Demons Are Not Humble

I am not in general prey to superstition, with one glaring exception: the Litany of Humility.  I learned to fear this prayer in college, when I first took it up as part of the popular piety of the time.  I quickly found that my prayers were answered rapidly and concretely—I was offered occasions of humiliation, often public, with nearly every recitation.  On one occasion, I was sitting with an upperclassman to whom I was rather attracted and wanted very much to impress.  Somehow I managed to rock and tip my chair backwards, landing flat on my backside with my legs in the air like something out of a slapstick comedy.  I joined the whole room in laughter, but then decided to table the prayers for humility indefinitely.  Like St. Augustine, I hoped that someday God might grant me the grace.  But I added a very firm “not yet.”

It was years later that I was telling some of these stories to a fellow teacher, joking that if students needed quick assurance that God is real and responds to prayer, the Litany of Humility was perhaps a quicker bet than the Skeptic’s Prayer.  It was only a few hours later that I was pulled over and given my first (and only) speeding ticket.  While I sat in the driver’s seat with the police lights flashing behind me, blushing down to my goody-two-shoes, another car pulled over to join us.  It was my mother and with her all of my siblings.  Anxious to find out what the matter was, she drew over to ask what I was doing there.  I don’t remember which was more mortifying—to have my family witness the speeding ticket, or to have the cops see my mother coming over to help.  I changed the “not yet” to “not ever” and stopped even joking about the Litany of Humility.

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Demons are not humble.  They brag.  The demon in today’s Gospel recognizes Jesus and wants to show off his knowledge: “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  he cries out in a loud voice before being cast out.

Saint Francis of Assisi uses the example of such demons to warn us: having knowledge and powers is not an occasion for glory.  In Admonition #5, he offers a candid (to put it mildly) warning that should be daily reading for anyone in Church ministry:

Consider, O man, how great the excellence in which the Lord has placed you because He has created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His own likeness according to the spirit. And all the creatures that are under heaven serve and know and obey their Creator in their own way better than you. And even the demons did not crucify Him, but you together with them crucified Him and still crucify Him by taking delight in vices and sins. Wherefore then can you glory? For if you were so clever and wise that you possessed all science, and if you knew how to interpret every form of language and to investigate heavenly things minutely, you could not glory in all this, because one demon has known more of heavenly things and still knows more of earthly things than all men, although there may be some man who has received from the Lord a special knowledge of sovereign wisdom. In like manner, if you were handsomer and richer than all others, and even if you could work wonders and put the demons to flight, all these things are hurtful to you and in nowise belong to you, and in them you cannot glory; that, however, in which we may glory is in our infirmities, and in bearing daily the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Emphasis added).

Translation: even the demons know that Jesus is God. In fact, they know more than we do.  So any knowledge, any teaching or other gifts from God, do not make us great and therefore should not be a source of pride.  We can only glory in our weakness, and in bearing the Cross of Christ.

We easily recognize pride in its more “worldly” forms: when men and women seek glory in the accumulation of wealth or prestige or power.  In the Church it takes more insidious forms.  I wrote last week how morality can become an idol; so too can our good works, our mission, or things that we do ostensibly for God.

Our mission is a gift from God.  It points to God, not to ourselves.  Currently, we are watching with shock and horror the unmasking of those who have abandoned the mission to serve God—and those who have put their mission ahead of God and ahead of those they are called to love.  Abominable things have been covered up to protect the image of the Body of the Christ, while underneath, Christ suffers over and over in the wounds of the victims.

It was not a coincidence that when Christ was crucified He was stripped of His garments.  He who had no shame took ours upon Him, so that ours might be revealed and healed.  We more than ever need humble leaders, who will follow Christ, unafraid to be shamed for the Gospel.  We need those who are guilty to be honest about their sin, to accept having their crimes laid bare, to stop covering their shame but instead bring it forth to the only One who can heal.  We need those who are innocent to be willing to suffer shame with the guilty, as Christ did—for the sake of sinner and victim alike.   We need a Church that is not afraid of the truth, confident in the knowledge that the Truth will set us free.

