A Most Unusual Palm Sunday

How is it Palm Sunday already? Weren’t we only half way through Lent when the quarantining began? And that was last week or thereabouts, right? I am clearly losing track of time here. I was excited to hear from my son’s teacher last week saying that she was going to be hosting a half hour class on Mondays and Fridays–a little hint at normalcy! My husband actually keeps fairly regular weekday office hours in his home office these days, so, for me, weekends still feel like a relief, but I do miss the structure that school gives.

And really, that’s the only way in which we are being affected by this business. We are undeservedly fortunate to have (a) a salaried position, and (b) a teaching job that had already mostly shifted to online work with our February move. We live in a nice, spacious rental house, have a van for taking drives for a change of scenery, and internet to keep us connected to our loved ones. As I was driving my girls yesterday so that they would nap, I saw many many people outside their homes in their pyjamas, and it had an odd effect on me: it made me think that these COVID closures are a gift. Here we are, forced to slow down, and likely led to contemplate to some degree how much others mean to us. It’s quite possible some people might not have had the opportunity to slow down in their lives at all. Silence, or a lack of busy-ness, is essential to the soul’s health, though. In that respect, COVID is a gift.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. We’re losing loved ones prematurely, we’re losing income, we’re losing our freedom to enjoy company in person and even to enjoy nature in our parks. There is a strong element of suffering. I am not the first Catholic to observe that this suffering comes at a liturgically appropriate time of year: Lent. And now, heading into Holy Week, we are really invited to contemplate the mystery of suffering.

Today we tuned into Ascension Press with Fr Mike Schmitz celebrating Palm Sunday Mass. The kids fell asleep and napped through most of it, making it just about the easiest Mass I’ve ever attended with them, and I got to listen to the homily! I’d like to recount some of it here, as it was just packed with points worthy of contemplation. Is Fr Mike Schmitz the new Fr Fulton Sheen? It kind of feels like it, eh? This man has a gift for preaching, and I praise God for leading him to the priesthood every time I listen to him preach.

He began the homily by picking out the words from the Gospel “It is finished” and started talking about unfinished furniture–so much to my surprise that I turned to my husband and asked if I heard it right! He made a beautiful analogy with it, though. He observed that just as sometimes we can buy unfinished furniture and choose our own finish, making our own mark on it, so too we complete Christ’s sufferings. For an unfinished chair is no less a chair being unfinished–it is as much a chair as it ever will be; so too Christ’s sufferings are lacking in nothing–except our own “finish,” or participation. Christ does not need us to participate in His suffering, but He invites us to. This was the best explanation of St Paul’s problematic line that I’ve ever encountered.

Fr Mike went on to say that, for the Christian, there is no senseless suffering. There is wasted suffering, but there is no senseless suffering. But when we join our suffering to Christ’s, our suffering takes on meaning, for, like His suffering on the cross, it becomes redemptive. When we say “yes” to our suffering and offer it back to the Lord as a sacrifice for, it becomes full of meaning.

Fr Mike distinguished between two kinds of suffering: physical and moral. The physical is bodily suffering, and the moral is basically every other kind of suffering: grief, sin, even irritation and frustration. When we offer these sufferings up, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, we help make up “for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”–which, paradoxically, is nothing, but Christ so loves us that He desires that we might derive meaning from our suffering and so He invites us to join our small “yes” to His crucifixion, which, I need not tell you, saved the whole world.

I love that he spoke about how even our grief over sin can be used redemptively. Those things we’ve done that we feel awful for but can’t go back and change? Those words we’ve uttered and can’t take back? Those times we’ve avoided doing something good and something bad happened as a result? We can ask the Lord to use them. And He will. We just have to ask.

How do we “offer it up”? We just ask. We state our intention, and that is all. “This is for so-and-so.” Fr Mike says Christ was doing that all through His Passion. He saw each one of us, and His love for each of us individually motivated Him towards the bitter end. I remember doing this with my first labour and delivery. I was in too much pain to think of every intention during the labour individually, but I collected them at the beginning and offered them up, and then I entered into the suffering, a physical suffering I’d never experienced the like of before.

