Guarding Paradise

Among the more fascinating family lore is the story of my great-grandparents, who both came from San Margherita, Sicily, growing up in towns just three miles apart.  Unfortunately, these were “enemy towns” and so despite their proximity they did not know each other.  It was only when they separately traveled to America that they met and ultimately married.

In their new neighborhood in Brooklyn, there was a new kind of enemy. It was the practice of certain local powers to collect “protection money” ostensibly to ensure the safety of the payee’s family.  My great-grandfather, a peaceable man, dutifully paid up whenever they came to call. 

However, one day he was not home, so the collector sought payment from my great-grandmother Anna, who was in the kitchen frying sausages.  Anna, outraged at the request, shouted back: “I’ll show you protection!” and aimed the skillet of sausages and hot oil at the stunned man who promptly ran away.

My great-grandfather was horrified upon hearing this and lived in mortal fear for their safety for the next several weeks.  However, it seems that the powers-that-be had determined that the family did not in fact require additional protection and no further payments were solicited.

*            *            *

Genesis, from which we get our First Readings this week, tells the story of a different Protection Fail, at the origin of our human family.

 

In the beginning, the Voice of God spoke light and life into the world.  “Let there be light” He said, and there was light.  He likewise spoke into existence the land and the sea, the night and the day, and spoke again, filling them with life—the creatures of the sea, the birds of the air, the vegetation and animals of the land.  He looked and saw that “it was good.” 

Then as the crown of His creation, He said:

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” Gen 1:26

So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.  And God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…” Gen 1:27

And God saw everything He had made, and behold, it was very good. Gen 1:31

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.  Gen 2:15

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”  Gen 2:16

One could write books unpacking the rich symbolism and deep meanings of these first two chapters of Genesis, and even of these particular lines.  For now, we will look at the word “keep” in Gen 2:15, which in Hebrew is shamar.  It is given to man to care for and cultivate the garden, but there is also a deeper meaning of “keep”, in which they are to watch over, protect, guard the garden.  Guard it from what?

There is another voice in the garden.  A voice that is in Opposition to God, to life, to the light.  This voice comes cunningly to Eve, “Did God say…” he begins.  From the beginning, it is the goal of the Opposition Voice to sow doubt about the Word of God. 

“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’” he asks.  Notice that this “most subtle of creatures” has changed the words.  God’s voice said: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.”  The serpent has changed “every tree but one” to “not any tree.”  This secondary lie is to sow doubt in the generosity of God, by emphasizing and adding to the negative.

“You shall not die” the serpent proceeds.  One notes that he is denying consequences (again, falsely) but there is another MO at work: “It’s not a big deal.”  The Opposition Voice undermines the importance, the gravity, of the Word of God. 

Then the Opposition Voice continues: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…”  The serpent’s forked-tongue strikes doubly here.  First, he suggests that they have a lack, a need, that God does not mean or wish to fill.  With these words he strikes at the Fatherhood of God—suggesting that God does not want what’s best for them.  And the voice awakens in humanity a fear of inadequacy and of dependence.

It was in fact the plan of God spoken into creation that man be “in His image and likeness.”  But the serpent who “was a liar and a murderer” from the beginning wishes to separate the Father from His children and does so by convincing the children to doubt God’s Fatherhood.

Once they lose sight of God as Father, men lose sight of what it means to be like Him. Their sin does not make them God-like, but the opposite.  Even today, when we say of someone “he acts like he’s God” it is not praise; it suggests that a person is arrogant, self-serving, even tyrannical.  When the Word of God shows up in the person of Jesus, humanity doesn’t even recognize Him.

After this dialog with the devil, Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that [it] was to be desired to make one wise…”  The Opposition Voice has thus changed her vision, so she eats of the fruit and shares it with Adam.

And then the Opposition Voice speaks again, telling them they are naked and should be ashamed, that they should hide from God.  “But wait!” you say.  The serpent doesn’t speak those words!   

He doesn’t have to.  The Opposition Voice originates with the serpent, but continues in our own voice, or in the voice of the world.  We don’t always need him to whisper doubts and temptations, we do it to ourselves.  We let the world tell us what we lack, what it can do for us better than God can.

We know the Good News: that a woman would come who would perfectly hear and keep the Word of God.  That her Son would defeat the serpent with His death on the Cross.  At our baptism, we are reclaimed, named as children of God.  We are named, our sin is washed in the waters, and then the community says the Our Father.

We are given this identity at baptism and the promise of paradise. But we must guard it from the Opposition Voice.

How do we know where a voice is coming from?

We are invited to get to know God’s voice by spending time in prayer, spending time reading His Word, learning to hear Him say I love you.  The more we are exposed to what is authentically God, the more we will learn to recognize what is counterfeit.

I hope to continue exploring this in future posts…

 

Eves Temptation

Image Credit: William Blake (Public Domain)

 

 

Tradition

In today’s Gospel, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for rigidly observing the letter of the law while completely disregarding the spirit of the law. In their hypocrisy, they carefully keep the traditions that were passed on to them but pay no attention to the true meaning behind those traditions. Jesus points out that their actions are empty if they are not motivated by love of God, quoting Isaiah:

He responded,
“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites,
as it is written:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.

You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

—Mark 7:9

The idea of tradition was kind of a big deal at my college. Founded in the Catholic faith, we carried the idea of tradition further into nearly every mundane aspect of our lives—football Saturdays, dorm activities, dining hall meals, snowball fights. One of my professors was fond of telling us, “Remember, there’s a difference between traditions and dumb things you do every year. Just because you did it last year, it doesn’t need to become a tradition.” There’s a good amount of wisdom there. Traditions can be powerful, and they should reflect the priorities we want our lives to be centered around. There isn’t much sense in keeping up a tradition for tradition’s sake alone—it ought to reflect a deeper purpose. We have been handed down a treasure trove of beautifully rich Catholic traditions. Do we reflect on their meaning, or do we just go through the motions? Are they really traditions to us, or just habits?

We all know toddlers who insist on watching the same movie on endless repeat, who want to be twirled in just the same way or play the same exact game over and over again. This is the same underlying emotion that moves us to create traditions: that childlike cry of the heart that says, “Again, again!” When we are savoring the moments of our lives and experience something truly wonderful, we want to repeat it in the future. We want to re-experience and remember those things that have shaped us for the better. When we do this with intention, it forms a beautiful rhythm within our lives. But without intention, it becomes a fruitless quest to recreate the past, when really God wants to invite us to walk forward with Him.

Traditions are comforting and familiar to us. This is a good thing, but we should make sure that it’s not the only reason we’re clinging to them. God cares less about the words on our lips than on the devotion in our hearts, and everything we do should reflect that deeper purpose. As we grow older and our lives continue to change, new traditions and habits will likely replace old ones. We can welcome these changes by keeping our eyes on what matters most, on the God who understands our need for the comfort, familiarity, and structure that traditions bring. He has responded to that need with a wealth of tradition, formed over millennia, held within the treasures of the Church—and He invites us to delve deeper into reflecting upon and understanding these traditions instead of merely going through the motions.

Open Jar

Happy Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, friends! Today we remember how Mary appeared to St. Bernadette, identifying herself by saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Mary being conceived without sin allowed her to be totally open, completely receptive to what God wanted to do in and through her. She said “yes” to the Lord at every moment—including His timing. Mary was never rushed; she was totally trusting in when and how God wanted to reveal Himself to her, even in watching her son, the Son of God, be crucified. Mary is like the water jars we hear about in today’s Gospel of the miracle at Cana—she was entirely open to the Spirit, providing the capacity for God to speak. Mary did this in every way—literally in giving of her body to give birth to the Word Incarnate, and spiritually in her receptivity and her fiat, her total surrender to God. And through her surrender, God worked wonders and brought about our salvation. Just like the water was turned into rich wine, God pours out an abundance of grace through her—all she had to do was say yes and provide the open jar of her body and soul for Him to do so.

God calls us to be like those open jars, too. Mary points the way to do this with her model of docility to the will of the Lord, speaking those words to us, as well: “Do whatever He tells you.” What are we willing to allow God to do through us? Where do we sometimes shrink back in fear? Do we stifle or doubt our gifts? God wants to do great things through you—all He needs is your own “fiat” to letting the Holy Spirit work through you.

Lourdes is a beautiful place of countless miraculous healings from the spring of water that welled up when Our Lady first appeared to St. Bernadette. The graces we receive from God flow through her Immaculate Heart, healing us, restoring us, redeeming us, and transforming us to be more like Jesus.

Probably the most beautiful monstrance I have ever seen in Adoration was one with Mary holding up the Eucharist. Mary always leads us to Jesus, holding nothing of herself back from Him, being open and vulnerable. With her as our Mediatrix and Queen, she will not lead us astray. We have such a good Mom. Let her love you, and let her bring you into deeper communion with our Lord’s tender gaze.

Bakhita

Bakhita_Szent_Jozefina.jpegToday is the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a woman of incredible strength and perseverance. Kidnapped at age seven from her home in Sudan and sold into slavery, she was given the name Bakhita, meaning “fortunate.” She suffered daily beatings and abuse at the hands of her captors. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian family, the Michielis, and worked as their maid. While in Italy, Bakhita was introduced to the Canossian Sisters of Venice—and through the Canossian Sisters, she began to learn about God and the Church. The more she learned, the more her heart became inflamed with love for Jesus.

When the Michielis wanted to bring Bakhita with them to Africa, where they had acquired a large hotel, Bakhita firmly refused to leave the convent in Venice. While Mrs. Michieli tried to force the issue, eventually the Italian court ruled that because slavery was illegal in Italy, and had in fact also been outlawed in Sudan before Bakhita’s birth, Bakhita had never legally been a slave. All of a sudden, she was free to choose her own path.

Bakhita was baptized in the Catholic faith at age thirty, receiving all three sacraments of initiation on January 9, 1890, and taking the name Josephine. She took vows as a Canossian Sister three years later. For the rest of her life, until her death in 1947, she was known for her joyful, welcoming presence, her love of children, and her encouraging spirit toward the poor and suffering.

What is particularly remarkable about Josephine is her ability to see God’s hand at work through every chapter of her story, even those filled with darkness and tragedy. When she was introduced to Christ through the Canossian Sisters, all the pieces of her life began to fall into place and make sense to her for the first time. She said, “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”

Josephine stood up for herself and put an end to the injustices she suffered, but she did not brood over past wrongs or dwell in resentment for all the trauma she had undergone. On the contrary, she actually expressed gratitude for her past experiences. When a young student asked her what she would do if she were to meet her captors, she responded without hesitation: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”

I am far from grateful for my own sufferings, but I pray that through the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita, I might allow my eyes to be opened to the ways God is working in every aspect of my life. May my deliverance from resentment and cynicism be sparked by an interior conversion of heart, a turning toward gratitude and unrestrained love for God.

The Power of Letting Joy Spark

 

Dear fellow pilgrims,

What better describes your spiritual life: a “gloomy darkness” or a “festal gathering”?

I have to admit, my default spirituality is “gloomy darkness”. But a holy “gloomy darkness,” like Lent. (Or at least that’s what I tell myself.) I love Lent, it’s Easter that is harder for me to get into. Who is with me??? Why is it hard for us Lent-lovers to truly celebrate and embrace joy while enduring and dealing with suffering is easier? The first reading today reminds us that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has established a new covenant between humans and God characterized by joy, not trembling and fear.

A huge thing I’m learning, though, is this part of me isn’t really operating out of a deeper understanding of suffering at all if it’s easier for me to accept suffering rather than joy. As God has been healing this strange tendency of mine, I’m discovering joy in new ways while I am also letting go of faulty ways I have understood the role of suffering and fear in my life.

In short, I have come to understand that one of the reasons why it is hard for me to truly, deeply, and consciously experience joy in my life is because I have a hard time believing God gives good things to us freely, without a hidden agenda.  All too often, my subconscious response to fun events or moments of potential joy or happiness in life is resisting feeling it deeply in the moment. Why? Well, just in case God wants to take whatever is giving me joy away in the future. In short, I’m trying to cut expected future losses by disengaging from potentially joy-filled moments in the present.

But yeah… that’s not how God works. Those subconscious beliefs do not reflect who God really is, nor do they reflect who I really am to God. I still have a ways to go in truly believing in the relationship Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection made possible with all of my being, even to the depths of my subconscious.

What is the truth? I am a daughter of God and God is my Father who delights in giving me good things because He delights in my delight. God is not pleased when I am afraid of Him and back away from His good gifts. When I encounter suffering, God does not relish the fact that I am suffering. He only allows it so that a greater good might come about.

God’s inheritance for all of us is goodness, is the Resurrection, is eternal bliss in Heaven, and He wants us to live in that joy as much as we can on earth, not only for our good but for attracting others to claim that same inheritance.

The devil wants to suppress our joy, because “the joy of the Lord is [our] strength”! I know God has given me a large heart, and I feel things very deeply and profoundly, and when I am confident in the Lord, I am joyful. When I am joyful, or actively trust in His promise and inheritance of joy amidst suffering, I am unstoppable. And the devil doesn’t want that. He wants us to keep our beliefs about how we can earn good things and also deserve every bad thing that comes our way.

But this balance of joy and pain in our lives is not up to us! All we encounter in life is allowed by God in order to cultivate within us a deeper understanding of Heaven, of God’s ultimate desire for our hearts, of joy and peace and unity with Him.

Brothers and sisters, I pray the Holy Spirit reveals to each one of you how your own faulty understandings of God and yourself hinder experiencing His joy in the present. I pray that we would live our lives out of an unshakeable belief in the goodness of our inheritance as daughters and sons of God, an identity and gift won for us by Jesus that we can neither earn nor lose on our own merits.

Pax Christi!

-Alyssa

“Daughter!”

Two-year-old Zippy has recently discovered FaceTime.  She loves to talk to Nonna and “A’Reece” (Aunt Grace), but is sometimes a bit confused as to how the technology works.  She will giggle with delight when we answer and our faces appear on the screen, as though we have come to visit her.  “Hi Zippy! Hi Honey!” we say.  “Hi Zippy, Hi Honey!” she says in happy reply.  

She is dismayed however if we don’t share our snacks; she is always generous with hers, trying to put them through the phone (her mother’s turn to be dismayed).  She waves the phone around to show us her dinner or her dolls, and we try not to get dizzy.  Sometimes she will sit and “talk” for awhile—sometimes not saying anything, sometimes chattering away, while we get a steady view of her eyebrows and the top of her head.

During the recent government shutdown, her father came up to visit us and help out for a bit while he was out of work.  When we called to FaceTime, Zippy was ecstatic to suddenly see Daddy on the phone as well.

Shortly after he had returned home to Maryland, the whole family called on FaceTime.  My brother passed the phone to Zippy, who was excited to talk to us, but unhappy that we wouldn’t show her Daddy.  “Zippy see Daddy!” she implored. “I am right here!” my brother laughed behind her.  But Zippy was not placated until Daddy moved around so that she could see his face in the small screen she was holding.  “Daddy! Dere you are!”  she laughed delightedly.

*            *            *

In today’s Gospel a woman is seeking Jesus.  She has had a flow of blood for twelve years; doctors have only made things worse.  And this flow of blood has in turn made her “unclean”—a spiritual outcast, barred from the temple and the touch of other people.

She has heard great things about Jesus and thinks that if she could but touch the hem of His garment, she would be cured.  She moves quietly through the crowd, comes behind Him, and touches His clothing.  Immediately, she realizes she is healed.

Jesus, however, recognizes a deeper desire for connection.  He knows that healing power has gone out of Him, and asks the confused crowd “Who touched me?” 

The woman must then confess; she comes forward, revealing herself and tells what has happened.

“Daughter,” Jesus replies, “Your faith has made you well.”

She had sought merely the restoration of her health. Jesus restores her identity, her relationship with her Father.  “Daughter…”

This deep desire—was it only on the part of the woman? 

It is a central mystery of Christianity that our love, desire, and faith actually begin as God’s initiative toward us.  It is He who first loves us; He who calls us to prayer, who plants the desire in our hearts, who is the source of both our longing and its fulfillment.

 

 

Adam

Photo Credit: Michelangelo, Public Domain

Among the Tombs

Today’s Gospel tells of the healing of the Gerasene man possessed by many demons. Mark’s narrative says that the man had been living among the tombs. The demons had taken ahold of him so greatly that he was literally living among the dead, and probably feeling very close to death himself. I imagine his great anguish every single day, feeling utterly tortured and helpless and unwanted by everyone else. We don’t know how this man became possessed or what happened, but that is not necessarily important to dwell on in light of the glory of Jesus revealed to us here.

Do we not sometimes find ourselves feeling as though we are living among the tombs? The sin we can’t shake, the constant narrative of self-beratement in our minds, the masks we put on to pretend we’re okay when we’re not, the images we hide behind on social media, the mindless scrolling to numb or distract ourselves, the desperate strife to earn the love we do not have to earn, resigning ourselves to thinking we just have to suffer and God won’t come through for us, etc.

Brothers and sisters, we are made for so much more. The tombs of our lives do not define us and will never have the last word. Let’s call to mind another tomb—a tomb where the glory of our salvation occurred, the tomb where, in the middle of the night, our Savior rose and Heaven was opened. The tomb of Jesus. The tomb of His resurrection is the only tomb that will ever define us, because His tomb is empty and death is defeated.

As the man in today’s Gospel comes before Jesus, the demons within him tremble. Even they recognize Jesus’ power and His glory. We can place our hope in the all-powerful God! Jesus cares so much for this man that he not only casts all the demons out from him, but he sends them into the swine so that they will never return. In the death of the swine, this man’s salvation was possible.

You are beloved. God is calling you out of whatever your tomb is. There is nothing to fear—He loves you so. Lay your heart bare before Him in prayer today, and don’t stop there: listen for His response. Let Him fill you with His love. He will give you exactly what you need. Let Him declare the victory of His resurrection over you today!