Prayer

An Unexpected Journey- How September 21st, 2017 Became the New Start to my Spiritual Path

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Over the past few weeks, life has been throwing stress-filled curveballs at me. Reeling from anxiety, anger, and frustration, I recently went to the spiritual medicine box—Confession—to gain sacramental graces to help me grow in patience and perspective. I experienced a true transformation in my life this week in the days following my reconciliation with God, the Church, and my fellow man. September 21st, 2017 became a new launching point for my spiritual journey. Excited for this re-start on my path toward Christian holiness, I will provide a few reasons why this date holds a special place in my heart.

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1. Anniversary of the Publication of The Hobbit: Eighty years ago, on September 21st, 1937, The Hobbit—an essential item on any fantasy fan’s bookshelf—was published. Eight decades later the tale of J.R.R. Tolkien still instills wonder in its readers.

Regrettably, I did not explore Middle Earth until my mid-20s. Over the past five years, I have read The Hobbit twice and The Lord of the Rings trilogy once.

A true literary treasure is measured through its ability to stand the test of time. Nearly a century later, I would say that Tolkien’s work passes with flying colors. Characters within the story seem to speak directly to me. For instance, the dwarf Thorin tells Bilbo, “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” How easy is it for us to lose memory of the importance things in life? I forget fairly quickly. Tolkien reminds me to look for the hidden joys in my life. Perhaps, an unexpected journey is in store for me starting September 21st, 2017.

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2. Happy Holiness Day: Along with the anniversary of The Hobbit, September 21st is the feast day of my patron saint—St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. Before his “coming to God moment”, Matthew worked for the Roman equivalent of the IRS. Hatred of paying government taxes is an innate principle built into humanity. Palestine 30 A.D. was no different. What courage and faith it must have taken Matthew to leave his luxurious, high paying government job? Tax collectors were considered traitors to the Jewish people. They basically did the Roman government’s dirty work of extolling individuals for money. I always imaged how Matthew would fit in with Jesus’ motley crew of Apostles. Was he accepted right away? Did trust issues exist?

While such questions are purely speculative, but I find pondering the transition of Matthew from a hated tax collector to an evangelist helpful in my relationship with my patron saint. I too struggle to fit in at times, yet I am gifted with the ability to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ just like St. Matthew! September 21st is the beginning of my re-commitment to evangelize through my writing, family life, and volunteering at my parish. I hope to exhibit the same steadfast faith as Matthew did when Jesus said, “Follow me” (Luke 5:27).

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3. September of Sacraments: Together with my patron saint and favorite fantasy jubilees occurring on the same day, the month of September started as a transitional month for my family and I. My wife began a new job, our children started to get in the school routine, and changes galore occurred at work. Through the grace of God and ability in our hectic scheduling, and mostly due to my serious need for divine assistance I went to confession twice this month. During my first confession, the priests gave me this amazing penance—pray the Prayer of Humility. Humility is the virtue that stands in opposition to the vice of pride. Pride is what made the Devil fall from his celestial pedestal as God’s favored angel. Pride leads me to be an inferior version of myself. Let us briefly ask God for the gift of true and beautiful humility:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me. From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved… From the desire of being extolled … From the desire of being honored … From the desire of being praised … From the desire of being preferred to others… From the desire of being consulted … From the desire of being approved … From the fear of being humiliated … From the fear of being despised… From the fear of suffering rebukes … From the fear of being calumniated … From the fear of being forgotten … From the fear of being ridiculed … From the fear of being wronged … From the fear of being suspected …

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I … That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease … That others may be chosen and I set aside … That others may be praised and I unnoticed … That others may be preferred to me in everything… That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

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Unexpected journeys are difficult, but the joy attained through its travel is immeasurable. Jesus tells his disciples [and us], “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). God asks us each day is: will you follow me? Starting on September 21st, 2017, I said yes! I renewed my commitment to follow His lead. Will I continue on this path? I certainly hope so, only time will truly tell. I will close with the following exchange between the hobbit and wizard before the great journey:

Gandalf: I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.

