In Seeking Wisdom, Find Someone Who Has Suffered

Over 22 years ago as I was finishing seminary and about to be ordained my spiritual director gave me some advice on seeking a new spiritual director in my diocese. “Look for some one who has suffered,” He said. At the time I wondered about this but have come to find that it was true.

Suffering brings a profound wisdom if it is endured with faith. I have also discovered this in my own life. As much as I have hated any suffering I have endured I have to admit it has brought gifts in strange packages. Through it I discovered gifts and strengths I did not know I had. Through it I experienced things I would have avoided. Through I learned to seek help and not depend so much on myself. Through it I became better equipped to help others in their struggles. Through suffering my faith grew and so did my compassion and generosity for others who have struggled.

The scriptures say that “A broken humbled heart the Lord will not scorn” (Ps 51). A few years ago my current spiritual director shared a strange saying with me: Everything needs a crack in it, that’s how the light gets in.” Yes indeed, the light gets in through a broken heart, a heart with fissures or openings. Rarely does the light get in through a perfect wall, a perfect and strong barrier.

This is a painful truth to be sure and it makes me want to run. But in the end I have learned that it is true. God has done more with my brokenness than my strength. And, in a paradoxical way, my brokenness has become more and more my strength. I wonder if you have experienced the same? Where would we be without our crosses and sufferings? What do we have of true value that has not come at the price of suffering?

Let me get out the way and let a Saint explain it. This is from St. Rose of Lima whose feast we celebrated yesterday. This is an excerpt of what was in the breviary:

Our Lord and Saviour lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”

When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”

Suffer well fellow Christians. Beg deliverance to be sure but realize that even in the delay of relief, God is up to something good.
If this post seems familiar, it is. I am away on vacation this week and some (not all) of my posts will be repeats.

God in the Midst of the Storm – A Meditation on the Mystery of God’s Providence

We are all struck by the fury and devastation in the Midwest this year. And we are left to wonder why and how God allows it. And old song says,

Does any one know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours? ….And all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters. In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed, in the “Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.” The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald….. “Superior,” they said, “never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early!” [1]

Yes, where does the “love of God go?” There are no simple answers, those that attempt them know not of what they speak.

There is a story of St Antony of Egypt wherein he pondered such things and received an answer of sorts:

The Abbot Antony, being at a loss in his meditation on the depth of the judgments of God, prayed, saying, “Lord, how comes it that some die in so short a space of life, and some live to the further side of decrepit old age: and wherefore are some in want, and others rich with various means of wealth, and how are the unrighteous rich and the righteous oppressed by poverty?” And a voice came to him saying, “Antony, turn thine eyes upon thyself: for these are the judgments of God, and the knowledge of them is not for thee.”

It was an answer in its “non-answer.” For our minds see so very little. Wittgenstein famously said in his Tractatus, Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence [2].

I suppose if God were to advance an explanation we would hear only thunder, for our minds cannot conceive such a thing. Sometimes we must remain humbly quiet before our God. Job thought question God, and God did answer, with a non-answer:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know….! (Job 38:1-4)

Then comes the great litany of creation, one of the most painfully beautiful passages in the Old Testament (it goes on for chapters). At the end, Job can only say,

“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. [You asked,] ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:1-3)

Another song (a gloss on Psalm 104) speaks of God’s glory in creation but also of its fearsomeness:

O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy, space,
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm
. [3].

I have often meditated on the “non-answer, answer” and concluded that, while I cannot understand God’s ways, I have also been the situation where I cannot explain what I do, and yet do them, I must.

  1. At times I must take my Cat Daniel to the vet f0r shots. At the mere sight of the cat carrier, he darts under the bed and begins caterwauling and digs his claws into the carpet to resist my persistent tugs to pick him up. I tell him we are only going for a visit and he will be fine. But he does not understand, even though I speak to him. So loud and awful are terrified protests that neighbors look out the widows as I take him to the car. He moans and caterwauls all the way to the vet who puts him the front of the line since the waiting room is so disturbed with his cries. He moans all the way home and, upon emerging from the cage avoids me for days out of fear. Talk about trauma. But no explanation is possible for him. I act for his good, and the good of others but he does not, cannot, see that.
  2. At times I do “violence” in my garden. Roses must be pruned, old and dying plants must be removed. Fruits must be picked. Some flowers are cut and brought inside to be enjoyed. The soil must be broken and turned. One can imagine that if the garden and plants were sentient this is all very unsettling. I would like to explain what I am doing, but they are only plants and soil and cannot understand. When I break the soil I only enhance its ability to give life, but it does not understand this, it “feels” (in my imagined scenario) only pain. The pruning is “painful” to the roses and temporarily diminishes their glory But I know what I am doing and in Spring the glorious results show forth. Even to the clipped flowers I intend no indignity, rather it is a great dignity that they are brought into the house to enjoy special favor and admiration.

