A Posture of Humility

This week, I helped facilitate the confession line for a group of middle schoolers. Many were nervous; several had not gone to confession in years. I tried to help settle their nerves and calm their fears before going in, assuring them of God’s great mercy and that there was nothing to be scared about. A few children inspired me with their eagerness to enter the confessional—one who hadn’t been in six years, as well as one who had just gone last week. They didn’t allow any apprehensions to hold them back from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. They simply went forward with a sincere trust that by humbling themselves before God, they would experience grace. And what inspired me the most was that all these kids, even the ones who were most nervous, came out of the confessional beaming with joy and relief.

Kneeling in the shadows of the confessional, coming face to face with the reality of our sin and articulating it aloud—this is not something that demeans or diminishes us. Rather, it ennobles us, for it unites us more closely with our Creator as part of His Divine Body. By kneeling down and making ourselves small, we become part of a greater whole. Yet many of us hesitate to take this posture of humility. Sometimes a sense of perfectionism holds us back from admitting our mistakes, even to ourselves. But this sort of perfectionism is ultimately rooted in fear—that our faults will make others think less of us, or that God will be disappointed in us (as if He doesn’t already know all that we’ve done!). So instead of confessing our sins, we live in denial of their existence—and then we never receive the graces that will help us overcome them. We never come to understand that our goodness does not come from ourselves, but from the God who loves us so much that He laid down His life to redeem us in our sinfulness.

Jesus Himself has taken the ultimate postures of humility: on the Cross, with His arms spread open in surrender; and in the Eucharist, where He comes to us as Bread and Wine, food for us to consume. Through these gestures of love, He offers Himself as a gift to us. His arms are open wide to receive us; His Flesh nourishes and strengthens our souls. He offers His Body, broken and crushed, to heal us of our own brokenness:

For my Flesh is true food,
and my Blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood
remains in me and I in him.
—John 6:55–56

This week I also mourned the passing of John Aroutiounian, with whom I co-taught a Confirmation class three years ago. I was so moved by his eulogy, which reflects on the mystery of redemptive suffering and illustrates the fullness and meaning of his short life. John was very intelligent, had multiple prestigious degrees, and likely would have gone on to have a remarkable career. Yet when presented with a more humble calling—to suffer deeply, to physically waste away, to witness to the strength of the human spirit and the dignity of life even amidst great affliction, and to lay down his life at just 26 years old—he did not hesitate to embrace this cross. During his life, John fought to defend the dignity of every human life—even our enemies, even those who are inconvenient to us. He was a pro-life advocate and volunteered as a suicide hotline counselor. He believed at his core that life, every life, was worth living, and that each human soul has incalculable, eternal worth. He gave no greater witness to this conviction than through his own suffering and death.

We all have a natural desire to protect and shelter ourselves and our loved ones against suffering. However, it is through those painful experiences that we encounter the true meaning of our existence. Only when brought to our knees by suffering do we realize how deeply we must depend on God. A happy, complacent life can cause us to forget that, in the words of St. Thérèse, this world is our ship, not our home. We are meant for something greater; our deepest desires will not find fulfillment in this world but point us to the fulfillment that awaits us in heaven. And the path to heaven is through the Cross, following in the footsteps of our Redeemer.

Indeed, the fear of suffering can be worse than actual suffering. For when God allows us to suffer, He provides the graces in that moment to bear crosses we never thought we could carry, as long as we surrender to Him, acknowledge our own weakness, and trust that He will use every second of our pain for His divine purpose. Only by lowering ourselves into the depths of our humanity can we be raised into the divine Light. If we accept our crosses with a posture of humility, our suffering will surely bear fruit.

On This Friday We Call Good: Eucatastrophe and the Eucharist

From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

-Matthew 27:45

It is finished.

We listened as Christ’s final words were proclaimed from the altar. We adored His cross and kissed His wounds, following in the footsteps of Mary and the beloved disciple. And then, we received the Word made flesh in the Eucharist, “the one great thing to love on earth,” one last time.

