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.

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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).

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

This was a weekend of epiphanies (rather oddly timed, as Lent is upon us). But the epiphanies were hard-won and surrounded in dramatic incidents. One friend’s heartbreak, another’s journey to self-knowledge and a long, tough discussion about sin led to this being the most peaceful morning I’ve had in months. It’s not pain-free, since watching my friends go through difficulties isn’t easy for me to watch, and I often don’t agree with the way they handle them. But it set a sharp contrast to my whining and moping about a life that is abundantly blessed.

For the past few weeks my prayer has been difficult. I’ve been more distracted than usual, with my mind roaming all around–searching for comfort and an easy answer. If I’ve been guilty of anything lately, it’s been an odd selfishness, a feeling that I’ve given God “enough” and he ought not ask anything more of me. I’ve been fiercely protective of my time and resources. And I’ve felt entitled–oh, so entitled–to getting rewarded for my work, my “good behavior.” The thing is, holding grudges, dwelling on sadness, pitying oneself isn’t good behavior. It’s extremely destructive, and I find myself grateful that the season of purging from all that is not necessary is here.

Lord, as we prepare ourselves to enter the season of Lent, grant us simple hearts. Give us an ever greater desire for you!

On Waking Up in Midtown

This morning I watched my companion roll out of the top bunk at 5:55 a.m., having set her alarm on the other side of the room because, for her job as a teacher, “you just can’t be late; there are actual consequences.” I was left in her fairy-tale studio, where I stumbled out of bed at 7:50 and could still make it to morning Mass–I was within walking distance of church and work for the first time since college. I brushed my teeth while staring at an Italian poster for Roman Holiday. Gregory Peck and I locked eyes as I tried to scrub away the post-bourbon dryness. My friend and I had fallen asleep discussing the various choices that had brought us to this place: single, working, religious, deeply critical. As I tried to gather up my belongings, excise what was mine from what was hers, it all seemed to blend together. We are one in this strange project: that of the modern Catholic woman, the intellect, the ambitions, the deep anxieties that seem to fuel more fervent prayer, more wonderful love. Oh, I admit, I do not love this life! May God make me more grateful. And yet as I looked over her lotion, her duvet, as I scribbled a note to her on a post-it, how could I but love the simplicity she represented, the dogged faith? Who is not delighted in finding a soul-mate? Another young woman who is wiser than her alienation, who prefers books and sleep to the appearance of an organized life, who pours you almost straight bourbon and lets you stay over and says things that get her labeled as “intense,” as if we care, as if we’re still trying to please anyone but God.

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.