Will You Allow Nothing to Stand in the Way of Our Love?

Today’s first Mass reading is the difficult story in Genesis in which God asks Abraham to do something that sounds horrific. “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whome you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a burnt offering on a height that I will point out to you.”

What? What kind of a God asks someone to kill his son? His “only one, whom [he] love[s]”? What kind of God demands the killing of a beloved son as a demonstration of loyalty? It is hard to fault those whose immediate reaction to that question is: Not a God that I want to be associated with.

God, it turns out, does not actually require Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But that raises another question: If God never intended to have Abraham go through with the act, why ask it in the first place?

The only answer that makes sense to me is that the command for Abraham to kill Isaac was God’s way of asking Abraham to confront the depth of his faith in and love of God. God says, I give all for the sake of my love for you, holding nothing back. Will you do the same? Will you allow nothing to stand in the way of our love?

To us, God might add: I give all for you, including the life of my own son. Will you do the same for me?

What happens when you put that question to yourself honestly?

It is easy to say yes – of course, God, you know I’m with you all the way. I’d do anything to show my love for you.

And I sure want to be able to answer with a wholehearted yes. But when I read stories like this Genesis passage about Abraham, I have to wonder how well I would do if put to the test.

“I love you, Lord,” are words I mouth multiple times every day, but acting consistently out of that love and being willing to give everything up for the sake of that love – is much harder. I’m guessing I’m not the only one for whom that is the case.


More Benedictine Thoughts

I’m still basking in the glow of my week at St. Benedict’s Monastery. It was a productive week of work on the conversion book and just a wonderfully prayerful time.

As I sat reflecting back on my week there, a couple of things came to mind that I thought I’d share.

The first relates to the end of the Prologue of the Rule of Benedict, which gives a good reminder that how things seem to us at first is not necessarily how they will always seem to us. In the last paragraph of the Prologue, Benedict explains that it was not his intention to impose anything that was harsh or burdensome in the rule. However, he implores

if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14). For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.

Many things that seem difficult at first blush, may not seem so to us as we grow in the faith. It is a good thing to keep in mind both when we look at the behavior of saints, which sometimes seems so impossible for us to emulate, and when we think about practices that might be suggested for our growth in faith.

The second thing that came to my my mind was a comment one of the sisters made at dinner one evening. I was telling her that while I enjoyed participating in the communal prayers and went every day to Morning Prayer and Noon Prayer (and Mass), I almost never made it for Evening Prayer.

The reason is this: Evening Prayer is at 7:00p.m. On most days, Mass is at 4:30, with dinner immediately following. The result is that dinner is finished by 6:10 or so. If I walk back to my office and try to get some work done, no sooner will I get my head wrapped back into my writing than it will be time to walk back for Evening Prayer.

As I said that, the Sister quietly said, “Well, yes, sometimes coming back for prayer is a sacrifice – having to stop our work, but we do it.” She made clear that she had no criticism of my not getting back for Evening Prayer (guests are invited but not expected to attend prayer services), but it was clear she would stop what she was doing to attend.

I thought about the conversation again and wondered, whether I should adopt more the practice of the Sister. Stopping my work to come back for Evening Prayer even if it was inconvenient. Or maybe taking a walk or even just sitting in the chapel or oratory between dinner and prayer. Something to think about for my next visit.


Fridays in Lent are days of abstinence, which means abstaining from eating meat.

Fasting (required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and abstinence (required on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays during Lent) are penitential practices expected to be observed by healthy Catholic adults.

Neither practice is all that onerous. Fasting in the Catholic tradition (unlike the Buddhist tradition, where fasting means no food at all) means eating only one regular meal and two smaller meals that together are less than a full meal – which one of my friends jokingly referred to as “cutting down.” Abstaining from meat means meat only and does not preclude eating eggs, meat broths and other items that come from animal products.

So if the practice of abstinence is going to be meaningful, it ought to involve some real sacrifice. Thus, eating sushi, my all-time favorite meal, on Fridays during Lent seems to me off the table. Sushi is hardly a sacrifice for me. And for the may people who already eschew meat in favor of fish for health or other reasons, it is no sacrifice.

It is not about complying with the minimum terms of the stated rule, but of engaging in a meaningful penitential practice. That may mean a simple vegetable soup and bread for dinner. Or some rice and beans. I saw a post by someone who said that since he was a vegan, he planned to abstain from soy on Fridays. Whatever it is, make it meaningful for you.

Love and Death

I’ve just finished reading the second volume of Mark Shea’s, Mary, Mother of the Son, titled First Guardian of the Faith. I spent some time going back over pages I had marked for further reflection as I was reading. (Yes, I’m one of those people who turns down corners of pages and scribbles in the margins of books as I read.)

