Category Archives: Spirituality

Lady Liberty and The Statue of Responsibility

Man’s Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl would have to be classed among the most profound works of the twentieth century. A survivor of both Auschwitz and two concentration camps affiliated with Dachau, Frankl — a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist — reflects on his holocaust experience and in the face of it responds to life and its meaning.

Frankl lays bare the human condition at its lightest and darkest, best and worst. Boldly speaking about the imperative of life to find meaning, even and especially, in the face of suffering. His experience gives him license to speak rawly about universal and personal truths, lending it something of the prophetic. Despite his own sufferings and ability to maintain a sense of moral integrity during those testing years, he writes honestly, but without resentment against his oppressors, and without taking the moral high ground against those who compromised themselves under the weight of the Nazi jackboot. His sharing challenges our modern sensibilities—pointing out not the demands we should make of life, as we are taught to, but the demand that life makes of us.

There is so much one can take from this work, of what is really an introduction to Frankl’s Logotherapy. For a Christian, a Christian reading of the text is inevitable. The mystery of the Logos, the Word, and the Cross, seeps through the words on every page.

The Cross as Reality

Through Frankl, the Holy Spirit can help us recapture the true meaning of the Cross in our postmodern landscape where that meaning is all too often deconstructed, institutionalised, privatised and novelised. For the Christian today, faced with the crossless standard of secularism, the Cross runs the risk of becoming nothing more than an identity-concept, an intellectual corner stone, a symbol to muse upon and defend—a point of difference, instead of a reality and mystery to be lived and breathed and believed in.

It’s an imperative for every generation and age to rediscover the truths of our faith, particularly the Cross, which always has and forever will run against the grain of the status quo. The Cross will never be cool, and if in certain pockets it ever does become trendy, it could only be a kitsch version of it. It’s a mystery far too great and gritty to be reduced to something bite-sized or to something that merely flashes on a billboard or dangles upon a neck. It will always be more.

The Wisdom of the Cross speaks uniquely in every age to those with ears to listen (Mt 11:15), but the message remains the same—a call to discover the meaning of life in Christ by shouldering his yoke of love and burden of responsibility.

Liberty & Responsibility

In Part II of Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl says the following:

Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth… Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.[i]

With such a simple proposition Frankl says many things…

Freedom without responsibility is arbitrary, aimlessly egocentric and condemned to meaninglessness. It’s a license for a self-autonomy void of consideration for the other. It’s the kind of freedom that allows an S.S. soldier to push a woman into a gas chamber. Sure, he might find meaning in doing so, but such subjective meaning is arbitrary, false and without substance. One of the many reasons it is exposed as such is because of its inability to register with universally held human values.

Yet what is freedom with responsibility? It is a yielding to the summons of life to be responsible, to take responsibility in the here and now, in fulfillment of one’s vocation.[ii] It demands one’s search for meaning, and one’s execution of their responsibility necessarily supplies it. It is the kind of liberty that rendered the woman being pushed into the gas chamber—St. Edith Stein—free to lay down her life of her own accord (Jn 10:18) despite being forced to die. Sent to the gas chamber but going freely, in her words, “For my people.” It is the kind of freedom that discovers and begets meaning even in situations intended by forces of tyranny to be vacuums of meaninglessness for its victims.

In an opposite strain, the fact that there is only a Statue of Liberty speaks loudly and immaturely of rights, and little of responsibility. It’s indicative of the attitude of the modern western man who first and foremost asks himself, not “What are my responsibilities?” but “What are my rights?”

There’s certainly a place for Lady Liberty but without Lady Responsibility she is like that personification of folly in the Book of Proverbs, who without the wisdom of responsibility leads men astray after the fancies of their own will, for “her steps follow the path to Sheol, she does not take heed to the path of life; her ways wander aimlessly” or we might say—meaninglessly (Prov 5:5-6).

What is this Statue of Responsibility?

We all know well what the Statue of Liberty looks like. Yet what might the Statue of Responsibility look like? There can be no doubt about it. The Cross. History has supplied us with the image, and God with its unexpected force of meaning brought about by the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, who shouldered to the peak of Calvary the responsibility humankind owed to God and to itself. And where humanity failed to shoulder its dual responsibility, the humanity of God Incarnate succeeded.

Yet such success was not carried out to deliver us from our responsibilities, but it was carried out to enable us to fulfill them in He who has gone before us—by His strength, His grace and His love.

