Today I witnessed a true and undeniable miracle. A few blogs back I wrote about my experience while waiting to enter the baths in Lourdes, France. I was on a pilgrimage and was visiting the famous Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, which is well known for its healing water that visitors can bathe in. I chose to do it the hopes of receiving some of the healing properties the water possesses, but at the last minute I had a change of heart. A coworker of mine has been struggling with several demons centered around addiction. Before entering the baths I was overcome with the need and desire to pray for her and to enter the baths with the hope that the graces I received would be given to her.
When I returned back to New York the actions of my coworker were unchanged, or so I thought. I continued to lift her up in prayer, but sometimes the rawness of her language made me uncomfortable and I was beginning to wonder if she would ever be open to the healing Mary and the Holy Spirit wanted to give her, until today. Work was slow and I found myself with a lot of free time. Suddenly, this coworker asked if I had time to talk. She had never directly asked me to talk before, so of course I said yes. Evidently, she was dealing with a difficult break-up and she wondered if she had been taken advantage of by this guy she was seeing. After hearing the story it was pretty clear that she had, but that was not the end of the conversation. We talked off and on throughout the rest of the day and she opened up about how she wanted to change her life. She was no longer smoking weed nor seeking out one-night stands and meaningless hook-ups. She was being proactive, making the conscious effort to go to the gym everyday, and cutting ties with bad influences. I was completely awe-stricken. There was an obvious transformation within her.
I dared to go a little deeper and learned her mother is Catholic. Unfortunately, she had negative ties with the Catholic faith because of her mother’s influence. I know there are quite a few crosses that she is carrying and there is much healing that needs to be done. I asked if she knew anything about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux; she didn’t. When I came back from France I brought back a keychain of a rose with Saint Thérèse on it and gave it to my coworker in hopes that it might help in the healing I had prayed for while in the baths at Lourdes. I asked her if she still had the keychain and she said she did. I gave her a little overview of who Saint Thérèse was, and why Saint Thérèse might be able to help her in her pursuit of a better life. I saw genuine hope spark in her eyes. It was a spark that I had never seen before, mainly because before she was severely under the influence of marijuana. She had been in the grip of Satan, allowing her addictions to rule over her, but now there was clarity and it was beautiful. Mary had found a way to touch my coworker’s spirit and transform it. I felt so honored to have the privilege of witnessing it. My coworker is proof of the healing power of Our Lady of Lourdes and that our faith and our prayers can inspire miracles in other’s lives. Bring your prayers and intentions to Mary and Jesus and be persistent, for their mercy will not be outdone.
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.
Last year in August, I went on a pilgrimage to Portugal for the Centennial Anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima. Often, I struggle to pray with the distractions of daily worries of family, friends and making ends meet, so in going on a pilgrimage I hoped I would be able to leave those worries behind and focus on my spirituality.
In Fatima at the shrine where Mother Mary appeared, there is a long pathway to the shrine where many people pray while walking on their knees. They prayed so fervently and made it look so effortless, so I thought I would give it a go.
One day, before the break of dawn to avoid the crowds, I joined Father Michael and some of the pilgrims to pray walking on our knees. As I observed Father and the pilgrims moving forward, I got on my knees and started praying. They moved swiftly and got further and further away; as for me, I kept lagging behind, and walking on my knees became more and more excruciating, so I had to crawl. Like a snail I kept crawling forward with my head bowed down in shame as I realized I had overestimated myself.
As I continue to claw my way towards the shrine, my body got heavier and heavier. Then I noticed somebody walking beside me on my right-hand side. There was no sound, even though it was still dark I was able to see the tip of a pair of beautiful feet and the bottom of a white, elegant yet simple dress walking silently and subtly next to me. I didn’t dare look up as I felt undeserving, I just couldn’t. At that moment, my whole life flashed in front of my eyes like a montage of all the trials, tribulations, struggles and dark times from childhood to present. In each scene, I was able to see vividly where Mother Mary was standing.
One scene that resonated with me related to a time years ago when I was in my apartment alone heart-broken, curled up in a ball on the floor and crying unceasingly. After that I felt consoled but didn’t recognized what it was back then (I don’t recall ever being hugged by my own mother, so I wouldn’t be able to recognize that feeling of being comforted with a mother’s touch). This time, with the flashback, I could vividly see Mother Mary embracing me at that moment and all the other times when life got burdensome. After the montage was complete, I couldn’t see anybody walking beside me anymore but for the rest of the path, walking on my knees was like walking on clouds all the way to the Chapel where Mass started.
Although I am undeserving, God has been very generous to me and He has answered my prayers throughout my life in His own creative way at just the right time. He answered my prayers by giving me Mother Mary through Jesus’ dying breath on the cross — He said: “Behold, your mother” (John 19:26-27). As I continue living my daily life and especially in times when I needed a mother’s tender touch and love, I turn to praying the rosary and with the “Hail Mary”, her blessings pour out upon me.
How do I know? The feeling of anxiety gets taken from me and is replaced with peace. That is when I know that I’ve had a good heart-to-heart conversation with Mother Mary. So, when living gets tough, praying the Fatima rosary and singing “Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria”, I can always teleport myself back to the moment when I was walking on my knees with Mother Mary walking beside me silently and subtly, leading me closer to her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today, January 2, is the 1,978th anniversary of the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. James the Greater at the pillar in Zaragoza, Spain in the year A.D. 40.
