Pin Pricks and Pet Peeves

This is the third article in a short series on forgiveness. We have explored the dramatic and traumatic stories of Saint Rita and Corrie Ten Boom. In this article, we’ll be thinking about the million-and-one pin pricks that we receive and give to others every day. Though these aren’t dramatic or traumatic in themselves, when not attended to they can lead to drama and trauma and to the need for forgiveness in order to restore peace in a relationship.

These pin pricks never show up in the biographies of saints. We certainly don’t expect to read about Saint Rita’s frustration when her husband left his socks on the floor every morning or how Corrie was driven crazy by the way her father repetitively tapped his pencil on the desk. But, honestly, we have to face the fact our lives are full of these pet peeves that get under our skin and in the way of our relationships…and probably our saints had a few pet peeves themselves.

A quick Google search for pet peeves reveals that there are lists of pet peeves about just about everything: Wikipedia defines a pet peeve as “a minor annoyance that an individual finds particularly irritating to them, to a greater degree than would be expected based on the experience of others.”

One list of 70 pet peeves includes: chewing sounds, interrupting during a conversation, texting during a meal, throat clearing, leaving cabinet drawers open, not screwing the lids onto bottles and containers all the way, cutting lines, talking during movies, being late, cracking knuckles, and, well, you get the point…. I have to admit I do some of these things myself and am probably driving at least one sister I live with nuts.

One evening I learned a really important lesson. I was washing the dishes and had accidently left the sprayer option on the water faucet. When I turned on the water to rinse the dishes, I  sprayed not only the dishes but also my superior who was standing next to the sink to get water for the coffee pot. There was no response. No surprise. No disgust. No anger. No running to clean off her habit. Nothing. “It’s okay,” she said. “Don’t worry.” And that was the end of that. I learned two things that night, however. One: Always check to make sure you don’t have the sprayer left on when you turn on the water. Two: You don’t always need to give a dramatic reaction to make your point.

Back to my Google search for “pet peeves.” There are office pet peeves, driving pet peeves, as well as pet peeves particular to flight attendants, and teachers, and doctors, and veterinarians, and admissions counselors. There are annoying trends that drive us crazy about email, about social media, about sports, about teams. Pet peeves are a part of daily life.

When minor annoyances are not addressed over time, they can have serious effects on a relationship. The way someone who lives or works close to us chews, or piles things on their desk, or hums while they work, or leaves the newspaper on the table, or insists on giving their opinion rather categorically about just about everything, can make us feel misunderstood, not appreciated, unimportant. And we so often do things that make others feel the same way or worse.

Practices for addressing pet peeves

Here are some practices you can develop that will keep those pet peeves from ruining your day and your relationships:

Practice expressing respect actively and frequently throughout the day. Get in the habit of noticing what you like about other people and telling them what about them delights you. Tell others, in their presence, how great they are in a particular area. Build up a groundwork of trust and respect for each other.

Share behaviors that could be pet peeves that bother other people. Keeping things light and humorous, take some time to share with the people who work or live nearest you your own behaviors that could bother others. “I know I talk to myself at my desk here. It’s a habit I’ve had since childhood and one I picked up from my dad when he worked at home. Just let me know if it is bothering you because I honestly don’t even hear myself do it anymore. I promise not to be offended, at least not most of the time.” Your sharing not only lets others know you are aware that something you do mindlessly could bug them, it also tells them why you do it and gives them permission to ask you to tone it down if it is becoming obnoxious to them.

Have a dialogue about pet peeves with people who work or live close to you in different settings. Go around the room or table and let everyone share one pet peeve that bothers them in the office or home or team. Go around the room till everyone has three opportunities. Sometimes we have no idea that something we do or don’t do drives another crazy. At times, it requires just a simple adjustment. Religious sisters get transferred often from one assignment to another. In each community, we begin to live with different sisters who like things done a certain way. “My mom always told me to…. That’s why I…” Well, my mom didn’t really care that much about the item that is Sister’s pet peeve. I have to admit, however, that most of these things are small and I can adjust the way I do many little things in order to not bother the others as much as possible. The benefit for me is that I take on new habits that are actually really helpful. The pet peeves become my teachers!

Engage in anti-pet peeves. “An anti-pet peeve is the opposite of a pet peeve: a tiny thing in life that brings you an exponential amount of joy.”  This site provides themed collections of anti-pet peeves. Readers contribute activities that bring them great joy, so much joy that they make sure they enjoy them every chance they get. For example, one reader described how he loved bringing a cup of coffee to his wife first thing on Saturday morning and seeing her react as if it were Christmas morning. Every time. Another loved watching her dog on her back while she was on video calls.

Focus on what you love not what you hate. My dad loves thunderstorms. Nothing makes him more happy than to sit in a room and watch out the window as a thunderstorm rolls in. My mom hates thunderstorms. Dad shared with me one evening how he and mom were at a Bed and Breakfast in the mountains. They went to bed for the night and a thunderstorm broke out in the sky overhead. He, being nearest the window, was delighted as he watched the lightening and heard the thunder roll across the sky. In a few moments, mom got up and closed the blinds. He just rolled over and went to sleep. That story will remain in my heart forever. Dad’s love for mom far surpassed his frustration at not being able to watch thunderstorms. He loved her too much to fuss over something so small. I’m sure he sneaked out and watched storms when he could be alone. But he respected her fears and her wishes when they were together. Again and again my siblings and I hear our father say, “I love your mom so much!” The pet peeves couldn’t embitter a heart so full of love to the point that he made a big deal about insisting on what he wanted. Being in a good relationship was more important to him than indulging his desire to relish in thunderstorms.

Respect where another person is at. A pet peeve that bothers us about another person may actually just be a temporary stage of growth. Maybe at this point in the other person’s life they need to know they are important, valuable, smart, popular. Sometimes we just need to let another person alone as they grow through things. We can embody behaviors that correspond to our values, and these might have an influence on the other person as they notice there is another way to act. But just as you will only kill a seedling if you force the seed open to hasten its growth, stuffing another person into your own mold only leads to frustration and hurt.