One of the things that stuck with me in this process was Shea’s discussion of our longing for true love and self-giving. Shea suggests we have both a hunger for and a “devouring fear” of self-sacrificing love. The fear, he points out, is with good reason: “in a fallen world, love and death are alike. They are both forms of self-sacrifice and, in the mystery of Christ, therefore inseparable. So we have only two choices: live our lives trying to get love without death, or else find the courage to take the plunge, however, ineptly, to die to ourselves for love.”

Shea goes on to say that even actions that seem small to us – helping out a co-worker, being nice to an irritating neighbor – are risky. Risky becuase “if we continue down any road that starts with the attempt to love, we will sooner or later discover that we did not build that road, that Jesus has walked it before us, and that the little voice that prompted us to take that first step, and all the steps after that, was his, however faint it may have been.”

And, of course, one thing leads to another. If we continue to walk down the road Jesus forged, “we will discover it leads to still more calls to sacrifice until we reach the sacrifice of our lives.” Shea quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observation, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Dangerous stuff, this following Jesus. Hang out with Jesus long enough and anything can happen. We can certainly try another road. But at some level, if we have spent any time at all with Jesus, we already know that, whatever the cost, there is no other place for us to go. So we might as well “find the courage to take the plunge, however ineptly, to die to ourselves for love.”


Sacrifice is one of those words we sometimes shiver when we hear. It sounds so unpleasant, being asked to sacrifice something.

And if we think of sacrifice merely as giving up something, it is unpleasant. It is also a bit hard to understand. Why is sacrifice good?

Sacrifice becomes a lot easier to understand, and to accept, if we think about what we are sacrificing for. Kenneth Stevenson, in Eucharist and Offering, defines sacrifice as “the destruction or surrender of something valued or desired for the sake of something having a higher or more pressing claim.” In other words, sacrifice means giving up the lesser good for the greater good.

I find it particularly helpful to recall this definition when I’m dealing with a temptation to do something that I really want to do that by any objective standard is a good, but which would stretch my capacity to meet my other obligations. I could do it, but at some cost either to my health, my family or other things I’ve already committed to. To think, not in terms of merely giving up my ability to do what I want to do, but in terms of giving up one good for another, superior, good is a help.

Or, to use my friend Aidan’s words, “Sacrifice is not only a death. It is a death that brings life.”

Greater Love Has No One Than This

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. Most of us are never in a situation where we are literally in a position to lay down our life for another. How would we react if we were?

Maximilian Mary Kolbe, whose feast we celebrate today, was a Franciscan priest with tremendous devotion to Mary, who spent many years spreading Christianity in Japan and elsewhere. During World War II, he was imprisoned and suffered greatly in Auschwitz. Here is an account of his death:

“A prisoner had escaped. The commandant announced that 10 men would die. He relished walking along the ranks. ‘This one. That one.’ As they were being marched away to the starvation bunkers, Number 16670 dared to step from the line. ‘I would like to take that man’s place. He has a wife and children.’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘A priest.’ No name, no mention of fame. Silence. The commandant, dumbfounded, perhaps with a fleeting thought of history, kicked Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek out of line and ordered Father Kolbe to go with the nine. In the ‘block of death’ they were ordered to strip naked and the slow starvation began in darkness. But there was no screaming—the prisoners sang. By the eve of the Assumption four were left alive. The jailer came to finish Kolbe off as he sat in a corner praying. He lifted his fleshless arm to receive the bite of the hypodermic needle. It was filled with carbolic acid. They burned his body with all the others.”

One has to ask oneself the obvious question. Would I have done the same in Kolbe’s place?

Put Up With Hardship

The passage of St. Paul’s letter to Timothy that is the first reading for today’s Mass is properly addressed to all Christians.  He writes:

“Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.  For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.  But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry.”

At the risk of being tautological, it is easy to be a disciple when it is easy, when things are running smoothly.  But the command is that we proclaim the word and evangelize by our words and deeds even when thing are not running smoothly, that we put up with whatever hardship stands in our way.

It is no accident that this reading is paired with the Gospel story we often refer to as the story of the widow’s mite.  In contrast to the rich people giving large sums of money to the temple, the widow carefully puts into the temple treasury “two small coins worth a few cents.”  Yet Jesus tells his disciples that she has given more than the rest: “For they have all contributed from their surplus welath, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” 

It is easy to give when we have plenty, when it doesn’t cost.  But the widow gives her all, she gives even when the giving hurts.

As I prayed with these passages this morning, I reflected on several questions.  Do I proclaim the Word only when it is easy or even when it is inconvenient to do so?  Do I give all or do I hold back?  We could all profitably reflect on what it means to give our all to God, to hold back nothing, regardless of the cost and the difficulty.