The Road You're On

“I was introduced to dog meat,” President Obama recalls in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, recounting his experiences as a young child in Indonesia under the tutelage of his Islamic stepfather, whose “knowledge of the world seemed inexhaustible.”

Obama’s stepfather fed the boy dog meat and other delicacies (snake, grasshopper) and promised to “bring home a piece of tiger meat for us to share,” explaining that “a man took on the powers of whatever he ate.”

As the saying goes, you are what you eat.

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him,” Christ says in John’s Gospel. “He who eats me will live because of me.” Hence, the Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist brings “an intimate union with Christ Jesus.”

In the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine becomes Christ’s body and blood. Monsignor Peter Vaghi explains this doctrine of “transubstantiation” in The Sacraments We Celebrate: A Catholic Guide to the Seven Mysteries of Faith, the second book in his series on the Catholic faith.

“It is always good to spend some time meditating and focusing on what happens in the Eucharist,” Vaghi says. “It is, after all, the principal mystery of our Faith.”

For Catholics, when they consume the Blessed Sacrament, they are truly eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. Not symbolically, but really. How? “It takes faith to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread,” Vaghi explains.

That’s not so hard to swallow when you think about the fact that it takes another sort of faith to believe in (say) quarks, dark matter, or subatomic particles. Reality is so much more than what our five senses can perceive.

Catholics believe that they take on the power of Christ, in a real sense, through the Eucharist. Christ promised that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life (John 6:54).

For many of Christ’s disciples, this teaching was too hard to accept. “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” they asked. Many of his disciples broke away from that time on, John’s Gospel tells us.

Granted, the outward appearance of the elements remains the same as before the consecration by the priest. Yet, with the eyes of faith, Catholics can see that in eating the Eucharist, we become like Christ, and we remain in him and Christ in us.

Rather than eating tiger meat to gain power, we should consume the Lion of Judah. Through our faith in this mystery, we gain an intimate union with Christ Jesus.

At the Easter Vigil this year, the Catholic Church received me into full communion.  Along the road to this night, Monsignor Peter Vaghi, pastor of the Church of the Little Flower, met with me over many months to teach me the Catholic faith.  As a resource, we read four books he wrote about the pillars of the Catholic Faith.

We began our discussion with The Faith We Profess: A Catholic Guide to the Apostles’ Creed.  Pope Benedict referred to the Apostle’s Creed as the “summary of everything we believe.”

The Apostles’ Creed has twelve articles (like the twelve disciples) and is broken into three sections on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Studying the Creed can be intellectual and spiritual.  “Religious by nature,” we humans are “created to transcend ourselves.”  The Apostles’ Creed gives us a view of the transcendent that we seek.

At the Easter Vigil, one particular song, based on the “litany of saints,” moved me the most.  The singer invokes the heroes of the faith, name by name, asking for their assistance and prayer.

The Apostles’ Creed affirms the belief in the communion of saints as a vital part of the Christian faith. G. K. Chesterton referred to this as the “democracy of the dead” which reflects the continuous witness to the truth through history.

To read the Apostles’ Creed is to understand better the faith Catholics profess.  Using the Creed as a mirror, “look at yourself” St. Augustine suggested, “to see if you believe everything you say you believe.” Such reflections on the Creed might lead you in unexpected directions, as it did for me.

Each night before my children drift off to sleep, I pray with them.  We voice a familiar prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep;

I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

If I should die before I wake;

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Some may question this choice for my small children.  In his book, As I Lay Dying, Father Richard John Neuhaus recalls that he prayed this same prayer his whole life.  When he became gravely ill, Neuhaus continued to pray this, and it became his urgent appeal.

Generally we can avoid thinking about death until it touches someone we love or someone so similar to us that it reminds us that we too will die one day.  We can be troubled over the deaths of millions overseas due to famine, tsunami, or genocide, but “it is death in the singular,” Neuhaus says, “that shatters all we thought we knew about death.”