Don’t waste your time with stupid stuff. Everyone has pet peeves, just as everyone has weaknesses. Be the person who has the wisdom to distinguish between what is worth fighting for and what isn’t. What’s important and what can pass. What’s serious and what is not. Be the wisdom figure who can think things through instead of blowing up. Who can work on themselves to be great-hearted rather than being petulant and demanding. The more we feed our pet peeves the stronger they will become and the more they will affect our relationships.

Learn to accept the fact that we are all imperfect Someone has the habit of putting wet dishes on top of the dry dishes in the kitchen. It doesn’t bother them, but it certainly bothers you because you have to put them away. You may be trying to finish a project and the rest of the team is behind you chatting about their plans for the weekend. A customer loses their temper and causes the scene, demanding to speak with your manager. There are so many things that can annoy us and drive us up the wall. Before pet peeves begin to take control and people become disgruntled, simply ask yourself if a situation is worth getting upset over. The question itself can give you a change of perspective. Some things are big and need to be addressed, but most things are small. We are all imperfect, and learning to accept this can go a long way toward being able to work together with charity.

When clashes and resentments break out between people over pet peeves forgiveness is a necessary path to healing. Next we’ll be presenting a prayerful exercise for forgiveness.

Baptism: becoming God’s beloved one Part 2 (Contemplating the Easter Mysteries III)

Your baptism was the most momentous moment of your life! In this sacrament you experienced an event, the action of the holy Trinity that changed the course of your life forever. Our feelings can tell us things that are not true about ourselves and about God. The action of God, however, reveals to us the truth of how we are loved by our Father, and God cannot lie.

Through your baptism you were incorporated into the love of Christ and the life of the Church. In being washed by the waters of Baptism, you were forever changed and are sealed with an indelible spiritual mark, or character, that enables you to participate in a full sharing in the life of the Church.

The Catechism states that this sacrament “signifies and actually brings about death to sin and entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity through configuration to the Paschal mystery of Christ.” (CCC 1239)

Indeed, by our Baptism, we are initiated into an eternal sharing in the Divine Life of the Trinity and participate fully in the life of grace.

Cyril of Jerusalem said of Baptism, “You go down dead in your sins, and you come up made alive in righteousness.”

St. Augustine wrote, “Baptism washes away all, absolutely all, our sins …. This is the meaning of the great sacrament of Baptism, which is celebrated among us.”

St. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift … We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth.”

Nicholas Cabasillas wrote in The Life in Christ:

“They are no trifling gifts he bestows [in Baptism], nor are they trifling benefits of which he counts us worthy! … When we come up from the water we bear the Savior upon our souls, on our heads, on our eyes, in our very inward parts, on all our members—him who is pure from sin, free from all corruption, just as he was when he rose again and appeared to his disciples, as he was taken up, as he will come again to demand the return of his treasure. Thus we have been born; we have been stamped with Christ as though with some figure or shape. … He makes us his own body and he becomes for us what a head is for the members of a body. Since, then, he is the Head, we share all good things with him, for that which belongs to the head must needs pass into the body.”

We are truly God’s beloved, because we are one with Christ his beloved Son. In an ancient homily read every Holy Saturday in the Office of Readings, the author pictures the King seeking out our first parents who sit in darkness, to free them from imprisonment and pain. Jesus is often shown in icons depicting this event grasping the hands of Adam and Eve, pulling them toward himself, raising them with him, and with them, each of us:

“‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person….

“But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”

Entering deeply into the Easter mysteries through liturgical catechesis (also called mystagogy) is meant to stir things up for us, to unsettle us, to break open the tired and static meaning of our life, to push us out with radiant joy to share the mission of the Church and all those who have risked “entering into the life-altering mysteries of faith” (Geraard F. Baumbach, Eucharistic Mystagogy, 25).

What has been stirring in your heart as you’ve entered more deeply into the mystery of your baptism?

God wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining in the world. You are to be radiant lights as you stand beside Christ, the great light, bathed in the glory of him who is the light of heaven. You are to enjoy more and more the pure and dazzling light of the Trinity, as now you have received – though not in its fullness – a ray of its splendour, proceeding from the one God, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen (From a Sermon by Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, bishop, Oratio 39 in Sancta Lumina).

Directions for your prayer this Easter:

  1. What would be different in your life if these words of St. Gregory of Nazianzus guided your life: “God wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining in the world. You are to be radiant lights as you stand beside Christ, the great light, bathed in the glory of him who is the light of heaven.” What would change? What would you renew? What would you begin? What would you relinquish?
  2. How is Jesus calling you to enter more deeply into the life of the Church, the celebration of the sacraments, and the missionary imperative to share what you have received with others?

Image: baptistry St Theresa’s Church in Ashburn, VA

The Bread of Life (John 6:22-29)

The thirst for God is present in every person on the face of the earth. The yearning for fulfillment beats in every human heart. The women and men in today’s Gospel had experienced being fed, completely satisfied, miraculously, in the presence of Jesus who had multiplied the bread and fish brought by a small boy. From a few loaves and fish, five thousand people had been more than amply provided for. This did not escape their notice.

When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world” (v. 14). Jesus, knowing what was in their hearts, fled because he knew they were coming to take him away and make him their king. These children of Israel, with their homeland occupied by the Romans, with all the humiliation and indignity that goes with being an oppressed people suddenly flickered with hope. They believed they had found a way out of their problems in the person of Jesus who had provided for them beyond their wildest imagining. If they could just keep him for themselves, like being able to make three wishes that would change the circumstances of their life forever. When they sought for Jesus the next day, he said as much to them.

“Jesus answered them and said, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes’” (v 26-27).

In order to live, we need to nourish ourselves, we need dignity and peace. The hearts of the people in this crowd were hoping against hope that things could change for them on a temporal level. They just didn’t realize that things had already changed. With the radical newness of the incarnation of the Son of God, everything had already become new. A greater hope of a more eternal promise was being fulfilled before their very eyes. Yet they could not recognize it. They were enamored still of the loaves of bread they had eaten. They were still looking for the food that perishes. Their imagination was too small.

In the document Verbum Domini, Benedict XVI writes:

What the Church proclaims to the world is the Logos of Hope (cf. 1 Pet 3:15); in order to be able to live fully each moment, men and women need “the great hope” which is “the God who possesses a human face and who ‘has loved us to the end’ (Jn 13:1)” (no. 91).

When we have found him, when we have let ourselves be seen by him, when we have allowed ourselves to be saved by him, we will no longer be absorbed by what we can get for ourselves, but in how we can tell others about Jesus.

Again, in the words of Benedict XVI:

We cannot keep to ourselves the words of eternal life given to us in our encounter with Jesus Christ: they are meant for everyone, for every man and woman. Everyone today, whether he or she knows it or not, needs this message. May the Lord himself…raise up in our midst a new hunger and thirst for the word of God (cf. Am 8:11) (no. 91).

Do not work for food that perishes,” Jesus admonishes the crowd, with an ardent desire to expand their hearts and deepen their hope. “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

This food by which they will truly be fed is “the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (v. 32-33). It is the food on which we ourselves, thousands of years later, are weekly and even daily nourished if we so desire. In the first line of Panis angelicus, the famous Eucharistic hymn written in the 13th century by St. Thomas Aquinas,we sing, Panis angelicus fit panis hominum. (“The bread of angels is made the bread of mortals.”) Then St. Thomas leads us to cry out in wonder: O res mirabilis! Manducat Dominum / Pauper, pauper, servus et humilis. (Oh, wonderful thing! The Lord becomes our food / poor, a servant, and humble.)

With as much intensity and effort as the crowd sought out the Lord who had multiplied the loaves and the fishes, satisfying their needs that day, may we seek out the Bread of Angels, the true bread from heaven, the Eucharist to be nourished on the body and blood of the Lord. And having been fed with the Bread from Heaven may we become Eucharistic missionaries to all those who feel no need, no urgency, no desire to be fed with the Bread of Angels that lasts unto eternal life. As Pope Benedict XVI has said: “It is our responsibility to pass on what, by God’s grace, we ourselves have received” (no. 91).

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.

The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Meditate (meditatio)
Read the 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: Fr. Fernando via Cathopic

Facing the unjust bits of life (Horizons of the Heart 20)

The grace we are asking of God: a deeply felt awareness of how God in all of history and most powerfully in the Word made flesh draws us into the unfolding of the mystery of his love which always is extravagant and which is always seeking to save us. We desire that in doing this we enter into a process of healing that we might love Jesus and follow him more intentionally, completely, and wholeheartedly.

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.

Looming large in my 30-day retreat was a decision that was in a certain sense, due to forces outside myself, forced upon me.

Nothing strange there!

Doesn’t this happen to just about every one of us?

Even if we think we can control ourselves and mastermind our success, either materially or spiritually, we soon find out that we can’t control others, we can’t control the forces of nature, and we can’t control the randomness of incidents that could affect, break, and change the direction of our lives.

But still, when we need to do an unexpected about turn, when we are blocked and forced into a right or a left hand change of direction at what turned out to be a dead end, we at times suffer indescribable pain.

I remember standing at the end of the outdoor Stations of the Cross at the retreat house and reading the inscription taken from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Jesus did you deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but rather humbled himself taking the form of a slave.” Every injustice I had ever received, little ones and big ones, came back with powerful force and left me breathless… and angry.

How ashamed I felt, but there it was. Who Jesus was and what he invited me to, I was not, and at that moment I clearly refused to follow him. It was just too hard…by myself. I needed God’s help, a lot of help.

The natural reaction to injustice is hurt or rage or bitterness because something we deemed to be our own or somehow necessary to our living and thriving is suddenly changed and taken away.

As we enter into the next mystery of Jesus’ life, the flight into Egypt, we are entering into this sacred mystery of why bad things happen to good people. We certainly won’t be answering this age-old question, but instead offering the wisdom of Ignatius and the Scriptures to help us enter reverently ever deeper into the mystery of God’s loving us even in times that are difficult.

I randomly opened my notes from the retreat and discovered something that was pivotal to my finding peace:

God decides which alternative in our life is of value to me and my life in the world, what will make me more loving towards other people and more open to God’s love flooding my heart. God is the one who know which of two alternatives will ultimately make me more selfish and which will make me more selfless. Which ultimately will make me unhappy and which will result in my unending happiness which may or may not begin on this earth.

God knows….

I don’t really ultimately know which of two alternatives before me will give God the most glory and bring me and others true joy and peace. If I have fixed my attention on one alternative, and stick with that no matter what, unwilling to see or try what God is making apparent to me right before my eyes, if I try to force God to agree with me, what will I ultimately lose? And really what is it that I would gain in the end?

I can only live true to myself if I live true to who I am as I am in God’s plan and to all that he hopes in me.

This reminds me of another great quote from St. Paul, this time from his letter to the Romans:

If God is for us, who can ever be against us?  Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else?  Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself.  Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?  As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”)  No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:33-39 NLT)

Our desire in these next meditations is to enter courageously into life as it is and to discover right there the unfolding of the mystery of God’s love which always is extravagant and which always is seeking to save us. How healing will be this discovery when we are embraced by Love. How we will desire out of sheer gratitude to follow Jesus more intentionally, completely, and wholeheartedly.

Blessed Dina Bélanger, a heavenly friend I found while on retreat, leads the way here, “My only pleasure is to let you have your way. I have abandoned myself completely to Your action, so that, without hindrance, You may be able to fulfill your designs in me, poor as I am, to act freely, always, and in everything.”

Baptism: becoming God’s beloved one Part 1 (Contemplating the Easter Mysteries II)

Ever wondered what God sees when he looks at you?

Wait. God looks at me?

You mean God sees this big hole I have in my heart? He knows that I can’t sleep for the worry that is nagging at my thoughts? He cares about how tired I feel from the endless responsibilities that keep me scurrying through my day?

Yes. When God looks at you he sees his daughter, his son. He also sees how often you—as children so often do—try to take care of things yourself without relying on your Father.

I’ve read about God’s love. I’ve heard people talk about it. But I don’t feel it so how can I know it is true? How can I know I mean anything to God?

In the beginning of the public life of Jesus, when he was around thirty years old, there is recorded a mysterious event. Jesus had gone down to the River Jordan where his cousin John was baptizing in the water. All Judea was flocking to him to be baptized by him and to learn what they needed to do to return to God.

Jesus not only watched, he got in line to be baptized himself.

John is baptising when Jesus draws near. Perhaps he comes to sanctify his baptiser; certainly he comes to bury sinful humanity in the waters. He comes to sanctify the Jordan for our sake and in readiness for us; he who is spirit and flesh comes to begin a new creation through the Spirit and water. From a Sermon by Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, bishop
(Oratio 39 in Sancta Lumina, 14-16, 20: PG 36, 350-351, 354, 358-359)

But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Jesus knows what it is like for his Father to look at him, to hear the love that is in his Father’s voice as he spoke to him, calling him Son, the Son in whom he was well pleased, his beloved Son.

When someone talks about a child or friend as their “beloved,” they mean to say, “I have a real special liking for this person. I prefer them. I love being around them. I give them gifts to show them my love. I take them into my confidence. They are closer to me than all others. I can’t live without them.”

The baptism of Jesus has everything to do with your baptism and mine. It has everything to do with our becoming God’s beloved one.

Saint Maximus of Turin tells us: “Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water.”

Christ is bathed in light; let us also be bathed in light. Christ is baptised; let us also go down with him, and rise with him. (From a Sermon by Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, bishop, Oratio 39 in Sancta Lumina)

I have spent so many decades of my life wondering if God saw me, if God cared about me, if God was going to be there for me. Isn’t it true that so often we measure the gift of God by what our feelings are telling us? We don’t “feel” God’s presence, so he must not be here. We don’t “feel” lovable to ourselves and we project that on to the way we think God must feel about us. We “feel” alone and isolated and we act as though God has no power or interest to help us.

Notice that at the baptism of Jesus, we are not told about Jesus’ feelings. We witness an event. Jesus goes down into the water, is baptized by John, emerges from the water, and hears his Father’s voice calling him Son.

Jesus rises from the waters; the world rises with him. The heavens like Paradise with its flaming sword, closed by Adam for himself and his descendants, are rent open. The Spirit comes to him as to an equal, bearing witness to his Godhead. A voice bears witness to him from heaven, his place of origin. The Spirit descends in bodily form like the dove that so long ago announced the ending of the flood and so gives honour to the body that is one with God. (From a Sermon by Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, bishop, Oratio 39 in Sancta Lumina)

The Baptism of Jesus is the moment in which the Lord sanctified the waters. By immersing his holy body in them, Jesus made them fitting for conveying the grace of the sacrament of Christian baptism. Jesus makes it possible for us to be reborn to new life through the sacrament of baptism. Saint Maximus of Turn in the fifth century explains: “Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. … For when the Savior is washed all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence” (Sermo 8: De sancta Ephiphania, 2).

It was in Christ’s own baptism by John the Baptist in the river Jordan that this sacrament of initiation was instituted to enable us to share in the Divine Life of the Trinity.

Most of us probably don’t remember our baptism if we were baptized as infants. Our “feelings” at the moment were probably surprise or discomfort as water was poured on our heads three times while the priest called us by name and said the words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Directions for your prayer this Easter:

Underline in this article every reference to a gift God has given you through your baptism. Notice how your soul responds to this litany of love. When you hold your experiences of sorrow and loss and doubt together with God’s action to bring you to the “pure and dazzling light of the Trinity,” what new things do you notice?

Image credit: Baptism of Christ fresco by Giotto di Bondone, c. 1305 (Cappella ScrovegniPaduaItaly) via Wikipedia, Public Domain

How to make forgiveness a part of your life

Early in the morning on October 2, 2006 in Dacula, Georgia, twenty-year-old Matt Swatzell was driving home from a twenty-four-hour shift as a firefighter and EMS and had had only 30 minutes of sleep. Less than four miles from his home he fell asleep at the wheel and collided with another car, killing thirty-year-old June who was driving and injuring her nineteen-month-old daughter, Faith.

It was in the hospital that Matt learned that June was pregnant and that both she and the baby did not make it.

June’s husband Erik Fitzgerald was heartbroken. He was a full-time pastor. Close family and friends stood with him as he grieved his wife’s death and that of his unborn child. One day, one of his students said that she couldn’t help but think of how the driver of the car was feeling. Eric immediately asked the group to pray for the driver of the car. With this simple prayer began a journey of forgiveness that has inspired hundreds of thousands. Their story was recounted in Today and People among other outlets.

In the face of the tragedy, Erik recalled a message he heard in a sermon: “In moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there’s opportunities to demonstrate grace or to exact vengeance. Here was an opportunity where I could do that. And I chose to demonstrate grace.”

To start, Erik attended Matt’s sentencing and extended his forgiveness. As a county officer, Matt was facing a felony and harsh time. But Fitzgerald pleaded for a lesser sentence.

“I didn’t see why this accident and tragedy needed to ruin any more lives,” said the pastor. Matt paid a fine and did community service.

Although Matt wanted to thank Erik for all he had done, he couldn’t legally speak with him during the two-year criminal investigation.

The day before the two-year anniversary of the accident, however, Matt went to the grocery store to purchase a card to send to Erik. When he returned to his car in the parking lot he was just about to turn on the engine when he saw Erik walking into the same store. Not sure what to expect, Matt approached  Erik and introduced himself. Matt burst into tears and Erik told him that he forgave him.

“That was the biggest relief I’d ever felt. He just said from the start that he forgives me,” Matt recalled. “Just hearing him say those words, it just impacted my life completely.”

Then Erik told him, “I have a desire to want to be in your life.”

“You forgive as you’ve been forgiven. It wasn’t an option. If you’ve been forgiven, then you need to extend that forgiveness.”

Erik Fitzgerald

The men stayed connected by meeting at least once every two weeks, attending church together and eating meals at the Waffle House and other restaurants, just the two of them.

“We recognized that when we first started meeting it was unusual. We knew it was God,” said Erik. “You forgive as you’ve been forgiven. It wasn’t an option. If you’ve been forgiven, then you need to extend that forgiveness.”

“Part of the draw I felt to befriend Matthew was he was a good guy. He wasn’t a convict or on drugs. He was just a guy who got off a shift,” said Erik. “I felt it was my responsibility to encourage him and see the big picture.”

So Erik was there for Matt when he married and at the birth of their first child, who shares a birthday with Erik’s own daughter. Matt’s anxiety and guilt were still so overwhelming that he feared something would happen to his wife and child. After many meetings with Erik and a counsellor, Matt was able to move past the hurt.

“I can honestly say that without this friendship I don’t know where I’d be,” said Matt. “I can’t say, ‘This is a beautiful story and it’s got a great ending.’ It doesn’t,” he told Today in an interview. “It’s nasty, it’s real, and it’s something that I’m going to struggle with for the rest of my life.”

A Process for Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be difficult, particularly when our inner resources are depleted. It’s difficult for anyone to rise above the pain of being hurt by another or the guilt we feel when we have hurt someone else. We feel we were justified. Or perhaps we can’t admit that we were responsible and that hanging on to being in the right is somehow hanging on to the last shred of our sense of self. Unforgiveness creates a tremendous weight of bitterness, rejection, and broken relationships.

When I am hurt I have trouble being near the person until I have worked through my anger and released them from my demands that they be different than who they are at this time. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or even pardoning an offense. It means changing our response to the offense. Some ways to practice what I call “everyday forgiveness” are: forgive yourself, forgive the “stupid stuff” that happens every day, forgive the people and institutions that have hurt us, forgive the unmerited suffering that seems so unfair like an illness or failure. Instead of bitterness, choose to offer compassion and empathy to the person or institution or event that wronged you.

People who forgive tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to have less depression, anxiety, stress, anger, and hostility. People who hang onto grudges, however, are more likely to experience severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other health conditions. That doesn’t mean that they can’t train themselves to act in healthier ways. Here is a method of forgiveness that you might try:

1.) Reflect and remember the event that has wronged you. How did you react? How did you feel? How has your anger and hurt affected you since?

2.) Empathize with the other person. Try to understand what could have led the other person to do what they did to hurt you. You may begin to realize that the one they are truly hurting is themselves. How much they must be suffering from their own negative behavior.

3.) Forgive deeply. We are not talking here about behavior that is abusive and destructive. Ultimately no one is perfect. In this exercise we are addressing how annoying, hurtful, broken people hurt us all the time. The choice to forgive is ultimately the choice to love and to release the other from the obligation to pay you back because of what they have done. It is a choice for your own happiness, when you let your grievances go.

4.) Let go of expectations. An apology may not change your relationship with the other person or elicit an apology from him or her. Forgiveness needs to be offered with no strings attached. It is a gift of compassion, offered because it is the right thing to do, because God has invited us to live in forgiveness, and because it makes us happy. If you don’t expect apologies or changed behavior, you won’t be disappointed.

5.) Decide to forgive. Once you make that choice, seal it with an action. If you don’t feel you can talk to the person who wronged you, write about your forgiveness in a journal or even talk about it to someone else in your life that you trust.

6.) Forgive God and forgive yourself. The act of forgiving includes forgiving God if you are angry with him for what happened and how your life has turned out because of the offense. We often need to forgive ourselves also for any way in which the wrong we have received has affected us or our other relationships.

Image Credit: Public Domain via Rawpixel

O charity beyond all telling! (Contemplating the Easter Mysteries I)

As I listened to the chanting of the Easter Proclamation at the Easter Vigil this year, my heart heard as if for the first time the words:

O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

Most of us can’t even imagine a love that would give away a precious treasure for the sake of someone that hated them. Yet Christ shed his blood that we, the daughters and sons of Adam and Eve, might live forever.

St. John Chrysostom explained it this way in Homily 15 on First Timothy:

”It is not in this way only that I have shown My love to thee, but by what I have suffered. For thee I was spit upon, I was scourged. I emptied myself of glory, I left My Father and came to thee, who dost hate Me, and turn from Me, and art loath to hear My Name. I pursued thee, I ran after thee, that I might overtake thee. I united and joined thee to myself, ‘eat Me, drink Me,’ I said. Above I hold thee, and below I embrace thee.”

O charity beyond all telling!

Have you noticed that when we purchase or receive something that we really want, it captures all our attention, not just at the moment we first have it, but for hours, or days and weeks afterwards. Depending on what it is, it may change the way we organize our time or our stuff (both digital and physical stuff!), or the way we entertain ourselves or even our appearance. We may discover we work better, make different decisions, feel differently about ourselves.

And then there is the unavoidable moment when we lose interest, we look for the next release, upgrade, improved version. Something different. Something more striking, more “us,” more useful. In a commercial world, we keep something only as long as it serves us and keeps our interest. Then we move on.

The Church, as a good Mother, knows that we are like this, and that our hearts which tire so easily and our attention which wanders so quickly need to re-fascinated with Jesus and the Eucharist for which there will be no upgrade or improved version.

The Easter Season—all 50 days of it—is for this reawakening of our hearts. We could find ourselves at times in something similar to a boring friendship, where we’ve lost interest in Jesus and his love in the Eucharist. Our “hearts move on” to things of earth, rather than things of heaven. We find ourselves searching for something more shiny and useful to us.

In the seven weeks of Easter, following the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week in which we experienced anew the “charity beyond all telling,” the Church invites us to immerse ourselves into what it is to believe, celebrate, live and pray as Catholics within the larger community of the Church. In the same way as our gadgets and toys make remarkable shifts in the way we live our lives, the death and resurrection of Christ celebrated at Easter is also the time when we learn to live as Christ in new ways, to think as Christ, to speak as Christ, to engage the world as Christ, to love as Christ. We ourselves become in the world this “charity beyond all telling!”

