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

Archive for December, 2012

Out With the Old…

Well, it has been quite a year for me, filled with unexpected things, both disasters and blessings, yet the providential hand of God has a way of turning even apparent disasters into unlooked-for blessings.  I even survived another of the long series of prophesied ends of the world!

Last year at this time I was preparing to give a retreat in Denver, blissfully unaware that the rug of my 30-year vocation was about to be pulled out from under me. The first couple months of 2012 were quite calamitous, but God is not ruffled by the urgencies and emergencies of chicken-little lives, and so He serenely surveyed the horizon of my immediate future and saw that it was good.  Taking the hand of my heavenly Mother, I walked into the unknown, which she had already prepared for me at the Lord’s behest, and I entered the house of St Joseph, the patron of my monastic life.

rapIt took me a while to get used to city living, the sirens and the exhaust fumes, and to enormous loud vehicles hurtling through the sky, and even louder ones on the ground, emitting horrible rap-crap, convulsing the cars to the point that I thought the windows would shatter or the license plates fall off from the vibrations of the hellish thumping “music”.

I also got used to concelebrating the Roman-rite Mass at parishes and retreat venues, and in general, learning the Latin tradition (including beginning to study the Latin language and some Gregorian chant, which is probably the most beautiful sacred music this side of Heaven). I still celebrate the Byzantine Liturgy, here at COSJ and occasionally at a little Russian Catholic parish in San Francisco.

On the whole, I would have to say that I consider 2012 to have been a year of blessings, some of which, however, I’d prefer not to experience again for a very long time, thank you very much! But I believe my new home is the place of a new phase of my life, new ministries, new experiences, and also a new depth of relationship with God and the Blessed Mother.  So, I’m grateful.

I trust God with the new year and whatever it will bring.  There are certain things that still have to be officially established for my new situation, but the wheels of ecclesiastical bureaucracy turn quite slowly. A major part of the delay was due to the installment of a new archbishop for San Francisco, for there was an interim period of several months when we had only an apostolic administrator, and so everything was on hold till the new boss arrived. And, of course, when that eventually happens, he is overwhelmed with all the problems and issues of his new job, and getting used to the new people and the new tasks.  My guess that my petitions would not be flagged as the most urgent priorities for the new shepherd proved to be accurate.

On a somewhat broader topic, there’s something that may be a harbinger of either blessings or disasters to come, for the whole of our country.  You harbingercan read about it in a book called The Harbinger, by Jonathan Cahn.  Maybe you’re already heard of it; it is a best-seller.  The author has done a lot of research both into biblical history and American history, and he finds some startling parallels between the situation of ancient Israel and of modern America.  Both were chosen by God for special blessings, both rebelled against Him and disobeyed his commandments.  We can read the Bible about the severe judgment that fell upon the chosen people for their infidelity, and it looks like perhaps judgment on America has already begun, but it is only the first stages.  The author sees the 9-11 disaster as a key moment in our history, when God seems to have removed his extraordinary protection of our land, leaving us to the consequences of our own rejection of Him, while at the same time calling us to return to Him.

A certain prophecy of Isaiah opens up this mystery in several striking ways, and the author goes into great detail (it is all well-documented) about how America is fulfilling this prophecy point by point.  It’s uncanny, to say the least, and it may very well be something we all need to see and understand if we want to live in this land under God’s blessing and not under his judgment.  Anyway, it is a very interesting read, and it brings the awareness that God is indeed very concerned about our lives and the events of our times, and that He is directing things according to his providence, his justice, and his mercy.

But we can make things very bad for our nation, if we continue the present trajectory.  The November elections were mostly disastrous, almost a sign that God has already handed us over to judgment, and we can expect nothing but rotten fruit from many of the policies and agendas being imposed by our government.  The Harbinger is a word to the wise (which means it will mostly fall upon deaf ears), and we need to pray for a moral and spiritual awakening, so that we don’t one day discover that we live in a land that is no longer free, no longer prosperous, no longer under the blessing of God, but rather under the tyranny of the devil’s lackeys, who blindly follow their master while deluding themselves that they are masters of their own destinies, and ours.

So, goodbye 2012, and a wary welcome to 2013. Let us make sure we do not put our trust in anything but the Lord our God. He alone can make all things new, bring good out of evil, turn ill-fortune to blessing, while leading us carefully along the demanding but invigorating path to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Heaven Meets Earth

[Christ is born!  Though I’m preaching at the Russian Catholic parish on Christmas, fragments of my homily are still floating around in the murky waters of my brain and likely won’t coalesce until the Gospel is read on the feast, so I present here a Christmas homily I gave in 2003.]

