Our Own Cathedrals

When I first saw the live footage of Notre Dame engulfed in flames, I immediately knew this was no mere human accident. During the holiest of weeks, here was one of the most famous churches in the world (if not the most famous) being destroyed in a fiery, hellish blaze. It had the air of evil about it; it looked apocalyptic, even: fire slowly demolishing a space that invoked and housed countless moments of individuals’ reverence for beauty, God… how could the evil one not be involved, even delighted, as the world watched in horror? The spire, once pointing to the heavens, collapsed and crumbled under the embers’ relentless attack, to gasps and groans from onlookers. The cruelty of time was felt more and more as the seconds passed into a new era without its contour in the Paris skyline.

Notre Dame also housed priceless relics of the Passion, including the Crown of Thorns, a piece of the true Cross, and a nail that had pierced the hands or feet of Our Lord. To me, these facts made it a target for the evil one to incinerate these powerful physical reminders of his defeat. The devil knows his own time is ticking away.

But as I watched through my horror, a greater truth dawned upon me. The purpose of stunning, grandiose, awe-inspiring churches like Notre Dame is to give our souls a little taste of encountering Heaven. Cathedrals like Notre Dame draw our hearts away from the earth and towards our beautiful home in Heaven. Something about this symbol being destroyed drew my heart towards this greater truth: the reality of our eternal God supersedes this finite symbol, even if the symbol invokes a powerful, soul-engulfing current of beauty when we gaze upon it, and even if the symbol has existed for 800 years, generations upon generations.

Notre Dame – and other old, beautiful churches and monuments – invokes this sense of awe and grandeur, but it also comfort, because it feels like it has always been there. And it has, in our lifetimes and of those we knew in the few generations before us. When we see something seemingly “timeless” burn to ashes, this gut instinct is turned on its head and we are reminded that finite humans were still the designers of this finite structure. 

And in the midst of all this reflection about this historical tragedy at the beginning of Holy Week… it feels like we are back at Ash Wednesday. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Now we see that the words that were spoken apply to not only us, but also our churches that seem to transcend space and time. 

But as I’m typing this… other truths are dawning upon me.

Think of the love in the eyes of the people watching, praying for Notre Dame to be spared of total destruction… try to quantify and appreciate the sum of the awe it spread into the hearts of humanity over hundreds of years… and that doesn’t even hold a candle to the awe and love our Creator has for each one of us, who He submitted to death to save.

Think of the efforts, the hundreds of millions of dollars donated already to rebuild this massive cathedral… and that doesn’t even compare to the sacrifice of Jesus to rebuild each one of our hearts, irreplaceable cathedrals crafted to house His own life and breath. 

As we approach the holiest liturgies of our faith, let us step back and examine our lives during this past Lent… what fires and pains in our lives has the Lord allowed? Do we see the greater glory in them? Maybe we are still in our burning houses, wondering if He will relent, wondering why He is allowing such seeming destruction in our lives. We are trying to put the flames out, but they keep spreading. My dear friends, sometimes the answer is as simple as this: the Lord wants your company during His Passion and death. He wants you to be in the fire with Him. He wants us to believe that He longs to take refuge in and rebuild our hearts, our own cathedrals, that will be far more beautiful than anything we see here on earth. 

Embracing Seasons

A few weeks ago, our first son, Leo, got his first haircut. And for many weeks prior to that, Aidan had been telling me over and over again that Leo needed one. I had been putting it off because I KNEW I would be so sad when he would come back looking like a little man and not my little baby with super blonde tips and a curly mini-mullet from the hairs evidencing his babyhood. 

The slowness of motherhood can feel so arduous sometimes, but it also gives me space to listen closely to His voice. When I was rocking Leo back to sleep in my arms after he woke up very upset from a nap, I could feel God shifting the perspective of my heart. As I truly enjoyed and savored being Leo’s comfort in that moment, God was teaching me that He gives us seasons, stages (ways to help us make sense of time and our existence) primarily to delight us and teach us about Himself in different ways we don’t have the same access to in other seasons.

All too often, I have made the mistake of defining seasons by what I could NOT do or receive in that season (e.g. here, toddlerhood as the solemn absence of babyhood, and let’s not forget, dating as the “no-sex-before-marriage” stage). We often are overwhelmed by crippling nostalgia or sadness for what is past (or only exists in imagined ideals!), longing for it, while we miss what He is doing and offering right in front of and within us. 

And so, when I read the verses for today, there is a similar struggle among God’s people through salvation history. We see parallel verses of Moses and Jesus from the Old and New testaments, exhorting those listening to follow and abide in the Law God sets forth for His people.  Moses, a great prophet and leader of Israel, is about to talk about the Ten Commandments and other commands about keeping the covenant with God. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, has just preached the Beatitudes. The people Jesus spoke to hear what is different, how Jesus is seemingly changing what God had said in the past, but Jesus knows their hearts and addresses those fears by proclaiming and clarifying Himself as the fulfillment of what those laws and prophets said. Jesus is connecting these seasons of salvation history and God’s revelation of Himself to mankind; the crowds can only see the differences and, as a result, lose trust in Jesus as the Messiah.

Just like the crowds, we often resist the cusp of a new season. Many times, we are afraid of what it might bring, but I find most often for myself, the prospect of finding a new way and rhythm of life is most challenging and daunting. But, as Jesus reminds us, each season is meant to fill us more and more, not taking away from or “abolishing” the season that came before.

It is very important to take note that the way God tells us about Himself in the Old Testament is paramount to understanding how His Son fulfills them. I encourage us all to read the Old Testament readings during the Easter vigil and really meditating on what each has to offer in terms of telling us how God is revealing Himself in salvation history. We cannot understand the Son without the Father, and vice versa. We worship a Trinitarian god Who has revealed Himself over time, and the order in which this has happened is integral to how each word informs the other, culminating in The Word of God, Jesus, our Messiah. The God who called for bloody animal sacrifices and holy temples and a priestly nation set apart for Him is now a Person, a Son, speaking to the crowds of fulfilling the words of His Father.

May we receive the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to understand and fully embrace our current season of life, and live with the expectant hope that there is unique joy in this season to be uncovered and savored.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

The Power of Letting Joy Spark

 

Dear fellow pilgrims,

What better describes your spiritual life: a “gloomy darkness” or a “festal gathering”?

I have to admit, my default spirituality is “gloomy darkness”. But a holy “gloomy darkness,” like Lent. (Or at least that’s what I tell myself.) I love Lent, it’s Easter that is harder for me to get into. Who is with me??? Why is it hard for us Lent-lovers to truly celebrate and embrace joy while enduring and dealing with suffering is easier? The first reading today reminds us that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has established a new covenant between humans and God characterized by joy, not trembling and fear.

A huge thing I’m learning, though, is this part of me isn’t really operating out of a deeper understanding of suffering at all if it’s easier for me to accept suffering rather than joy. As God has been healing this strange tendency of mine, I’m discovering joy in new ways while I am also letting go of faulty ways I have understood the role of suffering and fear in my life.

In short, I have come to understand that one of the reasons why it is hard for me to truly, deeply, and consciously experience joy in my life is because I have a hard time believing God gives good things to us freely, without a hidden agenda.  All too often, my subconscious response to fun events or moments of potential joy or happiness in life is resisting feeling it deeply in the moment. Why? Well, just in case God wants to take whatever is giving me joy away in the future. In short, I’m trying to cut expected future losses by disengaging from potentially joy-filled moments in the present.

But yeah… that’s not how God works. Those subconscious beliefs do not reflect who God really is, nor do they reflect who I really am to God. I still have a ways to go in truly believing in the relationship Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection made possible with all of my being, even to the depths of my subconscious.

What is the truth? I am a daughter of God and God is my Father who delights in giving me good things because He delights in my delight. God is not pleased when I am afraid of Him and back away from His good gifts. When I encounter suffering, God does not relish the fact that I am suffering. He only allows it so that a greater good might come about.

God’s inheritance for all of us is goodness, is the Resurrection, is eternal bliss in Heaven, and He wants us to live in that joy as much as we can on earth, not only for our good but for attracting others to claim that same inheritance.

