This week we are being offered the chance to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in an entire day designated for that purpose. As part of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has initiated “24 Hours for the Lord,” in which the sacrament will be offered literally all day in parishes all over the world. Some parishes might only be able to offer it for a limited number of hours, due to having fewer available priests, but others are literally going to be offering it all day and all night on March 4-5. The point of the extended hours of Reconciliation is to offer us an opportunity to envelop ourselves in the love of God. This is an invitation to listen to our own heart and to God’s heart as we come to see the ways we have failed or in which we are weak and in need of His strength. This opportunity invites us not into guilt, but into a deeper rhythm of listening to the words of love which God wants to speak.
The process of approaching God for the Sacrament of Reconciliation is truly something beautiful, though I would daresay most people do not see it that way because it has never been presented to them as such. Jesus taught that we should not judge and we should not condemn. If He taught us to act this way, it should be obvious that God prefers to offer mercy rather than judgment in His dealing with us as well: He wants us to find His mercy, not condemnation. So we begin by spending time in reflection upon our own lives to see what areas might be broken, wounded, weak, or especially prone to sin. There are many options for doing this. We can seek out the Catechism, or pore over the Commandments or Works of Mercy to see which areas are in need of forgiveness and grace. But we cannot approach it by only thinking about which ‘rule’ we have broken; we need to look at it through the eyes of mercy. Yes, we should feel sorrow for our sins, but we cannot confuse our sinfulness with the beauty of who we are intended to be. The point is to get in touch with the rhythm of our heart and to keep our sins in the context of God’s love for us. Love is the heart of the gospel and so we must always examine our conscience while being aware of the mercy and love of God. Once we begin to sweep out the broken parts we also come to see the beauty that lies beneath the stain of our sin. In reconciling these areas with God we find new freedom through the grace He offers us. Listening to what is inside is important to keeping in touch with who we are created to be by God, which is our truest, most beautiful self, and it allows us to come to find God in a more intimate way.
This week I read a moving line in the writing of Etty Hillesum (found in Magnificat, the spiritual, liturgical guide.)* She wrote: “Things come and go in a deeper rhythm, and people must be taught to listen; it is the most important thing we have to learn in this life.” The wisdom of this, especially when applied to preparation for Reconciliation, is enormous. For those unfamiliar with her, Etty Hillesum was a Jewish woman originally from Amsterdam who was encamped in Westerbork for almost two years until she was sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1943. She had a remarkable spiritual transformation, turning inward to find God’s presence deep within her own heart. If one reads her diary or the letters that were written during this period, one can see that she was at peace during her time at Westerbork and Auschwitz. She wrote, “The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active, and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches.”* Only someone in tune with the voice of God could express such a thing in a place like a concentration camp where death was all around her.
Etty’s transformation was amazing in that it took place after a life filled with emotional distress from having been brought up in a very chaotic, unstable household. At the suggestion of a mentor she began a process of trying to listen inwardly for a half hour every day, which at first was more than a small struggle. But once she was able to get past all the confusion and noise in her own head, she realized it was her heart she sought, not her head. Eventually the listening led her to ‘fall to her knees’ for no apparent reason. What she discovered in that experience was God. What makes this so amazing is that up to this point Etty had led a somewhat immoral life and was not at all religious; she was not seeking God, but He was seeking her. Her life was transformed through His presence deep within her and she found peace for the first time, a peace which seems to have lasted for the short duration of her life.
Etty discovered that listening is about learning to become attuned to the presence of God and whatever His Spirit reveals to us both during prayer and outside of prayer. It is an opening up of eyes and ears. It helps us learn to appreciate even the smallest thing because God’s presence is there. She wrote, “…that cup of coffee must nowadays be drunk with reverence, for each day it may be our last.” ** And this means not only reverencing that which is around us, it means we learn to revere that which is within; we learn to hear and see ourselves as God does. This is precisely where the Sacrament of Reconciliation comes in: by gazing within to see what behaviors and thoughts move us away from God, what is sinful toward ourselves and others, we can see the areas in need of healing. This enables us to see the truth and beauty of who we are by having the weight of sin removed and helps us to attune our heart to that of God. The less clutter there is within, the more room there is for Him. We can learn to identify and name all those areas in which we have failed so that we can then name the specific graces we need in order to grow stronger. The purpose of the sacrament is not for our guilt, but rather it is so that we can take all that keeps us from a closer intimacy with God, from a deeper rhythm of love, and allow God to transform us through the power of His grace.
The process of preparing for Reconciliation is an excellent ‘school’ for learning how to listen. It takes a bit of time, however. If we entered into Lent with a sincere desire for more prayer and penance, then we have already taken the first step. Hopefully, in our prayer and reflection we can see our weaknesses so that we sense what it is that God wants to offer us as the specific graces we need. As we assess the state of our heart and find the clutter we want to sweep out, we can learn to listen beyond our sin, allowing our entire lives to be transformed, as Etty did. When we go to Reconciliation, then, we can give our sinfulness to God for redemption and healing, and our sorrow will be turned into the freedom of renewed life. We need to remember that the sacrament is an opportunity to hear God’s mercy spoken gently, yet firmly within our hearts and to enter into that deeper rhythm of love, which is God’s heart beating within our own.
