Run into God’s arms — he loves you

As I have confessed to you many times before, I do not consider myself a good pray-er. My prayer is often dry. Dry as in, “is anybody listening?” Not that it doesn’t “count” or anything, but I am hardly a mystic.

So when something dramatic happens in prayer, I often take it as a sign that it is not just for me, but to be shared with all of you as well.

It was a few days ago. While praying, I tried to imagine how God was seeing me at that moment. Immediately, I received an image of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Universe, with open arms and a huge smile on his face, welcoming me the way I used to welcome my nieces and nephews when they were little (and still excited to see me), and ran full speed into my arms. He was doing the same, ready to catch me as I ran to him, and delighting in it the same way I used to delight in the joy in their little, miraculous faces.

I know, it could have just been my imagination. But the immediacy and vividness made it feel like something more.

Even it was just my own imagination, it still reflects the truth. It staggers me to think that he could love me as much as I love the five beautiful children he has placed in my life. And yet, my faith tells me that he loves me even more. Infinitely more. That is almost impossible for me to fathom. Still.

As I said, I think this little vision is for you as much as for me. To help you see and maybe begin to grasp his love for you.

We have all heard that “God is love.” Repeatedly. Some of us even affixed the phrase to felt banners in our CCD classes back in the ‘70’s. But, at some point, we hear it so much that it becomes just another meaningless phrase. How many of us really know it? How many of us really base our faith in a relationship with a Father who loves us madly?

I think that, no matter how often we hear that God is Love, it is all too easy to revert to a rules-based mentality. To be “holy”, I just have to do “x” and “y.” Avoid sin. Say the rosary. Try not to have too much fun.

There is nothing wrong with any of that. In fact, it is all true. (Except, of course, the fun part.) But on its own, it isn’t going to make you holy. And, without a thriving, active relationship with God, it’s going to be difficult to sustain any merely rules-based program.

My favorite saint, St. John Paul II, said that once we start asking what we are supposed to do, we have left the realm of love and entered the realm of ethics. When somebody is in love, the “rules” come naturally. A man in love doesn’t ask “How many times am I supposed to send flowers? How many buds per delivery?” He wants to show his love, as often and as many ways as possible. It overflows.

When we are in love with God, we want to serve him. We’re looking for ways to serve him more. It gives us joy.

The problem, of course, is that God is generally unseen. It’s easy to have a reciprocal relationship with a flesh-and-blood person. But two-way conversations with the Lord of the Universe are a little harder to come by.

There are two important keys to a real, loving, two-way relationship with God. The first is Scripture. If you’re in love with someone, you want to learn everything you can about them. All the more important when we can’t tangibly see our Beloved. How do we get to know God better? By reading his love story, the Bible. We see God’s first revelations to his people. We see Christ in action, curing the sick and welcoming sinners. We see his sacrifice for us.

If we aren’t studying Scripture, the God we worship might very well be the product of our own imaginations, and not the actual God who has revealed himself to us.

The second key is prayer — the heart of the relationship. It’s where we talk to him. Our prayer shouldn’t just be rote recitation of formulas. It should be true communication, a sharing of the heart. St. Teresa of Avila said that “prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.” We pour our hearts out to him. We share our struggles. We thank him for our blessings. We ask for his help.

And, if we can manage to block out the noise of our lives, we will find that God speaks to us, through prayer and through Scripture.

I want you to do a little exercise for me. Close your eyes and ask God to surround you with his peace and protection. And then imagine him, with outstretched arms and a big smile on his face, waiting to catch you as you run to him.

And then pray. Talk to that guy. Pour out your heart to him.

He loves you.

Featured photo by Robert Nyman on Unsplash

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.