Idols and Identity

It is so much easier to be happy when the sun is shining, and this Easter the weather cooperated. The world seemed to sing of the grandeur of God, commensurate with the joy of the season. The sun was bright, the flowers bloomed, and my spirits soared. “At last!” I thought. “God is providing a season of joy!”

But then the rains began. It rained for twelve days straight, skipping one, only to resume again and keep on raining. There was the standard flood of jokes about Noah’s ark in the Hudson Valley, but I felt the sog seeping deep into my soul. And when the rains stopped, the sog remained. It was as though my heart were wreathed in a mist of sadness that I could not explain, weighted by something I could not identify.

It happened that in mid-May I attended a mini-Unbound workshop led by the CFRs in Newburgh. Sitting in the church pews, I wasn’t paying close attention during the first talk. Instead, I kept rehashing in my mind how a friend had recently let me down. The transgression was minor, but my mind kept replaying it, a video gone viral in the worst way. “Let it go already!” the Girl I Ought To Be scolded. Even real me was annoyed, because it wasn’t a big deal. So why was I still thinking about it? Why did it, too, weigh on my soggy heart?

“Sometimes we cannot forgive, because underlying the injury is an identity wound.” I have heard many (many, many) talks on forgiveness, but here was a new angle. The speaker gave an example. A man is fired because of the actions of a co-worker. If that man’s job was his identity—that which gave him his sense of worth and meaning and importance—then there would be much more to forgive.

Was God speaking to me? During Lent a visiting Sister had spoken about how God had led her to do a “friendship fast,” because her friends had become her idols. I had felt an uncomfortable resonance as she spoke, but didn’t know what that might mean. Now I thought, was I making idols of my friendships? Was that also connected? Is that why I couldn’t just let go?

And then as we were led through (yet another) forgiveness exercise, I found myself back in two all-too familiar memories. Both times, I was deeply betrayed by someone I thought was a friend. Both times, a friend had turned against me, to side with someone more popular in a manner that was particularly cruel. Both times, the rejection was temporary, but my heart never forgot.

I had hoped for some new revelation; instead I found my eyes tearing at the same old stories that I had walked through so many times before. I had forgiven all so many times. I didn’t even feel bitterness toward the people involved, but here I was, crying again, over decades old spilled friendship. Again.

And as I thought about idols and identity I began to understand what the speakers were saying. I had thought that the problem with idols was that they took on the identity of gods in our life. Rather, I realize, they had become what gave me my identity.

My friends had given me an identity. I felt that failures in friendship meant that I was a failure. I looked to my friends to affirm my goodness, my lovability. I depended on friendship as if it were a god.

Depending on friends is not all bad. Human relationships are meant to be conduits of the grace of God. Human love is the medium by which we most easily and most often experience the love of God. But human love images, and points to, the divine love. It does not replace it.

Anything can become an idol. My own virtue. Morality. My to-do list. My sense of mission. The idols of ought: what my life ought to look like; the girl I ought to be. Particular forms of liturgy can become the object of worship, rather than the means of worship. My political or religious affiliations can become more important than God.

There is a severe mercy in being stripped of our idols, and the accompanying false identities. It is a mercy because it is for our good. But it is severe.

The answer is to choose faith: not just faith in who God is, but in who I am in Him. Faith that I am lovable. Faith that I am not alone. Faith that there is good in me. That I am known, and not found wanting, not found to be no good. Not rejected, not abandoned, not forsaken.

Lord I believe; help my unbelief.

 

What Are You Waiting For?

“Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.” -2 Corinthians 6:2

Now is a very acceptable time.

Last week at a youth ministry conference I was at, one of the speakers posed the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It has stuck with me ever since and made me ponder in prayer how much I let fear hold me back.

Fear runs deeper than just being scared. Fear is the voice from the enemy that tries to ruin what God wants us to do before we even take a first step. Fear comes from the accuser that tells us we’re not enough, that we aren’t cut out for it. Fear brings anxiety in trying to have all the answers and figure things out when God just wants us to be present with Him.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Now is a very acceptable time.

What are you holding back from God? What is blocking your heart from His?

Behold. He is with you. He wants to give you whatever it takes for what He is calling you to. He won’t lead you astray.

Behold. Each moment God gives us is a gift, a grace that we can use to radically love or to doubt Him or ourselves and put things off for another day.

What are we putting off? Is it more time in prayer? Is it a job change you know you need? Is it a mission trip you feel God calling you to? Is there someone in your life you need to forgive?

Now is that very acceptable time to take that next step towards God, wherever He is leading you on His path of peace. Be not afraid.

A Sacrifice of Praise

“Lord, I am your servant,
your servant, the child of your maidservant;
you have loosed my bonds.
I will offer a sacrifice of praise
and call on the name of the LORD.”
– Psalm 116:16–1

Many years ago, a Dominican friar told us—a group of fairly naïve college students—that we would wish we had suffered more once we came to the end of our lives. Back then, sitting in that dimly lit church, anxiously awaiting the day of our total consecration to Jesus through Mary, how could we have understood his words? For, as St. Paul writes in today’s first reading, we are suffering; we are afflicted. The whole world “is groaning in labor pains even until now” (Romans 8:22), whether these pains are from illness, poverty, loneliness, loss, betrayal, our own struggles and sins, or even death itself. We are perplexed—we don’t understand how our loving Father could allow such sorrow, and we may never know the whole story behind the problem of pain on this side of Heaven.

What do we know? Let’s start at the beginning. This valley of tears was not God’s original plan for us, not before the fall. Yet, even when we chose to hide our faces from him, his love was so great that he devised a plan more wonderful than we could have ever imagined. He chose to suffer with us, dying in the most horrific way possible, to loosen our bonds, to open the gates of Heaven, and to lead us home. And, as St. Pope John Paul II says, Christ’s passion gave our pain a supernatural value. “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his sufferings, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (Salvifici Doloris). Think about it. This world may very well be that valley of tears. But, every tear now has meaning and power when united to his sufferings. Our prayers and sacrifices, whether they are St. Therese of Lisieux–sized or St. Teresa of Calcutta–sized, will help bring our brothers and sisters home to Love itself.

Even if this is all a mystery, and the pain is too great—we do not have to bear it alone. From his cross, at the height of his passion, Christ gave us Mary, his mother, to be our mother. And, he gave us to Mary to be her children—just as he tells his Father “they are your gift to me” (John 17:24), we are a gift to Mary! St. Louis de Montfort writes, “As in the natural life a child must have a father and a mother, so in the supernatural life of grace a true child of the Church must have God for his Father and Mary for his mother” (True Devotion to Mary). We are the spiritual children of the handmaiden of the Lord, whose own heart was pierced by a sword of sorrow. We can run to her in complete trust, asking for her intercession, weeping with her each step of the way, “closely united to Him unto the Cross, and so that every form of suffering, given fresh life by the power of the Cross, should become no longer the weakness of man but the power of the Cross” (Salvifici Doloris).

If that wasn’t enough, Christ found a way to physically stay with us “always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). How? Precisely through what is described in today’s psalm: a sacrifice of praise—the Eucharist, Body and Blood, together with the Soul and Divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we read in the catechism, “The Eucharist is the heart and the summit of the Church’s life, for in it Christ associates his Church and all her members with his sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving offered once for all on the cross to his Father; by this sacrifice he pours out the graces of salvation on his Body which is the Church” (CCC 1407). We even hear this as the priest says Eucharistic prayer 4: “We offer You His Body and Blood, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world. Lord, look upon this sacrifice which You have given to Your Church; and gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one Body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise.”

Death may be at work in us, as St. Paul writes, but life is also present, and this life grows every time we receive the Eucharist, a living sacrifice of praise. Our hearts are changed when we receive him in the Blessed Sacrament and cooperate with grace, so that his life “may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). Our hearts become more like his heart as they too are taken, blessed, and broken, meant to be shared through the tears—and meant to be filled with his joy, another mystery. As C.S. Lewis writes, “Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it” (A Grief Observed). Our grief can, miraculously enough, become joy when united to his, just as Christ told his apostles at the Last Supper when he instituted the Eucharist.

This life is full of suffering, yes, but there is also joy, even if that joy is tinged with the greatest sorrow. Call on his name and try to remember that the tears have power, even if your heart is breaking. Receive his own heart, blessed and broken in the Eucharist. Trust in the love of your mother, who always leads you to her Son, who is himself the answer to all our questions. As Lewis says, “What other answer would suffice?” What other answer could? Maybe we will someday be able to echo the words of St. Paul when he says, “I find joy in the sufferings I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church” (Colossians 1:24). And maybe, just maybe, we will someday be able to wish we had suffered more, as our hearts cry out of love for our brothers and sisters, with a love a little bit more like his.

Totus Tuus.

 

Reading Suggestions
St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of PainA Grief Observed, Till We Have Faces
Fr. Paul A. Duffner, O.P., Redemptive Suffering
St. Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris

Holy Spirit Inspired

Today we celebrate the memorial of St. Anthony of Padua, priest and doctor of the Church. Because the feast of Pentecost was celebrated last Sunday, the liturgical readings for this memorial particularly resonated with me. The Gospel quotes Jesus as He gives His disciples their ultimate mission:  “the harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” Luke 2:4
It is easy to read this passage as history instead of a direct call to action. As a child, I remember reading these passages and being interested in the disciples’ stories, but never making the connection to my own life.  We are the disciples of today, and the harvest is just as abundant as it was back in the earliest days when Jesus’ first disciples embarked on their mission. This past Pentecost weekend I was blessed to attend a rally where one of the speakers pointed out that the Lord constantly makes everything new.  This speaker believed the Lord is doing something new right now, preparing the Church as He did the disciples, but in a way that addresses the new and different times in which we live. The Church is like a volcano ready to erupt and when it does, it will change the landscape of the entire world.
As the disciples of this current age, we have work to do. With the strength of the Holy Spirit, we will succeed. “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, the LORD has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted. To proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” Isaiah 61:1

Strength in Our Mother

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I recently came across this image of a statue of our Blessed Mother in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, and ever since I stumbled upon it in my Instagram feed, I can’t stop thinking about the beauty of Our Lady here: holding our Lord steady in one arm, her other arm raised in prayerful intercession, worship, and her continual “fiat” to whatever the Lord asks of her.

