As I listened to the chanting of the Easter Proclamation at the Easter Vigil this year, my heart heard as if for the first time the words:
O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, Ocharity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
Most of us can’t even imagine a love that would give away a precious treasure for the sake of someone that hated them. Yet Christ shed his blood that we, the daughters and sons of Adam and Eve, might live forever.
St. John Chrysostom explained it this way in Homily 15 on First Timothy:
”It is not in this way only that I have shown My love to thee, but by what I have suffered. For thee I was spit upon, I was scourged. I emptied myself of glory, I left My Father and came to thee, who dost hate Me, and turn from Me, and art loath to hear My Name. I pursued thee, I ran after thee, that I might overtake thee. I united and joined thee to myself, ‘eat Me, drink Me,’ I said. Above I hold thee, and below I embrace thee.”
O charity beyond all telling!
Have you noticed that when we purchase or receive something that we really want, it captures all our attention, not just at the moment we first have it, but for hours, or days and weeks afterwards. Depending on what it is, it may change the way we organize our time or our stuff (both digital and physical stuff!), or the way we entertain ourselves or even our appearance. We may discover we work better, make different decisions, feel differently about ourselves.
And then there is the unavoidable moment when we lose interest, we look for the next release, upgrade, improved version. Something different. Something more striking, more “us,” more useful. In a commercial world, we keep something only as long as it serves us and keeps our interest. Then we move on.
The Church, as a good Mother, knows that we are like this, and that our hearts which tire so easily and our attention which wanders so quickly need to re-fascinated with Jesus and the Eucharist for which there will be no upgrade or improved version.
The Easter Season—all 50 days of it—is for this reawakening of our hearts. We could find ourselves at times in something similar to a boring friendship, where we’ve lost interest in Jesus and his love in the Eucharist. Our “hearts move on” to things of earth, rather than things of heaven. We find ourselves searching for something more shiny and useful to us.
In the seven weeks of Easter, following the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week in which we experienced anew the “charity beyond all telling,” the Church invites us to immerse ourselves into what it is to believe, celebrate, live and pray as Catholics within the larger community of the Church. In the same way as our gadgets and toys make remarkable shifts in the way we live our lives, the death and resurrection of Christ celebrated at Easter is also the time when we learn to live as Christ in new ways, to think as Christ, to speak as Christ, to engage the world as Christ, to love as Christ. We ourselves become in the world this “charity beyond all telling!”
Again, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, our eyes need to be opened to the power of the blood poured out for us on Calvary:
This Blood, poured forth, washed clean all the world. This Blood is the salvation of our souls. By it the soul is washed, is made beautiful, and is set on fire. It causes our understanding to be brighter than fire and our soul more sparkling than gold. This Blood was poured forth and made heaven accessible.
Easter morning we arrived at the church for Mass 30 minutes early and barely found a parking place! We were seated in one of the last empty pews. What would the world be like if every Sunday most Catholics flocked to the Mass with the same urgency they congregate at restaurants and malls and athletic events….
What would the world be like if we spontaneously broke out in grateful praise during the day, announcing what Christ has done for all humanity in his death and resurrection, and the grace available to us today through the sacraments….
What if we ran to Mass because it was only there that we felt totally satisfied by the Eucharist, nourished, loved, and supported there by God himself and by the community….
Next: Easter Mystagogy 2: Baptism: becoming God’s beloved one
The grace we are asking of God: a deeply felt awareness of how God draws us into the unfolding of the mystery of the Word made flesh and how in doing this we enter into a process of healing that we might love Jesus and follow him more intentionally, completely, and wholeheartedly.
Horizons of the Heart is inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.
Offer your prayer to God, desiring that in every way it will give him glory. I pour myself out in worship. You could use a few lines from the following passage from the prophet Isaiah if this helps you enter into prayer:
Ask of God what you think you need. (It could be later that God will show what you truly need and what should be asking for, but begin now where you are.)
Imagining Yourself Present
Over several periods of prayer, linger imaginatively over the events narrated in Matthew 2:1-12.
These men who studied the stars came from the east in search of the newborn king of the Jews. They came because they saw in the sky a star that indicated to them that a new king had been born, and it went before them into the land of Judea. The wise men, as we popularly call them today, went first to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, and after inquiring where the child would be born, they journeyed on to Bethlehem where the star stopped over the place where the child lay.
These visitors from the East were people of great wealth and power. They are called Magi in the Greek, which was a term that referred to a kind of subclass of Persian priests. Looking to a star was very much in keeping with the religious tradition of this place in which they looked to the heavens, the stars, and the planets for information about the gods’ wishes and doings. Interestingly, according to Time (December 13, 2004) “Secrets of the Nativity,” when the actual Persians came marauding Judea in 614, the only place of worship they didn’t touch was the Church of the Nativity in Palestine, whose golden entry mosaic featured the Magi dressed as Persians.
According to a calculation by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the 16th century, an extremely rare conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn occurred three times in the constellation Pisces in 7 B.C., appearing to observers as a single luminous star. This would coincide with St. Matthew’s description of the celestial body appearing, disappearing and then reappearing to the Magi.
This theory gained more credibility in 1925, when German orientalist Paul Schnabel deciphered ancient cuneiform tablets from the astronomical school of the Babylonian city of Sippar, which described the exact same astronomical conjunction in 7 B.C.
The Magi from the East brought gifts of gold (a gift for a king), frankincense (an incense and symbol of deity), and myrrh (an embalming oil and symbol of death).
There are various calculations about how long this journey was and how many people would have been in the entourage that arrived in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The length of their journey is estimated by the distance they travelled and the fact that Herod, who had heard the story of the star directly from the Magi, killed all baby boys in Bethlehem and the environs who were two years old and younger. We could say then that the Magi perhaps travelled 5 to 9 months to reach Bethlehem. They would have had to spend several months preparing for such a long journey and would have spent the same amount of time making their journey home. That’s quite a length of time, definitely a major commitment on their part.
In one Bible translation’s footnote regarding the passage in Matthew 2 that recounts the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem, it is speculated that there may have been a hundred people in their entourage. Three persons arriving in Jerusalem would not have created such a stir as is recounted by Matthew. Whether it was a hundred people or not, the Magi would have needed to bring along servants, cooks (there weren’t restaurants in the desert), security, persons to put up tents and take care of animals for a journey that could potentially last almost two years.
We know that the Magi did not arrive in Bethlehem while Jesus was in the manger because Matthew reports that they found Jesus in a “house.” Additionally, Mary and Joseph offered the gifts of the poor when they brought Jesus to the temple. They would not have done so if they had gold, frankincense and myrrh stashed away in Bethlehem where they had been staying since the birth of Jesus.
This is a perfect time to imagine who you are on this journey. One of the Magi? A servant? The cook? Just someone tagging along? Or following them from a distance?
Imagine the length of time you would have had to commit to in order to follow the star with them. What you would have had to leave behind for potentially a year and a half or more of travel to an unknown destination? We know now where the Magi ended their journey, where they found what they were looking for, but they set out on a journey to follow a star wherever it went and however long it took.
Where are you in this story? Speak to the people that are with you along the way. Allow your affective imagination to lead you closer to them, to give you a sense of this felt-closeness that you so desire. You can imagine with your mind’s eye, with your sense of hearing or touch.
Imagining the Gospel events in the present
Over time, allow these stories in the gospel of Matthew to become current as if the Magi (and you along with their whole entourage) are travelling to some unknown destination in the world today. Somewhere out of your comfort zone. Perhaps into the territory of a government you would consider an enemy or a threat.
What keeps you going? What do you fear? Anticipate? Hope for? Expect?
Watch the Magi. What are their feelings associated with seeing the star?
“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2 NIV). “We’ve come to bow before him in worship” (TPT).
“After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star” (Matthew 2:9-10 NABRE).
“And on their way to Bethlehem, the same star they had seen in the East suddenly reappeared! Amazed, they watched as it went ahead of them and stopped directly over the place where the child was. And when they saw the star, they were so ecstatic that they shouted and celebrated with unrestrained joy (TPT).
The footnote in The Passion Translation states that “the Greek here is hard to translate since it contains so many redundant words for joy in this one verse. It is literally, ‘They rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly.’ They were ecstatic!”
“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10 AMP).
Observe how the Magi express these feelings. Usually we picture them kneeling in the stable as we see at Christmas. We aren’t as reflective about what it meant for them to be led by a star to the one who had just been born before whom they would bow down in worship. Listen to their conversations among themselves. Ask them why they are so happy.
In Gospel Contemplation, Ignatius takes advantage of the way in which spiritual growth, like so many other aspects of maturing that we experience, takes place primarily when our affectivity is engaged. It is the shift in one’s deeper emotions and feelings that leads to a change in one’s behavior. We reach these deeper levels through metaphor, image, and symbol—the work of the imagination.
Observing attractions and resistance
Notice any interior reactions that you experience: comfort, discomfort, being lifted up, struggle, joy, sadness….
Observe the actions, words, emotions, sensitivities, attitudes of the Magi, Herod, the people in Jerusalem. To which of them do you feel more attracted? Which of them arouse more negative feelings or resistance? Return to aspects of these meditations that seem more personally meaningful.
Entering the Mystery of the story
As you begin to enter the mystery of the story more deeply, you will begin to see or hear or touch. As you see the glory of the star, you may be drawn to “see” the faith of the Magi. As you walk in the “dark” and shudder in the “cold,” you may realize that what is truly dark and cold is the lack of faith, the refusal of faith, the way the others did not go along to worship. After all we are talking about a six-mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
You will enter into the event and interact more deeply. Little by little you will become more present to the mystery and the mystery will be present to you.
As you become more and more involved in the event of Jesus’ mystery that you are contemplating, your life and your choices are affected.
Watching the Magi’s exceeding joy may open your heart to the Holy Spirit as your life and heart are lifted up along with these men who travelled so far and so long to bow in worship.
You may also sense the tension in the story as one group devotes themselves to following the “star” that leads them to Jesus (at great cost to themselves) and another group doesn’t seem to notice or care, or rejects him all together. After all, it was clear to the chief priests and scribes that they knew that from Bethlehem a “ruler” would come “who will shepherd my people Israel” (v. 6). They told Herod so when he requested anxiously to know where the Messiah was to be born. But they did not go themselves to Bethlehem. They did not bother to even be curious about whether this was the Messiah. And Herod tried to kill him in a move of political expediency.
As you continue playing out your part in the story of the Magi, you find yourself changing and desiring to change.
Conversing as with a friend
Read the following verses from Psalm 72 and the prophet Isaiah (62:11-12) in relation to the visit of the Magi. Both of these passages are read in the liturgy on the feast of the Epiphany. Read this slowly, several times, allowing some moments of rest between your reading.
“May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him” (Psalm 72:10-11).
“Arise! Shine, for your light has come, the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you . . . Nations shall walk by your light, kings by the radiance of your dawning Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you — Your sons from afar . . . Then you shall see and be radiant . . . For the riches of the sea shall be poured out before you, the wealth of nations shall come to you. Caravans of camels shall cover you, dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense and heralding the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:1-6).
Is there some new awareness coming forward as you consider these words? Do they shed some unexpected or new light on your own following of Jesus?
Continue in quiet—or even silent—intimate conversation with the Magi and with Jesus. Ask them what is the grace that you should be praying for. Beg this grace of the Father. Then beg this grace of the Son, your Savior and Shepherd. Finally, beg for this grace from the Holy Spirit who is the source of all holiness.
If you wholly lived this grace that you are begging for, what would your life look like? Your relationships? Your prayer? The way you work? The way you love? The way you serve? What about you would make you the most happy?
Ask the Magi and Jesus to show you one specific gift they wish to give you. Receive it and remain in stillness and quietly relaxed presence under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Reviewing the graces of prayer
When you finish praying, write down the main gifts and discoveries from this time of intimate contemplation. What is one concrete thing you can do to solidify these gifts in your life.
Image Credit: Edward Burne-Jones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Every once in a while people will ask me, “Sister, what is your favorite book of the Bible?” I actually smile as I think to myself, “Well, if you had asked me this question a few years ago, I would have absolutely responded: ‘Isaiah, because he is like a fifth Evangelist for me.’” In fact, some of the early Fathers regarded the book of Isaiah as ‘a Fifth Gospel,” because Isaiah’s poetry and prophecy speak so powerfully to a coming King, a royal figure who would be the Suffering Servant for his people, and the victory of the Anointed One over all the dark forces in the world. (1)
Recently, however, when I am asked about my favorite book of the Bible, I have to be honest. It is still Isaiah, but now there is Matthew and Genesis. Of course, there is also the book of Psalms which we pray daily at morning and evening prayer. And I absolutely can’t forget my other favorite prophets, Daniel, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. In fact, I talk to them as I reflect on their prophecies, their lives, and the prophetic call they received from God. They really are friends to me, so I call them by nicknames: Dan (Daniel), Ezy (Ezekiel) and Jerry (Jeremiah). (Let me explain: as an extrovert I’m famous for talking aloud to the people in the seats next to me at movies, the actors on the screen, or even to the characters in the Bible, as well as anyone else within earshot! It’s my way of connecting.)
Actually, when it comes down to it, I love the whole Bible. Truly every word is of the Holy Spirit!
The Holy Spirit is our guarantor to understanding Holy Scripture. He enlightens our souls with just a word from Holy Scripture, and allows us to walk with our Creator who humbly resides within our souls. “My Father and I will come to you,” Jesus said, “and make our home with you” (cf. John 14:23). There is no greater joy or peace than to have God in our hearts, in our minds, and in our wills. And this prayerful union exhilarates our souls and allows us to bathe in God’s grace and love, filling us with healing and peace.
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
By giving us a mind, will, and heart, God made us in his own image and likeness. Saint Augustine writes in his Confessions the famous prayer, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” How we need this rest every day!
With the Holy Spirit, we can take even just a word or phrase from Holy Scripture and do a “deep dive,” finding the God who loves us immutably. In this way, we discover how the story of Salvation continues even in our own lives.
So what is your favorite book of the Bible? Which book gives you the springboard to make a “deep dive” into God’s love so that you can journey with him for another day? Let me know in the comments below.
When it comes to St Peter, those last days of Jesus’ life and his death on Calvary became pretty intense. “You will never wash my feet!” Peter told the Master kneeling with basin and towel before him.
“I will never betray you!” Peter attested before his brother apostles when Jesus revealed that someone was going to betray him, someone in the room, someone he had known and trusted, someone he didn’t name. What a surge of terror may have passed through Peter as he imagined what that meant, what that might mean if it was him, what that would mean for their future. No. I will never betray you! the burly fisherman asserted if only to keep the potential terrors at bay.
“I do not know the man!” Before a wimpy servant-girl, the self-proclaimed immovable column of fidelity and strength collapsed. Three times. I don’t know this Jesus.
The witness of this intense shame was the charcoal fire around which everyone was warming themselves on that chilly and fateful night.
All of us have our own charcoal fires.
Back in the shadowy cobwebs of memories we wish were not our own, there are plenty of charcoal fires where we have chosen safety, pleasure, conceit over this Jesus whom we proclaim to love with all our hearts. The embers of these charcoal fires still may be warm, the ashes not yet blown away on the winds of mercy.
The charcoal fire appears again in Peter’s story shortly after the resurrection. He was out fishing, unsuccessfully, when a man called across the lake to lower their nets on the starboard side. Immediately the nets were filled to the breaking point. “It is the Lord!” John whispered to Peter.
What emotion must have gone through Peter’s heart at that moment. Without a fear, without a worry, without a memory of the ashes that still smoldered from the charcoal fire that witnessed his betrayal of the Lord, Peter leapt into the water and ran ashore.
And there Jesus stood.
Next to the visual symbol of his betrayal, of his weakness, of his shame.
And it was at that charcoal fire that Jesus asked him one question, three times: Do you love me? In the Passion Translation of the Bible the footnote for John 21:15 sheds some light on this question: The Aramaic word for “love” is hooba, and is taken from a root word that means “to set on fire.” This was the word Jesus would have used to ask Peter, “Do you burn with love for me?”
This time there were from Peter no blustering assertions and self-important declarations. Peter had touched the very roots of his weakness. Those weaknesses and mistakes and even sins that have been witnessed by our charcoal fires become the bridges to truth, to humility, to the trust that children have because they are not able to do anything for themselves.
The footnote continues: It was Peter’s boast that he loved Jesus more than the others, and though everyone else would leave him, Peter never would. That boast proved empty, as within hours of making the claim, Peter denied he even knew Jesus three times. So Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. In essence, Jesus knew how to bring healing to Peter and remove the pain of his denial. Three times Peter denied Jesus, but three times he made his confession of his deep love for Christ. By the third time, the “crowing rooster” inside Peter had been silenced, and now he was ready to be a shepherd for Jesus’ flock.
Here are five things always to remember when you think about the wounds the charcoal fires in your life have witnessed:
Jesus resets the relationship we have with him. After three denials he invited Peter to express his love for him. No shame or guilt or failure or regret. It is about love. It is one hundred percent about love. No matter what you have done in your life, Jesus wants to know only one thing: Do you love me? Right now, here Jesus calling you by name and asking you that question.
Peter and several other apostles went fishing, spending a futile night on the lake. He who had been made to be a “fisher of men,” returned to what he had been before he met the Lord Jesus at the lake’s shore three years earlier. Perhaps Peter thought that was all he was good for after having failed so miserably. But Jesus knew Peter. Jesus knew Peter loved him. Sometimes we are ashamed and we also reduce ourselves to a small life, letting go of dreams, relinquishing hope, sometimes even the hope of eternal life. It seems that there could be no way that God could not be disappointed in us. At the charcoal fire, however, Peter realized that God was not surprised, angry, vindictive or disappointed. When we stumble God is there to meet our failure with grace, a limitless love for all of us limping saints.
Charcoal fires have a distinct smell. When Peter swam to shore and smelled the fire, the memory of the other, so recent and still stinging experience at a charcoal fire still seared his conscience. Jesus invited Peter to follow him into the memory of his failure and betrayal. Instead of leaving Peter to sink in the shame of these memories, Jesus invited Peter to let him into those memories. They could face them together. We all have memories of sins committed, as well as sins committed against us. Shame and guilt surround these memories. Memories that wound, that we want to hide, that we pretend never happened. But Jesus helped Peter confront the memory of his betraying the Master he loved. It is an invitation to not fear the healing process when Jesus stands on the shores of our heart, asking us to let him in, to let go of the past, to allow him to heal and transform our wounds with his glorious mercy. Jesus will often take us into memories where we do not wish to go, but he knows that we are more than we think we’ve become by our mistakes and weakness. By standing in our memories with Jesus, things change.
Peter was hurt when Jesus asked him a third time, Do you love me? God’s love for us doesn’t gloss over our pain, the wounds that need healing in our life. Jesus specifically drew Peter to himself in order to reset the broken places of his denial with mercy. But just as a doctor carefully resets a broken bone (he doesn’t just say, “Oh, you’ll be all right. Everything is just fine.”), Jesus re-sets what is broken within us through the medicine of mercy. Even if the “brokenness” in our life has hardened and our hearts are “deformed” because they’ve never been taken under the Divine Physician’s care, love can make us pliable and whole once more. This is what Jesus does. In some mysterious way he is right now arranging your renewal through mercy and the willingness to love.
When Peter denied Jesus, he also denied himself. He denied his love for the Master, the three years of growth and transformation as he walked by the Master’s side. Peter denied who he had become as the follower of Jesus and his apostle. On the shore that post-Resurrection morn, after a futile night fishing on the lake, Peter had again come up with nothing after relying on the one thing he felt he should be able to do–fish. He was a fisherman, after all. Jesus needed Peter to understand that he could not continue relying on himself. Again and again, with every boastful or desperate attempt to prove himself or provide for himself, he realized the nothingness from which he came and the nothingness of which he, of himself, was capable. “Throw your nets off the starboard side and you will catch something.” “Simon, do you love me? Feed my lambs.” Jesus has a plan for Peter who is to lead the Church as Rock. However, Peter needed to lead as sinner, not savior. Only Jesus saves. All of us, everyone of us, needs saving, yet participates in the mystery of the salvation of others. Always, it is miracle. Forever, it is mercy.
This Easter Jesus wants to bring you healing. He wants to turn the charcoal fire of your shame to the place that witnesses your humble love for him, your answer to Jesus’ heart that you will be his friend, that you will let him lead you, forgive you, heal you, and shape anew your life.
“Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear” (Deitrick Bonhoeffer).
No one likes bearing suffering. The idea that Jesus has made suffering a part of Christian life that we can’t escape doesn’t make it easier. In fact, I’ve seen this idea lead to anger at Jesus.
Corrie ten Boom, born on April 15, 1892 in Haarlem, Netherlands, also didn’t find it easy, even as she preached the Gospel message of love and forgiveness. You may recognize her name as she was the author of the very popular book The Hiding Place. The Ten Boom family had decided to hide Jews in their home during the Occupation when a woman in May 1942 knocked on their door asking for refuge. The father readily took her in although the police headquarters was only half a block away. The whole family worked in the Resistance until on February 28, 1944, a Dutch informant, Jan Vogel, told the Nazis about the Ten Booms’ work. A little after noon that day, the Nazis arrested the entire Ten Boom family.
In September 1944, the Nazis deported Corrie and Betsie ten Boom to the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women in Germany. Life at Ravensbrück was almost unbearable, but Betsie and Corrie spent their time sharing Jesus’ love with their fellow prisoners. There, they held worship services after the hard days at work by using a Bible that they had managed to smuggle into the camp. Through the two sisters’ teachings and examples of unfailing charity, many of the prisoners there converted to Christianity. While they were imprisoned at Ravensbrück, Betsie and her sister began to discuss plans for founding a place of healing after the war. Betsie’s health continued to deteriorate, and she died on 16 December 1944 at the age of 59. Before she died, she told Corrie, “There is no pit so deep that He [God] is not deeper still.” Twelve days later, Corrie was released because of a clerical error. Corrie Ten Boom returned home amid the “hunger winter.” She still opened her doors to people with disabilities who were in hiding for fear of execution.
After the war, ten Boom advocated reconciliation as a means for overcoming the psychological scars left by the Nazi occupation. In her presentations after World War II when she sought to be a voice of healing, Corrie used to say to people who came up to her with their own stories of bitterness and non-forgiveness, “Can you forgive this person?”
When they said they couldn’t, or that they didn’t know how they could ever forgive the person who had hurt them, she would reply, “No? I can’t either. But God can.”
Sounds kind of pollyannish doesn’t it? I remember, though, one time in confession telling the priest that I couldn’t forgive someone under whom I had suffered for many years. And I had tried, seriously tried, to forgive for many years. Again and again. His words broke the cycle of my struggles that seemed to be getting me nowhere. “Yes you can,” he said to me. “You can forgive because Jesus makes that possible, Jesus who died on the cross for you and for them.”
They were words backed up with grace and rooted in the ground of truth.
Maybe instead of talking about whether or not we have forgiven, we should instead acknowledge in our whole life we are simply learning how to forgive, learning how to love enough to bear this responsibility of being the forgiving and merciful Jesus in the world today.
After the war, Ten Boom returned to the Netherlands to set up a rehabilitation center in Bloemendaal. The refuge housed concentration-camp survivors and until 1950 exclusively sheltered jobless Dutch who had collaborated with the Germans during the Occupation, after which it accepted anyone in need of care. She returned to Germany in 1946 and met with and forgave two Germans who had been employed at Ravensbrück, one of whom had been particularly cruel to Betsie. Ten Boom went on to travel the world as a public speaker, appearing in more than 60 countries. She wrote many books during this period.
In a story run in Guideposts in the year 1972, Corrie Ten Boom narrates how she came to realize that she herself was still learning to forgive.
She had just finished speaking in a church in Munich. It was 1947 and she had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. As people filed out of the basement, a heavy-set balding man clutching a felt hat between his hands approached the front of the room where she stood.
As soon as she saw him, it came back with a rush. This man had been a guard in the large room at Ravensbrück where the newly arrived women had to undress and leave their clothes and shoes in a pile. In shame they had been forced to walk naked past this man. Now he stood there, pathetic himself, humbled.
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he said. “I was a guard in there. But since that time I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, …” his hand came out, … “will you forgive me?”
Corrie stood there, frozen, ice clutching at her heart. Her sister had died at Ravensbrück. Did this man think that he could erase her slow terrible death simply by asking for forgiveness. She wrestled in her heart with the most difficult thing she had ever had to do.
Finally, after what had seemed hours but which were probably just seconds, she remembered that forgiveness is an act of the will not the emotions. She prayed silently to Jesus for help. She told him, “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You, Jesus, must supply the feeling.”
In her own words recorded in the story in Guideposts, Corrie said, “And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”
What forgiveness is not
Forgiveness is not easy. We can only forgive because God has forgiven us. It is only by experiencing forgiveness ourselves, that we can understand how precious it is to give this gift to another. We all have received the mercy of God. He has forgiven our sins, washed them away—even though we don’t deserve it. This is why St Paul can say in the letter to the Ephesians: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph 4:31-32).
Forgiveness is not an emotion, it is an act of the will. As Corrie faced the gentleman who had been a guard when she had been at Ravensbrück, her heart’s thermometer was cold, small, frightened. Even though she preached forgiveness with her actions and her words, even though she knew that she had been forgiven by God and needed to respond to this person before her asking for her forgiveness, her heart’s reactions didn’t correspond to what her mind knew. She simply asked Jesus’ help and, by an act of the will, stuck out her arm and asked God to do the rest. What she experienced—“I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then”—was God’s action within her. It was gift. She received in her own spirit the divine love and mercy that characterized the heart of God.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. The expectation that we will forget the person and actions through which we have been hurt is called denial. I’m sure Corrie was haunted all her life by what she had experienced in the concentration camp and by the slow death of her beloved sister Betsie. Her prayers, her encouragement to others, her preaching, her actions to provide places of healing for those who had suffered as she had in the concentration camps, as heroic as they may have been, were softened and sifted and saturated by her own struggles with memories, heart-movements of loss and grief, flashbacks and psychological struggles, as well as her desire and determination to be a person of reconciliation.
Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the wrong. Forgiveness doesn’t say that what was done doesn’t matter. If it didn’t matter, then there would be no need of forgiveness. Instead, forgiveness respects and reverences what has happened and the deep wound it has caused. Forgiveness says: “I know what you did. It hurt. It damaged me. It wounded me in ways that I may bear for the rest of my life. But I won’t hold it against you.”
