Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Who We are Matters Most

I made a mistake with Baxter. I began to give him a little something from my table. Now I have created a monster. If anything I am eating appeals to him, Baxter is there throughout my meal pestering me for some. He will paw my arm, sit and stare, meow, and make a general nuance of himself, hoping I will give in and drop a little morsel his way. Now Baxter doesn’t need this food. He has plenty of kibble and snacks to keep him nourished. But the smell of my lunch or dinner seems so much better to him. He can’t resist satisfying his desire for what I have.

This happens to us as well, doesn’t it? We see another person’s car, house, clothes, phone or whatever, and we want what they have. We envy their possessions, and we set out to get the same or something better. Why do we do this? Why can’t we simply admire another’s possessions, compliment them for their quality, and be satisfied with what we have? What moves us from admiration to envy, compliments to criticisms, satisfaction to discontent with our things? We overvalue stuff.

The stuff we own can take on an importance that is far beyond the monetary value it holds. We see it making a statement about us. Stuff can  become a status symbol of who we are, how successful we have become, and how important we are to the community around us. It tells others to look at me and see what I have become. It tells ourselves that we are better than some people and we have to compete with others to get ahead of them. It’s an external measure of how we compare to other people on the socioeconomic ladder. It tells us where we fit with others and where we have to go to make progress.

Jesus cuts through all of our status symbols. He never measures a person by what they have or don’t have, but He looks elsewhere for what gives value to a life. He admires and compliments people for their character and its qualities--faith in the centurion who believes in His power to heal, generosity in the widow who gives her last penny, persistence in the Syro-Phoenician woman with a sick daughter, humility in the sinful woman who washes His feet. There are many others. Jesus admires people for who they show they are, not for what they have and flaunt before others. He chides the Pharisees for their concern over the size of their phylacteries and fringes, and for seeking places of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues. It’s not about stuff. It‘s about what we are made of.

The baby in the manger was the Word made flesh. Nothing on this earth could have greater value, yet many people in His day had more possessions, higher social standing and greater esteem from others. Yet, He is the Savior. Stuff won’t save us; only a person can, the person of Jesus, born poor and homeless, but rich in the divine virtues He would share with His followers.

Be prosperous in what matters this Christmas season. It will make us all rich and successful, no matter our bank accounts, for we are God’s children too.

Baxter, you can’t have people food. You are a cat!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

We Have What We Need

A few Christmases ago I thought I bought Baxter the perfect present. I could tell that his age was beginning to show on him, because in the winter, he started to lie next to the heating vents for warmth. So I saw in a pet catalogue what I thought was the perfect Christmas gift for Baxter—a heated bed. It wasn’t cheap, but I thought Baxter deserved it for his many years of putting up with me. So I ordered it on line, and when it arrived, I thought it was just right for him. It was a well padded mattress with a plush covering, and when I plugged it in, it became a gently heated bed fit for a king. I was so excited to set it up in one of Baxter’s favorite spots. I just knew he was going to love it. Soft, warm and cozy, this gift would create the perfect spot for an older cat seeking warmth on a cold winter day. I was wrong.

Baxter has never used the luxury bed. The closest he came were a few, curious sniffs. I tried placing him on the mattress several times, but after a few seconds of boisterous protest, he would hop away. I tried plugging it in and leaving it on while I am gone during the day, thinking that he would make a friend of the soft spot. No deal. The heated pet bed remains pristine to this day--untouched by feline paws, clean of all shedding, in newly packaged, mint condition. Baxter prefers his old, cruddy, stained canvas mattress by the window and the heating vent when he needs a dose of warmth.

We sometimes make the same mistake with ourselves and each other as I made with Baxter. We think we know what we or others need to make life better. Sometimes it is a superfluous thing like a heated pet bed. Sometimes it’s dangerous items like drugs or crime. Sometimes it’s sinful activities like adultery or ruining another’s reputation. Whatever its particular characteristics, we look for a simple way to make ourselves or another happy, and most often it fails. Happiness isn’t that simple.

Happiness is a network of relationships we hold in life. These involve God, ourselves, others and the world at large. God sets the context for all the other connections we need. He is the glue binding together the various aspects of our lives into a meaningful whole. As Catholics, we believe that God desires to permeate all the other relationships we need and cherish, and when He does, these become sacraments, signs and instruments of God’s grace embracing our lives and drawing them forward towards a fuller life with God. Jesus as the Word Incarnate is the first sacrament of this union between God and humanity, and in His Spirit, we, the baptized, continue to incarnate God’s grace by the way we connect with each other. Respect, responsibility, and reconciliation make space for grace to grow between us. Without these, we smother each other in comforts that may please us for a while but never finally satisfy our longing for belonging, peacefulness and love.

Baxter didn’t need a heated pet bed, and he knew it. He had a safe place to live, food, and companionship. This is a complete world for a cat. Our world needs more--the love of God shown in our love for each other characterizing the way we live together. That’s a Christmas gift everyone can appreciate and use when they receive it. Forget the luxury items this Christmas. Give the basics and everyone will be happy.

-Monsignor Statnick

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Sense of Things

Baxter has a sense when things are not right. The other day I was lying on the couch not feeling well. He would usually jump up on my belly and fall asleep for a while until he decided that sleeping on the floor next to me was better. However, this time he just touched his paw to my side and went under the coffee table to rest while I slept on the couch. He seemed to know that I was under the weather, and he respected my need for some space and undisturbed quiet. Baxter stood by wondering what was wrong withthe usual picture without adding to its disquiet.

Do we have a sense of each other in our day to day dealings? Often, we go about our usual business without noticing the people who are involved. We have a job to do and we do it. We are concerned about the results, and we want to get things accomplished. In the wake of all this concentrated effort at producing a product, we can forget why we are doing the job and who’s to benefit. We work for people. Whether we are constructing a building, cooking a meal, caring for the sick, keeping financial accounts, fixing a car, calling a parish bingo or engaging any of a thousand other jobs done today, people are meant to benefit from our work, and the product of our effort should somehow make other’s lives better. As Christian believers, we don’t work just for a pay check. Of course, we need a livelihood, but our jobs involve more. We are helping to build the Kingdom of God in our world.

Work brings people together both with co-workers and clients. It provides us with common goals that are meant to unite us around a common task. It calls for more than individual achievements, though these are often necessary. It calls for a shared effort that uses the talents of everyone involved to do something that benefits others. Our work is meant to carry on God’s work in the world. God’s job is to call us to Himself by linking us to each other. When we connect together in some effort, we gain a sense that something bigger and better than ourselves is at work here. This is a hint of the holy among us. God works between us, among us, and through us as we share a common task to extend the goodness of creation. When we work this way, it helps to avoid the drudgery, the ongoing conflicts, the back-biting and extreme complaining that can poison a workplace. We are in this together—God, me, us—for others’ good. There is no better formula for meaningful work that enhances our lives through its service.

Baxter’s job is to be a cat. He does it well because he has a sense of the other person in his cat world and respects him. We work best when we respect and welcome those we work with and those we work for, because God is at work with all of us.

-Monsignor Statnick

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Look

Cats have mysterious stares. Sometimes, Baxter comes up close and just looks me in the eye with a very disconcerting gaze. If I blink or turn away, it doesn’t distract him. He remains fixed with his focus. I wonder what he is looking for but the answer isn’t obvious. He doesn’t give any clues about his disposition or his intentions. He just stares until he has had enough. Then he jumps off my lap and goes about his routine cat business.

Staring at another person is usually regarded as impolite. It intrudes upon one’s personal space and intimidates another. It is usually regarded as threatening to one’s privacy and respect. As children, we are taught not to stare for these very reasons. Of course, kids can make a game of staring. Who will flinch first? But generally, we don’t tolerate another’s stare for very long. We usually break it with a question. Can I help you? Do I know you? What’s your problem? Stares are not the stuff of polite society.

