It is Easy

“Brothers and sisters:
I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,
and in my flesh I am filling up
what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ
on behalf of his Body, which is the Church.” –Colossians 1:24

I sadly don’t have many memories of my grandma before she got sick. She was diagnosed with Alzheimers and Parkinson’s when I was young, and her memory started to quickly fade.

My grandfather was heroic through it all, insisting on caring for her himself until it was absolutely necessary for her to have round the clock care from medical professionals. There was one night where she had gotten up and fallen so many times that my grandpa finally decided to just lie on the floor next to her for the rest of the night until morning.

When she was really sick, my family went to visit to help out for several days. All of us felt the exhaustion of caring for my grandma, coupled with the pain of seeing her suffer so much. My dad asked my grandpa, “How do you do it?” My grandpa immediately and simply replied, “It’s easy. She’s my wife.”

This is the beauty of the sacrificial love that Christ calls us to. All too often I find myself giving into anxiety and doubt in moments of suffering. But Christ calls us higher, to rejoice in our sufferings for the sake of other people. In all things, He is here! May we not waste a single moment of our suffering!

Created for Communion

Some Pharisees approached Jesus, and tested him, saying,
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?”
He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning
the Creator made them male and female and said,
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother
and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?
So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate.”
They said to him, “Then why did Moses command
that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss her?”
He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts
Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,
but from the beginning it was not so.
I say to you, whoever divorces his wife
(unless the marriage is unlawful)
and marries another commits adultery.”
—Matthew 19:3–9

As human beings, we are made for communion with one another. God created us in a way that makes it impossible for us to go it alone, for He made us in His own image. Just as He exists as a loving community of three Persons, we also are designed to live in relationship with Him and with one another. We see this in the complementarity between men and women: each is a reflection of the love of God, but they express this in different ways. Their complementary strengths bring them closer together.

Whether our need for communion is fulfilled through the vocation of marriage—a relationship that echoes the love of the Trinity—or through consecrated life—a sacred relationship with God Himself—it points to a deep desire written upon our hearts: to love and be loved, to make of ourselves a gift to others. Even while we are still waiting upon our vocation, God still calls us, here and now, to be part of His family. Each time we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, it is an opportunity for intimate connection with our Beloved.

Jesus is the Bridegroom, and we, the Church, are His bride. He lays down His life as a gift for us, and He assures us that His promises to us are eternal, never to be broken. When Jesus speaks against divorce, it is not to shame His disciples or to place burdens and restrictions upon us. He even acknowledges that in some cases, the marriage was unlawful and fundamentally lacking in what is needed to establish a true, healthy marriage as He intends for us. Rather, He wants us to understand that marriage is a great gift, not to be carelessly tossed aside. It is not merely a well of contentment that eventually dries up; rather, it is an opportunity for us to fulfill our deepest purpose through serving one another. To be truly fulfilled, we must each offer a gift of our whole selves—not just the parts we like about ourselves, not just one stage of our lives, and not just a surface-level desire for comfort.

God has blessed us with many great gifts, but do we truly understand their purpose? Or do we see them only for our own benefit? Our own personal gifts are meaningless if we cannot understand ourselves in relation to others—how we are called to serve them, what we have yet to learn from them, and how we need to rely upon them. We can form a true sense of self only when we look outward.

Crossing a Bridge

In his mind a man plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.
—Proverbs 16:9

In today’s first reading, we draw near the end of the story of Joseph the dreamer, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his own brothers. What followed—a life spent in exile, filled with heartache, loneliness, and imprisonment—could not have been further from the dreams his parents had for their beloved son. Still, Joseph surrendered to the will of God, took the adventures that befell him, and eventually guided the entire country through a seven-year famine. As he tearfully told his brothers upon their reunion, “It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5). After years of suffering, the family was healed, countless lives were preserved, and God’s saving power was revealed. What a story!

Much like Joseph, Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, whose feast we celebrate today, totally abandoned themselves to divine providence and freely undertook the adventures God presented to them. Both had deeply desired to enter religious life in their youth, but those desires remained unfulfilled. Louis had been refused entry to the Great Saint Bernard Monastery in the Swiss Alps, and Zélie had been turned away from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Faced with living in the world, each then trained to enter an artistic profession. He became a jeweler and watchmaker, and she became a lacemaker. Yet, they were still filled with grief and an aching desire for holiness—Zélie especially, for her older sister did have a vocation and entered the Visitation Monastery in Le Mans. For a young woman already filled with anguish and who truly viewed life as an exile, the additional separation from her sister was particularly painful.

But, not long after her sister entered religious life, Zélie found a kindred spirit in Louis—a gentle yet energetic man living a quasi-monastic life in the world—while crossing the St. Leonard Bridge in Alençon. They were married three months later at midnight on July 13, 1858, each vowing to be “an angel in each other’s life, radiating the face of Christ to each other and committed to bringing each other closer to God” (Renda, xxiii). When the two visited her sister on their wedding day, Zélie writes, “I cried all my tears, more than I’d ever cried in my life, and more than I would ever cry again. My poor sister didn’t know how to console me… [Louis] understood me and consoled me as best he could because his inclinations were similar to mine. I even think our mutual affection grew through it. Our feelings were always in accord, and he was always a comfort and support to me” (Renda, 288).

Marriage was not a consolation prize for Sts. Louis and Zélie, as they soon learned. It was a true calling, and one meant to be lived out fully. During a time where consecrating your life to God, performing miracles, or dying as a martyr were considered the best ways to achieve holiness, this couple was instead led to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way, a little way. Their fiat was embedded into every aspect of their marriage—they put God first and loved him more than they loved each other or their children, and they loved each other and their children very much indeed. One only needs to look at how they signed their letters when away from each other: “Your wife who loves you more than her own life” and “Your husband and true friend, who loves you for life” (Renda). Their daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, called them “a father and mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.”

Sts. Louis and Zélie lived lives seeped in prayer, the sacraments, and charitable works and raised their children to love God. Their spirituality was characterized by humility, trust, living in the present moment, love, and gratitude. Zélie was a Third Order Franciscan, and Louis had a particular affinity for Eucharistic adoration. They were devoted to Our Lady, received Communion as often as was acceptable at the time, and continuously gave of themselves to each other, their children, their extended family, and their whole community. Zélie was both a brilliant businesswoman and a dynamic mom; Louis was both eager to run to someone’s rescue and dedicate himself to study in his monastic-style cell in the family attic. They adored their children, accepted all the joys and sorrows of family life, and leaned on Christ in all circumstances, knowing they were not perfect people or parents.

Their story of crossing a bridge may seem like nothing but a charming tale, just as their daughter may seem like nothing more than a little flower. But there is much more to their marriage. St. Catherine of Siena describes Christ as a bridge reaching from Heaven to Earth in her Dialogues. For the rest of Louis and Zélie’s marriage, crossing a bridge meant uniting their sufferings to Christ, carrying their crosses, and “enduring to the end.” They had nine children, but four died at a young age, including the sons Zélie hoped to see celebrate Mass as priests. They faced many sicknesses in their family. Zélie valiantly endured an excruciatingly painful death in Louis’s arms at the age of 45 from breast cancer. Louis lost his wife too soon, gave his daughters to Christ one by one as they entered religious life, and quietly suffered from severe physical and mental illnesses before dying at an old age.

Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin are not saints because their daughter Thérèse is a saint and Doctor of the Church. They aren’t even saints because all their children entered religious life, or because they suffered greatly. Sts. Louis and Zélie are saints because they did the will of God, and they did it with all their hearts. They lived lives of astounding holiness and simplicity, offering their sufferings to God with courage, living in the grace of the present moment, and trusting in his love unconditionally. As the first spouses to be canonized as a couple, let us pray for their intercession for the healing of families around the world and for us to let God love us and lead us—even if we are led, one shaking step at a time, to somewhere different than we originally dreamed, like Sts. Louis and Zélie, like Joseph the dreamer, both sent ahead of us to help point the way to Christ, the bridge “walled and roofed with Mercy.” May God’s saving power be revealed through our lives, and may he make us saints and bring us home. Amen.

Reading & Listening Suggestions
Original composition: A Rose From Our Lady
Mongin, The Extraordinary Parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Renda (ed.), A Call to a Deeper Love
Martin, The Father of the Little Flower
Martin, The Mother of the Little Flower

Valuing Sacrifice, Not Success

By Father Pier Giorgio Dengler, O.P.
on the Feast of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, July 4, 2019.

What does it take to be great? What is it that the angel of God approved in Abraham’s offering of Isaac? What is the secret of charitable works or the source of blessedness in the Beatitudes? The answer is not in the outcome, but in the offering.

In offering something to God, we consider it as a gift we have received from God and we seek to discover from Him how to best place it at the service of His plan of salvation. This is good news, because anything can be offered—riches or poverty, success or failures, wonders or wounds.

Bl. Pier Giorgio offered much—not just the corporal and spiritual works of mercy among the poor. More than even these, he offered what was most dear to him: his relationships—treasured or tragic. Instead of using his family influence and good name to blow off studies, he knew when to subordinate fun with friends to his student obligations. He even turned down traveling with his friends for hikes if it meant that he would have to miss Sunday Mass. He had to surrender his beloved sister as she left the family and the country to get married, and he held back on pursuing the love of his life when the circumstances of beginning a romantic relationship would spell doom for his own parents’ marriage. He lived the words of St. Paul: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1).

PierGiorgioFrassati-PrésentationBl. Pier Giorgio is not famous because he was good-looking or rich, nor because he skied, climbed mountains, or hiked with friends. He wasn’t known for any of his achievements. Rather, we know him because he offered all of those goods to God, along with all of the failures, sorrows, struggles, and sacrifices which came his way (of which he has so many). Bl. Pier Giorgio united all of the elements of his life and times in a consistent litany of personal piety and prayer. Above all, he incorporated everything he had into the universal prayer life of the Church—the liturgy and its source and summit, the Eucharist.

How can we achieve such unity of purpose? A simple prayer provides the outline that Bl. Pier Giorgio personified in his brief but memorable life:

O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world. I offer them for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart: the salvation of souls, the reparation for sin, and the reunion of all Christians. I offer them for the intentions of our bishops and of all Apostles of Prayer, and in particular for those recommended by our Holy Father this month.

