In the Folds of His Mercy

O inconceivable and unfathomable Mercy of God,
Who can worthily adore you and sing your praises?
O greatest attribute of God Almighty,
You are the sweet hope of sinners.
—The Diary of St. Faustina

One of the largest thorns in the crown of Jesus is the distrust of souls, a lack of trust first sown when Adam and Eve were tempted to doubt God’s steadfast love for them. Unable to see or understand the plans of their father, they grasped at a way to protect themselves, hardening their hearts. This original lack of faith was passed on through salvation history, as we see in today’s readings. In the first reading, the Israelites panic when they cannot see any water in the desert and seem to forget how God had just led them out of slavery. Even Moses comes to a breaking point as their leader. In the Gospel, Peter recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, the living water, but even he resists God’s plan when he cannot understand why Jesus will have to suffer.

Still, this “truly necessary sin of Adam” sparked the greatest story ever told: the story of redemption and merciful love. God did not give up on the grumbling Israelites, who were stuck in their own circle of misery, or on Peter, who later abandoned Christ during the passion and was left in bitter tears. As Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, writes, “Saint Thomas Aquinas defined mercy in general as ‘the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him’ (ST II-II.30.1). Divine Mercy, therefore, is the form that God’s eternal love takes when He reaches out to us in the midst of our need and our brokenness. Whatever the nature of our need or our misery might be—sin, guilt, suffering, or death—He is always ready to pour out His merciful, compassionate love for us, to help in time of need.”

St. Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers, and whose feast we celebrate today, poured out his life to show people the truth of the love of God as our merciful father. He had a great love for souls, for the suffering Christ, for the doctrines of the Church, for Mary, and especially for the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament, and relied on Divine Providence, even when he could not see or understand what God’s plans were. He was known to be moved to tears of contrition and love in the presence of the Eucharist, overwhelmed by this ultimate sign of God’s mercy. He was filled with sorrow for his own sin and an intense longing for others to come home to the love of God, which came through in his joyful, indefatigable preaching and in the love and kindness with which he cared for all he encountered. Instead of hardening his heart, he allowed it to be broken and shared it willingly.

Blessed Jordan of Saxony, O.P., puts it best: “Whilst he thus laboured to make his own soul pleasing to God, the fire of divine love was daily more and more enkindled in his breast, and he was consumed with an ardent zeal for the salvation of infidels and sinners. To move the divine mercy to regard them with pity, he spent often whole nights in the church at prayer, watering the steps of the altar with abundance of tears, in which he was heard to sigh and groan before the Father of mercy, in the earnestness and deep affliction of his heart; never ceasing to beg with the greatest ardor, the grace to gain some of those unhappy souls to Christ.”

Is it any wonder that St. Dominic had a special, ardent love for Mary, considering that her trust in God’s love is meant to counter the distrust of Eve, and that she also longs to lead us to Jesus, her Son, the new Adam? As the Nashville Dominicans note, “His life, his work, his Order were placed under her protection, and he invoked her in every difficulty and danger… The Blessed Mother filled him with heavenly favors, watched over him with motherly care, and gave him the habit of his Order. A tradition cherished in his Order… ascribes to him the first teaching of devotion to the recitation of the Rosary. His disciples were called ‘Friars of Mary,’ and have carried her Rosary and scapular to the uttermost parts of the earth.”

St. Dominic wasn’t just known for his tears, for his lifetime of studying, and for his preaching: he was also known for his joy. Just as Mary burst into song with her Magnificat, St. Dominic sang, even in the midst of darkness. Since he knew God as his merciful, loving father, how could his heart not overflow? Let us then follow their example, as the psalmist says today, and “sing joyfully to the Lord.” Light of the Church, teacher of Truth, rose of patience, ivory of chastity. You freely poured forth the waters of wisdom. Preacher of grace, unite us with the blessed. St. Dominic, pray for us! Amen.

Reading & Listening Suggestions
Fr. Guy Bedouelle, O.P., In the Image of St. Dominic
Kentucky Thomism podcast, The Tears of Dominic
St. Dominic novena
St. John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia
Robert Stackpole, What Does Divine Mercy Actually Mean?

Honest to God

Years ago, I was struggling in my faith, longing for the experience of God that others seemed to have but that was lacking in my life despite years of Catholic practice.  I knew by faith that God was there the way one knows that the sun is there, even on a cloudy day when it is completely hidden–I knew that He had to be there, but I couldn’t feel any warmth or light or personal sign of His Presence. As my desire to encounter Him grew (I did not then know that this was a good sign of His already working in my life!) I became more and more frustrated and depressed, and so sought out spiritual direction.

“You need to talk with God about why you are angry with him.”

“What!?!” I spluttered indignantly. “I am not angry with God! What are you talking about?” I was trying hard to be a good Catholic girl. How could he accuse me of harboring anger towards God?

Only I was.

It was not a conscious anger, but rather a series of defensive walls I had built up to lock away those parts of my life that were troublesome or unholy—unhealed wounds, moral failings, pain and emptiness and frustration that I “knew” were not godly.

In practice I limited prayer to polite praise and petition, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady who was constrained to converse only about “the weather and your health.” It didn’t go well for either of us! My prayer life was so limited that it barely continued.

Later as I sat there alone, I felt my frustrations welling up within me, years of waiting and feeling abandoned came rushing out in tears.

Then I began to talk to God not as I thought I ought to, borrowing prayers above my pay grade to express pious ambitions I never actually felt, but telling Him what I really thought.

There are not adequate words to express certain things that we default to in clichés as “life-changing,” but from that moment things began to change. Later on, l learned that we must “pray as we can, not as we can’t” and that honesty with God is the first step. If we want to know that God is real, we must start by being “real” with Him.

Saint Martha, whose feast we celebrate today, is a beautiful icon of what it means to pray “for real.”

When we first meet Martha, she is “burdened by much serving” and “anxious about many things.” But rather than stewing in secret resentment, she brings her concerns to Jesus, asking directly, “Lord, do you not care…?”

The Lord, rather than being bothered by her protest, calls to her by name, twice: “Martha, Martha…!” Yet He calls her to the higher life, “One thing is required…” He does not take away her burden by demanding her sister help. Rather, He invites Martha to surrender the anxiety of her work by placing it in the context of prayer, of relationship with Him. This will include also making time to sit with Him, be with Him.

The second Gospel story involving Martha includes one of the most fascinating lines in Scripture: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed where He was two more days…”

Because he loved Martha, he waited. Meanwhile, Lazarus dies. The heart of Martha, whom Jesus loves, is broken. Why does Jesus do this? Mysteriously, this is for her sake.

“Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!” Martha confronts the One who loves her.

Jesus wants her to bring Him her pain, her anger, her fears. For Jesus knows, that when we bring these things into dialog with Him, when we allow Him into the dark spaces, the graves within our hearts, He will bring new life.

Martha also needs resurrection, healing.

I have come to believe that you are the Christ.” Martha has changed since we last saw her. She has received His rebuke, His invitation to the better part, and has grown. Now as she brings her grief and anger to Jesus, He invites her to hope in His power to bring good, even in a situation that looks hopeless. “I AM the resurrection and the life.” It is not merely what He will do; it is what He is.

He doesn’t merely stand outside her grief and anger but joins her in it. Outside the tomb, Jesus weeps.

There is a tragic lie that sometimes circulates in Christian circles, that our emotions are not holy, that anger (the emotion) is not good. But we see Jesus himself becoming angry. We see him “deeply troubled.” He is not okay with death. We must not rush too quickly past our pain, as if it doesn’t matter, as if, like Lazarus, it is to be buried.

When we bring our emotions to Jesus, He will recognize them and then purify them.

 

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Image Credit: Joseph Bergler the Younger [Public domain]

The Words of Everlasting Life

Today’s readings provide a great opportunity for us to reflect on God’s Word. We read one of Scripture’s most well-known teachings, the Ten Commandments. Perhaps because this ancient Law of God is so familiar, it can be easy to gloss over the reading and not give it much thought. The psalm and Gospel, however, gently guide us back to this very familiar passage of commandments and remind us the danger of taking these fundamental words of the Lord for granted. 

‘Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.’ (John 6:68) 

In God’s gift of this law to the ancient Israelites, the ten commandments, he gave the gift of everlasting life. His Law outlined a way of life radically different from that of the world. He gave them guidelines that would help them live lives that looked different from the rest of the ancient world, lives centered around the one true God and informed by His love, peace, and mercy. These very same commandments of God have the same effect on our Christian lives today. Let’s quickly think about a couple of them… Though worshipping idols today may look different than it did for the ancient Israelites, we are tempted daily to worship false idols – money, social media, career or academic success, etc. Even inherently good things can easily become idols when we begin to place their value above the Lord’s. Another of God’s commandments, our commitment to keeping the Sabbath, to spending quality time each week at rest, can be easily threatened by our busy schedules and many commitments. How often do we truly have time to rest and soak in the goodness of the Lord? Even by beginning to explore these two commandments, we can see how God meant these not as rules to restrict us, but as guidelines to help us flourish and find peace and joy. God teaches us how to center our lives around Him which ultimately brings freedom, peace and joy.

I am grateful for today’s psalm and Gospel because those readings encouraged me to go back to the first reading and really try to open my heart to God’s Ten Commandments anew. I began to realize that my heart was not quite the rich soil that Jesus asks us to be in His parable of the sower. We need His grace and Holy Spirit to enrich the soil of our hearts, that His Word, no matter how familiar we think we are with it, may be planted more firmly and flower more richly than it has in the past. God’s Word is alive and it will flower more and more beautifully as we allow God to till that soil in our hearts. I encourage you to prayerfully think through the Ten Commandments to understand them on a truer and deeper level than you did when you first learned them. (This is the joy and beauty of a living faith! We can always grow deeper in our understanding of our Lord and our faith.) Lord, give us the grace to be open to receiving your words of everlasting life.

Today we celebrate Saints Joachim and Anne, the parents of our Blessed Mother Mary. I imagine this saintly married couple must have had hearts of rich soil, ready to receive the life-giving words of the Lord and live their lives according to His words. Generationally, they passed down a love of Scripture to their daughter Mary, who not only bore the words of Scripture on her heart, she literally bore the Word of God himself, Jesus. And in this reality of Mary’s extraordinary human experience, we can come to grasp a beautiful truth. Scripture is not just meant to be read or heard, but to be lived. Joachim, Anne, and Mary (in a unique way) knew the words of Scripture and allowed those words to live and dwell in their hearts, and thus be made manifest through their lives. This is what it looks like to be a man or woman of faith, to live differently than the rest of the world.

The ten commandments of God are the foundation of His Word. Our Lord Jesus Christ came not to abolish this foundational law but to fulfill it, and exemplified how to live it. In their humble and ordinary vocation of marriage and parenthood, Saints Joachim and Anne each lived an extraordinary existence. They lived out their faith, open to God’s mission for their lives. Through their cultivation of God’s word in their hearts and lives, God brought forth the Word made flesh through their daughter Mary. God wants to bring forth the living Word, Jesus Christ, through each of our lives.

Saints Joachim and Anne, we remember your lives of faith in a special way today. Pray for us, that we may have hearts open to God’s Word, so that Jesus himself may be manifest to others through our lives. Pray for those of us who are called to the vocation of marriage, as well as those called to parenthood, for the grace to live out these calls faithfully. And pray for each of us, that we may be open to God’s Word anew… that our hearts may become like rich soil, ready to receive the Word, understand it and live it, so that our lives may bear beautiful fruit for your glory! Amen.

Living the Ellipses

“Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can.” God invites Abram to faith in today’s First Reading. We’ve all marveled at the night sky, contemplating its vastness and the twinkling of bodies light-years away. But some scholars suggest that it may have been daytime when God directs this upward gaze. Did Abram looking up see the stars with his eyes, or only with memory and faith? In any case, he is asked to envision a promise of progeny too numerous to be counted.

Only Abram has no son. Not even one. So he must wait on a promise.

He waits and waits, and he must have wearied of waiting. For Genesis recounts how Sarah, infertile, offers him her maid Hagar for childbearing purposes. Abraham “listens to the voice” of Sarah, notes Father Anthony Giambrone, a clue that this is not the voice of God, to be listened to with faith1. But Abraham becomes a father to Ishmael. When Abraham asks that Ishmael be the promised son, God reiterates that Abraham will have a son through Sarah, a child of their marriage. Isaac is named laughter because that is Sarah’s reaction.

But let us stop for a moment, to revisit the waiting years. What takes only paragraphs to recount, is a story of waiting more than twenty-five years, fifteen before Ishmael, ten more before Isaac.

What?

For twenty-five years Abraham is schooled in faith. In trust. In waiting on God.

In filmmaking this is known as ellipsis—the merciful passing over the monotonous by skipping from one scene to another much later. Years of sameness, of routine, of waiting, are skipped with a simple slugline: “Twenty-five years later…” We needn’t slog through the tedium of in-between.

But real life, real holiness, is lived in the ellipses.

Hillsong’s recent release Highlands (Song of Ascent), speaks of finding God not only on the mountain but in the valleys and the shadows. “I will praise you on the mountains…I will praise you when the mountain’s in my way.” While we would scale any mountain to find God, He is closer than we think, as the song reminds us, “in the highlands and the heartache all the same.”

We are reminded to find God in the peaks and the valleys, to “sing in the shadows our song of ascent.” For many of us, however, the hardest part is not so much the mountains or valleys, but rather the plain. Plain as in flat, going nowhere, and plain as in boring. Nothing interesting or exciting. No obvious meaning or mission.

Abraham became our father in faith not just in a heroic moment with Isaac on Mount Moriah. He became our father in faith in the years of ellipses when nothing notable happened. When it seemed God was asking nothing, doing nothing.

Saint Josemaría Escrivá, whose feast we celebrate today, preached about sanctifying the everyday. Like Saint Therese, he realized that the making of saints was not in the mountains but in the mundane. Offering little things to God. Offering the littleness that is us.

Josemaría challenges us to offer the material of daily life: the office grind, the homemaker’s chores, everything from our conversations to our recreation to our family or community life. Something as simple as filing papers, done well and with love, becomes an offering to God.

We often think of saints as those who did great things for God, and certainly we can find many heroes among them. But so many were ordinary people in whom God was allowed to do great things, sanctifying simple work and waiting in the ellipses.

Even Our Lady, now Queen of the Universe, was not asked to do anything of itself out of the ordinary. She was asked to bear and raise a Child. Joseph, her husband, was told by an angel to take her into his home. She was not asked to go out, to preach, to sacrifice her own life as a martyr, or to start a new blog or brand. Her tasks were those of an ordinary woman of her time. What is extraordinary is that she did them with a total yes.

Jesus, too, lived the ellipses. For thirty years, He lived a quiet life of obedience, a life so outwardly unremarkable that when He began His public ministry, even His own relatives thought He was mentally ill. Offended onlookers from His hometown said, “Isn’t that the son of Joseph, the carpenter?”

It is this Jesus who today walks with us, in the tedium and trials of the plains, inviting us to join Our Lady in a Song of Assent.

Milky Way for Ellipses


Notes:

1Giambrone O.P., Anthony. “Forbidden Fruit and the Fruit of Faith.” Magnificat. June 2019: pp.403-404. Print.

Featured Image: Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

Believe

“Do you believe now?”

These words that Jesus spoke to His disciples in today’s Gospel echo in my heart.

I heard similar words at a pivotal moment in my faith several years ago. I had just gone to Confession for the first time in over a year, and I poured out all the sin and mess that I had been hiding and carrying, shrouded in shame. The Sacrament itself was very healing, and then when I went back to my pew and knelt down before the Blessed Sacrament to say my penance, I heard Jesus say: “Now will you trust in My love for you?”

It was such a simple yet profound question. From His Eucharistic Heart to my heart, that question changed things for me. Jesus spoke it with such gentleness and tender compassion. He wasn’t angry; He wasn’t accusing me of anything. He was inviting me into a deeper love.

This is what Jesus does for all of us when He asks that question, “Do you believe now?” He is constantly inviting us to a deeper love. He desires to fill us to overflowing. He desires for us to believe in Him and follow, because He is the only path of peace. He calls us out of our hiding places, out of ourselves, to a greater holiness.

When we respond to this invitation of repentance and letting Jesus mold our hearts to be more and more like His, He does not leave us orphaned. Tribulations will come; persecution will come. But Jesus is our Prince of Peace, and He has conquered the world.

