Finding God in Times of Trial

Because he himself was tested through what he suffered,
he is able to help those who are being tested.
—Hebrews 2:18

All around the sick and all around the poor I see a special light which we do not have.
—Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

During these times of trial, we may begin to feel that God has abandoned us in our suffering. When we are sick, lonely, anxious, or strained, it can be harder to see how God is present. But these readings are a reminder to us of a profound paradox: that in the midst of our suffering, God draws even closer to us. He shares in our most difficult experiences in a deep, intimate way.

Jesus willingly took on flesh for our sake, entering into all the mess and pain that accompanies our humanity, taking on death itself in order that He could destroy death forever and set us free from its grasp. Ultimately, He desires to heal us and set us free, but He allows us to experience suffering along the way as a means of growing closer to Him. If Jesus Himself did not spurn the Cross, then who are we to run from our own crosses? Alone, we cannot carry them, but He promises to stay alongside us, to help us when we are being tested.

In this Gospel reading, Simon’s mother-in-law is lying sick with a fever when Jesus enters the house:

He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up.
Then the fever left her and she waited on them.
—Mark 1:31

After this encounter with Jesus, who met her in her suffering and understood more deeply than anyone else the pain she was experiencing, she arises and is made new. And the first thing she does is to serve the One who healed her. May we, too, allow Jesus to draw close to us in our most painful moments, and when we have encountered Him, let that experience change and restore us. When we have weathered the trials of our lives, let us turn back and serve God in praise and thanksgiving for all that He has done for us.


Image: Rembrandt, Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law / PD-US

A God Who Surprises

At that time,
John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask,
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 
When the men came to the Lord, they said,
“John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’”
At that time Jesus cured many of their diseases, sufferings, and evil spirits;
he also granted sight to many who were blind. 
And Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. 
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

—Luke 7:18B–23

Amongst the Jewish people during the time of Jesus, there was much confusion about the identity of John the Baptist and the identity of the Messiah. Even after witnessing Jesus’s miracles, many still doubted Him. But John the Baptist, who was fully rooted in the Scriptural context of the Messiah, would have been highly attuned to all the signs of the Messiah’s arrival. When Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized, John recognized Him immediately as the One whom the Scriptures foretold, the One who anointed him in his mother’s womb, the One whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see John the Baptist send messengers to ask Jesus if He is the Messiah they have been awaiting. At this point in the Gospel, John had already met and baptized Jesus. Why, then, is John questioning Jesus’s identity?

We don’t know fully what was going on in John’s heart and mind when he sent those messengers, but we do know that by that point he was in prison. Alone, facing the end of his public ministry, he heard news of the miracles Jesus had been performing. Perhaps he found himself wondering if he had correctly understood God’s call, since languishing in prison was not how he had expected things to go. Maybe there was more that God needed him to do. Or perhaps these reports of Jesus were surprising even to him, and he wondered if there was something he was missing, something he didn’t quite understand. He desired to be faithful until the end to the mission God had given him, and so he sought confirmation that he was following the right path.

John knew that God had called him to be a herald of the Messiah and to prepare the way of the Lord, but today’s Gospel reading reveals that while he knew his purpose within God’s plan, he didn’t know the details of how God would unveil that plan in its entirety. This underscores for us what complete trust John had in God. He couldn’t see the big picture, but he remained ever faithful to his own role, trusting that God would handle the rest. Today’s reading gives us a perfect example of faith seeking understanding. When John struggled to fully understand what he had heard, when he found himself wrestling with questions, he went straight to the Source, to Jesus Himself.

As modern Christians, we profess a much greater understanding of who Christ is. But to those who awaited the Messiah, Jesus was surprising. He fulfilled the messianic prophecies, but He did not fit all the people’s expectations. The prophecies of Isaiah foretell a Savior who would bring liberation, healing, and joy, but Isaiah never quite understood that this Messiah would be God Himself, the Word become Flesh, humbled to become for us a little child, sharing in our humanity.

God comes to us in a quiet moment, when we least expect it. He defies all our expectations and surprises us with joy. During this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, let us also prepare for Christ’s coming in our own lives by looking to the example of John the Baptist. If we stay in relationship with Jesus, bringing to Him all that is in our hearts, then we will recognize Him when He comes. And if we are rooted in faith and trust in God, then we just might be able to let God surprise us with something far beyond our expectations.


Image: Giovanni di Paolo, Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples / PD-US

Until the End of the Age

Yesterday, on the Solemnity of the Ascension, we celebrated Jesus’s rising into Heaven. Whenever I reflect upon this mystery, while I know it’s supposed to be an occasion of joy, it always seems to me rather bittersweet for the disciples who watched Jesus ascend. How could they possibly carry on without Him? Didn’t they feel a sense of emptiness now that He was gone?

However, Jesus assured His disciples, “It is better for you that I go” (John 16:7). While it may seem that Jesus was leaving His disciples behind, He was actually becoming closer to them, entering into their hearts in a new, radical way. Jesus never really leaves us; rather, through His Ascension, He brings us closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. It requires us to have faith in a mystery that is far beyond our earthly understanding, but it also grants us a foretaste of the heavenly glory to come.

Ascension Thursday is a reminder that, in the words of St. Therese, “the world is thy ship, not thy home.” We are all too aware in these times of all the suffering and injustice in this world, the persistent ache that undercurrents our human experience. Jesus points us toward the fulfillment of that deepest ache of our hearts, which we will find in heaven. And He promises that He will be alongside us as we journey toward our ultimate home: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

St. Rita of Cascia, whose feast is today, knew this very well. After her abusive husband was murdered by members of a feuding family, her two sons became filled with anger and desired to avenge their father’s death. Rita tried to dissuade them and prayed that God would protect their souls from committing the grave sin of murder. Her prayers were answered in a distressing way: her sons both died of dysentery shortly thereafter. While Rita grieved her beloved sons, she was also filled with gratitude and hope that God had protected their innocence and guided them toward their heavenly home. The state of their immortal souls was far more important to her than the state of their earthly bodies.

In this world, we face all kinds of obstacles, disappointments, and losses. But let us remember, as did St. Rita, that we are only in the middle of the journey. At His Ascension, Jesus gave His disciples a tangible reminder of this reality, pointing them toward their true destination. The sorrows of this world will not last forever, and our deepest longings for peace and justice will not remain unfulfilled.

Veronica

Saint_Veronica_with_the_Veil_LACMA_M.84.20_(1_of_2)In the Stations of the Cross, I’ve always felt a kind of sympathy for Simon of Cyrene. He didn’t sign up to bear the heavy cross, to enter into the horror of the Passion, to walk alongside a stranger experiencing the worst day of His life. He just happened to be standing there, minding his own business. But when the duty was pressed upon him, Simon responded. He put aside his own reservations to serve Jesus in His moment of need, and in doing so, he fulfilled a most sacred role. I have always felt an affinity for Simon’s reluctant heroism. However, this year, I have found myself drawn more toward Veronica.

Veronica had no such compulsions to step out into the brutality and chaos of Jerusalem’s streets that fateful day; she could very well have stayed in her home and closed the curtains, turning away from this scene of unimaginable suffering and sorrow. After all, it was not as though she could really do anything about this situation anyway, right? She looked out and saw the innocent Jesus in deep agony, bound for His death. She was helpless to change His course from Calvary; the crucifixion was inevitable. Approaching the suffering Jesus would only cause her pain, would it not? It certainly wouldn’t change the fact that Jesus was going to die; it would only increase her sorrows to stand witness to it.

Cristo_con_la_Cruz_a_cuestas,_encuentra_a_la_Verónica_(Museo_del_Prado)And yet, Veronica stepped out toward Jesus. She volunteered to place herself in all the agony of that hour just to give Jesus what little she could: a small moment of comfort, a gesture of kindness, an affirmation of His dignity. She took her own veil and used it to wipe away the blood and sweat on His Holy Face. She looked into His eyes and offered a brief moment of companionship during His suffering. “I see You,” she might have said, “and I am not looking away.” After this interaction, the image of Jesus’s Holy Face was miraculously imprinted on Veronica’s veil: she went forth carrying the image of Christ to the world.

The name Veronica is derived from the Latin vera icon, meaning “true image.” She is called Veronica because of the role that she played during the Passion. We don’t know what Veronica’s “real” name was, but it doesn’t actually matter. Her truest identity is Veronica, true icon of Christ. In that moment on the road to Calvary, she didn’t just receive the image of Christ; she became the image of Christ. Her very person was forever changed by meeting Jesus and offering Him the simple gift of her presence.

