Waging War

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war.
You do not possess because you do not ask.
You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly,
to spend it on your passions.
James 4:1-3
This verse reminds me of a scene from Jane Eyre in which Rochester compares Jane to a bird in a cage that he can’t reach. Because he is already married, and therefore cannot enter into a valid, virtuous marriage with her, she refuses to stay with him and withdraws all external displays of her affections. So though Rochester is still burning with some mixture of love/lust for Jane, he cannot reach what he really values–her virtuous heart, which is no longer his.

I look back at that novel and think about how the critical hinge of the plot would be so foreign to many people today. And that brings us back to James, who prophetically proclaims that the reason we are in conflict with one another is that we are in conflict with ourselves, reaching for things that will not satisfy us even though, on some deep level, we know they won’t. Only the virtuous and pure will ultimately fulfill us. Are the things we ask for in prayer things that are for our good, or do we ask for more things to “spend on our passions”? Do we ask for things that will increase our glory or God’s? And do we know the difference?

This is why we need frequent confession and penance to train our bodies and passions, which are always ready to jump to war. “If you get rid of the fuel,” one priest once told me, “you can’t start a fire.” Similarly if we humble our pride through penance (some voluntary, but, I’m sure, some involuntary–but which can be offered up!), the evil one is left with less to work with.

Over the next week if you attend daily Mass you will hear more of the wisdom of James–I invite you to listen (or read the short book on your own), because it’s packed with so much advice for daily living!

Do You Want to Be Well?

When Jesus saw him lying there
and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him,
“Do you want to be well?”
John 5:5-6

Of course. Of course I want to be well–don’t I? Don’t we all? Don’t we want to be on the up and up, on a path of healing with the Lord, leaving our old lives behind and fully embracing the will of God?

Well, on our good days we do. But when we feel discouraged, angry, disillusioned, our old way of life can become attractive to us. Or we cling to our favorite sins, and think, like St. Augustine, “Lord, make me chaste [or sober, or peaceful, or obedient], but not yet!” Or we may think, “This Christian life is such hard work. Why am I doing this?”

I believe this is why Jesus points out that healing must be part of our will, just like any aspect of the spiritual life. Yes, God can do whatever He wants, but most of the time we must ask Him for help, ask Him to heal us. And this is where the simple question, do you want to be well, can become overwhelming.

What are some typical excuses I find myself making about this question?

1) I want to be well, but God doesn’t care enough about me to fix it–False.
2) I want to be well, but I am not worth the time or energy of anyone, not even God–False.
3) I want to be well, but I’m beyond God’s mercy now–False.
4) I want to be well, but the effort it will cost me will not be worth it–False.

I invite you to think about your own reasons–the things we keep for ourselves that prevent us from fully being well. Then ask God to help you get over them. We might not feel ready yet, but we can’t wait until we feel ready. If Lent is when we take a deeper look at who we are, then we need to ask God to give us the vision to see, as Erin called them yesterday, our “blind spots.”

Bowing Not Knowing to What

“Thus says the Lord GOD:
Lo, I am sending my messenger
to prepare the way before me;
And suddenly there will come to the temple
the LORD whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like the refiner’s fire,
or like the fuller’s lye.
He will sit refining and purifying silver,
and he will purify the sons of Levi,
Refining them like gold or like silver
that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD.
Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem
will please the LORD,
as in the days of old, as in years gone by.”
Malachi 3:1-4

“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.”
Corinthians 13:12

“Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what”
-W.S. Merwin, “For the Anniversary of my Death”

Today, forty days after Christmas, we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation, when He whom the prophets awaited was brought into the Temple, as Malachi predicts in today’s first reading. A veil has been lifted–partially, at least–for Christ will continue to lift the veil as he lives out His life, until the last veil, that of the Temple, is finally torn asunder at His Crucifixion. Or perhaps I should say that the last veil he will lift is that of death, defeating it on the Cross. And yet, we still do not know the hour or the day–of our own deaths or of the Lord’s ultimate coming. We wait for the Final Judgement with longing without even fully comprehending it, for as Malachi says, it will be like a “refiner’s fire,” or as Joel calls it, “a great and terrible day.” Why do we long for this day? Because we know that when all things are revealed at the end of time, it will ultimately be for God’s greater glory, and we will all be amazed at his justice and mercy. Because we long for the day when He will wipe away the tears from every eye, and make all things new, as He promised (Revelation 21:1-5). Because everything of this world is, as Paul says, “indistinct,” and we long for the clarity of eternity, of perfect love, and of praise.

That is the relief that allows Simeon to rest even to the point of dying–his death is not a comical moment or a sad one but truly the most longed-for moment of his life. Not because he was sadistic or pessimistic but because more than anything He desired closeness with His Savior, without even knowing yet who He would be, how He would arrive. We pray for a happy death, a death like Simeon’s, a death in which the Lord is close to us in Last Rites and close to us in friendship. Lord Jesus, help us long to be with you forever. Let nothing in our earthly lives distract us from our final goal, and let us prize nothing above Your love.

Our Power of Estimation

“Dear Jesus, bless our power of estimation. Grant that we may quickly sense dangers to chastity, instinctively flee from them, and that we may never turn away from higher and more difficult goods for the sake of sinful self-indulgence. ‘For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ (Mk. 8:36)”

The prayer above is the long form of one of the petitions member of the Angelic Warfare Community pray daily. As you may know, a group from Frassati enrolled in the Confraternity a few weeks ago, and it has been a powerful source of grace already. I can understand why Bl. Pier Giorgio was a member.

The prayer for our “power of estimation” has been a particularly important one for me. “Estimation” means your ability to size up a situation quickly–i.e., whether a particular situation may lead you in to sin or not and how prudent it is to remain in the situation. To sum it up in the words of a priest I know: “If all you can handle is a kiss on the cheek good night, then just stop there.”

But the power of estimation, I’ve come to realize, isn’t just about chastity but about all of God’s commands, positive or negative. Estimation is knowing when you’re about to make a nasty comment that will lead you and your friend into gossip. Estimation is about knowing that if you put your prayers off until “later,” later will never come. Estimation, in the end, is about knowing yourself in the light of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom, being able to be honest with yourself about your limitations, and saying to yourself, “It’s ok if I’m weak, because God’s strong. It’s ok to acknowledge that this is my limitation. I don’t have to be ashamed for leaving the party/stopping the conversation/putting down this drink because in the end, doing so is going to keep me closer to God.”

The thing is, knowing ourselves takes time, prayer, attentiveness, extended times of silence. It doesn’t come to us like magic, and, if you’re anything like me, it’s going to reveal as many wounds as it does insights. But it shouldn’t leave us discouraged, because God rewards even the smallest acts of faith. Sometimes we pray for God to help us see our faults half-heartedly and then boy do we suddenly see them! Instead of being frustrated or afraid, remember that God gave us time so that we could figure things out day by day and not all at once. Trust that the Lord is at work in you even when you don’t see it–especially then.

O come, o come, Emmanuel!
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us!

Jonah and Mercy

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry over the gourd plant?” Jonah answered, “I have a right to be angry—angry enough to die.” Then the LORD said, “You are concerned over the gourd plant which cost you no effort and which you did not grow; it came up in one night and in one night it perished. And should I not be concerned over the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals?”

Jonah 4:9-11

“What wealth it is to be in good health, as we are! But we have the duty of putting our health at the service of those who do not have it. To act otherwise would be to betray that gift of God.”

-Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

I heard a homily today that highlighted an aspect of the story of Jonah that I had not considered before. Jonah actually reacts in anger that the Ninevites repent–these last few verses show God chastising Jonah for being petty enough to be upset that they turned away from their sins. Jonah is begrudging in his mercy, rather than being what Pope Francis called a “missionary of mercy.”

We might not think we have much in common with Jonah in this story, but let me offer an extremely recent example. During Pope Francis’s visit, obviously everyone had commentary to add. It was certainly an overwhelming time to be on the internet. And many, many lapsed Catholics offered their opinions or hopes about the Pope (as Alyssa mentioned last week). Some of them were really out there. My go-to reaction–and that of others, I think–was to roll my eyes and get annoyed by the seemingly sudden interest in the new pope and to regard it as skin-deep and passing.

So for me the God/Jonah scenario above turned into:

“Do you have a right to be angry over the gourd plant reaction of other people to the Pope?”

“I have a right to be angry–angry enough to die lump these people into a category rather than treating them as individuals seeking Truth.”

If we are honest we often find ourselves being the “older brother” (sorry to mix Bible passages) in the prodigal son parable–rather than rejoicing over the fact that others are perhaps regaining even the faintest spark of faith, we hold them to their pasts and demand strict justice. We forget that we all started with nothing, and that even if we were lucky enough to be raised in the faith, faith is always a gift from God, not some conclusion we brilliantly reached on our own. Brothers and sisters, I struggle with this! I write from that place of struggle. I see the beauty of the Church’s Magisterium, I see how it is disregarded… and yet I know that God calls us to be out there on the streets of Nineveh, preaching repentance to anyone who will listen, even those who disagree with us! To rejoice with the shepherd who finds the one wandering sheep. I think we should never doubt that conversion is possible because, in some sense, each of us is a convert in that we have turned away from the world and “put on the new man” of Christ (Ephesians 4:24). So if the Pope’s visit sparked some awkward conversations in your workplace or with your family members, use it as an opportunity to tell people more about Jesus, and do not be afraid or dismissive. The person asking may honestly be in search of something they can’t yet express. Treat your catechesis as a “gift from God” like Frassati mentions above and not as an excuse to look down on the person.

Thank you, Jesus, for the gift of faith! Please help us to bring others to love You and Your Church more fully!

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us!

Me and PG


“Dearest Villani,
The other day Prof. Marchisio from our Conference of St. Vincent recommended another sad case to me. It’s the situation of a poor young woman who is graduating in fine arts and who needs to find a job so that she can support herself. I don’t know exactly who I should turn to; I thought of you, because you always have good ideas and you already have more experience in your life than I do. The idea would be to find a tutoring position with a family or else a job which pays a lot of money.”
-Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, Turin, July 18, 1922

How would you react if you received this letter? When I read this passage this morning I almost laughed out loud at Frassati’s bold appeal to his friend. My return telegram might have read something like, “If she wanted a job that pays a lot of money, she shouldn’t have gotten a fine arts degree. Not my problem. Xoxo.” My initial response is to instinctively try to guard my time and resources, especially with somewhat absurd requests like this one. Make a high-paying job materialize in post-World-War I Italy? Good luck.

And yet Frassati here dares to ask for the impossible. In a way he puts our tiny, measured-out, “reasonable” requests to shame. Think of our relationship to God in prayer. Have you ever asked God for something big? A miracle? Have you ever believed that you would get it?

And then there is the other difficult side of the coin–how we react when we receive requests that ask more of us than we are willing to give. Do we react with hostility? Resentment? Annoyance? (Those are almost always my initial reactions! Full disclosure!) But do we pause to think about where the request is coming from, the circumstances surrounding it, why the person turned to us?

My thought for today boils down to two questions: Do I allow myself to become a beggar before the Lord? And do I allow others to approach me in their moments of need?


The crowd in Philippi joined in the attack on Paul and Silas,
and the magistrates had them stripped
and ordered them to be beaten with rods.
After inflicting many blows on them,
they threw them into prison
and instructed the jailer to guard them securely.
When he received these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell
and secured their feet to a stake.About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying
and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened,
there was suddenly such a severe earthquake
that the foundations of the jail shook;
all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose. 
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open,
he drew his sword and was about to kill himself,
thinking that the prisoners had escaped.
But Paul shouted out in a loud voice,
“Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.
He asked for a light and rushed in and,
trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.
Then he brought them out and said,
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus
and you and your household will be saved.”
So they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to everyone in his house.
He took them in at that hour of the night and bathed their wounds;
then he and all his family were baptized at once.
He brought them up into his house and provided a meal
and with his household rejoiced at having come to faith in God.
Acts 16: 22-34

This morning I heard a homily on this passage that highlighted something I’ve never noticed before–Paul says “we are all here,” meaning none of the prisoners ran away when they had an opportunity. If you go a little further up in the passage the writer St. Luke notes that the prisoners listened as Paul and Silas “were praying and singing hymns to God.” And he notes that “the chains of ALL were pulled loose.” So, wait a second–these prisoners are all set free, but they don’t leave when they have the opportunity. Why?

Could it be that staying and listening to the prayers and songs of Paul and Silas was sweeter than freedom? Could it be that those things actually are freedom itself? Could it be that before their chains were unbound, hearing the Gospel had left the prisoners unbound in a more fundamental way? Could it be that they’ve found the pearl of great price, for which they are willing to do anything–even stay prison?

And isn’t that just like us… we find that the world is a prison, that traps us with lies, deceit, unkindness, or we trap ourselves in sin, but then, suddenly, we meet The One who makes our existence meaningful, whose peaceful love shows us the true order of the universe. And so we stay to listen to Him, to try to understand better the work He has laid out for us. We risk danger or we appear foolish, but suddenly those externals matter a whole lot less. Because we’ve experienced an earthquake, a taste of freedom, and we want more.

Let us all live in freedom! Let us allow Christ to set us free even in those parts that we hide from everyone, including ourselves. Let us allow Him to break down all barriers that keep us from a more complete union with Him.

Leave Room for the Holy Spirit

From my Frassati reflection yesterday:

Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“‘You must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes;
so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
John 3:7-8
If you went to Catholic school, you might remember the painfully awkward high school dance floors that were patrolled by your elderly biology teacher who would swoop down, hawk-like, on young dancing couples and crow, “Leave room for the Holy Spirit!” implying that the hormonal teenagers were dancing too close to each other.
This somewhat comical phrase has a completely different meaning in my life these days.  Leaving room for the Holy Spirit is something I’ve learned a great deal about through the Frassati Fellowship. Not only have I learned from my fellow Catholics what discerning and praying before major decisions looks like, I’ve also learned a lot about how to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in the moment, whether it’s when it looks like rain on the morning of a hike or whether you’re not sure if you can squeeze that one more girl into the retreat when your friend tells you she really needs to go. These are little moments, but it’s out of such moments that virtue grows and that we are able to make the big life decisions.
In my opinion the hardest part about “leaving room for the Holy Spirit” is the potential for failure it seems to bring. We sometimes feel that if we don’t micromanage every aspect of every situation, then things will go wrong and it will be “our fault.” We are aggressive with others who make mistakes, worried about how it will reflect on us. Leaving room for the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean, for example, not preparing well, but in our ministries it might mean trusting someone with a task and showing them the respect of allowing them to do their best to fulfill it, even if it’s not perfect. I think of all the times a novice master or mistress in a religious order must hand over a task to the newly received, and the sort of radical trust that requires (I remember a story that our friend and former Frassatian Br. Ben told me about the first time he was asked to lead prayer in his new community–he got so nervous he forgot how to do the Sign of the Cross). 
God rewards us for these little moments of trust and, over time, makes it a little easier to let go of our egos, our worries, and our self-image. So find something in your life that you are clinging to with all your might, and think about how you might let the Spirit in.

Credits and Love


Prophet Joel, Korovniki Church (c. 1654, Yaroslavl)

I wrote here a few months ago about strategizing to be more charitable in certain difficult relationships in my life. This exercise came with some tough realizations about my approach to loving. I realized that I often approached charity as though there were some kind of credit system. “Look, I spent time listening to your problems yesterday, so today that means you need to leave me alone.” Or, “I went out of my way to be kind to you earlier this week. Doesn’t that mean I get a free pass now?” To use another analogy, I was looking at relationships as though they were on a weekly (or even monthly) chore chart. Plan a dinner: check. Catch up on problems: check. Friendship confirmed, time to check out for a few weeks.

I came to realize how ridiculous this approach was when I thought about what it would be like if I tried to do the same thing with my prayer requirements for the Third Order. You can’t just sit down and say the entire week’s worth of Evening Prayers on Sunday to get them out of the way! It wouldn’t make any sense; the purpose of prayer according to the Rule is to help the Dominican “pray always,” and by having certain set times for prayer, we remember the importance of praying throughout the day.

In the same way, looking at love through the lens of building up credits is completely misguided. It leads you down a path that culminates in the lie that you can earn love through specific actions, and that you can cash in your “credits” for complacency in your relationship. It adds to our tendency to simply get people “off our backs” or “out of the way.” But people–as complicated and messy as this might make our lives–are not tasks. If we aren’t doing our best to be present to a person in the moments that we have with them, we’ve lost. It doesn’t really matter, at the moment I blow someone off, how nice I was to them the day before. Wouldn’t it be terrible, for example, if the day after a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner your partner was completely rude to you? Would the dinner the night before lessen the pain of being hurt by them the next day?

And the same goes for God. Religion is not a gym where you put in your hours and get a certain amount of payoff. It doesn’t make sense to say, “Well, I went to two holy hours last week so I won’t go to one this week.” There may be limits on your time this week because of the extra time you spent at church the previous week–fine, that is totally valid in my opinion. But it’s not that you got the holy hour “out of the way early.” The time you spend loving God today is going to be unique. The present moment is all we can give God, as I have written about before.

The Ash Wednesday liturgy contains my favorite scripture verses from the prophet Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” That phrase “even now” has meant different things to me over the years… “even now” when you are struggling in your faith, “even now” when you keep falling into sin. Today the “even now” meant “even now,” when you are feeling a time of stability, of growth, of renewal… do not forget to rely always on Me.

Am I Worth It?


From my reflection for my Frassati young adult group today:

While Jesus was still speaking,
people from the synagogue official’s house arrived and said,
“Your daughter has died; why trouble the teacher any longer?”
Disregarding the message that was reported,
Jesus said to the synagogue official,
“Do not be afraid; just have faith.”
(Mark 5:35-36)

To me this is the most dramatic point in today’s Gospel reading, because the level or quality of the synagogue official’s faith has to change in an instant. Before, he was still doing something brave–he was approaching a man whom he thought could work miracles, whom he may have seen heal others, even though this man might not have been too popular among some of his friends. But then, almost immediately after the official makes an expression of faith in Jesus’s power to heal, the worst thing possible happens: he is told that his daughter is dead!

I find it fascinating that the synagogue official is tempted in two ways here. First, to give up hope: “Your daughter is dead.” She now seems to be past the point of a miracle cure. But the second, more insidious temptation, comes in the second part of the sentence: “Why trouble the teacher any longer?” You’re not just being foolish–say the synagogue official’s friends–you’re wasting Jesus’s time. How often we are made to feel this way! Even when we try our best to overcome the hurdles of faith when it seems most difficult, something might tempt us to say, “Does God really care about this? About me and my complaints?” We’re so used to being treated as objects that need to prove our worth that it can be so hard to sit in the presence of God and receive His unconditional love. “Maybe it’s not unconditional,” we start to wonder. And then we start weighing our own worth, the worthiness of our petitions, and, ultimately, we stop asking for anything at all.

But here Jesus gives us the perfect reaction to such a temptation: he disregards it. It’s a lie. God does care about me, about my worries, and about my problems; moreover, He wants to heal me! If you’ve reached a point of discouragement in your spiritual life, ask yourself–who do I tend to listen to in this Gospel passage? Jesus or the crowds?