God makes the unlovable lovable

God loves us as if we were the center of his universe! We who have died and risen with Christ, we in whom the Son abides, we for whom Jesus answered to his Father with his life and with his death—we are the object of God’s delight. We are chosen by God. Jesus spent his thirty-three years of life serving our needs with his own hands, wiping up our mess with his own blood, opening our future with his own death. The life of the Word Incarnate was not a blip on the divine screen. For all eternity God will be serving us, bent at our feet in love and mercy and compassion. God makes the impossible, possible; the unbelievable, reality. What is unlovable will melt in his hands. What is ostentatious will thrill to be a cascade of lilies in a blooming field, clothed only with the brilliance of poverty. What is afraid will stand with the certainty of the resurrection. We shy away from grandeur and expectations, but we are drawn with confidence by this extraordinary mercy that will delight us eternally.

O Love! You wash my feet and tend to my vulnerability every day! Give me eyes to see you.

3 signs you’re not a workaholic

Recently at provincial meetings, a presenter talked about workaholics as if they weren’t people. In her rather dated way of looking at balance in life, she referred to workaholics as if they were a special breed of “automatons” who lived in a vacuum. Shortly after, a sister who came by my office surprised me by greeting me with the words, “Hey, Workaholic!”

It is true that I work long hours, not always by choice, sometimes by necessity, occasionally as an escape, and at times because others need me to be available. But I resent being reduced to a label.

I also have many inner struggles around the work I do. Some of the things I have been asked to do in mission required long hours. Sometimes I have gotten angry about the amount of work expected of me, other times I know I could give more but am holding back. On the one hand, I feel like I need to always be available, on the other hand I can use work as an escape. I look at others working more, working less, and in both cases I feel guilty. I want what I do to flow from who I am, and the integration—when it happens—feels wonderful! How complicated is the human heart!

Reflecting on my own experience, over the past months I have identified three guides that help me in unraveling the motivations of my heart; to connect my “doing” with my “being” so that my work flows not from workaholism but from something deeper.

  • Surrender to reality

As a manager of a department in our publishing house, I work hard at building a team with those with whom I work. But at the end of the day, the manager is the one who has to pick up the pieces, fill in the holes, supply what is missing and basically be responsible for keeping the boat afloat.

I would love to be free of deadlines and responsibilities to follow my own dreams. The reality is, however, that being the team leader of the digital department—a 24/7 always-connected mission field —I can’t have that luxury. I have to admit at times I am jealous of those who do. Some days I am hankering after “greener pastures” that others seem to enjoy instead of embracing my own reality.

When I choose (and daily re-choose) the mission field I’m in—and which I absolutely love—with all of its realities and demands and joys…when I choose to love even the craziness of it, to see it as my path, as the gift that has so enriched me…I’m able to see the sacrifices for what they are. They aren’t any more of a sacrifice than those made by my sister who is putting four boys through college. She and her husband work hard at their jobs, as well as their marriage, their parenting, their health and their faith. For many years she has worked in a hospital emergency room. The years she was the manager she was on call 24/7. I wouldn’t call my sister a “workaholic.” She’s a mom. She loves her job and I love mine. By re-choosing to love it again and again I find joy.

2  Give up on seeking balance in life

I find it hard to believe that Jesus is that concerned about us living a balanced life. I think he would rather we be “fully alive.” Protecting and orchestrating my choices, schedule, and plans around keeping balance has a certain value, but I’m reading a growing number of articles that say it just isn’t possible to have balance in life today the same way we used to.

The fine line between work space and private space is eroding. Work and leisure are flowing into each other and expectations are shifting. The nine-to-five workday is a thing of the past for everyone. In some fields people are expected to bring work home and to be available on the week-ends and often on vacation. When our website goes down, the company who hosts our server is available day or night. So am I. It’s a different world. Some things can’t wait till Monday.

When reflecting on these new demands I love the thought of our founder, Blessed James Alberione, SSP who said, “The apostle is one who has a heart glowing with the love of God and the love of her brothers and sisters. She can neither restrain nor suffocate what she feels and thinks.” This being “fully alive” (in the words of Irenaeus) flows from a feeling of expansion, giving and developing in all dimensions of life (not just the dimension of work). It flows from a perspective of fullness. If we want to pursue something in life, whatever that may be, we need to give it our all. All is about more than time.

A full life ebbs and flows; is alternately creative and at rest; is filled with joy and at other times peacefully contemplative. To create this life-giving rhythm, I personally like to build into my schedule quality times for things that are important to me and which replenish my mind, body and spirit. I can’t have this time every day. It isn’t on a schedule. I purposely need to carve out quality time when I can fit in. For example I set aside time for a project and tell my team the door is shut that afternoon. I’m still working, but it is a different experience. I put on music, light a candle, get a cup of coffee and put myself in a different zone. I might make room on an afternoon for extra community presence. I make the week-ends of one month sacred and that’s when I write my book. I’ll take a Saturday for extra prayer combined with reflection, reading, and long walks to evaluate the direction our department is moving (the digital field changes daily!). I might rise early on a Sunday, take my computer out on the porch, and enjoy a couple hours in the silence of the early hours, journaling and writing before the community rises.

Although I can’t have personal time every day, I keep my life in sync by refilling my energy through quality activities which nourish my soul and body.

 

There have been a few years in my religious life in which my assignment meant my mission took over all the other dimensions of my life. Even in these times, however, I worked hard to establish parameters and sought to create some small rhythm for personally life-giving choices.

No one else will create life-giving choices for us other than ourselves. I think of parents of children who require 24/7 care or those who are simultaneously caring for a family and parents. I have in mind also people whose employers are demanding 24/7 availability in order to keep their job. Such situations are not easy.

Even here, however, the idea of rhythm may be helpful. The whole week may be scheduled but some time during the next week can be reserved for an activity that is life-giving or restful. It could be as small as a walk through a park, a time for spiritual direction, sleeping in one morning, a leisurely dinner with friends, or even sitting down with a glass of wine and music to do planning.  We can even in the smallest way preserve our freedom by making life-giving choices.

  • Line up choices with God’s gaze

I made my annual retreat several weeks ago. One of my first meditations was of the woman who washed Jesus feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee. I imagined what she might have been thinking as she waited for Jesus to arrive. Perhaps she was wondering if Jesus would remember her, if he would remember the way he had saved her… the one whom he had “forgiven much.”  I watched her wait for Jesus in anticipation, even felt her fear that this rabbi who had done so much for her might no longer know her name.

As Jesus entered the room, he sensed that there was more to this dinner than he had expected. There were no signs of hospitality, no washing of the feet, no welcoming kiss. In my meditation I saw him slowly look around the room to see if there was someone there whom he knew. When Jesus’ eyes met hers, his face lit up with a great smile. The woman’s heart leapt for joy. “He remembers me. He knows me. Not as the woman with the history of weakness, but only as the woman he re-created through his mercy. He knows me as I am now.” I felt this beautiful and healing gaze of Jesus on me, a gaze that was warm, affirming, supporting, delighting in me. This gaze of Jesus became a strong thread through the eight days of retreat.

I have met this gaze before, as I know you have. I have come to call that gaze “the Kingdom of His Face.” I carefully guard those memories, and they become a touchstone that guides the decisions I make.

“Should I stay late in the office tonight?” I “overlay” on God’s gaze the feelings I have about working late that night as well as any motivations and resistances. Do they correspond to that Face of mercy and trust? If they do, then I go ahead.  I feel a deep peace and joy. And no matter how much work or how many hours it entails, I continue to carry it out with joy and peace.

If the potential action or word doesn’t correspond to the gift received in God’s gaze, I feel it distort, turn in on itself, shrink within me. There is something deeply misgiving about it. I decide not to follow this way since it doesn’t align with what I sensed when I received God’s gaze. This is my touchtone of discernment and it never fails me.

Living within the gaze of God places me squarely in the mystery of mission. Acting out of haste, superficiality, or obstinacy leads me directly down the path of the workaholic.

Every person will need to see how to direct and re-direct her or his own life so that it fully flowers with generativity and hope. The ongoing orchestration of this is essential, because only this will lead to a deeply satisfying life. Your experiences won’t match mine, and I know God will show you your way. I offer you my three guides as a starting place to help you live more fully:

  • Surrender to reality—love the life that is yours.
  • Discover your own rhythm of life. Instead of capping your possibilities to keep life in balance, develop all the aspects of your life.
  • Never act out of haste, but let the gaze of God become the touchstone of your life.

Children of the Resurrection

Christ is the Victorious One who in his death and resurrection conquered evil. Death, sin, unhappiness, and destruction cannot have the last word. The last word is the victory of Christ and his triumph and fullness. No longer is there death that cannot bring life, pain that cannot generate fullness, sadness that cannot convert into profound joy. There are no limitations, fragilities, psychological pain, or mood disorders stronger than the Resurrected One. We are children of the victory of the resurrection. If only this truth burned within us!

Parkland, Florida and the Way of Jesus’ Cross

Has it ever happened to you to be deeply surprised by a prayer you have said a thousand times before but which suddenly strikes you to the heart? This happened to me last Friday as I prayed the Way of the Cross with my community. It was but two days after 17 teens had died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the pain of this event, born primarily by those closest to these teens and their community, still lies heavy on my heart. The sacred sorrow of this shooting, as all the other shootings that have marred the peace of soul of all of us here in the US, has been violated by the political wrangling that immediately broke out in articles, comments, and social media posts and comments.

The first station: Jesus is condemned to death.

Eagerly I bend my spirit to follow the Lord on the way to Calvary.

Did you ever notice how the Stations of the Cross are a moving portrayal of the power of love in the experience of violence?

The second station: Jesus takes up his cross. The fourth: Mary, who has followed him as mother, support, disciple, faces her Son and the look that passes from one face to another…. The fifth station: Simon of Cyrene takes up the cross of someone who may have been a stranger to him, but who–either out of duress or out of compassion–seeks to lighten this poor condemned man’s load…. The sixth station: The woman Veronica wipes the sweat, the tears, the blood from the divine face of her Master to give him at least a passing moment of comfort and pity. The eighth station: The women of Jerusalem weep at the sight of goodness treated with such violence and hatred. The eleventh and twelfth stations: Jesus extends his arms on the cross, offering his body to be nailed to the wood of the tree that would become our life, and there he dies, handing over his life for us. The thirteenth and fourteenth station: Nicodemus appears to help Mary and John care for the body of their Lord and Teacher, and together they lay him tenderly in the tomb. In silence they depart.

Where violence seems to have the last word, the only word, the tenderness of love is poured forth like oil into the wounds inflicted on the body of the Savior. Most of the Stations are about that love that rises higher than the undertone of hatred and death, soaring in delicate harmony that outlasts the other elements of the walk of death they have witnessed.

And of course, the whole thing is love. What was meant to be a humiliating triumph over this rabbi, became like a jar of exquisite perfume that when broken filled the whole earth and every time. Jesus begins by opening wide his arms in love to accept the cross, to walk this way, to allow himself meekly to obey his executioners, to die in total trust, offering himself to his Father and handing over his spirit, and at last laid in a tomb, he sleeps in the heart of the earth, searching out the First Adam and those who have gone before and wait for his salvation in the shadowed darkness in the Limbo of the Fathers.

The Roman powers, the people calling for his death, those who played the political games that seemed to ensnare this innocent rabbi, even the sin of all the world seemed to have the power. The strength of love was the real power at play.

Those who shoot, those who make the laws, those engaged in the political dance may leave us feeling powerless. But, really, are we?

Too often we are standing alongside Mary tenderly laying our dear ones to rest too soon, their lives snuffed out by the violence and insanity of another. The love of the disciples who played their part on the way to Calvary was confirmed by the resurrection of the One who said, “I have overcome the world.”

There are many ways to love–weeping, remembering, acting, advocating…. Each of them arises from the will to hope in the passing away of the storms of the world and the coming of the One who alone now gives life, promise, future, and happiness.

The Lord who had surrendered to the blows of suffering and death, still suffers at the hands of others. Caryll Houselander, an unexpected English mystic who lived through two World Wars in the first half of the twentieth century, had several visions in her life which convinced her of this. After her 9th birthday, Caryll’s parents separated. She was sent to the cloistered Convent of the Holy Child. At the school, the French and Belgian nuns taught the children how to make jams, knit woolen helmets, and hate Germans. Here, Caryll experienced her first mystical experience. One day, she noticed a Bavarian (“To us, Bavarian meant German”) nun sitting alone, cleaning shoes and weeping. After a long silence, Caryll saw a mental picture of the nun’s head weighed down by a crown of thorns. From this vision, she came to understand that Christ was suffering in this nun.

Later in her life on a crowded subway train station, she suddenly saw Christ in each passenger—“living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them.” In these passengers she saw the whole world. Later, as she walked among the crowds in the street, she saw Christ in every passerby.

In her prayer she pleaded with the Lord that she might not be moved by pity by the Christ on the wall but be a stone to the Christ suffering around her. She asked the Lord that she might be a modern-day Veronica and wipe away the ugliness of sin from the human face. Under the sorrow, the tears, the wounds and the pain is truly the face of the Lord.

“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (Jn. 16:33)

Sr. Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP

Photo Credit: Taken by Pethrus; Station of the cross, Saint Symphorian church of Pfettisheim, Bas-Rhin, France. XIXth century. Detail of the 4thstation : Jesus and his mother

 

 

 

A Mid-Life Epiphany

I remember in my late twenties in a literature class hearing about an author my same age who had already written a number of books and was considered of great literary fame. I remember the thought passing through my mind, “Where have been?”

Maybe I felt like I was going nowhere fast. The complexities that enter into how we perceive our lives are not easy to untangle. Now in my fifties, I look back at the years that are folded up now and set to rest, and wonder still what I have attained. Once I participated in an ice-breaker in a meeting of my sisters in Rome, and we had to state one word that described ourselves. I immediately put down the word, “Search.” I’m always on a search. And I realize now that I have subtly have considered this to be a negative thing. If I’m searching, I haven’t found something. I’m not settled. Not finished. Maybe I’ll never be finished looking for that something I wish I could find.

The Magi whom we contemplate today had spent a good bit of their life-span searching the skies for a star they knew would one day appear. Their search indicated that no other star was sufficient to move them, to transform them, to uproot them, to cause them to bow down in worship. They sought because they had not found. And that was a good thing. They knew that everything they had as yet encountered was good, but not great, not THE THING that was to mark their lives forever. And so they continued searching.

The star they followed led the three on another search. First they thought it would lead to a political kingdom, then to a religious elite, but ended up surprisingly in a poor hut where they laid their precious gifts before a Babe and his teenage mother. There as they discovered the King and God whom they recognized they had been searching for all their life, they also discovered themselves. Julian Carron, president of Communion and Liberation, wrote in his book Disarming Beauty, “A person rediscovers himself in a living encounter…. It is in an encounter that I become aware of myself…. The ‘I’ awakens from its imprisonment in its original womb, awakens from its tomb, from its sepulcher, from its closed situation of origin and–as it were–‘resurrects,’ becomes aware of itself, precisely in an encounter. The result of an encounter is that the sense of the person is kindled. It is as if the person were being born… This encounter enables us to discover the mystery of our ‘I.’ ‘He was himself, but even more himself.'” (page 79f.).

How do we experience this encounter today? An encounter that shifts the foundation of our personality and consciousness so that we become “even more of ourself”?

Our searching into our middle years has led us through many encounters, careers, hobbies, places of residence, relationships…. Our restlessness, we finally realize, is finally settled into quiet restfulness when we encounter Jesus. I could list a number of places where we could encounter Jesus today…all of which you would know. The point the story of the Magi makes, however, is to be ready for the unexpected places where God will encounter us.

Encounter happens, however, when we’re ready for a relational experience. There are times in all of our lives when relational openness and intensity grows a little dim. This is a simple contemplation you might make to strengthen your readiness to encounter the divine in your life:

  1. Remember a moment in your past that brought you great joy. Talk to God about how much you appreciate what happened. Express to him gratitude.
  2. Ask Jesus to tell you what he wants you to know about that experience.
  3. Ask Jesus to show you where he is in your life right now, to make you aware of his presence.
  4. Bow down beside the Magi and worship.

Mid-life is a great time to think about what you’ve been searching for and if you’ve found it. Sometimes we have found it, but don’t know how to rest in it, to stop searching and instead relish it and delight in it as it transforms us. It could be we haven’t found what we’ve been looking for and a contemplation such as the one above could be the Star that you’ve been waiting for to lead you to an encounter that will totally satisfy you.

In either case, on this Epiphany day, may you follow his Star wherever it leads!

Advent Melts Now into Christmas Joy

Almost too soon, it is Christmas Eve. A busy night. Christmas trees and gifts and Christmas Eve dinners. Christmas family traditions, decorating, preparation for Christmas Day cooking. Christmas cookies, and wrapped Christmas gifts. Excited children trying to sleep so Santa can bring presents to good boys and girls…. The kitchen in the convent is clearing out. Sisters have been cooking all day and a group of us went in to do the dishes. A table is filled with cookies and fudge and fruit cake for our guests after Mass tonight (and the sisters too!).

All these years as we each turn the pages of the calendar Christmas after Christmas, our busyness makes us think that Christmas is something we bring about, something we produce, something we give each other, something we do for others or for God.

The ways of God, however, are always an unexpected reversal. Mary proclaimed in her song of praise the Magnificat that she knew it was the Lord, who was the Giver of all gifts, who had done great things in her. In awe at the unfolding mystery of God’s gift, Mary put herself at the service of all God had planned. This is Mary’s way of putting herself at God’s disposition. When it came time to give birth to her own Child who would sit on the Throne of David forever, she makes no attempt to orchestrate the perfect situation for his birth. She has no pretense of greatness for having said yes to the angel Gabriel and having given her body and soul as the home of God’s Son for nine months. She is waiting, watching, listening, serving, letting him lead. She lets Jesus give the gift.

Marian eyes. Have her eyes in these days as Advent melts into Christmas joy. Eyes that look to see what Jesus is accomplishing right in front of you. Eyes that transmit faith. Eyes that offer love and understanding. Eyes that can still experience wonder at the mystery of the birth of God in our midst, saving us.

Mary left behind her planned preparation for the birth of her baby, for the uncomfortable and probably dangerous trip to Bethlehem, trusting that God had a plan. She says to me, don’t hold too tightly onto your preparations and expectations. You will be called to your unexpected Bethlehem, and it is there that you will receive the gift of Jesus.

Rest from all the work you’ve done now. Christmas is here and it will be what it will be. Let Jesus in and see what he will do within you and through you.

My heart cries out with Mary: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Why We Just Need a Little Compassion

At some point in life, in our younger or later years, we all do something or experience a situation that we truly regret. In our younger years, it is usually an individual situation, something we did, a decision we made, an experience we had, or an incident that has re-written the script of our life without our permission, such as an illness or accident. In our older years, we may feel uneasy as we recognize that a pattern of regret has stamped itself on our entire lifetime, creating an ocean of sorrow within and around us.

Each of us has arrived at the age we are now, bearing many scars. Some of us have scars from an imperfect or even abusive family life, unkind teachers, envious siblings, or teenage romances that broke our hearts. Others have been wounded by employers who fired us, spouses who betrayed us, colleagues who took advantage of us, and children who were ungrateful.  Our regrets are built on years of memories of hurts and disappointments, both intentional and accidental.

Some people may feel like victims of random situations or hurtful relationships. We don’t know why things happen to us the way they do. Our lives don’t match up with the seemingly magical lives of those around us, and we don’t understand why. But the “random” situations in our life that we regret are anything but random. It is possible, and even liberating, to identify the recurring patterns that lay beneath our regrets.

The patterns beneath our regrets can be difficult to discover because on the surface every situation is unique. For example, consider Stacy, a woman with a successful career as a lawyer. She is a no-nonsense person who gets what she wants, regardless of how it may affect others. As a parent she challenges any negative feedback regarding her children. She pushed her oldest child to attend a top-rated college and to follow in her footsteps in the field of law. While Stacy acts differently in her career than in her parenting, we can see a similar pattern in both spheres. As a lawyer and a parent, Stacy tries to dominate and force others to do what she wants. In one sphere it might work, but in another it causes Stacy serious problems and leads to broken relationships.

Scott is someone who finds his life frustrated by a series of failures that he always thinks another person caused. For every failure, Scott faults anyone but himself. When something goes wrong, Scott has fallen into the habit of shifting the blame and not taking responsibility. People who are close to Scott try to help him see the part he plays in his difficulties, but he is not open to feedback. But if Scott looked closely he would realize that his own thoughts, beliefs, and responses play a part in this pattern of blame in his life.

Each of these unfortunate situations is unique because every one of us is unique and we experience the world differently. Yet our experiences often form a more general underlying pattern. Unless we make a concerted effort we rarely discover these patterns, and when we can’t see them we are doomed to repeat them again and again.

When I was told that identifying patterns behind the things I regret in my life was a powerful way to make new choices for my future, I was skeptical. “Prove it,” I said. But when I tried this little exercise I began to clearly see some of the patterns that were influencing the circumstances in my life. First, identify an issue that is causing disruption in your life. Count back seven years and ask yourself if you experienced the same issue in some aspect of your life seven years ago. Count back another seven years and do the same. And another seven years. And another until you can go back no further.

The patterns in our life help us to identify something within ourselves that needs God’s mercy and his compassionate Healing. We can also hear our own inner heart-cry for  mercy and compassion, that special gift we alone can give to the wounded places in ourselves. Amazingly, as we bring these patterns to the Lord for healing, the situations around us begin to change. As we grow in freedom, in some mysterious way so also do others.

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Photo Credit:
Yoann Boyer