Mountains laid low…

(Friends, I first wrote this in 2006 and have re-posted it a few times now. I find it helps me in preparing for Christmas to meditate on this at Advent.)

(John the Baptist) went throughout (the) whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’ (Luke 3:3-6)

For some reason I have found myself doing a lot of apologizing lately. So much so, that I have felt compelled to reflect on the phenomena. Two possibilities emerge: either I have been acting more rashly than usual lately, or else the Lord is giving me some new illumination on the effects my words and actions are having on others. If it is the latter, then comes the horrifying thought that I have habitually acted in ways that are arbitrarily hurtful to others. Mercy!

“Every mountain and hill shall be made low.” As I read the above gospel reading, I begin to realize that these humiliations may be meant to form part of my “fast of St. Martin”**. The mountains of my pride and the hills of my arrogance are being laid low, one at a time. Gee, I wonder how many there are?

As painful and humiliating as the process is, I must be grateful to God for the grace of it. The more the rough ways of my selfishness are made smooth, the more comfortable a resting-place will my heart be for the Prince of Peace when he comes. I suppose it is Mary’s doing. As I prepare to renew my consecration to her on December 12, I can imagine her making ready the poor and lowly manger of my heart to receive the Infant King. Her loving care for my miserable soul dazzles like the star of Bethlehem. Who can fathom her love for us and for all she does to make us ready to receive her Son?

I am reminded of an Advent experience a few years ago. It was a time of great personal trial for me. Our business was failing and the future seemed far from certain. It was at this very low point of my life, during Advent, that God withdrew from me any smidgen of evidence that he was there. I had no comfort. Prayer was a chore. I felt heavy. It was a feeling that went beyond the circumstances of my life. Spiritually speaking, it was a dark night.

There was one prayer I prayed over and over, but even that I prayed without feeling. It was from Psalm 116, vs 10: “I trusted, even when I said, ‘I am sorely afflicted.’” It was a prayer of the will, not the heart. But it was all I could muster, and I clung to it.

It was a long, dry Advent for me. I could not look forward to Christmas in any way. When I went to confession, even though I had not told the priest about my darkness, he made this comment out of the blue, “I see a baby. Why don’t you invite the Infant Jesus into your heart this Christmas.”

I did not give his words much thought. They were far too simplistic for what I was going through. Then, the BSP newsletter came out. In Bruce’s column, lo! and behold, he also encouraged us to invite the Infant Jesus into our hearts at Christmas.

Okay,okay, I’ll do it, I thought. Something simple can always be tried, I suppose. But, like Naaman*, I didn’t hold out much hope.

I dragged myself to Christmas Eve mass even though I had no heart for it. After communion I decided to try the “simple thing”. I invited the Infant Jesus into my heart. At that very moment, the darkness lifted. The Light was back! I could not believe or understand it, but there it was! My life circumstances had not changed, but my Jesus was back in my heart! With unprecedented joy my heart sang, “Glory to God in the highest! And peace to his people on earth!” My prayer of trust had been answered most spectacularly in my very own Christmas miracle!

If I were to draw a single lesson for penitents from these Advent experiences it would be to encourage all of us to remain docile to whatever the Lord or his Mother ask of us during Advent. As penitents we have a special role to play in making straight the way of the Lord. Let us not begrudge Our Lord and Our Lady anything they ask, but offer it all up for the forgiveness of sins and for the conversion of sinners.

May our Advent sacrifices make straight the way of the Lord, so that all flesh may see the salvation of God this Christmas. May the Infant Jesus dwell in every heart.

(* Naaman – see 2 Kings 5:1-14)

(**Fast of St. Martin – in the BSP we have a 40 day pre-Christmas fasting period that begins after the Feast of St. Martin of Tours.)

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Lessons…

Luke 15:11-32 “…(The prodigal son) would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ”

Like the prodigal son in the Gospel reading above, we all have lessons to learn, and they may indeed be just as hard-won for us as they were for the prodigal! Usually there is pride involved on some level. Lately I have felt the Lord revealing to me some of my defects of character, some of which I counted as strengths! Ouch! It has meant a series of trials, big and small, in which I had to assiduously inspect my own motives and actions, until finally, when the lesson was ready to be learned, a light went on.

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Increasing penance…

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.’” (Matthew 23:1-4)

Do you notice how much more you have to pay for torn blue jeans these days? What used to be seen as a sign of abject poverty is now elevated to a status symbol, a fashion statement. I think this can be seen as a metaphor for the spiritual poverty of our age, a sign of the times. It seems many are no longer ashamed of their spiritual poverty, but wear their spiritual dysfunction as a status symbol, a fashion statement. Their spirit may be in tatters, but they’re too cool to care.

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Crosses…

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)

We all have crosses. And indeed, as Franciscan penitents, we are exhorted to take the words of Christ to heart and live them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24) Knowing that this is our call and living it, however, are two different matters. How often, when a cross is given to us, do we turn our faces, pray for deliverance, tell the Lord, “Not this cross, Lord. It is much too heavy for me! I will carry a cross, just not this one.” How fickle and frail we are! I was struggling last week with a cross of my own when I felt led to pick up the writings of Luisa Piccarreta. Here is what I read:

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Rejoice!

Isaiah 12:3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

Global tensions are on a seemingly exponential uptick. Yet the utter importance of joy has been coming to me again and again. The above Scripture passage can be read in two ways, a passive way and an active way. The passive way implies that joy is what we are filled with after we are saved. Very true. But the active reading of this passage tells us that joy can also be the “bucket” we can use to draw water from the wells of salvation. Joy therefore becomes an instrument of salvation in the hand of the Christian.

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Serving the Lord through suffering…

Matthew 26:39 My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.

In some Christian circles, any form of suffering, especially if it follows a good deed, is seen as an “attack”. But, I think we do God a disservice if we are too quick to attribute these things to the evil one. I have often thought of what Sirach says about suffering:

“My child, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. Be sincere of heart, be steadfast, and do not be alarmed when disaster comes. Cling to him and do not leave him, so that you may be honoured at the end of your days. Whatever happens to you, accept it, and in the uncertainties of your humble state, be patient, since gold is tested in the fire, and the chosen in the furnace of humiliation.” [Sirach 2:1-5]

Read this again: “If you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal.” How many of us know the truth of this first-hand! St. Theresa of Avila, once complained to the Lord about a trial she was undergoing, to which Jesus replied, “Teresa, that’s how I treat all my friends.” Teresa responded, “No wonder you have so few of them.”

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Dying differently…

Matthew 24:42 Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Most people in the secular world—and many believers as well—are afraid of death. Certainly a good deal of money is spent in first world countries in an attempt to live longer and put off the inevitable. In the past, some people even experimented with cryogenics so that they could be frozen in the instant after (or even before) death and thawed out once a cure was discovered for whatever had killed them. There is always a buck to be made off people’s desire to avoid death.

I recently watched a series of short videos by Jeff Cavins on the Rabbi-Disciple Relationship*. In the last video of the series, Cavins quotes Archbishop Fulton Sheen as saying that the reason we’re so afraid of dying is that “we have not practiced for it.” It is not difficult to picture Archbishop Sheen saying that, with his characteristic twinkle. But what did he mean?

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Trust in God…

Luke 21:9-19 When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky. “Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

The Mass readings in November are somber in tone—dire even. The fact that the month preceding Advent offers Mass readings that are meant to shake us up, is an annual reminder that followers of Christ should guard against getting too comfortable; the Lord, through the Church, is warning us against complacency. We are not meant for this world and so the world will necessarily hate us. I heard a bishop say once that if you’re fitting in quite well with the world, you’re doing it wrong! Those of us striving to live “in the world, but not of it” would do well to check ourselves often. The pull of the world is subtle; before we know it, we can be pulled under! We must remain vigilant!

However, if we only look at the warnings in the November readings we are missing something crucial. Read again the last half of the above Scripture passage. The Lord is promising to be with us in all our trials in a powerful way. He promises wisdom to confound our persecutors; he promises the greatest reward of all for what we suffer in his name—eternal life with him.

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Gratitude before sacrifice…

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten (lepers) made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18)

Here in Canada, since our harvest comes earlier, we celebrate Thanksgiving in October. I once heard a priest say something very challenging in his Thanksgiving homily. Essentially he said that gratitude to God is more important than any other pious act—including prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Many of us have come to the BSP in response to a felt call to increased prayer and fasting. Sometimes it is easy to feel that if we live the rule to the best of our ability, we have done what we should. But if our practice does not flow from a grateful heart, even if we manage to live the Rule perfectly, our sacrificial gifts will carry the stench of ingratitude. How can God be pleased?

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Crosses in the Year of Mercy…

…Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-4)

As each day passes I hear of more and more people of faith being asked to carry heavy crosses. I believe this cross-ifying will intensify as the Year of Mercy draws to a close. What is the connection?

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