Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

My heart is overwhelmed,
my pity is stirred.
I will not give vent to my blazing anger,
I will not destroy Ephraim again;
For I am God and not a man,
the Holy One present among you;
I will not let the flames consume you.
—Hosea 11:8–9

Jungholz_-_panoramio_(5)The Heart of Jesus, pure and tender, feels all human emotions more intensely and yet is not ruled by them. His Sacred Heart is not hardened or cold like our own, and so the feelings He experiences are powerful and raw: love, anger, joy, pity, solace, grief.

When Jesus faced His crucifixion and brutal death, He knew that this was the Father’s will for the salvation of the world, but that doesn’t mean that He didn’t feel distressed or afraid or angry about what was to come—in fact, He felt all those things even more acutely than you or I would. His perfect Heart felt everything more distinctly, and yet He was able to feel those emotions without allowing them to dictate His actions. Jesus stayed the course and persevered for our sake, even as His Heart was filled with dread.

Sometimes, when our emotions distract us from carrying out our plans, we try to numb our hearts and stop feeling anything at all. But our hearts are a gift, to be nurtured and cherished, and if we lose touch with them we will find ourselves without meaning or purpose. So how can we persevere in God’s will as Jesus did without making ourselves numb to those inner cries of joy and anguish?

Mehrerau_Collegiumskapelle_Fenster_R06c_Herz_JesuOnly when we are connected to the Sacred Heart of Jesus will we perceive the immense graces that come from being in tune with our emotions and aware of how God formed our hearts. They are a compass for us as we discern His plans and seek to understand who He created us to be. We will see the beauty of our human emotions, even when they make it harder for us to do what is right. We will find the mysterious grace of sharing in Jesus’s sorrow, knowing that He walks alongside us in our pain. We will remember His Passion amidst our greatest joys and His Resurrection amid our deepest sorrows, and everything will be offered up to Him. Jesus will grant us the heavenly perspective that will allow us to press onward through all the ups and downs of this life, knowing that this is not the end.

Jesus invites each of us into His Sacred Heart. He has sacrificed for our redemption and cleansed us through Baptism, that we might enter into His Love and not be destroyed by the flames. May we offer Him our whole heart, holding nothing back, so that He might transform it like unto His own.

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
—Ezekiel 36:26


1. Photo by Richard Mayer / Mosaic in Jungholz, Austria / CC BY 3.0
2. Photo by Andreas Praefcke / Stained glass window, Collegium Chapel, Vienna / PD-US

The Word of God Is Not Chained

2 TM 2:8-15

“Beloved:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David:
such is my Gospel, for which I am suffering,
even to the point of chains, like a criminal.

But the word of God is not chained.
Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen,
so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus,
together with eternal glory.”

Dear fellow pilgrims,

As I read this first reading from St. Paul, the imagery and meaning of “chains” stood out to me. Prison cells just shortly after Jesus’ time could not have been very conducive to writing a major religious work, but these were the conditions under which the Holy Spirit was thriving in prophesying and teaching through St. Paul. Here was a man who had made a living killing Christians who was about to be martyred for that same faith. He saw his conditions, his chains, but he also saw the deeper truth of the unchained Spirit working in and through him. For he had seen the chains of his own heart destroyed by the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit in the extreme conversion of heart he experienced; he knew the power of God keenly.

And this is why he distinguishes the power of the Spirit working inwardly from his current outward state: we should never doubt that God works wonders even when it seems all external constraints have taken hold on our lives. “The word of God is not chained!” That is a cry to yell into the evil one’s face when he is making you feel like you’re “nowhere near where you thought you would be in life by this point,” or if you really can’t figure out why God would allow this much suffering in your life…we are all “in chains” that constrain us or even hurt and confine what we want our life should be. We might be “in chains,” but the source of all strength and courage and purifying grace and mercy is never limited to our condition, rather, He liberates us from our conditions to a higher consciousness of prayer and awareness.

Where in life do you feel stuck? Do you feel like God is working there, or do you feel like He has left you?

