Looking at the Jewish roots of Pentecost

Practically every aspect of the Catholic faith and practice is rooted in Judaism. A good example is this week’s feast of Pentecost. Catholics celebrate Pentecost as the descent of the Holy Spirit and the “birthday of the church.” But there is much more to it than that. Read more here.

“And no small tempest lay on us …” – The Story of a Storm That St. Paul Endured and What It Has to Teach Us About Sin

Storms in life are often beyond our control. Perhaps they come from nature and the sudden vicissitudes of this world. Sometimes God permits storms in order to test and strengthen us. Sometimes, too, others drag us into storms and we suffer on account of their poor decisions. Some storms come from our own foolishness and poor choices.

In this excellent, but long, two-part series by Msgr. Charles Pope, St. Paul is dragged into a storm by the stupidity and poor choices of a military official and a ship’s crew.  Read Part 1 by clicking on the link above, and Part 2 here.  Or access a PDF of the entire thing by clicking here.

These 3 Women Made More Than $100K on Fiverr — and They Told Us How

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Exercise and Breast Cancer

The evening news last night was full of an important new study on alcohol and breast cancer.  It’s an important study because it incorporated data from 12 million people — yes, 12 million people — in 120 studies.  In short, this wasn’t one of those phony little social science type studies based upon 25 or 30 college students.

And while the tv newscasters spun the study to say as little as one glass of wine, beer or spirits a day can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer by 5%, they barely mentioned the other major takeaway in the study:  Vigorous exercise reduces the risk of breast cancer — by as much as 10%.

In short, exercise cancels the increased risk of breast cancer that comes from drinking wine.

But not just any exercise, the study says.  Vigorous exercise.  Ideally as much as 10 to 19 hours a week, which cuts the risk by 30%.

Ten to 19 hours a week!! OMG!!  How are we ever expected to do this?  I  can here you now.  After all, we all live very, very full lives.

Well, 10 to 19 is ideal.  But you don’t have to do the ideal to get meaningful benefits from exercise.  Some exercise is better than no exercise.  And you can exercise and pray at the same time.

Peggy Bowes, an Air Force Academy grad and former instructor pilot, wrote a book on this.  The Rosary Workout details how to begin with baby steps and develop a significant exercise routine all while praying the Rosary.  I recommend it highly.  (She has a description here.)

And in 2005, Chris Matthews on CNBC told how “Patti Lechner, like many of today’s busy moms, starts her day at 5 a.m. with some exercise. But in her case, things are a bit different: In her right hand, a rosary ring is also getting a steady workout. Patti is a devout Catholic and a member of Opus Dei. And while she’s exercising her body, she says she’s also cleansing her soul.

“It is a morning ritual she won’t live without. As a supernumerary within Opus Dei and a mother of six kids, she prays every chance she gets.”

So no more excuses.  Take a hint from Patti Lechner and Peggy Bowes and get that exercise — and pray while you are doing so.

And yes, watch that alcohol intake.  A glass a day for women, two for men is considered ideal.

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Bread and Water Fasting

It’s Lent, and that means some people are thinking about extreme penances, such as bread and water fasting.  The concept is being popularized by such projects as Nineveh 90, which calls for participants to do a bread and water/juice fast on Wednesday and Friday, and Flame of Love, which calls for bread-and-water fasting on Monday.

Between my cardiologist, who put me on a 1400-calories-a-day diet and the Confraternity of Penitents, whose members fast throughout Lent, I do plenty of fasting.

But I thought I’d try the bread-and-water routine a couple of days a week.  I chose Wednesday and Friday, following Nineveh 90.  Bread-and-water fits within the CFP requirements of no meat on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

A couple of definitions:  “Bread” means any bread — croissant, whole wheat, Wonder, bagel, SuperPretzel, etc. — without anything else . . . no butter, no jam, no nothing.  Just bread.  Cold bread.

“Water” means plain water.  Not sparkling water.  Not flavored water.  Not VitaminWater.  Just water.

My conclusion after four weeks:  You won’t starve on a bread-and-water fast for a couple of days a week.  In fact, you’re likely not to feel at all hungry; if anything, you run the risk of constipation.

So what’s the penance?  There’s no enjoyment.  Most of the time, when we eat, we can savor the taste of steak, fish, or various vegetables.  But bread is bread.  It’s pretty much the same.  Not much difference in the flavor, no savory aromas.  And water is water.  It’s not coffee, with that wonderful smell.  It’s not Diet Coke, with that tangy taste and carbonation.  It’s just plain water.


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Lent Is a Penitential Season. What’s Penance?

Lent is a penitential season, the church tells us.  Some churchmen bemoan the fact that what we do during Lent nowadays seems minor compared to what our ancestors in the faith did.

It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that American Catholics were expected to abstain from meat not just on Fridays but every weekday during Lent.  Before that, Catholics were expected also to abstain from eggs, milk, butter and cheese throughout Lent.   Thus, the concept that Lent is a penitential season was driven home to all practicing Catholics.

