A Small Step

Mustard seed

By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties. — Pope Francis

My sagely grandfather once wrote me in a letter, “Never be discouraged by your shortcomings, Tommy. Use them to stretch your soul. Remember, your greatest virtues are not those that come naturally but ones nearly impossible to perform. Holding a sharp tongue once far surpasses in worth a surplus of easily spoken kind words. Cracking a feeble smile from a dim soul to lift an ignoble lout vastly outshines the outpouring of exuberant joy from a bright heart lavished on a cheery friend. Value the difficult good things in life most. Every day, your next best step.”

That’s writing.

So often people who strive to live a life of faith share with me a deep exasperation over their inability to do all the good they wish, pray as they would hope, forgive as they must, be patient as they desire, and so on. They are hemmed in by a thousand limits, internal and external, and become discouraged, frustrated, angry, guilt-ridden. I understand this so well. Yet the beauty of our God! Revealed for who-He-is in a cradle and on a cross, He is irresistibly drawn to small spaces, inconvenient circumstances, tiny mustard seeds. He, lover of the Widow’s Mite, dances over fitful acts of faith, hope and love. He is absurdly pleased with our pathetic nothings, born of heartfelt sincerity, steeped in reckless trust, all the while surrendered to His boundless mercy.

I know a Catholic woman with lots of children who felt for years like she was a failure in her spiritual life because of her inability to make any significant time for focused prayer or to muster any meaningful feelings of devotion when she finally found time. She said guilt and anger became her primary spiritual disposition toward God. Then she met a contemplative Carmelite nun in Rhode Island to whom she confided her struggle. She said the nun floored her when she said, “What God gives to me in 6 hours of prayer a day, He gives to you in the few minutes you consecrate to Him. The joy He takes in my silent contemplation is exceeded by the joy He takes in your harried frustration, given over to Him. Your desire to please Him renders all of the walls around you into an iconostasis.”

What.

The woman said to me, “Those words are what I call my ‘Get out of jail free’ card. I was let out of my prison of guilt that day.”

This made me think of 4th century Church Father, St. Gregory Nazianzen’s tender words, “God accepts our desires as though they were of great value. He longs ardently for us to desire and love Him. He accepts our petitions as benefits as though we were doing Him a favor. His joy in giving is greater than ours in receiving.”

So when you feel most useless, helpless, feckless, aimless, wrap it up in faith, light it up with hope and send it up with love into the Heart of God. But be ready. Out of that pierced Heart floods a raging fountain of mercy, and mercy takes no prisoners.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

“For I am compassionate” — Exodus 22:26

In honor of today’s readings at Mass, a few of my personal favorite quotes.

Just as love for God makes it possible to love our neighbor, love for neighbor makes it possible for us to love God. This was a mutually reinforcing mode of love by which Christians achieved perfection in virtue. For [St.] Maximus this perfection was virtually synonymous with divinization. People become like God and assimilate themselves to God according to the extent to which their love of neighbor imitates divine compassion. — Susan Wessel

I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least. ― Servant of God Dorothy Day

[God the Father said:] Your love should be sincere. You should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love me. Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you. From these and from many other things you should be able to tell if your love for me and for your neighbors is still imperfect and that you have been drinking from your vessel outside of the fountain, even though your love was drawn from me. But it is because your love for me is imperfect that you show it so imperfectly to those you love with a spiritual love. — St. Catherine of Siena

Such are the souls of the saints: they love their enemies more than themselves, and in this age and in the age to come they put their neighbor first in all things, even though because of his ill-will he may be their enemy. They do not seek recompense from those whom they love, but because they have themselves received they rejoice in giving to others all that they have, so that they may conform to their Benefactor and imitate His compassion to the best of their ability; ‘for He is bountiful to the thankless and to sinners’ (cf. Luke 6:35). —  St. Peter of Damaskos

The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question. — Nicholas Berdyaev

There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over choice of floor covering. — St. Ambrose

If in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties’, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper’, but loveless. ― Pope Benedict XVI

Tempted by Good

[re-post from 2015]

A few scattered thoughts today taken from old notes I have from a series on discernment I taught back in the 1990s.

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A Missionary of Charity Sister at the Gift of Peace home for the homeless and dying in Washington, D.C. once shared with me something she said Mother Teresa taught the M.C. Sisters. I’ve always found it helpful:

The devil very often tempts the good with good things, so that good people, distracted by things they should not be doing, compromise the few good things they should be doing. So instead of doing what they’ve been called to do well, they do many good things God never asked them to do, and poorly.

