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.

Appointment With God

Jesus departed to the mountain to pray,
and He spent the night in prayer to God.
–Luke 6:12

There is nobody on this planet that would accuse me of being a neat freak.  And yet, when I sit down for prayer time, my desire for tidiness goes suddenly and inexplicably into overdrive.

I notice the picture that is hanging ever so slightly unevenly, begging to be straightened before I start.  I notice the pile of papers on my desk, and have an immediate urge to address or file them.  I see the basket of laundry and remember that I must apply stain remover to that one shirt, and if I don’t do it right now surely it will be ruined forever.  The books on my shelf are crooked, acquiring dust, need to be read, need to be given away—that would be a good one for Susie—maybe before I begin to pray I should call her?  Maybe I should make my bed.  Maybe I should get in my bed, because did I really get enough sleep last night?

And when all else fails, as I begin to pray while looking out at the morning sky, I will see a small shadow moving across the window, as yet another stink bug compels extermination…

Anyone that has ever tried to put a toddler to bed will recognize these for what they are: diversion tactics.  Whether natural or preternatural, resistance to these and any other delays is the first step to prayer.

The truth is, the Opposition will use any strategy that works to get us not to pray, or to delay prayer until a “later” that he knows may never come.  It is imperative to resist these temptations, but to do so we must recognize them as such.

*You don’t have time to pray!  You are too busy.  It’s not like you’re a cloistered nun—you have a life.  Don’t worry, God understands.  Your work is your prayer…

*Daily prayer is not realistic.  God asks too much of you.  You ask too much of yourself…

*Yeah, you should pray of course, but better to get to Confession first.  You’re not in a good place to meet God at the moment, are you?

*You aren’t very good at prayer.  When’s the last time you heard God talking to you?  You’re not like those other people who talk to God like they know Him or something…

*You don’t know how to pray.  Why waste your time on something that you won’t get anything much out of?

*You can pray later, when you’re not so busy or distracted; when you don’t have so much on your plate…

*How do you know God is listening to you? Is He even there? If He is real, why doesn’t He do X?  Why does He allow Y?  How can you talk with somebody you don’t know for sure is even there?

In today’s Gospel Jesus calls the twelve apostles and heals the crowds, but only after spending the night in prayer.   What did that night look like?   How did the Son of God converse with the Father?  We can only wonder—and marvel that such questions can even be asked of God made Man.

We only know that even Jesus needed prayer, that all of His actions flowed from this union with His Father lived out in prayer.

Reading this gospel, I was reminded of Father Michael Scanlan T.O.R., the former president of my alma mater.   After his passing in January 2017, alumni were invited to offer tributes and share memories related to his legacy in their lives.  At first I thought I had little to say.  While I am no doubt indebted to him for my college experience which set a trajectory for my life, my personal encounters with him were few and not the sort that great stories are made of.

Yet much is made in Christian life of the notion of planting seeds—how often that is what we as educators are called to, even when we do not see for years any visible signs of growth or fruit.   I think of myself often as a seed planter (at least on days when I am feeling optimistic) but I forget at times of how much I am the recipient of the seeds of other sowers.  One such sower was Fr. Mike, and the particular seed was his book Appointment with God.

The funny thing is, I am not sure if I ever actually read the book.  My memory is rather foggy on that point.  But the idea of a daily appointment with God, a designated prayer time, was spoken of frequently at FUS and modeled for me by many of my fellow students.  His idea was simple—a guarded time set aside each day, put onto the calendar and thereby not to be moved, to meet with God in conversation, ideally before the rest of the day and its concerns came rushing in to fill the time.

I loved the idea of it from the beginning.  But faithful practice of it was decades away, as I made what I realize in retrospect were flimsy excuses.

Years later, as I started to become more faithful to times of prayer, I began to experience God’s love in new ways.  Sometimes I had experiences of His presence during prayer; more often I began to recognize His presence outside of prayer.  Flashes of understanding.  Conversations that confirmed something I thought God was saying.  Snatches of song in the grocery store with their secular lyrics—that were not only poignant echoes of God’s love, but even prophetic at times.  The more I made time for God to speak to me during prayer, the more I heard His voice in unexpected places.

The Dawn of Justice

Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time,
until the Lord comes,
for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness
and will manifest the motives of our hearts,
and then everyone will receive praise from God.
—1 Corinthians 4:5

Commit to the LORD your way;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make justice dawn for you like the light;
bright as the noonday shall be your vindication.
—Psalm 37:5–6

Jesus answered them, “Can you make the wedding guests fast
while the bridegroom is with them?
But the days will come, and when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
then they will fast in those days.”
—Luke 5:34–35

Seeing injustice in the world is one of the most infuriating, disheartening things we can experience, and yet it is all too common. When people are wronged and receive no recompense, or when selfish individuals hurt others and seem to experience no repercussions, it triggers a deep sense of injustice within us. We know innately that something is not right, and it doesn’t sit well with us. This is because a longing for justice has been hardwired into us by the God of Justice Himself. The closer we draw to Him, the more acutely we feel this imbalance in the world, for it is not as He intended it to be.

But we need not linger in despair over the injustice we see around us. Jesus assures us that justice will come. At the judgment, all that is hidden will come to the light; wrongs will be righted and dues paid in full. In The Return of the King, Sam Gamgee asks, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” At the judgment, the answer will be yes. In some cases, that justice will come in the form of fasting and penance, as we work to atone for the wrongs we’ve done in our lives. In other cases, it will be the glorious revelation of good deeds done in secret and sacrifices offered up alongside the Cross. But ultimately, our deep longing for justice will be satiated, and it will come by means of the Cross. Through the greatest injustice in human history comes an endless fount of mercy and justice and the redemption of our imperfect souls. Through the Cross, even the injustices we experience take on meaning and purpose. We fast as we await the Bridegroom’s return, but we know that the feast is coming.

The Oil of Charity

We must not think that our love has to be extraordinary. But we do need to love without getting tired. How does a lamp burn? Through the continuous input of small drops of oil. These drops are the small things of daily life: faithfulness, small words of kindness, a thought for others, our way of being quiet, of looking, of speaking, and of acting. They are the true drops of love that keep our lives and relationships burning like a living flame.
—St. Teresa of Calcutta

In today’s Gospel, Jesus recounts the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. I’ve written before on what this passage teaches us about waiting, but today I noticed another aspect of the story. It seems at first that the wise virgins, those who were well prepared with oil, act selfishly in refusing to share their oil with the others. But actually, this speaks to the symbolism of what the oil represents. St. Augustine, preaching on this passage, reflected that the oil represents our charity and good works:

I will tell you why charity seems to be signified by the oil. The Apostle says, “I show unto you a way above the rest.” Though I speak with the tongues of men and of Angels, and have not charity, I have become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. This, that is “charity,” is “that way above the rest,” which is with good reason signified by the oil. For oil swims above all liquids. Pour in water, and pour in oil upon it, the oil will swim above. Pour in oil, pour in water upon it, the oil will swim above. If you keep the usual order, it will be uppermost; if you change the order, it will be uppermost. “Charity never falls.”

There is the oil, the precious oil; this oil is of the gift of God. Men can put oil into their vessels, but they cannot create the olive. See, I have oil; but did you create the oil? It is of the gift of God. You have oil. Carry it with you….

For he who walks to gain the testimony of another, does not carry oil with him. If you abstain from things unlawful, and do good works to be praised of men; there is no oil within. And so when men begin to leave off their praises, the lamps fail. Observe then, Beloved, before those virgins slept, it is not said that their lamps were extinguished. The lamps of the wise virgins burned with an inward oil, with the assurance of a good conscience, with an inner glory, with an inmost charity.

—St. Augustine, “Sermon 43 on the New Testament”

The oil, symbolizing the charity in our hearts, cannot be transferred from one to another, just as our own good works cannot be distributed out to other souls at the time of judgment. The oil of charity is a gift from God; it cannot be manufactured. The graces that come from a life spent in service to others, in prayer, and in righteousness cannot simply be handed over to another. No one can borrow the good works of others to make up for the good works they’ve failed to do. A holy person might draw others toward Christ and inspire them to follow God by sharing their story, but they can’t transfer some of their own holiness to “even the scales.” True holiness can only be achieved through a personal encounter with God, not by proxy.

Why did the foolish virgins neglect to bring enough oil? Perhaps they were focused more on the feast—where surely there would be abundant light—than on meeting the bridegroom. If they had been joyfully anticipating that encounter more than the party afterward, then maybe they would have remembered to ensure they brought enough oil to be able to see him clearly when he arrived.

As we wait in expectant hope for the bridegroom’s arrival, may we remember to oil our hearts with acts of faith, hope, and charity, feeding the flame of God’s grace within us.