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!

Theresa

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.

      Monday, June 13, 2011

      Whose Dust Are You Covered In?

      As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him. - Matthew 4:18-20
      Capernaum was only recently uncovered by archaeologist in 1838, so unlike most holy sites in the Holy Land, it is one of the few that is not inhabited by anyone aside from the Franciscans who maintain the land and buildings. That Capernaum is now uninhabited is a blessing in a land where many holy sites are hidden amid crowds of people, shops and layers of modernization. The lack of visual and auditory noise allowed me to drink in the atmosphere of the abandoned city, the city in which Jesus spent much of his time and where his apostles Peter, James, John, Andrew and Matthew hailed from.

      This was the first site I walked on that Jesus also walked on and I will never forget that first experience. My whole being vibrated with the excitement and knowledge that God walked upon the very same earth that my feet were walking upon.

      I walked around the ruins that were built on the very synagogue where Jesus walked, talked, preached and performed miracles. He would have cured the demoniac, preached the Bread of Life discourse, and healed the man with the withered hand there. And just a few hundred feet away, the ruins of the house of Peter still remain. It is believed that the ruins are the house of Peter because ancient graffiti reveal that early Christians revered the spot and made it into one of the earliest churches where they worshiped. For more archaeological information on Capernaum, check here.

      When we visited all of the sites in the Holy Land our tour leader, Tim Gray, would give us a teaching.  My trip would not have been the same without these teachings. In all of them, I learned new things that gave my faith new texture and vibrancy.

      At Capernaum, Tim told us that near the city a school for studying the Torah was uncovered by archaeologists. The school would have been up and running during the time of Peter, the apostle of Jesus. In that day, young Jewish boys would attend local schools where they would study the Torah. The most promising of these boys would be chosen to continue to study under the rabbi and perhaps one day become rabbis themselves. Peter was a fisherman so we can conclude that he was most likely not one of the most promising students of his time and was not chosen to study the Torah more closely.

      In rabbinic literature studying the Torah is one of the most important things that a Jewish person can do. The Talmud teaches that studying the Torah is an even greater mitzvah or commandment than saving a human life, (the most common reasoning being that studying the Torah leads to saved lives as well, just in another way.)

      There is phrase in the Mishna that says, "May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi," which reveals again the importance of studying the Torah but also of studying under someone who knows and understands Scripture well. All of these facts provide the background to the part in Scripture when Jesus walks by Peter and says to him, "Come follow me."

      It has always struck me as strange that Peter left his boat and immediately followed Jesus. Even if Peter knew Jesus was performing miracles and was a famous rabbi, why would he drop everything right away? Was he really that holy and in tune with God's will for him? The context of Judaism at the time helps me to understand, as Tim Gray suggests, that Peter was following a rabbi, a rabbi who saw something in this rough fisherman that his teachers had overlooked. Peter followed Jesus in the hope and knowledge that this was his only opportunity to be covered in the dust of a rabbi. Little did he know that Jesus was the rabbi of all rabbis.

      As I walked around exploring Capernaum, the town covered in dust until little over a century ago, I ask myself the question that Tim Gray ended his teaching with - "Whose dust am I covered in?" If we could literally follow the persons and things in our life that take the most of our time and energy, whose dust would we be covered in? Would it be our TVs? Our iPhones? Our computers? Our obsessions? Our anger? How many people can say that the majority of their time is spent following Jesus? I can't and I live in a convent.

      Like Peter, we are called to follow Jesus and give over to him all corners of our lives. We can't know Jesus and continue fishing. We have to take risks and leave behind those things in our life that need to be left behind in order to be covered in the dust of God.

      So let's get dirty.

      Tuesday, June 7, 2011

      Spiritual Epicenter - Arriving in the Holy Land

      View of Jersualm from Mt. Scopes
      I never really considered going to the Holy Land. It was always a far away place that I figured I would make it to sometime - maybe.

