What is your practice?

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Today, the common question in spiritual circles is not, “What is your church or your religion?” But, “what is your practice?”
What is your practice? What is your particular explicit prayer practice? Is it Christian? Buddhist? Islamic? Secular? Do you meditate? Do you do Centering prayer? Do you practice Mindfulness? For how long do you do this each day?
These are good questions and the prayer practices they refer to are good practices; but I take issue with one thing. The tendency here is to identify the essence of one’s discipleship and religious observance with a single explicit prayer practice, and that can be reductionist and simplistic. Discipleship is about more than one prayer practice.
A friend of mine shares this story. He was at a spirituality gathering where the question most asked of everyone was this: what is your practice? One woman replied, “My practice is raising my kids!” She may have meant it in jest, but her quip contains an insight that can serve as an important corrective to the tendency to identify the essence of one’s discipleship with a single explicit prayer practice.
Monks have secrets worth knowing. One of these is the truth that for any single prayer practice to be transformative it must be embedded in a larger set of practices, a much larger “monastic routine,” which commits one to a lot more than a single prayer practice. For a monk, each prayer practice is embedded inside a monastic routine and that routine, rather than any one single prayer practice, becomes the monk’s practice. Further still, that monastic routine, to have real value, must be itself predicated on fidelity to one’s vows.

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Hence, the question “what is your practice?” is a good one if it refers to more than just a single explicit prayer practice. It must also ask whether you are keeping the commandments. Are you faithful to your vows and commitments? Are you raising your kids well? Are you staying within Christian community? Do you reach out to the poor? And, yes, do you have some regular, explicit, habitual prayer practice?
What is my own practice?
I lean heavily on regularity and ritual, on a “monastic routine.” Here is my normal routine: Each morning I pray the Office of Lauds (usually in community). Then, before going to my office, I read a spiritual book for at least 20 minutes. At noon, I participate in the Eucharist, and sometime during the day, I go for a long walk and pray for an hour (mostly using the rosary as a mantra and praying for a lot of people by name). On days when I do not take a walk, I sit in meditation or Centering prayer for about fifteen minutes. Each evening, I pray Vespers (again, usually in community). Once a week, I spend the evening writing a column on some aspect of spirituality. Once a month I celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, always with the same confessor; and, when possible, I try to carve out a week each year to do a retreat. My practice survives on routine, rhythm and ritual. These hold me and keep me inside my discipleship and my vows. They hold me more than I hold them. No matter how busy I am, no matter how distracted I am, and no matter whether or not I feel like praying on any given day, these rituals draw me into prayer and fidelity.
To be a disciple is to put yourself under a discipline. Thus, the bigger part of my practice is my ministry and the chronic discipline this demands of me. Full disclosure, ministry is often more stimulating than prayer; but it also demands more of you and, if done in fidelity, can be powerfully transformative in terms of bringing you to maturity and altruism.
Carlo Carretto, the renowned spiritual writer, spend much of his adult life in the Sahara Desert, living in solitude as a monk, spending many hours in formal prayer. However, after years of solitude and prayer in the desert, he went to visit his aging mother who had dedicated many years of her life to raising children, leaving little time for formal prayer. Visiting her, he realized something, namely, his mother was more of contemplative than he was! To his credit, Carretto drew the right lesson: there was nothing wrong with what he had been doing in the solitude of the desert for all those years, but there was something very right in what his mother had been doing in the busy bustle of raising children for so many years. Her life was its own monastery. Her practice was “raising kids.”
I have always loved this line from Robert Lax: “The task in life is not so much finding a path in the woods as of finding a rhythm to walk in.” Perhaps your rhythm is “monastic,” perhaps “domestic.” An explicit prayer practice is very important as a religious practice, but so too are our duties of state.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.)

Call by Name

As I wrote my Christmas cards last month, I dated them in the top right corner with the notation Coronatide. The time of isolation due to the pandemic will certainly be held in our memories for many reasons. Certainly, there was tragedy for many, stress for even more, and suffering of one kind or another for all. And yet, we know as Christians that no suffering is ever wasted when we enter into it ready to receive the graces we need to endure. One of the graces that the Lord gave me was a greater willingness to enter into silence and stillness. I also read more books this past year than I ever had before.

Father Nick Adam
Father Nick Adam

The final book that was on my list this past year was Back to Virtue by Peter Kreeft. Kreeft is a Catholic philosopher who has been well published in the past few decades. This book was first released in 1986, and yet it rings very true today. Kreeft writes about the challenges of trying to apply virtues like prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude in a society that exalts “self-fulfillment” as the greatest good in the universe. We are taught from a young age (through cultural osmosis if not at home) that production is king. We must make money, we must reach certain concrete societal expectations, etc., in order to be fully functioning and fully alive.
This attitude ignores a tenant of the faith that we profess: the fact that our very life comes from and is leading us back to the Lord. We have to make God our number one priority. We have to look to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ to be fully alive. Jesus simply sought to do his Father’s will, and that’s it. This is difficult for us because religion has taken a back seat to just about everything else today. If soccer tournaments and hunting trips take precedent for many over Sunday Mass, then surely what our culture sees as good will take precedent over what Jesus says is good.
To be fully alive is to slowly and surely avoid sin and do good, and to receive the freedom that comes from our relationship with Jesus Christ. That relationship is strengthened by the sacraments and it should drive everything that we do. Living fully alive in God will help our human relationships grow and will help us to have an abiding peace in this world before we have complete happiness in the next. So, live fully alive in 2021, and listen to the voice of the Lord in prayer and at Mass.
You may be wondering: what on earth does this have to do with vocations? Well, it’s simple: vocation comes from the word “to call” and you won’t hear the call if you aren’t intent on listening to the Lord rather than the noise of the World.

If you want to know more about becoming a priest or religious brother or sister, please contact Father Nick Adam at 601-969-4020 or nick.adam@jacksondiocese.org. You can also learn more about vocations by visiting to www.jacksonpriests.com.

Follow vocations on Facebook and Instagram @jacksonpriests

A neglected (by most of us) feast

THINGS OLD AND NEW
By Ruth Powers
By now for most of us the Christmas decorations have come down and been stored away for another year. Some took them down by New Years; others at the more traditional Epiphany, but in other times and in other parts of the world, they remain in place until another important feast in the early life of Christ — Candlemas on Feb. 2.
Candlemas is known officially in the church by a couple of names: The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast day celebrates the events recounted in Luke 2:22-38 and illustrates clearly that the Holy Family were observant Jews and Jesus was brought up in the context of his Jewish heritage. In Jewish law, a woman was considered to be ritually “unclean” for 40 days following the birth of a son. She could not touch anything sacred or enter any sacred place until she had undergone ritual purification. To be purified, the woman was to go to the priest and provide a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove as a sin offering. If the woman could not afford to provide a lamb, then she could offer two turtledoves or pigeons. The fact that Luke 2:24 records Mary as offering the birds gives us the insight that Jesus did not grow up in a wealthy or influential family. In addition, at this time it was the law that a woman’s first born male child was to be presented at the Temple and dedicated to God.
This feast day also commemorates another epiphany, or disclosure, of the nature and role of Jesus, and also of Mary. The Holy Family encounters Simeon, a “just and devout” old man who has been told that he will not die until he sees the Messiah. He is moved by the Holy Spirit to come to the Temple that day and recognizes the child Jesus as the one who has been promised. He prophesies that Mary will also suffer, (“and you yourself a sword shall pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”)
Simeon’s beautiful prayer upon seeing Jesus now forms part of Night Prayer which is said every night in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is called the Nunc Dimittis from its first few words and says, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” His prophecy to Mary also forms the basis of her title as Our Lady of Sorrows and the image of her which shows her heart pierced by a sword. They also encounter the prophetess Anna, who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and “speaks about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”
This is an ancient feast in the church, dating to sometime at the end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth. It is a feast associated with light for a number of reasons, mainly in recognition that Christ is called the Light of the World and that Simeon refers to him as “a light to reveal You to the nations.” Because of this association, a custom arose in the early Middle Ages of blessing candles to be used in the home for the rest of the year on this day; so the celebration became commonly known as the Candle Mass, or Candlemas.

Ruth Powers

In addition, this feast day displaced certain pagan celebrations such as the Roman Lupercalia or the Celtic Imbolc that also revolved around the fact that at this time of year the days become noticeably longer as we move toward Spring. In many countries in Eastern Europe Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season; and the withered greens used to decorate are taken down and burned in bonfires at this time while houses are cleaned and freshened to provide welcome for the coming Spring (the probable origin of the custom of spring cleaning).
Just for fun there are some other customs and traditions that link the celebration of Candlemas with the coming of Light and Spring. In Northern Europe, there is a weather prediction rhyme about the day: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, come winter, have another flight; if Candlemas bring clouds and rain, go winter and come not again.” This was brought to the United States by German settlers and should be familiar as the basis of the groundhog prediction on Feb. 2. In France it is customary to eat crepes or pancakes on Candlemas. If someone can successfully flip the pancake with one hand while holding a coin in the other, the coming year will bring prosperity (the round pancake is said to symbolize the sun). Finally, bouquets of the snowdrop flower, also called Candlemas bells, are brought inside on February 2. A legend says that an angel helped these flowers to bloom even though it was still winter as a sign of hope for Eve, who wept in despair at the cold and death that had entered the world, and those flowers have come to be a symbol of Christ bringing hope to the world. So, bring your candles to be blessed and celebrate Feb. 2 as a reminder of the coming of the Light of the World.

(Ruth is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)

Faithfulness goes the distance

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
What comes to mind when you hear words like faithful, loyal, dedicated and committed? Most would probably think of some couple whose marriage has lasted sixty or seventy years. You might also give the example of someone who continues to work for the same organization for decades, despite more lucrative offers from other companies. Maybe you would consider an activist who has remained steadfast in support of a cause, even to the point of being jailed rather than compromise his beliefs. And let’s not forget those whose devotion to God is so strong that they seem to be involved in practically every ministry in their parish.
But the best example, the model we should all strive to emulate, is not related to human fidelity but rather to God’s. All throughout the Old Testament we find covenants the Lord made with His chosen people. And in every single case He kept His commitment, even though the Israelites failed to keep theirs. In fact, much of the Old Testament landscape is littered with these broken covenants and all sorts of other transgressions.

Melvin Arrington, Jr

Scott Hahn, in his book A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture, examines in detail the covenants God made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, and the specific signs that accompanied each of them, namely – the Sabbath, the rainbow, circumcision, the Passover, and the everlasting throne, respectively. Hahn then demonstrates how the Lord fulfilled all those promises and brought them to fruition in Jesus, the New Covenant, under the sign of the Eucharist. Throughout the ages God has kept his commitments to His people. He is always faithful, even when we’re not.
Faithfulness, the seventh of the nine Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, is an expression of love, a love that demands fidelity, loyalty and commitment. The latter quality is especially tricky, and it can become a sticking point because it’s usually easy to make a commitment but often much more problematic to follow through on it. St. Camillus (d. 1614) got to the heart of the matter when he observed: “Commitment is doing what you said you would do when the feeling you had when you said it has passed.”
As Christians we are called to keep our commitments to the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the outcast, the forgotten. But just saying that we love our neighbor is not enough. We are responsible for putting our faith into practice; we’ve got to move; we’ve got to act. Our calling is to be a beacon of hope to those in need. And the way we demonstrate that we care is by going out into our communities and ministering to our brothers and sisters with love and compassion. That’s what it means to be faithful. While it’s true that our efforts may not always produce positive results, we should take encouragement from these words of St. Teresa of Calcutta: “God does not ask us to be successful but to be faithful.”
So, have I been true to my calling? How am I doing with regard to my faithfulness? Well, to be honest, the answers would have to be “not always” and “from time to time not so good.” There have been occasions when I didn’t pray for someone who needed my prayers, instances when I made excuses for not calling, visiting, or writing someone who was ill or lonely and, sadly, moments when I refused to offer assistance to a person who was looking to me for a helping hand. In other words, I just flat out failed. But despite these failures, my neighbor is still out there, and he’s still counting on me.
Past shortcomings should never be used as an excuse for missing out on new service opportunities that come along every day. At some point we will surely fall, but when that happens our only option will be to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get back to doing the work we’ve been called to do. After all, life is not a sprint. It’s a marathon, and we’ve all got to persevere if we’re going to go the distance on the spiritual path.
So, every morning, shortly after waking up, I try to remember to offer a little prayer asking the Lord to remind me of my responsibilities as a Christian, reveal to me specific service opportunities for the day, and also help me muster the energy to perform those tasks to the best of my ability. And when my strength begins to wane, I know God will come to my aid because, as I Thessalonians 5:24 says: “the one who calls you is faithful.” Heavenly Father, help me to always be faithful, too. Help me to be the “good and faithful servant” you want me to be, through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)

Called by name

The Lord doesn’t require us to achieve a certain level of measurable success, but only to be faithful. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said this during her long life of ministry to the poor of India, and it is important that all of us take stock of that call at the end of this year.

In the Department of Vocations, success could very easily be measured: How many new seminarians do we have signed up for next year? It is tempting for me to take stock in this way, and yet constantly the Lord gives me examples of how success does not exist in hard numbers. In this year, my first year (or at least part of a year) as the full-time Vocation Director, I have seen our seminarians be formed into more virtuous men who look out for one another and have a deep love for the people of our diocese. I have watched as many discerners have experienced a taste of seminary life and have learned more about God’s call for them. I have spoken with many of you about sharing a vision for the future health of our diocese by supporting the mission of this department. There is one way in which worldly “success” can be measured, but there are many more ways that faithfulness can be measured.

Father Nick Adam
Father Nick Adam

Disciples of the Lord are known by the fruits that they produce in the world, and there have been many fruits born from this department this year. One of the greatest is the unity of the seminarians that we currently have and their dedication to praying for one another. In the summer Bishop Kopacz and seminarian Ryan Stoer came up with a plan to pray for one another more intentionally. On the first Thursday of every month, the seminarians, myself and Bishop Kopacz have committed to praying a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament from 6-7 a.m. Since we started this in August, we all have experienced an increase in our bond of charity that goes beyond a dinner together or shared experiences of formation. This is what I am most excited to share with you as we look toward a new year. I have no idea how many new seminarians we will have in the Fall of 2021, but I am hopeful. I am hopeful because the faith of the men who are a part of this mission with me and of so many of you who have helped financially and spiritually this year is strong.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Please pray for more laborers for the harvest, and pray that the men who are laboring now, including myself, remain faithful.

The illusion of invulnerability

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s a pious axiom that doesn’t always hold up. Sometimes the bad time comes and we don’t learn anything. Hopefully this present bad time, COVID-19, will teach us something and make us stronger. My hope is that COVID-19 will teach us something that previous generations didn’t need to be taught but already knew through their lived experience; namely, that we’re not invulnerable, that we aren’t exempt from the threat of sickness, debilitation and death. In short, all that our contemporary world can offer us in terms of technology, medicine, nutrition and insurance of every kind, doesn’t exempt us from fragility and vulnerability. COVID-19 has taught us that. Just like everyone else who has ever walked this earth, we’re vulnerable.

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

I’m old enough to have known a previous generation when most people lived with a lot of fear, not all of it healthy, but all of it real. Life was fragile. Giving birth to a child could mean your death. A flu or virus could kill you and you had little defense against it. You could die young from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, bad sanitation, and dozens of other things. And nature itself could pose a threat. Storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, pestilence, lightening, these were all to be feared because we were mostly helpless against them. People lived with a sense that life and health were fragile, not to be taken for granted.
But then along came vaccinations, penicillin, better hospitals, better medicines, safer childbirth, better nutrition, better housing, better sanitation, better roads, better cars and better insurance against everything from loss of work, to drought, to storms, to pestilence, to disasters of any kind. And along with that came an ever-increasing sense that we’re safe, protected, secure, different than previous generations, able to take care of ourselves, no longer as vulnerable as were the generations before us.
And to a large extent that’s true, at least in terms of our physical health and safety. In many ways, we’re far less vulnerable than previous generations. But, as COVID-19 has made evident, this is not a fully safe harbor. Despite much denial and protest, we’ve had to accept that we now live as did everyone before us, that is, as unable to guarantee own health and safety. For all the dreadful things COVID-19 has done to us, it has helped dispel an illusion, the illusion of our own invulnerability. We’re fragile, vulnerable, mortal.
At first glance, this seems like a bad thing; it’s not. Disillusionment is the dispelling of an illusion and we have for too long (and too glibly) been living an illusion, that is, living under a pall of false enchantment which has us believing that the threats of old no longer have power to touch us. And how wrong we are! As of the time of this writing there are 70.1 million COVID-19 cases reported worldwide and there have been more than 1.6 million reported deaths from this virus. Moreover the highest rates of infection and death have been in those countries we would think most invulnerable, countries that have the best hospitals and highest standards of medicine to protect us. That should be a wake-up call. For all the good things our modern and post-modern world can give us, in the end it can’t protect us from everything, even as it gives us the sense that it can.
COVID-19 has been a game-changer; it has dispelled an illusion, that of our own invulnerability. What’s to be learned? In short, that our generation must take its place with all other generations, recognizing that we cannot take life, health, family, work, community, travel, recreation, freedom to gather, and freedom to go to church, for granted. COVID-19 has taught us that we’re not the Lord of life and that fragility is still the lot of everyone, even in a modern and post-modern world.
Classical Christian theology and philosophy have always taught that as humans we are not self-sufficient. Only God is. Only God is “Self-sufficient Being” (Ipsum Esse Subsistens, in classical philosophy). The rest of us are contingent, dependent, interdependent … and mortal enough to fear the next appointment with our doctor. Former generations, because they lacked our medical knowledge, our doctors, our hospitals, our standards of hygiene, our medicines, our vaccines, and our antibiotics, existentially felt their contingency. They knew they weren’t self-sufficient and that life and health could not be taken for granted. I don’t envy them some of the false fear that came with that, but I do envy them not living under a pall of false security.
Our contemporary world, for all the good things it gives us, has lulled us asleep in terms of our fragility, vulnerability, and mortality. COVID-19 is a wake-up call, not just to the fact that we’re vulnerable, but especially to the fact that we may not take for granted the precious gifts of health, family, work, community, travel, recreation, freedom to gather, and (yes) even of going to church.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.)

Surrender to peace

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
For me, there is something so immensely inviting about a cold grey December morning. Perhaps it invokes memories of Winter growing up on our farm in Southeastern Ohio. There is a stillness in a cold grey day that creates room for a pause. It is that pause that I most appreciate. Instead of jumping into the activity of the day I feel permission to sit with a cup of coffee and gaze out the window. I recently had such an experience Saturday morning a few weeks back. Surrounded by incredible peace, for a moment I forgot that our country and the world is being ravished by a pandemic. I also forgot that our politics in this country have become so polarized that death threats levied against political opponents has become commonplace.
It has been a long year. It has been a difficult year; for some much more than others. I try to look for meaning in times that seem senseless and hope in the midst of grief. There are many factors that continue to lead us away from seeing one another as God’s beloved children. What we consume on cable news networks and social media play a big part in that widening chasm. Reconciling our communities with divergent very public (some might say vitriol) views is no small task. Two keen examples are our response to the virus (particularly mask wearing) and the outcome of the recent election. If our faith is what is going to save us, then we need to be willing to put into practice what we believe.
I have spent some time this Fall reading Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical letter. The thesis of Fratelli Tutti is a timely call for the human family to acknowledge the dignity of one another. In framing the issue of our indifference to one another he is brutally honest about how far we are from true fraternal love. The scriptural centerpiece of this plea is the parable of the Good Samaritan. His approach to Scripture is very Ignatian. He reflects on the characters in the story and asks the reader to imagine themselves in the story in each character role. This mechanism builds a greater understanding of the complexity of the characters and builds a better understanding of the bigger picture. He then takes us deeper into our own reality and challenges us to reflect on whether our actions align with our vision and fulfill our mission.
Pope Francis was very successful in using the Parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the meaning of fraternal care. He adeptly negotiates the landscape of identifying not only the issues but allowing for reflection and action. His vision is always aligned with the mission of the Gospel. The continuity of that messaging was an “Ah Ha” moment for me.
If the goal of a leader is to articulate a vision and to motivate others to share in and carry out the vision, clear and accessible communication is necessary. So is honesty in assessing the current situation. We need to be realistic about where we are to successfully map out the path to where we want to go.
I do not think anyone relishes the constant reminders that we are a deeply divided country. I think that most Americans, and really all of humanity, want to live in peace. We cannot expect that government or Church leaders can solely change this narrative. We must all participate if change is to be sustainable. If we all spent less time following social media and more time following the Gospel, we would be less anxious and more hopeful. We do not change the narrative by adding to the cacophony of noise. We change the narrative by turning to God and one another and living the Gospel.
I was recently reminded of the World War I Christmas Truce. On Christmas Eve, German and British troops fighting in World War I sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines. Christmas morning after white flags appeared from both sides, soldiers emerged from their trenches and shook hands with one another. They shared food and drink. There is documentation of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer. If amid a World War, so called dehumanized enemies can stop fighting and see one another the way God sees us – as one family – I know we can do the same. This Christmas give yourself a gift. Raise a white flag. Surrender to peace. The division ends when we stop giving our energy to it.

(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson)

Calling a truce in the war on holly jolly

AMID THE FRAY
By Greg Erlandson
You’ve heard about the war on Christmas. But have you heard about the war on holly jolly?
It’s a war my wife Corine has waged for some years now. It always starts the same way, my children will tell you. Something pushes her button – one too may grinning snowmen, one too many commercials where fabulously beautiful couples give each other cars with red bows on top, one too many images of idyllic consumerism, in other words.
When she snaps, she turns to whichever child is walking with her down some overstuffed department store aisle and says: “There are two kinds of Christmases, the spiritual and the holly jolly. And the holly jolly just drives people crazy.”

Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, writes the CNS column “Amid the Fray.” (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

When challenged about her war on holly jolly, she may blame it on my father, who lambasted Christmas for its “forced gaity,” a phrase that is just begging to be adopted as the name of a sullen rock band.
The holly jolly is all the accoutrement of Christmas that has virtually nothing to do with the Christ Child’s arrival. It is all the stuff that, well, really ticked off the Grinch: All the noise, noise, noise and excessive fa la la.
My wife would say that the Grinch had a point. All the marketing images forced upon us for months on end with happy couples, happy children, happy pets all sharing in perfect “Xmas” delight doesn’t just sell us stuff. It can make us feel bad.
All sorts of people know that they are a long way from these images. At this irrationally exuberant time of year, they feel like they are failing if they aren’t equally exuberant as they struggle to live up to these expectations of holly jolly. Counselors tell us that rates of depression go way up around Christmas, and the internet is crowded with articles on how to relieve this stress.
This year, it has to be worse. We have a pandemic, isolation and unemployment on top of the normal pressures of the season.
Which is why I am proposing to my wife that we call a truce in the war on holly jolly. What I’ve been noticing this year is that people have been putting up lights earlier. Trees seem to be going up earlier too. Christmas music weeks and weeks before Christmas isn’t irritating. It’s soothing. The holly jolly aspect is maybe just what we need: It’s aromatherapy and light therapy for survivors of a dark and miserable year.
Holly jolly, in fact, may be one of the few signs of normalcy we’ve been able to enjoy this year. So let’s make the most of it. Bring out the gingerbread houses! Take cookies over to the neighbors! Put on an extra strand of lights! Turn off “The Crown” and the evening news and watch the Christmas classics. It is a wonderful life, after all, even now.
And at the same time, light the Advent wreath candles. Go to Mass once during the week. Bring in an extra bag of groceries for the food pantry or send a donation to your favorite charity. Don’t worry about doing 50 Christmas cards, but do 10. Enclose a personal note and send them to people who might really need a kind word.
And don’t forget that there are 12 days of Christmas, so keep the holly jolly going at least till Jan. 6. In fact, keep those Christmas lights up the whole month. Give your neighbors something to smile about.
It has been a rough year for so many of us. Let’s be kind to ourselves and to each other. I’m pretty sure that this year, it’s what the Christ Child would want.

(Greg Erlandson is the director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.)

Call by Name

A couple of our seminarians and I recently watched a documentary called “The Social Dilemma” (streaming now on Netflix). The filmmaker interviews former Silicon Valley developers who helped to create the majority of the social media platforms that exist today. Most of the subjects left their posts due to ethical concerns about the effect that social media is having on humanity as a whole. This is not a new concern, but the documentary is a helpful source to understand just how addictive our phones and devices can become, and the way that the psychology-based advertising strategy of some social networks can basically break our brain. People stare at their phones, refresh, and stare some more. While “The Social Dilemma” focused much more on the effect that this is having on our youngest generations, we all know that every generation is susceptible to this threat: the threat of having our primary source of truth, goodness and beauty be a plastic rectangle that we hold in our hands.

Father Nick Adam
Father Nick Adam

It was interesting that I watched this film in one of the places in our country where screens do not have such a stranglehold: the seminary. The community life and brotherhood of priestly formation is a great antidote to the addiction of the virtually connected. The men at the seminary are actually connected, in prayer to and worship of the Lord, in common purpose, in conversation, and in challenging one another. This is a great gift that houses of formation provide, and it is something that I advertise to those who I bring to visit the seminary.
I think our younger generations are waking up to the lie of our “plugged-in” society faster than the rest of the population. They know that they will not find truth, goodness or beauty from any social network because ultimately all of these platforms are only seeking eyes and ears and clicks to sell to advertisers. Younger people have seen the destruction that this causes in the alarming rise in depression, self-harm and suicide among youth that the documentary details. This terrible reality, however, is also the reason I believe that these generations are ready to turn to something deeper, something greater, because they know the answer does not lie on their phone, they know that the meaning of life is not how many “likes” they get, but how many real relationships they can develop, and how they develop in relationship with the God who made them. They have spent their childhood in digital spaces that might care about their eyes and ears, but not about their immortal souls.
The Lord is certainly breaking in and speaking loudly and clearly on college campuses that provide access to exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and have thriving Catholic Student Centers because the students just want to grow in relationship with actual people, and with the Lord who actually loves them. I am impressed and inspired by the young men and women who are members of the Catholic Student Associations at the universities and colleges in our state, and I appreciate the pastors, like Father Jason Johnston in Starkville and Father Joe Tonos in Oxford, who support the students who are members of their flocks and hire excellent campus ministry staff to support them.
I encourage all of us this Advent to take a long look at what we are spending our time looking at and listening to. We all need more time with the Lord who loves us, and less time with devices that have made us objects of advertisers’ affection. I wish you all a Blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas.

An invitation to maturity – weeping over Jerusalem

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Maturity has various levels. Basic maturity is defined as having essentially outgrown the instinctual selfishness with which we were born so that our motivation and actions are now shaped by the needs of others and not just by our own needs. That’s the basic minimum, the low bar for maturity. After that there are degrees and levels, contingent upon how much our motivation and actions are altruistic rather than selfish.
In the Gospels, Jesus invites us to ever deeper degrees of maturity, though sometimes we can miss the invitation because it presents itself subtly and not as explicitly worded moral invitation. One such subtle, but very deep, invitation to a higher degree of maturity is given in the incident where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. What’s inside this image?

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Here’s the image and its setting. Jesus has just been rejected, both in his person and in his message and he sees clearly the pain the people will bring upon themselves by that rejection. What’s his reaction? Does he react in the way most of us would: Well the hell with you! I hope you suffer the full consequences of your own stupidity! No. He weeps, like a loving parent dealing with a wayward child; he wishes with every fiber in his being that he could save them from the consequences of their own bad choices. He feels their wound rather than gleefully contemplating their suffering.
There’s a double challenge here. First, there’s a personal one: are we gleeful when people who reject our advice suffer for their wrong-headedness or do we weep inside us for the pain they have brought onto themselves? When we see the consequences in people’s lives of their own bad choices, be it with irresponsibility, with laziness, with drugs, with sex, with abortion, with ideology, with anti-religious attitudes, or with bad will, are we gleeful when those choices begin to snake-bite them (Well, you got what you deserved!) or do we weep for them, for their misfortune?
Admittedly, it’s hard not be gleeful when someone who rejects what we stand for is then snake-bitten by his own stubborn choice. It’s the natural way the heart works and so empathy can demand a very high degree of maturity. For example, during this COVID-19 pandemic, medical experts (almost without exception) have been telling us to wear masks to protect others and ourselves. What’s our spontaneous reaction when someone defies that warning, thinks he is smarter than the doctors, doesn’t wear a mask, and then contracts the virus? Do we secretly bask in the cathartic satisfaction that he got what he deserved or do we, metaphorically, “weep over Jerusalem?”
Beyond the challenge to each of us to move towards a higher level of maturity, this image also contains an important pastoral challenge for the church. How do we, as a church, see a secularized world that has rejected many of our beliefs and values? When we see the consequences the world is paying for this are we gleeful or sympathetic? Do we see the secularized world with all the problems it is bringing onto itself by its rejection of some Gospel values as an adversary (someone from whom we need to protect ourselves) or as our own suffering child? If you’re a parent or grandparent who’s suffering over a wayward child or grandchild you probably understand what it means to “weep over Jerusalem.”
Moreover the struggle to “weep over” our secularized world (or over anyone who rejects what we stand for) is compounded by yet another dynamic which militates against sympathy. There’s a perverse emotional and psychological propensity inside us which works this way. Whenever we are hurting badly, we need to blame someone, need to be angry at someone, and need to lash out at someone. And you know who we always pick for that? Someone we feel safe enough to hurt because we know that he or she is mature enough not to hit back!
There’s a lot of lashing out at the church today. Granted, there are a lot of legitimate reasons for this. Given the church’s shortcomings, part of that hostility is justified; but some of that hostility often goes beyond what’s justified. Along with the legitimate anger there’s sometimes a lot of free-floating, gratuitous anger. What’s our reaction to that unjustified anger and unfair accusation? Do we react in kind?“You are way out of line here, go take that anger elsewhere! Or, like Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, can we meet unfair anger and accusation with tears of empathy and a prayer that a world that’s angry with us will be spared the pain of its own bad choices?
Soren Kierkegaard famously wrote: Jesus wants followers, not admirers! Wise words. In Jesus’ reaction to his own rejection, his weeping over Jerusalem, we see the epitome of human maturity. To this we are called, personally and as an ecclesial community. We also see there that a big heart feels the pain of others, even of those others who reject you.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.)