My secret spot for necessary moments of reprieve from the hustle and bustle of college life is the children’s book section of the Notre Dame bookstore. The children’s book section features wonders aplenty: the sight of tiny humans sitting at tiny tables reading tiny books, the occasional grandparent or parent reading lovingly to a little one in their lap, and bright-colored book covers that look infinitely more enjoyable than most of the things I am forced to read for class. Usually, I browse the storybooks until I have sufficiently escaped into a world where the biggest challenges are counting the number of baby animals on the farm or helping the lost princess find her way back to the castle.
But this didn’t happen last time. What happened was that my casual browsing was interrupted by my beholding of a far-too-accurate cartoon depiction of my impatient soul: the exasperated Elephant of Mo Willem’s book, Waiting Is Not Easy.Allow me to give you a brief summary of Elephant’s simple story. Things start out grandly for our protagonist: he learns that his dearest friend, Piggie, has a surprise for him. A surprise which, as he learns to his dismay, must be awaited. He receives only a simple promise: “It will be worth it.” But of course, this does not pacify our protagonist. For Elephant, this process of waiting is filled with impatience, anger, and doubt.
“I do not think your surprise is worth all this waiting!”
“I will not wait anymore!”
“We have waited too long!”
“It is getting dark! It is getting darker! Soon we will not be able to see anything!”
“We have wasted the whole day.”
Now, as I reached the page containing Elephant’s massive groan, my soul did a massive groan of its own. When I read Elephant’s words of impatience, anger, and doubt, I knew I was reading reactions so very familiar to my own heart. Waiting is hard. And it is something that I don’t know how to do very well at all: not in my relationships, in my spiritual life, or in the unfolding of my vocation.
In his book Waiting for God, Henri Nouwen writes of the holy and waiting people of Luke’s Gospel. As he points out, all of the figures who appear in the first pages are waiting: Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, Anna. Like Elephant, they learn the surprising news of a great gift, which is immediately followed by the news that this gift must be awaited. And they are promised that this will be good.
“The whole opening of the Good News is filled with waiting people. And right at the beginning all those people in someway or another hear the words, “Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you. Waiting, as we see it in the people on the first pages of the Gospel, is waiting with a sense of promise. People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait.”
Waiting is not easy. During Advent, we ponder in our hearts what it would mean for us to practice holy and joyful waiting, the very waiting that is the space where the Good News breaks open. As we wait for Christ, we learn to wait in a way that dwells in the promise of His love for us: waiting that dwells in love and hope instead of fear and doubt. As the days get shorter and shorter, we are reminded of how it is often precisely when we feel that it has been getting darker and darker (“Soon we will not be able to see anything!”) that the light of Christ shines clearest and most brightly. It is the patient heart that is able to encounter the infant Jesus hidden under a starry sky in a lowly manger.
May this Advent teach our hearts the worthiness of waiting.
I often do not know what to think during Eucharistic Adoration. Sometimes, I’m just too tired and want to fall asleep. Other times, I think too much, preoccupied with the details of the service. What is the priest doing? I hope he doesn’t trip over his vestments when he stands up. Should I be kneeling or sitting? I hope nobody notices how off-key I am when I sing. Oh, shoot, I wasn’t supposed to say that response yet – how embarrassing. Person behind me, please stop shuffling and making all that noise. Wow, look at that incense cloud wafting up to the ceiling. Incense smells so good, but I hope no one here is allergic to it. I wonder if I can translate this Latin text of the Tantum Ergo. Oh no, my stomach is growling so loudly… I hope the music comes on soon. I don’t like this song; I wish they’d stop playing and just let there be silence. Why can’t there be a prettier-looking monstrance? Gosh, that person looks so holy and focused in prayer. I wish I could be, too.
I try to close my eyes to stop taking in so much external stimuli. But then, images from the course of the day or fantasies I conjure up enter in, and my mind wanders even more, dwelling on things that I probably shouldn’t be thinking about. Why can’t I concentrate? I then try to think about theological ideas that I’ve learned, such as Eucharistic Real Presence, the Incarnate Word of God, transubstantiation, and the Trinity in an attempt to help me focus. Okay, so this is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died and rose from the dead. He’s the second person of the Trinity, the Word of God who was present before all creation and through whom all creation came into being. He became incarnate in human flesh at a particular moment in history. I’m looking at the Body of Christ, the Eucharist that I receive at Mass, the transubstantiated element of bread, now no longer the substance of bread, even though the accidents are still there, but now the substance of the risen Jesus himself. He is really present…but it looks like bread, and I still don’t really feel anything. Or perhaps I’m touched by the light shining on the monstrance, which makes it seem like Jesus is radiating his light on all of us, but is that just aesthetics? And so my thoughts keep spiraling.
Grace, stop. Don’t think so much. Just pray.
But… I don’t know how. What do I do? How is prayer different from thinking? I stare at the white disc in the monstrance, trying to keep my thoughts at bay, and trying to think of things to say to God, to Jesus, who should be my most intimate friend and with whom I should be able to share the desires of my heart, my sorrows, and my moments of happiness and gratitude. I’m mostly unsuccessful, however, because my thoughts have just turned to the historical and theological exegesis that my theology classes have been doing on the Lord’s Prayer.
I sigh, and I try to think of simpler things. I know that I am waiting for something – an encounter with a Person, whom I know also seeks me, but infinitely more so than I seek Him. My heart, however, seems as if it is unresponsive to the great wonder of the Lord’s real presence before me, and I begin to give up on finding some disposition of prayer before the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is over for the evening. Will I ever be able to be open, still, and humble enough to allow God’s advent into my heart? Finally, a short and simple prayer comes into my mind:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This is the “Jesus Prayer.” The Jesus Prayer is often associated with The Way of the Pilgrim and Other Classics of Russian Spirituality and the hesychast tradition of illumination and transfiguration of the human person in the Taboric light, with a special emphasis on mercy and penance. But of course, you don’t need to know that in order to realize the power of the Jesus Prayer and the mercy of God.
What’s truly important is this: In the resonant silence of adoration, mercy seeps in. In a quiet, humble town in Israel, an infant was born. God makes the first move, but it is often unnoticed. I had never thought of Jesus before as Mercy itself, and I had not begun to recognize God’s subtle but powerful act of mercy in my life until now.
Saint Faustina, a Polish nun, was a person who recognized the importance of this divine mercy and its advent in the human heart. The Divine Mercy Chaplet is a well-known devotional prayer that arises out of her contemplation of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and her encounters with him in visions. The chaplet essentially has three simple prayers:
“Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and the Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.”
“For the sake of Your sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
“O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of Mercy for us, I trust in You.”
Throughout her conversations in prayer with Jesus, St. Faustina took to heart the vital message of the mercy of God made incarnate in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Mercy itself entered into history and radically interrupted the course of human existence with the indescribable gift of his self-giving love. The mercy of God was outpoured in the Incarnation and on the Cross; the mystery of blood and water in his flesh and gushing out of his pierced side reveals to us the extraordinary love of God. What happens when we are the recipients of mercy? Oftentimes, we are incredulous because we feel that it is mercy we don’t deserve. That sort of freely given and unmerited gift shocks us. It demands a response, but there is no adequate response that we can give, other than by offering back to God the gift given to us in the Eucharist and trusting in His great mercy. Thus, mercy also inspires gratitude; it forms in us a disposition of thanksgiving.
Mercy transforms, and we enter into transfiguration. Mercy inspires conversion, and it allows us to enter into an authentic freedom of the heart, freedom to receive and to give to those who are our sisters and brothers in Christ. For St. Faustina, love and mercy unites the Creator with his creation, and this is ultimately expressed in the Incarnation and the Redemption, as she explains through her experience at Eucharistic Adoration one day:
“When I was in Church waiting for confession, I saw the same rays (that is, as those depicted on the revealed image of the Divine Mercy) issuing from the monstrance and they spread throughout the church. This lasted all through the service. After the benediction (the rays came forth) on both sides and returned again to the monstrance. Their appearance was bright and clear as crystal. I asked Jesus that He deign to light the fire of His love in all souls that were cold. Beneath these rays a heart will be warmed even if it were like a block of ice; even if it were as hard as rock, it will crumble into dust.
And I understood that the greatest attribute of God is love and mercy. It unites the creature with the Creator. This immense love and abyss of mercy are made known in the Incarnation of the Word and in the Redemption [of humanity], and it is here that I saw this as the greatest of all God’s attributes.”
The Word that He is and the Word that He speaks is mercy. And so, the silence we experience at Eucharistic Adoration is a silence pregnant with meaning. It is the advent of this mercy in the human heart for which we try to prepare; it is this mercy that we come to adore at Christmas. We must cultivate humility to ask for and receive this mercy. We may have nothing to offer, except for swaddling clothes to hold him, but over time, we can let the cradle of our hearts in which we hold him become the monstrance of our hearts.
O, come, let us adore Him. Let us prepare him room and allow Him to enter in and warm us. His is the light that we radiate to the world from our inner monstrance – rays of divine mercy, of redeeming blood and water, that transform our vision and the world. Does your soul feel cold or unfeeling? Has the night of loneliness been too long? Come, be warmed in the rays of Divine Mercy, be enkindled in the fire of His love.
San Francisco is a city for bread-lovers if there ever was one. Scores of bakeries line the city streets, each offering particularly unique loaves to particularly devoted sets of locals. The story of San Francisco bread is a story of the search for hidden treasure. In the mid-1800s, the San Francisco area was abuzz with the pursuit of gold, and bread was an obvious staple for miners on their way to the gold fields. However, in these early mining years, a curious complication arose in the rising bread. Bakers found that the recipes that had resulted in familiar loaves back home garnered different, sour-tasting bread when baked in the San Francisco climate. However, curiously, this unexpected sourness wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: it lent a richness to the bread that began to be especially cherished by the miners in search of gold. This treasured bread became the sourdough bread that we build our sandwiches upon today.
A little while ago, on a warm evening at the beginning of the semester, I was standing on the edge of St. Mary’s lake with my boyfriend. He was peacefully silent, staring out, when all of sudden he started to sniff. He sniffed, and he proclaimed, excitedly: “It smells like good bread!” Of course, I made fun of him at the time. For one thing, I didn’t smell anything that smelled like good bread, only the slight stench of the lake and perhaps the crispness of leaves. I also laughed at his specific insistence that the smell was of “good” bread, and not just your average, ordinary loaf. And so, in the weeks following, I took to periodically exclaiming that it smelled like good bread outside as a small joke that I derived far too much pleasure from.
I’ve never been to San Francisco, and until about a week ago I’d never read about their thriving bread culture. Learning about this small and wonderful story has been just one result of a fascination with bread that has slowly been growing as the semester has unfolded: a fascination that I can’t help but attribute to that moment by the lake. I totally understand that most people don’t spend their free time watching Youtube videos about how bread is made, voraciously reading lists of the best bakeries in the world, or compulsively cataloguing all the puns that can be made out of the word “yeast”. But lately, bread has been rising up everywhere I look, and it’s made me wonder: what does it mean to look at the world around us and smell bread? And what does it mean to insist upon the distinction that this bread is good?
To see our lives in the process of baking would be to trust that we are being kneaded, molded, and warmed into selves that will nourish others. It would mean trusting that a careful Baker is forming our lives with great care, and that we are destined to rise. Perhaps it might also call for a vision of our own unexpected sournesses not as bad but good, with faith that our struggles and sorrows will lend a richness to the dough: a dough that is baking slowly into bread that we have been promised will be. Of course, this is no easy feat, because to look at the world around us and proclaim the smell of good bread is to proclaim all of the aspects of our lives as gift.
To see the world in the process of baking is our challenge as Christians, and the source and summit of this vision of creation is the Eucharist, God’s life-giving bread.
Baking is a process, and at times we may feel that our place in the process is closer to the beginning mayhem of a flour-splattered counter than the ending of a perfect fresh-baked loaf. But each time we come to the Eucharistic feast, we are reminded to praise the process: to proclaim our gratitude for the love of Christ which is molding us into loving loaves through even the messiness and the mayhem. Through the Eucharist, we discover how we are called to look at creation and proclaim that it is good: that it smells like good bread. For, when we receive Christ’s Eucharistic offering, we begin to see all of the aspects of our lives as great gifts of love. Truly, the smell of good bread is everywhere, if our hearts lead our noses to pick up the sacred smell of Christ’s sacrifice of love.
Professional baseball players make the sport look easy. It’s not. Everything happens in fractions of a second: a batter decides to swing at a smallish ball traveling toward him at a speed faster than most cars are allowed to drive on a highway; a fielder decides how far to run in a particular direction for a catch, or at what trajectory he needs to throw the ball to his teammate; a pitcher suddenly hurls the ball to a baseman instead of the catcher in an attempt to throw a runner out. Watch the World Series game tonight if you don’t believe me. This game is hard. And yet, again, the pros make it look easy; or, more accurately, they make it look possible. When kids watch their heroes step up to the plate and knock a homerun out of the park, they often think to themselves, “I can do that.”
What those kids rarely realize is that the effortlessness they’re watching onscreen or in the ballpark is the result of years spent cultivating God-given athletic talent through training, hard work, discipline, and sacrifice. They’re watching the hours spent in the gym, the innumerable practices, the strict diet (in most cases), the intense spring training, the grueling travel schedule. They’re watching a lifetime of choosing one way over another for the sake of a desired goal. In other words, they’re watching a pretty good model for the life of Christian discipleship (you know, if you give the players the benefit of the doubt as far as performance-enhancing drugs and other illicit activities are concerned—it’s a good model, not a perfect one).
Where the model breaks down is precisely where it also breaks open. Whereas professional athletes, or musicians, or dancers, or actors, or teachers, or doctors all have specific God-given talents or capacities that they’ve chosen to cultivate through work and study, in the Christian life, God has capacitated everyone to become a disciple. Indeed, God has not only capacitated but called everyone to become a disciple, and not just any run-of-the-mill disciple, but a Major League Disciple—a saint. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
We read in Lumen Gentium of this “universal call to holiness,” that “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity” (§40). Yet this sanctity is not something we can attain on our own through sheer capacity of will (sorry, Pelagius); that would be like someone with no athletic ability whatsoever dreaming that a career in Major League Baseball is possible if he simply eats enough Wheaties and works out enough. Rather, the capacity for sanctity is derived from the grace received in Baptism, from being grafted like a branch onto Christ the true vine. Just like the athlete or musician does not “earn” his or her natural capacities like height or a particular physical build, this grace—this capacity for discipleship and holiness and sainthood—is also a gift the Christian has not earned; yet, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, the fact that the Christian has not earned this grace in no way reduces its value. Quite the opposite. This is a “costly grace” (The Cost of Discipleship, ch.1), and the price is nothing less than the life of the beloved Son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
Accepting this gift of costly grace costs us something, too. Just as imparting the gift of grace cost the Son of God his life on the Cross, so too does our receiving his gift of grace cost us our very lives: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23–24; see also Mt 16:24–25 and Mk 8:34–35). The professional athlete knows that growing in his or her ability means saying no to some things in order to say yes to others. To grow in holiness, we must follow Christ, and to follow Christ means we say yes to one way of life and no to all others; we must say yes to him who is The Way (cf. Jn 14:6). Grace costs, both in the giving and in the receiving, but, as any professional athlete will tell you, the price of pain is worth the prize of glory on the field, and how much more so for the Christian, whose prize is the glory of eternal life with God in heaven.
Just as the pros make baseball look easy, in the Christian life, too, we find outstanding examples of holiness who almost make following Jesus look easy. Some of these men and women have been canonized as saints, and as we prepare to celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints this Sunday, we have to be aware of the reality that, in recalling the lives of these canonized saints, or even in thinking back on the lives of those holy loved ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, it can be easy to look at them with the eyes of children watching their favorite baseball players at bat—to see only the seeming effortlessness of the saints and to forget that their faith only radiates the life of Christ because it has been tried and tested and purified by fire (cf. 1 Pet 1:6). The effortlessness we see when we look at the saints attests to the mystery that they have attained what T.S. Eliot describes as “A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing nothing less than everything)” (“Little Gidding,” Four Quartets). Every day of the Christian life is a day in the crucible, but for those who persevere, for those who gaze at their Savior on the Cross and say, “I can do that” or better yet, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13), the glory of eternal life awaits.
Baseball is hard, but this is a good thing, for as Coach Jimmy Dugan reminds us in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” The reality is that, no matter how hard a person may try, not everyone has the physical, God-given capacities to play this sport well. The life of discipleship is infinitely harder, but it’s supposed to be hard, because Christ’s gift of self on the Cross that made this life possible was the hardest and greatest gift of all, and our only possible response to the gift of “costly grace” we receive in the waters of Baptism (where, as St. Paul reminds us, we are baptized into Christ’s death (cf. Rom 6:3)) is to offer in return a life of “costly discipleship”—a life that costs “nothing less than everything,” a life poured forth in love that gives unto the end. The hard is what makes it great. The hard is what makes us saints.
Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, October 14, the memorial of St. Callistus. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.
O God, you search me and you know me, / you know my resting and my rising, / you discern my purpose from afar. / You mark when I walk or lie down, / all my ways lie open to you.
Before ever a word is on my tongue / you know it, O LORD, through and through. / Behind and before you besiege me, / your hand ever laid upon me. / Too wonderful for me, this knowledge, / too high, beyond my reach.
O where can I go from your spirit, / or where can I flee from your face? / If I climb the heavens, you are there. / If I lie in the grave, you are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn / and dwell at the sea’s furthest end, / even there your hand would lead me, / your right hand would hold me fast.
If I say, “Let the darkness hide me / and the light around me be night,” / even darkness is not darkness for you / and the night is as clear as the day.
For it was you who created my being, / knit me together in my mother’s womb. / I thank you for the wonder of my being, / for the wonders of all your creation.
Already you knew my soul, / my body held no secret from you / when I was being fashioned in secret / and molded in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw all my actions, / they were all of them written in your book; / everyone of my days was decreed / before one of them came into being.
To me, how mysterious your thoughts, / the sum of them not to be numbered! / If I count them, they are more than the sand; / to finish, I must be eternal, like you.
O search me, God, and know my heart. / O test me and know my thoughts. / See that I follow not the wrong path / and lead me in the path of life eternal. (Ps 139)
The way we can be sure of our knowledge of Christ
is to keep his commandments.
The man who claims, “I have known him,”
without keeping his commandments is a liar;
in such a one there is no truth.
But whoever keeps his word, truly has the love of God
been made perfect in him.
The way we can be sure we are in union with him
is for the man who claims to abide in him
to conduct himself just as he did. (1 Jn 2:3–6)
Our psalm and our reading tell us that we are being measured.
I think we must be used to it here, at an institution like Notre Dame: We are measured by scores and resumes to get in; we are measured by exams and papers and grades while we’re students; we are measured by Endeavor goals and objectives as staff; we are measured by publication and tenure as faculty . . . currently there is even a wellness exam station in the library to measure our biometrics.
We are used to being measured . . . at least we are used to being measured for our doing: for our activity or for our output. Perhaps, though, we are not as used to being measured for our being. For our inmost thoughts and for our orientation either toward or away from God. But that is exactly what our psalm and our reading point to. We are being measured, and notably, only God can take our full measure.
Helpfully, we know the metric. Our reading is clear that there are two criteria for which we are accountable: keeping Jesus’ commandments, and conducting ourselves as Jesus did. Essentially, conforming ourselves to Christ. We know the metric and we don’t want to be found wanting.
The psalmist, in an effort not to be found wanting hedges her bets proclaiming, “How wonderful your wisdom…so far beyond my understanding” and “How mysterious your thoughts…”; if I tried to count them I would need to be eternal like you just to finish. It’s almost as though she is saying, I can’t possibly measure up.
Psalm 139 is unique as psalms go. It doesn’t exactly fit in any traditional categories (lament, praise, etc.). It has beautiful imagery that composers have set to equally beautiful music. But as a whole it is somewhat haunting: the psalmist has full confidence that God knows her intimately and completely, but this is not exactly a comfort. There is no escape from God . . . not in resting or rising; she can’t even hide from God in the darkest darkness.
We are being measured . . . and there is no escape from God.
But, there is also no escape from the boundless abundance of God’s grace. Only God’s love and mercy are without measure.
St. Callistus knew this. He knew about the boundlessness of God’s mercy. Not only did he experience it in his life—he made more than one misstep that cost him and the local community dearly. He also proclaimed this boundless mercy as Pope—by establishing absolution for all sins, including the most grievous sins of adultery and murder, an act for which he was demonized by his contemporaries. But Callistus knew that he could not put a human limit on God’s immeasurable grace.
We have access to God’s immeasurable grace as well. In the Sacraments—especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the Sacraments, we encounter Jesus and we receive from God’s boundless abundance of love and mercy. This is how we are capacitated—as our reading requires—to keep his commandments and to conduct ourselves as Jesus did.
On our own, we may be measured and found wanting. It is only through the immeasurable grace of God’s love that we may know God and hope to perfectly conform ourselves to Christ.
Today marks the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–90), a Burgundian nun who experienced a series of visions from 1673 to 1675 that ultimately resulted in her petitioning Church authorities to institute a feast in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In addition to the feast itself, St. Margaret Mary promoted acts of devotion in honor of the Sacred Heart, chief among which was the reception of Holy Communion on the first Friday of every month, a devotion many still practice to this day. It is for her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and her untiring efforts to spread that devotion to others that Margaret Mary Alacoque is honored as a saint, and so today’s musical piece will focus not on the saint herself, but on the object of her unwavering devotion: the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart is twofold: on the one hand, we honor the physical heart of Jesus, the pulsing heart of muscle and blood with its valves and chambers whose very existence encapsulates the mystery of the Incarnation—the heart that testifies that “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14); the heart that was pierced by a lance and poured forth the precious lifeblood of Him who loved unto the end. On the other hand, we also honor what the Sacred Heart of Jesus symbolizes: the sheer, unmerited gift of God’s unsurpassable, unfathomable love and mercy, offered without reservation to all who would receive it into their own hearts.
Today’s musical piece, the motet Improperium Expectavit by 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Casali, is a setting of the Offertory text for the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, taken from Psalm 69 :21–22b. Translated from the Latin, the text reads:
My heart expected reproach and misery and I desired one who would grieve with me
and there was none: I sought one to console me, and I found none: and they gave me gall as my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
The text of today’s piece draws attention to both the physical and the symbolic elements of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. From the symbolic standpoint, the heart of the one proclaiming the psalm—understood in the context of the feast as the Heart of Jesus himself—is broken; it is inconsolable, overcome with grief at the devastation of reproach and abandonment. And yet there is also an immense physicality in these lines. Hearing this passage from the Psalms in the voice of Jesus, we are reminded perhaps of his words from the Cross: “I thirst” (Jn 19: 28). Here is the one who hungers and thirsts to draw all into the communion of life he shares with the Father and the Spirit, and his longing is met with derision; his thirst for love is slaked with a drink of malice. We see the juxtaposition with stark clarity in the Reproaches for Good Friday: “I gave you saving water from the rock to drink, / and for drink you gave me gall and vinegar.”
To contemplate the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not simply to contemplate the overwhelming love that Jesus pours forth from his Heart; rather, it is to contemplate the mystery that Jesus pours forth his love for us even as we wound his Sacred Heart with our sins. We see this mystery in the way that the Sacred Heart is represented in visual art: pierced, surrounded with the crown of thorns, surmounted by the Cross which ultimately stopped its beating, and yet, even in the midst of these wounds, it is still ablaze, burning with divine love, the love of the God-man who longs for nothing more or less than perfect communion with his people.
We hear this mystery in Casili’s motet in the way that musical dissonance (clashing/grating of pitches) gives way to serene consonance (rest/resolution). This is the way that nearly all Western music operates at some level: tension arises in the music that is ultimately resolved. The dissonance somehow serves to help us appreciate all the more the consonance that resolves it. In this sense, consonance seems to purify the dissonance as the notes are brought into harmonious communion with one another in the movement toward resolution. This is what happens when we allow the dissonance of our sinfulness to give way to the love of the Sacred Heart: we ‘sour notes’ are brought into a radiant harmony with Jesus as we learn to sing with ever greater fidelity the hymn of self-giving love he intones from the Cross.
In contemplating with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque the Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we learn to give ourselves over to the ardent love of Christ as it blazes forth from his pierced Heart, that the dissonance within our own hearts may be melted away and dissolve into the consonant, radiant harmony of life in God; that, in the words of St. Paul from the proper reading for today, we may be “rooted and grounded in love, may have the strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17b–19).
This writing finds me in a familiar place, though at a different stage of life. I often come to sit at the feet of the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue on campus. When I came here as an undergraduate, I liked to think about sitting here as an image of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus—the type of quiet listening, spent sitting at the feet of Jesus, that we think of when we think about Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary.
One day this past spring (maybe because of this writing job, in fact; it has made the wheels of my mind continually turn and try to catch ideas for writing), I realized that my mental picture of sitting at the feet of Jesus and sometimes trying to force the sentiments of peace that Mary might have found was overly idealistic. I hope and pray that there will be many times in my life of sitting at the feet of Jesus, quietly and at peace like Mary. But Mary of Bethany’s time at the feet of Jesus does not image for us the only time spent at the feet of Jesus.
These scenarios also did, and maybe they do so more powerfully.
The woman caught in adultery found herself at the feet of Jesus.
Mary Magdalen, pouring the anointing of oil on Jesus in sorrow for her sin, began by crying at the feet of Jesus and drying those tears with her hair.
And Mary, the mother of Jesus, had to spend hours at her Son’s feet while at the foot of the Cross, experiencing the agony of watching her Son die.
And so at another point, I realized that my thought process of sitting at the feet of the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue here on campus, and finding my way to it no matter what state of mind and heart I found myself, more closely mirrors the way that St. Margaret Mary Alacoque wrote about the scenarios in which we ought to entrust ourselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus than it did to any time Mary of Bethany spent quietly at the feet of Jesus, as Martha bustled busily around the house.
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque—the saint to whom we believe that Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart—expresses the reality that our lives belong at the feet of Jesus, or, in keeping with the feast we celebrate today, entrusted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus:
This divine heart is an abyss of all blessings, and into it the poor should submerge all their needs. It is an abyss of joy in which all of us can immerse our sorrows. It is an abyss of lowliness to counteract our foolishness, an abyss of mercy for the wretched, an abyss of love to meet our every need.
Therefore, you must unite yourselves to the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ, both at the beginning of your conversion in order to obtain proper dispositions, and at its end in order to make reparation. Are you making no progress in prayer? Then you need only offer God the prayers which the Savior has poured out for us in the sacrament of the altar. Offer God his fervent love in reparation for your sluggishness. In the course of every activity pray as follows: “My God, I do this or I endure that in the heart of your Son and according to his holy counsels. I offer it to you in reparation for anything blameworthy or imperfect in my actions.”
Continue to do this in every circumstance of life. And every time that some punishment, affliction or injustice comes your way, say to yourself: “Accept this as sent to you by the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ in order to unite yourself to him.”
But above all preserve peace of heart. This is more valuable than any treasure. In order to preserve it there is nothing more useful than renouncing your own will and substituting for it the will of the divine heart. In this way his will can carry out for us whatever contributes to his glory, and we will be happy to be his subjects and to trust entirely in him.
Life belongs at the feet of Jesus, entrusted to his Sacred Heart, in all circumstances. In joy and in peace, yes: but also in sorrow, and especially in contrition for sin.
And what do the feet of Jesus and entrusting ourselves to his Sacred Heart have to do with anything about writing? Oblation editor Tim O’Malley asked Sam Bellafiore and me to write “wrap-up” pieces about what we have learned as undergraduate fellows and where we are headed. As became more and more epidemic as the year went on, I am late in writing (spilling ramen on my laptop and destroying it did not help this process; requiescat en pace, old laptop).
But I am grateful for this last year, in which I have been able to write for this blog as a job (it felt like I was cheating every time I entered hours). I am grateful for what I have learned about writing, about thinking of writing as a kind of ministry, about Tim and Carolyn’s senses of humor and patience (and the abilities Sam and I had in testing that patience). Writing can be a kind of ministry, I suppose. As I prepare to begin master’s level coursework in theology and to serve in parish ministry during the next two years, this writing—and this lesson of entrusting it all back to the heart of Jesus for his glory (and not for mine), will continue to be on my mind. Because, again, as St. Margaret Mary said:
This divine heart is an abyss of all blessings, and into it the poor should submerge all their needs. It is an abyss of joy in which all of us can immerse our sorrows. It is an abyss of lowliness to counteract our foolishness, an abyss of mercy for the wretched, an abyss of love to meet our every need.
May we give ourselves over to that “abyss of love” of the heart of Jesus more and more, entrusting ourselves to his will.
Springtime means a number of things. It means the smell of freshly cut grass, the return of thunderstorms, and the bane of allergies. But this springtime through this reflection brings together two of my favorite things in a new way. It brings together a) baseball and b) a concrete example of a way that theological thought—the way we think about and grow in our faith—truly does impact our daily lives.
The connection here is a little more subtle than a church softball league, so I will explain. In the baseball movie classic Field of Dreams, a down-on-his-luck Iowa farmer begins (without really understanding why) building a baseball diamond in his cornfields. He is prompted to do this by a few rather mystical experiences, including the whispered, repeated phrase, “If you build it, he will come.”
My home diocese, the Diocese of Knoxville in Tennessee, isn’t building a baseball diamond. But she is embarking on a building adventure of her own. This past weekend, members from all corners of the diocese (along with leaders of the wider Church) came together to celebrate the groundbreaking of the building project for a new Cathedral. Originally, when Pope John Paul II created the Diocese of Knoxville in 1988 by splitting it from Nashville, the already existing Sacred Heart Parish was chosen because of its size and central location to serve as the Cathedral parish. But the diocese has grown and changed in the last twenty-five years, and with it, the Cathedral parish demographics have increased and changed dramatically. In deciding to build a Cathedral, Catholics of East Tennessee are coming together to build; we are remembering and honoring the past and (short) history of our diocese and we are getting ready for the future, for a new chapter in which we will stand more on our own feet as a maturing diocese.
Although I was privileged to go home for the weekend and participate in the events associated with the groundbreaking, I have mostly been watching this entire process unfold from afar. My home diocese has been my home in many ways for nearly my whole life. As a daughter of the Diocese who loves her home, while living (in happy exile) away from home and majoring in Theology at Notre Dame, I have been geeking out quite a bit as it all transpires.
I am watching my home Church come together, work together, and learn together about why and how we think about our sacred spaces in the way that we do. I am seeing tutorials on the meaning behind church architecture reach people; I am watching as people transition from hesitancy about the need for a new Cathedral to excitement, pride, and willingness to go the distance and to be a part of this effort. I am seeing a countless number of individuals devote their time, their talents, and their efforts in order to make all of this happen. And most importantly, I am seeing first-hand the way that physically building a new Cathedral church is teaching, forming, and building up the Body of Christ in East Tennessee.
This weekend, I saw hundreds and hundreds of people work together and come together for this moment. (Apparently the final count was 1200 local folks, 12 bishops, 3 cardinals, a governor, and two mayors.) This time in Knoxville diocesan history clearly has become a teaching and formational moment. It has taught and re-taught us about our need to worship God rightly so that we may live rightly, not just as the parish of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but as the entire diocese and all of her members. The tagline of the Cathedral campaign itself packs a theological punch about this rightly ordered way of looking at church building: “Home, Where We Worship, Teach, and Serve.”
Thinking about building, thinking about the seasons of life, and deciding to build has helped all of us who call ourselves a part of the diocese of Knoxville to realize that the Mass, the liturgy, and the life of the Church (both local and universal) is not simply about “we the people.” The Church is actually about the Trinity; the Church only exists because the love of the Trinity overflowed and continues to overflow to creation. God’s overflowing, self-giving, and ever-expanding love explains the basic fact of why we are here. But reflecting on God’s love also helps us understand the fitting priority list for our lives and that if we don’t worship rightly we cannot live rightly—and this is why I’m so proud of the “Worship, Teach, Serve” tagline.
Reflecting on worship and on what it means to build a fitting space for the “home base” of the Diocese (the baseball jokes continue) also means something else. It means that we realize our lives of faith mean more than the sense of community or feeling of belonging that we encounter when we gather for the liturgy. In the Mass and in other liturgies, we (the people of God) participate and pray in hope and in confidence of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us.
But we ourselves, though we are the people and the assembly of God, are not actually the main focus of the liturgy. The Mass and the liturgical life of the Church is not meant to inspire and entertain us, so that we come back next time for more. The liturgical life of the Church is meant to take all of us up into the love of the Trinity, so that we glorify our Creator and are strengthened by the sacraments in order that we may then go out and participate in the work of the Trinity. We do this by helping to sanctify the world with Christ’s love and Christ’s beauty. Paraphrasing Mother Teresa, we make something beautiful for God by our lives and our loves.
There’s a pertinent phrase in liturgical theology “lex orandi, lex credendi” that can help us think about this. It means that the law of prayer is the law of belief, or more colloquially, what we say in prayer reflects what we truly believe. Building decisions with churches and with this cathedral extends this “lex orandi, lex credendi” to “lex aedificandi, lex credendi.” Aedificandi means build, and so what we build and the way we build it reflects what we believe, too. In his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Denis McNamara says that “architecture is the built form of ideas; church architecture is the built form of theology. As go the ideas, so goes the architecture . . . all architectural decisions are theological decisions.”
Actually, the self-gift (kenosis) of Christ on the Cross forever changed the way that we see our lives and think about beauty. Because Christ’s gift of Himself to the point of death transformed even the worst suffering into the opportunity to give and in that giving to become something beautiful for God, everything in our lives can be transformed by Christ’s work on our behalf. Here and now, in our local churches, we have a chance to give of ourselves, in our daily life. This occurs for Christians all over the world in a significant way through the celebration of the liturgy. By investing prayer, thought, time, energy, and our own personal resources into the building of our local churches (both physically and metaphorically) we also participate in another way in that mystery of self-gift and self-emptying in order to help build the Kingdom of God in new ways.**
In the book Theology in Stone by Richard Kieckhefer, this theological understanding that what we build and the way we build it says something about what we believe is inferred from the title itself. Kieckhefer also makes the comment that
“art in a religious setting can serve as a sacrament of grace, and the capacity to see oneself as worthy of beauty is one dimension of recognizing oneself as by grace made worthy for grace—the sole condition for beginning to receive it” (99).
Our churches should be fitting, beautiful places for God to be housed, where we can enter more deeply into the mysteries of the Faith so that we can recognize that we are called to be where God is—because God is worthy of the beautiful. And since God is the author and source of all beauty, and since our ultimate call is to become more like God, we are worthy to sit and contemplate God’s love and God’s beauty in beautiful places so that in better understanding God’s beauty we can go into the world and share that beauty.
So how is a building project or thinking about building up and supporting a local church practicing Easter?
Many of our first readings in the Lectionary this time of the year are drawn from the Acts of the Apostles, where we hear the stories of the early Church growing and building, coming together to break bread and to hear the Word of God. In East Tennessee, we are building and re-building our growing local church, so that we may have a place to come together as an entire diocese. Like the members of the early Church, we do this so that we may hear the Word of God in the Scriptures and break bread together in the Eucharist. The book of Ecclesiastes helps us think about this in another way highlighting tbe seasonal, liturgical factor of life. There is a season for everything. The season of spring is baseball season, like I mentioned earlier. But in East Tennessee this year, spring is also church-building season. It is a stone-moving season, and a planting season for the seeds of faith.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together” (Eccl 3:1–5a)
At the end of his own season of building in Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella realizes that his baseball diamond building project was not about the baseball players who came, or the field for its own sake. Instead, it was actually about re-building his relationship with his own father, through a simple coming together in playing a game of catch. At the end of Field of Dreams, Ray is asked by his father, “Is this heaven?” Ray responds by stammering out, “…This.. it’s… it’s Iowa…”
In the movie Field of Dreams, because of his building project, Ray experiences the healing and growth of relationships in his life, including his father. The comparison with the Cathedral project in Knoxville wasn’t meant to be trite. Because in the building and completion of a Cathedral for the Church in East Tennessee (or anywhere where the people of God continue to build) we see a closer glimpse into the call of our eternal relationships with our Heavenly Father and with each other. Our Father in Heaven wants much more than the time spent in a game of catch with us; He wants time with us for all of eternity. The glimpses of that heavenly call show us little glances of the beauty of God’s image for the world in His new, restored creation made possible for us by Christ’s defeat of death and promise of eternal life.
East Tennessee isn’t heaven. But I swear, sometimes, it is pretty close. And I do think that the new Cathedral, upon its completion, will be a little bit like a glimpse into heaven.
**We obviously do this too by the way we serve the wider people of God. The website for the campaign, http://www.sacredheartcampaign.org/, puts it this way: “While we aspire to glorify God through our worship, we plan to continue our work to help the poor. The Diocese of Knoxville provides over $6 million in ongoing charitable services to the poor and marginalized every year. Over the next 5 years, we will have spent more on charitable initiatives than we will have spent on the building of the cathedral.”
Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith (2014) University of Notre Dame, Class of 2016
With confidence, I can unashamedly say that one of my favorite activities is tidying up. As I am a college student, this might sound a bit outrageous; but vacuuming rugs, putting my clothes away, and picking up after my roommates makes me happy because these things allow me to de-clutter and organize the world around me. Tidying up allows me to put something in order when everything else is busy, chaotic, and out ofmy control. It brings me a sense of peace, knowing that all of my stuff is organized and right where it should be.Though I do love tidyingup, what I don’t always love are those times when there are plenty of actual messes to clean up. More than once, I’ve woken up to find a couple of pizza sauce stains on the white couch, a bottle of purple Gatorade spilled onto the carpet, an overflowing trashcan giving off a pungent aroma, and crumbs everywhere (and I mean EVERYWHERE). Often when this happens, I freeze up, panic, and metaphorically (and/or physically) get into the fetal position. Messes that require a bit of tidying and organizing I can pretty well handle. But Stains? Spills?Messes that go beneath the surface?Not so much. One day during my sophomore year, I found myself frantically getting ready for class, running a lot more behind schedule than I wanted to be. Grabbing a bottle of lotion from the top of my dresser, I hurriedly opened the cap, only to watch in horror as the bottle flew from my grasp, tumbled out of my fingers and spilled all over my newly-vacuumed carpet. I’ll confess that the first thing to escape my lips was not a nice word. However, the second thing I uttered, which still surprises me, was Lord, give me patience. After a messy and exhausting first semester,that phrase seemed to connect the dots with many of the difficult and overwhelming things I had been struggling with.
When my brother told my family he was gay a year and a half ago, I spent much of my time avoiding deep conversation with him—or any conversation at all, really—in my effort to maintain the same image I once had of him. When a friend of mine was accused of sexually assaulting another student at Notre Dame, I tried to ignore the problem by shutting him out, because I didn’t want to have to help him deal with the mess he had created. When I myselfexperienced a scare with cancer, I tried to put the fears and anxieties I had about my potentialsickness-filled future into the back of my head, and instead I pretended like everything was fine. I avoided letting these issues break open into my daily life by simply pretending they weren’t there.I feared that if I did acknowledge them, I wouldn’t be able to handle them. As long as everything was tidy, I was okay. In a lot of ways, I imagine myself to be like Martha, in the Scripture story when Jesus visits her home.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Lk 10:38–40)
Martha spends her time frantically cleaning, cooking, and tidying up her house forJesus’stay. In her hurried effort to get everything all ready, she forgets what’s right in frontof her: Love itself, in the person of Jesus, her friend.
The bottle of lotion spilling all over the floor and making me late to class wasn’t only the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was a mess I couldn’t just tidy up. I had to stop what I was doing, get on my hands and knees, and really work to get it all off the rug. In the same way, I found that trying to put all my problems in neat little boxes and stick lids on themdidn’t fix them. Instead, they sat there accumulating dust, itching to be broken open and worked through.Inevitably, all of these situations in my life did eventually break open, and I could no longer ignore them. I had to acknowledge my overwhelming desire to become close to my brother again. I had to reach out to my friend from college who needed someoneto talk to—someone to help him through his rough time. And I had to address my own anxieties about my health, and about what was in store for me in the future. In removing the lids from my boxes of problems and sorting through the contents, I realized that for a long time, my life had needed a deep cleaning. With my brother, this required having plenty of conversations, gradually getting to know him for who he really was, not for who he had always pretended to be. With my friend, it meant allowing him to share his own worries and anxieties with me, instead of just brushing them off or ignoring them. With my health, it meant taking it all in stride, coming to terms with the reality of the situation, and embracing it for what it was. In all these situations, deep cleaning was the only way I was truly going to work through these problems. Like Martha, I had to realize that deep cleaning came in the attention I paid to Christ. It wasn’t getting on my hands and knees to work a stain out of the rug on my own, it was getting on my hands and knees in prayerful meditation, offering up those stains to Christ.
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and itwill not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:41–42)
I found that my worries and struggles werebetter understoodand seen in a new ways after I had spent time in Mass, meditative reflection and prayer. It was only when I spent time in silence with Christ that I was able to slow down, process all that had happened, and then move forward. Mary, Martha’s sister, understood that the only thing in her life that could remain constant and steady was Christ.I needed to be a little bit more like Mary. Though my room might be clean, the world around me will most likely be pretty messy. Messes are always going to be made, but it’s how I go about handling them that makes all the difference. Taking my messes to Christ and offering up my struggles to him transforms my stresses and anxieties into points of deeper union with him. Despite all the challenging experiences I’ve faced, I’ve foundthat Jesus is the order I need.
Several weeks ago, I received (as a dear gift from my undergraduates) a flu-like illness. The sickness started out as what seemed like a mere cold with the arrival of congestion in the middle of the night. Yet immediately after teaching an 8:00 AM class, my body began to rebel against my plan for a full day of work. Chills overtook me. Fever increased. I felt like someone had smacked each of my joints with a hammer. I traversed home, quarantining myself in the bedroom. For three days, as I let the illness unfold, I was cut off from seeing my toddler son and my wife (except for the briefest moments). My self-inflicted quarantine ended only after going to the doctor, where I received the news that my illness was not the flu but some other virus (which incidentally leaves open the possibility of getting the flu in the future).
Suffering through this rather marginal illness was an invitation to reflect upon the frailty of human nature in the early days of the season of Lent. An academic, fall and spring semesters are (in my own imagination) meant to function devoid of any interruption to my well-laid plans. Courses must be taught. Emails must be sent. Meetings must be had. Writing must be done. Any interruption to my very rigid and important schedule must be avoided at all costs.
Yet, this virus was not particularly interested in assisting me with staying on schedule. The idol of routine was interrupted by the sickness, forcing me to recognize (once again) that despite my ambition to master human existence, I cannot do so. That I am not a disembodied will, capable of carrying out whatever I hope to achieve. Rather, as an embodied creature, existing in time and space, I am subject to atrophy. It is not just my schedule or routine that is falling apart. With the passing of each day, I move closer to the reality of my own final act of dying.
Modern life has (thankfully to a certain extent) isolated us from the fact of our own death. Most illness is generally treatable. Fever and joint pain can be lowered and alleviated through the taking of Advil. Congestion can be cleared through cold medicine. We experience such illness as a momentary interruption to our schedule, rather than the shadow of death. Suffering can be eased.
Yet, there is something about such illness (even when marginal) that serves as a salutary sign of that final illness of which there will be no healing. That sickness in which pain and suffering will pass not through the instruments of medicine but only because we have taken our final breath. Sickness, in such moments, forces us to examine the purpose of our existence. Is my life full of meaning? Have I loved well? Have I conformed myself to the Eucharistic gift of love revealed in Christ? Have I given all away in love?
Of course, there is a further foretaste of death that often takes place in such illness. The communion with one another that we practice on a daily basis (conversation with co-workers, intimacy with family members) is at least momentarily snuffed out. After two days of being at home, my son finally realized that I was in fact in our house, hiding from him. He broke into my room of convalescence, seeking a hug. Denied this hug, he left the room, aware that for some reason I was avoiding physical contact with him. Indeed, is this cutting off of communion, of contact, not that which is most terrifying in sickness and death alike? As Joseph Ratzinger writes:
Sickness is described within the epithets that belong to death. It pushes man [and woman] into a realm of noncommunication, apparently destroying the relationships that make life what it is. For the sick person, the social fabric falls apart just as much as the inner structure of the body. The invalid is excluded from the circle of his [her] friends, and from the community of those who worship God. He [she] labors in the clutches of death, cut off from the land of the living. So sickness belongs in death’s sphere; or better, death is conceived as a sphere whose circumference is dereliction, isolation, loneliness, and thus abandonment to nothingness (Eschatology, 81).
Sickness and death are so terrifying, not simply because we are afraid to deal with physical suffering. Rather, sickness and death alike function as temptations to perceive in the world nothing but meaningless. To see all love as nothing but a fading light, the sunset of meaning itself.
In coming face-to-face with the frailty of the human condition in the midst of sickness, we are not like those who gaze into the darkness devoid of hope. Rather, the isolation that we experience while immersed in the totalizing worldview of sickness and death is an invitation to thrust ourselves upon the mercy of God, who binds every wound and heals the malaise of meaninglessness. As the celebration of Easter itself will demonstrate, we do not worship a God, who spurned sickness and death but offered himself in love. Jesus Christ, who did not let the meaninglessness of death win out but instead loved even into the creeping darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday alike.
Being sick in the midst of Lent is therefore, in some small way, a gift. It invites the believer to acknowledge the poverty of his or her own existence. And to thrust oneself, if we dare, upon the prodigal love of the God-person, Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead. Whose conquering of sickness and death did not erase illness from the human condition. But, through the resurrected light of the cross, has made it possible for all illness to be understood anew in light of the resurrection.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life