Catherine of Siena to the Class of 2015

The commencement season is upon us, and TV news and social media will feature clips of commencement speakers’ funniest, snarkiest, most political,and yes, most inspiring lines. I have never been asked to give a comment speech, but I can imagine how difficult it is. How do you say something inspiring that doesn’t sound like a cliché? How many people actually listen to the address in this day and age of smart phones loaded with Facebook, Twitter and Candy Crush? If it were me, I’d go with Catherine of Siena! What, you might ask, does a young woman who lived in the 14th century have to say to the graduating class of 2015?

If Catherine were living today, she might be introduced as someone on the front lines of the Ebola fight, in the way she was on the front lines of caring for those dying of the Black Death. She might be singled-out for her contributions to peace building in the Middle East for the way she made contributions to peacemaking in Italy in her time. In 2015, she would be cited for being one of the most influential women in the Catholic Church who is in Pope Francis’s inner circle, as she was both a confidant and consultant to Pope Gregory XI and Pope Urban VI. It is Catherine who is credited with keeping the Church from schism following the move of the Papal court to Avignon.

Catherine would be described as the epitome of a missionary disciple as Pope Francis envisions it. Catherine was a joyful woman, who witnessed to the joy of the Gospel in every part of her life. Catherine saw the failures of the Church, was horrified—once even quoting the Gospel of Mathew calling the hierarchy a “brood of vipers” (Mt. 23:33). And yet, Catherine loved the Church for knowing it was instituted by Christ. Catherine discovered in the midst of living in the world how to nurture a deeply contemplative life. Though she desired to spend her day in adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus called her out into the chaos of a community touched by the plague and a church rocked by scandal, and she discovered Christ was with her in the “cell” of our soul.

catherine%20of%20sienaWhat would Catherine say to the Class of 2015? To their delight, she would be short and to the point. Catherine would say “Be who God made you to be and you will set the world afire.” In Catherine’s experience, she learned that she was most herself and her most effective when God was her reference point. In fact, she once wrote that separation from God ends in confusion. In Catherine’s book called The Dialogue, God shares with Catherine this image of how united his sons and daughters are to him.

It is, as if a circle were drawn on the surface of the earth, and a tree, with an off-shoot joined to its side, grew in the center of the circle. The tree is nourished in the earth contained in the diameter of the circle, for if the tree were out of the earth it would die, and give no fruit. Now, consider, in the same way, that the soul is a tree existing by love, and that it can live by nothing else than love; and, that if this soul have not in very truth the divine love of perfect charity, she cannot produce fruit of life, but only of death. It is necessary then, that the root of this tree, that is the affection of the soul, should grow in, and issue from the circle of true self-knowledge which is contained in Me, who have neither beginning nor end, like the circumference of the circle, for, turn as you will within a circle, inasmuch as the circumference has neither end nor beginning, you always remain within it. “This knowledge of yourself and of Me is found in the earth of true humility, which is as wide as the diameter of the circle, that is as the knowledge of self and of Me for, otherwise, the circle would not be without end and beginning, but would have its beginning in knowledge of self, and its end in confusion, if this knowledge were not contained in Me. (Dialogue, 10)

Happiness, Catherine would say, is found in a life of integration. Happiness is found in relationship with God, the one who knows you best, and rooted and nourished by this love, a life lived pursuing truth and serving the good of our community. Catherine would confidently say that with God, you, the Class of 2015 can change the world!

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Have You Any Wool?

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Rambo

We have sheep. Six of them. Three ewes, two little ewe lambs, and one ram (which we affectionately call Rambo).

It is true what they say about sheep They are stupid. They will follow the sound of your voice, especially if they think you have food. They are, in fact, better behaved than goats. They will wander off – they need boundaries for their safety. And they need a shepherd to take care of them. The Gospel reading on the Good Shepherd is a beautiful story of how much God loves us, taking care of us because we really need to be taken care of. Having sheep of our own, I have come to appreciate this Gospel more and more. While I do see my own need for Christ in the way our sheep need us, I am becoming more and more aware of how foundational that Good Shepherding is.  

Next week, we will have our annual sheep shearing on the farm. It is an amazing thing to watch a skilled sheep-shearer in action. Our shearer says, “You need to shear a thousand sheep to know how to shear a sheep,” and he has sheared thousands. It takes him less than five minutes to shear one animal. Then my work begins. You see, I spin their wool into yarn. It is this process of making yarn that has deepened my appreciation for My Shepherd.

