Rooted in Love

The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher.
You are right in saying,
He is One and there is no other than he.
And to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding, 
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself

is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,
he said to him,
“You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

—Mark 12:32–34

If we truly love God with all our heart, all our understanding, and all our strength, then our natural response will be to keep His commandments—not out of a sense of guilt or mere obligation, not out of a desire to prove our worth to Him, but joyfully in love. When a person is in love, it affects their every thought and every action; when our hearts are infused with the love of God, that love will overflow into every aspect of our lives, and we will naturally desire to keep His commandments.

God commands us to love Him. By that very command, He makes it possible. He gives us the grace to love Him with a sacrificial love that echoes Jesus’s love for us on the Cross. He awakens us to recognize Him in every soul we meet. It is nearly impossible to love your neighbor as yourself if you are not already receiving God’s love, but when we have that awareness of the beauty of each soul, we can deeply and sincerely love people even when they are difficult to love.

The spiritual life is rooted in relationship; everything else flows from that. And a healthy relationship with God produces the fruit of trust in Him, from which flows obedience to His law. We must never fall into the mindset of viewing our relationship with God as transactional, consisting of a series of offerings we must make to atone for our wrongdoings or requests that we ask God to grant. God is not interested in a transactional relationship with us; He desires something much more meaningful—a close, loving, intimate relationship that wholly captivates our hearts.

Thus says the LORD:
Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God;
you have collapsed through your guilt.
Take with you words,
and return to the LORD;
Say to him, “Forgive all iniquity,
and receive what is good, that we may render
as offerings the bullocks from our stalls.
Assyria will not save us,
nor shall we have horses to mount;
We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’
to the work of our hands;
for in you the orphan finds compassion.”

I will heal their defection, says the LORD,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.

—Hosea 14:2–5

Do Not Scatter

We can all relate to being misunderstood at one point or another. Our good intentions can be seen as inadequate, or even counterintuitive. In today’s Gospel, Jesus does a good deed. He drives out a demon, yet he is misunderstood. Some even accuse him of evil, while others want him to perform another miracle.

We can relate to Jesus in this situation. We can also relate to those in the crowd.

How often do we misinterpret the intentions of others, and jump to conclusions about their good deeds? How often do we find our hearts divided? We want to believe in the goodness of others, in God’s goodness, yet doubts enter our minds.

In He Leadeth Me, Father Walter J. Ciszek experienced moments of doubt and despair while imprisoned in Russia. In the moment when he lost all hope, Father Ciszek turned to prayer and told God he was his only hope. In that moment of self-surrender, he received great strength and consolation. He realized he had to continue living with this self-abandonment and lose any hidden doubt he had left. Even in our most difficult moments, we can find God and abandon ourselves to his will. This is easier thought, said, and even written down, than done. Yet we must try and try again.

As we journey through Lent, we must decide whether we are with Jesus or against him. Rather than being scattered in our thoughts and actions, let us choose to journey together with Jesus, for “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Today, let us pray the Act of Faith, that we may lose our hidden doubts and abandon ourselves to God.

Act of Faith
O my God, I firmly believe
that you are one God in three divine Persons,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I believe that your divine Son became man
and died for our sins and that he will come
to judge the living and the dead.
I believe these and all the truths
which the Holy Catholic Church teaches
because you have revealed them
who are eternal truth and wisdom,
who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
In this faith I intend to live and die.
Amen.

Embracing Seasons

A few weeks ago, our first son, Leo, got his first haircut. And for many weeks prior to that, Aidan had been telling me over and over again that Leo needed one. I had been putting it off because I KNEW I would be so sad when he would come back looking like a little man and not my little baby with super blonde tips and a curly mini-mullet from the hairs evidencing his babyhood. 

The slowness of motherhood can feel so arduous sometimes, but it also gives me space to listen closely to His voice. When I was rocking Leo back to sleep in my arms after he woke up very upset from a nap, I could feel God shifting the perspective of my heart. As I truly enjoyed and savored being Leo’s comfort in that moment, God was teaching me that He gives us seasons, stages (ways to help us make sense of time and our existence) primarily to delight us and teach us about Himself in different ways we don’t have the same access to in other seasons.

All too often, I have made the mistake of defining seasons by what I could NOT do or receive in that season (e.g. here, toddlerhood as the solemn absence of babyhood, and let’s not forget, dating as the “no-sex-before-marriage” stage). We often are overwhelmed by crippling nostalgia or sadness for what is past (or only exists in imagined ideals!), longing for it, while we miss what He is doing and offering right in front of and within us. 

And so, when I read the verses for today, there is a similar struggle among God’s people through salvation history. We see parallel verses of Moses and Jesus from the Old and New testaments, exhorting those listening to follow and abide in the Law God sets forth for His people.  Moses, a great prophet and leader of Israel, is about to talk about the Ten Commandments and other commands about keeping the covenant with God. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, has just preached the Beatitudes. The people Jesus spoke to hear what is different, how Jesus is seemingly changing what God had said in the past, but Jesus knows their hearts and addresses those fears by proclaiming and clarifying Himself as the fulfillment of what those laws and prophets said. Jesus is connecting these seasons of salvation history and God’s revelation of Himself to mankind; the crowds can only see the differences and, as a result, lose trust in Jesus as the Messiah.

Just like the crowds, we often resist the cusp of a new season. Many times, we are afraid of what it might bring, but I find most often for myself, the prospect of finding a new way and rhythm of life is most challenging and daunting. But, as Jesus reminds us, each season is meant to fill us more and more, not taking away from or “abolishing” the season that came before.

It is very important to take note that the way God tells us about Himself in the Old Testament is paramount to understanding how His Son fulfills them. I encourage us all to read the Old Testament readings during the Easter vigil and really meditating on what each has to offer in terms of telling us how God is revealing Himself in salvation history. We cannot understand the Son without the Father, and vice versa. We worship a Trinitarian god Who has revealed Himself over time, and the order in which this has happened is integral to how each word informs the other, culminating in The Word of God, Jesus, our Messiah. The God who called for bloody animal sacrifices and holy temples and a priestly nation set apart for Him is now a Person, a Son, speaking to the crowds of fulfilling the words of His Father.

May we receive the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to understand and fully embrace our current season of life, and live with the expectant hope that there is unique joy in this season to be uncovered and savored.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

Sitting in Pairs

Gathered in the theater of the Sheen Center, we watched as survivors of the Rwanda genocide told their stories of living through unspeakable atrocities.  How they hid from former friends and neighbors, who hunted them down in order to exterminate them.  How they watched family members assaulted and killed before their eyes.  How they hid in the bush, in the ceilings; how they begged for food, for simple kindness, for their lives to be spared.  In just a few months, over one million people were murdered in Rwanda by their fellow countrymen.

The survivors sat in pairs as they told their stories.  One man described his parent’s killing.  One woman witnessed her father, and later her brothers, being taken away and executed.  One woman recounted how she was personally attacked, and showed us the scars on her body, including a long scar across her neck, formed by the attack of a machete intended to decapitate her.  The man sitting next to her began to tell his story also.  “I remember her…there were so many that day…but I remember her especially.  Because I thought I killed her.”

There was a collective intake of breath, as the theater sat hushed and still, suddenly aware that we were seeing something different.  That the pairs were not of fellow survivors, but of survivors and perpetrators.  That each person recounting their story of horror, was sitting next to someone responsible for that horror—a living icon of the healing power of forgiveness.

Father Ubald, maker of the film and presider over recent Frassati healing services, lost his parents to the genocide and only narrowly survived himself.  He believed that God spared him, and later used him, to bring the message of forgiveness to a country torn asunder by hate.  For him, the only path to recovery from the trauma, both for the individual and the country as a whole, was in the choice to forgive.  Forgiveness was the key to freedom for both survivors and perpetrators.  It was also the only way to arrest the power of hatred, and to break the cycle of violence.

Father Ubald had the opportunity to put this into practice when he met the man responsible for his mother’s murder.  He chose to forgive.  And because he knew it would be easy to dismiss such forgiveness as merely theoretical, he made it practical and concrete.  As a gesture of love, he committed to paying the schooling of the man’s son, and later his daughter as well.  This year, the daughter of a killer will finish medical school, financed by the mercy of one of his victims.

One cannot help but be inspired by these stories.  And yet, we struggle to put into practice even a fraction of what we witness.  Within ourselves, we hold hostage others guilty of much lesser crimes, refusing to forgive others of even small slights against us.  Those closest to us in particular can have an ability to injure us—and to be injured by us in turn, and by our unwillingness to forgive.

G.K. Chesterton quipped that “the Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”  For some of us, the challenge is even closer.  “All of our family was under one roof for the holidays…and nobody was murdered.  That’s the real Christmas miracle!” joked our retreat leader Colleen Kelly-Rayner.

Today’s Gospel tells the story of the unforgiving servant. He is himself released from an unpayable debt at the mercy of his master.  But when he encounters one who owes a much smaller debt, he seizes him and starts to choke him, demanding that the debt be repaid.

Jesus has harsh words for him: “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

Furthermore, Jesus tells us to forgive “not seven times but seventy-seven times”—that is, without limit.  He is inviting us to be like God.

We cannot become like God on our own; we need grace.  In order to forgive, we need God’s help.  The first step of forgiveness is to ask for the grace to forgive.  And sometimes, for the grace to want to forgive.  (Sometimes, to want to want to want to forgive…)

To forgive does not mean to erase what happened, to pretend that the was no real injury, no sin, no harm.   Rather, to forgive completely we must be honest about the evil that we are forgiving.  We are not pretending that evil away, but rather relinquishing revenge, relinquishing our right to exact payment, releasing our choke-hold on the one who owes us.

To forgive does not mean to forget.  According to the Catechism, it is “not within our power not to feel or to forget.”  We may continue to feel the pain of injury for some time.  In fact, notes Simcha Fisher, it may be that the “seventy-seven times” is for the same offense.  Even as our heart or emotions remind us of the injury, we can choose again to surrender our feelings to the Holy Spirit, and to offer forgiveness as an act of our will.

Thus the Lord’s words on forgiveness, the love that loves to the end, become a living reality. The parable of the merciless servant, which crowns the Lord’s teaching on ecclesial communion, ends with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” It is there, in fact, “in the depths of the heart,” that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.  CCC 2843

How do we surrender our heart to God in the midst of pain?  Father Solanus Benfatti, CFR, composed a Prayer Against Bitterness which I have found particularly helpful.  In it we are invited to come to God with the truth of what was done to us, but the greater truth about who we are and who God is.  We invite God to transform our pain, that it not become a prison for us.

Prayer Against Bitterness

Oh God, Heavenly Father. Thank you for my life. Thank you for wanting me. And for making me in the image and likeness of your Most Beloved Son in whom you are well-pleased. And for consecrating me into his Passion, Death, and glorious Resurrection at my baptism.

Father, right now, I feel hurt (sorrowful / angry /other), because _______. As a creature made wonderfully by you, and saved by the blood of the Lamb, and meant to be with you forever, I don’t deserve ______. And in the name of Jesus I reject and renounce the lie _________.

But I also do not want my natural anger and hurt to plant bitter roots in me and turn in to hatred and resentment. I renounce that and ask you, Father, in your merciful love, to send your Holy Spirit to block that from happening, even while I try to process properly the emotions I have and work to make reasonable and loving decisions to forgive, out of love for you, and following your example.

Also, I beg you to uproot bitterness and resentment that has taken residence in me in the course of my life. Give me memory of what I need to proceed humanly and forgive divinely. Send the Mother of your Son, Mary, to guide me, hand-in-hand all along the way.

I pray to you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Forgiveness_0001 Resized

Image Credit: scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

The Great Unknown

“Have no fear of moving into the unknown. Simply step out fearlessly knowing that I am with you, therefore no harm can befall you; all is very, very well. Do this in complete faith and confidence.”
-St. Pope John Paul II

March twenty-fifth may be the most important day in salvation history. It is traditionally regarded as “the day of creation, the day when God’s word decreed: ‘Let there be light’” (Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy). It is the day Adam and Eve fell, the day Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, the day the Israelites were led through the Red Sea, the day of Christ’s crucifixion—and the day of the Annunciation, which we celebrate today.

Our Lady’s fiat was foreshadowed from the very instant Adam and Eve were led out of the garden with the words, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel” (Genesis 3:15). Toil, thorns, and death may have lay ahead of them in the great unknown, but this “truly necessary sin of Adam” would be “destroyed completely by the Death of Christ,” and this “happy fault” would earn “so great, so glorious a Redeemer.” The road ahead may have been hidden, but the light at the end was not.

This moment was only the beginning of the story, for God’s promise would echo through the centuries in the hearts of people who “believed, hoping against hope” (Romans 4:18). Abraham stepped out in fearless obedience, leading his family away from home and into the unknown. Despite his age, he trusted that he would be a father someday—and when God nearly called him to sacrifice his beloved son, he did so willingly. Moses led his people through the Red Sea and out of Egypt, despite his doubts and weaknesses. Even with their many failings, the Israelites followed the Lord into the wilderness, where only he could guide them.

At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel asked Our Lady to take the next step into the unknown for the sake of all creation. “Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise…This is what the whole earth waits for” (St. Bernard of Clairvaux). He did not say that she would not suffer, or that her heart would not be pierced. He did not list all the twists and turns in the road ahead and show her how God would provide for her family along the way. He did not even guarantee that St. Joseph would be with her when her child was born—or when he died upon the cross on another March 25, when God fulfilled his promise from the dawning of the world.

What did the angel tell her? He spoke the words that still echo in the hearts of those who hope against hope, even when “all other lights [have gone] out.” The words that give us the strength to move forward whenever we are called to take a shaking step into the unknown. The words that give us courage when we tell our Father that we are here to do his will, even if we can’t understand where the road will lead or why we must take it. Do not be afraid. Nothing is impossible with God. God is with us—the Word made flesh, Emmanuel!

For Reference
Fra. Angelico captured this in his paintings: “Even the setting in this Annunciation scene lends itself to the mystery of the Incarnation…for in the background there is a door opening onto the unknown” (Fr. Guy Bedouelle, In the Image of St. Dominic). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annunciation_of_Cortona#/media/File:Fra_Angelico_069.jpg

Rebel Heart

Hearing about events and hangouts I wasn’t invited to…

Wondering what my life would look like if I had “normal” work hours and didn’t have to miss out on so much community time…

Being so joyful for all my friends getting married but my heart still aching and longing for my own vocation…

Seeing people’s posts on social media and feeling less-than…

Jealousy. Comparison. Envy. We’re all familiar with that throat-tensing burn of pangs of jealousy. It’s ugly. It’s messy. Even just typing out the four examples above made me cringe.

In today’s first reading, we hear the story of how Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him, then decided against that and threw him in a dry cistern before selling him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. At least Joseph’s brothers spared his life, but their actions basically still said he was dead to them.

The things we do when we are jealous and afraid. Now, most of us don’t go to the extremes of Joseph’s brothers, but envy is a deadly sin and is a temptation that sneaks up on all of us in some way. We live in a culture focused on being the best and having lots of attention all the time. Our society thrives on competition, competition, competition. Our bodies, minds, and souls are even created to ache for more, but that ache can only be fully satisfied by our Lord. So what happens? We end up self-loathing and licking our wounds. We can get caught in the vicious cycle of striving and proving ourselves, seeking earthly approval when the Heavenly Father’s voice is the only one that matters. We chase after other people’s dreams because we feel like that’s where we have to be, while God has greater adventures for us. His dreams are uniquely for us, surpass our wildest expectations of what we should or shouldn’t be doing, and point to our greater mission on this earth to get us to the ultimate goal of Heaven.

When we get caught up in striving to prove ourselves, it’s like we are running full-speed ahead on a hamster wheel: we don’t go anywhere, and we end up absolutely exhausted and frustrated. With trust and surrender, especially of those insecurities on our hearts that lead to jealousy, we can live from a place of being rooted and grounded in our identity as sons and daughters of God.

We have nothing to prove to God. He already knows the darkest, messiest corners of our hearts and loves us anyway. We don’t have to earn His love. We don’t have to earn His plans for our lives. As my grad school professor said, “God’s promises cannot be usurped, because they’re not ours to take. God’s promises can only be received as a free gift.”

Lord Jesus, forgive us for the times we’ve let envy take over. Help us to surrender with trust when we are weakened by jealousy and insecurity. Help us to trust in Your great plans for our lives. Give us the courage to say “yes” to who You are calling us to be.

“Lord, I offer up this rebel heart // So stubborn and so restless from the start // I don’t wanna fight You anymore // So take this rebel heart and make it Yours.” -Lauren Daigle, “Rebel Heart”

Hope and Trust

Have you ever noticed that the themes of Hope and Trust normally are paired together? These two themes also tend to point us to the Lord and the promise of happiness. If we place our trust in the Lord we will be blessed. The readings today focus on trust and hope, pointing out the difference between one who places his or her trust in earthly possessions and one who places his or her trust in Lord.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose hope is the LORD.” –Jeremiah 17:7
 
The Gospel makes a comparison between a rich man and a poor man, Lazarus. The rich man was rewarded during his time on earth, as opposed to Lazarus who received his reward in heaven. I must admit when I was younger I would read this passage and focus more on the rich man. I focused more on the fear that I might end up suffering the same fate as the rich man instead of focusing on the inspiring story of Lazarus. As humans, I think it is easy for us to fall prey to fear, and by doing so we lose sight of the hope that the Lord is really trying to show us. For the first time, I was able to read this passage without fearing I would endure the fate of the rich man. The truth is that our Lord is calling us to grow and draw closer to Him by asking us to place all our trust in Him. By doing so we will never have to worry about successfully enduring the hardships of this earthly life or even ending up like the rich man in the afterlife. We can be like the tree in the first reading from Jeremiah: “In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.” The reason why the themes of trust and hope are always paired together is because by placing our trust in the Lord we are promised the gift of hope, the hope of eternal life with Him and in Him.