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)

Archive for January, 2022

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.

Coming Home

The miles between December 30, 2021, and January 22, 2022, totaled 3,320, give or take a few. I hadn’t taken a good road trip in quite some time, so naturally I decided to take one in the middle of the winter. The extended weather forecasts for the areas I would be visiting became my best friend in the weeks and days leading up to my trip.

The plan started taking shape when my daughter decided to rent a house on one of Florida’s Gulf Coast Islands for a week in January. Almost the whole family was going, and all but one of us knew that the trip would involve not only celebrating my daughter’s birthday but also my grandson’s marriage proposal to the lovely young woman he had been dating for more than a year. I started thinking about the people I knew in Florida, people I hadn’t seen in a long time, and about how much I dislike the commotion and alternate rushing about and waiting for hours that seems to define air travel. And the idea of a road trip was born.

The plan was both simple and complex. I would drive instead of flying, and I would pack my car with luggage for the rest of the family, the Florida-only things that they wouldn’t need until I found my way back home. I’d start out a week earlier than the rest of the family, drop my dog LuLu off with my brother in Georgia and spend a few days with him, then head for Florida. The Florida schedule involved a couple of days at The Villages to visit with a friend I had worked with some years ago. Then I’d head for the island, dropping luggage at the rental office so I could pick the family up at the airport. We’d spend our week on the beach, complete with birthday shenanigans and the proposal, and then we’d pack it all up again. I’d drop the family at the airport, then head south to Naples to spend a few days with my sister and brother-in-law there. For good measure, I threw in visits with two friends from my convent days who now live in Florida, one near Naples and the other a hop, skip, and jump from my homeward path once I started back.

And all of these things happened. In a nearly unheard-of string of good fortune and fortuitous events, every single part of the trip went almost exactly as planned. Ten of us, including 3 kids 10 and under, shared a house for seven days, fixed meals, enjoyed one another’s company, went to the beach, watched sunrises and sunsets, walked in the ocean, explored, laughed, and celebrated. The proposal took place during a sunset cruise. The bride-to-be was appropriately surprised and thrilled, and I’m not exaggerating when I say there wasn’t a dry eye on the boat.

My visits with other family and friends went equally well, and in due time, I headed for home, with a stop in Georgia to spend a few more days with my brother and collect my dog, who seemed to remember me even though she was pretty spoiled. I celebrated my 75th birthday with my brother, and the next day I was on the final leg of my journey.

Homecoming coincided with snow and wind and cold weather – not surprising for Michigan in January, but certainly unwelcome after 3 weeks of nice weather.

One of the highlights of coming home was going to Mass with the family on Sunday. As we worshipped and celebrated together, I realized that it felt like my prayer life, even my spiritual life, had taken something of a vacation, too.

I had always found churches for Sunday Mass on the road, and I had been able to attend a few weekday Masses during my travels. I had used my road time to pray rosaries and do some reflection and meditation. But there were also times when it was less convenient to find my way to daily Mass, and when I didn’t go, I also didn’t spend time with the daily readings. I didn’t seek time out for myself to pray the rosary. Even when my conversations with my friends involved sharing our faith journeys and the practices and ideas that brought us closer to God, I felt a little hypocritical, because I felt like I was lagging in my spiritual life.

As I reflected on this perceived fault line in my spiritual foundation, I was reminded of some very important truths: First, I was reminded that Jesus is always ready and willing, with a loving and forgiving heart, to receive us when we approach Him. Second, I was reminded of those times during my trip when events required me to step up in faith and really be there for someone. More about that in a minute. And third, I was reminded that my spiritual life is not a series of events for which I must keep score. What was vital was that I listened for the Holy Spirit’s calls and urgings and invitations and that I responded when I heard them.

You see, during the course of this trip, I encountered family members who were experiencing what I’d call a faith emergency. And in just the right moment, by God’s timing, I was there to listen, encourage, and share insights I hadn’t even realized I had, all of which served to fortify these loved ones in their faith during a tempestuous time. When I began to hear their story, I was moved to ask the Holy Spirit to guide my responses and my words, to make me what was needed in those moments, and I was graced with the humility to then listen and respond to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. There is not one part of me that thinks the thoughts I offered them were my own invention.

And also during the course of this trip, it happened that my daughter was experiencing the death of a beloved family member, an uncle on her father’s side of the family, and as she communicated her experiences and feelings to me, I responded with deeply heartfelt prayers for both her and her dying uncle. As I encountered others during my travels, I was moved to share with them my belief and hope that even for those without formal religious practices, a moment of grace may occur in their passing – a moment in which they realize Who God is, and that He is inviting them to His table regardless of their past. I see it as a moment when they recognize Him and respond with: “Oh! Now I see! I’m definitely in!” or words to that effect. It’s a moment when the parable of the laborers in the vineyard comes to life, and even those who came to the vineyard in the last hour receive the full reward.

As I reflected on all these things at Sunday Mass, and again at early weekday Mass this morning, I felt Jesus welcoming me back into my more normal routines even while He reminded me that I hadn’t done so very badly during my little vacation and road trip. He reminded me to spend less time thinking about what I hadn’t done, and to spend more time listening for Him and being grateful for His voice.

I did a lot of rambling over the past 3 ½ weeks, and I’ve done a fair amount of rambling in telling the story. As long as the rambling means that I’m still listening to the Holy Spirit, and that I’m still open to His urgent promptings, and that I’m still reaching for grace and seeking to be a blessing for others in the moments of my days, I think I can live with that.

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