Crossing a Bridge

In his mind a man plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.
—Proverbs 16:9

In today’s first reading, we draw near the end of the story of Joseph the dreamer, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his own brothers. What followed—a life spent in exile, filled with heartache, loneliness, and imprisonment—could not have been further from the dreams his parents had for their beloved son. Still, Joseph surrendered to the will of God, took the adventures that befell him, and eventually guided the entire country through a seven-year famine. As he tearfully told his brothers upon their reunion, “It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5). After years of suffering, the family was healed, countless lives were preserved, and God’s saving power was revealed. What a story!

Much like Joseph, Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, whose feast we celebrate today, totally abandoned themselves to divine providence and freely undertook the adventures God presented to them. Both had deeply desired to enter religious life in their youth, but those desires remained unfulfilled. Louis had been refused entry to the Great Saint Bernard Monastery in the Swiss Alps, and Zélie had been turned away from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Faced with living in the world, each then trained to enter an artistic profession. He became a jeweler and watchmaker, and she became a lacemaker. Yet, they were still filled with grief and an aching desire for holiness—Zélie especially, for her older sister did have a vocation and entered the Visitation Monastery in Le Mans. For a young woman already filled with anguish and who truly viewed life as an exile, the additional separation from her sister was particularly painful.

But, not long after her sister entered religious life, Zélie found a kindred spirit in Louis—a gentle yet energetic man living a quasi-monastic life in the world—while crossing the St. Leonard Bridge in Alençon. They were married three months later at midnight on July 13, 1858, each vowing to be “an angel in each other’s life, radiating the face of Christ to each other and committed to bringing each other closer to God” (Renda, xxiii). When the two visited her sister on their wedding day, Zélie writes, “I cried all my tears, more than I’d ever cried in my life, and more than I would ever cry again. My poor sister didn’t know how to console me… [Louis] understood me and consoled me as best he could because his inclinations were similar to mine. I even think our mutual affection grew through it. Our feelings were always in accord, and he was always a comfort and support to me” (Renda, 288).

Marriage was not a consolation prize for Sts. Louis and Zélie, as they soon learned. It was a true calling, and one meant to be lived out fully. During a time where consecrating your life to God, performing miracles, or dying as a martyr were considered the best ways to achieve holiness, this couple was instead led to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way, a little way. Their fiat was embedded into every aspect of their marriage—they put God first and loved him more than they loved each other or their children, and they loved each other and their children very much indeed. One only needs to look at how they signed their letters when away from each other: “Your wife who loves you more than her own life” and “Your husband and true friend, who loves you for life” (Renda). Their daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, called them “a father and mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.”

Sts. Louis and Zélie lived lives seeped in prayer, the sacraments, and charitable works and raised their children to love God. Their spirituality was characterized by humility, trust, living in the present moment, love, and gratitude. Zélie was a Third Order Franciscan, and Louis had a particular affinity for Eucharistic adoration. They were devoted to Our Lady, received Communion as often as was acceptable at the time, and continuously gave of themselves to each other, their children, their extended family, and their whole community. Zélie was both a brilliant businesswoman and a dynamic mom; Louis was both eager to run to someone’s rescue and dedicate himself to study in his monastic-style cell in the family attic. They adored their children, accepted all the joys and sorrows of family life, and leaned on Christ in all circumstances, knowing they were not perfect people or parents.

Their story of crossing a bridge may seem like nothing but a charming tale, just as their daughter may seem like nothing more than a little flower. But there is much more to their marriage. St. Catherine of Siena describes Christ as a bridge reaching from Heaven to Earth in her Dialogues. For the rest of Louis and Zélie’s marriage, crossing a bridge meant uniting their sufferings to Christ, carrying their crosses, and “enduring to the end.” They had nine children, but four died at a young age, including the sons Zélie hoped to see celebrate Mass as priests. They faced many sicknesses in their family. Zélie valiantly endured an excruciatingly painful death in Louis’s arms at the age of 45 from breast cancer. Louis lost his wife too soon, gave his daughters to Christ one by one as they entered religious life, and quietly suffered from severe physical and mental illnesses before dying at an old age.

Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin are not saints because their daughter Thérèse is a saint and Doctor of the Church. They aren’t even saints because all their children entered religious life, or because they suffered greatly. Sts. Louis and Zélie are saints because they did the will of God, and they did it with all their hearts. They lived lives of astounding holiness and simplicity, offering their sufferings to God with courage, living in the grace of the present moment, and trusting in his love unconditionally. As the first spouses to be canonized as a couple, let us pray for their intercession for the healing of families around the world and for us to let God love us and lead us—even if we are led, one shaking step at a time, to somewhere different than we originally dreamed, like Sts. Louis and Zélie, like Joseph the dreamer, both sent ahead of us to help point the way to Christ, the bridge “walled and roofed with Mercy.” May God’s saving power be revealed through our lives, and may he make us saints and bring us home. Amen.

Reading & Listening Suggestions
Original composition: A Rose From Our Lady
Mongin, The Extraordinary Parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Renda (ed.), A Call to a Deeper Love
Martin, The Father of the Little Flower
Martin, The Mother of the Little Flower

What Are You Looking For?

John was standing with two of his disciples,
and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God.”
The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.
Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them,
“What are you looking for?”
They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher),
“where are you staying?”
He said to them, “Come, and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying,
and they stayed with him that day.
It was about four in the afternoon.
—John 1:35–39

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose feast we celebrate today, lived a busy life as a wife and mother of five in New York City. She was an upper-class socialite who entertained George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in her home, and her family had deep roots in the Episcopalian church. At the time of her birth in 1774, Catholicism was outlawed in New York City; by the time she was ten years old, the ban was lifted, but Catholics were still looked down upon by wealthy Protestant families such as Elizabeth’s. The modest wooden Catholic church, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, was the home of lower-class immigrants; Trinity Episcopal Church, on the other hand, was a refined, elegant place for peaceful reflection among the social elite. Elizabeth’s sister once commented, “Let me be anything in the world but a Roman Catholic,” and saw Catholics as “dirty, filthy, ragged, the church a horrid place of spits and pushing.”

None of Elizabeth’s friends or family could have predicted her conversion to Catholicism. It was unthinkable, that she would lower herself to the depths of society, forgoing “civilized” worship to join a disorderly congregation with baffling beliefs. Serving the poor was one thing; joining them was another.

But Elizabeth had experienced Jesus calling her to His Church in a way she could not deny or explain away. While in Italy, mourning the death of her husband, she witnessed the beauty of the Catholic faith. She encountered the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and fell to her knees before the monstrance in utter surrender to God. She had met Jesus in His Church, and after that there was no turning back. Even though her friends and family were shocked and bewildered by her decision, she sacrificed her reputation to enter the Catholic Church and receive Jesus in the sacraments. She so desired this greater intimacy with Jesus that everything else in her life seemed trivial in comparison.

Just as Jesus invited the disciples to follow Him, just as He invited St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, so He invites each of us in our own lives to follow wherever He leads. The above passage from today’s Gospel should not seem distant or foreign to us; Jesus is pursuing us in the same way. He interrupts our daily routines and asks, “What are you looking for?” What are we pursuing? Is it wealth or social prestige? Is it comfort and security? Or do we seek something deeper and more substantial, something that written on our hearts from the very first moment of our existence? Jesus beckons us, “Come, and you will see.”

At last God is mine and I am his….The awful impressions of the evening before, fears of not having done all to prepare [for my first Holy Communion], and yet even then transports of confidence and hope in his goodness.

My God….the fearful beating heart…the long walk to town, but every step counted nearer that street then nearer that tabernacle, then nearer the moment he would enter the poor, poor little dwelling so all his own—and when he did the first thought I remember, was, “let God arise, let his enemies be scattered,” for it seemed to me my King had come to take his throne, and instead of the humble tender welcome I had expected to give him, it was but a triumph of joy and gladness that the deliverer was come, and my defense and shield and strength and salvation made mine for this world and the next….

Now then all the excesses of my heart found their play and it danced with more fervor….Truly I feel all the powers of my soul held fast by him who came with so much Majesty to take possession of this little poor Kingdom….

My God is here, he sees me, every sigh and desire is before him.

—St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Kingdom at hand

In looking at Today’s Readings, I was struck by the universality of the Word. Simply put, the message of Jesus Christ is meant for every human being: The Kingdom of God is at hand!

But how much of our lives are spent waiting for the right conditions to live/move/have our being?

“Once I have…”
“When I’m finally able to…”
“If someone would only just…”
Some of those sentences hurt for me to type, because they ring so true. I feel like I’ve spent years deferring, blaming, excusing, or avoiding. I’ve yearned to burst forth like a bolt of lightning, chasing down my dreams, passions, and callings with holy excitement and energy, yet I often seem to find some little hindrance or struggle to which I give too much power and pump the brakes.

“But I’m so tired…”
“I’ve got these other responsibilities…”
“I wish I could afford to…”

To be fair, there are seasons of life where waiting is the calling. For example, my life as a husband and father to one toddler and potential Christmas/New Year’s newborn is not necessarily the time to travel the world and broaden my horizons. These days, it’s more like running in circles around our apartment hallways and babyproofing my horizons. But a life season of patience does not mean we are waiting, or that we are hamstrung, ineffectual.

Jesus told us, and continues to tell us, that the Kingdom of God is at hand! Right now! God is calling me, calling you, to greatness (in His eyes, not the world’s). All of the excuses and rationalizations I’ve listed above betray one big need in my life: my faith in God needs to grow!

Two variations of one of the most profound messages I heard during my time as a campus minister come to mind: 1) God does not call the equipped, he equips the called, and 2) God will always give you enough time, energy, and resources to pursue His calling for you. If it’s His calling in your life. He will make it work. We need not wait; we ought to act. If you truly believe that Jesus Christ brought about the Kingdom of God, brought Death to its knees, and brought everlasting redemption, WHY WOULDN’T YOU ACT?!

St. Paul tells us today that we have Jesus Christ has given everyone on earth both a Word and a Mission. We are to receive and preach “the inscrutable riches of Christ.”

The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Act like it. Then go tell everyone.

The Give-Away Pile

Then Peter said to him in reply,
“We have given up everything and followed you.
What will there be for us?”—Matt 19:27

“It’s funny how quickly life changes from, ‘Sure God—I’ll give you anything you want!’ to ‘Well, not that.  Or that. Or that. Can I perhaps interest you in something from this small give-away pile—you know, the things I no longer actually want or need?’ 😊

This was my Facebook status on April 15th of 2016.  Two years later I am hazy as to what sort of sacrifices inspired this particular post, but hindsight highlights what I could not then begin to imagine.

Things were crazy, as I recall, and among other things there was a problem with my apartment, which could have precipitated a drastic and immediate move.  I spent the day cleaning out my closet in preparation, only in the eleventh hour to have things work out enabling me to stay, to my great relief.

Yet for some reason I felt something deep within me stir and suggest that I should plan to put everything in storage and be prepared to walk away from my life.

This sounds rather outlandish, but I was preparing to go to China to volunteer for the summer, and the idea of staying longer greatly attracted me.  In fact, I had been feeling for some time an interior nudge, to say Yes to something that God was calling me to, something I could not yet see or understand.  I imagined a call to stay in China, or somewhere more exotic perhaps, to be a missionary, to follow some new and exciting adventure planned by God.  “I will go anywhere you want!” I told Him with enthusiasm.

It was just after this thought came to me—of putting all my stuff in storage and preparing to move—that I went down to get the mail.  On top was a flyer from Lowes, which said in bold letters “You’re moving!” (over an advertisement for supplies of course).  I was both startled and amused by what seemed a concrete confirmation of this interior sense.  I saved the flier (I still have it today) and told all my friends about this strange sense of calling—and I am so grateful I did, because nobody would have believed me given what followed.

I went to China and fell in love.  Half of my heart still sleeps on a bamboo matt under mosquito netting in an obscure orphanage in the suburbs of Beijing.  I would have given anything to stay and continue to work among the abandoned little ones.  But contrary to my wishes and my expectations, God did not ask me to stay.

Instead, I flew home to New York depressed and bored by the life that awaited my return.  I resented my naiveite in believing that interior call was from God, particularly as it became clear that all of the boxes that I had carefully packed and brought painstakingly down six flights of stairs now had to be brought up, unpacked, put back.  We brought up a few at a time, and they sat in my living room, unpacked for days, while I glared at them bitterly.

Then one day, just a few weeks after my return from China, I got a phone call that changed everything.  “Something is not right with your mother…”  I left work that day to make the drive upstate, unaware that I would not be returning.

I did, in fact, walk away from my life—from my job, my apartment, my social life and community, to move back to my childhood home.  It was not the exotic foreign destination I had imagined.  More than once, I questioned God, doubted that His plan could possibly be right.

But no matter how much is in our give-away pile (or how reluctantly we add to it) God’s is always greater.  He is never outdone in generosity.  I have learned this too.

In the Atrium we taught the little ones about the Mystery of Life and Death—how the grain of wheat must die in order to give life.  We planted wheat seeds, then took them out at various stages to examine them. A few days in, if we dig up the seed it looks much the same. A few weeks in, green shoots have pushed through the dirt, and roots have begun to grow—the grain they have come from is changed; it looks more like a shell now.   At four weeks, the original grain is a fraction of its original size and has almost disappeared, but the plant and roots are bigger still.  And then, later still, when it is harvest time, we find the seed has vanished entirely, but on the stalk are a hundred new seeds in its place.  From death comes more life.

I have had many experiences of God’s generosity in my new life.  I am grateful for the deepening of relationships, to give just two examples.  I was able to spend a few months living with my father, unaware that those would be his last months on earth.  Had things stayed as they were, I would have seen him only for a few days perhaps at Christmas.  I have also now been able to spend time with my best friend from childhood. She has for more than a year now been suffering from debilitating Lyme disease and its various coinfections.  I am able to cook weekly for her family of eight children, and we accompany each other in this strange season of our lives.  I am grateful for many other blessings that God has given me during this time.

Let us pray for the grace to give to God all that He may ask of us—and to better receive all that He wants to give us.

The Narrow Way

I remember years ago, as a child, reading with awe the stories of great missionaries and martyrs.  And so when in China I met “real live people” who were daily risking their lives to bring the Gospel, I was somewhat starstruck.  I attended secret Masses with priests and nuns who had served in the Underground Church for decades, who had friends who had been arrested, beaten, or even killed for their faith.  I met women who taught small children the faith, despite the law that made it a crime to speak of God to anyone under eighteen.  I met men and women who had started orphanages and infant hospices to care for the abandoned and discarded little ones, and others who assisted women seeking to hide their “illegal” pregnancies from forced abortion.  Each of these daily put their livelihood and even their lives on the line, over a span of decades, and many had suffered terrible persecution but still persisted.

When I was invited to join some of them in a secret mission trip to another part of China, to join in speaking “illegally” about the faith, I was thrilled.  To be fair, the risk to me was insignificant—if caught I would only be deported, not killed.  But there was something in me that loved the idea of being a part of something that felt so missionary, to join these heroes even in a partial way.

But then, a few days before we were to leave, something felt wrong.  At first I thought the heat was finally getting to me.  We had taken a taxi to the Great Wall, and our driver like many elderly Chinese had a deep superstition regarding moving air.  He insisted on keeping the windows closed and the AC off, until we arrived and gratefully tumbled out into the much cooler 99 degree air.  But the weak, dizzy feeling continued well into the evening, even after we returned from the wall.

The next morning, my stomach began to lurch and make sounds that might have had me burned at the stake in earlier centuries.  It then violently designated “return to sender” pretty much everything I had ever eaten or ever considered eating.  Charity and basic decency ask me to censor the graphic details, but suffice it to say, I had never been so sick in my life.

In the United States, when one gets a stomach bug or food poisoning it usually end after 24 hours or so.  This did not.  After three full days my body was still violently and involuntarily turning itself inside out, and I alternated between thinking I was going to die and praying that I would.

I did not suffer nobly.  I did not smile serenely offering up my pain for the poor souls.  I was not peaceful, accepting whatever God would send me for His greater glory. I don’t even think I prayed, other than to beg God to let me die, quickly.  I had not known, until that moment, that it was possible to experience such pain and not die or fall unconscious.  I only wanted it to end.

It was ten days before I was back on my feet again, thanks to a combination of watermelon, Cipro and many prayers.  I missed the mission trip, and realized ruefully that that far from being a hero, I had more in common with the nameless companions who died of dysentery before ever reaching the missions.

I was tempted to be disappointed, at first, at not being permitted to do something “great” like the others.  And I was frustrated at how poorly I had suffered even my minor little cross, when I knew others who carried much bigger ones more gracefully.  But God’s plan for each of us is profoundly personal, and always perfect.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”  We’ve all heard some variation on this, and know, (at least on some level) the harm in Park Avenue pretense, or Wall Street ambition, or any other human measuring sticks.  Yet sometimes this slips into our spirituality and our ideas of holiness.

It is a central strategy of the Opposition Voice to turn our eyes away from Christ, to look instead to the gifts, or faults, of others.  When we see those of seemingly greater gifts or callings we are tempted to doubt our own, to be ungrateful, or to let them go unused.  When we see the faults of others, we are tempted to excuse our own, saying “at least I am not as bad as him/her.”  My father used to warn me not to make others the measure of my soul: “You will always be able to find someone holier than you, and someone more sinful.  The fact that you are better than Hitler does not make you a good person.  You need to do the best you can with what you have been given.” Christ invites us to look to Him, to what He is calling us to individually.

The way is narrow because it is personal, a specific way for each person.  As Pope Benedict said, there are “as many ways as there are people.”  Not that each person invents his or her own way—nothing could be more disastrous!  Rather each person is uniquely called to follow Christ in a particular way, with particular gifts.  The one reason to do anything, great or small, is because He asks us to.

Grief into Joy

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn,
while the world rejoices;
you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.
When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived;
but when she has given birth to a child,
she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy
that a child has been born into the world.
So you also are now in anguish.
But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice,
and no one will take your joy away from you.
On that day you will not question me about anything.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.”
—John 16:20–23

Often we have a tendency to assume—even, sometimes, when we know better—that if we follow Jesus perfectly, we will live a charmed life free of suffering. Thus, when we experience suffering that seems “undeserved,” we become frustrated with God and think that there’s no way we can handle what He’s asking of us.

Christ_in_Gethsemane

But Jesus doesn’t negate the suffering of the Christian life. He acknowledges it fully, saying that if they persecuted Him they will surely persecute us. He tells us we will weep and mourn and grieve while the world rejoices. Yet our pain and suffering are not wasted in His plan of salvation. When we meet Jesus in Heaven, when we see the destination to which He has led us on such a long, winding journey, our hearts will rejoice. We will receive a lasting joy, greater than anything of this world.

We will experience suffering in this life, but through Christ, this suffering becomes a holy calling. We don’t need to put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine—no, this trial is a gift, meant to break and re-form our hearts, making them more like His own. We can embrace our suffering and lean in to it. And we don’t need to spiral into despair, either, for this trial is not the end. A greater joy awaits us, a joy that will eclipse any memory of pain.

piergiorgioOur patron, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, was a joyful, exuberant young man who radiated hope. He loved to have a good time with his friends, sharing inside jokes and enjoying outdoor activities. But at the same time, he did not shy away from suffering. Although he easily could have stayed within the comfortable bubble of wealth provided by his family, he ventured into the poorest parts of his city, undeterred by the noise and smells, to seek those who needed company and support. He saw the beauty in each person he encountered and considered them friends. His passion for the Lord propelled him to serve, and even when he contracted a fatal disease through this service, he embraced this, too, as a gift. His love for Christ emboldened him to face every trial without fear.

Fear not. As Christians, we always have reason for hope. Inspired by the example of Pier Giorgio, may we face our sufferings with boldness and joy, knowing that all our earthly pain will pass away and that the joy to come is worth it all.

We are an Easter people, and hallelujah is our song.
—Pope Saint John Paul II


1. Heinrich Hofmann, Christ in Gethsemane / PD-US
2. Photograph of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati and friends

With All Your Heart

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASixteen years ago today, I stood in a white robe before the bishop as he anointed me with chrism and spoke the words of Confirmation: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” I still remember the joy I felt walking into the church that day, feeling the presence of so many saints rejoicing over me. I was ready to take part in the mission of the Church, to follow those saints toward Heaven. I didn’t know how God would call me to serve in the years ahead, but I trusted in Him to lead me forward—and that was enough for me to say yes to the journey.

So many journeys start with a “yes.” There is no way for us to know every detail of the adventure that awaits, but if we know that the one who invites us is trustworthy, then we can accept the call with joy. Our relationship with God and our trust in Him are what allow us to do His work and keep His commandments. In today’s Gospel we hear that the most important commandment is to love God, and then to see and love God in others and within ourselves—because without a foundation of love, all our efforts will be fruitless. If we don’t love God with all our hearts and all our understanding and all our strength, then we won’t be able to trust Him to lead us, and we won’t be open to receiving His grace.

He is One and there is no other than he.
And to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding,
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself
is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.
—Mark 12:32–33

In Confirmation, we actively choose to follow God in a public way, opening our hearts to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit and offering our lives to be used as God sees fit. But before we choose Him, He has already chosen us. The graces we receive through the Sacrament are meant to be used as resources for the mission on which we are sent, and He sends us gifts that are particularly suited for us. All we need to do is to be receptive, to open our hearts just a crack and allow His grace to flood in. We are called to do things that might seem impossible on our own, but when we remember the graces that have been given us, we realize that we are armed for the task.

We are called and chosen. The unfolding of our lives is not a random set of coincidences; rather, every moment carries great purpose and meaning. God has recruited us as unfit soldiers, yet by grace His will shall be done in us.

I will heal their defection, says the LORD,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.
I will be like the dew for Israel:
he shall blossom like the lily;
He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar,
and put forth his shoots.
—Hosea 14:5–7

Reflect today on the journeys God has led you on in the past and where He might be calling you today. Are you ready to say yes to Him, to receive whatever He gives? Lay out your worries before Him so that He can demonstrate His love for you. Turn your attention toward this most important commandment and nurture your relationship with God. Let Him show you how loving and trustworthy He is, so that you can say yes to Him with all heart, all your understanding, and all your strength.


Image: Hermann Hammer, Sacred Heart of Jesus on Pinus Cembra in the Stubai Alps between Salfains and Grieskogel / CC0 1.0