Life

The Magic of Living

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What am I doing here? Is this all to life? Sitting in my work cubicle these thoughts occasionally cross my mind. Struggling with the daily routine of work and family life, my mind tends to wander off toward fantasy. I think part it is it due to a desire to escape my mundane situation. Reading fantasy allows me to attain that escapism while remaining in the comfort of my living room. After putting my children to bed and waiting for my wife to return from errand-running, I had some free time to read. Picking up Chesterton’s Orthodoxy I spent about twenty minutes navigating his semi-autobiographical work. Suddenly, I stopped at a passage from his fourth chapter entitled The Ethics of Elfland. The great English wordsmith writes, “I have said that stories of magic alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege” (Orthodoxy p. 54).

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In other words, life is not something to be merely enjoyed via self-gratification, but rather my existence on this earth should be viewed through the lens of privilege—life is a free gift. My children point to this reality, often lost as we reach adulthood, that life should be joyful. The strangeness and idiosyncrasies of the universe should be something to revel in, not quake at the seeming despair when we encounter things and events that do not fit our controlled world. On the other end of the adult’s worldview is perceiving re-occurrence as a bad thing or something to be avoided. Chesterton put it this way,

All towering materialism which dominates the modern world rest ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation known to fact…A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue…For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony, It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon (Orthodoxy pp. 50-51).

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Wonder and awe stems from the ability be amazed at creation even if it is the hundredth or thousandth time viewing a starry night or noticing a bird gathering straw for her nest. Children possess the magic of living—the ability to love life despite doing the same activity over and over again. Monotony, dullness, and lethargy did not enter the vocabulary of the youth. Chesterton reminded me that I need to return to my youth. I need to jettison the false assumption that repetition is inherently bad and variety alone leads to life!

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I need not enter the Pevensie’s wardrobe, or a supernatural rabbit hole, or even run headfirst toward a brick-wall on an English train station between platforms 9 and 10 [although I did visit this fictional landmark during my trip to Europe!! 🙂 ]. Instead, I am able to encounter magic in this life by visiting my children’s closet as I gaze at the array of Lego men and women scattered in an apparent random order on top of, within, and under the closet shelves. What adventures are they going on today? I can also lower myself to the level of my youngest son as his eyes open with joy at the sound of the door opening. He enjoys leaving in the morning as he gets to meander outside and gaze at the wheels of my car. How incredibly simple, yet fulfilling would life be if I approached every day as a magical experience? The life of children is akin to that of our Divine Creator—they do not get bogged down by the monotony [apparent monotony that is] in this world. I ask for the Holy Spirit to enliven my soul to view any dullness and routine in my life as a gift!

***Perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony, It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon”***

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3 Things “The Hobbit of the New Testament” Taught Me

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Memory is a profound thing. Certain images, events, and facts stick with us over time and become housed in our long-term memory. Remembrance is the act of recalling past events through memory. Much of the Catholic Church’s sacramental life is founded on memorializing events from the Gospels. During the Last Supper, Jesus stated, “Do this in memory of me.” When I taught New Testament at a Catholic high school, I unconsciously created a memory regarding the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. I united my love of literature with love of scripture by referring to Zacchaeus as “the hobbit of the New Testament”. Students chuckled at this provisional quip. The former tax collector was described as a short man who needed to climb a tree to view Jesus’ arrival in his town. J.R.R. Tolkien once described his creations as,

I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which allows them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.

Linking the minor character in Luke’s Gospel to hobbits helped forge a permanent memory of Luke 19:1-10 within me. In the years following this mnemonic device, I frequently recall the life of Zacchaeus and Jesus’ mercy whenever I see anything related to The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Below are three things I learned from “The hobbit of the New Testament”

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  1. Persistence pays off: Zacchaeus could not initially see Jesus as he entered Jericho. Instead of letting his short stature prevent him from seeing the Messiah, St. Luke tells us, “So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way (Luke 19:4). Imagine a grown man scurrying up a tree or pole to see a local celebrity, politician, or other important figure. In today’s age of social media I bet someone would certainly go to Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube over such strange behavior. Climbing up a tree indicates not the strangeness of Zacchaeus, but rather his persistence and recognition that Jesus was someone important! The short man in Luke is definitely a role model for me in showing that my faith life is a constant work in progress.

 

  1. Jesus Chooses the Imperfect: Along with Zacchaeus’ persistence, the tale of the hobbit of the New Testament demonstrates that Jesus loves the imperfect and calls the sinner to follow him. Not only did Zacchaeus struggle to physically see Jesus among the crowd, he also had an occupation despised by his fellow countrymen—he was a tax collector! According to Luke, the crowd hated Jesus’ invitation to Zacchaeus by stating, “When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner (Luke 19:7)” Personally, I need to be reminded that Jesus dined with sinners— the spiritually infirmed. I struggle with the sin of pride. I battle with being judgmental. Luke 19:1-10 gives me perspective that God’s love is ultimately above my total comprehension. God’s love is transformative as well. The “hobbit of the New Testament” was changed after his encounter with Jesus. “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over,Zacchaeus stated (Luke 19:8).

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  1. Do not let Limitations Prevent You from Growing: A final point Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus taught me is that spiritual growth is possible despite my limitations and past failures. Jesus welcomed sinners and culturally ostracized groups with grace and forgiveness. Oftentimes, I use my limitations—my low patience with my kids, my OCD, and struggles with pride—as an excuse to put off growing in my spiritual life. Zacchaeus’ transformation in the presence of Jesus gives me hope that I am able to change too.

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J.R.R. Tolkien once said, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” Certainly that is true for his Lord of the Rings trilogy where the bearer of Sauron’s ring is the simple hobbit Frodo. Zacchaeus, like, the hobbits of Middle Earth, provided change in the course of the future—for sure my future! I took to Zacchaeus, a figure who was not only physically limited, but spiritually limited who saw something transformative and attractive in Jesus. Scaling a sycamore tree, Zacchaeus did not let the possible danger of falling or others’ perceptions of him stop him from gazing at our Lord. I ask for fortitude from the Holy Spirit to allow me to boldly seek Jesus just as the hobbit of the New Testament intrepidly sought after God.

***“I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” –J.R.R. Tolkien***

Wonder of the Youth

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The great American poet Maya Angelou said, “Most people don’t grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children, and call that maturity. What that is, is aging.” Aging is a universal problem. Adults lose a sense of wonder with the world. We arrive on the job scene after our schooling years and get sucked into the maelstrom of monotony. I definitely feel like I my spirit of wonder and awe dulled over the course of time. But does that need to happen? Is it possible to return to child-like wonder? Is it possible to be young again while aging? Let me put forth three examples of activities that reignite my imaginative spark and curiosity about the world.

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1. See anything [and everything] as new: As curious individual, growing up I tended in see freshness to nearly every aspect of life. I intellectually devoured information with an endless appetite. Subjects that fascinated me [and still do to this day] included: geography, animals, board games, baseball, colors, science, history, literature, words, order of the world, space travel, and time travel to name just a few.

The adult version of myself still maintains enjoyment on learning about those topics. Difficulty arises with the need to balance, family life, work, volunteering, and hobbies. Thankfully, I have made it a point to read at least 30 minutes a day after my family goes to sleep. Currently, I am learning about Darth Vader’s ascension to power as the Emperor’s galactic general in James Lucano’s Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader. Entering the fictional universe of Star Wars reawakens the wonder of my childhood. I feel like I am learning constantly about the characters—old and new alike—and enjoy learning about the wondrous possibilities of space travel! I strongly encourage you to experience the wonder in the written world of fiction. Wonder abounds in a book. To quote Levar Burton, “You don’t have to take my word for it!”

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2. All work and no play…makes Jack a dull boy: There are variations of this old adage. All share the same theme—too much work leads to drudgery and stress. As a committed workaholic I am far too familiar with the dangers of not making time for recreation. God foresaw the need for rest and recreation in humanity’s life on earth. According to Genesis chapter 2, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.”

Following this biblical principle, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states, “For Christians, Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is a special day consecrated to the service and worship of God. It is a unique Christian festival. It is “the day the Lord has made” (Ps. 117 (118):24). Its nature is holy and joyful. Sunday is the day on which we believe God acted decisively to liberate the world from the tyranny of sin, death, and corruption through the Holy Resurrection of Jesus.” Oftentimes, I fail as a parent to promote play [and engage in playful activities with my children]. My son and daughter excitedly rushed to our front lawn and jumped in jubilation at the yellow-tinged leaves newly fallen. “Let’s get into the car, I am going to be late for work!” is my default reply lately. I was a curmudgeon, the very person I did not want to be as a father. All work and no play makes me a dull Catholic, a dull husband, and a dull father.

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3. The Golden-Rule leads to true riches: The good news is that every day is a new start. I went to Confession this week. I received the sacramental graces to sharpen my awareness to God’s activity in my kids, friends, wife, and family. When I treat others with respect [i.e. FOLLOW THE GOLDEN RULE] I acquire riches beyond the value of physical gold—I attain joy and a spirit of gratitude. My penance for my confession was to reflect on the gifts God has given me. The priest urged me to grow my gifts and not worry about others’ gifts that I previously envied. Through prayer and advice from other people, I have realized that one of my God-given gifts is writing. Confession and a mindset of thankfulness reignite my desire to write—the past few weeks I have struggled with laziness and have not written enough!

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Life is full of periods where you feel aged, dull, and simply lethargic. This became a problem in my life when habitual laziness and dismal attitude became the norm. I ask for your continued prayers to support me in my journey toward a joyful life. Today I re-commit myself to act as God’s instrument in hope to provide a glimmer of hope and light into you [my readers] daily living!

Do I Deserve Anything?

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“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough,” Oprah Winfrey once said. Life is fleeting. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are proof of this fact. While I have not been directly impacted by these super storms I see the results. I have a cousin who lives in southeast Texas and had to leave because of Harvey. I work assisting people with mortgages who have suffered property loss from Irma. Seeing the photos from my family member and hearing the strife my clients undergo make my issues small.

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Over the past several months, I battled the sin of complaining. I whined over simple things: kids messing up the house, co-workers annoying me, routine bills, etc. You name it and I probably complained. I am not happy or proud that I engaged in such behavior, but that was who I was recently. The stress and negativity grew and grew. Finally, I went to Confession this weekend. According to St. Augustine, “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” The saints words ring true. During the last few days, I experienced a shift in mentality. Instead of thinking, “I need _____” or “I deserve ______ to happen “phrases such as “How I may help?” or “Life is a gift” become more natural for me to reflect on.

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Receiving a new start on my path towards holiness, through the sacrament of Confession, I experience a clearer sight of the truly important things in life. Counting my blessings and donning an attitude of gratefulness became more natural after I received the graces to forgive in the theological medicine box. Do I deserve anything? I pondered this question a lot yesterday and today.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1999, “The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification.” The dictionary defines gratuitous as given or done free of charge. God needs nothing in return. Life is a blessing. God’s grace sustains me. I cannot add or take away from God’s power and authority. Do I deserve anything? No, as a selfish creature before our wonderful Creator I did not deserve anything. Why am I given such blessings? The answer is that God’s freely chooses to love me and lavish gifts on his adopted children.

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Do I deserve anything? No, I am a sinful, narrow-minded person. Through the grace I received in the Sacrament of Confession, God reminds me that just because I am not entitled to the blessings in my life do not mean that He will take them away. The trials, sufferings, blessings, and joy are all part of my life to help me grow in holiness. How do I combat an attitude of privilege? I need to don the cloaks of humility and gratitude. I will close this reflection with lyrics to Your Grace is Enough by Matt Maher:

Great is your faithfulness oh God of Jacob
You wrestle with the sinner’s restless heart
You lead us by still waters into mercy
When nothing can keep us apart

So remember your people
Remember your children
Remember your promise, oh God

For Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough for me

Great is your love and justice God of Jacob
You use the weak to lead the strong
You lead us in the song of heaven’s victory
And all your people sing along

So remember your people
Remember your children
Remember your promise, oh God

For Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough

For Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough for me

So remember your people
Remember your children
Remember your promise, oh God

For Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough

For Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough
Yeah Your grace is enough for me

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A Letter to the Downtrodden

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Dear Fellow Souls and Pilgrims on this Earthly Journey,

Hopelessness seems to cover the world. Hurricane Harvey decimated large parts of Houston. South Asia continues to experience chronic flooding. People suffer across the globe in large and small ways. Today, I wish to share my recent episodes of depression, I am not writing to complain about my situation, rather I hope to unite my suffering [albeit quite small in comparison to others] to others in great need. I want to be in communion with my fellow man. According to Helen Keller, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” I cannot grow as a decent human being without learning from the school of suffering.

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Depression hit me again the past few weeks. Similar to an ocean, anxiety and sadness move in waves with brief periods of respite before the next deluge of depression comes crashing onto my shore. I feel a sense of hopelessness. What is going on with my life to trigger these feelings? To be frank, I am not sure. Life appears to be going well: I have an amazing wife, family, good shelter, and a job. I had a recent change in anxiety medicine and changes are occurring rather frequently at work. Still, these concerns should be minor compared to people suffering loss due to the recent natural disasters. Depression shrinks my perspective. I see through narrower glasses.

Perhaps, you are similar to me. If you suffer from depression, whether it is severe or mild I want to unite myself to your suffering. I wish to take up my cross if only it may help widen my scope. Prying open a narrow gaze is painful. However, authentic and natural development involves growing pains. If you are downtrodden, as I am currently, share your experience. Talk with people you trust. Talk to God—it works. Prayer is effective because it is communication with Him who created the universe. Oftentimes, I need to fall unto my knees and become downtrodden before I am able to gaze upward in prayer. Saint Mother Teresa once said, “Joy is prayer; joy is strength: joy is love; joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”

Although, I know my depression may likely come back again, I am aware of a strength to get me through the valley of tears—prayer. Prayer ultimately leads me toward an even-keeled path in my pilgrim journey on earth.

With great love and hope to alleviate your downtrodden soul,

Matt

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A Simple Catholic Man’s Pursuit of a Joyous Life- Part 1

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Well, I achieved what I thought was the impossible for myself—completing my 100th blog post! Filled with lows, highs, and average experiences, a transformation occurred within my faith life over the course of the past several months. To be honest, as I mulled the title of my hundredth post for many weeks—an anxiety set in. I thought, “What if the title is not perfect or how will I capture the most views?” In the end, the Holy Spirit, I felt, truly inspired me to settle on a title I had the entire time—hidden in the recesses of my mind. It was also existed in plain sight as the subtitle of this blog. A Simple Catholic Man’s Pursuit of a Joyous Life is the most honest and real way to describe my writing over the course these past few months. Struggling with inner conflict, depression, while achieving successes, gaining insight from the Holy Spirit, and living through mundane daily routine has shown me that joy is not an instantaneous attainment. Rather, finding true joy takes an entire lifetime.

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According to my favorite modern day philosopher Peter Kreeft, joy is to be distinguished from mere happiness. He states in his work Joy, “Joy is more than happiness, just as happiness, is more than pleasure. Pleasure is in the body. Happiness is in the mind and feelings. Joy is deep in the heart, the spirit, the center of the self…St. Thomas says, ‘No man can live without joy’”. The Boston College professor is most certainly right—at least based off of my experiences. Life experiences have taught me more than books or a formal education on the subject of joy. I learned that suffering when encountered against the armor of faith and prayer, instead of destroying my being, I experience joy—I encounter the person of Jesus Christ.

C.S. Lewis talks about the elusive nature of joy in this life in his work Surprised by Joy. Lewis states, “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’.” I would definitely say that Lewis is on to something. I find momentary joy on my pilgrim journey towards Heaven, but it is not lasting. No matter my successes, both worldly and spiritual, I still long for something greater than any award, pleasure, or spiritual consolation I have received.

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Without re-hashing my pursuit toward a joyous life in grand detail and boring you with the minutiae or writing pages upon pages I will share my top five most joyful moments I experienced since my journey began. Please feel free to read [or re-read] and share these posts via the links below. My ardent goal is to reflect Christ’s light daily in hopes to providing joy for a least one soul each day.

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1. A Letter to Jeremiah- https://mattchicoine.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/a-letter-to-jeremiah/ 

2. Lewis, Tolkien, and the Creative Power of Music- https://mattchicoine.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/lewis-tolkien-and-the-creative-power-of-music/ 

3. Why Wearing the Armor of Weakness Makes Me Stronger- https://mattchicoine.wordpress.com/2017/07/15/why-wearing-armor-of-weakness-makes-me-stronger/ 

4. Organized Chaos or Chaotic Order: Which Do I Prefer?- https://mattchicoine.wordpress.com/2017/05/25/organized-chaos-or-chaotic-order-which-do-i-prefer/ 

5. Sweat, Stress, and Shenanigans: Why Do I Even Take the Kids to Sunday Mass- https://mattchicoine.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/sweat-stress-and-shenanigans-why-do-i-even-take-the-kids-to-sunday-mass/

Joy occurred when I learned of the will of God and acted in obedience to the Father’s plan. While God’s providence may not always feel like a thing to go after, what I have learned is that joy is beyond feeling. Kreeft tells us,

Every time I have ever said yes to God with something even slightly approaching the whole of my soul, every time I have not only said “Thy will be done” but meant it, loved it, longed for it – I have never failed to find joy and peace at that moment. In fact, to the precise extent that I have said it and meant it, to exactly that extent have I found joy.

I will continue to pursue the joy of the Good News in my daily life. Sometimes I will feel defeat and desolation. Other times I will experience great moments of spiritual consolation. Neither end of the spectrum defines joy properly. Continual prayer and loving my fellow mankind are the truest signposts toward my pursuit toward a joyous life! Finally, I will take today to thank God for the endurance to write, patience to listen to the Holy Spirit, and opportunity to celebrate this little success in my life.

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3 Reasons Why My Life is like a Maze

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The great Chinese philosopher Confucius once said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” His words seemed geared especially for my ears. I tend to overthink and over analyze situations in my life. As a result, instead of simply living I conflate daily stresses into something bigger than need be. I started doing puzzles to help me deal with my anxiety. I also rediscovered my childhood love of maze puzzles. That got me thinking life is sort of like a maze. The dictionary defines the word maze as “a network of paths and hedges designed as a puzzle through which one has to find a way out”. A secondary definition for this word is when it is used as a verb: “to be dazed and confused”. I will incorporate both descriptions about mazes in my writing today. Here are three ways why my life lately is like a maze.

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1. Life is complex, yet beautifully simple: Life is a busy and complex event. As a parent of three children life grows greater in complexity: school is starting up shortly, bedtime routines need to be followed strictly, kids get sick, my wife is starting a new job, my job is ever-changing on a weekly basis. Life is complex. But does it have to be.

When I stop and reflect on my life all I truly need to do include: feeding my family and myself, providing a shelter, teaching my children, providing clothing, and helping my wife. Life is a paradox—it is both simple and complex. Matthew 6:25-34 tells of the simplicity in life and Jesus urges his followers [and us] not to worry as we will be provided for because the birds of the air and other creatures are cared for as well.

Mazes are both simple and complex. All mazes have a beginning and end—simple. However, each maze is unique in its level of complexity due to the amount of dead-ends and size—complex.

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2. Know the beginning and the end: According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, provides me clarity about the purpose and goal of this life.

The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for:

The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator. (CCC 27).

Through faith and science I know that the origin of the universe began with a omnipotent force—known to Christians as God. Witnesses of the saints’ lives, the teachings of the Catholic Church, and my faith inform me that death is not the end. Rather it is a springboard to a possible eternity with God. Life is like a maze in that it is book-ended with a clear start and finish. Why does the in between section [life] become complicated? Why do I find myself laboring through a labyrinth? The answer is simple—I forget the beginning and end goals of my puzzle that I call life.

3. Dot-to-dot living- perception or possibility?: Along with mazes, I enjoyed completing dot-to-dot puzzles in my elementary years. Having a son going into kindergarten this year has reminded me of these fun and simple type of games. Unlike mazes, dot-to-dots are straightforward—you simply start with the lowest number [or letter] dot and connect it to the next digit until the puzzle is complete. Oftentimes, I wish my life played out more like a dot-to-dot puzzles than a maze. I enjoy order and a linear pattern to living. Why does God allow life to exist in dot-to-dot manner? Why does He permit mazes caused by evil [personal and natural] to tangle up my life?

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I asked these questions during period of my deepest depression and intense suffering. Arriving on the other side of suffering, I came to realize both through experience and prayer that God allows mazes to develop in human life due to the gift of free will. Freedom is both the greatest gift and great challenge we face on a daily basis. I am free to try impose my control over this life and fashion it into dot-to-dot living or I am free to embrace the a[maze]ness of this life and learn to rely on others and God for help and support when I inevitably face apparent dead-ends in my spiritual life.

Centering my life on a proper order of love—God, family, friend, fellow men—provides stability. Instead of laboring through life’s labyrinth, embracing my maze allows me to live to the fullest. Saint John tells us of God’s enduring nature in Revelation 22:13, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, then beginning and the end.” When I view life through this sense I am able to incorporate Confucius’ teaching in daily living.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

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