Slow and Steady

He said,
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.
—Mark 4:30–34 1

Let us not be deceived by the smallness of a mustard seed to think that its impact must be insignificant. What matters is not its size—however little it may be at the beginning, it can grow into a great tree. What matters is whether it dares to bury itself underneath the soil and undergo the process of growth.

Who we are now does not determine who we are to become. We are not defined by the sum of our past successes and failures. The thing that will determine our path—whether we will flourish or wilt—is our openness to grace, our willingness to grow.

Whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve endured, whatever sorrows weigh upon your heart: these do not define your story. God is not finished with the work He has begun in you; we are not meant to stay as seeds. Growth is not easy, and it certainly isn’t quick. True, lasting growth takes time,2 and it causes us to stretch far beyond our comfort zones. But it is also the only way we can fulfill the potential within us, to become who we were created to be.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. John Bosco, who had a gift for nurturing souls and seeing great potential in small seeds. He was devoted to educating disadvantaged children, including poor, homeless, orphaned, and troubled young boys in the city of Turin.3 Unlike his contemporaries, he refused to use corporal punishment; instead, he gave fatherly guidance and sought to instill in his students the knowledge that they were loved and valued. Where other teachers had given up on these rowdy young boys, John Bosco saw the gift of who they were and helped them to recognize the seeds of grace within their souls. One of his students, Dominic Savio, even became canonized himself.

St. John Bosco had reverence for the divine potential within each young soul—in the lost, the troubled, the neglected and forgotten. He created a place where they could grow and thrive, becoming men of God. And he had the patience to walk with them on that journey, even during those times when their progress must have seemed unbearably slow. May his example remind us that each and every one of us has the capacity to transcend our humble beginnings and bloom into something truly beautiful if we are tended to with love.


1
You can see past reflections I’ve written on this Gospel reading here and here.
2 Audrey Assad’s song “Slow” is a great meditation on how God’s grace works slowly within us. It’s worth a listen!
3 A saint dedicated to serving the poor and disadvantaged in Turin…sound familiar? I think St. John Bosco and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati have quite a bit in common.

Coming to Life

If you consider that God is righteous,
you also know that everyone who acts in righteousness
is begotten by him.
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
Yet so we are.
—1 John 2:29–3:1

I’ve been watching a lot of C.S. Lewis Doodle on YouTube lately—if you have not yet experienced these videos, I highly recommend them. In particular, I’d been watching the video Making and Begetting, and today’s first reading brought it to mind. The video illustrates the following passage from Lewis’s book Mere Christianity:

We don’t use the words begetting or begotten much in modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the father of; to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers, and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A bird makes a nest, a beaver builds a dam, a man makes a wireless set—or he may make something more like himself than a wireless set: say, a statue. If he is clever enough carver he may make a statue which is very like man indeed. But, of course, it is not a real man; it only looks like one. It cannot breathe or think. It is not alive.

Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God.

Given this description of making vs. begetting, I thought it odd that John specifically uses the word “begotten” in describing our relationship to God. Jesus is begotten by God, but we are not begotten in the same way that Jesus is. We are His creation, made in His image and likeness but distinct from Christ in that we are not actually God ourselves. What, then, is John’s meaning when he says that “everyone who acts in righteousness is begotten by him”? How could we possibly be begotten? As I reflected upon this phrasing, I recalled Lewis’s eventual conclusion to the chapter:

In reality, the difference between biological life and spiritual life is so important that I’m going to give them two distinct names. The biological sort, which comes to us through nature and which, like everything else in nature, is always tending to run down and decay, so that it can only be kept up by incessant subsidies from nature in the form of air, water, food, etc., is bios. The spiritual life, which is in God from all eternity and which made the whole natural universe, is zoe. Bios has, to be sure, a certain shadowy or symbolic resemblance to zoe, but only the sort of resemblance there is between a photo and a place, or a statue and a man. A man who changed from having bios to having zoe would have gone through as big a change as a statue which changed from being a carved stone to being a real man.

And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is like a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going around that some of us are some day going to come to life.

We are created by God, not begotten; we are like statues made in His image. But God desires to elevate us beyond our natural capacity. He is not held back by the laws of nature; He can give us life that transcends all we know in this earthly plane. That we might be considered begotten by God seems impossible, yet nothing is impossible for God.

How does God initiate this radical transformation in us? He meets us in the sacraments, washing away the decay of sin through baptism and confession, fortifying our souls through the Eucharist. In our human condition, we are ever aware that life is a bittersweet experience—we recognize it as a great gift, but at the same time we ache for something more, something that will not wither and fade away. God Himself has written this desire upon our hearts, and He intends to prepare us to receive life that is beyond our imagining. As we draw closer to Him, we become like statues that are beginning to blink and fidget around, suddenly aware of the life flickering within us.

In this new year, may we become ever more alive in the Lord, open our eyes to see the gifts He is giving us each day, and allow Him to transform us.

The Long Night

And out of gloom and darkness,
the eyes of the blind shall see.
—Isaiah 29:18

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom should I fear?
—Psalm 27:1

During this time of year, when we have more hours of darkness than of daylight, the days can feel impossibly short and the nights endlessly long. It happens every year, but somehow we still find ourselves surprised every December when we walk outside at 5pm and the sun has already retreated. These long nights are the backdrop of our yearly Advent preparations and a blank canvas for all our Christmas light displays.

This week while teaching my Confirmation class, I asked my middle-school students whether they’ve ever gone stargazing. They replied with stories of watching the stars while traveling with their family, out in the country or even in the middle of the desert, where they could see the constellations clearly. Then I asked if they’d ever tried stargazing in Manhattan. They laughed and said that while they’d tried, they couldn’t really see anything from the city, and whenever they did it usually turned out to be a plane. Why is that, I asked? Well, because we have so much artificial light here that you can’t see anything else. Then I asked them to picture the night of Jesus’s birth, the first Christmas. Why did Jesus choose to come into the world during the darkest, coldest time of year, amid a sparsely populated desert, in the middle of the night? Could it be possible that all of that darkness made it easier for the wise men to see the light of the star? Might Jesus have come into the world amidst its cold, lifeless season as a sign of who He is for us?

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

The child Jesus, born in the middle of a cold winter’s night, is the Light that shines in the darkness. In order to prepare ourselves to celebrate his arrival at Christmas, let us spend this Advent entering into the night, allowing ourselves to feel the emptiness of our human condition, and daring to quiet the noise of the world around us to breathe in the silence. Let us meditate upon the darkness that enveloped the world before His arrival, so that we can see His brilliance more clearly.

During this time of year, it can seem harder than ever to find a few minutes of silence and permit ourselves to be still. But God speaks to us in the silence and meets us in our emptiness. Let us make space for Him to speak instead of crowding our lives with so many distractions that we cannot hear His gentle voice. There is so much artificial light that fights for our attention during Advent, so much so that it may blind us from noticing the true Light of the world. But if we’re willing to take a step back into the dark, quiet night and realize our need for Him, the Star of Bethlehem will shine all the more brightly in our hearts. Our world, weary as ever, longs to receive that Light.

St. Andrew Christmas Novena:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

Adam_Elsheimer_-_Die_Flucht_nach_Ägypten_(Alte_Pinakothek)_2.jpg
Adam Elsheimer, The Flight into Egypt / PD-US

As We Forgive

In today’s Gospel, we hear the parable of the dishonest steward. While this steward who squanders his master’s property is not exactly a model of ethical behavior, Jesus draws our attention toward how he engages in an economy of mercy. After receiving news that he will lose his stewardship, this man calls in his master’s debtors and forgives their debts, so that once he loses his position, they will still welcome him in. He understands that if he extends mercy to others, he will then be received with mercy by those he has forgiven. And in turn, we see that his master subsequently shows mercy to him after seeing what he has done.

We know that God’s economy of mercy is even more generous than what we see in this parable—Jesus specifies that this steward is a child “of the world” and not a child “of light.” He forgives others their debts, but ultimately he is operating out of a desire to protect himself, not out of a true sense of charity. However, Jesus tells us that the children of light are less prudent in these matters than are the children of this world. How can this be?

Consider our knowledge as Christians of just how much we have been forgiven, of the immeasurable price that Jesus paid for us on the Cross. Do we act from this knowledge on a day-to-day basis? Are we aware of the immense debt that has been lifted from us, or do we feel as though we are the ones who are owed something? We have experienced a radical mercy, one that should utterly transform us. But how often do we thank God for His forgiveness and then turn around and hold a grudge against our neighbor for something petty?

When we say the Our Father, do we really understand the meaning of the words we are reciting? Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. We cannot expect to be treated mercifully if we do not extend mercy to others. Let us learn from the story of the dishonest steward and remember that those who have been forgiven have a duty to forgive in turn. We, who have been forgiven much, must learn to radiate God’s mercy to others.

Whom Will I Serve?

But he knew their thoughts and said to them,
“Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste
and house will fall against house.
And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?
For you say that it is by Beelzebul that I drive out demons.
If I, then, drive out demons by Beelzebul,
by whom do your own people drive them out?
Therefore they will be your judges.
But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons,
then the Kingdom of God has come upon you….
Whoever is not with me is against me,
and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

—Luke 11:17–20, 23

Each day, every one of us is presented with a decision: Whom will I serve? Will I offer my day up to God, or will I seek to satisfy my own desires and agenda? In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus warns us that we must choose one or the other—we cannot have both. Even in responding to our own needs, wants, dreams, and goals, if we don’t invite God into those areas of our lives, we will find ourselves working against Him, and all our efforts will be futile.

God has entrusted us with an incredible gift in allowing us to have free will, to make choices that have real consequences in our lives and in the world around us. If we continually offer this gift back to Him, seeking to carry out the will of Jesus, then all the powers of heaven stand alongside us. But if we hold part of ourselves back, trying to keep God out of some aspect of our lives, then we become a house divided. This tension within our soul will cause us to stagnate, holding us back from fulfilling the mission God has placed upon our hearts.

The greater our knowledge, the more responsibility we have to guard ourselves against selfishness and sin, for humans are always tempted to use their gifts for themselves instead of in service to our God and Creator. We must always remember that these gifts do not come from ourselves but are given to us by God, and our truest happiness can only come from offering them back to God in gratitude. To drive out the demons in our lives and curb our tendencies toward sin and self-centeredness, we can choose to be grateful and look for God’s presence in every circumstance we encounter. We can open our hearts to invite God to enter into every aspect of our lives. When we give Him permission, He can and will do great things in us, and through Him, we we will begin to discover our true purpose and identity.

If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having….

When we have understood about free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as somebody once asked me: “Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?” The better stuff a creature is made of—the cleverer and stronger and freer it is—then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong. A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best—or worst—of all….

The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the center—wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race….What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could “be like gods”—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.

—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Directing Our Steps

Jesus told his disciples a parable:
“Can a blind person guide a blind person?
Will not both fall into a pit?
No disciple is superior to the teacher;
but when fully trained,
every disciple will be like his teacher.”
—Luke 6:39–40

Jesus has entrusted each of us with free will, leaving us room to act as we choose. Knowing our weakness and tendency toward sin, this can seem a terrifying responsibility. Sometimes I would rather God just take the reins entirely instead of leaving any decisions up to me. But God does not want to control us; He wants a relationship with us. He does not want us to act out of fear or passive obedience but out of love. When I overthink a decision or think I can’t live up to what God is asking of me, I forget that God knows me better than I know myself and has already accounted for the fact that I will make mistakes. There is nothing He can’t handle.

When it comes to discerning where God is leading us, we can often feel blind to perceive the road ahead. We turn to advice from others, hoping that they can tell us where to go, but they too are only human, unable to see our path fully. So how do we make our way forward? Jesus tells us that as His disciples, we are to listen and follow His ways, training ourselves to become like Him, so that instead of stumbling along like the blind leading the blind, we can learn to walk in His footsteps.

Any good teacher knows that there is a learning curve, that students will make mistakes along the way before they can master any new skill. And when Jesus calls us, He is aware that we are stepping out blindly, not yet able to make out what lies ahead. But He also knows that we won’t learn how to orient our steps if He doesn’t give us a chance to move freely, stumbling a bit as we go.

God knows that our attempts to do good may go awry, but, in the words of Thomas Merton, our desire to please Him does in fact please Him. When we go off course, He can redirect our steps and bring good out of any situation, as long as we continue to invite Him in and give Him permission to act in our lives.

Though we cannot see further than one step ahead, He leaves it up to us to take that one step and then allow Him to illuminate the next. He will never force us; He guides us, if we accept His help, with a gentle hand. Learning to trust Him means believing that He can handle my weakness and that He invites me to follow just as I am.

Created for Communion

Some Pharisees approached Jesus, and tested him, saying,
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?”
He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning
the Creator made them male and female and said,
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother
and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?
So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate.”
They said to him, “Then why did Moses command
that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss her?”
He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts
Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,
but from the beginning it was not so.
I say to you, whoever divorces his wife
(unless the marriage is unlawful)
and marries another commits adultery.”
—Matthew 19:3–9

As human beings, we are made for communion with one another. God created us in a way that makes it impossible for us to go it alone, for He made us in His own image. Just as He exists as a loving community of three Persons, we also are designed to live in relationship with Him and with one another. We see this in the complementarity between men and women: each is a reflection of the love of God, but they express this in different ways. Their complementary strengths bring them closer together.

Whether our need for communion is fulfilled through the vocation of marriage—a relationship that echoes the love of the Trinity—or through consecrated life—a sacred relationship with God Himself—it points to a deep desire written upon our hearts: to love and be loved, to make of ourselves a gift to others. Even while we are still waiting upon our vocation, God still calls us, here and now, to be part of His family. Each time we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, it is an opportunity for intimate connection with our Beloved.

Jesus is the Bridegroom, and we, the Church, are His bride. He lays down His life as a gift for us, and He assures us that His promises to us are eternal, never to be broken. When Jesus speaks against divorce, it is not to shame His disciples or to place burdens and restrictions upon us. He even acknowledges that in some cases, the marriage was unlawful and fundamentally lacking in what is needed to establish a true, healthy marriage as He intends for us. Rather, He wants us to understand that marriage is a great gift, not to be carelessly tossed aside. It is not merely a well of contentment that eventually dries up; rather, it is an opportunity for us to fulfill our deepest purpose through serving one another. To be truly fulfilled, we must each offer a gift of our whole selves—not just the parts we like about ourselves, not just one stage of our lives, and not just a surface-level desire for comfort.

God has blessed us with many great gifts, but do we truly understand their purpose? Or do we see them only for our own benefit? Our own personal gifts are meaningless if we cannot understand ourselves in relation to others—how we are called to serve them, what we have yet to learn from them, and how we need to rely upon them. We can form a true sense of self only when we look outward.