Morning Offering composed by Fr. Francois Xavier Gaulrelet

This prayer truly offers God everything in our day, good and bad. It puts into action the importance of praying for others, seeks the help of our Blessed Mother, and it allies our offerings with our bishops and our Holy Father and thus the most pressing needs of those overseeing the Church itself.

Unity of life means integrating everything that comes our way and everything we aim at to God, lifting it all up in our hearts in the celebration of the Sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist. It means offering everything as a sacrifice, not seeking after showy success. And it means that everything we have to offer—not only our triumphs, but also the pains we suffer, sorrows we endure, and raw deals we receive—has eternal significance and yields a bountiful harvest of grace.

How Many Loaves Do You Have? Go and See!

“Give them some food yourselves.”—Mark 6:37

At the beginning of today’s Gospel, we get a glimpse into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  “When Jesus saw the vast crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.”  As He teaches, their hunger grows, in more ways than one.  And soon it is “late.”

The disciples see the physical hunger of the crowd as a problem, and want both the problem and the people to go away.  “Dismiss them…so they can go and buy themselves something to eat,” they urge Jesus.

Jesus surprises them, instead saying: “Give them some food yourselves.”  They are stunned.  “Are we to buy 200 days wages worth of food and give them something to eat?”

He asks them, “”How many loaves do you have?  Go and see.”

It is important not to rush past this question.  Having read the spoilers, we know the answer: five loaves and two fish.  And we know what Jesus will do, and how the more than five thousand will be fed that day, and how there will even be twelve baskets of food left over.

But let us ponder for a moment this command and question of Jesus.  It is not enough for Jesus that His disciples hear His words as a message to be learned and taught.  Rather, He wishes for them to share in His heart, in His mission.  Nor can they pray from a safe distance for God to “take care of” the issue.  They are to be an integral part of His work.

First, however, they must come face to face with their inadequacy.  What do they have to offer? “Go and see.”  They are to encounter, concretely, their own inability to provide for the people.  On their own, they do not have what it takes.  They need God to work.  And yet, in the mystery of salvation, God calls them (and us) to cooperate with His work.  Our own experience of poverty does not exempt us from mission.  Humility rather makes room for God to work, but He nonetheless elevates us, drawing us into His divine mission.

The disciples bring the five loaves and two fish to Jesus.  Jesus could have fed the crowd with just one loaf, or with the bread and not the fish.  Or, being God, He could have provided His own loaf and fish.  Instead, He asked that they give what little they had, and all that they had. 

God invites us to experience our poverty, our nothingness—but then asks us to give anyway.  He loves us in our poverty, but doesn’t leave us there: He invites us to make a gift of what we have—all of it.  Sometimes we object because it seems too much.  But just as often, we object because it seems too little.

We prefer grandiose gestures, which make us look or feel good.  When God invites us to give lesser things, we balk.

Caryll Houselander writes of the woman who had a great desire to sacrifice her life to God as missionary martyr to cannibals, and was disgruntled that He never took her up on her offer.  But she was unwilling to offer God the sufferings of her infirmities and old age. 

“I knew once the primmest old invalid lady who could well have offered her helplessness to God, but she had a grievance against Him because He had not permitted her to be eaten by a cannibal for the Faith; she could not accept herself as a sick woman, but she would have achieved heroic virtue as a cutlet!” (Reed of God, p. 50)

We like to think of our saints as superheroes. But Saint Therese of Lisieux was by all accounts so “boring” that her fellow sisters feared there would be nothing to write in her obituary.  Hers was not a life of great deeds, but of great love. She offered to God the smallest of things—and all things—with this love, and in so doing became a great saint.  She was aware of her poverty and weakness and littleness, and so made room for God to act in her life in very big ways.

Father Walter Cizek, on the other hand, lived a life of remarkable strength and courage.  He became a priest, and then went to Russia as a secret missionary.  His daily life there was one of marked suffering, even before he was arrested (accused as a spy) and imprisoned; he was tortured, and later sent the Gulag in Siberia.  The details of his sufferings are astounding, and can only be called heroic.  Yet for Father Cizek, the defining moment of his life, his “conversion,” was a moment of abject failure.

While imprisoned he was subject to routine torture in a effort to get him to make a false confession.  He was determined to resist; determined to outwit his captors; determined if necessary to die for Christ.  Instead he capitulated and signed.

He was devastated; it was a moment of “great darkness” as he confronted his failure, his poverty, the realization that he did not in fact “have what it takes.”  Then suddenly grace gave birth to profound freedom, as he realized that it was precisely his weakness that God was asking of Him.  He had been relying on His own strength; henceforth he would trust completely in God’s will.

Very few of us will be called in the next twenty-four hours to make heroic offerings to God. Yet each of us is invited into the heart of Christ, to give what we have at His asking.  To begin with that first step in trust—to put bread into that first pair of hands, and then another, and then another.  To watch with reverent awe as God multiplies our poverty into abundance.

Image credit: Marten van Valckenborch [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons