In our relationships with one another we treasure those people who know us and love us.  Lifelong friends and family who know all our strengths and failings and love us anyway are trusted and beloved gifts.  Without this core of love and support, we can easily lose our way.  We rely on them to keep us grounded, to encourage us, to call us out when we go off course, to listen to us and to stand with us in good times and in bad times.  To be truly known by someone else, we have to make ourselves vulnerable to them.  We can’t hide our thoughts and feelings if we seek intimacy.  Those we allow inside our hearts are the ones whose words and actions can most hurt us, too.  I love reading about the friendship between Jesus and Peter in the gospels.  Of all the relationships in Christ’s human life, the one He shares with St. Peter intrigues me the most.  Peter has such a big heart—a God-sized heart—and he loves deeply and fiercely.  His heart also leads him to poor judgments at times, and deep, painful regrets.  Jesus knew his friend’s heart perfectly because He created it.  I think it was his big heart that Christ loved so much and it was that same bigness of heart that allowed Peter to hear the Holy Spirit and know that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah.

Jesus had been living in Capernaum, Peter’s hometown on the sea of Galilee, when He began His public ministry.  You have to wonder how well the two men knew each other before Christ called Peter and his brother Andrew to be His first disciples.  I love that Peter heard Jesus’ call to follow and “at once” he and his brother followed Him (Matthew 5:20).  Friends that don’t hesitate to come to us when we need them are the very best kind.  All of us have that short list of true friends and family that we call on in bad times to help us and in good times to celebrate with us.  Christ called Peter and Peter left everything behind—family, home and business—to come with Him and enter into the deepest and most transformational relationship he’d ever know.  Peter was there by Christ’s side throughout His ministry.  It was Peter’s faith that Christ loved so much that He made him the “rock” upon whom He’d build His Church (Matthew 16:18).  Peter was there with Christ at His Transfiguration (Luke 9:27-36).  Peter’s faith allowed him to step out of the boat and walk on the water towards Christ—at least for a few steps (Mark 6:45-52).  Yet Peter had his weaknesses as well.  Oftentimes he got Christ’s teachings a bit wrong, but our Lord was patient and forgiving with Peter, just as He is with each one of us.

On the night before His Passion, Peter and Jesus experience a turning point in their friendship.  At supper, Christ foretells the betrayal that will lead to His arrest.  Peter is adamant that his faith in the Lord would never be shaken.  Jesus pointedly tells Peter that is about to deny Him not once, but three times.  Peter contradicts and says “Even though I should have to die with You, I will not deny You (Matthew 26:35). Of course we know that Peter does deny Christ three times that morning, just as the Lord had said he would. Peter’s heart is broken when he realizes what he’s done to his Savior.  We read in St. Luke’s gospel of an intimate, tender moment in their friendship.  Just as Peter has denied Christ for the third time and the guards are leading Jesus away in chains, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61).  Think about that look for a moment.  The cruel words have just left Peter’s mouth, the cock has crowed and now he’s looking into Jesus’ eyes, with the full impact of his denial hanging in the air between them.  Peter knows what he’s done. Christ knows what he’s done.  But in His look is no accusation or judgment.  His look is full of love for Peter.  And seeing Love looking back at him, Peter breaks down into tears, his heart overflowing with sorrow for what he’s done.  Christ returns love and mercy for denial.  We can even imagine that there is hope in Christ’s eyes, the hope of Peter’s redemption.  What Jesus does for Peter in that moment is what He does for each one of us in the Sacrament of Confession.  He meets our sins with His overwhelming forgiveness.  He embraces our weaknesses with His great mercy.  Like Peter, we may expect condemnation, but Christ surprises us with acceptance and with love.  No sin is beyond His forgiveness.  Nothing we could ever do will make Him turn His face from us.  This is what Peter saw when He looked at Jesus.  And Jesus saw His best friend whom He loved with all His heart and for whom He was about to give His life.  This is a moment that He offers to each one of us in Confession.  Love. Mercy. Forgiveness.  No matter your sins or how long you’ve been away from the Sacrament.  He is waiting for you there.  Christ is the One Who knows you best and loves you most.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

-St. Peter.

Precious Cargo

I love airplanes. I’m old enough to remember when flying was fun and a bit of a luxury.  You dressed up in your best clothes and were treated to real food and drinks.  You were pampered and looked after.  There were usually plenty of empty seats in the cabin and you could enjoy your flight in peace and quiet.  Nowadays?  Well, you know what flying is like today.  But there’s still something almost miraculous about seeing a jumbo jet rumble down the runway gaining speed.  At what seems like the last moment, the nose lifts up and floats skyward, leaving the earth behind.  Driving near the airport this morning I saw a jet gaining altitude and flashing white and silver in the sun.  And I thought about who might be on board..

A businessman, of course.  Flying to a meeting with a potential customer.  He likes his job but hates the time he misses at home with his wife and children.  They’re growing up fast and he’s not there for enough ballgames and birthdays.  His wife resents the time he spends on the road.  He wishes it didn’t have to be this way.  But he has to travel to make enough money to keep the family going in the way they like.  He looks at his watch and feels the pressure of his career and his family weighing inside him.  Please God, he prays, help me close this deal.

There’s a woman in her twenties with a six-month-old baby in her lap.  She’s nervous and worried.  This is her first flight.  But she’s even more worried about her baby.  She hasn’t been gaining weight and she cries a lot.  Her doctor is sending her to see a specialist.  What’s wrong with her little girl?  She pulls the baby close and kisses the top of her head, closing her eyes to the tears she feels stinging inside.  Please God, she prays, please make her be all right.

The pain in the older woman’s back makes it uncomfortable to sit very long.  She’s anxiously looking at the seat belt sign, hoping it will go dark soon and she’ll be able to get up and walk around.  That helps the pain.  When she gets home, she’ll get back in her routine and will walk every morning on the beach with Gus.  Thinking of her big old Rottweiler makes her smile, despite the pain.  Her son had given Gus to her when he’d had to go away.  That’s where she’s been on this trip, seeing him.  He has so many problems and she feels mostly useless to help him.  But he likes her visits and so she goes.  God help my son, she prays.

In every seat, on every flight, in every plane each day, there’s a person made in the image and likeness of God.  Each one has a rich and complicated story.  Everyone struggles with problems and with pain.  Each one of us is so very much more than we appear to be on the outside.  The businessman who’d rather be at home.  The young mother struggling to find a cure for her sick child.  The retiree returning home from a visit to see her son in prison.  We live in a broken and hurting world.  Adam’s sin has left us all wounded.  We carry scars inside us.  Every soul is a tender mystery of love and need.  Every one of us is a broken heart in need of Christ’s redemption, mercy, and love.  So when you look up into the blue sky of spring and see the silver flash of a jet headed from somewhere to somewhere else—say a prayer for the souls onboard.  You don’t know who they are, but God knows each one of them, You don’t know what their problems or needs are, but God surely does.  Some of them are His good friends, while some of them don’t yet know Him.  In both cases, they are His beloved children.  Ask the Lord to keep them safe on their journey.  Beg Him mercy for their sins and healing for their sorrows and pains.  You might be the only person praying for someone on that plane and your prayer could make all the difference in their lives.  As Christians, we’re family and we’re called to care for one another.  When we pray for our brother or sister, we affirm our family ties and we show our love, as He has asked us to love (John 13:33-34).  When we pray, our love and our prayers are pleasing to God.

“O Spirit, Whom the Father sent

To spread abroad the firmament;

O Wind of heaven, by Thy might

Save all who dare the eagle’s flight.

And keep them by Thy watchful care

From every peril in the air.

—“Eternal Father, Strong to Save”—1940 US Episcopal Church version

The Name of God

I’m confounded by something that’s been happening to me since my twenties.  Though my given name is “Judith” I’ve always been known to family and friends as “Judy,” which has been just right as far as I’m concerned.  “Judith” sounds far too grown-up for the person I imagine that I am.  But something odd began to happen once I was out of graduate school and working as a psychotherapist.  People began to call me “Miss Judy.”  It started out slowly enough.  The occasional bank teller.  The seldom-seen convenience store clerk.  Then I noticed even some of my friends and family were doing it, too.  Where had this odd title come from?  And who had given it to me?  It sounded strangely antebellum to me.  Out of a different age.  And I didn’t much like it.  I never said that I didn’t like it, though.  People seemed to just naturally want to call me “Miss Judy.”  Last week I was introduced to the mother of an acquaintance at a luncheon.  This woman, who is about my own age, had adopted me as—-that name.  In a matter of minutes!  I don’t understand it. And it’s gotten me thinking about names and titles and things.  Why do we call people what we call them?  And, of course, all the names of God.  Does He like them all?  Is there one He prefers above the rest?  And what do all His names tell us about Him?

Our God is one God in three distinct Persons–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Each of these Persons has their own Name.  In the Old Testament, by far the most common name of God is “Jehovah” which is used more than 6000 times.  Others, like Yahweh, Adonai, Eolohim and El-Shaddai are also used.  Jehovah comes from the Hebrew meaning “to be” or “He Who is.”  It reminds me of the passage in Exodus where God reveals Who He is to Moses by instructing him to tell the Israelites that “I am that I am”(3:14).  To me, this is God’s profound “unmoved mover” philosophical name.  All existence flows from and rests in Him.  In God, creation both comes into being and is sustained in being.  God wills the universe and everything and everyone that is in it. I like knowing that God thinks of me at every moment—and has since the beginning of time.  We can all rest in that knowing.  Our Lord loves to think on us and from that, we draw our very lives.

The Second Person of the Holy Trinity is the Word of God, Jesus (John, Chapter One).  Jesus means “God saves” and is the name the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary (Luke 1:31).  Jesus is both Who God is and what God does.  He saves.  Whom does He save?  “…all who call on the name of Jesus (Romans 10:13).  The name of Jesus is the name of salvation.  St. Paul holds the Holy Name of Jesus to be above all other names as he writes in Philippians (2:10) “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow…”  We Catholics have a beautiful prayer called the “Litany of the Holy Name” which meditates on all the beautiful names and titles given to Christ (“the anointed One”).  Glorious and tender names like “brightness of eternal light,” “meek and humble of heart,” “good Shepherd” and “King of Glory” among many more.  It’s no wonder meditating on the Holy Name of Jesus has been a centuries-old prayer tradition in the Church.  In that Name is our life and our hope.  Our redemption.

The name of Jesus that is dearest to my own heart is “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”  A prophetic title first used by Isaiah (7:1-8; 15) it is the name St. Matthew references in his infancy narrative (1:22-23).  God with us.  Jesus is God with us, in us, living through us.  In the Temple, there was a beautiful seamless curtain which enclosed the Holy of Holies which was, for the Jews, the very presence of God Himself in the Ark of the Covenant.  At the moment of Jesus’ death on the Cross “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Matthew 27:51).  Everything that had separated us from God under the law was made accessible to us through grace, through Jesus.  He opened the way to heaven for us by opening His arms on the Cross.  God with us.  Emmanuel.  Every Advent season begins with us singing my favorite Advent hymn:  O Come O Come Emmanuel.  Whenever we sing those words it reminds me that He, my Lord and Savior, is with me.  He left heaven to save me and you–to ransom captive Israel, as the hymn says.  To love us and to take us home to heaven. These days, we can forget just how very much God loves us and that, no matter the chaos that is around us, God is always in control. He has a plan for us. He has a plan for our world. Emmanuel is always with us and for us.

“…for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name.”

—Luke 1:49

Making Disciples

He sat reading the letter over and over, with unbelief and a little dread.  After all, this was a letter from the Pope himself, and he’d rarely been the subject of a papal communication.  The Holy Father was ordering him to go to France and preach the Gospel there.  Leaving his Italian home would be hard, but he was a priest of God and would go wherever he was needed.  He’d take a friend and fellow-priest with him as well as a treasured deacon.  Folding the letter, he put it away and set about getting ready for his mission….and praying.

Six months later, he and his two companions were standing on the banks of the Seine, looking down at an island in the middle of the river.  That was the spot they’d chosen to plant their church.  The village of Paris spread out before the three men. Some barracks for the Roman troops who were there.  A scattering of support buildings like stables and kitchens.  Lean-to rooms of wattle and daub in small groupings on the low hills with communal cooking fires outside, where the villagers lived.  Animals and mud everywhere.  And the smell.  The churchmen knew they had their work cut out for them.  This was a place where native religion mixed with Roman idolatry.  The soldiers occupying this area were hostile to Christianity.  The pagan Celtic people, the Parisii, were a violent tribe who fought the Roman occupation at any opportunity and had made it clear they didn’t need a new God.  Paris was a violent, hostile community.  It was perfect ground for sowing the seeds of the Gospel of Christ.

The priest and his two assistants spent much of their time each day trying to get to know the villagers.  The men of the Parisii were often away, hunting for deer and boar in the forests.  The women had small vegetable gardens which supplemented any meat the men might bring home.  Wheat and barley were grown to make beer with a little of the harvest used for making a coarse bread.  It was a community perpetually on the edge of starvation.  Working so hard just to stay alive, the Parisii had little time or interest in listening to the priests talk to them about Jesus.  They had their own gods of earth and sky and their own holy men to lead them.  So Bishop Denis and his companions, Fr. Rusticus and Deacon Eleutherius set about using charity as their example of Christian faith.  But both the Roman soldiers and the villagers remained suspicious and hostile to the newcomers.

For nine years, St. Denis and his companions endured many hardships on their mission of bringing Christ and His Church to Paris.  They were often imprisoned by the Romans under the Emperor Decius since Christianity was illegal and seen as a threat to the Empire.  They were also beaten and imprisoned by the local pagan priests as well, who were angered by the converts St. Denis made among the village people.  As the number in his flock grew, St. Denis and his helpers became the victims of more severe beatings and longer imprisonments.  They were scourged, racked, thrown to wolves and starved.  Finally, in or around the year 275 A.D. the local Roman governor Sissinius ordered the three men to be killed.  They were taken outside the city to Mars Hill, now called Montmartre, and were beheaded.  The story of St. Denis, Bishop and Martyr, should have ended there.  But it didn’t.

As the soldiers and witnesses watched, the headless body of St. Denis stood up.  He reached down, picked up his head, and carrying it under one arm, began walking.  Renowned for his powerful preaching, St. Denis continued his sermon as he walked, stopping at a fountain to rinse the dust off of his disconnected head.  After walking and preaching for about two miles, he stopped at a widow’s house and collapsed, finally dead.  He received his burial at the widow’s hands and later, a church was erected on the spot to house his holy relics.  The Cathedral St. Denis is a beautiful example of early Gothic architecture and is a favorite pilgrimage site for those visiting Paris.  It is the traditional burial place of French royalty.  St. Denis’ faith took him from his Italian home to a hostile pagan land.  He lived a life of charity and sacrifice as an example to the unbelievers around him.  He brought souls to Christ and for that, he met a martyr’s death.  Like all the Saints who have gone before us, we can look to his holy life as a model of courageous faith in the midst of a violent and hurting world.  St. Denis, pray for us.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19

A Daily Conversation

“Ten minutes a day.”  No, it isn’t a sure-fire fitness regimen for your resolution to lose weight.  And it’s not a reminder to limit your time on Facebook.  And you’ll never become a piano virtuoso if you just practice ten minutes a day.  But there is something you can do that will change your life in a much deeper and more profound way if you begin with just ten minutes a day:  Spend ten minutes each day in prayer.

You say you don’t have ten minutes a day to spare?  Find it!  You say you don’t know how to pray?  Learn how!  You say you’ve tried to pray before but you’ve given up on it?  Try again!  Maybe you’re thinking to yourself that praying isn’t something you need to do.  You’re happy and content, fulfilled and confident in every decision you make.  You know your life’s purpose and mission and you have no doubt that you’re exactly the person you were meant to be.  But…if you’re like the rest of us…you need to pray.  Do it.  There’s no great secret to prayer.  You just begin.  And this is what you do.

For ten minutes each day, enter into the presence of God by being silent.  For most of us, this is difficult.  In a quiet place, quieten your heart.  Quieten your mind.  You can’t hear God speaking to you if your mind and heart are full of the noise of everyday life.  This is very often the hardest part of prayer.  Ask God to help you hear Him:  “Dear Lord, teach me how to pray.”  He will lead you by the hand and draw you close to His heart.  Let Him.  Be with Him for ten minutes.  If your mind wanders, bring it back to Him.  This inattention is part of our human nature, so ask Him to help you remain in His presence.  As the days go by, you’ll enter prayerful silence more easily and remain with Him more comfortably and attentively. 

The actual “doing” of prayer is getting to know Christ by allowing Him into the details of your life.  The good stuff you’re thankful for, the bad stuff you need help with and the ugly stuff you’re afraid to tell anyone else.  Here’s the thing about God:  He already knows all your stuff anyway, but He LOVES that you want to tell Him about it.  He wants to be included in your life.  Prayer is a conversation with God.  Sometimes it’s just thinking about Him.  Sometimes it’s talking to Him.  Sometimes it’s listening to Him.  Prayer isn’t magic:  it’s a relationship.  And like any of our relationships, we have to give it time, give it our honesty and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Getting started is the hardest part.  And God knows that, too.  He’ll help.

And here’s something else you can do:  pray in church.  Spend your prayer time in a church.  What?  Why would I want to do that?  Can’t I pray at home just like I would pray in church?  Well, sure you can.  But if you’re new to prayer or if you want to deepen your prayer life, spend ten minutes a day praying in church.  It can be hard to find a quiet place, but church is a quiet place.  It can be hard to find a sacred space, but church is a sacred space.  What better place to feel the closeness of God than in His house?  If you have this intimate and quiet place available for you, why wouldn’t you take advantage of it?  Here’s an even more outrageous suggestion:  pray in a Catholic church, even if you’re not Catholic.  We believe that Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist so praying in a Catholic church is praying in the real presence of God.  Even if you don’t have this faith in the Eucharist, just try it.  Most Catholic churches are open for prayer every day and anyone is welcome to come in and pray.  I would invite you to explore this experience for yourself.  Sit quietly and allow Jesus to be with you.  Allow Him to surround you with His presence.  Open your heart to Him.  And listen.  Listen with your heart.  Let it be filled with Him.  Let Him fill it with Himself.  One of my favorite prayers is:  “Lord, take away everything in me that isn’t You.”  This is our hope as Christians, to become more like our Savior.  Our journey is a daily walk with Him.  Ten minutes a day is a good place to start.

“You don’t know how to pray? Put yourself in the presence of God, and as soon as you have said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray’ you can be sure you’ve already begun.” 

—St. Josemaria Escriva