When giving is being filled

And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
– Matthew 6:18

Today’s Gospel is likely a familiar one. It’s a strong teaching about how praying, fasting, or giving alms, while good acts, are hollow when you’re looking for attention. Pride is the root of all sin, so it’s not surprising that it can finds its way into even the most virtuous acts. Remember when Jesus said a demon was so strong that it could only come out through prayer and fasting?

To paraphrase my wife paraphrasing a recent sermon she had heard (I wish I knew which source to cite): Sometimes if the Devil can’t make you sin, he is content to make you ineffective.

I’ve recently been in a season of life that has required a lot of giving. I’m working longer hours than I have, and my duties at home grow in parallel with my toddling son. I wish I could say that my added efforts were perfectly and graciously offered to Jesus, that I was being a regular St. Joseph and that I am the image of St. Paul’s “cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).

But they weren’t, I haven’t, and I’m not.

The change has been hard. And I am human (why, Lord?!). And I have gotten resentful more than I have liked.

When I go unnaturally out of my way and egg my wife on to tell me how great I am and how hard I’m working, I have received my award. When I am resentful and require a ‘reward’ (acknowledgment, affirmation, candy, etc.), that very well may be all I get for it.

God is merciful and mysterious, and he knows my heart better than I do, so I trust in him to take my small offerings and multiply them, even when my heart could further be purified. He’ll take care of His part, and today’s Gospel reminded me to take care of mine. Lord, purify my heart.

The Hammer of the Heretics

Elijah appealed to all the people and said,
“How long will you straddle the issue?
If the LORD is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.”
– 1 Kings 18:21

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
– Matthew 5:19

How long will I straddle the issue?

I love it when Scripture speaks so plainly. Reading this, the second verse from today’s readings, stopped me in my tracks. How long have I straddled issues in my life? What doubts, chronic sins, or bad habits have I allowed to take root in me?

So many times I get caught up in the lie of trying to get the best of both worlds (or more accurately in this case, ‘the best of both Heaven and Earth”). I want to be holy, but I want to be admired. I want to be deep, contemplative, and thoughtful, but I want to be recognized for it. I want to preach the Gospel, but I don’t want to come off as “preachy”.

How long will I straddle the issue?

Fitting, then, that today’s strong verbiage is accompanied by a strong saint’s feast day: St. Anthony of Padua, who is apparently also known as the “Hammer of the Heretics” (though the citations for this are dubious… but it’s a great name so let’s stick with it). St. Anthony’s witness was his life of prayer and preaching; he was (quite literally) tossed and turn on the waves of life and ended up following a much different path than expected: instead of risking martyrdom to preach to the Moors in Morocco, Anthony found himself in decidedly Catholic Italy. What could easily have felt like defeat, or at the very least a blow to his ability to live for God’s glory, instead led to the exact path he needed for sainthood.

St. Anthony shares much in common with our patron Pier Giorgio, chiefly a zeal for service and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Wealth, glory, and fame were certainly within both of their respective reaches in life, and yet illnesses sidetracked their earthly plans to bring about even greater glory for God.

These men are an inspiration to me, giving me courage and faith that I could be a champion for God’s kingdom, even here and now in my current, humble state in life. What is needed is zeal and decisive faith. Elijah is calling to me: “If the LORD is God, follow him.”

Feast of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

Indeed we call blessed those who have persevered.
—James 5:11

V0032624 Saint Mary Magdalen dei Pazzi. Etching by G. Fabbri, 1757.Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, the patron of the parish I attended growing up. On a trip to Florence, Italy, years ago, I was able to visit her tomb and see the chapel where she experienced many mystical visions. The austerity of her life as a Carmelite, juxtaposed with the wealth and dominance of her prominent Renaissance family that was so evident throughout Florence, was striking.

The life of St. Magdalene was marked by extreme highs and extreme lows. She experienced both ecstasies and desolations, and often the two were intermingled. She once said, “Those who call to mind the sufferings of Christ, and who offer up their own to God through His passion, find their pains sweet and pleasant.” This paradox—the sweetness of suffering, the beauty of pain—encapsulates her philosophy and mission. She was determined to make her whole life an offering, both the joys and sorrows, the highest mountains and the lowest valleys along her path; everything was part of an unbroken hymn of praise to God.

Perugino,_crocifissione_con_la_maddalena,_la_madonna,_s._giovanni_e_i_ss._bernardo_e_benedetto,_1493-96,_01Beginning at the age of nine, St. Magdalene practiced mental prayer, cultivating an intimate friendship with Jesus. This is what prepared her for all her mystical experiences and desolations to follow. Through it all, she maintained this friendship, speaking to Jesus as a dear friend with frank sincerity and playful banter. When Jesus told her, “I called and you didn’t care,” she responded, “You didn’t call loudly enough.” She asked Him to shout His love. She was honest and genuine in her conversations with Jesus, and this intimacy was what gave her the grace to bear the sufferings she endured. Her ultimate motivation was to return the love of Jesus Christ: Love incarnate, who was neither known nor loved.

Pedro_de_Moya_-_Vision_of_St_Maria_Magdalena_di_Pazzi_-_WGA16308Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi share a few things in common: both were born into prosperous Italian families that valued status and wealth, both chose to forego earthly treasures and esteem for the sake of serving Jesus. Both were nourished by daily Communion, and both persevered in faith through many unexpected trials. Their charisms and personalities were very different—Pier Giorgio was a man of action, while St. Magdalene was a Carmelite devoted to contemplative prayer—but each was motivated first and foremost by a relationship with Jesus. This enabled them to discover their own unique gifts and callings and to offer everything back to Him in love.

St. Magdalene de Pazzi teaches us to be thankful for whatever season we are in, always persevering in prayer and penance. Every experience can be a channel of grace. In our joys, may we not forget our need for God, and in our sorrows not abandon our trust in Him. Above all, if we are rooted in friendship with God as St. Magdalene was, our lives will take on renewed purpose.

O Love, You are neither known nor loved!
—St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi


1. G. Fabbri, etching of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi / Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0
2. Pietro Perugino, Crocifissione, la Vergine, San Giovanni, la Maddalena e i Santi Bernardo e Benedetto, fresco from the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, Florence / CC BY-SA 3.0
3. Pedro de Moya, Visión de Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi / PD-US

To an Unknown God

Hey Frassatians, I don’t have a lot of time for a reflection today, so I’m going to send out a draft I had written for two weeks ago, May 9th. Hop in your time machine and I hope you enjoy!

Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said:
“You Athenians, I see that in every respect
you are very religious.
For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines,
I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’
What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.

—Acts 17:22-23

In terms of theatrics, today’s first reading is top-notch. St. Paul delivers a Spirit-infused, moving monologue about the Lord’s hidden hand behind all the Athenians hold dear, from creation to power over life and death. How do the Athenians respond? The reaction is…mixed, quite literally. Some scoff, others humorously defer (“Can you just tell us about overcoming death some other time, Paul? Pretty please? We’re really busy right now”), and others immediately follow St. Paul as disciples of Christ.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s always easy to hear a reading like this and say, “Well, there’s their problem right there! They didn’t listen to Paul about Jesus!” Groundbreaking conclusion, that.

Anytime we hear about the crowd’s reaction in Scriptures, though, we’re being called to examine our own hearts. We’re asked to put ourselves in their place. If we had just heard Paul’s rousing proclamation of the Gospel, how would we react?

I first read today’s reading from Acts with a smugness that (at least in my case) comes in no small part from my identity as a cradle Catholic: while friends around me were dropping like flies from the Church and other churches were holding newer, hipper services, I took on the identity of martyr, and not the good kind. I was special. I could see something that others were missing. If only they knew the God that I knew. If only they knew how hard it was to stay Catholic while all of that was happening around me…

But after another read-through, I came to the truth of the matter that God wanted me to hear: That altar “to an Unknown God” is my own.

In a few recent reflections, I’ve touched on a theme pervasive in today’s faith climate: “I’m spiritual, not religious”. St. Paul’s words brought out the parts of me that had tacitly incorporate that mentality into my own faith. In the face of a political and social environment that discourages firm, immovable beliefs, tolerance is a logical outcome. Most people in NYC with whom I discussed my faith (that were not Catholic) had a similar response, sometimes stated and sometimes implied: “That’s great! ….for you.” Translation: “Don’t confront me or make me confront my beliefs, and I will be happy to politely hear about yours.” Sounds a lot like an altar to an Unknown God, huh?

And yet so often I felt this attitude of polite, partial tolerance was actually a reasonable and responsible approach. My own version of the above interaction went something like this: “We can’t possibly grasp the full mystery of God, so I’m going to leave my options open. I don’t want to push them away with firm truths.” I wasn’t questioning my faith, but I wasn’t willing to close the door on other spiritualities, either. I couldn’t bring myself to tell people that I disagree with their openmindedness. I, after having used my Catholic identity for years as evidence that I had a better faith life than so many of my peers, was unwilling to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, and actually tell my non-Catholic friends why I believe what I believe and why I think it is the one and only Truth. I claim it with every Creed I pray, so why couldn’t I proclaim it?

When I first read Paul’s words, my reaction was something along the lines of, “Yeah, take that, Athenians!”

Upon further reflection, I realize that Paul was exhorting ME. I humbly thanked God for the lesson.

 

Pray with Scripture. It does things to your heart.

The God of Second Chances

After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them,
he said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
—John 21:15–17

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Sorrow_of_Saint_Peter_(La_douleur_de_Saint_Pierre)_-_James_TissotA few weeks earlier, Peter had stood outside the courtyard of the high priest, weeping bitterly. He had disowned Jesus not once, not twice, but three times, just as Jesus had predicted. Peter was filled with grief when he realized what he had done: despite the fact that he had vowed to stand by Jesus in every possible trial, despite his complete devotion, he had buckled at the first bit of pressure and cast aside the One who meant everything to him.

We might imagine that we would defend our faith in any circumstance, but when those situations actually arise, often our discomfort leads us to hide our true colors and pretend that we are just another face in the crowd, not a follower of Christ. There’s a fine line between trying not to force our faith upon others and hiding it altogether, and it can be all too easy amid a secular environment to act as though we are ashamed of our relationship with Jesus.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Saint_Peter_Walks_on_the_Sea_(Saint_Pierre_marche_sur_la_mer)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallYes, there will be consequences for defending Christ. But there are worse consequences for denying Him. We can’t allow the possible reactions of others to distance us from the Source of all joy and love, as though their approval were the real key to our happiness. And in fact, we might be surprised at others’ openness to our faith—it might end up being a point of connection between us.

Chances are, at one point or another we’re going to mess this up. We’re going to drop the ball when presented with opportunities to witness to our faith, and we’re going to hide our light under a bushel basket out of fear. But Peter shows us that this, too, can be a path to grace. When we realize our shortcomings and failures, we can follow the way of Peter, the way of humility. We can begin to understand that we will never be able to carry out our grandiose plans on our own, that we are truly dependent upon Jesus for everything.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Meal_of_Our_Lord_and_the_Apostles_(Repas_de_Notre-Seigneur_et_des_apôtres)_-_James_TissotOur God is a God of second chances. How tender Jesus was to Peter, to grant him this moment: He set the scene over again, with a charcoal fire burning just as there was in the courtyard of the high priest, and asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, Peter was able to reply, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He was given a second chance, a do-over of the worst mistake he’d ever made. Jesus saw Peter’s sorrow and contrition, and in His mercy He stepped in to restore the relationship. Not only that, but He entrusted the Church to Peter as the first pope. He cast Peter’s sins as far as the east is from the west, giving him a fresh start. He does this for us, too. No matter how badly we’ve messed up, he will give us another chance if we’re willing to try again—and, this time, to call upon His help to guide us.


1. James Tissot, The Sorrow of Saint Peter / PD-US
2. James Tissot, Saint Peter Walks on the Sea / PD-US
3. James Tissot, Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles / PD-US

Easy vs. Fulfilling

The most recent days’ reflections have done an effective job of shattering any notions we might have that life as a Christian is life free from distress or suffering. If anybody felt any belief in a “prosperity gospel” sneaking up on them, just take a gander through the missalette for the week and that should be snuffed out pretty quickly.

However, while today’s readings lack in promises of earthly smooth-sailing (see: “savage wolves will come among you and will not spare the flock”), they call us to a deeper reality of spiritual kinship, showing how much more fulfilling a life shared with Christ and the members of His Church can be.

Do you think any of Paul’s followers in Ephesus were miffed by his declaration that hard times were coming? Maybe some, but the book of Acts tells this story:

When he had finished speaking
he knelt down and prayed with them all.
They were all weeping loudly
as they threw their arms around Paul and kissed him,
for they were deeply distressed that he had said
that they would never see his face again.
Then they escorted him to the ship.

Likewise, today’s gospel recounts one of my favorite of Jesus’ prayers (it was the Gospel reading for our wedding), where he assures the listeners that while they have endured hatred in His name, the disciples have been “consecrated in truth” and they [will] “share [His] joy completely.”

These examples from Scripture speak to a greater truth that I have been grappling with lately: looking to earthly gratification and relaxation, and not valuing the depth of relationship and call to give of myself enough.

I pray that we may all use the words from today’s readings as inspiration to embrace our giving, knowing that growing in unity with the Father and the Church are the greater, more fulfilling goals.

Due Process

*Note: A disclaimer about today’s writings – I spend some time reflecting on the ways and ceremonies by which some denominations practice their faith. I am very poorly-versed in this arena. I don’t know which jargon is fair game and which is horribly offensive. My musings are my own, as are any possible (probable) heresies. I will answer for them, I’m sure. I just hope what I’m saying even makes sense at this time of day and I’m sending this out in faith that the Holy Spirit found His way in there somewhere. -ab

Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers,
“Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice,
you cannot be saved.”
Because there arose no little dissension and debate
by Paul and Barnabas with them,
it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others
should go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and presbyters
about this question.
They were sent on their journey by the Church,
and passed through Phoenicia and Samaria
telling of the conversion of the Gentiles,
and brought great joy to all the brethren.
When they arrived in Jerusalem,
they were welcomed by the Church,
as well as by the Apostles and the presbyters,
and they reported what God had done with them.
But some from the party of the Pharisees who had become believers
stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them
and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.”
The Apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter.
—Acts 15:1-6

The book of Acts is a gold mine.

The Bible is full of unspeakable depths of beauty and wisdom, and God is His goodness not only teaches us about himself through Scripture, but He also gives us invaluable examples of what it means to be living as a Church in the A.D. world.

Today’s reading makes me proud to be a Catholic. I know our Mother Church doesn’t have the only claim to a “due process” of sorts in theological matters, but in no other church is today’s first reading so faithfully and literally lived out.

I recently had the opportunity to attend one of the largest churches in my hometown of Brainerd. It is a non-denominational church with multiple services on multiple campuses every weekend. The music was wonderful, the sermon was scriptural and sound, and then they began communion. I was confused. Why does a church like this celebrate communion? Every part of the service was so carefully crafted to be accessible, attractive, and modern, and this ritual performance seemed jarringly out of place. Now, I’m Catholic (surprise!), so I have no question about why somebody would want to celebrate the Eucharist! The closeness with Christ and your fellow partakers is unmistakable. But why would a church that was working so hard to establish an identity based on “spiritual, not religious” (one of the songs even had a lyric about God breaking down their ‘religion’) maintain this practice that is historically rooted in Catholicism? A cynical explanation: they want something that feels familiar to all of the ex-Lutherans, ex-Presbyterians, and ex-Catholic in attendance. A more hopeful explanation: even with all of its lack, this celebration with bread and grape juice speaks to the congregation in a deep, yearning that invites them to be truly one with Christ one day in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Now the whole point of this anecdote is not necessarily to examine the theology behind their monthly practice of celebrating communion (which really is fascinating!), but to examine the process by which they crafted their weekly services. When you’re planting your own church and eschewing “stale tradition”, you’re writing your own ‘liturgy’. Who makes the calls? A group of elders behind closed doors? A public vote once a year? The one pastor who founded it all? Who decided to keep this part of tradition when “tradition” and “ritual” are so anathema to your target audience?

No matter how much you might try to avoid having any stances on any issues (a huge part of the “spiritual, not religious” moment), any church that claims a shared identity will eventually have to take some. There will be disagreement, and there needs to be a way to arrive at a consensus. That’s how science, effective democracy, and a healthy church work. Now how do we get there?

See the above reading.

One last, unrelated note that struck me:

“They were sent by the Church…” and “they were welcomed by the Church…”

Paul and Barnabas are fundamental examples of heroic pastoral ministry. Today’s readings, along with many others in Acts and the epistles, show that these saints were servants in every sense of the word. They were cloven to Christ, the true vine, and servants and pruners of His Church, the branches. They were practical, logical, and yet wildly, radically faithful. They were attentive to their flock, saw their needs, and moved quickly to respond to them. They sought the one Truth, hence their need to come to a consensus.

Let us pray to receive Jesus’s Truth in our hearts and trust in the process He and his disciples established.