Wealth in Poverty: No Greater Love Than This

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Rags.

Whispered whimpers.

A shadow against our sunny day in Rome.

We’d emerged from the tunnel crossing below the street to St. Peters basilica, and I paused. The form materialized into an arched back, dirt-crusted hands, and a tattered black veil.

A woman.

The group continued ahead of me as I felt through my jacket. Hungry fingers scratched my empty pockets. It was the end of our trip, and I’d given away all euros I had.

I bowed my head to her. My hands, like hers, held only air and a prayer.

I quickened my pace to re-join my group. My friend glanced over at me. His eyebrows scrunched.

“You smiled, but a frown flickered across your face,” he said later. “And I knew something was wrong. Then I saw her.”

He turned around and went to the woman. He spoke to her. She answered in mumbled Italian; my  friend only knew English. As he blessed her with his words, though, he handed her a crumbled euro bill.

At the same time, he blessed me.

The corners of my mouth lifted. In that moment he made up for what I was lacking, using his strength to complement my weakness. My friend saw my need—and HER need—and he filled it. In a simple way, he was my partner in God’s mission that day.


 

“How wonderful it would be,” Pope Francis said in his recent surprise appearance at the TED 2017 conference, “while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and the sisters orbiting around us.”

How wonderful it is, that while I was aiming for my metaphorical ‘faraway planets’ during our pilgrimage in Rome, this woman near St. Peter’s—and others like her throughout the city—caused me to attend to those in orbit around me. She, the people I’ve encountered beside the highways in Kansas City, and the friends who ask for prayer are all instruments of God’s invitation to me. They cause me to look beyond my personal duties, recognize the souls in faces, and remember my daily mission–of love.

Our universal call to love requires sacrifice in small or great ways. Be it speaking words of encouragement, praying for specific intentions, offering dinner to friends with tight budgets, or handing over the largest dollar bill in our pockets, we are each made to offer all we have. We are created to give.

Almsgiving is one form of giving, and is especially close to Pope Francis’ heart. It is “a gesture of love which directs us toward those we meet,” he said on April 9th last year, during the Year of Mercy. “It is a gesture of sincere attention to those who come to us and ask our help. We should not identify almsgiving simply with a (hastily given) monetary offering, without looking at the person, and without stopping to talk, to understand what they really need.” Almsgiving, the Pope stresses, must carry within it the richness of mercy; the Italian word for alms (elemosina) derives from a Greek word referencing mercy.

If we are merciful in our giving, we are to give out of desire for another’s good and not let fear prevent us from acting. Pope Francis pointed to a common concern, that someone begging may use money to buy alcohol or drugs. “If he is drunk, it is because he does not have another path!” Francis explained. “What do we have hidden that no one else sees? Yet we judge a man who only knows how to cope with existence via a glass of wine?”

God has mercy on each soul; in our call to imitate Christ we are invited to share in this mercy.


 

A few weeks after Rome I met Michael in downtown Kansas City. John and I were walking to my car after the Chrism Mass, and we saw a person huddled over the pavement. Our steps slowed. Man or woman, we couldn’t discern. We stopped.

“Hey. Do you need help?”

Our words were soft. Night traffic swept loudly past us.

“Excuse me…”

The person remained sitting, the crown of his or her head almost touching the sidewalk. John and I looked at each other. I had a twenty dollar bill in my jacket. I began to reach for it.

Then—the person jerked up.

This humbled soul had a thick, tangling white beard reaching from his creased, reddish-pink face. His head crooked left and right. His blue eyes shot open—and looked right into mine.

Michael.

“Like St. Michael, the archangel, you know,” he said later. He spoke with a gleam in his eye of his Catholic upbringing, and his chapped lips made a crooked smile when he shared Mother Mary has never denied him anything he asked. His eyebrows scrunched when he mentioned his wife, his child.

As John and I knelt to join him on the sidewalk, he reached into one of his bags.

“I’m sorry, folks. Excuse me for a moment while I indulge.” He turned and took a swig from the bottle, hidden in the shadows. “I can’t help it.”

We were silent and watched.

“See, folks, to put it bluntly: I’m an alcoholic. I should stop but—” he shrugged and spread his hands wide, palms up.

He was drinking Vodka that evening, as he does many nights.

Michael put the bottle away. He prayed with us. He talked longer with us, using words that revealed a true childlike faith.

The night grew late.

We had to go home.

We left Michael and returned the next evening with my roommate. The three of us sat with him. We chatted.

Together we prayed. We reminded him how to pray each Our Father and Hail Mary in the Rosary. I felt the blessing of being a teacher in this small way, yet at the start of each decade he snapped his eyes shut, bowed his head, and rocked. He led us in prayer. In this way, Michael gave us greater blessings.


 

“The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you and still more will be given to you,” we read in Mark 4:24-25. God wants to bless us: God yearns for us to be open to receiving all good things. The woman in Rome, and countless others whose names are unknown or forgotten now, know the fullness of asking and receiving more than I do. They, the poor and meek, show me a softness of heart—a receptiveness of love—that for years I was very closed off towards. I did not want it. Now, I see:

There is such humility in begging. To recognize our needs, which we cannot fulfill on our own, is an opportunity to seek aid in our lowliness. To ask for help in any situation and capacity is to practice great humility. My recent encounters caused me to reflect on a life spent relying completely on strangers, without shelter of a job or home. Those who do so may be seen as pitiable, poor—yet they are incredibly blessed. Blessed, because they go through their days with such meekness. Blessed, because they have no earthly fetters to prevent them from fully trusting in God. Blessed, because Jesus boldly assures them—and all of us—in the Beatitudes, ‘blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’

Throughout my child and young adulthood I was closed off to such blessings. I struggled in asking even for simple things like help from teachers on an assignment, permission to drive my dad’s car from school to a tennis match, or extra muscle to carry grocery bags. I didn’t want to tell my friends or admit to my parents I needed help: in my pride I shirked that potential humility of asking anything of anyone. In doing so, I denied my family the opportunity of loving me through giving. I blocked out the graces; I denied the blessings.

I, in the hardness of my heart, in my desire to be ‘independent’ and ‘strong,’ denied myself something that brings us closer to Christ—for He Himself made his needs known. In recognizing our reliance on others, we share in the sorrow of Mary and in the heaviness of reality she carries. We feel the burden of Simon carrying the cross, and the submission of self which Christ demonstrates with His life. These moments in Scriptures are shared by the meek. The reality of these moments are in the humble who have bowed their heads to receive the blessings of strangers. Blessed are they! The humble in spirit! Blessed are they! Those who depend on God’s gifts.

We must be like the woman in Rome, hands open to receive any blessings God gives us—and to receive without denying ourselves those gifts. He is a father, and if fathers so love and enjoy seeing their children’s happiness at the gifts given—so then does God.


 

“Why does the poor person enrich me? Because Jesus said that he himself is in the poor.” ~ Pope Francis

“Christian poverty is: I give to the poor what is mine, not the excess, but also what is necessary” for one’s own well-being. ~ Pope Francis

Do the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as unto the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.” ~ Ephesians 6:6-8

“The world calls for and expects from us obedience and humility. Without this mark of holiness, our word will have difficulty in touching the heart of modern man.” ~ Pope Paul VI

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” ~ John 15:13

Love in the Waiting: How to Live (a Vocation of) Holiness

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“You’re getting to be an old maid,” my dad likes to say now, “by St. Jo standards” (speaking of St. Joseph, MO). Up until a year ago he was giving me three options: he offered that I could marry a rich man, become a nun, or (due to my shin scars from falling kneelers and hard-edged theater boxes) marry a man who can’t see well. These were the futures he envisioned for me.

Apparently, in my 20’s, I’ve now reached the age of no return.

Waiting for God’s call is like waiting for Easter. We know He will call; we have faith He will speak to us and to our hearts. Yet at times we despair or question God’s timing. “I just want God to tell me what to do,” one of my friends said last week as we sipped tea in my living room. “I really want to know.”

This, on the heels of a conversation I’d had earlier that day with another young woman while she waited at an airport. She was feeling called more and more to marriage, though she recognized this wasn’t the time. God had yet to put a man in her path to discern marriage with. Until He did, she told me, she is praying for her future spouse—and working with God to heal from her wounds and mistakes.

She is treating this period in her life as Lent, though we just passed into the Easter season. She is letting God have this time to prepare her for whatever is to come. This period of preparation may be sorrowful or carry feelings of desolation, yet there is the hope of fulfillment one day. In other words Easter will come, though my friend doesn’t have the foresight of knowing what day God will invite her to love through a specific vocation.


 

Our specific vocations—be it single life, married life, consecrated life, or ordained ministry—are only pieces of a greater call. These vocations are the ways in which we live out the universal call. “The Lord called me from birth,” Isaiah 49 reads, “from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. He made me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me. You are my servant, he said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory.” God has a purpose for each person and destines each one for a great purpose. He calls each person from birth; He gives each man and woman a name by which they will be known, and lives by which He will be known. To glorify God and imitate Christ on earth is to live out the universal vocation: to live in holiness.

This universal vocation (which means ‘call’) begins at baptism. In baptism, Christians begin to know, love, and serve God—to live this is the reason for our existence, giving meaning to our lives. It is an ongoing call; it forever invites us to turn to God and align our will with His. While careers or professions allow us to support ourselves and contribute in some way to the good of society in a ‘horizontal dimension,’ our vocation involves the ‘vertical’ aspect of our lives. Living our universal call strengthens the spiritual relationship between each of us and God.

The meaning of a holy life differs for each person, though. Two women may both help children through social work, yet one may be a consecrated virgin living in a community of women while the other serves as wife and mother to three boys. They both are committed to loving God and people, yet this commitment manifests itself in two distinct ways. While God remains the object of their vocations, neither woman is living in a more holy way than the other.

Each woman is called in a special way, which is equal in importance for building God’s kingdom yet different from the other woman’s call. God speaks of a specific mission for each of us, one He imagines for us even before we are on earth. This is our vocational mission—out of our love for Him and His for us—to be husbands or wives, single laypersons or consecrated virgins, or ordained ministers. These vocations are unchanging. They are ones we can live out with hope, knowing that, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you’ (Jeremiah 1:5).

Before we can love God through these specific vocations, though, we need a time of discernment. If our wedding day or day for profession of vows is our Easter, and our lives thereafter the vibrant Easter season, then our lives leading to Easter are the 40 days of Lent. The weeks of Lent are, at times, weeks of desolation or sorrow as the Church contemplates Christ’s Passion. During Lent the Church recalls baptism and encourages penance. It is by these ‘the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter, while they hear God’s word more frequently and devote more time to prayer’ (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 109).

Lent, then, is a time of preparation. It is at time during which we give our sins to God and open ourselves to healing. It is a special time for prayer, sacrifice, and good works; Lent is a time of hope.

The period of singlehood before each person is given their vocation is the same. This time is a gift from God, through which He invites men and women to pray, fast, and let Him heal wounds. He offers forgiveness for past, wrong actions. He helps to forgive family members or friends. He takes twisted perceptions or expectations from former relationships and transforms them to trust and love of man. He helps in the practice of chastity (for, as St. John Paul II writes, ‘only the chaste man and chaste woman are capable of love).

This Lent, the Lent of the vocation journey, is one during which a person can learn to better love so that when God calls, at last, he or she can say yes. In this time of waiting he or she can practice sacrificing time and personal wants for the good of others. Each person, in this period, has the beautiful opportunity to grow in obedience, increase in fellowship with men and women, and better their ability to work in a team. Each person has the chance to ask questions and search inside themselves, as Christians do in classes and scrutinies to prepare for the sacraments. These are the ‘spiritual exercises’ of singlehood—these are the routine Stations of the Cross, penance services, fasts, and almsgivings before their Easter day.


 

 


 

In embracing this time and drawing close to God, each person seeking their specific vocation will open more to God’s will. Prayer is key. Pope Benedict XVI said, “To the extent that we teach young people to pray, and to pray well, we will be cooperating with God’s call. Programs, plans and projects have their place; but the discernment of a vocation is above all the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and his disciples. Young people, if they know how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.”

Here lies the answer to my friend’s desire: prayer. She asks that God tells her, soon, what she is to do on earth.

God will answer her, in His own time.

And to her anxiety—as well as countless others’—God uses people like ordained priests and one Holy Woman to communicate to us: ‘Be not afraid.’

In an echo of these three words, Fr. Mike Schmitz declared in one homily that ‘God won’t ask you to answer a question that He hasn’t asked yet.’ Cardinal Sean O’Malley reminded us that our vocations are particular and singular to each of us; he emphasized that the joy, happiness, and fulfillment of others depends on ‘getting your vocation right!’ Yet, the Cardinal added, this is a choice we do not make alone.

Though each vocation is singular to each person, a man or woman is not singular in his or her journey to discovering God’s will. Parents may aid on the journey, holy couples may set an example of the beauty of married life, religious orders may offer direction, a parish may become a second home, roommates may become siblings as each of them asks the same question of God—‘What am I to do for you?’ Above all of these helpmates is the Holy Spirit, burning and speaking in each soul.

God will fulfill His purpose for us in time—if only we say yes. If we are swords and arrows, as Isaiah 49 infers, then God will use us only when He is ready; the soldier uses these weapons only when they are needed, in battle, and keeps them otherwise in their sheaths. Like the soldier, God will draw us forth for our life mission when we are sharp and He deems it right.

Easter will only come when the time of preparation has reached its fullness.

Christ only rises when God calls him onward.


 

To all those seeking their vocation, or yearning for one vocation in particular, I say: imitate Mary. Keep in prayer. Say ‘yes’ to God with every day of your life.

Know, like Mary, that there is sweetness in the waiting.

Make this time of preparation. Practice patience. Pray for your vocation. Gather information, and experience each vocational life as best you can. Pray with these things. Listen.

In the silence of your heart, when your hands are palms up and you are completely open, God will reveal to you your soul. Your destiny.

Becoming: Beauty in Every Woman, and in Every Man

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Suddenly, I see them, Mother. All of the women, the women-to-be—coming and gazing, watching and waiting. They all gather around you. They flock and they gaze. They take pictures.

But do they know?

Do they know?

 

I see you, Mother. I see you in all of their faces. Young and old, whether they are on the eve of womanhood, married, or long-established on earth. They are seeking and searching, Mary. They are longing to be with you—to be you.

Mary, Mother.

They want to be beautiful.

But do they know?

They are already you. Made to be like you—these. These are your daughters.

 


 

I knelt in the caverns of St. Peter’s Basilica just a few weeks ago. In all of Rome, this was the church to visit. There were people crowding, clamoring, clashing together against the glass of a side chapel. They wanted to see Mary. When they did, they posed for a photo, checked that experience from their bucket list, and wandered the basilica for more magnificent statues.

How do they not see it? I wondered to God, the stone floor cold and hard against my knees. There I was in the great central church, in the throbbing heart of Catholicism. I was there, enveloped by sweeping ceilings, towering statues of holy giants, and echoing walls—walls echoing with a medley of tour guides, practicing Mass choirs, and footsteps.

There, in the bizarre space of travelers’ dreams. There, amidst hundreds of passing strangers, I prayed. There, I watched the ebb and flow of visitors.

I watched Her.

The Pietà.

They, too, had only eyes for her, Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

 

It makes sense many of us (we visitors and pilgrims) do not see what I saw while on my knees. Michelangelo’s Pietà is undeniably captivating. She was created to be the best sculpture in Rome, was the epitome of Renaissance sculpture, and was Michelangelo’s crown jewel. She and her Son were so significant Michelangelo hand-selected the Carrara marble for them; this marble was the most ‘perfect’ block he had ever seen. So precious was it, the Pietà in this splendid stone, that it was the only work Michelangelo ever signed.

The Pietà captures Michelangelo’s heart, and it captures the heart of every visitor in St. Peter’s Basilica. In the image of the Pietà is the dual emotion of our Mother: her sorrow at her son’s torture and physical death is combined with her calm acceptance of God’s plan. As at the Annunciation, Mary continues to say ‘Thy will be done.’

In this one composition, Michelangelo illustrates Mary’s pain and trusting resignation to God. He shows her at a moment in which she is grieving as a mother, yet maintaining joy as a handmaid to the Lord. This moment is not found in the gospels. It is not in the Stations of the Cross. This moment when Mary holds the broken body of her dead son in her lap is only in the imagining of the Church.

Christ appears in peaceful slumber, after hours of torture. Mary’s eyes are downcast. In their intimacy, the two figures (such a rarity in Renaissance sculpture) form a pyramidal shape: they are both stable and pointing upward. To God.

This occasion of Mother Mary with her Child is cause for reflection, which is the true purpose of the Pietà. Whether or not it was Michelangelo’s intention, or that of the French cardinal who commissioned it for his family’s tomb, the Pietà is meant to evoke compassion for our Mother and contemplation of Christ’s death. The image is more popular in French and German tradition, such as in the rough, wooden Röttgen Pietà from the early 14th century, which is why the French cardinal may have asked for this particular depiction of Christ.

The Pietà invites viewers to hold the body of Christ with Mary. It helps us to gaze, with Mary, on the gift of Christ’s face. At the same time, the sculpture helps us to draw close to Mary our Mother.

That is why I first stopped, why I paused in the middle of St. Peter’s side chapel not so long ago: I was encountering a tender moment. I was being drawn to consider Christ’s Passion. Mary’s demeanor was causing my thoughts to go silent—and to see only Her, to feel only with Her.

 

I stopped because there, in the Pietà, Michelangelo renders Mary’s character. The one we are made for.

 


 

Mary is our hope personified.

She is captivating, full of grace (Luke 1:28). She is obedient, humbled to God’s will (John 2:5). She bears fruit (Luke 1:42), which is every woman’s desire–be it physical or spiritual fruit. She is joyful with a desire to do God’s will (which is evident through all of Luke 1). She is also compassionate, and will suffer with the world for the promise of salvation.

She, as Fulton Sheen writes in “The World’s First Love,” is ‘what God wanted us all to be, she speaks of herself as the Eternal blueprint in the Mind of God, the one whom God loved before she was a creature. She is even pictured as being with Him not only at creation but also before creation. She existed in the Divine Mind as an Eternal Thought before there were any mothers. She is the Mother of mothers—she is the world’s first love.’

Mary is who we all yearn for. Mary, Sheen emphasizes in one chapter, ‘is the one whom every man loves when he loves a woman—whether he knows it or not. She is what every woman wants to be when she looks at herself. She is the woman whom every man marries in ideal when he takes a spouse…she is the secreted desire every woman has to be honored and fosters; she is the way every woman wants to command respect and love because of the beauty of her goodness of body and soul.’

Thus, thousands visit the Pietà every day. Mary invites us into her beauty: she is beautiful. Her manner is a mystery.

These pilgrims, who come and attempt to immortalize in two dimensions what Michelangelo does in three, see all of this in only a moment. They stare, they point.  Some of them flash a camera then turn away. Some pause longer, as if to absorb her majesty.

They see her, but they don’t see her.

They don’t see what I see.

They don’t see that she is in every one of them. The women with cropped gray hair and black boots, the three laughing teen girls, the woman clinging to her husband’s arm…

 

Mary’s beauty is not only in the Pietà, though.

Mary’s beauty is in every one of us.

 


 

How easily we forget that we are each made beautiful, each made good. We see the Smoky Mountains, the tops of clouds from the side of an airplane, the misty sunset over a foreign sea—and we wonder. We are in awe. We forget that if, in seven days, God builds toward His ultimate vision for the earth—then humanity is the climax. It is not the light, not the landscape, not the bird or woodland creature that is the greatest wonder: it is Man.

Man and woman are made as reflections of the Creator. Therefore, we are made beautiful. In the Catechism, the Church recognizes Man is made in an initial state of holiness and justice (CCC #384), endowed with a friendship with God from which flowed the happiness of existence in paradise. The Fall breaks this happiness and cripples man’s original state, but these are mended again in a man and woman the world meets two thousand years ago. Mary and Joseph work in cooperation with God. They are co-partners with the Creator: from this identity flows their joy and the hope of existence in a new paradise.

This is what each man and woman desires: paradise. Perfection. Mary and Joseph, as the two holiest and fully human examples we have, are who we are made to become.

If women are made in the image of Mary, men too have a model. Men, you have a saint who comes before you and paints and image of holiness. You are made to be like Joseph. Joseph, the man of faith and obedience who did as the angel of the Lord commanded him in the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Joseph, who was upright in taking Mary into the safe haven of his home. Joseph, who loved his family—and God—above himself, and doing all of these things played a part in our salvation (which is in line with some Medieval thinking in the cults and societies of St. Joseph, which honors Joseph as an aid to God in ‘trapping’ the devil by disguising Christ as the son of a man).

In an echo of Sheen, Joseph is the one whom every woman loves when she loves a man—whether she knows it or not. Joseph is the man every man wants to be when he looks at himself. He is the man whom every woman marries in ideal when she takes a spouse, when she unites herself with the man whom her children will call ‘father.’ Joseph is the secret desire every man has to be honored; he is the way every man wants to command respect and love because of the beauty, strength, and shelter found in his body and soul.

 

The potential to become Joseph is within every man, just as the potential to become Mary is within every woman. Each man is called to accept Mary into his home, to be a source of protection and strength for all of those in his life, to be open to God’s call in his heart or dreams.

We are in a constant state of becoming like Joseph and Mary—albeit in various ways depending on our temperaments—when we are open to God. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as the theologian and philosopher Edith Stein, writes in her ‘Spirituality of the Christian Woman’ that our lives are a process of striving for, succeeding in, and failing again at becoming more like God. ‘Our being, our becoming, does not remain enclosed within its own confines; but rather in extending itself, fulfills itself,’ she says. ‘However, all of our being and becoming and acting in time is ordered from eternity, has a meaning for eternity, and only becomes clear to us if and insofar as we put it in the light of eternity.’

Thus each human is a beauty to behold, for in gazing at another person we gaze a creature made by God, in the process of becoming more like God, and made to be like God.

 


 

Do they know? I wondered with God that day in Rome.

I looked at the women with high black boots and short gray hair, the three teen girls laughing, the gangly girl of twelve… My eyes traveled from woman to woman. Each woman was different.

And I smiled.

Each was the same.

Mary was in all of their faces.

Yet the hundreds of people passing by me to crowd at the stone rail and glass wall would only peer and point, flash a camera and leave. Oblivious. They peered at the face of Mary formed by human hands—Michelangelo’s—but they failed to see the face of Mary around them. They failed to see the Master’s work in themselves.

 

When we gaze at another person, we look at a stone being chiseled and polished—we see a perfect creation in progress.

When we gaze at another person, we gaze at the work of the great Master Artist himself.

Love – in a Look: Adam, Art, and the Act of Gazing

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“But you’re young and healthy. Why not?”

This was my mom’s shocked response the first time I told her I didn’t want to wear a bikini.

I, in turn, was shocked. I stared at her. “Mom.”

My mother—she who is conservative in dress and movie preferences, prudent with words and careful of her reading selections—was frowning at my choice to wear a modest swimsuit that summer. How could she not understand me? But then I had to consider she grew up in the 70’s, on the heels of the sexual revolution and women’s strikes for equality.

“Mom, I want to show I respect myself. And I don’t want to lead anyone into temptation. This is something I want to do.”

This is something I continue to want: to dress modestly out of love for my brothers and sisters. To preserve what is good and protect what is holy, because our bodies are temples. God asks us to honor them.

For women this is especially important.

For, women, we know.

We are being watched.

Nearly every moment, every day, we are being watched.

From the very beginning, it has been this way.


 

In the beginning, Adam looks at Eve. He exults in her. He sees her with the eyes of God, and knows at the same time he is seeing God in her. As a good friend of mine remarked when reading Fulton Sheen’s “World’s First Love”:

We are united in God, which is pure love because God is existence itself—He is the pure essence of being. God is constantly loving all things into reality. He is loving us and willing our good so perfectly, so powerfully that that’s not just something He does but that in a sense is what He is. Our love is not our own, it is God Himself. Your love for me is God’s love for me, through you. That’s why I say you are God’s love to me, a gift. When I see my own love for you I cry, because I see the face and beauty of God. And I can’t contain my joy.

Imagine that.

Imagine being in the place of Eve, receiving the love of a person who cannot contain their joy at you and their joy in God. Imagine this person facing you, their eyes convey sincerity, attention, and care. Without a word, they are saying: “You are good. I see the good in you. You are good, I want that potential of greater good for you.”

Imagine.

Then your soul cries out, much like Adam on first seeing Eve, ‘At last! Bone of my bones! Flesh of my flesh! I am seen! I am known! And I see you. I know you: the Spirit in me recognizes the Spirit in you.’

This is how we are called to look at one another.


 

We, as men and women, are made to see each other with pure intention and have the swelling desire to fulfill good for the other. We are created to behold one another with wonder as Adam and Eve first did. They were free of doubt in one another’s character, free of any stinging anger, free of frustration. They, our first parents, were swept up in an ‘original state of holiness and justice,’ sharing in divine life (CCC #375). Adam had inner harmony with himself, there was harmony between he and Eve, and together they were in harmony with all of creation (CCC#376).

Adam and Eve initially rejoice in one another—and in God—in the Garden. They gaze at one another in total self-giving. They walk shadow-speckled Eden beneath soft, brilliant blue skies and soaring trees. They feel the embrace of sun on their skin, and know it is a mere echo of the secure warmth of one another’s presence.

And then comes the Fall.

Then comes a flood of pride, jealousy, and greed into the world.

Then the human gaze changes. Man can no longer look at man as a co-partner in working the earth, as we see with Cain and Abel. Man can no longer trust God with all of himself, as we see when Adam and Eve hide in their nakedness. Man can no longer look at woman without also thinking of his own gain.


 

My mom grew up in a time when both men and women were thinking of their own gain, in terms of freedom with their bodies and within the law. She was going through school just as Cindy Sherman, Carolee Schneeman, and Martha Rosler were beginning to break female stereotypes in the art world. In the late 20th century these artists challenged the very thing my mom accepted: they recognized women were compelled to fashion themselves according to sexualized imagery in the media in order to garner attention, and they sought to change this pressure in society. These artists took action against the common portrayals of women as lazy, passive, or inert objects for pleasure. They challenged male artists by mimicking the imagery and art media men used, to critique men’s use of the female body. Instead of illustrating powerless women, Sherman and her contemporaries styled women as autonomous, feeling, and striving for their own aspirations.

In doing so, Sherman and others countered ‘the gaze.’

In the story of Genesis, we first read how Adam gazed at Eve in wonder. This gaze was pure, unwavering, filled with love. His view of Eve, and her view of him, then becomes distorted when sin enters the world.

The change wrought by the Fall is evident in human society, and it is evident in art.

‘The gaze,’ which Sherman, Schneeman, and Rosler counteract, refers to sexual objectification of women, in fine art and other forms of media throughout history. The term indicates the long tradition of paintings with female subjects, paintings commissioned by and executed by men for the pleasure of other men. In classical works women were often portrayed as property, inert (reclining), or models posing as subjects for the male viewers. Women were treated as objects of desire.

This treatment continued into the 1900s. Until that time, female artists had been discouraged from portraying themselves and the reality of being women. Virginia Woolf and her fellow writers commented on it in the earlier half of the 20th century. Woolf, in her ‘A Room of One’s Own’ acknowledged the oppression of women. She felt that women were pressed into being in the public eye, always—even in the home. The women’s role was to be in public: a woman was to be seen and not heard, to tend to children, to cook and clean. There was no time for women to visit one another, in private, and share the female experience—nor was there the time or privacy to write of their experiences. So Woolf stepped out and spoke of the need for women to express themselves. She gave women a voice in a new way. Sherman, Schneeman, and Rosler continued her kind of movement several decades later, crafting a new image of woman whom had power, ability to speak, and hopes—with the freedom to attain her dreams.


 

Why, though, would men continue to objectify women? We see it today in our ads and films. We see it in the fascinations society has with the female body.

‘Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year?’ Virginia Woolf writes in “A Room of One’s Own.” ‘Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?’

Yes, women. It is because we captivate the world. And we sense, from the earliest of our days, the world is watching us.

John Berger, in his 1972 “Ways of Seeing,” writes of this:

From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her… She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.

These writers reveal the truth of womanhood in the literary world. Woolf admits our value as beautiful creatures. Berger—an English art critic, novelist, painter, and poet—acknowledges the truth we women have known since the beginning of time. We are creatures, which inspire greatness or desire. Our identity is, ultimately, rooted in someone other than ourselves.

We see this with Adam and Eve in the garden. Eve appears, Adam beholds her beauty, and he cries out with joy! She has aroused in him his meaning, his purpose: she is made from him, for him, so the two of them may serve together. Her identity comes, in part, from him.

It is due to God and His goodness, though, that she is made.


 

St. John Paul II and Fulton Sheen, like these artists and authors, knew the worth of women. The two great promoters of human love show us how to counter society’s twisted images of love and the human body, more perfectly than Cindy Sherman or Virginia Woolf do. They give us guides on how to see one another with that pure and sacrificial gaze, the kind with which Adam and Eve once beheld one another.

‘Love cannot be built without sacrifices and self-denial,’ John Paul II tell us in “Love and Responsibility.” Love is never something ready made, but a journey along which man and woman are set: men and women are to be partners in learning generosity, patience, and good will. Thus we are to consciously seek the good with others, to subordinate ourselves to the good of others, and to strive for good because of others. This pursuit of goodness for others involves speaking and looking at each human person with respect.

Fulton Sheen, in “Life is Worth Living,” specifies that:

When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.

He says, too, “We become like that which we love. If we love what is base, we become base; but if we love what is noble, we become noble.”

We all want this kind of nobility, whether we are men or women. We all yearn for this kind of love.

I felt the call to urge others to such nobility that first spring I told my mother I would no longer wear a bikini. I was old enough to have an awareness of the gaze—the male gaze Cindy Sherman confronted—and I wanted women to be held in higher esteem than their surface value. Women deserve that, as daughters of God.


 

Men, we women desire to hear a man say, and to see in his gaze, “I want to love you as Christ loves the Church. I want to serve you. I want to serve with you. I want to cherish you all the days of my life, and be cherished by you. You are a gift. A treasure. God has preserved you—for me. Flesh of my flesh! Bone of my bone! At last.”

Women, men crave to be accepted. When they overflow with love and they express what is on their hearts, treasure what they have shared. Allow them an opportunity to open their hearts more to you, whether in friendship or discerning marriage. Call these men strong. Acknowledge their bravery. Serve them, and serve with them. Know men, too, are a great gift.

Women, we are made to inspire greatness and give life to the world. Men, you are made to help us in that mission and to draw up to the great warriors you were made to be.

We are made for this. We are made for the love of Christ. We are made to be held in His loving gaze.

In His gaze is our identity.

No…Your Bible is Wrong!

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“I did something this afternoon, something I haven’t done before,” my friend Josh said last Advent. He was driving back to my apartment after a silent day retreat.

He turned out of the neighborhood and onto the interstate. Speckled gray highway rolled beneath the headlights of his car.

“I opened the Bible on the coffee table and read one of the extra books. Maccabees.” He glanced at me. “Have you read it before? Do you know why only the Catholic Church kept it in the Bible?”

“I’ve read it, but — no. I don’t know.”

As a cradle Catholic, I was at a loss. Josh is part of a non-denominational church. In recent years, he’s started asking more about Catholicism. We’ve attended Mass together, served at retreat weekends, and even had Q&A meetings with priests. Josh was just dipping into Catholicism at that point, embarking on the Christmas season; I’d been part of the Church my whole life.

And I couldn’t answer his question.


 

Through talks with Josh and my Lutheran family members, I’ve realized there’s a lot of pointing fingers when it comes to who is following God’s will in our Christian church.

The Catholic Church tends to point to itself and say: “We have the seven sacraments, the true body of Christ, the communion of saints as examples of a holy life.”

“WE have the fullness of Christ,” some of its members will conclude. Some of these people will also point to Protestants: “YOU chose to break away from the church instituted by Christ. You have no hierarchy, no spiritually appointed head for insight into divine inspiration, no one leader to gather you into a universal body. You don’t understand what you lost.”

The Protestant church points to itself and says: “WE follow God’s word in the Bible. We can confess our sins, without the mediation of another person, to God. We can lay our intentions before God Himself: we don’t need saints’ intercessions. YOU worship Mary. You hold the Pope in too much esteem; he’s just a man — Jesus is God.”

Though we remain ‘one body’ under the belief in Christ, the branches of our Christian church have varying views on the church Christ instituted. We differ in opinion on how to live out Christ’s teachings, and we no longer share even the same source of His Word. We no longer draw on the same sources of life and love.


 

One of my most shocking moments with Josh was when I shared a Bible verse with him two years ago.

It was a verse from Wisdom, “Those who trust in him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love: Because grace and mercy are with his holy ones, and his care is with the elect.” (Wisdom 3:9)

He had no idea the words I shared were from Scripture. “What is this?” he asked.

I had no good answer for him then, either, just as I didn’t this past Advent.

I’d been told the Protestant and Catholic Bibles are different. Somewhere along my journey of faith, I’d learned there are various translations of texts and a different number of books—depending on the Christian branch. We share the same 27 books of the New Testament, but while the Protestant Bible is comprised of 39 Old Testament books the Catholic version has 46 books. The additional seven books are referred to as deuterocanonical (‘second canon’) texts or, as many Protestants know them, as the Apocrypha (meaning books not inspired by God). That was the extent of my knowledge.

Josh was the first person I encountered so closely who didn’t know the Catholic Bible and its 46 books. So, in light of his question, I dove deeper. I found that in addition to Wisdom the Catholic Bible includes Tobit, Judith, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, Sirach, and Baruch—none of which can be found in a Protestant version. The Church also kept portions of Daniel and Esther.

Why? In 70 AD, when the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, the Church began an official list of books to form the Bible. At the supposed Council of Jamnia, a Jewish council circa 100 AD, the seven deuterocanonical books were rejected for the Jews because they were not written in a certain time period. At the time there was no agreed upon, ‘closed’ Jewish scripture in the first century. The Christian councils of Rome (382 AD), Hippo (393), Carthage (397), and Florence (1442) later accepted the deuterocanonical books, acknowledging a text need not be written in a restricted time period to have come from God.

Part of the Protestant argument, though, is that Catholics added to the Old Testament and didn’t accept the deuterocanonical texts until the Council of Trent in 1546—therefore, how could these seven books be rooted in Christ?

What our Protestant family may forget is Martin Luther denied these books of the Bible. Luther assumed that, since the Jews did not include these books at the time, the books were not used when the New Testament was formed. However, most Jews and Christians were using the Greek Septuagint (the oldest Greek version of the Old Testament)—which includes the deuterocanonical books—as their Bible: when the Old Testament is quoted in the New, the verses are almost word for word from the Septuagint. The Jews later stopped using the Septuagint to distance themselves from the early Christians.

Luther and other Reformists recognized the deuterocanonical texts contradicted sola fide (‘faith alone’) theology and had reservations about their divine inspiration. Still, Luther’s original Bible translation included the deuterocanonical books in the appendix between Old and New Testaments. These parts of scripture were kept in the appendix until the 19th century, when they were removed from the Bible for the first time.

In addition to the belief these books were not accepted by the Church at the creation of the Bible, Protestants offer other reasons for the deuterocanonical books’ illegitimacy. Some cite the historical or geographical errors in Judith, the seeming claims in Sirach and 2nd Maccabees that the books are not divinely inspired, and that verses from these books aren’t quoted by Christ or his Apostles (which, when comparing passages like Matthew 27:43 to Wisdom 2:18-20 or Matthew 13:44 to Sirach 20:30, proves differently). This comes as a challenge to us to read these seven books, research Church history, study paragraphs 101-141 in the Catechism, and understand for ourselves the value of these texts.


 

St. Augustine writes, “I would not have believed the Gospel had not the authority of the Church moved me.” Whatever we read in the Bible, we take on faith—faith that it is divinely inspired, faith in the Christians who formed the book, and faith in the very existence of God. There is not hands-on certainty in the Bible’s perfection: like Christ’s identity, we take this on faith.

And so my answer to Josh is we are a broken people. Our church is a divided family, pointing fingers and doubting truths Christ instituted for the Church. Like a family, we argue. We bicker over whose version of history is most accurate. We disagree about who acted rightly in various situations.

As Catholics, going along with St. Augustine, we trust the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church through the last 2,000 years. But we, as the entire Christian body, have different renditions of our family heritage—in the Old and New Testament—but let us remember we are rooted in the same family name. We are Christian. We are Christ’s.