Receiving the Word: Entering Through the Narrow Door

He passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from. And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where [you] are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’ And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. –Luke 13:22-30

Every time I hear today’s gospel, the thought of Jesus rejecting me makes my heart tremble.  So often I presume of God accepts me because I know his love for us is great.  He desires for us to enter into communion with him, yet here he reminds us that the path to eternal life with him is narrow, and entry is slim.  I shudder at the thought of seeing Jesus face to face, and hearing that he does not know me and that I better depart from him.  As much as I wish to be united with him, how do I know if am I truly on the right path?

It is fitting that our second reading today from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews (12:5-7, 11-13) precedes this ominous passage from the Gospel of Luke.  The reading begins with Saint Paul calling our attention to an exhortation given to children.  The passage he cites is from Proverbs and teaches children the importance of willingly receiving discipline from their parents, and enduring times of difficulty so as to receive the “fruit of righteousness” that comes with discipline and training.  The passage ends by calling the faithful to “strengthen” their “drooping hands” and “weak knees,” and “make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.”

When I hear this passage I flash back to all the times I found myself bubbling with anger and frustration at my parents when they enforced rules upon me that I didn’t agree with or want to follow.  From the time I was a small child all the way into adulthood, I was confronted with their firm (but loving) guidance which steered me away from things I desired because they were leading me down an unnecessary, distracted, or even destructive path.  This is the job of every parent: to guide and direct their children, leading them towards the good, and steering them away from the bad.  It is clear to me now that I am an adult that their guidance along the way helped shape and form me into the person I am today.  Had I not relied on their help and advice, I would have definitely ended up worse for wear.

It is significant that both Jesus and Saint Paul often point us towards a childlike obedience, not complete and total self-reliance.  The biggest sin that has overcome man since the beginning of time is the sin of pride.  It is truly a challenge for man to hand over the reins to someone other than himself because he is a free being who can order his will according to his own volition.  It is easy to submit to God when we are set on cruise control and all is well.  But God’s love is not merely friendly and approachable.  It is also parental.    As we grow older and gain more know-how for the ways of the world and taste for the things that please us it becomes harder and harder to lay down our lives for the Lord and willingly submit all that we perceive to be good for our own lives in return for all he has planned for our lives.  We cannot always accept when he tells us that some things are not good for us, and we murmur against him when he allows us to take a tumble for our own good and for the sake of transformation.  We fight our Lord in an effort to hold tight to our stubborn ways, and we kick and scream when we are called to submit to a law outside of our own.  It is easier to say, “Thanks God, but I’ve got this,” than to run to his arms and trust that he truly has our best interests in mind.   We love to hold God’s hand when things are going smoothly and we are happy, but when we learn that he is asking something of us—that we are called to develop as moral and socially responsible people—we let go of his hand in shame and embarrassment, opting instead to run off and play on our own.

God’s love is reproving, but the discipline he applies is carried out through a fatherly kind of love.  This is a love that sees the good when the child doesn’t; the kind that sets barriers for the sake of the child’s well-being.  This is a love that guides us in saying “no” to our wanton desires, in order to help form inclinations to virtue and disdain for vice.

One of the blessings I’ve been given in becoming a mom is realizing that this kind of love—the protective and admonishing kind—is so very instinctive because it stems from a heart overflowing with love.  My heart aches at the thought of all the times my son falls from climbing something he knows he wasn’t supposed to, or slipping when I told him not to run.  It’s in those moments when he is sobbing in pain that my heart wants to cry out: “Don’t you know?!  I told you not to do that because I knew you would get hurt!”  I comfort him, but I also want to help him understand that when I tell him “no” it is because I want him to avoid pain.  All of my “no’s” and “don’t do that’s” are not because I want to make my children’s lives miserable, but because I love them so much that I don’t want them to hurt or for them to hurt others.

Also, in knowing this kind of parental love I am continually growing to realize what it takes for me to be a child of God.  It requires trust, and confidence in knowing that he has my best interests in mind.  It means that, with the help of his grace, I have to allow his love to guide me towards the good—even if my ideas of what is “good for me” are contrary to his plan.  And it demands that I seek reparation for the times when I disobey, and that I cry out in sorrow for the times that I lack faith in his everlasting love and seek instead to do things my way.

I think it is in this faithful obedience that we come to know God and he comes to “know” us.  He knows each one of us from the moment that we were conceived, but it is this kind of relationship—a familial kind of knowing—that brings about a deeply intimate and relational bond.  So much so, that when we knock, our Father opens the door inviting us to come in as his sons and daughters and rest in his goodness, take off our shoes, and stay as long as we like.

Untitled

 

 

 

Strengthening Prayer through Lectio Divina

I think that everyone can admit to having difficulty with praying at one time or another. Finding time to pray can seem like a challenge, and distractions can often leave us feeling overloaded and frustrated. Oftentimes it’s tough to focus, difficult to quiet the world, and hard to approach God, which in turn makes us feel as though prayer is for someone else—for the contemplatives and saints who easily open their minds and hearts to God.

It is important, though, to remember that prayer is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Through prayer we raise our minds and hearts to God out of love, and as Bishop Robert Barron says, “we long for him as he longs for us.” Prayer is ultimately a response of love to a God who waits for us and deeply desires to enter into communion with us.

If you have any negative feelings associated with praying (for whatever reason) or if you currently feel pretty good about your prayer life but still long to go deeper, below are a few tips to help strengthen your prayer life. These tips are based upon the traditional practice of lectio divina, or “divine reading,” which is a means of reading scripture that prompts us to rid ourselves of our own agenda in approaching God, and open ourselves to what he wants for our lives. This type of prayer has touched me personally because it has allowed me to get out of my own head and abolish my preconceived notions of what my prayer life should be, and enter more deeply into a living relationship with the Lord.

Tip #1: Before You Begin, Prepare

If you are having trouble praying, ask yourself how you approach prayer. Do you prepare, or do you just slide right into it hoping for the best? Avoiding structure will set you up for failure. Everything that produces fruit and success requires work, and in order to be productive in that work you need a plan. If you don’t have structure, this creates an environment that can prove to be more chaotic than fruitful. Establish a place and a time for your prayer. This is absolutely necessary because it forces you to prioritize prayer. Sure, prayer throughout the day (on your way to work, as you do the dishes, as you interact with other people) is a wonderful means of opening up your life to God, but in order to engage in a dynamic conversation with him, you have to make a daily appointment with him. Figure out the time of day that works best for you and the time you are most prime to listen and give of yourself. Also, find a place that you can get comfortable in and that you enjoy going to. Have all of your reading material there ready to go, and make it a special time set aside for you and God each day. If you do this, the distractions that usually bombard you as you try to get organized and settled before you even begin to pray will dissipate

Tip #2: Read the Word

Invoke the Holy Spirit to enter into your heart and your prayer, then “take up and read” so that God may speak to you. Take your time in reading a set passage from scripture. Get a sense of what it is saying and listen for words or phrases that strike you.

One of the great things about our faith is that our Church lays out the universal and daily readings for us in the liturgy of the mass. The easiest way to go about picking your scripture passages is to find a source that provides the official texts of the daily mass for you (e.g. The Magnificat or The Word Among Us). If you do this, you will avoid having to randomly choose which passage to begin with, and you will receive the added bonus of partaking in the communal prayer of our universal church.

Scripture is the optimal material because it is God’s living Word itself (hence the name “divine reading”), but I’ve found that the use of other materials also works well (such as reading the lives of the Saints). The key here is to read the material slowly and carefully, listening so that what you are reading sinks into your heart.

Tip #3: Meditate

This call for meditation is not so much an emptying of the mind (which is the goal of many modern forms of meditation), but rather a filling of it. Our minds are structured and made for truth, so this stage is a call to actively listen to what is occurring in your reading.

This is where you should ask yourself questions about the passage you read. For example, you might ask: What is Jesus doing? What kind of environment is he in? Does he approach someone, and if yes, how and why? What was the person’s state like when Jesus approached? How did they respond to Jesus, and were they visibly changed after their encounter with him? Place yourself in the stories with Jesus and with those closest to him. Be with Mary as the angel Gabriel approaches her in the Annunciation. What do you think she was feeling? Excitement? Nervousness? Awe? Put your hands on Jesus’ shoulders as he prays in agony in the garden. Be awake with him while all of his close friends are sleeping nearby. Share in his sufferings and in his willingness to obey the father, despite the pain. Hide with Peter as Jesus’ persecutors closed in on him. Think of the shame that he felt when he denied him. Does this remind you of the moments you have denied Jesus in your life?

If you are reading about the life of a particular Saint, pause in the moments where you feel inspired by them. Ask yourself why that particular instant made you laugh or smile, or even cry. Were you moved by something they did? Why? What was it about their action that moved you?

Engaging in the material this way will make the life of Christ present to you personally, which is key for developing an intimate relationship with him.

 Tip #4: Prayer: Conversation with God

Most of the time people want to skip the first three steps and jump to this fourth step. However, they are important for setting up a lively conversation with God. If we merely tell him what is on our hearts without listening to him first, we cannot really have a conversation with him. Subject matter and content are both vital because they set us up for dynamic conversation with God.

This is the stage where you can open up dialogue with God! Now that you have listened to his Word and/or meditated on his life, you have a great platform (inspired by God himself) for diving into a dynamic conversation with him! Tell him what moved you, and explain to him why you related to those moments and how they touch you personally now. Let your inspired heart speak to God! Bring him your joys, troubles, and concerns. Use the passages you read as a springboard for conversation with him.

Tip #5: Contemplation

After you have read, listened, and spoken with God, take the time to “be still and know.” Realize that he loves you. Understand that he wants to fulfill the deepest desire of your heart: your longing for true and authentic peace and joy. Rest in knowing that he is a merciful father; a God full of love and compassion for you. He loves you and he knows you.

This is the point where you let go of your own ideas, plans, and meditations and simply be still in his presence. Here, we open ourselves up at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us.

Tip #6: Resolution

Once you have gone through all of these steps, make a resolution based upon your reflection and engagement with God. Was God moving you to make a change in some area of your life? Resolve to convert your heart to him through action. As you listen to him daily, make a concrete resolution based upon your dialogue with him, and let the inspired words move your heart.

79537E1B-34E9-421F-9348-3BF16EE35381

Receiving the Word: He Will Set the World on Fire

Jesus said to his disciples: I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Luke 12:49-53

Jesus’ message today runs deep for all of his believers. In Scripture, fire is frequently associated with God. He often appears in the Bible in the form of fire as an image of his love. Here, Jesus reminds us of his desire to spread the heat of his love, but despite his longing to fill us, the world is not yet blazing. We still lay on soppy beds of straw, drenched by our sins and our attachments, unable to be set aflame.  We must remember, though, that it is not God who impedes his flame from fanning alive within us. Oftentimes we make it hard on ourselves.

I’ve been reflecting on this for the past few days because I was humbly reminded of the weakness of my prayer life recently.  I tried to fast, for the first time since lent, and it did not go very well. My attempt at fasting wasn’t without motivation or reasons. I went into it hoping to lift up my small sacrifices in prayer for a family who is in desperate need of prayer.  Yet as the day wore on—through both forgetfulness and also appetite for those things I was giving up—I found myself over and over having to recommit myself to my small sacrifices. My attempt at fasting ultimately had me feeling like such a failure and so weak.  How is it that saying no to such small things was so hard for me when the desire to offer them was so strong?

Today’s gospel is all about fire, unrest, and division—three things we all try to avoid at all times. We desire to stay cool, sitting lukewarm and comfortable in our attachments that bring us a low-grade contentment at all times. We cry when it is “too hot” outside, and lament when “we don’t have anything to eat.” We desire to have peaceful and uncomplicated days, and we fill our cups to the brim with both small and large satisfactions to make things just a little bit easier and more pleasant for ourselves.  We avoid talking about the hard truths of our faith, steering clear of confrontation.  We keep quiet and run from tough conversations with friends and family, afraid of fights and fallouts.  What we forget, though, is that nothing great is ever achieved without sacrifice. If my daily goal is to satisfy my own soul with both small and large indulgences, how can I ever offer myself—my nothingness—as something that God can truly transform and use?  The Baptism that the Lord speaks about–the Baptism that incorporates each one of us into God’s Kingdom–wasn’t brought about easily.  Jesus suffered much on our behalf, but he did so that we might obtain a glory that is beyond our own reach.

God wants to completely consume us with the fire of his love, but for us to be consumed by him we have to allow him to purify us of our attachments to things that are not of him. We cannot be filled completely with him, if we allow other things to take his place. In order for his love to burn within us, we must allow that fiery love to refine us. It requires us to pay attention to those things that impede our enflaming, and trust in him as we begin to weed out these attachments with his help. It necessitates that we evaluate ourselves frequently. Are we able to properly order our attachments or are we so weak that even small sacrifices require a tempering of the heart?  Are we really truly ready to be refined by the flames of God’s love, so as to be transformed into a living fire?

BLR-fireimage

If you don’t feel yourself alive with the fire of God’s love, ask yourself where your attachments lie. If you want to burn deeper still and allow yourself to be completely consumed by him, continue to filter those attachments and order them under the one true good. When we allow ourselves to be emptied of attachments that weigh us down, we allow the spark within us to fan into flame; we become light enough to be immersed in the fire of God’s love—a fire that is all consuming and burns deep. Then, when that fire is ablaze in our hearts, we will be filled with the strength to overcome both small and large sacrifices, sufferings and trials, and offer them over for the good of the Kingdom.

Untitled

Inspired by Greatness

It’s that time again! Olympics 2016!

There is something so special about watching people achieve what seems to be the impossible, and who are so driven by hard work and dedication. Even if you are not really into watching sports, it’s hard not to get caught up in all the excitement at some point. The Olympics are inspiring because they are very visible examples of people reaching their peak—sometimes literally climbing or biking up mountains to obtain the highest achievement for an athlete. After all the hard work and dedication, they achieve something that is above and beyond: a chance to be named the greatest athletes in the world.

Though most of us will never set foot on an Olympic field, are we not all called to greatness of some sort? Personally, I feel this tugging at my heart daily. My mind is always racking itself with ways that I can improve myself, maybe not so that I can “win the gold,” but just all around become a better version of myself. I often find myself thinking about the improved version of myself, envisioning myself as a runner, or a better and more consistent writer; having a more organized and clean house, or being able to easily dive deeper into my life of prayer. The better version of myself is more patient, a better listener, and doesn’t get overwhelmed when a mistake is made.  This version of me is more attentive to others, holier, and willingly says yes to God at all times.  My ambitions may appear meager in comparison to those of these well-trained athletes, but they nonetheless similarly leave me feeling as though I have a mountain to climb. It’s often as if I’m standing on my tippy toes striving to see over the big wall that exists between who I am, and the better version of myself that I aspire to be. I desire to become this fit and saintly version of myself, but damn does it require work.

Why can’t we just have what we want, when we desire it? Why doesn’t God just pour forth an overwhelming amount of grace over me and immediately transform me into the woman that I so long to be? Ultimately, because God knows that the proof is in the pudding. Effort must spring forth from hope if we want to obtain what we desire. Achieving any form of greatness requires work, discipline, and training.   It requires a can-do attitude in the face of adversity and a perseverance that is relentless. It requires us to see the light at the end of the tunnel and choose to traverse the rocky terrain. It requires us to properly order our action. Why do the Olympians get up on a daily basis and train and discipline their bodies and appetites? It’s because they hope for the greatness that is possible to achieve through choice. They saw a goal in mind, and worked their tails off for even a chance to compete for the prize. They continually said yes to the hard stuff and worked towards unceasing transformation—and it is awe-inspiring.

And it is not all glory either. I happened to catch a piece of the women’s cycling road race, and the Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vlueten, while in the lead and nearing the finish line, crashed horribly on the side of a curb. I honestly thought she was dead. Praise God, she is stable right now and in okay condition, but it reminds me of all the times I crash and burn. It is so easy to wallow in the fall. Yet we cannot let the fear of failing or falling overcome us or prevent us from trying. In looking into her history a bit I learned that this wasn’t her first big spill. She recently overcame a crash where she was hit by a car while cycling, yet she worked her way back ultimately qualifying for the Olympic races. That, in itself, is incredible.

We all have an opportunity for greatness. It may not look the same or generate the same kind of publicity or hype, but we are all called to become better versions of ourselves. We daily have the opportunity to say yes to this calling, and to choose to push forward towards the good. God allows us to participate in our own transformation by permitting us to actively choose the kind of person that we want and are made to be. But the greatness that we all desire to achieve requires unceasing work and effort; there is no getting around that. Sitting on our daily opportunities—and really, our obligations—to fine-tune our bodies, and more importantly our spirits, won’t lead us to the holy, good, and accomplished people we desire to be, just as sitting on the couch and dreaming our way to the Olympics wont get us to Rio. We cannot laze our way to the top, just as we cannot cheat our way there. How boring would it be if the Olympians each received magic beans that turned them into the incredible athletes that we know and witness? How lame would it be if athletes were allowed to alter their natural state and enhance their abilities by doping? It is the process of transformation that affords greatness, and the process requires great effort and work.

Contrary to what the world tells us, achieving holiness today is possible, but it requires disciplining our spirits through prayer, devotion, sacrifice, and a whole lot of dying to self.  It is hard stuff.  Yet we do all this for the ultimate prize: so that we may rise with Christ. Our true authentic opportunity for greatness doesn’t subsist in ourselves; it subsists in God. We are all called to happiness, but the everlasting joy and achievement we all so desire comes from uniting ourselves to the Ultimate Good, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is something we cannot achieve merely on our own. Yet, when we put in the effort—when we say yes in response to God—he fills us with the grace we need to strengthen and sustain our yes, and that is when true transformation can take place.  May we all be able to face God someday and like Saint Paul confidently and lovingly say,  “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”