Love One Another

Jesus said to his disciples:
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
—John 15:12–14

Jesus, knowing that He only has a few more hours to spend with His disciples, knowing that they will soon be tested in ways unimaginable to them, speaks these words with great care and intention: “Love one another as I love you.” Just hours later, He shows them what His love really looks like. Spread out upon the Cross, pouring out His love and mercy until the very end, He gives us a model of boundless, sacrificial love.

How could we possibly keep this commandment, to love one another as He loves us? Amidst our sins and human frailty, the love that is shown to us on the Cross seems utterly unattainable for us. We are neither courageous enough to face martyrdom nor humble enough to accept insults in silence, and our love for others is guarded by our fears. But Jesus does more than just tell us to follow in His impossible footsteps. When we receive His love, He begins to love through us. In order to truly love one another with a love that echoes Calvary, we must know—really, truly know at the core of our being—that He loves us madly.

When we deeply know this truth, it changes us utterly, and we see the proof of this through the saints. Look at the radiant love of Mother Teresa as she serves the poorest of the poor, or the devotion of St. Damian, sacrificing his life serving the lepers who had been cast out of society. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was beloved by so many because he loved so well, and he always credited this to his devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist, saying, “Jesus comes to me every morning in Holy Communion; I repay Him, in my very small way, by visiting the poor. The house may be sordid, but I am going to Christ.” Pier Giorgio, too, expressed God’s radiant love in his very being, not by trying to achieve greatness but by allowing himself to be loved.

When you are totally consumed by the Eucharistic fire, then you will be able more consciously to thank God, who has called you to become part of His family. Then you will enjoy the peace that those who are happy in this world have never experienced, because true happiness, oh young people, does not consist in the pleasures of this world, or in earthly things, but in peace of conscience, which we only have if we are pure of heart and mind.
—Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

Do Not Be Afraid!

Do not be troubled or afraid, Jesus proclaims! “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (John 14:27)
This passage may be one of the most powerful in the scriptures because it would have been one of the last times Jesus addressed all of His disciples before His ascension into heaven. He wanted to make sure they knew exactly what was going to happen after He left them. Jesus was completely honest, explaining that they would encounter evil and would need to confront it, but He also gave great promise of His peace and the guarantee this peace would always be with them. There would be hardship, pain and suffering, but through all of these, Jesus Christ would remain with them so they had nothing to fear. “The ruler of the world is coming. He has no power over me.” (John 14:30) for Jesus had defeated him already on the cross at Calvary.
What a wonderful blessing this promise is, not only for the disciples, but for all of us. Anyone who truly loves the Lord has nothing to fear. In the first reading, the scripture provides a perfect example of the power of God’s promise and His will for His chosen people. St. Paul was stoned to the point of death but survived. Even after he was nearly killed, he never weakened in his conviction that he needed to continue the Lord’s mission–if anything, the stoning only gave Paul more strength.
The peace of God undoubtedly abides in us and we rely on it in times of great trial. This world can be extremely hard–what a gift that we can combat its hardships with the power of Jesus Christ surrounding us

A Rose Wrought from Steel

In strewing my flowers… I will sing, even if my roses must be gathered from among thorns; and the longer and sharper the thorns, the sweeter shall be my song.
—St. Therese of Lisieux

On this day nearly one hundred years ago, St. Therese of Lisieux was canonized by Pope Pius XI. A sheltered girl turned cloistered Carmelite nun, this young woman died when she was only 24 years old. She would later be declared a Doctor of the Church—along with St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Hildegard of Bingen.

Many may think of St. Therese as just the “little flower,” a naive girl perfectly fashioned for children’s stories. However, her spiritual autobiography reveals a soul filled with an intense longing for God, a deep-seated courage, and an absolute trust in him as her loving Father, even in the midst of great suffering. As Pope John Paul I wrote in his Illustrissimi, “[She] called [her book] ‘The story of a spring flower.’ To me the will-power, courage and decisiveness it showed made it seem more like the story of a piece of steel. Once [she] had chosen the path of complete dedication to God, nothing could stop [her]: not illness, nor opposition from outside, nor inner confusion and darkness.” How similar this is to her role model, St. Joan of Arc, who, according to Chesterton, “chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt!”

St. Therese had wild and holy daydreams, feeling “called to be a soldier, priest, apostle, doctor of the church, martyr… to perform all the most heroic deeds for… Jesus.” She felt in her soul “the courage of a crusader, of a soldier for the Church, and [wished] to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church.” Yet, face to face with her limitations, she found that her vocation was to love, for “Love alone makes its members act… if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood.” She understood “that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places… in a word, that it is eternal!” Her dreams were realized by staying “close to the throne of the King and Queen” as a little child, patiently suffering out of love and rejoicing out of love, “letting no little sacrifice pass.”

In today’s Gospel and the following verses, Christ exhorts his apostles to have such trust in him and in the Father, for “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” St. Therese embodied this childlike faith in her “little way” of spiritual dependence on God. She was not childish; she courageously worked hard to overcome her weaknesses and childhood sorrows. She had a deep life of prayer and desire for holiness, choosing to let her imperfect heart rest in and abandon itself to God alone. As St. Pope John Paul II said in a homily at Lisieux, “The Spirit of God enabled her heart to reveal directly… the reality of the Gospel: the fact of having really received “a spirit of adoption as children that makes us cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The ‘Little Way…’ holds a confirmation and renewal of the most fundamental and universal truth. For what truth of the Gospel message is more fundamental and universal than this: that God is our Father and we are his children?”

One of the places from which St. Therese received this spirit of humility, trust, living in the present moment, love, and gratitude was in the home, from her own parents, St. Louis Martin and St. Zelie Martin. She called them “a father and mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.” They showed her the face of the Father through how they faced the unexpected joys and sorrows of life with courage, entrusted their hearts to divine providence, and fiercely loved all who entered their lives. May we strive to act with the same childlike trust, persevere with the same courage, and faithfully love with the same strength, despite our weaknesses, so that others may see the face of the Father in ours and know how deeply loved they are.

St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us!

 

Reading Suggestions
St. Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul
Fr. Jacques Philippe, The Way of Trust and Love
Fr. Jean-Pierre De Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence
Dr. Tom Neal, “The Vocation to Furious Love”

To Be A Servant

Jesus issued the call to discipleship as servants to others, not only to His personal followers but to those of us who would follow in His footsteps in the future.  This message is preached to us as Christians so often, the meaning of it can lose its significance.  In fact, Jesus lost disciples who were seeking to follow a king, not a servant. Jesus offers true disciples a more personal opportunity for service than simply being part of a military or political entourage.  Would any ruler in this world wash anyone else’s feet himself?! Washing the feet of all His disciples the night before He died was symbolic for Jesus in embracing His role as the Messiah. Now we are called to take up the servant role as we follow the path set by our Master. By accepting this role, we express our humility.

Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him.
—John 13:16–18

All our gifts, talents and abilities were bestowed on us by God. There is nothing we can do except through the power of Jesus Christ. As we move forward on our life’s journey, we should consider our place in the world differently, even in the slightest circumstances. We should be kind to our brothers and sisters every chance we have. Let someone merge in front of us in traffic; let a coworker have the last donut in the break room; put your loose change in the tip jar at your favorite coffee shop. These small acts of kindness not only bring us closer to our fellow humans but also to the One who commissioned us to be kind in imitation of His unfailing kindness. Since Jesus no longer walks among us in the flesh, God’s hands must truly be our own.

Who’s At the Door?

When my little friends Nicholas (then 8) and Theresa (6) came to spend a day in New York City, the first stop was my apartment. As we ascended the many stairs to my sixth-floor walk-up, Nicholas exclaimed excitedly, “Cie-Cie you are so lucky! You live at the top of a skyscraper!” Theresa, with much less enthusiasm, asked, “Are we there yet?”

Climbing that many stairs is no joke. One can see in it an opportunity “hey—at least you don’t need a gym!” or a helpful deterrent, “any burglar would decide it’s not worth it.” It’s true; I didn’t even need the peephole. If someone knocked on the door, I knew they were either a really good friend or somebody to be paid.

Here upstate it is another story. It is not infrequently that I hear a knock on the door and find someone standing on our porch. Often it is a stranger—a salesman, someone campaigning for political office, a Jehovah’s Witness. Sometimes I am happy to see that it is someone I know; and sometimes it is the joy of a close friend come to visit.

In Rev 3:20, Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” In a famous painting, Jesus is standing outside a wooden door, knocking. The door has no handle; it can only Who's At the Doorbe opened from the inside.

In this context, my father used to note that there were degrees to which we let someone into our home. Some we will allow to step just inside, enough to hand us a flyer or get a signature. To some we might open the door and receive them into the entry hall. A few we will invite in to sit down for polite conversation. Close friends will come into the kitchen or sit down for a meal with us. Very close friends and family are invited to spend the night.

But even when we say, “make yourselves at home,” we only mean it to go so far. There are very few people that we allow into the more private spaces of our home; fewer still we would allow to go into our medicine cabinets or dresser drawers.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “I call you friends.” He wants to be that trusted friend—the one invited past the parlor of polite talk, into the mess, the rooms of our daily living where the “real stuff” happens. Into our private spaces. Into the closets that store our clutter and our skeletons. Into the attic where our memories are boxed up and forgotten.  Into the basement where the bodies are buried.

For many years I thought about the words of my father, but they seemed more poetic than practical. How did one invite Jesus in? What did it even mean to be a “friend” of Jesus?

It didn’t help that my idea of friendship with Jesus was influenced by a lot of bad 70’s art. There was the statue of “buddy Jesus” that still makes me cringe, or I imagined a hippie Jesus who wanted us to sit down, hold hands, and sing “kumbaya.” Worse is a more contemporary reduction, people seeing Jesus as some sort of pocket charm or device, that one looks to for answers or help, but then goes back in the pocket and stays there—especially when clothes come off.

I knew that prayer meant opening the door to Jesus.

But then what?

First, just do it.  Start praying.

But after that, the best advice I ever received about prayer was to change “God” or “Him” to “You.” I need to speak to God directly.

Before that, I had been sort of saying my prayers out into the universe, hoping by faith that there was a God on the other end to catch them. Sometimes my prayer was only thinking about God. Often it was abstract pondering, worrying about what God might want of me, how I was or was not living up to The Plan, what the future might hold.

My life changed when I began to speak to God directly. Instead of “I wonder if God wants me to do this,” I asked, “Lord, do YOU want me to do this?” Instead of, “I think God is mad at me,” “Lord, do you love me right now?” I replaced “I don’t know what this Gospel passage means,” with, “Lord, what do you want to show me today?”

In the beginning, this direct prayer was awkward and strange. Just as when we invite strangers into our homes and our lives, at first we relate formally and perhaps somewhat awkwardly, unsure of what to say. But over time, we grown in familiarity and intimacy.

For many years I spoke of Him
in the third person
objective, abstract,
with truth but without affection
dutifully sounding the gong and clashing the cymbal
of obedience to a Him.

But then the Third Person visited
And He became You
And You changed everything.

 


 

Featured Image Credit: William Holman Hunt [Public domain]

 

 

“_________.” (Insert Your Name Here)

“How’s my sweetheart?” my grandma said on the other end of the phone call. Those three words immediately put my anxious heart at ease. It was my junior year of college, and I was going through one of those seasons of lots of change where my heart felt like it had been through the wringer.

The way the voice of a person who knows and loves us deeply can instantaneously calm us is something to marvel at. Everything about that seemingly ordinary phone call with my grandma years ago was exactly what my heart needed. We didn’t talk about anything extravagant; I updated her on my classes and the fall break service trip I was going on, and she told me the latest updates on how her church was doing. But it was the deep tenderness and care for me with which she spoke that turned it into a phone call I will always remember.

In today’s Gospel, we are told more of the Good Shepherd narrative that we heard in Mass yesterday: “The sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3).

Jesus knows you by name. He calls you by name because He intimately knows you and cares for you. He calls you by name so that you know that with Him you are safe, that you are not just another face in the crowd. You’re so much more than just one of the flock to Him. On the days when you feel forgotten or unseen, stop and imagine Jesus saying your name with great rejoicing.

Jesus’ track record of trustworthiness is pretty great. He’s gotten you through every single day so far, and He won’t stop now. Through every hill and valley, He’s been there, steadily leading you, calling you by name. He has protected you in all things, going before you so that you wouldn’t have to go through anything He didn’t already (John 10:4).

In moments of weakness, where the voices of the world and the enemy swirl around you to distort and distract, listen for the only voice calling you intimately by name, the voice of Jesus, and follow. He will surely lead you to safety.

So, stop and listen today.

“_________.” (Insert your name here)

He so sweetly calls you by name.

A Posture of Humility

This week, I helped facilitate the confession line for a group of middle schoolers. Many were nervous; several had not gone to confession in years. I tried to help settle their nerves and calm their fears before going in, assuring them of God’s great mercy and that there was nothing to be scared about. A few children inspired me with their eagerness to enter the confessional—one who hadn’t been in six years, as well as one who had just gone last week. They didn’t allow any apprehensions to hold them back from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. They simply went forward with a sincere trust that by humbling themselves before God, they would experience grace. And what inspired me the most was that all these kids, even the ones who were most nervous, came out of the confessional beaming with joy and relief.

Kneeling in the shadows of the confessional, coming face to face with the reality of our sin and articulating it aloud—this is not something that demeans or diminishes us. Rather, it ennobles us, for it unites us more closely with our Creator as part of His Divine Body. By kneeling down and making ourselves small, we become part of a greater whole. Yet many of us hesitate to take this posture of humility. Sometimes a sense of perfectionism holds us back from admitting our mistakes, even to ourselves. But this sort of perfectionism is ultimately rooted in fear—that our faults will make others think less of us, or that God will be disappointed in us (as if He doesn’t already know all that we’ve done!). So instead of confessing our sins, we live in denial of their existence—and then we never receive the graces that will help us overcome them. We never come to understand that our goodness does not come from ourselves, but from the God who loves us so much that He laid down His life to redeem us in our sinfulness.

Jesus Himself has taken the ultimate postures of humility: on the Cross, with His arms spread open in surrender; and in the Eucharist, where He comes to us as Bread and Wine, food for us to consume. Through these gestures of love, He offers Himself as a gift to us. His arms are open wide to receive us; His Flesh nourishes and strengthens our souls. He offers His Body, broken and crushed, to heal us of our own brokenness:

For my Flesh is true food,
and my Blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood
remains in me and I in him.
—John 6:55–56

This week I also mourned the passing of John Aroutiounian, with whom I co-taught a Confirmation class three years ago. I was so moved by his eulogy, which reflects on the mystery of redemptive suffering and illustrates the fullness and meaning of his short life. John was very intelligent, had multiple prestigious degrees, and likely would have gone on to have a remarkable career. Yet when presented with a more humble calling—to suffer deeply, to physically waste away, to witness to the strength of the human spirit and the dignity of life even amidst great affliction, and to lay down his life at just 26 years old—he did not hesitate to embrace this cross. During his life, John fought to defend the dignity of every human life—even our enemies, even those who are inconvenient to us. He was a pro-life advocate and volunteered as a suicide hotline counselor. He believed at his core that life, every life, was worth living, and that each human soul has incalculable, eternal worth. He gave no greater witness to this conviction than through his own suffering and death.

We all have a natural desire to protect and shelter ourselves and our loved ones against suffering. However, it is through those painful experiences that we encounter the true meaning of our existence. Only when brought to our knees by suffering do we realize how deeply we must depend on God. A happy, complacent life can cause us to forget that, in the words of St. Thérèse, this world is our ship, not our home. We are meant for something greater; our deepest desires will not find fulfillment in this world but point us to the fulfillment that awaits us in heaven. And the path to heaven is through the Cross, following in the footsteps of our Redeemer.

Indeed, the fear of suffering can be worse than actual suffering. For when God allows us to suffer, He provides the graces in that moment to bear crosses we never thought we could carry, as long as we surrender to Him, acknowledge our own weakness, and trust that He will use every second of our pain for His divine purpose. Only by lowering ourselves into the depths of our humanity can we be raised into the divine Light. If we accept our crosses with a posture of humility, our suffering will surely bear fruit.