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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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?

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.

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).

Martha

“Let my eyes stream with tears
day and night, without rest,
Over the great destruction which overwhelms
the virgin daughter of my people,
over her incurable wound.
If I walk out into the field,
look! those slain by the sword;
If I enter the city,
look! those consumed by hunger.
Even the prophet and the priest
forage in a land they know not.”
Jeremiah 14: 17-18

One danger of constant busywork is that it can provide us with a means of escaping the problem at hand. For many of us, that problem is often an emotional or spiritual one: if my hands and mind are occupied with work, I don’t have to think about how my friendships are going, what I’ve been struggling with in prayer, or other (for some of us, a seemingly endless amount) concerns mounting in the backs of our heads. It is very common for us to answer the question, “How are you?” with the word “fine” even if we are feeling far from it.

That’s sort of how I picture Martha today in the Gospel. I’m reminded of a time when I was helping to run an event and was extremely anxious that everything should go well. At some point a priest pulled me aside and asked how I was doing. I didn’t want to admit to my anxiety, so I just listed a series of tasks that I still had to accomplish before the event was over. He saw right through me. “You can cry,” he offered, “don’t worry.” I think of Jesus watching Martha prepare everything perfectly and seeing something weighing on her heart that she is afraid to show to Him. But He already knows it, and loves her, and wants her to lean on Him for help. I think of all the times we go to prayer with a sort of false stoicism, putting on a “game face,” when all God wants is to see us as we are. I imagine Christ saying, “Go ahead and cry, yell, plead, laugh–if that’s what you need to do, do it!” God already knows what you desire. You don’t have to put on a face for Him, and it’s silly to even try. Let’s all try to develop the confidence in the Lord necessary to be able to drop our defenses, to let down the walls of our hearts so that He may enter and bring more abundant life.

The Magdalene

“Mary, do not weep; the Lord is risen from the dead.”
-Responsory, Liturgy of the Hours for Memorial of St. Mary Magdalene

What is the proper response to our own sinfulness? Penance, sorrow, and ultimately, a re-commitment to love: the Magdalene shows us this. She who loved much because she was forgiven much (cf. Luke 7:47) realizes that a disciple’s response to sin is not be scandalized, not to give up, and not to sit dumbfounded by one’s own lack of perfection. She knows this because she was given the privilege of being the first person at the Lord’s tomb. When she wept because all seemed lost, she was told to stop crying. “Do not be afraid, for I have conquered the world,” our Lord tells us (John 16:33). And yet we are often deeply distressed that we do not live up to our expectations of ourselves. We take pride of the image of ourselves that we would like to cultivate, and this image becomes our god.

Reflect instead on the Magdalene. She had no reputation to worry about, because hers was already destroyed. None of the holy men at the time regarded her as anything more than a sinful woman. All she had was Christ, and she was willing to appear foolish for him, to commit luxurious acts of love, to run to his disciples and tell them Her Lord was alive even when they were completely incredulous. Rather than priding ourselves on our own righteousness, why don’t we assume the position of Mary Magdalene, admitting our sinfulness and complete reliance on God’s mercy to get through the day?

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us, that we may grow in humility, and that we may not be afraid to appear foolish in the eyes of the world in our zeal for God.

Who Shall Climb the Mountain of the Lord?

“For the purity of Christ and the purity that is manifest in our hearts are identical. Christ’s purity, however, is the fountainhead; ours has its source in him and flows out of him. Our life is stamped with the beauty of his thought. The inner and the outer man are harmonized in a kind of music. The mind of Christ is the controlling influence that inspires us to moderation and goodness in our behavior.”
-From a treatise on Christian Perfection by Saint Gregory of Nyssa, bishop (2nd reading in Matins today)
 
Last night’s Bible study discussion led me to meditate on purity–how we get it, where it comes from, etc. So it was without surprise that I opened up the Office of Readings this morning to find this passage. 
 
My rag-tag feminist sensibilities have always led me to a distaste for the word “purity”–for its sexual connotation and how it seems to hold men and women to different standards. But when the psalmist says, “Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?” and answers, “The man with clean hands and pure heart,” (Psalm 24), I sit up and take notice. Last night at Bible study we discussed the various ways in which the pagans surrounding the Israelites pulled them down into sin, and what that looks like in our own lives. Seeking the beautiful and the good ought to be pleasurable, and yet it is sometimes obscured by the false attractions of the world around us.
 
In the end, purity is not about being a Pollyanna– it’s about being free. Free from snares, free to pursue God fully. “Take every thought captive in obedience to Christ,” and you will receive his peace as a result (2 Corinthians 10:5). Easier said than done, I know, but take heart–Christ is victorious over sin and death, and he has already conquered the world. Claim his victory in your life and never tire of doing what is right (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:13).

No Man Born of Woman

Hear me, O coastlands,
listen, O distant peoples.
The LORD called me from birth,
from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.

Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
For now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

(Isaiah 49:1-6)
 
A dear friend and priest once said to me when I was a freshman in college, “This is how God chooses to run his business–he saves people through other people.” This passage from Isaiah speaks to a calling, a very clear destiny and direction for one’s life– to be the instrument of the Lord and a light to proclaim his “salvation to the ends of the earth.” And it’s very clear that we may not see it, for the prophet at first thought he “had toiled in vain for nothing,” only to discover later that his work was essential. The final motivation for our works must be the Lord, for He is the one who holds our “reward” and “recompense.” But this idea of being chosen by God to help in His saving plan can become trite and lose meaning for us. In times like that, I find it helpful to think of John the Baptist.
 
At the Visitation of the Blessed Mother to her cousin Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb, affirming simultaneously Mary’s motherhood and Christ’s divinity. He goes on to spend his adult life in the desert, administering a Baptism of repentance, awaiting One who has lived in his heart since that moment, one who in turn waits for the encounter with John in order to begin His ministry. Not only did God know John in the womb– John also knew God in the womb! His prophetic spirit cried out, and this encounter perhaps sustained him through the years of asceticism in the desert. Brothers and sisters, haven’t we each felt this sense of missing, this sense of homesickness for a place we can’t exactly name? At times it is only this supernatural longing that convinces me of the truth of the Gospel; in fact, it is the most compelling evidence I possess. May God make our longing fruitful, may He continue to remind us that life is not a mistake, is not a cruel joke, but is a coming home to Him. To quote Pier Giorgio, “The end for which we are created invites us to walk a road that is surely sown with a lot of thorns, but it is not sad; through even the sorrow, it is illuminated by joy.”

Love for Life Did Not Deter Them from Death

When they had crossed over, Elijah said to Elisha,
“Ask for whatever I may do for you, before I am taken from you.”
Elisha answered, “May I receive a double portion of your spirit.”
“You have asked something that is not easy,” Elijah replied.
“Still, if you see me taken up from you,
your wish will be granted; otherwise not.”
As they walked on conversing,
a flaming chariot and flaming horses came between them,
and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
When Elisha saw it happen he cried out,
“My father! my father! Israel’s chariots and drivers!”
But when he could no longer see him,
Elisha gripped his own garment and tore it in two.Then he picked up Elijah’s mantle that had fallen from him,
and went back and stood at the bank of the Jordan.
2 Kings 2:9-13

Elisha’s request for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit is an incredibly brave one. How many times have we met a holy person and thought, I want to be like them… someday. In our slothfulness we can somehow anticipate how much we will have to give up, how much self effacing we will have to do, to achieve that level of holiness. Recently when I spoke with a priest about my desire to avoid prayer and talking to God on some days, he asked me simply, “What are you afraid of?” And I suppose the answer is death, the death to self that will come when we make room for Christ to live in us. Are we brave enough to pray the prayer of Elisha? Can we ask for holiness at this moment?

The Advocate

My Frassati meditation today (I’m back to writing them on Tuesdays):
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Now I am going to the one who sent me,
and not one of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’
But because I told you this, grief has filled your hearts.
But 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.
But if I go, I will send him to you.
And when he comes he will convict the world
in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation:
sin, because they do not believe in me; 
righteousness, because I am going to the Father
and you will no longer see me;
condemnation, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”
(John 16: 5-11)
 
This reading seems eschatological (end-of-worldly) at first, with condemnation of the world being the final takeaway–it is difficult to remember that the Ascension and Pentecost are upon us liturgically, when it feels as though Easter has just begun, especially now with spring (summer?) finally arriving. Perhaps an easy reading of this passage is one that promotes detachment in the spiritual life, especially as May is a time of transition for many of us. A more helpful sense of this reading for me this morning is one of living in hope. We are righteous because we “do not see and yet believe” (cf. Jn 20:29), because we know that the ruler of this world has already been condemned, conquered in Christ’s victory on the Cross. “The accuser of our brothers is cast out,/who night and day accused them before God” (Rev. 12:10). What does this mean for us–does it mean that we, in fact, are already free? And yet why are the listeners’ hearts filled with grief; why do they not rejoice? Because they lack sufficient hope, because they, like us, believe holiness was something they achieved in a specific set of circumstances–that the Lord must be physically present and that things cannot change from the way they have been for the past three years. It’s as though you can hear them saying, “We tried to get through three days with you gone–it didn’t go well.” And we know that after the Lord ascends they will continue to hide in the upper room. We must grow, our spiritual lives must mature, we will be forced out of our comfort zones and forced to put hand to plow, to reap “what you have not worked for” (Jn 4:38) and give even the last shreds of self-love–in this case, self-love as worship of one’s own holiness under a specific set of circumstances–to be immersed in Christ’s mission, which we ourselves do not dictate or control.