Toward the Light

He said,
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
—Mark 4:30–32

IMG_1982I have two plants sitting on my windowsill that have been there for two years now, and quite honestly, I’m very surprised that they’re still alive. It’s safe to say that I do not possess a green thumb, and my apartment doesn’t get a lot of sunlight. But somehow these plants have persevered—sometimes looking a little worse for the wear, yet thus far still surviving my neglect and horticultural ineptitude.

It amazes me how tall these plants can climb, upward toward the sunlight. To think that they started as just a tiny seed—a seed that contained within itself the capacity to grow and flourish—is incredible. They’ve even survived being repotted after outgrowing their containers. Their growth is not really any credit to me, as I’ve done less than the bare minimum to keep them alive. It is more a testament to the design of God, who has created beautiful things to flourish even amid adverse conditions.

In Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed, we hear how God brings tremendous growth out of tiny beginnings. We, too, are small; and yet we are created completely whole. Within each soul is the capacity for greatness. All it needs is to be nurtured by water and light, to be broken open so that roots may stretch out from its core and new buds may blossom outward into the day. We are created as tiny seeds, but we are not meant to stay that way. We are meant to climb toward sainthood.

But growth happens slowly. We must learn to be patient with ourselves and with others; our transformation will not happen overnight. We must place our trust in the Master Gardener and let Him do His work. Sometimes it may seem like we won’t survive in new soil, but really we only need to extend new roots. If we have patience through the spiritual dry spells and cold fronts (and even, perhaps, a polar vortex), God will guide us to adapt and grow through every circumstance. All we have to do is keep craning our heads upward toward the light.

“Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.”
—Pope Benedict XVI

Saints I Don’t Like

One evening in August I heard a piercing scream from the living room.  I quickly ran to find my mother shrieking and pointing at a large black shadow that dove about the room at extreme velocity.  “There’s a bat in here!”

I found myself paralyzed with fear.  “God—you’ve got to help me!!!”

The bat continued to dive about.  Later, after I had recounted this story to a friend, she sent this video [language warning] of a family who attempted to get rid of a bat in their dining room.  In the video, the bat fluttered about creepily, but did not dive.  Our bat, in contrast, behaved like a kamikaze.  “That’s because it’s a young bat, not an old bat,” my mother explained.  “It is stupid and scared…”

It was not as scared as I was though.  When God did not answer my prayer, I brought in the big guns: “PADRE PIO YOU HAVE TO HELP ME!  You have to get rid of this for me.  I cannot kill it.  I cannot.  There has to be another way!”

The bat flew upstairs, and into the guest room, where I quickly slammed the door and continued to plead with Padre Pio.

Suddenly, I remembered that this was the one room in the house with a door to the outside.  It is one that is never used, but which opens out to a little porch.  I moved quickly over to the door and opened it, praying for the bat to fly out before others could fly in.  Meanwhile my mother, who had followed me upstairs, shut the door leaving me trapped with the bat.

I endured an eternity of terror—at least five minute’s worth—while the bat dove at my head, then back up and around the room, then at my head again.  I cringed in the corner until finally, it flew out into the night.

“Thank you Padre Pio!” I exclaimed, my relief mingled with surprise that in fact, he came through for me—again.

*            *            *

You would think, hearing this, that I must be a great fan of Padre Pio.  I am not.

Padre Pio has worked many miracles for me, but I can’t bring myself to like him. I’ve wanted to like him—felt that I ought to—but I cannot.   He seems too austere for my taste; too cranky; too intricately linked with suffering.

I know that had I met him in real life, I probably would have really liked him.  We might even have become great friends.  I know that someday, soon perhaps, we will in fact be great friends.  I know this because it’s happened to me before.

People who’ve seen me wearing my St. Thérèse necklace will doubtless be surprised to hear that I used to dislike her too.  The saint whom I now credit with my spirituality used to be one I avoided at all costs.

Lots of people love Thérèse.  Scores of friends have asked for and received roses from her on a regular basis.  I knew I ought to love her too, but when I first read her story, I wanted to punch her.  (True story). She seemed way too saccharine, too spoiled (first by her family, then by God), and it was impossible to take her protestations of littleness seriously.  Yet she claimed to be “little” and to be in need of Jesus’ carrying her to become a saint.  Please.

I’ve written elsewhere and at length about learning to receive God’s love and depend on God’s mercy, a lesson that I’ve come to appreciate precisely from St. Thérèse.

*            *            *

Last Friday, I was reading a reflection from St. Isaac Jogues.  I’ve never disliked Isaac—he was in fact rather useful in teaching fifth grade boys, who relished the graphic details of his torture and martyrdom.  But personally I found him a bit too gory.

“It is only my cowardice and bodily weakness which form powerful obstacles to the designs God has for me and for this country” he began, and I immediately wanted to roll my eyes.

This was the guy Erin wrote about last week—the guy who had his fingers chewed off, among other tortures—but who then WENT BACK VOLUNTARILY to minister to those same people.   That he should call himself a weak coward reeked of absurdity and untruth.

“But what if it’s true?” a voice spoke within me, seemingly out of nowhere.  “What if he really was that weak?  What if he really was a coward?”

As often happens when I hear this Voice, I was deeply challenged and more than a little afraid.  What if…?

It is much safer, I realized, to believe that saints are super-human, to believe that they are made of different material than I.

But what if they’re not?

What if they are in fact, made of the same stuff I am?  The same weakness.  The same fears.  The same sluggishness of heart.

But what if the mustard seed is allowed to grow, the leaven received in order to transform?  What if God’s life really does have the power to change us?  To make us into more than we might dream?

When I was a child, I loved the butterfly.  I marveled that something as ugly and crawling as the caterpillar could become something so beautiful and free.

If the caterpillar were a thinking creature, would it know what lay in store?  Would it hear whispers from the butterflies of what they used to be, of their former lowliness, and doubt?  Could it even imagine, a creature of earth with so many legs that moved so slowly, could it even imagine what it would feel like to fly?  When it was finally ensconced in its cocoon, did it feel as though it were buried, trapped, that things were finally over?

I don’t know if a caterpillar can imagine flying.  But it will be transformed into something that can.

Of course, in humans this transformation is not inevitable, nor can it be achieved by effort alone.  It requires cooperation with grace.  We must allow God to plant and cultivate the mustard seed.  We must allow Him to incorporate the leaven into our very being.

But what then, if His words are true?

Jesus’s first miracle was the transformation of water into wine; His last was the transformation of wine into His blood.  But His most remarkable is the transformation of us into Himself.

Lord I believe; help my unbelief.


Quotes:

St. Isaac Jogues, just before he died:

“I do not fear death or torture. I do not know why you would kill me. I come here to confirm the peace and show you the way to heaven.”

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

“Christ says ‘Give Me all.  I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work.  I want You… Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit.  I will give you a new self instead.  In fact, I will give you Myself; my own will shall become yours’…  The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for.  Nothing less.  He meant what He said.”

St. John Paul II:

“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.”

**Disclaimer:  Alert readers will notice that I’ve actually posted about next week’s Gospel, not the one for today!  A big mea culpa–I didn’t realize my mistake until too late!

 

Butterfly

Image from Wikimedia Commons

© <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Ram-Man”>Derek Ramsey</a> / <a href=”https://derekramsey.com”>derekramsey.com</a&gt; / Used with permission