To what end?

Two things I ask of you,
deny them not to me before I die:
Put falsehood and lying far from me,
give me neither poverty nor riches;
provide me only with the food I need;
Lest, being full, I deny you,
saying, “Who is the LORD?”
Or, being in want, I steal,
and profane the name of my God.
—Proverbs 30:7-9
There’s hardly a better argument for Aristotle’s “Golden Mean” than today’s first reading. (It’s even quite possible this verse was written first).
As Catholics, we often hear a lot about avoiding excess, but not quite so much about avoiding poverty. Don’t most priests and religious take an entire vow of poverty? Then how could sacred Scripture seemingly contradict this frequent idealization of poverty, of a general “lack” of possessions in the Catholic tradition?
 As is the case with so many matters of faith, these questions boil down to a simpler one: “What do we value in life? How does that change our definitions of poverty and riches?”
If we look to Pier Giorgio Frassati, the tension between rich and poor is at play throughout much of his life. In terms of finances, he was incredibly #blessed: he was well-to-do with plenty of opportunity afforded him due to his family’s political and economic status. This type of wealth,  however, was only of value to Pier Giorgio as far as it was able to provide for his mission and for others. His bus fare was more valuable as his starving brethren’s dinner. His health was more valuable as his capability to serve the sick. Likewise, those starving in the slums are not inherently better off in spirit than those whose table is always full.
The wealthy are not Good because of their wealth. The needy are not Good because of their need.
In every discussion about possessions, riches, or poverty, their is always an implied question: “To what end?” Money may be a facilitator or an obstacle. Starvation may be redemptive suffering or unwanted agony.
If the resources you and I possess are of any value to us, we must ask the question, “To what end?” Where does our heart’s contentment lie? With riches? Than we will inevitably find ourselves asking, “Who is the LORD” (i.e. What does He matter to me?). With poverty? Than we risk envy, cynicism, and being holier-than-thou. “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.”
Instead, we must pray and work to always desire relationship with the Lord. If we value the LORD above all, we can see times of feast as an opportunity to increase our gratitude and times of famine as opportunities for increased faith and prayer.
I ask that we pray tonight for a spirit akin the Psalmist in today’s responsorial:
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
Remove from me the way of falsehood,
and favor me with your law.
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
The law of your mouth is to me more precious
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
Your word, O LORD, endures forever;
it is firm as the heavens.
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
From every evil way I withhold my feet,
that I may keep your words.
—Ps 119:29, 72, 89, 101

The Give-Away Pile

Then Peter said to him in reply,
“We have given up everything and followed you.
What will there be for us?”—Matt 19:27

“It’s funny how quickly life changes from, ‘Sure God—I’ll give you anything you want!’ to ‘Well, not that.  Or that. Or that. Can I perhaps interest you in something from this small give-away pile—you know, the things I no longer actually want or need?’ 😊

This was my Facebook status on April 15th of 2016.  Two years later I am hazy as to what sort of sacrifices inspired this particular post, but hindsight highlights what I could not then begin to imagine.

Things were crazy, as I recall, and among other things there was a problem with my apartment, which could have precipitated a drastic and immediate move.  I spent the day cleaning out my closet in preparation, only in the eleventh hour to have things work out enabling me to stay, to my great relief.

Yet for some reason I felt something deep within me stir and suggest that I should plan to put everything in storage and be prepared to walk away from my life.

This sounds rather outlandish, but I was preparing to go to China to volunteer for the summer, and the idea of staying longer greatly attracted me.  In fact, I had been feeling for some time an interior nudge, to say Yes to something that God was calling me to, something I could not yet see or understand.  I imagined a call to stay in China, or somewhere more exotic perhaps, to be a missionary, to follow some new and exciting adventure planned by God.  “I will go anywhere you want!” I told Him with enthusiasm.

It was just after this thought came to me—of putting all my stuff in storage and preparing to move—that I went down to get the mail.  On top was a flyer from Lowes, which said in bold letters “You’re moving!” (over an advertisement for supplies of course).  I was both startled and amused by what seemed a concrete confirmation of this interior sense.  I saved the flier (I still have it today) and told all my friends about this strange sense of calling—and I am so grateful I did, because nobody would have believed me given what followed.

I went to China and fell in love.  Half of my heart still sleeps on a bamboo matt under mosquito netting in an obscure orphanage in the suburbs of Beijing.  I would have given anything to stay and continue to work among the abandoned little ones.  But contrary to my wishes and my expectations, God did not ask me to stay.

Instead, I flew home to New York depressed and bored by the life that awaited my return.  I resented my naiveite in believing that interior call was from God, particularly as it became clear that all of the boxes that I had carefully packed and brought painstakingly down six flights of stairs now had to be brought up, unpacked, put back.  We brought up a few at a time, and they sat in my living room, unpacked for days, while I glared at them bitterly.

Then one day, just a few weeks after my return from China, I got a phone call that changed everything.  “Something is not right with your mother…”  I left work that day to make the drive upstate, unaware that I would not be returning.

I did, in fact, walk away from my life—from my job, my apartment, my social life and community, to move back to my childhood home.  It was not the exotic foreign destination I had imagined.  More than once, I questioned God, doubted that His plan could possibly be right.

But no matter how much is in our give-away pile (or how reluctantly we add to it) God’s is always greater.  He is never outdone in generosity.  I have learned this too.

In the Atrium we taught the little ones about the Mystery of Life and Death—how the grain of wheat must die in order to give life.  We planted wheat seeds, then took them out at various stages to examine them. A few days in, if we dig up the seed it looks much the same. A few weeks in, green shoots have pushed through the dirt, and roots have begun to grow—the grain they have come from is changed; it looks more like a shell now.   At four weeks, the original grain is a fraction of its original size and has almost disappeared, but the plant and roots are bigger still.  And then, later still, when it is harvest time, we find the seed has vanished entirely, but on the stalk are a hundred new seeds in its place.  From death comes more life.

I have had many experiences of God’s generosity in my new life.  I am grateful for the deepening of relationships, to give just two examples.  I was able to spend a few months living with my father, unaware that those would be his last months on earth.  Had things stayed as they were, I would have seen him only for a few days perhaps at Christmas.  I have also now been able to spend time with my best friend from childhood. She has for more than a year now been suffering from debilitating Lyme disease and its various coinfections.  I am able to cook weekly for her family of eight children, and we accompany each other in this strange season of our lives.  I am grateful for many other blessings that God has given me during this time.

Let us pray for the grace to give to God all that He may ask of us—and to better receive all that He wants to give us.

Something Greater

I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.
If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
you would not have condemned these innocent men.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.

—Matthew 12:6–8

Throughout Scripture, we find stories where God asks someone to give up everything for Him. Countless prophets and disciples are asked to separate themselves from earthly attachments, leave their old lives behind, and start from scratch. Why does the God of mercy require such extreme sacrifice from His people?

God uses these experiences of sacrifice not as punishments but to prune our hearts and allow us to grow into who we were created to be. He asks us to let go of our attachments in order to prepare us for a greater mission; to increase our dependence upon Him; to replace our earthly perspective with a heavenly one; and to give us a testimony of the God Who has walked with us and sustained us through every desert, Who has shouldered the crosses we bear.

Jesus does not desire sacrifice for its own sake but to make room for something greater. He sacrificed everything for us as a means to show His mercy. He endured torture, betrayal, wrongful conviction, and death for love of us. He entered into our human condition, sharing with us an intimate closeness. And in doing so, He has redeemed all of our sacrifices, transforming them into pathways of His mercy.

In light of Jesus’s sacrifice, our sufferings are not burdens holding us back but graces lifting us upward toward the Cross of salvation. Sometimes, He requires us to let go of good things so that our hands are open to receive great things. His claim is a bold one: that He Himself is greater than the temple. Greater than the temple! What seemed like blasphemy to the Pharisees is in fact a profound truth: there is no offering more sacred than the Body of Christ, no sacrifice greater than the Mass, and no act of devotion more powerful than His Passion.

With All Your Heart

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASixteen years ago today, I stood in a white robe before the bishop as he anointed me with chrism and spoke the words of Confirmation: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” I still remember the joy I felt walking into the church that day, feeling the presence of so many saints rejoicing over me. I was ready to take part in the mission of the Church, to follow those saints toward Heaven. I didn’t know how God would call me to serve in the years ahead, but I trusted in Him to lead me forward—and that was enough for me to say yes to the journey.

So many journeys start with a “yes.” There is no way for us to know every detail of the adventure that awaits, but if we know that the one who invites us is trustworthy, then we can accept the call with joy. Our relationship with God and our trust in Him are what allow us to do His work and keep His commandments. In today’s Gospel we hear that the most important commandment is to love God, and then to see and love God in others and within ourselves—because without a foundation of love, all our efforts will be fruitless. If we don’t love God with all our hearts and all our understanding and all our strength, then we won’t be able to trust Him to lead us, and we won’t be open to receiving His grace.

He is One and there is no other than he.
And to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding,
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself
is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.
—Mark 12:32–33

In Confirmation, we actively choose to follow God in a public way, opening our hearts to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit and offering our lives to be used as God sees fit. But before we choose Him, He has already chosen us. The graces we receive through the Sacrament are meant to be used as resources for the mission on which we are sent, and He sends us gifts that are particularly suited for us. All we need to do is to be receptive, to open our hearts just a crack and allow His grace to flood in. We are called to do things that might seem impossible on our own, but when we remember the graces that have been given us, we realize that we are armed for the task.

We are called and chosen. The unfolding of our lives is not a random set of coincidences; rather, every moment carries great purpose and meaning. God has recruited us as unfit soldiers, yet by grace His will shall be done in us.

I will heal their defection, says the LORD,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.
I will be like the dew for Israel:
he shall blossom like the lily;
He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar,
and put forth his shoots.
—Hosea 14:5–7

Reflect today on the journeys God has led you on in the past and where He might be calling you today. Are you ready to say yes to Him, to receive whatever He gives? Lay out your worries before Him so that He can demonstrate His love for you. Turn your attention toward this most important commandment and nurture your relationship with God. Let Him show you how loving and trustworthy He is, so that you can say yes to Him with all heart, all your understanding, and all your strength.


Image: Hermann Hammer, Sacred Heart of Jesus on Pinus Cembra in the Stubai Alps between Salfains and Grieskogel / CC0 1.0

Chosen

Bilińska_Joseph_sold_by_his_brothersToday’s first reading recounts the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. Jealous of the attention he was getting from their father and annoyed by his prideful behavior, they acted out of anger and got rid of him. However, it becomes clear in Scripture that Joseph was not only his father’s chosen favorite; he was also the chosen one of God, to fulfill a mission in Egypt.

When Joseph’s brothers came face to face with him again many years later, and when they realized that Joseph was the one who had the power to save their lives from famine, surely they feared that he would remember their crimes against him and be unwilling to help. But Joseph was moved to tears to see them once again, and he forgave them immediately for all they had done:

“Come closer to me,” Joseph told his brothers. When they had done so, he said: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.
But now do not be distressed, and do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.
The famine has been in the land for two years now, and for five more years cultivation will yield no harvest.
God, therefore, sent me on ahead of you to ensure for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.
So it was not really you but God who had me come here; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.

—Genesis 45:4–8

Joseph was indeed chosen, but his chosenness did not have the significance he first imagined as his father’s favorite child. He was chosen not because of his own merit, but simply because he was in a position to serve others. Over the course of his journey in Egypt, he became aware of his own faults and gained a sense of humility. The people that God calls are not always the best or holiest individuals, but they are given an opportunity to do something for God. God had a plan for Joseph and used him in spite of his flaws. Joseph’s pride faded when he realized that he was undeserving of the honors he coveted. By the end of the story, his brothers’ jealousy faded as well—in particular Judah’s—for we can see that they no longer hate the fact that Joseph is ruler over them but willingly bow down to him. Joseph and his brothers all reach a peaceful resolution by acknowledging their own weakness and unworthiness of power. Joseph, however, is a successful ruler because he realizes not only that he is unworthy of power but also that he has been chosen regardless, and he can fulfill this task with God’s help. It is humility that allows him to accept his role as ruler despite his weakness, for he is acting in obedience to God and simply accepting what he is given instead of seeking power out of sheer avarice.

Each of us is given a unique role to fill, and in many situations we are asked to play a supporting role. It is up to us to embrace the role we are given and fulfill it to the best of our ability, rather than being jealous of those who have roles of greater importance or shirk the responsibilities of our calling. It would be foolish to think that we are better than anyone else, even if it appears that we are in a more influential position; some are called to quieter, hidden lives and live them meaningfully.

Joseph was chosen to rule over his brothers and save the lives of many, but that doesn’t mean he was a better person than his brothers were. The Jewish people were indeed God’s chosen people, but that does not mean they were better than the Gentiles. Joseph was chosen to be the conduit for God to carry out His plan, and the Jewish people were the conduit through which God Himself entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ.

It is no surprise that Joseph and Judah emerged as the strongest clans in Israel, when one considers the fact that these two brothers were the ones who most fully accepted and embraced the roles given them by God. They became the men that God created them to be instead of fighting against their lot in life or demanding more. In everything, they acted with humility.


Image: Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz, Joseph sold by his brothers / PD-US