Prisoners

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.

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Credits and Love

joel

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?

Jairus-daughter

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?

Nostalgia and the Heart

Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Fr. Jacques Philippe is an amazing book. Here’s the gift that God had waiting for me in its pages this morning:

“This will serve to unmask a temptation, sometimes subtle, which is very common in the Christian life, one into which many fall and which greatly impedes spiritual progress.

It concerns precisely the temptation to believe that, in the situation which is ours (personal, family, etc.), we lack something essential and that because of this, our progress, and the possibility of blossoming spiritually, is denied to us.

For example, I lack good health, therefore I am unable to pray as I believe it is indispensable to do. Or my immediate family prevents me from organizing my spiritual activities as I wish. Or, again, I don’t have the qualities, the strength, the virtue, the gifts I believe necessary in order to accomplish something beautiful for God, according to the plan of a Christian life. I am not satisfied with my life, with my person, with my circumstances and I live constantly with the feeling that as long as things are such, it will be impossible for me to live truly and intensely. I feel underprivileged compared to others and I carry in me the constant nostalgia of another life, more privileged, where, finally, I could do things that are worthwhile.

I have the feeling, according to Rimbaud’s expression, that ‘the real life is elsewhere,’ elsewhere than in the life that is mine. And that the latter is not a real life, that it doesn’t offer me the conditions for real spiritual growth because of certain sufferances or limitations. I am concentrated on the negatives of my situation, on that which I lack in order to be happy. This renders me unhappy, envious and discouraged and I am unable to go forward. The real life is elsewhere, I tell myself, and I simply forget to live. Oftentimes it would take so little for everything to be different and for me to progress with giant steps: a different outlook, a view of my situation which is one of confidence and hope (based on the certitude that I lack nothing). And then doors would open to me of unhoped-for possibilities for spiritual growth.

We often live with this illusion. With the impression that all would go better, we would like the things around us to change, that the circumstances would change. But this is often an error. It is not the exterior circumstances that must change; it is above all our hearts that must change. They must be purified of their withdrawal into themselves, of their sadness, of their lack of hope: Happy are the pure of heart; they shall see God (Matthew 5:8).”

Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Fr. Jacques Philippe

Control and the New Year

A few months ago I heard a very good homily on sin: the root of sin, according to the preacher, was an insistence on control. This could be control over a person, a situation, or the path of one’s own life. Rather than “thy will be done,” sin is an insistence that “my will be done” no matter what. I have often found that this is the cause of my impatience as well. It stems from my desire to control a certain situation–to hurry a conversation, to stick to my schedule and ignore the needs of others.

I realized something else in the past few months–once a person has asserted complete control over their life, it is at that moment that faith dies. I’ve found it is hardest to keep faith alive when I am in “planning” mode–and by that I don’t mean deciding where to have brunch on the weekend. I can go into a very extreme sort of planning mode in which I make lists of people I need to see, classes I need to take, appointments I need to make, and before I know it, I’ve booked myself an entire year’s worth of activities.

This is part of the reason, I suspect, that diverting from my routine–even during a vacation or around the holidays–can lead to inordinate stress. And even when I try to push the stress away and tell myself it’s not right to worry, it always rears its ugly head in other forms. In the past few weeks, it’s been nightmares, or waking up in the middle of the night worrying about trivial things or events that are several months away.

The only remedy that’s been effective is constant, short bouts of informal prayer (“Lord, help me,” is an easy one). And it does take constant awareness, because as soon as I’ve moved on from one worry I feel like I’m on to the next. I suppose what’s kept me hopeful is the acknowledgement that God can free me from my anxieties and that I don’t have to just accept them as a “part of who I am.”

Anyway–baby steps. Here’s to a happier, healthier, holier 2015.

Kraków Mon Amour

krakow

On my recent trip to Poland, I ended up unexpectedly back in the Stare Miasto of Kraków–fog (mgła) had delayed my flight, giving me 12 extra hours in the city. Since I was alone, I walked for half an hour from the apartment where I was staying into town, first up to the Dominican Church to pay my respects. I entered during the consecration and felt overwhelmed (by the way, at a Monday noon Mass, there was standing room only in a fairly large church). Then I wandered to the Rynek Głowny and sat down with a cappuccino to people-watch.

I felt more unsettled than I had expected. Six years ago I visited Kraków for the first time, also on a cold October day. The coat I wore was the same one I had bought in the train station there. It made me nervous to contemplate the differences between myself as I was then and as I am now. I had visited Kraków at a time in my life before anything had really hurt me–when the trauma of moving from home and of studying abroad were the most difficult aspects of my life. I returned 8 months later with my dearest friends, before we had to worry about parting ways. It is still difficult for me not to become emotional when I think about how happy we were then.

Other places like New York keep up with the changes six years have wrought. Why, my dearest city, must you always remain the same? Why do you hold such sweet memories in perfect fixity? Why have you not grown weary as I have?

Zacchaeus

When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.”
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
Luke 19:5-6

Today’s Gospel passage is one of my favorites because it’s so easy to picture–we’ve all seen kids climb up on their parents’ shoulders, or climb up on barriers or mailboxes to see a parade. I am reminded of the time my friends and I saw Pope Benedict in Yonkers and literally had to jump over gates and trash cans since we had accidentally gotten shut out the section of seating our friends were in.

But the similarity between the two events goes deeper than that for me. Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus and sees in him all his potential for holiness, qualities that the grumblers around him do not see, perhaps do not even believe he has. And Zacchaeus responds with both joy and repentance, offering to make amends for his extortion. We see here a pattern of behavior common to the Gospels: God’s Mercy–>Gratitude–>Generosity/Renewal. Sometimes when we notice in ourselves a spiritual roadblock to generosity or charity, it can be helpful to step back and ask, “Do I need to remind myself to accept the mercy of God? Am I grateful for His mercy?” I often find that when I am finding it difficult to be generous to my brother or sister, it is because there is some sin on my heart that I need to go confess, or some doubt in God’s love towards me.

And the reason I love this passage so much is that something very similar happened to me when Pope Benedict began to speak–for the first time, I heard someone tell me they wanted me to be a saint, that this was the only option, to strive for sainthood. For the first time I felt that someone (who didn’t even know me!) believed in the potential for holiness that was in me. And for the first time in 19 years of being a Catholic, I believed that God wanted me to be in heaven with Him. That He didn’t simply tolerate me, but that He actually wanted my companionship, to “stay at my house.” And this necessitated a change in my life, which has been markedly different ever since that day.

Christ calls us out of the tree–the site of the Fall–towards companionship. There are things, as Zacchaeus realizes, that we must give up to get it. And yet in the joy that follows this choice, the memory of those things begins to fade and is replaced with more joy, and great peace.

An Increase in Charity

Lately my most pressing prayer has been for an increase in charity in specific relationships in my life. I’ve admitted before that I struggle greatly with patience. Living in New York and being constantly bombarded with people and demands leaves me feeling exhausted, and the only time I really have to be alone and quiet are in the few minutes I have after Mass each day to sit in the church and pray. While I’ve come to realize that needing alone/quiet time every day is part of who I am, and a need I ought to try to fulfill, I do have control over my reactions to people when I am feeling deprived of peace.

I remember a wonderful lecture I attended by Professor William Mattison of Catholic University of America on the morality of emotions. At the beginning of the lecture he pretended that his wife was calling interrupting him (the organizer in the back of the room was really calling him) and snapped at her. Then he revealed the ploy and asked us whether what he had done was charitable. After all, he was just reacting out of anger–how much control did he really have?

Over the lecture he helped us understand how a pattern of negative reactions based in emotions can seem to override our control and lead us deeper and deeper into anger and, yes, sin. It is possible, however, to break the pattern when one examines what exactly one is reacting to. My friend Grace, when she talked about her difficulties with judging people, summed up her problem as well as mine: “I always assumed people had the worst possible intentions in their actions toward me.”

What does this mean, exactly? When your friend shows up late to dinner, it’s not because he/she might be scatter-brained or that traffic was bad–he or she is purposefully disrespecting you, has no regard for your time, etc. Do we consciously realize that this is how we think? Usually not, but when I considered Grace’s comment in light of how I was feeling, I realized it made perfect sense. When I viewed other people’s motivations as constantly aimed toward hurting/thwarting me, it made my reactions to them emotionally and outwardly more and more angry.

And what was Grace’s solution? Simple: assume everyone always has the best possible intentions. Well, you might think, I see how this might be helpful in situations in which I’m overreacting, but what about those less clear interactions, or what about when it’s obvious someone is trying to belittle me? The answer is that it still works even then. When a co-worker corrects me in a rude way, though my initial response is to be angry, I pause and think: maybe I was really in the wrong. Maybe my mistake caused him to receive flack from his superior. Maybe his newborn kept him up all night. (I’ll admit, this happened to me on Friday, and I skipped straight to anger for a few hours before being able to employ my own strategy here).

My novice mistress told us a story last week of a priest she met who never seemed to react with angry outbursts, even while driving, which for her was the most difficult time to remain patient. She asked him how he did it, and he said, “When I wake up in the morning, I am peaceful, and I’m not going to let anyone steal my peace.” Allowing oneself to be conditioned to react in anger is really only robbing yourself.

So, then, what does this have to do with growing in charity? This is what I am setting out to discover. If I re-train my mind, will it help in the difficult relationships I mentioned at the beginning of the post? Ultimately charity is very much beyond emotional reactions, and yet it has to start somewhere. If I can’t put more effort into shaping those, I won’t be able to go much deeper in love.

A Basic Question

“Does God love me?”

In some ways, it seems like a question that shouldn’t even come up for me anymore. After all, God’s love, the God-who-is-love, and a return on that love seems to be the motivation behind everything I do. So why did I find myself in a state of panic the night before a retreat I was helping to run, facing a question I thought I had laid to rest? Why was I so scared of God, unable to sleep, tossing and turning in tears and saturated with what seemed like a certainty that God hated me?

Doubt in God’s mercy is the root of all sins, I heard a speaker say this weekend. You go to confession, you are forgiven, but then you start to wonder: can God really forgive something I did that was so horrible? I don’t “feel” forgiven. I keep making the same mistakes. What’s lovable about me? A temptation to despair is one of the devil’s most useful lies. And when you throw depression into the mix, what you get is a spirituality of misery, one that is closed to mercy and peace. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are buying into these lies about who we are, about whether or not we are God’s beloved children.

Looking at the crucifix this weekend on retreat, on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, one message came through loud and clear: “Why won’t you let yourself receive my love?” I have often chased the small things here below. I have told myself that I have enough in my earthly loves. This little bit will satisfy, because it is all I can secure, all I can defend, all I can be sure will never be taken from me. And yet this weekend one priest preached, “God gives us only as much as we hope for.” He wants to give us an abundance of life, not just a small, measly scrap. But if our hearts are dead to hope, how can He work in them? How can He get us to let go of smallness and see that He wants a relationship with us, a relationship in which we are meant to find fulfillment and happiness? Why do I keep my heart so small and so hidden?

Ultimately I was able to recognize the spiritual attacks for what they were and to renounce them. But the experience reminded me about my particular wounds and what I need to look out for in my thoughts and feelings. Just because I “dealt” with these problems once doesn’t mean I’m not still susceptible to them in times of trial. And I share this perhaps too personal story for a reason: if you believe that God wants you to miserable, even with the smallest bit of your heart, you are wrong. You are allowing a lie to persist, and I believe it is one of the most soul-damaging lies one can buy in to. Here’s the truth: “I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

The Pearl of Great Price

caravaggio-call-st-matthew1 

Then Peter said to him in reply,
“We have given up everything and followed you.
What will there be for us?”

Matthew 19:27
 

You’ve got to love Peter’s boldness here, but at the same time it’s difficult to resent his question. Some of us have given up huge things for Christ–“houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands” (Mt 19:29). I think of a Missionary of Charity (Mother Teresa’s sisters) I met in Harlem a few years ago who told me on her latest visit to her family, they had finally stopped acting as though she had died and were speaking to her again. For some of us, perhaps the sacrifices have been slightly less drastic: we no longer go out with the same groups of friends, or our co-workers tease us sometimes, or we wake up a little earlier to pray. There are certainly times when we repeat Peter’s question, even subconsciously, “What will there be for us?”

 
Let’s pose the question a little differently: “Who will there be for us?” or maybe, “For whom did we give up these things? Who are you, Lord Jesus, that I gave up these things for you?” Sacrifice has significance when it is borne from love, and so to understand sacrifice, one must understand for whom one is sacrificing. It’s like a woman in labor–the pain makes more sense when she finally sees the face of her child. Similarly, when we seek the face of Christ in prayer, adore Him in the Eucharist, imagine His life in the rosary, the sacrifices we make for Him suddenly make sense, perhaps seem inadequate, and hopefully inspire even deeper love, a love that increases our desire. For how, Jesus, can I love you if you do not help me, if you do not make me want to love you? And so love feeds on more love, the desire to love God grows as loving him grows, and our love leads us to a deeper wanting. And so we begin to lose track, as this process continues, of what exactly we have given up, of how difficult the sacrifices were, as we throw ourselves headlong into this mysterious life of love, where Christ is the sweet balm of our pains–He, who is the reason, the one who led us to give up everything, is in turn, strangely, wonderfully, our reward, for He is everything, “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).