This is not because God is a Father who demands we earn our salvation by the sweat of our brow, but because to exercise our freedom to live responsibly is the only way to enter into this salvation. A salvation from sin, which is our inability to be perfectly responsible on our own, so that we might be enabled free to love—which is freedom to be responsible, to find meaning, purpose and dignity, not just now and in the face of the grave, but hereafter and beyond the grave.

The Statue of Responsibility is the Cross, and specifically, it is the Crucifix with Jesus nailed to it. Here a flaming torch is not held in the hand, but rather a heart burning with love, consumed by responsibility. The voice from this statue does not declare His rights, but rather invites each Mary and John, each woman and man: “Come to me all you who are weary and overburdened, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. Pick up your daily cross and follow me.”[iii]

Here the promised rest is not a false comfort secured by the abandonment of personal responsibility. It is that peace of heart and mind the world cannot give—infused by Jesus into one’s soul, and which begets a meaning no nail of suffering can destroy. It is the symptom of embracing one’s cross. The vertical beam representing one’s responsibility to God, and the horizontal, one’s responsibility to one’s neighbor. It’s not a cross without both these beams, and Jesus invites—commands even, that we shoulder it.

Easy and light? Ridiculous it’d seem. Offensive even. But isn’t that the strange miraculous power of love, that it really is madness to the rational observer, yet pure sense to the one afflicted by it… the one liberated by it? That after all is love—not emotion, but embraced responsibility.

The Ultimatum of Life

In the context of considering the divergent extremes human nature can take in the face of the worst kind of suffering, Frankl writes:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.[iv]

He is not saying we deserve or don’t deserve the sufferings we get, but from the Christian angle—the Cross is there, looming large in the midst of our lives—we cannot escape it. Most of the time it makes its presence felt through little things. Yet sometimes the experience of the Cross is deeply felt, and at times it can be experienced as unspeakably terrible, a result of human evil or sickness, in such a way that its reverberations never leave us. Yet whatever form the Cross takes in our lives, it can either be something that crushes and corrupts us with the bitterness of resentment, leading us to lash out at the world with hatred; or a rare and testing opportunity to grow in depth—to be drawn deeper into meaning, into our humanity, and deeper into the Mystery of God who is our Holiness.

In other words, the Cross is surely forced on our backs by circumstances we can’t control, but we can decide whether it is an occasion that will crush us and break us, or an opportunity to carry it with Jesus for love of God and man.

It’s an ultimatum posed to us by human life itself, and Jesus the Life takes it and eternalises its meaningfulness beyond the human sphere. An ultimatum to choose to be crushed by the cross or to carry it, and our response is up to ourselves as individuals. “Let him deny himself and take up his cross” (Mt 16:24): it’s all in the singular because the proposition is profoundly personal. We cannot judge our neighbours, nor probe their motives, nor are we even capable of discerning the difference between being crushed by the cross and carrying it, for these things can look identical to outward appearance. No, it’s a matter for ourselves to consider, and at most, to invite others into an awareness of this summons. Thus our place is to use our often shoddy discernment not to judge, but to discern how to act as a Simon of Cyrene, instead of a shouting, flagellatory Roman soldier who only makes the crosses of others heavier.

One person may be paralysed and haunted by the profundity of their cross, and it may involve the severest kinds of trauma; or one may be able to meander along under its heaviness, and no doubt life will involve moments of both. Yet whoever we are, whatever our cross, the underlying truth is that to be able to bear and carry the Cross we needn’t be professionals who can run circuits with our cross, but we must simply accept it, even if it takes a while, in the faith that God can use this suffering–big or small–to make us better people, to teach us how to love, to give Him glory, and to help save souls.

The option is there, to either suffer meaninglessly in vain or to suffer meaningfully with purpose. To invoke the Name of Jesus is enough to inject our pain with infinite and eternal value.

“May Raise Him”

Frankl then elaborates:

Do not think that these considerations are unworldly and too far removed from real life. It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards. Of the prisoners only a few kept their full inner liberty and obtained those values which their suffering afforded, but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.[v]

“Man’s inner strength may raise him” indeed. Perhaps in our strength we cannot all rise above our outward fate—prisoners as we are of our own weaknesses. Then on the matter of sin—there is no way anyone can rise above that by their own strength. Just as well. God can achieve all these things, and in Christ Jesus, He has already raised us higher than “man’s inner strength may raise him”. The reality of this resurrection awaits us in our cross: those two beams of responsibility which are far from abstract. For already they weigh upon us and demand our response in the very moment we occupy. We need not search for meaning nor liberty elsewhere. In this respect our Statue of Liberty and Statue of Responsibility are really the same thing, it’s the Cross, through which God in Christ mediates the gift of the liberty of grace through our embrace of responsibility.

The Virgin Mary is a testament to this truth. She is the eminent member of our race raised into immaculacy from the moment of Her conception; sanctified, liberated into union with God, from the get-go. She only rose higher with leaps and bounds into this sanctity through Her profound union with Her Son – realised through Her responsibility to God and man, a responsiveness to Him the God-Man. A union made manifest and typified by Her standing by Him at the foot of the Cross—the True Statue of Liberty and Responsibly.

Lady Liberty & Lady Responsibility

Our Lady can thus rightly be called Lady Liberty and Lady Responsibly. For other than Jesus, who else knows better the twin-beams that make up the Cross? That dual responsibility to God and neighbour which crushed Her Heart in a pain worse than death? She was with Jesus in the face of His Cross, and we need Mary in the face of our own. She can teach us how to carry these beams, and calling upon the Name of Mary–confident in, and obedient to the fact that Jesus has given us to Mary, and Mary to us—is enough to realise Her maternal presence and aid already at our disposal.

As Lady Responsibly She will help to hold on to the splintery wood of the Cross, in the face of every kind of interior and exterior hardship. As Lady Liberty She will help us to do so with love, peace and even joy.

The United States has its own Statue of Liberty, its own Lady Liberty—without a signifier of Responsibility—a gift from the French, and all as a sign of national independence. Through faith, may we allow the Holy Spirit to erect in the land of our soul the real and everlasting Statue of Liberty and Responsibility, the Blessed Cross, and its accompanying Lady, a dual gift of God, and a testament to our freedom as pilgrims whose life and citizenship in Jesus, through Mary, is not of this “mortal coil” on earth but in that “undiscovere’d country” where angels smile,

To rest forever after earthly strife.
In the calm light of everlasting life.[vi]

[i] Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Part II, 154-155, full text available from archive.org.

[ii] Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Part II, 130.

[iii] A loose synthesis drawing from Mt 11:28-30; Lk 9:23.

[iv] Ibid., Part I, 87.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] John Henry Newman, Lead, Kindly Light (1833).
Other references, Hamlet, and Phil 3:20.

Christian Discipleship

How do we become a Disciple of Christ? This is one of the greatest questions to ask.

Leonard Porter’s rendition of Jesus taking up His cross for the Stations of the Cross commissioned by the Church of Christ the King in New Vernon, New Jersey.

Firstly, the etymology of the word ‘Disciple’ referred to the people who used to study under great Rabbis and Teachers in the past. Thus, the essence of Discipleship means, ‘to become like the Master’.

Secondly, a Disciple of Christ requires one to be interiorly conformed to the Father’s Will. To be like Christ. How though? Answer: A RELATIONSHIP. The most fundamental criteria which everything rests on. If we think about it, being in a real relationship always entitles one to RIGHTS and RESPONSIBILITY.

1) RIGHTS: Being in a relationship with Christ gives one rights. Yes, we can ‘appeal’ to God to help us whenever we need Him. And we should all the time.

2) RESPONSIBILITY: Being in a relationship with Christ also requires us to grow responsibly. If not, why bother at all? For example, we must pray, mortify ourselves, go for mass and confession, etc. Again, not just exteriorly, but interiorly. Being truly present in heart, mind and soul.

3) CONSISTENCY: Inevitably, a Disciple of Christ must have consistency. This word is derived from the Biblical Word ‘Faithfulness’ or ‘Steadfastness’. A Faithful Disciple will always consistently persevere.

Back to the concept of a Relationship: Ultimately, when we say we want to be a Disciple of Christ, we are telling God, “We honor Your Holy Covenant.”

We are to be obedient to ALL the commandments and teachings of Jesus, not cherry-pick them. Only then, would we ‘remain in His love’, as He commanded us.

Do you still want to be a Disciple of Christ? If yes, are you cooperating with His Grace to grow responsibly and consistently?

___

Originally posted on Instagram.

Jesus and the Rich Youth

Mark 10:17-27

The Gospel on the rich young man is rich with meaning. It is noteworthy to point out that Jesus still loved the youth despite knowing that he wouldn’t give up his possessions to follow Him (c.f. Mk 10:21).

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, Heinrich Hofmann (1889)
Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, Heinrich Hofmann (1889)

This young man had observed the laws from his youth (Mk 10:20). Although he did not choose to take on the path to perfection (give away all his possessions and follow Jesus), he did not suffer a lessening of Jesus’s love.

It is amazing how intelligent and philosophical Jesus is as he brilliantly draws from Eccl 5:10 to illuminate the path to our perfection; “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves wealth, with gain: this also is vanity.”

As St. Augustine comments: “Although he did not pass the bounds of humanity, nor follow the perfection of Christ, still he was not guilty of any sin, since he kept the law according to the capability of a man, and in this mode of keeping it, Christ still loved him.”

This passage corresponds to plenty of us today, for most of us are the type who would do our best to keep away from grave sin and obey basic Gospel precepts, but we would REJECT the idea of following the Spirit’s Counsel towards Perfection.

There is a stark difference therefore, between the Perfect and Permissible Will that God has planned out for each of us.

Let us remember; when we listen to God, it becomes possible, but as long as we keep our human notions, it becomes impossible (c.f. Mk 10:27).

___

Originally posted on Instagram.
Image: PD-US

At the Foot of the Cross

As I looked upon the cross today, I asked myself: would I have stood at the foot of the cross?

St. John Resting on Jesus, Sacro Speco Monastery at Subiaco, Fresco

A friend once asked me, if I could be anyone at the passion scene, who would I be?

In a heartbeat, I said I want to be like St. John.

He was at the cross, bound by a deep love for Christ. Even when the the world deserted him, even when all his disciples and supposed friends left him, he was there. He didn’t care that the world would think he was crazy for standing up for Christ.

He knew (and possessed a very deep understanding as to) who Christ was, and if we read the entire gospel of John, it is self-evident that John knew the divinity of Christ from the beginning.

I want to be like John, he saw the Truth of the Word, the Logos made flesh from the beginning.

He saw the Truth in everything Christ did. He saw everything (always) in relation to Christ, and therein lies true Wisdom: To love Christ and to order everything in your life in relation to Christ, our ultimate end.

___

Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.

Pier Giorgio Frassati’s Life of Grace

By guest writer Lauren Winter.

This morning I listened to the always enlightening Bishop Barron talk about Frassati. First of all, Bishop Barron is a national treasure and I 10 out of 10 recommend the Word on Fire Show. Secondly, let’s take a minute to talk about our boy, Frassati.

Frassati’s life is an example of how grace and faith can grow in the most surprising places. Frassati wasn’t raised in a faith-filled home like so many of the Saints. His father was a prominent Italian politician and his mother a well-known painter. His father was agnostic, and his mother was *vaguely* Catholic. Frassati wasn’t given a spiritual upbringing but found one for himself instead.

Even from a young age and without any humanly prompting he was captivated by the Eucharist and the liturgy. He would disappear for hours at a time and visit the chapels for Eucharistic adoration causing his parents to frantically search for him. (Now where have I heard that story before? *cough cough* finding at the temple *Cough cough*)

Similar to his surprising devotion to the faith, he also had a devotion to the poor. He gave all his money and all his time to the poor. He was truly a man of the poor. He was both their caretaker and their advocate. His love of the poor was so brilliant that when he died of polio at the age of 24 his funeral was a HUGE event. It wasn’t his prominent parents’ friends who overwhelmed the event, but the poor. His funeral was a massively-attended event because of the massive amount of people he attended to and cared for while he was living.

When we hear about mountain-climbing Frassati’s “Verso L’alto” we are reminded of his acceptance of grace and his determination to climb closer to Christ. Frassati was a man of action. First, he accepted grace into his life and then boldly ACTED. May he be an example to us all. To the heights!!! Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us.

___

Originally posted on Instagram.

Lauren Winter is a mother of three and owner of the apparel brand Brick House in the City, designing inspirational clothing for Catholic women as her contribution to the New Evangelization.

Finding the Way

“Where I am going you know the way.”
Thomas said to him,
“Master, we do not know where you are going;
how can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.”
—John 14:4–6

If we follow Jesus wholeheartedly, seeking first and foremost to know Him and grow ever closer to Him, then we will be on the right path. We might be led in very different directions than we imagined, we might be confused about the details as we go, but if we stay close to Him, we can trust that we’re on our way to the Father.

Like Thomas, we ask: How do we know the way?

Open your eyes, Jesus says. I am the way.

You are beholding God before you at this very moment. The Father’s house still awaits, but the Kingdom of God is already at hand.

How will you get there? Be with me. Focus on nothing else; do not worry yourself about directions. Stay with me, keep me company, let me delight in you. Relish this time we share together, even when you are disoriented, even when the path is steep. The journey itself is sacred.

The way to Heaven is not by intently navigating our path with maps and compasses and plans of our own making. The only way we’ll make it is with a guide—Jesus Himself. We cannot reach Heaven without embracing the way of Jesus: the way of the Cross, the way of mercy, the way of humility and love and truth.

Wherever God leads you today, seek the company of Jesus right where you are.

___

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.

Divine Friendship

Jesus said to his disciples:
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.
I have called you friends,
because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you
and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,
so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.
This I command you: love one another.”
—John 15:12–17

Two lines from this Gospel passage may seem contradictory at first glance:

You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.

Andrea_del_Sarto_-_The_Last_Supper_(detail)_-_WGA00391First of all, Jesus tells us we are friends, not slaves—if we do what He commands us. Wait. Do friends normally take orders from one another? Then He says we are not slaves because we know what our Master is doing. But…do we really? At the time He spoke these words, his apostles had no idea that He was about to suffer and die (though, to be fair, it’s not like He didn’t warn them). The disciples seemed pretty clueless most of the time about what Jesus was really up to. Can we truly say that we know what our Master is doing? I think more often we feel we are flying blind, having to trust Him without really understanding what His plan is. After all, so much of our Catholic worldview is grounded in the concepts of mystery and faith.

What do we mean when we speak of the mysteries of God? Encountering mystery does not mean that we’ll never know the answers and should simply give up trying to understand. Rather, it means that no matter how deeply we study this complex truth, there will always be more layers of understanding to peel back, always something new to learn. Our human understanding is limited, but with God we can go deeper and deeper, until we are united fully with God in Heaven and can participate in His perfect understanding.

Jesus_washing_Peter's_feet

The more we plumb the depths of these mysteries, the more we grow in both understanding and wonder. But in order to get anywhere we must first have faith. We cannot grasp at this understanding for ourselves; we must draw closer to God so that He can help us see. We must trust Him. Our hearts must be open to soak in His wisdom, rather than trying to sharpen our own, which is a losing battle. Understanding the mysteries of God requires more than just intelligence; it requires divine relationship. It requires friendship with Jesus.

And Jesus offers us that friendship as a great, unmerited gift. We can begin to understand what He is doing—though it be far beyond our depth—through our love for Him. He says, “You are my friends if you trust me. And if you trust me, you will follow my commandments.” Our obedience springs from love and gratitude rather than fear and servitude. We can rest in the knowledge that we are loved and chosen, and we can return that love by recognizing Jesus in others and loving one another.

We are not mere servants; we are friends. And we are made to delight in a Love that is greater than we can comprehend. When we remain in Him, we can begin to bear the fruits of understanding, cultivated through love alone.


1. Andrea del Sarto, The Last Supper / PD-US
2. Ford Madox Brown, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet / PD-US

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.

Why we should read “Gaudete et Exsultate”

Back in March, Pope Francis released an apostolic exhortation all about the call to be holy, Gaudete et Exsultate. Within just a few days, the online world was discussing (and debating) the document. As often happens in our world of constant news and digital engagement, a few weeks went by and conversations about this exhortation died down. People began arguing about other topics. The release of this apostolic exhortation seems like a distant memory, and if you haven’t read it yet, you may be reluctant to do so. We often like to read and discuss whatever is trending in the world, so if the world has seemingly moved on, what good can come from perusing these words of Pope Francis?

1. Gaudete et Exsultate is a loving note of encouragement from our Holy Father.

As an apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate does not seek to define dogma or lay out a detailed analysis of the Church’s teachings about one particular topic. Instead, it is an apostolic exhortation that seeks to encourage us in our mission as Christians.  In this document, Pope Francis clearly states that his aim “is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification. My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” (#2). Pope Francis did not write this document for a few scholarly people to pull apart and debate; he wrote it for all of us to read and learn from. 

2. This exhortation takes us back to the basics of holiness.

In five pithy chapters, Pope Francis’s words remind us to stop over-complicating things and just be holy. As someone who tremendously enjoys learning about the intricacies of our Faith – especially as manifested in the liturgy – I sometimes face the temptation of forgetting the heart of Christ’s message. Like a Pharisee, I grow overly legalistic and proud, and let this overshadow the message of transformative love that floods the Gospels. In Chapter Three of this document, Pope Francis walks us through the Beatitudes, reflecting on how – looking at the Scriptures and the lives of the saints – we can embrace our call to holiness through this path that Christ lays before us.  Pope Francis notes that:

“The Beatitudes are like a Christian’s identity card. So if anyone asks: “What must one do to be a good Christian?”, the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Beatitudes, we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives” (#63).

3. There are some beautiful and profound one-liners. 

I can always appreciate a succinct, thought-provoking statement that I can ponder for a while. To my delight, I found that Gaudete et Exsultate is full of these! No matter if he’s talking about the universal call to holiness (“To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious”), the importance of cultivating peace in our world (“We need to be artisans of peace, for building peace is a craft that demands serenity, creativity, sensitivity and skill”), or the command Christ gave us to forgive others (“We need to think of ourselves as an army of the forgiven”), Pope Francis bluntly calls us forth to be holier men and women.

If you’ve been hesitant to pick up this document because it seems like “old news,” read it anyway – the reflection Pope Francis presents about holiness is needed in our modern world.

If you haven’t read this document because you think that it’s just for theologians and scholars, read it anyway – Pope Francis wrote it for us. In the conclusion, he states: “It is my hope that these pages will prove helpful by enabling the whole Church to devote herself anew to promoting the desire for holiness” (#177). He wants to help the whole Church, not just a privileged few.

If you’ve neglected to pick up this document because (based on opinion articles, headlines, and social media posts you’ve seen) you think it is chock-full of faulty teachings, read it anyway – the pope is not laying out incorrect teachings or false doctrine; he is encouraging us to be holy. While yes, there are some passages that seem a little vague and could be twisted in a variety of ways, I invite you to reflect on the pope’s words as you examine how you can practice sanctity in your own life.

Image credit: “Pope Francis” by Mikedev, via Pixabay (2017). CCO Public Domain. 

My Alabaster Jar

“When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head. There were some who were indignant. ‘Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wager and the money given to the poor.’ They were infuriated with her. Jesus said, ‘Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the Gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.'” (Mk 14:3-9)

The gift of the woman at Bethany was not small. She came to Jesus with repentance and sincerity of heart; with her broken jar she anointed Him with the best that she had, holding nothing back. She gave to Christ from her heart.

Such sincere gift left her vulnerable in the eyes of others. They were irritated and criticized her gift. Why wasn’t she following convention? Why wasn’t she displaying kindness in the popular way?

Perhaps this woman knew what their reaction would be beforehand. Her actions were somewhat radical… but at the same time, they weren’t. Would one who truly loves hold anything back from the beloved? Nothing is wasted on Christ.

Amid the scoffing of the bystanders, Christ read the woman’s heart. “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me…She has done what she could.” These words must have been a wealth of consolation for the woman. She had the guts to run to Christ and now He was hiding her in His bosom, acknowledging that her actions were beautiful and pleasing.

The woman cared little for human respect and public opinion. She gave glory to God in the best way she knew how, and let the others think what they wanted.

The bystanders thought that she should love God through charity to the poor. But the woman went far beyond mere external actions- she gave God her heart. This woman gave all that was most precious to her to Christ, without bothering about people’s opinions and envious thoughts.

What is in my alabaster jar? What is my gift of priceless worth that I am holding back from God for fear of the opinions of others? Dear Lord, help me to break my alabaster jar and give my heart to You.

My outraged Jesus, / by the weakness You suffered in going to Calvary, / give me enough strength to overcome all human respect / and all my evil passions which have led me to despise Your friendship. / I love You, Jesus my Love, with all my heart; / I am sorry for ever having offended You. / Never permit me to offend You again. / Grant that I may love You always; and then do with me as You will. (The Way of the Cross according to St. Alphonsus Liguori) 

Lent is not about what you are doing for Lent

By now, you’ve probably been asked, “What are you doing for Lent?” And, whether you’re willing to share, you likely have an answer. You probably know what you did last year for Lent and may even be able to recall the most memorable or challenging thing you ever did for Lent. But what if the question were, “What is God doing for you this Lent?” I’m willing to bet that most of us never consider that question. For many of us, Lent is about what we’re doing – mostly what we’re “giving up”. Lent becomes a contest with ourself to see if we can make it the whole season without giving in. And we reward ourself by overindulging at Easter because we made it! When Lent is reduced to the acts of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving – with no other end in mind – then we really miss the whole point of Lent. We end up spending 40 days going through an exercise that amounts to … a 40-day exercise.

About three weeks ago, I seriously injured my arm. I was at work and was carrying some things when, suddenly, I felt a surge of electricity run through my arm and I dropped what I was carrying. I knew immediately that it was bad – bad enough to require surgery. I had damaged a major muscle and found myself broken in a way that I couldn’t fix. My wife picked me up from work and we headed straight to my doctor’s office. The next day and a half were spent seeing doctors, getting x-rays, pre-admitting for surgery, talking with insurance companies, and waiting. Thankfully, the surgeon was able to squeeze me in to his schedule just two days after the injury. I began that day well before daybreak, showered with surgical scrub, showed up right on time at the outpatient clinic, filled out even more paperwork, and signed the consent forms. In the end, though, none of what I did fixed me. Sure, I had to do lots of stuff, but I had to rely on the doctor to put me back together. My arm is now beginning to heal – not because I filled out some form, but because a skilled surgeon fixed what what was broken.

What we do for Lent is not the point of Lent. What God does is the point of Lent. We all find ourselves broken in a way that we can’t fix. It’s what we call the fallen human condition and none of us are exempt from it. We need to be healed and restored, but no matter what, we can’t do it by ourselves – we need God for that part. We have our part to do, but it will be Him who ultimately puts us back together. Lent is sort of like those two days before my injury and my surgery – we have to wake up (recognize that we’re broken!), clean up (fasting and confession!), show up (prayer!), and sign the consent form (give God permission to do what only He can do!).

The Last Supper, Master of Portillo (c. 1525)
The Last Supper, Master of Portillo (c. 1525)

In Luke’s Gospel, we read the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem during the time of Passover. He sends some of his disciples ahead to prepare a room for the meal (Luke 22:12). We all know the significance of that meal – it’s the one we call “the Last Supper”, the one we recall on Holy Thursday. It’s at that meal that Jesus institutes the Priesthood. It’s at that meal that He gives His command to serve, which He demonstrates by His own example of washing the feet of the disciples. The disciples that had been sent ahead were given an important job – prepare the room. They cleared a space, set the room, prepared a meal, and served it – but it was Jesus who did the real work!

We are often invited and allowed to play a role in God’s work – and often it is by preparing the room. We do this at Mass – we set flowers, light candles, sing songs, read Scripture, exchange a sign of peace, and so on. But Jesus does the real work! We set the space for Him to show up! In the end, it is not about what we do, but what HE does.

And so it is with Lent. Give something up for Lent – so that Jesus can fill up the space left empty through your fasting. Pray more during Lent – so that Jesus may transform your life. Give to the poor – so that Christ may meet you through them. Lent is about preparing room for Jesus to meet you in the deepest part of your heart, where He can heal and transform you. What you do for Lent matters only to the extent that it makes room for God to do the real work.

If you want this Lent to matter, look past the stuff you’re doing. Look at what God is doing. Don’t rush back to business as usual when we reach Easter – that’s likely when He is finally able to begin the real work once you’ve cleared some room for Him.

So, what is God doing for you this Lent?

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Images: PD-US

A Lesson for a Chaotic Soul

Recently I learned a hard lesson. It was a concept that I knew was coming, as people close to me had informed me of the changes I needed to make. But because I am basically an infant in the spiritual realm, it took me awhile to really get it. It was worth it though because it could basically change my whole life… hopefully, when I learn to unite with God’s will!

Now I normally don’t like to share my spiritual or life lessons that I encounter because I am very young (23 years old), and I am basically still in the process of learning to walk down the paths that I feel God has set for me. So I always feel that I have little credibility in the words that I write. Even so, I feel that what I have realized is very important for every person, no matter who you are.

In recent years, my life has been pretty hectic. I knowingly chose for things to be this way, but I never anticipated the amount of adjusting that I would have to do. Within the past 20 months, I quit school, got engaged, got married, was blessed with my first child. I’ve adjusted to being far away from any family or friends, and I’ve adjusted to my spouse’s crazy medical school life. I’ve adjusted to being a mother and I’ve taken on all of the changes required for the title. I’ve also adjusted to being in a new and intimate relationship with my husband.

That being said, I may have adjusted but I have not responded to my situations in the holiest way. The way I’ve reacted to my environments and relationships have caused me more anxiety and despondency than I thought possible. It caused me to resent my spouse, have a negative outlook on my life, and worse, it drove a wedge between God and myself. I found myself being overly fearful of the future and I didn’t even want to be open to God’s will. Then I started to be ashamed of myself in front of God, knowing that I was avoiding His gaze. What if God asks me to do something difficult? My spiritual director tells me that her priest says that we can’t reach Jesus unless we climb the cross. Well, the cross freaks me out!

When my husband and I would have a conflict, I would panic, shut down, and tell myself that I couldn’t handle his shortcomings. I would use up so much energy trying to change his perspective and then end up angry when I didn’t succeed. In reality, God was teaching us both a lesson in being patient and more aware of each other on our journey through marriage.

When we needed to consider big life decisions, I immediately assumed the worst and panicked. I scrambled to figure out how I could travel down the path of least resistance, even though we really didn’t know what was going to happen yet. In reality, God was probably giving me the opportunity to trust Him.

See a pattern? I was relying on myself and my will because I felt in control. I was also relying on my husband to be perfect and I expected him to respond exactly how I needed him to when in reality, he was learning as much as I was. And who was I not relying on? God the Almighty Father, who basically has the perfect plan for my life.

Here is my main point: If we do not involve God internally, our external reactions will reflect the chaos of our souls.

So how are we supposed to gain internal peace? That may look slightly different for each of us. For me, it entails the need to heal past wounds so that I am okay with myself as God created me. It also will require that I recognize in His infinite and perfect love for me. I have to be able to trust in His ultimate plan, no matter how hard the lessons of the cross will be.

When this happens for each of us, we will be able to carry the crosses and shortcomings of those we love without losing internal peace. No matter what happens, our souls will remain in an undisturbed state while God helps us to grow interiorly and draw into a deeper union with Him.

Romantic Thoughts for Ash Wednesday

Terminate torment

Of love unsatisfied

The greater torment

Of love satisfied.”

— T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Can Catholics celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, considering that Ash Wednesday this year falls on the same date? Is the feast of love compatible with the beginning of Lent? When the obligation to do penance conflicts with the convention of romance, which of the two should give way?

Because of our natural aversion to self-inflicted suffering and the contemporary view of love that equates it with pleasure, many of us may have initially reacted that no, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday do not mix; that the Church’s regulations on fasting and abstinence would spoil this year’s Valentine’s Day; that this year, we must choose one or the other. Some have proposed, as a practical solution, that Valentine’s Day be celebrated the day before – on what is traditionally known as Mardi Gras – or the day after.

But must it be this way?

It is an age-old tactic of the devil to exaggerate the hardship entailed by our obligations towards God. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent twisted God’s command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and asked Eve if God prohibited them from eating of any tree in the garden. The devil continues using this tactic to today; thus, for example, we rebel against reasonable guidelines against wearing short skirts and low necklines in church because we perceive these guidelines as requiring us to wrap ourselves in sheets.

The same goes true with the mandatory fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, and warnings against celebrating Valentine’s Day in a sinful fashion. With regard to the former, it is difficult, to be sure, as I can attest from my struggle to practice portion control on ordinary days. But we tend to exaggerate the hardship it entails. We forget that 1) nothing prohibits us from making the allowed full meal for the day a special one, and 2) non-meat dishes can be delicious.

As for the latter, why must we equate celebrating Valentine’s Day with sinful activities?  Why must we assume that certain prohibited activities are the only ways we can celebrate our love – especially our romantic love – on Valentine’s Day?

We forget that Valentine’s Day was – and still is – a Catholic feast; that love – including romantic love – is something of God.  It is true that this year, liturgically speaking, Ash Wednesday takes precedence over the feast of St. Valentine. There’s nothing wrong, too, with scheduling a Valentine’s Day celebration the day before or the day after Ash Wednesday this year. But neither is there any reason we cannot, within the limits imposed by the mandatory forms of penance, celebrate our love on Valentine’s Day this year.

In fact, this year is a good opportunity for us Catholics to reclaim Valentine’s Day, to use it as an occasion to remind the world what love really is. As we take our allowed full one meal on that day in special seafood grills or sushi bars with our dates, perhaps after going to the church together to have ashes imposed on our foreheads or after having spent time together in a wholesome yet no less wonderful way (which we are supposed to do anyway on any other time of the year), we are showing to the world what we have always known and which the world has forgotten: love is all about joyful sacrifice. As we enter the Lenten season together with our dates, we remind ourselves and others that suffering is the touchstone of love, that the point of penance is not to perform arduous feats of self-denial but to love God and others better, and that with love, suffering is turned into joy.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and Lent culminates in the commemoration of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. History tells us that in the year AD 136, the Roman emperor Hadrian — in efforts to obliterate Christianity — built a temple to Venus, the pagan goddess of love, on the site of the crucifixion of Christ. It took great efforts two centuries later to uncover the True Cross beneath the ruins of the temple to Venus.

This Valentine’s Day, and hopefully on every Valentine’s Day after, we can bear witness to the true meaning of love after its supplanting for centuries by a perverted understanding of it. Let us show by our example of joyful sacrifice that we know how to truly love.

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Image: PD-US