Inspiration, saints

What does St. Paul have to say to YOU?

St. Paul is one of those saints who speaks to people throughout the ages. His love for Jesus Christ, and his journeys to bring the message of Jesus to others, tell us of Paul’s commitment to him. What is remarkable is that Saul—his name before he became Christian—began his life as a very committed Jew. He was born into an observant Jewish family and was very well educated in both secular subjects and the Jewish law. He was so passionate about his religion that he searched high and low for Christians, arrested them, persecuted them, and threw them into jail.

But Jesus Christ powerfully intervened in his life when Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians. Suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him. He heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” What an eye-opening response!

As we reflect on the encounter between Jesus and Saul, we realize that Saul not only “encountered” Jesus in the sense that he met Jesus. St. Paul actually experienced Jesus. Jesus and Paul opened themselves to each other, deeply revealing themselves to the other. Paul’s mind and heart, therefore, experienced Jesus, he knew Jesus as a Person. This encounter changed his life. He became a believer, a Christian, and was baptized by Ananias. 

After Paul’s conversion, he went into the desert for three years, spending his time in prayer and being instructed by the Holy Spirit. He emerged filled with love for Jesus and his heart burned to bring the Good News of Jesus throughout the known world.

For about 20 years he traveled throughout much of the known world preaching about Jesus and founding Christian communities in Asia and Europe. Paul’s passionate love for and commitment to Jesus are evident in letters that he wrote to these communities. It is also clear that Paul’s love has reached the pinnacle of uniting him completely to Jesus. This is especially poignant and clear in his Letter to the Philippians 1:21 when he writes that “for me to live is Christ” and when from his experience he exhorts them to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).

St. Paul writes these words to us. We, too, are to be united with Jesus, so that gradually we are transformed into him. Then our thoughts resemble those of Jesus, our choices, and our love—for God, for ourselves, and for others—become those of Jesus Christ. This is a lifelong journey in which we continually seek to know Jesus, by prayerfully reading Scripture, especially the New Testament, and by spending time with Jesus in prayer. He speaks and we listen—and we speak and he listens.

St. Paul will accompany us in our spiritual journey toward transformation into Christ so that we too will one day be able to say, “For me to live is Christ.”

by Sr. Patricia Shaules, FSP
Image: Dimitris Vetsikas for Pixabay

Inspiration

As the economy opens up, let’s not forget each other

In this watershed moment for humanity—a global pandemic—we need more than a vaccine. We’ve all realized by now that things won’t return to normal, at least not any time soon, and maybe they shouldn’t.

I’ve been much more careful of what I consume, more caring of others, more concerned for the rest of the world whom I see in a new way as my family. We live together on this common earth we call home.

In a moment of fear I place my hopes on a vaccine that will keep me safe. In my better moments I remember that the problem is much more than a drug to keep away a virus. The situation is complex and the crux of the problem lies at the intersection of the failure of each of us. In little ways and on a larger scale, we harm others, the earth that supports us, and ourselves when we choose the “impulses that come from the flesh” over those that come from the Spirit. When we choose egoism over generosity. Domination over disinterested service. Discord, dissension and prejudice over living in a truly human and Christian way, in love.

Last week, Catholics around the world celebrated Laudato Si’ Week, marking the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on the environment. The week focused on interconnectedness during a time when we are experiencing it more than ever on a worldwide scale in light of COVID-19.

We’ve seen how a virus that began with one person has spread globally, and how that has affected our collective health, economy, and environment. And yet in the midst of this, miracles have happened. Because of how we have all slowed down, we see pictures of clear water, clear skies, the return of wildlife where before there was smog, litter, and cloudy water ways.

We’ve also started to see how reliant we are on our healthcare workers, our grocery-store workers, and our community leaders. We see how much responsibility we bear for the most vulnerable among us, and how they are often the ones who feel the effects of our actions first.

