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

What Are You Looking For?

John was standing with two of his disciples,
and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God.”
The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.
Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them,
“What are you looking for?”
They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher),
“where are you staying?”
He said to them, “Come, and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying,
and they stayed with him that day.
It was about four in the afternoon.
—John 1:35–39

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose feast we celebrate today, lived a busy life as a wife and mother of five in New York City. She was an upper-class socialite who entertained George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in her home, and her family had deep roots in the Episcopalian church. At the time of her birth in 1774, Catholicism was outlawed in New York City; by the time she was ten years old, the ban was lifted, but Catholics were still looked down upon by wealthy Protestant families such as Elizabeth’s. The modest wooden Catholic church, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, was the home of lower-class immigrants; Trinity Episcopal Church, on the other hand, was a refined, elegant place for peaceful reflection among the social elite. Elizabeth’s sister once commented, “Let me be anything in the world but a Roman Catholic,” and saw Catholics as “dirty, filthy, ragged, the church a horrid place of spits and pushing.”

None of Elizabeth’s friends or family could have predicted her conversion to Catholicism. It was unthinkable, that she would lower herself to the depths of society, forgoing “civilized” worship to join a disorderly congregation with baffling beliefs. Serving the poor was one thing; joining them was another.

But Elizabeth had experienced Jesus calling her to His Church in a way she could not deny or explain away. While in Italy, mourning the death of her husband, she witnessed the beauty of the Catholic faith. She encountered the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and fell to her knees before the monstrance in utter surrender to God. She had met Jesus in His Church, and after that there was no turning back. Even though her friends and family were shocked and bewildered by her decision, she sacrificed her reputation to enter the Catholic Church and receive Jesus in the sacraments. She so desired this greater intimacy with Jesus that everything else in her life seemed trivial in comparison.

Just as Jesus invited the disciples to follow Him, just as He invited St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, so He invites each of us in our own lives to follow wherever He leads. The above passage from today’s Gospel should not seem distant or foreign to us; Jesus is pursuing us in the same way. He interrupts our daily routines and asks, “What are you looking for?” What are we pursuing? Is it wealth or social prestige? Is it comfort and security? Or do we seek something deeper and more substantial, something that written on our hearts from the very first moment of our existence? Jesus beckons us, “Come, and you will see.”

At last God is mine and I am his….The awful impressions of the evening before, fears of not having done all to prepare [for my first Holy Communion], and yet even then transports of confidence and hope in his goodness.

My God….the fearful beating heart…the long walk to town, but every step counted nearer that street then nearer that tabernacle, then nearer the moment he would enter the poor, poor little dwelling so all his own—and when he did the first thought I remember, was, “let God arise, let his enemies be scattered,” for it seemed to me my King had come to take his throne, and instead of the humble tender welcome I had expected to give him, it was but a triumph of joy and gladness that the deliverer was come, and my defense and shield and strength and salvation made mine for this world and the next….

Now then all the excesses of my heart found their play and it danced with more fervor….Truly I feel all the powers of my soul held fast by him who came with so much Majesty to take possession of this little poor Kingdom….

My God is here, he sees me, every sigh and desire is before him.

—St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

¡Viva Cristo Rey! (Part 2)

Yesterday, we celebrated one of my favorite feast days, the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Why is it one of my favorite feast days, you may ask? Not just because “Crown Him with Many Crowns” is my jam (really, though, it’s a fantastic hymn). I love this day so much because it is a day to celebrate the powerful truth that Jesus is Lord and I am not.

Praise God for that gift. As the liturgical year wraps up this week, I declare that truth with a sigh of relief in my lungs and with praise and gratitude in my heart—Jesus Christ is King. King over all my problems, King over our hurting Church, King over every situation in this past year that has made no sense, King over all the violence in the world and the turmoil in my heart, King over the days where I feel like I can’t do it, King over every. single. thing.

We praise You, Lord Jesus.

Saint_Jose_Luis_Sanchez_del_Rio
St. José Sánchez del Río

He is sovereign over all. We get to choose to surrender our control and let Him be King, no matter what the cost. A great Saint did this at just 14 years old, St. José Sánchez del Río. He lived in Mexico during the Cristiada movement of the 1920s, when a bloody war was waged against Catholics. The Church was under total control of the state, and it became illegal for Catholics to practice their faith in public. Monasteries and convents were shut down, Church property was taken over, and priests were arrested and killed for saying Mass. The Cristeros rose up to fight for Christ their King, and St. José asked his parents to join their army. He said, “For Jesus Christ, I will do everything.” He was their youngest member and became their flag bearer. St. José was imprisoned after giving his horse to the General and not being able to escape in time. While in prison, he refused to renounce his faith and could be heard frequently saying, “Viva Cristo Rey! Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe!”

St. José’s godfather was the mayor of his town, but he did not let him go. He told him if he just said, “Death to Christ the King,” he would let José go home to his family. But he refused, so he was ordered to be killed. The federalists cut off the soles of his feet with a knife and then made St. José walk ten blocks along a dusty, gravel road to his grave. The soldiers beat him and mocked him, and he just kept shouting, “Viva Cristo Rey!” They then stabbed him several times. They asked him what they should tell his father, and St. José replied, “That we will see each other in Heaven! Viva Cristo Rey! Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe!” With that, the soldiers shot him, and he died.

Jesus was St. José’s King, and he let Christ reign over every area of his life, even when it meant dying a death much like our Lord’s. Is Christ King over every part of your life, or is there anything else that reigns? The ultimate expression of our trust in God is when we have childlike dependency on our Savior and King. As the liturgical year comes to a close and we prepare for the coming of our Savior, where do you need Christ to be your King?

Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!

P.S. A great movie on the life of St. José Sánchez del Río is For Greater Glory. Here’s a powerful clip!