Eat and Be Satisfied

In today’s readings, we see two different stories of God providing for His people. In the book of Numbers, the Israelites are given manna in the desert, sustenance for their journey to the promised land. But they grouse and complain about the blandness of this heavenly food. They remember the fish that they ate “without cost” in Egypt, forgetting that it came with a very dear cost indeed—the cost of their freedom. They are so quick to forget what God has done for them, the miracles He wrought to deliver them from slavery in Egypt.

In contrast, the Gospel reading presents the story of Jesus’s multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Here, Jesus provides for His followers with simple yet nourishing food, and they accept it gratefully. Where the Israelites in the desert turned their nose up at the food God offered them, these crowds “ate and were satisfied.”

The juxtaposition of these two stories reminds us how important it is to be receptive to God’s providence in our lives. He is always seeking to nourish our souls and provide for our every need, but we often miss out on it because it comes in a way we don’t expect. If we hold too tightly to our own ideas of what we ought to have, we might overlook the gifts that are right before us. Truly, God showers us with gifts each and every day of our lives, even if they might come amidst a difficult journey. What a shame it would be to allow our pride to hold us back from living in gratitude and wonder.

People can always find reason to complain. We serve others not to receive their praise and thanks but because it is the right thing to do. Just as God continued to feed His people with manna even despite their ingratitude, so are we called to imitate His kindness and generosity.

Today is the feast of the dedication of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four major basilicas of Rome, which houses the relic of Christ’s manger. (Several years ago, I got the chance to attend midnight Mass there at Christmas, which was especially beautiful!) Mary, as the Theotokos, or “God-bearer,” was in a sense the original manger, the first home for Jesus. But a manger is not a typical cradle; it is a feeding trough for animals. When Mary laid her divine Child in the manger, it prefigured His role as food for the world. He offers His very Self to nourish us, and she lays down her own life to become the means through which we can receive Him. God’s providence for us truly knows no bounds. As He continues to feed His people, may we receive Him gratefully, eat, and be satisfied.

Rebel Heart

Hearing about events and hangouts I wasn’t invited to…

Wondering what my life would look like if I had “normal” work hours and didn’t have to miss out on so much community time…

Being so joyful for all my friends getting married but my heart still aching and longing for my own vocation…

Seeing people’s posts on social media and feeling less-than…

Jealousy. Comparison. Envy. We’re all familiar with that throat-tensing burn of pangs of jealousy. It’s ugly. It’s messy. Even just typing out the four examples above made me cringe.

In today’s first reading, we hear the story of how Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him, then decided against that and threw him in a dry cistern before selling him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. At least Joseph’s brothers spared his life, but their actions basically still said he was dead to them.

The things we do when we are jealous and afraid. Now, most of us don’t go to the extremes of Joseph’s brothers, but envy is a deadly sin and is a temptation that sneaks up on all of us in some way. We live in a culture focused on being the best and having lots of attention all the time. Our society thrives on competition, competition, competition. Our bodies, minds, and souls are even created to ache for more, but that ache can only be fully satisfied by our Lord. So what happens? We end up self-loathing and licking our wounds. We can get caught in the vicious cycle of striving and proving ourselves, seeking earthly approval when the Heavenly Father’s voice is the only one that matters. We chase after other people’s dreams because we feel like that’s where we have to be, while God has greater adventures for us. His dreams are uniquely for us, surpass our wildest expectations of what we should or shouldn’t be doing, and point to our greater mission on this earth to get us to the ultimate goal of Heaven.

When we get caught up in striving to prove ourselves, it’s like we are running full-speed ahead on a hamster wheel: we don’t go anywhere, and we end up absolutely exhausted and frustrated. With trust and surrender, especially of those insecurities on our hearts that lead to jealousy, we can live from a place of being rooted and grounded in our identity as sons and daughters of God.

We have nothing to prove to God. He already knows the darkest, messiest corners of our hearts and loves us anyway. We don’t have to earn His love. We don’t have to earn His plans for our lives. As my grad school professor said, “God’s promises cannot be usurped, because they’re not ours to take. God’s promises can only be received as a free gift.”

Lord Jesus, forgive us for the times we’ve let envy take over. Help us to surrender with trust when we are weakened by jealousy and insecurity. Help us to trust in Your great plans for our lives. Give us the courage to say “yes” to who You are calling us to be.

“Lord, I offer up this rebel heart // So stubborn and so restless from the start // I don’t wanna fight You anymore // So take this rebel heart and make it Yours.” -Lauren Daigle, “Rebel Heart”

Being Led > Being Content

R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

PS 23:1B-3A, 3BC-4, 5, 6

Today’s readings contain what is quite possibly the most well-known Psalm in all of Scripture. Psalm 23 has been used in all sorts of media: presidential speeches, blockbuster movies, hip hop and metal songs alike. Psalm 23 provides an easily recognizable religious reference, a comforting message, a clear, straightforward refrain. The desire for contentment, provision, and protection are ubiquitous, and align pretty well with our basic human needs¹.

In praying with the Psalm today, however, I felt that the Lord was calling us beyond the easy reading. We are not guaranteed access to the LORD’s protection and provision. Our calling does NOT boil down to the platitude, “We just need to see where God already is in our lives and be content with our current life circumstances.” I learned not be jealous and/or greedy in kindergarten; I believe the Holy Spirit has more for us here.

Today I took some of my GRE study–inspired reading comprehension skills and broke down the refrain: “The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”

 

Results: I shall want nothing. I will rest beside still waters and verdant pastures, His rod and staff give us courage.

Prerequisites (aka what WE need to do): The LORD must be our shepherd. We must be guided. We must be anointed.

 

Take a look at that second part! So often we focus on the results, without asking what we need to do! Part of the reason I believe this passage has gained so much traction in popular culture is the hope for deliverance. It’s not wrong to ask to be spared or delivered, but will it have any effect if we don’t meet the conditions or put ourselves in the position to receive it? Miracles are wonderful gifts from God but are only truly useful if our hearts are primed for relationship with Jesus (see: Nazareth, Mark 6).

So how do we prime our hearts for the LORD? How do we make ourselves ready? How do we get the God of the Universe to be our shepherd, give us all that we need, and protect us?

By being sheep, of course. Shepherds can only be shepherds to sheep. In reading through Psalm 23 today, Jesus spoke clearly and powerfully to my heart: “These words are not about being content or finding good in your life as it is, these words are about being led.”

Are we willing to follow the LORD? Do we ask where we should go? Do we trust that his paths lead to verdant pastures, or do we stick to our own, temporarily comforting paths and habits? Where in your life can you ask Jesus to lead you? Where are you currently trying so hard to find your way, and have yet to really pose the question to Him?

Jesus’ promise is real, it is beautiful, and it is comforting. He DOES lead me to verdant pastures. He DOES give me rest. He DOES protect me from my enemies and from fear. We WILL dwell with the LORD.

All he asks? “Come, follow me.”

 

  1. Yes, yes, Maslow’s hierarchy is outdated and problematic in many of its forms. Just making a point here.

Zero-sum Game

Not only does the Lord work in mysterious ways, but He often speaks in mysterious ways.

My studies in college revolved around global economics, politics, and their effects on culture, and recently one of God’s mysterious messages has arisen as a theme in prayer and discussions that hearkens back to my freshman year lectures: the Zero-Sum Game.

A layman’s introduction: In the late middle ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans went goo-goo for colonies. Once new continents and worlds were discovered, a European Messiah complex, coupled with a healthy dose of greed, fueled a ravenous land grab. The international policies of the time were surprisingly simple: More colonies equals more trade and more resources to exploit, and that trade/exploration combo can make people disgustingly wealthy. The politics of the day revolved around this zero-sum, fear-based belief that “what isn’t mine is lost.”

During these Colonially-oriented classes, we touched on a commonly-held theory of the time: The Zero-Sum Game. Zero-sum politics can be summed up pretty easily: If I don’t claim something, somebody else will and I end up losing out.

Okay, Aidan, what in the world does this have to do with today’s readings?

Well zero-sum thinking goes far beyond politics; a host of psychological studies and papers have been written on the subject. With that in mind, I’ve recently spent a great deal of time thinking of how a zero-sum bias affects my faith life. Spoiler: it’s not how God thinks, and therefore it doesn’t end well.

Both today’s first reading and the Gospel treat on people’s perceptions of goodness. St. Paul discusses how Good Things, even so good as the gifts of the Holy Spirit, are emptied of their meaning without love. Wisdom, prophecy, tongues, all fizzle out if they do not have Love. Alternatively stated, they mean nothing if they are not attuned to the mind of God, who is Love. We may believe that we are doing others a service, we may believe that our preaching has value, I might believe that my reflections are pretty stinkin’ good (as the Gospel says, “Wisdom will be vindicated by her children,” so I suppose time will tell…), but if they are not wholly rooted in a love of Jesus Christ and His Church, then all of those talents are worse than useless: they are distracting, irritating noise.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus likens the the crowds to kids in a shopping mall: they’re quick to criticize, even contradicting themselves in the process. They’re not happy, and can’t be made happy.

In my life, unhappiness nearly always has some kind of root in comparison. How many of these statements, pulled from my own brain, ring true for you? (I hope I’m not the only one who thinks these things)

  • Why do they have it easier?
  • Why don’t they have to work as hard as I do?
  • Why am I restless? Why don’t I have a more meaningful project that I’m working on?
  • Why don’t I have as much free time as they seem to have?
  • Why am I bored? Their life seems more exciting.
  • Why am I suffering? Especially when they are not?
  • Why don’t they trust me with more important responsibilities?
  • How could they possibly believe that? I’m so glad my beliefs are different.
  • Why can’t they just believe what I do?

Get the idea? “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Do you live your faith with a zero-sum mindset? In comparing yourself to others, do you feel threatened by them? Jealous of them? Do others succeeding make you bitter or eager to point out their shortcomings?

The love of God is overabundant, overflowing, it multiplies: it is grace upon grace. God does not operate in absolutes or finite amounts. God is absolute. God is infinite.

The more I hear of Jesus’ love, the more I see how my jealousy leads me astray from Him. Why does it irk me when others have good things?! Should I not rejoice? Am I no different than those kids in the shopping mall?

Goodness builds. Others’ success edifies, scaffolds, increases. Our job is to love, and to celebrate the blessings of God in our life AND in our sisters’ and brothers’ lives. Don’t be afraid to compliment, don’t be afraid to celebrate others. Most of all, do not give into the lie that what you do not possess is lost. Our call to Love is far different:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, love is not pompous,
it is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

—1 Cor 13:4-8

Wise foolishness and the abundance of God

Dear fellow pilgrims,

Our readings today have a clear message: be humble, follow the Lord’s will and not your own. We can feel this message of “let him become a fool, so as to become wise” when we talk about our lives to some unbelievers whilst trying to explain decisions made by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, peace in prayer, and other ways of discernment. How do we explain if we left a job with no other job lined up because we “just knew” it was time through prayer? How do we explain not being truly worried about the amount of children we will eventually have? It’s impossible without a childlike trust and humility in our Lord’s provision for us and faithfulness to us. In a world where very intelligent people can chide religious people by telling us we trust in, essentially, a “flying spaghetti monster,” it is no wonder sometimes that we feel “foolish” in the eyes of the world.  But this trust we have in our Lord is not truly foolish. We have tasted and seen that the Lord is, indeed, good. I pray all of us have some moment in our hearts we can go back to to ground us in times of unbelief or difficulty in faith where the only conclusions are that God is real and God loves us.

In our Gospel today, we see a moment like that happening frame-by-frame for St. Peter. He follows the direction of Jesus, who is clearly not an expert fisherman, after following his own experienced direction for quite some time and finding no luck in a catch. But this seemingly foolish move results in something so miraculous that he is struck with the fear of God: he is faced with a catch of fish so large that even his own equipment cannot hold it. His nets tear! What a beautiful image. This detail is speaking to me today:

Sometimes we think that it is because of our own equipment and knowledge that our lives are not going the way we planned. We have worked hard, using all of the knowledge that we have, and we are not seeing results or certain events happen in our life. But in this Gospel, we are reminded of Who holds every aspect of our lives in order. You can be as prepared for a giant catch, or desired result or happy moment, in your life as possible, have all the right equipment, but still, in that moment of fulfillment, you may also an inadequacy in receiving it. Your nets may rip, your mind and heart may fall short of receiving what Jesus is giving you. It may all seem too much and actually a threat to your life instead of a blessing. But these moments, especially, so potently remind us that the Lord does not give purely according to when we fulfill some formula or when we meet a holiness or readiness quote.  God is not like humans, He gives freely and purposefully, even though the purpose is most likely lost on the receiver. God does not give only according to our little abilities to receive Him, He gives fully, which should make us want to grow to receive more.

So maybe that wasn’t even the biggest net St. Peter had, but Jesus gave him an overabundance of harvest anyways. May we also heed our Lord’s calls to seemingly foolish things in the hope that in this “foolishness” is true wisdom as His children.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

The Give-Away Pile

Then Peter said to him in reply,
“We have given up everything and followed you.
What will there be for us?”—Matt 19:27

“It’s funny how quickly life changes from, ‘Sure God—I’ll give you anything you want!’ to ‘Well, not that.  Or that. Or that. Can I perhaps interest you in something from this small give-away pile—you know, the things I no longer actually want or need?’ 😊

This was my Facebook status on April 15th of 2016.  Two years later I am hazy as to what sort of sacrifices inspired this particular post, but hindsight highlights what I could not then begin to imagine.

Things were crazy, as I recall, and among other things there was a problem with my apartment, which could have precipitated a drastic and immediate move.  I spent the day cleaning out my closet in preparation, only in the eleventh hour to have things work out enabling me to stay, to my great relief.

Yet for some reason I felt something deep within me stir and suggest that I should plan to put everything in storage and be prepared to walk away from my life.

This sounds rather outlandish, but I was preparing to go to China to volunteer for the summer, and the idea of staying longer greatly attracted me.  In fact, I had been feeling for some time an interior nudge, to say Yes to something that God was calling me to, something I could not yet see or understand.  I imagined a call to stay in China, or somewhere more exotic perhaps, to be a missionary, to follow some new and exciting adventure planned by God.  “I will go anywhere you want!” I told Him with enthusiasm.

It was just after this thought came to me—of putting all my stuff in storage and preparing to move—that I went down to get the mail.  On top was a flyer from Lowes, which said in bold letters “You’re moving!” (over an advertisement for supplies of course).  I was both startled and amused by what seemed a concrete confirmation of this interior sense.  I saved the flier (I still have it today) and told all my friends about this strange sense of calling—and I am so grateful I did, because nobody would have believed me given what followed.

I went to China and fell in love.  Half of my heart still sleeps on a bamboo matt under mosquito netting in an obscure orphanage in the suburbs of Beijing.  I would have given anything to stay and continue to work among the abandoned little ones.  But contrary to my wishes and my expectations, God did not ask me to stay.

Instead, I flew home to New York depressed and bored by the life that awaited my return.  I resented my naiveite in believing that interior call was from God, particularly as it became clear that all of the boxes that I had carefully packed and brought painstakingly down six flights of stairs now had to be brought up, unpacked, put back.  We brought up a few at a time, and they sat in my living room, unpacked for days, while I glared at them bitterly.

Then one day, just a few weeks after my return from China, I got a phone call that changed everything.  “Something is not right with your mother…”  I left work that day to make the drive upstate, unaware that I would not be returning.

I did, in fact, walk away from my life—from my job, my apartment, my social life and community, to move back to my childhood home.  It was not the exotic foreign destination I had imagined.  More than once, I questioned God, doubted that His plan could possibly be right.

But no matter how much is in our give-away pile (or how reluctantly we add to it) God’s is always greater.  He is never outdone in generosity.  I have learned this too.

In the Atrium we taught the little ones about the Mystery of Life and Death—how the grain of wheat must die in order to give life.  We planted wheat seeds, then took them out at various stages to examine them. A few days in, if we dig up the seed it looks much the same. A few weeks in, green shoots have pushed through the dirt, and roots have begun to grow—the grain they have come from is changed; it looks more like a shell now.   At four weeks, the original grain is a fraction of its original size and has almost disappeared, but the plant and roots are bigger still.  And then, later still, when it is harvest time, we find the seed has vanished entirely, but on the stalk are a hundred new seeds in its place.  From death comes more life.

I have had many experiences of God’s generosity in my new life.  I am grateful for the deepening of relationships, to give just two examples.  I was able to spend a few months living with my father, unaware that those would be his last months on earth.  Had things stayed as they were, I would have seen him only for a few days perhaps at Christmas.  I have also now been able to spend time with my best friend from childhood. She has for more than a year now been suffering from debilitating Lyme disease and its various coinfections.  I am able to cook weekly for her family of eight children, and we accompany each other in this strange season of our lives.  I am grateful for many other blessings that God has given me during this time.

Let us pray for the grace to give to God all that He may ask of us—and to better receive all that He wants to give us.

Like Children

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,
you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven….
…If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?…
…In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.” Matt 18:1-5,10,12-14

Our peaceful Pentecost prayers were interrupted by the wail of an emergency siren.  It was emanating from my 18-month-old niece Zippy, who was making a compelling case that evolutionary descent was not from apes but from banshees.  “Owwwww” she wailed, convincing the entire congregation to look our way, expecting blood.  But it was just an abbreviation for “out” by which she meant “out of the pew”, “outside” and also “now.”

So I extracted her writhing figure and brought her outside to the statue of Joseph holding Jesus, where she was once again happy.  “Ball!” she said, noting the sphere in the hands of baby Jesus.  “Ball!” she said louder.  “That’s the world, Zippy, not a ball,” I explained, but she still thought that Jesus ought to hand it over to her.  I realized she had a good share of my DNA blended in with the banshee.

Several years ago I read a book about Saint John Paul the Great which deeply inspired me to want to be a saint.  “I am ready to get serious about my faith” I told God.  The images that came to me in prayer, however, were not of great sacrifices or even good deeds, but rather of a nursing infant.

“What does this mean?” I asked, and then followed another image, of myself as toddler, sitting on Jesus’ lap at the Last Supper.  I looked around with great delight.  “I am ready to sit with the big kids!” toddler-me told Jesus.  “I want to be one of the apostles.”  Then I thought for a moment, and toddler-me replied, “Actually Jesus, I want to be you.  I want to be in charge!”  Jesus only smiled, and I saw once again the nursing infant.

There was a time when serious-adult-me would have rebuked this little toddler, but now I only laugh, because I know that Jesus delights in her, in her big dreams and small stature.  Certainly a humility check is in order (and still in progress) but there is something in her honesty, in her way of relating to Jesus, her confidence in His love for her no-matter-what, that adult-me can learn from.

After Mass, we take Zippy to Red Robin for dinner, and order her mini meatballs from the kid’s menu.  Because I am an amateur, not a parent, I hand her the tomato sauce for dipping.  Moments later, I am sitting next to a pint-sized serial killer, covered head to toe in red.  Because I am an aunt, not a parent, I snap pictures in lieu of cleaning her up.

I hand her a cup of juice, which she sips daintily, careful not to spill any.  When she is finished, she indicates so by pouring the remaining juice directly into her lap.  She looks up, smiles, and reaches out her arms to be picked up.  She is confident that my love is greater than my aversion to sauce and stickiness.

I bring her outside to fend off impending sirens, and she hears some music from a nearby restaurant, and begins to dance.  She has not yet learned to judge herself on the reactions of others, the number of Facebook likes, or even her skill at dancing, which is only a slight improvement over her table manners.

I am reminded of teaching my four-year old class the story of The Found Sheep. For this one, Jesus leaves the ninety-nine to search diligently, until He finds it and carries it home jubilantly on His shoulders. At first I worried in the back of my mind that children in their sensitivity might worry about the ninety-nine—those poor sheep left behind while Jesus goes looking for the one.  But the child sees what adults do not: to Jesus, there is no ninety-nine.  There is only the one.

Children know the secret to holiness is simple.  Love. Dependence. Trust. Confidence in the goodness of God, in His care for us, in His willingness to love us even when we are messy or awkward or do things badly or even completely wrong.

The key to holiness is not the greatness of our deeds but the greatness of God’s love.  Prayer is not one of the good works performed by the holy, but rather the food which makes any other work possible.

A few months later I am standing at the seashore with little Zippy, the waves which wash pleasantly over my ankles are strong enough to push her off balance.  But unafraid, she reaches up her arms to be picked up.  Safe and comfortable in my arms, she points to the deep, trusting that she can go anywhere as long as she is held.

May we like little children be confident always in the Father’s love for us, trusting in His goodness and protection to feed us, to lead us, to carry us home.