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)

Do Not Scatter

We can all relate to being misunderstood at one point or another. Our good intentions can be seen as inadequate, or even counterintuitive. In today’s Gospel, Jesus does a good deed. He drives out a demon, yet he is misunderstood. Some even accuse him of evil, while others want him to perform another miracle.

We can relate to Jesus in this situation. We can also relate to those in the crowd.

How often do we misinterpret the intentions of others, and jump to conclusions about their good deeds? How often do we find our hearts divided? We want to believe in the goodness of others, in God’s goodness, yet doubts enter our minds.

In He Leadeth Me, Father Walter J. Ciszek experienced moments of doubt and despair while imprisoned in Russia. In the moment when he lost all hope, Father Ciszek turned to prayer and told God he was his only hope. In that moment of self-surrender, he received great strength and consolation. He realized he had to continue living with this self-abandonment and lose any hidden doubt he had left. Even in our most difficult moments, we can find God and abandon ourselves to his will. This is easier thought, said, and even written down, than done. Yet we must try and try again.

As we journey through Lent, we must decide whether we are with Jesus or against him. Rather than being scattered in our thoughts and actions, let us choose to journey together with Jesus, for “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Today, let us pray the Act of Faith, that we may lose our hidden doubts and abandon ourselves to God.

Act of Faith
O my God, I firmly believe
that you are one God in three divine Persons,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I believe that your divine Son became man
and died for our sins and that he will come
to judge the living and the dead.
I believe these and all the truths
which the Holy Catholic Church teaches
because you have revealed them
who are eternal truth and wisdom,
who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
In this faith I intend to live and die.
Amen.

Hope and Trust

Have you ever noticed that the themes of Hope and Trust normally are paired together? These two themes also tend to point us to the Lord and the promise of happiness. If we place our trust in the Lord we will be blessed. The readings today focus on trust and hope, pointing out the difference between one who places his or her trust in earthly possessions and one who places his or her trust in Lord.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose hope is the LORD.” –Jeremiah 17:7
 
The Gospel makes a comparison between a rich man and a poor man, Lazarus. The rich man was rewarded during his time on earth, as opposed to Lazarus who received his reward in heaven. I must admit when I was younger I would read this passage and focus more on the rich man. I focused more on the fear that I might end up suffering the same fate as the rich man instead of focusing on the inspiring story of Lazarus. As humans, I think it is easy for us to fall prey to fear, and by doing so we lose sight of the hope that the Lord is really trying to show us. For the first time, I was able to read this passage without fearing I would endure the fate of the rich man. The truth is that our Lord is calling us to grow and draw closer to Him by asking us to place all our trust in Him. By doing so we will never have to worry about successfully enduring the hardships of this earthly life or even ending up like the rich man in the afterlife. We can be like the tree in the first reading from Jeremiah: “In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.” The reason why the themes of trust and hope are always paired together is because by placing our trust in the Lord we are promised the gift of hope, the hope of eternal life with Him and in Him.

White Pebbles

When we children were not behaving, and my father was beginning to lose his patience but not yet his sense of humor, he would glance at the woods behind our house and say, “It’s time to start gathering white pebbles!”

We knew well the story of Hansel and Gretel, and how the father, pressured by the wicked stepmother, brought his two children into the deep woods, intending to leave them there.  However, Hansel had overheard the plans, and filled his pockets with white pebbles.  As they walked further into the woods, he dropped the pebbles along the way.  When the two children awoke to find themselves abandoned and alone, Hansel reassured Gretel, and told her to wait for the moonrise.  Sure enough, when the moon rose, it illuminated a path of the white pebbles, leading them safely home to their rejoicing father.

A few years ago, I was in a Bible Study with Brother John Mary CFR in which he invited us to pray about our story, and write a five-minute testimony.  As I prayed, the image that kept coming to my mind was this story and the path of white pebbles.

I realize that in many ways my life is like that path of pebbles, illuminated as I look back, like a reverse treasure hunt.  So many moments that seemed random, insignificant, or even tragic and opposed to my good, looking back highlight instead a path leading to God the Father.  Small conversations, big obstacles, struggles that seemed senseless, set the way Home.  My life was a path of gifts and graces that I only recognized in hindsight.

However, as I sat with the story and the image, I realized something was “off.”  The father in that story was not a true image of God the Father.  While he was not as ill-intentioned as his wife, he bowed to her pressure to abandon his children, not once, but twice.

The Brothers Grimm tell us that the father was a poor woodcutter “who could no longer procure even daily bread.”  He fears for the family, anticipating that they will all die of starvation.  His wife’s solution is to get rid of the children. The father balks, but in the end succumbs to her pressure and his fear.

The father is happy when the children return home the first time, but when the wicked step-mother applies pressure again, he capitulates and leads them into the deep woods a second time.  This time, Hansel did not have the opportunity to gather pebbles, and so scatters instead a trail of breadcrumbs.  But birds eat these, and the moon rises only to show the children that they are truly lost and alone, and this time there is no path home.  (It was then that they found the fabled candy cottage, and the witch that forms the heart of that story).

At first, as I considered the weak woodcutter, I thought that I must have misunderstood what I had received in prayer.  But as I stayed with it, I realized that the metaphor for my life only deepened.  For my story is not just about a path to God, but about coming to know what kind of Father God really is.

For much of my life, I saw myself not unlike Hansel, left to figure things out for himself.  I imagined that God would be happy enough if I made it home to heaven—but that it was all up to me to do what it took to get there.  While I did not doubt God’s goodness or love in the abstract, I did not recognize it for myself personally and practically.  God’s goodness did not seem “enough” to really help me, to overcome my sin, to overcome the difficulties of the world and my life.   He would be waiting for me at the end, if I made it, if I became the Girl I Ought to Be, but in the meantime, I was on my own.

If I wanted to come Home to my Father, it was up to me to find the way.  It was up to me to figure out how to save myself.  It was up to me to be clever enough to outwit evil, to prove my worthiness.  The result was a life of spiritual striving, which only left me feeling further lost and unloved.

Jesus comes to tell a different story.  The Father is “Our Father”—a Father we have in common with Jesus.  He is Son by nature; we are children by adoption, by a gratuitous love.  And because our image of Father has been so distorted, Jesus comes to reveal the face of the Father by His life.  It is a face of mercy, of healing, of truth, and a love which goes out to “seek and to save the lost.”

Not only is God generous, providing for our daily bread and physical life; He Himself becomes our Bread.  He Himself is the path; He walks with us and provides the grace and means to get to heaven.  Unlike the woodcutter who chose self-preservation out of fear, Jesus walks the path to the Cross, and shows in Himself the self-giving, self-emptying love that would literally rather die than live without us.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us how to pray.  As we pray the Our Father, we are invited to praise and affirm belief in the goodness of God’s Fatherhood, and to pray for the coming of His kingdom—that earth may reflect fully the goodness of heaven.  We then remember His promise to take care of us as we then entrust our needs to Him—”Give us this day our daily bread…deliver us from evil.”  He is not a Father who abandons us, but rather Emmanuel, God with us.

 

 

Pebble-Path resized

Image Credit:

Michel Matton [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

One of these choices is not like the other

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As an actress, I have frequented circles where the pursuit of life, love and the absolute virtue of self-expression reign supreme: Live your truth. If it’s you and it makes you happy, go for it. The universe is looking out for you.

These messages are found not only in my artist circles—they saturate all of our relativistic society and egalitarian culture, where nothing is objectively true and all is subjective; where no one or no One can be Lord over the “almighty” individual. It is all too clear who is the ruler of this world (hmm…does this make anyone want to shout the conquering cry of the Angel of Victory?)

This is in no way to stand in judgment over any colleagues or friends—far from it. I too lived this way during my “cherry picking” days and had some problems with claiming absolutes, especially where the Church was concerned. Without being rooted in my identity as a daughter of the Most High or knowing about the the infinite treasures and wisdom of Holy Mother Church in a meaningful way, it was all too easy for me to think that I was doing alright as long as I was a “good person;” that I had my life over here and could put God someplace else to visit when it was convenient.

Slowly, mercifully, over the years of deeper conversion, the Lord convicted me. He opened my heart to the immensity of His unique, personal love for me (and for each of us). He opened my eyes to the spiritual reality and battle of our existence, where there is indeed an absolute choice to be made.

Moses says, in no uncertain terms:

Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish…

Easy enough choice, right? When looking at the eternal bliss of Heaven or the infernal horrors of Hell, who would willingly choose death over life? Yet that is the trap so many of us fall into when we willfully turn our hearts away from God for whatever reason, refusing to listen to the Truth—the Truth of His love for us, and the responsibility we have as His children. And not only listen to the Truth, but to joyously and actively choose to obey.

In the Gospel today, Jesus shares with His intimate friends a harrowing picture of the sacrifice He will make for the salvation of sinners. Knowing the infinite value of our souls and the passing temptations of this world, Christ then invites us all to make that choice to deny ourselves, daily take up our cross, and follow Him; to choose eternal life over eternal death. Today we celebrate the Feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who give witness to this in a powerful way. As St Paul writes in Romans 8:18–

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

In this life, we should strive for nothing short of sanctity—Heaven is the realm of Saints and that is our true land. This is something I have to constantly remind myself of whenever I’m tempted to be “led astray and adore and serve other gods:”

When I care more for the opinions of others and it feels easier to keep my mouth shut in conversation rather than defend my Catholic faith and beliefs; when I let talk venture into uncharitable gossip because it’s all in “fun;” when I let jealousy poison my opinion of another person rather than seeing that person, and the gifts He has bestowed upon me, through the eyes of God; when I’d rather scroll through social media or watch Netflix rather than pray with Scripture or the Rosary.

Every day in countless small ways and in all sorts of places—at work, on the train, on the streets—the Lord invites us to die to ourselves, to love Him, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments. We can turn away from Him, piercing His Heart with our refusal, or we can turn to Him with our whole heart.

I have come to relish the moments when someone asks about the Divine Mercy image at my dressing room table, or notices my scapular peeking out, or learns that I attend daily Mass and bi-weekly confession (working up to weekly, Padre Pio!). Yes, even the moments of wide-eyed disgust when passersby see me, a young woman of color, standing outside Planned Parenthood in prayer. These moments of encounter open the door to astonishment and plant the seeds of grace.

The world around us is hungry for Truth and real Love. The universe and the gods that we make in our own image will never satisfy our deepest desire for God.

When we ask for the grace to live boldly and joyfully the proclamation that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD, that there is no other, and that we were made for so much more than what the world offers—we will receive it.

When our seemingly ordinary days are colored by the extraordinary fact that Our Lord’s sacrifice and His infinite love for us, that Heaven is real (as is Hell), and that we have a choice to make—who knows how many souls we can win for the Lord?

Let us join with the universal Church in prayer for the Holy Father’s intention this month–that Christian communities, especially those who are persecuted, feel that they are close to Christ and have their rights respected.

Be faithful. Be authentic. Most of all, be not afraid. The victory is His.

Choose life, then.

Choose life.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, pray for us!