Sunday, 31 January 2016

What St John Bosco teaches us about the power and meaning of dreams

Does God communicate with us through our dreams? St John Bosco thought so: he was shown God’s plan for his life in a dream when he was only nine years old. The vivid dream remained etched in his mind for his entire life.
The young John had dreamed that he was in a yard not far from his home in the hilly Italian countryside. The yard was full of poverty-stricken boys who were blaspheming and swearing. Wanting to stop them mouthing “these evil words”, John ran at them and struck them with his fists.
He was interrupted from throwing punches by a man in a white cloak whose face shone so much that young John could hardly look at him. The man said: “You will have to win these friends of yours not by blows but by gentleness and love… I want you to teach them the ugliness of sin.”
In the dream John admitted to the man that he was perplexed. He said he didn’t know how he could ever influence such a great number of boys and he told the man he didn’t know who he was talking to.
The man said: “I will give you a teacher, under her guidance you could become wise. Without her all ‘wisdom’ is foolishness… I am her Son… Ask my Mother what my name is.”
Suddenly Our Lady appeared, draped in a white mantle that seemed speckled with stars.
Our Lady took John’s hand and said: “Look!” Around them, in the place of the children were goats, dogs, cats and bears. Our Lady explained: “This is your work… What you will see happening to these wild animals is what you must do for my children.”
In the blink of an eye the wild beasts had turned into playful lambs frolicking around Our Lady and John. She assured the boy: “In good time you will understand everything.”
The dream revealed John’s vocation. When he grew up he dedicated his life to rescuing and educating abandoned children and young offenders.
Until his death on January 31, 1888, John continued to have dreams that were really masterclasses in divine instruction.
Many of John’s dreams concerned the boys he was teaching and the state of their souls. He dreamt that when the boys knelt in the confessional they came under the influence of certain bad angels and began holding back sins when they made their confessions.
Following these dreams, St John Bosco warned the children in his care that if they were going to go to Confession, they either had to make thorough ones or not confess at all.
Mother Angelica made a programme in which she described a dream where John was escorted by St Dominic Savio to a supremely beautiful, heavenly place, which was not in fact heaven. St Dominic showed John hordes of boys in white whose souls had gone there because they had been his charges.
Initially, John was delighted that his efforts had brought so many souls to the heavenly realm. But St Dominic had something hard to say to him: “There would be many, many more still if only you had greater faith and confidence in God.”
Believing that God can use dreams as a means of communicating with us flies in the face of Freudian psychology, which teaches that dreams are simply products of our subconscious minds. As Catholics, we can accept that explanation for the vast majority of dreams, but we should still be open to having the kinds of dream that John experienced.
True, most of us will never have such vivid and divinely inspired dreams as John. But today, on his feast day, it would be a good idea to pray for edification during our dreams and for the sort of instruction that will help us lead better lives.
I wrote this article for The Catholic Herald, in honour of St John Bosco's feast day. This was my sixth piece for during the month of January 2016. 

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Pregnant mums with life-threatening pregnancies and Blessed John Henry

If she gives birth to her baby she may well die: that’s what I understand when I hear of a pregnant mother diagnosed by doctors as having a ‘life-threatening pregnancy’. If such a mum is like St Gianna Molla, she will decide to give up her own life so that her newborn baby will live while she will be buried. It is an unthinkable choice for most ladies. In my own case, I would like to think I’d give my own life in place of my innocent baby. Yet I pray I’d never have to decide between my life and that of my baby.
There is a pregnant mum in America who was told her pregnancy threatened her life and so she prayed to Blessed John Henry Newman. Her prayer may have wrought a miracle – she has since been told that she has enjoyed a complete recovery which has no medical explanation.This may be the second miracle needed to canonise Blessed John Henry.

Hats off to the pregnant mum – I think she shows a high degree of insight in praying to Blessed John Henry. Had I not heard of this miracle and were I pregnant and having a difficult pregnancy, Blessed John Henry is not a saint I would have thought to pray to. From looking at him each day as I pass his statue outside the London Oratory, I see a stern, manly figure and the last person I would ask for intercessory help with something like pregnancy. I’d be too embarrassed, a difficult pregnancy is to be vulgarly frank never a man’s problem. I pray to saints in the same way I talk to friends over the phone, and in my ‘conversations’ with Blessed John Henry I have asked him for help with writing my articles, but never for sensitive health problems.
I have underestimated him. For starters, he had several sisters growing up which made him no stranger to women on the domestic front. He also had delicate health and he had a fear of illnesses that could caused the medics to wring their hands in despair. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Jack Sullivan’s cure flabbergasted his doctor, Dr Banco. Jack Sullivan had a devastatingly painful spinal compression, and after praying to Cardinal John Henry, he was completely cured of his serious back condition. Dr Banco said, ‘it was a miraculous recovery’ and that which gave it away was that Jack Sullivan had absolutely no symptoms of ever having had a back compression and most astonishingly had no symptoms of ever having had back surgery.
During his life, when Blessed John Henry had health problems, it lent him a compassion towards those who suffer with serious illness that might push the person into the grave. There was that time in 1833 when as a young 20-something he was travelling in Sicily and contracted a severe fever. Having survived this physical crescendo, John Henry felt that God had spared his life because God had a unique role for him to perform in England.
The idea that God gives each of us a precise job to do that is ours alone to fulfill would inspire Blessed John Henry to compose his great meditation Some Definite Service, which has the hugely uplifting lines, ‘God has created me to do Him some definite service, He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another…He has not created me for naught.’
I take it as a pro-life poem. It will be interesting to find out if the mother with the life-threatening pregnancy was guided by this meditation.
I wrote this post for The Catholic Herald in the wake of the second miracle that is being investigated - if the pregnant's mum's cure is found to be miraculous - Blessed John Henry will become St John Henry. 

Monday, 18 January 2016

Good confessors are like thorough doctors. They press until it hurts and they find the wound that needs treating

I made my first Confession when I was eight. My most glaring sins were that I’d pinched perfumed notepaper from another girl, I’d wished ill on one of my teachers for belittling my schoolwork as “atrocious” and I was jealous to the point of spitefulness of kids who won competitions. I persisted in these sins for a few years but thankfully I grew out of them, and am no longer tempted by pink notepaper with rose scent.
At the dawn of 2016, a mere two weeks ago, I made a list of resolutions-to-combat-sin that I’ve been struggling to keep. To be fair, I’ve kept off the gin. I have gone from enjoying a regular G&T with my friends to having one as a special treat. But I’ve not quite cut out rudely interrupting others in company or my other peccadilloes. So I’m faced with going back to Confession and asking the Lord to forgive the same sins that I had made a firm resolution not to do again. And with God’s grace I’ll grow out of them and overcome my bad tendencies in time. It comforts me that we have different sets of temptations and different sins at different stages in our lives.
But in the meantime I need the patience and humility to return to the dark, private box and admit that I’ve slipped up again. To look forward to the clean slate, the newly cleaned soul and, after the priest gives me absolution, the lightness and sweet joy that fills one as though helium lifted our feet.
In my lifetime, I’ve noticed a sharp change in the attitudes of confessors. When I was growing up, ‘the father trendies’ who were formed and ordained in the 1970s were quick to tell you that something listed in the Catechism as being a sin was no longer considered such. Nowadays, the young priests are more likely to be ‘conservative’ and labelled as ‘throwbacks’ by their more liberal fellow priests, and they are stricter. They ask how often you have committed a certain sin and what measures you are taking to prevent a relapse. These bright-white collared men of the cloth are like thorough doctors. They press until it hurts and they find the wound that needs treating.
There needs, of course, to be a balance. I think this new breed of priest, so eager for their penitents to stop sinning, may want to be gentle and not come down overly hard on smaller sins (for fear they put the person on the other side of the grille off returning to Confession).
I do, however, support these zealous priests in taking serious sins seriously, in particular sins that may be fatal. This was made real for me when I read what my colleague John Carmichael wrote about the dangers of alcoholics relapsing: “Since it is so often deadly, it is deathly important for the alcoholic or addict to avoid relapse, whether ‘relapse’ is understood in purely medical or spiritual terms. All of us who are now sober know of a person who relapsed and died. If we help other alcoholics, we often end up attending some funerals.”
To the modern mind, it may seem like manipulation if a priest reminds an addicted person of the people who rely on them and to take into consideration their loved ones and what would become of those who are dependent on them if they drown in the sauce.
A priest who does their utmost to help a person not relapse into addiction or another type of fatal sin may be saving many lives. The renewal in preaching the rosary is a great accompaniment to regular Confession. The rosary is perhaps the greatest prayer in strengthening one to become strong enough to tackle our weaknesses and failings that lead us to wrong ourselves and wrong others.
There are occasions when the penitent is hard on the priest. I remember one time when a fellow Latin Mass-goer went to Confession with a priest who had been trained to offer the Novus Ordo. At the beginning the penitent asked to see the priest’s certificate of ordination. As penance they got a whole rosary. 
I wrote this post for The Catholic Herald online.  You may see my author archive here, to read older posts from several years ago.

Friday, 15 January 2016

I find that the British are more open to relying on Catholic piety in the age of terrorism

I fell in love in Victoria Station when I was a child visiting London. I watched the carnival of life, people from every corner of the earth and Londoners from all social classes and backgrounds rush or wait for their trains. No one was treated the less for being different – including me – and this was a new experience for me. At home in Ireland my peers punished me for not fitting in. 
But I felt accepted in London, which afforded me a psychological solace that made me fall in love with the city. Whether I was eating lunch with a homeless lady in a café that looked out onto Victoria Station or watching the well-heeled carry shopping bags from luxury stores, I felt welcome in the midst of Londoners.
Two decades on, my beloved Victoria Station still has fog billowing like dry ice around it, but a cloud hangs over the heads of commuters. As Islamic terrorist attacks have become standard horror viewing on our TV screens at night, people have become more wary of travelling on public transport and the railways.
Before Christmas I was travelling a lot by train and I met my fair share of fellow Londoners while waiting for trains who were fearful that their train being delayed or cancelled was because of a suspected terrorist attack. As one lady put it, “call me paranoid, but you can’t be absolutely, one hundred per cent certain that some sort of terrorist attack won’t happen”.
For us Catholics, what’s the best we can do? We can’t very well stop using the tube or the railway. I think the go-to saint is St Michael. Our winged Archangel can protect us against potential terrorists who are under the influence of a most dreadful evil. Praying the St Michael prayer in the morning before heading off to work is a good habit to form. Ladies may even be able to carry a small statue of St Michael in their handbags (as I have done on occasion). Gents could carry a picture of St Michael in their breast-pocket.
I carry a photo of Fr Hugh Simon-Thwaites in my wallet, it cheers me up to remember his good works and his indefatigable fishing for converts, (he would say to non-Catholics, “you’d like to become Catholic, wouldn’t you?”). If more of us emulated him and had his hunger for saving souls there would be more committed Catholics who would pray for an end to Islamic militancy.
Wearing or carrying a St Benedict’s medal is truly the ticket – the medal thwarts diabolical influences and gives us protection from people who are seduced by evil spirits.
Some people may experience bad dreams, fearful restlessness or having sleepless nights before a long journey. The go-to saint here is St Dymphna – who is often only called upon for people with mental illness or depression – as a result people are slow to say they pray to her for fear the person listening will think they are having a breakdown! But several of my friends report that she is good for people who are experiencing sudden anxiety.
When I’ve gone for a drink in Wetherspoons and met fellow Londoners who are nervy before travelling, I’ve had some success encouraging them to visit and pray at Westminster Cathedral. In less tetchy times you’d be laughed at for suggesting someone light a candle so that they have a safe journey, but now it seems that people are more open to praying for the prevention of terrorism.
My next point may seem macabre, even morbid in a paranoid way. When we concentrate on the warning in the Gospels that we will not know the hour or the day that the Lord will call us home, it does concentrate the mind on always being ready. So, before a long journey, we can make an appointment for confession and do a thorough job of cleaning the soul of sin and making room for it to be filled with sanctifying grace.

I wrote this post for The Catholic Herald online.  For the full selection of my work and to see my latest piece on Confession, please check my author archive

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Superb guest post from John Carmichael: The Grace of Forgetfulness and the Healing of the Imagination

The Reverend Father Chad Ripperger, P.hD., is a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, and a Doctor of Philosophy.

In 2007 he published an 800-page tome audaciously entitled: Introduction to the Science of Mental Health. I call it audacious because, after all, why would a Catholic priest with a doctorate in philosophy, not psychology, dare to title a book promising a comprehensive treatment of the human psyche?

But of course his rhetorical challenge to the fiercely materialistic and reductive status quo of modern psychology is intentional. You see, Father Ripperger is also an exorcist, and he knows from experience there are more things contained in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in the average secular psychologist’s philosophy.

The Reverend Father describes the deliverance part of his priestly ministry as “being stationed at the outlet of a sewer pipe” where sometimes amidst all the filth spewed forth from the mouths and bodies of the diabolically afflicted, one finds a “lost diamond ring” in the form perhaps of a reluctant demonic admission of some sacred truth that confirms Catholic theology and blows through all the smokescreens erected by secularism and false religion.

Father Ripperger said that performing the rite of exorcism is like having a bucket with a glass bottom: one may know from faith there are fish (demons in this analogy) running next to the boat, but when one lowers a clear-lensed bucket in the water (as through exorcism), one can actually see them flitting about.

An exorcist’s visceral encounters with demons help inform not just his understanding of their very real operations on the human psyche, but also that of the angels, including our guardian angels and others. Without this understanding, any view of the human psyche and that which influences it is necessarily incomplete, Father Ripperger argues, and dangerously so.

Many human actors ridicule such an understanding of reality as mere magical thinking from a primitive time, long overturned by physical science and the modern, appropriately limited understanding of the psyche: Angels and demons, pshaw!

But Father Ripperger, with his Thomistic formation and pastoral experience, has the courage—and perhaps the responsibility in this age of diabolical disorientation—to assert supernatural truth over and against an army of scoffers, many of whom have academic letters after their names and enjoy the comfort of human respect.

Thus, in Introduction to the Science of Mental Health, he proclaims the following, resting on Saint Thomas among others, including without limitation Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ:

        Because modern psychology does not understand its material object (the human person)…it has failed to arrive at what mental health actually is and this makes it impossible really to know if the average man is doing what is right. Just because everyone in a society is engaging in certain types of behaviors does not make those behaviors psychologically good. It is only within the context of understanding the nature of Original Sin grasped through revealed theology, and the nature of man as such grasped by philosophy, that we arrive at the explanation of the difference between what the average man does and what constitutes the norm.   

Father Ripperger restates the Catholic truth that man is a composite of body and soul and that any valid psychology must be subordinated to both a valid philosophy of man (which modern psychology lacks because it denies the soul) and to metaphysics.

We are reminded by Father Ripperger that the word science, hijacked as it has been by materialists, simply derives from its Latin root to know, or knowledge, and that physical science (biology, chemistry) was traditionally regarded as but one way of knowing, theology and philosophy comprising two valid and necessary metaphysical sciences, or put another way, two valid and necessary ways of knowing that which is beyond-the-physical.

After living on planet Earth for forty-plus years under the ferocious tyranny of materialists, I can only regard the trashing of Catholic metaphysics as a direct and vicious act of spiritual warfare against the children of God.

As it turns out, a kitschy advertisement that pictures a homemaker with an animated “angel” on her right shoulder and a “demon” on her left—the former encouraging her to stick with her healthy diet while the latter entices her to gobble down the devil’s food cake—is not a tired comic trope after all, but a true illustration of the challenge we face from moment to moment.

As C.S. Lewis put it, [E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.  

In my book, Drunks & Monks, I describe the direct, concrete way in which my submission to the ministry of the Catholic Church—not some vague, amorphous form of “spirituality” or mere Christianity—broke the back of my seven year bout with drink and a hex of rotten things that went with it. Chiefly the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, a 54 Day Rosary Novena, fasting, a general confession, and a minor exorcism all served to deliver me from a quicksand I could not even identify let alone haul up and out of under my own power.

Those interventions accumulated for me over a period of a couple years, with the confession and deliverance taking place about five years ago. Drunks & Monks chronicles the bracing relief and astonishment of my newly converted soul, and stops the narrative there somewhat breathlessly.  

But now, after five years living as a disciple of Christ in His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, I can report that the honeymoon is over.  

Our Lord spoke of the way of salvation as a narrow path that few would find—not as a one-time event. (Matthew 7:13-14) Having now attempted to trudge this narrow path post-conversion through five liturgical years, I certainly hold to this truth easily seeing how His divine teaching matches my common experience and the writings of so many of our great Saints including, of course, Saint Augustine, who in his Confessions foreshadowed in 399 Anno Domini what Saint Thomas and others would further systematize in the high and late middle ages. Saint Augustine reflected:

My lovers of old, trifles of trifles and vanities of vanities, held me back. They plucked at my fleshly garment, and they whispered softly: ‘Do you cast us off?’ and ‘From that moment we shall no more be with you forever and ever!’ …What filth did they suggest! What deeds of shame! …[it was] as if they were muttering behind my back, and as if they were furtively picking at me as I left them, to make me look back again. Yet they did delay me, for I hesitated to tear myself away, and shake myself free of them, and leap over to that place where I was called to be. For an overpowering habit kept saying to me, ‘Do you think that you can live without them?’ 

        Saint Augustine was speaking clearly of his formerly habitual sins against chastity and corruption of the imagination, but he provides a glimpse into the interior struggle one might have against falling back into any prior sin, particularly a habitual one.

        Holy Writ duly informs us that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and nowhere perhaps is that more clearly illustrated in its temporal sense than in the sins of drunkenness and illicit drug use. I certainly hope God is merciful to the addicted, and I do not pretend to draw the line between what constitutes a sinful consent of the will and the subjugation of the alcoholic whose will has been overcome. In that regard the old phrase comes to mind: “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.”  

        Since it is so often deadly, it is deathly important for the alcoholic or addict to avoid relapse, whether “relapse” is understood in purely medical or spiritual terms. All of us who are now sober know of a person who relapsed and died. If we help other alcoholics, we often end up attending some funerals. Any right thinking person commends the deceased alcoholic to God’s mercy. I attended such a funeral once and wondered, What led the departed to drink again? And, How can I make sure it doesn’t happen to me? 

        I spoke recently with a man who works with alcoholics and addicts in recovery. He’s a spiritual seeker, a man who patronizes all religions, and betrays his penchant for that which originated in the East before he carefully considers his birthright and storehouse of Christian truths.

But even this man who does not subscribe to Christian orthodoxy, said he is struck by what he perceives to be a seemingly very clear struggle for the recovering alcoholic—a struggle which he perceives to take place even outside the alcoholic—as though, he told me in conspiratorial tones, there really is a supernatural tug of war in which the alcoholic in recovery finds himself.

        My friend was fascinated to learn that a first century physician (among others) had already written something on the subject, recounting Jesus Christ’s teaching on what is known as The Return of the Unclean Spirit:

When an unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-26)

I have often thought of this passage in the face of the horror of the relapsed alcoholic, especially the chilling final line, And the last state of that person is worse than the first. So often this is the case in relapse. So often relapse is absolutely devastating or even fatal.

In order to convey a spiritual truth, Our Lord spoke to us perhaps with a bit of a metaphor, referring to waterless places. Saint Luke did not see fit to express it any differently. It is only natural that subsequent souls, theologians and commoners too, would wonder about this teaching and ask not out of idle curiosity but in self-preservation, precisely how do the unclean spirits return?

Is there something about the person to which Christ refers who, having been relieved of the presence of an unclean spirit, allows its horrifying return plus seven more evil than itself?

Father Ripperger, relying on the vast body of Catholic theology, tells us something interesting which may apply:

In the psychological realm, the primary way the angels and demons affect man is by moving his imagination. St. Thomas observes that this occurs by the angels and demons forming an image in the imagination by moving the bodily organ. Yet, they can only cause a phantasm which has something prior in memory, i.e. they must use prior sense data. As for the angels, it is a way to incite us to do the right thing by moving our memory to place something in the imagination which corresponds to joy or something of this sort when we experienced doing the right thing. Moreover, the angels can help us remember what we have been taught so that we will be moved to do the right thing. This is why devotion to the guardian angels and to angels in general must be fostered...

With respect to the demonic, our memory is a mine field, so to speak. The demons can use our past experiences against us by moving the memory to recall past sins so that they can be a form of temptation for us. [I]t was often said that it is easier for a man who has never had any sexual experience to maintain a celibate life than for the man who has had sexual experience. Two things must be done to block the demonic in this respect: (1) avoid sin as much as possible so that they do not have the sense data to use against [us]; (2) do those things which will merit the grace of forgetfulness.

It would seem in this formulation that one of “those things that will merit the grace of forgetfulness” is simply to “avoid sin as much as possible.”

But since “forgetfulness” is referred to as a grace, it is something that must be ultimately granted by God for His purposes.

