Arriving to Heaven Together

When I was in grade-school I remember having scheduled fire drills. The alarm would go off and everyone would stop what they were doing, we would put on our coats and file in two lines. The teacher would give the class directions as simple as “stay calm, follow me”. We would walk out of our classroom together and merge in the hallway with the other classes exiting their own classrooms. We would all make our way to the stairwell to exit the floor. One day while orderly walking down the stairs, I distinctly remember noticing all the children in front of me, all the children behind me, all the children in the stairwell from the floors above and, all the children in the stairwell from the floor below. We were all moving towards the same exit door to leave the building. Every single person was going to leave the building through the same tiny door. Suddenly my grade-school mind began to wander, what if there truly was a fire? What if we truly were in danger? How could everyone possibly fit through that tiny door out to safety? I became worried and scared for myself and all these people.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is telling his disciples that they should “enter through the narrow gate”. Jesus had given the disciples the simple direction of how to get to heaven by walking on the road that leads to the narrow gate; through him, by following him, by being in communion with him. Jesus had told us that this road was not easy. By picking up the cross we would be judged as he was judged and we would be persecuted as he was persecuted. When life becomes difficult it seems beyond tempting to drop our heavy cross. It seems tempting to cross over to the road that is wide because it seems to be less stressful, it seems like more fun, it seems like less work. But these are deceptions that take us no where. Jesus warns us that this broad road will be the destruction of many. We are not meant to walk the road of deceit and evil. We are meant to walk the road of love and forgiveness. We may get lost at times and end up on the wrong path but, God always gives us many opportunities to get on the right path, on the path to holiness.

How easy it could have been to cause distress in the middle of a fire drill. It could be easy to lose focus of the goal (exiting through the door) and be stuck inside the building in a dangerous situation. If people started to push and shove it would get us no where. But, “pushing and shoving” were not the instructions the teachers gave us. They told us to remain calm, to stay in line, to follow. They gave us directions and we worked together. My class worked with the other classes on our floor, which we may see from time to time, and my class even worked with classes a few floors above, which we never even interacted with before. Remain calm, stay in line, follow. We all became one moving body as we made our way through a tiny exit door to safety.

God didn’t make us to be alone. He made us to be in communion with Him and in turn to be in communion to one another. Right before Jesus told his disciples about entering through the narrow gate, he told them exactly how they would enter through the narrow gate; “do to others whatever you would have them do to you”. We have a responsibility to love each other, to help each other and work together in the name of Jesus Christ. Being in communion with one another means to be in fellowship and have a mutual participation or sharing. If we see someone on the broader road, suffering, take them by the hand and walk with them and Jesus on the narrow road. Share with them the word and love of the Lord. On the narrow road, no matter how pact or how difficult, when we remain calm and follow Christ everyone gets through the narrow gate and we arrive to heaven together.

We Belong to Each Other

They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him,
“Child, your sins are forgiven.”
—Mark 2:3–5

Imagine how it felt for the paralyzed man to be so close to Jesus, and yet so far: within sight of the Healer, yet held back by the very impairments that needed healing, utterly helpless to bridge the gap.

In moments when we feel paralyzed and helpless, unable to fix things for ourselves, God does not want us to go it alone. He wants to heal us, and He seeks to work through the hearts of others in the process. He uses our frailties to bear greater fruit: not only in ourselves, but in others, too. We can only be healed if we are willing to admit our weakness and ask for help. We must allow ourselves to be lifted up, carried, and lowered into the arms of Jesus.

And when we lend a hand to help someone else, it is a privilege: to share in the sacred struggle of their suffering, to draw close to the fountain of grace and healing. God uses these moments of weakness to teach us to rely upon other people and knit us closer together as a community.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
—Mother Teresa

Sacred Spaces

Jesus answered and said to them,
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews said,
“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,
and you will raise it up in three days?”
But he was speaking about the temple of his Body.
—John 2:19–21

Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God’s temple,
God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.
—1 Corinthians 3:16–17

As human beings, we are designed to live in communion with one another. The Church is meant to be a shared space in which we find shelter for our souls, serving one another and seeing each other with the eyes of Christ. A physical church building serves as this sacred space in its connection with the ultimate Temple, Jesus Christ Himself; and we, too, become temples of the Holy Spirit when we open our hearts to receive Him. No sacrificial offering at any temple could be greater than what Christ offered for us: His very self, His own Body. And so we unite ourselves with this perfect offering, and thus also with one another—all part of the sacred Body of Jesus Christ, one living, breathing organism.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus rebukes the money-changers in the temple for entering into this shared, sacred space not with the intention of communing with God but for selfish, materialistic purposes. They were not seeing their fellow men as God does but rather as potential profits, and they showed no compunction about carrying out this individualistic mentality in a communal place of prayer. Just as Jesus did, we also may experience feelings of anger toward those who profane what is sacred within the Church—particularly after the abhorrent clerical scandals that have been uncovered during this past year. It is profoundly upsetting to everyone else within the Body of Christ to see corruption and rot existing in what is supposed to be a sacred shelter for us.

We are called to drive out the money-changers in the temple on every level—to root out corruption in the larger Church, to foster interconnectedness and reverent prayer within our parishes, and to cleanse our own hearts from the stains of self-centeredness and greed. Imagine the commotion that the money-changers caused in the temple, distracting everyone from the presence of God. What things are creating noise and distractions within our own souls? What pursuits keep us from seeing ourselves as sacred vessels, carrying Jesus into the world? Let us begin there.

God builds his house; that is, it does not take shape where people only want to plan, achieve, and produce by themselves. It does not appear where only success counts and where all the “strategies” are measured by success. It does not materialize where people are not prepared to make space and time in their lives for him; it does not get constructed where people only build by themselves and for themselves. But where people let themselves be claimed for God, there they have time for him and there space is available for him. There they can dare to represent in the present what is to come: the dwelling of God with us and our gathering together through him, which make us sisters and brothers of one house….

The beauty of the cathedral does not stand in opposition to the theology of the cross, but is its fruit: it was born from the willingness not to build one’s city by oneself and for oneself.

—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

A People of the Beatitudes

In listening to a reflection on the Beatitudes today, the speaker asked their audience to reflect upon what it means to live the Beatitudes. Not just to believe in them, but to live them.

To live the Beatitudes is to value the things that this world does not. To see with God’s eyes and hear with God’s ears.

We live in a world full of “takes”, of people and outlets vying for our attention by giving their spin or opinion on the world unfolding around us. I cannot begin to tell you how many different articles I saw posted on social media that were trying to vindicate or vilify Archbishop Viganó’s letter of accusation. The “liberal” Catholic figures were attempting to poke holes in the statement, the “conservative” Catholics were calling for the resignation of the Vicar of Christ, and most of the laity fell somewhere in the middle to be buffeted back and forth by one “take” after another. I began to despair, to be frustrating, to find myself alternately excited that the horror might not be as deep as it seemed and terribly, terribly angry that it very well could be.

Instead of attaching myself to either side of the “aisle” of this politicized version of Catholicism, I decided to cleave to the LORD. I prayed. I prayed my heart out, and I haven’t been that good with prayer lately, so you know I’m not saying it to brag. I say it because prayer is what brought me comfort. When the world around us takes every event and spins it into 2 alternate “realities” (call ’em facts and alternative facts, if that suits you), I took deep, deep comfort in the fact that their is ONE LORD and we shall have NO OTHER GODS above him.

Our LORD’s mind is not divided. His heart is pure, singly devoted to His children. Our LORD, given our participation, will sift the sheep from the goats, weave a braided cord and CLEANSE HIS HOUSE.

I’ve never been one for “fire and brimstone” preaching. Us cradle Catholics can be somewhat allergic to that. But in this last month where I have not known what is wheat and what is chaff, I have found myself praying for purifying fire. Elijah, calling down fire upon the prophets of Ba’al. I’m furious at many things, and most of all that the voice of Jesus Christ is being lost in this awful human noise. Drop your agendas, be respectfully skeptical of your favorite news source, and PRAY in a way that you have not yet. For those of you that have, bring the light of Christ to others; it shines in a way that blots out all the torches and pitchforks.

The voice of Jesus Christ is the voice that spoke the Beatitudes in today’s Gospel. Pray that we might all live these words, and see with God’s eyes what is valuable and true in the midst of the noise.

Blessed are you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.

Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets
in the same way.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
But woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.

Come and See

But Nathanael said to him,
“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
—John 1:46

“Come and see.” For Nathanael (also known as the apostle St. Bartholomew, whose feast we celebrate today), this was the moment when everything shifted, when the great adventure of his life began. These three simple words were an invitation to encounter the person of Jesus Christ, to enter into the all-consuming gaze of the Almighty. Just one interaction with Jesus was enough to change Nathanael’s doubt (“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”) into confident belief (“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”).

We, like Nathanael, may have our doubts about Jesus at times. But often the best way to strengthen our faith is not to debate whether a prophet could come from Nazareth—or, say, whether God could be present within situations of corruption and despair—but to go and meet Jesus directly. This is not to say that we should ignore our intellectual questions about the faith, but rather that we should remember that understanding flows first and foremost from relationship. We can’t truly understand Jesus if we don’t get to know Him. If we bring Him our questions and lay them at His feet, seeking to just be present with Him and allow Him to look at us, we will come alive in His presence. Experiencing Jesus fundamentally changes us, causing a perspective shift that affects everything we do afterward.

And just as Nathanael’s experience resulted from an invitation from his friend, Philip, we ought to remember that our own experience of Jesus is not meant to be kept to ourselves. Just those three simple words—come and see—can change someone’s life forever. If we have been changed by Jesus, others will see the joy He has given us. Our own lives, our works, and our personal stories are what open the eyes of others to see the love of God.

Feast of the Assumption

Sisters, Brothers:

Today is both a wonderful and terrible day for our Church.

I trust in Jesus Christ and his promises of life in Him. I proclaim my love for Mary, our invaluable intercessor, who was assumed bodily into Heaven, she was so pure.

Let’s pray for purity, then.

Let’s pray for mercy and justice. Today, Alyssa sang an Audrey Assad song at Mass: “Your rod and Your staff are a strange mercy in a world where I’m not yet home.”

Mercy, then. Mercy, mercy. Mercy, Lord. Your mercy come.

If any of us claim to believe in the power of prayer, may we now put it to the test like never before: Lord, bring your peace, healing, and love to your little ones, the victims. When all the world tells us that peace and healing are no longer possible, that ordained men have broken people in a way so that cannot be remade, we pray for your healing. We pray, that by the Blood of Jesus Christ, you will take this most evil of evils and bring about renewal.

I am at a loss for words. I do not need to add my “take” on the brutal truth. It’s true, and my God it’s brutal.

Instead, I will proclaim my faith, whether I feel it or not at this moment. I don’t. I will not proudly recite my faith from the rooftops today. I don’t claim to have much to offer in terms of comfort or clarity; it was just my day to write.

So I write my faith:

I believe in the Father. He is our creator. He is almighty.

I believe in Jesus Christ. He is the Son, the One who came into the world.

The virgin Mary miraculously bore Him, birthed Him, and raised Him as her son. She later was taken, body and soul, into Heaven to be with her truest loves.

I believe Jesus suffered. He died. He went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” He rose from the dead. He ministered further to His disciples and was then raised into Heaven to live forever with His Father.

He is our King, now and forever.

He is our Judge, now and forever.

I believe in the Holy Spirit.

I believe in the Holy Catholic Church. Even on days like today. Faith in the Church is not my right. It is not even my human, intellectual decision. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart that has led, and will continue to lead me to profess my faith in the Holy Catholic Church. I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.

I believe that Saints can and do pray for us. Please pray for us today.

I believe that sins can be forgiven. Lord, forgive us today.

I believe that we, body and soul, may too join Jesus in eternal life because of His great and powerful Love and Mercy.

Mercy, then. Mercy, mercy. Mercy, Lord. Your mercy come.

Amen.

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.