Archive for the ‘Saints’ Category

I have to admit, I can get scared sometimes.

It is strange how fear works. I can travel around the world all by myself and hardly blink an eye, while I have friends who would find just getting on the airplane to be nerve-wracking. Forget spending months on end in a foreign country all alone.

Yet sometimes, if I am reading or discussing a scary topic, all my bravery goes right out the window and I am left wishing I had purchased more lamps for my bedroom. Like maybe 10 more.

This happened to me last night. Too many scary topics and too much thought.

The former Pope John Paul II was known to say, "do not be afraid!"

Then suddenly, I saw the former Pope John Paul II in my mind. I imagined him standing there saying “Do not be afraid!” as he did so many times during his pontificate. My creative version of his person seemed to show him looking up towards heaven, and I felt strongly the impression to just focus on the goal and never turn away. Just focus on Heaven.

Tunnel vision. Heavenly tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision can actually be an incredible help, and I have used it many times in other situations. For example, when I moved to London I went through a myriad of challenges that could have sent me packing back home if I had not been determined enough to stick them through. But I did, and it was largely due to my repeated focus on my goal. I forced myself into living life with nothing but tunnel vision for the future.

I was so completely into utilizing tunnel vision that I would stand on the underground platforms morning and evening, silently bopping to my iPod, and just focus on my dreams, as if I was looking through a tunnel and had to filter out everything but my goal. Much of why I succeeded was because of that.

So the thought of using tunnel vision in the spiritual life really caught my attention. Was this what the saints did? Did people like Pope John Paul II always have Heaven as their one goal, ever before their eyes?

And when thinking about Heaven as their goal, what did they think about? Did they think about the joy of meeting Christ in person? Of finally getting to know Mary, the Mother of God, face to face? Of wiping away every tear they had ever shed and every fear that had ever haunted them, and living eternally in peace and bliss? Of finally seeing all the scoffers gaping wide-eyed in awe at the truth they had denied?

St. Therese of Lisieux even used to say that as a young girl, she dreamed of Heaven. When she went through her dark night, and her mind was clouded by dark obsessions, it was the thought of Heaven that had once given her such great joy that she most seemed to miss. And not the Heaven of rewards – for her it was the Heaven of just loving and being loved that she dreamed of, without anything to stand in her way.

Heaven. Tunnel Vision. Heaven.

Yet tunnel vision is not always easy to maintain. Anyone who has read the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis knows that life has many plots and plans to divert our attention away from the meaningful to the trivial and the mundane. The TV, news, the internet, the radio – anything, said the little devil in the Screwtape Letters, to distract souls from their goal of Heaven.

So what can we do to fight back? How can we develop such tunnel vision for Heaven in our lives if we are so inclined?

One tactic that always helped me in the secular life was to make a list of my goals, with the most important at number one and then descending in their value to my life. Not only did I make this list once, but I re-wrote it over and over. Changing it, editing it, copying it – it did not matter what I did to it. I just wrote it time and time again.

I would be hanging out with friends and all of a sudden I would start making my list (I was not rude though – I only did it if the opportunity was right), or at night I would sit and re-write. I would pin it to the wall in my bathroom, and read it while I was brushing my teeth.

While I did not accomplish every goal that I made on that list, and there are places where I failed, I accomplished enough of them to feel good about it. Yet I also accomplished enough secular goals to know that they alone do not make a person truly happy.

This is why Heaven is my true goal. The Heaven of love, where all is love and no one can think a thought or lift a finger without love for God and others.

If more people had this goal ever in their sight, what would the world be like? If we all had little “Post-Its” on our TVs, computers, mirrors, notebooks, day planners, iPods, cell phones – everywhere – that said “Goal: Heaven! Is what you are doing right now going to help get you there?” I wonder how that would change our lives.

I for one am going to start making a new list, with Heaven at the top and my vision of why Heaven is so amazing underneath it. This is my new tunnel vision for my spiritual life, and I am liking it.

Goal: Heaven! To one day live forever in a place where love is given and received endlessly, and without any selfishness or ugliness ever interfering. HEAVEN!”

I wonder if the great Pope John Paul II is smiling in Heaven and saying, “you go girl! Adjust the focus of your mental lens! And always remember, do not be afraid!”

High-five to you John Paul! The focusing is on!


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Now that I have shared all the reasons why no one should ever read my blog again (you are back – brave you), I thought it might be appropriate to share what it was that made me “revert” to the Catholic faith. After all, this is a Catholic blog so I suppose I should address the question of “why are you Catholic?”

So, here we go!

By the time I was in my early 20s, life had pretty much set me up to become a raving anti-Catholic. And I mean raving. Foaming liberals would have had nothing on me! I was livid come to life in a pair of jeans! (My poor Catholic grandma, God rest her soul. She would just stare at me with shock and then promptly head to battle – with her rosary. Thank heavens for my grandma!)

Yep, this was my definition for the Catholic Church in my early days.

My anti-Catholicism set-up was classic. Liberal Catholic school (do parents really expect their children to come out of that experience feeling good about the Catholic faith?), a “one hour Catholic family” (you know, Sunday Mass and then five minutes after leaving the church you are wondering if they heard a word the priest said), a nun who threw me into a wall…the list goes on and on.

Then there was the matter of books. In my late teens, I somehow managed to get my hands on a pile of information relating to the Catholic Church and it’s history. I devoured all that I could, and soon it was my passionate mission to educate everyone that the reason Catholicism was so lousy today was because of how lousy it was a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, five hundred years ago…in short, it was just plain lousy in every century of history for the last two thousand years and what was wrong with everyone that they could not see this? Did I have to bang it into people’s heads that this was one messed up Church? Can head banging get you into trouble if it is not your head you are banging?

Well armed and loaded with ammunition, I was sure I could take out anyone who attempted to defend such a “rotten” organization.

All this was until the day I came across one little innocent Penguin Classics book neatly hidden away on the shelf of a Barnes & Noble bookstore.

I can still remember the day I found that book. I pulled it out from its  nestled perch, turned it over, read the back, and became almost instantly intrigued by it’s description. Something about an unbalanced woman who still managed to find God despite everything that was against her. Hmmm…that sounded a little close to home! Maybe I could relate to this. I turned it over in my hands and inspected the cover.

“The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself.”

An autobiography of a saint.

But what made me actually buy this book? I mean, Catholicism was not exactly high on my list of favorite topics, unless I could get all the juicy dirt to launch my next attack. I think I even put the book back once or twice but kept taking it back out. Something about that book called to me. Finally, I felt I had to read it.

The cover of the book that I dog-eared and smudged to no end as I toted it everywhere I went

For the next month or so, I carried that book with me everywhere. It went with me to the islands, where I snuck away from my friends and found a little hermits nest to freely live in my nerdy little world of Spanish nuns and reformation spirituality. It went with me on camping trips to the forest, where I would hide in the car, trying to get some good light rather than join everyone near the bonfire. I was addicted.

I had also met my match.

By the time I finished that book, all I could think was “wow.”

One big, gigantic, over-the-top, jaw-dropping, deer-in-the-headlights, “wow.”

Then, silence.

The next thought was a little more timid, but it went something like this; “is that really what the Catholic Church is supposed to be like?”


The third thought was completely foreign, but bravely announced itself to my anti-Catholic self; “if that is what the Catholic Church is really supposed to be like, then that is the Church that I want to be apart of! Not the lousy, wishy-washy, hypocritical, spiritless Church I grew up with – but that church! Saint Teresa of Avila’s Church! The Catholic Church of the saints!

I think I heard squealing breaks and smelled burning rubber. I definitely felt some whiplash from an almost instantaneous 180 degree turn.

What just happened?

All of a sudden, I wanted to be Catholic. Again.

A split had suddenly occurred inside of me. Like an earthquake that shook the ground and then drove a massive divide into the foundation of a building, a gigantic rift had shot straight through me, changing everything.

On one side of this rift was the modern version of Catholicism that I knew, with the increasingly barren churches, the watered down faith, the endless lines of hypocrites going back through the centuries. You know, the Catholic Church that so many love to hate. I don’t think I have to elaborate too much on that.

Then there was this version of Catholicism. This passionately devoted, deeply spiritual, intensely loving, all-consuming, close relationship with God version that most “do you have a personal relationship with Christ?” Protestants would probably pass out from the extreme intimacy if they ever got near it.

I was simply taken by it. Caught up in the fire of the burning bush taken. I probably would have removed my shoes and approached in awe if I could have.

St. Teresa of Avila somehow managed to snatch up my little narrow brain that could only see the failures of others and the hollow externals, gave it a few good whacks to kick out the dust, and then liberally poured everything she had straight into it.

I still had a few rational “kinks” that needed ironed out before I could get over my “embarrassment” of heading back to Church and participating in the Catholic life (you know, sitting in the pews with all those hypocrites) but once I did there was nothing holding me back. I knew what I wanted.

I wanted the type of relationship with God that Saint Teresa had. I wanted to know such an all-consuming love first hand. I wanted to dwell in the heights that skeptics scoff at and angels guard. I wanted to know such joy, such bliss, such beauty. I wanted to become a saint.

I found my way home and I found it entirely through the example of one woman’s life.

My entire view of the Catholic faith up until that point had been skewed not because I somehow had opened the right window to the “rotten” soul of the faith, but because the examples of everyone around me that I was seeing or reading (in the case of history) were skewed.

I saw the people who failed. I saw what it looked like when they failed. I saw the hypocrisy, the ugliness, the sheer blackness of failure when someone preaches such a high creed in word but not in deed. I saw what the teachings of the Church looked like when humanity failed to live them. It was not pretty. When people fall from tall heights, you do not want to be there to pick up the remains.

Yet one good example, just one, of a woman who lived her faith in fulness, devotion, intensity, and rich closeness to God had the strength to turn all those years of bad examples completely around and open an entirely new window to the faith. The true window. One good example revealed the living heart of the Church as it could be lived, and it was alive with a love I had never dreamed of.

I reverted because of example, and because of that I know example is everything. We can preach and teach, write and write again, but in the end it is example that speaks the loudest. I think that is something that it is important to remember. Especially in this time when so many examples continue to set many afire with a vengeance against what they think is the Church. We know they are fighting those who failed the Church, but they think they are fighting the Church.

How can they ever know the Church except through example?

So I guess the question remains, what will our examples be?

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Joan of Arc is the quintessential figure whose brief life became both a physical quest and a spiritual journey rolled into one. While her time on earth may seem too extraordinary to relate to our lives, it can nevertheless be discovered that she offers a guide for all who seek to embark upon a spiritual journey.

Born around 1412 in Domremy, France, she started life as the simple daughter of Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romee. Yet her life would slowly begin to change when, at the young age of 12, she saw three figures whom she identified as Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret in a field near her home.

At the age of 16 she implored a relative to take her to the nearby town of Vaucoulurs, where she petitioned to visit the French royal court at Chinon. Undaunted by the sarcastic comments she received, she persisted until she was finally able to meet Charles VII.

Eventually she gained the trust of enough individuals in important positions that she was sent onto the battlefield to encourage and inspire the French troops. She performed her duty so well that she was instrumental in leading the way to several important victories and the crowning of Charles VII as King of France.

Eventually captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English, she was tried at court and finally burnt at the stake as a heretic. She is today one of the patron saints of France.

Joan of Arc as a young girl heard the voices of three saints urging her on to fulfill a greater destiny than she had dreamed

Her brief yet legendary life, which ended at 19, marked out several basic patterns of a heroic spiritual quest.

To begin with, she felt an inner call to fulfill a role that was unique to her alone. In her situation, this call was made exceptional by the voices of saints speaking to her and urging her on. Yet regardless of the extraordinary nature of her calling, she still had to listen and follow what she believed to be an unquestionable call from God.

Second, she experienced opposition and hardships. There were many obstacles that were placed in her path that could have easily led to her turning back and deciding not to advance any further. But despite the difficulties of war, wearing mens clothing in a time when this was considered scandalous, and being seen as somewhat mad, she pushed forward with her thoughts focused on accomplishing what she believed to be her mission in life.

Finally, she had great faith and a rich inner life. Even amidst the persecutions that intensified until they ended in her death, she refused to lay down the sword of her faith but continued seeking for God in every event that surrounded her.

While Joan of Arc will always remain unique in the history of the world for the spectacular way that her mission was laid out, her journey in its essence is no different from anyone else. We all have a vocation that is particular to us in this life, which lingers on our heart and whispers to us if we only listen. If we hear it and set out to follow the path that it creates, we will certainly encounter obstacles, yet it is imperative that we continue to push forward. And ultimately, it is our faith that will sustain us. Even if we do not see our calling realized in out lifetime, it is our faith that has to hold us until the end and emblazon our lives as true warriors.

The life of Joan of Arc offers a beautiful roadmap for anyone who sets on a spiritual adventure, wether it be of the heart or a combination of both the physical and spiritual. While it is a roadmap that warns of an unusual life and a difficult one, it also speaks of a life with rewards beyond the ordinary. It speaks of a life made extraordinary.

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Today was another Monday in Rome, and as always I had Monday errands to run. But the really neat thing about living in Rome is that even the most ordinary of days is surrounded by so many extraordinary places. It just takes a little inquisition and curiosity to bring it all to life!

Santa Maria dei Monti standing proud behind the usual row of vespas

One of the places that I always like to stop by is Santa Maria dei Monti. To the tourist wondering past, it is just another Roman church, but this is very far from the truth.

In the 1580s, a miraculous image of Mary with Saints Stephen and Lawrence was found in a nearby Poor Clare convent that had fallen into ruins. To celebrate this great find, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the building of Saint Maria dei Monti and every year on April 26th a copy is still carried through the streets of Rome in an honorary procession.