This week we remember the most famous death in history, that of Jesus Christ.  From the cross, Jesus knew his death loomed.  He cried out, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Each night we can imitate Christ and commend our spirits as well.

In the morning when we rise, our first thought can be gratitude that we have lived to see another day.

Liz Cheney shared three things she learned from her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, while she co-wrote his book, In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir.

First: Press forward. Liz shared how her father endured five heart attacks without complaining.  He just continued to press forward and do what was necessary.

Second: Always listen first. Liz also explained why her father is such a good listener.  Early in his career, he volunteered his solution about a problem at the outset of a meeting.  No one listened to him because he was young and inexperienced.  By the end of the discussion, the other attendees adopted Cheney’s recommended action, but no one remembered that Cheney initially suggested it.  Through this experience, he learned that the fewer words you use, the more sway they have.

Third: Be strong and courageous.  Liz also admires her father for how courageous he is.  She praised him for having the strength to stand up for his convictions.  He faced vindictive criticism, including when an MSNBC commentator recommended using Cheney’s heart as a football.  Ed Schultz suggested, “We ought to rip it out and kick it around and stuff it back in him.”  Despite such a painful insult, Cheney did not falter in his service to his country.

What can we learn from Cheney?  We can learn not to let health issues deter us from our mission or darken our demeanor.  No one else can fulfill our mission, and our attitude influences not just us but also those around us.  We can learn to listen and let our words have greater effect by using fewer of them.  We can also learn to stand up for what is right, and ignore unjust criticism.  Using these three things, we can inspire those around us to lead more fruitful and happy lives.

“We don’t want to keep running from place to place to place looking for the best tree to sleep under with our kids,” a Sudanese refugee said to Congressman Frank Wolf during his recent trip to the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. On behalf of the persecuted, Wolf has exposed oppressive governments and horrifying conditions in Sudan and other dangerous locations around the world.

“We just want to raise our kids,” the Sudanese widow said. Daily bombings by Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s forces have made that impossible. These refugees left their Nuba Mountain homes to escape the brutality of northern Sudanese soldiers. The soldiers killed the refugees’ male kin and raped their women and their girls.

The refugees relocated to a camp in Yida, South Sudan, established by Samaritan’s Purse, a relief organization that helps the refugees run the camp.

Even there, the refugees lack safety and shelter from aerial bombing. “There is nothing you can do when something is flying over you and you are just laying on the ground,” a refugee explained to Wolf. A bomb “might fall on you or it might fall away from you,” she said, “but when it falls on you, you just have to prepare yourself for death.”

In addition to the threat of violent death from bomb shrapnel, Yida’s refugees cannot plant crops or tend animals to support their community. They cannot educate their children. In the Nuba Mountain region, severe food shortages pose a risk of widespread famine.

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know,” William Wilberforce said in the eighteenth century, as he continually spoke out against the slave trade.

We, as a nation, may choose to look the other way from Sudan, but we cannot say we did not know.

Do you sometimes feel paralyzed by too many pressing demands?  Do the world’s tragedies sometimes overwhelm you with news of famines, floods, and despotism?

Elisa Morgan, former CEO of Mothers of Preschoolers, recently addressed these questions.  As the leader of a young mothers group, she understands the frustration of having seemingly infinite demands that overwhelm limited available time.

With a mother’s heart, Morgan also understands the longing to relieve pain and injustice around us while struggling to find time even to take a daily shower.

We want to focus on first-order priorities, but mindless logistics and pedestrian issues crowd out the things that matter to us. Life needs a spam filter.

Morgan’s booklet, She Did What She Could, reflects on a familiar story from the Bible and offers new insight on five simple words of Jesus.

Jesus and his disciples were talking over dinner when a woman approached him with an alabaster jar of costly perfume, probably her dowry.

She broke open the jar and anointed Jesus with the perfume.  Judas objected to her profligacy: Why wasn’t the perfume sold and the money given to the poor?  Other disciples piled on with more criticism.

