Small Wonder

Once upon a time, a few millennia ago
they say a dreamer and a virgin
travelled by donkey to a far off land.
There the virgin had a baby
and the baby was God.

Imagine! The Infinite and Almighty
with tiny hands and feet
constrained by swaddling bands.

And because there was no room for such a God
they placed him in a manger full of straw
a feeding trough,
as though it were his destiny to be consumed.

The tiny face of God crinkled to cry with thirst
for milk, and something more
from a human breast.
(They say he cried this same cry, years later
from another bed of wood).

And to this scene strange searchers come:
wise men who followed a star
to find something brighter still,
and shepherds who also came guided by something in the sky
to find a new kind of lamb.

The sages and social misfits mingle
to adore a tiny helpless God.
How odd.

But stranger still, that time and eternity now linked
the eternal heart of God now forever beats with human blood.

And he is himself a searcher through the centuries
still looking for a room
and a human breast to hold him close.

Of course only a child could believe such things.

So let the worldly wise
settle for more realistic stories
of flying reindeer
and red round men sliding down chimneys.

 

 

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Originally posted Christmas 2014.  Photo credit The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 


 

 

Saint Joseph: Interrupted Plans

I used to feel sorry for Saint Joseph.  It can’t have been easy, living life sandwiched between the Immaculate Conception and the Incarnation.  He seemed such a quiet, shadow figure, more of a prop than a person, a necessary third to complete the family unit, but otherwise unnoticed and unnoteworthy. 

As I grew older, I became more aware of Saint Joseph’s usefulness.  Not just years ago, in the life of Jesus and Mary, but in the lives of various saints.  Saint Teresa of Avila, for example, always recommended devotion to Saint Joseph.  One could go to various saints for various favors, she would say, but to Saint Joseph, one could go “for anything.”  I found this to be true—he came to my rescue in some rather strange and significant situations.  And I was always grateful when his feast day fell on a Friday in Lent, the solemnity (for us as parishioners of Saint Joseph Parish) trumping the day of abstinence from meat.

In the last two years, I have come to love Saint Joseph, and to see in him a patron of the unplanned.  Or more specifically, of plans that were made, and then unmade.   Of interruptions.  Of re-routing.  Of offering up the idols of what one thinks life ought to look like.

If you’ve read my reflections for awhile you know about September 13, 2016, and how my life changed when I got the call that my mom was in the hospital—how I left to go home and never returned to the life I had known. 

But what I have not much talked about was January 8, 2017. 

We were all thrilled, when, after three months, my mother returned home just in time for Christmas.  But now the Christmas season was ending, and my siblings had left, and it was just me and my parents.  And it was time to face the fact that what had been a leave of absence for a crisis situation, was now to be indefinite.  Adrenaline had carried me through the crisis; now “peace” brought a different kind of panic.  There was no manual, no projected length of stay, no plan in place for providing for this new life. 

I was terrified.  More so than I had been in the days of crisis.  I didn’t know how I would do it, how I would live as a permanent caregiver for two people, without a job, without help. 

I wrote this meditation on Saint Joseph and the unraveling of plans.  It was a turning point for me, as my heart filled with peace in the praying and the writing, I believe as direct result of the intercession of Saint Joseph.  I did not know how many plans were still to be unraveled; I had no idea, that just a month later, it would be my father who passed out of this life into the next.  I had no idea, how many times, on a micro level as well as a macro level, my plans would have to be surrendered to make room for God.

Saint Joseph knew what it was like to have one’s plans, one’s ideas of how life should go, and then what it was like to have God write better ones.  To be interrupted.

Have you ever noticed how one thing that really upsets Jesus in the Gospels is when people would stop others from interrupting Him?  When the disciples want to stop the little children from coming to him.  When the crowd seeks to hush the blind Bartimaeus and stop him from calling out to Jesus.  When the Pharisee seeks to prevent the woman who cries over Jesus’ feet and washes them with her hair, or the woman who breaks the alabaster jar and pours perfume over His feet.

Jesus welcomes interruptions.  When He is heading to heal the daughter of Jairus, He stops to heal the woman who tugs at the hem of His garment—not only to heal her physically, but to speak to her, calling her back into relationship with her Father. 

He likens prayer to woman pestering a judge for a just decision, a friend bothering another friend in the middle of the night for a loaf of bread.

We know that Jesus is speaking about the patience and goodness of His heavenly Father.  But could it be that some of this patience was modeled for Him by His earthly, foster-father?