Bilbo: I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them …

Gandalf: You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back

Bilbo: You can promise that I’ll come back?”

Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same

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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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Sacrament of Time

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My wife and I stood outside surrounded by our family and close friends at the local Catholic cemetery. It was a cool November afternoon. Gray clouds lined the sky and appeared to be about ready to burst at any moment. The priest from our parish recited the funeral rite. Throughout this process, my wife and I simply existed. I did not truly take in the meaning or fully process the prayers uttered by Fr. John. Instead, the world seemed to have frozen in silence—a horrific silence. We lost our unborn son Jeremiah. The event of our miscarriage immediately effected and crippled my wife. For me, despair and desolation did not actually set in until several months later. I spiraled into a deep depression. I wrestled with belief in a good and generous God. I doubted my Creator’s providence and presence. Hope seemed futile.

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Fast forward almost 2 years; this event has been without question the turning point of my life [so far]! According to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you” (Jeremiah 1:5). Since the death of our son, his namesake’s words hit much closer to home. What I have come to realize is that St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God,* who are called according to his purpose” is not a pious clique. There exists actual weight, real impact, tangibility to his words. Let me explain. Yesterday, I had a day off from work. I decided to take my three kids to Jeremiah’s grave-site and place flowers on the grave. Before we left for the store, I was trying to wear out the children so they would not be too hyper at the cemetery. I made some paper airplanes for my son and daughter to toss.

Along with making paper airplanes, my son wanted to color on the extra paper. I gave him the closest pen I could find. Soon into the process of drawing, he asked me how to spell three words. I was thinking, “Good, at least he is sitting down and this coloring is keeping him preoccupied. Also he is thinking about school since he wants to learn to spell.” It was not until we were traveling in the car after purchasing the flowers that my son’s true plan came to light. “Daddy, could we please get a little bag to put this book I made for Jeremiah into. I don’t want it to get wet” [it was starting to rain at this point], he said. I was floored by his reply. He actually took what I said to heart and sacrificed play time to make something for his unborn brother. That was probably my proudest moment as a parent. What I have learned in the past two years is that God works all things for the good through the Sacrament of Time! Below are two ways I learned about this ordinary and sometimes forgotten gift from God.

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1. Time Exists to Show Mercy: According to Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, in his work Time, “We must restore our spiritual sanity. One giant step in that direction is to think truly about time.” He goes on to talk about time existing within prayer as opposed to prayer existing in time. Prayer is communication with God. In other words, Kreeft is saying that time should be viewed under the lens of communication with the Divine. “Prayer determines and changes and miraculously multiplies time…prayer multiplies time only if and when we sacrifice our time, offer it up. There’s the rub. We fear sacrifice. It’s a kind of death,” the Catholic professor tells us. Through my experiences, I have learned that time grants me opportunities to display mercy as well. Forgiving others and showing mercy is tough. Time is one of God’s gifts to make mercy easier. In the offering of many, many prayers of laments to God in the months after our miscarriage the seed of mercy was planted and came to fruition. But it was not until I sacrificed my time and prayed that I gained the ability to show mercy toward myself and be able to learn to forgive God.

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2. Sadness Remains, but it is Transformed: Time heals all wounds. We hear this phrase mentioned frequently when a person experiences a hardship or loss of a loved one. This adage does not contain the full truth. In reality, time does not eliminate sadness or wounds, rather it transforms them. I still experience sadness when I think of my unborn child. However, the sacrament of time has transformed this sadness from a despairing sadness to a joyful sadness [I know if sounds like oxymoron term but I am not sure how else to describe it!].

