Unless the Lord Builds the House
When I was a senior in high school I joined a prayer group that met in my church. We prayed in many ways, including song. One night a man sang something that touched my heart, a composition by a new group called the “St. Louis Jesuits.” The first line of the song was from Psalm 127: “If the Lord does not build the house, then in vain to do the builders labor.”* Years later, this verse has taken on greater meaning because my husband and I are in the midst of building a new house. Just as no person, thing, or process in life is ever perfect, the progression of construction has included a few bumps. In praying about these things, the song from the St. Louis Jesuits began to run through my head once again. At first I jokingly quipped about the song verse, since it seemed we would need heavenly help to get through the construction process. But with more earnest reflection, I realized that it is not the structure I should be concerned about so much as what kind of home it will be. That is, if we, the laborers, do not let the Lord build our inner life, the house of our souls will be lopsided, focused on self rather than God, and in danger of collapse. We cannot build the house ourselves: if we insist on going it alone, without God’s grace, we cannot progress in our growth in holiness. But if the Lord builds a home within our hearts, then we can prosper in holiness and become a refuge of mercy, peace, and love for those who enter into relationship with us. We become holy ground because God takes up residence within, and hopefully our demeanor will in turn make God’s presence evident in our domicile so that it becomes a place of welcome and peace.
Advent began this past weekend with readings that emphasized being ready and alert. We heard from Isaiah that we should remain watchful so as to be found holy when the Lord arrives. He admonished that the people were in danger of God arriving and finding them steeped in sin. Isaiah acknowledged how much we need God’s help to stay on the right path when he wrote, “...we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hands.” (Isaiah 64:7) Therefore, the Lord must be the builder, the potter, while we acknowledge that we are His creation and that He has created us for beauty. But these words clearly express that we cannot create ourselves: we need the creator to build and to sustain our lives.
The gospel for the first Sunday of Advent continues the theme of readiness: “May He not come suddenly and find you sleeping.” (Mark 13:37) The potter can only be affective if the clay cooperates: if the clay is too dry it will crumble and if it is too wet if will not take shape. In other words, we have a responsibility to be ready, by nurturing the gift we are, drinking in what Jesus offers, (His Body and Blood as well as His words). If we do not reflect upon His teaching and also partake in His Body and Blood, our spiritual life will dry out and crumble. But if we take it upon ourselves to grow in the spiritual life without direction or discernment, we will drown in our good intentions as we attempt to follow our own counsel and not that of God. However, we should not worry about getting the balance correct because if we let God do the building and are open and docile like ‘healthy’ clay, then He will offer the graces needed to be formed in holiness. It is not about our perfection, but rather it is about His love. If we try to do as Jesus teaches in the gospels and if we spend time in prayer, the Lord is surely building the house.
While the readings for the first week this year do not mention the people and events we most associate with Advent, the themes are nonetheless important. Advent is a season of preparation and readiness for what is to come; but we do so with joyful expectation. Indeed, our focus is on the coming of Jesus and on the wonder of a beautiful, pregnant young woman who has willingly been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and on a man who is willing to build a house (a family) with her; we should remember that neither the man (Joseph) or the woman (Mary) fully understood, but both kept saying ‘yes’ to God over and again. Perhaps we can follow in their footsteps by letting the Lord lead, even though we do not understand, as He builds His home within our soul and His house within our world. We do not work in vain if we work with God, even if our heart seems to us like a crude stable, ill-fitting as His home. But remember that if God chose to be born into a stable 2000 years ago, He saw that place not as crude, but rather as the most fitting place for Him to enter into our world. He could have chosen any home, but He chose that one. So why, then, do we think He would even hesitate to build a fitting home in the humble space within our heart to be born anew? Be at peace, for He comes.
May we continue to prepare our hearts for the Lord to dwell within in a new way! May we allow the Lord to build the house of our heart and soul! May we be willing to labor with Jesus in serving others by evangelizing through our words and deeds! And may we be a welcoming presence, a refuge of love, for those who are lonely, lost, or neglected during this Advent season! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus! Marana tha! Come O Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* The song If the Lord Does Not Build the House was written by Dan Schutte and is found in the album Earthen Vessels by the St. Louis Jesuits. The name of the song, (also the verse quoted), is Psalm 127:1. You can hear it at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TN_ejm0LqM
NOTE: I will not be posting an entry on December 14, which ordinarily would be a scheduled posting date. (I usually post every other Monday.) I will be taking a short break through the rest of Advent. If you do want something to assist your Advent reflections, I suggest that you go to my Archives and explore what I have written for Advent in previous years. I will post again on December 28. Thank you and have a blessed, fruitful Advent. (FYI: The entry for December, 2017 would have been based on the same readings as those of this Advent.)
1. My photo. That is our new house in its beginning stages.
2. Painting, Chrysanthemums in a Chinese Vase, by Camille Pissarro. (1873) Though this is a painting it, depicts a complex piece of pottery. https://www.wikiart.org/en/camille-pissarro/chrysanthemums-in-a-chinese-vase-1873
3. My photo, taken at Masi Vineyards (Tenuto Canova) in Veneto, Italy. This photo has symbols within it that seem to have biblical relevance: the well, wine, and trees... ('He is the vine and we are the branches'...close enough)… all imagery used by Jesus in John's gospel.
4. Icon, The Mother of God Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can find this moving icon in one of many mediums at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-mother-of-god-overshadowed-by-the-holy-spirit-118-william-hart-mcnichols.html
5 & 6. Prints, Advent Wreaths.
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.
12/3/2020 10:27:01 am
Thank you for the wonderful reminder, God from within. I've become hesitant to put a Christmas tree in my home, Covid related reason. In doing this my focus is laser focused on the true reason and meaning of Christmas. Talk about a blessing.
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Heart Speaks to Heart