Speak into these parts of our lives. Claim your chains so you can claim the Spirit’s freedom to work within you given the circumstances. These chains are the environment where God is trying to reach you, and there may be reasons that will ultimately benefit you why you are remaining in such a state.

Pray for clarity, wisdom, and humility, to know our limits of our state of life and vocation, and for a greater outpouring of His Spirit upon our lives.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

Stirred into flame

For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame
the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;
but bear your share of hardship for the Gospel
with the strength that comes from God.
– 2 Timothy 1:6-8

Today’s first reading is the basis for an incredibly formative moment in my faith journey, a college retreat called Fan Into Flame. Saint Paul’s Outreach (SPO), my campus Catholic community, would host this retreat for relatively new members of their ministry. It was intense, charismatic, and went deep quickly. It would be easy to think that the whole retreat might be a bit “heavy” for the college students who were still feeling out their identity and path in life, so why does SPO start with this retreat? The Scripture above gives the “why”: the laying on of hands is a direct reflection and prayer for an imposition of the Holy Spirit upon the students’ lives.

Through the sacraments and intercessory prayer, we have received the Spirit. Through Christ, we are temples of the Spirit. The Spirit is the mobilizing force of God, His Presence and Advocate in our soul. When we pray for a renewed outpouring, perhaps a “baptism in the Spirit“, we give the Holy Spirit permission to move in new ways. We cry out for manifestations of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, not for drama’s sake, but for the good of the Church, to strengthen ministry. We ask the Lord for power, love, and self-control.

When was the last time you prayed to the Holy Spirit? I encourage you to pray today for an unlocking of the Spirit you have received, that you would be stirred into flame. Even better, pray with someone else, as St. Paul would have done (he knew a thing or two about the Spirit).

Then go forth in confidence, power, love, self-control, and with the strength that comes from God.

Stinkbugs and Fleas

In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge. (Psalm 90:2)

Living in a city shoebox apartment may have its down side, but living in a big house in the country has its outside.  And when winter departs and the tundra thaws, the outside springs to life—and then the outside starts to make its way inside.

The worst of these unwanted interlopers is the stink bug, which I defy even Saint Francis to love.  The other morning, I was awoken by my 88-year-old aunt shouting with great alarm, “There is something…prehistoric…crawling on the wall!”  One of the world’s ugliest but otherwise harmless (apart from smell) insects was indeed making its way up toward the ceiling. Being the generous, virtuous soul that I am, I said “No! I am not killing anything until I have had my coffee!” and stomped downstairs.  And I guzzled a few days-worth before grimly making my way back upstairs to begin the day’s extermination, which did not end with just one.

And so it is that when Corrie ten Boom wrote in The Hiding Place about fleas, I was entirely on her side.  Corrie and her sister hid Jews during the Holocaust, and the first part of her book is filled with remarkable stories of God’s providence, and how they were given the grace not only to witness to Christ heroically but to save countless lives.  But then they were betrayed to the Gestapo, and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp.  The suffering and abuse they would experience was horrific, but what nearly put Corrie over the edge was the infestation of fleas they encountered when they first moved to new barracks.  “How can we live in such a place?” she wailed.

Her sister Betsie believed that the answer to “how” was to be found in Saint Paul’s exhortation to “give thanks to God in all circumstances,” and she led Corrie reluctantly through a litany of thanksgiving for everything—including all of the awful aspects—culminating with the fleas.  Corrie writes:

The fleas!  This was too much. “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”

“Give thanks in all circumstances,” [Betsie] quoted.  It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are a part of this place where God has put us.”

And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas.  But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.

But Betsie would have the last laugh.  For it turns out that the flea-infested room was their one place with sufficient freedom for prayer and bible study, which was for the prisoners the sole source of peace and calm in the years of torment.  It was the one place the wardens never entered, never caught them worshipping.  One day they discovered that their freedom was directly due to the infestation—the guards refused to enter the room precisely because of the fleas!

Corrie writes: “My mind rushed back to our first hour in this place.  I remembered Betsie’s bowed head, remembered her thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for.”

