Casting Nets with Jesus

Implementing change in the workplace can take a long time. I work in the construction industry, and contractors are tough people. They all seem to know everything, and their way is the best way, the right way, because it’s always been done that way. However, things change. Industry standards, safety measures, construction codes—these things change.

In today’s Gospel, Simon is at the shoreline cleaning off his nets; it had been a long night and he hadn’t caught any fish. Along comes Jesus, who gets into Simon’s boat and teaches from the water to the people on the shore. After he is done teaching, Jesus instructs Simon to lower his nets into the water, and behold, the nets are full of fishes.

Simon is a fisherman—he owns his fishing boat, owns his nets, he fishes for a living, it’s his profession. Simon is a professional fisherman. When Simon goes out to fish he isn’t doing a lazy, recreational activity. He is doing hard labor: lifting heavy nets, moving bait around, dealing with waves, being dirty and smelly. A fisherman by trade knows that there is a right way to fish and a wrong way to fish. A fisherman by trade knows that certain fish bait at certain times of the day—given the climate in Israel, hot and dry, the higher temperature of the water would force the fishes to dive deep below to be at a cooler temperature. At night, the water temperature would cool off and fishes would swim upwards, closer to the surface. Simon, a professional fisherman, knew all of this and thus went fishing at night. But even with all his knowledge and tactics, he didn’t catch any fish. Imagine Simon’s first reaction when he hears Jesus tell him to cast his nets into the water. I imagine his initial reaction to be a little bit of annoyance that a carpenter is telling a fisherman how to fish and to cast nets in the middle of the day. You hear a little bit of Simon’s hesitation when he says, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing…”

How many times have you doubted that God would provide for you? How many times did you not listen to what Jesus had to say to you? Too often I’ve been like Simon at the beginning of the Gospel, doubting. I have even questioned God: “Really? Is this really how it’s supposed to be? Are you sure this is what you want me to do?”

Notice that the beginning of the Gospel begins with the people listening to the word of God. When we listen and are obedient to God’s word, we change. This change allows us to fully accept God’s grace. Simon changed when, in his obedience, he casted his nets into the deep waters: “but at your command I will lower the nets.” In that instance Simon became Simon Peter. This internal change in Simon Peter allowed him to see that Jesus was not only Master but Lord.

We need to let go of any hesitations. Let go of all doubt. Or at times we need to let go of the pride. Sitting at meetings with the subcontractors on my job always leaves me baffled. How can we finish a building without the plumber or without the electrician? We simply cannot; we need all the skilled workers. Likewise we cannot build our own homes without the foundation of Jesus Christ.

No matter what we do in our lives, what we are skilled at, how many times we have done something and succeeded or done something and failed—let’s give that up to Jesus. Let us always remain humble and listen to each other and listen to what God has to tell us. In our society we take our jobs and our volunteer positions as finite. Let us remember that we’re good at what we do because God deemed it that we’d be good at it. And our work needs to be fruitful in such a way that it glorifies God. Sometimes, we aren’t so good and we fail. That is all right. In this failure we are reminded to trust in God. When Simon couldn’t catch any fish, Jesus entered his boat and Simon Peter caught an overwhelming abundance of fish.

Allow Jesus to enter your own boat—make yourself open so he can walk into your life, and cast nets wherever he tells you to cast them.

Image Credit: The Miraculous Draught of Fishes by James Tissot [Public Domain]

Preparing for Our Bridegroom, Jesus Christ!

A wedding is always something to get excited about: the decorations, the colors, the splendor of the Church, the bride’s dress, the groom’s smile watching her walk down the aisle. So much thought and dedication goes into planning a wedding. I have been a bridesmaid quite a few times and the excitement in seeing my friends get married is always the same, an abundance of joy, blessings and love.

In the time of Jesus, first-century Palestine, a couple was betrothed (legally married) for a period of about a year, and during this time the bride still lived at home with her family. After this period of betrothal the wedding feast would begin at sundown, when the bridegroom would go to pick up the bride from her family’s home and take her to their new home. Customarily, family and friends would come out of their homes and congratulate the newlywed couple as they passed by on the streets. Many would follow the couple in a procession of celebration through the streets to their new home and partake in the wedding feast together. This procession was guided by maiden torchbearers (bridesmaids!) as the crowd danced and sang around the newlyweds. Imagine it being the pitch darkness of nighttime, in first-century Palestine, and the one thing that guides you is this glowing light towards a feast.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us a parable about the ten virgins: five wise virgins with oil and five foolish virgins without oil, all of whom were waiting for the bridegroom to come to pick up his bride so they could celebrate and light the way in their procession. For some unknown reason the bridegroom was delayed and all ten virgins fell asleep waiting for him. When he unexpectedly came, the five foolish virgins realized that their flame was low and they would not be able to keep it lit as they did not prepare and pack oil. So they left to go buy some. In the meantime, the bridegroom arrived and the five wise virgins, who packed oil, were fine in relighting their lamps and joining the procession following the bridegroom to the wedding feast. By the time the foolish virgins came back with oil and made their way to the bridegroom’s home, the door was locked and they were not a part of the wedding feast.

That one line in scripture, “then the door was locked” (Matthew 25:10), really pangs at my heart. There is a clear distinction here on who enters the kingdom and who does not. As much as we focus on details and get ready for our friend’s earthly wedding, we must make all the effort to prepare for our own true wedding with Jesus Christ. Be prepared. Bring oil. What does this oil represent? It represents us living the faith, being true to our baptismal promises, celebrating and practicing the sacraments, praying, loving one another, doing good works of mercy. We are all in a state of waiting for our bridegroom to arrive; as Christians we have been waiting for over 2,000 years for the second coming of Jesus Christ. But we don’t know the exact day nor the hour when Jesus Christ will come again. So make sure you pack your oil. All ten virgins had intentions of going to the wedding feast and all ten virgins were waiting for the bridegroom, but only five virgins had oil, and so only five virgins were ready to follow him into the wedding feast.

In the first reading, St. Paul tells us that we should conduct ourselves in a manner that is pleasing to God. And the instructions on how to live a holy life were given through our Lord Jesus. Before Jesus had told us this parable of the ten virgins, he taught us on the Sermon on the Mount. He told us to be the light of the world; our light must shine before others in such a way that they see our good deeds and glorify our Heavenly Father. In order to be this light and remain a burning flame, we must have a flask of oil and continue in a course of action, even in the face of difficulties, to commit to doing good works willed by the Father.

“This is the will of God, your holiness”

For God did not call us to impurity but to holiness.” Through God’s grace we are given every opportunity to continue in good works and so I pray that each of us are overjoyed, excited and well prepared for our own bridegroom, Jesus Christ, and our own nuptials in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Image Credit: 10 Virgins Icon [Public Domain]

Rooted in Love

The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher.
You are right in saying,
He is One and there is no other than he.
And to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding, 
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself

is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,
he said to him,
“You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

—Mark 12:32–34

If we truly love God with all our heart, all our understanding, and all our strength, then our natural response will be to keep His commandments—not out of a sense of guilt or mere obligation, not out of a desire to prove our worth to Him, but joyfully in love. When a person is in love, it affects their every thought and every action; when our hearts are infused with the love of God, that love will overflow into every aspect of our lives, and we will naturally desire to keep His commandments.

God commands us to love Him. By that very command, He makes it possible. He gives us the grace to love Him with a sacrificial love that echoes Jesus’s love for us on the Cross. He awakens us to recognize Him in every soul we meet. It is nearly impossible to love your neighbor as yourself if you are not already receiving God’s love, but when we have that awareness of the beauty of each soul, we can deeply and sincerely love people even when they are difficult to love.

The spiritual life is rooted in relationship; everything else flows from that. And a healthy relationship with God produces the fruit of trust in Him, from which flows obedience to His law. We must never fall into the mindset of viewing our relationship with God as transactional, consisting of a series of offerings we must make to atone for our wrongdoings or requests that we ask God to grant. God is not interested in a transactional relationship with us; He desires something much more meaningful—a close, loving, intimate relationship that wholly captivates our hearts.

Thus says the LORD:
Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God;
you have collapsed through your guilt.
Take with you words,
and return to the LORD;
Say to him, “Forgive all iniquity,
and receive what is good, that we may render
as offerings the bullocks from our stalls.
Assyria will not save us,
nor shall we have horses to mount;
We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’
to the work of our hands;
for in you the orphan finds compassion.”

I will heal their defection, says the LORD,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.

—Hosea 14:2–5

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.