Ora et labora

Today is the Feast of St. Benedict, whose 73-chapter Rule formed the foundation for monastic life as we know it. His principles were often boiled down to a much more succinct maxim: Ora et labora, pray and work.

To Benedict, prayer and action are partners: your prayer life inspires and ignites your passion for action, and your action provides experiences for later reflection and the opportunities to be God’s hands and feet in the world. In our lives, we are to do God’s Work, the Opus Dei. To truly accomplish this feat, we must know God through prayer and we must know work.

It’s no coincidence that these are often the two areas that challenge us most in life: dedicating the time and attention to prayer that we need and working in a way that unites our purpose to Jesus.

Today, in honor of St. Benedict and in lieu of a longer reflection, I want to issue a simple call/challenge: Spend the 10-15 minutes you might have dedicated to reading a reflection to silent prayer for the loved ones in your life. Pray deeply and truthfully for your family, for your friends. Ask the Lord to reveal what needs prayer in their life. Intercede, intercede, intercede.

Finally, ask the Lord for something you can do for any 1 person you prayed for. Be specific.

Lord, show me how to be your hands and feet in their life right here, right now.

Pray, and then act.

“Do not be unbelieving, but believe”

Jesus said to his disciples:
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans,
who think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Dear fellow pilgrims,

Do you ever feel “stuck” in your prayer life? Do you ever self-edit as you pray, trying to find the best words or the holiest way to put something? As you pray, do you ever feel disappointed in yourself for what you’re saying or how you’re saying it, and then lose the prayer as you rehearse your words again? These things have been happening to me quite often lately, so these words of the Lord before the Lord’s Prayer stood out to me as words of comfort and power to help me simplify and de-stress my prayer life.

Our God knows what we need before we even ask Him. He’s a Good Father, He sees his children as they are and also as the saints He desires for us to become. Prayer is not a submission request to God, prayer is requesting more submission to God and the plans He already has in mind for us. Sometimes I make the mistake of thinking of prayer as this “secret weapon” to employ when things get really tough rather than the ideal mode or state of being human. Prayer is not meant to be “used” for anything, as Jesus reminds us here. Submitting all our requests and thoughts to God as perfectly as possible is not what our God desires; when approaching prayer, He desires that we first acknowledge Him as our providential, all-knowing, benevolent Father.

And if we take that as a starting point, we take prayer to be primarily Other-focused, not focused on our “list of things we’d like addressed soon, God, please.” Wha a comfort to just sit and let your soul meditate and dwell upon the depth of God’s knowing, deeper than we will ever know of ourselves. It is trust in this Knowing that love for God takes root, and grows through prayer, communication with God. Just think of how different conversations about something difficult you’re going through are with longtime friends vs. people you just met; the deeper shared knowing of the friends makes for a very rich and open discussion that requires less explanation, it’s just not needed. Whereas, there might be a lot of background knowledge required by someone you just met. Jesus, here, is speaking out of a deep knowledge of His Father, Whom He addresses as Our Father. He points us to the Father, He gives us His Father.

Maybe as a good prayer exercise, write down all that is in your mind, don’t think of grammar or anything, just write and pray for five minutes and see what comes out. Then, as you re-read the content of your prayers, take time to sit with each area of concern, or joy, and meditate on God’s perfect knowledge of what you need out of this situation, focusing on trusting deeper in His love. Embrace the mystery of trusting in the Father.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

A Tiny Whispering Sound

Abraham_Bloemaert_-_Landscape_with_the_Prophet_Elijah_in_the_Desert_-_WGA2277

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave, where he took shelter.
But the word of the LORD came to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
—1 Kings 19:9–13

A tiny whispering sound. How gentle God is toward us. He is all-powerful; He created mountains and earthquakes and fire and wind. He could drop anvils and send down lightning to try and get our attention. And yet He speaks to us softly and tenderly.

He is the still, small voice within our hearts. He does not seek to control us; instead, He delights in watching us find our own way. He is always whispering words of guidance and love—and if we aren’t distracted by our own noise, we will hear His voice. But He does not force Himself upon us; rather, He pursues us with gentleness and care.

