Reflections on the Liturgy – blog recommendation

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Fr. Nikola Derpich, LC

My friend and former colleague Fr. Nickola Derpich is writing a series of blog posts reflecting on the liturgy, called “Finding the Plug”.  He is a good writer and a holy priest, currently teaching theology at a seminary in Rome. I recommend his blog to anyone interested in getting more out of their participation at Mass.

Right now he’s preparing to comment on one of the Eucharistic Prayers, and you can pick which one! To vote, click on over to this post. I voted for Eucharistic Prayer III, which I find strikes a good balance between simplicity, beauty and content. He’s only offering to comment on I, II and III, which may be because IV would take forever and a day due to its length and density…

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Pray for Paris… or not? Can prayer help?

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Votive candles in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris

“Pray for Paris,” wrote many people in tweets, Facebook text posts, memes, and more in the hours and days following the terrorist attacks in that European capitol two weeks ago.  In response, many atheists and agnostics responded saying that “praying won’t fix anything.” Even some believers seemed to oppose prayer in favor of action, quoting the Dalai Lama, who said that “…humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

They were assuming that prayer and action are opposed. It is true that some people see prayer as a panacea that places all the responsibility in God’s hands and none in ours. However, this is not a proper understanding or practice of prayer.

First off, prayer is not the mere repetition of words. It may involve many or few words, or none at all, according to various prayer methods and traditions, but for Christians it is less about the method and more about becoming aware of God’s presence and communicating with Him. If one’s heart and will aren’t in the external words or actions of prayer, it’s not truly prayer. Jesus himself condemned such hollow external practices (Matthew 6:7-8).

Nor should prayer be focused entirely on ourselves. As Christian prayer is presented in the Bible, it has a strongly communitarian element. When Jesus tells us to pray alone in our rooms, it is mainly in contrast to those who pray ostentatiously to attract attention and appear holy (Matthew 6:5-6). The Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Father,” not “My Father.” He also tells us to join each other in prayer; that what two people ask in His name will be granted (Matthew 18:19-20); to pray for (and forgive) our enemies (Matthew 5:44); etc. Prayer should make us aware of our connectedness, and enhance it, as an exercise of human and spiritual solidarity. It should make us more selfless.

True prayer – prayer that involves the mind, heart and will – is not a rejection of responsibility. Certainly, the core of prayers of petitions (which is not the only kind of prayer) is to ask God for help with some problem, need or desire. However, more often than not God’s answer to prayer is to encourage, guide and empower people to take action to solve the problem or bring about the desired situation. Prayer and action are not intrinsically opposed; on the contrary, prayer is often the preparation and motivation for action.

Real prayer makes us open to the opportunities that God presents to us to make a difference in the lives of ourselves and of others. Sometimes those solutions and opportunities were already present, and He just opens our eyes to them; other times, He works in the hearts and minds of the people needed to create those opportunities.

Persistent, daily prayer can raise our habitual awareness of needs and possible solutions in the world around us – of how human action, guided and informed by God’s grace and inspiration, can really make a difference. It fosters a habit of compassion, as we keep in mind the suffering and needs of others.

Many of these benefits can be recognized without belief in the existence of God (although as it happens, God does exist, and His grace makes prayer effective on more than just a natural level). They have strong psychological aspects to them. Thinking of others and their needs, fostering awareness and compassion, coming together in groups to focus our hearts and minds on personal and community needs, would all have value even if God didn’t exist. Atheists should be glad that people of faith pray, as long as those prayers are truly selfless and focused on promoting the good of individuals and society.

At times, God takes a more direct role in our world in response to prayer; we are not always able to take specific action as individuals, and God chooses to step in. Miracles, in the sense of divine intervention that supersedes the laws of nature, exist. Just as an example, I have personally met people who have had medically documented miraculous healings as the result of prayer. However, they are the exception, not the rule. God created a universe with rules and inhabited it (at least our little blue planet, if not more) with intelligent life capable of making responsible decisions and of knowing what is right and wrong. He generally works through those natural means by use of inspiration, suggestion and encouragement, not by superseding the rules of the world He has created.

