Idols and Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord I believe; help my unbelief.

 

Who’s At the Door?

When my little friends Nicholas (then 8) and Theresa (6) came to spend a day in New York City, the first stop was my apartment. As we ascended the many stairs to my sixth-floor walk-up, Nicholas exclaimed excitedly, “Cie-Cie you are so lucky! You live at the top of a skyscraper!” Theresa, with much less enthusiasm, asked, “Are we there yet?”

Climbing that many stairs is no joke. One can see in it an opportunity “hey—at least you don’t need a gym!” or a helpful deterrent, “any burglar would decide it’s not worth it.” It’s true; I didn’t even need the peephole. If someone knocked on the door, I knew they were either a really good friend or somebody to be paid.

Here upstate it is another story. It is not infrequently that I hear a knock on the door and find someone standing on our porch. Often it is a stranger—a salesman, someone campaigning for political office, a Jehovah’s Witness. Sometimes I am happy to see that it is someone I know; and sometimes it is the joy of a close friend come to visit.

In Rev 3:20, Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” In a famous painting, Jesus is standing outside a wooden door, knocking. The door has no handle; it can only Who's At the Doorbe opened from the inside.

In this context, my father used to note that there were degrees to which we let someone into our home. Some we will allow to step just inside, enough to hand us a flyer or get a signature. To some we might open the door and receive them into the entry hall. A few we will invite in to sit down for polite conversation. Close friends will come into the kitchen or sit down for a meal with us. Very close friends and family are invited to spend the night.

But even when we say, “make yourselves at home,” we only mean it to go so far. There are very few people that we allow into the more private spaces of our home; fewer still we would allow to go into our medicine cabinets or dresser drawers.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “I call you friends.” He wants to be that trusted friend—the one invited past the parlor of polite talk, into the mess, the rooms of our daily living where the “real stuff” happens. Into our private spaces. Into the closets that store our clutter and our skeletons. Into the attic where our memories are boxed up and forgotten.  Into the basement where the bodies are buried.

For many years I thought about the words of my father, but they seemed more poetic than practical. How did one invite Jesus in? What did it even mean to be a “friend” of Jesus?

It didn’t help that my idea of friendship with Jesus was influenced by a lot of bad 70’s art. There was the statue of “buddy Jesus” that still makes me cringe, or I imagined a hippie Jesus who wanted us to sit down, hold hands, and sing “kumbaya.” Worse is a more contemporary reduction, people seeing Jesus as some sort of pocket charm or device, that one looks to for answers or help, but then goes back in the pocket and stays there—especially when clothes come off.

I knew that prayer meant opening the door to Jesus.

But then what?

First, just do it.  Start praying.

But after that, the best advice I ever received about prayer was to change “God” or “Him” to “You.” I need to speak to God directly.

Before that, I had been sort of saying my prayers out into the universe, hoping by faith that there was a God on the other end to catch them. Sometimes my prayer was only thinking about God. Often it was abstract pondering, worrying about what God might want of me, how I was or was not living up to The Plan, what the future might hold.

My life changed when I began to speak to God directly. Instead of “I wonder if God wants me to do this,” I asked, “Lord, do YOU want me to do this?” Instead of, “I think God is mad at me,” “Lord, do you love me right now?” I replaced “I don’t know what this Gospel passage means,” with, “Lord, what do you want to show me today?”

In the beginning, this direct prayer was awkward and strange. Just as when we invite strangers into our homes and our lives, at first we relate formally and perhaps somewhat awkwardly, unsure of what to say. But over time, we grown in familiarity and intimacy.

For many years I spoke of Him
in the third person
objective, abstract,
with truth but without affection
dutifully sounding the gong and clashing the cymbal
of obedience to a Him.

But then the Third Person visited
And He became You
And You changed everything.

 


 

Featured Image Credit: William Holman Hunt [Public domain]

 

 

Intimacy and Change

Many years ago, I was on plane with my friend Jen, heading back from a wedding in Minnesota.  As we boarded, we were joined in our seats by a young man whose name I’ve forgotten—I will call him Steve.  I remember only that Steve was cute, and that he was Christian, but not Catholic.

During the flight, Jen and Steve became involved in a friendly debate about the Eucharist.  Steve held that it was only a symbol, whereas Jen defended the Catholic position: that it is in fact the true Body and Blood of Jesus.

Sitting in the window seat, I could hear the discussion but was not an active participant.  I had in fact been trained in apologetics, in how to defend from Scripture the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist.  But as I listened, I was surprised to find rising within me a strange sense of pain.  I admired Steve’s Christianity, but I could feel for just a moment the heart of Jesus.  Could a symbol have shown greater love than the Real Presence?  If the idea of the Real Presence was a mere human invention, did that not suggest that human imagination was in fact greater than God’s actual love for us?  Steve clearly loved Jesus, but could he recognize the depths of Jesus’ love for him?

The Gospel this week recounts what is known as “The Bread of Life Discourse” in the sixth chapter of John.  After the feeding of the five thousand, the crowd has come, hungering for more, but thinking only of food.  Jesus offers Himself as the answer to their hunger: “I am the Bread of Life.”   He compares Himself to the manna which the Israelites were given in the desert, but says of His own flesh: “Whoever eats this Bread will live forever.”

The manna given in the desert was not only the daily sustenance of the people; it was tinged with the taste of honey—a foreshadowing of the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Similarly, the Eucharist, uniting us with Jesus, is a foretaste of the more perfect union we will experience in paradise at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

I recently attended a talk by Sister Marie Pappas, CR, in which she spoke about experiencing the Mass as the Wedding Banquet.  She noted that a wedding connotes intimacy; that even stronger than the intimacy between husband and wife, is the intimacy which Jesus desires with each one of us.  This intimacy will be perfected in Heaven, but begins now and is real in each Mass.

In the Mass, Jesus comes to be with us, but also invites us to offer ourselves, to be with Him.  This intimacy can be enhanced by our preparation and participation, notes Sister Marie.  While her talk covered each part of the Mass, I will present just a few observations.

“Intimacy requires nakedness” she said. This means that we come before God as we truly are, without posturing and pretense.  “It is not like a job interview”—or a posting on social media, in which we want to present ourselves as perfect, without flaws, having it all together.  Intimacy requires true, honest, self-exposure.  Therefore, rather than hiding our faults, we acknowledge them, publicly and out loud: “I have sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do…’”

At the Offertory, we bring to Jesus not only the bread and wine to be changed, but also our hearts, with our insufficiencies, our brokenness, our prayers, needs, hopes and dreams.   When we place these on the altar with the Bread and Wine—we pray that these too may be transformed.

We then watch prayerfully as the priest standing in persona Christi repeats the sacred words from the Last Supper: “This is my Body…This is my Blood.”  When God speaks it happens.  When He said, “Let there be light..” there was light.  And when through the priest Jesus says again, “This is my Body…:This is my Blood” it becomes indeed His Body, His Blood.

Why?  So that receiving Him in Holy Communion we can be united in an actual unity more profound even then the consummation of marriage.

This is a hard teaching, who can accept it?

The Opposition Voice from the beginning has tried to change the Word of God.  When he does—it is always to suggest less than God’s desire for us.

“He doesn’t really love you—maybe He loves the Person You Ought to be, but not you…”

“Did He really say, ‘This is my Body?’ He can’t have meant that—He must have meant ‘This represents my Body’ or ‘This is a symbol of my Body.’”

“Do you really believe that Jesus wants to be within you?  One flesh with you?—Get real.  He couldn’t possibly want to get that close to you.  You’re just for the friend zone!”

But to each heart Jesus calls: “The Bridegroom is coming!”  “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  “I will be with you always….”

 

eucharist elevation resized

Photo by Shalone Cason on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Again…

“Again!” little Zippy claps with delight. “Again! Again!” she pleads.

I wonder just how many more “agains” I can take. The Five Little Monkeys have fallen off the bed enough times to warrant a CPS intervention. Baby Shark could probably have little grandbaby sharks of his own. And still the Wheels on the Bus go ‘round and round and round… “Again! Again!” cries little Zippy.

In today’s Gospel, Peter is invited to cast his nets into the sea, again.  Again, he and a few others have been fishing all night and have caught nothing. Perhaps the “again” is accompanied by skepticism and weariness, even a resigned “going through the motions.”

I wonder if Jesus, standing on the shore of the sea of Tiberius, has something of a childlike delight at the coming surprise, as He invites Peter again. “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something…”

*            *            *

“Again!” This is not the first time that Jesus has intervened while Peter was fishing.

The first time (in Luke 5), Jesus asked Peter to take Him out in his boat. Using it as a platform, Jesus taught as the people listened from the shore. Jesus then invites Peter to cast His nets—and Peter protests, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” No doubt he is skeptical, the fisherman taking advice from a carpenter, but he concedes: “But at your word I will let down the nets.”

When they raise the nets, they are full to bursting—so much that two boats are filled to the point of almost sinking. Seeing this, Peter falls on his face, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

It is not a surprising reaction—the shock of seeing a miracle performed before his very eyes. But this is not the first miracle Peter has seen.

We know disciples were with Jesus when the wine ran out at the wedding in Cana. (Some have joked that their presence explains why the wine ran out…) Peter and the disciples saw the changing of water to wine.  They saw Jesus cast out a demon in the synagogue in Capernaum, and they saw Jesus heal a woman with a fever—Simon Peter’s own mother in-in-law. Peter then is present as “all those who had any that were sick with various disease brought them to [Jesus]; and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them.” (Luke 4:40)

So why is Peter so overcome by a net full of fish? Surely it is not more spectacular than those works already witnessed?

Yet observing a miracle is very different than being a part of one. In the net of fish, Peter’s own work is changed. His own actions produce a result that is clearly more than human. This is beautiful and awe-inspiring…and terrifying.

Jesus did not come primarily that we might see signs, but that might become one. His greatest work is not to transform water into wine but to change stony hearts into hearts of flesh. He makes it that human beings might do the works of God.

“Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” Peter doesn’t yet understand that it is precisely sinners that Jesus has come to be with, to save, to change. “Do not be afraid…henceforth you will catch men,” Jesus tells him.

*            *            *

In today’s Gospel, Peter at first doesn’t recognize the voice that calls from the shore.  But once again the nets are filled, and John says: “It is the Lord.”  This time Peter doesn’t run away or beg Jesus to leave him. Instead he “tucks in his garment and jumps into the sea” rushing towards Him.

Peter is now more aware than before of his sinfulness and unworthiness. His denials of Jesus have stripped away any illusions of self-sufficiency. He knows who he is, what he is made of.  On his own, he has only empty nets and empty promises to offer.

But he also knows who Jesus is. Jesus who is able to fill his nets, will also fill his heart with courage. One day, empowered by the Holy Spirit, he will fulfill his wish to follow Jesus and lay down his life for Him.   He will become a sign.

Today, let us, like Peter, resolve to invite Jesus to come into our boat, “again.”

 

fredrik-ohlander-401681-unsplash

Photo by Fredrik Öhlander on Unsplash

 

Am I the Enemy?

“Healing is like an onion—there are many layers to it,” said the priest kindly. “God is moving foothills and mountains in your life—but you are looking for a volcano.”

His words gave me a measure of peace, but still I wanted more. A few days later, when the retreat had ended, I sat alone in the chapel. I felt burdened, not free. I felt an anxiety that I knew was not from God, and a longing for something more. I recalled the words of Sister Miriam, “You are not a problem to be fixed, but a person to be loved.” I remembered: “You need to let God love you…”

“What does that even mean?” I cried out. “I am trying so hard…” And I started sobbing with a pain that I could not identify but that poured forth from the depths of my being. “I am trying to let You love me! You know I give You permission! What more do You want of me?”

