It is Only in our Emptiness that we find our Fullness

The Triduum

A guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier

“Have in you the attitude of Christ. Christ Jesus, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this God greatly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every other name…” [Phil 2:5-9]

“Now, full authority both in heaven and on earth has been given to me, go and share my life and power with all people.” [Matt 28:18 ff]

We are called as a new creation to share in that same authority, power, and life: to discover the power of the cross, to find in our emptiness our fullness, just as Christ did. It is the power of love. It is in only our poverty that we find our true wealth. “It is in possessing nothing that I possess all things.” —St. Francis of Assisi

We want to know from our lovers; in the hearts of those we love, “Do you have a place for me in your heart?” Why is that important to you and me? Because that is what love means…having a place for each other in our hearts, to carry each other in our hearts, to have a heart for people.

When I truly love and care for someone I make a place for them in my heart. They abide there, whether they are physically present to me or not, and I can always go to that place in my heart and find them…be with them and present to them across space and time.

It is a wonderful thing to have a heart for others. It gives me a joyful grateful heart…full of love, full of people and all creation. It gives me a heart of mercy, understanding and compassion, a heart vulnerable and willing enough to be pierced and emptied even as Christ’s heart was. So that even in and through our emptiness we find the heart and fullness of God. “Have in you the attitude of Christ.” [Phil 2:5]

Because…the great secret is that God’s heart has been placed in us, we have been given the fullness of the Spirit. [Jn 1:16] It is hidden in our own hearts, and we can only discover and release it through our own emptiness. Love only exists if you give it away. The only way we can have what each of us wants, is if we give it to each other. It is then that we discover and meet God who dwells in us and in our hearts, and who wants us to be the heart, hands, eyes and ears of God in our world, full of compassion, mercy, and love for us and for all.

I think that is what it means to have the heart of God, a heart for people, a place where people can dwell in love, where harmony and peace lead to true joy and authentic happiness. As the hymn says, “Where charity and love prevail there God is ever found.” Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them, because God is love. [1 Jn 4:16] What a wonderful thing it is to live in love, to live in God!

Yet we can only do that if our hearts are empty. We have a place in God’s heart, so the question becomes, do we have a place in our heart for God? Or are our hearts are full of other things and people in self-serving ways of self-gratification. Does greed, lust, fear, envy, fill our hearts and minds, or does the love and light of Christ impel us in selfless service and love, for the good of others not just our own.

God can only fill our heart as we empty our hearts. When we empty ourselves we find ourselves, Jesus tells us. [Matt 10:39  and 16:25]. In our emptiness we find our fullness, and in our hearts we discover God; the heart of God which is vast and infinite and has a place for me and you…room for everyone, a heart for people, a heart full of people and all creation! “In my Father’s house there are many mansions…I am going to prepare a place for you, so that where I Am you also may be!” [Jn 14:1-3]

God has given us a new heart and a new Spirit. “I will give you a new heart and a new Spirit…I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you…” [Ezekiel 36:25-27]

Six days before the Passover and the Last Supper, Jesus was with his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Mary took and emptied a jar of costly perfumed oil, washed and anointed Jesus’ feet, and dried them with her hair. Such a profoundly tender and intimate gesture must have touched Jesus very deeply. It was a symbol of Mary emptying her soul out in love for Jesus. Jesus was so touched that he used the same gesture of washing the feet of his disciples as the symbol of the emptying out of his own life in love of us, and as the symbol of service and love he was calling his disciples to live if they were to follow and learn from him. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” [Mk 10:45 and  Jn 13:1-17]

It is only in our emptiness that we find our fullness. Through death comes life! It is the Passion of the Lord; let us enter into it with all our hearts…to discover the joy of Easter!

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Born in 1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St. Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”

What are you all about?

The Feast of the Epiphany (C)

You won’t find the story of the Magi anywhere except in Matthew’s gospel. And what a colorful tale the gospel writer weaves.

The Magi, astrologers from distant lands, observed the rising of a new star, a sign of such significance it compels them to embark upon a journey to locate and pay homage to the new king whose birth the new star announced.

Thanks to imaginative stories and songs of Christian tradition (and the Fontanini figurines in our crèche), we envision three (although there is no account of the number of Magi) brocaded and crowned, educated and worldly noblemen, each perhaps from different parts of the Orient, traveling with their well-appointed, gift-laden camels, all following the same star, their paths merging on the way to their destination.

