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I was in high school when Pope John Paul II was elected to the pontificate. I grew up in a very nominalist Catholic family, raised by my divorced father and step-mother. I was intrigued by the papal election process, and I became captivated when JPII spoke. His smile melted me; the way he went out of his way to kiss and bless babies dissolved me. His love and courage never faltered, and his intellect dazzled me.

As I look back on my growing up years, I can trace a longing which simmered for many years but which bubbled up more palpably during JPII’s reign. I have fragments of memories when I was upset and rode my bike to the local parish, sad when the priest walked by me without asking what I might need. I have more dim memories of riding my bike to a local convent and praying in their chapel. I always felt self-conscious in church because I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know the order of the Mass and was shaky in my prayers, other than the few my grandmother taught me at home. The Church was a solid presence, but it seemed out of reach to me — an elusive mystery whose secrets were unknown.

But when JPII emerged, his work kept bursting through my ignorance. I went off to college; and, as a political science and journalism major, I read newspapers voraciously. I started seeing the threads JPII was weaving throughout the world — his impact on the worker’s Solidarity movement in Poland, his impact on felling the Iron Curtain, the emergence of democracies in Eastern Europe, and his countless outreach efforts toward the youth. The earthly impact of his messages first attracted me, but I started seeing that some invisible threads connected all these events. The assassination attempt against the Pope and his miraculous survival tugged at my heart. Throughout my youth, the messages of JPII kept breaking through my wanderings.

In graduate school, my studies in political philosophy led me to study the Fathers of the Church. My philosophy studies in Hegel and Kant led me to explore the JPII’s unique personalist approach to understanding the dignity of the human person. God was touching my intellect to discover Truth. During this time period, I paid more attention to JPII’s writings. While JPII unabashedly named the evils of our age and the problems of human sin, JPII raised our thoughts further back to the creation — the place where we knew full dignity in our full communion with the Father who walked with us in the Garden in the cool of the evening. By drawing our focus to the best in our potential, JPII tapped my idealism and inspired my aspirations.

My journey home to Rome began with meeting my husband-to-be, who was discerning a call to the Episcopal priesthood at the time. My husband’s deep faith welded into my very heart the faith-driven influences converging in my life. My husband wooed me with Catholic hymns like, “Humbly I adore thee, verity unseen…” He spoke to me of going to visit JPII in Washington DC, with a group of Catholic-leaning Episcopalians to sing hymns to the Blessed Mother under the veranda where the Pope was staying.

Marriage and three children later brought us to a foundation-shaking moment. We missed little of what the Holy Father was doing and saying; and that solid foundation stood in dramatic contrast to the ever-faltering liberalization of the Episcopal Church. Many of our friends were fleeing the Church, and some encouraged us to join the Orthodox Church. The Divine Liturgy drew us in by its reverence, just as the low, post-Vatican II Catholic liturgy left us feeling a sense of loss in reverential worship. Yet, the witness of JPII showed us that the Gospel call that “we all be one” points to unification in the descendants of Peter. We decided to swim the Tiber, and join scores of Episcopalians who have made the journey home.

As a mother, JPII taught me to pray as I work. He taught me that parents are the primary educators of their children, and we delegate this responsibility with grave trepidation. This led me on a 15 year homeschooling journey. He settled the philosophical contradictions in my education by heightening my realization that each relationship rooted in Christ remains in dialogue with the Trinity. He showed me that experience is an important element in faith formation, and reflection on each of our unique gifts and experiences extends His Story in this world. He taught me to “fear not!”

We are so blessed to live in an era of such saintly Popes — John Paul II, John XXIII, and our current Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. John Paul II’s over 25 year long pontificate marks an entire generation. I’m proud to be part of the JPII generation; and I attribute his witness to saving my life from youthful confusion and ignorance to fullness of communion in Holy Mother Church. St. John Paul II, pray for us!

Barbara

Posted by: liturgicalyear | April 18, 2014

The Juxtaposition of Christ’s Passion & the Divine Mercy Novena

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As we enter into the trauma of Christ’s passion, and experience the full realization that each of our failures in love joins the aggregate of sins that press the human life out of Jesus, the Church reminds us of our approach to Divine Mercy. We walk with Jesus this week in his agonies, his free choice to suffer beyond our imagination, as the sacrifice for our sins.

But, at the same time, we know that the blood and water that flowed from Jesus wounds not only heal us but open up a wellspring of mercy for our ongoing healing and transformation. The ocean of mercy that pours forth from Christ’s sacrifice forms a river that cleanses us and draws us on the divine current through the pathways of this earthly life toward our home in heaven.

The Church’s mysteries offer us a series of paradoxes — how is Christ’s passion “Good;” how can God be both three and one; how did Christ take on the sins of the whole world in the crucifixion and continue to do this as we keep sinning over time; how does the bread and wine become Christ’s body? As an English teacher, I love to explore literary paradoxes with my students, those seeming contradictions which reveal deeper truths. Christ’s passion and Divine Mercy, like the darkness that followed his death and the light that breaks through the Resurrection, stand as a beautiful paradox that offers deeper truths.

Divine Mercy Novena

Today begins the Novena to Divine Mercy, starting on Good Friday and ending on Divine Mercy Sunday. And this year, we welcome into the fullness of sainthood our beloved Pope John Paul II. What a perfect time to reflect on his encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy). The EWTN site has an easy to follow guide to the prayers and specified intentions for each day of the Divine Mercy Novena.

I particularly love the closing prayer:

Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion — inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.

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(St.) Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Rich in Mercy”

John Paul II first establishes the typological foundation of Christ’s mercy in the very act of Creation, through Old Testament references, to the incarnation and Christ’s teaching:

Christ confers on the whole of the Old Testament tradition about God’s mercy a definitive meaning. Not only does He speak of it and explain it by the use of comparisons and parables, but above all He Himself makes it incarnate and personifies it. He Himself, in a certain sense, is mercy. To the person who sees it in Him – and finds it in Him – God becomes “visible” in a particular way as the Father who is rich in mercy.

Christ’s mercy not only pours over us, but remakes us within. JPII says: “Christ Himself, who through His Spirit works within human hearts.” That inner working joins with the outpouring to embrace the world with God’s love.

Especially through His lifestyle and through His actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which we live – an effective love, a love that addresses itself to man and embraces everything that makes up his humanity. This love makes itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering, injustice and poverty – in contact with the whole historical “human condition,” which in various ways manifests man’s limitation and frailty, both physical and moral. It is precisely the mode and sphere in which love manifests itself that in biblical language is called “mercy.”

JPII wrote this encyclical especially to address the anxieties of the modern world. Divine Mercy is the precise antidote to anxiety. When we are anxious, we do not trust in God. We fear rather than accept suffering; we worry rather than remain confident in God’s omnipotence. If we know that “the gates of hell will not prevail,” then we must place our trust in God’s love which is infinite, constant and immeasurable.

We are also called to be merciful, to be imitators of that mercy which we constantly receive, and to share this with others. As Christ asserts in the Beatitudes so succinctly: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” There is an ongoing divine exchange when we live fully the promise of our Baptism.

JPII also reflects on the story of the Prodigal Son. When the father receives his repentant son back home with compassion, he expresses joy that his son has been restored to the fullness of his human dignity. He has repented and returned; he embraces the authority of his father and returns to unity with his family. This images the fullness of our communion with the Church. The key element here is recognizing that sin deprives us of our human dignity; healing returns us on the path to the full realization of our human dignity which is centered in our unity with Christ and Holy Mother Church. If God’s mercy restores us to dignity as children of God, then our work remains that of ongoing conversion.

Good Friday, according to JPII, reveals the role of suffering in the character of God’s mercy: “Christ undergoes the passion and cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a “superabundance” of justice, for the sins of man are “compensated for” by the sacrifice of the Man-God.” Christ’s sacrifice fulfills the demands of divine justice, as he takes away the sins of the world. Yet, the equation of justice is measured out in exponential love: “The divine dimension of redemption is put into effect not only by bringing justice to bear upon sin, but also by restoring to love that creative power in man thanks also which he once more has access to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God.” The net result is “fullness of life” on the path toward holiness that leads us to eternal life in heaven.

As you enter into the sad remembrance of Christ’s suffering and death this Good Friday, also pick up your Rosary beads and begin the Novena of Divine Mercy. This act reminds us of the “good” that breaks through the trauma of Good Friday.

Barbara

 

The Mass readings for the fourth Sunday in Lent align beautifully with insights from St. Theresa of Avila. The Church has placed these liturgical readings that emphasize on the inward movement of the spiritual life at such a critical moment in our Lenten journey. The Ash Wednesday readings started us on this journey inward by telling us to not be showy in our Lenten fasting and to pray to God in our closets. Today’s readings elaborate on why this inward journey is essential to our spiritual growth. St. Theresa of Avila also describes her spiritual journey inward in a selection from her autobiography, which this article includes.

Mass Readings 4th Sunday in Lent

The Old Testament reading begins with the Lord’s command for the prophet Samuel to go and find the next king of the Jews. The Lord warns Samuel not to be deceived by appearances:

“Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.” (1 Samuel 16: 6-7, 10-13)

In guiding Samuel to be wary of those who are prominent and look to the young son David who was small in stature and reeked of shepherding, the Lord reminds us that he favors the meek and humble as agents for building the Kingdom. He also calls us to be skeptical of looking for truth in appearances, and to know that God sees directly into our hearts.

In today’s Epistle, the Lord reminds us of our journey into the light as the chosen people; and further, that God’s light shines with us:

“Brothers and sisters: You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth… [E]verything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light…Christ will give you light…” (Ephesians 5:8-14)

This passage assures us that the Lord of light has already transformed us. He shines a clear light into our world to help us discern truth from appearances, and he is the very light within us that transforms us within.

The Gospel reading today further reminds us that Jesus heals the blind; this is factually true for the man featured in this Gospel narrative, and this truth extends to us as well: “the works of God might be made visible through him.” (John 9:1-41) We do not know the means by which Christ uses his people to reveal his light. We are called to be the children of light in this world.

What better message for this moment in Lent? In our struggles to exercise Lenten discipline, and the attendant failures which humble us and help us grow as children of God, we are reminded that we must rely on the light God nourishes within us to see clearly and to act as his disciples in bringing light to all corners of darkness. Meanwhile it is God’s work within our hearts to enlightens us.

St. Teresa of Avila’s Journey Inward

In this passage of St. Theresa’s autobiography, she describes a critical juncture in her prayer life:

“I was so little able to put things before me by the help of my understanding, that, unless I saw a thing with my eyes, my imagination was of no use whatever. I could not do as others do, who can put matters before themselves so as to become thereby recollected. I was able to think of Christ only as man. But so it was; and I never could form any image of Him to myself, though I read much of His beauty, and looked at pictures of Him. I was like one who is blind, or in the dark, who, though speaking to a person present, and feeling his presence, because he knows for certain that he is present—I mean, that he understands him to be present, and believes it—yet does not see him…

“O my God, I amazed at the hardness of my heart amidst so many succours from Thee. I am filled with dread when I see how little I could do with myself, and how I was clogged, so that I could not resolve to give myself entirely to God. When I began to read [St. Augustine’s] Confessions, I thought I saw myself there described, and began to recommend myself greatly to this glorious Saint. When I came to his conversion, and read how he heard that voice in the garden, it seemed to me nothing less than that our Lord had uttered it for me: I felt so in my heart. I remained for some time lost in tears, in great inward affliction and distress…

“A desire to spend more time with Him began to grow within me” (Life of St. Theresa of Avila IX.7-10).

May we each journey with Samuel to discern beyond appearances, to recall that Christ shines his light within our hearts, and that he draws us ever deeper within to love him, know him, and serve him in this world and in the life to come.

Barbara

 

 

Posted by: liturgicalyear | March 22, 2014

The Prodigal Son Gospel: Placed at the Climax of Lent

Holy Mother Church places the well-known Gospel story of the Prodigal Son son (Luke:1-3, 11-32) near the mid-point of Lent to create a kind of climax for our Lenten journey. The son who used his freedom and gifts irresponsibly, squandered his inheritance of faith and material goods, reminds us that the cataclysmic consequences of sin lie one temptation away. The reminder of God’s constant presence, his waiting for our return, and his full forgiveness  before our repentance is the live-saving blessing of immeasurable expanse, one we have no right to deserve. Pure grace.

The Prodigal Son story helps us always in our own examination of conscience in three dimensions:

  • How have I have I demeaned my freedom? Ultimately, sin leads us to flounder and starve in the filth of a pig sty. In our personal sins, we identify with the Prodigal Son.

  • How have I responded to the needs and blessings of others? Have I been envious, judgmental — unloving? In these sins against others, we identify with the elder son.

  • How have I responded to those who come to me in forgiveness? Have I welcomed them with open arms, offered them my best to honor their dignity, forgiven them fully? In these sins, we are called to identify with the father. We are to offer our loving embrace to all.

The Prodigal Son story offers such comfort as we approach Our Lord through acts of repentance; we know his constancy and faithfulness. However, that story often haunts those of us who have a wayward child, one who has left the faith, squandered the greatest inheritance we promised them when we offered them back to God in baptism.

As a friend of mine reminded me, the point in the story we need to remember is that the Prodigal Son chose to return with a repentant heart, resolved to restore himself in full relationship with us in the faith. And so, many of us stand, like the father, with a door open, waiting and pouring our prayers beyond to pig sties unknown where our lost sheep may be mired. Ultimately our love wait until the lost one repents and returns, uses his freedom to honor his God-given dignity.  All we can offer through that open door are our prayers, and trust in hope that the Great Shepherd will not stop searching until the lost lamb is found and restored to fullness.

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Henri Nowen, in his book, The Prodigal Son: The Story of Homecoming, reflected on Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. This excerpt from his book moves me in this three-dimensional Lenten examination of conscience:

“I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere? Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a child of God, the Beloved of my Father? I am constantly surprised at how I keep taking the gifts God has given me — my health, my intellectual and emotional gifts — and keep using them to impress people, receive affirmation and praise, and compete for rewards, instead of developing them for the glory of God.

“The prodigal son’s ‘No’ reflects Adam’s original rebellion: his rejection of the God in whose love we are created and by whose love we are sustained. It is the rebellion that places me outside the garden, out of reach of the tree of life. It is the rebellion that makes me dissipate myself in a ‘distant country.

“Looking again at Rembrandt’s portrayal of the return of the younger son, I now see how much more is taking place than a mere compassionate gesture toward a wayward child. The great event I see is the end of the great rebellion. The rebellion of Adam and all his descendants is forgiven, and the original blessing by which Adam received everlasting life is restored.

“It seems to me now that these hands have always been stretched out — even when there were no shoulders upon which to rest them. God has never pulled back his arms, never withheld his blessing, never stopped considering his son the Beloved One. But the Father couldn’t compel his son to stay home. He couldn’t force his love on the Beloved. He had to let him go in freedom, even though he knew the pain it would cause both his son and himself.

“It was love itself that prevented him from keeping his son home at all cost. It was love itself that allowed him to let his son find his own life, even with the risk of losing it.

“Here the mystery of my life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. The blessing is there from the beginning. I have left it and keep on leaving it. But the Father is always looking for me with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’ “

Barbara

In today’s Mass readings, we are reminded of what it means to be God’s chosen, and we are challenged to develop spiritual perfection. These themes align directly with our spiritual reading of ‘The First Dwelling’ in St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle.

Our Calling

In today’s Old Testament passage (Deuteronomy 26:16-19), we are reminded that in following the commandments you must “observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.” Further, we are reminded to “walk in his ways…and to hearken to his voice.” We “are a people particularly his own.” In choosing these selections, I’ve emphasized the inward dimensions to our call. In observing the commandments, we cannot become robots outwardly observing in form; we must become inwardly captivated to give our whole heart in loving obedience.

The Gospel reading today (Matthew 5:43-48) goes further, by challenging us to look deeply beyond the principles of measured justice to full abandonment to “love your enemies…[and] pray for those who persecute you.” When the Lord challenges us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” this seems like we are set up to strive for a goal impossible to achieve. Yet, the solution lies not simply in our ongoing outward efforts but in humble awareness that God must transform us from within. It is that inward perfection in love that calls us toward a deepening connection to our Lord and more faithful service to others.

St. Teresa of Avila’s ‘First Dwelling’ of The Interior Castle

St. Teresa leads the reader through dangers as she guides us to take our first step inward into the “First Dwelling” of our Interior Castle — the movement inward towards direct encounter with the divine. When she describes the soul as “a castle made of clear crystal,” she notes that there are many facets and layers of the soul. Our journey inward is neither easy nor without dangers.

As we take our first step inward, St. Teresa emphasizes a dual set of dangers. Our sins create dark splotches on that crystal castles so that we cannot see inwardly to the divine. These spots must be cleansed by confession and penance. In addition, there are serpents, lizards and reptiles that sneak in when we begin our inward journey. These creatures personify evil forces trying to deter us in the spiritual journey.

In addition, St. Teresa emphasizes that our own worldly distractions imperil us. She emphasizes that the attachment to “the things of this world” are not inherently evil, but they create blinders that further prevent us from seeing through the clear crystal of our interior lives into our connection to God. St. Teresa clarifies our nature in a distracted state:

It is not that the soul is in a wicked state. It is that she is still so immersed in the things of this world, still caught up in possessions or honor or business affairs, that even though she may long to gaze upon the beauty of the interior castle, all those attachments distract her from doing so (49-50).

St. Teresa clarifies that the journey to our first step (‘First Dwelling’) inward toward the interior castle, requires soul-cleansing and the redirection of our attentions away from outward foci toward an inward focus. She also reminds us that we face the greatest danger from demons in these initial steps inward.

St. Teresa of Avila on Perfection

St. Teresa clarifies that our prayer should focus not only on spiritual protection but especially on God’s gift of internal freedom. Her words are very specific in directing our focus:

Because of our imperfections, many of us who have been blessed by God fall back into a wretched state. We may live free from certain external involvements, but may God please grant us internal freedom as well! Guard yourself, my friends, against matters beyond your control (50).

Teresa’s emphasis on worldly distractions speaks directly to me. Of course, any woman working and managing a family necessarily faces worldly distractions, but the challenge is to cultivate our connection to God inwardly to transform and free us within. This takes a less outwardly active and more inwardly attentive orientation.

Ultimately this renewed focus requires humility and attunes us to our dependence on God. Teresa talks about what a woman she knows first discovered through this inward-turning process:

[S]he discovered a mirror for humility inside herself which reflected the truth that none of our good works has its source in ourselves but flow instead from the sacred spring where this tree that is the soul is planted and in the divine sun that gives warmth to everything we do (43).

Lenten blessings on your progress in humility and spiritual awakening this Lent!

Barbara

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