Holding Heaven

“I’m holding heaven in my arms tonight!” the lyrics of an old country song came unbidden, as I gazed down at the little one cradled softly in my arms. The afternoon sun highlighted the perfect features of a tiny face, illuminating like a halo the downy hair peaking from beneath a newborn cap.  The baby girl’s name was Caeli, from the Latin word for heavens.

*            *            *

Her mother Regina and I were born just eleven days apart, and were best friends from the age of seven, when I convinced her to walk home with me from school one day.  I had her wait outside while I asked my mother if she could come over to play.  “Who is Regina?” my mother asked.  “The girl standing in our driveway…!”  She wouldn’t have to ask again, as Regina quickly became a permanent fixture in my life.

Three decades later, we were still the best of friends, but no longer shared a school or a zip code.  I was single, with my New York City work and shoebox apartment.  Regina and her husband had a house in the country, shared with eight young children.  I visited when I could, to entertain them with stories and give them sugar highs.

As I had every other time, I shared Regina’s enthusiasm when she announced that she was expecting again, due in the summer of 2014.  But then I shared her devastation, when, as the pregnancy progressed, there came sobering news.

Tests showed signs of anomalies, and more tests were suggested, followed by more doctor visits and somber consultations.  Eventually the fears were given a name: it was believed that the baby, to be named Caeli, had both Trisomy 18 and spina bifida. 

While spina bifida brought challenges that could be reduced or corrected by surgery, Trisomy 18 was more serious and life threatening.  An extra chromosome 18 brought with it high risk factors—only half of these babies live to be born, and only ten percent of those live past the first year.  Those who survived often had heart defects and/or damage to other organs, and ongoing health risks.  In fact, the specialist to which Regina and her husband Erik went for help refused to treat them, saying that there was no point. 

We began to pray a 54-day rosary novena for a miracle.  The miracle was Doctor Elvira Parravicini.    Dr. Parravicini was a Catholic neonatologist working at Columbia Hospital, who had begun a program especially for families in such situations.  She had come to New York at the suggestion of Monsignor Guissani, founder of Communion and Liberation

For her, to follow Christ in such a situation was to “follow” the child: that is, to respond to the needs of the child, including not only medical needs but also the need to be welcomed and loved, even if for a painfully short while.  In Caeli’s case, Dr. Parravicini met with the parents to provide good prenatal care, and to be prepared for surgery (necessary within 72 hours) should the baby require it.  She also arranged for the other children, Caeli’s siblings, to be at the hospital the day of delivery, so that they could meet and welcome her. 

Early on the morning of June 18th, Regina began procedures to induce labor, with Erik at her side.  Her brother, a priest, brought her mother and the other children awhile later, and staff provided activities for them while they awaited Caeli’s arrival. 

Across the city I waited anxiously, begging God for a miracle, that Caeli be healed and be allowed to live.  I don’t know that I have ever prayed harder for a miracle, as if I could move heaven with intensity alone.

Regina had gone into labor early that morning, but hours later I had heard nothing.  I tried to work, but was too distracted.  Finally, I sought refuge in the Church of St. Monica nearby.  I prayed to every saint I could think of.  And then out of desperation, I prayed to the future St. Caeli.  I knew that God is outside of time, and that Caeli was likely be a saint soon and always, and so I implored her help, too.

Just then, kneeling there in the front of the church, I was surprised by a peal of girlish laughter.  I felt this laughter rather than heard it—it is hard to explain what I even mean by that.  It was too real to deny, and yet beyond the realm of the normal.  But I was simultaneously sure of two things: that is was Caeli’s laughter, and that it was a laugh of perfect joy.  At once my anxieties fled and I knew that all was well; I couldn’t contain my own joy.

Later I would wonder at the timing.  It was shortly thereafter that I received the waited-for text, and I crossed town to Columbia as fast as city traffic would allow. 

But the little girl that they placed in my arms was too still.  There was no movement of breath; no tiny heartbeat as I held her close.  I saw Regina’s face etched with pain, as she lay in her hospital bed. 

Little Caeli had lived for just under half an hour.  She had been baptized by Dr. Parravicini, and then confirmed by her uncle, and all her siblings were gathered around singing the Regina Caeli as she moved from our world to the next.

If I was surprised by my earlier joy, I was more surprised by the magnitude of my grief.  Why?  I knew that even though it wasn’t the answer I wanted, that Caeli was in heaven, in perfect joy.  So why such pain?   As I prayed once again, I realized that my grief too was a gift.

I stood with Jesus at the side of the tomb where Lazarus was buried.  He too, knew the ending—better than I.  But He wept.  Not because of the power of death—which He would defeat; but rather, because of the power of life, which He gave and so loved.

And I found myself back further, at the dawn of time, when God looked over creation and said, “It is good.”  Then when He created humanity, He said: “It is very good.”  This pronouncement came before any human activity or achievements; before love could be earned or reciprocated.  It was God’s delight and love for human life itself.

“You can’t explain beauty, but your heart recognizes it, intercepts it…” said Dr. Parravicini.1  For a few minutes we were invited to heaven.  Invited to see with the eyes of a Father, to love with a Father’s heart, the matchless beauty of a human person.

Caeli was loved into existence.  The love which she received and mirrored was already perfect.  God had nothing more to ask of her, no further mission to accomplish than to witness to heaven. 

St. Caeli, pray for us.

Caeli Philomena June 18, 2014

 

Notes:

1From a 2012 blog post by Rev. Robert O’Connor on Dr. Parravicini.  The formatting has since become compromised but I strongly recommend reading it in its entirety—it may well be one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.

New Wine

“No one pours new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins,
and both the wine and the skins are ruined.
Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.” -Mark 2:22

Sometimes in seasons of transition and growth, I find myself thinking, “Once x, y, or z happens, then things will go back to normal.” But what is “normal,” really? And is it the Lord’s will that I go back to how things were, or do I allow Him to change me?

In the crushing, in the pressing, You are making new wine…*

I think this mentality of longing for how things once were is to try to put the new wine into old wineskins. In the literal sense, putting new wine into old wineskins would ultimately lead to the destruction of the wineskins and the wine. So it is with our hearts. When we try to grasp at things, people, a job, etc. that God, in His infinite goodness and mercy, does not want in our lives in the season we find ourselves in, we are fighting against His loving kindness and the things He wants to reveal to us. We get stuck, focusing on the past rather than having our eyes fixed on where the Lord is leading us.

So I yield to You and Your careful hand. When I trust You I don’t need to understand…

It can also be a temptation to think, “If only ____________ would happen, then I would be happy.” This again, is trying to put the new wine in to old wineskins. It is a turning away from God and is an unhealthy attachment to whatever the other thing is. We look to other things to satisfy us rather than our Lord, and we fail to trust in our Father who knows what’s best for us, whose plans for us are far better than our wildest dreams, and who will never lead us to destruction. Even when we don’t understand.

Make me Your vessel. Make me an offering. Make me whatever You want me to be…

There is something so beautiful in surrendering our capacity to the Lord. We can be His vessel, His open jar that He can pour new wine into, even when we think that it would be impossible, that His plans for us are forsaken or won’t happen. New wine takes time to make, and we can trust in the slow work of God. Will you give Jesus your capacity to make new wine out of you? What do you need to surrender today? Where are you trying to pour yourself into things of the past? The Lord has glorious things in store for you. It will not be easy; it will involve the crushing of the grapes of unhealthy attachments and sin in our lives, but the new wine will come, and we can put our hope and trust in the Lord in the process.

Jesus make new wine out of me.

*New Wine by Hillsong Worship

We Belong to Each Other

They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him,
“Child, your sins are forgiven.”
—Mark 2:3–5

Imagine how it felt for the paralyzed man to be so close to Jesus, and yet so far: within sight of the Healer, yet held back by the very impairments that needed healing, utterly helpless to bridge the gap.

In moments when we feel paralyzed and helpless, unable to fix things for ourselves, God does not want us to go it alone. He wants to heal us, and He seeks to work through the hearts of others in the process. He uses our frailties to bear greater fruit: not only in ourselves, but in others, too. We can only be healed if we are willing to admit our weakness and ask for help. We must allow ourselves to be lifted up, carried, and lowered into the arms of Jesus.

And when we lend a hand to help someone else, it is a privilege: to share in the sacred struggle of their suffering, to draw close to the fountain of grace and healing. God uses these moments of weakness to teach us to rely upon other people and knit us closer together as a community.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
—Mother Teresa

Holy Hand-Off

I wish this was an analogy of Ian handing the ball to Dex, who then found a 92 yard hole that ended in the end zone. However, if you watched the ND-Clemson Semi-Final, you know most Irish attempts were blocked by the opponent’s stalwart D-line. Since the purpose of a hand-off is to move the chains towards the goal, it’s worth asking what are you holding onto, what can you hand off, and who are you going to pass? Perhaps you are clinging to fear, regret, bitterness, or hopelessness. Maybe, you are clutching anxiety, worry, or control.

On campus, there is a statue where Joseph is kneeling at Mary’s feet and the Christ child is between them. It is unclear whether Mary is handing Christ over or receiving Him. Either way, “The Holy Hand-off,” as it is affectionately dubbed, is a reminder to hand-off our cares, faults, failures, joys, and successes and to entrust our desires to the Sacred Heart of Jesus so that like Mary and Joseph we an present the Christ child to one another.

Two Minutes

We were thrilled when my little niece Zippy first began to speak in words we could understand.  From baby babble emerged the first recognizable vocabulary: “Mamma”; “Dadda”; “’nanna (banana)” and “shoes.”  However, when she said, early and audibly, “Two minutes!” we were both greatly surprised and greatly amused.

At age two Zippy still says “Two minutes!” and it is clear that while she has mastered the pronunciation, the actual meaning of the phrase still eludes her.  At times, she recognizes it as a stall tactic.  “Zippy, can I please have my phone back?” I ask.  “Two minutes!” Zippy replies, meaning I must wait.  However,  “Zippy talk two minutes!” means “Zippy wants the phone, NOW, this minute.”  She will ask to hear a song: “One!” by which she means, “One after another,” and listening for “Two minutes!” in that situation translates as “indefinitely…”

In general, the concept of time is confusing if not meaningless to two year-olds.  “I will be back tomorrow” does not console her; she throws herself on the floor, bereft.  (Yes, I am that cool).  “Later” is just a code word for “no.”  And she certainly doesn’t understand “this is not the time to sing” when she breaks out into “Baby Shark” during the Christmas homily, particularly when such a large crowd has gathered to hear her performance.

If the concept of human time is puzzling to toddlers, the concept of God’s timing is equally puzzling to us, even as adults.  I confess that when God says “Wait!” I do not always react well. 

I remember in college that God promised that a particular prayer intention would be answered, but that I must wait.  I thought, “Okay, I have a few minutes.”  Eighteen years later, His answer exceeded my expectations, but I learned the hard way that His time-frame did too.

Even now, I too am tempted to tantrums when God says, “Wait.”  I find myself bereft when He seems absent, wondering if I will ever seem Him again.  And when I pray for solutions to the problems of life, and they don’t come quickly enough, I wonder if He is listening.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is preaching in a synagogue in Capernaum when he is interrupted by a snarky demon.  “I know who you are…the holy one of God!” declares the demon.  Jesus first silences him, then drives him out.  “Quiet!  Come out of him!”  Jesus commands in Mark 1:24.

Why doesn’t Jesus want the crowd to hear this declaration?  A few verses later, in Mark 1:34, we again hear of Jesus specifically preventing the demons from revealing his identity: “He healed many who were ill with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was.”

If Jesus has come to reveal His identity as the Son of God, why silence the demons?  Or perhaps a more interesting question: What would the demons have to gain by revealing it? 

It is the mystery of timing again.  God’s timing is perfect.  Patience is a virtue that we do well to cultivate.  But more importantly, the mystery of timing reveals another mystery: that the Christian life is about relationship, not results.

The answer to Jesus’ identity is not a bit of trivia, or even a theological proposition to answer correctly on an exam.  We come to know Him as He is WITH US (Emmanuel again).  Jesus wants the people to come to know God as revealed by His person, not just as a match to their expectations. 

His healings, His miracles, His teachings, and ultimately His gift of self on the Cross and in the Eucharist, reveal to us the face of God.  It is encounter that teaches us, and encounter that changes us. 

We need to hear Him say, to the leper within, “I do will—be healed.”  We need to experience the gaze of the loving eyes which behold the sinful woman weeping at his feet, to hear him say, as to the woman caught in adultery “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and sin no more.”  We need to watch Him calm the storms without and within; to cast out demons and welcome back outcasts; to feed with a new Manna that is both Presence and Promise.

We want to rush ahead to the solution, to the answer: Who is this guy preaching in the synagogue? What does He plan to do to/for us?  But Jesus wants us to experience His presence.  To walk with Him, to listen, to question, to learn not only His message but His heart.

*            *            *

Over Christmas vacation I take Zippy on a walk to the library.  It is a two-minute walk if one goes directly.  But there is so much to experience along the way: leftover snow to touch, steps to climb up and down, puppies to shriek at delightedly and try to pet.  She wants to see her breath in the air; she wants to see what is in the half-frozen puddle in the driveway; she wants to pick up pebbles and watch them dance as she throws them on the path.  She wants to run and then be carried and then put down so she can meander down the sidewalk.  If we don’t make it all the way to the library; that’s okay.  Life is short.  Just two minutes.

He Sustains All Things

“In these last days, he spoke to us through the Son,     
whom he made heir of all things 
and through whom he created the universe,

who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word.” -Hebrews 1:2-3

Happy chilly and wintry Monday, friends! To be honest, I had a whole post prepared about following Jesus based on today’s Gospel (Mark 1:14-20), but the Holy Spirit shook things up a bit. So here we are.

One of my favorite prayers is the Litany of Trust, written by the Sisters of Life. It really gets to the heart of the human struggle against the lies the devil tries to tear us down with. One of the lines from the prayer is:

“That You are continually holding me, sustaining me, loving me…Jesus, I trust in You.”

He sustains all things. He is faithful in all things.

Brothers and sisters, He sustains you.

Yes, you.

He never stops.

It’s one of the hardest things, isn’t it sometimes? To be dependent on God and to let Him truly sustain us? We live in a world of self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and control. “I’ve got this.” “I can handle this on my own.” “I don’t need anyone.” “I can only trust in myself.”

Any disposition of heart we have towards the world/our jobs/other people absolutely affects our relationship with God. So when we fight His sustaining power? Ouch. Our hearts are blocked; full, vulnerable reliance on God is severed. We hurt ourselves and separate ourselves from the One who desperately longs to hold us.

Have you ever seen a child who’s throwing a tantrum kicking and pounding their mother or father as they pick them up off the floor? But what do the parents do? They hold them anyway; eventually the kicking and screaming subsides, and they are comforted by their parent’s embrace.

This is how I imagine Jesus with us as He’s sustaining us. He loves us too much to leave us there. He will pick us up, even as we fight Him in our thinking we know better than He does, and He will hold us until the storm passes.

Jesus will keep holding you as you learn to allow yourself to lean into His embrace and be sustained by His love. He won’t stop His love for you.

I know this isn’t easy. This is a struggle for me, too. Vulnerability is never comfortable, acknowledging that we need help is hard, and relying on Jesus over yourself is a risk that requires a leap of faith.

Letting Him sustain us, truly sustain us in every way, means that we have to let Him into the darkest and most hidden places of our hearts. We have to allow Him to soften our hearts and go to the depths so He can heal, free, and redeem. This is an endeavor worth taking. We are so safe in His arms. Jesus is the “refulgence” (the brilliance, the splendor, the shining light) of God’s glory. Darkness flees in the presence of Jesus.

Let’s go there with Him. Jesus, break through. My prayers are with you.

P.S. This song speaks to the journey of letting Jesus sustain us.

The Odor of Sin

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati loved the poor wholeheartedly. He went out into the slums of Turin to visit them each day; he did this not to assuage his conscience or to give them something from his material excess, but rather to receive them, to visit with them, to love them as God’s own children and to offer his whole self to them. He saw Jesus in each of their faces. Once, a friend asked Pier Giorgio how he could bear the odor of the poor, the dirt and filth of the slums. He replied, “Don’t forget that even if the house you visit is very dirty, there you may find Jesus. Remember always that it is to Jesus that you go: I see a special light that we do not have around the, sick, the poor, the unfortunate.”

In today’s Gospel we hear Luke’s account of Jesus healing a leper. I would imagine that this man was used to people recoiling in his presence, shrinking away from the fetid odor of his infection. He would have learned to lay low, to avoid other people so as not to feel the sting of their repulsion. But when he saw Jesus, he did not back away. Had he already sensed, in that first glance, that Jesus did not look at him the same way as everyone else? He lay prostrate before Jesus and begged for healing. If the people were horrified to see a leper approaching Jesus, imagine their disgust when Jesus responded by reaching out and touching this man. He was not deterred by the stench; no, He was in fact drawn toward this man, filled with nothing but love for him.

We know where our sores and infections lie within our souls, and more often than not we try to cover them up. We expect that Jesus will be disappointed by our faults and failures, and so we try and mask the odor of our guilt. But Jesus is not deterred by the stench of our sin, and He does not want only part of us. He wants all of us, warts and all, for He seeks to love us totally and completely. He bends down to greet us, looks us in the eye; all He needs is for us to affirm our trust in Him to fully heal us. Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.