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.

Feast of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

Indeed we call blessed those who have persevered.
—James 5:11

V0032624 Saint Mary Magdalen dei Pazzi. Etching by G. Fabbri, 1757.Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, the patron of the parish I attended growing up. On a trip to Florence, Italy, years ago, I was able to visit her tomb and see the chapel where she experienced many mystical visions. The austerity of her life as a Carmelite, juxtaposed with the wealth and dominance of her prominent Renaissance family that was so evident throughout Florence, was striking.

The life of St. Magdalene was marked by extreme highs and extreme lows. She experienced both ecstasies and desolations, and often the two were intermingled. She once said, “Those who call to mind the sufferings of Christ, and who offer up their own to God through His passion, find their pains sweet and pleasant.” This paradox—the sweetness of suffering, the beauty of pain—encapsulates her philosophy and mission. She was determined to make her whole life an offering, both the joys and sorrows, the highest mountains and the lowest valleys along her path; everything was part of an unbroken hymn of praise to God.

Perugino,_crocifissione_con_la_maddalena,_la_madonna,_s._giovanni_e_i_ss._bernardo_e_benedetto,_1493-96,_01Beginning at the age of nine, St. Magdalene practiced mental prayer, cultivating an intimate friendship with Jesus. This is what prepared her for all her mystical experiences and desolations to follow. Through it all, she maintained this friendship, speaking to Jesus as a dear friend with frank sincerity and playful banter. When Jesus told her, “I called and you didn’t care,” she responded, “You didn’t call loudly enough.” She asked Him to shout His love. She was honest and genuine in her conversations with Jesus, and this intimacy was what gave her the grace to bear the sufferings she endured. Her ultimate motivation was to return the love of Jesus Christ: Love incarnate, who was neither known nor loved.

Pedro_de_Moya_-_Vision_of_St_Maria_Magdalena_di_Pazzi_-_WGA16308Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi share a few things in common: both were born into prosperous Italian families that valued status and wealth, both chose to forego earthly treasures and esteem for the sake of serving Jesus. Both were nourished by daily Communion, and both persevered in faith through many unexpected trials. Their charisms and personalities were very different—Pier Giorgio was a man of action, while St. Magdalene was a Carmelite devoted to contemplative prayer—but each was motivated first and foremost by a relationship with Jesus. This enabled them to discover their own unique gifts and callings and to offer everything back to Him in love.

St. Magdalene de Pazzi teaches us to be thankful for whatever season we are in, always persevering in prayer and penance. Every experience can be a channel of grace. In our joys, may we not forget our need for God, and in our sorrows not abandon our trust in Him. Above all, if we are rooted in friendship with God as St. Magdalene was, our lives will take on renewed purpose.

O Love, You are neither known nor loved!
—St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi


1. G. Fabbri, etching of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi / Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0
2. Pietro Perugino, Crocifissione, la Vergine, San Giovanni, la Maddalena e i Santi Bernardo e Benedetto, fresco from the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, Florence / CC BY-SA 3.0
3. Pedro de Moya, Visión de Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi / PD-US

Choosing Our Fire

Dear fellow pilgrims,

We had quite the…uh…blunt readings for today, huh? God was not mincing words for these readings. The first reading paints a brutal picture of how the rich people of the world will be “devoured” by their corroding gold and silver pieces, how they have “fattened their hearts for the day of the slaughter,” feeding on the luxuries of the world instead of service and living a life of humility. The second reading, straight from Jesus’ mouth, reminds us of the primacy of living for the promise of eternal life, even if it means sacrificing things that seem so crucial to our lives if they lead us to sin (e.g. “cutting off” hands and feet, which I am guessing our Lord is using as figurative examples).

What struck me from these readings is that both the righteous and the unrighteousness go through the flames, but this process means two completely different things for each of them: there is the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit, being “salted with fire,” but there is also the punishing fire of Gehenna in eternity. We pick our own fire, is the prevailing—and soul-searching, eye-opening—theme of these verses.

Part of this purifying fire of sanctification on earth that we must go through is explained by the gruesome example of cutting off limbs, sacrificing them, if they “cause you to sin.” I think once we get past the gruesomeness of the example, we can see that this is alluding to how we sometimes have to make extreme decisions about our habits or aspects of daily life that seem so given and owed and normal to us, like the use of a hand (or a smartphone or tablet…), if they are clearly causing us to turn away from God over and over again. Because it is better for us to be without these things during the life in which we think we need them than be without eternal life because of the sins we harbored due to our own preference for convenience or pleasure or pick your poison reason.

I think the fire we all need to experience on earth is the fire that burns away all that is of this world, the way in which we evaluate ourselves and others, and begins to see an eternal perspective from God’s point of view. Because while we are here, our default setting is of the world, we need to let God purify us with the fire of His Love, we need to let us “salt us with fire” if we want to remain in Him when we pass away from this life. The short-sightedness of the rich man in the first reading is on full display when we think about the tombs of Egyptian kings and queens…who literally thought they were taking it all with them after they died! I think it’s a helpful exercise to think about our lives in this way…what are we accumulating in our tombs to truly bring with us on our way back home to the Father’s embrace? What does He want us to bring to Him?

When I ask God this question, I hear “bring me the parts you can’t fix.” Well…yeah, God, that’s pretty much all of them…but I do hold so much of what I need to change about myself in my own tight clutches that it never truly gets healed. What do you hear from God when you ask Him about what He wants us to give Him on our journey back home? What is the hand or foot you might need to sever to avoid future sin? What is the loss you are trying to avoid by not giving that over to God, what experience of “being maimed,” or without, in this life are you afraid of and valuing over eternal life? Go into the silent room in your heart and have a conversation with your Father about these things.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

To an Unknown God

Hey Frassatians, I don’t have a lot of time for a reflection today, so I’m going to send out a draft I had written for two weeks ago, May 9th. Hop in your time machine and I hope you enjoy!

Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said:
“You Athenians, I see that in every respect
you are very religious.
For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines,
I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’
What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.

—Acts 17:22-23

In terms of theatrics, today’s first reading is top-notch. St. Paul delivers a Spirit-infused, moving monologue about the Lord’s hidden hand behind all the Athenians hold dear, from creation to power over life and death. How do the Athenians respond? The reaction is…mixed, quite literally. Some scoff, others humorously defer (“Can you just tell us about overcoming death some other time, Paul? Pretty please? We’re really busy right now”), and others immediately follow St. Paul as disciples of Christ.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s always easy to hear a reading like this and say, “Well, there’s their problem right there! They didn’t listen to Paul about Jesus!” Groundbreaking conclusion, that.

Anytime we hear about the crowd’s reaction in Scriptures, though, we’re being called to examine our own hearts. We’re asked to put ourselves in their place. If we had just heard Paul’s rousing proclamation of the Gospel, how would we react?

I first read today’s reading from Acts with a smugness that (at least in my case) comes in no small part from my identity as a cradle Catholic: while friends around me were dropping like flies from the Church and other churches were holding newer, hipper services, I took on the identity of martyr, and not the good kind. I was special. I could see something that others were missing. If only they knew the God that I knew. If only they knew how hard it was to stay Catholic while all of that was happening around me…

But after another read-through, I came to the truth of the matter that God wanted me to hear: That altar “to an Unknown God” is my own.

In a few recent reflections, I’ve touched on a theme pervasive in today’s faith climate: “I’m spiritual, not religious”. St. Paul’s words brought out the parts of me that had tacitly incorporate that mentality into my own faith. In the face of a political and social environment that discourages firm, immovable beliefs, tolerance is a logical outcome. Most people in NYC with whom I discussed my faith (that were not Catholic) had a similar response, sometimes stated and sometimes implied: “That’s great! ….for you.” Translation: “Don’t confront me or make me confront my beliefs, and I will be happy to politely hear about yours.” Sounds a lot like an altar to an Unknown God, huh?

And yet so often I felt this attitude of polite, partial tolerance was actually a reasonable and responsible approach. My own version of the above interaction went something like this: “We can’t possibly grasp the full mystery of God, so I’m going to leave my options open. I don’t want to push them away with firm truths.” I wasn’t questioning my faith, but I wasn’t willing to close the door on other spiritualities, either. I couldn’t bring myself to tell people that I disagree with their openmindedness. I, after having used my Catholic identity for years as evidence that I had a better faith life than so many of my peers, was unwilling to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, and actually tell my non-Catholic friends why I believe what I believe and why I think it is the one and only Truth. I claim it with every Creed I pray, so why couldn’t I proclaim it?

When I first read Paul’s words, my reaction was something along the lines of, “Yeah, take that, Athenians!”

Upon further reflection, I realize that Paul was exhorting ME. I humbly thanked God for the lesson.

 

Pray with Scripture. It does things to your heart.