St. Paul: Conversion and Transformation

This past week we celebrated the feast of St. Paul’s conversion. This was truly an astonishing event which ultimately led to the conversion of uncountable numbers of people over the last 2000 years. We honor and thank St. Paul for his responding to God’s great gift to him that opened the path of holiness to nations outside of Israel.

Maybe you and I wonder why God would choose this man for such an extraordinary mission. For this same man, first known as Saul, not only witnessed but approved of the execution of St. Stephen, ardent follower and defendant of the “Nazarene”, and celebrated as the first Christian martyr: Now Saul was consenting to [Stephen’s] execution. (Acts 8:1)

Furthermore, Saul was a ruthless man who breathed murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1). He was on his way to Damascus to ferret out men and women of “The Way” and bring them back in chains to be immediately dispatched. What could possibly change the heart of this merciless man? Such a radical turnaround leaves us gaping with astonishment.

Now, I’m not surprised that God can do all things, even to the point of converting this bloodthirsty man, but why would he choose an outspoken enemy of Christ for a mission totally different from his cruel ways? Why didn’t he choose someone like gentle Stephen who was so good, and who taught Christ with such staunch devotion?

In short, why doesn’t God do things the way I would do them???

Here’s my theory. God, who knows us through and through, knew very well the temperament he gave Paul. Ruthless? Yes. But once touched by the divine hand, once he literally saw the light, that ruthlessness was transformed into a relentless zeal. To be apostle to the gentiles, to face and persuade total strangers, required this kind of radical and unstoppable ardor. In one direction, it was used for intolerance and cruelty. In the other, it was used for conversion to a Way of love.

This is at the crux of how God creates. He gives us by birth and culture exactly what he wants us to have. He then subtly but persistently draws us to opportunities where, in our free will, we can use those gifts either to come closer to him, or to ignore his invitations and use our talents for worthless – even evil – purposes. We are given many enticements to good in the course of our life but only hear them if we’re open and willing to listen.

I often hear people bemoan some aspects of their temperament. I’m too this; I’m not enough that. As if God is a shoddy workman! It’s not a case of our too-muchness or not-enoughness, but rather that we haven’t yet learned to use our unique gifts for the love of God and service to his people, our neighbor.

conversion-of-pauThat brilliantly blinding flash of light Paul experienced was Christ’s irresistible invitation. Christ spoke to Paul not cursing or condemning him, but asking him what he was about, and why. Ironically, Paul’s spiritual blindness had preceded his physical blindness. All it took was one personal experience with Christ to wake him up to a different, loving, and dedicated way of life.

Paul’s letters overflow with his passionate love for Christ: how Christ is truly within us, how he rescues us from a life of selfishness. Paul became all things to all men, recognizing that  gentiles needed and would welcome the Christian Way, even though they had lived so differently from the chosen people. His new powers of vision saw how the love of Christ extends over all kinds of people, and how ripe was the harvest. Without Paul’s “ruthless” persistence enduring shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings, and disgrace, we would not be writing or reading of his miraculous conversion today.

Because of St. Paul’s conversion we know that even our most seemingly unlovable traits can be transformed into a loving service to Christ. All we need to do is listen.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas is a time that invites nostalgia.
These thoughts come from a Christmas past, shortly after my return to the Faith.

nativityOne of the blessings of having reached a certain age is the ability to look back at the many twists and turns of one’s life. At this holy season of Christmas and especially on this holy day celebrating Christ’s birth, a number of memories fill my mind.

I see myself in a classroom, dressed as an angel – complete with halo – waiting to be called to sing onstage for the grand finale of the Christmas pageant. I fast forward many years to a time where I am directing my four children in decorating Christmas stockings that I’ve sewn. They each choose a liturgical scene appropriate to the season. Or I’m in the kitchen with trays of cut-out cookies that my children “paint” with colored egg yolk. Or I’m in the living room, fragrant with fresh pine, filled with the happy mess of toys.

But none of these Christmases has had the joy of the feast this year.

Many Christmases were spent in distress, in spiritual and personal trials, while love – true  love that is of God – eluded me. Nothing is so empty as the heart that has lost God.

But God does not want to remain lost. In spite of ourselves, he gently pursues us, woos us, seduces us, and sweetly captures us at last.

This year, I have been tutored in the spiritual joys of the holiday. This year, I have been given a deeper grasp of the marvel of Christmas: the gift of Christ Himself.

Christ who came to teach us what true happiness consists of.
Christ in whom all good things exist in a visible, tangible way.
Christ in whom all things were made, and to whom all things ultimately tend.

Christ. The one Word that speaks all to us.
The one Word that contains all that is good:
love, holiness, mercy, compassion, generosity,
forgiveness, kindness, enlightenment, joy, wisdom,
love again,
and yet more love.

And the greatest marvel of all is that he did not come just once at a moment in history that is forever gone. He comes in an unending presence to fill and transform our spirits and, through us, to fill and transform the world. He will never again be absent from our life. While we await a second coming, he is nevertheless here.

christmas-message

Gallery of Photos taken in the Holy Land.

Terrain outside of Bethlehem
Terrain outside of Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity
Church of the Nativity
Christ Child image below altar, Church of the Nativity
Christ Child image below altar, Church of the Nativity
14-point star, signifying generations of families of the House of David
Revered as the site of Jesus’ birth. 14-point star, signifying generations of families from the House of David
Crypt, Church of the Nativity, where St. Jerome lived while translating the Bible
Crypt in the Church of the Nativity, where St. Jerome lived while translating the Bible
“In this place was once St. Jerome, priest and doctor of the Church”

An Unlikely Saint

Though it wasn’t planned that way, I find it particularly apt that the Gospel story of Zacchaeus should have been scheduled close to the celebration of All Saints.

Luke tells us that Jesus was on the road. Jericho was not a stopping point; he had only intended to pass through. Nonetheless, he had attracted a large crowd of residents – among them one of the most hated: the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus. An unexplained curiosity possessed Zacchaeus to try to see this Man of miracles.

Being “short in stature” like Zacchaeus, I know how it is to try to see anything of a parade. Impossible! No one would want to clear a path for this despised man. They would sooner trample over him than make a space for him to see the miracle-worker.

So Zacchaeus improvised.

A grove of sycamore trees was slightly off the path. Since sycamores in that part of the world are rather small, Zacchaeus was able to climb up quite easily to a branch which would give him a good view of the whole event.zacchaeus

The crowd approaches. How does Jesus happen to spot Zacchaeus? My version is that someone in the crowd eyed him perched on a branch and, thinking he looked quite ridiculous, mockingly pointed him out to others in the throng. What thoughts might have entered Zacchaeus’ mind? A rush of shame, possibly, that here he was – wealthy beyond anyone else in this motley crew, but despised and rejected, made out to be a total fool in the presence of this renowned Person.

Instead of joining in the mob’s disdain, Jesus looks up. (Jesus always looks up and beyond our earthbound view.) Jesus calls to Zacchaeus and boldly invites himself to spend the night at this sinner’s home.

Everyone else, the “good” people who do everything right, they’re all irate that this liar, cheat and extortionist, should be the one to be honored. Was this Galilean really a prophet? Then he wouldn’t have wanted to enter the home of a sinner — or would he?

Zacchaeus joyfully scrambles down, instantly converted to full atonement and gratitude. Zacchaeus, like you and me, has been invited to holiness. It’s totally unexpected, totally undeserved. Unlike the righteous many, Jesus does not refer to Zacchaeus as a sinner but as someone lost. Mercy flows so easily, so happily, from Jesus, and into the unlikeliest of persons!

And so does Christ view us. He calls us to his level. He boldly invites himself to enter our home, to be one with us. Once we have enjoyed his companionship, other associations or attachments that lead us away from him are cheerfully abandoned. How can they compare?

This Gospel is the story of all the other saints besides Zacchaeus who are celebrated this week. They all started out as sinners.

Where do I see myself in this picture?

 

Thérèse and Her Little Way

“Holiness does not consist in this or that practice;
it consists in a disposition of the heart, which makes us always little in the arms of God, but boldly confident in the Father’s goodness.”           Thérèse , 1897

Born into a family utterly devoted to God and Christian holiness, Thérèse Martin was early shown her destiny. Walking one evening with her father, she looked up at the sky where she saw stars in a T-formation. “Look, Papa! My name is written in heaven!”

Her short life of 24 years was one continuously in communion with God. She realized that she could never aspire to a “great” vocation, such as being a priest or a missionary, so she contented herself with what was available to her. She was gifted with a total commitment to divine love that led her to seek constantly little ways of showing God how much she loved Him, and by total abandonment to God’s loving will. She chose to live this life of commitment in the Carmelite monastery in the town of Lisieux, France.

Here she taught herself to accept with joy the many little opportunities to show her love. Here are a few that have always struck me for their unimportance.

During quiet prayer in community, one of the nuns would rattle her rosary beads. At first, Thérèse found this annoying and distracting, but she applied herself to not only accepting this nuisance but even anticipating it with joy. And again, while doing laundry it was not unusual to feel a splash of soapy water on her face. She would refrain from wiping it off!

10-laundry-1894
The Saint, second from left, 1894

These were the kinds of sacrifices that had the added benefit of being totally unnoticed. There was no way that anyone would realize she was doing anything that could be called good, much less holy.. So hidden were her practices of self-denial that one of the sisters remarked, as Thérèse lay dying, “What ever will we say about Sister Thérèse in her obituary? She hasn’t done anything!”

In this way, Thérèse  was able to maintain a humility that was her  “little” way of spiritual childhood as Christ taught: Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Pope Saint John Paul validated  Thérèse’s little way to holiness by naming her a Doctor of the Church in 1997. Thérèse’s  Memorial Mass is celebrated October 1.

I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses.

rose-1

Audio: Chansons des Roses. Words by Rainer Maria Rilke;
Music by Morten Lauridsen

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The Assumption of Mary

An Ancient Tradition

Crypt in Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem
Crypt in Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem

The Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Churches) celebrate the “Dormitio” or Dormition. When time had come for the Theotokos to pass from this life to the next, the Apostles including St. Paul traveled, gathered, and briefly spent time with her. Thomas arrived three days after Mary had fallen asleep (a term we use when someone passes into death) and wanted to see her. When they went to the tomb where she was placed, they found that it was was empty. An angel of the Lord appeared to them saying that the Theotokos was assumed into Heaven.*

“It was fitting that the most holy body of Mary, God-bearing body, receptacle of God, divinized, incorruptible, illuminated by divine grace and full of glory, should be entrusted to the earth for a little while and raised up to heaven in glory, with her soul pleasing to God.” (Bishop Theoteknos of Livias Sermon, 600) 

Continue reading “The Assumption of Mary”