The Smoking Priest

“Distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune: He felt anxiety about the possible loss of his job.”  This is how the dictionary defines the word anxiety.  

Worry, fretfulness, apprehension and disquiet are all synonyms of this word that has become so common in our daily vocabulary.  

Without a serious spiritual life, anxiety will overwhelm us. If we are a people who live truly spiritual lives, we will be filled with peace and joy no matter what may be going on around us. And this is so, because we will always be able to trust God.

Saint Teresa of Avila, the famous Spanish mystic, once wrote: “Let nothing trouble you.  Let nothing frighten you.  Everything passes.  God never changes.  Patience obtains all.  Whoever has God, wants for nothing.  God alone is enough.”

St. Teresa provides us profound words of wisdom for our present times.  The staggering number of prescription drugs available for the many forms of uneasiness and tension illustrates that many of our contemporaries suffer deep inner turmoil.  

It is true that we are experiencing profound challenges: wars, continual threats of terrorism, problems within our Catholic Church, the rapidly accelerating unraveling of moral decency in our society, an uncertain economy and the terrible wounds caused by the dismantling of family life.  Nevertheless, challenges such as these should remind us that we must always trust in God who is always with us.

I have reached the conclusion that the only way that we will be able to handle the challenges of our times and the difficulties that are to unfold is through the exercise of daily contemplative prayer.   This is true because contemplative prayer allows us to experience the peace that only God can give us.  My new book, Get Serious! – A Survival Guide for Serious Catholics provides easy to follow steps on how you can develop the kind of prayer life that we all need.

The traditional structures of support that have made our lives comfortable and easy are gone.  A serious life of contemplative prayer is very important for the times in which we live.

God is moving us away from clinging to things, people and institutions.  He is calling us to detachment, to the desert, to the journey into the night of naked faith.  He is calling us to cling to him and only him.  This journey is difficult, frightening at times and even risky.  Those who embark upon the journey will be transformed into living witnesses of the God of love.

A number of years ago, a young woman worked as an executive for a growing company.  Her work required that she travel frequently in the small private jet owned by her employer.  Everyone in the office knew that she dreaded traveling by air.  

One day as she was flying back to Minneapolis, a very serious thunderstorm began to develop directly in the path of the jet.   The pilot told everyone to be seated and warned them the approaching turbulence would be severe.  

The woman tightened her seatbelt, closed her eyes, breathed deeply and began to recall a verse from the Bible that she had memorized long ago, “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1: 7).

Suddenly the plane began to shake violently.   Some of the passengers began to scream as luggage fell from the overhead compartments.  As the commotion continued, the plane began losing altitude and continued to drop as if there were no end in sight.  At this point, the passengers completely panicked fearing that the death of all would be the outcome.  Throughout the ordeal, the woman, her eyes closed, continued reflecting on the Bible verse.   She even began to recite it aloud numerous times: “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.”  

As the pilot struggled to bring the small jet under control, the company president got word about the situation.  He immediately left his office and went to the airport.  As the plane landed   he went out on the flight apron to greet his employee.  He had expected to find her in very bad shape. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised to find her calm and confident as she left the plane and walked onto the tarmac.

“What happened?  How did you manage to remain so calm?” he asked.  “We all know that you’re terrified of flying in our small jet.”  The woman simply looked at him peacefully, smiled, and then said, “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.”

Normally I wake up every morning in a great mood, always filled with enthusiasm to do what I can to fulfill my daily mission as a Catholic priest.  However, this morning, I awoke with a horrible feeling.  I kept pushing myself all morning.  Yes, I got my work done, but I could not shake this pervasive feeling that was keeping me down all morning.  

I had lunch with a very dear priest friend of mine.  Our conversations are always very positive and there is always a lot of laughter.  Nevertheless, when he left, I still felt the same way I did all morning.  

Quickly I started to think about what could be causing my bad mood and lethargic feeling.  

Did it have something to do with the 10th year remembrance of September 11?


I still have vivid memories of how I first heard the news on that terrible day.

On September 11, 2001, I began to hear confessions at the customary thirty minutes prior to the morning Mass in a Catholic parish in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The first penitent entered the confessional and before he began his confession, he told me that something dreadful was happening in New York City.  He heard something on the news during his drive to the parish, but he wasn’t sure exactly what was happening.  

I had to begin Mass on time, so before I began to celebrate Mass, I told the congregation gathered together in the small daily Mass chapel that something terrible is going on in New York City.  I asked them to pray for this intention.  

As soon as I finished Mass, I quickly went into my room and turned the television on.  The first plane had already hit.  Filled with horror, I watched the second plane hit and the eventual collapse of the Twin Towers.  

That afternoon, a parishioner who was a flight school student at the Naval Air Station located in Corpus Christi, came to tell me that his brother worked in an office located in the Twin Towers.  The office was located above where one of the planes had hit.  His family had heard nothing from him since the time of the attacks and the worst case scenario was expected.

We sat together, alone, in the main church, and we prayed together for quite some time.  I mustered up some words of encouragement and he went back to his work.  

I lost track of him for about three to four weeks and then he returned one Sunday only to tell me that his brother was gone.  The family had a funeral for him with no body, because his body could not be found.  They had to assume that he was one of the thousands that were lost in the tragedy that occurred on September 11.

Now that I think about it, I guess all of these vivid and sad memories did cause this terrible and pervasive feeling of discouragement.  

However, that feeling is now gone.  

This afternoon, I knew that I had to get rid of the heaviness.  The weekend is quickly approaching, and I don’t have time for a pity party.  

I cleared my calendar, shut off my cell phone and I sat in my prayer chair, the one that I have in my quiet room.  After an hour and a half of centering prayer I remembered the beautiful words of Saint Theresa of Avila, the famous Spanish mystic.

“Let nothing trouble you.  Let nothing frighten you.  Everything passes.  God never changes.  Patience obtains all.  Whoever has God wants for nothing.  God alone is enough.”

Saint Theresa is right.  I sure do feel much better.    

Thomas  Edison was a prolific inventor.  He invented over 1,000 things, but he is best known for inventing the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the microphone, the storage battery and talking movies.

It was December 1914, and he had already been working for ten years on the storage battery.  This adventure had greatly strained his financial situation.  One evening, spontaneous combustion had broken out in the film room.  Within minutes, all the packing compounds, celluloid for records and film, and other flammable material were in flames.

Firefighters from eight surrounding towns arrived, but the fire was so intense and the water pressure so low, that the fire was out of control.  Everything was destroyed and Edison was sixty-seven years old.

Edison’s twenty-four year old son, Charles, searched for his father during the fire.  He finally found him, calmly watching the fire.  “My heart ached for him,” said Charles.  “He was sixty-seven, no longer a young man, and everything was going up in flames.  When he saw me, he shouted, ‘Charles, where’s your mother?’  When I told him I did not know, he said, ‘Find her.  Bring her here.  She will never see anything like this as long as she lives.”  

The next morning Thomas Edison looked at the ruins of his life’s work and said, “There is a great value in disaster.  All our mistakes are burned up.  Thank God we can start anew”.  Three weeks after the fire, Thomas Edison delivered the first phonograph. 

My dear friends, we must never be discouraged by the difficulties and even the tragedies that take place in our lives.  

We all experience storms in our lives.  We must not be surprised that this life is a continual struggle.  Temptation, failure, difficulties, trials and tribulations are a normal part of our earthly existence.  To seek an easy and comfortable life without the challenge of difficulties is not realistic. 

Past failures and present disappointments keep people frozen in time, unable to move on to a better life.  We must never be afraid of failure.  Success can only be achieved by taking risks. We must not focus on the past; instead we should look forward with hope to a new beginning.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am going to play a few songs for you.  I hope that you like my music.”

These were the words the poor Mexican guitar player spoke as he suddenly jumped aboard an old bus as it travelled up the Mexican Pacific Coast. 

The poor Mexican guitar player stood in the middle of the bus and began to sing beautiful folk songs as he leaned against one of the seats to keep himself from falling. Our unexpected guest was a perfect tenor. 

As I listened with delight, I began to feel much better.  The poor Mexican guitar player reminded me how beneficial good music is for the soul.

The challenges that we face are many.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed at times. 

Saint Augustine once wrote: “Why do we now live in anxiety?  Can you expect me not to feel anxious when I read: Is not man’s life on earth a time of trial?  Can you expect me not to feel anxious when the words still ring in my ears: Watch and pray that you will not be put to the test?  Can you expect me not to feel anxious  when there are so many temptations here below that prayer itself reminds us of them, when we say: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us?  Every day we make our petitions, every day we sin.  Do you want me to feel secure when I am daily asking pardon for my sins, and requesting help in time of trial?  Because of my past sins I pray: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and then, because of the perils still before me, I immediately go on to add: Lead us not into temptation.  How can all be well with people who are crying out with me: Deliver us from evil?

Nevertheless, the poor Mexican guitar player reminded me that although we go through many trials and tribulations during our earthly journey to eternity, we must always sing.  We sing with hope and joy because God is faithful.  “Sing to the Lord and new song.  Sing to the Lord, all the earth” (Psalm 96: 1).

We do live in difficult times.  Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  However, people of faith who firmly believe that God is faithful must never be discouraged.

Now is the time to struggle, but always with a song.  In eternity, we can sing forever. 

Saint Augustine affirms this idea when he says: “O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity!  We shall have no enemies in heaven; we shall never lose a friend.  God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there, in security;  here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.”

As the bus travelled along a very bumpy road, the poor Mexican guitar player continued to sing.  However, suddenly he had to stop because one of his guitar strings broke unexpectedly. 

I turned to him and asked him what he was going to do.  Serenely he told me that he was going to fix it and sing again tomorrow.