“I have told you this so that you might have peace in me.
In the world you will have trouble,
but take courage, I have conquered the world.” -John 16:33

Hidden Fruits

He went back across the Jordan
to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained.
Many came to him and said,
“John performed no sign,
but everything John said about this man was true.”
And many there began to believe in him.
—John 10:40–42

Often, we do not see the fruits of our good works. We may plant a seed, for instance, by witnessing our faith to others, but true conversion will not come from us. It can only come through an encounter with Jesus. John the Baptist witnessed to the One who was to come, but many did not believe him. However, they remembered his words when they met Jesus Himself, and when they stood in Jesus’s presence, suddenly they saw John’s words in a prophetic light. John’s witness laid the groundwork for the moment of conversion that would come later, when they would meet Jesus face to face and recognize in Him the fulfillment of so many promises.

Let us not be discouraged when it seems are efforts to do God’s work are not yielding results. When we serve Him faithfully, in joy and gratitude, our efforts will never be wasted. We may not see the effects, but we can trust that God is using each of our actions—even our apparent failures—to build up His Kingdom. He takes the seeds we have planted and pours His water out upon them, bringing new life into the barren fields of our fallen humanity.

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is a perfect example of this. During his lifetime, no one knew how much time he devoted to the poor in his community. Most likely, even he did not realize the extent to which he had affected so many souls and brought them toward Christ, and his family certainly had no idea. Not until the day of his funeral, that is, when they were shocked to find the streets flooded with mourners. So many people had been touched by Pier Giorgio’s everyday attitude of joyful service. He had gone out into the city and shown people an example of Christlike love, which laid the groundwork for them to encounter Christ Himself.

Not one of our actions is small or insignificant in the eyes of God. Any act done with great love, however little it may seem, can plant a seed. Even when we do not see those seeds sprout before our eyes, they are there. At every moment of our lives, we have the chance to prepare the way of the Lord and make a place for Him in the world around us.

Falsely Accused

I remember sitting on my kitchen table, feet dangling above the floor. My phone was to my ear, face hot with a mix of anger, embarrassment, and anxiety as the person on the other end of the line repeated lie after lie about me. I couldn’t get a word in. I took a breath and prayed, and the image of Jesus before Pilate flashed before my eyes. “Lord, is this a glimpse of what it was like to be before Pilate and the screaming crowds?” I thought. All I could do was calmly speak the truth in response, but it didn’t make a difference. The berating worsened. I hung up at the end of the conversation, reeling and in shock. The room spun around me. How could someone say things about me that were so clearly the opposite of who I am?

False accusations.

We’ve all been there, unfortunately, when someone tries to destroy our reputation and spews lies at us or about us. We’ve all had moments of the blame falling on us for things we would never dream of doing. We know the hopeless, defenseless feeling of being absolutely appalled and wondering, “What if everyone starts to believe this about me?”

In today’s first reading from Daniel, Susanna is falsely accused in a horrific situation. Two judges from her community attempt to rape her while she is bathing, but they use their power to falsely accuse her of the crime of adultery. While this happened years and years ago, this is not uncommon today: the stories of men and women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted and are not believed pop up again and again.

Susanna, though, teaches us an important lesson. Even in the face of her false accusation leading to a death sentence, she remains steadfast in the truth of not only what happened but in who she is as God’s daughter. She cries out to the Lord: “O eternal God, You know what is hidden and are aware of all things before they come to be: You know that they have testified falsely against me. Here I am about to die, though I have done none of the things with which these wicked men have charged me” (Daniel 13:42-43). God hears her prayer, and it is not hopeless after all: Daniel refuses to be a part of her death, and he proves to everyone else that she is innocent.

The Lord is the way, the truth, and the life. When we speak the truth with love, we can always trust that God is with us and is on our side. Though others may falsely accuse us and try to ruin us, they cannot win because the truth of God always has the victory over sin and destruction. He knows all. He sees. It is impossible to falsely accuse anyone before our Lord—the lies will not stand in the sight of His infinite love.

God is the only one who has any authority to speak about your worth, inherent goodness, or value. No one can ever take away your dignity, because your dignity is a gift from God, and no one can take away what God has given. No one can ever remove or destroy your identity as beloved son or beloved daughter of the Most High God. The Father declares the truth of who you are as His with great rejoicing and singing over you, His beautiful creation. And His story is the one worth sticking to.