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The Circle of Life
It was a Thursday morning. I was sitting at my mother’s bedside, finishing the “Our Father,” when her breathing stopped. The other members of my family were in the hospital or nearby, so everyone reached her room within minutes. They say when the breathing stops there is still a little time before the actual moment of death. It was a moment when life came full circle for my mother. Each of us, her children, had entered the world through her. Now, together with her husband, son-in-law and grandchildren, we were at her side as she left it.
God spoke to me in several ways through her life and her death. The first thing God said through my mother’s life is that He is real and He really matters. Certain extraordinary moments stand out from the five weeks my mother was in the hospital, battling severe cancer, especially the Vigil Masses we celebrated in her hospital room and our evening ritual of praying the rosary together with her—the astonishing strength of her faith as she joined in to the extent she was able, even when she could no longer speak her lips moved in rhythm with our words. When it came to faith, my mother did not just go through the motions; God mattered to her and mattered greatly. It is no accident that she was named Mary.
A Daring Beauty
My mother was on a drip for most of her stay in hospital but this debilitating experience did not make a drip of her. At times and despite the best intentions, hospitals can make drips of their patients, by slowing them down to an institutional and docile rhythm —“No dear, you cannot have a cup of tea now; tea will be served in half an hour.” Mary was not a drip, she was a strong surge of water, a cascading current, a rushing river. She fought death and decline with ferocious courage. She had no intention of subsiding into some kind of inert passivity. I would love to see the moment when her flowing energy rushed into the unimaginably vast ocean of God’s love. Her courage and resilience helped me see that God is not a weak wimp but a massive tower of strength, not an ineffectual drip, but pure unlimited energy.
I also saw God’s compassion in my mother. She was a steadfast friend to many sick people. One woman recalled that my mother often came to visit her while she was convalescing in a nursing home. Although nearly 80 years old at the time, my mother made a long walk there and back for every visit. Every so often she would arrive drenched to the skin. When asked if she was okay, she simply said “Fine.” She was not into self-pity. She did not tell us about her many visits to the sick. Another woman spent 113 days in hospital; my mother visited her 112 of those days, which involved a total of nearly four hours on the bus there and back. Instead of speaking a thousand words about those in need, she did something for them. As Saint Ignatius of Loyola says, “Love is shown in deeds rather than in words.”
Her name, Mary, brings to mind her wonderful patron saint, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the astonishing way the Blessed Virgin Mary is described by the French novelist Georges Bernanos. He writes: “The eyes of Our Lady are the only real child-eyes that have ever been raised … they are eyes of gentle compassion … and with something more in them, never yet known or expressed, something that makes her younger than sin.” My mother was not without sin. She was a sinner like the rest of us and she would not want me to canonize her. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his book “A Grief Observed” when reflecting upon the death of his wife, she “was a splendid thing, a soul straight, bright and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint.” Despite all that, there was something of the innocence of the Virgin Mary about her, something of Our Lady’s sense of childlike wonder.
Adorned in Virtue
A few days before she died, when she could barely speak in a whisper, a dear, lifelong friend came and spoke to my mother about her wedding day and the splendid dress she had worn. Soon afterward, I reminded my mother of this image from her wedding day, and invited her to “borrow” the nuptial dress of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I invited her to “dress” herself in Our Lady’s virtues—humility, purity and especially her longing for God—and to prepare herself with this borrowed dress for the moment she would leave this life for the next, where she would be welcomed with open arms at the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb. She could not talk at the time but this touched her deeply. She rubbed my hand vigorously and tapped the palm of my hand several times. It was that dress of radiant colors, a dress Our Lady was only too glad to give her, which brought alive her childhood innocence once again.
Our Lady was with her as she made one of the most momentous journeys of her life. It was a journey that unfolded within the narrow limits of her hospital room, a journey from anxiety to trust. My mother had asked for a small miracle—the miracle of physical healing—but she received something much greater instead: the miracle of spiritual healing. It did not come instantaneously, but gradually. It moved at a slow pace, at the same rhythm as her long days of struggle with sickness. It was the miracle of trusting that death ultimately could not capture her because God was calling her to something much bigger and better. Although a miracle, it was not some sort of magic. That is why her faith did not erase her anxiety and it certainly did not cure her cancer. It meant her anxiety and the cancer stopped dominating everything. There was a bigger picture.
A Mighty Spirit
Our Lady’s prayer of praise, the Magnificat, says God casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly. As my mother lay there on her hospital bed, God was quietly at work, casting out her mighty fears, dispelling her anxieties and calming her agitated spirit. She began to see that salvation was not so much about what she did or what she achieved, but instead it was about total reliance upon God’s goodness, grace and mercy. As she lay on that hospital bed for more than five weeks, this formerly highly active woman, full of drive and energy, had to face the painful reality that she could not get up and do things any more. A few times she was so determined to go home that she actually tried to drag her feeble body out of the hospital bed, despite the various tubes connected to her body. I had to explain calmly to her that she could not do this.
She had always been a champion for the lowly and the underdog. In those final weeks she became one of the lowly herself. That is when she began to glimpse the truth of Our Lady’s prayer: “He raises the lowly.” The more physically weak she became, the stronger God made her spirit.
Dawn of Love
When all medical hope was gone, God was raising up something beautiful within her, ravaged as she was with cancer. I believe that in those last days and hours she finally allowed the reality of God’s love to sink in. There is only a distance of about 14 inches between the head and the heart but it can take a lifetime to get from one to the other. Sometimes it is only in the closing moments of life that we come to trust in the immensity of God’s love, a love without limits. If that miracle occurs, love will have definitively cast out fear. No longer afraid, we can now surrender ourselves totally to love. In that moment it dawns on us that trust is the only choice worth making. We realize our lack of trust would only wound God’s heart. He asks for our complete confidence, a confidence to which he responds by doing within us much more than we can ask or even imagine. That is what happened for my mother. In the words of the hymn we sang at her funeral mass: “Do not be afraid, I am with you, I have called you each by name. Come and follow Me, I will bring you home. I love you and you are Mine.”'
As I walked through my new neighborhood in Paterson, I wondered where I could find a Christian bookstore. From a truck, a man called out, “Would you like to find a Christian bookstore?” I was amazed that God would answer me so promptly! The owner of the shop assured me “The Cross and the Switchblade” would be a fine gift for the student in my fiction course, so I bought it.
Reading the book before wrapping it, I was mesmerized by the author’s midnight prayer experience. He was haunted by the “TIME” magazine cover picturing six young drug addicts on their way to trial. Several times he clearly heard the Lord urging in his heart “Go to New York City.”
This minister got in his car and drove hundreds of miles. With Bible in hand, he tracked down the addicts and told them that Jesus could save them. He spoke not as a professional doctor or teacher, but only with the power and love of the Holy Spirit. Some addicts accepted Jesus and were delivered from drugs—thus opening an extensive ministry to them and others.
As I finished the book at 2 am, I felt wrung through my own conversion, guilty because I knew Jesus was real but had done little to share this treasure. I had even neglected to pray deeply and said “no” to a request that had left me depressed the entire year.
After 10 years as a Sister, how few people I had evangelized! The spirit our pioneer Sister-missionaries had, in the 1960s, succumbed to a popular phobia against “fanatic behavior.” People say, “Don’t talk about Jesus, just show Him through your teaching.” These new ways did not seem to work for me. When I returned to buy more copies of the book, the owner told me, “There’s a Catholic group in Rutherford that holds prayer meetings every Thursday evening.”
Though I yearned to run off to Rutherford, I had obligations with our college’s girls’ basketball team. Instead, I devoured books on this phenomenon called Charismatic Renewal. It was what I had been seeking all my life. I became an instant convert. I learned more deeply on how to help people have a personal relationship with Jesus. I was surprised about people receiving spiritual gifts as the apostles had in the Bible’s Book of Acts, especially moved that ordinary people could speak words of convicting prophecy, pray immediately and anywhere for the Lord to heal people, and use a prayer-language called “tongues.” Some of our Sisters returned from prayer meetings with true miracle stories, “Young men stand and tell how
Jesus totally changed them.” “They talk about scripture like priests.” I finally got to these prayer meetings and saw for myself the great things about which I had heard. I truly could say “I want the power to share Jesus and His love. I want Him to baptize me in His Holy Spirit.” After I was prayed over, the Spirit who had first come to me in my baptism, who renewed me in my confirmation, now took over my life. At one meeting, I felt a queasy “prompting” to divulge my early story I had been unable to open even to sisters. I promised, “Jesus, I will tell my story if I hear the word, rescue, since that’s what I thank You for every day.” A girl with a small Bible began to read Psalm 17 and three times I heard my fleece-word. My voice shook but grew steadier as I described my agonized search through supposed sins, fears and missteps. “Although I have known Jesus since my childhood, and I felt His Love burning in my heart, I could not communicate how much I love Him and how others could also find Him. In the Charismatic Renewal, I learned to really hear the Holy Spirit in my heart and what the Spirit calls me to do.”
Life in the Spirit!
While I had many things to work through, I knew the Holy Spirit in me was the most true gift I had, that He would lead me and that He had many gifts to assist me. He put the inner and outer me together. He showed me how to share Jesus and to evangelize wherever I was. He gave me the courage to say “Yes” to two foreign mission calls among the Chinese. He led me to find support systems with other charismatics during decades of ups and downs in the church, the world and in my various ministries. For the past six years. I have shared with a diocesan service team giving “Life in the Spirit” seminars. I am only one of millions of people throughout the world who has come into this great charismatic renewal.
I praise God for His grace beyond anything I could have imagined.
Is there an “Unforgivable” act?
We are still within Eastertide and celebrating the hope and forgiveness that came through Christ’s death and resurrection. Lingering in my mind are the stories that were all over social media prior to Lent season this year.
From the unjust attack on the Covington High School for boys, to the sad Canadian story of an amber alert that ended in the discovery of the death of an eleven year old girl.
I can’t begin to explain how much hate and ugliness surfaced even from those who were generally regarded as being “good Christians”. Accusations flew and declarations were made that certain actions are “unforgivable”! I was so discouraged by the array of obscenities and shaming, wondering, how can we profess to be bearers of Christ’s love and be so vulgar and cruel to each other? Whatever happened to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’? (Matthew 5:45)
One of the most beautiful displays of true love and forgiveness I ever witnessed was by my mother when I was nine years old.
Into the arms of Christ
My four year old little sister was hit by a car. She had been waiting for her school bus and unfortunately, became confused when the bus pulled off to the side of the road just before her bus stop. The bus was allowing traffic to pass, but my sister thought it was safe to cross. She was hit by an oncoming car whose driver did not noticed the child. She was air lifted to the hospital for sick children and later died as she was held by my mother.
My mother, in an act that still leaves me in complete awe of her, sang praises to God as she rocked my sister and handed her back into the arms of Christ.
I still miss my sister tremendously. Her death was an event that changed our lives forever. It refocused my eyes on Heaven, because it now held someone so dear to me, and it shaped my perspective. No longer could I view life the same way, as I now understood that it was fragile and unpredictable. But the event also allowed for the imprint of beautiful examples of faith and love, like that of the almost supernatural trust and surrender displayed by my mother as my sister passed away.
One example in particular stands in defiance to the ugliness I spoke of above. It was the moment my mother met the man who had inadvertently taken my sister’s life: something that many would consider an “unforgivable” act.
The driver of the car in my sister’s accident arrived at the court house shortly before the trial for the incident. You could see the excruciating pain from the remorse he bore, as he kept his head bowed in shame. I can’t even imagine the immensity of emotions that saturated his entire being, throughout the trial. How he must have struggled at the thought of looking into the eyes of the parents of the child whose life had been taken.
Just like the Father running to meet the prodigal son when he saw him coming up the road, my mother sought out the man. She hurried over to him and wrapped her arms around him. She hugged him tightly, whispering, “It’s okay.” He broke down shaking uncontrollably, weeping as she told him that she was not angry. The only thing she held in her heart was love and forgiveness for him. She told him that my sister would not want him to be burdened with pain and guilt. She would wish him a life of joy and hope.
My mother also made sure she offered her love and forgiveness to the bus driver, who was visibly tormented by guilt.
Something Beautiful for God
I recently told my mother how much her example meant to me, especially in view of the appalling comments and interactions I keep seeing on social media from friends and acquaintances attacking each other.
She said the exchange was a gift for her too. It helped with her healing and freed her from the burden of anger and resentment. It left her with a hope that God was doing something beautiful through the tragedy.
She says she still prays for the driver to this day and knows that somehow God is working enormously in his life in spite of the devastation experienced from the accident.
Are you a light on social media? Are you someone who chooses an approach defined by charity- an attitude that affirms the inherent dignity of the other? If you must reproach, do you do so in a way that still speaks of your identity as a Christian who is truly invested in the good of the other? Are you someone who could forgive the unforgivable?
I hope to be. I want to be.
Our world desperately needs light, love, hope and mercy: not the vile assassination of the dignity of people with whom we disagree or whose actions we do not condone.
Dear God, help us to forgive all those who have hurt us, knowingly or unknowingly. Instead of grudge may our heart be filled with love and forgiveness so that our prayers for them be a blessing upon their lives. Amen.'
The sound of yelling, accusations and cursing brings to my mind a lot about suffering. It is a well-known fact that trauma imprints itself vividly onto the brain, and I am no exception. I often cringe when hearing someone pop open an aluminum can. It is a grim reminder of my alcoholic husband and what transpired after that first drink. Mostly, my life was full of traumatizing experiences many times. There was no blood or visible damage to my body when I was being verbally abused. Those hurtful feelings turned into intellectual torture; it is really difficult to put into words the pain I experienced on a daily basis.
A few months ago, I received the flyer for a Shalom retreat and I simply registered. It was a time of great suffering and little did I know that the retreat would forever change my life.
During the three-day retreat we were given the living word of God by Father Jilto George CMI, Father Wills Combs, BBD, and Sister Ranis Matthew MSMI—all were proclaiming the word from the Old and New Testaments, the Psalms and the Gospel. The word of God was sung in hymns. The ample opportunity to make a good confession and to hear the Word of God opened my eyes to the truth that God was always by my side, no matter how traumatizing my life was. I felt an amazing connection with God, especially with the Holy Spirit. Praise the Lord for all the gifts of the Holy Spirit that God so generously bestowed on me.
I am truly grateful for the praise and worship we had at the Shalom retreat. The abundance of blessings was so great when we reached the third day. God deigned to give me a whole new perspective about my burdens. I felt the Holy Spirit lift off those heavy burdens from my arms. During the healing time I was cleansed from my disbelief and my heavy heartaches became lighter.
The movement of the Holy Spirit strengthened my faith and helped me realize that God never abandons us. The gift of God’s presence and His warmth gave me much clarity in my belief. With a feeling of assurance and protection I felt the Holy Spirit rain down on me. I could not stop crying as the Holy Spirit filled my soul with goodness. God took away my shame, pain and guilt. He made my whole being new!
I received immense grace through this retreat but never expected a surprise when I went back home. On the second day of the retreat God’s amazing grace did a miracle for my alcoholic husband who was at home. On that day I was in deep prayer, offering my husband to the merciful hands of God. When I had returned home, he narrated about his experience. That Saturday, while I was praying for him, he had a moment of deep prayer for his back pain. The next day his back pain had healed completely. I shared with him that at that same moment, when he was asking for healing, I was praying to God to heal him and to draw us closer to God. My husband did not seem to believe that my prayer intercession partly had led to his healing. I know now that this unbelief was due to his disease. God had granted me patience and acceptance. My prayers continued ever more for him and I believed that the power of prayer could break his bondage from alcohol addiction.
Until then I had grieved over the emotional hurt my husband hurled at me and it broke my heart over and over again. Pain is a very real thing to the person experiencing it. Those who have not felt a similar level of pain have trouble empathizing. Even though my emotional hurt came through heartbreaking experiences, it has helped me understand my and others’ sufferings in a way I previously could not have imagined. Despite the enormity of my husband’s addiction, I was aware that my experience seemed somewhat minor when compared to some of the pains others suffered.
The experience I had at the Shalom retreat heightened my empathy for those who suffer more than me and this proved as a turning point. I am hopeful that my testimony will not only strengthen my healing, but also give insight for others who have similar aching life experiences.
Aside from having an alcoholic husband, my life has been blessed. Though I still feel a mild sense of panic when he drinks, I am very grateful for the love and support of my children who have literally been there for every step.
It is unclear how long it will be until I am able to re-train my brain and overcome the mental issues associated with an alcoholic husband. Hopefully, I will soon regain a more normal life with the help of the Holy Spirit. I have already begun to see my life through a different lens—a lens of forgiveness and hope. The Shalom retreat brought me closer to our Blessed Mother and to Jesus. I have accepted my faults and regained control of my emotions through prayer, which is indeed our lifeline to God.
Thanks be to God!'
I f I were to confide—even to my closest friend—that I heard a voice that guided me, consoled or chastised me, there is no doubt I would receive a raised eyebrow or two.
Today’s world looks strangely at people who admit they hear a voice now and then. Yet the Lord says in the book of Jeremiah (7:23) “Thus says the LORD: This is what I commanded my people: Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people. Walk in all the ways that I command you, so that you may prosper.” Psalm 95:7-8 reminds us: “Oh, that today you would hear His voice do not harden your hearts …”
Jesus tells us He is the Good Shepherd and in the gospel of John (10:27), He says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish.” God talks to us. He tells us He talks to us and we should listen.
As Christians walking through this worldly life, why do we find it uncomfortable to think of the possibility of a real encounter with hearing our Lord’s voice? How do we know if we are hearing the voice of God? How can we recognize the Good Shepherd talking to us? I believe God reaches out to us in ways we can relate to. I also believe there are many stories of how people today hear Him and recognize His voice.
One particular story took place on a Friday in June 2007. In Sacramento County, California, the temperature outside had risen higher than 102 degrees. It was a very clear, sunny day with no clouds to filter the blazing hot sun.
Friday was my day for the big, weekly grocery shopping trip. It was a long-standing tradition (regardless of what happened during the week) that our family would gather on Friday evening, have a bowl of popcorn and watch a movie together. The highlight, however, was topping it off with a bowl of ice cream. We rarely had ice cream on other days of the week so my family eagerly looked forward to the creamy treat. This Friday night would be no different, especially as the hot weather would make the ice cream even more appreciated.
I intended to get to the store, shop quickly and hurry home, before the intense heat could build in my car and cause perishable groceries to thaw or become warm during the ride home. Good intentions verses actual occurrences often make for very interesting stories.
We had a teenage son at the time and, as most parents of teenagers would agree, it can be challenging to convince a teenager that you have his or her best interests at heart.
We know through experience that prohibiting them from going places or doing things that are potentially harmful for them can be testing. This was also the case with our son. That Thursday evening things had not gone as well as we had hoped. We did not see eye-to-eye on a few subjects concerning his well-being; after a lengthy discussion it became apparent that we had to exercise good parental judgement on his behalf. To put it mildly, he adamantly objected. The next morning he went off to school in a teenage huff and I headed out, with a heavy heart, to do our weekly grocery shopping.
This was the first opportunity I had to be alone with my thoughts and, more importantly, alone with God. As I drove to the store I began telling God about my motherly frustrations and feelings of parental inadequacies in reaching our son. The closer I came to the store, the deeper the conversation. In a prayerful haze, I entering the grocery store, ticked items off my list and loaded my cart. With each aisle, the cart and my prayers became heavier. In retrospect, it was mostly a one-sided conversation. I wanted God to listen to my venting; I had not really given God a chance to answer anything that weighed heavily on my heart.
My list was almost complete when I heard a quiet but direct voice say to me, “Come see Me.” I stopped. I literally stopped in the middle of the aisle to process what I thought I just heard. I must have been mistaken. I have to admit I was a little shaken and my prayer changed to asking God to protect me. I looked around a little bit, gathered my thoughts and slowly proceeded to the frozen food section. Here I would select the most important item on the list, ice cream. Again, I heard “Come see Me.” The voice was gentle, calm and encouraging. Somehow I knew it was God asking me to come and see Him. I was confused. How could I go and see Him? When and where could I go to see Him? I didn’t understand! Almost as soon as I asked the questions I had the answer. I heard a third time: “Come see Me.” The final time had a more defined, authoritative tone.
Our church is blessed to have an Adoration Chapel where the Blessed Sacrament waits for anyone who wishes to visit our Lord. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was where He wanted me to come see Him. I also knew He wanted me to come right away. But wait! My spiritual world and my worldly world were about to collide. I had a cart full of groceries. I had perishable items. I had frozen items. I had ice cream! “Lord, it is 102 degrees outside! If I come to see you now, my groceries are going to be ruined in the hot car. Moreover, do you realize what you are asking of me? I am never going to hear the end of this if I come home with inedible melted ice cream! I already have many strikes against me after last night. Ice cream is all I have right now to ease the tension with our son.”
Then I began to prayerfully barter with the voice. “Ok. I will come and see you after I go home and unload the groceries. Then I will head over to the Adoration Chapel.” Nothing; I heard absolutely nothing. However, I knew I had heard my shepherd’s voice and realized that He wanted me to obey Him. He wanted me to trust Him.
Upon completion of my shopping I put my cartload of groceries into the car that was easily well above 120 degrees. In obedience, I pointed my car in the direction of the Adoration Chapel. Resigned to the fact that obedience to His voice was far more important than my groceries, I planned to humbly explain to my family what had happened and take any consequences. During the 20 to 30 minutes I spent with my Lord, He guided me and reassured me regarding the events with our son. My spirit was at peace and I knew that everything would work out. I thanked the Lord and walked out to my very hot car, where I faced the reality that most of the groceries would probably have to be thrown out once I arrived home.
The Melt Down
It took at least another 10 minutes before I opened my garage door. With a sigh, my reaction was to first reach for the bag that contained the melted ice cream. I pulled the carton from the bag and my whole body began to tingle. Wait, what? I could not believe what my hands had felt. It wasn’t melted! It was not the least bit thawed. In fact, it was rock solid! It was more frozen than when I pulled it out of the store freezer. How could this be? I pulled more bags toward me and began frantically digging into the bags that contained meats, cheeses, milk and frozen vegetables. They were cold and frozen. No sign whatsoever of thawing or distress from the heat. I had shopped in hot weather before; I knew how quickly things melted in heat like this. Then, it hit me. I began to cry. Tears streamed down my face. I dropped to my knees right there on the garage floor and praised my God. “Thank you, Lord, I am such a fool!” I thought, “He loves me. He loves me so much. He took care of me. He took care of my groceries. How could I have been so worried about this or anything? Did I not know who I was talking to—the great I AM, the Creator of the Universe, the Good Shepherd! Of course, if He could keep me from perishing for all eternity, He could certainly keep my groceries from perishing in an hour. No doubt about it!”
I have reflected on this story many times over the years and realized there are still many lessons to learn from it. It was through trust and obedience to His voice that He confirmed the voice I heard was His. I needed to trust Him in order for Him to reveal Himself to me, and when He revealed Himself to me I trusted Him even more. The intricacies and intimacies of that circle of trusting and revelation continue to grow as my faith continues to grow. I have shared this story from time to time and occasionally I still get a raised eyebrow or two. However, by continuing to share my experience I am confident that others have similar stories. I pray it becomes the norm for Christians to comfortably share how God’s voice speaks to them in their lives. Jesus says, “My sheep hear My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish.” I want that! So, I am listening, Lord.
My God I acknowledge You as my true shepherd. Today I surrender myself, all my problems and anxieties, into your hands. Help me to trust You, o Lord, with all my heart and to not lean on my own understanding. When I am confused let me hear Your voice saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it.’
“I grew up in India in the Episcopal Church. My mother read to us from the big Marathi Bible and my earliest memories are of me in love with Jesus. I would sit only on one half of the chair, reserving the other half for Jesus, owing to which I often fell off of my chair. When I started schooling at Saint Joseph’s Convent school, I wanted to become a nun.”
Best Friend Turned Stranger
But as I grew older, and became aware of the suffering around me, I could not understand how a loving God could permit such pain. “Do something,” I would pray. But my prayers went unanswered. By the time I was twelve, I stopped making space for Jesus in my chair, and in my heart. I quit talking to him. I decided he did not care enough. And I cried and cried because I had lost my best Friend. A couple of years later, when I was fourteen, we moved to the U.S. We joined the Episcopal community. I went to church, but only to please my mother and to sing in the choir. My mother died shortly after I had turned twenty two and I no longer had the desire to go. I did not want to pretend to love Jesus when I felt so lonely. I had to take care of myself, become independent and self-sufficient, because I had no one to rely on anymore. I filled my heart with my studies and work, friends and lovers, music and dance, without realizing how hard- hearted I was becoming. I called myself an atheist.
For many years I was a research scientist. I got married to my college sweetheart, Michael. Together we had two children, Max and Dagny. I quit working to stay at home and raise them. I still stepped into a church once in a while—for weddings and funerals. I craved for some sign that Jesus cared. But nothing special ever happened. Life went on as usual.
The children started growing and once they started school, Michael and I wondered how to counteract the permissive culture, short of homeschooling them. We had parental authority, but nothing higher than that. Had we made a grave mistake in not introducing them to God? What right did we have to deny them this fundamental knowledge? It is one thing to know of God and reject Him as I did. That is free will. But what about not even having the opportunity? I would not forgive myself if that emptiness got filled with other things—evil things. It is real and present. I wanted to arm my children with something real and tangible to fight evil, the true cause of suffering.
Return to First Love
I wanted my children to have what I had as a child—love in Christ. Even if He was just a fairytale, I could not deny the power He had had over me and the effects—complete trust that all will be well, a security that was completely irrational given the state of the world, and a certain resilience that was also unearthly. I did not know that what I had possessed was a peace that passed all understanding.
Softening of Heart
In 2006 as a Christmas gift for my kids, I purchased a children’s Bible with beautiful pictures and historical references. Michael, who had not been raised in a religious environment, offered to read. He spent almost a year reading Bible stories to the children and was amazed and delighted with them.
Yet we felt like hypocrites because as much as we wanted our children to have religious instruction, we did not believe. So the conversation turned to going to church. But to which one would we go?
The number of denominations seemed to have mushroomed since I was a child. There was a gathering of non-denominational Christians that met in the school cafeteria but it seemed so casual. I knew that when two or three are gathered in His name, He is present, but we wanted a sense of the sacred, something transcendent.
When I looked to the Episcopal Church, it was nothing like the one in India or even the Episcopal Church we had attended when we first moved to the U.S. When I looked at other churches, I realized that they had some sort of doctrinal dispute with the Catholic Church. The answer was quite obvious—we needed the Church that Christ established.
The following October we stepped into Saint Jude Catholic Church. I wept all through liturgy. My children worried for me. I whispered to them I was happy to be finally home. After the Holy Mass, I tried to enroll the kids in Sunday school, but the lady in charge asked about their ages (7 and 9 years old) and if they had been baptized. When I said, “Never,” she told me I needed to speak to the deacon about RCIA—Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.
Although I was annoyed by what I thought were hoops we had to jump through, I quickly realized that RCIA is designed so that one may make an informed decision. We began the long process of studying and questioning. Sunday mornings, Michael and I would be dismissed after the homily to ponder the Gospel while the children sat with our sponsors for the Canon of the Mass.
After the Mass, we would have our instruction in the faith with our sponsors. I will always be grateful to the Knights of Columbus for watching over our children. After a few hours at home, we would return for evening Mass and the children’s religious instruction. Perhaps our family needed a double dose of the Word to take root. But I will always be grateful for how our Sundays automatically became holy days.
A New Creation!
We questioned so many things—the teaching on marriage and sexuality, the Eucharist, on life. I reversed every belief I held that went against the tenets of the faith. I did so willingly even when I did not understand everything because I looked to Mary as an example, who did not argue with the angel at the Annunciation, but gave her Fiat. Paradoxically, everything held together beautifully, even the Mysteries of the faith.
I wonder now if it was due to the powerful prayers at the Rite of Acceptance, when our foreheads were crossed with the following words: “Receive this sign of the cross on your forehead. It is Christ Himself who strengthens you now with His love. Learn to know and follow Him.” After that, the priest said the following words as my sponsor made the sign of the cross over my ears, eyes, lips, etc.
“Receive the sign of the cross on your ears, that you may hear the voice of the Lord.
“Receive the sign of the cross on your eyes, that you may see the glory of God. “Receive the sign of the cross on your lips that you may respond to the word of God.
“Receive the sign of the cross over your heart that Christ may dwell there by faith.
“Receive the sign of the cross on your shoulders, that you may bear the gentle yoke of Christ.
“Receive the sign of the cross on your hands, that Christ may be known in the work which you do.
“Receive the sign of the cross on your feet that youmay walk in the way of Christ.” I wept. These words and the sensation of having my hands and yes, even my feet blessed, were overwhelming. I had fallen in love with Jesus all over again. That Christmas was meaningful when we sang “O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord”.During the Lent, while meditating on the sorrowful passion of Jesus, I felt unworthy. I knew I deserved death, not life. But Jesus drew me to Himself and showered all His tender mercies upon me. I wanted nothing more than to be in the shelter of His Cross, to be washed clean in His Blood. On Easter Vigil—April 11, 2009—a date as important as the ones when I got married and gave birth to my two children, I watched Michael, Max and Dagny, getting baptized. My heart was full;, I felt as if I were giving these three loves of mine to Jesus, my first love. Then together, we made a profession of faith and received the Body and Precious Blood of our dear Lord Jesus. Week by week, the God-shaped hole in my heart began to fill. I no longer fall out of chairs, but I am whole again.'
Looking for a way out of those menacing addictions? Worried about relapsing into your old habits? Here is the answer!
On a solemn evening after the culmination of the three-day Shalom retreat, I was observing the happy faces going back to their homes, renewed in spirit. My heart rejoiced in gratitude and then I heard a voice from behind, “Padre, would Jesus heal me?” This question caught my attention and I recognized the young man in his twenties, standing beside me. He looked perplexed. While everyone was getting ready to leave, this young man stood in hesitation as if he was in dire need of answers to all the questions that still loomed his mind: “Will I be able to lead a life of holiness? Will I fall back again into my old habits?”
From the first day of the retreat itself, I came to know that this young lad had lost everything: family, friends and relationship, due to his addiction to pornography. It knit him into a toxic relationship, a life that was totally messed up and devastated. It seemed as if he had lost all hope. Such was his plight that he was unable to look at anyone with good intention, not even his parents. His whole life had turned filthy and his mind was drenched with guilt. Though he had tried many alternate methods to break this bondage of addiction, nothing worked and he fell back into the same sin over and over again.
Is Anything Impossible for God?
As Saint Augustine said, “There is no saint without a past and no sinner without a future.” The young man recollected that it was during confession, the mercy of the Lord touched his heart. This gave him a deep realization of how important it is to depend, like a child, on God. In fact, his continuing anxiety about the future revealed his hunger to pursue a life of holiness. I was reminded of what Saint Francis de Sales used to say: “The Lord delights in every little step you take to lead a Holy life.” I urged this young man to “Keep on trying!” The key to growing in conversion is to keep on trying, even if you do not see an apparent result. God sees your efforts. The inability to see our own progress helps us to depend more on God.
Conversion happens in a moment but it needs an entire lifetime to be complete. The Bible shows us three important milestones to remain in holiness:
1. It all begins with desire.
What are you looking for? Like a fuel that leads to ignition, it is the desire that drives us into action. A google search history of an individual would reveal that person’s interests and secret desires. “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21).
In Maria Valtorta’s “The poem of Man-God,” there is a narration about a group of people standing around Jesus and asking Him “Why have you never sinned in your life?” Jesus’ reply is simple: “I have never desired sin.” The first step to being holy is to desire purity, because desire leads to effort. Apostle Paul had gone through the same war on desires: “Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
Desire controls our steps; we need to shun away certain desires while others need to be cultivated. Very often those unfulfilled desires lead to addiction. In order to pursue a holy life, one must cultivate the desire for holiness. Cultivating Godly desires helps the soul focus on God. As Saint Augustine said, “The entire life of a good Christian is, in fact, an exercise of Holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when He comes, you may see and be utterly satisfied.”
2. Flee or fall?
Very often we are the result of the environment in which we live. Context and circumstances exert a great influence on our actions. The change in a situation can make a lot of difference. To live in a holy atmosphere and context is invariable to lead a holy life.
Every human being has a natural inclination to do what is forbidden. Apostle Paul makes it clear in Romans 7:23: “But I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of the sin that dwells in my members.” The life of Holiness is one of the battles; each and every moment, there is a battle between flesh and soul, and the conducive context produces corrupt desires of the flesh.
Saint Bernadine of Sienna teaches us that the best of all counsel is to avoid the occasion of sin, and this indeed forms the foundation of holiness. “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent, the devil, is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Evil comes disguised, often in the form of our weakness. Saint Philip says that in the battle against impurity, the victory will be for the one who flees away from the occasion of sin, not the one who exposes himself to it and harms his flesh, making it impossible for him to resist the attacks.
3. Take heart!
Trusting and relying on the mercy of the Lord is the easiest way to advance in holiness. God is not a judgmental figure waiting to make things complicated. He is our Father, abounding in mercy, waiting to embrace anyone who comes before the throne of mercy. Trusting in ourselves and relying on our effort alone is a sure way to be lost, but by trusting in God we can do all things. Little shortcomings may come our way but they are only meant to humble us. “I am love and mercy itself. There is no misery that could be a match for My mercy, neither will misery exhaust it, because as it is being granted—it increases. The soul that trusts in My mercy is most fortunate, because I Myself take care of it” (From “Divine Mercy in My Soul: Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska” 1273). Mercy of Jesus is an invitation for us to totally abandon ourselves to His will. What is impossible for man is possible through the mercy of the Lord.
Peter was a liar; Mary Magdalene was a party girl; Mary of Egypt was a prostitute; Paul was a persecutor; Augustine was a wayward son; but they all became Saints by journeying through the path of holiness!
Always remember that His grace is sufficient for you… and now is the time to rise again and continue. Desire holiness, make a bold decision to keep away from all occasions of sin and just trust in His mercy!
“O Lord, instill in our hearts a strong desire for holiness so that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we may keep away from sin. With great confidence, we come to Your fount of mercy, entrusting ourselves into Your loving arms. Amen.'
At the age of fourteen, Rosario Rodriguez was innocently unaware that she had become one of many young women to be stalked by a serial rapist and murderer. According to police, the suspect would choose and follow his victim for months near local high schools before he attacked. Rosario was abducted on her way to the bus stop and she was dragged into a wooded area.
The attacker attempted to rape Rosario as he firmly pressed his hand against her mouth. Rosario screamed the words of the Hail Mary as he fought to break her and silence her forever. In a 2011 interview with Tony Rossi, host and producer of Christopher Closeup, Rosario recalled, “His eyes got really big. He looked afraid, jumped up and ran away. My first reaction was to turn around to see what he saw, but I saw nothing … We have always had guesses [that he saw] Saint Michael or my guardian angel or our Lady because I was screaming the Hail Mary. But I believe he saw something divine.”
Rosario was the first and only victim to have escaped the clutches of this man with her life and without physical injury. Rosario was raised in a loving family with a vibrant Catholic faith. For five years following the attack, Rosario sought healing in her personal relationship with the Lord through the Holy Mass and Eucharistic adoration. Her faith and the sacraments of the Church undoubtedly held Rosario back a step from the brink of total collapse.
Admittedly, as time passed, the cross of her interior wounds—unforgiveness, crippling depression, anxiety, self-loathing, hatred and rage—became too heavy for Rosario to humanly bear on her own.
Jesus accepted the help of Simon of Cyrene to carry His Cross. Understanding that God often fulfills His will in our lives in relationship with others, Rosario accepted both spiritual and psychological guidance from her parish priest and a Catholic therapist. With much intensive work and prayer, these two men of God helped Rosario carry her cross and led her to a place of peace, joy and healing through the virtue of forgiveness.
Unknown to all, Rosario’s personal journey to the top of Calvary had not ended. The first attack served only to pave Rosario’s path for another Via Dolorosa—a way of grief and suffering—that she would be forced to walk many years later, with a heavier cross, bringing her closer to death in a second act of unimaginable violence.
In 2009, at the age of thirty-one, Rosario became the victim of a gang-related robbery on an otherwise peaceful Los Angeles street. A woman grabbed Rosario’s purse from around her arm and shot her point blank in the chest with a nine-millimeter gun. The bullet tore Rosario’s esophagus and collapsed her lungs. According to the attending physicians, Rosario should have died instantly. Miraculously, not only did she survive, but the bullet missed Rosario’s heart by one centimeter and she was able to pursue the attacker and remember the license of the fleeing vehicle, which led to her capture and conviction.
Rosario’s three-year journey of healing and recovery following the robbery and attempted murder came with many heavy and painful crosses. One cross she refused to carry was the cross of unforgiveness toward the woman who shot her. “I knew I did not ever want to live the way I lived before. I did not want to live shackled. I wanted the freedom of forgiveness. In December at one of the hearings … I looked at her and told her that I have forgiven her and that I pray she might come to know the incredible love, mercy and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Rosario Rodriguez has cheated violent death twice. In her body she still carries a bullet; in her soul, only forgiveness.” —”Cheating Death and Loving God,” by Tony Rossi
Rossi’s statement of Rosario resounds of grace rarely grasped by one who has endured such evil. It is an alltoo- rare gift to the world that someone who has risen from not one but two life-threatening attacks is willing to forgive and re-live the horror in the telling, for the purpose of witnessing the necessity, the beauty and the healing power of faith, forgiveness and the mercy of God.
Consider the witness of Immaculee Ilibagiza, whose story of faith and forgiveness, “Left To Tell,” has been translated into 15 languages. Consider the powerful witness of Saint Pope John Paul II as he visited and forgave his would-be assassin, Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca.
“When we forgive evil, we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look the evil full in the face, call it what it is, let it’s horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it.” —Lewis B. Smedes
As Christians, we understand that God does not restrict our free will. We understand that God has not caused such wickedness to befall His children. The terror of Auschwitz, Rwanda, Columbine, Virginia Tech, 9/11, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown is incomprehensible, but we know—we must trust—from the heart-piercing agony of Calvary on Good Friday that though God has allowed evil to occur and in His infinite love and mercy, He will always bring a greater good from it.
The world is searching for witnesses of the greater good. Humanity is desperately in need of these witnesses and God is raising them up. They are few, but their testimony is strong and universally inspiring. Rosario understands worth in brokenness, joy in suffering and peace in forgiveness. Rosario Rodriguez is poised to be that witness.'
He knows every hair on our heads. I remember the first time I ran my fingers through my hair in the shower and a clump of hair fell out. From what I had heard growing up, growing some hair above your lip was pretty normal for a lot of women, but I did not know what to make of the hair growing out of my chin or the unpleasant sideburns that began cropping up on the side of my face.
I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) when I was fifteen years old and had not had a normal cycle in more than a year. Turns out, one in ten women are diagnosed with PCOS. My blood work results said my androgen levels were through the roof, and all I could see was myself feeling less and less like a woman. But what I could not see when I was fifteen was that I would be made whole through the “brokenness” of my body.
Starting at the age of fifteen, I began to believe the lie that my worth came from my body. As I grew up, that lie manifested itself in different ways—insecurity about my appearance, reliance on make-up to feel decent about myself, and feeling unlovable because of the possibility of being unable to bear children due to my PCOS. I threw myself into relationships with boys, hoping that I could make them like me, that maybe I could earn their love. Instead, I was left more and more empty until, in my emptiness, I was finally forced to face how I truly felt about myself. Even after I met our Holy one, I still struggled to accept this seemingly unacceptable part of myself. Heck, I still struggle today to love myself because of my PCOS. But at some point along the way, between the frustrated tears as yet another clump of hair fell out and the exhaustion of hoping against hope for a normal cycle after seven months of nothing—somewhere in between the fears and the loss and the pain—I found the truth.
The truth, which is so hard to accept some days, is that for some reason, because of some providential purpose, this is how our good Lord made me. Not only did He make with broken ovaries and jacked-up cycles, but He delights in me this way. He loves the hell out of this woman, her body, her past, present and future, and, most of all, her heart. That, my dear friends, is what I have been overlooking all of my life; I have been so busy trying to have this perfect body that does not belong to me that I have forgotten to strive for a more Christ-filled heart. I have been so overcome by my past mistakes and the ways I have found my identity in nothing more than my body that I have completely brushed past the unalienable goodness of my own heart. I have been so busy saying “I’m sorry” for all my imperfections that I have lost the ability to say “Thank you” for all my blessings.
Not long ago, a dear friend of mine prayed over me as I cried in anger, feeling as if I was drowning in my own waves. I will never forget what she told me: “Know that there is nothing wrong with you. Even your PCOS belongs to the Lord, and it’s time that you reclaim it for Him.” Too often we let the evil one use our “imperfections” to beat us down and we blame it on ourselves. For you it may be a physical condition, a vice or a fear, but whatever it is, no matter how overwhelming it may seem, our Jesus has already overcome. Whatever oceans you are sinking in, reclaim them for the one that “even the wind and seas obey” (Matthew 8:27). He “knows every hair on your head” (Luke 12:7), even the ones you have lost and even the ones that grow in places they are not supposed to. There is nothing wrong with you. He made you good and it is well, even if you do not believe that yet.'
“And He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction’” (Mark 5:34). This verse is the only example of Christ referring to anyone as His “daughter” in the Gospel of Mark. The woman with the issue of blood has become a daughter of the King through her faith. The gravity of this transformation could not be overstated! A woman in Jewish culture of the time was considered ritually unclean due to the blood that flowed from her body. She was isolated from her own people as they too would be considered unclean to come into contact with such a person.
The Gospel story has weighed heavy on my heart. What is it like to live as an outsider? The pain of her condition could not have been greater than the pain of the world’s rejection. Imagine also that her condition likely permitted no marriage or children. All the ordinary comforts of the world in terms of friendship and family were beyond her grasp. She was alone in the world. Having some means, she appeared to have applied all efforts to correct her condition and, having lost even her material comforts of wealth, she approached Our Lord, well … empty.
Few of us are unfamiliar with loneliness and loss. It is often our relationships that give color and energy to this life. Yet, the brokenness of relationships can bring an incomparable pain. Of all the catalysts that bring patients to my office, broken relationships are the most painful. Be it infidelity or conflict or loss, we are not creatures who do well alone. We mourn the lost friends and missing family members. We dwell on memories of closeness and grieve them over and over.
Into this pain the woman in Mark’s Gospel pushed through and grasped at the one and only relationship that would not fail. It was not her touch that healed her. It was not the garment that accomplished the act but her love for Him. She was drawn in and became forever His daughter! What was healed was not merely her flow of blood, but her truncated existence, her separation from life Himself. What she had mourned all those years had been given to her in perfect love, familial love! We are sons and daughters of the Father and we are loved! I know how hard this is to hold on to. How can the King love me? This is impossible to imagine especially when those earthly beings, who are supposed to love us, do not. When a parent abuses us, a long-cherished friend or child rejects us, we cannot imagine a God who is love. The face of God becomes distorted in our eyes.
Look to the woman in the gospel once more. Like us, she approached Our Lord from the back. She could not clearly see His face. Her loss and her loneliness did not prevent her from approaching her Lord, they propelled her toward Him. She saw Him with eyes of faith and this was enough. It is enough.'
What has now been coined “Black Friday” usually marks the official beginning of the season called “Christmas Shopping.” This year I began getting online shopping notices a few days before Thanksgiving, then discovered that Black Friday was followed by Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. For many of us, I am afraid the weeks before Christmas are reduced to parties and hectic shopping.
It does not have to be that way. It should not be that way. In my family we have taken a different approach—we have rediscovered the season of Advent. The final weeks of ordinary time leading up to the Feast of Christ the King and the beginning of the Church’s New Year in the season of Advent can be a time of spiritual renewal. The readings and symbols of the liturgy point us toward those last things, those things of ultimate and eternal significance. It is the season where our prayer is, “Come, Lord Jesus. As You came in history, so come more fully into my life now and prepare for when You will come again at the end—at the end of my life—at the end of history.”
Hope: A Theological Virtue
Meditating on the coming of Christ should stir up hope within us. I am not thinking so much of the hope that is simply wishful thinking: I hope I do well on that test. I hope it does not rain on my fishing trip. I hope my sick mother gets better. I hope I get an iPhone for Christmas. No, the hope we are invited to grow in during Advent is the theological virtue of hope. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” defines hope this way:
“Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire and await from God eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit to merit it and to persevere to the end of our earthly life.”
Hope is a virtue, which means it is a habit or disposition. It is the habit of trusting in God and having confidence in God and His promises no matter what we see with our physical sight. As a theological virtue it concerns our relationship with God. Our relationship with God is founded in, lived in and expressed in hope. We relate to God in hope. Why? Because we cannot see God. We cannot see eternal life and we do not YET experience the fulfillment and happiness that awaits us with God.
Saint Paul says, “Though we do not see Him, we believe in Him, we trust in Him, and we are confident— hopeful—that He will guard what we have entrusted to Him until that day.”
Longing for Fulfillment
Christian hope concerns our longing for and expectation of fulfillment. We can all relate to the experience of feeling unfulfilled. In our personal lives we are not the people we hope to be. We wish we were more patient, more disciplined, more pure, more self-controlled, more disciplined, more faithful, more generous and more bold and courageous. In our relationships we long for more. We experience disappointment in our relationships, we feel let down, we wish there was there more unity, less strife. We wish our relationships were more selfless, less competitive. We long to be known completely and loved unconditionally.
Hope is the steadfast turning toward our true fulfillment, which is supernatural happiness in God. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” If we set our hope on anyone or anything other than God—even the best things in life, i.e., family, marriage, friendship—we will be disappointed, unsatisfied and unfulfilled. We will never in this life, on this side of death, on this side of heaven, find the fulfillment for which we long. This is why we need hope. If we understand that only in union with God will we find the happiness and fulfillment for which we were made and that we long for, we will pray ever more earnestly in this advent season: “Maranantha, Come Lord Jesus.”'