And then a memory surfaced, of the very worst sin of my life, the sin for which I was most deeply ashamed. “Will you let me love her?” I heard a gentle Voice ask. “Will you let me love the girl that did that?”

I froze for a second from the shock, and then recoiled in horror. Then, with a fury that would make the demons blush, I turned on my former self and screamed, “No!”

*            *            *

Like Saint Peter at the Last Supper, I thought I was stronger than I was. I had heard a story of someone committing this sin. I was aghast. “I could never do that!” I said with assurance, unaware of my underlying arrogance and spirit of self-reliance.

At supper with His disciples, Jesus tells His friends that one of them will betray him, and that the others will all flee. Peter is sure of himself. “Surely it is not I Lord!” “I will lay down my life for you.”

Jesus, who knows the dust from which we are made, warns him: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”

Sure enough, in the dark by the fire, three times Peter reacts: “I do not even know the man.” He hears the cock crow. And Luke tells us, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Luke 22:61)

What was in that look? I used to imagine disappointment, reproof, perhaps a tinge of “I told you so!” I saw in His eyes a mixture of sorrow and accusation, a frown on his face, a furrow on his brow, “How could you Peter?”

But God is love. And I believe that it was that look of love by which Peter was “undone.” A love that rushed into his hardened heart and rent it in two. “And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)

It seems at first that the greatest test is behind Peter, and that he has failed. But there is still a greater test to come.  Peter has seen Jesus heal and forgive. He has heard Christ’s call to forgive without limit, “not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Does he believe in Jesus? Does he believe in His power to forgive, to make new?

We all, with Peter, must choose to take Christ’s words to heart. To receive within the depths of our own hearts His healing and forgiveness. But this is not easy.

Is there ever a doubt in my mind that it is virtuous for me to give alms to the beggar, to forgive him who offends me, yes even to love my enemy in the name of Christ? No, not once does such a doubt cross my mind, certain as I am that what I have done unto the least of my brethren, I have done unto Christ.

But what if I should discover that the least of all brethren, the poorest of all beggars, the most insolent of all offenders, yes even the very enemy himself—that these live within me, that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness, that I am to myself the enemy who is to be loved—what then?

(Carl Jung quoted by Dr. Conrad Baars in Born Only Once).

At supper that night, Jesus broke bread with both Peter and Judas. Peter denied Him, but later became the first Pope and a martyr. Judas betrayed him, and we are told he regretted it, he returned the coins he had been paid, but he went and hung himself.

Was there such a great difference in their sin? No; rather, the difference was in their willingness to be forgiven. Jesus loved Judas also, to the end. Even in the Garden, when Judas comes to betray with a kiss, Jesus kindly calls him “Friend…”

For Peter, accepting this forgiveness is not an abstraction. There on the beach by the sea of Galilee, Christ will ask him, again, three times, “Do you love me?” And Peter, now humbled, will say, “You know everything…you know that I love you.” He now knows he cannot love on his own power. But Christ promises that He Himself will perfect Peter’s love, foretelling that one day, Peter will follow him to the cross, and this time lay down his life (see John 21:15-19). “Follow me,” He invites.

To follow and believe is not merely to acknowledge with our minds, but to receive in to our hearts the love of Christ. To allow it to convict and convert us, as an outpouring of compassion, not condemnation.

Once a woman who had been guilty of multiple abortions was struggling to accept forgiveness. Her priest had told her God was merciful, but she could not accept it. Ironically, she was going to counseling at that time with a Jewish therapist.

He questioned her, “Forgive me if I have this wrong—I am not Christian—but isn’t the idea that Jesus died for sins on the cross?” “Yes,” she agreed.”

“For everyone’s sins?” he pressed.

“Yes,” she answered. “Except mine.”

*            *            *

There in the chapel I sat, both Pharisee and Sinner at once.

The Pharisee screamed in accusation at the Sinner, “I hate what she did…I hate how she made me feel…she made me feel ashamed…she made me feel unworthy…she made me feel that I was bad…”

I heard myself naming each of the spirits we had been renouncing all week. And then, “she made me feel that I don’t deserve the love of my Father.”

I was again caught by surprise.

And as I cried out this last, I felt a sudden resurrection and freedom as the long-buried lie was exorcised from my soul. In place of the lie, I felt the embrace of the Father that shame had kept at arm’s length.

As we had been taught to do, I imagined my two selves standing at the foot of the cross. First, I asked Jesus to forgive, and then I forgave.

Christ is in each of us. Caryll Houselander asserts, even in the most hardened sinner. She suggests that we reverence such a person as we would the Holy Sepulcher (Tomb of Christ)—in which He is waiting to rise from the dead. Sometimes that tomb is within.

This Easter, we are invited to share in the death of Christ, and also in His resurrection.

Forgiveness of Sins

Image Credit:  Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

In Your Hands

Packing up my things for yet another move, I came across an old diary from my childhood.  It had two entries: in the first, January 1, 1985, I resolved to write daily, a fresh start to a new year full of promise.  The second, dated much later, noted that the first resolution was short-lived, but I was going to try again effective immediately.  The rest of the diary was empty.

My prayer journals, begun in college and early adulthood, were not that different.  They had a few more entries, but in general were filled only with good intentions, their pages primarily blank.  When I did write, the entries were mostly letters to God, filled with angst and longing, trying out new resolutions and then repenting for having failed.

“Have you ever thought about letting God answer you?” asked a friend one night.  I was stunned.

“What do you mean?” I wondered.  God didn’t talk to me.  That was for saints and other people; I didn’t hear God’s voice, and certainly didn’t expect him to “answer” me in my journals.

I remember that conversation well, and I know the date because it sits atop the first entry in a new journal.  The second I dated the very next day, and details an adventure I never expected.

As I prayed in this new way, inviting God to speak to me, I found myself walking along the beach next to Jesus.  I can still picture it, though our conversation was shy and awkward at first.  “What do you want to show me?” I asked Him.

And my mind went back to a night I had wished to forget.  I was young—probably five or six years old—packed in a car with several older children.  We had been that night to see a special outdoor summer movie, a showing of the cartoon the Jungle Book.

I had not seen many full-screen movies—this may even have been my first.  A sensitive child, I was transported into the story, imagining myself as little Mowgli, cute and adorable, befriended by Baloo the bear, and Bagheera the panther, who protected him from the Shere Khan, the tiger, and the evil cunning serpent Kaa.  While Shere Khan was the greater villain in Kipling’s story,  I was more deeply afraid of Kaa—the ugly evil serpent whose hissing twisted terror into my mind and heart.  Kaa would fill my nightmares for years to come, giving form to everything I feared and hated.

After the movie, as we were driving back, some of the older children started a game imagining each of as characters in the story.  I don’t remember who was who, but that I was disappointed when a cuter younger girl was chosen to be Mowgli.  But then someone asked, “Who should Grace be?” and whether mischief or malice or just misfortune, they seized on my greatest fear:

“Grace is Kaa! Grace is Kaa!”

Seeing my fear and dismay at their choice, they pounced with glee and began to torment me, inventing and explaining all the reasons that I was Kaa.  “You aren’t cute and adorable—you are skinny and ugly!  You are bad!  Everyone hates you!”  I felt as though I were being stabbed repeatedly, with a knife that broke the skin and sent blood coming out.  With each word the cutting intensified, and seemed to echo every hateful thing anyone had ever said to or about me: “You are ugly!  You are bad!  Nobody could ever love you!”

As I relived this memory in stark detail, I started sobbing, hemmed in by hateful voices, feeling again the pain and the stabbing, as blood gushed out of each stab wound.  I cried out in anguish, “Make them stop Jesus!  Why are you letting this happen to me?  Why aren’t you stopping them?  Make them stop, Jesus!”

And just then I heard Him speak. “Grace, the knife is in your hands…”

And I looked down and saw I was holding the knife, the knife that was cutting me so badly.  And I realized suddenly that the power of the scene was not in the past, but in the present.  Because those words had been spoken one time long ago by people who had long forgotten them—had perhaps never really truly meant them.  But I had embraced them, believed them, and was repeating them to myself ever since.  I had taken every subsequent hurt and criticism as further evidence that they were true. These lies had power because I had myself given voice to them.  I held the knife.

*            *            *

On a recent healing retreat, we were taught about such wounds as entry points for the Opposition Voice.  We are all hurt—in big or little ways—and into that hurt the Opposition speaks lies.  Lies about our goodness, lies about the goodness of God.  Lies about His love for us, or our worthiness to receive it.  What matters is less the words that are spoken, or the events that happen to us, but how we receive them and what we then believe.

Healing comes when we recognize and name these lies, the spirts of opposition, and renounce them.  “In the name of Jesus, I renounce the spirit of shame…of unworthiness….of fear…of hatred…”  “In the name of Jesus, I renounce the lie that God does not care about me…the lie that I am ugly…the lie that I am bad/unworthy/unlovable…”

I have found, both in my own experience and in praying with others, that it is very important to say these renunciations out loud.  Sometimes our difficulty in giving voice to them is a sign of their importance, which has often been unconsciously buried.  Many times simply saying the words of renunciation brings a new tangible experience of freedom.

In a comparable way the Church has insisted on the sacrament of Confession, and the speaking aloud of our sins.  Bringing them into the open, into the light, by speaking them out, is the beginning of healing.  The Opposition thrives in secrecy and darkness in which shame in particular can fester and grow.  Jesus came to bring light.

In today’s first reading the Israelites are struggling with the conditions in the desert.  They begin to complain against God, wishing they had never left Egypt.  This is evidence that they have embraced the deadly lie of the Opposition Voice:  “God is not good.  God doesn’t care about you…”  These deadly lies block their ability to receive God’s love and gifts.  And so visible deadly serpents come into the camp and sting them, to be a sign of what is happening spiritually.

God gives the Israelites an antidote to the serpent’s venom: Moses mounts a bronze serpent on a staff, and whoever looks at it is saved.  They look and see their sin, the image of the lie they have embraced.   The recognition of the lie, of the sin, is the first stage of salvation.  But it is not the end.

Jesus Himself will be lifted up, to show us graphically what sin does.  But more than that—to show us what Love does.  That Love is stronger.  That God is good, that He loves us—so much so that He would die for us.

As important as it is to renounce evil, we must also claim truth.  “In the name of Jesus, I claim that truth that I am chosen by God…that I am loved by God…that I am beautiful… that God died for love of me.”

In Confession, we are absolved when after speaking our sins, the priest, in persona Christi speaks God’s words over us:

“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.”

And in so doing, the priest makes the sign of the cross—that we might look up and place ourselves in the hands stretched out to welcome us home.

In Your Hands

Photo by Vladislav M on Unsplash

 

One in the Crowd

We were talking about faith as we drove to the Frassati hike. I remember looking up at the steel grey sky, in which a thick blanket of clouds blocked the sun from shining and warming the April air. I remember thinking it was an apt analogy for my faith in God: I knew that like the sun, God was up there, but I could not see or feel His Presence.

For years I attended Frassati retreats, and watched in particular on Saturday night as people had “wow” experiences of God. I saw their faces light up, their hands raise in enthusiastic praise. I wondered if or when I would ever feel what they felt. If I would ever be able to praise from the depths of my heart, and not just from my mind and will. I felt a numbness, a paralysis in my faith life, that blocked the joy that others seemed to exude. “I am waiting for you, God!” I would pray. “When are you going to come to me?”

In today’s Gospel, a man has been lying paralyzed by a healing pool for more than 38 years. Longer than many of you reading this have been alive, he lay there, waiting. It was believed that at certain times, an angel would stir that pool at Bethesda, the Hebrew word for mercy, and whoever was first into the pool would be miraculously healed. But as the man explained to Jesus, he had nobody to help him in—and so he was never first. So he continued to wait.

I often felt like that man, lying, waiting. It seemed that God’s miracles, that His best graces, that His love—were for others, not for me.

One day, as I was being prayed over, I was told, “God is waiting for you.” What?!? I was shocked and indignant. Surely He had it backwards! I was the one waiting…

I wonder if the man in today’s Gospel felt a similar surprise, when Jesus came up to him and asked, “Do you want to be well?” I wonder if he was tempted to sarcasm, tempted to reply, “Isn’t it obvious?” I wonder if there was a touch of resignation, of hopelessness, or of whining, when he replied “There is no one to help me…” Or did the question of Jesus elicit a new hope? Did it shift something within him?

In the end, it is not the angel-stirred pool that heals the man, but the words of Jesus. Said our parish priest in today’s homily: “Jesus Himself is the healing water.”

One day, Jesus “showed up” in a big way in my life, also on a Frassati retreat, more than eight years after I first started attending. I remember sitting in the chapel, as what seemed to be a waterfall of grace fell into my hands and I felt that joy I had seen others experience.

But this was only the beginning. And in some ways, it wasn’t even that. Because as I began to grow in relationship with Jesus, I began to see He had been healing me all along. I was looking for the miraculous, for “rushing waters”—but so often, growth and healing is the slower process that we see in nature. Sometimes this takes place underground, unseen, or hidden in the womb. Even when it emerges, change and growth is often gentle and slow.

It was only when I committed to a daily prayer time, when I set a designated time for dialog with God each day, that I began to both receive and perceive deeper healing. This was a time for God to ask His questions: “What are you looking for? What do want me to do for you? Do you want to be well? Whom is it that you seek?”

It is in the person of Christ that we find healing. It is Love alone that made us, and that makes us new. It is not something that we earn, or that the angels do for us. It is the gift of a Person.

I recently attended a week-long healing retreat in Florida. I experienced some healing there—but also found God showing me even more areas that still needed to be healed. And it was clear that my impatience with waiting has not improved in the last decade. I was discussing this with a friend on the phone—how I wanted to get on with it already. She knows me and reminded me, “You can’t perform surgery on yourself!” “Ugh,” I replied, “Just hand me the scalpel already!”

Sr. Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, who also spoke on our retreat, was familiar with this frustration. “I often come with my long list of things I want God to heal,” she admits. “But then I hear Him say, ‘You are not problem to be fixed. You are a person to be loved.’”

One of the biggest wounds that needed healing in my life was the lie that God’s goodness and love were for others, but not for me. I have come to recognize this as a not uncommon strategy of the Opposition Voice: that for those who do not doubt God’s reality and goodness in general, he tempts them to doubt it in the particular.

The man in the story was one among many at the pool that day. There was a whole crowd of people waiting to be healed. But for Jesus, we are always the one: the one He calls; the one He loves; the one He wants to heal.

In his monthly introduction to the Magnificat, Rev. Sebastian White, O.P. noted another curious thing about the healing of the paralyzed man. Unlike the blind man who leaves his cloak behind, the paralyzed man is told to “Take up his mat and walk.” Why not leave it?

As Father White says: “…the Lord leaves him with the constant reminder of his former condition. Lugging around his silly mat might have been annoying—a battle even—but I bet that man never forgot he depended on Jesus.” (Magnificat Editorial, April 2019, pp. 4-5)