We are offered quite an opportunity on March 4-5. For those who have not gone to Reconciliation in a while, it is a wonderful chance to be able to experience God’s mercy in a new way. And for those who go more frequently, there is always the invitation into greater intimacy with God through the outpouring of His mercy. No matter who we are it is never too soon or too late to enter into the gift of such an encounter with the living God. As the life of Etty Hillesum points out, what can change for all of us is our ability to listen. In learning to listen she could find God, and therefore beauty, even within a concentration camp. She found inner riches because she looked within and began to hear that deeper rhythm which is the rhythm of the love and mercy of God. We can enter into the invitation of God to do the same. That indeed is the most important thing we have to learn in life.
May we accept the invitation to immerse ourselves in mercy through the Sacrament of Reconciliation! May we learn how to hear the rhythm of our own heart through reflection, meditation, and prayer! May we find fruitfulness in our Lenten sacrifices and giving! May we, like Etty Hillesum, learn to hear the rhythm of God’s love in everything from the simplicity of a flower to the complexity of the human heart! May we learn to clean out the grime of sin from our hearts and see ourselves as God sees us, in beauty! May we come to know the heart of the gospel which is the forgiveness, love, and mercy of Jesus, and may we learn to share this with others! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*Magnificat, February, 2016, pg. 363-64. Of note is that Etty was also quoted by Pope Benedict XVI on Ash Wednesday, 2013 when he abdicated the papacy; he was touched by the story of her life and her desire to truly listen to the Lord.
** Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed by Patrick Woodhouse, Bloomsbury, London, 2009. This quote came from chapter 2, but all the information on Etty that I used in this entry is from this book.
The first image is a photo of some stained glass I took while visiting England. I chose it because it is a depiction of the Good Shepherd tenderly holding one of His sheep. This is the image I have for what takes place in Reconciliation: Jesus comes to us in tenderness and mercy, not in condemnation. He prefers to tend His flock with love, and therefore He never stops seeking us out when we are lost.
Next is a photo of Etty Hillesum. It can be found in Wikipedia and other sources.
The rose is a photo I took while in Oregon at the public rose garden in Portland. I chose this because Etty had a passion for flowers after her conversion experience. She would sit in her kitchen looking out the window at a flower and marvel at its exquisite beauty. She continued this practice of seeing beauty around her even while in the concentration camp. She not only learned how to hear the deeper rhythm, but she learned how to see it, too. I think we can all learn to do this if we simply allow ourselves to stop and see.
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Jesus Christ Holy Forgiveness. It is important to gaze on the forgiving countenance of Jesus from time to time. In gazing upon an icon, which is a form of prayer, we can be invited into a deeper rhythm of mercy and love. This icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/jesus-christ-holy-forgiveness-040-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Finally, the last photo is also one of mine. This wave was breaking off the coast of Maui, Hawaii. I chose it because God's mercy is like an ocean, according to St. Faustina, and often we need to allow the waves of His mercy to wash over us. The rhythm of the surf can be very healing; it can be inviting us into that mercy. I keep the original photo of this in a frame on my desk, not only because I love Hawaii, but because it reminds me of that rhythm. In gazing upon the photo, I can begin to hear and feel it deep within. It is the same process as gazing upon an icon, if one lets it be so.
In this second week of Lent some folks may find that their commitments to renewed prayer, penance, and works of charity are going well, and others might be struggling to get some new habit to ‘stick.’ No matter where we are on the spectrum, there is always time to enter more fully into the season. Indeed, it is still early. Whether our participation has been great or small so far it seems that the season orients us toward the suffering and death of Jesus. Therefore Lent brings to mind an atmosphere of penance and renunciation which can help us to get more deeply in touch with His sacrifice, as well as to help us to return more fully to the life we want to live as a disciple. It is never too late to attempt to change habits in order to grow in holiness or to unite our sacrifice to His suffering. But for any of it to have real meaning we must always do so with Easter in mind. That is, we cannot lose sight that in the end Jesus will be victorious and all shall be well.
Reflecting upon this season made me think of the 14th century mystic, Bl. Julian of Norwich, whose experience was uniquely Lenten. Though identified by a distinctly male name, Julian was a woman whose true name is not known. She was so called because she lived in the church of St. Julian near Norwich, England as an anchoress. An anchoress is one who literally walled herself into a room attached to a church, devoted entirely to prayer, meditation and mortification, cut off from the outside world. During a serious illness Julian had a series of visions of Jesus and of Heaven which she eventually recorded into a book which she called Showings. Julian became the first woman to write a book in the English language as a result of her desire to share these experiences with her followers.
It seems that when she was young Julian had prayed for three things. The first was a greater understanding of the Passion of Jesus Christ. The second was that she would suffer an illness which would be dramatic, but not ending in death, so that she could understand more deeply what goes on in the soul of one who is dying in order to become more sensitive to God and the way God works. The third was for three “wounds:” ‘absolute contrition, kind compassion, and steadfast longing toward God.’* She did indeed have a mysterious, life-threatening illness and during its short duration all that she asked of God was given to her. Through the visions she came to believe that our sin is ‘necessary,’ (serves a purpose), insofar as it enables us to appreciate the mercy of God all the more deeply. Just as after a sickness we appreciate good health more acutely, Julian believed that sin accentuated the understanding of how much grace God gives us and how great is the power of His forgiveness, mercy, and love. She did not condone sin, nor was she lighthearted about its effects. But instead of condemning herself or others for being broken and sinful, (which is a condition due to our humanity), she felt that in our sorrow for sin and the desire to be made more whole we can also learn to appreciate the mercy of God in a new way.
What Julian was teaching is very appropriate for Lent. She seemed to realize that God has endless capacity for forgiving us, no matter what it is we have done. Our realization of this, which comes with prayerful reflection, is what moves us to return to Him with gratitude. This is a similar message as is found in the passage from Micah which Pope Francis used when announcing the Year of Mercy: “You, O Lord, are a God who takes away iniquity and pardons sin, who does not hold your anger forever, but are pleased to show mercy. You, Lord, will return to us and have pity on your people. You will trample down our sins and toss them into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18-19). This is an important point: God does not hold onto our sins, but instead ‘tosses them away.’ Therefore, we have to learn to recognize our sin and then let go of it, too. Holding on to our guilt when offered freedom only serves to keep us bound, discouraging our growth in holiness.
There are three things that we have to accept if we are to venture into the mercy of God: we are sinners, we are loved sinners, and there is nothing we can do to change either of those two realities. Indeed we are sinners because we are imperfect. During Lent we can work at overcoming sinful tendencies by truly being sorrowful, begging God to forgive us our sins and to give us the grace we need to stave off temptation and falling into sin. Lent affords us the opportunity to recognize our sins and also to accept that we are indeed sinners. We can then say with King David, “For I know my transgressions; my sin is always before me…. I have done what is evil in your eyes.” (Psalm 51:5-6) But once we acknowledge our sinfulness, rather than holding onto guilt, we can enter into the vast mercy of God in which He offers us forgiveness, though we do not deserve it. God invites us into His mercy and lavishes us with His love which we can never lose no matter what it is that we have done. We are loved sinners and this will never change.
Julian had struggled with why God would allow sin, and therefore during the vision she asked Jesus about this. Later she wrote, “But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.' In other words, she saw that sin is part of the brokenness of the world, but that it could serve the purpose of helping us to both know the greatness of God’s mercy for us and to long more deeply for Him. Jesus was assuring her that if we cooperate with His grace, are truly sorrowful for our sins and continue to work toward perfection, in the end, all will be well. Jesus will heal our souls completely through the power of His death and resurrection, and when all is said and done we will be with Him in Heaven, perfected by His love and mercy.
Julian reminds us that we should not fear approaching God to ask for forgiveness and grace. He will trample down our sins and toss them into the sea. Therefore in this Year of Mercy it is important to accept the opportunity to return to the side of Jesus and walk closely with Him. We can do this by praying with the Scriptures to witness the many ways in which God has offered forgiveness and the hope of salvation. We can enter into the greatness of His love through meditation on the Passion and death of Jesus. We can look to the saints and holy ones to observe the ways in which God taught His mercy to them. We can ask that our eyes be opened to our own sins, that we might be freed from the grasp of temptation. We can ask that we might be moved to ‘kind compassion’ so as to become more aware of those who need help, those who have asked our prayer, the suffering, the lonely, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, those on the edge of worry about how to make ends meet, the mourning, and all those who only think of themselves as terrible sinners and need to be reminded that they are able to be loved by God into wholeness. And we need to become more aware of God’s love for ourselves, too.
If nothing else, we must remember that no matter what we do, it is not our sin that defines us in the eyes of God, but rather it is the beauty of who we are made to be which is precious to Him. It is our attempts at working with grace which He cherishes; He does not hold fast to our sins, but rather truly cleanses us when we ask for forgiveness. How blessed we are to have this season as a reminder that the power of God’s love overcomes all obstacles! Jesus spared nothing to make sure we know this. And He wants to make sure that the same promise He gave to Julian will sustain us, too: all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.
May we continue to seek a closer relationship with Jesus through our prayer, penance, and almsgiving! May we come to see our Lenten journey as an opportunity to let God transform our sin into grace! May we embrace who we are, including our weaknesses, in order to bring ourselves as a gift to God! May we trust that all shall be well when we get to the end of our life’s journey! And may we be filled with kind compassion through God’s mercy as we make our Lenten offering to Him! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* I used the following site for some of the information about Julian in this entry:
The first image is of Bl. Julian of Norwich. It can be found at http://a401.idata.over-blog.com/0/12/02/38/Images-spirituelles-4/julian-of-norwich.jpg
If you want to know what the significance of the cat in the image might be, Julian is the patron saint of cats and cat care. The only creature she would allow into her cell, evidently, was a cat. If you want just a bit more on this, go to http://www.saintjulianscatcare.com/stjulian.htm
The photos are all my own. The first is of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ireland. I chose this one because of the vastness of the water and the power it has, as seen in the surf breaking on the rocks. God can toss our sins into the sea at this and any spot He so chooses!
The second photo is of a sunset taken over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Oregon. I chose this one because 'at the end of the day,' all shall be well. We await Easter and we await the return of Jesus.
The last image is a detail, The Holy Spirit, from a larger work by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose to use it because it is the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us; during Lent we are seeking to grow in grace and sanctity. ~ The larger work from which this comes is called Viriditas and it can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/viriditas-finding-god-in-all-things-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The Holy Spirit is at the top of the larger work. You can find it by going to the gallery Fr. Bill has set up on his website, which is found at http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/william-hart-mcnichols.html?tab=artworkgalleries&artworkgalleryid=584247
You can purchase any or all of Viriditas, such as the Holy Spirit detail, if you wanted it for a card or plaque. Peruse the entire website. There are many wonderful icons and images! Just click on the image you like and the page will show you how to do it. (Remember, I do not get anything for endorsing Fr. Bill's work. I just love his icons and images and enjoy sharing the wealth!)
Thoughts of love are in the air and well they should be. This past weekend we celebrated Valentine’s Day on the same day as the first Sunday of Lent. Though St. Valentine was a very real person, ordinarily most of the population thinks of the sentiment of romantic love rather than to reflect upon the sacred. Valentine’s Day is good, though it is an emphasis on love for but one day; Lent, however, is an entire season of love. Lent points us toward Easter which is the culmination of the Son of God coming into the world in order to completely empty Himself for us so that we might be saved, the greatest act of love ever offered. The entire season of Lent, therefore, is about love; quite literally it is Love which saves us. Our response to this overwhelming love given by God is our active participation in the Lenten season: prayer, penance, and almsgiving. Yearly we offer our efforts at growing in sanctity as a way of returning the gift of ourselves to Him who gave Himself totally for us. And in the process, hopefully, we are invited to fall more deeply in love with our God.
In reflecting upon all of these things, the Jesuit, ‘Servant of God’ Fr. Pedro Arrupe, came to mind. He was given the title Servant of God because the Church has begun the process of investigating his life through a cause for his canonization. In other words, it has been acknowledged that Fr. Arrupe lived a life of heroic virtue and holiness. He is a beloved figure among the Jesuits and one who is important to the history of the order. Born in 1907 in Bilbao, Spain, he was educated in medicine, attaining a doctorate in Medical Ethics. After his education and ordination, he was sent to Japan as a missionary. He found the work frustrating because few people participated in what he offered and he made even fewer converts. On Dec. 8, 1941 he was arrested, accused of espionage on the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The night before Arrupe thought he was going to be executed, he heard the singing of Christmas carols outside his cell window, a gesture which made a huge impact upon him. He was released shortly after this because of his respectful behavior. He stayed in Hiroshima and was there in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped. Miraculously he and the other 8 Jesuits with him escaped all harm and were able to help as many of the injured as possible.
In 1958 Fr. Arrupe was elected 28th Father General of the Society of Jesus, being the only other Basque to have held this position since the founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. He was Father General until 1981 when he suffered a debilitating stroke, forcing him to resign. His years in office were during a time of great change in both the church and in the world. His focus was on social justice and working with the poor and so his time as Father General was often controversial because of the political implications of bringing justice to some areas of the world. After the stroke he lived another 10 years, virtually mute, until his death on February 5, 1991.
The reason Pedro Arrupe came to mind, however, is because of something he wrote about love. Though the piece known as “Fall in Love” is very well known, it is evident in other examples of his writing that this was not a one-time expression. He seemed to live the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, interpreting them through the grace of love. He once wrote: “The [Spiritual] Exercises are, in the last analysis, a method in the pedagogy of love—the pedagogy, that is, of the most pure charity toward God and toward one’s neighbor. They root out carnal and worldly love from the human heart, thus opening it to the beams of God’s love. A demanding love it is, calling forth in a person a response of love and of service.… Only one term is final and irreducible to another: love.”*
Love was clearly the motive for Fr. Arrupe throughout his life of service. In “Fall in Love” Fr. Arrupe reveals the sanctity with which he lived, the humility with which he approached God, and the love with which he served those to whom he ministered, including his brother Jesuits. At the end of the piece he says that we should “fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.” Indeed this is what is at the heart of the season of Lent and at the heart of our Christian faith. The season of Lent is a time in which we remember all that the Father has done out of His amazing love for us, culminating in the sacrifice of His own Son. We immerse ourselves in the Gospels in order to participate more fully in their message, desiring to be disciples, reflecting upon the values of mercy and love given by Jesus in his self-emptying which included such intense suffering. If the entire season does not echo with love resounding sometimes gently and at other times deafeningly, then we are missing the gift of the season entirely. Our lives as Christians are about only one thing: love. Lent is a time when we are invited to fall more deeply in love with the God who is madly, deeply in love with us.
During Lent, our additional prayer, penance, and almsgiving are not simply to discipline us, but they are to help us learn how to hear the whispered “I love you” from God as it resonates within us. Our practices help us to let love have more of a presence within our heart. Those practices emphasized by the Church and those we choose help our hearts to be emptied of that which is not love, to be stretched to love in new ways, and to be filled with God’s love that we may move outwards to others with renewed vigor. It is relatively easy to fall in love, but to stay in love is another thing entirely. Therefore what we do during Lent can help us to stay in love through examining the ways we could do better on our journey to holiness.
In order to see Jesus’ love poured out throughout His ministry a suggestion is that we meditate on the Gospels. In our prayer we can go with Jesus to the outcast lepers, the frightening possessed, the fallen prostitutes, the cheating tax gatherers, the arrogant Pharisees, the alien pagans, the ‘invisible’ women, the lowly poor, and the comfortable rich. We can hear Him teach His disciples, instruct the apostles in forgiving "seventy seven times seven times," reflect upon the Beatitudes and the Golden Rule. It is important for us to observe Jesus as He ‘fell deeply in love’ with all of His people. If we let His love work at transforming us then perhaps we can fall in love and stay in love. Indeed, loving is something that will decide everything in guiding our choices and responses throughout our lives.
Pedro Arrupe was transformed by God’s love and therefore was wise to counsel us to fall in love, too. While thoughts of falling in love remind us of romance, Arrupe was talking about finding God in whatever we do and in whoever it is to whom we devote our lives: love is about everlasting commitment. No matter where it is directed, any falling in love is at its core falling in love with God. And falling in love is about letting God lead us home with Him. It is about trusting Jesus to be there in whatever form or fashion, especially when life makes no sense and things seem dark. It is about allowing Him into our pain and accepting the invitation into His. And it is about realizing that His love is so far above ours, so perfect in light of our imperfection, that we are humbled beyond belief when He wants to spend time with us. Falling in love with God means letting God show His love for us and it means returning a simple response of “thank you” back to Him.
During this season of Love which is called Lent, let us enter into the penance, the prayer, and the almsgiving expecting to meet Jesus in the midst of it all. Let us open ourselves to Him in the guise of the poor and the hurting. Let us invite Him into our paltry gift of self. As we attempt our Lenten sacrifices and additions let us offer gratitude for whatever growth in holiness we find, and if we have struggled somewhat unsuccessfully, let us offer our intentions to have done better as the gift that it is and know Jesus will receive it with joy. If we beg God to help us to fall in love with Him and with His people, this love will transform us and move toward healing that which is painful, broken, terrifying, or evil in this world. Fall in love, stay in love: it will decide everything.
May we open ourselves to love this Lent! May we let our practices of prayer, penance, and almsgiving expand our hearts! May our fasting and abstinence open our hearts to the poor and suffering! May we fall in love, stay in love and rely upon Love! May we have the patience and perseverance to stay faithful to our Lenten practices! May we be gentle upon ourselves if we falter in the commitments we made for the season, knowing it is our intention that the Lord desires! And may we let Love be our guide as we strive to grow in holiness! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* I found this quote on an Ignatian website, but it comes from a book called Pedro Arrupe: Essential Writings, by Kevin Burke (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 2004, p. 136-137). The website I used is as follows:
- The text of Fall in Love is in the third image in this entry. If you want to see it closer up, you can click on the image. Or you can view the text at https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/316647.Pedro_Arrupe
Photos and images: The first photo is one I took while on vacation in Oregon. It was in a public rose garden in Portland.
The second photo is a famous photo of Fr. Pedro Arrupe and is of unknown origin. I found it on just about every website in which he was mentioned. Here is the one I used for much of the information I cited on Fr. Arrupe:
The third image is of Fall in Love as mentioned above. I found it at http://www-hollymonroe-com.myshopify.com/products/falling-in-love-1
Next is an icon, Jesus Christ Holy Forgiveness by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/jesus-christ-holy-forgiveness-040-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The last two are photos which I took. The first is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a work in stained glass which is at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston, TX. The last photo was taken in Jacksonville, Florida of the sunrise on a cloudy morning over the Atlantic Ocean.
Just about now liturgical ministers and clergy everywhere are scrambling to get ready for the upcoming season of Lent which is arguably the busiest of the year. Lent is certainly a time of fullness, yet we often think of it as a season of deprivation, associating Lent with fasting and having to give up something. In actuality the emphasis is not at all on what we lose, but rather on what we gain. While giving up something is good and can be a challenge, it is important to remember that we are adding to our prayer, almsgiving, and penance. And for some, it can be about adding behaviors, such as trying to be kinder or more merciful, rather than giving something up. Indeed we do fast and give up meat on certain days, but this is to help us turn our attention more toward God. We also hope to empty ourselves of our sins by going to reconciliation so we can make space for graces to fill us up. Yes, it is not about giving up so much as it is about being filled. New life given through the self-emptying of Jesus, an act of love overflowing, is what God intends to offer us to fill the empty space we create during the next 40 days.
In reflecting upon what Lent might offer this year, two people who embraced self-emptying with a purpose come to mind. The first of these is St. Padre Pio. What stands out about him is his suffering, or rather, his willingness to suffer as a way of offering himself for others as prayer. I am not sure any other saint (who was not a martyr) suffered as much as St. Pio of Pietrelcina, born Francesco Forgione (1887-1968). He had a myriad of health issues, suffering with tuberculosis as a young man, but also with a chronic gastrointestinal issue that could never be accurately diagnosed. He could hardly eat: it was said that for his entire adult life he only ate about 300-400 calories a day, yet no one could explain why he was rotund. He also was given the gift of the stigmata, that is, he bore the wounds of Christ. Not only was this exceedingly painful, but it also caused him great emotional suffering because he was embarrassed by them, thinking he was not worthy of such a thing. And of course, there was the spiritual suffering he endured. Many did not trust that the wounds were real and said that they were self-inflicted. Between the jealousy and misunderstanding leveled at him, he suffered greatly, especially when he was forbidden from hearing confessions or saying Mass publicly for a time.
What is most extraordinary, however, is that in all of this, Padre Pio never complained, nor did he do anything but be entirely obedient to his superiors and to God. This is because of his act of self-emptying, an act of love overflowing. Feeling a call to do so, and with the approval of his spiritual director, Pio had actually asked God to allow him to suffer for those who were far from God or in some great need. He offered himself in a monumental act of mercy, and in 1918 God accepted his offer, giving him the stigmata while he was praying in the chapel. In addition to the suffering, though, he received many spiritual gifts which few saints have had in such great abundance. It seemed that the more he let go of his own comfort and the more he suffered, the more powerful and effective were the gifts of God which he was able to use for the good of others. And if this was not extraordinary enough, it said that in the later years of his life he was often heard to say, “After my death I will do more. My real mission will begin after my death.” With all he went through, he had such a heart for doing works of mercy for the Lord that even in death he was not ready to stop working.
The second example is St. Thérèse of Lisieux who said something similar when she was nearing death. She said, “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good upon the earth.” Like Padre Pio, St. Thérèse also suffered greatly throughout her brief 24 years of life. At the age of 3 she suffered the death of her mother, as a child she suffered from an ailment so mysterious that no doctor could help her, though she survived miraculously through the intercession of Mary. She suffered in having to let go of her emotional dependency on her sisters and her father, and of having to recognize and then let go of her rather immature, almost neurotic behaviors in order to grow up. She entered Carmel only to come down with tuberculosis, suffering horrifically over the course of three years until her death. But she did all of this gladly for her dear Jesus, her King. And remarkably just as she promised, she has had a ‘reputation’ after her death of showering favors like roses from heaven.
Padre Pio and Thérèse could not have had personalities or temperaments that were more different from one another. Additionally, she was from a more well-to-do family, and he was from peasant stock; she lived a short life and he lived a long one. The only outward similarity is that they both lived in an enclosure in religious life, he as a Franciscan and she as a Carmelite, though even in that they were different: Padre Pio had much contact with the outside world through his sacramental ministry, and in contrast she had little outside contact. But in terms of their desire to be totally emptied in service of Christ they could not be more alike. Both Padre Pio and Thérèse emptied themselves in order to be filled with God’s mercy so that they could share in love overflowing, even after death.
Both St. Padre Pio and St. Thérèse of Lisieux teach us about the true importance of Lent and its place in our spiritual life. Lent calls us to remember that we are so greatly loved by God that He would send His Son into the world to suffer and die for us so we could have salvation. It calls us to participate more deeply in Jesus’ death and resurrection; that is, we are invited to join in His self-emptying in order to make a space to be filled with new life and renewed love. Lent is a gift we are given every year in order to help us to get back on track and to walk ever closer with Jesus. Having the example of Sts. Pio and Thérèse, we can see that the suffering we may undergo in recognizing our personal faults and failings is actually an opportunity in which we can receive the boundless mercy of God. In being emptied it allows us to become more obedient, more humble, and more merciful; we become more able to see those who are materially, emotionally, or spiritually impoverished and need our love and attention. In other words, Lent is an opportunity to not only make our own relationship with God more intimate, but to reach outward to the world in prayer for reparation of sin as well as sharing from our abundance as we give alms or do charitable works. Lent is an invitation which allows us to empty ourselves of distractions, especially the distraction of self, in order to be filled with the graces we need to be a better disciple. And if we can attain a heart such as that of Padre Pio or Thérèse, we can grow in our desire to continue to do good works after our lives are over.
Ironically, we are used to hearing that we go to our eternal rest when we die. But I am not sure that our understanding of this is often wide enough. While we will have rest from all our earthly toil and suffering, ‘eternal rest’ does not infer that we will be devoid of things to do. This is because it is not in the nature of love to be idle. The nature of Love, with whom we would then be united, is to share. Love overflows. And so we are right back where we began: Lent, in short, is love overflowing. It is a time in which we are invited into the self-emptying of Jesus Christ our Lord and therefore it is a time of fullness as we, too, let go in order to be re-filled.
May we ask God to reveal what areas within us need to be emptied so they can be re-filled! May we embrace the gift of this Lenten season with joy and gratitude! May we ask St. Pio and St. Thérèse to pray for us that we will have the courage to persevere in our Lenten commitment! May we allow ourselves more time to find Jesus in prayer and that it may move us outward in charitable works and almsgiving! And may we enter more deeply into Lent this year so that our efforts at self-emptying may lead us to be filled with love overflowing anew! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus our Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first photo is one of mine, taken in New Mexico. The cross on the hill reminds me of the goals we set during Lent which require some work, but are not impossible to reach.
The icon is St. Padre Pio Mother Pelican by Fr. William Hart McNichols. The reference is to the female pelican which chooses to suffer in order to feed her children. The pelican is a frequent image in Catholic symbolism. You can find the icon at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/2-st-padre-pio-mother-pelican-047-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
The rest of the images are my photos. First is a photo of a photo: there is a display of original photos of St. Thérèse of Lisieux at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris which were taken during her lifetime. When I was visiting there a few years ago, I was able to take pictures of quite a few. This one is Thérèse standing with a medallion which represented her chosen religious name, Sr. Thérèse of The Child Jesus and the Holy Face.
Next is the tabernacle at St. Joseph on the Rio Grande Catholic Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The icon under the tabernacle is the original of San Jose en el Rio Grande by Fr. William Hart McNichols. If you are interested in buying a copy of the icon, (not the tabernacle) you can go to http://fineartamerica.com/featured/san-jose-en-el-rio-grande-268-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
The final photo was also taken in New Mexico on a gorgeous day.
Finally, a link which you might find helpful is this one about what Pope Francis suggests we fast from this Lent: http://time.com/3714056/pope-francis-lent-2015-fasting/?xid=fbshare
This week we celebrate the feast of St. Blaise, accompanied by a very popular Catholic devotion associated with him. On February 3 we celebrate this bishop about whom we know little yet who is widely remembered for the act of healing someone choking on a fishbone. On his feast day the Church has a tradition of blessing the throats of the faithful through a short ritual which is offered after Mass. Having our throats blessed is indicative of our belief that specific prayer is important to our lives and that praying for health is part of the wholeness which we should desire. Prayer is not a good luck charm, nor is the ritual an ironclad promise that we will never become ill. Rather, it is to help us remember that we trust in God and His love for us. While healing is always a possibility, what is more important is that we recognize that good spiritual, emotional, and physical health are blessings for which we should be immensely grateful, and it reminds us that God is with us no matter what the circumstances. It is about more than simply a fishbone.
Though we know little about St. Blaise, the stories about him all agree on a few facts. He lived in the 4th century during the last of the major persecutions levied against Christianity. He was bishop of Sebastia, in Armenia, and died as a martyr. He was known for his kindness, which was not only directed to people. Evidently, there was a time in his life when he hid in a cave in order to escape persecution. It is written that he co-existed peacefully with wild animals in the cave and that he healed the animals of whatever ailed them. However, the story for which he is most remembered is that at some point during his ministry he healed a boy who was choking on a fishbone. In one version of the story, the bone which was stuck in the boy’s throat dissolved. Later, while imprisoned before his martyrdom, Blaise was visited by a woman who brought him candles to dispel the darkness. Somewhere along the line, the two stories intersected and the ritual began in which a priest uses two blessed candles to place on the throats of the faithful, praying for protection from all diseases or illnesses of the throat.
It seems that after the atrocious martyrdom of St. Blaise the legends of his healing gifts spread. Truly, the details of his purported acts are not essential. What is important, however, is that St. Blaise was a man of compassion and sensitivity to every living thing, both the people for whom he was bishop, and the animals which he encountered during his travels. There can be little doubt that he saved the boy who was choking. In this day and age we often read stories of someone saving a choking person through use of the Heimlich maneuver; we do not blink an eye at it, though we may be grateful to know there are good people who will do something heroic to save a life. So to hear that Blaise saved a boy choking on a fishbone is not outlandish at all. But in every saint’s legend, we need to read between the lines of an exaggerated description to ascertain what the point may be in telling these stories. The kernel of truth in the story is where our thoughts ought to converge because here is where the ‘wealth’ lies.
In order to find the truth in stories of St. Blaise, let us look to the Gospels. In one passage the Pharisees were accusing the disciples of picking grain on a Sabbath and popping it in their mouths to eat. Worse still, according to the authorities, Jesus’ followers were not purifying their hands properly before eating. Jesus responded by saying, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one…. But things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (Matthew 15:11; 17-20) This passage reminds us that what is in our hearts is that which is clean or unclean. Perhaps, therein lays the hidden wealth in remembering St. Blaise for healing of throats. Could it be that we should reflect about what emanates from our throat, or in other words, what comes out of our mouths? Perhaps we are in need of healing for what we have said, or for what “gets stuck in our throat” which we ought to have said, but didn’t!
Rather than fixating on what happened with Blaise and the boy, relegating the ritual of blessing of throats to superstition or dismissing the story as nothing more than an exaggeration, perhaps we should spend some time in reflection upon what comes out of our throats, so to speak. Do we spew vile words, not caring about whose feelings we trample or what example it gives to others? Or do we use our words to uplift and to offer hope, mercy, and kindness? In his letter, St. James indicates that we should not bless God with our words, but then turn around and curse people. (James 3:6-12) This is something of which all of us are guilty, given that it is all too easy to fall into this behavior.
Therefore let us look to what St. Blaise and the blessing of throats offers. First is that praying for health for our throats is a way of showing our trust in the blessings and gifts of God. It should be taken seriously since the Church obviously would not offer this if it was merely legend, as if to say, “Let’s play it safe with an action that certainly can’t hurt, so what the heck?” The Church does not act this way. Rather it teaches the truth that healing and new life are offered through the sacraments which were instituted by Christ and are part of our core beliefs. Second, what we say with our words has great power no matter who it is directed at, even if it is something we say only to ourselves. Words reflect our attitudes; that is, they reflect what is in our hearts. Often we try to rationalize our actions (or lack of action) by talking ourselves into believing something that we know deep down inside is not true. It may be an attempt to feel less guilty, perhaps about something we should not have done, or about an attitude we hold which is unhealthy. We can also let words come forth from our throats which are hurtful, full of gossip, conjecture, or assumption. We can speak words that are meant to hurt, becoming defensive or offensive, not caring about the damage they might do to the other. We can tell that ‘little white lie’ which we think really doesn’t hurt anyone, but which is perilous, because lying can become habitual. And who of us has not said something we vehemently wish that we could take back a nanosecond after it emerged from our mouths?
A blessing offers many graces, such as those which help us to think twice before we say something hurtful, to consider the impact of what we are about to say. A blessing can help us to find our voices, too. It can empower us to speak up when it is a matter of justice or to help the voiceless find a voice. A blessing can also be the way to receive the mercy of God who forgives us for what we may have uttered. It is the way to become empowered to speak words which heal rather than words which injure. It can be the means to discover when it is best to keep silent to listen to the other, and the means to hear God’s voice over the din of our own noise. Certainly St. Blaise has much to offer us in remembering that we can choke on more than simply a fishbone. Let us enter into the ritual this week with hearts attuned to the gift of such a blessing, that we may be preserved from both physical illnesses and from choking on words that do not bring healing. And if you cannot get to Mass and are not able to receive the blessing of your throat, pray for that blessing in proxy: ask God to let your words be healing and uplifting, that what comes from within you may to be filled with His light. And pray to St. Blaise to intercede throughout the rest of the year when memory of having been blessed has begun to fade. Grace is indeed more powerful than we realize, so let us embrace it.
May our throats be preserved from all harm, both physically and from that which might come from within! May our words be blessed by the goodness and mercy of God, that we might speak light and life! May we have the courage to speak when it is necessary, and the wisdom to be silent when we need to listen! May we encourage and help empower those who have not yet found their voice to do so! And may we let the Word of God be a blessing which heals and enlightens us, giving us the grace to speak the Gospel with our every word and deed. Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first image is a painting called The Arrest and Miracles of St. Blaise by a 14th century painter, Allegretto Nuzi.
The photo is one of mine. It was taken on the coast of Ireland.
Next is an inset from Christ Accused by Pharisees painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna.
Next is The Holy Spirit The Lord the Giver of Life The Paraclete Sender of Peace, 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-093-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Heart Speaks to Heart