“To know the forest thaws” – Horizons of the Heart 9

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

The grace we are asking of God: a deep heartfelt knowledge of how God has chosen to fulfill his vision for all his creation through Jesus

In Chronicles of Transformation: A Spiritual Journey with C. S. Lewis I happily discovered the poem “On Knowing Him Here for a Little, A Poem in Seven Parts” by the poet Madeline Infantine. Each of the parts of her poem introduce one of the seven essays, one for each of the Narnian Chronicles. The first line of the poem immediately seized my attention. Like a magnet it brought into line my fragmented awareness:

“To know him here is to know the forest thaws.”

My inner world immediately stood at attention as these words pierced my heart. In a trice my imagination was activated, an intuitive response thawing my own inner world. Yes. When God meets me on the road of life, when he stares into my eyes to  catch my attention, my outer world crashes into silence…and my inner me thaws.

“To know him here is to know the forest thaws.”

To know.

To know him.

To know him here.

To know the forest.

To know the forest thaws.

Image by FrauLehrerin from Pixabay 

As I read these words for the first time the veil that covers the spiritual reality of the material world that I see with my senses was pulled aside for one very long expectant hush. And at that moment I knew. I touched what was beyond touch and saw what was beyond sight. For just a flash, this poem had touched my imagination and I knew with a felt experiential knowledge that could not be doubted.

St. Ignatius and Lewis both reverenced the imagination as the organ for deep meaning, the opening to the soul onto what is truly true. When the imagination is startled into silence, as mine was when I read this line of the poem, the eyes of the soul are lifted to the Really Real, as Lewis would say, to the land of the True North we are all seeking, our everlasting home.

In a similar way the Ignatian Exercises baptize our imagination by immersing it again and again into the Really Real. He guides the retreatant to contemplate the life of Jesus and the heart of the Father using their imagination, or more deeply, baptizing their imagination, blessing it, transforming it, redeeming it.

“To know him here is to know the forest thaws.”

The Annunciation, public domain via Wikipedia.

The angel quietly enters a humble house in Nazareth to announce that the world was about to thaw: she was to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah, the Fire of the Father’s Love sent upon the earth to gather souls to salvation in the Kingdom.

Mary travelled to assist her elderly cousin Elizabeth. This elderly woman felt her child leap in her womb, as she proclaimed—the first human to do so—the Lord present on this earth, hidden now in the womb of the Virgin. She intimately knew that the frozen ground was beginning to thaw.

St Joseph, asleep when assured by an angel that he was needed as foster-father, protector, guide, provider. Bethlehem, a city packed with Israelites who were there for the census proclaimed by the Roman authorities… Even the forest thaws….

This “thaw” is God’s vision for the world.

There is a difference between reading and meditating, between pondering a mystery and entering into it, between being spiritually moved by religious truths and existentially changed by them.

In the second week of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius begins to lead the retreatant through a number of Gospel contemplations of the Incarnation. Beginning with the Annunciation, Ignatius invites us to enter into the Gospel stories surrounding the Incarnation of the Son of God and his birth and childhood. Why? Because “to know him here is to know the forest thaws.” Another line of Infantine’s first poem opens up the amazement of meditation: “where once was silence, only song.”

“God sent his Son, born of a woman, born in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4). “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whoever believes in him might not perish but have life everlasting” (Jn 3:16). “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16).

“For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:47)

Image via Pixabay

During my Ignatian retreat, I found great healing as I prayed with the Gospel stories around the birth of Jesus. Very tenderly, Jesus touched me in ways that gave me new insight. He opened my heart to experiences of mercy I could never deserve. He wrapped up the broken places of my spirit and helped me stand again in his service.

These days I am praying through the Spiritual Exercises once more and find myself in a very different place. As I enter into these meditations my heart is being moved by the humility of God who lowered himself to come down on our level, to babble in our language, to walk our streets and take an interest in what concerns us. And why did he do this?

“To know him here is to know the forest thaws.”

To a world frozen over with idolatry, mediocrity, sin and death, Jesus came to bring a new warmth, a new hope, a new life.

As I pray now with these Gospel meditations I feel my heart thrill. I too want to give my life that others might live. I too want to lay down my life for the salvation of others. I too want to labor at the side of my humble Savior, to wash the feet of others that they might experience the radiant glory of his mercy.

Infantine invites us at the end of this first poem to come and to see, to witness, to behold, to ponder, to burst through frozen silence (where all has been subjugated to the powers of sin and death) into the praise that leads to adoration and contemplation. There, she says, we will discover life in the fire of his touch and the thaw of spring from the warmth of God’s breath.

In the next segments I will be offering Gospel meditations of Ignatius that make up the journey of the second week of the Exercises, that you might know anew that the forest thaws.

Featured image: by Ирина Кудрявцева from Pixabay 

You, yes YOU, are God’s choice (Horizons of the Heart 8)

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

The grace we are asking of God: an ever-increasing awareness of God’s love for me

The most important truth to be convinced of is not that God loves you. As broken, wounded, wandering as we each may be, as desperately yearning to know that we matter and that we are worth someone’s attention, contrary to what we might think, we do not need most to know how much God loves us.

I almost cringe as I write these words. For almost 40 years this has been both my mantra and my misery, my hope against hope, the alphabet of my feelings of spiritual failure. I had not realized that I was seeking for something that was only half-true, a shabby imitation of the fierce and passionate, surprisingly disconcerting way of divine love.

In the first week of the spiritual exercises, St Ignatius draws the retreatant into love through the very narrow and demanding path of coming to grips with what is not loving in one’s life. The retreatant comes to Jesus in prayer, again and again, begging for the grace to acknowledge the mystery of iniquity which spins a web of deceit around them. Repeatedly I came before Jesus begging for the grace to become deeply aware of my personal sin history and my hidden disorders. I begged Jesus and Mary for interior knowledge of my sins, an awareness of the disorder of my actions, that I might hate them and allow God to bring order once again to my life.

The way of truth is the only foundation for the confidence of love. But ah! how hard is this truth!

Let me tell you a story that tries to clarify this intertwining of truth and love.

There once was a king who lived in an immense palace. He was well beloved by his people. He served them with an inward goodness. The king enjoyed great wealth, sumptuous banquets, gemstones and royal diadems, everything he could ever want.

The king was not yet married and it was every young woman’s dream who lived in the kingdom that she might one day be his bride.

One day the king left his palace and traveled to the smallest and poorest town of his kingdom. At the end of an almost impassible road at the furthermost edge of this village, he sought out a young woman who had survived a fire. She had burns on over 80% of her body that had left her terribly disfigured. Her face was almost unrecognizable, her hair only a short stubble.

The king entered her hovel and inquired after her needs, sending his own servants to provide for her. Then he proposed to her. “Will you marry me?” he asked her quietly.

The king took his bride-to-be back to his palace. He introduced her to the most important persons in the realm who surrounded him and took her to the palace ball.

This young woman must have felt humiliated as she was introduced to the king’s friends as his fiancé. “You could have anyone in your realm as your bride. Why did you pick me? I am not beautiful. I have nothing to offer you. I am disfigured and deformed, hideous to behold.” As she stood before the king’s staff and servants she would have realized her inadequacy certainly. As each subsequent day passed, however, she would have felt more and more confused and ashamed before the beauty, wealth, intelligence, culture, and gifts of his friends and courtiers.

Photo by Daniel Gutko on Unsplash

This sentiment exactly is part of what the First Week of the Exercises brings about in us, this deep and almost devastating awareness of the mystery of evil in which we are entangled. Before the purity of God, we realize how corrupt we are, sons and daughters of Adam and Eve whose refusal to obey the command of God has wrought such disastrous consequences on all of humanity. In his Ascent to Mount Carmel, Saint John of the Cross aptly describes what we their children experience: “So great is the harm that if we try to express how ugly and dirty is the imprint the appetites leave in the soul, we find nothing comparable to it—neither a place full of cobwebs and lizards near the unsightliness of a dead body nor the filthiest thing imaginable in this life […] The variety of filth caused in the soul is both inexplicable and unintelligible” (Book I, 9.3.).

Just as the new bride-to-be experienced at once her confusion and the love that had been showered upon her by the king, we too experience our humiliation at coming to grips with the web of evil woven around us and the absolute mercy of being forgiven, chosen, and beloved.

On the shore of the Lake of Tiberias, after Peter’s astounding denial of Jesus on the night of his betrayal, Jesus asked the sorrowing apostle just one question: Do you love me? Jesus didn’t jump in to assure Peter that no matter what he did God still loved him. In his threefold questioning, Jesus brought Peter back to his greatest moment of humiliation: his threefold denial. There. In that place. In the dark and sorrowing truth of weakness and sham, Peter had to once again assert his love for Jesus. I could imagine that Peter felt humiliated before the other apostles, particularly John who alone among them had walked with Jesus the way to Calvary and stood beneath the cross of the Master. In Peter’s threefold attestation of love in the very wound of his humiliation, he began to interiorly know in a way that could never be erased from his soul, that he himself was forgiven, chosen, and beloved.

This love of God poured anew into Peter’s humbled heart that now could become a vessel of grace.

What are the shame-filled memories of past betrayals that still haunt your soul? Do not flee from them. Return to them with Jesus, the king who has sought you out as his chosen beloved one. Ignatius would have us experience the shame we’d feel if we stood hand in hand with Jesus before all of humanity, we with all the mystery of iniquity burning within us, disfiguring our lives and distorting our hearts. Imagine yourself, hand in hand with Jesus the King, standing before all the angels and saints, before your guardian angel, before Mary, before the eternal Father. As they look at you they see, they understand the sorrowing and the inner confusion at being so loved by the King who holds your hand, yet being so unworthy, so very unworthy. They have been there.

Vanesa Guerrero, rpm

In this place of experiencing the effects of sin you have suffered and for which you are to some extent also responsible, marvel at God who in his mercy forgives you, preserves you, and…truly forever and ever loves you. Look into the eyes of your Savior and King. Let him show you that you are his choice. He would go to the ends of his kingdom to find you and to bring you to his mansion in heaven. Let him love you. Be confident in this love he has for you. You may find Psalm 139 a helpful guide for this prayer:

Lord, you know everything there is to know about me.
You perceive every movement of my heart and soul,
and you understand my every thought before it even enters my mind.
You are so intimately aware of me, Lord.
You read my heart like an open book
and you know all the words I’m about to speak
before I even start a sentence!
You know every step I will take before my journey even begins.
You’ve gone into my future to prepare the way,
and in kindness you follow behind me
to spare me from the harm of my past. 
You have laid your hand on me!
This is just too wonderful, deep, and incomprehensible!
Your understanding of me brings me wonder and strength.
Every single moment you are thinking of me!
How precious and wonderful to consider
that you cherish me constantly in your every thought!
O God, your desires toward me are more
than the grains of sand on every shore!
When I awake each morning, you’re still with me (Psalm 139: 1-6, 17-18).

Read prayerfully the story of the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John (11:38-44). Imagine yourself as Lazarus emerging from his tomb at the command of Jesus.

Giovanni di Paolo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What has been your tomb? What feels dead right now in your life? Where do you feel trapped, confined, sightless, stifled?

Right there in that place, imagine Jesus calling you forth from what has become your tomb, the place that smells like death, the place that seems like a final “no” to who you could have been.

As you walk out of the tomb toward the voice, into the light, hear the exclamations and twittering whispers of the crowd gathered in mourning.

What does the voice that is calling you to arise to new life sound like? Does it remind you of some other loved person’s voice? How does it reverberate within you? Does it make your heart leap? If so, in what way? What would you compare it to? A fountain? An earthquake? What are you thinking as you walk toward the voice? What are you fearing? Hoping? Desiring?

Begin to remove the strips of cloth that were wrapped around you during your burial. Let each piece of cloth represent something that you need to be freed from. As you let each one of them go, look again into the face of Jesus who is calling you by name to come out of your tomb. Notice how he looks at you. What is he saying with his eyes? Does he tell you anything else?

Finally, approach Jesus. Follow your heart as it leads you to worship, love, and gratitude.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us” (Eph. 1:3-8).

Photo by Eric Aiden on Unsplash

The way and the gift of tears (Horizons of the Heart 7)

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

The grace I am asking of God: a growing and intense sorrow and tears for my sins with a deepening awareness of God’s merciful love.

I entered retreat shedding tears, tears that flowed from feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and confusion about myself and about my future. Tears were an unavoidable part of the introductory days of my retreat. Entering into a place of silence, refuge, and rest, I was able to settle down, to re-enter my heart that had been so wounded. These were tears of sorrow and pain. However, tears are also a sacred part of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises.

From the first day of my retreat, I was deeply touched by a statue of Saint Francis beneath the cross of Christ. It stood at the retreat house in a garden directly outside the small kitchen area where we ate our breakfast. In this sculpture, Jesus Crucified reaches down with his right arm to embrace St Francis.

Statue in Our Lady of Providence Retreat House, Tampa Bay. Photo taken on retreat.

As I sat quietly before this image I was deeply moved by the way the sculptor depicted Jesus and the saint of Assisi gazing steadily into each other’s eyes. In the eyes of Francis, I saw a humble hope even as he boldly put his arms around the body of his Savior. His gaze wasn’t bold, but gentle and loving. In Jesus’ gaze I read the question: Do you see me? Do you see how I have died for you? Do you see how I love you? Be absolutely certain that I love you so much that I have given my life for you and if it were necessary, I would do so again. The beautiful way in which Jesus’ arm reaches down from the cross to draw Saint Francis into his passion and life-giving death was trusting and tender.

I wanted to have the courage to embrace Jesus like Francis.

I wanted to hear Jesus say these words to me.

I wanted to be that close to the Master who gave his life for me so that I might live.

I wanted to see in Jesus’ eyes the love that assures me that he is here for me as he was for the humble man of Assisi.

In statues and artwork, we depict Francis of Assisi in joyful ways, preaching to animals, and gently smiling. We forget that in actual fact tears are what marked his spirituality. Francis shed so many tears for his own sins and the sins of the whole world, that it is said that he lost his sight from his weeping. St. Francis had a profound devotion to the Passion of Jesus and near the end of his life Jesus gave him a share in his Passion by allowing him to bear on his body his most sacred wounds.

In wisdom from the ancient fathers, we are told that it is grace that opens our eyes to see things rightly. When we see things as they truly are, we become aware of both our own failures as well as how much we are loved. When we have gained this “precise vision,” we will be given the gift of tears. “At that time your eyes will begin to shed tears until they wash your cheeks by their very abundance” (Isaac the Syrian, quoted in The Fountain and the Furnace, page 38).

Tears are the gift of the grace of God working within us. They are a sign of healing at work in our depths, healing that leads us to a trusting union with Jesus and a union with others. Maggie Ross says in The Fountain and the Furnace, “The way and gift of tears open the gate of death in this life to resurrection in this life…. Tears release us from the prison of power and control into the vast love and infinite possibility of God” (page 44).

As I began to think about the sinfulness and weakness in my life, I also prayed for this gift of tears. I had come into the retreat shedding tears over my own image of myself and the losses that were a part of my midlife journey, but now I asked for the gift of tears because I had put Jesus on the cross.

Andrés Chávez Belisario Pixabay

Like the sense of union depicted between Jesus Crucified and Saint Francis, I also longed for this trusting intimacy, this urgent desire for oneness. In the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: “Man is drawn to Him and rushes to Him with all his strength.”

Draw me, O Lord! This is a grace, not something that can be forced. These are not tears from grieving over what I have experienced or seeking comfort or status once again. These are tears of the heart, shed out of love, just as Christ loved me and gave himself up for me.

[The words of Israel:]

“‘After I strayed,
    I repented;
after I came to understand,
    I beat my breast.
I was ashamed and humiliated
    because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’”

[The words of God to Israel:]

Is not Ephraim my dear son,
    the child in whom I delight?
Though I often speak against him,
    I still remember him.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
    I have great compassion for him
declares the Lord” (Jer 31:19-20).

In the first week of the Exercises, we are invited to make an inventory of our sins. Saint Ignatius wants us to understand how we are trapped in the mire of human weakness and personal choices that focus on ourselves instead of the Kingdom. How we have chosen our glory instead of God’s glory, our will instead of God’s will. We are encouraged to look carefully to see where we have trusted God and where we have trusted ourselves instead. We are invited to weep over the “disgrace of my youth” as this passage in Job says, but always, always, always remembering that we are doing so with a God who is love. One beautiful way to do this integration of life—almost a spiritual processing of our past with Jesus as our divine and compassionate guide—is to take his hand and ask him to raise up memories from our life that still need his healing touch, that still need our acknowledgment and sorrow.

Recently I was back at our motherhouse after a year of having been away. As I walked the hallways and prayed, ate, and worked with my sisters, many memories began to surface. I took the time to re-enter situations long forgotten which never had received a “spiritual closure,” praying that I could move on without them continuing to affect my decisions and attitudes. Very simply we can ask Jesus to show us what he sees, what he knows, and what he loves in us. Memories will touch off other memories. We can talk to Jesus about them and ask him to help us see the patterns of how we escape his love to love ourselves. When we ask for this, Jesus is always quick to oblige, not because he has just been waiting to pull up before our eyes a full accounting of our falls, but because he yearns to give us love and to receive our love in return.

Is not Ephraim my dear son,
    the child in whom I delight?
Though I often speak against him,
    I still remember him.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
    I have great compassion for him
” (Job 31:20).

Gabriel Manjarres via Cathopic

On my retreat, I used this single verse to guide me as I meditated on my journey with the Lord thus far:

“If my steps have turned from the path, if my heart has been led by my eyes, or if my hands have been defiled” (Job 31:7)

“If my steps have turned from this path”:

Walking, paths, steps, following, the way, following the truth, and following the Spirit are themes that appear throughout the scriptures. Each snippet of Scripture listed below offers a different facet of how I reflected on keeping my steps along Christ’s path. I offer them here because I knew Jesus will use his Word to enlarge your own understanding.

  • Job 23:11: My foot has walked in his steps, I have kept his way.
  • Ps 37:23: whose steps are guided by the Lord, who will delight in his way
  • Jn 14:6: I am the way
  • Ps 3:6: He will make your paths straight.
  • Ps 18:31: God’s way is unerring
  • 1 Cor 12:31: the way of love
  • Mt 9:9: Follow me
  • Mt 10:38: Take up your cross and follow me.
  • Mt 19:21: Go, sell all, give to the poor and follow me.
  • Mt 20:34: Jesus touched their eyes, they received their sight and followed him.
  • Jn. 13:15: [Jesus washes his apostles’ feet] As I have done for you, you should also do.
  • Gal 5:7: following the truth
  • Eph 2:3: following the desires of the flesh and its impulses
  • 2 Tim 9:3: following their own desires and insatiable curiosity
  • 1 Pt 2:21: Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps

“If my heart has been led by my eyes”:

The eyes and the heart appear together in many passages of Scripture. Our heart and our eyes are set on the Lord or they are intent on our own gain.

  • Prv 21:2: All your ways may be straight in your own eyes, but it is the Lord who weighs hearts.
  • Ps 131: My heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes.
  • Prv 23:26: My son, give me all of your heart and let your eyes keep to my ways.
  • Sg 4:9: [the Bridegroom speaks:] You have ravished my heart, my bride, with one glance of your eyes
  • Jer 22:17: Both your eyes and heart are set on nothing except your own gain.
  • Lam 7:17: Our hearts grow sick and our eyes grow dim
  • Ez 6:9: After I have broken their lusting hearts that turned away from me and their eyes that lusted after idols
  • Ez 24:25: I will take away the delight of their eyes and the pride of their hearts
  • Mt 13:15: Gross is the heart of this people, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and understand with their hearts
  • 1 Cor 2:9: God has prepared for his lovers what eye has not seen and what has not entered the human heart
  • 2 Pt 2:14: Their eyes are full of adultery and insatiable for sin…the hearts trained for greed
  • Eph 1:18: May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened…to know the hope of your call and the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones

“Or if my hands have been defiled”:

To climb the mountain of the Lord we need clean hands and a pure heart. Throughout scripture we learn of the ways in which our hands are not innocent, are not raised in God’s worship and glory, and also how God rewards “clean hands.”

  • Ps 24:3-4: Who may climb the mountain of the Lord? He who has clean hands and a pure heart… Such is the generation that seek him. Seek the face of the God of Jacob.
  • Dt 4:28: They shall serve gods that are the work of human hands.
  • Ps 18:21: The Lord acknowledged my righteousness, rewarded my clean hands.
  • Ps 26:6: I will wash my hands in innocence.
  • Ps 26:10: in whose hands there is a plot
  • Ps 28:2: I lift up my hands toward your holy place
  • Ps 28:4: Repay them for their deeds, for the evil that they do. For the work of their hands repay them.
  • Ps 44:21: stretched out our hands to another god
  • Ps 58:3: Your hands dispense violence to the earth.
  • Prb 6:17: hands that shed innocent blood
  • Prv 31:20: She reaches out her hands to the poor.
  • Sirach 38:10: Flee wickedness and purify your hands.
  • Sirach 51:20: for I purified my hands
  • Is 1:15: Your hands are full of blood!
  • Is 2:8: They bow down to the work of their hands
  • Zech 14:13: Their hands will be raised against each other

My sin is ever before me

It is a gift of God that we are given the grace of memory, of not forgetting. In Psalm 51:3 the Psalmist says that “my sin is ever before me.” In other words, he carries the memory of his transgressions and weakness with him as he goes forward in life.

How does the Word of God encourage us to remember our past? I like to think of Zacchaeus the tax collector who threw a party after he answered the call of Jesus and received the forgiveness of his sins. To that party, he invited his fellow tax collectors and sinners. Zacchaeus knew what his life had been, who he had become. For the rest of his life, he probably met on the streets those he had cheated. He realized that what he possessed was at the cost of overtaxing his neighbors. Yet I do not imagine him hanging his head in shame for the rest of his life, withdrawing himself from the other disciples. Zacchaeus also knew that he was chosen, wanted, seen, loved, understood by Jesus just as he was. In that moment of being known by God, he desired to commit his life to him. Zacchaeus’ life was one piece. It was beautiful to God and now at last, in all its shadows and glory, his life was beautiful to him.

Jesus, I commit my entire self to you, every moment of my life, every breath, every thought, every desire, every word, every action. Break through my ignorance, my blindness, my unwillingness. Attract me so strongly to yourself that in a short time I will find myself renewed, created anew, and transformed in surprising ways. Amen.

Photo Credit: Cristian Guttierez, Cathopic

We are not prisoners of our past (Horizons of the Heart 6)

The grace we are asking of God: To believe that we need God to free us from our own sorrow and regrets in order to love God entirely and to live a new life in Christ.

Horizons of the Heart: Horizons of the Heart is a weekly retreat-in-life inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, Donec Formetur by Blessed James Alberione, and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.

The everyday road of life is littered with disappointment. Sometimes the greatest of these is the disappointment we have in ourselves.

After a difficult year, I knew I had unearthed so many lost pieces of myself. I felt like even though I seemed to have had it all together, I suddenly was discovering in this year that too much of my ambition was dust in the wind. I felt like I needed to get away, to hide, to nurse back to health the broken fragments of my self. I could almost hear God saying, “Okay. That’s a great idea. I have just the thing for your healing.”

Shortly after, my sister called me up on a Friday evening to tell me that Dad was in the hospital and Mom, who suffers with Alzheimer’s, needed someone to stay with her. I was on a plane early Sunday morning and God’s great idea for my healing began.

Having lived in a large community and been involved in mainly an online evangelization ministry I was completely out of my element. My parents both were depending on whatever I could be for them in those difficult days, and I found that parts of my heart, having long lain dormant, were beginning to awaken. Something changed in me as the first couple of weeks turned into the five months I lived in their living room. Love was the only important thing in that precious appointment with grace. “Isn’t it always that way?” God whispered.

Stage 2 of God’s great idea: move into a Pauline community closer to my parents for a while. I’ve never felt so loved and cared for as I began anew for the second time in less than six months. I brought my one suitcase, moved into the guest room, and made do with what I had with me as I began a new adventure. “It isn’t about what you have, know, or accomplish, my Child,” God pointed out. “See how simple it can be?”

And finally, I ended up on my thirty-day retreat four short months later. So gently on those blessed days did Jesus my King begin to pick up the fragments of my soul and hold them in his healing hands. What I could not hold together, all the ways I felt ugly, regretful, lost, he made beautiful in his hands.

And there’s a story that Luke tells us in the seventh chapter of his Gospel about another woman Jesus made beautiful from the inside out. He restarted her life. He claimed her for himself. He made her new.

The woman was waiting for Jesus in one of the homes of the Pharisees who had invited Jesus to have dinner with him and his friends.

When I think of this woman, I imagine her standing on the edge of the dining room, quietly absorbed in her own thoughts and memories. This woman, through the influence of Jesus, had somehow already attained repentance and faith. And here she was. Waiting. Waiting to see once again the one who had saved her.

For her a lifetime of ugliness, hurt and self-hate, a lifetime of rolling dark clouds with never a promise of sunlight, flowers forever crushed, was now over! Finished at last! She still couldn’t believe it.

She pictured again to herself the face of the One who had given her hope. The One who had truly saved her from herself, rescued her from the trap of evil in which she had been caught. She was waiting for the young rabbi to arrive, almost oblivious of the others in the room who were also expecting Jesus’ arrival. I wonder if he will remember me, she wondered. She almost wept in gratitude as she recalled her meeting with Jesus, the moment of forgiveness. She caught herself…. This was not the place. She was the sinner known to everyone in the town. She was the one people talked about, avoided, looked down on, judged, excluded.

Have you been there, my friend?

The young rabbi who had been invited to the dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s house entered the room. There was a deadening silence. She looked around startled. There were no marks of hospitality. Custom required a kiss, but none was given. No washing of the hands and feet. No greetings of respect. Something was wrong. How could they treat Jesus this way, she wondered.

Jesus stopped, seeming to sense that there was more to this dinner than he had been told when he was invited. Slowly he looked around the room, wondering if there was anyone there that he knew.

Will he remember the moment he saved me? What if he has forgotten me? The thought pierced her heart.

She held her breath as his eyes rested on each person there that night for dinner. Finally, at last, his eyes rested on her across the room. Jesus stopped.

I always hold my breath at this point in the story. Will he remember me? I wonder. Me, with my broken heart. With my regrets. With the messy mistakes and uncertain steps.

A great smile broke across his face: both for the woman in the Gospel of Luke’s story and for me. He knows me, her heart sang. He can pick out my face in a crowd. I’m not a number to him. I mean something to him.  

In that smile there was a connection between two spirits, a memory, a secret, joy given and received.

Jesus sees me and he sees you, the beautiful gift of the Creator, the one he has saved with his own blood, the soul he has filled and sanctified with his Spirit.

Psalm 45

Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention:
    Forget your people and your father’s house.
Let the king be enthralled by your beauty;
    honor him, for he is your lord….

In prayer one day, I entered what was for me a “sacred space.” I pictured a great cathedral filled with angels. Mary was at my side, and on the other side was my guardian angel. The Archangel Michael dominated the space, as he stood from floor to ceiling, guarding and protecting the honor of God. In this holy space, I reflected on certain relationships, ministries, expectations that hadn’t panned out the way I had hoped. They hadn’t given me the success I craved. They hadn’t left me with that glittering self-image I felt I needed in order to be happy. Eventually, I walked to the door of this great cathedral and said goodbye to them. I let them go. All of them. Every last one of them. They were such paltry, silly things in comparison to the grandeur of my Father’s house and my relationship with the King, my Lord. As I turned around to return to the step before the sanctuary, I felt an overwhelming desire to cast myself prostrate before the only One who saves, who overwhelms me with tenderness, who WANTS me, and who makes me beautiful in his eyes.

…All glorious is the princess within her chamber;
    her gown is interwoven with gold.
In embroidered garments she is led to the king;
    her virgin companions follow her—
    those brought to be with her.
Led in with joy and gladness,
    they enter the palace of the king. (Psalm 45:12ff. NIV)

We each have things that we regret. Maybe I’m not such a great manager. Or I feel like I’ve not been there the way I wanted to be for my family because of health issues. Perhaps I realize I’ve tried out a ministry and others do it better than I. I never got that promotion that would have made a big difference for my family. I’ve made decisions through which I’ve lost prestige, financial security, options. It could be that I just wonder if I do anything right.

The most beautiful thing was not that Jesus remembered the woman before he had healed her. No. This beautiful woman “who was the sinner of the town” saw that Jesus remembered only the woman he had created by his act of forgiveness.

She knew then, in a flash of joy, that her past was gone.

Only her new identity existed in Jesus’ eyes. From now on she was the woman who was the work of his hands, the gift of his love, with a future built only and forever on his mercy.

We are not prisoners of our past. We are not chained by our brokenness.

The woman bent low in an act of reverence and utter gratitude to wash Jesus’ feet with the only thing she had: washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. Then she kissed Jesus’ feet in a striking expression of affection and deep veneration.

Jesus says over her: “The one who has been forgiven much loves much” (Lk 7:47). You can hear these words addressed to you.

You are forgiven. Everything is forgotten. Whatever it was that broke you in the past, it is washed away. Whatever you hope is never found out, it is no more.

Jesus re-creates us and then remembers only what he has made us to be in his love. His dying love. His life poured forth for you and for me.

In gratitude, right now, love him.

Jesus, like a mighty Champion you rode your chariot from the rising of the sun to the furthest end of the sky.

Psalm 113

From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
    the name of the Lord is to be praised.

The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
    his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God,
    the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
    on the heavens and the earth?

He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes,
    with the princes of his people.

Come to Me, Jesus says tenderly. Come to Me and I—the Mighty Champion—will refresh you…. I who bore your pain, was scourged, mocked, humiliated, crowned as a King in mockery, crushed to the dust beneath the weight of your sin…

Come to Me and I will refresh you, I will love you, I will start again with you, I will make you new (cf. Matthew 11:28).

Image Credit: Feature image: Photo by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash; Frans Francken the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Girl with red hat on Unsplash; Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

The GIFT Jesus wants to give you (Horizons of the Heart 5)

Horizons of the Heart: Horizons of the Heart is a weekly retreat-in-life inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, Donec Formetur by Blessed James Alberione, and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.

The grace we are asking of God: To have the courage to trust in God entirely for this life and the next, to become a child and to receive his blessing.    

In the opening days of any retreat, I feel that God is shaking me loose from all that binds me to the earth. I see this spiritual dynamic in the story of the rich young man who approached Jesus, a potential disciple. “Good master,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Probably we all have the same question. “How do I get to heaven?” “How do I know I will be saved?” “What do I need to do in my life to be a saint?” These are some of the questions we bring with us to a retreat experience.

Before exploring Jesus’ response to the young man, however, I’d like to contemplate with you the passage that appears in the Gospel of Mark immediately prior to the account of the rich young man. In Mark 10, beginning with verse 13, we read the account of Jesus and the children.

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (NRSV)

I’ve read this passage a thousand times, as no doubt have you. It was only when I read these verses in the Passion Translation that I began to wonder what it was to be a child. The juxtaposition of this story of Jesus and the children with Jesus and the story of Jesus and the rich young man helped me to begin to reflect more deeply.

What does it mean to become a child?

In the Passion Translation, verse 15 reads like this: “Listen to the truth I speak: Whoever does not open their arms to receive God’s kingdom like a teachable child will never enter it.”

Listen to the truth I speak. Jesus is teaching us something important. Truly I tell you. Listen up. Amidst all of the voices attempting to teach us with their opinions and agendas and emotional reactions, Jesus says quietly, “Listen to the truth that I speak.”

Receive. Children are not in the position to earn their own keep. They receive everything from those who care for them. They even received their very life (as all of us have). In the innocence, fragility, and dependence of a child, our own absolute creaturely dependence, connection, and relationship to God for our very existence become apparent to us. We are all children before God, for we are all created by his very hands.

What are we receiving as a child? God’s Kingdom. The kingdom of God is a gift that God desires to give us, is ready to give us.

What does receiving this gift depend on? The Passion Translation interestingly adds the word teachable as an attribute of a child. A child needs to learn everything through experience and through the teaching of others who are older and wiser than they. They have no real knowledge and experience of their own. In fact their every reaction is based on their sensitivity and emotions, rather than on principle.

This is where I began to get a little uncomfortable. Teachable.

Pause. What makes me teachable? First, I would need to know I need to learn something that I can’t figure out myself, receive something I can’t give myself. Second, I would need to want to learn or receive this gift of wisdom. Third, I would need to place myself in the position of a learner, in humble submission of mind, will, sensibilities, affections, desires, and imagination. Fourth, I would need to know how to listen and have the patience to grow in knowledge and experience through the work of a teacher who would be the one to determine the times and the seasons for my growth. Fifth, I would need to practice and persevere in this practice. Finally, I would need to remain ever grateful to my teacher, not appropriating to myself what I had received or falsifying it to flatter my own pride and self-love.

Jesus lays his hand on each child and blessed each one. GIFT.

The young-man-in-a-hurry

The story of the rich young man is a perfect foil to the narrative of Jesus blessing the children.

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mk 10:17-23 NRSV)

After the almost pastoral vision of Jesus with the children, this man punctuates the Scriptures with his haste. As Jesus begins a journey, he runs up, casts himself on his knees before Jesus, and blurts out, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” I am made almost uncomfortable by the urgency with which the young man made a display of himself.

Close your eyes and picture this scene…. What does it make you feel? Uneasy? Does its very unpredictability create uncertainty in you? Contrast this with the sense you have from being with the children who are at play.

This young-man-in-a-hurry calls Jesus a Teacher. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Having contemplated Jesus’ praise of the teachable child, this address of Jesus as a Teacher is the key that can help us unlock the complexities in this eager youth’s soul.

Is he as “teachable” as a child? He certainly realizes there is something he doesn’t know that he is hoping Jesus can tell him so he can achieve his goal. “What must I do to inherit eternal life.”

What one thing. The young man is looking for just one thing that will open up the whole treasure house to him. We might think also of Mary at Jesus’ feet: “Only one thing is necessary….”

Am I required to do. There must be one more thing that he hasn’t done because he realizes he hasn’t captured his prize! I. Required. To do. These are not the words of Gift. They are not the attitudes and aptitudes of a child. Of a teachable child. Of someone who realizes his complete dependence on God for everything.

These are not the words of blessing, as Jesus blessed the children before he left. He did not require anything of them to receive this blessing. Holiness was not something for them to do, but to receive.

The young man, although he was asking Jesus for the key to eternal life, was assuming it was something he had to do through his own power. Eternal life, he assumed, would depend on how well he did it.

To gain. Eternal life, for this young man, was another thing to gain, to conquer, to achieve, to accumulate perhaps for his own benefit.

In a footnote for verse 22 in the Passion Translation, the Greek word that identifies this man as very wealthy implies that he was a landowner.

Having land or property, a house or mansion, gives one a sense of stability, security and status. Being a “landowner,” particularly a very wealthy one, would give a person significant independence and autonomy, prestige and power in the community. Often what a rich person builds on land they own or how they develop their property becomes a monument to themselves and makes a public statement since it becomes clear to others that they can afford this extravagance.

A child has none of this security. A child plays.

Jesus says to this very rich landowner with love, “Sell it all. Give it away to those who can’t thank you. Like a child, toss it all to the wind. Then come back to me and become my follower. Be someone who needs to receive as I receive everything from the Father, to be taught as I receive everything I say from my Father, who has given up status as I gave up mine when I was born on this earth, is homeless as I who have nowhere to lay my head. Become a child as I am a Child, Son of my Father.”

To become a child is to become like Jesus

Jesus shows us himself how to become a child. How to receive. How to let go and give up and sell all and lose everything for the sake of the Kingdom. Paul paints a picture of Jesus as our model for becoming a child in his letter to the Philippians:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:3-11 NRSV).

Indeed, unless we become as children, Jesus has told us, unless we become like him in every way, we will not enter into eternal life. Jesus was giving the rich young man the key for which he was looking.

Pause. Is there a place in your life in which Jesus is asking you if you will say YES to having no stability, no security, no status, no independence, no ability to create self-made monuments…. A place where he is calling you to become a child. To trust. To play. To depend. No doubt these opportunities for becoming a child may seem small, somewhat trivial. Yet, at the same time, we may feel them deeply. This is what makes it so hard to say this YES even if we know that God loves us and that we are secure in handing ourselves over to his care like a child. When God comes close to us, he lets us see more clearly that everything else is paltry beside his glory.

Saint Mary of Jesus Crucified was born in Galilee in 1846. Little Mariam felt the attraction of God’s love for her, particularly when she spent time in the beauty of the nature that was all around her. One day she heard within her spirit God’s promise to her: “Behold everything fades away, but if you want to give me your heart, I shall remain with you always.”

Behold, everything fades away. All that we build for ourselves fades away. All that we accumulate. All that we achieve. All. Everything. Only God remains. Only God remains with us always.

Let us allow Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity to guide us in prayer in this journey to becoming more and more a teachable child.

Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, Discalced Carmelite in Dijon France canonized October 16, 2016, shares a spirituality that is remarkably similar to her contemporary Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She is most known for her Prayer to the Trinity. One of the paragraphs of this prayer can become the source of deeper contemplation this week:

O Eternal Word, Word of my God, I want to spend my life in listening to You, to become wholly teachable that I may learn all from You. Then, through all nights, all voids, all helplessness, I want to gaze on You always and remain in Your great light. O my beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may not withdraw from Your radiance.

Come before Jesus as a child, asking for his blessing, the one thing you are required to do. Ask for the gift of YES in those areas of your life in which you find it most difficult to turn everything over to him. Instead of seeking that last one key to your holiness, tell Jesus instead, “Jesus, you take care of it. I trust you. Have your way with my life even in this. I love you.”

Photo Credit: Photo by Sachin C Nair: https://www.pexels.com/photo/waterfalls-during-sunset-954929/; Jesus Blessed the Children: Howe, Henry, 1816-1893, publisher; Howe, Henry, 1816-1893, copyright claimant; Middleton, Elijah C., publisher; Middleton, Elijah C., copyright claimant, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Jesus and the Rich Young Man: Heinrich Hofmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Jesus is Worth Everything: Photo by Emma Shappley on Unsplash

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

The grace we are asking of God: To have confidence in the way God accepts us even in our sin, to believe in his path for us that weaves its way through forgiveness and mercy, and to have the courage to turn to the One who alone can give us all we need instead of trying to fix ourselves.   

Horizons of the Heart: Horizons of the Heart is a weekly retreat-in-life inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, Donec Formetur by Blessed James Alberione, and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.

There is a mysterious passage in the book of Jeremiah:

“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
    the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
    broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (2:13).

Jesus, the spring of Living Water, watches us as we so often dig our own cisterns, our own wells, from which we hope to draw water that will satisfy our thirst, make us happy, give us life, at least a tolerable life on this earth. In the Gospel of John, we meet the woman in Samaria who was just such a woman. To tell you the truth, so am I.

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) via wikimedia

The Samaritan woman is the woman of the tryst with Jesus. A tryst is defined as “a private romantic rendezvous between lovers.” The story of Jesus’ meeting with this woman is just such a story of love, of romance in the highest degree. Her story is the story of the romance of the heart of God: “Yes, she has forsaken me, yes, she has dug her own cisterns, yes, her attempt at managing things to create happiness out of her broken cistern has failed, yes she is unhappy, and a thousand times YES, I the Living Water am thirsting for her love.”

Before her rendezvous with Jesus how many things had this woman tried to get her life right, she the woman of five husbands, of failed love, of broken marriages? That is the way of us humans. We think we have to find our own water, dig our own wells, and provide for all our own needs.

Then in a flash. In an epiphany. When she saw herself through the eyes of God. When she knew herself suddenly to be truly valued and eternally infinitely unconditionally loved by this man sitting on  the side of the well, this man who knew her whole story and loved her anyway.

I prayed Psalm 103 as the Samaritan woman may have prayed it after this life-changing tryst with the Lord.

From the depths of my being I will praise him. I will never ever forget his acts of kindness to me. He forgave me, cured me, redeemed me from the abyss. He crowned me with his faithful love and contented me with good things. He made me young again!

Jesus was eager to forgive me. He sought me out. He was waiting for me in my shame.

The Lord is tenderness, pity, rich in faithful love and slow to anger. He didn’t treat me as my sins deserve nor repay me as befitted my offense. He is a faithful lover. He treated me with the tenderness of a good father for his beloved child. He threw my faults away so I could see them no more. He remembered I was made of dust.

Though I bloom today and as soon as the wind blows I am gone, Jesus’ faithful love is from eternity and for ever! (cf. Psalm 103)

Juan Pablo Arias via Cathopic

Jesus, the one who sought out this woman whose heart was broken by forsaken lovers, this Jesus who sought her out, seeks out you and me.

The Samaritan woman no doubt had tried to get her life straightened out, at least enough to make a respectable presentation in the village. Wouldn’t you? I would. I do!

Self-improvement can be truly helpful, but it is love that heals. It is a Lover who knows all we can become if we but take some time for this romantic rendezvous with him. It is not just his teaching, his words. It is the look of the Lover, the look of Jesus, that unsettles us.

The grace is in the present moment of tryst with Jesus. Jesus sees us and wants us to return his gaze with love. Even with all the fumbling in that long conversation in the fourth chapter of John, the Samaritan woman teaches us the attitude to have before Jesus who is asking also for a drink:

Listen to him
Enter into conversation with him
Allow yourself to be moved by his presence.

Jesus is sitting at the well of your daily life. He says to you also, “I am thirsty. Give me a drink.” Where is he? you might be thinking. I assure you, just as Jesus planned that meeting with the suffering woman of Samaria, probably for days ahead of that meeting organizing things to be there for her at just the right time when she would arrive, Jesus is doing the same for you.

So expect him.

Tell Jesus you are expecting him and ask him to clearly show himself to you this day.

Pay attention to the ways you are internally moved unexpectedly. Perhaps it is the conversation with a friend, something you hear on the radio or see around you, a passage you read in Scripture, or the sense of how you feel touched with God’s presence in Eucharistic adoration…

Stay with these moments and allow yourself to be unsettled by Jesus’ presence, by his gaze as it rests on you.

Allow Jesus to touch you deeply, to draw you out of yourself and away from the poison of your past and the delusion of your broken wells. Jesus knows your story so be honest with him about it. Talk to him about all you have experienced. Jesus loves you so much. He desires you to know how much his Father loves you.

Believe he has a path for you still.

Most importantly, receive the moment of revelation. Epiphany. Not a message of how much better you are or will be. No. The revelation he gave to the Samaritan woman is what your heart longs for: “The one you are looking for? I am he.”  The one you are seeking for. The one who will satisfy you completely. The one who will fill your heart in every way. This one whom you are looking for. I. Am. He.”

Underneath all the things you long for, all the ways you wish were different, underneath all your plans for the future, there is a greater desire and more urgent longing that will truly satisfy you.

“I am he. I am the one you are looking for. I am the one who saves, redeems, forgives, and makes new. I am he.”

Francisco Xavier via Cathopic

Look into his eyes as did the Samaritan woman. To those who met Jesus, his eyes conveyed immediately that he could be trusted. You too can trust Jesus with yourself, your past, your present, your future. You can trust him because he loves you. He plans these trysts with you each day so that you will know just how much he loves you.

Pray Psalm 103 as an act of faith, a prayer for gratitude.

The Gospel of John tells us little about the Samaritan woman after this tryst with Jesus except that she rushed back to her village and told her neighbors to come with her to meet this man who told her everything she had ever done:

Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

…Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.

They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

This woman of Samaria evangelized the people of her village on the basis of her great joy in what he had done for her. After Jesus ascended into heaven, tradition holds that she evangelized in Carthage and Rome and died as a martyr in the first persecution under Nero. Tradition also gives us her name: Photina which means Enlightened. In the Preface for the Third Sunday of Lent, the Sunday on which the Gospel of the Samaritan woman is read, the Church refers to light as fire, a fire that burned, a fire Jesus kindled in her which was so great she was propelled to share it:

“For when he asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink,
he had already created the gift of faith within her
and so ardently did he thirst for her faith,
that he kindled in her the fire of divine love.”

ahgomaaz via Pixabay

The Samaritan woman found herself that day on the threshold between her past and her future, both of which Jesus knew all about. Both of which Jesus cared about. All of which Jesus provided for.

Each meeting, each tryst we have with Jesus is a moment of grace. These trysts are thresholds or frontiers that divide two different stages of life, rhythms, atmospheres, dreams for who we are and could be.

There are some important questions we can ask ourselves here on this threshold with Jesus. I take these from John O’Donohue, Irish poet and author, in his book To Bless the Space Between Us. “At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What gift would enable me to do it?”  

To what new frontier in your life does Jesus bring you? Wonderful questions we can reflect on. Where am I standing today between the past and the future? What am I leaving behind? What is Jesus calling me to leave behind? What is he giving me the grace to leave behind? How is he freeing me? What frontier, what new horizon am I about to enter? Where is he calling me to? What gift is he giving me?

As I stand on this threshold between the past and the future, I might feel resistance. I might feel discouragement.  I might feel weakness. I might feel “I don’t want to!”

What is preventing me from crossing this next threshold of my life? As we see in this Gospel of the Samaritan woman, when Jesus calls us to a threshold, he calls us to something wonderful. As humans we see the tragedy, the difficulty, of what we must leave behind. Jesus sees what he wants to give us, where he is calling us. It is always beautiful.

We can ask Jesus, “What gift do I need? What gift do you want to give me that would enable me to cross this threshold this day?” This is a great question to reflect on in these next few days. To what new threshold is God bringing  you to at this stage of your life?

O’Donohue continues: “It is wise in your own life to be able to recognize and acknowledge the key thresholds: to take your time; to feel all the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. The time has come to cross.”

The time has come to cross your next threshold. Jesus is there. He is waiting for you there. And he is waiting for you in the future he has planned for your life.

God’s Love is forever (Horizons of the Heart 3)

The grace we are asking of God: A deep confidence and a consistent trust in God’s care for us and his nearness to us in every moment, even in the events of our life that are our undoing.

Horizons of the Heart: Horizons of the Heart is a weekly retreat-in-life inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, Donec Formetur by Blessed James Alberione, and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.

I love to pray Psalm 103, particularly with the translation of the New Jerusalem Bible:

Bless Yahweh, my soul,
from the depths of my being, his holy name;
bless Yahweh, my soul,
never forget all his acts of kindness.
….Yahweh is tenderness and pity,
slow to anger and rich in faithful love;
his indignation does not last for ever,
nor his resentment remain for all time;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve,
nor repay us as befits our offences.
As the height of heaven above earth,
so strong is his faithful love for those who fear him.
…As tenderly as a father treats his children,
so Yahweh treats those who fear him;
he knows of what we are made,
he remembers that we are dust” (vv. 1-2, 6-11, 13-14).

The day I meditated on this passage of Scripture at the beginning of my retreat, my soul was bleeding to know, truly know, that God cared for me, loved me, was near to me.

Did you ever ask yourself: What would it look like if God were caring for me? How can I know for sure?

It is a mystery for sure, but even more than that, it is mystical. The Lord then led me to another passage: Isaiah 49.

Sing for joy, O heavens!
    Rejoice, O earth!
    Burst into song, O mountains!
For the Lord has comforted his people
    and will have compassion on them in their suffering.

Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us;
    the Lord has forgotten us.”

Pause: have you ever thought that the Lord had deserted you? That he had forgotten you? What was happening? What was the final straw that brought you to this conclusion? What does being “deserted” and “forgotten” feel like? What does it make you think about yourself? About God?

God responds to Jerusalem:

Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child?
    Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?
But even if that were possible,
    I would not forget you!
See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands (vv.13-16).

Photo by Kyle Nieber on Unsplash

“See, Kathryn,” the Lord helped me to understand. “I carry you in the womb as does a mother.” A baby in the womb receives everything from its mother: life, form, food, growth, blood, development. Receives is the key word here. A pre-born baby is wholly receptive. To be held in the “womb of God,” is to receive from God, to become and come-to-be through the nurturance, love, and fidelity of the God who creates, sustains, and keep us in existence at every moment of our life.  

Inherent in motherhood is the desire to protect her children. A couple of weeks ago I listened to an interview of a mother who was first at the scene when an active shooter was reported at Robbs Elementary in Uvalde and ran immediately into the school to find her two children. Nothing could stop that mother from running toward danger to rescue her children. To save their child, a parent will race into a fire, risk their life in gunfire, throw a child to safety at the cost of their own life….

It is the same with God. His love is forever, surrounding us with walls of care. He sent his beloved Son Jesus to offer himself for our salvation, at the cost of his life. God, in a sense, ran toward us in our sin to save us, not considering the loss he would himself incur. The image of the father of the prodigal son in the Gospel of Luke is also an image of our heavenly Father. He ran toward his returning and repentant son who was returning after having squandered his inheritance, probably nearly half his father’s estate. Yet how his father loved him with that forever love that is the hallmark of God’s heart.

To be honest, however, we each suffer at the hands of others, some in lesser ways, others in greater. God’s love for us doesn’t necessarily magically preserve us from all pain, suffering and sorrow.

A mother and father who have truly grown wise through the sufferings of their own life, know that the moments of suffering, injustice, and challenge that their child faces may also be their most defining moments.

Anyone who saw the 2012 film For Greater Glory will recall the story of the teenager José Luis Sánchez del Río, the 14-year-old martyr who died defending the Faith when the Catholic Church in Mexico was being bitterly persecuted in the early 1900s.  He was canonized on October16, 2016 in Rome.

The Vatican website has this for Blessed José’s biography: 

José Sánchez del Río was born on March 28, 1913, in Sahuayo, Michoacán, Mexico. Wanting to defend the faith and rights of Catholics, he followed in the footsteps of his two older brothers and asked his mother for permission to join the Cristeros. She objected, telling him he was too young. “Mama,” he replied, “do not let me lose the opportunity to gain heaven so easily and so soon.”

On February 5, 1928, the young boy was captured during a battle and imprisoned in the church sacristy.

In order to terrorize him, soldiers made him watch the hanging of one of the other captured Cristeros. But José encouraged the man, saying, “You will be in heaven before me. Prepare a place for me. Tell Christ the King I shall be with him soon.”

In prison, he prayed the Rosary and sang songs of faith. He wrote a beautiful letter to his mother, telling her that he was resigned to doing God’s will. José’s father attempted to ransom his son but was unable to raise the money in time.

On February 10, 1928, the teenager was brutally tortured and the skin of the soles of his feet was sheered off; he was then forced to walk on salt, followed by walking through the town to the cemetery. The young boy screamed in pain but would not give in.

At times the soldiers stopped him and said, “If you shout, ‘Death to Christ the King,’ we will spare your life.” But he answered: “Long live Christ the King! Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe!”

Once he arrived at the cemetery, José was asked once more if he would deny his faith. The 14-year-old shouted out: “Long live Christ the King!” and was summarily shot.

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

Again and again, in the Scriptures, it is in the darkest and most dreaded moments that glory shines. Think of Israel on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army barreling down behind them. The parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus became the image for all time of how God himself saves his people not from their difficulties but through them. It is through death that we come to life.

Think of Judith and Esther and Peter in his betrayal of the Lord. Consider the persecution of the early Church, the martyrs, and the countless women and men who in every walk of life have bravely been carried by the power of God through the midst of the flames and have not been burnt. They have walked through the floods and not drowned. Their most painful moments became their glory through God’s power.

We may not be in a situation where we fear for our lives or are called to stand up for our Faith at the cost of martyrdom. At least not yet! What most brings us into the darkness and dreaded loss that threatens to break us apart are situations where we are “undone.”

We call these moments, the “carrying of the cross.” Jesus told us that to follow him we would need to take up our cross and follow him. To live with him in glory, we will need to die with him on the cross. How much we may want to avoid the cross: the consequences of failure, mistakes, being helpless before the injustice of others, having our plans or dreams unraveled by unexpected illness, job loss, financial burden…or pandemic, chain supply issues, or war in some other part of the globe.

Jesus says to us, “If you want to follow me disown your life, surrender to my ways.” I have been quite taken by the simple prayer of the humble Canadian religious Blessed Dina Bélanger: “Jesus, I love you. Have your way with my life.”

Photo by Christopher Sardegna on Unsplash

In the face of the myriad paths I could take in life, it is God who decides which alternative is of value to me and my life in the world. “Jesus, I love you, have your way with my life.” God is the one who knows whether a possible choice will make me more selfish or more selfless. “Jesus, I love you, have your way with my life.” God knows what things will lead me more to him and to become my authentic self. “Jesus, I love you, have your way with my life.”

I have to admit I have often bemoaned the losses of my life. Despite praying the Our Father countless times, it has taken me a long time to whisper to God, “Thy Kingdom come. My kingdom go.” I have focused on the clouds, on the cross, on the tears…surviving them, understanding them, growing from them. So patiently has the Lord waited for me to turn my eyes and heart to him. “Your Kingdom is all I want.”

I pray in trust to the One who knows and loves me more than I could ever know or love myself:

“…I have not immersed myself deeply in your glory. Forgive me. I have stayed on the surface where it is safe, where I can protect myself and manage my future. Now, my Father, I plunge myself into all your glory.

Take me in.
Take me deeper.
Assume me into you.”

“Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Featured image: Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

The amazing promise of new beginnings (Horizons of the Heart 2)

The grace we are asking of God: A deep confidence and a consistent trust in God’s care for us and his nearness to us in every moment, even in the events of our life that are our undoing.

Horizons of the Heart: Horizons of the Heart is a weekly retreat-in-life inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, Donec Formetus by Blessed James Alberione, and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.

Beginnings are more important than endings. In fact, beginnings are already woven into every ending. The ending of the life the caterpillar has always known is already integrated into the process of the butterfly’s new beginning. The seeming ending of the Master’s life on Calvary was mysteriously taken up, and gently, in the Father’s hands, it became the stage for the mystery of resurrection beginnings that would be lived again and again and again in Jesus’ disciples’ lives.

“Why would you look for the living One in a tomb?” said the angels in white, angels of the resurrection whose radiance washed away the black sorrow of the ending of the Lord’s life on Calvary (Luke 24:5 TPT). The women who had come to seek the Lord buried in the tomb, locked behind a giant stone, dead, whom they feared they would see no more, these women faced the darkness of the sepulcher now lit with almost blinding brilliance. “He is not here. He is risen.”

“There’s no reason to be afraid” (Mt. 28:5). Pause a moment and think of an ending in your life that was particularly sudden, seemingly absolute. Or an ending you are living through now: termination, loss, failure. Any ending. One as great as the breaking of a relationship or losing a pet, or moving, or retiring. Or one as beautiful as the wedding of a child or the turning of a new leaf in life. Any ending.

Don’t endings bring on feelings of fear?

“There’s no reason to be afraid,” said the angel to the women. I’m not so sure that the command to not be afraid actually shifted their fear into trust. Nevertheless, it is helpful to remember that amid all our dread, struggle, the anticipation of an uncertain future, the uncertainty about what is happening, there is something permanent that is the reason why we needn’t fear…needn’t fear deep down, needn’t believe the absolute worst, needn’t believe that the ending is, well, an absolute and final and irrevocable end.

“I know you’re here looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here—he has risen victoriously, just as he said! Come inside the tomb and see the place where our Lord was lying” (Matthew 28:5-6 TPT).

Proof! That’s what we need to really believe the end is not the final ending. Come inside and see where the Lord was lying and that he is not here anymore.

Come inside. We interiorly flee our endings. We can’t take the shame. The sorrow. The worry about the future. It is all too much. The apostles fled and they didn’t turn back. They forgot that the Master at whose side they had lived had words of eternal life. They couldn’t remember that just three days earlier he had said it was good that he goes and that he would come back. It escaped their memories entirely that he had prophesied that he would die on the cross and three days after rise again. The women, on the other hand, sorrowing and loving and deeply yearning for the touch of their Lord’s presence and the sight of his face once more did return. They returned to the tomb. To the place of what they believed to be the utter ending.

We need to return to the places of our endings if we are to discover the brilliant process and amazing promise of new beginning.

There is, however, the message of a different type of beginning that the women are entrusted with. They are given the mission to run to their devastated and hiding brethren and tell them this message: “I am going ahead of you in Galilee and you will see me there” (Mt 28:7). Galilee… The place where it all began. By the sea of Galilee, he had called Peter and Andrew, James and John to leave their boats and follow him. The sea of Galilee had been his first pulpit, and had seen his first conversion. (“Leave me Lord,” Peter had said, “I am a sinful man.”) Galilee was the place of the beginning of their relationship with him. A relationship now grown old and sagging from the sorrow of betrayal and the worn thin by the confusion of the last days. The ending.

Everything of those three years and the colossal failure of the arrest and death of Jesus was still there…
for them
for him.

…return to Galilee
to the beginning
to the call
to the promise

…return to the beginning to learn afresh to be LOVED and to LOVE.

I distinctly heard his voice in my heart on the first day of my retreat, “Come back with me, Kathryn, to the beginning.

To your call
To the promises I made to you at your baptism, at your profession

I am faithful to promises through endings and into new beginnings. You can’t see the new beginning as you bend and peer into what appears to be the tomb of your life. Just as the women at the tomb had to believe the angels of promise who proclaimed that the world had been made new by something that had never happened before, that someone had risen from the dead, you too must believe without seeing that I have a new beginning for you. Come back with me to the early days, the first love, the first profession of trust in me as I called you, the first experiences of my love for you, Kathryn. That love still stands, always stands, will forever stand unshaken.”

He is not there. You may not know where he is right now. You may not know what he has in store for your life. You may not know if you believe in new beginnings or even want any new beginning that you can’t see and be certain of and in control of so that you won’t be hurt anew. Because let’s be real….endings hurt.

The paradigm of Jesus, however, holds true in us. Whatever it is that robs us of what we had is not greater than the Father who has us in his hands. And our Father is the God of life who brings victory out of failure and life out of death. In our very endings, or what to us seems to be an ending, is already the beginning of the new life. All is shrouded in mystery except for the very clear promise: “I will meet you in Galilee.”

We will not see Jesus where we expect to find him, if we are certain that our relationship with God stands in shambles because of the endings that have left our lives so torn… If we are certain that Jesus looks at our lives the way we look at them…. Lives of endings and tombs and hopelessly no beginnings.

What is your ending?

Where do you see the beginning of something possibly, tentatively new living already within you?

Where is your Galilee? Where did you experience the Lord’s love for you? His call? His promise? His trust? Where did you see his eyes looking on you and hear his voice calling you his beloved? Return to that place. Return with him. Patiently. The Lord is unravelling the endings of your life and with the very colors and threads of the past will weave the new that will be your unending joy.

He promises that to you. So weep if you must. Tears heal and are so good for us to shed. But then bend down to look into the tomb, hear the promise, and follow Jesus back to the beginning where you will meet the Weaver of the indescribable beauty of all that is new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrestling with trust like Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked God, “What is my detail?”

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

What is your detail?

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

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

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

Grieve and worship even if you can’t yet trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

I promise.

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