Tea Bags

“I do it myself!” On our family vacation over the 4th of July, two-year-old Zippy is declaring her independence.

Her independence produces a lot of work, particularly for my brother Joe, who is a good and attentive father. “I do it myself!” she insists, as she puts on her pajamas, but her leg goes into the arm sleeve and so she is stuck until help arrives. “I do it myself!” she peels her own egg, and my brother must bring the “scary weapon” to vacuum the 98% of the shells that wind up on the floor. “I do it myself!” she jumps into the deep end of the pool, propelled to the surface by her “floaties” and the subtle assistance of an adult hand guiding her to shore.

As I delight in her growth, I muse on my own, and the mysterious interplay of freedom and dependence on God. I too, have a patient Father, teaching me both to step out in faith but also fall back in trust. I am learning, too, that the “doing” of Christianity is so often a matter of “being.” What does this mean?

Recently in prayer I was anguishing over something, the details of which I do not recall, but it was a matter requiring some degree of discernment and action. However, the image that persisted in prayer was tea bags. Just tea bags, steeping. I was jarred by the banality of it. I wanted something at least inspirational, if not instructive. But tea bags?

I am often asked about prayer, and my consistent advice is to begin by “making a space to be with God,” i.e. to begin by committing to a specific daily prayer time. For anyone who wishes to grow in the spiritual life, to have a relationship with Christ, daily prayer time is paramount. Nothing matters more. Just fifteen minutes a day, practiced with persistence and perseverance, will be life-changing.

In the beginning, it often helps to have some “props” for prayer—images or books to focus on, or Scriptures or other reading to guide our reflections. It is also of great help to invite the Holy Spirit to pray within us, and to ask Jesus to lead our prayer in whatever way He wishes. Many excellent books have been written on ways that can help beginners in prayer; some I will cover in future posts.

To pray is to “practice the presence of God.” It is “wasting time with God.” It is not something that we do, although in the beginning we have to work to open ourselves to God, to be quiet and still and truly present. It is to receive the love of God, and then to return it. “Prayer is not thinking much but loving much,” says Saint Teresa of Avila. (It is worth noting, that Teresa herself relied on books and images for help in prayer, especially in the early years).

Being present does not mean being passive. In the beginnings of prayer, in particular, we may need to fight—to work to be still, to fight for silence, to be recollected. Especially in today’s culture, times of quiet do not come easily.

Are we afraid of silence?

In the beginning, this silence and space for God can be disconcerting, or even frightening. “Just who am I?” the silence taunts us with its emptiness. But it is only in the presence of I AM that we are filled and given a more true answer.

In today’s first reading, God identifies Himself to Moses as “I AM.” It is fascinating to compare Him to the gods of other religions, who are numerous and named for what they do and/or control. The god of war, the goddess of the harvest or of fertility, the sun god, the river god. Our God, who has a far more impressive resume and who holds the whole world, does not identify Himself as “I do” but as “I AM.”

To pray is to be with this God.

Saint Teresa of Avila was named a Doctor of the Church for her works on prayer. But at one point, she herself gave up on prayer for over a year, when it became frustrating, and she mistakenly thought, fruitless. She learned that prayer is essential, that it depends on God, and she wrote beautiful works on growing in prayer.

She uses the image of prayer as a garden that is to be watered. In the beginning there is work to be done removing weeds etc. and cultivating growth; the garden must also be watered regularly.

In the beginning, the pray-er seems to be doing most of the work, but as she grows spiritually, the effort of the soul lessens and God’s work increases. In the early stages Teresa likens prayer to drawing water from a well—a lot of work, for a very little water. Later it may be like a pump—the pray-er is still “working” at prayer, but more efficiently and for more water. At a third stage God provides the water as through an irrigation system—the soul is more still, more dependent, more receptive. And in the final stages of prayer, it is like a garden watered by rain: the soul is completely receptive.

At each stage of prayer, we must give to God what we can, and let Him give to us what we cannot. It is us that He wants. He wants not just our actions, but our hearts, our desires—including our desire to be with Him. And sometimes, we must ask even for this desire! The desire to pray is itself a gift of God.

Prayer isn’t always pretty. We come with our hearts as they are—angry, broken, bruised by sin, filled with self—to give what we are, as we are, to the God of Being.

Sometimes in prayer we might have wonderful “experiences” of the presence of God. But other times, we are transformed more quietly, more subtly, in the way water receives from tea bags, simply by time and togetherness. It is in these moments that God works, and we receive, without even knowing what or how.

River for Prayer unsplash

Image credit:  Photo by Monika MG on Unsplash

 

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.

Ask with Trust

In today’s first reading, Abraham asks God if He will spare the city of Sodom if fifty people living there are innocent. God says yes, and Abraham goes on to pose the question again, asking what if the number of innocent people were forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten—would God still spare the city? Each time Abraham asks, he is careful to say that he does not want to offend the Lord, and each time God faithfully says that He will not destroy the city.

St. Teresa of Avila said, “You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him.” God invites us to ask great things of Him because He wants good things for His children. Nothing is too great, too small, to seemingly silly, or too weighty to ask of God. We can go to Him with anything that is on our hearts, because He cares about every detail. God sets us free to go to Him with childlike dependency when we ask things of Him.

Childlike dependency is not foolish or naïve when it comes to the disposition of our hearts with the Lord. Rather, it shows wisdom and great strength. Childlike dependency means that we can go to God with anything and ask anything of Him, knowing that no matter what, He will provide for us, that He comes through.

We should ask things of God because we trust Him, not out of a place of a lack of trust.

In this first reading today, Abraham was asking these questions out of trust the Lord, out of a place of hope in what the Lord could do to save the innocent. Even when we don’t see a clear way, we can trust that the Lord is the way, and He cares about the questions, needs, and desires of our hearts infinitely, even when we can’t feel it. God is just that good.

What will you ask of the Heavenly Father today? Don’t be afraid to go to Him like a little child, asking great things from a place of surrender to His will and total dependence on Him.

Father, we trust that You want to lavish Your love on us, Your children. We surrender each desire of our hearts to You, knowing that You hold our desires as sacred. We trust that each prayer we pray is infinitely important to You. We trust that You always give us what we need, even if it was not what we originally planned or had hoped for, because You are our good Father who does what is best for His children. We thank You for never leaving us orphaned, unheard, or uncared for. We love You. Amen.

Your Heart Is My Home

About 8 months ago, while on a retreat, I glanced through the retreat house’s library to borrow a book for the weekend.  Though I can’t even recall the title of the book, the spiritual nugget that the Lord gave me through it has stuck with me.  And on today’s Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I am reminded of this nugget. 

The book was a sort of prayerful and guided walk through St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, and while I barely had time to skim the book, this specific principle stuck with me.  The author encouraged the reader to prayerfully discover a personal representation of the place within her (or his) soul where she meets and dwells with God.  I wish I could more accurately remember how the author guided this meditation, but the point is, it was an opportunity to create a visual “place” that resonates with you personally to help you enter into the presence of God in the innermost chambers of your heart and soul. 

For me, as I took time to allow the Lord to show me this “place,” I began to visualize a flower.  The flower petals opened gently, and there, safe within the beauty of the petals, I saw a tiny version of myself.  I was “Honey I shrunk the Kids”–sized, peacefully dwelling in the center bed of this flower.  A peace came over me as I received the gift of this image from the Lord.  It was like He had given me a new way to enter in to His presence in prayer through the uniqueness of this image of my heart and soul. 

Even though I began this prayerful meditation trying to visualize my own heart, as I sat with the image, I felt this security of being enfolded in the Lord’s Heart.  It is difficult to describe the experience, but I think it represents the reality of the exchange of hearts we partake in when we are in covenant with the Lord.  A Christian covenant is more than a contractual exchange of goods—it is an exchange of persons.  And we are loved enough by Him to be in a covenant relationship, a dynamic exchange of love, with our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our heart, the place where He dwells, is swept up in His own precious and Sacred Heart.  I believe it is this mutual abiding of hearts, mine and His, that I was experiencing in prayer.

I invite you to spend some time in prayer, asking the Lord to help you see your own heart in which He dwells, and so come into contact with His Heart.  Today’s readings illustrating Jesus’ role as our Good Shepherd remind us of His overwhelming love for each of us.  He will go out in search of you, His single lost and beloved sheep, to bring you back into His Sacred Heart.  He loves you personally, deeply, and unashamedly. 

Allow yourself to sit and receive this immeasurable love of His Sacred Heart today.  Dwell in the joy of your covenantal relationship with Him.  May this remind us that Jesus’ love is this genuinely personal for each and every person.  I pray that we can receive this great love of our Savior each and every day, so we can in turn reflect this love to every soul who has yet to experience this love.  Right now, I hope you will take a few moments to dwell in the reception of His love for you.

“Why should I love God? …if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us.”

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God

To further your meditation, check out this song that guides me right to His heart… Will Reagan — “Your Heart is My Home” Listen on Spotify | Listen on YouTube

 

 

Who’s At the Door?

When my little friends Nicholas (then 8) and Theresa (6) came to spend a day in New York City, the first stop was my apartment. As we ascended the many stairs to my sixth-floor walk-up, Nicholas exclaimed excitedly, “Cie-Cie you are so lucky! You live at the top of a skyscraper!” Theresa, with much less enthusiasm, asked, “Are we there yet?”

Climbing that many stairs is no joke. One can see in it an opportunity “hey—at least you don’t need a gym!” or a helpful deterrent, “any burglar would decide it’s not worth it.” It’s true; I didn’t even need the peephole. If someone knocked on the door, I knew they were either a really good friend or somebody to be paid.

Here upstate it is another story. It is not infrequently that I hear a knock on the door and find someone standing on our porch. Often it is a stranger—a salesman, someone campaigning for political office, a Jehovah’s Witness. Sometimes I am happy to see that it is someone I know; and sometimes it is the joy of a close friend come to visit.

In Rev 3:20, Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” In a famous painting, Jesus is standing outside a wooden door, knocking. The door has no handle; it can only Who's At the Doorbe opened from the inside.

In this context, my father used to note that there were degrees to which we let someone into our home. Some we will allow to step just inside, enough to hand us a flyer or get a signature. To some we might open the door and receive them into the entry hall. A few we will invite in to sit down for polite conversation. Close friends will come into the kitchen or sit down for a meal with us. Very close friends and family are invited to spend the night.

But even when we say, “make yourselves at home,” we only mean it to go so far. There are very few people that we allow into the more private spaces of our home; fewer still we would allow to go into our medicine cabinets or dresser drawers.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “I call you friends.” He wants to be that trusted friend—the one invited past the parlor of polite talk, into the mess, the rooms of our daily living where the “real stuff” happens. Into our private spaces. Into the closets that store our clutter and our skeletons. Into the attic where our memories are boxed up and forgotten.  Into the basement where the bodies are buried.

For many years I thought about the words of my father, but they seemed more poetic than practical. How did one invite Jesus in? What did it even mean to be a “friend” of Jesus?

It didn’t help that my idea of friendship with Jesus was influenced by a lot of bad 70’s art. There was the statue of “buddy Jesus” that still makes me cringe, or I imagined a hippie Jesus who wanted us to sit down, hold hands, and sing “kumbaya.” Worse is a more contemporary reduction, people seeing Jesus as some sort of pocket charm or device, that one looks to for answers or help, but then goes back in the pocket and stays there—especially when clothes come off.

I knew that prayer meant opening the door to Jesus.

But then what?

First, just do it.  Start praying.

But after that, the best advice I ever received about prayer was to change “God” or “Him” to “You.” I need to speak to God directly.

Before that, I had been sort of saying my prayers out into the universe, hoping by faith that there was a God on the other end to catch them. Sometimes my prayer was only thinking about God. Often it was abstract pondering, worrying about what God might want of me, how I was or was not living up to The Plan, what the future might hold.

My life changed when I began to speak to God directly. Instead of “I wonder if God wants me to do this,” I asked, “Lord, do YOU want me to do this?” Instead of, “I think God is mad at me,” “Lord, do you love me right now?” I replaced “I don’t know what this Gospel passage means,” with, “Lord, what do you want to show me today?”

In the beginning, this direct prayer was awkward and strange. Just as when we invite strangers into our homes and our lives, at first we relate formally and perhaps somewhat awkwardly, unsure of what to say. But over time, we grown in familiarity and intimacy.

For many years I spoke of Him
in the third person
objective, abstract,
with truth but without affection
dutifully sounding the gong and clashing the cymbal
of obedience to a Him.

But then the Third Person visited
And He became You
And You changed everything.

 


 

Featured Image Credit: William Holman Hunt [Public domain]

 

 

Anoint Him

Happy Holy Week, friends. In today’s Gospel, Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive perfumed oil. This wasn’t just any ordinary act of service at the time. In fact, Judas got upset with Mary for “wasting” the oil on Jesus when they could’ve sold it and given the money to the poor.

Is any gift a waste for the Lord?

In Jesus’ time, perfumed oil was like that special china your mom only uses at Christmas. It was used to anoint kings. It was used to bury the dead. It was used to show love and honor. It was not a functional thing, but something special, beautiful, and precious. In addition, the Biblical word for perfumed oil is the same as the word for anointing. Mary was honoring Jesus as the Messiah, as the Anointed One, as the King.

So, this Holy Week, anoint our Lord.

Anoint Jesus King over your life, over your circumstances, over anything you’re grasping at that He wants to hold. What will you entrust to Jesus at the foot of His cross this week?

Anoint Jesus as we journey through His death this week. Stay there with Him in it. Allow Him to get personal with you through His suffering. What does He want to speak to you? What does He want to show you? What does He say about your suffering? Wait with Him at the tomb like Mary Magdalene; wait with Him in the tombs of your own life, in the things you’re hoping will change, in the areas your heart is begging for a resurrection. Wait with Him, anointing Him with your presence and your surrender. Anoint Him in the waiting.

In anointing Him, we give Him more than is necessary: we love like He loves.

You see, time with Jesus is never a waste. We waste time scrolling through our phones and binge-watching shows, so why not waste time in a way that is truly never wasteful—with our Lord. Sit at His feet, kneel at the foot of His Cross, wait at His tomb, anoint His feet with the oil of your love. What a perfect week to do this. Love thrives and grows by spending more time than is necessary. No relationship flourishes when just the bare minimum is done to function. The same is true with our relationship with God. Our relationship with Him is in danger of becoming merely functional if we don’t spend more time with Him than necessary, if all we’re doing is checking off the boxes to go to Mass and stay in a state of grace.

When we spend more time with Jesus than is necessary, we, too, receive the anointing He has for us more fully. We are all anointed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and this is sealed in us in Confirmation. How do we live this? By spending time with Him, by simply being with Him, by telling Him we love Him. Then the grace of His anointing overflows from us, the beautiful scent of His perfumed oil outpouring from our souls to others. It doesn’t matter how many retreats you run or Catholic events you attend, if our time is not wasted with Jesus in the garden of our hearts, everything falls apart. This is true love.

Let’s lavish the Lord this week the way He lavished His love on us from the Cross. Waste some time with Him. Anoint Him. Love Him.

 

For more on this, check out this talk by Dr. Johannes Hartl.

One in the Crowd

We were talking about faith as we drove to the Frassati hike. I remember looking up at the steel grey sky, in which a thick blanket of clouds blocked the sun from shining and warming the April air. I remember thinking it was an apt analogy for my faith in God: I knew that like the sun, God was up there, but I could not see or feel His Presence.

For years I attended Frassati retreats, and watched in particular on Saturday night as people had “wow” experiences of God. I saw their faces light up, their hands raise in enthusiastic praise. I wondered if or when I would ever feel what they felt. If I would ever be able to praise from the depths of my heart, and not just from my mind and will. I felt a numbness, a paralysis in my faith life, that blocked the joy that others seemed to exude. “I am waiting for you, God!” I would pray. “When are you going to come to me?”

In today’s Gospel, a man has been lying paralyzed by a healing pool for more than 38 years. Longer than many of you reading this have been alive, he lay there, waiting. It was believed that at certain times, an angel would stir that pool at Bethesda, the Hebrew word for mercy, and whoever was first into the pool would be miraculously healed. But as the man explained to Jesus, he had nobody to help him in—and so he was never first. So he continued to wait.

I often felt like that man, lying, waiting. It seemed that God’s miracles, that His best graces, that His love—were for others, not for me.

One day, as I was being prayed over, I was told, “God is waiting for you.” What?!? I was shocked and indignant. Surely He had it backwards! I was the one waiting…

I wonder if the man in today’s Gospel felt a similar surprise, when Jesus came up to him and asked, “Do you want to be well?” I wonder if he was tempted to sarcasm, tempted to reply, “Isn’t it obvious?” I wonder if there was a touch of resignation, of hopelessness, or of whining, when he replied “There is no one to help me…” Or did the question of Jesus elicit a new hope? Did it shift something within him?

In the end, it is not the angel-stirred pool that heals the man, but the words of Jesus. Said our parish priest in today’s homily: “Jesus Himself is the healing water.”

One day, Jesus “showed up” in a big way in my life, also on a Frassati retreat, more than eight years after I first started attending. I remember sitting in the chapel, as what seemed to be a waterfall of grace fell into my hands and I felt that joy I had seen others experience.

But this was only the beginning. And in some ways, it wasn’t even that. Because as I began to grow in relationship with Jesus, I began to see He had been healing me all along. I was looking for the miraculous, for “rushing waters”—but so often, growth and healing is the slower process that we see in nature. Sometimes this takes place underground, unseen, or hidden in the womb. Even when it emerges, change and growth is often gentle and slow.

It was only when I committed to a daily prayer time, when I set a designated time for dialog with God each day, that I began to both receive and perceive deeper healing. This was a time for God to ask His questions: “What are you looking for? What do want me to do for you? Do you want to be well? Whom is it that you seek?”

It is in the person of Christ that we find healing. It is Love alone that made us, and that makes us new. It is not something that we earn, or that the angels do for us. It is the gift of a Person.

I recently attended a week-long healing retreat in Florida. I experienced some healing there—but also found God showing me even more areas that still needed to be healed. And it was clear that my impatience with waiting has not improved in the last decade. I was discussing this with a friend on the phone—how I wanted to get on with it already. She knows me and reminded me, “You can’t perform surgery on yourself!” “Ugh,” I replied, “Just hand me the scalpel already!”

Sr. Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, who also spoke on our retreat, was familiar with this frustration. “I often come with my long list of things I want God to heal,” she admits. “But then I hear Him say, ‘You are not problem to be fixed. You are a person to be loved.’”

One of the biggest wounds that needed healing in my life was the lie that God’s goodness and love were for others, but not for me. I have come to recognize this as a not uncommon strategy of the Opposition Voice: that for those who do not doubt God’s reality and goodness in general, he tempts them to doubt it in the particular.

The man in the story was one among many at the pool that day. There was a whole crowd of people waiting to be healed. But for Jesus, we are always the one: the one He calls; the one He loves; the one He wants to heal.

In his monthly introduction to the Magnificat, Rev. Sebastian White, O.P. noted another curious thing about the healing of the paralyzed man. Unlike the blind man who leaves his cloak behind, the paralyzed man is told to “Take up his mat and walk.” Why not leave it?

As Father White says: “…the Lord leaves him with the constant reminder of his former condition. Lugging around his silly mat might have been annoying—a battle even—but I bet that man never forgot he depended on Jesus.” (Magnificat Editorial, April 2019, pp. 4-5)