Crossing a Bridge

In his mind a man plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.
—Proverbs 16:9

In today’s first reading, we draw near the end of the story of Joseph the dreamer, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his own brothers. What followed—a life spent in exile, filled with heartache, loneliness, and imprisonment—could not have been further from the dreams his parents had for their beloved son. Still, Joseph surrendered to the will of God, took the adventures that befell him, and eventually guided the entire country through a seven-year famine. As he tearfully told his brothers upon their reunion, “It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5). After years of suffering, the family was healed, countless lives were preserved, and God’s saving power was revealed. What a story!

Much like Joseph, Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, whose feast we celebrate today, totally abandoned themselves to divine providence and freely undertook the adventures God presented to them. Both had deeply desired to enter religious life in their youth, but those desires remained unfulfilled. Louis had been refused entry to the Great Saint Bernard Monastery in the Swiss Alps, and Zélie had been turned away from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Faced with living in the world, each then trained to enter an artistic profession. He became a jeweler and watchmaker, and she became a lacemaker. Yet, they were still filled with grief and an aching desire for holiness—Zélie especially, for her older sister did have a vocation and entered the Visitation Monastery in Le Mans. For a young woman already filled with anguish and who truly viewed life as an exile, the additional separation from her sister was particularly painful.

But, not long after her sister entered religious life, Zélie found a kindred spirit in Louis—a gentle yet energetic man living a quasi-monastic life in the world—while crossing the St. Leonard Bridge in Alençon. They were married three months later at midnight on July 13, 1858, each vowing to be “an angel in each other’s life, radiating the face of Christ to each other and committed to bringing each other closer to God” (Renda, xxiii). When the two visited her sister on their wedding day, Zélie writes, “I cried all my tears, more than I’d ever cried in my life, and more than I would ever cry again. My poor sister didn’t know how to console me… [Louis] understood me and consoled me as best he could because his inclinations were similar to mine. I even think our mutual affection grew through it. Our feelings were always in accord, and he was always a comfort and support to me” (Renda, 288).

Marriage was not a consolation prize for Sts. Louis and Zélie, as they soon learned. It was a true calling, and one meant to be lived out fully. During a time where consecrating your life to God, performing miracles, or dying as a martyr were considered the best ways to achieve holiness, this couple was instead led to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way, a little way. Their fiat was embedded into every aspect of their marriage—they put God first and loved him more than they loved each other or their children, and they loved each other and their children very much indeed. One only needs to look at how they signed their letters when away from each other: “Your wife who loves you more than her own life” and “Your husband and true friend, who loves you for life” (Renda). Their daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, called them “a father and mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.”

Sts. Louis and Zélie lived lives seeped in prayer, the sacraments, and charitable works and raised their children to love God. Their spirituality was characterized by humility, trust, living in the present moment, love, and gratitude. Zélie was a Third Order Franciscan, and Louis had a particular affinity for Eucharistic adoration. They were devoted to Our Lady, received Communion as often as was acceptable at the time, and continuously gave of themselves to each other, their children, their extended family, and their whole community. Zélie was both a brilliant businesswoman and a dynamic mom; Louis was both eager to run to someone’s rescue and dedicate himself to study in his monastic-style cell in the family attic. They adored their children, accepted all the joys and sorrows of family life, and leaned on Christ in all circumstances, knowing they were not perfect people or parents.

Their story of crossing a bridge may seem like nothing but a charming tale, just as their daughter may seem like nothing more than a little flower. But there is much more to their marriage. St. Catherine of Siena describes Christ as a bridge reaching from Heaven to Earth in her Dialogues. For the rest of Louis and Zélie’s marriage, crossing a bridge meant uniting their sufferings to Christ, carrying their crosses, and “enduring to the end.” They had nine children, but four died at a young age, including the sons Zélie hoped to see celebrate Mass as priests. They faced many sicknesses in their family. Zélie valiantly endured an excruciatingly painful death in Louis’s arms at the age of 45 from breast cancer. Louis lost his wife too soon, gave his daughters to Christ one by one as they entered religious life, and quietly suffered from severe physical and mental illnesses before dying at an old age.

Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin are not saints because their daughter Thérèse is a saint and Doctor of the Church. They aren’t even saints because all their children entered religious life, or because they suffered greatly. Sts. Louis and Zélie are saints because they did the will of God, and they did it with all their hearts. They lived lives of astounding holiness and simplicity, offering their sufferings to God with courage, living in the grace of the present moment, and trusting in his love unconditionally. As the first spouses to be canonized as a couple, let us pray for their intercession for the healing of families around the world and for us to let God love us and lead us—even if we are led, one shaking step at a time, to somewhere different than we originally dreamed, like Sts. Louis and Zélie, like Joseph the dreamer, both sent ahead of us to help point the way to Christ, the bridge “walled and roofed with Mercy.” May God’s saving power be revealed through our lives, and may he make us saints and bring us home. Amen.

Reading & Listening Suggestions
Original composition: A Rose From Our Lady
Mongin, The Extraordinary Parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Renda (ed.), A Call to a Deeper Love
Martin, The Father of the Little Flower
Martin, The Mother of the Little Flower

A Rose Wrought from Steel

In strewing my flowers… I will sing, even if my roses must be gathered from among thorns; and the longer and sharper the thorns, the sweeter shall be my song.
—St. Therese of Lisieux

On this day nearly one hundred years ago, St. Therese of Lisieux was canonized by Pope Pius XI. A sheltered girl turned cloistered Carmelite nun, this young woman died when she was only 24 years old. She would later be declared a Doctor of the Church—along with St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Hildegard of Bingen.

Many may think of St. Therese as just the “little flower,” a naive girl perfectly fashioned for children’s stories. However, her spiritual autobiography reveals a soul filled with an intense longing for God, a deep-seated courage, and an absolute trust in him as her loving Father, even in the midst of great suffering. As Pope John Paul I wrote in his Illustrissimi, “[She] called [her book] ‘The story of a spring flower.’ To me the will-power, courage and decisiveness it showed made it seem more like the story of a piece of steel. Once [she] had chosen the path of complete dedication to God, nothing could stop [her]: not illness, nor opposition from outside, nor inner confusion and darkness.” How similar this is to her role model, St. Joan of Arc, who, according to Chesterton, “chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt!”

St. Therese had wild and holy daydreams, feeling “called to be a soldier, priest, apostle, doctor of the church, martyr… to perform all the most heroic deeds for… Jesus.” She felt in her soul “the courage of a crusader, of a soldier for the Church, and [wished] to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church.” Yet, face to face with her limitations, she found that her vocation was to love, for “Love alone makes its members act… if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood.” She understood “that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places… in a word, that it is eternal!” Her dreams were realized by staying “close to the throne of the King and Queen” as a little child, patiently suffering out of love and rejoicing out of love, “letting no little sacrifice pass.”

In today’s Gospel and the following verses, Christ exhorts his apostles to have such trust in him and in the Father, for “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” St. Therese embodied this childlike faith in her “little way” of spiritual dependence on God. She was not childish; she courageously worked hard to overcome her weaknesses and childhood sorrows. She had a deep life of prayer and desire for holiness, choosing to let her imperfect heart rest in and abandon itself to God alone. As St. Pope John Paul II said in a homily at Lisieux, “The Spirit of God enabled her heart to reveal directly… the reality of the Gospel: the fact of having really received “a spirit of adoption as children that makes us cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The ‘Little Way…’ holds a confirmation and renewal of the most fundamental and universal truth. For what truth of the Gospel message is more fundamental and universal than this: that God is our Father and we are his children?”

One of the places from which St. Therese received this spirit of humility, trust, living in the present moment, love, and gratitude was in the home, from her own parents, St. Louis Martin and St. Zelie Martin. She called them “a father and mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.” They showed her the face of the Father through how they faced the unexpected joys and sorrows of life with courage, entrusted their hearts to divine providence, and fiercely loved all who entered their lives. May we strive to act with the same childlike trust, persevere with the same courage, and faithfully love with the same strength, despite our weaknesses, so that others may see the face of the Father in ours and know how deeply loved they are.

St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us!

 

Reading Suggestions
St. Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul
Fr. Jacques Philippe, The Way of Trust and Love
Fr. Jean-Pierre De Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence
Dr. Tom Neal, “The Vocation to Furious Love”

What’s For Dinner?

I used to think that my name, Grace, was a bit of irony from God.  But I have come to realize that it is in fact the best name for me.  Not because I am graceful (ha!), nor because I am full of it, but because it is what we say before food.  Even not-yet-two Zippy knows this.  When they tell her: “Say Hi to Aunt Grace!” she tries to make the sign of the cross, thinking that food must be coming.  And that’s about right.

As a lover of food, I can’t help but find today’s Gospel rather puzzling.  Who, when invited to a royal banquet, would prefer lesser things?  Who would say No to the promise of such a feast?  Who indeed.

The invitation to faith is the invitation to trust in the goodness of God. It is the invitation to reverse the sin of Eden, to reverse the decision to doubt, to reverse the decision to choose lesser but attractive foods.

True faith is trust in the goodness of God, in His Providence for us in all things.  It is also trust in the desires that He Himself gives us.

In C.S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra, a man named Ransom finds himself in a new paradise.  He is in a world of floating islands, filled with trees bearing the most wonderful fruits he has ever tasted.  Every need is provided for in this new Eden, but there is one catch.  Because the islands are floating, constantly changing, it is impossible to “save,” to “keep,” to “hold on to for future use” anything at all.  The Tempter comes, proposing an alternative: A Fixed Land.  The choice is proposed: trust in continued Providence, or choose the safety of control.

It is easy to know the right choice, turning pages from the comfort of an easy chair, with my cup of coffee and a chocolate chip muffin still warm in my belly.

But when the hunger sets in—and I have nothing saved for myself—do I still trust?

What if the hunger is itself food, itself a gift?

In the song Blessings Laura Story wonders if our sufferings—the “rain, the storms, the hardest nights” are in fact blessings in disguise.  But then she goes a step further:

…All the while, You hear each spoken need

Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

…What if my greatest disappointments

Or the aching of this life

Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?

We all know that sometimes things that seem to be evil can turn out to be good.  But what if the longing for good, the thirst for God, is itself a good to be sought?  What if hunger is a gift?

C.S. Lewis argues that desire for heaven is one of the proofs for the existence of God.  He notes that all desires have a corresponding means of fulfillment on this earth, all but one—our desire for eternity.  “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world” he concludes.

St. Augustine is known for saying “our hearts are restless oh Lord, until they rest in thee.”  He wrote extensively on the longing for God—and held that the longing itself increased the soul’s capacity for God.

“The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive the gift, which is very great indeed…The more fervent the desire, the more worthy will be its fruits. When the Apostle tells us: Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16), he means this: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of Him alone who is able to give it.”

Saint Thérèse  of Lisieux lived total confidence in God, was confident that He would make her a saint, in spite of her littleness.  She believed that her desire for God was itself a pledge, that He would not give her very great desires if He did not mean to fill them: “I am certain, then, that You will grant my desires; I know O my God! That the more You want to give, the more You make us desire.”

Indeed, many saints have written that as they have ascended the heights of holiness, plumbed the depths of prayer, that their desire for God, rather than being satiated, was only increased.

May we be fed today with renewed hunger for God.  See you at the feast!

Banquet_in_the_House_of_Levi_by_Paolo_Veronese_-_Accademia_-_Venice_2016_(2)

Photo attribution: Banquet in the House of Levi © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro 

When Mercy Is A Bad Word

Last year my ten-year-old niece Lucy came to stay with us for a week.  At the end, she announced to her mother: “Aunt Grace taught me two new bad words!”

“Oh?” queried her mother.  “What are they?”

“‘Crap!’ and ‘Mercy!’” she replied.

“Mercy is not a bad word!” exclaimed her mother.

“Well,” retorted Lucy, “Have you heard how she uses it?”

In Lucy’s honor, I am writing today about other abuses of the term mercy.

*            *            *

When my mother was diagnosed with a mystery illness and I had to walk away from my life as I knew it, I had to give up a lot in a very short time.  By far the hardest were my ideas about my own virtue.

I had always fantasized that I would respond to any call to sacrifice with heroism and grace.  But the reality was less pretty.  The first few weeks showed that, far from being the poster person for patience and trust, I was lucky to not find myself on a Wanted poster.  Let’s just say that word that sprang most easily to my mind and lips most mornings was not “Fiat!”

There is a starter mercy in being stripped of our illusions, and in seeing our sins and shortcomings for what they really are.  In today’s First Reading, the Israelites are healed when they look on the image of the bronze serpent, the symbol of their sin.  They have to look at it, but also beyond it, to God’s healing power and mercy.

It would be false mercy to downplay or deny sin, to pretend that these venomous serpents are harmless or cute or that they can be kept around safely as pets.  If we keep and feed even the little sin-serpents, they will become bigger.  There is another (extended) family story about a pet boa constrictor that escaped his bedroom cage.  Neighborhood pets started disappearing, and when they finally found him he was over six feet long…

Like the bronze serpent, the Cross shows us that sin is real and has real effects.  But it also shows us that Love is more real, and its power is greater than sin.  It is Jesus that saves, love that perfects—not self-mastery or heroic effort on our part.  We are not to make an idol of our sins, but nor are we to make idols of our virtue.

The Son of Man will be “lifted up” to reveal a Love that would literally rather die than live without us.  Love is not an abstraction, nor is it an action item.  Love is a Person.  Jesus did not come to give us techniques to better either ourselves or even the world around us, He came to give us Himself.  “I AM the way, the truth, the life”: “Come to ME—I will give you rest”; “I AM the gate/the Good Shepherd/the door/the Bread of Life.”  It is intimacy with Jesus that is the center of the Christian life.

Mercy is not merely the cancelling of a debt, the adjustment of the scales of justice or a “reward” ticket into an eternal amusement park.  Rather, mercy is receiving the gift of God Himself, who pours His life and His love into us, restoring our capacity to become like Him.

Naturally, when we receive the love of Christ it will flow from us to love of others.  Works that are divorced from this love, however, have no value whatsoever.   Imagine a man who set about to be the perfect husband—who fulfilled all of his duties meticulously, but who had no actual love or tenderness for his wife.  We would find this off-putting, not inspiring.  If I serve others (or ostensibly Christ) only to perfect virtue, to be some sort of moral hero, it is only my ego that is being served.

Madeleine Debrel writes that the Christian must not only “accept the fact that he will not seem like a hero but that he will not be one.”

All of the saints, without exception, reach a moment—a turning point perhaps—in which they must accept and embrace their own nakedness, their spiritual poverty, the realization that without Christ they can do nothing and in fact would be nothing.  We can have a hard time appreciating the centrality of this poverty and the awareness thereof, since we usually see the saints doing quite a bit—more than us in fact!

Saint Therese of Lisieux, whose central message was a radical trust in the mercy of God, addressed this question.  She had been writing to her sister about trust in God’s mercy, her confidence in God’s love despite her littleness.  Her sister questioned her on this, knowing well that Therese in fact was a “big” saint.   But Therese insisted adamantly that it was not her virtues but only her trust that made her so.  Virtues can in fact “render one unjust” if we rely on them to reach God. “Even if I had on my conscience every imaginable crime, I should lose nothing of my confidence; rather I would hurry, with a heart broken with sorrow, to throw myself into the Arms of my Jesus.”

Suggested action: Look at a crucifix, and see in it what sin does, and what His love does.

 

 

Quotes:

St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “When we look at ourselves, we are saddened by our failings; when we look at God, we rejoice in His love.”

“One of the capital truths of Christianity, almost unknown to anyone today, is that the look is what saves…when we sense ourselves incapable of the elevation of the soul fitting to sacred things, it is then that the look toward perfect purity is most effective… There are those people who try to elevate their souls like someone who continually jumps from a standing position in the hope that forcing oneself to jump all day—and higher every day—they would no longer fall back down, but rise to heaven.  We cannot take even one step toward heaven.  The vertical direction is forbidden to us.  But if we look to heaven long-term, God descends and lifts us up.”  –Simone Weil (quoted in Magnificat)

Saint Therese again: “We should like to suffer generously and nobly; we should like never to fall.  What an illusion!  What does it matter to me if I fall at every moment!  In that way I realise my weakness, and I gain thereby.  My God, Thou seest how little I am good for, then Thou dost carry me in Thy Arms…”