We are loved to give love away to the world (Mark 16:15-18)

Today the Church celebrates the conversion of one of the greatest followers of Jesus: the apostle Saint Paul. When we first meet Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, he is clearly a young rabbi who had a hatred for the followers of Jesus. As St. Stephen was being stoned, those who took part in his martyrdom laid their cloaks at Paul’s feet. This zealot is described as entering house after house and dragging men and women out to hand them over for imprisonment (cf. Acts 8:3b).

As Paul approached Damascus with letters to bring back to Jerusalem any he found living as followers of the Way, Jesus met him. Surrounded by blinding light, Paul, who had been “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” was humbled to the ground. Instead of speaking, he was made to listen. This heart that had been filled with such hatred for the followers of Jesus found, suddenly and immediately, a love beyond his comprehension from the very one he had been persecuting.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” Jesus told him. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (v 5-6).

Paul’s call, his conversion, left him blind, and like a child, he was led into Damascus where he was baptized three days later by Ananias, a member of the community of disciples he had intended to round up and take back to Jerusalem for punishment.

Paul was called. Paul was converted, changed, transformed. Paul was baptized so that he would carry out the mission Jesus had chosen him for: to go into the whole world, far beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem, to proclaim the good news to every creature.

Paul’s call has become the paradigm of every Christian calling since. We are called not for ourselves, but for others. We are loved, not to hold that sense of God’s love for us close to our own hearts, but to give it away to as many people as possible. We are transformed so that we might radiate to the world what it is to be truly human, truly Christ-like, totally Christian. In other words, today’s feast is a window onto the most important task you and I have on this earth: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”

After Paul regained his sight, he immediately began to preach to the Jews of Damascus about Jesus. He was met with disbelief and threats against his life. Paul had to learn that this mission to go to the very ends of the earth spurred on by the love of Christ, though a huge task, wasn’t going to be accomplished on his own terms. Eventually, he was sent away by the disciples to Tarsus. For three years he waited in study and prayer until Barnabas remembered him and thought he might be able to help out the community in Antioch.

The Church is given a great commission to proclaim the gospel to every creature, and yet in our experience, the best and the brightest and the most promising people are often sidelined or walk away. People don’t get along and it seems that perfect opportunities are missed. There is so much to do we want to get started right away, throwing ourselves into the project, and God tells us to wait and study and pray. We devise strategies and develop plans, and God undoes them all to bring about his own. Sometimes I feel that these are the signs that accompany those who believe. More than healing the sick and driving out demons, speaking new languages, and picking up serpents with our bare hands, God leaves us in confusion and humility as we wait upon his Word. What set-back or suffering are you bearing for the sake of the Gospel?

You and I are commissioned to share with every person on this earth the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. To whom is God sending you today to share the good news?

Praying with this passage of Scripture

Lectio Divina is a way of listening to God as he speaks in his Word. It is a practice of communicating with God through Scripture and attending to God’s presence and what he wishes to tell us. In this slow and prayerful reading of the Word of God, we allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit who forms us into the image of Christ.
There are four movement in Lectio Divina: Read (lectio), Meditate (meditation), Pray (oratio), Contemplate (contemplation).

Begin by finding a still space to pray. Breathe deeply and become quieter within. Abandon any agenda, worries or thoughts you bring to this prayer and entrust these things to the merciful care of God. Ask for the grace to be receptive to what God will speak to you through this Scripture reading. Grant me, Jesus Divine Master, to be able to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God and your unfathomable riches. Grant that your word penetrate my soul; guide my steps, and brighten my way till the day dawns and darkness dissipates, you who live and reign forever and ever Amen.

Read (lectio)
Begin by slowly and meditatively reading your Scripture passage out loud. Listen for a particular word or phrase that speaks to you at this moment and sit with it for a time.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.

Meditate (meditatio) – Read the same passage a second time. As you re-engage the text, let the word or phrase that stood out become your invitation to speak from your heart with God who wishes to share his heart with you. Allow this word or phrase to wash over you and permeate your thoughts and feelings. You may wish to repeat this phrase quietly and gently for a period of time.

Pray (oratio) – Read the text a third time. Listen for what God is saying to you. Speak heart to heart with God. Notice the feelings that this conversation with God raises up within you. Share with God what you notice about your response to this conversation. You may wish to return to repeating the phrase quietly and gently, allowing it to permeate you more and more deeply.

Contemplate (contemplatio)
Read the text a final time. Now be still and rest in God’s embrace. Ask God to give you a gift to take with you from this prayer. You might ask God if he is inviting you to do some action, for instance, make some change in your thoughts, attitudes or reactions, in the way you speak or how you treat others. Thank God for this gift and invitation as you conclude your prayer.

Photo Credit: Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Saint Rita: How to Choose Forgiveness

When we’ve been hurt by others we may struggle with feelings of anger at being treated unjustly, fear of what will happen next, guilt over our part in what may have happened, and the seeming impossibility of reconciliation. And yet, as we stay up at night replaying what has happened, we may wonder at the cost of not reconciling:

The relationships broken. The difficulty of the situations we will be put in. Losing love, support, companionship, opportunity.

Have you been there? I know you have. And so have I. Many times.

In this series on forgiveness let’s find a way through the pain, learning how to navigate the swirl of inner chaos with the help of the saints, Scripture, and some spiritual activities that will make taking the leap into forgiving seem more desirable and possible.

Let’s start with Saint Rita. This amazing Italian woman born in 14th century Italy had a lot to forgive. As a child she had a deep love for prayer and more than anything else desired to become a nun. Her parents married her off instead.

Rita entered into marriage only to discover how harsh and cruel her husband Paolo Mancini was. She was married to him for 18 years and bore him two sons. Paolo had a terrible temper and was abusive.

The young mother sought to shield her two sons from Paolo’s influence and prayed that her husband would see what was happening to the family because of his rage. She hoped that her sons would not be as angry and violent as their father. Eventually, Paolo did have a change of heart and begged forgiveness from those whose suffering he had caused. However, Paolo had made many enemies in his life, and one day he was caught in an ambush and murdered.

Now Rita was a widow left with two sons in their early teenage years. The two boys vowed to avenge their father’s death and kill the man who had taken the life of their father. Rita prayed that they would not destroy their souls by taking revenge on the life of their father by murder. She even gave the Lord “permission” to take their lives if by doing so it would save their souls. Not long after her husband’s death her two teenage sons died of natural causes. Saint Rita nursed them in their final days and they begged her forgiveness.

After her sons’ deaths, the grieving widow and mother sought out the men who had murdered her husband and established reconciliation and peace with their whole family.

After losing her husband and sons, Rita joined the Augustinian nuns and her body is incorrupt to this day. She is invoked as the saint of impossible cases.

There are four things we can learn from Saint Rita to help us think about forgiveness in new ways:

  1. Forgiveness is a way of seeing. When harm has been done to us it is often hard to get outside the quagmire of our thoughts, imaginations, emotions, and our desires to make a quick decision to “set things right” or “feel at peace.” Saint Rita teaches us to take the long view. To see beyond what appears so abundantly clear to our eyes and our heart. Forgiveness requires us to see beyond fears, reactions, expectations, both our own and those of others. Forgiveness requires that we see the other who has hurt us as a person who is loved by God, potentially, at least, my brother or sister in Christ, always worthy of respect and love.  
  2. Forgiveness is a new way of imagining situations. We struggle with forgiving others at times because we are trying to protect ourselves or others from being hurt again. When we open ourselves to imagining the situation in new ways, forgiveness offers us new possibilities for alternate responses other than anger, revenge, and defensiveness. Like Saint Rita, we discover that what seemed to be a path of darkness and hopelessness suddenly becomes the place in which we are molded into the very person God has made us to be.
  3. Forgiveness is only possible for the courageous person. I have to admit that when I have succumbed to my feelings to want to “hit back” or “take out” someone or a group who has hurt me, I feel small and petty. And I feel this way even if I am convinced I am in the right. It takes a courageous person like Saint Rita to dream of new ways of thriving in the midst of a difficult and undeserved situation.
  4. Forgiveness is rarely a one-time event. We have to be honest about the damage that has been done to us by others who have hurt us. Even if we tell God that we forgive, even if we pray for the other person and for their success and holiness, even if we think we’ve moved on, we may have to revisit the situation and the wound again and again. Like Saint Rita, we touch the complexity of situations, how they ripple through the lives and experiences of other people we know and love, how we relive again and again what happened.

Forgiveness does not come spontaneously or naturally to people. Forgiving from the heart is heroic. Only the healing power of love can enable the wounded heart to experience the liberating power of forgiveness.

When we make the courageous choice to see and imagine our lives and the lives of the person who has hurt us differently, we weaken the ego’s monopoly on our perceptions and the tempest in our emotions gets put on pause for the slightest moment in time. Then miraculously we are enabled to release, to rest, to let go, to cease ruminating on the hurt and to have compassion instead on the wounded and the wounder. We are able with the grace of God to acknowledge and affirm the greater truth of who we are and who others most deeply are.

Next look at forgiveness: What Forgiveness Is…And What It Is Not

Image Credit: Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Jesus asks: “Are you ready to be healed? Are you willing to follow me?” (Horizons of the Heart 14)

The grace we are asking of God: a deeply felt awareness of how God draws us into the unfolding of the mystery of the Word made flesh and how in doing this we enter into a process of healing that we might love Jesus and follow him more intentionally.

Horizons of the Heart is inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.

If you could live your deepest vision for yourself, if you could take up the dream you have for your life, what would that look like?

This is a question we are often asked in a secular forum. If you want to plan your life, your day, your career, you need to know who you are and what you want. Otherwise, there is no planning, there is no starting, there is no arriving. However, when we ask these questions in the context of gospel contemplation and the spiritual horizon of our life the purpose and process are somewhat different.

If you could live your deepest vision for yourself, if you could take up the dream you have for your life, what would that look like?

Other questions you might begin to reflect on in a space of deeper prayer or simple being in the presence of the goodness of God could be:

  • What images give you life?
  • What pictures, stories, events of the past have remained with you like a mysterious clarion call to something different? Perhaps these arouse your curiosity. They might might strengthen your willingness and your love, or you could realize that they seem to trigger inner resistances of which you were not previously aware.
  • What are the values, goals, ideas you have had about the good life that have sustained you to this point? Are these shifting? If so, why do you think this is happening now and not at some other time?
  • What are situations of abandonment, failure, manipulation that may have influenced who you have become to this point in your life? Do you desire something to be different? Why?

You may wish to take some time with these questions, reflecting and journalling about them over several days. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you, to sanctify your memory, to open your heart, to fortify and sustain your will.

Notice: What surprises you? What challenges you? What frees you?

Image by Paul Barlow from Pixabay 

Horizons of the Heart

Horizons of the Heart is inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.

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

The Amazing Promise of New Beginnings (Horizons of the Heart 2)

God’s Love Is Forever (Horizons of the Heart 3)

Jesus Says: “I am the one you are looking for” (Horizons of the Heart 4)

The GIFT Jesus Wants to Give You (Horizons of the Heart 5)

We Are Not Prisoners of Our Past (Horizons of the Heart 6)

The Way and the Gift of Tears (Horizons of the Heart 7)

You, Yes YOU, Are God’s Choice (Horizons of the Heart 8)

“To Know the Forest Thaws” (Horizons of the Heart 9)

How To Do Gospel Contemplation (GUIDE)

The Motherhood of Mary: Entering into Gospel Contemplation (Horizons of the Heart 10)

“…In But a Very Little While” – A Personal Gospel Meditation (Horizons of the Heart 11)

The Divine Heart of Reality – A Personal Gospel Contemplation (Horizons of the Heart 12)

When Life is Upended: A Gospel Contemplation (Horizons of the Heart 13)

When Life Is Upended: A Gospel Contemplation (Horizons of the Heart 13)

Horizons of the Heart is inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.

The grace we are asking of God: a deeply felt sense of trust in how God draws us into the unfolding of the mystery of the Word made flesh.

Entering Prayer

“O Holy Night!” It is one of the most beloved of Christmas hymns, immortalizing the “night” of the birth of the Savior. I must admit that for all my life my favorite hymns for the season of Christmas are the ones that talk about the night, the moment, in which the Son of God appears in the lowly and poor space where animals are kept in the city of Bethlehem. Like the manger scenes so typically depict, there is Mary and Joseph gazing with love on the Child. A snapshot in time reminding us of the most miraculous and momentous moment of history. “O Holy Night!”

“He whom God manifold to prophets hath foretold
Lies there a Child. Lies there a Child” (from the hymn Holiest Night).

“Wonder of wonders,
Myst’ry of mysteries,
Upon the heart of the young Virgin Mother
Rests the Maker of all the world” (from the Italian hymn Sleep on, Little King, Ninna Nanna).

This Christmas, however, something was different. Some welcome days of vacation meant I had extra time to pray, to ponder, to read, to wonder, and even to wander. My heart came to rest at last as I gazed on the crêche a few feet from the first pew in our chapel in our Motherhouse.

The figures of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the Shepherds, and the Magi were no longer frozen in time, appearing for one holy night’s event that would be remembered and recalled year after year. They were suddenly for me real people with real lives who made real journeys in response to this most sacred event in the history of the world.

Image by articgoneape from Pixabay 

Imagining Yourself Present

Sit next to Mary as she rests in the stable while Joseph takes his turn to watch their Child who is the Son of God. So young is she, and yet so suddenly mature, responsible, surrendering to the Provident care of God, yet cherishing her firstborn son with the evident concern of any new mother. Feel the prickly straw that provides the only place to lie, where the blessed Mother and Son in poverty rest. Notice the fatigue. Peer into the darkness outside and wonder when you will be able to travel home with such a young child? Feel her loneliness as she rested so far away from her mother and neighbors on this most important holy night of her life. Let your heart feel compassion for Mary. Perhaps bring her some water or a bit of food. Tell her that she can sleep a little while you and Joseph watch over her newborn baby.

Before this night, before the moment when the Archangel Gabriel had visited her, Mary had been but a child herself. Her life had been unfolding in one direction as a “virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph.” Things had been easy in those days before “The angel Gabriel from heaven came, / his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame; / “All hail,” said he to meek and lowly Mary, / “most highly favored maiden” (from the hymn The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came). And yet her answer: “To me be as it pleases God,” not only set her life in a new direction. The intervention of heaven into her life made it possible for Mary to become who she was meant to be: God’s Mother and ours, the Queen of the Universe and Gate of Heaven.

There is no photographed moment of Christmas joy from that first holy night, only lives transformed by unexpected vocations and challenging manifestations of God that directed people onto new paths for which there was little preparation. Mary and Joseph both had to prepare themselves for a life they had not anticipated, but a life lived in response to the angel’s message from the Throne of God: “Do not be afraid. This is what will happen. And this is what you will do….”

Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even the sleepy shepherds found their slumber and night watch interrupted by angels. In an instant they were no longer the lowest outcasts of Bethlehem, but had become the first messengers and apostles of the good news of the birth of the King of Kings. The Wise Men in their rich robes suddenly realized that their destiny was to take a very long journey in search of an unknown King who had been born somewhere in the land of Israel.

Take some time to reflect on what even one of these persons is going through as their life is upended by the Almighty and they are precipitated into unknown futures where all they have is their trust.

Imagining the Gospel Events in the Present

The quiet days of reflection that were woven into my Christmas season were welcome days of unwinding and interior relief. As I reflected on the ways my life has recently been upended and redirected into unexpected directions, I resonated with the attitudes and feelings and interior heart-spaces each of the people in the crêche before me.

And you? Have your middling years seen a surprising transformation of life form? Does it resemble the Christmas journey of Mary or Joseph, with the clarity of heaven’s clarion call? Or the wonder and simplicity of the shepherd’s search for what the angels had announced? Or is it long and convoluted and messy like the Wise Men from the East who unwittingly got caught up in the machinations of a jealous Herod?

Observe Attractions and Resistances

Enter again, as you are drawn in prayer, with quiet rest and sensitive attention into the inner world of one of the figures that make up the Christmas story.

Observe their actions, words, emotions, sensitivities, attitudes. To which of them you feel more attracted. Which of them arouse more negative feelings or resistance? Return to aspects of these meditations that seem more personally meaningful.

Entering the Mystery of the story

As you begin to enter the mystery of the story more deeply, you will begin to see or hear or touch. You will enter into the event and interact more deeply. Little by little you will become more present to the mystery and the mystery will be present to you.

Moving through deepening levels of stillness

As your contemplative prayer deepens, you will be open to being affected deeply by Jesus’ Spirit at both conscious and less-than-conscious levels of your being.

It may move you gradually through deepening levels to stillness. You may find yourself just there, totally involved—seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. It is almost as if the experience has gone into slow motion, and time passes as one is present to the Beloved and the Beloved to oneself. One is there; Jesus is there. The mystery is there. No words are necessary and no great thoughts need to surface. This is the experience of “O taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

Desiring to follow Jesus

As I become more and more involved in the event of Jesus’ mystery that I am contemplating, my life and my choices are affected. I find myself changing and desiring to change. I begin to follow Jesus in a particular way.

As you contemplate more deeply, as you soak in these mysteries of Mary’s motherhood, where do you observe emotions or reactions like fear, guilt, resistance? Do any memories become more present to your awareness? How do you feel drawn toward something new? Speak to Mary, Joseph and Jesus about what you observe and experience. What do you begin to learn about your following of Jesus?

Conversing as with a friend

Continue in quiet—or even silent—intimate conversation with Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Ask them what is the grace that you should be praying for. Beg this grace of the Father. Then beg this grace of the Son, your Savior and Shepherd. Finally, beg for this grace from the Holy Spirit who is the source of all holiness.

If you wholly lived this grace that you are begging for, what would your life look like? Your relationships? Your prayer? The way you work? The way you love? The way you serve? What about you would make you the most happy?

Ask Mary, Joseph and Jesus to show you one specific gift they wish to give you. Receive it and remain in stillness and quietly relaxed presence under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Reviewing the graces of prayer

When you finish praying, write down the main gifts and discoveries from this time of intimate contemplation. What is one concrete thing you can do to solidify these gifts in your life.

Main image credit: Image by Enrique from Pixabay