But she stayed

The Gospel from last Sunday (Jn 8:1-11) about the woman caught in adultery has haunted me for the past few days. While there are many pieces to ponder and various levels of spirituality one can glean from it, I keep tripping up over one very obvious yet very subtle fact: the woman stayed standing in front of Jesus.

Most times in the Gospel readings there are minute details that a person can read through and totally not catch the depth of the meaning. But sometimes they can be frustratingly lacking in detail. We do not know the woman’s name or the circumstances of how she was caught in the trap of the Pharisees. Was she set up? Did she agree to be part of the plan? Did she make a habit of committing adultery, or was this the first time? Who was her husband? Was he in on the plan? John did not include any of these details in the account, perhaps out of mercy to her, so that we can’t invoke her name or her situation. 

One by one her accusers walk away and she is standing alone before Jesus. Could she read? Did she know what He was writing on the ground? Did she even know who Jesus was? Yet she stood there until He addressed her. Her response is just two short words acknowledging that no one had condemned her. She neither pleaded her innocence nor her guilt. Perhaps she was curious as to what Jesus would say, now that she survived the mob of vengeance. While it’s beautiful to hear Jesus saying He doesn’t condemn her either, He does give her a directive not to sin again.

We need to keep this story in mind as we celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. We stand (or sit, or kneel) before Jesus (who is personified by the priest) and while we don’t have a mob of people declaring all our offenses, we do await the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the priest’s response: the counsel, the penance, and the absolution. In the most beautiful words, the absolution is like Jesus’ response to the woman,  “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

Perhaps because I correlate the woman’s interaction with Jesus to the sacrament, I am curious as to what happened next for her. What did her husband say when she returned home? How did other people treat her after that? Was she shunned or did others forgive her once they found out that Jesus forgave her? Maybe most importantly, how was she changed by her interaction with Jesus? Did she become a follower? Alas, there is no more written of her, so we will never know in this lifetime. 

Even when comparing this account with the sacrament of reconciliation, I still marvel that she stayed standing after all her accusers left. I wonder if I had been in her shoes, would I have stayed there? Or, once I knew I was not going to be stoned, would I have walked away? Would I have waited until Jesus addressed me? Or would I have been too embarrassed by what had happened to want to have any sort of interaction with Him? Being branded an adulteress, perhaps she knew that Jesus was different from any other man she had ever met. Perhaps she heard about His healings and wanted to be healed as well. 

May we all have the courage of this adulteress to stand in our sin before God, seeking His healing mercy and the grace not to sin again. 

Why believe

This past Sunday’s Gospel was the famous story of the prodigal son. However, the alternate Gospel for the second scrutiny Mass in preparation for receiving the sacraments at Easter was the story of Jesus healing the blind man. While both readings spoke of healing, they also posed a deeper question: why believe?

The story of the prodigal son is one of hope but is also tinged with hurt. The younger son asks his father for his share of his inheritance and leaves to squander it all. Me, me, me is his perspective; he wants things his way. It’s only after everything is gone and he finds himself the caretaker of pigs that he starts to consider what life is all about. Even though he still has a selfish mindset, he knows the generosity of his father and would rather be a servant to his father, than a hungry swineherd. The lavish welcome the father gives his son tugs at our heartstrings and we appreciate the beauty of the moment. This son had to leave and lose everything in order to value his family. His initial belief system was tested and failed him. He learns that there is something greater than himself: his family.

The story does not end there. How many have heard this account from Luke and not felt a bit like the older brother? It’s not fair! How can a father totally forgive his son for living so recklessly? Those feelings are not unlike those that might bubble up when weekly churchgoing parishioners have to accommodate attendees they see only at the Christmas and Easter Masses. Yes, we all have a little bit of the older brother resentment in us. The older brother in the parable, however, is not much different than his younger brother, he too, has a selfish mentality. He complains to his father about how long he has “served” his father. This sentiment is not of a son who appreciates learning the business, receiving a gift to be nourished, strengthened, and passed onto the next generation. He sees his father as a taskmaster telling him what to do, and he responds out of filial responsibility, not out of love. The older brother may be the heir, but his belief system was tested when the father urges him to receive his brother back into the fold.

