Two-year-old Zippy has recently discovered FaceTime. She loves to talk to Nonna and “A’Reece” (Aunt Grace), but is sometimes a bit confused as to how the technology works. She will giggle with delight when we answer and our faces appear on the screen, as though we have come to visit her. “Hi Zippy! Hi Honey!” we say. “Hi Zippy, Hi Honey!” she says in happy reply.
She is dismayed however if we don’t share our snacks; she is always generous with hers, trying to put them through the phone (her mother’s turn to be dismayed). She waves the phone around to show us her dinner or her dolls, and we try not to get dizzy. Sometimes she will sit and “talk” for awhile—sometimes not saying anything, sometimes chattering away, while we get a steady view of her eyebrows and the top of her head.
During the recent government shutdown, her father came up to visit us and help out for a bit while he was out of work. When we called to FaceTime, Zippy was ecstatic to suddenly see Daddy on the phone as well.
Shortly after he had returned home to Maryland, the whole family called on FaceTime. My brother passed the phone to Zippy, who was excited to talk to us, but unhappy that we wouldn’t show her Daddy. “Zippy see Daddy!” she implored. “I am right here!” my brother laughed behind her. But Zippy was not placated until Daddy moved around so that she could see his face in the small screen she was holding. “Daddy! Dere you are!” she laughed delightedly.
* * *
In today’s Gospel a woman is seeking Jesus. She has had a flow of blood for twelve years; doctors have only made things worse. And this flow of blood has in turn made her “unclean”—a spiritual outcast, barred from the temple and the touch of other people.
She has heard great things about Jesus and thinks that if she could but touch the hem of His garment, she would be cured. She moves quietly through the crowd, comes behind Him, and touches His clothing. Immediately, she realizes she is healed.
Jesus, however, recognizes a deeper desire for connection. He knows that healing power has gone out of Him, and asks the confused crowd “Who touched me?”
The woman must then confess; she comes forward, revealing herself and tells what has happened.
“Daughter,” Jesus replies, “Your faith has made you well.”
She had sought merely the restoration of her health. Jesus restores her identity, her relationship with her Father. “Daughter…”
This deep desire—was it only on the part of the woman?
It is a central mystery of Christianity that our love, desire, and faith actually begin as God’s initiative toward us. It is He who first loves us; He who calls us to prayer, who plants the desire in our hearts, who is the source of both our longing and its fulfillment.
Growing up, I did not know that Don Bosco was a saint; I thought he was a family friend. I would hear things like “Don Bosco got Daddy a job” or “Don Bosco helped us pay that bill.” Friends’ parents shared similar names: Ron, John and my father, Don, gathered together regularly for coffee. When I heard “Don Bosco” I just added him to the mix.
Saint John Bosco (known popularly as Don Bosco) first came to our attention before my parents were particularly religious. They were having financial troubles, and his intercession was sought as a “patron saint of unpaid bills.” I was just a child at the time and so the precise details were hazy, but there was a medical bill that my parents were unable to pay. As it went to collection with no resources in sight, my grandmother proposed a novena to Saint John Bosco. Figuring “What can it hurt?” my parents prayed to Don Bosco for nine days. But on the last day of the novena, an envelope arrived from a mail order contest for the exact amount of the bill!
Answers like this appeared throughout my childhood, and then into adulthood. Time after time, Saint John Bosco came through, often at the very last minute. This followed the pattern of his own lifetime, of last-minute miracles. He started an Oratory for troubled boys in Turin, but there was not often an excess of funds. More than once, he sat the boys down for dinner with nothing to feed them with. Then, suddenly, there would be a knock on the door with a last-minute donation of food.
Other times Don Bosco seems to have been granted miracles of multiplication. One such story is recounted by Francis Dalmazzo, who had decided after just a few days to leave the Oratory, and had even sent for his mother to come and get him. But that morning, he witnessed a few rolls become enough to feed the four hundred boys. As each boy received his roll, there was another in its place for the next boy, until all had eaten—and in the basket Francis saw the original few rolls still there. He told his mother that he had decided to stay after all. 1
Last-minute miracles took many forms. There were death-bed conversions, including that of the man who had spent his life in opposition to Don Bosco’s work. There was the time when St. John Bosco seemed too late—a boy in the Oratory had died without making a good Confession. Don Bosco raised him from the dead, and the boy received the sacraments. There was the time he wanted to build a basilica to Mary Help of Christians—to whom he had entrusted all his needs and work. He gave the astonished architect a down payment of eight cents, promising that “Mary would build her own basilica.”2 We visited that Basilica on a Frassati pilgrimage in 2010.
It is easy to admire a saint for such radical trust in God. Real-time waiting and last-minute rescues, however, do not make for an anxiety-free life. I often wished that as an intercessor, Don Bosco would not wait until that last minute. And sometimes it seemed that his idea of last-minute went well beyond mine. Other times he didn’t seem to answer my prayers at all.
I am not going to lie—there have been times when I was tempted to move Saint John Bosco to my other list. Saint.Joseph for one, is a lot more prompt… And then I wonder just why John Bosco is in my life to begin with. What does this saint have to teach me, in particular about last-minute answers? About trusting in Providence? About waiting?
In the Gospels Jesus tells the strange story of a persistent widow, who hounds a judge until he gives her justice. Jesus tells us to imitate her tenacity when asking favors of God. He also tells the story of a man who wakes up his friend in the middle of the night to ask for bread for a visitor. The friend responds, not out of friendship, but because he wants the knocking to stop.
These are not appealing images. Most of us go out of our way NOT to be a nuisance, not to impose on others. Yet Jesus tells us to keep asking past the point of feeling comfortable about continuing.
The vision of God that this parable proposes does not seem at first to be any more appealing. Why would He insist that we ask, repeatedly, when as Jesus tells us, He already knows what we need? Does He really demand that our petitions reach critical mass before deigning to reply? Is it only when we’ve worn ourselves (and Him) out like the judge that He is reluctantly persuaded to give us what we ask?
We know theologically that God is good. We know from Scripture that “it is your Father’s desire to give you the kingdom.” But from the first sin in the Garden, our lived faith in His goodness is shaky. But Jesus wants us to call on and trust the Father.
Don Bosco was a father to the boys in Turin, and later to the Salesian order. He first attracted the boys by performing magic tricks to get their attention, but ultimately they stayed because they experienced his personal love and care for each of them. They learned first to trust in him, and in his fatherly love for them. His fatherly care and provision of their earthly needs pointed always and ultimately to the heavenly Father.
“I’m holding heaven in my arms tonight!” the lyrics of an old country song came unbidden, as I gazed down at the little one cradled softly in my arms. The afternoon sun highlighted the perfect features of a tiny face, illuminating like a halo the downy hair peaking from beneath a newborn cap. The baby girl’s name was Caeli, from the Latin word for heavens.
* * *
Her mother Regina and I were born just eleven days apart, and were best friends from the age of seven, when I convinced her to walk home with me from school one day. I had her wait outside while I asked my mother if she could come over to play. “Who is Regina?” my mother asked. “The girl standing in our driveway…!” She wouldn’t have to ask again, as Regina quickly became a permanent fixture in my life.
Three decades later, we were still the best of friends, but no longer shared a school or a zip code. I was single, with my New York City work and shoebox apartment. Regina and her husband had a house in the country, shared with eight young children. I visited when I could, to entertain them with stories and give them sugar highs.
As I had every other time, I shared Regina’s enthusiasm when she announced that she was expecting again, due in the summer of 2014. But then I shared her devastation, when, as the pregnancy progressed, there came sobering news.
Tests showed signs of anomalies, and more tests were suggested, followed by more doctor visits and somber consultations. Eventually the fears were given a name: it was believed that the baby, to be named Caeli, had both Trisomy 18 and spina bifida.
While spina bifida brought challenges that could be reduced or corrected by surgery, Trisomy 18 was more serious and life threatening. An extra chromosome 18 brought with it high risk factors—only half of these babies live to be born, and only ten percent of those live past the first year. Those who survived often had heart defects and/or damage to other organs, and ongoing health risks. In fact, the specialist to which Regina and her husband Erik went for help refused to treat them, saying that there was no point.
We began to pray a 54-day rosary novena for a miracle. The miracle was Doctor Elvira Parravicini. Dr. Parravicini was a Catholic neonatologist working at Columbia Hospital, who had begun a program especially for families in such situations. She had come to New York at the suggestion of Monsignor Guissani, founder of Communion and Liberation.
For her, to follow Christ in such a situation was to “follow” the child: that is, to respond to the needs of the child, including not only medical needs but also the need to be welcomed and loved, even if for a painfully short while. In Caeli’s case, Dr. Parravicini met with the parents to provide good prenatal care, and to be prepared for surgery (necessary within 72 hours) should the baby require it. She also arranged for the other children, Caeli’s siblings, to be at the hospital the day of delivery, so that they could meet and welcome her.
Early on the morning of June 18th, Regina began procedures to induce labor, with Erik at her side. Her brother, a priest, brought her mother and the other children awhile later, and staff provided activities for them while they awaited Caeli’s arrival.
Across the city I waited anxiously, begging God for a miracle, that Caeli be healed and be allowed to live. I don’t know that I have ever prayed harder for a miracle, as if I could move heaven with intensity alone.
Regina had gone into labor early that morning, but hours later I had heard nothing. I tried to work, but was too distracted. Finally, I sought refuge in the Church of St. Monica nearby. I prayed to every saint I could think of. And then out of desperation, I prayed to the future St. Caeli. I knew that God is outside of time, and that Caeli was likely be a saint soon and always, and so I implored her help, too.
Just then, kneeling there in the front of the church, I was surprised by a peal of girlish laughter. I felt this laughter rather than heard it—it is hard to explain what I even mean by that. It was too real to deny, and yet beyond the realm of the normal. But I was simultaneously sure of two things: that is was Caeli’s laughter, and that it was a laugh of perfect joy. At once my anxieties fled and I knew that all was well; I couldn’t contain my own joy.
Later I would wonder at the timing. It was shortly thereafter that I received the waited-for text, and I crossed town to Columbia as fast as city traffic would allow.
But the little girl that they placed in my arms was too still. There was no movement of breath; no tiny heartbeat as I held her close. I saw Regina’s face etched with pain, as she lay in her hospital bed.
Little Caeli had lived for just under half an hour. She had been baptized by Dr. Parravicini, and then confirmed by her uncle, and all her siblings were gathered around singing the Regina Caeli as she moved from our world to the next.
If I was surprised by my earlier joy, I was more surprised by the magnitude of my grief. Why? I knew that even though it wasn’t the answer I wanted, that Caeli was in heaven, in perfect joy. So why such pain? As I prayed once again, I realized that my grief too was a gift.
I stood with Jesus at the side of the tomb where Lazarus was buried. He too, knew the ending—better than I. But He wept. Not because of the power of death—which He would defeat; but rather, because of the power of life, which He gave and so loved.
And I found myself back further, at the dawn of time, when God looked over creation and said, “It is good.” Then when He created humanity, He said: “It is very good.” This pronouncement came before any human activity or achievements; before love could be earned or reciprocated. It was God’s delight and love for human life itself.
“You can’t explain beauty, but your heart recognizes it, intercepts it…” said Dr. Parravicini.1 For a few minutes we were invited to heaven. Invited to see with the eyes of a Father, to love with a Father’s heart, the matchless beauty of a human person.
Caeli was loved into existence. The love which she received and mirrored was already perfect. God had nothing more to ask of her, no further mission to accomplish than to witness to heaven.
St. Caeli, pray for us.
1From a 2012 blog post by Rev. Robert O’Connor on Dr. Parravicini. The formatting has since become compromised but I strongly recommend reading it in its entirety—it may well be one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.
We were thrilled when my little niece Zippy first began to speak in words we could understand. From baby babble emerged the first recognizable vocabulary: “Mamma”; “Dadda”; “’nanna (banana)” and “shoes.” However, when she said, early and audibly, “Two minutes!” we were both greatly surprised and greatly amused.
At age two Zippy still says “Two minutes!” and it is clear that while she has mastered the pronunciation, the actual meaning of the phrase still eludes her. At times, she recognizes it as a stall tactic. “Zippy, can I please have my phone back?” I ask. “Two minutes!” Zippy replies, meaning I must wait. However, “Zippy talk two minutes!” means “Zippy wants the phone, NOW, this minute.” She will ask to hear a song: “One!” by which she means, “One after another,” and listening for “Two minutes!” in that situation translates as “indefinitely…”
In general, the concept of time is confusing if not
meaningless to two year-olds. “I will be
back tomorrow” does not console her; she throws herself on the floor, bereft. (Yes, I am that cool). “Later” is just a code word for “no.” And she certainly doesn’t understand “this is
not the time to sing” when she breaks out into “Baby Shark” during the
Christmas homily, particularly when such a large crowd has gathered to hear her
If the concept of human time is puzzling to toddlers, the
concept of God’s timing is equally puzzling to us, even as adults. I confess that when God says “Wait!” I do not
always react well.
I remember in college that God promised that a particular prayer intention would be answered, but that I must wait. I thought, “Okay, I have a few minutes.” Eighteen years later, His answer exceeded my expectations, but I learned the hard way that His time-frame did too.
Even now, I too am tempted to tantrums when God says, “Wait.” I find myself bereft when He seems absent, wondering
if I will ever seem Him again. And when
I pray for solutions to the problems of life, and they don’t come quickly
enough, I wonder if He is listening.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is preaching in a synagogue in
Capernaum when he is interrupted by a snarky demon. “I know who you are…the holy one of God!”
declares the demon. Jesus first silences
him, then drives him out. “Quiet! Come out of him!” Jesus commands in Mark 1:24.
Why doesn’t Jesus want the crowd to hear this declaration? A few verses later, in Mark 1:34, we again
hear of Jesus specifically preventing the demons from revealing his identity: “He
healed many who were ill with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and
He was not permitting the demons to speak, because
they knew who He was.”
If Jesus has come to reveal His identity as the Son of God,
why silence the demons? Or perhaps a
more interesting question: What would the demons have to gain by revealing
It is the mystery of timing again. God’s timing is perfect. Patience is a virtue that we do well to cultivate. But more importantly, the mystery of timing reveals another mystery: that the Christian life is about relationship, not results.
The answer to Jesus’ identity is not a bit of trivia, or even a theological proposition to answer correctly on an exam. We come to know Him as He is WITH US (Emmanuel again). Jesus wants the people to come to know God as revealed by His person, not just as a match to their expectations.
His healings, His miracles, His teachings, and ultimately
His gift of self on the Cross and in the Eucharist, reveal to us the face of
God. It is encounter that teaches us,
and encounter that changes us.
We need to hear Him say, to the leper within, “I do will—be healed.” We need to experience the gaze of the loving
eyes which behold the sinful woman weeping at his feet, to hear him say, as to
the woman caught in adultery “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.” We need to watch Him calm the storms without
and within; to cast out demons and welcome back outcasts; to feed with a new
Manna that is both Presence and Promise.
We want to rush ahead to the solution, to the answer: Who is this guy preaching in the synagogue? What does He plan to do to/for us? But Jesus wants us to experience His presence. To walk with Him, to listen, to question, to learn not only His message but His heart.
* * *
Over Christmas vacation I take Zippy on a walk to the library. It is a two-minute walk if one goes directly. But there is so much to experience along the way: leftover snow to touch, steps to climb up and down, puppies to shriek at delightedly and try to pet. She wants to see her breath in the air; she wants to see what is in the half-frozen puddle in the driveway; she wants to pick up pebbles and watch them dance as she throws them on the path. She wants to run and then be carried and then put down so she can meander down the sidewalk. If we don’t make it all the way to the library; that’s okay. Life is short. Just two minutes.
At the beginning of today’s Gospel, we get a
glimpse into the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “When
Jesus saw the vast crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were
like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.” As He teaches, their hunger grows, in more
ways than one. And soon it is “late.”
The disciples see the physical hunger of the crowd as a problem, and want both the problem and the people to go away. “Dismiss them…so they can go and buy themselves something to eat,” they urge Jesus.
Jesus surprises them, instead saying: “Give them some food yourselves.”
They are stunned. “Are we to buy
200 days wages worth of food and give them something to eat?”
He asks them, “”How many loaves do you have? Go and see.”
It is important not to rush past this question. Having read the spoilers, we know the answer: five loaves and two fish. And we know what Jesus will do, and how the more than five thousand will be fed that day, and how there will even be twelve baskets of food left over.
But let us ponder for a moment this command and question of Jesus. It is not enough for Jesus that His disciples hear His words as a message to be learned and taught. Rather, He wishes for them to share in His heart, in His mission. Nor can they pray from a safe distance for God to “take care of” the issue. They are to be an integral part of His work.
First, however, they must come face to face with their inadequacy. What do they have to offer? “Go and see.” They are to encounter, concretely, their own inability to provide for the people. On their own, they do not have what it takes. They need God to work. And yet, in the mystery of salvation, God calls them (and us) to cooperate with His work. Our own experience of poverty does not exempt us from mission. Humility rather makes room for God to work, but He nonetheless elevates us, drawing us into His divine mission.
The disciples bring the five loaves and two fish to
Jesus. Jesus could have fed the crowd
with just one loaf, or with the bread and not the fish. Or, being God, He could have provided His own
loaf and fish. Instead, He asked that
they give what little they had, and all
that they had.
God invites us to experience our poverty, our nothingness—but
then asks us to give anyway. He loves us
in our poverty, but doesn’t leave us there: He invites us to make a gift of
what we have—all of it. Sometimes we
object because it seems too much. But
just as often, we object because it seems too little.
We prefer grandiose gestures, which make us look or feel
good. When God invites us to give lesser
things, we balk.
Caryll Houselander writes of the woman who had a great
desire to sacrifice her life to God as missionary martyr to cannibals, and was
disgruntled that He never took her up on her offer. But she was unwilling to offer God the
sufferings of her infirmities and old age.
“I knew once the primmest old invalid lady who could well have offered her helplessness to God, but she had a grievance against Him because He had not permitted her to be eaten by a cannibal for the Faith; she could not accept herself as a sick woman, but she would have achieved heroic virtue as a cutlet!” (Reed of God, p. 50)
We like to think of our saints as superheroes. But Saint Therese of Lisieux was by all accounts so “boring” that her fellow sisters feared there would be nothing to write in her obituary. Hers was not a life of great deeds, but of great love. She offered to God the smallest of things—and all things—with this love, and in so doing became a great saint. She was aware of her poverty and weakness and littleness, and so made room for God to act in her life in very big ways.
Father Walter Cizek, on the other hand, lived a life of remarkable strength and courage. He became a priest, and then went to Russia as a secret missionary. His daily life there was one of marked suffering, even before he was arrested (accused as a spy) and imprisoned; he was tortured, and later sent the Gulag in Siberia. The details of his sufferings are astounding, and can only be called heroic. Yet for Father Cizek, the defining moment of his life, his “conversion,” was a moment of abject failure.
While imprisoned he was subject to routine torture in a effort to get him to make a false confession. He was determined to resist; determined to outwit his captors; determined if necessary to die for Christ. Instead he capitulated and signed.
He was devastated; it was a moment of “great darkness” as he
confronted his failure, his poverty, the realization that he did not in fact “have
what it takes.” Then suddenly grace gave
birth to profound freedom, as he realized that it was precisely his weakness
that God was asking of Him. He had been
relying on His own strength; henceforth he would trust completely in God’s
Very few of us will be called in the next twenty-four hours to make heroic offerings to God. Yet each of us is invited into the heart of Christ, to give what we have at His asking. To begin with that first step in trust—to put bread into that first pair of hands, and then another, and then another. To watch with reverent awe as God multiplies our poverty into abundance.
Image credit: Marten van Valckenborch [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons
I love New Year’s Day. I love new beginnings, fresh starts, the first page of a clean new journal. I love the idea of resolutions: the promise of new habits and the new happiness and order they will bring to my life.
I am not alone: last night, Times Square was filled to capacity, and millions more watched on television as the ball dropped, signaling an end to 2018 and the beginning of 2019. It was a night of celebration and revelry; for many the penultimate holiday celebration, ushering in the promises of newness: New Year, New You, New Resolutions and hopes and dreams to plan and unpack.
Yet, just three weeks from today, January 21st, is Blue Monday, “The Most Depressing Day of the Year.” By the third Monday of January, it seems, conditions have converged to create a cocktail of depression. One is the dreary weather; another the post-holiday let down, and then the arrival of the post-holiday credit card bills. (I am sure that fact that it is a Monday doesn’t help). But the biggest factor? By the third week in January most have failed to keep their new resolutions, and as a result have abandoned hope in their new happiness.
Today, January first and New Year’s Day, the Church presents for our contemplation the mystery of Mary, Mother of God. At first, it seems something of a mismatch. If there was anyone who didn’t need New Year’s resolutions, it was the Immaculate Conception. Conceived without sin, she had no faults to renounce: she didn’t need to resolve to give up gossip, or gluttony, or even to give more of herself to God. And it is hard to picture Our Lady promising to eat fewer carbs or even to exercise more: surely the fully pregnant mother who rode on a donkey all the way to Bethlehem didn’t need to get more fit, or to do more penance.
Yet when we entrust to Mary the Mother of God, our resolutions, we increase exponentially the likelihood of our keeping them. First, because her intercession is invaluable in anything we wish to accomplish or offer. Second, because in her role as Mother of God, she models for us how to keep them.
How can this be, for we who know too well the reality of sin?
The answer for the Christian is not a how or a what but a Who. The child gestated in the womb of a Virgin, laid in the manger and held in her arms, first in Bethlehem and ultimately at Calvary, is Emmanuel: God is With Us.
God is With Us. Not just in the new, but in the now. Not with our future perfected or improved selves, or hobnobbing with the People We Ought To Be, but right now, in this imperfect moment.
Says Sister Wendy Beckett: “I would say that the essential test of whether you are a Christian is whether you actually pray. If you don’t pray you don’t truly believe. You believe in some kind of God who is an evil God because if you truly believe in the real God, then you want to be close to Him.” Yikes.
It is in the Baby in the manger, the Baby cradled in Mary’s lap, nursing at her breast, that we can find the confidence to draw close to God without fear.
A baby changes everything.
Even a merely human baby has a remarkable power to effect change. Voices are softened, curses omitted, touch becomes more gentle and loving. Mothers addicted to nicotine or caffeine or alcohol in excess suddenly quit cold turkey when they become aware of the life growing within them. Fathers who are “tough guys” melt into mush holding their child. Parents can attest that what willpower could not accomplish, the needs of their child effects quickly: getting up earlier, giving up more of their time, sacrificing more of their money for someone other than self.
Father Richard Veras notes in his book Jesus of Israel: Finding Christ in the Old Testament that this experience of parenthood, this change effected by ENCOUNTER, is in fact the model of Christianity, not resolution fueled by willpower alone. It is the encounter with Christ that changes us, that both inspires our right resolutions and empowers us to effect them.
If there is one resolution that will change your life definitively, it is to adopt the habit of daily prayer. To spend some time, like Mary, reflecting on the mystery of Emmanuel. To be present to the God that is always with you. To allow Him to transform you, to make you new. Sister Wendy again, not mincing words: “My filth crackles as He seizes hold of me.”
Gretchen Rubin, in her book Better than Before, writes about habits, and what helps and hinders them. Much of her advice applies well to cultivating a habit of prayer. Make the habit specific and concrete, she advises. Set a specific time for prayer (morning habits are more likely to be kept, she notes). Make the habit itself specific (for example, replace “to pray more” with “I will pray for fifteen minutes a day.”) Make it a daily habit: “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in awhile.” (p.80)
Let Our Lady teach you how to pray. (She taught Jesus, after all…) Let her hand you the Christ Child to hold, even without words, and just be present and ponder the mystery.
Finally, as Gretchen Rubin notes, the time for a new habit is Now. Not in tomorrow, which as the orphan Annie reminds us, is “always a day away.” The Good News is, literally, God is With Us Now. Not in the museum of the past, nor in a perfect future, but in very moment in which we reside.
On this her feast day, let us invoke Mary’s maternal intercession as we pray for the two most important moments of our life: “Holy, Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death, Amen.”