Once the sheep is sheared, the fleece needs to be washed, picked, carded (or combed), made into rovings, drafted, spun, plied, skeined, soaked, and hung to dry. Each step is

Washing Rambo's fleece

Washing Rambo’s fleece

dependent on the previous step being done well. The shearing needs to be done in a single swipe in order to maintain the longest length of each fiber. If this is done poorly, then the fibers will be too short to spin, and the fleece is useless. When the fleece is washed, it needs to be torn into small sections before it is put in the soapy water. If this is done poorly, the fleece will get all matted together, and it will be useless. The picking process is where the fibers of the fleece are gently pulled apart from each other to prepare it for carding, which is the process of combing the fibers so they are all going in the same direction. If the picking is done poorly, the fibers will cling to each other in the carding process and not comb well. If the carding is done poorly, the rovings will not draft well, which makes spinning the wool very difficult, often resulting in lumpy yarn, which makes for messy hats and mittens.

As I work my way through this process, I am keenly aware that what I do in the moment will have consequences for the next stage. But I am even more aware of how dependent each step is on the previous one, going back to the shearing, and further back to the tending of the flock. The quality of the fleece is dependent on how well the sheep had been cared for in the field. What kind of pasture did they have to eat? Was their hay of good nutritional value? Were they protected from predators? Was the field relatively clean (do you know how hard it is to get a sticker bush off a sheep’s back!)? The care of the shepherd for the sheep is foundational to the flourishing of the fleece. 

And the care of My Shepherd for me is foundational to my flourishing as a human being. The journey of my spiritual life has been a process of shearing and washing and picking and carding – a process of cleaning up and straightening out my life so that my soul can proclaim the greatness of the Lord! In the midst of the “picking” of life, we can get caught up in what is in front of us, and forget the foundation of love we have been given to accomplish each task. The Good Shepherd has given us all the love we need to complete the task at hand, and shows us what the final outcome should look like, which is nothing less than the image and likeness of unconditional Love itself.

I want to become a beautiful skein of yarn that the Lord can use to make others warm in His Love!

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College Online. She lives on the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The Art of Evangelization

Some people you never forget. Nick is such a person. I met him at the adult confirmation class I taught years ago. He was in his mid-twenties. You couldn’t miss him! Years of intense body-building made his already stocky frame loom large in the parish hall. His language and mannerisms were equally as rugged. He quickly assured me that he was in this class “doing his time” so he could be the godparent of his sister’s baby.

Nick (not his real name) comes to my mind because his journey highlights the great privilege we, who are pastoral workers, have as collaborators in the Church’s mission of evangelization and catechesis. Allow me to tease out from Nick’s story a few considerations regarding the art of evangelization. “Doing his time” in this particular “course” for Confirmation would involve praying and studying the Sacred Scriptures. Nick, and his fellow Confirmation candidates, would undertake the study of the Sacraments and the Liturgy by breaking open the prayers of the Church and becoming more aware that the “masterworks of God” were indeed “powers that comes forth” from the Body of Christ, which are ever-living and life-giving. (CCC 1116). As part of this time of preparation and discernment, the adult Confirmation candidates would have an opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Adoration. Our time together would also examine the importance of Christian service.

Nick was expressive and honest. He told you like it was and rarely minced words doing so! One got the sense that if he “had to be here” he was “going to make the best of it”. He was inquisitive and always had a question!

I prepared the class for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. After class that night Nick told me why he wouldn’t go to the Sacrament and why he couldn’t be forgiven. He shared that for many years he was involved in serious gang activity and he lost his way. It behooved me Rembrandt's Prodigal Sonto read with him the story of the prodigal son. I read the part about the father seeing the son coming from a distance. The father upon seeing the son sprinted toward him and threw his arms around him welcoming him home.   Nick’s exclamation of “that’s what I’m talking ‘bout!” chased away my own complacency of reading Scriptures as I realized he recognized himself in that prodigal son. And the night he received the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I will never forget it. Nick burst forth from the confessional, running over to me, picked me up, and swung me around as he cried (literally), “I am free, I am loved and I am forgiven!” Tears filled my eyes! Back in class, we picked up the Scriptures and we read the Gospel of Luke Chapter 15:16-17, “‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’  I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” He turned to the class and with that sense of freedom said “that’s us boys, the heavens are rejoicing!”

Nick discovered that his life story was caught up within the narratio of salvation history and just as the people of Israel wandered and strayed, God nonetheless continued to call them back to himself and to reveal His hesed. Hesed, such a rich word. meaning God’s rich mercy, steadfast love, compassion, and grace. Nick knew what it meant to wander from God and more importantly he now knew what it meant to be forgiven and welcomed home!

Nick allowed grace to help him discover that Jesus is the answer to the lasting happiness he longed for and the sacraments of the Church put him in touch with the living God. He discovered, what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would name as the essential content of evangelization, “the Kingdom of God is God and the Kingdom of God means: God exists. God is alive. God is present and acts in the world, in our—in my life.” (Address to Catechists and Religion Teachers, 12 December 2000)

The night of the last class, Nick told me that over the weeks we were meeting for class he “took a lot of grief” from his gym buddies wondering where he was on Wednesday nights. “After all, you gotta understand that each night you go to the gym and you focus on only one muscle group” he explained. Nick went on to say, “I told ‘em how it was…on Wednesday nights, I work the heart muscle.”

In that moment, I understood these words in Catechesis Tradendae“at the `heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.”  Nick, along the way, had met Jesus. His eyes were opened to Jesus’ presence and to his transforming and saving power. To me, Nick’s words were reminiscent of the words spoken by the Emmaus disciples, “were not our hearts burning within us” (cf. Luke 24: 33). I knew I was standing on holy ground as this man before me was sharing his own experience of God’s hesed toward him!

Nick discovered what Cardinal Ratzinger meant about “unum necessarium (one thing necessary) to man is God. Everything changes, whether God exists or not” (Address). Certainly something had changed in Nick’s heart. In Spe salvi, Pope Benedict XVI states, “the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life” (SS 2). Nick experienced new life in the freedom of being forgiven.

As pastoral workers, in our teaching and in our works of justice and charity, we build up the Kingdom of God. Let us not forget that these important contributions (teaching, preaching, witness of life, and service) strengthen the Body of Christ and do indeed “exercise the heart muscle.” Together we can build a civilization of love. Pope Francis writes, “True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness” (Evangelii Gaudium 128).

Nick (who in his own words said he had a cold and hard heart) became a man transformed by Jesus’ summons to practice the virtue of tenderness. Pope Francis stated that tenderness “is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!” (Francis, Homily, 19 March 2013) Though Pope Francis’ words are spoken many years after Nick’s encounter with Christ, God taught Nick this reality. Nick was not afraid to testify to love and tenderness by proclaiming to his gym buddies that he exercised “the heart muscle” by strengthening the gifts of faith, hope and love and becoming a disciple of Christ.

Elements for the Art of Evangelization:

  1. Establish a personal dialogue with others: “when the other person speaks and shares his or her joys, hopes and concerns for loved ones, or so many other heartfelt needs”  (EG 128)
  2. Give a listening ear. (EG 128)
  3. “Bring up God’s word, perhaps by reading a Bible verse or relating a story…” (EG 128)
  4. “Always keeping in mind the fundamental message: the personal love of God who became man, who gave himself up for us, who is living and who offers us his salvation and his friendship” (EG 128).
  5. Teach the art of living. “Human life cannot be realized by itself. Each man’s fundamental question is: How will this be realized—becoming man? How does one learn the art of living? Which is the path toward happiness?” (Ratzinger, Address).
  6. Point to Jesus. “At the beginning of his public life Jesus says: I have come to evangelize the poor (Luke 4:18); this means: I have the response to your fundamental question; I will show you the path of life, the path toward happiness—rather: I am that path.” (Ratzinger, Address)
  7. Cultivate the virtue of tenderness.
  8. Be agents of mercy. “God’s mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones (cf. Ez 37:1-14). … Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy….” (Francis, Urbi et orbi, 2013)

Lisa Gulino is Director for the Office of Evangelization and Faith Formation in the DIocese of Providence and teaches ministry for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Let Us Bring the Oil of Mercy

When someone has been hurt – either by another person, or through his/her own mistakes – it’s natural to try to offer comfort. “Don’t pour salt in the wound” is a clichéd expression, but it points toward a temptation for many of us. In our insecurity, jealousy and weakness, it canSalt be all too easy to secretly (if somewhat unconsciously) delight in another’s “wounds.” An honest look inside our hearts will likely turn up moments when we’ve impulsively grasped that salt shaker and seasoned the wound of an enemy…or a friend. We may not have shaken that salt directly on the wounds; but perhaps we passed the shaker around our “private table” and shared it with anyone who’d take it. Inevitably, any satisfaction we feel at our superiority before the wounded is short-lived, and the salt ends up stinging us, too.

Once a sinful woman poured salt on Jesus’ not-yet-wounded feet when she washed them with her tears. While Jesus dines at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, a woman enters the house and prostrates herself before Him. She washes His feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and then anoints them with ointment. Simon is appalled at the audacity of a public sinner – and a woman – bursting into his home and touching his guest. We have to wonder, though, if the Pharisee was upset over his perception that the Blessed Savior was being “assaulted”, or if the salt in the woman’s tears aggravated his own wounded pride.

You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. (Lk 7:45-46) Jesus chides Simon, not because He felt slighted as a guest, but because He desired Simon’s humble surrender to His love and mercy. Unlike the woman who burst in and, in an “unbecoming display”, crudely washed and anointed the Lord, Simon stubbornly clung to his status and his perceived knowledge of God and the Law. For Simon, legality, protocol and etiquette were essential to maintain. For the sinful woman, reaching out in desperate weakness and utter humility to seek the Lord’s mercy was as natural as taking a breath. Once she’d been convicted of whatever sins she’d been bound by, and convinced that Jesus offered mercy, no obstacle could keep her from receiving it. The salt in her tears and the perfumed ointment she liberally poured on Him prepared the Lord’s feet for the pilgrimage He would soon make toward His Passion and Crucifixion.

The second Sunday of Easter in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches commemorates the Holy Myrrh-Bearing Women. Like the woman who burst into Simon’s Myrrh Bearing Womenhouse, these women (who were His faithful followers) bathed Jesus’ path to Calvary with their tears. Although His hastily wrapped body could not be properly prepared for burial, the women knew they’d return to the tomb after the Sabbath. Then they would anoint the Lord with the sweet-smelling ointment that was their communication of mercy to Him. All four Evangelists tell what happened when the Holy Myrrh-Bearers made for the tomb to fulfill their duty. The accounts are similar, but the differences display the range of human emotion and the spiritual questions we all experience. Matthew and Luke tell us that when the women saw the empty tomb and heard the angel announce the Lord’s resurrection they were frightened – yet they ran to the Apostles and told them what they’d seen. Mark says the women were “seized with trembling and bewilderment,” and left the tomb without telling anyone what they witnessed. Finally, John has only Mary Magdalene – the woman from whom seven demons had been cast out – finding the empty tomb and immediately running to inform Peter and the other Apostles.

Each account of the women discovering the empty tomb should resonate in our hearts. Hopefully we seek Him out of love, but sometimes it’s out of sheer duty (fulfilling my Sunday “obligation,” or “following the rules” of the Church.) We look for the Lord in difficult times, to be rid of whatever “demons” haunt us, yet sometimes we feel like He’s not there, as if He’s vacated our lives just as surely as He did the tomb. We fear the unknown, what God might be calling us to do…or to endure. We stay quiet; quiet before God (slacking in our prayer life, forgetting Him in our everyday busyness), and quiet before others (focusing only on ourselves). Instead, we must go after the Lord like the Women, with an urgency that is not born of duty but of love. In our fear and woundedness, standing before the mystery of life and wondering how God is operative in it, we must seek Him.

The “salt” of our sins and our suffering are poured into the wounds of Jesus, and He freely accepts it. Pope Francis says Jesus retains His wounds in heaven as a means of absorbing our sins and transforming them into mercy and forgiveness. When we pour out the “salt” of our sins and whatever baggage we carry into Jesus’ wounds, we become myrrh-bearers too. Surrendering to God’s forgiveness and embracing His love “anoints” Jesus’ wounds and become our humble “mercy offering.” Jesus accepts our offering just as He accepted the anointing from the sinful woman. But in accepting our “mercy” He asks us to put down the salt shakers and become myrrh-bearers (love-bearers) to the world.

‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Mt. 25:40

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Resting in God’s Will: Shedding the false self, revealing the true self

Two roadsAll of us at some point or another have been at a crossroad, and determining which path to take in our lives can be daunting. We can overwhelm ourselves – How do I know I am choosing what God wills of me? Yes, frequent prayer is essential! However, is that God’s voice I hear or my own? Yes, listening to God through others is important, but how do I differentiate between the conflicting, but sage, voices of family, friends, and colleagues? Are they just telling me what I want to hear? Yes, inner reflection is equally necessary. Nevertheless, how do I recognize the truth in that inner voice? God is not a micromanager, though some of us may wish otherwise! In addition to consulting my spiritual advisor, I frequently turn to the writings of Thomas Merton (who, by the way, would have turned 100 this year) for all things spiritual.

I find Thomas Merton’s insights not only helpful to myself in wrestling with decisions, but also in guiding those discerning God’s will for their vocation, particularly the high school seniors with whom I have had the privilege to work this year. Thomas Merton, OCSO (1915-1968), a convert to the Roman Catholic faith and a Trappist monk from Our Lady of MertonGethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, wrote more than 70 books on the spiritual life, peace, social justice, and ecumenism. Additionally, his autobiographical work, The Seven Storey Mountain, is on par with St. Augustine’s Confessions. In his works, he builds on the Church’s rich mystical and contemplative traditions, bringing his insights to contemporary readers. His writings have inspired numerous others, including Fr. Basil Pennington, OCSO (one of the architects of centering prayer, along with Fathers Thomas Keating and William Meninger), Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM (author and founder for the Center for Action and Contemplation), as well as Fr. James Martin, SJ (author and editor-at-large for the Jesuit magazine, America), to name just three.

Merton’s writings speak to Christians and non-Christians alike and can be an unwavering influence in maintaining a prayerful presence and discerning God’s will. Merton teaches us that contemplative prayer can bring not only inner peace, but also profound insight. I have found meditation and contemplative prayer, specifically the simple method of centering prayer, helpful in the discernment process – no matter the magnitude of the decision! More importantly, Merton’s explanation of the “true self and false self” construct can be beneficial to unifying your will with God’s will – to hear what God is calling you to do. Illuminating Christ’s teaching that we must “lose ourselves to find ourselves” (see Mk 8:35), Merton penned and explained the term false self, which Keating, Rohr, and others further expounded upon. Briefly, the false self (think “ego”) is who you present to the world, an illusion according to Merton that is outside the reach of God, whereas your true self is the person you are before God, that which is made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27).

There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1961). 

In the silence of contemplative prayer, I can quiet my mind so I can lose my ego that depends on control, pride, power, and recognition and which is often envious, judgmental, and/or worried. I shed my false self and reveal my true self. In the midst of the silence, if I find my true self, I rest with God. In that rest, I often hear God’s will. I experience God in the present moment – I am open to God’s will, even though it may run counter to my own desires.

Merton’s words, in what is known as the “Merton Prayer,” provide insight on the mindset we should have going into any discernment process (it is also an excellent prayer to begin a period of contemplation).

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1956)

When a question of discernment arises, set aside time to spend with God in silence whether it is Eucharistic adoration, meditation, contemplative prayer, or centering prayer. Quiet your mind, shed your false self, reveal the passion of your true self…trust and wait in hope for God to lead you by the right road…rest in God’s will.

Fawn Waranauskas teaches Catholic Spirituality for the Catholic Catechesis Program at Saint Joseph’s College Online.

I Saw the Light

Divine MercyToday is Divine Mercy Sunday, the second Sunday of Easter. Opening Day of Major League Baseball might signify for some, even some of the internet’s most articulate Catholics, the return of spring. Divine Mercy Sunday likewise signals a change in the Church’s calendar as well as its outlook and practice. My colleague, Father Frank Donio, S.A.C., has ably articulated what Divine Mercy Sunday constitutes and what led to St. John Paul II declaring it in 2000. Recently at Word on Fire Father Robert Barron posted his Divine Mercy Sunday homily which offers another clear explanation.

A confession: at first I found Divine Mercy Sunday baffling. I have since recovered—through the help of Catholic commentators like Fathers Donio and Barron, but also through the writings of St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-38) herself. If you, too, have wondered about this relatively new devotion, perhaps you will find reassuring the following exploration.

The devotion’s stumbling block seems to be its novelty. Pope John Paul II declared it—with an element of surprise—during St. Faustina’s canonization mass. So what was heretofore a relatively obscure mystical devotion from the Pope’s homeland was now, with a few words, given place of prominence—the very first week after Easter. Deacon Scott Dodge writes that the genuine dilemma is:

Are we to view it [the Divine Mercy devotion] as somehow in competition with our observance of the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection, or as a complement to it, whether we choose to participate or not?

Furthermore, the accompanying image, St. John Paul specified, should be displayed as well. Critics immediately detected an act of papal authority, one with a particularly Polish accent.   (The rays of light—red and white—emanating from Christ’s Sacred Heart resemble the Polish flag.)

Kevin Tierney makes an important point here—the Extraordinary Form propers for Divine Mercy Sunday illuminate the devotion’s Scriptural foundation, especially the Epistle I John 5:4-10:

Dearly beloved: Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory, which overcometh the world, our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? This is He that came by water and blood, Jesus Christ: not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit which testifieth that Christ is the truth. And there are three who give testimony in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that give testimony on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three are one.

Water and blood—precisely the explanation of the Divine Mercy image’s white and red rays Christ gives to Sister Faustina (Diary, #299): “These two rays issued forth from the very depths of My tender mercy when My agonized Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross.” (This references John 19:34.)

Powerful stuff, but how significant has this new tradition of mercy become? This weekend Pope Francis declared an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy with copies ceremonially delivered to representatives of the Church around the world. Pope Francis gives us so many challenges through his frequent tweets exhorting greater concern for the poor and more ardent prayer and the example of his audiences where he joyfully embraces children and the marginalized. Now the Pope issues perhaps the most difficult yet sanctifying call so far: that we grant mercy, so that we in turn receive it (Matthew 5:7). This is far easier to write or say than to do. Sunday’s gospel—John 20:19-31—includes the well-known story of doubting Thomas (perhaps the Scriptural challenge to all theologians…that and Matthew 12:33-35). Tierney suggests this passages underscores our very real human frailty concerning mercy: we want to set human limits or standards on divine initiative:

Isn’t that us, always wanting more?  How often do we half-heartedly place absurd restrictions on Christ’s mercy?  We say we will accept His mercy if there is a miracle, or we can add this or that stipulation.  This doesn’t make us a bad person.  Mercy and grace are scary things, because they require us to likewise be merciful and gracious, even when, and especially when, someone else doesn’t deserve it.  Faced with that reality, we try to be good followers of Christ, but on our own terms.  We tell God when we will believe.

Much of St. Faustina’s diary consists in Christ’s concern for and overcoming precisely this human resistance. The Divine Mercy novena—which Christ stipulates begins on Good Friday—requests the broadest range of souls be brought in prayer back to Christ: priests and religious, but also pagans (#1216), schismatics (#1218), and finally the lukewarm (#1228) who pain Christ most. Even these, St. Faustina responds in her diary, can find solace in “the abyss” of God’s mercy (#1230).

Scott Dodge argues—with good evidence just like Fathers Donio and Barron—that the Divine Mercy devotion should be viewed as complementary to the Triduum, not in competition with it. Dodge and Father Barron both note that the Church’s surest sign of mercy is offered through the sacrament of Penance. So perhaps some remain uncomfortable confronted by this new devotion, but through Confession—which once was so familiar in Catholic life, but has now fallen into disuse—we are all brought into Christ’s mercy. St. Faustina’s diary and devotion offers a particular vision and expression of divine mercy, but the Church’s sacrament is universal. It is this uniquely Catholic blend of the particular and the universal that has helped my appreciation of St. Faustina and St. John Paul II’s bold declaration. Of course, the great cloud of witnesses that is the Church (Hebrews 12:1)—itself particular yet universal—illuminated every step of the way, for in God’s light, we will see light (Psalm 36:9).

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

The Cross We Choose, The Cross We Get

The stats are in for my Easter!

Stomach viruses: 1

Family members who succumbed: 7

Percentage of Triduum liturgies missed by me: 75%

Episodes of vomiting: about 20 (sorry, I lost count)

Episodes of vomiting that missed the toilet or any other receptacle: about 16

Risen Saviors: 1

I’m a terrific martyr for Christ, in my mind. It all seems so abstract and manageable. The crosses in my imagination are ever so tidy, full of PR potential, and most definitely lacking the acrid odor of vomit. And then there’s reality, as in the Paschal Plague of 2015.

Franks BlogWhatever the memes say, the crosses of the real world are often sadly unworthy of epic treatment. Mothers know this all too well: after surviving a day of mopping up and washing up from all the spitting up, we kinda want a medal. OK, I’ll speak for myself: where’s my medal?

But that’s not how it works. Kids, for one, are notoriously insensible to the sacrifices of their elders, and, frankly, that’s fine. If they were otherwise, they would be conscientious adults already. The problem isn’t with them but with us elders. Crosses are simply more satisfying when we get some kind of positive feedback loop from them. We, you know, suffer less from them. But then they are, ahem, less like crosses. And while my Facebook friends gave me lots of sympathy for my colorful Easter—thanks, guys!—I sort of doubt that anyone will be singing of my maternal exploits a few centuries from now. After all, what’s so heroic about doing your duty?

And there’s the rub. While the cheerful daily accomplishment of one’s duty is indeed a quiet kind of heroism, it’s not the kind that gets you written up in history books, which also makes it one of the more unpalatable kind of cross to carry. For this reason, it’s often the small, unspectacular crosses that are really hard to carry.

Peter had to learn this lesson. He was going to die for Christ! Yet, as Cardinal Sean O’Malley put it, Peter couldn’t even endure a waitress with an attitude.

Peter had to come to terms with the fact that God has this tremendous ability to provide us not with the crosses we want but the crosses we need. It appears as though our heavenly Father is not all that interested in making us look good. He is, however, passionately interested in making us holy. And that might just mean allowing us a lot of tedious, unspectacular, un-epic sufferings, in the service of a life of quiet holiness.

So, while “the strife is o’er, the battle won” in the Paschal Plague of 2015, tomorrow will bring new and no doubt equally uninteresting crosses. No one will pen a screenplay about them. But perhaps, if I manage them with a modicum of cheerful and generous love, I might see them transfigured into Easter life by my Savior. So, “praise God from whom all blessings flow,” even the ones that involve gross bodily fluids and lots of laundry.

Angela Franks teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

Easter Changes Everything

Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!

Alithos Anesti! Truly, He is Risen!

I have the distinctive pleasure of being paid to lead a class of students in reading the Great Books of the Western literary canon. I know, I know. It’s a dirty job, etc., etc. One text which I relish covering with the undergraduates is Dante’s Inferno and, while mediating upon what to share with you this Easter day, I was reminded of a particular scene from that work, the greatest of Christian poems.

Early in the Inferno, Dante the pilgrim and his guide, the Latin poet Virgil, arrive at the latter’s “permanent address,” Limbo. Limbo is described as the eternal residence of those

Dante & Virgil in Limbo, the “beautiful school” of the Classical Poets Gustave Doré (1832-83)

Dante & Virgil in Limbo, the “beautiful school” of the Classical Poets (Gustave Doré, 1832-83)

souls who, while on earth, did not sin but lacked baptism, “the door to the faith” (Inf. 4.36). While he is there, Dante spies the souls of many famous men and women from classical history and myth, such as Electra, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The existence of these non-baptized noble souls is not one of judgment, let alone torture. They live amid a cool and verdant meadow, high and bathed in light, resembling the enclosure to an open courtyard. While to the eye this place is one of beauty, to the ear it is far less so. What one hears upon entering this lush and pleasant pasture are sighs “of sorrow without torments” (Inf. 4.28). Though the pilgrim finds himself amid a collection of the greatest poets from classical antiquity, i.e., Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and his own guide Virgil, there is no singing in Limbo, no music. The souls in Limbo have lost something for which the scenery cannot compensate: hope.

What Dante the poet is trying to bring to life for us is an entirely and completely natural world, a world of nature without grace. As St. Thomas reminds us, the perfection of our natural desires cannot be fulfilled by natural ends alone. The human person is directed to an end which is beyond his/her capacity to achieve without assistance. Since eternal life with God is the end to which we are called and for which we were made, it is God who must do the assisting. Without God’s help, the best that human nature, and the entire created world, can offer is still not enough to satisfy our deepest desires and longings. To quote another famous theologian saint: “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” (August. Conf. 1.1). The scene which Dante has brought to life for us, therefore, is one which depicts the world without grace. At best, creation can be quite attractive and even beautiful. But without the gift of grace, the most stunning botanical courtyard can seem like a prison.

While in Limbo, Dante the pilgrim asks Virgil if any of the souls residing there have ever left it for eternal beatitude. Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.) states that he was newly arrived when he witnessed the coming of the LORD “with the sign of the victory crown” (Inf. 4.54). That to which Virgil is alluding is the Christian doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell. The Latin poet states that after Good Friday, Christ “made blessed” (Inf. 4.62) the souls of the OT patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and kings. Unlike the Gentile non-baptized residents of Limbo, these souls were the recipients of God’s covenant and, while on earth, lived in the hope that God would fulfill his promises to Israel. Just as the permanent residents of Limbo lived without hope on earth and thus continue to do so in the afterlife, so too the transient residents of Limbo lived in hope on earth and continued to do so in the afterlife. The event which fulfilled their hope, and brought about the attainment of their deepest desires, was the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ inaugurates a new creation. Jesus’ resurrection is the “first-fruit” (1 Cor 15:20, 23), a sign of the things to come which have begun in him. In being joined to Christ, we too become new creations or, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes, after baptism “you are properly called Christs” (Catechetical Lectures 21.1). In being united to Christ, we become by adoption what he is by nature; i.e., sons and daughters of the Father.

Chora

The Church of the Holy Savior in Chora (Istanbul, Turkey)

In the Eastern Christian tradition, the artistic representation of the mystery Christ’s resurrection is not a glorified Christ standing next to an empty tomb. Rather, the Resurrection (Anastasis) Icon depicts the Harrowing of Hell. In this image, the glorified Christ is seen clutching the hands of Adam and Eve, who represent all of humanity. At Jesus’ feet are the “doors of Hell,” which he has burst open, and those objects scattered on the ground are shrapnel from the metalwork of the doors. One might interpret them as those tiny but infinitely-numbered little things we do every day which keep Jesus out of our lives. In addition, at Jesus’ feet also lays what looks like a corpse. This, of course, is death itself, which Christ has conquered and destroyed (cf. 1 Cor 15). The figures in the background on either side of Christ are the souls of those whom he has come to redeem. On the left, St. John the Baptist (the Forerunner) is closest to Jesus, and behind him are those OT kings who predicted the coming of the Savior: David (in the Psalms) and Solomon (in the Book of Wisdom). On right side are those patriarchs and prophets who lived in hope of God’s redemption, but predicted or prefigured Christ’s coming more obliquely: Abel, Moses, etc.

What these poetic and artistic representations, as well as the doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell itself, should help us to recall is both our need for God’s grace and God’s most abounding love in providing it to us. It was not cheap. The price was the life of His only-begotten Son. But for those united to Christ by the grace which he has won for us, everything is changed. By grace, our human nature has been raised from sin and death. By grace, we can affirm, with Fr. Hopkins, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” By grace, we have become adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. The Paschal Triduum is not just the re-presentation of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is also the story of our salvation. In short, Easter changes everything.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

Peace and Prayer

On Saturday, March 28, 2015, the Church noted and celebrated the 500th anniversary of the birth of Teresa of Jesus [of Avila], saint and doctor of the Church. In honor of this great feast, Carmelites from all over the world united to pray for peace and invited all of us to join them. Pope Francis took this to heart and celebrated a special liturgy on March 26, spread the word on the World Prayer for Peace, and wrote a letter to the Carmelite Superior General.

In this letter, Pope Francis expresses that St. Teresa’s example can help continue the renewal of consecrated life (to which this year is dedicated!), primarily through her gift as a teacher of prayer. Teresa built monasteries where community life could thrive and the risk of individualism could be thwarted.

Along this line, there is word of a new kind of monastic community in the early stages of being founded through the Cloister walkexpansion of modes and ease of communication. This new community, the Sisters of the Most Sacred Silence, is dedicated to the monastic life – a life of prayer, sacrifice, and labor – in the Carmelite tradition. The unique and innovative aspect of this new emerging monastery is that it is virtual! It exists entirely online! Members live in their own places, but gather online for the Liturgy of the Hours, following GMT for the common time regardless of individual’s time zones.

To be sure, the members of this group need to be creative to maintain both the cloister and community via the internet. The traditional role of portress (the one who answers the door, a post that has ministry of many saints!) now takes on the position of “keeper of the page.” She maintains the dedicated network that, like parental controls, does not permit any secular, sordid, or profane content, just as the portress would protect the sanctity of the cloister. Through the use of virtual meeting sites, the sisters are able to have community meetings, adoration together, and for those in common time zones, they have meals together with someone providing spiritual reading for a portion of the meal.

While most of the monastic life can be maintained in this virtual monastery, there are some elements that need to be worked out. For now, the sisters are trying to coordinate visiting priests to come to each members “personal cloister” for the Eucharist as well as Reconciliation. In the meantime, members are able to stream live Mass from various places in the world and have confession on Twitter.

As this new and innovated group grows, do pray that they may be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit and respond to the needs of the times. We pray for them in a special way today as they celebrate their first Chapter on this the feast of Là Ruith na Cuthaige. God’s blessings be upon them!*

*Anything below the second paragraph is a complete fabrication of my imagination! Happy April Fool’s Day!

Sr. Kelly Connors, pm teaches Canon Law for Saint Joseph’s College Online.