Flowers in the Desert

“Flowers in the desert” my friends and I would call these little graces, gifts of hope or promise during times that seemed dominated by absence.

They varied in nature or significance: A chance encounter on a plane. An intriguing new addition to the social circle. An anonymous gift of a $100 bill. A word from a friend that was undoubtedly in fact a word from God.

These little things would be signs that would carry us through.

But they were only signs; therein lay the thorn on the rose. Pressed too hard, they did not deliver, but would in fact disappoint if mistaken for the Gift.

The airplane conversation opened windows to vision, but no doors. The new relationship was flattering and fun, but not “The One.” The money was quickly spent. The word brought peace for a time, but then back to waiting and wondering, “Where am I Lord? What am I doing? What are You doing? Are you even there?”

Anyone who has walked in the faith for some time has likely come to know the seasons of the soul. There are days of spring, when all things seem to proclaim the glory of God, when streams of grace flow amply and flowers bloom everywhere. In such seasons my heart knows easily the nearness of God, quickens with a song or a verse or just the simple suggestion of Presence.

But there are other seasons, seasons of winter, when it seems that life lies buried under the frozen dry ground. When the same words that once caused my heart to flutter, read again do not move me at all. When prayer feels like an empty exercise, a movement of the mind and will, while the heart is cold and still.

It is in the winter desert that faith becomes real.

Once upon a time, I thought that this meant that I was being tested, that I would prove myself a real Christian with heroic acts of faith, hope and charity that rose above my feelings. But I am no more able to produce these than a wanderer in the desert can produce water or an oasis. In the desert, it is God who provides.

Centuries ago on a hill called Tepeyac Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego. She asked him to go to the bishop with the request that a chapel be built in her honor. But the bishop was uncertain and asked for a sign. Our Lady provided.

She sent Juan Diego to gather roses from the desert hillside, of a kind that had no business growing in winter. Juan Diego is delighted with this gift, sure that it will be what the bishop is seeking. Our Lady carefully arranges the roses in his tilma, and Juan hurries to the bishop’s palace.

But as we know, the roses were only a means to reveal something greater. When Juan Diego opens his tilma, it is Our Lady’s own image that is revealed.

There are many moving details to this story, but of special significance are the eyes of Our Lady in this image of Guadalupe. The image itself confounds scientists—that there are not brush strokes, that it has been held by the rough cactus fibers, that is has survived for centuries—all indicate something miraculous. But a close look at the eyes in the image is even more startling—the iris and pupils show the images of people, as would appear in eyes that were photographed. And the proportions of these people are different in each eye, as a true photograph would show—but this image on the tilma predated the invention of photography. Even the microscopes used to reveal these images in the eyes did not exist at the time that Mary’s image appeared.

Many believe that the people shown in Our Lady’s eyes are Juan Diego, the bishop, and those present at the unveiling of the tilma. That even as they were looking to see signs, Mary saw each person present, held them in her gaze—and does so to this day.

Roses in winter reveal the vision of God. We are seen by heavenly eyes, held by hands that we cannot see. Even in such times, we are not alone. It is not the gifts that we seek, but the Giver.

“Am I not here, who am your Mother?” Our Lady tells Juan Diego. Her image shows her belly, swollen with Presence. She who became Mother to Emmanuel mothers us too, and calls us always to her Son.

In today’s Gospel we hear the first proclamation of the Incarnation, the Good News of the coming of Emmanuel. The name Emmanuel means God is With Us.

It is He Himself who comes to save, to be with us. More than a sign, He is the reality our hearts long for.

 

Flowers in the Desert Delfino

Photo by Delfino Barboza on Unsplash

The Rock

Last Christmas a very generous friend gifted me a Know-It-All watch. It knows when I am sleeping, and how well. It knows when I am sitting—and buzzes “Move!” when I do so for too long. It knows my heart rate and will buzz frantically “Abnormal…!”—often during particularly still moments such as the Consecration—assuring that said heart rate will quickly climb even higher.

I keep this omniscient tyrant for two reasons: one is that it alerts me to calls, which is helpful because I frequently forget where I’ve left my phone. The other is that it tracks my steps, motivating me at least in theory to take more of them.

One morning this past spring I was traveling with some friends from college, and we were planning to enjoy a leisurely brunch before heading our separate ways. I decided to take advantage of the hotel treadmill and get my steps in early. I was pleased that by the time we sat down to brunch, I was just 50 steps short of 10,000.

It was worth it. The food was delicious and it was a delight to just relax and enjoy extended conversation. But suddenly, mid-sentence, I felt the familiar bossy buzz and looked down at my watch to see the fireworks going off, signaling that my steps goal had been reached. I was amused and bewildered. How could this be, since I had been sitting for the entire time?

“It’s because you’re Italian,” my friends laughed. “You talk with your hands….”

Today’s Gospel is about speaking with more than words. It is in fact our actions that speak to God most clearly. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord, ‘will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven,” Jesus tells His disciples.

Faith is something that we profess not with our mouths but with our lives. By our actions, we build our house on either rock or sand.

At the same time, faith is knowing that it is not by my own strength or power that I do good. Rather, God has made me good and empowers me to choose the good. We are free to say no to what would hinder His will, knowing that it would also hinder our happiness.

Recently I read an article with the rather bizarre assertion that Mary and Jesus could have been just as happy and holy had they told God, “No.”

The author was trying to make a case for the primacy of consent. That at the Annunciation, Our Lady had the freedom to say Yes or No to God’s proposal. This is true: Our Lady was not forced to bear the Son of God. She was invited to be the spouse of the Spirit, the Mother of the Son, but she could have said No. All heaven awaited her answer.

Any man who proposes knows the intensity of such a moment, of held breath, awaiting a reply. No lover worthy of the name would make it a matter of force. She must always have the power to choose.

And yet, with the power to choose comes the power to choose tragically. Mary could have said No. But it would indeed have been a tragedy. Nothing else she could have chosen would ever approximate what God had in store for her. Her empty autonomy could not have been on par with being the mother of the Savior of the world.

Mary, full of the love of God, trusted the goodness of God. She knew He could not and would not propose something that was not good. She knew that whatever He does through us, He also does for us. She was free to respond fully and joyfully, and she did.

We also build our actions on the rock of Christ when we trust His promises, when we choose to say Yes to something (Someone) greater than ourselves. If instead we choose to trust in human ideas, in human strength, in human plans, then we find we have built on sand.

 

Gratitude a Platitude?

I smiled politely but inwardly rolled my eyes and sighed. I had come far, driving for several hours across state lines for this conversation. I was searching for peace, the peace that I heard Jesus promise and holy people speak of, but that was elusive in my own life. I was experiencing darkness and angst, teetering on the edge of depression. I thought this holy priest would offer helpful advice, transformative insight, something beyond: “Try keeping a journal of things you are grateful for.”

Gratitude?!? It was vaguely offensive, this suggestion that my problems arose because I was ungrateful. And a Gratitude Journal seemed little better than a “self-help” suggestion. Surely, if self-help propaganda actually worked, it wouldn’t be an ongoing industry.

I roll my eyes harder, today, at the naïve and stubborn girl I was then. Because when I finally took this priest’s advice, years later, it was transformative.

He was right, of course, that gratitude brought with it an increase in happiness and tranquility. Science in fact confirms this: studies repeatedly show that those who practice gratitude are generally happier and healthier. But in the spiritual realm this truth runs much deeper. In recent years I have meditated often on this mystery of gratitude, and how in fact gratitude is at the heart of the spiritual life in ways that are not immediately apparent.

First, gratitude orients us toward God. Gratitude as grace is more than an expression of contentedness, more than an acknowledgement of the good things in our lives. It is a recognition of, a turning towards, the Giver of these gifts. It is not coincidence that the first prayer children learn to pray is the practice of gratitude, of receiving and responding to the goodness of God. Gratitude is the first expression of the faith that saves us.

When in today’s Gospel Jesus remarks with dismay that only one of the ten lepers He healed has come back to thank Him, it is tempting to read this as a scolding for a breach of etiquette, as though Jesus were little more than a divine first-century Miss Manners. But what Jesus is lamenting is a matter of relationship. We are called as Christians not just to be thankful for someTHING, but thankful to someONE. Gratitude turns the heart toward the Giver. It is the relationship, this coming to the Giver, that saves.

Second, gratitude increases our capacity for God’s gifts. Gratitude in turn unlocks other blessings. It is a mystery of faith that I have come to recognize experientially: our gratitude actually increases the gifts of God.

At first I was put off (again!) by this idea. It seemed to be just another quid pro quo, a means of “earning” grace by playing nice and saying the right things. Worse, it seemed to demean God, suggesting He was crankily waiting for us to respond properly before giving us more good things.

It was living in the country that I began to understand why this might be—why it was more than just spiritual tit for tat, a reward for good behavior. I had discovered early upon my move home on that our basement was vulnerable to floods, and when that spring brought prolonged record rainfall I feared the worst. But each day that I checked, the basement remained dry. It was only after weeks of dry and drought that a short burst of rain sent the water rushing in.

The reason is simple: when ground is dry it becomes hardened, and the water cannot penetrate quickly enough and so runs off the surface of it creating the flooding. But as the earth receives water, it softens, allowing it to receive more and more. Similarly, the more our hearts are open to God and His gifts, the more He can give to us without “drowning” us. The more we gratefully receive, the more we are capable of receiving what God gives us.

Finally, gratitude keeps present in our hearts and minds the goodness of the Giver. As we remember our blessings and the ways in which God has provided for our past, we carry the seeds of hope for our future, even in seasons of scarcity and suffering.

“For all that has been, Thanks. To all that shall be, Yes.”– Dag Hammarskjöld

Idol Speculations

Earlier this week two activists made something of a splash when they removed controversial carved images from a church in Rome and tossed them into the Tiber River. Subsequently, Catholic social media has been flooded with commentary about the controversy. Who or what were these images depicting? Was it the Blessed Virgin (an early theory later rejected by a Vatican spokesperson); was it a “simple representation of life” in Amazonian art, or was it a “pagan idol,” specifically Pachamama? And the men who did this tossing—were they thieves, stuntmen, or heroes? An anonymous video showing the Tiber toss was uploaded to You-tube and has since been watched by thousands; some with concern and dismay, some with wild cheering.

The action comes during the Synod on the Amazon being held in Rome, which itself is stirring significant controversy, particularly from many who fear that it will be used as an occasion to change church teaching. Cries of racism have also arisen from both right and left. The left is accusing the right of rejecting Amazonian symbols and culture because they “aren’t white enough”; the right is claiming that the left is patronizing the Amazonian people by “watering down” church practices.

It is not the first controversy for our church. The centuries have been filled with contention and crises and wars against the church from within and without.

In times of discord, of scandal, of challenged faith, what is a faithful Catholic to do?

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells His disciples “Do you think I have come to spread peace? No, I tell you, but rather division.” One might think His word is being fulfilled!

But looking closer at today’s Gospel, we see both the real desire of Jesus, and the response He desires from us in the wake of scandal. “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

In these times, more than ever, we must pray.

It is not enough to be a chorus of curses against the darkness. We must BE light. A lightbulb on its own is useless—it gives light only when it is plugged into a source greater than itself. We too must receive from a genuine and literal Higher Power.

Prayer is not merely petition, not merely giving voice to our anger or anxieties. Rather it is to sit in the presence of God, to become one with Him, to learn His mind and His heart and receive His Spirit so that we might bring Him to others.

Our mission is to be conduits of grace to the world. If a stone statue of an idol can bring harm, how much more can a living vessel of the Holy Spirit bring good?

To offer anything less than Jesus is a tragedy. Certainly if apparent idols are presented in the church as alternatives to God, that is a grave scandal. But who do people encounter when they meet us? What are we offering through our lives? In my experience both “outsiders” and we ourselves are much more scandalized by the selfishness, hypocrisy, apathy of any individual professed Christians. We must ask ourselves, when people meet us, who or what do they encounter?

The first work of the Christian is to pray, to become and do the good that God asks of us as individuals.

I do not say this as an excuse to avoid the struggle against evil, to avoid taking sides. Rather, I say that we must not limit that fight to the evil in others.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

That something other than Jesus might be worshipped, that something other than His Mother be honored as ours, is indeed disturbing. But what idols need to be exorcised from our own hearts?

Who do people encounter when they meet us?

Every conversion I have ever heard or read about has been born of encounter and attraction. Sometimes a direct encounter with God, often, first, an encounter and attraction through the life of a Christian. Always it is a movement toward some good, toward joy, toward peace, toward love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Passion of John the Baptist

“Mom, can I eat a grasshopper to show God I love Him—like John the Baptist?” At age four, little Nicholas is ready to be a disciple of today’s saint.

It is more difficult to see what compelled more grown-up minds to follow Saint John the Baptist. Here was a man living in the wastes of the desert. His diet was insects and wild honey. His clothes were camel’s hair and a leather girdle. He had no power or position but only poverty as his identity. At first glance, his appearance would suggest more lunatic than life coach.

And yet we are told: “There went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 4:5)

What attracted them?

John was clear in his mission—he was not the Messiah. He was to prepare the way for the Messiah. “I baptize with water, but He will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” “I am not worthy to unfasten his sandal strap…” “He must increase; I must decrease.”

John’s poverty was not merely external. He was aware of who he was, but also of who he was not. He depended on God for everything. He allowed himself to be humanly weak in order that he might be strengthened by God. Everything in his life was ordered not to self-promotion but to ushering in the kingdom of God.

There is a measure of freedom in not caring what others think, but by itself that is not holiness.  Foolish or insane people don’t care what others think either. John the Baptist did care what God thought, and that is what fueled his passion.

“You brood of vipers!” he challenged the Pharisees. “It is not lawful for you to marry your brother’s wife!” he told King Herod. His mission was to preach repentance, to “make straight the way of the Lord.” To prepare for God, to make a path for Him to come, to clear out of the way any obstacles, especially pride and sin.

In contrast, King Herod, with a literal kingdom at his disposal, was nonetheless deeply dependent on the opinion of others. He feared John’s message, and so had him put in prison, but was afraid that he might be right, and afraid of what might happen to him, or what the people might say, if he did something to him. “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20)

Herod’s mistress—i.e. his brother’s wife whom he had unlawfully married—hated John and looked for a way to silence him forever. And so it was that she prompted her daughter to dance at a banquet, so titillating Herod that he rashly and publicly promised her whatever she might ask—even half his kingdom. At her mother’s behest she requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

“The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her. So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head.” (Mark 6:26)

What is deeply disturbing about this story is that we see a gruesome act carried out, not as an act of power, but of weakness. It is not a story of personal malice or vengeance or even violent temper. Instead we see a very weak man—controlled first by his passion of lust and then by his fear of human opinion—swayed to commit a most barbaric act about which he “knows better.” The bloody head on the platter shows us what following the spirit of the world will lead to.

Today’s feast invites us not only to admiration of John the Baptist or to condemnation of Herod but to an examination of our own passions. What are the motivating forces behinds our actions, our lives? Are we seeking God’s kingdom, or our own?

Interestingly in Mark’s Gospel this atrocious banquet is followed immediately by the feeding of the multitudes with five loaves and two fish. Jesus has another banquet in mind—in which, like John, He will give His life, to feed us with Himself.

Head of John the Baptist

Image Credit: Caravaggio [Public domain]

Dressing for a Wedding

Inevitably, among the daily news about politics and sports and celebrity break-ups and make-ups, there is at least one big post about fashion. In particular, whenever there is a star-studded event, be it the Oscars or Met Gala or somebody’s sixth wedding, we are treated to a slideshow of who wore what, who wore it better, fashion faux-pas and beautiful bodies wearing anything or almost nothing.

There must be quite a fan base for fashion news. I would not, however, expect God to be among those keeping track of wedding guest attire. And yet, in today’s Gospel, we hear the parable of the wedding garment. A man shows up at a wedding improperly attired. His punishment is not merely goggling or gossip, but being cast out—“into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

If there is one thing decidedly not in fashion it is Hell. And that God would send someone there for a failure to keep a dress code is more shocking than what the starlets aren’t wearing. What is going on?

When I was young I hated today’s Gospel. If todays’ feast, the Queenship of Mary, highlights the beauty of the faith, the story of the poor slob kicked out in the darkness of Hell seems to be representative of its ugliness. It seems unfair that being underdressed, even for a wedding, could warrant damnation. What kind of a God do we worship?

It was only later that I learned about first-century customs underlying today’s story. Guests who arrived a royal wedding were given the garments necessary for that wedding. The king knew that his subjects could never afford fitting attire, could not produce the appropriate festive garments on their own. And so the king himself provided them.

The man in the story was guilty of refusing a gift. He preferred to cover himself. Why? Was he like the Pharisee, who tried to justify himself with good works? Like Adam and Eve, who tried to hide nakedness with fig leaves? Or just like a regular old sinner who doesn’t think that he is that dirty?

The garment symbolizes sanctifying grace. “Nothing unclean can enter heaven.” In order to be happy in heaven with God, we need to be purified, to be in His grace.

Grace by definition is not something that we can achieve on our own; it is pure gift. We receive this gift at baptism, often as babies, when even the choice is made for us. If we forfeit it through mortal sin, God offers us restoration in the sacrament of Reconciliation. He continues to provide us with the grace to resist sin, and to repent when we fail. It is however up to us to choose to accept this gift, to put on the garment that He offers us.

The feast of the Queenship of Mary highlights this gift, and the goodness of God. It is His delight to share His glory with us! This is pure gift. Mary was not filled with grace on her own. She was saved, as we all are, through her Son. She could not have conceived Jesus by sheer willpower. (Couples who struggle with infertility can attest that even a purely human pregnancy cannot be achieved by willpower alone).

Yet here is a little Jewish girl chosen out of all women to be the Mother of God, and now enthroned as Queen of the entire universe. What did God ask of her? Her assent. She says yes to letting God clothe her, lead her, choose her destiny. The destiny that seemed so humble while she lived on earth became something beyond the wildest of human imaginings and aspirations.

Today God asks of us a yes. To put off the shabby rags of our sinfulness, to take on His robes of righteousness. These robes won’t merit a spread in the fashion pages. We are dressing not for today’s news but for a wedding in eternity.

Vincent_Malo_-_Wedding Guest Resized

Featured Image: Vincent Malo [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

His Own Mother

We were walking home from church when four-year-old Lucy suddenly stopped in her tracks, incredulous. “Wait…you mean God made His own Mother?!?”

The mystery of Mary is not just something to startle four-year-olds. Reflecting on Mary highlights the truth of the Incarnation, and the glorious plan of God.

The Maker of the Universe entered that Universe in the smallest way possible, as a single cell, hidden in the womb of a young girl in a small town itself almost unknown.

God could have come to earth in any way He pleased. He chose to enter the womb of the Virgin Mary. He did not choose her merely as a vessel, but as a Mother. He chose to be carried in a human body, to be nursed at human breasts, to be changed and swaddled and rocked in human arms. We are told that He was obedient to her and to Joseph, allowing His own creatures to teach Him to walk, to eat, to read and write, to pray.

In today’s Gospel we hear the story of the Visitation. Mary is carrying the newly conceived Jesus beneath her heart as she hastens to the hill country to her cousin Elizabeth.  The mothers meet and so do the children within, as Baby John the Baptist leaps for joy at Mary’s voice and the presence of his Cousin.

“Who am I that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” wonders Elizabeth aloud. There is an echo of royalty in her words—this title was used for the mother of the king. But we must not rush past the very simple reality that a human mother was the Mother of God. The work of God was to be mediated through human bodies.

The Council of Ephesus had to confront the heresy of Nestorianism, which basically separated the humanity and divinity of Jesus and considered Mary the mother only of His humanity. The truth is that Jesus is One Person, who is both God and Man, and His Mother is Mother of that complete Person. She was affirmed in Ephesus as Theotokos, the God-bearer, and, incidentally, when the crowds heard this they rioted for joy!

Mary carried the child, God, first within her womb, and then in her heart as He walked the roads of Galilee, Jerusalem, and ultimately up the hill to Calvary. There at the Cross Jesus expanded Her motherhood to include the Beloved Disciple, and thereby all of us: “Woman, behold your son.”

Just as her motherhood of Jesus was not merely spiritual, but bodily, so also her concern for each of us and all of our needs. Her first prayer of intercession was only four words, “They have no wine.” A lack of wine would embarrass the wedding hosts. But Mary was also aware and awaiting the wine of a greater feast that Her Son would one day initiate.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Assumption. At the close of her earthly life, Mary was brought body and soul into heaven. She is a sign of our hope, as it is God’s desire that we too shall join Him in heaven, body and soul. She is also confirmation that the plan of God is to glorify what is human, including the human body.