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By: Thomas O’Neill

How much would you spend to have better communication with your spouse? A few dollars? Maybe a hundred? A coworker of mine once noted that we are often willing to spend thousands of dollars on a vacation, but are hesitant to spend even a small amount of money on improving our relationship with God and with our spouse. Yet, when marriage counselors talk about what makes marriage work, they never tire of banging the same drum — communication, communication, communication. Similarly, when priests counsel us on how to improve our spiritual lives, we hear — pray, pray, pray. Communication is everything.

In a humorous story about this, a wonderful couple I know talked about doing chores together. The husband was putting away the dishes one evening, happily viewing it as a service to his lovely wife.

“Stop!” she said, all of a sudden. “Stop putting the dishes away!”

“Why?” he asked, perplexed.

“I thought you would be happy I was helping out!”

“No, because you hide them all away in the wrong places, and I have to spend double the time just to find the dish I need!”

What sounds like two newlyweds learning the ropes of living together is actually a couple has been married for more than 30 years!

This image of an evening Easter egg hunt searching for dishes is amusing. But it is helpful to note that Retrouvaille – a ministry for troubled marriages looking to improve – makes much the same point. Some of the most poignant exercises during a Retrouvaille weekend ask each spouse to simply write out all of his or her thoughts and feelings, good and bad. When the other spouse reads those secret sentiments, now laid bare, they are often shocked to discover how much they have missed in their own spouse’s life. The beginnings of a marriage “rediscovered” starts with simple communication.

Marriage Communication Workshop flyer

To that end, the Office for Family Life is sponsoring an engaging workshop on communication and prayer on Saturday, November 8 at St. John the Apostle parish in Leesburg. It will feature ever-popular speakers: Art & Laraine Bennett, co-authors of The Temperament God Gave Your Spouse; Sr. Clare Hunter, Director of the Office of Respect Life; and Rev. John Mosimann, pastor of St. John the Apostle parish. The cost is $45 before October 17 and $50 thereafter. Lunch is included. Please visit the website for more information or to register.

What will you invest in your marriage today?

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By: Sr. Clare Hunter

What kind of heretic are you? A new Buzzfeed quiz? Though not intentionally, I know I have given incorrect answers about the faith (heretic) because of my lack of knowledge. To be quite honest, there are many teachings of Jesus that I do not fully understand and make me uncomfortable. Actually, I might go so far as to say that I really don’t like them and believe they are “impossible” to follow and comprehend. I am rather disappointed that the sacrament of Confirmation, or even taking religious vows, does not include some kind of pill, or infusion, that gives one complete theological knowledge — oh, and complete compliance to God’s will. Where are those pills to make me holy, brilliant, and sinless?

P8071310So, which Catholic Church teaching don’t you like? Actually, that is not the right question. It is, which teaching of Jesus don’t you like? Reading and re-reading the Gospels has helped me to face that question. It was easy to disagree with my parents, religion teachers, priests and sisters, but when I realized that the teachings held by the Catholic faith were all from Jesus Christ, as the Word of the Father, I realized that God is the One with whom I had to take up my grievances. And so I do. I am merely following in the footsteps of the disciples and apostles who spent most of their time asking Jesus what He was talking about, rejecting His words and, unfortunately, not following His commandments. Is it a sin to question God and complain about His teachings? No. In fact, for many of us, it is the beginning of prayer.

It has been an “exciting” week for the media reporting on the Synod on marriage at the Vatican. With topics including homosexuality, divorce, contraception, cohabitation, abortion, pre-marital sex, and the Catholic Church — it doesn’t get more controversial and emotional than that! Each one of us has been challenged to reflect on these issues and to grow in our understanding of why and how the Catholic Church believes what it does. It is a tremendous opportunity to mature in faith and knowledge and to assess our own need to grow in our personal relationship with God. These issues touch wounds in each of us, and we should remember that they touched the genealogy and followers of Jesus Christ. Our Lord knew very well what He was doing when speaking about such hard teachings. Why else would He bestow such healing looks of love and pity on those gathered around Him?

imagesJesus is very clear with the disciples when they are astonished, shocked, or flatly reject something He says or teaches. Whether they refuse to accept His suffering and death, His teachings on marriage and divorce, or the radical disposing of one’s possessions and family, Our Lord is unwavering. Despite the mass exodus of followers after He tells them that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood for eternal life, He rebukes all and tells them that they cannot do alone what He is teaching. When the disciples question the difficult teachings on discipleship, Jesus declares that “for human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (cf. Mt 19:26, Mk 10:27).

For it to be possible for us to accept the Gospel message, our hearts must be open to God. We know this is not easy. Our fears of sacrifice and suffering, our weaknesses to temptations and plain, old sloth keep us from a disciplined prayer life and moral actions. Yet, in spite of all of this we do desire conversion; it is that little voice in each of us that says “there has to be more than this in life.” We know we are not happy with mediocrity. And on our honest days, we know that, though difficult to live, the teachings of Jesus resonate in our hearts and make sense. How incredible it is that we have a loving God who invites us into a relationship with Him that gives us the happiness we so desire. Yes, this includes obedience to His will and commandments, but we have been promised the abiding presence of His Spirit and the body and blood of the Son to enable us to be faithful sons and daughters. Like any relationship, it takes work and sacrifice on the part of both parties. He has held up to His promise. Now what about our part?

Wouldn’t a conversion, or perfection pill be easier? Yes. But we would probably forget to take it and complain about that, too!

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**Editor’s Note: This is the third and final blog post of a series addressing mental health issues by Dr. Frank Moncher, a clinical psychologist with Catholic Charities Diocese of Arlington. We hope that this helped educate you on the circumstances behind mental illness and suicide and begin that dialogue within the context of the Catholic community.

By: Dr. Frank Moncher

The Need To Belong
As important as the prior topics of biochemistry, prayer, and pursuing virtuous lives are to addressing the problems of depression and risk of suicide, conquering isolation and loneliness is at the heart of flourishing as a human person. One might think that in Robin Williams’ case, his relationships with his wife and children and millions of adoring fans would meet this need. However, fame and popularity are not the same as attachment and connection.

LonelinessThe human soul longs for a deeper, more intimate sense of belonging. And even when there are family and friends who are ready to assist, for persons suffering from depression, the perception of relationships can be distorted and these loved ones not seen as such. The best prevention for suicidal behavior is healthy relationships, characterized by unconditional warmth, affirmation, and acceptance. This type of relationship provides people with a haven from the stress they experience in their daily lives. Altruism is another way of boosting a person’s gratitude for what they do have in their life, which might go unnoticed amidst the chaos and stress. It also combats isolation, which is rampant but sometimes missed in our world infused with “social networks” and visual communication.

What Can Be Done?
Because a certain stigma persists about seeking mental health treatment, shame can be a huge barrier to getting the help one needs.  Therefore, it is wise for all to be attentive to the needs of those around us should we suspect they are struggling in some serious manner.

Warning signs or symptoms which are a cause for concern include emotional numbness that does not subside, insomnia or recurring nightmares, inability to engage one’s normal routine (e.g., returning to work, caring for one’s children or household), feeling isolated and unable to connect with others, staying busy to avoid feelings, and increased alcohol or drug use, including addictive prescription medication.  More concretely, it is critical to pay attention to any preoccupation with death or talking about suicide, or behavior that can be seen as preparing for dying, such as giving away possessions or putting affairs in order. Sometimes those who are planning suicide seem to feel better once they have decided upon a course of action, because they believe that they have an answer to their problems. This temporary lift in spirits can give those around them the impression that things have improved, even if the tendency toward suicide was known.

Avoiding mention of the problem to protect the person is rarely helpful (though if the person redirects the conversation away from their mental health issue, this should naturally be respected). Acceptance and compassion, along with a prudent appraisal of ways to help (offering practical assistance with shopping, cooking, driving, etc.) can be beneficial. Make a sincere offer of emotional support, whether communicated in a card or letter, by telephone or in person, and give the depressed person permission to talk and then just listen. Let them decide how much they want to share.

There are also numerous organizations that have suicide prevention at the heart of their mission:  to name a few, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (call 1 800-273-8255), the American Association of Suicidology, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

While all of us need others to “pick us up” in times of stress and misfortune, some of us are better at asking for and receiving this assistance than others. For those reading this who may be going through a particularly difficult time, it is vital to find a way to connect with others who can provide you comfort and support. Pray that the Holy Spirit will lead you to know who is there, waiting to be asked… And for those reading who have begun wondering if some particular friend or family member might be struggling, risk reaching out through an invitation to coffee or to take a walk. Then pray for the right words to say, for patience if a response is not forthcoming, and for the Lord to hold that precious person in the palm of His hand.

Staff Spotlight is — in an ongoing effort to get a range of content on Encourage & Teach — content from staff members within the Diocese of Arlington from contributors who do not write as a part of their day-to-day job.

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By: Sr. Clare Hunter

“Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him. But if you truly obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Exodus 23:20-22).

I recently asked a man about his first memory of an encounter with God. He thought for a few minutes and shared an account, that I was to believe or not, of an experience he had as a young child. He was in his room and felt an “evil presence” and got very scared. He started to pray, and he felt someone take his hand. A sensation of peace and security came over him. “As weird as it sounds,” he said, he knew it was his Guardian Angel who took his hand and made him feel safe, and the evil presence disappeared. Not only was I touched by his story, but I was struck that he did not tell me about seeing Jesus, or the Father, Himself, but he knew God, as many have, through a “messenger of God,” an angel.

LF8October 2 is the great feast of the Guardian Angels. In fact, this is “angel week” as we celebrated the great feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael on September 29. Certainly the mystery of angels captivates the world, young and old, of all faiths, yet it is important to make sure we have a proper understanding of the office of angels, and even more important to equip ourselves with the prayers and devotions that bring us into a deeper relationship with the angels and their invaluable protection.

Rooted deep within the Judeo-Christian tradition is the belief that part of God’s creation includes a species known as angels. Their mission is to make God known. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us of the relationship between humans and their angels:

“From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.’ Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God” (CCC 336).

Angels have no bodies. They are not human, nor will humans become angels. In fact, we are taught that we will be “above the angels” as members of the Body of Christ. This was the very truth that caused Lucifer, a Seraph, to reject God, and, along with countless angels, to be cast into hell. Yes, bodiless beings that can protect and lead us is hard to comprehend and imagine, hence the images of winged “babies” or strong warriors who shield us from evil. When a loved one dies, it is natural to want to know and feel their presence and to believe that one of their souls is close by, guiding and protecting us each day. And God willing, they are, but not as angels.

Today is a perfect day to brush up on your angelology and to pray in deep gratitude for your Guardian Angel. Make sure you have these prayers memorized by the end of the day. Each of us receive our own angel for our time on earth, whose mission is to lead our soul into heaven. That is his only mission! He only has us! We can’t let him fail!

Prayer to your Guardian Angel:

Angel of God,
My guardian dear,
To whom God’s love
Commits me here,
Ever this day,
Be at my side,
To light and guard,
Rule and guide. Amen.

Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel:

St. Michael the Archangel,
Defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
And do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
By the power of God,
Thrust into hell Satan,
And all the evil spirits,
Who prowl about the world
Seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

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By: Rev. Paul Scalia

And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kgs 19:13)

Elijah must have been tempted to frustration, perhaps even anger, with the Lord. Here he was — devout, faithful, zealous. He had witnessed to the Lord against the false prophets and journeyed 40 days to Mount Horeb. He stood waiting on the Lord. And yet, he gets no greeting from the Lord.  No kudos, thanks, or congratulations. Only a question: What are you doing here, Elijah?

But…it was a fair question. Mount Horeb was, if not exactly God-forsaken, not quite a destination spot either. The prophet had to pause and think. What was his purpose? What had driven him out to a cave on a remote mountain? What was he doing there?

The entire scene provides a good way to approach prayer. When (if?) we pray, we typically just start saying our prayers, without much reflection as to the purpose. They are pre-programmed and we just hit the play button. But if we hear in our minds the Lord’s question to Elijah — What are you doing here? — then our time of prayer is opened up tremendously. Elijah renewed his purpose as he reflected upon the question. So also for us: What is the purpose of prayer? What am I doing here? Thus, by reflecting on Elijah’s encounter with the Lord at Mount Horeb, we can better understand our prayer, our own encounters with God.

elijah_and_the_angel__image_5_sjpg2146

First, Elijah fled to Mount Horeb, to find refuge in the Lord. He had confronted Israel’s false prophets and punished them severely (cf. 1 Kgs 18). In response Queen Jezebel, their patroness, had promised to murder Elijah (cf. 1 Kgs 19:1-2). So he fled, seeking protection, security, divine assistance. He was there because he needed God.

So also we pray because we need to. Because we are in need of similar refuge and assistance. The most basic meaning of the word “pray” is “plead” or “beg.” We do not come into the Lord’s presence as equals to Him. We do not negotiate with Him from a position of power. Rather, we appeal to Him from a position of weakness. We flee to Him because we are in need. Blessed are the poor in spirit — those who have no delusions about their own strength, those who, like Elijah, fly to the Lord in their weakness and need.

But Elijah was not only fleeing from something. He was also going to something. If he only intended to avoid Jezebel and her minions, he could have gone to many different places. But he intended more than flight. He went to Mount Horeb for a reason — because it is Mount Sinai, the place where Israel first encountered the Lord, the place of the covenant between Israel and the Lord. He, who had witnessed to the Lord’s fidelity to His covenant, went to the place where that covenant was born. He went there for renewal.

Although prayer might begin with begging, it should also seek more. Every time we pray, we should, in effect, go back to the beginning of the covenant, to that first encounter and experience with the Lord, to those original gifts He bestowed on us. For ancient Israel, that meant the covenant on Mount Sinai/Horeb. For us, it means our Baptism. We pray in order to renew our childhood, to rekindle in our minds and hearts the awareness of being children of God. One of our greatest weaknesses is forgetfulness of God — of His love, His mighty deeds, His promises. Prayer is the time to recover our memory, to recall again with grateful hearts all that He has already accomplished for us.

Finally, Elijah went to Mount Horeb for strength. His mission was not over. In the conversation that follows the Lord’s question, it is clear that Elijah is to return to Israel, that land of apostasy and persecution, to continue his witness. Indeed, the Lord instructs him to return and promises him assistance (1 Kgs 19:15-17). His encounter with the Lord at Mount Horeb provided him the strength necessary to live his vocation.

Although a refuge, prayer is not an escape. Certainly, prayer involves a certain detachment from the world. We are of no use to the world if we are no different from it, if we have lost our saltiness (cf. Mt 5:13). But that does not mean a rejection of the world. Yes, we ought to run to prayer for protection and renewal. But we cannot use it to avoid the world and its difficulties. Prayer looks also to the witness we have to give before others. We pray, therefore, to be strengthened, to be rendered more effective witnesses in word and deed. Our time of prayer should always conclude with a request for the strength to be witnesses to the truth of the Faith.

What are you doing here? Imagine our Lord asking you that question the next time you pray. A more deliberate reflection on our reasons for being there helps to deepen our ability to pray. It expresses our weakness and need for Him, it reminds us of our status as His children, and it obtains the strength needed to be His witnesses.

This is the fourth of seven posts that will take up some questions of God that satisfy more than the answers of man.

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By: Natalie Plumb

Don’t miss Risk Jesus ’14! With hard-hitting talks from speakers, opportunities for confession, a Holy Hour led by Bishop Loverde, and a chance to network with ministry leaders—Risk Jesus will be a leaping first step for those who’ve never heard “Come and see.” Visit: arlingtondiocese.org/riskjesus. Click on the photo below to view my Storify collage of “What people are saying about #RiskJesus!” All for the #NewEvangelization — #RiskShare it!

Larger - What people are saying about #RiskJesus

Click to see me on Storify!

Natalie writes on Thursdays about faith, dating, relationships, and the in between. May her non-fiction stories and scenarios challenge you. May they help you laugh, cry, think and wonder.

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By: Josephine Balsamo, Staff Spotlight

Everywhere I look these days there is talk about euthanasia. You can’t pick up a paper or look online at the news without hearing about assisted suicide and “mercy” killing – ending a person’s life because we think it’s more humane than letting them suffer. Four states (Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Montana) have legalized killing persons who are ill in one form or another. Other states, like Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey, are attempting to overturn current prohibitions. This question becomes even more difficult to answer when someone you love has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

IMG_1189When my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic colon cancer, we all were holding out for a miraculous cure through treatment with the latest drugs developed to treat her cancer. After four long weeks of yet another type of chemotherapy, we were told by the doctors that she was not responding to the treatment. We were heartbroken. The doctors came in and offered additional treatments. But in the end, despite our best efforts to talk her into it, my mom refused additional treatment. She said that she was “putting it in God’s hands” and that she “trusted in his will for her.”

Then came the day when the hospital staff entered her room to come up with a discharge plan which included sending her home with Hospice Care. As hard as it was to accept that thought, what happened next was even harder.

We were told that in order to bring her home with Hospice, we would have to bring her home without TPN (the liquid nutrition we had been giving her via IV — the only nutrition she had been given for the last 12 weeks because, due to her cancer, she had been unable to eat or drink, and without it she would have surely starved to death).

I tried to reason with the hospital staff that she was not like most patients with her disease and because of her surgeries she had been unable to eat for quite some time. I literally begged them to reconsider the decision. It hardly seemed right to take her out of the hospital and starve her to death before the cancer actually took her life. I was told this was impossible and if we wanted to continue giving her nutrition, we would have to pay $450 a day for the TPN, and we would not have the help of Hospice to assist with her care.

At this point, I asked to speak with the director of the program, and although he tried to say “No,” I wouldn’t give up.  He finally agreed that she could go home with food, but when she reached the point that a patient would naturally stop eating, the TPN would be stopped and we would let nature take its course. She lived another four months after they discharged her from the hospital and never reached the stage that would have meant taking away hydration and nutrition.

Those four months turned out to be some of the most precious times our family had together, and even though it was hard, God had something to give each of us in the end. For my mother, the gift was time to say goodbye to us and to prepare to go home to heaven. For my father, it was time to say goodbye to the love of his life and the mother of his eight children. For my brothers and sisters, it was time to learn what unconditional love looks like. And for me, it was time to find my faith again after 25 years, through the help of a young priest who brought her Communion.

In our darkest trials, God brings beautiful blessings. Had we listened to the doctors, my mom would have died of dehydration and starvation, which would have been both physically and emotionally painful. Thank goodness we listened to what was in our hearts and gave her a chance to die at home with dignity and at peace surrounded by the family she loved so well.

Staff Spotlight is — in an ongoing effort to get a range of content on Encourage & Teach — content from staff members within the Diocese of Arlington from contributors who do not write as a part of their day-to-day job.

Josephine Balsamo has been the Program Coordinator for Project Rachel in the Diocese of Arlington’s Family Life Office since 2004. The ministry offers post-abortion healing retreats, monthly holy hours, professional counseling, a confidential phone line, referral to priests for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and multiple other resources.

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