A Sacrifice of Praise

“Lord, I am your servant,
your servant, the child of your maidservant;
you have loosed my bonds.
I will offer a sacrifice of praise
and call on the name of the LORD.”
– Psalm 116:16–1

Many years ago, a Dominican friar told us—a group of fairly naïve college students—that we would wish we had suffered more once we came to the end of our lives. Back then, sitting in that dimly lit church, anxiously awaiting the day of our total consecration to Jesus through Mary, how could we have understood his words? For, as St. Paul writes in today’s first reading, we are suffering; we are afflicted. The whole world “is groaning in labor pains even until now” (Romans 8:22), whether these pains are from illness, poverty, loneliness, loss, betrayal, our own struggles and sins, or even death itself. We are perplexed—we don’t understand how our loving Father could allow such sorrow, and we may never know the whole story behind the problem of pain on this side of Heaven.

What do we know? Let’s start at the beginning. This valley of tears was not God’s original plan for us, not before the fall. Yet, even when we chose to hide our faces from him, his love was so great that he devised a plan more wonderful than we could have ever imagined. He chose to suffer with us, dying in the most horrific way possible, to loosen our bonds, to open the gates of Heaven, and to lead us home. And, as St. Pope John Paul II says, Christ’s passion gave our pain a supernatural value. “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his sufferings, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (Salvifici Doloris). Think about it. This world may very well be that valley of tears. But, every tear now has meaning and power when united to his sufferings. Our prayers and sacrifices, whether they are St. Therese of Lisieux–sized or St. Teresa of Calcutta–sized, will help bring our brothers and sisters home to Love itself.

Even if this is all a mystery, and the pain is too great—we do not have to bear it alone. From his cross, at the height of his passion, Christ gave us Mary, his mother, to be our mother. And, he gave us to Mary to be her children—just as he tells his Father “they are your gift to me” (John 17:24), we are a gift to Mary! St. Louis de Montfort writes, “As in the natural life a child must have a father and a mother, so in the supernatural life of grace a true child of the Church must have God for his Father and Mary for his mother” (True Devotion to Mary). We are the spiritual children of the handmaiden of the Lord, whose own heart was pierced by a sword of sorrow. We can run to her in complete trust, asking for her intercession, weeping with her each step of the way, “closely united to Him unto the Cross, and so that every form of suffering, given fresh life by the power of the Cross, should become no longer the weakness of man but the power of the Cross” (Salvifici Doloris).

If that wasn’t enough, Christ found a way to physically stay with us “always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). How? Precisely through what is described in today’s psalm: a sacrifice of praise—the Eucharist, Body and Blood, together with the Soul and Divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we read in the catechism, “The Eucharist is the heart and the summit of the Church’s life, for in it Christ associates his Church and all her members with his sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving offered once for all on the cross to his Father; by this sacrifice he pours out the graces of salvation on his Body which is the Church” (CCC 1407). We even hear this as the priest says Eucharistic prayer 4: “We offer You His Body and Blood, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world. Lord, look upon this sacrifice which You have given to Your Church; and gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one Body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise.”

Death may be at work in us, as St. Paul writes, but life is also present, and this life grows every time we receive the Eucharist, a living sacrifice of praise. Our hearts are changed when we receive him in the Blessed Sacrament and cooperate with grace, so that his life “may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). Our hearts become more like his heart as they too are taken, blessed, and broken, meant to be shared through the tears—and meant to be filled with his joy, another mystery. As C.S. Lewis writes, “Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it” (A Grief Observed). Our grief can, miraculously enough, become joy when united to his, just as Christ told his apostles at the Last Supper when he instituted the Eucharist.

This life is full of suffering, yes, but there is also joy, even if that joy is tinged with the greatest sorrow. Call on his name and try to remember that the tears have power, even if your heart is breaking. Receive his own heart, blessed and broken in the Eucharist. Trust in the love of your mother, who always leads you to her Son, who is himself the answer to all our questions. As Lewis says, “What other answer would suffice?” What other answer could? Maybe we will someday be able to echo the words of St. Paul when he says, “I find joy in the sufferings I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church” (Colossians 1:24). And maybe, just maybe, we will someday be able to wish we had suffered more, as our hearts cry out of love for our brothers and sisters, with a love a little bit more like his.

Totus Tuus.

 

Reading Suggestions
St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of PainA Grief Observed, Till We Have Faces
Fr. Paul A. Duffner, O.P., Redemptive Suffering
St. Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris

Strength in Our Mother

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I recently came across this image of a statue of our Blessed Mother in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, and ever since I stumbled upon it in my Instagram feed, I can’t stop thinking about the beauty of Our Lady here: holding our Lord steady in one arm, her other arm raised in prayerful intercession, worship, and her continual “fiat” to whatever the Lord asks of her.

Today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church. How beautiful that this feast is the day after Pentecost each year. Mary, the Spouse of the Holy Spirit and the Mother of Jesus, is our Mother, too.

We so desperately we need her as the Mother of our Church right now. In times of scandal and darkness, when the war against the culture of death feels like a losing battle, when persecution is happening every day, we need Mom. She knows all the graces we need to get through this life. And she shows us the way.

Mary teaches us about her “fiats,” and invites us to make our own with radical trust in the will of the Lord. She calls us to have a deeper surrender to her Son.

At the Annunciation, Mary’s “fiat” made her the Mother of God. At the foot of the cross, Mary’s “fiat” to allowing her Son to suffer and die made way for the salvation of mankind and also made her the Mother of our Church. The Church would not exist without Mary’s yes.

There’s something to Mary’s “fiat” that cuts to the heart–her yes didn’t make life easy or perfect; her yes brought the cross. But she trusted in God’s goodness enough to know that her yes would also make way for the resurrection. When things didn’t make sense, she trusted. When she was in immense pain at witnessing the suffering of her Son, she trusted. When things don’t make sense in our lives, either, we can trust and say a “fiat” of surrender to the Lord, who shatters all darkness with His light and brings resurrection out of every season of pain, who makes ways through circumstances that seem impossible.

Mary’s “fiat” was one of great strength. She was full of the grace of the Holy Spirit, with radical trust in the Lord, to say yes. Let’s strive to be like her–holding onto Jesus with everything we have, hands raised in surrender to whatever the Lord has for us, knowing that He is good.

When we can’t see the way, when we don’t understand: FIAT. Be it done unto me according to Thy word, because You are good, Lord, and always faithful. Mary, Mother of the Church, we need you. We need your intercession and protection. Pray for our Church, that the Body of Christ may be renewed and strengthened in love for your Son. Amen.

The (Divine) Life Within

The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a mighty savior;
He will rejoice over you with gladness,
and renew you in his love,
He will sing joyfully because of you
-Zephaniah 3:17

Take a moment to soak in the reality of those words of Scripture.  The Lord God is in your midst.  He dwells within you.  Close your eyes for a moment and draw close to that reality of God in you right now. 

It is so rare to take moments to intentionally focus in on the reality of God within us.  This is something I want to do more regularly throughout my day to maintain a sense of connection with Him – the almighty God who dwells within me. 

Currently, I have a very unique and physical way of learning how to do this – my husband and I are expecting our first child in a few months, and as our child dwells within my womb I am brought inward to the reality of this life within.  As our baby grows, this reality is becoming more and more apparent as I have begun to feel our baby’s movements throughout my day.  However, up to this point in my pregnancy, it has been easier than I would have imagined to go about much of my day without actively thinking about the life inside me.  Then a gentle movement within reminds me to connect, to say hello to him or her, and thank God for the life He has placed within me.  This experience has me thinking about the other life dwelling within me – the Divine Life.  Each of us has the source of all life dwelling within us, and it can be all too easy to go about our days without consciously connecting to this Divine reality.  Today’s readings remind me of how present and powerful our Father’s love for each of us is and that He is here for us at every moment, and loves us so much that He has chosen to dwell within us through His Holy Spirit. 

The inner life of Christ in us finds its source in the love of the Father, which is exclaimed so beautifully in today’s optional reading from the book of Zephaniah, especially in the passage that I used to begin this reflection.  The Lord is in your midst, He rejoices over you in gladness, He renews you in His love… He sings joyfully because of you.  The psalm continues with this incredible theme and reality: The Holy One is among us and this should inspire us to “give thanks,” “proclaim,” “sing praise,” and “shout with exultation!” 

As we enter into this reality, as we allow ourselves to be still and receive this love and blessing of our Father, we meet the heart of Mary.  Today’s Gospel guides us into Mary’s reality.  Mary is the perfect example of the reception of God’s blessing.  Mary’s confidence in the Father’s love, her trust in His plan, and her “strength and courage in the Lord,” as today’s psalmist says, have opened her heart to receive the Lord into her very being.  The source of all life, God Himself, took on human form and grew within the humble being of our Blessed Mother.  Though Mary was granted the special privilege of bearing God in a unique way as His mother, we all have been granted the privilege of holding and nurturing the life of Christ within us through our baptism, the Eucharist, and all of the sacraments of the church.  His life IS within us and Mary exemplifies what it looks like when we are open to receiving this love and connecting with this Love everyday.    

As Mary visits Elizabeth, the simple sound of her greeting is so full of the Father’s love and such a pure channel of the life of Christ within her that the baby in Elizabeth’s womb – the unborn St. John the Baptist – leaps!  This is the power of God to touch, inspire, and ignite others by His love.  The Divine presence is so alive in Mary (literally!) that He moves through everything she is and everything she does.  Her magnificat, her magnification of the Lord (Lk 1:46-55), found later in this Gospel passage reveals, yet again, the source of this life within her – the Father’s love. 

Because Mary is so united with the Father’s love and the life of Christ, her being is truly filled with the Divine Life of God.  So her soul can’t help but “proclaim the greatness of the Lord.”  Her spirit can’t help but “rejoice in God!”  This is the transformation of grace we are all invited to partake in.  It all begins with the Father’s love and blessing – and our reception of it.  Zephaniah reminds us how the Father loves us and pours this blessing over us and Mary reveals how the Divine life can be received by us and then pour forth from us, in the grace of God and by the power of His Holy Spirit. 

May we be inspired today, and everyday, to become more aware of the Divine Life within us.  As an expectant mother becomes more aware of the subtle movements of the child growing within her, may God’s grace help us become increasingly aware of every movement of His Spirit within us.  As our own awareness of this Divine and powerful life within us grows and we allow ourselves to receive Him more fully, He will continue to transform us.  His grace is abundant and can’t help but pour forth from a soul so united to Him.  Let’s look to Mary’s example and become channels of the Father’s love and life so that each of our souls can’t help but “proclaim the greatness” of our God!

The Great Unknown

“Have no fear of moving into the unknown. Simply step out fearlessly knowing that I am with you, therefore no harm can befall you; all is very, very well. Do this in complete faith and confidence.”
-St. Pope John Paul II

March twenty-fifth may be the most important day in salvation history. It is traditionally regarded as “the day of creation, the day when God’s word decreed: ‘Let there be light’” (Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy). It is the day Adam and Eve fell, the day Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, the day the Israelites were led through the Red Sea, the day of Christ’s crucifixion—and the day of the Annunciation, which we celebrate today.

Our Lady’s fiat was foreshadowed from the very instant Adam and Eve were led out of the garden with the words, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel” (Genesis 3:15). Toil, thorns, and death may have lay ahead of them in the great unknown, but this “truly necessary sin of Adam” would be “destroyed completely by the Death of Christ,” and this “happy fault” would earn “so great, so glorious a Redeemer.” The road ahead may have been hidden, but the light at the end was not.

This moment was only the beginning of the story, for God’s promise would echo through the centuries in the hearts of people who “believed, hoping against hope” (Romans 4:18). Abraham stepped out in fearless obedience, leading his family away from home and into the unknown. Despite his age, he trusted that he would be a father someday—and when God nearly called him to sacrifice his beloved son, he did so willingly. Moses led his people through the Red Sea and out of Egypt, despite his doubts and weaknesses. Even with their many failings, the Israelites followed the Lord into the wilderness, where only he could guide them.

At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel asked Our Lady to take the next step into the unknown for the sake of all creation. “Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise…This is what the whole earth waits for” (St. Bernard of Clairvaux). He did not say that she would not suffer, or that her heart would not be pierced. He did not list all the twists and turns in the road ahead and show her how God would provide for her family along the way. He did not even guarantee that St. Joseph would be with her when her child was born—or when he died upon the cross on another March 25, when God fulfilled his promise from the dawning of the world.

What did the angel tell her? He spoke the words that still echo in the hearts of those who hope against hope, even when “all other lights [have gone] out.” The words that give us the strength to move forward whenever we are called to take a shaking step into the unknown. The words that give us courage when we tell our Father that we are here to do his will, even if we can’t understand where the road will lead or why we must take it. Do not be afraid. Nothing is impossible with God. God is with us—the Word made flesh, Emmanuel!

For Reference
Fra. Angelico captured this in his paintings: “Even the setting in this Annunciation scene lends itself to the mystery of the Incarnation…for in the background there is a door opening onto the unknown” (Fr. Guy Bedouelle, In the Image of St. Dominic). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annunciation_of_Cortona#/media/File:Fra_Angelico_069.jpg

“And nothing would again be casual and small”

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The just one’s sacrifice is most pleasing,
nor will it ever be forgotten.
(Sirach 35:9)

Imagine making a sacrifice that causes Heaven to spin out in such rejoicing for all the ages to come.

What do you think that would be? What would it take?

Of course, we may rightly think of Our Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion, whose infinite merits we cannot even begin to grasp while on this side of eternity.

And yet…

Would you believe that something as “simple”as the sacrifice of making a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, or a good and graced confession, does just that?

St. Mother Teresa, in her book Rosary Meditations: Loving Jesus with the Heart of Mary, writes when contemplating the first Sorrowful Mystery—the Agony in the Garden:

The blood He sweat was grief poured out from a broken Heart, caused by the sorrow of His Eucharistic Love being so rejected. Then an angel brought Jesus indescribable strength and consolation by showing Him every Holy Hour that you would ever make. At that moment in the garden, Jesus saw you praying before Him now and He knew that His love would be returned.

This is why your visit today is so important to Him. Your Holy Hour consoles Him for those who do not love Him, and wins countless graces for many to be converted to Him.

And Luke 15:10 tells us about the dance of the angels:

In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

The just one’s sacrifice is indeed most pleasing.

What a fitting set of readings, then, to contemplate before the beginning of Lent, widely known as “the time to give yummy things up!”

This season is about so much more than muscling through your morning without coffee (though for some that struggle is real, I believe it! For me personally, it’s chips.)

This time that Holy Mother Church sets aside for us to turn back to God, to journey deeper with Jesus into the wilderness of our lives, is one that can bear great fruits of joy, sacrifice and praise—if we allow ourselves to be led and pruned by the Holy Spirit as He wills.

This is the season for delving deep to ask: Where in my life has my love grown cold? Where do I value comfort over acts of sacrifice? How aware am I of the Lord walking through my every moment with me?

Every heartbeat should remind us of the Lord’s infinite love and mercy, yet it is so easy to become numb and distracted with the anxieties and preoccupations of the everyday and the world around us.

However, even that very heart is a gift.

We only have what has first been given to us, poor as we are. But Our Father is so very rich and desires to share with us all that He has, just as Jesus gives all of Himself.

Our Lord makes Himself so vulnerable in thirsting for us to love Him and to let Him love others through us, that the more we come to know Him, the less we want to hold back anything from Him.

God is not to be outdone in generosity. Ever. Jesus promises that in the Gospel reading of today and shows us this repeatedly throughout His public ministry.

We may wonder at times what can we really offer the Lord, what can we give of any real consequence. But our wild, most beautiful Lord desires us to work with Him in His plan of salvation and redemption, offering to Him all that we can, no matter how “small” or “insignificant” (fish and loaves, anyone?).

How varied are the blessings He gives to us? This then should ignite our souls to find new ways of loving Him each day!

In 2 Cor 9: 6-8, St. Paul encourages us to sow bountifully so as to reap bountifully, and that…

…God loves a cheerful giver. Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work.

We can be sure that whatever we do offer to God in love, in union with Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, has infinite value beyond what we can ever dream.

As Rev. John Duffy writes in his poem “I Sing of a Maiden,” recounting the Annunciation and Mary’s fiat, “And nothing would again be casual and small.

This Lent let us ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with His fire and love so as to grow and give beyond our comfort zones.

Let us pray for each other as we find new ways of putting our love for God and neighbor into living action, sacrificing with a cheerful heart in the (not so) small and hidden ways, all of which are seen and cherished by Our Heavenly Father.

Open Jar

Happy Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, friends! Today we remember how Mary appeared to St. Bernadette, identifying herself by saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Mary being conceived without sin allowed her to be totally open, completely receptive to what God wanted to do in and through her. She said “yes” to the Lord at every moment—including His timing. Mary was never rushed; she was totally trusting in when and how God wanted to reveal Himself to her, even in watching her son, the Son of God, be crucified. Mary is like the water jars we hear about in today’s Gospel of the miracle at Cana—she was entirely open to the Spirit, providing the capacity for God to speak. Mary did this in every way—literally in giving of her body to give birth to the Word Incarnate, and spiritually in her receptivity and her fiat, her total surrender to God. And through her surrender, God worked wonders and brought about our salvation. Just like the water was turned into rich wine, God pours out an abundance of grace through her—all she had to do was say yes and provide the open jar of her body and soul for Him to do so.

God calls us to be like those open jars, too. Mary points the way to do this with her model of docility to the will of the Lord, speaking those words to us, as well: “Do whatever He tells you.” What are we willing to allow God to do through us? Where do we sometimes shrink back in fear? Do we stifle or doubt our gifts? God wants to do great things through you—all He needs is your own “fiat” to letting the Holy Spirit work through you.

Lourdes is a beautiful place of countless miraculous healings from the spring of water that welled up when Our Lady first appeared to St. Bernadette. The graces we receive from God flow through her Immaculate Heart, healing us, restoring us, redeeming us, and transforming us to be more like Jesus.

Probably the most beautiful monstrance I have ever seen in Adoration was one with Mary holding up the Eucharist. Mary always leads us to Jesus, holding nothing of herself back from Him, being open and vulnerable. With her as our Mediatrix and Queen, she will not lead us astray. We have such a good Mom. Let her love you, and let her bring you into deeper communion with our Lord’s tender gaze.

The New and the Now

I love New Year’s Day.  I love new beginnings, fresh starts, the first page of a clean new journal.  I love the idea of resolutions: the promise of new habits and the new happiness and order they will bring to my life.

I am not alone: last night, Times Square was filled to capacity, and millions more watched on television as the ball dropped, signaling an end to 2018 and the beginning of 2019.  It was a night of celebration and revelry; for many the penultimate holiday celebration, ushering in the promises of newness: New Year, New You, New Resolutions and hopes and dreams to plan and unpack.

Yet, just three weeks from today, January 21st, is Blue Monday, “The Most Depressing Day of the Year.”  By the third Monday of January, it seems, conditions have converged to create a cocktail of depression.  One is the dreary weather; another the post-holiday let down, and then the arrival of the post-holiday credit card bills.  (I am sure that fact that it is a Monday doesn’t help).  But the biggest factor?  By the third week in January most have failed to keep their new resolutions, and as a result have abandoned hope in their new happiness.

Today, January first and New Year’s Day, the Church presents for our contemplation the mystery of Mary, Mother of God.  At first, it seems something of a mismatch.  If there was anyone who didn’t need New Year’s resolutions, it was the Immaculate Conception.  Conceived without sin, she had no faults to renounce: she didn’t need to resolve to give up gossip, or gluttony, or even to give more of herself to God.  And it is hard to picture Our Lady promising to eat fewer carbs or even to exercise more: surely the fully pregnant mother who rode on a donkey all the way to Bethlehem didn’t need to get more fit, or to do more penance.

Yet when we entrust to Mary the Mother of God, our resolutions, we increase exponentially the likelihood of our keeping them.  First, because her intercession is invaluable in anything we wish to accomplish or offer.  Second, because in her role as Mother of God, she models for us how to keep them.

How can this be, for we who know too well the reality of sin?

The answer for the Christian is not a how or a what but a Who.  The child gestated in the womb of a Virgin, laid in the manger and held in her arms, first in Bethlehem and ultimately at Calvary, is Emmanuel: God is With Us.

God is With Us.  Not just in the new, but in the now.  Not with our future perfected or improved selves, or hobnobbing with the People We Ought To Be, but right now, in this imperfect moment.

Says Sister Wendy Beckett: “I would say that the essential test of whether you are a Christian is whether you actually pray.  If you don’t pray you don’t truly believe.  You believe in some kind of God who is an evil God because if you truly believe in the real God, then you want to be close to Him.”  Yikes.

It is in the Baby in the manger, the Baby cradled in Mary’s lap, nursing at her breast, that we can find the confidence to draw close to God without fear.

A baby changes everything.

Even a merely human baby has a remarkable power to effect change.  Voices are softened, curses omitted, touch becomes more gentle and loving.  Mothers addicted to nicotine or caffeine or alcohol in excess suddenly quit cold turkey when they become aware of the life growing within them.  Fathers who are “tough guys” melt into mush holding their child.  Parents can attest that what willpower could not accomplish, the needs of their child effects quickly: getting up earlier, giving up more of their time, sacrificing more of their money for someone other than self.

Father Richard Veras notes in his book Jesus of Israel: Finding Christ in the Old Testament that this experience of parenthood, this change effected by ENCOUNTER, is in fact the model of Christianity, not resolution fueled by willpower alone.   It is the encounter with Christ that changes us, that both inspires our right resolutions and empowers us to effect them.

If there is one resolution that will change your life definitively, it is to adopt the habit of daily prayer.  To spend some time, like Mary, reflecting on the mystery of Emmanuel.  To be present to the God that is always with you.  To allow Him to transform you, to make you new.  Sister Wendy again, not mincing words: “My filth crackles as He seizes hold of me.”

Gretchen Rubin, in her book Better than Before, writes about habits, and what helps and hinders them.  Much of her advice applies well to cultivating a habit of prayer.  Make the habit specific and concrete, she advises.  Set a specific time for prayer (morning habits are more likely to be kept, she notes).  Make the habit itself specific (for example, replace “to pray more” with “I will pray for fifteen minutes a day.”)  Make it a daily habit: “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in awhile.” (p.80)

Let Our Lady teach you how to pray.  (She taught Jesus, after all…)  Let her hand you the Christ Child to hold, even without words, and just be present and ponder the mystery.

Finally, as Gretchen Rubin notes, the time for a new habit is Now.  Not in tomorrow, which as the orphan Annie reminds us, is “always a day away.” The Good News is, literally, God is With Us Now.  Not in the museum of the past, nor in a perfect future, but in very moment in which we reside.

On this her feast day, let us invoke Mary’s maternal intercession as we pray for the two most important moments of our life: “Holy, Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death, Amen.”

Madonna_with_child_and_angels

Image Credit:

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D