She Who Reigns
Many years ago an event took place which had a great effect upon the people of Russia just as the Bolshevik Revolution was beginning. On the very day that Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, March 2, 1917, the icon of The Reigning Mother of God, (which I will refer to as She Who Reigns), appeared. A month earlier, a peasant woman named Evdokia Andrianova had a dream in which she heard a voice telling her to go find a black icon in a particular church. She ignored the dream, but it returned two more times, instructing her to go to a church in Kolomskoye, a distance from her home, to find the icon. She finally decided to obey and traveled to the church only to have the priest tell her that there was no such icon. She persisted, so they searched the church until they found a cellar filled with neglected items, including an icon blackened with years of grime. When they cleaned it off they found that they had uncovered the icon from her dreams: it showed Mary the Theotokos (Mother of God) sitting upon a throne, holding Jesus on her lap with God the Father above her head, and the shekinah cloud, (a representation of the Holy Spirit) between them. The news of finding this icon made its way to Moscow, arriving on March 2, in time to give the people hope during what was the most desperate of times for them.
Word of the icon spread throughout Russia. There were stories of miraculous healing and answered prayers, all of which were attributed to the intercession of Mary. The people felt that Mary would reign over them in protection, especially from the godlessness of communism. The icon became a symbol of the victory of God over all the forces of evil through the intercession of Mary who was given the role as their protector and guardian. It gave hope to the poor and those victimized by the communist regime. The icon was not an end in itself, however; as in all Mary does, it led them to her son, Jesus. And the icon remains a sign that God is with His people no matter what is going on in their lives. Mary, seen as She Who Reigns, is not to be worshiped. Instead she points us to the victory of Jesus over sin and death. She reminds us that we can find strength for the daily grind of life because He is ever with us.
The story of the long hidden icon, She Who Reigns, emphasizes the reality that although life is filled with obstacles and difficulties, we are not left alone. We are each given gifts to use, sometimes in ways that may seem inconsequential to us. We may think that we make very little impact in the world because we are insignificant, but in truth every action we take and every effort we make to bring kindness into the world makes a difference. Evdokia was a peasant woman who probably felt she was of no importance in society. But she obeyed the unusual call she had received in the dream, persisting even when she was initially told the icon did not exist. Nor she did not stop when the icon was revealed. Rather, she and the priest worked diligently to bring the icon forth so that the people could see it, pray with it, and be inspired by it. There was great risk in doing this since the communists had taken over and religion had become forbidden. For example, the authorities confiscated the prayer service (akathist) which was written in gratitude for the icon and the subsequent intercession of Mary. Therefore as they persisted in the difficult work of spreading the word about this icon, it was with the constant risk of being arrested. These two relatively insignificant people in society managed to make known that this symbol of protection was accessible to the people, reminding them that God is always accessible. They were able to reach other poor, seemingly unimportant people, who in venerating the icon and letting it speak to their hearts, made an act of faith that God would be with them through the trials of their lives. They stood fast in their faith, and against the evils of communism, by simply venerating an icon that became a symbol of hope, and therefore was their strength.
As it was for Evdokia who did not stop her efforts once she found the icon, we should be aware that our efforts to grow during Lent through our acts of penitence, almsgiving, service, and prayer do make an impact on the world around us. We may think we are insignificant or that our acts are too small and too personal. But in reality that is not true at all. Every little act of kindness and every little act of sacrifice which we perform, especially those which are hidden, have the power to change the world around us. The effects of our small prayers are great because they are done with love. Just as one small icon could give hope to a vast people, one small act of love can engender hope in someone who is struggling with a great burden. Additionally, our actions also give hope to all of us that the world is not beyond repair. God can do all things. Often it takes one simple act of love to set off an avalanche of mercy and compassion. One action leads to another, and soon change can take place. Even when we have to persevere through some difficulties, we have to hold fast to our hope believing that no matter what happens we are never alone. We have God with us and we have the community around us. We have been given gifts to share for the good of the world. Let us never be tricked into believing that our small sacrifices and the work of our prayer are ineffectual. That is simply not true.
If our Lenten practices are to have any significance to us then, it will be in how we respond to the events of our lives and how we share the faith which has been given to us as a gift. Sometimes, as with the icon of She Who Reigns, we have to find that which has been misplaced in our relationship with God, allow Him to help us clean the grime off, and then respect the gift that we have been given by honoring the One who gave it to us. We need to trust that His love will protect our hearts as we struggle through obstacles. We need to worship Him, filled with gratitude that we have such a God with us for the entirety of our lives. No matter how desperate the situation of our world seems, with its violence, terrorism, injustices and ills, we are not alone. God is with us, among us, between us, and within us. We are called to be living icons of God’s care and love for others. We need to hold fast to this and also let the light of faith that burns within us be the light which helps those in darkness to find their way home to God. Let us set an avalanche of mercy and compassion in motion by trusting God to work through our little acts of love.
To that end, therefore, let us trust that God is with us as we make our Lenten sacrifices, renew our efforts at prayer, and move outward to the suffering of others with mercy and compassion. Let us be messengers of the gospel, bringing peace into our relationships, and persevering in the challenges before us no matter how arduous. Let us give and receive love, bolstering each other with hope. Let us be like the icon of Mary: a living sign that God is present in the world through our little acts of attentiveness and kindness to one another. And let us set the avalanche of mercy and compassion in motion interceding for the world, asking forgiveness for our sins, forgiving the ills done against us and those that are in our world, and offering help to those in need.
May we persevere in our Lenten practices, trusting that they are effective for ourselves and for our world! May we do little acts of kindness and love so that we may touch off an avalanche or mercy and compassion! May we trust ourselves to be messengers of the gospel, recognizing that no one is insignificant in God’s eyes! May we be living icons of hope in the power of God! May we be attentive to the world around us so that our prayer may be specific and our hearts might be opened especially to those who are difficult to love! May we be filled with a sense of the presence of God in each moment! And may we trust even the smallest call to bring the light of God’s presence and love to those whom we meet, recognizing that we have the power to set love and healing in motion! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
For more information on The Reigning Icon here are two websites that might be helpful:
The top icon is She Who Reigns by Fr. William Hart McNichols. This icon has a very special place in my heart for many reasons, but especially because of the deep majesty and beauty of it. This icon was written in 2014 and so it is a reproduction of the original. If you compare it with the original, a version of which is the second icon in this post, you will see that Fr. Bill portrayed God the Father differently. He was inspired by Michelangelo's Creation from the fresco found in the Sistine Chapel. That change was made for me, and I am deeply moved by it every time I see the icon. I believe the writing of this icon was very timely and is one with which we should pray. You can find She Who Reigns and also purchase a copy by going to Fr. Bill's website at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/342-she-who-reigns
The photos are mine. The first is of a lone flowering plant on the desert floor in the Badlands of South Dakota. To me it shows how one small, insignificant plant can change the monotony of the landscape with a splash of color, just as one act of love can enact change. The second photo is of a hummingbird, one of the smallest of birds, whose beauty is arresting even though in the large scheme of things the bird can be overlooked due to its size.
Waves of grace
“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” (Joel 2:12) This is the first line of the first Scripture reading we hear as Lent begins. We are being called to turn from our sinful habits toward a renewed life with God. As a result these 40 days are a time in which we reflect upon our spiritual lives more deeply than usual. The season of Lent is given us so we may we repent of our sin, pray for growth in holiness, give alms, and make some sacrifice in order to grow in mercy and compassion, uniting more deeply with the suffering of others. And of course, we remember the sacrifice of the Suffering Servant, Jesus, who took on the sin of the world for our sake.
It may seem strange, however, that the Church refers to this time as a joyful season. Because of the focus on penance and the suffering of Jesus, many mistakenly see this season as a time of sadness and sorrow. It decidedly is not. Perhaps there is a feel of somberness because everything gets muted, the church vestments go purple, and the emphasis is on renunciation which can be difficult. We do remember the suffering of Jesus, and yes, this is a cause for sadness. But the story does not end in death. Lent is about the great gift we have been given by God who sent His only Son into the world to save us. Salvation is a great joy! This gift, an unfathomable grace, gives us joy because of the immense love with which it was given. We also rejoice because we have been given a chance to clean up that which has become marred by sin. The journey (Lent) is as important as the destination (Easter). We are working with Jesus, letting Him lead us during these 40 days. The joy in this is that we will not be alone and He does hear our prayer for help. In short, Lent is a time when we are deluged with great waves of grace. It is nothing less than this.
What is most wondrous about God is that He longs for us more than we could ever long for Him. He calls us to return to Him with our whole heart which means that He wants to forgive us of our failings. Our sin creates a wedge between us and God. It builds up like a wall and separates us from the life of grace which He intends for us. But God loves us so much that He sends help in many forms so we might recognize that no matter what it is we have done, we are always His beloved children. He sends grace after grace, building upon the graces of the sacraments we have already received so that we always find our way home to Him.
The author of the Book of Sirach wrote that God gave us the gift of free choice. “If you choose you can keep the commandments; it is loyalty to do his will…. Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” (Sirach 15:15,17) God does not force us to keep the commandments; He gave them to us so that we would know the way to stay closest to Him. He sent His Son, Jesus, so that we would have one like ourselves, though also God, who would liberate us from the power of sin and death. Jesus taught us what the Father intended from the beginning: the law is about love. If we love one another as we are loved by the Father, with mercy and compassion, then we will be choosing the way that leads to life.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But we know that life is anything but easy. Therefore God is constantly showering us with graces of His love to help us navigate the twists, turns, pitfalls, temptations, sufferings and losses that we will all encounter. We deserve none of this grace, but it is not about what we deserve: it is about a love so great God cannot contain it. We are freely offered His gifts, but we do need to work with the grace we have been given. It is not a free ride to heaven once we are baptized. We must continually choose life by recognizing our areas of weakness and sin, asking for the specific graces we need, going to reconciliation, doing acts of penance and service, asking not only for forgiveness of our individual sins, but also praying for forgiveness for the sins of the world.
It is important that we realize that while Lent is about growth in our individual relationship with God, it is not only about ourselves. Our spiritual life concerns the world. Jesus did not save only one of us: He offered salvation to all people through His death and resurrection. Therefore Lent is about all of us collectively praying for reparation of the effects of sin on the entire world. We do not only pray for our personal, individual return to the Lord. We also pray for the return of all those who do not know the Father or His Son, all who have never heard the Gospel message, all whose hearts have grown cold or hardened, and all who wish to do evil. We do penance and pray for all the broken places in the world that are suffering from natural disaster, drought, famine, war, disease, and indifference. We pray especially for the people who live in poverty, hunger, fear, persecution, marginalization, are war-torn, or victimized by injustice. We pray for those who suffer from neglect, loneliness, the ravages and loss due to debilitating illness or grief, or who carry the burden of being caretakers for those who are suffering horribly, powerless to do anything to take away the pain. We do penance and pray for those who are imprisoned by mental illness, addiction, or who have fallen into crime and have been incarcerated. We pray also for the victims of crime. Our prayers are for the same waves of grace we receive individually to be a healing force in the world around us.
As we pray, we can utilize the graces of faith, hope, and love. We would not pray if we did not believe that God hears our prayer. Even if we do not see the response and even if we do not receive the answer we sought or it comes in a different way than the one we expected, we do know that our Lenten efforts are fruitful. We know this because Jesus died and rose victoriously. We know this because we have the evidence of waves upon waves of grace throughout history and throughout our lives; it is the power which combats sin, ours and that of the world. If not for His grace the world would have ceased to exist a long time ago. It is grace that keeps us going. It is grace which expands our hearts to see our own sinfulness, recognizing that we have no right to judge another who sins since we are sinners, too. It is grace which expands our hearts in compassion and mercy. Grace is in the joy of a new day and in the recognition of how many gifts we have been given. And strange as it seems, it is grace that we receive when we call out into the silence and hear no discernible response. Where is the grace in that? It is in the fact that we go on. We may feel defeated, but God helps us to go on, to take one more step, to pray one more prayer, and to stay in the struggle. Because of the burden, we might not notice at first that the pain we feel has not annihilated us or that a small light has shone if even for a moment. But the hope of making it through one more day, one more hour, one more moment, is what sustains us. It is God who has helped us, and it is this road that He travels with us. We are not alone, and even if we do not know it, we are enveloped in waves of grace.
Lent is not something we do in rote obedience to a relentless liturgical calendar. Our Lenten practices do heal us and they do heal the world. We choose our practices for many reasons: because Jesus suffered for us and offered salvation; because we are broken and in need of healing; because the world is broken and in need of healing; because we are helping Him to build the Kingdom; because we know He loves us and, in gratitude, it is all we have to offer in return for the waves of grace that wash over us daily. We do it because we rejoice in so great a love and so great a Lord.
May we pray for waves of God’s grace to wash over us and over our world! May we trust that grace is being given, and receive it with open hearts! May we pray for the grace to persevere during this Lenten journey, asking for the courage to see what we may need to change within ourselves! May we rely on faith, hope, and love as we allow the Lord to show us what action we are called to take in order to participate in healing the world just a bit more with every encounter! And may we continue to be a source of mercy and compassion, imitating the One we serve! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
(For Julie, with love.) The first image is a color woodblock print called The Great Wave of Kanagawa. It is from a series of 36 views of Mount Fuji by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. (1760-1849). The prints are in the public domain. Information on them, and a view of all 36 of the prints, can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty-six_Views_of_Mount_Fuji
I chose this print because it reminded me of how grace can wash away all that needs to be cleansed, that grace can come in both power and beauty, and that grace is always alive and moving, such as the sea.
The icon is The Holy Spirit, The Paraclete, The Lord and Giver of Life, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-holy-spirit-the-lord-the-giver-of-life-the-paraclete-sender-of-peace-william-hart-mcnichols.html
All the photos are my own. The first was taken on the island of Oahu near the north shore. The second is Multnomah Falls in Oregon. (Sometimes grace can pour over us in breathtaking beauty.) And the third, at the end of the post, was also taken in Oregon, at the coast.
From time to time during my life I have been able to meet some admired or well-known people. These occasions were most often work or ministry related, but sometimes it was from having attended an event in the arts, a lecture, or a book signing. I am sure many people have had similar opportunities. Sometimes the experience of meeting such a person was a good one. However, in many cases I walked away feeling that they had lost a sense of connection with their admirers. Even if their work was sincere, in person they often seemed aloof or disconnected from the audience for whatever reason. Somehow, to a greater or lesser degree, the entire encounter was disappointing because the person was not the person I thought he or she would be.
In retrospect, one reason I felt this way at the time may have been my own unrealistic expectations regarding the person. ‘Celebrities’ are only human and I may have elevated them unwittingly to a level they did not intend. I probably confused the person with their artistry. The disappointment was because of me, not them. But even in recognizing the effect of expectations, I have also encountered renowned people who exuded a ‘greater than thou’ aura; they were in the limelight and they knew it. They may have gotten so used to being in the spotlight that they unconsciously thought their giftedness somehow entitled them to being treated specially; or they may have come to believe that their work was something that put them in a realm above those who came to hear them speak or view their work.
Recently I had a refreshing encounter with someone whose work I have admired over the last few years. I knew she was a sought-after speaker and had great talent in her field, but I reminded myself that she is only human and that I can still admire her work even if she is different in person than I might hope. I was pleasantly surprised when I found her to be very down-to-earth, welcoming all those who came as if we were old friends. It was not at all disingenuous, but it was real, sincere connection. The joy of our encounter has stayed with me as a real gift from God.*
The speaker’s demeanor reminded me that one can be the center of attention and still be humble. For her it was about the message, not the messenger, (herself). I observed that she made it easy for all those who came that night because of her humility and her understanding that she, (like the rest of us), has feet of clay. She helped her admirers enjoy being with her because she shared who she is, and did not approach us as an adoring audience. In short, the difference was that she treated us with Christ-like humility and love. She truly wanted to encounter the people who came to her presentation, and in her sharing she ministered to us.
In the gospels we see that Jesus met with all sorts of people in His years of ministry. There were the rich and the poor, the high and the low of society, the learned and the uneducated, men and women, Jews and Gentiles. They were fishermen, shepherds, the poor, alien, those with ‘fallen’ lifestyles, and those with every manner of illness and infirmity. There were powerful officials, Roman soldiers, Pharisees and Sadducees. But in all the encounters Jesus had, He was always disarmingly (and almost shockingly) Himself. Everyone could approach Him, and they did. Even detractors were able to approach. He denied no one and He accepted all efforts to make contact with Him, even with those who sought to do Him harm.
According to one gospel writer, (Mark), Jesus sometimes tried to hide who He was as Son of God. He did this in order to be on equal footing with those who came to Him, but also to avoid temptation. It would have been so easy to fall prey to the lure of earthly power and authority. Jesus did have power and authority as Son of God, but the power He used was the power of mercy and love, always giving the glory to the Father rather than to Himself. He came to be one with His people in order to teach them in ways they could understand, and also to be with them in their pain and suffering. He knew the time to be worshiped would be after His death and resurrection, but while He was on earth He wanted to fully immerse Himself in the human experience. He did not want to be caught up in Himself, but in us.
The gospel for this Sunday is a great example of this. A leper came to Jesus, knelt before Him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus immediately reached out His hand, moved with compassion so deep it moved Him to His core. And He said, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leper knew he was breaking all the laws forbidding him to approach Jesus and that Jesus also knew this. The danger was that he would make Jesus ritually impure, a crime which had serious consequences, yet he bravely went near and asked Jesus to cure him. He had faith that Jesus would not ‘shoo’ him away, or recoil in horror at the hideousness of his disease. He approached Jesus as he was. And Jesus accepted him as he was, (and as He was.)
Jesus was fully human, but He was also fully God. He had the right to act as if He was important, because He truly was! But that is not in the nature of Love. To have come to earth at all was such a huge act of the humility of God that it should not surprise us that humility was one of Jesus’ qualities. In reality, humility is inseparable from love; humble acts are loving acts. So while Jesus was tempted by the devil out in the desert to be worshiped before it was time, He never acted upon that temptation. Jesus was beloved by many sinners and outcasts because He could be in their presence without any thought of anyone but the person or people He was with.
Anyone who wishes to be a follower of Jesus needs to pray for the same radical humility by begging the Holy Spirit for that grace. We are sinners, and therefore are above nobody. We have no right to ‘lord it over’ anyone given the things we have thought, said and done, or omitted. But God knows we are imperfect and that we struggle, so when we do fail He is quick to forgive us when we sincerely ask for it. True servants recognize that we are so broken we cannot ever think of ourselves as better than another, no matter how different the other may be. We cannot make people into who we want them to be, as if we know better or as if our way of thinking or acting is best. Therefore what we can do is to be like Jesus, loving people just as they are. This does not mean we like everyone or condone everything people do. We can love the sinner, but hate the sin, as the saying goes. But we respond with love, and we should not judge or act as if we are somehow better than the other.
Suffering is all around us, and we are all called to be a source of healing simply by being who we are. If we are in a position of even the smallest amount of power or authority we have the great responsibility of using it properly. That means we must pray about our actions and choices, and it means we must act with compassion and mercy, even if that means challenging the other. So long as we have done our ‘homework’ using our talents, resources and best decision-making grounded in prayer, and act with love as our intention, we can know we have done our best. If we let Jesus and His teaching become the model out of which we live, we can grow in holiness as servants and disciples. That is who we are. No servant is greater than his master, as Jesus said. Therefore if we want to serve, we need to imitate Him recognizing that we are nothing without Him. We need to approach others with humility. No matter if we are a person noticed and admired by others, a person of power and authority, or someone quite ordinary, we are all called to the same thing and we all come from the same origins as children of God who are loved sinners. As messengers of Christ let us approach those we meet, with dignity, love, and humility. Let us make this our one goal and desire, which in truth is the desire for holiness.
May we enter into Lent with a desire to grow in prayer, generosity, and gratitude! May we have the courage to recognize our own weakness and the faith to approach God asking for forgiveness! May we desire to have the gift of humility, trusting in the Holy Spirit to give us this grace! May we let go of our desire to be noticed, replacing it with a desire to notice Christ in those whom we encounter! May we be instruments of healing and comfort for those who suffer, and may we recognize the presence of God with us in our own suffering! And may we be true servants, imitating Jesus in love and compassion! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* The person I mentioned is Heather King. If you have not read her work, please do. She writes a blog called Shirt of Flame and her work can also be found in various other publications, including Magnificat. She is one of my favorite Christian writers and is indeed, a wonderful person. If you want to read her blog it is found at http://shirtofflame.blogspot.com/
The top photo is one I took in a church in central North Dakota. The stained glass depicting the entire Holy Family at work is an example of humility; the Son of God is seen working as any other youth would have done during His lifetime.
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Mother of God Vatopedi. The tenderness and love of the gesture shared between mother and Son is very beautiful. If you are interested in a copy of this icon for purchase you can do so at the following site: http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/224-mother-of-god-vatopedi.
Next is one of the continuous mosiacs at the Cathedral in Monreale, Sicily. It is Christ healing the leper.
Finally the last series is from photo I took of a rose while in Ireland. The original photo is the color version, but I altered it to black and white for the purpose of symbolizing the healing love of Jesus.
An attitude of mercy
“Let them thank the Lord for His mercy, His wonders for the children of men, for He satisfies the thirsty soul, and the hungry He fills with good things.” This is the Communion antiphon for the fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, (this coming Sunday). It is really beautiful, as are all the prayers sprinkled liberally throughout Mass. Better still, these prayers make obvious to us what we believe. We can be quick to add our automatic “amen” to these prayers, but we ought to pay attention to what they teach. In this case we have a prayer of gratitude for the mercy of the Lord, who gives us every good gift. If you think you have heard it before, you may have. Part of it is ‘lifted’ directly from the Magnificat of Mary, (Luke 1:46-55). It tells us about the attitude of mercy which is God’s prevailing expression of love for His people and one for which we really should be grateful.
All of the gospels for the entire fifth week in Ordinary Time revolve around the activity of Jesus in His ministry. In reflecting upon them, there seems to be an overriding theme: Jesus left a wake of healing and love wherever He went. He healed the possessed or physically ill who approached Him no matter what the detractors said. He preached words which set the people free from a bondage to sin and silly rules that misplaced their focus from the spirit of the law to the letter of the law. He challenged a Gentile woman with words that seemed harsh, but in reality were about giving mercy to everyone, even those who do not follow the same customs and beliefs that we do. And He gave food in a miraculous way to those who came to hear Him preach, which was in reality a lesson about the magnificent, unfathomable over-abundance of mercy which the Lord gives.
The truth is that mercy is wonderful when we are receiving it, but it becomes more challenging when we are asked to give it. So often we hear people say things, (or we are the ones saying them), that belie a desire for vengeance. We instinctively want to go for the jugular when we wronged or hurt in any way, or to do so on behalf of loved ones who may have been attacked or wounded. Often we do not see this for what it is which is why it is such a dangerous attitude. We seem to inhale this way of thinking from the attitudes of the society in which we live. We are surrounded by messages which say that retaliation and vengeance are acceptable or that the end justifies the means. This is contrary to the entire message of Jesus which is about the kind of justice and mercy that is above our human inclinations.
Justice and mercy go together. We need both. If we have mercy without justice we would have a big mess, something like ‘anything goes because it is all okay.’ That is not the truth: everything is not okay; there are things which are sinful and are definitely not acceptable. However, justice without mercy would be cruelty and that will not do, either. Therefore we need to find a balance between the two. If we were to truly follow what the Scriptures teach, we would recognize that even if things do not go the way we would like in this life, we must keep our faith in His message that in the end justice is for the Lord to mete out. He will do it. Truly God has more wisdom than we do and He sees the big picture in ways we never could, therefore I am happy to leave the judging part to Him.
We need to take a closer look at mercy, however, because Jesus lived by an attitude of merciful love. He was quick to forgive and slow to condemn, though there were times He made it very clear that certain behaviors were deplorable. In a gospel passage from this week (Mark 7:1-13) the Pharisees were condemning Jesus for letting His followers eat their meals with unwashed hands, thus breaking the Law of Moses. Jesus let them know that they were missing the point. He used the opportunity to teach that it is what comes out of our hearts, our actions, and what comes out of our mouths, our words, which is more important. In short, Jesus was teaching that loving, merciful words and deeds are more important than what our hands look like. He was trying to tell the Pharisees that they had missed the point of the Law. The Law was always about love and mercy; the rules were meant to help the people to be a people of love. It was the spirit of the Law that the Pharisees were missing. (They did not have attitudes of mercy.) Jesus really did care about the Pharisees: He did not want them to be lost, nor did He desire for the people who listened to them to be lost, so He cared enough to challenge them.
Everything Jesus taught and all that He did shows us that we should have attitudes of mercy and love. He never gave the impression that any sin committed was the end of the road for someone. All sin is forgivable; so long as we have sorrow for what we have done and truly desire to change with the help of God’s grace, we are forgiven when we ask for such mercy. The truth is that we are all loved sinners. Therefore, He also taught us to forgive 77 times, or rather, without limit, because that is part of having an attitude of mercy. There is nothing easy about this, but it is what we strive for because it is the attitude of God. Those who desire to grow in holiness desire to grow in this type of loving, merciful attitude. If it informs all we do, then we are growing in holiness. Therefore we need to pray for discernment constantly so as to know the most merciful way to respond in any given situation. This does not mean condoning everything. Remember, mercy and justice have to co-mingle which often requires the wisdom that is a grace from the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray for the attitude of mercy which Jesus teaches us. Since Lent will start shortly we should begin to think about ways we can grow in holiness. Perhaps we can add works of mercy, such as going out of our way to listen to a friend who may be in anguish over something or moving to action to help alleviate their suffering if possible. We can pray to be less quick to judge, less prone to gossip, or less apt to condemn another with our words and deeds. We can make sacrifices by reaching out to people different from ourselves, being merciful in our approach rather than judgmental of diverse ways of doing things. We can work toward justice both in prayer and in action. All authentic prayer leads us outward to action since prayer changes our own hearts during the process.
The bottom line is that we need to pray for an attitude of mercy which becomes our very consciousness so that we act out of it at all times. Mercy is what allows us to reach past the divisions of race, socio-economics, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, and politics. It is what is sorely missing in many areas of society. It has to be something we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us, and the best way to do that is to read the Scriptures, pray, give alms, do penance, and participate in works of mercy. It has to become personal and habitual so that our attitudes last when Lent ends. If we ask to love with the heart of Jesus, and if we say a prayer begging for this, such as my favorite short prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” we will grow in this consciousness because we will recognize that mercy is given to us continually. The more we ask for mercy, the more we realize that we, too, must give what we have received. To paraphrase Jesus: “What you have received, give as a gift.” (Matt.10:8) We have received boundless mercy, therefore we need to ask - no, beg - for this attitude to pervade our hearts and to prevail in the world. An attitude of mercy will bless us with joy, and will touch the world so that we, too, leave a wake of healing, just as Jesus taught all those who wish to be His followers. We cannot expect anyone to want to follow or to be attracted to Jesus if we do not approach them with love. So let us pray that we might help spread the Kingdom through actions that flow from an attitude of mercy.
May we be moved by the mercy of Jesus so we may grow in the knowledge that we are loved sinners! May we ask to have an attitude of mercy and then have the courage to live it! May we be grateful for the gift of mercy we have received from the Lord! May we have insights into what we can do this coming Lent which will help us to grow as disciples of Jesus! And may we recognize Jesus in the faces of all those we meet, especially the stranger, so that we would be moved to an attitude rich in mercy and love! Let us continue to meet in the merciful heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The icons are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is Christ All Merciful which can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/gallery-views/jesus-gallery/product/34-christ-all-merciful.
The second is called The Virgin of Tenderness of Yaroslavl and it can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/253-the-virgin-of-tenderness-of-yaroslavl. I picked this icon because of the mutual love which is clearly seen between the mother and the Son. It is obvious that she has taken on His attitude of mercy.
The photos are mine. The first is a brown pelican overlooking the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, Mississippi. The second was taken in the Black Hills of South Dakota. For me the waterfall is symbolic of the overflowing mercy of God.
A special way of being alive
Ever since I can remember, Thomas Merton has been part of my spiritual life. When I first began to actively develop my faith life many years ago my spiritual mentor suggested that I read the New Seeds of Contemplation, one of Merton’s most famous books on prayer. It resonated deeply with me even though I did not yet have the capacity to pray that way. But it was ground-breaking for me and is one of my favorite books on prayer to this day. (I bought my first copy in the 1970’s for 95 cents. It became so dog-eared and worn that I recently had to get a replacement copy.) This book gave me great hope and deep desire to grow into the kind of prayer life of which he wrote so beautifully. His writing has been a constant in my life, so one could say I have been hooked on Merton for quite a while.
This weekend, Thomas Merton would have been 100 years old. Therefore I felt it was fitting to reflect upon the impact he had on me (and so many others) through his writing. Merton was born on January 31, 1915 and he died somewhat young, on December 10, 1968. In between he lived a rather full life as a Trappist monk, known as Fr. Louis within the monastery.* He never hid his brokenness, nor thought of himself as holy. He exposed his ‘feet of clay,’ an often sarcastic wit, an ability to shake up the social norms with his growing sense of social justice, a yearning for the feminine (his mother died when he was very young, something he never really got over), and a quest for justice in various social issues. All of these characteristics were fed by his insatiable hunger for God. With a continual desire for solitude and contemplation he became very self-aware. He was a man of deep prayer and love which was obvious in his obedience to God’s call. And that is why I think he was indeed holy.
Merton was a monk, yet his openness to God led him to have a ‘conversion’ experience which took place outside the monastery, at the intersection of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky. Having left the monastery for a medical appointment, he had a mystical experience while standing at the corner. He saw many people coming and going, all of whom were strangers, and yet he was filled with profound love for them. At that moment he realized that he was intimately connected with the world, and not separate from it. He came to see in that one instant, that he was compelled to be involved with the world through his prayer and reflection and that he could and should be active, even from within the enclosure. He went on to be the pre-eminent voice of the 1950’s and 60’s, writing about issues of peace and justice. He wrote prolifically about social issues in books, magazines, and numerous articles, all these in addition to the many books he wrote on prayer and spirituality. He was often criticized during these years, but he did not waver from a love for the world that was so great, that he could not remain silent.
Merton was eventually given permission to live in a hermitage on the grounds of the monastery. However, given his spiritual connection to the world it is almost fitting that he died outside the monastery while in Thailand on a trip which culminated in a religious conference where he was to speak. He was a brilliant man, but he never ceased to be starkly aware of his own struggles and weaknesses. What made him so special is that he managed to always keep his eyes and ears on God such that he could follow a call to “stick his neck out” for the work of the gospel. I do not think he could have contained his thoughts and beliefs if he wanted to do so.
We can learn so very much from Thomas Merton. However, I want to focus on the passion with which he lived. He had passion which was so great that he suffered from a type of loneliness that was not about the lack of people so much as it was a true longing for God. He wanted to know God fully so he could love Him fully, and he sought to express this love through his writing, especially in his desire for justice and peace. This passion is a grace which we, too, should pray to have in our own spiritual life. For what do we yearn passionately? Do we pray asking God to help us work at that which is our passion? While we may never have a ‘4th and Walnut’ experience like Merton, we need to tap into that for which we have most passion because it is there that God dwells deep within our hearts.
God knows us better than anyone else, and therefore He inspires us to use the gifts we have been given. Knowing our gifts, He knows therefore, what would make us happiest. As Merton wrote so well, God calls us to be our true self rather than to live out of a false sense of self. The false self is who we think we are based on an accumulation of masks we put on, things we have been told about ourselves, or false perceptions which we begin to believe. The true self is the person we were created to be by God, which is revealed when we let the false self be stripped away. The quest for holiness is really a desire to grow into the true self. The gospel Jesus preached teaches us to be our true self, that is, to love. To love like this means to put our own selfish desires aside, to think of the others who our lives touch, to think of the ramifications and repercussions of our actions. In short, the true self is other-centered; nothing is really about us, but about the greater good of the other and of the world.
While not everyone is a writer as gifted as Merton, and while not everyone is called to be a social activist in the public eye, each of us is called to work for justice by writing with the story of our lives. In other words, we are called to live the gospel in the way that is most suited to the situations of our lives and our unique set of traits. Merton was gifted in prayer and in eloquence. He had a thick skin about the criticism he garnered. But even when he faltered, he knew he needed to stay true to his call, living the gospel as he was created to live it, thus glorifying God. We, too, are called to glorify God with our lives.
Merton wrote: “[But] the question of love is one that cannot be evaded. Whether or not you claim to be interested in it, from the moment you are alive you are bound to be concerned with love, because love is not just something that happens to you: it is a certain special way of being alive.” ** As Lent is approaching each of us might want to think and reflect over what we might do to live this special way of being alive. We do not have to leave the lives we already live, just as Merton did what he did from behind monastery walls. But we can begin by looking at what our areas of selfishness might be, the weaknesses and fears that keep us from following the call to love, and how well we are utilizing the gifts we have been given. We can pray to be more courageous in living the gospel life, speaking up when we can or should, not just with words, but with actions. We can reflect on what we have done to live the gospel, and pray to keep on doing those things. And we can let Thomas Merton be our friend and guide to living as our true self, passionate about God and living in a way that is healing to those whom we meet. We can all work for peace by being people who live the love of Christ. A peaceful presence does far more than we know or imagine. There is plenty of turmoil and unrest in the world, many of our friends and family are suffering from one thing or the next, and we, too may be suffering. But what brings healing and hope is to cling to the message of the gospel, our faith in God, and knowing that simple acts of love can and will change our world.
May we ask for the intercession of Thomas Merton so that we might find and live our passion! May we learn to be our true self through prayer, realizing that while we are not perfect, we are very loved by God! May we grow in love for God so that everything we do is oriented to the gospel! May we be peacemakers in thought, word, and deed! And may we follow the way of Christ, becoming instruments of healing through our loving actions! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* A good, short biography of Merton is found at http://www.law.louisville.edu/cardinallawyer/node/61. If you want more details about his early life, you can read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which only covers the time up until he entered the monastery. There are many good books on Merton that one can find to learn more about him. You can find some suggestions of Merton's writings on my book list found at http://www.catanesesd.com/books-about-prayer.html and http://www.catanesesd.com/micheles-book-corner.html
**The quote is from page 27 of Love and Living, a compilation of essays by Thomas Merton, edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Br. Patrick Hart (a fellow monk).
The icon is Holy World Evangelist Thomas Merton, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/1-holy-world-evangelist-thomas-merton-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The photo of Gethsemani Monastery was part of an article actually unrelated to Thomas Merton. Here is the credit:The Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County, Ky. (Peter Smith, The Courier-Journal)
The next photo was one I took in Bath, England.
The photo of Thomas Merton is from the monastery archives and can be found at http://www.monks.org/index.php/monks-pages/thomas-merton. This site includes another biography of Merton as well.
Heart Speaks to Heart