Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. (1 Peter 4:10)

Judged Just Like That

            I’ve been listening to a series on Ignatian spiritual exercises and as a result, have been looking at the daily scripture readings in a different light. As I try to put myself in the midst of what’s happening, and then just let the words speak to me, I seem to find my way to some new takes on both the readings and this life I’m living.

            Today, the gospel reading was Matt. 7:1-5 – a short reading which begins with Jesus saying, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.”

Jesus goes on to talk about removing the beam from one’s own eye before worrying about the splinter in someone else’s eye. My initial reflection centered on this: Jesus reminds me again to step outside of myself. He reminds me that as I have vowed my life in service to others, I can do it will only if my own spiritual house is in order. This I must work at daily, putting my soul in order as Jesus taught…by praying and fasting and giving in secret, not because the world sees; and yet shining with His light so that the world can see.

So back to judging. This morning’s homily, quite naturally, was about our tendency to make judgments about other people, but as I pondered the words of Jesus, something new began to form itself for me. It centered on His words: “For as you judge, you will be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.”

            Naturally, I began thinking about my relationship with my oldest daughter, which for more than five years now has been a relationship of complete estrangement. I’ve struggled with that from many angles. While I have forgiven her for her actions, I have decided that I cannot and will not engage with her; the pattern of our past tells me that to do so will only result in her repeating past damaging behavior which would harm me and those around me. I pray for her daily, because I love her and long for her to be healed. And for a long time now, I’ve gotten stuck right there, because I could not quite reconcile Jesus’ admonition to forgive an unlimited number of times with my unwillingness to let her wrong me again.

            And so this morning, the words of Jesus rang in my head: “For as you judge, so will you be judged.” I had to consider whether and how I was judging my daughter, and I had to consider whether I would want to be judged in the same way.

            Was I judging her as a hopeless case, meriting no further effort on my part? Is that what it means when I choose not to engage with her? And did that mean that I could expect God to judge me, in my sinfulness, in the same way, setting me aside as deserving no further grace, unworthy of His attention, falling short of repentance and lacking in atonement?

            As I meditated on Jesus’ words, something led me to see this in a different way. It became obvious to me that I did not judge her as hopelessly lost. If I did, I would not pray daily for her healing. To judge her so would be to deny God’s own all-powerful, all-merciful love for us – for her as well as for me.

            It occurred to me that I do, indeed judge her. I judge her as needful of God’s love, as needful of His healing power, as needful of His grace. And I want her – desperately and deeply want her – to have those things.

            I see her as greatly needing that love and mercy, as needing to be open to it and to the grace that follows faith. If there is judgment here, it is the judgment that she needs God. In praying daily that God will heal her, I also pray that she will come to know Him, and it is impossible to pray in this way without faith and hope and love.

            So as I judge her in need of God’s love and mercy and grace and healing, I see that God will then judge me as being in need of His love, mercy, grace, and healing.

            And I can live with that.

Psalm 66, continued….

Verses for May 5, 2022:

Bless our God, you peoples,
loudly sound his praise;
He has given life to our souls,
and has not let our feet slip.
Hear now, all you who fear God, while I declare
what he has done for me.
When I appealed to him in words,
praise was on the tip of my tongue.
Blessed be God who refused me not
my prayer or his kindness!

            When was the last time I loudly sounded God’s praise? When have I spoken aloud, even conversationally, about what God has done for me?

            Let me think of this another way: what is stopping me from praising God out loud, from speaking about what He has done for me? If I think of this on a human level, I don’t know a single person, including myself, who does not enjoy being praised when they do things for others. Even if we protest, even if we deflect the praise, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t like it. On this human level, praise provides validation for something well done; perhaps it encourages us to repeat the behavior that led to the praise. Praise makes us feel good about ourselves and about our actions.

            When we praise God, we are not adding anything to Him, of course. I think that God does not need our praise to know that He is good, and in His absolute love for us He will always take care of us. During the long stretch of my life when I was separated from any active practice of faith, when praising God was definitely not a part of my days, He still looked out for me and protected me. With very little searching, I could offer countless examples of His loving care for me during that time.

            If God does not need to be reminded of His goodness, and if our praise adds nothing to Him, then why are we called to praise Him?

            I think the answer is that this is yet another way that He looks out for us. In praising God, we remind ourselves of who God is. We remind ourselves of how glorious He is. We remind ourselves of the amazing fact of creation and the continued existence of God’s creation. We remind ourselves of the wonderful things He has done for us – of His goodness. When we worship Him, we remind ourselves of His glory, the glory that we seek to see in person at the end of our lives. When we recount all of the good things He has put in our lives, we are reminded that even though we are powerless to achieve salvation on our own, God has seen to it for us.

            “Hear now, all you who fear God, while I declare what he has done for me.” When we praise God, we witness to others how good and powerful and glorious He is; it’s a way of evangelizing, really. This line, and the words following it: “When I appealed to him in words, praise was on the tip of my tongue” are at the heart of a healthy prayer life.

            If I add nothing to God by my praise of Him, I also take nothing away from myself when I acknowledge and praise Him as the source of all that is good in my life, in my world. When I recognize that God is the giver of all good gifts, I am drawn out of myself, out of this shell of self-sufficiency that my ego builds, and I am drawn in faith to Jesus and through Him to the Father. This promise is in today’s gospel reading: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day….Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” (John 6:44-46)

            These verses from Ps. 66 have me remembering some of the times in my life when I had taken myself about as far from God as was possible, and yet God protected me. During a time when my promiscuous behavior put me at risk for not only disease, but personal harm and even death, not one hair of my head was harmed. I look back on that time in wonder. The AIDS epidemic was in full rage, and at least one serial killer was active where I lived. I’m convinced that my survival, and that I survived largely unscathed, was through no virtue of my own. I’m as sure as I can be of anything in life that God my Father commissioned my guardian angel to keep protecting me, to keep steering me – sometimes yanking me – out of harm’s way, and finally to prompt me to listen when the Holy Spirit was telling me it was time to stop.

            Although I stopped the risky behavior, I didn’t recognize God’s hand in the change, and I didn’t turn back to Him, not for a long time. And so God did what God does: He stepped up His quest for my soul.

            What amazes me, when I look back on those times, is that even as I chose to remain separated from God, I felt perfectly free to call on Him when I needed something. There was no bargaining, no promise to change my ways if He would give me what I asked for. My prayers were those of a recalcitrant child who knows deep down that her parent loves her regardless of her bad behavior. And God did what God does: He answered those prayers.

            In the end, as I like to say, He chased me until I caught Him. My encounters with God during the last few days of my husband’s life were filled with a kind of light that I can’t describe. I knew that I was on my way back to God, and that I would be where God wanted me to be. I trusted God completely in those days and hours, and I entrusted my beloved Tom to Him.

            It never occurred to me that God might not listen to my prayers or that I might not deserve to be heard. I never once felt anything but a sense of welcome and joy. I walked back into God’s arms, and it was like I’d never been away….but it was also much more than that. My relationship with God took on a new intensity, and it grew by leaps and bounds.

            I love God.

            I love God, and I say so publicly. As I write this, I think initially, “But I don’t love Him enough or say it enough.” But I think that is not the point that God wants me to understand. I think what He wants me to understand is that I love Him, and my love for Him is growing. I say so publicly, and I’m learning to do so more openly and more often and with less fear of the reactions it may get.

            This, I think, is the thing about praising God that makes it the heart of our prayer life. It is that this is a life of “and,” not “but.” I love God, and my love for Him is growing. I pray daily, and God answers my prayers in ways I don’t expect. I offer praise to God, and doing so reminds me of Who we both are. I “sin and fall short of the glory of God,” and He is ready with forgiveness, mercy, and new grace when I come to Him sorry and repentant. I take baby steps along the way to following Him, and He is there with His light, holding out His hand so I won’t lose the path.

            Listen, while I tell you about all the great things God has done for me. I hope you have lots of time, because it’s a very long story.

Psalm 66

Verses for May 4, 2022, Responsorial Psalm:

Shout joyfully to God, all the earth,
sing praise to the glory of his name;

proclaim his glorious praise.

Say to God, How tremendous are your deeds!”

“Let all on earth worship and sing praise to you,
sing praise to your name!”

Come and see the works of God,
his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam.

He has changed the sea into dry land;
through the river they passed on foot;
therefore let us rejoice in him.

He rules by his might forever.

            Today’s psalm presents a strange and interesting juxtaposition to the first reading, from Acts 8:1b-8. In that first reading, we hear of “severe persecution” of the fledgling Church after Steven is martyred by stoning. We hear of Saul (not yet Paul) persecuting the church and personally handing over men and women to imprisonment for their belief in Jesus Christ.

            The reading from Acts also reaches into the heart of the psalm, though, reporting that in the midst of the persecution, disciples escaped and carried their preaching far and wide. They were not scattered like leftover scraps; rather, they were scattered like seeds, to take root and grow in new places. For this, “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy!”

            I don’t know that the earth, or the people on it, spend enough time or even very much time crying out to God with joy, or proclaiming “his glorious praise.” I don’t see us, the people God created for His own, answering the invitation to “Come and see the works of God, his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam.”

            No, we are much better at complaining about the sea that impedes us, rather than praising God for giving us the dry land in its midst to walk on. We are far more willing to pick at what we see wrong in our lives and our world and ask God to fix it, change it, take it out of our way, than we are to seek an understanding of how God wants to make us stronger so that we can walk amidst these obstacles with courage.

            The verses from Psalm 66 are a lesson in prayer, a call to communicate with God in a different way than we are accustomed to do.

            Growing up as a cradle Catholic, I experienced prayer as a series of prescribed words and forms. My mother taught me the basic prayers of our faith – the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Guardian Angel prayer, and Apostle’s Creed. In Catechism class I learned others – Hail, Holy Queen, Memorare, Nicene Creed. The Mass, back then, was prayed in Latin with minimal participation from the laity in the pews. The Rosary was prayed often, and not uncommonly in silence while Mass was being offered in a language we neither understood well nor spoke. We said those certain prayers at certain times, and they rounded out our weekly and daily ritual. Our priests offered Mass on our behalf, and we understood the Mass and those prayers we recited to be beneficial to our souls simply by virtue of being said. We were, if not actively discouraged from it, certainly not encouraged to read the Bible. The priest would provide what we needed to know of scripture.

            That was the Church I left in 1967. When I returned in 2012, I returned to a Church that encouraged individual and group Bible study. I returned to a Church where Mass was almost exclusively prayed in the vernacular of the congregation and where praying the Mass “ad orientam” (the priest’s back to the congregation) was viewed with suspicion by many, and while permitted, not encouraged.

            While the vernacular Mass had become prevalent just before I left the Church, I had not had time to get used to it, and it made for an amazing experience when I returned. But what I found even more amazing, and sometimes disconcerting and even vaguely disturbing, was the prevalence of what I thought of as “ad lib” or spontaneous prayer. I’d heard plenty of this kind of prayer in my years attending Protestant churches, and I had come to think of it as the province of Protestants, for after all, we Catholics had our own prayers that covered everything, right?

            The biggest discomfort, then, in my return to the Church, was not my first confession in 45 years. It wasn’t wondering if I’d get it right when I received Holy Communion in the hand for the first time. It wasn’t getting used to the fullness of participation in the Mass.

            My biggest discomfort was getting used to, and learning, this wellspring of spontaneous prayer that I saw everywhere around me. And one of the great blessings of those early days of my return was my attendance at a group study which outlined ways to pray spontaneously, to communicate with God individually about our own wants and needs and to build our own personal relationship with Him in this way.

            It was no longer as simple as saying an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be as bedtime prayer. And although the Rosary was still regarded as a beautiful centerpiece of Catholic prayer, the reflections and meditations took on a new flavor; there were even five new Mysteries to pray!

            I had, of course, had some experience with this sort of “direct” prayer as I had often prayed during my husband’s final illness, carrying on a sort of conversation with God about what I wanted from Him in that time.

            Still, it was a new experience to have group meetings and Bible studies and all kinds of gatherings, both formal and informal, begin and end with the leader’s spontaneous prayers. Just as I began to discern a pattern in those prayers, I attended that group study, which offered a guide to keeping our spontaneous prayers, our conversations with God, on track. And this guide involved first giving thanks, praise, or adoration to God; then acknowledging our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness; then asking God for those things we wanted from Him; and finally, placing ourselves in acceptance of and obedience to His will. It seemed that you could assign an acronym to your chosen prayer formula as an aid to remembering and staying on track with it.

            I’d like to say that what I learned about prayer in that study group changed my prayer life instantly and forever, but it didn’t. Instead, this new approach took quite some getting used to. Still, as my relationship with God developed along new and unexpected paths, so did my prayer life. And when I learned, a few years ago, that I had been given a charism of intercessory prayer, that brought a new awareness of the importance of this aspect of my relationship with the Lord.

            All of this is leading up to an admission: To this day, the “praise and adoration” part of prayer – what the Psalmist is talking about here in these verses from Ps. 66 – is the most challenging part of prayer for me. When I begin to pray, I have no trouble finding things to express gratitude for. My life is truly full of such things.

            But what am I meant to praise God for? And why? My praise for the things He has done don’t make those things any greater, nor do they make God greater. What does He want from me, then, in this call to praise Him and adore Him?

            Psalm 66 offers a hint: “Say to God, ‘How tremendous are your deeds!’” When I begin to think about His deeds – beginning with the Creation, culminating in the Redemption of mankind, and everything that goes on in the world, really – it gives greater meaning to the line, “Come and see the works of God….” And I begin to think about ways that I can start to view the world as the works of God, and something begins to dawn in my mind.

            When I think of all that surrounds me as works of God, that draws me away from dwelling on my own role in it. When I see everything as coming from God, Who is good, I see everything in a different light. And when I offer my words of praise to God, He doesn’t see that as silly or useless. He sees it, I think, as my turning to Him rather than relying on myself and other human invention and intervention. When God sees me focused on Him, I think He has me right where He wants me.

            In opening my prayers, indeed in beginning all of my days and all of my enterprises, with thanks and praise to God who created me and everything I will encounter and use in my day, I am recognizing Who God is, and in turn recognizing who I am to Him: His beloved creation whose love in return He desires.

            When I praise God for the wonders of His creation, for His own glory, and for all of the great things He has done for His people, I am not telling Him anything that He does not know. Rather, I am reminding myself of Who it is that I worship and serve.

Prayer becomes more than a ritual or a rote exercise. It becomes an active way of participating in my relationship with God. Prayer becomes a response to the gift of faith God has given me.

To praise God is to claim my place as His creation. To praise and give thanks to Him is to put myself where I belong – not as the master of all I survey, but as the beloved child and servant of the God who made all I survey.

            Indeed, I can live with that.

            Today, May 2, I’m taking a break from reflections on the daily Psalms to write about humility. I can say with certainty that it is a subject in which I lack expertise. I know this because of how often I need lessons in it. If that isn’t evidence enough, I can consider my own amazement when I’m granted an insight into what it really means.

            It takes a special kind of courage to pray for humility, especially if you really mean it. It’s rather impressive and, well, humbling when God is willing to answer such prayers. My first reaction is always – not usually, but always – “Why me, Lord? Why is this happening to me?”

            The realization that whatever I’m moping about is really a lesson in humility can be a bit of a shock. It also has its own kind of beauty.

            All of this came home to me in a single package when I heard the most wonderful homily on May 1, the third Sunday of Easter, in a little campus chapel that’s part of a parish in a town near my daughter and son-in-law’s lake house. (It’s officially called ‘the Retreat,” but I suspect it will always be the lake house to me.) When we arrived a couple of minutes early for Mass, Father was still on the steps greeting people as they entered. There were some pleasantries about the weather, and then he looked at me, smiled, and said, “Keep praying.”

            When you have a charism for intercessory prayer, that phrase has special meaning. And coming on the heels of recent times of spiritual darkness, it had even more meaning for me. Sure, he might have been talking about the weather. But the Holy Spirit has been quite busy with me just lately, and I heard Him in that moment.

            Father Jegar Fickel is the pastor of the combined St. Mary-St. Paul Catholic Community there in Big Rapids. I don’t know that he’ll ever read this blog, but I can’t write what I need to write without calling him by name. If I heard the Holy Spirit in that pre-Mass greeting, I felt Him wrap up my heart and soul in the homily Father Jegar gave yesterday.

            I’ve often heard the phrase “breaking open” or “unpacking” the Scriptures, and I have to admit I’m not especially fond of it; it seems a little precious, in the way that metaphors of that sort often do to me. But Father Jegar absolutely broke open the story of Jesus’ third appearance to the disciples after His resurrection (John 21:1-19), and in his telling of it, he reached right into my heart and broke it open too.

            Line by line, he did it, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more completely captivated by a homily. He talked about the tenderness with which Jesus loved Peter, all the while knowing, as only Jesus could, how flawed Peter was. He drew parallels between this story and the day Jesus first called Peter. Then he explained how Jesus first asked Peter whether he loved Him in the sense of “agape” – a love that lays down its life for the beloved — and he drew a parallel between this question and Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus. Hearing it, one’s heart would break at what Peter must have felt in this moment, when the response of his heart was that he indeed loved Jesus – as a dear friend. Just as on the night he denied Jesus, Peter was not yet so sure that he would lay down his life for Jesus.

Peter. In that moment, he was not the rock on which Jesus would build His church. In that moment, he saw himself as he was: a weak, sinful man who could not give Jesus the fullness of love that He wanted and deserved.

Sitting there listening to Fr. Jegar, I heard this gospel story as though for the first time. He said that when Jesus asked Peter the third time, “Do you love me?” he asked in words that meant love as a friend. As Father said, “Jesus lowered the bar,” wanting Peter’s love but knowing the man’s limitations and meeting him where he was so that He could lead him deeper into that love. Tradition and history tell us that Peter indeed laid down his life for Jesus, martyred by crucifixion, and that he always recognized his own weakness, asking to be crucified head-down because he was unworthy to die in the same position as Jesus had.

Father Jegar brought the homily to a close, applying the lessons of this gospel story to our own lives, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it.

We love to think about Jesus loving us tenderly, yet I think we do not stop to consider what that really means. Jesus is the Word by which all creation was made, and He loves us as His own creation – not because we are perfect, but because we are His creation. He loves us in our weakness and sinfulness. He lowers the bar for us – yes, He does. Rather than requiring our perfection, He keeps offering us a way back to Him through the Sacraments.

He keeps loving us in His “agape” way of loving, even though we are barely capable of the kind of “friendship” love that Peter expressed. And sometimes our own pride gets in the way of letting ourselves be loved this way. We want to be loved for our good qualities, the way we expect to be loved by other people. We aren’t ready to be loved despite our lack of such qualities. We aren’t ready to be loved so deeply and absolutely in our state of utter imperfection that we have no choice but to respond by reaching for something better in ourselves.

Now, there is a humbling thought if I have ever entertained one.

Am I willing to be loved by Jesus the way He loves me, deeply and utterly and absolutely, and to be responsive to His call to be open to loving Him more and more completely?

This is the question that these recent weeks of spiritual discontent have been leading me to. It took a visit to a tiny chapel in a little town some distance from home, and a homily from a priest I’d never met before, to bring me to this question.

And I need to answer the question, because if I am truly open to being loved by Jesus in this way, then His grace, carried by His Holy Spirit, can find its way in. I think it’s not that God’s grace is unable to find its way in when we are stubbornly locked into our own limited way of loving; rather, it’s that God finds ways to soften us up for it. That’s what all the tears and fears and stubbornness of these past weeks have been about.

I’ve prayed for humility. At first, I prayed boldly without knowing what I was asking for. When God began to answer my prayer, it was kind of a shock, and I think I retreated without realizing what I was doing. He went to work on softening me up, and I began to understand better what I’m asking for when I pray for humility. More importantly, I am beginning to see a greater willingness in myself to accept the humility that God wants me to know.

I won’t claim that I felt the earth shift beneath my feet, exactly, with these realizations. But there is no question that the earth feels just a little different under my feet today, and there’s a peace and a calm in my soul that was missing for awhile. Please, Lord, please, let me keep listening, and keep me strong enough to keep praying for humility.

Because I can live with that.

Psalm 33

1 Rejoice, you righteous, in the LORD; praise from the upright is fitting.

2 Give thanks to the LORD on the harp; on the ten-stringed lyre offer praise.

3 Sing to him a new song; skillfully play with joyful chant.

4 For the LORD’s word is upright; all his works are trustworthy.

5 He loves justice and right. The earth is full of the mercy of the LORD.

6 By the LORD’s word the heavens were made; by the breath of his mouth all their host.

7 He gathered the waters of the sea as a mound; he sets the deep into storage vaults.

8 Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all who dwell in the world show him reverence.

9 For he spoke, and it came to be, commanded, and it stood in place.

10 The LORD foils the plan of nations, frustrates the designs of peoples.

11 But the plan of the LORD stands forever, the designs of his heart through all generations.

12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people chosen as his inheritance.

13 From heaven the LORD looks down and observes the children of Adam,

14 From his dwelling place he surveys all who dwell on earth.

15 The One who fashioned together their hearts is the One who knows all their works.

16 A king is not saved by a great army, nor a warrior delivered by great strength.

17 Useless is the horse for safety; despite its great strength, it cannot be saved.

18 Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon those who fear him, upon those who count on his mercy,

19 To deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive through famine.

20 Our soul waits for the LORD, he is our help and shield.

21 For in him our hearts rejoice; in his holy name we trust.

22 May your mercy, LORD, be upon us; as we put our hope in you.

-Ps. 33, New American Bible, Revised Edition

This is a song of hope. It’s no rosy picture, no claim of sunshine and “all’s right with the world.” The psalmist paints an honest picture of what God’s people face in the world, because that’s the only way we can understand what God does and wants to do for us.

We’re called to exult — not because everything around us is great and perfect, but because we belong to a God who deeply loves and cares for His creation, a God Who keeps His Word, loves justice, and leads those who believe in Him and trust Him into a place where His own kindness and justice prevail.

This song of hope does not ask us to ignore or blithely pass by the evil forces around us, but rather to see them clearly and recognize that God is greater than they are, that His love for us enables us to overcome them.

This song of hope leads us right into the Gospel reading for this day (John 6:16-21). The wind and the storm are very real, and the fear of the disciples as they row out into the sea in its midst is also very real. Their fear is so real and so intense that it keeps them from recognizing Jesus when He comes to them walking on the sea. And then His voice reassures them, and their deliverance from fear is instantaneous as “the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading.”

What we so often fail to see and understand, as we face our daily trials and tribulations, as we encounter the evils that surround us in this world, is that God wants to protect us and save us from it. In Jesus, He comes walking on the turbulence that surrounds us. Psalm 33 reminds us not to put our trust in the wrong things, but to rejoice in the protection that God alone offers.

I’ve felt for some time that I needed to spend time with the Psalms and in reflection on their place in my spiritual life. It seems like reflecting on the psalm selected for the day’s readings is a good place to start. What I’m finding most amazing is how closely these psalms are fitting my current spiritual needs. As my soul begins to find its way out of what I’d call a minor spiritual darkness, as I recognize my tendency to resist the workings of the Holy Spirit and His very gentle but insistent promptings to overcome that tendency, today’s psalm reminds me that God has a plan for me. And His plan is the only one I need to be concerned with, because He alone is trustworthy. His Word, in all the ways it enters my world, is all I need.

So there is the plan for me: Listen. Trust. Repeat.

I can live with that.

Where Is God’s House?

A Reflection on the Psalm of the Day, 4/29/2022

Psalm 27

1The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear?

The LORD is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?

2When evildoers come at me to devour my flesh,

These my enemies and foes themselves stumble and fall.

3Though an army encamp against me, my heart does not fear;

Though war be waged against me, even then do I trust.

4One thing I ask of the LORD; this I seek:

To dwell in the LORD’s house all the days of my life,

To gaze on the LORD’s beauty, to visit his temple.

5For God will hide me in his shelter in time of trouble,

He will conceal me in the cover of his tent; and set me high upon a rock.

6Even now my head is held high above my enemies on every side!

I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;I will sing and chant praise to the LORD.

7Hear my voice, LORD, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me.

8“Come,” says my heart, “seek his face”; your face, LORD, do I seek!

9Do not hide your face from me; do not repel your servant in anger.

You are my salvation; do not cast me off; do not forsake me, God my savior!

10Even if my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me in.

11LORD, show me your way; lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

12Do not abandon me to the desire of my foes; malicious and lying witnesses have risen against me.

13I believe I shall see the LORD’s goodness in the land of the living.

14Wait for the LORD, take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the LORD!

(Ps. 27, New American Bible, Revised Edition)

This desire to “dwell in the Lord’s house” – my first thought is that it’s a desire for heaven. It’s where I’ll go, someday, when God decides my time on earth is done. That’s hard to hang onto, though. It’s a nebulous “someday” kind of thing, not something I can hold onto firmly today, in the moment.

So where exactly is the “Lord’s house”? He has placed me in this present world and surely means me to live here until it is time to live in heaven. The physical church, of course, is the Lord’s house. It’s our place for worship, for connection with God and all the Persons of God, for receiving the grace He offers. It seems unquestionable that spending more time there is a good thing. But I can’t live there, can I?

The Lord’s house must be somewhere else, then. Somewhere readily accessible to me and readily accessible to God. Somewhere that I can actually live, a place where I can be in communication with God at any and all times, a place where I can encounter God in the ways He chooses to reveal Himself to me.

Perhaps it will help me identify this place if I think about why I need it. Why do I want so much to live in the Lord’s house? The Psalmist understood this and expressed it eloquently: my world is full of enemies, and I need protection from them. Left on my own I’d be helpless against these enemies. And I need to understand who and what they are if I’m going to overcome them. These enemies, according to verses 11 and 12, are malicious liars who want to keep me away from God. They are, I think, the things of the world that make themselves attractive so as to draw me away from God. They are the ideas and desires that make me regard myself as the center of my own life, and thus as more important than God.

Described this way, these enemies are truly terrifying. Only by living in the Lord’s house can I be safe from them! So where is it? How do I get there?

The answer is simple, isn’t it? The God who is my light, my salvation, my life’s refuge (vs. 1-2) is all around me. The world around me is first and always His own creation. He fills it, and invites me to dwell in it. He makes it safe for me. He promises to dwell in His creation, and He promises that those enemies that seem so terrifying will in fact stumble and fall before Him.

He promises.

There is the triumph. There is the reason I can hold my head high in the face of those enemies. This is how I can trust, rather than living in fear: He promises.

He promises, and I can count on that promise to and through my last bodily breath: “10Even if my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me in.”

This is where I dwell: The Lord’s house, where grace is in constant supply and where peace is readily mine, if only I can let go of the lies the world wants to tell me.

This is where I dwell: The Lord’s house, where those enemies can shout their lies right up to the doorstep, but because I dwell here, and this is the Lord’s house, they can’t get in.

This is where I dwell: The Lord’s house, where my path is level and where the Lord shows me the path and leads me on it. I have only one choice to make, and that is to dwell here in safety and to trust God.

Because He promises. And unlike those enemies, who lie, God makes good on His promises. I know, because I keep seeing Him do it every day.

Seeing Psalm 27 as the psalm of the day for this April 29, 2022, is especially reassuring to me after several weeks of emotional turmoil. I’ve felt by turns sad, angry, lonely, and generally irritated; I’ve experienced joys and then right next to them, intense sorrow and loss; I’ve come through a time of wallowing in all this pain and sadness to a realization that God was using some interesting ways to renew His call to me.

I was in danger of getting so embroiled in the negativity I began to feel that I could not even remind myself to turn to God. It took the observation of a therapist to set me in the right direction. She told me that she did not see “depression” in what I described to her; she saw, instead, a spiritual crossroads, where I stood unable or unwilling, for whatever reason, to hear what God was asking of me.

My default methods of handling life – tamping down what I saw as “negative” emotion and weakness, holding up a “strong” front to the world – were proving to be less than equal to the enemies out there. I realized that I needed to be open rather than trying to close myself off from those feelings. When I began to let myself feel, and to cry, I used the moment as an opportunity to offer God my sadness and pain and to ask Him what He wanted me to learn, where He wanted me to go with this.

He was very quick to answer, and by His grace I have embraced His answer.

The Psalmist rejoices that God is with us always. By this knowledge, we dwell in the Lord’s house at all times. He promises, and in His promises we are filled with joy.

And I can live with that.

Lent to the Lord (1)

            Seeing Lent as a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter makes sense. It’s pretty straightforward – we figure out something pentitential to do during Lent, and we do that for 6 weeks and 3 days, and then it’s Easter and we get back what we gave up as we celebrate the Risen Lord.

            When my parish announced a 3-day church mission for the week before Ash Wednesday as a way to prepare ourselves for Lent, I wasn’t at all sure that made sense. Nevertheless, the priest who was preaching this mission is a gifted speaker and homilist who brings both humor and holiness to everything he touches, so I decided to participate.

            Mind you, I hadn’t ventured out of the house in the evening (except for family gatherings) in about two years, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. I had become comfortably accustomed to my own company in the long evening hours, supplemented by whatever I could find on television or one or another streaming service. I’d tuck myself into my chair with my knitting, my self, and my remote control, surrounded by a dog and three cats, and the hours would pass.

            By the time the mission was announced, I had to admit to myself that I was experiencing a bit of a spiritual funk. Sure, I was still attending daily Mass, and praying the Rosary, and praying daily for all of the people and intentions on my prayer list. But I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. Often as not, I would start on my prayer list after I got into bed, and fall asleep several times before I finally stayed awake long enough to finish it. There seemed to be a lot of rote without nearly enough right.

            In conversations with a couple of friends, we had commiserated about the lack of community we were all experiencing as a result of the pandemic and its lockdowns and restrictions. We understood the need for all that, but we mourned what we had lost because of it.

            I resolved to attend all three nights of the mission. In the weeks leading up to it, some other things began to happen. I began working with the RCIA team at my parish, and as part of that, I participated in some of the interviews of candidates and catechumens in their preparation for receiving sacraments at the Easter Vigil. I also participated in some preparations to reintroduce small faith-sharing groups in our parish.

            And while these things were going on, I was puzzling over just what I needed to do to jumpstart my spiritual life. Spiritual me was dragging her spiritual feet, and I was increasingly weighed down at the thought of continuing as a faithful Catholic despite the lack of emotion or any sense of spiritual progress, much less accomplishment.

            All I could do, it seemed – and all I kept doing, whether I felt it deep in my soul or not – was keep repeating, “Jesus, I love You. I trust You. Please show me what You want from me.”

            The first thing that happened was an encounter with a young man in the RCIA group who had been turned against the Church during his college years. His feelings were strongly negative; he had left his Catholic upbringing far behind. As I listened to his story, I felt a very strong call to pray for him, and I did so silently even as I continued listening. Afterward, I added his name to my prayer list, and received another strong message: this man’s need to be prayed for deserved much more than the half-asleep rote mumblings my evening prayers had come to be lately.

            Was I going to put him on my list and ignore that message? Absolutely not. But I wasn’t quite sure what direction to take. That’s when the next thing happened: the church mission. The first night of the mission, as Fr. Matthew talked about Jesus’ instructions for “When you fast,” something broke loose inside me. I began to see that I was not just in a rut spiritually, but that I was allowing myself to stay there by my unwillingness to do the hard things. I seemed to want to rest on the notion that I was a good Catholic doing the right things. When I heard Fr. Matthew’s message about fasting, I realized that I had been actively resisting the idea of denying myself, and that if I was going to get anywhere, I would need to end that resistance. I was intrigued by his comment that when we break the bondage of our human appetites, we free up our spirit for God.

            Then came the second night, and a discussion of almsgiving. Again, the message challenged my notion that my donations to the parish and to one or another charitable cause was a pretty good thing. Again, the idea that our bondage to material things gets in the way of growth in our spiritual life captured my interest.

            And then the third night, dealing with Jesus’ instructions for when we pray, really started to open things up. I realized that I kept asking Him to tell me what to do, but I wasn’t listening for His answer. Of course I needed to continue asking for His guidance and inspiration, but more than that, I then needed to be a willing participant in the solutions He offered me.

            These messages were so clear, finally, that I saw at last a path without that awful rut in the middle of it. This was not so much a light at the end of a tunnel as it was a clear beam of light across still water, so clear and bright that I could walk on it all the way to its source.

            I began to look for and identify ways I could change my routines to create new and better opportunities for my spiritual life to flourish, understanding that it was not going to just happen. That meant that instead of a solid block of hours in front of the television, I could sit and bring my prayer list to God while I was wide awake and fully invested in the petitions I was bringing to Him. It meant looking for ways to add prayer times to my day; thinking about that led me back to the idea of having my phone set to chime every hour of the day with a scripture verse and prayer reminder.

            Even more, I began to identify the source of a certain unrest I had been feeling about the state of my soul. As I’ve mentioned in other writings, I spent many years – from age 20 to age 65 – outside the embrace of the Catholic Church. And during those years, I broke absolutely every single commandment at least once, some of them many, many times. I just brazenly tore through life, doing what I wanted and caring little for the example I set or the damage I caused. And this was so even during the years that I attended other churches.

            I like to say, when I tell the story of my return to faith, that Jesus came looking for me like the one lost sheep that I was, and He chased me until I caught Him. When I came back, it was with a faith stronger than it had ever been in my younger life.

            Shortly after I began attending Mass again, I sat down with the parish priest to find out what I needed to be in a state of grace. I didn’t know at first that this was what we were doing. I thought we were just getting acquainted. But this priest began to gently ask me to tell him about my life, and before I knew it, it was all spilling out of me, along with all the tears I hadn’t shed when I did those things. So I told, and I wept, and sometimes I sobbed, and he sat there and listened.

            Finally, he said, “I don’t think you realize it, but you’ve just made a good confession.” He led me through an act of contrition, then gave me a general absolution and explained that this forgave all of my sins, even those I didn’t remember committing. And I walked out of that priest’s office about 3 feet off the ground.

            The thing is, though, over the years I still think about those sins every once in a while. And there is always a nagging sense that I missed something, that I am not quite done with those sins. I know that they are completely forgiven and absolved; and I know that Jesus died on the Cross in atonement for the sins of mankind. But what I finally realized, as I reflected on the changes that were taking place in me over the past few days, was that I hadn’t really wrapped my mind around the concepts of penance and atonement.

            In the traditional Act of Contrition, we pledge to do penance for our sins and to amend our lives – that is, avoid  both sin and what would lead us to sin. And it occurred to me as I mulled all of this over that a part of the grace we receive from the Sacrament of Reconciliation is an ongoing desire and need to atone for our sins.

            I then questioned my own thoughts. If I seek to atone for my sins, to do further penance for them, is that somehow a repudiation of the saving grace that Jesus gained for us on the Cross? My answer to that question is “No.” I think that ongoing penance is both an acknowledgment of our sinful nature and a participation in the redemptive acts of Jesus. What I was feeling, in my sense of incompleteness, was a desire to show Jesus my willingness to participate fully in grace. Acts of penance and atonement, arising from an understanding of my sinful nature as a human being and done in a spirit of love for Jesus, are simply a way of responding to the great love He showed me. Such actions are a small and very human way of telling Him that I love Him and that His love for me matters to me.

            All of this brought me, finally, to a deeper and better understanding of the three pillars of Lent – fasting, almsgiving, and prayer – and a deeper appreciation for putting aside self-indulgence in favor of penitential behavior. In other words, by separating myself from my love of material comforts, material wealth, and mindless entertainments in favor of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, I will be more attuned to what Jesus wants to do in my life, and what He wants me to do with my life.

            Now, I am thinking about all of this as an active participant in my own spiritual life, rather than a passive bystander, waiting for God to send me a sign of what He’s looking for. If I’m honest with myself – and with Him – I already know.

            And that’s why the idea of preparing for Lent makes so much sense. Now I can prayerfully plan for the kinds of penance, generosity, and prayer that will set me firmly on the path to not only the Cross, but also the empty tomb…and finally, to an encounter on the road to Emmaus.

            Yes. I can live with that.

Lent to God (2)

            It’s 2022, and the world has become such a strange place over the past couple of years that it’s sometimes hard to know one’s place in it. And in a strange and interesting twist on things, it’s this very strangeness that has led me to a set of new insights on my approach to faith, the spiritual life, and in particular, Lent.

            As I’ve listened to homilies and read the scriptures over these past weeks, as I attended our parish mission last week, and as I’ve prayed and reflected each day, I’ve come to see a new perspective on the whole idea of doing penance. This perspective is rooted in a new understanding of the deep and abiding need to do penance. Of course, Jesus died so that we could be free of our sins; but St. Paul also tells us in Colossians 1:24-26: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past.”

            My very human and perhaps too simple reading of these verses tells me that Jesus lacked nothing in His redemptive act! What He did was leave us some work to do, something by which we can continue His mission to destroy sin. And that work, I think, is to do penance.

            By doing penance for our sins, we remind ourselves of the way sin separates us from God, as well as how our sins offend God. When we have separated ourselves from someone whom we love – indeed, from Someone Who loves us “with the greatest love” – isn’t it in our hearts to do anything we can to make up for that offense?

            Certainly, Jesus atoned once and for all for the sins of the world, of each of us individually. His atonement makes it possible for us once more to have eternal life in heaven. And yet, He has left us this task. He has provided us with this opportunity. We are called to do penance, and we have that opportunity, because He allows us to participate in His redemptive acts.

            If satisfying our earthly and bodily desires would lead us to heaven, then the way we live would need no correction. But we know better. It is by denying ourselves the constant and immediate desires of our human selves that we are reminded of our natural tendency to sin. And the very fact that we have the grace of God’s forgiveness and mercy when we repent of our sins should keep us mindful of the need for penance.

            Yes, the penances we receive upon completing a good confession and act of contrition have great value, and they are validation for the absolution we receive. The penances we willingly do in our daily lives help us to keep always before us the need to make amends for the sins we have committed and the need to change our lives so that we keep ourselves from descending back into sin.

            And so, with these thoughts on my mind, and inspired by the grace the Holy Spirit brings, I’m approaching Lent this year of 2022 with a deeper penitential spirit, with a more deliberate intention to deny myself and my earthly and bodily desires in a way that reflects both my regret for how sin hurts my relationship with God and offends the very Person Who loves me most, and with a soulful desire to participate more fully in the redemptive acts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

            Leading up to this Ash Wednesday, I’ve spent time in prayerful reflection, and I believe I have a fuller understanding of what grace calls me to do, as well as a clearer intention to live a penitential life during this Lent and beyond.

            All for the greater honor and glory of God! For this is not about me, nor is it about what others might think of me. It is my hope and prayer that all others will see in me, as I go forward, is the great joy that comes with living the life Jesus calls me to.

            I can most certainly live with that.

Finding Joy

            It’s a very cold Monday morning outside my window. When I ventured out for Mass very early, before daylight, the thermometer registered at 0. There’s no wind, so it still feels like only 0, but it’s still a very good day for staying indoors and working on good habits.

            That’s how I found myself on my treadmill with my rosary in my hands. Many years ago, when I was in the convent, we walked outdoors on the beautiful paths that wound through the property around the Motherhouse while we prayed our daily rosary. When the weather is nice, I often walk a few miles through my neighborhood while praying a rosary. The movement and rhythm of walking seems to facilitate meditation. So I thought, why not pray a rosary while walking on the treadmill? Seems like a better use of time than watching television or reading a novel.

            Since it’s Monday, I had the Joyful Mysteries to contemplate as I prayed. As usual, I wasn’t very far before I was also praying for relief from distractions…and then something wonderful happened. It came into my mind to think about how the thread of joy runs through all five of the Joyful Mysteries, so that’s what I did. And here I am to capture those thoughts before they escape entirely.

            The joy in each of these mysteries comes from the encounter with Jesus. In the Annunciation, the angel’s announcement to Mary and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit brought Mary’s first encounter with Jesus, as he was conceived within her womb. Even the promise of Jesus brought her joy, as she called herself the handmaid of the Lord. Imagine knowing, from the very instant of conception, the joy of carrying that special infant who would fulfill all of God’s promises to His people.

            As I began to pray the Mystery of the Visitation, I considered it, perhaps for the first time, from Elizabeth’s point of view. How great was her joy at encountering Jesus, carried still in the womb of His mother! We know by her greeting that she recognized Who was present in that visit. And I wondered: Do I know when I am encountering Jesus? Do I experience my encounters with Him in that same spirit of pure joy?

            In the Mystery of the Nativity of Jesus, I thought about all who encountered Him the night of His birth and shortly afterward. They heard about Him, often through unconventional and unexpected means, and they came “with haste” to be with Him. The shepherds heard it from angels; the Magi heard it in their dreams and through the results of their own searching and calculations; and they dropped everything to come and see Jesus. Once they knew about Him, their one single-minded goal was to find Him. How do I learn where Jesus is? How eager am I to seek Him out, to go where I know I will find Him?

            When Mary and Joseph, in obedience to Jewish law, took Jesus to the temple to present Him to God, the aged Simeon and prophetess Anna experienced the joy of their encounter with the Messiah who had long been promised. I thought about their double joy – joy at seeing God’s promise to them and to His people fulfilled, and joy at seeing Jesus. I thought about them holding Jesus in their arms and marveling that this tiny infant was the entire hope of Israel. And then I wondered: How did they know it was Jesus? Scripture does not give us that answer, and it made me think: How do I know when I am encountering Jesus? Where do I encounter Him? Am I so busy looking for other things in life that I miss the clues?

            The fifth Joyful Mystery, Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the Temple when he was still quite young, sometimes puzzles me. Where is the joy in losing your child, in spending three days searching for him and wondering what has become of him? But the whole point of this mystery is in finding Jesus. The beauty of it is that Jesus is always right where He is supposed to be. We need to look for Him there. And when we find Him – because He, of course, is always looking for us – we need our hearts to be open to the joy of it.

            As I concluded my rosary this morning, I considered how these five mysteries present the various ways Jesus is present in our world, in our days and the hours of our days. He is with us, of course, in “the Temple” – in the Blessed Sacrament, as well as in the Word, when we enter a Catholic Church, when we attend Mass. He is with us in all of the times we seek His word throughout the day. And He is with us in the people we encounter. He is there for us to find, if we are just willing to look.

            It’s that last place that I find myself missing out on. I’m not always aware of Jesus in my encounters with other people; in fact, I think that sometimes I go beyond a lack of awareness, and am even resistant to seeing Him there. After all, if I really did see Him in the other people I encounter, I’d be far more patient and far less judgmental. I’d be far more willing to greet them with a loving spirit, and I’d be much more interested in reaching their hearts and loving their souls.

            And so as I finished my prayer, I asked for the grace to know when I am encountering Jesus, to be open to encountering Him always, and to find and experience the joy in each encounter. Because I know I can live with that.

A Fashioned Heart

“The One who fashioned together their hearts is the One who knows all their works. Ps. 33:15.

I’ve been promising myself more time with the Psalms for longer than I would like to admit, so when our Bishop’s evangelization challenge for this week involved praying a Psalm every day, I was in! And when I prayed Ps. 33 a couple of days ago, verse 15 jumped out at me and called me to a deeper reflection.

To be well known by the one who fashioned my heart: This seems to me the most comforting and at the same time the most terrifying way to live. And the reference to “works” is not lost on me.

The debate over faith vs. works has been a familiar one in my life. I spent several years worshipping in a Lutheran church which subscribed to a very conservative Protestant theology. It sometimes felt as though the pastor was fixated on preaching that faith alone saves us and that our works have nothing to do with our salvation.

This preaching disturbed me, for on some level I was certain that James was correct in his epistle – faith without works is dead (James 2:26). It seemed to me, even while I hewed to the theology of my adopted church, that if you had true faith, your actions would show it. When I brought my questions to the pastor, he first assured me that the epistle of James did not say what I thought it did; from there, his explanation started with, “What you have to understand is….” I think I knew then that my time in that congregation was limited. I had long since learned that an explanation that starts with those words is less an explanation and more a justification of flawed thinking. So I continued to ponder, and it wasn’t long before I wandered off into the land of the unchurched, where I would spend the next 25 years or so.

When I returned to the Catholic faith in 2012, it was in what I’d call a “calm explosion” of the power of the Holy Spirit. At the beginning, I was content to attend Mass, receive Holy Communion, and listed prayerfully to the readings and homilies. Soon, as my soul began to heal from the beatings I had given it over the years, He led me deeper. And as I joined Bible studies and began to re-explore the faith of my birth, I began to understand some things about “works.”

The light began to grow when I realized that many of the activities I used to think of as rituals and duties to be gotten through were, at their best, ways for me to respond to my faith and both live it and reflect it in my daily life. They were “practices” in the very best sense of that word. If I truly believed what I said I believed, my belief would be carried out in the way I acted. Going to Mass was not merely an obligation, but an opportunity for grace. Understanding this truth made receiving Holy Communion an entirely new and intensely emotional experience. (Note: I came to understand the experience of emotion as a “bonus” – nice when it happens, but not essential to the worth of the encounter with Jesus.) Praying the rosary was not a daily duty but yet another opportunity to reflect on the wonderful things God has done. Even going to confession (and I admit, this one came slower, took longer, and was more challenging) was, rather than an obligation or duty, another open channel of grace.

It was in reflecting on the way my activities thus reflected a response to my faith that I began to understand that any profession of faith is empty – yes, dead – unless it is given expression in actions. That’s where free will comes in, and that’s the part that always bothered me about “what I had to understand” about the Lutheran argument that faith alone saves us. Now, I’m not here to provide some ultimate final answer to the age-old debate, or even to argue the proper interpretation of James’s words. I’m here to talk about my own journey.

And my journey has brought me to a place where I realize that with the gift of faith comes choice – a choice first to profess that faith or deny it, and second to live in response to it or just let it lie there.

A gift, ignored, can do nothing to bring joy to its recipient. A gift, unused, cannot fulfill its purpose. To hide a gift away is to deny gratitude for it. If I do not live in response to my faith, I’m really telling God that I don’t want His gift. In realizing this, in struggling to put it into words, I finally understood what James meant when he said that faith without works is dead. God gives us a living faith, but He does not force us to keep it alive. Rather, we do so when we accept His grace to live in response to that faith.

God fashioned our hearts with the most amazing ability to receive His gift of faith and respond to it, and He knows us better than we know ourselves. Let us live our lives always open to the workings of grace, for grace will shape our works to be pleasing to Him. As we listen and respond, our fear gives way to wonder. And I think we can live with that.

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