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It seems like a pretty insensitive question. The disciples come across a person who had been blind from birth and ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus, of course, sets them straight. This guy is not blind because he sinned. He is blind so that the work of God might be made manifest in him. And then—BOOM—Jesus heals him. Blindness, disease, misfortune—when we encounter these things it is not God sending down his wrath because we have been bad. God does not work that way. Jesus comes to bring life, to breathe healing. In this fallen and imperfect world, God allows us to experience trials and misfortune so that His work might be made manifest in us.
But what about when Jesus does not heal?
Redemptive suffering, you say. It is the correct answer, but it is not an easy one. The whole point of this Christianity thing is that the path to heaven is the cross. We will all come to Calvary. We will all suffer. Yet, because of the Cross—because of Jesus— our suffering can have meaning. Our suffering is a part of our sanctification. It is meant to be offered up to Jesus in order to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).
Knowledge of this fact may not make the chemo easier or the grief hurt less, but at least, because of Jesus, we can do something with our suffering. We can give our hurt to Jesus. Not to make it hurt less, but to allow it to be used for good. Still, it is a bit difficult grappling with the fact that the same Jesus who healed the blind man sometimes allows us to continue in our blindness, our sickness or our pain without manifesting His power through a miraculous healing. Yet I also know that Jesus does not owe me anything. I know that on this side of heaven there will always be suffering. I really do not presume God to grant me miracles to reward my good behavior, and I know my struggles are not Jesus punishing me for bad behavior. Sometimes bad things just happen.
But if I am being totally honest, sometimes my “God doesn’t owe me anything” attitude has less to do with faith than it does with just not trusting God all that much. I spout off fancy, two-dollar phrases like, “Redemptive Suffering,” while on the inside, I am asking with the disciples, “Jesus, who sinned? Why did this have to happen?” After all, God causes it to rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike? What, then, is even the point in praying? Is it all just essentially “points” and chugging along so that you can end up in the right place when you die? When my knee-jerk reaction to suffering or trials is, “Well, God doesn’t owe me anything,”
I think there is something sort of “off” in my relationship with God. The statement itself is true. God does not owe me anything. He has already given me everything and then some. Yet, God loves me with the love of the Father. When I am crushed in spirit, His response is never simply, “Well, remember, I don’t owe you anything, Mary.” It might not be in His perfect will to take my suffering away in the way that I am praying for, but it is not out of contempt or forgetfulness on God’s part that miracles appear to not come. It is out of love.
God understands my pain. He wants me to draw near to Him in times of trial, not as some kind of test of my love for Him, but because He has a plan and purpose for every moment of my life. God causes all things to work together for my good—my ultimate good, yes, but the seldom spoken truth is that my ultimate good and my immediate good are actually not in opposition to one another. I once heard a priest (I think it was Father John Riccardo) say that the only thing that is going to happen at the end of our lives/at the end of time is that the veil separating us from seeing things as they truly are will be pulled away. It will not be that we suddenly will not remember the events in our lives that caused us great pain, we will just finally see them in their fullness. We will see where God was and what He was doing in our lives’ greatest trials. We will see that God never abandoned us, not even in our weakest moments, He was drawing us closer to Himself.
We will finally see all the ways in which God has made His work manifest in us, even in those times in which it seemed He left us in our blindness. We should never tire of praying for miracles; we can be assured that God is always, always at work within us.'
Do you know what really bugs me about Advent? Or rather, the way people approach advent? Everyone skips to the end. We are happy about the fact that Jesus was born but even then we are honoring His birth mostly in terms of how His life ended. It makes sense that we do. Freeing us from sin is the reason He came to earth in the first place, so it is understandable to want to skip to the part where He fulfills this purpose. We have all of lent for that. What is there to take out of advent?
Something that really hit me recently is that Christ’s first miracle was becoming a baby.
His First Sacrifice
He performed a lot of miracles, but the first was to become a child. He gave many sacrifices, but the first thing He sacrificed was self-sufficiency.
When I was a little kid, my two goals in life were to be an adult and to be perfect. Easy, right? I went out of my way to show my teachers and my parents that I was more than capable of taking care of everything myself. My proudest moment in kindergarten was being left in charge of a classroom of my peers at five years old. I had decided that grownups were self-sufficient, as they should be, and as such, if I wanted to be mature, I could never ask for help. From anyone. Ever.
Something I was missing was that there was a lot more to Jesus’s life prior to public ministry and death. Just like what many do with advent, I glanced over the beginning and wanted only the end. Heaven was the goal, but I forgot that the journey still happens on earth.
Jumping to the End
I wanted to be like the saints who so often seem strong and tough, ready to die a martyr for God. I wanted to make the biggest sacrifices and fight the roughest battles. Though I had good intentions, this quickly turned into an intense fear of needing people. I told myself that things like friendship and love were luxuries, so I hardly needed them; I could accomplish more and be stronger with independence. Slowly but surely, I began pushing things down, believing this was a necessary sacrifice to make in order to be who God wanted me to be.
But I could not sustain it. Eventually, this strategy of mine began to crumble as the secrets and unexpressed emotions piled up and up until they burst. When they finally did, I found myself on my knees, sobbing to God, begging Him to help me. I needed my Father.
Since that prayer, God has been slowly teaching me that it is okay to be vulnerable sometimes and it is okay to need help. Even so, I still fall into the old trap. I look at the cross and I want so badly to emulate Him right now that I put the weight of the world on my shoulders. Four years after that desperate prayer, I found myself on my knees again, this time filled with anxiety and crying to God that I cannot do it—I cannot be holy, I cannot be like Him. In my mind, I replay all the times I failed. All the times I had been selfish. All the times I had snapped at my friends. All the times I had sinned.
I wanted to spread joy, but sometimes I needed help with my own problems. I wanted to be kind, but I still snapped at people. One day I could not imagine putting anything before heaven and the next I spent hours preoccupied with temptations. One day I thought I would never waver and the next it took an hour to convince myself to pray. I believed that God had a plan for me, but the plan was too unattainable; I was never going to get it right. Inevitably, I would let Him down.
Awaiting Baby Jesus
Then I thought of Baby Jesus—long before His miracle working, long before His preaching, long before His passion, He chose what His first act would be and He chose to become a child, a child that would need to slowly grow up, nurtured by the love of His family. Christ did not jump straight to the Passion, so why do I? I might not be holy enough to die for Him but, fortunately, He gave me a much more attainable first step.
I remember to go back to the beginning and always start with the first step. Who I am can be pretty messy and, yes, vulnerable, but that is who God made me to be. If vulnerable is where Jesus started, then it is a pretty great starting place for me.'
In our society, where individualism and our own happiness have been regarded as utmost priority, there is great emphasis placed on what makes us momentarily feel good. We are quick to avoid the situations that disturb our inner peace, upset our schedule and call us out of our comfort zone. Even in our relationships we grumble, resist and distance ourselves from those whom are most difficult to deal.
I pause here for an honest confession … Lately, I have chosen the path of feeling annoyed and complaining. Faced with a seemingly unchanging resistance from others to my own desire to be joyful, I decided it best to create some distance, a mini retreat of sorts. I recognized that I needed a break in order to get a bit of perspective. In taking this opportunity to go out into the wilderness to spend some alone time in prayer and to reflect on what is being asked of me, I now have a better understanding of what Christ desires. First, I realize I cannot remain on permanent retreat from all that I feel attempts to steal my joy. Obvious exemptions would be situations that are physically or mentally abusive. Yet, what I am talking about are difficult people or particularly trying situations that continually test my patience and call for regular forgiveness.
Case in point:
- The “one way or no way” attitude: The phone rings and I notice the caller id. As the conversation ensues I am struck by the familiarity of the questions and topics of discussion. Can we ever go deeper? No, not if it remains a one-sided barrage of questions where there is only one answer desired. No, not if there is not active listening, appreciation of the other person and a desire to have true dialogue. So, I listen and leave the discussion wondering why I spent my time this way.
- The “blinking red light”: Here is the person that is constantly in hot water. If the issue does not involve him/her directly he/she feels it necessary to stir the waters that potentially create a tempest situation. Oh, did you have plans today? Well, this is far more important and if you were not concerned before you should be by now. So, I listen, offer advice, help where I can and spend the day praying that he/she finds peace.
At times, I have selfishly asked God, “Why have you placed these rocks in my path, why am I being asked to deal with stubbornness and anxiety?” His answer, “Elizabeth, because you have yet to learn the incredible lessons of love and forgiveness that I have been so desperately seeking to instill in you! Do you honestly think that you are without fault, malleable, secure in my loving plan and accepting of all that I am calling you to be?”
“No, Father, I have much to learn. Yet, I am desperately trying to understand. Isn’t that good?” “Yes, but you cannot get comfortable with where you are, because I am asking so much more of you. Each of My children has a purpose and a journey. Sometimes this journey leads others to learn from you and other times their purpose is to challenge you to grow.”
I have choices in how I encounter others. If my life is not rooted in love, patience and forgiveness, how are others to truly know Christ through me? Moreover, our lives are meant to be proof of God’s deep call to a new life, faith that though times get difficult there is hope that our loving Father is working all for good. This in-breaking of the kingdom of God is not merely an inner journey or a futuristic promise of heaven, it begins with me today.'
Recently, my five year old announced that he wanted a different haircut. The minimalist, efficient buzz-cut given to him by his mother was no longer sufficient. He instead wanted a longer, more shapely cut so he could wear his hair like mine.
Around the same time, my four year old announced he was hopeful that he could grow a beard like me soon. While poorly attempting to conceal my laughter, I assured him it was unlikely for a four year old to grow a beard, but left him with the hope that someday he might be capable of growing one.
A Father’s Attraction
As a father, I am always astonished at how much power I wield over the lives of my young boys. It is not so much a power of command or control as it is a power of attraction. Frankly, it never occurred to me that my haircut or facial hair was desirable for a little boy, or that either of them was paying attention to my grooming habits. Yet, they want to be like me. I am the pattern they follow, the model they imitate. They watch with careful observation everything I say and do; what I wear, how I treat others, where I spend my time, how I pray and how I treat my wife.
It is no use telling them to be kind and compassionate if I am cruel or insensitive. It is no use telling them to share and be generous if I am selfish and greedy. It is no use telling them to love and serve God if I barely pay attention to Him myself. What I do, they will do, no matter what I teach them or what they hear from others.
The Best Catechesis
When we think of catechesis, we often think of catechism classes or parish programs. While these have their place and value, children learn far more by watching and listening to the ordinary choices and patterns of life than they do by formal training. Our habits and behaviors as parents comprise a catechesis all their own and everything we say or do is shaping, to a large degree, who our children become. If we say our faith is important and yet we skip Mass for a football game it sends important signals to our children about what is really important in life. If we tell our children they should be pure and chaste and then we spend our free time watching entertainment filled with sexual immorality, it catechizes our children on what is morally acceptable. If we teach them we should love others, but we are much more interested in our phone or the show on TV than in them, they will learn from this.
As fathers, we must assess our priorities. How do spend our time, our money and our energy. In what do we invest? What do we say yes and no to in our personal lives? With every choice we make, we are catechizing our children about what is important. We can say all the right things and teach them the catechism, the commandments and the precepts of the church, but it will not matter if we do not live these truths ourselves. Live them we must. The greatest legacy a father can leave his children is a life well lived.
Fathers, our example is a catechesis that will last a lifetime, for good or ill. Realize that your children love you. They look up to you. They want, in a very real way, to be you. You are their model. You are their guide. You are their chief educator. What will you do with this great power?'
I will never forget one particular high-school youth group I attended where the minister was preaching on why you should not have sex before marriage. To make his point, he took out a piece of gum and started chewing. After a few moments, he spat the chewed gum into one hand, held out the fresh piece in his other hand and asked us, “Which piece would you rather have?”
The chewed piece of gum was meant to represent someone who had slept around; the fresh piece was someone who had saved sex for marriage. There is just one problem—you are not a piece of gum. The thing I hate about this analogy is that it implies that if you have gotten sexually intimate with someone before marriage, you are somehow worth less. But that is simply not true.
One of my favorite stories in the Bible is John 8:1-11. In this passage, a group of Jewish religious leaders want to kill a woman who was caught committing sexual sin. They take her to Jesus and ask Him whether He thinks she should be stoned to death.
To the religious leaders, this girl is worthless. She is the piece of chewed gum. As far as they are concerned, the only thing this girl is good for is to prove a point about divine justice.
So, what does Jesus do? He calls out the religious leaders for treating this girl like she is nothing. He reminds them that every single one of them has screwed up at some point. His reply is, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, they drop their stones and leave. When Jesus and the woman are alone, He turns to her and says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin again.”
If you want to start over, God is not going to be up there thinking “Ha! You sinned! Off to Hell you go!” God is going to be thinking the same thing that God was thinking thousands of years ago, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). God does not love us more when we are being good and less when we are not. God just loves us—unconditionally and always.
Often, though, the biggest barrier to starting over can be forgiving ourselves. Because past mistakes can be the source of a lot of pain, we generally do one of two things. We play them over and over again, obsessing on all the things that we could have done differently, or we try to sweep the memories under a mental rug and completely forget about them. Thinking about your mistakes to a certain extent is important, but only because you need to understand why it happened so that you do not make the same mistake twice. Beyond that, do not beat yourself up about the past. The most important day to Jesus is today.
Also, know that forgiveness is not a feeling. When you start over, you might not necessarily feel forgiven. The reality is that the pain of past mistakes will probably take a while to heal. But remember that the past is gone. God does not condemn you for it and you should not condemn yourself for it. You might have to tell yourself that you are forgiven 100 times the first day and the second day, but on the third day it will be a little less and even less each day thereafter. Until one day, you will be able to accept that you have been completely forgiven.
So, I think we need a new analogy. While every analogy is going to have its limitations, one I really like is the $100 bill. If I had a $100 bill, I could crumple it up, I could stomp on it, I could pass it round an auditorium filled with people, but at the end of the day, it would not be worth any less. It is still going to be worth $100. If you have gone through your fair share of mistakes and heartbreaks, do not ever believe you are worthless—and do not ever believe you cannot begin anew.'
Saint Matthew’s Gospel, of the four Gospels, alone uses this particular verse in telling of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants:
“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it” (Matthew 21:43).
The Navarre Bible explains this verse should, “fill the faithful with hope and a sense of security.” Although all may seem lost, the vineyard owner, God, remains in control of the vineyard. With these words, Jesus assures anyone aiming to bring glory to God a place in the vineyard.
Jesus encourages the faithful to remain hopeful, no matter how rejected they feel in this world. Rejection does not indicate defeat; instead, He encourages with the words:
“‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone …” (Matthew 21:42).
