The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for August, 2011

God is Wonderful in His Saints

One of the psalm verses that recurs in our liturgical services is “God is wonderful in his saints, the God of Israel” (Ps. 67/68).  Sometimes the word “saints” is translated “holy place,” because the original word is simply “holies,” which can mean holy persons, places, or things.  Anyway, I want to say something about the saints today.

I find it to be a very wonderful thing about God that He is “wonderful in his saints.”  By this I mean that God’s Kingdom is where his family lives, not just his infinitely inferior creatures who are mercifully welcomed to behold his glory.  He has made us adopted children and, since He is a personal God (actually tri-personal), it is his will and his practice (as Scripture and the whole history of the Church amply demonstrate) to work with and through persons, be they angels or human beings.  This is part of what it means for us to be members of the mystical Body of Christ.  If that is not just to be a meaningless metaphor, we must accept that the saints, the holiest members of his Body, and hence the most like Him, are really his hands and feet and eyes in this world.  So it should be no surprise to us that those He has already glorified are pre-eminently valuable and useful to God in accomplishing his will on behalf of his somewhat less eminent (and often severely struggling) members in this present world.

Of course, God’s most favored saint is the one He made Queen of Saints, the Immaculate Virgin Mary.  I wrote a few things in my book, A Place Prepared by God, about the ways she has personally intervened in my life to bring great blessings to me.  Here I’ll just quote a general passage about the Lord’s preference for working through the members of his body, particularly his Mother.  “Somehow, one becomes closer to the Lord, without being aware precisely how this is being done, simply by becoming closer to Our Lady.  She makes this happen when we give her freedom to take our hearts into her hands.  Attaching ourselves to her has the pleasantly surprising effect of making obstacles to communion with Jesus vanish, in a way that we just can’t manage to do on our own… That’s what happens when you let Mary take you to Jesus.

“Some people object that you can just go directly to Jesus.  To them I say: of course you can.  But we also need to discover how God wants us, as unique individuals, to approach Him, for He deals with us uniquely.  I had been going directly to Jesus for a long time, but I somehow wasn’t “connecting,” somehow couldn’t bear the fruit that his grace was supposed to supply.  That is because He wanted me to go to Him by going to his Mother, and until I “got it” I would not have been able to overcome the barriers to my communion with Him.  So he brought me to her, and her to me.  She said, “Come to me,” and I did.  My heart and soul then broke wide open, and I felt as if my life had just begun as it was meant to be.  I believe that this whole experience is what St. Theophan the Recluse calls a “grace-filled awakening” in his book The Path to Salvation.  It is more than an ordinary blessing from God or a certain help in spiritual life.  It is a permanent, life-changing reality that sets one surely on the path to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Here, however, I want to mention a couple specific instances in which other saints have recently and directly intervened on my behalf.  Thus I’d like to encourage you to have recourse to their prayers and heavenly assistance.  There was something that was afflicting me for many years, which I guess you could call a compulsive behavior.  It was a minor thing, not sinful, but annoying, and all the more so because I seemed unable to do anything to correct it.  It had become an ingrained habit; I guess you’d call it a nervous habit.  Anyway, when I was reading the life of St Gemma a while back, and came to the chapter on her spirit of mortification, through which she practiced heroic self-denial, I just simply asked her in prayer: “Can you help me with this problem?”  Her prayers are powerful and swift, let me tell you!  From that very moment I simply stopped that compulsive behavior, and have not repeated it since, and that was well over a month ago.  That may not seem like a long time, but if you’ve ever had some sort of nervous compulsion yourself, you know that this is a miracle!  Such things don’t just instantly go away all by themselves, without any sort of therapy or psychological strategies.  Just a prayer and instant healing!

Another thing that happened was also quite direct, though the answer I received was not the one I had hoped for.  Still, I felt strangely at peace afterward, because it was manifested to me as God’s will.  I was reading the life of St Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, a mid-19th-century Passionist brother (he died young, while he was studying to become a priest).  St Gemma lived some decades after he died, and she also read his life and was attracted to his holiness—especially after he appeared to her from Heaven!  It was because of his presence in St Gemma’s life that I was interested in reading his.

Well, there was another, and more spiritual, problem I’ve also been struggling with for a long time (I have lots of problems!), and as I was reading his life I discovered that he had suffered from a similar thing.  So, I prayed and asked him to intercede for me that I would be delivered from it.  Right after that, I went and prayed Vespers and Compline, and then I took up his biography again.  I was astounded to see immediately the answer, in his own words: “You know that thing you asked me about?  Well, it’s not God’s will.  It’s a cross that God wants you to carry with you until you die.”  That’s about as direct an answer as one can hope for!  So rather than pray to be free from this cross, I just pray for the courage and strength to endure it in peace, so as to bear fruit for souls, which is likely the reason it is not being taken away.  Things actually have been better since then, though it hasn’t gone away, but if I know this is part of God’s will, and his saints are still with me, then I know all will work for the good, and everything that ol’ devil throws at me will recoil on his own loathsome head and, as the psalmist says, he will be hurled back into the abyss, his designs and efforts thwarted.

Then, I turned to St Gemma and said, with a bit of resignation, “Well, my dear Gemma, I guess I’m not going to be delivered from this one.”  She just looked back at me serenely from her picture and indicated that I ought to look at the Scripture passage I had noted from my reading earlier that same morning from First Corinthians: “Give thanks to God always, for the grace of God that is given you in Christ Jesus… who will confirm you unto the end… God is faithful…”  So I knew then that if it is God’s will that I endure a particular cross until I die, I will be confirmed in his grace right up to the end, for He is faithful and doesn’t let us be tested beyond our strength.

These are just a couple examples of what God is pleased to do for us through his saints, if only we will ask their help.  They can really be our friends, really walk with us along the hard and narrow path to the Kingdom of Heaven.  God wants it this way, and we may find, as I recounted above, that God is waiting for us to ask Our Lady or one of the saints to intercede with Him before He will grant what we seek.  This is my experience and that of countless others who have been blessed with friends from Heaven.  Remember, life in God is a family affair, and He rejoices to get everybody involved!

I don’t want to leave out my beloved Guardian Angels, and there are more stories I could tell about their heavenly and most welcome assistance and protection, but that will have to wait for another time.  Just don’t forget that God is wonderful in his saints, and his saints are ready to show us his wonders, if only we will ask them!

70 x 7

I assume that it is the intention of us all to please the Lord and not to displease Him, and I think that the Lord is aware of our good intentions as well.  Therefore He has given us some indication in the Gospel (Mt. 18:23-25) as to an important way we should go about doing that.  We hear in this parable of the Kingdom about what moves the King to pity and what moves Him to anger, so we have a pretty good idea of how to behave if we are to enter that heavenly realm.

We have to back up just two verses to get the context for Jesus telling this parable of the unmerciful servant.  It was prompted by a question St Peter asked: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?”  Peter had already heard Jesus teach about the necessity of forgiveness, but being the law-abiding man he was, he wanted to know if there was actually some rule that applied, so that he could follow it.  As far as I know, the Law of Moses doesn’t say much about how to deal with repeat offenders (aside from stoning them, I guess), so Peter was looking for some guideline.  “I’m willing to forgive,” he seems to say, “but what is the point beyond which I no longer have to forgive?  I know it is righteous to forgive once or maybe even twice, but is there more?  Even as many as seven times?”

Jesus, being Divine Mercy incarnate, could not place such a limit on forgiveness, so He said, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times,” which is a way of saying: an unlimited number of times.  So He launched into a parable that gives us the proper perspective on the matter.

For the debt that the servant owed his master, Jesus deliberately uses an astronomical amount.  In today’s terms it would be something like a billion dollars.  The point, though, is not the precise amount of the debt, or even how the wretch managed to incur it, but the fact that it is utterly unpayable.  In the face of this unpayable debt, two other impossible situations arose.  The first one is suggested by the master: sell the delinquent servant and his family into slavery, and confiscate all his possessions.   This wouldn’t come anywhere near actual repayment of the debt.  (I’ll have more to say on this point shortly.)

The second impossible thing was suggested by the servant: “Lord, have patience with me and I will pay you everything.”  The man was desperate, so he lied.  There was absolutely no way that he could ever repay such a debt within his lifetime.

But there was something in his favor, and here is where we learn how to move the Lord to pity.  The servant, even though he knew he couldn’t repay the debt, still humbled himself, fell down upon his knees, and from his heart begged the master to be merciful to him.  And so, as Jesus continues the parable, the master was moved to pity and instantly forgave the whole debt!  He didn’t even work out some installment plan for a partial payment.  In his exceptional magnanimity and goodness, he simply said, in effect: I’ll take care of it; don’t trouble yourself further on this matter.

Well, this should have been the happy ending to the story.  But no sooner did the forgiven debtor leave the presence of his merciful master than he happened upon a fellow servant who owed him some money, just a tiny fraction of what he owed his master, and hence which could have been paid back in time.

The forgiven servant seems to have had an extremely short memory, for when he saw his fellow servant he grabbed him by the throat and demanded full payment of the debt.  The poor fellow with the hand around his throat managed to choke out the same pathetic words that that first servant had so recently used: “Have patience with me, and I will repay you.”  Even though the man could have gotten his money back if he had a little patience with his fellow servant, he not only did not give him this opportunity, he had him thrown into debtor’s prison as a punishment.

As it so happened, and as we ought to be aware in our own selfishness or wrongdoing, his actions did not go unnoticed.  Soon he found himself once again in the presence of the king, his master, who severely reproached him for his wickedness, and then gave the key passage of this whole parable: “I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”

We learned earlier that a sincere and humble begging for mercy moves the Master to pity.  Here we learn that a callous disregard for the mercy received, which is manifested in the refusal to offer mercy to others, is what moves the Master to anger.  And there is no further recourse once He has pronounced his sentence.

The anger of the master was expressed by delivering the wicked and unmerciful servant to the torturers till his debt would be paid.  Here we have another instance of an impossibility.  Earlier I said that it was impossible for the servant’s debt to be paid merely by selling him and his family and possessions, and here it is clear that the master is not going to get his billion dollars back by torturing the servant.  This points to a mystery that is hard for many to grasp: the eternity of Hell.  For Hell represents an eternally futile effort to pay back what one owes to God.

I wrote something about this a few years ago, and perhaps it is appropriate to revisit it here.  It is somewhat speculative, but I think it makes sense.  The question is often raised why the damned have to be punished eternally, when, say, a few million years of torment ought to suffice even for the worst of sins. Well, look at it this way. Those who die in a state of unrepented mortal sin have willfully cut themselves off from God, have spurned his repeated offers of mercy and hence of salvation, and have therefore rejected the atonement of their sins that Christ accomplished on the Cross. Man is utterly incapable of atoning for sin by himself; only the God-Man could do it.

So the punishment of the damned may perhaps be understood like this: since they have rejected Christ’s atonement for their sins, they now have to do it themselves, as it were. Hell is being forever burdened with your own sins, knowing—all too late—that Christ was willing to take them all away and receive you into Paradise, but you said NO.  The damned have to bear intense sufferings for their sins, but all eternity won’t suffice for it—try as they might, human beings cannot atone for their own sins, yet they still have to stay in Hell until their sins are atoned for. You can’t enter Heaven if you are still in your sins. That’s why Hell lasts forever.

That’s also why eternal punishment has such a different character than temporal punishment. God’s “punishments” in our lives are actually graces, helps, instructions, and purifications, but none of that applies in Hell.  Hell’s punishments are just that—punitive; they cannot be remedial or therapeutic. That time is past. The definitive rejection has been made toward God (God doesn’t reject us; He just accepts the consequences of our freedom, even if we use it to permanently reject Him). Now all that remains is the impossible task of suffering for one’s sins, which will never result in atonement.

So we are like the servant who is burdened with an enormous debt, one that is impossible for us to repay.  But we do have hope, for our Master is merciful, and if we humbly and sincerely beg Him to forgive our debt, He will be moved to pity and do just that.  Our story, then, can have a happy ending.

But we find ourselves in the same situation as that other forgiven servant.  There are people who owe us something, in the sense that they have somehow hurt or offended us, and we have that against them.  The Master expects us to treat them as He has treated us, but if we refuse to forgive, then we move the Master to anger.  Jesus made the point quite explicitly in the parable.  After saying that the king sent the wicked and unforgiving servant to the torturers—to pay back what he owed, which was impossible, and hence it is an image of Hell—He says this: “My heavenly Father will do the same to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”  That is, you will have to go to the place where you are forever tormented but are never able to atone for your sins, for by your actions you refused to accept the atonement that was offered to you.

This is not the way God has intended things to be, since He desires that all be saved.  He is a God of both truth and love, and both have to be fully engaged in our lives if we are to accomplish God’s saving will.  We can’t receive God’s mercy and then refuse to offer mercy to others, and still expect to be welcomed into his Kingdom.  St James makes that clear when he writes: “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (2:13).   He concludes this passage on a hopeful note, however, by saying that “mercy triumphs over judgment,” which means we can avoid an unfavorable judgment if we ourselves consistently show mercy to others.

One thing that might help us to be a little more merciful is an expression that is used three times in this parable: “fellow servant(s).”  That puts us all on a par with each other, so no one has the right to treat others with contempt or arrogance or without charity.  There is one Master, and the rest of us are fellow servants.  The Lord puts it in a similar way elsewhere: “You have one teacher, and [the rest of] you are all brethren” (Mt. 23:8).

One of the reasons the Scriptures, and especially our liturgical services, are always calling us to repentance, is that we have to be constantly aware both of the immensity of the debt we have incurred through our sins and the immensity of the gift of God’s mercy that He grants in forgiving them.  Jesus suffered incomprehensible agonies during his Passion as the weight of our sins crushed Him to death.  But He is still moved to pity when we humble ourselves before Him, begging that the cleansing and healing power of that same precious blood He shed will be applied to us at the present time.  He willingly bestows this grace upon us, but his mercy brings with it a responsibility: as He has done for us, so must we do for others.  We cannot take away their sins as He can—for He alone is the Redeemer, the Atonement for all sin—but we can still show mercy, we can let go of resentments and grudges, we can cease to demand whatever “payment” we tend to try to extract from those who have offended or even merely slighted us.

I often read about Christians persecuted for their faith, who are harshly beaten or raped or deprived of their homes or their churches or their livelihood by Christ-hating enemies.  Their responses are always the same: they forgive, and they pray for the conversion and salvation of those who have harmed them so severely.  In this they are imitators of Christ, they live the Gospel, and their reward will be great in Heaven.  What about us?  If those long-suffering Christians were to look at the example of our lives, what would they think?

Let us, then, reflect on both the Gospel and the witness of faithful Christians who live what they believe, and let us begin to prove in our own lives how mercy triumphs over judgment.

