The Scent of Unseen Roses

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now… Come further up, come further in!”
– C.S. Lewis

The world is our ship, and not our home. Surely you have felt it: in the good desires that do not satisfy, even when they are fulfilled, in the deep stirrings of your heart when faced with the numinosity of true beauty, or in the grief of being parted from loved ones as they pass from this world, emptying us with “the loss and the silence.” We are haunted by “the scent of unseen roses, and the subtle enticements of ‘melodies unheard’” (MacDonald) that come from a home we were made for but have never truly seen. As Lewis says, “All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’”

Today, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints—those pilgrims who have made that journey home and now see God face to face, as he is. Now, they know: the echo has swelled into the song of praise we hear in today’s first reading, and they are part of the greatest music there is. We remember all of our patron saints, from Our Lady and St. Joseph to the well-beloved St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Francis of Assisi, and so many others. As C.S. Lewis says, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints!” There are great scholars and teachers, heroic priests and religious, selfless parents and friends, holy mystics and martyrs, little children, steadfast souls who helped the poorest of the poor—and ordinary people who lived ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. What they all had in common was the longing to see the face of God, “to press on to that other country, and to help others do the same” (Lewis).

Though we can hear the echo of that song, are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, and even receive Christ in the Eucharist, we are not home yet—we are here in the valley of tears, in the state of the “not yet,” pressing on to that other country as best we can. How can we respond to this inner tug, this state of anticipation? What will our song be? Tempted at times by despair and presumption, we must turn to the virtue of hope. Generally speaking, “in hope, man reaches ‘with restless heart’, with confidence and expectation… toward the arduous ‘not yet’ of fulfillment” (Pieper). As St. Augustine describes it, “God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.”

This kind of hope, the hope of heaven, is a theological virtue, along with faith and love. It is “the confidently patient expectation of eternal beatitude in a contemplative and comprehensive sharing of the triune life of God; hope expects from God’s hand the eternal life that is God himself” (Pieper). Hope depends on a person: Christ. As trust extended into the future, it is much deeper than natural optimism; it is an act of the will. Hope is a fighting virtue that inspires one to keep stepping forward even when all seems dark—and the saints did take these steps, as they journeyed through any and every kind of persecution, loneliness, and grief, through God’s grace. When faced with the problem of pain, “in sorrow [they went], but not in despair” (Tolkien). For, just as Christ describes in the Beatitudes from today’s Gospel, “we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory… Estel, Estel!” (Tolkien). Hope, hope!

We must hope, and “the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting” as we press on towards Christ. Yet, “the greatest of these is love.” Hope helps lead one from an imperfect love of God—desiring him only for our own sake, and for the sake of our loved ones—to the perfect love of friendship, caritas—affirming God for his own sake. This kind of love, another theological virtue, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). This is the kind of love we see in the saints, especially in Our Lady, who believed what was spoken to her by the angel would be fulfilled, bore the son of God in her womb, endured the death of her son for the sins of the world, hoped against hope for Christ’s resurrection, and longs to lead us home to her son, interceding for us from heaven. Who knows how many “unseen roses” come from the loving intercession of Our Lady!

All of the saints intercede for us in this way, loving us as we stumble forward. We are not alone in running this race; they have valiantly kept the faith and now help us on our way. So, let us take courage, run in their footsteps, come out of ourselves, and draw others after us! Let us persevere in hope that our faith will yield to sight, and our hope will yield to possession after a lifetime of self-surrender. That, as we behold the face of Love, all will be well, and all of our questions will die away as the echo swells into the sound itself and we join in the glorious praise of God by those living in their own country—not as wayfarers, but as children home at last. The term will be over, and the holidays will have begun. The dream will be over, and it will be the morning, on the first page of the most beautiful story that never ends, and “in which every chapter is greater than the one before” (Lewis). At last, we will never doubt again, and there will never be a need.

 

Reading & Listening Suggestions
C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Letters
Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien
Josef Pieper, On Hope
St. Augustine, Sermon 256, 1.3.4.
Fr. Mike Schmitz: Homesick, The Fighting Virtue, Kingdom Come

Eucharistic Hearts

“Oh humble sublimity! Oh sublime humility! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides himself under the form of Bread. Consider, brothers, the humility of God and pour out your hearts before him.” -St. Francis of Assisi

The chapel is bare, except for the San Damiano cross, the Our Lady of Guadalupe image, and a tiny vase of yellow flowers. A single sunbeam falling across the room seems to make the tabernacle glow with an inner light. In front of our small group of volunteers, gray-cloaked sisters and friars vowed to Lady Poverty kneel in prayer, quietly saying the words we say each Mass when we lift our hearts up to the Lord.

