Redemption in the Present Moment

Notice the contrast between today’s first reading and Gospel reading. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that if a man is outwardly righteous and makes offerings before the altar of God, yet harbors anger within, then he will be “liable to fiery Gehenna.” Meanwhile, the reading from Ezekiel tells us that if a wicked man turns away from all his sins, “he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him.” Interesting, that per Matthew our good deeds do not excuse us from our present selfishness and hatred, while per Ezekiel our past sins do not block any hope of our redemption. What matters, then, is not the track record of good deeds we can present before God but the state of our heart in the present moment.

What are the intentions behind our good deeds? Are we trying to prove our worth, to God or to others? Or does our service stem from a genuine love of God? If our good actions are merely done for show, then they are meaningless. There aren’t any shortcuts to holiness—no matter how well we “follow the rules,” we can’t become saints if we aren’t also willing to do the hard work of forgiving our neighbors and striving to see each person as a beloved child of God.

But the good news, too, is that no matter how misguided our “good deeds” have been in the past, we are never, ever too far gone to hope for heaven. There is always hope for us to turn away from selfish thinking and lukewarm faith. We cannot allow our regrets for past sins to consume us, nor our worries for the future: what matters is the present moment. Will we open our hearts to God here and now? Will we let go of our attachments to sin and instead be motivated by love? Will we address the causes of our anger and seek healing instead of bottling it up within ourselves? If we do, if we tend to the state of our heart and continually choose God in the present moment, we will surely live, we shall not die.

Toward the Light

He said,
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
—Mark 4:30–32

IMG_1982I have two plants sitting on my windowsill that have been there for two years now, and quite honestly, I’m very surprised that they’re still alive. It’s safe to say that I do not possess a green thumb, and my apartment doesn’t get a lot of sunlight. But somehow these plants have persevered—sometimes looking a little worse for the wear, yet thus far still surviving my neglect and horticultural ineptitude.

It amazes me how tall these plants can climb, upward toward the sunlight. To think that they started as just a tiny seed—a seed that contained within itself the capacity to grow and flourish—is incredible. They’ve even survived being repotted after outgrowing their containers. Their growth is not really any credit to me, as I’ve done less than the bare minimum to keep them alive. It is more a testament to the design of God, who has created beautiful things to flourish even amid adverse conditions.

In Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed, we hear how God brings tremendous growth out of tiny beginnings. We, too, are small; and yet we are created completely whole. Within each soul is the capacity for greatness. All it needs is to be nurtured by water and light, to be broken open so that roots may stretch out from its core and new buds may blossom outward into the day. We are created as tiny seeds, but we are not meant to stay that way. We are meant to climb toward sainthood.

But growth happens slowly. We must learn to be patient with ourselves and with others; our transformation will not happen overnight. We must place our trust in the Master Gardener and let Him do His work. Sometimes it may seem like we won’t survive in new soil, but really we only need to extend new roots. If we have patience through the spiritual dry spells and cold fronts (and even, perhaps, a polar vortex), God will guide us to adapt and grow through every circumstance. All we have to do is keep craning our heads upward toward the light.

“Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.”
—Pope Benedict XVI

Saints I Don’t Like

One evening in August I heard a piercing scream from the living room.  I quickly ran to find my mother shrieking and pointing at a large black shadow that dove about the room at extreme velocity.  “There’s a bat in here!”

I found myself paralyzed with fear.  “God—you’ve got to help me!!!”

The bat continued to dive about.  Later, after I had recounted this story to a friend, she sent this video [language warning] of a family who attempted to get rid of a bat in their dining room.  In the video, the bat fluttered about creepily, but did not dive.  Our bat, in contrast, behaved like a kamikaze.  “That’s because it’s a young bat, not an old bat,” my mother explained.  “It is stupid and scared…”

It was not as scared as I was though.  When God did not answer my prayer, I brought in the big guns: “PADRE PIO YOU HAVE TO HELP ME!  You have to get rid of this for me.  I cannot kill it.  I cannot.  There has to be another way!”

The bat flew upstairs, and into the guest room, where I quickly slammed the door and continued to plead with Padre Pio.

Suddenly, I remembered that this was the one room in the house with a door to the outside.  It is one that is never used, but which opens out to a little porch.  I moved quickly over to the door and opened it, praying for the bat to fly out before others could fly in.  Meanwhile my mother, who had followed me upstairs, shut the door leaving me trapped with the bat.

I endured an eternity of terror—at least five minute’s worth—while the bat dove at my head, then back up and around the room, then at my head again.  I cringed in the corner until finally, it flew out into the night.

“Thank you Padre Pio!” I exclaimed, my relief mingled with surprise that in fact, he came through for me—again.

*            *            *

You would think, hearing this, that I must be a great fan of Padre Pio.  I am not.

Padre Pio has worked many miracles for me, but I can’t bring myself to like him. I’ve wanted to like him—felt that I ought to—but I cannot.   He seems too austere for my taste; too cranky; too intricately linked with suffering.

I know that had I met him in real life, I probably would have really liked him.  We might even have become great friends.  I know that someday, soon perhaps, we will in fact be great friends.  I know this because it’s happened to me before.

People who’ve seen me wearing my St. Thérèse necklace will doubtless be surprised to hear that I used to dislike her too.  The saint whom I now credit with my spirituality used to be one I avoided at all costs.

Lots of people love Thérèse.  Scores of friends have asked for and received roses from her on a regular basis.  I knew I ought to love her too, but when I first read her story, I wanted to punch her.  (True story). She seemed way too saccharine, too spoiled (first by her family, then by God), and it was impossible to take her protestations of littleness seriously.  Yet she claimed to be “little” and to be in need of Jesus’ carrying her to become a saint.  Please.

I’ve written elsewhere and at length about learning to receive God’s love and depend on God’s mercy, a lesson that I’ve come to appreciate precisely from St. Thérèse.

*            *            *

Last Friday, I was reading a reflection from St. Isaac Jogues.  I’ve never disliked Isaac—he was in fact rather useful in teaching fifth grade boys, who relished the graphic details of his torture and martyrdom.  But personally I found him a bit too gory.

“It is only my cowardice and bodily weakness which form powerful obstacles to the designs God has for me and for this country” he began, and I immediately wanted to roll my eyes.

This was the guy Erin wrote about last week—the guy who had his fingers chewed off, among other tortures—but who then WENT BACK VOLUNTARILY to minister to those same people.   That he should call himself a weak coward reeked of absurdity and untruth.

“But what if it’s true?” a voice spoke within me, seemingly out of nowhere.  “What if he really was that weak?  What if he really was a coward?”

As often happens when I hear this Voice, I was deeply challenged and more than a little afraid.  What if…?

It is much safer, I realized, to believe that saints are super-human, to believe that they are made of different material than I.

But what if they’re not?

What if they are in fact, made of the same stuff I am?  The same weakness.  The same fears.  The same sluggishness of heart.

But what if the mustard seed is allowed to grow, the leaven received in order to transform?  What if God’s life really does have the power to change us?  To make us into more than we might dream?

When I was a child, I loved the butterfly.  I marveled that something as ugly and crawling as the caterpillar could become something so beautiful and free.

If the caterpillar were a thinking creature, would it know what lay in store?  Would it hear whispers from the butterflies of what they used to be, of their former lowliness, and doubt?  Could it even imagine, a creature of earth with so many legs that moved so slowly, could it even imagine what it would feel like to fly?  When it was finally ensconced in its cocoon, did it feel as though it were buried, trapped, that things were finally over?

I don’t know if a caterpillar can imagine flying.  But it will be transformed into something that can.

Of course, in humans this transformation is not inevitable, nor can it be achieved by effort alone.  It requires cooperation with grace.  We must allow God to plant and cultivate the mustard seed.  We must allow Him to incorporate the leaven into our very being.

But what then, if His words are true?

Jesus’s first miracle was the transformation of water into wine; His last was the transformation of wine into His blood.  But His most remarkable is the transformation of us into Himself.

Lord I believe; help my unbelief.


Quotes:

St. Isaac Jogues, just before he died:

“I do not fear death or torture. I do not know why you would kill me. I come here to confirm the peace and show you the way to heaven.”

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

“Christ says ‘Give Me all.  I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work.  I want You… Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit.  I will give you a new self instead.  In fact, I will give you Myself; my own will shall become yours’…  The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for.  Nothing less.  He meant what He said.”

St. John Paul II:

“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.”

**Disclaimer:  Alert readers will notice that I’ve actually posted about next week’s Gospel, not the one for today!  A big mea culpa–I didn’t realize my mistake until too late!

 

Butterfly

Image from Wikimedia Commons

© <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Ram-Man”>Derek Ramsey</a> / <a href=”https://derekramsey.com”>derekramsey.com</a&gt; / Used with permission

 

 

Fruit of the Vine

As Jesus passed by,
he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him.
While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
He heard this and said,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

—Matthew 9:9–13

In the Confirmation class I taught, we covered the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit. During a review game, my class of seventh-grade boys was split into teams, and one team was asked to name a few Fruits of the Holy Spirit. After a few blank stares where it became clear they had no recollection whatsoever of our lesson discussing these Fruits, one smart-alecky student replied, “Apples, oranges, blueberries…” His partner soon chimed in with “Strawberries, mangoes, bananas…” I rolled my eyes and asked if they had a real answer. When the first student said no, I started listing off the actual Fruits of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience…—only to be interrupted by the second student. “Wait a minute,” he said, “those aren’t fruits!”

So, in case you were not aware: no, the Fruits of the Holy Spirit are not literal fruits. The Holy Spirit does not, to my knowledge, operate a juice bar. But why is it that we refer to them as Fruits in the first place? In today’s first reading, St. Paul’s description of our relationship with the Holy Spirit gives us more insight into the metaphors of Fruits and Gifts.

I, a prisoner for the Lord,
urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another through love,
striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit
through the bond of peace…
But grace was given to each of us
according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

And he gave some as Apostles, others as prophets,
others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers,
to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry,
for building up the Body of Christ.

—Ephesians 4:1–3, 7, 11–12

Paul tells us that as Christians, we are all called by God to live uprightly, actively cooperating with the Spirit and developing virtue. But he also speaks of graces that were given to us freely, without merit on our part; these graces vary based on the needs of the Body of Christ. In order to develop the virtues he describes, we must receive these graces with open arms and allow them to take root within us.

If Christ is the vine and we are the branches, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are the nutrients that flow into us through Christ, giving us life and enabling us to grow. If we are connected to this nourishing Spirit, it will naturally follow that we will bear fruit. The Fruits of the Holy Spirit are evidence that God is working within us; they are the external virtues that flourish when we cooperate with God’s grace.

If we are truly living in the Spirit, the Fruits will manifest themselves in our lives. Unlike the Pharisees, who followed the law and yet lived in ways that were critical, impatient, harsh, and self-serving, we can become truly gentle, peaceful, and loving by softening our hearts and being open to receiving God’s grace. Just as He did with St. Matthew, He calls to us and asks us to follow Him; He seeks to heal us from our infirmities and pour His grace into us, that we might be grafted back onto the Vine and bear fruit. May we allow Him to reconnect us to the Source of all grace, that our souls might bloom ever stronger.

Appointment With God

Jesus departed to the mountain to pray,
and He spent the night in prayer to God.
–Luke 6:12

There is nobody on this planet that would accuse me of being a neat freak.  And yet, when I sit down for prayer time, my desire for tidiness goes suddenly and inexplicably into overdrive.

I notice the picture that is hanging ever so slightly unevenly, begging to be straightened before I start.  I notice the pile of papers on my desk, and have an immediate urge to address or file them.  I see the basket of laundry and remember that I must apply stain remover to that one shirt, and if I don’t do it right now surely it will be ruined forever.  The books on my shelf are crooked, acquiring dust, need to be read, need to be given away—that would be a good one for Susie—maybe before I begin to pray I should call her?  Maybe I should make my bed.  Maybe I should get in my bed, because did I really get enough sleep last night?

And when all else fails, as I begin to pray while looking out at the morning sky, I will see a small shadow moving across the window, as yet another stink bug compels extermination…

Anyone that has ever tried to put a toddler to bed will recognize these for what they are: diversion tactics.  Whether natural or preternatural, resistance to these and any other delays is the first step to prayer.

The truth is, the Opposition will use any strategy that works to get us not to pray, or to delay prayer until a “later” that he knows may never come.  It is imperative to resist these temptations, but to do so we must recognize them as such.

*You don’t have time to pray!  You are too busy.  It’s not like you’re a cloistered nun—you have a life.  Don’t worry, God understands.  Your work is your prayer…

*Daily prayer is not realistic.  God asks too much of you.  You ask too much of yourself…

*Yeah, you should pray of course, but better to get to Confession first.  You’re not in a good place to meet God at the moment, are you?

*You aren’t very good at prayer.  When’s the last time you heard God talking to you?  You’re not like those other people who talk to God like they know Him or something…

*You don’t know how to pray.  Why waste your time on something that you won’t get anything much out of?

*You can pray later, when you’re not so busy or distracted; when you don’t have so much on your plate…

*How do you know God is listening to you? Is He even there? If He is real, why doesn’t He do X?  Why does He allow Y?  How can you talk with somebody you don’t know for sure is even there?

In today’s Gospel Jesus calls the twelve apostles and heals the crowds, but only after spending the night in prayer.   What did that night look like?   How did the Son of God converse with the Father?  We can only wonder—and marvel that such questions can even be asked of God made Man.

We only know that even Jesus needed prayer, that all of His actions flowed from this union with His Father lived out in prayer.

Reading this gospel, I was reminded of Father Michael Scanlan T.O.R., the former president of my alma mater.   After his passing in January 2017, alumni were invited to offer tributes and share memories related to his legacy in their lives.  At first I thought I had little to say.  While I am no doubt indebted to him for my college experience which set a trajectory for my life, my personal encounters with him were few and not the sort that great stories are made of.

Yet much is made in Christian life of the notion of planting seeds—how often that is what we as educators are called to, even when we do not see for years any visible signs of growth or fruit.   I think of myself often as a seed planter (at least on days when I am feeling optimistic) but I forget at times of how much I am the recipient of the seeds of other sowers.  One such sower was Fr. Mike, and the particular seed was his book Appointment with God.

The funny thing is, I am not sure if I ever actually read the book.  My memory is rather foggy on that point.  But the idea of a daily appointment with God, a designated prayer time, was spoken of frequently at FUS and modeled for me by many of my fellow students.  His idea was simple—a guarded time set aside each day, put onto the calendar and thereby not to be moved, to meet with God in conversation, ideally before the rest of the day and its concerns came rushing in to fill the time.

I loved the idea of it from the beginning.  But faithful practice of it was decades away, as I made what I realize in retrospect were flimsy excuses.

Years later, as I started to become more faithful to times of prayer, I began to experience God’s love in new ways.  Sometimes I had experiences of His presence during prayer; more often I began to recognize His presence outside of prayer.  Flashes of understanding.  Conversations that confirmed something I thought God was saying.  Snatches of song in the grocery store with their secular lyrics—that were not only poignant echoes of God’s love, but even prophetic at times.  The more I made time for God to speak to me during prayer, the more I heard His voice in unexpected places.

The Oil of Charity

We must not think that our love has to be extraordinary. But we do need to love without getting tired. How does a lamp burn? Through the continuous input of small drops of oil. These drops are the small things of daily life: faithfulness, small words of kindness, a thought for others, our way of being quiet, of looking, of speaking, and of acting. They are the true drops of love that keep our lives and relationships burning like a living flame.
—St. Teresa of Calcutta

In today’s Gospel, Jesus recounts the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. I’ve written before on what this passage teaches us about waiting, but today I noticed another aspect of the story. It seems at first that the wise virgins, those who were well prepared with oil, act selfishly in refusing to share their oil with the others. But actually, this speaks to the symbolism of what the oil represents. St. Augustine, preaching on this passage, reflected that the oil represents our charity and good works:

I will tell you why charity seems to be signified by the oil. The Apostle says, “I show unto you a way above the rest.” Though I speak with the tongues of men and of Angels, and have not charity, I have become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. This, that is “charity,” is “that way above the rest,” which is with good reason signified by the oil. For oil swims above all liquids. Pour in water, and pour in oil upon it, the oil will swim above. Pour in oil, pour in water upon it, the oil will swim above. If you keep the usual order, it will be uppermost; if you change the order, it will be uppermost. “Charity never falls.”

There is the oil, the precious oil; this oil is of the gift of God. Men can put oil into their vessels, but they cannot create the olive. See, I have oil; but did you create the oil? It is of the gift of God. You have oil. Carry it with you….

For he who walks to gain the testimony of another, does not carry oil with him. If you abstain from things unlawful, and do good works to be praised of men; there is no oil within. And so when men begin to leave off their praises, the lamps fail. Observe then, Beloved, before those virgins slept, it is not said that their lamps were extinguished. The lamps of the wise virgins burned with an inward oil, with the assurance of a good conscience, with an inner glory, with an inmost charity.

—St. Augustine, “Sermon 43 on the New Testament”

The oil, symbolizing the charity in our hearts, cannot be transferred from one to another, just as our own good works cannot be distributed out to other souls at the time of judgment. The oil of charity is a gift from God; it cannot be manufactured. The graces that come from a life spent in service to others, in prayer, and in righteousness cannot simply be handed over to another. No one can borrow the good works of others to make up for the good works they’ve failed to do. A holy person might draw others toward Christ and inspire them to follow God by sharing their story, but they can’t transfer some of their own holiness to “even the scales.” True holiness can only be achieved through a personal encounter with God, not by proxy.

Why did the foolish virgins neglect to bring enough oil? Perhaps they were focused more on the feast—where surely there would be abundant light—than on meeting the bridegroom. If they had been joyfully anticipating that encounter more than the party afterward, then maybe they would have remembered to ensure they brought enough oil to be able to see him clearly when he arrived.

As we wait in expectant hope for the bridegroom’s arrival, may we remember to oil our hearts with acts of faith, hope, and charity, feeding the flame of God’s grace within us.

Like Children

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,
you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven….
…If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?…
…In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.” Matt 18:1-5,10,12-14

Our peaceful Pentecost prayers were interrupted by the wail of an emergency siren.  It was emanating from my 18-month-old niece Zippy, who was making a compelling case that evolutionary descent was not from apes but from banshees.  “Owwwww” she wailed, convincing the entire congregation to look our way, expecting blood.  But it was just an abbreviation for “out” by which she meant “out of the pew”, “outside” and also “now.”

So I extracted her writhing figure and brought her outside to the statue of Joseph holding Jesus, where she was once again happy.  “Ball!” she said, noting the sphere in the hands of baby Jesus.  “Ball!” she said louder.  “That’s the world, Zippy, not a ball,” I explained, but she still thought that Jesus ought to hand it over to her.  I realized she had a good share of my DNA blended in with the banshee.

Several years ago I read a book about Saint John Paul the Great which deeply inspired me to want to be a saint.  “I am ready to get serious about my faith” I told God.  The images that came to me in prayer, however, were not of great sacrifices or even good deeds, but rather of a nursing infant.

“What does this mean?” I asked, and then followed another image, of myself as toddler, sitting on Jesus’ lap at the Last Supper.  I looked around with great delight.  “I am ready to sit with the big kids!” toddler-me told Jesus.  “I want to be one of the apostles.”  Then I thought for a moment, and toddler-me replied, “Actually Jesus, I want to be you.  I want to be in charge!”  Jesus only smiled, and I saw once again the nursing infant.

There was a time when serious-adult-me would have rebuked this little toddler, but now I only laugh, because I know that Jesus delights in her, in her big dreams and small stature.  Certainly a humility check is in order (and still in progress) but there is something in her honesty, in her way of relating to Jesus, her confidence in His love for her no-matter-what, that adult-me can learn from.

After Mass, we take Zippy to Red Robin for dinner, and order her mini meatballs from the kid’s menu.  Because I am an amateur, not a parent, I hand her the tomato sauce for dipping.  Moments later, I am sitting next to a pint-sized serial killer, covered head to toe in red.  Because I am an aunt, not a parent, I snap pictures in lieu of cleaning her up.

I hand her a cup of juice, which she sips daintily, careful not to spill any.  When she is finished, she indicates so by pouring the remaining juice directly into her lap.  She looks up, smiles, and reaches out her arms to be picked up.  She is confident that my love is greater than my aversion to sauce and stickiness.

I bring her outside to fend off impending sirens, and she hears some music from a nearby restaurant, and begins to dance.  She has not yet learned to judge herself on the reactions of others, the number of Facebook likes, or even her skill at dancing, which is only a slight improvement over her table manners.

I am reminded of teaching my four-year old class the story of The Found Sheep. For this one, Jesus leaves the ninety-nine to search diligently, until He finds it and carries it home jubilantly on His shoulders. At first I worried in the back of my mind that children in their sensitivity might worry about the ninety-nine—those poor sheep left behind while Jesus goes looking for the one.  But the child sees what adults do not: to Jesus, there is no ninety-nine.  There is only the one.

Children know the secret to holiness is simple.  Love. Dependence. Trust. Confidence in the goodness of God, in His care for us, in His willingness to love us even when we are messy or awkward or do things badly or even completely wrong.

The key to holiness is not the greatness of our deeds but the greatness of God’s love.  Prayer is not one of the good works performed by the holy, but rather the food which makes any other work possible.

A few months later I am standing at the seashore with little Zippy, the waves which wash pleasantly over my ankles are strong enough to push her off balance.  But unafraid, she reaches up her arms to be picked up.  Safe and comfortable in my arms, she points to the deep, trusting that she can go anywhere as long as she is held.

May we like little children be confident always in the Father’s love for us, trusting in His goodness and protection to feed us, to lead us, to carry us home.