Say a Strong YES to Your Existence (Horizons of the Heart 1)

he most difficult thing about being a follower of Jesus Christ is not climbing mountains of virtue or even walking through the valleys of incomprehensible sorrow. No. As difficult as these things may be, there is one thing more difficult still. Strangely, it is something even a child can do. Something we were created to do. Yet we, caught in the complex web of adulthood, we, more sophisticated Christians so far from the simple childlike faith that pleases so much the heart of God, we find this one thing, I dare say, almost impossible. We can talk about it, pray about it, preach about it, encourage others to do it. However, to totally and completely do this ourselves is the most difficult. Though it is the deepest desire of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus to see this in us, we’d rather do everything else but this.

The first thing to which we are invited—nay rather pushed to risk everything we have in order to do—is this: to trust.

To trust that God knows my name. That God cares about me. That Jesus is speaking the truth when he says, “I love a single soul as much as I love all souls together.” To trust that God reveals himself to me daily, even in each moment, in every situation without exception. That I am loved as I am. This love that flows to us from God’s heart is the most basic and secure fact of my life….

The Ascension: a tremendous transition for us all

Beloved in Christ!

With what tenderness must have Jesus looked upon his apostles and disciples gathered on Mount Olivet…

Those final moments when they were alone, forty days after he rose from the dead…

With what joy did he look into each of their eyes that last time he saw them in his human body on this earth, flooding his heart with their face and the dearest memories of who they were, their characteristics, their love for him, their potential, their spiritual growth in the previous three years. Memories of conversations, struggles and victories, secrets of their heart…

These beloved friends who had been such a part of his life and mission and paschal mystery (yes, even in their failure, for their betrayals and fleeing from the cross have given us hope in our own fears and disloyalty)…

As he blessed them…  And withdrew from them… Here still in his blessing… Taken from their sight…

“When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).

The ascension was a moment of tremendous transition for Jesus, for Mary, for the Apostles and disciples, for Mary Magdalene and the women who had faithfully tended to their needs. Yes, clearly Jesus had gone and, as the angels said, would return one day. They had been told by Jesus to return to Jerusalem to await the coming of the Spirit. (And what a transition that was for these fearful and self-centered novices of the Lord who became the fearless messengers of the risen Jesus who had loved them, filling the world with his holy Name!)

But there is another hidden transition that affects you and I as well. Today. Right now. And how we need to hear this good news!

If Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, we are as well.

We dwell not only here on earth, looking forward to the happiness of heaven in an eternity beyond time, but now… right now… you and I… as members of the body of Christ who is our Head… as children of God… as inheritors of the kingdom of heaven… We dwell eternally in glory even now.

Ascension is not just about Jesus, his destiny, his glory…. It’s not like we peer into a heaven to see the Lamb seated on the Throne while we trudge through our lives on this earth alone… The ascension is about our present reality… here… now… today….

Benjamin West (1738-1820) The Ascension; Berger Collection

The truth is, “Jesus is not glorified in his own Person only. His Apostles had fed upon him [and so have we], had his body within them, by virtue of the Holy Eucharist…. Now upon his Ascension, His body in them is glorified instantaneously with the glorifying of his body at the right hand of God. Like an electric flash the glory of the Spirit shines out in the fires of Pentecost. The body of Christ, however veiled in our flesh, in our sinful persons, nevertheless cannot but have the glory of the Spirit of holy fire burning and resting upon it. We do not, I think, dwell as we ought to dwell upon the present glorification of our nature in our own persons, as members of the glorified body of Christ” (Benson, Richard Meux Further Letters, pages 268-269).

If Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, we are as well, as members of his body.

So, friends, look to the glory.

As Paul reminds us, “and all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The Mass is a remembrance of Christ’s passion and pledge of future glory. In the Eucharistic liturgy the Ascension is celebrated again and again by us, in via, on the way. It is the holy banquet in which Christ is received. “Here heaven and earth meet, constellated around the ascended Christ who brings humanity into the very heart of the Godhead…. We need to rekindle the Catholic eschatological imagination: to realize anew Jesus Christ’s ascension as inaugurating the transfiguration of humanity and to envision boldly the cosmic scope and implications of that decisive and ongoing event” (Fr Robert Imbelli, Ongoing Ascension, May 10, 2018).

So, friends, may this year’s celebration of the Ascension and Pentecost be a moment of transition for you. We are invited in each Mass to lift up our hearts and we exclaim, “We have lifted them up to the Lord!” Raise your eyes from this earth. Upwards! Lift up your hearts! Dwell already where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:2).

Image Credit: Benjamin West, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now heaven is present on the earth

The Solemnity of the Ascension can be eclipsed for most of us by the Resurrection, Good Friday, and Christmas. For me, the Ascension is a liturgical feast that draws me inward and upward. Pope Benedict stated in his homily for the Ascension in 2013: “Christ’s Ascension means that he no longer belongs to the world of corruption and death that conditions our life. It means that he belongs entirely to God. He, the Eternal Son, led our human existence into God’s presence, taking with him flesh and blood in a transfigured form.”

My human existence led into God’s presence as Jesus took with him flesh and blood in a transfigured form….

My human existence led into God’s presence…

My human existence…

St. Augustine said that although Jesus ascended to the Father alone, “we also ascend, because we are in him by grace.”

We are led by Christ into the new world of the resurrection, where all the members of his body are drawn upwards to the Father in heaven.

The apostles, in the reading today, were still wondering when Jesus was going to restore the kingdom to Israel. His answer to them is that they “would receive power” when the Holy Spirit was given to them:

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).

In other words, Jesus directs their attention to this “new world of his resurrection.” After being brought to the life by the Spirit, they were to set their minds and hearts on things above where Christ is, not on earthly things (cf. Col 3:1-2).

In the early Church the Christians placed the Christ of the Ascension in the dome of their Churches to remind them that Christ ascended to his Father in heaven and that he was returning.

“Come, Lord Jesus!”

In a world of turmoil and crisis in which so many are suffering unjustly and needlessly, we can pray daily, “Thy Kingdom come! Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

“Come, Lord Jesus!”

Perhaps we feel that we cannot effect the change the world so needs, but we can be that change. With our faith in Jesus Christ who is real, the strength of our belief in the kingdom present and among us in Christ who is close to us in our every need, we can experience how we are changed, how heaven is present on the earth and every sorrow, every closed door, every crisis is but a window to his drawing us with him to the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Photo Credit: Wolfgang Sauber, <a href="http://CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You have been called with a purpose

Here at the end of the beautiful month of May and near the end if the Easter Season, the difficult and heart-wrenching days of the paschal triduum and the suffering and betrayal of the Lord are in the mists of my memory. This reading, however, brings me back with joy to those sorrowful days.

At the Last Supper we got a snapshot of the spiritual state of the apostles before the passion and death of their Master…before their dismal failure to stand with the One who was their Life. Peter boldly proclaimed at that Passover supper that he would die with Jesus, only a few hours later to declare he didn’t even know him. All of the Twelve wanted to be sure that they weren’t the one who would betray the Lord. “Is it I, Lord?” they each asked.

As Jesus walked into the mystery of his salvific death, alone, abandoned by his chosen Twelve, they each learned what they were capable of doing without their Lord and Master. Nothing. They each in some way abandoned Jesus. Before, they had fought with each other to see who would be the greatest, who was the most important, and Peter had tried to convince Jesus that the cross and death in Jerusalem was really not a good idea for the Messiah. In those dark and fear-filled days after Jesus died on the cross something happened to each of them.

The Apostles learned existentially that they were completely dependent on Jesus. They needed him for absolutely everything. Without him they were nothing, like branches cut from the vine. For each of them it was a crisis, a turning point, a transformation as they painfully emerged into who they were truly to be in the Kingdom: the foundation stones of the holy city Jerusalem in heaven.

“The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation,
on which were inscribed the twelve names
of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14).

Moments of failure, of change, of challenge…we all have them. They are stages in our life in which we are still who-we-were and not quite yet who-we-will-be. And this liminal stage of confusion and darkness is what makes these times in our life so painful.

These transcendent crises come into my life on a regular basis. Sometimes the loss and confusion even last several years as I integrate who I was with who I am becoming, who I have been with who God has made me to be, my next step on the journey of my response to the call and grace of God. These are graced transitions.

If you are in one of these transformative crises in your life, take heart from the Twelve apostles. You may not be a stone in the foundation of the holy Jerusalem, and the Twelve certainly didn’t think they were during the 40 days after the resurrection when they remained fearfully hiding away. You have your own place in that holy city. You have been called with a purpose. Every event in your life has meaning. And no matter what you have come through or come from, God is working actively through every aspect of your daily life to keep moving you toward the fullness of what he has created you to be. Rejoice. Alleluia!

Image by Andrey Grachave on Pixabay

St. Charles de Foucauld: Everyone can live his spirituality

On May 15, 2022, Charles de Foucauld was canonized by Pope Francis. I have always been attracted by Charles de Foucauld’s spirituality, almost mysteriously so. The life I live is nowhere near his vocation as a desert hermit in the Sahara. Yet, in God’s Providence, I have felt there was always a connection, as have so many others.

The short story of Charles de Foucauld’s life reads like this: he was born in Strasbourg France in 1858 into an aristocratic family with great means and privilege, he lost his faith as a teenager, he served as a soldier, then an explorer, had a conversion experience and became a monk, and finally a desert hermit, serving most of his years among the Tuareg people of Algeria. 

He witnessed to his faith above all through his quiet example, without words. His desire was to live his faith through deep prayer and friendship and service to the people he came to know and love.

If you scratch the surface of his life, however, there is so much to this holy man that speaks to us today.

The tragic losses in the early years

When Charles was six both of his parents died just a few months apart. He and his sister lived with their paternal grandmother. One day they were out walking when a herd of cows came running at them. The grandmother was so frightened she had a heart attack, and shortly thereafter she died. The children went to live with their maternal grandfather who spoiled them.

After these tragic losses, it is no wonder that Charles grew up a very troubled young man. Through his reading he was led away from his faith and lost any sense of meaning in his life. His didn’t want to study. His grandfather got him into the military academy, and he finished at the bottom of his class. And that’s just a taste of his troubles. He was often disciplined for his behavior and openly paraded his mistress about town.

Charles was sent for military operations in Algeria, and in the mysterious ways of God it was there, that his journey back to God begave. It was through seeing the faith of the Muslim people who prayed together often during the day, these people who seemed to Charles to have this sense of the presence of God about them always, that his own journey towards faith began. Charles left the army after only a year of service and then spent a year exploring Morocco in disguise, since the country was closed to Christian Europeans.

God redeems the wounds we suffer on the way

One of the most beautiful things I think we can learn from the life of Charles de Foucauld is that our vocation unfolds gradually over time. We discover the meaning of our life little by little throughout the entirety of our life. We all come through experiences in our life that sometimes knock us off course, as we see in the life of Brother Charles. This journey that God leads each of us on redeems the wounds we suffer along the way.  Because of the death of three important figures in his early childhood, Charles became rootless. However, this rootlessness that broke him in his earliest and most tender years, was transformed into a life that had no roots anywhere on this earth, but was ever and always a search to root himself in God. He wanted his roots to be in God’s will for him. Period. Praise God!

In his twenties, Charles became friends with his cousin Marie de Bondy who was like a second maternal figure to him. When he returned from Morocco and lived for a while with her and her family, he noticed how kind and intelligent and good she and her friends were and how warmly and respectfully they received him. Charles began to think that whatever it was they believed as Catholics couldn’t be that bad. But he just couldn’t get his head around the teachings of the Church…doctrines like the Trinity and the one person and two natures of Christ.

In his mid-twenties he went early one morning before Mass into a church, entered a confessional and announced to the priest Fr Henri Huvelin that he was not there for confession but wanted to talk about doctrine. Fr. Henri was famous for his gifts as a confessor and he realized immediately that Charles needed to meet Christ, not just talk about him and debate about doctrine. The priest told Charles to kneel and confess his sins. Amazingly, Charles did. After much time, and after sharing the troubles of his whole life, he left the confessional weeping. And then as Fr. Henri went to vest for Mass, he told him to receive Communion. That meeting of Charles with Jesus was so powerful, that later he wrote, “As soon as I knew there was a God, I knew I had to live for him alone.”

Father, I abandon myself into your hands

Even though many may not know the life and spirit of Charles de Foucauld, they probably have come across his famous prayer of abandonment:

I abandon myself into your hands.
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you;
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your Will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul.
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself
to surrender myself into you’re your hands
without reserve and with boundless confidence
For you are my Father.

Actually, this prayer was not written in this form by Charles de Foucauld. When Magdeleine Hutin founded the Little Sisters of Jesus based on the rule of Charles de Foucauld almost twenty years after he had died, she was looking through his writings for a prayer that could be used with her new novices. She found notes that Brother Charles had written in his journal when he had been struggling to decide if he should make solemn profession as a Trappist monk. He had entered the Trappists three years after his conversion, looking for the religious order in which he could live a life that was the most poor and obscure. The words that now make up the famous Prayer of Abandonment came from that painful struggle that had so seared his soul. He felt God calling him to Nazareth, to imitate Jesus in his poverty in complete obscurity, and he felt he couldn’t find this in the Trappists. The monks wanted him to study for the priesthood and had already decided that he should be the next novice master. This was exactly the opposite of all he wanted in following Jesus in Nazareth. So these words were written in a dark moment as he struggled to know what God was mysteriously calling him to do. It wasn’t clear to him. God didn’t show him the whole path of his life, every decision he should make. He had to abandon himself into God’s hands and pray, “Do with me whatever you will. I am ready for all. I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself….”

We can wonder sometimes if our life has any meaning. So many disparate starts and stops, choices that lead in opposite directions or even to dead ends. Brother Charles shows us through his life that there is a thread of meaning that very gradually emerges through the entirety of our life. We haven’t lived our life through to the end yet in order to see where that thread leads, and Charles was in the same condition when he wrote this prayer. But he knew one thing: he was ready to give up all and follow the Lord wherever he called him.

I like to think that this prayer of abandonment was in Brother Charles’ heart in some way through the many losses of his life. He was eventually ordained a priest at 43 and left for the Sahara, eventually creating a place to live, in a rugged, desolate land, Tamanrasset. He wanted to be among those who were “the furthest removed, the most abandoned.” He wanted all who drew close to him to find in him a brother, “a universal brother.” He wrote a rule for a community to gather around him and live the same way. In his lifetime no one came. He was alone, always alone, except for the beloved people he took care of in the areas around his lodging. “Father, whatever you may do, I thank you; I am ready for all, I accept all.”

On the evening of December 1, 1916, Charles was killed by a band of marauders who had encircled his lodging. Brother Charles knelt on the ground outside his hut, facing the wall, his hands behind his back.

“Let only your Will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul.
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart….

A group of soldiers rode up and in the confusion the man holding Brother Charles at gun point shot him.

I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your Will be done in me, and in all your creatures.

Everyone can live the spirituality of Nazareth

The poverty and obscurity of Jesus at Nazareth was an ideal for St. Charles de Foucauld that was determinative from the moment of his conversion to the very last moment of his life. We don’t have time here to go through the evolution of this Nazareth spirituality in Charles’  life, but just to touch upon the final evolution of this ideal, that can really guide us in this world in which people don’t want to hear what Catholics have to say, what Jesus invites us to in the Gospel.

When Charles settled down in the Sahara desert, he wanted to bring Jesus and his Gospel to others through a Nazareth way of life. This meant he would bring Jesus not through words but through a modest life of prayer on behalf of others, living among them, almost indistinguishable from them. When Jesus lived in Nazareth, he lived in our place, in our little town, the poorest most despised little town of Galilee. Charles would live in a place like this, living a spirituality of welcome, openness and presence among the people that lived around him.

I said earlier that no brothers came to share Brother Charles’ life. Eventually this holy desert hermit came to realize that Nazareth could be lived anywhere, in every life, in every vocation: religious, monastic, priestly, lay.

For St. Charles de Foucauld, the poorest of the poor are those who have not received the Gospel, or we could say, those also who have resisted or refused the Gospel. He wanted to bring the seed of the divine Word to as many of these poor people as possible. Every one of us can live this Nazareth spirituality. We can each in our own way, in wherever we are living and in whatever we are doing, bring the seeds of the Gospel through what we do, how we do it, why we do it.

Remember, Brother Charles’ life was transformed by a cousin who was respectful to this young man who lived a wayward and disgraceful life and who had long before left the faith. Without a word she was the instrument of God for this first thought that sent him on a lifetime journey of holiness: “Maybe what my cousin believes isn’t crazy. She is so good.”

Each of us today lives in mission territory. The new book Saint Charles de Foucauld: His life and spirituality is an easy but penetrating read that’s well worth the time you give to it. St Charles de Foucauld is the perfect companion for us who have to learn how to be Christ for others so often more by who we are than by what we say.

Pope Francis, at the canonization of St. Charles de Foucauld, spoke words so true of the new saint and for each of us, “Let us never forget this. Our abilities and our merits are not the central thing, but rather the unconditional, free and unmerited love of God. Our Christian lives begin not with doctrine and good works, but with the amazement born of realizing that we are loved, prior to any response on our part.”

Say a strong YES to your existence (Horizons of the Heart 1)

The grace we are asking of God: A deep confidence and a consistent trust in God’s care for us and his nearness to us in every moment.

Horizons of the Heart is inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, the retreat guide Until Christ Be Formed in You by Blessed James Alberione, and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.

The most difficult thing about being a follower of Jesus Christ is not climbing mountains of virtue or even walking through the valleys of incomprehensible sorrow. No. As difficult as these things may be, there is one thing more difficult still. Strangely, it is something even a child can do. Something we were created to do. Yet we, caught in the complex web of adulthood, we, more sophisticated Christians so far from the simple childlike faith that pleases so much the heart of God, we find this one thing, I dare say, almost impossible. We can talk about it, pray about it, preach about it, encourage others to do it. However, to totally and completely do this ourselves is the most difficult. Though it is the deepest desire of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus to see this in us, we’d rather do everything else but this.

The first thing to which we are invited—nay rather pushed to risk everything we have in order to do—is this: to trust.

To trust that God knows my name. That God cares about me. That Jesus is speaking the truth when he says, “I love a single soul as much as I love all souls together.” To trust that God reveals himself to me daily, even in each moment, in every situation without exception. That I am loved as I am. This love that flows to us from God’s heart is the most basic and secure fact of my life.

Wrestling with trust like Job

At the beginning of my retreat, I wrestled with this one thing. I read the book of Job, chapters 38 to 40. After having suffered a number of serious injuries to life and livelihood, Job struggled with trust. He becomes impatient with his friends who frustrate him with their long speeches in which they attempt to explain to him why he was being punished. He cries out at the beginning of the book, “May the day of my birth perish…” (Job 3:3a), and makes his demand of God near the end: “I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me!” (Job 31:35a).

Then in chapters 38 to 40, God does answer Job from the whirlwind. Having entered upon retreat with a bit of a Job-like experience just behind me, I spent several hours meditating upon God’s words to his servant Job.

If you haven’t read these three chapters recently, I highly encourage you to do so. Reading them in one sitting is like being surrounded by a whirlwind of God’s power and activity, God’s attentiveness to the details, every last detail of his creation. Here are a few verses:

39 “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
    Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?
Do you count the months till they bear?
    Do you know the time they give birth?
They crouch down and bring forth their young;
    their labor pains are ended.
Their young thrive and grow strong in the wilds;
    they leave and do not return….

13  “The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully,
    though they cannot compare
    with the wings and feathers of the stork.
14 She lays her eggs on the ground
    and lets them warm in the sand,
15 unmindful that a foot may crush them,
    that some wild animal may trample them.
16 She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers;
    she cares not that her labor was in vain,
17 for God did not endow her with wisdom
    or give her a share of good sense.
18 Yet when she spreads her feathers to run,
    she laughs at horse and rider.

“Kathryn,” God said to me as I walked along Tampa Bay later that day. “Kathryn, do you see the details that I take care of for each creature I have made. I count the months till the mountain goats give birth. I see when their labor pains have ended. I know the day on which their young leave and do not return. I made the ostrich and see how she lays her eggs on the ground, for she was not endowed with wisdom. Yet I gave her great speed. When she spreads her feathers to run, she laughs at horse and rider who even as they race fall far behind her. A whole world of creatures and I know every detail of each one of them. I care for every detail of their existence. I do all these things every day. I can certainly take care of your life, Kathryn.”

O God of the details. A myriad of details. Endless details. It is in the details that subtle beauty is found, amazing uniqueness.

I asked God, “What is my detail?”

“You, Kathryn, are my compassion.” It is my unique way in which I mirror and manifest God’s love in the world. God has given me to be his compassion. Compassion is the detail of God’s own heart that he has given to me. It is to be the calling card of my personality, of my discipleship.

What is your detail?

Read Job 38 to 40. Notice the details God has planned into the lives of his creatures, the details he knows about, cares about, the details that make each unique. Then very simply, very tenderly, ask God to reveal to you the specific and special detail that he has planted in you. The unique way in which you manifest God’s love to the world.

You can trust God because he knows and concerns himself with every detail of your life. In a certain way, we each manifest to others some detail of God. He has entrusted this detail to us, he develops it in us, he rejoices to see it in us.

Say a strong yes to your existence. Say yes to the detail of God’s character you bear inscribed on your heart and display through your actions.

Grieve and worship even if you can’t yet trust

At the end of the book of Job, we find a beautiful verse (42:5).

My ears had heard of you before,
    but now my eyes have seen you.

Remarkably it doesn’t say that now Job “trusted” God in spite of all his sufferings. It says that Job in his grief, now recognizes God and worships him. Job says:

“I know that you can do all things
    and that no plan of yours can be ruined….

 I will change my heart and life.
    I will sit in the dust and ashes” (Job 42:2, 5).

Job can grieve and worship at the same time. If you cannot yet trust, truly trust, with a “deep down nothing can shake me” trust, if pain and loss and confusion sear your soul with sorrow so that you are afraid to trust again, do as Job: grieve and worship. As you take as your own, develop and become the detail of God that he has given you and you alone, you will find that slowly, ever so slowly, the solid heart of God will wrap itself around your shaky soul and shore up trust within you.

I promise.

Image credits: Manolo Franco from Pixabay, ivabalk from Pixabay, Iuliia Bondarenko from Pixabay

Lectio Divina on Joel 2

Ah, my Lord, how we dishonor you when we approach you with anything less than expectation, wonder, and praise. Sometimes the Lenten season overtakes the whole year: sorrow and penance, self-improvement strategies and pleading for mercy, memories of the way we’ve messed up and knowing we can’t entirely make things right on our own.

After his resurrection, Jesus filled his disciples with joy and wonder. We can’t skip that part of the story. We can’t neglect absorbing Jesus’ divine love and unendingly tender mercies with overflowing gratitude for all he pours out on us through his paschal mystery.

Ash Wednesday thrusts us into a penitential season with the reading of Joel:

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

13 Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.
14 Who knows? He may turn and relent
    and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings
    for the Lord your God.

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion,
    declare a holy fast,
    call a sacred assembly.
16 Gather the people,
    consecrate the assembly;
bring together the elders,
    gather the children,
    those nursing at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room
    and the bride her chamber.
17 Let the priests, who minister before the Lord,
    weep between the portico and the altar.
Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord.
    Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn,
    a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
    ‘Where is their God?’”

Then the Lord was jealous for his land
    and took pity on his people.

And there the reading ends. The passage is a perfect beginning for Lent, but also for any point in our life when we are in a difficult time, bearing the crushing weight of the cross, or sorrowing for sin.

However, we never really get to pick up this prophet’s vision and understand how the Lord takes pity on his people.

In this scriptural meditation, we will look closely at the Lord’s reply which immediately follows this Ash Wednesday passage. I have made bold and underlined words and phrases to bring to your prayerful awareness as you are reading the Lord’s response to his people who are crying out to God that he might spare them. In italics are my interjections.

19 The Lord replied to them:

“I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil,
    enough to satisfy you fully;
never again will I make you
    an object of scorn to the nations.

Note: it is the Lord who will feed and honor his people, satisfying them fully and forever. The LORD will do it.

20 “I will drive the northern horde far from you,
    pushing it into a parched and barren land;
its eastern ranks will drown in the Dead Sea
    and its western ranks in the Mediterranean Sea.
And its stench will go up;
    its smell will rise.”

Note: the Lord will free and protect his people, completely liberating them from their enemies. The LORD will do it. He will act. He will get things done. He will start things moving in the direction of our joy.

Then Israel replies:

Surely he has done great things!
    Do not be afraid, land of Judah;
    be glad and rejoice.
Surely the Lord has done great things!
22     Do not be afraid, you wild animals,
    for the pastures in the wilderness are becoming green.
The trees are bearing their fruit;
    the fig tree and the vine yield their riches.
23 Be glad, people of Zion,
    rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given you the autumn rains —why?—
    because he is faithful.

Note: stop and shout it out! “Because he is faithful!” We can be glad and rejoice, we see the desert turn into an oasis because he is faithful. The fig trees on the terrace yield their riches because HE is faithful. Our Ash Wednesday reading earlier in this second chapter of Joel made it clear that we were NOT faithful. Here now is the key to our joy. Even though we are not faithful, GOD IS FAITHFUL. And he can do all things. He will do all things. He has pity on us and can reverse the most terrible consequences of our weakness and sin.

He sends you abundant showers,
    both autumn and spring rains, as before.
24 The threshing floors will be filled with grain;
    the vats will overflow with new wine and oil.

Note: pay close attention to the next section. God understands clearly what his people, what you and I, have been through…”the years the locusts have eaten.” He declares: I will repay you for all you have lost, I will make it up to you for the lean years and will fill you until you are full. To what purpose? So that “you will know that I am in Israel,” says the Lord. I am here, he says, “I am the Lord your God.”

25 I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
    the great locust and the young locust,
    the other locusts and the locust swarm
my great army that I sent among you.
26 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
    and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
27 Then you will know that I am in Israel,
    that I am the Lord your God,

    and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Note: the Lord prefers working wonders, creating joy, causing us to burst out with praise, assure us with his fidelity calling forth our faith and fidelity. God prefers to be pouring out his gifts, which is where it all started with creation in Genesis. “Let there be….and God saw that it was good….” It is in God’s nature to love, to give, to overflow with goodness, to pour out his wonders on his people.

So, my friend, here are three ways to live in wonder at God’s fidelity:

Have the courage to let God restore you

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.” To allow God to restore us for the pain, the loss, the failure, the marginalization, the injustice, demands a fierce yielding to him. I know that that many times I am clinging to me, my own ideas of myself, my future, what’s best for me. I cling to my own resentments, my own ideas about God and what he should be doing. It is only when I have the courage to allow God to restore me in his own way, on his own terms, and in his own time, that I discover that the desert busts into bloom in surprising ways that perfectly satisfy all my dreams and fill me with happiness and contentment. It is always just right. It is always surprising. “Surely the Lord has done great things!”

Surrender to God’s authority over you

“I am the Lord your God…and there is no other.” To surrender is to put one’s full weight on someone or something. When we surrender to our bed at night, we relax and allow our whole weight to rest on the surface beneath us. It involves letting go, a release of effort, the melting of our tension and fear. Surrender involves great trust. God’s power over us is not that of a despot or someone out to see us fail or suffer. In this passage of Joel says, the Lord says:

26 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
    and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
27 Then you will know that I am in Israel,
    that I am the Lord your God…

Stop searching as if you had to find something that probably doesn’t exist

I have to admit I spend too much time looking for things that are right in front of me. Yes, this applies to keys and other things I habitually lose. And it also applies to God’s love, his mercy, the miraculous and wondrous way God is active in my life. In this passage from Joel, the Lord is making a promise to them by virtue of his own faithfulness to his people. When I search about for light, hope, a way forward, it is usually hampered by my awareness of my own infidelity. God is faithful because he cannot be anything less than faithful. He cannot be anything less than entirely true, wholly loving and completely good. Stop searching and see that you are surrounded by the sea of perfect love.

I invite you to pray quietly with this verse of Joel:

23 Be glad, people of Zion,
    rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given you the autumn rains —why?—
    because he is faithful.

Deepening your reflection:

  • In what areas can you shout out: “The Lord is faithful!” In what areas of your life is that difficult?
  • Have you been aware of the way God is acting in your life? What are some of the things you notice about how God acts?
  • Is your spiritual life marked more by lamentation or praise? Is God asking you to develop either of these more in your prayer at this time in your life?

No power of evil can take us from Jesus’ hand

“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress.”

This is one of the most powerful lines in the second reading for Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter. In this reading from the book of Revelation (chapter 7), evil exists only as something that has been eliminated through the victory of Christ, through the triumph of the blood of the Lamb….

Evil no longer has any power to destroy God’s people….

A vast multitude of women and men from every nation, race, people, and tongue worship the One who sits on the throne. They fear the powers of evil no longer, for they have survived the time of great distress and are now shepherded by the Lamb who wipes every tear from their eyes….

No tears.

No hunger.

No thirst.

No wounds.

No death.

No war.

Nothing but the triumph of love….

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:28).

On August 1, 1943, eleven sisters of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth stood in a secluded spot in the woods about 3 miles from Nowogródek, located in what is now central Belarus. The town had been occupied by the German army since 1941. The sisters were an integral part of the town and had helped the community find hope and faith through the days of “distress” in which half of the population had been murdered because they were Jews. Now, the sisters huddled around a mass grave.

When the women of the town had turned to the sisters to pray for the release of their husbands and sons who had been arrested and slated for execution, the sisters gathered to discuss what they could do. Unanimously they had expressed their desire to offer their lives in sacrifice for the prisoners.

The Superior of the community, Sister Maria Stella, C.S.F.N., shared the community’s decision with their local pastor, Father Zienkiewicz, telling him: “My God, if sacrifice of life is needed, accept it from us and spare those who have families. We are even praying for this intention.” Shortly thereafter, the plan for the execution of the prisoners was changed to deportation to work camps in Germany, while some were released.

When the life of their local pastor was threatened, the sisters renewed the offering of their lives: “There is a greater need for a priest on this earth than for us. We pray that God will take us in his place, if sacrifice of life is needed.”

The youngest sister, Sister M. Boromea, was just twenty-six. The oldest sister and superior, Sister M. Stella of the Blessed Sacrament, was fifty-four. With one heart and soul the eleven young religious now stood together awaiting their death. The Lord had accepted their sacrifice. They, like Christ himself, the Lamb upon the Throne, had offered their lives for their brothers and sisters. As they were gunned down by the Gestapo and buried in a common grave, they had indeed “survived the time of great distress” because they had loved others more than preserving their own life. No power of evil, no weapon on this earth, could take them from Jesus’ hand. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”

Declared martyrs by Pope John Paul, he said of them at their beatification in 2000, “Together and unanimously they offered their lives to God, asking in exchange that the lives of the mothers and fathers of families and that of the local pastor be spared. The Lord graciously accepted their sacrifice and, we believe, abundantly rewarded them in his glory.”

Friends, we all face the power of destruction in our lives. We may face it in personal wounds, our own or those of loved ones, and in the powers of evil set loose in the world. These eleven martyrs teach us four important things:

  1. We will not perish. God has us in his hands. Nothing and no one can take us out of his hands.
  2. Only love is victorious, a love modeled on the self-giving heart of the Shepherd. No tanks can destroy that love.
  3. Our lives unfold in the time of great distress, but we do not need to fear what is happening around us because of who is in us.
  4. No matter the power of destruction that rages in our times, we need to wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb, and we too will stand before the throne and before the Lamb where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, because death and evil at last will be no more.