That’s a far cry from today.  The more relaxed practice has probably led to the erosion of the concept of Lent as a penitential season.  So what is penance, anyway?

Having spent three years in formation with the Confraternity of Penitents, I think I’m starting to get the idea.  I don’t guarantee that I’m 100% correct — but I do think I’m much more correct than I am incorrect.

Simply put, penance is giving up something good for something better.

So, for instance, over the second year of CFP formation, one learns to devote 90 minutes a day, every day, to prayer.  This necessarily means one gives up something to make room for those 90 minutes:  Maybe it’s watching dramas on TV, maybe it’s playing tennis, maybe it’s hanging out with friends at a bar.  None of these are bad things in themselves, but prayer is a better thing.  So one gives those up in order to pray, which is a far better thing.

In the third year, one learns to fast for extended periods — roughly 50 days before Christmas and 40 days before Easter.  No question that food is good!  But as one reduces the amount of food taken, one is reminded that we are dependent upon God for the things that sustain our life, and to have empathy (and pray for) those who don’t have enough to eat, whether it’s a result of poverty, war, drought or other causes.  Remembering our dependence upon God’s mercy is a better thing than stuffing ourselves with the third helping of steak.

So that’s it in a nutshell:  Penance is simply giving up something good for something far better.

If you’re ready to consider giving up something good for something much better this Lent, why not consider exploring the Confraternity of Penitents, Opus Dei, Benedictine Oblates, Order of Malta, or  Secular Carmelites?

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Weekend Reading

Sports and the Christian Life

With the Olympics under way, Cardinal Wuerl links the values of sport to our lives as everyday Catholic Christians.  Well worth reading.

Forgive others and find peace, pope says at Assisi

I can personally testify to the correctness of this observation.

Summer Excursions: Encountering the Sacred at the National Gallery of Art

What if I’m Hit by a Truck?

Training prepares church for terrorism, shootings and other disasters

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Book Review: The Seven Deadly Sins

You may have heard of the Seven Deadly Sins, but it’s a fair guess that if you were catechized anytime after 1971 you can’t name them, must less describe them — or recognize how they apply to your life.

That’s one very good reason to get The Seven Deadly Sins by Kevin Vost.

Based on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Vost gives us both a history of the deadly sins in scripture and a battle plan to vanquish them from our lives.  Want to know how to slash sloth, end envy, abolish avarice, vanquish vainglory, gut gluttony, level lust or rout wrath?  You’ll find the answer in this book.

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Mortification and Credit Cards

Yesterday’s reading in “In Conversation with God” focused on the concept of mortifications, of “taking up our cross” every day.

One possible mortification in this consumer society is to always pay cash.  Or, at any rate, use a payment method that draws directly against cash.

The problem with that, of course, is that in many respects credit cards are better than debit cards.  For the most part, if your account is hacked with a credit card your liability is no more than $50, whereas with a debit card, your bank account can be drained.

On top of that, credit cards offer some good rewards, while debit cards for the most part don’t.

There is a way around this conundrum:  Treat a credit card as if it was a debit card.  To do this, you would not send in simply the entire statement balance, but rather in the first month you’d send in enough to pay off the card if full plus  your anticipated spending for the next month.

After that first month, you need do nothing more than (1) check your balance regularly, just as you would do with a debit card, and (2) make sure that you never run up a charge without the money to cover it being already in your account.

Then you can choose what card has the best rewards, based upon your needs.

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An Insight into a Young Dorothy Day

When Pope Francis visited Washington a few months ago, he heaped praise on Dorothy Day, saying she was a “representative of the American people” with a “passion for justice.”

She was known as a liberal — some would say a socialist or communist.  And certainly she associated with many of the leading socialist and communist figures of the early 20th Century.

But a new book, Dorothy Day, Journalist 1916-1917, by Tom McDonogh focuses on just two years, 1916 and 1917, when she was a young journalist in Manhattan.  Certainly what she saw and wrote about in left-wing periodicals of the time would be enough to make a person tend toward socialism.

In her stories for The New York Call Day describes a miserable existence on the lower East Side.  She knew the existence because she lived it, although it appears she didn’t need to.  But the difference between sympathy and pity is to understand the precariousness of the working poor, for whom unemployment, sickness or starvation could plunge a family into destitution and starvation.

It’s a worthwhile book for those seeking to understand lower-class life in New York City around the time of World War I and well as for those seeking to understand why Dorothy Day became such an advocate for the poor.

The economy under the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama make this book particularly relevant for out times.



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Brain Scans Reveal 1st Physical Evidence AA Prayers Reduce Cravings

How important is prayer?  A new study gives dramatic evidence that prayer isn’t simply a “spiritual” activity, but one that can have real impacts on people’s lives.  The study may explain how the Lord’s Prayer to “lead us not into temptation” works.

 (Photo by Flickr user Andy via Creative Commons license)

(Photo by Flickr user Andy via Creative Commons license)

In the first study to explore brain physiology in AA members, researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center found that members who recited AA prayers after viewing drinking-related images reported less craving for alcohol after praying than after just reading a newspaper.

The reduced craving in those that prayed corresponded to increased activity in brain regions responsible for attention and emotion as measured by MRI, according to study results published recently in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

“Our findings suggest that the experience of AA over the years had left these members with an innate ability to use the AA experience—prayer in this case―to minimize the effect of alcohol triggers in producing craving,” says senior author Marc Galanter, MD, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse at NYU Langone. “Craving is diminished in long-term AA members compared to patients who have stopped drinking for some period of time but are more vulnerable to relapse.”

The study results revolve around craving, one of the criteria physicians use to diagnose addiction. Such strong desires can persist even in addicted people who no longer use alcohol or drugs, and AA members recite abstinence-promoting prayers to reduce cravings.

“We wanted to determine what is going on in the brain in response to alcohol-craving triggers, such as passing by a bar or experiencing something upsetting, when long-term AA members are exposed to them,” Dr. Galanter says.

To investigate, Dr. Galanter and his colleagues recruited 20 long-term AA members who reported no cravings for alcohol during the week preceding testing. The participants were placed in an MRI scanner and then shown either pictures of alcoholic drinks or people drinking to simulate drinking behavior in a laboratory setting.

The pictures were presented twice: first after asking the participant to read neutral material from a newspaper, and again after the participant recited an AA prayer promoting abstinence from alcohol to represent the impact of AA.

According to the study authors, all research subjects reported some degree of craving for alcohol after viewing the images, and less craving after reciting an AA prayer.

MRI data revealed that there were changes in parts of the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that controls attention, and in brain sites responsible for control of emotion and the semantic reappraisal of emotion, which represents the different ways a people understand situations based on their perspectives.

“This finding suggests that there appears to be an emotional response to alcohol triggers, but that it’s experienced and understood differently when someone has the protection of the AA experience,” Galanter says.

In Galanter’s decade-long research into the role of spirituality in long-term AA members, he and his colleagues have found that members undergo a transition from initially craving alcohol to a new status where they reported little or no craving.

This reduction in craving, according to Dr. Galanter, is associated with the amount of time that passed following a “spiritual awakening” in AA, which marks a transition to a different attitude toward drinking.

Previous investigations by other researchers of the role of prayer on drinking behavior found that alcohol abusers who reported a spiritual awakening drank less after treatment for alcoholism. Research participants assigned to engage in prayer—unrelated to drinking—every day for four weeks drank about half as much as those who were not.

“Our current findings open up a new field of inquiry into physiologic changes that may accompany spiritual awakening and perspective changes in AA members and others,” says Galanter. He says the study results also support the validity of a long-term AA experience in terms of physiologic changes in the brain.

In early 2016, Oxford University Press published Dr. Galanter’s book What Is Alcoholics Anonymous?, which provides context for his group’s studies of the psychological affects of AA.

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Praying with Opus Dei — The ‘Norms of Piety’

As I noted last week, with St. Josemaria Escriva was developing the Norms of Piety observed by members of Opus Dei, it was almost impossible for a layperson to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.  To start with, the Divine Office was in Latin.  Secondly, back in the 1930s we lacked smartphones, tablets, etc., all of which make it possible to avoid the use of a Breviary.

So St. Josemaria came up with Norms of Piety that enabled Opus Dei members and others to have an intense prayer life with the aid of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Let’s look at its components:

  • A Morning Offering
  • Mental Morning Prayer of 15 to 30 minutes
  • Mass
  • Visit to the Blessed Sacrament
  • Reading the New Testament
  • Angelus
  • Holy Rosary
  • Mental Afternoon Prayer of 15 to 30 minutes
  • Spiritual Reading
  • Examination of Conscience, Three Hail Marys for purity before going to bed

You can see how one could take these elements and develop a daily routine incorporating them:

  • Upon arising, Morning Offering
  • After making a cup of tea, Read New Testament for 3 to 5 minutes, use that text as the basis for Morning Prayer.
  • Daily Mass
  • Visit to the Blessed Sacrament at noon or after work
  • Angelus at noon
  • 30 minutes of afternoon prayer after work, before or dinner, based upon today’s spiritual reading
  • Examination of Conscience, Three Hail Marys for purity before going to bed

Hopefully, this three-part series has helped you see how you could develop a vigorous prayer life anchored around the other activities of your day.

Some people, of course, have additional opportunities for prayer.  A nurse or doctor, for instance, could do a short prayer or aspiration, before seeing each patient.

It is worth making the effort to develop a throughout-the-day prayer routine, to anchor it to other things you do.  But it is also important not to try it all at once.  If you are just starting out do just one thing.  Then next month, add one more thing until you finally have a complete routine that works for you in the way you live your life.

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