Redemption

(This reflection was written seven years ago.)

Three weeks ago tonight I arrived home from my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The experience has settled in my mind; I have been able to process its effects. The most important one: Redemption.

We hear this word so many times. It is so central, so often repeated a belief in our Christian faith that it can lose its impact. I think I never really understood it – in my bones, in the core of my being.

To be present at the Calvary site, to bend down to kiss that spot, to feel myself able to say only two words: Unworthy woman. To be allowed to come close not just geographically, but spiritually close to the reality of Christ’s redemptive love. I now feel I know what it means to be redeemed. I understand fully that my and everyone’s sin has been totally removed: Christ has atoned. We are no longer separated from God, “cast out” of his presence. Christ has truly set us free.

This truth, this conviction is stunning to realize. How we, with all our misdeeds both great and petty, can be lifted up, can be lifted out of the mud that so often seems our natural element – what a great mystery this is!

I am floating so effortlessly in this pure air where it seems that nothing ever again can pull me down. (Would that it were so! I understand St. Peter on Mount Tabor: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”) But even when this euphoria evaporates, I think I must remember the solid ground of this truth: Christ loves me, loves us, has done everything to ensure that we will be with him always.

Redemption. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:39) How simple it all is.

Dali Cross

 

“You are gods . . .”

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
John 1:14a

“The Son of God became human so that we might become God.”
St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation.

“The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made human, might make us gods.”
(St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc., 57:1-4)

The feast of the Incarnation coincides with Palm Sunday this year. Because it’s such an important feast, I’ve chosen to explore and celebrate it in this post.

Even as a very young person, the Incarnation struck me as a most alluring miracle. Back then, I didn’t know about the astonishing comments from Saints Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas, quoted above. Somehow, for many of us, the truth that Christ first existed as God and then became man, existing in time in a specific place, living and dying as a human being in every way – somehow this half of the truth is much more acceptable than the second half. After all, God can do all things, so becoming a human being is certainly not out of reach. That half of St. Athanasius’ statement is credible.

But the rest of the statement – so that we might become God – may sound as blasphemous to our ears as it was to the unbelieving Jews in the Gospel of John, recently read at a Lenten Mass. (Ch. 10:31-41) In this passage, the danger surrounding Jesus has come to a head as the incredulous crowd takes up rocks to stone him. Jesus says:

“I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God.”

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and scripture cannot be set aside, can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’”?

An indisputable line of reasoning which Jesus’ enemies refuse to accept.

Jesus repeatedly referred to God as his Father, to being sent by God, and to being obedient to everything he hears from God. Furthermore, in many passages from the Gospels, he frequently refers to God as our Father. Every time we repeat the Lord’s Prayer, we refer to God as Father. Are we too blasphemous?

We commonly believe that certain qualities that apply to Christ cannot possibly refer to us. Especially divinity. And this is where we come to the second half of Athanasius’ outrageous statement.

I think it’s safe to say that part of Christ’s mission on earth was to teach us how to live as children of God.

In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) Jesus teaches us how to imitate God the Father, how to take on godlike habits and attitudes. He points out the basic teachings of the law, but then calls his followers to go beyond them. Difficult as those commands are (and have been for millennia already), Jesus calls us to an even higher standard. But it’s impossible for us to go higher on our own until we have received the teaching and example of Christ, along with his strength through the Holy Spirit, i.e. grace.

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill”; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, “Raqa,” will be answerable to the Sanhedrin. . . So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

The message and teachings of Christ call us to go beyond what is humanly good in order to achieve what is supernaturally holy – in other words, to become God-like. The second Vatican Council confirmed that we are ALL called to this holiness, which is the same as what Athanasius and Thomas meant by saying we are all called to be gods. The God we are called to imitate, and whose children we are, is the God who has total and infinite love for all humanity – the just as well as the unjust.

The purpose, then, of the Incarnation and why God became man, was to redeem us, to show us what divine love is, to model holiness, and to receive through Christ the ability to partake in his divine nature.

At every Mass we repeat God’s invitation to transformation, to holiness. As the priest mingles the sacramental water and wine, he says, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

If this were an impossible ideal, we would not have had so many urgings from Christ to dare follow him into the imitation of God. In doing so, we are divinized; we become God’s children, and become the face of Christ in this, our life on earth.

News: Bad, Fake, Too Much?

Or perhaps . . .?

Our society seems to have fallen in love with news, and news of any kind. National TV = 24/7. Social & Local = Facebook, Twitter et al. We have this compulsion to know everything that’s going on anywhere in the world, and to share every bit of news that we’ve either heard from others or have experienced ourselves. Why is it so important to share every trifling item with an ever-growing audience? Why should I expect anyone to be interested in my trivia?

There are a few reasons why we are so attached to news.

