Desert Places

“Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.” -Isaiah 35:6-7

My brother lives in Arizona, where they are currently enjoying the chilly winter temperature of 72°. A couple years ago, I went to visit him in June, when it gets to be a lovely 115°. One morning, we decided to go hiking in the beautiful desert mountains. We got up really early to beat the heat—well, to try to beat the heat, anyway.

As we were hiking, I kept saying that it didn’t feel that hot, even though it was. This was probably because my body associates heat with the sweaty, sticky humidity of New York summers.

It wasn’t until we got back to the car after our hike that I realized how thirsty I was. My throat was really dry, and I was definitely dehydrated.

Has your heart ever felt this way? Sometimes we go about our lives, thinking everything is fine, that we’ve got it, that we’re in control, and then we realize how much we are desperately aching for our Savior.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Or has your heart ever felt like the vast Arizona desert? Dry, cracked, parched, barren. Sometimes in seasons of desolation, pain, or mourning, we can feel like we are stuck in an endless desert. I’ve definitely had those moments of wondering when the drought would end and God would bring a long-awaited reprieve.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Jesus meets us in our desert places. He knows those seasons well. If you are feeling like you’re in a desert season right now, take heart. He is with you. And no matter how painful, lonely, or never-ending it seems, Jesus is bigger. And He is on the way.

There is a beautiful Japanese art form called kintsugi. The artist takes broken ceramics and puts them back together by filling the cracks and places where they broke with gold, turning the art into something even more strikingly marvelous.

kintsugi
Kintsugi art

When Jesus comes to fill in the cracks in our desert hearts, He does the same thing. He redeems our scars, wounds, and dry places by giving us the gift of His whole self and making our scars dazzle with His love.

Let Him fill you today, brothers and sisters.

Hope in the Darkness

And out of gloom and darkness,
the eyes of the blind shall see.
—Isaiah 29:18

Throughout this season of Advent, amid the cold and lingering darkness, we seek out light. We surround ourselves with flickering lights that gleam amidst the night, reminders of hope and beauty even in the darkest places. These lights help prepare our hearts to appreciate with awe and wonder the Light that was born out of darkness, in Bethlehem so long ago.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals two blind men who dared to believe that His powerful Light could permeate their deep, unending darkness. Even though they could not see Jesus, they knew that He was the Lord, for even when we cannot see the sunlight we can feel its rays upon us. They could sense, in Jesus’s presence, a sacredness that drew them in, so much so that they truly believed that He could heal them. By their faith in the impossible, their sight was restored.

Only with the light of faith can we see the world around us clearly. Without a sense of hope in God, we cannot understand our true purpose. Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when Mary was conceived without original sin. Out of the darkness of Eve came the luminous beauty of Mary, whose fiat made way for our redemption. Do we believe that God can open our eyes to see hope within the darkness? Do we trust that the Light will prevail, even when it seems hidden to us?

As the days grow shorter and shorter this Advent, may the candlelight enkindle within our hearts a hope that endures through the darkness.

The Three Advents

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of participating in a silent retreat with my grandpa, dad, and two uncles. It’s been a Breen family tradition for some years now to visit Christ the King retreat center in The Other Buffalo (Buffalo, MN).

This was a particularly challenging retreat, for whatever reason, but it was also particularly inspirational: I felt empowered to enter Advent with a fresh set of eyes and grace. I’d like to share one of the core takeaways I experienced.

