Twenty Years Blessed

You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced;
you were too strong for me, and you prevailed. (Jeremiah 20:7a)

 The place was Santa Fe, the city of Holy Faith. It was Sunday morning. I was downtown and wanted to see the interior of the small Spanish style Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, but it was closed. . .

After a Catholic education stretching from Kindergarten through college; after youthful aspirations to be a missionary or a cloistered Carmelite; after a failed marriage and a remarriage to another “lapsed” Catholic, the time had come. In the 21st year of this second marriage outside the Church, as we struggled to adjust to the changes of retirement, I took off on a vacation visit to my daughter in the city of Holy Faith, Santa Fe.

Touring the downtown, I wanted to see the interior of the little Basilica. Finding it closed, I returned a few days later. “Aha!” I thought. “Since it’s Sunday it’ll surely be open.”

cathedral-santa-feI entered just in time for the noon Mass. And what a Mass! It was October 4, 1998 (the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, one of my favorites) and the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan diocese in New Mexico. The Mass was celebrated as only Latinos know how: with exuberant song. I was bowled over. The Lord knows us inside out, and knew I would find this passionate, musical experience totally irresistible. You seduced me, Lord!

I was lifted out of 21 years of secular existence and firmly replanted as a follower of Christ, along with the gift of determination to remain there forever.

When I got home, the biggest surprise was that my husband too had decided come back. Sponsored by my former pastor, I went through the annulment process and we were married in a quiet ceremony in our new Corning parish. The 10 years that followed were by far the happiest in an already good marriage.

I wished I could go out on street corners or in parks — like Hyde Park in London where passionate speakers used to draw crowds to hear their message. I wished I could expound on the beauty of the Gospel! Would I ever be able to do this?

I say I will not mention him, I will no longer speak in his name.
But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding back, I cannot!
       (Jeremiah 20:9)

Like many a new convert, I threw myself wholeheartedly into my restored faith. I volunteered as a lector and Eucharistic minister, and for other parish activities: organized the St. Pat’s celebration; revived a faded ministry to newcomers; set up ministry fairs; served as secretary to the parish council. I also started attending daily Mass.

Step by step, each attempt at outreach finally led to today’s effort to express, through this blog, what God has done for me. That there’s just a handful or possibly a crowd who read these reflections doesn’t really matter. I cannot hold back! The words I’m given do not come from my mind or mouth. Whatever they produce, whatever the result, is not my concern but the Spirit’s, the Muse who moves me to ponder and write.

Once lured back to our spiritual roots, it becomes clear that true conversion doesn’t happen just once. Rather, it leads to continuous conversion, renewed day after day from within the events specific to that day.

This is my hope, my determination and my prayer.

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
(Luke 15:7)

Let the Children Come

(Written on the feast of Thérèse of Lisieux)

“Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

How can children – or the child-like – have such a ready entrance into the Kingdom? To merit the Kingdom, don’t we have to learn countless behaviors, obey countless rules, accept countless beliefs and doctrines? And we understand hardly any of it. This is surely not child’s play!

I’ve been re-reading Michael Casey’s commentary on St. Benedict’s prologue to the Rule, The Road to Eternal Life. [Casey is a Trappist monk who has written several books on Benedictine spirituality.] I read it with a fellow Oblate about a year ago, but many passages strike me as brand new, now that I’m in a different place. Casey writes:

The Gospel is fundamentally a proclamation of the Good News; it is something that excites, motivates, and encourages us. It is more than the dreary listing of a series of moral precepts. It is the promise of power that comes down from on high to give us the wisdom, understanding, and fortitude to put those impossible precepts into practice. . . .

To be guided by the Gospel is to be liberated from the tyranny of law and superego and to allow our lives to be more and more marked by the simplicity of love. It does not mean extracting moral precepts from the words of Jesus and erecting them into a code or canon of behavior. It means living as Jesus lived by moving toward the fullness of self-giving love that he manifested during his time on earth.

The French mystic and poet, Charles Péguy, tells the adult who is satiated with many possessions and opinions: “Go to school, children, and learn to unlearn.”

