The Narrow Way

I remember years ago, as a child, reading with awe the stories of great missionaries and martyrs.  And so when in China I met “real live people” who were daily risking their lives to bring the Gospel, I was somewhat starstruck.  I attended secret Masses with priests and nuns who had served in the Underground Church for decades, who had friends who had been arrested, beaten, or even killed for their faith.  I met women who taught small children the faith, despite the law that made it a crime to speak of God to anyone under eighteen.  I met men and women who had started orphanages and infant hospices to care for the abandoned and discarded little ones, and others who assisted women seeking to hide their “illegal” pregnancies from forced abortion.  Each of these daily put their livelihood and even their lives on the line, over a span of decades, and many had suffered terrible persecution but still persisted.

When I was invited to join some of them in a secret mission trip to another part of China, to join in speaking “illegally” about the faith, I was thrilled.  To be fair, the risk to me was insignificant—if caught I would only be deported, not killed.  But there was something in me that loved the idea of being a part of something that felt so missionary, to join these heroes even in a partial way.

But then, a few days before we were to leave, something felt wrong.  At first I thought the heat was finally getting to me.  We had taken a taxi to the Great Wall, and our driver like many elderly Chinese had a deep superstition regarding moving air.  He insisted on keeping the windows closed and the AC off, until we arrived and gratefully tumbled out into the much cooler 99 degree air.  But the weak, dizzy feeling continued well into the evening, even after we returned from the wall.

The next morning, my stomach began to lurch and make sounds that might have had me burned at the stake in earlier centuries.  It then violently designated “return to sender” pretty much everything I had ever eaten or ever considered eating.  Charity and basic decency ask me to censor the graphic details, but suffice it to say, I had never been so sick in my life.

In the United States, when one gets a stomach bug or food poisoning it usually end after 24 hours or so.  This did not.  After three full days my body was still violently and involuntarily turning itself inside out, and I alternated between thinking I was going to die and praying that I would.

I did not suffer nobly.  I did not smile serenely offering up my pain for the poor souls.  I was not peaceful, accepting whatever God would send me for His greater glory. I don’t even think I prayed, other than to beg God to let me die, quickly.  I had not known, until that moment, that it was possible to experience such pain and not die or fall unconscious.  I only wanted it to end.

It was ten days before I was back on my feet again, thanks to a combination of watermelon, Cipro and many prayers.  I missed the mission trip, and realized ruefully that that far from being a hero, I had more in common with the nameless companions who died of dysentery before ever reaching the missions.

I was tempted to be disappointed, at first, at not being permitted to do something “great” like the others.  And I was frustrated at how poorly I had suffered even my minor little cross, when I knew others who carried much bigger ones more gracefully.  But God’s plan for each of us is profoundly personal, and always perfect.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”  We’ve all heard some variation on this, and know, (at least on some level) the harm in Park Avenue pretense, or Wall Street ambition, or any other human measuring sticks.  Yet sometimes this slips into our spirituality and our ideas of holiness.

It is a central strategy of the Opposition Voice to turn our eyes away from Christ, to look instead to the gifts, or faults, of others.  When we see those of seemingly greater gifts or callings we are tempted to doubt our own, to be ungrateful, or to let them go unused.  When we see the faults of others, we are tempted to excuse our own, saying “at least I am not as bad as him/her.”  My father used to warn me not to make others the measure of my soul: “You will always be able to find someone holier than you, and someone more sinful.  The fact that you are better than Hitler does not make you a good person.  You need to do the best you can with what you have been given.” Christ invites us to look to Him, to what He is calling us to individually.

The way is narrow because it is personal, a specific way for each person.  As Pope Benedict said, there are “as many ways as there are people.”  Not that each person invents his or her own way—nothing could be more disastrous!  Rather each person is uniquely called to follow Christ in a particular way, with particular gifts.  The one reason to do anything, great or small, is because He asks us to.

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.