Healing Our Decembers

6439494505_e600b288a4_b Tears flowed freely during the meeting with my spiritual director, Sandy, as I shared with her the pain I was feeling. “December is here,” I said. “I get such a wave of anxiety and grief at this time of year.”

Somehow, I have a hunch I’m not alone in experiencing December this way.

December is the month that “our lives blew apart with more violence than we ever dreamed possible,” I wrote in my book Miracle Man. The month that my late husband, Bernie, suffered a massive heart attack—leaving my children fatherless and me a widow after 87 excruciating days in the ICU. Eight years and a wonderful new marriage later, December still brings it all screeching back.

“Beg the Lord to heal the trauma of all your past Decembers,” Sandy wisely advised. “And ask him to fill you with the joy of his birth.”

For December is also the month when we celebrate our Savior’s presence penetrating Earth’s agonies, defying what human eyes behold as mere babe-flesh, disguising the God-man. This is the month that Hope is born, ushering in the time of fulfillment for the long-awaited healing of our crippled souls and lame lives. December is, indeed, the month of Advent hope.

The hope of Advent lies in experiencing the reality of human frailty—and in believing that Someone, though fragile in appearance, is coming to heal us soon. The hope of Advent consists in a hearty cry for deliverance from the weight of sin and death—and in trusting that God’s glory-weight will pierce right through all of this world’s darkness. For we have all known the sorrow of “Decembers” during life’s winter months, times of shadows and suffering where we cry out for the Light to come.

Every year I’m reminded that December is a fitting backdrop for Advent, as it is the month that throws off the least amount of light in the calendar year. The days grow short and winter begins. The darkness brings with it a certain sense of vulnerability and disorientation, along with the knowledge that we need more Light, so we can see.

Advent hope has everything to do with vision. Advent hope is inexorably connected with eternal perspective. That’s because hope—Christian hope—is so much more than plain old wishful thinking. It is the theological virtue by which we order our lives toward heaven; the virtue that establishes trust in us that there is a heaven, and gives us the conviction that we’ll live there with God some day. Hope reminds us that this earth is not paradise, strengthening and sustaining us as we travel toward the longed-for Promised Land. Hope gives us a new vision for our lives, enabling us to see that what may look like “disaster” to human senses is but a moment of time that God holds in his hands, shaping it for our good, while simultaneously, mysteriously, molding us into good.

“Can you see your Decembers as a time when God reaches into your life to work miracles, instead of as a time of sorrow?” Sandy gently asked. “You saw that once,” she continued. “You wrote a book about it.”

Yes, I saw it clearly then. But somehow I go blind every December.

And maybe that’s as it should be. Since it is December’s darkness that beckons me to encounter my desperate need for a Savior. Along with my need for a divine infusion of hope.

Thankfully, it is Advent. The season of so much blindness healed. The Church’s daily readings ring out promises of what the Messiah will bring, along with rich Gospel accounts of those promises being fulfilled:

On that day the deaf shall hear…and out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. The lowly will ever find joy in the Lord, and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.       Isaiah 29:18-19

And then we hear:

Two blind men followed him crying, “Son of David, have pity on us!” …Then he touched their eyes...And their eyes were opened.   Matthew 9:29-31

 Touch our eyes, Lord, and enable us to glimpse reality from heaven’s angle, through the lens of Advent hope. Heal all of our Decembers, and fill us anew with the joy of your birth.

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How Advent Helps US: Seeing Our Limitations as an Opening for God’s Greatness

 

sfbnflevf0m-kimson-doanThose who see only limits feel lost in a senseless universe. They live a despondent life-style. Those who see limits as possibilities to go beyond live a hopeful life-style…True freedom is found in people who maintain what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls ‘the passion for the possible.’   Susan Muto, Blessings That Make Us Be, 4-5

As December dawns and propels us toward the celebration of Christ’s birth, we are bidden to be an Advent people, to experience this sacred time with a “passion for the possible.” In short, we are reminded to live in hope.

In the darkest time of year, we light candles to remember the Light who has come into the world. On the shortest of days, we stretch forward in both anticipation and acknowledgement of God with us. As winter begins to dawn and flowers wither and die, we carry fresh, live trees into our homes to be lighted and ornamented with dazzling color, reminding us that we carry hope precisely by affirming what is alive and beautiful in our midst.

To be an Advent people is to make Christ’s coming truly present among us, not as some far-off distant memory, but as a calling forth into the present moment the presence of the One who is real.  To be an Advent people is to choose not to ignore the pain and darkness in this world, but instead to embrace those realities with confidence and trust that Someone has come, is coming, and will come again to liberate us from the long night of sin.

Advent hope breaks right through the misery of sin to remind us of the mercy of God. It clears our vision of earthly concerns by inviting us to see light in the darkness. It blesses the human condition by remembering that a fully human God has redeemed our frail humanity. Advent is the hallowed time during which we gratefully acknowledge that our finite limits have already been met by eternal limitlessness.

Each and every day that we awaken, we are confronted anew with our limitations, be they tiredness from a sleepless night, fresh angst over troubled relationships, or the remembrance of failures and tribulations we must face again that day. But to arise resting assured that we are the fragile, fallible children of an all-powerful, infallible God makes us an Advent people: a people who see “limits as possibilities to go beyond,” who believe that the God-man has already gone beyond every human finitude.

For Bethlehem was indeed a place of finitude. Poverty, deprivation, cold and dark provided the “nursery” for the birth of the Savior—the hallowed space where the Transcendent One broke into, and through, those stark actualities with divine presence. There, in abject humility, God offered starlight to open blinded eyes, babe-flesh to woo hardened hearts, and the silence and solitude of the night to quiet the whole human race unto awakening. There, the waters of a virgin womb ushered in a new creation—bringing not just life, light, and hope, but the remedy for every human constraint, conquerable only through infinite power.

Advent “enables us to hope in (God’s) unpredictable generosity toward humanity,” (Muto, 5). Not just two thousand years ago, but today and every day.

Will we let Advent draw us in? Will we touch and feed upon the divinity that begs our remembrance of God’s unbounded potential to heal our human impotence? Will we awaken afresh to God’s presence, to light breaking through our darkness, and to the reality that every human weakness is an opening for a manifestation of God’s greatness?

Advent is meant to inspire in us a “passion for the possible,” which sees instead of “the darkness of sin, despair, inhumanity and persecution” the “how much more of God’s promise of redemption” (Muto, 5).

It is Advent. Anything is possible.

Author’s note: Thank you to Susan Muto, PhD, for her beautiful insights on the Beatitudes, which I have applied liberally to the theme of Advent.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

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Dear Self: How Holy Are You? How To Become Holy In One Not-So-Easy Step

IMG_3312 What does it mean to be holy? And how do we become holy?

These two questions burned in my mind for years as I moved from agnosticism, to fundamentalist Protestantism, then home to Catholicism. When I returned to the Catholic Church, I continued to ask the same questions about holiness as I specialized in apologetics, moral theology and bioethics. Finally, thanks to my life imploding, I came to the conclusion that holiness consists, quite simply, in love of and surrender to God.

Truth be told, I can now see that my trajectory within Christianity was an attempt, albeit a worthy one, to have an authority tell me the truth in black and white, give me the laws, and present me with the parameters in which to live. I used to joke that I just wanted someone to tell me the flipping rules so I could follow them!

Because deep down I knew that following the rules was a heck of a lot easier than surrendering to a wild, unpredictable God—especially a God who allows so much suffering in life. It took many years of prayer, study, soul-searching and, of course, personal suffering before I began to see that the essence of holiness is not formulas, facts or feats—good as those can be—but trusting God. And that the indispensable ingredients of holiness are hoping in God in all things, believing he is good no matter what, and surrendering to his love with abandon.

Sounds simple enough, right? Simple maybe. But easy, no.

Thanks to a suggestion by Amazon, I recently happened upon Dr. Peter Kreeft’s new book, How To Be Holy: First Steps In Becoming A Saint, which explains masterfully why holiness is simple but hard.  Amazingly, at least to me, Kreeft affirms exactly what I’ve been trying to say in both my writing and talks—that holiness it isn’t about performance, but surrender. In other words, holiness has much less to do with asserting my will as it does with assenting to God’s. And therein lies the crux of Kreeft’s message.

With the brilliance, wit and logic that is classic Kreeft, the prolific author and philosopher sums it up neatly in these words:

“Abandonment’, or “islam”, or “surrender”, to God’s providential will is also the very essence of holiness.” Kreeft, How To Be Holy, 31

He builds his thesis on the truth that God is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, and upon St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:28 which say: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Most of us would readily agree that God is good and working all things together for our good when things are carrying on happily in our lives; that is, when they are going according to “our will.” During these times, we are invited to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope and love by aligning our will with God’s and growing in relationship with him.

But it is when God allows us to be sanctified, or made holy, “against our will, through suffering” (Kreeft, 32), that we are frontally challenged to exercise the theological virtues in a more radical way. It is then that we must decide whether we really believe that God is good and whether we truly trust that what he is permitting in our lives is for our good. In these moments of permitted purification, we are beckoned to abandon ourselves with confidence to God’s providential will, allowing the fire of God’s love to burn away the dross of our own self-love and self-will—in a word, selfishness—which, Kreeft says is the main obstacle to holiness. When we assent to God in the midst of suffering, we begin to experience what the sage author calls “joyful, trusting self-surrender,” which requires saying: Not my will, but thy will be done.

And that, my friends, that hard prayer of willing, intentional surrender in abandonment to a God we believe is good and loving—in the teeth of what is often a hard-fought battle through suffering—is what makes us holy.

Simple perhaps. Easy no. But entirely possible with grace.

This article previously appeared at Aleteia.

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Preparing for the End

IMG_2309I don’t know about you, but everywhere I turn lately, there seems to be some prophetic warning about an impending economic and social collapse coming to America. Secular financial experts are saying it. Evangelical Protestant pastors are saying it. Catholic evangelists are saying it. There appears to be a common consensus emerging from various sources that we are on the precipice of something big—a major shift in life, as we know it. More than one friend has asked me lately if I believe these warnings are true. And if so, what am I doing about it?

While I will admit that my spirit has been heavy lately about the intense moral confusion that seems to have gripped our culture, I have no idea whether or not the proverbial “doo-doo” is getting ready to hit the fan. What I do hear the Lord saying is this: Be prepared, not scared.

So what exactly does it mean to be prepared? Does it mean that we should store food, take money out of the bank, and bulk up on supplies? I believe it means that that we are to prepare spiritually for whatever comes along. And we do that by loving God with all of our hearts, by giving ourselves entirely to Him and by earnestly seeking to do His will.

While we don’t know what the future holds, we do know that life on earth has an expiration date. We should thus live each day with a lively awareness that this day may be our last; knowing that this might just be the day we meet God face to face. Such a perspective would have us ask ourselves every day whether we’re prepared for the end.

I was reminded of this truth three years ago this week, when our family went to the mountains to celebrate the birthday of my then-one-year-old grandson, John-Henry. My new husband, Mark, went with a group to hike a trail known as “The Dismal,” which is infamous for its difficult, uphill climb. As they hiked up the steep mountain, one of the men in the group, Gary, mentioned how grateful we should be to God for every day, because we don’t know if we will have tomorrow. Our hostess, Bunny, who was also hiking, chimed in that we don’t even know if we will have this afternoon. Two hours later, Gary suffered a cardiac embolism and died on the mountain in Mark’s arms. What a sobering wake up call of how quickly life can end.

I had learned that lesson four years earlier when my late husband, Bernie, suffered a massive heart attack. The morning before Christmas Eve, we were busily preparing to celebrate Christmas and welcome our first grandson into our lives. By that afternoon, Bernie lay in critical condition, and he never came home from the hospital. During the three months he spent in the I.C.U., Bernie found the secret to being prepared, which he shared with me when he woke up from a six-week coma. “I surrendered to God,” he whispered, “and I have so much peace.” He lived six more weeks before dying with no fear, because he had found love, peace and hope, the fruit of sweet surrender.

The virtue of hope, quite simply, has everything to do with placing our lives in God’s hands. Hope is about realizing that this life will be over in the blink of an eye, but that eternity with God lasts forever. Hope is about trusting God, and entrusting ourselves to Him. It’s about resting assured that even if the bottom falls out, God’s got us in His hands—hands that we can count on to carry us to safety.

One thing I’m learning is that catastrophic thinking steals hope, and that it is a major killjoy. Conversely, being present to the present moment, surrendering all to God, and trusting in His providence and love fuels hope; hope that is a meant to be a distinguishing mark of the Christian faith.

Let's get ready for the end by seeking the Lord, and by centering our lives on Him.  Anything less is a recipe for fear, which thwarts the way of hope.

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.                       Matthew 6:33-34

Finding Hope When Hope Seems Lost

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Dear Friends,

With all of the bad news around us, could you use a good dose of HOPE?  I encourage you to watch my recent address to Legatus, which I gave on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalen.  It explains how I found hope when hope seemed lost.  Enjoy!  Please share!  Click here to watch the talk.

Praying always for God's blessings upon you and yours,

Judy

 

 

Do Catholics Believe In Near Death Experiences?

 

IMG_0592With the immense popularity of “Heaven Is For Real” and other books about experiences in the afterlife,  the topic of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) has taken front and center stage. Though the Catholic Church has no formal teaching on NDEs, plenty of people claim to have had one, including my late husband Bernie. The descriptions of these experiences often take on a tone of either Protestant Fundamentalism or the New Age. But Bernie’s experience was--would I dare to say--amazingly, authentically Catholic!

As a Catholic theologian who has taught the faith for fifteen years, I have never publicly addressed the topic of NDEs before. Those experiences fall into the category of what the Church calls “private” revelation—a topic I tend to stay away from when teaching Catholic doctrine. * However, Bernie’s life-changing NDE, chronicled in detail in my book Miracle Man, compelled me to share his incredible story with others. Why? Because Bernie’s “come to Jesus,” which he shared with me after miraculously waking up from a six week coma that was induced by a massive heart attack and multiple organ failure, highlighted some important truths of the Catholic faith that could use re-stating today. These include:

  • We don’t get a “free pass” to heaven because we’re convinced we’re “a good person.”
  • We are judged by God on the good or evil we have done in this life (Rom. 2:5-10).
  • God, who loves each of us personally and infinitely, has gone and will go to great lengths to save us and bring us home to heaven.
  • In the end, life and eternal life are about LOVE--and life on this earth is meant to teach us to love and be loved.

Bernie learned all of those lessons first hand during his NDE after suffering “the widow maker” in December 2008, which he inexplicably survived. Within a week of his heart attack, Bernie’s heart, liver, kidneys and lungs failed, leaving him comatose and on life support as doctors tried to save him—uncertain if he had any brain function left. Astoundingly, Bernie did an about face and began to recover, surprising his doctors and earning him the name “Miracle Man” among the hospital’s medical staff. He eventually woke up, was weaned off the ventilator and regained his ability to speak. Though still in the Intensive Care Unit, Bernie asked me one day if I wanted to hear about his Near-Death Experience.

I responded, of course, with a resounding “Yes!” Given the fact that I had prayed for his conversion for 24 long years and that I was at his bedside the night a nurse shocked his heart three times to keep him alive, I had a hunch he may have met God. But I never expected to hear what he said next.

“I died and I clearly remember it,” Bernie began.   “I saw my soul leave my body and was looking down on my body from above.” After describing in detail how he saw the condition of his soul, as well as the things he had done in his life that were pleasing and unpleasing to God, Bernie shared this zinger: “Judy, I followed the light all of the way to heaven. And when I got there, I wasn’t permitted to enter.” That from a man who steadfastly maintained that he was sure he was going to heaven because he was a “good person.”

Bernie was then sent back by God to make amends for his life, but not before meeting terrifying creatures that beat him brutally as they screamed in his ears repeatedly, “We’re here to help you!!!”  You’ll have to read the book to find out how the story ends (it’s nothing short of amazing), but suffice it for now to say that Bernie was a changed man after his NDE. So much so that he spent the last six weeks of his life telling me, “You have no idea how much God loves you…You have absolutely no idea how much God loves you!”

Because in spite of seeing his own inner darkness and his need for conversion and purification, Bernie’s overarching experience of his encounter with God was one of unfathomable love. Love that died on the Cross for his sins. Love that chased him down to beckon him into a relationship with Himself. And Love that waited to embrace him and welcome him home with the words, “You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.”

In the end, what matters most about “private” revelations like NDEs is the fruit they produce. In other words, they can be considered authentic insofar as they help us to “live more fully” by “Christ’s definitive revelation” (CCC par. 67). Christ revealed that God is love, and that Love holds us accountable for our lives and for our actions. Though those two statements seem contradictory in today’s world, they nonetheless contain the age-old truth of Christianity. That’s the truth Bernie discovered when he met God. And it’s the truth that would ultimately transform him and lead him to eternal life.

*(See the Catechism of the Catholic Church,  Par. 67 for the Church’s teaching on “private” revelation.)

Standing In Mama's Shoes

I'm proud to dedicate this blog to my beautiful Mama, Phyllis Landrieu.  I hope to have a fraction of your grace and courage some day.  Happy Mother's Day!  I love you!!!

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother. John 19:25

“My Mama’s given me big shoes to stand in,” I have frequently been heard to say. And it’s true. My mother is one of the smartest, most gifted, hard-working and energetic women I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing and loving. And did I mention that she’s beautiful? At eighty-one, she’s lovely, elegant and graceful. See for yourself.

Phyllis Landrieu, Mother of Ten

But the thing I appreciate most about my Mama is that she’s taught me to stand strong in the face of suffering. She’s demonstrated in living color how to let love make suffering pregnant with life, and how to permit intense pain to bear great fruit. She’s shown me how to stand—yes, stand at the foot of the Cross—offering bitter tears and the sacrifice of a sword-pierced heart for the good of other souls. Reflecting on my Mama, I can’t help but think of the Blessed Mother, who gave us the first big shoes to stand in. And like my earthly mother, stand she did, even as her heart was breaking.

When my mother faced the shattering suicide of my thirty-five year old brother, Scott, sixteen years ago, she had a choice to make. She could turn in on her grief—focus on her sorrow and let it consume her—or she could let her suffering become a conduit of blessing for others. She chose to found a task force in Scott’s name, training school teachers to recognize and respond to the signs of sexual abuse in children. It was not until my late husband, Bernie, died that Mama shared with me a private letter she’d written to him upon the death of his own son, Marshall. Her powerful words encouraged Bernie not to let his grief defeat him, but to use it instead as an impetus to help others. She wrote:

 At first after Scott’s death, I wanted to remove myself from all of my activities, pull down into the lonely darkness...just sit and hold my pain. But the abused children kept calling me and I found an opportunity out of the darkness by working to open the Children’s Advocacy Center. I did it in Scott’s name and there is a picture of Scott on the wall…If I could relieve some child’s suffering, I could relieve some of Scott’s suffering, and mine…There are so many suffering, just as I am, with pain and disappointment. In helping them, I am helping myself...They dim my pain, and I am rejoicing that Scott is in some way helping them also.

Nine years after Scott’s death, Mama faced the unimaginable. She faced the loss of another child to suicide; this time it was her second born son, Stephen.  If anyone ever had a right to close the blinds, turn off the lights and call it quits, it was my Mama. Instead, she chose to found an educational center in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of New Orleans designed not only to educate poor children, but also to provide comprehensive healthcare for them, as many poor children have never been to a doctor or a dentist in their lives. Though Mama has faced numerous personal and health challenges in recent years, including recuperating from a brain injury caused by a fall and caring for my Parkinson’s stricken Dad, she passionately presses on to help “the children,” for whom she fervently believes we all bear a responsibility.

Yes, my Mama has given me big shoes to stand in, but mostly, she’s taught me to stand. To stand upright when life goes face down, to stand steady when the rug is pulled out from under your feet, to stand, and keep standing, when all you really want to do is crumble to the ground in a heap. She’s shown all of us, with incredible courage and grace, how to walk forward in the face of inconceivable adversity. She walks forward with her face set like flint, carrying in her heart the sacrifice of her grief—a sacrifice that may just give a poor, needy kid a chance at life.

Now those are some shoes worth wearing.

Mom and Dad

Requiescat In Pace

   

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I feel called to share this excerpt from Miracle Man on the sixth anniversary of Bernie's death.  I wrote this final "Bernie Update" to our family and friends days after his funeral on the Feast of St. Joseph.  The Miracle Man taught me all about persevering love, and our journey together infused my being with Holy Hope… the hope that is borne of suffering and birthed through love.    Bernard Joseph Klein, rest in peace.

March 22, 2009,  Final Update

Dear Friends:

Bernard Joseph Klein was buried on the Feast of St. Joseph on Thursday, March 19, 2009. When we awoke, a dense fog covered the area, but by the time we arrived at Our Lady of the Lake Church, the sun had broken through, ushering in a glorious sunny day. It is difficult to share what is in my heart, but I would like to give you a glimpse of the day in Bernie's honor.

The funeral liturgy was absolutely beautiful, as we were graced with the angelic voices of Kitty Cleveland and the St. Scholastica Academy Choir under the direction of a most gifted pianist and friend, Sharon Scharmer.  Fr. John Talamo, Fr. Beau Charbonnet and Fr. Robert Cavalier honored us by presiding over the liturgy, and their presence on the altar in gold robes made present to us Christ's priestly presence in heaven—sacred, redemptive, all-powerful. I have never been so happy to be Catholic as I was on Thursday. I stood in awe and wonder as I watched the rich symbolism of the funeral Mass unfold, reminding us of Bernie's baptismal vows, his presence at the heavenly banquet of the Lamb of God, his marriage to the Eternal Bridegroom. As sad a day as it was, it was equally joy filled thanks to the consolation of the hope of heaven, and the love of our family and friends—all tangible and very real to me as I stood in the church with the symbols of heaven before my eyes surrounded by people who love me, Bernie and our family.

When the funeral Mass ended, we processed to the cemetery of St. Joseph Abbey, where many of the monks and priests of our archdiocese are laid to rest. It is holy ground, full of silence, prayer and majestic oaks. As we drove up to Bernie's gravesite following the hearse, seven Marines stood at full attention waiting for his arrival. It took my breath away to see them standing there and to remember how proud Bernie was of serving in the Marine Corps—the place where he found his personal gifts and his identity as a man. A twenty-one-gun salute and "Taps" followed our prayers, along with the folding of the American flag accompanied by Kitty's gorgeous voice singing "Amazing Grace." It was a moment none of us will soon forget.

 After the services concluded, we made our way to the home of our dear friends, Angele and Gary Darling. Gary is an incredible chef and he laid out a delicious banquet for us, including his famous Jamaican Jerk Chicken Salad and Mediterranean Hummus. We ate, laughed and cried as we remembered Bernie and his unique personality. A gentle wind blew through the French doors that were open throughout the house, and the Holy Spirit was very present as we shared a meal and fellowship in remembrance of Bernie. I returned home that evening with my heart full, feeling as though I had been to a wedding reception instead of a funeral. It was a happy ending to a day I had dreaded and prayed against for months —the funeral of my spouse.

 As I write these words, my heart is full of gratitude for Bernie's love and life. I am grateful for his illness and for three months spent in a hospital room filled with tender moments of love and grace. I am grateful for the outpouring of support, love and prayer that came forth in the midst of such a profound personal tragedy. And I am grateful to God for his faithfulness, and for the reality that he continually seeks after us, wooing us with opportunities to know and embrace his Fatherly love. In the end, that was what this journey was all about—for Bernie and for me.

Thank you for your love and for carrying Bernie on the wings of prayer into the arms of Our Lord. I am eternally grateful, and I know he is too.

With love and thanksgiving.

Judy