Holiness and the Kingdom of Heaven

A few years ago I was making a presentation on Thérèse of Lisieux at a nearby spirituality center. It was surprising to hear a participant share her feelings about sainthood. She said she was reluctant – maybe even unwilling – to strive for holiness because she feared the suffering that would inevitably follow. What gave her this idea was her reading the lives of saints who had suffered severely, even to the point of martyrdom.

Taken off-guard as I was at the time, I couldn’t think up a good answer. In fact, I still can’t, but at least would be able to point out that holy people aren’t the only ones who suffer on this earth. Suffering is a staple of the human condition; no one is exempt.

Since that first time, I’ve heard the same fear expressed again. What will God do to me if I tell him I want to grow closer to him, and even want to devote my life to him? Look what happened to the saints. What is more, look what happened to Jesus Christ. And even at the strictly human level, giving myself to another requires great trust. Will my love and trust be returned, or will it be exploited?

It seems to me that when Jesus invites or promises us entry into the “kingdom of heaven,” he is inviting us not to a place, of course, but to a state of being: union with God on God’s terms as he originally planned for us when he put us in the Garden of Eden. Christ is inviting us to nothing less than holiness.

In parables, Jesus describes the kingdom as treasures, such as the one hidden in a field. The person who discovers it considers it of such value that he sells everything he has to purchase the field. Then there’s the pearl merchant who travels far and wide to find just one pearl of extraordinary value. In these two stories, the reward is so desirable that the seekers consider the high price as nothing compared to what they’ll gain. St Paul repeats this more prosaically when he writes in Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”

And again, in his passionate devotion to Christ, he writes the same thought in Philippians 3:8:

I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)

Sometimes the loss of everything is intentional, as when a person enters religious life making vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, willingly giving up natural comforts in exchange for the spiritual. Sometimes the loss is unintentional, as in the patient acceptance of poverty, ill-health or loneliness, as Jesus lists in the Beatitudes where a series of ills transforms us and leads us into the kingdom of heaven.

The Gospels repeatedly tell us how generously God wants to reward our efforts. By the time we muster the courage (and wisdom) to desire holiness, we really don’t have to worry or fear the results. We’ll be given all we need, and much more.

Mary Magdalene

Here I am on her feast day, having taken her name as my Oblate name, and unable to write a word about her. So many tangled pieces of information about her: one of the many Marys in the Gospels; her long-standing undeserved reputation as a woman of ill repute – one of the worst accusations one can make about a woman; possessed by seven demons, yet exorcised by Jesus himself; “Apostle” to the Apostles, yet only one year ago accorded the status of an apostle.

So why did I choose this woman as my model?

Mary the Apostle stands at the opposite pole of Mary the Mother. The Nazarene was full of grace; the Magdalene was full of sin in the form of demons. Both followed Christ to the bitter end, enduring with him his passion and execution.

For me, the beauty of Mary Magdalene is in her great fidelity and gratitude. Much had been forgiven her and so she loved much. Mary at the tombSo often is she seen in tears that I’m led to understand her tears as the “rivers of living water  flowing from within the one who thirsts and believes in him. (John 7:37-38) Any sinfulness is drowned in these tears.

What a consolation and reward: to be the first to see her beloved Teacher resurrected! To hear him call her name!

Conversion after forgiveness, gratitude, intense love, fidelity, service: these qualities in Mary Magdalene are more than enough for me to admire and strive to imitate.

Mary Magdalene

Finding God Where???

Last week, I was drawn to think about our animal brethren and how Christ used them as examples to follow. Think of it: creatures we consider far below us — certainly as far as intelligence is concerned. But Jesus found them worth our study.

This week, I’m focusing on the animals we bring indoors to become members of our family. We don’t refer to ourselves as pet “owners” but as pet “lovers” and caretakers. Often enough, however, it’s the other way around.

Since God is everywhere, it follows as night the day that anyone who has ever loved and cared for a pet can learn something God-like in the relationship between humans and pets. Ignatian spirituality teaches the practice of finding God in all things, and I’m suggesting that this can include our pets – preferably furry ones.

Yes, I’m serious: pet lovers are likely to be at an advantage in understanding divine love.

Now wait, isn’t that a stretch? What about meaningful relationships with humans? Sure, but you must admit that they’re frequently more difficult to love than pets. Do let me continue.

Let’s look at the world and its humans. What would an alien think if he/she/it were to land squarely in the middle of the typical living room? The TV blares, showing police cars racing after perps, sirens screeching. What about the many mug shots on the nightly news, people photographed at their worst? There’s a hopelessness there, and maybe no remorse. [We won’t even mention the political news.] From what the visiting alien sees of planet Earth, its inhabitants don’t seem to like one another.

But now let’s suppose the alien arrives in the living room of a pet owner. It’s late afternoon. The daddy is stretched out on the sofa, relaxing after his day of bringing order out of chaos. By his side is this strong, furry dog, breathing a sense of “all’s right with the world; you’re OK here.” You can practically see the smile on his face as he adoringly guards his sleeping friend.

Or, the kitty you’ve just finished scolding for knocking over a plant, or boldly sitting on a forbidden piece of furniture. Sure you’re annoyed. But at the same time, you’re amused and maybe even secretly proud of her because, after all, she’s acting like a cat! Which is what she should be doing, just as we ought to act like the human beings God intended us to be.

Here, then, are these two pets: one projecting the strength, care and fidelity of God Himself. The other, loved and admired in spite of her naughtiness, just as God loves us in spite of (or maybe even because of) our human failings.

Pet companions are shining examples of unconditional love, given and received.

Yes, Fido had an accident on the carpet. Maybe you made him wait too long? Yes, Fifi woke you up, meowing loudly, at 3 in the morning. Well, she is a nocturnal creature, you know. And even after we scold them roundly, they don’t hold it against us. No grudging, no judging.

I’m just saying: when we, like Ignatius, talk about finding God in all things, one of the easiest places in the world is in the behavior of the pets we’ve been given. Thank God for them!

 

Summertime

… and the livin’ is easy.

It was one of those rare summer days when the temperature and humidity levels were ideal. A gentle breeze stirred the netting surrounding my gazebo, inviting me to a quiet moment on my deck.

I stretch out on the lounge chair and watch my little brothers and sisters (as St. Francis would call them) move about in their own unique style: rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, birds whose names I have yet to learn. They all are properly equipped to get wherever they need to go at the speed required, spending their time on whatever is most important.

How many times Jesus pointed to various animals and plants to illustrate some truth, some words of wisdom that easily pointed to a way of spiritual growth. He was speaking to humble people, to those he referred to as the “little ones,” the ones who would find and enter the Kingdom of heaven before the self-appointed great ones.

“Consider the ravens,” he said, choosing a bird who was the least likely to appeal to us with its plain somber feathers and raspy voice. But ravens are smart enough not to spend their time needlessly, toiling to fill barns while they let the beauty of life slip by them.

“Consider the lilies of the field.” They are clothed more royally than King David himself.

Most often, the lesson centered on the relationship between us and our heavenly Father. Jesus certainly knew the nature of God, since he shared in it. Moreover, he maintained a constant and prayerful connection with the Father. Instead of using complicated theological language, he turned to everyday, familiar things, using them as metaphors to describe the inscrutable God: women scouring the house looking for a lost coin; a farmer sowing seeds; trees bearing fruit; so many more everyday situations. All this to model for us an awareness of our surroundings and the ability to connect them to our interior life with God.

These lessons center on our need not for things, but for trust in God: trust in his love and care for us, always here with us and transforming events (even “negative” ones) into stepping stones to union with him.

And so I continue to watch and marvel at my little friends, both furry and feathered. We may be the brainy ones on the planet, but these others have much to teach us.
summer 2

Up-sizing

Thirteen years ago we moved into a home that was at least half the size of the house we vacated. We had needed a place large enough for the seven children we blended into one family: outdoor space to accommodate the sporting interests of the four boys still at home, indoor space to host out-of-town relatives and assorted high school friends for overnight holiday gatherings. But in 2004,  my husband’s health issues and an empty nest made relocation an easy decision.

I know that some of you readers may have faced the joys of downsizing. For us, it consisted of two garage sales (one at each property), truckloads of “stuff” for disposal, tons of books donated to the local libraries, in addition to several pieces of furniture given to the two local married children, still at the acquisitive stage of life.

The night we moved, we collapsed in bed, feeling that at our age we had been barely able to accomplish the ordeal. And we were still a good deal younger than 75-year-old Abram and Sarai when they got their marching orders from the Lord. One big difference: they were up-sizing.

abram-leaving-urGod directed them to take their servants and farm animals with them, and to settle in a much more extensive territory. There God would give them countless descendants to fill and eventually inherit the land.

Abram had a few questions, the most important of which had to do with heirs, since he and Sarai were childless and at their age quite likely to remain so.

Major lessons from the Old Testament have to do with total obedience to whatever the Lord commanded. It didn’t matter that the people so commanded might think themselves utterly unfit and even unqualified. Moses argued that he couldn’t lead the Israelites to freedom because he couldn’t speak very well, or persuasively. Not to mention his lack of management training. He was a shepherd, remember, in charge of gentle animals who are easy to lead — a far cry from the independent-minded, faithless Israelites.

Jeremiah complained that he was too young to be a prophet, and Abram certainly could have said, “We’re way too old for a move like this! We’ve gotten used to our life and are happy the way things are.”

“Not good enough,” I imagine God replying. “Staying in the same place all your life simply means you’re in a rut. Grow up and out! Take on an adventure, for heaven’s sake! Expand your horizons! Blossom!”

And so says He to us who would rather keep on doing the same old thing over and over, fighting tooth and nail against any change — particularly those of a spiritual nature.

Isn’t it odd that it’s usually adults, not children, who complain about change? A child can’t wait to get to the next step in its development. Like the little girl I recently met who took the opportunity to brag to me, a stranger, “I just turned 5!” Hurray!

Children consider it a badge of honor to outgrow last month’s new clothes. Bring on the new set! Moving up a grade is a significant milestone. I can remember starting 4th grade, how my classmate, with a twirl of her pigtails, proudly remarked that this year we were to launch into the new subject of HISTORY!

So how does it happen that we outgrow this eagerness to grow, especially where our faith is concerned? Our spiritual life can and must grow and change, ever deepening in our knowledge of the God we serve and of the Savior we love. How can we think that everything we need to know about God was learned in the 2nd grade? Have we so fully understood all there is to know in the Gospels? And Christ purposely told cryptic parables, challenging his audience to work at understanding their meaning and how they might change their way of looking at life, their way of living.

So here we are now in Elmira, our worship space and schedule shrinking. We may be downsizing in these respects, but in the grand scheme of things we’re up-sizing. We’re merging into one community, thankfully an optimistic development. What if it were the other way around? Instead of merging, what if there were some form of rivalry causing us to split?

Let’s offer prayers of thanks for this solution. Our graceful and grace-filled unity offers an opportunity to be seen as a public model of Christianity, an image of living evangelization. What a blessing! What new forms of living and growing in our faith might be open to us now? Christ tells us that the unity of believers images none other than his all-inclusive love for us.

“I pray that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one . . . that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me. Father, they are your gift to me.”
(John 17:20-21; 23-24a)
Together