The New and the Now

I love New Year’s Day.  I love new beginnings, fresh starts, the first page of a clean new journal.  I love the idea of resolutions: the promise of new habits and the new happiness and order they will bring to my life.

I am not alone: last night, Times Square was filled to capacity, and millions more watched on television as the ball dropped, signaling an end to 2018 and the beginning of 2019.  It was a night of celebration and revelry; for many the penultimate holiday celebration, ushering in the promises of newness: New Year, New You, New Resolutions and hopes and dreams to plan and unpack.

Yet, just three weeks from today, January 21st, is Blue Monday, “The Most Depressing Day of the Year.”  By the third Monday of January, it seems, conditions have converged to create a cocktail of depression.  One is the dreary weather; another the post-holiday let down, and then the arrival of the post-holiday credit card bills.  (I am sure that fact that it is a Monday doesn’t help).  But the biggest factor?  By the third week in January most have failed to keep their new resolutions, and as a result have abandoned hope in their new happiness.

Today, January first and New Year’s Day, the Church presents for our contemplation the mystery of Mary, Mother of God.  At first, it seems something of a mismatch.  If there was anyone who didn’t need New Year’s resolutions, it was the Immaculate Conception.  Conceived without sin, she had no faults to renounce: she didn’t need to resolve to give up gossip, or gluttony, or even to give more of herself to God.  And it is hard to picture Our Lady promising to eat fewer carbs or even to exercise more: surely the fully pregnant mother who rode on a donkey all the way to Bethlehem didn’t need to get more fit, or to do more penance.

Yet when we entrust to Mary the Mother of God, our resolutions, we increase exponentially the likelihood of our keeping them.  First, because her intercession is invaluable in anything we wish to accomplish or offer.  Second, because in her role as Mother of God, she models for us how to keep them.

How can this be, for we who know too well the reality of sin?

The answer for the Christian is not a how or a what but a Who.  The child gestated in the womb of a Virgin, laid in the manger and held in her arms, first in Bethlehem and ultimately at Calvary, is Emmanuel: God is With Us.

God is With Us.  Not just in the new, but in the now.  Not with our future perfected or improved selves, or hobnobbing with the People We Ought To Be, but right now, in this imperfect moment.

Says Sister Wendy Beckett: “I would say that the essential test of whether you are a Christian is whether you actually pray.  If you don’t pray you don’t truly believe.  You believe in some kind of God who is an evil God because if you truly believe in the real God, then you want to be close to Him.”  Yikes.

It is in the Baby in the manger, the Baby cradled in Mary’s lap, nursing at her breast, that we can find the confidence to draw close to God without fear.

A baby changes everything.

Even a merely human baby has a remarkable power to effect change.  Voices are softened, curses omitted, touch becomes more gentle and loving.  Mothers addicted to nicotine or caffeine or alcohol in excess suddenly quit cold turkey when they become aware of the life growing within them.  Fathers who are “tough guys” melt into mush holding their child.  Parents can attest that what willpower could not accomplish, the needs of their child effects quickly: getting up earlier, giving up more of their time, sacrificing more of their money for someone other than self.

Father Richard Veras notes in his book Jesus of Israel: Finding Christ in the Old Testament that this experience of parenthood, this change effected by ENCOUNTER, is in fact the model of Christianity, not resolution fueled by willpower alone.   It is the encounter with Christ that changes us, that both inspires our right resolutions and empowers us to effect them.

If there is one resolution that will change your life definitively, it is to adopt the habit of daily prayer.  To spend some time, like Mary, reflecting on the mystery of Emmanuel.  To be present to the God that is always with you.  To allow Him to transform you, to make you new.  Sister Wendy again, not mincing words: “My filth crackles as He seizes hold of me.”

Gretchen Rubin, in her book Better than Before, writes about habits, and what helps and hinders them.  Much of her advice applies well to cultivating a habit of prayer.  Make the habit specific and concrete, she advises.  Set a specific time for prayer (morning habits are more likely to be kept, she notes).  Make the habit itself specific (for example, replace “to pray more” with “I will pray for fifteen minutes a day.”)  Make it a daily habit: “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in awhile.” (p.80)

Let Our Lady teach you how to pray.  (She taught Jesus, after all…)  Let her hand you the Christ Child to hold, even without words, and just be present and ponder the mystery.

Finally, as Gretchen Rubin notes, the time for a new habit is Now.  Not in tomorrow, which as the orphan Annie reminds us, is “always a day away.” The Good News is, literally, God is With Us Now.  Not in the museum of the past, nor in a perfect future, but in very moment in which we reside.

On this her feast day, let us invoke Mary’s maternal intercession as we pray for the two most important moments of our life: “Holy, Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death, Amen.”

Madonna_with_child_and_angels

Image Credit:

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

You Have Won My Heart

“But you have the anointing that comes from the Holy One,
and you all have knowledge.” -1 John 2:20

Dear brothers and sisters, as 2018 wraps up in this Octave of Christmas, something that’s been on my heart for the past few months that I am making my goal for 2019 is focusing back on the heart-to-heart relationship with God. It is so easy to lose sight of Whose we are.

We have received God’s anointing in Baptism, and from this anointing flows our identity as His sons and daughters, which is sealed in the Sacrament of Confirmation. God has put an indelible mark on your soul that cannot be washed off. His anointing of you is His irrevocable choice to make you a part of His family. No matter how much we fight and struggle with our sonship and daughtership as His beloved ones, no matter how much we wrestle with doubt and lies and fear, God says to us: “You are Mine!” And He says this with great delight over you.

What does this anointing look like in your life in a tangible way? From His anointing flows your purpose that clarifies why you were born. You are certainly not a mistake. You are not an exception to the faithfulness of God’s love. You are not an exception to the fulfillment of His call for your life. You are chosen. You are His. I will say it again: He delights in you, His precious child.

“But to those who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God,
to those who believe in his name, 
who were born not by natural generation, nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.” -John 1:12-13

I want 2019 to be a year of going back to the basics of focusing on God’s love for me and loving Him wholeheartedly in return. I want this to permeate my soul so much that it constantly outpours for others. I want to fall in love with the Lord over and over again. He dwells within us—our bodies are His temple. How often I forget that! We don’t have to go far to find Him. He’s already with us, already loving us, eyes already on us. St. Teresa of Avila said, “We need no wings to go in search of God, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.”

Lord God, we thank You and praise You for choosing us as Your sons and daughters. Thank You for Your unending patience with our weaknesses. Thank You for Your kindness. Thank You for rejoicing at even the smallest steps we take towards You. No matter the season of life, no matter what prayers we are waiting on answers to, Lord, help us to make this a year of more of You and so much less of us. Help us to fall in love with You again. Help us to find You in the stillness of our hearts, and to be disciplined in silent prayer. Help us to bask in the sight of Your delight in us. Unravel and soften our hearts in a deeper love for You, God. We love You, Lord. Help us to love You more and more. Amen.

“And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only-begotten Son,
full of grace and truth.” -John 1:14

Blessed Are You

And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
—Luke 1:43

Although she did not know it, Elizabeth’s whole life had been leading up to this moment. For decades, she had lived in quiet piety in a small, ordinary village. Her whole married life she had prayed for a child, until her childbearing years had passed and she was an old woman. Through all this disappointment and seemingly unanswered prayers, Elizabeth never grew bitter toward God. She remained a faithful servant, bringing glory to God in her barrenness. Her hope was a sign of God’s grace to her people, for even in her desolation, His promises sustained her soul.

And then, to Elizabeth’s surprise, she was called to be a sign of God’s grace in a new, miraculous way: as the mother of John the Baptist, the one who would point the way to the Messiah. We see in today’s Gospel the account of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, when each had just received a wondrous and weighty mission from God. They greeted one another in exaltation, amazed at how God was using them to bear His grace into the world.

Elizabeth’s faithfulness to God in all the small moments of her life prepared her to speak those prophetic words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” After so many years in prayer, speaking with God and listening to His voice, she recognized with joy and humility that she was now in His presence. She marveled at the roles He had entrusted to her and to Mary—never comparing each other’s blessings and sorrows, but instead embracing the important role she had been given.

Each of us bears the image of God into the world, and each of us has an important calling to fulfill. As we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, may we also be aware of God’s presence in the people around us. May we, like Elizabeth, call out with joy as we recognize the blessedness of our brothers and sisters, delighting in one another’s gifts.

Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul

Today’s saint, St. John of the Cross, is known for his writings on the “dark night of the soul.” He was a man of prayer who was intimately close to God; however, he suffered a great deal throughout his life as he attempted to reform the Carmelite order. St. John, along with St. Teresa of Avila, sought to cultivate a way of life that fostered a greater closeness with God through prayer and sacrifice. They faced strong opposition, however, from those who did not want the Carmelites to change their ways. John was immersed in the experience of the Cross, facing imprisonment, unjust accusations, persecution, and abuse. For seeking to grow in holiness, he was treated like a criminal.

But John’s greatest legacy is not his initial zeal to reform the Carmelite order; rather, it is how he responded when his holy passion was met with censure and condemnation. He turned to poetry and prayer as a means of expressing the great sorrow he felt, and he began to reflect on how he could grow ever closer to Jesus through this experience of suffering. Faced with the bitter reality that even our purest, most faithful actions can be met with cruelty and indifference, and that bad things do, in fact, happen to good people, John refused to believe that God was not present in that darkness. He wrote of his experiences undergoing this dark night of the soul and how the light that dawned on the other end was brighter than anything he had experienced. By passing through the darkness, he came to know a more brilliant Light; by “dying to self,” he rose to new life. John assures us that while the spiritual life will bring suffering and pain, the dark night is not the end. It is preparing us for a greater glory to come.

How do we cultivate a real, lasting joy instead of the fleeting happiness that comes and goes with our ever-changing circumstances? Even when God is hidden to us—even, in fact, when we pass through a dark night of the soul—joy is ours for the taking. We struggle, of course, to have joy in times when we do not feel happy; but true joy is deeper than mere happiness. So what is this mysterious, profound joy that can transcend our outward emotions? It comes from God alone.

The saints exuded joy in every moment of their lives—even amidst intense suffering and grief. God wants us to have this unshakeable joy, too, to be sustained by His promises at every moment, come what may. When we are taken with the joy only God can provide, we know beyond any question that we are known and loved and deeply cherished by a Love that knows no bounds. He wants to sustain our flagging spirits with that boundless joy.

We cannot control our circumstances, but if we are deeply rooted in God’s Word and continue to remind ourselves of His promises, we will have a hope that endures beyond our earthly trials. The joy that remains will cause us to remain convinced of God’s presence and goodness, even as we walk through the deserts of life.

This weekend, we will light the rose-colored candle on our Advent wreaths as we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Most of Advent is a time of quiet preparation, putting everything in order as Christmas draws near, making our hearts ready to receive the Christ child. But this coming week we will focus on joyful anticipation of the birth of Christ. The child has not yet arrived, but we are joyful and confident in His coming; even though we are yet in darkness, we celebrate the promise of the Light. We walk in the midst of darkest night, yet we cannot contain our joy—for the light has already dawned in our hearts.

Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.
—1 Peter 1:8

Cluttered Hearts

“O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!” -Isaiah 2:5

Advent is upon us, and it seems like each year my heart cries out with more and more longing for the coming of our Savior.

Jesus, we need You.

We need You in our broken and hurting world full of darkness, sin, and deep, deep pain.

We need You to be the center of our families, our marriages, our friendships. We need You to heal our relationships with others.

We need You in our workplaces.

We need You in our bleeding Church; oh how we need You to make all things new and right. We need You to bind up our wounds, to bring mighty justice, to shine Your piercing light into the darkness of the appalling sin, shame, hiding, and cover-up, to direct our next steps and to guide us forward.

We need You in the messy parts of our hearts, the parts we are too ashamed to tell other people about, the parts You see and love us anyway.

We need You to uproot and cast out shame, fear, and distrust of Your goodness from our lives.

We need You in every inch of the world, in every part of our beings, in the deepest depths of our souls. Every minute, every hour, every second—we need You.

Dear brothers and sisters, Advent is a season full of hopeful expectation of God’s saving power. It’s a season of light shining forth in the darkness. As we light each new candle of the Advent wreath, may we allow that much more of the light of Christ to pierce our hearts and renew us.

The other day in prayer, I imagined Jesus knocking on the door of the home of my heart, like a guest that comes forty-five minutes before the party when you’re still cleaning and haven’t showered. I imagined myself panic-stricken, trying to shove certain things behind the couch. And there He stood before me, smiling, seeing right through my couch cushions to all the mess and sin that I tried to hide. Yet He responded with nothing but tenderness. His kindness leads to our conversion.

We need to let Jesus in before we feel ready. Sometimes we need Him to help point out where we need to grow, and sometimes we need the affirmation of knowing that He loves us just the same no matter what mess we have in our hearts. He takes us as we are. When we let our Savior in, prepared or not, He speaks to our cluttered and weary hearts, “You are good. You are seen. You are known. I love you fully, as you are.”

At Midnight, in Bethlehem, in Piercing Cold

Today begins the St. Andrew Christmas Novena, also called the Christmas Anticipation Prayer. I first heard about this tradition a few years ago, and it’s a really beautiful prayer:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

Traditionally, this prayer is recited fifteen times a day, beginning on November 30, the Feast of St. Andrew, and finishing on Christmas Eve. It is a meditative prayer, helping us to place ourselves in Bethlehem and focus on the coming of the Christ child as we prepare for Christmas. Praying with this novena has given me a richer awareness of God throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. It helps me to connect my own present experiences and petitions with the miracle of the incarnation.

Last year, I created a lock screen for my phone with the novena prayer written on it, so that throughout the day, whenever I checked my phone, I would see the novena and be reminded to pray it. I’ll share it with you here, in case any of you need the same reminder!

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Wishing you all a blessed Advent!

Unceasingly

“As Jesus approached Jericho
a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging,
and hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what was happening.
They told him,
“Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
He shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”
The people walking in front rebuked him,
telling him to be silent,
but he kept calling out all the more,
“Son of David, have pity on me!”
Then Jesus stopped and ordered that he be brought to him;
and when he came near, Jesus asked him,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
He replied, “Lord, please let me see.”
Jesus told him, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.”
He immediately received his sight
and followed him, giving glory to God.
When they saw this, all the people gave praise to God.” (Luke 18:35-43)

Dear friends, I cannot tell you the number of times my prayers for certain intentions have dwindled over time because they’ve gone seemingly unanswered. I get disheartened, listen to that tiny voice of despair telling me to doubt God’s faithfulness, and don’t pray about it as much—and not out of surrender, but out of fear, out of feeling unworthy.

Mea culpa. Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.

The blind man in today’s Gospel was persistent in his cry for Jesus. He, a beggar, an outcast and someone seen as less-than, didn’t doubt that Jesus would hear and answer him because of who he was. Even when the crowd told him to be silent, they couldn’t stifle the outcry of his prayer.

When people tell us to give up, when the world screams that God isn’t good, we cannot cease our prayer. When we pray steadfastly, we allow the steadfast love of God to enter our hearts. We renew our trust in Him each time we cry out to Him. We proclaim how much we need a Savior.

In acknowledging Jesus as the “Son of David,” the blind man is declaring that Jesus Christ is Lord, that as the Son of David, He is the Messiah. This shows his great faith in who Jesus is.

Even though the man couldn’t see Jesus and the miracles He was working before his sight was restored, he had faith. He believed that Jesus is the Savior. When we can’t see what God is up to or when our prayers seem ignored, we can have faith that Jesus hasn’t left the picture. He never abandons us, and He always hears and answers our prayers.

One of my favorite worship songs, “The King of My Heart,” has a line that says, “You’re never going to let me down.” Has God ever let us down? Even in the darkest moments, no. Will God ever let us down? No, we can trust in His unending love. We can pray unceasingly, knowing that God is with us, fulfilling our every need.