How do we feel about God’s look at us? I remember the big eye in the triangle that adorned the sanctuary ceiling of my boyhood church. I never liked that look. It was too much like a stare. It gave the sense that it knew everything about me, and it was waiting to catch me out of line. Its expressionless viewpoint had me looking for the worst in me and wondering how I could keep it a secret. Where could I hide from the all-knowing judgment of God? Maybe that’s why I seldom looked at the picture and took the back pew in the corner whenever I was praying alone in the church. Stares are intimidating, and coming from the Almighty, they are downright scary.

The God of Jesus looks at us differently. Sure, He sees our sin and failings, our littleness and frailty, but like a loving parent, these traits become terms of endearment to Him. His forgiveness trumps our sin and failings, and the strength of His love protects us in our weakness. He doesn’t look for the worst, but the best in us.

After all, we are His children, and so we are made in His image and likeness. God sees His love in us and smiles at the unique twist we each have given that love. He wants to encourage us to live by that love, to use it in our dealings with each other, and to teach it to our children. That’s the divine gaze, the look of the Good Shepherd, happy to see His sheep thriving under His watchful care.

So, Baxter, stare all you want. I can’t be scared by you. A cooler cat watches over both of us, and His look is a blessing for all on whom it falls.

-Monsignor Statnick

Friday, November 11, 2016

Standard Time

We fell back one hour last weekend. Standard time began for us. All the clocks were reset to reflect this move to a later start to the daylight with an earlier start to the sunset. This is the dark period of the year when eventually there will be virtually no evening or dawn. There is simply day and night. The daylight shrinks from now until after the winter solstice. Many of us go to work in the dark and return from work in the dark during this season. People with seasonal affective disorder get depressed. Most people just hunker down and hope for a mild winter, waiting for hints that the ratio of light to darkness is beginning to switch, and the light is winning out.

Baxter seems unaffected by this change. He can’t tell time, so changing the clocks means nothing to him. He sleeps so much that day or night isn’t really that important to him. Chunks of the day and chunks of the night are always unconscious periods for him, so the amount of total light most often goes unnoticed. In fact, since he sees better in the dark, Baxter probably enjoys the longer nights. He can inspect more during his nighttime prows when I am fast asleep.

As long as his feeder goes off on schedule, Baxter is satisfied with whatever the clocks register as the time. That is just a number to him without any meaning.

What do we do with our time? Unlike Baxter, we have a sense of time passing. Do we make the most of the time we have? We can make ourselves the victim of time always complaining that there is not enough of it, that it has passed us by, or that each day is endless, full of the doldrums and its boredom. But time is what we make of it. Do we make something good of it by filling the time with service? Days and nights are long when they are spent alone and disengaged from others. Time drags when we have no meaningful work to do. Meaningful work is work that contributes to the betterment of others’ lives. It can be paid or unpaid, on the clock or off it, skilled and learned or simple and rote. But if it contributes to making something better for others, it makes the time we spend at it full and satisfying.

We declare when we bless the Paschal Candle at the Easter Vigil that Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. To Him belong all times and seasons. Christ is meant to fill our days and nights no matter what time is registered on the clocks. He is there when we spend the time for others, whether that is in direct service to the needy and poor, the confined and dying, our families, our communities or our church, or it is in prayer for others, in time given to visit and listen to others, in work that makes more than a paycheck, that makes a better world for us all. Christ lives in time—standard or daylight saving—whenever His disciples use their time to make His presence and power tangible in the good they do for others.

So as we get used to Standard Time for the next five months, let us measure its passing not as Baxter does - waiting for the next meal - but as God does waiting for the next opportunity to save a piece of the world by offering our loving service to it.

-Monsignor Statnick

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Cat Milk

Most cats are lactose intolerant, even though many cats love milk. Baxter loves his milk, but I am sure to give him the kind for cats with the lactose removed. I don’t know if he knows that difference. He certainly wants his little dish of the stuff every morning before I leave the house, and he licks the bowl dry when he gets it. This cat milk doesn’t look very appetizing to me. Its color is beige and its consistency a little thick, but those things don’t seem to matter to Baxter. He is happy with his milk fix each morning, and I am happy that his stomach stays settled after he has had his daily portion.

We humans also find ourselves in the same predicament at times. We like something. We even crave it, but it isn’t always good for us. Sometimes we can find a substitute or a modified version of what we desire that allows us to indulge without harming ourselves too much. Think of sugar substitutes for people with diabetes, or non-alcoholic cocktails for those with alcoholism. However, sometimes we ignore our condition and just satisfy our craving. At first, this approach may cause no problem for us. We don’t have any immediate symptoms of our intolerance, and we feel satisfied after a bit of indulgence.

Who doesn’t enjoy a sweet, gooey treat, or a relaxing drink at the end of the day? What’s the problem?

The problem is that we are not facing our condition squarely and adjusting our lives accordingly. We pretend that everything is the way it was in the past or the way we want it to be now rather than the way it, in fact, is. We convince ourselves that no harm is being done, and we deserve these moments of pleasure and enjoyment. For the sake of some momentary satisfaction, we don’t take the longterm consequences into account, and we may not even look at what is happening now. We just do what we always did, what we want now, and refuse to look at the full picture of our behavior.

Jesus challenges this outlook in the gospel accounts. He constantly asks people to look at the big picture, the long view, the attitudes that we hold and their effects. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s not about satisfying a physical thirst but a thirsty soul. Recall the story of the miraculous catch of fish. It’s not about an abundance of physical food, but the abundance of people looking for God. How about the parable of the prodigal son? While the two sons are focused on what they can or cannot get, the father wants only to love them unconditionally.

So often in the gospels, people give into lesser desires so that they cannot discover their true hearts’ desires for love, forgiveness, meaning, purpose and hope in their lives. These satisfy us in ways that no passing pleasure can, and they lead us beyond the immediate situation to consider ourselves in the light of eternity.

Baxter found a way to enjoy milk without its nasty side effects for him. We are called to find a way to enjoy life without indulging ourselves in behaviors that may satisfy us for the moment, but in the long run, harm us. Jesus is that way, and He invites us to follow Him.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Favorite Places

Baxter has his favorite places. Most of these have to do with sleeping spots—his mattress under the window, the TV table with a blanket on top, my bed. Some are places to sit like my chair at the dining room table or the window sill facing the side yard. When he is in the mood, Baxter wants to explore the basement. Then he lies on the old couch down there to get away from all the street noise upstairs. All of these spots are places where Baxter feels safe and secure, warm and comfortable, and he can stay in one of these places for hours, waking and sleeping, occasionally changing positions, but always at peace.

Where do we go for peace? In the noisy, crowded and hurried world we live in, a quiet, comfortable spot is not always easy to find. We recreate in places where we can shop or watch a game or listen to music, but these are often like the rest of the world. They are loud with a lot of people speaking over the sounds and elbowing each other for a place at the table. It is fun to be together with all the excitement being shared, but it is still much like the everyday work world we face. The only difference here is that we can dress down, don’t have to report to anyone, and have no deadlines to meet. These places are relaxing, but in a charged way.

Come home, and often the same atmosphere prevails. While the decibels may be down, the noise is still there with the televisions, phones and music devices, and the activity is still nonstop. With emails and text messages we are never away from our work, our friends and family, and all the demands for our attention from advertising. Then there are the robo-calls soliciting our attention and support for all sorts of causes. Is it any wonder that we feel homeless at times, unable to find a place to relax, to be quiet with ourselves, and be undisturbed with our own thoughts and reflection?

Maybe we need to do a little remodeling. It doesn’t necessarily involve physical construction. Rather, to get the space we are looking for we need to adjust the space we are in. Turn off the phones, computers, television and all other electronic devices. We need to find a way to quiet our living space, turn off the demands for our attention and enter into ourselves. It is almost impossible to be in touch with God and our soul’s desire for Him when we can’t be at peace. Opening our spirits to the holy mystery that can’t be readily heard or seen requires us to relinquish the sights and sounds of this world for a while.

Take a tip from Baxter. Make a favorite place in your everyday world where God can speak, you can listen, and peace can be found.

-Monsignor Statnick