Into the Desert

We begin another Lent. Jesus enters the desert to engage in combat with the devil. He shares in and represents our humanity. “He was tempted in every way we are, but did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He allows himself to be weak and vulnerable. He abides in his identity as a beloved Son. With humility, trust, and confidence, he conquers. He shows us that genuine human maturity is possible. We get to share more and more in the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

Sometimes I taste that freedom. Other times, I resonate with the words of the apostle Paul: “I do not do the good that I desire, but the evil that I do not desire is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15). Even though I have free will, I often fee unfree!

This is where the ancient Christian Tradition of asceticism comes in. Beginning in the 200’s, many Christian men and women flocked to the desert to engage in spiritual combat and claim more fully the peace that only Christ can give.

Many people today haven’t even heard of “asceticism” or “ascesis.” Or if they have, they are likely to misunderstand or distort what it’s really about. People tend to hate it or love it for all the wrong reasons!

The Greek word askesis literally means “exercise” or “training.” Ascetical practices, when healthy and holy, are like the best of athletic training. Healthy training is directed toward a positive goal. It may include a good deal of self-denial, not to mention rigorous practices that are uncomfortable or even painful.

There can be joy, exhilaration, freedom, and peace in discovering that I am capable of so much more – and then actually experiencing it. I think back to my high school years, and the weightlifting and football training. Through intense discipline and consistent practice, often in community with others, celebrating each milestone, I discovered new possibilities that I didn’t know were within me.

I had similar experiences during the last decade, both with exercise and with how I eat. I remember quite vividly two triumphant moments about ten years ago. One was riding my bicycle up a tall and steep hill, staying in the lowest gear and determined to “just keep peddling.” It was so exhilarating when I actually made it to the top and kept going! Likewise, after months of buildup, I finally made it through an entire rigorous exercise video, muscles burning and heart pounding. It felt amazing. Seven years ago, after conversations with my doctor, I discovered new motivation to be healthier around food and alcohol. More importantly, my work in therapy and group therapy was opening my eyes to my emotions and my needs. I noticed how many times a day I felt an urge to eat (without actually being hungry). I became curious about what was really happening. I made phone calls daily to talk about it with friends. The self-denial around food opened up an awareness of how much within me needed care and healing.

I look back and see how Spirit-led all of it was. I received an abundance of healing; I genuinely matured. I look back, and I also see some pitfalls in the process – my pride and shame. There was a certain impurity in my motives – relishing the positive attention from others, silently making comparisons or judgments, and believing lies that I was somehow more lovable because I weighed less and looked different. More subtly, there was the role (the false identity) that I had adopted in adolescence – that of the golden child, who looks and acts the part and makes the family system look good. I played that role in my family; I played it for my church family; I even played it at times during 4+ years of group therapy. I recall a moment in which the group facilitator made a comment about me being the “poster child” of the group. As has happened so many times in my life, that admiration felt amazing but ultimately left me feeling empty. As I have previously described, admiration is not the same as love; and drivenness is not the same as desire.

Two years ago, I parted ways amicably with that group, as my healing journey went in a new and deeper direction. Those who truly know me and love me describe to me many ways they have seen me continue to grow. I have also “grown” in less desirable ways – externally showing weight gain that belies some of my unhealthy habits that have crept their way back in. And then I battle with the old accusing voice of shame, calling me a hypocrite – here I am, invited in my current ministry to lead other priests into healthier living, and I find myself not living in a healthy way. But that shame is telling me lies. Now I get to seek asceticism out of desire rather than fear or shame. Moreover, I now see more clearly the toxicity that is so often present in the fitness culture, the shame and contempt towards certain bodies, and the idolatry of thinness. Being healthy and holy is not about the shape of your or my body or the number that shows up on the scale. It’s certainly not about gaining the adulation of others. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that is more interested in selling their products and services than in real human flourishing. The messages are often manipulative and shaming. As it turns out, both fitness culture and asceticism have much to offer, and both are full of pitfalls.

