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!

Dig Deep

“To the penitent God provides a way back,
he encourages those who are losing hope
and has chosen for them the lot of truth.
Return to him and give up sin,
pray to the LORD and make your offenses few.
Turn again to the Most High and away from your sin,
hate intensely what he loathes,
and know the justice and judgments of God,
Stand firm in the way set before you,
in prayer to the Most High God.

Who in the nether world can glorify the Most High
in place of the living who offer their praise?
Dwell no longer in the error of the ungodly,
but offer your praise before death.
No more can the dead give praise
than those who have never lived;
You who are alive and well
shall praise and glorify God in his mercies.
How great the mercy of the LORD,
his forgiveness of those who return to him!” -Sirach 17:20-24

Well friends, Lent is coming. And if you’re like me, that means that over the weekend you listened to as many worship songs as possible with “Alleluia” in them. Just kidding. Well…sort of…haha.

On a more serious note, I have two thoughts to share with you as we prepare to enter into Lent on Wednesday:

  1. Dig deep.

I feel like sometimes we can tend to set the bar way too high or way too low for Lent. I’ve marched into Ash Wednesday before with my mile-long list of added prayer and books to read and email devotionals subscribed to and fasting upon fasting. Not that any of these things are bad, but too many of them usually leads to crashing and burning 2.5-3 weeks into Lent, like a New Year’s resolution gone wrong. Or the temptation comes to set the bar low and not really walk with Jesus through Lent because life is too busy and I’m already doing enough “Lent” things in ministry. Friends, I want to recommend what’s possibly an unpopular or uncomfortable opinion here: I want to dig deep this Lent. I want to get to the heart of what Jesus really wants me to sacrifice and focus on this Lent. You see, sometimes we can even distract ourselves with great spiritual things to avoid what Jesus is crying out from the Cross to our hearts. What is that one thing that Jesus is really calling you to receive His mercy in this Lent? What is your heart aching for Him to redeem? What’s the one thing you know you really need to cut back on that is preventing you from saying a fuller yes to Him? Perhaps a bad habit or an addiction, maybe a sin you really need to address and let Jesus uproot, maybe a lot of fear or self-hatred. The rich young man in today’s Gospel was afraid to go there with Christ, and he went away sad. Let’s learn from him and have the courage to go there knowing that Christ went there first. It could get messy to really go there, but take heart in that the redeeming “mess” of Jesus’ blood spilled out from His broken body for you covers a multitude of our messes of sins, wounds, and the parts of ourselves that are most difficult to face. Jesus is greater than any of the darkest, most buried parts of your heart. And He’s already there. He’s already taken all of your mess into Himself on the Cross with so much love for you. He would’ve died for you if you were the only one left on earth.

  1. Focus on the goodness of God’s mercy.

One of my favorite verses from the Psalms is, “Surely Your goodness and mercy will pursue me, all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6). Jesus’ mercy is good, loving, and is nothing to be afraid of. He gazes at you with such love—His bleeding, pierced heart aching for yours on the Cross. When He cried out, “I thirst!” on the Cross, His cry was not just for a drink but for your soul. He loves you that much. I feel that sometimes in Lent if we miss a day of what we planned to do, or if we fail all together, we can give into despair and think we are a failure to God. But just like when Jesus fell under the weight of the Cross, we can get back up and keep going when we fall. His mercy is always available for us, and we are not defined by how “good” our Lent is, or that this person did more prayer and fasting than we did. God writes straight with crooked lines, and maybe He will reveal to you a greater plan for your Lent where He wants to transform something in your heart. Don’t fret. Take it day by day, little by little, eyes fixed on our Lord. Give Him your whole heart as best you can each day. Keep going.

So let’s dig deep and keep our hearts turned towards our merciful Savior this Lent. You will all be in my prayers.

Tradition

In today’s Gospel, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for rigidly observing the letter of the law while completely disregarding the spirit of the law. In their hypocrisy, they carefully keep the traditions that were passed on to them but pay no attention to the true meaning behind those traditions. Jesus points out that their actions are empty if they are not motivated by love of God, quoting Isaiah:

He responded,
“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites,
as it is written:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.

You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

—Mark 7:9

The idea of tradition was kind of a big deal at my college. Founded in the Catholic faith, we carried the idea of tradition further into nearly every mundane aspect of our lives—football Saturdays, dorm activities, dining hall meals, snowball fights. One of my professors was fond of telling us, “Remember, there’s a difference between traditions and dumb things you do every year. Just because you did it last year, it doesn’t need to become a tradition.” There’s a good amount of wisdom there. Traditions can be powerful, and they should reflect the priorities we want our lives to be centered around. There isn’t much sense in keeping up a tradition for tradition’s sake alone—it ought to reflect a deeper purpose. We have been handed down a treasure trove of beautifully rich Catholic traditions. Do we reflect on their meaning, or do we just go through the motions? Are they really traditions to us, or just habits?

We all know toddlers who insist on watching the same movie on endless repeat, who want to be twirled in just the same way or play the same exact game over and over again. This is the same underlying emotion that moves us to create traditions: that childlike cry of the heart that says, “Again, again!” When we are savoring the moments of our lives and experience something truly wonderful, we want to repeat it in the future. We want to re-experience and remember those things that have shaped us for the better. When we do this with intention, it forms a beautiful rhythm within our lives. But without intention, it becomes a fruitless quest to recreate the past, when really God wants to invite us to walk forward with Him.

Traditions are comforting and familiar to us. This is a good thing, but we should make sure that it’s not the only reason we’re clinging to them. God cares less about the words on our lips than on the devotion in our hearts, and everything we do should reflect that deeper purpose. As we grow older and our lives continue to change, new traditions and habits will likely replace old ones. We can welcome these changes by keeping our eyes on what matters most, on the God who understands our need for the comfort, familiarity, and structure that traditions bring. He has responded to that need with a wealth of tradition, formed over millennia, held within the treasures of the Church—and He invites us to delve deeper into reflecting upon and understanding these traditions instead of merely going through the motions.

“Daughter!”

Two-year-old Zippy has recently discovered FaceTime.  She loves to talk to Nonna and “A’Reece” (Aunt Grace), but is sometimes a bit confused as to how the technology works.  She will giggle with delight when we answer and our faces appear on the screen, as though we have come to visit her.  “Hi Zippy! Hi Honey!” we say.  “Hi Zippy, Hi Honey!” she says in happy reply.  

She is dismayed however if we don’t share our snacks; she is always generous with hers, trying to put them through the phone (her mother’s turn to be dismayed).  She waves the phone around to show us her dinner or her dolls, and we try not to get dizzy.  Sometimes she will sit and “talk” for awhile—sometimes not saying anything, sometimes chattering away, while we get a steady view of her eyebrows and the top of her head.

During the recent government shutdown, her father came up to visit us and help out for a bit while he was out of work.  When we called to FaceTime, Zippy was ecstatic to suddenly see Daddy on the phone as well.

Shortly after he had returned home to Maryland, the whole family called on FaceTime.  My brother passed the phone to Zippy, who was excited to talk to us, but unhappy that we wouldn’t show her Daddy.  “Zippy see Daddy!” she implored. “I am right here!” my brother laughed behind her.  But Zippy was not placated until Daddy moved around so that she could see his face in the small screen she was holding.  “Daddy! Dere you are!”  she laughed delightedly.

*            *            *

In today’s Gospel a woman is seeking Jesus.  She has had a flow of blood for twelve years; doctors have only made things worse.  And this flow of blood has in turn made her “unclean”—a spiritual outcast, barred from the temple and the touch of other people.

She has heard great things about Jesus and thinks that if she could but touch the hem of His garment, she would be cured.  She moves quietly through the crowd, comes behind Him, and touches His clothing.  Immediately, she realizes she is healed.

Jesus, however, recognizes a deeper desire for connection.  He knows that healing power has gone out of Him, and asks the confused crowd “Who touched me?” 

The woman must then confess; she comes forward, revealing herself and tells what has happened.

“Daughter,” Jesus replies, “Your faith has made you well.”

She had sought merely the restoration of her health. Jesus restores her identity, her relationship with her Father.  “Daughter…”

This deep desire—was it only on the part of the woman? 

It is a central mystery of Christianity that our love, desire, and faith actually begin as God’s initiative toward us.  It is He who first loves us; He who calls us to prayer, who plants the desire in our hearts, who is the source of both our longing and its fulfillment.

 

 

Adam

Photo Credit: Michelangelo, Public Domain

Following

Saint Paul’s address in today’s First Reading sounds a lot like the start of a testimony: “I was educated strictly in our ancestral law and was zealous for God, just as all of you are today” (Acts 22: 3).

His words make me think back on my own life: I was educated in the Catholic faith and loved God. My faith was a routine part of my life. However, one thing that stood out in this routine was praying to the Holy Spirit on the drive to school with my mom. It was a simple, single sentenced prayer, but I believed it held all of the power to grant me the good grades to get into college.

Four years later, when I began my freshman year, my mom gave me a little blue booklet that included the prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I didn’t really understand the full meaning of this prayer, which was written in Polish, and I probably wouldn’t have grasped its meaning if it were written in English. But I said this prayer religiously every evening… because I thought it would give me good grades.

Of course, God had something greater in store. Just like Jesus finds Saul and proves him wrong for persecuting his Way, Jesus proved me wrong about my self-centered priorities. The more I prayed, the more I began to understand and internalize the words of this prayer. My life took on a more beautiful meaning as I began to follow his Way.

Jesus calls every one of us to follow him. He continually stops us along our way and proves us wrong over and over again. On this Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, let us pray to the Holy Spirit, that we may see more clearly and gain strength to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel” (MK 16: 15).

Prayer for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit,
Divine Consoler,
I adore You as my true God,
with God the Father and God the Son.
I adore You and unite myself to the adoration
You receive from the angels and saints.

I give You my heart
and I offer my ardent thanksgiving
for all the grace which You never cease to bestow on me.

O Giver of all supernatural gifts,
who filled the soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
Mother of God, with such immense favors,
I beg You to visit me with Your grace
and Your love and to grant me the gift of holy fear,
so that it may act on me as a check to prevent me
from falling back into my past sins,
for which I beg pardon.

Grant me the gift of piety,
so that I may serve You for the future with increased fervor,
follow with more promptness Your holy inspirations,
and observe your divine precepts with greater fidelity.

Grant me the gift of knowledge,
so that I may know the things of God and,
enlightened by Your holy teaching, may walk,
without deviation, in the path of eternal salvation.

Grant me the gift of fortitude,
so that I may overcome courageously all the assaults of the devil,
and all the dangers of this world which threaten the
salvation of my soul.

Grant me the gift of counsel,
so that I may choose what is more conducive
to my spiritual advancement
and may discover the wiles and snares of the tempter.

Grant me the gift of understanding,
so that I may apprehend the divine mysteries
and by contemplation of heavenly things detach my thoughts
and affections from the vain things of this miserable
world.

Grant me the gift of wisdom,
so that I may rightly direct all my actions,
referring them to God as my last end;
so that, having loved Him and served Him in this life,
I may have the happiness of possessing Him eternally in
the next.

King of Peace

Lord Jesus, reveal yourself to us.

            I often find myself drawn to the mystery of the figure in today’s first reading, Melchizedek, a priest and king in the time of Abraham.  He stands out against other kings or priests of the Old Testament in that he is both priest and king (Gn. 14). Our reading from Hebrews reveals Melchizedek as an Old Testament prefiguring of Jesus Christ – in other words, he is a foreshadowing of Jesus, the ultimate priest and king to come.  The psalm highlights the union of kingship and priesthood seen in Melchizedek and eventually Christ, filled with royal imagery surrounded by the refrain: “You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.” 

            Why is this significant?  Reading today’s Gospel with an understanding of Melchizedek, helps us focus in on specific treasures in the Gospel.  In this case, reflecting on Melchizedek allows us to learn more about our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Hebrews tell us that that name of Melchizedek means “righteous king,” and that he was the king of peace, yet his appearance in Genesis is only a shadow of the ultimate reality to be fulfilled in Jesus.  Jesus is the true priest and king.  As we read the Gospel, let us ask the Lord what this relationship between Old Testament Melchizedek and the fulfillment of the kingship and priesthood in Jesus Christ reveals to us about the heart of Jesus Himself.    

           In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus enters the synagogue and encounters a man with a withered hand.  As the Pharisees look on to see if Jesus will heal on the Sabbath, a day in which work was to be ritually abstained from, Jesus engages with the crippled man and heals his withered hand.  Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”  (emphasis mine)

This is our Priest and our King.  What kind of priest and king is He?  As a meditation, we may allow ourselves to imagine we are the man with the withered hand in Mark’s Gospel…. 

Jesus enters.  He sees us.  He engages us.  He desires to come close to us.  He heals us. 

            Is this how the first century Jews imagined a king or a priest?  Jesus radically challenged the notion of kingship of His day.  But further, is this how we imagine kingship today?  It may not be.  In our very meditation of these daily readings, the Holy Spirit is encouraging us to see kingship through God’s eyes and learn more about the heart of Our Savior, the righteous King, the King of peace.  Jesus is forever our priest and king  – one who desires to come close to our hearts.  A priest and king who knows us and loves us.  Who desires to enter in to the most withered parts of our souls.  So that we may be healed.  So that we may be free.  So that we may share in His peace.   What a King our Jesus is. 

Lord Jesus, Most High Priest and King, thank you for revealing to our hearts the truth of who you are.  Most gracious and compassionate priest and king, we open our souls to you.  Heal the withered parts of our souls as you healed the man in today’s Gospel.  Envelop our hearts, oh King of peace.  Thank you, my God and King, for your desire to draw close to me.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.          

As a step further in your prayer, I invite you to spend time in praise of our King Jesus.  Here is a song which may accompany your praise: All Hail King Jesus