One of the clearest facts of life is that the world is imperfect and that we are imperfect. Indeed, life is a mess, and yet Jesus came to lead us to perfection. This is the Good News: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that everyone who believes… might have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Jesus never said our earthly life would be perfect or that we had to be perfect. He did say that His way brings light, truth, and life because He IS the light, the truth, and the life. Thus, He offers us a pathway to perfection, one that requires us to embrace our imperfections as gifts, because all we have to offer is what we have at hand. Jesus said, “Give and gifts will be given to you; good measure, packed together, shaken down and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.” (Luke 6:38) If we try to visualize this, it appears to be quite a mess: that God’s gifts will be shaken down and overflowing such that they end up in our laps is anything but neat. In other words, even the gifts God gives are given in light of our imperfection and brokenness. His grace is perfect, but He knows the vessels are cracked! Therefore the first thing we learn is that we must accept our brokenness if we are to work with it, and if we desire God to work with it, too. Yes, life is chaotic, but who we are and all our ‘complicatedness’ is the raw material for our holiness. *
The gospels clearly indicate that Jesus wants to heal, and thus to free, those who are struggling with whatever hinders growth in holiness. In order to advance, we have to understand that while the path to holiness leads us to perfection, holiness itself is not perfection. Perfection takes place only after we die and enter into eternal life with Jesus. But until then, it is the path that is important, because the path leads to the destination. Therefore, instead of denying our imperfections and thus being caught in them, we need to accept them as a way to holiness and therefore, our pathway to Heaven. We can embrace our brokenness with humility, just as Jesus embraced becoming fully human while still being fully divine. If He had not ‘stooped low,’ leaving Heaven and entering into our imperfect world, we would not have a way to enter into the perfection of Heaven. We need to remember that the only way God can work in our lives is to work within our brokenness. Everything He does is designed to come to us in the midst of our reality.
Even the holiest of the Saints, (as if holiness could be quantified), had ‘feet of clay.’ They were as imperfect as anyone else, but the difference is that they became keenly aware of their faults and failings, and in their love for God, sorrow for their sins grew such that they knew they needed God’s constant help to overcome their sinful tendencies. But as they grew in holiness, they often had to contend with those around them who judged them harshly, only seeing what they wanted to see and therefore believing the worst of them, adding insult to the lives of these truly imperfect, but holy, people. A saint who dealt with this treatment was St. Margaret of Cortona, (1247-1297; feast day, February 22). Her life can teach us that judging people without knowing the root of their woundedness simply does nothing positive for anyone: it pigeonholes the one being judged so that they are never viewed as who they truly are, trapping them into a particular ‘role,’ and it fosters closed-mindedness and even hatred in the ones doing the judging. In short, it creates a barrier to the growth of all parties.
St. Margaret of Cortona was born in Laviano, Italy. When Margaret was seven her mother died and her father remarried a woman who subsequently treated Margaret harshly. The result was that while still young, Margaret ran off with a nobleman from a neighboring town. Never married to him, she bore a son, living as his mistress for nine years until he was murdered in 1274. After his death, Margaret had a conversion and publicly confessed her sins. She attempted to return to Laviano, but unwelcomed in her father’s house, she and her son sought refuge with some Franciscans in Cortona. However, even after her conversion Margaret often fell into temptation, having numerous affairs which resulted in feelings of self-loathing and deep remorse. She truly wanted to overcome her tendencies and was finally able to turn her attention outward by caring for the poor. Eventually she began a religious congregation whose ministry was to help the poor and she was also able to found a hospital in Cortona, preaching against vice when she had the opportunity. During this time Margaret also developed a deep intimacy with God through her prayer. But no matter what good she did, gossip and judgment swirled around her until her death. Instead of focusing on her good works, many judged her for her sinful past, as if to doom her to its realm. Therefore, Margaret struggled doubly: not only did she wrestle with strong temptations to sexual impropriety, but also from the sting of false accusations.
Jesus taught His disciples that mercy and forgiveness are the way to heal people. He did not condone their sins, but rather He offered freedom from the patterns that held them captive. An example of this is found in the gospel passage about the adulterous woman, (John 8:1-11). Jesus offered the woman freedom, but never berated her about the severity of her sinfulness. However, let us note that it was not the woman who sought the healing; she was dragged unwillingly by the Pharisees into the town square where Jesus happened to be. Had he not been there, they would have stoned her to death. But Jesus saw what was going on. He knew the Pharisees were attempting to ‘kill two birds with one stone’ (pardon the pun) by punishing the woman, and in the process, trapping Him. He literally disarmed the Pharisees by saying that the one who was without sin could cast the first stone, and thus the woman was left alone with Him. Remember, she did not ask to see Jesus, nor was she seeking healing or forgiveness. But to her great surprise, instead of condemning her, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.” This statement must have been shocking to her because no one had ever loved her like this before. Jesus forgave her, but He also offered her the freedom to choose how to respond to this love. Indeed, He had set her free.
We would do well to learn from the lessons of Jesus and the adulterous woman, and from the life of St. Margaret of Cortona, now considered the patron saint of falsely accused people, people ridiculed for their piety, the homeless, reformed prostitutes, the mentally ill, and those prone to sexual temptation (and temptation in general). ** Her experience teaches that the grace of God is more powerful than our sin and that it is more powerful than the accusations of those who judge us according to what they think they know. Margaret also teaches us not to let the weight of our sins, no matter how great, distress us so much that they keep us from God: there is always hope because there is always forgiveness. We can also turn to Margaret for inspiration as we struggle with what others may say about us, but also to ask her help in keeping us from falling into the same sins against others, as well. The grace needed for this is of paramount importance today, as we have greater ways to perpetuate these sins through the usage of social media and the instantaneous way we can make ‘news’ travel. The temptation to give in to this sort of sin gets greater all the time, and so we must resist, remembering that when we are weakest, God is the most powerful. We must pray for the grace of self-control and for the wisdom to learn how to respond in love. The way of the Gospel is always the way of mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and love: the way of Jesus always brings life and light.
It is time to turn our attention toward Lent, remembering that a return to the Lord via adopting His way of mercy and forgiveness is truly at the season’s heart. It would be good for us to accept Jesus’ invitation to greater freedom by receiving His forgiveness and mercy so that we can offer these same gifts to others. And perhaps we will see that our imperfection is actually a gift insofar as it offers us the opportunity to seek God and to grow in humility and love before Him. Let us try to surrender our sinfulness, even if we do so imperfectly, so that we might take to heart Jesus’ words: “Give and gifts will be given to you; good measure, packed together, shaken down and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.”
May we learn to embrace our imperfection as a pathway to holiness! May we be strengthened against all behaviors that tear down and destroy, instead choosing those which build up and bring life! May we ask the intercession of St. Margaret of Cortona when we are slandered so that we can respond in love rather than to react with anger! May we be freed from patterns of self-destruction and despair if we fail in our attempts to overcome sin, turning to the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus which is lavishly and freely given! And with the eyes of Jesus may we learn to see others as beloved children of God who are loved sinners just as we are! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* I know ‘complicatedness’ is not a real word. However, ‘complexity’ did not have the impact or precision I sought here. Let’s face it: we are complicated!
** One article I read suggests that St. Margaret suffered from bi-polar disorder. Perhaps her story can assist our understanding of how people might struggle with issues that are beyond their control, encouraging us to have more understanding and compassion. Click here for the article: https://www.catholicireland.net/saintoftheday/st-margaret-of-cortona-1247-97-penitent/
Next post: March 11.
1. I took this photo outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It is Adams' Falls. I chose it to open this post because it is a somewhat messy waterfall. The water was rushing all over the place, logs were down, and to top it all, this was taken during the mud season. Trust me, it was a mess.
2. This is another of my photos. It was taken at Lost Maples Natural Area, in Texas. I chose it because of the brokenness of the stones in the drying stream bed. As imperfect as this dying stream seems to be, it actually has a beauty of its own. Not only that, but it was part of the path through this wooded area.
3. Again, this is part of a photo I took while in Rome, just outside the basilica of St. John Lateran. I believe that is Moses. I chose it because of his right foot which caught my eye immediately. Moses definitely had feet of clay; he was not perfect, as holy as he was. But it was the stone (once clay?) statue with the big foot which spoke most here. With a bit of whimsy, one could say he is pointing at it.
4. This painting of St. Margaret of Cortona was done by an Italian artist named Vittore Crivelli. (1440-1501). I liked the posture of prayer with which he depicted Margaret, but also one can see the pain of being misunderstood in her face.
5. This icon is called Jesus Christ Holy Forgiveness, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. This icon fits perfectly with the passage about the adulterous woman. The eyes of Jesus truly draw the viewer in with a look of infinite mercy and love. You can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/jesus-christ-holy-forgiveness-040-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6. I had to use a painting by Vincent van Gogh here. This one is called Olive Grove (1889). I chose this particular painting because olives must be crushed if we want delicious olive oil for cooking. But my main reason was that van Gogh was one of the most ridiculed artists of his day. He was considered mad, especially after he cut off his own ear. He painted this while in the St. Rèmy asylum, suffering from mental illness. Even while ill and suffering, he painted incredible beauty.
7. This is a close up from a photo I took while at the first Mass of a priest-friend. I wanted to highlight the chalice and the water being added to the wine. Again the grapes had to be crushed to become the wine, which at Mass becomes the Blood of Christ at the consecration by the priest. It was a fitting photo for the end of the post.
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
The artist Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.” This is especially true in the realm of the spiritual life. To develop a relationship with God means that we have to take the time to do so, and this includes pausing to notice His presence in the little things in our daily lives. God is present at all times; it is in our life of prayer that we learn to recognize how He uniquely reveals Himself in our hearts as well as in the wider world. Another way to put this is that our growth in relationship with God is a series of little epiphanies, those ‘aha’ moments in which we gain a little more clarity about who He is, who we are, and who we are in relationship with Him. In keeping with the theme of keeping Epiphany as a season,* let us reflect upon our growth in the spiritual life as a series of moments offered by God which enable us to see something as if for the first time. And let us realize that it is also a choice we make to accept what God offers so that our awareness might be heightened to recognize more of the tiny miracles in our midst. To see a flower, to experience God in our friendships, takes time for growth and development. But if we do not first see, there is nothing to nurture and nothing to develop. To experience an epiphany we need to be seeking, just as the Magi were seekers who wisely learned to see more deeply.
Interestingly, in our current technologically-oriented society we hear a lot of talk about ‘virtual reality’ and ‘augmented reality.’ We accept these notions without hesitating, and yet when we hear the word ‘miracle’ (or other faith language) we may be tempted to scoff or think about it as something that would never happen to us ‘even if miracles did happen.’ Of course, we know that virtual reality is mostly fantasy; however, it can lend itself to reality, such as in the case of medical teams who may use it to aid in surgical skill. But for most people who use it, the point is to enter a reality which augments the one we are in, or which is alternate to what is truly real, such as in a game. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, so long as we do not become addicted to it or use it as a substitute for what is real: if unchecked, virtual reality could become a substitute for actual living and authentic relationships, or it could become an escape from that which we do not want to engage in. If we use it as a tool, or simply for fun, it can help us to see things differently, but there would be danger in lumping all situations of faith and believing in what is unseen, (or not as easily seen), into the same realm along with it.
With this in mind, however, it is important (if not a bit ironic) to note that the entire ministry of Jesus was about augmenting reality, or rather, our perception of it. In fact, the very nature of revelation is to disclose or add to that which we do not readily see; it is about God opening our eyes to the depths of His love. I must repeat the essential distinction: Jesus was not trying to deceive with a false notion of truth, but instead He was opening our eyes to things that we have either lost sight of, or have failed to see in the first place. Everything Jesus said and did was to augment the way we perceive life with God and to help us to see with His eyes of mercy and compassion. The miracles He performed were a way to change the reality of those who were suffering, not simply for alleviation of pain, but so that they would continue to grow in the way they saw God’s hand in their lives and then take that epiphany into the world to affect the lives of others. An example of this was when Jesus encountered a paralytic, a man clearly desiring physical healing; to show that the state of our soul is more important than our physical bodies He said to the man, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” Upon saying this, He was challenged by onlookers for daring to forgive sins; Jesus then healed the man physically, adding to the healing of soul He had previously given. (Matthew 9:2-7) Let us be clear: Jesus intended to heal this man from the start, but as in everything He did, He was also making a point. Surely the healed man had a clearer sense of God’s action in his life. Another example is when Jesus took His closest friends up Mt. Tabor and transfigured before them, allowing them to see Him in an augmented way, (revealing His divinity). Even being mystified at the time by what had happened, they were able to gradually grow in understanding of this event, never seeing Jesus the same way again. And after the His death and resurrection, their eyes were opened in a deeper way, their reality was augmented so that they could look upon others with the eyes of Jesus: everything became a miracle. This new seeing is evident when early in Peter’s ministry he said to a crippled beggar, “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you,” healing the man in the name of Jesus. (Acts 3:1-10) Peter clearly understood that faith and love transform our relationships. If we take this to heart, we too can open ourselves to the same gift, transforming our relationship with God and with those we meet. Our love can be healing, changing many lives, including our own.
Rather than to only focus on miracles, (such as those claimed at Lourdes for example), ** our concentration today should be on learning to see the things we sometimes fail to see. There is much beauty in our midst, but because we are not looking for it, or because we are too busy or pre-occupied to notice, we miss the amazing things God does daily. We shouldn’t feel guilty if this is the case; rather we can be as those who experienced the first Epiphany, learning to see a star or a tiny baby as revelations of the love and mercy of God to a world hungering for His presence. And from them, we can learn to be patient with the process, discovering that to truly learn to see, as well as to discern, takes time. But we will also discover that it can become a wondrous experience to learn to see the hand of God in something as simple as a flower and even better, in a friend, (including the stranger, who is simply a friend we have not yet gotten to know.)
Opening ourselves to an epiphany is about letting God transform our hearts and minds to see and hear differently. It is about allowing our awareness to be heightened, or rather, to be transfigured, accepting that it is a process; subtle changes will take place in our vision, so that in an entirely new way we begin to recognize God’s presence within, as well as in others. This process transforms the way we perceive the world, not in a way which denies sin and the suffering which is present, but the temptation to be defeated by that very suffering is diminished, whether it is our own suffering or that which is in the world. Therefore, if we desire to continue our journey in light of Epiphany, we need to make it a daily habit to take the opportunity to see a flower or something seemingly ordinary and let it be transformed by the light of God. We need to allow ourselves the time to nurture our friendships, not simply waiting for the other to do all the work, but to make it a priority to take some time to enjoy the presence of the other, to listen and savor the moments spent together, and to see the presence of God at the heart of the relationship.
As Georgia O’Keeffe implied, we must make it a priority to take the time to develop the ability to see and appreciate the small things, to allow relationships to grow and to flourish, especially the one we have with God. If we are to nurture relationships through our love, we need to develop the eyes to see beauty, even if it is only raw potential, and thus to see others the way Jesus sees. We will find that if we do, our hearts will not only be filled with joy, but also with gratitude for such small, yet priceless, gifts. This is the vision of the ‘season’ of Epiphany, to learn to see with His eyes, to love with His heart, and to welcome with His embrace. We can learn to see, if we but ask.
May we continue to seek whatever epiphany the Lord is offering! May we make it a habit to spend time with the Lord in order to learn to recognize His presence more clearly! May we allow Jesus to open our eyes, to augment our perception of the reality of His love! May we learn to see the presence of God in the beauty of creation, and especially in the heart of a friend! May the Lord help us to overcome the temptation to be defeated by suffering and the effects of sin, that we might become stronger in our faith and perseverance in times of trouble! And may we see with the eyes of Jesus, expanding our reach outward to others in mercy and love! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next post, February 25.
A sad irony is that O’Keeffe’s eyesight failed later in her life. Perhaps the loss enhanced her deep valuing of the gift of seeing. The opening quote is found at https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/georgia_okeeffe_134583
For more on Georgia O’Keeffe go to: https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/about-georgia-okeeffe/
* See my last two blog entries to understand what I mean here. You can find them in the Archives located in the right margin of this page.
** This post was inspired by the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes which is celebrated on February 11. For more on Our Lady of Lourdes, go to https://marypages.com/lourdes-(frankrijk)/
1. This is a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe called Pansy. It made sense to pick one of her paintings of a flower for the first image. And (full disclosure) my favorite flower is the pansy, so there was no way I was going to lead with anything else! But know that she has many magnificent paintings of landscapes and other subjects, too. You can find more by doing a Google search for Georgia O'Keeffe and then clicking on images on the top of the page.
2. I took this photo while in Ireland a number of years ago. It was taken on the west coast. I chose it because when one is at the seacoast, there is so much to see that glorifies God.
3. This is a painting by James Tissot called The Transfiguration. (1886-96) I chose this particular depiction of the Transfiguration because it captures the apostles as overwhelmed by what they were experiencing. It underscores the idea that it takes time for more complete understanding, whether what we see is 'big' or is something which at first seems not to be extraordinary at all. You can find a bit more at https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/4516
4. I took this photo when on pilgrimage at Lourdes, in France. This is the grotto: the statue was placed at the spot where St. Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary.
5. Another of my photos, taken in Rockport, Texas: this bird was in a wooded area which is part of a wildlife preserve. I chose this because of the detail one can see in this close up. I had to be very still to get the photo.
6. The Starry Night is one of Vincent van Gogh's most famous paintings. (1889) I chose this to be in keeping with the theme of the Epiphany. First, the magi followed a star, so symbolically this connects. But I also think that truly seeing stars is something we rarely afford ourselves. It is an easy pleasure to partake in, weather permitting. Go look at some stars! To aid in my last statement, check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mA54NBtPKdI&fbclid=IwAR2iSjl3kGrt-Sz2E8mxSROimP11jnj5jcnC8YT_vPfr_5ZIFTQjX9PP2r0www.youtube.com/watch?v=mA54NBtPKdI&fbclid=IwAR2iSjl3kGrt-Sz2E8mxSROimP11jnj5jcnC8YT_vPfr_5ZIFTQjX9PP2r0
Heartfelt thanks to a friend, Joe OHaire, for sharing this video with me and then encouraging me to share it in this piece.
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart