“The Meaning of the World is Love”

Love—God—is not only the Creator of the world. Love is the Design that God gave the world. The dance of love within the persons of the Trinity overflowed into the world so that all who believe and love would be drawn into trinitarian life. As Hans Urs von Balthasar would put it: “The meaning of the world is love” (Heart of the World, 203, quoted in The Meaning of the World Is Love).

God is Love. He is the ecstasy of Love, overflowing outside himself, enabling creatures to share in his life. “God also goes out of himself … when he captivates all creatures by the spell of his love and his desire . . .” (Dionysius the Areopagite, Divine Names, IV,13 [PG 3,712]). (Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pg 22)

Our life has meaning only when we are lovers patterned after the divine Design of selfless giving of ourselves to the other.

My mom made most of our clothes when we were growing up. We used to love going to the store to choose patterns for our clothes that she would sew herself. Once my mom let me cut the fabric for my new dress. She showed me how to carefully follow the paper pattern she had pinned to the material. The dress would only truly fit me well if I was faithful to the pattern, to the design that the creator of the pattern had in mind.

God has made everything for love

Following the divine Design of the way God loves is the only way that we will flourish as humans. God invited us from the very beginning into intimate communion with himself. Julian of Norwich wrote: “He has made everything which is made for love,” and we could say for eternal loving communion with himself!

When we separated ourselves from him in the Fall, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

Jesus emptied himself in order to dwell among us. He showed us how to love by loving us. “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” (Jn. 13:1), offering his very life for our salvation. Teaching us that this is the design of love we each must follow if we are enter into divine communion in the mystery of eternal love, Jesus said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13).

This love is real.

This love costs.

This love is deadly serious.

In these days of tensions and war I have been thinking of how this love can be lost in the static of war when we take sides against the enemy who is committing atrocious injustices and horrors against innocent people.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?” (Mt 5:43-47).

How do we love in a time of war?

Fr. Andriy Zelinskyy, SJ, chief military chaplain of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said in an interview with The Pillar that war is unlike any other human experience—and the challenge for a soldier is to hold on to his humanity.

When I read these words, something shifted inside me. A pastor’s “main task is always to preserve what is God’s in man. And, accordingly, to protect the humanity of each soldier.” 

I have witnessed myself being dragged into the conflict via the filter of the media. Sometimes as I read the news, I don’t like what I am being manipulated into feeling and thinking. I sense spiritually that I am being “infected with hatred,” as Fr. Andriy Zelinskyy states later in his interview, for the media has its own agenda which can reach deep into the minds and hearts of even the most casual viewer.

After the beginning of Russia’s open invasion in February, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s Department of Military Chaplaincy issued the “Catechism of a Christian Soldier.” This Catechism helps “the Christian soldier not to become infected with hatred but to focus on the struggle. This struggle helps us protect life, especially those who cannot do it on their own. In other words, the Christian warrior must be armed above all else with his noble mission,” Fr. Zelinskyy explained. This is very different, he states, from the intentions of the “oppressor.”

“The soldier remains a human being who, while preserving his freedom, remains responsible for his actions. Our purpose is not to destroy life but to protect it. These are two very different goals. The Christian warrior takes up arms to protect himself, his loved ones, and life itself. This is where the Catechism begins – with a reminder that the legitimate defense of life is not only a possibility but a duty of the Christian. God has called me to life and, accordingly, in doing God’s will, I should protect it and protect the lives of others.”

Those who stand against the tide of love

“Worldly being is destined to be harbored in divine being.” This is von Balthasar’s way of reminding us that Love has made us and love is our destiny, God’s infinite and loving giving of himself to us that we might live in the state of eternal loving self-gift as does the Trinity itself.

“To close ourselves off is to go against the very law of being that underpins us” (You Crown the Year with Your Goodness, 149). Those who stand up against love, those who are the oppressors, who refuse the impulse of divine loving, will be swept away in the dustbins of history.

“Whoever loves is obeying the impulse of life in time; whoever refuses to love is struggling (uselessly) against the current” (Heart of the World, 27).

“Love is never defeated.” St. John Paul II

The other day as I cursorily read the headlines on the news gathered together on my browser—news about the Ukraine war, political news, personal news about people’s lives and deaths, fearful news about the financial future, news that had previously infected me with anxiety or moved me to resentment and anger—something set me free from that all that. Yes, these things matter.

It all matters.

All of these people matter.

All of the prospects for the future matter.

All these countries matter.

I knew, however, that at that moment I had been set free from the particular news items on the page before me to inhabit the reality of love that surrounds and holds all the tragedy and joy of the world: the reality of divine love, God’s love that is the meaning of the world, the design of the world.

Each person, each country was playing out in their lives and decisions a drama of love: they were either overflowing with love, sacrificing themselves out of love, or resisting and refusing to love with all the horror this creates for others.

Love made us. Love keeps us. Love is the design of the world, the only meaning of our lives.

By God’s love, I could, at last, contemplate everything in love, even evil. As St John Paul II said to us: “There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us and does not now bear with us.”

During the summer of 1940, Caryll Houselander along with everyone else in Britain was preparing for a coming German invasion. There was preparing the First Aid post and exhausting days of training for nursing tasks for which she felt unequal. Caryll increasingly reflected on the upcoming atrocity of wartime as a participation in the Passion of Christ. When the war was declared the previous September, she had written to a friend:

“I do feel we’ve just got to shut our eyes and dive in this sea of Christ, dive with the trust of people who can’t swim and yet go straight into the dark water.” Later in her reflection printed in The Grain Magazine, she wrote: “Because He has made us ‘other Christs,’ because His life continues in each one of us, there is nothing that any one of us can suffer which is not the Passion He suffered.” (I would say, that Christ continues to suffer the Passion today through us, the members of his Mystical Body and his presence in the world.)

Nevertheless, even though Caryll was able to lift the horror of war with her spiritual reflections, she was not immune from fear and anxious thoughts. She tried to build up her courage and get rid of her anxiety. However, one day she realized that this wasn’t going to work. She wrote to a friend, “What God is asking of me to do, for suffering humanity, is to be afraid, to accept it, and put up with it.” Later she wrote regarding this realization:

“I felt that God had put His hand right down through all the well upon well of darkness and horror between Him and me and was holding the central point of my soul; and I knew that however afraid I was then, it would not, even could not, break me.”

Love is worth living for

In a sermon preached to students at Oxford in the autumn of 1939, C. S. Lewis asked the question of why the students of Oxford should take an interest in the placid occupations of philosophy, science, history, “when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”

We could ask ourselves of what use love is when whole countries, all of Europe, the streets of American cities, and indeed our very schools where children seek to learn are being torn apart by the horror of violence, racism, and war? Is love of any use when others are on the front lines defending life, justice, and freedom?

In this sermon, C. S. Lewis pointed out that the war makes unmistakably clear “the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”

Keeping abreast of the news can be disheartening. Sometimes I feel guilty if I am not thinking, praying, and keeping front and center before my mind and heart the tragedies of our day. However, C.S. Lewis reminds me that though we may need to die for our country—and that one’s country is worth dying for—it is not worth, in an exclusive sense, living for. It is love that we must live for, even though we each at different times may be called to give our life to obtain peace and freedom and life for another, and even a whole country.

I must prepare to love. If I love in grand ways or in little, it matters not.

“Love is the end to which I have been created,” wrote Carlo Caretto. “Jesus died to teach us how to love: ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn. 13:14). He died for love.”

Our life has meaning only when we are lovers patterned after the divine Design of selfless giving of ourselves to the other.

It is said that when St. John the Apostle was carried out to the community to tell them about Jesus and preach to them, he only had one thing to say, one sentence, one invitation, Let us love one another.

Sisters and brothers, let us love one another.

Image credit: Photo by Markus Spiske: https://www.pexels.com/photo/crowd-on-the-street-holding-placards-with-message-11622842/

Want a way out of a troubled heart? Do this

Lord, don’t hold back your tender mercies from me!

The headlines are ripping apart my heart, Lord.

For troubles surround me—
    too many to count!

Missiles and abuse and injustice and outbursts of anger and scathing online comments and polarization and war and shootings on our streets and in our schools and mass graves of indigenous children….

Let your unfailing love and faithfulness always protect us.

Lord, the troubles in our world crowd out the peace in our hearts. Anxiety takes over. Sleepless nights. And worry. And feeling alone, isolated, powerless.

Lord, don’t hold back your tender mercies from me.
    Let your unfailing love and faithfulness always protect me.
For troubles surround me—
    too many to count!

Ps 40: 11-12

My dear friends, Saint Paul described the troubles he found himself in with words like these: “troubles press in on us on every side,” “we are perplexed,” “hunted down,” “knocked down,” “our bodies are dying” (cf. 2 Cor 4:8-9, 16).

