I love gardening. Recently there was a perfect day to get out in the yard to do some planting. Considering that I am allergic to most grasses, weeds, and trees, that I have lower back issues, and that I am a human mosquito-magnet, one would think I would not be a likely person to love gardening. You might say I am just plain crazy to even think about gardening. If left alone nature will take care of itself anyhow, so doing less out there and simply letting nature do its thing would save me the ‘suffering.' I would argue against that, however, because I so enjoy making things look alive and filled with color that the discomfort is outweighed by the process of bringing new life to my yard. No matter what it takes, I love accomplishing the task of renewing my garden.
While I trust in what nature can do, I also know that a little help by attempting to nurture it can go a long way. I have found that getting my hands into the dirt and breaking a sweat while preparing the beds is very therapeutic, bad back notwithstanding. There is something about the process of bringing new life to my winter-ravaged yard that brings life to me as well. When taming the weeds and trimming the bushes I feel like I am working with nature, not against it. I find that rather than having chaos ruling in the flower beds, keeping them neat and clean gives a sense that I am like an artist choosing colors and textures on a canvas. In the end, it is my work of art which I will enjoy for as long as the plants survive the season, at which time I will create a new work on a new canvas. It is an expression of my taste but it is simultaneously the way I participate with God's gift of all that is beautiful in the great outdoors that is my yard. But it does not simply happen on its own. I have to put in a bit of sweat and elbow grease to make this work of art appear.
Tending to a garden is a lot like tending to one's spiritual life. We can argue all day whether or not it is nature or nurture that affects things most, but in the end the truth is that it is some of both that is needed. The nature part can be seen as what God gave us in creating us as human beings. We have been given many gifts which include all those things that make us who we are as His unique children. But God also knew we would need some nurturing. Therefore He gives us gifts of His grace as well as His love and mercy. He gives us His Shekinah presence, which is His protection and care as we navigate the dangers and temptations of the world.
We, too, have to apply some nurture to our nature. That is, if we want to grow in relationship with God we have to do some work. Just as gardens do not sow themselves, do not weed themselves, and do not harvest themselves, someone has to do it or the fruits planted will die on the vines if they even manage to bear anything in the first place. We seem to understand this analogy, even if the closest we get to doing any of this is to shop in the produce section of our local market. So why do we struggle to realize that in order to advance in the spiritual life, we have to do some work?
I think it is because ours is a culture of convenience. We can obtain things with the push of a few buttons. Once we make an order it can even come straight to the front door. We believe that we can take a pill and the fat will be gone, whether it is on our hips or in our arteries. We can do just about anything one can conceive of in an instant. I admit that I enjoy these expediencies as much as anyone else, but the problem is that we develop an attitude of convenience such that we forget the work of being patient. This can cause us to forget gratitude since we come to expect things. We forget that someone 'out there' somewhere is doing work so that we can get the product we desire to our doorstep immediately. And worse still, the attitude that is taking root creeps into our spiritual life as well. We begin to grow bored with liturgy because it is not exciting enough, and God forbid, it takes too long. We begin to take shorter and shorter times for personal prayer 'since God knows what we need anyway.' And before we know it, we have drifted away from God altogether.
Prayer is not ‘convenient.’ No relationship is, since relationships are about love, and for us love needs nurturing. This nurturing means we have to work at loving, including our love of God. There is no magic formula that is going to make us into saints. If we want to grow in holiness and grow in the spiritual life, we have to do the work of prayer. But there is good news: if we do the work, we will become holy. If we want to become holy, God will help us to attain that desire. Just recently Pope Francis said we should all desire to become saints. Every Christian should want that simply because it is what God desires for us. To desire to be holy means to want to give back to God the best gift we can. It means we want to do the best we can with what He gave us, not for our sake, but for His. We desire it not so others can say, "Wow, how holy he/she is!" but so that others can say, "Wow, how great God is!" And maybe in saying that, they will also say, "I, too, want to be close to God so I can be loved and love like that."
