God’s Peace

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Some years ago, a friend confided that she had a lot of trouble praying and meditating in her house, because her husband had retired and was home much of the time. Their house was small, and he often had the TV or radio on, and so there was always background noise, even if she went into another room. She did not drive, so she couldn’t go to a quieter place except for the times that I took her with me to attend a Holy Hour in my parish’s 24-hour chapel, or on Sundays when she and her husband went to Mass. I said I understood, because although my husband worked, on the days he was home I had much the same situation. Neither of our husbands was the type to engage in shared prayer sessions, and besides, there are times when one needs to have private time with God.

Shortly after this discussion, during my meditation time I heard the following words in my mind: “Better to get God’s peace in a noisy house than to go without it in silence.” (I modified it somewhat in the above picture quote to make it more generally applicable).

I shared this message with my friend, and we had to admit the truth of it. God’s peace and presence must be found in our hearts and souls; it is not dependent on anything external. There are many people who live busy lives and work amid much commotion and noise, and yet they manage to maintain their inner composure and have a wonderful relationship with God and other people. On the other hand, many of us know reclusive people who live alone in what are probably very quiet homes, yet they are bitter, lonely and isolated, empty of any inner serenity or joy.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t seek solitude and silence, ideally on a regular basis. Our minds and souls need this rest, this respite from noise, confusion, interruptions, and the many demands of modern life with its overload of information and dependence on electronic devices. It is essential that we disconnect from our devices for a period of time each day, take a break from work, from TV, video games, social media and other diversions, and spend some quiet time with God in prayer and meditation. But for some people, it can be very difficult to find a few quiet minutes of uninterrupted solitude.

Moms with babies and toddlers, people with demanding careers, busy students, caregivers for the seriously ill or disabled, or even retired people like my friend who find that the unaccustomed constant presence of their spouse takes a good deal of adjustment — these are some of the circumstances that can make quiet time with God a real challenge. As much as we might crave God’s peace in our hearts, we all have times when this seems difficult to find. But if we realize that we can still attune our minds and hearts to God, no matter what our surroundings or circumstances, we won’t need to feel upset or guilty when life doesn’t give us many moments of privacy and silence.

We can take advantage of every moment — waking or sleeping — by making our very lives a prayer. Here are some tips:

  • While doing repetitive chores like housework, gardening, bathing or feeding a baby, etc., talk inwardly to God about your feelings, problems, challenges, goals, and your concern for family, friends, and the troubles in the world.
  • Take advantage of commuting time to pray or listen to inspiring, soothing music or audiobooks that make you feel more peaceful and closer to God. If you’d like to read the Bible but find it too time-consuming to sit down and read it every day, you can find a good recorded Bible and listen to it during your commute. If you’re in your car, any of this can be done without jeopardizing your safety — listening to a recording or speaking to God is no more distracting than talking to someone in the passenger seat or on a hands-free cell phone. If you’re on public transit, you can put on your headset, close your eyes, and immediately be transported mentally to another, more peaceful place.
  • Before starting your workday, during which you know you will have no time to pray or quiet your mind, silently offer to God as a prayer all the day’s work, the little successes as well as the annoyances and irritations. God will take them all and use them for your greater good. He will guide your efforts and decisions throughout the day, if you ask Him.
  • You don’t have to be down on your knees or in a church, or even in a quiet room to talk to God. God has no hearing problem; He can hear you even in the midst of a noisy crowd or while you’re running the vacuum cleaner!
  • If you are able to drive or are within walking distance of a park, a nature trail, or a church or chapel, take advantage of this change of scenery to put you back in touch with your inner life. It’s hard not to feel close to God when you are out in the beauty of nature, or in the peaceful hush of a chapel. Even if you just walk or sit without words, God will know what is in your heart.
  • Years ago I used to do a lot of embroidery, and I found this a wonderful time to pray silently or listen to inspirational music or prayer recordings. My personal favorites at that time were the wonderful music of John Michael Talbot, or praying along with a rosary cassette tape. Whenever I was working on an embroidery project that I intended to give someone as a gift, I thought about and prayed for the recipient as I stitched. I always liked to think that I was stitching lots of “good vibes” into it along with the thread, and that these would bless the person who would eventually receive the gift. You might try this if you are a “crafty” person who likes to make things for other people.
  • If you live in a noisy environment, get yourself a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. You can listen to non-distracting background music, soothing sound effects (water, birdsong, wind chimes, etc.), or white noise while you pray, and the noise of your surroundings will be much less intrusive.
  • Remember to listen as well as talk when you dialogue with God. We need to create a quiet space in our minds for God’s still, small voice to get through. Although it is much easier in a quiet environment, of course, it can be done anywhere. God can speak to us in many ways, and He will use any opportunity. So invite Him to do so, and then be alert for the many ways God will use to answer you!
  • Not only our waking moments can become a prayer — even our sleeping hours can be a means of attunement to God. Before you go to sleep at night, take a few moments to talk to God and ask for guidance and enlightenment while you sleep. This can come in the form of a helpful dream, or you might wake up with the answer to a difficult decision or situation clear in your mind.

Most of all, if we realize that God’s peace is a matter of openness, an attitude of being willing to unite every moment of our lives with the One who created us, who knows and loves us more intimately than any human ever could, we won’t have to become frustrated or anxious when our outer world does not align with our idea of a peaceful life. God’s presence, love, comfort and serenity don’t require ideal situations to permeate the mind and soul. Although we should never stop trying to find peaceful moments in our daily routines, just invite God in and He will make Himself at home — even in your noisy house!

 

How to Succeed in Faith without Really Trying

 

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Doubt is an integral part of our human condition. No one escapes it, not even the greatest saints and spiritual masters. So how do we deal with times of doubt? It cannot be conquered by getting proof of God’s reality, since this is not humanly possible. But it is possible to have a different perspective on doubt by seeing it as a potentially valuable and powerful tool, not as a curse. Why? Because doubt sharpens our faith, the way a hard stone sharpens the edge of a knife as it is rubbed against it. As our souls are rubbed against the rough stone of doubt, we can become stronger, more courageous and confident.  

Certainly, it’s hard to see doubt as beneficial when we are deep in the throes of it, when it discourages and overwhelms us, destroying our peace of mind. At times of trouble and difficulty, we question what is happening in our lives and ask to understand. We mull over all the possible things we might have done to “deserve it” and we wonder: is God a fond Father of love, or an indifferent, even fierce, vengeful deity who doesn’t really care about our suffering? This is human nature, and God understands it. Doubt becomes a problem only when we honor it above anything else and give God no opportunity to enlighten us.

When we read the Scriptures and other spiritual writings, we discover other people’s struggles with the same doubts with which we ourselves grapple. Recognizing that the human struggle with God’s reality and His will is an ageless one helps us to see it with greater understanding. Honoring our human free will, God never forces us to trust him, but He cannot use us as freely if we do not trust Him, and our lives will not be as fulfilling or productive. While trusting God is sometimes difficult, it stops fear, doubt, and despair faster than any human effort ever could do.

When we question God’s existence or His love, this means we are not mindless robots, but thinking, feeling, living souls who have free will and are subject to thoughts that are not always easy to live with.  Never having doubts or fears would make us overconfident, taking our Creator for granted and limiting our spiritual development. We would be of no use to other people who have trouble believing in God, because we would feel self-righteous and smug and unable to understand or help them on their path to God.

Kindness and compassion begin with our own pain. We might not be proud of our ignorance and fear, but they are part of our human nature, and all of us face them in ourselves and in others. By using doubt as a tool towards greater compassion for those who do not believe, we grow as souls and strengthen our own faith.

Using human reason alone can only take us so far, and acknowledging this opens the door to God’s guidance. Questioning God is not sinful, but turning away from Him will close us off to His help, to enlightenment and growth.

Think of it this way: if you have children who love and respect you, but sometimes question your rules or judgment, you wouldn’t feel angry about this, because your children really love you and don’t abandon you because of a disagreement. But if your children totally rejected you and shut you out of their lives, you would probably feel anger or sadness, and eventually stop offering your help.

Similarly, if we question God sometimes, or even get angry with Him, we don’t fall out of favor with Him, nor do we stunt our spiritual growth, as long as we give Him enough trust to let Him guide us to a place of peace. It’s normal sometimes to question whether or not we are on the right path. Other people’s opinions on how to live our lives can upset or confuse us, but we can be sure that openness to God’s guidance will never let us down. If we continue on our path, even when we feel doubt, over time the path straightens out and we will be guided in the right direction. If we continue our efforts to trust in God, even when we feel He doesn’t care or that maybe He doesn’t really exist, we eventually will experience stronger faith.

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Another way doubt benefits us is by causing us to seek truth with which to arrive at answers. Using prayer and seeking spiritual sources of truth to enlighten our minds is the greatest antidote to doubt. Our human nature does not attune itself to light often enough; instead it seeks material things and intellectual pursuits to try to fill the empty spaces and supply all the answers. I once saw a sign outside a church that read: “If God feels far away, who moved?” God is love; He knows no other way to be. God does not turn away from us, but we often turn away from God. As a result, we despair and do not feel His presence. We feel that God has abandoned us. But this is an illusion, not the truth.

Assuming that solely by our own power we can overcome any trouble, figure out any question, and solve any problem, without God’s intervention, ultimately leads to despondency. Trying to comprehend that which is not humanly comprehensible, such as God’s Divine nature and His ways, is like trying to understand a book written in another language by reading it over and over again, without any knowledge of the language in which it is written. This would be futile. But if you seek help from someone who understands the language, this makes it possible for you to understand the book. Likewise, only God can help us overcome the anguish of total despair, which is poison to the soul.

A person caught in quicksand will sink deeper the more he struggles. If we try too hard to overcome doubt, we sink even deeper into the quicksand of fear and despair, because our efforts alone, no matter how great, will never be enough to conquer these things. A person drowning in quicksand cannot pull himself out of it, but can be pulled out by someone else. By realizing that we cannot save ourselves from fear and doubt, we can then reach out to God and let Him pull us out of it.

Dr. Elton Trueblood, author, educator, philosopher and theologian, once said, “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.”  Faith originates in God. It is His gift to us, but our souls must be open to this gift, through total surrender to God’s will, by quieting the mind through mindfulness and meditation when it starts running amok, by frequent prayer and study of spiritual truth, and by freely sharing our own experiences with other souls who are struggling on their own path to God. Like a muscle, exercising our faith strengthens it, so that when doubt comes around (and it will), our faith will be strong enough to see us through it.

Totally surrender your doubt to God and ask Him to use it to make you stronger. By admitting that we don’t understand but will trust a little while longer, we discover that somehow we find our faith again in the truths we spontaneously come to understand. This not only strengthens us, but allows us to help other people on their own spiritual journey.

When we see doubt as a tool to sharpen our faith, we will never feel powerless against it. When we honor God, we cannot at the same time honor fear or doubt. Alone we have no power against the darkness, but with God, who is Light, we have unlimited strength and endless power! Use your doubt as a tool to help you to become a stronger person. As Jesus promised, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [John 8:32]

Happiness

 

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If you pursue happiness on earth, it eludes you. If you do what you feel compelled to do with your life, and it is the right thing for you, happiness will follow. After we die, God will not ask us if we were happy; He will ask what we did with what we had.

This is not to say that God doesn’t want you to be happy; however, God has planned  your life so that when it aligns with His will, you are happy on earth and happy in eternity.

If we aggressively pursue happiness, we risk hurting others and ourselves, and conflict and grief will follow.  Happiness is not a thing you can capture in a bottle and hold to yourself. It is not a treasure to be searched for and found. It is, rather, like a road on which you walk — not a destination in itself, but part of the journey. It is only when we achieve our soul’s goals that we are truly happy — not the human happiness that ebbs and flows, but the inner joy and peace that come with fulfilling one’s destiny.

Never give up on fulfilling your goals. They are as the air you breathe — they keep you alive; they keep you going! Hold fast to them and trust God to lead you to their attainment.

 

 

 

 

In Honor of Mother Teresa

 

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As you may know, Mother Teresa of Calcutta (actually, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta since her beatification in 2003), will be canonized a saint in Rome this coming Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. In her honor, I would like to post the following words that she reportedly had hanging in her room and/or in the home for children she ran in Calcutta, India. They are based on something called “The Paradoxical Commandments” by Dr. Kent Keith, but Mother Teresa put her own spin on it. Her version is as follows:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.

Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.

Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.

Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you.

Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.

Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.

Be happy anyway.

The good you do today will often be forgotten.

Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.

Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.

It was never between you and them anyway.

Says it all! Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us. Help us to be unselfish, serene, generous and joyful as you were.

Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Lives-Pt. 3

Spiritual Lessons from the Apostles

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Parts One & Two of this series gave us an overview of the Apostles and discussed the lessons we can learn from them. In Part 3, the final post in this series, we will look at the inspiration that can be drawn from the lives of Matthew,  James the Lesser, Jude Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, Judas Iscariot, and Matthias.

Matthew

Matthew underwent one of the greatest transformations of any of the Apostles. Before meeting Jesus, his name was Levi. More educated than most of the other Apostles, he could read, write, and figure sums. Due to his occupation as tax collector, he would also have had more money, though no higher social standing. Then, as now, tax collectors were extremely unpopular. They bought their position and were responsible to Rome for a certain amount of money each year. Anything over that amount was theirs, which naturally led to manipulation and dishonesty. Furthermore, because they were Jews working for the Roman oppressors, they were considered traitors and among the most hated people in Jewish society.

As such, Levi was probably the last person anyone expected to qualify as one of Jesus’ select group. Yet, Jesus called him and changed his name to Matthew, meaning “gift of God.” To the other Apostles, it must have been a shocking choice – not only the selection of Matthew but the new given name as well! It’s very likely that they tried to dissuade Jesus, fearing that having a despised tax collector as part of their group would reflect badly on all of them. But Jesus’ selection of Matthew taught the other Apostles about a segment of society with which they ordinarily would never have associated. They had to learn charity and tolerance for the sort of people to whom they would be bringing Christ’s message. This is a valuable lesson for us as well, that Jesus truly came to save all people, even those we consider lowly and despicable.

Despite his comfortable standard of living, Matthew was willing to chuck it all in an instant to follow Jesus. In order to appreciate the implications of this, we need to realize that for Matthew, unlike for any of the other Apostles, following Jesus meant there could be no turning back. The others all had a trade to which they could return; but once Matthew gave up his office, that was it. He would have no career to fall back on if he turned out to be wrong about Jesus. He would no longer fit in with his old friends, who would think he was crazy for giving up his comfortable life to follow some “religious fanatic.” Conversely, he was also despised by his fellow Jews and would not be welcomed into their society, either.

Because of his past, Matthew of all the Apostles probably had the most reason for gratitude at being chosen by Jesus. He never forgot his origins and what Jesus had done for him. In Matthew 10:3, he humbly refers to himself as “Matthew, the tax collector.” From Matthew we learn that gratitude and humility make sacrificing everything to follow Jesus not only possible, but a great joy, no matter what our shortcomings or circumstances.

James the Lesser

Also known as James the Just, or James son of Alphaeus, he is traditionally believed to be a cousin of Jesus; thus he is referred to as “the brother of the Lord.” James’ mother, Mary, was a kinswoman of the Mary the mother of Jesus, and was one of the women described in Mark 15:40 as being present at the Crucifixion. He is called “the Lesser” – meaning the younger or “little one” – to differentiate him from the other Apostle James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John. We do not know much about him. Around 170 A.D., the historian Hegesippus wrote of a James who had vowed to God not to drink wine nor eat meat except where Scripture enjoined him to, not to cut or anoint his hair or take baths, and spent so much time in prayer that it was said “the skin of his knees was tougher than a camel’s.” Although some modern Bible scholars disagree, tradition recognizes him as the same James who became the first Bishop of Jerusalem and wrote the New Testament epistle (Letter of James).

While most of the other Apostles dispersed to various parts of the world after Pentecost, James the Lesser stayed in Jerusalem, eventually assuming the role of Bishop of Jerusalem. He was spokesman in that city for the early Church, and faced much suspicion and many questions by the Jews there. He played an important role in determining how much of the Jewish traditions and obligations needed to be observed by “Followers of the Way,” as the early Christians were called. He eventually determined that only four Jewish traditions be imposed on Gentiles who wanted to follow the Way of Christ. We can assume from his important role in the early Church that he was diplomatic, patient, faithful, wise and fair-minded.

James the Lesser was martyred in 63 AD by being thrown off the roof of a temple and then clubbed to death by the Pharisees.

Jude Thaddeus

Here is another Apostle whose life is veiled in mystery. He actually went by three names: Thaddeus (“strong-chested”), Lebbaeus (“great-hearted”) and Judas of James. He speaks only once in the Gospel [John 14:22]. Tradition has it that he was the brother of James the Lesser, making him also a cousin of Jesus. But as with James, there is confusion about his identity. One 14th century writer claims he was the bridegroom at the wedding feast in Cana, where Jesus performed His first miracle by changing water into wine. Some modern biblical scholars hold the opinion that the Apostle Jude is not the same person who wrote the Epistle (Letter of Jude), as is traditionally believed. Nevertheless, ancient writings tell us that Jude preached in Judea, Samaria and Mesopotamia. St. Paulinus, writing hundreds of years later, tells us that Jude and Simon the Cananean suffered martyrdom in Persia, where they had gone as missionaries. They share the same feast day, October 28.

In the Letter of Jude, the early Christians are urged to persevere under the harsh, difficult circumstances imposed upon them by the world. Regardless of authorship, this advice is relevant to Christians living in our own trying times as well. Despite the obscurity of his life, Jude is today one of the most popular saints of the Catholic Church, and is known as the “patron of hopeless cases.” This should encourage those of us who feel that our lives are lived inconspicuously, that we are not famous public figures whose many words and actions are recorded for posterity. It shows us that we do not have to have the spotlight in order to make a difference in this world, and that God will reward us in the afterlife for deeds that may have gone unrecognized while we were here on earth.

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Painting of the Apostle Jude Thaddeus in the Schottenkirche Church in Vienna, Austria

Simon the Cananean

Simon was also known as “the Zealot,” which means a Jewish patriot, extremist and political radical. The zealots awaited a Messiah who would be the new King of Israel and bring an end to Roman tyranny. They were not averse to using violence to obtain their objectives. Simon needed to learn new ways of dealing with the world, to love and forgive all people, even the Roman oppressors. This must have been very difficult for him indeed; yet he became a loyal follower of the Prince of Peace.

Through Simon’s example, we learn to tolerate and accept other people, to forgive our enemies, to labor untiringly for freedom and peace, and most of all, to be open and willing to follow God’s plan instead of our own ideas.

Judas Iscariot

You may be surprised to find Judas included in an article about learning spiritual lessons from the Apostles. Yet Judas was one of the Twelve and lived in close familiarity with Our Lord for three years. We can learn from Judas’ mistakes as much as we can from the other Apostles. His name was Judas ish Kerioth – meaning “Judas from Kerioth,” a city in Judea. Short and dark, with hair falling in black ringlets, he was probably the most educated of the Twelve. Being the group’s treasurer, Judas would have worn under his outer garment a leather apron with two huge pockets in which he carried the money.

In Judas we have a true enigma. He can be regarded as the consummate villain or a tragically misguided soul. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. It’s unlikely that Jesus would have chosen as an Apostle a thoroughly evil man with no redeeming qualities, as this would have created constant turmoil within the group and would have reflected badly on Jesus’ mission. From what we can tell, Judas got along with the other Apostles and was efficient in his duties as treasurer. It’s certainly true that he had some wrong ideas and had to be chastised by Jesus on occasion, but in this regard he was no different from the other Apostles.

One theory for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is that he was motivated by greed and did it for the money. This seems unlikely, however, because the 30 pieces of silver he got for his betrayal was not a great amount in those days, surely not enough to induce him to commit such a heinous deed for the money alone. Perhaps he was promised more money or a prominent position of power in the future – we can only speculate about that.

Another, more plausible explanation is that Judas was disappointed and perhaps bitter at the failure of Jesus to immediately establish a successful and powerful earthly kingdom. By bringing Jesus before the Sanhedrin, Judas may have been trying to force Him into claiming the throne of David. Having been witness to so many of Jesus’ astounding miracles, Judas probably felt that if Jesus were really the Messiah, nothing could harm Him — He could simply perform a miracle to vanquish His enemies. Conversely, if Jesus were a false prophet, it was fitting that He should die, in which case Judas would be somewhat of a hero for delivering Him to the authorities. But as the trial proceeded and Judas realized what the outcome would be, he was filled with horror and remorse, trying in vain to call off the plot by returning the blood money.

There are two versions of what happened to Judas after the death of Jesus. Matthew 27 tells us that after his unsuccessful attempt to call off the deal, Judas flung away the 30 pieces of silver, went off and hung himself. But in Acts 1, Peter says that Judas bought a parcel of land with the money, then fell headlong and was disemboweled, probably by falling on his own sword. Whether this was an accident or suicide is not specified. Either way, the end result was the same.

We shall never know, on this earth, what motivated Judas. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that his greatest sin was not his betrayal of Jesus, as this was part of God’s preordained plan of salvation. Judas’ great mistake was in despairing of God’s forgiveness. God in His mercy would not have preordained the loss of Judas’ soul. Judas could have repented of his disloyalty and gone on to do great works as an Apostle, as Peter did, rather than surrender to despair. It’s impossible to not feel some compassion for this unhappy man, because all of us are fallible. We can only hope that at the last moment, Judas made his peace with God.

The sad example of Judas warns us to beware of the things in our lives which we choose over God, be they goals, possessions or people; to resist our human tendencies toward greed, rancor and blind ambition; and to put our faith in God’s wisdom as to how destiny should unfold. Most importantly, we learn from Judas never to despair, because no sin of ours is ever greater than God’s mercy and love.

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Matthias

After the death of Jesus, the Apostles replaced Judas with Matthias, restoring their number to twelve. Matthias had been a disciple since the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It’s likely that he felt some disappointment when he wasn’t initially included in the original Twelve. He probably never dreamed he’d ever be one of these chosen Apostles. But as it was, God had great plans for Matthias – just as He has for each of us, if we are willing to wait trustingly for God’s will to manifest in our lives according to His timetable rather than our own.

Summary

This brings us full circle in our exploration of the lives, character and personalities of the diverse and fascinating men chosen by Christ to share so intimately in His life and form the foundation of His Church. As we study each Apostle, we recognize many of their flaws in ourselves and are inspired by their virtues. We realize how all of them, with the exception of Judas, rose above their personal weaknesses to become the great saints we honor today. Knowing how Christ transformed them, we are confident that He can and will transform us, as well. We only need to have, as did the Apostles, the willingness to be transformed.

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Photo courtesy of CatholicLink 

 

 

Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Lives-Pt. 2

Spiritual Lessons from the Apostles

 

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Part One of this series gave us an overview of the Apostles and discussed the lessons we can learn from Simon Peter in particular. In Part Two we will look at the inspiration that can be drawn from the lives of Andrew, James and John, Philip, Bartholomew and Thomas.

Andrew

Before meeting Jesus, Andrew and his younger brother Simon Peter, along with James and John, were partners in a fishing business. Andrew and John were disciples of John the Baptist; they were the first to follow Jesus when the Baptist pointed him out as “the Lamb of God” [John 1:36]. Later, Andrew brought Simon Peter to Jesus. Yet although Peter, James and John became part of the Lord’s “inner circle,” granted special confidences and privileges, Andrew did not. I often wonder how he felt about this. Was he hurt? Did he struggle to rise above jealousy and envy? Being human, he probably did.

Although perhaps not so strong a leader as his brother Peter, Andrew was active in bringing others to Christ. In contrast to the bemused Philip, he was resourceful enough to tell Jesus about the boy who had the loaves and fishes [John 6].

Andrew also helped the hesitant Philip inform Jesus that a group of Greeks wanted to meet him [John 12:2022]. This suggests that Andrew understood Jesus’ call to save all people, not just the Jews. It’s a safe bet that Andrew was a strong organizer and administrator among the Apostles.

Andrew traveled to Asia Minor, Scythia and as far as Kiev to preach the Gospel of Christ. He was crucified in Achaea in Greece, on an X-shaped cross, upon which he suffered for two days before he died. He is often pictured in art with the X-shaped cross as an identifying symbol.

Andrew inspires us to lead others to Christ and to conquer envy and jealousy in order to serve the greater good. In Andrew’s strong, quiet, solid character, we see a shining example of the humility that acknowledges that God can accomplish great good through those who don’t care who gets the recognition.

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James and John

These brothers were the sons of Zebedee, a respected and prosperous Galilean fisherman with an explosive temper. Because of this, Jesus nicknamed James and John “sons of thunder.” They apparently inherited their father’s temper: when the Samaritans refused to welcome Jesus and the Apostles, James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume the whole village. This attitude, needless to say, was not appreciated by the Master.

Their ambitious mother, Salome, a close relative of  Mary, the Mother of Jesus, joined James and John in demanding that they be given positions of power in Christ’s kingdom. This caused resentment among the other Apostles. As Jesus pointed out, whatever we do in the name of God must be done for the purpose of serving Him and humankind, not for personal gratification or recognition. This teaches us to beware of the hunger for power that exists today, even within the Church, and to realize that along with God’s gifts and privileges come tremendous responsibility and sometimes great hardship.

James, believed to be the elder brother, was a fair-minded, modest man with a quieter nature than John. Although James and John were usually inseparable, James was not with his brother after Jesus’ arrest.

James later became a leading spirit in the early Church and was the first Apostle to suffer martyrdom. James was beheaded with a sword by order of Herod Agrippa around 44 A.D., making him the second martyr of the Christian church (St. Stephen being the first, in 34 A.D.). James did indeed “drink the cup that Jesus drank.”

John always referred to himself as the “disciple Jesus loved.” Of course, Christ loved everyone, but John may have been the “Teacher’s Pet.” The youngest, and perhaps the only unmarried one, John was treated with paternal affection. He was the only Apostle present at the Crucifixion. Affectionate and trustworthy, it was to his care that Jesus entrusted his precious Mother.

John is recorded as the first to recognize Jesus at the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection [John 21:1-7]. However, it was Peter who jumped into the sea to get to Jesus as soon as he heard John’s exclamation, “It is the Lord!” These little anecdotes, so revealing of personality, are what make the Apostles so endearing.

From John we learn loyalty. Even when the chips were down and the other Apostles deserted Jesus, John remained with Him to the end. In caring for Jesus’ Mother, he is a fine example of how we should care for the grieving, the lonely, the needy, the elderly.

John’s greatest legacy is love. Under the tender tutelage of his beloved Master, John gradually learned to channel his assertiveness into an active and enduring charity for all. This fiery young man, who once wanted to stop someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and who with James once called for vengeance on their enemies, came to be known as the Apostle of Love.

John refers to Christian love more than two dozen times in his Epistles. When we are tempted to strike back in anger and revenge against those who have hurt us, we can look to John and the lessons in love he learned from Christ, who was Love Incarnate.

Philip

In the Gospel of John, Philip is the first to whom Jesus says, “Follow me” [John 1:43]. Philip brought his friend Bartholomew to Jesus, thus recruiting another Apostle.

Although a devoted follower, Philip possessed a childlike nature and sometimes showed a weakness of faith. When Jesus told the Apostles to feed the crowd of five thousand, it was Philip who protested, “Two hundred days wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little bit!” [John 6:7].

Philip reminds us of how often in our own lives we, too, doubt God’s ability to take care of our needs. In John 14:8, Philip tells Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Even as we smile at this naïve request, we realize how many times we ask God for signs to bolster our own weak faith, how often we lack confidence in the gifts and abilities Jesus promised in answer to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father….Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these” [John 14:9, 12].

Bartholomew/Nathaniel

Early lore describes Bartholomew, also known as Nathaniel, as being tall, handsome and distinguished, with his clothing trimmed in fashionable purple. Born in Cana, Bartholomew worked as a vinedresser before joining Jesus. Both he and his friend Philip came from Bethsaida, the same town as Peter and Andrew. Bartholomew was inclined to meditate. Perhaps this is what he was doing when Philip found him under the fig tree.

He was honest and straightforward, though sometimes inclined to be critical and prejudiced. He never hesitated to say what he thought. When Philip told them about Jesus, Bartholomew retorted, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” [John 1:46].

Despite his initial prejudice, he was open-minded enough to meet Jesus, who called him “a man without guile,” and “a true son of Israel.”

Bartholomew quickly had a change of heart and was the first recorded as calling Jesus “the son of God and King of Israel.” After the Crucifixion, he was part of the group that went fishing and saw Jesus at the Sea of Tiberius.

From Bartholomew we learn to have the sincerity to speak our mind while being willing to admit our mistakes, the faith to see the Divine hand in the events of our lives, and the open-mindedness to look beyond our prejudices to see ourselves and our fellow humans in the light of truth.

doubting-thomas3

Thomas

There is little said of Thomas except in the Gospel of John. This is enough to bring out his skeptical and somewhat pessimistic nature. Although his given name was Judas, he was called by the Greek name “Didymus,” translated Thomas or twin, although nothing is known about any siblings.

Thomas had worked in Galilee as a stonemason and carpenter, so he and Jesus must have had a lot in common. Thomas, though slow to believe and quick to give up, was a brave and reliable man with an ardent love for the Master. He was ready to follow Him even to the grave. When Jesus proposed going to Judea to see Lazarus, Thomas exclaimed impulsively, “Let us also go, to die with him!” [John 11:16].

During the last supper, Thomas asked Jesus, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” [John 14:5-6].

The most famous incident involving Thomas is, of course, his refusal to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection until he had seen and touched Him, at which time he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas asked questions before he acted. He wanted to understand why he was doing something. Jesus may have chosen him for that very reason. Thomas’ healthy skepticism would show the world that Jesus’ disciples were not just blind followers, but had minds that examined and weighed what was presented to them. When his questions were answered, Thomas was a man of devotion and courage.

Pope St. Gregory the Great said of him: “The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside and our faith is strengthened.”

From Thomas we learn discernment, to challenge and evaluate the sometimes overwhelming information and opinions with which modern society bombards us. In spiritual matters, we need to understand the deeper meaning behind what we do, lest religion becomes for us a matter of empty ritual and boring routines.

Like Thomas, we must realize that no matter how great our knowledge of spiritual matters, we can never fully comprehend them all. Rather, our deep and enduring faith sustains us in times of doubt, helping us to believe even when we cannot see or fully understand the great mystery of God and his plan for our lives.

In Part Three: Matthew, James the lesser, Jude Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot.

 

Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Lives-Pt. 1

Spiritual Lessons from the Apostles

JesusApostlesWhenever I feel discouraged by my own limitations, I find hope and inspiration in the lives of the Apostles. Each of these men called “The Twelve” had jobs, families, and ambitions, just as we do. But when they met Jesus, He transformed everything about them, giving them new lives, new goals. As writer/historian Daniel-Rops points out in his book, Jesus and His Times, one of the best proofs that the Gospels are authentic is their account of the Apostles, because no one could have invented such human, fallible characters! I’m glad Jesus chose them, rather than brilliant paragons of virtue with whom we could never identify.

Unfortunately, we have little information about some of the Apostles. Often, all we have to go on is popular tradition, because many of the facts are veiled in obscurity. But there’s nothing obscure about the timeless lessons we can learn from the Apostles. That’s what we’ll explore in this series.

Who were the Apostles?

The word apostle means “one who is sent”; the number 12 corresponds to the 12 tribes of Israel. Jesus called his Apostles at the beginning of his public ministry, along with a nucleus of 72 secondary disciples. This was the forerunner of the Roman Catholic Church’s present hierarchal structure. Before choosing the Twelve, Jesus went up a mountain and prayed and meditated all night, asking the Father’s guidance. Jesus did not require genius, wealth, or social prominence from His followers. He sought willingness, a loving, giving nature and total dedication. At the Last Supper, He told them, “It was not you that chose Me, but I who chose you.” This is true for all of us: God has chosen each of us to fulfill a particular purpose that no one else can fill.  No disciples of any other prophets or philosophers, including John the Baptist, were given the power and authority of their master as were Christ’s Apostles.

The traditional grouping of the Apostles given in Matthew is: Simon Peter and his brother Andrew; James and his brother John, sons of Zebedee; Philip and Bartholomew (also known as Nathaniel); Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; Jude Thaddeus and James, son of Alpheus; Simon the Cananean (the Zealot) and Judas Iscariot.

They were simple, ordinary men, typical of the people God usually chooses to do his work. Most were probably of average height — 5’6” inches for a man of that time – and approximately the same age as Jesus, who was 30 at the start of his public ministry. Like all observant Jewish men in those days, they wore untrimmed hair and beards. Most of the Apostles belonged to the social class we would call “blue-collar” workers. Only a few could read or write, but they were by no means stupid or totally uneducated. They knew Aramaic and Greek, and from earliest childhood had been orally taught the Hebrew Scriptures by their parents and the synagogue school. They were no more or less pious than the typical Jew of the day. Because they were not religious scholars, Jesus knew they would be teachable, open to new ideas, and able to understand the average person’s struggles.

None of the Twelve realized at first what their new life would entail. Christ’s followers had to give up everything: family and social life, occupation, familiar daily routine, orthodox ideas. For Jews in Christ’s time, religion consisted of countless rules and regulations. Proud of their status as the chosen of God, they longed for the day when God would wreak vengeance on their oppressors. Yet Jesus asked His disciples to embrace a religion of universal love, brotherhood, and forgiveness towards everyone – even enemies, oppressors, and those they considered “unclean.”