We are called to imitate this example of gentleness: to be both strong and kind, brave and humble, confident and caring. To be sensitive toward our neighbors without compromising our own strength. To respond to others without feeling as though we have to intimidate them or prove what we’re capable of. To be secure in the knowledge that withholding force is not a sign of weakness in us, but of composure and mercy.

Pier-Giorgio-PortraitLook to Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati as an example: a strong, active young man who approached the poor and downtrodden with the utmost care. This was a guy who was popular and athletic, who regularly climbed mountains for fun. And yet he didn’t go around flexing his muscles to try and impress people; rather, his true strength showed through in his tenderness toward those who were weak.

When we feel frustrated and wish God would send us a big, loud, obvious sign from above, let us remember that maybe we wouldn’t actually be able to handle such a bold response. God speaks to us softly so as not to intimidate us, but also to draw us closer to Him. In order to hear His gentle whisper, we must draw ever nearer.


1. Abraham Bloemaert, Landscape with the Prophet Elijah in the Desert / PD-US
2. Portrait of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati / Brandon Vogt

Salt and Light

Jesus said to his disciples:

“You are the salt of the earth.
But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. –Matt 5:1

*     *     *

My late father was an introvert.  At his funeral the joke was that he would have preferred a smaller event, so that he wouldn’t have to talk to so many people.  He was intelligent and well-educated, having studied eight languages while working on a PhD in English—but he chose all dead ones, thus avoiding the risk of having to converse in them.  These ranged from familiar ones like Latin and Hebrew and Ancient Greek, to Hittite and Sanskrit and Tocharian (which in my uneducated mind was spelled Tolkarian, and which I assumed was something that hobbits spoke—until I had to google it).  He tended to stay on the periphery of conversations, only occasionally injecting bits of wisdom, humor or an odd pun.

So it was something of a shock when the phone rang, one day years ago, and it was for him.  It was a collect call from a Massachusetts prison, from a young man named Scott, looking for my father.  Even more of a shock was that my father stayed on the phone with him for close to an hour, using more than a few month’s quota of words on someone we didn’t even know he knew.  This was repeated many times, as Scott had found in my quiet father something of a mentor.

Indeed, my father attracted quite a fan club among surprising populations.  This is probably not the best place to mention “Boomer”, another prison inmate, who saw in my father’s Sicilian features an underlying presence, and took him for a Godfather figure.  He refused to believe that my father was who claimed to be (ironically at the time, a sales rep for a large stuffed animal company) and thought he must in fact be a Boss.  “Let me work for you!” Boomer insisted.  “I could be your hit man!” (true story)

At his funeral many commented how my father spoke rarely, but when he did, people listened.  I know in my own life, I have held on to these bits of wisdom, which while infrequent had more impact than many longer conversations or even entire courses in theology.  And I have come to recognize that this unassuming wisdom was the fruit of a life of prayer.

“One of the greatest evils in the Church today,” my father told me when I was seventeen and on the way to college in Steubenville, “is the number of people in positions of authority who have long since ceased to be holy themselves.”  I heard these words long before the Church was rocked by public scandal and had the veneer of public piety removed from some of the most horrifying of private sins.  But my father’s warning was not directed at others, but as a caution to me.  “It is very easy when you are learning about God, doing things for God, talking about God, to forget to talk to God.”  For my father this was the worst possible fate.

“You cannot give what you don’t have.”  I don’t think that expression was original to Dad, but it points to the necessity of prayer, and is the heart of today’s Gospel.  “If salt loses its flavor, what good is it?” Jesus asks, after telling his disciples to be salt and light for the world.   Similarly, one cannot give light by studying it, talking about it—only by being filled with it.  And the place we are filled is prayer.

There was one cause which propelled my Dad from the comfort and confines of a hidden life, and that was the prolife movement.  In his retirement he went weekly to an abortion clinic, more than sixty miles from our home, to stand alone peacefully offering literature about the help and alternatives available to women as they entered the clinic.  But then later in the morning he would stand across the street with a sign, across from the parking lot where they would see him as they left, with a sign that said: “Jesus forgives and heals.”

Many people thought it was “too soon.”  That the women were not ready for repentance and thus not ready for Christ’s mercy.  But my father believed that being prolife was more than just saving babies, that it was about saving souls.  And he knew from the experience of many who shared their personal stories of abortion with him, that memories of the day would come back years later.  He hoped that with them would come the memory of that message of mercy.*

I think of this too when I think of salt and light, and how the one thing that they cannot be is hidden. Like my Dad, I prefer quiet and solitude, and more than he, invisibility when it comes to controversy.  I don’t like to be the one to speak out, to stand out.  I prefer to be one of the crowd.  But we all know what the “crowd” does to Jesus.

It is in prayer that I draw both the strength and motivation to step out of myself. Just as improbable as my father’s prison ministry is my own public speaking.  I have learned how true it is that “the one who does not speak to God has nothing to say to the world.”  That it is only by practicing faithfulness to daily prayer that I have anything at all to say, and more importantly, the courage to step out of myself and my fears to say it.

Let us ask God today that we may be truly salt and light for the world, witnessing by what we are and have received.

Like my father I have only love for those who have had abortions.  I know the sometimes unbearable pressures of circumstances, boyfriends, family and friends that weigh into such decisions.  I also know that for many, often years later, there is great anguish and pain following that decision.  If you know of someone who is seeking healing from an abortion, there are many organizations who can help including the Sisters of Life linked here.

The Word of God Is Not Chained

2 TM 2:8-15

“Beloved:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David:
such is my Gospel, for which I am suffering,
even to the point of chains, like a criminal.

But the word of God is not chained.
Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen,
so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus,
together with eternal glory.”

Dear fellow pilgrims,

As I read this first reading from St. Paul, the imagery and meaning of “chains” stood out to me. Prison cells just shortly after Jesus’ time could not have been very conducive to writing a major religious work, but these were the conditions under which the Holy Spirit was thriving in prophesying and teaching through St. Paul. Here was a man who had made a living killing Christians who was about to be martyred for that same faith. He saw his conditions, his chains, but he also saw the deeper truth of the unchained Spirit working in and through him. For he had seen the chains of his own heart destroyed by the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit in the extreme conversion of heart he experienced; he knew the power of God keenly.

And this is why he distinguishes the power of the Spirit working inwardly from his current outward state: we should never doubt that God works wonders even when it seems all external constraints have taken hold on our lives. “The word of God is not chained!” That is a cry to yell into the evil one’s face when he is making you feel like you’re “nowhere near where you thought you would be in life by this point,” or if you really can’t figure out why God would allow this much suffering in your life…we are all “in chains” that constrain us or even hurt and confine what we want our life should be. We might be “in chains,” but the source of all strength and courage and purifying grace and mercy is never limited to our condition, rather, He liberates us from our conditions to a higher consciousness of prayer and awareness.

Where in life do you feel stuck? Do you feel like God is working there, or do you feel like He has left you?

Speak into these parts of our lives. Claim your chains so you can claim the Spirit’s freedom to work within you given the circumstances. These chains are the environment where God is trying to reach you, and there may be reasons that will ultimately benefit you why you are remaining in such a state.

Pray for clarity, wisdom, and humility, to know our limits of our state of life and vocation, and for a greater outpouring of His Spirit upon our lives.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

Stirred into flame

For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame
the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;
but bear your share of hardship for the Gospel
with the strength that comes from God.
– 2 Timothy 1:6-8

Today’s first reading is the basis for an incredibly formative moment in my faith journey, a college retreat called Fan Into Flame. Saint Paul’s Outreach (SPO), my campus Catholic community, would host this retreat for relatively new members of their ministry. It was intense, charismatic, and went deep quickly. It would be easy to think that the whole retreat might be a bit “heavy” for the college students who were still feeling out their identity and path in life, so why does SPO start with this retreat? The Scripture above gives the “why”: the laying on of hands is a direct reflection and prayer for an imposition of the Holy Spirit upon the students’ lives.

Through the sacraments and intercessory prayer, we have received the Spirit. Through Christ, we are temples of the Spirit. The Spirit is the mobilizing force of God, His Presence and Advocate in our soul. When we pray for a renewed outpouring, perhaps a “baptism in the Spirit“, we give the Holy Spirit permission to move in new ways. We cry out for manifestations of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, not for drama’s sake, but for the good of the Church, to strengthen ministry. We ask the Lord for power, love, and self-control.

When was the last time you prayed to the Holy Spirit? I encourage you to pray today for an unlocking of the Spirit you have received, that you would be stirred into flame. Even better, pray with someone else, as St. Paul would have done (he knew a thing or two about the Spirit).

Then go forth in confidence, power, love, self-control, and with the strength that comes from God.

Feast of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

Indeed we call blessed those who have persevered.
—James 5:11

V0032624 Saint Mary Magdalen dei Pazzi. Etching by G. Fabbri, 1757.Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, the patron of the parish I attended growing up. On a trip to Florence, Italy, years ago, I was able to visit her tomb and see the chapel where she experienced many mystical visions. The austerity of her life as a Carmelite, juxtaposed with the wealth and dominance of her prominent Renaissance family that was so evident throughout Florence, was striking.

The life of St. Magdalene was marked by extreme highs and extreme lows. She experienced both ecstasies and desolations, and often the two were intermingled. She once said, “Those who call to mind the sufferings of Christ, and who offer up their own to God through His passion, find their pains sweet and pleasant.” This paradox—the sweetness of suffering, the beauty of pain—encapsulates her philosophy and mission. She was determined to make her whole life an offering, both the joys and sorrows, the highest mountains and the lowest valleys along her path; everything was part of an unbroken hymn of praise to God.

Perugino,_crocifissione_con_la_maddalena,_la_madonna,_s._giovanni_e_i_ss._bernardo_e_benedetto,_1493-96,_01Beginning at the age of nine, St. Magdalene practiced mental prayer, cultivating an intimate friendship with Jesus. This is what prepared her for all her mystical experiences and desolations to follow. Through it all, she maintained this friendship, speaking to Jesus as a dear friend with frank sincerity and playful banter. When Jesus told her, “I called and you didn’t care,” she responded, “You didn’t call loudly enough.” She asked Him to shout His love. She was honest and genuine in her conversations with Jesus, and this intimacy was what gave her the grace to bear the sufferings she endured. Her ultimate motivation was to return the love of Jesus Christ: Love incarnate, who was neither known nor loved.

Pedro_de_Moya_-_Vision_of_St_Maria_Magdalena_di_Pazzi_-_WGA16308Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi share a few things in common: both were born into prosperous Italian families that valued status and wealth, both chose to forego earthly treasures and esteem for the sake of serving Jesus. Both were nourished by daily Communion, and both persevered in faith through many unexpected trials. Their charisms and personalities were very different—Pier Giorgio was a man of action, while St. Magdalene was a Carmelite devoted to contemplative prayer—but each was motivated first and foremost by a relationship with Jesus. This enabled them to discover their own unique gifts and callings and to offer everything back to Him in love.

St. Magdalene de Pazzi teaches us to be thankful for whatever season we are in, always persevering in prayer and penance. Every experience can be a channel of grace. In our joys, may we not forget our need for God, and in our sorrows not abandon our trust in Him. Above all, if we are rooted in friendship with God as St. Magdalene was, our lives will take on renewed purpose.

O Love, You are neither known nor loved!
—St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi


1. G. Fabbri, etching of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi / Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0
2. Pietro Perugino, Crocifissione, la Vergine, San Giovanni, la Maddalena e i Santi Bernardo e Benedetto, fresco from the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, Florence / CC BY-SA 3.0
3. Pedro de Moya, Visión de Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi / PD-US