Hiding in Paradise

A two-year-old niece makes many things more fun, but Hide-And-Go-Seek is not one of them.  Zippy thinks that if she closes her eyes and can’t see me, then I can’t see her either.   Sometimes, to make it more challenging, she puts something over her face as if for a prolonged game of Peak-A-Boo.  Or, once I’ve really hidden—behind the refrigerator, or the door, or under the bed—she will hide there herself.  Again, and again, and again.  Each time, I am supposed to play surprised.

When Adam and Eve hide in the garden after eating the forbidden fruit, God asks “’Where are you?” Surely the omnipotent God already knows.  So why does God ask?  And why does He follow Adam’s answer with still another question: “Who told you that you were naked?”  God wants them to see them as they are, naked and hiding from Him.

In my last reflection I wrote about the strategies of the Opposition Voice, whose goal it is to separate the Father from His children.  He does this first by getting them to reject God.  His next strategy is to get them to believe that God will reject them.

In tempting them with the forbidden fruit, the Opposition had begun to sow doubt in God’s goodness, and thereby to instill a fear of dependence on God.  Adam and Eve are initially tempted to choose self-sufficiency—achieving God-like status on their own, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Once they have eaten the fruit, the voice continues to promote self-sufficiency versus dependence on God.  They seek to cover their nakedness and dependence, and to hide from God rather than trust in His goodness.

As they lose sight of the God in whose image they are, they lose sight of His image in themselves.  “Guilt says you made a mistake; shame says you are a mistake” notes Gregory Cleveland, OMV.  And so to cover the mistake that they think they have become, Adam and Eve dress themselves in fig leaves.

It is an obvious strategy of the Opposition to make sin appear good, or perhaps necessary, or at the very least, not a big deal.  In a more subtle strategy, after our sin, the Opposition seeks to make our sin bigger than God.

After Genesis 3, we don’t get a visual on the serpent again until the Book of Revelation, when the seven-headed ten-horned dragon is at war with the Woman and Her Offspring.  But the Opposition Voice echoes through the books in between, spoken sometimes from without, and sometimes from within.  The first sin is for man to try to become like God on their own.  The second (and all subsequent) sins is to try to become like God on our own.

This is the mistake of the Pharisees, whom Jesus warns against in today’s Gospel.  “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” He tells His disciples.   The disciples are confused, thinking He has rebuked their forgetfulness (once again, they don’t have enough bread).  He recalls to them to the multiplication of the loaves, and asks “Do you still not understand?”

He is bringing them back not just to a previous lack, but to God’s providence in that lack.  It is God who provides everything.  He provides the grace to avoid sin, but also the grace to repent and to return once we have sinned.  He is the source of good, and the source of mercy when we are not good.

The Pharisees wish to adhere to a system of goodness based in the Law and traditions; to systematize a way to heaven with ritual and righteousness.  They cover themselves with the fig leaves of outer conformity to the Law, but like small children with their eyes closed, they presume that God cannot see the truth within them.

It is not the good deeds of the Pharisees that upsets Jesus; it is their reliance on them, versus reliance on God.  At its heart, it is still denial of God’s Fatherhood.

“Where are you?… Who told you that you were naked?”  Because man is now afraid and unable to approach and depend on God, God comes to earth as a naked baby, completely dependent on us.  And He shows us what dependence on humanity alone will lead to, when He is once again naked, stretched out on the Cross.

 

 

 

 

Other Paradise Trees

 

 

 

“Daughter!”

Two-year-old Zippy has recently discovered FaceTime.  She loves to talk to Nonna and “A’Reece” (Aunt Grace), but is sometimes a bit confused as to how the technology works.  She will giggle with delight when we answer and our faces appear on the screen, as though we have come to visit her.  “Hi Zippy! Hi Honey!” we say.  “Hi Zippy, Hi Honey!” she says in happy reply.  

She is dismayed however if we don’t share our snacks; she is always generous with hers, trying to put them through the phone (her mother’s turn to be dismayed).  She waves the phone around to show us her dinner or her dolls, and we try not to get dizzy.  Sometimes she will sit and “talk” for awhile—sometimes not saying anything, sometimes chattering away, while we get a steady view of her eyebrows and the top of her head.

During the recent government shutdown, her father came up to visit us and help out for a bit while he was out of work.  When we called to FaceTime, Zippy was ecstatic to suddenly see Daddy on the phone as well.

Shortly after he had returned home to Maryland, the whole family called on FaceTime.  My brother passed the phone to Zippy, who was excited to talk to us, but unhappy that we wouldn’t show her Daddy.  “Zippy see Daddy!” she implored. “I am right here!” my brother laughed behind her.  But Zippy was not placated until Daddy moved around so that she could see his face in the small screen she was holding.  “Daddy! Dere you are!”  she laughed delightedly.

*            *            *

In today’s Gospel a woman is seeking Jesus.  She has had a flow of blood for twelve years; doctors have only made things worse.  And this flow of blood has in turn made her “unclean”—a spiritual outcast, barred from the temple and the touch of other people.

She has heard great things about Jesus and thinks that if she could but touch the hem of His garment, she would be cured.  She moves quietly through the crowd, comes behind Him, and touches His clothing.  Immediately, she realizes she is healed.

Jesus, however, recognizes a deeper desire for connection.  He knows that healing power has gone out of Him, and asks the confused crowd “Who touched me?” 

The woman must then confess; she comes forward, revealing herself and tells what has happened.

“Daughter,” Jesus replies, “Your faith has made you well.”

She had sought merely the restoration of her health. Jesus restores her identity, her relationship with her Father.  “Daughter…”

This deep desire—was it only on the part of the woman? 

It is a central mystery of Christianity that our love, desire, and faith actually begin as God’s initiative toward us.  It is He who first loves us; He who calls us to prayer, who plants the desire in our hearts, who is the source of both our longing and its fulfillment.

 

 

Adam

Photo Credit: Michelangelo, Public Domain

Two Minutes

We were thrilled when my little niece Zippy first began to speak in words we could understand.  From baby babble emerged the first recognizable vocabulary: “Mamma”; “Dadda”; “’nanna (banana)” and “shoes.”  However, when she said, early and audibly, “Two minutes!” we were both greatly surprised and greatly amused.

At age two Zippy still says “Two minutes!” and it is clear that while she has mastered the pronunciation, the actual meaning of the phrase still eludes her.  At times, she recognizes it as a stall tactic.  “Zippy, can I please have my phone back?” I ask.  “Two minutes!” Zippy replies, meaning I must wait.  However,  “Zippy talk two minutes!” means “Zippy wants the phone, NOW, this minute.”  She will ask to hear a song: “One!” by which she means, “One after another,” and listening for “Two minutes!” in that situation translates as “indefinitely…”

In general, the concept of time is confusing if not meaningless to two year-olds.  “I will be back tomorrow” does not console her; she throws herself on the floor, bereft.  (Yes, I am that cool).  “Later” is just a code word for “no.”  And she certainly doesn’t understand “this is not the time to sing” when she breaks out into “Baby Shark” during the Christmas homily, particularly when such a large crowd has gathered to hear her performance.

If the concept of human time is puzzling to toddlers, the concept of God’s timing is equally puzzling to us, even as adults.  I confess that when God says “Wait!” I do not always react well. 

I remember in college that God promised that a particular prayer intention would be answered, but that I must wait.  I thought, “Okay, I have a few minutes.”  Eighteen years later, His answer exceeded my expectations, but I learned the hard way that His time-frame did too.

Even now, I too am tempted to tantrums when God says, “Wait.”  I find myself bereft when He seems absent, wondering if I will ever seem Him again.  And when I pray for solutions to the problems of life, and they don’t come quickly enough, I wonder if He is listening.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is preaching in a synagogue in Capernaum when he is interrupted by a snarky demon.  “I know who you are…the holy one of God!” declares the demon.  Jesus first silences him, then drives him out.  “Quiet!  Come out of him!”  Jesus commands in Mark 1:24.

Why doesn’t Jesus want the crowd to hear this declaration?  A few verses later, in Mark 1:34, we again hear of Jesus specifically preventing the demons from revealing his identity: “He healed many who were ill with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was.”

If Jesus has come to reveal His identity as the Son of God, why silence the demons?  Or perhaps a more interesting question: What would the demons have to gain by revealing it? 

It is the mystery of timing again.  God’s timing is perfect.  Patience is a virtue that we do well to cultivate.  But more importantly, the mystery of timing reveals another mystery: that the Christian life is about relationship, not results.

The answer to Jesus’ identity is not a bit of trivia, or even a theological proposition to answer correctly on an exam.  We come to know Him as He is WITH US (Emmanuel again).  Jesus wants the people to come to know God as revealed by His person, not just as a match to their expectations. 

His healings, His miracles, His teachings, and ultimately His gift of self on the Cross and in the Eucharist, reveal to us the face of God.  It is encounter that teaches us, and encounter that changes us. 

We need to hear Him say, to the leper within, “I do will—be healed.”  We need to experience the gaze of the loving eyes which behold the sinful woman weeping at his feet, to hear him say, as to the woman caught in adultery “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and sin no more.”  We need to watch Him calm the storms without and within; to cast out demons and welcome back outcasts; to feed with a new Manna that is both Presence and Promise.

We want to rush ahead to the solution, to the answer: Who is this guy preaching in the synagogue? What does He plan to do to/for us?  But Jesus wants us to experience His presence.  To walk with Him, to listen, to question, to learn not only His message but His heart.

*            *            *

Over Christmas vacation I take Zippy on a walk to the library.  It is a two-minute walk if one goes directly.  But there is so much to experience along the way: leftover snow to touch, steps to climb up and down, puppies to shriek at delightedly and try to pet.  She wants to see her breath in the air; she wants to see what is in the half-frozen puddle in the driveway; she wants to pick up pebbles and watch them dance as she throws them on the path.  She wants to run and then be carried and then put down so she can meander down the sidewalk.  If we don’t make it all the way to the library; that’s okay.  Life is short.  Just two minutes.

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 

Like Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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