The healing of the blind man in John’s Gospel, focuses on what people believe in black and white: “We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” (Jn 9:29) Oh how sorry I feel for the Pharisees! How in the world can they know that God spoke to Moses? How can they know that beyond a shadow of a doubt? How can they know “that God,” yet be so completely clueless about Jesus: true God from true God? It’s great that they can recognize God’s handiwork in the past, yet it’s more the tradition that they are clinging to rather than seeking a relationship with Him. All of what Moses taught was so that the Israelites could learn to have a relationship with God, to lean on Him in times of trial, and to celebrate His generosity. While some generations of Israel had success in forging that relationship, too many others failed to the point where instead of becoming a great nation, Israel fell under Roman occupation. 

So why believe in God? He is our creator, the one responsible for giving us life. He is our redeemer, the One who gave His life for ours. He is our sanctifier, the One who will guide our way if we can just listen to Him. God wants a relationship with us, one as intimate as a Father. His generosity can be glimpsed in the amazing amount and variety of species that inhabit the earth. But it doesn’t stop with just the material things, His blessings include endless mercy showered upon us when we seek to be reconciled with Him. We believe not just because of stories and traditions, but because He has touched our lives in many ways. We believe, because we can see Him in our family, in our friends, and in the smiles of people we have yet to meet. 

Fatherhood

Jesus taught us to call God, Father. While He is Almighty, Lord, and Creator, Father indicates a much more intimate relationship with us. It’s a bond that begins at the moment of our conception and lasts beyond the grave and into eternity.

God doesn’t just tell us something without giving us examples. While there are many fathers within the story of salvation history, not many are worthy to lift up. Abraham is the father of many nations. Yet he let Sarah convince him of doubting God’s ability to fulfill His promise of an heir and had him use her maid servant as a surrogate. Jacob preferred his children from Rachel over those he had with Leah, which caused strife within the family. And while David did find favor with God, he, too, was not the best model of fatherhood. 

This past weekend, we celebrated the feast of St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and the husband of Mary. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, the actions of Joseph illustrate love and trust much more than any description could. Joseph is open to God’s word, even when it comes to him in a dream. He had made up his mind to divorce Mary after her pregnancy was revealed, but instead welcomed her into his home once he understood it was God’s will. He took his family into Egypt to wait out Herod’s reign, and provided for them in a foreign country where he knew no one. Perhaps the most poignant of all, he witnessed by example that children are not ours, but rather belong to God’s will when Jesus stayed behind in the Temple during their annual trip to Jerusalem. Joseph was love in action, fully trusting in God. We think of him as the silent type, since no word of his is recorded in the Bible, but perhaps he was a very chatty man and spoke eloquently. Perhaps he enjoyed singing while he worked with wood in his carpentry shop. However, out of all the men recorded in the Bible, Joseph is the best example of fatherhood, because of what he did.

For some, considering God as “Father” can be difficult. Yet, as I was pondering this blog, I realized that I consider myself a “pet parent.” I regularly refer to myself as “Mommy” when I’m talking to Vera. Why do I consider myself a “mother” to Vera? Because I care about her well-being: I feed her, interact with her, and clean up after her. Her snuggles and purrs convey her appreciation and put a smile on my face. If I can do that for my cat, how much more does God do for us? The best way we can show our appreciation is to trust in Him and His will for us. Saying “Thanks Dad” daily to God the Father, well that’s just the start of what we can do!

Caterpillar or butterfly?

All around us in nature are reflections of God’s handiwork, as well examples of spiritual truths. This past week’s Gospel of Jesus’ transformation on Mount Tabor calls to mind the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. The question becomes: are you a content caterpillar or a future butterfly?

The purpose of a caterpillar is to eat. It’s eating so that its body can go through metamorphosis. I think for many of us who are on a spiritual journey, we are hungry and just eat. We know we need to be fed, but may not be careful about what we are eating. We may forget that eating has a purpose, that we are not supposed to stay caterpillars forever. Yet we sojourners may become content caterpillars, just “eating” our way through life. We may absorb the information about God, but never find ways to put it into action.

During the spiritual journey, if at some point a person realizes that something needs to change in them, they become a potential future butterfly. The person who recognizes that all the “eating” they’ve done as a caterpillar means that they can’t remain the way they are, then they are ready for the cocoon. In some ways, we can consider Lent a type of spiritual cocoon, as we look deep into ourselves and focus on our relationship with God. It can be a time of darkness when we realize with stark realization how much we’ve strayed from what God had planned for us. In that cocoon, as we open ourselves up to God’s grace, we may be a bit surprised that God doesn’t put us back together the way we were, but truly makes us a new creation. As a caterpillar in a cocoon digests its cells so that it can make new ones, so we too, in our spiritual journey, allow all that we have learned to be put into action as we become a spiritual butterfly. 

The Catholic faith is not an intellectual pursuit, it’s not a club to join. A Catholic Church is not a place to be entertained or a place to go once a week “because we have to.” The Catholic faith is one of action: as our thoughts and words are channeled into action; we become God’s hands and feet in the world. When we worship God and acknowledge that we need to be spiritually fed by Him, we choose to attend Church Masses and events to be filled by God’s Word and Sacraments. We also volunteer to fill others by participating in outreach programs. We are not called to be content caterpillars, but rather to transform and become spiritual butterflies, spreading the love of God by our actions.

Suffering with joy

I walked down a steep mountain last week and my legs let me know they weren’t happy with me for multiple days that followed. Yet as sore and uncomfortable as I was whenever I walked or stretched my legs, I didn’t seem to mind it. Can there actually be joy in suffering?

For a person who spends all day sitting behind a computer, touring Monticello and then walking back down to the visitor’s center (okay, the distance may have only been a bit over a half mile, but it was very steep!) is a feat that I’m proud to have accomplished. I could tell as I was descending the second portion of the trail that my calves were getting quite a workout, but it felt good to do it instead of taking the shuttle bus back. I wasn’t thinking about how sore I was going to be the next day (or several), but I concentrated on where I was walking because of the slope and the uneven surface. It was a nice day to be out in Virginia, not too hot and not too cold. Monticello has been on my bucket list of places to explore since I moved down here 3 years ago and found out how close it was. 

In reflecting on why the protesting limbs of my body did not affect me, one obvious answer is that I knew, in time, the pain would gradually diminish to nothing. However, I don’t think that was the sole reason. Plus, when I was walking around in the days afterward, instead of making faces of discomfort, I realized I was smiling. The pain was serving as a reminder of what a wonderful day I had and how happy I was to have seen the landmark, learn more about its history, and enjoy a day off from work. Perhaps the key to finding joy in suffering is perspective.

In this time of Lent, it is a serious business that we undertake to sacrifice parts of ourselves in order to strengthen and improve our relationship with God. Lent is a penitential season, so we’re supposed to be grim and feel miserable, right? I don’t think so. It was only last Wednesday at the beginning of Lent that Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to be fasting.” (Matt 6:16) In the sufferings that we take on during this Lent, we also need to make sure we have a positive perspective so they can affect a positive change in us. Lent is only a few weeks, and while some days may be challenging, we can lean on God to help us through. The pain of our penance will not last forever. When we feel the discomfort it brings, we should smile and thank God for the opportunity He is giving us to grow closer to Him, to participate in a very small way the agony He suffered on the cross. We also need to keep in mind that we will be happier in heaven than we can ever be on earth, and that’s the whole reason we take our Lenten practices so seriously.

If we choose the right perspective with which to view the sacrifices we make during Lent, we will be able to find joy in the suffering, in the celebration of Easter, and in the eternal presence of God.

Deep cleanse

How often do you pay attention to what you are eating? Perhaps you like to plan your meals in advance, but I tend to be one who  is more reactive when I eat. Lent for me is an opportunity to not only approach food differently, but also to approach my relationship with God differently.

“Give up” is one phrase associated with Lent. It sounds so negative and it also sounds very hopeless. If you don’t know what follows that phrase, it seems we are already defeated. But that’s not what Lent is about at all! Just like we put our whole body into weekly worship at Mass (standing, sitting, making the sign of the cross, etc.), we put our whole body into cleansing ourselves spiritually. For some people, they specifically fast a whole day just to cleanse their digestive tract. But in reality, since all of the body is dependent on what we eat, it actually affects all of it. Catholics use methods like fasting (although with a bit more mercy than not eating anything for 24 hours) as a tool to gain insight on what is the center of our focus. If our focus is not on God and doing His will, we will slowly drift away from His presence. 

Fasting for Catholics is only required two days within all of Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting means eating only one full meal and two “snack” meals that don’t add up to one full meal. However, for every Friday in Lent, the Church requires us to abstain from eating meat derived from land animals (such as beef, chicken, or pork.) However, seafood & eggs are okay. This abstinence is yet another tool in the Church’s wisdom to make us conscious of what we are doing and when we are doing it. While it is using tactile methods, the objective is spiritual in nature. The idea is not about saying, “I can’t have meat”, but rather about saying, “ Jesus sacrificed His Body for me” as we eat our fish dinner. It’s a physical reminder for us to pray, to reach out to God, and to reflect on how we can better do His will. 

While we feed our bodies with food, our minds, emotions, and souls are fed with our experiences, and specifically what we choose to do. While some are addicted to food, others are addicted to social media or being the center of attention. The Church may not have specific guidance for Lent, but does encourage us in fasting, praying, and almsgiving. We can use these tools to set guidance on our social interactions, pray when we are tempted, and make a donation to a charitable cause as a form of consequence if we exceed our commitments. Another option could be to “pay” for each minute we spend on social media. Perhaps each week we send a donation to a different Catholic charity for the time spent. If fasting from social media sounds too difficult, how about abstaining from the normal channels we follow and add some Catholic channels that will encourage us in our Lenten journey.

Lent is a time, not to give up, but to change our thinking. It’s a time to be conscious of what we are doing and saying. It’s a time to re-evaluate what’s truly important in our lives. It’s a time to add spiritual practices to our daily life, not just for the Lenten season, but as a challenge for us to see how our daily lives can be shaped to God’s will, and if we are open to incorporating a new practice. Ultimately, it’s a time to cleanse the surface litter in our lives and go deeper with our relationship with the Lord.

Shades of love

This past Sunday’s Gospel from Luke hit rather close to challenges I’m facing. “But rather, love your enemies and do good to them…” (Lk 6:35) But what exactly does it mean to love one’s enemies?

The Magnificat® had a wonderful reflection of the Gospel from Maria von Trapp (yes, that von Trapp who  inspired the Sound of Music). She talked about how one grows learning to love. First we love our parents and siblings. Then we learn to love our school and the friends we meet there. And as adults, the loves of our lives change yet again. “It is perfectly amazing how many shades of love move a human heart during one short life,” von Trapp writes. 

Love is a word that we, at least in the English speaking world, throw around way too often. I love my cat, Vera, but I also love chocolate, yet those loves are very different. Neither of these loves are the same as what I have for my family. I remember from my schooling days that the Greek language had three different words for love: eros, philia, and agape. Eros is used for romantic love, philia is for friendship, and both have an aspect of self-interest. Agape is the odd one out; it stands for the kind of love that is self-sacrificing. 

Of course,I don’t want to have enemies, but if there is friction in a relationship, I think it’s safe to say that we need to take extra care. While another may not perceive us as an enemy, when a verbal argument is launched, it’s very hard not to immediately respond in defense of ourselves but Jesus is calling us to do that and more. I don’t think His directive on loving our enemies is limited to just doing good for them. In fact it’s the whole last portion of the Gospel: stop judging, stop condemning, forgive, and give gifts. When others want to pick a fight with us, it seems impossible for us to do what God is calling us to do. Here we fall into the pit of pride, thinking that we, all by ourselves, need to deal with the issue. We forget to lean into God, asking Him to help us to forgive, to turn judgment over to Him, and to walk the path He wants us to walk. 

Unemotional is a word von Trapp used to describe the love for our enemies but I’m not sure I agree with that assessment. While our initial reaction can be highly charged with emotion, letting God in to help us in a confrontation will cause the emotional surge to change from anger to peace. We will cease calling them enemies and instead see them as fellow children of God, to be treated with dignity and respect. I do agree that loving our enemies is not a feeling, but rather an act of the will: specifically ours and God’s. Perhaps this is why God allows these challenges in our lives, so that we can become closer to Him and be more like Him. 

Lastly, agape is the  kind of love that all Catholics, all Christians, are called to love the whole of mankind. Let us pray for God’s assistance so that we can change our hearts, and perhaps make the lives of those we interact with just a bit better. 

Dignity for the image of God

All people have been created by God in His image and likeness and if we truly believe this, we have the obligation to treat everyone with dignity. While doing research on the corporal works of mercy, I realized that so many of them have to do with treating others with dignity: the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the imprisoned. 

Since most of us have experienced sickness to some degree, it is very easy for us to agree, and even champion for, treating the sick with respect and compassion. However, many have not experienced true poverty, and most have not been homeless or imprisoned, thus it is harder for us to put ourselves “in their shoes.” Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46) has made it abundantly clear that how we treat people will be the measure by which we are judged. 

I find it fascinating that giving food and drink are two separate commands. One would think that if I give food to the hungry, I will also be offering them something to drink. Yet each is a separate action. While these are two of the corporal works of mercy, perhaps some of the meanings transcend the literal meaning. What does a person thirst for besides water? Perhaps knowledge, justice, purpose, or God, and many of these alternate thirsts can be quenched within the spiritual works of mercy. 

In the version of the Bible I was using, one of the commands is to “welcome the stranger” but in lists I found online, this was often translated as shelter the homeless. Welcoming the stranger sounds much easier to do; even a shy person can gather enough courage to smile and say hello to someone they don’t know. But sheltering the homeless sounds much more intimidating, and much more costly of our time. It may cause us to go outside of our comfort zone. There are as many reasons that people find themselves homeless, and while we may feel secure in our homes, circumstances could turn against us and we could very easily find ourselves with nowhere to go. 

Perhaps the most challenging corporal work of mercy is visiting those in prison if we are unfortunate to have a friend or family member who has been incarcerated. However, it can be equated to visiting someone who is ill. And yet, for others visiting a prison is not merely stepping outside of our comfort zone, it’s more like being catapulted into an area that is downright terrifying. Could it be that the choices the prisoners have made thus far have been due to being treated with a lack of dignity and respect? If we were to participate in a prison ministry, could we give God the chance to show us Himself in these fellow human beings? 

With Lent coming up in a few short weeks, now is the time to refresh ourselves with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and see how we can challenge ourselves to give our time and resources to bring dignity to those who are suffering. Let us ask God what He wills for us; His answer may surprise you!

Cushion life

Sometimes my cat, Vera, reminds me of Jesus. Though I may be tired, upset, frustrated, angry, or any other emotion and when I look over at her, she’s asleep on a cushion. 

As I was reading an art essay in the February edition of the Magnificat® on The Miraculous Draught of Fishes by Peter Paul Rubens, I started to think about the times in the Gospel that places Jesus in a boat. Besides the one depicted in the painting, the first one that came to my mind was when the boat was sinking and the disciples had to wake Jesus up because he was sleeping through the storm that was about to sink the boat. The other instance that quickly came to mind was when he was walking on the water and intended to pass the boat by, but they thought he was a ghost and in an effort to prove he was not, Simon walked on water towards him. While we don’t have an exact record of every moment in Jesus’ life, I’m hoping the events that were recorded were due to the extraordinariness of what took place. It does make me wonder if these were the only events that took place at sea, or just the most amazing, or most repeated ones?

The essay prompted a deeper study of the painting. Much of the detail goes unobserved since I’m reviewing the copy that’s only as big as what fits into one page of the Magnificat®. The essay called out the movement of the fishermen and the strain on their muscles as they wrestled with the large catch. I began to think of the correlation of life without God’s presence or His guidance. We work so hard and while we may not strain our muscles, we do tire out without anything to show for it. Yet when we follow God’s direction, not only are we blessed, but we have to work harder than we can ever imagine. God’s blessing is so overwhelming, we can’t keep it to ourselves, we can’t even receive it all ourselves! We need to share it with others, ask others to help us with the blessings He’s given to us.

Even when we are following God’s guidance, there will be storms in our lives. We may wonder where God is, thinking He’s a ghost and passing us by or asleep while we live in terror and fear. All emotions have their purpose, but they are not meant to overcome us, but to instead caution us. Sometimes we need to step out of the boat into the tossing, stormy seas, and be bludgeoned by the wind. Yet if we keep our focus on Jesus and not the wildness of the elements around us, we too can walk on water. And for the times when we think Jesus is sleeping? He’s even more aware of what’s going on in our lives than Vera is of what’s going on around her as she’s sleeping. On occasion I may be able to leave Vera napping, but usually she knows when I leave the room and if she hears me elsewhere or I don’t come back to the room when she expects me, she will come and find me. Most times when I think she’s fast asleep and the moment I get up from my chair, her eyes pop open and she watches what I’m doing. If my cat does that for me, I know Jesus is many times more attentive to the details in my life. 

A life with Jesus doesn’t mean there won’t be any trouble or hard work. It means that when we pursue a relationship with Him, He will always be with us, supporting us through the wild storms of life and blessing us with the help we need to share His blessings to those in need. 

Clutter soul

It doesn’t matter how big, Jesus just needs an opening.

It’s been a challenging and overwhelming time at work. After a particular difficult Friday, I was disappointed that I had to schedule a meeting first thing on Monday to address some issues. It’s easy to say, “Leave it in God’s hands,” or, “Don’t think about it.” And I know worrying about it won’t make it any better; all it does is make me feel even more stressed. Yet even with that logic, I couldn’t let it go. I just kept turning it over in my mind, again and again all weekend long. I, who pray the Surrender Novena regularly, was having a hard time accepting this suffering.

Ever since I started the new job, there has been negativity towards the new application being implemented. Each time we reach a milestone, I think we finally have turned a corner and things will get better, only then to feel like the headwinds have increased to the next range on the hurricane scale. I was feeling very useless. My prayers were focused on being able to communicate better, to keep from seeing the naysayers as my enemies, and to help me forgive them of the hurt I was feeling from all the stress.

Upon awakening on Monday, dread filled my stomach; I was not looking forward to my first meeting. As I was asking for help, trying to turn it over to God, I felt like my soul was cluttered. I spent so much time worrying and rehearsing what I was going to say and the points I needed to make that there didn’t seem to be much room for anything else. Yet all Jesus needed was for me to recognize how much I needed Him and needed to open up to Him. If He could give sight to the blind, heal the lame, and bring the dead back to life, I believe He can take my cluttered soul and tidy it up. 

While the meeting was actually more pleasant than I anticipated, definitely far from perfect, but not the disaster I was expecting. The day still had a few rough spots in it.  Perhaps it will take a few more decades of me praying the Surrender Novena before I can confidently leave everything in the Lord’s capable hands. Maybe I should expect miracles to happen more often. What I do know is that God put me in this situation for a reason, not for punishment, but because I have gifts that can be of great benefit. I may not know while I’m in this position the specifics of God’s will, I know that as long as I lean on Him and ask for His grace and blessings, He will see me through, especially in the most trying of moments. 

Yes, my soul can get cluttered with me holding onto grievances and anxiety, yet God is always there to help me. It doesn’t mean He’ll make it all sunshine and roses, but it will be a bit brighter and convey His special peace.