No power of evil can take us from Jesus’ hand

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

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

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

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

No tears.

No hunger.

No thirst.

No wounds.

No death.

No war.

Nothing but the triumph of love….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m tired of storms

I must admit that I am tired of storms. I’m worn out trying to find my life story—my Covid pandemic life story—reflected in the apostles’ experience of storms at sea.

I’m exhausted trying to outsmart an invisible enemy.

I’m finished for a while with helping people make sense of what has been senseless suffering in their lives for these past two years.

The global consequences of the pandemic are so overwhelming I want to just sit down and cry. I long for the former days that seem in misty memory to have been more carefree and happy.

So the words that attracted my attention in the Gospel reading in today’s liturgy were these: “the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading.”

The apostles wanted to take Jesus into their boat. They were prepared to take charge and figure out the next best thing to do.

Oh, how much of my life I’ve spent doing precisely this. These past two years that have been not only pandemic-riddled but also have been years of great loss on different levels have finally worn me out. I certainly don’t know the next move and I’ve finally acknowledged that I certainly don’t have what it requires to take the situation in hand and plot a way forward.

If you feel this way, just a little, trust in the Lord who brought the boat immediately to the shore to which they were heading. Sometimes we get taken to places in our lives that we would never have gone on our own, places that we would never have chosen, that we still don’t entirely comprehend. Somehow through it all we are taken by God to a shore where we are safe, yet we don’t how we got there, where we are to go, or how we are to get there. We simply realize that God himself did it for us because he loves us poor storm-weary children.

It is a place of trust and of magnificent wonder: God is taking us somewhere, and he is doing it on his own, surprising us with his power, surrounding us with his love. “Do not be afraid,” he says. “It is I.”

I want to finish this reflection with three lines that perfectly express my prayer in these days. They are from a poem by Marie Noël (The Hours: Prime) found in the book Born from the Gaze of God: The Tibhirine Journal of a Martyr Monk (1993-1996).

Father, carry my soul in its carefreeness
To where you want, and let it sleep in your hand
Without asking the meaning and the goal of the road.

Learning the Art of Spiritual Discernment

Dear Friends,

The 40 days after Jesus rose from the dead, began in great silence. At the final meeting with Pilate before Jesus was ultimately condemned to death, the crowd was “shouting,” “howling,” and “shouting at the top of their voices,” (words from Luke’s Gospel in the New Jerusalem translation). The first lines of the narrative of the Resurrection are filled, instead, with silence, awe, rest, and joy.

“On the morning of the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn, they went to the tomb with the spices they had prepared….”

And the first words are those of the angels. A few verses later Jesus joins two disciples who share with him the confusion within their own hearts and desires, their disappointment at Jesus’ death, the disintegration of their dreams. And Jesus’ voice cuts clear through all of that, a quiet, clear, strong voice.

The only people that populate the narratives of the Resurrection appearances are Jesus and his disciples. It is like Jesus took them on a 40-day retreat with him. He wanted to comfort them yes. But he had so many things he wanted to tell them. He wanted to shape them in his image so they could love the world as he did, serve as he did, preach as he did…with his voice, his heart, his wisdom and love.

The Easter season is a wonderful time to listen for the voice of God as did the disciples during those first beautiful days after the Resurrection.

Last night on my Facebook group we began a series of meetings in which we will be meditating on the Easter Gospels in relation to how God communicates with us. We began to explore how we can grow in our interior awareness and hear more clearly his voice through the muddle of our disappointments, confusion, dreams, desires. We began last night with two gospel passages that recount Mary at the tomb and talked about what makes an experience “spiritual” and some of the ways we can tell the difference between our voice and God’s voice.

Together during the Easter season we will be developing the art of spiritual discernment along with the apostles and women who followed Jesus.

If this sounds like it would be a great way to spend the Easter season, learning at the feet of Jesus how to hear his voice as it clarifies your heart and orders your desires, I’d love for you to join us. We meet on Tuesdays at 8pm EST. Even if you can’t come at that time, most people watch it in the days after since the video remains. In fact, you can still catch this week’s video if you’d like. Here’s the link to join the group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/srkathrynhermes

And here’s the link to sign up for my mini-retreat this Saturday offered free on SmartCatholics. It’s just an hour (3-4), and you’ll receive an email link for 9 days to a daily prayer guide, leading you to a more silent, restful prayer in which you will more deeply abide in God and God in you. Again, if you can’t come Saturday you will be able to watch the re-run after. The link for the retreat is here: https://hopin.com/events/abide-in-me-retreat

Both of these opportunities are wonderful ways to transition from the “penance” focus of Lent to the “growth and transformation” focus of Easter which culminates in Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit, and the amazing changes we see in the Apostles who then go out to the ends of the earth as witnesses to all they have seen and heard.

Know that I am praying for each of you in these days.