We cannot understand – I realize that humans are not cats or garden plants. But I suppose we are no better able to understand God’s ways than my Cat Daniel can understand me, or my roses comprehend my pruning. I have thought however, that the non-answer of God is not a refusal to answer us, so much as it is a manifestation of our inability to fathom God’s ultimate plans. He knows what he does and why. We are often left to cry or protest. Even if He did explain, we would hear only thunder.

There is an old song that says:

We are often tossed and driven
on the restless sea of time;
somber skies and howling tempests
oft succeed a bright sunshine;
in that land of perfect day,
when the mists are rolled away,
we will understand it better by and by

Trials dark on every hand,
and we cannot understand
all the ways of God would lead us
to that blessed promised land;
but he guides us with his eye,
and we’ll follow till we die,
and we’ll understand it better by and by
.

Yes, by and by, but not now. Jesus says as much:

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear….You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me. (John 16, varia)

For now, all we can do is pray for those who were lost and those who are suffering. We can send our help, but too many simplistic answers for why only make the suffering worse. And so we respect the mystery of God’s providence and trust by faith that All things work together for good to those who love God and are called, according to his purposes (Romans 8:28), somehow, in ways we know not.

Photo credit Paul McEnany via Creative Commons

This song says, When the oceans rise and thunders roll, I will soar with you above the storm. Father you are king over the flood, I will be still, know you are God.

In Seeking Wise Counsel, Find Someone Who Has Suffered

Back in seminary, as we were coming close to ordination we were exhorted by the spiritual director of the Seminary to find a spiritual director in our diocese and to be faithful in meeting with him. I remember well being surprised at the main criteria we were told to look for. I expected to hear that he be orthodox, wise, prudent, and so forth. And I am sure our seminary director of spiritual formation presumed we knew that, for he did not list any of those as the main criteria. No he said something far different than I expected. He said, “In looking for a spiritual director I would counsel you, above all, to strive to find a priest who has suffered. Such a one will be a surer guide for you.”

I suppose it is hard to simply define what it means to have suffered. Here in America there are not many priests who have recently come from a gulag. But suffering comes in different ways and I have found it is possible to tell those who have been tempered by its schooling. There is a true wisdom that comes from suffering.

In the reading from Sirach, in Wednesday’s Mass we read this:

Wisdom breathes life into her children and admonishes those who seek her….She walks with him as a stranger and at first she puts him to the test; Fear and dread she brings upon himand tries him with her discipline until she try him by her laws and trust his soul. Then she comes back to bring him happiness and reveal her secrets to them and she will heap upon him treasures of knowledge and an understanding of justice.  (Sirach 4:11-18 selectae)

Scripture also says,

  1. Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.  (Eccles 7:4)
  2. With humility comes wisdom. (Prov 11:2)
  3. Before I was afflicted I strayed, but now I obey your word. (Psalm 119:67)
  4. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Cor 1:3-4)

Perhaps we wish it were different but most of us know that our sorrows and crosses have usually been our best teachers. There is a test in every testimony. The text above says wisdom puts us to the test, fear and even dread are brought upon us and discipline is insisted upon. Only then does wisdom open her treasures and reveal her secrets.

Where would I be today without my crosses? What knowledge and wisdom would I lack without the challenges and difficulties that caused me to ask questions and passionately seek answers. When you suffer, platitudes aren’t enough, slogans won’t do. You have to go deeper, search for real answers and often learn that there are no simple answers. Suffering also unlocks an acceptance of paradox and an appreciation that all is not as it seems and some of God’s greater gifts come in mighty strange packages. Suffering can also teach silence and waiting. Great wisdom is found in these virtues. Suffering bestows insight, trust and serene peace. Only after years of suffering could Joseph stand before his criminal brothers and say, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Gen 50:20). Suffering does that, it teaches the deeper things, the harder things, the better things.

