Desert Places

“Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.” -Isaiah 35:6-7

My brother lives in Arizona, where they are currently enjoying the chilly winter temperature of 72°. A couple years ago, I went to visit him in June, when it gets to be a lovely 115°. One morning, we decided to go hiking in the beautiful desert mountains. We got up really early to beat the heat—well, to try to beat the heat, anyway.

As we were hiking, I kept saying that it didn’t feel that hot, even though it was. This was probably because my body associates heat with the sweaty, sticky humidity of New York summers.

It wasn’t until we got back to the car after our hike that I realized how thirsty I was. My throat was really dry, and I was definitely dehydrated.

Has your heart ever felt this way? Sometimes we go about our lives, thinking everything is fine, that we’ve got it, that we’re in control, and then we realize how much we are desperately aching for our Savior.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Or has your heart ever felt like the vast Arizona desert? Dry, cracked, parched, barren. Sometimes in seasons of desolation, pain, or mourning, we can feel like we are stuck in an endless desert. I’ve definitely had those moments of wondering when the drought would end and God would bring a long-awaited reprieve.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Jesus meets us in our desert places. He knows those seasons well. If you are feeling like you’re in a desert season right now, take heart. He is with you. And no matter how painful, lonely, or never-ending it seems, Jesus is bigger. And He is on the way.

There is a beautiful Japanese art form called kintsugi. The artist takes broken ceramics and puts them back together by filling the cracks and places where they broke with gold, turning the art into something even more strikingly marvelous.

kintsugi
Kintsugi art

When Jesus comes to fill in the cracks in our desert hearts, He does the same thing. He redeems our scars, wounds, and dry places by giving us the gift of His whole self and making our scars dazzle with His love.

Let Him fill you today, brothers and sisters.

Hope in the Darkness

And out of gloom and darkness,
the eyes of the blind shall see.
—Isaiah 29:18

Throughout this season of Advent, amid the cold and lingering darkness, we seek out light. We surround ourselves with flickering lights that gleam amidst the night, reminders of hope and beauty even in the darkest places. These lights help prepare our hearts to appreciate with awe and wonder the Light that was born out of darkness, in Bethlehem so long ago.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals two blind men who dared to believe that His powerful Light could permeate their deep, unending darkness. Even though they could not see Jesus, they knew that He was the Lord, for even when we cannot see the sunlight we can feel its rays upon us. They could sense, in Jesus’s presence, a sacredness that drew them in, so much so that they truly believed that He could heal them. By their faith in the impossible, their sight was restored.

Only with the light of faith can we see the world around us clearly. Without a sense of hope in God, we cannot understand our true purpose. Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when Mary was conceived without original sin. Out of the darkness of Eve came the luminous beauty of Mary, whose fiat made way for our redemption. Do we believe that God can open our eyes to see hope within the darkness? Do we trust that the Light will prevail, even when it seems hidden to us?

As the days grow shorter and shorter this Advent, may the candlelight enkindle within our hearts a hope that endures through the darkness.

Cluttered Hearts

“O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!” -Isaiah 2:5

Advent is upon us, and it seems like each year my heart cries out with more and more longing for the coming of our Savior.

Jesus, we need You.

We need You in our broken and hurting world full of darkness, sin, and deep, deep pain.

We need You to be the center of our families, our marriages, our friendships. We need You to heal our relationships with others.

We need You in our workplaces.

We need You in our bleeding Church; oh how we need You to make all things new and right. We need You to bind up our wounds, to bring mighty justice, to shine Your piercing light into the darkness of the appalling sin, shame, hiding, and cover-up, to direct our next steps and to guide us forward.

We need You in the messy parts of our hearts, the parts we are too ashamed to tell other people about, the parts You see and love us anyway.

We need You to uproot and cast out shame, fear, and distrust of Your goodness from our lives.

We need You in every inch of the world, in every part of our beings, in the deepest depths of our souls. Every minute, every hour, every second—we need You.

Dear brothers and sisters, Advent is a season full of hopeful expectation of God’s saving power. It’s a season of light shining forth in the darkness. As we light each new candle of the Advent wreath, may we allow that much more of the light of Christ to pierce our hearts and renew us.

The other day in prayer, I imagined Jesus knocking on the door of the home of my heart, like a guest that comes forty-five minutes before the party when you’re still cleaning and haven’t showered. I imagined myself panic-stricken, trying to shove certain things behind the couch. And there He stood before me, smiling, seeing right through my couch cushions to all the mess and sin that I tried to hide. Yet He responded with nothing but tenderness. His kindness leads to our conversion.

We need to let Jesus in before we feel ready. Sometimes we need Him to help point out where we need to grow, and sometimes we need the affirmation of knowing that He loves us just the same no matter what mess we have in our hearts. He takes us as we are. When we let our Savior in, prepared or not, He speaks to our cluttered and weary hearts, “You are good. You are seen. You are known. I love you fully, as you are.”

Memento Mori

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
—Wisdom 3:1–3

In my catechism class this week, I was teaching about the saints, and my students all wanted to find out which saint’s feast day fell on their birthday. One girl said, “My birthday’s November 2. What feast day is that?”

“Oh, that’s All Souls Day! It’s when we pray for the souls in purgatory,” I answered.

Disappointed, she replied, “That’s…kind of morbid.”

I can understand her reaction—it’s hard to get excited about reflecting on death, especially as a kid on your birthday. It’s a topic that most of us avoid thinking about, because it makes us feel uncomfortable. But there has long been a Catholic tradition of meditating on death, not as some kind of penance or self-imposed misery, but rather as a way to transform our fear of death into hope in the Resurrection.

Memento mori—“Remember your death”—is a refrain to keep us grounded amid the distractions of this world. Thinking about death does not seem appealing to us, but ignoring it will not make it go away. Death is an inevitable reality, and it’s not something we can control. But if we approach it from a perspective of Christian hope, deeply rooted in the promises Christ has made to us, we will begin to see that we don’t have to be so fearful of death. It is more of a beginning than an ending, an obscure mystery that only begins to make any sense to us when we see it through the lens of the Gospel. Meditating on death is itself an act of hope: that as we look more deeply into this mystery, there will be more to discover than bleak, existential materialism. There will be redemption and rebirth.

Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, a young sister with the Daughters of Saint Paul, has been keeping a ceramic skull on her desk for the past year as a reminder of death and tweeting about Memento Mori each day. She says:

Death, I think, is a very, very unpleasant topic, especially if you don’t believe in God. When I was an atheist, it was something I definitely did not want to think about because it’s the annihilation of the self. But for people of faith, it has a totally different dimension. We’re able to think about the reality of death and how it’s been transformed by Jesus.

Meditating on death not only lessens our fear; it also increases our sense of urgency to answer the callings God has given us. We are called to become saints, and we have no time to waste. We can go forward to carry out this calling filled with joy, not with fear, confident that if we are united with Christ in death, we will also be united with Him in resurrection.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
—Romans 6:5

The Heart of an Only Son

Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain,
and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.
As he drew near to the gate of the city,
a man who had died was being carried out,
the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.
A large crowd from the city was with her.
When the Lord saw her,
he was moved with pity for her and said to her,
“Do not weep.”
He stepped forward and touched the coffin;
at this the bearers halted,
and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”
The dead man sat up and began to speak,
and Jesus gave him to his mother.  –Luke 7:11-15

*            *            *

At first she was just a little confused, having trouble remembering the passwords to her computer and her phone.  She had lost some weight; she was very tired; she had a persistent cough that was strong enough to trigger the automatic water faucet a few yards away from her bed in the ER.  But nobody seemed particularly concerned.  “There are some anomalies in her blood work—we’d like to keep her overnight for observation—but don’t worry; she’s not being admitted.  She’ll likely go home in the morning.”

My mother had walked into the ER, normally if somewhat reluctantly. But the next day she was stumbling a little, the bloodwork was still a little “off.”  She was admitted.  On day two she needed assistance walking, and by day three she was a little confused as to where she was.  “How is Teresa going to get into the school if they lock it up at 3:00 p.m.?” she worried.

By the weekend she could not get out of bed unassisted.  Each day brought dramatic decline, both physical and mental.  “Do you know who is there?” the nurse asked my mother, pointing to where I stood by her bedside, as I had every day for a week.  She looked up with benign bewilderment.  “No,” she said, “I don’t know who that is…”

But she could figure out certain things. “If they ask you where you are, tell them you are at XYZ Hospital!” she would tell me and anyone who would listen.  But then add with a devious grin, “even though we know it’s not true…”

An MRI revealed part of the cause: a shower of strokes over both hemispheres of her brain.  “I’ve never seen anything like this!” reported the doctors with amazement.  Her bloodwork continued to reveal more strangeness, markers that didn’t match, and the doctors began to look for a cause for this “mystery illness.”

A few weeks in, still confused, she began to complain of stomach pain.  This was a new symptom.  “It’s probably just constipation,” they said.  “Or she’s just confused.  Don’t worry.”  This continued for three days, until a new blood draw revealed a drastic drop in her hemoglobin. By then she was crying, begging to be given something for the pain.

After looking at the CT-Scan, the doctors finally gave us permission to worry.  She had an internal bleed the size of a watermelon, and was being rushed down to ICU.  “I have to be honest—she may not make it through the night.”

*            *            *

In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes face-to-face with family grief.  From within the crowd that accompanied Him—many no doubt begging Him for favors, answers, healings—He sees a coffin being carried.  His heart is moved, not just by the young man’s loss of life, but by the grief of the widowed mother.  Why does this touch him so much?  What is it that so moves the heart of the Unmoved Mover?

Father Paul Scalia writes:

By His divine nature He performs the miracle.  But He is moved to do so in His human nature.  That He was moved with pity refers to His Sacred Heart and His capacity to be moved with human love.  Saint Luke tells us that the deceased was “the only son of His mother, and she as a widow.”  (Lk 7:12) This describes Our Lord Himself, and His mother.  So it should not surprise us that He turns first to the widow, in whom He sees the anticipation of Mary’s sorrow.  “Do not weep,” He tells her—as if to tell His own Mother.  Yes—Our Lord is all-powerful.  But in His sacred humanity He places Himself within our reach—so that our misery moves Him to act on our behalf.1 (emphasis added)

Jesus touches the coffin, and the man is raised back to life.  Saint Luke then uses an interesting expression, “Jesus gave him to his mother.”  Father Scalia notes that Jesus does not “allow the miracle of raising a man from the dead to obscure the importance of the man’s human relationships.”

We know that God is love, but the words do not always reach us.  Some time ago I watched a grim-faced woman on the subway who barked at high volume: “Jeee-zus loves you!  Jeee-zus loves you!”  I watched as people rolled or averted their eyes.  Some squirmed; a man across from me seem apoplectic with agitation at her words.  I, who claim to be willing to die to defend such a pronouncement, found myself cringing and sliding down in my seat.

Yet I’ve also seen those same words move men twice my size and strength, and reduce them to tears.  “Jesus loves you!”  When these words become real, when the hearer is convinced that God’s love is in fact profound and personal, something greater than resurrection happens in the human heart.

This weekend Father Columba spoke about the power of Words of Knowledge.  God uses human instruments, to speak into human hearts, often by revealing small, intimate details that only a concerned Father would know to reveal.  It is one thing to believe in a love that is generic and amorphous.  It is something much more when we realize that His concern and care for us is concrete, specific and personal.

Like the widowed mother, Our Lady would also be given her Son, there under the cross.  We see her suffering, that Michelangelo carved into the Pieta.  She held in her arms the lifeless Body of one who died that we might know that personal love.  But she received Him forever when He rose from the dead.

*            *            *

I was there in the ICU that night as my mother journeyed to the edge of death, but came back.  I was there again at his bedside, several months later, when my father took that same journey, but he did not return.

There was much suffering that year; it would be months before my mother returned home, her illness still classified as a mystery.  There were many days in which I thought that I could not endure more, that there was nothing left in me to die.

But one of the beautiful things about hitting rock bottom is that you discover just Who that Rock Is.  We are never alone.

 

 

Notes:

1Scalia, Rev. Paul. That Nothing May Be Lost. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017) p. 134

The Science of the Cross

“I will have only one wisdom: the science of the cross.” —Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận

Earlier this week, I was able to attend a requiem Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer in memory of the victims of 9/11. It was a beautiful liturgy as well as a powerful reminder of our own mortality, that our days on earth are fleeting and meant to be used purposefully, in service to God. In his homily, Fr. Sebastian mentioned Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận as an example of someone who lived with radical hope even in extreme suffering.

Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận (1928–2002) was a Vietnamese Cardinal who spent thirteen years imprisoned by the communist government in re-education camps, most in solitary confinement. However, refused to despair over the immense suffering he experienced, choosing instead to make the most of his situation. He wrote letters to Church communities, spent long hours in prayer, and showed joy and kindness toward his prison guards. The prisons had to change his guards regularly because he was so effective at evangelizing them.

Cardinal Văn Thuận brought light into the darkness; his very presence spread hope amid some of the bleakest corners of humanity. And he did so by embracing the Cross. This paradox is at the heart of Christian belief: that joy springs from suffering. For the early Church, the Crucifixion was a source of shame and embarrassment; and yet this is how God chose to save us, through an act of utter humiliation and torture. While in his cell, Cardinal Văn Thuận made for himself a crucifix out of scrap wood and some wire that had been smuggled in by some sympathetic guards. He sought a physical reminder that his own sufferings were united with Christ’s.

Today, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, let us look to the saints who have gone before us to understand why the Cross is so vital in sustaining our hope, especially as we undergo times of turbulence and trial. Cardinal Văn Thuận accepted his imprisonment as a gift. St. Edith Stein showed mercy and compassion even in Auschwitz. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati willingly ventured into the poorest, most desolate areas of his city to spread hope and charity, and he endured his agonizing final illness without complaint. May we, too, learn to fan the flame of God’s love within us, so that we may be a light in the darkness.

“To treasure each suffering as one of the countless faces of Jesus crucified, and to unite our suffering to his, means to enter into his own dynamic of suffering-love. It means to participate in his light, his strength, his peace; it means to rediscover within us a new and abundant presence of God.” —Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận

The Oil of Charity

We must not think that our love has to be extraordinary. But we do need to love without getting tired. How does a lamp burn? Through the continuous input of small drops of oil. These drops are the small things of daily life: faithfulness, small words of kindness, a thought for others, our way of being quiet, of looking, of speaking, and of acting. They are the true drops of love that keep our lives and relationships burning like a living flame.
—St. Teresa of Calcutta

In today’s Gospel, Jesus recounts the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. I’ve written before on what this passage teaches us about waiting, but today I noticed another aspect of the story. It seems at first that the wise virgins, those who were well prepared with oil, act selfishly in refusing to share their oil with the others. But actually, this speaks to the symbolism of what the oil represents. St. Augustine, preaching on this passage, reflected that the oil represents our charity and good works:

I will tell you why charity seems to be signified by the oil. The Apostle says, “I show unto you a way above the rest.” Though I speak with the tongues of men and of Angels, and have not charity, I have become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. This, that is “charity,” is “that way above the rest,” which is with good reason signified by the oil. For oil swims above all liquids. Pour in water, and pour in oil upon it, the oil will swim above. Pour in oil, pour in water upon it, the oil will swim above. If you keep the usual order, it will be uppermost; if you change the order, it will be uppermost. “Charity never falls.”

There is the oil, the precious oil; this oil is of the gift of God. Men can put oil into their vessels, but they cannot create the olive. See, I have oil; but did you create the oil? It is of the gift of God. You have oil. Carry it with you….

For he who walks to gain the testimony of another, does not carry oil with him. If you abstain from things unlawful, and do good works to be praised of men; there is no oil within. And so when men begin to leave off their praises, the lamps fail. Observe then, Beloved, before those virgins slept, it is not said that their lamps were extinguished. The lamps of the wise virgins burned with an inward oil, with the assurance of a good conscience, with an inner glory, with an inmost charity.

—St. Augustine, “Sermon 43 on the New Testament”

The oil, symbolizing the charity in our hearts, cannot be transferred from one to another, just as our own good works cannot be distributed out to other souls at the time of judgment. The oil of charity is a gift from God; it cannot be manufactured. The graces that come from a life spent in service to others, in prayer, and in righteousness cannot simply be handed over to another. No one can borrow the good works of others to make up for the good works they’ve failed to do. A holy person might draw others toward Christ and inspire them to follow God by sharing their story, but they can’t transfer some of their own holiness to “even the scales.” True holiness can only be achieved through a personal encounter with God, not by proxy.

Why did the foolish virgins neglect to bring enough oil? Perhaps they were focused more on the feast—where surely there would be abundant light—than on meeting the bridegroom. If they had been joyfully anticipating that encounter more than the party afterward, then maybe they would have remembered to ensure they brought enough oil to be able to see him clearly when he arrived.

As we wait in expectant hope for the bridegroom’s arrival, may we remember to oil our hearts with acts of faith, hope, and charity, feeding the flame of God’s grace within us.