Can you relate? Stop right now and jot down a few words to describe how you are feeling about the world and your life right now.

I think Saint Paul had it right when he said he felt as though he was holding within himself a great treasure. He described it as the “glory of God seen in the face of Jesus Christ.” But from his own experience, Paul knew himself to be a very fragile, easily breakable, not too sturdy clay jar. That’s all he was: a clay jar. Nothing spectacular. No fine china. Just a regular drinking glass that could easily be broken. Something that didn’t even amount to much.

Pause here. How would you describe the treasure you are holding within you? When you describe yourself what would be your words for “clay jar” or “fragile vessel”?

Precisely because Paul knew himself to be a fragile vessel carrying a great treasure, he knew that it wasn’t all up to him. In fact, very little was up to him. It was God who had formed him in the womb, who had called him to be Jesus’ follower, who had given him a mission, who had announced to him that he would have much to suffer in carrying out the task he had been given, who was with him all the way, directing and guiding his steps, who forgave him, made things right when he got them wrong, stood by him to the end…

That’s why when Paul looked at his troubles he could say: “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. … Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day (2 Cor 4:8-9, 16). 

Where have you personally experienced or heard about in another’s life how God saves people from being crushed? How he never abandons his children? How he renews the spirit even as the body suffers? Talk to God about this experience or share it with someone else.

Saint Paul knew clearly the power of God because as a Jew he often prayed with Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the Lord to help me,
    and he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the pit of despair,
    out of the mud and the mire.
He set my feet on solid ground
    and steadied me as I walked along.
He has given me a new song to sing,
    a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see what he has done and be amazed.
    They will put their trust in the Lord.

Psalm 40: 1-3

I posted three articles to invite you to soak in this amazing treasure of God-with-us in the midst of all the world’s current troubles and whatever you may be dealing with in life right now:

The Meaning of the World is Love: “I knew, however, that at that moment I had been set free from the particular news items on the page before me to inhabit the reality of love that surrounds and holds all the tragedy and joy of the world: the reality of divine love, God’s love that is the meaning of the world, the design of the world. Each person, each country was playing out in their lives and decisions a drama of love: they were either overflowing with love, sacrificing themselves out of love, or resisting and refusing to love with all the horror this creates for others. Love made us. Love keeps us. Love is the design of the world, the only meaning of our lives. As St John Paul II said to us: “There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us.”

How to Bear the Fruit of Christ in Your Life: “In those raging days as I struggled to align my dreams with God’s dreams for me, I learned that Jesus wants us to share our weaknesses and struggles with him, not hide them. It became clear to me that Jesus is not afraid of the mess we try to conceal from others and even ourselves. Jesus is the doctor who can heal us when we are unable to help ourselves when our lives or relationships are riddled with the consequences of our passionate outbursts or resentments at what our life has become. Each time we receive the Bread of Life, Jesus comes to give new meaning to our fragilities. He reminds us that in his eyes we are more precious than we think.”

Maintaining Peace when Worries Overwhelm You: “Jesus promises: ‘Close your eyes and let yourself be carried away on the flowing current of my grace; close your eyes and do not think of the present, turning your thoughts away from the future just as you would from temptation. Repose in me, believing in my goodness, and I promise you by my love that if you say ‘You take care of it,’ I will take care of it all; I will console you, liberate you and guide you.’”

My friends, we can be of great courage, for as Saint Paul, the apostle who lived through great troubles and tribulation, has testified: “For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever” (2 Cor 4: 8-9, 16-18).

Image credit: Photo by Ray Bilcliff: https://www.pexels.com/photo/antelope-canyon-arizona-1533512/

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

Sift through your options selflessly, honestly, obediently

“Have you never read this?” There is a touch of irony in Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel as he responded to the Pharisees who rebuked his disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath. Jesus began his response to the Pharisees with the words “Have you never read this?” precisely because these leaders prided themselves upon their knowledge of the Scriptures.

“Have you never read this?” They had read, Jesus intimated, but had not read to understand. They had not read with soft hearts. They, perhaps unconsciously, had read to verify their own positions, their already determined conclusions. They had understood, or misunderstood, the Word of the Lord to confirm their own word to their own benefit.

How many times Jesus could say these words to me, “Kathryn, have you never read this? Have you not yet understood my heart? Are you still so undiscerning of what truly gives me joy, what pleases me the most?”

I remember as a young sister that being on time for meals, which meant arriving early and waiting prayerfully to say the meal blessing, was an important custom and expectation in our community. There are many values enshrined in this practice: respect for the community, obedience to the will of God as indicated by the schedule, taking one’s rest prayerfully. However, one day on my way to dinner I noticed a sister forty years my senior unloading a car by herself. I hesitated because to assist her would mean that I would arrive late to dinner. Making a quick decision, I stopped to assist her. There were two goods, two values at stake: punctual obedience and generous service. I chose the value of generous service at that moment, regardless of what others would think of my walking in late to dinner.

This certainly was a decision of little consequence, and doubtless you have been faced with many situations of more grave import in your own life. But this Gospel helps us sift through our options more selflessly, honestly, obediently.

Let’s look more closely at the Gospel. The Pharisees objected to Jesus that his disciples by plucking the grain were “working,” a kind of reaping, and therefore it should be avoided as it was considered working on the sabbath day. Jesus responded to the Pharisees: Have you not read how David and his followers went to the tabernacle at Nob near Jerusalem and asked bread of the priests there. There was no bread available there except for the twelve old loaves of showbread which were prescribed to be eaten only by the priests. The priests, in mercy, gave this bread to the hungry men, as Jesus himself in his mercy did not stop his disciples from plucking the grain along the side of the path. And have you not read, Jesus continues, that on the Sabbath, the busiest day in the week for the priests, they themselves break the rules of the Sabbath in order to carry out the functions of worship in the Temple. The commandment of God to keep holy the Sabbath didn’t refer to all work universally, Jesus intimated, but work for worldly gain.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus says at the end of this reading. In this Gospel passage today it is clear that Jesus was not using this phrase to justify behavior that was wrong. Instead he used Scripture itself to show the Pharisees how their understanding of the Law in its more complex and cohesive sense was inadequate. He called them to a greater and more inward sense and assimilation of the heart of the Law not to a lesser one. And, indeed, he called his own disciples to such higher standards in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”

Jesus makes clear that he didn’t come to relax the commandments of the Law, to negate them in favor of something new that would make it easier for his disciples. Rather, he pointed out on a number of occasions that the teachers of the Law had missed the point. And that is what we need to be attentive to. Often the phrase “it is mercy God desires, not sacrifice” is thrown out in a conversation to justify not keeping God’s law. God understands and has mercy. He doesn’t really expect us to keep his law. After all, he is so merciful….  So let’s not expect someone to obey the call to discipleship with all its consequences. That clearly is not what God in his mercy expects of us. That, however, is clearly not what Jesus was saying in the context of this Gospel passage. Jesus loved each one who came to him, with great patience and mercy, and at the same time invited them to become “perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

“Have you never read this?” Or if you have, have you missed the point? We don’t want to miss the point. Going back to my example above, communion of life and charity is the point of community life. At that moment, communion and charity was greater served by my stopping to help a sister unload a car than by my walking past her to be with my sisters at prayer before the meal. Though I “broke,” so to speak, one rule, I lived it inwardly in my service to the sister who needed assistance. If instead, I had stopped to offer assistance because I thought it was stupid to have to keep rules and I had been looking for a chance to act as a free agent and to cherish my own self-importance or greater enlightenment, even if I had justified my action with the words of the Lord himself: “it is mercy I desire and not sacrifice,” I would have missed the point. I would have misused the words of Wisdom itself to justify my own selfish autonomy and resistance to authority. And in the end, it would be I myself who would have suffered from my own self-will, my hardened positions, even if justified by the words of the Lord himself.

Image Credit: Loli Casaux via Cathopic

Lectio Divina on Genesis 12

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him….

Abram worshipped the God who was known in the East as El. Creator of all, El was the Eternal, the Mighty, the Highest God. God calls on Abram, living with his father Terah and his wife Sarai in Haran, a city in upper Mesopotamia, to leave his country, his people, his father’s house and go to a land that he would be shown. God makes a covenant with Abram, promising to make Abram’s descendants into a great nation. Abram obeys and trusting in the promise made to him, sets out on the word of the Lord.

On the surface, in a quick reading, this seems like it was a great opportunity for Abram. He just had to go and he would be given a country and prosperity.

But…

Go where?…

God said to Abram, “Go to a land I will show you.”

That is, walk into the unknown, into the darkness, into the uncontrollable, into trust….

Do you trust ME, God was saying? Do you trust ME enough to leave your homeland and go to a country I will give you, where I will bless you, where you will be the father of many nations?