 In seeking counsel, look for those who have suffered. It is not the only thing, to be sure. For some have suffered and only grown resentful and despairing. But there are those unique and beautiful souls who, tempered by suffering, and steeled by faith have come to a place where wise counsel has found a stable home. Seek them. And, dare I say, seek to be among them, as one of their number.

When God Says "No"

It is common for all of us to have to struggle as to the great mystery of God’s providence and will. If it is not our own struggle then we must often commiserate with others who are in distress. One person is losing her young daughter to cancer, a friend is struggling to find work, still another has a husband who is drinking. Some will say to me, “I’ve been praying, Father. Nothing seems to happen.”  I am not always sure what to say and God doesn’t often explain why we must suffer, or why he delays, or why he says, “No.”

Just think of how he answered Job. Job wanted answers as to why he was suffering. And God spoke from the whirlwind and upbraided Job with provocative questions meant to humble him. But in the end he gave him no real answer. He DID restore Job though. And somehow in the midst of God’s mysterious ways we DO have to remember that if we are faithful God is going to more than restore us one day. But in the midst of trials, future restoration seems pretty theoretical.

So, often in the midst of trials, the best we can do is to be still. To breathe, to sigh and yearn, and to weep with those who weep.  Scripture says, The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD (Lam 3:25).

Scripture does give some answers as to God’s delay and to his “No.” And while these explanations may not always emotionally satisfy us, they do provide a teaching which can ultimately assist us in not allowing our sorrow, anger or disappointment to interact with our pride and lead us away from faith. Let’s look at a few of these explanations as to God’s “No” and his delay. Some of these explanations pertain to God and some to us.  I place the word “sometimes” before most of these since they do not all apply to all of us, all the time.

1. Sometimes, “No”  is the Best Answer –  We often think we know what is best for us. We want to have this job, or we want that person to fall in love and marry us. We want to be delivered from a certain illness or receive a financial blessing. We see these as good outcomes and are sure that God must also see them this way. But God may not, in fact agree with our assessment as to what is best for us. And thus his “No” is really the best answer to our prayers.

For example we may always prefer that God answer our prayer that none of our children be born with any disabilities. But God may see that the experience of disability may be just the thing that we or the child may need in order to be  saved ultimately. St. Paul prayed for deliverance from some sort of physical affliction: Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me,  “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:7-10).

The fact is, we really don’t know what is best for us or for someone else. We may think we know, but we do not. God’s “No” to Paul helped to save him for it helped him better understand the power of the cross in his life and how we must learn to depend on God. So too for us. We may prefer certain outcomes, but God alone really knows if our preference is truly good for us or just apparently good.

2. God is love – Many confuse love with kindness. Kindness is a common attribute of love but it is not the same as love. Any parent knows that they must often times discipline their children, and that it is the loving thing to do. A parent who is always kind and never punishes, spoils that child and does not exhibit true love. Parents will sometimes inflict pain on a child by limiting their freedom and insisting that they do what is right. They will bring an unwilling child to the doctor for shots, they will insist that they finish their homework before play. They may give a firm “no” to certain requests that they know are harmful or interfere with greater duties. Kindness always wants to say yes, but love sometimes says no and even inflicts hardships where necessary.

God is a Father. Kindness has its place but love is more essential for us than mere kindness which is but an attribute of love. Scripture says, My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son….God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:5-6, 11).  And Again: Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus….Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this (2 Tim 2:3,7)

3. Sometimes our request cannot be affirmed without violating another’s freedom– It is a common thing that we may pray for the conversion of another person. Or we may pray that they make some decision that we prefer. God is all powerful and could force outcomes, but this would violate the freedom of others to truly decide. If freedom is contingent upon God’s whim then it is not really freedom. God can exhort through his Church and the Scriptures. He can send special graces to be of influence, but in the end, we are free and he will not generally force an individual to choose what we want or ask in prayer. The scriptures affirm our freedom. For example: There are set before you fire and water; to which ever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, which ever he chooses shall be given him (Sirach 15:16-17).

4. Sometimes our request cannot be granted due to the harm it might cause to others– We can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that we are the most important things on God’s agenda. We want a sunny day for our picnic but the farmers are in desperate need of rain. Whose need is more important? It would seem that the farmers might be a bit higher on God’s list than my picnic, however, even this, I leave up to God.

The prophet Jonah went reluctantly to the Ninevites to preach. And he didn’t want them to be converted. He want them to refuse repentance and be destroyed within 40 days. He had good reasons to want this. The Ninevites (Assyrians) were amassing an army that was a great threat to Israel and if they were destroyed Israel would be spared any further threat. But the Ninevites DID repent. And Jonah was sullen and bitter. God rebuked him with these words: Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?(Jonah 4:9) We may not be praying for another’s harm but it may sometimes be the case that what we ask for would adversely affect others.

5. Sometimes our faith is not strong enough – Jesus said: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22) And the Book of James says, But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; (James 1:6-7)  There is also the sad fact of Nazareth where the Lord could work few miracles so much did their lack of faith disturb him (Matt 13:58)

6. Sometimes we ask for improper things or with wrong motives – The Book of James says : “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures

7. Sometimes unrepented sin sets up a barrier between us and God so that our prayer is blocked –  “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities (sins) have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).

8. Sometimes we have not been generous with the requests and needs of others – “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13)

9. Sometimes God cannot trust us with blessings for we are not conformed to his word or trustworthy with lesser things – If you remain in me and my word remains in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you” (John 15:7) and Again: So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? (Lk 16:11-12)

 In this video a pastor and his cat explain suffering and the mind of God.

This Song says that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.
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Strange Medicine and the Gaze that Saves: A Meditation on the Triumph of the Cross

One of the stranger passages in the Old Testament is a command Moses received from God. The people had grumbled against God and Moses for the “wretched” manna they had to consume (Numbers 21:5). They were sick of its bland quality though it was the miracle food, the bread from heaven that had sustained them in the desert. (Pay attention Catholics who treat lightly or find  the Eucharist boring!) God grew angry and sent venomous snakes among them which caused many to die (Nm 21:6). The people then repented and, in order to bring healing to them, God command a strange and remarkable thing: Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live(Nm 21:8).

No Graven Images?? Now remember it was God who had said earlier in the Ten Commandments Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth(Ex 20:4). Yet here he commands a graven (a carved) image. Moses made it of bronze and showed it to the people who looking at it became well (Nm 21:9)

In a way it is almost as if God were saying to Moses, “The people, in rejecting the Bread from Heaven have chosen Satan and what he offers. They have rejected me. Let them look into the depth of their sin and face their choice and the fears it has set loose. Let them look upon a serpent. Having looked, let them repent and be healed, let the fear of what the serpent can do depart.”

 Jesus takes up the theme in today’s Gospel and fulfills it when he says, And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14). Almost as if to say, “Let the people face their sin and see the ugly reality that it is and what it does to me to them and others. Let them face their choice and seek healing repentance. Let them also see the outstretched arms of God’s mercy and find peace.”

There is something about facing our sins, our short-comings and our anxieties and fears. There is something about looking into the face of them in order to find healing.  One of the glories of the Catholic Faith is that we have never hid the cross. We have never run from it. There have been brief times when we shamefully de-emphasized it. But throughout most all of our history, the crucifix has been prominently, proudly and fearlessly displayed in our churches. We cling to and glory in it.

Do you know how shocking this is? Imagine, instead of a crucifix in our Churches, you were to walk in and see Jesus dangling from a gallows, a rope around his neck. Crucifixion was the form of execution reserved for the worst of criminals. It was shocking, horrifying and emblematic of the worse kind of sufferings. When the Romans saw or thought of something awful they would cry out in Latin: “Ex cruce!” (From the cross!) for they could think of nothing more horrible to compare it to. And this is where we get our English word, “excruciating.”  Crucifixion is brutal and awful, a slow, ignoble and humiliating death: ex cruce!

