Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, March 26, 2004
ORDINARY: Judging from some of the e-mails I received after I my post about failing to get up to help my wife take care of my crying son, I think that some of you are worried that I have an excessively scrupulous conscience. I really don’t. After all, my son had just been born a few days ago and I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Everything in my life seemed more emotionally intense that week. Joseph would cry and I would feel like a complete and utter failure as a father. Then he would quiet down and I would pump my fist in the air in triumph. So wanting to cast myself into the pit of darkness for not helping my wife when she needed it was pretty much par for the course that week.

But I do like to probe events in my life to discern the hidden truths they may contain. I’m both a literature major and an Irishman, so I believe in the power of stories. Augustine was able to use a simple event from his childhood—the stealing of a few pears—to probe the nature of sin. I really like that way of doing theology. It makes it a little more real.

But back to my earlier point, I worry sometimes that what people perceive about me by reading my posts isn’t the real me. Real Live Preacher made this point a few days ago. You become sort of a character. And particularly if you are writing about matters religious, you can start coming across like an Internet version of Thomas Merton, with everything so veddy, veddy serious.

But I’m not like that. Really. I’m a professional management consultant for Pete’s sake. I spent a good chunk of today presenting an analysis of work-time study data to a bunch of physicians. I live in the suburbs with my wife and two kids. I wear shirts from Lands End and trousers from Sears. I play poker twice a month. I follow baseball. The truth is, I’m pretty dull.

But I’ve got this thing for God. I don’t know how else to explain it. I’ve had it my whole life. Even when I walked away from the Church, I could never really get away from Him. It was like being followed. You catch glances in store windows and in your rearview mirror. You can’t see anyone, but you know Someone’s there.

At some point, I just gave up and said “Okay, take me where you want me to go.” That turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. It took me a long time to realize how hard I was fighting against Him. I haven’t stopped fighting, but at least I’m aware of it.

I usually don’t feel particularly holy or pious. I just have this need to be near Him, whether it’s at the mass, or worshipping with the men at the jail, or feeling Him watching over my shoulder when I check on my kids before I go to bed. I’m better when I’m with Him, more truly myself, more truly the person I’m meant to be.

It all sounds nuts, and so very, very “right brain” for a guy who is very, very left brain. I study theology because I need to make sense of it all. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it just raises more questions. But I’m in too deep now. I couldn’t walk away even if I wanted to.

But I’m no saint. Not because I disagree with the idea that we’re called to be saints. But my middle-class, khaki-clad, keyboard-typing butt is about as far from Saint Francis as you can get, and I feel the need to be very clear about that.

So yeah, there will be times when the muse takes over and the language will soar and weave and dive. And at those times I’m frankly not sure who’s at the controls. Sometimes I read a post after I’ve written it and think “Nixon, where did you get this?” But up it goes, because it’s got to go somewhere and that’s what the blog is there for.

But I’m an ordinary guy living an ordinary life. So never forget that, okay?

posted by Peter Nixon 5:19 PM
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PASSION REDUX: I saw The Passion of the Christ a second time last Sunday. I wanted to see if it would be a different experience the second time through. The answer, as I expected, was yes and no.

I did a couple of things differently this time. The first was spending more time in prayer before the movie. I prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, using the images from the film as a starting point for my meditation. I tell you this not to impress you with my piety, but because I think it did, in fact, help me approach the film with the proper frame of mind.

The second thing I did was consciously approach the film as a piece of devotional artwork rather than as a movie. One of my main challenges seeing the film last time was that I could not emotionally connect with Cavaziel’s Jesus. Part of the problem, upon reflection, was that I was expecting Cavaziel, as an actor, to make some effort to emotionally connect with me. But he really doesn’t have much opportunity to do that. So you really have to come in prepared to believe that Cavaziel is Jesus and not expect that his acting is going to convince you that he is Jesus.

The advantage of seeing the film a second time was that certain things I found jarring in the film—the violence, certain liberties with the scriptures in the dialogue, etc.—were now no longer surprises. So I was able to maintain—albeit imperfectly—a certain degree of contemplative distance which, paradoxically, allowed me to deepen my emotional involvement in the story. However, one of the things I became even more aware of was just how loud, pounding and relentless the soundtrack is. This is certainly not an aid to prayer!

I stand by many of the criticisms I made of the film in the reflections I offered on it a couple of weeks back. I still believe that at time, the violence became an end in itself that obscured--rather than revealed--who was suffering and why He was suffering. But reasonable minds can clearly differ on this point.

I also want to stress that my own views are not meant as a criticism of those who found the film to be a profoundly moving spiritual experience. I count many of my friends among those who feel this way. I remain concerned, though, about an attitude that suggests that a failure to appreciate this film is somehow indicative of weak faith, or even a denial of certain truths of the faith. I think we need to avoid that sort of talk.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:05 AM
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The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom do I fear? The LORD is my life's refuge; of whom am I afraid?

When evildoers come at me to devour my flesh, These my enemies and foes themselves stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me, my heart does not fear; Though war be waged against me, even then do I trust.

One thing I ask of the LORD; this I seek: To dwell in the LORD'S house all the days of my life, To gaze on the LORD'S beauty, to visit his temple.

For God will hide me in his shelter in time of trouble, Will conceal me in the cover of his tent; and set me high upon a rock.

Even now my head is held high above my enemies on every side! I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and chant praise to the LORD.

--from Psalm 27

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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Thursday, March 25, 2004
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: This was the Daily Dig that Bruderhof sent around this morning:

Many love Christ as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless him as long as they receive some comfort from him. But if Jesus hides himself and leaves them for a while, they either start complaining or become dejected. Those, on the contrary, who love him for his own sake and not for any comfort of their own, praise him both in trial and anguish of heart as well as in the bliss of consolation. Even if Jesus should never comfort them, they would continue to praise and thank him. What power there is in a pure love for Jesus - love that is free from all self-interest and self-love!

--Thomas a Kempis

posted by Peter Nixon 2:22 PM
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--Icon by
Robert Lentz

"Hail Mary, full of grace," the Angel saith.
Our Lady bows her head, and is ashamed;
She has a Bridegroom Who may not be named,
Her mortal flesh bears Him Who conquers death.
Now in the dust her spirit grovelleth;
Too bright a Sun before her eyes has flamed,
Too fair a herald joy too high proclaimed,
And human lips have trembled in God's breath.

O Mother-Maid, thou art ashamed to cover
With thy white self, whereon no stain can be,
Thy God, Who came from Heaven to be thy Lover,
Thy God, Who came from Heaven to dwell in thee.
About thy head celestial legions hover,
Chanting the praise of thy humility.

--Joyce Kilmer

posted by Peter Nixon 10:54 AM
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O my God, help me to remember that time is short, eternity long.

What good is all the greatness of this world at the hour of death?

To love you, my God, and save my soul is the one thing necessary.

Without you, there is no peace of mind or soul.

My God, I need fear only sin and nothing else in this life, for to lose you, my God, is to lose all.

O my God, help me to remember that I came into this world with nothing, and shall take nothing from it when I die. To gain you, I must leave all. But in loving you, I already have all good things - the infinite riches of Christ and His Church in life, Mary's motherly protection and perpetual help, and the eternal dwelling place Jesus has prepared for me. Eternal Father, Jesus has promised that whatever we ask in His Name will be granted us.

In His Name, I pray: give me a burning faith, a joyful hope, a holy love for you.

Grant me perseverance in doing your will and never let me be separated from you.

My God and my All, make me a saint. Amen.

--Saint Alphonsus de Ligouri

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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Wednesday, March 24, 2004

O Lord --

In my prayer, make me a hungry child
- that I may know solidarity with the poor.
In my fast, make me an empty bowl
- that you may fill the hollow space in me with love.
In my almsgiving, make me a grain of rice
- that in the company of others, my gifts may feed a starving world.

We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Operational Rice Bowl Prayer.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:50 PM
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SINNERS: Sunday was not a great day for me. I woke up in a bad mood. The kids and I were bouncing off each other and to top it off it took me 20 minutes to find a clean pair of underwear for my daughter. By the time we arrived at mass I was in a blinding rage, to the extent that friends seeing me walk into church asked me if anything was wrong. The climax came when my son was wiggling around a little too much and I grabbed his arm to get his attention. I squeezed too tightly and I hurt him.

It was not a good morning.

It may sound odd to say this, but it is my wife and children who have taught me what it means to be a sinner. I think I grew up with the idea that sin was a violation of a metaphysical version of the Code of Federal Regulations. The point was to understand the Code and to avoid violations.

But what family life has taught me is that sin is fundamentally a failure to live up to the demands inherent in a relationship. All relationships make such demands. Sometimes they are explicitly stated, but more often they arise out of the logic of the relationship.

In the first few days after our first child was born, my wife and I were both exhausted. Not the nice kind of exhausted you feel after a fun family vacation, but the kind of ravenous exhaustion where you want nothing, absolutely nothing, more than sleep. You begin to feel about sleep the way a starving man feels about food. You wonder how far you would go to get an extra minute or two of sleep.

I found out. I remember one night Gina and I had not been clear on our plans about who was getting up with Joseph during the night. About three in the morning, he began to cry. My eyes opened, but I lay there, unmoving. I thought. “if I just lay here still and don’t move, Gina will think I am still asleep and she will get up and take care of Joseph. At that moment, I didn’t care about her and I didn’t care about Joseph. I only cared about myself and how exhausted I was.

Gina did, of course, get up and feed Joseph. But it was hard to get back to sleep. I felt wretched. I felt like Winston Smith in the novel 1984 when, desperately hungry, he demands his entire family’s chocolate ration and then, denied the entire piece, steals the small portion that his parents had granted his sister. It was the only part of the novel that made me cry.

But I didn’t get up.

I remember praying the Jesus prayer in my head: “Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I think it might have been the first time in my life that I had said those words and really, really meant them. It was humbling. There was a part of me that wanted to get up and help Gina, who was certainly far more exhausted than I was. But that part had been wrestled to the ground by another part of me, a snarling, selfish part that thought of nothing except his own needs.

So I still didn’t get up.

To understand ourselves as sinners is to understand our failure to live up to the demands inherent in our relationship to our Creator, our Source, our Father from whom we have all things. It is to realize that we are not, in the end, the authors of our own story and that we exist only in relationship to Him who gives us life. To be able to say “I am a sinner,” is not to wallow in our own guilt but to embrace the truth about ourselves. To be freed from sin, we must first understand ourselves as sinners.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:54 AM
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Lord Jesus, we your people pray to You for our priests. You have given them to us for OUR needs. We pray for them in THEIR needs.

We know that You have made them priests in the likeness of your own priesthood. You have consecrated them, set them aside, annointed them, filled them with the Holy Spirit, appointed them to teach, to preach, to minister, to console, to forgive, and to feed us with Your Body and Blood.

Yet we know, too, that they are one with us and share our human weaknesses. We know too that they are tempted to sin and discouragement as are we, needing to be ministered to, as do we, to be consoled and forgiven, as do we. Indeed, we thank You for choosing them from among us, so that they understand us as we understand them, suffer with us and rejoice with us, worry with us and trust with us, share our beings, our lives, our faith.

We ask that You give them this day the gift You gave Your chosen ones on the way to Emmaus: Your presence in their hearts, Your holiness in their souls, Your joy in their spirits. And let them see You face to face in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread.

We pray to You, O Lord, through Mary the mother of all priests, for Your priests and for ours. Amen.

--John Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop of New York

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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Tuesday, March 23, 2004

My Lord and my God I have realized that whoever undertakes to do anything for the sake of earthly things or to earn the praise of others deceives himself. Today one thing pleases the world, tomorrow another. What is praised on one occasion is denounced on another. Blessed be You, my Lord and my God, for You are unchangeable for all eternity. Whoever serves You faithfully to the end will enjoy life without end in eternity. Amen.

--Saint Therese of the Child Jesus

posted by Peter Nixon 4:45 PM
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LIVING WATER:Today’s readings, with their common theme of water, made me think of a walk that my wife and I took with our kids last Saturday. There is a small park that runs along a creek near our parish. I had never been there and my wife said it would be a nice place to let the kids run around a little.

What struck me on the walk was the huge oak trees growing along the edge of the creek. Erosion had worn away some of the soil on the sides of the creek, so you could see the thick roots running down into the water. It reminded me of the words from the first Psalm in the Book of Psalms:
Happy those who do not follow the counsel of the wicked,
Nor go the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers.
Rather, the law of the LORD is their joy; God's law they study day and night.
They are like a tree planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in season; Its leaves never wither; whatever they do prospers.
While all the trees had their roots in the same creek, their shapes were varied. Some stayed close to the creek, extending their great branches over it, almost protectively. I could imagine crawling out onto those branches to fish, read a book, or just to sit under the canopy of leaves and contemplate the water beneath.

Other trees seemed more restless. Their branches thrust toward the sky like arms raised in prayer, almost desperately seeking the light. I wanted to climb those trees, as high as they would go, to break through the canopy and look out over the valley, to feel the wind, to watch the movement of the sun over the great mountain that rises up above the town.

As I walked down the path, I wondered if trees ever argue with one another about the best way of being a tree. Do the trees that stay close to the creek accuse the others of abandoning it? Do those that seek the sun think their brethren are fearful and narrow-minded?

I suspect that trees are wiser than that. All trees need water. All trees need sun. All trees need powerful roots sunk deep in the earth, but branches that can grow and change and even bend with the wind now and then. It is good to be a tree and there are many ways of being one, each one—in its own way—giving glory to its Creator.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:31 PM
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PRAYER FOR THE DAY: My wife has a friend whose niece, a college student, is pregnant. I would ask that you pray that she be able to feel the Lord's presence and consolation in this time of trial and that she might find the courage to embrace as gift what seems to her now an impossible burden. Let us pray that those around her might hold her and walk with her, that she might know that she has companions on this journey, fellow travellers who will not leave her side. Let them be her faith, when her own faith fails; her hope, when her own hope fails; her love, when her own love fails. Let them make the love that Jesus has for her tangible and present so that she might find a strength within her heart she does not know is there. Amen.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:33 AM
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Most High, glorious God,enlighten the darkness of my heart,and give me right faith,certain hope,and perfect charity,wisdom and understanding,Lord, that I may carry out your holy and true command. Amen

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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Monday, March 22, 2004

Prayer for Peace (click for more info)

posted by Peter Nixon 5:12 PM
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NEW BLOG: Herb Ely blogs on the Intersections of Church, Government and Business.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:33 PM
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DANGEROUS: Sometimes I think we misconceive of prayer as primarily a way to peace of mind. I'm thinking of the hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," which is a favorite of the inmates out at the jail where I volunteer. The hymn seems to conceive of prayer as a means of unburdening ourselves of our cares. Once we "carry everything to God in prayer," we'll be at peace, having placed ourselves in His hands.

I'm not so sure about that. In fact, I wonder if prayer is actually one of the most dangerous things that we do. The author of the Book of Hebrews tells us that "it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Heb 10:31). Jesus himself told us that He came "not to bring peace, but a sword." (Mt 10:34). In the lives of the prophets, we often see men who initially resist what they find in prayer, but are finally overcome.

In my own life, I find that prayer is sometimes as likely to bring turmoil as peace because it brings me face to face with the ways that I have fallen short of what God has called me to be. My life is so filled with noise and activity that it is sometimes hard to hear God's voice. But when I actually slow down, seek silence and open myself to Him, that voice can quickly become overwhelming. It gives me no peace because it forces me to confront the fact that I have filled my life with things other than God.

I remember when I was in high school I was infatuated with a beautiful girl who was part of our theater group. I was too shy to ever approach her. Eventually, she started dating a friend of mine. It was agonizing in the way that only the emotions of adolescence can be. To see her and my friend together was painful, but I was still in the grip of my infatuation. I had to be near her, despite the pain of seeing them together. It was an impossible situation.

Prayer can be like this. There are times when it passes out of our control, we have no choice but to pray even if it gives us no consolation, even if prayer actually intensifies our sense of spiritual crisis. In prayer we face an abyss of desire that threatens to swallow us up, that demands everything of us. "I, the Lord, am a jealous God." We fear falling into that abyss. We begin to lose our taste for the things of this world, and so we cling to them ever more strongly. We are at war with ourselves, at war with Him.

I wonder what would happen if we really opened ourselves fully to this dangerous God. Could we continue to live as we do? Would we continue to try to fill the hole in our hearts with larger and larger things? Would we continue to seek security in arms and walls? Would our whole economic and political system collapse? Would there be chaos in the streets? A man who could call people to this kind of prayer would be dangerous indeed--dangerous enough to kill.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:15 AM
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COMMON GROUND: I have a new piece in the April issue of U.S. Catholic. Alas, it is not available on-line. It is a book review of Peter Steinfel's A People Adrift and George Weigel's The Courage to Be Catholic. Here's a quick teaser:

It is easy to look at the vast gulf that divides two of the most prominent lay Catholic intellectuals in the United States and despair of finding common ground between them. But that may be because we have misconceived what the search for common ground is all about. Part of the genius of the Catholic tradition has been its ability to live with tension and to make it a source of strength rather than weakness. Rather than asking how we can find a vague middle ground where both men can stand, perhaps we should ask what each brings that the Church needs.
For the rest, you'll have to find a copy of the issue. If you are interested in subscribing, click on the link on the left hand side of this page.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:03 AM
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The Temptation of Saint Joseph


My shoes were shined, my pants were
cleaned and pressed,
And I was hurrying to meet
My own true Love:
But a great crowd grew and grew
Till I could not push my way through,
A star had fallen down the street;
When they saw who I was,
The police tried to do their best.

Joseph, you have heard
What Mary says occurred;
Yes, it may be so.
Is it likely? No.

The bar was gay, the lighting well-designed,
And I was sitting down to wait
My own true Love:
A voice I'd heard before, I think,
Cried: "This is on the House. I drink
To him
Who does not know it is too late";
When I asked for the time,
Everyone was very kind.

Mary may be pure,
But, Joseph, are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance . . . Well . . .

Through cracks, up ladders, into waters deep,
I squeezed, I climbed, I swam to save
My own true Love:
Under a dead apple tree
I saw an ass; when it saw me
It brayed;
A hermit sait in the mouth of a cave:
When I asked him the way,
He pretended to be asleep.

Maybe, maybe not.
But, Joseph, you know what
Your world, of course, will say
About you anyway.

Where are you, Father, where?
Caught in the jealous trap
Of an empty house I hear
As I sit alone in the dark
Everything, everything,
The drip of the bathroom tap,
The creak of a sofa spring,
The wind in the air-shaft, all
Making the same remark
Stupidly, stupidly,
Over and over again.
Father, what have I done?
Answer me, Father, how
Can I answer the tactless wall
Or the pompous furniture now?
Answer them . . .

No, you must.

How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.


All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.

--Auden, W.H. The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden. Random House
Publishers, New York, NY. 1945.

(Thanks to
Captain Inertia for sending this along)

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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Sunday, March 21, 2004

Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Sunday Homily
Fourth Sunday of Lent

Jos 5:9a, 10-12
Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
2 Cor 5:17-21
Lk 15:1-3, 11-32

Before I preach on the Gospel, I ask for all of you to pray for all the clergy and lay people who get irritated when someone says to them, “Oh, we’re celebrating pink day today.” In a huff, the reply comes: “It’s not pink, it’s rose.” Such huffy people are the descendants of the older brother and they need to lighten up. If you do not know, the colors pink or rose have served as symbols of joy for many years within many cultures. We celebrate this Sunday of joy not only because we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, but because we give thanks and praise to Him for his unceasing love toward all humanity.

As wonderful as this Gospel reading is, it makes even greater sense when we include into the mix verses four through ten of the fifteenth chapter of Luke. You might have noticed that these verses have been omitted. I am going to read them to you now.

(read Luke 15:4-10)

I want to celebrate with these people presented by Jesus; they seek to rejoice in the manner in which God works more than the supposedly holy frumps do. I must share with you my top story about holy frumps: I was in line for Confession at one church and a lady in front of me whispered to her neighbor – and I say “whispered” loosely because while she thought she was whispering, she could be heard throughout the entire church. She said: “Wow, that person has been in the confessional for a long time. I do not know who it was, but I bet he or she must have done a lot of things to have been there for such a long time. I have never been in the confessional for a long amount of time. Wow. I wonder what that person did.”

I could not decide whether to laugh, cry, or find a door.

I have no idea who the person was that took up all that time in the confessional, but I hope it was time well spent. We should rejoice when someone seeks the help of the Lord and the Church rather than complain that one person is making us wait a little longer than normal for our turn.

The people who go to Daily Mass heard this Gospel reading eight days ago. I told the people here that what the father did for the son is extremely extraordinary. As I said, when the son asked for his inheritance, he, for all practical purposes, killed his father and disowned the family. The ways of which he tossed away his inheritance was bad enough, but he renounced his family. Their companionship was not good enough for him, but to add insult to injury, the family’s money was good enough for him.

Upon returning to the father, the repentant son spoke as he did with the understanding that his father could have used him as a human soccer ball if he felt the desire to do so. The son deserved severe punishment as a result of the verbal murder of his father and the disrespect he showed in the way he spent the inheritance he received. But the father acted in a manner that went completely against each and every legal right and responsibility he had. He acted according to the law written on his heart rather than the law he knew in his head. The father is a characterization of the words Jesus said as He was nailed to the cross because the father said, “I forgive you because you did not know the depth of what you were doing.”

God the Son asked his Father to help humanity share in eternal joy even as the Son was in indescribable pain. How can we keep from rejoicing when we consider this? God the Son could have dispatched upon humanity a big batch of hellfire and brimstone, but instead, He sent the flame of the Holy Spirit. How can we keep from rejoicing when we consider this? Rejoice in the Lord always. By the way, the man who wrote those words, Saint Paul, did not deserve what He received from Jesus, but are we not thankful that Jesus extended his hand to Saul out of love and Saul sought to hold onto it. It could not have been easy for the people of Jerusalem to celebrate when they saw a changed Saul of Tarsus, but I am glad that at least one person said, “We should rejoice in the Lord because he has changed. After all, that is what the angels are doing. Why don’t we join them?”

Fr. Shawn O'Neal is the Pastoral Administrator at Saint Joseph's Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Bryson City, NC and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Cherokee, NC.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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