The Scorpion At Supper

You have probably heard the cautionary tale about the boy and the scorpion.  They are at a raging river.  The scorpion pleads for help, and the boy full of compassion carries him across in his bosom, only to be stung by the ungrateful scorpion at the end.  “You knew what I was when you picked me up!” sneers the scorpion to the dying boy and we are left with the moral to choose our companions more wisely.

Today’s Gospel tells a different story.  Jesus knows quite well who is at the table with him.  He knows one will betray him for money; another will in cowardice deny even acquaintance with Him—not just once, but three times. He knows the others will run away in fear. He is “deeply troubled” because he knows that He will all too soon feel both the very real sting of profound personal betrayal and then the ultimate sting of death at the hands of those He deeply loves.

Yet He knows that they are more than their sins, and He loves each of them, inviting them to His table, into the deepest and most profound intimacy with Him.  And He continues to invite each of us, even while we are still sinners.  He loves (and calls) each of us, before, during, and after our sin.

For quite a long time, I did not believe that God loved me.  I don’t mean that I denied it as doctrine—I could in fact wax poetical about the love of God as a theological abstraction.  But I could not believe it as a particular and personal reality, for I knew who I was.  I thought that maybe God loved the Girl I Ought To Be, but He couldn’t possibly love me.  Or, maybe being God and all, He had to love me, but He didn’t particularly like me.  I suspected He was perpetually disappointed in me, waiting for me to become someone else, someone He could be proud of.

I remember going once to a priest for Confession who heard my litany of sins and said, “You need to stop trying so hard and just let God love you.”  I remember now my inward eyeroll, as I thought, “Great.  Another wishy-washy ‘liberal’ priest who missed everything I just confessed and how I am not trying hard enough…”

But then something strange happened.  The next priest I went to in Confession said the exact same thing.  Then another, then another, until it was too many to count.  I started to wonder if God was actually trying to tell me something. 😊

I am still learning how to do this.  But one key component for me (that I have mentioned previously) was instituting a designated daily prayer time, a time set apart to receive God’s love.

It is not that I didn’t pray before.  I would even sometimes pray at great length—usually when I was either deeply desperate or deeply inspired.  Other times I would be sure to “say my prayers”; to discharge that duty so that I wouldn’t feel guilty.  But as a result, I avoided prayer when I didn’t feel like it—and when I most needed it.

Having a designated prayer time has required meeting God when I wasn’t camera ready.  When I would have preferred to wait until after I had gone to Confession, or perhaps hadn’t even finished sinning yet.  When I was stewing in anger or sulking or full of a thousand distractions.

Being “forced” to pray in those moments is when prayer got real.  When I had to be honest about myself, my motives, my desires.  “Lord I am not a big fan of your plan today.”  “Lord, I know this is wrong but I really want to do it anyway.”  “Lord, I don’t want to forgive her—here’s why….”

Sometimes my anger turned to tears.  Sometimes temptation dissipated.  Sometimes my entire prayer time was a wrestling match with me not yet ready to let go of my will.  Sometimes I had to just let God hold me like a toddler in a tantrum.  Sometimes I felt better; sometimes I didn’t.    Sometimes I didn’t feel much change during prayer time itself, but over time I would see the strength of the sin losing its force and hold on me.

Years ago my friend and I were going to take her two small children to the carousel.  Her four-year-old son who had been dying to go suddenly balked and decided he would rather “stay home” while we took his little brother without him.  We couldn’t understand this change of heart—why would he want to miss out on something he had been so looking forward to?  My friend knew her son, and she knew what questions to ask.  It turns out that he had pooped his pants, and wanted to hide the fact, even if it meant missing out on the joy that was planned for him.

God loves us even in our mess.  He invites us to come to Him even while still filthy, to be changed and to receive the joy He has in store for us.

