Everything Is Grace

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus presents to us a startlingly bold exhortation:

Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it,
but whoever loses it will save it.
—Luke 17:33

This does not mean, of course, that we should be careless about our own lives. On the contrary; if our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, then we should treat all life—our own included—as sacred and worthy of protection. But in doing so we must remember that our lives have been entrusted to us by God; they are not our own. If we try to preserve them for our own sake, instead of for God’s, then our lives will become detached from the purpose imbued by their Creator and thus lose their meaning.

Jesus speaks here with a sense of urgency, warning us not to be caught unprepared at the judgment. The reading shakes us out of our complacency and gives us the sense that everything can change in an instant. If this is really true, then every moment carries great weight and meaning. Every second of our lives is an opportunity to be a conduit of the inexhaustible Source of all truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.

Jesus’s words are an invitation for us to stop wading in the shallows of our life and go out into the deep. He challenges us to let go of the worldly attachments that keep us tethered to the shore and to go forth in courage. All the beautiful things in this world only have meaning insofar as they reflect the beauty of the Creator. If we love God first and foremost, then we will see His beauty in everything around us. But if we cling to the things of this world for their own sake, forgetting that they are gifts from God, then we will ultimately be left unfulfilled.

May we deepen our awareness that everything is grace, that our very lives are given to us as invaluable, unmerited gifts.

There is the great spiritual principle that undergirds the entire Gospel: detachment. The heart of the spiritual life is to love God and then to love everything else for the sake of God. But we sinners, as St. Augustine said, fall into the trap of loving the creature and forgetting the Creator. That’s when we get off the rails.

We treat something less than God as God—and trouble ensues. And this is why Jesus tells his fair-weather fans that they have a very stark choice to make. Jesus must be loved first and last—and everything else in their lives has to find its meaning in relation to him.

—Bishop Robert Barron

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Being Led > Being Content

R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

PS 23:1B-3A, 3BC-4, 5, 6

 

Today’s readings contain what is quite possibly the most well-known Psalm in all of Scripture. Psalm 23 has been used in all sorts of media: presidential speeches, blockbuster movies, hip hop and metal songs alike. Psalm 23 provides an easily recognizable religious reference, a comforting message, a clear, straightforward refrain. The desire for contentment, provision, and protection are ubiquitous, and align pretty well with our basic human needs¹.

In praying with the Psalm today, however, I felt that the Lord was calling us beyond the easy reading. We are not guaranteed access to the LORD’s protection and provision. Our calling does NOT boil down to the platitude, “We just need to see where God already is in our lives and be content with our current life circumstances.” I learned not be jealous and/or greedy in kindergarten; I believe the Holy Spirit has more for us here.

Today I took some of my GRE study-inspired reading comprehension skills and broke down the refrain: “The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”

 

Results: I shall want nothing. I will rest beside still waters and verdant pastures, His rod and staff give us courage.

Prerequisites (aka what WE need to do): The LORD must be our shepherd. We must be guided. We must be anointed.

 

Take a look at that second part! So often we focus on the results, without asking what we need to do! Part of the reason I believe this passage has gained so much traction in popular culture is the hope for deliverance. It’s not wrong to ask to be spared or delivered, but will it have any effect if we don’t meet the conditions or put ourselves in the position to receive it? Miracles are wonderful gifts from God, but our only truly useful if our hearts are primed for relationship with Jesus (see: Nazareth, Mark 6).

So how do we prime our hearts for the LORD? How do we make ourselves ready? How do we get the God of the Universe to be our shepherd, give us all that we need, and protect us?

By being sheep, of course. Shepherds can only be shepherds to sheep. In reading through Psalm 23 today, Jesus spoke clearly and powerfully to my heart: “These words are not about being content or finding good in your life as it is, these words are about being led.”

Are we willing to follow the LORD? Do we ask where we should go? Do we trust that his paths lead to verdant pastures, or do we stick to our own, temporarily comforting paths and habits? Where in your life can you ask Jesus to lead you? Where are you currently trying so hard to find your way, and have yet to really pose the question to Him?

Jesus’ promise is real, it is beautiful, and it is comforting. He DOES lead me to verdant pastures. He DOES give me rest. He DOES protect me from my enemies and from fear. We WILL dwell with the LORD.

All he asks? “Come, follow me.”

 

  1. Yes, yes, Maslow’s hierarchy is outdated and problematic in many of it’s forms. Just making a point here.

Another Saint I Learned to Like

“I am glad to hear that the Church considers her a saint, because I thought she was a witch!”  These words, allegedly spoken by a priest of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, reinforced in my mind the already intimidating image of this saint, whose feast we celebrate today.

That she was fearless and feisty was to her credit, I supposed.  But I found myself cowed by her seemingly impossible standards of self-sacrifice.  It has been recounted how, when just a young girl, she wanted very much to be a missionary.  Then, one day, when about to eat a piece of candy, she was told that missionaries could not eat such sweets.  So she didn’t.  Not that day, NOT EVER AGAIN.  She didn’t complain—even when suffering from ill treatment, or ill health—and forbade her fellow nuns to complain about ANYTHING.  Not even the weather.  She was relentless in her pursuits, in both her numerous missionary projects (schools, hospitals etc. throughout the world) and in her pursuit of holiness.

Even the Girl I Ought To Be does not aspire to such herculean efforts, and Real Me, rather than taking inspiration from her, merely added her to the list of Saints I Don’t Like.  What common ground could I have with such a saint?

So it was something of a surprise when I found myself at her shrine, one morning in May, while preparing for a talk.  The shrine offered the best chance for Mass, so there I was, praying not a few feet from the altar under which her body is encased.

That night I was to give a talk on Mary’s Fiat, and while I had been preparing for some time, I felt a subtle urge to change what I was going to say.  To talk about fear.  Fear?  I questioned the voice inside.  How does fear relate to anything?

Was Mother Cabrini smiling, just a little, when the priest began his homily, and began to speak of fear?  How in fact the saint I saw as fearless had some very big fears indeed.  One of these was of water.  When she was a child of seven, little Francesca Cabrini would make paper boats, fill them with violets (pretending they were her missionaries) and float them down the river.  She was shy and quiet then, and this solitary activity brought her much peace and joy.  Until one day she fell in.

Nobody knows how she got out.  She was discovered on the water bank, soaked and shaken, with no memory of who had rescued her.  Credit was given to her Guardian Angel, and yet for the rest of her life Francesca had a deep fear of drowning.

God did not take away her fear.  Rather, He allowed her to offer it back to Him, repeatedly.  No less than twenty-seven times, St. Frances Cabrini crossed the oceans between continents.  This was more than a century ago, and so passage was by boat, and slow, a matter of days.  Yet she did it, again and again, in spite of her fears.

Her first time crossing the Atlantic brought her to New York City. Like her patron, St. Francis Xavier, she had wanted to go to China.  But the pope told her, “Not to the east, but to the west.”  And so New York it was, where she arrived with a few nuns to begin her first mission in a convent that had been prepared for them.  Only, there was no convent—there had been some miscommunication—there was in fact no lodging prepared at all.

Mother Cabrini and her nuns spent the first night in a boarding house infested with bed bugs and mice.  Mice, I was to learn, were another fear of hers (I see her smiling at me again).  She spent the whole night sitting up, using the occasion to intercede.   So began her work among the immigrants of NYC.

How did she do it?  Like the apostles in the boat, terrified of the storm about them, she was comforted by the voice of Jesus, saying “It is I.”  She knew that voice personally.  She had a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart (one of her nuns spoke to me of her mystical “exchange of hearts” with Jesus).  She knew that He would carry her, that He would provide for her poverty and weakness.  He continued to reward her trust in Him.

In April of 1912 she was scheduled to sail yet again from England to New York.  But urgent business directed her elsewhere that day, and she canceled passage for herself and another sister.  She can only have wondered, later, when she saw the news that the boat she was booked on, the Titanic, had sunk off the coast of Newfoundland.

Why was her life spared?  We can talk casually about the mysterious plans of God.  Other saints were on board that day when the ship went down.  But God had chosen her for further things.

Ultimately, for St. Frances Cabrini, for Our Lady at the Annunciation, for each of us—our Yes is not to an abstract plan, but to a Person.  To Someone, not merely something.

When we offer even our fears to God, He responds by giving us more gifts than we could imagine.  St. Frances Xavier Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and more than 67 institutions throughout the world.  She was the first American citizen to be canonized.

May she carry our prayers to the heart of Jesus.

 

Jesus Walks on the Sea

 

Photo Attribution:

Jesus Walks on the Sea by Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Freedom in Forgiveness

“Jesus said to his disciples,
“Things that cause sin will inevitably occur,
but woe to the one through whom they occur.
It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck
and he be thrown into the sea
than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.
Be on your guard!
If your brother sins, rebuke him;
and if he repents, forgive him.
And if he wrongs you seven times in one day
and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’
you should forgive him.”
And the Apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:1-6)

“Have you forgiven him yet?” my friend asked as we sat in the driveway of my parents’ house, heat running in the car on a cold December night.

Her words pierced my heart. “Oh…” I said, “I thought I did. But I don’t think I actually meant it with my whole heart.”

Forgiveness—it’s sometimes so hard for us, yet always so easy for Jesus. See, I used to think that forgiveness meant I was saying it was okay that someone hurt me. It wasn’t until I was deeply wounded by another several years ago that I figured out what forgiveness was all about. I remember hearing someone say the words forgiveness and freedom in the same sentence. My gut reaction was, “I want that…is that really possible?”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to forgive, even if the same person hurts us seven times in one day. Forgiveness isn’t saying that someone else’s sin against you is okay—forgiveness says, “What you did hurt me, but I put you in God’s hands. I do not desire your destruction.” Forgiveness is surrender, casting our cares on the One who cares so deeply for us.

Forgiveness in graver matters takes time and is a journey, and that is okay. With the situation I mentioned above, I would kneel and say the words “I forgive_____” and pray a Hail Mary for the person every Sunday before Mass until I started to believe it in my heart.

Forgiveness softens our hearts; holding onto unforgiveness leaves us bitter, angry, and unhealed with walls around our hearts screaming, “DON’T come in!” Forgiveness frees; unforgiveness enslaves. We become chained to our hurt. If we don’t forgive, we may as well put a millstone around our own necks. Is there someone in your life you need to work on forgiving?

I find it fascinating that the Apostles’ response to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness was, “Increase our faith.” Their hearts were pierced like when my friend invited me to truly forgive. I imagine them seeing the faces of the people they knew they needed to forgive flash before their eyes as Jesus was talking.

And how often do we struggle to forgive ourselves? I know I do sometimes. I’ve walked out of the confessional before only to beat myself up about my sin a few hours later. The liar of shame creeps in and tells us our sin defines us and that we’re not good.

When St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (the saint to whom Jesus encouraged devotion to His Sacred Heart) began having visions of Jesus, her spiritual director, St. Claude, was very skeptical at first. He told her to ask Jesus what the last mortal sin was that he confessed. Jesus answered, “I don’t remember.” How powerful is the ocean of mercy of our Lord!

Father, increase my faith so that I may more easily forgive others. Strengthen me to be courageous and put the people that have wronged me and wounded me into Your wounded hands. So often others’ own woundedness leads them to hurt me; help me to have an understanding heart towards that. Increase my faith so that I may better forgive myself. Help me to know that I am not defined by my sin but as Your precious child. Help me to forgive like You do, Lord Jesus, and set me free. Remove any shame, fear, hard-heartedness, or bitterness from my heart. May I have great faith in Your mercy, Your love song for Your people.

Sacred Spaces

Jesus answered and said to them,
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews said,
“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,
and you will raise it up in three days?”
But he was speaking about the temple of his Body.
—John 2:19–21

Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God’s temple,
God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.
—1 Corinthians 3:16–17

As human beings, we are designed to live in communion with one another. The Church is meant to be a shared space in which we find shelter for our souls, serving one another and seeing each other with the eyes of Christ. A physical church building serves as this sacred space in its connection with the ultimate Temple, Jesus Christ Himself; and we, too, become temples of the Holy Spirit when we open our hearts to receive Him. No sacrificial offering at any temple could be greater than what Christ offered for us: His very self, His own Body. And so we unite ourselves with this perfect offering, and thus also with one another—all part of the sacred Body of Jesus Christ, one living, breathing organism.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus rebukes the money-changers in the temple for entering into this shared, sacred space not with the intention of communing with God but for selfish, materialistic purposes. They were not seeing their fellow men as God does but rather as potential profits, and they showed no compunction about carrying out this individualistic mentality in a communal place of prayer. Just as Jesus did, we also may experience feelings of anger toward those who profane what is sacred within the Church—particularly after the abhorrent clerical scandals that have been uncovered during this past year. It is profoundly upsetting to everyone else within the Body of Christ to see corruption and rot existing in what is supposed to be a sacred shelter for us.

We are called to drive out the money-changers in the temple on every level—to root out corruption in the larger Church, to foster interconnectedness and reverent prayer within our parishes, and to cleanse our own hearts from the stains of self-centeredness and greed. Imagine the commotion that the money-changers caused in the temple, distracting everyone from the presence of God. What things are creating noise and distractions within our own souls? What pursuits keep us from seeing ourselves as sacred vessels, carrying Jesus into the world? Let us begin there.

God builds his house; that is, it does not take shape where people only want to plan, achieve, and produce by themselves. It does not appear where only success counts and where all the “strategies” are measured by success. It does not materialize where people are not prepared to make space and time in their lives for him; it does not get constructed where people only build by themselves and for themselves. But where people let themselves be claimed for God, there they have time for him and there space is available for him. There they can dare to represent in the present what is to come: the dwelling of God with us and our gathering together through him, which make us sisters and brothers of one house….

The beauty of the cathedral does not stand in opposition to the theology of the cross, but is its fruit: it was born from the willingness not to build one’s city by oneself and for oneself.

—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

Leaves the Ninety-nine

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

In today’s Gospel reading, I hear Jesus responding to the Pharisees’ implicit belief that tax collectors and sinners are to be shunned, avoided, looked down upon. (“He welcomes them? Why?”) Interestingly, Jesus does not address a broader assumption of the Pharisees – that they are not sinners but those people obviously are – but rather, highlights His Identity as Redeemer, finder of the lost. Jesus is also responding to the Pharisees’ implicit beliefs in Him as someone who is on the earth to make an impression, be a big name, gain power, shake things up. (“Why would someone like him be with people like them?) 

No, Jesus tells them in two parables that He has come not to wine and dine with the elite, but to seek and find the lost. He is on a rescue mission, not a publicity tour promoting his new ideas about the world. The lost sheep are the ones He is looking for, because His joy is bringing them back into the fold. 

Perhaps you too thought of the very popular worship song “Reckless Love” by Cory Asbury when you read this passage. (“Leeeeaves the niiiiinety niiiine…”) I think this song has gotten so popular because it speaks the Gospel message to the heart of this generation of young people who longs to be seen and chosen out of the crowd as an individual worth losing everything for.

It’s easy to feel like your love as a millennial is being pulled in a thousand different directions. We are so used to calculating risk and reward with relationships – and also used to internet algorithms literally calculating which ads will draw our love and affection towards which products – that we are so compelled when we encounter a reckless, uncalculating love.  

Why did the sheep wander? Why do we wander from the fold?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s easy to fall into the lie that our absence wouldn’t be noticed or appreciated. We forget how we are loved. We forget that we are irreplaceable. That image of the shepherd leaving all of his other sheep to find the one lost sheep speaks truth into that lie in  my heart of being forgettable. And even if I am forgettable to other people, Jesus will never leave or forsake me. 

In this passage, Jesus is helping the Pharisees see both the lost sheep as worth the sacrifice and Himself as the determined shepherd, looking to keep his flock together as one. And, even more so, He is highlighting that He seeks those who are lost because they are lost; He rejoices when they are found, and desires others to share in this joy. 

Jesus, may we yield to your pursuing of our hearts. 

Reclaim the lost of this world, especially those who are farthest from your heart. 

Show us the parts of our heart that are still far from You.

Thank you for never giving up your pursuit of our hearts. 

Pax, 

Alyssa

Counting the Cost, Reaping what He Sows

A brief one for you today:

 

Today’s readings provide some pretty sobering material for reflection. Phrases like “counting the cost” and “poured out like a libation” rarely make for light reading, no matter the context.

Yet it’s important to read past the easy interpretation of St. Paul and Jesus’ words as grim resolve or cynical fatalism. Look for the positive language; phrases like “children of God without blemish,” “rejoice and share my joy,” and “successfully oppose”.

During a recent small group session, one of the other men their talked about the challenges of having children who could, at some point in their life, stray from the faith. Our conversations moved from their to sharing our faith in general. How can we, imperfect men (and women of course, but you all weren’t at the small group!), make a compelling case for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

One of the key themes we settled upon is sharing our excitement. What about our pursuit of the Kingdom of God excites us? How does the Lord bring us joy? What value do we see that makes “counting the cost” and “pour[ing ourselves] out” worthwhile?

Take some time over the rest of the week to reflect on the gifts from God that bring you joy. Try to share those things that make you happy. They may be simple hobbies or pleasures in your day-to-day life, or you might think of how Jesus has delivered you from significant sin or suffering. Take time to think of how the Lord makes your life better, and can do so every day

Then don’t hesitate to share it.