From the Beginning

Since I’m a monk, the topic of marriage and divorce is not really my favorite one to preach about, but that is what the Church gives us today in the Gospel (Mt. 19:3-12).

So what shall we make of this?  The Pharisees, who were always testing Jesus on points of the law in the hope of catching Him in some sort of error by which they could discredit Him, asked Him if it was OK to divorce one’s wife.  His answer gives an indication that He is the Son of God and not merely another rabbi disputing with other rabbis on matters of religious law.

Jesus first refers, not to Moses or the law, but to the very creation itself, and hence to the will of the Creator.  Twice in this short encounter with the Pharisees He uses the expression, “from the beginning.”  When they asked about laws concerning divorce, He said that from the beginning God created human beings as male and female, and that a man and his wife should be joined together, so much so that the two become one flesh.  His answer to their question was therefore: “What God has joined together, let no man separate.”

This answer did not satisfy the Pharisees, who evidently relied more on Moses than on God.  So they asked, why then did Moses permit divorce?  Jesus answered that it was merely a concession to their hardness of heart, and again He said that “from the beginning” it was not that way.  And then Jesus came right out and said that divorced persons who remarry are adulterers.

The “hardness of heart” is something that belongs to fallen human nature and its lusts.  The teachings of Islam on marriage are nothing like that of the New Testament, and are something like that of the Old, but they are far less restrained, and thus quite obviously not of God.  (Polygamy was tolerated early on in the Old Testament, but it has been absent from Judaism for millennia, unlike Islam.)  Muslims severely forbid adultery, but to get around that prohibition, they are permitted four wives, as well as concubines, and Islamic clerics can even perform “temporary marriages,” in case a man wants a weekend fling.  The man then legally divorces his temporary wife after the weekend is over.  Fine, so they don’t commit adultery, but they manage this by slyly providing several options for gratifying their lusts, all at the expense of the women, who have no rights.  This is so very far from the way God made and willed things “from the beginning,” that it must be considered positively demonic, or at least an egregious example of the deviousness of the concupiscence of fallen human nature.

After hearing Jesus’ pronouncement, the disciples wondered if it might not be better simply not to marry—which was practically unheard-of in that culture.  Then Jesus introduced a concept that was quite novel at the time: renouncing marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This is a very positive approach, as opposed to the disciples’ negative reasoning concerning the prohibition of divorce.

It was assumed that all men and women ordinarily would marry.  There is reason to believe, though, that both Joseph and Mary had made private vows of chastity, and it is obvious that John the Forerunner renounced marriage for the sake of his mission.  In that he was perhaps influenced by the Essenes, a sort of quasi-monastic group that practiced celibacy in anticipation of the coming judgment of God upon the world.  But by and large one was expected to marry in those days.

Jesus here has laid the foundation for the mystery of consecrated virginity, or at least for the vow of chastity and the celibate life, lived as a sacrifice and an eschatological sign of the coming Kingdom, in which, as Jesus Himself said, people do not marry but live like the angels in Heaven.  Jesus does not offer celibacy as an ideal for all people, since then the human race would have died out long ago and I wouldn’t be here giving this homily.  But, as He said, whoever is able to receive this should receive it.

Receive what?  Both the teaching and the grace to put it into practice.  For without the grace of God, in addition to the Lord’s counsel that this state of life can be lived for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for human beings to bear that cross.  But, as St Paul says in the Epistle (1Cor. 1:3-9), the grace of God was given to us in Christ Jesus, and this makes up for anything we might otherwise have lacked, and thus we are sustained by Him until the Lord returns.  God is faithful, he says, and He has called us to communion with his Son.

So when it comes to issues that are disputed today—and several issues concerning marriage and human sexuality are hotly debated, both in governments and in churches—let us not allow ourselves to be deceived by sophistries or the devious attempts to gratify human concupiscence.  We need only to remember how things have been designed and willed by God “from the beginning,” and then we will profess and adhere to the teaching of the Lord and his holy Church.

Journal of a Pro-Life Activist

[The following is a moving testimony from a good friend of mine and of our monastery, Patsy Gonzalez, a tireless pro-life activist and faithful Catholic.  It is published here, very slightly edited, with her kind permission. The reward will be great in Heaven for those who, by defending, rescuing, and loving the most innocent and vulnerable of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, do it for Him (Mt. 25:40).]

As St. Juan Diego’s [Women’s Center] 25th anniversary approaches, memories of the 22 years of my pro-life journey and 20 years as volunteer/counselor at the center begin to flood my mind. How have the years flown by so quickly, and how has this experience that has played such a huge part in my life defined me as a person?

Upon arriving in the United States almost 23 years ago from the Philippines, my children and I faced the dismal reality that abortion was legal in this country. The Philippines is one of the world’s last countries left standing that has not legalized both abortion and divorce. At the time, my own daughter was facing a crisis pregnancy that devastated our family. The thought that my daughter could so easily have opted to have her unborn child aborted without my knowledge had she faced the decision here made me think about getting involved with the decision that other young girls may be making.

I remember taking the first step by donating money to pro-life causes that reflected my own sentiments, but as many who read this may have experienced in their own pro-life journeys, the Holy Spirit was not satisfied with my taking the easy way out. The call to do more began to haunt me constantly, until I packed up my children in my car with picket signs to walk the sidewalks outside abortion mills. The harsh environment was surreal outside those mills, and the sight of rabid escorts way back then, some of them practicing witches, was something that my convent school breeding had never prepared me for. Evil is something everyone believes in, but actually being in the presence of palpable evil is something one can never describe. It has a look. Blasphemy and profanity directed at us were a part of the whole experience and negative reactions of people driving by taught all of us that defending what was right would not be comfortable. My children learned very early that persecution was part of practicing their faith, my teenagers learned by what they saw that true love never leads a couple to an abortionist’s door.

Our local abortion mill in Redwood City did late term abortions up to the end of the 2nd trimester. I joined a small band of pro-lifers who were out there to pray and counsel. I was very happy being prayer support but was totally unwilling to talk to the women and men going in. We can be resolute about what we are willing or unwilling to do, but God will have His way when the time comes. When my friend and mentor, Tom, went to jail for his pro-life activities, I couldn’t just stand and pray in his absence while women were walking in. On the very first day I decided to step into his place in fear and trepidation, a baby was saved. A Polish girl who was working as an au pair walked in on the last possible day she could have her abortion, with her pregnancy at such a late stage. Our presence was her lifeline (interestingly, she was wearing a miraculous medal on a chain around her neck). It gives me such pleasure to say that I was with her and her son three years ago when he celebrated his 18th birthday. Her gratitude has bonded our friendship for a lifetime.

Isn’t it like the Lord to entice us with sweet success when we do something we don’t really want to do?  The initial euphoria of saving a baby gave way to many discouraging days and months in the heat and the cold with few results. It taught me that success is measured by our faithfulness and not by results. Towards the end of the three years I was outside the late term mill, I was arrested by a pro-choice police officer for defending myself against an aggressive lesbian escort who was making an unbearable noise in my ears with castanets. I was charged with “assault” for simply pushing her arm away. This was the same officer who responded to my complaints of the escorts’ excessive harassment of us with, “If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen”. We eventually found out that he was a Catholic.

Needless to say, the Lord takes care of His own and the cased was dismissed. Just a few short months after the incident, the mill closed. When we least expected it, when we thought it seemed to be doing more business than ever before, when we thought it was too powerful to go away, it quietly closed. To this day, we will never know how it happened. It was a great day for us when we stood outside the closed mill in thanksgiving led by Fr. Leo McCaffrey in prayer. We held signs with oversized photos of some of the babies that survived the killing at that location. What a dramatic witness that presented to the passersby and cars driving by seeing God’s little ragtag band of faithful celebrating their victory outside the fallen goliath.

Fear was very much a part of my early activism; fear of facing evil, fear of persecution, fear of getting arrested, fear of failure—but Randall Terry’s (of Operation Rescue) words always rang in my ears, “Courage is not the absence of fear but doing what you have to do in spite of your fear”. I was just a cowardly soul that could do brave things with God’s grace. In truth, if the Lord had shown me what lay ahead when I took my first step, it is likely none of it would have ever happened for me. Saying “yes” to the call means being available to all possibilities that the Lord permits, but one can be certain that His grace will provide all that is needed to see all the challenges through.

Countless encounters with the mothers outside the Redwood City abortion mill will always remain deeply etched in my heart and from them I have learned so much. We also opened our home to some of those mothers or paid for their counseling sessions because our family wanted to personally contribute towards something we deeply believed in.

Sidewalk counseling outside an abortion clinic in Santa Clara after the one in Redwood City closed brought me in direct contact with the Juan Diego Society and Robert Rodriguez, its director. He was always at his post like life depended in it (which it did). It was sheer relief to hear Robert’s voice at the other end of the line when an intercepted mother needed to get to a resource center immediately. It was so crucial to get her away from the environment when she was open to other options lest she lose her nerve with lost time. “Leave a message and we’ll get back to you” are words sidewalk counselors never want to hear! Robert’s cool, reassuring manner never failed to calm a distraught and frightened mother. He had resources at his fingertips to direct her to the loving places that would help her through her crisis. Having grown up in the tough neighborhoods in the Bronx, he could get tough with cowardly boyfriends or husbands who would shirk their role of fatherhood. He could easily deflate macho egos with his words, “Real men take responsibility!”  He was rather like a pit bull with the fathers but provided the protective male image that the women so badly needed. He will always be my hero.

Most babies that are precariously in danger of being aborted are saved at pregnancy resource centers where a mother’s pregnancy is first confirmed. In a gentle, caring environment, she is equipped with information on her baby’s development, spiritually and emotionally encouraged, shown the devastating consequences of an abortion and given resources to carry her pregnancy to term. She is given material help for her baby’s arrival and financial assistance, if necessary. The center provided a marvelous opportunity for me to help mothers away from the hostile abortion mills—so I decided to become a part of it. Little did I know then, on the eastside of San Jose at the time, I would be encountering tattooed gang members with pregnant, body-pierced girlfriends, and bullet holes in our windows. If the nuns could only have seen me then!

The St. Juan Diego Center has been my second home for 20 years. My heart is filled with gratitude towards the countless women who have trusted me with their life-changing decisions. They have given courage a new face and have taught me things I could never learn from books. I could write volumes about the many cases I have been involved in, each story so different because every woman is unique and unrepeatable. It is always a miracle of grace to be able to breach a mother’s fears, to breach the differences that divide us—culture, age, economic differences, experience or social levels. In fact, the only thing we have in common is the truth which God has planted in every human heart.

Their stories are ever present to me and have provided inspirations for new mothers in similar situations. Some even offer to “give back” by encouraging our moms to choose life. One post-aborted mother who did not respond to our support has become our best counselor to those who are grieving their abortions or intending to have one. She is our Magdalen who found the healing touch of God’s mercy.

Answering the call to defend life does not come without cost. A counselor puts her heart on the line; she risks getting it broken when she suffers the sorrow of a baby lost to an abortion in spite of her efforts or shares the pain of a mother who did not choose life. She carries the burdens and worries with women beset with problems and bad relationships. But the counselor’s heart also swells with happiness when a mother shows off her newborn after the storm has passed. She learns to love without judgment, bias, or conditions. If she ever loses her ability to serve in such a manner, she will cease to be fruitful. Pride has no room in pro-life work because it is only God that can cause the miraculous. A counselor is only an instrument—vulnerable and dispensable.

I could have spent the last 20 years travelling the world and meeting powerful and famous people, but how would I ever have found such a profound opportunity to live the Gospel values? Passages like Lk 9:23 (If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me), Mk 12:31 (You shall love your neighbor as yourself) and obliquely, Jn 15:13 (Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends), come alive when lived in the context of pro-life work. A counselor’s heart, as it expands and ebbs, becomes like the bellows that stokes the fires of faith and hope in others. It also gives her a vision beyond the present that takes her to the eternity she will share with babies, born and unborn, she intervened for, their mothers and all those touched by her concern. As our wonderful deacon Peloso from Nativity Church remarked, “The only things we take to Heaven are what we have given away.”

A Message from God

I read a statement a while back from a Christian somewhere in the Middle East who said that he read the Bible not as a duty or obligation, but in order to receive a message from God.  So I have to ask you: Do you read the Bible (assuming that you do!) in order to receive a message from God?  It seems to me that that is the basic reason anyone should read the Bible—not in the sense that we are seeking special revelations on a daily basis that will tell us precisely what to do each day, or to know the future or other inaccessible secrets, but that we recognize that God tries to speak to us because He loves us, and that He has revealed much in the Bible that is necessary for our salvation and indispensable for the way we live our daily lives.

With this in mind, I began re-reading the Epistle to the Romans a short while back, and I received a message from God.  Right in the beginning St Paul says that we have received grace to bring about the obedience of faith.  What does this mean?  Is he merely saying we have to be obedient to our own subjective experience of belief in God?  If that is so, it is only part of the picture, and not the most important part, since personal belief can be somewhat idiosyncratic and liable to error or misinterpretation of the truth.  The ancient Latin version of the Bible, which is based on earlier manuscripts of the original Greek than are available today, says “obedience to the faith,” which is a more objective reality.  The Faith—not just my individual, personal faith—refers more to the actual content of what we believe, not merely our subjective act of believing.  In that sense, St Paul is telling us be obedient to the whole content of divine revelation, that is, the whole of Sacred Tradition that has come down to us from Christ through the Apostles and Fathers and Saints.  In the Epistle to the Hebrews, faith is described as “the substance (hypostasis) of things hoped for, the evidence (elengkhos) of things not seen” (11:1).  That is the correct translation, though some versions try to change the objective terms “substance” and “evidence” to subjective terms like “assurance” and “conviction.”

Back in Romans, the Apostle goes on to tell us that “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”  But now just what is the Gospel?  “Good News” is not quite accurate as a translation. Ev-anggelion is more literally “good message,” and the word for angel (messenger) comes from this.  Angels are not newsboys; they are messengers from God.  And the Gospel is the Good Message that God wishes to share with us.

So the power of salvation is in the Good Message given by God to man; this Message is God’s communication to the world.  But this Message is not, and cannot be, limited to words printed on the pages of a book, even if that book is the holiest book in all of creation, the Holy Bible.  Why is this?  It is because the Eternal Son and Word of God did not merely speak words to us, or cause others to speak words by his Spirit. Rather, the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and therefore the Incarnate Word Himself is the Message, the fundamental content of the Gospel, and He must “take flesh” in the life of the Church and in our own lives until He comes again in glory.  The Good Message from God, which is the Gospel, is not merely a teaching making use of words.  It is, in its fullness, a communication of divine life, which is real, tangible nourishment for our immortal souls (and ultimately for the resurrection of our bodies), a gift given to us through the Church—and the Church, says the Bible, is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23).  The Church is the fullness of Christ!

Therefore the most profound “message” that the Word-Made-Flesh gives to us is the Holy Eucharist.  “I am the Living Bread which came down from Heaven; if anyone eats of this Bread, he will live forever; and the Bread which I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51).  The Holy Eucharist is the Word made flesh, given as Bread from Heaven for the life of the world.  Those who receive the Eucharist are called “communicants,” and another way to say that someone has received Communion is that he has “communicated.”  This is the fullest expression of the message Christ wants to communicate to us, a message first given in words for our understanding and practice, and then a “communication” of his very self in the Holy Mysteries.

Recently during the Divine Liturgy, precisely in the act of consecrating the Body and Blood of Christ, I “heard” in my soul: “You are receiving a message from God.”  Those are words, but the message itself wasn’t a series of words. It was the Word Himself, directing my awareness to the awesome reality of his communicating Himself to the faithful—those who have received grace unto obedience to the faith—in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist.

This Gospel, this Good Message, is indeed the power of God unto salvation for those who believe.  We believe in the Holy Eucharist and in the whole of divine revelation, because we embrace “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

So let us realize that the Word of God is primarily and essentially a Divine Person, not a collection of inspired words about God or even from God, priceless and indispensable as they are.  The Person who is the Word of God communicates his Good Message as He wills, through the Bible, the Sacraments, and the whole life of his Church.  But the most profound Message is the Word made Flesh Himself.  If you want to put it into words, try these: “Take, eat; this is my body… Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant” (Mt. 26:26-28).

If I had to summarize the message I received from God that inspired this post, I would put it thus: God has a message for us, and this message is expressed in his Word, that is, his Son.  The Word speaks to us in various ways, all of which constitute, in one way or another, his Gospel or Good Message, the content of the Faith lived and taught by the Church.  His primary language is that of love, for God is love.  Love is most essentially expressed in the gift of oneself to the beloved, and so the most profound and intimate communication we can receive from the Word of God is in the Holy Eucharist, the Gift of Himself as Bread from Heaven, his Body and Blood as real food and real drink (see Jn. 6:55), for the life and salvation of the world.

He wants to communicate this message to you, that is, He wants you to be a communicant of his gift of Himself, for the life of your soul, for your eternal happiness.  He wants to prove, in your very life and in mine, that the Good Message is the power of salvation for those who believe.

Children of the Kingdom

The Church has placed together two apparently unrelated passages from St Matthew for today’s Gospel reading (17:24 – 18:4).  The first one is rather obscure, but I’ll still try to offer a brief reflection on it, with a little help from Erasmo Leiva’s commentary.

It’s about paying the temple tax with a coin found in a fish’s mouth.  Actually, that’s not really what it’s about, but that’s how it turned out.  It’s more about freedom and charity—and even the primacy of Peter in the Church—with a nod to Jesus’ miraculous powers.

Jesus first speaks of earthly kingdoms with an implicit reference to the heavenly Kingdom.  In an earthly kingdom, it is the common people, not the royal family, who have to pay taxes.  The people pay taxes to support the king and his family so they are free to govern the people with justice and generosity.  The tax in question in this Gospel, however, is not one due to the secular authorities.  It was a tax for the support of the temple, which was originally prescribed in the Law of Moses as a census tax.  When you paid this, you were literally ransoming yourself for the privilege of being numbered among the chosen people of God.

So there’s a certain irony here.  Jesus, the eternally-begotten Son and Word of the Living God, was being asked to pay a ransom so that he could be numbered among the chosen people and maintain this status for another year.  He would soon pay the ransom for the whole human race for all time, so that we might be, by his grace and mercy, numbered among the children of God.  But Jesus simply made the following comment concerning Himself and those who had aligned themselves with Him: “then the sons are free” (referring on one level to exemption from the tax, and on another to the liberty of the children of God).

But this issue, though important, was not something Jesus needed to argue about at that time.  Sometimes, for the sake of avoiding scandal (as He Himself said in this passage), it is better to do something that is not strictly required of us, simply out of charity.

The Lord also made a symbolic gesture of his union with his future vicar on earth, St Peter.  The coin which Jesus would miraculously provide was worth twice the temple tax.  One coin for both Jesus and Peter.  It wasn’t a coin worth enough to pay for all the disciples’ tax—only Jesus and Peter.  There are several texts in the Gospels that indicate Jesus’ choice of Peter to be the leader of the apostles and the rock of his Church, but this one is rarely, if ever, cited as evidence for this.  Perhaps this is because it is more subtle than the others, but it still is worth some reflection.

The next section of the Gospel contains Jesus’ oft-repeated saying about the necessity of becoming like a child if one is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  So perhaps it is not unrelated after all.  Both passages are about kingdoms and heirs of the kingdoms.

The Kingdom of Heaven, however, is unlike any earthly kingdom.  The very question the disciples ask gives that indication.  In an earthly kingdom, it is clear that the most eminent of the royal family are greatest in the kingdom. But by now the disciples had heard enough of Jesus’ teaching to realize that He tended to turn things upside down and did not see things from a this-worldly perspective.  So they felt obliged to ask: in this Kingdom that You preach, who is the greatest there?  They were probably not all that surprised when He presented a child as the image of those who are great in Heaven.

Jesus says two things here about what He means by offering a child as an example.  First he says, “unless you turn and become like children…”  The Greek word for “turn” has several meanings, all related, like turn back, change direction, change your manner of behavior.  So to turn basically means to repent.  Change the direction of your life, change the way you think and act, set out on a new path, turn back from the path that leads to sin and self-destruction, and recover something of your childhood innocence.

The Lord further clarifies this by saying: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Children are humble precisely because they are small, their standing in society is insignificant, they do not have a voice in making important decisions, etc.  So we have to accept to be lowly, insignificant in the eyes of the world, and not to value our own opinions too highly.

Therefore, taking these two passages together, we ought to realize that we are in fact children of the Kingdom, specially blessed by God because we belong to Christ.  But if we are to maintain our status as such we ought to pay the tax, as it were, of charity, humility, and ever-deeper repentance and inner purification.  For it is the Lord’s gracious will that we all become great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Reconfigured

I’m always interested in Heaven and the things of Heaven, so if someone says he’s been there, I’m at least a little curious to discover if it might in fact be so.  Outside of unique experiences like that of St Paul (being taken up into “the third heaven”), most people who say they have been to Heaven are dead people—or rather, people who have “died” for some time and have had what is known as a “near death experience.”  I know that these are controversial, and some may be fraudulent or simply otherwise explainable, but I think that others are in fact genuine.  In any case, when I read such accounts I try to discover something that somehow corroborates or resonates with what has already been revealed about Heaven in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.

Recently I read a short account of a man named Bobby Brunson from South Carolina, who was struck by lightning and was “dead” for 28 minutes.  I won’t go into his whole experience, but there was one element of it that intrigued me.  He had a very difficult time putting into words what he had seen and experienced in Heaven, simply because there aren’t human concepts or language adequate to the task.  (This reminds me of what St Paul said after his experience: he “heard ineffable things” when he was in that transcendent realm; 2Cor. 12:4.)  But Mr Brunson wasn’t at such a loss when he was actually in Heaven, even though he was filled with awe and wonder.  He said that this was because in Heaven the mind is somehow reconfigured to adapt to the totally different environment and reality of the Kingdom of God.  He said: “Something is unlocked or aligned in your mind, and you don’t think or feel like we do on a daily basis here on earth.”  Also, he said you don’t miss your loved ones who are still on earth, but only because you have no sense of separation from them.

When he was resuscitated and “came back to earth,” his mind was then de-configured from its heavenly mode of perception and understanding, and suddenly the heavenly experience seemed overwhelming and inexpressible.  He still can remember it, but he can’t put it into words except to say that everything in Heaven is the absolute perfection of creation, while the earth looks quite dull and shabby in comparison, a very poor reflection of what God’s hand can really produce.

That put a certain issue into perspective for me.  I tend to ask God unanswerable questions concerning insoluble problems, and I present to Him complicated and abstruse issues that I cannot speak of to anyone on earth.  Perhaps the reason He doesn’t reveal to me what I seek is that my mind is only configured for understanding earthly things, and I just wouldn’t get it even if He did try to explain it all.  (This also perhaps explains the reason why, at a certain time when I sought in Scripture a response to a question, this was my answer from God: “There is no answer from God”; Micah 3:7.)

I really wish God would send some saint or angel from Heaven, with whom I could have long conversations about many conundrums that constantly beset me, so I could get their perspective, which is the deepest truth of the matter.  But when I realized that their minds are all configured now to the heavenly reality, I came to the conclusion that we probably wouldn’t understand each other very well.  I imagine myself presenting the issues clearly and in great detail, and then my heavenly interlocutor saying: “What you said makes no sense at all.  Just love God.”  And that would be the end of the conversation!

It’s not that they can’t understand; it’s that they see so much more and so much farther that they don’t know where to begin to instruct such an earthbound lame-brain as myself, who most likely wouldn’t get it anyway.  I thought of this analogy: an ant can perceive a blade of grass or a pebble (or, as is all too often the case, the interior contents of my cabin).  But I, omniscient and godlike as I am, seeing the same things, have a totally different and much more complete understanding of these things.  How could I get that hapless insect to understand what I with my superior knowledge know of blades of grass or any other unfathomable mystery?  No matter how hard I tried, the poor ant wouldn’t get it, because its little ant-brain is simply incapable of understanding it.  All it could ever manage to grasp would be the goings-on of its own little ant world.  So if the ant were to complain to me of some issue he has with a blade of grass or a pebble or a dead beetle, I would have to tell him that his concerns are irrelevant to the deeper and only real truth about grass and beetles.

Now the analogy isn’t perfect, because God is able to communicate some things to our little brains in a way we can understand, but you get the point.  I bring all my carefully thought-out concerns (developed with my earth-configured brain) to my betters in the Kingdom of Heaven, and all they can say is: “You obviously are totally clueless, or you wouldn’t be asking such incoherent questions.”  Perhaps this is why, when the Lord does decide to send some heavenly messenger to earth, like his Mother, as he has done on quite a few occasions, the messages are brief and to the point, in words and concepts we can understand, like: “pray, repent, sacrifice, stop sinning, keep the commandments,” etc.  Rarely, if ever, do saints or angels, or the Lord Himself, engage in lengthy dialogues with earthlings, attempting to answer their questions about things their minds cannot understand.  We don’t even know how to frame the issues; our minds need to be reconfigured before we can even begin to have an intelligent conversation with a resident of Heaven.

That cannot happen fully on earth, but St Paul does say that we have the mind of Christ, so at least a seed of the Word has been planted in us, and if we can cultivate this by prayer, sacraments, scripture, etc, we will little by little lay our tiny minds open to a deeper reality, a more profound truth.  We may still have to save most of our questions for the next life, when our minds are reconfigured to the conditions of the Kingdom, but God has already given us what we essentially need to get there.

Perhaps these musings makes no sense at all to you.  Just love God, then, and don’t pay any attention to my convoluted meanderings. I have to go anyway, and try to explain to the ants why it is in their best interest to stay off my counter tops…

The Falling Asleep of the Mother of God

[This article was originally published in Queen of All Hearts magazine 20 years ago!  I guess I’ve been writing for a long time…]

It was not too long after the missionary efforts of the first generations of Christians—on fire with the Gospel of the risen Lord Jesus—that a fuller understanding of the meaning and the fruits of our redemption was sought.  As Christians reflected upon everything from the Incarnation to our final glorious destiny, the person of Mary came more and more into focus.

Mary was the handmaid of the Lord, who loved Him the most.  She bore God Himself in her own body and brought Him into the world for our salvation.  The Mother of Jesus was with Him at the beginning of his “hour” (Cana) and at its climax (Calvary), as well as with the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost.  Therefore her passing from this life to the next was a mystery of great interest to the faithful who, as fellow servants of the Lord, longed for a glimpse of the fulfillment of Christ’s glorious promises in the first of the redeemed.

A number of documents exist which express the faith and piety of ancient Christians concerning the Dormition (lit. “falling asleep”) and Assumption of Our Lady.  These are among the “apocryphal” writings of the first several centuries.  “Apocryphal” comes from the Greek apokryphos, meaning “hidden away, concealed.”  Much of what is contained in these writings is not present or explicit in the canonical Scriptures.  They do not carry the authority of Scripture, but they do give us at least a partial vision of the religious sensibilities of the early Church.

These works were composed in order to express the developing traditions surrounding the “hidden” mysteries of Jesus and Mary, some of which were accepted by the Church as being implicit in Scripture and brought to fuller light by the Holy Spirit in the living Tradition.  There are documents on the nativity and early years of Mary and her betrothal to Joseph, on the infancy of Christ, on the life of Mary and the various apostolic missions after Pentecost.  We are interested here in the accounts of the Passing of Our Lady.

The Dormition and Assumption of the Mother of God were evidently of universal interest, for there are ancient manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and (later) Russian, which recount the events, with some variation of detail.  A number of patristic homilies are preserved as well.  The following is a brief recounting of most of the elements common to the various traditions.  They reveal the deep devotion and love for Our Lady of our ancestors in the Faith.

The Mother of the Lord prays, longing to see her Son again, to return to Him forever.  Then the Angel Gabriel is sent to the Blessed Virgin to announce that soon her Lord will come for her, and he leaves her with a palm branch as a sign.  Our Lady expresses a desire to see the Apostles once again before she dies, and so they are miraculously carried upon clouds to her home.  She blesses and kisses them, and then lies down to wait for the Lord.  As the disciples are singing hymns and venerating the Mother of God, many who are sick and disabled come, and all are cured through her intercession.

Suddenly, the Lord of Glory appears, enthroned upon the Cherubim.  He comes to receive the soul of his beloved Mother, and all those present fall down and worship Him. The disciples ask Our Lady to pray for them before she leaves.  The next section (from the Greek manuscript) is worth quoting at some length, for it expresses well the confidence of the faithful in the invocation of Mary’s name.

“And again she prayed and said: ‘O Lord Jesus Christ, who art all powerful in heaven and on earth, in this appeal I implore thy holy name; in every time and place where there is made mention of my name, make that place holy, and glorify those that glorify Thee through my name, accepting of such persons… all their prayer.’  And when she had thus prayed, the Lord said to his Mother: ‘Let thy heart rejoice and be glad, for every grace and every gift has been given to thee from my Father in heaven, and from Me, and from the Holy Spirit: every soul that calls upon thy name shall not be ashamed, but shall find mercy, and comfort, and support, and confidence, both in the world that now is and in that which is to come.’  As the angels began to sing ‘Alleluia,’ the face of the Mother of the Lord shone brighter than the light, and she rose up and blessed each of the apostles with her own hand, and all gave glory to God; and the Lord stretched forth his undefiled hands, and received her holy and blameless soul… the place was filled with perfume and ineffable light; and, behold, a voice out of heaven was heard, saying: ‘Blessed art thou among women.’”

The Byzantine icon of the Dormition of Our Lady shows the apostles gathered around her and the Lord receiving her soul, which is depicted as an infant in swaddling clothes. As Mary once held her infant Son in her own arms, Jesus now holds the soul of his Mother in his.  True to an iconographic tradition of depicting several aspects of a mystery in one scene, some icons also show the Mother of God enthroned in heaven with her glorified body, borne aloft by angels.  Others depict the apostles being carried on clouds to Our Lady’s house, even though they are also depicted standing around her body.

Once Our Lady’s soul has departed, the disciples lovingly venerate her body and carry it in procession for burial. (At Matins in the Byzantine Office of the Dormition, a burial shroud with an icon of Our Lady painted on it is carried in procession around the church.)  On the way, an unbeliever tries to upset the bier, but his hands are cut off by an angel.  This scene is shown on some icons, too.  But he repents and professes faith in Christ and is healed.

St. Thomas is given a special role in the accounts.  In most he is not present at Our Lady’s passing.  He either sees a vision of Mary’s Assumption on the way there, or he wants to see and venerate her body.  In any case, he is responsible for the opening of her tomb and the discovery that the body of the Blessed Virgin has been taken to heaven.  Some traditions say only her garments were left, others that the tomb was filled with flowers.  On this feast in Byzantine Churches, flowers are blessed and distributed.

In the Russian version of St. Dimitri of Rostov, the disciples remained at the tomb for three days, praying and singing.  After they discovered that Our Lady’s body was gone, “suddenly they heard angelic singing.  Raising their eyes, they saw standing in the air the Immaculate Mother of God surrounded by a multitude of angels.  She was suffused with an ineffable light and she said to them, ‘Rejoice, for I am with you all the days.’”

Even if there is some legendary material embellishing these accounts, their basic content is true and even dogmatically defined as divine revelation: “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (Munificentissimus Deus).  From heaven Our Lady reigns over us as our glorious Queen, participating even now in the fullness of the general resurrection.  Thus Mary is the embodiment of the holiness, purity, and perfection of the eschatological Church, the New Jerusalem and Bride of Christ.  Yet even in this unique exaltation she is still a most loving and compassionate Mother, who is ever with her children, constantly interceding for our salvation.

Today the Church has need—and is manifesting some hopeful signs—of a renewed reverence and devotion toward Our Lady, in the spirit of that early Marian piety which inspired the accounts of the Dormition and Assumption of Mary.  The childlike exuberance in love for Mary and the spontaneous embracing of the whole mystery of the Mother of God express a deep faith and a spiritual sensitivity to all that the Almighty has done in his beloved handmaid.  The liturgical feasts of the Nativity of Mary and her Presentation in the Temple, as well as the Assumption, indicate the Church’s approval of some ancient Christian insights into Our Lady’s place in God’s plan for our salvation.

In faith we believe that God has made the Virgin Mary the Queen of Heaven.  In love we proclaim that we have made her the Queen of our hearts.

Tested by Fire and Water

The psalmist says, “You led us through fire and water,” and today’s readings bear that out (1Cor. 3:9-17; Mt. 14:22-34).  It seems that we have to be tested if our faith is to be proven genuine, so before we look at the examples in the readings, perhaps we should reflect a bit upon that mystery.

It is evidently inescapable—if the lives of the saints and the general experience of virtually all Christians are any indication—that our faith is going be tested by God in one way or another.  St James says that the testing of our faith produces steadfastness, and that the full effect of this steadfastness in faith is nothing less than Christian perfection (1:3-4).  St Paul says that we try to “please God, who tests our hearts” (1Thess. 2:4).  And the Old Testament heroine Judith tells us to “be mindful how our fathers were tested that they might be proved, whether they worshiped their God truly… all that have pleased God passed through many tribulations, remaining faithful” (Jdt. 8:21-23).  So there’s a whole lot of testing going on, and we might as well accept the fact that it happens to us whether we like it or not.

I must confess that I have struggled with this issue myself.  Sometimes I remind the Lord that it is pointless to send me tests, since I never pass any of them.  At other times I wonder why, when it is so hard just to hold on to the little faith we might have, we still have to be tried and tested, since that might just make us lose it altogether.  But, to the surprise of no one, God thinks differently than I do.  His ways and thoughts are far above mine, and He knows exactly what He is doing when He sends various trials or afflictions to test my faith.

Recently I read the life of St Gemma Galgani, arguably one of the most holy and pure of all the saints, and I was flabbergasted to see that the Lord would send her sufferings in order to purify her.  “Purify her!” I thought.  “If that innocent and sinless virgin had to be purified, what then has to happen to me?”  But evidently God will not cease to refine us until we are pure gold and all the dross has been removed, and so we have to be tried again and again so as to prove our unswerving fidelity to Him, our complete renunciation of sin, and our total embrace of Christ in all his mysteries, especially the one that purifies us the most, that of the Cross.

Therefore St Paul says in the epistle, first of all that Christ must be the sole foundation of our lives, and he offers us a metaphor to describe our lives: building upon that foundation.   The building that is our life, composed of our works (which in biblical terms are described as “faith working through love”; Gal. 5:6), might be made of gold and silver and precious stones—or it might be made of wood and straw and stubble.   If we’re rather lazy or not interested in putting forth a little extra effort in the service of God, we might think we can settle for the straw hut we have built with the works of our lives—until we read a little farther and discover that “fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”  Suddenly we may no longer be content to live a life that is akin to the straw house of sub-standard works.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are damned, but it does mean, as the Apostle says, that we will suffer loss, and be saved only as one passing through fire.  That is why this text is used, and rightly so, as a kind of metaphor not only for this life but for purgatory as well.  If you make it to purgatory, you are saved, for you have been delivered from Hell, yet your works have been shown to be inadequate.  The straw house of your works has to pass through the cleansing spiritual fire, which will then purify you until all defects and defilements are burned away.  If you had built with gold in this life, you could have gone straight to Heaven, but now you are saved only after passing through fire.  The implication is that it is better to meet the challenges and pass the tests in this life, so that we don’t have to suffer pain and loss passing through purifying fires in the next.  In any case, in one way or another, in one place or another, we can be sure that we will be tested, we will be tried, so that we will be purified and made fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, that’s the test through fire.  In the Gospel we have a test through water, and St Peter failed that one, despite the fact that he had gotten off to a good start.  You gotta hand it to the guy, though; he was no wilting wallflower.  He threw himself wholeheartedly into whatever he did, even if he made some big mistakes in the process.

The disciples, being fishermen, were accustomed to being out at sea, and they had no difficulty traveling by boat to wherever they needed to go.  So they were returning from the other side of the sea, where Jesus had just worked a great miracle for a large crowd of people.  Jesus didn’t go back with them, though.  He wanted to go up a mountain and pray.  So the disciples left by themselves and during the night found themselves in a great, windy storm on the sea.  They were struggling to keep afloat for several hours when they thought they saw a ghost floating across the surface of the water toward them.  The Gospel doesn’t tell us that they were afraid of the storm, but when the “ghost” came, they were terrified!  They cried out for fear, evidently aware that supernatural forces can do more harm to you than natural ones.

The vision was indeed supernatural, in that it was the eternal Son of the Living God who was approaching, yet the Incarnate Word was no ghost, but true flesh and blood.  Still, it was by his divine power that He was walking on the water, and the disciples just couldn’t quite take in this miracle, even though they had seen Him work many others, even raising the dead.

So, in a little reversal of the order of things, Peter decided to test the apparition, though he would soon be put to the test himself.  For the “ghost,” who looked like Jesus, had said, with the voice of Jesus: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”  So Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.”  I think if I was Peter I would have come up with a different test, one that wouldn’t have the potential for killing me.  I might have said, “Lord, if it is really you, make this storm go away and then get back in the darn boat!”  But then a great lesson would have been lost to posterity.  Peter, being impulsive as he was, and even a bit reckless, threw caution to the wind (and there was certainly a lot of wind to which to throw it), jumped out of the boat and into the sea as soon as the “ghost” said, “Come.”

Then, marvel of marvels, Peter began walking on the water!  That probably solved for him the question of the identity of the “ghost.”  It really was the Lord Jesus.  But then something else happened.  The wind threw his caution back to him.  Jesus would later reproach Peter for thinking like man and not like God, and here’s one reason.  The Lord proved that He could make Peter defy gravity and the force of the wind, but Peter retreated from the realm of faith into the realm of what seemed to be simple logic, and so he did what the rest of us do when we take our eyes off Jesus: he sank.

Well, his eyes got back on Jesus real fast at that point, and he cried out: “Lord, save me!”  This is where his irrepressible energy of character served him well.  He could have just thought to himself: “You idiot, you blew it and now you’re going to drown.”  But it didn’t matter to him that he had failed the test; the Savior was still standing before him and so he yelled: “Save me!”

We ought to learn that lesson, too.  Tests of our faith are inevitable, and God deems them necessary for our growth and purification.  But if we happen to fail a test, even a really significant one, we shouldn’t lapse into discouragement, cynicism, or even despair.  The Savior is still willing to save us, so we need to have both the gumption and the humility to cry out, “Save me!” anyway.  The Lord may reproach us, as He did Peter, for failing the test, but He will also welcome us back, as He did Peter and every other sinner who ever refused to despair but rather trusted in the Lord’s infinite mercy.

After we fail a given test, we might hear the Lord say: “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?”  We might wish to offer reasons why we thought we were justified in doubting, but the Lord doesn’t really want to hear them, since He reads our hearts and carefully observes every move we make anyway.  “Why did you doubt?” really means: “You shouldn’t have doubted.”  And so once again, as He rescues us for the thousandth time, the Lord proves that He is the Lord, and we prove that we are weak, wavering, miscalculating screw-ups who have to be repeatedly fished out of the lake.  We’re not much smarter than those suicidal gnats who hurl themselves into my coffee on warm summer mornings, which is to say we don’t really know what is good for us.  But despite all that, the Lord still comes to our aid, still saves us from our sins, still calms the storms and then sits us down to give us a little teaching on faith and trust.  He is very patient, and for this we ought to be very grateful.

On the other hand, though, it behooves us to learn our lessons, so that we will not try the patience of the Lord so much, and that we will actually grow from the ways He tests our faith.  One of the things that greatly edifies me about St Gemma is that she learned her lessons, and right away.  If the Lord ever reproached her for some little fault, she would immediately acknowledge her error; then she would say, “I will never do that again.”  And she never did!  That was because all she wanted to do was to please the Lord; she didn’t care what it cost herself.  She would deny herself anything if only she could avoid offending in any way her Beloved.

So let us first accept the fact that the testing of our faith is an inevitable (and potentially beneficial) part of our spiritual life.  Whether we are tried by fire or water, or both, we will be tried, and there are times when we will fail the tests.  But let us, like the saints, turn immediately to Jesus to save us, trusting in his mercy, but at the same time doing our utmost to put into practice what we have learned.  We want to be fit for the Kingdom; we want to please our beloved Savior.  So when He bids us come to Him, though it be through fire and water, let us come, take the hand that reaches out to us, and, like the awestruck fishermen who witnessed Peter’s rescue, worship the Lord, saying: “Truly, You are the Son of God.”

Food for Thought, Food for Life

We find Jesus working another miracle in the Gospel (Mt. 15:32-39), and this follows immediately upon his working a whole series of miracles for the sick and the lame and the blind, as recounted in the previous verses.  It seems like it was kind of an outdoor revival meeting.  Jesus went up into the hills and crowds followed Him, and He healed everyone who came to Him.

I never thought about this very much, but the Gospel says that Jesus worked the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves because the people had been with Him for three days.  Perhaps it was the summertime, and everyone just slept under the stars.  But what an event!  A three-day outdoor teaching and healing seminar with the Son of God!  Probably nothing like that had ever happened with any other local rabbi.  Jesus had a way of drawing people to Himself, and, as it says in another place, everyone was trying to touch Him, for power came forth from Him that healed all. But there was one thing about this great event that wasn’t announced in advance—there wouldn’t be any food.

Maybe some people, on the first day, had brought some food with them.  But evidently no one had thought to lug three days’ worth of food along with them. Yet no one wanted to leave the presence of Jesus.  After three days, however, they were hungry—very hungry, for the Lord said that if He would send them back home now they would faint on the way.

Jesus said explicitly that He did not wish to send them away hungry, for He had compassion on them.  So, as He sometimes did, Jesus placed the problem in the laps of his disciples, to see what they could come up with.  Well, they only came up with a few loaves and fish, along with the exasperated exclamation: “Where are we to get bread enough in the desert to feed so great a crowd?”  Thousands of people were gathered there, and so thousands of people were very hungry.

Such insoluble problems never troubled or exasperated Jesus.  Certain other things did, like hypocrisy and stubborn unbelief, but feeding thousands of people with food fit for half a dozen was not a problem.  It is easier for the Lord to deal with material needs than spiritual ones, in so far as matters of the heart involve free will, because the Lord never works a miracle to coerce or override anyone’s free will.  As He easily did during his three-day revival, He cured many people of physical illnesses and injuries, but the accounts of the Gospels show that He was rather unsuccessful at converting the Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests of the people.  Hardened hearts present a serious obstacle even to God, though all things are still possible with Him.

So, when it came time to feed many hungry people, Jesus took what little bread and fish the disciples brought to Him and turned the matter over to his Father.  Somehow it was in the giving thanks to his Father that the miracle happened.  The evangelist says that Jesus gave thanks, broke the bread and fish, and gave them to his disciples to give to the crowd, and lo and behold, all ate and were satisfied!  There were even leftovers.  So food was provided at the event after all, even though it wasn’t announced beforehand.  Perhaps the people, or at least some of them, had the insight that after healing so many of their diseases, Jesus wouldn’t, couldn’t be so powerless as to let them go away hungry.

Maybe that is the lesson we are to receive from this Gospel: Jesus does not send us away hungry.  We follow Him, for we want to hear the word of God from Him, and we want to be healed of our infirmities.  But most fundamentally of all we want to live from Him, draw our life from his life.  We want to abide in Him and have Him abide in us.  That is why, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus gives his teaching on the miracle of the Holy Eucharist right after the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves.  This is the way we live from the life of Jesus: He makes Himself our very food.  The Bread He breaks is his own flesh, lacerated and pierced on the Cross for the life of the world, for the salvation of souls, for the ransom of the many.

So let us offer the Sacrifice of Thanksgiving, that is the Holy Eucharist, to the Father, who allows his beloved Son to be (as we say in the Liturgy) “broken and distributed, broken but not divided, ever eaten but never consumed, sanctifying those who partake”—and we will eat and be satisfied. If we come to Jesus in faith and in love, we will find nourishment and life for our souls.  Even though we have to endure the burden and the heat of the day, He will never send us away hungry.

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