The Science of the Cross

“I will have only one wisdom: the science of the cross.” —Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận

Earlier this week, I was able to attend a requiem Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer in memory of the victims of 9/11. It was a beautiful liturgy as well as a powerful reminder of our own mortality, that our days on earth are fleeting and meant to be used purposefully, in service to God. In his homily, Fr. Sebastian mentioned Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận as an example of someone who lived with radical hope even in extreme suffering.

Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận (1928–2002) was a Vietnamese Cardinal who spent thirteen years imprisoned by the communist government in re-education camps, most in solitary confinement. However, refused to despair over the immense suffering he experienced, choosing instead to make the most of his situation. He wrote letters to Church communities, spent long hours in prayer, and showed joy and kindness toward his prison guards. The prisons had to change his guards regularly because he was so effective at evangelizing them.

Cardinal Văn Thuận brought light into the darkness; his very presence spread hope amid some of the bleakest corners of humanity. And he did so by embracing the Cross. This paradox is at the heart of Christian belief: that joy springs from suffering. For the early Church, the Crucifixion was a source of shame and embarrassment; and yet this is how God chose to save us, through an act of utter humiliation and torture. While in his cell, Cardinal Văn Thuận made for himself a crucifix out of scrap wood and some wire that had been smuggled in by some sympathetic guards. He sought a physical reminder that his own sufferings were united with Christ’s.

Today, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, let us look to the saints who have gone before us to understand why the Cross is so vital in sustaining our hope, especially as we undergo times of turbulence and trial. Cardinal Văn Thuận accepted his imprisonment as a gift. St. Edith Stein showed mercy and compassion even in Auschwitz. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati willingly ventured into the poorest, most desolate areas of his city to spread hope and charity, and he endured his agonizing final illness without complaint. May we, too, learn to fan the flame of God’s love within us, so that we may be a light in the darkness.

“To treasure each suffering as one of the countless faces of Jesus crucified, and to unite our suffering to his, means to enter into his own dynamic of suffering-love. It means to participate in his light, his strength, his peace; it means to rediscover within us a new and abundant presence of God.” —Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận

“Learn to be in the unknowing”

Knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up.
If anyone supposes he knows something,
he does not yet know as he ought to know.
But if one loves God, one is known by him.

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

I honestly couldn’t get past this first paragraph in the readings today. It cuts so deep to the heart of the human experience of wading through all the unknowing in our lives while simultaneously knowing that we all just want to be loved, truly and completely. 

Many of us struggle with anxiety, including myself, and it’s another way to describe struggling with fears, mostly of some (or all) unknowns. My particular brand of anxiety involves trajectories of worst-case scenarios bursting through my mind and into outer space at the speed of light. I have recently realized that this particular defense or coping mechanism “makes sense” to my unconscious mind because THEN at least I have a series of “knowns” to cling to. But these imagined “realities,” or a feigned sense of “knowing,” do not soothe the initial fear of the unknown void, but rather, inflates or enlarges the void. 

“…but love builds up.”

Love is the answer to fearing this void of unknowing, even though it can seem equally mysterious or unknown at times. Knowing what love is, however, requires us to first have faith in God and love Him back.  When we do this, we learn that we can only love ourselves and others when we primarily rest our minds and hearts in the fact that we are truly and completely known by God. And only in this knowing and loving gaze of God can we be content in our unknowing. 

If anyone supposes he knows something,
he does not yet know as he ought to know.”

But God is Love and also omnipotent: He is perfect love and perfect knowing, and so, we learn to both love and to know things through Him.  There is a certain “unknowing” needed for true knowledge, evidenced by the second sentence of the verse. Any good scientist, historian, or journalist will tell you that. A true intellectual always couches their theories and evidence between what is known and what is yet unknown, and there wouldn’t be scientific progress if people hadn’t bothered to research what is and is not yet known. In the same way, our “knowing” of anything – including and especially God – must be held with a bit of mystery or reverence for the unknowns of that subject.  We praise God for loving us, we return His love with our love, while never knowing fully what this means, at least when we are still on this earth. Unknowing plays an indispensable role in both fully loving and fully knowing, so shouldn’t we learn to be in unknowing? That is a clear message I heard in prayer: “Learn to be in the unknowing.”  So obvious, so necessary, and yet… so difficult. Learning to be in our areas of unknowing sans anxiety is only possible when believing in the primacy of God’s love and providence over our lives, which necessarily and ironically involves faith or unknowing. In other words, we are only content in our inability to be sure, completely knowing, when we have faith in the intention of the One who made us that way.

So, I hope this ramble-y musing of mine has helped you think about at least how the concepts of loving and knowing intersect and depend upon each other, but mainly, how our authentic knowing depends upon receiving love from God first and foremost. And, how loving God, being known by God, knowing God more, and loving God serve as mutually amplifying and purifying processes within our souls. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

A People of the Beatitudes

In listening to a reflection on the Beatitudes today, the speaker asked their audience to reflect upon what it means to live the Beatitudes. Not just to believe in them, but to live them.

To live the Beatitudes is to value the things that this world does not. To see with God’s eyes and hear with God’s ears.

We live in a world full of “takes”, of people and outlets vying for our attention by giving their spin or opinion on the world unfolding around us. I cannot begin to tell you how many different articles I saw posted on social media that were trying to vindicate or vilify Archbishop Viganó’s letter of accusation. The “liberal” Catholic figures were attempting to poke holes in the statement, the “conservative” Catholics were calling for the resignation of the Vicar of Christ, and most of the laity fell somewhere in the middle to be buffeted back and forth by one “take” after another. I began to despair, to be frustrating, to find myself alternately excited that the horror might not be as deep as it seemed and terribly, terribly angry that it very well could be.

Instead of attaching myself to either side of the “aisle” of this politicized version of Catholicism, I decided to cleave to the LORD. I prayed. I prayed my heart out, and I haven’t been that good with prayer lately, so you know I’m not saying it to brag. I say it because prayer is what brought me comfort. When the world around us takes every event and spins it into 2 alternate “realities” (call ’em facts and alternative facts, if that suits you), I took deep, deep comfort in the fact that their is ONE LORD and we shall have NO OTHER GODS above him.

Our LORD’s mind is not divided. His heart is pure, singly devoted to His children. Our LORD, given our participation, will sift the sheep from the goats, weave a braided cord and CLEANSE HIS HOUSE.

I’ve never been one for “fire and brimstone” preaching. Us cradle Catholics can be somewhat allergic to that. But in this last month where I have not known what is wheat and what is chaff, I have found myself praying for purifying fire. Elijah, calling down fire upon the prophets of Ba’al. I’m furious at many things, and most of all that the voice of Jesus Christ is being lost in this awful human noise. Drop your agendas, be respectfully skeptical of your favorite news source, and PRAY in a way that you have not yet. For those of you that have, bring the light of Christ to others; it shines in a way that blots out all the torches and pitchforks.

The voice of Jesus Christ is the voice that spoke the Beatitudes in today’s Gospel. Pray that we might all live these words, and see with God’s eyes what is valuable and true in the midst of the noise.

Blessed are you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.

Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets
in the same way.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
But woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.

Appointment With God

Jesus departed to the mountain to pray,
and He spent the night in prayer to God.
–Luke 6:12

There is nobody on this planet that would accuse me of being a neat freak.  And yet, when I sit down for prayer time, my desire for tidiness goes suddenly and inexplicably into overdrive.

I notice the picture that is hanging ever so slightly unevenly, begging to be straightened before I start.  I notice the pile of papers on my desk, and have an immediate urge to address or file them.  I see the basket of laundry and remember that I must apply stain remover to that one shirt, and if I don’t do it right now surely it will be ruined forever.  The books on my shelf are crooked, acquiring dust, need to be read, need to be given away—that would be a good one for Susie—maybe before I begin to pray I should call her?  Maybe I should make my bed.  Maybe I should get in my bed, because did I really get enough sleep last night?

And when all else fails, as I begin to pray while looking out at the morning sky, I will see a small shadow moving across the window, as yet another stink bug compels extermination…

Anyone that has ever tried to put a toddler to bed will recognize these for what they are: diversion tactics.  Whether natural or preternatural, resistance to these and any other delays is the first step to prayer.

The truth is, the Opposition will use any strategy that works to get us not to pray, or to delay prayer until a “later” that he knows may never come.  It is imperative to resist these temptations, but to do so we must recognize them as such.

*You don’t have time to pray!  You are too busy.  It’s not like you’re a cloistered nun—you have a life.  Don’t worry, God understands.  Your work is your prayer…

*Daily prayer is not realistic.  God asks too much of you.  You ask too much of yourself…

*Yeah, you should pray of course, but better to get to Confession first.  You’re not in a good place to meet God at the moment, are you?

*You aren’t very good at prayer.  When’s the last time you heard God talking to you?  You’re not like those other people who talk to God like they know Him or something…

*You don’t know how to pray.  Why waste your time on something that you won’t get anything much out of?

*You can pray later, when you’re not so busy or distracted; when you don’t have so much on your plate…

*How do you know God is listening to you? Is He even there? If He is real, why doesn’t He do X?  Why does He allow Y?  How can you talk with somebody you don’t know for sure is even there?

In today’s Gospel Jesus calls the twelve apostles and heals the crowds, but only after spending the night in prayer.   What did that night look like?   How did the Son of God converse with the Father?  We can only wonder—and marvel that such questions can even be asked of God made Man.

We only know that even Jesus needed prayer, that all of His actions flowed from this union with His Father lived out in prayer.

Reading this gospel, I was reminded of Father Michael Scanlan T.O.R., the former president of my alma mater.   After his passing in January 2017, alumni were invited to offer tributes and share memories related to his legacy in their lives.  At first I thought I had little to say.  While I am no doubt indebted to him for my college experience which set a trajectory for my life, my personal encounters with him were few and not the sort that great stories are made of.

Yet much is made in Christian life of the notion of planting seeds—how often that is what we as educators are called to, even when we do not see for years any visible signs of growth or fruit.   I think of myself often as a seed planter (at least on days when I am feeling optimistic) but I forget at times of how much I am the recipient of the seeds of other sowers.  One such sower was Fr. Mike, and the particular seed was his book Appointment with God.

The funny thing is, I am not sure if I ever actually read the book.  My memory is rather foggy on that point.  But the idea of a daily appointment with God, a designated prayer time, was spoken of frequently at FUS and modeled for me by many of my fellow students.  His idea was simple—a guarded time set aside each day, put onto the calendar and thereby not to be moved, to meet with God in conversation, ideally before the rest of the day and its concerns came rushing in to fill the time.

I loved the idea of it from the beginning.  But faithful practice of it was decades away, as I made what I realize in retrospect were flimsy excuses.

Years later, as I started to become more faithful to times of prayer, I began to experience God’s love in new ways.  Sometimes I had experiences of His presence during prayer; more often I began to recognize His presence outside of prayer.  Flashes of understanding.  Conversations that confirmed something I thought God was saying.  Snatches of song in the grocery store with their secular lyrics—that were not only poignant echoes of God’s love, but even prophetic at times.  The more I made time for God to speak to me during prayer, the more I heard His voice in unexpected places.

The Dawn of Justice

Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time,
until the Lord comes,
for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness
and will manifest the motives of our hearts,
and then everyone will receive praise from God.
—1 Corinthians 4:5

Commit to the LORD your way;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make justice dawn for you like the light;
bright as the noonday shall be your vindication.
—Psalm 37:5–6

Jesus answered them, “Can you make the wedding guests fast
while the bridegroom is with them?
But the days will come, and when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
then they will fast in those days.”
—Luke 5:34–35

Seeing injustice in the world is one of the most infuriating, disheartening things we can experience, and yet it is all too common. When people are wronged and receive no recompense, or when selfish individuals hurt others and seem to experience no repercussions, it triggers a deep sense of injustice within us. We know innately that something is not right, and it doesn’t sit well with us. This is because a longing for justice has been hardwired into us by the God of Justice Himself. The closer we draw to Him, the more acutely we feel this imbalance in the world, for it is not as He intended it to be.

But we need not linger in despair over the injustice we see around us. Jesus assures us that justice will come. At the judgment, all that is hidden will come to the light; wrongs will be righted and dues paid in full. In The Return of the King, Sam Gamgee asks, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” At the judgment, the answer will be yes. In some cases, that justice will come in the form of fasting and penance, as we work to atone for the wrongs we’ve done in our lives. In other cases, it will be the glorious revelation of good deeds done in secret and sacrifices offered up alongside the Cross. But ultimately, our deep longing for justice will be satiated, and it will come by means of the Cross. Through the greatest injustice in human history comes an endless fount of mercy and justice and the redemption of our imperfect souls. Through the Cross, even the injustices we experience take on meaning and purpose. We fast as we await the Bridegroom’s return, but we know that the feast is coming.

Wise foolishness and the abundance of God

Dear fellow pilgrims,

Our readings today have a clear message: be humble, follow the Lord’s will and not your own. We can feel this message of “let him become a fool, so as to become wise” when we talk about our lives to some unbelievers whilst trying to explain decisions made by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, peace in prayer, and other ways of discernment. How do we explain if we left a job with no other job lined up because we “just knew” it was time through prayer? How do we explain not being truly worried about the amount of children we will eventually have? It’s impossible without a childlike trust and humility in our Lord’s provision for us and faithfulness to us. In a world where very intelligent people can chide religious people by telling us we trust in, essentially, a “flying spaghetti monster,” it is no wonder sometimes that we feel “foolish” in the eyes of the world.  But this trust we have in our Lord is not truly foolish. We have tasted and seen that the Lord is, indeed, good. I pray all of us have some moment in our hearts we can go back to to ground us in times of unbelief or difficulty in faith where the only conclusions are that God is real and God loves us.

In our Gospel today, we see a moment like that happening frame-by-frame for St. Peter. He follows the direction of Jesus, who is clearly not an expert fisherman, after following his own experienced direction for quite some time and finding no luck in a catch. But this seemingly foolish move results in something so miraculous that he is struck with the fear of God: he is faced with a catch of fish so large that even his own equipment cannot hold it. His nets tear! What a beautiful image. This detail is speaking to me today:

Sometimes we think that it is because of our own equipment and knowledge that our lives are not going the way we planned. We have worked hard, using all of the knowledge that we have, and we are not seeing results or certain events happen in our life. But in this Gospel, we are reminded of Who holds every aspect of our lives in order. You can be as prepared for a giant catch, or desired result or happy moment, in your life as possible, have all the right equipment, but still, in that moment of fulfillment, you may also an inadequacy in receiving it. Your nets may rip, your mind and heart may fall short of receiving what Jesus is giving you. It may all seem too much and actually a threat to your life instead of a blessing. But these moments, especially, so potently remind us that the Lord does not give purely according to when we fulfill some formula or when we meet a holiness or readiness quote.  God is not like humans, He gives freely and purposefully, even though the purpose is most likely lost on the receiver. God does not give only according to our little abilities to receive Him, He gives fully, which should make us want to grow to receive more.

So maybe that wasn’t even the biggest net St. Peter had, but Jesus gave him an overabundance of harvest anyways. May we also heed our Lord’s calls to seemingly foolish things in the hope that in this “foolishness” is true wisdom as His children.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

Demons Are Not Humble

I am not in general prey to superstition, with one glaring exception: the Litany of Humility.  I learned to fear this prayer in college, when I first took it up as part of the popular piety of the time.  I quickly found that my prayers were answered rapidly and concretely—I was offered occasions of humiliation, often public, with nearly every recitation.  On one occasion, I was sitting with an upperclassman to whom I was rather attracted and wanted very much to impress.  Somehow I managed to rock and tip my chair backwards, landing flat on my backside with my legs in the air like something out of a slapstick comedy.  I joined the whole room in laughter, but then decided to table the prayers for humility indefinitely.  Like St. Augustine, I hoped that someday God might grant me the grace.  But I added a very firm “not yet.”

It was years later that I was telling some of these stories to a fellow teacher, joking that if students needed quick assurance that God is real and responds to prayer, the Litany of Humility was perhaps a quicker bet than the Skeptic’s Prayer.  It was only a few hours later that I was pulled over and given my first (and only) speeding ticket.  While I sat in the driver’s seat with the police lights flashing behind me, blushing down to my goody-two-shoes, another car pulled over to join us.  It was my mother and with her all of my siblings.  Anxious to find out what the matter was, she drew over to ask what I was doing there.  I don’t remember which was more mortifying—to have my family witness the speeding ticket, or to have the cops see my mother coming over to help.  I changed the “not yet” to “not ever” and stopped even joking about the Litany of Humility.

*            *            *

Demons are not humble.  They brag.  The demon in today’s Gospel recognizes Jesus and wants to show off his knowledge: “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  he cries out in a loud voice before being cast out.

Saint Francis of Assisi uses the example of such demons to warn us: having knowledge and powers is not an occasion for glory.  In Admonition #5, he offers a candid (to put it mildly) warning that should be daily reading for anyone in Church ministry:

Consider, O man, how great the excellence in which the Lord has placed you because He has created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His own likeness according to the spirit. And all the creatures that are under heaven serve and know and obey their Creator in their own way better than you. And even the demons did not crucify Him, but you together with them crucified Him and still crucify Him by taking delight in vices and sins. Wherefore then can you glory? For if you were so clever and wise that you possessed all science, and if you knew how to interpret every form of language and to investigate heavenly things minutely, you could not glory in all this, because one demon has known more of heavenly things and still knows more of earthly things than all men, although there may be some man who has received from the Lord a special knowledge of sovereign wisdom. In like manner, if you were handsomer and richer than all others, and even if you could work wonders and put the demons to flight, all these things are hurtful to you and in nowise belong to you, and in them you cannot glory; that, however, in which we may glory is in our infirmities, and in bearing daily the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Emphasis added).

Translation: even the demons know that Jesus is God. In fact, they know more than we do.  So any knowledge, any teaching or other gifts from God, do not make us great and therefore should not be a source of pride.  We can only glory in our weakness, and in bearing the Cross of Christ.

We easily recognize pride in its more “worldly” forms: when men and women seek glory in the accumulation of wealth or prestige or power.  In the Church it takes more insidious forms.  I wrote last week how morality can become an idol; so too can our good works, our mission, or things that we do ostensibly for God.

Our mission is a gift from God.  It points to God, not to ourselves.  Currently, we are watching with shock and horror the unmasking of those who have abandoned the mission to serve God—and those who have put their mission ahead of God and ahead of those they are called to love.  Abominable things have been covered up to protect the image of the Body of the Christ, while underneath, Christ suffers over and over in the wounds of the victims.

It was not a coincidence that when Christ was crucified He was stripped of His garments.  He who had no shame took ours upon Him, so that ours might be revealed and healed.  We more than ever need humble leaders, who will follow Christ, unafraid to be shamed for the Gospel.  We need those who are guilty to be honest about their sin, to accept having their crimes laid bare, to stop covering their shame but instead bring it forth to the only One who can heal.  We need those who are innocent to be willing to suffer shame with the guilty, as Christ did—for the sake of sinner and victim alike.   We need a Church that is not afraid of the truth, confident in the knowledge that the Truth will set us free.

We need a stripping away of false versions of holiness, the false versions of ourselves that we worship in God’s place.  We need to tear away the coverings that allow evil to hide behind pious facades.  And we need a repentance that is recognizes what sin is, but also knows that sin doesn’t get the last word.  Today more than ever we need to recognize the truth about what we are and what we are not.  We are not God.