Birth and Death and Rebirth

Birth and Death and Rebirth

In March, before COVID became a full-blown pandemic, I ordered four icons from an Orthodox icon shop I’ve used in the past. They were able to ship two of the icons before needing to close their shop due to state restrictions and for the health of their employees. The other two would be shipped at a later date, as they were able to re-open and continue production of the icons.

When I got an email a few weeks ago, it said the icons were shipping and would arrive the middle of the next week. The situation was humorous since I had been home for weeks on end and during the one week of the summer I was away, the long-awaited icons were delivered to my doorstep, where they waited for my arrival a few days later. Of course, I exclaimed, to anyone who would listen to me, of course the icons arrive when I cannot be there to get the package.

A couple of days later, I learned of the death of a dear friend of the family. There are dozens of memories of my childhood and young adult life that I can return to and find this man filling the scene with his lively personality. He and his wife were friends of my parents. They were present for important sacraments and were the babysitters for my younger sister and me on occasion. Later, they were my bosses as I worked for them during the late-summer and fall. So many reflections on their frequent presence in my life and the unique role they had in relation to my family. Over the next few days, my family and I reminisced over the eccentricities and humor of our beloved friend.

When I returned home a few days later, I retrieved the package on my doorstep, grateful that it wasn’t damaged by rain or heat. I opened up my package and saw the two delayed icons.


The Raising of Lazarus from the dead


“Epitaphios”–an image of the body of Christ used in Orthodox and Byzantine liturgies at the end of Holy Week

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Joy in Everyday Things

Joy in Everyday Things

Marie Kondo advocates asking yourself if the things that fill your house spark joy. While I don’t live her method, there is something intriguing about asking that question about the items that fill our visual landscape. Many things in my home don’t do that (I suppose I find it hard for spoons and forks to greatly spark joy in me—yet they are pretty useful for eating), but it is perhaps more interesting to consider the things that do fall into that category.

During the pandemic, I’ve spent a lot of time at home. But given this abundance of time at home, I notice that my affections continue to be drawn to particular things in my home and I find once again compelled to acknowledge that beautiful, practical (and impractical) items are so helpful for ushering joy into our lives.

For example, I have a wooden serving tray and it is perhaps odd the number of times I stop to admire the varying grains that run across and throughout the wood. Either as I’m arranging food on it or washing it off, I generally am thinking, “This is so beautiful.”

Or I have a serving bowl that was handpainted in Italy that I purchased last summer while in Assisi. The bright colors that fill the interior bring me a thrill of joy every time I fill it with salad or an array of fruit. As I use it, I frequently remember the peace of Assisi, the quiet of the streets during our time there, and the beauty of being in a place so old.

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Noli Me Tangere

Noli Me Tangere

Part of the way through the Easter Vigil Mass I realized something I had subconsciously believed even as I intellectually knew it wasn’t true. I realized that COVID-19 wasn’t confined to Lent. The absence of public Masses wasn’t just a wild Lenten penance. It was a reality that was going to endure for who-knows-how-long. In the midst of a time of penance and sacrifice, it was somewhat understandable to accept and embrace this unasked for restriction. Yet in the time of Easter joy, how did one continue to embrace this cross, even while gesturing toward the empty tomb?

Intellectually, I was fully aware that this was an enduring thing. Yet after passing into the Easter season, I have been pondering this odd cross-section of joy and sacrifice. Of course, it is possible to be joyful in the midst of sacrifice. Love, nearly by definition, involves sacrificing ourselves for the good of the beloved. Yet long, protracted sacrifice in the middle of a liturgical season set aside for rejoicing, feasting, and innumerable alleluias being uttered? How does one do that?

I don’t exactly know, but I am trying.

It helps that I try to often remind my students that we are in the Easter season and should do something special to celebrate this time. At times, I find myself recording videos for them and thinking I need to do this, too.

It has surprised me how I can sometimes enter into prayer when I am praying “remotely.” Like when Pope Francis had some time of adoration during the Urbi et Orbi blessing a few weeks ago. Sitting on my couch in front of my computer and adoring Jesus in Rome seemed kind of silly. Yet as I prayed alone yet communally, I found that I was able to enter into prayer. It wasn’t a perfect scenario, but it worked in that moment. This was a moment of joy, to find myself with Jesus even as I was separated from His Eucharistic presence.

So here we are, fully into the Easter season, steadily working our way through the Easter Octave, filled with joy and yet still experiencing sacrifice. But I guess that makes it a bit like that first Easter Sunday when St. Mary Magdalene encountered Christ at the tomb. In her desire to keep him near, we see Jesus saying to not hold onto Him. Wasn’t this miraculous triumph over death the fullness of joy?

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Is the Good News Good?

Is the Good News Good?

St. Peter says to “be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) but sometimes it seems the hope can get lost in a parade of rules. I asked my students what is the cause of our hope and after throwing out several answers, someone finally said the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was the source of our hope.

“Do you feel like the Good News is good?”

They paused for a moment, almost seeming to sense there was a trick question they needed to skirt.

“Yes,” one student said.

“Why?”

This simple question seemed difficult for them. Someone replied, “Because it seemed like the right answer.” In fact, when I asked a later question (“Why does the Good News not seem good?”) they were able to respond with more answers.

When I go into the prison, so many of the men that come to the Catholic bible study or Mass are able to clearly point to their lives and say, “When I do my own will, I am not free.” It is a profound gift that the men in prison have that I think so many outside prison lack. The doctor, the teacher, the student, the politician, the bus driver, the plumber, the painter, the whatever can look like they have it together because they have some worldly success and their struggles might not be so apparent. The reality, however, is that we are all in great need of being saved. This crashes into the truth that the Good News is profoundly good, but it does require an acknowledgement that I cannot do it on my own.

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The Beloved One

The Beloved One

Is John the most arrogant of all the disciples?

Throughout the Gospel of John, essentially whenever John refers to himself, he doesn’t use his name. Instead, he says “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” At first glance, it might seem like pure arrogance, pride over the fact that John was one of the “inner three” Jesus drew particularly close to Himself.

Or it might be something else entirely.

When I discuss this title with my students, they are a bit surprised that John refers to himself as the beloved disciple. But then I try to draw their attention to the other claims John could have made.

John, the only disciple at the foot of the cross.
John, the one who leaned his head near the heart of Jesus and sat next to Him at the Last Supper.
John, the disciple who arrived first to the tomb after the Resurrection (because he ran faster than Peter).
John, the youngest of the disciples.
John, the one to whom Jesus entrusted His mother.

What do we see instead? John, the one whom Jesus loved.

There are several unique roles that John played, but when writing the account of Jesus, he chooses to simply be known by the fact that Jesus loved him. More than everything else, the love of Jesus is the most precious to John. He is the beloved disciple.

Contrary to what we might think initially, his belovedness is not in conflict with anyone else’s belovedness. It isn’t John, the one Jesus loved more than all others or to the exclusion of all others. It is simply: John, beloved by Jesus.

It is a title we could all claim.

Is that what I see first, though: my belovedness?

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Growing a "Yes" Within

Confession: I don’t always enjoy praying the Rosary.

In fact, I often avoid it because it takes me so long to pray it by myself and I want to spend my prayer time doing other things.  That might be borderline blasphemous to some Catholics, but that is honestly how I feel sometimes.

Last night, however, I decided to pray the Rosary.  I told myself that I could stop and pray with a given mystery if I felt drawn to it.  It was a minimal-commitment Rosary, if you will.

The joyful mysteries were the mysteries for the day.  I tried to mentally enter into the mysteries: what if I was Mary and experienced the Annunciation or needed to travel to Bethlehem for a census?  The interesting thing was that instead of Jesus being who was developing within me, it was a “Yes.”

Before prayer I had gone for a run and part of the time I was thinking, “Lord, help Your will to be my will.”  So as I reflected on these mysteries, I thought of this desire to follow God’s will as a “Yes” that is grown within oneself.  This “Yes” was what Mary spoke at the Annunciation–a “Yes” that took on flesh and entered into humanity, but a “Yes” nonetheless, one that she said with her whole self, every day.

The “Yes” does not lead to immediate results, however,  Mary’s “Yes” took nine months of quiet growth before it was born into the world.  Similarly, our “Yes” may not be evident after the first day.  It might take months to begin to show.  But when it does, it will noticeably transform us, even though it might remain hidden.  We might labor to give birth to this “Yes” with our whole selves.  But what struck me was the presentation in the temple.  Even after we have grown this “Yes” within us and labored for it to bear fruit, the results are still not our own.  We present the fruit of our “Yes” to the Lord to do with as He wills.  Nothing remains our own.

After giving ourselves to this “Yes” and presenting it back to the Lord, we might still struggle to understand and find this “Yes” in the confusion of our lives.  Mary had to seek after the “Yes” in accepting to become Theotokos–the God-bearer, she looked for Jesus in the temple, and she stood sorrowfully taking in this “Yes” hanging on the cross.  It was a “Yes” that filled her entire life, one of complete obedience to the will of God.

My reflection on the joyful mysteries of the Rosary filled me with a renewed desire to nurture this “Yes” within myself.  Not in one area of my life, but in all areas.  Without even thinking about it too much, when I imagined this “Yes” filling my life, I knew it would be accompanied by an undeniable and nearly uncontainable joy.

A “Yes” to the Lord involves sacrifice, that is true, but it leads us to a deeper peace and joy than only saying yes to our own will.  It fills us and gives true life.

But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”  (Luke 11:28)

Grace-filled Moments

 I stepped out of the humble house and into the early morning air.  Although I didn’t know what time it was, I knew that is was early despite the warm sun that was steadily filling the village with light.  Embracing the time of solitude, I walked to a hammock and prayed morning prayer, with pauses to watch the water crash on the rocky coastline.

Perfection. 

No, perfection was when I finished prayer and spotted a little boy who was creeping around, casting side-long glances at me.  After going inside to get my camera, I had a mini photo shoot with him and his friends.  They were adorable.  One moment they were posing for pictures and the next they were crowded around my camera, only to double over with delight as they saw themselves on the little screen. 

Or perhaps perfection was the feeling of being loved and acceptable absolutely as we entered a village unannounced and were immediately given food and shelter.  Each meal was the best that they could offer–we even had lobster for breakfast one time.  It was being invited to a captain’s house and hearing him explain that he would have been at Mass the night before but that he had been out in the water and didn’t know about it. 

Or perhaps it was the ride in the rickety old boat that seemed ill-suited for six people and backpacks.  It was a simple boat with a motor strapped on the back that cruised over impressive swells.  The water sprayed my face, the sun kissed my fair skin, and my excitement was mixed with silent prayers that we wouldn’t sink.  But then someone spotted a dolphin and soon after I viewed a wild dolphin racing in the water.

Or perhaps perfection was the joy of hiking through the coastal landscape–crawling over rocks, racing up steep inclines, stopping to enjoy the glories of coconut water while sweat ran down my face and back in rivulets.  The moments of pausing to dip our bottles into the cool springs so that we could filter the water to be suitable for our weak stomachs.  Walking to villages to which no cars can arrive simply to bring the best one could offer–Christ present in the Eucharist.  Watching the people unlock their churches with a sense of pride that is difficult to find in the “developed” world and then hearing them spread the word throughout the village that a priest was in their midst.   

Perhaps, in my mind, Honduras is perfection in every aspect.  I understand that the country is going through difficult times, that the homicide rate is one of the highest in the world, and that poverty is abundant.  But I experienced so much grace and perfection in Honduras.  The Lord blessed me with being able to go to Honduras twice for spring break mission trips in college.  As I saw the poverty of the people, I saw a simplicity that made my heart ache.  It made me want to return home and give all of my extra possessions away.  It made me want to become a missionary after college.  And right now it fills me with a desire to return to Honduras someday. 

Honduras has been on my mind lately because in just a few days another mission trip will be launched to that beautiful country and my heart aches to be with them.  Yet I can go back and embrace the memories and for a moment, I am in that grace-filled place again, walking through the coastal land, eating fresh seafood, celebrating Mass with people who manage to praise God in the midst of adversity. 

Heaven is indescribable.  I like to think that Heaven will be like all of the beautiful, grace-filled moments of my life linked together…and then more.  It will be the sum of beautiful adoration hours, hikes in foreign countries, the smell of incense, the feeling of a bed after a long day, the delirious joy of the Holy Spirit, the thankfulness of a student, the embrace of a cloistered sister, the glory of a sun-bathed afternoon, every delightful food, and the reunion of each beautiful friend…and more. 

In the midst of times that seem less grace-filled, it is nice to be able to go back and re-live some moments where I knew the Lord was working and present.  Yet not to get lost in them.  Simply to experience the joy and then return to the present with a renewed vigor to pray for God’s kingdom to come now…in me and in this world.