Today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church. How beautiful that this feast is the day after Pentecost each year. Mary, the Spouse of the Holy Spirit and the Mother of Jesus, is our Mother, too.

We so desperately we need her as the Mother of our Church right now. In times of scandal and darkness, when the war against the culture of death feels like a losing battle, when persecution is happening every day, we need Mom. She knows all the graces we need to get through this life. And she shows us the way.

Mary teaches us about her “fiats,” and invites us to make our own with radical trust in the will of the Lord. She calls us to have a deeper surrender to her Son.

At the Annunciation, Mary’s “fiat” made her the Mother of God. At the foot of the cross, Mary’s “fiat” to allowing her Son to suffer and die made way for the salvation of mankind and also made her the Mother of our Church. The Church would not exist without Mary’s yes.

There’s something to Mary’s “fiat” that cuts to the heart–her yes didn’t make life easy or perfect; her yes brought the cross. But she trusted in God’s goodness enough to know that her yes would also make way for the resurrection. When things didn’t make sense, she trusted. When she was in immense pain at witnessing the suffering of her Son, she trusted. When things don’t make sense in our lives, either, we can trust and say a “fiat” of surrender to the Lord, who shatters all darkness with His light and brings resurrection out of every season of pain, who makes ways through circumstances that seem impossible.

Mary’s “fiat” was one of great strength. She was full of the grace of the Holy Spirit, with radical trust in the Lord, to say yes. Let’s strive to be like her–holding onto Jesus with everything we have, hands raised in surrender to whatever the Lord has for us, knowing that He is good.

When we can’t see the way, when we don’t understand: FIAT. Be it done unto me according to Thy word, because You are good, Lord, and always faithful. Mary, Mother of the Church, we need you. We need your intercession and protection. Pray for our Church, that the Body of Christ may be renewed and strengthened in love for your Son. Amen.

Appealing to Mercy

After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them,
he said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.”
He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.
And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
—John 21:15–19

There are a few instances in the Bible where we are given a direct contrast between two sinners—one who is remembered for his sins and another who is forgiven and honored. In the Old Testament, we see Saul and David. Neither of these kings were blameless in their actions, but only David—an adulterer and murderer—is described by God as “a man after His own Heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). How could David deserve such an honor? It is because David, unlike Saul, repented wholeheartedly of his sins. By dying to self and embracing humility, David entered the Heart of the Father.

Here in the New Testament, we have the contrasting examples of Judas and Peter. Both betrayed Jesus at the time of His Passion. But the reason that Judas is condemned for his sin instead of being forgiven alongside Peter is not because his sin is greater but because he despaired of God’s mercy. He could not believe that God was so good and merciful as to forgive even this ultimate betrayal, and so rather than kneeling before Him in humility and offering up his tears of regret, he gave up. Peter, however, was bold enough to place himself at the feet of Jesus even after denying Him three times and abandoning Him in His Passion. His trust was stronger than his fear, and Jesus’s love for him abounded all the more because of his humility and trust. Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to rewrite the narrative, asking him to affirm his love for the Lord three times, which echoed and reversed his three denials.

Nothing is more pleasing to God than repentance: appealing to His great mercy, acknowledging our sinfulness, and embracing our dependence on Him. God is not surprised by our sinfulness; in fact, He plans to use it for good—if only we allow Him. He chose the flawed Simon Peter to be the rock upon which He built His Church, for Peter had learned all the more to call upon the strength of God to act as that foundation, not on his own meager strength.

When we stumble and fall on our path, when we fall short of our own expectations, when we feel the sting of guilt wash over us, let us follow Peter’s example and turn to Jesus in trust. Let not our pride keep us from receiving His overflowing mercy.

Insta Set-up

A group of elementary school students got off a school bus at the rest stop. They instinctually gathered in formation and started a choreographed routine welcoming their classmates in the next bus that pulled up. Their joy spilled forth in rhythm as they stepped in time.

A student from our group prompted one of his classmates to join the children. The children embraced our student as he joined their circle; our students snapped the photos for Instagram. The freeze frame suggested a meaningful encounter that our student  initiated and embraced. Seeing the setup, though, contradicted the reality. Perhaps, contradicted is too strong a word. At the very least, it expanded the reality beyond the portrayal and sentimentality.

Sometimes, we read situations through a lens of what we assume to be reality without ever questioning the set-up. Other times, we orchestrate and edit to crop situations to what we desire to portray or what we think is desired of us.  Watching the scene unfold, compared to the still frame, it was the elementary students joy that was magnetic – not the forced participation of one of our students. This is not a call to be cynical of what we view; however, it is an invitation to question if we see through the lens of reality or our assumptions. 

Verso l’alto,

Kathryn Grace

 

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,

Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:

Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,

High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

 

It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day