Visiting Beautiful Churches

inside of gothic church paintingIf there’s one thing the Church doesn’t quite understand today, it’s the role of beauty in worship. While I appreciate the simplification of the liturgy and its translation into English, I still feel we’ve lost a lot of the mystery and beauty in our worship services (and where they’re held) today.

And, the beauty we’ve lost is most evident in the way we design churches. And it’s not just the Protestant mega-churches that are designed with no sense of reverence. Even many Catholic parishes have designed worship spaces rather than true churches that inspire beauty and awe.

Visiting beautiful churches has always been one of my favorite activities on trips, especially to larger cities. However, it’s kind of a shame that a person has to travel to see majestic Catholic churches. There was a time when every town had a beautiful church that inspired wonder and mystery.

But, in today’s reality, sometimes visiting beautiful churches requires some travel. It’s an activity I recommend, especially if you are on vacation or can get away. You don’t even have to attend worship services, just walk in the church, admire the beauty, and pray/meditate.

Sometimes shrines are even better than simple churches. They are often designed with beauty in mind and even have important, even miraculous, events attached to them. It’s quite meditative to pray in these places, knowing that God has touched the shrine in some special way.

So, if you are on vacation or are close to beautiful churches, it is a fun and fulfilling day activity to go out and visit these churches. It’s always refreshing to pray and meditate in places of extreme beauty. It’s a nice vacation idea to ground yourself in your faith while you’re away from home.

Five Different Types of Prayer

A grave marker with a woman prayingPrayer is an important part of Christianity. In fact, since prayer is ultimately communication with God, it is probably the most important thing Christians should be doing on a daily basis (keeping in mind too, that the Eucharist is a type of prayer too).

Below are five types of prayer that you can, and should, use in your regular prayer life.

Petition (Intercession)

This is praying for others, and their needs. It is probably the most common type, and even non-believers sometimes do it!

A part of the Mass is devoted specifically to this type of prayer, in which we pray for our leaders, the community, and those who have died. Jesus says that we will receive what we ask for in faith. This is a call to offer up our needs and the needs of other people.

Thanksgiving

A natural outgrowth of what God does for us is gratitude. A thanksgiving prayer expresses our gratitude for God, his actions,  and his traits. Many Psalms are devoted entirely to expressing gratitude for God’s goodness.

Penitential

An important part of the Judeo-Christian tradition is asking forgiveness and expressing sorrow for our sins. Psalm 51 is a perfect example of an entire chapter of Scripture devoted to this. Many Catholics will pray a penitential prayer at the end of each day, recalling areas they have fallen short of God’s holiness. In the Mass, the confiteor is a penitential prayer.

Blessing

This is praying or intending something good for someone else. The Latin word is benediction, which means to “speak well of.” Priests bless things by the nature of their ordination, but laypersons can ask blessings upon things. Traditionally, this time of year priests will bless chalk for use in blessing one’s home.

Adoration

Contemplating the goodness and nature of God naturally leads to us giving God glory and praise. Many biblical writers spontaneously adore God, as should we.

The Power of Gratitude: Express Your Thanks Today

A Tabernacle on an altarIf you have been on Facebook or other social media recently, you know that everybody seems to be listing things they are grateful for. This is a good trend, as I have seen very negative people finally begin to look at life differently. As Christians, we have always been big on gratitude. In fact, it is the basis of our faith. Let me explain.

The word eucharist means “thanksgiving” in Greek. For Catholics, the center of our faith, the “sacrament of sacraments” is literally called “Gratitude.” Thus, when we are receiving the body and blood of Christ in communion, we are offering our “thanksgiving,” but what does this even mean?

As Christians, we have a lot to be thankful for. In fact, we have the only thing that really matters to be thankful for, salvation through Jesus Christ. Thus, when we offer our thanks and praise during the Mass, we are thankful for the mystery of Christ, and his redemption of humanity.

But…our gratitude doesn’t stop there. When we connect to the love Christ has for us, and “live” the Eucharist, the natural result is gratitude toward others. This means that true love of God and neighbor must have a strong gratitude component. Is it possible to show love without having gratitude? If I say I love someone, but am not grateful for them, what kind of love is it?

Yet, as humans we find expressing gratitude difficult, especially to those that treat us the best. As a teacher, I have rarely had a student thank me for teaching them, until many years later. Even though they say all kinds of great things about me in the present, I never receive a “thank you” until way after the fact. The same is true of parents. I haven’t ever heard a child thank a parent for all their hard work, until years later. Even Jesus encountered this strange attitude, when he healed 10 lepers. Only one showed up to express his gratitude. Maybe it is embarrassment, but either way, our ability to feel and express gratitude can be strangely limited at times.

However, my suggestion is that we take a lesson from the Eucharist, where we freely express our gratitude to God. Don’t wait to share your gratitude for others. A simple “thanks” may be all that is necessary, but for most people, explaining why you are grateful is a good idea. Thank the people that have helped make you the person you are today. Send a note to a former teacher. Tell your pastor how thankful you are. Let your mom or dad know how grateful you are. Send a brief email to an author or musician that has touched you. And, of course, regularly express your gratitude to God himself, through the Eucharist and regular prayers. We have some thanksgiving prayers that may be helpful in this regard.

Practicing Friday Penance

Image of Jesus on the crossFridays in the Catholic Church have traditionally been a day of penance. It’s a practice that dates to the early Church, when Fridays, in addition to other days of the week, were specifically devoted to fasting. The Catholic Catechism specifically notes Fridays throughout the year are in memory of Christ’s death.

Specifically, on Fridays, the Church asks its members to engage in “spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1438)

Traditionally, Catholics have abstained from non-fish meat every Friday throughout the year. However, in some regions, including the United States, the bishops have allowed alternatives to the abstinence requirement, except during Lent. The Catechism, as quoted in the last paragraph, spells out nice alternatives.

While abstaining from meat may be preferable and is certainly the traditional practice, it’s acceptable in some places to do any wholesome practice that involves some form of penance. A few things I’ve done in the past include:

Reading the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, or other theologians
Saying a few penitential prayers or litanies. Doing an act of charity
Praying the rosary, chaplet, etc.
Making a pilgrimage to local churches or shrines

While there are options in some places, what ultimately matters is that we do a penitential act and commit ourselves to greater union with the crucifixion and sacrifice of Christ.

The Sacramental Character of Nature and Catholic Natural Revelation

A fall sceneThe Church teaches that we can know some things about God through natural revelation (or natural theology). This means that a person can look around them and reasonably conclude that there is a God. We can also learn some things about God from nature, which is that he is beautiful and rational. We cannot learn everything about God from nature, and thus we still need divine revelation.

Unfortunately, nature sometimes gets a bad rap among Christians. Obviously, some view nature in a non-Christian way, such as worshiping it or believing it to be God. Others are so extreme in their views of nature, they denigrate the role of humans. Some Christians overreact and make their fellow Christians feel bad about encountering God in nature, or working to conserve our environment.

However, respecting and loving nature is fine, because nature is sacramental. Obviously, Catholics believe in seven sacraments proper, but we can also speak of nature having a sacramental character, because it is a way in which we can encounter God. The ancient Gnostics (and there are some modern ones too!) believed the material world was evil, and that the goal of the enlightened Christian was to escape this evil material world, created by the evil god. Catholics have asserted that the material world is good, and that God uses his good creation for his purposes.

Thus, a Catholic can love nature, because it is part of God’s good creation, and is a tool to know God. When God became human in Jesus the entire course of creation changed. This is why sometimes when I would hike in the winter, I would pick up some snow and refer to it as “redeemed snow.”  So, go out and pray in nature. Connect to God’s good creation, and get to know the Creator a little better through it!

The Nicene Creed

Every week Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and other Christians recite the Nicene Creed at the Mass (liturgy). The Nicene Creed is an ancient expression of the Christian faith that, in essence, affirms that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct in some way, yet all equally God (in substance/essence). It was written in part against a heresy called Arianism, named after Arius of Alexander, a priest who denied Jesus was God. The end part about the Holy Spirit was added later in the 4th century, at the Council of Constantinople, to address those who denied the Holy Spirit was fully God.

Today, the debate seems kind of remote (Arius believed Jesus could be called “god” but not “true god”, and that the Son and Father were of a similar substance, as opposed to the same substance), but there are still those that would suggest Jesus is only a good man or even an angel (as the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe). The creed also contains information related to the historical life of Jesus, and is not simply metaphysical speculation (as is sometimes leveled against it).

For more detailed information, check out The Nicene Creed: Ancient Symbol of the Catholic Faith from our sister site, Ancient and Future Catholics.