The Oil of Charity

We must not think that our love has to be extraordinary. But we do need to love without getting tired. How does a lamp burn? Through the continuous input of small drops of oil. These drops are the small things of daily life: faithfulness, small words of kindness, a thought for others, our way of being quiet, of looking, of speaking, and of acting. They are the true drops of love that keep our lives and relationships burning like a living flame.
—St. Teresa of Calcutta

In today’s Gospel, Jesus recounts the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. I’ve written before on what this passage teaches us about waiting, but today I noticed another aspect of the story. It seems at first that the wise virgins, those who were well prepared with oil, act selfishly in refusing to share their oil with the others. But actually, this speaks to the symbolism of what the oil represents. St. Augustine, preaching on this passage, reflected that the oil represents our charity and good works:

I will tell you why charity seems to be signified by the oil. The Apostle says, “I show unto you a way above the rest.” Though I speak with the tongues of men and of Angels, and have not charity, I have become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. This, that is “charity,” is “that way above the rest,” which is with good reason signified by the oil. For oil swims above all liquids. Pour in water, and pour in oil upon it, the oil will swim above. Pour in oil, pour in water upon it, the oil will swim above. If you keep the usual order, it will be uppermost; if you change the order, it will be uppermost. “Charity never falls.”

There is the oil, the precious oil; this oil is of the gift of God. Men can put oil into their vessels, but they cannot create the olive. See, I have oil; but did you create the oil? It is of the gift of God. You have oil. Carry it with you….

For he who walks to gain the testimony of another, does not carry oil with him. If you abstain from things unlawful, and do good works to be praised of men; there is no oil within. And so when men begin to leave off their praises, the lamps fail. Observe then, Beloved, before those virgins slept, it is not said that their lamps were extinguished. The lamps of the wise virgins burned with an inward oil, with the assurance of a good conscience, with an inner glory, with an inmost charity.

—St. Augustine, “Sermon 43 on the New Testament”

The oil, symbolizing the charity in our hearts, cannot be transferred from one to another, just as our own good works cannot be distributed out to other souls at the time of judgment. The oil of charity is a gift from God; it cannot be manufactured. The graces that come from a life spent in service to others, in prayer, and in righteousness cannot simply be handed over to another. No one can borrow the good works of others to make up for the good works they’ve failed to do. A holy person might draw others toward Christ and inspire them to follow God by sharing their story, but they can’t transfer some of their own holiness to “even the scales.” True holiness can only be achieved through a personal encounter with God, not by proxy.

Why did the foolish virgins neglect to bring enough oil? Perhaps they were focused more on the feast—where surely there would be abundant light—than on meeting the bridegroom. If they had been joyfully anticipating that encounter more than the party afterward, then maybe they would have remembered to ensure they brought enough oil to be able to see him clearly when he arrived.

As we wait in expectant hope for the bridegroom’s arrival, may we remember to oil our hearts with acts of faith, hope, and charity, feeding the flame of God’s grace within us.

The Forerunner

Gospel reading: Mark 6:17-29
Herod was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison
on account of Herodias,
the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married.
John had said to Herod,
“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herodias harbored a grudge against him
and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man,
and kept him in custody.
When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed,
yet he liked to listen to him.
She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday,
gave a banquet for his courtiers,
his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee.
Herodias’ own daughter came in
and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests.
The king said to the girl,
“Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”
He even swore many things to her,
“I will grant you whatever you ask of me,
even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother,
“What shall I ask for?”
She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”
The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request,
“I want you to give me at once
on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was deeply distressed,
but because of his oaths and the guests
he did not wish to break his word to her.
So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders
to bring back his head.
He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl.
The girl in turn gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it,
they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

Today is a peculiar and peculiarly brutal feast day, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. (Side note: This was one of the two choices that Aidan and I could have gotten married, and we chose August 1st instead because 1. It was sooner than August 29th, and 2. We felt a little… weird about the prospect of sharing this feast day with our wedding day.) This is a peculiar feast day because saints’ feast days, at least in the Roman Catholic Church (I’m not sure about Eastern orthodox feast days), are usually celebrated on the day of their death, because that’s when their race was finished and they passed into eternal life. But St. John the Baptist also has a feast day for his birth. I am just learning that this is because he was freed from original sin in the moment he “leapt in the womb” because of the proximity of Jesus in Mary’s womb, and thus, was born into this world without original sin. The only other feast day for another nativity other than Christ’s in Mary’s own nativity, because she too was born into this world, but also conceived without original sin.

While I don’t know the theology behind what it means exactly to be freed of original sin, what can I observe is that this is a privilege reserved to only Mary and St. John the Baptist, and probably because of their proximity to Jesus’ mission; God was giving them an indispensable tool to fight that same mission alongside Christ, and in the case of St. John the Baptist, act as the “forerunner” of Christ. And this is why we celebrate specifically the Passion of St. John the Baptist today: this passion preceded His Passion.  

There are many parallels between St. John the Baptist’s passion and Christ’s passion: 

Both St. John the Baptist and Jesus were… 

  • … speaking truth to power
    • John was pointing out that Herodias was an illegitimate wife of Herod.
    • Jesus pointed out that many of the Pharisees were illegitimate leaders of the Jewish people. 
  • … locked up by powerful figures who were also aware of their righteousness.
    • “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody.”
    • Pontius Pilate’s wife, and arguably also Pontius Pilate, knew Jesus was a holy man and did not deserve to die. 
  • … killed at the result of a powerful man being pulled in the direction of the crowds after feeling much tension within himself over whether or not he should kill them. 
    • “The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.”
    • “Crucify him! Crucify him!” 
  • … displayed to a crowd after they were murdered
    • on a platter
    • on the Cross

There is a special relationship that John has with Jesus because we all follow Jesus, but, in a way, Jesus followed John, since he was the “forerunner of the Messiah.” In the linear line of human history, Jesus followed John, but in Salvation History that exists outside of time, Jesus’ sacrifice and Resurrection preceded and enabled St. John the Baptist to live a life of virtue.  What humility of Christ to follow his second cousin in death, and also to share a small portion of the genetic information of the blood they both shed because of their familial ties.  What humility of both St. John the Baptist and Christ, to die in such brutal and tragic ways… at the hands of men who were interiorly struck by their holiness, but torn between this faint truth within them and their earthly roles that pointed to killing as the only “solution.”  

Today, let us pray that we adopt the attitude of this “forerunner,” living on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and always attuning our lives to something greater than us. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

When Goods Become Gods

Jesus said:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin,
and have neglected the weightier things of the law:
judgment and mercy and fidelity.
But these you should have done, without neglecting the others.
Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You cleanse the outside of cup and dish,
but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence.
Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup,
so that the outside also may be clean.”—Matt 23:23-26

I recently subscribed to Apple Music, which enables me to listen to pretty much any song for free.  In a fit of nostalgia, I downloaded many of my high school favorites from the 80’s and early 90’s.  Listening to them I am amazed and amused by two things: First, these songs are so riddled with longing and angst I am surprised I survived even an hour of adolescence without copious amounts of Prozac.  Second, I really had no idea how very many metaphors there are for the should-be-marital-act that I was completely oblivious to in my youth.

Just like the lyrics of an old country song, I too was “looking for love in all the wrong places.”  But this is not a story about sexual mistakes or what Fr. Isaac dubbed the “Las Vegas Sins.”  Rather I tried very hard to be a “good girl” and knew that my desire for love was ultimately to be met in God.  But I (unconsciously) believed that God’s love was something to be earned, fought for.  I thought it was a matter of getting the rules right, of moral perfection, of mastering my will.

The Opposition Voice will take one of two tactics when it comes to morality.  First, he may tempt us to ignore God’s law entirely, saying a particular sin is no big deal, won’t harm us, isn’t even really a sin.  Or, he may take an opposite tact: he may encourage us to fixate on sin, fixate on what is right and wrong, the details of law—at the expense of our relationship with the Law Giver.  This was the mistake of the Pharisees in today’s Gospel, and at times my own as well.

All of God’s laws are for our ultimate good and happiness, even those we find difficult and unpalatable.  Moralism, however, takes those beautiful and good laws and makes an idol of them.

We need a sidewalk to proceed down a street safely, but we are not meant to live our life looking only at the concrete.  A map may provide helpful directions to keep us from getting lost, but life is not meant to be an endless squabble over the map.

A few years ago, some Frassati friends and I visited Yellowstone Park.  There are hundreds of acres of land that are completely free and open to exploration.  There are some areas with recommended paths that are helpful but not required.  And there are some areas, generally surrounding hot springs or canyons, with paths and platforms that are absolutely essential for one’s safety—step off the path, and you could die.

The purpose of these latter paths is non-negotiable—we disregard them to our peril.  But we do not come to Yellowstone to gaze at and photograph the path, but to enable us to enjoy all of the beauty that surrounds it.

Similarly, the moral law is not at end in itself, but God’s plan to help us live life to the full.  A good marriage is not the absence of adultery or murder or skillful negotiations about who does the dishes and takes out the garbage.  Certainly, those things are necessary if not deal-breakers, but they are not enough.  What makes marriage meaningful is the love lived between spouses, the gift of self that grows into new little gift-givers.

The Opposition Voice will sometimes encourage perfectionism and moralism, not because he values morality, but because he knows we will ultimately fail.  He will encourage us to jump as high as we can, in order to try to reach God on our own, knowing we will get tired and eventually give up.

After sin, he continues with the same varying tactics.  To one he whispers, “Your sin is no big deal!  No need to go to Confession.  You didn’t kill anyone after all.  Oh, well, maybe you did, but she deserved it, right?”

To the other: “What an abominable sin you committed!  God could never forgive that.  You are not worthy of the pure love of God.  You shouldn’t even think about approaching Him in prayer!”

Always his goal is to block relationship, block reconciliation between creature and Creator.

When I taught children about Confession I would hold up a clear glass of water, telling them that it represented their souls at baptism, clean of original sin and filled with sanctifying grace.  Then we would add drops of food coloring, representing various sins committed, until the water turned black.

“Does God love you when you look like this?” I would ask.  There were always a few who guessed No.

“God never stops loving you—even when you look like this!” I would insist.  “God loves you just the way you are—but too much to let you stay that way.”  And then I would talk to them about the sacrament of Confession, how God’s love not only washes us but transforms us with His Grace and Mercy.

To further illustrate this, I would pour into the blackened water Absolution (represented by a bottle of Clorox), which changed suddenly the contents of the glass.  I had been told that this would make the water clear again, but in fact, it turned it a deep golden color.  At first I was dismayed that it “didn’t work properly,” but then I realized that this was in fact a more appropriate image for Confession.

Scripture tells us that “where sin abounds, grace abounds more.”  God takes the evil we offer and transforms it to an even greater good than existed previously.  The Prodigal Son upon His return finds not the life of servitude he expects, but a great welcome, the father running out to meet him, a party thrown in His honor

May we seek to follow Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and Life, and never let any sin be an obstacle to His love for us.

Come and See

But Nathanael said to him,
“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
—John 1:46

“Come and see.” For Nathanael (also known as the apostle St. Bartholomew, whose feast we celebrate today), this was the moment when everything shifted, when the great adventure of his life began. These three simple words were an invitation to encounter the person of Jesus Christ, to enter into the all-consuming gaze of the Almighty. Just one interaction with Jesus was enough to change Nathanael’s doubt (“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”) into confident belief (“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”).

We, like Nathanael, may have our doubts about Jesus at times. But often the best way to strengthen our faith is not to debate whether a prophet could come from Nazareth—or, say, whether God could be present within situations of corruption and despair—but to go and meet Jesus directly. This is not to say that we should ignore our intellectual questions about the faith, but rather that we should remember that understanding flows first and foremost from relationship. We can’t truly understand Jesus if we don’t get to know Him. If we bring Him our questions and lay them at His feet, seeking to just be present with Him and allow Him to look at us, we will come alive in His presence. Experiencing Jesus fundamentally changes us, causing a perspective shift that affects everything we do afterward.

And just as Nathanael’s experience resulted from an invitation from his friend, Philip, we ought to remember that our own experience of Jesus is not meant to be kept to ourselves. Just those three simple words—come and see—can change someone’s life forever. If we have been changed by Jesus, others will see the joy He has given us. Our own lives, our works, and our personal stories are what open the eyes of others to see the love of God.

Shepherds

Today’s first reading offers a scathing critique of the shepherds who have neglected or mistreated their sheep. I cannot help but think of the priests, and perhaps even more so the bishops, who were sexual abuse perpetrators and their conspirators who covered up the sins.

I know we’ve all likely heard more than we can stomach about the recent report from Pennsylvania. As a Minnesotan, the sorrow rings true in my heart as we have had our own reports, our own accusations, our own lawsuits, our own criminal ‘shepherds’ here, too. The Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul declared bankruptcy to help them pay settlements to abuse survivors.

Since we’ve all heard so much from priests, leaders, friends, media outlets, and secondary sources, I implore you to read today’s first reading and hear a response to corruption and scandal in the Church straight from the mouth of God.

Before doing so, search your heart and intentions. So often with Scripture, we can get what we want out of it: If we read looking for fire and brimstone, we can find fire and brimstone. If we look for feel-good platitudes, well even Biblical truth can be stripped of its potency by bad or incomplete readings.

Read these verses with the accused in mind. Read it again with the survivors in mind. Read it with your local parish in mind. Read it with yourself in mind.

Today’s prophecy from Ezekiel offers a critique and a warning, but it also offers justice and hope for the sheep. The Lord, with power and might, will come for his sheep.

Here it is, in its entirety:

The word of the Lord came to me:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel,
in these words prophesy to them to the shepherds:
Thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the shepherds of Israel
who have been pasturing themselves!
Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?
You have fed off their milk, worn their wool,
and slaughtered the fatlings,
but the sheep you have not pastured.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick
nor bind up the injured.
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost,
but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.
So they were scattered for the lack of a shepherd,
and became food for all the wild beasts.
My sheep were scattered
and wandered over all the mountains and high hills;
my sheep were scattered over the whole earth,
with no one to look after them or to search for them.

Therefore, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
As I live, says the Lord GOD,
because my sheep have been given over to pillage,
and because my sheep have become food for every wild beast,
for lack of a shepherd;
because my shepherds did not look after my sheep,
but pastured themselves and did not pasture my sheep;
because of this, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I swear I am coming against these shepherds.
I will claim my sheep from them
and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep
so that they may no longer pasture themselves.
I will save my sheep,
that they may no longer be food for their mouths.

For thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.

-Ezekiel 34:1-11

The Give-Away Pile

Then Peter said to him in reply,
“We have given up everything and followed you.
What will there be for us?”—Matt 19:27

“It’s funny how quickly life changes from, ‘Sure God—I’ll give you anything you want!’ to ‘Well, not that.  Or that. Or that. Can I perhaps interest you in something from this small give-away pile—you know, the things I no longer actually want or need?’ 😊

This was my Facebook status on April 15th of 2016.  Two years later I am hazy as to what sort of sacrifices inspired this particular post, but hindsight highlights what I could not then begin to imagine.

Things were crazy, as I recall, and among other things there was a problem with my apartment, which could have precipitated a drastic and immediate move.  I spent the day cleaning out my closet in preparation, only in the eleventh hour to have things work out enabling me to stay, to my great relief.

Yet for some reason I felt something deep within me stir and suggest that I should plan to put everything in storage and be prepared to walk away from my life.

This sounds rather outlandish, but I was preparing to go to China to volunteer for the summer, and the idea of staying longer greatly attracted me.  In fact, I had been feeling for some time an interior nudge, to say Yes to something that God was calling me to, something I could not yet see or understand.  I imagined a call to stay in China, or somewhere more exotic perhaps, to be a missionary, to follow some new and exciting adventure planned by God.  “I will go anywhere you want!” I told Him with enthusiasm.

It was just after this thought came to me—of putting all my stuff in storage and preparing to move—that I went down to get the mail.  On top was a flyer from Lowes, which said in bold letters “You’re moving!” (over an advertisement for supplies of course).  I was both startled and amused by what seemed a concrete confirmation of this interior sense.  I saved the flier (I still have it today) and told all my friends about this strange sense of calling—and I am so grateful I did, because nobody would have believed me given what followed.

I went to China and fell in love.  Half of my heart still sleeps on a bamboo matt under mosquito netting in an obscure orphanage in the suburbs of Beijing.  I would have given anything to stay and continue to work among the abandoned little ones.  But contrary to my wishes and my expectations, God did not ask me to stay.

Instead, I flew home to New York depressed and bored by the life that awaited my return.  I resented my naiveite in believing that interior call was from God, particularly as it became clear that all of the boxes that I had carefully packed and brought painstakingly down six flights of stairs now had to be brought up, unpacked, put back.  We brought up a few at a time, and they sat in my living room, unpacked for days, while I glared at them bitterly.

Then one day, just a few weeks after my return from China, I got a phone call that changed everything.  “Something is not right with your mother…”  I left work that day to make the drive upstate, unaware that I would not be returning.

I did, in fact, walk away from my life—from my job, my apartment, my social life and community, to move back to my childhood home.  It was not the exotic foreign destination I had imagined.  More than once, I questioned God, doubted that His plan could possibly be right.

But no matter how much is in our give-away pile (or how reluctantly we add to it) God’s is always greater.  He is never outdone in generosity.  I have learned this too.

In the Atrium we taught the little ones about the Mystery of Life and Death—how the grain of wheat must die in order to give life.  We planted wheat seeds, then took them out at various stages to examine them. A few days in, if we dig up the seed it looks much the same. A few weeks in, green shoots have pushed through the dirt, and roots have begun to grow—the grain they have come from is changed; it looks more like a shell now.   At four weeks, the original grain is a fraction of its original size and has almost disappeared, but the plant and roots are bigger still.  And then, later still, when it is harvest time, we find the seed has vanished entirely, but on the stalk are a hundred new seeds in its place.  From death comes more life.

I have had many experiences of God’s generosity in my new life.  I am grateful for the deepening of relationships, to give just two examples.  I was able to spend a few months living with my father, unaware that those would be his last months on earth.  Had things stayed as they were, I would have seen him only for a few days perhaps at Christmas.  I have also now been able to spend time with my best friend from childhood. She has for more than a year now been suffering from debilitating Lyme disease and its various coinfections.  I am able to cook weekly for her family of eight children, and we accompany each other in this strange season of our lives.  I am grateful for many other blessings that God has given me during this time.

Let us pray for the grace to give to God all that He may ask of us—and to better receive all that He wants to give us.

Lamentation

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were young;
I will set up an everlasting covenant with you,
that you may remember and be covered with confusion,
and that you may be utterly silenced for shame
when I pardon you for all you have done, says the Lord GOD.
—Ezekiel 16:60–63

Today’s reading from Ezekiel reminds me of a recent video from Fr. Robert Barron, which is definitely worth a watch: Bishop Barron on Ezekiel and the Sex Abuse Crisis. Ezekiel wrote of the corruption within the holy city of Jerusalem and its cleansing through avengers from the North. Today, the “holy city” of the Church has fallen into corruption, and it too needs to be cleansed, to endure the painful siege of repentance. God will not abandon His covenant with us. But if we are to be cleansed, we must allow Him to show us the weight of our sin; we must be willing to feel our shame and sorrow.

As Aidan and Alyssa have written this week, it has been sobering to read reports of the horrific abuse that has occurred within the Church and the deep corruption that kept it hidden for years. As American Catholics, we are mourning over these unthinkable crimes and trying to figure out how we can possibly move forward through this mess.

Yesterday’s Gospel reading, which Alyssa reflected upon, spoke of forgiveness, which may seem untimely at the moment. The Gospel asks us to forgive, but often we don’t understand the meaning of true forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean making excuses for the person who wronged you or brushing it under the rug. That’s not forgiveness; it’s denial. True forgiveness must acknowledge the sin and yet refuse to feed it. A person who forgives renounces any claim toward revenge and resists the tendency to harbor resentment. It is a daily decision, and it is not an easy one. But it is the only way that we can stop the cycle of sin and open our hearts to mercy. A truly forgiving heart is not indifferent to injustice; it is all the more deeply hurt by it, since it refuses to dehumanize either the victim or the perpetrator. It sees the tragedy of an innocent life altered irrevocably; it sees those individuals who used their God-given will for evil. And it resolves to do better.

I am reminded of the story of St. Maria Goretti and her murderer/attempted rapist, Alessandro Serenelli. Now, this is not a typical story—we should not go around assuming that all murderers and rapists will be reformed by our prayers and can be later welcomed into our families. But it is in fact what happened in the case of Alessandro Serenelli, incredible though it may seem. Though Alessandro was bitterly unrepentant for the first few years after Maria’s death, he experienced a profound conversion of heart after experiencing a vision of Maria in which she forgave him. He was moved to weep for his sins for the first time, and he began the process of true repentance. Due to Maria’s miraculous intercession (again, possible only through the grace of God and not by human means), he was completely reformed and eventually became an adopted son of Maria’s mother.

While Alessandro clung to his pride and callously denied his guilt, the seeds of sin and evil continued to fester within him. Only when he realized the depth of his sin and entered into a living purgatory of shame and regret was his heart opened to receive God’s mercy. This step was crucial: acknowledgment of wrongdoing, grief over what has been tainted and destroyed, ownership of one’s sinfulness. Unless we confront the realities of our sins and face our deepest wounds, we will never be able to receive healing. And Alessandro’s revelation of guilt—and thus his pathway to forgiveness—was made possible because of Maria’s purity and steadfast prayer.

As faithful Catholics who are shocked, saddened, and heartbroken over the recent scandals within the heart of our Church, we are called to step up and be the solution, to challenge the Church to rise up to her sacred calling. Now is the time for prayer and fasting. We will expect from the Church a higher standard, and we will start by being saints. The purification of the Church will begin with the purification of our own souls, by a deep desire for holiness and purity throughout every aspect of our lives. Jesus and Mary weep alongside us at these crimes. I’ve been encouraged by the discussion among young, faithful Catholics of the many ways in which we can carry this out, and I’ve compiled a list of resources here.

I stay with the Church because her teachings proclaim the dignity of the human person, even as some of those who represent her have trampled upon human dignity through objectification and abuse. I pray that we allow the light of truth to overcome the darkness, so that everything hidden will be exposed to the light. The truth of our own dignity and worth—and indeed that of our children—must prevail against the shadows.