Called to the Light

As Jesus passed by,
he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him.
While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
He heard this and said,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
—Matthew 9:9–13

There is a well-known painting of the calling of St. Matthew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, painted by the great Caravaggio. I often used to stop through to see it while I was studying abroad, since it was just around the corner from my school. It sits in a shadowy corner of the church, but when a tourist drops coins into a slot, a light shines upon it for a few minutes. Once it is illuminated, you can see that the painting itself is a stark contrast of light and shadow—a masterpiece of chiaroscuro.

The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggo_(1599-1600)

Matthew is sitting at a table with his fellow tax collectors, counting money. Jesus, standing at the opposite end of the table, is pointing at Matthew, while Matthew and his companions seem to be caught in utter surprise. One man also points at Matthew in his bewilderment, as if to say, “Who, him? Really?” They are sitting in the shadows, but their faces are illuminated with a clear, brilliant light, coming from Jesus’s direction. And Matthew hangs his head as if caught red-handed, exposed in his sin.

Caravaggio sought to capture this singular, crucial moment, the turning point of Matthew’s whole life. We see Jesus’s mercy, bringing Matthew out of the darkness and into the light, but we also see the stark vulnerability and fear which that light reveals. In this pivotal moment, Matthew had a choice. He could have recoiled and crawled back into the shadows, but he didn’t. Terrifying as it was to leave everything behind and follow this mysterious stranger, he knew that he was not created to lurk in the shadows of a life of corruption and greed. The light of Jesus’s presence made him aware of a yearning within himself for goodness and truth, a long-neglected thirst for transcendent love. He knew that the life he was leading could not quench that thirst but would only deepen it. And so he stood, left everything behind, followed Jesus into the light, and never looked back.

St. Matthew, when we are tempted to seek fulfillment in things other than God and to veil our actions in secrecy, shine a light into our hearts, that we may see clearly the truth of our condition and understand who we were created to be. Give us the courage to loosen our grip on everything that distracts us from our ultimate purpose as children of God, and give us trust in His great mercy, that we may confidently believe that He seeks to heal and restore us, not to condemn us. And, like you, may we follow Him without looking back, telling the story of His merciful love for us all our days.


Image: Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew / PD-US

On This Friday We Call Good: Eucatastrophe and the Eucharist

From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

-Matthew 27:45

It is finished.

We listened as Christ’s final words were proclaimed from the altar. We adored His cross and kissed His wounds, following in the footsteps of Mary and the beloved disciple. And then, we received the Word made flesh in the Eucharist, “the one great thing to love on earth,” one last time.

Now, the sanctuary light is extinguished, the altar is bare, and the dim church is silent. The tabernacle is open, and empty. If “a stable once had some[one] inside it that was bigger than our whole world,” the absence of that dear friend leaves a hole just as large, and it seems like “all other lights [have gone] out,” that our “one companion is darkness” (Ps. 88:19). As another poet says, “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”

Yet, even in this hour of remembering Christ’s passion, we “do not believe that any darkness will endure,” though the “shadow lies on [us] still.” Jesus tells us himself at the Last Supper that “you will weep and mourn… you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (Jn. 16:20). This darkness is not the end of the story. Though we may be in anguish now, and remember how his apostles were then, we will see Him again, receive Him again, and our hearts will rejoice just as their hearts did. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien writes about this “sudden joyous turn” when all hope seems lost, which he calls a eucatastrophe. The opposite of a tragedy’s catastrophe, it is a “sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence… of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies… universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Evangelium—the Gospel, the good news. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:1, 14). As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech—not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform… God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears… For here it is the real Lord of the world—the Living God—who goes into action.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

As Tolkien continues, he says, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” So too does Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, Jesus joyfully arrives in Jerusalem. On Holy Thursday, He gives us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, which “[feeds] the will and [gives us] the strength to endure.” On Good Friday, He gives us His mother, Our Lady, to be our mother and companion in darkness, before giving up His very life for us on the cross out of love.

Soon, His love will be told not only on the cross, but also in the empty tomb. His faithfulness will be known among the dead, as He breaks the very bonds of sin and death. And His wonders will be known, even in the dark. We need only to take courage and wait a little while longer—for the winter will pass, the Son will be unveiled in the breaking of the bread, and the light will leap forth as we sing with Easter joy.

Referenced
Eliot, Four Quartets
Lewis, The Last Battle
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, On Fairy-Stories, Letters
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 1

Cluttered Hearts

“O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!” -Isaiah 2:5

Advent is upon us, and it seems like each year my heart cries out with more and more longing for the coming of our Savior.

Jesus, we need You.

We need You in our broken and hurting world full of darkness, sin, and deep, deep pain.

We need You to be the center of our families, our marriages, our friendships. We need You to heal our relationships with others.

We need You in our workplaces.

We need You in our bleeding Church; oh how we need You to make all things new and right. We need You to bind up our wounds, to bring mighty justice, to shine Your piercing light into the darkness of the appalling sin, shame, hiding, and cover-up, to direct our next steps and to guide us forward.

We need You in the messy parts of our hearts, the parts we are too ashamed to tell other people about, the parts You see and love us anyway.

We need You to uproot and cast out shame, fear, and distrust of Your goodness from our lives.

We need You in every inch of the world, in every part of our beings, in the deepest depths of our souls. Every minute, every hour, every second—we need You.

Dear brothers and sisters, Advent is a season full of hopeful expectation of God’s saving power. It’s a season of light shining forth in the darkness. As we light each new candle of the Advent wreath, may we allow that much more of the light of Christ to pierce our hearts and renew us.

The other day in prayer, I imagined Jesus knocking on the door of the home of my heart, like a guest that comes forty-five minutes before the party when you’re still cleaning and haven’t showered. I imagined myself panic-stricken, trying to shove certain things behind the couch. And there He stood before me, smiling, seeing right through my couch cushions to all the mess and sin that I tried to hide. Yet He responded with nothing but tenderness. His kindness leads to our conversion.

We need to let Jesus in before we feel ready. Sometimes we need Him to help point out where we need to grow, and sometimes we need the affirmation of knowing that He loves us just the same no matter what mess we have in our hearts. He takes us as we are. When we let our Savior in, prepared or not, He speaks to our cluttered and weary hearts, “You are good. You are seen. You are known. I love you fully, as you are.”

Love Is Stronger Than Rejection

Reading 1

HOS 11:1-4, 8E-9

Thus says the LORD:
When Israel was a child I loved him,
out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the farther they went from me,
Sacrificing to the Baals
and burning incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
who took them in my arms;
I drew them with human cords,
with bands of love;
I fostered them like one
who raises an infant to his cheeks;
Yet, though I stooped to feed my child,
they did not know that I was their healer.

My heart is overwhelmed,
my pity is stirred.
I will not give vent to my blazing anger,
I will not destroy Ephraim again;
For I am God and not man,
the Holy One present among you;
I will not let the flames consume you.

From today’s Gospel:

“Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” 

Dear fellow pilgrims,

Sometimes, Bible verses hit home. For me, today’s first reading reminded me of how I felt after a conversation (albeit mostly one-sided) I had with a close family member on a recent family vacation, a yearly family reunion on my dad’s side during the Fourth of July week. My heart was overwhelmed, I held a blazing anger in my heart… and slowly, my pity was stirred when I thought of the Cross.

I know many of you have had similar experiences with a loved one, so I share this personal anecdote especially for you, to let you know you are not alone in your suffering.

A close family member of mine has a serious mental illness and struggles with substance abuse. Other close family members have quite literally saved his life three or four times, now, and yet, he still has not made a huge effort to change his ways that continually lead him back into these grave circumstances. That is, until he decided he was going to be sober after the last close run-in with death, a decision that lasted for about six months. He started drinking again right before the family reunion, and there was hardly a time during the week where I didn’t see a drink in his hand. I tried to simply ask why he made that decision, but it turns out, it wasn’t such a simple question and he did not want to answer it. Turns out, he did not want to talk about anything with me, even just normal conversation like how he’s doing and what he’s into these days… I tried almost every angle of what I thought was non-combative conversation topics, and tried this on several different occasions, and I got nothing in return. He simply did not want to talk to me.

So, one night, I got really upset. I cried and told him that he deserved to listen to me because of how he has affected my life. I thought of the pain he caused me during the months-long stretch last summer when I didn’t know where he was or if he would even be alive at the end of the day. I thought of all the pain he has caused other close family members of mine, his parents, who have completely rearranged their lives to accommodate his illness and needs and bad decisions. But all he could think about was himself. He scoffed at me and said, “Oh, you’re upset about how my problems have affected your life?” I was filled with pain and anger and immediately fled to the nearest bathroom to cry it out. 

When I was ugly-crying and nearly getting an instant headache from the stress that tightened the muscles in my shoulders, Jesus met me. He gave me a safe space to tell Him how furious I was and frustrated that someone could be so oblivious and uncaring about my pain. The hurt I was feeling was magnified by his total ignorance and selfish response. I let it all out internally. Then, it suddenly became clear to me that this was a new part of the Cross He was allowing me brief access to in my heart. I saw people standing around the Cross, walking by, scoffing and laughing at His pain. My pain was His pain. Then, I realized, this pain I was feeling also told the story of His mission: to come and save the ones who had rejected and paid no attention to His Father. I wasn’t alone. He knew how it felt, and magnified to a greater extent than my heart could ever fathom.

And today’s first reading shows us this agony: how relationships can change as people change, and even those who were once nurtured closely in our arms can grow to forget that it was those arms who had fostered them into the life they know now. It is the tragedy of lost souls: not knowing Who they are rejecting. And, being a parent now to a growing toddler, with the efforts of caring for an infant still fresh in my mind, it is extremely difficult thinking about what it would be like if my beautiful, kind son grows up to reject and forget about me. How there would be this anger and immense sadness at the same time, and yet, a tether in my heart to always care for him no matter how much he rejects me. 

The subtitles of these sections in Hosea say it all: “The disappointment of a parent,” and “But love is stronger and restores.” Love is stronger. Love is always stronger than hate, rejection, ignorance, bitterness, betrayal. That is a truth children of good parents know in their bones, but a truth that is learned and given in a whole new way after becoming a parent. And being a parent is to know the double-edged nature of love as we grow along with our children, who’s capacity to embrace or reject you is always increasing. This giant well of love suddenly unearthed in your heart might be tested by a child who wants no part of it, the part of what makes you you, the part of you that is “mother” or “father” indefinitely. It is a harrowing possible reality for new parents to grapple with, and some parents to live through: how do you love your child who puts themselves in danger when they reject your protection?

This is why we must ask for the grace to understand our identities as “daughter” or “son.” And the best response to a deep knowledge and understanding of our identities as children of God is to give as we have been given. “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” Children can never earn the exceeding amount of effort it takes to care for them, it is given out of love. So, with this in mind, we should also give this love freely and unconditionally to others, no matter how much the cost. 

Lord Jesus, I pray we all would grow to understand the deep familial bonds that draw us together on Your Cross: 

We are Your lost children, we are Your redeemed prize. 

May we grow in felt appreciation for how we are connected by Your Blood and Body. 

And I pray especially for all of the prodigal children who are still away from their Home, that they would remember the eyes of their Father, Who longs to embrace them again. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

Do Not Be Unbelieving

“Do not be unbelieving but believe”—John 20:27

I remember standing on the deck, enraptured by beauty, as we sailed through the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean to the Amalfi coast.  The temperature was perfect, the views spectacular, and my heart soared with delight.  I don’t know what the mystical experience of ecstasy is like, but this was as close I had ever come on a merely human level, and it may be that that moment was also infused with something of the divine.  “I don’t know how anyone could ever doubt the existence of God!” I remember whispering in awe.

This memory burned within me, when, months later, I was plunged into a terrifying spiritual darkness.  I had always paid lip service to the idea that faith is a gift, but I had not really known what that meant until it disappeared.

I had always believed in God, even when other parts of my spiritual life were in disarray.  Faith itself had always come easily to me, and while studying had bolstered my faith, it was not the foundation for it.  Now, suddenly, the entirety of the faith presented itself as an epic joke.  I was tempted to doubt not merely an individual doctrine or practice, but even the idea that there could be a God, the idea that there could be meaning behind all that I saw.  All of the cruelty of the universe—in human experience, in the violence of nature, and in particular in the weaknesses and scandals among Christians—screamed in mockery at me as I tried to hold on.  The more I tried to reason my way back to belief, back to peace, the more preposterous it all seemed.  My will was the only very fragile thread that kept me believing anything at all.

The darkness was terrifying and profoundly lonely.  More than once I cried in Confession—an act as mortifying to the poor priest as it was to me.  He tried to assure me that God still loved me, while I tried to explain that if there was no God, not only was I unloved but my whole life had been built on an illusion.

The memory of this is still so awful that I mentioned recently to my spiritual director how afraid I am that I could go back there. “Yeah, good thing you got yourself out of that!”  he replied, with no little sarcasm.

Because of course I did not, could not, get myself out of that.

I tried, in particular reaching out for answers to the questions that I could not answer—reading, researching and attending Bible Study with the ever-patient Brother John Mary.  There was one class in particular that I hoped would put an end to a particularly challenging question, and I looked forward to it with all the hope I could muster.  But instead an unavoidable calendar conflict caused me to miss it and so I never got my answers.

Then one day I went to Confession at Catholic Underground.  I had zero expectations but confessed my doubts with an almost hopeless resignation.  “What do you want from me?” the priest asked.  “Just absolution?  Or something else?”  I was surprised by the question, and said simply, “I don’t know.  Yes, absolution.  And if you have anything to say from God, I’d love that of course, but I am not expecting anything.”

He then told me then a story about St. Angela Foligno, a mystic whose periodic experiences of “abandonment” by God would leave her screaming like a crazy person, to the great embarrassment of her brother who was a priest.  Then she would regain her faith, and conclude that while God’s love was faithful, her own was “nothing but games.”  I don’t remember all of the details of the story—it doesn’t actually matter, because it wasn’t the story that was convincing.  Somehow, during the telling, it was as though a match was struck, and I was aware once again of the Light.  I could not see anything new—my faith would return more completely over time, but I was assured only of the reality of this Light.  I was not alone in the dark after all.

I don’t know all of the reasons God allowed this particular season in my life, although I can see some fruits.  Certainly I have more compassion for those who struggle with doubt.  I understand better now that faith is a gift I did not, cannot, earn, and that I should never take for granted.

But I also learned that faith is about more than answers.  It is about the One Who Answers.  In a mysterious way, I am in the hands of God, who is infinitely beyond understanding.

This is the One who appeared to Thomas, aware of his doubts and of the obstacles in him to belief.  He invited Thomas not only to touch the wounds in His hands, but to put himself into them.  “Do not be unbelieving, but believe.”  Saint Thomas, pray for us that we might receive ever more the gift of faith.

*            *            *

“It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery.  God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” —Kallistos Ware (Orthodox church author)