The most important aspect of any relationship is the trust which comes from honesty and truthfulness. Truth is the glue which holds friendships together and it is what nurtures love and growth in all relationships, including that which we have with ourselves. Being truthful, and therefore authentic, can be incredibly challenging when we are facing difficult issues, especially personal ones, and it is equally challenging if we know we need to help another person face something which they do not want to see. Jesus said the truth would set us free, but it is one of the most difficult aspects involved in loving someone; it takes courage to live in the truth. This is why many people did not like prophets in biblical times. Prophets often pointed out harsh realities, and in laying out the truth without whitewashing it, many people were ‘offended’ because they did not want to hear that they were in need of making changes. The prophet Amos was such a prophet, faced with the burden of presenting the truth in the midst of a culture that did not want to hear God’s message. His words were biting, but it was because he cared intensely about his nation and he loved God deeply; therefore he regarded truth highly and was willing to carry the burden of garnering attention in the public forum with an unpopular message. But for all Amos’ challenging words, his message ends with hope, the sign of a true prophet: if God is truly behind the words, the message will always remind us that He wants His people to be near to Him in the joy and protection of His love.
Amos was not from high society, he was not a priest, and he was not anyone particularly important in his community. He was a simple man, a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees. Because of his humility, he did not reveal his background until the seventh of the nine chapters in the book which bears his name. At the time he was being confronted by Amaziah, the priest who ultimately exiled him from Bethel, a major city in Israel. In response to the priest Amos said: “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores. The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” (Amos 7:14-15) It seems that Amos was minding his own business, working two jobs to eke out a living, when God told him to go and speak a message which was going to anger many. That God chose him in this way is not a sign that God will swoop down at any time and randomly choose a person and throw him or her into the proverbial fire. Rather it reveals to us that Amos was a person of faith, who was no doubt very disturbed at the trends in his divided nation. Israel had separated from Judah and the people were morally corrupt, vulnerable to their enemies and headed for destruction. Surely Amos prayed faithfully to God about this situation, and when God decided to choose him, he freely accepted the ministry. He revered God’s truth because his relationship with God was based upon a covenant of love and trust.
Because of the themes of his prophetic message, Amos is often referred to as the prophet of social justice. He continually reminded the people of the commandments dealing with relationship to others, and of course, their relationship with God. The astringent words he spoke were meant to shake them up as he confronted their sins head-on, the worst of which was the idolatry which consumed them. Amos even stood up to the king, Jeroboam, because he had set up shrines all over Israel in fear that the people would defect to Judah where the Temple which housed the Ark of the Covenant was located. He decried their ‘worship’ because people were not only sacrificing to false gods, but they were participating in pagan practices which included sexual immorality and lack of proper care for their dead. He condemned how the rich were grossly oppressing the poor, spending money on luxury and abusing alcohol; and he refuted their corrupt business practices, because they accepted bribes and the like. The result of their hedonistic and self-centered lifestyle was that they had no concern about the true state of affairs in their broken covenantal relationship with God or with one another. And they had their ‘heads in the sand’ in regard to the disaster their nation was facing due to their rejection of God: their enemies were already crossing their borders planning to overtake and imprison them. Destruction was brewing and they refused to acknowledge that they were in any danger.
Prophets are called to disturb our complacency, so when we read them, (and I recommend reading the Book of Amos with an eye to seeing our own times within them), we must keep in mind that the harshness of the words is because the prophet must get our attention. Prophets intend to shock their listeners because the sins they point out are indeed shocking and destructive. The lies which people had accepted in place of the truth of God’s plan had so corrupted their hearts that Amos had to confront the lies with the light of reality, a light that often is painful, but necessary. The prophet’s role was, (and still is), to unmask lies and to reveal truth; when people are in denial as to the true path of justice, mercy, kindness and love, the only way is to tell them where the false path will lead them is with stark reality. But we must not miss the underlying truth in the Book of Amos which is that ultimately God is a God of concern who cares deeply about His people. Amos would not have stepped into this role had he not believed that God truly cares.
The words of Amos are of the utmost relevance to us today. His warning is of the danger of getting trapped in self-centeredness and therefore forgetting the gospel values we are called to live, and to beware of completely missing the mark by getting caught up in that which divides instead of that which unites. The life of Amos reminds us that even ordinary folk can live prophetically; we do not need a theological background in order to get the message of God out to His people. But what we do need is the courage to live the gospel as lovers of truth, as fierce defenders of our faith through commitment to our covenant of love with God, and as those who stand against greed, oppression, immorality, and idolizing people and things rather than placing our full attention upon the God who loves us. This is what will make us prophets, even if we are simply ‘shepherds and dressers of sycamores.’ We are not necessarily called to challenge in the same way Amos was, (though there is a need for that kind of prophet, too.) Rather, we are called to do as Jesus did, which is to live the truth by our words and deeds. We are meant to be active in combating sin and falsehood, injustice and mercilessness. Simple men and women can do extraordinary things if we adhere to the gospel and ground our lives on the truth of God which comes through prayer, reflection, Scripture study, and discernment and then putting into action what we have learned.
As disciples of Jesus we are meant to live prophetically, though it takes courage and conviction to do so. But everything we need is found in God and in the grace He gives to live out our call. The Book of Amos teaches us that even shepherds and dressers of sycamores can reveal truth in the face of lies; through the witness of our love we can confront those who are on the wrong path, leading them back to God and the way of the Gospel. Of course, love and mercy are the gospel way, though sometimes love must take on the form of challenge. Even if our efforts seem to fall on deaf ears, we must remain strong in our belief and in what Amos says in the final words of his prophecy: “I will bring about the restoration of my people Israel; they shall rebuild and inhabit their ruined cities, plant vineyards and drink the wine, set out gardens and eat the fruits. I will plant them upon their own ground; never again shall they be plucked from the land I have given them, say I, the Lord, your God.” (Amos 9:14-15) There is always hope found in God’s faithfulness to us which is shown throughout the Scriptures and especially through Jesus Christ. Let us then, live prophetically as ‘shepherds and dressers of sycamores,’ humble, yet empowered by the love of our good and gracious God.
May we find strength in the witness of the prophet Amos! May we have the courage to be faithful to the call of the Gospels! May we persevere in our prayer and in our efforts to discern how to respond in our world today! May we live our call to be prophetic wisely and humbly in the understanding that even if we are ordinary and lowly, all our efforts are important in building the Kingdom! May we call upon the intercession of the angels, saints, and holy ones that we might stand firm upon the power of love and mercy! And may we live in the Truth, that is, may we live in Christ, bringing His love outward in all we do!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post November 5.
1. I took this photo of Mont Blanc, France, during a trip to the Alps recently. I chose to use it here as a symbol of the everlasting foundation we have in our covenant with God.
2. This is an Orthodox icon of Amos the prophet. I chose it because I liked the simplicity of the depiction of Amos.
3. This painting is called Shepherd and Sheep by Camille Pissarro. (1888) It seemed to fit perfectly with the sense of the humble background of Amos. He may have spoken forcefully, but he was from Tekoa, a peaceful and simple area of Judah, which he left behind to go to Israel in response to the call of God.
4. This is one of my photos, taken in Big Bend, west Texas. I chose it because of the starkness of the desert, in counterpoint to the life which is found there. The words of a prophet might seem stark and harsh, but there is always a call to life which is within their words.
5. This icon is called El Buen Pastor, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose it here because it seemed quite appropriate to remember that Jesus referred to Himself as the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John. He knocks: are we listening? If you are interested in obtaining a copy of this in one of a number of mediums, you can find it at fineartamerica.com/featured/el-buen-pastor-188-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
6. This is another of my photos. These flowers were in the beautiful gardens at Larnach Castle in Dunedin, New Zealand. They seemed to exemplify the words of God given by Amos in the quote.
7. This is also one of my photos. I took this is Switzerland as we were traveling. I chose to use it here as a symbol of the Church, the people of God, rising above that which seeks to divide us. It is intended as a sign of hope.
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Saints are anything but boring, and I love that their ranks include all sorts of people, even those we do not expect. Unfortunately, sometimes we imagine holy ones as completely charismatic, near perfect, spiritually heroic people. Some may have been as such, but if we limit our idea as to the nature of holiness, we are apt to discontinue any effort to strive to be holy ourselves because it seems too difficult to attain. In reality, the clearest attribute of holiness is true desire to find Christ and to love and serve Him by living the life we were given, as it was given, without trying to be someone we are not called to be. The holy ones, then, are the people who are authentic in their love and in their acceptance of the path they were given, which means that they might not be obvious in their holiness until we give them a closer look. Such a one was Caryll Houselander who is often looked upon as a wonderful spiritual writer, quirky of personality, but ordinary enough in her day to day life. And what is a holy person, (sometimes recognized as a saint), but an ordinary person who possesses extraordinary faith, hope, and love? Although Caryll Houselander has not been canonized or beatified, she was a mystic and was one who saw Christ in everyone, even in the midst of her somewhat nondescript life. If we would simply be ourselves as we were made to be, we would be like Caryll: a reflection of the love of God.
Caryll Houselander was a bit of an eccentric. Born in 1901 in Bath, England, she had a tumultuous childhood, and never really got along with her parents who divorced when she was 6 years of age. Her mother was rather distant and severe with Caryll, and while not a religious person herself, did have Caryll baptized, and did provide a Catholic foundation for her. She continually sent Caryll away to boarding schools where she never quite fit in and was never really happy, although she found ways to cope with the loneliness that her ‘exile’ brought her. It was in a boarding school when she was only nine years old that she had the first of three life changing mystical experiences. Caryll had walked in on a young Bavarian nun who for the most part only spoke German and was ostracized by the other nuns as a result. The nun was crying bitterly while trying to polish some children’s shoes. When Caryll looked at her, in a kind of vision she saw the nun wearing a crown of thorns and commented to her about it, saying, “I would not cry if I was wearing the crown of thorns like you are.” The nun was startled and asked what she meant; Caryll said she did not know and simply sat down to help her polish the shoes. Through this mystical experience she identified with the burden the young nun was bearing, lonely and isolated, and in her own way, reached out as if to help her bear the burden.
Her second mystical experience took place when she was seventeen: she witnessed what appeared to be an icon of the suffering Jesus filling the sky.* However, it was the third one which defined her life the most. She was riding in a subway travelling with all sorts of people and yet she literally saw Christ in everyone on the train and around her on the streets after she exited; the episode continued for several days before fading away. This occurrence resulted in her lifelong belief that every person mysteriously carries Christ within them, and so she began to treat everyone as if she was in the presence of Christ. Caryll was also a gifted artist and writer, having been encouraged to write by her Jesuit spiritual director, Fr. Geoffrey Bliss. She wrote many poems and a few books, but was most known for a short book about Our Lady called The Reed of God which is now considered a classic in Catholic spiritual writing. She helped many to be healed of their spiritual and emotional illnesses, but her own life was relatively short, as she succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 53 on October 12, 1954.*
If we could have met Caryll, I suspect that at first we might have been surprised at the thought of calling her holy because she appeared to be relatively ordinary, though decidedly eclectic, and she smoked, drank, and was subject to fragile health, both mentally and physically. She referred to herself as a ‘singular’ person, meaning that she never fit into any group, nor did she want to. But she was known as a gifted counselor, even though she never had any formal training; because of her own experience of receiving counseling she was able to help many others who also suffered from neurosis. Additionally, she had spiritual gifts which enabled her to have insights into people and to help them to find alleviation for their suffering. In all of this, unless one came into close contact with her, Caryll might not have been someone who would stand out as a holy person. Once again, we must realize that holiness does not ‘look’ a particular way, but rather it is about living the love of God we profess.
It is in her poetry and writing that one can most truly see into the depth of Caryll’s soul. She wrote: “I feel convinced that… the laughter, the dancing, everything you do with everyone, is a real fling of the heart to God every time, and the truest prayer.”** In this she seems to understand that it is in the simplest things – and especially that which includes another person whether in the simplicity of friendship or in the efforts we put into ministry – that we offer the truest prayer if we intend it as such. Everything is done for and in God; even enjoying a simple glass of wine and a night of laughter and love with friends can be an experience of God. Building on this, her goal was to become “Christed’” that is, to become another Christ; she believed that God intends us to be as other Christs to one another. While it may be difficult to think of treating everyone as another Christ, upon reflection it seems that the key to it is respect which is related to the spiritual gift of reverence. Caryll believed that when Christ comes to each person He comes differently and uniquely in the way best for us, which means that Jesus treats us with a certain respect and reverence, too. She wrote: “… He will always come in the way that the particular soul can most easily realize and most easily respond to…. The ordinary way – and how amazing that it is the ordinary way – is in the Blessed Sacrament….” ** Jesus reverences and respects us so much that He comes to us in the way we can best recognize and welcome Him! We do not have to search high and low: He comes both in the Eucharist and in the midst of our ordinary, day to day lives.
If Caryll’s characterization that everything we do is as “a real fling of the heart to God” and “the truest prayer,” it seems to me that all of our efforts can be an offering to God if we approach them this way. If we were to respect and reverence people by seeing them as other Christs and if we were to approach every action as something we do for God, it can bring the joy we often find elusive. Instead of being burdened over the lack of virtues in the world, or focusing on what is wrong with something, it might be helpful to view our efforts positively, offered as a fling of our heart to God. It would help us to reverence ourselves in realizing that we are filled with Christ, and thus we are sacred, and so too are our efforts, small as they might be. It can transform our efforts into His work and help us to see that it is no longer ours alone. This means our focus is on God, not on self. Our work then becomes compassionate because like Caryll and the young nun, we enter into the sorrow or joy of the other, simply as we are. That is what holiness is about: it does not mean we will never sin again or that we become perfect, but it does mean we enter into our relationship with God more deeply.
Our daily prayer, simple and honest as it may be, can help us to become agents of healing for others, propelling us to offer the gifts we have been given so that we can become holy in our own ordinary way. Perhaps it is time for us to have our “fling of the heart to God,” to become our truest prayer as Caryll Houselander teaches us to do. Though we probably will not have visions, if we treat each one as if we are indeed seeing Jesus, we can reverence others in a way that may open their hearts and their minds to the love of God. Let us, then, approach others as we would Christ, never losing sight that we too are filled with His presence. It is in reverence and respect for self and for the other that we find our truest prayer and the source of all healing.
May we offer everything we do with everyone as a fling of the heart to God! May we realize that in our own unique, ordinary way, we can offer ourselves and what we do as our truest prayer! May we seek the grace of respect and reverence and then offer it to others, and especially to Christ who is present in them! May we learn to apply the gift of respect and reverence also to ourselves! And may we find joy in the love and mercy of Jesus in our relationships with others, and especially in the gift of Eucharist! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next post: October 22
For the most part, I used two books for my information:
*Caryll Houselander: Essential Writings, Selected with Commentary by Wendy M. Wright.
**A Rocking Horse-Catholic, by Caryll Houselander. This is her autobiography.
Below are some articles from which I also drew some information, but I also highly recommend Caryll Houselander's books, such as The Reed of God. Her poetry is also exquisite. (There is a fair amount of it in the book by Wendy Wright.)
1. I took this photo a number of years ago at Crater Lake, Oregon. I used it to begin this entry because of the mirror image of the mountains and clouds which appeared on the water. It is almost difficult to see where the mountains end and the water begins. This photo made me think of how Caryll Houselander had a sense of being as Christ to others; in a holy person it might be 'difficult' to see where the person ends and Christ begins, so to speak.
2. This is the photo of Caryll Houselander which appears on the cover of the book by Wendy Wright, mentioned above: Caryll Houselander: Essential Writings.
3. This is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Mother of God After Fra Angelico. I am very fond of the work of Fra Angelico and I am very fond of Our Lady, as Caryll referred to the Mother of Jesus. Thus, using this icon of Mary in reference to Caryll's book The Reed of God made sense to me. You can find this icon, and purchase a copy if you so desire, at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-after-fra-angelico-168-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
4. This painting is one of the more famous paintings of Vincent van Gogh, called Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles France. (1888) I chose it as a representation of people having a "real fling of the heart to God" as they conversed and possibly drank some wine together. Upon researching it, however, I saw an article in which the author proposed that this painting contains a somewhat hidden reference to the Last Supper. That connection reminded me of Caryll's sense of people becoming "Christed." I am not sure about the theory, compelling as it seems, but in case you are interested: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/06/van-gogh-last-supper_n_6753294.html
5. I took this photo while on a boat tour of Lake Lugano, near Lugano, Switzerland. I chose to use it here as an example of a community of people, perhaps a community of 'other Christs.'
6. I took this photo in Hermann Park which is in Houston, Texas. It depicts people gathering together in the Park taking in the beauty of the day, engaging in fun and conversation with one another. Perhaps they are entering into the truest prayer, enjoying a fling of their hearts to God.
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart