Valuing Sacrifice, Not Success

By Father Pier Giorgio Dengler, O.P.
on the Feast of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, July 4, 2019.

What does it take to be great? What is it that the angel of God approved in Abraham’s offering of Isaac? What is the secret of charitable works or the source of blessedness in the Beatitudes? The answer is not in the outcome, but in the offering.

In offering something to God, we consider it as a gift we have received from God and we seek to discover from Him how to best place it at the service of His plan of salvation. This is good news, because anything can be offered—riches or poverty, success or failures, wonders or wounds.

Bl. Pier Giorgio offered much—not just the corporal and spiritual works of mercy among the poor. More than even these, he offered what was most dear to him: his relationships—treasured or tragic. Instead of using his family influence and good name to blow off studies, he knew when to subordinate fun with friends to his student obligations. He even turned down traveling with his friends for hikes if it meant that he would have to miss Sunday Mass. He had to surrender his beloved sister as she left the family and the country to get married, and he held back on pursuing the love of his life when the circumstances of beginning a romantic relationship would spell doom for his own parents’ marriage. He lived the words of St. Paul: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1).

PierGiorgioFrassati-PrésentationBl. Pier Giorgio is not famous because he was good-looking or rich, nor because he skied, climbed mountains, or hiked with friends. He wasn’t known for any of his achievements. Rather, we know him because he offered all of those goods to God, along with all of the failures, sorrows, struggles, and sacrifices which came his way (of which he has so many). Bl. Pier Giorgio united all of the elements of his life and times in a consistent litany of personal piety and prayer. Above all, he incorporated everything he had into the universal prayer life of the Church—the liturgy and its source and summit, the Eucharist.

How can we achieve such unity of purpose? A simple prayer provides the outline that Bl. Pier Giorgio personified in his brief but memorable life:

O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world. I offer them for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart: the salvation of souls, the reparation for sin, and the reunion of all Christians. I offer them for the intentions of our bishops and of all Apostles of Prayer, and in particular for those recommended by our Holy Father this month.

Morning Offering composed by Fr. Francois Xavier Gaulrelet

This prayer truly offers God everything in our day, good and bad. It puts into action the importance of praying for others, seeks the help of our Blessed Mother, and it allies our offerings with our bishops and our Holy Father and thus the most pressing needs of those overseeing the Church itself.

Unity of life means integrating everything that comes our way and everything we aim at to God, lifting it all up in our hearts in the celebration of the Sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist. It means offering everything as a sacrifice, not seeking after showy success. And it means that everything we have to offer—not only our triumphs, but also the pains we suffer, sorrows we endure, and raw deals we receive—has eternal significance and yields a bountiful harvest of grace.

Not in Vain

“Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.” -Isaiah 49:4

“You should pray for the grace to not see the fruits of your ministry.”

Wait…what? Did I hear that correctly? Also, ouch?

I remember hearing this talk at a youth ministry convention at the end of a whirlwind of the first year on the job. And yes, the speaker chose his words correctly.

In so many things we do in life, ministry or otherwise, we either aren’t seen or don’t see the fruits of our labors for a long time…or ever. We can toil and toil and feel like we’re working in vain. “Does this even matter?” we wonder, “What’s the point if I keep trying but can’t get through to this person?” Maybe it’s an unpleasant co-worker that you try to show compassion to, a friend who needs forgiving, or you feel like you’re giving and giving but no one ever says thank you. We can go on feeling like we’re unnoticed, unappreciated, and as if the ways we’re trying to love like Jesus don’t sink in.

But at the end of the day, is that really what it’s about? It’s a hard question, I know. Now more than ever, we are aching to be seen, known, and loved—and we can fall into the temptation to pridefully seek this approval from anyone and anything but God. The lies lurk beneath the surface, just waiting to tell us that we’re not good enough—when we check to see who looked at our Insta Story, when we get frustrated that we didn’t get a “thank you” at work, when we feel forgotten and misunderstood.

But again, it’s not about that. God sees you, always—He can’t take His eyes off you. God knows you, better than you know yourself. God loves you, through and through.