We need a stripping away of false versions of holiness, the false versions of ourselves that we worship in God’s place.  We need to tear away the coverings that allow evil to hide behind pious facades.  And we need a repentance that is recognizes what sin is, but also knows that sin doesn’t get the last word.  Today more than ever we need to recognize the truth about what we are and what we are not.  We are not God.

When Goods Become Gods

Jesus said:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin,
and have neglected the weightier things of the law:
judgment and mercy and fidelity.
But these you should have done, without neglecting the others.
Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You cleanse the outside of cup and dish,
but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence.
Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup,
so that the outside also may be clean.”—Matt 23:23-26

I recently subscribed to Apple Music, which enables me to listen to pretty much any song for free.  In a fit of nostalgia, I downloaded many of my high school favorites from the 80’s and early 90’s.  Listening to them I am amazed and amused by two things: First, these songs are so riddled with longing and angst I am surprised I survived even an hour of adolescence without copious amounts of Prozac.  Second, I really had no idea how very many metaphors there are for the should-be-marital-act that I was completely oblivious to in my youth.

Just like the lyrics of an old country song, I too was “looking for love in all the wrong places.”  But this is not a story about sexual mistakes or what Fr. Isaac dubbed the “Las Vegas Sins.”  Rather I tried very hard to be a “good girl” and knew that my desire for love was ultimately to be met in God.  But I (unconsciously) believed that God’s love was something to be earned, fought for.  I thought it was a matter of getting the rules right, of moral perfection, of mastering my will.

The Opposition Voice will take one of two tactics when it comes to morality.  First, he may tempt us to ignore God’s law entirely, saying a particular sin is no big deal, won’t harm us, isn’t even really a sin.  Or, he may take an opposite tact: he may encourage us to fixate on sin, fixate on what is right and wrong, the details of law—at the expense of our relationship with the Law Giver.  This was the mistake of the Pharisees in today’s Gospel, and at times my own as well.

All of God’s laws are for our ultimate good and happiness, even those we find difficult and unpalatable.  Moralism, however, takes those beautiful and good laws and makes an idol of them.

We need a sidewalk to proceed down a street safely, but we are not meant to live our life looking only at the concrete.  A map may provide helpful directions to keep us from getting lost, but life is not meant to be an endless squabble over the map.

A few years ago, some Frassati friends and I visited Yellowstone Park.  There are hundreds of acres of land that are completely free and open to exploration.  There are some areas with recommended paths that are helpful but not required.  And there are some areas, generally surrounding hot springs or canyons, with paths and platforms that are absolutely essential for one’s safety—step off the path, and you could die.

The purpose of these latter paths is non-negotiable—we disregard them to our peril.  But we do not come to Yellowstone to gaze at and photograph the path, but to enable us to enjoy all of the beauty that surrounds it.

Similarly, the moral law is not at end in itself, but God’s plan to help us live life to the full.  A good marriage is not the absence of adultery or murder or skillful negotiations about who does the dishes and takes out the garbage.  Certainly, those things are necessary if not deal-breakers, but they are not enough.  What makes marriage meaningful is the love lived between spouses, the gift of self that grows into new little gift-givers.

The Opposition Voice will sometimes encourage perfectionism and moralism, not because he values morality, but because he knows we will ultimately fail.  He will encourage us to jump as high as we can, in order to try to reach God on our own, knowing we will get tired and eventually give up.

After sin, he continues with the same varying tactics.  To one he whispers, “Your sin is no big deal!  No need to go to Confession.  You didn’t kill anyone after all.  Oh, well, maybe you did, but she deserved it, right?”

To the other: “What an abominable sin you committed!  God could never forgive that.  You are not worthy of the pure love of God.  You shouldn’t even think about approaching Him in prayer!”

Always his goal is to block relationship, block reconciliation between creature and Creator.

When I taught children about Confession I would hold up a clear glass of water, telling them that it represented their souls at baptism, clean of original sin and filled with sanctifying grace.  Then we would add drops of food coloring, representing various sins committed, until the water turned black.

“Does God love you when you look like this?” I would ask.  There were always a few who guessed No.

“God never stops loving you—even when you look like this!” I would insist.  “God loves you just the way you are—but too much to let you stay that way.”  And then I would talk to them about the sacrament of Confession, how God’s love not only washes us but transforms us with His Grace and Mercy.

