Do Not Be Unbelieving

“Do not be unbelieving but believe”—John 20:27

I remember standing on the deck, enraptured by beauty, as we sailed through the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean to the Amalfi coast.  The temperature was perfect, the views spectacular, and my heart soared with delight.  I don’t know what the mystical experience of ecstasy is like, but this was as close I had ever come on a merely human level, and it may be that that moment was also infused with something of the divine.  “I don’t know how anyone could ever doubt the existence of God!” I remember whispering in awe.

This memory burned within me, when, months later, I was plunged into a terrifying spiritual darkness.  I had always paid lip service to the idea that faith is a gift, but I had not really known what that meant until it disappeared.

I had always believed in God, even when other parts of my spiritual life were in disarray.  Faith itself had always come easily to me, and while studying had bolstered my faith, it was not the foundation for it.  Now, suddenly, the entirety of the faith presented itself as an epic joke.  I was tempted to doubt not merely an individual doctrine or practice, but even the idea that there could be a God, the idea that there could be meaning behind all that I saw.  All of the cruelty of the universe—in human experience, in the violence of nature, and in particular in the weaknesses and scandals among Christians—screamed in mockery at me as I tried to hold on.  The more I tried to reason my way back to belief, back to peace, the more preposterous it all seemed.  My will was the only very fragile thread that kept me believing anything at all.

The darkness was terrifying and profoundly lonely.  More than once I cried in Confession—an act as mortifying to the poor priest as it was to me.  He tried to assure me that God still loved me, while I tried to explain that if there was no God, not only was I unloved but my whole life had been built on an illusion.

The memory of this is still so awful that I mentioned recently to my spiritual director how afraid I am that I could go back there. “Yeah, good thing you got yourself out of that!”  he replied, with no little sarcasm.

Because of course I did not, could not, get myself out of that.

I tried, in particular reaching out for answers to the questions that I could not answer—reading, researching and attending Bible Study with the ever-patient Brother John Mary.  There was one class in particular that I hoped would put an end to a particularly challenging question, and I looked forward to it with all the hope I could muster.  But instead an unavoidable calendar conflict caused me to miss it and so I never got my answers.

Then one day I went to Confession at Catholic Underground.  I had zero expectations but confessed my doubts with an almost hopeless resignation.  “What do you want from me?” the priest asked.  “Just absolution?  Or something else?”  I was surprised by the question, and said simply, “I don’t know.  Yes, absolution.  And if you have anything to say from God, I’d love that of course, but I am not expecting anything.”

He then told me then a story about St. Angela Foligno, a mystic whose periodic experiences of “abandonment” by God would leave her screaming like a crazy person, to the great embarrassment of her brother who was a priest.  Then she would regain her faith, and conclude that while God’s love was faithful, her own was “nothing but games.”  I don’t remember all of the details of the story—it doesn’t actually matter, because it wasn’t the story that was convincing.  Somehow, during the telling, it was as though a match was struck, and I was aware once again of the Light.  I could not see anything new—my faith would return more completely over time, but I was assured only of the reality of this Light.  I was not alone in the dark after all.

I don’t know all of the reasons God allowed this particular season in my life, although I can see some fruits.  Certainly I have more compassion for those who struggle with doubt.  I understand better now that faith is a gift I did not, cannot, earn, and that I should never take for granted.

But I also learned that faith is about more than answers.  It is about the One Who Answers.  In a mysterious way, I am in the hands of God, who is infinitely beyond understanding.

This is the One who appeared to Thomas, aware of his doubts and of the obstacles in him to belief.  He invited Thomas not only to touch the wounds in His hands, but to put himself into them.  “Do not be unbelieving, but believe.”  Saint Thomas, pray for us that we might receive ever more the gift of faith.

*            *            *

“It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery.  God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” —Kallistos Ware (Orthodox church author)

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
—Matthew 16:16–18

Considering the fact that they often disagreed in life, it’s funny that Peter and Paul now share a feast day. However, despite their differing personalities, their stories have much in common. Both Peter and Paul were beacons of the early Church, instrumental in evangelization and leadership. Both gave their lives as martyrs, sowing the seed of the Church. And both underwent radical conversions after personal encounters with Christ.

Peter’s story in the Gospels is one of constantly trying, failing, and persevering. He is somewhat of a hapless apostle, trying to please Jesus but constantly making mistakes in the process. His sincere love for Jesus is fully apparent, alongside his flawed humanity, and through this combination he models for us how to fall upon the great mercy of God. If someone like Peter can not only be forgiven for his denial and betrayal of Jesus but also be named the first pope—well, then there’s hope for all of us, isn’t there?

Roman_School,_circa_1620_Saints_Peter_and_PaulPaul has perhaps the most famous conversion story of all time, the dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus. He too is a prime example of a flawed saint; before Jesus dramatically intervened, Paul was literally murdering Christians. Not a typical path to holiness. But Jesus took even that unlikely path and redirected it toward sainthood. Paul always recognized that it was only through God’s grace that he was able to carry out his good works; he had no illusions of his own inherent goodness.

I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith…
The Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles might hear it.
—2 Timothy 4:6–7, 17

St._Paul_Visiting_St._Peter_in_PrisonPaul poured himself out until he was empty, an open vessel in which Christ could dwell. It was then that God’s grace worked in him most fully, supplying him with a transcendent strength to persevere in his mission. The words Jesus once spoke to Peter apply to Paul, too: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Peter and Paul both found their strength in weakness, by being receptive to divine revelation, allowing God to take control. Peter was particularly changed after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—before that moment, he was cowering in the upper room, but upon receiving those graces, he immediately stepped out in courage.

There is a lesser known story in which Jesus meets Peter out on the road and redirects his path. Instead of the road to Damascus, it is the road from Rome:

A legend has Peter walking along a road outside of Rome, fleeing arrest and certain death, when he comes to a crossroads: where the Appian Way meets the Via Ardeatina.

There he meets our risen Lord.

“Quo vadis?” Peter asks, to which Jesus replies:

“Romam vado iterum crucifigi.” I am going to Rome to be crucified again….

The end of the story, of course, is the end of Peter. He turns around and heads back towards Vatican Hill. This is the last time he would need to be redirected by Jesus.

Brad Miner

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Imagine Peter at that crossroads. It would not be the first time he’d found himself in that position—his abiding love for Jesus pinned against his all-encompassing terror of suffering and death. Here was a second chance to choose faith over fear. Perhaps this time, Peter would recall the words he once spoke to Jesus: “Master, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.”

Just as Peter and Paul persevered despite their flaws and sins and mistakes, may we too find the courage to get up when we fall and keep moving forward. May we recognize that it is far better to stumble along the right road than to speed down the wrong one—for even if the wrong one is smoother and easier, it won’t take us where we need to go, and there is only one Way that leads to everlasting life.


1. Anonymous (Roman school), Saints Peter and Paul / PD-US
2. Filippino Lippi, St. Paul Visits St. Peter in Prison / PD-US
3. Annibale Caracci, Domine, quo vadis? / PD-US

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.