Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Our Soft Underbelly

Cats are very protective of their underbellies. They usually guard them literally with claws bared. Their stomachs are very sensitive, and they keep them hidden from any third party intrusion. They know they are vulnerable in this area, so they let no one near for fear of harm. Baxter was that way for a long time. However, more recently, he has begun to roll over on his back and look for a scratch on his stomach. He starts to purr when I pat his pure white underside, and he continues his pleasant disposition as long as I am soft and gentle in my approach. When he has had enough, he jumps up and walks away, and I have to respect the boundaries he sets. Baxter has come a long way in relying upon me and trusting in my care for his well-being.

We all have our own soft underbellies--things about us that we are sensitive about. Maybe they come from past hurts, experiences that directly wounded our relationship with someone due to an insult, a betrayal or a disagreement that remains unresolved. Maybe they come from our expectations of ourselves or others. We have certain unwritten rules of how others should talk and act, and when they don’t meet these rules, we are offended. Of course, the other person may not know the rules, and not even realize they are offending us.

Maybe our sensitivities come from our backgrounds. We all carry the baggage we inherited from the way we were raised. Some of this baggage is heavy. We react to situations and people not out of the present relationship, but in terms of what we felt and understood from our pasts. This can cause a problem. We automatically begin to protect ourselves based on what we learned from an earlier unpleasant experience. The person presently in our life isn’t aware of our past, and so he or she cannot understand where we are coming from and why we are acting as we do. There’s no trust here, and the relationship is always weighed down for unclear reasons.

These sensitivities don’t just affect our family and friendships. They also influence our spiritual relationships. How we connect with God and with the Church come from past personal experiences, from what we learned either formally or informally, and from the religious background we bring to our present faith life. We may have been hurt by a personal tragedy and blame God for it. We may have encountered someone in the Church who was rude and intolerant, and we write every church person off because of them. We may have expected God to do certain things for us, and feel disappointed and betrayed that He didn’t come through. We may feel betrayed by the Church because some of its members have failed gravely and were dishonest about it. We may feel threatened by God or abandoned by Him because of what we were taught about God’s ways from our backgrounds. We may feel dismissed and disrespected because of the way authority was exercised in the Church. Whatever it might be, the effects are clear. We feel distanced from God and a stranger in God’s house. We are afraid to become vulnerable to the love and care of our God, and to allow God’s people to express this love and care towards us.

We can learn from Baxter. First, it takes time to build or rebuild trust. We cannot slough off the past in the blink of aneye. It takes time for feelings to heal, for ideas to change, for relationships to grow. Second, put the past behind us and live in the present. Take new people at face value, unless they become two-faced to us. Forgive the past, and we will release the power of grace in the present moment. Third, dare to think differently. There is always more to God than we at first imagine. God does not rescue us from life’s pain and loss. He saves us from allowing that pain and loss to sap our lives of meaning and caring for each other. Loving despite the hurt is what Jesus showed us on the cross. Finally, don’t be afraid of the feelings. We have permission to be angry, confused, frustrated or hurt when others take advantage of our vulnerabilities. Read the Book of Lamentations, the Psalms, or Jesus on the cross. Just don’t get stuck there. God can empathize with our pain, but He won’t allow us to wallow in it. Resurrection follows suffering and death as the powerful mystery of life.

Baxter has learned to expose his tender underbelly to a loving touch. We can too, and it’s God’s hand on us.

-Monsignor Statnick


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Slowing Down

Baxter is slowing down. He is fifteen years old now, and I can see how time has changed his pace. Although he can still have an episode of chasing his own shadow or a piece of kibble, generally he walks his way through the day.

He moseys out to get his cat milk in the morning. He lets spiders live rather than use them as his toys. He also has become much more docile. He lets me pet him whenever I like,and when he has to have his monthly flea medicine, he just lies down until the vile of liquid is squirted onto the back of his neck. He still likes to jump into the bath tub for a drink from the spigot, and onto the bed for his afternoon nap. He still gets excited around dinner time, and perks up at strange sounds. But all in all, Baxter is slower, calmer and friendlier in his later years, than he was as a young cat.

Aging has its pluses and minuses. The symptoms of physical wear and tear become obvious. There is stiffness when we stand up at first. Stairs may take longer to negotiate and produce some heavier breathing on the ascent. We become helpless without our glasses, and we have to turn up the TV or radio to hear it clearly. All of these physical changes slow us down.

God may be sending us messages here. Now we have to notice ourselves and our surroundings more carefully. It’s an opportunity to see what we may have never noticed before. Smell the roses, and also discover the hidden garbage. Maybe we need a few attitude adjustments along with adjusting our motor skills.