Jesus rebuked them. You have the poor with you always, he said, but his time on earth was limited.  “She did what she could,” Jesus said.

Jesus praised the woman for what she did, Morgan points out, not what the woman could have done.  Nor did Christ say that she should have done more.  He just praised her for what she did.

She did what she could.  Morgan focuses our attention on those five words.

Jesus honored the woman for doing what she could.

You might not transform the world overnight, or even over a lifetime.  But you don’t need to transform the world.

Just do what you can.

This week, we are celebrating Valentine’s Day and continue to mourn Whitney Houston’s death.

She starred in The Preacher’s Wife, a forgettable movie with an unforgettable soundtrack including the song, “I Believe in You and Me,” describing a superlative, eternal love.

These aspirations seldom bear out, particularly among celebrities, for whom love is often more evanescent than eternal.

Then there is agape — “the kind of love Christ taught and showed,” as Peter Kreeft defined the term in explaining C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves.  Agape transcends affection (Storge), friendship (Philia), and romantic love (Eros).

With Agape, “you begin to be when you give yourself away,” Kreeft explained.  By giving, “you mysteriously find yourself a recipient — of the very gift you gave away.”

Houston’s tumultuous relationship with Bobby Brown starkly revealed the limitations of Eros to fill the God-shaped void we each have in our souls.

Houston crooned about being “in love eternally.”  Faith requires a personal relationship with a loving Creator and believing in the promise of Agape.

And like the river finds the sea

I was lost, now I’m free

Cuz I believe

In you and me.

People of faith know the experience of being lost and then found, imprisoned and then free.

How do we try to free ourselves?  Hollywood uses sex, alcohol, and drugs.  Washington, D.C. uses excessive work — sometimes with a bit of Hollywood on the side.  People everywhere use these and other numbing mechanisms in an attempt to free themselves.

Houston sings, “I will always let you in, boy / To places no one’s ever been / Deep inside, can’t you see?” Agape lets us totally reveal ourselves: flaws, selfishness, bad decisions, pettiness.

“We are fools for Christ’s sake,” St. Paul wrote, “but ye are wise in Christ.” Echoing Paul’s statement, Houston promised her beloved to “play the fool forever / Just to be with you forever.”

Though foolish to some, we too can sing, “I am free,” in the angelic heavenly choir in an eternal Valentine’s Day.

Regretful bride Kim Kardashian recently tweeted: “I want to start a Bible study group with my friends.”   Here are five reasons to study the Bible:

  1. Anyone can benefit from reading the Bible, which is full of the epic stories of good versus evil.  Just as reading good literature engages our mind, studying the Bible can be intellectually and emotionally stimulating.
  2. The Bible teaches through negative examples what not to do, with stories of blind trust (Samson); betrayal (Judas); and murder and cover-up (David and Bathsheba).  The Bible also teaches through positive examples on the meaning of generosity (the widow’s mite); loyalty (David and Jonathan); and forgiveness (Joseph and his brothers).
  3. The Bible offers encouragement.  The Psalmist describes God as our rock, fortress and deliverer.  Matthew’s Gospel tells us that not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without our Father knowing it.
  4. A Bible study with friends can create stronger bonds and an environment of intimacy.
  5. Most important, Bible study reveals the true nature of Jesus Christ, who identified himself as the Son of God.  “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher,” C. S. Lewis observed.  “He would be either a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.”  The Bible compels us to decide who we think Jesus is.

Kim Kardashian’s reasons for starting a Bible study are known to her alone.  Perhaps she is jumping the shark.  But often, when we start down a new path, we end up in a better place than where we thought we were headed.


The beautiful teenage track star readies herself for the championship race. This contest will determine whether Holland Reynolds’s high school cross country team will win an eighth state championship.

