But Jesus said to them,
“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and in his own house.”
And he did not work many mighty deeds there
because of their lack of faith.
—Matthew 13: 57–58
This Gospel reading is an extension of the message from the previous week’s reflection, of the idea that our own disposition will affect how God is able to work in us. As we read last week, if our soil is rocky, the Word will not be able to grow unless we first allow God to till the soil. In today’s Gospel, we read of Jesus’s failed attempt to preach in His hometown. If we, like the people in today’s reading, are closed off to the very idea that God might work through the ordinary details of our everyday lives, then His attempts to work miracles in us will be futile. If our hearts are stubborn, if we turn our heads away from the divine in-breaking of grace, then we are refusing to receive His miracles.
The truth is that God often enters into our lives in the ways we least expect. We might anticipate chariots and thunder, when really He’s trying to get our attention through our next-door neighbor. If it seems mundane to us, it is only because we’ve lost the perspective that God cherishes each tiny detail of His creation. He works within the intricacies of the world He created, gently and earnestly appealing to us in the most ordinary moments.
Jesus’s neighbors didn’t recognize that the Messiah was in their midst. Think about your own neighbors: perhaps there is a saint among you, hidden in plain sight. Don’t miss out on the gift of their presence. God give us eyes to recognize the miraculous when it comes in the trappings of the familiar.
Here it is, 3:44 AM in New York City and I am wide awake because it is 9:44 AM in France. I have been back from my pilgrimage to France for a few days now and I thought that I had been adapting to the time change pretty well… evidently not. My inconsistent work schedule most likely has some part to play in this. I am either getting up really early to open the store or getting up really late to close the store. I am severely lacking consistency. In addition to my unstable work schedule, I do have quite a few things on my mind. Coming back from my pilgrimage has been a true emotional roller-coaster to say the least, especially going back to work.
Work has become almost unbearable. France allowed me to see my work life with refreshed eyes and it helped me realize how much chaos my work creates. I truly dreaded the first day because I was scared of what I would walk into. The people I work with are wonderful but can be unpredictable. I never know what I am going to get with them. The pilgrimage ignited a deeper relationship with God and Mary and they definitely had my back as I walked back into my work and ensured that I had a joyful return. There was a select group of people I was very excited to see and it was reassuring when I realized that they were just as excited to see me.
I had brought back assorted gifts for different coworkers. There was one coworker in particular who wanted a magnet. I must confess getting her this magnet was actually more out of guilt. I had brought back some Colorado magnets the last time I went home and gave them to a few people. She saw them and asked if she could have one. I was not planning on giving her one then simply because I did not think that we had that close a relationship. She later revealed to me that she collects magnets and if I could bring her back a Colorado magnet the next time I go home she would appreciate it — she even offered to pay for it. The old Catholic guilt seeped in and I was bound and determined to get her a magnet from this trip.
I ended up buying her a magnet highlighting the city of Lourdes. I tried to make it as non-religious as possible just because I didn’t know what her background was. Her reaction to the magnet was something I would have never expected in a million years. I gave the magnet to her Monday and I told her my reason for going to France was for a pilgrimage. She smiled and nodded her head; this was the typical reaction I was getting from my coworkers. I assumed she wasn’t sure what a pilgrimage was. The next day she came up to me and inquired more. She started asking me specific questions about Lourdes and pilgrimages there. I was impressed, she was the first person at my work who actually knew why Lourdes is so important to my faith. She even talked about Saint Bernadette and how she grew up watching the movie “The Song of Saint Bernadette.” It was one of her favorite movies.
Throughout the day she continued to ask me questions about my religion. It started very general, basically just telling her why I went, but evolved into discussing her faith and how she had fallen away over the years. She told me that she was baptized but never received any other sacraments. She has a daughter who does not practice any religion and her granddaughter is a self proclaimed atheist. I could hear the regret in her voice and tears even welled up in her eyes. I said that I have had my struggles with my faith and had my moments of questioning. She asked me how I found my way back to my religion. I told her that I first had to reconcile my relationship with the Lord and I did that through prayer. She added that she never has received a good answer from her granddaughter as to why she refuses to go to church. At the end of the conversation, she seemed to be more determined to re-address the conversation with her granddaughter — she is older now and may be able to articulate her feelings better. My coworker was still in tears and I could tell something was still bothering her. She brushed it off saying she was just going through a lot of things lately. I didn’t want to pry plus we really needed to get back to work. I ended up just giving her a hug and said that no matter what she was going through she was a beautiful person and I was always there if she ever wanted to talk more. The rest is in the Lord’s hands. I will pray for her of course, along with her daughter and granddaughter.
