Grace in the wilderness

The wilderness in the Bible is not a happy place. It is a place of testing, of struggle, of judgement, of purification to a painful degree. The children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Both Jesus and John the Baptist spent time in the wilderness fasting, praying and being tempted before their public ministries began. And yet the prophet Jeremiah tells us that there is “grace in the wilderness” (31.2).

Grace is God’s Life in us, the very food and strength of our souls. Without grace, we are dead. I, and I dare say most of us, struggle when bad things happen. When I’m tested, tempted, subjected to trials. If Jeremiah is right, though, that’s exactly where I need to be because that’s where the grace is found.

I’m not saying I need to go looking for the wilderness–far from it! But if I see each trouble as an opportunity for grace, the pain of the moment (for in the light of eternity, even a lifetime is a moment) is made bearable. I can even begin to welcome the struggles, to bear my cross cheerfully, knowing that I’ll find that most precious gift, grace.

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Just wanna be all by myself

Sometimes I get to the point where I am run down, stressed out, and find myself needing to “withdraw…to a deserted place” by myself (Matt. 14. 13). I also find that that’s when I’m called on most to be present for others. So far I think I have succeeded in responding to this need in others approximately zero times. When I read today’s gospel, it struck me that this is a real problem for me and that Jesus and his apostles have experienced it, too.

Jesus was saddened by the death of his cousin and felt the need to get away by himself. So far, so good. The people followed him, however, and instead of getting frustrated and angry at them, “he had compassion for them.” (v.14) And this is where I see that He’s perfect and I most certainly am not. I do not have compassion on the people who dare need me when I’m drained. Less compassion, more ‘enter at your own risk.’

Not only did Jesus have compassion and spend the rest of the day speaking to the people, He would not send them away, like His disciples suggested. Instead (and this is what spoke to me) He said to His disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” The disciples respond, “But how? We have nothing to give them!”(v.16, 17)

That’s how I feel. All these people need me: my husband, my children, my extended family, friends, strangers. I ask God to care for them in some other way, but He says, “You give them what they need.” I cry, I beg, I whine and stomp my feet. “But I don’t have anything! I barely have enough strength to be nice, let alone give them what they need!”

Then comes the rest of the story. Jesus says to the disciples’ lack of goods, “Bring them here to me.” (v.18) That’s all I have to do. I have to bring him my stress, my fatigue, my irritation, my ‘barely-holding-it-together-here’ and give it to Him. He’ll bless it and miraculously multiply my lack so that it can feed all those He brings to me. I just have to bring it to be blessed, and then give it away.

A joy and a delight

“…thy words became to me a joy, and the delight of my heart.” Jer. 15.16

These words struck me as I read today’s mass readings. God’s words are a joy to me and the delight of my heart. Is that true? Many things delight my heart: my children, my husband, books, fall days, temperatures below 70, solitude. Do God’s words make that list? I’d have to say, yes, but I don’t take advantage of tasting that delight and experiencing that joy often enough.

First, a word about happiness and joy. Happiness is a fleeting feeling based upon circumstances (my kids are obeying, everyone liked dinner, we have plenty of money, I did something fun), while joy is an emotion of delight that lasts despite what may be happening. It can exist with sorrow and suffering. In fact, the deeper the suffering I experience, the greater is my capacity for joy.

Anyway, so God’s words–when He speaks to me in silence, through His love letter (the Bible), and through persons and circumstances–bring me that lasting delight. When I read God’s Word, I often feel a sense of calm, of safety, of assurance. That all is right and orderly. Not always. Sometimes I feel nothing. That doesn’t mean the joy isn’t there. It’s just hidden.

My God, thank you for the joy of your words. May I listen to them, delight in them and share them.

 

 

Bearing Fruit

Yesterday wrapped up the readings from the book of Hosea. In the last chapter, God tells his people how he will heal and restore them if they will only turn back to him. He reminds them who it is that hears their prayers and looks after them. Not the idols they have been worshipping, but himself, God the creator of all. “From me comes your fruit” (14.8).