At the heart of patience is profound trust in the goodness of God.  Saint Joseph continually had to place his trust in God’s superior wisdom, in a plan that He could not see fully but only obey.  Such trust and surrender in turn makes room for fellow human beings, seeing them too as instruments of God’s plan.

Saint Joseph, pray that we too may welcome those who interrupt us. 

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Image Credit:

The Dream of Saint Joseph, Philippe de Champaigne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Perfect Christmas

A year ago, at the start of December, I was determined to create the perfect Christmas scene.  I would have the perfect Advent—peaceful and prayerful, preparing. I would have the perfect Christmas, having cleaned and decorated early, so that we could all relax, and enjoy Christmas as it Ought to Be.

The first Monday of Advent I opened the mail to find a medical bill that was supposed to have been $125 was in fact more than $5000.  My sister called to say that she had been laid off.  Of the two burners on our stove that still worked, one had become increasingly temperamental. And then suddenly I found myself with a project that would take every waking moment of December, preparing for more necessary renovations, including packing up all of my belongings (again) to change rooms.  It was chaos.

It was tempting to temper Christmas, to skip the presents again, maybe even the tree.  But something in me refused to bow to the chaos.  I was determined that we would have a “real” Christmas.  So I bought the full size tree, at full price (not waiting until the last minute to get the more frugal Christmas Eve special as we did in years past).  I bought a new stove, and took pictures as it gleamed perfectly—determined to keep it shiny and new.

There is no need to name names, or identify the culprit who decided to inaugurate the new stove with a dinner of ham and sweet potatoes.  I don’t need to tell you who, exactly, pierced ten sweet potatoes and cooked them directly on the oven rack without a pan to catch the oozing juices.

But when I saw the veritable sea of black char covering the bottom of the new oven, my niece issued a strong warning for That Person.  “You better leave when we do…Aunt Grace won’t say bad words in front of me, but she might if I’m not here anymore…!”

The next day was Christmas eve.  We managed to get the lights up, and the tree decorated, and the presents placed, by early afternoon.  It was cutting it a little close, but it was beautiful and we could actually sit down and enjoy it for a little while before Christmas Eve dinner.

“A little while” is relative.  It was probably about five minutes, before we heard a small pop.   It was probably a few seconds later, when someone said, for the second time in two days, “I smell smoke.”  This time it was coming from the perfect Christmas tree.

Thankfully, we were using a surge protector, which could be unplugged from the wall.  Thankfully, because the light plug had melted into the socket, rendering both lights and surge protector permanently unusable.  Thankfully, we caught the whole thing just before the whole tree went up in flames.

That night, when I went to bed in an unfinished room, half-painted, with only my bed and lamp, and the window cracked open in spite of the freezing temperatures to mitigate the paint fumes, I didn’t cry.  I laughed.  Because of course it was the perfect Christmas.

Because Christmas is the antithesis of the perfect setting.  It is about God coming down to meet us in the mess.  I had written already about this, on many occasions.  From a Holy Thursday (yes!) meditation a few years before:

And so I thought about that feeding trough full of hay. Not the sanitized one we see on Christmas cards and sing about in carols. But rather one that might be found in a real stable–with hay that is speckled with dirt and animal spittle, perhaps with tiny spiders crawling in it, heavy with the odor of other things that animals may do in a barn.

And I thought about how Mary took the First Born of Creation and placed him in that manger, that feeding trough, for all of us.

In my mind of course I wish to offer Him a more perfect room, one clean and spotless and welcoming.  But there is no other room. There will not be on this side of eternity.

I can only welcome Him into the mess that is Me, or turn Him away.

 

 

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The Final Trial

“Doomsday is coming!  Doomsday is coming!” the grim voice intoned loudly from the radio by my Grandfather’s chair.  This dire warning was repeated at frequent intervals throughout the weekend.  I asked, somewhat timidly, what “doomsday” was, and an older cousin gleefully told me about the End of the World.  I remember thinking that the adults were taking it awfully casually, continuing to joke and chat as if there were no big deal.  Even at age six, I thought there ought to be some sort of Preparation for such an event.

We returned home from our visit and the impending apocalypse was momentarily forgotten.  Until the following winter, when my (other) grandfather passed away and I attended his wake and funeral.

I still remember how cold it was that January day, as the drops of holy water froze in mid-air as they were sprinkled on the flower laden casket to be lowered into the ground.  I remember the casket itself, and how the night before at the wake, I had seen my Grandfather’s body, lying stately and still.  I was not disturbed, as some might worry, at seeing his body.  I was, however, secretly unsettled by seeing only half of it.

My instinct to prepare for “the End” again kicked in, and in the weeks after the funeral I would lie in bed after my parents had left the room, solemn and still like my Grandfather, my hands neatly folded above the crease in my sheets and blankets.  I kept these morbid contemplations to myself, until one day my concerns got the better of me.  “Mom, I think I am ready to die,” seven-year-old-me confided to my rather shocked mother.  “Except for one part….Why do they have to cut your legs off?”

If I was relieved to learn that Grandpa’s legs were not missing but merely concealed by the closed half of the casket, I was even more amused to learn, decades later, that the Doomsday proclamations of my childhood memory were in fact nothing more than a radio commercial.  As I grew older, my fear of death was eclipsed by other more pressing concerns—fear of embarrassing myself in public, for example, or of forgetting something necessary and important, like homework or a bathing suit.

The idea of preparation for judgment, however, stuck with me.

“If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  The bumper sticker asked a question that deeply intrigued me.  I had been fed on martyr stories from a young age (which no doubt played well with my other morbid fascinations) and I knew which side I wanted to be on in the inevitable persecutions to come.

I set about, courageously at times, creating “evidence” that would prove my worthiness to God and man.  At first this meant being good.  Later, it meant good works: standing up for what was right, even when it wasn’t popular, fighting to effect change in the world, advocating for the needy and oppressed.  I adopted many good causes, working tirelessly throughout my teen years into adulthood.  I spent hours volunteering, running projects, making good things happen so that I could be a good Christian.

It is only in recent years that I have been struck by a profound realization: it is not good works that distinguishes followers of Christ.  Let’s be honest—our secular counterparts do many of the same things, and often better (with better funds, with more polish, with further reach).

What distinguishes the Christians is what they don’t do—what they give to God.  I realized this one morning when I was pressed for time with one of my many worthy projects.  I was sorely tempted to cancel my appointment with God, to skip my prayer time, so I would have more time to work on helping out.

But, I realized, if I am really a Christian—if God is first in my life, if I really believe He is in control, then my prayer time “doing nothing” is more productive than my “work time.”  Do I believe this?  Do I live this?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns that the centerpiece of the Jewish religion, the glorious temple in Jerusalem, will fall into rubble: “All that you see here–the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”  Jesus doesn’t give advice on rebuilding or making do without.  His only commentary: “Do not be terrified.”  He then warns of false prophets that will come as the end draws near.  His advice?  “Do not be deceived.”

There is no preparation, no list of tasks for avoiding fear and deception.  Only intimacy with Christ can protect us against fear and deception in our lives and hearts.

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Image credit:  © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro /  from Wikimedia Commons

 

Parented by Gratuitous Love

There are many beautiful flowers in the nursery garden, but I am drawn at once to Baby M*.  Only a few weeks old, he is the smallest of all, weighing in at only 2.5 kilos—the equivalent of a small sack of flour with an extra tablespoon or two thrown in.  The list of his medical conditions is longer than he is.  He can do nothing for himself; only receive.

Abandoned at birth, he is without parents; even his name is a gift of the state.  Unlike the other children who reward my attention with laugher and hugs, Baby M lacks the strength even to smile.  He is too weak to suck from a bottle, and so a makeshift feeding tube helps to provide nourishment.  A colostomy bag compensates for his inability to digest and process food properly.  Even his cry is weak—unable to raise his voice, he raises plaintive eyes instead, and his tiny fist squeezes my heart.

*            *            *

Before holding this little one, I would wonder at the words of Jesus to Saint Faustina: “The greater the sinner, the greater his right to my mercy.”

Surely sin has no power, no rights.  But mercy is not about the power of the sinner, but the power of God’s love.  Our weakness draws and compels the heart of God.

“God doesn’t love the way human beings love. We love people because they’re attractive, funny, talented, rich, and powerful,” notes author Father Michael Gaitley.  “God loves us because we’re so weak, broken, and sinful.  God’s merciful love is like water that rushes to the lowest place.”2

In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes to Jericho, and we are told He “intended to pass through the town.”  But then Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector and sinner, the Bernie Madoff of his day, is moved by the desire to see Jesus.  He too was small—so short of stature that he is unable to see Jesus because of the crowd—and so he climbs a tree to get a better look.

One can only wonder at what must have been an awkward sight, a grown man gawking from a sycamore tree.  But Jesus stops and looks up, and says “Zacchaeus come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

This desire of Zacchaeus that moves him to climb the tree to see Jesus, in turn moves Jesus, compels Him.  “I must stay at your house.”

The crowd is scandalized. “They began to grumble.”  Zacchaeus is a notorious sinner, a thief, one of the “bad guys”; he has not behaved in a way to earn God’s favor, he is not one of their own.  His smallness was not only physical. But Jesus explains the “must”: “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what is lost.”

There is no recording of a preceding moral lecture by Jesus, no setting of prerequisites for His love.  Rather it is the invitation itself which causes Zacchaeus to hasten and “receive Him with joy.” It is the Encounter with Jesus which moves him to moral conversion: “Behold, half of my possessions Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I will repay it four times over.”

Moral behavior is not the prior condition for the love of God, but the consequence of it.  When we receive the unconditional love of God, we are freed to give it and to live it.  Yes—virtue is necessary; we cannot exempt ourselves from the laws of God.  But law is ultimately at the service of love.

It is our need and our desire which knock on the heart of God, which open the floodgates of His mercy.  There is nothing we can do to earn it; we can only accept or refuse it.

The church has always insisted on the right to baptize infants for this reason: all is gift.  We do not wait for proof of wisdom or virtue or even understanding.  We are parented by a love that is gratuitous, born of the goodness of God, not our own.

*            *            *

Baby M’s little heart is also weak, and it is clear from the beginning that his visit with us will be a short one.  And so we give him a special bath, and dress him in white, to prepare him to meet his Father.

On July 18th, his little body gives out, and he is transferred to a New Home, to be cradled in arms that will never let go.  And these days I ask for his help and intercession, that he might now assist me in my weakness.

Little saints, pray for us!

Baby Parenthood Finger Father Hand Love Mother

* Not his real name or initial

2 Father Gaitley explores this theme extensively in his highly recommended book, 33 Days to Merciful Love.  The quote cited is from this article: https://www.northtexascatholic.org/local-news-article?r=AGVJ9RUW3M

Image credit: (modified) from MaxPixel [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Another Saint I Learned to Like

“I am glad to hear that the Church considers her a saint, because I thought she was a witch!”  These words, allegedly spoken by a priest of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, reinforced in my mind the already intimidating image of this saint, whose feast we celebrate today.

That she was fearless and feisty was to her credit, I supposed.  But I found myself cowed by her seemingly impossible standards of self-sacrifice.  It has been recounted how, when just a young girl, she wanted very much to be a missionary.  Then, one day, when about to eat a piece of candy, she was told that missionaries could not eat such sweets.  So she didn’t.  Not that day, NOT EVER AGAIN.  She didn’t complain—even when suffering from ill treatment, or ill health—and forbade her fellow nuns to complain about ANYTHING.  Not even the weather.  She was relentless in her pursuits, in both her numerous missionary projects (schools, hospitals etc. throughout the world) and in her pursuit of holiness.

Even the Girl I Ought To Be does not aspire to such herculean efforts, and Real Me, rather than taking inspiration from her, merely added her to the list of Saints I Don’t Like.  What common ground could I have with such a saint?

So it was something of a surprise when I found myself at her shrine, one morning in May, while preparing for a talk.  The shrine offered the best chance for Mass, so there I was, praying not a few feet from the altar under which her body is encased.

That night I was to give a talk on Mary’s Fiat, and while I had been preparing for some time, I felt a subtle urge to change what I was going to say.  To talk about fear.  Fear?  I questioned the voice inside.  How does fear relate to anything?

Was Mother Cabrini smiling, just a little, when the priest began his homily, and began to speak of fear?  How in fact the saint I saw as fearless had some very big fears indeed.  One of these was of water.  When she was a child of seven, little Francesca Cabrini would make paper boats, fill them with violets (pretending they were her missionaries) and float them down the river.  She was shy and quiet then, and this solitary activity brought her much peace and joy.  Until one day she fell in.

Nobody knows how she got out.  She was discovered on the water bank, soaked and shaken, with no memory of who had rescued her.  Credit was given to her Guardian Angel, and yet for the rest of her life Francesca had a deep fear of drowning.

God did not take away her fear.  Rather, He allowed her to offer it back to Him, repeatedly.  No less than twenty-seven times, St. Frances Cabrini crossed the oceans between continents.  This was more than a century ago, and so passage was by boat, and slow, a matter of days.  Yet she did it, again and again, in spite of her fears.

Her first time crossing the Atlantic brought her to New York City. Like her patron, St. Francis Xavier, she had wanted to go to China.  But the pope told her, “Not to the east, but to the west.”  And so New York it was, where she arrived with a few nuns to begin her first mission in a convent that had been prepared for them.  Only, there was no convent—there had been some miscommunication—there was in fact no lodging prepared at all.

Mother Cabrini and her nuns spent the first night in a boarding house infested with bed bugs and mice.  Mice, I was to learn, were another fear of hers (I see her smiling at me again).  She spent the whole night sitting up, using the occasion to intercede.   So began her work among the immigrants of NYC.

How did she do it?  Like the apostles in the boat, terrified of the storm about them, she was comforted by the voice of Jesus, saying “It is I.”  She knew that voice personally.  She had a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart (one of her nuns spoke to me of her mystical “exchange of hearts” with Jesus).  She knew that He would carry her, that He would provide for her poverty and weakness.  He continued to reward her trust in Him.

In April of 1912 she was scheduled to sail yet again from England to New York.  But urgent business directed her elsewhere that day, and she canceled passage for herself and another sister.  She can only have wondered, later, when she saw the news that the boat she was booked on, the Titanic, had sunk off the coast of Newfoundland.

Why was her life spared?  We can talk casually about the mysterious plans of God.  Other saints were on board that day when the ship went down.  But God had chosen her for further things.

Ultimately, for St. Frances Cabrini, for Our Lady at the Annunciation, for each of us—our Yes is not to an abstract plan, but to a Person.  To Someone, not merely something.

When we offer even our fears to God, He responds by giving us more gifts than we could imagine.  St. Frances Xavier Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and more than 67 institutions throughout the world.  She was the first American citizen to be canonized.

May she carry our prayers to the heart of Jesus.

 

Jesus Walks on the Sea

 

Photo Attribution:

Jesus Walks on the Sea by Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s For Dinner?

I used to think that my name, Grace, was a bit of irony from God.  But I have come to realize that it is in fact the best name for me.  Not because I am graceful (ha!), nor because I am full of it, but because it is what we say before food.  Even not-yet-two Zippy knows this.  When they tell her: “Say Hi to Aunt Grace!” she tries to make the sign of the cross, thinking that food must be coming.  And that’s about right.

As a lover of food, I can’t help but find today’s Gospel rather puzzling.  Who, when invited to a royal banquet, would prefer lesser things?  Who would say No to the promise of such a feast?  Who indeed.

The invitation to faith is the invitation to trust in the goodness of God. It is the invitation to reverse the sin of Eden, to reverse the decision to doubt, to reverse the decision to choose lesser but attractive foods.

True faith is trust in the goodness of God, in His Providence for us in all things.  It is also trust in the desires that He Himself gives us.

In C.S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra, a man named Ransom finds himself in a new paradise.  He is in a world of floating islands, filled with trees bearing the most wonderful fruits he has ever tasted.  Every need is provided for in this new Eden, but there is one catch.  Because the islands are floating, constantly changing, it is impossible to “save,” to “keep,” to “hold on to for future use” anything at all.  The Tempter comes, proposing an alternative: A Fixed Land.  The choice is proposed: trust in continued Providence, or choose the safety of control.

It is easy to know the right choice, turning pages from the comfort of an easy chair, with my cup of coffee and a chocolate chip muffin still warm in my belly.

But when the hunger sets in—and I have nothing saved for myself—do I still trust?

What if the hunger is itself food, itself a gift?

In the song Blessings Laura Story wonders if our sufferings—the “rain, the storms, the hardest nights” are in fact blessings in disguise.  But then she goes a step further:

…All the while, You hear each spoken need

Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

…What if my greatest disappointments

Or the aching of this life

Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?

We all know that sometimes things that seem to be evil can turn out to be good.  But what if the longing for good, the thirst for God, is itself a good to be sought?  What if hunger is a gift?

C.S. Lewis argues that desire for heaven is one of the proofs for the existence of God.  He notes that all desires have a corresponding means of fulfillment on this earth, all but one—our desire for eternity.  “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world” he concludes.

St. Augustine is known for saying “our hearts are restless oh Lord, until they rest in thee.”  He wrote extensively on the longing for God—and held that the longing itself increased the soul’s capacity for God.

“The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive the gift, which is very great indeed…The more fervent the desire, the more worthy will be its fruits. When the Apostle tells us: Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16), he means this: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of Him alone who is able to give it.”

Saint Thérèse  of Lisieux lived total confidence in God, was confident that He would make her a saint, in spite of her littleness.  She believed that her desire for God was itself a pledge, that He would not give her very great desires if He did not mean to fill them: “I am certain, then, that You will grant my desires; I know O my God! That the more You want to give, the more You make us desire.”

Indeed, many saints have written that as they have ascended the heights of holiness, plumbed the depths of prayer, that their desire for God, rather than being satiated, was only increased.

May we be fed today with renewed hunger for God.  See you at the feast!

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Photo attribution: Banquet in the House of Levi © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro