Tuesday, December 29, 2015

4 Things My Cat Taught Me About God

I moved out of my parents' house nearly a year ago, into a home I now share with my cousin and sister. With my new home came an old cat.

Ally (nicknamed "Mao" for the way her meow sounds) is nearly seventeen years old, but being a calico who is part Siamese, is small and thin and doesn't look much older than a kitten.

(And she has beautiful eyes!)

Most of my time at home is spent with this cat. I wake up in the morning, and there is the cat. I come home from work, and there is the cat. I go to bed, and here comes the cat. She also follows me into the bathroom, and has even tried to follow me into the shower a couple of times.

I've reflected a few times over the last year on the undeniable reality that my relationship with my feline friend is a great gift from God, given straight from his heart to mine. Ally brings me peace, diminishes my loneliness in the hours I regularly spend alone (which I had even living with my parents, who were both kept busy by work and sleep schedules that didn't usually match mine), and makes me feel genuinely wanted, cared for, and loved.

I know this all makes me sound like a crazy cat lady, but really? I'm actually not. I like animals, but I don't particularly obsess over them like most people titled "animal lovers" do. I really, genuinely do just love my cat, consider her a friend, and know my joy in life is enhanced for her presence in it.

For all the things this cat has done for me, I can't neglect to acknowledge the ways she teaches me about God. I know, I know -- it sounds crazy, right? But my relationship with my cat has taught me several valuable spiritual lessons, and I can't help but be aware of them.

#1 - God knows exactly when I plan to get up off the couch. Exactly.

My cat has this amazing sixth sense (is it really a "sixth" sense for an animal? I don't know...) that I hear all house cats have: she knows exactly when I'm about to get up off the couch. I'm not talking about her knowing when I'm getting up -- I'm saying that as soon as I think "I need to get up and go get this or do that," she comes and lays in my lap. Every. Time. Without fail.

Scripture says of God, "You know when I sit and when I stand." But my cat, and of course God, knows when I plan to sit and plan to stand. God knows the moves I'm going to make before I even finish formulating the idea in my mind, and he quickly moves to offer either his assistance or, like my cat, resistance.

#2 - God loves all of me, even the parts I don't like and know I need to change.
I remember one night several months ago I was laying in bed, probably crying, very upset about the fluffier areas of my tummy, thighs, etc. I struggle a lot with my weight, and some days I struggle more than others. My cat noticed I was in bed -- as she usually does -- and hopped up to join me. Immediately, she began to rub her face on my hands. "Aw," I thought, "my kitty loves me even though I have fluffy bits! She doesn't even care." It was around this time that she began kneading my belly in order to make a bed for herself.

Initially, I was upset, because I'm weird and it hurt my feelings that my cat noticed I pack a few extra pounds. But then I had a realization: she loved it. She was happy it was there. She thought it was nice.

I don't mean to say that God necessarily thinks everything about me is nice, but apart from my weight, I struggle a lot with negative perceptions of myself all around.

Believe it or not, this singular instance with a cat has reframed the way I pray about these things. Where I once despaired that God resented all the same parts of me that I do, I now have a glimmer of hope that he thinks I'm worth it, not in spite of, but even with what I think are glaring imperfections. He just wants me, even with all my quirks.

#3 - Silence does not mean God hates me

Sometimes I won't even notice my cat is hanging out with me because she is so quiet. It isn't even that she doesn't meow a lot (except when she's hungry, or to respond when I'm talking to her), she just moves so quietly. It's like she walks on air everywhere she goes. You can only hear her coming if it's the middle of the night and she wants to run up and down the stairs.

Most of us are used to not hearing God speak to us, but when we can't see him moving in our lives, we can become distressed and think he's ignoring us. Maybe he's actually just sitting there, loving us and waiting for us to acknowledge him and give him attention. And when we do acknowledge him, maybe he will simply want to cuddle. He's weird, just like my cat.

#4 - God willingly forgives, for the simple fact that he loves me

My cat hates being picked up. Go ahead -- try. She will let you know she doesn't like it, typically by an urgent "maaaaaow." But when you pick her up, she won't fight you. She doesn't wriggle or squirm, and doesn't try to jump away, even when she easily could.

She just lets you hold her, maowing though she may be.

Sometimes I have to hold her so my cousin can give her medicine. Sometimes I hold her because I just love her so much. Every time, she verbally protests. But every time I put her down, she is ready and waiting to be petted again. She wants to cuddle immediately.

In addition to this, my cat puts up with all kinds of weird things, and continues loving and cuddling us. Push her out of a room, and she wants back in. Forget to feed her, and she wants to nuzzle you (even after you've given he food!). Accidentally throw yourself down on the bed only to realize she was under the blanket and you have squished her (oops), and she scrambles out from under the blanket to lay with you.

I don't know if it's blasphemous, but this reminds me of Jesus' cross, and especially his words of forgiveness for the soldiers who put nails through his hands and feet. "Father, forgive them -- they know not what they do." Some random cat facts that go floating around include one which suggests that cats actually consider all humans to merely be stupid, oversized, extra-clumsy kittens. I believe this solely for the fact that my cat would only put up with my shenanigans if she felt sorry for me.

And that's why God puts up with me, too. Well, sort of. He feels sorry for me, but he also really, really freaking loves me. He hates my sin, but even while I'm sinning, he doesn't hurt me, and as soon as I've put it down, he wants to lavish his love on me again.

I know it sounds stupid, but I really do better understand all of these things about God because he put this cat in my life.

So, here's to you, Ally Mao. May the Lord grant you seventeen more years (mostly because I can't imagine my life without you).

Friday, December 25, 2015

Whom Shepherds Guard and Angels Sing

Merry Christmas!

I have particular fondness for Christmas music -- more specifically, Christmas hymns. One of my absolute favorite Christmas songs (and favorite songs of all time) is "What Child is This?" It captures, for me, the rich simplicity of one of the most extraordinary events in human history. The  lyrics to this song are deep with meaning and soaked in the reality of Christmas. Verse by verse, a story is told which is penetrated by awe and wonder at something small and unimpressive. Latter verses of the song, which are often unheard because artists seem to enjoy repeating the first verse over and over again, tell of the cross and the wise men and the Virgin and her lullaby. But the first verse -- that same first verse we all know by heart because we've heard it so many times -- is about something seemingly less important than the wise men bearing gifts, irrelevant in comparison to the cross of Christ and his Mother.

What Child is this who laid to rest on Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?

Shepherds. The song begins with a question -- who is this baby that angels are singing for, and why are there dusty smelly shepherds standing around?

It is easy, as people who have heard the story over and over, to take for granted that Jesus' first visitors in this world were shepherds. Although it is unfair to say that the shepherds are ignored (they're a central element of any nativity scene or Christmas play), it is true that the significance of their invitation to and their presence at the nativity of our Lord is terribly overlooked. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives:

"...perhaps [the shepherds] were not living only outwardly but also inwardly closer to the event than the peacefully sleeping townsfolk. Inwardly too, they were not far from the God who had become a child. What is more, they were among the poor, the simple souls whom Jesus would bless, because to them above all is granted access to the mystery of God. (cf. Lk 10:21f) They represent the poor of Israel, the poor in general: God's first love."
That the shepherds were the first to visit the newborn King is no accident. According to God's plan, it seems that it was wholly intentional that the first to lay eyes on Jesus in the flesh were poor people, living simple lives, up in the middle of the night, tending to the vulnerable and the fragile. In fact, we know it was God's plan that the shepherds themselves be invited, specifically, to adore Jesus Christ on that first Christmas night. They didn't happen upon him by accident -- they were urged to go see him by an angel of the Lord. And the angel imparts, to them and to us in the eternal words of Sacred Scripture:

"Do not be afraid."

"I bring you good news...for all people."

"Today...a Savior has been born to you."

"He is the Messiah."

Following the angel's greeting, a "multitude" of angels appear, singing praises and glorifying God; though the Son of God is born into a world which rejects him, he remains Lord of the heavenly realms, Master over the angels who adore, love, and worship him. They pour out their perfect praise in honor of his birth. This is no ordinary baby -- this child is the Son of a great King who sends his heavenly servants to tend to him and sing for him and bless him and announce him to the world.

And the world, that night, to whom his birth was announced was the world of the poor, the simple, and the afraid. The good news of great joy, news of a child blessed of highest heaven come down to the lowest of the low, comes first to those most in need of it.

This, this is Christ the king,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste, haste to bring him laud

The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

So you're not feeling very Christmasy

It's that time of year again! With only days left until the long-awaited December 25th, your heart of hearts may be echoing Cindy Lou Who's song in the now-ancient Jim Carey retelling of The Grinch: "Where are you, Christmas?"

They say it comes with getting older. Children have a natural wonder at Christmastime, infused with the magic of Santa Claus, Christmas break, and the allure of Christmas music and presents. Children love Christmas. So why don't adults?

With absolutely zero expertise to back me up, I posit that adults hate Christmas because adults don't celebrate Christmas. Adults stress about out-gifting each other, money, time, parties, planning meals, and working overtime. We become frantic at midnight on Black Friday, and the chaos and running around don't stop until December 26th (or, for some of us, until after that last post-Christmas Christmas party). By Christmas Eve, our energies are spent and our wallets are exhausted. To add, we've probably eaten way too many cookies.

What was lost between childhood and adulthood? Where did Christmas go?

Friends, Christmas didn't go anywhere. We did.

But we can go back.

On December 24th, some 2,000-and-something years ago, a humble carpenter was leading a donkey on which his tender wife sat, as pregnant as she would ever be. They were concerned about money, and taxes, and not seeing their families for a long while. They hadn't had a moment's rest since they set out on their journey, and they were cold and tired.

Near the middle of the night, they finally came upon Bathlehem, where they were required to go by a government mandate. Their sighs of relief were short-lived, however, as they couldn't find a single place to stay; there was not even a spare room at the inn.

In the throes of exhaustion and desperation, our humble carpenter sets his sights on a stable built into a cave. He leads the donkey carrying his wife and unborn son inside, where he begins to unload whatever necessities they will use for the night. And just when he thinks they can finally rest, as fate would have it, his wife goes into labor.

Having just walked more miles than he can recall, leading an animal and worrying about his little family, the humble carpenter makes his young wife as comfortable as possible in a darkened cave lined with hay and dirt and animal feces, then gets down on his knees to help her deliver the Savior of the world.

But this Savior doesn't come with riches, or food, or a soft place to lay their heads; he doesn't even come with clothes for himself. His mother wraps him in her shawl. And now, faced with the added weight of an infant who poops and cries and needs to be fed and burped and held and hushed to sleep, suddenly, everything is right in the world.

In the distance an angel appears to shepherds tending their flocks -- to you and to me, busy with our lives and our jobs and our anxiety. "Fear not!" the angel beckons. "For to you this day in the city of David has been born a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."

As if foreknowing our hectic schedules and restless nights, the angel doesn't add, "You will find a party with plenty of appetizers and a few movies for the kids to watch. BYOB." He doesn't say, "Each of you bring a gift at least $25 in value but not exceeding $30." He doesn't say, "Go over your list one last time."

He says, "You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothing, lying in a manger."

This is Christmas.

There isn't anything wrong in the slightest with our holiday traditions. Presents and lights and candy and family are all wonderful things. But without an understanding of why we celebrate the way we do, and who we are celebrating, they become not traditions but chores.

If you're tired, overworked, poor, and stressed for time this Christmas season, listen. Do you hear it? The heavenly hosts sent from heaven above to welcome God's own Son to the world he made. Can you smell the straw? Can you feel the dust? Do you see the small Light flickering in the darkness?

Bring your sighs to Mary, your work to Joseph, and lay them down before their Son.

If you can't feel Christmas, read the Bible. Read the prophecies of old, especially in Isaiah, and the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. Familiarize yourself with the desperation of Israel, and finally with the hope of the Messiah, who comes for you. To relieve you of your burdens. To save you from your sins. To spare you the agony of a monotonous, mundane existence and offers you instead a life worth living -- an abundant life, a participation in his own.

Listen to Christmas carols. Adults hate Christmas songs. We don't hear the words. Pray with the lyrics of O Little Town of Bethlehem, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, What Child Is This, and all the rest.

Simplify. Christmas is among the most extraordinary events in human history: God-made-man come down to earth. The King of Peace enters our world and sleeps. His earthly beginnings are simple. Christmas is extraordinary in part because our Savior proves himself simple.

Make your way back to the manger in Bethlehem. Brave the torrents of rejection, anxiety, and fear. Take your family to the cave; sit in the quiet and soak up the surprising reality of the Savior. A baby. In rags. In a barn. Asleep in a feed box.

Make time for peace this holiday season. Celebrate peace. Celebrate love. Celebrate Christmas.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Stealing From The Poor

Dorothy Day once said, "If you have two coats, you have stolen one from the poor."

The Gospel reading for the third Sunday of Advent this year reveals where she likely got this idea. John the Baptist says, more or less, the same thing when asked what should be done to prepare for the coming Messiah: "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise."

We're used to hearing some of what we should do to "prepare the way of the Lord." We're told to prepare our hearts, our minds, and our souls. I remember last Advent, local parishes came together in an agreement to hear confessions one extra day a week in order to offer more people the chance to come back into the Church before Christmas. We are encouraged to pray. We're offered daily devotionals. And if you've never been to daily Mass, I encourage you to go during Advent -- it is an enormously peaceful time wherein one can nearly taste the anticipation of Israel as she awaits the Savior.

These are all very good and just and, as far as preparing our hearts for the Lord, necessary. But as we enter the Year of Mercy, we would do well to recall the works of mercy, which consist both of spiritual and corporal works. In preparing our hearts for Advent, we ought not neglect to prepare our homes, our families, our lives, and our communities

John the Baptist, echoed emphatically by Dorothy Day, teaches us that we should be doing far more than preparing on a solely spiritual level; we should be preparing the way of the Lord on a very practical level in the physical reality we live in.

This particular reading is challenging to me, because I wonder if I realize the implications. We are not called to be thoughtful with our belongings -- we are called to be generous with them. This is especially difficult for me as someone who is lucky if I manage to get by each month, let alone have a little extra. But John doesn't only refer to money. He refers to material possessions and to food. Do I do all I can with my own resources to see that those in my community who lack clothes and food don't go without for my sake? Following the sentiment of Dorothy Day, what have I stolen from the poor?

This is something I'll be taking to the more dusty and darkened reaches of my prayer closet, the oft-unused corner where I actually ask God what he wants me to do with the many gifts I've been given. I wholly expect this to become painful, in light of Mother Teresa's pattern of life: that love gives until it hurts and then gives more. I simply need to remember how much more it might hurt to be living outside this winter with no coat and no food.

Please join me in praying about this if you're able. And if you're not, please pray for me to discern and do God's will in my life right now.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Innkeeper

I wish I could slow down.

I wish life as it is allowed me what I so fervently desire: a peaceful, prayerful Advent. I am naturally restless. I am inclined towards deliberate busyness, because I thrive when I am distracted from my anxious thoughts. I overwhelm myself with things I can control to keep from being overwhelmed by things I can't. Every morning I wake up early enough to do a thousand things, and find myself resetting my alarm so I can sleep a little longer, because I am truly exhausted. Every evening I find myself desperate for my bed, and once I'm in it, I don't get up for anything. My bed is the only place in the world where I am not rushing, not plotting, and not doing. My bed is where I go at the end of my endlessly busy days to take solace from the world I've created for myself. My bed is where I let myself relax, because by night time I have no further will to fight the urge to slow down.

There's a song I heard a couple of years ago which resonates with me on a deep level. It's called "Rest," and it's by Jason Gray. It is a reflection offered from the perspective of the Innkeeper, whose life is hectic and fruitless. It recalls the night he met at his door a young couple and had no room for them, except his own bed, which was his. It recounts the yearning for peace and solitude, interrupted by the distant sound of a baby crying. It gives me chills.

It is my life.

A reading of the Gospels may leave us with the impression that we are given little to no information about the Innkeeper in Bethlehem, but I am of the opinion that each of us actually knows the Innkeeper rather intimately and personally. His habits are our habits and his ways are our ways -- because he's us.

Think about it. The God of ages, the God of Israel, the Messiah promised of old, has come to the earth in the flesh! And he is turned away. We have no place for him, in our societies nor in our lives. The best we can offer is a barn in a cave, and we actually think this is an acceptable substitute for room and board. OurDivine  Spouse comes to meet us, and we can't even let him into our beds, let alone our homes. Instead, he finds his repose in the manger where we feed our animals.

Our Savior comes to us in the ultimate gift of generosity, and finds himself wrapped in rags in a barn on a cold, bitter night, while we sleep as soundly as our fears will allow in a world we still surrender to the reign of our anxieties.

I wish I could slow down, but would I? Will I? I have time for Jesus. I just don't use it for Jesus. I have a place for him to stay. I just don't let him stay there.

The Church offers Mass everyday, sometimes multiple times a day depending on the parish. I have access to the sacraments whenever I'm willing to make an appointment. I have several Rosaries. I have prayer cards. I have a Bible.

It's as if the Church comes to my door, ready to give birth to all I've ever wanted and needed, and I turn her away because I don't have room in my schedule.

I wish I could slow down. But the only one between me and my wish is me.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


This is my first Christmas "by myself," by which I mean that it is my first Christmas that I won't be living with my parents. I live in the basement of a home I share with two other people, and I've strung lights across the ceiling, hung stockings above the heater, and smothered a tiny little Christmas tree with what one might consider "too many" or "not enough" ornaments, depending on if they agree with me or if they're wrong (you can never have too many ornaments).

For the first time ever, I got to put together my own Advent wreath. It's simple, the way I like things to be. Next to it sits a small statue of the Holy Family, and next to them, a wooden plaque which reads "Simplify Christmas, Celebrate Christ" sits atop a 200-year-old Bible I was gifted by a friend.

Since I put the Advent wreath together myself for the first time this year, it uses five new candles. I've been rotating which purple ones get lit to conserve them, but as of yet the pink and white candles have never been lit.

Today as I was lighting two purple candles for the Second Sunday of Advent, I felt an urge to light all the candles to see what it will look like. That urge was quickly smothered, though, by the desire to wait. Anticipation is what Advent is about, and I'll let my anticipation for seeing my wreath in its simple glory remind me of that.

In the moments during which I stood and thought about this as I watched the two tiny fires burn, I recalled that my mere weeks of waiting to light a few candles are hardly even a shadow next to the thousands of years during which mankind awaited the Messiah. I read recently that each Advent candle represents a one thousand year period in the story of the chosen people in the Old Testament -- from Adam and Eve to Abraham and to David and beyond. If you need something to give you pause next time you light an Advent candles, think about that!

This anticipation for them was not so simple as mine, as I stood waiting for weeks to pass to light a candle or two. These centuries for the people of YHWH were inundated with strife and suffering: cast out from Eden, enslaved in Egypt, exiled in Babylon. These years were wrought with murder, adultery, rape, slavery, war, and jealousy. They faced natural disasters, famines, culturally accepted violence, and racism. We must never take for granted the "darkness" referred to in the prophetic hope of Isaiah towards the Christmas we now celebrate: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light."

Though the Scriptures tell the tales of Israel's repeated infidelity, the people of God in the Old Testament staked their identity on their covenant with God, and placed their hope in his promises. These were a people hopeful for the future of their children and their children's children, whose hope was inherited from their ancestors who took it from their ancestors. This was not a person waiting to light a candle; this was a collective people spanning thousands of years waiting for light to come into their world.

I think back on these people and wonder what their lives looked like, what they prayed for, how they prayed. The stories we hear in the Bible are often extraordinary, but sometimes they are ordinary. These were people who awoke every morning and endeavored to provide for their families and drank water and had dirty feet and sweaty faces. People with babies and children and grandchildren and grandparents and cousins and friends and neighbors. For all the times their stories were penetrated by the fire of God, their lives remained ordinary. For thousands of years. Just like ours do.

And we're waiting, too, aren't we? The centuries since Christ's Ascension are wrought with murder, adultery, rape, slavery, war, and jealousy. We face natural disasters, famines, culturally accepted violence, and racism. Advent is for us, too. Just as the people of God in ancient times forgot their covenant and replaced it with other gods and other worldly things and pagan rituals, we, too, forget our covenant with God and replace him with new gods and new things and distracting habits.

For all the times our world has been penetrated by the fire of God, our lives remain abundantly ordinary. We are tired, we're stressed, and we're ready for a Savior.

May Advent renew our hope that he is coming.

"A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices."