Our Mission: Holy Boldness

Their message goes out through all the earth – Psalm 19

If we have a familiarity with the Gospels, we are familiar with stories of Jesus healing people.  We know his healing of the blind man, telling the paralyzed man to pick up his mat and walk, and his raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn 9; Mt 9; Jn 11).  But how familiar are we with current stories of Catholics healing in Jesus’ name?  Have we seen someone be healed?  Do we even expect Jesus to heal people now?  Have we ever thought to pray for healing for someone in person, in Jesus’ name?  This is where my own spirit of skepticism likes to make its entrance (and I have a feeling I’m not alone in this)… ‘Those things don’t really happen now…’ ‘Well, Jesus only heals through certain people who have that gift and I don’t think I do…’ ‘I definitely believe Jesus can do those things, but…’ 

Are these thoughts in line with what we are learning from Scripture during this most wonderful season of Easter?  Actually, not at all.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus says:

“[w]hoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these because I am going to the Father.” 

Wait a minute… Did Jesus say only certain Christians with certain spiritual gifts will do the works that He does?  No!  He says, whoever believes in Him.  So wait…. that includes me?  Yes!  I definitely believe in Christ, and if you believe in our Lord and Savior, this includes you!  Wow.  This is really exciting and can also seem kind of scary.  And I can imagine the first apostles didn’t feel much differently than you or I.

Today’s feast celebrates two apostles, St. Philip and St. James.  The apostles were not exempt from that same spirit of skepticism.  In the Gospel, after Jesus has just told them that if they know Him they also know the Father, James responds that it will be enough if they can just see the Father (Jn 14:7-8).  Many, if not all, of us can identify with James.  Truly, it is only through God’s grace that our skepticism can be healed and we can receive greater faith in its place.  In the book of Acts, God reveals to us His mission for His Church:  That as the Father has sent the Son, so now the Son will return to the Father and send the Holy Spirit to believers, that WE may perpetuate and carry to completion Christ’s earthly mission – the restoration of the Kingdom (Jn 20:21, Acts 1:6-8). What characterized His earthly mission? Teaching and preaching the good news, accompanied by signs & wonders — healings.  As Christ promised, the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles at Pentecost — the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  And this is the same spirit each of us have received through the grace of our baptisms.  It is through the Holy Spirit of God that Christ can do His work in and through us, just as he did through the first disciples of the early church.  These are Jesus’ words that we read today:

“And whatever you ask in my name, I will do,
so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

In His name, He has promised to work great signs and wonders through us for the glory of God.  The rest of Acts is an exciting account of how the first disciples of the Lord lived out this mission of the Church.  The Church is still called to this mission today.

In the past couple of years, the Lord has worked to transform my skeptical heart.  He has taken me to places I never could have imagined by inviting me to partake in healing ministry.  He has drawn me in to witness His healing firsthand and, in His grace, He has built up my faith, inspired me, and ignited me.  I have seen the glory of our God through miracles of a woman’s cancer healed, people’s chronic pain be healed, my own husband’s injured wrists be healed, and felt my own body and uneven shoulders be restored to even-ness through prayers of healing, among other countless miracles, all for the glory of God. As I have witnessed these incredible physical healings, I’ve seen and experienced personally the greatest miracle – how God uses His signs and wonders to bring inner healing, convert our hearts, and set us free.  Our God is alive and at work through his church worldwide.  He only asks us to have faith and not be afraid to step out in faith in His name, and this is how we partake in and perpetuate Christ’s mission. 

Today, may we ask our Lord for the gift of holy boldness in our faith, through the intercession of Sts. Philip and James.  Let’s ask this for ourselves and for every Christian.  That as we approach Pentecost, the fire of the Holy Spirit would reignite our hearts and enflame us with the all-consuming love of God. 

Holy Spirit, come, fill our hearts with the fire of your Love.  Lord Jesus, thank you for inviting us into your earthly mission. Father, thank you for drawing us in to your divine plan of salvation for the whole world.  Lord God, ignite our hearts anew with holy boldness.  Heal our hearts of skepticism, we surrender our skepticism to you and ask for greater faith.  Help us to know who you are more fully.  Fill us with your charity, your burning love, your endless mercy and compassion, and inspire us through your most Holy Spirit to live out the mission you have given us.  We pray all of these things through the intercession of St. Philip and St. James, and in the most Holy name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen. 

For more info, I highly recommend: The Spiritual Gifts Handbook: Using Your Gifts to Build the Kingdom by Randy Clark and Dr. Mary Healy

Am I the Enemy?

“Healing is like an onion—there are many layers to it,” said the priest kindly. “God is moving foothills and mountains in your life—but you are looking for a volcano.”

His words gave me a measure of peace, but still I wanted more. A few days later, when the retreat had ended, I sat alone in the chapel. I felt burdened, not free. I felt an anxiety that I knew was not from God, and a longing for something more. I recalled the words of Sister Miriam, “You are not a problem to be fixed, but a person to be loved.” I remembered: “You need to let God love you…”

“What does that even mean?” I cried out. “I am trying so hard…” And I started sobbing with a pain that I could not identify but that poured forth from the depths of my being. “I am trying to let You love me! You know I give You permission! What more do You want of me?”

And then a memory surfaced, of the very worst sin of my life, the sin for which I was most deeply ashamed. “Will you let me love her?” I heard a gentle Voice ask. “Will you let me love the girl that did that?”

I froze for a second from the shock, and then recoiled in horror. Then, with a fury that would make the demons blush, I turned on my former self and screamed, “No!”

*            *            *

Like Saint Peter at the Last Supper, I thought I was stronger than I was. I had heard a story of someone committing this sin. I was aghast. “I could never do that!” I said with assurance, unaware of my underlying arrogance and spirit of self-reliance.

At supper with His disciples, Jesus tells His friends that one of them will betray him, and that the others will all flee. Peter is sure of himself. “Surely it is not I Lord!” “I will lay down my life for you.”

Jesus, who knows the dust from which we are made, warns him: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”

Sure enough, in the dark by the fire, three times Peter reacts: “I do not even know the man.” He hears the cock crow. And Luke tells us, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Luke 22:61)

What was in that look? I used to imagine disappointment, reproof, perhaps a tinge of “I told you so!” I saw in His eyes a mixture of sorrow and accusation, a frown on his face, a furrow on his brow, “How could you Peter?”

But God is love. And I believe that it was that look of love by which Peter was “undone.” A love that rushed into his hardened heart and rent it in two. “And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)

It seems at first that the greatest test is behind Peter, and that he has failed. But there is still a greater test to come.  Peter has seen Jesus heal and forgive. He has heard Christ’s call to forgive without limit, “not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Does he believe in Jesus? Does he believe in His power to forgive, to make new?

We all, with Peter, must choose to take Christ’s words to heart. To receive within the depths of our own hearts His healing and forgiveness. But this is not easy.

Is there ever a doubt in my mind that it is virtuous for me to give alms to the beggar, to forgive him who offends me, yes even to love my enemy in the name of Christ? No, not once does such a doubt cross my mind, certain as I am that what I have done unto the least of my brethren, I have done unto Christ.

But what if I should discover that the least of all brethren, the poorest of all beggars, the most insolent of all offenders, yes even the very enemy himself—that these live within me, that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness, that I am to myself the enemy who is to be loved—what then?

(Carl Jung quoted by Dr. Conrad Baars in Born Only Once).

At supper that night, Jesus broke bread with both Peter and Judas. Peter denied Him, but later became the first Pope and a martyr. Judas betrayed him, and we are told he regretted it, he returned the coins he had been paid, but he went and hung himself.

Was there such a great difference in their sin? No; rather, the difference was in their willingness to be forgiven. Jesus loved Judas also, to the end. Even in the Garden, when Judas comes to betray with a kiss, Jesus kindly calls him “Friend…”

For Peter, accepting this forgiveness is not an abstraction. There on the beach by the sea of Galilee, Christ will ask him, again, three times, “Do you love me?” And Peter, now humbled, will say, “You know everything…you know that I love you.” He now knows he cannot love on his own power. But Christ promises that He Himself will perfect Peter’s love, foretelling that one day, Peter will follow him to the cross, and this time lay down his life (see John 21:15-19). “Follow me,” He invites.

To follow and believe is not merely to acknowledge with our minds, but to receive in to our hearts the love of Christ. To allow it to convict and convert us, as an outpouring of compassion, not condemnation.

Once a woman who had been guilty of multiple abortions was struggling to accept forgiveness. Her priest had told her God was merciful, but she could not accept it. Ironically, she was going to counseling at that time with a Jewish therapist.

He questioned her, “Forgive me if I have this wrong—I am not Christian—but isn’t the idea that Jesus died for sins on the cross?” “Yes,” she agreed.”

“For everyone’s sins?” he pressed.

“Yes,” she answered. “Except mine.”

*            *            *

There in the chapel I sat, both Pharisee and Sinner at once.

The Pharisee screamed in accusation at the Sinner, “I hate what she did…I hate how she made me feel…she made me feel ashamed…she made me feel unworthy…she made me feel that I was bad…”

I heard myself naming each of the spirits we had been renouncing all week. And then, “she made me feel that I don’t deserve the love of my Father.”

I was again caught by surprise.

And as I cried out this last, I felt a sudden resurrection and freedom as the long-buried lie was exorcised from my soul. In place of the lie, I felt the embrace of the Father that shame had kept at arm’s length.

As we had been taught to do, I imagined my two selves standing at the foot of the cross. First, I asked Jesus to forgive, and then I forgave.

Christ is in each of us. Caryll Houselander asserts, even in the most hardened sinner. She suggests that we reverence such a person as we would the Holy Sepulcher (Tomb of Christ)—in which He is waiting to rise from the dead. Sometimes that tomb is within.

This Easter, we are invited to share in the death of Christ, and also in His resurrection.

Forgiveness of Sins

Image Credit:  Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

In Your Hands

Packing up my things for yet another move, I came across an old diary from my childhood.  It had two entries: in the first, January 1, 1985, I resolved to write daily, a fresh start to a new year full of promise.  The second, dated much later, noted that the first resolution was short-lived, but I was going to try again effective immediately.  The rest of the diary was empty.

My prayer journals, begun in college and early adulthood, were not that different.  They had a few more entries, but in general were filled only with good intentions, their pages primarily blank.  When I did write, the entries were mostly letters to God, filled with angst and longing, trying out new resolutions and then repenting for having failed.

“Have you ever thought about letting God answer you?” asked a friend one night.  I was stunned.

“What do you mean?” I wondered.  God didn’t talk to me.  That was for saints and other people; I didn’t hear God’s voice, and certainly didn’t expect him to “answer” me in my journals.

I remember that conversation well, and I know the date because it sits atop the first entry in a new journal.  The second I dated the very next day, and details an adventure I never expected.

As I prayed in this new way, inviting God to speak to me, I found myself walking along the beach next to Jesus.  I can still picture it, though our conversation was shy and awkward at first.  “What do you want to show me?” I asked Him.

And my mind went back to a night I had wished to forget.  I was young—probably five or six years old—packed in a car with several older children.  We had been that night to see a special outdoor summer movie, a showing of the cartoon the Jungle Book.

I had not seen many full-screen movies—this may even have been my first.  A sensitive child, I was transported into the story, imagining myself as little Mowgli, cute and adorable, befriended by Baloo the bear, and Bagheera the panther, who protected him from the Shere Khan, the tiger, and the evil cunning serpent Kaa.  While Shere Khan was the greater villain in Kipling’s story,  I was more deeply afraid of Kaa—the ugly evil serpent whose hissing twisted terror into my mind and heart.  Kaa would fill my nightmares for years to come, giving form to everything I feared and hated.

After the movie, as we were driving back, some of the older children started a game imagining each of as characters in the story.  I don’t remember who was who, but that I was disappointed when a cuter younger girl was chosen to be Mowgli.  But then someone asked, “Who should Grace be?” and whether mischief or malice or just misfortune, they seized on my greatest fear:

“Grace is Kaa! Grace is Kaa!”

Seeing my fear and dismay at their choice, they pounced with glee and began to torment me, inventing and explaining all the reasons that I was Kaa.  “You aren’t cute and adorable—you are skinny and ugly!  You are bad!  Everyone hates you!”  I felt as though I were being stabbed repeatedly, with a knife that broke the skin and sent blood coming out.  With each word the cutting intensified, and seemed to echo every hateful thing anyone had ever said to or about me: “You are ugly!  You are bad!  Nobody could ever love you!”

As I relived this memory in stark detail, I started sobbing, hemmed in by hateful voices, feeling again the pain and the stabbing, as blood gushed out of each stab wound.  I cried out in anguish, “Make them stop Jesus!  Why are you letting this happen to me?  Why aren’t you stopping them?  Make them stop, Jesus!”

And just then I heard Him speak. “Grace, the knife is in your hands…”

And I looked down and saw I was holding the knife, the knife that was cutting me so badly.  And I realized suddenly that the power of the scene was not in the past, but in the present.  Because those words had been spoken one time long ago by people who had long forgotten them—had perhaps never really truly meant them.  But I had embraced them, believed them, and was repeating them to myself ever since.  I had taken every subsequent hurt and criticism as further evidence that they were true. These lies had power because I had myself given voice to them.  I held the knife.

*            *            *

On a recent healing retreat, we were taught about such wounds as entry points for the Opposition Voice.  We are all hurt—in big or little ways—and into that hurt the Opposition speaks lies.  Lies about our goodness, lies about the goodness of God.  Lies about His love for us, or our worthiness to receive it.  What matters is less the words that are spoken, or the events that happen to us, but how we receive them and what we then believe.

Healing comes when we recognize and name these lies, the spirts of opposition, and renounce them.  “In the name of Jesus, I renounce the spirit of shame…of unworthiness….of fear…of hatred…”  “In the name of Jesus, I renounce the lie that God does not care about me…the lie that I am ugly…the lie that I am bad/unworthy/unlovable…”

I have found, both in my own experience and in praying with others, that it is very important to say these renunciations out loud.  Sometimes our difficulty in giving voice to them is a sign of their importance, which has often been unconsciously buried.  Many times simply saying the words of renunciation brings a new tangible experience of freedom.

In a comparable way the Church has insisted on the sacrament of Confession, and the speaking aloud of our sins.  Bringing them into the open, into the light, by speaking them out, is the beginning of healing.  The Opposition thrives in secrecy and darkness in which shame in particular can fester and grow.  Jesus came to bring light.

In today’s first reading the Israelites are struggling with the conditions in the desert.  They begin to complain against God, wishing they had never left Egypt.  This is evidence that they have embraced the deadly lie of the Opposition Voice:  “God is not good.  God doesn’t care about you…”  These deadly lies block their ability to receive God’s love and gifts.  And so visible deadly serpents come into the camp and sting them, to be a sign of what is happening spiritually.

God gives the Israelites an antidote to the serpent’s venom: Moses mounts a bronze serpent on a staff, and whoever looks at it is saved.  They look and see their sin, the image of the lie they have embraced.   The recognition of the lie, of the sin, is the first stage of salvation.  But it is not the end.

Jesus Himself will be lifted up, to show us graphically what sin does.  But more than that—to show us what Love does.  That Love is stronger.  That God is good, that He loves us—so much so that He would die for us.

As important as it is to renounce evil, we must also claim truth.  “In the name of Jesus, I claim that truth that I am chosen by God…that I am loved by God…that I am beautiful… that God died for love of me.”

In Confession, we are absolved when after speaking our sins, the priest, in persona Christi speaks God’s words over us:

“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.”

And in so doing, the priest makes the sign of the cross—that we might look up and place ourselves in the hands stretched out to welcome us home.

In Your Hands

Photo by Vladislav M on Unsplash

 

One in the Crowd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tears

“Thus says the LORD:
Lo, I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
The things of the past shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness
in what I create;
For I create Jerusalem to be a joy
and its people to be a delight;
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and exult in my people.
No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there,
or the sound of crying;
No longer shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not round out his full lifetime;
He dies a mere youth who reaches but a hundred years,
and he who fails of a hundred shall be thought accursed.
They shall live in the houses they build,
and eat the fruit of the vineyards they plant.” -Isaiah 65:17-21

Today’s first reading is a little reprieve of hope in the midst of Lent, a reminder of what is to come. A reminder that suffering is never the end of our story, that God brings about resurrections from our seasons of suffering and the ultimate resurrection from all our pain in the hope of the eternal life Christ won for us.

“No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there, or the sound of crying.” This reminds me of the line from the Psalms where it says that God collects our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:9). One of my friends and I joke about a bottle not being big enough for God to collect our tears, but that instead we have bathtubs full. Why would God collect our tears? Why would God make it a point to tell us through the prophets that in Heaven there will be no more weeping?

Because our suffering matters to God, and He wants us to know that it is not in vain. Our suffering is sacred to the God who suffered it all for us. Jesus didn’t have to suffer and die for us, but He did so He could understand our pain and so when we suffer, we wouldn’t ever have to be alone in it. His suffering meant an eventual end to ours, that Heaven could be opened for us.

In Heaven there will be no more tears of sorrow, no more pain. Every ounce of hurt and betrayal will be redeemed and atoned for. Every wound healed. Every sin taken away. Revel in that glory for a second. That is how much we’re loved by our Father. That’s what this Lenten journey is all about. Earth is not our home. Heaven heals. And in the meantime? God counts every single tear. We don’t even know how many tears we cry, but He does. He holds each one as precious and sacred, collecting them and not letting them go to waste. He is not absent in our tears; He is here.

Ponder the marvels of Heaven today, and allow God’s glory to reorient your hope.

P.S. My song recommendation of the day is one of the most beautiful choral hymns based on the first reading and a similar passage in Revelation, “And I Saw a New Heaven” by Edgar Bainton. Listen for the part where they sing, “And God shall wipe away all tears.” Enjoy!

Sitting in Pairs

Gathered in the theater of the Sheen Center, we watched as survivors of the Rwanda genocide told their stories of living through unspeakable atrocities.  How they hid from former friends and neighbors, who hunted them down in order to exterminate them.  How they watched family members assaulted and killed before their eyes.  How they hid in the bush, in the ceilings; how they begged for food, for simple kindness, for their lives to be spared.  In just a few months, over one million people were murdered in Rwanda by their fellow countrymen.

The survivors sat in pairs as they told their stories.  One man described his parent’s killing.  One woman witnessed her father, and later her brothers, being taken away and executed.  One woman recounted how she was personally attacked, and showed us the scars on her body, including a long scar across her neck, formed by the attack of a machete intended to decapitate her.  The man sitting next to her began to tell his story also.  “I remember her…there were so many that day…but I remember her especially.  Because I thought I killed her.”

There was a collective intake of breath, as the theater sat hushed and still, suddenly aware that we were seeing something different.  That the pairs were not of fellow survivors, but of survivors and perpetrators.  That each person recounting their story of horror, was sitting next to someone responsible for that horror—a living icon of the healing power of forgiveness.

Father Ubald, maker of the film and presider over recent Frassati healing services, lost his parents to the genocide and only narrowly survived himself.  He believed that God spared him, and later used him, to bring the message of forgiveness to a country torn asunder by hate.  For him, the only path to recovery from the trauma, both for the individual and the country as a whole, was in the choice to forgive.  Forgiveness was the key to freedom for both survivors and perpetrators.  It was also the only way to arrest the power of hatred, and to break the cycle of violence.

Father Ubald had the opportunity to put this into practice when he met the man responsible for his mother’s murder.  He chose to forgive.  And because he knew it would be easy to dismiss such forgiveness as merely theoretical, he made it practical and concrete.  As a gesture of love, he committed to paying the schooling of the man’s son, and later his daughter as well.  This year, the daughter of a killer will finish medical school, financed by the mercy of one of his victims.

One cannot help but be inspired by these stories.  And yet, we struggle to put into practice even a fraction of what we witness.  Within ourselves, we hold hostage others guilty of much lesser crimes, refusing to forgive others of even small slights against us.  Those closest to us in particular can have an ability to injure us—and to be injured by us in turn, and by our unwillingness to forgive.

G.K. Chesterton quipped that “the Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”  For some of us, the challenge is even closer.  “All of our family was under one roof for the holidays…and nobody was murdered.  That’s the real Christmas miracle!” joked our retreat leader Colleen Kelly-Rayner.

Today’s Gospel tells the story of the unforgiving servant. He is himself released from an unpayable debt at the mercy of his master.  But when he encounters one who owes a much smaller debt, he seizes him and starts to choke him, demanding that the debt be repaid.

Jesus has harsh words for him: “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

Furthermore, Jesus tells us to forgive “not seven times but seventy-seven times”—that is, without limit.  He is inviting us to be like God.

We cannot become like God on our own; we need grace.  In order to forgive, we need God’s help.  The first step of forgiveness is to ask for the grace to forgive.  And sometimes, for the grace to want to forgive.  (Sometimes, to want to want to want to forgive…)

To forgive does not mean to erase what happened, to pretend that the was no real injury, no sin, no harm.   Rather, to forgive completely we must be honest about the evil that we are forgiving.  We are not pretending that evil away, but rather relinquishing revenge, relinquishing our right to exact payment, releasing our choke-hold on the one who owes us.

To forgive does not mean to forget.  According to the Catechism, it is “not within our power not to feel or to forget.”  We may continue to feel the pain of injury for some time.  In fact, notes Simcha Fisher, it may be that the “seventy-seven times” is for the same offense.  Even as our heart or emotions remind us of the injury, we can choose again to surrender our feelings to the Holy Spirit, and to offer forgiveness as an act of our will.

Thus the Lord’s words on forgiveness, the love that loves to the end, become a living reality. The parable of the merciless servant, which crowns the Lord’s teaching on ecclesial communion, ends with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” It is there, in fact, “in the depths of the heart,” that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.  CCC 2843

How do we surrender our heart to God in the midst of pain?  Father Solanus Benfatti, CFR, composed a Prayer Against Bitterness which I have found particularly helpful.  In it we are invited to come to God with the truth of what was done to us, but the greater truth about who we are and who God is.  We invite God to transform our pain, that it not become a prison for us.

Prayer Against Bitterness

Oh God, Heavenly Father. Thank you for my life. Thank you for wanting me. And for making me in the image and likeness of your Most Beloved Son in whom you are well-pleased. And for consecrating me into his Passion, Death, and glorious Resurrection at my baptism.

Father, right now, I feel hurt (sorrowful / angry /other), because _______. As a creature made wonderfully by you, and saved by the blood of the Lamb, and meant to be with you forever, I don’t deserve ______. And in the name of Jesus I reject and renounce the lie _________.

But I also do not want my natural anger and hurt to plant bitter roots in me and turn in to hatred and resentment. I renounce that and ask you, Father, in your merciful love, to send your Holy Spirit to block that from happening, even while I try to process properly the emotions I have and work to make reasonable and loving decisions to forgive, out of love for you, and following your example.

Also, I beg you to uproot bitterness and resentment that has taken residence in me in the course of my life. Give me memory of what I need to proceed humanly and forgive divinely. Send the Mother of your Son, Mary, to guide me, hand-in-hand all along the way.

I pray to you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Forgiveness_0001 Resized

Image Credit: scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

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