Spiritual Reflections from the Frassati Fellowship of NYC
Erin is a writer, editor, cradle Catholic, and incurable daydreamer. By day she works in book publishing; by night she teaches catechism to middle schoolers, volunteers with the Sisters of Life, watches every video of the Notre Dame marching band in existence, and becomes way too invested in March Madness. She has been involved with the Frassati Fellowship since moving to NYC in 2014.
Brothers and sisters: To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed.
Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:15–18
This passage from today’s first reading speaks to the nature of the human heart. We all have a natural inclination to veil our hearts, to protect the innermost part of ourselves that is most vulnerable and keep it closed off. However, the veils we place around our hearts keep us from receiving the transformative gaze of the Lord.
In the book of Ezekiel, the Lord tells us, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). He wants to utterly transform our hearts, but He can only do so if we give Him permission. We must remove the veils that we’ve constructed in our defensiveness and allow Him to look upon our hearts as they truly are. He will not deal with us as the world does; He will not wound us but will bring healing beyond what we can measure. Only by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with the Lord will we find our true identity and purpose.
As we prepare to celebrate the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus tomorrow, let us open our own hearts to receive His. May we take down any barriers that stand between us and God and receive the gift of His transformative gaze.
— Image: Giovanni di Paolo, Saint Catherine of Siena Exchanging Her Heart with Christ / PD-US
“For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?
“However, take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.”
In today’s first reading, Moses speaks to the Israelites and reminds them of all that the Lord has done to lead them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land, which they are about to enter. His admonition to carefully keep God’s commandments is accompanied by this call to remember, to repeat the stories of the marvels God has done for this people through every generation. Moses knows that the people will struggle to carry out God’s commands, but if they keep those stories close and kindle a devotion to the God who has rescued them from slavery and led them through the wilderness, they will be more likely to observe God’s law because of their love for Him.
While they traveled in the wilderness, God led them in a more tangible way: in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. As they enter into the Promised Land, His guidance will not be so immediately apparent. As they enjoy all the new comforts of the land, it will become all too easy to forget their need for God. And so Moses implores the people to remember: to keep God’s Word engraved upon their hearts, instilled in the minds and hearts of their children, and ingrained within all their habits and traditions. The covenant God has made with them is everlasting; it should be the root and foundation of their lives, for all generations. We see Jesus affirm this in today’s Gospel reading, that He has come not to abolish but to fulfill the law. Jesus brings to fruition every letter of these promises that Moses is asking the Israelites to remember.
Right now, we are approaching spring, both literally and metaphorically. The snowbanks are melting, and buds are just starting to appear. We are still in the midst of the long winter of this pandemic, but it feels like we might be beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. During this past year, we have been brought to our knees by suffering, loss, anxiety, and helplessness. As our lives start to get somewhat back to normal, let us look to Moses’s admonition and not forget what God has done for us in the wilderness. Even in the most difficult moments, even when we strayed and complained and doubted in Him, He has been leading us. As we transition from night into day, God will continue to lead us, but by a pillar of cloud instead of a pillar of fire; we must adjust our eyes to keep our focus upon Him.
By day, we are led by Mystery; by night, we are led by Fire and Light. In our darkest moments, the Lord draws us forward by illuminating the path at our feet: always just the next few steps, leading us as a beacon in the night. We may be overwhelmed by the unknown terrors that surround us, but He stays before us, and we follow close, utterly dependent on His Light. But in the daylight of our lives, when we are surrounded by so many distractions and could go any way we choose, His Presence is the one thing that is veiled in mystery, drawing us toward a divinity beyond our comprehension. In the daylight, it can be all too easy to allow our eyes to drift away from the that pillar of cloud and instead grasp toward things that we can take hold of and understand.
Sometimes it seems easier to follow God by night, when we are in survival mode and it seems there is only one possible step to take at a time, than by day, when we are overwhelmed by distractions and indecision. Whenever we find ourselves in this place, let us remember Moses’s call to remember, to set God at the center of our hearts and recall all the marvels He has worked in our lives. Then, as we travel onward, we can turn our eyes toward the cloud of His Presence, gently guiding us deeper into His Mystery.
Prayer of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity:
O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in you as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity.
May nothing trouble my peace or make me leave You, O my Unchanging One, but may each minute carry me further into the depths of Your Mystery.
