Embracing Suffering

I was reading in the book of Job this morning with a group of people, and we were discussing the topic of suffering- which seems so relevant in this time. A few thoughts that surfaced:

  1. We try to solve other people’s problems or to make sense of things- as Job’s friends, with undoubtedly the best of intentions, did. But somethings aren’t ever going to make sense to us, and sometimes as friends the best thing to do is to just accompany someone in silence. I started reading the book “The Power of Silence” the other day, by Cardinal Sarah. What a beautiful and profound book that is. I find I have to read it in small bits and just think about it. Much of it focuses on the noise that we live in – both externally and in our own heads, and the importance of silencing that noise to be able to hear God. So often we just talk too much, even with the best of intentions.
  2. We live in a culture that worships youth, but like so many things, we have that wrong too. The beauty of aging is that you see that suffering is the normal part of life in a fallen world. When I was young and had loss or tragedy hit me, I thought that was the unusual part of life. Now, like most other people of a certain age, I know that the abnormal part of life is when there are no problems- that is a blessing that we can relish, but the norm is tragedy because we live in a sin filled world. The next life is the one we can look forward to, to live in holiness and without the blemish of sin- not now.
  3. Suffering causes us to be purified. Most of us can look back over our lives and see that the growth came not when things are good, but when times were hard. That’s when we grow closer to God, or shed some behavior that isn’t serving us. The book “Catholic Martyrs of the 20th Century” by Robert Royal is a sobering and uplifting look at the reality of suffering for those who are closest to God. We see that in the cross- if Jesus who was without sin suffered so greatly, why would we avoid it? And our suffering can bring us closer to our Lord, and can also be offered up as a sacrifice to help others such as the poor souls in purgatory.

Embracing suffering seems entirely counter to human nature, but it is what we are called to do. Like Job we can ask God about the purpose that the suffering is meant to serve in our lives (and we may not get an answer), but we need to make sure that our trials bring us closer to the Lord and not cause us to turn away. This life is short, and we can endure- and pray for our own strength and the strength of others- to finish the race well.

“What Do You Want?”

I had the pleasure of joining a virtual Bible study last night, hosted by my terrific parish priest. He was teaching on Matthew:20 – a chapter that we have heard so many times. As is almost always the case, however, upon rereading there is always something new to learn. What really struck me this time was that twice in this chapter, Jesus asks the people he comes across “What do you want?”, or “What do you want me to do?”.

Jesus obviously knows what they want- in one case the men he encounters are blind and unable to fend for themselves- so healing is clearly what they want. In the other instance the mother of the sons of Zebedee approaches Jesus to ask for special treatment in the kingdom of heaven for her sons. Again, it was well known to the Lord what she had come to ask of Him. But in both cases, He asks them to articulate what they want. Why?

What really struck me is that Jesus clearly wants us to ask for what we want. My experience is that I have heard so many sermons, and been in so many discussions where the message was “God is not your ATM”- with the implication being that we shouldn’t just ask for what we want all the time. While this is most certainly true, the result is that I had tended to overshoot and not ask God for anything- with my prayers being “Thy will be done.” What I learned is that God is way more gentle than my interpretation had allowed for. What I got from this scripture reading is that God DOES want us to ask for our wants and needs AND it is also still important to ask that His will be done. The two are not mutually exclusive.

I think it goes back to a relationship. The analogy of a parent to a child seems to hold here. As parents who love our children, we do want our kids to come to us with their wants and needs. And as a loving parent, we would say “no” if what our children asked for is detrimental to them. And there are things that we can ask for – such as the healing of someone ill, or the conversion of a non-believer- which are good things, but we have to trust in God’s timing and His providence, to make the right things happen in the right time. The two verses that come to mind are:

Luke 11:9-13 And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.d10For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.11What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?12Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?13If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit* to those who ask him?”

and

Romans 8:26-28: ...we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. 27And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will. 28* We know that all things work for good for those who love God,* who are called according to his purpose.u

In the past 12 hours I have not hesitated to bring my desires and prayers to the Lord- and what a blessing it is!

The Narrow Path

I was in a discussion this morning with a group of people, talking about Matthew 5-7 in the Bible. Jesus’ first and longest teaching, it pretty much tells is all we need to know about how to live our lives. The person leading this discussion focused on the Narrow Path. He said the following:

  • There are only two kinds of people in this world- those that are on the Narrow Path which leads to life, and those that are on the Wide Path that leads to destruction. The Narrow Path is a choice that we can all make, but most of us don’t.
  • At the end of Chapter 7, it says that the people who listened to Jesus teach were astonished. We are also called to live in a way that astonishes people.
  • Once we let the Lord lead us to the Narrow Path, we can plant the seeds that lead our families, friends, colleagues and communities to the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  • Thomas Merton said that to become a saint is to become your true self. It is to become the person that God created you to be.
  • If you can become your true self, then logically it is also the case that you can be your false self- and our pursuit in life is to cast off the false, the worldly, the pretense.
  • In becoming the man or woman that God created us to be, we need to understand that we are all in our own Calcutta, and like Mother Theresa we can all serve where we are- there is no shortage of need. We all have unique gifts, given to us by our Creator, that are perfect for our circumstance and for how we are expected to serve, whether at work, or at home, or in our communities.
  • The transformation to becoming a saint is to first allow the Lord to work on you, and then in you, and finally through you.
  • To be on the Narrow Path we need look no further than the Beatitudes for the road map of what we are meant to be. We are to be salt and light in this world, not selfish, giving to those in need, with a disciplined and sanctified mind. We would seek to be forgiven, fast in secret to benefit others, not treasure the things of this earth, not worry, not be preoccupied, and take joy in seeking God.
  • God loves everyone, but only a few choose to be intimate with the Lord. Only when we seek Him and spend time with Him can we be open to His training in our lives.
  • We need to go outward beyond ourselves and move towards God and towards others.

We need to seek the Narrow Path.

Sisters of Life

I had the great good fortune to spend some time speaking with one of the Sisters of Life yesterday. They are a wonderful order of nuns that are so joyful and loving- it is hard not to be drawn to their near glowing radiance! The woman I was speaking with yesterday said a few things that really struck me, which I thought worth sharing:

  1. She said that they don’t help pregnant women and young mothers because they (the nuns) are good, but because they see the good in the women that God has brought to them, and the goodness of these women in need inspires the nuns to want to help them. What a wonderful way to see each person around us. Remembering that each and every one of us walking this planet have been made in the image and likeness of God and that there is good in everyone- and approaching each person in trying to see them the way God sees them is a wonderful way to go through life.
  2. She talked about the approach they take with the ladies in need as a call to “leisure”. By that she didn’t mean that they weren’t working or helping, but she meant that in contrast to being frenetic or trying to force an outcome, they rest in knowing that God has it under control. So they do what they can- and all that they can (which is a lot!!)- to help the women and the babies that come to them, but ultimately they don’t fret, and they turn their concerns over to the Lord. Something we can apply in every area of life!
  3. One of the ministries that the Sisters of Life has is in helping women who have had abortions to find healing and love. I was told that many women come to them, even decades after having an abortion, and ask them “could God still love me”? It breaks my heart to think of someone walking around this planet feeling like somehow they are beyond the love of the Father- and so it is wonderful that the Sisters can help these ladies to see that God forgives them, and that their lives are also so valuable and important to God.

During these unusual times, when we are self isolating, the Sisters remain at work in bringing food to the women they serve, providing guidance, and importantly praying for all of them- and so much more. This Holy Week, consider adding the Sisters of Life to your prayers. They are indeed the hands and feet of God here in New York City, and in the world.

Why do we pray?

One of my son’s asked me this the other day. It surprised me, because I know he is someone who prays a lot. My first response was to ask if he was finding it a challenging time to pray- we all have the desert times- and he said no. What he was really asking was, since God knows all of what we want and need, and he knows what we are thinking, what is the point in also specifically talking to God- isn’t it redundant? And also, does praying change God’s mind about anything? If not- what are we doing praying?

Here was my answer to that. One main purpose of prayer is to build a relationship with God. You can’t know someone unless you engage with- and listen to- them. God already knows us better than we know ourselves so it can seem like there is nothing to be gained from more interaction. However, we have so much (an infinite amount, really) to learn about God. So we benefit from being still and listening- but also to going to our Father in heaven and sharing our burdens with Him- not because he doesn’t know about them already but because our bond with Him is strengthened when we turn to Him. Like all relationships, they require an investment of time- that is prayer. It is also the right thing to do to thank God for all the blessings He gives us, and prayer is a time to say thank you!

For the second part of the question- does prayer cause God to do something different than He otherwise would- I looked to the Bible. The recounting of the conversation between Moses and God about what the punishment should be for the wayward Israelites who were worshiping a golden calf in Exodus is a good example:

Then the LORD said to Moses: Go down at once because your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted corruptly.8They have quickly turned aside from the way I commanded them, making for themselves a molten calf and bowing down to it, sacrificing to it and crying out, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”9e I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are, continued the LORD to Moses.10Let me alone, then, that my anger may burn against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.

11* But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying,f “Why, O LORD, should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent he brought them out, that he might kill them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning wrath; change your mind about punishing your people.13Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying,g ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.’”14So the LORD changed his mind about the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.

Of course God knew the hearts of every person, so it isn’t that he got new information, or had wanted to do one thing but Moses talked Him out of it. This is one of many opportunities where God allows His people to come to Him and to actively illustrate that He listens. He hears our pleas and He wants us to come to Him with our desires. We can also go to God and ask for what we need, and He hears us. God invites us to be with Him in prayer- what a gift and an opportunity for unsurpassed joy! One of the most stirring things I have witnessed was Pope Francis praying last Friday for the world in the Urbi et Orbi blessing. What a beautiful and humbling example for all of us!

Resting in the Strength of God

As I write this, the count for people diagnosed with the Coronavirus in the US is past 45,000 people, and globally it’s over 367,000 – and God is still in control, we need to remember that. There are so many people on social media making end times proclamations, but we know from Matthew 24:35 “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”. Is that time close? Who knows- but here’s why it’s ok not to know- because we should already be preparing ourselves for the day when we meet Jesus face to face, whether that is because He is coming back soon, or whether it is our time to die. The Coronavirus is just a wake up call to the fact that each and every one of us will die- Memento Mori again!

What we can do:

  1. Relax, and give our troubles to God. Whether that is physical illness, financial troubles, loneliness or relationship strife, God is there to listen. The prayer that will never let any of us down is “Not my will, but Yours be done”.
  2. Pray- for healing on this earth, and for people to turn from sin to the One who created them.
  3. Participate in worship services- the beauty of technology is that even though we can’t go to mass we can still commune with the Lord and participate in church via video.
  4. Stay in close touch with family and friends, particularly those who are alone or in trouble.
  5. Continue to be generous- whether with individuals in need, or organizations that need help- there is no shortage of places where a donation of money or other goods would be appreciated.
  6. Be a little kinder to those who are near you- extending some grace (which may involve biting your tongue) will pay huge dividends. Tip delivery people more if you can afford to. Thank the person who is checking out the groceries for being there.
  7. Don’t watch the news 24/7. It’s good to be informed but don’t obsess. If you are home and have more time on your hands take up a hobby- write a book, draw a picture, sing a song. Watch a happy movie!
  8. If you are one of the people in an essential job that is keeping this world going- THANK YOU!! But also be kind to yourself and ret when you can. Ask for help where it can be given. So many people want to be helpful but don’t know how.
  9. If you are suffering, align your suffering to Jesus’ on the cross and offer the pain up for the poor souls in purgatory. It will not be wasted! Our Lord suffered so much for our sins, we can also suffer and draw closer to Him as a result.

We will get past this. Unfortunately we will lose people – this life is short, and we will all die. This is the perfect time to pull together and sacrifice our wants for the betterment of our communities. We can do this- and we will come out the other side a stronger society. God is carrying us, we just need to rest in His strength when we find our own is waning.

Eyes Fixed on Jesus!

Keeping our eyes affixed to Jesus is what we are supposed to do always- but sometimes life makes that a bit easier to do than at other times. One of the real benefits of life’s challenges- whether health issues, economic woes or emotional instability – is that it points us to the One who is never changing, and who quite literally controls the Universe. Our God is an awesome God- and that fact sometimes gets drowned out when life, and our plans, are going along the way we want.

Recognizing the fragility of our lives, happens to everyone eventually- that is the reality of our mortality. This Coronavirus may be the first time that the entire world has had an event that essentially impacts all of us at the same time since a World War- schools are out in New York City but also in Abu Dhabi. Small businesses are at risk the world over. Hospital staff are strained to breaking across the globe. It is rare for the human family to have a shared experience. Let’s make the best of this and come out better on the other side as a result.

There is plenty written on how to entertain your kids at home or how to support your local businesses, and also how to stay healthy. All of those things are important. I would suggest that even more important is the opportunity to be shaped by this experience in a positive way and to grow in faith.

  1. Pray before your feet hit the floor- asking God’s grace on your family, your city, your country and the world.
  2. Pray when you wash your hands- hopefully many times a day. An “Our Father” or a “Hail Mary” is about as long as you need to be soaping your hands- and can be offered for protection from the virus.
  3. Although many churches are closed there is mass on tv- and well worth watching daily! In addition there are Stations of the Cross on tv, and of course the rosary. If you don’t already have the practice of saying the rosary daily, now is a great time to cultivate it!
  4. Many churches are open for prayer- I went with my son today and it was such a comfort to be there in God’s house and feeling the warmth of His love. I realize that God is everywhere but it is very special to be there where the Blessed Sacrament is.
  5. Bored? Read the Bible. Mother Angelica reruns are on YouTube as is a lot of EWTN programming. There are so many uplifting things to watch on TV, don’t succumb to filling your mind with garbage.
  6. Before you go to bed, pray again, for our priests, our medical personnel, the garbage men and grocery store workers. Pray for everyone who still has to go to work every day but has the added stress of kids out of school, financial worries and concerns about elderly and ailing family members. Pray for those who are ill with any disease, and for those who are dying so that they may embrace the love of Jesus before their passing.

We are never powerless, and prayer and fasting that are offered in love to our Lord are never in vain. Many of us are inconvenienced but not suffering, but for those who are suffering we can offer that pain to Jesus, as a prayer. We can give our sacrifices for the souls in purgatory and for the sanctification of our own souls. We need to remember that no matter what befalls us, we can have a spirit of thanksgiving for all of God’s many blessings!

It’s all a Blessing

Here in New York City, the mood is more tense than usual as the news keeps coming in about more cases of Coronavirus, more school closings, more people quarantined etc. It isn’t just in New York that this is a sobering time- the whole world is affected, and on top of it the markets are tanking. I realize that I am an eternal optimist, but I do think there are some good and useful things about this trying time:

  1. Churches, at least where I live, are more full than I have ever seen them. It is good to see that when there is need, people turn to God. In this world of abundance it is very easy for people to feel like they don’t need God in their lives. Maybe this is a wakeup call to the contrary!
  2. Someone asked me today if I thought it was an accident that the world is suffering so much right now, and it is Lent. I don’t believe in accidents, and anyway most of the world is suffering all of the time- however I do think that having a crisis does bring Lent even more into focus, and it gives us a great opportunity to align our suffering with Jesus’
  3. In preparation for potentially being quarantined, we did some deep cleaning and stocked up on food to weather the storm. We should have done that a long time ago- because who knows what disaster, natural or otherwise, is on the horizon. So that this forced us to be ready – for something- can’t be bad. Although that is a worldly rather than an eternal blessing, I’ll take it!

Romans 8:28 says:

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

That means that even the Coronavirus will work for good for those who love God. What an awesome promise! We know we will suffer on this earth (as someone recently said “note the cross at the front of the Church!”)- but all of what we experience, whether suffering or joy, will work for our good, because we love Him. What a good, good Father we have!

Love is a Verb

Much has been written about how love is not a feeling but rather a decision to act in a certain way towards someone. This is in response to the sentimental notion that we see in movies or advertising about the constant “butterflies in the stomach” sort of romantic love. Those of us who have been married for years know that the business of real love starts really after the infatuation ends- when you get to see your partner, warts and all, and choose to love them entirely in the reality of who they are.

I was thinking about this the other day, and how it relates to our love for God. Obviously God has no warts, so in that sense the analogy doesn’t hold. But I was more thinking about it from the perspective that there is an emotional aspect that can occur in relationships of love- but our emotions are fickle things. Being in a constant state of elation over all that God has done for us, at least for me, isn’t reality. However being in a constant state of gratitude- which is a decision to focus on the saving grace of Jesus, is possible and is also the right response to being forgiven and promised eternity in heaven.

To love God is to be obedient to what He has asked of us. So even if I am not feeling the emotional response, to me that means that I should double down on going to church, being in prayer, reading scripture and other theologically focused books, and finding time to fellowship with other believers- and of course serving the poor and the sick. To sin is to say “I know what you want God, and I don’t care. I want to do what I want to do.” Father Mike Schmitz on the Ascension network recently had a video talking about that which was excellent. Sin is the opposite of loving God, and it damages our relationship with Him.

Lent is such a great time to really focus on loving God and living in obedience. It is contrary to what the world tells us to do- which is all about “if it feels good do it” and essentially worshipping ourselves as the most important entity in the world. That only breeds sadness and despair- but focusing on our creator is the path to deep and abiding fulfillment.

Preparing for Lent

Lent is such a wonderful gift – a time really set aside to help us focus on conforming our lives to what God is calling us to be. Yes, it should be this way the entire year, but this run up to Easter when we prepare our hearts and minds to once again be able to say “Alleluia, He is Risen!” is very special. I feel like it is always hard to narrow down what to do for Lent- so I end up reading a lot of articles and watching videos with suggestions- but nothing beats praying about what God is really calling me to do. Here are my thoughts for this year:

  1. Daily mass – as many wise people have said before, once you know that Jesus us present in the Eucharist, the question isn’t “why do you go to mass every day?”, the real question is “why wouldn’t you?”. With the best of intentions (which we all know is what the road to hell is paved with)- I never seem to make it every day. This Lent, my commitment to myself is to get there at least 5 days a week- with the goal to get there every day.
  2. Keeping my mind and mouth in check – my Lenten commitment is to not say or think anything unkind about anyone. I have at times been able to not say anything unkind about people but I let my mind roam free- and as we know, thinking evil is doing evil. This includes eliminating back handed insults, passive aggressive comments, snarky thoughts or anything else that is unkind.
  3. Stations of the cross- last year I went to Stations of the Cross twice during Lent and it was beautiful. I loved it. I went in my beautiful home church, and I also went with friends to St Patrick’s Cathedral here in New York City. Both were stirring. This year I commit to going once a week. I am really looking forward to it.
  4. Giving- I heard a story the other day- a man had befriended a homeless couple. They were young – it wasn’t clear to the man whether they were siblings or married- but there they were living on the streets of Midtown Manhattan. He would often buy them breakfast. One day he was late coming to work and he saw the young man coming out of the diner – someone else had apparently given them money for breakfast- and the young man was walking towards a much older homeless man- and giving him the food to eat. The young man had so little but was still willing to give it away. Giving out of our own need- how often do we do that? We do focus on philanthropy in my family, but the giving that is sacrificial is more the giving of time than of money (which does not mean that we should give less financially!). This Lent I am committing to volunteering my time once a week- I have a few places (with the homeless and with the elderly in particular) that I focus on- and I look forward to including some of my family members with me.

As a bonus, I got a great idea from a cousin of mine who is a wonderful example of a pious and joyful Catholic woman. She sends her grandkids popsicle sticks with different daily Lenten suggestions, like “say grace before every meal”, or “pray for your teachers”. I am considering how to incorporate this for my teen – maybe as a sticky note on the bathroom mirror with a new suggestion each day!

I wish everyone a Lent that brings you closer to Christ – after all, what could be more important?