The devil wants to suppress our joy, because “the joy of the Lord is [our] strength”! I know God has given me a large heart, and I feel things very deeply and profoundly, and when I am confident in the Lord, I am joyful. When I am joyful, or actively trust in His promise and inheritance of joy amidst suffering, I am unstoppable. And the devil doesn’t want that. He wants us to keep our beliefs about how we can earn good things and also deserve every bad thing that comes our way.

But this balance of joy and pain in our lives is not up to us! All we encounter in life is allowed by God in order to cultivate within us a deeper understanding of Heaven, of God’s ultimate desire for our hearts, of joy and peace and unity with Him.

Brothers and sisters, I pray the Holy Spirit reveals to each one of you how your own faulty understandings of God and yourself hinder experiencing His joy in the present. I pray that we would live our lives out of an unshakeable belief in the goodness of our inheritance as daughters and sons of God, an identity and gift won for us by Jesus that we can neither earn nor lose on our own merits.

Pax Christi!

-Alyssa

The Messiness of Advent

Dear fellow pilgrims,

This Advent for me has been quite active. Well… about as active as a very pregnant woman can be. Right now I’m about eight and a half months pregnant, and my favorite activity for the past few months has been “nesting,” getting my apartment clean and organized and ready for baby boy #2. I’ve been trying to connect that idea to “nesting” in my soul for the coming of baby Jesus, cleaning out the dusty places of my heart, organizing the clutter that has been keeping me occupied and worried instead of open and generous.

The first time I was pregnant, just two years ago, I had a similar focus about “making space” for the coming of Jesus. My Advent was so powerful, deep, and contemplative. I had time and much fewer interruptions, so it seems, to enter into quiet prayer and think deeply about the mystery occurring in my womb. Now, being pregnant during Advent for a second time with my first baby boy now a curious and active toddler… things are a little different. I have things to do, people! Like waddle around taking care of a little toddler while making sure I catch my breath and my beachball-sized belly doesn’t hit any corners. And vacuum. Everywhere.

Today, when I was vacuuming the always-dirty dining room area, Leo (our toddler) was being less than helpful. I was getting pretty frustrated with how it was taking forever to clean up his mess from lunch, and I began to lament interiorly about how cleaning up messes will be a job I will do as a mother pretty much all my life. I began to think about the repetitiveness of cleaning up as a rhythm of life on this earth, as a consequence of original sin. Because dust is just a bunch of dead particles, and basically any other activity having to do with cleaning (showering – sloughing off our own dead skin cells) also can tie into consequences of original sin in our earthly lives. My contemplation ended around being grateful that one day in Heaven, I won’t have to clean up anymore. I can just hear the choir of moms in Heaven rejoicing now…

When I took a little more time to calm down, I realized it was around Leo’s nap time, and he was probably fussy because he needed something and not because he wanted to ruin my plans to clean up our apartment. As I walked and pushed his stroller while he drifted off to sleep, the Lord met me again to continue this “dirt, sin, and nesting” contemplation. I read the Psalm for today on my phone:

“R. Let the Lord enter; he is the king of glory.

Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD?

or who may stand in his holy place?

He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean,

who desires not what is vain.”

I saw myself fervently cleaning, rearranging, dusting, organizing the things cluttering my heart. Check, check, check. Yes, I totally was following this Psalm. My plans for Advent were being executed well. Martha-heart, engaged and satisfied. But then I read it again and the refrain stood out: Let the Lord enter.”

My mental image changed. I saw myself for what this process really was: me trying to make my heart clean in the way I thought Jesus wanted it to be, keeping my hands tied against sin in the way I think He wants me to, to keep my desires away from things that I think are in vain. I wasn’t really letting or inviting the Lord to enter into these things at all.

Turns out, it had been much too long since I had truly invited the Lord to enter into all of my preparation, and He was only “there” because I trusted my own plans were following His “orders” more than I wanted Him to be intimately involved with them.

I thought the result He wanted was just a clean place for Him to reside, not that He actually wanted to help me clean, and have that process be as much of a purpose as the end result. But again, even thinking in terms of an “end result” is faulty, because of original sin, we will be fighting this inner battle all our lives.

My heart softened. I teared up. What a Mary/Martha moment… Jesus doesn’t want me to just produce my own clean heart, my own interior life, He wants to help me in the process of cleaning. I need to allow the Lord to enter. He wants to be there in the mess, in my mess, showing me where to go next, what to do in order to make my heart ready for Him to reside comfortably and happily within me. I pictured myself frustrated with my progress, but having Him take my hand gently and helping me begin again.

How much better are His ways than ours! Sometimes the transformation we so desperately long for – or the transformation we tacitly deny because we are too into our own plans – is just a simple invitation away:

“Lord, please enter into my mess. Show me what to do.”

One great truth of Advent is that Jesus entered into our earthly mess. Our collective, awful, dirty mess of a world stricken by sin and wandering from God. And He’s not afraid of it, He’s drawn to it. The way He loves us is being in the mess with us, taking on our flesh without taking on our mess. He teaches us how to be in the mess of life without becoming a mess… or messier than before. And because He is the Way, He must be in our processes. We must invite Him in without being ashamed of our mess. And many times, the mess we so desperately need to clean is the one most invisible to us, in the darkest corner of our hearts. We must invite Him in to reveal us to ourselves.

As we anticipate Christmas, let us be reminded that Jesus arrived into this world in a dark, messy – and unsanitary – cave. There are many quaint and pretty ways to visualize and portray the Nativity scene, but let’s ask the Holy Family to reveal to us the more unsavory elements of the Christmas story. Let us meditate on the reality of the Nativity scene. (As a pregnant woman, thinking about farm animals rolling around in the dirt while Mary labors and gives birth is enough mess to think about.) Let us enter into their mess so we can better grasp the truth of the Incarnation, how it completely overwhelms and transforms the mess of humanity into a proclamation of the endless merciful love of God for humanity.

Pax Christi!

-Alyssa

Beyond fearing Doomsday

Dear fellow pilgrims,

If you read/listen to the news on a daily basis – especially when tensions with North Korea were higher – follow what scientists are saying about the breadth and depth of impacts of global warming even in our lifetime, and, ok… maybe if you already have a tendency to worry about things… it’s easy to worry about the end of the world.  Heck, there is even a Doomsday Clock that tells us how close the world is to a global catastrophe – i.e. how many minutes until midnight – a terrifying symbol controlled by a group of scientists.  Right now, it’s at “two minutes until midnight”, the closest it’s ever been to midnight since 1953 (during the beginning of the Cold War).

I grew up in a non-denominational church where the pastor frequently talked about doomsday, and even preached to the children in the room (me) that we were probably going to be among those who would experience the “End Times.” Ok… and does anyone else remember those videos with Kirk Cameron about people disappearing up out of their clothes during the rapture? Those movies were fun reminders of the end of the world, too. My piano teacher even had brochures in her bathroom (that was otherwise decorated with fluffy pink things) about “reading the signs of the end times” that you could leisurely peruse while sitting on the toilet. I guess you could say that my Christian upbringing included a liiiittle bit over a “healthy dose” of eschatological awareness.

So, yeah, it’s easy to be scared of these potential catastrophes we can’t control. It’s also equally as easy to, in the face of being freaked out by the world, retreat to your distracting internet sites of choice and cover up the fear with mindless entertainment. The best way, however, involves facing these fears, no matter how realistic they are (because deciding that can be a whole other can of worms) and then surrendering them to God, proclaiming His victory and lordship over all things, and proclaiming your role as one of His rescued children.

Today, Jesus speaks of this intense anxiety and fear of the people during the end of the world to His disciples in the Gospel reading:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,

and on earth nations will be in dismay,

perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

People will die of fright

in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,

for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

 

But then, He also speaks of the end game and our role in it:

“And then they will see the Son of Man

coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

But when these signs begin to happen,

stand erect and raise your heads

because your redemption is at hand.”

 

“Stand erect…”, do not cower in terror, children. “Raise your heads…”, have confidence enough to look directly at this terror and trust in the Lord more than competing voices tell you to fear. Why? Because “your redemption is at hand,” your salvation is imminent, your God is near.

It’s so easy to be afraid, my brothers and sisters. Way too easy. But no matter when the end of the world will be, and how we or however many generations ahead of us will be experiencing it, we know our faith, hope, and love in the Lord will be the anchor of all hearts in whatever turmoil is encountered. Because building the strength to endure worldly turmoil is not God’s ultimate purpose for our lives, but rather, our redemption, which is the ultimate manifestation of His glory. Our goal is not to just hang on when things get really tough and seemingly unbearable. This is necessary and good and promotes many good virtues, but God wants to use these perseverance and virtues as a conduit for a greater and greater manifestation of His grace, which is always a gift to be received and not something to be grasped at.

Jesus makes all things new; He does not just want to get rid of all bad things. There is Heaven after the end of the world, not just the seared and barren land we see in apocalyptic movies. There is a wedding feast we are all called to as part of His Bride, the Church.

There is always a greater song to be sung over the ruins of Babylon, which we see in the first reading:

“Alleluia!

Salvation, glory, and might belong to our God,

for true and just are his judgments.

He has condemned the great harlot 

who corrupted the earth with her harlotry.

He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

 

The first reading reminds us that the world is ending because the ruler of the world is the evil one, the “great harlot,” and “the wages of sin is death,” which is a judgment. But may we be judged favorably when our time has come, to be counted among those avenged and redeemed, as our Lord intends and hopes for each one of us.

And above all, let us not be afraid!

Pax Christi,

-Alyssa

 

Leaves the Ninety-nine

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

In today’s Gospel reading, I hear Jesus responding to the Pharisees’ implicit belief that tax collectors and sinners are to be shunned, avoided, looked down upon. (“He welcomes them? Why?”) Interestingly, Jesus does not address a broader assumption of the Pharisees – that they are not sinners but those people obviously are – but rather, highlights His Identity as Redeemer, finder of the lost. Jesus is also responding to the Pharisees’ implicit beliefs in Him as someone who is on the earth to make an impression, be a big name, gain power, shake things up. (“Why would someone like him be with people like them?) 

No, Jesus tells them in two parables that He has come not to wine and dine with the elite, but to seek and find the lost. He is on a rescue mission, not a publicity tour promoting his new ideas about the world. The lost sheep are the ones He is looking for, because His joy is bringing them back into the fold. 

Perhaps you too thought of the very popular worship song “Reckless Love” by Cory Asbury when you read this passage. (“Leeeeaves the niiiiinety niiiine…”) I think this song has gotten so popular because it speaks the Gospel message to the heart of this generation of young people who longs to be seen and chosen out of the crowd as an individual worth losing everything for.

It’s easy to feel like your love as a millennial is being pulled in a thousand different directions. We are so used to calculating risk and reward with relationships – and also used to internet algorithms literally calculating which ads will draw our love and affection towards which products – that we are so compelled when we encounter a reckless, uncalculating love.  

Why did the sheep wander? Why do we wander from the fold?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s easy to fall into the lie that our absence wouldn’t be noticed or appreciated. We forget how we are loved. We forget that we are irreplaceable. That image of the shepherd leaving all of his other sheep to find the one lost sheep speaks truth into that lie in  my heart of being forgettable. And even if I am forgettable to other people, Jesus will never leave or forsake me. 

In this passage, Jesus is helping the Pharisees see both the lost sheep as worth the sacrifice and Himself as the determined shepherd, looking to keep his flock together as one. And, even more so, He is highlighting that He seeks those who are lost because they are lost; He rejoices when they are found, and desires others to share in this joy. 

Jesus, may we yield to your pursuing of our hearts. 

Reclaim the lost of this world, especially those who are farthest from your heart. 

Show us the parts of our heart that are still far from You.

Thank you for never giving up your pursuit of our hearts. 

Pax, 

Alyssa

All (of our) Saints Day

Dear Fellow Pilgrims,

Today we celebrated our Church Triumphant, that is, all the saints in Heaven who share the beatific vision of God Himself. They are those described in our readings today as “robed in white,” those who have “survived the time of great distress,” those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” In the communion of the saints, we celebrate those who have gone before us triumphantly throughout life, holding onto Christ more and more during this life to then be carried by Him to their final destination: the very center of His Heart and Being. We praise God for our family in Heaven, who petition for us, the Church Militant, night and day.

My favorite description of what the Saints do for us is probably Fr. Mike Schmitz’s anecdote from one of the times he and his family completed an Iron Man competition. Side note: It always strikes me as odd how normal Fr. Mike talks about his family doing Iron Mans… because it’s totally not a normal thing to just say your family “does;” and Iron Man consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, followed by running a FULL marathon – 26.2 miles. Anyways, each competitor has exactly 24 hours to complete this (insane) race, and if they do not finish within that exact time frame, they are marked as a “DNF” (did not finish), even if it’s one second after the 24 hour mark.

So, after Fr. Mike and his excessively physically gifted family finished their respective Iron Mans, they decided to wait at the finish line. He mentioned there is a tradition of some folks who finish their Iron Mans earlier on in the day to go back into the race and run alongside those who need extra encouragement to get to the finish line, and how fun it is to watch people finish the race again with others they have helped “run in.”

One year, Fr. Mike said there was one last guy who was a few miles out from the finish line and it seemed like he was not going to make it in before midnight, but the announcer encouraged people to go help run him in. After more and more announcements informing the rest of the Iron Man people about this man, it’s becoming actually possible that this guy may make it to the finish line in time. Fr. Mike describes this giant crowd of people who have already run their race running in with this guy, who is absolutely sprinting towards the finish line with everything he has. He ends up finishing the race with just a few seconds to spare, in an incredible effort that could have only been possible with the help of all of the people who had ran back to run with him and cheer him on.

This is such a powerful vision of what the communion of the saints is to our race in life, a family I like to think that I “married into” when I made vows to the Church during my Confirmation as an adult about seven years ago. And truthfully, a profound encounter with the communion of the saints was a huge impetus that led to my conversion to the Catholic Church from non-denominational Christianity.

I was just studying on a normal night in college during my freshman year at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. I was alone in my dorm room, nothing special was happening, until I felt a sudden onset of spiritual attack (a term I didn’t quite know or understand at the time). I felt bombarded in my mind and spirit, all at once, with feelings of doubt, despair, loneliness, confusion… it was an onslaught I didn’t understand, but knew intuitively that it wasn’t a mental breakdown. This was torment from outside me, not a symptom of dysfunction from within. I ended up calling or texting quite a few friends to come over and/or pray for me. No one picked up or texted me back, and I was feeling even more lonely as this attack continued. Then, I remember having an idea to “test out” this “communion of the saints” I knew about from my studies on Catholicism. It was as much as a last-ditch effort as it was a sincere SOS call into a spiritual realm I didn’t even fully believe existed.

“All you saints and angels in Heaven… if you’re there, please pray for me!”

And then, I felt an even greater onslaught of peace hit me like a giant ocean wave. The wave instantly quenched the fire burning within me. It left as abruptly as it arrived. I was left with a very clear conviction that the Saints’ intercession was real. I had felt it in my bones, in the depths of my soul. I had felt the effect of their intercession, and felt their love in that they responded to my call in a time of distress. I like to think in my own little story about my spiritual life that in that moment, all the saints who would help me in my life, who I would get to know personally, stepped forward and claimed me as their own (enter Pier Giorgio Frassati! “And I shall give her friends. She needs some friends.” followed by St. Therese “I can be her friend!” – she was my confirmation saint).

After that whole ordeal, I attended a praise and worship adoration event where I finally heard a definitive answer from God about His Presence in the Eucharist. (Read more about my testimony here if you’d like.) So now, when I look back on my whole testimony, I see how the evil one was trying to attack me on the precipice of a major encounter I was to have with God, and also how the Saints took me under their wings when I asked for their help. They ran and rallied behind me and helped me finish that little race, that challenge before me at the time.

And so, on every Solemnity of All Saints, I think back to when I first learned to believe in their goodwill for my life, and how powerful that intercession was. As a practice, when I go up to receive communion, I ask all of the saints to pray for a worthy and efficacious reception of the Eucharist. I’m sure there’s a way you can incorporate throwing up an “All you saints and angels, pray for me…” prayer during one of your spiritual or everyday routines.

The saints are always waiting for us to ask for their intercession. Let’s keep them busy.

Pax Christi,
-Alyssa