Gift

The day I went home for Christmas, I sat next to a woman and her infant daughter on the subway. The baby girl kept smiling at me, and so eventually I took out my headphones and guessed at her age– she appeared to be about as old as my godson. The woman and I struck up a conversation, and finally I asked her, “Is she your first?”

The woman smiled at me as though she was about to deliver a punchline. “She’s my first in 23 years! I had a boy when I was 19, and then, when I thought I was done, I found out I was pregnant with this one at 42! She’s a gift.”

The woman went on to describe to me the differences between being a teen mom and being a mom in her forties, how much she had learned and could do for her daughter.  “I wouldn’t change the way it happened,” she told me. She was glowing with joy.

When we think about receiving gifts, we think about receiving something that is completely within our control. I’ll get x and I will do y with it at z time. When the gift is wrapped up in circumstances beyond our control, we sometimes fail to see it as gift. “All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change” (James 1:17). The goodness of the gift is from him; the goodness it elicits from us is also a gift from him. A situation may not be ideal, but then, God doesn’t work within our expectations. He aims to give us more and to bring us to salvation. That is why we must react to gifts not just with gratitude but with charity. Gifts from God are “for us,” but not in the sense that a toy car is “for” a little boy. They are given to help us grow in patience, faith, hope, temperance, and while this might seem like a lot of work to receive something, God would rather we receive it wholeheartedly, able to enjoy it completely.

Advertisements

I, and No One Else

Come down, sit in the dust,

virgin daughter Babylon;

Sit on the ground, dethroned,

daughter of the Chaldeans.

No longer shall you be called

dainty and delicate.

Take the millstone and grind flour,

remove your veil;

Strip off your skirt, bare your legs,

cross through the streams.

Your nakedness shall be uncovered,

and your shame be seen;

I will take vengeance,

I will yield to no entreaty,

Says our redeemer,

Whose name is the LORD of hosts,

the Holy One of Israel.

Go into darkness and sit in silence,

daughter of the Chaldeans,

No longer shall you be called

sovereign mistress of kingdoms.

Angry at my people,

I profaned my heritage

And gave them into your power;

but you showed them no mercy;

Upon the aged

you laid a very heavy yoke.

You said, “I shall remain always,

a sovereign mistress forever!”

You did not take these things to heart,

but disregarded their outcome.

Now hear this, voluptuous one,

enthroned securely,

Saying in your heart,

“I, and no one else!

I shall never be a widow,

bereft of my children”—

Both these things shall come to you

suddenly, in a single day:

Complete bereavement and widowhood

shall come upon you

Despite your many sorceries

and the full power of your spells;

Secure in your wickedness,

you said, “No one sees me.”

Your wisdom and your knowledge

led you astray,

And you said in your heart,

“I, and no one else!”

But upon you shall come an evil

you will not be able to charm away;

Upon you shall fall a disaster

you cannot ward off.

Upon you shall suddenly come

a ruin you cannot imagine.

Keep on with your spells

and your many sorceries,

at which you toiled from your youth.

Perhaps you can prevail,

perhaps you can strike terror!

You wore yourself out with so many consultations!

Let the astrologers stand forth to save you,

The stargazers who forecast at each new moon

what would happen to you.

See, they are like stubble,

fire consumes them;

They cannot deliver themselves

from the spreading flames.

This is no warming ember,

no fire to sit before!

Thus do your wizards serve you

with whom you have toiled from your youth;

They wander their separate ways,

with none to save you.

-Isaiah, Chapter 47

A few weeks ago I wrote that we all worship something, and I’ve found that the “something” is usually ourselves. Self-assurance, complete self-reliance– these are my most common failings. I was recently discussing with a friend our inability to make decisions about how to spend our time. We move from one event to the next with little care for our physical and emotional well-being. And why? Must I be omnipresent, constantly sought after, constantly surrounded by friends? What am I afraid of in my time alone? That the illusion will be shattered–that I will receive proof that I am not a god, that in my loneliness I will find that I am reliant on others and of what they think of me. Wicked virgin Babylon keeps the illusion alive by use of sorcery, astrology, the comforting lie that she will never lose anyone who is close to her. She is a warning that whoever “loves his life loses it” (John 12:25).

“Ego vox clamantis in deserto”–brave and inspired and speaking not from his own understanding, the Baptist cried out to those who had come to hear him. But first they had to enter into the desert, which is essentially a place of solitude and of stripping bare. God, make me humble, as humble as your Baptist who wouldn’t dare touch your sandals. Because of his humility you allowed him to anoint you for your public ministry. When we turn to worship our false strength, help us to remember that you–divine, precious–came down to us as a vulnerable infant. You became utterly dependent that we might do the same.

More Than We Expect

“Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
Here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.”

-Isaiah 40: 9-10

Fr. Walter began one of his homilies last week by simply asking, “Lord Jesus, can you give us more than we expect today?” More than we expect–more than a day of just getting by, surviving, barely making it. More than a day of trying to control God or play God. What we expect is wrapped up in what we think we deserve and of what we believe God is capable. When we bind God to our expectations, we give him very little room to maneuver. When we instead allow ourselves to be surprised by God–how do I describe that feeling? It’s like taking off a corset and letting oneself breathe. It’s a giving in to love. And this is a love that is not contrived or uncertain, but based in Truth.

Öd’ und leer das Meer

“When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o’ clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

“do you love him Caddy

do I what

she looked at me then everything emptied out of her eyes

and they looked like the eyes in statues blank and unseeing and serene”

-William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (Quentin’s section)

Why is nostalgia so dangerous? Because it sees time as the enemy, something to be conquered. Quentin kills himself not because he is depressed or worried about the future but because with time Caddy’s deflowering will become less and less meaningful to him. The longer she is gone, the more time makes the painful memories hazy, the less he will care–she will not devastate him as she once did. She will no longer be everything to him. When she journeys away from the space of their shared innocence, she starts this movement toward an apathetic future. With time must come healing and growth. They are mad who bring time to a stop, who try to keep things in their places, the Miss Havisham’s of the world for whom memory is a means of escape.

Nostalgia is dangerous because it is tempting. Even as I write this I feel something being uprooted, and it is uncomfortable and painful to let go. But God is now here– in the present to be sought anew. The saints faced the moment at hand, they did not get stuck on glory days or lost loves (well, perhaps they did, from time to time, but it didn’t define them). Nostalgia makes novels great, but what does it do to the soul? If we do not let God heal our memories, work in our pasts, they can keep us trapped. They can lead us to despair of or doubt his mercy.

Time is no enemy, because it is the path by which we are led home. Christ is our destination and our sweet companion along the way. When we say during Advent, “Come, Lord Jesus!” we do so with great hope. My wounds do not define me, my sin does not define me–my Lord is the Lord “who is coming into the world” (John 11:27), and therefore, I must be here to greet him, I must allow him to orient my whole being, past and present, toward his triumphant arrival. I must allow him to sanctify my past. He will, I know, dispel the darkness from the most painful corners of our minds. Lord Jesus, Savior, come!

There Is No Time to Waste

ImageIt is a standing lesson to Christian souls that the amount and endurance of their work depends far more upon the character which they have previously formed than on the years of labour that they put into life. Patiently, quietly should a man fashion and temper that sole real tool with which all that he does is finally achieved. The only thing or person on which he can always depend is himself; on himself then, above all, must he concentrate. The preacher, the organiser, the administrator, is such in virtue of his own soul; because he has learnt to control himself, he can hope to control others; because he can set in order the household of his heart, he may dream of arranging in due and precise relation the affairs and the work of others; only if he has found the way to God can he dare venture to lead others in the same pathway since only he knows whither it leads. Only a man who has built carefully his character may hope one day to build the world “nearer to the heart’s desire.”-Bede Jarrett, O.P., Life of St. Dominic

We are constantly being formed. The hidden years of our life are just as important as the public ones, although it certainly doesn’t feel that way. The waiting takes on a desperate tone. That same question I mentioned before–when will my life begin?–is a false one. Without the patient and quiet (I love that Jarrett uses these two simple, perfect words) years of work, we will not be ready for the big events when they arrive. Especially in this liturgical season we think about preparedness. “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now,” says Paul in his letter to the Romans, but the time of waiting precedes a time of “the redemption of our bodies” (8:22-23). If we prepare our hearts for God, if we prepare a place for Him to be born within us, we are preparing for all else that life throws at us. We need neither to live in dread nor tap our feet impatiently. Every moment we are given is for preparation, is for self-immolation and Christ-growing-greater.

Veni, Domine Jesu! Rule over our hearts, silence our fears, and lead us, trembling and balking, to the manger, to the place where we find you, where you sweetly wait.