For the Magi, an event presaged by the appearance of a great star in the sky would be known by all, so upon their arrival in Jerusalem they ask, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” [Mt 2:2]

The Magi were motivated by faith to understand the meaning of the new star. They possessed the wisdom both to forge on until they stood in the presence of the infant Jesus, and to heed the warning in their dreams to take a different route home.

Today many would call the Magi “new-agers.” Followers of organized religion generally look askance at those who come with their astrology, dreams, and visions. We want them to know that we have all that we need in the Scriptures, the teachings of the Magisterium, and Canon law. We don’t want any of their weird interpretive phooey. And yet, these “new agers” were the ones Matthew tells us saw the sign and believed.

They packed their camels, left their homes, and committed themselves to paying homage to the Greatness—regardless of personal risk. They did not have access to the words of the Prophets or organized religion to assure them they were on the right track. They didn’t know how long their journey would be, or where they were going. And yet, they found what they were looking for and stood in the presence of the manifestation of God in the person of the newborn infant, Jesus.

What are you looking for? In the gospel of John, Jesus posed this question to the two disciples of John the Baptist, who were following him. They responded, “Where are you staying?” which is better translated as “What are you all about?” [John 1:38].  Moments earlier John pointed Jesus out to his disciples, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” meaning, the one who will take away the sins of the world. As seekers, the disciples of John the Baptist recognized in Jesus something so compelling, they immediately began to follow him.

Like the Magi they were drawn by the light.

Naturally, King Herod, who actually was the appointed King of the Jews, found the Magi’s question about the whereabouts of the new King of the Jews disturbing. In contrast to John the Baptist, whose deference to Jesus—like the star that pointed to the new King of the Jews—Herod sought to destroy anything that might diminish his power and influence. The King Herods of the world believe it is better to dismiss or destroy people and ideas that threaten their certitude of how the world works, and how God works. The wisdom that newcomers bring is often deemed to be dangerous because it leads people to contemplate the questions residing deep in their hearts, and to do so in a new way.

We are not very different from the Magi, though, are we? Spiritual seekers desire the same thing: an experience of God, a profound insight into the workings of God, and some level of comprehension as to how we fit into it all. What we discover along the way is our Epiphany.

The disciples who followed Jesus asked him “Where are you staying?” (“What are you all about?”). This is what we want to know. What is Jesus all about? What is God all about? What is the Holy Spirit of God all about? Why do we continue to seek and to seek and to seek? And for the Magi, what is the meaning of this star in the sky that so forcefully compels them to follow it? What is the meaning of this helpless infant born to poor parents in a stable, a child whose crib is a feeding trough? And what are we to do with this?

Consider the epiphanies that have occurred throughout your life that might have been squashed had you been closed to them.

Be opened. Come, one and all. Seek the truth. Turn away from fear and other obstructions. Don’t be an obstacle yourself. Be small. The first to recognize Jesus’ greatness were Gentiles—pagans—who traveled from the East where the light begins. In Luke’s gospel, the first to visit the newborn Jesus were shepherds, the lowest of the low. [Luke 2:15-20]. Seek not through the eyes of certitude, but through the eyes of one who observes, who listens, and who ponders—like Mary. When newcomers arrive with information that points to the truth, and which exposes love, don’t be so quick to dismiss them. Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” [Mk 9:40].

Happy Feast Day, all you Magi!

Today’s readings can be found here.

The unspeakable nearness of God

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (B)

Poor Moses never gets to enter the Promised Land. But the wishy-washy, always famished, fickle, forgetful Israelites and foreigners traveling with him do. After all that Moses did to bring these people out of Egypt—including saving their butts from divine fury on multiple occasions—he is now too old and too close to death to continue.

Moses, devoted leader that he was, took the job God called him to do with some reluctance and made no bones about letting God know it. For forty years, he endured the peoples’ appalling lack of gratitude and awareness of the magnitude of what had been done for them, expressed by their hurtful claims of being better off in Egypt.

In one memorable rant, Moses seems close to submitting his resignation. He complains to God for saddling him with this burdensome bunch. He lashes out over his feelings of inadequacy and resentment over being made “a foster father” for the stubborn brood. “Was it I who conceived all this people?” he says. “Or was it I who gave them birth, that you tell me to carry them at my bosom, like a foster father carrying an infant, to the land you have promised under oath to their fathers?” [Numbers 11:11-15]. In the same breath, Moses acknowledges God as Creator, Father, and Promise Keeper. Moses’ relationship with God was like this, he could speak his mind plainly because his awareness of God included trust in God’s Infinite love and fidelity. He knew God would not reject or abandon him.