— 1. Benjamin West, Joshua Passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant / PD-US 2. Ivan Aivazovsky, Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea / PD-US
Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” … “But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
—Mark 7:14–15, 20–23
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus continues His rebuke against the Pharisees after they had criticized Him for eating with unwashed hands, thus breaking with the tradition of the elders. He calls our attention to the fact that while the Pharisees are concerned with the outward appearances of keeping tradition down to the smallest detail, their inner souls are utterly neglected, and they allow evil thoughts to fester within themselves. Jesus calls us to look at the state of our hearts, for everything else we do flows forth from there. If our hearts are corrupted, then it doesn’t matter how well we attempt to follow the letter of the law; the spirit of the law will be absent.
As we approach Lent, this is a good reminder for us that whatever we give up or take on during this penitential season, the most important thing is the intentions of our hearts. Wherever we create spaces in our lives by giving something up, we are called to make room for God in our lives instead of immediately filling them up with other distractions. And when we take on new habits of prayer and service, we must always orient them within our relationship with God, so that we don’t get caught up in a mindset of constant busyness and self-improvement but rather rely on God to form our hearts into the people He created us to be. We must understand that holiness is not something we can achieve on our own by following a list of instructions; rather, it can only occur through relationship with God, by His grace and in His timing.
Whatever we do, let it be rooted in a sincere love for God from the heart. This Lent, instead of simply making our own plans, let us pause to ask God what He wants us to do for Lent. Maybe He will surprise us; maybe He will confirm and bless the plans we are already making; but most importantly, He will delight to see us coming to Him first and foremost, looking for His guidance instead of relying on our own capacities.
— 1. Engraving by A. Wierix, Christ shooting arrows into the believer’s heart / CC BY 4.0 2. Engraving by A. Wierix, Christ clearing demons out of the believer’s heart with a broom / CC BY 4.0 3. Engraving by A. Wierix, Christ enthroned in the believer’s heart, venerated by angels / CC BY 4.0 These files come from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive).
Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. —Hebrews 2:18
All around the sick and all around the poor I see a special light which we do not have. —Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati
During these times of trial, we may begin to feel that God has abandoned us in our suffering. When we are sick, lonely, anxious, or strained, it can be harder to see how God is present. But these readings are a reminder to us of a profound paradox: that in the midst of our suffering, God draws even closer to us. He shares in our most difficult experiences in a deep, intimate way.
Jesus willingly took on flesh for our sake, entering into all the mess and pain that accompanies our humanity, taking on death itself in order that He could destroy death forever and set us free from its grasp. Ultimately, He desires to heal us and set us free, but He allows us to experience suffering along the way as a means of growing closer to Him. If Jesus Himself did not spurn the Cross, then who are we to run from our own crosses? Alone, we cannot carry them, but He promises to stay alongside us, to help us when we are being tested.
In this Gospel reading, Simon’s mother-in-law is lying sick with a fever when Jesus enters the house:
He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them. —Mark 1:31
After this encounter with Jesus, who met her in her suffering and understood more deeply than anyone else the pain she was experiencing, she arises and is made new. And the first thing she does is to serve the One who healed her. May we, too, allow Jesus to draw close to us in our most painful moments, and when we have encountered Him, let that experience change and restore us. When we have weathered the trials of our lives, let us turn back and serve God in praise and thanksgiving for all that He has done for us.
At that time, John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” When the men came to the Lord, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” At that time Jesus cured many of their diseases, sufferings, and evil spirits; he also granted sight to many who were blind. And Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
Amongst the Jewish people during the time of Jesus, there was much confusion about the identity of John the Baptist and the identity of the Messiah. Even after witnessing Jesus’s miracles, many still doubted Him. But John the Baptist, who was fully rooted in the Scriptural context of the Messiah, would have been highly attuned to all the signs of the Messiah’s arrival. When Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized, John recognized Him immediately as the One whom the Scriptures foretold, the One who anointed him in his mother’s womb, the One whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.
In today’s Gospel reading, we see John the Baptist send messengers to ask Jesus if He is the Messiah they have been awaiting. At this point in the Gospel, John had already met and baptized Jesus. Why, then, is John questioning Jesus’s identity?
We don’t know fully what was going on in John’s heart and mind when he sent those messengers, but we do know that by that point he was in prison. Alone, facing the end of his public ministry, he heard news of the miracles Jesus had been performing. Perhaps he found himself wondering if he had correctly understood God’s call, since languishing in prison was not how he had expected things to go. Maybe there was more that God needed him to do. Or perhaps these reports of Jesus were surprising even to him, and he wondered if there was something he was missing, something he didn’t quite understand. He desired to be faithful until the end to the mission God had given him, and so he sought confirmation that he was following the right path.
John knew that God had called him to be a herald of the Messiah and to prepare the way of the Lord, but today’s Gospel reading reveals that while he knew his purpose within God’s plan, he didn’t know the details of how God would unveil that plan in its entirety. This underscores for us what complete trust John had in God. He couldn’t see the big picture, but he remained ever faithful to his own role, trusting that God would handle the rest. Today’s reading gives us a perfect example of faith seeking understanding. When John struggled to fully understand what he had heard, when he found himself wrestling with questions, he went straight to the Source, to Jesus Himself.
As modern Christians, we profess a much greater understanding of who Christ is. But to those who awaited the Messiah, Jesus was surprising. He fulfilled the messianic prophecies, but He did not fit all the people’s expectations. The prophecies of Isaiah foretell a Savior who would bring liberation, healing, and joy, but Isaiah never quite understood that this Messiah would be God Himself, the Word become Flesh, humbled to become for us a little child, sharing in our humanity.
God comes to us in a quiet moment, when we least expect it. He defies all our expectations and surprises us with joy. During this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, let us also prepare for Christ’s coming in our own lives by looking to the example of John the Baptist. If we stay in relationship with Jesus, bringing to Him all that is in our hearts, then we will recognize Him when He comes. And if we are rooted in faith and trust in God, then we just might be able to let God surprise us with something far beyond our expectations.
— Image: Giovanni di Paolo, Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples / PD-US
In today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the ten gold coins, Jesus calls us to be good stewards of the gifts we’ve been given, to grow and develop the skills and resources we have and use them toward building His Kingdom instead of sitting idle. A key element in this story is how the third servant, bewildered by his master’s ways and unable to understand him, buried his talents away out of fear. Instead of taking a chance and investing them, or even placing them in the bank, where they would gain steady interest, he avoided his responsibility and just let them sit. What angered his master about this response was not the amount of money he returned but the fact that he let fear hold him back from doing good, from gaining anything at all. He allowed his fear to paralyze him.
The Lord has entrusted each of us with particular gifts, and we are called to respond by employing those gifts in service to His mission for us. But too often we allow our fears to hold us back from developing our gifts to fruition. We are tempted to compare ourselves with others, to doubt whether our gifts will be good enough, whether our contribution even matters. We allow our pride to keep us from offering our gifts to the world, preferring to hide ourselves away rather than face the possibility of failure.
But when we give in to fear and allow ourselves to be controlled by it, we miss out on what God has in store for us. He wants to see our gifts, however humble they may be, placed before Him as an offering. If we entrust them all to Him, we can be sure that He will not leave us disappointed. God will provide what we need when we need it; there is no reason for us to live in fear.
During these November days, I am noticing just how little daylight remains. The night seems impossibly opaque and pitch-black, and its darkness encroaches little by little, day by day. It can feel all the more somber after this year of darkness and uncertainty. But as the daylight wanes, let us ever keep in mind that we are children of the day, for we bear the Light of Christ within us. It is only during a pitch-black night that we can recognize the beauty of the twinkling stars; similarly, it is against the backdrop of darkness that our own gifts are meant to shine brightly. But that can only happen if we step out in faith, trusting in God even amidst our fear. During these dark days, when we can’t see anything around us, let us not cover up the Light within us but rather respond to God’s call to illuminate the darkness.
— Image: Andrey Mironov, Parable of the Talents / CC BY-SA 4.0
Yesterday, on the Solemnity of the Ascension, we celebrated Jesus’s rising into Heaven. Whenever I reflect upon this mystery, while I know it’s supposed to be an occasion of joy, it always seems to me rather bittersweet for the disciples who watched Jesus ascend. How could they possibly carry on without Him? Didn’t they feel a sense of emptiness now that He was gone?
However, Jesus assured His disciples, “It is better for you that I go” (John 16:7). While it may seem that Jesus was leaving His disciples behind, He was actually becoming closer to them, entering into their hearts in a new, radical way. Jesus never really leaves us; rather, through His Ascension, He brings us closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. It requires us to have faith in a mystery that is far beyond our earthly understanding, but it also grants us a foretaste of the heavenly glory to come.
Ascension Thursday is a reminder that, in the words of St. Therese, “the world is thy ship, not thy home.” We are all too aware in these times of all the suffering and injustice in this world, the persistent ache that undercurrents our human experience. Jesus points us toward the fulfillment of that deepest ache of our hearts, which we will find in heaven. And He promises that He will be alongside us as we journey toward our ultimate home: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
St. Rita of Cascia, whose feast is today, knew this very well. After her abusive husband was murdered by members of a feuding family, her two sons became filled with anger and desired to avenge their father’s death. Rita tried to dissuade them and prayed that God would protect their souls from committing the grave sin of murder. Her prayers were answered in a distressing way: her sons both died of dysentery shortly thereafter. While Rita grieved her beloved sons, she was also filled with gratitude and hope that God had protected their innocence and guided them toward their heavenly home. The state of their immortal souls was far more important to her than the state of their earthly bodies.
In this world, we face all kinds of obstacles, disappointments, and losses. But let us remember, as did St. Rita, that we are only in the middle of the journey. At His Ascension, Jesus gave His disciples a tangible reminder of this reality, pointing them toward their true destination. The sorrows of this world will not last forever, and our deepest longings for peace and justice will not remain unfulfilled.
In the Stations of the Cross, I’ve always felt a kind of sympathy for Simon of Cyrene. He didn’t sign up to bear the heavy cross, to enter into the horror of the Passion, to walk alongside a stranger experiencing the worst day of His life. He just happened to be standing there, minding his own business. But when the duty was pressed upon him, Simon responded. He put aside his own reservations to serve Jesus in His moment of need, and in doing so, he fulfilled a most sacred role. I have always felt an affinity for Simon’s reluctant heroism. However, this year, I have found myself drawn more toward Veronica.
Veronica had no such compulsions to step out into the brutality and chaos of Jerusalem’s streets that fateful day; she could very well have stayed in her home and closed the curtains, turning away from this scene of unimaginable suffering and sorrow. After all, it was not as though she could really do anything about this situation anyway, right? She looked out and saw the innocent Jesus in deep agony, bound for His death. She was helpless to change His course from Calvary; the crucifixion was inevitable. Approaching the suffering Jesus would only cause her pain, would it not? It certainly wouldn’t change the fact that Jesus was going to die; it would only increase her sorrows to stand witness to it.
And yet, Veronica stepped out toward Jesus. She volunteered to place herself in all the agony of that hour just to give Jesus what little she could: a small moment of comfort, a gesture of kindness, an affirmation of His dignity. She took her own veil and used it to wipe away the blood and sweat on His Holy Face. She looked into His eyes and offered a brief moment of companionship during His suffering. “I see You,” she might have said, “and I am not looking away.” After this interaction, the image of Jesus’s Holy Face was miraculously imprinted on Veronica’s veil: she went forth carrying the image of Christ to the world.
The name Veronica is derived from the Latin vera icon, meaning “true image.” She is called Veronica because of the role that she played during the Passion. We don’t know what Veronica’s “real” name was, but it doesn’t actually matter. Her truest identity is Veronica, true icon of Christ. In that moment on the road to Calvary, she didn’t just receive the image of Christ; she became the image of Christ. Her very person was forever changed by meeting Jesus and offering Him the simple gift of her presence.
In these strange and unsettling days of pandemic, we may find ourselves looking inward, becoming consumed by our own individual fears and anxieties. But if we are too self-occupied, we may miss the opportunity to reach out to another who would be comforted by our presence. Now, I’m not suggesting that we defy quarantine orders to step outside like Veronica did. But there are many ways that we can look outward toward the needs of others during this time. Like in the case of Veronica, we might be tempted to discouragement because we can’t fix this terrible situation. For instance, we might know someone who is painfully lonely and isolated, but we can’t actually change the fact that they will not be able to leave their home or receive any visitors for the foreseeable future. We can’t offer any solutions. But we can offer our emotional presence, if not our physical presence: we can let them know we’re thinking of them; we can send a thoughtful card or gift; we can call them to chat; we can invite them to online community prayer. These gestures might seem small, but like the Face of Jesus on Veronica’s veil, they can leave a deep impression.
Most of us will receive no compulsory demand to walk alongside someone in this crisis and help them carry their cross. And unless we strive to imitate Veronica—being attentive to the needs of others instead of closing in upon ourselves—we will miss our chance. As we walk the way of Calvary this Good Friday, let us not be ruled by our fears but instead be led by compassion, offering our kindness in the face of great trial.
1. Mattia Preti, Saint Veronica with the Veil / PD-US
2. Antonio Arias Fernández, Cristo con la Cruz a cuestas, encuentra a la Verónica / PD-US
3. Carlo Caliari, Jesus Meeting Veronica / PD-US
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
Many are the troubles of the just man,
but out of them all the LORD delivers him.
The weight of these days can feel crushing indeed, the coronavirus pandemic like a cloud that lingers overhead. It is easy to feel a sense of helplessness when dealing with a situation that is so far beyond our control. But in these moments of suffering and uncertainty, we are closer to God than ever. The Lord draws close to us beleaguered and brokenhearted; He looks upon us with a special tenderness.
In Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi blessing today, he reflected on the story of the disciples who were fearful during a storm at sea as Jesus was sleeping in the boat (Mark 4:35–41). They called to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” And these words, the Pope said, would have shaken Jesus, “because He, more than anyone, cares about us.”1
The Pope continued:
The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.1
Jesus did not abandon His disciples in the storm, and He will not abandon us now. He is with us in the midst of our distress, and He will redeem all our sorrows. God shows mercy to us even in the face of our worst moments, our stubborn refusals to choose the good. When we allow ourselves to become paralyzed by fear instead of trusting in His providence, He is hurt by our distrust, but He does not turn away. Our distrust in God can entrap us in a life that is less than what He has called us to. And yet He meets our stubbornness with undeserved grace, radical forgiveness. He offers us another chance.
Let us wake up each morning and recommit ourselves in trust to God as we weather the fears, uncertainties, and sorrows of the coronavirus pandemic. He is close to all the brokenhearted, and He is with us in the midst of this storm.
A few weeks ago, while in prayer, I found myself reflecting on the word “bloom” and wondered what God might be trying to reveal to me through it. Its meaning was layered: to bloom where I’m planted instead of waiting for circumstances to change, to become more fully who God created me to be, to open up in vulnerability instead of staying closed in upon myself. I had the sense that God wanted me to meditate on how I could bloom more fully alongside the spring blossoms that would soon appear. I never imagined that I would be asked to bloom amid the shadows of quarantine.
This week, my favorite magnolia tree has begun to blossom. Its beauty seems incongruent with our current experience—that it is opening its buds as we are all retreating inside. But it is a reminder that life goes on even amid uncertainty, that beautiful things are growing in the midst of all this, that hope still blooms beneath cloudy skies.
According to legend, St. Joseph was chosen from among the unwed men of the House of David to be the husband of Mary because his staff blossomed like a lily—a sign from God that this man would be the protector of the Son of God. This is why St. Joseph is often depicted with lilies, echoing Hosea 14:5, “The just man shall blossom like the lily.” St. Joseph was a man who bloomed under pressure. He, like us, experienced times of great anxiety, but he was calm under crisis and always guided the Holy Family to safety.
Consider the emptiness that Mary and Joseph must have experienced in the disappearance of the child Jesus. Right now, separated from access to Jesus in the Eucharist, we are experiencing a taste of that vacancy. St. Joseph is a great protector for us to invoke in these times. He assures us that we, too, will find Jesus, that Jesus has never truly been lost.
St. Joseph lived within the confines of a humble, hidden life, taking on a supporting role that, while ordinary on the surface, was anything but insignificant. Not a single word he uttered is recorded in the Bible, but his actions speak louder than words ever could. It is fitting that on his feast day, we all find ourselves pressed into a hidden life, a humble silence, retreating into a quieter, simpler family life.
St. Joseph, mirror of patience, glory of home life, pillar of families, solace of the wretched, hope of the sick, patron of the dying, terror of demons, protector of Holy Church, pray for us!