nor shall the scorching wind or the sun strike them” Is 49:10
If you can’t take the heat, get out of the fire! I come from a long line of women who can’t handle the heat. I have inherited a legacy of headaches, fainting and nausea when I spend too much time in the sun. These symptoms are my body’s way of telling me that I need to stop, hydrate, rest, and take things a little easier.
Prayer can also feel difficult, tiring and dry, especially in Lent. We might begin to focus on our shortcomings in an overly scrupulous way. Our attention is on our failed Lenten resolutions or a desolation that God has not answered our prayers. Our world is still war-torn, refugees adrift, children are hungry, families are hurting. The landscape is desolate, our soul feels parched.
The readings from Isaiah offer several reassuring images. The one I need most is the reminder that “the scorching wind or the sun” cannot harm me. No matter how dry my prayer feels, God continues to offer the water of everlasting life.
Jesus, grant me patience when the heat is too intense, and hope when I cannot sense You. How are you shedding Your light on my path today?
“It’s a little harder for me to hike down because I am carrying a squirrel.” When my sister explained the trouble my daughter was having with this “squirrel” she was carrying, my husband helpfully recommended the squirrel sit on her shoulder so she’d have both hands free. Unfortunately, the “squirrel” kept slipping off her shoulders when she tried to have it perch there. There is no solution other than for my husband to wear her bumblebee backpack and her grandfather to carry her the final leg of the hike. My 4-year-old daughter is constantly offering us situations to respond to that we could never have anticipated, with a menagerie of woodland friends that we can’t see, but are very real to her.
Last week she subjected the Sister who runs her preschool to a lengthy debate about whether she should leave her imaginary hamster in the car or bring him to school (“invisible”, not imaginary, she insists). Since the invisible water bowl couldn’t come too, it was decided that all invisible pets should stay with the water source. “Just get out of the car!” I want to scream. Near daily I find myself exasperated, frustrated, and upset. Why can’t anything be simple? Why is getting from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time nearly impossible? As a mom of three young children during a pandemic, I have had countless opportunities to exercise patience. Many of these opportunities, I have risen to the occasion; others…less so.
Sometimes it is easy to laugh at the ridiculousness of these conversations, or to approach them like a real-life improv workshop. I live with a daily struggle to respond more lovingly to everyone in our household. Oftentimes I find them coming up in prayer later. My daughter is just a more gregarious, non-conformist version of me. The imaginary squirrel is so real for her that she cannot walk straight. How often do I allow myself to be unnecessarily crippled by concerns, past hurts, and anxieties? I wonder how God looks at me with compassion in my struggles, both as they are, and as I build them up.
It is easy to get caught up in our own ways of seeing and interpreting the world, and God. In imaginative prayer, St. Ignatius instructs us to enter wholly into the Scriptures, allowing all of our senses to take over. We do not just imagine the way the scene might look, but also how the desert sand feels beneath our feet, the heat of the massive crowds of people pushing towards Jesus, the sounds of people crying out to be noticed. The person of Jesus comes alive as we place ourselves in these stories. As the narrative unfolds, I am often surprised at what Jesus asks of me. I see the people involved in a new light, I sense their hidden motivations, pains, or hopes. I see my own role more honestly. My daughter has an incredible ability to use her imagination in vivid ways to engage with and interpret her world. Being both so like me and so distinctly herself, she gives me a new lens through which to see St. Ignatius’ instructions on prayer.
What if I approached each day as a part of Salvation History? What if the words of my own family were treated with the same reverence as the people I have met in the Scriptures? What if I could be as forgiving of their flaws as I am of the Saints? As I continue to grow in the Spirit, I take the Ignatian practice of praying with my senses as I walk through my own day.
In the fall, my six-year-old son told me that his eyes were blurring. I blamed it on being on Zoom for school, homework, and all kinds of other activities. The headaches and blurriness continued. At his insistence I made an appointment with an eye doctor. When the tests revealed he needed glasses, I realized how grateful I was at his articulation of what he was experiencing. I should have trusted him sooner. In Chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus heals a blind man in two stages. When my son put on his glasses, the world did not suddenly look brighter or clearer. The blurring had been so subtle, and yet I am sure it affected everything he did. As I pray with this Scripture, I imagine the gentle healing happening in my son’s eyes as he adjusts to his new glasses. I imagine Jesus healing my false perspectives as well. After the baby has fallen asleep in my arms, I know I should move him to the crib but I just want to hold him for a few more minutes. I breathe in his scent, feel the dampness of his sweaty head resting on my arm, and watch his little face contort as he dreams (probably of all his favorite things: dogs, bubbles, and trash trucks). As I drift off at night, I can imagine God the parent holding me and savoring all the things that make me who I am.
When I imagine God accompanying me throughout my day, it changes how I see people. When I intentionally look, listen, and sense with God, I am making the conscious effort to expand my own perception. I take the inconveniences in stride. I respond more patiently. I see creativity in a positive light, rather than something to be dealt with and overcome. Growing in patience has been linked for me to growing in trust of God’s timing, appreciation of each person’s uniqueness, and gentleness with myself. When all else fails, I can just imagine my struggles like an invisible squirrel perched on my shoulder. God and I may be the only ones that can see it, touch it, and feel its weight, but that does not make it any less real.
It was “No.” As clear as day. I had prayed for an answer, and I heard the “No”. I wanted it to be yes… so, so, so badly. I was devastated. I remember the place, the people, the moment in that chapel. Even more so, I can recall the feeling that God had led me to a dead-end in the road. God had put desires in my heart, a longing to serve, and then constructed a solid wall around that call. There was no viable outlet to live out my calling. I felt angry, let down, and very alone. If this is “no”… what could “yes” possibly be?
My image of discernment at this mid-twenties stage of my life was Ignatius at the fork in the road “Show me the path, Lord.” I tell God what my two (or maybe three) ideas are and then God will tell me which of my brilliant ideas is the greater good. I moved through the steps of prayerful decision making, completed all the homework, and waited for my divinely inspired answer. But the answers were no, no, and more no. Why would God lead me down a road to nowhere? What could that mean?
God, did you forget me? Did you mess up and put someone else’s calling inside of me? I can’t hear one more “no.” Dead ends… brick walls…locked doors.
But I was not at a fork in the road, a brick wall, or a locked door at all. I was still on a journey forward. I slowly began to accept that God did not make a mistake with me. Although the “no” responses were screaming in my ears, they were also nudging me forward towards a whispering “yes,” one that I could barely make out.
I wanted my calling to be a perfectly formed puzzle, one where all the pieces fit together nicely and make the beautiful picture that was on the box. But what happens when I start to put together the pieces and what takes shape is something totally new and unexpected? How do I handle these extra pieces that don’t seem to fit anywhere, and frankly don’t really go with the overall scene I am trying to make?
I began to see that God’s dream for me is only partially lived out at any moment in time. The pieces of the puzzle taking form right now may still shift. It isn’t just that I am growing, but that the ways I am living out my calling in life (or vocation) change over time as new realities present themselves and new gifts are allowed to emerge. My identity still includes the desires that were not meant to be (a teacher, a ballerina, a doctoral student). Who I am also includes the dreams that have yet to come to fruition, even those that may never happen in my lifetime. Those extra pieces of myself that don’t seem to fit anywhere also have value, and are holy and true as well.
When I experience this restlessness, this sense that I don’t really belong in my own life, it is often because God has slowly been handing me extra pieces of my life puzzle. Sometimes these clues don’t make sense yet, or can feel like a distraction. They can raise doubts or heighten existing insecurities. My instinct is to cram them into position, or throw them away as being useless.
What if God is asking me to hold these pieces of myself in reverence? The “chapel full of no” is not just a place where every discernment feels like a wall closing in on me, blocking off an option forward. That chapel of no is actually a safe place to imagine all the possibilities God has placed within my heart. What if God is waiting there for me, ready to transform all the “no” responses into a deeper “yes” that had been brewing all along?
Check out more from the “When the Road Forks” Series to see how many of the Into the Deep writers have prayed through these types of moments.
Read more on finding this sense of belonging in Becky Eldredge’s The Inner Chapel.
As we emphasize our human failings and sinfulness during Lent, we can be tempted to turn inward and focus inordinately on ourselves. We expend energy on what we have given up or attempted to improve in ourselves during the Lenten season. While we cannot know exactly what went through Mary’s mind as she received the invitation to bear Jesus, today’s readings return our focus to the hope that God offers and encourage us to be less consumed by our own concerns.