In this scriptural meditation, we will reflect on what made it possible for Abraham to trust God and put his entire future in God’s hands.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you…”

Abram heard the voice of God calling him to leave everything he knew, the place that was safe, all that was calculable and to travel to this “somewhere” that he would be shown. It would be a place of God’s choosing. A place prepared for him in God inestimable and unfathomable plans.

And Abram went. Why? He was going to the land that God would show him. This God who called him was real.

Abram put his future into God’s hands. As Joseph Ratzinger says in his book Faith and the Future, “He had met God and placed all his future in God’s hands; he dared to accept a new future that began in darkness.”

Pause: when have you been forced or invited to walk into a future that was not bright with hope? That wasn’t clear and certain? That was shrouded in darkness and that depended upon another? That depended entirely on God? Joseph Ratzinger states that Abraham could do this because “he had met God and placed all his future in God’s hands.” It is a daring move to respond to the invitation of God when we meet him, when we discover that God is too real to ignore, when we are certain that God is calling us somewhere we aren’t sure we want to go….

Abram went trusting in the word of God that had come to him. He asked no proof, no guarantee, he just went.

The future that God was proposing took precedence over what he had achieved and accumulated in the present. He had settled down, quite a wealthy man. He was set for life.

And at this moment, precisely when he thought he was set for the rest of his life, God said to him, “Abram, get up and leave all of this and go to a place that I will show you.”

God opens up for us a limitless horizon

At times our present rhythms of life, our current goods we’ve amassed, our personal relationships we’ve settled into can imprison us. When God calls us, and he does, he opens up for us a limitless horizon, a horizon that can only be calculated by the infinite God who holds it in his hand.

Abram, by leaving his present life and walking into the adventure of an unknown future discovered his true destiny, his authentic identity, the reason he was put on this earth, the place he was to play in the drama of salvation history.

We are citizens of heaven

Abraham is a man on the way, on God’s way, a stranger wherever he goes.

“By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise” (Hebrews 11:9-11).

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us who walk on this earth to yet long for a better country—a heavenly one (cf. Hebrews: 11:15). “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

Pause: we are citizens of earth and citizens of heaven. How would remembering this help you as you walk through the transitions of your life. All of us are called to leave our “homeland” many times. Each time the voice of God is speaking to us of a future of hope. He is gradually helping us emerge into our true identity and reach our final destiny.

St. Paul writes about people whose minds are set on earthly things. And he reminds the Philippians: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:19-21).

I have to admit that in those circumstances, both happy and difficult, in which I need to leave where I’ve been to move to where I am meant to be as I walk into the future, my focus is too much on what I’m leaving, what I no longer have, what could happen, what I can’t control. What Abraham teaches me is that he went because he trusted that the God who promised his future was real and trustworthy. He trusted a YOU not a future goal. He deemed that God was able to provide for him all that he needed in order to fulfill his promises. Indeed, the most important thing is to comprehend that faith is always faith in a YOU before it is a faith in a series of beliefs.

Deepening your reflection:

  • How does Abraham give you courage as you walk through your life?
  • What does it mean to you to be a citizen of heaven?
  • In what ways does God want to meet you today?

Photo Credit: Image by kien virak from Pixabay

You are so important to the Divine Physician

Today’s Gospel reading is from the beginning of chapter 9 of the Gospel of Matthew. Let’s take two steps back and get some perspective on where this healing narrative falls in the development of Matthew’s Gospel.

We know that Matthew gives us the beautiful Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 and 7 of his Gospel. Beginning in chapter 8 and carrying through chapter 9 we are caught up in the love of the heart of the Divine Physician.

First, he healed a man with leprosy: “If you are willing you can make me clean.” “I am willing, be clean!” Jesus said (cf. vs. 1-2).

Next the Divine Physician heals the servant of the centurion from afar because of the centurion’s great faith (vs. 5-13).

After the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, a great crowd descended on the house begging Jesus to drive out evil spirits and heal the sick. Jesus healed all who came to him. Then he got into a boat with his disciples, and he calmed a great storm. Their hearts were filled with awe. Jesus is Master of the powers of nature, of evil, and of sickness (vs. 14-16, 23-27).

Chapter 8 ends with Jesus healing two men possessed by demons, sending them into a large herd of pigs. Then we are told that the whole village came out to see what was going on and pleaded with him to leave. The joy and awe that has surrounded Jesus’ healing is met here with rejection and expulsion (vs. 28-34),

 So Jesus entered a boat to cross to the other side.

At this point we come to today’s Gospel in which Jesus forgives a paralytic of his sins and then heals him, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”  The crowds are in awe, but the scribes accuse him of blaspheming. It is becoming more and more clear that we must make a choice regarding Jesus.

Tomorrow’s Gospel will be the calling of a tax collector, a sinner, Matthew. Tax collectors worked for the foreigners who ruled over the Jews, so this made them traitors. They weren’t paid a wage by the Romans, but were expected to take extra money and keep some for themselves. They were hated and considered sinners. And yet this one sinner “got up and followed” Jesus immediately when he said to him, “Follow me.” We then see Jesus entering into the community of tax collectors and sinners, eating with them, because “the sick” “need a physician” (Mt 9:9-13).

The story of the paralytic should wake us up to the decision we each need to make. Where is it that you need forgiveness? What has paralyzed you? Are your limbs lifeless because you have used them in your own pursuits rather than the will of God? Sin is more than just a failing. In little ways, or in grave, sin distances us from God. Sin makes us spiritually weak. We are so important to God, so dear and precious to the Father, that he sent his Son to heal us. Jesus came to call us out of all that holds us back from giving ourselves completely and in trust to God. The Son of God enters into communion with us, the community of sinners, and he says, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and be healed.” And then he says, “Follow me.”

Where is Jesus today asking you to follow him?

Photo Credit: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 3.0

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

You play a vital role in the story of salvation

“What then will this child be?” How many parents, marveling at the mystery of their newborn nestled in their arms have asked the same question. “What will this child be?”

We are certain that God has a plan for great people who populate the pages of Scripture and have an important part to play in the story of salvation. We can think of Moses, and Jeremiah, and Peter, and Mary, and Paul. We can imagine the divine plan prepared for them which unfolded day by day in their life. When we read the narrative of their response to God who called them for a specific purpose, we might be a little bit in awe of how God used them and how clearly he loved them. Maybe even a bit jealous. “That could never be me.”

Today is the feast of one of these “greats” of salvation history: the birth of John the Baptist. The mystery and the miracles that surrounded his birth indicate how important he was as a hinge between the Old Testament prophets and the arrival of the Messiah. The Baptist’s austere life and courageous preaching when he became an adult confirm the divine predilection God had for this child.

He truly could say with the words of the responsorial psalm today:

Truly you have formed my inmost being;
            you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made;
            wonderful are your works.
My soul also you knew full well;
            nor was my frame unknown to you
When I was made in secret,
            when I was fashioned in the depths of the earth.

These words of the psalm came spontaneously to my mind one difficult yet amazing day 40 years ago. I remember it so clearly. I was sitting on the side of my bed in the hospital after having suffered a stroke. On that day, I was finally able to stand up with the help of two of the nurses. How marvelous! How amazing is the human body! We are truly “fearfully, wonderfully made,” and how “wonderful are your works,” O God. Look, today I can stand!

Whether we are the greatest prophet who ever lived as was John the Baptist, or someone sitting on the side of a hospital bed struggling to stand up for the first time in a week, God has a plan for our life.

Remember, you are important to God and play a vital role in the story of salvation.

In your mother’s womb God loved you more than your own parents. He created you as a unique expression of his image and his glory.

Surely, the hand of the Lord was with you, and he continues to be with you each day of your life. As the courageous and difficult life of St. John the Baptist reveals, in both happy times and in paths filled with shadows, on mountain tops and in the deepest of valleys, you are fulfilling the very special purpose for which you alone were created. It is only as we wander through these ups and downs of life, faithful to allowing God to have his way with us, that we discover truly who we were made to be.

Photo credit: Cathopic

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.

Soften your heart: How to keep love alive in violent times

“O Lord, remember not only men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this; and when they come to judgment let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.”

~ Written on a piece of wrapping paper found near the body of a dead child in Ravensbruck, the second largest concentration camp for women in the German Reich, where 92,000 women and children died in the Holocaust.

How, O my God, could a woman in this death camp write these words?

How did she find the courage to keep her heart open? To care about the eternal salvation of those at whose hands she suffered and very likely died?

Friends, today we also are living through turbulent and violent times. As we watch the social fabric of our nation disintegrate with mass shootings and watch with horrified anger at what Russia is inflicting on the Ukrainian people and the world, we may find our hearts closing. It could be that our hearts are hardening in fear or anger without our even realizing it. Whatever we are feeling, it is okay. We might feel overwhelmed at the prospect of the future for our children and grandchildren. It is okay. We might feel lost in the midst of everything that is going on around us. It is all okay.

How difficult are you finding it to love and believe in the power of love in these days?

The news cycle overwhelms and incites the fires of anger and fear and hatred in our minds and hearts. It all can feel so righteous, so right. After all, there is a clear bad guy in these incidents, and our hearts immediately take the side of the innocent victims. Today only the bravest can keep lit in their hearts the flame of charity. 

Pema Chodron in Practicing Peace in Times of War counsels us, “We have to take responsibility when our own hearts and minds harden and close. We have to be brave enough to soften what is rigid, to find the soft spot and play with it. We have to have that kind of courage and take that kind of responsibility.”

The tiny snippet of paper found alongside the body of a child who had died in Ravensbruck, this one prayer that testifies to a love greater than death, could so easily have been lost to history. It is a testament to someone who courageously took responsibility, in the most atrocious suffering, to soften her heart. How many others there must have been in these concentration camps who lived and died with soft hearts! We’ll never know the hidden and silent acts of heroism among those who perished as well as those who survived.

I think of Etty Hillesum who at the age of twenty-eight was murdered in Auschwitz. She became known to the world when her diaries were published under the title An Interrupted Life. The diaries reveal a heart that could not be sullied even by the evil she saw.Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld honored her in his preface to the Hebrew translation of the diaries saying she was one of those who “on the edge of the abyss, rise to become saint-like.” He compared her to Janusz Korczak, the director of a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw, who in 1942 declined an offer of sanctuary and accompanied the children to the Treblinka extermination camp.

We too stand on the edge of an abyss. We are in the midst of turbulent changes that will transform Europe and the world as we know it. Just as Etty and Janusz and the woman who wrote the note in Ravensbruck  couldn’t see into the future to understand the full horror of World War II and what lay beyond it, neither can we from the vantage point we have now comprehend the transformations in society the world is undergoing or where it will lead us as a human family.

3 ways to keep love alive in violent times

I want to offer three ways to open our hearts, soften our hearts, live with hearts set on fire with the love only God can give us. These three suggestions I have culled from the diaries of Fr. Christophe Libreton, the youngest of the seven Trappist monks assassinated in Algeria by terrorists in 1996. Their story has been dramatized in the film Of Gods and Men, and Christophe’s journals have been published in the book Born from the Gaze of God.

1. In each Eucharist we celebrate the victory of the Living One over against those who kill.

When his two friends Henri and Paule-Hélène were killed by the Islamic terrorists in Algiers a year before his own assassination, Christophe wrote these words in his journal on May 29, 1995: “After the murders of Henri and Paule-Hélène, our Christian community is marked, just like the people at large, by this shed blood—shed unjustly by the assassins and quite often courageously offered by their innocent victims. And then there is the blood of Christ, which gives life and offers us communion in eternal life…. In each Eucharist we celebrate LIFE: the victory of the Living One over against those who kill. This celebration overflows into a service of charity, exercised by each one according to the measure of his gift of faith: ‘caring for all life, and for the life of all’” (page 158).

The heart’s capacity to open outward in love flows from the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death.

A way to keep your heart open:

At Mass we live already what the world will become when the Kingdom of God arrives and the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. Give as much time or more to prayer, the Mass, and Eucharistic adoration as you give to following and discussing the news.

By sharing life, giving life, sacrificing ourselves for the life of all, in whatever way you can, you overcome the power of death at work in the world with the power of love.

2. Open your heart for we belong to each other

In his meditation on March 11, 1995, Christophe reflected on the Gospel reading of the day: “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt 5:44-46).

Christophe recorded his thoughts in his journal: “What’s at stake is love: non-exclusive, unlimited. Excessive love. Prayer for those who kill people (they haven’t threatened us explicitly yet, despite the arms they undoubtedly were ready to use against us) sustains our relationship with them. It also disposes us interiorly and identifies us as sons of the Father with regard to brothers who are also his beloved sons” (page 144).

These are hard words to hear, even more difficult to live. My heart wants to scream out No, I will not love a murderer, I will not love a perpetrator of war.

I, however, will only be truly human when I can love with an unlimited love that can embrace even the bad guy. It goes against all logic to call a murderer brother. We humans so want to charge the guilty, to dismiss them to the shadows of punishment where we no longer have to think of them again.

Fr. Christophe’s words are reminiscent of Mother Theresa’s admonition: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

A way to keep your heart open:

Every snippet of news is a call to enter into the lives of our brothers and sisters. Whenever you see the headlines of news on the internet, television, or social media, whisper a prayer for everyone involved. Be honest with Jesus about what you are experiencing and feeling in the face of the tragic event, and plead with him for all of those who are affected. You could use words such as these: “Jesus, I am angry about this. What is happening makes me nervous about the future of society and the world. I worry about my own family. About the future. But right now, I beg you to send your angels to comfort the victims, to hold in your powerful care all those who are suffering from this. And yes, Jesus, this is hard for me, but I ask you to have mercy on the one who did this. Stop him. I pray that peace may be restored. Through your divine mercy change his heart. Help us all. May your Kingdom come. And, Jesus, I pray that this person who has created this tragedy may be with me in heaven. Father, we both are your children. Have mercy.”

You could pray the rosary, or favorite novenas or litanies for particular individuals or groups suffering in the world today.

3. Rest your head on the heart of Christ

Christophe looked out onto a world where there seemed to be no future in sight, where everything possible for peace was blocked, where there seemed to be nothing and no one that could stem the tide of violence. The monks at Tibhirine were becoming increasingly aware that this violence would also one day snuff out their own lives.

Yet as Christophe struggled with the thought of his own death, as he grew in trust of God’s providential care even in the midst of the evil all around them, his began to undergo a transformation of heart, almost a transplantation of heart, so that Christ’s own heart on the cross replaced his human and faltering heart. In time he no longer feared for his own life. He wrote at the end of 1994, “Ah, if dying could stop and prevent the death of so many others, then I would gladly say: Yes, I volunteer” (page 128).

Just today I read the account of drivers who are going into the war zones in Ukraine to bring humanitarian aid and to ferry out civilians who are stuck in cities now demolished by constant missile attacks and artillery fire. These individuals run into the danger because they know there are women and children who can’t save themselves and who need someone to bring them out. Many of those left are the elderly who need to be carried from their homes. It is in times of trial that we discover truly who we are becoming.

In his journals, Christophe includes quotes from various sources he was reading in those days. I have been greatly moved by this selection from Father Lev Gillet, speaking about the Apostle John who alone remained on Calvary with Mary Jesus’ mother:

… “ ‘The only one who remained standing in the hour of affliction was the one who, the night before, had bent his head to rest it on your breast’ (Father Lev Gillet, Un moine de l’Église d’Orient [“A Monk of the Eastern Church”], by Élisabeth Behr-Sigel, Éditions du Cerf, p. 311). I want to rest my head on you….”

What did the apostle John hear as he rested his head on Jesus’ chest? He heard the beating of a Heart overwhelmed with love, a great love, greater than any love ever known on earth. It was the beating of the Sacred Heart of the Savior of the world who would shortly give his life for this youngest Apostle and for all of us. Because the beating of that heart remained in the apostle John’s memory, because he had, in a certain sense, synched the beating of his own heart with that of the Sacred Heart, John could stand beneath the cross, where his Lord and Master died in an act of atrocious violence. John could stand there still loving, remaining in love, abiding in love, in that love that flowed from the Heart of Jesus. He saw how Jesus loved through it all.

A way to keep your heart open:

Give your life to others in an ever-growing divine love. No doubt, in some way, you are already giving your life, putting yourself on the line for others. It may be for your family, those you care for in ministry or career, elderly parents…. We can serve others for many reasons: it’s a good job, it’s what is expected of me as parent or daughter, it makes me feel like my life has meaning, it puts the dinner on the table, it’s what I always wanted to do in life…. None of these are bad reasons for giving of ourselves to another. However, this moment in history calls us to something more, to a love that is greater. At this moment raise your intentions to the supernatural level. Resolve to serve because you love. Resolve to serve because you care about the others. Resolve to serve even at the cost of your life. Resolve to love with the very love of Jesus who gave his life for us.

Greatness begins with the heart

Friends, we are living in times that call for greatness, and greatness begins with the heart. We can all begin right here, wherever we are, right now, to become giants in the love that beats in the heart of Christ.

Brother Luc, the medical doctor who served in the community where Fr. Christophe lived in Algiers prayed at the prayer of the faithful on December 31, 1993: “Lord, give us the grace to die without hatred in our heart” (page 25).

In the spirit and vision of Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld, may we “on the edge of the abyss, rise to become saint-like.”

O Lord, remember not only men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this; and when they come to judgment let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.

Image Credit: Christian R. Rodríguez via Cathopic