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

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

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.”
—Matthew 16:16–18

Considering the fact that they often disagreed in life, it’s funny that Peter and Paul now share a feast day. However, despite their differing personalities, their stories have much in common. Both Peter and Paul were beacons of the early Church, instrumental in evangelization and leadership. Both gave their lives as martyrs, sowing the seed of the Church. And both underwent radical conversions after personal encounters with Christ.

Peter’s story in the Gospels is one of constantly trying, failing, and persevering. He is somewhat of a hapless apostle, trying to please Jesus but constantly making mistakes in the process. His sincere love for Jesus is fully apparent, alongside his flawed humanity, and through this combination he models for us how to fall upon the great mercy of God. If someone like Peter can not only be forgiven for his denial and betrayal of Jesus but also be named the first pope—well, then there’s hope for all of us, isn’t there?

Roman_School,_circa_1620_Saints_Peter_and_PaulPaul has perhaps the most famous conversion story of all time, the dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus. He too is a prime example of a flawed saint; before Jesus dramatically intervened, Paul was literally murdering Christians. Not a typical path to holiness. But Jesus took even that unlikely path and redirected it toward sainthood. Paul always recognized that it was only through God’s grace that he was able to carry out his good works; he had no illusions of his own inherent goodness.

I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith…
The Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles might hear it.
—2 Timothy 4:6–7, 17

St._Paul_Visiting_St._Peter_in_PrisonPaul poured himself out until he was empty, an open vessel in which Christ could dwell. It was then that God’s grace worked in him most fully, supplying him with a transcendent strength to persevere in his mission. The words Jesus once spoke to Peter apply to Paul, too: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Peter and Paul both found their strength in weakness, by being receptive to divine revelation, allowing God to take control. Peter was particularly changed after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—before that moment, he was cowering in the upper room, but upon receiving those graces, he immediately stepped out in courage.

There is a lesser known story in which Jesus meets Peter out on the road and redirects his path. Instead of the road to Damascus, it is the road from Rome:

A legend has Peter walking along a road outside of Rome, fleeing arrest and certain death, when he comes to a crossroads: where the Appian Way meets the Via Ardeatina.

There he meets our risen Lord.

“Quo vadis?” Peter asks, to which Jesus replies:

“Romam vado iterum crucifigi.” I am going to Rome to be crucified again….

The end of the story, of course, is the end of Peter. He turns around and heads back towards Vatican Hill. This is the last time he would need to be redirected by Jesus.

Brad Miner

1601-2

Imagine Peter at that crossroads. It would not be the first time he’d found himself in that position—his abiding love for Jesus pinned against his all-encompassing terror of suffering and death. Here was a second chance to choose faith over fear. Perhaps this time, Peter would recall the words he once spoke to Jesus: “Master, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.”

Just as Peter and Paul persevered despite their flaws and sins and mistakes, may we too find the courage to get up when we fall and keep moving forward. May we recognize that it is far better to stumble along the right road than to speed down the wrong one—for even if the wrong one is smoother and easier, it won’t take us where we need to go, and there is only one Way that leads to everlasting life.


1. Anonymous (Roman school), Saints Peter and Paul / PD-US
2. Filippino Lippi, St. Paul Visits St. Peter in Prison / PD-US
3. Annibale Caracci, Domine, quo vadis? / PD-US

Not From Me But For Me

Peter began to say to Jesus,
“We have given up everything and followed you.”
Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.
But many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.”—Mark 10:28-31

*            *            *

It is the sound that every mother of a toddler learns to fear: an eerie silence, followed by piercing squeals of unfettered delight.

My friend Heidi and I ran down the stairs from where we had been packing for a day at the pool, to find her not-quite-two-year-old Nicholas splashing about with great enthusiasm in the toilet.

Even the future Saint Grace was quite appalled, and we immediately moved to extract him. He quickly became as stiff as a board and twice his usual weight as he began to wail piteously and thrash about.  He remained inconsolable, as we cruelly re-dressed him, buckled him in his car seat and drove him further away from his sole source of joy.  That we were driving to a pool, a much bigger and more glorious version of his tiny heart’s desire, was an irony not lost on me.

This fear of trusting, this doubt that good things can follow a No to what we think we want or are currently enjoying, is not only a quality of toddlers.

A friend of mine who was preparing to enter the seminary tried to explain the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to his secular friends.  “Dude, you’ve got to be kidding me!  Those are the three things I am most trying to avoid!”  one responded in shock.

It’s easy for me to laugh at that guy, but my own conversion was significantly delayed because I feared that if I took my faith seriously God would “make me a nun.”  (That this was for me the worst possible fate is itself quite telling).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus promises that those who give up “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands” for His sake will receive “a hundred times morein this present age”—as well as persecution, and eternal life.  We get the persecution and the eternal life part; but do we believe the hundredfold in this life?

This renunciation, this death to self, this emptiness, is a characteristic of all Christian life, not just those with what we call a “religious vocation.”   And all, whether lay or ordained, married, single or professed, are called to live not as corpses but as “witnesses to the resurrection.”

In my first ever attempt at Lectio Divina, we were invited to imagine ourselves as a person or object in the story of the Wedding in Cana.  I found myself imagining myself as one of the six stone jars in the story, and imagined myself being emptied and filled, day after day after day (before of course the Big Day in the story).  As I felt the weariness of being emptied yet again, I felt a question rise to the surface of my mind, “Grace, why are you focusing on being emptied rather than being filled?”

Later, when my life unraveled and I felt as though everything was being taken away from me yet again, I was on my knees asking God, “What is it that you want from me?”  And unmistakably the voice came back, “It is not what I want from you, it is what I want for you.”

One of the marks required for considering sainthood is a life characterized by joy.  Although the saints invariably lived lives of renunciation and at times profound suffering, they were filled with something, and this emanated in a life of joy.

God is never outdone in generosity, and indeed I have experienced on many occasions this “hundredfold” and gifts of joy I never imagined possible.  Whenever I have surrendered something to Him, He has replaced it with something better.

Yet, this is an ongoing story—I can look back on this as a promise fulfilled, but I must also look to it with the eyes of faith as a promise still to come.  Some days I am gloriously happy in my current life even without a lot of things I thought I wanted/needed.   But some days “dying to self” is like blowing out trick candles on a birthday cake, and Christianity can feel like a cruel joke.

Anyone who has attempted the Christian life for any significant stretch of time is familiar with these ups and downs, these seasons of plenty and famine.  St. Ignatius called these spiritual seasons “consolation” for the good, and “desolation” for the down times.  It is helpful to remember that just like the seasons of earth, they will come and go.  In times of good, it is helpful to build memories and gratitude to recall and strengthen us for the times that are harder.  And in the tough times, we can hold on to our memories of good and the promises of Christ.

Let us pray today for the grace to trust in the goodness and generosity of God at all times.

Remain in Me

Domenico_Morelli_-_Conversione_di_san_PaoloToday’s first reading describes the dramatic conversion of St. Paul. Before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul was “breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,” and yet today we remember him as a great evangelizer and prolific New Testament writer. What happened? Nothing less than an inbreaking of divine grace.

For the powers of humanity, there are a great many situations that are beyond hope: souls that have been irrevocably corrupted, systems that are beyond repair. But for God, no one is beyond hope. No matter how hardened a person, God can break through any barriers to offer them mercy and an opportunity for transformation. He stopped Paul right in his murderous path, turned him away from Damascus and out into all the world a changed man. He channeled Paul’s zeal toward its natural, rightly ordered purpose: building up the Kingdom of God. In the same way, our own human purpose can only be understood through an encounter with the divine.

Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him (John 6:56).
Jesus has given Himself to us in the Eucharist as an opportunity for encounter with Him, that we too might be transformed by His grace. He instituted this sacrament so that we might share a radical intimacy with Him. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati understood this deeply—he received Communion daily, meeting Jesus every morning and carrying Him throughout the rest of the day. This is the key to his sanctity: not Pier Giorgio’s own goodness, but his openness to divine grace, to deep intimacy with and vulnerability before God.

“I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharist Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles.”
—Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

Conversione_di_san_Paolo_September_2015-1aThe great things that Paul achieved after his conversion stemmed from this intense closeness with God and awareness of God’s perfect love. This is what opened Paul’s heart to allow God to work through him rather than imposing his own will. When the scales fell from his eyes and he saw his life with sudden clarity, he fell to his knees in humility before God. Throughout the rest of his life, as he wrote and preached and converted a great many souls, he was ever aware that it was all due to God working in him: It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). Paul knew all too well the cold, cruel man he would be without God, and thus he was able to recognize that any good fruits that flowed from his work were not due to his own power or talent or goodness, but from Jesus Christ working through him.


1. Domenico Morelli, Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US
2. Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US