Jesus is the cornerstone rejected, crucified and raised to become the foundation of the Church. Rejected like no other, He produced a bounty like no other. It is the grace of that vineyard He longs to share with the faithful.
The “wicked tenants” tended a vineyard carefully fashioned by the land owner. A vineyard was created to profit not only the vine growers but also the beneficiaries of the bounty. God has provided each of us with our own perfectly constructed vineyard. How can we offer back to God what He has given us? How can we be “the vine growers who will pay Him the proceeds at the proper seasons” (Matthew 21:41). Primarily, we accomplish this by sharing the good news and loving others.
We can begin with our families. The only experience with Christ some of your family and friends may have is how they meet Him in you. We may experience painful rejection for our faith. That does not excuse us from the charge to be Christ in the world and to share the grace of what we believe. People may not wish to hear our words, but as the old hymn reminds us, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
Another way to share the vineyard’s yield is through invitation. Consider hosting a weekly small group in your home or at your parish. Trust me, a vineyard filled with eager tenants longing to follow and please the land owner is always a great blessing. My entire reversion to the Catholic Church began with one such invitation. A woman at my parish reached out and asked me to join her small group of faith sharing.
I remember the night the group met for the first time. Most in attendance had never participated in a book club, never mind a “religious book club.” To overcome my nerves, I convinced myself this would be my only night. However, after the host served the yummy snacks, I knew I would be back for another week. Week after week, I learned a little more about the Scriptures and Jesus’ great love for me. Eventually, it was much more than the snacks which attracted me to the group—it was the accountability, the fellowship and the blossoming of my faith. I soon began to arrive with a journal and a Bible, complete with handy dandy tabs to assist me in finding scripture passages.
Ten years later, I now host a weekly small group. We have read countless inspiring Catholic books and Bible studies. We have shared countless yummy snacks, cups of coffee and, yes, even glasses of wine. The small group meetings, like the promise in Matthew 21:43, help us to be hopeful and maintain a sense of security.
The truths of this parable remain: an allegory about a carefully constructed vineyard intended to produce bountiful fruit yet misused for selfish desires, along with a rejection of the land owner’s authority. We may feel the wicked tenants have won, but instead, we find comfort in Jesus’ words from Saint Matthew’s Gospel. In the end, the vineyard belongs to those who labor, even in the most imperfect ways, to accomplish God’s will.
What joy I have discovered in my small group as we share common struggles of faith. Buoyed by our friends on those days we may feel we labor in vain, our efforts themselves please God. How it gives us a sense of security to know we are not the only one seeking to know God and His will better and to share in the hope that we will be the vine growers with whom God will choose to share the vineyard.'
What Does the Father Desire?
Have you ever stopped to think about that?
I spend so much time telling the Father what I desire that I rarely stop to ask what He desires. A friend once shared with me a humorous, yet convicting conversation he had with his wife. She asked him, “If you could be a fish what kind of fish would you be?” He was perplexed. “I don’t know, maybe a shark or a dolphin? What would you say?” Just like a fish, he took the bait—hook, line and sinker. His wife smiled wryly and promptly shared: “If you were a fish, you would be a Sel-fish!” Ouch! It pierced his heart. I have gone swimming in those waters a time or two myself. “Selfish” is not a good type of fish to be. Such conviction, and desire for a deeper relationship with Him, has led me to ask the Father more readily what it is He desires. I am not going to pretend to know the depth of that answer, yet Scripture and Church teachings do provide us with enough hints to enable us to piece some things together concerning the Father’s desire.
Friends of God
Let us start with the words of John the Beloved: Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). I tend to read these words so quickly that I miss what Jesus is saying: “I have called you friends.” Jesus calls us His friends and as His friends He reveals to us everything the Father is doing. That is very profound. If I would only grasp this more fully …
Earlier in John’s gospel, John 5:19, Jesus says this: “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” Jesus can do only what He sees His Father doing; Jesus does what the Father does. Then in John 14:12, John records these words from Jesus: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” These words shatter my limited paradigms. If we pause a second and think about it, these words alone could transform our lives: Jesus is telling us that if we believe we will do what He does. What are all the things that Jesus did/does? What an amazing promise. Putting it together: Jesus ONLY does what He sees His Father do. As followers of Jesus, He calls us His friends. As His friends, He makes known EVERYTHING the Father is doing. Not only that, but He promises us that if we believe we will do the things He does! That is amazing.
After Jesus says that we can do what He does, He goes on to say this, in John 14:13-14 “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” If we were to take Jesus at His word and ask Him what it is His Father is doing and what it is the Father desires, what might He share with us?
I would presume God’s desires are many, none less than His desire for a relationship with us [“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” 27]. There is something profound in the area of our Father’s desires, related to the secrets of His Kingdom. They can be found within the mysterious words of the Lord’s prayer that we utter on every Sunday at Mass. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:7-13: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those, who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
More Than a Routine Prayer
I do not know about you, but I have been praying the Lord’s Prayer ever since I was a little boy. It was a routine prayer that I uttered from memory, having no clue of the power within the words of this declaration. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven …” What is Jesus telling us through these words?
Paul tells us in Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” “Abba is the Aramaic word for father” (www.catholic.org/encyclopedia). “… used by Jesus and Paul to address God in a relation of personal intimacy” (Dictionary.com). Jesus was telling us that His Abba is our Abba and when we talk to Him, make it personal. God is our Abba, our Father.
Our Father resides in heaven. That seems so far away, at least that is how I viewed it. Much like my dad who left when I was five years old, God the Father felt distant, somewhere far away in the clouds. Is Heaven so far away? What did Jesus mean when he said, in Matthew 4:17. “… the kingdom of heaven is at hand”?
Hallowed be Your name
God’s name is holy. The name signifies nature. Holy is who He is. God is all holiness. He is only good, true, loving and holy. He has no evil in Him. He is only good and holy.
Your kingdom come:
This is where it gets really interesting. “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven …” What exactly is it that we have been praying for over all these years? What was Jesus teaching us?
On earth, as it is in heaven:
According to the words that Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer, it seems apparent that our Father desires for His Kingdom to come and His will to be done on EARTH, as it is in HEAVEN. It seems in our western Christian culture, we have made it about getting to heaven as if it is our destiny to endure the sufferings of the earth until we can one day crawl into this place called heaven. While it is true that Christ is seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father and He has made a place for us in heaven, I do not think it is His goal for us to endure earth until we get there.
The prayer we pray on Sunday says so much more than that:
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
What Does the Church Say?
These words from one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council are enlightening:
“The Son, therefore, came, sent by the Father. It was in Him, before the foundation of the world, that the Father chose us and predestined us to become adopted sons, for in Him it pleased the Father to reestablish all things. To carry out the will of the Father, Christ inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth and revealed to us the mystery of that kingdom … The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” In the word, in the works and in the presence of Christ, this kingdom was clearly open to the view of men … From this source, the Church, equipped with the gifts of its founder and faithfully guarding His precepts of charity, humility and self-sacrifice, receives the mission to proclaim and to spread among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and God and to be, on earth, the initial budding forth of that kingdom …” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Lumen Gentium, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, November 21, 1964). Christ introduced the kingdom of heaven on earth and revealed to us the mystery of that kingdom … As Christ declared, the kingdom of God is at hand.
A Greater Goal
A friend once humorously shared with me that if the only goal was to get to heaven then we should have been kept under water during our baptism. The goal and desires of the Father are much greater than just enduring the sufferings on the earth to one day get to heaven. As we hear the words of Jesus in the “Lord’s Prayer,” the desire of our Father is for heaven to come here on earth, through you and me, His church. Luke 11:1-2 states, He was praying in a certain place, and after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come …” May our Lord’s desire be fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven.'
I was a romantic child and I still am! I still love fairy tales. As a teenager I would spend lots of time daydreaming about the prince that would sweep me off my feet, this future man who would complete me. Little did I know that He was already standing right there beside me. He had already pitched his tent on the surface of my heart waiting there until I invited Him to pour Himself into me. I had no clue then that the strong masculine heart I longed to lean upon was Himself—His Sacred Heart burning ferociously with love for me.
I grew up Catholic, went to Catholic schools, and went to Mass every Sunday. My first experience of Him “pouring Himself into me” was at a visit to Franciscan University as a senior in high school. I was prayed over for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and I experienced and knew His love for me in a deep and personal way. Yet shortly after that, I met a wonderful young man who swept me off of my feet the last semester of my senior year of high school. This began a dating relationship that lasted two years.
My sophomore year of college I transferred from Franciscan University of Steubenville to Florida State University in order to be closer to my twin sister and to the young man I was dating. I was terribly homesick at Franciscan University as much as I loved it! At that time Florida State University was the #1 party school in the United States (and we were the National Champions in football! Go Noles!). That first year, I followed in the footsteps of my twin sister, joining a sorority and testing the waters of “secular” university life. It was very empty. It was also at Florida State University that I came in contact with the Brotherhood of Hope, a new group of religious brothers who focus on evangelization, especially on college campuses.
During the spring semester of my sophomore year they asked me to give a talk at the Catholic Student Union’s semester retreat. My boyfriend of two years was also attending. After giving the talk, two or three of the Brothers came up to me separately and asked me if I ever considered a vocation to religious life. My first reaction was complete and utter nausea, as if someone hit me hard in the stomach. I look back now and realize that this reaction came from the many misconceptions of religious life that I was unconsciously harboring. Yet along with the nausea there was a little spark that was ignited in my heart … the slow creaking open of a door that had been slammed shut for many years. It was the witness of the Brothers of Hope that enabled this spark to ignite and the door to slightly crack open. The Brothers were so filled with joy and were the most authentic people I had ever met. I was moved by their authentic joy that sprang from their intimate relationship with the Lord. They were so happy without a human spouse and children and this was a powerful witness to me.
