Whom Will I Serve?

But he knew their thoughts and said to them,
“Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste
and house will fall against house.
And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?
For you say that it is by Beelzebul that I drive out demons.
If I, then, drive out demons by Beelzebul,
by whom do your own people drive them out?
Therefore they will be your judges.
But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons,
then the Kingdom of God has come upon you….
Whoever is not with me is against me,
and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

—Luke 11:17–20, 23

Each day, every one of us is presented with a decision: Whom will I serve? Will I offer my day up to God, or will I seek to satisfy my own desires and agenda? In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus warns us that we must choose one or the other—we cannot have both. Even in responding to our own needs, wants, dreams, and goals, if we don’t invite God into those areas of our lives, we will find ourselves working against Him, and all our efforts will be futile.

God has entrusted us with an incredible gift in allowing us to have free will, to make choices that have real consequences in our lives and in the world around us. If we continually offer this gift back to Him, seeking to carry out the will of Jesus, then all the powers of heaven stand alongside us. But if we hold part of ourselves back, trying to keep God out of some aspect of our lives, then we become a house divided. This tension within our soul will cause us to stagnate, holding us back from fulfilling the mission God has placed upon our hearts.

The greater our knowledge, the more responsibility we have to guard ourselves against selfishness and sin, for humans are always tempted to use their gifts for themselves instead of in service to our God and Creator. We must always remember that these gifts do not come from ourselves but are given to us by God, and our truest happiness can only come from offering them back to God in gratitude. To drive out the demons in our lives and curb our tendencies toward sin and self-centeredness, we can choose to be grateful and look for God’s presence in every circumstance we encounter. We can open our hearts to invite God to enter into every aspect of our lives. When we give Him permission, He can and will do great things in us, and through Him, we we will begin to discover our true purpose and identity.

If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having….

When we have understood about free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as somebody once asked me: “Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?” The better stuff a creature is made of—the cleverer and stronger and freer it is—then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong. A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best—or worst—of all….

The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the center—wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race….What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could “be like gods”—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.

—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Setting Captives Free

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How saddened the disciples were that Jesus would not be with them much longer in the way they had imagined He would be.  While their encounter with the Living Word-made-Flesh had turned their lives completely upside down, journeying with Him during the years of His public ministry, they still did not understand the full picture.  In the Gospel today, Jesus sees the grief that fills their hearts in this moment, knowing still the grief yet to come at His Crucifixion, but also knowing the complete joy of His Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

It is the deep reception of the Holy Spirit in their inmost beings that set the Apostles on fire after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension.  By the grace of the Holy Spirit, they can be faithful to their mission of baptizing the world in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, no matter where they go or what they endure.

In the first reading, we see Paul and Silas stripped, beaten severely and thrown into jail.  Yet even there the kingdom of God reigns.  Though they are prisoners in every outward sense—put in the “innermost cell” with their feet secured to a stake—they are set free in their innermost selves by Christ and able to be instruments of God’s grace, singing His praises and praying in the dark of night.

Imagine being one of the prisoners nearby, overhearing their love for God spilling forth.  Would you scoff at them?  Might your own heart be stirred to whisper a small prayer of thanksgiving?

Either way, you’d definitely be most attentive the moment you felt the earthquake shake the very foundations of the jail!  What a dramatic revelation of God’s glory!  Each prisoner being set free from bondage—chains broken, doors blown open, light piercing their own hearts.  This freedom is not just physical, but spiritual—freedom from sin.  This outward manifestation of God’s power seems small compared to the inner transformation of the jailer, much like the instance where Jesus healed the paralytic, saying first “Your sins are forgiven,” and then performing a physical miracle to account for our poor human blindness (Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26).

For the jailer and his family to have received the Holy Spirit so as to know the truth of Jesus Christ is a true miracle and a cause for great rejoicing indeed!

And what about us?  How is it that we live in the light and joy of this truth, no matter how dark our present situation may seem?  And do we allow the Holy Spirit to inspire us so as to be ministers of joy and truth to others in our lives who may themselves feel imprisoned by doubts, sadness or trouble? 

By virtue of the Sacraments and living in a state of grace, we have the Holy Spirit! We too are set free!  Jesus promised His disciples, as He promises us, that He will complete the good work He has begun in us.  And what a mighty work He has done!  No matter if we were born into the Faith or converted later (or find ourselves on the path of conversion!), it is a gift that by His Light we know Light. 

Your right hand saves me.
The LORD will complete what he has done for me;
your kindness, O LORD, endures forever;
forsake not the work of your hands.
~Ps. 138:7-8

What a grace it is to be transformed in the waters of baptism, confirmed in the Faith, brought freedom from our sins in reconciliation, and to receive JESUS Himself in the Holy Eucharist! The Lord has a plan for our lives. We must trust Him every step of the way and bear the crosses He allows us to carry for our sanctification, for even in the darkest night He is the Light we need.

We still have some days of Easter left, before arriving to the great Feast of Pentecost.  Prepare your hearts and souls to grow closer to the Holy Spirit. Receive a new outpouring of the Spirit by praying a Pentecost Novena, learning the Veni, Creator Spiritus prayer (which St. JPII prayed every day!) and shedding any chains of bondage to sin in the confessional.

God awaits to do marvelous things in your soul. Let Him in ever more! And let us cry as one with the whole Church, Come, Holy Spirit, come by means of the powerful intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Thy well-beloved Spouse!

A Joyful Fast

What comes to mind when we think of fasting?

Some personal thoughts that come to mind include deep hunger pangs, lack of energy, distracting myself to take my mind off the fact that I’m fasting…

Fasting, of course, can come in forms other than fasting from food… abstaining from social media, watching Netflix, a small daily comfort like creamer or sugar in your coffee… but regardless, the challenges of fasting may be the first thoughts that come to mind.  At times, we may even wonder honestly if any fruit is actually being born of our fasting. 

Our readings today can help us understand this Christian practice and our approach to it more fully.  The word of the Lord inspires an approach to fasting that may initially seem counterintuitive: a joyful disposition of heart.  The good news for us is that we can’t achieve this in our own power and we are not expected to – this is obtained by God’s grace.  First, we must understand His heart on the matter to see how the essence and fruit of fasting ultimately flows from the disposition lying beneath it.

A joyful fast?  Does this seem like a bit of a paradox?  In the gospel today Jesus seems to explain that his disciples are not fasting but feasting.  His prophetic wedding imagery seems to communicate that while He is with them there is joy and feasting, but His Passion and death will bring about their fasting.  Why then, in this time of Lent, as we anticipate Christ’s Passion and strive to enter into a spirit of penance am I suggesting we maintain a joyful heart?  I believe the answer lies in a deeper understanding of our Christianity so let’s dig a bit deeper…

Lord, help us see this through your eyes…

A couple passages from today’s readings:

“A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” -Psalm 51

“Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits…

…This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly…
breaking every yoke…
sharing your bread with the hungry…
sheltering the opressed… clothing the naked…
not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
And your wound shall quickly be healed”

-selections from Isaiah 58: 1-9 (emphasis mine)

This passage from Isaiah shows us that fasting in the way of the Lord, sacrificing with a sense of purpose and confidence in God’s power, heals.  It heals others and it heals us, and this healing leads to freedom.  Fasting in the way of the Lord has the power to heal and free us.  How beautiful!  This knowledge breeds hope the source of fasting with a joyful heart.

Now, we can begin to understand how it is possible to fast with a joyful heart – this joy is not feigned.  This joy is not a surface-level happiness.  It is a fruit of our hope, a virtue so central to our Christian faith.  Even as we fast in a spirit of penance, remembering the Lord’s Passion and Death as Jesus foreshadows in the gospel, we can maintain a joyful heart because as we truly unite to His suffering we are also joined to the hope of the resurrection.  This is the wonder of our God of paradoxes – through death we gain life.  So, through the sufferings of our Lenten fasting, God allows us to enter in to a deeper joy.  And because we live in the truth of the Resurrection, we can actually approach fasting with this joyful heart, for we know God will bring forth much fruit and new life from these genuine offerings of our heart.  It is our heart that God is seeking, as today’s Psalm reveals: “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” 

Now, I joyfully join in the sentiments of my priest’s parting words at our Liturgy* last Sunday as I wish you a “Happy Lent!”

Lord, help us begin with a humble and contrite heart.  May we experience the freedom that your forgiveness brings, and may this freedom bring us true joy.   From our joy, we present our hearts, our Lenten actions, and fasting to you, in the hope of your power and the confidence that you will bring forth new life.  Thank you for this season of Lent.  We surrender and consecrate it to you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.   


*You may have noticed my using the term Liturgy instead of Mass. My husband and I often celebrate Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic Church, an Eastern tradition of our Catholic faith. (Yes, the Byzantine Catholic rite is in communion with the Pope, and yes, you can attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy to fulfill your Sunday obligation! 🙂 ) …I’ll have to devote a future post on the beauties of the Eastern rite in the future! For now, I’d love to invite you to pray this Prayer of St. Ephrem, which focuses on virtues Christians are called to practice always, and especially during Lent. The Byzantine Rite prays this during Lent (The Great Fast) and encourages it to be prayed daily during this season.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Spare me from the spirit of apathy and meddling,
Of idle chatter and love of power.

Instead, grant to me, Your servant,
The spirit of integrity and humility,
Of patience and love.

Yes, O Lord and God,
Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins
And not to judge others,

For You are blessed,
Now and forever.   Amen

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number

Bakhita

Bakhita_Szent_Jozefina.jpegToday is the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a woman of incredible strength and perseverance. Kidnapped at age seven from her home in Sudan and sold into slavery, she was given the name Bakhita, meaning “fortunate.” She suffered daily beatings and abuse at the hands of her captors. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian family, the Michielis, and worked as their maid. While in Italy, Bakhita was introduced to the Canossian Sisters of Venice—and through the Canossian Sisters, she began to learn about God and the Church. The more she learned, the more her heart became inflamed with love for Jesus.

When the Michielis wanted to bring Bakhita with them to Africa, where they had acquired a large hotel, Bakhita firmly refused to leave the convent in Venice. While Mrs. Michieli tried to force the issue, eventually the Italian court ruled that because slavery was illegal in Italy, and had in fact also been outlawed in Sudan before Bakhita’s birth, Bakhita had never legally been a slave. All of a sudden, she was free to choose her own path.

Bakhita was baptized in the Catholic faith at age thirty, receiving all three sacraments of initiation on January 9, 1890, and taking the name Josephine. She took vows as a Canossian Sister three years later. For the rest of her life, until her death in 1947, she was known for her joyful, welcoming presence, her love of children, and her encouraging spirit toward the poor and suffering.

What is particularly remarkable about Josephine is her ability to see God’s hand at work through every chapter of her story, even those filled with darkness and tragedy. When she was introduced to Christ through the Canossian Sisters, all the pieces of her life began to fall into place and make sense to her for the first time. She said, “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”

Josephine stood up for herself and put an end to the injustices she suffered, but she did not brood over past wrongs or dwell in resentment for all the trauma she had undergone. On the contrary, she actually expressed gratitude for her past experiences. When a young student asked her what she would do if she were to meet her captors, she responded without hesitation: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”

I am far from grateful for my own sufferings, but I pray that through the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita, I might allow my eyes to be opened to the ways God is working in every aspect of my life. May my deliverance from resentment and cynicism be sparked by an interior conversion of heart, a turning toward gratitude and unrestrained love for God.

Everything Is Grace

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus presents to us a startlingly bold exhortation:

Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it,
but whoever loses it will save it.
—Luke 17:33

This does not mean, of course, that we should be careless about our own lives. On the contrary; if our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, then we should treat all life—our own included—as sacred and worthy of protection. But in doing so we must remember that our lives have been entrusted to us by God; they are not our own. If we try to preserve them for our own sake, instead of for God’s, then our lives will become detached from the purpose imbued by their Creator and thus lose their meaning.

Jesus speaks here with a sense of urgency, warning us not to be caught unprepared at the judgment. The reading shakes us out of our complacency and gives us the sense that everything can change in an instant. If this is really true, then every moment carries great weight and meaning. Every second of our lives is an opportunity to be a conduit of the inexhaustible Source of all truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.

Jesus’s words are an invitation for us to stop wading in the shallows of our life and go out into the deep. He challenges us to let go of the worldly attachments that keep us tethered to the shore and to go forth in courage. All the beautiful things in this world only have meaning insofar as they reflect the beauty of the Creator. If we love God first and foremost, then we will see His beauty in everything around us. But if we cling to the things of this world for their own sake, forgetting that they are gifts from God, then we will ultimately be left unfulfilled.

May we deepen our awareness that everything is grace, that our very lives are given to us as invaluable, unmerited gifts.

There is the great spiritual principle that undergirds the entire Gospel: detachment. The heart of the spiritual life is to love God and then to love everything else for the sake of God. But we sinners, as St. Augustine said, fall into the trap of loving the creature and forgetting the Creator. That’s when we get off the rails.

We treat something less than God as God—and trouble ensues. And this is why Jesus tells his fair-weather fans that they have a very stark choice to make. Jesus must be loved first and last—and everything else in their lives has to find its meaning in relation to him.

—Bishop Robert Barron

Freedom in Forgiveness

“Jesus said to his disciples,
“Things that cause sin will inevitably occur,
but woe to the one through whom they occur.
It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck
and he be thrown into the sea
than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.
Be on your guard!
If your brother sins, rebuke him;
and if he repents, forgive him.
And if he wrongs you seven times in one day
and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’
you should forgive him.”
And the Apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:1-6)

“Have you forgiven him yet?” my friend asked as we sat in the driveway of my parents’ house, heat running in the car on a cold December night.

Her words pierced my heart. “Oh…” I said, “I thought I did. But I don’t think I actually meant it with my whole heart.”

Forgiveness—it’s sometimes so hard for us, yet always so easy for Jesus. See, I used to think that forgiveness meant I was saying it was okay that someone hurt me. It wasn’t until I was deeply wounded by another several years ago that I figured out what forgiveness was all about. I remember hearing someone say the words forgiveness and freedom in the same sentence. My gut reaction was, “I want that…is that really possible?”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to forgive, even if the same person hurts us seven times in one day. Forgiveness isn’t saying that someone else’s sin against you is okay—forgiveness says, “What you did hurt me, but I put you in God’s hands. I do not desire your destruction.” Forgiveness is surrender, casting our cares on the One who cares so deeply for us.

Forgiveness in graver matters takes time and is a journey, and that is okay. With the situation I mentioned above, I would kneel and say the words “I forgive_____” and pray a Hail Mary for the person every Sunday before Mass until I started to believe it in my heart.

Forgiveness softens our hearts; holding onto unforgiveness leaves us bitter, angry, and unhealed with walls around our hearts screaming, “DON’T come in!” Forgiveness frees; unforgiveness enslaves. We become chained to our hurt. If we don’t forgive, we may as well put a millstone around our own necks. Is there someone in your life you need to work on forgiving?

I find it fascinating that the Apostles’ response to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness was, “Increase our faith.” Their hearts were pierced like when my friend invited me to truly forgive. I imagine them seeing the faces of the people they knew they needed to forgive flash before their eyes as Jesus was talking.

And how often do we struggle to forgive ourselves? I know I do sometimes. I’ve walked out of the confessional before only to beat myself up about my sin a few hours later. The liar of shame creeps in and tells us our sin defines us and that we’re not good.

When St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (the saint to whom Jesus encouraged devotion to His Sacred Heart) began having visions of Jesus, her spiritual director, St. Claude, was very skeptical at first. He told her to ask Jesus what the last mortal sin was that he confessed. Jesus answered, “I don’t remember.” How powerful is the ocean of mercy of our Lord!

Father, increase my faith so that I may more easily forgive others. Strengthen me to be courageous and put the people that have wronged me and wounded me into Your wounded hands. So often others’ own woundedness leads them to hurt me; help me to have an understanding heart towards that. Increase my faith so that I may better forgive myself. Help me to know that I am not defined by my sin but as Your precious child. Help me to forgive like You do, Lord Jesus, and set me free. Remove any shame, fear, hard-heartedness, or bitterness from my heart. May I have great faith in Your mercy, Your love song for Your people.

Inhale

“Brothers and sisters:
If there is any encouragement in Christ,
any solace in love,
any participation in the Spirit,
any compassion and mercy,
complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love,
united in heart, thinking one thing.
Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory;
rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,
each looking out not for his own interests,
but also everyone for those of others.” -Philippians 2:1-4

I’ve been doing a study on the four female Doctors of the Church with a couple friends, and it has been wrecking me. Last week, we reflected on St. Hildegard of Bingen. She was a pharmacist, mystic, abbess, poet, theologian, and composer (so she was basically amazing at everything), and she wrote several books and over 300 letters.

St. Hildegard often struggled with self-doubt, but as she grew in allowing herself to receive Christ’s love into the deepest depths of her being, her voice was freed and the doors of her heart flew open to letting the Holy Spirit work through her in powerful ways.

Today’s first reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians talks about participating in the Spirit. A few years ago, a friend of mine asked: “What would happen if we prayed for the same response to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that the Apostles had at Pentecost?” My initial reaction was one of fear. “What kind of crazy things would God call me to?” I thought. How often fear prevents us from saying yes to the greatness the Holy Spirit wills to do in and through us.

This one mind, heart, love, and thinking that St. Paul is talking about is all wrapped up and rooted in the Holy Spirit. He is our healer, comfort, strength, and guide. We all have the awesome opportunity and responsibility to allow the Holy Spirit to bring life and transformation to others through our words and actions. Let’s not squander that gift.

Will we have the courage to respond? In order to lead others to Christ, we must first look inward and do a heart-check on ourselves. Last week at a retreat for my youth ministry teens, the speaker said, “God wants to breathe new life into us, but we have to inhale.” And not only that, but once we let the Holy Spirit fill our beings, we have to exhale His fruits for others, and never stop breathing in.

What gifts has God given you that the Holy Spirit is calling you to use? What is one way you can be obedient to the Holy Spirit and exercise those gifts today? It may be as simple as texting a friend that God puts on your heart to let them know you’re thinking of them. It may be having the courage to have a difficult yet needed conversation. Maybe God is calling you to serve Him in a new way.

God has given each of us a light that no one else in the world will ever be able to give. You are an integral part of building up God’s Kingdom, whether you feel like it or not. Do not give into the temptation that someone else will do it, that you are not good enough, or that He may ask too much of you. Why are we often so afraid to shine?

“We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.” -St. Hildegard of Bingen