We Belong to Each Other

They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him,
“Child, your sins are forgiven.”
—Mark 2:3–5

Imagine how it felt for the paralyzed man to be so close to Jesus, and yet so far: within sight of the Healer, yet held back by the very impairments that needed healing, utterly helpless to bridge the gap.

In moments when we feel paralyzed and helpless, unable to fix things for ourselves, God does not want us to go it alone. He wants to heal us, and He seeks to work through the hearts of others in the process. He uses our frailties to bear greater fruit: not only in ourselves, but in others, too. We can only be healed if we are willing to admit our weakness and ask for help. We must allow ourselves to be lifted up, carried, and lowered into the arms of Jesus.

And when we lend a hand to help someone else, it is a privilege: to share in the sacred struggle of their suffering, to draw close to the fountain of grace and healing. God uses these moments of weakness to teach us to rely upon other people and knit us closer together as a community.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
—Mother Teresa

The Odor of Sin

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati loved the poor wholeheartedly. He went out into the slums of Turin to visit them each day; he did this not to assuage his conscience or to give them something from his material excess, but rather to receive them, to visit with them, to love them as God’s own children and to offer his whole self to them. He saw Jesus in each of their faces. Once, a friend asked Pier Giorgio how he could bear the odor of the poor, the dirt and filth of the slums. He replied, “Don’t forget that even if the house you visit is very dirty, there you may find Jesus. Remember always that it is to Jesus that you go: I see a special light that we do not have around the, sick, the poor, the unfortunate.”

In today’s Gospel we hear Luke’s account of Jesus healing a leper. I would imagine that this man was used to people recoiling in his presence, shrinking away from the fetid odor of his infection. He would have learned to lay low, to avoid other people so as not to feel the sting of their repulsion. But when he saw Jesus, he did not back away. Had he already sensed, in that first glance, that Jesus did not look at him the same way as everyone else? He lay prostrate before Jesus and begged for healing. If the people were horrified to see a leper approaching Jesus, imagine their disgust when Jesus responded by reaching out and touching this man. He was not deterred by the stench; no, He was in fact drawn toward this man, filled with nothing but love for him.

We know where our sores and infections lie within our souls, and more often than not we try to cover them up. We expect that Jesus will be disappointed by our faults and failures, and so we try and mask the odor of our guilt. But Jesus is not deterred by the stench of our sin, and He does not want only part of us. He wants all of us, warts and all, for He seeks to love us totally and completely. He bends down to greet us, looks us in the eye; all He needs is for us to affirm our trust in Him to fully heal us. Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.

The Cave

Jesus said to the crowds,
“When you see a cloud rising in the west
you say immediately that it is going to rain–and so it does;
and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south
you say that it is going to be hot—and so it is.
You hypocrites!
You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky;
why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
—Luke 12:54–56

In the daily rush of work deadlines and subway delays, I often lose touch with an awareness of God’s presence. I’m so focused on my own plans and worries that I’m not really looking for Him. To use the analogy Jesus tells the crowds in today’s Gospel, if the “signs of the time” are being revealed through rising clouds and blowing winds, I’m not even looking up at the sky. I’ve closed myself off into a cave of my own complacency, safe from the winds but unable to hear the voice of God speaking to me through Creation. My desire for normalcy is greater than my desire for intimacy with God, and so I fall into a routine of keeping the status quo.

So how do I begin to take those first steps out of the cave and into the light? I think the most important step is to move beyond perfunctory prayer and to be truly honest and open with God. I know that I can fall into the habit of treating prayer as a chore to be completed rather than a conversation to engage in. As in any human relationship, if we come to each encounter with an agenda, then we aren’t able to fully see the other person and simply appreciate them for who they are. I’m trying to find more times in my week when I can simply be with God, without any agenda. My requests and petitions can come later; first I need to soak in His presence, and then everything else will flow from that.

And when we are attentive to the signs of God’s presence, we are called to point them out to others, to wake them up out of their own complacencies and reveal to them the beauty that surrounds us all and the greatness to which we are called.

Whom Do We Let In?

“When an unclean spirit goes out of someone,
it roams through arid regions searching for rest
but, finding none, it says,
‘I shall return to my home from which I came.’
But upon returning, it finds it swept clean and put in order.
Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits
more wicked than itself who move in and dwell there,
and the last condition of that man is worse than the first.”

—Luke 11:24–26

Jesus compares the human soul to a house, the state of which is a reflection of our spiritual well-being. When He drives out demons from a man possessed, He sweeps that house clean and puts it in order. He can do the same with all of our interior messes—removing our excess and clutter, dusting off our cobwebbed habits and vices, making room for a most important Guest.

Whether or not Jesus cleans our house is entirely up to us. He is already knocking at the door—will we welcome Him in? If we do, He will rearrange our hearts and guard the door against any intruders who might harm us. But if we don’t, He will respect our privacy and leave us alone. Intruding demons, however, are not so polite; they will pester us constantly and slip inside at any available opportunity. And if our house has already been cleaned, that is all the more reason to be vigilant.

We cannot be complacent and ignore the safeguards Jesus has put in place for us against the demons that seek to destroy the work He has done in us. If we open the door to sin and invite malice into our hearts that the demons will be easily evicted, it will not be easy to return to a neat and tidy state. Openness to sin has lasting consequences.

It is up to us whom we will let in. Will we answer Jesus when He knocks? Will we monitor what passes over the threshold of our hearts, or will we prop the door open and let all manner of shady creatures move in? Jesus has entrusted us with the power to invite and shut out whomever we will. May we use this power wisely, always keeping in mind the goal of creating a space hospitable to our loving Guest.

The Heart of an Only Son

Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain,
and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.
As he drew near to the gate of the city,
a man who had died was being carried out,
the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.
A large crowd from the city was with her.
When the Lord saw her,
he was moved with pity for her and said to her,
“Do not weep.”
He stepped forward and touched the coffin;
at this the bearers halted,
and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”
The dead man sat up and began to speak,
and Jesus gave him to his mother.  –Luke 7:11-15

*            *            *

At first she was just a little confused, having trouble remembering the passwords to her computer and her phone.  She had lost some weight; she was very tired; she had a persistent cough that was strong enough to trigger the automatic water faucet a few yards away from her bed in the ER.  But nobody seemed particularly concerned.  “There are some anomalies in her blood work—we’d like to keep her overnight for observation—but don’t worry; she’s not being admitted.  She’ll likely go home in the morning.”

My mother had walked into the ER, normally if somewhat reluctantly. But the next day she was stumbling a little, the bloodwork was still a little “off.”  She was admitted.  On day two she needed assistance walking, and by day three she was a little confused as to where she was.  “How is Teresa going to get into the school if they lock it up at 3:00 p.m.?” she worried.

By the weekend she could not get out of bed unassisted.  Each day brought dramatic decline, both physical and mental.  “Do you know who is there?” the nurse asked my mother, pointing to where I stood by her bedside, as I had every day for a week.  She looked up with benign bewilderment.  “No,” she said, “I don’t know who that is…”

But she could figure out certain things. “If they ask you where you are, tell them you are at XYZ Hospital!” she would tell me and anyone who would listen.  But then add with a devious grin, “even though we know it’s not true…”

An MRI revealed part of the cause: a shower of strokes over both hemispheres of her brain.  “I’ve never seen anything like this!” reported the doctors with amazement.  Her bloodwork continued to reveal more strangeness, markers that didn’t match, and the doctors began to look for a cause for this “mystery illness.”

A few weeks in, still confused, she began to complain of stomach pain.  This was a new symptom.  “It’s probably just constipation,” they said.  “Or she’s just confused.  Don’t worry.”  This continued for three days, until a new blood draw revealed a drastic drop in her hemoglobin. By then she was crying, begging to be given something for the pain.

After looking at the CT-Scan, the doctors finally gave us permission to worry.  She had an internal bleed the size of a watermelon, and was being rushed down to ICU.  “I have to be honest—she may not make it through the night.”

*            *            *

In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes face-to-face with family grief.  From within the crowd that accompanied Him—many no doubt begging Him for favors, answers, healings—He sees a coffin being carried.  His heart is moved, not just by the young man’s loss of life, but by the grief of the widowed mother.  Why does this touch him so much?  What is it that so moves the heart of the Unmoved Mover?

Father Paul Scalia writes:

By His divine nature He performs the miracle.  But He is moved to do so in His human nature.  That He was moved with pity refers to His Sacred Heart and His capacity to be moved with human love.  Saint Luke tells us that the deceased was “the only son of His mother, and she as a widow.”  (Lk 7:12) This describes Our Lord Himself, and His mother.  So it should not surprise us that He turns first to the widow, in whom He sees the anticipation of Mary’s sorrow.  “Do not weep,” He tells her—as if to tell His own Mother.  Yes—Our Lord is all-powerful.  But in His sacred humanity He places Himself within our reach—so that our misery moves Him to act on our behalf.1 (emphasis added)

Jesus touches the coffin, and the man is raised back to life.  Saint Luke then uses an interesting expression, “Jesus gave him to his mother.”  Father Scalia notes that Jesus does not “allow the miracle of raising a man from the dead to obscure the importance of the man’s human relationships.”

We know that God is love, but the words do not always reach us.  Some time ago I watched a grim-faced woman on the subway who barked at high volume: “Jeee-zus loves you!  Jeee-zus loves you!”  I watched as people rolled or averted their eyes.  Some squirmed; a man across from me seem apoplectic with agitation at her words.  I, who claim to be willing to die to defend such a pronouncement, found myself cringing and sliding down in my seat.

Yet I’ve also seen those same words move men twice my size and strength, and reduce them to tears.  “Jesus loves you!”  When these words become real, when the hearer is convinced that God’s love is in fact profound and personal, something greater than resurrection happens in the human heart.

This weekend Father Columba spoke about the power of Words of Knowledge.  God uses human instruments, to speak into human hearts, often by revealing small, intimate details that only a concerned Father would know to reveal.  It is one thing to believe in a love that is generic and amorphous.  It is something much more when we realize that His concern and care for us is concrete, specific and personal.

Like the widowed mother, Our Lady would also be given her Son, there under the cross.  We see her suffering, that Michelangelo carved into the Pieta.  She held in her arms the lifeless Body of one who died that we might know that personal love.  But she received Him forever when He rose from the dead.

*            *            *

I was there in the ICU that night as my mother journeyed to the edge of death, but came back.  I was there again at his bedside, several months later, when my father took that same journey, but he did not return.

There was much suffering that year; it would be months before my mother returned home, her illness still classified as a mystery.  There were many days in which I thought that I could not endure more, that there was nothing left in me to die.

But one of the beautiful things about hitting rock bottom is that you discover just Who that Rock Is.  We are never alone.

 

 

Notes:

1Scalia, Rev. Paul. That Nothing May Be Lost. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017) p. 134

“Learn to be in the unknowing”

Knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up.
If anyone supposes he knows something,
he does not yet know as he ought to know.
But if one loves God, one is known by him.

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

I honestly couldn’t get past this first paragraph in the readings today. It cuts so deep to the heart of the human experience of wading through all the unknowing in our lives while simultaneously knowing that we all just want to be loved, truly and completely. 

Many of us struggle with anxiety, including myself, and it’s another way to describe struggling with fears, mostly of some (or all) unknowns. My particular brand of anxiety involves trajectories of worst-case scenarios bursting through my mind and into outer space at the speed of light. I have recently realized that this particular defense or coping mechanism “makes sense” to my unconscious mind because THEN at least I have a series of “knowns” to cling to. But these imagined “realities,” or a feigned sense of “knowing,” do not soothe the initial fear of the unknown void, but rather, inflates or enlarges the void. 

“…but love builds up.”

Love is the answer to fearing this void of unknowing, even though it can seem equally mysterious or unknown at times. Knowing what love is, however, requires us to first have faith in God and love Him back.  When we do this, we learn that we can only love ourselves and others when we primarily rest our minds and hearts in the fact that we are truly and completely known by God. And only in this knowing and loving gaze of God can we be content in our unknowing. 

If anyone supposes he knows something,
he does not yet know as he ought to know.”

But God is Love and also omnipotent: He is perfect love and perfect knowing, and so, we learn to both love and to know things through Him.  There is a certain “unknowing” needed for true knowledge, evidenced by the second sentence of the verse. Any good scientist, historian, or journalist will tell you that. A true intellectual always couches their theories and evidence between what is known and what is yet unknown, and there wouldn’t be scientific progress if people hadn’t bothered to research what is and is not yet known. In the same way, our “knowing” of anything – including and especially God – must be held with a bit of mystery or reverence for the unknowns of that subject.  We praise God for loving us, we return His love with our love, while never knowing fully what this means, at least when we are still on this earth. Unknowing plays an indispensable role in both fully loving and fully knowing, so shouldn’t we learn to be in unknowing? That is a clear message I heard in prayer: “Learn to be in the unknowing.”  So obvious, so necessary, and yet… so difficult. Learning to be in our areas of unknowing sans anxiety is only possible when believing in the primacy of God’s love and providence over our lives, which necessarily and ironically involves faith or unknowing. In other words, we are only content in our inability to be sure, completely knowing, when we have faith in the intention of the One who made us that way.

So, I hope this ramble-y musing of mine has helped you think about at least how the concepts of loving and knowing intersect and depend upon each other, but mainly, how our authentic knowing depends upon receiving love from God first and foremost. And, how loving God, being known by God, knowing God more, and loving God serve as mutually amplifying and purifying processes within our souls. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

A People of the Beatitudes

In listening to a reflection on the Beatitudes today, the speaker asked their audience to reflect upon what it means to live the Beatitudes. Not just to believe in them, but to live them.

To live the Beatitudes is to value the things that this world does not. To see with God’s eyes and hear with God’s ears.

We live in a world full of “takes”, of people and outlets vying for our attention by giving their spin or opinion on the world unfolding around us. I cannot begin to tell you how many different articles I saw posted on social media that were trying to vindicate or vilify Archbishop Viganó’s letter of accusation. The “liberal” Catholic figures were attempting to poke holes in the statement, the “conservative” Catholics were calling for the resignation of the Vicar of Christ, and most of the laity fell somewhere in the middle to be buffeted back and forth by one “take” after another. I began to despair, to be frustrating, to find myself alternately excited that the horror might not be as deep as it seemed and terribly, terribly angry that it very well could be.

Instead of attaching myself to either side of the “aisle” of this politicized version of Catholicism, I decided to cleave to the LORD. I prayed. I prayed my heart out, and I haven’t been that good with prayer lately, so you know I’m not saying it to brag. I say it because prayer is what brought me comfort. When the world around us takes every event and spins it into 2 alternate “realities” (call ’em facts and alternative facts, if that suits you), I took deep, deep comfort in the fact that their is ONE LORD and we shall have NO OTHER GODS above him.

Our LORD’s mind is not divided. His heart is pure, singly devoted to His children. Our LORD, given our participation, will sift the sheep from the goats, weave a braided cord and CLEANSE HIS HOUSE.

I’ve never been one for “fire and brimstone” preaching. Us cradle Catholics can be somewhat allergic to that. But in this last month where I have not known what is wheat and what is chaff, I have found myself praying for purifying fire. Elijah, calling down fire upon the prophets of Ba’al. I’m furious at many things, and most of all that the voice of Jesus Christ is being lost in this awful human noise. Drop your agendas, be respectfully skeptical of your favorite news source, and PRAY in a way that you have not yet. For those of you that have, bring the light of Christ to others; it shines in a way that blots out all the torches and pitchforks.

The voice of Jesus Christ is the voice that spoke the Beatitudes in today’s Gospel. Pray that we might all live these words, and see with God’s eyes what is valuable and true in the midst of the noise.

Blessed are you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.

Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets
in the same way.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
But woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.