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On a lofty evening at the pediatric clinic, every now and then little cherubs made a grand entrance, as if in a pageant. Their innocent smiles and looks of admiration from parents added to the happiness. My little son of seven months never got tired of flashing a glee that perfectly entertained even those tight-mustached men. My eyes were met with smiles all around, including from complete strangers. Yet behind the smile I posed with the little one sitting on my lap, nobody knew what it was like when I stepped into the same clinic a few years back with my daughter.
A Wind of Change
I still remember what I had earnestly prayed for on our wedding day and that was for children, the grace to raise them in holiness and to make them into great saints! Our happiness knew no bounds when we discovered that I was pregnant. I soon felt a strange notion that something was wrong. My worst nightmare happened at around 27 weeks of pregnancy, when baby’s movement was not felt. We immediately went to the hospital and found that her heart beat was dropping. An emergency, impromptu cesarean section was done and our premature baby, now on a ventilator, battled for life. I had to see my tiny little one strapped on all fours with cannulas and put through many needles to inject medicines or draw blood every hour. When she cried in pain, my heart wrenched but I trusted in God. I knew that nothing happens without His knowledge and my tiny one was safe in His heart. A miracle happened when, after 45 days in NICU, we finally had our baby in our arms; I thought life would be peaceful again.
Tossed by the Waves
Day by day she gradually grew stronger. When our daughter was about three months old, the doctors diagnosed her with microcephaly—a condition of small headedness that is caused by brain injury.
As the reports came we understood that our daughter was suffering from severe brain damage which led to cerebral palsy and intellectual disability. It was after the delivery when we came to know about the congenital problem with my uterus—it was bicornuate (heart shaped). In the doctor’s words, “The uterus is compartmentalized into two sections—there was no space for the baby to grow and that led to the emergency.” Worst of all, “Your future babies will have to be operated out at around seven months of pregnancy and put in the NICU …”
My anguish at knowing that all the time the baby in my womb was struggling and, much worse, that my defect put our baby through such an ordeal was shuddering. It was the darkest period of my life, and I began to blame myself for her condition.
My heart broke every time I saw her having strange epilepsy convulsions. In those days it was not easy to wait at the pediatric clinic, where little toddlers were prancing around in bliss, while the little girl sprawled on my lap stared blankly at the walls—she would not look or smile at me. Those happy parents stared at my little girl, some even probing around with curious questions. I grew weary of waiting for my turn and it was a relief to go home.
Into the Storm
Until then I thought I would never have to confess to being jealous. Now, seeing a little bird hopping around, loomed my mind: even this little bird with so small a brain can hop and fly but my baby cannot do anything.
With time God’s grace allowed me to appreciate His creation, to thank Him always for the perfection I saw around and to not grudge over what lacked in my child.
By this time I had conceived three times but miscarried each. I was also diagnosed with PCOD, which meant it would not be easy for me to conceive a baby again. I began to hate my body and myself. This is my fault. If only I was born with a normal uterus, I could have had a normal pregnancy and normal, healthy children.
My heart longed for the impossible. A little Rosary book in my hand had the picture of Blessed Virgin Mary with the child Jesus gazing at her lovingly and the Holy mother intently looking back at her Son with an unfathomable love. To Jesus I never complained but to His mother I poured out my heart. I even took the freedom to say to her, “You had baby Jesus who looked back at you, smiled and did all that a normal baby could. Mother, how would you be able to understand my plight?’
Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear. – Isaiah 59:1
Prayer from the Heart
Many suggested praying for a miracle, by placing a prayer card or a rosary in my hand. All I could was cry in His presence. If I said the rosary aloud it turned out into a long wail. I never complained to God but surrendered everything to Him. This was not easy because most often I felt wearied. Whenever I prayed for a miraculous healing, I felt sad—not because my faith was ebbing but because of the thought that I was asking God to correct His gift. Our daughter was indeed the most precious gift from God.
I did not know what to pray for then. Sitting in His presence, I gazed at Jesus exposed in the Holy Eucharist. Did He really know what I was going through? Could you really see me here Jesus?
Once a friend of mine told me reassuringly, “Our God is not seated on His throne somewhere up in Heaven and by chance looks down to see you and exclaim, ‘Oh! I did not know this would happen to you!’ No! God’s eyes are always on you. He does not make mistakes or miscalculations. Everything is known to Him.” These words really helped me to TRUST in His mercy and goodness even though my life was going astray, like a ship tossed in a great storm. I knew that Jesus was sleeping peacefully in the boat and I did not want to wake him.
Eye of the Storm
In my dream Jesus deigned to see my anguish. On an August day in 2017, we and our little girl attended a one-day retreat at the Marian Retreat Centre, led by Father Dominic Valanmanal, a really gifted priest. Fully accepting my condition and the sickness of our daughter I prayed to Jesus “If it is Your will, please heal my daughter. But if it is not Your will I accept her whole heartedly, with only a plea for a healthy baby …” I knew this was impossible given my condition. Yet I believed nothing was impossible for God.
Just one month later we came to know about the pregnancy of our fifth baby. I understood that the fount of life and unfathomable divine mercy of God enveloped our life that day at the retreat. Strangely, I felt much more serene, without a trace of fear in my heart.
Jesus had swept away all my fears like a cloud. An ultrasound scan was done and by God’s grace the baby was doing well. To our utter surprise, they could not find a bicornuate uterus or poly cystic ovaries. The doctors were more surprised than me; they could not even find a slight bend in my uterus!
By the mercy of God, I carried our baby for 39 weeks! God blessed us with a healthy baby boy, thriving in His love and mercy! After the caesarean, the first thing I asked the doctor about was my uterus. She said my uterus was normal and had only a single whole cavity (she even put her hand on it to check thoroughly). God blessed us with a healthy baby and gave us hope to have many more healthy babies. He cured me completely. This is impossible for man. There is no operation that could change my condition or the one-percent chance that my uterus would change by itself. For God, everything is possible!
Know That I Am God
My baby now looks at me and smiles. He never gets tired of looking for me. My baby wants to SEE me always. This thought crossed my mind: just like my little one, God was always watching. He sees us even in our bad times. When plunged into waves of despair in life, we may not feel God watching over us. We may wonder if there is a God looking down from heaven. It is true, He is there!
Today, as I sit at the pediatric clinic pleasantly amused by my little one’s antics, no one knows about my angel at home who is four years old and still unable to sit or stand by herself. I do not know if she will ever call me “Mamma” or play with me as any child would. In her own ways she expresses a love that is untainted by worldliness. Our little boy’s smile brings happiness to our lives, but it is our daughter’s smile that sparks a greater joy in our hearts.
Do Not Be Afraid!
Jesus calmed all my fears and made everything new! He can do it for you as well! Surrender everything unto Him for He cares for you. No matter what the situation in your life is, God knows it and His eyes are on you! Just trust in His mercy. For the path to peace is not found in summit meetings, stockpiling arms or in acquiring more material goods; it is only found by trusting in God’s mercy for our lives.
Lord Jesus, we offer ourselves to you—all our anxieties, fears and our nothingness. We trust in your divine mercy that overflows from Your merciful heart. Immerse us in Your ocean of mercy, O Jesus, so our lives may become new and strengthened by Your grace as we face the storms of life valiantly and reach the eternal shore of our Fatherland. Amen.'
Susan paced the hospital corridor with her infant daughter crying in her arms. Fear gripped her and she was struggling to put one foot in front of the other. As she waited with unabated breath, at the paediatric clinic, for Eve their two-year-old daughter, Susan could not withhold her anxiety.
The moment of truth lay in a blood test result kept inside her daughter’s medical file just inches away from where she was standing. She and her husband Joe were already dealing with the devastating news of Eve’s leukaemia and the knowledge that she needed a bone marrow transplant.
They had been told that matching donors and patients is much more complex than matching blood types and that it might take time to find the perfect match. Both Joe and Susan had volunteered as donors, and they were waiting for the results at their scheduled appointment.
Not at all!
The consultant’s door opens, and Dr Grainne sees Susan and invites them to come forward. Susan shakes a little more, and her husband puts his arm around her waist to support her.
The doctor speaks in a soft tone and asks how Eve has been since their last visit. She picks up on Susan’s anxiety and is gentle in her approach towards her. She speaks to Susan first and tells her that further tests will be needed to ascertain if she is the close to a perfect match. Dr Grainne then addresses Joe, and she tells him that he is not a match at all. He hears the words ‘not at all’, and he questionably repeats them. “Not at all! How is that? I am her father!” The doctor retains a calm and steady voice, and she tells him that he has a different blood type to Eve.
Three months later the incomprehensible words are still resounding in his ears. The reality of him not being Eve’s father sends volts of shock through him. The news has not changed his love for his baby girl with whom he fell in love the moment she was born.
Susan had taken a gamble that Eve might be his child and figured that if she was, then she was taking the risk of telling her husband about a brief affair with a work colleague for no reason. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him” her friend had advised, and she thought it was a phrase worth applying to this situation.
Science had proven differently, though, and the results had taken an overwhelming toll on their marriage. Joe was incredibly angry and had moved out of the family home. He continued to attend the hospital appointments, and at Susan’s invitation, for his input into decisions about Eve’s care.
Eve’s biological father relinquished all responsibility, and he refused to go for donor testing. He had a family of his own, and he did not want his life wrecked by this scandal.
Food for Spiritual Thought
Three years later, Joe was attending the twenty-fifth Medjugorje Anniversary Conference at the RDS in Dublin. And I was also actively involved in the conference. He still has not come to terms with Susan’s affair and deceit, and he is far from forgiving her. The conference committee has organised a captivating line-up of speakers from America and Bosnia-Herzegovina for the weekend event.
Their stories of spiritual healing, physical miracles and conversions are a testimony to the power of prayer and God’s infinite, loving and tender mercy for the incurable, depraved, and lost souls. “One could be forgiven for thinking that nothing could be done with him”, Joe said, referring to Father Donald Calloway’s ( from the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary) story about his raucous, rebellious and juvenile delinquent years.
“Does it give you hope, Joe that maybe one day it will be possible to forgive Susan and to reconcile and return to your family home?”, I asked. “It is certainly food for spiritual thought”, he replied.
Never Stop Believing
In the afternoon session, Colleen Willard from Chicago told the story of how she was miraculously healed in Medjugorje from thirteen complicated medical conditions including an incurable brain tumour and a ruptured disc that confined Colleen to a wheelchair.
“How are you doing, Joe?”, I enquired when I caught up with him before the evening prayer programme began. “Wow”, he said, “I am beginning to believe that everything is possible through prayer and with God.” I encouraged Joe to never stop believing that God could heal the brokenness of his marriage and his heart. “You know Jesus was betrayed too, and He knows the pain of that,” I said. Joe loved his wife and was very close to Eve, and she called him “Daddy” which constantly evoked tears of pain, pity and more often of joy.
The Journey from Pain
Eve had received a bone marrow transplant and was in remission. Joe could not contemplate the idea of not having Eve in his life, and the word remission was one he ignored. Susan had invited him to adopt Eve officially, and he was pondering on the idea. He was hindered, though by his inability to forgive her. Susan had deeply suffered the consequences of her reckless actions, and her family had erupted into war with her. She was struggling with their coldness toward her, and she felt alone and isolated. She knew she had caused all this pain to herself and everyone else around her. She asked them for their forgiveness and had asked Joe many times also for his.
To the Shores of Peace
Our last speaker at the conference was Goran Curkovi from Medjugorje, and he was scheduled to speak on Sunday. His inspiring story of recovery from heroin addiction, homelessness, paranoid schizophrenia and self-harming over many years evoked tumultuous tears and roars of laughter from the attendees. Joe had heard more than enough to convince him that God existed and was the maker of miracles.
Joe did not leave the RDS without going to confession. He shared his story with many tears of anger and disappointment. He held close to his heart the advice his confessor told him, and it ran along the lines of; forgiveness will bring healing, peace and love. Bitterness and anger will culminate in more chaos and emotional self-destruction of yourselves and your daughter. It was time for Joe to make his mind up.
Many years have passed by and Eve is now fourteen-years-old. Joe officially became Eve’s ‘Daddy’. Susan and Joe reconciled. They are now a very active faithful couple and a silent witness to their journey of forgiveness.
Prayer Lord, help me to forgive the person who has caused me this pain, anguish and hurt. Give me the strength to say the words that I least want to pass my lips. I bless (name) in your name O Lord. Amen'
On that pleasant, sunny morning, it was just another day when I left for Saint Michael’s college in India. I was doing my studies there, at the reputed college in my home town. Little did I know that it would be a day I would never forget.
Classes were stopped abruptly not long after they had commenced; the college union declared a “protest” in response to a decision made by the state government. The principal declared a holiday for the college students. Those active in politics marched toward the road outside the campus’ boundaries and began blocking the public bus service.
My classmates decided to enjoy the day off and started playing cricket inside the campus’ boundaries. I joined them. That was an act of disobedience on my part—one of the strict instructions from my dad was to leave the campus as soon as possible if a protest was declared.
While we were enjoying the match, things were getting worse elsewhere. The strike turned violent. Students started throwing stones at the police and the police started using “baton charge”. Students re-entered the campus and continued throwing stones from there; police were not allowed to enter the campus.
As time progressed, the situation went out of control. A couple of police officers had serious injuries. Finally, the police stormed into the campus and the panicked students ran in all directions. We had no option other than to run! We ran toward the “Sacred Heart,” seminary near the college. Authorities tried to help us by locking us in a hallway but that was not enough.