Next to her, coach Jim Tracy displays a pensive look. He hobbles slightly as he gives his final words of advice. Tracy has recently received a diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Fast forward to the last fifty yards of the race. The crowd cheers wildly, eagerly watching as each runner emerges from the woods. Slowly, a figure appears, awkwardly inching forward.

A few meters shy of the finish line, Reynolds collapses, suffering severe dehydration.

An official approaches. He tells Reynolds that any help that she receives will disqualify her, which would cause her team to lose the state championship.

Reynolds musters her strength and begins crawling forward again. The crowd erupts in pandemonium.

Slowly, Reynolds crosses the finish line, securing the points needed for her team to claim the state championship — a climactic victory in honor of their beloved coach.

*          *          *

“Let us run with patience the race that is set before us,” the Book of Hebrews says. Odd as it may sound to run a race with “patience,” the key is to finish.

Long before Charlie Sheen offered his own version of winning, St. Paul gave this definition: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

Fighting doubt and self means failing to live our faith as Christ lived it, even for a saint: “I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it,” Paul said, “Instead, I do what I hate.”

We all struggle, sometimes alone. Often, the best we can hope to accomplish — after summoning all available strength and grit — is to crawl across the finish line.

Still, sometimes to win a race, all we need to do is finish. Fight the good fight. Finish the course. Keep the faith.

Every day, headlines remind us how pain can wreak personal havoc.

“Every person in here knows personal pain,” as Newt Gingrich memorably said to CNN’s John King during the South Carolina debates.  “Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things.”

Facing pain is part of the human condition.  Here are some thoughts on how to manage:

  • Remember, pain caused by others is not about you.  Family, friends, co-workers and others can hurt us with their behavior.  Don’t assume that the way they treat you is about who you are, what you have done or even what they think about you.  Focus on what might be going on in their life.  Physical, financial, or emotional stress can cause others to hurt those around them, without them even being aware of their behavior.  Without fail, when I assume that unkind actions have resulted from some sort of trial, the assumption eventually bears out.  The ultimate model for us is Christ’s prayer from the Cross:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The outward focus brings a double benefit.  Our prayers can help them resolve their painful situation and make us focus on others, not ourselves.
  • Find positive, optimistic people to lean on in painful times.  No man is an island.  Even the proudest, most successful person must lean on others when in pain.  Pain can bring alienation, pushing us away from friends and family.  A faith-filled person with a positive outlook can provide helpful advice and guide us away from destructive thoughts and outcomes.  If you see no end of pain, a positive friend can say the things you cannot say yourself.  Each of us will have our own time to allow others to lean on us.  We can always seek to cultivate a positive, faith-filled spirit to help others in those times.  For those who are outwardly focused, pain can drastically increase empathy for others.
  • Use pain to bring you closer to God.  “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” C.S. Lewis argued.  Two decades after his thoughtful and dispassionate exploration of The Problem of Pain, Lewis experienced the death of his wife, Joy Davidman.  He chronicled the gut-wrenching experience in his book, A Grief Observed, candidly revealing how Joy’s death tore him apart and how he found his way back to God.
  • Embrace the pain that poses the big questions.  Pain strips us.  It demands we learn what matters to us at our deepest core.  Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch-22, recounted not only his amazing experiences, career and connections, but also his most intimately painful moments.  The atheist concludes that our suffering has no greater meaning.  A person of faith rejects this atheist dogma, instead pondering questions such as, “Why am I in this pain?” “Am I loved?” and “Does my suffering have meaning?”
  • Take steps to improve the things you can.  Find ways to improve your health and attitude.  Add exercise to help your mind and body.  Add prayer and meditation to help your spirit.  For multitaskers, pray while exercising!  Play a team sport if you enjoy the company.  If you’re too competitive to risk losing, find a challenging physical activity with opportunities for concentration and success, like setting a new personal record for consecutive foul shots.


Pain need not incapacitate us.  Follow these rules of the road to guide you to a new place.  We can grow from our pain, and our experience can help others.