We say that God’s love is unconditional.  That means that He loves us all the time.  His love doesn’t wait for Easter Sunday, when all is right again.  He loves us on Holy Thursday, when betrayal is imminent. On Good Friday, when its ugliness is revealed. On Holy Saturday, when we start to see just what His absence really looks like.

Challenge today: Ask God to show you the love He has specifically for you.

By the Hand

I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
To open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

– The Servant Songs of Isaiah

Praying with today’s readings, the comforting words I have grasped you by the hand reminded me of my favorite scene from The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo has decided to journey to Mordor alone, paddling his boat across a broad river. Faithful Samwise realizes what Frodo is up to, and plunges in after the boat. But Sam cannot swim and soon begins to sink, hand stretched towards the surface. Right as Sam’s hand becomes still, Frodo’s hand plunges down into the water. He grasps Sam’s hand and hauls the waterlogged hobbit up into the boat.

This Lent, perhaps more than any before, I have experienced the Lord grasping me by the hand and leading me into a deeper life in Him. It is not that He’s provided consolations, or that I have been particularly good at adhering to disciplines of prayer, fasting, or almsgiving. Perhaps it has something to do with receiving kindness, joy, and forgiveness from my wife and daughters in response to my weaknesses and poverty. Maybe it is the daily opportunities to serve all these ladies in my life, reminding me time and again that my life is not my own and I am called to empty myself. Or it could be finding community and brotherhood in an unfamiliar place, taking hesitant steps with hesitant trust only to be reminded again that God is faithful, He had always been faithful.

Frodo saves Sam from drowning – he saves Sam’s life. And yet because Frodo grasped his hand, Sam will go on to experience terrible suffering (no more spoilers here – read the books!). Sometimes when I feel the Lord reaching out His hand I would rather not take it – His hands bear nail marks, and I know what that means. This week more than any other reminds us of the cost of accompanying Jesus and entering into His life. And yet the wounds that signify the Cross are the same wounds that reveal the Resurrection, that are signs and witnesses to the power of God.

His hands, those wounds, this week…He’s calling us – the blind, the imprisoned – to know His Light and Freedom, and to bring His Light and Freedom to others who are blind and imprisoned. This Holy Week, grab hold of His hand that you may encounter Him in the suffering and and encounter Him in the joy.

Pax et bonum,
Andy

Truth Is a Person

The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus.
Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from my Father.
For which of these are you trying to stone me?”
The Jews answered him,
“We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy.
You, a man, are making yourself God.”
Jesus answered them,
“Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, ‘You are gods”‘?
If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came,
and Scripture cannot be set aside,
can you say that the one
whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world
blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me;
but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me,
believe the works, so that you may realize and understand
that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
Then they tried again to arrest him;
but he escaped from their power.
—John 10:31–39

Pantocrator.jpgWhen it came to listening to His sermons and watching His miracles, Jesus’s followers were totally on board. But when He proclaimed Himself the Son of God, none of the Jews listening to Him—as we see in today’s Gospel—could accept such an outrageous claim. They were familiar with prophets, men who proclaimed God’s truth and channeled His power to perform miracles, but a man who was God? Blasphemy.

We, too, can be susceptible to this mindset of imagining God not as a Person but as a distant, lofty idea, a series of teachings and traditions to be practiced. The truth of the Church is deep and complex, something that we can really sink our teeth into and deeply reflect upon on a theoretical level—but first and foremost, truth is a Person. Jesus is not merely a representative of the truth, a preacher of God’s Word; he is truth. The people struggled to grasp this; they couldn’t comprehend how a man could be so arrogant as to think himself on the same level as God Almighty. What they didn’t consider is that God would deign to lower Himself to our level, to take on human flesh for our sake. Jesus is telling them not that a man is God, but that God is a man. And this proclamation is not blasphemy but love: that the heart of the universe beats within the chest of this humble, ordinary-looking man. This Jesus—ever loving and peaceful, drawing crowds and crowds of followers anxious to see Him and to touch Him—this is the face of Yahweh.

We are called not only to know and understand God but also to be His hands and feet, vessels of God in the world. Christianity is not merely about studying and preaching God’s Word; rather, it is about relationship with the living Word. It is about offering our whole lives to become the manifestation of God’s Word.

As we approach Holy Week, let us draw close to God, peeling away the sins and fears that separate us from Him. Let us experience His Passion, Death, and Resurrection from a perspective of intimate relationship with Him instead of just going through the motions. And let us pray that we might manifest God in the world, so that through our presence others may encounter the Way, the Truth, and the Life.


Image: Icon of Christ Pantocrator, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai / PD-US

Jesus Defines the Relationship

From today’s Gospel:

“…Who do you make yourself out to be?”
Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is worth nothing;
but it is my Father who glorifies me,
of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’
You do not know him, but I know him.
And if I should say that I do not know him,
I would be like you a liar.
But I do know him and I keep his word.
Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day;
he saw it and was glad.”
So the Jews said to him,
“You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?”
Jesus said to them, 

Amen, amen, I say to you,
before Abraham came to be, I AM.”

So they picked up stones to throw at him;
but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area.

My dear fellow pilgrims,

I have been sitting in my reflection-writing chair for about twenty minutes now pondering this Gospel passage, and I have finally thought of something pretty …human that parallels what happens here between Jesus and the Jews.

Jesus just had a DTR with the Jewish people.

Have you ever heard of the acronym DTR? I think I first heard it from Monica Herber (a beloved Frassati member) when she was asking me about my relationship timeline with Aidan. It means “define the relationship,” and is a very helpful way to describe what is usually a complicated conversation between two people who have been seeing each other pretty regularly but are in need of some clarity as to what they really “are.”  It usually comes after a string of going out on what seems to be dates with the person but you don’t know if it’s really a date or if you’re just looking for an excuse to use an Applebee’s gift card your aunt gave you. (True story, by the way. And I was also looking for someone to drive me to Trader Joe’s.)

But in all seriousness, even though it may come off as a juvenile way to describe what happens here, I think it is worth exploring. (And yes, maybe it’s worth exploring, in part, because I don’t have any better ideas right now. )

If you’ve ever had a DTR, or several, you know all of the emotions going into it are putting more weight on the result of this conversation.  All of what you have experienced with this person has been telling them something about who you want to be for that person, but you have not yet given this relationship a name. You have not yet put parameters on the exact role you want to play in their lives. Chances are, though, if you want to have a DTR, you are the one who wants the other person to stick around, you want to commit to them and you want to know if they will commit. Well, here, Jesus knows that this is the exact time He needs to reveal His identity to His people, the Jews, and because He is God, He knows exactly how it’s going to go. He will be rejected by many. But, He also need to speak the truth of Who He Is so that people can truly accept Him.

Because one of the salient emotions of a DTR is risk. You’re risking losing the relationship you had with this person in order to gain a truer relationship, to build a mutual relationship that you both want. Jesus has been performing miracles, gathering a following of people, intriguing everyone with knowledge and empathy and all these things people have never experienced before and really like and oh my gosh it’s all so crazy, right? But He is no mere prophet, He isn’t an entertainer or just a magician, He is Who Is, He is I AM.  Jesus called Himself I AM, a Jewish phrase for God’s name. It was bad enough that Jesus said it publicly, but He was seen as committing blasphemy because he claimed to be the I AM. Jesus was defining the relationship by defining Himself, because only by acknowledging the absolute divine nature of Christ can we understand our relationship to Him and to anyone else, for that matter. Only by further understanding His Identity can we understand our own. (Side note: And how counter-cultural is that?? Our own personal truth is not the greatest truth. Of course personal truths are necessary to acknowledge and care for, but they cannot be cared for without acknowledging the supreme truth of Christ’s Identity.)

Jesus knew this moment was the beginning of the end. He knew once He told them who He was, their relationship would never be the same. Humanity would never be the same. It wasn’t enough to show them the Way, He needed to tell them He Is the Way, the Word, the Life. He spoke using the language His Father gave them, because He Is the Word. But they threw stones at Him and were scandalized because they were afraid, they were seeking to entrap Him.

But just think about the heaviness of Jesus’ heart immediately preceding that moment… everything was about to change. It is such a human thought process: “I don’t want them to know who I really am because then they will reject me. I don’t want them to know the relationship I want with them because they will think I’m too weird or out there.”  I’m sure Jesus felt this dread in a sinless way because He longed for them to listen and yet knew they would reject Him. He was saddened by the rejection, I’m sure.

This passage helps us prepare for His Passion by helping us see the humanity in the onset of His rejection and the legal case against Him. Try thinking about a time when you took a risk to explain who you really are to a person, or maybe think back to a time when the DTR didn’t go so well. Try to empathize with Jesus.

May we be the ones in the crowd who meet His profession of love for us and longing to be the Messiah with listening hearts. May the fact of His divinity and Incarnation be the basis of relationship for us and for understanding ourselves.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

History Lesson

Gospel: JN 8:31-42

Jesus said to those Jews who believed in him,
“If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples,
and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham
and have never been enslaved to anyone.
How can you say, ‘You will become free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Amen, amen, I say to you,
everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.
A slave does not remain in a household forever,
but a son always remains.
So if the Son frees you, then you will truly be free.
I know that you are descendants of Abraham.
But you are trying to kill me,
because my word has no room among you.
I tell you what I have seen in the Father’s presence;
then do what you have heard from the Father.”

They answered and said to him, “Our father is Abraham.”
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children,
you would be doing the works of Abraham.
But now you are trying to kill me,
a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God;
Abraham did not do this.
You are doing the works of your father!”
So they said to him, “We were not born of fornication.
We have one Father, God.”
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me,
for I came from God and am here;
I did not come on my own, but he sent me.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ audience is a bit… confused. We have one of the most quotable teachings in all of the Gospels (paraphrased by yours truly; I’m sure Jesus would have been more loving…):

Jesus:                “You will know the Truth, and the Truth with set you free.”

The crowd:         “Uh…we’ve never been slaves…” (Psst… Pharaoh? Egypt? Ring any bells?)

Jesus, giving them the benefit of the doubt:

                           “You are slaves to sin. You are trying to kill me. Abraham would not have done that.”

The crowd:          “Our father is Abraham.”

Jesus:                  “Yes, I heard you the first time. Abraham would not be trying to kill me. We serve the same God.”

The crowd:           “We have one Father, God.”

Jesus:                  “Do you even hear yourself?! If you were truly from God you were love me, because I AM TOO!”

Today’s Gospel, in a surprisingly humorous and sometimes sarcastic way (See footnotes HERE), illustrates the need for formation and openness to messengers from God. Last week, I wrote about how our perspective and disposition toward Jesus can dramatically impact how we receive His message, and today is no different.

In this example, I can imagine the Jews thinking that they’ve got this whole “faith in God” thing figured out, only to have Jesus throw them a curveball by saying that he came from God. No, no, God is far away, the Holy of Holies, untouchable in their minds. Jesus’ message is scandalous, but they can’t really refute it. So… they parrot some teachings that they think are good things to say and probably have been praised for asserting at the temple, but clearly don’t know what exactly they mean.

“Our father is Abraham.” Great sentiment and it’s true to a point, but when Jesus challenges their message, they haven’t truly understood what it means to be a son or daughter of Abraham. In God’s upside-down hierarchy, servants and lovers are first, and I’d like to think that claimers of a righteous lineage who do not “walk the walk”, like the Jews in today’s Gospel, are somewhere near the bottom.

But re-read that first sentence in the Gospel. These are the Jews that believed in Jesus. He is not simply putting them in their place, he is also instructing them. It’s some tough-love teaching, but it’s still love and it’s still teaching.

Formation can be hard. Formation, whether through Scripture, prayer, insight, mentorship, community, spiritual direction, etc., can and should challenge our assumptions about God, especially if a complacent faith has led toward exclusion or violence (literal or figurative) toward others as we see from the crowd in today’s Gospel. Our disposition toward the Lord needs to be open to hearing His Word from nearly any medium, not just from those people or sources that we expect.

Jesus was so far outside of the realm of the expectations of his contemporary Israelites that he showed their true colors: the proud lashed out and denounced him as a blasphemer, while the meek and humble hopefully and ecstatically proclaimed Christ’s love and healing message. Our faith in God must have a similar flexibility. We must be willing to examine and even relinquish our expectations of how God will work in our lives.

God always has something better than we could imagine. Do we really have the faith to believe that?

When Mercy Is A Bad Word

Last year my ten-year-old niece Lucy came to stay with us for a week.  At the end, she announced to her mother: “Aunt Grace taught me two new bad words!”

“Oh?” queried her mother.  “What are they?”

“‘Crap!’ and ‘Mercy!’” she replied.

“Mercy is not a bad word!” exclaimed her mother.

“Well,” retorted Lucy, “Have you heard how she uses it?”

In Lucy’s honor, I am writing today about other abuses of the term mercy.

*            *            *

When my mother was diagnosed with a mystery illness and I had to walk away from my life as I knew it, I had to give up a lot in a very short time.  By far the hardest were my ideas about my own virtue.

I had always fantasized that I would respond to any call to sacrifice with heroism and grace.  But the reality was less pretty.  The first few weeks showed that, far from being the poster person for patience and trust, I was lucky to not find myself on a Wanted poster.  Let’s just say that word that sprang most easily to my mind and lips most mornings was not “Fiat!”

There is a starter mercy in being stripped of our illusions, and in seeing our sins and shortcomings for what they really are.  In today’s First Reading, the Israelites are healed when they look on the image of the bronze serpent, the symbol of their sin.  They have to look at it, but also beyond it, to God’s healing power and mercy.

It would be false mercy to downplay or deny sin, to pretend that these venomous serpents are harmless or cute or that they can be kept around safely as pets.  If we keep and feed even the little sin-serpents, they will become bigger.  There is another (extended) family story about a pet boa constrictor that escaped his bedroom cage.  Neighborhood pets started disappearing, and when they finally found him he was over six feet long…

Like the bronze serpent, the Cross shows us that sin is real and has real effects.  But it also shows us that Love is more real, and its power is greater than sin.  It is Jesus that saves, love that perfects—not self-mastery or heroic effort on our part.  We are not to make an idol of our sins, but nor are we to make idols of our virtue.

The Son of Man will be “lifted up” to reveal a Love that would literally rather die than live without us.  Love is not an abstraction, nor is it an action item.  Love is a Person.  Jesus did not come to give us techniques to better either ourselves or even the world around us, He came to give us Himself.  “I AM the way, the truth, the life”: “Come to ME—I will give you rest”; “I AM the gate/the Good Shepherd/the door/the Bread of Life.”  It is intimacy with Jesus that is the center of the Christian life.

Mercy is not merely the cancelling of a debt, the adjustment of the scales of justice or a “reward” ticket into an eternal amusement park.  Rather, mercy is receiving the gift of God Himself, who pours His life and His love into us, restoring our capacity to become like Him.

Naturally, when we receive the love of Christ it will flow from us to love of others.  Works that are divorced from this love, however, have no value whatsoever.   Imagine a man who set about to be the perfect husband—who fulfilled all of his duties meticulously, but who had no actual love or tenderness for his wife.  We would find this off-putting, not inspiring.  If I serve others (or ostensibly Christ) only to perfect virtue, to be some sort of moral hero, it is only my ego that is being served.

Madeleine Debrel writes that the Christian must not only “accept the fact that he will not seem like a hero but that he will not be one.”

All of the saints, without exception, reach a moment—a turning point perhaps—in which they must accept and embrace their own nakedness, their spiritual poverty, the realization that without Christ they can do nothing and in fact would be nothing.  We can have a hard time appreciating the centrality of this poverty and the awareness thereof, since we usually see the saints doing quite a bit—more than us in fact!

Saint Therese of Lisieux, whose central message was a radical trust in the mercy of God, addressed this question.  She had been writing to her sister about trust in God’s mercy, her confidence in God’s love despite her littleness.  Her sister questioned her on this, knowing well that Therese in fact was a “big” saint.   But Therese insisted adamantly that it was not her virtues but only her trust that made her so.  Virtues can in fact “render one unjust” if we rely on them to reach God. “Even if I had on my conscience every imaginable crime, I should lose nothing of my confidence; rather I would hurry, with a heart broken with sorrow, to throw myself into the Arms of my Jesus.”

Suggested action: Look at a crucifix, and see in it what sin does, and what His love does.

 

 

Quotes:

St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “When we look at ourselves, we are saddened by our failings; when we look at God, we rejoice in His love.”

“One of the capital truths of Christianity, almost unknown to anyone today, is that the look is what saves…when we sense ourselves incapable of the elevation of the soul fitting to sacred things, it is then that the look toward perfect purity is most effective… There are those people who try to elevate their souls like someone who continually jumps from a standing position in the hope that forcing oneself to jump all day—and higher every day—they would no longer fall back down, but rise to heaven.  We cannot take even one step toward heaven.  The vertical direction is forbidden to us.  But if we look to heaven long-term, God descends and lifts us up.”  –Simone Weil (quoted in Magnificat)

Saint Therese again: “We should like to suffer generously and nobly; we should like never to fall.  What an illusion!  What does it matter to me if I fall at every moment!  In that way I realise my weakness, and I gain thereby.  My God, Thou seest how little I am good for, then Thou dost carry me in Thy Arms…”

Ite Ad Joseph!

Behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

I recently finished the first book in the novel Kristin Lavransdatter. Laverns (father of the main character) strives to be a good father to his daughters, to love them and teach them to God, the Church, their family, and their neighbors, especially the poor. I am amazed that the struggles of fatherhood do not look that different whether you have daughters in 21st-century America or 14th-century Norway. Over the past year and a half I have wrestled with, prayed through, and pondered the questions: what does it mean to be a good father? Am I a good father? How can I become a better father? And often a simple answer comes: Be like St. Joseph – Sleep more and talk less! (I need help with both – just ask my wife)

But this answer – although both humorous and true – only skims the surface. More than his affinity for rest and silence, in St. Joseph we find a friend who was patient, humble, just, merciful, and attentive and obedient to the will of the Lord. He – like all of us – encountered difficult and unexpected situations in his life, and followed the Lord onto uncomfortable, even painful paths on which he would otherwise not dare to trod. He wants to accompany us on the difficult roads of this life, to protect and guide us as he protected and guided Jesus and Mary.

I do not know if Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati had a devotion to St. Joseph, and cannot confess intimate familiarity with his writings. Based on his attraction to his friend Laura and his love for the faith, I imagine that he would have had both a love and respect for St. Joseph, and a deep desire for fatherhood. This desire was frustrated by his parents and his illness/death – yet neither of these roadblocks kept Bl. Frassati from following the Lord and knowing joy even in the sufferings.

What would St. Joseph’s path been had the Father not chosen Him to father His Son? Would He still be a saint? How would he have responded to the challenges of life? And Bl. Frassati – what other great deeds would he have done had he not gone Home at such a young age? As Erin said last week, these final days of Lent can be the hardest. So today during your prayer, turn to St. Joseph and Bl. Frassati, and ask them to pray for you to be open to the will of the Father in your life, to allow Him to lead you into – and out of – the valleys of tears, trusting that He is near, and He is bringing you closer to His love through it all.

Pax et bonum,
Andy