I am convinced from personal experience that the greater part of good discernment is not discerning what to do but what not to do. Frequently in my experience that’s the origin of burnout, bitterness and disillusionment among good-willed people who are not careful to observe limits and remain in them. Many lurking motives drive people’s departure into diversionary good-deeds that exceed healthy limits, including: (1) fleeing from emotional pain in other parts of life, (2) being driven by guilt, (3) fear of confronting others with a “no” or (4) the compulsive need for approval and praise from others.

That’s why the “discerning life” is crucial, which daily examines not only what good should be done, but why it should be done and what good fruits one should look to see. According to Fr. Jordan Aumann, good fruits especially important to see include the enhancement of one’s primary vocational commitments, peace and joy, while bad fruits include distraction from one’s primary vocational commitments, inner restlessness, confusion, obsessiveness and doubt. While the virtue of zeal (passion in doing good for God) keeps us in hot pursuit of excellence, the virtue of meekness (recognizing and embracing one’s limited role in the Body of Christ) resists the temptation to always be restless, unsettled, unsatisfied with the limits of one’s present life-mission; always itching for “something else.” Surface-skimming dilettantes, who balk or flee at the first sign of adversity, opposition or boredom, fail to recognize and seize the opportunities to sink deep roots of virtue into the present moment.

Opportunities for greatness, like the commandments of God, are never far out of reach for the meek:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. — Exodus 30:11-14

Years ago my spiritual director said to me:

Over the years I have moved from doing more than I should, to being content with doing all that is possible, to simply embracing what I’ve been called by God to do. And I discovered that, beneath my evasion of God’s will was not just pride but sloth.

As I was unfamiliar with what sloth meant in that regard, he shared with me St. John of the Cross’ words on sloth. This vantage, he said, helped him immensely in his growth embracing the “reality God,” as he put it, and not the “fantasy God.”

Since [the slothful] are so used to finding delight in spiritual practices, they become bored when they do not find it. If they do not receive in prayer the satisfaction they crave for after all it is fit that God withdraw this so as to try them — they do not want to return to it, or at times they either give up prayer or go to it begrudgingly. Because of their sloth, they subordinate the way of perfection (which requires denying one’s own will and satisfaction for God) to the pleasure and delight of their own will. As a result they strive to satisfy their own will rather than God’s. Many of these beginners want God to desire what they want, and they become sad if they have to desire God’s will. They feel an aversion toward adapting their will to God’s. Hence they frequently believe that what is not their will, or brings them no satisfaction, is not God’s will, and, on the other hand, that if they are satisfied, God is too. They measure God by themselves and not themselves by God, which is in opposition to his teaching in the Gospel that those who lose their life for his sake will gain it and those who desire to gain it will lose it.

Beginners also become bored when told to do something unpleasant. Because they look for spiritual gratifications and delights, they are extremely lax in the fortitude and labor perfection demands. Like those who are reared in luxury, they run sadly from everything rough, and they are scandalized by the cross, in which spiritual delights are found. And in the more spiritual exercises their boredom is greater. Since they expect to go about in spiritual matters according to the whims and satisfactions of their own will, entering by the narrow way of life, about which Christ speaks, is saddening and repugnant to them.

Holy Spirit, lead me in the way of your will…

The One who answers the cry

[Jesus said,] because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you (John 16:6-7).

The sense of divine absence, of God being silent, inactive, distant, opaque as we face the trials that life brings our way … Any person of faith who has journeyed long enough has felt this. How do you face it? How do you pray in it? I think of St. Augustine’s musing on this:

Who would choose troubles and hardships? You command us to endure them, but not to love them. No-one loves what he has to endure, even if he loves the endurance, for although he may rejoice in his power to endure, he would prefer to have nothing that demands endurance. In adverse circumstances I long for prosperity, and in times of prosperity I dread adversity. What middle ground is there, between these two, where human life might be free from trial? Woe betide worldly prosperity, and woe again, from fear of disaster and evanescent joy! But woe, woe, and woe again upon worldly adversity, from envy of better fortune, the hardship of adversity itself, and the fear that endurance may falter. Is not human life on earth a time of testing without respite?

On your exceedingly great mercy, and on that alone, rests all my hope.

During the two years I spent reading endless commentaries on St John of the Cross’ writings for my dissertation, I wrote this line: “We very naturally long for the awareness of God’s presence, for a sense of inner fullness, and so desire to be filled with divine light always. Yet, faith is no such thing. St. John is quite unambiguous that, in this life, it is God’s felt absence, faith’s entry into the divine darkness that is the greater form of encounter with His presence. This insight from John floored me today: Absence is God’s presence under the form of yearning. For John, it is hunger and thirst, panting and yearning alone that stretch our capacity to receive the One who ever-exceeds our capacity and calls us into the deeper.”

Again, I think of Augustine:

You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Then I thought: During the Mass, the moment when the priest begs the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine to transform them into the Risen Christ is called the epiclesis, which in Greek means “to cry out to.” Not to ask calmly, dispassionately, as if for some nice addition to life. No! To recognize what we seek is required for life itself, for any and all good things.

Epiclesis! Such a priestly prayer, which is for all of us to pray always in the “liturgy of life,” to me resembles hungry baby birds in the nest begging, stretching, pleading, clamoring desperately when the parent comes with food. Not because they don’t believe the parent wishes to feed them, but because they believe she does. But there’s more here. It was Jean Vanier who, years ago, made for me the astonishing link between this Greek word for the human cry to God (epiclesisand the Greek word Jesus uses to name the coming-Spirit, the Paraclete. Both words contain the verb kalein, “to call/cry out.” As Vanier says,

The cry for communion in the poor and the broken makes us touch our own inner pain. We discover our own brokenness and the barriers inside of us, which have gradually been formed during our childhood to save us from inner pain. These barriers prevent us from being present to others, in communion with others; they incite us to compete and to dominate others. It is when we have realized this that we cry out to God. And then we meet the “Paraclete” (Holy Spirit) whom Jesus and the Father have promised to send us. The word “paracleta” means “the one who answers the cry.”

The Paraclete, then, is the presence of God under the form of epiclesis, crying out, yearning. My God!

In the Mass, the Paraclete comes and transubstantiates a bit of food and drink into the New Creation, which is itself the answer to every human cry for justice, mercy, peace, love, life… It is this form of Presence, effected by the meeting of cry-and-Answer, that we call Real in the Holy Eucharist, the Medicine of Immortality given to us by our crucified and risen God-with-us. He, the One who cried out from the Cross, is the One who, in the words of St. Maximus, “longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.”

And those of us who dare to consume this Food and Drink, receiving the Answer, consent to become “one who answers the cry.”

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. — Matt. 25:35-36

Baptism is the source of being

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[Pardon the length, and the fact that so much of my work of late has become a variation on one theme. But is has captured my soul!]

Incorporation into Christ through faith and Baptism is the source of being a Christian in the mystery of the Church. In Christ who died and rose from the dead, the baptized become a “new creation”, washed clean from sin and brought to life through grace. — St. John Paul II

The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God. ― Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar

Someone said to me the other evening that because he was not able to go to daily Mass that day  — he had some especially intense family and work commitments — he felt “spiritually empty and sad.” When I asked him why he said, “Because I didn’t get my daily dose of grace.”

Now, I am a huge proponent and practitioner of daily Mass and am convinced it offers immense benefits for one’s life. And I wish more people struggled with his issue! But…

I think that sometimes Catholics can “externalize” the sources of grace God has entrusted to us and imagine that the sacramental life is more like getting a “fill” at the gas station and less like the progressive unsealing of the fountain of life that upwells deep within.

When I was writing my dissertation on St. John of the Cross, I made hundreds of pages of notes on everything I read. I would like to share a particular entry relevant to this gentleman’s spiritual struggle. When I wrote this entry in 2006, I had just read an article on the striking absence in St. John’s works of any significant mention of the role of the Eucharist in the mystical life. I wrote [slightly edited with new insights]:

In the context of the Council of Trent’s massive emphasis on the role of the Sacraments and Holy Mass in Christian piety, John’s near silence is really striking. Certainly different from Teresa. But it is very much in keeping with strands of medieval mystical traditions. What’s clear is that John is eminently interested in the cultivation of what has already been received in Baptism, and Baptism’s seal, Confirmation. John’s whole vision is built on this premise: because of Baptism, the Kingdom of God is within awaiting our permission to wage ‘bellum caritate’ [the battle of love] and render us conquered and capable of divine love. For John, the life of grace inaugurated in Baptism incites God’s revolution.

Baptism is the key salvation event when the Sower planted in my soul a seed of divine life, poised to germinate and grow into a massive “Tree of Life” that fills heaven and earth with its healing leaves and life-giving fruit. Baptism opened up in my soul a fountain of living water, welling up with the eternally proceeding Spirit. Baptism renovated my body into a Temple of the Trinity — St. Paul says my body is a naos, the Holy of Holies (1 Cor. 6:19; Gal. 2:20!). Baptism knitted me to all of the baptized as a single Body in which the divine Glory has chosen to abide forever. Baptism infused into my soul the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity that make finite-me “capable of God.” Baptism gave me a share in Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the end-game being the conquest of sin and death in me. Baptism gave me re-birth, making me a child of God whose vantage and privileges are those of the Son of God. Baptism marked me indelibly with Christ’s priesthood, empowering me to co-offer my body with His to the Father, on behalf of all and for all. Baptism empowered me to love others with the very love of the crucified God Himself. Baptism made of me a new creation, an outpost of the coming Kingdom established behind enemy lines, to commence the making new of all things with the newness of the new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).

These are simply a few of the effects of Baptism. All of this I bear  within me, when I run in the way of His commands.

« Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God » – St. Leo the Great

Take my breath away.

All other Sacraments flow from, perfect and flow back to Baptism. It is the primal Sacrament that makes of each Christian a microcosm and mediator, revealing our interior life to be the goal of the journey. My heart is the nexus of matter and spirit. In each of us the whole of creation is redeemed, if we permit it to be. Fiat lux, fiat mihi. Even the Holy Eucharist, the consummation, source and summit of Christian life, has as its telos, its goal my interior life: “Take, eat; take, drink.” Proclamation is toward hearing, consecration is ordered toward consumption, Eucharistic ingestion toward interiority. At Mass, even my sacrificial Oblation, with the heart’s upward turn (sursum corda!), offers Heaven the fuelwood I have gathered from Earth within my heart. When we receive the Eucharist, we consume Fire, and when we exit Church — Ite, missa est! — we are to exhale the Fire within.

The whole mystery of the divine economy is already fully present within us, awaiting our Yes to receive and expend its riches on the world.

It wasn’t lost on John that his experience of “transforming union” with Jesus during the brutal nine months he spent in prison took place while he was deprived of the Sacraments, as he lived under an ex-communication imposed by his own religious Order. Unable to celebrate or attend Mass, receive sacramental Confession. All he had was the Fire within, kindled by Baptism. In him was the City of God, “whose fire is in Zion, and whose furnace is in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 31:9). John allowed the massive mystery of Baptismal grace to unleash the Refiner’s Fire, removing all in him that prevented a union in love with Christ.

Holy Orders exists to amplify, augment, intensify, nurture, draw out, liberate within the faithful the inestimable riches they have received in Baptism. Holy Matrimony exists to amplify, augment, intensify, nurture, draw out, liberate within a man and woman the inestimable riches they have received in Baptism, so they might, with Fires entwined, co-consecrate the world to God and lead it in its journey back to the Marriage Feast of Eden.

In the first centuries of Christianity, daily Mass only very slowly evolved as a practice — largely in monastic contexts. Sunday was understood to be the central Eucharistic event of the week. The six other days of prayers-works-joys-sufferings in the world were for gathering the material (bread, wine, alms) for the Holy Sacrifice on the Eighth Day.

So if you cannot make daily Mass because you are attending to the vocational demands of life (that flow from Baptism), remember you are far from empty. My God. Within you rages the everlasting Flame, the entire mystery of heaven and earth, of grace and nature, of God and man. Be attentive and give thanks that such exalted celestial Treasures have been emptied into such lowly earthen vessels.

Let me (again) conclude with Audrey Assad’s wonderful allegory of the journey of Christian life. Beginning with Baptism (in which we acquire the divine Fire and are wedded to Christ), the Bride, dressed in her white baptismal gown, walks with fierce intent toward the Kingdom through the trials and temptations that threaten to distract her from the ultimate End. Having reached the end of the journey in death, the faithful Christian, entering the spacious Land of Promise, in a final act of oblation casts the divine Fire on the all the material she has gathered throughout her life and offers it up into the new creation (1 Cor. 3:12-16!).

Parents and Godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. She is to walk always as a child of the light. May she keep the flame of faith alive in in her heart. When the Lord comes, may she go out to meet Him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom. – Rite of Baptism for Children, §100

When American poet Robert Frost was in his 60’s and was asked to reflect on his life, he responded:

I am no longer concerned with good and evil. What concerns me is whether my offering will be acceptable.

“A (lay) Woman clothed with the sun” — Revelation 12:1

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Willing to set up an image of all goodness and beauty and to make clearly manifest His own, in her, to both angels and men, God fashioned a being supremely good and beautiful, uniting in her all good, seen and unseen, which when He made the world He distributed to each thing and thereby adorned all. Or rather one might say, He showed her forth as a universal mixing bowl of all divine, angelic and human things good and beautiful and the supreme beauty which embellished both worlds. By her rising now from the tomb, she is taken from the earth and attains to Heaven and this also she surpasses, uniting those on high with those below, and encompassing all with the wondrous deed wrought in her. — St. Gregory Palamas

Today the Church celebrates the “summer Pascha,” the August Easter, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary body and soul into heaven. This is a day of great joy for us, as it celebrates the fulfillment of all human longing in immortal glory. If we grasp this point, and believe that in Holy Mass God smashes the glassy pane of time to reach us, our language of “holy day of obligation” to describe our motive for Mass attendance transitions from blind obedience to joyful duty. The Obliged blurt out, “How can I keep from singing?”

I must interject…

All that we say of the Virgin Mary we say of the Church, since she is the God-etched icon of the Church in all her perfection. Though Mary was given an absolutely singular vocation to give flesh to God, we the baptized are given a share in all that she was and is. She is spes nostra, “our hope.”

So much to say! Let me share a few scattered musings I wrote in my journal over the weekend praying on this Feast Day. These thoughts reiterate my core theological interests that I have shared here again and again.

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The Virgin Mary, who is the highest honor of our race, is a laywoman. She embodies the fullness of the baptismal vocation and mission given to the lay faithful. She was a daughter of Israel, a small town girl, a wife, a mother, a teacher and disciple of her Son.

Her identity is wholly defined by her baptism, though her baptism was utterly unique. Her immaculate conception in the womb of St. Anne was a proto- and prevenient baptism, which not only preserved her from sin but regenerated her as the New Eve. In this baptized conception, Mary was saved by the death and resurrection of her Son not yet conceived in her womb. Think on that for a moment. God, who created time, revealed in Christ the capacity of time to accommodate itself to God’s eternal saving plan in which Christ is its Alpha and Omega. As the Catechism says:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin (#491).

Mary was redeemed by God her Savior in a way unlike the rest of us. She was saved to the roots of her being (sanatio in radice), freed from every effect of sin, so she could give birth to the all-holy God with full freedom and be a sign of hope to humanity that radical redemption is our calling and destiny. Like her Son (Heb. 4:15), she suffered the buffets of sin, while preserving her innocence, even sharing in Christ’s death mystically at the foot of the Cross and physically at the end of her life, before being raised into bodily glory.

As with us, her baptism conferred on her a share in the offices of priest, prophet and queen.

As priest, she consecrated the world to God by her soulful ‘Yes’ that permitted God to enter and penetrate into the heart of creation to consecrate the world to God (John 17:19). In her, the Father united all things to Himself through His and her Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. The devotional tradition of consecrating oneself to Mary’s Immaculate Heart is a magnificent means of joining our baptismal priesthood to hers, and sharing in her prototypical ‘Yes’ to God. The world, which emerges as freshly created at every new moment in history, awaits our yeses in order to share in the supreme act of consecration one-for-all effected by Jesus in Mary. Each Yes we pronounce allows the coming of our rescuing-God, who longs to make all things new. Like her Son (Heb. 7:25), Mary spends her heaven doing good on earth by ceaselessly interceding for our pilgrim Church marching through this valley of tears.

As prophet, she proclaims and enfleshes the Word of God by her life. Simply by who she is, she proclaims the greatness of the Lord and magnifies God her Savior. She alone bears the Word of God in its totality, and so she “who pondered these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19) is the absolute summation and embodiment of the living Tradition. Therefore, she alone is fully catholic, possessing a universal vocation of prophetic witness to all humanity, showing us what it means to be wholly defined by the eternal Word of the Father. As Ark of the New Covenant, she bears within herself “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19), which is also the vocation of the entire Church. Because Mary is a fully catholic human person, she is our universal Mother.

As queen, she has been commissioned to cooperate with Christ the King in His redemptive governance of all creation, leading all into the new creation. She bears the whole Church’s Christ-given mission to wage “paschal combat” against the powers of darkness. She whose “let it be done” echoed God’s “let there be light” (Gen. 1:3; Luke 1:38), who is Queen of Light, has been given authority over the Prince of Darkness, crushing him with her beautiful feet that still hasten to carry the Gospel of God, Jesus Christ, to all she is sent to greet (Gen. 3:15; Is. 52:7; Luke 1:39-45).

I remember in my Mariology (theology of Mary) class in grad school my professor said, after discussing the “singular privileges” of Mary,

In Judaism, the idea of being chosen does not mean being “special” or “better than” the un-chosen, but it means to be invited to shoulder a mission for the rest of humanity. The gift of being chosen by God always means to be chosen to serve as God’s instrument to the rest, and ‘To whom much is given much will be expected’ (Luke 12:48). Every one of Mary’s singular privileges — Immaculate Conception, Mother of God, Assumption — empower her to Mother each of you, in union with Christ, our Father-forever (Isaiah 9:5), in becoming worthy sons and daughters of God. And as we see New Eve, New Adam becoming such on Golgotha (John 19:26-27), we also remember that all privileges require great sacrifice. This is lex caritas, “the law of love.”

In her assumed, risen and glorified body, Mary gives witness not only to our future bodily resurrection, but also to the hope of the entire material world of being lifted up by us into the new creation. In Mary, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium — along with the human culture she inhabited and that inhabited her — were transfigured in the new creation. In other words, the “bread and wine” of her life was taken up into eternity and transubstantiated (1 Cor. 15:52). By her — and our — free consent to concelebrate with Christ the wedding of heaven and earth, we confer on all of creation the hope of glory (Rom. 8:18-30). On today’s gloriously joyful Feast, Mary stands as the perfect fulfillment of those extraordinary words of the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes #39):

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father the kingdom.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Let me conclude with the prayer of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity:

O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to become utterly forgetful of myself so that I may establish myself in you, as changeless and calm as though my soul were already in eternity. Let nothing disturb my peace nor draw me forth from you, O my unchanging God, but at every moment may I penetrate more deeply into the depths of your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it your heaven, your cherished dwelling-place and the place of your repose. Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there, wholly attentive, wholly alert in my faith, wholly adoring and fully given up to your creative action.

Amen.

St. 16670 dies for 5659

Franciszek Gajowniczek

St. Maximilian Kolbe

The head of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) project that studied the Shroud [the alleged burial cloth of Jesus] in the late 1970’s, when asked if he had a religious experience during the night he spent alone studying the linen cloth, said: “I’m not a religious man, so I don’t know if I could say I had a religious experience. But what struck me throughout the night was the disconnect. Between the face and the body. The body imaged on the Shroud is that of man who had been brutally beaten and tortured. But the face? It’s the face of serene confidence. They just don’t match.”

Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, whose feast day is today, was killed on this day in 1941 in a starvation bunker at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. He was cremated on August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption and was canonized by St. Pope John Paul II in 1982 as a martyr of charity.

The two numbers in the subject line above are the Nazi’s dehumanizing arm-branded I.D. codes for Fr. Kolbe and for the man he exchanged places with, Franciszek Gajowniczek. After a man had escaped from Auschwitz, ten men were selected to die of starvation as a reprisal for the crime of escaping. Gajowniczek, who was a Jew with a wife and children, was among those chosen to die. Fr. Kolbe, witnessing Gajowniczek’s wailing cries over the fate of his family if he died, said to the Sub-Commandant, Karl Fritzsch: “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” The offer of exchange was accepted and Kolbe was sent to the starvation bunker. As the Pope said in his homily for the canonization:

Maximilian did not die but “gave his life for his brother.” In that death, terrible from the human point of view, there was the whole definitive greatness of the human act and of the human choice. He spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love. And in this human death of his there was the clear witness borne to Christ: the witness borne in Christ to the dignity of man, to the sanctity of his life, and to the saving power of death in which the power of love is made manifest.

Most remarkable, as with the accounts of St. Edith Stein’s last days, was the manner in which Fr. Kolbe faced the agony of starvation. He was the epitome of St. Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:21 — “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Let me offer you an account of Fr. Kolbe’s last days given by an eyewitness, Bruno Borgowiec, for your meditation.

The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the center as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.

Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. One of the SS guards remarked: this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him.

Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long. The cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this, I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant.

They just don’t match.