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!

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.