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

Counting the Cost, Reaping what He Sows

A brief one for you today:

 

Today’s readings provide some pretty sobering material for reflection. Phrases like “counting the cost” and “poured out like a libation” rarely make for light reading, no matter the context.

Yet it’s important to read past the easy interpretation of St. Paul and Jesus’ words as grim resolve or cynical fatalism. Look for the positive language; phrases like “children of God without blemish,” “rejoice and share my joy,” and “successfully oppose”.

During a recent small group session, one of the other men their talked about the challenges of having children who could, at some point in their life, stray from the faith. Our conversations moved from their to sharing our faith in general. How can we, imperfect men (and women of course, but you all weren’t at the small group!), make a compelling case for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

One of the key themes we settled upon is sharing our excitement. What about our pursuit of the Kingdom of God excites us? How does the Lord bring us joy? What value do we see that makes “counting the cost” and “pour[ing ourselves] out” worthwhile?

Take some time over the rest of the week to reflect on the gifts from God that bring you joy. Try to share those things that make you happy. They may be simple hobbies or pleasures in your day-to-day life, or you might think of how Jesus has delivered you from significant sin or suffering. Take time to think of how the Lord makes your life better, and can do so every day

Then don’t hesitate to share it.

 

Hidden in Plain Sight

But Jesus said to them,
“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and in his own house.”
And he did not work many mighty deeds there
because of their lack of faith.
—Matthew 13: 57–58

Today’s Gospel reading is an extension of the message from last week’s reflection, of the idea that our own disposition will affect how God is able to work in us. As we read last week, if our soil is rocky, the Word will not be able to grow unless we first allow God to till the soil. In today’s Gospel, we read of Jesus’s failed attempt to preach in His hometown. If we, like the people in today’s reading, are closed off to the very idea that God might work through the ordinary details of our everyday lives, then His attempts to work miracles in us will be futile. If our hearts are stubborn, if we turn our heads away from the divine in-breaking of grace, then we are refusing to receive His miracles.

The truth is that God often enters into our lives in the ways we least expect. We might anticipate chariots and thunder, when really He’s trying to get our attention through our next-door neighbor. If it seems mundane to us, it is only because we’ve lost the perspective that God cherishes each tiny detail of His creation. He works within the intricacies of the world He created, gently and earnestly appealing to us in the most ordinary moments.

Jesus’s neighbors didn’t recognize that the Messiah was in their midst. Think about your own neighbors: perhaps there is a saint among you, hidden in plain sight. Don’t miss out on the gift of their presence. God give us eyes to recognize the miraculous when it comes in the trappings of the familiar.

Stinkbugs and Fleas

In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge. (Psalm 90:2)

Living in a city shoebox apartment may have its down side, but living in a big house in the country has its outside.  And when winter departs and the tundra thaws, the outside springs to life—and then the outside starts to make its way inside.

The worst of these unwanted interlopers is the stink bug, which I defy even Saint Francis to love.  The other morning, I was awoken by my 88-year-old aunt shouting with great alarm, “There is something…prehistoric…crawling on the wall!”  One of the world’s ugliest but otherwise harmless (apart from smell) insects was indeed making its way up toward the ceiling. Being the generous, virtuous soul that I am, I said “No! I am not killing anything until I have had my coffee!” and stomped downstairs.  And I guzzled a few days-worth before grimly making my way back upstairs to begin the day’s extermination, which did not end with just one.

And so it is that when Corrie ten Boom wrote in The Hiding Place about fleas, I was entirely on her side.  Corrie and her sister hid Jews during the Holocaust, and the first part of her book is filled with remarkable stories of God’s providence, and how they were given the grace not only to witness to Christ heroically but to save countless lives.  But then they were betrayed to the Gestapo, and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp.  The suffering and abuse they would experience was horrific, but what nearly put Corrie over the edge was the infestation of fleas they encountered when they first moved to new barracks.  “How can we live in such a place?” she wailed.

Her sister Betsie believed that the answer to “how” was to be found in Saint Paul’s exhortation to “give thanks to God in all circumstances,” and she led Corrie reluctantly through a litany of thanksgiving for everything—including all of the awful aspects—culminating with the fleas.  Corrie writes:

The fleas!  This was too much. “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”

“Give thanks in all circumstances,” [Betsie] quoted.  It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are a part of this place where God has put us.”

And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas.  But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.

But Betsie would have the last laugh.  For it turns out that the flea-infested room was their one place with sufficient freedom for prayer and bible study, which was for the prisoners the sole source of peace and calm in the years of torment.  It was the one place the wardens never entered, never caught them worshipping.  One day they discovered that their freedom was directly due to the infestation—the guards refused to enter the room precisely because of the fleas!

Corrie writes: “My mind rushed back to our first hour in this place.  I remembered Betsie’s bowed head, remembered her thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for.”

When we think of God as our “refuge and help” throughout the centuries, we are often tempted to think of the highlight reel of good times and blessings.  But we are invited to look deeper, to discover a God who is Emmanuel, with us in all things—including times of evil and suffering.

“The mystery of suffering is the biggest challenge we face in living out our faith…Faith doesn’t take away the mystery or the suffering, but it offers us another mystery: that God does not run from those who suffer, but instead draws close to them,” writes Sr. Marie Paul Curley, FSP in See Yourself Through God’s Eyes.

“The Lord is close the brokenhearted,” the Psalms tell us.  The Incarnation shows God taking on our suffering Himself in the person of Christ, but He also continues to love each of us in our own particular suffering.  And just as His own Cross brought about both Redemption and Resurrection, God can bring good out of everything in our lives too.  Some we see in this life; some will be seen only in the next.

The gratitude Betsie preached was important not only as spiritual etiquette, as giving God His due, but also in placing the situation, and all of its ugliness, in the palm of Providence.  When we thank God for His gifts, we build our own trust in Him as Giver, and our confidence that He will continue to keep us in His care.  When we recognize the good even in the midst of suffering, we strengthen our hope that future evils will also be accompanied by, and used for, good.

In a recent homily Pope Francis spoke about joy “not as living from laugh to laugh” but as a gift of the Holy Spirit that can be lived even in suffering.  The key to this joy, he said, is gratitude and memory.  It is the memory of God’s faithfulness that both sparks joy and gives hope for the future.

Let us pray for the grace of grateful hearts, to receive all as good from the Giver of All Good Things.

*            *            *

*Betsie would eventually give her life in the concentration camp, and when they found her body it was radiant and joyful.  Corrie survived the holocaust and went on to be a great Christian speaker and writer, whose works include The Hiding Place in which this story is found.

You can find See Yourself Through God’s Eyes by Sister Marie Paul Curley FSP in the Pauline bookstore or in the embedded link, or on Amazon here.  The above quote is from page 119.

“The Lord is close the brokenhearted” is from Psalm 34:18.

Feast of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

Indeed we call blessed those who have persevered.
—James 5:11

V0032624 Saint Mary Magdalen dei Pazzi. Etching by G. Fabbri, 1757.Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, the patron of the parish I attended growing up. On a trip to Florence, Italy, years ago, I was able to visit her tomb and see the chapel where she experienced many mystical visions. The austerity of her life as a Carmelite, juxtaposed with the wealth and dominance of her prominent Renaissance family that was so evident throughout Florence, was striking.

The life of St. Magdalene was marked by extreme highs and extreme lows. She experienced both ecstasies and desolations, and often the two were intermingled. She once said, “Those who call to mind the sufferings of Christ, and who offer up their own to God through His passion, find their pains sweet and pleasant.” This paradox—the sweetness of suffering, the beauty of pain—encapsulates her philosophy and mission. She was determined to make her whole life an offering, both the joys and sorrows, the highest mountains and the lowest valleys along her path; everything was part of an unbroken hymn of praise to God.

Perugino,_crocifissione_con_la_maddalena,_la_madonna,_s._giovanni_e_i_ss._bernardo_e_benedetto,_1493-96,_01Beginning at the age of nine, St. Magdalene practiced mental prayer, cultivating an intimate friendship with Jesus. This is what prepared her for all her mystical experiences and desolations to follow. Through it all, she maintained this friendship, speaking to Jesus as a dear friend with frank sincerity and playful banter. When Jesus told her, “I called and you didn’t care,” she responded, “You didn’t call loudly enough.” She asked Him to shout His love. She was honest and genuine in her conversations with Jesus, and this intimacy was what gave her the grace to bear the sufferings she endured. Her ultimate motivation was to return the love of Jesus Christ: Love incarnate, who was neither known nor loved.

Pedro_de_Moya_-_Vision_of_St_Maria_Magdalena_di_Pazzi_-_WGA16308Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi share a few things in common: both were born into prosperous Italian families that valued status and wealth, both chose to forego earthly treasures and esteem for the sake of serving Jesus. Both were nourished by daily Communion, and both persevered in faith through many unexpected trials. Their charisms and personalities were very different—Pier Giorgio was a man of action, while St. Magdalene was a Carmelite devoted to contemplative prayer—but each was motivated first and foremost by a relationship with Jesus. This enabled them to discover their own unique gifts and callings and to offer everything back to Him in love.

St. Magdalene de Pazzi teaches us to be thankful for whatever season we are in, always persevering in prayer and penance. Every experience can be a channel of grace. In our joys, may we not forget our need for God, and in our sorrows not abandon our trust in Him. Above all, if we are rooted in friendship with God as St. Magdalene was, our lives will take on renewed purpose.

O Love, You are neither known nor loved!
—St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi


1. G. Fabbri, etching of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi / Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0
2. Pietro Perugino, Crocifissione, la Vergine, San Giovanni, la Maddalena e i Santi Bernardo e Benedetto, fresco from the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, Florence / CC BY-SA 3.0
3. Pedro de Moya, Visión de Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi / PD-US

Nothing Will Be Wasted

When I saw today’s Gospel reading, I thought, I’m pretty sure I’ve already written a reflection about this story before. Turns out—yepTwice. So I tried to think about what new aspect I could bring to light from this story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. What stood out most to me from John’s version are these words from Jesus:

When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,
“Gather the fragments left over,
so that nothing will be wasted.”
—John 6:12

Giovanni_Lanfranco_-_Miracle_of_the_Bread_and_Fish_-_WGA12454Jesus has just taken five loaves and two fishes and managed to feed five thousand people. Not only that, but there are leftovers—twelve baskets full of scraps! There is more food left over than there ever was at the beginning. Which leads me to the question: If Jesus can multiply the loaves with such abundance, why does He ask His disciples to go to all the trouble of picking up the crumbs? Why would He need to be economical about saving all the scraps when everyone in the crowd can be satiated by His grace?

This initiative to harvest every single gift that is given us—even the crumbs—is an expression of gratitude, of not taking anything for granted. At the outset, when the disciples were desperate for food, twelve baskets of bread would have seemed a gift. Why wouldn’t it be now? This too is God’s providence, and it should be gratefully received rather than overlooked.

Мадонна с младенцем под яблоней  Холст (перев с дерева), масло 87х59 см  Между 1520-1526Let us not forget that Jesus started with a few loaves in order to feed the five thousand—He began with a meager offering. He saw, then, in those leftover scraps afterward, the precious raw material for a miracle. We need Jesus to multiply our gifts, but we must begin by doing our own part, offering all that we can, however small it may seem. He will handle the rest.

Only five loaves for five thousand people? A worthy offering. Bread crumbs, broken and scattered around a field? Not to be wasted. Jesus doesn’t overlook the crumbs we give Him; He sees the potential in our offerings. Neither should we overlook the crumbs we receive: the little joys amid a mundane day, the incomplete responses to our prayers, the half-successes as we continue to learn and grow and make mistakes. Our sufferings, too, have value; not one moment of our experience will be wasted. All of it is a gift, to be gathered and given to God.


1. Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish / PD-US
2. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree (detail) / PD-US