In a spiritual direction meeting with one of the priests on retreat, we discussed St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who spoke of the Three Comings of the Lord or the three Advents. The first was his Incarnation, in “flesh and weakness”. We are also told of the Second Coming in “glory and majesty” at the end of days. The middle and third Advent, however, is where Christ comes to us in “Spirit and power” every day of our earthly existence. Jesus meets us in the sacraments, in prayer, in the people we encounter every day. And this “third coming” is no less important than the other two! While Christ’s daily incarnation in our lives may not feel as momentous as Revelation and the end times, it is by no means invented: Jesus tells us in John 14:23 that, “whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

For me, St. Bernard’s Three Advents had a personal parallel. Every year, it seems Advent flies by. There’s the Advent that others may experience: no thought of the “reason for the season” whatsoever; pure commercialism and chores and cooking, and,  “Sheesh, I could use a vacation from my holidays.” Then there’s the “ideal Catholic Advent”, spent immersed in prayer and quiet contemplation, racking up devotions and novenas like someone’s keeping score (jk, love you all who do it well!). And finally, there’s the Advent that most of us experience: somewhere in the middle.

At the retreat this year, God spoke into this part of my life. He told me he didn’t want me to feel guilty for not having the ideal, but to strive for something greater than the mindless. Most profoundly, God asked me to reflect on how Mary, Joseph, and Jesus experienced the first Advent. Did they spend hours in quiet contemplation in the temple? That’s not the version I’ve heard. I was inspired to think of the Holy Family, making a home wherever they could, and ultimately celebrating Emmanuel’s arrival in a stable/cave. They were living a real life, just like we do. They were a real family, just like mine. God does not call us to rise above our family life to some sort of mystical state of prayer during Advent, he came for just the opposite: to redeem the human experience and to sanctify family life!

My guilt for not setting aside more time in prayer melted away.

Don’t get me wrong. Prayer is essential. Meditation and contemplation are wonderful. A mystical state of prayer is Catholic #goals. But many of us also live lives with very real demands THAT COME FROM OUR VOCATION. I am busy because God has called me to be a husband and a father. Since he has called me, HE WILL MEET ME THERE. When God calls us to our vocation, he is also promising to meet us there! For those who do not live the monastic life, our role models do not need to be the monks!

Instead, I felt the Lord calling me to reflect on how the Holy Family lived the first Advent: Christ’s quiet coming in the night. I felt the Lord calling me to drop the shame and instead seek for the moments where I could ponder Jesus in my heart. Mary and Joseph are my examples this season, and I feel free.

Praised be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.

The Perfect Christmas

A year ago, at the start of December, I was determined to create the perfect Christmas scene.  I would have the perfect Advent—peaceful and prayerful, preparing. I would have the perfect Christmas, having cleaned and decorated early, so that we could all relax, and enjoy Christmas as it Ought to Be.

The first Monday of Advent I opened the mail to find a medical bill that was supposed to have been $125 was in fact more than $5000.  My sister called to say that she had been laid off.  Of the two burners on our stove that still worked, one had become increasingly temperamental. And then suddenly I found myself with a project that would take every waking moment of December, preparing for more necessary renovations, including packing up all of my belongings (again) to change rooms.  It was chaos.

It was tempting to temper Christmas, to skip the presents again, maybe even the tree.  But something in me refused to bow to the chaos.  I was determined that we would have a “real” Christmas.  So I bought the full size tree, at full price (not waiting until the last minute to get the more frugal Christmas Eve special as we did in years past).  I bought a new stove, and took pictures as it gleamed perfectly—determined to keep it shiny and new.

There is no need to name names, or identify the culprit who decided to inaugurate the new stove with a dinner of ham and sweet potatoes.  I don’t need to tell you who, exactly, pierced ten sweet potatoes and cooked them directly on the oven rack without a pan to catch the oozing juices.

But when I saw the veritable sea of black char covering the bottom of the new oven, my niece issued a strong warning for That Person.  “You better leave when we do…Aunt Grace won’t say bad words in front of me, but she might if I’m not here anymore…!”

The next day was Christmas eve.  We managed to get the lights up, and the tree decorated, and the presents placed, by early afternoon.  It was cutting it a little close, but it was beautiful and we could actually sit down and enjoy it for a little while before Christmas Eve dinner.

“A little while” is relative.  It was probably about five minutes, before we heard a small pop.   It was probably a few seconds later, when someone said, for the second time in two days, “I smell smoke.”  This time it was coming from the perfect Christmas tree.

Thankfully, we were using a surge protector, which could be unplugged from the wall.  Thankfully, because the light plug had melted into the socket, rendering both lights and surge protector permanently unusable.  Thankfully, we caught the whole thing just before the whole tree went up in flames.

That night, when I went to bed in an unfinished room, half-painted, with only my bed and lamp, and the window cracked open in spite of the freezing temperatures to mitigate the paint fumes, I didn’t cry.  I laughed.  Because of course it was the perfect Christmas.

Because Christmas is the antithesis of the perfect setting.  It is about God coming down to meet us in the mess.  I had written already about this, on many occasions.  From a Holy Thursday (yes!) meditation a few years before:

And so I thought about that feeding trough full of hay. Not the sanitized one we see on Christmas cards and sing about in carols. But rather one that might be found in a real stable–with hay that is speckled with dirt and animal spittle, perhaps with tiny spiders crawling in it, heavy with the odor of other things that animals may do in a barn.

And I thought about how Mary took the First Born of Creation and placed him in that manger, that feeding trough, for all of us.

In my mind of course I wish to offer Him a more perfect room, one clean and spotless and welcoming.  But there is no other room. There will not be on this side of eternity.

I can only welcome Him into the mess that is Me, or turn Him away.

 

 

final tree

 

 

 

 

Cluttered Hearts

“O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!” -Isaiah 2:5

Advent is upon us, and it seems like each year my heart cries out with more and more longing for the coming of our Savior.

Jesus, we need You.

We need You in our broken and hurting world full of darkness, sin, and deep, deep pain.

We need You to be the center of our families, our marriages, our friendships. We need You to heal our relationships with others.

We need You in our workplaces.

We need You in our bleeding Church; oh how we need You to make all things new and right. We need You to bind up our wounds, to bring mighty justice, to shine Your piercing light into the darkness of the appalling sin, shame, hiding, and cover-up, to direct our next steps and to guide us forward.

We need You in the messy parts of our hearts, the parts we are too ashamed to tell other people about, the parts You see and love us anyway.

We need You to uproot and cast out shame, fear, and distrust of Your goodness from our lives.

We need You in every inch of the world, in every part of our beings, in the deepest depths of our souls. Every minute, every hour, every second—we need You.

Dear brothers and sisters, Advent is a season full of hopeful expectation of God’s saving power. It’s a season of light shining forth in the darkness. As we light each new candle of the Advent wreath, may we allow that much more of the light of Christ to pierce our hearts and renew us.

The other day in prayer, I imagined Jesus knocking on the door of the home of my heart, like a guest that comes forty-five minutes before the party when you’re still cleaning and haven’t showered. I imagined myself panic-stricken, trying to shove certain things behind the couch. And there He stood before me, smiling, seeing right through my couch cushions to all the mess and sin that I tried to hide. Yet He responded with nothing but tenderness. His kindness leads to our conversion.

We need to let Jesus in before we feel ready. Sometimes we need Him to help point out where we need to grow, and sometimes we need the affirmation of knowing that He loves us just the same no matter what mess we have in our hearts. He takes us as we are. When we let our Savior in, prepared or not, He speaks to our cluttered and weary hearts, “You are good. You are seen. You are known. I love you fully, as you are.”

At Midnight, in Bethlehem, in Piercing Cold

Today begins the St. Andrew Christmas Novena, also called the Christmas Anticipation Prayer. I first heard about this tradition a few years ago, and it’s a really beautiful prayer:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

Traditionally, this prayer is recited fifteen times a day, beginning on November 30, the Feast of St. Andrew, and finishing on Christmas Eve. It is a meditative prayer, helping us to place ourselves in Bethlehem and focus on the coming of the Christ child as we prepare for Christmas. Praying with this novena has given me a richer awareness of God throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. It helps me to connect my own present experiences and petitions with the miracle of the incarnation.

Last year, I created a lock screen for my phone with the novena prayer written on it, so that throughout the day, whenever I checked my phone, I would see the novena and be reminded to pray it. I’ll share it with you here, in case any of you need the same reminder!

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Wishing you all a blessed Advent!

Beyond fearing Doomsday

Dear fellow pilgrims,

If you read/listen to the news on a daily basis – especially when tensions with North Korea were higher – follow what scientists are saying about the breadth and depth of impacts of global warming even in our lifetime, and, ok… maybe if you already have a tendency to worry about things… it’s easy to worry about the end of the world.  Heck, there is even a Doomsday Clock that tells us how close the world is to a global catastrophe – i.e. how many minutes until midnight – a terrifying symbol controlled by a group of scientists.  Right now, it’s at “two minutes until midnight”, the closest it’s ever been to midnight since 1953 (during the beginning of the Cold War).

I grew up in a non-denominational church where the pastor frequently talked about doomsday, and even preached to the children in the room (me) that we were probably going to be among those who would experience the “End Times.” Ok… and does anyone else remember those videos with Kirk Cameron about people disappearing up out of their clothes during the rapture? Those movies were fun reminders of the end of the world, too. My piano teacher even had brochures in her bathroom (that was otherwise decorated with fluffy pink things) about “reading the signs of the end times” that you could leisurely peruse while sitting on the toilet. I guess you could say that my Christian upbringing included a liiiittle bit over a “healthy dose” of eschatological awareness.

So, yeah, it’s easy to be scared of these potential catastrophes we can’t control. It’s also equally as easy to, in the face of being freaked out by the world, retreat to your distracting internet sites of choice and cover up the fear with mindless entertainment. The best way, however, involves facing these fears, no matter how realistic they are (because deciding that can be a whole other can of worms) and then surrendering them to God, proclaiming His victory and lordship over all things, and proclaiming your role as one of His rescued children.

Today, Jesus speaks of this intense anxiety and fear of the people during the end of the world to His disciples in the Gospel reading:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,

and on earth nations will be in dismay,

perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

People will die of fright

in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,

for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

 

But then, He also speaks of the end game and our role in it:

“And then they will see the Son of Man

coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

But when these signs begin to happen,

stand erect and raise your heads

because your redemption is at hand.”

 

“Stand erect…”, do not cower in terror, children. “Raise your heads…”, have confidence enough to look directly at this terror and trust in the Lord more than competing voices tell you to fear. Why? Because “your redemption is at hand,” your salvation is imminent, your God is near.

It’s so easy to be afraid, my brothers and sisters. Way too easy. But no matter when the end of the world will be, and how we or however many generations ahead of us will be experiencing it, we know our faith, hope, and love in the Lord will be the anchor of all hearts in whatever turmoil is encountered. Because building the strength to endure worldly turmoil is not God’s ultimate purpose for our lives, but rather, our redemption, which is the ultimate manifestation of His glory. Our goal is not to just hang on when things get really tough and seemingly unbearable. This is necessary and good and promotes many good virtues, but God wants to use these perseverance and virtues as a conduit for a greater and greater manifestation of His grace, which is always a gift to be received and not something to be grasped at.

Jesus makes all things new; He does not just want to get rid of all bad things. There is Heaven after the end of the world, not just the seared and barren land we see in apocalyptic movies. There is a wedding feast we are all called to as part of His Bride, the Church.

There is always a greater song to be sung over the ruins of Babylon, which we see in the first reading:

“Alleluia!

Salvation, glory, and might belong to our God,

for true and just are his judgments.

He has condemned the great harlot 

who corrupted the earth with her harlotry.

He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

 

The first reading reminds us that the world is ending because the ruler of the world is the evil one, the “great harlot,” and “the wages of sin is death,” which is a judgment. But may we be judged favorably when our time has come, to be counted among those avenged and redeemed, as our Lord intends and hopes for each one of us.

And above all, let us not be afraid!

Pax Christi,

-Alyssa