White Pebbles

When we children were not behaving, and my father was beginning to lose his patience but not yet his sense of humor, he would glance at the woods behind our house and say, “It’s time to start gathering white pebbles!”

We knew well the story of Hansel and Gretel, and how the father, pressured by the wicked stepmother, brought his two children into the deep woods, intending to leave them there.  However, Hansel had overheard the plans, and filled his pockets with white pebbles.  As they walked further into the woods, he dropped the pebbles along the way.  When the two children awoke to find themselves abandoned and alone, Hansel reassured Gretel, and told her to wait for the moonrise.  Sure enough, when the moon rose, it illuminated a path of the white pebbles, leading them safely home to their rejoicing father.

A few years ago, I was in a Bible Study with Brother John Mary CFR in which he invited us to pray about our story, and write a five-minute testimony.  As I prayed, the image that kept coming to my mind was this story and the path of white pebbles.

I realize that in many ways my life is like that path of pebbles, illuminated as I look back, like a reverse treasure hunt.  So many moments that seemed random, insignificant, or even tragic and opposed to my good, looking back highlight instead a path leading to God the Father.  Small conversations, big obstacles, struggles that seemed senseless, set the way Home.  My life was a path of gifts and graces that I only recognized in hindsight.

However, as I sat with the story and the image, I realized something was “off.”  The father in that story was not a true image of God the Father.  While he was not as ill-intentioned as his wife, he bowed to her pressure to abandon his children, not once, but twice.

The Brothers Grimm tell us that the father was a poor woodcutter “who could no longer procure even daily bread.”  He fears for the family, anticipating that they will all die of starvation.  His wife’s solution is to get rid of the children. The father balks, but in the end succumbs to her pressure and his fear.

The father is happy when the children return home the first time, but when the wicked step-mother applies pressure again, he capitulates and leads them into the deep woods a second time.  This time, Hansel did not have the opportunity to gather pebbles, and so scatters instead a trail of breadcrumbs.  But birds eat these, and the moon rises only to show the children that they are truly lost and alone, and this time there is no path home.  (It was then that they found the fabled candy cottage, and the witch that forms the heart of that story).

At first, as I considered the weak woodcutter, I thought that I must have misunderstood what I had received in prayer.  But as I stayed with it, I realized that the metaphor for my life only deepened.  For my story is not just about a path to God, but about coming to know what kind of Father God really is.

For much of my life, I saw myself not unlike Hansel, left to figure things out for himself.  I imagined that God would be happy enough if I made it home to heaven—but that it was all up to me to do what it took to get there.  While I did not doubt God’s goodness or love in the abstract, I did not recognize it for myself personally and practically.  God’s goodness did not seem “enough” to really help me, to overcome my sin, to overcome the difficulties of the world and my life.   He would be waiting for me at the end, if I made it, if I became the Girl I Ought to Be, but in the meantime, I was on my own.

If I wanted to come Home to my Father, it was up to me to find the way.  It was up to me to figure out how to save myself.  It was up to me to be clever enough to outwit evil, to prove my worthiness.  The result was a life of spiritual striving, which only left me feeling further lost and unloved.

Jesus comes to tell a different story.  The Father is “Our Father”—a Father we have in common with Jesus.  He is Son by nature; we are children by adoption, by a gratuitous love.  And because our image of Father has been so distorted, Jesus comes to reveal the face of the Father by His life.  It is a face of mercy, of healing, of truth, and a love which goes out to “seek and to save the lost.”

Not only is God generous, providing for our daily bread and physical life; He Himself becomes our Bread.  He Himself is the path; He walks with us and provides the grace and means to get to heaven.  Unlike the woodcutter who chose self-preservation out of fear, Jesus walks the path to the Cross, and shows in Himself the self-giving, self-emptying love that would literally rather die than live without us.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us how to pray.  As we pray the Our Father, we are invited to praise and affirm belief in the goodness of God’s Fatherhood, and to pray for the coming of His kingdom—that earth may reflect fully the goodness of heaven.  We then remember His promise to take care of us as we then entrust our needs to Him—”Give us this day our daily bread…deliver us from evil.”  He is not a Father who abandons us, but rather Emmanuel, God with us.

 

 

Pebble-Path resized

Image Credit:

Michel Matton [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Last Minute–Why?

Growing up, I did not know that Don Bosco was a saint; I thought he was a family friend.  I would hear things like “Don Bosco got Daddy a job” or “Don Bosco helped us pay that bill.”  Friends’ parents shared similar names: Ron, John and my father, Don, gathered together regularly for coffee.  When I heard “Don Bosco” I just added him to the mix.

Saint John Bosco (known popularly as Don Bosco) first came to our attention before my parents were particularly religious.  They were having financial troubles, and his intercession was sought as a “patron saint of unpaid bills.”  I was just a child at the time and so the precise details were hazy, but there was a medical bill that my parents were unable to pay.  As it went to collection with no resources in sight, my grandmother proposed a novena to Saint John Bosco.  Figuring “What can it hurt?” my parents prayed to Don Bosco for nine days.  But on the last day of the novena, an envelope arrived from a mail order contest for the exact amount of the bill!

Answers like this appeared throughout my childhood, and then into adulthood.  Time after time, Saint John Bosco came through, often at the very last minute.  This followed the pattern of his own lifetime, of last-minute miracles.  He started an Oratory for troubled boys in Turin, but there was not often an excess of funds.  More than once, he sat the boys down for dinner with nothing to feed them with.  Then, suddenly, there would be a knock on the door with a last-minute donation of food.

Other times Don Bosco seems to have been granted miracles of multiplication.  One such story is recounted by Francis Dalmazzo, who had decided after just a few days to leave the Oratory, and had even sent for his mother to come and get him.  But that morning, he witnessed a few rolls become enough to feed the four hundred boys.  As each boy received his roll, there was another in its place for the next boy, until all had eaten—and in the basket Francis saw the original few rolls still there.  He told his mother that he had decided to stay after all. 1

Last-minute miracles took many forms.  There were death-bed conversions, including that of the man who had spent his life in opposition to Don Bosco’s work.  There was the time when St. John Bosco seemed too late—a boy in the Oratory had died without making a good Confession.  Don Bosco raised him from the dead, and the boy received the sacraments.  There was the time he wanted to build a basilica to Mary Help of Christians—to whom he had entrusted all his needs and work.  He gave the astonished architect a down payment of eight cents, promising that “Mary would build her own basilica.”2  We visited that Basilica on a Frassati pilgrimage in 2010.

It is easy to admire a saint for such radical trust in God.  Real-time waiting and last-minute rescues, however, do not make for an anxiety-free life.  I often wished that as an intercessor, Don Bosco would not wait until that last minute.  And sometimes it seemed that his idea of last-minute went well beyond mine.  Other times he didn’t seem to answer my prayers at all.

I am not going to lie—there have been times when I was tempted to move Saint John Bosco to my other listSaint.Joseph for one, is a lot more prompt… And then I wonder just why John Bosco is in my life to begin with.  What does this saint have to teach me, in particular about last-minute answers?  About trusting in Providence?  About waiting?

In the Gospels Jesus tells the strange story of a persistent widow, who hounds a judge until he gives her justice.  Jesus tells us to imitate her tenacity when asking favors of God.  He also tells the story of a man who wakes up his friend in the middle of the night to ask for bread for a visitor.  The friend responds, not out of friendship, but because he wants the knocking to stop.

These are not appealing images.  Most of us go out of our way NOT to be a nuisance, not to impose on others.  Yet Jesus tells us to keep asking past the point of feeling comfortable about continuing.

The vision of God that this parable proposes does not seem at first to be any more appealing.  Why would He insist that we ask, repeatedly, when as Jesus tells us, He already knows what we need?  Does He really demand that our petitions reach critical mass before deigning to reply?  Is it only when we’ve worn ourselves (and Him) out like the judge that He is reluctantly persuaded to give us what we ask? 

We know theologically that God is good.  We know from Scripture that “it is your Father’s desire to give you the kingdom.”  But from the first sin in the Garden, our lived faith in His goodness is shaky.  But Jesus wants us to call on and trust the Father.

Don Bosco was a father to the boys in Turin, and later to the Salesian order.   He first attracted the boys by performing magic tricks to get their attention, but ultimately they stayed because they experienced his personal love and care for each of them.  They learned first to trust in him, and in his fatherly love for them.  His fatherly care and provision of their earthly needs pointed always and ultimately to the heavenly Father.

 

Saint John Bosco
Feast Day January 31st

 

Notes:

1 http://www.salesians.org.za/index.php/bi-centenary/25-don-bosco-miracles-in-his-life

2 http://www.donboscowest.org/saints/donbosco

Image credit: Unspecified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Labor of Love

O LORD, you mete out peace to us,
for it is you who have accomplished all we have done.
– Isaiah 26:12

O LORD, oppressed by your punishment,
we cried out in anguish under your chastising.
As a woman about to give birth
writhes and cries out in her pains,
so were we in your presence, O LORD.
We conceived and writhed in pain,
giving birth to wind;
Salvation we have not achieved for the earth,
the inhabitants of the world cannot bring it forth.
– Isaiah 26:16-18

Jesus said:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
– Matthew 11:28-30

It seems the LORD has a lot to teach us about our works in today’s readings. We have, respectively, a pure admission of God’s generosity and our inability to effect goodness upon the world, a lament of actions and struggles that leave us unsatisfied, and a promise from Jesus of what working IN HIM can do.

Having witnessed the birth of our child, the second verse listed above has an entirely new depth of meaning. The anticipation during pregnancy, the extreme anguish and sheer determination of labor, all to come to… naught? Devastating. Work, anguish, labor, struggle, without a prayerful heart, does not bring life to the world. Doing anything other than pursuing your current calling with your whole heart does not bring life into the world. The verse is moving and poetic (maybe even a bit off-putting or strange), but it’s also quite direct: nothing we can do apart from Jesus will bring life.

Conversely, ALL who are burdened, ALL who labor can find rest in Jesus Christ. No matter the work, no matter the recognition. Alyssa and I discussed the powerful sermon she mentioned yesterday (Here’s the link again if you want to watch it), and how it gave her renewed hope in this season as a stay-at-home mom: Our heavenly Father notices every little ounce of effort we put forth in our lives. In case you don’t know, stay-at-home mom life is not the most public of existences. Sure, with lots of planning and hauling of gear, you can have a fairly busy social life, but even so, so much work is behind the scenes. If she were to live her life solely running on the affirmation of human beings, she would have run out of gas a long time ago. That’s when exhaustion, resentment, or apathy can kick in. If we live our lives oriented toward our friends’, coworkers, and family’s perception of us, we will run out of steam. Every time.

Do you feel like you’re running out of steam? Read that last verse. Let it soak in. Read it again. These are Jesus’ words to you. ALL who are burdened. ALL who labor. Seek Jesus, and there is rest. Every time.

(…and if you feel like you’ve got it all made, you should seek still Jesus, just in case you turn out to be human.)

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

When giving is being filled

And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
– Matthew 6:18

Today’s Gospel is likely a familiar one. It’s a strong teaching about how praying, fasting, or giving alms, while good acts, are hollow when you’re looking for attention. Pride is the root of all sin, so it’s not surprising that it can finds its way into even the most virtuous acts. Remember when Jesus said a demon was so strong that it could only come out through prayer and fasting?

To paraphrase my wife paraphrasing a recent sermon she had heard (I wish I knew which source to cite): Sometimes if the Devil can’t make you sin, he is content to make you ineffective.

I’ve recently been in a season of life that has required a lot of giving. I’m working longer hours than I have, and my duties at home grow in parallel with my toddling son. I wish I could say that my added efforts were perfectly and graciously offered to Jesus, that I was being a regular St. Joseph and that I am the image of St. Paul’s “cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).

But they weren’t, I haven’t, and I’m not.

The change has been hard. And I am human (why, Lord?!). And I have gotten resentful more than I have liked.

When I go unnaturally out of my way and egg my wife on to tell me how great I am and how hard I’m working, I have received my award. When I am resentful and require a ‘reward’ (acknowledgment, affirmation, candy, etc.), that very well may be all I get for it.

God is merciful and mysterious, and he knows my heart better than I do, so I trust in him to take my small offerings and multiply them, even when my heart could further be purified. He’ll take care of His part, and today’s Gospel reminded me to take care of mine. Lord, purify my heart.

Salt and Light

Jesus said to his disciples:

“You are the salt of the earth.
But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. –Matt 5:1

*     *     *

My late father was an introvert.  At his funeral the joke was that he would have preferred a smaller event, so that he wouldn’t have to talk to so many people.  He was intelligent and well-educated, having studied eight languages while working on a PhD in English—but he chose all dead ones, thus avoiding the risk of having to converse in them.  These ranged from familiar ones like Latin and Hebrew and Ancient Greek, to Hittite and Sanskrit and Tocharian (which in my uneducated mind was spelled Tolkarian, and which I assumed was something that hobbits spoke—until I had to google it).  He tended to stay on the periphery of conversations, only occasionally injecting bits of wisdom, humor or an odd pun.

So it was something of a shock when the phone rang, one day years ago, and it was for him.  It was a collect call from a Massachusetts prison, from a young man named Scott, looking for my father.  Even more of a shock was that my father stayed on the phone with him for close to an hour, using more than a few month’s quota of words on someone we didn’t even know he knew.  This was repeated many times, as Scott had found in my quiet father something of a mentor.

Indeed, my father attracted quite a fan club among surprising populations.  This is probably not the best place to mention “Boomer”, another prison inmate, who saw in my father’s Sicilian features an underlying presence, and took him for a Godfather figure.  He refused to believe that my father was who claimed to be (ironically at the time, a sales rep for a large stuffed animal company) and thought he must in fact be a Boss.  “Let me work for you!” Boomer insisted.  “I could be your hit man!” (true story)

At his funeral many commented how my father spoke rarely, but when he did, people listened.  I know in my own life, I have held on to these bits of wisdom, which while infrequent had more impact than many longer conversations or even entire courses in theology.  And I have come to recognize that this unassuming wisdom was the fruit of a life of prayer.

“One of the greatest evils in the Church today,” my father told me when I was seventeen and on the way to college in Steubenville, “is the number of people in positions of authority who have long since ceased to be holy themselves.”  I heard these words long before the Church was rocked by public scandal and had the veneer of public piety removed from some of the most horrifying of private sins.  But my father’s warning was not directed at others, but as a caution to me.  “It is very easy when you are learning about God, doing things for God, talking about God, to forget to talk to God.”  For my father this was the worst possible fate.

“You cannot give what you don’t have.”  I don’t think that expression was original to Dad, but it points to the necessity of prayer, and is the heart of today’s Gospel.  “If salt loses its flavor, what good is it?” Jesus asks, after telling his disciples to be salt and light for the world.   Similarly, one cannot give light by studying it, talking about it—only by being filled with it.  And the place we are filled is prayer.

There was one cause which propelled my Dad from the comfort and confines of a hidden life, and that was the prolife movement.  In his retirement he went weekly to an abortion clinic, more than sixty miles from our home, to stand alone peacefully offering literature about the help and alternatives available to women as they entered the clinic.  But then later in the morning he would stand across the street with a sign, across from the parking lot where they would see him as they left, with a sign that said: “Jesus forgives and heals.”

Many people thought it was “too soon.”  That the women were not ready for repentance and thus not ready for Christ’s mercy.  But my father believed that being prolife was more than just saving babies, that it was about saving souls.  And he knew from the experience of many who shared their personal stories of abortion with him, that memories of the day would come back years later.  He hoped that with them would come the memory of that message of mercy.*

I think of this too when I think of salt and light, and how the one thing that they cannot be is hidden. Like my Dad, I prefer quiet and solitude, and more than he, invisibility when it comes to controversy.  I don’t like to be the one to speak out, to stand out.  I prefer to be one of the crowd.  But we all know what the “crowd” does to Jesus.

It is in prayer that I draw both the strength and motivation to step out of myself. Just as improbable as my father’s prison ministry is my own public speaking.  I have learned how true it is that “the one who does not speak to God has nothing to say to the world.”  That it is only by practicing faithfulness to daily prayer that I have anything at all to say, and more importantly, the courage to step out of myself and my fears to say it.

Let us ask God today that we may be truly salt and light for the world, witnessing by what we are and have received.

Like my father I have only love for those who have had abortions.  I know the sometimes unbearable pressures of circumstances, boyfriends, family and friends that weigh into such decisions.  I also know that for many, often years later, there is great anguish and pain following that decision.  If you know of someone who is seeking healing from an abortion, there are many organizations who can help including the Sisters of Life linked here.

Ite Ad Joseph!

Behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

I recently finished the first book in the novel Kristin Lavransdatter. Laverns (father of the main character) strives to be a good father to his daughters, to love them and teach them to God, the Church, their family, and their neighbors, especially the poor. I am amazed that the struggles of fatherhood do not look that different whether you have daughters in 21st-century America or 14th-century Norway. Over the past year and a half I have wrestled with, prayed through, and pondered the questions: what does it mean to be a good father? Am I a good father? How can I become a better father? And often a simple answer comes: Be like St. Joseph – Sleep more and talk less! (I need help with both – just ask my wife)

But this answer – although both humorous and true – only skims the surface. More than his affinity for rest and silence, in St. Joseph we find a friend who was patient, humble, just, merciful, and attentive and obedient to the will of the Lord. He – like all of us – encountered difficult and unexpected situations in his life, and followed the Lord onto uncomfortable, even painful paths on which he would otherwise not dare to trod. He wants to accompany us on the difficult roads of this life, to protect and guide us as he protected and guided Jesus and Mary.

I do not know if Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati had a devotion to St. Joseph, and cannot confess intimate familiarity with his writings. Based on his attraction to his friend Laura and his love for the faith, I imagine that he would have had both a love and respect for St. Joseph, and a deep desire for fatherhood. This desire was frustrated by his parents and his illness/death – yet neither of these roadblocks kept Bl. Frassati from following the Lord and knowing joy even in the sufferings.

What would St. Joseph’s path been had the Father not chosen Him to father His Son? Would He still be a saint? How would he have responded to the challenges of life? And Bl. Frassati – what other great deeds would he have done had he not gone Home at such a young age? As Erin said last week, these final days of Lent can be the hardest. So today during your prayer, turn to St. Joseph and Bl. Frassati, and ask them to pray for you to be open to the will of the Father in your life, to allow Him to lead you into – and out of – the valleys of tears, trusting that He is near, and He is bringing you closer to His love through it all.

Pax et bonum,
Andy