With these twelve humble men, Jesus experienced true brotherhood. Living together for three years as they did fostered a profound and intimate friendship. There were days spent walking the dusty roads, stopping in villages to preach and minister to the throngs; nights gathered around the campfire, sharing food and their deepest thoughts and feelings. The Twelve felt so familiar with Jesus that they often had a possessive, protective attitude towards Him, trying to tell Him what to do, where to go, whom to avoid. As is evident in the Gospels, their vying for Jesus’ attention sometimes generated envy and competitiveness among them. Ardent and emotional, they weren’t above petty squabbles as to who was more important and favored by Jesus, or who should get special honors. They gradually learned to overcome these shortcomings and truly love and support one another. This is a perfect lesson as to how we, as members of Christ’s body, the Church, should behave towards one another.

In their trials and weaknesses, we find encouragement for our own struggles to transcend our limitations and be transformed. They desperately tried to believe, but didn’t know how to trust; wanted to be courageous, but were cowardly. Aspiring to love others and renounce self, they were at times egocentric and manipulative. They wanted to be devoted, but didn’t always succeed. Often, they found Jesus’ words hard to understand and asked naïve, even childish, questions. Only after the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost were they truly enlightened about the deeper meanings in Christ’s teachings.

Although Jesus told them repeatedly that He would have to die, they were still profoundly shocked, bewildered and despondent when it actually happened. In this we recognize our own tendency to ignore the inevitable and refuse to prepare ourselves, only to complain and despair when the inevitable finally happens.

Yet, despite all their flaws, Jesus saw their great potential. He knew that through their association with Him, these twelve very human, very ordinary men would someday become extraordinary.

Simon Peter

Born Simon bar Jona (son of Jonas), upon meeting Jesus he was given the nickname “Kephas” in Aramaic (“Peter” in Greek), meaning “rock.” This must have amused those who knew him well, because Peter was far from rock-like in those early days! He was a volatile man, constantly wavering between loyalty and inconstancy, faith and doubt, bravado and cowardice. Big and broad, rash and impetuous, he often tactlessly put his foot in his mouth and was admonished by Jesus for speaking out of turn. But as the natural leader and spokesman of the Twelve, Peter was quick to respond to whatever Jesus wanted. When the others were disconcerted by Christ’s teachings, Peter remained firm. Although he found it hard to comprehend the true meaning behind Jesus’ mission, he loved Him heart and soul.

Along with the brothers James and John, Peter was part of the “inner circle” who were greatly trusted and relied upon by Jesus and sometimes singled out for certain privileges. For instance, they were present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, were the only Apostles to witness Jesus’ Transfiguration, and accompanied Him when He went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion.

When Jesus asked the Apostles who they thought He was, it was Peter who gave the touching, truthful answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” [Matt. 16:16]. At that point, Jesus made Peter the head of His new Church. Yet shortly after this extraordinary declaration of faith and loyalty, Peter tried to talk Jesus out of fulfilling His destiny of going to Jerusalem to die, and was admonished by Jesus with the shocking words, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Peter had to learn, as we all do, not to question or resist the will of God or apply human argument to His mysterious ways.

My favorite story about Peter is Matt. 14:28-31, which recounts his famous, impetuous dash across the water from the storm-tossed boat towards Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. When Peter’s mind caught up to his heart, he realized what he was doing, panicked, began to sink, and had to be lifted up by Jesus. This shows us that with faith in God and the abilities He has given us, we can do marvelous things. It’s only when we stop trusting God and rely solely on our own resources that we fall apart. It’s also a reminder to focus on the present moment. While Peter was concerned only with answering Jesus’ call to come to Him on the water, he was able to accomplish the miraculous. But when his mind moved off the present moment to dwell on doubt and fear, this marvelous ability fled as quickly as it had come.

The most striking example of Peter’s vacillating nature is, of course, his denial of Jesus, whom he loved so dearly. Yet, as horrified and filled with remorse as he was over his disloyalty, Peter did not despair as Judas did. He trusted that God in His infinite mercy and love would forgive him. Peter put his sin behind him and went on to become the leader of Christ’s Church on earth. This is a lesson in perfect contrition: the honesty and humility to admit our failings and make amends, the confidence that we will be pardoned, as well as the ability to forgive ourselves and move on towards what God has planned for our lives.

After Pentecost, Peter became a powerful leader, but still sometimes wavered in his resolve. In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul admonishes Peter for separating himself from the Gentiles because of pressure from some Jewish members of the early Church. Peter learned to have the courage of his convictions despite criticism and opposition. In our own increasingly secular society, where our spiritual beliefs and moral values are constantly being challenged, we need to look to Peter’s example.

Peter was martyred in Rome by crucifixion during the reign of Nero in AD 64.  Popular tradition says he was crucified upside-down, although historic evidence of that particular detail is inconclusive.

Peter’s finest qualities were leadership, humility, devotion, faith, honesty, perseverance and hope. When first called by Jesus, Simon Peter protested, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” [Luke 5:8]. In our own lives we, too, often respond to God’s call by saying, “Not me, Lord – I’m not good enough!” But like Peter, we can put our past behind us and move forward, firmly believing that God can transform us into something greater.

In Part Two: Andrew, James and John, Philip, Bartholomew, and Thomas.

Photo courtesy of Waiting for the Word (no changes made). Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/