When we think of God as our “refuge and help” throughout the centuries, we are often tempted to think of the highlight reel of good times and blessings.  But we are invited to look deeper, to discover a God who is Emmanuel, with us in all things—including times of evil and suffering.

“The mystery of suffering is the biggest challenge we face in living out our faith…Faith doesn’t take away the mystery or the suffering, but it offers us another mystery: that God does not run from those who suffer, but instead draws close to them,” writes Sr. Marie Paul Curley, FSP in See Yourself Through God’s Eyes.

“The Lord is close the brokenhearted,” the Psalms tell us.  The Incarnation shows God taking on our suffering Himself in the person of Christ, but He also continues to love each of us in our own particular suffering.  And just as His own Cross brought about both Redemption and Resurrection, God can bring good out of everything in our lives too.  Some we see in this life; some will be seen only in the next.

The gratitude Betsie preached was important not only as spiritual etiquette, as giving God His due, but also in placing the situation, and all of its ugliness, in the palm of Providence.  When we thank God for His gifts, we build our own trust in Him as Giver, and our confidence that He will continue to keep us in His care.  When we recognize the good even in the midst of suffering, we strengthen our hope that future evils will also be accompanied by, and used for, good.

In a recent homily Pope Francis spoke about joy “not as living from laugh to laugh” but as a gift of the Holy Spirit that can be lived even in suffering.  The key to this joy, he said, is gratitude and memory.  It is the memory of God’s faithfulness that both sparks joy and gives hope for the future.

Let us pray for the grace of grateful hearts, to receive all as good from the Giver of All Good Things.

*            *            *

*Betsie would eventually give her life in the concentration camp, and when they found her body it was radiant and joyful.  Corrie survived the holocaust and went on to be a great Christian speaker and writer, whose works include The Hiding Place in which this story is found.

You can find See Yourself Through God’s Eyes by Sister Marie Paul Curley FSP in the Pauline bookstore or in the embedded link, or on Amazon here.  The above quote is from page 119.

“The Lord is close the brokenhearted” is from Psalm 34:18.

Leaves Without Fruit

Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple area.
He looked around at everything and, since it was already late,
went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

The next day as they were leaving Bethany he was hungry.
Seeing from a distance a fig tree in leaf,
he went over to see if he could find anything on it.
When he reached it he found nothing but leaves;
it was not the time for figs.
And he said to it in reply, “May no one ever eat of your fruit again!”
And his disciples heard it.

They came to Jerusalem,
and on entering the temple area
he began to drive out those selling and buying there.
He overturned the tables of the money changers
and the seats of those who were selling doves.
He did not permit anyone to carry anything through the temple area.
Then he taught them saying, “Is it not written:
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’?
But you have made it a den of thieves.”

The chief priests and the scribes came to hear of it
and were seeking a way to put him to death,
yet they feared him
because the whole crowd was astonished at his teaching.
When evening came, they went out of the city.

Early in the morning, as they were walking along,
they saw the fig tree withered to its roots.
Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look!
The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
Jesus said to them in reply, “Have faith in God.
Amen, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain,
‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’
and does not doubt in his heart
but believes that what he says will happen,
it shall be done for him.
Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer,
believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours.
When you stand to pray,
forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance,
so that your heavenly Father may in turn
forgive you your transgressions.”

—Mark 11:11–26

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Accursed_Fig_Tree_(Le_figuier_maudit)_-_James_TissotThis passage from Mark is a tricky one to understand. At first glance, it seems as though Jesus cursed the fig tree out of spite when it didn’t provide Him with food. Why not bless the tree with abundant fruit, just as He multiplied the loaves and fishes, instead of condemning it to wither and die? Mark even notes that figs were out of season at the time. Why would Jesus curse the tree, then, for not providing figs? It seems a rather extreme reaction.

But for the early Church, who were better acquainted with the fig trees of Israel, this story took on different meaning. When fig leaves would appear around the end of March, they were joined by small, edible buds, called taqsh, which fell off before the real fig was formed. Peasants would often eat the taqsh to assuage their hunger. But if no taqsh appeared, then there would be no figs on the tree that year at all.