To further illustrate this, I would pour into the blackened water Absolution (represented by a bottle of Clorox), which changed suddenly the contents of the glass.  I had been told that this would make the water clear again, but in fact, it turned it a deep golden color.  At first I was dismayed that it “didn’t work properly,” but then I realized that this was in fact a more appropriate image for Confession.

Scripture tells us that “where sin abounds, grace abounds more.”  God takes the evil we offer and transforms it to an even greater good than existed previously.  The Prodigal Son upon His return finds not the life of servitude he expects, but a great welcome, the father running out to meet him, a party thrown in His honor

May we seek to follow Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and Life, and never let any sin be an obstacle to His love for us.

The Give-Away Pile

Then Peter said to him in reply,
“We have given up everything and followed you.
What will there be for us?”—Matt 19:27

“It’s funny how quickly life changes from, ‘Sure God—I’ll give you anything you want!’ to ‘Well, not that.  Or that. Or that. Can I perhaps interest you in something from this small give-away pile—you know, the things I no longer actually want or need?’ 😊

This was my Facebook status on April 15th of 2016.  Two years later I am hazy as to what sort of sacrifices inspired this particular post, but hindsight highlights what I could not then begin to imagine.

Things were crazy, as I recall, and among other things there was a problem with my apartment, which could have precipitated a drastic and immediate move.  I spent the day cleaning out my closet in preparation, only in the eleventh hour to have things work out enabling me to stay, to my great relief.

Yet for some reason I felt something deep within me stir and suggest that I should plan to put everything in storage and be prepared to walk away from my life.

This sounds rather outlandish, but I was preparing to go to China to volunteer for the summer, and the idea of staying longer greatly attracted me.  In fact, I had been feeling for some time an interior nudge, to say Yes to something that God was calling me to, something I could not yet see or understand.  I imagined a call to stay in China, or somewhere more exotic perhaps, to be a missionary, to follow some new and exciting adventure planned by God.  “I will go anywhere you want!” I told Him with enthusiasm.

It was just after this thought came to me—of putting all my stuff in storage and preparing to move—that I went down to get the mail.  On top was a flyer from Lowes, which said in bold letters “You’re moving!” (over an advertisement for supplies of course).  I was both startled and amused by what seemed a concrete confirmation of this interior sense.  I saved the flier (I still have it today) and told all my friends about this strange sense of calling—and I am so grateful I did, because nobody would have believed me given what followed.

I went to China and fell in love.  Half of my heart still sleeps on a bamboo matt under mosquito netting in an obscure orphanage in the suburbs of Beijing.  I would have given anything to stay and continue to work among the abandoned little ones.  But contrary to my wishes and my expectations, God did not ask me to stay.

Instead, I flew home to New York depressed and bored by the life that awaited my return.  I resented my naiveite in believing that interior call was from God, particularly as it became clear that all of the boxes that I had carefully packed and brought painstakingly down six flights of stairs now had to be brought up, unpacked, put back.  We brought up a few at a time, and they sat in my living room, unpacked for days, while I glared at them bitterly.

Then one day, just a few weeks after my return from China, I got a phone call that changed everything.  “Something is not right with your mother…”  I left work that day to make the drive upstate, unaware that I would not be returning.

I did, in fact, walk away from my life—from my job, my apartment, my social life and community, to move back to my childhood home.  It was not the exotic foreign destination I had imagined.  More than once, I questioned God, doubted that His plan could possibly be right.

But no matter how much is in our give-away pile (or how reluctantly we add to it) God’s is always greater.  He is never outdone in generosity.  I have learned this too.

In the Atrium we taught the little ones about the Mystery of Life and Death—how the grain of wheat must die in order to give life.  We planted wheat seeds, then took them out at various stages to examine them. A few days in, if we dig up the seed it looks much the same. A few weeks in, green shoots have pushed through the dirt, and roots have begun to grow—the grain they have come from is changed; it looks more like a shell now.   At four weeks, the original grain is a fraction of its original size and has almost disappeared, but the plant and roots are bigger still.  And then, later still, when it is harvest time, we find the seed has vanished entirely, but on the stalk are a hundred new seeds in its place.  From death comes more life.

I have had many experiences of God’s generosity in my new life.  I am grateful for the deepening of relationships, to give just two examples.  I was able to spend a few months living with my father, unaware that those would be his last months on earth.  Had things stayed as they were, I would have seen him only for a few days perhaps at Christmas.  I have also now been able to spend time with my best friend from childhood. She has for more than a year now been suffering from debilitating Lyme disease and its various coinfections.  I am able to cook weekly for her family of eight children, and we accompany each other in this strange season of our lives.  I am grateful for many other blessings that God has given me during this time.

Let us pray for the grace to give to God all that He may ask of us—and to better receive all that He wants to give us.

Like Children

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,
you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven….
…If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?…
…In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.” Matt 18:1-5,10,12-14

Our peaceful Pentecost prayers were interrupted by the wail of an emergency siren.  It was emanating from my 18-month-old niece Zippy, who was making a compelling case that evolutionary descent was not from apes but from banshees.  “Owwwww” she wailed, convincing the entire congregation to look our way, expecting blood.  But it was just an abbreviation for “out” by which she meant “out of the pew”, “outside” and also “now.”

So I extracted her writhing figure and brought her outside to the statue of Joseph holding Jesus, where she was once again happy.  “Ball!” she said, noting the sphere in the hands of baby Jesus.  “Ball!” she said louder.  “That’s the world, Zippy, not a ball,” I explained, but she still thought that Jesus ought to hand it over to her.  I realized she had a good share of my DNA blended in with the banshee.

Several years ago I read a book about Saint John Paul the Great which deeply inspired me to want to be a saint.  “I am ready to get serious about my faith” I told God.  The images that came to me in prayer, however, were not of great sacrifices or even good deeds, but rather of a nursing infant.

“What does this mean?” I asked, and then followed another image, of myself as toddler, sitting on Jesus’ lap at the Last Supper.  I looked around with great delight.  “I am ready to sit with the big kids!” toddler-me told Jesus.  “I want to be one of the apostles.”  Then I thought for a moment, and toddler-me replied, “Actually Jesus, I want to be you.  I want to be in charge!”  Jesus only smiled, and I saw once again the nursing infant.

There was a time when serious-adult-me would have rebuked this little toddler, but now I only laugh, because I know that Jesus delights in her, in her big dreams and small stature.  Certainly a humility check is in order (and still in progress) but there is something in her honesty, in her way of relating to Jesus, her confidence in His love for her no-matter-what, that adult-me can learn from.

After Mass, we take Zippy to Red Robin for dinner, and order her mini meatballs from the kid’s menu.  Because I am an amateur, not a parent, I hand her the tomato sauce for dipping.  Moments later, I am sitting next to a pint-sized serial killer, covered head to toe in red.  Because I am an aunt, not a parent, I snap pictures in lieu of cleaning her up.

I hand her a cup of juice, which she sips daintily, careful not to spill any.  When she is finished, she indicates so by pouring the remaining juice directly into her lap.  She looks up, smiles, and reaches out her arms to be picked up.  She is confident that my love is greater than my aversion to sauce and stickiness.

I bring her outside to fend off impending sirens, and she hears some music from a nearby restaurant, and begins to dance.  She has not yet learned to judge herself on the reactions of others, the number of Facebook likes, or even her skill at dancing, which is only a slight improvement over her table manners.

I am reminded of teaching my four-year old class the story of The Found Sheep. For this one, Jesus leaves the ninety-nine to search diligently, until He finds it and carries it home jubilantly on His shoulders. At first I worried in the back of my mind that children in their sensitivity might worry about the ninety-nine—those poor sheep left behind while Jesus goes looking for the one.  But the child sees what adults do not: to Jesus, there is no ninety-nine.  There is only the one.

Children know the secret to holiness is simple.  Love. Dependence. Trust. Confidence in the goodness of God, in His care for us, in His willingness to love us even when we are messy or awkward or do things badly or even completely wrong.

The key to holiness is not the greatness of our deeds but the greatness of God’s love.  Prayer is not one of the good works performed by the holy, but rather the food which makes any other work possible.

A few months later I am standing at the seashore with little Zippy, the waves which wash pleasantly over my ankles are strong enough to push her off balance.  But unafraid, she reaches up her arms to be picked up.  Safe and comfortable in my arms, she points to the deep, trusting that she can go anywhere as long as she is held.

May we like little children be confident always in the Father’s love for us, trusting in His goodness and protection to feed us, to lead us, to carry us home.

Tiffiny

I felt sorry for her, the girl with crippled hands who had come to our Frassati dinner, so I invited her to come to my birthday party.  I now wince at the subtle condescension in my offer, as though I were bestowing a kindness.  I think of the woman at the well believing she is being asked to do Jesus a favor….  Meanwhile! “If you only knew the gift of God…” He tells her.

Tiffiny came to my birthday party at Max Brenner later that week, and so began my friendship with a saint.

We bonded at first over fine chocolate and our mutual love of good food.  Tiffiny was one who fully entered into and enjoyed life.  Her tastes tended toward the gourmet; she loved music, loved to dance, loved a good time with friends of all kinds.

She was very accomplished—we only learned how much so, in small doses over time, as she rarely spoke about herself.  It would be a casual remark “that time when I was recruited by the FBI and studied body language” or a brief anecdote about playing on the national golf circuit, or writing music and choreography at Carnegie Hall, or about the friends made while working in the fashion industry.  We would often laugh at how very many different areas she was gifted in, and how often we were taken by surprise by newly revealed talents.

Tiffiny was a facilities manager at Fidessa in downtown Manhattan when the planes flew into the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.  She was a witness to the carnage that day. Then, in part because of her service to others (including helping to pack up the personal effects of those who had fled), she became a victim herself.

It was then that she contracted toxic mercury poisoning, which triggered scleroderma.  Scleroderma is a fatal autoimmune disease which causes a hardening of the skin and organs, and was responsible for the disfigurement of her hands and face which I noticed that first day.  It also caused worse damage internally, and profound physical pain and suffering.  Before Tiffiny, the longest anyone had survived this diagnosis was only ten years.  Tiffiny lived for fifteen more years, until 2016, her body and abilities slowly giving out on her, but her soul was only strengthened by her sacrifice.

Many friends have remembered how Tiffiny listened patiently to our complaints, and we only realized later how much her suffering in those moments eclipsed our own often silly complaints.  Even while sick, Tiffiny’s schedule and accomplishments were amazing.  I thought I was busy and hardworking as a healthy person, but what she did put me in the shade.  Her joy was contagious, witnessed not only by those who shared her faith but by people of all walks of life.  “That girl is a saint” said the security officer in the building where she worked.  So many people were drawn to her, testifying to a life that was not hidden under a bushel but visible and always attractive.

I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with her.  Actually, when she first took over as leader of Frassati, I thought she was crazy.  We had started preparing monthly dinners after Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer, and things were not going smoothly.  I was ready to quit, having prepared the last one alone in the kitchen without help until five minutes before serving time.  Tiffiny’s first idea was to put out vases of flowers on the tables, and add table cloths (light blue, for Our Lady).  “You want to add more work?!?” I asked incredulously.

She was right, of course, as is evidenced by the fact that years later, our dinners host more than 140 people.  She knew that it was the little things that mattered, that beauty mattered, that hospitality was more than just meeting physical needs.

It was Tiffiny who began our weekly bible study, taught by then Brother Sebastian, ensuring that our friendships were formed around the faith.  When we had picnics or other events, they would always be preceded or followed by Holy Hour and/or Mass.

It was Tiffiny who taught me about prayer, taught me that it mattered, that it made a difference.  When she prayed for me, things happened.  More than once, I physically felt her prayers from afar.  She would occasionally be given prophetic words for me “X will happen as you are hoping, but Y will not.”

I would learn that this was because when she said “I will pray for you” it wasn’t a throw-away line—she meant it.  She would spend hours each night in prayer, in the presence of Jesus and Our Lady and the saints and angels, who she spoke of with intimacy and affection, as though she knew them personally.  I would later learn that she did—her life was touched with mysticism.

