Holy Hands

“Fortitude presupposes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. An angel can not be brave because he is not vulnerable. To be brave actually means to suffer injury. Because man is by nature vulnerable, he can be brave.” (Four Cardinal Virtues, 117). 

 

The Lord’s resurrected hands are empty; there are holes in his hands. His brave heart is manifested by these access points of mercy. Yet, it is possible to see these openings and be wholly disappointed as the scars aren’t healed and the holes aren’t closed. It’s easy to foolishly believe the transformation is incomplete.

He is able to be brave because he is vulnerable; he suffered because He cared. His wounds illuminate His glory and allow His life giving water to flow. From the Father’s heart, his holy hands pour forth amazing grace as the physical reminder of the spiritual reality. He wholly offered himself up so that we might believe our wounds too will transcend reality and be invitations, and reminders, of His transformative love. May we imitate the Lord as we surrender the holes in our lives to be transformed and filled by God’s glory and grace. May our scars remind us we are brave.

Verso l’alto,

Kathryn Grace

 

I got the eye of the tiger, the fighter, dancing through the fire

These wounds are a story you’ll use 

hope reminds me that i’ll hold your hand

Honest to God

Years ago, I was struggling in my faith, longing for the experience of God that others seemed to have but that was lacking in my life despite years of Catholic practice.  I knew by faith that God was there the way one knows that the sun is there, even on a cloudy day when it is completely hidden–I knew that He had to be there, but I couldn’t feel any warmth or light or personal sign of His Presence. As my desire to encounter Him grew (I did not then know that this was a good sign of His already working in my life!) I became more and more frustrated and depressed, and so sought out spiritual direction.

“You need to talk with God about why you are angry with him.”

“What!?!” I spluttered indignantly. “I am not angry with God! What are you talking about?” I was trying hard to be a good Catholic girl. How could he accuse me of harboring anger towards God?

Only I was.

It was not a conscious anger, but rather a series of defensive walls I had built up to lock away those parts of my life that were troublesome or unholy—unhealed wounds, moral failings, pain and emptiness and frustration that I “knew” were not godly.

In practice I limited prayer to polite praise and petition, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady who was constrained to converse only about “the weather and your health.” It didn’t go well for either of us! My prayer life was so limited that it barely continued.

Later as I sat there alone, I felt my frustrations welling up within me, years of waiting and feeling abandoned came rushing out in tears.

Then I began to talk to God not as I thought I ought to, borrowing prayers above my pay grade to express pious ambitions I never actually felt, but telling Him what I really thought.

There are not adequate words to express certain things that we default to in clichés as “life-changing,” but from that moment things began to change. Later on, l learned that we must “pray as we can, not as we can’t” and that honesty with God is the first step. If we want to know that God is real, we must start by being “real” with Him.

Saint Martha, whose feast we celebrate today, is a beautiful icon of what it means to pray “for real.”

When we first meet Martha, she is “burdened by much serving” and “anxious about many things.” But rather than stewing in secret resentment, she brings her concerns to Jesus, asking directly, “Lord, do you not care…?”

The Lord, rather than being bothered by her protest, calls to her by name, twice: “Martha, Martha…!” Yet He calls her to the higher life, “One thing is required…” He does not take away her burden by demanding her sister help. Rather, He invites Martha to surrender the anxiety of her work by placing it in the context of prayer, of relationship with Him. This will include also making time to sit with Him, be with Him.

The second Gospel story involving Martha includes one of the most fascinating lines in Scripture: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed where He was two more days…”

Because he loved Martha, he waited. Meanwhile, Lazarus dies. The heart of Martha, whom Jesus loves, is broken. Why does Jesus do this? Mysteriously, this is for her sake.

“Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!” Martha confronts the One who loves her.

Jesus wants her to bring Him her pain, her anger, her fears. For Jesus knows, that when we bring these things into dialog with Him, when we allow Him into the dark spaces, the graves within our hearts, He will bring new life.

Martha also needs resurrection, healing.

I have come to believe that you are the Christ.” Martha has changed since we last saw her. She has received His rebuke, His invitation to the better part, and has grown. Now as she brings her grief and anger to Jesus, He invites her to hope in His power to bring good, even in a situation that looks hopeless. “I AM the resurrection and the life.” It is not merely what He will do; it is what He is.

He doesn’t merely stand outside her grief and anger but joins her in it. Outside the tomb, Jesus weeps.

There is a tragic lie that sometimes circulates in Christian circles, that our emotions are not holy, that anger (the emotion) is not good. But we see Jesus himself becoming angry. We see him “deeply troubled.” He is not okay with death. We must not rush too quickly past our pain, as if it doesn’t matter, as if, like Lazarus, it is to be buried.

When we bring our emotions to Jesus, He will recognize them and then purify them.

 

Josef_ml._Bergler_1753-1829_-_Pecliva_Marta_-_Usluzna_Marta

Image Credit: Joseph Bergler the Younger [Public domain]

The Words of Everlasting Life

Today’s readings provide a great opportunity for us to reflect on God’s Word. We read one of Scripture’s most well-known teachings, the Ten Commandments. Perhaps because this ancient Law of God is so familiar, it can be easy to gloss over the reading and not give it much thought. The psalm and Gospel, however, gently guide us back to this very familiar passage of commandments and remind us the danger of taking these fundamental words of the Lord for granted. 

‘Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.’ (John 6:68) 

In God’s gift of this law to the ancient Israelites, the ten commandments, he gave the gift of everlasting life. His Law outlined a way of life radically different from that of the world. He gave them guidelines that would help them live lives that looked different from the rest of the ancient world, lives centered around the one true God and informed by His love, peace, and mercy. These very same commandments of God have the same effect on our Christian lives today. Let’s quickly think about a couple of them… Though worshipping idols today may look different than it did for the ancient Israelites, we are tempted daily to worship false idols – money, social media, career or academic success, etc. Even inherently good things can easily become idols when we begin to place their value above the Lord’s. Another of God’s commandments, our commitment to keeping the Sabbath, to spending quality time each week at rest, can be easily threatened by our busy schedules and many commitments. How often do we truly have time to rest and soak in the goodness of the Lord? Even by beginning to explore these two commandments, we can see how God meant these not as rules to restrict us, but as guidelines to help us flourish and find peace and joy. God teaches us how to center our lives around Him which ultimately brings freedom, peace and joy.

I am grateful for today’s psalm and Gospel because those readings encouraged me to go back to the first reading and really try to open my heart to God’s Ten Commandments anew. I began to realize that my heart was not quite the rich soil that Jesus asks us to be in His parable of the sower. We need His grace and Holy Spirit to enrich the soil of our hearts, that His Word, no matter how familiar we think we are with it, may be planted more firmly and flower more richly than it has in the past. God’s Word is alive and it will flower more and more beautifully as we allow God to till that soil in our hearts. I encourage you to prayerfully think through the Ten Commandments to understand them on a truer and deeper level than you did when you first learned them. (This is the joy and beauty of a living faith! We can always grow deeper in our understanding of our Lord and our faith.) Lord, give us the grace to be open to receiving your words of everlasting life.

Today we celebrate Saints Joachim and Anne, the parents of our Blessed Mother Mary. I imagine this saintly married couple must have had hearts of rich soil, ready to receive the life-giving words of the Lord and live their lives according to His words. Generationally, they passed down a love of Scripture to their daughter Mary, who not only bore the words of Scripture on her heart, she literally bore the Word of God himself, Jesus. And in this reality of Mary’s extraordinary human experience, we can come to grasp a beautiful truth. Scripture is not just meant to be read or heard, but to be lived. Joachim, Anne, and Mary (in a unique way) knew the words of Scripture and allowed those words to live and dwell in their hearts, and thus be made manifest through their lives. This is what it looks like to be a man or woman of faith, to live differently than the rest of the world.

The ten commandments of God are the foundation of His Word. Our Lord Jesus Christ came not to abolish this foundational law but to fulfill it, and exemplified how to live it. In their humble and ordinary vocation of marriage and parenthood, Saints Joachim and Anne each lived an extraordinary existence. They lived out their faith, open to God’s mission for their lives. Through their cultivation of God’s word in their hearts and lives, God brought forth the Word made flesh through their daughter Mary. God wants to bring forth the living Word, Jesus Christ, through each of our lives.

Saints Joachim and Anne, we remember your lives of faith in a special way today. Pray for us, that we may have hearts open to God’s Word, so that Jesus himself may be manifest to others through our lives. Pray for those of us who are called to the vocation of marriage, as well as those called to parenthood, for the grace to live out these calls faithfully. And pray for each of us, that we may be open to God’s Word anew… that our hearts may become like rich soil, ready to receive the Word, understand it and live it, so that our lives may bear beautiful fruit for your glory! Amen.

Heart Hypertrophy

It’s easy to look at the end result and blitz passed the process that yielded the outcome. In sports, it’s the highlight reel and in relationships, it’s the Instagram moment. In careers, it’s the promotion and in academics, it’s the degree. We climb the ladder of success seeking mountain top moments without realizing the joy of the journey is not merely found at the destination. 

