We Know Not How

We Know Not How

The kingdom of God is like a seed.

The Gospel for this Sunday focuses on a common image in the parables of Jesus. A little seed yields abundance and the kingdom of God that Jesus is proclaiming is like that.

Jesus said to the crowds: “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”

Mark 4: 26-29

What strikes me the most in this passage is how the silence and waiting bring about a harvest. A seed is scattered on the land, but unlike some parables, the focus isn’t on the soil. Rather, the emphasis is on the seed. Despite the sleeping and rising of the farmer, the seed flourishes and gives rise to a harvest for him to gather. Does the farmer understand it? The Gospel proclaims “he knows not how” the seed sprouts and grows.

The same is true in us. God’s work is slow and gradual and we know not how He does it. Like the child who plants a seed and then looks eagerly each day, expecting immediate growth, if we are fixated on seeing magical growth, we will be disappointed. The seed of God grows in us, slowly and almost imperceptibly. Weeks or months or years later, we have the joy of looking back and seeing how God moved and worked. In the particular moment, we don’t always see the movement or the purpose.

The work of God is silent. So much takes place beneath the surface before we even see any fruit. But the Lord loves to work in the quiet. An immense work is happening in wombs and Eucharistic holy hours and monastic life and a night’s sleep and the quiet of the early morning. We often want the Lord to be striking and bold. Sometimes He is. But sometimes He is thirty hidden years at Nazareth, cared for a father with no recorded words in Scripture and a mother who is so often pondering things in her heart. A hushed unfurling of God’s word in our hearts leads us into a love that is not showy or boisterous but rooted and deep.

In so many areas of my life, I want things to happen quickly. I don’t like the struggle of the waiting or the in between, the time of growth that is often painful as we develop roots to sustain us in later storms. The act of starting is so often delayed because I fear what happens once something is set in motion. Or sometimes it is the opposite fear: what won’t happen despite the steps taken. But if the kingdom of God is like this little seed, then the same could be applied to God’s kingdom dwelling within me. It grows, step by slow step, in the hidden hours, though I know not how.

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Jesus Knows What it is Like to Wait

Jesus Knows What it is Like to Wait

Within the past year, I stumbled upon a verse in Scripture that gave great comfort to my heart. I know I’ve read this verse before and so it surprised me when I read it before quickly backpedaling to read it again. Maybe I had always read it in a slightly different translation or it didn’t seem like it applied to me, causing me to gloss over the words. Whatever the reason, the particular moment I read it was the perfect one for it to have an impact.

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.

Luke 3:23 (NRSVCE)

I paused.

One sentence helped lay to rest some of my worries and concerns.

The God-man began His work when He was about thirty years old. Perhaps I’m not behind. Perhaps this isn’t all a waste. Granted, I didn’t spend the first thirty years of my life with the profound intentionality of the Incarnate Word, but it was a gift to be reminded that missions can begin at thirty.

It isn’t that I think thirty is ancient. I don’t. It is simply that I had assumed I would arrive at different milestones before reaching this particular one. This time hasn’t been a waste, but it is difficult to see what has been accomplished. In high school and college, one moves from one grade to the next, learning information, being continually formed, and preparing for what lies ahead. And I’m still very much on an academic calendar, with neat endings and fresh beginnings. Yet…there doesn’t always seem to be movement.

Interestingly, it wasn’t that I longed for a life filled with adventure. I mean, I did and yet I was entirely prepared for a life that was normal, ordinary, even repetitive. Oddly, it seems that doing mundane tasks for someone else would seem far more fulfilling than doing mundane tasks for myself. Realistically, I know that is simply the lie, the trick that makes one think that the things that frustrate wouldn’t if they were shrouded in different circumstances.

Jesus lived a hidden, ordinary life for thirty years. Over the past year, I’ve returned repeatedly to this reality of angels heralding His birth and then shepherds and magi and then…a seemingly ordinary child grows up. Each day wasn’t lived in a glorious ray of light. People weren’t continually falling at His feet, acknowledging His divinity. He played, studied, prayed, and lived with others and nobody recognized God was pitching His tent among them.

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I Slept on the Cross

I Slept on the Cross

I often forget that Holy Saturday would have included the Sabbath rest for the early followers of Jesus. After the sorrow of Good Friday, they were ushered into a day that must have been brimming with painful reflection over the tumult of the past day. Did they go to the synagogue or temple? Did they gather together to pray? While the rest of the Jewish people were thanking God for the works He has performed, were they questioning why He didn’t act in this particular situation?

Holy Saturday is a day of waiting. Much of my life seems to be lived in a Holy Saturday state of being. I know the Lord can act and I’ve seen Him acting, yet in some situations it seems there is not much progress being made. So I wait. I wait trusting that the Lord knows what He is about and is preparing something wonderful beyond words for my weary little heart. I trust that the waiting is worth something. I trust that this period of waiting is accomplishing far more than many periods of acting could accomplish.

While we know the “end” of the story, we can sympathize with the first followers of Jesus by recognizing that the next step in our story is unknown. Entering into this liturgical Holy Saturday, we can see that God’s will and actions so often remain a mystery to us. In the fullness of time, it will be revealed and we shall see how God was continually providing for us and pouring out abundant graces upon us. For now, we must trust that the Lord is moving, even in the stillness or the quiet or the apparent absence of His action.

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The One Longed For And Yet Present

The One Longed For And Yet Present

The longing of God’s chosen people fills the Old Testament.

For generations they are waiting for God to redeem them, to restore their nation, and to enter into a new and lasting covenant with them. They tell their children and their children’s children about His mighty works and the promises God has made to them. While they don’t know how these promises will be fulfilled, they trust that they will be.

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work and muse on all your mighty deeds….You are the God who works wonders, who have manifested your might among the peoples. With your arm you redeemed your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph.

Psalm 77:11-12, 14-15

For years I’ve viewed the birth of Christ as the end to their waiting and a fulfillment of their longing. All that they were waiting for was there, wrapped in flesh, lying in a manger. The King they were waiting for had come. We celebrate Christmas with that in mind: the Hope of the Nations is born and so we rejoice.

Yet this year I was filled with a recognition that one of the most important moments in human history happened and yet virtually nobody knew about it at the time. Similar to the quiet yet monumental yes at Mary’s Annunciation, the birth of Jesus took place in a relatively hidden way. Angels told some shepherds and wise men arrived from the east, yet as a whole, Israel was unaware of what was happening in their midst.

On the day after Christ’s nativity, they awoke….and didn’t know that anything was different than the week before. They still longed for a king and awaited the redemption of Israel. Yet He was there, the little King, already laboring to save them. When they gathered in the synagogue to pray, recalling the promises and the works of God, they did not know that the incarnate God was with them. As they provided work for St. Joseph, they did not know that it was the God-man who crafted and created alongside him.

Christ was living and working in the world and yet the world did not know it.

For thirty years, Christ was hidden. He lived the ordinary life of a son, a neighbor, a faithful Jew, and a carpenter. People laughed, worked, ate, prayed, talked, and experienced life with the God-man and did not know it. The One an entire nation longed for washed His feet to remove the dust, ate His mother’s food, and slept deeply after a day of laboring.

He was there, known and yet unknown.

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Only to bring him to life

Only to bring him to life

I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him–only to bring him to life.

Innocent Smith in Manalive, GK Chesterton

The priest at Mass the other day posed the question: if it was possible to know, would you want to know when you would die?

As a melancholic, death is never too far from my mind and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While I don’t have strong feelings about the question one way or the other, I was thinking of some of the benefits of knowing when I would die, even if there is wisdom in not knowing. Sometimes, when death is clearly imminent, it compels us to truly embrace living. When our time is definitively short, we can move from passive existence to passionately experiencing life.

Is that type of wholehearted living reserved only for those who know death is at their door? Could I do that now? If people are able to live more when death comes close, could we just do now what we would do if we knew?

It made me consider how I would change my life if I knew the times of other events. Besides death, there are many other things that seem to be unknown yet shape how I live. For example, if I knew within the next year I would meet someone I would marry, would it change how I live? I believed that I would. What if it was five years, would that change how I live now? Yes, it would. What if I knew I would never get married? Again, yes.

And then I asked myself an important question: why?

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The Gift of a Slower Pace

The Gift of a Slower Pace

Of course there was some stress involved, but the school year ended with fairly little fanfare and at a much slower pace than usual. No massive liturgies to plan for hundreds of people, no finals to prepare, no feeling like everything needs to happen right now. I fully understand that this pandemic is causing suffering for many people, but I can’t help but consider the blessings found in the midst of the difficulties.

For a variety of reasons, this school year was difficult in different ways. I found myself stressed and in continual need of a break. Many life-giving things were happening in my life, yet the breaks from school were never long enough, the time to relax never quite rejuvenating enough, my grasp on responsibilities never quite firm enough. After overcoming the initial stress of the transition, I slid into an indefinite period of teaching from home….relieved.

The time gave me the gift of reading a little more, enjoying the comforts of home much more, and the unchosen halt of many ministries. Things I could never say “no” to before (and I don’t generally have a problem saying no), like some work responsibilities, and things I enjoy, like prison ministry, were suddenly over or put on a long pause. While there was a sadness in missing some things, I mostly found the break to be good for me. And as a definite introvert, I was really okay with hours spent alone at home. With nine weeks of teaching from home wrapping up, I can honestly say I never got very sick of being at home. Sometimes staring at a computer screen was painful or the endless assignments that needed grading were unwelcomed. Despite all of that, the pandemic provided the opportunity to come up for a breath of much needed air.

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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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A Sacrifice of the Will

A Sacrifice of the Will

I purchased it several years ago, but this Lent I decided to start reading Hinds’ Feet On High Places by Hannah Hurnard. While I don’t want to give too much away for those who may be interested in reading it, I do want to focus on one point that has struck me repeatedly throughout the book.

Several times, Much-Afraid, the character followed in the story, is called to sacrifice her will for the Shepherd’s will. This story is an allegory of the Christian life, but the repeated need to make altars upon which to lay one’s own will, is rather striking. Each time, she assembles an altar from whatever materials lie close at hand and then she places her own will on the altar. A fire alights from somewhere and consumes the sacrifice, making a burnt offering of her very will.

There Much-Afraid built her first altar on the mountains, a little pile of broken rocks, and then, with the Shepherd standing close beside her, she laid down on the altar her trembling, rebelling will. A little spurt of flame came from somewhere, and in an instant nothing but a heap of ashes was laying on the altar.

Hinds’ Feet on High Places, pp. 71-72

In the midst of reading this book, the coronavirus has swept the nation and world. It felt very real when my bishop suspended all Masses. Suddenly, I was in a similar position to the people I ministered in Honduras, who go without Mass for undetermined periods of time. It was something I never considered happening here. During the season of Lent, I suddenly felt like a tremendous sacrifice was being asked of me. Yet the end probably won’t come at Easter, with the beautiful Triduum marking the end of the wandering in the desert. Who knows how long we will be left to wander in this sacramental desert.

The Lord asked us to place our wills upon the altar and to accept them being made into a burnt offering, a living sacrifice for the Lord. Arguments about what ought to be done aside, I am confident the Lord can use this time to shape us, to pull us out of the normal and help us see the miraculous in what we mistook for ordinary.

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I Had a Slow Childhood

I Had a Slow Childhood

School was called off for today before I even went to bed last night. It meant that my sister and I leisurely watched a movie and then talked for a while before curling up to fall asleep. This morning, the snow hadn’t started yet so I went out of the house for a couple of hours, returning as the snow began to lie thick on the roads. Ideally, though, I would have been still tucked away in my bed or perhaps snuggled on the couch with a cup of coffee as I turned through my latest book.

In high school, I was surprised when I heard that on snow days kids went to go hang out at the mall. For me, it was an unthinkable action. Why would I go out into the blustery weather when that was the exact reason I wasn’t at school? I also was gifted with a father who would have unquestionably smacked me with a hearty dose of common sense if I would have even asked to drive to town despite the weather. Being at home was actually what I wanted to do anyway. While I liked school, I didn’t mind a day of sleeping in and being home. The same still holds true as an adult.

I grew up slow.

By that, I mean, as I grew up, we moved slowly.

I look at the schedules my students have or the schedules of kids and it looks so different from my youth. In elementary school, I usually rode the bus home and I was there until the next day when I left for school. My mom made supper and we all ate together. Sometimes the older siblings were running off to practice or games, but we almost always ate supper around our dining room table.

My summers were quiet, too. Sometimes we explored the farm or watched too much TV or read book after book. But it was slow, with plenty of time and space for us to play in the hay loft or read through book lists with forty to fifty titles. It wasn’t perfection, although my memory tends to cast an overly rosy hue on the days of my childhood. However, it had the great beauty of not being rushed.

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The Beauty of a Child’s Prayer

The Beauty of a Child’s Prayer

“Do you mind if we stop at the church for a couple of minutes?” I asked my nephew.
“Why?”
“To say hi to Jesus.” He said nothing. “Do you?” I said as I turned on my blinker. I asked again as I pulled into the parking lot. He remained silent.

We walked into the sanctuary, the heavy fragrance of incense making me close my eyes and breath deeply. For a few minutes, we knelt and then sat back in the pew. It was completely quiet and empty. The stillness in striking contrast with the usual full bustle of a Sunday morning Mass.

I turned to say something to my nephew and saw that he sat there with eyes closed and hands folded. And so I waited in the weight of silence until he suddenly turned to me and asked if we could go.

We spoke for a little bit about the silence, spent some time reading about St. John the Beloved on his feast day, and then I asked if we could pray for a friend of mine who was suffering from an illness that was lasting years. It was her birthday and she was on my heart and mind throughout the day. So I offered a brief intention for her and my sister before asking if he had anything to add.

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