We were caught and taken to the police station. We were charged and presented to the court. The court remanded and sent us to the sub-jail. It took four days for us to make bail and another two years to be acquitted of all offenses—during that time I had to go to the police station every week to check in. I had to be present for court hearings almost once a month.
Later, when I started my journey with the LORD, I could easily connect this incident to the way I listened and followed the Lord. The times I paid attention to Him blessings were poured upon my life; the times I did not pay attention to Him witness collectively to the temptations I had succumbed to. Here are a few lessons I learned:
◗ Disobedience Always Comes with a Price Tag: When we disobey God, we pay a price. Maybe we initially get away without any serious issues, but if we continue in disobedience we invariably end up paying a price. In my case, it was not the first time I had disobeyed my Dad. As I did not initially encounter any major issue, I continued my disobedience and ended up paying a high price.
◗ It is not the Punishment, but the Natural Consequences: “But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it”. (James 1:14) My dad never punished me for my disobedience but was trying to save me from trouble. All my sufferings were the natural consequences of my disobedience. In the same way, when I disobey God the troubles I encounter are the natural consequences and not the punishment from heaven.
◗ Disobedience Hurts Many: My act of disobedience not only caused suffering for me but for my whole family. I recovered from the initial struggle and started adjusting to prison life from the second day. Prison authorities put us in a single hallway on the second day and allowed us to play board games. We started enjoying prison life.
In my home my parents and siblings continued in deep pain until I returned home. In the same way, we quickly adapt to our painful and pitiful situation after drifting away from God with our disobedience. Heaven will be restless until we return.
Abba Father, it is my desire to be obedient to You in every single moment of my life. But many a times I fail to obey Your words. I am truly sorry for causing You so much pain. Lord, pour out Your abundant grace upon me so that I may never hurt You again. Amen.'
When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going …
I n the year 2010 the movie, 127 Hours, was released starring James Franco, who portrayed an adventurous man Aron Ralston. The main character falls into a crevice while on a canyoneering venture in southeastern Utah. His right forearm gets pinned underneath a boulder, which traps him for five days and seven hours (127 hours). He lays there for several days trying to extricate himself from the rock, but to no avail. Finally, convinced that he would die of exposure, he grabs a small, dull pocketknife out of his backpack and begins to cut off his own arm. Despite the unspeakable pain, he completes the task. Ralson then ties a crude tourniquet around the stump of his arm and makes his way through the remainder of the canyon, in which he had to rappel down a sixty-five foot sheer cliff face to reach safety. He later comes to a road where he flags down a car.
Some months after this terrible ordeal, he appears on the David Letterman Show, where he tells his story, to a spellbound audience. When he finishes, the normally light-hearted and sarcastic Letterman becomes unusually serious. Looking at his guest intently, he says with great admiration, “You know something about life that I don’t.”
What is the point of describing this terrible, yet fascinating tale? Because Jesus speaks with incredible bluntness about cutting off ones hand, ones foot; about plucking out ones eye. If these become a block to salvation, get rid of them, he says; better to enter eternal life maimed, than going to Gehenna with all your members intact.
These are hard, blunt, surprising words but, are we to take a literal, fundamentalist understanding of them? I think not. In the Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas Aquinas laid the foundation of modern biblical interpretation by recognizing that the Bible is packed with rich symbolic language, which communicates special meaning regarding what Jesus actually said. So, he distinguishes between the literal sense of a passage—what the words of Scripture actually says; that is, the obvious meaning of the text. Then he notes that there is a spiritual sense in a passage which goes beyond the literal sense of the words and thereby to consider the religious meaning, conveyed symbolically.
So, I do not think Jesus is encouraging us to cut off our hands or feet or pluck out our eyes. At the same time, we are being challenged to look at this teaching with a certain spiritual seriousness. We should not be to blasé over the language Jesus is using. “Oh, our Lord is only exaggerating; He is just using metaphors to get our attention.” Rather, I would caution you to read the passage (Mark 9:43-48) through the lens of Aron Ralston and his experience. Let us look at Ralston who found himself in mortal danger when his arm was pinned underneath a boulder. So desperate was his situation that he judged quite rightly, that he had to sacrifice an essential part of his body in order to save his life. He knew that something drastic had to be done and he was willing to pay the price, despite the pain, to do it.
Does it ever occur to us that we can be in a similar kind of spiritual situation in which we are in danger— that, if we do not do something drastic, we could die spiritually? Indeed, we could be in mortal danger, pinned, as it were, under a “rock.” Jesus is warning us of spiritual dangers, of spiritual warfare, of spiritual death, and the drastic things we have got to do in order to save our spiritual lives.
So what are the three things that Jesus identifies? Let us have a look at these from a spiritual standpoint.
1. Grasp the Nettle
Your hand is the member by which we ‘grasp’ and ‘take’ things. In the course of our lives, we take and grasp for all sorts of things: money, pleasure, sex, power, prestige, security, and comfort. Go all the way back to the book of Genesis in which our original parents grasped for the fruit from the tree of good and evil. They grasped at godliness but without God! From the beginning our hands are a problem because they grasp what the ego wants.
What are you grasping at in the course of your life?— worldly things, honor, creating benefits for yourself and pleasures. Is that grasping putting you in spiritual danger, keeping you from receiving the one glorious essential which is God’s own Life? Are you willing to cut off the attachment, right out of your life? You may be thinking now “There is no way! I can’t live without so and so.” It could be riches power, pleasures or honor. If so, perhaps your grasping has pinned you down, and is keeping you from being fully alive.
2. Pick Your Way
What is the foot but the member why which we walk, by which we set ourselves on a definite path. We are meant to spiritually walk towards God, who is the goal of our life. Saint Aquinas says that if you want to find joy, walk the path that leads to God alone.
What do we do with so much of our lives? We walk down errant paths; we chose paths that move us away from God—path that leads us to wealth and consumerism, status and prestige, control and dominance, and hedonistic pleasure. Very early in life we get on these paths and we walk and walk. As we get older, we may pick up the pace because we do not have too much time left; so, we accumulate more and more, thereby moving us in the wrong direction. There are many stories in the spiritual tradition that talks about path, roads, and ways of life. Think of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” which begins:
“Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost” (The Inferno, Dante Alighieri, Canto 1).
So, if your foot is your problem, cut it off. What does that mean spiritually? If you are walking along the wrong road, you must be willing to change the direction and set off on the right path. This is “rubber hitting the road” spirituality. You may be thinking, “You mean this road that I have been walking most of my life, where I have devoted most of my energies, is the wrong one?” Yes! And, you must be willing to abandon it, to cut it off.
3. You are What You See!
Finally, Jesus speaks of the eye. If it is your problem, pluck it out. Both Saint Augustine and Saint Aquinas say that the beatific vision is to “see” God face to face. The goal of the spiritual life is the knowledge of God, a love of God, of seeing very deep into the very essence of God. That means that the spiritual life is a constant seeking and seeing the things of God.
Unfortunately, most of us spend our lives looking at all the wrong places—we are often looking for and seduced by the goods of the world. If your eye is your problem, pluck it out. Take that challenge with spiritual urgency. If you have been looking in the wrong places, if you have been intrigued and beguiled by the wrong things, you must be willing to eliminate that thing from your life. You must be willing to do something drastic to deal with it.
In the recent years, we have lost a since of urgency with the spiritual life. Somehow, Catholic spirituality has become soft, and too easy: “God is love, God is my friend; therefore, whatever I do will be forgiven; so, it really does not matter what I do.”
Yes, we will be forgiven if we seek it; but, the spiritual life is the consummate high adventure: it is demanding. In Saint Paul’s language, an athlete is willing to sacrifice all sorts of things to win a perishable crown. What are we willing to sacrifice, to cut drastically out of our lives in order to gain eternal life? That is the hard question raised by the challenging language of our Lord Jesus.
O Lord, help us to make a strong resolution to follow close, the print of Thy dear footsteps and cut off all that which hinders us from Your path which is righteousness and peace.
Do you feel isolated and desperate? Take heart! You are never alone!
About six years ago, our middle daughter, Sarah, was born—quite surprisingly with a rare craniofacial condition called Apert syndrome, which requires 20 to 60 surgeries throughout a lifetime. Until that day, my husband, Ben, and I were very active in our parish community and had a lot of different social circles. After that day, however, most people stopped inviting us to events and gatherings. It hurt. I felt abandoned. And I realized the infinite void of dark loneliness.
It was not that I did not cling to my faith; on the contrary, I wept to God all the more. I still felt as if the people closest to us should have been the ones to stand by our side when we needed them the most. Yet, they left us without really checking in, stopping by or even sending notes.
Since that time, I have pondered the universality of loneliness and why it is so pervasive in our world. Nearly every day I read about another suicide— sometimes of young children no older than my second grader—or another person who has fallen into the pit of hopelessness. It seems we are seeking human connections now more than ever but are doing so through difficult channels such as social media and other digital means.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta once famously stated that one of the greatest poverties is loneliness. What cures such a devastating void? I think often of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when all of His beloved friends fell asleep in His greatest hour of need. He prayed, as we often do, that His heavenly Father would take away the chalice of suffering from Him. The Father answered His prayer, just not in the way He initially wanted. Instead of taking the suffering of loneliness away, God sent an angel of consolation to accompany Jesus through His Passion.
I, also, remember that my darkest hours of loneliness are often met with daily, small consolations. They are sometimes difficult to ascertain, especially when I am heavily discouraged by the daily burdens of doctor’s appointments, funneling Sarah’s emotional outbursts and developmental delays into constructive behavior and mediating fights between our children, but consolations abound. Not long ago I was in the throes of loneliness, feeling generally misunderstood by people and not knowing to whom I could turn. I had another doctor’s appointment, this time I had to drag all my kids with me. Dreading this, I desperately pleaded to Our Lady to accompany me and the girls so that things would go smoothly—instead of as on the previous occasion when, while in the waiting room, Veronica threw a tantrum that lasted about 20 minutes. She heard my prayer. I went home, took several deep breaths and realized the release of my breath exhaled grateful praise to God for this small and seemingly insignificant help.
Loneliness, despite what we might think, is not necessarily healed by the balm of busyness. Yes, we are designed for community and we need human connection. What initially quells the sorrow and heaviness of loneliness is solitude with God. I often think about how the Old Testament relays that God was not in the thunder or on the mountain top or even in the gusty wind but in the still, small voice. We cannot hear Him when we are too consumed with the noise and clutter surrounding us. Solitude does not mean we are alone; it means we seek a sacred space and time to be with the only One who can grant us true and lasting interior peace.
Solitude heals loneliness. I find that I am most lonely when I am most distant from God. When I return to Him in prayer and silence, when I seek Him with my whole heart, then I discover that He fills me with consolation and His love. I am no longer empty or longing for my broken heart to be assuaged by human comforts and words of encouragement. Instead, God patches up my heart tenderly and lovingly and renews my spirit so I can carry with greater strength and hope the cross He has given me.'
How discernment can change your life
During convalescence, Ignatius of Loyola learned to examine his life and discover the good desires that were drawing him to God; in other words, he learned “discernment.” Pope Francis has emphasized again and again the importance of discernment. One simple principle of discernment can change your life in a dramatic way.
Who am I? How can I discover my real self? How can I become the person I want to be? These are big questions and it takes a lot of chutzpah to answer them. Chutzpah is precisely what Saint Ignatius of Loyola developed as a result of … daydreaming. Yes, daydreaming! Who said daydreaming was a waste of time?!
A Tryst with Destiny
It was actually the devastating impact of a cannonball that reduced Ignatius of Loyola from dashing dreams to daydreams. At the beginning of 1521, Ignatius was a gallant knight in armour, ambitious for glory and power but in May of the same year he was hit by a cannonball that shattered his leg, and his dreams. Despite one agonizing operation after another, Ignatius still had to spend nine months in bed to regain movement and flexibility in his wounded leg. During these long and seemingly interminable months, he asked for books on chivalry to pass the time. His sister-in-law had other ideas: she gave him books on the lives of the saints and the life of Jesus.
Although he was no longer a functioning soldier, a real battle developed inside Ignatius. It was a battle between two different selves, two different “Ignatiuses,” and they were truly at loggerheads. One Ignatius was mesmerized by Jesus and the saints, by their amazing freedom from power and prestige, from public opinion and possessions. The other Ignatius stubbornly refused to give up the dream of becoming a valiant knight. Again and again Ignatius would see himself as a strong and virile hero, the knight in shining armour who would win the lady of his dreams, come what may.
It was only after some time that Ignatius began to realize that these two conflicting dreams left him in two distinct frames of mind. The prospect of being the tough man with a magnanimous soul sent a thrill rushing through his heart. Crucially, the thrill did not last. It wore off more quickly than he cared to believe. All that remained was a disheartening emptiness.
However, things were different when his inner gaze turned to Jesus and the saints. The joy and attraction he felt inside did not rush away; they stayed. Slowly it dawned on him that the desires that kindled the lasting fire of joy inside were the very desires that were drawing him toward God, while the desires that left him dissatisfied were pulling him away from everything that spoke of God.
Knowing Your ‘Self’
In our own ways, we all experience two selves inside. There is the surface self that is focused on having things (for Ignatius it was all about having power, wealth and a noble wife), accomplishing things (becoming the most valiant and successful knight ever) and getting approval from the outside (being respected and even venerated by his peers). This false self is never secure: at any moment fame, fortune and the accolade of fans can fade away. The false self is out of touch with our inner depths because it has become a master of masks and disguises, always ready to put on a face to hide its fears and neediness.
Many of us experience a constant pendulum swing from one self to another. In the course of a single day we can move from generosity (stopping to talk with a homeless man on the street and giving him spare change) to complete self-absorption (I am surfing on my phone so do not disturb me!). The false self promises much and delivers next to nothing. After the inevitable thrill, we are left dissatisfied. The true self imparts a joy that stays, a sense of being at home with ourselves and the world. The false self drags us back into the past of unhealthy habits; the true self draws us forward toward a fuller life.
Before You Leap
If you want to live in tune with who you really are, here is a vital rule to live by: Never make big decisions when you are in a bad space. When you are in a bad space, the world looks worse than it is. It is like when you are wearing sunglasses and everything appears darker than what it really is.
Here is a story to make this vital point as clear as possible (names, places and certain details have been changed but the gist of the story is true).
One morning, a Jesuit priest gave a talk to some college students about how to make decisions. He kept returning to the point I just mentioned: Do not make big decisions when you are in a bad zone. He added that it is at those trying moments when we are tempted to make major decisions because we think they are the very things that will get us out of the bad space. Often, these decisions boomerang on us and make things even worse.
Several days later one of the students, Sarah, came back to see him. She said, “Father, what you said is so true, it really works.” He asked, “What works?” “That rule you gave us about making big decisions,” Sarah replied. He was intrigued: “Tell me more.”
So Sarah told him about her friend Aoife, who was at the point of dropping out of university. “It was last Friday,” she said. “I arrived at our flat and Aoife was packing her things, not just a few clothes as she usually did when she was going home for the weekend. No, this time it was a real clear-out: everything was going into suitcases and travel bags. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked her. She said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m getting out of college.’ That wasn’t like Aoife. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, she’s a star student, she’s a great athlete and she has a ton of friends.
Why was she suddenly packing it all in? It just didn’t make any sense. I said, ‘Aoife, you can’t just walk out like this; you owe me an explanation.’ She had this really sad expression on her face. She said, ‘I wanted to be a doctor, but this year of pre-med is crazy: I’m two months into it and I’ve just failed my first set of exams. This is new territory for me: I’ve never got a B grade for an exam and now I have failed! Then I texted my boyfriend to meet him for coffee. I figured he might give me some support and then two minutes later he texts me back telling me that he’s just met someone new. Can you believe it? He hasn’t even got the guts and the decency to tell me face-to-face. He calls it all off with a line of stupid text. So, there you have it. In the space of an hour I failed my exams and my boyfriend fails me. That’s why I’m going.’”
Sarah immediately thought of the rule about big decisions. She pleaded with Aoife “Please don’t do this now, not when you’re so upset.” Aoife replied, “Well, what do you want me to do: wait around until I’m even more upset?” Sarah replied, “Listen, come with me to Wexford for the weekend. We’ll book into a B & B. I’ll just meet you for breakfast and in the evenings. Otherwise, take time out, walk along the beach, look at the waves and relax. We’ll drive back to Dublin on Sunday evening. Then if you still feel the same way you do now, I’ll help you carry all those bags out of the door on Monday morning.” Aoife agreed.
Dawn of Realization
As they drove along the M11 on Sunday evening, Aoife said, “Thanks so much for the weekend. You know, it was while I was looking out to the sea this afternoon that it suddenly hit me: I don’t want to be a doctor at all. It was my mother who was pushing me to do it. She has been pushing me so much and for so long that I began to believe that I wanted it too. But you know, I don’t want it at all. It is stories and novels that have always fascinated me. I’m going to give up medicine. I’m going to switch to English literature.”
She stopped for a moment to clear her throat … “And as for that boyfriend, although my head told me that he ticked all the right boxes, my heart has been telling me for the last two months to run away from him but I never stopped long enough to listen to it. I’m better off without him.” As Sarah parked the car, Aoife gave her a big smile and said, “I’m staying at UCD.”
Sarah took the key from the ignition and put on the handbrake. Although a few drops of rain were tapping on the windshield, inside the car a sense of peace and stillness reigned. Sarah felt so happy that she held Aoife in a long embrace. The tears rolled down their faces. As Sarah finished telling this story to the Jesuit priest, she said, “That rule about not making a big decision from a bad space is so important. If Aoife had left college last Friday, her whole life would have collapsed around her.” Sarah saved Aoife from a lot of unnecessary unhappiness. Unfortunately, there are so many people who make many decisions from an unhelpful place inside themselves. They walk out of marriages because they are feeling down. They turn to someone new just to fill the gnawing dissatisfaction they feel inside. They make majorlife changes when they are full of anxiety and not in a proper state of mind to do so.
Quick Word of Advice
Please follow this basic wisdom in your life. When you feel out of tune with yourself, others and God, you will also find that you are blown this way and that by moods and feelings and they will often urge you to make a big decision. If you are feeling that uneasy with life and with yourself, it is the worst time to make that big decision. Do not get hijacked by your surface self! Wait! Be patient! In the meantime, while you are waiting and exercising your patience, share your pain with someone you trust, turn to friends for support and ask God to help you and heal you. You will be glad you did.
O God, grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Amen.'
Count Your Blessings and Be Surprised by What the Lord Has done!
As a teenager I read the autobiography “The Story of a Soul” by Saint Therese of Lisieux and was puzzled by her words. In the confidence of my youth, I did not exactly understand what she meant.
At our fortieth wedding anniversary, the meaning of those words finally dawned on me. Our four children and their respective spouses, together with our twelve grandchildren, threw us a surprise party. They invited family and friends from all over the country. A surprise it certainly was to say the least. We were put on the spot, having to give an unprepared, impromptu speech to a hall full of people gathered to celebrate with us.
As we looked back over our married life, we were amazed at the blessings we had received. These were completely undeserved graces on our part. We were conscious that there were friends and relatives present, better people than us, who had not received as many blessings as we had. I felt completely overwhelmed at the realization and began to wonder why so many wonderful blessings came to us and not to them.
All we understood was that we did not deserve these graces. We had made so many mistakes and wrong decisions. Most of the time we felt at a loss as we stumbled through life, a bit bewildered and often feeling pretty incompetent as we prayed our way from day to day through each crisis that came along.
I realized the prayers we prayed were the key. Many years ago, I participated in a directed, silent retreat with an old Jesuit priest. He taught me the Ignatian principle of requesting a specific spiritual grace with every daily meditation. We started off well enough early in our marriage, doing this together, but after a while asking for a deep spiritual insight eventually gave way to prayers such as “Please help the baby sleep” or “Please get us over this sickness quickly.” We even resorted to prayers such as “Please provide the money for this dentist bill or the school fees soon.” Often, the scripture meditation was the first thing to go, depending on the level of tiredness or the degree of conflict on the day.
Years later while doing a Cana couples’ session with the French community Chemin Neuf, we were asked to do the long-forgotten scripture meditations in the Ignatian way, hearing it explained again to ask for a specific grace each day.
We realized it was such a great blessing to have found the key to receiving God’s unreserved and bountiful graces—we just needed to ask, and continue asking, for them. Sometimes you even get graces that you have not asked for. Looking back, we saw that over the years every little prayer we prayed for, especially for our children, was answered, often extravagantly and in ways we could never have dreamed.
Our prayers were answered though not always in the way we wanted them to be. There are still some graces we are asking for that have not come through yet, but we are sure they will eventually be answered by our God, who is always a loving and merciful Father.
We have also learned over the years to ask for particular graces not only for our own family and friends but also for others when we see their need. It does not really matter who asks for the grace and how often; if someone is heading in the wrong direction, or in the midst of a crisis, he often does not think to simply ask for the grace for himself. This is part of the privilege of being the body of Christ. If one part is in need then we all are in need. We have also learned over the years to not just ask for one grace daily but for as many as possible, for as many people as possible, because the needs in our world are just so great.
Thank you, Saint Therese and Saint Ignatius, for teaching us to ask daily for grace because, as you said so many years ago, “Everything is grace.”'
I do not love my suffering. Saints embraced theirs; they even asked for it. It won them halos, while here I am avoiding pain whenever possible but still offering it all up, because it is heavenly collateral after all. I think I found an avenue suggested by saints and a priest that still leads to sainthood, minus the direct love affair with suffering. If I can appreciate what comes my way through suffering and the other blessings that suffering often reveals, then I can reap the benefits. Thus, gratitude can be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
Mother Teresa knew this when she said, “Gratitude to God is to accept everything, even my problems, with joy.” She did not say we have to love the problems themselves, but to accept them with joy. A friend taught me this years ago, after losing his only son, when he shared his story for the “Amazing Grace for Families” book. After the death of his beloved son Josh, Steve Cates felt angry with God. “Steve,” his wife Cathy said, “we cannot be angry. Think of the gift God gave us for twenty-six years. We have talked about all the good things about Josh. Look at what we have had.” In an instant, Cathy’s words cut through his anger. “God does not want us to be thankful for everything, He wants us to be thankful in all things,” she said. “Then you will look up instead of looking down.”
Saint Padre Pio embraced his own suffering but when people came to him wanting to add suffering into their lives, he told them to stop that. God would give them all the suffering they needed, he explained. They just needed to respond with acceptance. Gratitude offers a way to find joy in the midst of difficulties. I have found it to be a two-step grace. First, offer up the suffering, since when aligned with the cross of Christ it is an offering that can answer prayers and draw us nearer to God. The second step is gratitude. I have never said: Thanks for my suffering, but I can find endless appreciations within suffering, from having a roof over my head and food in my cupboards to my Catholic faith and the graces the suffering will bring.
Rosary of Gratitude
During a past Lent, Father Russ Kovash, pastor of Saint Joseph in Williston, North Dakota, held a retreat on “Gratitude is the Virtue That Changes Us.” He shared how gratitude changed his life to the point that he now thanks God for the things he used to complain about. The transformation came eight years ago through the “rosary of gratitude” he learned from his friend Patty Schneier, who had a spiritual director recommend it to her. “I will not go to sleep without praying it now,” he said.
It is simply prayed by taking a rosary and thanking God for something on each bead of the five decades, from the smallest to the biggest blessings. “When gratefulness is alive in our hearts,” Father Kovash said, “it lends itself to three fruits: a deep abiding peace and joy, a tremendous increase in the awareness of God’s crazy blessings in our lives, and those two things result in a great passion to do God’s will and build up His kingdom.”
Gratitude is not just good for us, but God actually commands it of us, Father Kovash explained. Many Scripture passages teach us that we are obligated by God to thank Him. For example, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 states: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Father Kovash also pointed out that in the Eucharistic prayer at Mass we often say, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right and just.”
Praying the rosary of gratitude is life changing, according to Father Kovash. “There have been many fruits, and it has brought me deep abiding peace and joy in my life to see how ridiculously good God has been in my life,” he said. “I thank him today for blessings that eight years ago I would not have even thanked him for or maybe I would have complained about them.”'
We were all shocked and shattered when my brother announced he wanted to become a priest. It was not just that he wanted to become a priest, but he wanted to become a Cistercian priest. That meant that once he left home, he would never return. My mother was totally bereft. She was proud that her son wanted to be a priest, but why, oh why, did he want to become a monk as well? She did not know what to do, but fortunately, she did know who to turn to. She turned to Gus, a friend since childhood. He himself had left home to become a priest and a monk and was at the time the Abbot of Belmont.
The Meaning of Motherhood
Gus told her that a mother only really fulfils and completes her motherhood when her love is so great that she allows her child to both choose and follow his own chosen vocation in life, whatever that may mean. He told her this was the sacrifice Mary made when she allowed the Son she had given birth to go His own way and respond to the vocation to which He had been called.
My mother felt much better after talking with Gus, or Abbot Williams as he was then. After all, he was a priest and a monk himself and so was able to console and encourage her better than anyone else. Although my brother had been accepted as a prospective monk at Mount Saint Bernard’s, the Abbot asked him to finish his studies in Paris, where he was studying at the Sorbonne. Naturally, he was delighted he had been accepted, because he thought his handicap would have prevented him from becoming a priest—one leg was shorter than the other as a result of polio when he was six.
A Terrible Accident
Unfortunately, my brother had a terrible accident on the way to his final examinations. Partly due to the iron calliper on his leg, he slipped down the escalator on the Metro, hit his head and was killed instantly. He was only twenty-two. I was seventeen at the time and called out of the school study to be told of the tragedy. When I got home it was to find my mother all but inconsolable. She had already come to terms with the sacrifice she had been asked to make when he chose to become a monk, now she was asked to make another, more complete and final sacrifice that she never thought for a moment would ever be asked of her. Once again, she turned to Abbot Williams for spiritual help.
Like Mary, My Mother Became a Priest
Abbot Williams told her she was now being asked to be the priest that her son never became. He told her Mary had been a priest and the greatest sacrifice she made was the sacrifice of her own Son. All of Mary’s life revolved around selflessly giving her all for the dear Son she had born. Everything had always been for Him and then she had to give absolutely everything, even Him. This was the most perfect and complete sacrifice any mother had to make, and she made it as she stood there at the foot of the cross. My mother never forgot what Gus said to her. It did not take away all the pain, but it did give meaning to it and made it bearable. What helped most was seeing that the sacrifice she had to make was exactly the same sacrifice Mary had to make on Calvary.
A Lesson Learned from My mother
There is only one true priest and that is Jesus Christ, who made the most perfect sacrifice anyone can make, the sacrifice of Himself. We are priests to the degree in which we share in His priesthood. Throughout His life He offered Himself unconditionally to His Father and for the people His Father had sent Him to serve. We share in His priesthood when we also offer ourselves to the Father, in, with and through Him and offer ourselves to the same family of man He came to serve.
That is what my Mother came to see and understand more clearly than anyone else I have known, not just in the way she thought, but in the way she acted. It was a lesson she had to learn at the most painful moment of her life, when she had to share in the sacrifice of Christ in exactly the same way as Mary had. Lessons learned in such moments are never forgotten. They indelibly stain the memory and determine the way you think and act for the rest of your life, for better or for worse. In my mother’s case it was for better not worse, as it was for Mary.
For both of them it meant that through their terrible ordeal their motherhood had somehow been refined and deepened to the benefit of other children who looked to them for the motherly love that was always given without measure. I for one know this because I have experienced it for myself and still do. As I look back at the past, it is the more dramatic demonstrations of my mother’s self-sacrificing that stand out in my memory. However, the more I reflect the more I see that her whole life was a continual selfless sacrifice for her family, just as the life of Mary had been. Every day of her life and every moment of her day was given for her children, in a hundred and one different ways, through which she exercised her priesthood, as Mary did in her life on earth. It was little wonder that her three sons all wanted to become priests; after all, they had been living with one all their lives!
Selfishness and Sacrifice
When the family went to Mass together each Sunday, they saw my mother totally absorbed in what they took all too easily for granted. Their selfishness meant they had too little to offer while she was offering a thousand and one acts of self-sacrifice, made for them during the previous week. This meant my mother received to the measure of her giving, for it is in giving that we receive, and she received in ever-greater abundance with each passing week. This gave her the help and strength she needed to go on giving in the forthcoming week, go on sacrificing for the family that took her all too easily for granted.
Without any formal theological education, my mother discovered for herself that the Mass is not only a sacrifice, but also the place where we offer ourselves in, with and through Christ to the Father and something further. It is also a sacred sacrificial meal where we receive, from the One through whom we have offered our sacrifices, the love that He is endlessly pouring out on to, and into, all who are open to receive it.
Motherhood was for her, as for so many other selfless, self-sacrificing mothers, a way of participating in the central mystery of our faith. If her daily dying united her to the dying of Christ, it also opened her to receive the love that raised Him from the dead on the first Easter day, empowering her to share what she had received with the family for whom she had given everything. The son she always mourned may never have become the priest he desired, but she more than took his place. The priesthood she exercised would not only inspire her own family but other families as well— families who are still inspired, as I am, by her shining example that will never tarnish.
My Brother’s Death Was Not In Vain
The death of my dear brother affected me deeply, but his death was not in vain. It inspired me in such a way that I have spent my life writing about him and using him to spread the profound spirituality that attracted him to the monastic life, to inspire others as well. I have spent much of my life writing three major spiritual works. The main protagonist in each work is the hermit, Peter Calvay, who is entirely based on my brother, Peter Torkington. In my imagination, instead of entering the Cistercian order, as he had intended, I simply transferred him to the Outer Hebrides, where he became a hermit. Then, as his spiritual life deepened, he began to help others.
If Peter had become a monk his spirituality would have been monastic. However, living as a lay-person enabled Peter to develop for himself a profound lay spirituality based on the spirituality that Jesus Himself lived with His disciples, through whom this spirituality was bequeathed to the early church. This is, of course, of particular help to a modern reader trying to live the Christian life while outside the context of the religious life, like yours truly. If these books help you, as they have helped more than 300,000 readers over the years, then my brother’s death will not have been in vain, nor will the simple spirituality we both learned from our mother.'
When I give talks on evangelization, I can feel great energy in the room as we look at the Church’s documents on evangelization. Evangelii nuntiandi, Evangelii gaudium and a host of quotes from popes, thinkers, saints and atheists get people fired up and ready to go out into the streets to live and speak the gospel. While it is a great feeling to see Church leaders getting fired up, that enthusiasm can often fade when I begin to share current statistics. Real, cold-hard facts give black-and-white numbers to peoples’ hunches and experiences about the dramatic loss of numbers experienced in our churches.
Among these statistics, there is one that breaks my heart more than any other. Among Christians, Catholic teens are the least likely to pray daily. It breaks my heart because of the richness of our tradition in terms of personal prayer, contemplation and mysticism. I know many evangelicals and when they begin to dive deeply into personal prayer, they begin to read Catholic writers and spiritual masters. Merton, Rohr, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Thomas a Kempis and Julian of Norwich are the great writers and mystics in our treasury that my evangelical friends discover with great delight and about whom many Catholics remain ignorant.
The second vexing statistic is that the Catholic Church has the greatest rate of attrition among Christian churches. Even worse, among those who still identify as Catholic rather than ex-Catholic, only 16 percent are highly involved in their churches. Only our Episcopalian friends have a lower rate of high involvement at 13 percent.
The third statistic—and it sounds like a contradiction—is that Mass attendance does not equal Mass attendance. By this we mean that taking your children to church every Sunday is no guarantee at all that they will continue to go to Mass in college and in the later young adult years. Of all factors, the one factor rating as the highest guarantor of ongoing participation in the life of the church is daily personal prayer.
It seems that the dots are quite clear to connect: 1. the greatest guarantor of ongoing religious affiliation is daily prayer; 2. Catholic teens are the least likely to pray daily; 3. the Catholic Church has the highest rate of attrition among Christian churches and ecclesial communities. May I posit a “therefore?”
Therefore, the greatest thing we can do as youth ministers and as parents is to foster a daily prayer life among our teens. I do not know why we have not done a better job at this than we have. When I was in the parish, I lead awesome group prayer. Candles, incense, music, lighting, an authentic proclamation of the scriptures were staples at the weekly prayer services; our youth nights were stunning. Yet, I do not recall asking my teens about their personal prayer life. I wanted to give them experiences. I wanted to instruct them in the Church’s teaching, but did I give them what they needed to develop a daily personal prayer life?
Those of us who follow the lectionary have all of the tools to help our teens do so. We do not just stick a Bible into teens’ hands and say, “Here, start reading.” The Church gives us a rhythm of seasons and daily readings from scripture. We have an inherent guide through the Bible. Even more than that, the Church also gives us lectio divina, a four-step method for praying with scripture:
1. Use your body. Read the passage.
2. Use your mind. Think back through your day at school and what happened with your friends and family today. What does the passage mean to you based on what you are going through in life?
3. Use your feelings. Now that you understand the meaning this passage has for your life, what does it make you want to pray for?
4. Use your intuition. What does God say to you in return?
We have to remember that our faith is not an ideology. Our faith is in a person, Jesus the Christ. It is Him who we encounter, fall in love with, follow and to whom we conform ourselves. I feel like those of us in youth ministry are pining for the one, single program, movement or innovation that will stop the bleeding of our youth and young adults from our churches. Our mission trips, lock-ins, leadership training conferences, efforts at liturgical renewal will all only make sense if our teens are rooted in a person they encounter on a daily basis. Back when I was a parish youth minister I discovered that good youth ministry is about asking the right questions. Perhaps the best question we can ask is, “How was your prayer time last night?”'
Life is hard and we often find ourselves in difficult situations. When overwhelmed or confused as to how to proceed on a specific issue, we sometimes need a road map. For Christians, the Bible and the teachings found in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” provide such maps; however, both can be daunting. Time constraints, not to mention the complexity and sheer size of both, hinder most of us from making use of these treasures. Most need Cliff Notes to navigate them, especially when time is of the essence and we must decide quickly. Our issues are often modern ones, such as those arising from technology. Consequently, we do not always get clear-cut answers. They must be inferred or ferreted out, a tricky task that often requires some training in these sources. Many times, answers to questions must wait for the Magisterium to address, taking extra time without a specific answer. The good news is that Jesus provides a touchstone or marker by which all decisions can be made and by which one can judge any action.
During Jesus’ ministry, He was questioned regarding which is the greatest commandment of the law (Mark 12:28-34, Matthew 22:34-46 and cf. Luke 10:25-37). Later, Rabbinic Judaism would articulate a total of 613 laws in the Torah or Pentateuch. Jesus’ response proves Him a master rabbi while simultaneously providing us with a benchmark by which to judge all actions and decisions—our roadmap distilling the Torah down to its essence. Jesus responds to the question by quoting perhaps the most well-known text to Jews in the first century, as well as today, and then adds to it a lesser-known text from the Torah. He combines them in such a way that His authority and His divinity are presupposed.
His response to the question begins by quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. In what scholars generally agree is our earliest Gospel, Mark 12:29 states that Jesus answers, “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’” Jesus then continues by quoting the remainder of the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5 and cf. Mark 12:30). Jesus explains this is the greatest, most important commandment (Mark 12:28-29 and Matthew 22:40). The Shema, which means “Hear!” in Hebrew and is a reference to the first Hebrew word in the statement, commands Israel to hear. It was and is today the classic monotheistic declaration of faith for Jews.
Jesus then goes on to explain that there is a second commandment and He quotes Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Matthew 22:39-40 reads, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Mark 12:31 adds Jesus explaining, “There is no other commandment greater than these.”
In distilling the entire law down to its essence, what comes to the fore and is relevant for our purpose is that Jesus points to one salient thing—love. Both texts from the Torah use the Hebrew root ahavah. It is no coincidence that Jesus points to this concept for, after all, The New Testament explicitly says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8b). Love fulfills the law or is the essence of the law and God is love. Many, such as the Franciscan friar and modern mystic Richard Rohr, in his recent book, “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation,” suggest God’s very language is love and that the Trinity exists in love. Thus, in the end, love is what it is all about: love of God and humanity, precisely what Jesus explains is most important. Could there be a bigger authority than Jesus for Christians? This coheres with what Saint Paul, the Apostle to the gentiles, writes in Galatians 5:14: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (cf. Romans 13:9 and James 2:8). First Peter 4:8-10 also explains, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”
Love or ahavah is at the core of the Christian life. Ahavah is God’s very nature (1 John 4:8b) and it is not a stretch to assume love is what binds us all together. Another modern-day mystic of the faith, the late Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths, in “The Golden String” eloquently said, “For love can give us a kind of knowledge that is beyond both faith and reason. The divine mystery is ultimately a mystery of love …”
Jesus teaching on ahavah also provides a framework by which to judge all actions and decisions—one of love. You should always ask, “Will my action or decision show love to God or neighbor?” You might wonder what it means to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. For starters, spending time with God and refraining from that which sets us apart from Him is one way to demonstrate love of God. How do you love your neighbor as yourself, you might also ask? First and foremost, by seeking the welfare and best for another, even at the expense of yourself.
Saint John Paul II reminds us that a true life consists of giving it away. Thomas Merton wrote, “Clean, unselfish love does not live on what it gets but on what it gives. It increases by pouring itself out for others, grows by self-sacrifice and becomes mighty by throwing itself away.” This is a paradox and counterintuitive. As with so many of Jesus’ and the Gospel’s teachings, it turns our conceptions on their head. Nevertheless, in giving oneself away, or dying to self, we find true freedom and life. This dying to self and ridding ourselves of the ego or “false self” is what it means to be in Christ. Galatians 2:20 reads, “And it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
You may wonder how to apply ahavah in practice. You might ask, “Should I forgive the person who did that horrible thing to me, who really hurt me or mine and caused me much suffering?” According to the principle of ahavah for God and other, an unequivocal “yes” is the answer, for loving our neighbor would entail forgiving him. There would be no ahavah in withholding forgiveness; rather, it would harm you and potentially your neighbor. This is in alignment with the teaching of Jesus elsewhere in His ministry. Specifically, it is imperative for our eternal wellbeing that we forgive one another (Matthew 6:15 and 18:35). You will find the principle of Jesus’ teaching on ahavah coheres with all of Scripture and brings wellbeing to others and us. Its divine origin summarizes and is the pinnacle of the law in a quick and easy teaching. It is easily called to mind, thus serving as a helpful touchstone.
As another example, suppose a parent is trying to figure out how much time he or she should allow a child to use an iPad per day. For obvious reasons, Scripture and the Catechism are silent on this modern dilemma. Yet, for a child’s growth and wellbeing it is important to figure out. Jesus’ summation of the law and His pointing to the ahavah of God and neighbor actually provides the key. In this case, you might ask and reflect on how you love your neighbor—your very own child. How do you demonstrate ahavah for your child in this case, rather than what is most convenient for you? Loving the child might be allowing only a few minutes a day on the iPad. This way, the child will learn to cultivate other habits such as reading, socializing or playing outside in nature.
Every case will be different and prayer is always recommended, but Jesus’ summary of the law provides the key to judge all decisions and actions. It is a framework that helps us seek the love of God and neighbor and not self. As issues arise in daily living, we can quickly rely on this principle by asking ourselves what will allow for the greatest show of love for God or neighbor. In these examples and in other cases, when we are able to demonstrate love of neighbor, it nearly always follows that the love of God is present and vice versa.
Saint Paul writes, in Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus pointed to this principle as being at the core of what it is means to follow God. Ahavah is at the core of our very life, for it is the core of God. It follows, then, that it should be our road map in all matters. It is fitting to close with a text we should memorize on ahavah and we should start making use of it. When the question was posed to Jesus as to which is the greatest commandment in the law, He answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29- 31).
It truly all boils down to ahavah.'