Just something to think about…
Spend some time today in silent prayer before a crucifix and think about this quote.
Prayer is an essential part of our relationship with God. Every relationship requires communication, after all, and prayer is the way in which we communicate our praise, thanksgivings, and troubles to God. Prayer helps us to discern God’s will for our lives, and it strengthens us to do what God wants from us.
It’s not “insert prayer, receive request”. God isn’t a Divine Vending Machine, y’all. We have this idea, for some reason, that what we pray for is just going to drop out of the sky, all wrapped up with a nice pretty bow on top of it. That just isn’t how it works! Know why?
Yes, God always hears us and He does answer our prayers. But sometimes His answer is, “Get your butt out of this pew and go DO SOMETHING.” God uses YOU to answer prayers.
You want peace in the world? Go work for it. You want world hunger to end? Get out there and feed the hungry. You want the homeless to have a place to go? Help them find a shelter, open one, or open your own doors to them. If you want to end abortion, then reach out to the woman who is in need of your love and compassion.
WE are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in the world. God acts through me and you — WE are the way He alleviates suffering, comforts the afflicted, and changes the world. YOU just might be the answer to someone’s unanswered prayer.
Pray without ceasing for the strength to do what God is calling you to do! But then don’t forget to go out and do it.
Those words ringin’ any bells? Could it be…the Easter Exsultet? But these words sound so strange to us! Happy fault? Necessary sin? Isn’t sin a bad thing?! Then what’s with these adjectives?
Yesterday, I was reading a biography on Pope Francis as part of some research I’m doing for a paper that I’m writing. In that book, which is a series of interviews with then-Cardinal Bergoglio, our pope said some things about sin that struck me as refreshing, beautiful, and encouraging. Here are just a few brief quotes:
Those words from the Exsultet may confuse us, but I think that Pope Francis has explained it beautifully. We sin, we’re weak–and it is precisely because we are so weak that our Father is constantly close to us, ready to pick us up when we stumble and fall on our way. It is precisely because sin is so bad that Christ came to save us, to free us from its bondage. Our sin, our misery, cries out for the great mercy of God, and He never tires of forgiving us when we turn to Him.
I’m not really sure what I want to say about this…but I know that I found these quotes from Pope Francis to be liberating, refreshing, and deeply moving. God brings goodness even out of our sins. Only God could turn an evil action into an opportunity to grow closer to Him through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I think that sin also teaches us something. It shows us how dependent we are on God, how much we need His love, grace, and mercy in our lives. When we sin and know in our hearts that we have sinned, we automatically feel this deep need for God and His forgiveness, which is something that we could not experience if we never sinned.
Sin, as bad as it is, is also an opportunity for us to cry out to God, to recognize our own weakness, and to let God pick us up again. When we reflect on our sins, we sometimes fall into despair at the thought of the many things we have done against God and neighbor. Maybe, though, if we made an effort to recognize that God turns our sin into an opportunity to grow closer to Him, we would be less hesitant to approach His mercy in Confession.
In our lives, we all sin and make mistakes — we all fall short of who we are called to be in Jesus Christ. There are days when we feel so miserable, so guilty about the wrong we have done, that we can’t stand for anyone to be around us. We’re just so at odds with ourselves on those days! We don’t want friends around because they couldn’t possibly make us feel any better. Family members can’t lift us up, no matter how hard they try. Nothing works. We can even get to a point where we push God away.
We get so angry with ourselves. We can only see our faults, our failures — we are convinced that we are no good, that we can do nothing right. That idea hurts us deeply enough. But the idea that God, the one we have offended, is standing there with open arms ready and willing to forgive us in spite of the pain we’ve caused Him? That’s just too much. How, after all, can God love ME, as miserable as I am?
We don’t like the idea of God or anyone else seeing our misery…so we close in on ourselves. We fall into despair, into a darkness that we cannot possibly pull ourselves out of. We desperately want to be free again, but some part of us thinks that we deserve our misery.
And in this darkness, we cannot see the light of God’s love for us. We beat ourselves up about our sins. We fixate on them until we can see no good in ourselves. We doubt our own worth. Meanwhile, God is standing there — He desires to heal us, to give us the joy that comes from His love — but we refuse to turn to Him. Contrition, true sorrow for sin, is one thing. Despair is quite another. Don’t confuse them. It can sometimes seem like a good practice to constantly reflect on your sins, to beat yourself up about your mistakes, but this can lead you away from God. And if you ever doubt your worth, look at a crucifix. YOU were bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. He suffered and died for love of YOU. YOU could never be worthless.
Even when you feel utterly miserable, even when you feel like the worst sinner in the history of humanity, even when you feel like no one could possibly care about you — turn to God. Let His Heart embrace you. Let Him lift you up and restore once again your dignity as His beloved child. Let Him carry you in His arms with the tenderness of a loving Father. Let Him shower His mercy and grace upon you, even when you feel the most unworthy.
Let Him love you.
We talk all the time about Jesus being the “Good” Shepherd. He cares for His sheep and loves each one so powerfully and completely that He will leave the ninety-nine to go and find the one sheep who has wandered off from the group. We’ve all heard this story and seen this image depicted in art hundreds of times.
I help out with high school retreats that take place on my college campus. Part of the program involves different student volunteers, as well as a few of the monks who help out (Benedictine colleges, y’all), giving talks about faith to the young people who attend. One of the people who always helps out with the retreats is Brother Max, and he always brings up this story of the “Good” Shepherd. The first time I heard his talk, I found the question he asked the students to be very interesting — and I found his answer to be really insightful, something I hadn’t thought about before. This is what Brother Max always asks the students:
Without fail, the students always respond by saying that the “Good” Shepherd is good because He left the ninety-nine sheep to go in search of the one who wandered away and is in need of the shepherd’s help. That’s a pretty logical answer, don’t ya think? But Brother Max has an answer that forces you to go a little deeper into this image of Christ as the “Good” Shepherd.
The first time I heard him say that, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had never thought about it like that before! But ya know, it makes a lot of sense. God is good — but not just because He seeks us when we are lost. God is good — but not just because He loves us without fail. God is good because He gives His children the freedom to choose for themselves. We have the freedom to choose to love God, or to choose not to love Him. We have the freedom to choose to follow God’s way or our own way. God is so good that He does not force us to love Him or to follow Him. He wants us to choose Him freely!
There is another aspect of this story that Brother Max always talks about. Think for just a second: When the Good Shepherd brings the sheep back to the fold…where is the sheep? Where is the Shepherd carrying the sheep? Think about the art you’ve seen depicting this scene.
Ever heard the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants”? The basic idea behind that phrase is that by “standing” on the shoulders of a great person, someone who has accomplished a lot, you gain a new perspective. In the same way, the sheep sitting on the shoulders of the Shepherd takes on the Shepherd’s perspective. When God pursues us and brings us back to Himself after we have wandered off, He places us on His shoulders–and we see the world the way God sees it. After we have had that experience, that encounter with God, we can never be the same again.
But how does God view the world? Surely He can see the evil that is done, the horrible things that human beings say and do. Yet we know that God loves the world He has created and the people whom He made in His own image. God views the world and all of humanity with this love — the same love with which He created the cosmos, the same love with which He willingly sent His Son, the same love with which the Son freely died for us, and the same love that drives Jesus to come to us in the Eucharist. God looks at humanity in and through this powerful, passionate, sacrificial divine love. When we learn to see the world this way — when we learn to see and love rather than to see and judge — then we have taken on the point of view of the Shepherd. When we learn to see the good in people and in the world as a whole, then we have taken on the perspective of our Master. When we learn to love so deeply that we would be willing to die for the sake of the other, then we have learned what it means to truly see through God’s eyes.
A reader emailed me recently and asked me to do a post on “seeing God when all hope is lost, when it seems that God has abandoned you” in the midst of suffering. After thought and prayer, this post is my response.
The big question, the one that has plagued theologians and philosophers alike for millennia, is one that each person still asks today:
Why do we experience pain? Why are people starving in the world? Why are people homeless? Why are people sad and depressed? And, along with this, there comes another question:
How can God allow suffering, if He really is all-good and all-loving? How can God sit by and watch innocent people suffer? Does He have a plan for all of this pain?
I can’t tell you why people suffer so greatly, why God allows it, or what the big grand master plan is behind all of it. If I could answer those questions, believe me…I would. Instead, what I want to offer here is something of a reflection — food for thought, you might say.
Whenever I’m going through a hard time I, like most people, ask “Why is this happening to me?”. I was reflecting on that as I was preparing to write this post, and I realized something that I had never considered before. When I’m hurting, when I’m suffering, I don’t want someone to sit there and give me a well thought out argument that explains why I’m going through these difficulties. In fact, I’d probably punch anyone who did that because they would have no idea what I was going through. They would just be sitting there trying to draw some logical conclusions that had nothing to do with my situation and, in the end, would solve absolutely nothing. No, what I really want when I’m suffering is for someone to listen and enter into that suffering with me in some way. I want someone to sit there with me and help me through the hard times. I want someone to cry with me when I feel like I can’t go on. I want someone to listen with love and compassion when I talk about what I’m going through because I just can’t bear to hold all of the pain in my heart anymore.
The Book of Job is probably one of the most well-known books in the Bible. It tells the story of a just man, Job, who suddenly finds himself in the midst of great suffering. His home is gone, his family members die, his cattle are gone, and he loses the respect of his neighbors. He asks throughout the book why he is suffering so greatly when he has done nothing wrong. His friends insist that it must be because Job has somehow sinned against God and his suffering serves as punishment for the evil he did, but Job maintains his innocence and demands an audience with God. And at the end of the book, he gets it — God speaks to Job.
You would think that God would offer an explanation, give some kind of grand answer to the problem of innocent suffering. Nope. Not even close. In fact, God points out that Job ought not to challenge Him because it was He who created the world with all its wonders. Job repents and his possessions are restored, more plentiful than they were before his troubles began. The Book of Job makes some suggestions about suffering, such as the possibility that the mystery of suffering leads us deeper into the mystery of God, but it draws no conclusions and offers no definitive answers.
Before, during, and after the writing of the Book of Job, people asked why the innocent are allowed to suffer, why there is suffering at all in the world. God never gives us an answer to that question in Scripture. Not once. But you know, I think He gives us something better than an end-all-be-all response.
He gives us His Son.
We never get a divine justification for the existence of suffering. Instead, God Himself takes on our human nature and personally enters into human suffering in the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. Rather than offer us a cold, logical argument to justify suffering, Christ “came down from Heaven” and experienced hunger, poverty, rejection, and intense physical suffering.
I would rather have the Cross any day over a philosophical or theological explanation for suffering. I would rather know that God Himself knows what my suffering is like, that He Himself has suffered as I do and that He understands how hard it is for me to go on in the midst of my pain. I would rather know that God has entered into my human misery and taken it on Himself, that He loved me enough to subject Himself to torture.
Where is God in the midst of suffering? He is there with the orphan. He is standing beside the homeless man with the cardboard sign. He is there starving with the hungry masses. He is crying with the woman who just lost her job. His Heart is breaking with the heart of the woman who is suffering after an abortion. He is sitting in the room next to the lonely man in the hospital. He is hurting with the person who suffers from depression. He is suffering with the one who is rejected by society. He is there with YOU in the midst of YOUR suffering. That is where God can be found when people are in pain — right there with them, because He knows what it is to suffer. He understands the pain, He sees the suffering we are dealing with in the depths of our hearts, and He desires to shoulder our burden with us. He desires to enter into YOUR suffering with you, to help make the burden bearable. He offers us His shoulder to cry on, and His Heart to pour our troubles into.
The reader who emailed me with this question mentioned that she has been going through a very difficult time lately and that, in her suffering, she asked “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”. We all tend to echo these words from the psalmist, but we forget to read the entirety of this Psalm. Here it is (Psalm 22):
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the glory of Israel. In you our fathers trusted they trusted and you rescued them. To you they cried out and they escaped; in you they trusted and were not disappointed. But I am a worm, not a man; scorned by men, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me: “He relied on the LORD—let him deliver him; if he loves him, let him rescue him.” For you drew me forth from the womb, made me safe at my mother’s breasts. Upon you I was thrust from the womb; since my mother bore me you are my God. Do not stay far from me, for trouble is near, and there is no one to help.
Many bulls surround me; fierce bulls of Bashan encircle me. They open their mouths against me, lions that rend and roar. Like water my life drains away; all my bones are disjointed. My heart has become like wax, it melts away within me. As dry as a potsherd is my throat; my tongue cleaves to my palate; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs surround me; a pack of evildoers closes in on me. They have pierced my hands and my feet I can count all my bones. They stare at me and gloat; they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots. But you, LORD, do not stay far off; my strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the grip of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth, my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.
Then I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the assembly I will praise you: “You who fear the LORD, give praise! All descendants of Jacob, give honor; show reverence, all descendants of Israel! For he has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, Did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out. I will offer praise in the great assembly; my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him. The poor will eat their fill; those who seek the LORD will offer praise. May your hearts enjoy life forever!”
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD; All the families of nations will bow low before him. For kingship belongs to the LORD, the ruler over the nations. All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God; All who have gone down into the dust will kneel in homage. And I will live for the LORD; my descendants will serve you. The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.
This Psalm begins in a pretty dark way, doesn’t it? “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”, the psalmist cries. Yet, in the midst of his pain, the psalmist remembers that his ancestors trusted in God and were delivered from their pain — he trusts that God will do the same for him. He goes on to discuss the many ways in which he is suffering and asks God to come quickly to his aid. Psalm 22 ends in hope, not despair. “For he [God] has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch [the psalmist], did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.” The psalmist is completely confident that God has the power to save him, that God will enter into his suffering and deliver him.
We must have that same faith and trust in God. We must trust that He is always with us, even in the midst of horrible suffering. We must have faith that He will endure this suffering with us, that He will help to make our pain bearable, and that He will ultimately deliver us from our pain.
When we are suffering, Christ is there with us. He cries with us, hurts with us — His Heart breaks with ours. He is not deaf to our cries, and nor is He indifferent towards our pain. He enters into it with us and desires to bear some part of it alongside us. Our Lord never promised that we would never suffer, but He does promise to be with us in joys and in sufferings. He is our hope in the midst of despair, our salvation when all is lost, our comfort in the trials of this life, and our light in the overwhelming darkness.
It never ceases to amaze me that Pope Francis says the simplest things, and yet everything he says is so profound in its ability to sum up our Faith. I LOVE this idea of God’s hands being “blistered by love”. It’s something to ponder and reflect on. Take a few minutes to think about this quote…and thank God for His great love for us.
If you go to Google Images and type in the word “love”, you get a lot of ideal images. A man and a woman walking along a beach…hearts…candy…and, I would argue, very little truth. So, just what IS love, since we can’t rely on Google (there’s a shocker)? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately.
Society today really likes instant gratification. Success, comfort, respect — we want all of it, and we want it right NOW. We don’t want to wait and put in the long hours of work that it takes to really earn and perfect those things. We have get-rich-quick schemes and crash diets instead of long-term planning and patience. Why should it be a surprise to us that this cultural attitude extends to love? Nowadays, if you watch a romance movie or read a book about romance, you have to be on guard for sex scenes, among other things. If you think I’m crazy, stop for just a second. Think about the latest romance film that you’ve watched, and see if you can honestly tell me that at least half of it wasn’t filled with some kind of sexual content.
Now, why is this so? I would argue that it’s because our society doesn’t understand what love really is. People today think that love is that “butterflies in your tummy” feeling that you get when you see a really cute girl or guy. They think it’s the way you feel on a first date. They think it’s that period of time when you can’t stop thinking about your sweetheart and you feel like you’re on cloud nine. Love is this really good feeling.
I’ve got news for ya, folks: feelings are fickle. They change all the time. One day, I feel fine and I’m totally happy. The next day, you might wonder where I parked my broom. Some days, I feel really glad to be around people and I want to talk to everyone. Other days, get as far away from me as you can and don’t think about so much as looking at me.
If love is just a feeling, then it isn’t permanent. If love is a feeling, then saying “I love you” really means “I might not want to be near you tomorrow, but this is nice for right now”. If love is just this really great feeling that you like having, then you’re just using the person you “love” for a feeling without any real commitment — and you could leave at any time, whenever that feeling wears off.
I refuse to accept that definition.
Love is a commitment to another person — not a feeling you get. My parents have been married for over 20 years and let me tell ya, it hasn’t all been fabulous. They’ve been through some hard times (although they did get a pretty great daughter, if I do say so myself), and they’ve had to put up with a lot from each other over the years. My dad does things that drive my mom absolutely insane, and she does things that make him go postal. But you know what? In spite of all of that, in spite of all of the grouchy moments, picky eating, endless golf-watching, and “nagging”, they’re still married — they still love each other. If that love was just a feeling, then I’m pretty sure that my parents would have called it quits a long time ago. But it isn’t a feeling. Their love for one another is a commitment that they renew each day, even when they have disagreements and drive each other nuts.
Love is not always gonna be pretty. Sometimes it means suffering. In Mark Hart’s book The “R” Father, he writes this: “If true love were only about feelings, Jesus would have been hugged to death for our redemption. With love comes suffering.”
Love means pain and forgiveness. It means being willing to welcome the other back when they have hurt you. It means being willing to see another person’s weaknesses and pain and helping them through it by shouldering some of that burden yourself. It means allowing others to see YOUR weaknesses and allowing other people to help YOU. Love is a complete offering of self, a total self-giving.
Sometimes we think that when we are hurt by those we love, we should be able to welcome them back easily. We love this person, right? Then why is it so hard?! It isn’t easy, and that’s okay — that’s where the commitment comes back in. When I think about this aspect of love, I think of the prophet Hosea. In this book, the writer uses the metaphors of marriage and fatherhood to speak about how God is affected by Israel’s infidelity in worshiping other gods. Hosea speaks of Israel as an unfaithful wife who forgets that her Husband gave her all that she needed and loved her completely while she runs off with lovers. Throughout the Book of Hosea, there is this tension: God loves Israel, but this love is painful for God because He is hurt by Israel’s lack of love. The relationship can be mended, but it is difficult for God. God’s justice demands that Israel be punished, but God struggles with this. Hosea then goes on to speak of God as the Father and Israel as His Son. In that context, this passage comes:
“When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the farther they went from me, Sacrificing to the Baals and burning incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, who took them in my arms; but they did not know that I cared for them. I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like those who raise an infant to their cheeks; I bent down to feed them. He shall return to the land of Egypt, Assyria shall be his king, because they have refused to repent. The sword shall rage in his cities: it shall destroy his diviners, and devour them because of their schemings. My people have their mind set on apostasy; though they call on God in unison, he shall not raise them up.
How could I give you up, Ephraim, or deliver you up, Israel? How could I treat you as Admah, or make you like Zeboiim? My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred. I will not give vent to my blazing anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again; For I am God and not a man, the Holy One present among you; I will not come in wrath. They shall follow the LORD, who roars like a lion; When he roars, his children shall come frightened from the west, Out of Egypt they shall come trembling, like birds, like doves, from the land of Assyria; And I will resettle them in their homes, oracle of the LORD.”
That passage really illustrates this tension that comes with love. When we are hurt by someone we love — a spouse, a boyfriend/girlfriend, a best friend, a child, a parent — we are tempted to think “Well, the feeling is gone — there went that. I can’t deal with this anymore. I’ve been hurt by this person too many times and I’m DONE.” No! There are going to be some really easy days, some days when it’s easy to love that person. But then there are going to be days like what Hosea illustrates, days when you just want to cast that other person off because of the pain they’ve caused you. Love is that commitment to the other, that willingness to suffer and try again. Giving a person another chance doesn’t make you weak. Love, true love, for another person takes courage and determination. It is not the work of a coward.
The next time you tell someone that you love them, think about what that means. Those words put you into relationship with that person, they bind you together in a powerful way. Don’t use them lightly. When times get tough, think of God’s pain that Hosea shows us, or of Christ’s suffering on the cross. True love comes with a price, and suffering is part of it.
Love is a commitment. Are you strong enough?
You would think that after not blogging for a month (or however long it has been), I’d have a whole bunch of ideas for posts.
And you would think wrong.
So, since I have no idea what to write about just yet, I’ll just post some fun stuff. Because…who doesn’t like fun stuff?!
“The truly blessed are not the ones who work miracles or see angels. The truly blessed are ones who can see their own sins.” – St. Anthony the Great
“…if being a sinner is a word, a way of speaking, a manner of speaking, we have no need of God’s forgiveness. But if it is a reality that makes us slaves, we need this interior liberation of the Lord, of that force.” -Pope Francis (talking about the Sacrament of Reconciliation)
About a week ago, I read this really awesome article that was written by a Jesuit priest. You guys can find the article here.
In this article, Father Kevin O’Brien talks about his vocation as a Jesuit and discusses, specifically, the question of priestly celibacy. He talks for a little bit about his life before he joined the Society of Jesus, and then he writes this:
“I enjoyed this life, but even in committed, romantic relationships, there was something missing, some void that needed to be filled. I wanted to give even more to God and God’s people. As much as I loved one person, I wanted to love more broadly. Now 46 years old, I can say with confidence that I love best as a Jesuit priest.”
“I love best as a Jesuit priest”? What’s THAT supposed to mean, right? I’m so glad that I saw this article because I’ve been going back and forth about doing a post on this topic. I’m taking my cue from Father O’Brien here.
What does it mean to say that a person loves best in one type of relationship or situation over another? I think it means that people have different vocations in life. Some people are called to the married life, others to the religious life (be that as a priest or as a consecrated religious), and still others are called to the single life. Different people love best in different ways.
Here, I’ll just give you guys a personal example to illustrate my point. (I don’t really like getting this personal, but it might help you guys, so…yeah.)
Personally, thus far in my life and in my discernment, I feel called to the vocation of the single life. I’ve known for a while now that God is not calling me to marriage. Marriage is a beautiful sacrament, a union between two people that not only nourishes the couple but also brings love and life to the community. But that’s not the way I love best. The religious life is likewise a beautiful vocation that benefits the entire Church. But that is also not how I am called to love. I feel God calling me to love Him with my whole heart and to give my whole self to Him and to His Church. I feel Him calling me to live in the world, to work in parishes and to teach, to inspire the young people of the Church and tell them that they are the future of Catholicism. I love best by giving myself completely and totally in this way.
God is calling YOU to love, too. Maybe He is calling you to love in marriage. Maybe in the religious life. Maybe the single life. Listen to Him, and no matter what He is calling you to do, be ready to give your whole heart and self to that vocation–because loving completely and totally without regard for ourselves out of concern for the other is how we all love best.