It became important to me that my children should learn how to suffer well. I hardly knew what that meant. I just knew that suffering was unavoidable in life and that I wanted my children not to turn to bitterness and cynicism, but to offer it always to the Lord. Little did I know that the greatest Golgotha of my life was right around the corner!

I’ve occasionally felt some guilt for embracing my suffering with Matthew so poorly. On the one hand, I suffered well: the Lord gave me the grace to rejoice in the terminal diagnosis and to accept it. On the other hand, I suffered poorly: I fell into a dark self-inwardness and nigh despair. I found I had nothing much to offer, as I had been reduced to nothing. Now, I realize that to some extent, my mental health was so greatly affected that I can hardly be blamed. But until I die, I will not know to what extent I embraced my suffering and made it redemptive, and to what extent I wallowed and wasted my suffering. As someone who has overcome past scrupulosity, I let it go, but I still felt bad for not loving Jesus as fully as I might have. Watching Fr Mike today, I think triggered by his comment that even grief for our past sins can be offered up, I suddenly realized that even this grief, the grief of not suffering as well as I might have, of wasting opportunities to do good, could be offered up. God is nothing if not opportunity. The Devil is nothing but a dead end.

So there we have it. Suffering well is easy: we just offer it up in the form of an intention–Do something with this, Lord! Of course, the reality isn’t that simple, as we have hesitations and reluctance to overcome, but God can make something with even the smallest of intentions.

Let’s offer up our little (and large) sufferings this week and in the weeks to come for the salvation of souls.

Joy

I rambled recently on Facebook about Christmas, and how I feel that I might be a Christmas kind o’gal at heart. I realized tonight what it is that led me to that reflection, what it is that I am experiencing this week: joy!

This has caught me by some surprise, as I hadn’t quite realized I’d been lacking it, but of course: the past few years and Christmasses have been quite hard. Each holiday I feel keenly the absence of one of my dear children at some point. Although not chronically miserable and even at times happy, I had lost joy.

I am a joyful person! I had not realized. Without joy, I am not myself. What a wonderful thing to discover about oneself! But it is not just true of me: it is the same for everyone! Even the most Ebenezer Scroogiest among us!

This is what I love about Christmas: the total abandonment to joy! Untarnished, unblemished by any cynicism, pure, innocent joy!

Clearly, not every Christmas is joyful to all people. One learns as a child, to one’s astonishment, that one can feel quite contrary to the intended spirit of the special occasion being celebrated, just as the weather can be wretched rather than gay. The past few Christmasses, though happy, have been coloured by grief and anxiety, and I cannot describe my heart as having been joyful.

There is a levity to joy. It is this levity that sets it apart from mere happiness, I think. When one is happy, one’s feet, as it were, remain on the ground. When one is joyful, one is levitating, at least interiorly. My favourite depiction of joy in a movie is from the 1951 A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim:

Ebenezer [grumpily]  I don’t deserve to be so happy.

[starts laughing uncontrollably again] 

Ebenezer I can’t help it!

When joyful, we forget ourselves. We lose or renounce the control we typically enforce on our lives: the worries we have about how we might be perceived by others, about whether we are living up to our own standards, about living up to the Idea of Oneself that one has decided one ought to be. If we are uptight, anxious, fearful, or controlling in any way, we cannot be truly joyful. To be joyful, we must lose ourselves in God. And perhaps it will manifest itself in smiles–it certainly does with me, or at least a softening of my face. And there is an excitement in joy, the same sort of excitement the multitude of the heavenly host stirred up when they praised God in the fields, saying “Glory to God in the highest!” When I am joyful, my heart is united with that heavenly host stretched across the vast field, praising God. There is also a deep and intimate aspect to joy, as intimate and ineffable as a mother’s love for her baby.

And true joy is rooted in love. Sometimes we get a taste of joy in our relationships with people. I look upon my husband, or think about a friend who is very close to my heart, and I know joy. The deepest joy, however, is when I turn that gaze towards the Lord in my heart. I smile at Him, knowing He is smiling at me, who is totally unworthy of His smiles.

Joy! Joy is known at Easter, too, but in a more glorious and mature way. Joy at Christmas is so simple, so innocent of suffering albeit wise to it.

I am really quite fortunate to have known joy in my life. I know not everyone has joy in their homes. Perhaps, indeed, most people do not know more than happiness at best. I do not know. My wish is that everyone could know joy, but it is hard to see how one could be truly joyful without knowing Christ. Happy, certainly, but joyful? Perhaps, perhaps. Certainly there are many who know God and find joy in Him. Yet… yet to know God as Christ and Holy Spirit is about as intimate as we mortals can get with the Almighty. There is no other God who became one with us in body and soul, who fused his very being to our matter. This lends an intimacy that cannot otherwise be achieved. It is what marriage is a mere shadow of. And in intimacy, there grows the deepest and the greatest joy.

The most joyful people are the Saints, it has been said to me. I believe it! Who is more free, who is less self-conscious and more God-conscious than a saint? Some are so joyful that their interior levitation has been reflected in physical levitation! A priest my father knew once swiped his foot underneath Padre Pio as the saint was levitating, astounded that a human body should be floating above the ground! Such an amazing and miraculous external reflection of an internal reality!

I am grateful. I am deeply grateful to know joy again. I know that in my life joy comes and goes, but overall, when I am well, I am a joyful person, and I have always wanted to be a joyful person like St Philip Neri. I have prayed that God might grant me the grace of joy, just as I have often prayed that He might grant me the grace of wisdom.

In my joy, I do not forget suffering. I still remember my Matthew. I quickly recall dear friends who are undergoing terrible hidden crucifixions even at this very moment–some, remarkably, enduring these with a continued determination to rejoice in the Lord, God bless them! Rejoice in the Lord always! Newly equipped with joy, however, I can face these sufferings with a levity that is not of this world, a trust that God truly is God, and a good and loving one at that.

For now, my own life is enjoying some reprieve from major grief, and I am taking the time to thank God and to rejoice in my blessings: friendships many times more valuable than gold, family so near to my heart, wonderful children, and a husband I adore the Lord in, for the man is such a good man and such a delight. I am trying to bottle up my joy, label it, and shelve it for a future date when trials strike again, as they are sure to. The joy will still be there, but it will feel more distant, more of a memory than a present reality. And that’s ok. That is how this life is. In the next life, it will be pure joy beyond anything we have ever known in this life. We will all be levitating!

The Most Beautiful Gospel Story?

I asked Him permission to take this photo, we laughed at my social media generation, and then I told Him He could stop smiling — only, of course, He never will.

One of the persistent jokes in my family of origin revolves around the incredible richness of the Scriptures, so someone might say “the Gospel today was really good!” to be responded with “unlike those other Gospel stories!” One can’t help but laugh with joy when one takes a moment to consider the great and powerful gift of the Scriptures!

It would be foolish to spend much time ranking Gospel stories, for they are all a revelation of one and the same gloriously loving God, but it is true that some offer more material for profound reflection and therefore could perhaps be said to be more beautiful. One of these stories is that of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It was one of the options for Sunday’s Mass, and the priest not only chose it for our Mass, but he also expounded upon it lectio divina style, which was exactly what my heart was yearning for after being touched by it in a new way during the Gospel reading.

The story found in John 4 is a powerful story of mercy and of the ardent yearning of God for our love. In homilies past, I have had my attention drawn to the significance of the encounter happening at a well, a place that, in Biblical tradition, was a significant meeting point for man with a woman: it was at a well that Moses met Zipporah, that a bride was found for Isaac, etc. In John 4, the well that had associations with the most intimate human alliance draws attention to the marriage that God yearns to share with His people.

The following is very much inspired by Sunday’s homily.

6 Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. 7 There came a woman of Samar′ia to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samar′ia?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.

Here Father drew attention to the setting: It is noon, the hottest hour of the day, the hour when most women would prefer not to be fetching water from a well. But the Samaritan woman is an outcast, the gossip of the town, having taken up with many men and perhaps being eyed with fear and suspicion, if not judgment, so she chooses this hour so as to avoid uncomfortable encounters. God knows her schedule, however, and he has plans to meet her. The division between Jews and Samaritans makes the woman wary of Jesus, anticipating more hostility, to which she is accustomed.

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”

Jesus is not phased, however, by her apparent unreceptiveness; he knows her heart. We can imagine with what love he looked into her eyes and began to speak to her of the Good News. The woman does not understand that Jesus is speaking symbolically and eagerly latches onto the idea that she might not have to return to this well, a reminder of her humiliation.

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.

Christ is eager to give her everything, all the living water of life that he has to offer, but he also knows there is an obstacle, namely her sins. He cannot avoid the truth, but he brings it up very gently; he does not launch into accusation or lecture. The woman is no doubt ashamed, but Jesus is not scandalized. Our sins may give scandal to others and even to ourselves, but they never scandalize God. Jesus sees into the confusion and shame brought about by her sins; he speaks truth to her, but he does so gently. He also lets her lead the conversation: perhaps inspired by her own discomfort with her sinfulness, she turns the conversation in another direction. Christ does not press her, he does not insist upon a discussion of her sins, he has opened that door for her, an invitation if she wishes to go further into it, but he has not come to condemn her, only to draw her to himself.

20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain;[a] and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

This part of the story is exciting, the action rises to the climax: the present problems of the division of Jews and Samaritans is almost the past, the time is coming that God’s new covenant will be fulfilled, the woman becomes hopeful that perhaps this man speaking to her might know something about the long-awaited and much desired Messiah, and Christ responds to her hope with the most beautiful revelation the world has ever known: He is the Messiah, the Deliverer.

Yes, it is fitting that such an encounter should take place at a well, for it reads with the same sort of excitement and hope as when one reads a Jane Austen novel and yearns for the heroine to find peace and love in the man who loves her. Certainly, human romantic love is but a reflection of the Great Romance that is God’s love for his people, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun. I do not know that any other religion perceives the Great Romance so much as Catholicism, for in Catholicism we have some who are so overcome by it that they happily renounce human marriage for the sake of a life devoted solely to God and his Church. We believe in it so much that, in the Roman rite, we make it a requirement that priests not marry, for they ought themselves to be consumed by the Great Romance and consider themselves in relation to us as Christ is in relation to us.

I have wandered from Father’s homily. There were two other important lessons he imparted, but I don’t remember how he fit them in. The first was a reminder that when God speaks to us, it gives us a sense of peace and joy (of course, He may allow our conscience to be needled for the sake of conversion, but ultimately He brings peace and confidence; confusion and distress come from the Devil). I remember this very well from when I was making a big change in my life from seriously pursuing religious life to opening my heart to dating my now husband. All I wanted was to love God with all my heart and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to within marriage, and I brought this confusion before Jesus one night in the tabernacle in the convent where I was living, and it seemed he placed words in my heart that I was free to do as I wanted and should not be afraid, and my heart was filled with peace and joy and gratitude. I soon realized that God was offering Rob to me as much as Rob himself was, and within six weeks we were engaged. It still amazes me how quickly one can run along what had been for years a narrow and difficult path when one entrusts one’s heart and life wholly to God, and when the timing is right.

The second lesson was that we must make time to have a daily conversation with the Lord, about fifteen to twenty minutes would be good. I struggle very much to remain faithful to a regular prayer time at home. I prefer to go to Mass or go to Adoration where Jesus is physically present, but as a mother of three children three and under, that’s simply not feasible on a daily basis. As it so happens, however, I’ve taken the past week with my husband on parental leave to enjoy a couple visits to the Adoration chapel, and there Christ has impressed on my heart that I need to find a way to continue the relationship at home in a disciplined manner. When I heard our priest exhort us to regular, scheduled prayer once again, I was confirmed in my sense that it’s time to take this relationship with Jesus to the next level, haha.

There we have it, one of the most beautiful stories among a collection of stunningly beautiful stories. Perhaps the beauty of the various Gospel stories may be likened to the beauty of the various individuals God has made: each different, and some revealing Him to a greater depth than others, but all dazzling with His radiance, His glory, His love.