Similarly, for those who dare to journey, it’s easy to miss what’s happening along the way. Hypertrophy is “the increase in volume of an organ or tissue due to the enlargement of its component cells.” Coaches author programs with many reps and sets to increase each athlete’s time under tension in order to bring about hypertrophy, a process not an event. 

How does the heart grow? The Lord provides opportunities, sometimes repetitious situations, that allow us to grow in virtue so that we may be more faithful, trusting, and loving. It’s easy to feel fatigue and muscle failure and burn out because we haven’t “arrived” at the goal. Similar to repping out push-ups, pull-ups, or mile repeats, practice allows us to grow. Trusting teaches us to trust; heart hypertrophy is the process and result of that increase in trust. Though the circumstances may not be what we would choose, let us allow the experience of darkness and silence to increase our trust in He who is trustworthy. 

Verso l’alto, 

Kathryn Grace 

I’m thankful for the scars because without them I wouldn’t know your heart

If you say to trust, I will obey

Like a drum my heart never stops beating for you

Him Whom my Heart Loves

Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. She loved the Lord wholeheartedly, holding nothing back from Him. We know from Sacred Scripture that Jesus cast out seven demons from her (Luke 8:2). Can you imagine what she must have been carrying? It would have been so easy for her to give into despair and shame, yet she allowed the Lord to heal her.

I imagine today’s first reading from Song of Songs as the cry of Mary Magdalene’s heart:

“On my bed at night I sought Him whom my heart loves—I sought Him but I did not find Him…” (Song of Songs 3:1)

We don’t know what her seven demons were specifically, but I imagine her anguish in seeking deliverance, her torment, her feeling so lost.

“I will rise then and go about the city; in the streets and crossings I will seek Him whom my heart loves. I sought Him but I did not find Him…” (Song of Songs 3:2)

In her search for love and freedom she encountered the Person of Christ and was healed in such a way that she stopped at nothing to love Him whom her heart loved. She was there at the foot of the Cross when the only other people left were St. John and the Blessed Mother. She was there waiting at the tomb at the Resurrection when Jesus called her by name and she ran to the disciples saying, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).

“I found Him whom my heart loves.” (Song of Songs 3:4)

What is holding us back from loving the Lord wholeheartedly? Where do we need to let Him in to heal us? Do we give Him everything? What would happen if we went all-in like St. Mary Magdalene, loving the One whom our hearts love and long for with all we have?

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!

magdala
A mosaic from the church at Magdala, Israel depicting Jesus healing St. Mary Magdalene

The Law of the Sabbath

Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath.
His disciples were hungry
and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him,
“See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.”
He said to them, “Have you not read what David did
when he and his companions were hungry,
how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering,
which neither he nor his companions
but only the priests could lawfully eat?
Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath
the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath
and are innocent?
I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.
If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
you would not have condemned these innocent men.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”
—Matthew 12:1–8

Jesus’s response to the Pharisees in this passage highlights the purpose of the Mosaic law: it is was not implemented as a means of controlling and restricting the Jewish people, but rather as a way to establish a relationship between God and His chosen people and to serve as a constant reminder of the covenant that was yet to be fulfilled. Jesus gives examples in which God called people to violate the letter of the law in order to serve a much higher law. Though unworthy of drawing close to God by serving Him in the temple and of consuming the bread of offering, the Jewish priests perform these actions because God has called them to do so. When they are serving in the temple, their actions, though technically against what is prescribed for the sabbath, are holy, for they are standing on sacred ground and fulfilling the duties of their calling. They prefigure a closer intimacy between God and man, when God will sanctify men to be in relationship with Him and serve at the highest altar.

It follows then, that Jesus’s words carried an implication that would have been shocking to the Pharisees. He is speaking with authority above the law, declaring that His disciples are following a higher purpose just by being in His midst. Simply being in Jesus’s presence is sacred—even more so than the temple itself. He is the fulfillment of God’s covenant, of the Holy of Holies. He is the Temple of God’s new covenant of mercy. Through His sacrifice for us, the veil between God and man has been torn in two, and we can behold the Face of God without perishing.

In Jesus’s presence, the disciples ate grain on the sabbath to assuage their hunger. Hunger is an inescapable part of the human condition—both the hunger of our bodies for sustenance and the hunger of our souls for meaning and redemption. Jesus responds fully to our hunger, ministering to the deepest aches and longings within us: body and soul, mind and heart. Every Sunday, we consume Bread on the sabbath, opening ourselves up to receive the only food that can truly fill the deep, piercing hunger within us. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise to rescue us from the depths of our sin. Jesus, present in the Eucharist, looks upon us with mercy and invites us to draw closer to the mystery of His overwhelming love for us.

Tea Bags

“I do it myself!” On our family vacation over the 4th of July, two-year-old Zippy is declaring her independence.

Her independence produces a lot of work, particularly for my brother Joe, who is a good and attentive father. “I do it myself!” she insists, as she puts on her pajamas, but her leg goes into the arm sleeve and so she is stuck until help arrives. “I do it myself!” she peels her own egg, and my brother must bring the “scary weapon” to vacuum the 98% of the shells that wind up on the floor. “I do it myself!” she jumps into the deep end of the pool, propelled to the surface by her “floaties” and the subtle assistance of an adult hand guiding her to shore.

As I delight in her growth, I muse on my own, and the mysterious interplay of freedom and dependence on God. I too, have a patient Father, teaching me both to step out in faith but also fall back in trust. I am learning, too, that the “doing” of Christianity is so often a matter of “being.” What does this mean?

Recently in prayer I was anguishing over something, the details of which I do not recall, but it was a matter requiring some degree of discernment and action. However, the image that persisted in prayer was tea bags. Just tea bags, steeping. I was jarred by the banality of it. I wanted something at least inspirational, if not instructive. But tea bags?

I am often asked about prayer, and my consistent advice is to begin by “making a space to be with God,” i.e. to begin by committing to a specific daily prayer time. For anyone who wishes to grow in the spiritual life, to have a relationship with Christ, daily prayer time is paramount. Nothing matters more. Just fifteen minutes a day, practiced with persistence and perseverance, will be life-changing.

In the beginning, it often helps to have some “props” for prayer—images or books to focus on, or Scriptures or other reading to guide our reflections. It is also of great help to invite the Holy Spirit to pray within us, and to ask Jesus to lead our prayer in whatever way He wishes. Many excellent books have been written on ways that can help beginners in prayer; some I will cover in future posts.

To pray is to “practice the presence of God.” It is “wasting time with God.” It is not something that we do, although in the beginning we have to work to open ourselves to God, to be quiet and still and truly present. It is to receive the love of God, and then to return it. “Prayer is not thinking much but loving much,” says Saint Teresa of Avila. (It is worth noting, that Teresa herself relied on books and images for help in prayer, especially in the early years).

Being present does not mean being passive. In the beginnings of prayer, in particular, we may need to fight—to work to be still, to fight for silence, to be recollected. Especially in today’s culture, times of quiet do not come easily.

Are we afraid of silence?

In the beginning, this silence and space for God can be disconcerting, or even frightening. “Just who am I?” the silence taunts us with its emptiness. But it is only in the presence of I AM that we are filled and given a more true answer.

In today’s first reading, God identifies Himself to Moses as “I AM.” It is fascinating to compare Him to the gods of other religions, who are numerous and named for what they do and/or control. The god of war, the goddess of the harvest or of fertility, the sun god, the river god. Our God, who has a far more impressive resume and who holds the whole world, does not identify Himself as “I do” but as “I AM.”

To pray is to be with this God.

Saint Teresa of Avila was named a Doctor of the Church for her works on prayer. But at one point, she herself gave up on prayer for over a year, when it became frustrating, and she mistakenly thought, fruitless. She learned that prayer is essential, that it depends on God, and she wrote beautiful works on growing in prayer.

She uses the image of prayer as a garden that is to be watered. In the beginning there is work to be done removing weeds etc. and cultivating growth; the garden must also be watered regularly.

In the beginning, the pray-er seems to be doing most of the work, but as she grows spiritually, the effort of the soul lessens and God’s work increases. In the early stages Teresa likens prayer to drawing water from a well—a lot of work, for a very little water. Later it may be like a pump—the pray-er is still “working” at prayer, but more efficiently and for more water. At a third stage God provides the water as through an irrigation system—the soul is more still, more dependent, more receptive. And in the final stages of prayer, it is like a garden watered by rain: the soul is completely receptive.

At each stage of prayer, we must give to God what we can, and let Him give to us what we cannot. It is us that He wants. He wants not just our actions, but our hearts, our desires—including our desire to be with Him. And sometimes, we must ask even for this desire! The desire to pray is itself a gift of God.

Prayer isn’t always pretty. We come with our hearts as they are—angry, broken, bruised by sin, filled with self—to give what we are, as we are, to the God of Being.

Sometimes in prayer we might have wonderful “experiences” of the presence of God. But other times, we are transformed more quietly, more subtly, in the way water receives from tea bags, simply by time and togetherness. It is in these moments that God works, and we receive, without even knowing what or how.

River for Prayer unsplash

Image credit:  Photo by Monika MG on Unsplash