I visit the assisted living community where my father lives very frequently, and through these visits I have come to know many of the other residents. Recently I made a new friend in a woman whose name is Theresa. She told me that she has a great love for St. Thérèse, and that she was named for this great saint. So I told her that upon my next trip to the community I would bring her some pictures I had taken on a trip to France. The next day I came back with prints of a display of photos of St. Thérèse which were in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. When Theresa saw the photos of St. Thérèse she said she thought they were statues, so I explained that St. Thérèse had died in 1897 and that these were real photos of her; I explained that my pictures were photos of photos.
As we talked it became apparent my new friend did not realize that Thérèse had died so 'recently'; she thought the Little Flower had died a thousand years ago. We conversed for quite a while and she was aglow with the discussion of her favorite saint and namesake. Finally I had to leave, so I told her she could keep the photos because I had made the copies for her. As I stood to go, she said: "It has been so wonderful to spend this time with you. It is incredible to know someone who has met St. Thérèse!" I said, "Oh goodness, no. These were photos taken of St. Thérèse in the 1890's and I merely took photos of the display.” She seemed a bit confused by this, but we both laughed and we parted for the day.
After I left, the encounter stayed with me. It was a humorous experience, though it was a bit sad Theresa was not as clear as she once was with some of her memories and knowledge. It was a gift, and therefore a joy, however, to realize that what brought us together was our shared love of a saint. And it did not take me long to realize that I had, in fact, met St. Thérèse. I had met her many, many times, including that interchange with this dear lady at the assisted living community. And my friend had met her, too. Of this, I have no doubt.
I recognized this experience in the Sunday Gospel this week, which is about the man born blind. Like him, we are all seeking to have our sight broadened and our blindness healed. Just as I had to be reminded that I have met St. Thérèse through a long relationship, (friendship), with her as an intercessor and inspiration, we all need to have the blinders lifted in many areas of our lives. God is all around us, and yet often we fail to see Him, which is what the story of the man born blind teaches us.
In the gospel (John 9:1-41) the blind man was sitting on the side of the road begging when he encountered Jesus as He passed by. The man courageously called out to Jesus so that He would stop and offer him healing. He had the faith to recognize Jesus, which means he already had the spiritual sight to know just who this was who was passing by, and he also had confidence in the healing compassion of Jesus. This man was less blind than those around him, which Jesus attests to later in the passage, and therefore he accepted the gift of healing.
In contrast, the Pharisees did not believe what was plain to see. The man who had been blind since birth now had physical sight, and they refused to believe that this was so. Their refusal was deeper than failing to see the man's healed condition: they refused to see who was behind the healing. They refused to believe that Jesus was who He said He was or that He could offer healing and freedom. All they could fixate on is that Jesus had done this on a Sabbath, and therefore He broke the rules. They said, “We are disciples of Moses.” Therefore they were not open to becoming disciples of the author of the Law, who was trying to tell them that love drives the law, not blind obedience to a rigid set of rules. Jesus was trying to tell them that they had the Law all wrong. But having that enslaving attitude of 'we have always done it this way' kept them from true inner freedom. They were bound tightly by their blindness to the way of love.
It is tragic when we allow ourselves to be so tightly bound to rigid self-imposed rules. The gospel frees us, but being offered freedom can be difficult for us because it means we have to let go of what we think we know and accept new sight. It means we will see things about ourselves we may not want to see, but are realities. In seeing those things which hold us back we are offered healing and new life, but the only way to it is to accept that they are there and to allow the Lord to help us let go.
We can be blind to a lot about ourselves and about how much the Lord loves. That is why this Fourth Sunday of Lent provides those who are coming into the Church a second week of prayers called Scrutinies which are prayed during the Liturgy with the gathered community. While the catechumens are asking to be healed of their previous blindness so that they can truly see the Lord in a new way at Baptism, those of us who are already members of the Body of Christ should also be praying not just for them, but also for ourselves to be healed of whatever blindness has crept into our lives. We are all blind to some degree or another. It may be in how we judge others, it may be in how we judge ourselves; it may be in how we judge God! We might be blind to how we hold ourselves bound by withholding forgiveness toward others or toward ourselves. Our blindness may be about something we are called to do, but we refuse to see it. It may be a blindness that is very subtle, such as a negativity that has found its way into our attitude. It could be a failure to see beauty or to trust that He can help us in times of trouble.
All of us could use some healing of blindness and we find it in the sacraments, especially the sacrament of Reconciliation. When we reflect upon our sinfulness in preparation for the sacrament, we begin to see that which was previously hidden. When we bring it to the Lord for healing, we see it in the context of His love, and realize that we do not want to be held captive to our sin, but that we need His help to be freed. God provides the grace we need to be strengthened and respects our sorrow for our sin so greatly that His response is of pure love, not of judgment.
Being able to see more clearly by being healed of our blindness should be something we all seek. To be able to see God more clearly and to be more aware of His presence is a great joy. To see beauty in the people we are with daily, whether familiar or stranger, is an incredible gift. To see the handiwork of God in nature and to appreciate it will bring greater gratitude for all of the gifts we have been given. We will see saints all around us. And we will see why saints see God all around them, such as St. Thérèse who saw herself as but a little flower in God's garden, and who wanted to spend her Heaven sharing the freeing, healing love of Jesus with us. But the greatest gift is to see how loved we are, and what it is that the Lord sees in us. He sees us as incredibly and uniquely beautiful, and oh, so loveable. He wants us to see ourselves as He does. If we can see this, we can then see how He sees those around us similarly, and that alone will open our eyes to what it means to love with His heart.
May we have the desire to be healed of our blindness! May we turn to the saints to inspire us in our desire to truly see as they do! May we ask for the gift of spiritual sight, that we may see as Jesus sees! May we take the time to reflect on our areas of blindness and seek healing through Reconciliation and Eucharist! May we accept the gift of Love and new sight which the Lord so dearly wants to give us! And may we pray that we may see the beauty of the presence of God in our encounters with our all our neighbors, young and old, poor and rich, ill or in good health! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of our Lord Jesus, who grants sight to the blind! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
All the photos are mine. I took the first one, of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, as mentioned in the text, at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The series of night sky shots were taken from my yard. The series is meant to symbolize the progression from blindness and indistinct vision to greater clarity, until finally one sees with detail.
The icon is Jesus Christ Holy Forgiveness by Fr. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/41-jesus-christ-holy-forgiveness
Many years ago one of my cousins brought her family to her mother's house for a family celebration. Her daughter was very young and like most toddlers, she 'told it like it was.' In front of all the guests, who included both family members and friends, she announced loudly to all, "Grandma, you are wearing your wig today!" It was rather embarrassing for her grandmother, who was obviously trying to look her best, but did not need her beauty secrets announced to the world. It is not uncommon to have children make such revelations. Children often have such a sense of innocence that they do not realize when something might be better left unsaid for the sake of what we perceive as good manners. They do not mean to make other people uncomfortable. They are simply trying to be honest. While we cringe at some of their commentary, it is honesty born of their natural innocence that is at the heart of it.
That very same honesty is at the heart of Lent, too. It is an honesty that can make us a little uncomfortable because it challenges us to see truth, and sometimes this implies the need for change. This week we hear the gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 3). As I listened to it being proclaimed at Mass what struck me was the complete and utter honesty of the woman when she was with Jesus. She was trying to avoid the townspeople, which is evident by her going to the well at midday when it was hottest and therefore she would be least likely to meet anyone there. Yet when she met Jesus, she became completely honest about who she was and what her life was like. She held nothing back. There was something about being in the presence of Jesus Christ that brought out the unbridled honesty of a little child in her. And it was her honesty in His presence that seems to have saved her. She accepted His gift of living water, and then in more naked honesty, went back to the very people she was originally trying to avoid and boldly declared that she had met the long awaited Messiah. The strength of her honesty is what made them all go and see for themselves.
Recently I have been reflecting on many different saints. What has struck me in spending time with them is their complete honesty, just like that of the Samaritan woman. It occurred to me that this is what sanctity is about: being completely and utterly who we are before God. The saint hides nothing from God, therefore letting God guide them. And as they allow the stripping away of all that keeps them from God, they become more authentically the person they were created to be. That complete honesty then becomes apparent to those around them when they live in service and love of the Lord. They become completely transparent in showing us who they are before God, imperfections included, as they share the love they have for God through their service. The holy ones become completely unselfconscious, because like the Samaritan woman, they turn their focus on Jesus and away from themselves.
All the saints have this quality, though they each lived it according to their uniqueness. For example, St. Benedict Joseph Labrè lived his honesty as a pilgrim, which in his day (18th century) meant that he was a beggar. He traveled from his home in France to different religious sites, until he 'settled' in Rome, living on the streets or in church foyers begging alms and then giving them away to those poorer than he. He was infested with vermin, lived in rags, and owned nothing, yet his greatest gift was the honesty of his poverty before God. He allowed himself to be filled with the love of God so that he could share it with others with no pretension whatsoever. He was not proud of his rags or dirty condition, but he lived as he did because he felt it was the way God called him: to reach out to the poor by becoming one of them. He taught them the love of God while he also lived in total dependence on the alms of generous souls. And he was very well loved by many, not just the poor.
Another saint who comes to mind, totally opposite in appearance and lifestyle from St. Benedict Labrè, is St. Philip Neri, who was called from an early age to such a deep love that he literally threw off bodily heat. After having a mystical experience at age 25 he became a priest. He began a ministry to young men which eventually became the Oratory, a congregation of priests and lay brothers. His level of honesty was lived through his intense joy in loving the Lord. He had a raucous sense of humor and was known for making those around him laugh. He loved literature and music and led groups in prayer after discussions on such topics. Even when criticized for all his humor and practical jokes, he did not stop being who he was.
No matter what saint you study one can see the honesty of being so directed toward God that there is no shred of self-centeredness or the need to wear a mask. Many of them suffered, such as St. Gemma Galgani or St. Padre Pio. There is a cost to living such honesty. In the case of these two, (though they lived in different circumstances), it was in fighting off the jealousy of those around them who did not understand their gifts from the Lord. Both of them seemed to infuriate the devil who attacked them visibly at every turn. But both Gemma and Pio continued to serve the Lord by being who they were, loving Him so much that they did not count the cost as anything but pure joy.
This is also the case with the Virgin Mary. We celebrate the feast of the Annunciation this week, a feast which celebrates her complete and total openness to the Lord. It was because of her purity and her openness to being the handmaid of the Lord that the angel addressed her as being full of grace. He said: "Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you!" He venerated her, honoring her by saying ‘Hail.’ He acknowledged that she was filled with the Holy Spirit and that there was no room for sin within her, that he was standing in the presence of the holy because the Lord was with her. While he was in awe of her, Mary’s response was one of complete humility: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." That is, "May God's will be my will. I am His in complete transparency and love." There is no greater honesty than the response of Mary, who gave herself over to God just as she was, with no concern for anything but doing the will of the One she loved.
Such is Lent meant to be for us. This Sunday the catechumens, in preparation for baptism, began the process of becoming utterly honest before God with a series of scrutinies being prayed during Mass. Those of us in the congregation should be as honest interiorly when we are praying for and with them. We, too, are called to look within ourselves and ask God to heal that which keeps us from Him. Lent is a time of looking more deeply at ourselves and asking God for forgiveness for our sinfulness and for the strength to grow in holiness. We are encouraged to go to confession so that we might grow in the honesty of holiness, which we call humility. We are urged to add prayer and reflection, service and almsgiving so we remember we who we are before God, the greatness of His gifts to us, and in gratitude share what we have with others. We are called to become like the woman at the well, honest and transparent. We should be living so that others know who we are: we are God's and we live such that we bring the message of His love to others so they may know they are His, too.
We are almost halfway through Lent. May we ask God for the grace to live honestly, transparently, the love which is His! May we ask for the determination to carry out our Lenten sacrifices so that we may grow in the honesty of the Samaritan woman and that of Mary who declared herself to be God's handmaid! May we have the courage to live the challenge of our Lenten promises so that we can grow in the honesty of true discipleship! And my we grow in gratitude for the great gifts we have been given by the Lord in becoming one of us and giving His life so we might live with Him forever! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life! Peace!
© Michele L. Catanese
The top painting is The Woman at the Well by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890) and can be found at http://www.oceansbridge.com/oil-paintings/product/60730/womanatthewell
The icon is of St. Benedict Joseph Labrè Patron of Homeless and Lost by Fr. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/127-st-benedict-joseph-labre-patron-of-homeless-lost
The last painting is The Annunciation by Fra Angelico.
This week we celebrate the feast days of two great saints who could not be more different from one another: St. Patrick and St. Joseph. Yet both of these saints are revered with incredible gusto by many people. For example, I recently witnessed a friendly interchange between some friends about the connection of St. Patrick with the Irish and St. Joseph with the Italians. What is ironic is that St. Patrick was not Irish, but was rather a Roman by birth, (friendly disputes arise as to what modern day country might actually claim him); and St. Joseph wasn't even remotely connected with the Romans, Italy, or anything particularly Italian. He was a Palestinian Jew who lived his entire life in Israel, less the few years he and his family lived in Egypt. What is true, however, is that the well-feted St. Patrick did spend almost his entire ministry in Ireland teaching and casting out the pagans. And St. Joseph is beloved by many; though Italians have a particular reverence for him in his role as foster father of Jesus, they are surely not the only people who revere him. He is the patron of fathers and he is associated with protecting families.
The two saints are very different in their personalities, roles, and in their subsequent ministries. St. Patrick began his association with Ireland when he was kidnapped and taken there as a boy. He was enslaved, but eventually God revealed to him that he could escape. He managed to find his way to a ship which returned him to his home, then studied for the priesthood and was ordained. He chose to return to Ireland and was made bishop. He spent a tireless career preaching, evangelizing, and driving out the powerful pagan lords from their strongholds. The story of St. Patrick climbing the mountain which now bears his name, Croagh Patrick, to light and maintain the fire while he prayed is very famous. It attests to the powerful force which St. Patrick was, and to how he was willing to fight paganism in order to bring the people to Christ. He devoted his entire life to this end and is revered by the Irish (and ‘honorary Irish’ like me) with great celebration and delight.
St. Joseph was very different in temperament and in his role, yet equally beloved. He was chosen by God to be the spouse of Mary because God knew he was a righteous and devout Jewish man. God knew that Joseph was prayerful, wise, kept the Law, and that he loved Mary deeply. Even when he thought she had been unfaithful to him when she became pregnant during their betrothal, he did not want harm or disgrace to touch her, so he was willing to protect her by quietly sending her away to somewhere safe. He believed the angel who told him that Mary was indeed pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit, carrying the long awaited Messiah who also happened to be God's own Son. Joseph knew his role would be to bring the child up, difficult as that may be, while standing in the background, unknown, yet essential to the well-being and growth of this Child.
St. Joseph protected Mary before the birth, and then afterward he continued his role as protector when he had to help them escape the wrath of the jealous and mad King Herod, who sought to kill the child. They fled, but not on the beaten paths, according to one source,* because they had to hide from Herod's soldiers, and therefore had to go into dangerous territory in order to avoid detection. They settled for short periods of time before moving on, and then were said to have lived a number of years in one town, though reviled as non-Egyptians and outsiders; Jews were not welcomed. (This might account for Jesus' extreme sensitivity toward aliens, foreigners, and outcasts during His ministry.) Joseph must have really struggled to provide for his family while being mistrusted and marginalized by the locals.
Nonetheless, St. Joseph managed to get them to Egypt, provide for them while there, and dutifully get them back to Nazareth. He kept them safe, which is why I like to think of him as a patron for travelers and for sojourners in foreign lands. He provided a safe home for his precious Child and beloved wife, laboring as a carpenter while being the human role model of fatherhood for Jesus. Joseph taught Jesus the art of carpentry, but he also would have taught Him all that fathers taught their sons at that time about the Law, the culture, and also of gentleness, mercy and compassion, justice and love. Joseph knew the Scriptures and he knew God through his prayer: there is no doubt he was an able role model and teacher for his son.
It is important to note that the church honors both of these saints: though St. Joseph is less known and St. Patrick's story is more widespread, Joseph is the saint to whom we owe the most. If not for him (and his spouse, Mary) we would not have had the Messiah come into the world. If Joseph had not accepted Mary into his heart and home, Jesus could not have been born, since unwed pregnant women were put to death as terrible sinners. Jesus had to have an earthly father in order to survive in that culture. And Jesus had to have a man worthy of the task to help keep Him safe and to raise Him into manhood. We do not know when Joseph died, but we do know he accomplished the task God gave to him. And we can be assured he did it well, content to exist in the background while Mary and Jesus are in the foreground. We need to call upon him to intercede for us. He may have lived a hidden life, but his prayer and intercession are very powerful.
There is much we can learn from both St. Patrick and St. Joseph no matter what our ethnic background may be. From St. Joseph we learn to trust God and to persevere even in the midst of great attack and challenge. We learn humility, maybe above all, from him. He was willing to be overshadowed by his wife, since she was Jesus' mother and he was in a supporting role. We can tell that He taught Jesus well in His knowing the Scriptures, being respectful and obedient to His parents and in His relationship toward His true Father. The Child was indeed the shadow of the father, both of his earthly father and His Heavenly Father. Joseph's love of God was so great that he was willing to accept what may have been the most thankless job in salvation history: doing so much, with so little of his story handed down.
From St. Patrick we learn that we can overcome great obstacles, even being enslaved by something, or in his case, someone. We learn that we can trust the inner voice of the Holy Spirit who guides us to truth and safety. We learn to have courage to dare to escape that which binds us, and then to face it again after patiently training to do so. We learn that with God at our side we can stand up to even the most formidable enemies. And we learn that we can be powerful, yet merciful, gentle, loving, and compassionate: we can teach by our words and by our actions. Mostly what we learn from these two very different men is that leading a life of prayer and faithfulness to God may lead us where we originally would not have chosen to go, but that in following God's call comes great joy.
So let us celebrate St. Patrick on the 17th with some revelry and joy, and let us celebrate St. Joseph on the 19th with a special meal with family or friends. Wear the Green and enjoy the treats from a St. Joseph altar! But in our merry-making and remembering our ancestry both ethnically and spiritually, let us not forget the reason for it all: Jesus. These saints did what they did in heroic service to their Lord and Savior. Above all they loved Him. And so, too, must we, following in their footsteps and example.
Sláinte and Buona salute!!!
May we be inspired by the saints to imitate Christ in whatever way we are called! May we call upon the intercession of St. Joseph to guide us when we are traveling or when we are in peril at times on our spiritual journey! May we call upon the intercession of St. Patrick when we are in need of spiritual strength to stand up to temptations against our faith! May we imitate St. Joseph in humility and in fidelity to God! May we imitate St. Patrick in boldness in our faith and joy in service! And may these Saints lead us to Jesus that we may find our own unique path to holiness! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus celebrating the joy of His love! Peace! Pace! Síochána!
©Michele L. Catanese
The photos are mine. The top photo was taken in County Galway, Ireland. In the trio of photos, left to right, is the church at Ballintubber which the sign in the middle picture shows was established by St. Patrick in 441AD. The picture on the right is of the Dingle Peninsula.
Next is the icon St. Joseph and the Holy Child by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/gallery-views/holy-men-icons/product/50-st-joseph-and-the-holy-child
The next photo is mine, of an olivewood carving of the Flight into Egypt which was carved in Israel and given to me as a gift.
The next icon is St. Joseph Shadow of the Father, also by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/gallery-views/holy-men-icons/product/51-st-joseph-shadow-of-the-father
The last icon of St. Patrick and is from a delightful page which invites us to test our knowledge of Ireland: http://denverlibrary.org/blog/its-all-irish-test-your-knowledge-st-patricks-day. You can have some fun with that if you wish!
I have a few friends who are dedicated to a nonprofit organization called St. Baldrick’s Foundation* which is dedicated to research for the cure of childhood cancers. It is a volunteer driven foundation, so everything that is done to help raise money is done by people who have either been touched by childhood cancer in their own families, or are friends of those who have had that experience. Helping in funding research against cancer is indeed an act of friendship, since those involved are trying to work toward ending the suffering of children, and above all else, they stand in solidarity with them. They let those who are suffering know they are with them. That kind of compassion is the truest love of friendship.
Recently I came across the story of a fascinating, yet little known man, Servant of God Egide Van Broeckhoven, SJ, who regarded friendship as his vocation. He was born in Belgium in 1933. His mother died a few days after he was born and so he was raised by foster parents. He entered the Jesuits in 1950 and was ordained a priest in 1964. From 1965 to his death in 1967 he was “the worker priest” in Brussels, devoting his life to working in factories so he could be close to the men who worked there. He died in an industrial accident at the age of 34, but by the time of his death he had already touched the lives of many through the gift of friendship which he said was his true vocation. Fr. Egide was a mystic, having received the gift of mystical prayer as a young man. Through his relationship with Christ he understood that his vocation was to teach people about the mystical depths of friendship, and therefore he desired to work in the factories to be near the poor and to become friends with everyone he could. He left behind a spiritual diary in which it is clear that he felt an intense call to bring Christ to others by bringing love through friendship, rather than preaching.
In one entry in his spiritual diary Egide wrote: "Love one another as I have loved you" - Jesus looked at him with love." [John 13:33, Mk 10:21] This look of love must be clear, pure, and must express at the same time all the warmth of friendship....Every time one encounters another person in this way, he should still be able to say to God: "Let my eyes see You, For You are their light, It is only for You that I want to use them." In this look one must reveal to his friend all the breadth and depth of his own desire to encounter God: nothing else, then, than the deepest level of his own inner life."
Egide understood that all friendship flows from relationship with Jesus. He believed that in loving another as a friend, we are seeing Jesus within that person, and receiving from Jesus in return through them. This implies a radical turn toward God on our part: when encountering love in our friend we learn to recognize that it is God within them whom we are encountering, no matter who that person may be. This seems almost shocking because it implies that we must open ourselves to seeing the other as being filled with the presence of God no matter who that other person may be.
But this is exactly what the Gospels teach us. Multiple times Jesus told us how we should love. He said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves; we are to love our enemies; and we are to love one another "as I have loved you." He makes it very clear that we are to love everyone as neighbor. This is most challenging: we cannot like everyone, so how on earth can we love them? Not all of us are likeable all the time....yet God never stops loving us. You might say that it is because He is God, or because He is perfect, that He can do this. That is precisely my point. Jesus knows that this is difficult for us, given that all of us are imperfect. But if we grow in friendship with Him and let His love transform us, we can be better and better at friendship.
The problem is that we confuse ‘love’ with ‘like.’ That is why we struggle with loving our enemies, and sometimes with loving the friends we already have! We are not meant to like everyone; that is simply not possible given the complex nature of each person. We are not meant to approve of everything done by other people. But what we are meant to do is give respect to all persons, and we are meant to respond to them with love. That means we do not judge them as less than we are; we do not say hateful, hurtful things. Rather, we attempt to do what Jesus might do: we have compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. We live by gospel values, which mean doing the right thing. Loving does not always feel good. It can mean doing that which is difficult. But we do what we do with the motivation of love, not of control. And if we make a mistake, we look for the same forgiveness as we would offer the other.
The gospel at Monday’s Mass reflects what friendship is about. It is from Matthew 25, and is one of the greatest challenges in the gospel. If we are to be a friend, we need to be able to offer love to everyone, not just to those like ourselves. In this passage, Jesus says that every time we give food or drink to the hungry and thirsty, clothes to the naked, visit the sick, imprisoned, or lonely, and welcome the stranger we are doing this for Him. Similarly, when we neglect to do these things, we neglect Him. This is exactly what Egide was writing about: to be truly friend to others is to listen to them and discover what it is they need, and then to act on it as we are able. It is to attend to the needs of Christ by attending to the needs of His body. It is to love Him, as we reach out to Him in maybe His most distressing disguise, (as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta once said of the poor.)
If we can act with love toward those in need, how much more loving will we be to those whom we are close to as our chosen friends! How much more will we see them as infinite blessings of God's love to us! And how much more will we know that when we are the ones in need of clothing, visiting, welcoming, and feeding that the response of our friends is the response of our loving God! Egide definitely understood the Gospel, and he definitely challenges us to come to greater friendship with God through our Lenten practices. In giving alms, we might think about the poor in our midst. It could be in giving to the beggar at the roadside, but it could be by giving to the local food pantry, or by helping a friend in financial need. It could be in sharing clothing by donating something good or unused from our closets, or even in purchasing underwear and socks and donating them to homeless shelter. It could be in visiting someone incarcerated, or someone physically imprisoned through special need, illness, or age. It could be in welcoming someone new to your neighborhood or church, or approaching someone who seems to be standing or sitting alone at an event.
When we open ourselves in prayer to the presence of God who is Love, we will move outward both toward God and toward others. Any encounter we have with the Living God, especially through the Sacraments and through Scripture, will transform us. Just as Moses' face began to radiate the love of God by being in His direct presence, so we, too, will radiate God's love by loving others. Love has a glow to it, which is why artists depict saints with a halo. It is not merely a symbolism; it is the reality of the light of love being radiated from the holy one. We, too, can radiate love, but we have to spend time with Love in order to let Love permeate our hearts so we can share it with those around us. While we cannot like everyone, we can love them. And in the action of choosing to love, our hearts can and will be moved from indifference and even distaste, to deep love since in recognizing Christ's love and mercy in the other, we may come to see it being directed back to us as well.
Let us ask for the grace to see all people as Fr. Egide saw them, through the eyes of Jesus. May we come before God this Lent asking for the gift of radical friendship! May we ask for the intercession of Servant of God, Egide Van Broeckhoven that we may see Christ in everyone, and therefore see them as friends! May we be given the gift of Love anew during this Lent that we may share it freely! Let us continue to meet in the heart of our Friend Jesus, the Lord of Love! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*As far as I know, there was no such person as St. Baldrick. St. Baldrick's Foundation raises money when people voluntarily shave their heads, (hence a play on the word 'bald') and then give the money which they have raised from friends to the Foundation for cancer research. The people who get their heads shaved do it in solidarity with those who have lost their hair because of the treatments they receive for their cancer. Go to http://www.stbaldricks.org/ for more information.
(A shout out to Karen for inspiring this entry! Thanks!)
The icon is of The Servant of God Father Egide Van Broeckhoeven by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/315-the-servant-of-god-father-egide-von-broeckhoven
The image is of Jesus The Galilean also by Fr. McNichols. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/293-jesus-the-galilean
The photos in the middle of the entry are mine.
Recently someone was telling me about a new activity he had taken up, rock climbing. Being a novice at this sport, he went to a good athletic supply store to buy climbing shoes only to find out that the shoes needed had to be about two sizes smaller than his regular size, or at least they fit that way. The shoes curve the toes inward, apparently, so that one’s feet can grab the rocks better. Apparently, the first few days he wore the shoes to begin to break them in - or to break his feet in, I am not sure which - he was in agony. He said it was very painful until little by little he could wear them and even walk in them without too much difficulty. Once he gets fully adjusted to the shoes, he can begin learning the art of climbing and hopefully begin to get some experience.
I am not overly fond of heights so I would not be one to attempt rock climbing. But in thinking about what he said I began to see a connection to the season of Lent, which begins in a few days. During Lent we are asked to make a sacrifice of some sort and we often hear people say they are giving this or that up. The sacrifice usually involves some sort of pinch, like those climbing shoes. But there needs to be a purpose behind our efforts. For example, one Lent many years ago I attempted to give up coffee. It was very difficult, especially at work every day when I would pass the coffee pot and smell the aroma. Difficult as that was, however, this was not my most memorable Lent. I only gained the ‘pride’ in having accomplished something hard to do. Because my focus was in the wrong place, it really did not make me think about Jesus more, nor did it do anything for my spiritual life. That is because my focus was more on my self-imposed coffee deprivation than on Jesus. Living without coffee was a pinch, but for me, it did not have the value I thought it might. Like my friend and his climbing shoes, our sacrifice should have a bit of a pinch, but the purpose behind it is more important than the action itself. He did not buy the shoes simply to make his own feet hurt, but he bought them so that he could learn to climb. That is, the action we choose for Lent should lead us to deeper relationship with Jesus, rather than be an exercise in discipline for the sake of discipline.
The point to our Lenten sacrifice is to grow in love. Whatever we chose to do, it should be because we love Jesus enough to want to become closer to Him, to gain insights into Him, and to have that love move us outward in action. While I often suggest adding something rather than giving something up, (such as 15 extra minutes of prayer or daily Mass), there is a way we can give things up which can be the most meaningful sacrifices of all. I am referring to an attempt to give up sinful attitudes such as selfishness, impatience, anger, gossiping, laziness in prayer, materialism, negative comments we make to others, or whatever else it may be. These are the areas that are hardest to curb. But like all sacrifices it takes work to make these things habitual. And in order to tackle these goals, we need to beg for the graces we will need through prayer.