It was on this retreat that I experienced a new renewal in my own faith and felt a call to deepen my relationship with the Lord. I had a powerful confession experience and knew in my heart I was supposed to break up with the guy I was dating. This was very difficult and one of the hardest things I had ever done. But I felt supported by the Lord’s grace and He sustained me. After breaking up with him I began to focus on my relationship with the Lord and getting things in order in my own life. I felt called to not date for a time.
My junior and senior years of college were a sacred time of discernment, encountering the Lord in a new way as well as encountering myself, discovering my identity in the Lord. He was secretly wooing my heart as I became more and more aware of how He alone could be enough for me. I became very active in the Catholic Student Union on campus and began seeing one of the Brothers for spiritual direction. I began to attend daily Mass and pray every day. My thirst for the Lord was ever deepening and I knew that my life could not be separated from my Mother, the Church, no matter what my vocation. I wanted to live within her Heart. I would be walking across the Florida State campus and this burning desire would come upon me to be with our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. I would at times skip class to be with Jesus (I am not recommending this!). The idea of a religious vocation was persistent yet not always consistent. I was torn between the beautiful sacrament of marriage and being His alone. It was definitely a challenge!
The last semester of my senior year I attended a retreat. It was only a few months before graduation. At that time, I was discerning between getting my Masters in Theology at Franciscan University or following the path of a religious vocation. We had Eucharistic Adoration throughout the whole retreat. I was very frustrated at this point and tired of “not knowing” my vocation. I was tired of the doubts and struggles that discernment entails. I remember sitting before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and telling Him, “I am going to go to graduate school at Franciscan University.” I conjured up everything in me to try to bring myself peace in this decision, but it did not work. I could not get Him to agree with me! The next day during the closing Mass when I was kneeling after receiving Communion, the Lord gave me a very clear image. I saw in my mind’s eye a crucifix and I was laying prostrate before it (at that time I did not know that this is what a religious does during the rite of perpetual profession). Then I heard the words clearly in my heart: “My daughter, I am your King, and I claim you as My own.” Moved to tears by this image and these words, I cried freely. I was sensing the Lord asking me to set my whole heart, life, will and desires aside for Himself alone. It was overwhelming—so overwhelming that after a few hours I completely denied it. I said to the Lord, “We are all your own through Baptism. Thanks for confirming that!”
The day after the retreat I was talking to my parents on the phone. We were talking about pretty basic things such as school, football, my car, etc. In the midst of this conversation I was overcome with a sense of being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and without really realizing what I was saying I opened my mouth and said, “Mom and Dad, I am being called to religious life.” I was completely shocked by what I said and wanted to kick myself. I could not believe those words came out of my mouth! At the same time I was overcome by a deep peace and joy. I again cried my eyes out. I surrendered to what the Lord wanted for me and came to realize it was the deepest desire of my heart.
A week after talking to my parents I received a letter from my father. He had a lot of hesitations about me following this call at this time. He wanted me to pursue further studies with scholarship money or get some experience in the world by using my education. This was difficult for me because I did not feel called to do this, and I had never embarked upon anything significant without his approval. I met with my spiritual director and he clearly said to me, “This is what Jesus meant when He said in the Gospel, leave your father and mother…and come follow me.” I had to choose to follow where my Heavenly Father was leading me. After meeting with him I went into the chapel and opened my breviary to pray Evening Prayer. My eyes immediately fell upon the words of Psalm 45: “Listen O daughter, give ear to my words, forget your own people and your father’s house, so shall the king desire your beauty.” It was a powerful confirmation.
After graduating, I took a part-time job with a law firm as a runner and worked in campus ministry at Florida State for one year. My father ended up going on a men’s retreat that the Brotherhood of Hope put on shortly after I received the letter. At the end of the retreat he stood up and told the men there that after meeting and talking with the Brothers and spending time in prayer, he could not imagine anything better for me than to be a religious. Another confirmation! I visited three different communities and this was where I found my home. My heart expanded when I visited here and I was flooded with joy. I entered in 1998 and made my final vows in 2006.
Religious life is not a fairy tale … being Christian is not either. Yet, my vocation points to the fulfillment of the greatest romance that has ever happened in the history of the world; the romance between God and man. This reaches its ultimate fulfillment only in Heaven. By living the vows, I am living the life we shall all be living in Heaven. I have put my foot on the threshold of that eternal reality where, God willing, we shall all live happily ever after.'
I was once a young mom attempting to attend daily Mass with my three little ones (ages three years, two years and one year). One morning, an older woman approached me and inquired as to whether or not I fed the children prior to Mass. I assured her they were well fed and she scrunched up her nose and shrieked, “Reeaally? ‘Cause they’re so loud and whiny, I was sure that they must be hungry or something. Maybe it would be better if you left them at home.”
I was a little tenacious back then. Okay, I am still tenacious; I am working on it. I told her that Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me …” so I was sure they were welcome at every Mass. I reassured her that if they were too loud at any point I was fairly adept at heading to the foyer until they calmed. I also told her that Father had assured me it was a blessing to have our children present and that he felt it benefited both parishioner and child alike. “Well, priests don’t have children, so what do they know?” she quipped. “Perhaps it would be an act of kindness to myself and the other daily Mass attendees if you saved us from the constant distraction caused by your children.” I bit my lip and tried to mentally calm myself. It did not work. “Or perhaps it would be a good opportunity for you to learn how to remain focused on the Mass in spite of minor distractions,” I countered. She huffed and scurried on her way.
The Sunday following the encounter, I saw this woman approach another young mother who was holding a baby that looked to be about 18 months old. The spectrum of emotions on the mother’s face broke my heart. First there was friendly surprise at being approached by someone new, then confusion, which was quickly followed by shame and a trembling hand rising to wipe her eyes as she walked away.
I ran up to this young mother. “Thank you for bringing your little guy here. I know how hard it is and you’re doing an amazing job. Please don’t be discouraged and know you both belong here.” I probably freaked her out a little, but she smiled slightly and then hurried off with her head bent low.
The next Sunday, I was on guard. I scanned the church and observed the contorted, crustaceous, disapproving eyebrows attached to the “work in progress.” She was sharing a pew with a young couple and their two children who were age-appropriately bubbling with energy. My little ones were under the weather, so I was uncharacteristically child free. I genuflected beside their pew and offered to let them sit on the end, planting myself between them and the self-appointed parent punisher (who did not seem to recognize me without my babes in tow) and then the fun began.
Every time I heard an excited squeal from the children beside me, it was followed by an enraged, “Hmph!” on my other side. In my peripheral, I could see this woman attempting to make eye contact with the young couple. She leaned forward, so I leaned forward, pretending to adjust my dress, fully blocking her. She stretched her scowling face above me and I quickly straightened. She lurched her head forward again, desperate to convey her disapproval. I hunched over my purse, pretending to dig through it, once again deflecting the stink eye targeted at the couple. Finally, she seemed to give up. The children were serenely sitting in their parents’ arms and she seemed to realize her moment had passed.
After Mass, I was warmed by an incredible elderly couple I overheard praising the parents for bringing their children. They assured them that children’s voices were one of the most beautiful and welcome sounds at Mass. It was so good to see how fellow parishioners were ready to stand up for young families and counter the condescension.
Young parents desperately need support and affirmation when it comes to attending Mass. I have encountered so many parents who feel like they are failing every Sunday, and many who will even refuse to return until their children are practically tweens. It is an enormous offering for them, but one that imparts even greater blessings and graces for their family—graces they will need to raise faith-filled children.
One of my missions—and I hope the mission of every person who attends Mass, be it single, married, religious or widowed—is to support parents with little ones. As their babies are loud, pint-sized parishioners who let out energetic shrieks, let their nervous glances around the church be met with an understanding smile or a subtle hand signal of solidarity. Perhaps if you are able, offer to lend a hand when you see exasperation plastered on the parents’ faces, fetch the wayward sippy cups or the keys and songbooks that have just been thrown onto your pew for the 11th time and smile with genuine warmth as you return them. Following Mass, if the opportunity allows offer words of encouragement and gratitude. Even a simple, “You have a beautiful family” can go a long way. What they are doing is a gift to the whole church community.
A few months after my run-in with the “less-than-charitable” woman, I overheard her mentioning that none of her grown children attends Mass anymore. I had recently been through a cancer ordeal with my two-year-old and felt compelled to share how I believed we had been sustained by the graces accumulated with each Mass we had attended together. I wrote a letter and discretely left it on the pew beside her. I shared about my son and I pleaded with her to be gentle and understanding toward other parents, because perhaps there is a reason God has called them to make an effort to more frequently attend Mass. I assured her of prayers that her children would one day return to the church and asked that she in turn pray for me and other parents who are striving to impart the gift of faith to the smallest members of our parish.'
Not long ago a priest shared some guidance with my wife and me that has been the cause of a great deal of conversation and reflection in our home. In response to learning that we pray every day about our oldest son’s future and that he be healed of his autism, the priest encouraged us to pray first for acceptance.
Let me explain. He said there was nothing wrong with asking God to heal our son. But, we first needed to ask for the ability to fully accept the beautiful gift of our child exactly as God created him. By asking for healing first, we were in essence asking God to improve on His creation without first understanding the lessons and blessings His gift has provided our family. We have always viewed our oldest son as a blessing and know we could not possibly love him more than we do now. But, we may have mistaken love for acceptance as we continued to pray over the years for God to remake him into our vision of a well-formed and perfect child. We have somewhat selfishly asked God to redo His handiwork when we should be accepting of God’s plan for his life and trusting that the Father who loves us wants only what is best for him. “If you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One that loves you” (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI).
Acknowledging this has been both humbling and illuminating as I think about how to apply “acceptance” into other areas of my life. This period of reflection has made me realize how often, without thinking, I ask God for His help in improving situations and solving problems. Instead of praying for acceptance and discernment about what lessons God wants to teach me or the blessings hidden in these challenges I have been seeking to reshape the issues into something more pleasing to me instead of pleasing to Him. Do you ever fall into the “acceptance trap” as well?
Do we see the good that may come from being unemployed?
Do we accept the blessings of an “unplanned” pregnancy?
Do we see opportunities for spiritual growth in our emotional struggles and financial setbacks?
Does illness (ours or others) offer opportunities to turn suffering into a blessing?
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Romans 8:18). It is often difficult to see the blessings and good in any kind of suffering, yet we know from Church teaching there is redemptive power in suffering if we learn to give it up to God. Practicing “acceptance” may require a radical recalibration of our mindsets as well as complete trust and faith in God’s plan for our lives. We must be faithful, humble, patient, obedient and prayerful if we are to learn the lessons and blessings God has in store for us in our daily trials. We must also seek to glorify Him and not ourselves through the way we deal with challenges and always express our gratitude for the good and bad that comes our way. “We always find that those who walked closest to Christ were those who had to bear the greatest trials” (Saint Teresa of Avila).
I can look back now and see the tremendous positive influence our oldest son has had on our family. His diagnosis with autism more than sixteen years ago and the challenges this presented began the long and often difficult process of lowering the wall around my closed-off heart. In the summer of 2005 we moved into the area in which we now live to be closer to his school and therapists. This move began a chain of events that eventually led to our family joining the Catholic Church later that year. The opening of my heart which began at his diagnosis allowed me to experience a profound conversion experience in September of 2005 when I finally surrendered to Christ and put aside the pride and stubbornness which had dominated my life for so long. Without a doubt, our gifted child and his presence in our lives was a significant catalyst behind our joining the Catholic Church and the strong faith our family has today.
Maybe this was God’s plan all along for our son. I am just grateful that I can see it now and accept him, not only as one of my wonderful children whom I love, but also as a child of God who was given to us for His divine purpose.
Perhaps we can all practice acceptance of God’s will and pray that we will see the challenges in our lives as blessings, not burdens.
“Heavenly Father, I humbly ask that you grant me the gift of acceptance today. Please help me to understand the lessons and blessings hidden within the challenges my family and I will face and know that I am grateful to you for our lives and the incredible gift and sacrifice of your son Jesus Christ. Amen.”'
Not long before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He told the disciples to wait in the city because He was going to send the Holy Spirit just as His father promised and that they would receive power from Heaven (Luke 24:49).
In the Book of Acts, what Jesus said is expanded. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The power that is spoken about here is one of boldness, courage, confidence and authority. The eleven disciples who grew to 120 would need all that and more in order to transform the world!
So they waited for ten days in the upper room, praying and trusting Jesus at His word. I often wonder if they got discouraged. I mean, how long do you wait before you lose patience or give up? They encouraged one another and kept praying.
Then suddenly it happened! Scripture says there was a sound from Heaven like a windstorm and it filled the house where they were meeting and what looked like tongues of fire appeared on each of them. Everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit. Everyone. As I read these passages again I realized that the Holy Spirit came to all who asked. No one was left empty.
I remember my first experience being filled with the Holy Spirit. I was filled with joy and enthusiasm and I wanted to tell everyone about Jesus, but, quite honestly, sometimes those feelings simmer down in my life. The weight of the outside world creeps into me and I feel like the Holy Spirit is pushed down with all that weight.
Earlier this year I went away to a retreat and prayed to again be filled with the Holy Spirit. As I was waking up the next morning, words came out of my mouth without me even thinking. I said, “Holy Spirit, what are we going to do today?” After that I started saying it—and really meaning it—every day. The Lord takes that prayer seriously! This has opened up so many more opportunities to share Christ with others. I will share one special story with you.
Not long before Easter, I went shopping for flowers to plant in front of my house. I looked around the store for a liner I needed, but could not find it. As I was checking out, the cashier asked me if I found everything I needed. I told her I had not and explained what I needed. As I was explaining, the store manager walked by and told us the liners had not been delivered to the store yet. I left and started putting my purchases in my car. Within minutes, both the manager and cashier walked outside and called out to me. They found what I was looking for in a box in the back!
As I was walking back to the store, I said, “Lord, thank you for loving me so much. You blessed me with big things this week and you even care about the little things like flowers for the planter in the front of my house.”
I felt in my heart that the Lord was asking me to go back in the store and share His blessing with the store manager and cashier. I said, “I don’t know if you believe in God, but I do and He has been blessing me all week. I believe He wants to bless you, as well. Do either of you need prayer?” They both said yes, and then the young female cashier started crying. Her 10-month-old daughter was having a surgery the next morning and she was worried. I pulled her aside. I told her about Jesus and how much He loves her and her daughter. After I shared, we prayed together. It was that simple.
When I evangelize, it is not by my own strength or courage. It is all through the power of the Holy Spirit! Ask the Lord to guide your steps and be open to how the Holy Spirit can use you to bless others today.
If you want to evangelize, ask the Holy Spirit to help you and expect Him to use you!'