This connectedness has always existed, and will hopefully be more a part of our thought and conscience after the virus has passed. Globalization means that the products I consume impact the conditions in which people live and work on the other side of the world. The challenge will be taking the lessons we learn in this time and using them to make those connections more prayerful, more deliberate, and more just. We have to remember how our actions impact each other, even after life gets busier and it’s easy to once more forget our interconnectedness once our economies “open up” again.

The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home (Pope Francis, Laudato si’, 13).

The Church is just now beginning a special Laudato Si’ Anniversary Year. Pope Francis sees this anniversary year—and the decade that will follow it—as a time of grace, a true Kairos experience and “jubilee” time for the Earth, for humanity, and for all God’s creatures. Perhaps during these days, when so many have stepped back from the normal rhythm of life, we’ve had more time to pause and examine the big picture. Hopefully, we can launch ourselves into this anniversary year reflecting on some lessons that are common to both this coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis.

As we saw during the Laudato Si’ week, there are direct links between the current pandemic and our lack of environmental response. The present crisis is an opportunity to start over again, and to make sure the world that arises after this crisis is sustainable and just.

The encyclical can indeed provide the moral and spiritual compass for the journey ahead, so we can create a more caring, fraternal, peaceful, and sustainable world. We have a unique opportunity to transform the present groaning and travail of creation into the birth pangs of a new way of living together, bonded together in love, compassion and solidarity, and a more harmonious relationship with the natural world, our common home. The pandemic has made clear how deeply we are all interconnected and interdependent. As we begin to envision a post-COVID world, we need above all an integral approach as “everything is closely interrelated and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis” (LS, 137).

Let’s start with this prayer from the USCCB, based on Laudato Si’:

Father of all,
Creator and ruler of the universe,
You entrusted your world to us as a gift.
Help us to care for it and all people,
that we may live in right relationship–
with You,
with ourselves,
with one another,
and with creation.

Christ our Lord,
both divine and human,
You lived among us and died for our sins.
Help us to imitate your love for the human family
by recognizing that we are all connected—
to our brothers and sisters around the world,
to those in poverty impacted by environmental devastation,
and to future generations.

Holy Spirit,
giver of wisdom and love,
You breathe life in us and guide us.
Help us to live according to your vision,
stirring to action the hearts of all—
individuals and families,
communities of faith,
and civil and political leaders.

Triune God, help us to hear the cry of those in poverty, and the cry of the earth, so that we may together care for our common home.

Amen.

by Sr. Kathryn James Hermes, FSP

Image: Jakob Owens for Unsplash

Inspiration

What to do when you can’t go to confession

The old saying “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” rings especially true in this COVID-19 pandemic. Many Catholics feel the loss of not being able to attend  Mass and to receive Holy Communion due to the shutdowns. But many of us also miss the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession, especially since it’s Lent.

Some priests have found creative ways to offer the sacrament, such as drive-thru confessions. But if you don’t have this available, don’t despair. Here are some steps you can follow in prayer in  case confession is not available  in your area:

  1. Contrition—Be sorry for your sins. This is the essential act of the penitent when going to confession. Take some quiet time and make an examination of conscience. Consider how those sins have harmed yourself or others and then think about Jesus’ great love and mercy. You can look at a crucifix and think about his incredible love in giving his life to save us from our sins. We should never think of our sins apart from the mercy of Jesus. Jesus told Saint Faustina that he is love and mercy itself.

When we are sorry for our sins because of the love of Jesus and not just because we fear some punishment, this is called perfect contrition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about perfect contrition:

“When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’—contrition of charity. Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible” (no. 1452).

An act of perfect contrition brings the forgiveness of sins, even mortal sins, outside of the sacrament of Reconciliation. You should also resolve to confess any mortal sin when the sacrament is available again. Even though reconciliation with God can happen before confession, by confessing our sins we are reconciled with the Church community, which has been damaged by our sin.

  1. Confession—Tell your sins directly to Jesus in prayer. By speaking our sins openly it’s easier to truly repent of them and be sorry. You can tell Jesus everything that happened and then listen for the healing word he may send you. Recall that he is looking at you with great love.

Conclude by praying an Act of Contrition:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.

  1. Do a penance—Make a sacrifice to help make amends for our sins. You can give yourself some penance to do, whether it’s a prayer, an act of charity for someone, or some type of self-denial. By doing this you will be showing that you desire to repair the harm your sins have caused and that you desire greater configuration to Christ.

If you happen to know anyone who’s dying and can’t receive the sacrament, it would be very important and loving to walk them through the first two steps and assure them of God’s mercy and love. God is not bound by the sacraments and can make his grace available outside of them when necessary. But this does not diminish the importance of receiving the sacraments when we can, because they provide us with special sacramental graces.

by Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouvé, FSP

Inspiration, Lent

I Am Patrick: From Slave to Saint

Finally, a film on St. Patrick that’s not about snakes and shamrocks – not that there is anything wrong with that! Welsh actor, John Rhys-Davis (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings) does a superb job as the older St. Patrick who tells us about his life and journeys. I wish I could say the same about Robert McCormack, the young Patrick, but thankfully his screen time is limited.

The film’s successful and accurate portrayal of Ireland’s favorite son relies on its heavy use of Patrick’s own words from his Confessions for the film’s narrative. As a young man in Britain, he comes from a wealthy family and though his father is a deacon, Patrick is not religious and prefers a life of privilege and dissoluteness. The turning point comes when, at sixteen, Irish pirates capture him and force him into slavery for six years to the point of near starvation. However, his imprisonment becomes a time of conversion, prayer and spiritual development. The Lord’s powerful mercy comes upon him as he repents for the sins of his youth and recommits to living his Catholic faith.

During this time of fervor, he receives what would be the first of many visions from the Lord telling him that he would escape and make his way back to Britain and his loved ones. But Patrick soon realizes that he is called to return to Ireland and that despite the many difficulties he would encounter, the Lord calls him to bring the Gospel to the inhabitants of this rough and wild land. He is seen as a foreigner who opposes the Celtic kings, takes no part in the Druid ceremonies, and when falsely accused by his own bishops who want him to return to Britain – his stance never waivers. Patrick converts thousands of Irish to Christianity. His trust is solely in Jesus Christ, His Lord and Savior.

I’ve seen other films about Patrick and none of them have told me how he converted all of Ireland – a task that seems almost impossible for just one man. This film reveals his “secret.” He formed small groups of believers and when he felt that they were strong enough to be on their own, he left to start anew on the next town or tribe. As he left, Patrick encouraged them to spread God’s word to all those around them.

A word of praise must be given to cinematographer, Colm Hogan. I found his shots of the Irish countryside to be a fitting tribute to the beauty of the Emerald Isle.

As Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of Providence, so nicely sums it up,In short, Saint Patrick was a good, courageous, and holy man whose entire life was informed by his encounter with God and his belief in the Gospel. His impact on the Christian Church and the whole Western World is enormous. That’s why his memory, celebrated on March 17th, deserves to be marked with much more meaning than can be offered by civic parades, green beer and shamrocks. Clearly, the movie I Am Patrick points us in the right direction.”

If you’re looking for something special to do for St. Patrick’s Day, here it is – a film on a great saint he entire family can enjoy! Click here for theatrical release locations.

 

By Sr. Christine Salvatore Setticase, FSP

https://www.fathomevents.com/events/i-am-patrick

[Photo credits: ©2020 The Christian Broadcasting Network Inc. All rights reserved.]

Inspiration, Listening to the Heart

I Feel Broken Inside… How Can I Heal?

Finding serenity in the midst of brokenness is a mighty task—and at some times it feels mightier than at others. Inner brokenness can come from a lot of sources—a painful past experience, a present response to current problems, a fear of an uncertain future—but no matter the source, the pain is always very real and very immediate. How can we find serenity in the face of that brokenness?

There are a lot of people who will say serenity’s unattainable. That working through our problems and traumas is an ongoing and never-ending process. But as Catholics, we know that healing isn’t just possible—it’s offered to us for free.

True healing such as this can only take place when we look first to the One who was wounded for our transgressions. Jesus carries the greatest brokenness of all, and he does it willingly for our sakes.

It’s always interested me that the three churches within Christianity have very different representations of the cross. For us Catholics, it is a crucifix, Christ dying. For Protestant churches, it is an empty cross, Christ resurrected. And for the Orthodox churches, it is a king, Christ crowned. All three are, of course, true. But I remember the words of writer Toni Morrison, who said of her work, “I’m just trying to look at something without blinking.” We’re looking at the cross without blinking. We’re seeing the very worst we can do to Jesus, and the consequent boundlessness of his love for us.

Encouraging others to reflect on the wounds of Christ, Pope Francis says,

“We are not asked to ignore or hide our wounds. A church with wounds can understand the wounds of today’s world and make them her own, suffering with them, accompanying them and seeking to heal them. A wounded church does not make herself the center of things, does not believe that she is perfect, but puts at the center the one who can heal those wounds, whose name is Jesus Christ.”

We believe that freedom from brokenness comes through Brokenness Itself, the cross of Christ. Freedom from brokenness means we can reach out to others who are in pain, searching, suffering. Freedom from brokenness is what makes us whole, allowing us to live holy lives that preach redemption instead of anger or insecurity.

One of my favorite spiritual authors, Caryll Houselander, writes that

“in the world in which we live today, the great understanding given by the spirit of Wisdom must involve us in a lot of suffering. We shall be obliged to see the wound that sin has inflicted on the people of the world. We shall have X-ray minds; we shall see through the bandages people have laid over the wounds that sin has dealt them; we shall see Christ in others, and that vision will impose an obligation on us for as long as we live, the obligation of love.”

Our inner spaces may be broken at times, but it’s not a permanent affair. We can find wholeness, and not just for ourselves, but for others as well. We can see through those bandages and reach out to others. Jesus died for us, and asked only one thing in return: love. And there’s no brokenness that love can’t transcend.

by Jeannette de Beauvoir, who works in the digital department of Pauline Books & Media.
Inspiration

I used to think the saints were boring

I used to think the saints were boring.

My lack of enthusiasm about saints as a young convert was due entirely to how they were described in many writings at the time. I loved the saints of the Bible; I could see their personalities, flaws, triumphs, hearts… and I loved the saints who lived during my time—I knew, from seeing their interviews and news coverage, exactly what kind of people they were. But it was all the personalities in between that I struggled with, as I read books that spoke of them as inherently perfect people, who never cracked jokes, were never swayed by pain or doubt, who never struggled with Jesus, never embarrassed themselves… I wondered, were these people even real? Because I had never met anyone like that, and certainly saints like Peter, or John Paul II, could not be described that way!

Then I read about St Philip Neri.

It’s impossible to recount the life of Philip Neri in a stark and pristine way, no matter how proficient an author is at making people seem like emotionless vessels. Philip Neri’s sense of humor shone through what would otherwise have been a dull account, and suddenly, I knew I’d found a friend. He was someone who really felt life, who I realized I could joke with and look up to. And he was someone I actively wanted to tell people about, knowing that the humor of his approach to life could break through their walls, too.

In reality, every saint who ever lived, felt life and lived life deeply. Each saint has a unique personality and a unique way of communicating. Some were comical, some were serious, most felt somewhere in between, but all of them experienced life as humans who struggled between doubt and trust, weakness and strength, and who found their deepest love and fulfillment in Christ. The saints are not boring!

Nevertheless, sometimes saints are written about in such dry and sterile ways it can be hard to remember all that about them. It can be hard to make out their personalities. It can be hard to remember we can bring them into our daily lives and share with them both our tears and our laughter.

The newest “Catholic Funny Fill-ins: Saints Spectacular!” is a wonderful way for kids to avoid the pitfall I plummeted into as a young reader, wondering if I could bring these saints into the fun and joviality of my life. As a word game that encourages collaboration and creativity, “Saints Spectacular!” guides kids in learning about real saints in a way that inspires a real respect for them, while at the same time inviting kids to let the saints in on their sense of fun. I can’t think of a better way to expand the joy of classroom or family games than to get our brothers and sisters in heaven in on them! And I hope and pray that the balance of reverence and humor in this title will help many kids find that easy, amicable friendship with a saint… the way I found one with Philip Neri!

 

by Sr. Orianne Dyck, novice

image: Gerd Altmann for Pixabay

Inspiration

How Do You Want to be Remembered?

Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to reflect on the reality of my baptism. I was visiting my family and I asked my mom to pull out my baptismal certificate so that I could see exactly when I was baptized. As I unfolded the certificate, I was shocked at what I found.

My name was spelled wrong.

In that moment, the importance of my baptism hit me like a ton of bricks. I know that I was baptized and that a parish secretary’s typo couldn’t change that. But as I looked at the certificate with a name that was not my own on it, I had to stop and think about what my baptism really meant. If it was merely a legal formality, then the typo might have rendered it questionable.

Baptism is never a formality, though. It is valid and changes us forever whether we have a certificate that tells us about it or not. That’s because once we belong to Christ, that can never be taken back. Thanks be to God.

Because here’s the thing: Jesus loves you.

Over and over again, we need to be reminded of that fact. In our world where we can become so easily discouraged, where relationships can be betrayed so quickly, and where things our constantly changing, this is the one thing that remains. This is what gives us the freedom to follow God’s plan for us, even when it seems crazy or painful. It is the knowledge that we can trust him because he really, truly loves us.

Throughout history, there have been many people who allowed their entire lives to be defined by the fact that they were loved by God. These are saints. But there’s one saint in particular who quite literally allowed his entire identity to rest in the knowledge that Jesus loved him: St. John the Apostle and Evangelist.

St. John wrote the fourth Gospel. He was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, present at many key events in the life of Christ. And so, as he was recording the life of Christ, he naturally included himself in the story. But he didn’t just want to refer to himself as “John.” No, that wouldn’t accurately convey his identity. Ultimately, he made a bold decision as to how he wanted to be remembered.

Throughout the Gospel, John refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” That’s how he wanted to be remembered: as one who was loved by Jesus.

Sometimes we take the fact that we are loved by God for granted, as a given. After all, everyone is loved by God, aren’t they? So that isn’t what makes us special. We would rather be remembered by what makes us stand apart. Maybe it’s the beautiful family we’ve raised, the job that we worked hard for, or how we have helped the people that we love.

But God’s love for each person is unique. God has never loved another person in that way that he loves you because there has never been another person who has ever existed who has been just like you. He created you just so that he could love you and you could know his love. Your greatest identity lies in the fact that the Creator of the Universe has loved you to the point of death.

Through Baptism, we fully take on this identity of being ones who are loved by God. Whether we are baptized as infants or as adults, at the moment of our Baptism we become children of God, totally engulfed by his great love for us.

“I claim you for Christ our Savior,” the priest says as he makes the Sign of the Cross on the person about to be baptized. When we are baptized, we are no longer our own. We are no longer defined by our failures nor even our successes, no longer defined by our sin nor by our greatest works of charity, but are defined by the fact that the King of the Universe has claimed us as his own. Nothing else can compare to that.

You have undoubtedly done things throughout your life that you deserve to be proud of. They are things that have taken great skill and effort or challenges that you have overcome with great perseverance. There are also likely some things that you have done or have happened to you that you are less proud of. But wherever you find yourself today, may you find peace in knowing that God has already given you the greatest gift to be remembered by: his unique love for you.

 

By Sr Cecilia Ciccone, novice

Inspiration, Listening to the Heart

This New Year, focus on memories, not resolutions

Every January first, and after my annual retreat, and countless days in between, I get a sudden surge of determination and I buckle down with a new regimen of resolutions which I keep for about… I’m sorry to say… a few days….

There was the time I was determined to drink kefir twice a day for my health. After about two weeks, it became harder and harder to drink it even once a day! Eventually it became an on-again, off-again resolution. I tell myself I love variety, that’s why I don’t keep to such a regimen. And eventually I get back on it… for a while!

Or the year I was determined to pray an extra hour at night… Right now I’ve gone back to praying and writing at night, but more realistically I get up later in the morning. Age or common sense have caught up with me!

Beginnings offer us that window of optimism that allows us to surf on an untainted wave of goodwill. As soon as difficulties or slips occur, that good will begins to wane. Even if you have a character that thrives on order and repetition, resolutions can render our hearts hard when they’re reduced to duty and devoid of love’s freshness.

I’ve noticed that something new comes about in my life most often when I’m not trying to make it happen. Often I have no doubt it is an outright gift from God.

Like the afternoon when I was doing research in the writings of St. Augustine for a project while taking care of our front desk here at the convent. I was alone in the room. I’m certain of that. Yet, at a certain point, as I read a sentence from Augustine in which he talked about our struggle with the world, the flesh, and the devil, I was able to be honest about an inner struggle I had tried to hide even from myself. I had tried for years to fix it, dress it up, make it go away, hide it—to no avail. It was there. I had to admit it was mine. That afternoon, an arrow of truth pierced the lies I’d tried to tell myself about myself. And in that very instant when my heart was broken open in contrition, I knew I was seen deeply and loved even more deeply.

I remember looking around the room because I knew unmistakably that I was no longer alone in my struggle. The eyes of Jesus held my heart in their tender yet truthful gaze, as these words resounded in my heart: “I don’t care if you ever get this fixed. That isn’t the point. As long as you look at me and allow me to look at you, and we keep gazing into each other’s eyes, that is what I truly desire. It is what more deeply matters.” No longer was I carrying my secret burden alone. In an instant it had been taken from me. Something no resolution had been able to vanquish. Now it was gone. As if it no longer existed. Had never existed. Replaced only with the face of my Redeemer who wanted a relationship with me. That was all. And that was everything.

Marko Rupnik, S.J. would call this a moment of radical reconciliation. “It deals with a new creation, because it leads us back to living the radical newness constituted by Baptism, its general and gratuitous pardon” (Discernment: Acquiring the Heart of God, page 111). It is a Lazarus moment, in which we hear the voice of the Lord calling us out of our tomb. “In this event, one experiences not only the forgiveness of individual sins, but the Father’s forgiveness of all of our sins. One has been washed clean. All at once one sees that one’s sins have been in some way a choice, and that perhaps one’s openness to God was only a pretense. At this moment our eyes are completely opened” (page 110).

This moment of reconciliation, the passing through the Red Sea, death and resurrection, is a foundational event in our life. It changed me. It marked me forever. There will always be a “before” and “after” that event. It is a memory, a spiritual memory, more powerful than any resolution for recalling me to a relationship in which God takes the initiative to draw my heart’s attention to what is most valuable: the delight of his love, his loving delight in me in my poverty and weakness.

I still decide to take up habits as though they were hobbies. These resolutions add spice to my life, and open up exciting possibilities. I always learn from them, as short-lived as they sometimes are. Perhaps they fail because they are rooted in anxious desires for getting it right. They emerge from isolation. They are my attempts to be the protagonist of my own life and holiness.

The spiritual memory of how I have been radically reconciled to God, on the other hand, puts me in contact with the Father who cares for me. I relive how God takes the initiative in my life. How I am not alone. How by focusing on what I think is important, I can miss entirely what in my Father’s heart.

So as this new year begins, before you begin to plan out your “new you,” stop just long enough to ask what is behind your resolutions and strategies. Maybe instead of looking forward, look back toward your moment of radical reconciliation, when you knew utterly that you had been redeemed, saved even from yourself. When God made a way through the sea for you. When you had been raised from death as an utter gift. Take what you learned there, what you heard in your heart, the defining point of that experience.

This year, make that the theme of your year, to walk in the path that God has created, the path on which he waits for you.

 

by Sr. Kathryn James Hermes, FSP

photo: José Ignacio Heredia for Cathopic

Christmas, Inspiration, Listening to the Heart

Widening Our Love at Christmas

My first Christmas in the convent was last year. I had been in the United States only one month, and was far away from my home in Portugal. Those weeks before Christmas became the stage for me to ponder the question that Advent poses to each of us: What is Christmas?

As I found myself with my co-novices in St. Louis over Christmas, I sensed within me a reluctance or resistance to accepting that things in my life had changed so radically and so quickly. I began to wonder whether Christmas was what I had always believed it to be.

As the Advent season wore on, my inner struggle increased. Being stripped of everything I knew about Christmas—my family, my home, our traditions with our flavors, music, and decorations, my community, my country—my heart was stretched more than I felt able to bear. It seemed to me Jesus needed a space to be born in me, a space greater than the ocean I had crossed.

It was almost Christmas night when, I don’t know if I was feeling sorry for myself or being honest for the first time, I told Jesus I couldn’t stretch my heart open any more to receive him. If I stretched another millimeter I would break. After all, how could a child occupy so much space inside me?

In the silence, after all my energy had been used to really say what I felt, I heard Jesus say that he would stretch from heaven to earth for me. This immediately made the ocean that separated me from Portugal seem very small. And Jesus would do this for me, even if my heart was preoccupied, even if the only thing I had to offer, almost if only to avoid feeling guilty, was a stable…

And in that moment my heart widened another millimeter and did not break.

After that widening of my heart, I received a letter on Christmas Eve, a Christmas card from a sister in my community in Portugal, which reminded me about the One I was expecting, that One we are expecting on Christmas:

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Each of us will be given this Child, who is born to be Light. To be the great light that guides us and illuminates the darkness that exists in our lives, in the darkness that exists in the world. And confident of this promise, on Christmas Eve, we go to church at night, so that this light may shine within us.

We go at night, because in us there is darkness that only the coming of Jesus can dispel. We go at night, because so often we do not see the way, and Jesus is born to give us the counsel. We go at night, because sometimes the future brings fears, and Jesus is born to give us the fortress. We go at night, because death makes us distrust the promise of God’s life, and Jesus is born to give us Eternity. We go at night, because divisions continue to exist in us and in the world, and Jesus is born to give us peace.

When I think of my first Christmas at the convent, I realize that the dispossession of all I knew as Christmas, far from moving me away from its true meaning, increased my openness to the mystery I was living. And it has increased my openness to a new family, a new home, new traditions and all that Christmas is, too.

It is true that the whole context helped me in this deepening, but I believe the first step of this journey took place within me. I have realized that sometimes we want to live Advent in a serious way and really take a spiritual path. We want to create this space for Jesus to be born within us and we come to Christmas Eve, and we only have a stable inside us to receive it. But Christmas is also accepting our poverty to welcome Jesus, yet still doing the best we can. Because we can trust that he, in his love for us, will come—no matter what.

And in this trust, everything we know as Christmas, family, traditions, decorations, presents, memories, can be lived as a gift. Can be lived with this deep understanding, that the ultimate end of every gift is to love God and our brothers and sisters. Anything that does not have this purpose is not a gift, it is not Christmas.

At Midnight Mass, I saw many families sitting together in the pews of the church, and for a moment I found myself remembering so many times in the past in which I had sat in the pews of my parish together with my family, celebrating the birth of Jesus. But with my new community, with my co-novices, with all those people from a parish that was not mine, I felt very deeply the joy of Jesus being born among humanity, I felt a joy that was greater than what I knew, I felt the joy of what I’ve believed as far back as I can remember.

A child has been given to us, the child of God who comes to save us!

 

by Sr. Marta Gaspar, novice, Daughters of St. Paul

image: Christmas at Faro, Portugal, wikicommons