Time and prayer turn suffering from a destructive force to a purgative, and possibly redemptive force. I have had a few people tell me that they were influenced and inspired by the funeral service we provided for our unborn child. “Your testament and story give me inspiration to have grave markers in our backyard to remember our miscarriages. This was helped me move on and provide healing,” a friend from high school told me when she heard about my loss.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The sacraments are efficacious[effective] signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC 1131). Formally there are seven sacraments, but in reality time when approached in the right manner may be transfigured into a sacrament as well. Time exists in prayer not the other way around. Kreeft tells us, “Eternity is not in the future but in the present. The future is unreal, not yet real” (Time). Instead of worrying about the past and future let us embrace now, the present. Let us embrace the sacrament of time– now!

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Am I Salt or Sugar of the Earth?

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According to Matthew 7:15, Jesus cautions us by saying, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.” Frankly, I did not realize that adage originated from the Gospels. Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Thinking about this phrase I have come to realize that Jesus is speaking not only to humanity in general, but directly to me! I need to be consistent in my love toward God and my fellow man in order to avoid turning into that same false prophet I am called to be on the look-out for.

Jesus spoke with such clarity and used tangible examples. I am not going to “reinvent the wheel” regarding today’s topic. During his Sermon on the Mount discourse in Matthew 5, the Good Teacher charged his followers to be the salt of the earth. Above there are two pictures: one is salt the other is sugar. At face value both appear to be indistinguishable—similar to a wolf donning lamb’s fleece is camouflaged from its prey. Salt and sugar play a significant part in our life. Both add flavor to otherwise dull food. Excessive amounts of sodium and sugar lead to health problems. What I want to focus on is the dichotomous relationship between salt and sugar? Am I the salt or sugar of the Earth? Let’s see!

1. To preserve or not to preserve…that is the question: Aside from flavoring bland dishes or enhancing taste in already good meals, the main purpose of salt is to preserve food against deterioration. Salt draws out excess water from foods and dehydrates it. This process allows for increased storage times—especially in cases where food is in abundance and needs to be saved for later periods. Jesus used the example of salt because of its universal application and practical usage in daily living. He calls Christians to act as theological relish and preservative to society. Sometimes a little salt goes a long way in improving the taste of food. We need not feel defeated if it feels like we are moving against a seeming endless tide of negativity from the world. Holiness is what all Christians are called to—look at the saints and the witness they provided a world in despair.

2. Deny Yourself and Follow Him: In high school, I took chemistry and became fascinated with the various atomic structures of elements, molecules, and compounds. I found a certain beauty in their ordering and design. Below are picture of the atomic structure of NaCL [sodium chloride- table salt] and C₆H₁₂O₆ [glucose- a common sugar].

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From a microscopic vantage point, a clear distinction may be made between these two common household items. Both are composed of entirely different elements [hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen in Glucose] and [sodium and chloride in salt]. Along with the having different building materials, sugar and salt are fashioned with different types of bonds—covalent and ionic respectively. Covalent bonds are stronger because the shared electron is what keeps the elements held together whereas in an ionic bond one element loses an electron to another causing one element to become positively charged and the other to become negatively charged such as in the case of NaCl or table salt.

In other words, the elements in table salt lose an electron to effect the ionic charge of the sodium or chloride molecule. Initially, losing may be viewing negativity [no pun intended!]. One may think that due to the stronger nature of the covalent bond in sugar that it should be preferred to salt. The New Testament does shed some light on the reality of loss and rejection. Luke 9:23-25 turns this notion on its head when Jesus says, “Then he said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily* and follow me. 24For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?'”

Christ’s words elicit a sense of paradox, yet allure within my mind. Interesting, I gain life when I serving other’s needs above my selfish desires. In my weakness I am stronger! Through a theological ionic bond, Christians act as holy seasoning to embolden our world.

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3. Instant Gratification Leads to Decay: Dentists frighten me. Not in The Exorcist or The Shining sort of way. Still, I get apprehensive, anxious, and move toward hypochondriac-like behaviors when the subject of dentists come up. Perhaps, it stemmed from my penchant as a little kid for losing my teeth quickly and easily. Or maybe my periodontal panic happened due to my need for braces– not once, but twice in my elementary school years! Regardless of where this toothy torment began, I recognize that when I limit my sugar intake life is much easier during my semi-annual check-ups.

Excessive sugar proves damaging to both our physical and mental well-being. Unhealthy attraction to sugar is simply a euphemism for the sin of gluttony. Our society suffers from the belief that instant gratification is better than self-denial or self-control. I am as guilty of this vice as anyone. I have made it a point to limit my sugar consumption and practice fasting– to help me both spiritually and physically. I think Jesus choose not to use sugar as an example to relate to Christians because he understood the appeal and temptation this food item poses for humanity.

While sugar and salt look similiar in outward appearance the two are vastly different. How do we distinguish between the two? First, we learn to trust the authority of the manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of these products. We trust that the packaging is correct. When a box at the grocery store says “SUGAR” it really is sugar and not salt. A second way to learn is more difficult– through the school of experience. Maybe sugar is housed in a clear container in your home. If you forgot to label it only tasting the substance will you determine if it truly is sugar and not salt.

The same may be said about temptations and goods sent our way. Oftentimes, Satan dresses up sin as “sugar” to enhance its allure. This makes is easier to fell prey to his trap. Our adversary disguised sin under the costume of a juicy fruit– see Genesis 3 for the story of the Fall. May we continue to rely on the tradition of the Catholic Church, Sacred Scriptures, and testament of the saints for guidance in our journey toward holiness. Let us be the salt of the Earth and preserve society! There is more to you than meets the eye.

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The Curious Case for St. Thorlak’s Patron Sainthood

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As I have mentioned in previous posts, my oldest son was diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum a couple years ago. This journey toward an answer to helping our son has been filled with both joys and struggles. One of the fruits of this process is my wife has discovered her calling as a special education teacher. Another benefit of her knowledge is that it helps my cousin who is experiencing similar trials as my son. Recently, my mom was doing research on saints who assist with people on the autism spectrum. She came across St. Thorlak who is currently being considered as a patron saint for people with autism spectrum disorder.

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Born in 1133 A.D. Thorlak received the sacrament of Holy Orders at a young age. He was ordained a deacon at age 15 and became a priest when he was 18 years old! Eventually founding a monastery based on the rule of St. Augustine, Thorlak lived a monastic way of life for a several years. Thorlak was ordained a bishop of the Icelandic diocese of Skalholt. He continued to carry out the reforms instituted by Pope Gregory VII. St. Thorlak die in 1193 at the age of 60.

Relatively little information is known about Thorlak compared to other Catholic saints, such as Augustine, John Paul II, Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc, etc. Despite this, my review of the website that is championing his cause for patron sainthood provides some insight as to how Thorlak could be a relieving guide in both my son’s life and our family in general.

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1. Rigidity in manner: Being unbending in his moral expectations, St. Thorlak demonstrates a parallel to children with autism that commonly sees the world in terms of black/white dichotomy. My son for example, is a “rules kid” and will follow our household law to the letter.

2. Failure to Initiate or Reply to Social Interactions: St. Thorlak is referenced as being often silent and reticent in social situations. According to http://mission-of-saint-thorlak.weebly.com/patron-of-asd.html, the Icelandic saint said little during the discernment process for him to become bishop. Many times children with autism spectrum disorder are non-verbal when it comes to communication.

3. Ritualized routine: Although a lot of Catholic tradition relies on daily routine, St. Thorlak adhered to a strict routine of fasting and prayer—especially in his time of founding and living in the monastic community. Similarly, my son thrives on a strict and regular routine.

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To be clear asking saints for help is not an easy solution to daily turmoil that medicine or therapy fails to soothe. Rather, I look to saints for guidance and relief for my personal trials or family strife. In regards to St. Thorlak, I believe based on the information I learned about his life that he would be a great role model for my son to look to when it comes to the challenges a child with autism faces on a daily basis. I found this concise prayer [see below] that I printed off and taped to my car dashboard to prayer on my morning commute to work. I am grateful for the witness of St. Thorlak and I hope his life gives insight, joy, and relief to individuals and families of those with autism spectrum disorder!