I never have been particularly devoted to St. James the Greater, but for some reason, he seems to be devoted to me.
I heard somewhere that the desire to do the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James, which ends at the church at Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James the Greater are kept — is actually a call from the apostle himself. Around ten years ago, I read about the Camino de Santiago in a book about hiking. Since then, I became obsessed with it, researching about it on the Internet and dreaming about being able to walk it someday. At that time, walking the Camino de Santiago was a wild dream which I never thought would come true. Back then, I did not know if I could fit it in with my other big plan at that time, which was to take further studies in either the United States or the United Kingdom.
However, my priest-uncle-spiritual-director – who happens to be named “Father Jim” – convinced me to go to Spain instead for further studies, which I did. The university he recommended happened to be along the route of the Camino de Santiago. During my studies, I got excited every time I saw pilgrims – with their identifying scallop-shell pendants – crossing the campus.
Unfortunately, while I was able to hike some legs of the Camino de Santiago, I was not able to trek the last 100 kilometers required to qualify one to receive a compostela certificate. This was because I could not find a willing and available companion. Although women have been known to walk the Camino de Santiago alone safely, I did not want to take any chances.
Still, the opportunity to visit Santiago de Compostela came. I realized that flying to the place instead of walking did not make me less of a pilgrim. (In fact, flying proved to be more penitential, as I would have enjoyed a hike through the Spanish countryside more than an interminable wait for a delayed flight at the airport.)
While praying in the church, I realized that I owe to St. James a lot more than I thought.
I am a Catholic because most Filipinos are cradle Catholics. The Philippines – and many other countries — got the Catholic faith from Spain where, according to tradition, St. James preached the Gospel. This means that I am a direct spiritual heir to St. James, who preached the Catholic faith that he received from Christ Himself.
Very little is known about St. James the Greater, but from what is known about him from the Gospels, he was certainly suited to his special mission of preaching in Spain. He and his brother, St. John the Evangelist, were nicknamed “Sons of Thunder” for their fiery spirit that made them ask Jesus to bid fire to come down from heaven to consume the Samaritan towns that did not want to receive Him. They had drive, ambition, and a can-do attitude that made them give an affirmative response to Jesus when He asked them if they could drink from the cup from which He was to drink.
As energetic and driven as he was, St. James the Greater was not immune to temptations to give up.
According to tradition, on January 2, in the year A.D. 40, while he was preaching the Gospel in Caesaragusta (now Zaragoza) in the Roman province of Hispania (now Spain), he felt discouraged because very few of those to whom he preached accepted the Gospel. While he was praying by the banks of the Ebro River, the Blessed Virgin Mary miraculously appeared to him atop a pillar. (Miraculously, because at that time the Blessed Virgin Mary was still living in either Ephesus or Jerusalem; thus, she appeared through bilocation.) The Blessed Virgin Mary assured him that the people he was preaching to would eventually embrace the Gospel, and their faith would be as strong as the pillar she was standing on. She gave him the pillar and a wooden image of herself, and instructed him to build a chapel on the spot where she left the pillar.
St. James thus built the chapel, which is now the Basilica of Our Lady of Del Pilar. He continued preaching, with better results. Then, he and some of his disciples returned to Jerusalem, where they were martyred under Herod Agrippa. His disciples, however, brought his body back to Spain.
I like this story of St. James and Our Lady of Del Pilar. It shows that God chooses each of us for special missions suited to our individual traits and aptitudes. At the same time, it shows that our natural aptitudes are not enough, for us to become effective instruments of God. Christ had to correct and purify St. James’ fiery temperament before St. James could channel his energy to preaching the Gospel. Then, in the course of his preaching, his natural energy proved insufficient to sustain his motivation.
But he did the right thing and prayed, and the Blessed Virgin Mary encouraged him. He allowed her to encourage him, and his preaching bore fruit.
The story of St. James and Our Lady of Del Pilar teaches us to exert all our efforts to fulfil the mission God gave us, using the best of our skills and abilities, while relying on the help of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She will encourage us when our strengths fail us, and with her help, we will do a lot of good. Our encounters with her will pave the way for more encounters between Christ and others – just as the encounter between her and St. James paved the way for my own encounter with Christ.
I returned last month from a pilgrimage to Western Europe. As usual, I was bombarded by the same question countless times: “How was it?” I replied, “It was very good, but challenging.” Lost luggage right at the very start, pilgrims having to cut short the journey due to a family emergency and last, but not the least dramatic of all, lost passports on the eve of our return. It seemed that whatever could possibly go wrong, went wrong with this trip. And yet, despite all the unplanned emergencies and heart-stopping mishaps, most of us, including the ‘victims,’ emerged strengthened by the whole experience, in fact, doubly certain of God’s Providence and protection. In a way, the surprises were the value-added elements of our pilgrimage – a reminder to be constantly vigilant and be ready for the moment when the Lord decides to change our life’s itinerary.
But in hindsight, no amount of careful pre-planning or caution could have prevented the twist and turns in our itinerary. What then was needed to weather the unannounced storms and detours of life? This is where today’s parable becomes illuminating. Many have focused on the element of wakefulness in today’s parable. But it is important to take note that the passage records that “all became drowsy and fell asleep.” The wise slept as well as the foolish! But there is no hint of rebuke or disapproval from the Lord. It seemed perfectly natural, under the circumstances. This indicates that Christian vigilance does not mean continually peering up into the heavens like an air-raid sentry on duty. Reminders, like the Church’s annual season of Advent, are helpful and needed, but what our Lord is indicating is that watching also allows time for normal activities. Money must be earned, food must be cooked, laundry washed, school lessons learnt, weddings and funerals held, time for rest and leisure — life must go on.
So, the crucial difference between the wise and the foolish has to do not with staying awake but with having sufficient oil. In unraveling the mystery and the symbolism of the oil, we can perhaps begin to understand the depth and meaning of being prepared in the Christian context. Oil, in the Old Testament, is frequently used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Kings and priests were anointed with oil as a sign of their consecration (and, supposedly, Spirit-filled). Likewise, in the life of Christians, nothing good happens without the inspiration, the guidance and the strength afforded by the Holy Spirit. We are anointed with the oil of Sacred Chrism at baptism and Confirmation, signifying the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives.
Notice that both the wise and foolish bridesmaids had oil to start with. The difference lay with the extra jar of oil. The vital point in the foolish bridesmaids’ ‘foolishness’ was not that they ‘slumbered and slept’ but that they had no oil in their vessels. They had oil in their ‘lamps’ to start with, a testimony of the sanctifying grace a person receives at baptism. But they failed to bring along an extra supply of oil – indicating the many souls who fail to grow in sanctity, making use of the channels of grace like Holy Communion and frequent confessions, failing to apply themselves to grow spiritually through study, devotion and prayer.
The great danger is that so many have become contented with the mere fact that we are baptized and have done little more to grow in our personal faith life. This is the problem with the foolish bridesmaids. They had forgotten an important lesson in life: it’s not just how you begin the story but how you choose to end it. Our salvation depends on so much more than just being baptized. Our faith must go beyond the rudimentary catechism that was given to us when we were young. It demands that we live out the call to holiness that comes with being a Child of God. That’s what’s so wrong about the fundamentalist evangelical idea of “once saved, always saved,” that you only have to believe and accept Christ as your Savior once in your life to be automatically “saved” regardless of what you do the rest of your life. That is certainly not true. St. Paul tells us that “he who endures to the end will be saved.” And if our light is to endure to the end, we need an extra reservoir of oil which continually feeds the flame of life, never letting it falter or gutter out in darkness, under-girding them in every hour of stress, of pressure or disaster, keeping them firm and steady in the midst of the buffeting pressures of life.
Holiness is that extra reservoir of oil. We begin on our path to holiness at Baptism. Through it, we become holy, sharers in the divine life. But that is only the start. In the Eucharist, our holiness is deepened, as we become one with the source of holiness, our Lord Jesus Christ. Confirmation strengthens us, and Reconciliation offers us forgiveness if we have strayed from the path of holiness. The Sacrament of the Sick consoles us in our weakness. Holy Orders and Matrimony give us the grace to sustain ourselves as we serve others in the states of ordained ministry and marriage. All the sacraments assist us on our way as we strive to live a holy life. We must never feel complacent that we have sufficient ‘oil’ of holiness. We must be constantly working at ensuring that we have an extra supply.
That is why the wise bridesmaids could not share their extra oil with the foolish ones. This is because the oil which the wise bridesmaids possess is not something external — like food or clothes or money. The oil which is used in this parable is a symbol of inner spirituality, virtue, and the faith life of a person that has been nurtured carefully with prayer, the sacraments, spiritual practices, devotions and a commitment to living the Word of God. It is product of personal sacrifice, devotion and discipline. Holiness is simply not transferable.
We may be secretly sympathetic toward the plight of the five foolish bridesmaids. We too wish to step forward and hand them our oil and perhaps find ways to lighten their burdens. But the truth is, this is not possible. One of the important lessons that my last pilgrimage taught me and which coincides with the message of today’s parable is this: Holiness or even readiness cannot be shared or transferred to another. It is most personal for it is our lives that we are preparing. Some other pilgrims later shared with me how they would have been willing to exchange places with the couple who had lost their passports. God could not have chosen a more vulnerable pair. The thought that others were willing to take their place was inspiring. Unfortunately, this was not possible. No one could take their place when it came to lost passports. Likewise, no one would be able to make up for the insufficient oil that each of us needs to keep our lamps lit and burning.
As we continue to wait for the Divine Bridegroom, with many, if not all of us, feeling drowsy or perhaps even falling asleep, let us pay heed to the words of the gospel and the advice of that Great Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine:
“Watch with the heart, watch with faith, watch with love, watch with charity, watch with good works …; make ready the lamps, make sure they do not go out …, renew them with the inner oil of an upright conscience; then shall the Bridegroom enfold you in the embrace of His love and bring you into His banquet room, where your lamp can never be extinguished.”
Rev. Michael Chua is a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is the parish priest of the Church of Jesus Caritas, Kepong and Administrator of the Chapel of Kristus Aman, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL, as well as Ecclesiastical Assistant and Chaplain for the Catholic Lawyers Society.
One of the sites included in the itinerary of the Holy Land pilgrimage I joined was the Chapel of the Angels, a Catholic church located in the shepherd’s field where, according to tradition, an angel appeared to announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds.
Internet research reveals that the Chapel of the Angels is actually one of three possible sites in Beit Sahur where the event took place. Just the same, though, the Chapel of the Angels is within the area where the shepherds were tending their flocks of sheep when they saw the angel.
The Chapel of the Angels is shaped like a shepherd’s tent, and its façade is decorated with a bronze angel. The dome has small windows in it that, according to our guide, were meant to make the sunlight simulate the light from the appearance of the angel. Inside the church are paintings of the scene of the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, the shepherds adoring the Christ Child, and the shepherds celebrating Christ’s birth.
I also noticed a slab containing the Latin text of Luke 2:8–10, which, in English, reads:
“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people.’”
In the slab containing the Latin text, the words “evangelizo vobis gaudium” (I bring you good news) are in bold.
Within the grounds of the chapel, there is a cave said to be a typical one in which shepherds used to take shelter. The cave is now available for use for group activities.
As with all sites in the Holy Land connected with the life of Christ, it would have been nice to linger around the Chapel of the Angels. But our guide, who did not want us to miss our reserved time slot at St. Joseph’s Chapel in the Church of the Nativity where we planned to have Mass, bound our group to a strict schedule. He gave us only a few minutes to see the chapel and the cave, take a few pictures, and maybe squeeze in a restroom break.
I understood our guide’s concern, however, considering the difficulty of rounding up all 47 of us to the bus and the unpredictability of traffic. Fortunately, we did reach the chapel within the reserved time slot. We had Mass, as planned, after which we joined the long queue to venerate the exact spot where Christ was born.
The rush to reach the Mass venue on time reminded me of the shepherds who—it is written in Luke 2:16—“went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” I imagined that those shepherds ran the distance that we drove from the Chapel of the Angels to the Church of the Nativity. The “good news of great joy” they received from the angel must have made them happy enough to run that far, as described in the Spanish Christmas carol that sings of them running to Bethlehem so fast that their shoes broke:
Los pastores a belén corren presurosos llevan de tanto correr los zapatos rotos
Hay hay hay que alegres van hay hay hay si volverán
Con la pan pan pan con la de de de con la pan con la de con la pandereta y las castañuelas.
The joy with which those shepherds ran to Bethlehem is a lesson to us modern adults. When we were children, Christmas was a magical occasion for us and we looked forward to it—the gifts, the decors, the fun events. Now, as adults, we sometimes drag our feet instead of run to Bethlehem. As we endure the Christmas season rush-hour traffic on our way home from work, we stress over Christmas parties we are either hosting or attending, year-end deadlines at the office, and last-minute shopping to squeeze into our schedules and budgets. It has reached the point that I once saw a newsletter article about people who, when interviewed, said they hate Christmas for the reasons I mentioned above.
There would, indeed, be many reasons to hate Christmas if it were only about obligatory socials. But Christmas is all about the “good news of great joy” of Christ being born. The shepherds, simple folk as they were, understood this.
In this modern age, we may not have the luxury of the simple life those shepherds lived. But as God sent the angel to those shepherds, He sends us our own reminders of the “good news of great joy” that is the essence of Christmas. We must train ourselves to be sensitive to these reminders, so that the non-essentials do not make us miss out on the “good news of great joy.”
This Christmas, let us run to Bethlehem that we may find Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in the manger. Let no one of us miss out on the “good news of great joy.”
I was a solo traveler in the pilgrimage I joined to the Holy Land and Turkey. Most of the others in the pilgrimage were traveling with their spouses, their friends, or their relatives. Those who were not seemed to have known each other previously. Although everyone else was very nice, fun even, at times I acutely felt the lack of a traveling companion.
Actually, the pilgrimage chaplain was a relative of mine both distant and close at the same time – distant, because he is the third cousin of my mother; close, because he has been my spiritual director for quite some time now. I anticipated, though, that during the pilgrimage he would be too busy attending to the pastoral needs of the group that any chances for uncle-and-niece bonding moments would be out of the question. I realized too that it would not have been right for me to hog his company and deprive the other pilgrimage participants of the attention of the pilgrimage chaplain.
There was neither reason nor opportunity for me, however, to wallow in self-pity over being alone. There could never have been, given the hectic schedule and the good fortune of being in the same places where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph walked when they were on earth.
One of such places we were lucky to have visited was the house near Ephesus where, according to tradition, Mary spent her last days on earth. It is located on a hill overlooking fertile plains and with a view of the Mediterranean Sea. Trees abound on the slopes of the hill. According to our guide, a forest fire occurred at the slopes of the hill last year; however, the flames stopped right before reaching the house of Mary.
The place was full of life. I saw birds and squirrels. There is a spring that provides water. The weather was pleasantly windy and cool, at least for someone like me who comes from the humid tropics. I imagined how painstakingly St. John the Apostle must have picked and prepared this spot for Mary.