Entering the church, this miraculous image can be seen directly over the altar. It stands out not only for it’s central position, but also because it clearly dates to an earlier time from the other artwork that decorates the church.

The miraculous image of Mary in Santa Maria dei Monti stands out for its simple beauty

In this image, Mary is holding Jesus in a very loving yet protective way, as one would hold a beloved child destined for great things. The child Jesus looks out at us with an innocent nobility as he raises his hand in a blessing. The saint kneeling on the right raises his hands in a gesture which suggests his is both imploring and accepting the blessing and calls the viewer to do the same. The stars, which were likely a later addition, add a sense of heavenly yet gentle glory to the figure of Mary. To think that this painting inspired the construction of an entire church shows just how much it was valued by the Romans of the time. Even today it is considered important, and my landlord has a copy in her apartment next to mine.

Not only is the church noted for this exquisite work of art, but it also has a rich history of involvement with many famous individuals.

Some important people who were connected with the church include:

  • St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, said Mass here from April to June of 1762.
  • St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists, also said Mass between 1745-1767 when in Rome.
  • St. Benedict Joseph Labre collapsed in the church in 1783 and passed away in a home located behind the church. He is also buried here. He has an official feast day on April 16th.
  • St. Joseph Calasanctius, founder of the Piarists, often prayed in the new church after arriving in Rome in 1592 before the miraculous image. While praying before it, he was inspired to dedicate his life to helping young children who were poor. Before he died, he had an appearance of Mary who promised him his school would be protected (this last part I translated from Italian).
  • St. Vincent Pallotti, founder of the Union of Catholic Apostolate in 1835 was also devoted to Santa Maria dei Monti St. Benedict Joseph Labre who is buried in the church.

The church has a very rich spiritual heritage as a result of being so intimately connected with so many holy figures, and to sit for a while in this church in contemplation is an experience that one can walk away knowing they have shared with many great persons before them.

View down the Via Baccina to a dome that overlooks one of the ancient Roman forums

Leaving the church, I turn to the right and head down the Via Baccina, a narrow road with little if any traffic that leads straight to the Foro di Nevera, another ancient Roman forum.

The road eventually overlooks this smaller section of Roman ruins, and following it along as it curves to the right and then uphill, there continue to be some lovely views of the area.

Near the top of the hill is a little restaurant that I often pass and cannot help but notice in fascination. Even though it is small, their display of fish is absolutely marvelous! It is really worth a peek, and the waiters are so friendly and very eager to share with you their knowledge about these interesting creatures.

A small but intriguing display of fish is arranged like a culinary art exhibit at Osteria Corte del Grillo

I was snapping photos of these fish, fascinated by their wide eyes and gaping mouths, when one of the waiters, Stefano, came out. At first I thought he was probably going to ask me to put away the camera, as I know pointing and shooting can often lead to such a request, but instead he was very friendly and I could see that he wanted to share with me his knowledge about these sea creatures. I asked if he minded if I took more photos, and he so sweetly replied “of course you may! Our place is your home. Please feel free.” He said it so well, and in such a cute accent to his English, that it put a smile on my face.

And the lobster! I never saw such huge lobster in my life! It must have been three times the length of my hand and absolutely enormous!

Do take the time to click on these photos and open up the larger version which does them more justice – but even that cannot compare to the way they catch the eye in person.

I have to admit, if I worked at a place like that with such an artistic display of fish, I would probably be just as eager to talk about fish as they were!

Some of the interesting fish on display at Osteria Corte del Grillo

Gigantic lobster the length of at least 2-3 of my hands at the Osteria Corte del Grillo

The entrance to the Osteria on Salita del Grillo in Rome. You can visit them virtually at http://www.osteriacortedelgrillo.it

Just past the Osteria, and situated high on an elevation, is the famous Angelicum, also known as the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The famous Angelicum, where many notable figures have studied including Pope John Paul II

This university is famous not only for its strong educational system, but also for many of the famous people who have studied here. Pope John Paul II is one of those who have passed through these halls and can be remembered as a true alumnus.

For more information on the history of the Angelicum and some of the famous figures who have studied there, check out this short article on Wikipedia by clicking here.

There are always nuns, priests, friars, brothers, sisters – a complete assortment of the religious life – coming and going from the Angelicum in their many different religious garb. But lay people can study here too, and they offer many classes.

Seeing sites like these on an ordinary Monday while running errands makes living in a city like Rome so fascinating. Yet how easy it would be to pass these by if a little investigation was not done into the history and significance of each place. This is why I always suggest living in a place rather than being a tourist, as daily life can draw out so much more of the true depth of any city or place.

The Madonna peers down at me as I pass the Angelicum on another "ordinary" day in Rome

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