Christ is Risen indeed!

Thanks for joining me on the journey,
Sr Kathryn

A blessed and most grace-filled Easter!

 My friends who join me on the journey, Happy Easter. Christ has risen, and with him you and I have also risen. God exalted Christ who humbled himself even unto death. Not only did he raise Jesus from the dead, his whole plan is to raise up the whole of mankind through him from the death of sin. 

We can be certain that the whole of God’s will, the entirety of God’s plan, his ultimate end toward which everything tends is to establish all things in Christ risen and exalted at his right hand. The picture above is of Christ leading the souls out of limbo after his death. He has burst open the doors of hell, to the consternation of Satan, and has brought joy to the first Adam and Eve and Moses and Elijah and Isaiah and all those who were being held captive waiting for him to free them.

Lent, and retreats, are a time when we look back over our lives. We might experience this captivity in our own experience. We wonder why things happened the way they did, or why things we so wanted didn’t happen. These things might seem to have trapped or imprisoned us. We look at where we are and where we’ve come from. We see the tiniest details of our lives and how they have affected us, and we mourn the great losses which we have borne.

Jesus, in his life and death, submitted himself entirely to the details of his life, trusting in the care of his dear Father, in the wisdom and purpose of his Father. He also mourned, wept, feared, felt deeply the pain of loss. The Father’s one purpose is to establish all things in Christ, and that is why we can ultimately let go of all we try to make happen and surrender to the merciful and magnificent plan which God is unfolding in us day by day, as he establishes us in Christ. We may still mourn and weep, but we believe.

This is such a grace to receive: this vision, this hope, this faith. 
That even in the dark there is light, in the wandering there is purpose, in the fear there is courage,  in the visible there is always the invisible working of grace, in the end always a beginning.

May you have a blessed Easter Season, all of these amazing days that lead up to Pentecost.

Thanks for joining me on the journey,
Sr Kathryn 

The Liturgy of the magnificent Easter Vigil

Holy Saturday…

A day of quiet and calm. A day of intimacy and hope.

A day when all creation sighed in exhaustion after witnessing the sorrowful and tragic events of Calvary the day before.

A day when the earth trembled as it held the sacred Body of the Savior as it lay in the silent darkness.

A day of waiting….

The liturgy of Holy Saturday, the magnificent Easter Vigil, teaches us the divine art of waiting.

We wait in the dark around the Easter Fire, usually shivering in the early spring evening for the service to begin. We wait as the Paschal candle precedes us into a darkened church and our tiny candles gradually become a sea of lights punctuating the shadows. We wait for everyone to take their place before the lovely Exultet is proclaimed in song. And then finally we wait for the reading of the Gospel of the resurrection as the Liturgy of the Word “takes us by the hand” in the words of Benedict XVI and walks us through the whole trajectory of salvation history. If your parish proclaims all the readings for Holy Saturday Liturgy there will be seven Old Testament readings and one from the Epistles in the New Testament.

As these readings follow upon each other, one after another, I feel that in some way I take my place in the long centuries of creation waiting for redemption as I look through the “scrapbook” of memories and miracles, of suffering and assurance that is the heartbeat of the Liturgy of the Word of the Easter Vigil. Story after story is read from creation through the promise made to Abraham and the miraculous freeing of the Hebrew slaves as they raced across the path made by the Lord for them through the Red Sea, to the prophecies of how God has chosen Israel, making with them a covenant, inviting them to fidelity, through to God sorrowing over his unfaithful people to whom he promises a new heart and a new spirit.

Every baptized person stands in this arc of salvation, this mysterious longing of the Father’s heart for our return to him. We are baptized into Christ’s death and rise with him.

In the Easter Vigil, the readings assure us with the unmistakable echoes of a Father’s heart: “I love you. All of this was for love of you. I have always stood by my covenanted people and I will do so forever. I will stand by you. Even if you walk away. Even if you are weak and wobbly in your love for me, I will love you. You do not need to be afraid.”

And lastly, the community breaks out with joy as we celebrate the Baptisms of those who have waited many months of preparation. I always feel more complete as we welcome them among us, each of us holding them spiritually to our hearts.

If you have never been to an Easter Vigil, someday give yourself that gift. Don’t wait any longer!

Photo Credit: Cathopic, paulcamposraw 

I will never ever forget you

In today’s first reading, the Servant of the Lord is announcing freedom to the Jewish exiles in Babylonia.

In a time of favor I answer you,
            on the day of salvation I help you;
            and I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people….

There is no way to overstate the crisis the exile in Babylon was for God’s people. They had been deprived of homeland and had been stripped of everything that had given them their identity. There on the banks of the streams of Babylon they must have wondered how God could truly have been God if he had let the Babylonians defeat them, desecrate the temple, and force them to leave the land that had been promised to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Were they now forgotten by God? Would he ever remember them? Would he save them? Did God still love them? Could they ever trust the Lord again?

The conversations of the people of God in Babylon are similar to the conversations whispered in the homes where we’ve isolated far from our churches and from everything that had been “normal” about our life. We might have said with Zion: “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”

Isn’t it too late now for God to show up, after loved ones have died, livelihoods lost, children affected by years of education interrupted? After millions across the globe have suffered indescribable loss.

The Jewish people in Babylon must have wondered also at this prophecy spoken by Isaiah:

Thus says the LORD:

In a time of favor I answer you,
            on the day of salvation I help you;
            and I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people,
To restore the land
            and allot the desolate heritages,
Saying to the prisoners: Come out!
To those in darkness: Show yourselves!
Along the ways they shall find pasture,
            on every bare height shall their pastures be.
They shall not hunger or thirst,
            nor shall the scorching wind or the sun strike them;
For he who pities them leads them
            and guides them beside springs of water.

As we one by one continue to reshape our lives, we might wonder why the Lord didn’t “comfort his people and show mercy to his afflicted” by stopping the pandemic in its tracks before the damage across the globe had been done.

Our lament is as sorrow-filled and pitiful as the songs sung by the exiles who hung up their harps, refusing to sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land.

I hear such kindness in the final words of this first reading. God understands his people’s tears, their loss. He listens to the confusion and hurt of his people who, because of their infidelity to the Lord and their choices to align themselves with other nations instead of trusting in him, had been carried off into exile by these same nations. God doesn’t correct their theology with reminders about how good he is, how faithful, how he is ever present.

Instead, he evokes the image of tender love that is at the very foundation of every human life, an image that means warmth, safety, nourishment, a generous life poured out that a child might live.

But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me;
We say with them.
            my Lord has forgotten me.”

Can a mother forget her infant,
            be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget,
            I will never forget you.

Take a deep breath, my friend, and allow yourself to share your true feelings and fears with God. Wail and rail if you must. Be honest with the Lord in every way. And then receive his arms that surround you with a mother’s love, this God who pours out his life and tenderness in absolute fidelity to us forever. Let these words wash over you again and again, “I will never forget you. Never. Ever. My child. I could never be without tenderness for you.”

Image Credit: Pixabay

In your hands is my destiny

“Command that these two sons of mine sit,
one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”

A Reflection on today’s Gospel reading: The mother of James and John requests places of honor for her two sons in the Lord’s kingdom.

Possibilities, prestige, power…. As any good mother looking out for the interests of her children, she took the opportunity to ask for places of honor for her two sons.

The other request for a place in the kingdom of Jesus that comes to mind is the request made by the repentant thief recorded in the gospel of Luke (23:42-43). 

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

What is the difference between these two requests for a place in the kingdom? They clearly received two very different responses from Jesus.

The repentant thief speaks from a place of surrender, of petition, of awareness of his sin and his need. He turns to Jesus with the trust that is available to him at that most desperate moment of his life. He responds to the action of the Holy Spirit in the measure to which he is capable in this first encounter with his Savior. In a sense, we can say that he is more completely in the form of holiness which is Jesus himself, the form of obedient humble surrender:

Mary, the mother who stood beneath her Son as he died on the cross, no doubt heard this plea that broke from the heart of the repentant thief, and in her heart echoed her own words of obedient surrender uttered years earlier at the Annunciation, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), and at the wedding feast of Cana: “They have no wine,” “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:4-5).

The Kingdom of God is received, it is surrendered to, it is entered into by one’s complete alignment with God’s will for oneself. We can prepare ourselves, but we do this only by fertilizing the soil of our hearts through the living of the Beatitudes.

This is why it makes sense that Jesus asks the sons of Zebedee if they are ready to drink the chalice he was to drink. It was a matter, he was saying, of moving downward and pouring out one’s life for others. Then Jesus stated that he himself didn’t have that power to give away these seats in the Kingdom. This was a decision that was the prerogative of the Father. Jesus himself in his very identity as Son deferred in all things, in all ways, to his Father in complete and obedient surrender.

The request of the mother of the sons of Zebedee, and most probably the desire of the two apostles themselves, did not correspond to the very being of Jesus as Son and so was impossible to grant.

We are called to serve, to be last, to give our lives for others, to trust that the One who holds in his hands our very lives and defines our destiny is faithful and can be trusted.

What places of honor might you be seeking? They may be as world-oriented as the request of the mother of the sons of Zebedee or they might be as spiritual as great holiness or a ministry that stands out and stands above the mundane work of others. In any case, the trap is often very subtle. This Lent come to your Savior with your need and your poverty and see where he himself wishes to lead you.

But my trust is in you, O LORD;
            I say, “You are my God.”
In your hands is my destiny” (from today’s Psalm).

Image credit: Titian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons