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.”

 

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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)

Sitting in Pairs

Gathered in the theater of the Sheen Center, we watched as survivors of the Rwanda genocide told their stories of living through unspeakable atrocities.  How they hid from former friends and neighbors, who hunted them down in order to exterminate them.  How they watched family members assaulted and killed before their eyes.  How they hid in the bush, in the ceilings; how they begged for food, for simple kindness, for their lives to be spared.  In just a few months, over one million people were murdered in Rwanda by their fellow countrymen.

The survivors sat in pairs as they told their stories.  One man described his parent’s killing.  One woman witnessed her father, and later her brothers, being taken away and executed.  One woman recounted how she was personally attacked, and showed us the scars on her body, including a long scar across her neck, formed by the attack of a machete intended to decapitate her.  The man sitting next to her began to tell his story also.  “I remember her…there were so many that day…but I remember her especially.  Because I thought I killed her.”

There was a collective intake of breath, as the theater sat hushed and still, suddenly aware that we were seeing something different.  That the pairs were not of fellow survivors, but of survivors and perpetrators.  That each person recounting their story of horror, was sitting next to someone responsible for that horror—a living icon of the healing power of forgiveness.

Father Ubald, maker of the film and presider over recent Frassati healing services, lost his parents to the genocide and only narrowly survived himself.  He believed that God spared him, and later used him, to bring the message of forgiveness to a country torn asunder by hate.  For him, the only path to recovery from the trauma, both for the individual and the country as a whole, was in the choice to forgive.  Forgiveness was the key to freedom for both survivors and perpetrators.  It was also the only way to arrest the power of hatred, and to break the cycle of violence.

Father Ubald had the opportunity to put this into practice when he met the man responsible for his mother’s murder.  He chose to forgive.  And because he knew it would be easy to dismiss such forgiveness as merely theoretical, he made it practical and concrete.  As a gesture of love, he committed to paying the schooling of the man’s son, and later his daughter as well.  This year, the daughter of a killer will finish medical school, financed by the mercy of one of his victims.

One cannot help but be inspired by these stories.  And yet, we struggle to put into practice even a fraction of what we witness.  Within ourselves, we hold hostage others guilty of much lesser crimes, refusing to forgive others of even small slights against us.  Those closest to us in particular can have an ability to injure us—and to be injured by us in turn, and by our unwillingness to forgive.

G.K. Chesterton quipped that “the Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”  For some of us, the challenge is even closer.  “All of our family was under one roof for the holidays…and nobody was murdered.  That’s the real Christmas miracle!” joked our retreat leader Colleen Kelly-Rayner.

Today’s Gospel tells the story of the unforgiving servant. He is himself released from an unpayable debt at the mercy of his master.  But when he encounters one who owes a much smaller debt, he seizes him and starts to choke him, demanding that the debt be repaid.

Jesus has harsh words for him: “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

Furthermore, Jesus tells us to forgive “not seven times but seventy-seven times”—that is, without limit.  He is inviting us to be like God.

We cannot become like God on our own; we need grace.  In order to forgive, we need God’s help.  The first step of forgiveness is to ask for the grace to forgive.  And sometimes, for the grace to want to forgive.  (Sometimes, to want to want to want to forgive…)

To forgive does not mean to erase what happened, to pretend that the was no real injury, no sin, no harm.   Rather, to forgive completely we must be honest about the evil that we are forgiving.  We are not pretending that evil away, but rather relinquishing revenge, relinquishing our right to exact payment, releasing our choke-hold on the one who owes us.

To forgive does not mean to forget.  According to the Catechism, it is “not within our power not to feel or to forget.”  We may continue to feel the pain of injury for some time.  In fact, notes Simcha Fisher, it may be that the “seventy-seven times” is for the same offense.  Even as our heart or emotions remind us of the injury, we can choose again to surrender our feelings to the Holy Spirit, and to offer forgiveness as an act of our will.

Thus the Lord’s words on forgiveness, the love that loves to the end, become a living reality. The parable of the merciless servant, which crowns the Lord’s teaching on ecclesial communion, ends with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” It is there, in fact, “in the depths of the heart,” that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.  CCC 2843

How do we surrender our heart to God in the midst of pain?  Father Solanus Benfatti, CFR, composed a Prayer Against Bitterness which I have found particularly helpful.  In it we are invited to come to God with the truth of what was done to us, but the greater truth about who we are and who God is.  We invite God to transform our pain, that it not become a prison for us.

Prayer Against Bitterness

Oh God, Heavenly Father. Thank you for my life. Thank you for wanting me. And for making me in the image and likeness of your Most Beloved Son in whom you are well-pleased. And for consecrating me into his Passion, Death, and glorious Resurrection at my baptism.

Father, right now, I feel hurt (sorrowful / angry /other), because _______. As a creature made wonderfully by you, and saved by the blood of the Lamb, and meant to be with you forever, I don’t deserve ______. And in the name of Jesus I reject and renounce the lie _________.

But I also do not want my natural anger and hurt to plant bitter roots in me and turn in to hatred and resentment. I renounce that and ask you, Father, in your merciful love, to send your Holy Spirit to block that from happening, even while I try to process properly the emotions I have and work to make reasonable and loving decisions to forgive, out of love for you, and following your example.

Also, I beg you to uproot bitterness and resentment that has taken residence in me in the course of my life. Give me memory of what I need to proceed humanly and forgive divinely. Send the Mother of your Son, Mary, to guide me, hand-in-hand all along the way.

I pray to you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Forgiveness_0001 Resized

Image Credit: scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

White Pebbles

When we children were not behaving, and my father was beginning to lose his patience but not yet his sense of humor, he would glance at the woods behind our house and say, “It’s time to start gathering white pebbles!”

We knew well the story of Hansel and Gretel, and how the father, pressured by the wicked stepmother, brought his two children into the deep woods, intending to leave them there.  However, Hansel had overheard the plans, and filled his pockets with white pebbles.  As they walked further into the woods, he dropped the pebbles along the way.  When the two children awoke to find themselves abandoned and alone, Hansel reassured Gretel, and told her to wait for the moonrise.  Sure enough, when the moon rose, it illuminated a path of the white pebbles, leading them safely home to their rejoicing father.

A few years ago, I was in a Bible Study with Brother John Mary CFR in which he invited us to pray about our story, and write a five-minute testimony.  As I prayed, the image that kept coming to my mind was this story and the path of white pebbles.

I realize that in many ways my life is like that path of pebbles, illuminated as I look back, like a reverse treasure hunt.  So many moments that seemed random, insignificant, or even tragic and opposed to my good, looking back highlight instead a path leading to God the Father.  Small conversations, big obstacles, struggles that seemed senseless, set the way Home.  My life was a path of gifts and graces that I only recognized in hindsight.

However, as I sat with the story and the image, I realized something was “off.”  The father in that story was not a true image of God the Father.  While he was not as ill-intentioned as his wife, he bowed to her pressure to abandon his children, not once, but twice.

The Brothers Grimm tell us that the father was a poor woodcutter “who could no longer procure even daily bread.”  He fears for the family, anticipating that they will all die of starvation.  His wife’s solution is to get rid of the children. The father balks, but in the end succumbs to her pressure and his fear.

The father is happy when the children return home the first time, but when the wicked step-mother applies pressure again, he capitulates and leads them into the deep woods a second time.  This time, Hansel did not have the opportunity to gather pebbles, and so scatters instead a trail of breadcrumbs.  But birds eat these, and the moon rises only to show the children that they are truly lost and alone, and this time there is no path home.  (It was then that they found the fabled candy cottage, and the witch that forms the heart of that story).

At first, as I considered the weak woodcutter, I thought that I must have misunderstood what I had received in prayer.  But as I stayed with it, I realized that the metaphor for my life only deepened.  For my story is not just about a path to God, but about coming to know what kind of Father God really is.

For much of my life, I saw myself not unlike Hansel, left to figure things out for himself.  I imagined that God would be happy enough if I made it home to heaven—but that it was all up to me to do what it took to get there.  While I did not doubt God’s goodness or love in the abstract, I did not recognize it for myself personally and practically.  God’s goodness did not seem “enough” to really help me, to overcome my sin, to overcome the difficulties of the world and my life.   He would be waiting for me at the end, if I made it, if I became the Girl I Ought to Be, but in the meantime, I was on my own.

If I wanted to come Home to my Father, it was up to me to find the way.  It was up to me to figure out how to save myself.  It was up to me to be clever enough to outwit evil, to prove my worthiness.  The result was a life of spiritual striving, which only left me feeling further lost and unloved.

Jesus comes to tell a different story.  The Father is “Our Father”—a Father we have in common with Jesus.  He is Son by nature; we are children by adoption, by a gratuitous love.  And because our image of Father has been so distorted, Jesus comes to reveal the face of the Father by His life.  It is a face of mercy, of healing, of truth, and a love which goes out to “seek and to save the lost.”

Not only is God generous, providing for our daily bread and physical life; He Himself becomes our Bread.  He Himself is the path; He walks with us and provides the grace and means to get to heaven.  Unlike the woodcutter who chose self-preservation out of fear, Jesus walks the path to the Cross, and shows in Himself the self-giving, self-emptying love that would literally rather die than live without us.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us how to pray.  As we pray the Our Father, we are invited to praise and affirm belief in the goodness of God’s Fatherhood, and to pray for the coming of His kingdom—that earth may reflect fully the goodness of heaven.  We then remember His promise to take care of us as we then entrust our needs to Him—”Give us this day our daily bread…deliver us from evil.”  He is not a Father who abandons us, but rather Emmanuel, God with us.

 

 

Pebble-Path resized

Image Credit:

Michel Matton [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Hiding in Paradise

A two-year-old niece makes many things more fun, but Hide-And-Go-Seek is not one of them.  Zippy thinks that if she closes her eyes and can’t see me, then I can’t see her either.   Sometimes, to make it more challenging, she puts something over her face as if for a prolonged game of Peak-A-Boo.  Or, once I’ve really hidden—behind the refrigerator, or the door, or under the bed—she will hide there herself.  Again, and again, and again.  Each time, I am supposed to play surprised.

When Adam and Eve hide in the garden after eating the forbidden fruit, God asks “’Where are you?” Surely the omnipotent God already knows.  So why does God ask?  And why does He follow Adam’s answer with still another question: “Who told you that you were naked?”  God wants them to see them as they are, naked and hiding from Him.

In my last reflection I wrote about the strategies of the Opposition Voice, whose goal it is to separate the Father from His children.  He does this first by getting them to reject God.  His next strategy is to get them to believe that God will reject them.

In tempting them with the forbidden fruit, the Opposition had begun to sow doubt in God’s goodness, and thereby to instill a fear of dependence on God.  Adam and Eve are initially tempted to choose self-sufficiency—achieving God-like status on their own, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Once they have eaten the fruit, the voice continues to promote self-sufficiency versus dependence on God.  They seek to cover their nakedness and dependence, and to hide from God rather than trust in His goodness.

As they lose sight of the God in whose image they are, they lose sight of His image in themselves.  “Guilt says you made a mistake; shame says you are a mistake” notes Gregory Cleveland, OMV.  And so to cover the mistake that they think they have become, Adam and Eve dress themselves in fig leaves.

It is an obvious strategy of the Opposition to make sin appear good, or perhaps necessary, or at the very least, not a big deal.  In a more subtle strategy, after our sin, the Opposition seeks to make our sin bigger than God.

After Genesis 3, we don’t get a visual on the serpent again until the Book of Revelation, when the seven-headed ten-horned dragon is at war with the Woman and Her Offspring.  But the Opposition Voice echoes through the books in between, spoken sometimes from without, and sometimes from within.  The first sin is for man to try to become like God on their own.  The second (and all subsequent) sins is to try to become like God on our own.

This is the mistake of the Pharisees, whom Jesus warns against in today’s Gospel.  “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” He tells His disciples.   The disciples are confused, thinking He has rebuked their forgetfulness (once again, they don’t have enough bread).  He recalls to them to the multiplication of the loaves, and asks “Do you still not understand?”

He is bringing them back not just to a previous lack, but to God’s providence in that lack.  It is God who provides everything.  He provides the grace to avoid sin, but also the grace to repent and to return once we have sinned.  He is the source of good, and the source of mercy when we are not good.

The Pharisees wish to adhere to a system of goodness based in the Law and traditions; to systematize a way to heaven with ritual and righteousness.  They cover themselves with the fig leaves of outer conformity to the Law, but like small children with their eyes closed, they presume that God cannot see the truth within them.

It is not the good deeds of the Pharisees that upsets Jesus; it is their reliance on them, versus reliance on God.  At its heart, it is still denial of God’s Fatherhood.

“Where are you?… Who told you that you were naked?”  Because man is now afraid and unable to approach and depend on God, God comes to earth as a naked baby, completely dependent on us.  And He shows us what dependence on humanity alone will lead to, when He is once again naked, stretched out on the Cross.

 

 

 

 

Other Paradise Trees