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. In any number of ways, Corrie had forgiven those who had destroyed her family and her Jewish brothers and sisters. She encouraged others to forgive them. She had run a rehabilitation for concentration-camp survivors which until 1950 exclusively sheltered jobless Dutch who had collaborated with the Germans during the Occupation. She travelled to Germany to meet with and forgive two Germans who had been employed at Ravensbrück. That night, however, in the basement of the church in Munich, God asked her to go a step further. Reconciliation requires repentance. In this case, the former guard who approached her had repented and had even become a Christian. He extended a hand and asked her directly for forgiveness. There are many times that we may forgive, but reconciliation at that point is not a question. There is no repentance. It would be dangerous or unhealthy to reconcile with an individual who could continue to hurt us. There are other times, however, when we can offer this reconciliation. In Corrie’s case, she probably never saw this man again. When we take that next step of reconciliation, it doesn’t mean that we are required to resume friendships or move back in with the offending individual. We can reconcile without putting ourselves in the position of being hurt again, particularly when we ourselves haven’t healed sufficiently to create and enforce clear and healthy boundaries.
What forgiveness is
For us, forgiveness is a matter of becoming capable, of being given the power, to disrupt the cycle of continued wrath and suffering we experience as inevitable. Forgiveness is always going to be demanding, costly, and a freely chosen effort. Others cannot tell us when and how we must forgive. No one but we ourselves can require us to forgive.
As we wrestle with forgiving, here are three things that will help us open to God’s grace:
Pay attention to how thoughts about the person make it more difficult to forgive. Take your mind off of the person. Don’t give yourself the luxury of grumbling. Don’t justify yourself or feel sorry for yourself. Don’t imagine ways you could get even. When you see those thoughts coming in for a landing just tell them that there is no place for them in your heart.
Remember that you yourself have been forgiven any number of times. Recall a time when God has shown you his love and let you start again. Remember a time when someone else has shown you mercy. Ask God to help you call to mind times when you have needed forgiveness just as any other sinner. Practice being grateful for the mercy you have shown by the Lord.
Whenever the person who has hurt you comes to mind say the words “I forgive you” whether you feel it or not. Remember that forgiveness is an act of the will, and our emotions often deceive us. Just because we feel anger and hatred for another, our will can still choose to forgive, to at least say the words “I forgive you.” Ask the Holy Spirit to pour God’s love into your heart. When you are ready, you can take the next step of asking God to bless this person.
We can only offer ourselves to God’s action—to “seek, suffer (that is, allow), and trust.” And in that effort, God will supply for all that we fall short.
Through the centuries, the Annunciation has inspired many artists who have sought to capture in their paintings this most sacred and pivotal moment in the history of the world. My favorite is The Annunciation, painted in 1898 by the American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. The artist seems to capture the intensity and fire of the angel Gabriel’s appearance to the young Mary. I can’t decide if Tanner is depicting Mary’s first startled awareness at what God was asking of her or her sinking under the weight of what this message would mean for her life. Her hands folded, she is already pondering, storing away in her heart what God was doing.
So many masterpieces of the Annunciation portray the young virgin Mary in a religious setting where all seems peaceful and simple. But Tanner, I believe, captures the words of the angel, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
We cannot imagine that this girl barely a teenager would not have been concerned or apprehensive about the role that she was to carry out in salvation history. There were many unknowns that the angel didn’t clear up for her. Gabriel didn’t point out a way forward or explain to her how Joseph was going to find out about the child. What would her parents think? Her friends? Would she be able to share this with anyone? Would anyone be able to walk this way with her and show her the next steps she should take? The Messiah. The Son of the Most High. The one who would sit upon the throne of David and rule over the house of Jacob forever. The one whose kingdom would have no end.
It is hard to think that this young girl walked with ease and security into the rest of that Annunciation day with total confidence about what was happening to her. Throughout every day of her life, I can imagine her recalling the words as she heard them from the angel, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
When she and Joseph realized Jesus was lost, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
When Jesus left home to begin his public life, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
When she saw the growing discontent and disapproval directed at Jesus by the religious leaders, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
When she stood beneath the cross, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
This beautiful account of what happened at the Annunciation, probably told to Luke by Mary herself, concludes with her yes, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the passage transitions back into ordinary life with the almost ominous sentence, “Then the angel departed from her.” She was left alone.
We are told of no angel leading her back into Jerusalem to find her son. We read of no angels providing for her needs after Joseph had died and Jesus had left home to pursue his public ministry. The Gospel does not assure us that Mary had special revelations from further angels that everything was going to be okay as the religious leaders sought to put her son to death. We see no angels supporting her beneath the cross. Only John who stood in for you and me as Jesus gave his mother to be our mother. No. The angel departed from her.
There must have been not a few moments of wondering, worry, anxiety, sorrow alongside the strong faith, the determined surrender, and the rejoicing with which she continued to magnify the Lord. Somehow Mary was able to hold in her heart, to ponder and pray and believe and hope even as she wondered and worried in the uncertainty of all that was happening. As I look at Tanner’s Annunciation, this is the message I tuck away in my own heart. When I worry and wonder and doubt and fear I usually forget to ponder and pray and believe and hope. Mary was able to hold together the whole picture: the whole picture of what was happening in her own life, in the life of her Son, of her people, of history, of God’s work of salvation. She didn’t have a selective memory. She remembered everything and trusted everything and entrusted herself entirely into the unknown of the radical newness of what God was accomplishing in her for the sake of the world. I struggle to do this, and perhaps so do you. In whatever strained circumstances or difficult situations that cause you anxiety and doubt today, remember the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid.”
Praying with this passage of Scripture
Lectio Divina is a way of listening to God as he speaks in his Word. It is a practice of communicating with God through Scripture and attending to God’s presence and what he wishes to tell us. In this slow and prayerful reading of the Word of God, we allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit who forms us into the image of Christ. There are four movement in Lectio Divina: Read (lectio), Meditate (meditation), Pray (oratio), Contemplate (contemplation).
Begin by finding a still space to pray. Breathe deeply and become quieter within. Abandon any agenda, worries or thoughts you bring to this prayer and entrust these things to the merciful care of God. Ask for the grace to be receptive to what God will speak to you through this Scripture reading. Grant me, Jesus Divine Master, to be able to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God and your unfathomable riches. Grant that your word penetrate my soul; guide my steps, and brighten my way till the day dawns and darkness dissipates, you who live and reign forever and ever Amen.
Read (lectio) Begin by slowly and meditatively reading your Scripture passage out loud. Listen for a particular word or phrase that speaks to you at this moment and sit with it for a time.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Meditate (meditatio) – Read the same passage a second time. As you re-engage the text, let the word or phrase that stood out become your invitation to speak from your heart with God who wishes to share his heart with you. Allow this word or phrase to wash over you and permeate your thoughts and feelings. You may wish to repeat this phrase quietly and gently for a period of time.
Pray (oratio) – Read the text a third time. Listen for what God is saying to you. Speak heart to heart with God. Notice the feelings that this conversation with God raises up within you. Share with God what you notice about your response to this conversation. You may wish to return to repeating the phrase quietly and gently, allowing it to permeate you more and more deeply.
Contemplate (contemplatio) Read the text a final time. Now be still and rest in God’s embrace. Ask God to give you a gift to take with you from this prayer. You might ask God if he is inviting you to do some action, for instance, make some change in your thoughts, attitudes or reactions, in the way you speak or how you treat others. Thank God for this gift and invitation as you conclude your prayer.
Credit information: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Today we are entering into the final two weeks before Easter. In fact, in just ten days we will find ourselves in the most sacred days of the liturgical year, indeed, the most holy days of the year for a Christian: the Paschal Triduum. In these three days punctuated with powerful liturgical moments, we focus as a Church on what is truly essential, on what is, in the words of Pope Francis, “most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 35).
What is this most necessary thing?
The Paschal Mystery is the divine love revealed and made present, efficaciously present, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The efficacy and benefits of the death and resurrection of Jesus were so important to Paul that he wrote to the Corinthians, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). And to his beloved Philippians he stated that the one “who died for me” occupied him so completely that desired only this: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection” (Phil 3:10).
Our presence, in person or at least in spirit, at the liturgical celebrations of the Triduum reminds us that being Catholic is not about being club of like-minded people gathering around shared core ideas, people who happen to like each other like good neighbors, or a group come together to make a difference in the world. Our gathering as Christians is made possible solely because of the salvation offered by Christ, the crucified and risen Bridegroom who has brought the Church into existence.
We delight in salvation
In the Paschal Triduum we celebrate this unmerited Love that has saved us. Saint Paul often retold the story of the way Jesus sought him out personally on his way to Damascus and through the gift of Baptism refashioned the direction of his life through the blood of the Lamb once slain and now risen. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
We too should treasure and share the story of how we encountered the God of all salvation in Jesus Christ. The days of the Triduum should open out in awe and gratitude.
In the Triduum we turn our eyes to salvation, carrying in our hearts the whole world, this whole and entire messy and suffering world of 2023, a world that God loves.
During the Paschal Triduum we delight in the salvation provided us by the Savior. Looking about our world, our neighborhoods, our families, and even our own hearts we see the overwhelming burden of the very darkness that Christ came to dispel. As worries crowd our hearts, we yet cast ourselves at the feet of the crucified and risen Lord.
Holy Thursday: Total, selfless giving
On Holy Thursday we receive again the love of Christ in the Eucharist that is the very origin of the Church, the reason for its very existence. We learn again from him how to pour ourselves out in total selfless giving and presence, how to see in others those who have become through the blood of the Lamb once slain our brothers and sisters. We immerse ourselves in the Savior’s own courage as he walked into the darkness with his apostles, knowing that the actions of the darkness itself contribute to bringing about the triumph of Life and of the Day.
Good Friday: Trophy of salvation
On Good Friday we venerate the cross which was the instrument of Jesus’ death and the very source of our salvation. The refrain of the Reproaches cries out, “My people, what have I done to you? / Or how have I grieved you? Answer me!” Timothy O’Malley reflects on the suffering of Jesus on the cross:
“The God-man, Jesus Christ, was born to suffer. At his birth, he was wrapped in swaddling bands, an image of the burial clothes he would wear in the tomb. Christ was born for this moment, for this suffering on the wood of the tree. He hungered and thirsted in the desert, he cried at the tomb of Lazarus, because he came to take on the fullness of the human condition.
“Furthermore, the human condition, in all its violence, is on display in the crucifixion. The body of our Lord bleeds and oozes, is perforated by the nails and the spear. The blood and water that comes forth does so not in a gentle manner but in a torrent. The world itself is renewed through this washing, through this river of love flowing from the side of Christ” (“A Guide through the Poetic Theology of the Triduum,” April 10, 2020).
The cross becomes for a hungering and struggling, indeed for a wandering world, the trophy of salvation, the sign of victory, the promise of unending Life. Together we gaze on the cross of Christ that we might cast ourselves into the arms of the Bridegroom, and uniting our sufferings to his we become the instruments of salvation our world today so desperately needs.
Easter Vigil: Night so blessed
At the Easter Vigil, the crowning jewel of the evening of Holy Saturday and the beginning of the celebration of the resurrection, we are led by the Easter candle into the darkness of the Church, a sign of how the Light of the World leads the people lost in darkness into the wondrous light of salvation. We are meant to follow the Light and to be the light for people who still wander in darkness. We proclaim that all creation, like this candle, has been transformed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This is the night, is sung again and again during the Easter Vigil. It is the night of all nights. It is a night of dazzling glory. It is a night full of gladness. For on this night, Israel was rescued in Egypt from slavery, escaping with their very lives through the power of the Lord. On this night, they wandered through the desert led by the pillar of light—forty years of learning that God is the one who fulfills his promise on his own terms and through his own power according to the mystery of his providential timing. On this night, Christ rose from the dead. In all nights, we learn that we receive salvation. We learn a posture of prayer and ministry that transfigures us into instruments of God’s love, the hands and feet and voice and heart of Christ today.
Night, usually a time for terror, is now blessed. The tragedy carried forward in the garden on the night before Jesus’ death through the kiss and betrayal of Judas now gives way to the resurrection of the Light and Life of the World. The stingy selfishness of those who live in the self-preservation and self-promotion of the night is transformed by the pure generosity of Jesus’ excessive love, a love beyond measure, a love that gave itself for us even when we were at enmity with God. As the final verse of the Exsultet proclaims: May the Easter Candle “shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning—he who gives his light to all creation.”
There is a beautiful Hymn of Light found in the 1995 edition of the Lenten Triodion that would make a beautiful prayer as we end the Lenten season and enter into the Triduum.
Hymn of Light
O Christ, who make the light arise, purify my heart from all sin and save me. Send forth your eternal light, O Christ our God, illuminate my eyes and my heart and save me. Send forth your light, O Christ our God, and illuminate my heart and save me. You make the light shine upon the whole world; enlighten my soul by purifying it of every sin and save me. O Lord, the source of light, send forth your brightness to illuminate my heart and save me. Send forth your everlasting light upon our souls, O Lord, and save me. Enlighten my heart, O Lord, that I may sing to you: teach me to do your will and save me. O Christ, the everlasting Light, enlighten me completely, and save me. (page 675)
Hymn of the Resurrection
Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us adore the holy Lord Jesus who alone is sinless. We bow to your Cross, O Christ, and we praise and glory your holy Resurrection. You are our God and besides you we recognize no other, and we invoke your name. Come all you faithful, and let us bow to the holy Resurrection of Christ, since, through the Cross, joy has come to all the world. Ever praising the Lord, let us extoll his Resurrection, since he, having endured the crucifixion, has destroyed death by his Death. (page 749)
The grace we are asking of God: a deeply felt awareness of how God draws us into the unfolding of the mystery of the Word made flesh and how in doing this we enter into a process of healing that we might love Jesus and follow him more intentionally, completely, and wholeheartedly.
Horizons of the Heart is inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.
The grace we are asking for in the Spiritual Exercises is the grace to love rightly and the grace to love well.
If we have a deeply felt awareness of how another human being loves us and wants us near them, our response is wonder, gratitude, love, and wanting to be both physically and spiritually close to them. We no longer feel alone. We have a sense of belonging to someone who desires our presence. We feel safe and happy.
Similarly, God’s drawing us awakens in us a desire to return love for love, to offer ourselves in love, to leave ourselves in order to draw near to God in grateful praise. St. Ignatius is having us beg for the grace to deeply feel this in our very bones. We are loved! And love for God is rising like the sun in our hearts. This love overflows with joy.
This love for God, however, needs to be trained. This divine love, just like any love, needs strengthening through focus and practice. Our hearts and desires have become sluggish by loving material things, by being satisfied with what is of the earth and what brings pleasure to our senses. We are bombarded daily by stimulations, memories aroused by sights and sounds, emotional responses to whatever is going on around us. As David Fagerburg, author of Liturgical Mysticism, said, “In both body and soul, the human person is the matrix of a thousand bits of data input.”
St. Paul encourages us to direct our attention upwards:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4 NIV).
As a good father, St. Paul is instructing us to direct our desires toward what will truly bring us ultimate and eternal satisfaction and glory. This is the telos or end for which we were created: the beatific life.
“The beatific life requires a sort of integrity from us…. Integrity means being a person who wants, instead of a person who is a collection of wants” (Liturgical Mysticism, page 102). This kind of response to the drawing of God, this kind of wanting demands a true attentiveness, a spiritual and steady awareness sustained over time. We need to train our wants to discover how insipid are the things that simply give passing pleasure, episodic and trivial desires, and how beautiful is the taste for worthwhile things, consequential things that order the mass of sensations that harass us daily toward “the things above.”
In the Spiritual Exercises we learn to want steadily what truly matters. They train us to keep our eye on the target, so to speak. We become sensitive to those behaviors in which we engage that contribute to our desires dissipating, losing their fragrance. And we feel a greater attraction to what contributes to a deeply felt knowledge of that to which God is drawing us in his immense and illimitable love.
You may wish to reflect on what is drawing your heart right now.
What are behaviors that dissipate your spiritual strength?
What are the desires that give you peace? That make you feel closer to God? How can you train those desires?