Tuesday, September 6, 2011

If you are confused

It is because I have changed the URL of my blog. Please go to pursuedbytruth.blogspot.com to read my most recent blog posts.

God bless!


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Happiness Doubled by Wonder

Dipping my toes in the Jordan River
Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder 
                                                         - GK Chesterton

Some of you know that I have allergies almost year round. One of the side effects of this problem is a decreased sense of smell. During the really bad months I can go weeks without getting a whiff of anything. I can't smell my food when I eat. I can't smell my soap. I can't smell my freshly cleaned clothes. I can't smell a thing.

I often feel sorry for myself when I have particularly bad days or weeks and I generally vacillate between complaining to God, being angry at God and begging Him to take away my allergies.

The other day, I was caught off guard when I got a whiff of my coconut shampoo in the shower. I almost fell over with surprise and happiness. I spent the next couple hours smelling various delicious and not so ambrosial smells all over the convent. I must have looked like a bloodhound, with her nose to the ground, sniffing everything in sight. I was thrilled. I walked around smiling, enjoying my newly recovered sense of smell, as if for the first time.

During my prayer time in chapel that day, I gave thanks to God for the few moments of having my sense of smell back. I knew it would probably be gone the next day but I was filled with gratitude in that moment and I could not keep from overflowing in happiness, and expressing my thanks and praise to God for creating this amazing ability that most human beings are able to enjoy every day. As I was giving God thanks, I realized that I do not generally give Him thanks for my other senses of sight, taste, hearing or touch. These things I take for granted because I enjoy them every day. But it suddenly hit me that day in chapel, in a deep way, that everything in my life is miraculous not just my sense of smell - God deserves praise for it all.

As I thought about wrapping up my series of posts on the Holy Land, I realized that before I blog on my favorite spot of all, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I wanted to write one more post on the River Jordan. 

This site in the Holy Land was not the most spectacular thing we saw. After we left, a priest told me that he once owned a book with pictures of the Holy Land published by the Daughters of St. Paul and he always wondered why the picture of the Jordan River was so uninviting and sort of drab. "Now I understand," he said to me as we walked away. But despite the unimpressive view, the experience at the Jordan did make an impression on me.

Icon of John the Baptist
John the Baptist is one of my favorite figures in the Bible. He was an untamed man who embraced extremes. John was in love with God and in tune with his vocation, so much so that his zeal led him to endanger his life and speak out against one of the most powerful men of his day, Herod Antipas. But he does not seem to care; John was full of a fire that does not die down when faced with risk and danger. Even the man's icons look wild and disheveled. Suffice it to say, if I had been alive in John the Baptist's days, I would have followed this Jewish guy around. He was on fire.

Going to the Jordan river made me wonder though. Why did John pick this place to baptize rather than nearer to the city of Jerusalem where all the people were? That day at the river, Tim Gray pointed out to us that John baptized people in a baptism of repentance. Their baptism was symbolic of their inner desire to reform their lives. Real repentance does not come easy and it is not comfortable. So, John asked people to really show that they were repentant. He asked them to make a daylong walk out to the desert.

The people who made the trip to the Jordan must have been tired and hot when they arrived. But if they were anything like me at the end of a long hike, they probably also felt really grateful for the cool water that awaited them, for their soft beds that would be at the end of their journey and the good food they would eat when they arrived home. These feelings of gratitude upon realizing how much they were blessed must have made their hearts even more open to John's baptism of repentance.

How do we know if we are really repentant, like the people who made this long walk to be baptized by John?

My experience of regaining my sense of smell for a few hours made me realize that I cannot be truly repentant until I am truly grateful. Repentance for all that we have done wrong is good and necessary but it must be done in light of all that God has given us. If we do not repent while at the same giving thanks then our repentance is incomplete, because it is the generosity and love of God that makes our repentance necessary. It is not until we realize just how much God has given us that we can realize just how much we have failed to respond to His abundant love.

Think of a moment when you have been grateful to God for something. It might be a drink of cool water after time in the hot sun. It might be seeing a beautiful morning glory blooming in your garden. Or it may be eating a delicious bowl of peach cobbler with ice cream. For that moment, we are noticing just one small thing that God has given to us and we give thanks. But how often do we really give thanks to God for all that we have in our life?

If we took the time to thank Him for everything, like we thank Him every once in a while for these small things, we would spend every moment of the rest of our lives thanking Him.

Maybe that is not such a bad idea.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Forgetting Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Cross - The four crosses represent 
spreading the Gospel to the four corners of the world.

If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. - Psalm 137:5

Since it was established by King David 3,000 years ago, Jerusalem has been the center of the faith of the Jewish people. Because Christianity descends from Judaism, we inherit this reverence for the city of Jerusalem, particularly because it is the place that Jesus chose to lay down his life for our sins.

In the Old Testament, Jerusalem is referred to 669 times. I am not sure how many of those times are in the Psalms but I have noticed, in morning and evening prayer, the repeated references to this famed city of God. But I never really understood the focus on Jerusalem for Jews or Christians, until I visited this holy city.

Many people, when speaking of Jerusalem, speak of the clash between Jews, Muslims and Christians. With this in mind, I expected to enter a city full of tension and animosity. But upon entering the gates of Jerusalem, especially the Old City, I immediately noticed people of different faiths who live their faith in a way that in other cities would seem radical. The air of the city is permeated with the scent of God - the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. So many people in Jerusalem are focused on God, He is the center of their lives. I immediately felt at home among the people of this city, even though many of them were not of my faith, (I have said this before but I immediately feel a connection to anyone of any faith who puts God in the center of their lives. I feel that they are truly my brothers and sisters in the radical life of following God).

Graffiti on the walls surrounding Bethlehem
Of course beneath the surface beauty of lives centered on God, I did feel tension and longing in the people of Jerusalem. One of our tour guides was a Palestinian Christian who was working on his PhD, researching why Christians are leaving the Holy Land. He was full of frustration at the way Palestinian Muslims and Christians are treated by Israelis. When we went to Bethlehem, we saw a city surrounded by high walls. The people inside, many of them Christian, are prevented from travelling freely to the places where they might find work. Instead, many of them depend on tourism and unfortunately not all tourist groups go to Palestinian controlled areas. They are struggling to survive.

On the other hand, I felt the longing of the Jewish people when I visited the Temple Mount, the area where the ruins of their Temple lie beneath a Muslim mosque. Many religious Jews long for the Temple to be rebuilt a third time but even though Israel controls Jerusalem, they do not control the Temple Mount area. It is controlled by Muslims and a mosque called the Dome of the Rock is built on top of the place where the Ark of the Covenant was most likely kept in the Temple's Holy of Holies, (Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended from this area). Because Jews are not sure of the exact location of the Holy of Holies, many avoid the Temple area completely, in fear that they might enter a sacred space reserved for priests and violate the Torah. Instead, many Jews visit the Western Wall of the Temple, also called the Wailing Wall, behind which many believe the Ark of the Covenant is buried.

Men praying at the Western Wall
When our group visited this area, I was very moved by the prayerful longing of many of the Jewish people I saw. As they prayed, many of them shed tears. I felt empathy for them. If I lost the one place where God was truly present, I would mourn and long for the day that the Temple would be rebuilt. I approached the wall and prayed for my Jewish friends, slipping a paper in between the cracks, as many people do. When I touched the wall, I felt a shiver go down my spine and I felt the presence of God, perhaps in the Ark of the Covenant buried somewhere beyond the thick wall. As I left, I walked backward, as many of the Jewish people did, because they do not want to turn their back on God. I often see this in adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist; as people leave the chapel they walk backward. This simple similarity made me feel even more empathy with the Jewish people, especially because I believe I am able to be in the real presence of God every day because I believe that God is present in the tabernacle of all Catholic churches in the same way He was present in the Temple.

I left Jerusalem with stereotypes shattered but no concrete feelings about the political situation. It was clear to me that the situation there is much more complicated than perhaps any human mind can comprehend and my heart went out to everyone - Jews, Muslims and Christians - all trying to retain what they believe is sacred and to live their lives centered on the God they know.

As my memories of the Holy Land fade, I keep the memory of Jerusalem in my heart and pray that God will remind me to always keep the people of the sacred city close to me in prayer.

 The best song ever - 
Have fun at the concert Sarah! I wish I could be there...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

God Beyond All Knowing

Mount Moriah as it is today 
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The statutes of the LORD are true, all of them just. - Psalm 19:10

When I was about nine or ten, I piously set out to try and read the entire Bible. I spent late nights with a flashlight in my bedroom closet carefully reading from the very beginning. Instead of being an exercise in piety, it turned out to be quite a traumatic event.

