Saturday, December 31, 2011

Baxter's New Year's Resolution

Baxter is a creature of habit. You can set your watch by his daily routine. Eating, bathroom relief, naps, serious sleep, catnip sessions, snacks and brushings all fit into a very set pattern that may have minor adjustments, but no large variations. Try to change the order of life or the time for a daily habit, and Baxter isn't happy. His routine rules his life. It makes him feel safe and secure, and without it, he feels lost and afraid.

We all follow routines and habits. They make things easier at times. We don't have to think about what to do when; we just do it. A daily schedule helps keep life in order. Good habits preserve health, balance and a sense of well being. They can make some things in life effortless, and they assure that skills, attitudes and commitments we have made are preserved and grow deeper through the constancy of their regular practice. Good habits are an important part of being good.

Faith involves certain habits as well. Regular prayer and worship, telling the truth, keeping promises, helping others, admitting our faults and failings, sharing what we have are all part of a faithful Catholic Christian life, and we need to make them routine in our living. Worshipping once or twice a year or only on special family occasions will not form a person of prayer. Telling the truth only when it is convenient or pleasant won't make an honest person. Service done out of an obligation and generosity offered to impress others won't form a kind heart and magnanimous spirit. False humility to get another's pity or undeserved pardon isn't genuine sorrow for sin. It is easy to do almost anything once to get attention or satisfy a requirement, but it is difficult to make the habits of Gospel living a routine that fits hand in glove with how we conduct ourselves each day. It only comes with practice, practice, and more practice. These practices wear a groove of virtue into our character in time without our noticing the conditioning that's taking place. It just becomes who we are.

As we come to this New Year, what habits do we need to develop to become the persons God wants us to be? What do we have to take on, and what do we have to eliminate from our lives to be shaped differently than we are now? Our transformation won't happen over night. It's a slow, methodical change. We can't look for results too soon, but we can look for new routines to mark the course where we want to go. Then it's a matter of sticking to the new schedule and resisting excuses for not following it. It calls for making adjustments to stay on the path and marking progress one step at a time. It means valuing the accomplishment of each exercise we do, even if it didn't register some specific concrete result each time. Remember, the effects are often imperceptible in the immediate moment, but show themselves in the fruits of a whole lifetime. We are looking for long term gains in this investment, not for a get rich quick scheme that leaves us bankrupt in the long run.

Baxter doesn't like his habits disrupted, and for good reason. He knows that the important things in life are also fragile. They need constant care and attention. Good habits protect the values and beliefs we cherish with the hard shell of an established routine and disciplined schedule. It looks easy when our habits are in place for a while, but it takes some effort to start the practice and stay with it at first. So start today. Take on one new practice in the faith. Eventually, it will become second nature to you, God's nature, that makes us over into His children, disciples and friends. Happy New Year from Baxter and me!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Some words provoke a reaction from Baxter. "Treats!", "Yums!", "Nip!" (for catnip) bring an immediate alert response. "Where is it? Let me at it!" Other words bring a calmer, more studied acknowledgement. For instance, when I say his name, "Baxter," he usually just flips his tail from one side to the other. Repeat the name, and the tail flips back. (That game can go on endlessly.) "Do you want to get brushed?" provokes a slower response still. Unlike the run for food, he meanders into the next room for his nightly grooming before bed. Words mean different things to Baxter, and he responds accordingly.

"Christmas" is a word that provokes a reaction in most of us. For some, it is a sense of anticipation, excitement and wonder. This is a season of good surprises, and we can't wait to see what's in store for us. For others, it is a sense of nostalgia. Memories of holidays past often fill us with a bittersweet feeling that mixes a sense of gratitude for what was with a sense of sadness that it is no more. For still others, Christmas brings hope and joy and peace. In the darkest part of the year, we see lights decorating our homes, window candles inviting visitors, and foods filling our senses with pleasure and satisfaction. Things aren't as bad as we think. We can get through the dark times, if we invite each other in and share the sweetness and warmth that we know how to create.

"Christmas" has a special meaning in our faith. It takes in the human responses we have to the season, but now it directs them to our God as the source and fulfillment of these desires. When God draws near, many surprises are in store for us. Think of the wonder and excitement underlying the Christmas story in the scriptures. Think further of the unexpected teachings, words of forgiveness and miracles in Jesus' ministry. Then, recall the end of the story. Darkness and pain seem to rule the day on Calvary, and the disappointment and sadness in the upper room is overwhelming for the disciples huddled in fear. Hopes are dashed over what could have been, and bittersweet memories linger of what they shared once in His ministry.

But then there is light. The glare that blinds the soldiers at the tomb says something great is happening here. The Risen Lord invites Himself into the disciples' locked hide-away, and He greets them with "Peace," gives them the power of forgiveness, and sends them out to continue His mission. Finally, He shares food with them, rich and special food, for they "recognized Him in the breaking of the bread."

The mysteries of our faith wrap around each other and wrap our lives with them. Christmas only takes on its full meaning when it includes the whole story of the mystery of our salvation, from conception to death and new life. Christmas gives us clues to where it is all going, and if we follow these clues through darkness into the light of new life, we will find a deeper meaning to the word than we can ever gather from special presents or childhood memories alone. God comes close at Christmas and begins the great journey of our salvation through the wilderness of our human condition. But the story doesn't end there. Finally, He comes home with us, not as a helpless infant to be coddled and amused, but as the Lord of Life to be followed and worshiped. The Christmas Eucharist brings this all together and creates a holiday fair that feeds our souls.

Some words can say a lot, if we understand them and respond properly. "Christmas" is that kind of word. From Baxter and me, "MERRY CHRISTMAS!"

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Learn from the Trip

Baxter doesn't like to travel. From the second the car door closes, he begins to cry, and he continues his non-stop, whining meow until we reach our destination. Now, Baxter hasn't traveled very far or extensively. He averages a trip or two a year, and these are usually to the vet for a check up. He doesn't like his doctor. It's nothing personal. She pokes and prods him with various instruments, and she always comments on his weight. So is it any wonder that he dislikes the visits, and the trip to get there? Baxter is not a good traveler and a worse patient.

Christmas has a travel log built into its story. Mary and Joseph leave Nazareth for Bethlehem. Then they leave Bethlehem for Egypt. After a while, they return to Nazareth, and stay put for the most part except for an occasional trip to Jerusalem for the Jewish holidays. The holy family doesn't have fond memories associated with their travels either. No room in the inn, Herod out to get the baby, and the youthful Jesus getting lost in the temple environs mark the stories associated with their sojourns. Yet, if they weren't on the road, God's hand in their lives might not be seen so clearly.

Travel places us in unfamiliar situations which may make us uncomfortable and anxious at times. But these same situations provide an opportunity for us to see ourselves and our lives differently. Angels and shepherds have a message that is heard in Bethlehem about the promise of this child born there. A dream guides Joseph to take his young family into Egypt, and he learns of God's providence and care. In different circumstances, Jesus' remarks to Mary and Joseph in the temple might seem insolent rather than prescient and wise beyond His years. When we are on the move, we grasp truths we may miss otherwise because they get lost in the familiar and routine.

So whether or not we are leaving home to celebrate Christmas, we need to allow the stories of this season to take our minds and hearts to new places where we see ourselves, each other and our world differently. We need to get over our anxiety with the unfamiliar to discover the excitement of new possibilities when God takes flesh in our midst. We need to move through the dangers of this world with God's guidance showing the way, and not just to follow our same old ways of deceit, deception and destruction. We need to be willing to place each other in a new context, so that we can hear each other differently and discover the wisdom we may share. We need to allow Christmas to move us, so that we can be changed by the celebrations of this season.

The doctor of the soul awaits our coming to His office for a visit, but we have to travel to get there. Don't whine about the trip, but learn to enjoy it. Don't resist His poking and prodding, but allow Him to know the state of your soul. Be a good traveler and a better patient in the spiritual life. In this way, we can teach Baxter a few things for a change.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Simple Sense of Ourselves

I admit it. I am hard on Baxter sometimes. I know I make a big deal about his demanding attitude when he is hungry. But come to think about it, he really lives a rather simple life. He needs shelter, food and sleep, and he likes generous quantities of the last two. He is rather ingenious about his shelter. He likes soft surfaces for sleep, but he also enjoys the cool, hard floor tile to roll on his back and get a free scratch. His needs are straightforward and simple. He doesn’t ask for much beyond them.

Advent is a time to reflect on the simple things in life that sustain us. With all the competition for our attention during the holiday shopping season, it may be difficult to think about these, but we would do well to make the effort. When it comes down to it, what do we really need to make us happy? We like physical comfort and financial security. We may enjoy fancy food and pampered vacations. We want others to esteem us for our accomplishments and their fruits. Yet, none of these qualities of our life style can assure us happiness and peace. In fact, they can become sources of anxiety and frustration, because we can never be sure that enough is enough. There is always a better house or car, a little more money needed to expand our assets, a new restaurant to try or a new place to visit, and people’s opinions are so fickle we never know when they might think us “over the hill” or “has beens.”

What anchors us to life in a true and profound way are the relationships that identify us for who we are. We are who loves us and whom we love. As faithful Catholic Christians, we believe this starts with God who in Christ shows us love even unto death, death on a cross. But it doesn’t end there. In Christ’s Spirit, this love is shared, so that now we can love each other in God. Husband and wife, parents and children, friends, neighbors, the poor and needy are conduits of divine love for each other. Through our lives flows the very life-blood of God’s love for the world and each person in it. Christmas calls us to open these channels, and let the love of God pour forth through us.

What does that look like? It’s simple and straightforward. Appreciation and generosity, respect and value for others, honesty in our dealings, concern for the sick and weak, giving people a chance to share their talents, welcoming new persons with their ideas and ways as possibilities in our lives, these create a river of grace on which we can travel through life together. Without these qualities in our relationships, we get stuck with each other, living in the same space and just biding time together. We may share a lot of stuff in that space, but it is all clutter. The substance for a meaningful life is missing, and so is any genuine happiness and peace.

A simple life isn’t about how much we have or don’t have. It is about how we value whatever we have. Do we hold it in God to be used in loving others, or do we keep it for ourselves like trophies which rust and are forgotten? God preserves the good we have done by bringing it into our relationships with each other as instruments of His love. Christmas shows us what is truly valuable and important, if we pattern our relationships on how God worked to save us in becoming one with us. It’s so simple, and so profound. Take time to think about it. Baxter can help.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Stay Awake!

Baxter likes to sleep. Twelve to fourteen hours each day he is in dream land. He sleeps in all sorts of positions — sometimes curled in a ball, sometimes on his back with his back feet out and front paws folded, sometimes on his belly with his chin on his front paws. I know I am biased, but Baxter looks cutest when he is asleep. Usually, there is not a whisper to hear, although occasionally he does snore, groan, or talks in his sleep. He is in another world then, oblivious to anyone or anything, lost in his dreams.

Sometimes we are asleep to life this way. Our eyes are open. We walk about. We speak to each other. We go about our daily chores. But we are asleep. We live in a world of our own making, unaware of those in need of our care and our sharing. We curl around our own problems and concerns, and refuse to consider other matters that might challenge our own self importance. We close our eyes to what causes us discomfort when we look at the pain and suffering of our world. We offer words of praise, comfort or concern just to be polite, but won’t do a thing to put our money where our mouths are. We make a dream world for ourselves, so that we don’t have to pay the price of hard work and sacrifice to make real dreams come true that we share with others.

Is it any wonder that the scriptures this Advent season send us a clear wake up call. “Watch! Stay Awake!” These words ring out to set us on notice that God is about in our world. But our dreamlike complacency often misses the signs of salvation all around us. You see, God doesn’t save us by placing us in a trance and transporting us to a land of sugar plum fairies. His salvation is won in the school of hard knocks, in the day to day struggles we have to live with integrity in a deceptive world, to care for those in true need with the limited resources we all have, to believe that our efforts make a difference that lasts because they have a role in God’s eternal work. Advent calls us to do our part in the divine reconstruction plan.

Our roles differ. John the Baptist prepared the way by calling people to repent. Mary carried out her part by saying “yes” and bearing the Son in her womb and in her life. The angels announced the hope that Christ’s birth can bring to the hopeless, and the magi raised questions to the powerful about what it could mean. Joseph trusted God and made his dreams real when he took Mary as his wife and protected the new family in fleeing to Egypt. Simeon and Anna saw their lifelong perseverance fulfilled in a brief encounter with Mary and the child in the temple. Each had a part to play in advancing the movement of God in the world. They were partners with the divine in making the world holy.

We are each offered a similar partnership. Advent awakens us to the possibility. We may not look cute accepting it, but our lives will take on a new meaning and purpose when we do. Baxter is dead to the world when he is in a deep sleep. We can be alive in a new way when we take our part in God’s watching over our world. So stay awake!