Need refreshment? Find your “deserted place” today

At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place.

In today’s Gospel reading, we enter into just one of Jesus’ “days.” He had been teaching and healing non-stop for 24 hours at least. After he had left the synagogue [before today’s reading picks up], he went to Peter’s house, where he was asked to heal Peter’s mother-in-law who lay in bed with a severe fever. Jesus rebuked the fever and she immediately got up “and waited on them.” I imagine that meant cooking dinner, giving Jesus a bit of refreshment near the end of a busy day.

However, at sunset the house began to crowd with endless people pleading throughout the night for healing and hope. And now at daybreak, “Jesus left and went to a deserted place.” These are the words that are used in the Gospel of Luke to introduce the hours of solitude in which Jesus would be alone with his Father in prayer. These words are never used to indicate that Jesus was taking a break. He didn’t leave to escape the noise and demands of the crowds who needed him, but to reconnect with the Source of his Life, the Fire of the Love that burned within him, his purpose, his desire. His great need was to stay in communion with the Father, and it was from this communion that he gained the strength and energy to give, to serve, to love, and eventually to lay down his life.

Saint John Paul II seemed to get his cue from Jesus himself. He received his drive, and his purpose, from prayer. The Pope’s schedule, according to Andreas Widmer, author of the book The Pope & the CEO: John Paul II’s Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard, ran something like this: The Pope rose before 6:00 and prayed in his private chapel before visitors joined him for Mass at 7:00. After Mass and an hour or two in the office, he would greet official visitors at 11:00, and then give his general audiences which were followed by lunch where he was joined by various Vatican staff. His lunches were the opportunity for him to be brought up to speed on what was happening in the various offices of the Vatican. Often he invited guests specifically to engage in a vigorous discussion on various theological or philosophical issues that concerned the life of the Church. After lunch, the Pope headed for the rooftop gardens of the Papal Palace to walk and talk with God. After this time of quiet prayer and rest, there were several hours of office work and more audiences until dinner at 8:00 where guests dined with him once more. After dinner he returned to reading and writing and praying well into the night, only turning out his lights at midnight or even later. We can imagine that this was a leisurely schedule compared to his schedule while traveling.

Widmer recalls that when John Paul II returned after being weeks on the road he didn’t head straight for his own apartment and collapse for a few days in exhaustion. As he arrived at the Vatican, he would stop and greet all the staff who had gathered to welcome him home and inspect the Swiss Guard lined up in honor formation, talking to each one and shaking their hand.

Widmer, who was a twenty-year-old Swiss Guard at the time and who was, like his fellow guards, in peak physical condition, describes how the young Swiss Guards were unable to keep up with the energy level of Saint John Paul II. He shared in his book how he tried to remember even once when he saw that schedule taking a toll on the pope. He couldn’t remember John Paul II ever exhausted, bleary-eyed, burnt out, irritated. The Swiss Guards who traveled with him on those trips were 40, 50, 60 years his junior, yet they returned home exhausted. The Pope instead was filled with energy and ready to pour himself out for others.

Just like Jesus, just like Saint John Paul II, each of us has a mission in life. Each of us has demands, is busy, has an overcrowded schedule. Each of us must deal with the rapid force of endless change and the fear of the uncertainty of what is right around the corner, the endless unknowns that could upset our life. Each of us is called in our vocation to pour ourselves out in response to whatever God asks of us.

Take your cue from Jesus today. Find your “deserted place” to recharge, regroup, renew. You may be able to stay there for moments, or it may be hours. You may find your deserted place in the car on a long commute or at night when the house has grown silent and all your family members are sleeping. Wherever it is and for whatever length of time you are able to be there, cherish your “deserted places” to commune with your God who will renew your energy, return your joy, and recharge your purpose in life.

Image Credit: Josef August Untersberger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Feast of the Assumption: Slip your hand into Mary’s hand

My mother is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. In the lovely summer weather this year, she and dad have spent a couple of hours every afternoon sitting outside in the lovely garden where she lives. Listening to the birds, watching the squirrels play, and enjoying the flowers and trees has always been a blessed way for mom to spend her leisure moments, particularly in these last fifteen years. I am so grateful to God that my parents have had this very special final year together.

Even as the whole family has found a new and blessed rhythm of being with mom and surrounding her with love and experiences of  beauty that are familiar to her on this earth, we all know that this will probably be the last summer that we will have this gift.

I find my comfort in the Feast of Mary we celebrate today, Mary’s Assumption into heaven. The Collect for today’s Mass lifts our minds and our hearts:

O God, who, looking on the lowliness of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
raised her to this grace,
that your Only Begotten Son was born of her according to the flesh
and that she was crowned this day with surpassing glory,
grant through her prayers,
that, saved by the mystery of your redemption,
we may merit to be exalted by you on high.

Heaven is the final goal.

Even as mom and we enjoy these precious moments in the beauty of nature, the glory of creation, I remember that heaven is the final goal. From the moment of his glorious rising from the dead, Jesus has been lifting up our hearts, lifting them up above this earth, above this place of exile, above this vale of tears. He rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven. The Spirit descended upon the apostles in the Cenacle. And today we celebrate the assumption of Mary into heaven.

On this day we celebrate the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever virgin Mary, who having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory (Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus 44). Pius XII affirmed in this dogma of the assumption of Mary, the elevation of Mary’s body to heavenly glory. We celebrate today the moment at which Mary was “taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things” (Lumen Gentium 59). 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians” (CCC 966).

And so we spend these days with Mom, these final months of life before Life with joy in our hearts, yes mingled with the sorrow of knowing she won’t be with us, but with transparent and joyful gratitude. She has already received the Anointing of the Sick and the Apostolic Blessing at a point in which she seemed to be approaching the end. Now even as we cherish the beauties of creation on this earth, we know Mom is ready for eternity. Even as we enjoy those precious moments and share those selfies with her that we’ll keep forever, we remember that this life is put a preparation for eternity. Mary who has gone before us, body and soul, reminds us of this particularly on the Feast of the Assumption. There in heaven, the Mother of Jesus and our mother enjoys forever the beatific vision that is our hope, the hope of all Christians. What Mary now enjoys in heaven is promised to each of us:

Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ.” (Colossians 15:20-23)

According to Pope Benedict XVI:

“By contemplating Mary in heavenly glory, we understand that the earth is not the definitive homeland for us either, and that if we live with our gaze fixed on eternal goods we will one day share in this same glory and the earth will become more beautiful.

“Consequently, we must not lose our serenity and peace even amid the thousands of daily difficulties. The luminous sign of Our Lady taken up into Heaven shines out even more brightly when sad shadows of suffering and violence seem to loom on the horizon.

We may be sure of it: from on high, Mary follows our footsteps with gentle concern, dispels the gloom in moments of darkness and distress, reassures us with her motherly hand” (Benedict XVI, General Audience, August 16, 2006).

If you are accompanying a loved one or friend in the last months or years of their life, or if you yourself are soon to enter your eternal home, slip your hand into Mary’s hand. Make beautiful memories in these days, cherish all the blessings you have on this earth, and also keep your mind and heart lifted high. Mary is your hope, the promise of a Life after this one, a Life that will never end, a Life of eternal joy. As you cherish the moments you have here, prepare for the eternal and unending forever that is our final destination, where Mary awaits to receive you her child.

Mary our Hope, assumed into heaven, pray for us.

Image Credit: Charles Le Brun, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bend your knee before your King!

I heard the voices of a multitude of angels who surrounded the throne and the living creatures and the elders. These angels numbered thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand of them. 

And they cried out with a loud voice:

“Worthy is the Lamb that was sacrificed
    to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength,
    honor and glory and praise.”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To the one seated on the throne
    and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
    forever and ever.”

The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders prostrated themselves in worship (Rev. 5:11ff.).

Worship. Worship is the inward gaze of the soul upon God. Worship is where we sink low to become what we shall ever be: adorers of our God.

“To the one seated on the throne
    and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
    forever and ever.”

O callous of heart! Bend your knee before your King… How many times a day I must recall my wandering heart and wavering mind to the King. To sink at his feet. To bless him forever and ever. To affirm him of my love. In the words of the hymn by Saint Alphonsus de Ligouri (one of my favorite hymns):

O God of loveliness, O Lord of Heaven above,
How worthy to possess my heart’s devoted love.
So sweet Thy countenance, so gracious to behold
That one, one only glance to me were bliss untold.

Thou art blest Three in One, yet undivided still,
Thou art the One alone whose love my heart can fill.
The heav’ns and earth below were fashioned by Thy Word,
How amiable art Thou, my ever dearest Lord.

To think Thou art my God—O thought forever blest!
My heart has overflowed with joy within my breast.
My soul so full of bliss, is plunged as in a sea,
Deep in the sweet abyss of holy charity.

O Loveliness supreme, and Beauty infinite,
O ever flowing Stream and Ocean of delight,
O Life by which I live, my truest Life above,
To Thee alone I give my undivided love.

Source: The Cyber Hymnal #4879

Worship and love put us before the greatness and loveliness of our God. How immense is God’s love that as small as we are, we are taken by him into God’s own life, his Kingdom, given a part in his salvific deeds.

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches” (Mt. 13:31-32).

Our Mother General commented to us that this parable is extraordinary. The Kingdom of God is very important, eternally important, and yet it never makes the news. The world is fascinated by what and who is big and powerful, victorious and beautiful. But when Jesus collects the members of his Kingdom, he doesn’t gather these striking individuals and make a big splash. Rather, he announces the Kingdom that is as small as a mustard seed filled with small people. Before God we are all small people. She writes: “When we opt for the Kingdom of heaven, the Lord is able to heal us from the delusion that we are omnipotent, from the desire to be first, from the illusion to see ourselves as perfect and from the temptation to want others to be the same.”

Learning to be small isn’t so easy because it means that we give up control, direction, the self-made purpose of our accomplishments in exchange for the power of trusting in the goodness and providence of God in whatever form it takes in our life, in all circumstances.

We have many teachers on this call to smallness and this journey of the Kingdom:

The first is a prayer that has always meant a lot to me in moments of change and struggle. It is from Charles de Foucauld, willingly martyred in Algeria in 1916:

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 your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,

Another prayer like this was written some 350 years earlier. Like the prayer of Charles de Foucauld, this prayer leads us to offer our heart, our freedom, our entire being wholly and entirely out of love. It is given to us by St. Ignatius of Loyola:

“Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will.  All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will.  Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.”

Those who are small, who live the life of a mustard seed, know that everything—absolutely everything—comes from God. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “God chose those who were regarded as foolish by the world to shame the wise; God chose those in the world who were weak to shame the strong. God chose those in the world who were lowly and despised, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were regarded as worthy” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).

Shahbaz Bhatti shows us the courage of the mustard seed. In the early 2000s in Pakistan, he was the only Christian on the Cabinet as the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs in the predominantly Muslim country.  It was a dangerous job, one that carried an almost inevitable outcome of assassination.  But Shahbaz remained in this position because he believed in the vision and values of religious freedom for his fellow Christians. Shahbaz was assassinated by Islamist terrorists in 2011.  His cause for beatification was opened in 2016 and he is now a Servant of God. Bishop Anthony Lobo, who gave an interview to Fides News Agency shortly before his death in 2013, said that Bhatti “decided to play an active part in politics in order to protect the country’s Christians and other minorities…. A man of great commitment, he decided not to marry. He lived a life of celibacy. He had no possessions and saw his activity as a service. I believe that Clement Shahbaz Bhatti was a dedicated lay Catholic martyred for his faith.”

Three years earlier Bhatti said in an interview,

“I do not feel any fear in this country.  Many times the extremists wanted to kill me, many times they wanted to put me in prison, they threatened me, they harassed me and they terrorized my family.  [I told my father], ‘Until I live, until my last breath, I will continue to serve Jesus, to serve the poor humanity, the suffering humanity, the Christians, the needy, the poor.’
“I want that my life, my character, my actions speak for me and indicate that I am following Jesus Christ.  Because of this desire, I will consider myself even to be more fortunate if – in this effort and struggle to help the needy, the poor, to help the persecuted and victimized Christians of Pakistan – Jesus Christ will accept the sacrifice of my life.”

This morning I was praying with St Joseph’s utter obedience and willingness to give his life over to the Kingdom. He was and he remained through his whole life small and vulnerable.

When I first held the Child Jesus at his birth
All the earth disappeared in his smile. In his gaze.
Too soon, however, the darkness tried to snuff out this life–
the Son of God, the angel said.

There is no room in any of Bethlehem’s inns, escape with the child to Egypt, the anonymity and disconnection from family, culture, Nazareth while in exile, the uprooting once again to return some seven years later.
This great plan of God, of God’s Kingdom, I served by loving the Child, and obeying each wild change on the path…

never building, no long-range plan, no monuments, no settled comfort,
no familiar surroundings that Mary and I had made.

And now, in Jerusalem, Jesus lost and at last found again. I cannot tell you the pain in my heart when I heard my son say, “I must be in my Father’s house.” My Father’s house. Not my house as his earthly father, but his Father’s house.

So soon, too soon, to give him up. Not to be able to create him in my image.

I was but a child…
of the Father’s deep affection,
trusted with his treasures and yet unable to do anything
to protect them except to obey.

no power
nothing built beyond serving in the present moment,
trusting because I could not do my mission on my own strength and planning

I could just instantly obey. It’s all I had. It’s all I could give.

That was all that was needed from me. And, Kathryn, that is what God needs from you.

Sometimes I look around the world and worry that somehow I’m not doing the one great thing that I was supposed to do on this earth. Joseph and Shabhaz Bhatti and Charles de Foucauld and Ignatius of Loyola remind me that the Kingdom of God is made of small people obeying in their little place at each wild turn of the road of their life. Nothing more.

Here is deep insight from John Henry Newman about trusting the smallness and unknown paths and purpose of our lives on this earth:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service.  He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.  I have my mission.  I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next… I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.  If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”

He knows what He is about… No matter what happens in my life, He knows what He is about. I pray you have a chance today to sit with the assurance of this simple act of faith.