The Hidden Glory of the Cross: What the Blessing Looks Like

the-pieta

Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Luke 1:42

“What does it take to get the blessing?” I asked my spiritual director, Sandy, two years ago as I walked through the front door of her home in a huff.

“The question is not what it takes to get the blessing,” Sandy replied pointedly. “It’s what you perceive the blessing to be.”

Her comment came after I’d shared the news that my then-25-year-old son-in-law, Grayson, had just been diagnosed with cancer—the same week Sandy had directed me to beg for the grace to truly know and experience God’s tender love for me.

“Grayson has cancer,” I spit out as I entered her home for our weekly meeting, where she was leading me through the 19th Annotation of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. “Is that how God demonstrates his tender love for me? By sending more suffering?” I scoffed. “I can’t seem to get the freaking blessing.”

“You keep thinking that the blessing means that everything goes well in your life,” Sandy countered. “A Catholic understanding of the blessing is that we know that God is with us and we trust his love for us no matter what circumstances life delivers. You’ve bought in to the prosperity gospel,” she pushed further, “and I want you to spend the next week renouncing that false belief from the core of your being.”

Bam! Sandy had hit the nail right on the head. Needless to say, it was a painful week of renunciation.

Before Sandy confronted the problem directly, it wasn’t so clear to me that I was a card-carrying member of the “Secret Prosperity Gospel Club.” But somewhere, I had definitely bought into a specific idea of what the “blessing” looks like: a happy marriage, successful kids, good health, financial stability, etc.—in other words, a life where all goes well. With that paradigm tucked deep into my mind, I’d spent much time and energy over the years not only comparing myself to others who appeared to have the “blessing,” but also wrestling with God about why his “blessing” had eluded me, especially as multiple tragedies visited our lives. The fact that Sandy pegged the problem so precisely prompted me, at long last, to nail to the cross the insidious lie that a blessed life equals a prosperous life, and that my life was therefore cursed.

Now let’s be clear: I do not attend a church that teaches the prosperity gospel; nor do I follow a single mega-church TV minister who preaches this popular, culture-friendly message. I am Catholic—one of more than a billion people in the world who attend a church where the crucified Christ is the focal point of our worship. In spite of that, a virulent strain of the prosperity gospel somehow seeped into my heart and brain; a “gospel” that essentially looks like this: I believe that my will should be done on earth. And when it’s not—for example, when people get sick, when they die young, when children have serious life crises, when finances crash—I conclude that God’s “blessing” is not on my life.

This false and frankly, un-Christian, belief wreaked havoc in my soul as I grasped for my way, my will to be done in the face of tremendous suffering, which included the deaths of a stepson, two brothers and my husband, Bernie—all in a few short years. It was after our lives imploded with loss—Grayson’s cancer being the last straw—that I finally discovered the paradox that only a surrendered life is a blessed life, with the most blessed life of all being a life that is fully surrendered to God. Those are the terms of God’s kingdom.

I have learned that Christianity is not for wimps or for those who want the soft, easy way. No. It’s strong medicine for those who desire to be Christ-like, which means taking up one’s cross, dying to oneself and uttering the often gut-wrenching prayer: Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.

Christians are called to live in a land where swords that pierce hearts are willingly embraced, where glory is revealed through open wounds, and where the fragrant aroma of holiness pours forth from souls who have been tried and tested—and found to be true. This is the hallowed ground of our Savior, and his Mother. And as their lives clearly tell us, it’s territory that’s accessed only by way of surrendered acceptance of the cross.

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:18).

Truly, I am finally being saved. Through the cross and from my own twisted notion of what the “blessing” looks like.   Better late than never.

Note: This article was previously published on Aleteia.

Birthing Grace

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I wish I could have captured that moment in time. Forever. It was silent, sacred, sacramental.

I stood at the bedside of my daughter, Gaby, on Holy Saturday morning as she prepared to give birth. The room was cool and dimly lit, filled to the brim with the anticipation of new life. As I closed my eyes to pray for a safe delivery between Gaby’s instructed pushes, I entered into the sacrosanct silence of the room; the quiet hush of awe and reverence that comes in waiting for a child to be born.

Only one sound pierced the stillness—the steady beat of the baby’s heartbeat registering on the monitor rhythmically: thump, thump, thump.

Standing with my eyes shut tight, listening attentively to the baby’s heartbeat, I sensed the heart of Jesus pulsating with love for the world. Thump, thump, thump, I heard the God-man’s heart ringing out. I thought about the meaning of Holy Saturday—a day of anticipation, a time of looming rebirth, a period of waiting for the full bloom of love to burst forth from God’s heart, the same heart that had been silenced on Good Friday. It was a fitting day for Rose Grayson to be born.

Rose’s annunciation came the week before her father learned he had cancer, ushering in what would become a “Triduum” kind of year. A young family discovering they were pregnant and facing the reality of human mortality in one sweeping breath, moving from happy excitement to fear and grief, embracing the mysteries of life and death all at once. The hopeful expectation of a new baby, made present alongside the agony of not knowing the outcome of a cancer diagnosis. Baby readying, and the accompanying labor of cancer testing, surgeries, and waiting for results. The paradox of the cross, presented with penetrating clarity.

Then came the final prognosis: cancer free! And the ultrasound news: a girl, the first to join three brothers! I watched the little family move out of Good Friday as healing rays came and life resumed its course with renewed vigor and purpose. And now it was Holy Saturday, the day of Rose Grayson’s birth.

The womb is not unlike Jesus’ tomb, I pondered, waiting to see Rose’s tiny face. In a place of dark silence, an enclosed border establishes a clear boundary with the world, and life secretly does its bidding until the darkness is overcome with a burst of brilliant light. Suffering offered and labor pains become cries of joy: He is Risen! It’s a girl!

In the silent enclosure of a birthing room, I gave thanks to God. Grace has ushered in a resurrection. God has given us “Rosie Grace.”

Your death, Lord Jesus, is our life . Your grave the womb of radiant light.

Hymn for Holy Saturday Evening, The Vigil of The Resurrection

Catching the Faith

Please enjoy this re-post of my last Easter blog.  This Easter, I was busy welcoming my new granddaughter, Rose Grayson, to our family.   She is blessed to have three big brothers and her parents, Gaby and Grayson, to pass the faith to her. Happy Easter!IMG_0440

“Christos Anesti ek nekron, thanato thanaton patisas, kai tis en tis mnimasi zoin harisamenos,” my little grandsons chanted in unison as I watched happily in surprised silence. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs, granting life,” the boys rang out in Greek, singing the ancient paschal troparion taught to them by my son-in-law, Grayson. Five-year-old James looked entranced, while two-year-old John-Henry danced around the room, slapping his hips and throwing his hands into the air to provide dramatic effect at just the right moments. Even baby Joseph, who just turned one, chimed in.

“Catholicism is caught, not taught,” I thought as I observed the children singing, remembering the familiar adage from Catholic theology that I’ve quoted numerous times to my students. “We don’t sit a one-week-old infant down and tell him everything he’ll ever need to know about the Catholic faith,” I’ve explained repeatedly when teaching how the truths of our faith are passed down in tact from one generation to the next.   Instead, we start with songs, pictures and simple blessings. We take the kids to Mass, point out statues and stained glass windows, and maybe light a candle for those we love. We read Bible stories, whisper prayers in the dark when bad dreams invade the night, and sing—in Greek if we so desire—the deep mysteries of our faith, learned on an I-phone while riding in the van. That’s how our children catch the faith, and it’s how we, in turn, catch it back from them.

Catholicism has been “caught” for two thousand years the very same way; that is, through the habits of a living Church that hands on its living faith via time-honored practices that grow organically and culturally throughout history. We call these practices “traditions,” and they are meant to embody and express Sacred Tradition--which is the Truth that Jesus deposited into the Church through His life, death and resurrection, and through the relationships and institutions He established.

The concept of living faith comes down to us from our Jewish ancestors, and was embraced by the Christian Church:

“Take to heart these words which I command you today. Keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them on your arm as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

In other words, we are to let our faith in God permeate everything we think and say and do. Which doesn’t mean that we’re on our knees 24/7, or that we escape our broken human condition. It does mean, however, that we invite God into all things, and that we remember that He is with us at all times.

Part of the crisis we are facing in our Christian culture is the direct result of the dichotomy that exists between faith and life, due in large part to a modern world that compartmentalizes and hyper-specializes every aspect of life. Our lives have become neatly divided into measurable functions and categories, reducing the expression of Christian faith to a perfunctory Sunday visit. But it is not meant to be so. Our fathers in faith reminded us that the “split between the faith which many profess and (our) daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.”* Further,  they teach us that harmony should exist between our faith in Christ and all of our earthly activities.

I heard that harmony Monday night in the voices of little children, as they chanted, “Christ is risen from the dead” during a family vacation. Yes indeed, they are catching the faith. And they’re throwing it back to me.

*Par. 43, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Second Vatican Council