Now, the sanctuary light is extinguished, the altar is bare, and the dim church is silent. The tabernacle is open, and empty. If “a stable once had some[one] inside it that was bigger than our whole world,” the absence of that dear friend leaves a hole just as large, and it seems like “all other lights [have gone] out,” that our “one companion is darkness” (Ps. 88:19). As another poet says, “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”

Yet, even in this hour of remembering Christ’s passion, we “do not believe that any darkness will endure,” though the “shadow lies on [us] still.” Jesus tells us himself at the Last Supper that “you will weep and mourn… you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (Jn. 16:20). This darkness is not the end of the story. Though we may be in anguish now, and remember how his apostles were then, we will see Him again, receive Him again, and our hearts will rejoice just as their hearts did. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien writes about this “sudden joyous turn” when all hope seems lost, which he calls a eucatastrophe. The opposite of a tragedy’s catastrophe, it is a “sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence… of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies… universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Evangelium—the Gospel, the good news. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:1, 14). As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech—not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform… God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears… For here it is the real Lord of the world—the Living God—who goes into action.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

As Tolkien continues, he says, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” So too does Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, Jesus joyfully arrives in Jerusalem. On Holy Thursday, He gives us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, which “[feeds] the will and [gives us] the strength to endure.” On Good Friday, He gives us His mother, Our Lady, to be our mother and companion in darkness, before giving up His very life for us on the cross out of love.

Soon, His love will be told not only on the cross, but also in the empty tomb. His faithfulness will be known among the dead, as He breaks the very bonds of sin and death. And His wonders will be known, even in the dark. We need only to take courage and wait a little while longer—for the winter will pass, the Son will be unveiled in the breaking of the bread, and the light will leap forth as we sing with Easter joy.

Referenced
Eliot, Four Quartets
Lewis, The Last Battle
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, On Fairy-Stories, Letters
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 1

Tears

“Thus says the LORD:
Lo, I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
The things of the past shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness
in what I create;
For I create Jerusalem to be a joy
and its people to be a delight;
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and exult in my people.
No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there,
or the sound of crying;
No longer shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not round out his full lifetime;
He dies a mere youth who reaches but a hundred years,
and he who fails of a hundred shall be thought accursed.
They shall live in the houses they build,
and eat the fruit of the vineyards they plant.” -Isaiah 65:17-21

Today’s first reading is a little reprieve of hope in the midst of Lent, a reminder of what is to come. A reminder that suffering is never the end of our story, that God brings about resurrections from our seasons of suffering and the ultimate resurrection from all our pain in the hope of the eternal life Christ won for us.

“No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there, or the sound of crying.” This reminds me of the line from the Psalms where it says that God collects our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:9). One of my friends and I joke about a bottle not being big enough for God to collect our tears, but that instead we have bathtubs full. Why would God collect our tears? Why would God make it a point to tell us through the prophets that in Heaven there will be no more weeping?

Because our suffering matters to God, and He wants us to know that it is not in vain. Our suffering is sacred to the God who suffered it all for us. Jesus didn’t have to suffer and die for us, but He did so He could understand our pain and so when we suffer, we wouldn’t ever have to be alone in it. His suffering meant an eventual end to ours, that Heaven could be opened for us.

In Heaven there will be no more tears of sorrow, no more pain. Every ounce of hurt and betrayal will be redeemed and atoned for. Every wound healed. Every sin taken away. Revel in that glory for a second. That is how much we’re loved by our Father. That’s what this Lenten journey is all about. Earth is not our home. Heaven heals. And in the meantime? God counts every single tear. We don’t even know how many tears we cry, but He does. He holds each one as precious and sacred, collecting them and not letting them go to waste. He is not absent in our tears; He is here.

Ponder the marvels of Heaven today, and allow God’s glory to reorient your hope.

P.S. My song recommendation of the day is one of the most beautiful choral hymns based on the first reading and a similar passage in Revelation, “And I Saw a New Heaven” by Edgar Bainton. Listen for the part where they sing, “And God shall wipe away all tears.” Enjoy!

Open, Wounded, and On Fire

“Behold this Heart,” Jesus said sorrowfully, as He held His pierced Heart out to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. “Behold this Heart which has so loved men, that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself in order to testify to its love. In return, I have received from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and their sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this sacrament of Love.”

Jesus suffered all things, holding nothing back from us. He calls us to conform our hearts to be like His.

As we enter into this first full week of Lent, we are challenged by today’s Gospel to examine how we love others. Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

When we look at the Sacred Heart of Jesus and carefully observe how He loved in His time on earth, we know that He held His love back from no one, even the people who were most difficult to love. His Sacred Heart is totally open, totally vulnerable. No walls, no hesitation, no fear; He just gives. He gives Himself to us freely and totally—how will we respond? Do we hold anything back from the Lord out of self-preservation? Do we run to Him and spend time with Him in prayer? Do we have walls up with others? Do we put masks on pretending we’re okay? Do we withhold love from other people out of fear, resentment, or judgment?

