This past weekend I was able to be at the ordination to the priesthood of eight Jesuits, four of whom I know fairly well. The weekend before that I was at the Mass of Thanksgiving of a former student who had been ordained to the diocesan priesthood a day earlier. In both of these experiences there was a joy so great that it was palpable. Many of the men could hardly hold back a huge smile because ordination and saying a first Mass were the culmination of many years of prayer and preparation and also the beginning of a new way of being for the rest of their lives. For those of us celebrating and praying with them, the joy was truly catching. I found myself moved to tears, not just because the Masses were beautiful, (which they were), but because it was so obvious that this occasion was filled with the love of God. Seeing all these new priests so on fire with their love of God and their desire to serve Him was truly a witness to great love. My own tears were at being overwhelmed at the greatness of God’s love that He would give us such a great gift of Himself, present to us through these men.
The love of God is indeed very overwhelming. If we were to truly feel all of the grace we are given and all of the love He bears for us we would not be able to withstand it. In Old Testament times it was believed that if one saw the face of God one would perish. God seemed to confirm this belief when He ‘protected’ Moses in response to his request to see God’s glory. God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim my name, “LORD,” before you; I who show favor to whom I will, I who grant mercy to whom I will. But you cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.” (Ex 33:19-20) The issue was not in seeing God’s face, but rather it was about being in the fullness of God’s love which Moses would not have been able to endure. The truth is that God’s love is so overwhelming and so intense that Moses would have indeed been consumed by it as if by the flame in the burning bush. God’s love is too intense for us to bear in our limited humanity and therefore He often moves beyond our ability to sense it. Only when we are with Him in Heaven forever will we be able to bear all that love. It is to this reality that we have to look forward.
God certainly does not want to overwhelm any of us to the point of annihilation. That would not make any sense. Therefore, God gives us many great gifts in order to share His love with us in ways that we can handle without being overcome. For example He gives us people who are in our lives now and those whose love has nurtured us along the way. All of our beloved friends and family are conduits of God’s love, though maybe in an imperfect way. He also gives us the great gift of His presence through the Eucharist. We cannot fathom the depths involved in the miracle of the Body and Blood of Jesus being given to us. If we were to grasp even a little bit of the miracle of what goes on when the bread and wine are consecrated and become the Lord Jesus, if we were to comprehend even an iota of His presence in the tabernacle when we pray before Him, we would be far too overwhelmed to handle it because of all the love that He bears. I think that He veils our eyes in the midst of our daily prayer, such that sometimes it may even feel a bit empty, because His love is so great, and in contrast we are so weak and limited, that He knows we can only take a bit at a time. He gives us the gifts of faith and hope in order to trust that He is present to us so that we do not give up altogether. There have been a few saints who experienced ecstasy in their prayer; they were able to get a greater glimpse of the love of God even if just for a moment. But they could not sustain it, and often just the memory of such an experience was enough for their entire life time. Nothing could ever match it, and therefore it heightened their longing for Heaven so as to be immersed in it once again.
Last week we celebrated both the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. To celebrate their hearts is to celebrate the great effusion of love each one brought into the world. That Mary was immaculate and full of grace is the only way she could have continually born the love of God when she was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and carried Jesus for nine months. After Jesus’ birth she chose to share the love she was given rather than to hold onto it solely for herself. Mary learned of the fullness of love from Him, not only as His mother, but also as a disciple. She trusted in the promise of God that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, who would conquer sin and death, and she chose to be enfolded in love rather than to be overwhelmed by pain. Therefore she knew the joy of being loved and of being able to return that love, such that she is one to whom we can always turn to intercede for us when we are in need.
In daily life it is important to open our eyes to love even in the midst of misfortune. Both joy and suffering can teach us great lessons. They teach us to value life and the things in it differently. They show us what really matters; and always what matters most are the people in our lives who are beloved to us, not the material possessions we have acquired. While material things are nice, they have no lasting value when life and death are weighed against them. We take none of it with us when we die. But what we do take is the love of those who we encountered and the love of God which never leaves us. We take with us the effects of the love which we gave in response. Even if we were not born into a loving family, it was the love of God which has accompanied us into life and which is with us the entire time we are here; it is His love which will usher us into the next life, and in whose company we will live forever. This is the pearl of great price of which Jesus taught. It is not material, but it is the love which we have always had and which we nurture by sharing with others. Paradoxically if we try to horde love, it shrinks, and if we give love away, it grows.
The more we open our hearts to people in whatever circumstances they may be, (or in which we find ourselves), the more we experience the intensity of the love of God. The more we learn to see love in people, the more we can learn to recognize love in the beauty around us and in every good gift we have received, including the gift of those who dedicate their lives to service, such as the men ordained during the past few weeks. We can experience God’s presence through the sacraments which priests and deacons are empowered to preside over with us. God called them to be ministers of His love for our sake, and they responded to Him in love, ensuring us visible signs of His presence through their service. While we cannot feel love constantly due to our limitations, we can trust in its power and in the promises of God. The more we trust in God and His gifts, the more we will be able to recognize love as He offers it, and even with intensity, in a tiny piece of bread and a sip of wine made Body and Blood. Let us therefore welcome the love residing within our hearts, allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by God’s greatest gift.
May we trust in God, believing in His promises, His presence, and His saving love for us! May we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the immensity of God’s love in the here and now! May we continue to pray for vocations to priesthood and religious life and may we have gratitude for those who respond to God’s call to ministry! May we ask for the gift of love for those with whom we come in contact, especially for those who are most difficult to love! May we see the goodness in those who are different than ourselves, receiving their love no matter how imperfect! May we forgive those who do not know love, having mercy and compassion for them! And may we sit in wonder and awe at such a loving God, amazed and filled with gratitude! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The top photo was taken by Mary Solcher at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in New Orleans during the Jesuit ordination mentioned in the first paragraph.
Next are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is called The Heart of the Mother of God and it can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/160-the-heart-of-the-mother-of-god.
The second is an image called The Name of God Yahweh which can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/31-the-name-of-god-yahweh.
The last photograph is one I took at St. Joseph on the Rio Grande Catholic Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Heart Speaks to Heart