Friday, July 29, 2011

Saint Martha

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
from 1580

As Martha is about the business of preparing a meal to serve the Lord, Mary is rapt at His feet.  Martha is concerned with feeding Jesus, while Mary is being fed by Jesus.  When Martha expresses her irritation at Mary’s idleness, she is corrected: 

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

On the one hand, while we are in the body, it is important to nourish and care for it.  On the other hand, there is ultimately nothing more important than the state of the soul.  In part, this is what Jesus is saying to Martha.  The body can be starving, can be ill, can be in pain, yet none of this in itself would prevent the soul from reaching heaven.  

As people suffering in the body from illness, we are attuned to the body and its needs, its limitations, its frailty, in ways perhaps, those who enjoy good health are not.  For instance, I am conscious of my legs as I use them.  Much of the time, they’re weak.  I am attentive to them as I take each step when they are weak, pushing myself, pushing them to accomplish the task of walking, of carrying me up the stairs, paying attention to whether they’re going to give out as I descend the stairs. 

Yet because most of my time is not spent ascending and descending stairs, I am not too distracted by this and I mainly concern myself with it when I am in the midst of the problem.  The rest of the time, I’m like Mary.  It’s the way I was before I got sick and it’s the way I am still.  But I am grateful for the Martha’s of this world, who balance the scales.  Just as the Lord calls us to perform spiritual works of mercy, which are suited to Mary’s, He calls us also to do corporeal works of mercy like feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, and burying the dead. 

In some part too, the Lord, when He corrected Martha, was helping us to understand that her anxiety about getting things done—things good in themselves—was not good.  For, such anxiety saps from the heart the very charity in which such works are meant to be done, if they are to be done as works of mercy.  Thus, Martha’s admonition of both Mary and the Lord, who permitted Mary to sit quietly at His feet while Martha ran around, was an expression of a distinct lack of love, a lack of charity in which a meal for the hungry is meant to be served.

If the work of the body and for the body is to have its merit, it must be subtended by a heart of true charity.  This is good news.  For, in this and through this very tenet of the faith, we are able to offer our bodies and their works to the Lord for the great work that is the work of the redemption and salvation of souls. 

When I am attentive to the work of lifting my leg high enough that I will not stumble in going up the stairs, when I am pushing my legs to walk, when I am exerting myself in any way to overcome the debilitation of this illness, with a simple prayer attached, I can offer my labors in charity, in love of souls, to the Lord who accepts them as sacrifice in union with His cross.

This is a bit of the message that Jesus recalls to us today, on this memorial feast of Saint Martha.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On Being Useful

In praying over my breakfast, I always add some intention unrelated to the blessing of food, for the benefit of someone else.  Usually, it runs along the lines of hope for the hopeless, comfort for the orphan, light for those in darkness, with specifics named from day to day, like African children whose parents have died from AIDS, for instance. 

This morning, I found myself uttering—I wish I had the strength to do more for You, to serve others more, to produce more—because for the past couple of weeks, in spite of pain, I’ve had more energy than usual.  You may have noticed some of it translating in the frequency of posts here.  But for a couple of days now, I’m back to feeling like a wrung out mop, so the contrast I perceive is clear.

As I wished this, I recalled a message posted on a sign that I passed on my way to mass last Thursday evening:

At the time, I was pretty irritated seeing a church promoting this ideology and missing a key precept of Christianity.  Jesus did more for us nailed to the cross than He did in miracles and healings He performed during His active ministry.  He did more on the cross, with His hands and feet bound, exhausted, depleted, worn down to a figure that barely resembled a man, than He did when He was “useful.” 

And so I remembered what sustained me during those early years of profound debilitation with this illness—the understanding that we do much in offering our “uselessness” to Him who fuses our offering to His own on the cross, perfecting ours and imbuing it with redemptive value.  It is easy to forget, especially after a few days of feeling “useful.”

Friday, July 22, 2011

Mary Magdalene

Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464)
"Saint Mary Magdalene reading," before 1438
London, National Gallery
Every now and then, the antiphons of a saint's feast day correspond profoundly to the psalms that are prayed between them.  Today in Morning Prayer, the first psalm seemed to me as though it could have been written for Mary, in relation to its antiphon:

Ant.: Very early in the morning after the sabbath,
Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, just as the
sun was rising.

Psalm 63:2-9
A soul thirsting for God

Whoever has left the darkness of sin, yearns for God.

O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.

For your love is better than life,
my lips will speak your praise.
So I will bless you all my life,
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
my mouth shall praise you with joy.

On my bed I remember you.
On you I muse through the night
for you have been my help;
in the shadow of your wings I rejoice.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand hold me fast.

Ant.: Very early in the morning after the sabbath,
Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, just as the
sun was rising.

We can imagine her throughout those nights between when He was entombed and when she discovered that He had risen, pondering in her contemplative way, the way her spirituality had been formed by her life, her heart, her experiences with Jesus, pondering all that had happened in her since the day she had knelt and wept before Him in sorrow for her sins and He wiped them away.  Pondering all that He had been through, understanding in a way that was uniquely given to her to understand, that He had died in the manner He did, on account of her sins.  That when He took the burden from her, it did not simply vanish as though it had never existed, but He drew it upon Himself.[1]

Yet such is not reserved for Mary alone.  We may follow in her contemplative way, particularly in setting ourselves before Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament.  Approaching Him on our knees, with our tears, concerns and sorrows, we may do as she did, and experience for ourselves the grace of Jesus lifting the weight of our burdens from us, absorbing our pain, and in its place, instilling His peace.     

[1] For more about this, see Adrienne von Speyer’s Book of All Saints.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Saint's Prayer

As recorded in Adrienne von Speyer's Book of All Saints, a prayer during the time of illness, toward the end of her life by Blessed Angela of Foligno:

My Lord, through the days of sickness through which you lead me, show me that my time is coming near to its end. That it will enter into your time, that the time that belongs to me will cease to be mine in order to become wholly yours.  Lord, you know I have little patience.  I am not happy to be sick.  Even though I have contemplated your suffering for the whole of my life, I have not learned to love it.  And yet, precisely because I do not understand it and cannot bear it, I beg you to allow me to suffer as much as you think is good, to lay upon me as many days of sickness as you see fit.  Do not let my groaning become bitter, but also do not pay attention to it; do not be put off by it.  Show me the full measure of what it is you have laid aside for me. Lord, I do not know how near the hour of death is, how much lamenting I will yet make others listen to.  But now, because there is still time, I thank you for all the graces you have directed to me, for everything you have given to me, and I beg you, perhaps for the last time, in earnest for forgiveness for everything I have done only with reluctance.  I will try, Lord, in this final time, to contemplate the suffering of all those who have suffered for you; but I know that my suffering will seem small compared to the suffering of your saints and martyrs.  And how small indeed when I compare it simply with your own!  Grant, Lord, that this contemplation of the suffering of your friends might become fruitful for all those who, like me, are tired of suffering.  Bless my sisters; bless this whole cloister, the whole Order, the entire Church.  And may you keep your blessing over me until the end.  Amen.   

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Spiritual Warfare

There is little else so powerful as prayer of God's praise from the suffering, prayer steadfast in faith and trust in His divine wisdom.  It confounds Satan, who says to God in the book of Job that he is certain Job will turn on God once his flesh is touched by illness. (2:4-5)

Catholics have a long history of martyrs for the faith whose example can inspire in us the courage to abide in union with God, no matter what be His will for us.  The martyrs teach us that it is possible to persevere in friendship with God through any type of suffering.

Yet as for Job, there may be for us those times when we do waver, and grow weary in prayer, attributing our fatigue to a privation of His aid and grace.  For, we know our weakness apart from Him.  At such moments we are given to recall the words of Christ on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  But we must also remember that when Jesus uttered these words, He uttered them in prayer.

So today I encourage you, whatever the state of your heart, to confound evil and pray to God.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


I recently woke with the thought that it’s hard to wake up in pain every day.  With consciousness comes the awareness of pain burning, stabbing or aching, escaped for awhile in the respite of sleep, that is, when pain permits sleep.  Yet the difficulty is not so much the physical suffering as that it’s not easy on the heart or the mind to wake up in pain day after day.

I then thought I would write something about pain.  I thought of Nietzsche, who suffered the effects of syphilis not entirely unlike those wrought by our familiar Lyme spirochete, referring to pain as a dog, his faithful companion.  I thought of Saint Paul boasting of his weaknesses in telling of the thorn given him in the flesh to torment him so that he might not become too elated from the visions of heaven to which he had been privy. 

Reading many translations of that passage, which in changing the word “elated” to “proud” or “conceited” slightly augment the meaning that comes across, I will share here a version found online from the Bible in Basic English:

“And because the revelations were so very great, in order that I might not be overmuch lifted up, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, one sent from Satan to give me pain.” (2 Corinthians 12:7)

Paul goes on to say:

“Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’  So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ: for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

Who can argue with that?

Then, I happened to read in Magnificat, prior to Mass that day, a brief biography of a saint, Blessed Joseph Kowalski, priest, religious and martyr (1911-1942):

“In 1941 [Nazis] arrested Father Kowalski and sent him to the Auschwitz death camp.  In secret he celebrated Mass, heard prisoners’ confessions, and led recitations of the rosary.  Once when a prison guard noticed Father Kowalski clutching something, he struck him, knocking rosary beads from the priest’s hand.  The guard ordered him to trample upon the rosary, but he refused.  On July 4, 1942, another guard mockingly invited Father Kowalski to bless some tortured prisoners, telling him, ‘Souls are escaping you, priest… give your sheep your last blessing as viaticum for heaven.’  Father Kowalski thereupon knelt, made the sign of the cross, recited the Our Father, and sang the Salve Regina.  The Nazis drowned him in a sewage tank a few hours later.” (Monthly Vol. 13, No. 5/July 2011)

The One who taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves encourages us in this to consider the sufferings of others, not so as to compare and contrast our pains to make ourselves feel better that we suffer something more or less, but to remind us that we are all part of One Body that suffers.  We are not alone.  And in directing our attention to the broader scope of humanity, expanding our perspective rather than focusing solely upon ourselves, our own pain mysteriously dissipates, somehow diluted in the very act of considering another person’s cross, for we in this are drawn into the great heart of God which knows all and sees all. 

Dwelling in the heart of God, our pain is softened.  For, “[i]n fact, love either removes the harsh character of suffering or makes pleasant our experience of it.” (St. Francis de Sales)

Sunday, July 10, 2011


This evening as I knelt in prayer I recalled immediately something I had learned earlier today about the operation of the immune system in relation to the spirochete. The cells sent to destroy the spirochete cannot differentiate between the bacterium and the tissue it has invaded so the tissue is destroyed as well, whatever it might be, muscle, bone, nerve, organ... I responded to this memory saying, my life is not mine but Yours, Lord. Meaning, come what may, thy will be done.

I then remembered the many You Tube videos I'd watched earlier today seeking something inspirational to post, yet the majority of what I saw conveyed the darkness particular to this disease. A darkness that comes across especially in haunting images of acute distress. In recalling one woman whose condition moved me most deeply, I realized once again in the midst of my prayer, the utter miraculousness of faith itself in light of such suffering.

The almighty power of God is present when we who suffer kneel before Him, revering Him, worshiping Him, praising Him, though He permits our suffering. Without the aid of grace, it would be humanly impossible to do this. In terms of spiritual warfare, it is a powerful blow that we strike to the darkness that can impinge and if given the chance, overtake us, in times of illness.

Because He promises that those who seek Him shall find Him, my search did yield one video that stood in contrast to the rest. One which also depicted the realities of Lyme disease, but was filled with light and true hope, hope that does not set all store in medicine, but that hopes in the One who can and will heal us ultimately, be it in this lifetime or thereafter.

As an introduction, here is the message written by Lisa Buffaloe attached to the video, "When the Healing Comes" by Lisa Bevill:

"This song is dedicated to all those who are suffering with chronic illness. Lisa Bevill was diagnosed with Lyme disease in August of 2008 and knows first hand the crippling and debilitating effects that Lyme can bring. The individuals pictured in this video are Lyme sufferers across the country with individual stories to tell about their struggles and triumphs.

I wrote this song out of frustration that total healing hasn't come. However, I will remain faithful to the Lord because I know my ultimate healing will be complete one day. Until then, I will continue to daily press into the Lord.

I hope this helps you with the pain in your life and will give you strength through your walk. If you have Lyme or any other life-threatening disease, or long-term illness, or just emotional pain, I pray this song will bless and encourage you to daily choose Jesus and His promises. Take one day at a time and remember to breathe!"

Friday, July 8, 2011


Yesterday I had to go to a lab and have some blood drawn.  Among others sitting in the waiting room with me were an elderly woman and her daughter, also an older woman.  The frail mother was bracing herself from the cold of the air-conditioning, wearing a sleeveless blouse, and the daughter was tersely informing her that no one else was cold, that she was the only one who was cold.  Meanwhile, I was freezing too.    

I saw the old woman shrink down in her seat, and I wondered, does this daughter have no compassion?  Could she not put her arms around her mother to warm her?

When her name was eventually called, the daughter sprang up and strode across the room toward the phlebotomist as her mother raised herself up with the aid of a walker over which she was bent at an almost perfect 90 degree angle.  Apologizing to me as I drew in my legs for her to pass, she rolled forth in the path left behind her daughter. 

Apologizing… not excusing herself as she would if her daughter had not over time browbeat her into the mindset that she must be sorry for the inconveniences she causes. 

Admittedly, I don’t know their story, but it is easy to imagine such callousness from someone who has never suffered infirmity to a debilitating extent herself.  And this is in some part what our Lord can do with suffering for us.  I mean, for those of us who have suffered in this manner, we have been given a way into compassion.  That is, into the heart of God that suffers for our suffering and that looks down upon each of us with eyes that penetrate the depths of our experience. 

Through our own portion and share in such suffering, our recognition of others’ sufferings and comprehension of their pains, we enter more fully into the wholeness of the humanity exemplified to us in and through Christ.  We enter more fully into the life of Christ and thus are converted evermore fully to His holy image.  And indeed, we see His image in those around us who suffer, and are compelled to console Him when we see it.

That is, when we witness such a scene, we are compelled to think immediately of Jesus and His suffering, and are reminded of His very presence in this person whom we see suffering.  We are compelled to apologize to Him for the mistreatment of the weak by the strong and to pray for conversion in the hearts of those who do not understand what they are doing in callousness. 

And so, once more, it is a matter of God drawing us to Himself and shaping us once more in His own image that is the good of suffering.  Though we may not be grateful for the pain itself, the fruits that it brings are ripe when we find that we have been endowed with the grace of compassion.