For prayer to be effective under these conditions, we need not just to be asking, but also to be listening. Prayer is not a one-sided conversation. Although God doesn’t usually talk to us in words, He does speak to us and guide us through the light of our conscience, through circumstances, by inspiring certain words and actions in others, by drawing our attention to situations, etc.  If prayer seems ineffective, it’s sometimes because not enough people are doing it, or are not doing it right, both asking and listening, giving and receiving.

In fact, if we feel we are not getting the answer to our prayers, perhaps we should ask ourselves how much we are lending ourselves to God to help answer the prayers of others. We should keep in mind that Jesus tells us not to worry about what we need, as long as we are seeking His kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). In what does His righteousness consist? He repeatedly tells us that His commandment is to love and do good to one another (John 15:12-13), which translates into taking action on behalf of those in need (Matthew 25:32-40).

Sometimes prayer still seems ineffective; despite prayer, bad or even terrible things happen to good people, and it seems that our prayers are not heard. Entire treatises have been written on this topic, but there’s one thing I’d like to point out: God is not a vending machine, and prayers are not coins we stuff into Him expecting to receive exactly what we want by pushing a button. God is a living, free being, infinitely more intelligent and powerful than we, beyond our comprehension. He hears our prayers and takes them into account, but He sees the big picture and balances an infinity of factors: the greater good of individuals and humanity in general at any given moment and across time; respect for the gift of human freedom; respect for the laws of nature that He created and that make our world possible. He will respond as is best –not just for us, but for everyone– even if it’s not always as we’d like.

So let us not be discouraged or deceived when people say that prayer won’t help the people of Paris, or that prayer should be discarded in favor of action. True prayer, involving both asking and listening, leads to awareness of others’ needs and to action; to an outpouring of God’s grace in people’s hearts and minds and in the world. It disposes us to recognize and welcome God’s intervention in any form it takes, and makes us instruments of that intervention.

Let us pray for Paris and for other cities and towns around the world that have suffered terrorist attacks. Let us pray for the victims and their families. Let us pray for our enemies, that God may change their hearts. Let us pray that all people – according to their circumstances – will listen to God’s inspiration and participate in making prayer effective.

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It’s election time! Can either party claim Jesus would be on their side?

It’s more than a year before the election and the heat is already on.  Religion, as usual, is used as part of the public discussion in that typical American way, and both Democrats and Republicans claim that the true spirit of Christianity is on their side; Republicans usually from a more conservative or traditional perspective, and Democrats often from a more liberal or progressive one – or even atheist one, saying things along the lines of, “I don’t believe in Jesus, but even I can tell that the Gospel is on my side!”

And yet none of us knows the mind of God 100%, nor the mind of our neighbor, such as to judge the sincerity of their faith or lack thereof (at least, Jesus tells us not to judge them; Luke 6:37…).

What we do know is that, according to the Bible, Jesus wasn’t/isn’t on the side of any political party, nor of the self-righteous (which abound on both sides of the aisle in every government) (Luke 18:9-14).  He was/is on the side of the poor, of sinners, and of the humble (Luke 4:18; Luke 2:17; Matthew 11:29). He was/is on the side of those who know they need redemption and are willing to at least try to repent from their sins and love their neighbors as themselves, to be generous towards and care for others – especially those in need – as God has has been generous towards and cared for them (Luke 7:47; John 13:34; Matthew 25:34-40; 1 John 3:17; etc.).

There are also people of this kind on both sides of the political spectrum, although they may vary widely in their views on how to understand and implement these principles, and on which have greater emphasis or priority, in the context of government, civil society, the private sector and the nonprofit sector.

In the end, we are all incomplete, limited, at times mistaken, and in need of growth in understanding and in love. I am certainly on the list of sinners in need of forgiveness, better knowledge and understanding, and growth. I also aspire to be on the list of those who are trying to be better people despite weakness and failings.

Sometimes – perhaps especially during election season – I look at myself, our country and our world and just see a hopeless mess of inconsistencies, self-interest, tribalism, closed-mindedness, short-sightedness, greed, injustice and ignorance. However, there again I have to remember not to judge the hearts of anyone, my own included, but rather to do my best in my own life to love in deeds, not just in words (James 4:12; 1 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 3:18-23).

I’m not proposing that either party get up and read the Bible and hold hands during a debate. But I do wish that, as a nation, we could rally around the basic principles that are held in common by most religions and non-religious people of good will, such as looking out for the good of all, not just of our own party or our own country; respecting the dignity and life of every human being, and of all forms of life; making responsible and informed use of world resources; and recognizing that the only way forward towards a successful future for our people and our planet is for us to join forces. We must lay aside our selfishness, greed and tribalism in order to find common ground; we must seek fairness and respect for all, and mutual understanding, caring for those most in need, if we are to deserve survival as a nation and as a species.

I don’t see much of that in American politics. May God help us and open our eyes and hearts, so we may be on nobody’s side but His.

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5 Tips for Living Advent

Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas, just as Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. It starts each year on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and ends on the evening of Christmas Eve. Over time, the emphasis has shifted from one of greater penitence and purification to one of joyful expectation, but either way the basic idea is the same: Advent is time we should be using to prepare our hearts to re-live the birth of the Lord and welcome him into our hearts. We should keep in mind that Christmas (like other liturgical celebrations) is more than just the celebration of the memory of things past. When we participate in the Church’s liturgy, the action of the Holy Spirit makes us present to the events that we celebrate:

Christian liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us but actualizes them, makes them present. The Paschal mystery of Christ is celebrated, not repeated. It is the celebrations that are repeated, and in each celebration there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1104 – emphasis added)

Therefore, it is worth preparing ourselves well to participate and benefit fully from the celebration of Christmas. To that end, I offer the following 5 tips:

1. Learn a new Advent hymn.

Most Catholics already know “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, but if my personal experience reflects the general reality, few congregations really learn any other Advent songs; we do our best to sing along with the cantor and/or choir at Sunday Mass, but since there are only four Sundays to Advent each year, we rarely really learn new songs specific to the season. And yet, good liturgical music for Advent can help us a lot.  These songs speak of the Lamb who frees us from sin and darkness, who brings us light and hope. During Advent we also think of his second coming at the end of time, when he will take those who love him to heaven for all eternity.  The words and music of these songs work together to convey a message of faith, hope, love and anticipation for the coming of the Savior. It’s worth adding a new one to our repertoire to reflect on and hum or whistle while we are in the car or in the shower.

2. Make an Advent resolution.

I’m not suggesting you give up chocolate or Christmas cookies like you would during Lent. However, it is a time of preparation. We can think of our soul as the manger that is preparing to receive Christ Christmas night. Surely, Joseph did what he could – as little as it may have been – to clean the stable and make it comfortable for Mary and the baby Jesus. We should do the same with our soul: try to clean it of sin, and make it a welcoming place by loving God in our neighbor. For example, we might make a resolution to be more generous with those around us who are in need, to reach out to someone who would otherwise celebrate the holidays alone, or – perhaps more difficult – not to judge all the friends, family members and co-workers that we will see at Christmas parties throughout the month, and with whom we may have political, ideological or personal differences.  Another good resolution (complementary to the kind I just mentioned) would be to go to the sacrament of Reconciliation at least once at the beginning of Advent and once at the end. Of course, each of us has to see what we need to do to be better prepared, and that depends on our personal situation.

3. At least once during Advent, pray a segment of the Liturgy of the Hours.

The Liturgy of the Hours (aka the breviary), especially during Advent, presents us with psalms and texts that speak of the promise of the Messiah. Christian liturgy has its roots in Jewish liturgy, and the Old Testament texts are drawn from Jewish sources; it’s probable that Mary and Joseph were reflecting on some of these same texts as they awaited the birth of their Son, whose mission is foretold in beautiful, often mysterious and symbolic language. By praying with these texts we join ourselves to them awaiting the coming of the Lord.

It might seem intimidating if you pick up a print copy of the Liturgy of the Hours for the first time, but many churches offer directed community prayer of Morning Prayer or Vespers.  If that doesn’t fit your calendar, you can pray on your own using one of the available smartphone apps, or a website like the following:

It doesn’t have to take long, either; some of the shorter “hours” such as mid-day prayer last no more than 5 minutes or so if prayed privately.

4. Don’t use up all your Christmas spirit before Christmas.

For secular culture, Christmas ends no later than midnight on December 25. For Catholics, Christmas begins on December 25 and ends little by little over the next several weeks. First, there is the “Octave of Christmas” – the eight days from Dec. 25 to Jan. 1, which are celebrated with special joy and liturgical solemnity. Then there are the remaining four days until January 6, the traditional date of the Feast of the Epiphany, which are still part of the famous “12 Days of Christmas.” But, it’s not over yet! The Christmas season extends all the way to the first Sunday after the Epiphany. In 2015, that’s January 11.

So, while we may enjoy all the “Christmas” parties and events that happen during Advent and lead up to the 25th, let’s not forget that Christmas isn’t over until more than two weeks later. It’s good to keep our sense of expectation alive, even though the celebrations have already begun. Especially for families with children, it can be a good idea to stretch out some of the festivities and activities at least until the Feast of the Epiphany so that Advent conserves its sense of preparation, and we keep a sense of the meaning of Christmas as not being strictly tied to the secular, commercial celebration.

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5. Revive a family tradition, or start a new one

Traditions have a cultural and sentimental value, but they are also much more than that. They are means of teaching and keeping alive values and stories that help make up our identity. I still remember the Advent calendars that my mother made for my brother and me when I was small. Each morning she would add something to the calendar for the day – a note with instructions, a small gift, a Christmas-themed image… Those notes might tell us to read a specific Advent-related Scripture passage, or do a good deed, or tip us off to some treat that we had to search for in the form of a treasure hunt. Sometimes the small gift wasn’t for us; it was for us to give to someone else! It was a fun activity that also taught us about our faith and the importance of giving to others. Similarly, a friend told me that when he hears the word “Advent” he remembers his grandmother gathering the family in a candle-lit room to pray the Rosary together and sing hymns on the nights leading up to Christmas.

Many families have Advent traditions, but sometimes they fall into disuse. This is a great time to revive those traditions, if need be, or to create new ones, that will help everyone to grow in their faith and in their love for this special season, creating lasting memories that help our beliefs and values to penetrate our hearts and minds.

Advent wreath

Advent wreath

And especially for these purposes, “family” doesn’t have to be just blood relatives.  When we were baptized into Christ, we were baptized into his Body, and Christ died for all, regardless of race, tribe or nation. We are all related by his Blood, if not by our own. Our family can include anyone we love, of course, but Advent and Christmas are also great times to show our love by welcoming people who are lonely, sick, or poor, those who mourn, and those who are far from home (see Mt 25:34-6)

If you want some more ideas for Advent tips, activities and traditions, CatholicCulture.org has a special part of their website dedicated to this topic.

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A quick thought about Mariology

Recent scientific studies could shed light on one of the ways in which Mary was unique.

fetus-20-weeks-1When a child grows in his or her mother’s womb, the mother and child have a special symbiotic relationship. As this article (among many others) shows, some stem cells from the fetus transfer to the mother’s body, and often stay there for years (and possibly vice versa).  As this same article reveals, it seems that these stem cells might not be just hanging around; they may take an active role in healing certain kinds of injuries (and, in some cases, causing certain problems).

SONY DSCThink about that for a moment.  If this science is correct, then Mary was probably carrying around living cells from Jesus’ body inside her own.  Catholics believe that Jesus’ body is inextricably joined to his divinity (just think of the Eucharist). So, if all of this is true, then Mary’s body was, in a certain real and physical sense, permeated by God’s presence, in a way far more intimate even than when people receive Communion. Think of the effects the Church attributes to receiving Communion, and intensify that immeasurably.

Suddenly the doctrine of the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven at the end of her earthly life makes more sense than ever. Not to mention her remaining free from sin.

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Movie review: Interstellar

Movie review: Interstellar.

I have started a new blog (“Legal Alien”), where I will post things related to my life and experiences in Monterrey as an expat. Perpetual Learner will be more for serious posts about theology, philosophy, personal reflections, etc. (like my recent post on life lessons).

Click on over and read my review of Interstellar!

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Life lessons I need to keep remembering…

The past few years have helped me to learn me a lot of lessons, but some of them are frustratingly hard to keep in mind and to follow. Here are a few of them. They may sound trite, but if they are oft-repeated, it is because they are true.

  1. The past cannot be changed, and to live in it or lament it is pointless. The best (and most) you can do is be grateful for the good you have received, ask forgiveness for your offenses, and learn from both good experiences and mistakes and bad decisions (yours and those of others).
  2. You must do your best to understand and recognize the present for what it is, not for what you’d like it to be. That includes knowing and accepting the truth about who you are right now and what your relationships are with the people around you, with your work, and with God.
  3. It is your own responsibility to act in the present to help shape the future.  You can’t wait for others to decide or act for you.
  4. You should act in a way that is consistent with reality and with your principles. That is not always easy – it has consequences that are not always what you want – but the longer you let fear or anxiety paralyze or blind you, the worse things will get, for you and for others whose lives you touch.
  5. Making the right decisions requires making the effort to inform yourself and use your best judgment, as well as relying on the advice, counsel, guidance, knowledge and wisdom of others.
  6. If you need help, ask for it. But the more important the help you need, the more careful you should be about whom you ask.
  7. Looks can be deceiving.
  8. You are not in control of what happens around you.  No human being is. The universe is an incredibly complex network of causes and effects, natural laws, and decisions made with varying degrees of freedom and rationality. Rely on God’s providence and guidance. He is the only one who really knows what is going on – and he does know.
  9. In this life, you will never fully understand God’s plan. Just when you think you’ve got it, he will probably throw you a curve ball. Trust that he can bring good out of any situation.
  10. The previous two rules mean that you need to pray a lot: prayers of thanksgiving and of petition, prayers for others and for yourself. And believe that those prayers will be heard and answered, although the answer may not be what you want nor come when you would like it to.
  11. God is the only person whose expectations you must live up to. And God’s expectations are often not the same as yours, or anyone else’s. You discover them as you go along; always be open to the unexpected.
  12. God wants you to develop the gifts he has given you the best you can, in your specific circumstances, and to use those gifts in a way that makes you and others happy (the two go hand in hand). You must be the best “you” that you can be.
  13. The previous two rules mean that your happiness will come from fulfilling God’s specific plans for you, not from living up to any other standard.  No two people are the same, nor should they be.  Other people can serve as an inspiration or model in certain ways, but you cannot measure your success in life by direct comparison of your achievements with those of someone else.  We all start life with unique talents, difficulties, and resources.  We pass through unique challenges, circumstances, influences (both positive and negative), etc.  The results will inevitably be different. Don’t ask whether or not you are better or worse than someone else in any given aspect of your life or personality; ask whether or not you are the best “you” you can be in your circumstances.

These are easy to write, but I never manage to apply them all at once…

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