Saturday, July 30, 2011

quick thoughts on Tobit

Recently in Adoration I've been flipping my Bible open to the book of Tobit. I guess it's been a while since I've read this book, because I was struck by what a great story it is, and how captivating. There's a lot of trial and tribulation for the main characters in the beginning of the book, and it sounds terribly similar to Job. But then this stranger, this angel, appears out of nowhere to intervene. Raphael explains at the end ("gloriously revealing the works of God") that he did not come as a favor of his own accord but because it was the will of God.

I think it's important to remember that when our novenas to various saints or other intercessory prayers are answered, it is not because God is bending His will to "do us a favor." He wants good things be heaped upon us, good measure, and flowing over. He loves us with a passionate, all-embracing, providential love and everything that happens in our lives is a manifestation of that love and is willed or permitted for our sanctification. It's a great mystery, and I would say a beautiful divine gift, that He allows our prayers to help in bringing that good that He wills for us all to fruition.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the phrase "God's will", because it can be touted so glibly as the one thing you need to figure out, after which all your problems will be solved. In the story of Tobit, God's will seemed to include both the trials that resulted from Tobit's good works, and the ending of those trials with the aid of the angel Raphael. Tobit couldn't act to bring about, or even figure out, this happy ending part of God's will. All he could do was try to be faithful, accept his suffering, send his son on a journey, and wait for the rest to unfold.

The other thing that struck me in the twelfth chapter of Tobit was the emphasis on praising God and declaring His works. It struck my attention because my meditation yesterday was about listening (stemming from the Gospel for St. Martha's feast day on Martha and Mary), and today's was all about speaking. It was a good reminder for me of the need for balance between listening and speaking in prayer. "Praise God, and give thanks to him in the presence of all the living for what he has done for you. It is good to praise God and to exalt his name, worthily declaring the works of God. Do not be slow to give him thanks" (Tob. 12:6).

That is my prayer for tonight, that I am never slow to praise Him and give Him thanks, for answered prayers and for unanswered ones, for the beauty of creation, for my daily bread, for all the wonderful people He has placed in my life, and for His own unfailing love.

Here's a great quote from Blessed John Paul II to end these thoughts: "In any case, in the path of love which life entails, always remember that above every love there is one Love. One Love. Love without constraint or hesitation. It is the love with which Christ loves each one of you."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

renunciation, part 2

I've always heard the word renunciation used in stories about saints who entered religious life (e.g. St. Francis of Assisi, who renounced everything, even the clothes on his back, to follow Christ). Renunciation, in this context seemed a heroic, almost glamorous word, but quite beyond anything I might practice in my humdrum single life. Thus realizing that I could renounce something in a pretty major way, i.e. renouncing, not simply my idea of how I was going to spend my Saturday afternoon, but my idea of how I was going to spend the rest of my life, was quite a revolutionary idea for me (see my previous entry for further details).

What is renunciation? First of all, renunciation implies ownership. To be able to renounce all his possessions and even his relationship with his family, St. Francis first had to be blessed with property and a family. To be able to renounce my love for my ex-boyfriend, I had to have previously called him mine. And this calling him mine was not a bad thing (though perhaps it happened rather too quickly in this particular case). This is going to sound trite, but God wants us to dream big dreams. I imagine when one of his children is falling in love, God wants to hear all about his or her hopes and dreams and plans for life with the beloved. God doesn't want us to hold no one dear anymore than he wants us all to live without personal possessions. The key is to be able to let go of the possessions or the dear one in the blink of an eye if that is what God should ask of us.

Secondly, renunciation implies accepting a change in our plans. In my parish's young adult fellowship group we were recently discussing the life of St. Anthony of the Desert. This amazing saint lived one of the most austere lives on record, subsisting for years on bread, water and salt, living in a cave in the desert. Yet he had had an unfulfilled plan for his life, too. He had desired above all things to be a martyr. But the Roman persecutions ended during the early part of his life, and he had to give up his desire to shed his blood for Christ. His ascetic way of life was his response, a kind of martyrdom of the spirit. I think that his faithfulness to the Lord in the face of this unfulfilled desire is what I found inspiring about his life. St. Anthony had a beautiful plan for his life, but wasn't afraid to drop the plan and make a new one when it became apparent that his plan wasn't going to work out. Instead of giving up on God or staying in Alexandria and sulking, he went off to the desert to live a life of austerity, inspiring countless others who later followed in his footsteps.

It can be a temptation in the face of continually having to give up our own plans simply not to make any plans. Perhaps this is a particular temptation for those who, like me, are living the single life. Many of us don't know for sure what permanent vocation (if any) we will be called to embrace. We've been through many disappointments and our dreams seem like they will never come true. But we need to trust the Lord and keep dreaming them.

I'm well aware that we're only human. We're probably not going to be ready to embark on a new adventure immediately after our previous adventure has been brought to an inglorious end. The Lord doesn't expect us to find a new love immediately after an old love has been snatched away. But he does expect us to be faithful and pray to the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete who is ever at our side, for his guiding help and inspiration.

It is in our nature to make plans. It is supernatural to be able to give up our plans in favor of God's and not to lose courage in the grating process of continually having to make new plans.

"We have to learn therefore to have a will of our own and then to surrender it. To make plans and while doing so let go of the plan. The ultimate meaning is found, not in the plan, but in the obedience" (Adrienne von Speyr, The Passion From Within).

renunciation vs. resignation

While experiencing major heartache after a breakup a year and a half ago or so, I remember striving hard to feel resigned to God's will. But it seemed an impossible task. Everything had seemed so right, and I felt strongly that there had been some horrible mistake, either with God or with this guy. A lot of my prayer time was taking up with telling God how I felt about all this. But I would always strive to end my prayer by resigning myself to God's will -- "not my will, but Yours be done". I'm sure this attempt was valuable in the Lord's eyes, but it didn't feel very effective at the time.

Then one day, feeling at my wit's end with my self-pitying, confused, miserable broken heart and asking God what I could possibly do attain the resignation I was seeking, the word renunciation popped into my head. Perhaps it's only a slight nuance to think of renunciation rather than resignation. But it made a big difference to me to think about "renouncing" this guy and the love I had felt for him and simply being "resigned" to circumstances beyond my control. I felt like I was finally taking an active step to regaining ownership of my heart. Rather than simply saying "your will be done", I was spelling it out to God: I do not want this path if You don't want this path for me and I hereby renounce it. In my mind, I was taking this dream I had conjured up of my life with this guy and pushing it away. It was not the final step in the healing of my heart, but it was very helpful.

There is something in the human spirit that rebels against the idea of mere resignation to circumstance. William Ernest Henley, the author of the poem "Invictus," seems to be crying out against resignation when he says: "In the fell clutch of circumstance / I have not winced nor cried aloud. / Under the bludgeonings of chance / My head is bloody, but unbowed."

But knowing that a loving God is behind the seemingly mysterious twists and turns of fortune makes all the difference. As Christians, we aren't being called upon to be resigned to mere circumstance or dumb chance, but actively to place our wills in the hands of a loving Father. Dorothy Day wrote a superb, line by line, response to "Invictus" which she entitled "My Captain". I will quote the corresponding passage here: "Since His the sway of circumstance, / I would not wince nor cry aloud. / Under that rule which men call chance / My head with joy is humbly bowed."

Don't get me wrong, I think there's a definite good being conveyed when we talk of being resigned to God's will. But the concept of renunciation has been so much more helpful for me in my ongoing attempt to surrender myself to the Lord. To me it makes all the difference between the idea of grudgingly accepting the trials that God allows and embracing the trials as they come. For only once I renounce my own plans can I go forward to embrace what God is presenting to me. And as the Lord reminds us in John's Gospel, He has not called us slaves, but friends. "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I make known to you" (Jn. 15:15)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

drastic action

Are you ever tempted to take drastic action, any kind of action, just to break the monotony of your life? Let's face it, the single life is sometimes a dreary struggle to be content and I don't always win the struggle. Sometimes I wonder whether there is something that I'm supposed to be doing that I've been ignoring. Sometimes I get so sick of the status quo that I think about quitting my job, moving across the country, being a missionary, anything as long as it's drastic.

This attitude of mine has been responsible for some wonderful experiences, such as the five months that I spent living in a trailer and working on an organic farm last summer. This desire for change can be rooted in a real need for change in one's life, and sometimes the Lord asks us to put out into the deep in a radical way. Sometimes, however, at least in my case, this desire for change is just a tactic the devil uses to sow discontent in my life.

In my prayer this spring I've been getting the sense that I need to stay put right now. It has been a struggle for me not to compare my life to friends of mine who are embarking on new adventures.

A week or two ago, I opened my Bible to this passage from Lamentations: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness" (Lam. 3: 22-23). The Lord seemed to be speaking directly to my heart. Perhaps Jesus is asking me to let Him make every day new and exciting. Perhaps I unintentionally hurt Him when I seek excitement and fulfillment from mere outward change. Do I doubt his faithfulness or his mercy in my life? Change of scenery, new work, or new relationships can never compete with the dynamic love of my Lord.

The passage continues: "'The Lord is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in him.' The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth" (Lam. 3:24-27). More pertinent advice I could not have found if I had been searching for it. So my prayer right now is that I leave the drastic action to the Lord and learn to wait quietly while seeking and hoping in Him. He makes all things new.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

stiff necks

Today's first reading from Jeremiah describes the Israelites' response to God's commands: "They obeyed not, nor did they pay heed. They walked in the hardness of their evil hearts and turned their backs, not their faces, to me. From the day that your fathers left the land of Egypt even to this day, I have sent you untiringly all my servants the prophets. Yet they have not obeyed me nor paid heed; they have stiffened their necks and done worse than their fathers" (Jer. 7: 25-26). Over and over in the Pentateuch, the Lord uses this peculiar epithet, stiff-necked, for the children of Israel. It means something along the lines of stubborn or obstinate.

Today this passage struck me because I have a very stiff neck right now. (I'm not really sure why, but think it has something to do with jumping on a trampoline.) Anyway, it just occurred to me to ask: what is so bad about having a stiff neck? After all, we're also called to walk the straight and narrow, and to look neither to the left nor to the right.

Perhaps this psalm provides an answer: "To thee I lift up my eyes, O thou who art enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he have mercy upon us" (Ps. 123:1-2). With a neck which is spiritually stiff, we're unable to raise our eyes to heaven and keep them fixed faithfully on the Lord.

Conversely, we're also called to bear the yoke of the Lord and to bend ourselves to his will. Perhaps this sounds like it would result in a stiff neck rather than being the cure for a stiff neck, but I think not. After all, the Lord is the one who fashioned our necks, and indeed our whole body and soul. Surely then He knows best how to keep our necks in good working order. They need to be pliable and supple enough to do His will as it is revealed to us in every moment, rather than stubbornly insisting on our own will.

And if I do my spiritual exercises every day and alternate raising my eyes to the Lord and bowing submissively before him, perhaps I won't be able to complain about my stiff neck anymore.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Catholic + single + Lent

I just entered the following in a contest on Catholic Match:

I used to feel an impulse at the beginning of every Lent to make close to a dozen Lenten resolutions. Of course, I would never end up keeping them all, but I am an ambitious perfectionist, and I would always think . . . maybe this Lent will be the time I finally succeed in getting everything right. And behind that desire there was sometimes this sneaking thought: Maybe once I correct all these faults, God will finally reward me with the man of my dreams.

The problem with that attitude is not just that it is impractical, but that it is self-centered. Lent is supposed to be about me turning toward God in a more radical way, not me making myself the holiest woman on Catholic Match.

An insightful priest once informed me that singles have a very hard life. I had gone to him for advice on how to handle the emptiness I was feeling. Well, yes, I thought, sometimes I am lonely and discouraged, but look at all the extra free time I have compared to those that are raising families. Shouldn’t I be doing more? Praying for three hours every day? Volunteering? No, he told me, the Lord was asking me, not to do more, but to let Him do everything with me.

This year, I’ll still be making a Lenten plan. To let the Lord in, I need to spend some solid time in prayer every day. I may still give up chocolate and try to be reminded of how my desire for the Lord should be even stronger than my sugar cravings. But the best mortification is surely to accept my singleness with trust and live my daily life in His company, embracing all the crosses that come my way unsought.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

to the heights

I had the opportunity to take an indoor rock climbing class recently. I had done it in high school at an adventure camp and loved the mental and physical challenge of climbing. Then, I had been belayed by a professional, but in this class, I had to learn how to belay before I could climb. I went with my sister, so after having everything explained and demonstrated, we paired up to take turns belaying and climbing. I climbed first, and had no problem trusting that my sister would do everything right. But I was much more trepidatious when it came time to take my turn belaying. Our instructor checked all our equipment and our knots, and my sister and I double checked each other, but when the moment came to give her permission to climb ("climb on"), I was really scared. What if I didn't take up the slack fast enough? What if I let something the rope slip through my fingers?

I think there is an analogy to the spiritual life here beyond the obvious one of trust. That evening, I was responsible in a concrete, physical way for my sister's life. But I bear responsibility for the lives of those around me at all times. We are all our brothers and sisters' keepers. It can be scary to think about our responsibility for the souls of others (especially when we think about Our Lord's words: to whom much is given, much will be expected). But I know that Our Lord is there to give me courage if I but turn to Him to ask for it.

I was on retreat recently, and found a beautiful holy card of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. Here is the prayer on the back, which I think relates to this discussion:

Heavenly Father,
Give me the courage to strive for the highest goals,
to flee everything temptation to be mediocre.
Enable me to aspire to greatness,
as Pier Giorgio did,
and to open my heart with joy to Your call to holiness.
Free me from the fear of failure.
I want to be, Lord, firmly and forever united to You.
Grant me the graces I ask You through Pier Giorgio's intercession,
by the merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

responding to His invitation

This morning was just one of those mornings. I woke without enough time to eat or even shower before Mass, and rushed out of the house. I made it to the Shrine in time to go to confession before Mass, but my mind and heart didn't feel very reconciled to the Lord. Mass started, and while part of me was praying, my full attention definitely wasn't on the Word being proclaimed and the Sacrifice taking place before my eyes. On my mind were all the things I had committed to do today, various other things I felt I ought to do today, and a creeping anxiousness wondering how was I going to find time for all the things I wanted to do today.

"Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while" (Mk. 6:31). The words from today's Gospel didn't really penetrate my heart until after Mass was over. I took myself off to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, opened up my Magnificat and suddenly realized that Our Lord had spoken those words to me. I had gone to a quiet place to be with the Lord without even realizing that I was responding to His invitation.

There's a real temptation in "the spiritual life" to focus too much on oneself. Have I prayed enough today? Do I feel rejuvenated now? Do I do enough good works? Do I give enough of my money to the Church? At least, this is true for me. When things are going well in my spiritual life, I feel proud of myself and like I've finally got everything all figured out. When I don't spend enough time in prayer and my sins rise up before me, I become mightily discouraged.

Lord Jesus, I think that I should think of our relationship, rather than my spiritual life. Help me to keep my eyes fixed on You. Then, rather than being discouraged with myself when I fall, I will see only the burning love in Your eyes. Love strong enough to purify my faults and forgive my sins tender enough to invite me to be with You even when I'm tired and cranky.

"Lord Jesus I can rest on Thy Heart, for it belongs to me." -- St. Therese

Saturday, January 29, 2011

what is a child? part 1

In the last few weeks I have opened again and again to one of the three synoptic passages where Jesus speaks about children. This passage in particular struck me: "Calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, 'Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven'" (Matt. 18:2-4).

Jesus seems to imply that becoming like a child is a bit of a difficult prospect, involving conscious effort ("unless you turn and become like little children"). This is strange. We've all been children, right? How hard can it be? Ultimately, of course, becoming like a child will make things easier for us; indeed, St. Therese's Little Way is ease and simplicity itself (make yourself as little as you can, admit your dependence on God, and He will do all the work that needs to be done in your soul). But the process of becoming like a child, making ourselves little can be difficult in practice.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, in the last few weeks I have also started a new job, as an assistant in a Montessori classroom for six to nine-year-olds. I've spent a lot of time around my kids throughout my life (being the oldest of five myself), but it has been a while since I have had the opportunity for daily interaction with this age group. This definitely seems like the perfect time in my life to engage more fully the question: what are children like and how can I become more like a child? I thought I would focus on one attribute per post for the next few weeks. (As a side note, this question is one which Maria Montessori grappled with and her insights on the nature of children inform the philosophy behind her system of education. I am eager to learn more of what she has to say on the topic, but for now, I'm simply going on my own observations).

The first thing that strikes me is their boundless energy which is in evidence from the moment they enter the classroom at 8:30 in the morning. This energy level is particularly in evidence to me because it is my job to keep it at least partially in check. The children are taught to keep their bodies quiet and modulate their voices, to care for the materials that they use, to keep their conversation related to the work at hand. When they feel that they can't concentrate or can't keep their body still, they can ask permission to water the classroom plants, run an errand to the office, visit the school "sensory room", or even walk or kick a ball in the hallway. That's the goal, anyway. They forget or ignore the rules a lot, so it is my job to remind them. Though their energy level can sometimes get out of hand, it is a joy to see the enthusiasm that they put into their word.

At recess, the energy that is somewhat channeled and focused in the classroom is unbridled for all the world to see. The children are enthusiastic just to be able to move. None of the children stays in the same place for more than a few minutes. Even children who complain about having to go outside soon leave their moping and start chasing or being chased or simply spinning in circles for the sheer joy of moving.

I do not often have energy like that. I do not often want to get out of bed in the morning when my alarm goes off (especially this time of year). Perhaps if I had a consistent bed time like these children do, it would be a little easier. Montessori education works to make sure the children are offered work that corresponds to their level of development and can engage their whole attention. Perhaps if I set aside more time in my life to pursue things that engage my interests, I would be more like these children, energetic and full of life.

"I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn. 10:10).

Monday, January 24, 2011


I've always been partial to the word Alleluia. I love spelling it, I love saying it, and most of all, I love singing it and hearing it sung. (For the record, though, I'm not a fan of using it in conversation in place of "awesome" or "cool".) It is a real penance for me to go without saying it during the six weeks of Lent. I have observed that if a song contains the word alleluia, it is an almost sure bet that I will love it. From my childhood love of the Handel's Hallelujah Chorus and the nuns' Alleluia chorus in The Sound of Music, to Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" (my favorite piece in college), to a more recent discovery called "Glory Bound" by the Wailin Jennys, many of my favorite pieces of music contain the "A" word.

Yesterday, I was at a benefit concert for my school, and I heard a piece of music performed that takes the cake. It is one of the most moving and beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard, yet it consists of only a single word: Alleluia. Yet the composer makes this one word do so much. It conveys sorrow, hope in the midst of suffering, peace, acceptance, gratitude.

"Alleluia" was written by American composer Randall Thompson (1899-1984) in 1940. The group I heard perform it mentioned that I was written during World War II and that the composer wanted to convey the reality of the suffering throughout the world at that time. I found an except from an article in Harvard Magazine which gives a little more background on the piece: "The anthem’s tempo mark of lento was very important to the composer. France had just fallen to the Nazis, and Thompson later explained, "The music in my particular Alleluia cannot be made to sound joyous…here it is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’"

It is a subdued piece of music, not the kind of thing you'd expect to hear on Easter Sunday, for example. Yet I would argue that it conveys the fullness of the Paschal Mystery. Towards the end, joy and excitement enter in, the pace picks up, only to slow again in a beautiful, hushed close. The triumph of Christ's Resurrection doesn't mean that we forget the depths of suffering which He underwent for our salvation. We should no more forget what hundreds of thousands suffered during World War II and other great tragedies, our own suffering or that of our loved ones, than we should forget what Christ suffered for our sake. But I think this piece of music is a great reminder that with Christ, we never have to suffer alone. He will bring us through all the suffering this life entails to a place of peace if we only allow Him to lead us there.

Perhaps part of the reason I so love the word Alleluia is that it is at least partially untranslatable. I don't totally know what I am saying when I say alleluia. Often when I experience deep joy or deep sorrow, I am at a loss for words. Alleluia is a great word when there are no words. As Christians, we are called to sorrow and to joy in suffering. As Christians, we are called to say alleluia.

Here is a link to the best recording I could find on youtube. It is sung by the South Dakota State University Concert Choir. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

hard sayings

I am sometimes one of those disciples who finds Jesus' sayings (and doings) hard to deal with (cf. Jn. 6:60). Tonight I was reading the passage in Mark (Mk. 5:1-13) about Jesus casting the legion of unclean spirits out of the possessed man. The question that vexed me was why Jesus agreed with the request of the unclean spirits not to send them out of the country, and then gave them leave to enter the herd of swine. I certainly would have been a little angry if I were one of the swineherds who lost two thousand animals at a single blow. I am sure that there is some great biblical commentary that would shed some light on this passage, but you have to admit, it seems a little strange. You hardly blame the surrounding villagers for asking Jesus please to leave their neighborhood.

The footnote to the story is a little hard to take, too. As Jesus is taking his leave of their neighborhood, the cleansed demoniac begs Jesus that he might get into the boat and accompany him. The burning desire of his heart is simply to be the one who has freed him from his enslavement. Surely that is a noble desire, one that Jesus' heart would long to grant? But, no. "He refused and said to him, 'Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you" (Mk. 5:19). Granted, I'm sure the change of seeing this man "clothed and in his right mind", instead of foaming at the mouth and being thrown around by demons, was a great witness to the man's friends and family. And I'm sure that he ultimately found great joy in proclaiming the Lord and his mercies in his own neighborhood. But in that moment, I'm sure it was very hard for him to understand why he was being refused.

I often wish feel that my way is unclear and wish that Jesus would speak to me, enlighten me, guide me, more directly. Interesting, then, to note that during the time He walked this earth, Jesus' words were not always clear, His guidance not always easy to take. Indeed, earlier in Mark's gospel, Our Lord explains that he teaches in parables to the people "so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven" (Mk. 4:12). Hard words, indeed.

I do not have an explanation for all of these hard words tonight, but simply thought it worth noting that they are there. The Lord's ways are mysterious and He is sometimes confusing. His will for us may be different than we would have it, but there it is. He has always been a sign of contradiction, perhaps especially when He walked and talked on this earth. The disciples didn't like it when he predicted His passion and death, anymore than we like it when we are reminded to offering our sufferings up in union with His. Yet in this sign is our salvation. By his holy cross, He has redeemed the world.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

walking in the dark

There is a big emphasis in the post-Christmas readings from 1 John on walking in the light. "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 Jn. 1:7). And again: "He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes" (1 Jn. 2:10-11). This is a beautiful meditation but for me can be a little disheartening. I don't hate my brother, but I often feel that my way is dark and I don't know which path I should take. What am I doing wrong that I don't see this light which is surrounding me?

I'm sure that my sins create some of the darkness in my life, but some of it is simply a cloud of unknowing. After all, we who are still journeying don't yet see God face to face, so it makes sense that we wouldn't see the way to Him perfectly clearly at all times. "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12). It's scary for me at times to act without a clear idea of what I'm doing. However, I know that I'm in good company.

I just discovered a little postlude to the story of the multiplication of the loaves in John's Gospel. In order to prevent people from taking him away by force and making him king, Jesus had withdrawn to the hills by himself. The disciples must have been confused what to do, where to spend the night. There may have been some heated discussion. Should they sleep out in the open? Look for lodging? Go looking for Jesus? Take the twelve baskets of leftover bread and find hungry people to give it to? It definitely doesn't sound like Jesus had left them with any instructions. The passage reads: "When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark and Jesus had not yet come to them" (Jn. 6: 16).

Let's recap: 1) It was dark, 2) Jesus could not to be found to tell them what to do. Exactly the situation I find myself in so often. In the end, His disciples decide to Jesus behind on the far side of the lake, seemingly stranded. Yet I think this was actually a beautiful act of trust on their part. They chose to believe that Jesus could arrange things perfectly, whatever they did. And Jesus' response is not to rebuke them for leaving him behind, but rather to reward their act of trust. To continue the passage: "The sea rose because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened, but he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going" (Jn. 6:18-21).

So perhaps we can also learn to believe that Jesus can accomplish His will in spite of, yet perhaps somehow because of, our ignorant actions. After all, we are seldom in a situation where the right course of action is simply to do nothing. We, like the disciples, have to sleep somewhere. Jesus will always reward us for taking steps toward Him in the dark. His timing is mysterious, but we must not lose hope. "The men signed with the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark" (Chesterton, The Balled of the White Horse). We must use His gift of reason, make a prayerful decision, and act to the best of our ability. And He will enter in and meet us where our own feet have taken us.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

duc in altum

Every year, I also have an extensive list of possible New Year's resolutions. Ditto with Lenten resolutions, Advent resolutions, etc. It is sometimes discouraging to make these lists. I look at my life and feel that I want to reform everything all at once. Then this list of everything I need to do to change about my life seems too hard and I get overwhelmed. It's impossible, I think, so I might as well just stick with status quo. I waffle between these two extremes. Or I remember advice I've received in the past that I should just make one resolution and keep it well. But how to choose? So many of the things I want to be faithful to are interconnected and I can't decide which is the most important. The whole thing can be a miserable, vicious cycle.

And I was depressed until I came across this beautiful passage in a book of homilies by Fr. McLean Cummings called Making God the Joy of Our Soul. He focuses on the phrase duc in altum, Christ's words to the Apostles who had been fishing all night without catching anything. Fr. Cummings speaks of people who come to him discouraged with their failures and ready to give up. They say to him: "I keep confessing the same sins, I get distracted when I pray. I'm always tempted. So I've packed in the nets, after laboring all night in vain. No! There's Jesus who says: Don't pack it in! Put out into the deep! Go farther than you've ever gone before. With no rational hope of succeeding, but only trusting in Me, you will make progress. You will."

He continues: "Altum means not only deep but also high. So, 'duc in altum' might also be translated "set out for the heights". In a spiritual reading of Christ's words, then, his message might well be for Peter and for us to set our sights high, to be ambitious for the best in life. . . . We must not fear failure, or effort, or sacrifice, or great odds, or past sins, or all these things we are more than conquerors in Him who loves us."

John Paul II says in Novo Millennio Ineunte: "Duc in altum! These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."

A beautiful thought for the beginning of a new year. It is encouraging for me to think that Christ wants me to set my sights high. He wants me to make resolutions and look to Him for the strength to keep them. Will I fail? Of course I will. But I can conquer even through my failure if I offer it to Him and get back on my feet with His help.

One of my resolutions is to post at least weekly on here. It seems a tall order when my last post was over six months ago. But I know sharing my thoughts like this is something I want to do and it will make me happy. So I'm putting out into the deep.