 But there it is, front and center in  just about every Catholic Church. There it is, at the head of our processions. There it is, displayed in our homes. And we are bid to look upon it daily. Displayed there is everything we most fear: suffering, torment, loss, humiliation, nakedness, hatred, scorn, mockery,  ridicule, rejection, and death. And the Lord and the Church say: “Look! Don’t turn away. Do not hide this. Look! Behold! Face the crucifix and all it means. Stare into the face of your worst fears, confront them and begin to experience healing. Do not fear the worst the world and the devil can do for Christ has triumphed overwhelmingly. He has cast off death like a garment  and said to us, In this world ye shall have tribulation. But have courage! I have overcome the world(Jn 16:33).

 And therein lies the key that the cross is. It is the antidote to the world. It is the world and our roots in it that cause us the greatest fear. Have you ever noticed that the more you have, the more you fear? The more we have to lose, the more we have to fear. But through the Cross, and the sufferings of this world we begin to discover how hollow and foreign this world  really is. We begin to experience that this world is a valley of tears and an exile from our true homeland. It loses its savor and so we begin to focus more on our heart’s truest longing which is God and the things waiting for us in heaven. St. Paul wrote: May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14).

And herein lies the Victory of the Cross – The cross crucifies the world to me and I to the world. The cross breaks the bond, severs the unholy relationship and sets me free. The cross has a way of helping us to see the truer reality of things and the world begins to lose its hold. It is a strange and hard medicine, but there is a power in the cross and remedy for our soul. Sorrow suffering bring detachment, and detachment brings peace and freedom. And this is victory of the cross, victory over the world.

Illustration-  St. John Chrysostom had suffered much from the world, frequent exiles and threats for emperors, heretical clergy and the like. Popularity was mixed with hatred from the powers and princes of this world. But he had faced the cross and accepted it. And now, threatened once again with exile, he mounted his pulpit in Constantinople and laughed at the threats before him. He declared his freedom from fear at anything this world could dish out. In so doing he declared and illustrates the triumph of the cross. I close with his words. Listen to a man who has been set free and experienced the Triumph of the Cross:

What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? ‘The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good….I urge you, my friends, to have confidence…. (ante exsilium n. 1: PG 52, 427)

In Seeking Wisdom, Find Someone Who Has Suffered

Over 21 years ago as I was finishing seminary and about to be ordained my spiritual director gave me some advice on seeking a new spiritual director in my diocese. “Look for some one who has suffered,” He said. At the time I wondered about this but have come to find that it was true.

Suffering brings a profound wisdom if it is endured with faith. I have also discovered this in my own life. As much as I have hated any suffering I have endured I have to admit it has brought gifts in strange packages. Through it I discovered gifts and strengths I did not know I had. Through it I experienced things I would have avoided. Through I learned to seek help and not depend so much on myself. Through it I became better equipped to help others in their struggles. Through suffering my faith grew and so did my compassion and generosity for others who have struggled.

The scriptures say that “A broken humbled heart the Lord will not scorn” (Ps 51). A few years ago my spiritual director shared a strange saying with me: Everything needs a crack in it, that’s how the light gets in.” Yes indeed, the light gets in through a broken heart, a heart with fissures or openings. Rarely does the light get in through a perfect wall, a perfect and strong barrier.

This is a painful truth to be sure and it makes me want to run. But in the end I have learned that it is true. God has done more with my brokenness than my strength. And, in a paradoxical way, my brokenness has become more and more my strength. I wonder if you have experienced the same? Where would we be without our crosses and sufferings? What do we have of true value  that has not come at the price of suffering?

Let me get out the way and let a Saint explain it. This is from St. Rose of Lima whose feast we celebrated yesterday. This is an excerpt of what was in the breviary:

Our Lord and Saviour lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”

  When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions.   We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”
  
Suffer well fellow Christians. Beg deliverance to be sure but realize that even in the delay of relief, God is up to something good.

I am having a "Fifth Station Moment"

When they led Him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, coming in from the country, and placed on him the cross to carry behind Jesus. – Luke 23:26

Many Catholics have a devotion to a saint or a particular prayer. Over the past ten years or so, I have developed a devotion to the 5th Station of the Cross. In fact, I refuse to have a “bad day.” Rather, I chose to call those times “Fifth Station Moments.”