During Lent we are encouraged to pray more and to receive Eucharist. We are also urged to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There is a reason for this. It is not because we need to focus on our sinfulness, but rather it is so we can receive graces to strengthen us. Lent is referred to as a season of joy, not of mourning and negative glances at ourselves! We go to Reconciliation in order to remove all that comes between God and us, to have the barrier of sin broken down. Subsequently, we also receive the graces to grow holier by sincerely having sorrow for our sin, and asking God to help us to do better. It is about His mercy and desire for us to be closer to Him, not about being judged as a terrible sinner. Remember, we are loved sinners, oh so deeply loved.
Lenten sacrifices are not easy. And we need to remember that there is no sin in trying and falling down once or twice. If we have promised to do something and a few days into it we fall, there is no reason to give up. No one is expecting perfection. Just as no one can go rock climbing for the first time and scale a huge mountain, we have to build our stamina. This is why we need to carefully discern what it is we are going to do. If we make the goal too lofty, we are setting ourselves up to fall. It is not about the size of our Lenten actions, it is about coming to know Jesus in a new way, and about growing in love.
Therefore if we have not already done so, we need to spend the next few days reflecting on what area is our weakest area in loving. That is, what is the area in which we are least loving when push comes to shove. It might be a tendency to selfishness or a tendency toward self-punishment, or it could be a propensity for gossip; it could be in not sharing some gifts we have, material or otherwise. Whatever it is, the point would be to try to find an appropriate way to combat that urge through our sacrifice. For example, maybe I might be suffering from a lack of sharing, whether it is with friends and family, or in not sharing my resources with strangers in need such as the poor. I might choose to give up something material, in order to recognize that I have many luxuries, and so I learn to give from my surplus to those who have nothing. Then the giving up of something has value because it moves me outward to others. Remember, it is not about what one gives up, it is about focusing on Jesus, growing in love and therefore in holiness.
Our practices in Lent should include all three of these: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Lent is a good time to make it a priority to spend more time in prayer every day. It will help us get in the habit of spending time with the One who gives us everything we have and who loves us with an amazing love. Almsgiving is about giving from our financial coffers, but I also think we can give in non-financial ways, such as taking someone to church with us, doing chores for neighbors, or whatever we can for those less fortunate than we are. Fasting is about abstaining from food at certain times, but there are other ways to fast. We can fast from a behavior, or by limiting usage of technologies that swallow our time before we know it. Instead, we can use that time for prayer, spiritual reading, or service. If we are truly creative and reflective about what is the best way to personally grow in love and therefore in holiness, there is no limit to what we can meaningfully do.
Remember, what is most important is the motivation behind what we are choosing to do, not the act itself. I am reminded of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, one of my favorite saints. He loved the discipline of rock and mountain climbing because he said it brought him closer to God; it was as prayer to him. But he spent long hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament, too. The fruit of his prayer and love for God spilled out in love for the many poor people to whom he was devoted. Just as he wanted to grow to the heights of holiness using the phrase, “verso l’alto" which means ‘to the heights,’ we should desire to grow through our Lenten discipline in order to share our love with others.
What we chose to do for Lent should help us become more like Jesus; it should be a school of love, teaching us about the depths of His love for us. We should be joyous throughout this season because we have such an opportunity to grow closer to the One who gave all for us. And in the end we should emerge at Easter with the gratitude of deeper understanding of what Jesus did for us, and what He continues to do for us, which is to invite us into resurrected joy with Him forever.
Let us spend time the next few days in discerning what choices we will make in our desire to grow in love and holiness through Lent. May we have the desire to grow in self-discipline to the end of growing in love! May we turn to God through the sacraments in order to have the graces we need to grow in our relationship with Him! May we have the motivation to imitate Him more clearly! And may we have the joy of the season of Lent in knowing how great was the sacrifice by Jesus because of mercy and love, and how deeply He continues to love us. During this Lent let us meet in the Eucharist! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The top photo is one I took when in northern Italy while climbing Mt. Mucrone, not far from the villa owned by the Frassati family. Next is a photo of a print which is at my house: Chalice and Host Surrounded By Garlands Of Flowers, 1648, by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1683). The third photo is of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati rock climbing, unknown photographer.
Heart Speaks to Heart