Depending on how each of us feels drawn, we can choose to enter into today’s Gospel through imaginative prayer, the numerous artistic depictions of this scene, or the countless Bible commentaries analyzing the nuances of the story. We can attempt to empathize with our hearts, understand with our minds, and relate with our lives. For me, the invitation was to pray with her faith. The Old Testament readings from Isaiah and Psalm 40 would have been well known to Mary as a devout Jew and perhaps even went through her mind during her encounter with the angel. Instead of placing Mary on a pedestal and seeing her as so beyond us in holiness, I can try to emulate the way she might have prayed with her doubts and hopes.
The words of Psalm 40 depict the qualities of a person moving beyond the rituals and “going through the motions” of sacrifice to truly lay oneself down before God as Mary does. In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola describes three types of persons and their varied response to receiving a huge sum of money. The first person delays doing the right thing, the second person will do almost everything (but constantly holds back something as a security measure), and the third person is completely free of attachments to the gifts she/he has received.
Like the speaker in Psalm 40, Mary is not trapped in the cycle of doing everything except the one thing that God asks. She readily abandons whatever plans she had to serve God (as a wife, a mother, a model Jewish woman) and accepts whatever challenges may come from following God so completely. She risks breaking societal, religious, and familial rules for the sake of a completely radical response to God’s law.
I imagine God (or His messenger) kneeling before me and asking me what I think God wants from me… what I think will lead to a happy, successful, fulfilled life… what I desire for my own children and for my family… Now with this image in mind, I slowly pray the words of Psalm 40 again.
From this place of honesty with myself, and nearness to God, I now allow myself to enter into the Gospel scene again. I imagine being asked if I am willing to risk all these hopes and desires for the sake of following God.
Is there anything I feel tempted to keep holding back for myself… that I shield from offering to God? If so, can I simply name that area for healing without pressuring myself to change?
No Fair! How many of us have heard this righteous proclamation from someone in our lives? Kids are notorious for pointing out the unfairness of being asked to pick up their toys, brush their teeth, and wait their turn in line. Someone got a bigger piece of cake, a new phone, a scholarship to an elite school, a lucky break. For kids there is an endless stream of “not fairs.”
Adults are also prone to the “not fairs”, just perhaps with a little less whine in their voices… We start to build a nest egg only to be saddled with an unexpected medical bill. The official at city hall denies our permit request because “it’s always been done this way” and not because our plans violate any building code. A company merger changes the scope of our job in a way that we didn’t expect. Just when we think we get ahead, someone else gets further ahead. It’s just not fair.
I am also screaming, “no fair” every time I tune into the news. The pictures coming out of Ukraine are haunting: destroyed buildings, a direct hit on a maternity hospital, baby strollers abandoned on train platforms. By some estimates we are witnessing the fastest moving migration in human history as at least half a million people fled Ukraine in less than a week.
It’s not fair that my kids had mild-COVID cases and someone else in our school ended up with their baby at Children’s Hospital. It’s not fair that the jobs people need aren’t in the cities where they can afford to live. I don’t have to look very hard to keep finding things that are just not fair.
It’s also “not fair” that I have an incredible family that helps and supports us. It’s not fair that I have the chance to do meaningful work, where others will only ever know backbreaking labor. It’s not fair that I drink water from a clean source each day and our Sisters in Africa collect rainwater and purify the filth in a “protected” spring. Each opportunity we have been given is “not fair” to the people who never stood a chance
Thankfully, God is not fair either. God continues to shower me with good things, even when I lose sight of the blessings I already have. God gives me chance after chance to respond with greater love to those around me. Over and over again God opens my eyes to see more clearly, and to feel more deeply with the world.
St. Julie Billiart, who knew much suffering in her own life, once wrote, “We must have crosses, but above all let us not choose them. Let us accept them from the divine hand of the good God. He knows so well the right proportion of our strength. Before all, let us accept them with confidence in His infinite goodness.”
The way of the cross is not fair. But neither is God’s grace.
A Suggestion for Reflection
Have I experienced God’s generous love in any way this week?
What injustice in the world has been screaming out to me?
Do I sense God inviting me to help Him carry this cross in any way (however small)?
“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, One does not live on bread alone.’” Luke 4:3-4
“Can I have a snack?”
“Didn’t you JUST eat?”
“I need a different snack, a better snack.”
Crackers, cereal, apple slices, yogurts, cheese sticks. They scavenge around the kitchen, their survival mode in high gear, acting as if they have crossed a barren desert with nothing more than stale bread to sustain them. In fact, they have been at a school with a universal hot lunch program, their own snacks at recess, and a breakfast bag that comes home at the end of the day. Yet, my kids still come home with bottomless pits in their stomachs.
My herd of grazing kids became a Lenten image. In today’s Scripture, the devil tempts Jesus to turn stone into bread and thus satisfy his own needs. Jesus, in calling out the devil’s temptation, calls forth the areas of our own lives that we are desperately trying to fill with meaning. Many people use the same strategies to satisfy their physical and spiritual hunger. The “snack impulses” that spoke to me this Lent were boredom and dissatisfaction.
After the barrage of activity and stimulation at school, my kids come crashing through the door. Backpacks go flying, shoes get scattered. They are tired from their day, yet filled with a restless energy that needs somewhere to go. So they walk into the kitchen and look for something that peeks their interest. They peruse the goodie bags from a birthday party, the remnants of Valentines day exchanges, and whatever treats Matthew baked with Grandma. They are looking for stimulation and excitement; and not yet ready to tackle that math worksheet or practice spelling words.
When our day to day routines begin to drag and feel monotonous we begin to seek satisfaction elsewhere. We stuff ourselves with self-help podcasts and tip sheets from bloggers. Sometimes that change can be lasting, but oftentimes we are spurred by a restless energy that we have not quite found a place to direct.
The hunt for a “different” or “better” snack can also come from a dissatisfaction with the options before us. In our kitchen this happens when the lunch at school doesn’t live up to their hopes or (gasp!) they run out of the main option and are left with a sunbutter sandwich. When nothing seems to satisfy our craving, we keep eating and eating until something does feel right. We sign up for every class and seminar, try every method of praying, and keep consuming until we stop the ache inside. Lent can be particularly difficult in this way: there are so many wonderful prayer programs, series, and retreats on offer. When we have not been able to identify what God is calling us to, or trying to call forth in us, we bounce from one prayer style (or one snack) to the next. Hunger in itself is not bad, and it can be a tool for self-discovery. In our haste to make it go away, we sometimes grab whatever is in sight. Before we choose a solution, sometimes God is inviting us to spend more time with Him simply naming that longing and asking for wisdom and guidance.
As we enter this Lenten season of Fasting, Almsgiving, and Prayer, perhaps God is inviting us to enter into our spiritual hunger with greater patience and openness.
I have become kid-chaos. Who I am is a person rushing out the door grabbing folders and backpacks, reminding everyone what day it is. I am the one who does laundry at night. I am a chauffeur, a cheerleader, a shoe finder, and a homework deadline drill sergeant. My waking hours are defined by so much of what’s needed for survival.
A lot of other parents express a similar sentiment. A friend shared that she and her husband recently started commuting together. While it hadn’t left her as much time for calling her family or friends throughout the week, it’s become the most consistent uninterrupted time she and her husband have without their kids. “We actually like each other,” she joked. Beneath the chuckle is the struggle so many caregivers discover. We allow ourselves to be so consumed by the ones we serve, that we lose ourselves completely.
I’ve noticed certain friends, especially those I’ve known for a lot longer than I’ve had my kids, have a way of reminding me of who I was in the “before.” They remind me not just of funny (or embarrassing memories), but of aspects of my identity that have been sidelined. They remind me that I am more than the morning, afternoon, and evening chaos. They remind me that I have ideas and thoughts that matter to the world, even if some days it feels like no one around me listens to what I have to say. “You STILL aren’t wearing shoes?”
What if I stopped allowing myself to be lost in the chaos? I imagine Mary as consumed with Jesus as I am with my own kids. Except instead of losing herself, she found herself even more.
What if I allowed my life to be as overwhelmed by Christ as my kids have overwhelmed it? In doing so, perhaps I can be even more myself in the midst of the everyday chaos.
Feast of St. Lucy, Martyr December 13, 2021, Monday of the Third Week of Advent
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior. – Psalm 25: 4-5
I’m making a Church!
Our two-year was putting together a little 6-piece puzzle of a Church during Mass. The book has a prayer accompanied by a puzzle that snaps into place. Each time he assembles the scene about going to mass he announces “I am making a Church”.
Many countries celebrate today’s Feast of St. Lucy with candlelight processions, reminding us that we each bear Christ, bringing hope and light into the world. When I look around, I see a lot of darkness. I see people struggling with depression, substance abuse, or loneliness. I see people struggling to find affordable housing. I see people lost, or without a sense of purpose in life. I also see Churches struggling with empty pews and disengaged hearts. Everywhere, there is darkness.
But all around, there is also light breaking through that darkness. There are people of light with generous hearts, the sympathetic listener, the patient customer service representative, the supportive coworkers. There are moments of light: an unexpected compliment, a meaningful conversation, a reconnection with a significant positive memory,, a reminder of unfailing support from a loved when when undertaking a new venture.
As St. Lucy reminds us, there is light all around us even in the darkest of moments. Even in the painful history of our Church, there are people of light breaking through. These people expose injustice, illuminate truth, and shine hope on a different future. These saints and martyrs among us challenge us to more. As my toddler says, we are “making a church.” What kind of church will it be?
“Those who follow you, Lord, will have the light of life. He is like a tree planted near running water, That yields its fruit in due season, and whose leaves never fade. Whatever he does, prospers.” – Psalm 1:3
Being an urban Southern Californian, I’ve never really seen a “tree planted near running water,” especially not one that receives life from a stream. I can imagine the water flowing over root systems, the lush greenery, the leaves and stems that shoot off from the thicker branches. I can picture this scene, but I have no real experience of this kind of life-giving water.
When other people describe prayer or their image of God, it can feel like looking at images of water. I get the general idea but I could not tell you the temperature or depth of the water. I could not tell you the sound the water makes rushing downstream, or when it gurgles through a narrower opening. I do not know what it feels like to sit on the edge of the stream and watch the water flow. I look at other people and compare myself: I am not as good a mom, I am less organized, I am more anxious. They all have it together more than I do. I need a thicker skin. I am like a tree planted just outside the reach of the running water. My thirst is not quenched and my roots remain dry. This is exactly where God meets us. He comes into our present moment, into the parched places of our soul and offers hope. Observing where God has been for others may help us to recognize God in our own midst, but we will not be satisfied until we drink from that well of eternal life.
An Imaginative Prayer
Imagine yourself standing at the edge of some source of water (a stream, the ocean, a lake). Using your senses (touch, smell, sight, sound, and taste) place yourself by the water’s edge. Allow all of the sensations of the water’s edge to become evident.
Now, imagine yourself gently stepping into the water. Does it feel as you expected? Perhaps the rush knocks you off balance a bit. Imagine yourself regaining solid footing and standing amidst the current. As you experience the water flooding around your legs and feet, imagine that God’s love will wash you in the same way. The grace was waiting just ahead of you… all you needed to do was take a small step into the flow.
Today, do I feel like a bystander to God’s grace? Or have I allowed myself to be immersed in whatever gift God offers me on this day?
“The Kingdom of heaven is at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” – Matthew 10:7-8
“My body hurting.”
It has been almost two weeks since our toddler began feeling sick. He tested negative for everything on the 22-pathogen panel (including COVID) and we are more than halfway through a 10-day course of antibiotics for the secondary infection in his ears that developed. In addition to the cornucopia of symptoms he has displayed, he keeps telling us “my body hurting.” He cannot really say what hurts (we know his ears must hurt from the ear infections, and it seems like his face hurts from sinus swelling). Without being able to articulate the specifics, his message has been clear… his body hurts. We have talked to the doctor nearly every day this week, run all the tests, and exhausted the home remedies. We stay awake with him at night when he is too uncomfortable to sleep. But we can’t really take away his suffering.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus meets people who are similarly hurting. Like “sheep without a shepherd,” they wander lost through their lives. They may not be able to name the void they feel or identify what pain is crippling them. Yet, Jesus sees and acknowledges their genuine needs. He likewise offers that same healing to each one of us. Jesus also engages the disciples in this ministry, encouraging them to allow the grace of God to flow through them in a way that transforms the people around them. They are challenged to freely give and freely offer hope and healing.
I long for God’s grace to flow stronger than stress, anxiety, or resentment through me. I am tired of being short-tempered, discouraged; and hopeless. This Advent, I pray for the grace to experience the nearness of Christ like Mary does, and to allow that healing to flow through me in some small way.
What emptiness inside me longs to be filled?
How does Jesus offer me comfort and healing today?