Jesus’ Sacred Heart was also wounded, wounded for all souls. He intimately knows our pain. He understands what we go through. When we suffer, we can find solace in Jesus’ Sacred Heart that has been through it all for us. When others suffer, our hearts too, can beat for theirs, and God gives us the gift of being able to be His vessels of love and comfort for others when they are hurting. And when we suffer, we can unite our aching hearts to Jesus’ Heart, offering our pain to comfort Him on the Cross and for the good of others. Let’s not run from our crosses nor the crosses of others.

Finally, Jesus’ Sacred Heart is on fire, burning with so much love for us and for the Father. Sometimes this fire in our hearts gets put out by pride, sloth, fear, or lies from the enemy. Do our hearts burn with love and zeal for bringing others to the Heart of Christ? Jesus so desires to enkindle the fire of His love within us so that we can set the world on fire with His powerful love, healing, and redemption. The fire of His love and mercy cannot be contained, cannot be put into a box.

St. Francis of Assisi said, “Hold back nothing of yourself for yourself, so that He who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally.” Jesus, give us the grace to continue surrendering every part of ourselves to Your good will for us, daring to be totally open, accepting of our wounds and compassionate towards the woundedness of others, and on fire with Your radical love in our world that is so hungering for it.

Would You?…Why?…For Whom?

“I want names,” he said.  I remember his words.  I remember his eyes, red and swollen.  I remember his face, creased with grief and pain, there on the nightly news.

His young wife had been struck with malignant melanoma while carrying their unborn daughter.  She was considered brain dead, but was kept on life support for three months in the hopes of the saving the baby.  The baby was born and lived for a few weeks, bringing joy in the place of sorrow.  But then the baby also died.

“They say God has a plan, that He can use our suffering for good.  That it can help others.  But I want a list of names.  I want details.  I want to know exactly what good will come from this…”

“I want names.“  Although it’s been many years, his words have come back to me recently.  It is easy, when in the throes of suffering, to question, to wonder just how such pain can come from a loving God.  Theology tells us that all things work for our good, but abstractions don’t comfort.  We know to trust, to hope, but how does one exercise this, practically, in the midst of darkness?

There is a game the kids play called, “Would you rather…?”  It is a conversation game, in which questions are posed: Would you rather be able to fly, or be able to change shape?  Would you rather be an elephant or a lion?  Would you rather have a pool full of chocolate pudding, or a pool full of skittles?

The questions suggested are silly and innocuous, but in my experience, they usually turn a bit darker (or maybe I know morbid kids).  Would you rather be buried alive, or burnt at the stake?  Would you rather go blind, or go deaf?  Would you rather be eaten by a lion, or by sharks?  But I have found that the real question is not “What you would suffer?” but “Why?” or, “For Whom?”

When my mother was first in the hospital in 2016, and I spent my days looking around for the adult in the room, for someone else to take over what I could not handle, it was my little orphan babies that gave me the strength.  Certainly the prayers of the six that I held, all baptized, before they went to heaven.  But it was the memory of little faces, little arms reaching up, little eyes questioning, seeking love, seeking to know they were not alone, not ultimately abandoned—these little ones carried me.  “Would you suffer this, for them?” a voice inside would ask.  “Yes!” was the only answer.

I had prayed to stay in China.  I had asked to give my life to rescue more little ones like these, to be love for the abandoned.  God said No.  But in the mystery of suffering, the economy of grace, He answered my prayer to help them in a different way.  To learn to intercede from afar.

More recently other suffering in the world, in the Church, has been splashed across headlines, across social media.  “Lord, something has to be done.  Help me be part of the solution.”

Would I suffer this (whatever I am going through)…to save a child from abuse?  Would I…to ease the trauma of someone who left the church because of unspeakable crimes by her clergy?  Would I…to stem the rising hate across the political spectrum?  Would I…to heal my friend from her disease, to save him from cancer, to stop the one about to commit suicide?

“The interesting thing about the Scriptures,” said the priest in a recent homily, “Is that they don’t speak of suffering as something that comes down.  They speak of it as something that is lifted UP, that is offered.”

The real offering of course, is Jesus on the Cross, Jesus lifted up for us.  But we with our little mustard seeds of love, can offer our little crosses in union with His.  And He can grow them, magnify them, until the smallest of seeds becomes the largest of shrubs, in which all the birds of the air come and find rest.

 

 

Mustard Seed

Image Credit:

Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing [CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues

I tell you, my friends,
do not be afraid of those who kill the body
but after that can do no more.
I shall show you whom to fear.
Be afraid of the one who after killing
has the power to cast into Gehenna;
yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one.
Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?
Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God.
Even the hairs of your head have all been counted.
Do not be afraid.
You are worth more than many sparrows.
—Luke 12:4–7

My confidence is placed in God who does not need our help for accomplishing his designs. Our single endeavor should be to give ourselves to the work and to be faithful to him, and not to spoil his work by our shortcomings.
—St. Isaac Jogues

st-isaac-joguesToday we celebrate the feast of St. Isaac Jogues, one of the North American martyrs who gave his life serving the Native American people (and also the first priest to set foot in Manhattan). Through his life and martyrdom, he embodied the verses from today’s Gospel. He had no fear of those who threatened to kill his body, although there were many. He focused instead on the well-being of the soul, both preserving the sanctity of his own soul and awakening other souls to Christ.

In the summer of 1642, while Fr. Jogues was traveling with the Huron people he was serving, he was captured and tortured by attacking Mohawks. They beat him mercilessly and chewed off his forefingers, leaving his hands permanently mutilated. Fr. Jogues spent the next seventeen months in captivity, treated as a slave. Even in those unimaginable conditions, he sought to connect with people’s souls. He baptized seventy people and tended to the sick, including one of the men who had bitten off his fingers.

For Fr. Jogues, the horrible bodily tortures he suffered—undoubtedly painful though they were—were ultimately inconsequential. When he was freed from captivity and returned to civilization, he spoke fondly of his former persecutors, never allowing the physical pain they had caused him to cloud his awareness that they were beloved children of God. He had demonstrated his genuine love for these people, who had reason to distrust Westerners, by learning their language and customs and being attentive to their needs. He wanted them to realize the incalculable worth of their souls—they were worth more, indeed, than many sparrows.

People thought Fr. Jogues was crazy to return to his mission after the ordeals he had suffered, but he was undeterred. He was eventually martyred in 1646, captured again by Mohawks and killed by a blow to the head with a tomahawk. Some of his last words were, “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.”

Curiously, his killer later underwent a radical conversion to the Catholic faith and took the name Isaac Jogues when baptized. He too was martyred just a week later. One of the missionary priests said afterward, “God willing, there are now two Isaac Jogueses in heaven.” I have to imagine that the first Isaac Jogues had taken an active interest in caring for his persecutor, interceding for his conversion and a martyr’s crown. His goal, after all, had always been heaven, not just for himself but for everyone. Ultimately, his joyful confidence in Christ drew many souls upward in his wake.

Are You For Real?

“Suffering is Jesus kissing you from the cross!” Mother Teresa is reported to have told a woman in great anguish.  “Well then, tell Him to please stop!” the woman supposedly retorted.

Lately, I have been inclined to agree.

I wrote recently that it is when you hit rock bottom that you discover just Who that Rock really is.  But I feel as though instead, I am lying splattered and splayed upon its hardness.  Previous pious platitudes have not brought comfort.

“I can’t handle this, Lord.  I have nothing left to give.”  I was praying weeks ago in front of the Pieta, on Saturday afternoon of the Frassati retreat, begging for a reprieve from fatigue and stress.  Neither the statue nor any other voice spoke into the silence, but I felt a pain like a cross beam spread across my shoulders, then slowly into my neck.  That pain did not subside after my prayer was over.  It only grew, and I blamed my relentless stress.

A few days later, I was not able to turn my head without a cocktail of ibuprofen and prescription drugs.  The doctors took some bloodwork, which revealed elevated lymphocytes and some other anomalies, and I was diagnosed with Lyme disease.

“Are you for real?”  I asked God.  “Didn’t I ask for rest, for reprieve?  Did you hear me correctly?”  Silence.  “All right, I will say Yes, if this is Your will for me…”

After ten days of doxycycline, the pain had only worsened, spreading from my elbows throughout my arms and legs.  I was unable to lift even small items without intense pain, so I called my sister Teresa to help me take care of my mother, and my 88-year-old aunt who has also been staying with us.

On the way back from the train station, I was telling my sister about my symptoms when suddenly the pain increased exponentially.  Simultaneously there was a terrific bang and lurching.  I struggled to breathe as the now excruciating pain tore through my ribs and neck.  It took a few seconds to figure out what was happening—an SUV had smashed into our car, which in turn propelled our small Honda into the SUV in front of us.  I didn’t even get a look at the scene as the ambulance carried us away.

“Are you for real God?  Surely this is not happening…” I was mostly laughing, as I later texted neck-brace selfies from the ER to friends and family, but maybe it was the morphine.  I was admitted to the hospital, to ultimately be diagnosed with a fracture of my neck vertebrae.  Teresa returned to the city with her own very painful injuries (diagnosis still in progress).

A few days later I was finally feeling strong enough to sit up at the table for dinner.  But a bit later, my mother started complaining of abdominal pain.  The complaints grew in urgency and volume, and I looked to see that she was as white as a sheet and sweating.  A call to a nurse friend directed me to call 911, in case she was having a heart attack.

My few minutes of sitting up became seven hours in the ER, only to have Mom admitted, not for her heart but her pancreas.  “Really, not again…” I sighed.

The next morning, before I call for a ride to the hospital, I stumble into the kitchen to make myself some coffee.  Something doesn’t smell right.  Maybe it’s because there’s been nobody to do the dishes, but there aren’t that many, and the smell is worse than that.  I painstakingly bend down to peer into the corner, to discover that an unwanted gift from Saint Martin has been decomposing in the corner of the pantry.

This is the last straw.  “I HATE ALL LIVING THINGS!” I scream into the Silence.  But I hate even more things that used to be living.  Surely this cannot be real.  Surely there is someone else to deal with this.  I have said many times that I don’t mind being single and without a husband, except perhaps on garbage night.  I add this to the list.  “This is not okay, God!!!”

Mom is released from the hospital two days later, and I think I can finally breathe.  But then we get the news that the car is likely totaled, and I look at our finances, and feel my feet sinking into an ocean of panic.  “I trusted you, God!”  Without a job, our finances have been precarious for awhile, and this is one hit too many.  What are we supposed to do now?

On Saturday evening I am nauseous from the stress, worry and pain.  We go to Mass, at which the Gospel is the Rich Young Man, who leaves Jesus, sad because of his preference for possessions.  I feel an odd sense of conviction, that despite technically living below the poverty line, I am no different from this rich man.  That there is still more to surrender.

“ARE YOU FOR REAL?” I ask God incredulously.  Surely He cannot want more of me…surely there is nothing left to give!

God is silent, but other voices start piping in.

“Are YOU for real, Grace?” asks the Girl I Ought to Be. “Where is your trust in God?” snaps her snarky sister.  “You talk about it all the time, about faith on the tightrope, about thanking God in all things.  Time to see what you’re made of!”

Real Me responds with words that could constitute material for Confession.

“What do you want from me God?  I am trying to trust you.  I am trying to say yes.  I am even trying to thank you, but it seems like a joke.  Are you even there?  Are you, in fact, for real?”

Doubt comes around like a Dementor, threatening to consume me with its darkness and despair, so I quickly shut the door, in my will if not my emotions.  “Jesus, I trust in you.”  The words comfort me, even if only 1% of me can get on board at the moment.

On Sunday I sit down to pray.  “Lord, I am trying to say thank you.  Trying to say yes.  Trying to trust.  But that is above my paygrade right now.  I need you to do all these things for me, in me.  I don’t even know what that means.  I even need you to give me faith to believe that you are real.”

And I remember suddenly, that it is the date of my baptism, that (quite a few decades ago) on this very day I was brought as an infant to a small church in Kentucky.  Brought to be marked with the sign of the cross, to receive the gift of faith.

The Silence remains, but I find rising up within me the grace to look up and say “You.”  To remember and know that my prayers are not being spoken to or received by an abstraction, but by a Person.  By Someone who is loving me in this.  That I am saying yes not to the cross itself but to the Person who asks me to carry it (or more accurately, carries me during it).

Today is the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, to whom God entrusted the vision and message of His Sacred Heart.  A Heart that was incarnate that we might know God’s love is not an abstraction, but in fact deeply human.  A Heart that was pierced and bled for our sins, yet still burns with a personal love for each one of us.