It is important to point out that the grace of forgetfulness and the healing of the imagination and memory apply not just to our own past sins, but also to traumatic memory and the absorption of societal evils. On these points Father Ripperger writes, [T]he more violent the society becomes, the more the sense data will affect the mental stability of its members and the more they are able to be preyed upon by the demonic. Those who have suffered something traumatic will be easier for the demonic to affect since the sense data of the trauma is available. For this reason, directees must consign the care of the body daily and devoutly to the care of their guardian angel so that the angel is given more dominion over the body and therefore is more capable of protecting it from demonic influence.

I can’t help but think both of Saint Augustine and Saint Paul in this regard, prolific sinners both, but each in their own way seemed able to ultimately to move forward in time, toward the moment when they would take that great leap from time to eternity. And in both cases, seeking the grace of forgetfulness, well, they asked for it, they expressed their will to move forward rather than to be drawn backward. First, Saint Paul, writing shortly after Christ’s life, death and resurrection:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of His resurrection and participation in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14)

       And then Saint Augustine, writing a few hundred years after Saint Paul, whose prayer for the grace of forgetfulness was so fervent, so anguished, so desperate, and so like my own:

        And you, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Remember not our past iniquities.’ For I felt that I was held by them, and I gasped forth these mournful words, ‘How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not in this very hour an end to my uncleanness?!’

        And then the two of them together, as Saint Augustine was aided by Saint Paul across time, in that famous passage from Augustine’s Confessions:

        So I hurried back to the spot where Alypius was sitting, for I had put there the volume of the apostle (Saint Paul) when I got up and left him. I snatched it up, opened it, and read in silence the chapter on which my eyes first fell: ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in strife and envying, but put you on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.” No further wished I to read, nor was there any need to do so. Instantly, in truth, at the end of this sentence, as if before a peaceful light streaming into my heart, all the dark shadows of doubt fled away.

        I would do well at this point, five years into my discipleship such as it is, to very sincerely pray for the gift of forgetfulness, not just of my own repented sins, but also of my traumatic memories and the grotesque evils in the world that I have had the misfortune to witness. As a life in Christ fortified Saint Paul and allowed him to forget what was behind him and move forward, and as Saint Paul fortified Saint Augustine with his exhortation, Saint Augustine fortifies me with his example.

May those most in need of it receive the grace of forgetfulness and the healing of their imagination and memory.

For these graces, Saints Paul and Augustine, ora pro nobis!   

John H Carmichael is the author of the outstanding memoir, Drunks and Monks, which you may buy here.

How to survive January, the secular season of penance

January can be a penitential season like a compulsory Lent. We may have to give up going out for a pint (it may be too expensive when there is a looming tax bill and/or debts from over-spending at Christmas). If we’ve piled on the pounds over the festive season, we may have no choice but to stop eating cakes and chocolate if we want to fit into our regular clothes. We are not so much Sugar Plum Fairy, as Sugar Plump Fairy.

A harder trial could be bearing with our friends and peers who gripe non-stop, pointing out the people who can afford to go to the January sales while they are skint. Or the more usual complaint among singletons, that Christmas brought them down – they felt jealous of happy couples and happy young families.

Taking a leaf out of St Thérèse the Little Flower’s book, we might do well just to suffer through the January moan-fest by listening patiently. It’s tempting to remind them harshly that they are better off than they realise and that their problems, “are just so First World”. This can backfire – they may go from chatty complaints to cold silence. Listening to our friends’ grumbles is a good work that takes strength, but I think we have to take pride in being a listening ear. Lots of us have pangs of guilt when we see charities that help people who are alone, the good works done by these charities make us conscious of the good works we are not doing. In January, however, there is ample opportunity to give our remaining energies to helping those close to us feel they have someone to turn to.

I have observed a vicious cycle in January where someone might be short on money and may avoid inviting people out to coffee or joining others on a night out (they feel embarrassed saying they are hard-up) or they may turn down invitations to a dinner party because they can’t see themselves having enough dough to buy a “good” bottle of wine. Then they feel they have “no life” and the bleakness of the weather compounds a very wintry depression. I think we need to be humble and be the first one to admit that things are tight and together find ways to work out social occasions that don’t make our money worries worse. Instead of one person putting on a whole dinner party, everyone could make and bring a dish (the ingredients combined might cost the same as the posh bottle of wine we would otherwise feel under pressure to bring).

Not everyone suffers from bouts of being down during January, but may be coping with physical illnesses. The ideal saint is St André Bessette, who has interceded for countless sick people and won them extraordinary cures. In this piece by Patricia Treece, there is an account of St André coming to the aid of a father who had had to give up his work because rheumatism had taken over his joints to the extent he was not able to tie his shoelaces. After praying to St André, the man was completely cured and had no use for his crutches that had held him up when his body was swollen with rheumatism.

Praying, offering up our sufferings and doing our best to socialise may help us through, but I grant that January is still an obligatory penitential season, so the best we can do is to offer up our struggles for our personal intentions, in the hope that God will accept our offerings as sacrifices and reward us with grace. Also — here is one of my less-than-subtle evangelising tricks — but we could gently suggest to non-Catholics who are having a hard time that it is possible to offer up their trials for a special intention.

I wrote this post for The Catholic Herald online. For the full selection of my posts, you may see my author archive.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Happy Feast of the Epiphany!

There can be a dangerous trap for our faith when we celebrate the Three Kings visiting Baby Jesus. It happens when we think, 'oh Jesus must have been special, the Three Kings paid him homage!' The problem here is that we are creating a division in our minds, we put royalty on one side and Jesus on the other side.  The reality is that in the stable in Bethlehem it was a case of royalty visiting royalty.
When the Magi fell down before Our Lord as a tiny Babe and worshipped Him, they were showing their deference to the King of Kings. When they were seeking out Baby Jesus, following the Star that had guided them from the East, they encountered Herod and made it clear to him that they wanted to adore the Divine Child.  The kings, holders of the highest office that an ordinary human person can obtain, were not looking for Jesus so that He would put them on a pedestal, rather they were of the mind to adore Him.  
Growing up, me and many of my peers were told the account of the Three Kings as though it were a fairy-tale based on a historical chain of events. During my adult life I've heard many influential people reiterate to me that the events surrounding Our Lord coming into this world were the stuff of fairy-tale. But dismissing as fantasy or fiction the example set by the Three Kings is an act of self-punishment. I may seem to be exaggerating when I write 'self-punishment', but bear with me.
A fairy-tale is the stuff of whim and magic to distract us from everyday life.  Yet the grand spectacle of the Three Kings lowering themselves before the Divine Infant and offering them their treasures is the most crucial and even realistic example of how we can put our lives right.  No matter who we are, whether we have a high place or a low place, we are called to give ourselves to Our Lord.
If we do as the Three Kings and humble ourselves before Our Lord putting Him first, then our lives are in the order of loving Our Lord as our key priority. When we make ourselves or another person or possessions and money the centre of our attention and give them the honour and adoration that is only deserved by Our Lord, we are expending ourselves in homage of someone  or something that will never love us the way Christ does. No one can love us more than Christ.
The Bob Dylan song, You Gotta Serve Someone put this in perspective for me.  Dylan drawls in his provoking way, 'you may be a diplomat with a long string of pearls but you gotta serve someone, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve someone.'  You said it, Bob! Whether we are a street sweeper or a prime minister, or even if we are nobility, we cheat ourselves if we don't give our will to serving Jesus, as the Three Kings did.
On this day, the feast of the Epiphany, it is good to keep in mind that the Three Kings rejoiced with great joy when they found the Baby Jesus. Many of us, myself included, have a lingering reluctance about allowing ourselves to show to others our joy at beholding the beautiful Baby Jesus.  In fashionable 2016 society you risk being called a religious fanatic or risk getting that pitying half smile from our friends who think they are more enlightened than those of us who give our hearts to a Child born two thousand years ago. I still think it is an act of self-giving to show our joy at re-orientating our lives to love Jesus above all people and above all things.  If we are afraid others will think the less of us, are we not putting our own self-image first?
One cause for discontent among many of my friends is that the feast of the Epiphany was moved to last Sunday, January 3rd. I've heard some say they feel 'short-changed' as though Christmas has been re-scheduled to last nine days. My take is that while the feast was moved, the Church hierarchy did not forbid us from celebrating the Epiphany on the time-honoured day of January 6th. Aside from this one day, we can have precious moments of celebrating the Epiphany whenever we offer the Joyful Mystery of the Nativity, and if we do as the Kings did and make ourselves subject to the Lord, the lesson offered by the Kings becomes our guiding light for every minute of every day.
I wrote this post for The Catholic Herald online.  For a bigger selection of my work, please see my author archive.
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