It is their humble status and attitude of simplicity that Jesus recognizes and loves in children. It is what Thérèse of Lisieux discovered in her “little way:” the child-like acceptance of God’s love as Jesus taught in his Good News. 13-Therese as Joan.jpg

You see, we’ve been taught about all the things we must do to “get into Heaven,” all the prayers we must say, all the rules we must strictly follow, the spiritual and intellectual hoops we must jump through.  Thérèse, doctor of simplicity, was shown a way where one simply goes along with the parent in total trust. It has to be the way to a good place, for where else would a loving parent take him?  The child is happily amazed at everything it sees: it’s all new and splendid! For the child, everything is a kind of mystery, yet not imponderable, for the parent will explain all as they take the same path together, hand-in-hand. Being with the parent “excites, motivates, and encourages” the child. Simply having that loving attention is an incomparable delight.

The spiritual child does not need to understand complex theology that calculates how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; does not need to impose difficult penances on herself; doesn’t fret unendingly on mistakes made; doesn’t need big, impressive words in speaking to the parent.

The child-like simply accepts that there are others on this same path and is happy to take the last place, since it’s by the parent’s side. Let the others run off to chase useless things! The blessed are content to grasp only one thing in their hand: the hand of God.

Yes, we know that this “spiritual” child may be a tad idealized, relative to the children we actually parent. The main point is that the child really has nothing of “value,” by worldly standards, to give the parent. It’s the other way around: the parent (or grandparent) takes delight in spoiling the child with a variety of gifts presented at every opportunity, reasonable or not. When we keep our eyes open and look up at our divine parent with expectation, hope and love, are we ever disappointed?

As years are added to my life-span, I’m taught new things. One gift is to see the importance of receiving. Yes, there are always things we do and give. But then, you see, it’s so easy to feel proud of ourselves. When we allow God to give, every day can be very much like a child’s Christmas. Gifts often come even frequently throughout the day. If now and then we’re given gifts that puzzle us, we’ll certainly be shown how they work and in time will come to appreciate them.

Being at the receiving end is especially important for those of us at the ageing part of life, because doing is getting more and more tricky. We have to learn how to accept help and care from others. We have to learn to ignore their look of exasperation as we ask them the same question for the umpteenth time. And when we tell them the same story for the third time in 10 minutes, maybe they have to learn how to pretend that they’re hearing it for the first time. Compassion is needed now, as those in their second childhood require the same patience we needed with our young ones.

Let all children come to Me.

On the Road!

A few weeks ago, Brother John received a request from a pastor in the Canandaigua area. Like so many of our parishes, two in this part of the Rochester Diocese had recently merged into a new one named St. Benedict’s. Pastor Michael Costik’s request was: Would we be willing to help St. Benedict’s familiarize parishioners with their new patron and with the Monastery “down the road”?

Brother Gabriel asked me if I’d like to respond to Father Michael on behalf of the Monastery. “Of course!” was my immediate reaction. Who wouldn’t want to “sell” the Monastery?

And so I introduced myself via email and phone to Deacon Claude Lester. Claude had come to Mt. Saviour for his discernment retreat prior to ordination, so he was especially enthusiastic about introducing parishioners to our place of prayer.

The target event was a celebration of Benedict’s feast day, nicknamed “Seven-Elevenish” since it was scheduled for the Sunday closest to the feast — this year, on July 8. They planned a BBQ lunch at the community center where there would also be displays of the parish’s ministries.Monastery items

Deacon Claude wanted a special table for Mt. Saviour to feature information on the monastery. The Brothers and I agreed on what to take up: pictures of the monastery chapel and grounds, pamphlets describing accommodations and directions, information on becoming an Oblate, and objects available at the gift shop. I also selected a number of books on Benedict and monasticism available in the shop.

Sunday July 8 was a splendid day for the ride up through the hills to Bloomfield Monastery Tablewhere their community center is located (formerly St. Bridget’s). Straight ahead as I entered the door, the Monastery table was the major focus. Behind the Monastery table was a huge quilt, each square made by a family telling something about that family.

Deacon Claude had already done a good deal of work to publicize St. Benedict. Here he is at one of the displays.
Deacon Claude Lester

I was introduced to the parishioners who headed up various ministries. One was involved in providing shelter for homeless families. Another was a food pantry, open three day a week, stocked with food donated by a number of local people and businesses. I liked the outreach aspect of this ministry. Another nine-year project continually raised funds to help missions in Kenya. I was impressed that these were hands-on ministries that focused on helping the truly needy. I had to interrupt my ministry pilgrimage when I woke up to the fact that I had my own project to publicize!

