Him Whom my Heart Loves

Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. She loved the Lord wholeheartedly, holding nothing back from Him. We know from Sacred Scripture that Jesus cast out seven demons from her (Luke 8:2). Can you imagine what she must have been carrying? It would have been so easy for her to give into despair and shame, yet she allowed the Lord to heal her.

I imagine today’s first reading from Song of Songs as the cry of Mary Magdalene’s heart:

“On my bed at night I sought Him whom my heart loves—I sought Him but I did not find Him…” (Song of Songs 3:1)

We don’t know what her seven demons were specifically, but I imagine her anguish in seeking deliverance, her torment, her feeling so lost.

“I will rise then and go about the city; in the streets and crossings I will seek Him whom my heart loves. I sought Him but I did not find Him…” (Song of Songs 3:2)

In her search for love and freedom she encountered the Person of Christ and was healed in such a way that she stopped at nothing to love Him whom her heart loved. She was there at the foot of the Cross when the only other people left were St. John and the Blessed Mother. She was there waiting at the tomb at the Resurrection when Jesus called her by name and she ran to the disciples saying, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).

“I found Him whom my heart loves.” (Song of Songs 3:4)

What is holding us back from loving the Lord wholeheartedly? Where do we need to let Him in to heal us? Do we give Him everything? What would happen if we went all-in like St. Mary Magdalene, loving the One whom our hearts love and long for with all we have?

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!

magdala
A mosaic from the church at Magdala, Israel depicting Jesus healing St. Mary Magdalene

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 Rose Wrought from Steel

In strewing my flowers… I will sing, even if my roses must be gathered from among thorns; and the longer and sharper the thorns, the sweeter shall be my song.
—St. Therese of Lisieux

On this day nearly one hundred years ago, St. Therese of Lisieux was canonized by Pope Pius XI. A sheltered girl turned cloistered Carmelite nun, this young woman died when she was only 24 years old. She would later be declared a Doctor of the Church—along with St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Hildegard of Bingen.

Many may think of St. Therese as just the “little flower,” a naive girl perfectly fashioned for children’s stories. However, her spiritual autobiography reveals a soul filled with an intense longing for God, a deep-seated courage, and an absolute trust in him as her loving Father, even in the midst of great suffering. As Pope John Paul I wrote in his Illustrissimi, “[She] called [her book] ‘The story of a spring flower.’ To me the will-power, courage and decisiveness it showed made it seem more like the story of a piece of steel. Once [she] had chosen the path of complete dedication to God, nothing could stop [her]: not illness, nor opposition from outside, nor inner confusion and darkness.” How similar this is to her role model, St. Joan of Arc, who, according to Chesterton, “chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt!”

St. Therese had wild and holy daydreams, feeling “called to be a soldier, priest, apostle, doctor of the church, martyr… to perform all the most heroic deeds for… Jesus.” She felt in her soul “the courage of a crusader, of a soldier for the Church, and [wished] to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church.” Yet, face to face with her limitations, she found that her vocation was to love, for “Love alone makes its members act… if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood.” She understood “that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places… in a word, that it is eternal!” Her dreams were realized by staying “close to the throne of the King and Queen” as a little child, patiently suffering out of love and rejoicing out of love, “letting no little sacrifice pass.”

In today’s Gospel and the following verses, Christ exhorts his apostles to have such trust in him and in the Father, for “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” St. Therese embodied this childlike faith in her “little way” of spiritual dependence on God. She was not childish; she courageously worked hard to overcome her weaknesses and childhood sorrows. She had a deep life of prayer and desire for holiness, choosing to let her imperfect heart rest in and abandon itself to God alone. As St. Pope John Paul II said in a homily at Lisieux, “The Spirit of God enabled her heart to reveal directly… the reality of the Gospel: the fact of having really received “a spirit of adoption as children that makes us cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The ‘Little Way…’ holds a confirmation and renewal of the most fundamental and universal truth. For what truth of the Gospel message is more fundamental and universal than this: that God is our Father and we are his children?”

One of the places from which St. Therese received this spirit of humility, trust, living in the present moment, love, and gratitude was in the home, from her own parents, St. Louis Martin and St. Zelie Martin. She called them “a father and mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.” They showed her the face of the Father through how they faced the unexpected joys and sorrows of life with courage, entrusted their hearts to divine providence, and fiercely loved all who entered their lives. May we strive to act with the same childlike trust, persevere with the same courage, and faithfully love with the same strength, despite our weaknesses, so that others may see the face of the Father in ours and know how deeply loved they are.

St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us!

 

Reading Suggestions
St. Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul
Fr. Jacques Philippe, The Way of Trust and Love
Fr. Jean-Pierre De Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence
Dr. Tom Neal, “The Vocation to Furious Love”

Bakhita

Bakhita_Szent_Jozefina.jpegToday is the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a woman of incredible strength and perseverance. Kidnapped at age seven from her home in Sudan and sold into slavery, she was given the name Bakhita, meaning “fortunate.” She suffered daily beatings and abuse at the hands of her captors. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian family, the Michielis, and worked as their maid. While in Italy, Bakhita was introduced to the Canossian Sisters of Venice—and through the Canossian Sisters, she began to learn about God and the Church. The more she learned, the more her heart became inflamed with love for Jesus.

When the Michielis wanted to bring Bakhita with them to Africa, where they had acquired a large hotel, Bakhita firmly refused to leave the convent in Venice. While Mrs. Michieli tried to force the issue, eventually the Italian court ruled that because slavery was illegal in Italy, and had in fact also been outlawed in Sudan before Bakhita’s birth, Bakhita had never legally been a slave. All of a sudden, she was free to choose her own path.

Bakhita was baptized in the Catholic faith at age thirty, receiving all three sacraments of initiation on January 9, 1890, and taking the name Josephine. She took vows as a Canossian Sister three years later. For the rest of her life, until her death in 1947, she was known for her joyful, welcoming presence, her love of children, and her encouraging spirit toward the poor and suffering.

What is particularly remarkable about Josephine is her ability to see God’s hand at work through every chapter of her story, even those filled with darkness and tragedy. When she was introduced to Christ through the Canossian Sisters, all the pieces of her life began to fall into place and make sense to her for the first time. She said, “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”

Josephine stood up for herself and put an end to the injustices she suffered, but she did not brood over past wrongs or dwell in resentment for all the trauma she had undergone. On the contrary, she actually expressed gratitude for her past experiences. When a young student asked her what she would do if she were to meet her captors, she responded without hesitation: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”

I am far from grateful for my own sufferings, but I pray that through the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita, I might allow my eyes to be opened to the ways God is working in every aspect of my life. May my deliverance from resentment and cynicism be sparked by an interior conversion of heart, a turning toward gratitude and unrestrained love for God.

Last Minute–Why?

Growing up, I did not know that Don Bosco was a saint; I thought he was a family friend.  I would hear things like “Don Bosco got Daddy a job” or “Don Bosco helped us pay that bill.”  Friends’ parents shared similar names: Ron, John and my father, Don, gathered together regularly for coffee.  When I heard “Don Bosco” I just added him to the mix.

Saint John Bosco (known popularly as Don Bosco) first came to our attention before my parents were particularly religious.  They were having financial troubles, and his intercession was sought as a “patron saint of unpaid bills.”  I was just a child at the time and so the precise details were hazy, but there was a medical bill that my parents were unable to pay.  As it went to collection with no resources in sight, my grandmother proposed a novena to Saint John Bosco.  Figuring “What can it hurt?” my parents prayed to Don Bosco for nine days.  But on the last day of the novena, an envelope arrived from a mail order contest for the exact amount of the bill!

Answers like this appeared throughout my childhood, and then into adulthood.  Time after time, Saint John Bosco came through, often at the very last minute.  This followed the pattern of his own lifetime, of last-minute miracles.  He started an Oratory for troubled boys in Turin, but there was not often an excess of funds.  More than once, he sat the boys down for dinner with nothing to feed them with.  Then, suddenly, there would be a knock on the door with a last-minute donation of food.

Other times Don Bosco seems to have been granted miracles of multiplication.  One such story is recounted by Francis Dalmazzo, who had decided after just a few days to leave the Oratory, and had even sent for his mother to come and get him.  But that morning, he witnessed a few rolls become enough to feed the four hundred boys.  As each boy received his roll, there was another in its place for the next boy, until all had eaten—and in the basket Francis saw the original few rolls still there.  He told his mother that he had decided to stay after all. 1

Last-minute miracles took many forms.  There were death-bed conversions, including that of the man who had spent his life in opposition to Don Bosco’s work.  There was the time when St. John Bosco seemed too late—a boy in the Oratory had died without making a good Confession.  Don Bosco raised him from the dead, and the boy received the sacraments.  There was the time he wanted to build a basilica to Mary Help of Christians—to whom he had entrusted all his needs and work.  He gave the astonished architect a down payment of eight cents, promising that “Mary would build her own basilica.”2  We visited that Basilica on a Frassati pilgrimage in 2010.

It is easy to admire a saint for such radical trust in God.  Real-time waiting and last-minute rescues, however, do not make for an anxiety-free life.  I often wished that as an intercessor, Don Bosco would not wait until that last minute.  And sometimes it seemed that his idea of last-minute went well beyond mine.  Other times he didn’t seem to answer my prayers at all.

I am not going to lie—there have been times when I was tempted to move Saint John Bosco to my other listSaint.Joseph for one, is a lot more prompt… And then I wonder just why John Bosco is in my life to begin with.  What does this saint have to teach me, in particular about last-minute answers?  About trusting in Providence?  About waiting?

In the Gospels Jesus tells the strange story of a persistent widow, who hounds a judge until he gives her justice.  Jesus tells us to imitate her tenacity when asking favors of God.  He also tells the story of a man who wakes up his friend in the middle of the night to ask for bread for a visitor.  The friend responds, not out of friendship, but because he wants the knocking to stop.

These are not appealing images.  Most of us go out of our way NOT to be a nuisance, not to impose on others.  Yet Jesus tells us to keep asking past the point of feeling comfortable about continuing.

The vision of God that this parable proposes does not seem at first to be any more appealing.  Why would He insist that we ask, repeatedly, when as Jesus tells us, He already knows what we need?  Does He really demand that our petitions reach critical mass before deigning to reply?  Is it only when we’ve worn ourselves (and Him) out like the judge that He is reluctantly persuaded to give us what we ask? 

We know theologically that God is good.  We know from Scripture that “it is your Father’s desire to give you the kingdom.”  But from the first sin in the Garden, our lived faith in His goodness is shaky.  But Jesus wants us to call on and trust the Father.

Don Bosco was a father to the boys in Turin, and later to the Salesian order.   He first attracted the boys by performing magic tricks to get their attention, but ultimately they stayed because they experienced his personal love and care for each of them.  They learned first to trust in him, and in his fatherly love for them.  His fatherly care and provision of their earthly needs pointed always and ultimately to the heavenly Father.

 

Saint John Bosco
Feast Day January 31st

 

Notes:

1 http://www.salesians.org.za/index.php/bi-centenary/25-don-bosco-miracles-in-his-life

2 http://www.donboscowest.org/saints/donbosco

Image credit: Unspecified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Want to be a Saint? Pray This.

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It is the essence of the prayer of Our Blessed Mother at the Annunciation— “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38).

It is the core of the prayer of our dear Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane— “…still, not my will but yours be done.” (Lk 22:42).

It is the focus of the prayer echoed in the depths of the heart of each Saint.

Here am I, Lord, I come to do Your will. (Ps. 40)

10 simple words.

10 simple syllables.

And yet, with this prayer, an explosion of grace sets to work in our souls.

When we let this be the guiding prayer of our every moment, we give the Lord our “yes” in letting His will be fulfilled in us. We take up the role that He has set apart for us in His plan of salvation.

Each time we renew our commitment to following the will of God, we essentially live out the lyrics of one of my favorite songs —“I give it all to you God, trusting that You’ll make something beautiful out of me.”

In the simplicity of this desire is the recognition that while we yearn for deep fulfillment in our lives, we know that apart from God we will never find it. We are released from anxieties and restless self-seeking. Indeed, “In [His] will is our peace.” (St Gregory Nazianzen)

With this entrustment of our lives to the Divine Will, we accept the invitation to sit with the Lord, to become His family.

“And looking around at those seated in the circle he said,
‘Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of God
is my brother and sister and mother.’”
(Mk. 3:34-35)

Jesus calls us by name to be His family! An honor beyond belief!

Belonging to the family of Jesus means we each have a unique and specific mission to fulfill that affects not only our souls, but the souls of those whom God has entrusted to us. God’s desire for us is nothing short of our becoming saints. And He will complete His good work in us, if only we seek Him earnestly.

Belonging to the family of Jesus calls for us to continuously discern and to do the work of God, in whatever state of life we find ourselves. It is the ongoing work of conversion, taking up our crosses daily to follow the Lord. We must not delay not in committing to daily prayer (the Rosary, especially), Mass, Communion, frequent Adoration, Confession, earnest study of our Faith, and works of charity and sacrifice.

Let our lives witness—whether in times of darkness and desolation or joy and consolation—that we know who we are and Whose we are; that we trust the Lord’s hand is at work in every circumstance.

Here am I, Lord, I come to do Your will.

It is this spirit of loving obedience and bold humility that allowed the Blessed Virgin Mary to repeat her Fiat, her “yes” to the Lord, every step of the way—from the Annunciation to the Passion and beyond.

It is this spirit of authentic childlike trust that truly raises us “verso l’alto”—to the heights of sanctity that God has dreamed for us.

It is this spirit of generous surrender that is so wildly needed today in these dark times:

“One day seeing the state of his country, St. Martin of Tours, a former Roman soldier whose father was in the famous Imperial Horse Guard, asked the Lord in tears, ‘What will it take to save my country?’ ‘What will it take?’ The Lord responded, ‘One saint!’  And a saint he did become. What will it take to save our present world? One Saint! May that Saint be YOU! May the devil say of you what he said of St. John Vianney, ‘If there were two of him my kingdom would end!’

Let us ask the Holy Spirit to give us the graces we need to persevere in the living out this prayer. Let us ask Our Blessed Mother to guide our steps and form our souls as we seek to imitate her in her surrender to God. Let us ask St. Joseph for his protection as we follow the Lord. And may Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, and all our brave brother and sister Saints, pray for us!

“My child, make the resolution never to rely on people. Entrust yourself completely to My will saying, ‘Not as I want, but according to Your will, O God, let it be done unto me.’ These words, spoken from the depths of one’s heart, can raise a soul to the summit of sanctity in a short time. In such a soul I delight. Such a soul gives Me glory. Such a soul fills heaven with the fragrance of her virtue. But understand that the strength by which you bear sufferings comes from frequent Communions. So approach this fountain of mercy often, to draw with the vessel of trust whatever you need.” (1487 – Jesus to Suffering Souls) –Diary of Saint Faustina

Suggested Reading– Conversion: Spiritual Insights Into an Essential Encounter with God by Fr. Donald Haggerty

A Companion in Darkness

“What? You too? I thought I was the only one!”
-C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

In the communion of saints, we are lucky to hear the stories of men and women who ran to Christ together, including Our Lady and St. Joseph, St. Catherine of Siena and Bl. Raymond of Capua, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and so many others. These kindred spirits desired nothing less for their friends than for them to be led “further up and further in” to the very love of Christ. The anthem of their lives? “Draw me after you! Let us run!” (Song 1:4)

St. Francis de Sales, whose memorial we celebrate today, and St. Jane de Chantal were one such pair of friends who “were a gift of God to his Church, and their love was fruitful far beyond the mutual personal sanctification of the two involved” (Hinnebusch, 46). St. Francis met St. Jane after she had suffered the deaths of her husband and several children, mistreatment at the hands of her father-in-law, and years of longing for such a friend and guide. An immediate affection sprang up between the two, and he became her spiritual director. “They wanted nothing from their love but God’s glory and their own mutual holiness” (51), and their holy friendship led to St. Jane founding the Visitation sisters, which had been St. Francis’s cherished dream.

A friendship like this is a special kind of friendship. These friends are not drawn together just because of some mutual benefit, as classmates or colleagues may be. They don’t just share similar interests or enjoy spending time together, as many friends do (and should!). These true friends, at their deepest level, share a common commitment to the same ultimate good outside themselves, and that foundation will not crack. When both friends want what is best for the other and act accordingly, even though their own hearts could be “wrung and possibly broken,” we begin to see the love and joy of Christ. St. Francis had this kind of friendship with St. Jane, as “his heart…rejoice[d] in her heart as in itself” (51). He told her, “I am going to try to keep you ever exalted on the throne which God has given you in my heart, a throne based upon the cross” (51).

When a friend like this enters your life, even for a little while, give thanks and praise to God for the gift of their life, “praying always with joy” (Phil. 1:4) in your every prayer for them. These friends, ones to whom we can entrust our hearts, are unmerited gifts from God. How can our souls not proclaim the greatness of the Lord? As Fr. Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., writes, “I am especially blessed if God gives me a very close friendship with some specific person who is filled with the grace of God and divine love, and who has received a special faith, hope, and love for me” (53). Remain in his love always, “encourage one another” (1 Th. 5:11) as you encounter the joys and sorrows of life, let your friendship bear fruit, and evermore point your friend “further up and further in” to the heart of Christ, the source and summit of your joy, and the only ultimate good which will fully satisfy your hearts.

If you are longing for a friend like this, just as St. Jane was while waiting for St. Francis, or if you are reeling from being separated from such a friend, as St. Jane was after St. Francis entered eternal life, know that you are not alone. Among the “great crowd of witnesses” in the communion of saints, you have hidden friends loving you and praying for you—and none intercede for you as ardently as Our Lady does. She whose own heart was pierced by a sword of sorrow will lead you deeper into the thorn-crowned heart of her son, Jesus, who is your greatest friend.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13), and he already has. Christ has chosen you as his friend, delights in you, and will never leave you. He longs for us to love as he does so we may be filled with his joy, even if the road is sowed with tears and strewn with briars. Lean into the love of the cross, and know that every tear has power when united to his passion. Be patient, for “the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” Remain in his love always, take courage, and know that joy will come, even when all seems dark—for his joy will be in you, and your joy will be complete.

Reading List
Fr. Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., Friendship in the Lord