Now that we are well into Lent, I suspect that some of us are struggling with our efforts to spend extra (or at least more meaningful) time in prayer, penitence, and almsgiving. Our good intentions are being tried in the fire of everyday life, and therefore it is a challenge to do what we had hoped in order to immerse ourselves fully into the season. It might be helpful to be reminded that it is not about the quantity of what we do, but rather the quality. It is not about praying an extra 15 minutes, for example, so much as it is about truly opening up to God in our prayer with perhaps an honesty and vulnerability we might sometimes withhold. It is not the specific penitence we do that makes one act better than another, but rather it is about the love with which we do it. What is most important is that we do not let fear keep us from entering deeply into the prayer, and that we do not let fear keep us from opening ourselves to the other in doing works of mercy or almsgiving. Fear is in direct opposition to love because it is fear that prevents us from opening up to another and it is fear that keeps us from abandoning ourselves to love when we come face to face with Jesus. Yet Jesus desires to meet our gaze with His deepest, most tender love so that we might know in the depths of our being that nothing can separate us from Him or His love. Indeed Lent is not only about us seeking Jesus, but it is about Jesus seeking us.
Throughout Lent the Sunday gospels are about the kind of love which looks us in the eye and in a way much deeper than the spoken word, communicates just how loved we are. On the first Sunday we heard about Jesus facing temptation in the desert. (Mark 1:12-15) Though fully divine, Jesus was also fully human and thus was subjected to temptation. But when He emerged from the desert, having overcome the tempter, He immediately began to share the gospel message of love: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Repentance is not meant for hand-wringing or self-indictment, but rather it is to clear all that keeps us from Love and our response to Love, (living the life Jesus taught.) We repent because we want to allow grace to cleanse the grime of sin which has become as a barrier between ourselves and God. Therefore repentance is an act of love and of gratitude as we recognize our desire to use God’s gifts the way they were intended.
The gospel for the second Sunday in Lent is an account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. At first glance, it may seem a bit “un-Lenten” because it is about Jesus revealing His true identity to His three closest friends when we would expect something about repentance, works of mercy, or almsgiving. On the contrary, it is quite Lenten because in revealing Himself as the Son of God, Jesus is revealing that He is Love and that Love is transformative. As He transfigured Jesus looked upon those gathered with deep love: Moses and Elijah were His devoted servants, as were the three disciples He invited to witness this event. Peter, James, and John were so overcome with the love and joy (and shock) of the moment, that they fell to the ground in awe. They were in the presence of Father, Son, and Spirit, experiencing a glimpse of what we long for in Heaven: to see the face of God who is Love.
As mentioned, love is also transformative. At the Transfiguration Jesus was not the one who changed; rather He revealed what was already there, His divinity. That is because He is God, and God is immutable, (unchanging). It was Peter, James, and John who were changed. They were surrounded by the glory of God’s love which filled the place, and therefore they began to transform, even if they were confused as to how to understand what had happened. Jesus knew they were struggling with the experience, both from the perspective of what they had seen and with the effect it had upon them, but He knew that they would grow from the experience. Indeed, they were not the same on the way down the mountain as they had been on the way up. But the direct contact with the reality of God’s glorious love began a shift within the three men, such that when the time came, they were able to have more clarity and to let the power of it move them to greater love throughout their ministries.
When I was in Sydney, Australia recently I experienced something like the gaze I am describing. My husband and I were seeking a parish with a Saturday evening Mass, and using the internet, found that the closest church did not suit our plans. The next closest church had a 6 PM Mass which was what we had hoped for. But when I saw the name of the celebrant for that Mass, I was stunned because he is an old friend whom I had not seen in 34 years. He was the chaplain at the retreat house where I had lived as a novice in religious life, and our lives diverged after that particular year. Arriving at the church a bit early, we enjoyed a brief reunion, and since it was almost time for Mass we agreed to visit afterward. But the real gift of this seeming coincidence was yet to be experienced.* At Communion, as I approached him to receive the Eucharist, Fr. Michael’s face lit up with the completely joyful, loving gaze one gives a treasured friend. While holding the Host between us, our eyes met, and as he said, “The Body of Christ,” I saw in Michael’s face the love of Jesus accompanied by a deep sense of connection to Him. The experience moved me to joyous tears. Love transforms us: we are never the same after experiencing its power.
The gaze of love which originates in the heart of Jesus says, “You are my beloved.” It ‘speaks’ warmth, welcome, belonging, beauty, and total acceptance of who we are. The gaze of love does not require change for us to be loved, but it has the power to inspire in us the response of working to clean up everything that keeps us from His love, to make holy ground of that which is tarnished. It is not Jesus who requires the change, though He does desire for us what is best, and that of course, is to have nothing keep us apart. We are invited to welcome a conversion, a change of habits: it is the natural response of the heart to want to remove all that obscures Love’s gaze. In other words, love inspires us to become sanctified. It heals us and sets us free from the fear which holds us back from receiving it. Love calls us to be honest with ourselves and to seek healing; allowing the Lord to lead us to the place of our sinfulness and then to help us remove all that keeps us from Him. The process of our Lenten journey is to help us to say with the Psalmist, “Of you my heart has spoken: Seek His face. It is your face, O Lord that I seek.” (Psalm 27:8-9)
Perhaps we need to ask for the grace to see the loving gaze of Jesus so that we might be transformed during this Lenten journey. And perhaps we need to seek Him through action as well as in prayer. This can be done by learning to see Jesus in the face of the poor, the wounded, and the suffering as we give alms or do works of charity. It can be done by seeing His face in the one from whom we are estranged as we seek or grant forgiveness. We can see His gaze of love as we study Scripture, pray, and respond to the Word: we can see His gaze as we look deep within our own heart, knowing that He is present there. And we can see His loving gaze as we return to Him via the Sacrament of Reconciliation (and all of the sacraments.) The call during Lent is to have our eyes opened as we encounter Jesus, to leave fear behind, not worrying about whether we do all our promised sacrifices to the letter of the Law, but to focus on love, even if our efforts are a little ‘rough around the edges.’ We are called to let Jesus look into our eyes, heal what is broken, lift up what has been brought low, and help us to return to Him with our whole heart. Let us accept His loving gaze with humility and let us return Love’s gaze that we may give Jesus great joy.
May we open our hearts to Jesus as He looks upon us with merciful love! May we turn our eyes toward Jesus and meet His gaze! May we truly believe that we are His beloved, beautiful and lovely to behold! May we seek the transformation of conversion during this Lent, knowing that the changes in our heart transform us more fully into the person we were created to be! And may the loving gaze of Jesus move us to a response of love so that we will welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and work for peace and justice! Let us continue to meet within the Loving gaze of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* There are no coincidences. According to St. Paul, all things work to the good for the glory of God. (Paraphrase of Romans 8:28) That is, all things happen for a reason. I did not seek Fr. Michael. ‘The odds’ of running into him like that were incredibly slim. Therefore it was clear to me that it was God who arranged this amazing reunion. Why God did this I do not know, but as with the apostles at the Transfiguration, we are not always to understand, but to joyfully accept each gift, letting it transform our hearts. This reunion was a complete surprise; and one thing I have come to know about God is that He revels in surprising us.
Note: Next post March 12.
1. This icon is called Nuestro Salvador De Las Sandias, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. Although it is an icon intended for contemplating Easter as indicated by the stick which is budding, I chose to use it because Jesus has a look of deep love and compassion in His eyes as if to tell us not to fear anything. It also shows the new life which comes as a result of all we do during Lent, therefore it is appropriate for contemplation at this time, too. Should you be interested in a copy for purchase, you can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/nuestro-salvador-de-las-sandias-012-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
2. I took this photo in the desert of Big Bend National Park in west Texas. It seemed to speak of the temptation of Jesus in the desert: the desert is not always a lifeless place, as seen here.
3. This painting is The Transfiguration, painted by Duccio Di Buoninsegna (1308-11). I especially liked the artist's usage of light by painting this on a gold background. It truly captures the glory of God and the luminous atmosphere of the event, as well as the shock of the observers. The colors of the clothing of Jesus symbolize His full divinity (blue) and full humanity (red), rather than getting caught up in the dazzling white description of some of the gospel accounts; therefore this painting is more iconic in style. It can be found at http://www.ducciodibuoninsegna.org/Transfiguration-1308-11.html.
4. This is a print of a famous painting called Chalice and Host Surrounded by Flowers by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1648). The print is in my dining room, and this is a photo of it. I chose to use it here mostly because of the story being told in the accompanying paragraph. If you look closely at the Host, in its center you can see a crucifix which is aglow. To see a close up click here: http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=40030421+&cr=236&cl=1#
5. This is a photo I took of a stained glass window in St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, Australia. The figure is God the Father. I chose to use it here because it depicts God surrounded by the rainbow of colors, representative of the covenant. (See Genesis 9:1-17 in which God makes a covenant with Noah and says the sign of that covenant will be the rainbow.) The face of God has an expression of love, and His right hand is raised in blessing.
6. This painting is called Cagnes-sur-Mer by William H. Johnson (1928). I chose to use it here because I loved the curves which skew the perspective. Life is not perfect, nor are we; this painting spoke to me of our need for the grace to accept the reality that we are 'a work in progress.' This painting was posted on Facebook by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and so the following notes came from the Museum, beginning with a quote of the artist: “I am not afraid to exaggerate a contour, a form, or anything that gives me character & movement to the canvas.” — William H. Johnson, who captured this street view—on display in our American art galleries—while studying & working in France. Just before World War II, Johnson returned to the U.S. & focused his work on chronicling African American life & culture. Johnson was an African American artist. (1901-1970)
7. Finally, this is another icon written by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Our Lady of Grace Vladimir. I chose to use this here because I could not imagine an omission of the love shared between Jesus and His mother which is extended to us. In this icon Jesus gazes lovingly upon His mother and she in turn shares the gaze with us. She does not keep it for herself, but as always, directs everything from Him to us, and from us to Him. So beautiful! As above, you can find this icon for purchase in a variety of mediums at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/our-lady-of-grace-vladimir-002-william-hart-mcnichols.html. (Remember, I get nothing from my endorsement except the joy of sharing!)
For Your Good Gifts I Am Grateful
No matter how many weeks there are after the Christmas season ends, Lent always seems to come quickly. If we are unprepared, it can feel like Lent bursts onto the scene in an almost disruptive way. But if we have prepared even a little bit, the season has much richness to offer. In truth, there is a sort of rhythm into which we have all been immersed from the beginning of our Christian lives, no matter if we entered into the Body of Christ through baptism as infants or through the RCIA as adults. And as all seasons offer their opportunities for new growth, Lent is not something we should dread due to a sense of ‘deprivations’ to come, but it is a time to reassess our choices, behaviors, and relationships. I would even suggest that it is a time for gratitude because it is an invitation to review the gifts we have received. In fact, the Lenten season calls us to be thankful for what we have, to encourage us to share it with others (almsgiving), to atone for any selfishness (repentance and self-denial), and to grow in relationship to God in a deeper way (prayer). In short, Lent is a time to appreciate all the good gifts we have received from God, particularly the gift of salvation, to make sure we are using them properly, and to respond with gratitude.
Praying with the Gospel for the Sunday before Lent is excellent preparation for the forty days to come soon after. (Mark 1:40-45) In it, a leper approaches Jesus asking to be healed of his malady. Given that leprosy was thought to be highly contagious, and given that asking Jesus to touch him was tantamount to asking Jesus to make Himself ritually impure according to Mosaic Law, the leper is quite bold in his seemingly innocent request. He knows all of this, so it is more than bold; it is rather outrageous. But Jesus does reach out and touch him. In fact, Jesus is moved to His very core, saying, “Of course I want to! Be cured.” * Jesus then asks something of the healed man that is equally shocking: “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed: that will be proof for them.” Of course, the man went off and publicized the entire thing such that the report even “went abroad.”
The boldness of the leper is the same attitude with which we should enter into Lent. He had the faith which empowered him to be unafraid to approach Jesus and to know that Jesus could and would heal him. He knew that Jesus would not refuse him because he recognized that Jesus was compassionate and merciful. We, too, know this of Jesus, and therefore we should not fear asking Him to heal that which ails us. Rather, we must trust that we have been heard and that Jesus says to us as to the man, “Of course I want to,” even if we do not receive the gift as we thought it would appear. We can have the boldness to be as daring as the leper in trusting that Jesus wants us to be whole. However, like him, there are things we need to do in order to cooperate with grace: just as Jesus instructed the man to do what was prescribed by Law, we need to respond through cultivating an active relationship with Jesus through prayer, repentance, and living the gospel message. The process of entering into Lent offers us the opportunity to do this and also enables us to let go of whatever sinful behaviors we cling to that hold us back from our spiritual growth.
Jesus told the healed leper not to say anything, which seems rather odd given that it is an unrealistic expectation to think that one who was known to have leprosy would hide his healing or excitement at being set free from exile. So why did He ask this? Perhaps it was because Jesus knew that because His deed would inevitably become known, the authorities would disapprove of anything He had said which could be perceived as not following the Law: it would be protection for them both if Jesus instructed the man to do what the Law required. But certainly Jesus knew the man would not be able to contain his excitement. An encounter with Jesus cannot remain hidden, the change will become visible. It is simply not possible to approach Jesus in prayer with true faith and then mute our reaction once we have an encounter with Him. If we approach in faith, we leave with joy that spills over in gratitude. No matter what Jesus' reason for the unusual request, we learn from this encounter that even in humbling oneself before God, we must be bold in our faith. Therefore, the season of Lent should be something we embrace rather than a time we face with reluctance. It is only in the encounter with Jesus, merciful and loving, that we appreciate the magnitude of the gifts He gives, and then are able to come away with joy and gratitude.
The season of Lent is an invitation to approach Jesus with trust that He will hear our prayer for healing and wholeness. We are invited to assess what we need by doing an examination of conscience and discerning what area or areas we want to work on for our spiritual growth. It is an opportunity to be cleansed of our sinful tendencies as we spend time in repentance, and perhaps be set free from whatever fear instills a reluctance to approach Jesus as we ought. If we have been lazy in our prayer life or in attending Mass, this is a time to change those behaviors and to ask for whatever graces are needed to do so. We are invited to action, just as the leper-made-whole did in the gospel. We will have ample opportunities to spread the gospel by works of mercy and acts of sharing of our time, talent, and treasure. And in doing all of this, we are invited to look more closely at what we have and how we use it. Hopefully, the result of this is a deeper sense of gratitude for the many gifts we have been given.
My recent travels provided an almost overwhelming sense of the beauty and grandeur of God’s creation. Seeing the natural beauty of the land, and especially the graciousness of the people where we traveled, gave me a deeper realization that even with its imperfections, the world is a truly magnificent place. But a sense of gratitude for God’s great gifts is what has lingered. A prayer began to circulate through my mind and heart, a variation of a traditional prayer called the Jesus Prayer. (The Jesus Prayer is a repetitive prayer which can be used as a doorway to meditation and contemplation either through slow, methodical recitation aligned with one’s breathing or can be continually repeated as a way to keep the name of Christ on one’s lips. It is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”) What came to me is based on the traditional prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, for your good gifts, I am grateful.” Upon reflection, it seems that centering upon gratitude when entering into Lent might help us grow in awareness of the great gifts we have been given and on our usage of them. Any prayer such as this one can call us to reflect upon the gifts we have received, to assess our behaviors, and can inspire joy within our hearts as we recognize just how great the love God has poured out upon the world truly is.
During Lent we often look to ‘give something up’ as a true sacrifice of repentance and a reminder of the suffering of Jesus. We do this because renunciation is meant to give us insight into the greatness of His gifts and should ultimately move us to new insight and gratitude. If we have decided to go the route of adding something during the 40 days, such as more prayer, a more positive response to people and situations, almsgiving, volunteering to help others in some way, or whatever moves us closer to God, it can also lead to the same sense of gratitude for all that we have been given, both materially and spiritually. In reality, we have been given an unending opportunity for forgiveness of our sins, a love which has no height, breadth, or depth that can be measured or limited, and the promise of life eternal with God. Lent is a time to look deeply within our hearts to assess what keeps us from enjoying these gifts, to ask God’s help in overcoming whatever holds us captive, and therefore to grow in appreciation for the great gift of life in God which we have been given. Like the healed leper we need to be bold in our courage to come forward, knowing that we will come away more whole. And in response we can continue to say: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, for your good gifts, I am grateful.”
May we enter into Lent with a sense of joy for the opportunity to grow closer to Jesus! May we be inspired to seek Jesus through our acts of prayer, penance, almsgiving, and abstinence! May we discover anew a sense of wonder and awe at the good gifts we have been given and may we be moved to joy and gratitude in response! May we be like the healed leper, unafraid to approach Jesus and bold enough to proclaim His goodness through our words and deeds! And may we learn from the compassion and mercy we receive from Jesus to offer compassion and mercy to those we encounter on the journey! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* This translation comes from the New Jerusalem Bible. While it is not the one used for our Sunday readings, I have always loved it because it captures the spirit of Jesus’ love for the leper. It depicts the immense love Jesus has for all men and women and also His desire that we all be whole.
Note: Next post February 26
1. This is a photo I took of a stained glass window inside St. Patrick's in Auckland, New Zealand. I chose to use it here because it seems like these disciples are looking upward to Heaven for guidance. At the beginning of Lent we are often beginning the same process of discerning what help we might need and what goals we might be hoping to attain in the season of Lent.
2. I chose this close-up of Jesus painted by Fra Angelico because the expression on Jesus' face is what I envision when I reflect upon the gospel passage of the bold leper. As Jesus says "Of course I want to!" to him I imagine a look of compassion and love such as this one.
3. I took this photo on a hilltop while we were driving outside of Auckland. NZ. The fronds on this tree had a bright yellow hue and though I had seen a number of these amazing hemlock type trees, this one really caught my eye. I chose to use it here because the little tree seems to have boldness in "approaching" the larger tree, such as that of the leper who boldly approached Jesus, the Lord.
4. I took this photo in Kaikoura, NZ (on the eastern shore of the South Island) after a short rain shower. This photo has not been tampered with, and in fact the photo does not totally capture the luminescence of the rainbow as seen with the naked eye! I had never before seen a rainbow that stood nearly straight up, nor have I seen one glow as this one does. It was an amazing sight. I wanted to use it here because it made me think of the 'glow' which comes from the joy of the new life we might receive after an encounter with Jesus in our prayer.
5. This icon is called Christ All Merciful by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It seemed appropriate to feature it here because Jesus is merciful not just to the healed leper, but also to each one of us. If you are interested in obtaining a copy, it can be found at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/christ-all-merciful-022-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6. The next three photos are mine. This one was taken on a glacial river near Glenorchy, NZ (South Island), just north of Queenstown. It was one of the many incredibly moving, beautiful places we visited. We were in a jet boat (at this point, stopped) when the photo was taken. I chose to use it here simply because it shows the beauty of creation.
7. My husband and I gathered these rocks from among many on a beach called Gemstone Beach on the coast just northwest of Invercargill, New Zealand. The different colored rocks are found all over the beach and there are said to be semiprecious gemstones among them. To us, they were all beautiful and so we made the little grouping in order to have a memory of the ones we found that were most appealing to us. So that others might enjoy God's handiwork, one does not take a stone away from this place, so we only took away our photo as a keepsake. I chose this photo because it reminded me that God gives so many wonderful gifts to us, varied and unique. These stones moved me to gratitude.
8. Finally, this shot was taken on the road to Glenorchy, mentioned above. The driver of the van we were in stopped for what he called the most spectacular view of the Aspiring Mountains. Yes, I took that photo, but then I turned the opposite direction and saw this wonderful vista. This is Lake Wakatipu, a huge lake at the south end of which is Queenstown. (We were headed north.) I chose to use it here simply because the view was so striking.
Heart Speaks to Heart