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.

One in the Crowd

We were talking about faith as we drove to the Frassati hike. I remember looking up at the steel grey sky, in which a thick blanket of clouds blocked the sun from shining and warming the April air. I remember thinking it was an apt analogy for my faith in God: I knew that like the sun, God was up there, but I could not see or feel His Presence.

For years I attended Frassati retreats, and watched in particular on Saturday night as people had “wow” experiences of God. I saw their faces light up, their hands raise in enthusiastic praise. I wondered if or when I would ever feel what they felt. If I would ever be able to praise from the depths of my heart, and not just from my mind and will. I felt a numbness, a paralysis in my faith life, that blocked the joy that others seemed to exude. “I am waiting for you, God!” I would pray. “When are you going to come to me?”

In today’s Gospel, a man has been lying paralyzed by a healing pool for more than 38 years. Longer than many of you reading this have been alive, he lay there, waiting. It was believed that at certain times, an angel would stir that pool at Bethesda, the Hebrew word for mercy, and whoever was first into the pool would be miraculously healed. But as the man explained to Jesus, he had nobody to help him in—and so he was never first. So he continued to wait.

I often felt like that man, lying, waiting. It seemed that God’s miracles, that His best graces, that His love—were for others, not for me.

One day, as I was being prayed over, I was told, “God is waiting for you.” What?!? I was shocked and indignant. Surely He had it backwards! I was the one waiting…

I wonder if the man in today’s Gospel felt a similar surprise, when Jesus came up to him and asked, “Do you want to be well?” I wonder if he was tempted to sarcasm, tempted to reply, “Isn’t it obvious?” I wonder if there was a touch of resignation, of hopelessness, or of whining, when he replied “There is no one to help me…” Or did the question of Jesus elicit a new hope? Did it shift something within him?

In the end, it is not the angel-stirred pool that heals the man, but the words of Jesus. Said our parish priest in today’s homily: “Jesus Himself is the healing water.”

One day, Jesus “showed up” in a big way in my life, also on a Frassati retreat, more than eight years after I first started attending. I remember sitting in the chapel, as what seemed to be a waterfall of grace fell into my hands and I felt that joy I had seen others experience.

But this was only the beginning. And in some ways, it wasn’t even that. Because as I began to grow in relationship with Jesus, I began to see He had been healing me all along. I was looking for the miraculous, for “rushing waters”—but so often, growth and healing is the slower process that we see in nature. Sometimes this takes place underground, unseen, or hidden in the womb. Even when it emerges, change and growth is often gentle and slow.

It was only when I committed to a daily prayer time, when I set a designated time for dialog with God each day, that I began to both receive and perceive deeper healing. This was a time for God to ask His questions: “What are you looking for? What do want me to do for you? Do you want to be well? Whom is it that you seek?”

It is in the person of Christ that we find healing. It is Love alone that made us, and that makes us new. It is not something that we earn, or that the angels do for us. It is the gift of a Person.

I recently attended a week-long healing retreat in Florida. I experienced some healing there—but also found God showing me even more areas that still needed to be healed. And it was clear that my impatience with waiting has not improved in the last decade. I was discussing this with a friend on the phone—how I wanted to get on with it already. She knows me and reminded me, “You can’t perform surgery on yourself!” “Ugh,” I replied, “Just hand me the scalpel already!”

Sr. Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, who also spoke on our retreat, was familiar with this frustration. “I often come with my long list of things I want God to heal,” she admits. “But then I hear Him say, ‘You are not problem to be fixed. You are a person to be loved.’”

One of the biggest wounds that needed healing in my life was the lie that God’s goodness and love were for others, but not for me. I have come to recognize this as a not uncommon strategy of the Opposition Voice: that for those who do not doubt God’s reality and goodness in general, he tempts them to doubt it in the particular.

The man in the story was one among many at the pool that day. There was a whole crowd of people waiting to be healed. But for Jesus, we are always the one: the one He calls; the one He loves; the one He wants to heal.

In his monthly introduction to the Magnificat, Rev. Sebastian White, O.P. noted another curious thing about the healing of the paralyzed man. Unlike the blind man who leaves his cloak behind, the paralyzed man is told to “Take up his mat and walk.” Why not leave it?

As Father White says: “…the Lord leaves him with the constant reminder of his former condition. Lugging around his silly mat might have been annoying—a battle even—but I bet that man never forgot he depended on Jesus.” (Magnificat Editorial, April 2019, pp. 4-5)

Do Not Scatter

We can all relate to being misunderstood at one point or another. Our good intentions can be seen as inadequate, or even counterintuitive. In today’s Gospel, Jesus does a good deed. He drives out a demon, yet he is misunderstood. Some even accuse him of evil, while others want him to perform another miracle.

We can relate to Jesus in this situation. We can also relate to those in the crowd.

How often do we misinterpret the intentions of others, and jump to conclusions about their good deeds? How often do we find our hearts divided? We want to believe in the goodness of others, in God’s goodness, yet doubts enter our minds.

In He Leadeth Me, Father Walter J. Ciszek experienced moments of doubt and despair while imprisoned in Russia. In the moment when he lost all hope, Father Ciszek turned to prayer and told God he was his only hope. In that moment of self-surrender, he received great strength and consolation. He realized he had to continue living with this self-abandonment and lose any hidden doubt he had left. Even in our most difficult moments, we can find God and abandon ourselves to his will. This is easier thought, said, and even written down, than done. Yet we must try and try again.

As we journey through Lent, we must decide whether we are with Jesus or against him. Rather than being scattered in our thoughts and actions, let us choose to journey together with Jesus, for “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Today, let us pray the Act of Faith, that we may lose our hidden doubts and abandon ourselves to God.

Act of Faith
O my God, I firmly believe
that you are one God in three divine Persons,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I believe that your divine Son became man
and died for our sins and that he will come
to judge the living and the dead.
I believe these and all the truths
which the Holy Catholic Church teaches
because you have revealed them
who are eternal truth and wisdom,
who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
In this faith I intend to live and die.
Amen.

Rebel Heart

Hearing about events and hangouts I wasn’t invited to…

Wondering what my life would look like if I had “normal” work hours and didn’t have to miss out on so much community time…

Being so joyful for all my friends getting married but my heart still aching and longing for my own vocation…

Seeing people’s posts on social media and feeling less-than…

Jealousy. Comparison. Envy. We’re all familiar with that throat-tensing burn of pangs of jealousy. It’s ugly. It’s messy. Even just typing out the four examples above made me cringe.

In today’s first reading, we hear the story of how Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him, then decided against that and threw him in a dry cistern before selling him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. At least Joseph’s brothers spared his life, but their actions basically still said he was dead to them.

The things we do when we are jealous and afraid. Now, most of us don’t go to the extremes of Joseph’s brothers, but envy is a deadly sin and is a temptation that sneaks up on all of us in some way. We live in a culture focused on being the best and having lots of attention all the time. Our society thrives on competition, competition, competition. Our bodies, minds, and souls are even created to ache for more, but that ache can only be fully satisfied by our Lord. So what happens? We end up self-loathing and licking our wounds. We can get caught in the vicious cycle of striving and proving ourselves, seeking earthly approval when the Heavenly Father’s voice is the only one that matters. We chase after other people’s dreams because we feel like that’s where we have to be, while God has greater adventures for us. His dreams are uniquely for us, surpass our wildest expectations of what we should or shouldn’t be doing, and point to our greater mission on this earth to get us to the ultimate goal of Heaven.

When we get caught up in striving to prove ourselves, it’s like we are running full-speed ahead on a hamster wheel: we don’t go anywhere, and we end up absolutely exhausted and frustrated. With trust and surrender, especially of those insecurities on our hearts that lead to jealousy, we can live from a place of being rooted and grounded in our identity as sons and daughters of God.

We have nothing to prove to God. He already knows the darkest, messiest corners of our hearts and loves us anyway. We don’t have to earn His love. We don’t have to earn His plans for our lives. As my grad school professor said, “God’s promises cannot be usurped, because they’re not ours to take. God’s promises can only be received as a free gift.”

Lord Jesus, forgive us for the times we’ve let envy take over. Help us to surrender with trust when we are weakened by jealousy and insecurity. Help us to trust in Your great plans for our lives. Give us the courage to say “yes” to who You are calling us to be.

“Lord, I offer up this rebel heart // So stubborn and so restless from the start // I don’t wanna fight You anymore // So take this rebel heart and make it Yours.” -Lauren Daigle, “Rebel Heart”