Christ echoes these words when he says, “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15. 5).

Sometimes I forget that any progress I’ve made climbing the Mountain of God has not come from my own efforts, but from the sheer gratuitous grace of God. Any time I have had success in showing forth the virtue of patience has been God’s gift, not my achievement. And so on with mortification or piety or charity or mercy. It is not by my power that any good thing has happened, but only by God’s.

Directly after he murders the king, Macbeth ponders why he cannot say “Amen” after hearing men bless themselves. It is because he has closed his soul to grace and its fruits by committing a mortal sin. If he, like the people of Israel, would turn back to God and repent of his sin, he would be restored and find himself able to bring forth fruits again.

 

The best laid plans

Hosea is one of my favorite minor prophets. Actually, that distinction goes to Jonah (I get how Jonah feels. Check out 4.9). Hosea, though, gives a glimpse of God’s great love for His people. It shows his vulnerable side, his never-ending mercy and desire for His people’s love. When I was reading this section of Hosea today, this verse struck me: “They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but without my knowledge” (Hosea 8.4).

The people of Israel have turned their backs on God time and again. Here God is complaining that though He should be an integral part in their lives, having an intimate knowledge and part in all their decisions, He is swept aside.

I hear Him chiding me. Where is He in my daily decisions? Does He have an intimate knowledge of me, my hopes, dreams, fears, plans? Of course He knows all, but He will not intrude where He is not invited. All that I do should include Him. All my choices should go through Him. Oh Lord, I invite You in. I want You to have knowledge of all of me, the good and the bad. The parts I want to show off and the parts I want to hide. I want You to be involved in all my life, small and great. I need Your wisdom in order to follow and do Your holy will.

Many Gifts

Today’s responsorial psalm is from Psalm 66. In it is a verse that has always made me pause in consternation. “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me” (v. 16). I should be telling others what God has done in my life. Probably partly because of our American mindset of religion and faith being a “personal” individualistic affair and partly because of my introverted nature, I don’t do this. At all.

So this is my opportunity to “tell what he has done for me.” He has given me a husband who adores/cherishes/protects me, children who are a delight to me, extended family who love me, a lovely home, plenty of food and material goods. He’s given me the Catholic Church to mother me and lead me on my path to heaven. He’s given me friends I can depend on to laugh and cry with me. He’s given me health and strength. He’s given me the opportunity to be home with my children and educate them. He’s given me his Word, his love letter that I can open any time I want. He’s given me His very Self in the Holy Eucharist. He’s given me a love for my vocation to marriage and family life, a love that took many years for me to accept. I have been given more than I deserve. My God, I thank you for all you have given me. It is yours, and should you decide to take away what you have given, may you give me the grace, like holy Job, to say, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1.21).

Between a rock and a hard place

Today is the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, a solemnity in the Church as we remember the lives of these two pillars of Christianity. One of the readings today is from Acts 12.1-11, concerning St. Peter and his miraculous release from prison. Herod had imprisoned him, and the night before he was to be brought out before the people, an angel from God was sent to release him. He was in an impossible situation, “sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison” (v.6). Then the angel appeared, struck Peter, and ordered him to dress. The chains fell off and he followed the angel out of the prison. It was so impossible that Peter didn’t believe it was actually happening until he had walked an entire street into the city.

St. Peter’s story gives me hope. I see Our Lord showing me what He can do, no matter how difficult or how impossible. And this is not the first instance of His making the impossible possible. A virgin conceived without knowing a man and bore a son. Old women bore children at ages far past their fertile years. The fiercest persecutor of Christians became the most instrumental in converting thousands to the Faith. What is my impossible situation to all this? And yet He cares. He sees and He acts. Probably not in the way I would imagine, but would St. Peter have imagined an angel from God kicking his side and telling him to get up and follow him out of the jail? Our God is not limited by the impossible.