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. St. John the Baptist had the great calling of preparing the way for the Lord, for helping people’s hearts to be ready for Jesus’ public ministry. He toiled and toiled for the Lord, knowing that his cousin was about to change everything. However, John the Baptist was murdered at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He didn’t get to see all the fruits of his labors while on earth. He didn’t get to live to be one of the people greeting the resurrected Jesus at the tomb. But John knew that it wasn’t about that. He was a fantastic model of humility, saying, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

So maybe we won’t see the fruits of our labors. But take heart, brothers and sisters, we do not toil in vain. The Lord sees, and we can never go wrong by loving like Him. Let’s adopt the words of St. John the Baptist today and pray, “More of You, Lord, and so much less of me.”

A Sacrifice of Praise

“Lord, I am your servant,
your servant, the child of your maidservant;
you have loosed my bonds.
I will offer a sacrifice of praise
and call on the name of the LORD.”
– Psalm 116:16–1

Many years ago, a Dominican friar told us—a group of fairly naïve college students—that we would wish we had suffered more once we came to the end of our lives. Back then, sitting in that dimly lit church, anxiously awaiting the day of our total consecration to Jesus through Mary, how could we have understood his words? For, as St. Paul writes in today’s first reading, we are suffering; we are afflicted. The whole world “is groaning in labor pains even until now” (Romans 8:22), whether these pains are from illness, poverty, loneliness, loss, betrayal, our own struggles and sins, or even death itself. We are perplexed—we don’t understand how our loving Father could allow such sorrow, and we may never know the whole story behind the problem of pain on this side of Heaven.

What do we know? Let’s start at the beginning. This valley of tears was not God’s original plan for us, not before the fall. Yet, even when we chose to hide our faces from him, his love was so great that he devised a plan more wonderful than we could have ever imagined. He chose to suffer with us, dying in the most horrific way possible, to loosen our bonds, to open the gates of Heaven, and to lead us home. And, as St. Pope John Paul II says, Christ’s passion gave our pain a supernatural value. “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his sufferings, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (Salvifici Doloris). Think about it. This world may very well be that valley of tears. But, every tear now has meaning and power when united to his sufferings. Our prayers and sacrifices, whether they are St. Therese of Lisieux–sized or St. Teresa of Calcutta–sized, will help bring our brothers and sisters home to Love itself.

Even if this is all a mystery, and the pain is too great—we do not have to bear it alone. From his cross, at the height of his passion, Christ gave us Mary, his mother, to be our mother. And, he gave us to Mary to be her children—just as he tells his Father “they are your gift to me” (John 17:24), we are a gift to Mary! St. Louis de Montfort writes, “As in the natural life a child must have a father and a mother, so in the supernatural life of grace a true child of the Church must have God for his Father and Mary for his mother” (True Devotion to Mary). We are the spiritual children of the handmaiden of the Lord, whose own heart was pierced by a sword of sorrow. We can run to her in complete trust, asking for her intercession, weeping with her each step of the way, “closely united to Him unto the Cross, and so that every form of suffering, given fresh life by the power of the Cross, should become no longer the weakness of man but the power of the Cross” (Salvifici Doloris).

If that wasn’t enough, Christ found a way to physically stay with us “always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). How? Precisely through what is described in today’s psalm: a sacrifice of praise—the Eucharist, Body and Blood, together with the Soul and Divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we read in the catechism, “The Eucharist is the heart and the summit of the Church’s life, for in it Christ associates his Church and all her members with his sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving offered once for all on the cross to his Father; by this sacrifice he pours out the graces of salvation on his Body which is the Church” (CCC 1407). We even hear this as the priest says Eucharistic prayer 4: “We offer You His Body and Blood, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world. Lord, look upon this sacrifice which You have given to Your Church; and gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one Body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise.”

Death may be at work in us, as St. Paul writes, but life is also present, and this life grows every time we receive the Eucharist, a living sacrifice of praise. Our hearts are changed when we receive him in the Blessed Sacrament and cooperate with grace, so that his life “may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). Our hearts become more like his heart as they too are taken, blessed, and broken, meant to be shared through the tears—and meant to be filled with his joy, another mystery. As C.S. Lewis writes, “Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it” (A Grief Observed). Our grief can, miraculously enough, become joy when united to his, just as Christ told his apostles at the Last Supper when he instituted the Eucharist.

This life is full of suffering, yes, but there is also joy, even if that joy is tinged with the greatest sorrow. Call on his name and try to remember that the tears have power, even if your heart is breaking. Receive his own heart, blessed and broken in the Eucharist. Trust in the love of your mother, who always leads you to her Son, who is himself the answer to all our questions. As Lewis says, “What other answer would suffice?” What other answer could? Maybe we will someday be able to echo the words of St. Paul when he says, “I find joy in the sufferings I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church” (Colossians 1:24). And maybe, just maybe, we will someday be able to wish we had suffered more, as our hearts cry out of love for our brothers and sisters, with a love a little bit more like his.

Totus Tuus.

 

Reading Suggestions
St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of PainA Grief Observed, Till We Have Faces
Fr. Paul A. Duffner, O.P., Redemptive Suffering
St. Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris

Love One Another

Jesus said to his disciples:
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
—John 15:12–14

Jesus, knowing that He only has a few more hours to spend with His disciples, knowing that they will soon be tested in ways unimaginable to them, speaks these words with great care and intention: “Love one another as I love you.” Just hours later, He shows them what His love really looks like. Spread out upon the Cross, pouring out His love and mercy until the very end, He gives us a model of boundless, sacrificial love.

How could we possibly keep this commandment, to love one another as He loves us? Amidst our sins and human frailty, the love that is shown to us on the Cross seems utterly unattainable for us. We are neither courageous enough to face martyrdom nor humble enough to accept insults in silence, and our love for others is guarded by our fears. But Jesus does more than just tell us to follow in His impossible footsteps. When we receive His love, He begins to love through us. In order to truly love one another with a love that echoes Calvary, we must know—really, truly know at the core of our being—that He loves us madly.

When we deeply know this truth, it changes us utterly, and we see the proof of this through the saints. Look at the radiant love of Mother Teresa as she serves the poorest of the poor, or the devotion of St. Damian, sacrificing his life serving the lepers who had been cast out of society. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was beloved by so many because he loved so well, and he always credited this to his devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist, saying, “Jesus comes to me every morning in Holy Communion; I repay Him, in my very small way, by visiting the poor. The house may be sordid, but I am going to Christ.” Pier Giorgio, too, expressed God’s radiant love in his very being, not by trying to achieve greatness but by allowing himself to be loved.

When you are totally consumed by the Eucharistic fire, then you will be able more consciously to thank God, who has called you to become part of His family. Then you will enjoy the peace that those who are happy in this world have never experienced, because true happiness, oh young people, does not consist in the pleasures of this world, or in earthly things, but in peace of conscience, which we only have if we are pure of heart and mind.
—Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

On This Friday We Call Good: Eucatastrophe and the Eucharist

From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

-Matthew 27:45

It is finished.

We listened as Christ’s final words were proclaimed from the altar. We adored His cross and kissed His wounds, following in the footsteps of Mary and the beloved disciple. And then, we received the Word made flesh in the Eucharist, “the one great thing to love on earth,” one last time.

Now, the sanctuary light is extinguished, the altar is bare, and the dim church is silent. The tabernacle is open, and empty. If “a stable once had some[one] inside it that was bigger than our whole world,” the absence of that dear friend leaves a hole just as large, and it seems like “all other lights [have gone] out,” that our “one companion is darkness” (Ps. 88:19). As another poet says, “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”

Yet, even in this hour of remembering Christ’s passion, we “do not believe that any darkness will endure,” though the “shadow lies on [us] still.” Jesus tells us himself at the Last Supper that “you will weep and mourn… you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (Jn. 16:20). This darkness is not the end of the story. Though we may be in anguish now, and remember how his apostles were then, we will see Him again, receive Him again, and our hearts will rejoice just as their hearts did. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien writes about this “sudden joyous turn” when all hope seems lost, which he calls a eucatastrophe. The opposite of a tragedy’s catastrophe, it is a “sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence… of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies… universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Evangelium—the Gospel, the good news. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:1, 14). As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech—not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform… God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears… For here it is the real Lord of the world—the Living God—who goes into action.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

As Tolkien continues, he says, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” So too does Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, Jesus joyfully arrives in Jerusalem. On Holy Thursday, He gives us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, which “[feeds] the will and [gives us] the strength to endure.” On Good Friday, He gives us His mother, Our Lady, to be our mother and companion in darkness, before giving up His very life for us on the cross out of love.

Soon, His love will be told not only on the cross, but also in the empty tomb. His faithfulness will be known among the dead, as He breaks the very bonds of sin and death. And His wonders will be known, even in the dark. We need only to take courage and wait a little while longer—for the winter will pass, the Son will be unveiled in the breaking of the bread, and the light will leap forth as we sing with Easter joy.

Referenced
Eliot, Four Quartets
Lewis, The Last Battle
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, On Fairy-Stories, Letters
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 1

One of these choices is not like the other

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As an actress, I have frequented circles where the pursuit of life, love and the absolute virtue of self-expression reign supreme: Live your truth. If it’s you and it makes you happy, go for it. The universe is looking out for you.

These messages are found not only in my artist circles—they saturate all of our relativistic society and egalitarian culture, where nothing is objectively true and all is subjective; where no one or no One can be Lord over the “almighty” individual. It is all too clear who is the ruler of this world (hmm…does this make anyone want to shout the conquering cry of the Angel of Victory?)

This is in no way to stand in judgment over any colleagues or friends—far from it. I too lived this way during my “cherry picking” days and had some problems with claiming absolutes, especially where the Church was concerned. Without being rooted in my identity as a daughter of the Most High or knowing about the the infinite treasures and wisdom of Holy Mother Church in a meaningful way, it was all too easy for me to think that I was doing alright as long as I was a “good person;” that I had my life over here and could put God someplace else to visit when it was convenient.

Slowly, mercifully, over the years of deeper conversion, the Lord convicted me. He opened my heart to the immensity of His unique, personal love for me (and for each of us). He opened my eyes to the spiritual reality and battle of our existence, where there is indeed an absolute choice to be made.

Moses says, in no uncertain terms:

Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish…

Easy enough choice, right? When looking at the eternal bliss of Heaven or the infernal horrors of Hell, who would willingly choose death over life? Yet that is the trap so many of us fall into when we willfully turn our hearts away from God for whatever reason, refusing to listen to the Truth—the Truth of His love for us, and the responsibility we have as His children. And not only listen to the Truth, but to joyously and actively choose to obey.

In the Gospel today, Jesus shares with His intimate friends a harrowing picture of the sacrifice He will make for the salvation of sinners. Knowing the infinite value of our souls and the passing temptations of this world, Christ then invites us all to make that choice to deny ourselves, daily take up our cross, and follow Him; to choose eternal life over eternal death. Today we celebrate the Feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who give witness to this in a powerful way. As St Paul writes in Romans 8:18–

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

In this life, we should strive for nothing short of sanctity—Heaven is the realm of Saints and that is our true land. This is something I have to constantly remind myself of whenever I’m tempted to be “led astray and adore and serve other gods:”

When I care more for the opinions of others and it feels easier to keep my mouth shut in conversation rather than defend my Catholic faith and beliefs; when I let talk venture into uncharitable gossip because it’s all in “fun;” when I let jealousy poison my opinion of another person rather than seeing that person, and the gifts He has bestowed upon me, through the eyes of God; when I’d rather scroll through social media or watch Netflix rather than pray with Scripture or the Rosary.

Every day in countless small ways and in all sorts of places—at work, on the train, on the streets—the Lord invites us to die to ourselves, to love Him, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments. We can turn away from Him, piercing His Heart with our refusal, or we can turn to Him with our whole heart.

I have come to relish the moments when someone asks about the Divine Mercy image at my dressing room table, or notices my scapular peeking out, or learns that I attend daily Mass and bi-weekly confession (working up to weekly, Padre Pio!). Yes, even the moments of wide-eyed disgust when passersby see me, a young woman of color, standing outside Planned Parenthood in prayer. These moments of encounter open the door to astonishment and plant the seeds of grace.

The world around us is hungry for Truth and real Love. The universe and the gods that we make in our own image will never satisfy our deepest desire for God.

When we ask for the grace to live boldly and joyfully the proclamation that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD, that there is no other, and that we were made for so much more than what the world offers—we will receive it.

When our seemingly ordinary days are colored by the extraordinary fact that Our Lord’s sacrifice and His infinite love for us, that Heaven is real (as is Hell), and that we have a choice to make—who knows how many souls we can win for the Lord?

Let us join with the universal Church in prayer for the Holy Father’s intention this month–that Christian communities, especially those who are persecuted, feel that they are close to Christ and have their rights respected.

Be faithful. Be authentic. Most of all, be not afraid. The victory is His.

Choose life, then.

Choose life.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, pray for us!

“And nothing would again be casual and small”

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The just one’s sacrifice is most pleasing,
nor will it ever be forgotten.
(Sirach 35:9)

Imagine making a sacrifice that causes Heaven to spin out in such rejoicing for all the ages to come.

What do you think that would be? What would it take?

Of course, we may rightly think of Our Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion, whose infinite merits we cannot even begin to grasp while on this side of eternity.

And yet…

Would you believe that something as “simple”as the sacrifice of making a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, or a good and graced confession, does just that?

St. Mother Teresa, in her book Rosary Meditations: Loving Jesus with the Heart of Mary, writes when contemplating the first Sorrowful Mystery—the Agony in the Garden:

The blood He sweat was grief poured out from a broken Heart, caused by the sorrow of His Eucharistic Love being so rejected. Then an angel brought Jesus indescribable strength and consolation by showing Him every Holy Hour that you would ever make. At that moment in the garden, Jesus saw you praying before Him now and He knew that His love would be returned.

This is why your visit today is so important to Him. Your Holy Hour consoles Him for those who do not love Him, and wins countless graces for many to be converted to Him.

And Luke 15:10 tells us about the dance of the angels:

In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

The just one’s sacrifice is indeed most pleasing.

What a fitting set of readings, then, to contemplate before the beginning of Lent, widely known as “the time to give yummy things up!”

This season is about so much more than muscling through your morning without coffee (though for some that struggle is real, I believe it! For me personally, it’s chips.)

This time that Holy Mother Church sets aside for us to turn back to God, to journey deeper with Jesus into the wilderness of our lives, is one that can bear great fruits of joy, sacrifice and praise—if we allow ourselves to be led and pruned by the Holy Spirit as He wills.

This is the season for delving deep to ask: Where in my life has my love grown cold? Where do I value comfort over acts of sacrifice? How aware am I of the Lord walking through my every moment with me?

Every heartbeat should remind us of the Lord’s infinite love and mercy, yet it is so easy to become numb and distracted with the anxieties and preoccupations of the everyday and the world around us.

However, even that very heart is a gift.

We only have what has first been given to us, poor as we are. But Our Father is so very rich and desires to share with us all that He has, just as Jesus gives all of Himself.

Our Lord makes Himself so vulnerable in thirsting for us to love Him and to let Him love others through us, that the more we come to know Him, the less we want to hold back anything from Him.

God is not to be outdone in generosity. Ever. Jesus promises that in the Gospel reading of today and shows us this repeatedly throughout His public ministry.

We may wonder at times what can we really offer the Lord, what can we give of any real consequence. But our wild, most beautiful Lord desires us to work with Him in His plan of salvation and redemption, offering to Him all that we can, no matter how “small” or “insignificant” (fish and loaves, anyone?).

How varied are the blessings He gives to us? This then should ignite our souls to find new ways of loving Him each day!

In 2 Cor 9: 6-8, St. Paul encourages us to sow bountifully so as to reap bountifully, and that…

…God loves a cheerful giver. Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work.

We can be sure that whatever we do offer to God in love, in union with Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, has infinite value beyond what we can ever dream.

As Rev. John Duffy writes in his poem “I Sing of a Maiden,” recounting the Annunciation and Mary’s fiat, “And nothing would again be casual and small.

This Lent let us ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with His fire and love so as to grow and give beyond our comfort zones.

Let us pray for each other as we find new ways of putting our love for God and neighbor into living action, sacrificing with a cheerful heart in the (not so) small and hidden ways, all of which are seen and cherished by Our Heavenly Father.