Again, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, our eyes need to be opened to the power of the blood poured out for us on Calvary:

This Blood, poured forth, washed clean all the world. This Blood is the salvation of our souls. By it the soul is washed, is made beautiful, and is set on fire. It causes our understanding to be brighter than fire and our soul more sparkling than gold. This Blood was poured forth and made heaven accessible.

Easter morning we arrived at the church for Mass 30 minutes early and barely found a parking place! We were seated in one of the last empty pews. What would the world be like if every Sunday most Catholics flocked to the Mass with the same urgency they congregate at restaurants and malls and athletic events….

What would the world be like if we spontaneously broke out in grateful praise during the day, announcing what Christ has done for all humanity in his death and resurrection, and the grace available to us today through the sacraments….

What if we ran to Mass because it was only there that we felt totally satisfied by the Eucharist, nourished, loved, and supported there by God himself and by the community….

Next: Easter Mystagogy 2: Baptism: becoming God’s beloved one

Photo credit: jlmajano via Cathopic

The Magi rejoiced with great joy exceedingly (Horizons of the Heart 19)

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, completely, and wholeheartedly.

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.

Entering Prayer

Offer your prayer to God, desiring that in every way it will give him glory. I pour myself out in worship. You could use a few lines from the following passage from the prophet Isaiah if this helps you enter into prayer:

Isaiah 60:1-6

Ask of God what you think you need. (It could be later that God will show what you truly need and what should be asking for, but begin now where you are.)

Imagining Yourself Present

Over several periods of prayer, linger imaginatively over the events narrated in Matthew 2:1-12.

These men who studied the stars came from the east in search of the newborn king of the Jews. They came because they saw in the sky a star that indicated to them that a new king had been born, and it went before them into the land of Judea. The wise men, as we popularly call them today, went first to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, and after inquiring where the child would be born, they journeyed on to Bethlehem where the star stopped over the place where the child lay.

These visitors from the East were people of great wealth and power. They are called Magi in the Greek, which was a term that referred to a kind of subclass of Persian priests. Looking to a star was very much in keeping with the religious tradition of this place in which they looked to the heavens, the stars, and the planets for information about the gods’ wishes and doings. Interestingly, according to Time (December 13, 2004) “Secrets of the Nativity,” when the actual Persians came marauding Judea in 614, the only place of worship they didn’t touch was the Church of the Nativity in Palestine, whose golden entry mosaic featured the Magi dressed as Persians.

According to a calculation by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the 16th century, an extremely rare conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn occurred three times in the constellation Pisces in 7 B.C., appearing to observers as a single luminous star. This would coincide with St. Matthew’s description of the celestial body appearing, disappearing and then reappearing to the Magi.

This theory gained more credibility in 1925, when German orientalist Paul Schnabel deciphered ancient cuneiform tablets from the astronomical school of the Babylonian city of Sippar, which described the exact same astronomical conjunction in 7 B.C.

The Magi from the East brought gifts of gold (a gift for a king), frankincense (an incense and symbol of deity), and myrrh (an embalming oil and symbol of death).

There are various calculations about how long this journey was and how many people would have been in the entourage that arrived in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The length of their journey is estimated by the distance they travelled and the fact that Herod, who had heard the story of the star directly from the Magi, killed all baby boys in Bethlehem and the environs who were two years old and younger. We could say then that the Magi perhaps travelled 5 to 9 months to reach Bethlehem. They would have had to spend several months preparing for such a long journey and would have spent the same amount of time making their journey home. That’s quite a length of time, definitely a major commitment on their part.

In one Bible translation’s footnote regarding the passage in Matthew 2 that recounts the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem, it is speculated that there may have been a hundred people in their entourage. Three persons arriving in Jerusalem would not have created such a stir as is recounted by Matthew. Whether it was a hundred people or not, the Magi would have needed to bring along servants, cooks (there weren’t restaurants in the desert), security, persons to put up tents and take care of animals for a journey that could potentially last almost two years.

We know that the Magi did not arrive in Bethlehem while Jesus was in the manger because Matthew reports that they found Jesus in a “house.” Additionally, Mary and Joseph offered the gifts of the poor when they brought Jesus to the temple. They would not have done so if they had gold, frankincense and myrrh stashed away in Bethlehem where they had been staying since the birth of Jesus.

This is a perfect time to imagine who you are on this journey. One of the Magi? A servant? The cook? Just someone tagging along? Or following them from a distance?

Imagine the length of time you would have had to commit to in order to follow the star with them. What you would have had to leave behind for potentially a year and a half or more of travel to an unknown destination? We know now where the Magi ended their journey, where they found what they were looking for, but they set out on a journey to follow a star wherever it went and however long it took.

Where are you in this story? Speak to the people that are with you along the way. Allow your affective imagination to lead you closer to them, to give you a sense of this felt-closeness that you so desire. You can imagine with your mind’s eye, with your sense of hearing or touch.

Photo by Jimmy Larry on Unsplash

Imagining the Gospel events in the present

Over time, allow these stories in the gospel of Matthew to become current as if the Magi (and you along with their whole entourage) are travelling to some unknown destination in the world today. Somewhere out of your comfort zone. Perhaps into the territory of a government you would consider an enemy or a threat.

What keeps you going? What do you fear? Anticipate? Hope for? Expect?

Watch the Magi. What are their feelings associated with seeing the star?

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2 NIV). “We’ve come to bow before him in worship” (TPT).

 “After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star” (Matthew 2:9-10 NABRE).

“And on their way to Bethlehem, the same star they had seen in the East suddenly reappeared! Amazed, they watched as it went ahead of them and stopped directly over the place where the child was. And when they saw the star, they were so ecstatic that they shouted and celebrated with unrestrained joy (TPT).

Duane R. Hurst (Public Domain)

The footnote in The Passion Translation states that “the Greek here is hard to translate since it contains so many redundant words for joy in this one verse. It is literally, ‘They rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly.’ They were ecstatic!”

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10 AMP).

Observe how the Magi express these feelings. Usually we picture them kneeling in the stable as we see at Christmas. We aren’t as reflective about what it meant for them to be led by a star to the one who had just been born before whom they would bow down in worship. Listen to their conversations among themselves. Ask them why they are so happy.

In Gospel Contemplation, Ignatius takes advantage of the way in which spiritual growth, like so many other aspects of maturing that we experience, takes place primarily when our affectivity is engaged. It is the shift in one’s deeper emotions and feelings that leads to a change in one’s behavior. We reach these deeper levels through metaphor, image, and symbol—the work of the imagination.

Observing attractions and resistance

Notice any interior reactions that you experience: comfort, discomfort, being lifted up, struggle, joy, sadness….

Observe the actions, words, emotions, sensitivities, attitudes of the Magi, Herod, the people in Jerusalem. To which of them do 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. As you see the glory of the star, you may be  drawn to “see” the faith of the Magi. As you walk in the “dark” and shudder in the “cold,” you may realize that what is truly dark and cold is the lack of faith, the refusal of faith, the way the others did not go along to worship. After all we are talking about a six-mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

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.

As you become more and more involved in the event of Jesus’ mystery that you are contemplating, your life and your choices are affected.

Watching the Magi’s exceeding joy may open your heart to the Holy Spirit as your life and heart are lifted up along with these men who travelled so far and so long to bow in worship.

You may also sense the tension in the story as one group devotes themselves to following the “star” that leads them to Jesus (at great cost to themselves) and another group doesn’t seem to notice or care, or rejects him all together. After all, it was clear to the chief priests and scribes that they knew that from Bethlehem a “ruler” would come “who will shepherd my people Israel” (v. 6). They told Herod so when he requested anxiously to know where the Messiah was to be born. But they did not go themselves to Bethlehem. They did not bother to even be curious about whether this was the Messiah. And Herod tried to kill him in a move of political expediency.

As you continue playing out your part in the story of the Magi, you find yourself changing and desiring to change.

Conversing as with a friend

Read the following verses from Psalm 72 and the prophet Isaiah (62:11-12) in relation to the visit of the Magi. Both of these passages are read in the liturgy on the feast of the Epiphany. Read this slowly, several times, allowing some moments of rest between your reading.

“May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute,
the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts.
May all kings bow before him,
all nations serve him” (Psalm 72:10-11).

“Arise! Shine, for your light has come,
the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you
. . . Nations shall walk by your light,
kings by the radiance of your dawning
Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you —
Your sons from afar
. . . Then you shall see and be radiant
. . . For the riches of the sea shall be poured out before you,
the wealth of nations shall come to you.
Caravans of camels shall cover you,
dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;
All from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense
and heralding the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:1-6).

Is there some new awareness coming forward as you consider these words? Do they shed some unexpected or new light on your own following of Jesus?

Continue in quiet—or even silent—intimate conversation with the Magi and with 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 the Magi 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.

Image Credit: Edward Burne-Jones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What is your favorite book of the Bible? (Guest Post)

Every once in a while people will ask me, “Sister, what is your favorite book of the Bible?” I actually smile as I think to myself, “Well, if you had asked me this question a few years ago, I would have absolutely responded: ‘Isaiah, because he is like a fifth Evangelist for me.’” In fact, some of the early Fathers regarded the book of Isaiah as ‘a Fifth Gospel,” because Isaiah’s poetry and prophecy speak so powerfully to a coming King, a royal figure who would be the Suffering Servant for his people, and the victory of the Anointed One over all the dark forces in the world. (1)

Recently, however, when I am asked about my favorite book of the Bible, I have to be honest. It is still Isaiah, but now there is Matthew and Genesis. Of course, there is also the book of Psalms which we pray daily at morning and evening prayer. And I absolutely can’t forget my other favorite prophets, Daniel, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. In fact, I talk to them as I reflect on their prophecies, their lives, and the prophetic call they received from God. They really are friends to me, so I call them by nicknames: Dan (Daniel), Ezy (Ezekiel) and Jerry (Jeremiah). (Let me explain: as an extrovert I’m famous for talking aloud to the people in the seats next to me at movies, the actors on the screen, or even to the characters in the Bible, as well as anyone else within earshot! It’s my way of connecting.)

Actually, when it comes down to it, I love the whole Bible. Truly every word is of the Holy Spirit!

The Holy Spirit is our guarantor to understanding Holy Scripture. He enlightens our souls with just a word from Holy Scripture, and allows us to walk with our Creator who humbly resides within our souls. “My Father and I will come to you,” Jesus said, “and make our home with you” (cf. John 14:23). There is no greater joy or peace than to have God in our hearts, in our minds, and in our wills.  And this prayerful union exhilarates our souls and allows us to bathe in God’s grace and love, filling us with healing and peace.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

Saint Augustine

By giving us a mind, will, and heart, God made us in his own image and likeness. Saint Augustine writes in his Confessions the famous prayer, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” How we need this rest every day!

With the Holy Spirit, we can take even just a word or phrase from Holy Scripture and do a “deep dive,” finding the God who loves us immutably. In this way, we discover how the story of Salvation continues even in our own lives.

So what is your favorite book of the Bible? Which book gives you the springboard to make a “deep dive” into God’s love so that you can journey with him for another day? Let me know in the comments below.

By Sr. Irene Wright, FSP

Image credit: Photo by Tara Winstead

Jesus meets us at our “charcoal fires”

When it comes to St Peter, those last days of Jesus’ life and his death on Calvary became pretty intense. “You will never wash my feet!” Peter told the Master kneeling with basin and towel before him.

“I will never betray you!” Peter attested before his brother apostles when Jesus revealed that someone was going to betray him, someone in the room, someone he had known and trusted, someone he didn’t name. What a surge of terror may have passed through Peter as he imagined what that meant, what that might mean if it was him, what that would mean for their future. No. I will never betray you! the burly fisherman asserted if only to keep the potential terrors at bay.

“I do not know the man!” Before a wimpy servant-girl, the self-proclaimed immovable column of fidelity and strength collapsed. Three times. I don’t know this Jesus.

The witness of this intense shame was the charcoal fire around which everyone was warming themselves on that chilly and fateful night.

All of us have our own charcoal fires.

Back in the shadowy cobwebs of memories we wish were not our own, there are plenty of charcoal fires where we have chosen safety, pleasure, conceit over this Jesus whom we proclaim to love with all our hearts. The embers of these charcoal fires still may be warm, the ashes not yet blown away on the winds of mercy.

The charcoal fire appears again in Peter’s story shortly after the resurrection. He was out fishing, unsuccessfully, when a man called across the lake to lower their nets on the starboard side. Immediately the nets were filled to the breaking point. “It is the Lord!” John whispered to Peter.

What emotion must have gone through Peter’s heart at that moment. Without a fear, without a worry, without a memory of the ashes that still smoldered from the charcoal fire that witnessed his betrayal of the Lord, Peter leapt into the water and ran ashore.

And there Jesus stood.

Next to the visual symbol of his betrayal, of his weakness, of his shame.

And it was at that charcoal fire that Jesus asked him one question, three times: Do you love me? In the Passion Translation of the Bible the footnote for John 21:15 sheds some light on this question: The Aramaic word for “love” is hooba, and is taken from a root word that means “to set on fire.” This was the word Jesus would have used to ask Peter, “Do you burn with love for me?”

This time there were from Peter no blustering assertions and self-important declarations. Peter had touched the very roots of his weakness. Those weaknesses and mistakes and even sins that have been witnessed by our charcoal fires become the bridges to truth, to humility, to the trust that children have because they are not able to do anything for themselves.

The footnote continues: It was Peter’s boast that he loved Jesus more than the others, and though everyone else would leave him, Peter never would. That boast proved empty, as within hours of making the claim, Peter denied he even knew Jesus three times. So Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. In essence, Jesus knew how to bring healing to Peter and remove the pain of his denial. Three times Peter denied Jesus, but three times he made his confession of his deep love for Christ. By the third time, the “crowing rooster” inside Peter had been silenced, and now he was ready to be a shepherd for Jesus’ flock.

Here are five things always to remember when you think about the wounds the charcoal fires in your life have witnessed:

  1. Jesus resets the relationship we have with him. After three denials he invited Peter to express his love for him. No shame or guilt or failure or regret. It is about love. It is one hundred percent about love. No matter what you have done in your life, Jesus wants to know only one thing: Do you love me? Right now, here Jesus calling you by name and asking you that question.
  2. Peter and several other apostles went fishing, spending a futile night on the lake. He who had been made to be a “fisher of men,” returned to what he had been before he met the Lord Jesus at the lake’s shore three years earlier. Perhaps Peter thought that was all he was good for after having failed so miserably. But Jesus knew Peter. Jesus knew Peter loved him. Sometimes we are ashamed and we also reduce ourselves to a small life, letting go of dreams, relinquishing hope, sometimes even the hope of eternal life. It seems that there could be no way that God could not be disappointed in us. At the charcoal fire, however, Peter realized that God was not surprised, angry, vindictive or disappointed. When we stumble God is there to meet our failure with grace, a limitless love for all of us limping saints.
  3. Charcoal fires have a distinct smell. When Peter swam to shore and smelled the fire, the memory of the other, so recent and still stinging experience at a charcoal fire still seared his conscience. Jesus invited Peter to follow him into the memory of his failure and betrayal. Instead of leaving Peter to sink in the shame of these memories, Jesus invited Peter to let him into those memories. They could face them together. We all have memories of sins committed, as well as sins committed against us. Shame and guilt surround these memories. Memories that wound, that we want to hide, that we pretend never happened. But Jesus helped Peter confront the memory of his betraying the Master he loved. It is an invitation to not fear the healing process when Jesus stands on the shores of our heart, asking us to let him in, to let go of the past, to allow him to heal and transform our wounds with his glorious mercy. Jesus will often take us into memories where we do not wish to go, but he knows that we are more than we think we’ve become by our mistakes and weakness. By standing in our memories with Jesus, things change.
  4. Peter was hurt when Jesus asked him a third time, Do you love me? God’s love for us doesn’t gloss over our pain, the wounds that need healing in our life. Jesus specifically drew Peter to himself in order to reset the broken places of his denial with mercy. But just as a doctor carefully resets a broken bone (he doesn’t just say, “Oh, you’ll be all right. Everything is just fine.”), Jesus re-sets what is broken within us through the medicine of mercy. Even if the “brokenness” in our life has hardened and our hearts are “deformed” because they’ve never been taken under the Divine Physician’s care, love can make us pliable and whole once more. This is what Jesus does. In some mysterious way he is right now arranging your renewal through mercy and the willingness to love.
  5. When Peter denied Jesus, he also denied himself. He denied his love for the Master, the three years of growth and transformation as he walked by the Master’s side. Peter denied who he had become as the follower of Jesus and his apostle. On the shore that post-Resurrection morn, after a futile night fishing on the lake, Peter had again come up with nothing after relying on the one thing he felt he should be able to do–fish. He was a fisherman, after all. Jesus needed Peter to understand that he could not continue relying on himself. Again and again, with every boastful or desperate attempt to prove himself or provide for himself, he realized the nothingness from which he came and the nothingness of which he, of himself, was capable. “Throw your nets off the starboard side and you will catch something.” “Simon, do you love me? Feed my lambs.” Jesus has a plan for Peter who is to lead the Church as Rock. However, Peter needed to lead as sinner, not savior. Only Jesus saves. All of us, everyone of us, needs saving, yet participates in the mystery of the salvation of others. Always, it is miracle. Forever, it is mercy.

This Easter Jesus wants to bring you healing. He wants to turn the charcoal fire of your shame to the place that witnesses your humble love for him, your answer to Jesus’ heart that you will be his friend, that you will let him lead you, forgive you, heal you, and shape anew your life.