“Holy Thorlak,

Cut with the scythe of your workings

the thorns casting shadows

in my unclear mind!”

3 Titles of Mary that Give Me Hope

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I have learned that the more a person learns about a particular subject or person there exists a direct correlation in an increased amount of titles or synonyms to describe them. For example, I had a lot of nicknames as an infant and toddler because of my parent’s love toward me. I have inherited that same knack to create multiple appellations for my children as well.

Within the Catholic Church, our honor toward Mary, the Mother of God, lends itself to a burgeoning of titles to reference her too. Doing some research for a lesson on Mary I was teaching I learned that she has over 2,000 names and titles given to her throughout the history of the Catholic history! I will barely scratch the surface of this topic by reflecting on 3 specific titles of Mary that provide me hope on a daily basis.

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1. Undoer of Knots: This is a relatively new devotion toward Mary. I became aware of this unique title through my reading of a biography of Pope Francis- shortly after his election to the papacy. Mary as Undoer of Knots is his personal favorite Marian devotion. Below is the prayer associated with this nascent devotional practice:

Virgin Mary, Mother of fair love, Mother who never refuses to come to the aid of a child in need, Mother whose hands never cease to serve your beloved children because they are moved by the divine love and immense mercy that exist in your heart, cast your compassionate eyes upon me and see the snarl of knots that exists in my life. You know very well how desperate I am, my pain, and how I am bound by these knots. Mary, Mother to whom God entrusted the undoing of the knots in the lives of his children, I entrust into your hands the ribbon of my life. No one, not even the evil one himself, can take it away from your precious care. In your hands there is no knot that cannot be undone. Powerful Mother, by your grace and intercessory power with Your Son and My Liberator, Jesus, take into your hands today this knot.

There is something tangible and raw and this prayer. Life is messy. Sometimes due to my own fallen nature, and occasionally because of the sinfulness of others, my life becomes knotted. My personal struggles develop into a Mobius strip of suffering. Reciting the prayer and asking for Mary as Undoer of Knots to help straighten me out is both a peaceful and confident feeling.

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2. Star of the Sea: Along with Undoer of Knots, Mary as Star of the Sea is new title I am now assigning personally to our Blessed Mother. Historically speaking though, this title is as ancient as the sea. From early in the Church’s history this appellation has been associated with Mary. Throughout the Holy Scriptures the sea and oceans viewed as dangerous waters to transverse. During the night, stars helped to guide sailors to safety. In an analogous way, Mary acts as a guide, not our source of salvation [that is reserved for God alone!] toward salvation. Mary as our Mother is a protector of us, her children, against the tumultuous waters of life. According to the great Early Church Father, St. Ephraim, Mary is “the safe harbor of all sailing on the sea the world.” Centuries later, Pope Leo XIII uses similar language to describe Mary. He called her “safe harbor of travelers.”

Traveling is a universal experience among mankind. Mary as Star of the Sea reminds of the importance of reliance on others, to guide in times of strive and tumult.

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3. Refuge of Sinners: Because the first woman, Eve, is associated as the bringer of suffering into the world through her fall in the Garden of Eden, Mary is traditionally seem as the New Eve. Together with being Star of the Sea and Undoer of Knots, the third Marian designation that fills me with hope is Mary as Refuge of Sinners. The word refuge originates from a French word meaning “to flee”. It makes sense for us to connect this title to the person of the Mother of God. Moms are people who their children flock or flee to in times of suffering or distress. As the most perfect and universal mother, Mary is a sure person to seek refuge from against the prowess of Satan and temptation.

The beauty of the Catholic Church is the great diversity that exists within its universal walls. Marian devotion is a gift to help bring us closer to God. I hope that I have shed some light on the significance of these three titles of Mary. I pray that I may continue to gain insight and guidance through my spiritual mother and my I always be pointed toward Christ!