      Before my conversion I did not consider going because it just was not the place to travel if you do not have sufficient motivation. And after my conversion, it just seemed like too much, like something that I should put off as much as possible in much the same way that early Christians put off their baptism until their death bed. It was just not something that I felt I was ready for or deserved.

      When my parents invited me to go to the Holy Land, I initially thought, "No way." I did not feel worthy. I also thought, "If I go to the Holy Land, what more is there for me to do?" But I took it to prayer and at one point in front of the tabernacle I heard Jesus say to me, "Come see me. See my home. Understand me." I did not quite understand what Jesus was saying to me but I obediently made plans to join my parents on the trip.

      Even though I was pretty confident I had heard an affirmative answer in prayer, serious doubts crept into my mind as the trip drew near. I think humans, despite our constant clinging and grasping at pleasure, have a hard time reaching for what is good or accepting the good in our lives. For me, this comes from the fear that all that is good cannot last, and the belief that there is a limit to the good things that can happen to me. Eventually, I always feel like I am living in a house of cards, the good things in my life have to come tumbling down at some point or reach some kind of limit. These feelings also come from my incomplete understanding of love. Human love is limited and conditional. It runs out, gets impatients and sometimes stops altogether. And sometimes we project our own limitations on God and what we believe His will is for our lives. It is often hard for me to believe that what He wills will be something that I consider to be good. I always expect challenges and difficulties from God but rarely pleasure and fun. It is easier for God to surprise me that way but it also makes for a pretty distrustful relationship. I am always checking my peripheral vision, trying to see what is coming up from behind me to ruin my happiness.

      But thankfully, despite my misgivings, lack of trust and doubts, I made it to the Holy Land.

      Stepping for the first time on the soil of the epicenter of the world, I felt the desire to fall to my knees and kiss the ground. As we drove from the airport to the Sea of Galilee I looked out the windows of the bus and a strange feeling of being at home washed over me. It was a feeling that frankly, I did not expect. I am not Jewish so how can I feel at home in this land that is so far from mine, so different from mine?

      It was a feeling that I would explore and absorb and rest in for the rest of my trip.

      Next - Capernaum

      Monday, May 9, 2011

      I Am Not Worthy

      (From the movie Jesus of Nazareth, 1977)
      When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully."  He said to him,  "I will come and cure him."  The centurion said in reply,  "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. - Matthew 8:5-8

      In Capernaum, the city of unbelievers, Jesus found one person of great faith. In charge of a hundred men, a man who knows war and bloodshed is the one to see the Healer of all healers and believe.

      A pagan calls a Jewish man "Lord." Knowing that Jewish law forbids a Jew to enter the house of a Roman, he says with humility, "I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof."

      How many of us feel unworthy to be Christians? Unworthy to be saved? Unworthy to receive Jesus under our roof, in our body's house - in the sacrament of the Eucharist?

      Before Catholics receive the Eucharist in the liturgy of the Mass, we echo the words of the centurion, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, only say the word and I shall be healed."

      But how many of us believe this?

      There are too many blank, bored, and rebellious faces in line to receive Jesus in their hands, as if it is their right, as if He is a snack or part of a meaningless ritual. I include myself in the legions of people who do not always receive Jesus with the proper sense of respect - have I ever had enough reverence to receive God inside my body?

      The Eucharist is the most radical belief of all religious beliefs. I have never heard of anything more insane. God coming down from heaven and giving Himself in the fullness of His body, blood, soul and divinity to us, to eat.  And yet, I know that it is true. How do I know this? I feel Jesus' presence in the tabernacle. I hear Him speak to me from the tabernacle. He drew me from a life of sin back to Him from the tabernacle. Religious life sustained for thousands of years on a large scale would not have been possible without Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. I also know that my current way of life (poor, celibate, obedient to my superior and living with nine other people) would be impossible without Jesus in the Eucharist. I'd be gone in a few months.

      And finally, I believe in the Eucharist because Jesus told me to.

      The centurion showed faith in Jesus' ability to do anything. Do we believe God can do anything?

      The centurion returned home to a healed servant, his heart full of joy. What does Jesus have in store for us when we believe that Jesus is really present in the tabernacle and when we receive Him with reverence and faith in the Eucharist?

      Monday, April 25, 2011

      Falling Stars of Joy

      All joy...emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings. - C.S. Lewis

      Overnight Jesus turns our sorrow into joy, and like the apostles we can hardly believe it. We almost want to return to the darkness because we know it and it is comfortable.

      How do we celebrate this momentous anniversary of God rising from the dead to save us from our sins?

      We dress up in white, adorn the churches in lilies and eat chocolate bunnies. Somehow it does not seem to be enough. We feel a burning joy, a peaceful joy that we do not see on the faces of our brothers and sisters who do not know God. But we know even this intense feeling is still just a shadow, a faint glimmer. Our hearts know that the fullness of joy cannot be found in any celebration on Earth, even the celebration of our Savior rising from the dead.

      We are a waiting people, catching falling stars of joy from God's hands. God from God, Light from Light. At the end of our lives, through the very evil of death that Jesus has now transformed, we know and hope that we will be united to the glowing source of Light to experience eternal joy. 

      We squirm in our seats at the very thought of never-ending joy - we are not even sure we want it or are really ready for it. And it is true, most of us are not ready. But this is why Jesus died, to unlock the gates and over time to make us ready.

      Jesus our Savior - make us ready to fully experience your Easter joy in heaven.

      Alleluia!

      Saturday, April 23, 2011

      Triduum Meditation

      They gave him wine to drink mixed with gall, which he tasted but refused to drink. - Matthew 27:34

      When Jesus died on the cross, he gave everything he had and suffered all that he could suffer, he did not even accept wine to dull the pain.  Jesus was like a mother giving birth to salvation without an epidural. He did not die on the cross like a smiling Buddha or an ecstatic martyr. He denied himself his own grace of a peaceful death because he knew the deeper he went into the emptiness - the closer he brought divinity to the evil he was to overcome - the greater the flow of grace would be.

      When Jesus says, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" he is not telling us like a grey-haired professor to refer to Psalm 22 to interpret his passion - he is referring us to the Psalm, yes, but the desolation he feels is real. The separation he feels from the Father is as real as the evil that crushes in on him. The cry of his heart is a cry that helps us to see that there is truly no pain that we feel in this life that he does not understand - even the felt abandonment of God.

      Jesus died this way, suffering so much, because he could not do it any other way. In the way Jesus dies, he teaches us about himself, about Love.

      Love does not love because he will receive something in return. Love does not love just enough to do the job and then hold back. Love does not love until it is too hard or too ugly to love. Love loves with everything he has, he empties himself until there is nothing left to give. Love dies for those he loves, whether it is one person or one million - the number does not change the sacrifice. I believe Jesus would have died in exactly the same way, feeling the same pain, if it had just been for you. Love cannot scale down or back away. Love does not avoid any sacrifice for his beloved - Love knows that experiencing pain is the only passageway to giving new life.

      In dying on the cross Jesus opened the doors to heaven for us. The way he died shows us how to follow him to true joy on earth and ultimately to heaven. If there were another way, Jesus would have shown us. We must die to ourselves to follow our Savior. We must empty ourselves in love until the emptiness overwhelms us. We must experience the silence and despair of the tomb to experience the resurrection.

      Do we think we can avoid the cross of suffering to find resurrection joy? Jesus did not, and he asks us to come and follow him.

      I will follow you Jesus, wherever you ask me to, because I know that it will lead to my own joyous resurrection. 

      Sunday, April 17, 2011

      Save Me from Mediocrity

      Do not be afraid. Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch. - Blessed JP II

       We are nearing the Holy Triduum, when we remember in a special way the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

      We live in a culture where very little is considered a sin, if we even use that word at all anymore. In some churches I have noticed pastors completely avoid the word, as if we have evolved beyond thinking about our sinfulness. If that is the case, we might as well stop calling ourselves Christians, because Jesus did not die for the righteous, He died for sinners.

      So, how does this blindness affect our understanding of Jesus' death on the cross?

      For my part, I am sure that modern culture combined with my own sinfulness prevents me from fully understanding and appreciating the death of Jesus. But I know that the only way I can understand my sinfulness is to move closer and closer to God, (the difference between His goodness and who I am becomes clearer).

      And for this reason I am grateful for Lent which has been a solid kick in the pants for me. Jesus helped me to see during these forty days that sin is not just what I do, although this has a huge affect on my soul, it is also who I am - inside and out, what I think, and what I don't do. And Jesus helped me to see that there is a lot to work on.

      In the Catholic Church we pray the confiteor at the beginning of every mass which includes these words, "I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do."

      What do I not do? I think I was too overwhelmed by my endless exterior sins to even go there before. And I have a sneaking suspicion that many people are like me and only want to focus on their exterior mortal and venial sins, and sometimes this lasts for their whole lives. But I am learning that true holiness does not begin until we start to focus not only on our exteriors but also on our thoughts, our insides, as well as the endless "what ifs" - the countless promptings of the Holy Spirit that we ignore every day. Jesus wants to transform us from the inside out, He does not want to make us into modern day Pharisees, looking good on the outside, while rotting on the inside. The outside of us is just the beginning. This was one of Jesus' main messages in the Gospels.

      It may seem like too much to think about but consider this...

      Jesus did not just die to save us from hell, He also died to save us from mediocrity.

      The Church teaches that the grace of Jesus' death not only saves us from eternal separation from God for our continual disobedience to God, it also gives us grace to become holier, to become saints. The first grace of heaven we can never merit in any sense of the word. God's grace is always completely generous, coming from His gratuitous love but we can receive graces to become holier through what we do, because God chose to save us this way out of pure generosity. In other words, God wants our cooperation in the work of the Spirit and like a Father rewarding His toddler for eating all her food, out of His love and nothing else, He rewards us for our good actions.

      What does this all mean? It means that God's plan of salvation was not to just die for our sins so we would avoid eternal separation from Him, it was also to provide us with the grace we need to become holier every day, to become more like Him, so that we will be prepared to see Him in heaven. We are all called to be saints, every single one of us. And on this road to sanctity, we will begin to understand the gravity of our sins in a real way and enter more deeply into the mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection.

      So this Holy Week, join me in this prayer, that we may become saints. Jesus make us more like you every day. Let's become the saints He made us to be.

      We can do it, with God's grace, and here's some inspiration:


      Friday, April 8, 2011

      Tis the Season


      Lent is a great time to take advantage of the gift we have in the sacrament of Reconciliation. We can prepare our souls through reconciliation by increasing the grace of Baptism or reigniting the fire of the Holy Spirit if we have committed mortal sin.

      Reconciliation allows us to begin again in Christ. It is the very death of Christ that gave us the beautiful graces of this sacrament. The forgiveness of sins and the grace that comes from Jesus' death on the cross is given to us in the sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation.

      Reconciliation helps us to admit that we are sinners in a society where it is easy to lose our sense of sin. But if we are not sinners, then why did Jesus die for us? A good way to thank Jesus for dying for our sins this Lent is to show Him that we are really repentant and desire His grace; grace He is ready to pour out on us through this sacrament.

      What is a little embarrassment compared to the joy we feel when God forgives and heals us?

      Why go...


      How to go...

      Tuesday, April 5, 2011

      Clean the Temple of Your Heart

      Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men's bones and every kind of filth.   -  Matthew 23:27

      I am leading a book club with one of the other postulants on Graham Greene's classic  The Power and the Glory. The main character is a priest who is running for his life during the persecutions that religious endured after the 1910 revolution in Mexico.

      The priest is not a saint; he is an alcoholic who fathered a child in a moment of inebriated weakness. He finds himself on the run, the last priest in the Mexican state. He knows he does not deserve to be a martyr and he is afraid to die. Graham Greene, in typical fashion, creates a story with no easy answers, a story that challenges as much as it frustrates.

      Which is why not everyone in the book club liked the novel. One woman said with a grimace, "This story is grim." And it truly is. But I have learned a lot from reading the book, especially from the main character, the priest (who remains unnamed throughout the story).

      The priest knows he is weak, sinful and undeserving of God's love. But the reader begins to discover a true humility and capacity for forgiveness in this unlikely character. He is able to forgive even the most heinous behavior from others because he understands that he is a sinner himself and has no right to judge that others are worse. At one point in the book he says with emotion, "If there's ever been a single man in this state damned, then I'll be damned too ... I wouldn't want it to be any different. I just want justice, that's all."

      Unfortunately, many people, including myself, are not as holy on the inside as we are on the outside. We get caught up in the exteriors of spiritual life. We focus on eliminating sins that others can see. And once we get to a point where our outward sins cause us less embarrassment and we feel justified, we sit back on the porch of our spiritual life and complacently drink lemonade. We lull ourselves into mediocrity by comparing, always finding other people who make us feel like we have it together spiritually. We think, "Well, at least I am not that bad." We only work hard spiritually when our messy insides begin to show on the outside. We keep up appearances, but not much else.

      The priest in The Power and the Glory is a mess on the exterior but on the interior his heart is clean. He does not harbor hate or anger towards people. He does not let negative feelings and unforgiveness build up inside, turning the temple walls of his soul black with poison. He does not think he is better than other people. He does not judge. The priest knows his place in relation to God. He understands his nothingness. I may not be an alcoholic with an illegitimate child but I cannot say the same about myself.

      Maybe you can recognize the priest in the parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees:

      Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity--greedy, dishonest, adulterous--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.' But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.' I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted. - Luke 18:11-14


      Jesus seems to suggest in this parable that he would rather have a person who sins outwardly on His hands than a person who seems to have it together on the outside but thinks he is better than others and has no need for forgiveness. Of course Jesus calls us to both inward and outward holiness. God is not only looking for outward adherence to His law; He is looking for a deep conversion of our hearts.

      Jesus wants us to cleanse the temples of our hearts and Lent is a good time to do this. It is a time to admit that we do not have it together and even if we have it together on the outside, our insides need serious deep cleaning. God is not looking for meaningless exterior penances in this time of conversion, He only wants penance when it cleans our heart. Together in these next few weeks of Lent, let us focus on the interior walls of our heart. Every day God is giving us opportunities to clean up the dark soot that has gathered there. The blackness of sin keeps us from seeing the face of God.

      So, before Easter arrives, let's do some spring cleaning!

      Thursday, March 24, 2011

      The Vertical Life

      Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. - Genesis 3:19
      When I was discerning religious life, God shared with me a moment of grace that helped me to put things into perspective.

      I was visiting a religious congregation in California and as I walked around the grounds of the convent alone, I stumbled on the cemetery where their sisters are laid to rest. The sisters were buried with their gravestones facing each other as if they were standing in choir, reciting the daily office. When I saw the white stones gleaming in the sun, for a moment God gave me an outside view of my life.

      To my surprise, it was not horizontal as I had been envisioning, it was vertical.

      Instead of seeing life as something that began with my birth and would end with my death, I saw it as something that began much earlier than my birth in the timeless mind of God. I realized that who I am is so much bigger than just my life on earth. In some mysterious way, I realized that my life on earth would determine who I was eternally. I suddenly had the desire to stop running away from my vocation and get down to business because I had already wasted so much time living for myself instead of for God.

      On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we will return. This reminder is not morbid but rather a reminder to refocus our lives on what matters. God should be all that we live for, if we are living for anything else, we are wasting our life on Earth and endangering who we are supposed to be eternally.

      In some ways our life now is a preparation for one moment, the moment of our death. In the moment of our death, we are either ready to see God or not. This is not usually something that is decided in that moment but in every moment of our lives leading up to it.

      One person who lived her life for God was Sr. Cecilia Paula. I did not know her but as the sisters around me mourned her recent death at the young age of 57, I could see that she had lived a life centered on God. She left a beautiful video reflection on death that I would like to share with you. You can find the video of her last wishes at Sr. Helena's blog.

      May we continue in the Lenten spirit with our impending death in mind. We do this not in order to focus on death but to focus on life - eternal life. We hope and pray that this will give us motivation to cut out the things in our life and heart that are keeping us from centering our lives on God.

      Friday, March 18, 2011

      Saying Goodbye to Mimi

      Death, the greatest evil that humans can ever experience came to my grandmother Nancy last afternoon. When I heard earlier this week that she was dying I went to the chapel.  I did not know where else to go. Some may expect a person who is entering religious life to piously thank God for the passage of a beloved family member into eternal life but this was not my response. Deep grief and intense pain was all I felt. As I blindly felt my way around in the abyss of despair that evening, I questioned everything, including the existence of God.

      Some may be shocked at this reaction, but I think that when one enters into the reality of death and experiences the evil of it, one is shook to the core. Death is not beautiful. Eternity with God beyond death is beautiful, but life being snuffed out is not beautiful. God is life. Death, like sin does not have its origin in God.

      When death happens to someone we love we question God. He is omnipotent, why did He allow life to include this gruesome reality?

      I am comforted by the response I found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question ... There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil. (CCC, 309)

      This answer may seem like a cop out to some. The Catechism has an amazing way of summing up the mysteries of life and faith with clear ease and I expected a neat and tidy paragraph responding to my pain. But I was left with something better. Go back into your faith the Catechism was saying. Live your faith to the fullest. It is only in your Christian faith that you will find an answer.

      My grandmother was 90 years old. She lived a beautiful life and in her last years she was pure love. God truly transformed her as she made her way to meet Him. He prepared her for meeting Him by giving her a heart that loved like a child, with vulnerability and depth.

      I do not know where my grandmother is now. The only thing I know with absolute assurance is that there is a God. I know this God. And I give her to Him with trust and hope. I give her to Him with the knowledge that my God is the God of resurrection. My God is the God of life.

      Goodbye Mimi.

      Saturday, March 12, 2011

      Following the Trinity

      Now this is the Catholic faith: We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance; for the person of the Father is one, the Son's is another, the Holy Spirit's another; but the Godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one.   - The Athanasius Creed

      The Trinity has been the focus of my studies recently in class and in life. But I realized today that my journey with the Trinity began several years ago when I was walking down a country road in Costa Rica. It was on that road that I suddenly realized that a personal God existed and that my life needed to change.

      Before my conversion, I believed in something akin to God. I was quasi-spiritual, investigating all sorts of different religions, but meanwhile making a wide ring around Christianity. I had absorbed a common secular view that most Christians are ignorant, uneducated sheep and I refused to associate myself with the religion.

      I wanted to be “spiritual” but I did not want anything to do with Jesus, I had heard His name too much. I was full of arrogance and sought spiritual novelty, (a common disease among the prideful).

      When I believed that God was an It, spirituality merely took a periphery place in my life. After all, why is it important to pursue God if He is not pursuing you? But the moment I realized that God had a personality, He loved me, wanted me to know Him and had a plan for my life, that was the moment my life changed.

      The moment God revealed Himself to me as a personal God; I began to know the person of the Trinity who is called the Father. I knew that God cared for me, protected me and looked after me. I knew that God is not male in the same sense that my earthly father is male but I did know instinctively that “He” was the proper pronoun to call God, when a pronoun is needed for this awe-inspiring being that transcends all categories.

      I slowly began to get to know this Father. I stayed with the Father for a long time. Even after moving into the Catholic Church, I stayed with Him and did not think much about the other persons of the Trinity, including Jesus. I was in good company after all; this is where good Muslims and Jews and other non-Christian monotheists stay, with God the Father, who is the “source and origin of all divinity.”  

      But God was not satisfied with this. He began to reveal Himself to me through the person of the Holy Spirit. I met the Holy Spirit most powerfully when I was confirmed a few years ago. By God’s grace, I actually felt the action of the Holy Spirit in my body at the moment of confirmation and described it later in a poem, part of which is below:

      The oil drips down my forehead
      I can feel the Spirit sinking into my soul,
      I breath deeply
      My pores widen
      The Spirit, like the oil, sinks into my being
      Making Himself a home
      He finds the fire of my Baptism,
      It is ablaze.

      It was only later that I read this line in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Holy Spirit, whose anointing permeates our whole being, is the interior Master of Christian prayer.” I love the word "permeates" to describe the presence of the Holy Spirit, this is exactly what I felt when I was confirmed.

      God saved the best for last when He finally saw that I was open enough to learn more about His son Jesus. He did this through several things, the most important being Eucharistic Adoration. It is impossible to spend time in a quiet room with Jesus and not get to know Him.

      He also reintroduced His Son through a movie that I knew from childhood but had not watching in years: Jesus of Nazareth, (best movie ever). One Lent I watched this entire movie and I finally was reunited with the man I was in love with as a child, this God-man who still magnetizes people 2,000 years after his death and resurrection.  I entered into the magnetism that is the person of Jesus Christ and I have never stepped out. 

      Only God could charm the world like Jesus has. Only God could save us from death. I knew instinctively that all of these persons I had met within God, were all the same God. The God who called me out of darkness, the God who knit me in my mother's womb, the God who died to save me.

      This Lent, let us enter into the mystery of the Trinity. 

      The Father who gave His son Jesus to die for us. Jesus, whose very name is a prayer, the God-man who came to save us from our sins and reunite us with His Father. The Holy Spirit who permeates our being, if we allow Him, teaching us how to pray.

      We deserved eternal death for our sins but God took our place. God allowed nails to be driven through His hands and feet, a crown of thorns to be placed on His head, because He knows and loves each and every one of you. Enter into this mystery that is God, Creator of the universe, dying on a cross. Let us allow this mystery, the forgiveness of our sins, wash over us and fill us with gratitude this Lenten season.

      Monday, March 7, 2011

      Lent is coming, are you ready?

      Our Lenten readings begin with the temptation of Jesus in the desert. In the video below, Fr. Barron discusses how we are tempted in much the same ways that Jesus was:


       

      "The devil tries to order our lives toward something other than our Creator...."

      We are all meant to enter the desert with Jesus during Lent and confront the ways that the devil is tempting us to center our lives on something other than God.

      C.S. Lewis' book, The Screwtape Letters illustrates this idea. In it, a "senior" devil gives advice to another devil telling him that mediocrity is really their goal for every person they tempt, the most sure-fire way to get someone to hell. The senior devil advises that it does not make sense to lead a person to really serious sin because there is always the danger they may have a dramatic conversion and become a saint.

      Are we mediocre in our response to God's love? 

      What is diverting our attention from our Creator? Are we in danger of living a life where our focus is on other things and other people, even during the few hours a week that we may be in a place of worship? 

      Fr. Barron points out that we often seek things outside of God in sensual pleasure (sex, but also food, entertainment, etc), honor, and glory (self-centered living) - all of the things that Jesus was tempted with in the desert. 

      Even the smallest things can be seriously diverting our attention from God - coffee, Facebook, our iPhone. How many times a day do we think about getting our coffee fix or checking Facebook in comparison to how many times we think about and converse with God? (It was not long after I kept thinking of potential Facebook statuses in mass that I realized I really needed to take a break from social media for a while).

      Dear friends, let us enter this Lenten time with enthusiasm and passion. Let us strip ourselves these forty days of at least one thing in our life that lead us away from God. After the initial pain of letting go, we will start to feel a peace that is not found in anything other than living for and with God.

      What is God asking you to let go of? 

      It is usually the one thing you are holding on to the tightest.