Sweet Mercy

“Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins.” -Psalm 79

How great is the mercy of God. I sometimes feel, though, that it is a struggle to receive it. Jesus invites us to make our hearts an open space to receive the intense reality of His mercy for us. If our hearts are open to mercy, to truly receiving all the mercy God has for us, this means that we must not run from the reality of our sin or brokenness. We don’t need a Savior simply because we exist—we need a Savior because we are sinners, because we fall down, because we’re all broken. We have no need to be afraid of the Cross, for the Cross brings redemption, resurrection, transformation, and forgiveness. What a gift that Jesus not only knows our suffering so intimately but that He took it all upon Himself on the Cross, mercy poured out for us and the whole world.

Sin blinds us into thinking we can do it all on our own. Shame buries us so we feel like we have to do it all on our own. Despair haunts us into feeling like the weight of our sin is forever.

Praise God that He doesn’t deal with us according to our sins but from the standpoint of His mercy. His mercy covers a multitude of sins and cannot be exhausted. Do we receive it? Do we believe that there’s nothing too great or impossible for our God?

Amazing things would happen if we made ourselves radically available to the compassionate mercy of Christ our King and Savior. He makes Himself radically available to us in His infinite mercy, in the way He pursues after our hearts, in the way He overcomes all.

Mercy says that sin is not the end of our story. Mercy says that we are defined by what our Savior says of us, not what others say of us or what our sin says of us. Mercy enables us to get back up and keep going, day after day. Mercy has a name: Jesus, who is Love and Mercy itself.

“All grace flows from mercy … even if a person’s sins were as dark as night, God’s mercy is stronger than our misery. One thing alone is necessary: that the sinner set ajar the door of his heart, be it ever so little, to let in a ray of God’s merciful grace, and then God will do the rest.” -St. Faustina, Diary 1507

Redemption in the Present Moment

Notice the contrast between today’s first reading and Gospel reading. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that if a man is outwardly righteous and makes offerings before the altar of God, yet harbors anger within, then he will be “liable to fiery Gehenna.” Meanwhile, the reading from Ezekiel tells us that if a wicked man turns away from all his sins, “he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him.” Interesting, that per Matthew our good deeds do not excuse us from our present selfishness and hatred, while per Ezekiel our past sins do not block any hope of our redemption. What matters, then, is not the track record of good deeds we can present before God but the state of our heart in the present moment.

What are the intentions behind our good deeds? Are we trying to prove our worth, to God or to others? Or does our service stem from a genuine love of God? If our good actions are merely done for show, then they are meaningless. There aren’t any shortcuts to holiness—no matter how well we “follow the rules,” we can’t become saints if we aren’t also willing to do the hard work of forgiving our neighbors and striving to see each person as a beloved child of God.

But the good news, too, is that no matter how misguided our “good deeds” have been in the past, we are never, ever too far gone to hope for heaven. There is always hope for us to turn away from selfish thinking and lukewarm faith. We cannot allow our regrets for past sins to consume us, nor our worries for the future: what matters is the present moment. Will we open our hearts to God here and now? Will we let go of our attachments to sin and instead be motivated by love? Will we address the causes of our anger and seek healing instead of bottling it up within ourselves? If we do, if we tend to the state of our heart and continually choose God in the present moment, we will surely live, we shall not die.

White Pebbles

When we children were not behaving, and my father was beginning to lose his patience but not yet his sense of humor, he would glance at the woods behind our house and say, “It’s time to start gathering white pebbles!”

We knew well the story of Hansel and Gretel, and how the father, pressured by the wicked stepmother, brought his two children into the deep woods, intending to leave them there.  However, Hansel had overheard the plans, and filled his pockets with white pebbles.  As they walked further into the woods, he dropped the pebbles along the way.  When the two children awoke to find themselves abandoned and alone, Hansel reassured Gretel, and told her to wait for the moonrise.  Sure enough, when the moon rose, it illuminated a path of the white pebbles, leading them safely home to their rejoicing father.

A few years ago, I was in a Bible Study with Brother John Mary CFR in which he invited us to pray about our story, and write a five-minute testimony.  As I prayed, the image that kept coming to my mind was this story and the path of white pebbles.

I realize that in many ways my life is like that path of pebbles, illuminated as I look back, like a reverse treasure hunt.  So many moments that seemed random, insignificant, or even tragic and opposed to my good, looking back highlight instead a path leading to God the Father.  Small conversations, big obstacles, struggles that seemed senseless, set the way Home.  My life was a path of gifts and graces that I only recognized in hindsight.

However, as I sat with the story and the image, I realized something was “off.”  The father in that story was not a true image of God the Father.  While he was not as ill-intentioned as his wife, he bowed to her pressure to abandon his children, not once, but twice.

The Brothers Grimm tell us that the father was a poor woodcutter “who could no longer procure even daily bread.”  He fears for the family, anticipating that they will all die of starvation.  His wife’s solution is to get rid of the children. The father balks, but in the end succumbs to her pressure and his fear.

The father is happy when the children return home the first time, but when the wicked step-mother applies pressure again, he capitulates and leads them into the deep woods a second time.  This time, Hansel did not have the opportunity to gather pebbles, and so scatters instead a trail of breadcrumbs.  But birds eat these, and the moon rises only to show the children that they are truly lost and alone, and this time there is no path home.  (It was then that they found the fabled candy cottage, and the witch that forms the heart of that story).

At first, as I considered the weak woodcutter, I thought that I must have misunderstood what I had received in prayer.  But as I stayed with it, I realized that the metaphor for my life only deepened.  For my story is not just about a path to God, but about coming to know what kind of Father God really is.

For much of my life, I saw myself not unlike Hansel, left to figure things out for himself.  I imagined that God would be happy enough if I made it home to heaven—but that it was all up to me to do what it took to get there.  While I did not doubt God’s goodness or love in the abstract, I did not recognize it for myself personally and practically.  God’s goodness did not seem “enough” to really help me, to overcome my sin, to overcome the difficulties of the world and my life.   He would be waiting for me at the end, if I made it, if I became the Girl I Ought to Be, but in the meantime, I was on my own.

If I wanted to come Home to my Father, it was up to me to find the way.  It was up to me to figure out how to save myself.  It was up to me to be clever enough to outwit evil, to prove my worthiness.  The result was a life of spiritual striving, which only left me feeling further lost and unloved.

Jesus comes to tell a different story.  The Father is “Our Father”—a Father we have in common with Jesus.  He is Son by nature; we are children by adoption, by a gratuitous love.  And because our image of Father has been so distorted, Jesus comes to reveal the face of the Father by His life.  It is a face of mercy, of healing, of truth, and a love which goes out to “seek and to save the lost.”

Not only is God generous, providing for our daily bread and physical life; He Himself becomes our Bread.  He Himself is the path; He walks with us and provides the grace and means to get to heaven.  Unlike the woodcutter who chose self-preservation out of fear, Jesus walks the path to the Cross, and shows in Himself the self-giving, self-emptying love that would literally rather die than live without us.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us how to pray.  As we pray the Our Father, we are invited to praise and affirm belief in the goodness of God’s Fatherhood, and to pray for the coming of His kingdom—that earth may reflect fully the goodness of heaven.  We then remember His promise to take care of us as we then entrust our needs to Him—”Give us this day our daily bread…deliver us from evil.”  He is not a Father who abandons us, but rather Emmanuel, God with us.

 

 

Pebble-Path resized

Image Credit:

Michel Matton [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Open, Wounded, and On Fire

“Behold this Heart,” Jesus said sorrowfully, as He held His pierced Heart out to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. “Behold this Heart which has so loved men, that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself in order to testify to its love. In return, I have received from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and their sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this sacrament of Love.”

Jesus suffered all things, holding nothing back from us. He calls us to conform our hearts to be like His.

As we enter into this first full week of Lent, we are challenged by today’s Gospel to examine how we love others. Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

When we look at the Sacred Heart of Jesus and carefully observe how He loved in His time on earth, we know that He held His love back from no one, even the people who were most difficult to love. His Sacred Heart is totally open, totally vulnerable. No walls, no hesitation, no fear; He just gives. He gives Himself to us freely and totally—how will we respond? Do we hold anything back from the Lord out of self-preservation? Do we run to Him and spend time with Him in prayer? Do we have walls up with others? Do we put masks on pretending we’re okay? Do we withhold love from other people out of fear, resentment, or judgment?

Jesus’ Sacred Heart was also wounded, wounded for all souls. He intimately knows our pain. He understands what we go through. When we suffer, we can find solace in Jesus’ Sacred Heart that has been through it all for us. When others suffer, our hearts too, can beat for theirs, and God gives us the gift of being able to be His vessels of love and comfort for others when they are hurting. And when we suffer, we can unite our aching hearts to Jesus’ Heart, offering our pain to comfort Him on the Cross and for the good of others. Let’s not run from our crosses nor the crosses of others.

Finally, Jesus’ Sacred Heart is on fire, burning with so much love for us and for the Father. Sometimes this fire in our hearts gets put out by pride, sloth, fear, or lies from the enemy. Do our hearts burn with love and zeal for bringing others to the Heart of Christ? Jesus so desires to enkindle the fire of His love within us so that we can set the world on fire with His powerful love, healing, and redemption. The fire of His love and mercy cannot be contained, cannot be put into a box.

St. Francis of Assisi said, “Hold back nothing of yourself for yourself, so that He who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally.” Jesus, give us the grace to continue surrendering every part of ourselves to Your good will for us, daring to be totally open, accepting of our wounds and compassionate towards the woundedness of others, and on fire with Your radical love in our world that is so hungering for it.

A Joyful Fast

What comes to mind when we think of fasting?

Some personal thoughts that come to mind include deep hunger pangs, lack of energy, distracting myself to take my mind off the fact that I’m fasting…

Fasting, of course, can come in forms other than fasting from food… abstaining from social media, watching Netflix, a small daily comfort like creamer or sugar in your coffee… but regardless, the challenges of fasting may be the first thoughts that come to mind.  At times, we may even wonder honestly if any fruit is actually being born of our fasting. 

Our readings today can help us understand this Christian practice and our approach to it more fully.  The word of the Lord inspires an approach to fasting that may initially seem counterintuitive: a joyful disposition of heart.  The good news for us is that we can’t achieve this in our own power and we are not expected to – this is obtained by God’s grace.  First, we must understand His heart on the matter to see how the essence and fruit of fasting ultimately flows from the disposition lying beneath it.

A joyful fast?  Does this seem like a bit of a paradox?  In the gospel today Jesus seems to explain that his disciples are not fasting but feasting.  His prophetic wedding imagery seems to communicate that while He is with them there is joy and feasting, but His Passion and death will bring about their fasting.  Why then, in this time of Lent, as we anticipate Christ’s Passion and strive to enter into a spirit of penance am I suggesting we maintain a joyful heart?  I believe the answer lies in a deeper understanding of our Christianity so let’s dig a bit deeper…

Lord, help us see this through your eyes…

A couple passages from today’s readings:

“A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” -Psalm 51

“Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits…

…This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly…
breaking every yoke…
sharing your bread with the hungry…
sheltering the opressed… clothing the naked…
not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
And your wound shall quickly be healed”

-selections from Isaiah 58: 1-9 (emphasis mine)

This passage from Isaiah shows us that fasting in the way of the Lord, sacrificing with a sense of purpose and confidence in God’s power, heals.  It heals others and it heals us, and this healing leads to freedom.  Fasting in the way of the Lord has the power to heal and free us.  How beautiful!  This knowledge breeds hope the source of fasting with a joyful heart.

Now, we can begin to understand how it is possible to fast with a joyful heart – this joy is not feigned.  This joy is not a surface-level happiness.  It is a fruit of our hope, a virtue so central to our Christian faith.  Even as we fast in a spirit of penance, remembering the Lord’s Passion and Death as Jesus foreshadows in the gospel, we can maintain a joyful heart because as we truly unite to His suffering we are also joined to the hope of the resurrection.  This is the wonder of our God of paradoxes – through death we gain life.  So, through the sufferings of our Lenten fasting, God allows us to enter in to a deeper joy.  And because we live in the truth of the Resurrection, we can actually approach fasting with this joyful heart, for we know God will bring forth much fruit and new life from these genuine offerings of our heart.  It is our heart that God is seeking, as today’s Psalm reveals: “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” 

Now, I joyfully join in the sentiments of my priest’s parting words at our Liturgy* last Sunday as I wish you a “Happy Lent!”

Lord, help us begin with a humble and contrite heart.  May we experience the freedom that your forgiveness brings, and may this freedom bring us true joy.   From our joy, we present our hearts, our Lenten actions, and fasting to you, in the hope of your power and the confidence that you will bring forth new life.  Thank you for this season of Lent.  We surrender and consecrate it to you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.   


*You may have noticed my using the term Liturgy instead of Mass. My husband and I often celebrate Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic Church, an Eastern tradition of our Catholic faith. (Yes, the Byzantine Catholic rite is in communion with the Pope, and yes, you can attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy to fulfill your Sunday obligation! 🙂 ) …I’ll have to devote a future post on the beauties of the Eastern rite in the future! For now, I’d love to invite you to pray this Prayer of St. Ephrem, which focuses on virtues Christians are called to practice always, and especially during Lent. The Byzantine Rite prays this during Lent (The Great Fast) and encourages it to be prayed daily during this season.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Spare me from the spirit of apathy and meddling,
Of idle chatter and love of power.

Instead, grant to me, Your servant,
The spirit of integrity and humility,
Of patience and love.

Yes, O Lord and God,
Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins
And not to judge others,

For You are blessed,
Now and forever.   Amen

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number

One of these choices is not like the other

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As an actress, I have frequented circles where the pursuit of life, love and the absolute virtue of self-expression reign supreme: Live your truth. If it’s you and it makes you happy, go for it. The universe is looking out for you.

These messages are found not only in my artist circles—they saturate all of our relativistic society and egalitarian culture, where nothing is objectively true and all is subjective; where no one or no One can be Lord over the “almighty” individual. It is all too clear who is the ruler of this world (hmm…does this make anyone want to shout the conquering cry of the Angel of Victory?)

This is in no way to stand in judgment over any colleagues or friends—far from it. I too lived this way during my “cherry picking” days and had some problems with claiming absolutes, especially where the Church was concerned. Without being rooted in my identity as a daughter of the Most High or knowing about the the infinite treasures and wisdom of Holy Mother Church in a meaningful way, it was all too easy for me to think that I was doing alright as long as I was a “good person;” that I had my life over here and could put God someplace else to visit when it was convenient.

Slowly, mercifully, over the years of deeper conversion, the Lord convicted me. He opened my heart to the immensity of His unique, personal love for me (and for each of us). He opened my eyes to the spiritual reality and battle of our existence, where there is indeed an absolute choice to be made.

Moses says, in no uncertain terms:

Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish…

Easy enough choice, right? When looking at the eternal bliss of Heaven or the infernal horrors of Hell, who would willingly choose death over life? Yet that is the trap so many of us fall into when we willfully turn our hearts away from God for whatever reason, refusing to listen to the Truth—the Truth of His love for us, and the responsibility we have as His children. And not only listen to the Truth, but to joyously and actively choose to obey.

In the Gospel today, Jesus shares with His intimate friends a harrowing picture of the sacrifice He will make for the salvation of sinners. Knowing the infinite value of our souls and the passing temptations of this world, Christ then invites us all to make that choice to deny ourselves, daily take up our cross, and follow Him; to choose eternal life over eternal death. Today we celebrate the Feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who give witness to this in a powerful way. As St Paul writes in Romans 8:18–

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

In this life, we should strive for nothing short of sanctity—Heaven is the realm of Saints and that is our true land. This is something I have to constantly remind myself of whenever I’m tempted to be “led astray and adore and serve other gods:”

When I care more for the opinions of others and it feels easier to keep my mouth shut in conversation rather than defend my Catholic faith and beliefs; when I let talk venture into uncharitable gossip because it’s all in “fun;” when I let jealousy poison my opinion of another person rather than seeing that person, and the gifts He has bestowed upon me, through the eyes of God; when I’d rather scroll through social media or watch Netflix rather than pray with Scripture or the Rosary.

Every day in countless small ways and in all sorts of places—at work, on the train, on the streets—the Lord invites us to die to ourselves, to love Him, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments. We can turn away from Him, piercing His Heart with our refusal, or we can turn to Him with our whole heart.

I have come to relish the moments when someone asks about the Divine Mercy image at my dressing room table, or notices my scapular peeking out, or learns that I attend daily Mass and bi-weekly confession (working up to weekly, Padre Pio!). Yes, even the moments of wide-eyed disgust when passersby see me, a young woman of color, standing outside Planned Parenthood in prayer. These moments of encounter open the door to astonishment and plant the seeds of grace.

The world around us is hungry for Truth and real Love. The universe and the gods that we make in our own image will never satisfy our deepest desire for God.

When we ask for the grace to live boldly and joyfully the proclamation that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD, that there is no other, and that we were made for so much more than what the world offers—we will receive it.

When our seemingly ordinary days are colored by the extraordinary fact that Our Lord’s sacrifice and His infinite love for us, that Heaven is real (as is Hell), and that we have a choice to make—who knows how many souls we can win for the Lord?

Let us join with the universal Church in prayer for the Holy Father’s intention this month–that Christian communities, especially those who are persecuted, feel that they are close to Christ and have their rights respected.

Be faithful. Be authentic. Most of all, be not afraid. The victory is His.

Choose life, then.

Choose life.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, pray for us!

“And nothing would again be casual and small”

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The just one’s sacrifice is most pleasing,
nor will it ever be forgotten.
(Sirach 35:9)

Imagine making a sacrifice that causes Heaven to spin out in such rejoicing for all the ages to come.

What do you think that would be? What would it take?

Of course, we may rightly think of Our Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion, whose infinite merits we cannot even begin to grasp while on this side of eternity.

And yet…

Would you believe that something as “simple”as the sacrifice of making a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, or a good and graced confession, does just that?

St. Mother Teresa, in her book Rosary Meditations: Loving Jesus with the Heart of Mary, writes when contemplating the first Sorrowful Mystery—the Agony in the Garden:

The blood He sweat was grief poured out from a broken Heart, caused by the sorrow of His Eucharistic Love being so rejected. Then an angel brought Jesus indescribable strength and consolation by showing Him every Holy Hour that you would ever make. At that moment in the garden, Jesus saw you praying before Him now and He knew that His love would be returned.

This is why your visit today is so important to Him. Your Holy Hour consoles Him for those who do not love Him, and wins countless graces for many to be converted to Him.

And Luke 15:10 tells us about the dance of the angels:

In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

The just one’s sacrifice is indeed most pleasing.

What a fitting set of readings, then, to contemplate before the beginning of Lent, widely known as “the time to give yummy things up!”

This season is about so much more than muscling through your morning without coffee (though for some that struggle is real, I believe it! For me personally, it’s chips.)

This time that Holy Mother Church sets aside for us to turn back to God, to journey deeper with Jesus into the wilderness of our lives, is one that can bear great fruits of joy, sacrifice and praise—if we allow ourselves to be led and pruned by the Holy Spirit as He wills.

This is the season for delving deep to ask: Where in my life has my love grown cold? Where do I value comfort over acts of sacrifice? How aware am I of the Lord walking through my every moment with me?

Every heartbeat should remind us of the Lord’s infinite love and mercy, yet it is so easy to become numb and distracted with the anxieties and preoccupations of the everyday and the world around us.

However, even that very heart is a gift.

We only have what has first been given to us, poor as we are. But Our Father is so very rich and desires to share with us all that He has, just as Jesus gives all of Himself.

Our Lord makes Himself so vulnerable in thirsting for us to love Him and to let Him love others through us, that the more we come to know Him, the less we want to hold back anything from Him.

God is not to be outdone in generosity. Ever. Jesus promises that in the Gospel reading of today and shows us this repeatedly throughout His public ministry.

We may wonder at times what can we really offer the Lord, what can we give of any real consequence. But our wild, most beautiful Lord desires us to work with Him in His plan of salvation and redemption, offering to Him all that we can, no matter how “small” or “insignificant” (fish and loaves, anyone?).

How varied are the blessings He gives to us? This then should ignite our souls to find new ways of loving Him each day!

In 2 Cor 9: 6-8, St. Paul encourages us to sow bountifully so as to reap bountifully, and that…

…God loves a cheerful giver. Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work.

We can be sure that whatever we do offer to God in love, in union with Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, has infinite value beyond what we can ever dream.

As Rev. John Duffy writes in his poem “I Sing of a Maiden,” recounting the Annunciation and Mary’s fiat, “And nothing would again be casual and small.

This Lent let us ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with His fire and love so as to grow and give beyond our comfort zones.

Let us pray for each other as we find new ways of putting our love for God and neighbor into living action, sacrificing with a cheerful heart in the (not so) small and hidden ways, all of which are seen and cherished by Our Heavenly Father.