Arriving to Heaven Together

When I was in grade-school I remember having scheduled fire drills. The alarm would go off and everyone would stop what they were doing, we would put on our coats and file in two lines. The teacher would give the class directions as simple as “stay calm, follow me”. We would walk out of our classroom together and merge in the hallway with the other classes exiting their own classrooms. We would all make our way to the stairwell to exit the floor. One day while orderly walking down the stairs, I distinctly remember noticing all the children in front of me, all the children behind me, all the children in the stairwell from the floors above and, all the children in the stairwell from the floor below. We were all moving towards the same exit door to leave the building. Every single person was going to leave the building through the same tiny door. Suddenly my grade-school mind began to wander, what if there truly was a fire? What if we truly were in danger? How could everyone possibly fit through that tiny door out to safety? I became worried and scared for myself and all these people.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is telling his disciples that they should “enter through the narrow gate”. Jesus had given the disciples the simple direction of how to get to heaven by walking on the road that leads to the narrow gate; through him, by following him, by being in communion with him. Jesus had told us that this road was not easy. By picking up the cross we would be judged as he was judged and we would be persecuted as he was persecuted. When life becomes difficult it seems beyond tempting to drop our heavy cross. It seems tempting to cross over to the road that is wide because it seems to be less stressful, it seems like more fun, it seems like less work. But these are deceptions that take us no where. Jesus warns us that this broad road will be the destruction of many. We are not meant to walk the road of deceit and evil. We are meant to walk the road of love and forgiveness. We may get lost at times and end up on the wrong path but, God always gives us many opportunities to get on the right path, on the path to holiness.

How easy it could have been to cause distress in the middle of a fire drill. It could be easy to lose focus of the goal (exiting through the door) and be stuck inside the building in a dangerous situation. If people started to push and shove it would get us no where. But, “pushing and shoving” were not the instructions the teachers gave us. They told us to remain calm, to stay in line, to follow. They gave us directions and we worked together. My class worked with the other classes on our floor, which we may see from time to time, and my class even worked with classes a few floors above, which we never even interacted with before. Remain calm, stay in line, follow. We all became one moving body as we made our way through a tiny exit door to safety.

God didn’t make us to be alone. He made us to be in communion with Him and in turn to be in communion to one another. Right before Jesus told his disciples about entering through the narrow gate, he told them exactly how they would enter through the narrow gate; “do to others whatever you would have them do to you”. We have a responsibility to love each other, to help each other and work together in the name of Jesus Christ. Being in communion with one another means to be in fellowship and have a mutual participation or sharing. If we see someone on the broader road, suffering, take them by the hand and walk with them and Jesus on the narrow road. Share with them the word and love of the Lord. On the narrow road, no matter how pact or how difficult, when we remain calm and follow Christ everyone gets through the narrow gate and we arrive to heaven together.

A Companion in Darkness

“What? You too? I thought I was the only one!”
-C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

In the communion of saints, we are lucky to hear the stories of men and women who ran to Christ together, including Our Lady and St. Joseph, St. Catherine of Siena and Bl. Raymond of Capua, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and so many others. These kindred spirits desired nothing less for their friends than for them to be led “further up and further in” to the very love of Christ. The anthem of their lives? “Draw me after you! Let us run!” (Song 1:4)

St. Francis de Sales, whose memorial we celebrate today, and St. Jane de Chantal were one such pair of friends who “were a gift of God to his Church, and their love was fruitful far beyond the mutual personal sanctification of the two involved” (Hinnebusch, 46). St. Francis met St. Jane after she had suffered the deaths of her husband and several children, mistreatment at the hands of her father-in-law, and years of longing for such a friend and guide. An immediate affection sprang up between the two, and he became her spiritual director. “They wanted nothing from their love but God’s glory and their own mutual holiness” (51), and their holy friendship led to St. Jane founding the Visitation sisters, which had been St. Francis’s cherished dream.

A friendship like this is a special kind of friendship. These friends are not drawn together just because of some mutual benefit, as classmates or colleagues may be. They don’t just share similar interests or enjoy spending time together, as many friends do (and should!). These true friends, at their deepest level, share a common commitment to the same ultimate good outside themselves, and that foundation will not crack. When both friends want what is best for the other and act accordingly, even though their own hearts could be “wrung and possibly broken,” we begin to see the love and joy of Christ. St. Francis had this kind of friendship with St. Jane, as “his heart…rejoice[d] in her heart as in itself” (51). He told her, “I am going to try to keep you ever exalted on the throne which God has given you in my heart, a throne based upon the cross” (51).

When a friend like this enters your life, even for a little while, give thanks and praise to God for the gift of their life, “praying always with joy” (Phil. 1:4) in your every prayer for them. These friends, ones to whom we can entrust our hearts, are unmerited gifts from God. How can our souls not proclaim the greatness of the Lord? As Fr. Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., writes, “I am especially blessed if God gives me a very close friendship with some specific person who is filled with the grace of God and divine love, and who has received a special faith, hope, and love for me” (53). Remain in his love always, “encourage one another” (1 Th. 5:11) as you encounter the joys and sorrows of life, let your friendship bear fruit, and evermore point your friend “further up and further in” to the heart of Christ, the source and summit of your joy, and the only ultimate good which will fully satisfy your hearts.

If you are longing for a friend like this, just as St. Jane was while waiting for St. Francis, or if you are reeling from being separated from such a friend, as St. Jane was after St. Francis entered eternal life, know that you are not alone. Among the “great crowd of witnesses” in the communion of saints, you have hidden friends loving you and praying for you—and none intercede for you as ardently as Our Lady does. She whose own heart was pierced by a sword of sorrow will lead you deeper into the thorn-crowned heart of her son, Jesus, who is your greatest friend.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13), and he already has. Christ has chosen you as his friend, delights in you, and will never leave you. He longs for us to love as he does so we may be filled with his joy, even if the road is sowed with tears and strewn with briars. Lean into the love of the cross, and know that every tear has power when united to his passion. Be patient, for “the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” Remain in his love always, take courage, and know that joy will come, even when all seems dark—for his joy will be in you, and your joy will be complete.

Reading List
Fr. Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., Friendship in the Lord

Blessed Are You

And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
—Luke 1:43

Although she did not know it, Elizabeth’s whole life had been leading up to this moment. For decades, she had lived in quiet piety in a small, ordinary village. Her whole married life she had prayed for a child, until her childbearing years had passed and she was an old woman. Through all this disappointment and seemingly unanswered prayers, Elizabeth never grew bitter toward God. She remained a faithful servant, bringing glory to God in her barrenness. Her hope was a sign of God’s grace to her people, for even in her desolation, His promises sustained her soul.

And then, to Elizabeth’s surprise, she was called to be a sign of God’s grace in a new, miraculous way: as the mother of John the Baptist, the one who would point the way to the Messiah. We see in today’s Gospel the account of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, when each had just received a wondrous and weighty mission from God. They greeted one another in exaltation, amazed at how God was using them to bear His grace into the world.

Elizabeth’s faithfulness to God in all the small moments of her life prepared her to speak those prophetic words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” After so many years in prayer, speaking with God and listening to His voice, she recognized with joy and humility that she was now in His presence. She marveled at the roles He had entrusted to her and to Mary—never comparing each other’s blessings and sorrows, but instead embracing the important role she had been given.

Each of us bears the image of God into the world, and each of us has an important calling to fulfill. As we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, may we also be aware of God’s presence in the people around us. May we, like Elizabeth, call out with joy as we recognize the blessedness of our brothers and sisters, delighting in one another’s gifts.

Tiffiny

I felt sorry for her, the girl with crippled hands who had come to our Frassati dinner, so I invited her to come to my birthday party.  I now wince at the subtle condescension in my offer, as though I were bestowing a kindness.  I think of the woman at the well believing she is being asked to do Jesus a favor….  Meanwhile! “If you only knew the gift of God…” He tells her.

Tiffiny came to my birthday party at Max Brenner later that week, and so began my friendship with a saint.

We bonded at first over fine chocolate and our mutual love of good food.  Tiffiny was one who fully entered into and enjoyed life.  Her tastes tended toward the gourmet; she loved music, loved to dance, loved a good time with friends of all kinds.

She was very accomplished—we only learned how much so, in small doses over time, as she rarely spoke about herself.  It would be a casual remark “that time when I was recruited by the FBI and studied body language” or a brief anecdote about playing on the national golf circuit, or writing music and choreography at Carnegie Hall, or about the friends made while working in the fashion industry.  We would often laugh at how very many different areas she was gifted in, and how often we were taken by surprise by newly revealed talents.

Tiffiny was a facilities manager at Fidessa in downtown Manhattan when the planes flew into the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.  She was a witness to the carnage that day. Then, in part because of her service to others (including helping to pack up the personal effects of those who had fled), she became a victim herself.

It was then that she contracted toxic mercury poisoning, which triggered scleroderma.  Scleroderma is a fatal autoimmune disease which causes a hardening of the skin and organs, and was responsible for the disfigurement of her hands and face which I noticed that first day.  It also caused worse damage internally, and profound physical pain and suffering.  Before Tiffiny, the longest anyone had survived this diagnosis was only ten years.  Tiffiny lived for fifteen more years, until 2016, her body and abilities slowly giving out on her, but her soul was only strengthened by her sacrifice.

Many friends have remembered how Tiffiny listened patiently to our complaints, and we only realized later how much her suffering in those moments eclipsed our own often silly complaints.  Even while sick, Tiffiny’s schedule and accomplishments were amazing.  I thought I was busy and hardworking as a healthy person, but what she did put me in the shade.  Her joy was contagious, witnessed not only by those who shared her faith but by people of all walks of life.  “That girl is a saint” said the security officer in the building where she worked.  So many people were drawn to her, testifying to a life that was not hidden under a bushel but visible and always attractive.

I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with her.  Actually, when she first took over as leader of Frassati, I thought she was crazy.  We had started preparing monthly dinners after Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer, and things were not going smoothly.  I was ready to quit, having prepared the last one alone in the kitchen without help until five minutes before serving time.  Tiffiny’s first idea was to put out vases of flowers on the tables, and add table cloths (light blue, for Our Lady).  “You want to add more work?!?” I asked incredulously.

She was right, of course, as is evidenced by the fact that years later, our dinners host more than 140 people.  She knew that it was the little things that mattered, that beauty mattered, that hospitality was more than just meeting physical needs.

It was Tiffiny who began our weekly bible study, taught by then Brother Sebastian, ensuring that our friendships were formed around the faith.  When we had picnics or other events, they would always be preceded or followed by Holy Hour and/or Mass.

It was Tiffiny who taught me about prayer, taught me that it mattered, that it made a difference.  When she prayed for me, things happened.  More than once, I physically felt her prayers from afar.  She would occasionally be given prophetic words for me “X will happen as you are hoping, but Y will not.”

I would learn that this was because when she said “I will pray for you” it wasn’t a throw-away line—she meant it.  She would spend hours each night in prayer, in the presence of Jesus and Our Lady and the saints and angels, who she spoke of with intimacy and affection, as though she knew them personally.  I would later learn that she did—her life was touched with mysticism.

She was as a friend encouraging and supportive, but not afraid to challenge me.  “What makes you think that will make you happy?” she would interrupt my complaints, startling me into looking twice.  Or “But that is changing, isn’t it?” regarding something she had been praying for, and knew God was answering, before I did.  Sometimes she would stop me in mid-conversation: “Hold on, I am trying to hear what God wants me to say to you” and then deliver a wisdom that could only be supernatural.

It was her insistence that God was good, and her personal affection for Him and for Our Lady, in spite of all of her suffering, that was most formative for me.  Prior to her I saw God’s love only in providence and blessing, not in things that went wrong.  At best I would remark with Saint Teresa of Avila, “if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”

Tiffiny however saw her illness not as abandonment by God, but as fulfillment of her greatest desire—that He be at the center of her life.

In Tiffiny’s own words (from an interview in 2011)1:

In 1998, I had begged Him to show Himself more in my life, and from that day He has been preparing me for this, my cross. I was on my way to a fashion show when I got the diagnosis [of scleroderma]. I remember that I went to the show anyway, on the arm of a friend. I think I must have immediately given everything into God’s hands in order to continue with my daily life as I did. I went on with great hope and promise, which came from Another….

…It was almost a relief to know I would have to depend on him now.  God had to take each one of my gifts and talents away one by one for me to see what the real Gift is.  My life is no longer who I know, all my contacts, what I can do — because I can no longer do what I was able to do physically.  Now my life is just him, on whom I fully depend.  I still work in finance, designing office spaces.  I can’t play music anymore, but I still have my voice and I am composing music with the help of friends.  I have to give everything to everyone because I am so dependent.  But if I had not already been in a relationship of dependence on Christ, accepting so much help would be unbearable.  Instead, my friends are signs of him for me. 

Two years ago this week, on August 5th, 2016, Tiffiny went home to Him.  Tiffiny, our saintly friend, pray for us!

*            *            *

1The interview quoted initially appeared in Traces magazine.  The link is no longer available but was here.

Divine Friendship

Jesus said to his disciples:
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.
I have called you friends,
because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you
and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,
so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.
This I command you: love one another.”
—John 15:12–17

Two lines from today’s Gospel passage may seem contradictory at first glance:

You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.

Andrea_del_Sarto_-_The_Last_Supper_(detail)_-_WGA00391First of all, Jesus tells us we are friends, not slaves—if we do what He commands us. Wait. Do friends normally take orders from one another? Then He says we are not slaves because we know what our Master is doing. But…do we really? At the time He spoke these words, his apostles had no idea that He was about to suffer and die (though, to be fair, it’s not like He didn’t warn them). The disciples seemed pretty clueless most of the time about what Jesus was really up to. Can we truly say that we know what our Master is doing? I think more often we feel we are flying blind, having to trust Him without really understanding what His plan is. After all, so much of our Catholic worldview is grounded in the concepts of mystery and faith.

What do we mean when we speak of the mysteries of God? Encountering mystery does not mean that we’ll never know the answers and should simply give up trying to understand. Rather, it means that no matter how deeply we study this complex truth, there will always be more layers of understanding to peel back, always something new to learn. Our human understanding is limited, but with God we can go deeper and deeper, until we are united fully with God in Heaven and can participate in His perfect understanding.

Jesus_washing_Peter's_feet

The more we plumb the depths of these mysteries, the more we grow in both understanding and wonder. But in order to get anywhere we must first have faith. We cannot grasp at this understanding for ourselves; we must draw closer to God so that He can help us see. We must trust Him. Our hearts must be open to soak in His wisdom, rather than trying to sharpen our own, which is a losing battle. Understanding the mysteries of God requires more than just intelligence; it requires divine relationship. It requires friendship with Jesus.

And Jesus offers us that friendship as a great, unmerited gift. We can begin to understand what He is doing—though it be far beyond our depth—through our love for Him. He says, “You are my friends if you trust me. And if you trust me, you will follow my commandments.” Our obedience springs from love and gratitude rather than fear and servitude. We can rest in the knowledge that we are loved and chosen, and we can return that love by recognizing Jesus in others and loving one another.

We are not mere servants; we are friends. And we are made to delight in a Love that is greater than we can comprehend. When we remain in Him, we can begin to bear the fruits of understanding, cultivated through love alone.


1. Andrea del Sarto, The Last Supper / PD-US
2. Ford Madox Brown, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet / PD-US