The sex and violence of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, peaked my young curiosity but also shocked me to the core. I was young and innocent and the stories I read seemed dirty and terrible. I was amazed that this holy book was full of people who did such terrible things. Needless to say, I eventually gave up the project.

As I grew older, I continued to approach Scripture, and God, with distrust. My family had multiple discussions about various Old Testament stories at the dinner table and I would inevitably end up pounding my fist on the table and yelling, “If this is the kind of God you want me to believe then forget it!”

On my recent trip to the Holy Land, God held out His hand to me and invited me to explore Scripture with greater depth and an ever more trusting heart. Our leader, Tim Gray, infused each teaching on our trip with explanation of Scripture, to help us understand the God of salvation history. One day that particularly helped me to reevaluate my immature evaluations of some Scripture stories was the day we made our way up Mount Moriah.

Mount Moriah, which is also known as the Temple Mount, because it is the location of the ruins of the Jewish Temple, is a place central to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith. In the Jewish Talmud, the area of Mount Moriah is said to be the center of the world, the place near where Adam was created by God, where Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending a ladder and where the first Temple was built by Solomon. Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended from Mount Moriah, and interestingly, Muslims used to face Mount Moriah in prayer before Muhammad instructed them to change to Mecca. And Christians of course, share the same pivotal events with Judaism until the split of Christianity and Judaism a number of years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

One event that took place on Mount Moriah that is important to all three major religions is when God asks Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him, (Muslims, however, believe it was Ishmael that Abraham almost sacrificed, not Isaac). The story of Abraham and Isaac has always baffled me, and filled me with questions. I think this story has that effect on many people. As one non-practicing Jewish friend said to me when he found out I was converting to Christianity, “But what about God asking Abraham to kill his son – what is up with that?!?” I remember thinking, “Ya, what is up with that?” However, after my conversion, I am able to live with questions like these, knowing God will answer them in His own time.

Mount Moriah now includes the ruins of the Jewish Temple, destroyed in 70AD. In the spot where many believe used to be the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple is a Muslim mosque built around the Foundation Stone, the stone where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. It was here that Tim began to explain to us the significance of the story of Abraham for our faith.

When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, it is impossible to have an understanding of this request outside of the context of the entire story of Abraham. God reaches out to Abraham, telling him that his descendents will be more numerous than the stars. Abraham, after not conceiving with his wife Sarah, takes a concubine Hagar at his wife’s insistence and she conceives a son Ishmael. As Tim points out in his book, Walking with God, oftentimes the Old Testament does not explicitly condemn the actions of its major players but rather indicates when immoral action has taken place in more subtle ways. After Abraham takes Hagar as his concubine, God is silent for seventeen years, indicating His displeasure at the lack of trust on Abraham’s part.

God finally makes Himself felt again in Abraham’s life and makes another covenant with him, this time explicitly telling him that his son will come from his wife Sarah, even though she is very old. As a sign of this covenant, Abraham must circumcise himself and his descendents. This circumcision is a sign of this covenant with God but also Abraham’s punishment for his sin of the flesh.

After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, she convinces Abraham to send his concubine Hagar and his other son Ishmael into the desert. Abraham sends them away with little provisions, although he knew they would most likely die. So, when God tells Abraham to bring his “son Isaac, your only one, whom you love” to the mountain, God is telling Abraham that He has seen Abraham basically killing his son Ishmael and that it will not go unpunished. Abraham, knowing he has done what is evil in God’s eyes, accepts the punishment of God without complaint. 

Abraham, a man who has grown to have a great faith, believes that God will keep His covenant and give him many descendants through his son Isaac. As Hebrews 11:19 tells us, Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead if he so chose. By this point in Abraham’s life, he is well aware of the justice and mercy of God and he knows that whatever God asks is just and right, even if it is difficult to understand.

Popular culture imagines Isaac as a young, innocent child who did not know what was going on as his father leads him to his death but early rabbinic literature portrays him as a young man who willingly and knowingly went with his father to obey God’s command. This is not certain, but we do know that Isaac was old enough and strong enough to carry the wood for the sacrifice and it seems he did not fight against his father, who could have been easily overpowered in his old age.

On the way up the hill, Isaac asks his father where the lamb is for sacrifice, and Abraham responds that God will provide a lamb. In the end, at the moment when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, a ram appears. That’s right, a ram, not a lamb. Abraham sacrifices the ram to God and calls the place YHWH yireh in Hebrew, meaning literally “God will see to it.” Abraham uses the future tense because he recognizes that God has provided a ram, but the lamb of God is still to come. Isaac’s question, “Where is the lamb?” will continue to echo throughout time until the arrival of Jesus.

Many years later King Solomon will build a Temple on this same mountain, where every morning and evening a lamb will be sacrificed to God, a reminder that He has yet to provide a lamb for the final atoning sacrifice for all sin. God, seeing that justice demands a sacrifice for the many sins of humanity, sends his own Beloved Son to be this sacrificial lamb out of His great love for us. John the Baptist will recognize this lamb when he says to his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” at seeing Jesus walk by. Jesus, the only, loved Son of the Father, (as Isaac was for Abraham), will die a stone’s throw from Mount Moriah at the very hour when lambs were sacrificed in the Temple. As Scripture tells us, not a bone was broken in Jesus’ body, as the bones of sacrificial lambs could not be broken. 

In the death of Jesus for our sins and in the story of Abraham and Isaac, God shows us that love and justice cannot be divorced from each other. There must be atonement for our sins, because God is just. So, God sends His own Son to die in our place, because God is love. Sometimes, in our modern culture, we have a tendency to focus on what we think is God’s love (which is more often our excuses for doing what we want) and to forget about God’s justice. This is often behind excuses for not going to mass on Sunday, for not attending confession and for generally not living lives focused on God. “Oh, God will forgive me,” we say nonchalantly. However, God shows us in the story of Abraham that none of our actions are without consequences, natural or divine. Our God is a merciful God, but that does not mean He cannot deny the very reality of who He is – both Truth and Love. 

If God was all love and mercy and no justice, there would have been no need for the death of His Son.

So, where does this leave us? 

The incident of Abraham and Isaac is still not resolved completely in my mind and it most likely is not in yours either. I don’t think it is a story that can be neatly resolved and tucked away. But that may be just what God wants. St. John of the Cross calls God, the "God beyond all knowing." And maybe that is important to remember in maintaining a healthy fear of God, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11.

How should we fear God? 

I think Abraham gives us a good example of someone who falls repeatedly but keeps getting up, trying his best to please God. Fear of God should not be a pathetic trembling before a slave master but a sincere desire to please our Father who always knows better than we do.

Dear God, help us to understand that your will for us is always best even if we do not understand. Help us to follow your will out of love and a healthy fear that motivates us to do what God wills in our life.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Blessed Among Badass Women

Then the Lord God said to the serpent  ... "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel." - Genesis 3:15

You have probably seen statues of Mary portrayed as a beautiful maiden in a long dress with small, bare feet peeking out of her flowing gown. If you look closely at her feet, you will often see a snake writhing beneath her feet, its head in the process of being crushed by her dainty heel. This is a common depiction of Mary, also known as the "New Eve."  She is known by this title because, in contrast to Eve, Mary allowed God to work through her, humbly submitting herself to His will. It was through her docility to God's plan that Jesus came to defeat evil and crush the serpent, Satan.

As I have shared before, I have always had a hard time relating to Mary, or at least the Mary depicted in popular culture. Mary's docility, submissiveness and meekness are her qualities most often emphasized. These are beautiful characteristics, ones that I strive to imitate, but they are not qualities with which I immediately empathize or understand. I rarely hear about the Mary whose little bare feet ruthlessly crushed Satan.

One of the teachings Tim Gray gave to us in the Holy Land was on Mary. We were at Ein Karem, the place where Mary traveled to visit Elizabeth, commonly called the place of the Visitation. There was a light breeze that day as our group was led into the garden behind the church commemorating the Visitation and I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit particularly during this talk. There were many fascinating aspects of the teaching Tim gave us, but the part that most caught my imagination and attention was when he described the Scriptural importance of the phrase "blessed among women," used by Elizabeth when she first greets Mary.

The phrase "blessed among women" is used only two other times in Scripture, in reference to two women of the Old Testament, Judith and Jael. In Judges, the prophetess Deborah honors Jael as "blessed among women" in a victory song rejoicing over the defeat of the Canaanites. Jael is honored because she has managed to do what the armies of Israel could not; she kills Sisera, the leader of the Canaanites. Jael's motivation for killing Sisera is not clear, but it seems that because she is a descendent of the Israelites, she wants to help defeat their mortal enemy. She kills Sisera by luring him into her tent, feigning a desire to show him hospitality and instead she drives a tent peg into his head while he is sleeping. Yes, a tent peg. These women don't mess around.

Judith is the other woman in Scripture who is referred to as "blessed among women" and she is honored for similar reasons because she is the woman responsible for killing Holofernes, the general of King Nebuchadnezzar's army. Nebuchadnezzar was a ruthless king who planned to obliterate the Israelite settlements, including Jerusalem and the newly built Temple because they had not sent him a levy of soldiers for his most recent war. The king chooses his feared general Holofernes for the task. On route to Jerusalem is the little mountain town of Bethulia. Holofernes lays seige to the town and soon the people become desperate as their water supply runs dry. In this moment of desperation a woman named Judith steps into the story.

Judith, a widow of renowned beauty and holiness, gives the leaders of the town a speech filled with the wisdom of one close to God. Uzziah, one of the chief leaders, listens to her and urges her to continue to pray for their success. Judith responds by pretty much saying she is going to do more than sit at home and pray. She warns them that she will be leaving with her maid that night for the enemy camps. Using her great beauty, wisdom and constant prayers, Judith charms her way through the enemy camps and into a tent near the feared general Holofernes. On her fourth day in the camps, she is invited to dine with the general. Her maid serves wine and Holofernes drinks himself into a stupor. Seizing upon her chance, Judith grabs the general' sword, and with two swift cuts, she chops off his head.

At first I was a bit shocked that Mary would be associated with two women who used their womanly guile to lure men to their death. But then I thought about it in the context of salvation history. God, showing favor to the Jews, cultivated a chosen people who would produce the Savior of the world. In this salvation history, there are glorious kings and great leaders who protect and ensure the survival of the Israelites. But it is predominantly through people viewed as small and weak that God shows His great power and mercy to His people and protects them from being defeated and extinguished from history.

The story of David and Goliath is one such example of the weak and small conquering the great. But I am particularly captivated by the many women who are responsible for single handedly maintaining the continued survival of the Jewish people. This is a beautiful way that God communicates the inherent strength and value of women, even amidst ancient cultural values that did not regard women as equals to men. It is also how God communicates Himself, by showing that it is through what is thought of as weak and lowly, that God shows His greatness and power. And through Mary this pattern in salvation history reaches its pinnacle. Through this small Jewish woman, God brings the salvation of the entire world and the defeat of all evil.  Mary is not a prop in God's salvation play, or someone who participated without freedom or action on her part. Rather, Mary is a free, integral player in the story of salvation, just as Jael and Judith's free actions were essential to the survival of the Jewish people. Like Judith and Jael, Mary's yes to God crushes the head of the enemy, not only the enemy of the chosen people but the enemy of all peoples of the world, Gentile and Jew.

After hearing this teaching on Mary in the Holy Land, our group walked out of the gardens in a stunned silence, mulling over its implications. I turned and met the sparkling eyes of a young deacon on our trip who said playfully, "I call that the blessed among badass women talk." I laughed heartily but afterward I began to think more seriously about what this teaching taught me about God.

Two thousand years ago, God, the king and creator of the universe, chose to manifest Himself in our world as a poor child, in a manger. And even in today's world, He chooses to manifest Himself through the small, humble and the weak. I don't think God is just saying, "Be weak and small and I will work through you." He is saying that, but I also think that He is communicating to us how we can grow strong. As the Lord said to St. Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."(2 Corinth 12:9) It is through embracing our weakness and admitting our vulnerabilities, that we become strong.  By embracing our smallness before God, we grow spiritual armor on the inside. And perhaps it is through the very things that we consider our greatest flaws that God will work His greatest acts in us. Through this process, the hope is that eventually, like Mary and Paul, we will become spiritual badasses for Jesus. 

Dearest mother Mary, help us to see you and understand you as you are. You long to put your mantle around us and lead us to your Son. Help us to grow closer to Him, through you, every day. And help us to embrace all that makes us weak because it is through this that God will make us strong enough to enter the gates of heaven.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Wrestling with My Inner Judas

Painting of the risen Jesus in the Cave of Gethsemane
Oh Jesus, watch over me always, especially today, or I shall betray you like Judas. 

                                     - St. Philip Neri

Ever wonder why the Sanhedrin paid Judas a huge sum of money to simply lead their soldiers to a garden? And just how did Judas know exactly where to go in a garden full of trees to find Jesus?

Many of these sorts of questions were answered on my recent trip to the Holy Land. There were many moments when I exclaimed, "WHAT, that is not what I was taught!" One such moment was when we entered the cave of Gethsemane. That's right, Gethsemane is a cave.

Scripture scholars believe that Jesus' agony was not actually in a garden, as most Christians believe, but rather in a cave nearby where olives were pressed. It is believed that Jesus knew the owner of the cave and he allowed Jesus and his disciples the use of the cave for a meeting place. The early Christians apparently agreed with scholars, as the Cave of Gethsemane was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the third and fourth centuries.

Neither Matthew, Mark or Luke mention a "garden" when they speak of Gethsemane. Rather, they use the Greek words for "property" and "place." John uses a Greek word that means "cultivated piece of land" in the relevant passage but he never conflates it with Gethsemane, just the area around it, which is full of olives trees. Instead, when John describes the disciples entering Gethsemane, he uses the Greek phrase that means "to enter into," which implies that some kind of wall surrounded it. We also see that Jesus “went out” of something within the garden to meet the soldiers (John 18:4).

The Greek word "Gethsemane" also suggests a cave, as it comes from the Aramaic or Hebrew word that means "oil-press." Archaeological excavations have found that the Cave of Gethsemane was used for oil pressing, a typical scenario because the warmth within the cave helped the process of pressing oil. Incidentally, the warmth of the cave is also another reason why Jesus and his disciples were probably staying the evening there on what the apostle John tells us was a cold night (John 18:18).

After recovering from the shock of having to revise my traditional image of Jesus' agony under an olive tree, I began to feel a warmth spread through me as my body reacted to the reality that I was standing in the place where Jesus often met with his disciples and most likely shared intimate teachings. But this was also where he agonized over the sins of humanity and where he was betrayed, and I let this knowledge sink in as I sat in the cave before Mass.

Father John, one of the priests with us on the trip, gave a moving homily. He suggested to us that the bulk of Jesus' suffering took place in Gethsemane. It was here that Jesus felt the weight of all of our sins. Fr. John invited us to enter into this suffering that Jesus felt that night by remembering how we contribute to the pain he felt that night. Even if we think that we are doing well, Fr. John reminded us that we can abandon Jesus at any moment. He told us that St. Philip Neri woke up every day, looked in the mirror and begged God not to let him betray him like Judas. My eyes filled with tears at this moment in the homily as I could immediately empathize with this feeling.

I did not always understand this beautiful sentiment of St. Philip Neri. In the period after my conversion and before I entered formation for religious life, I was astonishingly complacent. I was numb to the ways that I could betray God. I was on the right course, or something close to it, so I easily fell into the belief that I was not so bad, at least in comparison to how I used to be and I could always find others who were not doing as well as I was in the spiritual life.

Unfortunately, it did not occur to me that we cannot ever know others' hearts and we certainly do not know where their souls are ending up for eternity, so this line of thinking does not do much good.  It was not until I leaned closer to the mouth of God and heard what He was really asking of me, that I realized that if I really took my faith seriously, I needed to do more than lead a pretty good life. I needed to follow God's inspirations in every moment, in the big things and the small things.

Now, after beginning the road down religious life, I am much less complacent. I can honestly say that I have the urge to cut and run from God's will for me, in the big and little things, just about every day. Sometimes I give in, sometimes I don't.

An entry in my journal recently shows this wrestling with my inner Judas:
I'm lost, like a kid running around the block with her suitcase. I know I can't really run from your will but I wish I could. I'm just a kid wishing she could make her own plans. Wishing for summer all year long and junk food for dinner. Help me Jesus.

Truly, help me Jesus.

Help us all to realize the depth of our sin, the seriousness of all that we are capable of doing, and the endless possible ways that we may end up contributing to your terrible suffering on that lonely night in Gethsemane.

Save us every day dear Jesus from becoming yet another Judas to you.

Friday, June 17, 2011

153 Fish in the Sea

The Miraculous Catch of 153 Fish - Duccio, 14th century
Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.   -  John 21:11
I am without notes for this blog post. So, I will write about my experience at the Sea of Galilee because it was this talk by Tim Gray, our amazing tour leader, to which I paid the least attention. The fault lies squarely with me: there is something about blue water, the wind in my hair and gorgeous scenery that leaves my mind blank and my note-taking hands paralyzed.

During our first days in the Holy Land, my tour group was lucky enough to be in a hotel in Tiberius looking directly out onto the Sea of Galilee. While we were there, I began to understand why Jesus spent so much time in this area. Even with blaring music from waterside discos, light shows, and boats full of late night partyers, the Sea had a mesmerizing peacefulness to it. It was as if no matter what people did, nothing could override the sense of peace that hung in the air. It seemed to exist without people's permission or cooperation. Perhaps this is why, in a world full of chaos and people clamoring for him, the Sea of Galilee was the choice place of escape for Jesus.

During our time in Tiberius, our group took a ride on the Sea of Galilee and Tim talked about Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John when Jesus appears to the disciples for the third time after his resurrection. In the passage, the disciples are fishing. Jesus calls out to them from the shore and tells them to put their net on the right side of the boat. The disciples do not recognize Jesus, but they follow his instructions and Peter pulls up the net bursting with 153 fish. The beloved apostle, John, recognizes Jesus in that moment and Peter, in his characteristic exuberance jumps into the Sea and swims to Jesus.

Scholars have long been baffled by the precision of the number of fish John recorded as caught that day and there are competing theories as to its significance. In his teaching to us, Tim pointed out that Aristotle believed there were 153 species of fish in his time; the idea being that Peter caught all the species of fish and that it is a metaphor for the true Church which is composed of all peoples on the world. Most scholars agree that the number 153 is meant by the apostle John to represent the universal Church. But I wanted to know a little more so I dug a little deeper into the significance of the number 153 and found many fascinating ideas.

Firstly, it is important to realize that the analysis of numbers in Scripture is not always hokey numerology (like the numerology that resulted in Harold Camping's strange prediction that the end of the world would be on May 21, 2011). The analysis of numbers, or gematria, has been used by the Jewish people in Scripture analysis for many thousands of years. In both Hebrew and Greek, the letters of the alphabet can serve as both letters and numbers. An example of this is that the book of Proverbs contains exactly 375 proverbs written by Solomon. 375 is also the numerical value of the name "Solomon." Numbers in Scripture have always been meaningful, which is why scholars are so interested in this particular number of fish. When a precise number is used in Scripture, there is almost always a deeper meaning.

Here are some of the many interesting analyses that I found about the use of the number 153:
  • If you add the digits of 153 you get 9 which is 3x3 or 3 sets of 3. You can guess why the number 3 is significant, for more read here. 
  • The Greek words "fishnet" and "fishing" are both exactly 8 x 153. In Scripture, the number 8 always refers to the Anointed One, the Messiah, or to the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
  • 153 is also a triangular number, meaning that an equilateral (3-sided) triangle can be uniformly filled with 153 dots. A triangle is often used to represent or to explain the concept of the Trinity, that God is three in one.
  • 153 is the number of Psalms plus the Trinity! (And the number of Hail Marys in the full traditional rosary)
     Have I lost you?

    Anyway, whatever you think of this kind of analysis, I wanted to write about this because it helps to illustrate an important lesson that I learned on my trip. I have always been a little put off by the idea of reading the Bible over and over again. Most of this comes from the pride of desiring novelty. I do not like repeating, rereading, rewriting, watching more than once or redoing anything. It bores me.

    And sure, I have heard over and over again that when we read a passage of Scripture more than once it is never the same because we are never the same. Sure, sure, I know this. As a postulant with a religious order, I read the daily Gospel every day and meditate on it for a half hour but honestly, the thought of reading the same Gospel stories over and over again every morning was not exciting to me, despite many fruitful prayer times.

    But now I can honestly say, I am excited. I have learned, primarily through Tim Gray's teachings on my trip, that every single word in Scripture is pregnant with meaning that is not immediately discernible. And if you pay attention, it is possible to pick up on the many messages that God sends us through small details, like the 153 fish.