Like Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dying to Self

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
—John 12:24

Dying to self means letting go of all the attachments that keep us from God; it is a purging of all that is not love. This means loosening our grip on our own plans, our desire for comfort and convenience, our tendencies toward selfishness and sin.

We can try to be the boss of our own lives, or we can give Jesus permission to call the shots. If we let Jesus take control, we will face the Cross, but we will also begin to see everything in our lives through His radiant Light.

Only when we throw ourselves upon God’s providence will we find ourselves—our true selves, who God created us to be. Dying to self is not an act of self-abasement but rather an act of faith—that when we cut away all the clutter we will find goodness underneath, that in the core of our being we will find the presence of God. Indeed, this dying to self is the seed of our salvation.

By abandoning our own agenda, we open our hands to receive the truest desires of our hearts. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and He will give us gifts greater than any of the earthly attachments we cling to.

The Heart-Knowing of St. Peter

Reading 1

JER 31:31-34

The days are coming, says the LORD,

when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel

and the house of Judah.

It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers:

the day I took them by the hand

to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;

for they broke my covenant,

and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.

But this is the covenant that I will make

with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.

I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; 

I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives

how to know the LORD.

All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,

for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.

Gospel

MT 16:13-23

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi

and he asked his disciples,

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,

still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter said in reply,

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.

For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.

And so I say to you, you are Peter,

and upon this rock I will build my Church,

and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;

and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

Our readings today remind us that the Lord wants our hearts, not merely outward actions.  His Heart and our hearts are the meeting place for this new covenant between God and His people, His children. This desire for our hearts is an equal and opposite reaction from our Lord giving us His Heart completely in His life, death, and resurrection. But this covenant, this relationship between God and Man has not always been this way.

The first reading’s description of how covenants would shift reminded me immediately of how relationships between children and parents develop: at first, a parent must take a more hands-on approach to teaching their child about how to act in the world (i.e. “I took them by the hand…”) when they are small. There are rules that are very black-and-white, involving a lot of commands, because children must understand the do’s and don’ts of the world before they develop the cognitive capacity to think more deeply about the reasons behind them.  (And, quite honestly, children need to know the do’s and don’t’s of survival so they can just literally live to develop that cognitive capacity for critical reasoning.) Then, as a child grows older, a parent has less direct control over them, and hopes and prays that the child has at least learned “right from wrong” and can make their own good decisions without constant reminders. Parents’ influences become internalized, or incorporated to subconscious habits or patterns, in older children. This human psychological shift parallels the shift in covenantal relationships between God and Man: God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, and God also “wrote,” or revealed, His new covenant on the Heart of His Son.  Jesus’ Heart reveals the Heart of the Father, the desire of the Father for a new, closer relationship with His children.  

We can oftentimes (at least I can) overly intellectualize or overthink what it means to actually know Jesus, and this is true especially if you are a cradle Catholic (so I’ve gathered).  THIS is the relationship God desires, and paid such a heavy price for even the chance to have with you, and I’m speaking to you cradle Catholics now: God desires that you would follow Him and not just the things “you know you should do.”  It’s the difference between calling your mom every weekend because you know you should do it and calling your mom every weekend because you just miss her and want to know how she is doing, and know she wants to hear how you’re doing and you know that this exchange will energize you both. (note: I know most of us do not have that ideal relationship with our parents, but these relationships can help teach us more of what our perfect Father is like according to where we may feel hurt or wounded by our biological parents.)

And so, God the Father sends His Son to earth to show His children Who He Is and not just “what He wants you to do.” And in the Gospel reading for today, Jesus holds what an overthinking, intellectual disciple might have seen as a “pop quiz.”  The disciples happily chimed in when Jesus asked who OTHER people said He was, for this was accessible objective knowledge. But… only one answered when Jesus asked who THEY said He was.  Salvation history was unfolding before their very eyes, but many disciples were probably still very unsure about the specifics surrounding Jesus. They all felt a grip on their soul, but few could take that risk to profess a specific faith in Jesus’ identity.  For this was truly a faith, especially so for these disciples who had yet to see Him die and rise again, fulfilling His role as Messiah.  We know the end of the story!  They didn’t.  But it was St. Peter who saw Who Jesus was, he saw with his heart, because he was willing to be led into an unknown knowing, a faith.  I think this is due to the “fool” of St. Peter that manifests in different ways throughout his discipleship.  This same foolish instinct led him out of the boat when Jesus called him to walk in the storm.  This seeming “foolishness” is actually the center of what Jesus heralds about children: there is a purity of reaching out towards what his heart feels but cannot articulate because he knows that this is actually the better part to act upon. 

And beautifully, Peter’s risky profession of faith in a moment of testing, proclaiming who Jesus was to him in a time of confusion and many opinions on the matter, led to Jesus proclaiming who Peter would be.  Peter’s confirmation of Jesus’ identity led to his own; seeing His heart helped him see his own.  This was a defining moment in the unfolding of Jeremiah’s prophecy: Peter was not being taught by another human about how to know God, He was getting to know Jesus, and would be led into knowing the depth of Jesus’ Heart by experiencing the weight of his own sins and redemption. His leadership of the Church would be based off of this knowing, not one of ancient books. Jesus’ law was being written within the hearts of men and women who followed Him, not on stone or paper. 

Jesus, I draw near to You. 

I ask You to silence the voices of self-revision in my mind. 

You long to hear me as I am. 

Tell me how you love me. 

Tell me how you see me. 

My heart longs to know Yours. 

Please meet me here, in my heart. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

Tiffiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*            *            *

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

Hidden in Plain Sight

But Jesus said to them,
“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and in his own house.”
And he did not work many mighty deeds there
because of their lack of faith.
—Matthew 13: 57–58

Today’s Gospel reading is an extension of the message from last week’s reflection, of the idea that our own disposition will affect how God is able to work in us. As we read last week, if our soil is rocky, the Word will not be able to grow unless we first allow God to till the soil. In today’s Gospel, we read of Jesus’s failed attempt to preach in His hometown. If we, like the people in today’s reading, are closed off to the very idea that God might work through the ordinary details of our everyday lives, then His attempts to work miracles in us will be futile. If our hearts are stubborn, if we turn our heads away from the divine in-breaking of grace, then we are refusing to receive His miracles.

The truth is that God often enters into our lives in the ways we least expect. We might anticipate chariots and thunder, when really He’s trying to get our attention through our next-door neighbor. If it seems mundane to us, it is only because we’ve lost the perspective that God cherishes each tiny detail of His creation. He works within the intricacies of the world He created, gently and earnestly appealing to us in the most ordinary moments.

Jesus’s neighbors didn’t recognize that the Messiah was in their midst. Think about your own neighbors: perhaps there is a saint among you, hidden in plain sight. Don’t miss out on the gift of their presence. God give us eyes to recognize the miraculous when it comes in the trappings of the familiar.

The Tiller

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Hear the parable of the sower.
The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the Kingdom
without understanding it,
and the Evil One comes and steals away
what was sown in his heart.
The seed sown on rocky ground
is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.
But he has no root and lasts only for a time.
When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word,
he immediately falls away.
The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word
and it bears no fruit.
But the seed sown on rich soil
is the one who hears the word and understands it,
who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

—Matthew 13:18–23

The parable of the sower is a reminder that our own interior disposition will affect how we receive the Word of God. If we are hardened and resistant, it will not find root within us. But if we are pliant and willing, the Word will grow and bear fruit in us, making of us an outward sign of God’s abundant grace.

It is important for us to also remember that God does not simply toss the seed and walk away, leaving us to either flourish or wilt based on the merits of our soil. If we want to try our luck alone, of course, He will leave us be, never imposing Himself upon us. But if we let Him, He will gladly go deeper and till the soil of our hearts—removing the rocks, untangling the thorny ground, protecting the precious seed He has sown.

Most likely, our soil is imperfect. We might have some rich, verdant areas here and there, but there are also the rocky mounds, the dried-out patches of dirt, the weeds that prevent anything else from growing. We want to receive God’s Word, but we also know that there is work to do within our hearts to remove all the disordered attachments, sinful habits, and unloving attitudes that prevent us from truly embracing it. But we need not despair. If we have the will to improve, God will meet us where we are, and He will do the work in us. All we need is patience and perseverance—for this process won’t be simple or easy, but it will absolutely be worth it. At first, the soil will appear broken and raw as He reaches in and pulls out the rocks and brambles. But if we remain open to His grace, a verdant landscape will sprout up before our eyes.

Earthly Disconnection, Wounds

“Gross is the heart of this people,

they will hardly hear with their ears,

they have closed their eyes,

lest they see with their eyes

and hear with their ears

and understand with their hearts and be converted

and I heal them.”

—From today’s Gospel

 

“Two evils have my people done:

they have forsaken me, the source of living waters;

They have dug themselves cisterns,

broken cisterns, that hold no water.”

—From today’s first reading

 

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

Today’s readings connect the misuse of a few things fundamental to human survival (water, the senses) with spiritual rebellion, laxity, or inattention.  God is the source of living water, a spring, a natural source, so fundamental to human survival and all life, and yet, humans do not trust this source and have dug cisterns (or an underground container) for storing rain water for themselves.  God is also the source of Truth and Reality, and yet, so often, the five senses  given to us by our Creator betray their purpose, which is to connect our consciousness with the reality occurring around us.  

Which is to say that all to often, we pick and choose what we want to see and hear, and thus, believe, because something within us rejects God as Reality and Truth. 

We also think we can find our own sustenance, appease our own various thirsts, our own lacks, without tapping into the living water, the eternal refreshment of the Holy Spirit. (Cue the cliche phrase: “Lookin’ for looove in allll the wrong places…”) All too often, there is a disconnect between the human needs God has allowed in us and the fullest means of addressing them. Spoken plainly… the people described here think they can meet their own needs; they don’t think they need God. 

Yesterday, Aidan talked about this theme of “earthen vessels,” how awesome it is that we who are made of dust were chosen to be purified in holiness the very Spirit of God, the Creator. Today, the readings seem to show the “dark side” of this truth: our given state is not divine, we must be purified out of earthly rebellion and into divine receptivity and attention. 

Our first reading today is an excerpt from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, expounding upon how the Jewish people were once completely in love with God and trusted Him in the desert, but then lost that trust when they were brought into the abundance of the promised land. Their needs that were being met by God in the desert so clearly were now being met by warped notions of “god” (the pagan gods of Baal, native to Canaan, the promised land for the Jewish people).  How often have you felt this shift in your own life?  I can recall vividly many difficult times when I was really close to the Lord for different seasons, and then feel myself slip away from Him when that season began to shift into what seemed to be “verdant pastures of repose.”  

Part of this disconnect between seasons of what is characterized by apparent difficulties and then abundance happens BECAUSE we revert back to trusting immediately what we see and hear in front of our faces. We have lost that inner knowledge, that lens of God’s reality, true reality, because our senses are given relief from that time thirsting for water in the desert. 

So how do we change, if this is where we find ourselves: Seeing, but not really seeing what God wants you to see. Hearing, but not really hearing what God wants you to hear. Drinking water to quench your immediate thirsts (i.e. for human connection, physical bliss, admiration from others) but not drinking living water that truly quenches your deep, inner thirsts. Jesus tells us: we must be converted by understanding these sights and sounds with our hearts, and this conversion involves healing. It involves healing because these modes of sensing are not only warped, they are wounded. Jesus is the divine physician, not the divine finger-pointer. He wants to heal the way we see, hear, quench our long list of human thirsts. 

Allow the Lord to speak to your heart tonight (or today). Pray in the silence of your heart: 

Jesus, please show me the thirsts in my heart that I try to satisfy by myself, without the thought of You entering my mind. Show me what wound is reflected by my thirst, what don’t I believe about your power to ultimately satisfy me? 

Jesus, please show me how I am seeing or listening to this world without stopping to consider Your Reality shining through it. Please show me how my understanding of myself and the world is broken and wounded. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa