Thirst Awakened

Two steps into the sanctuary I could feel a surprising weight. It was as if the air was pushing down on my body. The smell of Lilies filled the medieval church and evoked memories of Easter, water, and fire!

My eyes searched the ornate altarpiece for the notorious Eucharistic miracle of Santarem. Since 1247, the Host of Jesus’s Body has bled.

High above the altar in a small golden monstrance, the Host of Our Lord is on display. A golden tabernacle protects this divine miracle.

Almost as soon as I found a place to kneel, relieving the pressure of the air, the small golden door on the tabernacle closed. My knees ached against the bare wooden kneeler and my heart sighed. Could I not get closer? Could I not see with more than my heart? Like all good and true desires of my heart, God was about to exceed my expectations and delight both my eyes and my heart!

Adoration of God in the Eucharist proceeds from the belief/truth of The Real Presence of Jesus, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity under the appearance of bread and wine. No reflection on the Blood of Jesus would be complete without recalling the mystical intimacy Catherine of Siena had with Christ’s passion and Blood.

St. Catherine spoke incessantly of Christ’s Blood. She asserted the need to drink in the grace of Christ’s Blood and become “drunk” on the love poured out in the shedding of this sacred Blood. In one rather remarkable gift of grace, Catherine was permitted to drink the Blood of Christ directly from his side!

Catherine, reflecting on her spiritual children, declared, “Indeed, they go into battle filled and inebriated with the blood of Christ crucified . . . they will pass through the narrow gate drunk, as it were, with the blood of the spotless Lamb.”

By partaking in the Blood of Christ, her thirst was awakened, not quenched. The more she drank in of Christ, the more she desired. Her soul was intoxicated by the love found in Christ’s Blood!

Almost in mid-thought, a Portuguese woman in broken English interrupted my contemplation of Catherine. She bid my group of pilgrims approach the altar revealing a side staircase. The marble floor surrounding the altar gave way to a set of wooden stairs. The walls inside the staircase were covered in religious art and statues of Our Lady and various saints were tucked into every corner. An eclectic assortment of religious items was displayed in glass cases. Somewhere from behind the wall men’s voices were suddenly raised in Gregorian chant.

I climbed the hidden staircase only to find another narrow metal set of stairs at the top. One by one each member of our group ascended and returned. No one spoke. No one looked at each other.

Finally, it was my turn to climb the narrow stair. Up, up I climbed and then I saw Him! Almost six inches from my eyes, separated by merely a pane of glass, I gazed on my beloved Creator. The consecrated Host (the same consecrated at every Mass) was before me! This time the Host was covered in bright red blood! The clotted blood looked as if today His flesh had been torn open for my sins! Torn open for love of me!

Stupefied, I said and did nothing! For several moments I forgot to pray, or how to pray! His love on display, I felt the thirst and intoxication Catherine spoke about. So all I could do in that moment was to whisper through the glass, “I love you.”

Naked and Afraid

I was totally naked and absolutely terrified. – What a bizarre summary for a religious pilgrimage!

Even though I could not understand the beautiful French of the Handmaidens assisting me at the baths, I understood that I was to remove – everything – and wait my turn to be immersed in the miraculous waters of Lourdes. Then I found myself naked and afraid, waiting for whatever was to come behind the curtain. Why was I doing this?

Lourdes is a place of devotion and mystical healings. The waters are a gift of healing which many make a pilgrimage to receive. The Mother of Mercy, Our Lady, stands in the grotto lovingly and patiently hearing the petitions of the faithful. The ground reverberates with the depths and sound of these prayers. Mercy, have mercy, the penitent plead with their hearts.

As I stood there naked before the waters, I found my heart echoing these same prayers for mercy. What is mercy? Compassion? Forgiveness? Relief from suffering?

Dear God, what was my intention? This thought raced through my mind as I stood there exposed and vulnerable before the cold late September waters. Exposed in a new way, allowing strangers to see not just my uncovered body, but also my mastectomy scars.

With tears streaming down my face, I realized I wanted it all! Everything that mercy entails, I needed it all! My heart yearned for compassion, forgiveness, and comfort from my pain!

Scars inside and scars outside. I was a mass of toughened unnatural growth. Scar tissue where I should be supple and receptive to mercy. I could not see how deeply I needed God’s mercy. My nakedness and fear was the catalyst for Mercy to live and move within me.

Like icy blades, the water all at once shocked and enlivened me. Down into the cold clear water I went with my brokenness and scars and up I came being pulled by the mercy and charity of the volunteers (Handmaidens).

The cold water took my breath away so that all I could utter before the bath’s picture of Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart was “pray for me!” Breathlessly, I petitioned for mercy!

Her Son, The King of Mercy, knows your heart and is with you and in you in the midst of suffering. My heart is naked, hiding no longer my pain and scars from God, and I am unafraid because of God’s infinite mercy.

 

My favorite prayer for mercy: Prayer to Our Lord on the Cross

My Crucified Jesus, mercifully accept the prayer which I now make to Thee for help in the moment of my death, when at its approach all my senses shall fail me.

When, therefore, O sweetest Jesus, my weary and downcast eyes can no longer look up to Thee, be mindful of the loving gaze which I now turn on Thee, and have mercy on me.

When my parched lips can no longer kiss Thy most sacred wounds, remember then those kisses which now I imprint on Thee, and have mercy on me.

When my cold hands can no longer embrace Thy Cross, forget not the affection with which I embrace it now, and have mercy on me.

And when, at length, my swollen and lifeless tongue can no longer speak, remember that I called upon Thee now.

Jesus, Mary, Joseph, to Thee I commend my soul. Amen.

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Wounds of our Lord Jesus Christ to heal the wounds of our souls.

Eucharistic Love and the Exaltation of the Cross

“It’s cancer.” His voice trembling, my husband brought me the news of my new reality. Breast cancer, I have breast cancer. The thought just kept replaying in a terribly painful loop.

This is so hard to write about. I don’t want any reminders of cancer or the painful treatment required to save my life. I don’t want the physical reminders still left on my body in the form of scars and fatigue and lymphedema. I don’t want to be reminded of what I lost and what I cannot now recover.

My body, both the source of life for so many children is also my betrayer. Having allowed this cancer to grow and spread, my body betrayed me. How can I see it any other way? Only, I need to see it differently. I must in order to heal.

How can the scene of such pain and suffering, my body, become in my eyes something worthy and good again? How can any such contradictions ever be reconciled?

For a time, I was resigned to ignore the problem. I hoped that with enough distance from the trauma of treatment that these feelings would go away. However, two years later, I realized that scars don’t fade that much, especially to the eyes of the afflicted.

In fact, the more I tried to distance my thoughts from cancer’s assault on my body, the more distance I felt from God. I hated the physical part of His creation in me. I became disembodied in my relationship with God. Somehow in wanting to avoid the trigger for my pain (my body), I blinded myself to my faith’s mystical and unique ability to reconcile the contradiction of love and suffering.

Ours is a bodily faith, a Eucharistic faith, a faith that exalts the Cross of Christ. The Cross is the greatest of all contradictions; an instrument of both death and salvation. The source and summit of our faith is the sacramental reception of the Body and Blood of Christ. His Body and Blood upon the Cross. His wounded and scarred body. His sacred Blood that flowed for my sins. Ours is a mystical and yet also a bodily, tactile faith.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 195) wrote, “He [Jesus] has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be His own Blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, He has established as his own Body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.” According to this early Church father, it is the Eucharist that causes “our blood to flow” and “gives increase to our bodies.” A mystical marriage of the supernatural and corporal indeed!

St. Irenaeus was writing before the third century to dispel the heresy of a disembodied faith – a faith divorced of the supernatural grace of the Eucharist and the Real Presence of Christ’s Body and Blood!

His words ring true today! Modernity promotes a spirituality devoid of the sacramental life. Modern culture is content to be “spiritual but not religious,” forgetting the heart from which the spiritual lifeblood flows – the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist!

Even within the Church Jesus established, Catholics are ignorant of Our Lord’s True Presence in the Eucharist – Ignorant of Our Lord waiting for you in the sacrament of his sacrifice and love.

God who is all-powerful chose the Cross for our salvation. He could have chosen another form, right? He can do anything. Instead, Christ’s spiritual and physical obedience onto the Cross was God’s perfect means for our salvation, both a physical and spiritual surrender to God the Father.

The physical, the bodily has become a perversion in today’s culture. We separate the body from the soul in order to abuse one another. We deny the personhood/soul of the unborn to crush the life of the most helpless. This “freedom” is dehumanizing, dividing what God designed in His work of creation. We are meant to be body and soul and both are “very good” in his eyes. We are meant to be fully alive in Christ in body and soul. This life flows from the Eucharist.

My Lord Jesus gazes back at me from the Cross, as I adore Him in the monstrance. His spiritual and physical presence radiate Love. Knowing that He would ascend to the Father, my beloved left Himself as the Eucharist here on Earth. He left this gift of Himself for me to adore and receive into my body as food for my spiritual and physical life. In fact, because Christ holds my body in such high esteem, making it the means through which I am able to receive Him in the Eucharist, I am no longer disembodied. I have reconciled the contradiction of cancer in this body. I accept that which God loves and uses to come near to me – the Eucharist in me.

By the Cross of Christ, I have begun to reconcile physical suffering with love even as I struggle physically each day. Humanity cannot artificially divide body and soul or sacrifice and love. This is the lie of modernity and it separates us from God. God wants us body and soul just as he offers us His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist.

The greatest mystery of our faith is that to experience His amazing nearness in the Eucharist is to truly possess Love Itself. The Gospel of John is clear; “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56) 

He is waiting for you in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Love for Love’s Sake

I have a lot of children. I know this because the kind people at the grocery store frequently point out that I have my “hands full” (insert polite yet pretend laugh). Just in case I may have missed the point, without fail, the cashier posits that I must be feeding an army with the size of my order. Yes, I am raising an army of very hungry hobbits. Second breakfast is no joke in this house!

After my fourth child, I noticed the addition of one more question: Are you going to have more? Seriously? Who invited you, checkout lady, into my bedroom? People just can’t help it. Large families, once fairly common especially in Catholic communities, have become something akin to a unicorn sighting. Look, a well-educated affluent woman with more than two children!

There I said it! Society associates women having lots of babies with poor uneducated women who don’t know any better, or who should know better. Having many children in today’s culture is considered irresponsible if not immoral!

As evidence of this sad distortion in thinking, I offer you a recent article in the Huffington Post: 5 Things ‘Childfree’ People Want You to Know. Apparently, the “free” part of the childfree title is key. People are not childless; they are childfree – free from responsibility, inconvenience, and sacrifices of time and money. Only childfree couples are free to dance joyfully in the kitchen amidst their high-end professional kitchen appliances as the cover picture suggests. Good thing they saved all that money by not having children because that granite countertop looks expensive!

Amy Blackstone, a gender sociologist at the University of Maine conducted the qualitative study on which the Huffpost article was written. Ms. Blackstone specializes in “childfree” research. She also manages a blog she founded with her husband entitled “We’re {not} having a baby!” Ms. Blackstone and her husband are childless; I mean “childfree.” Consider now her recent study.

Finding one states, “Childfree people do not make their decisions lightly.” According to Janet, “You’re constantly making a decision about remaining childfree.” Dear Janet, to say that you are “constantly” making a decision to remain childfree might suggest that you are wrestling with a pretty profound urge, like some sort of alcoholic attempting to maintain sobriety.

This is kind of the problem with qualitative research. Ms. Blackstone interpreted Janet’s response as intentionality where others can easily see signs of an internal conflict, a cognitive dissonance of wanting the good of motherhood while desiring to be acceptable to a culture that devalues that choice. Dear Janet, go have some babies!

Finding two states, “They’ve observed parenting up close – and they don’t like what they see.” Poor unfortunate Steve had to witness older siblings struggle and “make [do]” following “accidental” pregnancies. His response, “Yeah, I don’t think I need kids.” Well Steve, if your vision of children is to complete some “need” of your own, then no, you are not ready to be a parent. Creating a person is an act of selflessness and love. You do it for the good of the child and not to satisfy some narcissistic need. Grow up Steve.

Finding three states, “For women, environmental and social responsibility often plan a part.” April boldly declared, “[Not having children] is responsible . . . Like I camped over the weekend and I saw the trash factor that people with kids had left and let build up from so much over use of a campsite. I think about stuff like acceptable population levels.” I almost can’t take you seriously April. Litter vs. the creation of a human being. I find this an increasingly popular criticism of large families. Somehow, those of us who reproduce are irresponsible at least when it comes to the planet.

This is possibly one of the worst forms of self-loathing. April and her like minded friends are declaring nature as primary while denying/removing humanity’s membership in that very thing. Human beings are not less than the created world, we are part of creation, and so are you April! Why must we deny the dignity of man in order to value the natural world? April, your argument is illogical and possibly a shield for the real ego-dystonic reason you aren’t having children. Would children mean fewer camping trips? Are you just a selfish person?

Item four makes me feel bad about suggesting April struggles with selfishness. As written, “ . . . While men’s decisions tend to be internally motivated.” Steve (again) offered, “I want to be able to travel, I want to be able to do things, that I would not be able to do it if I had kids.” Not only are you not ready to be a parent, you are clearly not ready for marriage. God forbid your wife became seriously ill and you were forced to cancel that golf trip to take care of her. Both marriage and parenting require sacrifices. Steve doesn’t want to have to make sacrifices. No one marry Steve. Steve is a narcissist.

According to item five, “They put a lot of thought into what it means to be a parent.” Bob clarified that not having children is “deliberate.” Do some people accidentally have no children? Thanks Bob for that unnecessary clarification.

I would argue that the childless participants interviewed put a lot of thought into how they would be inconvenienced, not “what it means to be a parent.” What it means to be a parent is to participate in the work of creation, to be a witness to love’s radical self-giving, and to make a gift to the world a new generation of kind and virtuous people. You’re welcome!

This self-selected sample group demonstrates a scientific and psychological reality that what is full cannot be added to. When one’s life is full of one’s own ego and associated needs and desires, there is no room for love of other as love of self has consumed all.

God created humanity not out of any need, for he needs nothing. God created humanity out of a generous act of love. That’s what love does. Love by its nature brings forth new life. It is love for love’s sake.

This unfortunate Huffpost article ends with a lament by the researcher that she and her husband are often left out of events where children tend to be present. Ms. Blackstone concludes that her childlessness “can be a kind of lonely existence.”

The significance should not be lost that this particular Amazing Nearness blog is first posted on the Feast of Our Lady’s Nativity – Mary’s Birthday! Today we celebrate as Pope Benedict XVI wrote, the Blessed Virgin Mary whose “soul was the space from which God was able to gain access into humanity.” Like St. Ann and Holy Mother Mary, our fiat, our “yes” to God, must be a total surrender to his perfect will – even in the hardships and sacrifices of family life. We must fight the tendency toward selfishness and the ethic that places pleasure and self-interest above God’s call to life-giving love.

May God bless all parents and those who desire to welcome children into their lives. Let us offer our sacrifices and trials of the day for all couples praying for the gift of a child.

St. Ann and Our Holy Mother Mary, Pray For Us!

 

Mother Teresa Vs. Colin Kaepernick

I understand professional sports about as well as I understand open-heart surgery. I know basically nothing. In fact, I seem to have a mental block about physical activity in general and I show signs of a neurological deficit when attempting to watch a sporting event. I am rendered almost senseless as my mind wanders to far far away places when forced to witness a game on TV. I may have a rare condition called Sports Induced Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (yeah, I just made that up). There is no known treatment or cure and the afflicted suffer in silence. Sigh.

So why am I writing about a saint and a professional athlete?   Laying aside my in ability to understand football (see above, SI-ADHD), Mr. Kaepernick’s recent protests during the National Anthem and the canonization of Mother Teresa on September 4th offer a tantalizing opportunity to articulate one important truth about authentic love.

I know what you are thinking. How can I smash together such seemingly opposite players on the world’s stage? I offer you that sometimes it is the coming together of opposites that help clarify a picture. If a painting did not make use of light and dark it would have no dimension.

The Internet tells me that Mr. Kaepernick has chosen to sit out the National Anthem at the beginning of his professional games. A few somewhat nonsensical interviews indicate Mr. Kaepernick’s motivation. He is protesting racism in our country and the gravity of the violence and death proceeding from that hatred. He is sitting on behalf of people of color.

Bravo Mr. Kaepernick in attempting to recognize a legitimate sickness in the world today. However, Mother Teresa might have characterized the issue differently. She saw with great clarity how the world dehumanizes people in order to justify death and abandonment. She understood that when we render a group as unworthy of life and protection (the unborn, the mentally ill, the intellectually disabled, the poor, various ethnic groups, etc.) we are saying they are not part of the human race.

Mother Teresa also knew that the proper response to this dehumanization was love – Love that was embodied as radical self-giving. She did not sit it out! She plunged into the poverty of Calcutta and with her whole being she cared for the abandoned. Her hands cleaned sores and her arms embraced the dying. She gave love in her active sacrifice.

Take note Mr. Kaepernick, Love is not inaction or protest. Love is radical self-giving.

St. Teresa of Calcutta, Pray For Us!

 

 

Surrendering Out of Love – Thy Will Be Done

“Fine!” That is usually the sound of surrender in my house. Sometimes a small person is mumbling it under their breath or sometimes a grownup, who should know better, allows it to pass their lips with a tone of resentment and sarcasm. Yikes!

Let’s face it, we don’t do surrender well. Culturally, we act like we are allergic to this condition. We are supposed to win and dominate! Surrender means defeat, right?

The first time I heard Hillary Scott’s song “Thy Will” from her album Love Remains, it hit me like a load of bricks. Surrender. The song is about surrender.

What is remarkable about Scott’s lyrics is the feeling of confusion and broken heartedness she communicates while falling to her knees in childlike submission to God’s will. Whaaaaat?  This is exactly the time we are not ready to surrender to God’s will!

Truth be told, we are only comfortable surrendering to God’s will if it looks exactly like our own plans. Our will, not God’s will – so that we remain in control. We aren’t ready to surrender control because we lack trust borne out of love.

God is saying, “Come, follow me.” Our response, “Where are we going? How long till we return? What will the journey require, and can you wait until I am ready?” And the God who offered everything to us and for us in love unto the cross waits. He waits and waits. The God who created time waits for our love.  Meanwhile, we stubbornly mumble “fine” in defeat, but not loving surrender.

In our relationship with God, surrendering is not defeat. Surrender is an act of love.   In order for our soul to sing “thy will be done” we must first fall deeply in love with God.

Living in the Fullness of God’s Love – The Universal Call to Holiness

Social media has informed me that a certain popular country music song is masquerading as a “worship song” with a “blasphemous” message. I was quick to notice the grave warnings issued to protect ones ears from Florida Georgia Line’s “Holy.” Deep was the sorrow communicated by furiously typed words and appropriately selected emoji!

Almost instantly, I set about Googling the lyrics of the pseudo-worship song. I felt an eager pull to commiserate with my fellow Christians on popular culture’s latest assault on God! Thankfully, Google swiftly loaded the offending words onto the screen . . . and then . . . everything came into focus. “Holy” is a song about sacramental love in the vocation of marriage.

Don’t feel bad for having missed it! It is not surprising that many of us find it difficult to recognize poetry (song lyrics) about God’s true plan for marital love! Our society has reduced marriage to merely a legal contract of mutual convenience based on transient feelings subject to dissolution when the relationship no longer makes one “happy.”

It is not surprising that a literal interpretation of the lyrics rendered many shocked and appalled. Has the artist replaced true and right worship of God with the worship of a woman?

I can hear the objections loud now and it sounds something like “only God is holy.” In response, I would clarify that God is Holiness itself. God is not just loving and good, but Love and Goodness itself. To those unfamiliar with the universal call to holiness, to say that a person is holy sounds a bit like saying they are equal to God. In truth, all are called to be holy! Each and every person is called to live in the fullness of God’s love without sin!

So what is the song really about?

The woman in the song brings her love out of darkness into the light. She is the “riverbank” of his Baptism, the launching place for his Christian life in Baptism. Through her holiness (her intimate relationship with God), she sanctifies him and brings him to faith (Baptism). He no longer needs the stars (a symbol of false worship) as he now knows love and through this earthly love (marriage) he is brought knowledge of heaven. Marriage and the goods of marriage (nuptial union, sex) are a foretaste of heaven. The song reflects the ability of marital love to heal and bring us closer to God who is the union point in sacramental marriage. Marriage has become the songwriter’s church – that institution which brings him closer to God.

After pondering the lyrics for nearly an hour, someone offered to show me the music video, which was also the first time I heard the song. It hadn’t occurred to me to listen to the music. I am a lover of words. Lyrics are poetry, an art form close to my heart. I don’t know what the writer’s original intent was with his lyrics. Judging by the woman in the white gown at the start of the video, bridal/wedding imagery, it seems to be a safe bet that I am on target here. Laying aside the artist’s actual intent, one could argue that art is for the viewer of the art and less about the artist’s intentions. Ask a Christian and an atheist to interpret The Lord of The Rings and you will see what I mean. If you want to see blasphemy in the song then you will see nothing else. For me, and many others, the song lyrics resounded within and I think it calls to some of us because as with really great/beautiful art, it speaks truth to our hearts.

A Night Out with Ben-Hur (and Messala)

On a rather rare night out with my spouse, we threw caution to the wind and added a 9:30pm movie to the evening!  After a day of laundry that truly reached epic proportions, this was either going to be a fabulous indulgence, or a horrible mistake.  I kept thinking, this movie better be worth the loss of sleep!

I am of the generation who likely never saw the original Ben-Hur or even realized the epic film of 1959 was based on a book written in 1880.  Honestly, I had no idea what the film was about.  I had heard there was a Christian theme and that Jesus makes a couple of cameo appearances.  Also, apparently, there are horses and a chariot race.  So that about sums up my knowledge prior to the film.  I had a babysitter and that was all that counted; I was going to see a movie with my beloved!

After gagging my way through several previews on what seemed like ten zillion variations on the theme of all things zombie (seriously, what is that about), the movie began!  It was easy to be drawn into the rich scenes and the dynamic characters.  Early on, the film was able to communicate the deep affection between the main characters Judah Ben-Hur and his adopted brother Messala.

Jesus appears in key moments to challenge and guide young Judah Ben-Hur in his path from revenge to forgiveness.  The main plot is that Messala in his ambition betrays his adoptive family and his brother is sent to be a galley-slave for five years while his mother and sister nearly die as lepers in a prison.  Judah Ben-Hur miraculously returns and pursues vengeance in the deadly chariot race.  Having vanquished his brother Messala, he fails to experience the satisfaction and relief he expected.  Judah Ben-Hur once again encounters Jesus and witnesses Christ begging the Father to forgive those who crucified him.

This is where the movie gets interesting.  Yes, we all saw it coming, Judah forgives his brother Messala.  Yay!  Ok now let us take a closer look.  At the end of the movie, Judah finds Messala lying on a stretcher having lost a leg in the chariot race.  Messala threatens to kill Judah and rages against him.  Judah stands over Messala and showers over him love and forgiveness.

Who are we meant to identify with in this moment?  Judah Ben-Hur, right?  He is the protagonist.  He is the one who learns to forgive.  He is the one who was innocent and betrayed.  The movie is named after this guy, so he is the main character, right?  Well, yes, but . . . most of us are not the innocent and mostly virtuous Ben-Hur, we are at various times in our lives the unrepentant sinner, the one who betrayed those who loved us.  We are Messala.  

Like Messala, we are sometimes broken and abandoned in need of mercy and through Christ that mercy is freely given.  In the end, Judah Ben-Hur sought out Messala in order to bring him back into right relationship with him and in order to heal what was broken.

God pursues you with the greatest intensity.  No matter how broken you are, no matter how deep the sin and betrayal, He is waiting and yearning for you.  Like Messala we need to put down our swords and stop trying to prove we do not need this love.

Ben-Hur was worth the loss of sleep.