Sunday, May 27, 2012

Speaking His Language

My grandmother's favorite saint was Peter. His foibles were endearing to her and also encouraging: even the first Pope had his shortcomings, yet look what God did through him.
     Being less wise and less humble, when I was a kid I used to think that the disciples were rather dense, particularly Peter, who was irritatingly brash into the bargain.
     Today's First Reading, from Acts, shows how right Grandma was. Here we see the disciples going out into the streets of Jerusalem, praising God in several languages. Then Peter gives an impromptu speech and converts 3,000 people on the spot. Is this the same fellow who denied Jesus and later spent a lot of time hiding out in the Upper Room?
     It's easy to scoff at the disciples for sitting around in that room for nine days after the Ascension, right after Jesus had commissioned them to go out into the whole world and make disciples of all nations. What a great way to start.
      We need to be fair though. After all, He did tell them to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit decided to wait nine days, what could they do about it?
      And what about us? Finding fault with the disciples is like critiquing professional athletes—as if we could do so much better in their place. While the vast majority of us could never play professional sports, evangelization is a different story. That same commission—along with the Gospel—has been handed down to us: “Freely you have received, now freely give,” Jesus said. Too many Christians are unaware or unwilling to face the fact that each of us is also called to spread the Good News.
      Now we understand the disciples' dilemma: how do you start? What do you say? Are we supposed to go out into the streets and preach too?
      Usually not. But if we open ourselves to God's work and His call, He will use us. We just need to be ourselves, authentic followers of Christ.
      When I was first out of college, I worked as a secretary in a corporate office. I used to relieve the receptionist during her lunch hour, and was allowed to read when it was quiet. I had the idea of bringing a spiritual book I was reading entitled Abandon Yourselves Totally to Me, but I was too chicken at first. Then I did bring it, but quickly put it face down when any of my co-workers walked through the reception area. But recalling that Christ warned that if I was ashamed of Him, He'd be ashamed of me before the Father, I stopped hiding the title.
     That little act—reading a spiritual book in public—was all God needed. I didn't have to brandish it around or bring it up in conversation. I just had to sit there and read. Three of my co-workers separately asked me what I was reading, and it opened a door: each of them started sitting down in the waiting room and talking about spiritual things with me. Two of them were searching and asked a lot of questions. One time, to my amusement, while one was talking with me, the other happened to walk through, and the first quickly shut up, not knowing that the other had been talking God with me not long before.
     A much more dramatic instance happened in New York. The whole office was aware that a certain co-worker was a Christian, and quite a few gave him some grief about it. That changed the day a jet crashed into their building and exploded some floors below them. Their exit was cut off. There was no escape, only certain death. Many of them turned to the Christian who had been brave enough to be himself despite their ridicule. As he told his wife when he called to say good-bye, he was able to lead them in prayer, preparing them to meet their Maker.

Often the biggest obstacle is not knowing what to say. But Christ told us not worry about that but to rely on the Spirit to give us the words. 
     A college friend made a big impact on my spiritual life by an offhand remark that I actually found quite annoying at the time. But it made me think, and gradually changed my outlook completely. And she had no idea until I told her twenty years later. (I went to college at age five, by the way.)
     A priest once shared that after giving a talk at a men's retreat, four men came up to him to thank him for something he had said. In each case, he hadn't actually said what the man was so inspired by. Evidently, for each of them, something he'd said started a train of thought in which the Spirit was able to work. The priest was both humbled and encouraged by the fact that the Lord was working through himfor it was clearly the Lord, not he, who was having an effect.
     Whether we admire the disciples or look down on them, it's clear that we must imitate them. Not in their pre-Pentecost days; we don't need to sit around waiting for the Spirit. If we have been baptized into Christ and confirmed, the Spirit is already living within us. We just need to let Him act. As St. Philip Neri pointed out, whatever the Lord may call us to do, we may be sure He will give us the strength and whatever we need to carry it out. 
     If you're hiding out in the Upper Room, know that you're surrounded by unused gifts.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Beyond Super

When I was a little girl, the first movie I saw about the life of Christ was Jesus Christ Superstar.  I  understood the crucifixion for the first time, and I was just devastated. I couldn't fathom why Jesus let them do that to Him.
     My father was just disgusted with the ending because that particular movie doesn't include the Resurrection. He tried to make sure that I understood what was missing. And I thought I did. But—as I thought it was not much different from the death of anyone else, with a far-off, eventual reunion—it wasn't much of a comfort.
     It wasn't until I was an adult that I really got it—at least the physical part. I think before that, I had a vague notion of His appearances being more like that of an apparition.
     But when the physicality of the Resurrection did really sink in, a new idea dawned on me as well. Jesus not only took on a human body at the Incarnation; not only did He experience in that body all the pain of His Passion and death that any other human would have; not only was that same body raised from the dead on Easter; but He also went to heaven in that same body—and will keep that human body for all eternity.
     As mentioned in an earlier blog, He didn't have to do it that way at all. In order to teach us, He could have just temporarily taken on a human appearance. And His Incarnation alone perhaps, or with just a paper cut—given how infinitely precious is His sacred blood—would have been enough to save us. But He lived a full human life and died a horrible death to show us the depth of His love. He resurrected His body to prove His divine identity and His victory over death.
     Then He ascended into heaven before a large group of His disciples, some of whom just before—even though they saw Him standing there—still had doubts about His Resurrection. (I'd think seeing Him ascend into heaven would wipe out those doubts.)
     But once He was back in heaven, He wouldn't need His human body anymore, would He? Yet the Church teaches that He has kept it and will keep His humanity forever.
     Wow. It's amazing enough that He took on our human condition for thirty-three years, to save us. How mind-boggling that He will retain it for ever and ever, even after that salvation has been accomplished. His condescension is incredible. 
     Lucifer evidently found it incredibly distasteful—rumor has it that he foresaw the Incarnation and that was what led to his rebellion: he couldn't stand the thought of bowing to a God who had become human. (It didn't work though. Philippians 2 tells us: "at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.")
     Luciferfull of himselfwas much more like the typical "superstar" than Jesus Christ was. 
     Jesus was far superior to any superstar. As the Word of God, He created everything and was therefore above (supra) the stars, yet He "did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, but rather emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave..." Not only that, but He took that form back up to heaven...and glorified it. (And us with Him.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Deciding to Develop

There are so many wonderful things in this world that we can get distracted from its purpose. We forget why we’re here.
        Just as we once grew and developed in our mothers’ wombs before entering the world, so is this world a place of preparation. In the womb, we develop physically; in the world, we develop spiritually. This is the place to prepare for the next and final life—real life.
        The difference between our time in the womb and our time in the world is choice. In the womb, we didn’t choose to develop; our cells just followed the DNA program with no input from us. We couldn’t be too busy to grow a foot; we couldn’t decide not to have a nose.
But in this next stage, we do have a choice; we don’t have to follow the program. Some people are too busy to grow in virtue; some decide not to have a conscience, nor to nourish their souls.
It’s hard to remember that this life, enchanting as it is, doesn’t exist for merely itself but is more about getting ready for the next. It’s hard to believe in a Father we can’t see. But really, refusing to believe in Him is as ironic as a fetus refusing to believe in his mother. The fetus can’t see his mother, though surrounded by her and though he receives everything he needs from her. We are just as dependent on our heavenly Father; and though invisible, He is even closer to us.
Our time in the “world-womb” is equally as critical as our time in the maternal womb. A baby can get by without lungs in the womb, but he can’t stay there forever. We can get by in the world without God’s grace, but we can’t stay here forever either. Passing into eternity without divine grace is as dire as the birth of a baby who'd refused to grow lungs.
Being sinners, most of us are not working on our development the way we ought. Fortunately, God has a terrific neo-natal unit. The less prepared we are, the more time we’ll need to spend in the NICU; but no matter how purgatorial it may be, we’ll be thankful for it. And the Divine Physician can even save an embryo that repudiated all development—provided he or she gives consent: calling upon His mercy even in the birth canal to eternal life.
While God can save us even at the last moment, in the real Purgatory, we will not be able to develop any further. Death is like a kiln that sets us for eternity. Even the Potter cannot mold us after we’ve passed through the kiln. And if we, the clay, have always hardened ourselves against the Potter, rejecting His moisturizing grace, then the kiln will make us crumble.
The joy of heaven is God’s love. Everyone there will be filled with His love, though how much each of us can hold depends on how we responded to the Potter. Those who have submitted to His (admittedly painful) kneading, stretching, and molding work themselves transformed from lumps of clay to beautiful, elegant vessels, of great depth. The more we have let Him stretch and hollow us—the more emptied of self we are—the more love we can contain.
To receive His love, we will need to have made at least a dent in our self-absorption. He can fill even a thumbprint. But why be satisfied with that? Better to make full use of this special—and limited—period in our existence.
As babes we had nothing to do with our development. What a gift (yet a terror too) that we have everything to do with what shape we’ll be in, when we finally meet our Father face to face.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


With tax season not far behind us, this title might evoke expectations of something related to Schedule A of the 1040 Form.
      Or it might sound like I'm going to give criteria for what makes something qualify as a gift.
      But actually I want to qualify something I said in my previous blog, “Everything Is a Gift”.
     There I wrote that I could (delicately) share with someone who was ill or struggling financially that their situation could be seen as a gift. Of course, not everyone would be open to that idea, and I'd would have to be careful with the wording and tone.
     But I wouldn't say it to someone who had just undergone a tragedy.
     You couldn't walk up to someone who'd just lost a child in a car accident and declare that to be a gift. Nor to someone who'd just found out they had terminal cancer. That would be as bad—or worse—as stating that it was God's will.
     That doesn't mean that my assertion that everything is a gift is false, anymore than it is false to say that whatever happens is God's will. Both statements just need explanation. And when you're reeling from a tragedy, you can't be bothered with conundrums that need explanation.
     To say that whatever happens is God's will definitely needs a paragraph following it, otherwise it makes God sound arbitrary, insensitive, or just downright evil. There is a difference between God's perfect will and His permissive will. God's perfect will is that we all do what is right and are happy and holy. However, His will also includes our having free will, without which we could not return His love anymore than a robot could. Having free will in a fallen world means that sometimes people will choose to do wrong and they and/or others will be hurt as a consequence. Also, in order for us to be eternally happy, to go to heaven, we must be one with Jesus, and that means we too must get there through the Cross. So sometimes God permits bad things to happen to us, to achieve some greater good—especially salvation or a growth in holiness for us or someone else.
     To give a perhaps simplistic example, it is my perfect will that my children do their chores and that we do fun things together as a family. However, it is also my will that they learn to be responsible and to obey rightful authority. So if we have an opportunity to go on an outing and the kids know they have to do their chores by a certain time, if they don't get them done, then—even though I'd rather they all participate—I will permit them to suffer the consequence and stay home. Or if my child is very ill and the doctor needs to do something painful in order to cure that child, I will permit him to “hurt” her to save her.
     Or if I were running joyously through a meadow and someone suddenly tackled me, I wouldn't be all that pleased. But if I found out that three feet ahead of me was the edge of a cliff and my life had just been saved, my attitude would naturally change. Sometimes God needs to allow something drastic to happen so that something worse does not.
     Similarly, the idea that something tragic is a “gift” can't be stated in isolation. Indeed, it is so startling as to be offensive. Of course, the tragedy itself is not a gift. Christianity doesn't hold that suffering itself is good, only that God is so great that He can bring good out of anything. (After all, He turned the worst thing that ever happened in human history—the murder of God—into the best thing that ever happened.) Within even tragic situations, God is there and He has gifts for us, though we may not recognize them for years or perhaps even until the next life.
     Such ideas can be shared successfully with someone who's experienced a tragedy only when the time is right, when the person is searching and open to hearing complex answers requiring explanation.
     God must offer a gift even in the worst situation, or how else could St. Paul say, "Give thanks in all circumstances"?