Love Takes Work

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.  While traditional depictions of the Sacred Heart have never moved me, the essence of this feast day does.  Fr. James Martin’s tweet this morning expresses why:

On the Feast of the Sacred Heart, we are reminded that Jesus’s love is a sacrificial love. He reveals this most of all on the Cross. Love takes work; love is often not rewarded; and many times love is hard. The asceticism of love is the most important spiritual discipline.

The love we celebrate today is not the warm fuzzy feeling we have toward those we feel close to, not a tender emotion.  Rather, the agapic love we are reminded of today is, in Aquinas’ words, “the effective willing of the good of the other.” Agapic love is a choice we make – it is to will the good of another in such as way that we effect that good for the other.  It is willing the good of the other person and acting to make that good real for him.   It is really a choice, rather than a feeling.  It is the choice to see other people as God sees them.

It is not great challenge to feel love toward those who are good to us.  But the love we celebrate today – the self-sacrificial love for the sake of the other, a love that is not necessarily returned or rewarded in any other way – is not easy and takes work.


Like a Little Child

Walking home from the gym this morning, I found myself walking behind a mother and her toddler.  I actually heard the mother before I noticed the two of them them; it was hard not to as the woman was speaking quite loudly, way more loudly than necessary, especially at 8:00am on a Saturday morning.

The mom had a large Slurpee in one hand (that I assume came from the gas station store on the corner) and her phone in the other, the latter of which occupied most of her attention.  I watched the child stop periodically to point at a particularly beautiful flower or to look at something on a lawn, or something else that caught its interest.  The only response that yielded from the mother was to loudly tell the child to keep moving or walk straight.  No attention to what the child was noticing, no encouragement of the child’s curiosity, no smile.

Perhaps they really had to get somewhere, although the women was not walking particularly quickly.

I was deeply saddened by the scene.  How long, I wondered, before the child’s natural curiosity would be dampened.  What effect on the child of being consistently discouraged  from stopping to notice what was around it?

And what came to mind was: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  And “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

James and John or Solomon?

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, James and John approach Jesus as they are traveling toward Jerusalem.  They (somewhat boldly) tell Jesus they want him to do whatever they ask of him.  Jesus replies by asking, as he asks people so often, “What do you wish me to do for you?”

And what is the response of James and John? “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” The response is particularly jarring because this passage in Mark follows immediately after one of Jesus’ predictions of his passion. James and John don’t seem particularly anxious to be at Jesus’ left and right during his suffering, but only in his glory.

What always comes to mind when I hear this passage and the response of James and John is the passage in the Second Book of Chronicles, where God appears to Solomon and says “Whatever you ask, I will give you.”  Salomon could ask for riches, for power, for glory – anything!  What Salomon asks for, however, is “wisdom and knowledge” to govern God’s people.

The contrast is striking. James and John want to be rewarded with the choicest seats in the house; Solomon asks for the grace he needs to carry out the task to which God as appointed him.

Jesus asks the same of you and I: What do you wish me to do for you?

How do you reply?

Does your response sound more like James and John’s or like Solomon’s?

Inseparable in Divine Mystery

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (Trinity Sunday, for short).

How do you explain to someone the doctrine of the Trinity?  How do you help someone intellectually apprehend exactly what it means to say there are three persons in one God? It is not easy.  For children we use the image of a three leaf clover, which I have never found all that satisfactory.


So how do we explain this doctrine which Fr. Michael Himes calls “not one doctrine among others,” but “the whole of Christian doctrine”?

A number of Christian mystics have tried over the years to share their experience of the Trinity, which strikes me as having a lot more potential to convey understanding than anything else.  Here is Hildegard of Bingen’s description of a vision she had:

Then I saw a bright light, and in this light the figure of a man the color of sapphire, which was all blazing with a gentle glowing fire. And that bright light bathed the whole of the glowing fire, and the glowing fire bathed the bright light; and the bright light and the glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in one power of potential.

Having seen this, she heard what she called the Living Light explain to her:

Therefore you see a bright light, which without any flaw of illusion, deficiency, or deception designates the Father, and in this light the figure of a man the color of a sapphire, which without any flaw of obstinacy, envy, or iniquity designates the Son, who was begotten of the Father in Divinity before time began, and then within time was incarnate in the world in Humanity; which is all blazing with a gentle glowing fire, which fire without any flaw of aridity, mortality, or darkness designates the Holy Spirit, by whom the Only-Begotten of God was conceived in the flesh and born of the Virgin.

And with respect to the lights and figure bathing each other, Hildegard was told,

This means that the Father, who is Justice, is not without the Son or the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit, who kindles the hearts of the faithful, is not without the Father or the Son; and the Son, who is the plenitude of fruition, is not without the Father or the Holy Spirit. They are inseparable in Divine Majesty.

Through this vision, Hildegard experienced in a real way God’s existence as Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, “inseparable in Divine Majesty.”

Here is Hildegard’s depiction of the image she saw:

Blessings on this Trinity Sunday.

The Astonishing Language of Love

Happy Pentecost Sunday!  On this day, day that ends our “official” celebration of the Easter season, we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Christ.

We hear in Acts that
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

And what is it that the Spirit enabled them to proclaim?  In his book Walking With Jesus: A Way Forward for the Church, Pope Francis writes

The Church born at Pentecost is an astounding community because, with the force of her arrival from God, a new message is proclaimed—the resurrection of Christ—with a new language, the universal one of love. A new proclamation: Christ lives, he is risen. A new language: the language of love. The disciples are adorned with power from above and speak with courage. Only minutes before, they all were cowardly, but now they speak with courage and candor, with the freedom of the Holy Spirit.

Thus the Church is called into being forever, capable of astounding while proclaiming to all that Jesus Christ has conquered death, that God’s arms are always open, that his patience is always there awaiting us in order to heal us, to forgive us. The risen Jesus bestowed his Spirit on the Church for this very mission.

Happy Feast of Pentecost!  Celebrate by proclaiming the message of love.


St. Brendan, the Navigator

Today is the feast day of St. Brendan.  I confess this one would have passed me by, but for the fact that I went to St. Brendan’s Diocesan High School in Brooklyn (many years ago) and one of my former classmates posted a portrait of Brendan on our old school’s Facebook page this morning.

Brendan, who lived during the sixth century is remembered mostly for his legendary journey to the Isle of the Blessed – a place considered an earthly paradise in Greek mythology.  Many versions of the story of his voyage exist, describing his Atlantic Ocean voyage with a number of pilgrims in search of this earthly paradise.

Did Brendan really see the island during his travels?  Did he really encounter a sea monster along the way?  Was the voyage really seven years long?  Who knows.  But for years (and perhaps still today) pilgrims flocked to Ardfert, one of the places at which Brandan built a monastic cell and the place from which he set out on his voyage.

Whatever the truth of his famous journey, we remember Brendan as a patron saint of sailors and travelers.  (Doubtless my high school’s alma mater contained lyrics that would tell more of this saint, but I can’t remember a word of it.)

St. Brendan the Navigator, patron saint of sailors and travelers, pray for us.



Paul and the Ephesians

Today’s first Mass reading from Acts is one that never fails to move me.  It is part of Paul’s farewell address to the people of Ephesus.

Paul had been living among the Ephesians, teaching them in public and in their homes, and clearly developing close relationships there.  Yet, he is now “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem.  And Paul seems to know this is no quick vacation from which he will return to his friend; he tells then that the Holy Spirit has been warning him that  imprisonment and hardships and his likely death await him in Jerusalem.   Paul thus is aware that he is speaking to the Ephesians for the last time, knowing he will never see them again.

Part of what moves me in this passage is imagining how hard I would have found it to be in Paul’s position.  I find it difficult enough to say goodbye to close friends when I know several months may pass before I see them again.  But to say goodbye knowing it is the last time your friends will throw their arms around you and kiss you (as the Ephesians did to Paul after they prayed together), let alone knowing you are headed toward likely death, how hard must that be?

But the other part of what moves me is Paul’s absolute clarity about what matters.  “I consider life of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s grace.”

As I sat with the passage this morning, I had to acknowledge that I don’t always have that same clarity of vision.  As committed as I am to my ministry and life in Christ, sometimes I get a little distracted and give importance to things that don’t deserve it.  Sometimes my anxieties take time and energy away from what really matters.  So I pray for the clarity and strength evidenced in Paul’s words today that I may “bear witness to the Gospel of God’s grace” in all I do.