In tending to our own spiritual life we are doing more than something just for us; we are witnessing to the greatness of God, to the love and magnanimity of God. Growing in holiness is about becoming more and more like Jesus. It will affect everything we do and shape who we are as children of God. It will inspire others to do kindness and to come to realize they, too, are loved by God as we are. In short, we will be helping Jesus to build the Kingdom of God.
Nurturing our own relationship with God, then, is not a solitary act. It is for our personal, inner growth toward the person God created us to be in beauty and love, and it is for us to be inspired to move outward towards others in love. The only way to nurture our human nature toward holiness is to do the work of planting the seeds of love through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. And we accomplish none of this alone. It is not my work or your work; it is our work. That is, it is God's work with and in us. The more we do the work of prayer, forming a habit of being with the one we love, the more He works with us. The more God works with us, the more we learn to let go and let Him sculpt us until we become more like Him, which is to say, we become holier. As this transformation takes place, we will move outward in love, finding that the work we do in the world is not work at all, but that it is pleasure because we do it for Jesus. Just as planting my garden with my achy back, itchy skin, and mosquito dodging is still something I love to do despite those things, we can persevere in the suffering that we might endure in working to build the Kingdom. The suffering is as joy because it was for and with the Lord that we have labored. The end result is beautiful.
Lent is going to begin in a short time. Therefore it is appropriate to begin considering how we can put in the time to grow in relationship with God through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Let us nurture our own soul, building on the nature God gave us and our capacity to grow in holiness. Let us allow God to pull the weeds and to till the soil within us, so that the beauty of who we are emerges in a new way. Anything truly worthwhile in life is worth the aches that the labor may cause because we know that in the end, something beautiful will be born of it. Let us work with God to let the beauty of who we are be renewed and become visible in a new way.
May we allow the Lord to nurture us as we do the work of prayer! May we be inspired by the Spirit to desire holiness! May we persevere in the process as we ask for the graces we need to grow into the holy men and women God created us to be! May we discover that we are indeed temples of the Holy Spirit, beautiful to behold, called to share that beauty with others! And may we have the joy of laboring with the Lord, joining with Him in building the Kingdom! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of the Lord of Love! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The photos are all mine. The top photo was taken in Oregon at the public rose garden.
Next is an image painted by Fr. William Hart McNichols and is called The Name of God Shekinah. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/30-the-name-of-god-shekinah.
The next photo is of St. Therese of Lisieux and is a photo I took of a photo which was on display at Notre Dame in Paris. I included it here because of her nickname, The Little Flower. She wanted to be as a flower in the garden of the Lord and in this desire, found her holiness.
The last photo is one of the pansies I planted recently in my garden, hence the inspiration of this entry.
In the last few years something people seem to love to do is using their phones to take pictures of themselves in different places and situations. A new word was coined to describe this practice: it is called taking a selfie. We think the ‘selfie’ is something new, but in fact it is not. Before the age of mobile phones and modern cameras many famous artists painted self-portraits. One such artist was Vincent Van Gogh, who painted or drew 43 self-portraits during his life. Some people might think that is a bit narcissistic, but for Van Gogh it seems that it was not that at all. I have no real way of knowing, but perhaps he was trying to see himself as others saw him, or simply learn to be a better artist, or maybe he was trying to come to greater self-awareness. Perhaps it was a bit of all these things.
It is no secret that Van Gogh suffered emotionally to a great extent; he was a very sensitive man who tried hard to conquer his emotional issues or at least tried to live with them.* In doing so he struggled to understand himself. In a letter to his sister he said: "I am looking for a deeper likeness than that obtained by a photographer." And later to his brother: "People say, and I am willing to believe it, that it is hard to know yourself. But it is not easy to paint yourself, either. The portraits painted by Rembrandt are more than a view of nature, they are more like a revelation.”** (Rembrandt was also a prolific 'selfie' painter.) These letters show that Van Gogh was interested in knowing himself, as well as trying to be a better painter.
I do not think Van Gogh, no matter what his troubles were, is alone in wanting to “take a picture” of himself as a way to better know who he was. While most 'selfies' today are not about art and are more about capturing a moment (usually a time of fun), there must be something about self-portraits that is deeper than that which meets the eye. It can appear to be narcissism, (and may indeed be for some folks), but it also can be about a certain kind of memory, and a certain kind of self-awareness that we might be consciously or unconsciously pursuing. There are many forms of the self-portrait: some people may keep written journals or others may collect mementos which are symbolic of their personality. No one would think of this as narcissistic, so I think the 'selfie' is just another expression of this sort of memory making.
Keeping memories is also part of the spiritual life. As we attempt to grow in knowledge of God we also grow in an understanding of the truth of who He created us to be as His children. Self-knowledge helps us to grow in freedom, so that we can better serve Him and so that we can love ourselves the way we should. If we do not love ourselves, just as we are, then we will find it more difficult to reach out to others in love and care. As the saying goes, we cannot give away what we do not possess. Additionally, if we do not recognize our own value and worth, we might not be able to take good care of ourselves either.
Part of self-care and continued growth in the spiritual life involves discernment. St. Ignatius of Loyola taught that we do not need to discern between good and evil since that is clear: we do good and avoid evil. But in order to discern properly in our day-to-day decisions we need to learn how to prayerfully choose between two things that seem good. Often we get caught in dilemmas because of this. We want to help someone, for example, who is not really able to be helped because the person is not ready to accept it. Or we feel like we should be doing more service in an already busy life, so we pile it on only to find ourselves burning out, and then wonder why our prayer life feels flat. Or worse still, we begin to resent those around us for whom we are responsible simply because we are over extended.
Discernment means that we are continually taking our own pulse spiritually, while also being conscious of that which God is calling us to do. It means that we examine ourselves interiorly on a daily basis in order to be aware of what brings us closer to God and what moves us away from God. Too much of a good thing can be bad for us, so if we are piling on too much service or a type of service for which we are not really suited or called to do, then we can find that we drift away from God rather than move toward Him. The way we can see if this is taking place is to observe our own behaviors, feelings, and thoughts as we contemplate doing something, or look back at what we have done recently to see if we are on the right track.
The Examen that St. Ignatius of Loyola teaches in the Spiritual Exercises is a great way to take this pulse. The Examen is designed to help us see what is leading us to God or what is not. At the end of the day we can review what took place and how we responded to the movements of the Spirit. There are many ways to do this, but I like the simplest. First, we can recall all the good things we did and all the graces to which we responded during the day. We thank God the Father for these things. Next, we look at all the ways we did not respond to grace throughout the day, or ways we failed through sin, and we ask the Son, Jesus, for forgiveness of all these missed opportunities. Finally we ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to do better in whatever areas of weakness we noticed in order to grow in self-awareness and in holiness. This process should only take a few minutes, and each section is equally important. If we do this on a daily basis, we can recognize our patterns and grow stronger through God's grace in the areas of weakness while having gratitude for the strengths we already have. It is a type of daily 'selfie' which is really not about the self alone, but about the self in God.
Another way that is good for growing in the spiritual life is keeping a journal. Sometimes there is a lesson learned or an insight gained that is important to remember. If we write it down, we can not only remember it, but when we look back at a later date, we can see from whence we have come. Looking back at our growth is a way to continue on the path to inner freedom and holiness. I do not journal every day, as some do, but I try to write only when something significant has taken place in my prayer or if an important insight or lesson has been given me through grace. Of course, spiritual direction can also be of help in coming to understand how God is working in one’s life and to have guidance with that which is happening. A good spiritual director can help us to learn what God is calling us to do and can challenge us when we are inadvertently listening to the impulses that lead us away from God, even if well intentioned.
Whatever it is we do, whether journaling, praying the Examen, or painting self-portraits, these spiritual ‘selfies’ are important inner work which help us to understand what it is God is calling us to do and who we are before God. When we are coming to a better understanding of self, we are growing in interior freedom. And if we are growing in interior freedom we will be more loving in all our decision making, service, relationships and in that which challenges us. The lens through which we look is love and what Jesus teaches us to do in the Gospels. We can only learn to do this effectively if we continually look to Him to show us the truth of our inner selves and see that which is strength and that which needs healing and purifying. Let us continue to take our spiritual ‘selfies,’ whether it is through writing, reflection, poetry, or art, all done in the context of prayer. It is important to know where we have been and who we are, in order to know how to proceed on the path to holiness, not for self-satisfaction, but to glorify the Lord.
May we be strengthened by our attempts to come to know the truth of who we are before God! May we be healed of that which keeps us from being the person we were made to be! May we remember the lessons learned on our path to holiness through our efforts to discern the road we are on! May we be empowered by our efforts at self-knowledge and may we be led to greater freedom! And may we use our freedom to love God by loving others as He would have us do! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus where all Truth resides! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first picture, a self portrait of Van Gogh comes from the first website cited above.
The second picture is a self portrait of Rembrandt, found at http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Rembrandt_van_Rijn_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg/790px-Rembrandt_van_Rijn_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
The icon is St. Ignatius of Loyola in Prayer Beneath the Stars by Fr. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/133-st-ignatius-in-prayer-beneath-the-stars
The final image is a self portrait painted by Fr. Bill McNichols when he was young. I have printed it with permission, as I have to post the icon of St. Ignatius. You can find the self portrait at http://www.fatherbill.org/gallery-views/images/product/156-self-portrait-of-artist
Just recently I had a wonderful vacation in Sicily. The island is very beautiful and very diverse. I expected the coasts to be scenic since the island is surrounded by the Mediterranean, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian Seas, and indeed this was true. But the interior of Sicily is equally beautiful with mountains and valleys and other natural resources. The hillsides are covered with vineyards, olive groves, oranges, lemons, almonds, pistachios and many other delights. I am sure it is more than that I happen to be half Sicilian that made me feel very at home there. I think it is that Sicily has a very rich history and has been home to many different cultures that have enabled the people to be very warm and welcoming.
During our travels we came across a few saints that are very important to the people of Sicily. One of those saints had a feast day this week, St. Agatha of Catania, and so it seemed fitting to reflect on why she is so revered by Sicilians. Actually it is a bit ironic because very little is known about her. It seems that Agatha was from a wealthy family and that at some point in her young adulthood she professed belief in Christianity and consecrated her life to service of the Lord. It is said that in 250 AD she was arrested by a magistrate who tried to force her to work to a brothel, but she refused to comply. Therefore the angry magistrate had her mutilated before finally rolling her on hot coals. During the torture, Mt. Etna erupted and her torturers fled. She thanked God for an end to her pain and then died.
This week we celebrate some other saints who, like St. Agatha, experienced great suffering. However, I would like to focus on St. Josephine Bakhita (February 8) who also has a connection with Italy. Josephine was born to a wealthy Sudanese family in 1868 but was kidnapped at age 9 and sold into slavery. She was given the name ‘Bakhita’ by her captors because she was so terrified she could not give her own name; it means ‘fortunate.’ She was tortured and subjected to great pain by her owners. Apparently they would cut her and then put salt in the wounds in order to insure scarring. Eventually she was sold to an Italian who took her to Italy where she met the Canossian Sisters and through them, petitioned for her freedom. Josephine was baptized and eventually joined the Canossians, in a life of service, cooking, sewing, and greeting guests who came to the convent, teaching others how to love Christ. She was very well loved by her Sisters and by the people of Verona where she lived until her death in 1947.
Saints such as Agatha and Josephine, teach us that suffering can be redemptive if offered as such. Neither of them held any anger toward those who tortured them. Even more astonishing is that in the stories of saints such as these we see that they lived with a great deal of joy, even in the face of great suffering. For example, Josephine turned her energy outward in forgiveness, love, and service. It seems that what these saints learned is that no matter what comes our way, the path we are on is the path to our holiness, and so we can turn to Jesus, the one who truly understands what suffering is about, in order to have the strength to bear the burden with love.
It is not a secret to any of us that life includes various forms of suffering. While most of us will not lose our lives in a dramatic martyrdom, we do suffer from maladies and difficult situations, large and small. Throughout our lives we endure situations at home and work in which we feel terribly burdened. Sometimes we suffer through illnesses, chronic pain, or injuries. Other times it may be caring for someone who is ill, elderly, or maybe a child or spouse with a disability that requires constant care. Perhaps we struggle with a relationship which is difficult or painful. Maybe our suffering comes from a workplace which is nearly intolerable, but we cannot leave our job at the moment. It could be something as seemingly innocuous as being overwhelmed by daily chores or “having too much on our plate.” As St. Thérèse Couderc (who suffered a great humiliation at the hands of her own congregation) once said, “We die by pinpricks.” What I think she meant was that sometimes it is not a big catastrophe that is the source of our suffering. It can be the many complexities of daily living, the little things that add up, which create a sense of carrying a great burden.
That is not to say that we do not have any happiness or that we cannot find joy in the midst of our struggles. In fact, it is for this reason that we celebrate the saints: these were people who found great joy in the love of Jesus. They gave their lives in death or in service because they found joy in the truth of the gospels and the reality of God’s love. Not only that, they believed that their sacrifices were offered as prayer for the communities they served and as witness to the strength of their love and commitment to Christ. Their lives and sacrifices became catalysts for others to have faith in the message of the gospels that Jesus is Lord and that He offers us eternal life. This joy is what buoyed them in times of great trial.
Those who suffer allow their hearts to be expanded with compassion and mercy. They begin to have hearts that understand Jesus and His suffering more deeply, such that they understand that suffering is a school of love which we can turn outward in empathy and compassion for other sufferers. Those who have learned what suffering teaches are usually the ones who have the greatest capacity for love if they allow themselves to learn, rather than to become embittered by suffering.
St. Josephine Bakhita is one who shows us how suffering can teach such wisdom. While it is true that much of her suffering came before she really knew Jesus, she did say she knew that there was a Creator of all the beauty she saw around her in the world. Can you imagine being able to see beauty while enslaved and continually tortured? Yet this is what she said about the beginnings of her faith. It was this outlook, born of hope, which enabled her to open her heart to Christ when she was taught about Him, and it was this openness which led her to faith and commitment. It seems that she allowed her heart to be fertile ground for love, and in so doing she could not contain the love, but rather shared it with all those with whom she came in contact. St. Josephine teaches all of us that we can overcome whatever adversity comes our way if we allow Christ to work with us and within in us. Josephine served with joy. Rather than let her past and the permanent scars on her body guide her to bitterness and hatred toward the people who enslaved her and the culture from which they came, she let Jesus guide her to the freedom which came with forgiveness and love. The joy and love with which she lived is what touched others around her.
Let us learn from St. Agatha and St. Josephine, and from those saints who suffered both great and small, that our sufferings are not in vain. If we allow the Lord to be the strength in our weakness we, too, can let our suffering be turned into joy. (2Cor 12:8-9) That which threatens to overwhelm us can be eased through the love which is given us through those we turn to for help: friends, family, service personnel, clergy, and others who are all sent to us by God. And we can turn to others in love and care as well. That which we receive, we can give as a gift. It does not have to be something heroic; sometimes all we need to do is smile when we are around others who are also carrying a burden. What we need to remember is that we are not alone and that we can turn to the saints for their prayer of intercession and for their inspiration in how they coped with adversity. If we can remember that the Lord is with us in no matter what we encounter, we can have the joy of His love which can give us the strength to “hang in there” with whatever it is that is weighing us down. Jesus said: “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Let us trust in His promise!
May we turn to the Lord in our weakness and find His strength! May we have the courage to trust in the promises of Christ that He is with us always, especially when we feel most burdened! May we take to heart the words of Jesus who says that He will take our burdens and help us carry them! Let us find joy in His love and care, sharing it with others who are also burdened! And may we turn to St. Agatha and St. Josephine as intercessors and sources of inspiration for our lives! Let us continue to meet in the Compassionate Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The top photo was one I took on our trip. It is of Mt. Etna, which is not far from where St. Agatha lived. It is said that once her veil was taken in procession around the volcano and through her intercession an eruption was averted.
The next is a photo of a mosaic of St. Agatha in the Cathedral in Monreale, S. This mosaic is found on the north wall of the presbytery.
The icon is St. Josephine Bakhita Universal Sister by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/72-st-josephine-bakhita-universal-sister
Heart Speaks to Heart