of faith in Christ. I believe that it is important that each of us reflect on how we came to faith, to give thanks to God who has tirelessly blessed each of us with His grace, and to learn from that experience and prayer what He is calling us to do for the remainder of our earthly lives.
As I reflect on this topic this Sunday morning, I realize that my desire for my grandchildren to also grow in faith and love of God has led me to look back at how I came to faith.
I think of how my parents handed on the faith to me, how I passed on the faith to my son who is now handing it on to his children—four generations in my lifetime. I pray that my daughter will continue to grow in her love for God. I think of my wife, my mother and father, my sister, and all my family and all those who God places in my life. And with those thoughts, I sense a peace in my soul. I am so proud of my grandsons, my granddaughter, and their parents. I am so blessed to have received their marital consent and witnessed their vows for the Church and to have baptized their children. God is indeed good.
But, all of these thoughts have led me to reflect on where I am in my faith. Am I where I should be at this point in my life? And what of my responsibility to share that faith with others, particularly with my family? What obstacles are preventing me from advancing in the spiritual life. How can I become a better Catholic husband, father, grandfather and brother?
There is a story in Exodus about these responsibilities. Amalek has come to wage war against the Israelites. Moses sends Joshua and his men to engage Amalek in battle. Moses, stands on a mountain with his arms raised to God and as long as his arms are raised, the battle goes well. But Moses grows tired and his arms begin to lower—the tide of the battle begins to turn. But Aaron and Hur help Moses by lifting his arms and the battle again turns in favor of Joshua who is ultimately victorious. There is so much here, but let’s look at just a few points:
I can look back over my life and see those occasions when I grew weary in prayer. Maybe I thought that God was not listening; maybe my faith was simply too weak. Honestly, there were times when I just gave up on God. I now see that it was not that I expected too much from God, rather, I demanded too little of myself. Praise God that He sent others to my aid with their prayers and by their example and thus came His grace that has always prompted me to seek what is holy and good even while falling into what is not.
G. K. Chesterton wrote, “We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.” How true this observation is! I would only add that this “terrible loyalty” requires first of all our own personal holiness.
I want to share with you some questions I have for myself as a result of these reflections—questions which concern our response to God’s call, first for ourselves and then regarding our responsibility towards others. Of all the blessings in our lives, what ones do we truly appreciate and for which we are most thankful?
Appreciation for God’s Gift of Himself – Do I truly understand all that God has done for me? His gift of my very life is so easy to overlook. Truthfully, when times are difficult, do I thank God for my existence and count on Him as my fortress or do my actions reveal that at some level I blame Him for my troubles? What more can I expect of Him? Out of His Goodness He created me for Himself and desires eternal joy for me. He has made this life possible and my eternal joy attainable. Even while we were sinners and separated from Him, He became one of us; suffered, died and rose again, all for love of me. Yes, me! Each of us can say the same thing. By His grace, I can live a life that is holy and pleasing to Him, and so can you. Really – what more can we ask of Him? Nothing at all!
Appreciation for God’s Gift of Others – God has sent so many people to be Christ to me; to reveal His love and show me the way to Him. In my adult life, He sent me my wife, children, daughter-in-law and grandchildren… and soon-to-be-son-in-law. Do I truly understand the sacredness of their lives and thank them in word and deed for sharing the gift of faith? How lost I would be, if not for them! The Lord will bless them for their witness, even if I have not—but I pray that I, too, will let them know how precious their gift to me is and that I will learn and grow from their love.
Appreciation for the Gift of His Church – God has not left us alone. When Jesus returned to the Father, He left us the pillar and foundation of all Truth, the Church (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15) and sent the Holy Spirit to lead the Church to all truth; to correct us and to comfort us, to set us apart and make us holy. He gave us His Sacred Scripture through His Church which gives witness to its inspiration and safeguards its teaching. Jesus, who is Truth, left us with a teacher so that we could know the truth. Do I value the Church and learn from her or do I act as if I know better her? St. Cyprian wrote in 251 A.D., “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother” (St. Cyprian, De unit. 6: PL 4, 519). Does my life reveal my honor and obedience to the Church?
Appreciation for the Gift of My Vocation – I am invited to love God with all my heart, soul and mind; this is the greatest commandment; and then to love others as I am to love myself. These are two separate obligations that come with God’s love—the first is directed to God and the second to others.
Simply stated, to whatever state in life one’s vocation leads him, we are called to come to Heaven and to bring others with us. The first part requires that I become a person of prayer. If I am not, then I cannot say that I know and love God. Without a growing prayer life I cannot grow in holiness. And without God’s grace and my practice of humility, I cannot grow in my prayer life. And without these, my Christian witness will be empty and disregarded. King David and his prayer that we know as the Miserere (Psalm 51) is a guiding light for me… “A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, nor deprive me of your holy spirit.”
If we truly appreciated this great gift from God that is His loving call, there would be nothing on this earth that could prevent our embracing of His gift and our handing it on to others.
All of this makes sense to me. Hopefully it does to you also. So why do I find myself (maybe you find yourself too) where I am in my life?
I desire to be a saint. Why am I not one already?
The question is important, not just for my own salvation, but also for the salvation of my family and all whom God places in my life. The best way for me to help others come to faith in God is to live a holy, humble and courageous life as a saint of God.
So what is holding me back? Below are three areas that continue to be obstacles to my progress. The obstacles you face may be the same or they may be different.
Pride – The answer to the secret of success in real estate is, “Location, location, location.” The answer to the problem of pride in the spiritual life is, “Humility, humility, humility.” St. Teresa of Avila, a great Carmelite Saint and Doctor of the Church, wrote of the soul as an interior castle in which resides the King (God). The key to entering the castle is prayer. But when we first enter we are still far from the brilliant light which is at its center. We are still in the outer darkness which is due to our sinful (disordered) attachments to the things of the world. God’s way is true, ours is not; therefore, we must spend much time in the “rooms of humility” in order to progress further into the castle.
This is so true. I may not explicitly say that I am smarter than God and His Church, but too often my behavior says otherwise. The same thing can occur in my relationship with others. So a part of my daily examination of conscience is to identify, with God’s help, those occasions when I have failed to be humble. For many of us, this can take a while!
Sloth – Spiritual laziness can be present even when we seem to be doing much work for the Lord. Am I doing what I want to do while neglecting the harder things God is calling me to do? Sloth and pride can work together here. “Sorry, God, I am too busy to pray as I should because today I am doing great things for you and your people.” Obviously, that attitude just doesn’t cut the mustard, but ask yourself, honestly, does it describe you? Sometimes, it very definitely describes me.
Develop a plan for your day. Identify the things you must do and do not procrastinate. If you have to, get them on your schedule. Give to God your primetime, not your left over time. And in combination with your practice of humility, make sure it is God’s will you follow and not your own.
Greed – Greed is the disordered attachment to worldly things; things I might already possess or things that I desire to possess. As mentioned above, it is pride (a disordered and elevated sense of self) that leads to greed. Greed keeps us focused on self instead of on God. Greed leads us to value creation more than the Creator. I like donuts too much and I eat too many of them. Just as pride leads me to greed, greed leads me to gluttony. Greed can take many different forms and lead to many other sins.
There are two remedies I am committed to pursue to overcome this obstacle. The first is the practice of moderation. I will simply choose, by God’s grace, to do with less. I may want that 52-inch flat screen, but I do not need it, so I will not buy it and I will pray that I stop desiring it. The second may be even more effective. I was speaking about this problem with a priest the other day and he suggested that I practice greater generosity. “Aha,” I thought! This is so obvious that I overlooked it. The virtue of generosity is opposed by the vice of greed. So, if you want to end the bad habit of greed, replace it with the good habit of generosity. Moderation is a good habit too, but I think that generosity will be a good companion to it.
In Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus had told the parable of the woman who persisted in seeking a just judgment from an unjust judge (her persistence paid off), He ended with a perplexing question, “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
It is up to each of us to make sure He does find faith. And it is up to each of us that the faith we received from Him is fed and nurtured so that it can grow into a higher faith that He waits to give us when we are ready to receive it.
Yes, we can be saints and the only thing holding us back is our decision for it… an act of our will. One thing I conclude from this: it is my pursuit of holiness through love for God and service to others, especially those in most need, that will make my Christian witness to my grandchildren most effective.
Into the deep…
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