We had Mass at a chapel located in the grounds, and according to the plan, we were to say the Rosary inside the house of Mary. We couldn’t say the Rosary together as a big group, though, as we might disturb others. So we were advised to say the Rosary in pairs or in small groups.
After entering the house of Mary, I fished out of my knapsack a special Rosary of mine, a pearl Rosary given to me by my paternal grandfather the last time I saw him before he died. I then commenced praying – alone.
Upon finishing the second mystery, the custodian of the house of Mary requested that we move out of the house to give a chance to others who want to pray inside, since the house is small. We were constrained to finish praying the Rosary at the grounds surrounding the house.
As I was about to continue praying the Rosary, the pilgrimage chaplain – my uncle – approached me, and asked me at what part I was in. When I told him that I was already in the third mystery, he invited me to continue praying the Rosary with him.
Praying the Rosary in front of Mary’s house was very consoling. I felt Mary was encouraging me to tell her about my worries and trials, so that she could make things right. I felt all the more consoled praying the Rosary together with my dear uncle. I had been hoping for some uncle-and-niece bonding moments with him, and here, Mary had arranged for uncle and niece to pray together that prayer she loves so much, by the place where she herself dwelt.
After praying the Rosary, we walked around the grounds for a while, soaking in the beauty of the place. I found myself telling Mary how beautiful her place is, and it was as if I could hear her tell me, “I brought you here because I knew you would like it here, because I know you need to rest.”
Our next stop for that day was the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus, which included the ruins of the church where the Council of Ephesus was held in AD 431. There, the dogma of the theotokos – that Mary is the Mother of God – was defined.
I privately prayed a “Hail Mary” since I know that the title “Mother of God” is the highest honor bestowed upon Mary.
Then, it occurred to me – this same Mary who was declared in this spot to be the Mother of God is the same Mary to whom my uncle and I had been praying to earlier, the same Mary who, just a while ago, had been mothering me and reassuring me that I am never alone in my journey towards God.
From then on, whenever I feel alone, I turn to Mary to remind me that I am not. For God in His infinite wisdom gave me His own mother to be my own as well. He knows, after all, that none of us can journey to Him alone, that we all need others to help us, and that we all need a mother especially – all of us, including supposedly intrepid single female travelers like myself.
One of the highlights of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that I was on recently, was witnessing married couples renew their marriage vows in Cana of Galilee, the site where Jesus turned water into wine during a wedding feast to which He and Mary were invited.
A church now stands at the site. It is simply but beautifully decorated, with clay jars as prominent decorations for the altar.
Twenty couples in all renewed their marriage vows. Some had been married for almost 40 years; the youngest couple had been married to each other for two years already. All of them were excited about the renewal. They spoke about the event as if they were actually getting married again. A lot of the wives would have wanted to wear gowns, were it not impractical given our packed itinerary that day which involved a lot of walking (the renewal was scheduled in the morning); for the occasion, some wives wore something a little dressy and packed a set of more comfortable clothing they could change into after the ceremony.
The renewal of marriage vows took place within a Mass. After the Mass, the couples had their photos taken in front of the altar, as usually done after weddings. Then the group had a final photo taken in front of the church.
For the rest of the day, we proceeded with the rest of our planned itinerary, visiting other important sites from the life of Christ. In the evening, there was a special wedding dinner – with wine – for the couples who had just renewed their marriage vows. The couples were so happy and obviously in love with each other as they liberally dispensed dating and marriage advice to us younger folk, and reminisced about how they met each other, fell in love, and got married.
As a young, single person witnessing the renewal of marriage vows, I wondered: what made these married couples as giddy as newlyweds, even if they were not literally getting married again?
Surely it was not just the wine. From observing and listening to the couples, I realized that the answer was in what the event meant to them: a commemoration of that day in their lives when they first invited Christ and Mary into their common life together as husband and wife. These couples were teaching a very important lesson with their example: invite Christ and Mary not just to your wedding but to your entire married life, and happiness ensues – definitely not without trials, but without the warmth of the first love dying.
I feel sad when I see couples pay a disproportionate amount of attention to non-essentials when planning their weddings. Unfortunately, wedding planning these days has become a competition to make each wedding more Hollywood-like or quirkier than the last.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the celebration part of weddings. My point is not that all couples should imitate the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who scheduled their wedding at midnight in the church so as to be alone together with God. Christ would not have changed water into first-class wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee if He disapproved of the celebration part of weddings. But the following words of St. Francis de Sales are all too true:
“Would that our Blessed Savior were always invited to all marriage-feasts, as to that of Cana. Then the wine of consolation and benediction would never be lacking. For the reason this is so scarce is that Adonis is invited instead of Jesus Christ, and Venus instead of His Blessed Mother.”
We younger folk would do well to learn from those 20 married couples the secret of a great wedding and a happy, fulfilled marriage life ahead. I am grateful to those 20 married couples, and I wish them more years of happiness to come.
All you who have been baptized into Christ / Have put on Christ.
Saint Melito of Sardis writes, “In Abel he was slain, in Isaac bound, in Jacob exiled, in Joseph sold, in Moses exposed to die.” Christ was in all the Old Testament types. If we are in Christ by baptism, then we are in all the Old Testament types. In Abel we were slain, in Isaac bound, in Jacob exiled, in Joseph sold, in Moses exposed to die. Our pilgrimage, our suffering, our cross have meaning when we join them to Christ’s fasting, praying, sweating blood, and being scourged.
The Passion has brought about our atonement, our at-one-ment with Christ. Through His passion and cross we hope to be brought to the joy of his resurrection. He is “the priest through whom we have been reconciled, the sacrifice by which we have been reconciled, the temple in which we have been reconciled, the God with whom we have been reconciled” (Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe). He is at once priest and sacrifice, God and temple.
Since Christ is the author and perfecter of our faith and the first fruits of the resurrection, our participation in his divine life comes about through His action. His incarnation makes our salvation possible. God loves us as He loves His own son.
This theosis is made possible by the incarnation. Tertullian calls the flesh the “hinge of salvation.” As we offer our bodies a living sacrifice, God offers his flesh to us the in the Eucharist. Saint Catherine of Sienna writes, “We image your divinity, but you image our humanity in that union of the two which you have worked in man. You have veiled the Godhead in a cloud, in the clay of our humanity.” The clay of Christ, His body, is the source of our hope. Because He sits at the right hand of the Father as a divine person, we know that our frail flesh can enter heaven.
If the body of Christ in heaven assures us of our salvation, the body on Christ on earth is our sanctification. J. R. R. Tolkien told his son, “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: The Blessed Sacrament…There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth.” All goodness flows from Christ as from an ocean. All beauty looks to Him as its Maker. All truth springs from Him as from a well of living water.
He is the fulfillment of all desire, the end of all our searching, our first cause and our final cause. When Saint Augustine was baptized, he prayed, “Too late have I known Thee, O Thou Ancient Truth; too late have I found Thee, First and only Fair.” We repent for the wasted time, the days of idleness, the years of complacency. Yet He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.
Saint Ambrose: “I ardently desire to have Him as my Savior whom I am unable to withstand as my judge.” We face a paradox: He Who is Justice is also Mercy. The greatest love and greatest wrath spring from the same source: the infinity of God’s goodness. Struck to the heart with awe, we pray with Ignatius of Antioch: “Let our striving for your kingdom not fall short through selfishness or fear: may the universe be alive with the Spirit, and our homes be the pledge of a world redeemed.” Our lives and homes image the world to come. The Old Testament is the shadow, the New Testament the icon, and the eschaton the reality. We know not yet what we shall be.
Through the liturgy we gain a foretaste of heaven while yet on earth. Liturgy derives from the Greek for “public service.” God has made our communal work acceptable to Him. He has deigned to accept our offerings. In the Divine Liturgy we pray, “through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior save us.” Christ came through Mary, He comes through Mary, and He will come through Mary. St. Louis de Montfort reads the story of Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau as a Marian image. He identifies Esau with the world, that sold its birthright for food and desires the approval of both God and man. Esau works outside, pursuing the things of the world and not caring for his mother. Isaac works inside and represents the contemplative, cultivating the interior life. When Isaac tells Esau to kill game and make soup for him so his father can bless him, Rebekah overhears and tells Jacob to bring her two kids from the flock. These two kids that we bring to Mother Mary are our body and our soul. She skins them, mortifies them, and makes them acceptable for God. Since Christ has given His body and soul for us through Mary, we offer our souls and bodies back to Him through the same vessel of mercy.
Christians are ultimately pilgrims and sojourners in this world. Regardless of what we may accomplish here or how long our lives may last, this is not our final home. I was reminded of this important reality of our faith last week when two fateful events transpired:
One event was the joyful and jubilant witness of millions of young people in Brazil who came from all around the world on a pilgrimage for World Youth Day. The other was the sad and tragic deaths of many from a train crash in Spain, among those pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostella for the Feast of St. James.
Life and death, joy and sorrow, love and loss, these are all commingled with our earthly existence in one way or another. No one is immune from sufferings. They are a part of the human condition and the earthly pilgrimage. But for Christians they do not have the final word.
Our ultimate pilgrimage is the one home, the pilgrimage to heaven. No, this does not mean we ignore our daily responsibilities, our families and our friends, or the enjoyment of created things. Indeed, we live in this world to sanctify it, to be a leaven, and to joyfully witness Christ.
What this does mean, though, is that we do all that we are called to here in preparation for and in anticipation of eternity. The innumerable pilgrims heading to Brazil and Spain reminded me of a letter written around the 2nd century called the Epistle to Diognetus. The letter is quite a poignant summation of how early Christians saw their sojourn on earth as one that is transitory and temporal when compared with the blessed life to come:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. . . . With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. . . . They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.
Holy Scripture is replete with such imagery too. The Old Testament often speaks beautifully of the longing of the Jewish exiles to return home or for their Messiah. For example, the Psalmist laments:
“By the rivers of Babylon there we sat weeping when we remembered Zion. On the poplars in its midst we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for the words of a song; Our tormentors, for joy: “Sing for us a song of Zion!” But how could we sing a song of the LORDin a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4).
In the New Testament, the author of the book of Hebrews spoke of the yearning of the ancient prophets and wrote:
“If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:15-16).
Similarly, St. Paul encouraged the church in Philippi with these words: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phillippians 3:20). And St. Peter wrote in his first epistle exhorting believers: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
In many ways, we can see within these texts a need within the human heart to return home, to find rest, to seek beatitude. Even in this life we show this desire by pursuing sacred, holy, and hallowed things. Miraculous sites associated with saintly apparitions, churches that safeguarded holy relics, the places of martyrdoms, and other treasured sites had drawn believers from the earliest days of the Church: from St. Helena going to Jerusalem to the find the True Cross, to Christians during the Middle Ages (e.g., The Canterbury Tales) traveling to various shrines, or to modern-day pilgrims who visit Lourdes, Fatima, Aparecida, the Holy Land…the list goes on and on.
Of course, one need not go on pilgrimages — at least, not in the geographic sense — and they are not required for our salvation, but pilgrimages are nonetheless still good things. I believe this is because pilgrimage, in many ways, is an apt representation of the spiritual life. This is not merely a Christian concept, but one found among Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and those of other faiths too. In a world often devoid of a sense of the sacred, pilgrimages allow us to live out in a unique way the Gospel imperatives of our faith and to devote everything for a time to go, literally and figuratively, seeking after God.
First, a pilgrim would often have to sacrifice much to prepare for such a journey. For example, some would sell their possessions to finance such a trip, do penances, or give alms to beggars along the way. They must leave their homes, familiar things, their friends, the old ways, for someplace that they’ve never been before but trust is there. The Christian also might pursue Christ and their faith at great cost. They risk facing the ire of their families, uncertainty of their days, and leave the comfortableness of their old lives for wild and uncharted territory.
After setting out, a pilgrim would often have to traverse dangerous territory and risk facing thieves, brigands, and unruly beasts. Even then there was no guarantee of arrival with climate, sickness, and other problems they could face along the way. Similarly, the Christian also is confronted with many dangers and pitfalls in the spiritual journey from sin, temptation, and sufferings. Modern conveniences may have resolved some of these practical issues, but it still remains that a pilgrimage is a heady undertaking.
Imagine, then, the joy that accompanied a pilgrim when they finally arrived. Undoubtedly much of it would be praise and thanksgiving to God for all he has brought them through. Feasting. Celebration. Meeting other pilgrims. Sharing stories together. What festivities there would be! Likewise, as much as we cannot fully know of heaven right now, can a greater scene be imagined? That is what I imagine heaven will (partly) be like. We can rest from our travels and simply be with God and the saints.
Pilgrimage is not an outdated relic of the Church’s past. It is a part of her living history. Those who went to Rio de Janeiro and Santiago de Compostella last week understood that. They journeyed in the footsteps of a long line of believers stretching back into history seeking after the Lord, the only true and worthwhile pilgrimage of this life. Part of a medieval Christian hymn, O Salutaris Hostia, goes something like this:
Uni trinoque Domino (To your great name be endless praise,) Sit sempiterna gloria, (Immortal Godhead, One in Three.) Qui vitam sine termino (O grant us endless length of days,) Nobis donet in patria. (In our true native land with thee.) Amen. (Amen.)
We yearn for home, Lord. We are not quite there yet. For now we wait for you to call us to that endless length of days. That day when our pilgrimage ends and we might be forever in our true native land, never to depart from Thee again: Oh, what a day that will be! We will be…home.
It was Palm Sunday, 1984. Blessed John Paul II, speaking in Saint Peter’s Square said to the people, “What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering here today! Who claimed that today’s youth has lost their sense of values? Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?”
He entrusted the youth with the World Youth Day Cross, and placed his trust in the young people of the world to carry forth the lasting values of the Church. In reading the life of Blessed John Paul, we find in him a vibrant young person full of zest for life. But if we look closely, we have to ask ourselves, Where did he get this zeal? We might also say, What a pity more Christians are not like him!
Oh, but we are meant to be like saintly John Paul! We may not become pope, but we are called to be filled with the same spirit and zeal for Christ. It is the path to holiness. But how? How in our modern world where there are so many obstacles that bombard our daily life are we to carve a life of holiness?
There is no magical solution. We cannot expect a vision or event to heighten our spiritual senses so to be thrust into a life of prayer overnight (that’s not to say that God doesn’t intervene in special ways from time to time, but I am not counting that as the norm). We need to make a move toward God. As a young man, Karol Wojtyla read Saint Louis de Montfort’s book, True Devotion to Mary, and he credits the book for how his life took a decisive direction. His Papal moto “Totus Tuus” comes directly from de Montfort’s shorter prayer of consecration. His holiness did not happen overnight; but it began by a decisive turning to God.
Can we not do the same? Why not make these simple words ours? Why not make all that we are, a prayer to be “totally yours” to God through Mary? What would our world be like if all of us followed Blessed John Paul’s example and became “Totus Tuus”?
‘Totus Tuus ego sum et omnia mea Tua sunt.
Accipio Te in mea omnia. Praebe mihi cor Tuum, Maria.’
(I belong entirely to you, and all that I have is yours.
I take you for my all. O Mary, give me your heart)
I often hear from young Catholics how they find it so hard to set aside consistent times of prayer, Mass, devotions, reading the Bible. Even Karol Wojtyla had to pick up that book by de Montfort and read in order to meet his life-changing event. We have to be willing to dedicate a time – a window – through which God can begin to work in us. And if we do, the Holy Spirit will meet us and guide us the rest of the way.
One very useful book that I came across: 33 Days to Morning Glory: A Do-It-Yourself Retreat In Preparation for Marian Consecration by Fr. Michael E. Gaitley, MIC.
I had made my Marian Consecration in 2004, but felt a desire to re-consecrate myself and found this book very helpful. It takes the teachings of Saint Louis de Montfort and breaks them down, using four Saints – de Montfort, Maximilian Kolbe, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and Blessed John Paul II – to lead us through understanding Marian consecration. Many parishes have used this book to bring more of their members to ‘give themselves to Christ through Mary. In fact, our parish has a small group preparing for their consecration on July 16 (Feast of Our Lady of Mt Carmel). The book is rich in insight, and yet not time-consuming. The book is enjoyable. The daily reflections short. It leads little by little to a deeper appreciation of Mary’s role, and how she is there waiting to make us other Christ’s, all for God and His Divine Glory.
Blessed John Paul led a life with giving all to Mary (Totus Tuus). What would happen if one after another resounded these words ‘Totus Tuus’ again…and again!
Ever since I’ve learned about the Camino de Santiago – a centuries-old pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, where the cathedral housing the remains of St. James the Greater is located – I’ve been obsessed with it. When I was preparing to leave for Pamplona, Spain to pursue further studies, walking the Camino figured in my list of planned extra-curricular activities.
Unfortunately, I could not find a walking companion, and although women have been said to walk the Camino alone safely, I did not want to take any chances. I almost gave up on prospects of seeing Santiago de Compostela, until I realized that flying there instead of walking won’t make me any less a pilgrim. I won’t get a pilgrim’s certificate, for sure, but just the same I’ll get to honor St. James. So after I finished my studies, and with a few days remaining before leaving Spain for good, I flew to Santiago de Compostela.
Flying turned out to be no less penitential. I would have chosen a hike through the countryside anytime over a long bus ride to the airport, an interminable wait for a delayed flight, and the other inconveniences of air travel.
Hungry and tired, I arrived at Santiago de Compostela late in the afternoon. After sampling some of the famous Galician seafood and the tarta de Santiago, an almond cake, for dessert, I sank into my bed to sleep.
When I went to the cathedral the next morning, I was awed by its majestic spires and the elaborate stone work on the facade. I could imagine the emotions of those who arrived walking or cycling all the way from France or some other far-off place. Indeed, in the square in front of the cathedral, I saw a group of walking pilgrims – identified by their knapsacks, trekking poles, and scallop shell necklaces — hugging each other in the sheer joy of having finally arrived, another group having jump shots taken of them. A cyclist shouted for joy upon dismounting his bicycle; another solo pilgrim just stood at the corner of the square, in awe and lost in her own thoughts.
Inside, the cathedral was just as awe-inspiring, with the elaborately decorated side chapels, the botafumeiro (a giant censer which is worked by a network of pulleys), and the image of St. James in the main altar. I fell in the line to see St. James’ tomb, knelt at the kneeler in front of it, and prayed. Then I walked around, trying to pray but unable to say anything except, “God, nice place you’ve got here!”
After viewing the inside of the cathedral, I checked out its museum of sacred objects and tapestries, as well its exhibit on the Codex Calixtinus, an illustrated medieval manuscript compiling devotions and liturgies devoted to St. James, accounts of miracles through his intercession, the history of the Camino, guides for pilgrims, and music. The codex had been miraculously saved from a fire, a shipwreck, and thefts, the latest of which happened in 2011 after which it was recovered in July this year through the intercession of St. James.
I felt I had to visit the cathedral again in the afternoon, to pray more calmly and probably to attend the 7:30 PM mass. I made the mistake of leaving the cathedral shortly before the mass, and found it locked when I went back. But for some reason, I did not want to leave cathedral square. There I stood for a long time, enjoying the good weather and observing the pilgrims’ coming and going.
The next day, I had to catch the afternoon flight to Bilbao and then take the bus back to Pamplona. Because I had time in the morning, I went back to the cathedral and the cathedral square. What made me keep going back to the cathedral, without wanting to leave?
Again, the pilgrims’ various expressions of joy upon finally arriving at Santiago de Compostela moved me. What motivates millions pilgrims, even non-believers, to take the long arduous journey?
Motives vary from pilgrim to pilgrim, but one thing is certain: it’s impossible to walk the Camino and remain unmoved. One blogger who has done the Camino several times writes that she did not start out on a religious or spiritual journey but it ended up that way. She attributes it to “the Camino at work”.
Whatever the Camino represents to each pilgrim, for everyone it is more than just good exercise, a “bucket list” item, and a rich cultural experience, although it is definitely those as well. It is an opportunity to receive blessings from St. James, who most likely is the one himself who calls the pilgrims to travel his way.
More importantly, Santiago de Compostela and other pilgrimage sites remind us that our faith is real, that although our redemption transcends time and space, it happened in time and space. These sites are tangible reminders of eternity, which we need on this side of heaven.
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