This week I’m writing from the beautiful Black Rock Retreat Center in south central PA, attending the week-long “Head and Heart” Immersion Course offered by the Theology of the Body Institute, to seep in the teachings of Blessed John Paul II on the sacramental view of the human body, and in particular through our sexuality.
I won’t kid you, it has also been an excellent opportunity for me to catch up on some much-needed rest. No television or email in the room (I was warned there would be no Diet Coke machines, either, so I came fortified).
For the past two days I’ve been listening to Christopher talk about God’s plan for the human race from the beginning (“original man”), the restoration of what was lost in the Fall (“historical man”) and our ultimate destiny as the Bride of Christ in the marriage feast of the Lamb (“eschatological man”). All this was helpful in the way of professional development . . . but what helped me most, personally speaking, was something he said Sunday night about the role of suffering in the Christian life: that the “prayer of ecstasy” (think “The Ecstasy of Teresa of Avila by Bernini,” pictured here) is always preceded by the “prayer of agony.”
Christopher explained that, because of sin, the human heart becomes so hard (he called it “full of vinegar,”) it cannot receive the honey of God’s abundant love. In order to prepare us to receive this abundant grace, God has to empty the vinegar and soften our hearts — something that takes place only through suffering. He was quoting from St. Benedict’s “Spe Salvi,” p. 33:
Augustine refers to Saint Paul, who speaks of himself as straining forward to the things that are to come (cf. Phil 3:13). He then uses a very beautiful image to describe this process of enlargement and preparation of the human heart. “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God’s tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined. Even if Augustine speaks directly only of our capacity for God, it is nevertheless clear that through this effort by which we are freed from vinegar and the taste of vinegar, not only are we made free for God, but we also become open to others. It is only by becoming children of God, that we can be with our common Father.
As a Catholic, I believe in the concept of “redemptive suffering,” that the pain we bear in this life can be applied in effective intercession for our own intentions and on behalf of those for whom we pray. This “prayer of agony” is aptly named . . . of course none of us would choose it. But in accepting it, even embracing it, we allow God to bring something good out of it. That is my hope. That is my prayer: that at the end of the pain, comes the joy.
Saint Teresa of Avila, pray for us!
The Gospel of Mark is quickly becoming my favorite because he packs so much into a few short words. His stories are spare and to-the-point … but every so often he slips in a phrase or detail that makes you go, “Hmmm…”
Sunday’s Gospel reading is like that. In the story of the apostles on the sea with the Lord, being tossed about until He speaks a word that make “the wind and waves obey Him,” it would be easy to miss one little phrase Mark slips in there as he tells the story (Mark 4:35-41):
“Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus with them in the boat just as he was.
And other boats were with him.”
What boats? You may well ask. As the squalls kicked up, all but capsizing the fishing boat in which the Lord and His disciples were resting … we must assume that the surrounding boats were in similar straits. Being thrashed and buffeted by the prevailing wind and rain. Their occupants similarly terrified. Perhaps even more so — they didn’t have Jesus in their boat!
There are some situations in life that, honestly, I don’t know how you endure without faith. The death of a loved one. A shattering disappointment. A brush with your own mortality. Being a Christian doesn’t anesthetize us to the real pain these situations inflict upon the heart. But it does — or at least should — make a difference in how we process that suffering.
It is blatantly dishonest to deny the existence of the pain. Even the Lord Himself cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The pain is real, and it can be life-altering.
However, for the Christian, our grief need not define us, or cause us to founder and go under. Rather, faith lends a vital perspective — that Someone bigger and wiser than us holds those mysteries in His hands, and will entrust them to us when the time is right.
Photo Credit: Rembrandt by Valtora
I’d prefer to keep the details of the first occasion to myself, but I wanted to share the second one with you here. This snippet from “Britain Has Talent” is a rare gem from a middle-aged Catholic woman named Susan Boyle who dedicated her entire life to tending to her parents … and only after they had died got a chance to fulfill her own dream and her mother’s last request, to share her gift, publicly, with the world. Check out this YouTube bit … you’ll be glad to hear that some dreams never die … and reminded that not all Extraordinary Moms tend to children. Some care for parents as well.
And if you’re still feeling a bit blue, check out this beautiful video sent to me by my friend Deb Elmore. If anyone knows the original artist please let me know, as I would love to give credit to him or her!
I’ve put both links in the “inspirational” section of the blogroll, in case you need them again.
Update: On April 15 I got a note from Ben’s mother, thanking me for the post … and letting me know that, two years after Ben’s death, they adopted two girls from Russia!
On March 29, 2002 — Good Friday seven years ago — three-year-old Ben Packard suddenly died of croup. His parents desperately wanted to find a way to bring some kind of healing out of their personal tragedy.
They created “Ben’s Bells” to recognize acts of kindness in their community — in their own words, “to inspire, educate, and motivate each other to realize the impact of intentional kindness and to empower individuals to act accordingly to that awareness, thereby changing our world.”
“Ben’s Bells,” grew to become a community effort that recognizes the power of kindness. In memory of little Ben, people in the Tucson, Arizona area gather to create these beautiful ceramic windchimes … and send them to selected recipients (it’s called “belling”), whose act of kindness has made a difference in the life of local residents. To date more than 11,000 sets of bells have been distributed.
One of the recent recipients of this award are foster parents Barbara and James Reyes, whose story was run in the Arizona Daily Star last February.
Ben’s mother Jeannette tells their story here. The site offers instructions on how to start a chapter of the “Bells” in your own community as well!
This week the Knights of Columbus are doing their annual “Tootsie Roll Drive” to benefit local mental health support services, including the St. Louis Center and Special Olympics. We hand out Tootsie Rolls in exchange for small donations.
In one sense, we could have picked a better weekend. It was cold and blustery, spitting little raindrops intermittently against pavement and eyeglasses and turning our hands to red, chapped icesicles. On the other hand, the sight of us hunched against the cold seemed to make people dig more deeply as they tossed change into our buckets.
Not everyone, of course … Some averted their eyes as they dashed past. But most had a kindly expression as they handed over their dollars. One store owner even brought me a cup of tea and invited me to stand in the entranceway, out of the cold.
I was proud of Craig, who actually chased people with shopping carts to their cars for a contribution. He came back with a full can. I waved and held the door open for restaurant patrons that didn’t seem to see me standing there … and returned with the bottom of my bucket about an inch deep.
I couldn’t help but think about the young men and women served by the organizations we were collecting for. How often do they feel invisible, as though people are embarrassed at the sight of them? Do they ever feel like charity cases, rather than valuable human beings deserving a little support?
When was the last time I gave one of them a cup of tea … just because I was glad they were there?
The other day “Mighty Mom” sent me this link to a moving story about a mother who chose life for her daughter, despite having every medical reason not to do so!
Thanks, Sarah, for being willing to share your story. Your mom sounds like an amazing woman.
(At the author’s request, this story may not be reproduced without her permission. But please do follow the link and read it … you’ll be glad you did!)
Happy Martin Luther King Day! Today is a great day to celebrate people with a dream, and I’d like to share one with you today!
I recently received a message from my friend Julie, about an inspiring father-and-son team that offers another good example of what miracles love can do. Dick and Rick Hoyt are a father-and-son team from Massachusetts who together compete in marathons and triathalons … even though Rick can neither speak nor walk.
Check out THE VIDEO(below)….
Throughout the Gospels, we encounter figures who are largely hidden, taking center stage for the briefest moments before returning to the shadows. Their reward, you see, was not an earthly one … any more than ours is. And yet, there is much we can learn from them if we only have “ears to hear.”
And so, on this the last weekend of the year, I introduce you to one of the EMs of the Gospel: Anna the Prophetess. From this weekend’s readings, taken from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke:
There was also a prophetess, Anna,
the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.
She was advanced in years,
having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage,
and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.
She never left the temple,
but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.
And coming forward at that very time,
she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child
to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.
According to tradition (as recorded in the “Protoevangelium of James” par 7), Joachim and Anne (called “Anna” in this account) took their precious daughter Mary to the Temple at the tender age of three. There she remained, learning to serve God with purity of heart until she was twelve, when her protector Joseph was selected.
In today’s Gospel, we read of Anna — a widow who remained in the Temple after being widowed as a young bride. When she saw Mary enter with her Son and husband, Anna was irresistibly drawn to the Holy Family. Was it simply the guidance of the Holy Spirit … Or was it something else?
Could it be that, as a young widow, Anna had tended to young Mary in the Temple, as her own spiritual daughter? Did she teach her to pray, and guide the delicate Rose of Sharon to attain full bloom? Was she for Mary … an extraordinary mother? And was it this attachment … that caused Anna to see with the eyes of faith the special calling God had given not only this beautiful young woman, but her Son as well?
On the practical side, I could use a talking doll that says, “Yes, Mommy!” to boost my parental confidence, along with two kids who don’t fight, and three pairs of jeans that will zip all the way up without the use of power tools.
Well, Santa, the buzzer on the dryer is calling and my son saw my feet under the laundry room door. I think he wants his crayon back. Have a safe trip and remember to leave your wet boots by the door and come in and dry off so you don’t catch cold. Help yourself to cookies on the table, but don’t eat too many or leave crumbs on the carpet.