God and Mary truly surprised me with this one. This coworker was one of the last people I would have guessed would understand what I encountered in Lourdes. The conversation we had blessed me just as much as it blessed her. It allowed me to relive my experiences I had in France and I was able to give a more honest account of my trip instead of the general, “oh I had a great time.” I pray that my affirmation of my faith will encourage her to revisit hers and maybe bring her back to the Lord.
2 Kings 4:42-44, Psalm 145, Ephesians 4:1-6, John 6:1-15
When Jesus performed the multiplication of food, the people immediately adored Him: “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself.” (Jn 6:15)
Similarly when Jesus walked on water, His Apostles revered Him: “Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going” (Jn 6:21).
However, after Jesus taught about the Eucharist and that we have to eat His flesh, most of his followers deserted Him: “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” (Jn 6:66).
It was easy for the people to believe in simple signs and truths, like witnessing the multiplication of food or Jesus walking on water. However, the moment Jesus teaches something seemingly controversial, i.e to eat His flesh, everyone left Him.
This alone speaks volumes of the Hard Truth of the Eucharist. Sometimes, it’s not about what we want, but what Jesus wants. Often times, we pick a church because of the service structure or how charismatic a particular priest or pastor is. We also tend to pick doctrines which we agree with and chuck the rest out.
However, that was never what Jesus wanted for us. Christ clearly established in the scriptures how He wanted to be worshiped and how He wanted His disciples to live. The perennial question is, are we able to assent even though we don’t understand certain mysteries?
By Dr George Corbett, Lecturer in Theology, Imagination and the Arts, University of St Andrews.
Reverend Jonathan Arnold, dean of divinity at Magdalen college, Oxford, has written about the “seeming paradox that, in today’s so-called secular society, sacred choral music is as powerful, compelling and popular as it has ever been”.
But is this a paradox? Arguably the power of this music derives from having been written by supremely talented, well-trained composers who just happened to live in a Christian tradition, writing mainly for the church. If the dominant religion over the past millennium had been atheist secularism, say, talented composers might still have written equally compelling music.
The same might also be true elsewhere in the arts – not just for Christian composers such as Mozart, but also for Christian poets like Dante, and Christian artists like Beato Angelico. If so, the power of Mozart’s famous Ave Verum has nothing to do with the mystical body of Christ in the Eucharist and everything to do with the innate genius of the composer.
A problem with such counter-factual hypotheses, however, is that this is all they are: hypotheses. By contrast, sacred music and extraordinary Christian art is a reality. Many of these Christian artists also experienced their own creative process as “inspired”, believing God had had a hand in their work.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI claimed that “in no other cultural domain is there a music of a greatness equal to that which was born in the domain of the Christian faith”. He even added that “this music, for me, is a demonstration of the truth of Christianity”.
Many others have touched on this sense that music springs from faith and can only be artificially separated from it. This includes non-religious people, who often speak of their experience of music in spiritually inflected terms, describing it as “soulful” or “transcendent” or “mystical” or whatever. This is where there really might be a paradox: secular people being moved by the sacred through music.
The God exclusion
Classical composers in the post-war period sought to make a clear break with tradition, including with the cultural baggage of Christianity. The Scottish composer James MacMillan, who is also a professor at the University of St Andrews divinity school, lamented the divorce of music from extra-musical inspiration in this period:
Composers like Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio and the young Turks of the post-war generation wanted to start afresh from year zero, to write a music that was untainted by tradition.
British music departments and conservatoires of MacMillan’s generation in the 1970s saw music as “complete in itself” and that “anything else was extraneous and irrelevant”.
The English-Polish composer Roxanna Panufnik described something similar:
I left music college swearing never to write another note again … It was during the mid-1980s when esoteric and cerebral avant-garde music was still considered the right kind of music to be writing.
Classical music in this era became ultimately sterile, delighted with its own inaccessibility and unpopularity; a cerebral playing around with notes on the page. MacMillan and Panufnik only discovered their own compositional voices by being true to themselves; allowing the “spiritual dimension to emerge” and reacting against the culture of the time.
The irony, as MacMillan has pointed out before, is that mainstream modernist music has often been more plugged into the Judeo-Christian tradition than is sometimes appreciated. Arnold Schoenberg reconverted to Judaism after the Holocaust. Igor Stravinsky was Russian Orthodox, Olivier Messaien was Catholic. From this perspective, Christianity is an extraordinary source of artistic originality; rejecting a search for the sacred leads ultimately to a dead end.
21st century composition
Today, if you go to a concert even of sacred music, you are unlikely to find reference in the programme notes to religious inspiration. There remains a snooty condescension in intellectual circles towards the “extra-musical”, and a privileging of pure musical analysis.
The recording industry is driving technical perfection, while the notion of “historically informed performance” is becoming ever more dominant as part of a wider focus on achieving a supposedly “correct” style. All too easily these become goals, rather than the means to express something deeper.
Our response at St Andrews has been to try to introduce the next generation of composers to the creative power of Christianity, pioneering what we call theologically informed programming and performance. We paired six of the best upcoming composers from around the UK and Ireland with doctoral theologians from the university.
The theologians were tasked with researching passages from scripture that could be set to music by the composers. Participants didn’t need any faith, and were encouraged to engage with the Christian tradition however they wanted. Mentored by MacMillan and part of our wider TheoArtistry project, the collaborations have produced six wonderful new works of sacred music, which are available on the CD Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century.
One great example is by Rebekah Dyer and Kerensa Briggs. Dyer’s research on fire in theology, combined with her hobby as a fire spinner, gave talented composer Briggs a fresh perspective on Moses’ encounter with God through the Burning Bush. Using textured sounds of choir and organ, the composition conveys a meeting between earth and heaven, history and eternity.
When music encounters religion, I see the result as being like the scriptural image of water and wine: the art can be transformed and come not to serve theology, but to be theology – or more exactly theoartistry, insofar as it may reveal God in a new way through artistry.
From the earliest Gregorian chants through Bach and Mozart to the very different contemporary sacred music of MacMillan and Arvo Pärt, there are so many examples of the great beauty that this can achieve.
I’ve had some people come up to me and ask:
“What do you study in theology?
“Do you just study the Bible?”
Believe me, I had all these questions too before I embarked on any sort of theological study.
So allow me to clear the air. It’s not just about studying the Bible. It’s more than that. For sure, the Bible is a key source — for it is God’s Word revealed to us, it is His way of communicating to us mere mortals, to help us continually grow in love with God.
The (i) Holy Bible, in addition to (ii) Sacred Tradition, (iii) our reason, and (iv) our human experience (4 loci/sources of mediation between theologian and God) all function to help us in relating to God.
The job of a theologian is this: To articulate the true meaning of God as revealed to us through different eras, social milieu, contexts.
The revelation of God is not to be seen as a mere historical revelation, but one that is continuing today and very much alive in the presence of the Church.
For those of you desiring to embark on any sort of theological study, do not be afraid! If God brings you to it (He has, after all, planted some seed of desire in you!), He will bring you through it.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Hear the parable of the sower.
The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the Kingdom
without understanding it,
and the Evil One comes and steals away
what was sown in his heart.
The seed sown on rocky ground
is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.
But he has no root and lasts only for a time.
When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word,
he immediately falls away.
The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word
and it bears no fruit.
But the seed sown on rich soil
is the one who hears the word and understands it,
who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”
The parable of the sower is a reminder that our own interior disposition will affect how we receive the Word of God. If we are hardened and resistant, it will not find root within us. But if we are pliant and willing, the Word will grow and bear fruit in us, making of us an outward sign of God’s abundant grace.
It is important for us to also remember that God does not simply toss the seed and walk away, leaving us to either flourish or wilt based on the merits of our soil. If we want to try our luck alone, of course, He will leave us be, never imposing Himself upon us. But if we let Him, He will gladly go deeper and till the soil of our hearts—removing the rocks, untangling the thorny ground, protecting the precious seed He has sown.
Most likely, our soil is imperfect. We might have some rich, verdant areas here and there, but there are also the rocky mounds, the dried-out patches of dirt, the weeds that prevent anything else from growing. We want to receive God’s Word, but we also know that there is work to do within our hearts to remove all the disordered attachments, sinful habits, and unloving attitudes that prevent us from truly embracing it. But we need not despair. If we have the will to improve, God will meet us where we are, and He will do the work in us. All we need is patience and perseverance—for this process won’t be simple or easy, but it will absolutely be worth it. At first, the soil will appear broken and raw as He reaches in and pulls out the rocks and brambles. But if we remain open to His grace, a verdant landscape will sprout up before our eyes.
