Tea Bags

“I do it myself!” On our family vacation over the 4th of July, two-year-old Zippy is declaring her independence.

Her independence produces a lot of work, particularly for my brother Joe, who is a good and attentive father. “I do it myself!” she insists, as she puts on her pajamas, but her leg goes into the arm sleeve and so she is stuck until help arrives. “I do it myself!” she peels her own egg, and my brother must bring the “scary weapon” to vacuum the 98% of the shells that wind up on the floor. “I do it myself!” she jumps into the deep end of the pool, propelled to the surface by her “floaties” and the subtle assistance of an adult hand guiding her to shore.

As I delight in her growth, I muse on my own, and the mysterious interplay of freedom and dependence on God. I too, have a patient Father, teaching me both to step out in faith but also fall back in trust. I am learning, too, that the “doing” of Christianity is so often a matter of “being.” What does this mean?

Recently in prayer I was anguishing over something, the details of which I do not recall, but it was a matter requiring some degree of discernment and action. However, the image that persisted in prayer was tea bags. Just tea bags, steeping. I was jarred by the banality of it. I wanted something at least inspirational, if not instructive. But tea bags?

I am often asked about prayer, and my consistent advice is to begin by “making a space to be with God,” i.e. to begin by committing to a specific daily prayer time. For anyone who wishes to grow in the spiritual life, to have a relationship with Christ, daily prayer time is paramount. Nothing matters more. Just fifteen minutes a day, practiced with persistence and perseverance, will be life-changing.

In the beginning, it often helps to have some “props” for prayer—images or books to focus on, or Scriptures or other reading to guide our reflections. It is also of great help to invite the Holy Spirit to pray within us, and to ask Jesus to lead our prayer in whatever way He wishes. Many excellent books have been written on ways that can help beginners in prayer; some I will cover in future posts.

To pray is to “practice the presence of God.” It is “wasting time with God.” It is not something that we do, although in the beginning we have to work to open ourselves to God, to be quiet and still and truly present. It is to receive the love of God, and then to return it. “Prayer is not thinking much but loving much,” says Saint Teresa of Avila. (It is worth noting, that Teresa herself relied on books and images for help in prayer, especially in the early years).

Being present does not mean being passive. In the beginnings of prayer, in particular, we may need to fight—to work to be still, to fight for silence, to be recollected. Especially in today’s culture, times of quiet do not come easily.

Are we afraid of silence?

In the beginning, this silence and space for God can be disconcerting, or even frightening. “Just who am I?” the silence taunts us with its emptiness. But it is only in the presence of I AM that we are filled and given a more true answer.

In today’s first reading, God identifies Himself to Moses as “I AM.” It is fascinating to compare Him to the gods of other religions, who are numerous and named for what they do and/or control. The god of war, the goddess of the harvest or of fertility, the sun god, the river god. Our God, who has a far more impressive resume and who holds the whole world, does not identify Himself as “I do” but as “I AM.”

To pray is to be with this God.

Saint Teresa of Avila was named a Doctor of the Church for her works on prayer. But at one point, she herself gave up on prayer for over a year, when it became frustrating, and she mistakenly thought, fruitless. She learned that prayer is essential, that it depends on God, and she wrote beautiful works on growing in prayer.

She uses the image of prayer as a garden that is to be watered. In the beginning there is work to be done removing weeds etc. and cultivating growth; the garden must also be watered regularly.

In the beginning, the pray-er seems to be doing most of the work, but as she grows spiritually, the effort of the soul lessens and God’s work increases. In the early stages Teresa likens prayer to drawing water from a well—a lot of work, for a very little water. Later it may be like a pump—the pray-er is still “working” at prayer, but more efficiently and for more water. At a third stage God provides the water as through an irrigation system—the soul is more still, more dependent, more receptive. And in the final stages of prayer, it is like a garden watered by rain: the soul is completely receptive.

At each stage of prayer, we must give to God what we can, and let Him give to us what we cannot. It is us that He wants. He wants not just our actions, but our hearts, our desires—including our desire to be with Him. And sometimes, we must ask even for this desire! The desire to pray is itself a gift of God.

Prayer isn’t always pretty. We come with our hearts as they are—angry, broken, bruised by sin, filled with self—to give what we are, as we are, to the God of Being.

Sometimes in prayer we might have wonderful “experiences” of the presence of God. But other times, we are transformed more quietly, more subtly, in the way water receives from tea bags, simply by time and togetherness. It is in these moments that God works, and we receive, without even knowing what or how.

River for Prayer unsplash

Image credit:  Photo by Monika MG on Unsplash

 

Had Not the Lord Been Here

“Our help is in the name of the Lord.
Had not the LORD been with us–
let Israel say, had not the LORD been with us–
When men rose up against us,
then would they have swallowed us alive,
When their fury was inflamed against us.” -Psalm 124

“Had not the Lord been with us…” How often do we say the opposite? “God, where are You? Why aren’t You here?”

Today’s Psalm gives us some perspective. Even when things are terrible, God is right there with us in the mess. We can take a breath and say, “This is hard, and it doesn’t make sense, but I know You are here. I know You will not let me be overcome.”

Last week I had a crisis situation with one of my youth ministry teens and her family. It was one of those horrifying situations you pray never happens to you. I was so humbled that they even wanted me there with them. I was at such a loss for what to do and say, and I remember looking into my teen’s heartbroken, fearful, tear-stained eyes and saying, “God is here. I know this is terrifying and it hurts and it absolutely sucks, and God is here in it with you. I promise.”

God’s presence permeated that whole long night, even amidst the shock, the pain, the terror. I just knew He was there, holding it all together. His steadfastness was with us, as if He was saying, “I know this is excruciating. And I’m right here with you in it. I know your pain. This hurts Me too.”

Had not He been with us? Despair and total darkness would’ve taken over. But having Him there? He gave the family strength, bravery, the grace to endure the pain, and abounding love through it all. Sometimes in those moments, all you can do is call upon the Name of Jesus, and He’s there, rushing in to save us.

Thank You Jesus, for always being here.

Not for a Minute was I Forsaken

Today’s readings are filled with God’s faithfulness—Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven and God’s promise to never leave him, the healing of the woman who suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years, and the raising of the synagogue official’s daughter.

God, in His infinite goodness and faithfulness, will not leave us in our mess, in a place of hurt, or in a sea of confused unknowns forever. God desires to deliver us. God desires to show us the way. All He asks for is our hearts, for our continual trust and surrender along the way.

It can be tempting to give into despair in the waiting, in the seasons of in-between. We can feel like God is holding out on us. We can feel like He’ll never come through. But the truth is that God is always on the move; He is always at work for our good. The woman with the hemorrhages waited for twelve years, trying every doctor to no avail while remaining an outcast of society for being considered unclean. However, despite all of that, she remained hopeful in the Lord, knowing that if she could just touch His cloak, she would be healed. Jesus came through in the best possible way for her—it wasn’t a doctor that healed her, it was God Himself who came to meet her on the road to heal her directly. She got to be healed through touching the clothes of the Son of the Living God, through letting His loving gaze pierce through her shame, her feelings of being forgotten, invisible, and hated. And I’m sure she would tell us now that the twelve years of waiting were more than worth it for her face-to-face encounter with our Savior.

In today’s first reading, when Jacob wakes up from his dream, he exclaims, “Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16). The Lord is in your spot, too, whether you realize it or not. He has never abandoned you nor forsaken you. He is in your place, your season, working and active—whether you or waiting or rejoicing, overwhelmed or stuck.

We can place our hope in Him. He has never forgotten you or the wondrous plans He has for your life. He is in this place, and He wants to meet you in it.

“Not for a minute was I forsaken // The Lord is in this place // The Lord is in this place // I’m not enough, unless You come // Will You meet me here again?” –“Here Again” by Elevation Worship

Ask with Trust

In today’s first reading, Abraham asks God if He will spare the city of Sodom if fifty people living there are innocent. God says yes, and Abraham goes on to pose the question again, asking what if the number of innocent people were forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten—would God still spare the city? Each time Abraham asks, he is careful to say that he does not want to offend the Lord, and each time God faithfully says that He will not destroy the city.

St. Teresa of Avila said, “You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him.” God invites us to ask great things of Him because He wants good things for His children. Nothing is too great, too small, to seemingly silly, or too weighty to ask of God. We can go to Him with anything that is on our hearts, because He cares about every detail. God sets us free to go to Him with childlike dependency when we ask things of Him.

Childlike dependency is not foolish or naïve when it comes to the disposition of our hearts with the Lord. Rather, it shows wisdom and great strength. Childlike dependency means that we can go to God with anything and ask anything of Him, knowing that no matter what, He will provide for us, that He comes through.

We should ask things of God because we trust Him, not out of a place of a lack of trust.

In this first reading today, Abraham was asking these questions out of trust the Lord, out of a place of hope in what the Lord could do to save the innocent. Even when we don’t see a clear way, we can trust that the Lord is the way, and He cares about the questions, needs, and desires of our hearts infinitely, even when we can’t feel it. God is just that good.

What will you ask of the Heavenly Father today? Don’t be afraid to go to Him like a little child, asking great things from a place of surrender to His will and total dependence on Him.

Father, we trust that You want to lavish Your love on us, Your children. We surrender each desire of our hearts to You, knowing that You hold our desires as sacred. We trust that each prayer we pray is infinitely important to You. We trust that You always give us what we need, even if it was not what we originally planned or had hoped for, because You are our good Father who does what is best for His children. We thank You for never leaving us orphaned, unheard, or uncared for. We love You. Amen.

Living the Ellipses

“Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can.” God invites Abram to faith in today’s First Reading. We’ve all marveled at the night sky, contemplating its vastness and the twinkling of bodies light-years away. But some scholars suggest that it may have been daytime when God directs this upward gaze. Did Abram looking up see the stars with his eyes, or only with memory and faith? In any case, he is asked to envision a promise of progeny too numerous to be counted.

Only Abram has no son. Not even one. So he must wait on a promise.

He waits and waits, and he must have wearied of waiting. For Genesis recounts how Sarah, infertile, offers him her maid Hagar for childbearing purposes. Abraham “listens to the voice” of Sarah, notes Father Anthony Giambrone, a clue that this is not the voice of God, to be listened to with faith1. But Abraham becomes a father to Ishmael. When Abraham asks that Ishmael be the promised son, God reiterates that Abraham will have a son through Sarah, a child of their marriage. Isaac is named laughter because that is Sarah’s reaction.

But let us stop for a moment, to revisit the waiting years. What takes only paragraphs to recount, is a story of waiting more than twenty-five years, fifteen before Ishmael, ten more before Isaac.

What?

For twenty-five years Abraham is schooled in faith. In trust. In waiting on God.

In filmmaking this is known as ellipsis—the merciful passing over the monotonous by skipping from one scene to another much later. Years of sameness, of routine, of waiting, are skipped with a simple slugline: “Twenty-five years later…” We needn’t slog through the tedium of in-between.

But real life, real holiness, is lived in the ellipses.

Hillsong’s recent release Highlands (Song of Ascent), speaks of finding God not only on the mountain but in the valleys and the shadows. “I will praise you on the mountains…I will praise you when the mountain’s in my way.” While we would scale any mountain to find God, He is closer than we think, as the song reminds us, “in the highlands and the heartache all the same.”

We are reminded to find God in the peaks and the valleys, to “sing in the shadows our song of ascent.” For many of us, however, the hardest part is not so much the mountains or valleys, but rather the plain. Plain as in flat, going nowhere, and plain as in boring. Nothing interesting or exciting. No obvious meaning or mission.

Abraham became our father in faith not just in a heroic moment with Isaac on Mount Moriah. He became our father in faith in the years of ellipses when nothing notable happened. When it seemed God was asking nothing, doing nothing.

Saint Josemaría Escrivá, whose feast we celebrate today, preached about sanctifying the everyday. Like Saint Therese, he realized that the making of saints was not in the mountains but in the mundane. Offering little things to God. Offering the littleness that is us.

Josemaría challenges us to offer the material of daily life: the office grind, the homemaker’s chores, everything from our conversations to our recreation to our family or community life. Something as simple as filing papers, done well and with love, becomes an offering to God.

We often think of saints as those who did great things for God, and certainly we can find many heroes among them. But so many were ordinary people in whom God was allowed to do great things, sanctifying simple work and waiting in the ellipses.

Even Our Lady, now Queen of the Universe, was not asked to do anything of itself out of the ordinary. She was asked to bear and raise a Child. Joseph, her husband, was told by an angel to take her into his home. She was not asked to go out, to preach, to sacrifice her own life as a martyr, or to start a new blog or brand. Her tasks were those of an ordinary woman of her time. What is extraordinary is that she did them with a total yes.

Jesus, too, lived the ellipses. For thirty years, He lived a quiet life of obedience, a life so outwardly unremarkable that when He began His public ministry, even His own relatives thought He was mentally ill. Offended onlookers from His hometown said, “Isn’t that the son of Joseph, the carpenter?”

It is this Jesus who today walks with us, in the tedium and trials of the plains, inviting us to join Our Lady in a Song of Assent.

Milky Way for Ellipses


Notes:

1Giambrone O.P., Anthony. “Forbidden Fruit and the Fruit of Faith.” Magnificat. June 2019: pp.403-404. Print.

Featured Image: Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

What Are You Waiting For?

“Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.” -2 Corinthians 6:2

Now is a very acceptable time.

Last week at a youth ministry conference I was at, one of the speakers posed the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It has stuck with me ever since and made me ponder in prayer how much I let fear hold me back.

Fear runs deeper than just being scared. Fear is the voice from the enemy that tries to ruin what God wants us to do before we even take a first step. Fear comes from the accuser that tells us we’re not enough, that we aren’t cut out for it. Fear brings anxiety in trying to have all the answers and figure things out when God just wants us to be present with Him.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Now is a very acceptable time.

What are you holding back from God? What is blocking your heart from His?

Behold. He is with you. He wants to give you whatever it takes for what He is calling you to. He won’t lead you astray.

Behold. Each moment God gives us is a gift, a grace that we can use to radically love or to doubt Him or ourselves and put things off for another day.

What are we putting off? Is it more time in prayer? Is it a job change you know you need? Is it a mission trip you feel God calling you to? Is there someone in your life you need to forgive?

Now is that very acceptable time to take that next step towards God, wherever He is leading you on His path of peace. Be not afraid.

Strength in Our Mother

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I recently came across this image of a statue of our Blessed Mother in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, and ever since I stumbled upon it in my Instagram feed, I can’t stop thinking about the beauty of Our Lady here: holding our Lord steady in one arm, her other arm raised in prayerful intercession, worship, and her continual “fiat” to whatever the Lord asks of her.

Today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church. How beautiful that this feast is the day after Pentecost each year. Mary, the Spouse of the Holy Spirit and the Mother of Jesus, is our Mother, too.

We so desperately we need her as the Mother of our Church right now. In times of scandal and darkness, when the war against the culture of death feels like a losing battle, when persecution is happening every day, we need Mom. She knows all the graces we need to get through this life. And she shows us the way.

Mary teaches us about her “fiats,” and invites us to make our own with radical trust in the will of the Lord. She calls us to have a deeper surrender to her Son.

At the Annunciation, Mary’s “fiat” made her the Mother of God. At the foot of the cross, Mary’s “fiat” to allowing her Son to suffer and die made way for the salvation of mankind and also made her the Mother of our Church. The Church would not exist without Mary’s yes.

There’s something to Mary’s “fiat” that cuts to the heart–her yes didn’t make life easy or perfect; her yes brought the cross. But she trusted in God’s goodness enough to know that her yes would also make way for the resurrection. When things didn’t make sense, she trusted. When she was in immense pain at witnessing the suffering of her Son, she trusted. When things don’t make sense in our lives, either, we can trust and say a “fiat” of surrender to the Lord, who shatters all darkness with His light and brings resurrection out of every season of pain, who makes ways through circumstances that seem impossible.

Mary’s “fiat” was one of great strength. She was full of the grace of the Holy Spirit, with radical trust in the Lord, to say yes. Let’s strive to be like her–holding onto Jesus with everything we have, hands raised in surrender to whatever the Lord has for us, knowing that He is good.

When we can’t see the way, when we don’t understand: FIAT. Be it done unto me according to Thy word, because You are good, Lord, and always faithful. Mary, Mother of the Church, we need you. We need your intercession and protection. Pray for our Church, that the Body of Christ may be renewed and strengthened in love for your Son. Amen.