Carlo_Caliari_-_Jesus_Meeting_Veronica_-_WGA03773In these strange and unsettling days of pandemic, we may find ourselves looking inward, becoming consumed by our own individual fears and anxieties. But if we are too self-occupied, we may miss the opportunity to reach out to another who would be comforted by our presence. Now, I’m not suggesting that we defy quarantine orders to step outside like Veronica did. But there are many ways that we can look outward toward the needs of others during this time. Like in the case of Veronica, we might be tempted to discouragement because we can’t fix this terrible situation. For instance, we might know someone who is painfully lonely and isolated, but we can’t actually change the fact that they will not be able to leave their home or receive any visitors for the foreseeable future. We can’t offer any solutions. But we can offer our emotional presence, if not our physical presence: we can let them know we’re thinking of them; we can send a thoughtful card or gift; we can call them to chat; we can invite them to online community prayer. These gestures might seem small, but like the Face of Jesus on Veronica’s veil, they can leave a deep impression.

Most of us will receive no compulsory demand to walk alongside someone in this crisis and help them carry their cross. And unless we strive to imitate Veronica—being attentive to the needs of others instead of closing in upon ourselves—we will miss our chance. As we walk the way of Calvary this Good Friday, let us not be ruled by our fears but instead be led by compassion, offering our kindness in the face of great trial.


1. Mattia Preti, Saint Veronica with the Veil / PD-US
2. Antonio Arias Fernández, Cristo con la Cruz a cuestas, encuentra a la Verónica / PD-US
3. Carlo Caliari, Jesus Meeting Veronica / PD-US

The Lord Is Close to the Brokenhearted

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
Many are the troubles of the just man,
but out of them all the LORD delivers him.
—Psalm 34:19–20

The weight of these days can feel crushing indeed, the coronavirus pandemic like a cloud that lingers overhead. It is easy to feel a sense of helplessness when dealing with a situation that is so far beyond our control. But in these moments of suffering and uncertainty, we are closer to God than ever. The Lord draws close to us beleaguered and brokenhearted; He looks upon us with a special tenderness.

In Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi blessing today, he reflected on the story of the disciples who were fearful during a storm at sea as Jesus was sleeping in the boat (Mark 4:35–41). They called to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” And these words, the Pope said, would have shaken Jesus, “because He, more than anyone, cares about us.”1

The Pope continued:

The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.1

Jesus did not abandon His disciples in the storm, and He will not abandon us now. He is with us in the midst of our distress, and He will redeem all our sorrows. God shows mercy to us even in the face of our worst moments, our stubborn refusals to choose the good. When we allow ourselves to become paralyzed by fear instead of trusting in His providence, He is hurt by our distrust, but He does not turn away. Our distrust in God can entrap us in a life that is less than what He has called us to. And yet He meets our stubbornness with undeserved grace, radical forgiveness. He offers us another chance.

Let us wake up each morning and recommit ourselves in trust to God as we weather the fears, uncertainties, and sorrows of the coronavirus pandemic. He is close to all the brokenhearted, and He is with us in the midst of this storm.


1. Vatican News, “Pope at Urbi et orbi: Full text of his meditation”

Blossom Like the Lily

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A few weeks ago, while in prayer, I found myself reflecting on the word “bloom” and wondered what God might be trying to reveal to me through it. Its meaning was layered: to bloom where I’m planted instead of waiting for circumstances to change, to become more fully who God created me to be, to open up in vulnerability instead of staying closed in upon myself. I had the sense that God wanted me to meditate on how I could bloom more fully alongside the spring blossoms that would soon appear. I never imagined that I would be asked to bloom amid the shadows of quarantine.

This week, my favorite magnolia tree has begun to blossom. Its beauty seems incongruent with our current experience—that it is opening its buds as we are all retreating inside. But it is a reminder that life goes on even amid uncertainty, that beautiful things are growing in the midst of all this, that hope still blooms beneath cloudy skies.

Joseph_mit_Kind_18_JhAccording to legend, St. Joseph was chosen from among the unwed men of the House of David to be the husband of Mary because his staff blossomed like a lily—a sign from God that this man would be the protector of the Son of God. This is why St. Joseph is often depicted with lilies, echoing Hosea 14:5, “The just man shall blossom like the lily.” St. Joseph was a man who bloomed under pressure. He, like us, experienced times of great anxiety, but he was calm under crisis and always guided the Holy Family to safety.

Consider the emptiness that Mary and Joseph must have experienced in the disappearance of the child Jesus. Right now, separated from access to Jesus in the Eucharist, we are experiencing a taste of that vacancy. St. Joseph is a great protector for us to invoke in these times. He assures us that we, too, will find Jesus, that Jesus has never truly been lost.

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St. Joseph lived within the confines of a humble, hidden life, taking on a supporting role that, while ordinary on the surface, was anything but insignificant. Not a single word he uttered is recorded in the Bible, but his actions speak louder than words ever could. It is fitting that on his feast day, we all find ourselves pressed into a hidden life, a humble silence, retreating into a quieter, simpler family life.

St. Joseph, mirror of patience, glory of home life, pillar of families, solace of the wretched, hope of the sick, patron of the dying, terror of demons, protector of Holy Church, pray for us!

Love in the Time of Coronavirus: A Call for Submissions

Hi Frassati community,

In light of all the uncertainty we are experiencing this week and looking ahead to the isolation many will experience in the weeks to come, we want to make a real effort as a community to use the reflections platform to reach out to one another, express our solidarity, and seek to strengthen our faith through these trials.

Down the road, many Frassati members who are able are hoping to go outward to serve those in need affected by this crisis, following in the steps of our patron Blessed Pier Giorgio. But right now, our primary focus is to form our hearts through prayer. We pray this will strengthen us to discern how God is calling us to respond to these events and to do so while grounded in the inner peace and joy that only the Lord can bring.

As many of us suddenly find ourselves with a lot of extra free time on our hands, I want to open a call for anyone in our community to share a word of reflection with us. This may take many forms: a full-length reflection on Scripture, a prayer you would like to pass along, an inspiring quote from one of the saints, a short letter to those who are feeling lonely and fearful, etc. The goal of these posts will be to help us to look outward at how we can be connected to one another in prayer and use this time fruitfully—instead of turning inward, seeing only our own fears and anxieties.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, we want to hear your voice. If anything, I hope that through these posts we would be reminded of how many other people are out there alongside us in spirit. I ask that you would prayerfully reflect on whether there is any word God is asking you to share with all of us—not just now, but during the weeks to come as well.

We will be editing any submissions as they come in and will figure out how often to schedule them as we assess how many we’re receiving. Also, we may decide to post some submissions via our social media platforms if they are best suited to that format. As we are still in the process of figuring out what this will look like, we can’t guarantee that every post will be shared, but we will do our best to respond to each one. Know that any word you have to share with us is greatly appreciated.

To submit your reflections, please email us at reflections@frassati.nyc.

Let’s share the love of Christ with one another and live this ultra-Lenten season to the fullest!

Verso L’Alto,
Erin

A Heart Contrite and Humbled

My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
—Psalm 51:19

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,
but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn
as long as the bridegroom is with them?
The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast.”
—Matthew 9:14–15

During this Lenten season, we talk a lot about we’re doing or giving up for these forty days. But let us not forget that the whole point of all these external activities and devotions is to form the interior disposition of our hearts. What God wants more than anything is to be close to us. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus identifies Himself as the Bridegroom. Jesus desires union with us, to know us intimately, to cultivate relationship with us.

All our Lenten fervor should not be about mere self-improvement or testing our own strength. Rather, it should facilitate our union with Christ, perhaps making us even more aware of our weakness as we learn to depend upon Him. As we fast while waiting upon our Bridegroom, we leave space for the feast that is to come and open up room in our hearts for Jesus to enter.

If we go beyond the surface level of our Lenten devotions and allow them to truly form our hearts, it will affect how we act toward one another. When we create space in our daily routines and welcome the emptiness that Lent brings, we can begin to hear Jesus’s voice more clearly in the silence. And if we listen, we will hear His overwhelming love for us ringing out even in the desert. When we know we are loved beyond measure, our own capacity to love will deepen.

This type of fasting, which brings us closer to the Heart of God, is what will lead us to the promises described in the first reading from Isaiah:

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed.
—Isaiah 58:8

He is the Light in the darkness of Lent; He is the One who heals all our wounds. And He invites us to use these forty days to draw close to His Sacred Heart.

Slow and Steady

He said,
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.
—Mark 4:30–34 1

Let us not be deceived by the smallness of a mustard seed to think that its impact must be insignificant. What matters is not its size—however little it may be at the beginning, it can grow into a great tree. What matters is whether it dares to bury itself underneath the soil and undergo the process of growth.

Who we are now does not determine who we are to become. We are not defined by the sum of our past successes and failures. The thing that will determine our path—whether we will flourish or wilt—is our openness to grace, our willingness to grow.

Whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve endured, whatever sorrows weigh upon your heart: these do not define your story. God is not finished with the work He has begun in you; we are not meant to stay as seeds. Growth is not easy, and it certainly isn’t quick. True, lasting growth takes time,2 and it causes us to stretch far beyond our comfort zones. But it is also the only way we can fulfill the potential within us, to become who we were created to be.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. John Bosco, who had a gift for nurturing souls and seeing great potential in small seeds. He was devoted to educating disadvantaged children, including poor, homeless, orphaned, and troubled young boys in the city of Turin.3 Unlike his contemporaries, he refused to use corporal punishment; instead, he gave fatherly guidance and sought to instill in his students the knowledge that they were loved and valued. Where other teachers had given up on these rowdy young boys, John Bosco saw the gift of who they were and helped them to recognize the seeds of grace within their souls. One of his students, Dominic Savio, even became canonized himself.

St. John Bosco had reverence for the divine potential within each young soul—in the lost, the troubled, the neglected and forgotten. He created a place where they could grow and thrive, becoming men of God. And he had the patience to walk with them on that journey, even during those times when their progress must have seemed unbearably slow. May his example remind us that each and every one of us has the capacity to transcend our humble beginnings and bloom into something truly beautiful if we are tended to with love.


1
You can see past reflections I’ve written on this Gospel reading here and here.
2 Audrey Assad’s song “Slow” is a great meditation on how God’s grace works slowly within us. It’s worth a listen!
3 A saint dedicated to serving the poor and disadvantaged in Turin…sound familiar? I think St. John Bosco and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati have quite a bit in common.

Coming to Life

If you consider that God is righteous,
you also know that everyone who acts in righteousness
is begotten by him.
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
Yet so we are.
—1 John 2:29–3:1

I’ve been watching a lot of C.S. Lewis Doodle on YouTube lately—if you have not yet experienced these videos, I highly recommend them. In particular, I’d been watching the video Making and Begetting, and today’s first reading brought it to mind. The video illustrates the following passage from Lewis’s book Mere Christianity:

We don’t use the words begetting or begotten much in modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the father of; to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers, and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A bird makes a nest, a beaver builds a dam, a man makes a wireless set—or he may make something more like himself than a wireless set: say, a statue. If he is clever enough carver he may make a statue which is very like man indeed. But, of course, it is not a real man; it only looks like one. It cannot breathe or think. It is not alive.

Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God.

Given this description of making vs. begetting, I thought it odd that John specifically uses the word “begotten” in describing our relationship to God. Jesus is begotten by God, but we are not begotten in the same way that Jesus is. We are His creation, made in His image and likeness but distinct from Christ in that we are not actually God ourselves. What, then, is John’s meaning when he says that “everyone who acts in righteousness is begotten by him”? How could we possibly be begotten? As I reflected upon this phrasing, I recalled Lewis’s eventual conclusion to the chapter:

In reality, the difference between biological life and spiritual life is so important that I’m going to give them two distinct names. The biological sort, which comes to us through nature and which, like everything else in nature, is always tending to run down and decay, so that it can only be kept up by incessant subsidies from nature in the form of air, water, food, etc., is bios. The spiritual life, which is in God from all eternity and which made the whole natural universe, is zoe. Bios has, to be sure, a certain shadowy or symbolic resemblance to zoe, but only the sort of resemblance there is between a photo and a place, or a statue and a man. A man who changed from having bios to having zoe would have gone through as big a change as a statue which changed from being a carved stone to being a real man.

And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is like a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going around that some of us are some day going to come to life.

We are created by God, not begotten; we are like statues made in His image. But God desires to elevate us beyond our natural capacity. He is not held back by the laws of nature; He can give us life that transcends all we know in this earthly plane. That we might be considered begotten by God seems impossible, yet nothing is impossible for God.

How does God initiate this radical transformation in us? He meets us in the sacraments, washing away the decay of sin through baptism and confession, fortifying our souls through the Eucharist. In our human condition, we are ever aware that life is a bittersweet experience—we recognize it as a great gift, but at the same time we ache for something more, something that will not wither and fade away. God Himself has written this desire upon our hearts, and He intends to prepare us to receive life that is beyond our imagining. As we draw closer to Him, we become like statues that are beginning to blink and fidget around, suddenly aware of the life flickering within us.

In this new year, may we become ever more alive in the Lord, open our eyes to see the gifts He is giving us each day, and allow Him to transform us.