It didn’t take long to realize that just standing by our table, waiting for the world to come to me, wasn’t going to accomplish much, so I grabbed a handful of pamphlets and prayer cards. Going from table to table, distributing my goodies proved to be much more effective – and fun. I was able to answer questions including, “What’s an Oblate?”  Occasionally I’d meet someone who (a bit embarrassed to admit it) was not a Catholic. This provided an opportunity to share thoughts on ecumenism and our need to rely on one another.

The warmth and enthusiasm of these parishioners was very exciting to me. They certainly expressed the hospitality of our patron saint. What is more, as I was on my way out, Father Michael assured me that they’d be planning a group trip to visit Mt. Saviour. We know they’ll love it.Mt. Saviour

The Forgotten Person

Some theologians have referred to the Holy Spirit as the Forgotten Person of the Trinity.

Christians are hardly likely to forget the Holy Spirit, since they make the sign of the cross thousands of times a year. But the question is: what do we know about *him*?

The Holy Spirit is not so much forgotten as hidden. By *his* very name, the Holy Spirit is the most esoteric, the most abstract, and consequently the most difficult to understand of the Trinitarian persons. For us, the other Two Persons are more approachable: Jesus, first of all, because He became one of us, sharing totally in our humanity. The Father is described intimately as our Abba (Daddy), the One to whom Jesus constantly refers. But the Spirit? Words will consistently fail us when speaking of the Holy Spirit.

In the Gospel, the Holy Spirit slowly but powerfully emerges, but only in symbols or metaphors because He is not material and therefore not visible. The New Testament’s first referral to the Spirit is when Mary is found “with child through the holy spirit” (Matthew 1:18), or in Luke when Gabriel tells Mary how she can become a mother, the mother of the Messiah.

The Spirit as a dove hovers over Jesus at his baptism, a symbol of his calling to bring the good news of salvation to all.

When Nicodemus comes secretly at night to question the new Rabbi, Jesus attempts to describe how a person can be “born again” in the spiritual sense. He refers to the Spirit as “wind”, an unseen but powerful force, only perceivable by its effects.

The Samaritan woman at the well is bold enough to question Jesus as to where God must be worshiped. We too think certain conditions must be met before we worship: there’s a right place to worship, a right person to preach to us, a right congregation to worship with, a right style of liturgy to be observed. If we can find all of these in one place, that’s where we’ll worship. Jesus simply corrects both us and the Samaritan woman with a few words:

God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”
(John 4:24)

Unfortunately, that leaves us with no more excuses!

Perhaps the most troubling references to the Spirit are made after the Last Supper. Seeking to comfort his disciples, Jesus tells them:

“. . . grief has filled your hearts. But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6b-7)

How could Jesus’ absence be better? How could the invisible Spirit comfort the disciples who were losing the visible Christ?

Recall the first stirrings of creation:

The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters. (Genesis 1:2)

In the beginning of our spiritual life (and for much of it throughout), we too are formless and void. In order to become spiritual beings we need to be emptied of all that prevents God from shaping us into his image. The emptying process can be almost unbearable. We don’t even know how to pray! But St. Paul encourages us with words from his letter to the Romans:

The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes [for us] with inexpressible groanings.

We are constantly being emptied, separated from things or persons we love and consider absolutely necessary to our existence: parents, spouses, children, siblings, dearest friends, homes, our life work, and finally from our health and life itself. Such separations leave us destitute, desolate, abandoned. At moments like this we might question God’s love for us.

This reaction is so totally human, and therefore Christ totally understands. He knows that we are incomplete until, ironically, we are emptied – even of his own physical presence. Space must be created in us, making room for the Spirit of God who will accomplish the final act of our divinisation. The coming of the Holy Spirit in our lives is Christ’s crowning achievement for us, since it enables us to transform even an evil world into a place of love and truth.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. (John 14: 16-18)

I love the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in “God’s Grandeur.” He traces the beauty of the world as God created it, followed by its near destruction by man’s greed and materialism, but ending in sure hope through the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, the One who renews the face of the earth.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast
and with ah! bright wings.

Trinity 1

“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.