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A number of fellow Catholics over the years have asked me for advice and encouragement about going to Confession.  Few things make me more glad than to share my love and appreciation for this very special Sacrament, and I pray very hard that all Catholics may be drawn to it.  At the same time, I also understand that it’s not an easy thing to do.  So, especially now that we are in Lent, I would like to offer some encouragement for my brothers and sister who might be having difficulty approaching the Sacrament.  (The following is from a letter I wrote to one dear person this evening; but I think it might be applicable and helpful to many people.)

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I understand how much trepidation we can experience about going to Confession.  It never completely goes away; I still struggle with it occasionally, and I’m sure everybody does.  The reason is that the devil wants to prevent us all from going and receiving the tremendous grace, nourishment, and healing of the Sacrament.  He will throw every lie and every negative feeling at us in order to stop us, to make us afraid, to make us distrustful and doubtful.

To withstand these difficult things takes God’s grace.  Nobody can do it alone.  And so, what you should do now and very often is simply ask the Lord for His peace and for the grace to go to Confession.  It may be helpful to pray this Act of Contrition–and note especially the part I’ve emphasized:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest my sins because of Thy just punishment, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.  I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen. 

Pray that at least once a day, and it won’t be long until you start to feel much more at ease and even eager to go to Confession.

Trust that there are good reasons that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation and made human priests ministers of His mercy.  The Sacrament itself provides not only sanctifying grace, but a very special, particular sacramental grace–that of stronger resistance to sin.  The priest, as a fellow sinner and fellow penitent, can provide valuable help and guidance.  As a fellow human, he can speak those wonderful words of absolution in a voice we can hear.

You certainly have nothing to fear from a confessor.  You may think that he will be judgmental or perhaps even outraged at your sins.  But he won’t.  I’ve heard many priests say that sin is just sin–it’s boring, it’s dull, it’s unimaginative, it’s completely unremarkable.  What they find truly remarkable is the courage and humility and faith of the penitents who come to them.  And they feel privileged to be able to help and heal and minister to them.

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I will just add here what I have told myself and others many times:  In the whole universe, there is only one person who benefits from our not going to Confession–and that’s Satan.  Don’t give him that benefit!

Also, I welcome anybody to contact me to ask further questions about Confession.  I don’t ever get tired of talking about it!

It was just about a year ago that I moved to my new home, a house I share with my mother.  It’s a lovely house, in a suburb.  There’s really nothing to dislike about it.  But it’s been a pretty big adjustment for me, having lived in the city center for a number of years.  I have a much longer commute to work and to the Dominican priory.  I had to find, and join, a different parish.  I feel out of place as an unmarried women living among young families.  Even when I’ve found activities and events that interest me and that are close to home, I haven’t been able to get out and do things because I get home late in the evening.  Or, in many cases, the activities of interest occur during the work week, during work hours.

For many months, I’ve been sort of drifting along, going through motions, without ever having the slightest sense that I belong where I am, that it is really my home.  I’ve given in sometimes to discouragement, discontent, loneliness, frustration, anxiety–most of which I’ve tried to cure by just closing myself up in my room with a video game or television show.  Naturally, this only increased my isolation, so that I fell into a downward spiral of depression.  In trying to numb or distract myself, I also stopped putting God at the center of my life.  I became lax in my prayer and religious obligations.

Fortunately, I did have the sense to go to Confession and dust myself off to try again.  And fortunately, I also had Lent approaching quickly, and a new focus and purpose to put myself to.  Of course, God and His grace are what have seen me through most of all.

So I started praying every day, several times a day:

Lord, please just help me settle down and be more at home here.  Help me find ways to become part of this new community and my new parish.  Help me find ways to contribute and form new relationships.  I trust that you have planted me here for a reason.  Whether or not that reason becomes clear to me, please help me to accept my new place and to flourish.

I can’t say that I’ve had any remarkable epiphanies.  I can’t say anything has progressed.  I definitely can’t say that I’ve discovered the reason for my being where I am.  But at least I have my faith and am clinging closer to God’s side once more–and that always makes life so much richer.  As part of my Lenten discipline, I am going to keep praying that prayer, along with all my other prayers and observances, and I’m not going to let myself give in to impatience or distrust.  I know that the feelings will come, and the temptation to entertain them will be strong.  But I’m not going to give in.

So, yesterday morning, as I was going about my business of getting ready for work, I turned one of the music channels on to help get my blood pumping.  And this song came on: “Home” by Phillip Phillips.  A song I’d heard before but never paid too much attention to.  But this time, for whatever reason, I found myself really listening to the lyrics:

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble—it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home

It was one of those amazing, unexpected moments when words strike you and move you and seem to have been meant just for you.  And you wonder: how did I not hear this before?  I know that many people would just shrug it off as a coincidence, nothing important.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there’s no such thing as a coincidence–not in the sense of something unimportant and accidental.  So, my spirit has been very uplifted!  And I feel sure that my prayer to be more at home has been heard and will be answered.

But, you know, feel free to add your own prayers for me!  :)

Pope Benedict farewell

With humility he came to the papacy, and with humility he left.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI bade farewell to the public world today.  I’m still taking it in.  The Church is pope-less for a time.  Sedes vacans.  While I was watching videos of his departure from Vatican City, I felt awe at the fact that I was witnessing such an historical moment.  I also felt a touch of sadness.  But I know Papa Benedict will be a great prayer-warrior for the Church and the world, and I am grateful for that.  I hope and pray that this gentle scholar–that is how I will always remember him most–will enjoy serenity and some refreshment for the rest of his days.  I hope he will continue to bless us with his writing as well.

At the same time, let us pray very hard for the cardinals who will be in the upcoming conclave.  As Papa Benedict himself said in his farewell address to them, the future pope is among them.  We must pray for their discernment, for their careful attention to the voice and motion of the Holy Spirit.  In addition to praying for the college of cardinals as a whole, perhaps you might want to adopt a cardinal and pray for him in particular.  I am praying for my adopted cardinal, Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary.

No matter how many prayers I pray, I always feel like I need to offer God more gratitude than I do.  It’s not so much that I am ungrateful (although that might be the case at times, sorry to say), as that He deserves so much gratitude!  Infinite gratitude, in fact.  And we are finite creatures.  Sometimes I even feel frustration at what I can or cannot express with words.

At times like that, the Psalms are a special blessing!  Whatever you are feeling, whatever inside you is yearning for expression, there is always a fitting Psalm.  Tonight, that Psalm for me was in Evening Prayer, Psalm 138:

Psalm 138
Thanksgiving

The kings of the earth will bring his glory and honor into the holy city (see Revelation 21:24).

I thank you, Lord, with all my heart,
you have heard the words of my mouth.
In the presence of the angels I will bless you.
I will adore before your holy temple.

I thank you for your faithfulness and love
which excel all we ever knew of you.
On the day I called, you answered;
you increased the strength of my soul.

All earth’s kings shall thank you
when they hear the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the Lord’s ways:
“How great is the glory of the Lord!”

The Lord is high yet he looks on the lowly
and the haughty he knows from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of affliction
you give me life and frustrate my foes.

You stretch out your hand and save me,
your hand will do all things for me.
Your love, O Lord, is eternal,
discard not the work of your hands.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and will be for ever. Amen.

When I began reading this Psalm tonight, my heart became light, as if a weight was literally being lifted from it.  I read the Liturgy of the Hours each day (at least Morning and Evening Prayer).  It is always instructive.  But occasionally, exactly the right Psalm comes up at exactly the right time.

The part that struck me most of all was the second stanza:

I thank you for your faithfulness and love
which excel all we ever knew of you.
On the day I called, you answered;
you increased the strength of my soul.

No matter how greatly I experience God’s faithfulness and love, I am always surprised and bewildered, in a good way. It often leaves me lost in wonder.  He excels, and then excels again, and excels once more, and on and on and on!  Just when you might think He could not lavish any more upon you, He does.  And He has given a great deal of much-needed strength to my soul.  And all the gratitude in the world is not enough for Him and His deeds!

Thank God for the Psalms.  There is always such depth in them.  Sometimes I pray them and may not even realize why I am so strongly affected by them.  The words are often very simple.  But the Psalms are more than their words.  Of course, we hold them to be divinely inspired.  I think they are imbued with the Holy Spirit’s own prayers, into which He elevates and transforms our humble and insufficient words and feelings and thoughts.

I say again, thank God for the Psalms!

The annual Dallas Marathon is today. Knowing that the marathon route often presents challenges for Sunday morning Mass-goers, our parish offered an additional vigil Mass last night.  At the end of the Mass, our pastor invited all runners to come forward.  Invoking the patronage of St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner of the Messiah, and St. Paul, who used the running of a race as a metaphor for the spiritual life, Father gave a blessing to the runners and their endeavors.

Although I was not among those who received the blessing, I was deeply moved by witnessing it, for it is a beautiful reminder of how much the Church honors and celebrates all good human endeavors and recognizes them as gifts from God and a means to sanctify one’s own life and the lives of others.  It gave the message that there is no good endeavor that is too insignificant or unimportant to be blessed.  Of course, it also reminded me of loved ones and friends who are runners, especially my sister, and how much I admire them and their dedication and discipline as well as physical strength.  These are things to be admired!

I have always been moved by the great variety of blessings offered by the Church through her priests, and by the love and care with which they administer these blessings. Every time I receive a new rosary, I ask a priest to bless it.  It’s such a simple thing, and yet it transforms the rosary from a string of beads to a powerful sacramental that can bring down even more graces.  Even a simple blessing received on days when I am not able to receive Holy Communion often grants a great deal of strength, healing, and spiritual sustenance.

We should never hesitate to ask for blessings from our priests. That is one of the reasons they exist: to bestow God’s blessings upon us who live on earth.  Certainly, we can, and should, pray for God’s blessing each day, but there’s something special about having a human hand raised over you, and a human voice speaking the blessing to you.  And if that hand and voice belong to an Alter Christus, it’s all the better and more special.

It is also true that we can, and should, bless each other by word and touch.  I think it is a beautiful and loving thing when parents bless their children each night.  I found great peace and comfort in giving my parents blessings when they were in the hospital, and especially when my beloved father was in his final illness.  In those situations, it’s easy to feel completely helpless and completely alone.  But saying a simple, heartfelt blessing and gently touching your loved one’s forehead and drawing a little cross there with your finger is a powerful thing.  It’s a way of entrusting them to God and His care.  It is a special, physical act of faith, hope, and charity.

Finally, we can, and should, bless ourselves, and in fact we may do this without even being mindful of it.  Each time we place our fingers in holy water and make the Sign of the Cross, we are blessing ourselves.  Do it mindfully!  Each time we say grace before a meal, we are blessing ourselves and the food we put into ourselves.  Do it mindfully!  Each time we pray a morning offering, we are invoking God’s blessing upon our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of the day.  Do it mindfully!

Catholics and our Church are sometimes misconceived as somehow being averse to the physical world, the body, and love of “ordinary” earthly life.  But our practice of giving and receiving blessings proves otherwise, does it not?  In fact, we believe that earthly and ordinary things and we ourselves can be elevated and infused with divine life.  And this divine life makes everything better and richer and more beautiful and enjoyable.

Today is one of my favorite feast days, that of the Holy Archangels!

While there are undoubtedly a multitude of archangels in God’s court, there are only three that we know for certain by name: Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel.  Their identities have been passed down by holy scripture and tradition.  God has given us these three to turn to in confidence, and they each have a unique role and mission.  Michael is the mighty general and standard-bearer of the heavenly host; in fact, he is called the “Prince of the Heavenly Host.”  Raphael is known as a healer, a close companion, a guardian and guide.  Gabriel is the messenger of God’s word and God’s will.

There has been a tendency in modern times to “soften” or to “humanize” the holy angels in general–as, indeed, there has been a modern tendency to soften and humanize so many things.  Some of it is harmless sentimentalism–the dewy, innocent, and gentle aesthetic of the last couple of centuries.  Some of it is rooted in more sinister things–the atheist’s casting of all spiritual things as mere fluffy fairy tale made in man’s own image, and on the other hand, the occultist’s desire to be superior and dominate all things, including spiritual things.

Granted, it is not just a modern thing to portray angels as beautiful, somewhat androgynous, human-like creatures with wings and halos.  But I think we’ve lost our sense of what that representation originally intended to convey.  That angels are beautiful signifies their holiness, their goodness, their purity, their perfection, their closeness to God who is truth, beauty, and goodness.  Likewise the halos, brimming with ethereal light and power.  That they are androgynous signifies that they are not corporeal and not human.  The wings further emphasize this, signifying that angels are not bound by space, time, or anything physical. That they are human-like signifies that they are persons, individuals with intellect and free will–not objects or lower types of creatures such as animals or plants.

Consider a traditional religious icon.  Notice first that there is nothing white or fluffy or soft or comfy.  These are noble, dignified figures, robed in splendor like princes and carrying staffs which show authority and power.  They are very human-like, youthful, and beautiful, but they are imposing figures, nonetheless, evoking some degree of reverence.  At the same time, they are not the true center of this image, of course–Christ is.  St. Michael and St. Gabriel look at Christ, while St. Raphael looks at us as if to say, “You must follow our example.  Make Christ your center.  Look to Him, adore Him, love Him, and serve Him.”

That is part of the mission of each of these special angels: to help us and show us the way.  And we are meant to turn to them respectfully and trustingly.  We don’t need them to be soft or too human–we need them to be the strong, tireless, incredible beings that they are.  We need them to be mighty enough to stand against Satan and all of the evil angels who are out for our destruction.  We also don’t need them to be “nice” to us.  They have something far greater than niceness–they have perfect charity.  They love God perfectly and completely, and because of that they also love everything and everybody that God loves–and that includes God’s children above all!

So, just because they are greater than us by nature in many ways, we need never fear to call to them.  God revealed their names to us for a reason–so that we can call upon them and talk to them in a personal way.  I do so pretty often.  Whenever I feel in danger, whenever I feel pulled toward evil, or whenever I behold danger and evil in the world around me, I call upon St. Michael to protect and guard me and the world.  I pray Pope Leo XIII’s prayer to St. Michael after every Mass, and whenever else I need to.  Whenever I feel lonely, lost, tired, doubtful, depressed, or in any way ill or in pain, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, I call upon St. Raphael to strengthen and guide me.  Whenever I am uncertain about what God is calling me to do or who God is calling me to be, either in my whole lifetime or in very specific circumstances, I call upon St. Gabriel and ask for help in hearing, following, and obeying God’s voice.

In every case, I have always found the holy archangels to be very effective and dependable in their aid and in their understanding of what I need.  I often look back later and realize that, in fact, they were providing exactly the help I needed before I called upon them.  But it is good to call upon them and to build a relationship with them anyway.  Give it a try, if you don’t do it already.  I think you will find your life wonderfully enriched.

A blessed Feast of the Holy Archangels to you!

Here we are again at St. Dominic’s feast day, one of my favorite days of the year!  I hope it has been a blessed and joyful one for everybody–especially my fellow Dominicans!

I had the good fortune to attend a very pleasant and educational celebration at the University of Dallas sponsored by the UD Alumni.  Several of my fellow Lay Dominicans were in attendance, and we enjoyed a talk and Q&A with Dr. John Sommerfeldt, Professor Emeritus of History, about St. Dominic and his world and his Order of Preachers.

One thing Dr. Sommerfeldt spoke about was the fact that we really know very little about St. Dominic.  There are some writings and testimonies about him, but they are more hagiographical than biographical.  We have even less that is from and by the saint himself.  It’s rather strange, isn’t it–that the man who founded the Order of Preachers should be such a quiet figure!

And yet, by the fruits of his labor, we know him.  The Order he founded not only outlived the Albigensian heresy it was founded to confront–it has outlived everything since, right up to the present moment.  It is approaching its 800th year!  800 years and an unbroken succession of Christian men and women who joyfully and lovingly call ourselves Dominicans, after our spiritual father.  Many of them have become saints themselves: Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas… Catherine of Siena and Rose of Lima… Martin de Porres and John Macias… Pope Pius V and Louis de Montfort… these are just a small selection of Dominican saints.

Prayer and preaching were the two foundations of St. Dominic’s life.  Contemporaries said that he always spoke with God or of God.  St. Dominic must also have been a very practical man.  He knew that in order to preach effectively, one must be dedicated to study.  In order to study, one must have things like access to books and a roof over one’s head.  And so, he sent his friars into all the cities of Europe and had them establish Dominican houses close to the newly-flourishing universities, where they studied and not long after began teaching.  These intellectual friars also attracted students and teachers to join the fledgling Order.

But of course, the growth and flourishing and survival of the Order was, and is, and ever will be largely a result of its founder’s prayers and sacrifices–all of the great works he did in secret, during the night.  His life and his mission and his Order were never about him.  He cared more about ensuring the future of the Order.  He wanted it to live long after he was gone.

Even in death, he probably would have been content to work behind the scenes, in ways fully known only to God and himself.  He died on 6 August–the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.  He would have been content to have his own feast day eclipsed by a feast of the Lord.  But the Church treasures her quiet light, and so we commemorate him on 8 August.

Pope Benedict spoke of St. Dominic and his deep prayer life in his Wednesday Audience today.  Read about it here.

(Photo: statue of St. Dominic at the priory of Santa Sabina, Rome – by Flickr user Lawrence OP)

Just as the Saints pray for us, we on earth can pray for the poor souls in Purgatory.  And more than that, we can also obtain indulgences for them that can partially or completely free them from their purgation!  This is a tremendous act of mercy that can nourish the sainthood within each of us.

1 – 8 November:

An indulgence, applicable only to the Souls in Purgatory, is granted to the faithful, who devoutly visit a cemetery and pray, even if only mentally, for the departed.

The indulgence is plenary each day from the 1st to the 8th of November; on other days of the year it is partial.

2 November:

A plenary indulgence, applicable only to the Souls in Purgatory, is granted to the faithful, who on the day dedicated to the Commemoration of all the faithful departed, piously visit a church, a public oratory or — for those entitled to use it — a semipublic oratory.

In visiting the church or oratory, it is required, according to Norm 16 of the same Apostolic Constitution, that “one Our Father and the Creed be recited.”

Here is more information about plenary indulgences and how they may be obtained.  Let us revive this tradition and partake in the rich graces of our Lord and Church!

Just think of all the poor souls who have nobody to pray for them after they die… perhaps they have no family or friends left… perhaps their surviving loved ones do not believe in Purgatory and in praying for the dead… perhaps their surviving loved ones simply haven’t been educated about Purgatory and praying for the dead.

Remember that the poor souls cannot pray for themselves (they can, however, pray for us, and especially for those who pray for them).

For their sake and the sake of our own souls, let us pray and obtain those indulgences!  If you don’t think you are in a state of grace to obtain a plenary indulgence, ask for it anyway!  Something I always say to God when I am asking for indulgences for the poor souls is:

Lord, I know I am not worthy to obtain such a blessed gift, but I pray that You may overlook my unworthiness and look instead to those poor souls who are suffering and yearning so greatly to be in Your presence at last!

If you are seeking a plenary indulgence for yourself, of course, then you want to make sure you have fulfilled all the requirements.

Note that you cannot obtain indulgences for other living persons.  Only for yourself and for the poor souls in Purgatory.

E5 is a wonderful ministry of Christian men praying and fasting for women on every first Wednesday of the month. “E5” refers to Ephesians chapter 5, about how spouses should give of themselves completely to each other, husbands in life-giving sacrifice and wives in trusting submission.

While the men pray and fast on the first Wednesday, women are asked to pray to receive the prayers and the graces gained by them. In addition to being receptive to the prayers and graces, I think I shall offer prayers for men in return: prayers of thanks to the E5 men for their sacrifices; prayers of thanks to God for the E5 men and for the fact that there are still men in our world who are willing to follow Christ even to the point of sacrificing themselves; and prayers that all Catholic men be willing to do so.

Of course, I will be praying especially for my future husband, that he be, or become, that kind of man. As a single woman, I am painfully aware that such heroic men seem to be very scarce. But I often wonder if that necessarily has to be the case. I think that society, and even the Church, have failed to call men to heroism and to hold them up to the standard of being Christ-like. We have failed to expect greatness from them, and they have failed to expect greatness from themselves. I have been as guilty of that failure as anybody. I think it is one of the rotten fruits of so-called feminism.

But I do believe in men, and I do believe in the power of prayer. So I am sure that something good will come of my prayers. Are any ladies with me?

I have only recently begun praying novenas regularly. But thanks to the wonderful site, Pray More Novenas, I have been kept up to date on all the novenas of the day.

The next one up is one I cannot miss: the St. Jude Novena.  It begins this coming Wednesday, 19 October.

St. Jude is, after all, the Patron of Hopeless Causes and Desperate Situations–of which I have a few at the moment, God help me.

So, this novena is starting with marvelously good timing!

This blog is brought to you by a Lay Dominican

St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!
(Image from a painting at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Metairie, Louisiana)

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