  • ¨ We need the social connection. Our congenital loneliness welcomes companionship and attention, preferably on a constant feed.
  • ¨ We need to be valued, and having a “scoop” puts us in the limelight, if only for a minor event and if only for a moment or two.

Our insatiable appetite for news ensures that we doggedly keep watching or listening for it, even though it almost invariably upsets us. My repeated and basic question is, “How much news do I really need to be a good neighbor, parent, or citizen?”

I’ve been on the planet for a few years and even as a youngster I remember my teachers alerting us to the fact that we couldn’t believe everything we heard (e.g. rumors, gossip), nor should we believe everything in print (this now includes digital alerts). I still remember teachers telling us how to evaluate the trustworthiness of reports: how reliable is the source? Does it come from someone who routinely trashes others? From someone whose vocabulary doesn’t include those three precious words, “I don’t know”? From someone whose chief occupation lies in fluffy entertainment? From a sensationalist? Or from someone who is willing to die for his/her claims?

I can’t pretend to have the answers to how much news others need, only how much do I need. If the constant stream of robberies, murders, overdoses, and especially wars, violence, man-made destruction – if these pull me down to a place of almost constant fear and excessive grief, then maybe I don’t need so much. If these reports result in numbing my sensibilities, that’s a reason to ease up. I can’t afford to de-sensitize myself; I need to maintain the ability to compassionate with others.

If, on the other hand, these events move me to pray and to ponder how the Kingdom of God contrasts with the kingdom of this world, then I need to keep watching and praying, lest I fall into temptation, as Christ urged his apostles in the garden of Gethsemane.

For after all, we have been given news that is life-giving: the Good News that is a how-to for happiness on this earth – in spite of all its injustice, cruelty and woes.

Reading and pondering the Good News teaches me about the three stages of discipleship:

  • ¨ Servant: The Ten Commandments provide the basic fundamental rules about living justly with others. These prepared humanity for the coming of Christ.
  • ¨ Friend: The Beatitudes, introduced by Christ, deepen our level of knowledge to an awareness of the spirit of the law. These transfigure us.
  • ¨ Child and Heir: taking to heart Christ’s final Command to love others as he has loved us is the ultimate consummation of love that transforms us into the very image of God.

I use the phrase “taking to heart” rather than the word obeying. That is simply because, for many, obedience has gotten a bad rap. It can have the connotation of some kind of slavery to a demanding, tyrannical Boss who will punish us if we don’t follow his Rules. On the contrary, as Jesus showed us, the laws of God and the command of Christ lift us to the highest level of freedom which is our soul’s union with God. To take the command of Christ to heart means that we have allowed God to take complete possession of us, not as slave to master but as lover to lover.

Being lifted up to this transformative level is to experience, to a limited degree of course, what Jesus meant by entering the Kingdom of God, by having the Kingdom of God at hand, close to us, accessible. Now this is really Good News!

When Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus, he affirmed: My kingdom is not of this world . . . I came into the world to testify to the truth. In other words, we can’t find the truth in the values of this world.

Pilate scoffed and asked, without waiting for an answer: What is truth?

Happy are we, in the midst of all this bad news, to have been taught the truth of the Good News. We are more than the “people” of God: we are God’s children. As such, our destiny is to be holy as he is holy. We can say with Christ, our impeccable source and model: Take courage, little flock. I have overcome the world!

Space and the Spirit

It’s no big mystery how the name of this blog came to be. Experience has taught me that it’s impossible to say anything about the spiritual life unless the Spirit itself, this wonderful Muse, dictates it.

So for now, I remain spiritually locked up until the now-distant Spirit decides to let me in on a personal secret or two that I can write about.

These days I ask myself: why has my “inspiration” dried up? Surely I must be doing something wrong. I don’t think I’m alone in typically blaming myself first for anything that seems to go wrong in my spiritual life. But then, as soon as I think or write those self-defeating words, the questions start. Why is something “wrong” just because it’s different from what I was feeling and experiencing just a short time ago? Why is change “wrong”? Where is it written that I must be continually overflowing with ideas, sentiments or (heaven forgive me!) insights?

Because I’ve been given the kind of temperament that looks for reasons, I start looking for them. When I first started writing posts, I saw them as a sharing of graces given. Except for the editing, they rolled almost effortlessly out of reflections on scriptural passages, or from situations in my life. Can I blame the dry spell on the season’s imprisoning weather? Not really. Can it be because I’m sharing deeper conversation with friends and am somewhat used up by talking, instead of filled up by silence? I’d like the inspiration to stay strong. I don’t like the sensation of being dropped, as it were – dropped by the Spirit simply because I may have temporarily diverted my attention. That can’t be the reason.

No. I think this “dry spell” has actually become something to write about. There’s a different kind of lesson here. God is not all around me just for my entertainment, or just for handing out goodies that make me feel privileged to share.

Recently, as I was in my living room, pondering this question and attempting what I sometimes think of as prayer, my eyes wandered to the various pieces of art on my walls. Each is different. Each hangs alone, separated from the others by varying degrees of space. They’re not all hung, one right next to the other. What a disturbing and disagreeable effect that would have on anyone in the room! The violent ocean scene would be scrunched up next to the serene French village next to the embroidered sampler next to my parents’ wedding photo, and so forth. Ancient Latin used to be written like that, without spaces or punctuation. The sentence I just wrote would have looked like this:
ancientlatinusedtobewrittenlikethatwithoutspacesorpunctuation

You get the idea. The perceived emptiness of space is necessary and inevitable. The space we perceive as “emptiness” must exist if we are to find meaning in what emerges from within that space. We can’t appreciate what is until we notice and appreciate what isn’t. I suspect that the emptiness I’m experiencing now is not really space or absence or emptiness, but some thing that’s just different, an entity in its own right.

Each of us is separated from one another. And though we often feel that space between us and God is infinite, it is the miracle of love that moves us to bridge that space and, in fact, to ultimately succeed in finding an undreamed-of unity. For God is even in emptiness. All I have to do is keep my eye on that space and continue my spiritual practices with gratitude.

Conversion

I write this on the feast of St. Paul’s conversion, January 25. And what a conversion was that!

It’s my opinion, produced by experience, that I am repeatedly called to conversion. For me, there was one very big one, so big that I remember the date, place and hour. It was October 4, 1998, in Santa Fe (Holy Faith) at the noon Mass being celebrated at the Diocesan cathedral of Saint Francis. It was the fourth centenary of the Franciscans in the New World. The large number of Latinos at this Mass guaranteed that the liturgy’s music would indeed be celebratory. The contagious joy and enthusiasm of the parishioners acted upon me like Paul’s blinding light: powerfully and instantly converting me, bringing me back to the Faith that I had abandoned 21 years earlier.

Let me say it again: we are repeatedly called to conversion — not necessarily in a grand fashion, but in small doses, mini lights that invite us to make Gospel decisions.

  • Shall I respond harshly to this person to let her know I don’t appreciate her criticism of me?
  • Shall I turn a punishing frown at the guy who practically knocks me over with his shopping cart?
  • Shall I get out of bed for weekday Mass, tired as I am from staying up late to watch a movie?
  • Shall I give in to the “sadness of the noonday devil,”* or will I accept the call to bravery in performing those uninspiring tasks that wait for no one but me to finish?

These are the little conversions, the tiny steps that follow at a great distance from the footsteps of Christ. These are the mustard seeds, the tiniest available, that I’m invited to plant and tend carefully and steadily until they explode into trees, housing flocks of birds.

The Gospel call of the Apostles has always intrigued me. I used to lament that I was not around to be called to discipleship (not that as a woman I’d have been called anyway). There was a kind of magnificence to being called, to being lifted out of the drab dullness of daily drudgery to follow this great healer, preacher, teacher; to view the wonderment of the crowds and to be so intimately connected with the greatness of this man! For me, discipleship represented the best kind of greatness.

Before his call, Saul too had a kind of greatness. He was a leader in the gradual but persistent elimination of heretics who arrogantly claimed fellowship with a blasphemous criminal (as if this were something to be proud of!). Saul’s task: bring them back in chains, let them imitate their master, even to submitting to the same end and manner of execution.

Given his powerful personality, this saint-in-the-making required a proportionately powerful show of God’s great mercy. A mere hint or two wouldn’t be enough. Saul needed a blinding light, a certitude that would impel him to undertake the most trying conditions. In spite of all his sufferings – he recounts shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings – he considered them as nothing, and himself as the least of the Apostles. Indeed, his new name – Paul – means poor and small. Only in his acceptance of this smallness and the cross could he find true glory.

No wonder “little” Thérèse’s doctrine set the world on fire. Goodness, even holiness, was now presented to the hoi polloi as readily available even to the least of us. This young woman, formally educated only to the sixth-grade level, was named a Doctor of the Church for having taught this humble approach to God. Her longing to be a missionary, even to be a priest, was far beyond the possibilities of her circumstances. She recognized that all God wanted of her was fidelity to what was right in front of her: undramatic daily chores; crabby people; simple prayer which she often slept through. Each choice brought her one step closer to the One she loved “madly!”

How simple are my choices! Not easy, and certainly no longer grandiose as I grow slowly but surely into the reality of insignificance. All that remains is to be totally focused on the desire for the one thing necessary and a dogged determination to live the Gospel.


acedia.jpg* The “sadness of the noonday devil,” a spiritual condition called acedia is a gloomy combination of weariness, sadness, and a lack of purposefulness. It robs a person of his capacity for joy and leaves him feeling empty, or void of meaning.