A reading from the book of Wisdom, which has been taken by many to be a prophecy: “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its bringing-heaven-to-earthswift course was now half gone, your all powerful word leapt from heaven from the royal throne into the midst of the land that was doomed…and touched heaven while standing on the earth.”

This speaks eloquently of the mystery that we are celebrating now—of the all powerful, divine, eternal Word of God, leaping, as it were, from Heaven, from his royal throne down to Earth.

The Word of God comes from Heaven into the midst of the land that was doomed. The whole earth was doomed because of the sin of our first parents.  So the Lord had to come if we were going to be saved.  He took flesh and dwelled among us as one of us. He touched Heaven while standing on Earth. He touched Heaven as God, stood on Earth as man, and He came to be with us—not only to be with us and to share our poverty and misery, but to lift us out of it and to restore us to that divine image that was disfigured and obscured by centuries of sin and rejection of God.

We should reflect on this mystery of God with us and God within us, because at this point in the history of the Church we’re not just looking at God’s advance, so to speak, toward man, to come in the flesh where He could be seen and touched. Now that He has come and suffered and died and risen and ascended into heaven and sent his Spirit, He is within us and not just with us.  Because of God’s presence in us, we too can touch Heaven while standing on Earth at this very moment.

When we receive his precious Body and Blood—that little bit of earth that He has transformed into Himself—we touch Heaven while standing on Earth.  Any time that we connect with God and experience his mercy, his love, his providence in our lives, we touch Heaven while standing on Earth.  He is with us to make all things new, as He promised in the Book of Revelation.

We should look at God coming not just to the world as such, but to each one of us personally.  God comes into our hearts. He leaps from his royal throne not just to a cave in Bethlehem, but to the cave in our own hearts. And that cave is sometimes a pretty dark place. But we know, as St. John says in the prologue to his Gospel, that the light—he calls Christ the light—shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

We see in the icons of the Nativity that the cave is black. Now that is a symbol. It’s not just because caves are generally dark that it’s painted Nativity iconblack; it’s because black in the icons is a symbol of the world unredeemed. The world as waiting for the Savior. Christ has come into that darkness, that blackness of the cave, and his light has shone forth. He comes into that cave of our hearts, into the darkness of our own hearts, to give his life-giving presence to us so that we can be in union with Him and walk with Him. Walk while we have the light, and follow Him, because He promises that whoever follows Him will not be in the darkness but will have the light of life.

Now there were a few other people that were in the dark on that cold and clear night of the first Christmas. They were the shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night.  Into their darkness, the darkness of that night, the angel of the Lord appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them. That sure lit up their night!  They were filled with fear, it says, when they saw this. But the angel says, “Be not afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy.”

Now we may ourselves, at the approach of God into the darkness of the cave of our own little heart, respond first of all with fear.  Perhaps fear because of our sins, or fear simply because of the unknown, for God is mysterious and incomprehensible. Or perhaps fear that once we learn the truth we’re going to have to change our lives. That’s the fear I’ve seen in some people—they don’t want to go to church or they don’t want to even investigate the revelations, the claims of Christianity, because what if it’s true?  If it’s true, then you have to do something about it. If it’s true, you have to change your life to conform it to the truth and to reality. So there’s a lot of fear there that all of this just might be true after all.

Well, it is true, and that’s the good news!  That’s what we’re here to proclaim today and that’s what the angels were proclaiming to the shepherds.  They’re saying: it’s all true!  All the promises, they’re being fulfilled right now before your eyes and you guys are the first ones to see it.  So they said: we’ll show you a sign, a way that you can see this mystery being fulfilled.  The shepherds decided to go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened that the Lord has made known to them.

We should follow their example in seeking the Lord. See what this thing is that’s being revealed to us. See what it is that has been written about in the Scriptures and has been preached about, and what millions have lived and died for over the centuries. See what it is. This is the word of God. See why all the martyrs have given their lives for this, because this is the ultimate truth and reality, without which our lives are meaningless.  We’re going to end in destruction if we don’t embrace this truth, this life, this love which God wishes to spread over the whole earth. But it starts in our hearts.

This whole mystery was so low-key that nobody knew about it, and this thing was happening in a little cave that no one was aware of, but the angels are just about bursting at the seams, ready to break out and praise God because it’s like, come on, somebody’s got to start praising God here! Everything is just so quiet and nobody even knows that He’s there. Before the shepherds even got a chance to go over to the cave, the whole multitude of angels started praising and singing to God. It was kind of a relief for them, I think, just to release it into the universe. There had to be somebody out there praising God for this great mystery.

Little by little, as people caught on, more people would come to praise God. But on that first night when nothing was yet happening in the world, when the Son of God was there in the manger, well, you just can’t keep the angels quiet at a moment like that. When the shepherds went there to see this thing that had happened, they found Mary and Joseph and the Babe lying in a manger and they knew that it was all true, because they received that word from the angel: Here is a sign for you. You will find a babe lying in a manger in swaddling clothes.

Evidently, it wasn’t the usual thing for babies to be born in caves and put in feeding troughs for animals. If everyone always did that, then it wouldn’t be a sign because, well, everybody does that. How would it be a sign that this is the Son of God and the Savior and the Messiah?  So when the angel said here’s the sign, you’re going to see something that you’ve never seen before, that no one ever does, when you see that you’ll know that this is the Messiah, the Lord and Savior of the world.

Now meanwhile, Mary is keeping all of these things, pondering them in her heart. This is another dimension, a precious dimension, something really characteristic of the celebration of Christmas. You see the angels singing and the shepherds kind of scratching their heads but finally getting it, and then Mary, pondering, treasuring in her heart, keeping quiet herself about this. Christmas is a feast like that. It’s a kind of contemplative feast. There’s a certain quiet joy about it, a peace.  Something that just brings you to a place of inner silence, meditation and contemplation.  And the whole time of Advent is like that too, where we enter into a spirit of expectation, of longing, of hope, of just looking for Him who is to come.

It’s quite unlike Lent, where we spend most of the time accusing and scourging ourselves all through the liturgy of those days. Then we get to be slaughtered with Christ and finally even raised up at the end. It’s kind of a harrowing experience. But the Advent and Christmas thing is a little more mellow and quiet and contemplative, and I prefer that, frankly. Mary gives us the example, as the one who ponders things in her heart, who treasures the mystery quietly, prayerfully, seeing all these manifestations of God unfold before her very eyes and treasuring it as the precious gift that it is.

There are two dimensions of this mystery: right now in the Liturgy we’re singing with the angels who cannot restrain themselves from giving glory to God when they see that his mystery is being manifested. So that is our liturgical celebration. But there are going to be other times during these holy days, when we’re going to go into the silence. Then it will be time to really treasure these things in our hearts and reflect on them and be there in the silence of the cave of our own heart, where Christ has chosen to come from Heaven, to enter into that cave and to bring light into the darkness and peace into the turmoil, and to banish all fear and anxiety and anything that can create an obstacle between us and God, who loves us and who has become man to save us.

So let us all also now, as we come to the altar of God, the God of our joy, as we come to receive that gift of the heavenly fruit of his Incarnation, the precious Body and Blood in the divine Eucharist, let us come to receive Him and worship Him like the shepherds, the angels, the magi, his Mother and St Joseph.  As we receive this divine gift from Heaven, let us realize even now that Christ is in our midst, God is with us, God is within us, and we too, while standing on Earth, can touch Heaven.

Christ is born!

Rorate Caeli

Advent at Ephesus 2Christmas is almost here and it is therefore time to make sure our hearts are longing for the coming of the Lord.  About a week ago I received a CD of traditional Advent music sung with angelic voices by the Benedictines of Mary.  It is called Advent at Ephesus.  I recommend it highly; I was moved to tears several times as I listened—not only because of the beauty of their voices, but also that of the lyrics of the hymns.  (English translations are given for the Latin ones; the rest are sung in English.)  There is some Gregorian chant and other beautiful pieces: some ancient, some medieval, some relatively modern.  I’m giving the text here of the traditional Advent hymn, Rorate Caeli.  The first line is the refrain, which is to be repeated between the stanzas:

Ye heavens drop down dew from above and let the clouds rain down the Just One.

Be not angry, O Lord, remember no more our iniquities.
Behold the city of the Holy One is deserted;
Zion is laid desolate, Jerusalem is laid waste:
The home of Thy sanctification and of Thy glory, where our fathers praised Thee.

We have sinned, and we are become like the unclean;
We are fallen like the leaves, and our sins, like the storm,
Have carried us away.  Thou hast hidden Thy face from us
And hast thrown us into the power of our sins.

Behold, O Lord, the affliction of Thy people, and send Him
Whom Thou wilt send forth, the Lamb, the Ruler of the earth,
From the rock of the desert to the mountain of the daughter of Zion,
That He may take away the yoke of our captivity.

Be comforted, be comforted, O My people:
Thy Savior shall come quickly.  Why hath grief devoured thee?
Why hath sorrow disfigured thee? I will save thee, fear not:
For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Redeemer.

I found this particularly moving, though I suppose it would be more or less meaningless to those who have lost the sense of sin, our exile from Paradise, and our desperate need for a Savior.  But those who can feel the weight of sin can also experience the joy of redemption, the saving compassion of Him who came to free us from our self-imposed captivity and to bring us to eternal happiness.

It came to me, as I looked out over the city of South San Francisco, that maybe one of reasons I’m here—one of the reasons any consecrated soul is “set apart” from intense engagement with the frenzied pace of life in the cities—is to give voice to the many who don’t even know their need for the Savior, who have grown so used to their captivity to sin that it seems like normal life.  We feel in our own hearts what they are no longer capable of feeling in theirs, and we offer the burden of it to God on their behalf. We stand before God, begging for mercy for the sins of his people, trusting that if we turn to Him He will grant us his loving compassion.  The celebration of Christmas is the renewal of God’s response to his faithful people’s cry for the Anointed One to come and deliver them from evil.  God will easily and joyfully forgive every sin—but we have to ask Him.  We have to let our hearts be torn open, realizing what we have done to estrange ourselves from our Creator, and in our returning to Him He will return to us, to rescue us, to heal what is damaged, to make all things new.

To listen to such hymns sung so beautifully is to help prepare our hearts to receive divine grace.  The sacred music and the angelic voices help create an environment in which prayer can begin, in which the scales can fall from our eyes, and the truth we thus discover more deeply will begin to set us free.

There are “lighter-weight” songs here, too, if you don’t want to be weeping the whole time (though this is good for the soul!), and these add a certain sweetness, like this excerpt from “Like the Dawning”:

…Thou wert happy, blessed Mother
With the very bliss of Heaven,
Since the angel’s salutation
In thy raptured ear was given;
Since the ave of that midnight
When thou wert anointed Queen,
Like a river overflowing
Hath the grace within thee been…

It’s not too late to get the Advent CD, and even if you wait till after Christmas, that’s OK.  The songs are all about the mystery of the Incarnation, which is at the heart of our faith and hence is good for all seasons.  Bring a sense of the holy back into your life.  The Church’s tradition of sacred music is very rich.  It can help bring you into the presence of Him for whom you wait with such longing…

On the Way to Christmas

[Since it’s almost Christmas already, I thought I should hurry up and offer some sort of Advent reflection.  So here is an Advent homily I gave in 2003.]

We’re advancing another step on our pilgrimage towards Christmas, and with this step we go right into the heart of this whole Advent season and what Christmas is all about, because today we reflect upon the Incarnation of the Son of God.  That’s what we’re looking towards at Christmas and that is one of the central mysteries of our salvation.  The meaning of the whole universe, of human history and our eternal destiny, centers on the Incarnation of Christ: God becoming man for our salvation.  This is what our Christmas celebration is supposed to open our hearts and lives to embrace.

We have to have a different perspective from that of the world.  The world does celebrate Christmas in its own way, but mostly what you see are Santas, Frosty the Snowman, candy canes and wreaths—I even saw a penguin in one place—and similar stuff, which is not so bad in itself.  At least, somehow, it communicates that there’s something special about this time of year and brings with it a certain sense of good cheer and generosity.  But it still misses the main point.

The word “Christmas” means the Mass that you celebrate in honor of Christ.  In the old Latin traditional way of speaking of some of these feasts, they had different names like that.  They used to call the Presentation of the Lord “Candlemas,” because they blessed candles on that day.  And they’d call the Feast of St. Michael “St. Michaelmas.”   You might have seen these in an old book somewhere.  Well, the Nativity of Christ is called “Christ Mass”—“Christmas.”  Good people say we should put Christ back in Christmas, but we should also put Mass back in Christmas, and complete the whole thing.

2009_christmas_stamp_sassoferratoI remember going to the Post Office to get a bunch of Christmas stamps.  I went in there and said, “I want to buy a whole lot of Christmas stamps.”  I was told, “Well, we’re running short, I don’t know if we have enough—unless, of course, you want those with the Madonna and the Child; we have tons of those.”   Oh.  So I said, “Yes, that’s exactly what I want!”  But what they said indicated that nobody’s buying them.

Christmas is not about little cute things that are presented in the media for the “holiday” season.  Christmas is precisely about that little stamp with the Madonna and the Child: that’s the image of Christmas, that’s the mystery that we’re trying to anticipate and look forward to and, hopefully, celebrate wholeheartedly.

We who are looking forward to Christmas, who are Christians, should examine ourselves and say, “Well, what are we looking forward to?” Because we could end up going in that same direction a little bit, only dressing it up with religious garlands and not really getting to the heart of it ourselves.  If we’re just looking forward to the termination of the fast, or decorating things, or singing Christmas carols and all that, again that’s not bad, but that’s still not the center of it.

Even our liturgical celebration, which is one of the main means of entering into communion with this mystery, can become just a kind of pious exercise or something we just tip the hat to.  We perform our obligations for Christmas and get that done and then get down to the fun stuff.

Well, the heart of what Christmas is, and what we’re anticipating today, is the love of God made manifest in the flesh, in the Person of Jesus Christ.  That’s it; that’s the thing that we have to look forward to and open our hearts to.  The Christmas mystery is a mystery of divine love and of human love.  What’s happening here, as we read in the gospel of the annunciation, is that the angel was telling Our Lady something great is about to happen. God, who the prophets say has loved us with an everlasting love, is now going to make that love really concrete, really personal, in a way that was never done before and can never be repeated: God loved us so much that He became one of us.

To love someone is to want to be completely one with the beloved.  I read a little quote from a French Jesuit: “When I hear the Church telling me that Jesus Christ is God and man in one Person, I already know that God is love, because God has become one with his beloved humanity.”  So this is what we have to meditate on: God loving us.  It says in the First Letter of John, “In this was the love of God manifest to us: that He sent his only Son, so that we might live through Him.”  This is the mystery of Christmas: God, sending his Son out of love for us, that we might live through Him.  This is God’s gift, God’s initiative.

St. John also says, “It’s not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us,” that He has loved us first.  The only way that we can love is to have experienced that love first, from God, and this love of God is being made manifest in the flesh of Jesus Christ.  This is the divine initiative, looking for our response.

So, to love is the foundation, the basis for this whole mystery of the Incarnation and hence of our salvation.  But there’s a condition involved in this mystery, too, which belongs to Our Lady, because with God, to love and to have that love be fruitful, there needs to be a giving and a receiving of a lover and a beloved, a reciprocity in the relationship.  God looks for a free response; He could not compel Mary to do what He wanted: “Look, I haveBartolome_Esteban_Murillo_The_Annunciation this plan for mankind; here’s what I want you to do, so do this, and don’t question it or give me any flak; just do what I say.”  That’s not how the Lover talks. God sends an angel as a messenger, and as we see in some chivalrous artwork, the angel is down on one knee as if God were proposing to her, to manifest his love to humanity through her.  He lays out the beautiful picture and then says, “Now, what do you say? Do you accept this?”  And Our Lady did, because her love, that comes from our side to God, is expressed through faith and obedience.  We are to believe and trust in God—and then to act on his word, to respond to Him in our actions, in our behavior.

That doesn’t preclude wanting to understand the mystery a little bit better.   Our Lady asked the angel a question about this.  Being a virgin and being told that she was going to have a son: that’s a pretty frightening prospect, if you’re planning to stay a virgin, anyway.  There’s nothing wrong with questioning, if you are already right with God. If Mary wasn’t already living a prayerful life, faithful to the word of God, she couldn’t have said “Yes” to this, because that’s something that requires a heart and soul that are already longing for God, already waiting for Him, already praying in anticipation.  The faithful people of God were waiting for the Messiah to come; their whole heart and life were geared toward this hope that had been given to them through the prophets, and so Mary was ready because she was waiting, she was listening.

For our Advent preparations, we have to have that same mentality so that when God, in whatever way He chooses, manifests his presence to us, we’re not “out to lunch,” but we’re ready, we’re listening, praying, our hearts already with Him, so that when the moment of grace and the moment of decision comes, when He asks from us a free response to his loving initiative, we will say, “Yes!  I am Your servant!  Whatever You say, do it: I’m ready!  I’m aware of my own weaknesses and limitations, but as the angel said here, with God all things are possible!  So I believe that with You, all things are possible and, whatever You ask, I can do.”

So let us try to develop that awareness, that mentality of, first of all, entering into the contemplation of the infinite depths and tenderness and compassion of the love of God who gave his Son, Jesus Christ, and manifested Himself through his Son to us, to show us how much He loved us, how much He wanted to be one with humanity—so much that He literally became man. He became a human being in Jesus Christ to show how much He loved us, and not only that, but to take it to the limit of the Cross for us, to take away our sins and, again, to continually prove how much He loves us—loving us to the end, as St. John said, to the utmost that is possible.

Let us reflect on that love of God and the meaning of Christ Mass as the love of God manifested in Christ, and the love which asks for a response—a free, loving response of faith and obedience to the word of God, and let us ask Our Lady to inspire us, to guide us, to help us develop that attitude.  We have to develop it through the means that the Church has given to us—through prayer, through the Sacraments, through fasting, through meditation on the Scriptures—so we can be, like her, waiting with an attitude of faithfulness, of surrender, willingness to say “yes” to God at a moment’s notice, whenever that might be, and we’re ready because we’ve been waiting for Him, waiting for the Beloved.

When He comes—and not just at the moment of Christmas, but any time: before Christmas, after Christmas, for the rest of our lives, He’s with us constantly, and is constantly looking for our loving response to his initiatives—we’ll be ready and we can say, with Our Lady, “I am Your servant; I am Your friend; I am Your beloved; let it be done according to Your word!”

The Eighth Wound

I read a moving story in a book entitled Angel Power, by Janice T. Connell. I’m not quite sure what to make of the book itself.  She would have done better to have been more exclusively Catholic in her presentation. The author’s language and style are at times somewhat New Agey, though the content is basically sound (but she also makes some references to other religions, which could have been left out without sacrificing anything important in the book’s themes).  Most of the information she presents on the nature and activity of angels is derived from the writings of St Gregory the Great and St Thomas Aquinas, though she goes a little beyond that on her own.  Anyway, my intention is not to review the book but to reflect on one of the testimonies.

It concerns the sufferings of Marissa, a 17-year-old girl from Spain who moved to New York City with her family and experienced some of the horror of the dark side of big-city life.  She was accosted by a man belonging to a satanic cult, who then raped her and stabbed her eight times, and left her in the park where he found her, assuming she was dead.  But the girl dragged herself to a road where someone saw her and took her to a hospital.  She nearly died, but they were able to save her, though she never fully recovered from some of the injuries.

It’s a long story, so I’m just giving an overview.  Marissa had never even considered forgiving her assailant, and she was hurt and angry that God would have allowed such a horrible thing to happen to her.  Someone suggested to her that she pray to Our Lady.  She did, and things began to improve.  She prayed with a group, which, among other things, daily prayed the “Rosary of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Mother.”  Since she had been stabbed seven times (plus one), she said she would ask Jesus and Mary if they wanted her to forgive, and little by little she was able to.

Marissa said that she had been stabbed seven times in the upper part of her body.  The eighth stab wound “was done to the lower part of my body.” She did not explain this further, though evidently it was so horrendous that even the nurses who eventually removed the stitches were weeping over what had been done to her by someone who they said must have been “an animal,” or “a demon.”  Marissa said she could forgive the seven wounds but not the eighth one.

Once, when she was praying the Seven Sorrows Rosary, she felt a clear inner locution from the Blessed Mother: “My daughter, I desire you to forgive that person for the eighth wound he inflicted upon you.”  Marissa had never told anyone about it, so she said, “How do you know my secret?”  Our Lady responded, “My child, I know everything that happened to you.”

She was moved, but still unable to forgive completely.  She asked for a sign (she was in church at the time).   She said, “I’m sorry, Blessed Mother, I just can’t, but if this is really coming from you, I want to touch the shoulder of the lady in front of me and whatever comes out of her mouth I will accept as you speaking to me.”  She did so, and without first saying anything to the woman in front of her, the woman at once turned around and said, “The Blessed Mother is talking to you. Please listen to her.”

Even after that, Marissa was still making excuses.  “But Blessed Mother, this Seven Sorrows Rosary only has seven sorrows. I have eight. I need one more proof that it is really you talking to me—that it is really you who want me to forgive.”  She felt something happening to the seven sorrows rosary in her hand.  She looked at it in astonishment and then showed it to the others in the prayer group, and they all confirmed it.  Her rosary that once had seven sets of beads now had eight!  She felt the Blessed Mother speaking again: “My precious daughter, you are able to forgive.” That was all she needed to completely forgive the man from her heart.  She told the others about the eighth wound, and they all began to thank God, the Blessed Mother and all the angels.  An enormous weight was lifted from her and she felt free.  Her life changed after that, and she could live in joy and in confidence in the grace and mercy of the Lord.

It might be good to look at your own life to see if there is something like an “eighth wound” that still needs healing, a deep hurt that you have not yet forgiven, but that remains like a knife stuck in your soul.  Maybe you have forgiven everything else, except that one “unforgivable” sin against you, that betrayal, that violence, whatever is the source of that unremitting pain or shame. It is time to ask the Lord and the Blessed Mother to help you forgive, to let go, to have the intolerable burden lifted, so that you can have peace and even joy.

To forgive does not mean to condone the evil or even to refuse to see justice done.  Marissa picked out her assailant from a police lineup and testified against him at his trial.  But she let go of the bitterness, the resentment and anger, the hatred and the unwillingness to forgive.  “Forgive,” says the Apostle, “if you have a complaint against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13).

There’s something else I learned in this book, about suffering.  The author writes the following: “Suffering somehow prepares us for our places in Paradise. It is the ‘sandpaper’ that redefines and refines the beauty of each person.  Suffering is paradoxically a great gift.  It serves as a beacon of Truth.  Suffering is permitted by God. How we accept our suffering is our gift to Him… It is through faith in God’s Word, His Covenant, that His children are able to accept the suffering He allows.  All suffering is for someone.  God knows why He gives the suffering and when He will take it away. It is through trust in his Providence that His children bear their suffering in peace.”

What struck me most is this: “How we accept our suffering is our gift to Him.”  I can usually manage to offer suffering as a sacrifice or a penance, or even accept it as a just punishment.  But I don’t know if I’ve ever offered my patient bearing of suffering to God explicitly as my gift to Him.  This is a new and, I think, potentially very fruitful way to look at it.  God has his reasons for permitting suffering in our lives.  It is an act of faith and trust and love to accept our suffering in such a way as to offer it to Him as a gift.

The author also wrote: “All suffering is for someone.”  This helps us get out of our self-absorption in our pain or troubles.  We are members of the Body of Christ, and as St Paul said (Col. 1:24), our sufferings can be offered for the sake of the other members, for the Church.  Nothing is wasted, nothing is useless in the providential plans of God, and the more we trust and cooperate with Him, the more we will bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and help save souls as well.

So think and pray about what might be the “eighth wound” in your life.  Choose to forgive.  This hurts; it is a suffering, though it can be a fruitful one.  Offer it to God—as a gift.

Stop That Bad Thought!

I recently read a book on spiritual warfare, written by someone who used to be a satanist, but who now has happily returned to the Church of her birth and baptism, the holy Catholic Church. (Deborah Lipsky, A Message of Hope: Confessions of an Ex-Satanist.) Perhaps not everything in this book is worth recommending (and it would have benefited from a competent editor and proofreader), but there’s one main point I’d like to reflect upon, which probably applies to just about all of us.  It’s about avoiding negative or otherwise spiritually harmful thoughts.

At the outset I should make a distinction.  Not all “negative” thoughts are bad thoughts.  For example, I know someone who says things like this, if you happen to bring up the subjects of sin, repentance, the manifest evils in the world, etc: “Don’t say those things to me.  They are negative thoughts.  Negative thoughts cause stress, and I choose to live without stress, thinking only positive thoughts.”  To have this attitude is to live in La-La Land and to be disconnected to reality.  But there still are a lot of thoughts that people commonly indulge in that really ought to be avoided, because they are open invitations to demonic manipulations of our souls.

Since demons are spirits, they have no material element in their beings.  They are all spiritual energy, and not matter.  Our own thought processes, though they use the material brain as an instrument, still belong to the immaterial soul and so are primarily spiritual in nature.  Now even though the demons can’t literally read our every thought, they can sense the spiritual “energy” that our thought processes produce, and if this is angry, hateful, lustful, malicious, etc, they will recognize the evil “scent” and will hurry to it like sharks after blood.

The demons “feed” on anything that is wicked or unclean, and their appetites are insatiable. (A text in one of the Byzantine Lenten Offices repeats, “O compassionate Lord… let me not become the possession and food of the enemy…”)  So when the demons are attracted to a soul emitting all this foul spiritual energy that they like to feed on, they will try to increase it, to suggest certain trains of thought that will lead to deeper sin.  They will try to influence us to form habits of thought that are dark, negative, critical, vengeful, impure, etc.  If they succeed in this, they will have frequent feeding frenzies on our souls, and we will become more and more mired in the ruts of our harmful thoughts, which, even though they may begin as directed toward people we resent or hate, become ultimately self-destructive, and this is what the evil spirits are after.

Even without much interference from the devils and their spiritual powers, we can get into mental ruts through our own lack of vigilance over our thoughts.  The brain itself tends to form pathways for neurons to connect in a certain way when we repeatedly speak or act in some way that gives us some form of pleasure (even the perverse pleasure of holding a grudge or indulging in something sinful).  Eventually it “urges” us to keep repeating the behavior that gives pleasure, and this is one way that addictions are formed.  The demons, however, won’t sit idly by, waiting for all this to happen.  They will actively try to hasten this process through temptations and seductions of various sorts.  Their goal isn’t merely to get us stuck in bad habits, though.  That is only the means to the end of getting us to fall into despair, turn away from God, and, if all goes well (from their perspective), to get us finally to choose suicide as the only way out of the maddening torments that have taken over our interior lives, over which we have lost all control.

So what can we do to short-circuit this process and refuse to give the demons something to feed on, or worse, to actually commandeer our souls if we leave ourselves wide open enough?  The short answer is: Stop having bad thoughts!  That’s easier said than done, however, so we have to employ the means the Church has given us for victory in the spiritual warfare.

St Paul says we have to “put on the armor of God” (see Eph. 6:10-18). This consists mainly of truth (since the suggestions and promises of demons are lies), righteousness, faith, the word of God, and prayer.  Use holy water, wear blessed medals, a crucifix, a scapular, etc.  (I wear, night and day, several medals, a scapular, and a crucifix containing several precious relics, including one of my dear St Gemma, who is powerful against devils. So what if I sound like jingle bells when I walk.  I give the demons fair warning to get out of the way!) We should also invoke St Michael and the holy angels, especially our guardian angels, whose mission it is to protect us from evil, but they will have to stand aside if we use our free will to choose what is sinful. (They cannot manipulate our freedom, as God Himself refuses to do, but if we invoke them, they will help us.) Especially we ought to entrust ourselves to the Queen of Angels, the Mother of God who has been given the power to crush the head of the ancient serpent, her enemy and ours.  We have to be 100% on the side of Christ and his truth and goodness and love, for every percentage point less than 100 makes a little opening for the devils to latch on to the dark energy of our sinful thoughts.

We ought also, as far as possible, to avoid the company of those who are constantly creating spiritually polluted environments by the angry, crude, irreverent, or otherwise bad things they say.  We don’t want all that junk floating around in our memory banks.  The demons are good at reminding us of stuff we’d rather not remember, things we have seen and heard that can be a seedbed for sin.  So for God’s sake (and for yours), don’t look at any sort of pornographic or even indecent stuff! This will be burned into your brain’s “hard drive” and it cannot be erased (except by a miraculous divine intervention), even though the sin can be forgiven.  You will at some point be reminded of it by the enemy of your salvation, at the most inopportune of moments, like your times of prayer.  There are certain “triggers” that can re-connect you to the memory of past sins, and the evil spirits are always looking for ways to get you to relapse.

Along with cleaning out the spiritual junk of bad thoughts, we have to feed our heads with the good stuff.  Our thoughts ought to be humble, full of gratitude for God’s gifts and mercies, full of faith and devotion, seeking to say and do what is good.  If we are constantly feeding ourselves with what is holy and good, those demonic sharks will not find anything to attract them; in fact, they will be repulsed.  Therefore St Paul tells us: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

A prayer like the Jesus Prayer (“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”) or some other short prayer that you can often repeat during the day will help cleanse your mind and not leave it idle for a bunch of bad spirits to come and inhabit (see Lk. 11:24-26; note that in the verse immediately preceding this, Jesus says: “He who is not with me is against me”; there is no neutral ground).  It really is serious business, and it takes sustained effort and vigilance to keep our minds free of that which can lead us to sin, which pollutes our souls, which makes it harder for the Holy Spirit to continue his work of sanctification, and which opens portals to the prince of darkness.

So, as St Peter reminds us, “Be sober; be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith…” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

Don’t permit yourself, then, to indulge in thoughts that you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with Jesus and his Mother.  There’s a war going on for your soul, and it won’t be over until you pass the threshold to eternity.  Don’t surrender your strength to the enemy by giving him ammunition to use against you.  Learn to recognize patterns of thought that tend to lead you to sin, to hate your neighbor, to over-indulge yourself, to grumble or complain—especially against God (the demons like it if we blame God for the hardships or sufferings of our lives, for then we become more like demons ourselves)—or to do anything that is not compatible with the word of God and the holy teachings of the Church.  Then cut it off, beg help from Heaven immediately and the angels will come.  Replace the bad stuff with good stuff, and thus send the demons packing!  They can’t feed on holiness; it is a torment to them.

So resolve to live in the truth, put on the armor of God, be 100% for Christ and 100% against the devil and his works.  Pray often, receive the sacraments worthily, keep your eyes fixed on Heaven.  Those who allow themselves to be led by every thought that feeds their own passions will end up being “the possession and food of the enemy” for all eternity.  Now is the time to “train yourself in Godliness… as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:7-8).  And stop those bad thoughts!

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