The desert is a dangerous place. There are fell creatures there. The devil doesn’t sleep. The combat is not easy. The victory is not a one-and-done, but an ongoing and very non-linear process. When you withdraw from the world and engage in healthy self-denial, it is then that the real combat begins. Sometimes you get your lunch handed to you. Much like the cave in The Empire Strikes Back or the woods of Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings, entering the desert uncovers what already lies within your heart – and then the real combat begins.

The lives of the saints are so often sanitized or glamorized – as though they easily and quickly achieved holiness and purity. Their lived reality was so different! As Bishop Erik Varden describes in his new book on chastity, the virtue of purity is actually exceedingly rare, because it takes many years of patient and diligent effort to mature into it. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes (nn. 2337-2445), this process of maturing into purity is a long and exacting labor that must be renewed in every stage of life. It requires lifelong apprenticeship. It is mainly about healthy relationships, emotional maturity, and our capacity to receive and give love.

Let’s not forgot how Jesus begins his combat in the desert. He is not led there out of fear or shame, nor to improve his public image, nor because he is hoping he can change and become lovable. No, he is led there at his Father’s invitation, by the Holy Spirit, immediately following his baptism. He has already been claimed as the Father’s beloved, in whom the Father delights. He is anointed by the Holy Spirit for the battle. It can be the same for us.

Secure relationship comes first. We first are loved and delighted in and belong. We first receive strength from on high. If you are like me, much of the battle will be with the multi-layered lies of shame that keep trying to tell me I can only be lovable if

Shame gets healed in communion – communion with God and healthy community with each other.

This Lent, I feel the Lord inviting me to reclaim healthy discipline, to engage in exercise (ascesis) in both bodily and spiritual ways. I am resolved to do so out of a desire to abide in love, to grow and mature, and to bear fruit. I may once again discover mixed motives; it’s still worth it. Layer by layer, the Lord will keep patiently and gently uncovering my heart. Such was the prophecy of Simeon to Jesus’ mother Mary. As her Son dies on the Cross, he gives her to me as a mother who always delights in me, shelters me, and guides me. I am already loved. I can now grow and keep growing.

Jesus conquers the devil by standing firm in his identity. I pray that you and I may remember who we are as we pray and live into the Collect prayer of Ash Wednesday:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.

As we enter the desert with Jesus, may we come to share more fully in his Paschal victory, and claim that joy and peace that no one can steal away.

Welcoming Emmanuel

God is with us. God is greater.

With these two simple statements, I invite each of us to be open and receptive to the good news of salvation that Jesus brings, and will keep bringing in ever greater measure. It’s a simple invitation, yet not an easy one!

That is because there is tension in those statements – a tension familiar to Joseph and Mary, and to true believers in every age. God was with them. He showed up in their lives, multiple times – usually in unexpected ways, even though they were looking for him. To announce the coming of Emmanuel, God sends his angel. Each of them welcomes the good news with trust and joyful obedience. But God leaves far more questions unanswered! Mary ponders all these things in her heart. She seeks to understand, without (like Zechariah) insisting on grasping it all. Joseph promptly obeys the message of each dream. He believes God is with him, and recognizes that God is infinitely greater. He obeys with trust, not having any sense of the how or the when of the fulfillment of those good promises. God was with them. God was greater. They allowed that tension to linger and play itself out. They received and kept receiving, in a way that kept expanding with each new unveiling of the mystery.

God has shown up many times in my own life – often in surprising and unexpected ways. Again and again, he reminds me that he is truly with me. When I welcome his presence, I am aware – sometimes painfully – that he is so much greater. I am consumed with a longing that is both joyful and sad – joyful because I am truly drinking in his comforting presence, sad because I sense his grandeur and my own limited capacity to receive. The gap feels insurmountable, even when he reassures me of his goodness.


I can see, over the years, how much he has stretched me, increasing my desire and so increasing my capacity to receive and give. Sometimes I joyfully cooperate and welcome the expansion and growth.  Other times, I resist.

I notice two frequent temptations. One is to “arrive” – to have it all together and all figured out. In response to this temptation, there is the cliché telling us that it’s more about the journey than the destination. That’s not entirely true. The destination matters. It’s just that the journey is so darn long – and has to be – because God is infinitely greater! In his longing to share his fullness with each and all of us, he will offer every opportunity to stretch our hearts and increase our capacity for union with him. My ache to arrive is not bad in and of itself. The Magi felt it in their search for Emmanuel. Joseph and Mary felt it in their search for shelter.

There are moments that indeed feel like “arrival” – Emmanuel moments in which God definitively shows up with a further unveiling. These moments bring immense and intense joy – as we see in the story of the Magi and the renewed movement of the star (Matthew 2:10).  Many of us are then tempted, like Peter, to build our tents and stay there at the moment, as though we’ve now arrived. If we are wise like the Magi or Joseph or Mary, we will humbly recognize that there is still far more to be unveiled, all in due time.

My second temptation is to sabotage the expansive growth God is offering. I sometimes (even often) prefer to stay small and return to my familiar little cell – even when I see signs that those surroundings are increasingly rotting and toxic. Jesus has broken open the bars of that cell and shattered my chains. I am free to step out into expansive Hope. Yet, like so many survivors of a prison camp, the bigness and freedom now available feels unfamiliar and scary. Following the star to an unknown destination includes leaving familiar contexts behind – and I resist. In those moments, I am not so much avoiding pain as avoiding the immensity of the desire and of the increasing goodness that I am entering.

Thanks be to God, my fumbling and stumbling has not for a moment stopped Jesus from remaining Emmanuel – fully present and active. He keeps surprising me and keeps alluring me to grow into the fullness of his Kingdom.

There is a third way, one that invites a holy remembrance of past blessings and an eager anticipation of unknown blessings yet to come. This is the way exemplified by Mary and Joseph. It is the way ultimately embraced every true mystic or saint. It is also what we enter into communally in liturgical seasons and observances, indeed in every Mass. We connect with each other and with God. We confess our unfaithfulness and seek reconciliation. We remember the ways God has been with us. We profess our Hope and pray eagerly for his coming. Healed and nourished, we are sent out eagerly on mission into the world with renewed Faith, Hope, and Love.

I have also learned the importance of having my own personal ways of remembering and anticipating. In my meeting spaces, my workplaces, or my places of prayer, I allow myself to have outward reminders of the ways God has truly showed up on my journey. My friends at the John Paul II Healing Center would call these the “Emmanuel Moments” in my life. My friends at the Allender Center would call my outward reminders “Ebenezers.” Emmanuel is Hebrew for “God is with us.” Ebenezer is Hebrew for “a stone of help” – as in the memorial stones sometimes erected in Old Testament stories to remind people of the ways God has showed up. I can return to these moments – not to cling to them or to stay there, but to be reminded of the twofold truth: God is with us, and God is greater.

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) led thousands of believers through his Spiritual Exercises – indeed, many millions if you count five centuries of retreatants. One of his greatest points of emphasis is “repetition” – returning to experiences of divine consolation in order to soak in more of the blessing and grow into fruitfulness. Here we see a strong conviction in the truth of both statements: God is with us; God is always greater.

“Consolation” is ultimately from the Greek New Testament word that means “paracleting” – that is to say, the undeniable presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. When we know that the Spirit of God has shown up and begun working in us, there is an invitation to keep returning, keep discerning, and keep receiving. In times of desolation, remembering God’s goodness offers us endurance and Hope – resisting the temptation to become discouraged and get small. In times of consolation, returning to those moments allows us to receive even more, resisting the temptation to settle or “arrive” without further growth.

These days, this invitation is especially crucial. So many are feeling afraid or discouraged by the seeming strength of evil. And the toxic currents of our smart phone / social media culture are tirelessly stealing away our rest and sweeping us along, enticing us to keep moving and keep distracting ourselves. Now, more than ever, there is the invitation to allow God to be with us. We can remember the ways he has already shown up, be open to the surprising ways that he is showing up even now, and expect him to increase and expand his blessings upon us in the days ahead. May we all be open to the good news and the salvation that Jesus brings, and will keep bringing, until he becomes all in all.

The Middle of the Story

It’s difficult being in the middle of a great story. It’s challenging enough to be an empathetic reader, feeling the tension in our body as we witness the drama resolving. But we as readers typically know more than the characters in the story, and are free to set the story aside. By contrast, to be the one in the midst of the tale, totally unsure of what will happen next, can be overwhelming, disorienting, or discouraging.

I recently re-read Lord of the Rings – probably my favorite story. This time around, I was captivated by the conversation between Frodo and Sam on the stairs of Cirith Ungol. They have come far in their journey, which seems more and more to be a fools’ errand. Failure feels inevitable.

Then they have a moment’s realization that they are in the middle of a great story. Not only that, they are characters entering and leaving the stage amidst an even grander story, interconnected with all the heroes and villains. Sam cheers Frodo up by imagining their tale told to children by the fireside. “Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”

Frodo laughs in a dark place that hadn’t heard laughter since Sauron came to Middle Earth. He adds to Sam’s musings: “But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. ‘I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?”

Then Frodo names well why things are so hard for them: “You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.’”

I have felt more than once in life what it is like to be at the worst places of the story. We can have long moments of felt powerlessness in which we do not see a path forward, and do not feel like we can trust anyone. Sometimes those are distorted perceptions, but not always. In the case of Frodo and Sam, the devious Gollum was their only guide, and they had no obvious options. All they could think to do was keep showing up and see what would happen next. And they did just that.

On the Day of Judgment, Jesus will assemble the entire human race, and have them hear your story and mine – which of course will interwoven with the entire human story. Others will hear all about the heroes and villains and supporting characters in our story. Our full truth will be unveiled.

Jesus, of course, is the ultimate hero of the grand human story. His dying and rising bring meaning and hope. But Jesus very much desires that we participate in his Passover (cf. Luke 22:15). He wants his story to become one with ours, and for you and me to grow as heroes in our own right. It is often in the moments of failure or adversity that we learn the most and become who we are. The apostle Paul teaches that God works all things for the good for those who love him (Romans 8:28). Augustine of Hippo adds the words – even our sins.

Like the hobbits, we are apt to have more moments of foolish blundering than moments of astonishing courage or faithfulness. All the moments matter, and in his covenantal love Jesus turns every one of them into the beginning of a new and better chapter. It’s not a matter of getting it all right or figuring it all out, but of allowing the story to unfold.

We tend to imagine that the glamorous moments of our story will be those in which we fell a giant spider or troll. But when our full story is told, perhaps the listeners will perceive that our greatest moments were those in which we ourselves fell – again and again – and kept getting up and kept showing up. They will gain a glimpse into the moments when we had no idea how we could carry on, what would come next, or who would help us get there – and we chose to show up anyway.

Yes, it’s hard to be in the middle of a story – especially at the worst moments, the moments in which we feel stuck. It helps very much to allow true friends to be near us, to share bread together and sing together, even in the dark moments and places of our lives.

In every case, there is an invitation to Eucharistic renewal. Jesus assembles us, Sunday after Sunday, and we listen attentively the THE story that breathes meaning and hope into our own. We place all the broken pieces of ourselves and our lives on the altar, giving it all over to the one who offers it all to the Father. We receive the flesh and blood of Jesus – our waybread for the journey that lies ahead – even when we do not know the way, and do not know how all can possibly be well. We resist the temptation to go it alone – even when that feels easier. We definitely need community and true companions on the journey. Like Frodo, we may find the most unusual allies in the most unexpected places.

The virgin Mary models for us, again and again, what it is like to be in the middle of an unfolding story and not have all the answers. She never backs away or isolates, nor does she force a solution. She abides. She watches and waits, and when the Lord reveals next steps, she follows with trust. She is willing to abide in the middle of the worst moments. She stands with Jesus in the worst moments of his. Jesus gives us to her (“Behold your mother”) so that she can stand with us in our own worst moments. May we welcome her mothering and learn from her example as we continue into the next chapter of our story.

Confabulation

My grandmother is 96. She is beginning to tell some rather interesting stories!

For several years already her sight and hearing have been failing, but that never stopped her from keeping informed of what was happening in the lives of family members. Once in a while, she would fill in the gaps with her own interpretation. It could be amusing or annoying, depending on her take. More recently, after years of being mentally sharp, she is showing signs of dementia – forgetting certain words, mixing up names, and – yes – telling some interesting stories. When she lacks certain pieces of the puzzle, she’s quite creative at filling in the gaps with her own narrative. And she sincerely believes her version of the story.

Her parish priest is from Poland, and four decades younger than she is. That doesn’t stop her from regaling me with stories of her long-deceased parents teaching him to speak Polish so well. This is an example of what neuroscientists call “confabulation.” It involves telling a false story while sincerely believing it to be true.

The human capacity to confabulate is by no means limited to those experiencing memory loss!

For example, I think of addicts chasing after a fix. Some of them go from church to church with a well-polished story, looking for a handout. The details of the story vary, but they invariably convey some heart-wrenching tragedy – “and all I need is __________ and my troubles will go away!” They get genuinely offended if you don’t believe their story. They have told it so often that, in the telling, they believe it themselves! You can, with skill and effort, expose them in an inconsistency or a lie. But it may not be kind or constructive to do so. They are likely to erupt with rage or blame, not at all liking the intense embarrassment and shame they are suddenly feeling amidst the exposure of untruth.

Another example is narcissism. There is increasing research linking narcissists with confabulation. In their deeply felt insecurity and shame, they exaggerate their achievements, or skillfully shift your attention away from their faults and failures. In the moment, they truly believe the falsehoods and distortions. If you have the wherewithal to cast light on the fuller truth, you are likely to pay for it!

I am also aware, in this age of social media and pop psychology, that “narcissism” is an overused term that is easily weaponized, without curiosity about the person or a desire to understand each human heart. What is labeled “narcissism” is actually a cluster of unpleasant or toxic behavioral symptoms, beneath which is cowering a terrified and ashamed little child who desperately wants to be loved.

 In my experience, we all have at least a little narcissism in us, because we all have shame lurking in the shadows, shame which we would rather avoid than face. We all have at least some moments in which we prefer to bypass uncomfortable memories or emotions, to live in denial, to minimize or downplay, to shade the truth, to omit relevant details, or to shift the focus onto someone else.

Confabulation is a common human experience because it emerges from a core human desire: to make sense out of what we are experiencing. Telling stories (some more true and some less true) is our go-to way of doing that.

Human beings are storytellers by nature. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly attempting to make sense out of what we are experiencing. Even when our bodies rest in sleep, our brain toils on in our dreams, attempting to put the pieces together.

I was fascinated reading Brené Brown’s Rising Strong, in which she described our almost irresistible urge to tell stories to ourselves– even false ones– in order to make sense of things. Drawing from her research, she shared that there is actually a dopamine release that motivates us:

“Our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. The brain recognizes the familiar beginning-middle-end structure of a story and rewards us for clearing up the ambiguity. Unfortunately, we don’t need to be accurate, just certain.

The story we tell ourselves with great certainty becomes an interpretive lens for our day-to-day experience of life. It colors our perceptions, our judgments, and eventually our decisions.

If Sally is convinced that nobody loves her, she will begin noticing every slight and seeing it as a confirmation of that “truth.” If Fred is intensely ashamed of how he has harmed a loved one, he will avoid lingering in that shame for very long. Perhaps he shifts the blame onto the one who questions him; perhaps he goes into self-punishment or profusely apologies – all ways of getting people to look away from his shame. But is he willing to talk about what it was really like? Is he willing to exchange the story he is telling himself for the fuller truth? That is where genuine humility and courage enter in.

For many years, the story I told myself was that I wasn’t trying hard enough or being good enough. I was the problem. I wasn’t willing or ready to face the truer story of my loneliness and sadness and shame – and how they got there in the first place. Or I told myself that other people would change, too afraid to confront their behaviors and tell them what it is like for me. I tolerated toxic behaviors and allowed my dignity to be stomped on. I just had to be kinder, and they would change. All the while the sensations in my body and my intuitive sense warned me: if I actually spoke the truth about how they were really behaving, they would definitely not be willing to talk about it, and would find ways to make me pay. As it turns out, my intuition was spot on. When I did speak truth, they were not willing to talk about their behaviors, and they did make me pay.

As I’ve pointed out before, on the Day of Judgment, my story and yours will be fully told – in all truth. Facing the fuller truth can be scary, but it is also liberating – allowing us to come out of the shadows and become a whole person.

Knowing our human tendency to confabulate, what can we do? Two great women come to mind for me.

One is Virginia, a parishioner in my former parish, who is my grandma’s age. Like grandma, Virginia always wanted to know what all is going on. But she also had a marvelous habit of going straight to the source before repeating a rumor. “What’s going on with ___________?” she would often ask me, having heard the church ladies confabulating. I would clear up the confusion, and she would nod with understanding and satisfaction. What a gift her wisdom and discipline were! But doing so required her to abide in that uncomfortable place of not knowing all the pieces, and resisting the dopamine fix that comes with imposing an interpretation on the facts.

The other woman that comes to mind is the Virgin Mary. The Gospels offer us glimpses into many moments of her life. In each of them, she was in the middle of an overwhelming and disorienting situation. God impregnated her, and she didn’t fully understand how. She prepared for birth having no idea where it would happen (and when it did happen, it was amidst farm animals, and her baby’s bed was the feeding trough). They were to flee into Egypt, without knowing how long. Her lost-and-found Son was in his Father’s house, but what does that really mean? The same Son, now 33, is being tortured and killed and buried – and all will be well – but how?

Again and again, Mary exemplifies a willingness to be in the middle of a great story, without yet having all the answers. She shows us that it is possible to abide and wait for the conflict to be resolved, resisting the false satisfaction of confabulation. She was willing – repeatedly – to have her narrative disrupted and to be reoriented toward a bigger and better horizon. She is the preeminent model of humility and courage. She was eager to embrace a fuller and fuller truth because she was always allowing herself to be embraced by that Truth.

What are the ways that you and I tend to confabulate? What are the painful truths that we would rather not admit? In what ways are we still in the middle of a story, with no idea how the tension will be resolved? Can we watch and wait in Hope?

The invitation is there for all of us!

Our Blessed Mother

There is much to marvel at in God’s creation, but the bond between mother and child is chief among them. In marriage, the two become one flesh. In motherhood, what begins as one flesh proceeds, through a nurturing and protective process, as a new being that grows into full maturity. The process of pregnancy and birthing is a paradox of sorrow and joy – so much so that it becomes the best analogy that Jesus can find to describe the Resurrection (John 16:16-22). The process of guiding children into adulthood replays the same paradox. If strongly supported and protected, healthy mothers are able to partner with healthy fathers in guiding their children into responsible adulthood. The mother desires that this young human being, who began in her womb with absolute dependence and need, will gradually reach a point of no longer needing and depending on her, but living autonomously with a free and joyful capacity for communion and total self-gift. I am friends with many moms, and have seen in their eyes that amazing combination of painful loss and intense joy as they proudly watch their sons and daughters shine in adulthood. But they are up against so much!

O how the devil hates this beautiful gift of motherhood! In every age, he renews his assault against it, and against the precious daughters of God who are called to it. Last time, I shared the particular ways in which our modern industrialized (and now digitalized) age tends to war against women. Toxic understandings of masculinity and femininity have infected both secular society and our own churches. Wave after wave of collective trauma has caused most of our families to perpetuate cycles of harm from generation to generation – unless and until we have the courage to face it all and heal. When I say collective trauma, I am thinking of the immigration of my and your ancestors, the previous pandemic, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the most recent pandemic, and so much more. Few families have fully faced and fully healed the heartache. Most of us minimize it, pull ourselves together, and carry on – which totally made sense during the traumatic events themselves – but over time has corroded our capacity for healthy intimacy and relationships. One of many sad results is that most of us did not receive all that we truly needed from our mothers.

God sends Jesus as his own beloved Son to plunge into every betrayal, every assault, every loss, every moment of heartache – and to transform it all. We are no longer alone or powerless in our agony – he suffers with and for us.

So does our mother Mary! God chose her to be the mother of his own Son. He is true flesh of her flesh, born of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit. God also chose her to be our heavenly mother, as Jesus revealed to us on the Cross: “Behold Your Mother!”

How can she possibly be a mother to each and every beloved disciple? Only if she participates fully in the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension – just as she participated fully in his Cross and burial. When Jesus is raised from the dead and exalted in heavenly glory, he opens up a new dimension of human existence. His body is one and the same as the body placed lovingly in the tomb, yet gloriously transformed beyond our current comprehension. The resurrection accounts make it clear that our current limits of time and place cannot contain him. He can be fully present many places at once – not just as God, but in his human flesh.

The Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven may seem to many to be abstract or unbiblical or irrelevant. But it makes so much sense if you look at it through the lens of Jesus giving us the heavenly mother that he knew each and all of us would need! He knows the relentless assaults of evil. He knows that many mothers and many children in every generation will be vulnerable to attack. He promises not to leave us orphans.

Sharing already in Jesus’ Ascension glory, our Blessed Mother is able to provide the tender nurturing, the fierce protection, and the motherly mentoring that we may have missed out on. We cannot give what we have not received!

My heart has been warmed at how many of my Protestant friends are curious about devotion to Mary. They and I recognize that the polemics of the past (on all sides) resulted in much misunderstanding, distortion, or loss. Our American culture, with its Puritanical roots, has been particularly suspicious of devotion to Mary – unlike most other times and places in the history of Christianity. From at least as long ago as the early art in the Roman catacombs, Mary’s motherhood has captivated the imagination and creative expression of Christian disciples in every age. She is always the mother that we need, because our good Father knows of our need and always provides.

I have a few writing projects that I’ve chipped away at in recent years. Five years ago, I wrote a book on the Beatitudes which I will eventually rework and publish. While on sabbatical, I wrote a book about devotion to Mary for those who really need it. The idea came originally from a mentor who was a Protestant minister and therapist. I wasn’t ready to write it for a long time, but it is nearing completion now. I look forward to sharing some stories of how Mary has been the heavenly mother I have needed, and hope that many of you will find her to be exactly the mother that you need.

Behold Your Mother!

As Jesus died on the Cross, he uttered his final words. In any great story, the last words of the hero are loaded with significance. The dying and rising of Jesus is the greatest story ever told.

On the Cross, Jesus speaks to his mother Mary and to his beloved disciple (John 19:25-29). He tells her, “Behold your son!” He tells him, “Behold your mother!”

Why does Jesus make a point of introducing this relationship? Why does John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, make a point of recording it for all posterity to read?

Jesus is not a procrastinator who suddenly realizes he has not made arrangements for his mother. He is not worried about who will take care of her. He is inviting you and me into a relationship with his mother. He is introducing her as a mother that we all need!

Each one of us is a beloved disciple of Jesus. Each one of us is invited into the new and eternal covenant, sealed with his blood on the Cross. And each one of us needs a heavenly mother.

At the Last Supper, two chapters earlier (John 17), Jesus prays his priestly prayer to his Father. He delights in the intimate relationship he has with his Father. He prays for the disciples he has chosen. He also prays for you and me –for those who one day will believe and become his beloved disciples (John 17:20). He desires and prays that all that is his will be ours. That includes his intimate relationship with his Father. It also includes having his mother as our mother.

This weekend we celebrate another Mother’s Day. As we show honor and delight to our earthly mothers, or give thanks in their memory, we can also ponder Jesus’ invitation from the Cross. He offers us Mary as an icon of motherhood, but also as a real human being (now sharing in his glory in heaven) who is capable of being intimately present as a heavenly mother to each and all of us in the ways we most need.

As children, we all needed tender nurturing, fierce protection, and wise guidance. These needs are hardwired into us in the biological bond between mother and child.

Those needs may shift in adulthood, but they do not go away. In fact, for the last couple of centuries, it is mothers themselves who have been most deprived of those needs! The very genesis of the Mother’s Day holiday is a feeble acknowledgement that we live in a culture that devalues and degrades women while expecting the impossible of them.

Most mothers that I know feel like they are failing most of the time. They continue to struggle with their own ache for nurture, protection, and mentoring, and are somehow supposed to provide those things to each child – AND be a strong and capable worker, AND have the right body shape and allure, AND engage in prayer and self-care, AND…   You get the point. Holding a commercialized holiday in mid-May does not dispense us from the duty of conducting a thorough inspection of the toxic waters we expect mothers to swim in.

Some think it has always been so. I do not agree. Yes, throughout history, women are subject to exploitation by men seeking privilege and power. But it shows up differently in different times and places. What many consider to be “traditional” gender roles are much more modern than they realize! The burden placed upon women in the West in the modern industrial era is uniquely ugly.

If you study the Saints of the Middle Ages, you will find many tender-hearted men and many fierce women. Literacy was not widespread anywhere prior to the printing press, but there were many literate women who became strong leaders. One of the unintended side effects of the Protestant splintering was the abolition of religious life. No more alternative paths for women. Be a wife and mother.

A second major shift happened with the Industrial Revolution. The division into specialized labor led to massive migration, pulled extended families apart, and pushed men who used to work at home or close to home into factories. The nuclear family replaced extended families as the norm, and women were left alone at home – except at wartime, when they were also supposed to provide the needed labor in the workforce. In all these shifts, women were largely abandoned in their God-given task of mothering – without tribe or village supporting them. It is impossible to mother alone! That conviction seems to be what fueled Anna Marie Jarvis in the original observance of this holiday.

Both the culture and our churches tend to perpetuate false and impossible expectations on women. The “perfect family” idealized over the decades in ads or TV shows or church culture does not actually exist! Some glamorize the “good old days” of the mid-20th Century – ignoring the ugly realities of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and objectification. Meanwhile, the ideal woman is supposed to check an impossible list of boxes regarding appearance and performance, while still finding a way to nurture, protect, and guide her kids.

How can mothers give what they have not themselves received? And how do our institutions and structures back up mothers to ensure they can thrive during the critical years of mothering? For multiple generations now, motherhood has been in survival mode. That cycle means that even the best of mothering experiences will leave the children aching for more when they enter adulthood.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2779) warns us that our notions of fatherhood and motherhood are often wordly, distorted, and toxic. They need to be purified by looking to how Jesus has revealed God’s Fatherhood (and Mary’s motherhood) to us. We have much to reflect on!

In the meantime, each of us needs Mary’s mothering. Each of us has an ongoing ache for the tender nurture and fierce protection that she can provide. Each of us can turn to her as the wisest of mothers.

To be continued…

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