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.

The Road to Emmaus

Another Resurrection Story

Emmaus

Resurrection stories: one is more stunning than the other. Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. The seven apostles fishing on the Sea of Galilee while Jesus calls them from the shore and, good friend that he is, makes them breakfast.

But there’s something so down-to-earth, so typically human in the story of Emmaus: a tale of disappointment that is surprised into joy.

Two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem, away from hope and back to the ordinary lack-luster life they had before they had ever heard of the Nazorean Rabbi. A stranger, going the same way, strikes up a conversation with them. “What are you discussing as you walk along?”

Cleopas is amazed. “How can you have missed all the extraordinary things that have been happening in Jerusalem?”   Jesus draws them out:

“What kind of things?”

Cleopas relates the basics of Jesus’ arrest and execution. “We were hoping that he’d be the one to redeem Israel, to bring Israel back to glory days. We’ve heard a few stories about his having come back to life, but so far no first hand reports.”

This is our story. The name of Jesus is familiar to us. In general, we expect that – given who he said he was – he’d be able to solve all our problems, that we’d never have to worry about tyranny, cruelty, war, illness, death. He has not turned out to be the wonder-worker we expected. He was to be our own private – well, savior! End of dream.

And indeed, that kind of expectation is a dream. Jesus does not call us to comfort or self-satisfaction, but to outreach and service. Because he is who he is, service is more satisfying than everyday comforts.

But back to Emmaus. Jesus proceeds to recount a long list of references about the Messiah from the Old Testament prophets. Little by little, the disciples feel their heart swell with excitement, strength and beauty. Could it be true? The stranger’s familiarity with Scripture is unlike their scanty knowledge. The fact that Jesus had taught, had suffered and been executed for those teachings, all fit in with what had been predicted.

Jesus gives the impression he is parting company, but the disciples want to hear more of this message of hope. Jesus accepts their persuasive urgings to share a meal with them. In that act of intimacy their eyes are opened to the real but fleeting presence of the Christ. Instead of staying on the road, they return to Jerusalem to share this miraculous encounter with the other disciples. For them, it’s no longer possible to be content with their old shallow life. The fire that Christ has set in their hearts is impossible to quench, and they long to share the good news with others.

What does this happy story tell us?

First, that until we have come into close contact with Christ, we cannot know what he is really like or what his life was all about. The Emmaus disciples came into real contact with Jesus by listening to him with open minds. By pressing upon him their warm hospitality, they demonstrated their willingness to practice the wisdom and goodness of this teacher. They eagerly cast aside their superficial expectations of the Christ. As yet, they weren’t able to fully understand what his mission was about, but by joining their companions in the search, by learning more about Christ’s purpose and mission, they would be able to penetrate his Word and to find his message of the Kingdom.

Like us. When we start on our spiritual journey, we are beset with doubts, worries, disappointments. These begin to dissipate as we open ourselves to the presence of God in our lives: through study of Scripture, through prayer, through help and insights from experienced believers. Little by little, we begin to understand the meaning of Christ’s teachings: the Beatitudes, the simplicity of his command to love others as he loves us.

Finally, responding to the fire set within us, we can hardly keep from shouting our newfound faith to others. We are compelled to share with them the beauty of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.

When loss is gain . . .

This week we will be remembering the events surrounding the arrest and execution of Christ. We need to supplement this troubling narration with St. John’s chapters 14 through 17 where we hear Jesus repeating words of comfort and reassurance to his disciples.

They know that danger lies ahead for their Lord. When Jesus had set his sights for Jerusalem, Thomas urged his brothers: “Let us go to die with him.” And of course, though they went with him, they certainly did not stay with him after he was arrested.

Nonetheless, Jesus is the one to offer strength and encouragement to his disciples. He is fully aware of their sense of loneliness, of their fear of being stranded in a hostile world that they, unlike their Master, are as yet ill-equipped to handle.

They have had only three years to work on understanding the deep mysteries their teacher patiently tried to explain. What did he mean about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood”? What did he mean by saying that he existed before Abraham, and by describing himself in virtually blasphemous terms: I AM, and calling God his Father? No wonder he knew he would not be allowed to live much longer and teach such wild ideas.

Now, as they all wait in dread for the inevitable reality, they can’t keep their wits about them. The three leaders, Peter, James and John, can’t even stay awake at a time when their senses ought to be at their keenest. Peter: no rock there. Only bravado.

The words of Christ in those chapters of John are deeply personal as nowhere else in the Gospels. What is more, he emphasizes – of all things – the positive aspect of his final disgrace. Jesus speaks openly about his death and tries to console his friends by assuring them that he will, in a “little while,”  come for them and take them to the home he will prepare for them with the Father.

He tells them how necessary this separation is and that he will not leave them orphans. As the evening progresses, Jesus’ words become more explicit and enigmatic at the same time. “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.” Advocate? Another new idea for them with no time to explore its meaning.

Jesus tells us of the positive value of his sacrifice, since it will result in the intimate presence of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the disciples will experience a deep sense of loss only to be brought to unity and the fullness of the Resurrection.

The letter to the Philippians (2:7), read on Palm Sunday, gives us a clue to discovering the paradoxical value of Jesus’ spiritual poverty: He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. The loss of dignity along with loss of life left Jesus as the lowest of the low, the form of a slave. A slave owns nothing, not even his own life. If and when we might be called to undergo a radical emptying, it will be to make space for the Holy Spirit, for the Trinity, to live within us more fully. This Jesus models for us by submitting freely to his execution – an extreme to which very few (if any) of us will be subjected.

So we learn that separation or loss is the prelude to union. This union can occur – partially, at least – BEFORE we die. This holy and transformative togetherness can begin now, while we’re still on this planet, if only we commit to loving others as Christ loved us.

Yes, separation, loss or detachment is necessary. Some heroic saints, like Francis or Thérèse, take the initiative in this emptying. But it is not less valuable when we patiently accept loss. Certainly, we’re given plenty of opportunities to experience it: in the death or distance of loved ones or, unfortunately, separation through misunderstandings and grudges. It occurs with the loss of precious things: our health, needing to leave a beloved home, school or church. Even in these common experiences, the Holy Spirit stands ready to wean us ever more from the material we cling to, preparing us for a fuller spiritual life: our divinization, our transformation into other Christs, re-incarnations, so to speak, into what Christ was for others on this earth.

Don’t cling to me, ” Jesus will tell Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. We cannot develop the necessary strength for the ultimate Communion, without collaborating with the Holy Spirit as we work our way out of our human cocoon. We are assured of success through Jesus’ prayer:

I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so 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.
. . . that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me,

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. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:20-21;22b-24)

No, separation is not total, nor is death the end; not for Christ and not for us. Through the love and sacrifice of Christ, we are graced to begin our new union with God — here.

Dali Cross
Dali: The Christ of St. John of the Cross

Prayer Space

Several of my friends have, at one time or another, referred to having a dedicated area in their home for prayer. Some actually have a separate room as their private chapel.

I confess to being quite envious of this practice. My basement is finished and I suppose I could think of it as the catacombs and consecrate it as such. Apart from this, there’s really no satisfactory space I can set up for the sole purpose of prayerful recollection. At one time I was able to use a corner of my office as a little altar. One acquaintance (a religious sister, no less) gave me a look of horror when she heard this. “In your OFFICE?!” I inferred from her look of indignation that God let her know he was highly insulted.

In an earlier post or two I’ve expressed the discomfort I frequently feel regarding the quality of my prayer. Not having a dedicated place adds yet another element to my concern.

These thoughts were on my mind as I was on my way to the mall, pondering whether a furniture store might have something suitable to get me started – like a kneeler, for instance. Instead, my generous and faithful Muse started to speak to me.

She led me (Ignatian style) to the well where Jesus and that disreputable Samaritan woman were conversing. Disreputable she may have been, but she also had what I thought was a healthy concern about the right way to worship. Plus, she was smart enough to recognize that this unconventional man she was conversing with knew a thing or two about God-like matters. Bold as she was, she challenged Jesus:

“Our ancestors,” she said, “worshiped on this mountain; you people (Jews) say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.”

[Another example of our natural tendency to compete with just about anyone over just about anything! We are so right; you are so wrong!]

Since this discussion had a bearing on my current dilemma regarding prayer space, I listened closely.

“Believe me, woman,” said Jesus, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:21; 23-24)

Of all things! God, the eternal I AM, who is at all times and in all places, is indifferent as to where he is worshiped as long as we do so in Spirit (from the depth of our heart and soul) and in Truth (with sincerity and authenticity).

Time and time again, I’m amazed at how much less fussy God is about things we put great stock in. We’ve devised creative but rigid ways of praying by the numbers and, as described above, definite places for prayer to be done.

As for me, I have contented myself with the exceedingly unorthodox practice of praying while sitting in my living room, looking through the window at the trees, the sky and the birds. God listens to me here as readily as he might were I in a particular church or room in my house. Maybe that’s because he has made me — and you — his temples, and has made his home with us there. Let us adorn it.

Kitty at window
Photo courtesy of Joyce Medovich

 

The Muse shows up

It happened again.

Write, write, write. Edit, edit, edit. Think, think, think.

Whenever a post goes like this, I know it won’t make it past my office. So, ready to head out to Mass this morning, out of the blue I get a headache. Maybe I shouldn’t go. Maybe I should. Can’t win that argument. Instead, I pop a Tylenol, grab the gloves and keys, and drive the 1 ¾ miles to church. I’m hoping that the Spirit will show up as Muse.

I’m rewarded with some of my favorite Scriptures assigned for this Sunday. (I find myself saying that rather frequently.) The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. (Isaiah 8 )

A land of gloom. Well, there has been a paucity of sunshine this past week. (Literally and figuratively.)

Then my favorite (again) Psalm 27: One thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life . . . Wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord.

Next, one of those “God moments” where St. Paul says just the right thing for us today: It has been reported to me that there are rivalries among you. (1 Corinthians)

Gloom and rivalries, as the church of Corinth is splitting off in an un-Christian display of childish divisiveness: “My leader’s better than your leader!”

Well might Jesus have prayed the night before his execution: 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. (John 17:21) For the hallmark of Christianity is Unity.

Coincidentally, our national motto is virtually the same: One out of many (E pluribus unum).

Not conformity, but unity. Not necessarily agreement, but love, patience, and hope, reflecting the command of Christ not to return evil with evil; not to return violence with violence.

calling-the-fishermenThen the Gospel where Jesus invites his first followers to join him in his sacred mission. (Matthew 4) After the arrest of John the Baptist, Christ is spurred into the urgent need to teach the lessons of the Kingdom. He calls the first members of his cadre, two sets of brothers who, also immediately, respond to the call. (Choose me! I say to myself. I want to be on this team!)

The only way out of gloom is through the brilliantly lit passage of Hope and Love, which is Christ. I think of a song we frequently sing in church: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

When I can do what I say, I’ll know I’m a disciple.