Instead of getting frustrated, enjoy the slower pace life is calling us to live. Learn to appreciate what others do for us rather than finding something wrong with it. Waiting for something or someone isn’t always bad. It teaches us patience, and that things can take their own course without jeopardizing anything. Think about what we do have—the people, the memories, the fruits of our labors—and give thanks.

Since many things don’t have to get done in a hurry, be flexible about how they get done. My way is not the only way. Pay attention to what is important, and don’t fuss about the little things. Loose ends don’t unravel unless we pull them. Others aren’t perfect; we aren’t perfect; only God is perfect. Praise God, and love the imperfections. They are the hooks God uses to draw us to His saving grace.

Looking at Baxter getting older, I see myself as well. We can get angry about what’s happening and frustrated with the limitations it places upon us, or we can embrace the opportunities our slower pace and reduced drive offer us. We can connect with each other more sincerely and less defensively. We can fill our hearts with gratitude for the blessings we may have never recognized. We can let God be God, and accept our humanity with humility and dignity. We can grow in “wisdom, age and grace” just as Jesus did.
-Monsignor Statnick

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Creature of Habit

Baxter is a creature of habit. You can almost set your watch by his daily routine. He rises with the sound of the feeder exposing a portion of food for his breakfast at 4:30 AM. He gets a drink of water twice after he has had his share of kibble-- I guess to wash it down. Then it’s a bathroom break and a rest on the bedroom rug before he makes his move to the cat mattress for a serious hour and a half nap. Before I leave for Mass though, he will get up while I’m having breakfast for his slug of “cat milk”. What he does while I’m gone for the morning is a bit of a mystery. I expect he sleeps for a good portion of the morning, but I also suspect that he has a few tricks up his paw that he keeps hidden from me. I think he might roam the dining room table when I’m not around because he knows that he is not supposed to be up there. I also think he explores the boxes in the spare room where my old tax returns are kept. He wants to find out if he’s getting his fair share of my assets.

We all have habits to get us through the day, week or year. Some are obvious to anyone who knows us. Others may be hidden from view. Habits keep our life steady. They create an order to our activities. Because we don’t have to think about them, they allow for less effort in getting things done.Getting ready for the day in the morning, and ready for bed at night usually involve a routine that we follow out of habit. Weekly, I gather the garbage for pick up on Mondays. Every four or five weeks I get a haircut in the same style from the same barber. The holidays have longstanding habits associated with them. We call them traditions. Certain foods, festive gatherings and decorations are all a regular part of our celebrating certain seasons. We don’t have to wonder what we will do this Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, etc. We know the ritual.

The Church uses habits as well. The liturgical cycle is fundamentally the same every year. We are asked to develop a habit of Sunday Mass, regular participation in the Sacrament of Penance, daily prayer, almsgiving and service to others. Even the teachings of the Church are meant to form a habit of mind that sets our thinking in a certain direction when issues arise. These habits are meant to incorporate us into God’s ordering of life, because through these activities we participate in God’s actions in our world. Yet, there is a catch.

Habits are the first step in forming us as disciples, but they alone won’t get us to a life style of discipleship. The ordering of our actions to God’s ways has to be internalized. We have to understand the reason for these habits, allow them to change our sentiments and attitudes, and use the values they embody to set our priorities. Habits of religious behavior are meant to shape our characters as persons of faith. When religious practices become more than mindless routines, they mark us as virtuous people. We do what we do because these actions show who we are and reinforce our faith in what we can yet become with God’s grace.

Baxter’s instincts lead him to a regular habit of living. It’s his survival technique. Our desire to find God leads us to form habits, but these practices are meant to help us grow as persons who reflect the holy mystery in our lives, and continue to seek its love and understanding. They are habits of the heart—not gross instincts—that in time are meant to form a person who thinks, feels, decides and acts as God would in our world.

-Monsignor Statnick

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


When Baxter arises from a nap, the first thing he does is stretch. His is not a half-hearted exercise. When he stretches, he seems to engage every joint, muscle and ligament in his body. He stands, curls his back in a Halloween pose, then places his front paws far in front of him and pulls his body. Finally, he extends his back legs to pull his body from behind. Sometimes, as a last flourish, he will stand upright and separately shake each of his back legs before he scurries off looking for stray kibble. After witnessing an episode of this cat yoga, I do admire Baxter’s flexibility and the way his body seems to fall back into place after an extended period of restful slumber. Stretching gets him ready to take on the wakeful world again.

We need to stretch as well. We need it to get tone back in our muscles and help to avoid injury. But we need to stretch our spirits also. Too often our spiritual lives become compacted and limp. We follow comfortable routines we have done for years that lull us to sleep. We say prayers, but often miss the meaning of what we are saying. We go to Mass on Sundays, but come out of church not remembering what we said and did there. We drop a donation in the collection for some need, but don’t feel the pinch of sacrificial giving. We have heard each other speak, but we don’t listen to each other’s hearts behind the words. We go through life half-asleep and enjoying the comforts we use to keep us that way. We can become spiritually soft and weak, and not realize how we got this way.

We need to stretch. Sometimes life stretches us and invites us to cooperate in the exercise. We face challenges in raising children, in a job, in marital relationships and friendships. We can ignore them and pretend that everything is just as it always was, or we can try to reach out in new ways, to try new approaches, to go in directions we have never explored before. God unfolds Himself in ongoing ways if we go beyond our comfort zone. At other times, we ourselves can stretch our limits. Like an athlete, we can challenge ourselves to give a little more, do a little more, think a little deeper, pray in a new form that reaches into the silence of God’s mystery. These efforts help to condition us to expand and strengthen our spirits. We become more flexible to discover God’s presence in ways and circumstances we missed before. We can adapt to how God wants to be with us, rather than in how we want God to be for us. Grace begins to condition our spiritual lives, rather than our setting the conditions for God in our lives.

Baxter is quite smart to stretch before he gets moving again after a rest. It aligns his body and avoids injuries. Some stretching of our spirits would do all of us some good as well, aligning us more with God’s ways rather than our own, and making our hearts nimble to avoid silly hurts and take on genuine forgiveness.
-Monsignor Statnick

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Getting a Whiff of Things

Baxter’s nose is amazing. It leads him through life. When I am having lunch, Baxter is usually just waking from his morning siesta. I come in the door and go back to my bedroom to see him, and he looks up at me but doesn’t make any effort to move. He continues to lounge in place, easing himself into consciousness and activity. When I go into the kitchen to prepare something to eat, he still remains prone and seemingly apathetic. Nothing is going to force Baxter to disturb his comfort. Nothing, until he gets a whiff of something appetizing.

I don’t know how he does it. His sense of smell is so acute that it picks up the slightest hint of his favorite foods. I can understand how opening a packet of tuna might set Baxter stirring, but opening a package of graham crackers? He loves graham crackers, and as soon as I break open the package to get a treat to top off my lunch, Baxter comes running to my side for his share. From two rooms away, he picks up the scent, and this olfactory stimulation sets him begging for a morsel. (I may have to try eating in my car in the garage to have an undisturbed lunch.)

What are we prone to sniffing out? Often it’s not thekindest smells. Some of us are keen on gossip. We wake from our drowsy, boring ways of getting through the day when we get a whiff of something shady on someone. Somebody’s marriage is rocky. Someone’s kid is in trouble with the law. Someone is sick with a serious illness. Somebody lost a fortune on a business deal. Someone has a drug or alcohol problem. Whatever misfortune we smell about another, we can’t often resist the hunger it rouses for more.

A tidbit only whets our appetite. Having tasted a juicy piece of information about another, we want more, the full story, all the details. We aren’t satisfied until we think we have it all. What gives here?

Gossip allows us to avoid what really smells around us—our sin and weakness. When we get caught up in pursuing gossip, we stop looking at ourselves and reflecting on how we need to grow. Our attention is drawn to other’s faults and failures, so that we don’t have to be honest about our own and try doing something about them. We lose focus on our own lives, so that we begin to assume there is nothing wrong.

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Luke 6: 41)

Baxter’s nose is programmed for “good” smells, things that nourish him and that he likes to consume. Our noses are often in the air for the opposite kind of scents that we hope to discover on each other. We need a way to freshen theair between us. Smell the roses in other’s lives, and the rot in our own. Admire the roses and get rid of our rot. In that way, the world will be a fresher place for all of us.

-Monsignor Statnick

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Shutting Out the World

Baxter loves to sleep curled in a ball. He walks around his bed for a few moments, plops down, settles into place, and then rolls his body so that his head and tail meet with his face nestled in his soft and warm stomach. In this pose, it is hard to figure out what exactly he is. He looks more like a furry pillow than a cat. When Baxter is set in this self-enclosed circle, he is dead to the world. Lights and sounds go unnoticed; I can come and go around him without any reaction. At times, Baxter is so removed from life in this disposition that I have to watch him carefully for a few seconds to make sure his diaphragm is moving. He’s not dead, but he is dead to the world.

Wouldn’t we all like to learn this cat trick? The times we are in sometimes seem so confusing, upsetting, threatening and contentious that we are at a loss for what to do. How do we fix the Middle East, the environment, economic inequality, racial divides, cultural divisions? How do we stop terrorism and nuclear armaments? Whom do we trust to lead us through these dilemmas? What do we teach our children about the right way to live in this world? Where is God in all this?

No wonder we would like to curl in a ball and escape it all, just sleep away until we can awaken to a new world with all the problems solved. But for us humans, and especially for us Catholic Christians, it doesn’t work that way.

This messy, unclear and uncertain world we live in is the place where we must work out our salvation. Trying to escape the picture doesn’t give us a better way. It simply gets us nowhere, living in a dream-land from which we must eventually awaken and face the situation we left when we fell asleep. Like Baxter when he awakens from his deep sleep, we need to lift our heads, stand and stretch, and get moving again. Our church offers some tried and true advice on how to do this.

Start with prayer. Pray for God’s presence and power to be felt as we tackle the dilemmas of 2016. Next, learn the Church’s teachings on the principles that guide our way towards the best solutions. The document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”, and other explanations of Catholic social teachings are examples of these. Finally, have a conversation—not an argument--with others trying to be faithful disciples as they grapple with the issues of our day. Listen to their concerns; ask questions about why they hold the positions they do; think about the agreements and differences that surface between us and what they tell us about each other, our problems and God’s ways in our midst.

Baxter can afford to curl in a ball and sleep his life away in peace. We don’t have that luxury. We need to be about God’s work in the uncertain times and perplexing situations we face. As daunting as this task may be, we cannot abandon it, for we are His disciples and the instruments of His grace. So wake up and don’t be afraid. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Doing Tricks: Part 2

Not long ago I wrote about how Charlie has quite a repertoire of tricks he can do. Like many dogs, he can sit, speak, and lay down. In addition to that, Charlie can roll over, play dead, and shake hands. His tricks are amusing for me and my friends, but not all dogs do tricks.

Some dogs live a very simple life. They never learn any tricks at all. I guess their owners either treat those animals as outside pets or perhaps don’t have the patience for using nonverbal cues to teach an animal.

There are other dogs that have a tremendous capacity for learning, but I wouldn't really call what they do tricks. We have trained dogs to sniff out drugs, to function as security animals, and even to be working companions to people with a variety of disabilities.

Service dogs are trained to help people with disabilities including service to those who are blind, deaf, and/or paralyzed in some way. These dogs can do such things as lead a person, turn lights on and off, retrieve needed objects, and even bring a phone.

All of these learned abilities don’t necessarily speak to the intelligence of the dog as much to their formation and training. Of course, their particular temperament is a factor in both their training and then what partner they are paired with.

I think people aren’t much different when it comes to occupations. There are folks who have a capacity to learn many skills, and there are those that don’t. We have nurses, doctors, and surgeons who are all in the medical field, but have different types of training and education. Also necessary masons and plumbers have specialized training, but in a much different environment than medical professionals.

We have come to accept that people have a different capacity for learning and study, and also different natural talents and temperaments. These things play a pivotal role in what occupation a person eventually takes on in life. We also respect the person that decides after 20 or 30 years in a particular field, that they want to do something different, and so learn a new trade.

Right about now I suppose you are thinking, sure Christy, but what does any of this have to do with God or the Church? Well, I think these are very much related!

When we talk about our faith life, it has become popular to call it a journey. In this diocese, we even refer to it as a “journey of a lifetime.” Although we say those words, I don’t know if we really give them the credence they deserve.

It seems to me we go about expecting others to have the same level of engagement in our faith life that we do.

Whether we have a little or a lot of God in our life, we think everybody ought to do the same. But that isn’t really how we were made, was it?

We also say we should meet people where they are, but then hold them to a higher standard than they are able to fulfil, but that isn’t fair or just.

Just like dogs in their abilities, or our occupations, people learn and grow in their faith both to different levels of understanding and in different ways of engagement. They also grow at different rates and based on different circumstances.

We don’t have control over another person’s faith life any more than we have control over any of their relationships. Each individual has to come to relationship with God in their own way. It isn’t ours to judge how much a person can handle at their particular juncture. All we can offer others is what hasmade sense for us and how God has been present in our lives. That may or may not work for the other person, and we need to learn to give that to God.

Ultimately, I don’t think a dog is loved any less if he does a thousand tricks or none at all. The same is true of God. Right, Charlie?

-Christy Cabaniss
Parish Minister