The Narrow Path: The Law of Love
There is an oft held misconception that religion is about keeping rules and regulations. This simply is not true. God desires our happiness; He truly wants us to know we are loved and for us to spend eternity with Him. But life is not so clear that we can make a choice to follow Him and never waver from it. We do need some direction. Rather than putting us into the world and then leaving us without any sense of how to find our way through a maze of temptations, evils, and decisions, He offers us a way to navigate through everything. These are the commandments and laws. They were not meant to be oppressive, but to free us to know the path which would keep us safe. We can see that in the Old Testament God provided the Law of Moses and the prophets, but when the people became confused by the many cultures that influenced them, He sent His own Son, Jesus, to offer salvation. Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the Law, but rather to fulfill it. Basically, He taught that fulfilling the law means that we are to live the law of love.
In the first reading this Sunday we hear about Moses entreating the people to properly live the Law. There were many statutes and rules within the Law, but the point was to use these rules as a way to love, to do justice, and to have the wisdom to discern their responses in various situations. The Law was never intended to be burdensome, which is something the people did know. When it was first delivered to them they were actually overjoyed. The reason for this was that they interpreted the Law as a sign of God’s love for them. In other words, they felt (rightly) that God cared enough about their well-being that He gave them a set of guidelines for their protection. As a result, they literally rejoiced when the Law was delivered. Sadly, they had a difficult time consistently living it, but God forgave them when they faltered and also sent many prophets and guides throughout the years to help them understand that the Law was His way of loving them and helping them to love one another.
This week’s second reading, from the letter of James, truly reiterates the message of Moses: the law is a sign of love and is meant to help us love one another. James wrote, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves…. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:22,27) Of course, the word to which he is referring is the message of Jesus who took the Law and brought it back to God’s original intention, which is that we love one another. James was cautioning his community to adhere to the law of love rather than to fall into the sin of selfishness.
In the Gospel, the Pharisees appear to misunderstand the point of the Law. They accused Jesus of breaking the Law when He let His followers eat their meals without going through the prescribed washing rituals. Jesus’ response was that it is not what goes into one that makes one defiled. He said, “...the things that come out from within are what defile.” What He was saying was that our words and deeds are what constitute sin, not how we eat or whether we follow all the rituals before a meal. He further spelled it out by indicating sinful behaviors that come from the heart, such as deceit, arrogance, evil thoughts, envy, theft, etc., are what make one unclean or sinful. (Mark 7:21-23) Our motivations and behaviors are either leading us to God or away from Him, and if we want to come closer to God, growing in holiness, we need to do that which is a work of love. If we do works of love with our hands a bit dirty it is better than washing them to ‘hospital specifications’ and doing selfish, hurtful acts, so to speak.
While we know that sin breaks down instead of building up and that it ‘insulates us’ against God’s love, we also need to be aware that the opposite is also true: when we do works of love and mercy, we build up the community and it also brings us more deeply into the heart of God. All works of good, anything that brings us closer to God or any work we do to bring another closer to God, delights God. It sounds easy, but unfortunately life is not so simple. Living in a world of temptations and evils means that it takes a lot of effort to continually choose what is right and loving. What complicates matters is that there are a lot of conflicting, even compelling, voices which try to tell us that another way is better or that our efforts are really futile and worthless. These voices try to keep us from being the people God intended us to be. The messages they send are subtle and insidious, trying to pervert our way of thinking into compliance with the way of the world which says that we are entitled to anything we want, that we should take the easy path, and that the rules are oppressive rather than freeing.
Just as harmful are the confusing messages we get from those who are the Pharisees of our age who urge us to keep the rules slavishly, “or we are going to hell.” These are the ones who follow the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. They are the ones who insist that unless we pray 'just so,' take on this posture or practice as opposed to that one, and make the rules into our god instead of following the true God of love, then we are not doing what we should be doing. These are the ones who make God into their own image and likeness, as sort of a modern golden calf, rather than taking to heart the message of Jesus. They want everything neat and tidy, so that they never have to do much thinking; they insist we follow the rules for the rules own sake. Unfortunately, life is not neat and tidy. As I said earlier, it is not that we should have no guidelines at all: the law is meant to free us and it is to give us a sense of what is right and wrong. We do need that. But a slavish adherence to it, enthroning the law rather than allowing love to be our guide in how to live that law, is folly.
We need to find the middle ground between living in slavish adherence to a set of rules and living with reckless abandon. Micah seemed to know how to find this path when he wrote: “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Jesus spent His life trying to get us to understand this very teaching from the Father. God wants for us to do what is good and just, which is accomplished through continual reliance upon Him. We need to pray always so we can have the relationship with God which He desires and so that we can discern the way of love. In doing so, not only do we receive His love, but we come to know Him and His ways. God begins to rub off on us, so to speak, and we therefore begin to respond to people and situations more as He would.
To walk humbly with God means that we learn how to be people of love and mercy, recognizing that we can do nothing without Him. We are not meant to be slaves, but rather we are meant to be free, leading others to that same freedom which comes from God and from no other source. We need to be like the disciples whose hearts were moved to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, stand up for justice and truth, and to visit the ill, widow, neglected, lonely, and poor. And we need to be willing to share what we have, protect the innocent, take care of the beauty of the earth, share our faith in word and deed, and be filled with gratitude for what we have. This is what it means to live the spirit of the law. We accept the guidelines which we have been given, praying for the wisdom to love as we ought. Just as the disciples had to learn where to put their priorities, we need to learn from Jesus where to put ours. Let us walk this, the narrow road, which is the way to eternal life. Let us not travel alone, but rather let us bring others along with us.
May we do what is right, seek justice, and walk humbly with God! May we be good disciples of Jesus, working to live the spirit of the law, not simply the letter of the law! May we learn to discern how to listen to the voice of God as opposed to the voice of temptation! May we be witnesses to love through our works of sharing, mercy, and compassion! May we be willing to walk the narrow road rather than the way which feels easier but which may lead us away from God! May we be willing to teach others the way of love through our word and deed! And may we recognize the presence of the Lord with us as we walk the narrow path! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Friends, in the spirit of Labor Day, I will not be posting an entry next week. I am taking a short break to recharge my ‘writing batteries.’ If you want to check out something in the archives to reflect upon, just click on the month and year from the list at the right and you can re-read a previous entry. I will be back the following week.
The first painting is The Sermon on the Mount by Bl. Fra Angelico.
Following, is one of my own photos of Michelangelo's Moses, which resides in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, Italy.
The next painting is St. James the Apostle by Peter Paul Rubens.
After the Rubens, is an inset of a painting called Christ Accused by the Pharisees, by Duccio di Buoninsegua.
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Christ All Merciful. If you have an interest in obtaining a copy you can find it at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/christ-all-merciful-022-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Last is another of my photos, taken at a farm near Noto, Sicily.
Who can accept it?
Honestly, I am not sure which is worse, to suffer oneself or to witness the suffering of another. For many of us, we would rather be the one suffering than to experience that feeling of utter helplessness as we watch a loved one, or even strangers, go through something terrible. To know there are people in dire situations is bad enough, but to know a friend or family member is suffering an illness or painful circumstance and to not be able to do anything to alleviate it, is often far worse than being the one in the crucible, so to speak. When we know others are suffering, or when we are upset by appalling situations in the world which are out of our control, it can be agonizing indeed. This is why we might cry out to the Lord: “This experience is hard: who can accept it?”
For the past five weeks the Sunday Gospel has been from the sixth chapter of John, a section which is often referred to as the Bread of Life discourse. In it, Jesus is preaching to His disciples, describing how He is the Bread of Life of which we need to eat. I think this Sunday’s final installment of the discourse is in some ways the most challenging because it taps into the frustration which we can experience when life gets overwhelming. In this passage many of the disciples were murmuring with discontent, mystified over what Jesus had said about being the bread of life. They said, “This saying is hard: who can accept it?” (John 6:60) When Jesus responded, many of them left and “returned to their former way of life.” It was not that they simply left the locale where Jesus was speaking; they left His gospel way of life completely. They could not tolerate having to accept something that was beyond their understanding. So rather than try to stretch, allowing the words to take root within them, they took the ‘easier’ route, abandoning Jesus altogether.
Jesus was not just speaking about His body and blood. He was offering something eternal, which meant they had to accept that which came with it. It meant that His followers had to accept everything He taught, not just the parts which they liked, or the parts which were easier to do. If they wanted the way to eternal life, they needed to completely embrace Him and the values He taught. This is true for us, too. We need to embrace all that He taught, including that which we do not understand and that which is difficult, trusting that the Lord is with us and that we will indeed have eternal life through Him. It means accepting that Jesus entered fully into our lives and so we are called to enter fully into the lives of others, embracing not just the easy parts, but also the messier, more difficult parts. It means we rely on our faith.
I think this ‘entering fully into our lives’ which Jesus did is what compelled St. Rose of Lima, (whose feast day is August 23), to a life of serving the suffering. If we only take a brief glance at her life, we might be tempted to dismiss her because of her choices. As a young woman of the late 16th century, she worked hard to support her poor parents, who, because Rose was very beautiful, wanted her to marry, possibly to have greater financial security. However, Rose wanted to follow in the footsteps of St. Catherine of Siena, and in so doing chose to become a Dominican tertiary, (a laywoman who takes vows to live in the lifestyle and spirituality of the Dominicans.) Therefore, in order to ward off suitors, she disfigured herself by rubbing her hands and face with pepper, and if that is not strange enough, she practiced all sorts of bodily mortifications which we would think of as insane. To put it bluntly, she made herself suffer constantly. She died at 31, quite possibly from all of the strange practices she took on. Why on earth would anyone want to do that? Furthermore, why would we think someone like this is a saint?
As I indicted earlier, if we only look at the seemingly strange behaviors of Rose, we will miss why she is considered so holy. She spent hours in prayer, which moved her outward to the destitute, homeless, and ill. She often brought them into her own room to care for them with great kindness and tenderness. Therefore she was surrounded daily by those who were suffering. But many of those who knew her thought she was crazy. Her way of life brought her sickness, ridicule, and even a visit from the Inquisitors. She sometimes did struggle and was said to have bouts of terrible sadness and loneliness. Perhaps there were times when she cried out, “This is hard: who can accept it?” But she did remain faithful to her ministry until her early death. Though her mortifications were horrific and nothing anyone should ever really do, it may have been that she wanted to suffer as a way of being in solidarity with those all over the city who had no control over their own suffering. Whatever it was, she brought much healing and goodness into the lives of those she served. And in doing so, she brought them to the Lord.
Through her prayer and desire to express her love for Jesus, St. Rose was dedicated to offering her life in a very dramatic way. She opted to live the hard sayings of Jesus instead of taking the easier road or simply worrying about herself. Rather than trying to understand the way Jesus chose for Himself or to explain it intellectually, she chose to wrestle with the incomprehensibility of suffering by suffering herself. It was her way of reaching out to those who were desperate for help, those who simply needed someone to enter into their suffering with them so that they were less alone. This is truly what mercy and compassion are about. The compassionate, like Jesus, suffer with the suffering and share joy with those rejoicing.
We should not make ourselves suffer as she did. Life will bring suffering of its own, unbidden. At some time or another we will all feel helpless to stop the pain of a loved one or be frustrated when we see the evil in the world, knowing we cannot change the way things are. But what we can learn from St. Rose of Lima is that our interior suffering, as well as our own physical suffering, can be offered as prayer. It stretches our hearts to greater compassion. It helps us to realize that we can pray for others, that we can move outward in service, and that we can be a presence to those who need us. Our efforts will not take away the suffering of the other, but the love which motivates us to be present to them, or to serve them, does have significance. It makes a huge difference to the suffering ones to know they are not alone or forgotten. What may feel like paltry efforts on our part are enormous gifts to those who are suffering. But the one thing we have to embrace, as did Rose, is that we cannot understand it. Unlike the disciples who abandoned Jesus, we must let faith, hope, and love be the ‘glue’ which enables us to stay in the midst of that which is hard.
We will never know what drove St. Rose of Lima to go to the lengths she did. Maybe she felt her mortifications were necessary to keep her focused on the suffering of others, so that the frustration of witnessing their suffering did not overwhelm her. Maybe it was a way of letting them know that she understood what they were undergoing. But what is clear is that she knew that the only way to do this was to turn to the Lord, who is the Bread of Life, and cling tightly. Our mortification is not to make ourselves suffer, but to accept the difficult challenges which have been put before us. Simply living a Christian lifestyle in today’s world is difficult enough. To accept that our small efforts count for something, to live morally, to stand up against injustice, to forgive the one who has hurt us, to go on when life beats us down, to love those who are unlike us or who say they are our enemies, to offer a hand to a stranger; these are all difficult mortifications when it would be easier to ‘look the other way.’ Let us be like St. Rose, and also like the apostles who when Jesus asked if they too wanted to leave, said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
May we have the courage to accept the hard sayings of Jesus and stay with Him as a true disciple! May we be like St. Rose of Lima, accepting the difficult work of living the Christian life despite our critics and enemies! May we ask for the intercession of St. Rose, that her prayers may inspire us to respond to the call of Jesus! May we not be intimidated by suffering or the enormity of need in the world! May we have the peace and the strength to live the gospel, so that we may bring joy to those who suffer greatly! And may our hearts be stretched by our experiences, so that we may be people of compassion and mercy! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
For more information on the life of St. Rose of Lima there are many sources available. Some suggestions are:
The first painting is the work of Giotto, (1300-05) and it is called Last Supper and is in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy.
The next is a photo which I took while hiking on Copper Mountain in Colorado. There really is no easy road. We still had quite a hike.
Next is a beautiful icon painted by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Santa Rosa Patroness of The Americas. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/santa-rosa-patroness-of-the-americas-166-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The following photos are also mine. The first is of a rose, taken in Portland, Oregon. The second is a waterfall, taken in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Mother of Mercy
“Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope.” So begins one of my favorite traditional prayers. What is rather astounding in this prayer, however, is that in the same sentence we address Mary as queen and yet simultaneously speak to her as a caring mother to whom we can turn. How is it that we would dare to approach a queen as if she was our mother? Conversely, how is it that this humble Jewish woman who spent her life in reflection, service, and love is known to us as a queen…and no less, as the Queen of Heaven? The answer is that Mary is both a queen and our mother, given to us as a precious gift by God.
In mid-August we have two feasts of Mary which shed light on why she is both queen and mother. First is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary on August 15 and seven days later, on August 22, is the Feast of the Queenship of Mary. That there are two feast of Mary so close together gives us a clue that there is something important being said of Mary and our relationship with her. At their core these two feasts celebrate the same thing: the love with which Mary expresses her eternal dedication to her Son and to His people. The Feast of the Assumption celebrates the culmination of Mary’s earthly life and her arrival in Heaven where she was greeted by the Father and given a place by the side of Jesus. Mary died, as all humans do, but rather than having to wait for the resurrection of the body on the last day, God gave her that gift immediately upon her death, reuniting her body and soul and taking her directly to Heaven. This gift was given because of all she did in cooperating with God who entered into our world through her assent to Him. The two feasts are connected, then, because upon her entrance into heaven she was honored by God, crowned Queen of Heaven as the mother of Jesus, who is the King. As St. Athanasius said, “If the Son is a King, the mother who begot Him is rightly and truly considered a queen and sovereign.”
The Church has a long history of honoring Mary with various titles. For example, St. Irenaeus described Mary as the God-bearer, or Theotokos, which is the source of the term ‘Mother of God.’ Regardless of the titles given her, we need to keep in perspective why Mary is so important to us. Obviously, she is of greatest importance because she was chosen to bear Jesus. The depth of her love for God, her purity of heart, and the intense desire she had to serve Him, truly made her stand apart from all other women. This love sustained her throughout her life, a life which was filled with sorrow mixed with joy. Throughout the Gospels we can see how much suffering she endured, suffering with her Son as He was reviled and put to death. In all that she went through she never give up hope in what God had revealed to her about her Son. She trusted in God’s message and in so doing gave courage to the other followers of Jesus who were inspired by the witness she gave.
Just before He died on the cross Jesus entrusted us to Mary when He said to John: “Behold, your mother.” He was indicating that she would be the mother of all who were in His church throughout history. She did take on this role, continuing to intercede for the apostles and all those who are disciples of Jesus, which of course, includes us today. Mary was immediately central to the small community of believers which is why she is the only other person named as being with the apostles when the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost. I suspect it was not just because of her relationship to Jesus, but because of the beauty of her heart. Though humble, she was beloved as a mother to the community. While there is no mention of her death and entrance into heaven in the Scriptures, it has always been believed that once there, she was honored as the Queen of Heaven.
In understanding Mary as queen we need to realize that her queenship is not the same as that of an earthly queen. Mary does not sit in glory waiting to be adored in some sort of haughty fashion. It simply is not who she is. (And, to be clear, we worship and adore God alone; Mary we venerate.) She spent her life in humble service to God, and therefore from Heaven she does the same. However, as Queen of Heaven Mary does have great power. It is not the power of position and authority, because her will is always submissive to that of her Son. She is not greater than or equal to Jesus. Rather the power of her queenship is the power of love which is expressed by her continual motherly devotion to all the children of God. As the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said: “A queen enjoys full power, even with regard to the king. Mary’s fullness of power is expressed in her intercession for us and her mediation of graces, so that we receive all personal graces from God.” Mary wants to mediate graces for us and she wants to protect us because she sees us as her children, too.
Therefore, when we celebrate her queenship, we are celebrating the beauty of her heart which is expressed in the love, mercy, understanding, and compassion that she directs to the world and to each of her children. We are celebrating the power of her love and that her highest priority is what is most important to her Son: the salvation of the world. We are celebrating how, through her constant intercessory prayer, she aids us in resisting evil and in our growth in holiness. And we are recognizing that she does not simply pray for us without asking our participation in the fight against sin and evil. As any good queen would do, she encourages us to be empowered through our own prayer joined to hers. Though she has the perfection of being full of grace, and that as His mother she is closer to Jesus than any other person, she also wants us to grow in grace while participating in the work of building the Kingdom of God.
It is important for us to realize that Mary is a queen whose heart is filled with mercy and compassion for those of us who suffer, and that there is nothing we can experience in our lives that she did not experience in hers. She knows what it is to be the object of derision and gossip, to cry until the tears simply can flow no more, to watch the suffering and death of her only child, and to be left as a widow. Because her heart was so stretched by suffering, she has great compassion for all those who struggle with sin and weakness. Though she is without sin she does not sit in judgment, but rather reaches out in mercy to draw us to her Son.
What we take away from celebrating Mary as Queen of Heaven, then, is that the world needs humble leaders, those who lead quietly and firmly through the power of love. To lead as she leads means to have respect for those whom we serve, to treat others with the dignity they deserve. It means that like Mary who gave so much in service of God, we need a sense of solidarity with the poor. It means that we adopt her ministry of intercession and prayer by lifting up those who have entrusted their cares to us, asking her to carry our prayers to her Son. It means we try to be sensitive to the needs of those whom we see on a daily basis. It means standing up for what we know to be true and right based on gospel values. And it means that we continually seek to do that which God calls us to do, trusting in His wisdom. Having Mary as our Queen means that even in the face of that which feels insurmountable we have one to whom we can turn who will never refuse to intercede on our behalf. Her queenship is that of the combined power of her love, humility, and the power of her prayer in which she wants to protect us, keep us from evil, and lead us to her Son. She shows us that without God we have nothing, but if we give ourselves to Him, we have everything. No wonder we have more than one feast in which to celebrate her. Let us rejoice in so great a gift as that of the Queen of Heaven, our mother!
May we ask our Queen, who is the mother of mercy and love, to intercede for our world and for us individually! May we gratefully accept the gift Jesus gives us in sharing His mother with us! May we join in the work of interceding for the world, uniting our prayer to that of Mary! May we imitate Mary in service and works of mercy! May we be led by Mary more closely to Jesus! And like Mary, may we humbly lead others to God through mercy, compassion, and love! Let us meet in the hearts of Jesus and Mary! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first painting is The Coronation of the Virgin which was painted in 1444 by an artist named Filippo Lippi. For more information on Lippi go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filippo_Lippi
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Our Lady of New the Advent Gate of Heaven. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/our-lady-of-the-new-advent-gate-of-heaven-003-william-hart-mcnichols.html
I chose this because of my reference to Mary as Mother of God. There are simply tons of paintings and icons of Mary as Theotokos, of the Assumption of Mary, (her Dormition, as depicted in iconography) and Mary as Queen of Heaven, so you can search these on Google till your heart is content.
Next is an icon called She Who Reigns written by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can find it at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/she-who-reigns-276-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The final two photos are mine. The first is a pelican with the Gulf of Mexico in the background, taken in Biloxi, Mississippi. I chose this because the pelican is famous for suffering so that it's children may have life, a sort of intercession. The last is a photo I took of stained glass at a church in Nevers, France.
Being Drawn to the Father: St. Dominic
How often we misunderstand the saints! We often read about them wishing we could be as they were, but thinking it is not possible to reach those heights. This is regrettable, because every saint was just as fallible as you and me, and each one started life as every other person does. Unlike what is implied in some ‘misleading’ hagiographies, they were not born more special than anyone else and were not given an advantage such that they had a greater ability to grow holy then ‘ordinary folk.’ What they did, however, was to love God so much that they applied themselves greatly to prayer and service in some way or another. One could say they excelled in holiness because they loved so well. They loved Jesus so very much that they had to express it in every way they could, depending upon the unique gifts they had been given. If we allow ourselves to love well, we will grow in sanctity as they did. It is as simple as that.
August 8 is the feast of St. Dominic Guzman, one of those saints who loom large in the spiritual history of the Church. I do not have Dominican spirituality, but it is interesting to realize that many of my favorite saints did. There is the incomparable artistry of Bl. Fra Angelico, (Br. Giovanni da Fiesole) who was a Dominican of the 15th century. There is St. Catherine of Siena, who was a Dominican tertiary, (which is a third order style of living, consecrated by vows, yet living as a lay person), who had visions of Jesus, wrote a book (though illiterate!) and served the poor with almost reckless abandon. There are Saints Martin de Porres and Rose of Lima, well known for their service to the poor of Peru. And then there is Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, to whom I have a great devotion, a third order Dominican (layperson) of the early 20th century, who lived what appeared to be an ordinary life, but was devoted to issues of justice. With all these Dominican connections, I decided to reflect upon St. Dominic, not from a historical point of view, but rather from the standpoint of holiness.
The focus, then, is not on Dominic’s brilliance as a preacher or organizer of a religious order, but rather his life of prayer and the humility with which he lived.* For example, he was known to live humbly by taking the worst of accommodations, deferring the better places to others. When his followers observed him at prayer, they found that he had nine different postures with which he prayed rather systematically. But his prayer was not merely methodical, it was heartfelt. He was often seen in such rapt devotion that he was oblivious to anything else around him. He was said to cry out some phrases or words from the scriptures upon which he was meditating. Though some of his practices are not regarded as healthy today (such as self-flagellation, which, however, was consistent with the teaching in his day), he did understand that posture in prayer has an effect that literally moves us to opening to God in a deeper way. In other words, our body can give expression to attitudes that go beyond our words, such as humility, reverence, and love. He reminds us that to be a person of prayer we need to be self-disciplined: prayer needs to be habitual if we want to grow in intimacy with God. Anyone can do this, but we have to work at it, just as with any other relationship.
St. Dominic teaches us that anyone can grow in holiness if we set our hearts to it. He is associated with education and truth, and indeed those are important. But what really sets Dominic apart is that he knew it was his heart that needed to be centered on Christ, not just his head. Just as Fra Angelico expressed the fruit of his prayer in exquisite paintings which overflow with the beauty which stemmed from his intense love for God, as St. Thomas Aquinas’ prayer gave rise to volumes on philosophy and theology, as St. Catherine of Siena expressed her prayer in the love that enabled her unyielding service to the poor, sick, and plague ridden, and as Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati was moved by his intense daily prayer to love so much that the expression of it was in devoted service to the poor, so can our prayer find expression through our actions. We do not have to pray in nine different postures in order to grow in holiness, but we do need to be intentional about the One to whom we pray and how we approach Him. There are times when it is appropriate to be formal in prayer, but we certainly want to meet the Lord as we are no matter when we pray. This means that we speak to Him as to any friend. No matter how we approach it, to pray simply means being who we are with the One we love. Prayer is an act of love, not obligation: we do it because we love Jesus, not because we are commanded to do so. Indeed He loved us first, so we are actually responding to His love.
St. Dominic was led to preach and to foster education so that there would be many good preachers of truth. Other saints were moved to action in different ways. If we want to grow in holiness there are a multitude of ways we can be moved to action as well, but no matter what it is, the source of our action must always be the love of God. Saints are the ones who allow God’s love to so flow through them that it is obvious to those around them that their love is extraordinary. St. Dominic points out to us that this takes desire and effort. All of us are supposed to grow in holiness throughout our lives, though we are not meant to become perfect since that is impossible. Rather, we should desire to become more like Jesus, learning from His teachings and actions. Jesus' disciples were so touched by His love for them, that in responding to that love, they began to have deeper love for those they met. His love literally propelled them to choose a life of sharing what they had received with others. If we are also His disciples, our encounters with Jesus can propel us outward, too.
When one is filled with love, it cannot but spill over. However, God knows (literally) just how difficult it is for us to continuously love, given our weakness and brokenness. In this week’s Sunday gospel Jesus said: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him [her] on the last day. It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” (John 6:44-45) It is evident, then, that we need to turn to the Father in order to learn from Him, and therefore to discover how to use our gifts which are the tools with which we are to love one another. That is, we are each called to respond in different ways, given our personality, circumstances, and giftedness. He gives us what we need, but we have to work with God in order for our talents to grow and be used.
There is so much in the world that needs healing, assistance, and mercy. Our efforts to be peaceful, loving, and of service are how we bring that love to life in the world. We are indeed called to holiness, but not for holiness sake: we are called to holiness because the world needs it in a dire way. Our goal is not to be holy simply because we want to be the object of admiration, but we want to become holy because it glorifies God and it helps His people. Holiness is not an end, it is the path. The goal is God, and God is found in His world because our love helps to make His love present. This is why it is important to learn from St. Dominic and those who imitated his specific quest to make the truth of God’s love present in the world. St. Dominic learned from Jesus that the truth sets us free. The truth is that God loves us and cares for us. The truth is that God wants to be present to us, heal us, forgive us, lead us to Heaven, and to have mercy, compassion, and love for us. God wants us to be present to Him so He can do these things, since He does not force Himself upon us. He wants us to help Him to work against evil and suffering, and we do this by being a person of prayer and therefore of love. It means we must have the discipline and intentionality of St. Dominic in our prayer in order to open ourselves to love and to sharing that love with others. Let us allow the truth of God’s love to transform us that we can bring it to those we meet through our words and deeds, and like St. Dominic, be drawn to the Father.
May we be inspired by the saints, such as St. Dominic, to seek after and love the Truth, who is our God! May we ask the intercession of the great Dominican saints so that they can continue to assist the world in the work of preaching, healing, and peace! May we learn to come to God as we are in our prayer and in our work, allowing His love to take root and grow in our hearts! May we be true disciples of Jesus, choosing to humbly offer our gifts in whatever capacity we are able! And may we let Jesus draw us to the Father! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus where all love and truth dwells! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*If interested, you can read about St. Dominic and his life at these sites: http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/Saint.aspx?id=1101
The photo at the beginning is mine. It is a patch of lavender taken near Copper Mountain, Colorado.
The next two paintings are by one of my favorite painters, Bl. Fra Angelico. I chose these because Fra Angelico was a Dominican and it seemed fitting to display his works when I used him as an example. The first is called Seventeen Blessed of the Dominican Order and Two Dominican Tertiaries. It can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/musette1960/fra-angelico/
The second is called St. Dominic at the Foot of the Cross and it can be found at https://christbearers.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/st-dominic-at-the-foot-of-the-cross/
Next is the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols, an icon called Beato Fra Angelico Patron Of Artists. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/beato-fra-angelico-patron-of-artists-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Finally are two photographs, the first of which is mine. It was taken at Big Bend National Park in Texas. The second was taken by my husband Tony while we were in southern New Mexico.
Life is mysterious. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. However, I suppose that this realization is a good thing because it forces me to acknowledge that I need help and therefore I must rely on God more. I know that I am not alone in this feeling. Life is so mysterious and confusing at times that maybe we might think that if only we were like Moses with the cloud of God’s presence descending upon us, then we might be able to figure things out better; if only we could converse directly with God and be totally clear about what it is we are trying to work out. That is not how it is for us, however. And anyway, I doubt Moses was crystal clear in understanding everything God said to him either. But no matter, part of being human is the struggle to make the right choices, to cope with things that seem overwhelming, and to know how to live in the midst of that which is beyond our ability to understand. “If only,” we wish, “we had wisdom so we could see things more clearly.”
The Good News is that we do have wisdom and we do have access to God. While we will never have 100% certainty of most of our decisions in this life, we were given the gift of wisdom when we were confirmed and we have access to God at all times through prayer. Difficult choices do not go away when we pray, but we can turn to God and ask for His assistance in gaining some insights or simply the ability to be at peace with a situation, entrusting it into His care. The Bible is full of stories of people begging God to help them in times of trouble so that they know which way to turn or how to understand a situation which is beyond them. Therefore it seems to me that needing God’s help is not unique to our generation. It is part of the human condition that we struggle with the unknown or with a situation that may feel insurmountable.
This week we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. What struck me as I reflected on this wonderful feast is that wisdom was present during this event. And it is seen as such in all of the renditions told in the synoptic gospels. No matter which of the versions we read, the facts of the story remain: Jesus took his three closest apostles/friends, Peter, James, and John, up Mt. Tabor to pray with Him. Once up the mountain, Jesus changed in appearance, becoming radiant with light, and was seen conversing with Moses and Elijah. Meanwhile a cloud descended upon them and out of the cloud a voice was heard, that of the Father, saying: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.” Then the entire scene evaporated “and Jesus alone was standing with them [the apostles].” (Mark 9)
The cloud which appeared and descended upon them was the Shekinah, which is the protective, glorious presence of the Spirit of God, also associated with wisdom. Jesus was revealed as the Son of God standing in the midst of the cloud, the voice of the Father came forth from the cloud, and the cloud itself was the Shekinah, God’s Holy Spirit. The manifestation of the Shekinah was nothing really new. Throughout the Old Testament the Shekinah was visible at times, such as when the pillar of fiery cloud led the people from Egypt into the Promised Land. The guidance of that cloud can be seen as Wisdom, in that it was not really Moses who was guiding the people, it was the glorious Spirit of God. It was the same glorious Spirit of God, Wisdom, which was seen on Mt. Tabor when Jesus transfigured in front of His three friends.
In the Transfiguration we see that even Jesus had to be immersed in the Spirit’s wisdom in order to know that it was time to fulfill His mission. Though He was God, and wanted to reveal this to the three witnesses who were His closest friends, He was also fully human and needed the Wisdom of God to direct Him. In short, it may be said that one reason Jesus went up the mountain was to converse with God to find out if the time was right for Him to fulfill His mission. I say this because Luke’s gospel tells us that Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus of “His exodus that He was going to accomplish in Jerusalem,” confirming that it was time to go there to die and rise. Also, soon after Jesus came down from the mountain Luke says: “…He resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) The Wisdom of God gave Him the direction He sought.
If Jesus needed to consult with the Spirit, then it should not surprise us that we need this, too. And while we do not need to climb Mt. Tabor in order to hear God’s word, we do have similar access to it. We have the gift of intimacy with God because we have the ability to pray. This gift needs to be developed; just as Moses did not go up the mountain and become enveloped in cloud upon his first meeting with God, we need to grow in relationship with God through our prayer. But our access to the Wisdom of God is no less than his or even that of Jesus. We can approach God any minute of the day or night and He is there. We also have access to the Wisdom of God through the Scriptures and the sacraments. While we receive the gift of wisdom at our Confirmation, we have the Eucharist offered continually in which we can immerse ourselves in the presence of Jesus and therefore have access to Wisdom.
The Eucharist is what we are offered in this Sunday’s gospel. Jesus reminded His followers that God gave their ancestors “bread from heaven to eat” and that God was giving them bread from heaven again. This was lasting bread because it was the Body of Christ which was being offered to them. And it is in this bread that we have access to the Wisdom of God. It is in the Eucharist that all time seems to stop, just as at the Transfiguration, and all are united as one. It is the great equalizer, so to speak: there is no longer male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, as St. Paul says in his letters. Everything converges into a unity that is found nowhere else in the world and at no other time except when we come together in the Eucharist.
Therefore it is in the Body of Christ that we have fullest access to the wisdom, power, mercy, and love of God. The Eucharist becomes our Shekinah, the glorious, protective presence of God. It is the cloud, so to speak, into Whose midst we are enveloped. When we receive the Eucharist we are present with Moses on the mountain, we are present as the manna rains down, when Jesus is transfigured, when He gives us His body and blood at the Last Supper, when He dies on the cross and when He is gloriously resurrected. We are present as one body in the Eucharist and so all our joys and blessings, pains, suffering, woundedness, brokenness, uncertainty, loneliness, grief, questions, doubts, and fears are also joined together with Him. We bring all of who we are into the Eucharist and into the Shekinah, the glory and protection of God. And we are transfigured in this experience, even if after we receive we seem to be alone as the apostles found themselves after Jesus’ transfiguration ended. Afterward they were still with Jesus as they always knew Him, and so too are we.
We need to trust that even though we do not feel like we have gained any extraordinary wisdom after we pray or after we receive the Eucharist, we have indeed been changed. We rely upon each encounter with the Living God as a source of strength and of trust. We put our cares and our worries, as well as our gratitude, into His hands. And if all has been given into His care, His wisdom will indeed guide us. If we make a decision based on thoughtful reflection and prayer, and then act in love doing the best we can with what we have, or if we are struggling to be at peace in a world filled with so much mystery which overwhelms us with confusion or suffering, we must keep praying that we may trust in His promise that He is with us, that He loves us, and that He will never leave our side or the side of those for whom we pray. If we can trust in Holy Wisdom given to us through the Eucharist, if we can trust in God’s love and mercy, we can live with the uncertainty of being human while leaning on the presence of God. God never promised us a pain free life, but He did say He would always offer us His love and His presence. Let us take Him up on His offer.
May we come to know Holy Wisdom by entering into prayer! May the gifts we have been given in the sacraments be enlivened! May we trust in God’s protective and merciful presence with us! May we entrust our cares and concerns to the Lord who is ever by our side! May we be witnesses to the wisdom and love of God through our love of others! May we feel welcomed at the Eucharistic table and come to know we are indeed one in the Lord! And may we be transfigured with Jesus as we seek to grow in holiness, that we may glorify Him by our lives! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus where all wisdom and love dwells. Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: The Book of Wisdom is filled with beautiful passages about what wisdom is like and has some lovely prayers for wisdom. I recommend reading this book to reflect upon the description of wisdom contained in it. An example of a prayer one might take from the book is this: “Give me wisdom, the attendant at your throne and reject me not from among your children…. Send her forth from your holy heavens and from your glorious throne dispatch her that she may be with me and work with me, that I may know what is your pleasure.” (Wisdom 9:4,10)
The first photo is mine. It was taken in northern Italy near Oropa. I was on Mt. Mucrone facing one of the small mountains nearby.
Next is a painting Bl. Fra Angelico, The Transfiguration.
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/282-hagia-sophia
Next is another painting by Bl. Fra Angelico who is obviously one of my favorite painters: Communion of The Apostles. It can be found at http://www.wikiart.org/en/fra-angelico/communion-of-the-apostles-1452
The last photo is one of mine. It was taken atop Copper Mountain, a view of the surrounding mountains.
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Heart Speaks to Heart