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.

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Thankful Thursday. On Friday.

It’s been over a week since I wrote last. Mea culpa. In that time, my husband came home from 6 weeks away; we went camping as a family in the loudest, most miserable campground in New England; and I taught 5th-6th grade at a local Vacation Bible School. Yikes. Oh, and yesterday I had every intention of posting something, but we came home from VBS to a fly infestation in our house. We spent the next 9 hours killing and cleaning.

This week I am most thankful for the challenges God sends my way. They quickly demonstrate how far from perfect I am and how much in need I am of God’s strength and mercy. I need that reminder. Ever so often, I feel like, “Hey, I’ve got this!” That’s when God says, “No, actually, you don’t. It’s only by My grace.”

The biggest challenge this week was teaching VBS. It’s my second year as the 5th-6th grade teacher, and the second year was definitely not easier than the first. I think I was a bit more organized but still not prepared to handle three boys with the demanding diagnoses of various forms of autism, PTSD, etc. That’s in addition to the other children in class. Every day I was taking one to the director.

After the first day, I prayed every morning, “God, I come to You empty-handed. I have nothing. I can do nothing. Only let me do Your holy will and whether I succeed or fail does not matter.” I also asked for the intercession of St. John Bosco, patron of troubled youth.

Did I succeed? Well, there were moments perhaps but also epic failures. As it comes to a close I pray only that I did God’s will and planted at least a tiny seed of God’s love into the kids’ hearts.

The Kingdom of God is NOT concerned with equality

Last night I was talking to my Dad about the corrupting idea of “fairness.” It seems rampant in our age. From Facebook posts of children and young adults whining, “It’s not fair!” to philosophers positing the unfairness of children being brought up by families to gay “marriage,” our society is inundated in a culture of “rights” and obsessed with seeking to make life “fair” for everyone (read: uniformity). One catch: you have to be lucky enough to survive the pre-natal period in order to enjoy any of these things.

This afternoon in my lectio divina I read Matthew 20.1-16, the parable of the householder and the vineyard. In it, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a householder going out to hire workers for his vineyard. The first bunch he hires at the beginning of the day; the next group a few hours later; another group even later; and finally, he hires the last workmen with only one hour of the workday left. When he pays them, he begins with the last group, giving them a full day’s wages. The first group gets excited because they think surely they will receive more pay than was agreed upon, since the slackers who only worked one hour were paid for working twelve. Surprise, surprise, the first group is paid exactly the same as all the others. They are indignant. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (12, emphasis mine). In modern English: “That’s not fair!” The householder explains that he has not, in fact, done anything wrong to them. “Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go” (13, 14). Jesus ends with the words, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (16).

The workers in the vineyard, from those who worked all day to those who worked only one hour, are all in the Kingdom of God, yet there is a certain inequality. There are those who give their entire lives to God, working, suffering, sacrificing. Then there are those who spend their lives as they wish, concerned with no one but themselves, and have death-bed conversions. Both–and all in between–make up the Kingdom of God.

So this concept of fairness, equality. I do not think those words mean what you think that they mean, my fellow Christians. Yes, St. Paul says that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3.28). He is talking about our ability to be members of the Kingdom of God. Under the Old Covenant, Jewishness was a requirement to be an heir of God’s promise to Abraham. Under the New Covenant, there is no such requirement. All are invited, but not all will accept the invitation.

This push in our society for fairness and equality is contrary to the Faith. It is a denial of what makes us human, what makes us male and female, what makes us different members of the Body of Christ, having different gifts and abilities and contributions. God loves all, but He gives to each what He wills according to His inscrutable knowledge of all things and His vision of all time. So our primary job is to love: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Not to make sure our neighbor has everything we have (yes, basic necessities), not to make our neighbor exactly like us (male and female He created them), but to love them. Love concretely, love actively. Not feelings, but actions. How will they know we are Christians? By our love (John 13.35), not by our equality.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

One of my favorite Christmas carols is “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” It’s an English carol with origins in the 19th century, so probably Anglican, but I won’t hold that against it. The first verse is as follows:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day,
To save us all from Satan’s power
When were gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

The idea of God and comfort has been running around in my mind for well over a month. When I had my conversion to the Catholic Church, I probably went overboard. I felt perhaps that I needed to prove myself to God, to show myself worthy, or something. And so I indulged in fasting, traditional observances of holy days, night watchings, etc. Not that any of these are bad, but if undertaken for the wrong reason, that is, not for love, they are.

And so God became, or maybe already was, an authority figure whose approval I had to gain through novenas, fasting, Little Office, rosaries, adherence to traditional practices…actions. My spiritual actions were a check-list, while what He desires is relationship. Fasting out of love. Rosaries because I wanted to spend time with Him. But I didn’t get that (nor have I yet completely). God was demanding, exacting, just. How could I ever measure up?

What I’m beginning to learn is that He is Love. Sure, He’s just. Saying God is Love doesn’t mean it’s okay to go on sinning, to go on doing what we want to because God will love us anyway. He loves me when I sin, but if I choose to continue in my sin, to ignore His Love that calls me to Himself and perfection, He will, in His Love, give me what I have chosen–a life without Him.

Even in the Old Testament, when God seems to be a God of wrath and destruction (context, people) He exclaims through Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned” (40.1). And, “I, I am he that comforts you” (51.12). And in the passage that Jesus reads aloud in the Nazareth synagogue (Lk. 4.16-21), “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me….to comfort all who mourn” (Is. 61.1-2). In the last chapter of Isaiah, God compares himself to a mother who comforts her child, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (66.13).

David says to God in the Psalms: “I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” (23.4). And again: “Show me a sign of thy favor…because thou, Lord, hast helped me and comforted me” (86.17). And “Let they steadfast love be ready to comfort me (119.76).

The prophet Jeremiah, speaking of the fulfillment of God’s promise, prophesies, “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow” (31.13). The minor prophet Zechariah also speaks of this future happiness, “Cry again, Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem” (1.17).

Jesus fulfilled these prophetic words when He said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5.4).

But what started all this thinking about God and the concept of comfort was my reading of 2 Corinthians. St. Paul calls God “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (1.3-4). Why does He comfort us? Well, because He is a Father to us and “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (1.4). He goes on to use “comfort” many more times in the letter, but the other examples are how we are to act as comforters to each other.

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul again mentions God as a God of comfort when he says, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word” (2.16-17).

So there it is. God is a Father who comforts us. From the Old Testament right through the early Church, it is repeated again and again. God comforts His people. That’s not to say He desires our lives to be easy! No, he knows that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5.3-5). Jesus did not promise His followers a life of ease and comfort in the modern sense–a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint. He says, “Take my yoke upon you” (Matt. 11.29); “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16.24); “In the world you have tribulation” (John 16.33). But He also promises “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11.30);  “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16.33).

I can take comfort in that.

A parent’s prayer

“…teach us what we are to do with the boy that will be born” (Judges 13.8).

Many people know the story of Samson, God’s strong man and one of Israel’s judges before the time of the kings. He had such great strength that he killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. What I didn’t know before reading his whole story, is that his barren mother was visited by an angel and told that she would bear a son. She was warned against strong drink and unclean foods during her pregnancy and told never to touch the boy’s head with a  razor. The woman told her husband, Manoah, about the angel’s visit and instructions. He entreated God to send the angel again, to “teach us what we are to do with the boy that will be born.”

What if all parents were to ask this of God? What if I had during my pregnancies? You know, though, it’s not too late. Even with Stepford Son nearly 14, and perhaps even especially now, I can beg God to teach me what I am to do with the boy. And with each of my other children, too. It’s never too late to pray for your children, to ask God what you should do to help them grow to be the men and women He created them to be.

I’m sure Mary and St. Joseph prayed this often. They may have had a perfect Son, but they wanted to raise Him properly, to do God’s Will in every instance. They were not passive in their child-rearing; I’m sure they still had to make the hard decisions. God did not want automatons for parents–He wanted living, breathing, loving people to raise His Son. While Mary and St. Joseph may not have had the struggles I do with my children, still, they experienced joy, sorrow, pain, disappointment, uncertainty. And so they prayed. And so must I. I love them, I serve them, I teach them, but most importantly, I pray to God for them. That He will show me how to raise them to His glory.

The Four Words of Advent

On the First Friday of this month, the children and I attended a local parish that has a school attached to it. Now, I typically avoid “school masses” like the plague. I’m pretty sure I’d rather go to the dentist (yes, it’s pride. God’s working on it). Anyway, this school mass was not the horror that I anticipated. It was, in fact, the best school mass I have ever attended. Firstly, because of the priest’s homily and secondly, because it was followed by a period of adoration in which the entire school participated. Wow!

The priest in his homily spoke of the four words of Advent. Four weeks, four words. Do you know them? I didn’t. Well, I knew one.

The first week’s word is watch.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
Watch, therefore;
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
[Gospel reading from first Sunday in Advent: Mark 13.33-37]

Help me, O Lord, to watch, to prepare myself for your coming, your adventus. 

The second word is repent.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.”

John the Baptist appeared in the desert
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
People of the whole Judean countryside
and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.
And this is what he proclaimed:
“One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

[Gospel reading from second Sunday in Advent: Mark 1.1-8]

Grant me light, O Lord, to know myself, that I may see my failings, repent of them and confess. Cleanse me and heal me, O Lord. Prepare me for your coming.

The third word is rejoice! Unlike the other three words, this one is taken from the first two readings and the psalm.

I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.
[Is. 61. 10-11]

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
[Lk. 1 46-49]

Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.
Test everything; retain what is good.
Refrain from every kind of evil.
[1 Thess. 5.16-22]

Even in this time of watching and repentance, grant, O Lord, that I may rejoice in the anticipation and fulfillment of your coming.

The fourth and final word is fiat. To find this word, you have to go back to Latin. Mary’s response to God’s request is “Fiat voluntas tua.”  In English, “May it be done according to your Will.”

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.

“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
[Lk. 1. 26-38]

May I, like Mary, O Lord, say always and to everything, Fiat voluntas tua. 

Reflections on the Five Sorrowful Mysteries

I’ve been re-reading A Western Way of Meditation: The Rosary Revisited. In it, the author helps westerners discover meditation through means of the Rosary. Meditation is somewhat foreign to us here in the US and can carry a negative connotation. Since I’ve begun trying to meditate the Rosary though, instead of merely repeating words, I’ve seen my love for this devotion grow. It’s taken on a greater importance in my daily life. That’s because meditation while I’m “telling my beads” brings me closer to my God and His Mother. I meet them in the words, in the events, in the movement of the beads through my fingers.

One night, while praying the Sorrowful Mysteries, I thought of how God’s Will sometimes brings us pain and sorrow. How “no servant is greater than his master” (Jn. 15.20).  And we pray that His Will be done before each of the mysteries. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” God’s Will  is then played out for us in the scene of the mystery.

The First Sorrowful Mystery is the Agony in the Garden. Here Jesus knows He is to suffer and die. He is in torment thinking of it, and He is alone. He asks His friends to pray with Him, to keep Him company during this agonizing time, but they fail Him. Sometimes it is God’s Will that we suffer alone, that our friends let us down, that He is the only rock to which we can cling.
first sorrowful

The Second Sorrowful Mystery is the Scourging at the Pillar. Jesus is tortured by the Roman guards. His flesh is stripped as He receives the lashes. His body is bloody and brutalized. This, too, is in God’s Will. Sometimes God Wills that we suffer, for it is in suffering that we learn love. And through pain we aid in the redemption of ourselves and of the world. As St. Paul states in his letter to the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (1.24).
passion_scourge

The Third Sorrowful Mystery is the Crowning with Thorns. The guards hit Jesus. They spit at him, weave a crown of thorns, throw a dirty purple cloth around his shoulders and mockingly hail him as King. And they did this to the only one in the universe who deserves to be called king. Sometimes God Wills our humiliation, that others mock and abuse us. Not that we are supposed to be doormats for others to walk all over, but there are times when we should not defend ourselves against verbal attack, when we should imitate Our Lord, when “he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and was as a sheep dumb before her shearers, and he opened not his mouth” (Is. 53.7).
784px-The_Crowning_with_Thorns-Caravaggio_(1602)

The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery is the Carrying of the Cross. After His torture, when He is near death, He is forced to carry a heavy wooden cross through the streets of Jerusalem to the hill called Golgotha, the place of execution. In our sufferings, we are sometimes asked by God to carry more, to carry a burden we think is impossible. I’ve noticed that when I am incredibly tired, sick, whatever, that is the time when I’m often asked to go the extra mile. Not to rest, to comfort myself, to have others take care of me, but to take care of others, to give of myself more. God knows what we can carry, and sometimes He Wills us to carry just a little bit more.
kruisdraging_grt

The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery is the Crucifixion. Once at the place of execution, Jesus is nailed to the wood of the cross and left to die. He dies amid jeers, naked, abandoned by all who once followed Him (except for St. John and some women). He dies a horrible death; none of the sufferings did He deserve. Takashi Nagai, in speaking of the victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, called those who suffered and died, hansai, burnt offerings. Offerings to God to stop the horrible war (A Song for Nagasaki 117). Jesus was hansai for us. And who knows but that God Wills that we be hansai for someone else. Even if we aren’t called to die a tortuous physical death, God does Will that we die to ourselves, a painful death that happens again and again, day after day.
Leon_Bonnat_-_The_Crucifixion

My Jesus, I unite my sorrowful heart with yours. May you deepen my love for you and for my neighbor.

My Jesus, I trust in Thee!