Not in Vain

“Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.” -Isaiah 49:4

“You should pray for the grace to not see the fruits of your ministry.”

Wait…what? Did I hear that correctly? Also, ouch?

I remember hearing this talk at a youth ministry convention at the end of a whirlwind of the first year on the job. And yes, the speaker chose his words correctly.

In so many things we do in life, ministry or otherwise, we either aren’t seen or don’t see the fruits of our labors for a long time…or ever. We can toil and toil and feel like we’re working in vain. “Does this even matter?” we wonder, “What’s the point if I keep trying but can’t get through to this person?” Maybe it’s an unpleasant co-worker that you try to show compassion to, a friend who needs forgiving, or you feel like you’re giving and giving but no one ever says thank you. We can go on feeling like we’re unnoticed, unappreciated, and as if the ways we’re trying to love like Jesus don’t sink in.

But at the end of the day, is that really what it’s about? It’s a hard question, I know. Now more than ever, we are aching to be seen, known, and loved—and we can fall into the temptation to pridefully seek this approval from anyone and anything but God. The lies lurk beneath the surface, just waiting to tell us that we’re not good enough—when we check to see who looked at our Insta Story, when we get frustrated that we didn’t get a “thank you” at work, when we feel forgotten and misunderstood.

But again, it’s not about that. God sees you, always—He can’t take His eyes off you. God knows you, better than you know yourself. God loves you, through and through.

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. St. John the Baptist had the great calling of preparing the way for the Lord, for helping people’s hearts to be ready for Jesus’ public ministry. He toiled and toiled for the Lord, knowing that his cousin was about to change everything. However, John the Baptist was murdered at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He didn’t get to see all the fruits of his labors while on earth. He didn’t get to live to be one of the people greeting the resurrected Jesus at the tomb. But John knew that it wasn’t about that. He was a fantastic model of humility, saying, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

So maybe we won’t see the fruits of our labors. But take heart, brothers and sisters, we do not toil in vain. The Lord sees, and we can never go wrong by loving like Him. Let’s adopt the words of St. John the Baptist today and pray, “More of You, Lord, and so much less of me.”

Appealing to Mercy

After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them,
he said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.”
He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.
And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
—John 21:15–19

There are a few instances in the Bible where we are given a direct contrast between two sinners—one who is remembered for his sins and another who is forgiven and honored. In the Old Testament, we see Saul and David. Neither of these kings were blameless in their actions, but only David—an adulterer and murderer—is described by God as “a man after His own Heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). How could David deserve such an honor? It is because David, unlike Saul, repented wholeheartedly of his sins. By dying to self and embracing humility, David entered the Heart of the Father.

Here in the New Testament, we have the contrasting examples of Judas and Peter. Both betrayed Jesus at the time of His Passion. But the reason that Judas is condemned for his sin instead of being forgiven alongside Peter is not because his sin is greater but because he despaired of God’s mercy. He could not believe that God was so good and merciful as to forgive even this ultimate betrayal, and so rather than kneeling before Him in humility and offering up his tears of regret, he gave up. Peter, however, was bold enough to place himself at the feet of Jesus even after denying Him three times and abandoning Him in His Passion. His trust was stronger than his fear, and Jesus’s love for him abounded all the more because of his humility and trust. Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to rewrite the narrative, asking him to affirm his love for the Lord three times, which echoed and reversed his three denials.

Nothing is more pleasing to God than repentance: appealing to His great mercy, acknowledging our sinfulness, and embracing our dependence on Him. God is not surprised by our sinfulness; in fact, He plans to use it for good—if only we allow Him. He chose the flawed Simon Peter to be the rock upon which He built His Church, for Peter had learned all the more to call upon the strength of God to act as that foundation, not on his own meager strength.

When we stumble and fall on our path, when we fall short of our own expectations, when we feel the sting of guilt wash over us, let us follow Peter’s example and turn to Jesus in trust. Let not our pride keep us from receiving His overflowing mercy.

To Be A Servant

Jesus issued the call to discipleship as servants to others, not only to His personal followers but to those of us who would follow in His footsteps in the future.  This message is preached to us as Christians so often, the meaning of it can lose its significance.  In fact, Jesus lost disciples who were seeking to follow a king, not a servant. Jesus offers true disciples a more personal opportunity for service than simply being part of a military or political entourage.  Would any ruler in this world wash anyone else’s feet himself?! Washing the feet of all His disciples the night before He died was symbolic for Jesus in embracing His role as the Messiah. Now we are called to take up the servant role as we follow the path set by our Master. By accepting this role, we express our humility.

Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him.
—John 13:16–18

All our gifts, talents and abilities were bestowed on us by God. There is nothing we can do except through the power of Jesus Christ. As we move forward on our life’s journey, we should consider our place in the world differently, even in the slightest circumstances. We should be kind to our brothers and sisters every chance we have. Let someone merge in front of us in traffic; let a coworker have the last donut in the break room; put your loose change in the tip jar at your favorite coffee shop. These small acts of kindness not only bring us closer to our fellow humans but also to the One who commissioned us to be kind in imitation of His unfailing kindness. Since Jesus no longer walks among us in the flesh, God’s hands must truly be our own.

A Posture of Humility

This week, I helped facilitate the confession line for a group of middle schoolers. Many were nervous; several had not gone to confession in years. I tried to help settle their nerves and calm their fears before going in, assuring them of God’s great mercy and that there was nothing to be scared about. A few children inspired me with their eagerness to enter the confessional—one who hadn’t been in six years, as well as one who had just gone last week. They didn’t allow any apprehensions to hold them back from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. They simply went forward with a sincere trust that by humbling themselves before God, they would experience grace. And what inspired me the most was that all these kids, even the ones who were most nervous, came out of the confessional beaming with joy and relief.

Kneeling in the shadows of the confessional, coming face to face with the reality of our sin and articulating it aloud—this is not something that demeans or diminishes us. Rather, it ennobles us, for it unites us more closely with our Creator as part of His Divine Body. By kneeling down and making ourselves small, we become part of a greater whole. Yet many of us hesitate to take this posture of humility. Sometimes a sense of perfectionism holds us back from admitting our mistakes, even to ourselves. But this sort of perfectionism is ultimately rooted in fear—that our faults will make others think less of us, or that God will be disappointed in us (as if He doesn’t already know all that we’ve done!). So instead of confessing our sins, we live in denial of their existence—and then we never receive the graces that will help us overcome them. We never come to understand that our goodness does not come from ourselves, but from the God who loves us so much that He laid down His life to redeem us in our sinfulness.

Jesus Himself has taken the ultimate postures of humility: on the Cross, with His arms spread open in surrender; and in the Eucharist, where He comes to us as Bread and Wine, food for us to consume. Through these gestures of love, He offers Himself as a gift to us. His arms are open wide to receive us; His Flesh nourishes and strengthens our souls. He offers His Body, broken and crushed, to heal us of our own brokenness:

For my Flesh is true food,
and my Blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood
remains in me and I in him.
—John 6:55–56

This week I also mourned the passing of John Aroutiounian, with whom I co-taught a Confirmation class three years ago. I was so moved by his eulogy, which reflects on the mystery of redemptive suffering and illustrates the fullness and meaning of his short life. John was very intelligent, had multiple prestigious degrees, and likely would have gone on to have a remarkable career. Yet when presented with a more humble calling—to suffer deeply, to physically waste away, to witness to the strength of the human spirit and the dignity of life even amidst great affliction, and to lay down his life at just 26 years old—he did not hesitate to embrace this cross. During his life, John fought to defend the dignity of every human life—even our enemies, even those who are inconvenient to us. He was a pro-life advocate and volunteered as a suicide hotline counselor. He believed at his core that life, every life, was worth living, and that each human soul has incalculable, eternal worth. He gave no greater witness to this conviction than through his own suffering and death.

We all have a natural desire to protect and shelter ourselves and our loved ones against suffering. However, it is through those painful experiences that we encounter the true meaning of our existence. Only when brought to our knees by suffering do we realize how deeply we must depend on God. A happy, complacent life can cause us to forget that, in the words of St. Thérèse, this world is our ship, not our home. We are meant for something greater; our deepest desires will not find fulfillment in this world but point us to the fulfillment that awaits us in heaven. And the path to heaven is through the Cross, following in the footsteps of our Redeemer.

Indeed, the fear of suffering can be worse than actual suffering. For when God allows us to suffer, He provides the graces in that moment to bear crosses we never thought we could carry, as long as we surrender to Him, acknowledge our own weakness, and trust that He will use every second of our pain for His divine purpose. Only by lowering ourselves into the depths of our humanity can we be raised into the divine Light. If we accept our crosses with a posture of humility, our suffering will surely bear fruit.

Spiritual Amnesia

+

I was speaking with my dad recently, expressing my disbelief and frustration at the far-reaching consequences of the poisonous “sexual revolution;” flabbergasted at how women could still be gulping down such lies: that pre-marital sexual relations and contracepting are “empowering,” when they’re really enslaving! That we are the ones who decide a life’s inherent dignity and worth, instead of understanding this all comes from God! That the way to have “equality” is to lower the bar to give into the whims of our over-sexed culture as long as it’s “on our terms,” instead of learning to live in the light of God’s love and purpose for us! Humanae Vitae, anyone?!

My dad amusedly raised his eyebrows and paused for a moment—“You fell for it…”

I shut my mouth and sighed. Yes. Yes indeed, I had fallen for it for a time…hook, line and sinker. Hence my irritation. As the psalmist writes, “They exchanged their glory for the image of a grass-eating bullock” (Ps 106:20).

I had forgotten my God. I had lost myself.

What frustration God must have felt (and still feel!) with such a “stiff-necked” people (Ex 32:9)? The constant protection, guidance and revelations of His awesome majesty and love —only for them to worship a large baby cow made of gold? Really?

But I can’t roll my eyes too far back or shake my head too hard. The years in which I lived away from the Lord—attempting to normalize, even celebrate, my sinful life after seeing His miraculous hand at work—sting my heart. I had my own golden calves, my own spiritual amnesia. But the Lord’s love and mercy are unfathomable, and He chased me relentlessly until I truly recognized that I must “come to [Him] to have life” (Jn 5:40).

We, as Catholics are not permitted to believe anything of our own will, nor to choose what someone has believed of his. We have God’s apostles as authorities, who did not themselves of their own wills choose anything of what they wanted to believe, but faithfully transmitted to the nations, the teachings of Christ.

(from today’s Saint—St. Isidore of Seville)

In the darkness of this world, in the darkness of our own hearts, Jesus—alone worthy of all adoration and worship—challenges us to deeper trust and belief in Him. We have each “turned aside” (Ex 32:8) from the path God has pointed out for us and believed a great number of lies—yet we continually return to God and ask the Lord’s grace: to enlighten the darkness of our hearts and minds, and to open our eyes, so that we may truly seek “the praise that comes from the only God” (Jn 5:44) in knowing and loving the One sent by the Father with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. As antidote to our sinful forgetfulness, we strive to always praise the Lord for His everlasting lovingkindness (Ps 136).

After speaking with my dad that day, I was reminded how exceedingly grateful I was to the Lord for the journey on which He’d led me. Eternal thanks be to God, Who remembers us even when we have forgotten Him and ourselves! May the Lord redeem the time we have spent turned away from Him; make us grow in deeper humility; help us recognize our true worth and dignity in Christ; and may we, like Moses, beg mercy for all.

(*The links above lead to 3 wonderful prayers: Prayer to Redeem Lost Time, Litany of Humility, and the very powerful Seven Offerings of the Precious Blood.)

Awaiting the King’s Return

“Walk no more in the shadows, but awake!” said Aragorn. “You are weary. Rest a while, and take food, and be ready when I return.”

“I will, lord,” said Faramir. “For who would lie idle when the king has returned?”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, which commemorates Christ naming his apostle Peter as the rock upon which he would build his Church (Mt 16:13-19). This man was the first to fill the chair that would come to symbolize the office of the pope as the bishop of Rome. An actual, ancient chair known as the Cathedra Petri is enthroned in the back of St. Peter’s Basilica to this day. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “It is a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity” (Angelus, Feb. 19, 2012).

St. Peter was not perfect. He was not learned, like St. Paul, or even remembered as the beloved disciple, like St. John. From the start, he tells Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). When called out on the water, he doubts and begins to sink (Mt 14:30-31). Even after receiving his office, when he rebukes Jesus about the first prediction of his passion, Jesus does not hold back in his response, unleashing words more painful than the ones with which he addressed the scribes and Pharisees. He says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). Later, during that very passion, St. Peter would not be standing at the foot of the cross with Our Lady and St. John—he would deny Jesus not just once, but three times, and his denial would end in bitter tears.

However, St. Peter’s imperfections were not the whole story. We don’t remember saints for being perfect: we remember them for their humility, their perseverance, and their self-sacrificial love. This kind of life was the mission Christ called St. Peter to, knowing the shadows of his weaknesses, knowing that the tears of denial would come. After the resurrection, in John 21:15-19, St. Peter is asked three times to love Jesus and to care for his sheep, and he responds this time with humble love—a love which would later lead to his own crucifixion. He persevered to the end as a shepherd of his flock, as a faithful steward, pointing others to Christ as the best man rejoices in and points to the bridegroom, and received an “unfading crown of glory” (1 Pt 5:4).

Other stewards of the King have come and gone. Some have been saints while others have failed the flock they were sworn to protect. But, through any weariness, sickness, or sorrow, the Church stands firm. We rest in the knowledge that “he knows what he is about” (Bl. John Henry Newman), and that the “gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). We take food—his very Body and Blood, given up for us in his passion and shared with us each time we participate in the Mass—and receive courage for what lies ahead. We watch and we wait as a bride eagerly awaits her bridegroom, longing to see his face, knowing that our “hearts will rejoice, and no one will take [our] joy” (Jn 16:22). Our Lord is our King, our Shepherd—and there is nothing more we could want.

 

Listening

A Fr. Mike Schmitz homily about St. Peter: https://bulldogcatholic.org/02-10-19-disqualified-unfit/

“In Bitterness Is My Joy”

Today’s readings may seem a little harsh: God putting Job in his place, Jesus proclaiming woe to those who reject Him. Why would God point out Job’s insignificance and insufficiencies when he is already experiencing so much suffering?

Becoming aware of our own weaknesses is, in fact, a grace. It can be a struggle, too, for it requires us to learn humility, but it also brings freedom. Being aware of our weaknesses frees us from any pretense of perfection, from feeling as though we have to carry the world on our shoulders, and from a false perception of reality, of the world and our place in it.

It is through these weak points that the enemy will try to break in, through our bad habits and less noble inclinations. As the Church Militant, we are continually fighting the good fight, storming the forces of evil and protecting what is sacred—including, first and foremost, our own souls—from being corrupted. If we are aware of the weaknesses within ourselves, we can mount a defense to enemy attacks. In order to do so, we must put aside our pride and call in reinforcements. The battle is bigger than any fantasies we may have for ourselves of glory and heroics. If we want to win the fight, we have to be willing to take orders from our Master, who is infinitely stronger and wiser than we are.

When we understand this greater reality, we will be able to proclaim our weaknesses without shame. We are mere soldiers in a spiritual battle that is far beyond our depth, but we will receive unyielding support to bolster every weakness, if only we ask it of God.

Today is the feast of St. Faustina Kowalska, the Apostle of Divine Mercy. She beautifully illustrates this idea of confident humility, and her receptiveness to God’s message of Divine Mercy was cultivated by her great dependence on God and the knowledge of her own weaknesses.

We cannot receive God’s mercy if we are not aware of our need for it. St. Faustina shows us though the example of her own life that accepting humiliations leads not to despair but to great joy. When St. Faustina faced trials and injustices, she did not view them through the lens of her own ego but through God’s mysterious economy of grace. She knew she was playing a part in a larger story. When her things did not proceed according to her plans—when she was turned down from several convents, faced serious illnesses, or was misunderstood and ridiculed—she did not cease to trust in God, because her faith was not in her own wisdom but in God’s alone. When she was mistreated, she did not become indignant but instead thought of how Jesus was mistreated at Calvary, drawing close to Him. She was not ashamed of her shortcomings but humbly accepted them, knowing that God created her with those weaknesses for a reason. She used every struggle as a chance to learn to depend upon God all the more and to increase in joyful gratitude for His overflowing mercy.


And you, Faustina, a gift of God to our time, a gift from the land of Poland to the whole Church, obtain for us an awareness of the depth of Divine Mercy; help us to have a living experience of it and to bear witness to it among our brothers and sisters. May your message of light and hope spread throughout the world, spurring sinners to conversion, calming rivalries and hatred, and opening individuals and nations to the practice of brotherhood. Today, fixing our gaze with you on the Face of the Risen Christ, let us make our own your prayer of trusting abandonment and say with firm hope: “Jesus, I trust in You!”
(Prayer of St. John Paul II)

Suffering is the greatest treasure on earth; it purifies the soul. In suffering we learn who is our true friend.

True love is measured by the thermometer of suffering. Jesus, I thank you for the little daily crosses, for opposition to my endeavors, for the hardships of communal life, for the misinterpretation of my intentions, for humiliations at the hands of others, for the harsh way in which we are treated, for false suspicions, for poor health and loss of strength, for self-denial, for dying to myself, for lack of recognition in everything, for the upsetting of all my plans.

Thank you, Jesus, for interior sufferings, for dryness of spirit, for terrors, fears, and uncertainties, for the darkness and the deep interior night, for temptations and various ordeals, for torments too difficult to describe, especially for those which no one will understand, for the hour of death with its fierce struggle and all its bitterness.

I thank you, Jesus, who first drank the cup of bitterness before you gave it to me, in a much milder form. I put my lips to this cup of your holy will. Let all be done according to your good pleasure; let that which your wisdom ordained before the ages be done to me. I want to drink the cup to its last drop, and not seek to know the reason why. In bitterness is my joy, in hopelessness is my trust. In you, O Lord, all is good, all is a gift of your paternal Heart. I do not prefer consolations over bitterness or bitterness over consolations, but thank you, O Jesus, for everything! It is my delight to fix my gaze upon you, O incomprehensible God!

—St. Faustina Kowalska