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest…

Faithfully joining with the angels and the saints and the sounds of the city streets, we behold our Love, who is love, and who daily descends to be with us, even to the end of the age. “And as He appeared in true flesh to the Holy Apostles, so now He shows Himself to us in the sacred Bread; and as they by means of their fleshly eyes saw only His flesh, yet contemplating Him with their spiritual eyes, believed Him to be God, so we, seeing bread and wine with bodily eyes, see and firmly believe it to be His most holy Body and true and living Blood” (Admonitions). The priest standing before the altar begins to raise his hands. It is the “the point of intersection of the timeless with time…the gift half understood.”

Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you…

Hundreds of miles away, a little girl stares up at the same cross with folded hands and wide eyes. Her gaze darts from the cross to the priest, and then to the tiny host in his hand. An even smaller boy kneels beside her, squirming slightly and leaning against their mother, whose head is bent over clasped hands. As the white-cloaked priest genuflects, their father catches her eye and smiles slightly. She can’t help but smile back, gently putting an arm around her son and holding him close.

Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me…

The family then proclaims the mystery of their faith: their Lord and Love has died and risen from the grave. He sets them free, breaking open their stony hearts and slowly giving them natural hearts—hearts that pour themselves out little by little in “service, love, sacrifice, and courage” (Admonitions). United with our friends in gray, they see Christ in the breaking of the Bread and are given strength for early morning holy hours, first steps and last days of school, and unspoken hopes and murmured prayers. It is “a lifetime’s death in love, ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.”

Repair My house which, as you can see, has fallen into ruin…

Finally, we kneel in silence, having received the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In those precious moments, our hearts—having fallen into ruin—are also changed, are transformed and repaired by Love. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Love; It signifies Love, it produces love. The Eucharist is the consummation of the whole spiritual life.” For “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And for this reason, staring up at the San Damiano cross, “we call [that] Friday Good.”

For our Lord is here, hidden under the forms of Bread and Wine, the “one great thing to love on earth.” He is with us; he has not and will not abandon us. Even if we leave and follow our own devices, even if it feels like we are held in captivity and only prayers for deliverance can escape from our lips. He is here, and he is waiting to bring us home. Oh humble sublimity! oh sublime humility!

Oh loving mercy, oh merciful love…

St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!

 

Reading & Listening Suggestions
St. Francis of Assisi, Admonitions
Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper
Catholic Underground Music

Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry

Today is the feast of St. Padre Pio. He was an extraordinary priest who took on great sufferings for souls. He spent hours upon hours of his life hearing confessions, because his desire for everyone to know the love and mercy of Christ in a tangible way was so great.

St. Padre Pio was known for saying this simple phrase to anyone who came to him with a troubled heart: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.” He then went on to say, “Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer. Have courage and do not fear the assaults of the devil.”

There is great depth to be unpacked here. Within these straightforward words, St. Pio gives us a road map of trust and surrender, all pointing the way to Christ.

Pray. Prayer is our relationship with God. If we’re not praying, we are failing. Prayer is where we get to come before God with our whole hearts laid bare, sin and all, and be in communion with Him. Prayer is the open space of resting with God, speaking to Him what is on our hearts, and listening to the word He desires to speak to us. Prayer is the first step to surrender.

Hope. One of my best friends always says, “Steer into hope.” We need this theological virtue of hope to infuse our lives, because God is trustworthy, and God will never abandon us. St. Paul writes, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). There is always, always, always hope. We may not see the way, but we can hope. No matter how bad things get, there is the hope of God always being with us. His light shatters all darkness.  He so desires your good.

Don’t worry. Worry can be such a slippery slope. There is so much in life that is worrisome; we certainly all experience it. Worry leads to despair, doubt, and discouragement. Worry robs us of our peace. Worry suffocates us, growing into a dull hum in our hearts that tells us God is not here, or that God cannot overcome whatever situation we find ourselves in. Worry breeds lies. Jesus commanded us to not worry in Scripture several times, and St. Pio reminds us of His words—don’t worry. God is here. God is greater. You will not be overcome.

Let’s join together and pray, hope, and refuse to worry. Surrender and trust is not easy, but it sure is liberating. It allows us to let go and allow God into everything. He’s not worried. Big problem or small fear, He’s got us, in every single way.

**If you need an anthem for letting go of worry, I recommend this song by Housefires. The bridge says, “God’s not worried, so why should I worry?”

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.