She was as a friend encouraging and supportive, but not afraid to challenge me.  “What makes you think that will make you happy?” she would interrupt my complaints, startling me into looking twice.  Or “But that is changing, isn’t it?” regarding something she had been praying for, and knew God was answering, before I did.  Sometimes she would stop me in mid-conversation: “Hold on, I am trying to hear what God wants me to say to you” and then deliver a wisdom that could only be supernatural.

It was her insistence that God was good, and her personal affection for Him and for Our Lady, in spite of all of her suffering, that was most formative for me.  Prior to her I saw God’s love only in providence and blessing, not in things that went wrong.  At best I would remark with Saint Teresa of Avila, “if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”

Tiffiny however saw her illness not as abandonment by God, but as fulfillment of her greatest desire—that He be at the center of her life.

In Tiffiny’s own words (from an interview in 2011)1:

In 1998, I had begged Him to show Himself more in my life, and from that day He has been preparing me for this, my cross. I was on my way to a fashion show when I got the diagnosis [of scleroderma]. I remember that I went to the show anyway, on the arm of a friend. I think I must have immediately given everything into God’s hands in order to continue with my daily life as I did. I went on with great hope and promise, which came from Another….

…It was almost a relief to know I would have to depend on him now.  God had to take each one of my gifts and talents away one by one for me to see what the real Gift is.  My life is no longer who I know, all my contacts, what I can do — because I can no longer do what I was able to do physically.  Now my life is just him, on whom I fully depend.  I still work in finance, designing office spaces.  I can’t play music anymore, but I still have my voice and I am composing music with the help of friends.  I have to give everything to everyone because I am so dependent.  But if I had not already been in a relationship of dependence on Christ, accepting so much help would be unbearable.  Instead, my friends are signs of him for me. 

Two years ago this week, on August 5th, 2016, Tiffiny went home to Him.  Tiffiny, our saintly friend, pray for us!

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1The interview quoted initially appeared in Traces magazine.  The link is no longer available but was here.

God Is On Our Side

“Eleven dollars and twenty-six cents!” my niece Lollipop announced after we had counted all of her savings from the shoebox under her bed.  It was nearly doubled thanks to the $5 I had used to bribe her to go on the Ragin’ Cagin’ roller coaster at Six Flags, and so I expected her to be delighted.

Instead she threw herself down on the bed and wailed.  “I will never earn enough money!” she cried.  “How will I ever get $30,000?”

She was hoping to adopt a baby sister and the cost was prohibitive, particularly given the earning power of an eight-year-old.

The adult in me wanted to smile, but I felt something (Someone) nudging my heart, and realized that our similarities were more than physical, and not just because we are both drama queens.

It’s tempting in spite of (or perhaps because of) years of Catholic formation to think we can earn God’s grace, or love or virtue.  Even knowing that this is theological nonsense, I often find myself in practice trying to do just that, only to find that in a lifetime I can never earn enough, make myself good enough or be worthy enough.

It’s not as if after a few millennia of working out, St. Peter could walk on water by himself.  Or that after a few million motivational talks he’d have the willpower to not deny Jesus three times, or to be crucified upside down, or to preach Pentecost morning while a number of listeners thought he was drunk.

It’s all grace.  I know this.  I can’t earn it.  I can’t make it happen.  I can’t even store it up for future use.  But what I sometimes forget, is that God is on my side.  He desires more good for me than I can ever think to aspire to or ask for.

In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus free a poor soul from the grip of demonic power, only for the Pharisees to spin the story and give credit to Beelzebub.  Why are the Pharisees so set against Jesus?  They have reduced religion to works, thinking that enough pious practice can earn them a place with God in heaven.  Jesus has come to show them that He is the way; there is no other.  He longs for them to come to Him, but their hearts are hardened to receiving and relationship.

Jesus then goes Himself out into all of the villages and towns.  His heart is moved by the needs of the people, and He goes to them and heals them.  There is no question of a trade-off; no payment is required for grace.  The Unmoved Mover is moved by the people themselves.

It is from this place of compassion that Jesus asks His disciples to pray for more workers to attend to the harvest.  He is not looking for more practitioners of piety, but for those who will share with Him the heart of the Father.

It is only in allowing ourselves to receive the free love of God that we can be freed to truly love and serve others, to be Christ to them.  Let us ask for the graces we need to live and love like Jesus.

P.S.  Lollipop’s baby sister was born a little over a year later.  Her money is still safely under the bed.  It seems no action on her part was required.  😊

Do Not Be Unbelieving

“Do not be unbelieving but believe”—John 20:27

I remember standing on the deck, enraptured by beauty, as we sailed through the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean to the Amalfi coast.  The temperature was perfect, the views spectacular, and my heart soared with delight.  I don’t know what the mystical experience of ecstasy is like, but this was as close I had ever come on a merely human level, and it may be that that moment was also infused with something of the divine.  “I don’t know how anyone could ever doubt the existence of God!” I remember whispering in awe.

This memory burned within me, when, months later, I was plunged into a terrifying spiritual darkness.  I had always paid lip service to the idea that faith is a gift, but I had not really known what that meant until it disappeared.

I had always believed in God, even when other parts of my spiritual life were in disarray.  Faith itself had always come easily to me, and while studying had bolstered my faith, it was not the foundation for it.  Now, suddenly, the entirety of the faith presented itself as an epic joke.  I was tempted to doubt not merely an individual doctrine or practice, but even the idea that there could be a God, the idea that there could be meaning behind all that I saw.  All of the cruelty of the universe—in human experience, in the violence of nature, and in particular in the weaknesses and scandals among Christians—screamed in mockery at me as I tried to hold on.  The more I tried to reason my way back to belief, back to peace, the more preposterous it all seemed.  My will was the only very fragile thread that kept me believing anything at all.

The darkness was terrifying and profoundly lonely.  More than once I cried in Confession—an act as mortifying to the poor priest as it was to me.  He tried to assure me that God still loved me, while I tried to explain that if there was no God, not only was I unloved but my whole life had been built on an illusion.

The memory of this is still so awful that I mentioned recently to my spiritual director how afraid I am that I could go back there. “Yeah, good thing you got yourself out of that!”  he replied, with no little sarcasm.

Because of course I did not, could not, get myself out of that.

I tried, in particular reaching out for answers to the questions that I could not answer—reading, researching and attending Bible Study with the ever-patient Brother John Mary.  There was one class in particular that I hoped would put an end to a particularly challenging question, and I looked forward to it with all the hope I could muster.  But instead an unavoidable calendar conflict caused me to miss it and so I never got my answers.

Then one day I went to Confession at Catholic Underground.  I had zero expectations but confessed my doubts with an almost hopeless resignation.  “What do you want from me?” the priest asked.  “Just absolution?  Or something else?”  I was surprised by the question, and said simply, “I don’t know.  Yes, absolution.  And if you have anything to say from God, I’d love that of course, but I am not expecting anything.”

He then told me then a story about St. Angela Foligno, a mystic whose periodic experiences of “abandonment” by God would leave her screaming like a crazy person, to the great embarrassment of her brother who was a priest.  Then she would regain her faith, and conclude that while God’s love was faithful, her own was “nothing but games.”  I don’t remember all of the details of the story—it doesn’t actually matter, because it wasn’t the story that was convincing.  Somehow, during the telling, it was as though a match was struck, and I was aware once again of the Light.  I could not see anything new—my faith would return more completely over time, but I was assured only of the reality of this Light.  I was not alone in the dark after all.

I don’t know all of the reasons God allowed this particular season in my life, although I can see some fruits.  Certainly I have more compassion for those who struggle with doubt.  I understand better now that faith is a gift I did not, cannot, earn, and that I should never take for granted.

But I also learned that faith is about more than answers.  It is about the One Who Answers.  In a mysterious way, I am in the hands of God, who is infinitely beyond understanding.

This is the One who appeared to Thomas, aware of his doubts and of the obstacles in him to belief.  He invited Thomas not only to touch the wounds in His hands, but to put himself into them.  “Do not be unbelieving, but believe.”  Saint Thomas, pray for us that we might receive ever more the gift of faith.

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“It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery.  God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” —Kallistos Ware (Orthodox church author)