1. Rosa Bonheur, Le laborage / PD-US
2. Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, Plowing in the Spring / PD-US
On my pilgrimage in France: I find it funny that most people come to France primarily for the Paris attractions. Not for my group though — being in Paris was just an added benefit. Our main purpose was to visit Lourdes, where Saint Bernadette received apparitions of Mary in a small grotto next to a river in 1858. Such humble beginnings have transformed the site into a grand shrine devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes. This shrine has been a place of numerous miracles over many years, especially of healing. The water has become famous for its healing properties. Every single day people flock to this site with the hope of being healed by bathing in the water.
We started the day early to catch a flight from Paris to Lourdes. Anticipation filled the air with each one of us holding special intentions in our hearts, secret hopes that we desire Mary to answer. I confess my deepest desires were rather selfish. I intended to bring the desires I have had since I was a child: to find a loving husband and to start a family. Simple in nature but it is something I have felt is my true vocation. This is also a desire I have feared might never come to fruition. However, as I sat in the line awaiting my time to enter into the water, the more I drew closer, the more my mind, heart and soul began to shift. It felt wrong to place my prayer intentions only for myself. To be honest I already had the faith that Jesus would fulfill my deep desires with or without receiving the bath, and there might be more urgent prayer intentions to focus on.
Yesterday, we visited the Sanctuary of Lisieux where we devoted our time to learning about the life of Saint Thérèse and her family. It was also Consecration day for the Pilgrims who went through 33 Days to Morning Glory by Father Gaitley. For those who don’t know, Marian Consecration is a way to give yourself entirely to Jesus through Mary. Through this Consecration, you surrender your entire self to Mary for her to use in whatever way she wishes to further glorify the kingdom of God. This can be difficult to do, especially for me; I naturally want to maintain control. Nevertheless, I sincerely felt called to France to do this. After my Consecration, I ended up in the gift shop filled with Saint Thérèse souvenirs. I was drawn to a simple key chain. A small pink rose, a symbol of Saint Thérèse. I heard a quiet voice tell me to buy it. I struggled with this at first. I knew it would be hard to give this key chain to the person it was meant for. She is a sweet and in some ways very innocent girl but she is a victim of this fallen world. While she appears as a girl herself, she has a daughter and is addicted to marijuana. Before leaving on this trip, she asked me to bring her back a French husband. She was serious about it too, listing off all the attributes this husband should have. I promised I would bring her back something even if it was not a husband. I have been working with her for some time but Mary was definitely working to strengthen our relationship during the weeks leading to this trip. Throughout this trip, Mary continued to place her on my heart. In that gift shop and after my Consecration I saw why.
Sitting waiting to go into the bath I released my selfish intentions and placed all my time and devotion on this girl. I truly believe that Mary will be able transform her and her life for good. When the time came to enter the bath I was asked to say my prayer intentions. I prayed for her and went down into the water. There are no coincidences and I believe that through the graces I have received, Mary wishes to reach this girl with the help of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Oh and by the way, this girl’s name is also Therese.
Originally posted at Kitty in the City. Image: Saint Thérèse dressed as Saint Joan of Arc.
Spending 2.5 days in silence was certainly a new and enriching experience for me and my spiritual life. I wrote and read so much, it’s difficult to summarize all my thoughts succinctly.
What I would say though, is that there is true wisdom in Jesus’s advice to be still, find a quiet place, and pray. Time was tremendously slowed and I felt like I was Adam in the Garden of Eden (before the Fall) during the retreat.
The place was beautiful and the moment I stepped foot inside, I experienced peace and serenity. The retreat center sported a huge garden with birds, rabbits and flowers. A 15 minutes walk outside would take me to the Chiang Mai lake and waterfalls.
I felt like it was Heaven on Earth. In my experience, all Christians should find time to turn contemplative instead of consistently remaining active, especially in stressful Singapore. All should at least once in their life, be still and retreat to a lonely place.
It is easy to find God in Silence, and even easier to pray unceasingly. By silencing ourselves, we are forced to listen, to read, to reflect, to contemplate. Moreover, the beautiful nature there helped sharpen my focus. I’ll share a few scriptural verses that best describes my entire experience, in order:
Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while. (Mk 6:31)
But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray. (Lk 5:16)
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body. (Prov 3:5,8)
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you would wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather in barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Mt 6:25-26)
Bless the Lord, O my Soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty. (Ps 104:1).
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit. (Eccl 7:8)
An ex-student has been so gracious as to keep me in the loop about her successes. She’s a particularly bright and hardworking girl. And I never thought what small messages like that could do for me — I felt so proud of her.
What more would our Heavenly Father in heaven feel if we thanked Him and kept Him in the loop about our successes in life?
I thought, what exactly about this ex-student won my heart? She was humble; never conceited. Even when she was so smart, she listened to whatever I had to teach — she knew she could always learn something.
As the saying goes, students often teach the teachers more so than the other way round!
Prayers today for everyone — that we may always be humble in all we say and do.
I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.
If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
you would not have condemned these innocent men.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.
Throughout Scripture, we find stories where God asks someone to give up everything for Him. Countless prophets and disciples are asked to separate themselves from earthly attachments, leave their old lives behind, and start from scratch. Why does the God of mercy require such extreme sacrifice from His people?
God uses these experiences of sacrifice not as punishments but to prune our hearts and allow us to grow into who we were created to be. He asks us to let go of our attachments in order to prepare us for a greater mission; to increase our dependence upon Him; to replace our earthly perspective with a heavenly one; and to give us a testimony of the God Who has walked with us and sustained us through every desert, Who has shouldered the crosses we bear.
Jesus does not desire sacrifice for its own sake but to make room for something greater. He sacrificed everything for us as a means to show His mercy. He endured torture, betrayal, wrongful conviction, and death for love of us. He entered into our human condition, sharing with us an intimate closeness. And in doing so, He has redeemed all of our sacrifices, transforming them into pathways of His mercy.
In light of Jesus’s sacrifice, our sufferings are not burdens holding us back but graces lifting us upward toward the Cross of salvation. Sometimes, He requires us to let go of good things so that our hands are open to receive great things. His claim is a bold one: that He Himself is greater than the temple. Greater than the temple! What seemed like blasphemy to the Pharisees is in fact a profound truth: there is no offering more sacred than the Body of Christ, no sacrifice greater than the Mass, and no act of devotion more powerful than His Passion.
Image: Frederic Edwin Church, Cross in the Wilderness / PD-US
During my retreat, I had the privilege to attend Daily Mass. Despite our different ethnic backgrounds, it was a big treat to witness all 8 ‘retreatants’ from Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, UK, and Australia all coming together to celebrate the same Mass and read the same readings as all other Catholics in the world. This is why the Catholic Church is one; united in doctrine, mind and worship.
There is a running joke that being a Catholic entitles you to a ‘global passport’. You can be overseas, but every mass celebrated around the world in a Catholic Church is the same. This is one of the main reasons why I am proud to be Catholic! Truly; the meaning of the name is fully embodied (Catholic means Universal); and as Christ Himself said — one flock, one shepherd (Jn 10:16, 17:21-22).
One of the other major moments for me during the retreat was spending dawn, noon and night in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus Christ Himself. Although being in nature had a sense of beauty, I personally felt that I could focus best when I was with Jesus, kneeling in front of my King and Savior.
In any Catholic Adoration chapel; one would find a small ‘cupboard’ which we humbly call the Tabernacle, acknowledging our Jewish roots. Every Catholic Tabernacle in the world contains consecrated bread and wine by an ordained priest. This Bread and Wine is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in its totality: physically and spiritually (c.f. Jn 6:51-54).
This is signified by a burning candle lit at the side of every tabernacle (see pics). As long as Jesus is inside, this candle must be lit to symbolize the Light of the World being truly present (Jn 8:12). This is an ancient and beautiful practice dated way back to the 4th Century!
As a lover of history, I find it fascinating that just as the ancient Israelites in the OT believed the Holy of Holies resided within their Holy Tabernacle, Catholics today also believe that Jesus Christ Himself is present inside each modern Tabernacle in the form of consecrated bread and wine!
People who know me know I hate making choices. I use my job as a convenient excuse. You see, I teach. And every second of every day in school I am making decisions in and outside of the classroom. I’m kind of done when it comes to deciding about stuff in my day to day living.
(FYI, it really is that bad, I once cried when a friend asked me to decide where I had wanted to meet for dinner.)
I saw this quote and it resonated with me:
“Choice was dangerous: you had to forgo all other possibilities when you chose.”
So maybe it’s not my job; maybe it’s me. I AM THE ONE WHO IS AFRAID.
I met a friend for dinner yesterday and it slowly became apparent that she too probably felt the same way.
But as a third party, I could see that either choice would do her good, and either choice would bring glory to God.
Then, it hit me…
The fact we have choice (and actually have to make choices) is God’s love for us. The fact that we don’t get “dictated” by God means He made us human and not robots.
Humanity — which entails free will, by virtue of the powers of our rational soul — is God’s greatest gift to us.