So when Mark notes that “it was not the time for figs,” he is referring to this period when taqsh would typically grow. When Jesus looked to the fig tree to find sustenance, He saw a tree with leaves but no taqsh—meaning there would be no fruit to come, either. From a distance, it was flourishing with leaves, but up close, there was nothing of substance. Jesus recognized that, just like the fig tree, many people put on a good show of piety but had no signs or intentions of good fruits to follow. They were all outward appearance.

In the middle of this story we hear Mark’s account of Jesus rebuking the money changers in the temple. There is a parallel drawn between the fruitless fig tree and those who desecrated the house of the Lord: these men spent their days at the temple, but they had no interest in actually worshiping God. They, too, were all show with no signs of fruit.

KKSgb2948-67The fig tree is a symbol used throughout Scripture to signify peace and prosperity for Israel. It requires patience and attention in order to grow and thrive, but it delivers rich rewards, bringing both a shady resting place and delicious fruit. The money changers sought shade without fruit, capitalizing on the community surrounding the temple while paying no regard to its sacred purpose. But for Jesus, their leaves could not conceal the barrenness of their hearts.

Jesus curses the fig tree as a reminder to us all that we do not know when our time for judgment will come. We may or may not have developed fruit when that time arrives, but He expects to see in us a desire for true growth and fruitful service. We cannot assume that we can wait until next year to pay attention to what God is asking of us. He doesn’t expect perfection but presence. Jesus does not judge us based on our achievements or accomplishments but on our openness to channel His life-giving grace in all its fullness, however He wishes to manifest His fruit in us.


1. James Tissot, The Accursed Fig Tree / PD-US
2. Hans Simon Holtzbecker, Ficus carica / PD-US

The Precious Blood of Christ, the Price for Which We Were Bought

Beloved:
Realize that you were ransomed from your futile conduct,
handed on by your ancestors,
not with perishable things like silver or gold
but with the precious Blood of Christ
as of a spotless unblemished Lamb.
He was known before the foundation of the world
but revealed in the final time for you,
who through him believe in God
who raised him from the dead and gave him glory,
so that your faith and hope are in God.
– 1 Peter 1:18-21

We’ve heard the message before: “You were bought at a price!”

But what does this mean to us? How does this affect our lives? It is an incredible faith exercise to reflect upon what exactly that price was. One of the main reasons gold and silver have been valued through the ages is their constancy/durability. How many things in life change our perspective so deeply that we would see them as perishable? Bananas are perishable, not gold or silver.

Such is the Blood of Christ.

In Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (happy birthday yesterday, GK!), he touches on this theme in a way that has stuck with me for years: we ought to reflect on the constant things in life, because they speak to God’s imperishable love. Atheists, he notes, take the rigid laws of nature, the rising and setting of the sun, as proof that these realities are, in fact, dull and unquestionable. The universe does not behave any other way because it could not behave in any other way, so the laws of thermodynamics and gravity, for example, are not proof of some greater design, but simply normal.

However, I would bet that even among non-believers, most people would be more likely to acknowledge the staggering improbability of it all. Life, the universe, all of it. Instead of a fatalist boredom, to these the vastness of creation inspires an admittedly uninspiring thought: we were just really, really lucky. With trillions of stars, planets, and combinations of the periodic table throughout all existence, there was bound to be a fortunate set of conditions such as ours. We were the 00 on the enormous roulette wheel of the universe, so we might as well cash in.

As believers, our job is to actively believe otherwise. We all have our experiences of the living God in our lives that refute any kind of inevitability or impersonal cosmic fluke of creation as the source of Goodness. Haven’t you? Where does the goodness in your life come from? Do you attribute it to the Living Water? We must protect and proclaim these experiences of Christ’s Blood covering us, keeping them lit as we do the candle above the tabernacle.

There is something more inside.

Take time contemplate the vastness of the universe in the upcoming weeks. Read The Divine Comedy or The Tempest. Listen to Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Watch Planet Earth or Cosmos (and pray for Neil Degrasse Tyson’s ultimate conversion, I know it’s gonna happen!). Go for a walk and the count the homes you pass. God knows them all inside and out. He knows every soul fully. In a city of 8.5 million, that ought to have an effect on you. Bask in the hugeness of creation, and know that Christ was known before any of it was known. He was “known before the foundation” and revealed to us. The Creator burst into our reality, took on our form for Love’s sake, and imprinted Himself on every one of our hearts.

Such is the Blood of Christ.

“O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in’t!” 

― William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Not From Me But For Me

Peter began to say to Jesus,
“We have given up everything and followed you.”
Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.
But many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.”—Mark 10:28-31

*            *            *

It is the sound that every mother of a toddler learns to fear: an eerie silence, followed by piercing squeals of unfettered delight.

My friend Heidi and I ran down the stairs from where we had been packing for a day at the pool, to find her not-quite-two-year-old Nicholas splashing about with great enthusiasm in the toilet.

Even the future Saint Grace was quite appalled, and we immediately moved to extract him. He quickly became as stiff as a board and twice his usual weight as he began to wail piteously and thrash about.  He remained inconsolable, as we cruelly re-dressed him, buckled him in his car seat and drove him further away from his sole source of joy.  That we were driving to a pool, a much bigger and more glorious version of his tiny heart’s desire, was an irony not lost on me.

This fear of trusting, this doubt that good things can follow a No to what we think we want or are currently enjoying, is not only a quality of toddlers.

A friend of mine who was preparing to enter the seminary tried to explain the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to his secular friends.  “Dude, you’ve got to be kidding me!  Those are the three things I am most trying to avoid!”  one responded in shock.

It’s easy for me to laugh at that guy, but my own conversion was significantly delayed because I feared that if I took my faith seriously God would “make me a nun.”  (That this was for me the worst possible fate is itself quite telling).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus promises that those who give up “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands” for His sake will receive “a hundred times morein this present age”—as well as persecution, and eternal life.  We get the persecution and the eternal life part; but do we believe the hundredfold in this life?

This renunciation, this death to self, this emptiness, is a characteristic of all Christian life, not just those with what we call a “religious vocation.”   And all, whether lay or ordained, married, single or professed, are called to live not as corpses but as “witnesses to the resurrection.”

In my first ever attempt at Lectio Divina, we were invited to imagine ourselves as a person or object in the story of the Wedding in Cana.  I found myself imagining myself as one of the six stone jars in the story, and imagined myself being emptied and filled, day after day after day (before of course the Big Day in the story).  As I felt the weariness of being emptied yet again, I felt a question rise to the surface of my mind, “Grace, why are you focusing on being emptied rather than being filled?”

Later, when my life unraveled and I felt as though everything was being taken away from me yet again, I was on my knees asking God, “What is it that you want from me?”  And unmistakably the voice came back, “It is not what I want from you, it is what I want for you.”

One of the marks required for considering sainthood is a life characterized by joy.  Although the saints invariably lived lives of renunciation and at times profound suffering, they were filled with something, and this emanated in a life of joy.

God is never outdone in generosity, and indeed I have experienced on many occasions this “hundredfold” and gifts of joy I never imagined possible.  Whenever I have surrendered something to Him, He has replaced it with something better.

Yet, this is an ongoing story—I can look back on this as a promise fulfilled, but I must also look to it with the eyes of faith as a promise still to come.  Some days I am gloriously happy in my current life even without a lot of things I thought I wanted/needed.   But some days “dying to self” is like blowing out trick candles on a birthday cake, and Christianity can feel like a cruel joke.

Anyone who has attempted the Christian life for any significant stretch of time is familiar with these ups and downs, these seasons of plenty and famine.  St. Ignatius called these spiritual seasons “consolation” for the good, and “desolation” for the down times.  It is helpful to remember that just like the seasons of earth, they will come and go.  In times of good, it is helpful to build memories and gratitude to recall and strengthen us for the times that are harder.  And in the tough times, we can hold on to our memories of good and the promises of Christ.

Let us pray today for the grace to trust in the goodness and generosity of God at all times.