Simon the Cyrene is pressed into service

The Fifth Station recalls the moment Simon the Cyrenian is pressed into service to carry the Cross of Christ. Simon was a bystander who probably had no interest in helping. In fact, he probably thought of Jesus as a common criminal and was angry when the Roman soldiers forced him to carry the Cross.

At times, we are all pressed into service

I have a special devotion to this station because in my life there are many times I feel like Simon. In others words, there are times when I feel like a relatively innocent man who has unwillingly and unfairly had a Cross thrust upon his shoulders. Sometimes it is the Cross of one of my students, fellow parishioners or teachers. Other times it is the Cross of another member of my family. I have even had a Cross of two that was purposefully thrust upon me by the calculated and sinful actions of another Christian. Finally, I must admit that very often, it may a Cross of my own making that I am forced to carry.

When this happens, I try hard not to lament my circumstances, though I often do exactly that! Rather, through prayer, I try to turn to the Fifth Station and the example of Simon. Simon is mentioned only briefly in Holy Scripture but he is mentioned by name in the three synoptic Gospels. Therefore, his example is worthy of some contemplation.

Simon was clearly a reluctant participant during this pivotal moment in salvation history. If this were not true, he would not had been “pressed” into service. Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine that Simon eventually realized that he had been given a privilege to carry the Cross of Christ. Furthermore, in carrying the Cross he did not walk away or go ahead. He was still following Christ. And, more profoundly, maybe only after Simon recognized Jesus as the Redeemer, Jesus eventually took the Cross back and proceeded up Calvary on his own.

Bad day? No, just a “Fifth Station Moment”

When I am having a “Fifth Station Moment” it helps me to remember that in the end, the Cross is always taken away from me, by God himself no less! I have to bear it for a while but it is Christ alone who died for my sins. He still has the hardest part of the deal. The Fifth Station also helps me to recognize the redemptive power of suffering. Christ said, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” – Luke 14:27.

Let us remember that all of our burdens can and will be carried by Jesus, but only as we too recognize Him as our Savior.

I hope you have a good day today.  But, if not, I pray you have a “Fifth Station Moment” instead.

On the Feast of the Transfiguration: A Meditation on Seeing

The Feast of the Transfiguration is ultimately about vision. The Lord brought Peter, James and John up a high mountain in order that they might come to see. Even the word that describes this day bespeaks vision. It is from the Latin Transfiguratione. Trans means “across” and by extension “change”  and figura, means “shape” or “form.”  The suffix “ation” takes a verbal action and makes it a noun. Putting it all together transfiguration means a process by which Christ changed form or appearance. Christ gave them a glimpse of his true glory, he allowed them to see across (trans) to the other shore, to the true glory of Christ.

So the Feast of the Transfiguration is about vision. Have you seen the glory of Christ? Have you glimpsed God’s glory? Have you looked across to the other shore?  It is so essential for us to have this experience! Otherwise the discouragements and disappointments of life can easily overwhelm us. Only when we glimpse the glory and experience the joy of God can we truly say, by experience that our sufferings are more than worth it;  That the sufferings of this world cannot even been compared to the glory that waits (Rom 8:18);  that our momentary afflictions are producing for us a weight of eternal glory beyond compare (2 Cor 4:17).  Have you glimpsed the glory of God and Is this something you even expect to experience in your life? We ought to asked for this wondrous gift for it is essential for us.

Now of course, heavenly visions are not something we order like pizza. We can and must ask God for this vision but we must also understand that there are things God does to give us this vision, to make this vision grow and sharpen. Notice in the Gospel for today’s Mass four basic ways in which God ushers in this vision, clarifies it, grants it and helps it grow:

  1. The CLIMBJesus took Peter, John, and James and went up a mountain to pray. The other Gospels describe this as a “high” mountain. Tradition assigns Mt Tabor as the place of the Transfiguration. This is no small hill! It is indeed quite a climb to the top. I have visited there twice and, after the long drive to the top in buses with special transmissions designed for the climb, the view of the Jezreel Valley is like being up in an airplane. It probably took the four of them the better part of a day, maybe two to get to the top on foot. They must have been hardy men for such a climb. Consider too that they had to carry water and other provisions up with them. Now the point is, the vision they will experience comes only after a hard and difficult climb. It is true fact in my life and your too, I am sure, that suffering and difficulty usually gives new vision, opens new vistas, brings deeper understanding. Suffering is not something we enjoy to be sure, but it is part of the climb. There is an old Gospel song that says, “I’m coming up on the rough side of the mountain!”  The paradox announced by the song is that it is easier to climb on the rough side of the mountain. That’s where the climbing is to be had. That’s where the progress is possible. The smooth side provides little footing and is more dangerous. We like a smooth and pleasant life, but in fact, it is a more dangerous climb. Now at the top there is a vision to be had! But to get us there the Lord often has to have us climb and bring us up the rough side of the mountain. This is what it often takes to give us vision.
  2. The CLARIFICATIONWhile he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Now I have chosen the word clarification to do double duty here. One the one had it refers to brilliant glory shining forth from Christ. Clarus in Latin means “bright” and hence clarification refers to his shining splendor. But I also use the word clarification in the more common English sense which means to make clear. Now notice that Moses and Elijah are present  and conversing with the Lord. Moses and Elijah are historical persons to be sure but they also represent the Law and the Prophets. In other words they represent Scripture. Part of what the Lord needs to do for us to give us heavenly vision is to teach us his Word. As we grow in knowledge of Scripture, our vision grows, our understanding deepens, and we see things differently. Immersion in the Scriptures disposes us for heavenly vision. Notice too how Moses and Elijah (personifying Scripture) give the vision for what Christ is about to do in his final journey to Jerusalem. The vision is of a new Exodus. Just as Moses led the ancient people out of slavery in Egypt by the Blood of the Lamb at Passover and the parted waters (baptism) of the Red Sea. So now Jesus would lead his people out (exodus) from slavery to sin by the blood of the Lamb (Jesus is the Lamb of God) and the Baptismal waters flowing from his parted and pierced side.  Do you see what Scripture does? It gives us vision. It sheds light on the meaning of our life. Scripture is our story and it shows again and again how God can make a way out of no way, that He can do any thing but fail. Do you want to see the heavens open and the glory of God be revealed? Then immerse yourself in scripture. Through Scripture God clarifies all things.
  3. The CONTEMPLATION  – Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents,
    one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. And now comes the vision! Through the difficult climb and suffering, and after being immersed in God’s word, God often grants us this vision. When we see his glory we become fully awake. So great is this glory that they do not know what to say! Those who have every really experienced a glimpse of God’s glory know that the experience cannot be reduced to words. It is ineffable, unsayable, unspeakable! There is an old saying: “Those who know, do not say, Those who say, do not know.” Peter is babbling at this point and thinks to build booths or tents to capture this glory. He probably had in mind the Feast of Booths wherein the Jewish people remembered the great Exodus, the time in the Desert and the giving of the Law. It was one of the great festivals of the year. And hence Peter’s suggestion is a way of saying, “Let’s celebrate this!” “Let’s extend the time in a week-long feast!”  But Peter needs to understand that this is but a brief glimpse. There are still troubles ahead and another mountain to climb (Golgotha). But for now the vision is wonderful. So to for us who are privileged to get a glimpse of glory. It does not mean we are fully in heaven yet. For us too there are other mountains to climb, valleys to cross. But oh the glimpse of glory, do not forget it. Let it sustain you in difficult times and it must have sustained Jesus in his passion.
  4. The COMMANDWhile [Peter] was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said,  “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” – And now comes the great glory cloud (the shekinah) that overshadows them. This vision has been wonderful but God has more than bright lights to show them. The vision he confers gives direction as well as light. His direction is clear: “Listen to my Son.”  Not only does this instruction complete the vision but it also ensures greater visionin the future. If we obey Jesus Christ, we will see greater and greater things (Jn 1:50). If we follow him he will lead us to the light and we will see all things by it. But note this, where Jesus leads is not always easy. In order to obey the Father’s command that they listen to Jesus, they are going to have to accept Christ’s instruction that they follow him to Jerusalem and the cross. Only in this way will they see all things by the light of Easter glory.

Do you want to see? Then be willing to make the climb with Jesus. He gives vision if we climb. He gives vision if we are immersed in his Word, which is Scripture and Church Teaching. But his greatest vision lies ahead if we but take up our cross and follow him through his passion death and resurrection. Happy feast of the Transfiguration. May God grant us vision.