Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Baxter often lives on the extremes. He will sprint to get away from his litter box or to catch a piece of bouncing kibble, but then he will be dead to the world on his blanket where nothing can stir him. He will get all excited, hissing and spitting at another cat on the other side of the window, but then he could care less about the rabbits in the yard, seeming not to even notice they are there. He will cry ceaselessly when he is hungry, but at most other times he goes by the adage, “Don’t speak, unless spoken to.” With Baxter it is all or nothing, fast or stop, excited or unconscious, loud or silent. He doesn’t live in the middle.

Sometimes we get ourselves into the same sort of mind set. We react to situations rather than reflect upon what is the best way to deal with them. We draw the lines of our judgment bold and indelible. We like someone or can’t stand them. We are right, and they are wrong. We know the best way to proceed, and they don’t know anything about it. We have been taught a certain way when we were young, and that’s the way it has to be. It’s all or nothing, and we often don’t realize that the corners we are boxed into are of our own making.

Lent is a time to stop and think about the attitudes and positions we hold, and to measure them against what the gospels display for us. The point is not to compromise our convictions away or dilute our beliefs into mushy thoughts that say anything goes. Jesus is far from this kind of teacher. Instead He shows us the fit between our beliefs and convictions and the human conditions we all experience. Think of the woman caught in adultery or the criticism of His disciples eating grain from the fields on the Sabbath. Recall Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemy or the parable of the Good Samaritan. Notice what Jesus does in these situations. He makes distinctions between the sin and the sinner, between the strict rule and the circumstances of genuine need, between loving someone whom you already like and moving beyond your comfort zone to the enemy or stranger. In turn, these distinctions create new possibilities for relationships. People see others in ways they never saw them before, allowing for a connection between them that was thought impossible in the past.

For example, Jesus shows us that we are all sinners as we stand over the adulterous woman, that we all have been hungry and needed food when we criticized the disciples. He tells us that hating enemies takes energy for doing good away from us, and that unexpected combinations can be found in others like a “Good Samaritan”. Jesus doesn’t do away with right and wrong or true beliefs and falsehood, but He shows us it’s not so simple when we put these things into practice. The human face of sin always harbors some goodness. The true believer lives the faith always within the limitations of our physical, psychological and social nature. And our character’s quirky combination of apparent contradictions gives God the clay out of which to fashion a new creation, a
new humanity, transformed by the Spirit.

So before jumping to the next conclusion about God, others or ourselves, slow down and walk to it. Between the start and the end of the journey, we may discover a better way than we knew before, a truer understanding than we once had, and a new friend in someone we once thought a fool. Walk, don’t run; stay calm; speak softly. Lessons Baxter needs to learn, and maybe we do too.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Baxter has an eating disorder. It doesn’t strike him all the time, only on occasion. I don’t know what causes this peculiar practice, but when it happens, there is no denying it. The scenario goes like this.

Baxter is ready to eat. His stomach tells him it’s time, usually an hour ahead of schedule. If I am around, he won’t leave me alone. He cries, brushes up against me and his feeding bowl, stares to get my attention, and cries again. This routine continues in its monotonous sequence until the magic moment comes when the feeder releases another meal. Now the sickness sets in. Baxter will devour all the kibble available to him in less than ten minutes. He swallows it whole. He doesn’t come up for air until the last morsel is consumed. Then he walks away from the feeder. Now the problem arises-literally!

Baxter may sit for five or ten minutes tentatively, fidgeting a little, and then it happens. PLOP! The whole meal is there in front of him in a pile, minimally digested, and he sits there wondering how that happened. O, but it gets worse. After a few seconds, he walks away from the deposit pretending that he didn’t do it. But then, after a few minutes, he has second thoughts. His stomach feels empty again, and he doesn’t like that feeling. So, since there is a lot of chewing and digesting left in the half eaten pile, he goes back to it for a second try at a meal. This time it works. He leaves the scene full and satisfied, and while I am revolted at the thought of his consuming his own vomit, I do appreciate the minimal clean up I now have after the second go around.

Why does all this drama occur? The reason is clear and simple. Baxter eats too fast, without chewing his food the first time, driven to eliminate his uncomfortable hungry feeling as quickly as possible. If he would slow down his intake on the first feeding, once would be enough.

The same point holds for us in many regards. We sometimes rush into things because our wants and desires are driving us. We have to have what we are looking for now, or we will feel inadequate, miserable and frustrated. So we go for it all quickly without considering what the outcomes may be. We just know we want it, and our minds are set on getting it. Maybe it’s a material possession - a new car, dress, house or gadget. Maybe it’s a new position at work. Maybe it’s a person - that guy or gal we have admired and with whom we want a relationship. Maybe it’s even our faith—we want to believe more deeply, spend more time in prayer, stop our regular sins. So we go for it in one big mouth full. We try to gulp it all down without chewing on the meaning and purpose our desire may or may not have for our lives. We don’t consider the consequences of our reckless actions to satisfy our drives, and may find ourselves losing everything we sought in the end.

Lent is a time to slow ourselves down and chew on the things that matter to us. We fast not to starve but to savor the taste of those persons and practices that nourish our lives. Lent reminds us that there is plenty of what we need to be whole and happy persons, if we take the fruits of life in slowly, carefully and deliberately, sharing them with others along the way. We don’t need to see others as a threat to what we want, but as partners who can multiply the joy when we get what we are looking for together. That may not be the same food for thought and spirit, but it will nourish each of us as we need to be fed, and thus create strong bonds between strong individuals. Sometimes wanting the same thing is wanting the wrong thing for ourselves. Our differences can become the cement that binds our lives together, if we help each other work to develop them unselfishly and cooperatively. We all may not like the same food, but there is plenty of food for all of us to like. Let’s help each other find what we like.

"So, Baxter, there’s no need for you to gobble your dinner. I won’t eat it. Take the time to chew it, taste it, enjoy it. There’s more for the next time." Sound advice for cats-and for humans.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


What is your picture of peace? Mine is Baxter sleeping. He assumes many different postures when he is seriously sleeping. Flat on his chin with paws under, curled in a ball with paws over his eyes, on his back with front paws curled and back paws spread, these are some of his sleep positions. In them, he is dead to the world. Nothing easily rouses him —not a loud noise; not a flash of light; not even the familiar sound of the lid opening on his food container. When Baxter is deep in sleep his whole body releases its hold on his daily activities, and he is lost in his own world of dreams. The depth of this state exudes a sense of peace and tranquility that is almost mysterious. He seems present to another dimension of reality. Nothing will call him away from the soundness of his sleep.

Don’t we wish for this kind of deep quiet and peace? Lent is a good time to seek it. Our prayer is our seeking.

Prayer is usually described as a conversation with God. But this common description might keep us from experiencing the full meaning of this encounter with the Holy. In a good conversation we can become very animated and engaged. We want to probe an idea, argue our position, or jab the other person with humor or a challenge. A rousing conversation stimulates thought and energy behind our ideas, and it can allow them to grow and mature in the process. This is one form that prayer can take, and we should utilize it to expand our understanding of God and His ways. But this kind of prayer is only one way to approach God.

We all were taught “our prayers”. The Hail Mary, Our Father, Glory Be, and Act of Contrition are some of the standard formularies we memorized to give voice to our minds and hearts before God. These set prayers are important to know and cherish. They capture key dimensions of how we are related to God garnered from the heart of our Catholic Faith Tradition. They provide us words when we may be at a loss for them. They bring comfort when no other words can. But they are still a busy form of prayer, repeating words from rote and hoping through them to catch a divine favor or a glimpse of insight into God’s presence in our lives.

Maybe it’s time to try something more. Rather than a conversation or a set word formula, pray by sleeping in the Lord. When we sleep, we shun outside stimuli. Dark and quiet are the order of the day. We try to relax. Our bodies help by feeling tired, and then we try to shut off our minds from the business and worries of the day. If we pull this off, we fall asleep, and if we retain this state long enough, we awaken refreshed in body, mind and spirit. A good night’s sleep leads to a good beginning to the day. Let’s use the same measures when we pray.

Seek a quiet and calm environment. Take some deep breaths and get in a comfortable position to relax. Empty our minds of the thoughts and memories of the day. Then seek the Lord like we seek to fall asleep when we are tired. We may discover a whole new dimension to meeting God in prayer—a deeper and more peaceful dimension. God comes to us in this prayer without any words or new ideas, just with the loving presence of the divine life. Rest in this presence. Soak it in and let it hold our attention without defining it. This is the Holy Mystery, and we are part of it in faith.

Baxter sleeps about twelve hours a day. Not all of this time is spent in deep, absorbed sleep. Some is taken in cat naps with eyes half open. But together, all these forms of sleep sustain and refresh him. All the forms of prayer can do the same for our lives. Lent is a time to use them all to grow closer to God. There is nothing like a good night’s sleep to refresh us. Likewise, there is nothing like a good period of prayer to renew us. Sleep well and pray well.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Any cat owner will tell you that the worst thing about having a cat is hairballs. The hacking sound that announces their appearance seems extraterrestrial, and the result of all that peristalsis and gagging is a specimen that causes the same reaction in the one who is left to dispose of it. This non - digestible mix of hair, saliva and stomach juices is a product of the cat’s grooming practice. Instead of spitting out the loose hair that comes from licking themselves, cats swallow it. Eventually, this byproduct accumulates in the digestive system, and if it can’t move on through, it makes an unsightly return appearance on some surface in your living area. From start to finish, hairballs are the dark side of any feline fancy.

There are some things that can help lower the incidents of hairball production. A lubricating jell that tastes like salmon or chicken to our feline friends can help to keep things moving in the right direction in their digestive track. Regular and frequent brushing can eliminate the quantity of loose hair available for inadvertent ingestion. Still, if you have a cat, you will have hairballs from time to time, no matter how many interventions you stage to avoid them. It comes with the territory.

Sin, weakness of character and foibles come with the human territory. No matter how we try to get rid of them, these elements of our fallen condition are intractable. It’s a struggle to cough them up and admit that they are part of our behavior. Their deposits on the surface of our personal and social histories are often messy and even heart wrenching at times. And often, it seems, we keep reproducing the same sort of residues of self-serving and self-seeking egoism. We lie, cheat, slander and steal, and what is left is only the tattered strands of what was once a trusting relationship. We are unfaithful to others, indulging our lusts for power and pleasure, and what remains are broken hearts and friendships. We forget to acknowledge God in our lives through regular prayer and worship, respect for all life, and witnessing to our faith, and so we just go along with others’ expectations and wonder why nothing ever changes. When we sin, we groom ourselves and swallow the unpleasant consequences, until they come back as messy piles of hurt humanity in our world.

That’s why we all need this Lenten season. It is our yearly chance to change our way of doing things -- to begin grooming others rather than ourselves, to help others see themselves as valuable in God’s sight and able to share their gifts and talents with others. Lent stops us from gagging on our own egos and leaving a mess of arrogant and high handed behavior behind. Lenten prayer, fasting and almsgiving can help brush away the loose ends of our lives, instead of swallowing them from view so that no one will know our weakness. Lent is a chance to get the essential elements of our lives all flowing in the direction of Christ.

I am sure that Baxter would avoid hairballs if he could. The convulsions they put him through can’t be pleasant. They usually start with a groan and end with his running away from the mess. But Baxter is stuck with hairballs. He’s a cat. As human beings, we have a choice to deal differently with the residue of our sin and failures. Lent offers us the opportunity to make this choice. Take it.