Much later, on the eve of the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan, Moses gives a lengthy commencement speech in which he reminds the people that God’s love and faithfulness were present in all that they had experienced together—the exodus, the Sinai covenant, and the wilderness wanderings.

He presents a series of rhetorical questions to which there is only one answer. No, never before has anything this great happened, never have a people experienced the action of God on their behalf in such a way. Moses entreats the people to fix God in their hearts and to keep God’s statutes and commandments [Deut 4:32-34, 39-40]. Moses posed the rhetorical questions to the Israelites as if to say “Do you finally realize what this means?

Sometimes out of the blue, a rush of gratitude wells up in me for the simple gift of being, for life’s infinite possibilities, for beauty, for the sweetness of human tenderness, for variety and abundance, and for the self-awareness that permits me to recognize God’s exquisite nearness in all of these things. This is not unusual. I am putting into words the experience of countless others throughout time, inadequate as those words might be.

The writers of Sacred Scripture did their best, but the sense of the divine evades containment. Further, our minds rarely allow us to linger in that space long enough to try. And so, like the Israelites we cross the Jordan knowing there never will be a frame great enough to encompass this experience of God.

What is God’s nearness like? How does it feel, what colors, shapes, textures and images arise? To what relationships can it be compared?

Clear your mind of traditional artistic interpretation, distance yourself from Renaissance portraiture. Our God is not an old man in the sky. No image is adequate. The practice is like a parable in which we identify something that is “like” what we seek to understand, but at the same time that something is also not like it at all.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul names God Abba, a term of endearment meaning Daddy. As children of God we enjoy a closeness that surpasses anything previously imagined [Romans 8:14-17]. Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, found in the final verse of Matthew’s gospel, come with the comforting promise of life-long companionship: “And, behold, I am with you, always, until the end of the age” [Matthew 28:16-20].

Images of Divine Source, Creator, Promise Keeper, Abba, Friend are incomplete, but each nudges us closer to the truth. Our God is a God of incomprehensible proximity. When we take this awareness into the world, we can begin to see it expressed in various ways all around us. Suddenly we “see.”

Our awareness of God cannot be limited to sunny days and good times. Sometimes, when tragedy strikes, we feel abandoned. We cry out, “Where are you?” Others say, “How does your all-powerful, all-loving God permit this unbearable suffering?” Where the Hell is God?

The question of God and suffering is, to my mind, one of the primary causes of disbelief, and a topic for future discussion. But for now, I’d like to take a tentative step into this complicated and dangerous territory of faith to say: Our God is not a remote God. I don’t buy into the finite theology that says God “allows” bad things to happen because we are fragile beings and have free will to choose good over evil. It is true, we are fragile and we do have free will. But what kind of god would step back and actively allow the unspeakably profound human-driven evils and injustices currently happening in our world?

Assertions of God’s victorious nature and the promise of eternal rewards dismiss the ongoing reality that suffering and evil deeds, many fueled by a warped definition of God’s will, continues.

We cannot simply move from the end of one disaster or atrocity to the next. Victims cannot be expected to forget their history, or bear them alone. I recently overheard someone say of black Americans, “They should move on. Get over the slavery thing!” I have heard others say they avoid Holocaust museums because they don’t want to get depressed. Crimes against humanity must never be dis-remembered. To forget the suffering of the past is to forget the Cross. Shall we say “Oh, Jesus is resurrected, Alleluia”, and forget the crucifixion?

Where is God in all this? God is intimately, incomprehensibly present in our suffering and is the motivator of those who take up the cross to work for justice with a creative, abundant and life-giving response.

God is here, in the midst of it, unfathomably close. Do we realize what this means?

Today’s readings can be found here.

Nothing but the Best

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Investments can be tricky. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a crystal ball? Then we would know that our choices would be sound and we’d never lose a penny. Better yet, we’d have a windfall every quarter. But we don’t. And unless time is on our side or we have a fallback plan, we generally aren’t willing to take chances with our money or with anyone else’s. Besides, taking risks is, well, risky.

But Jesus has a different perspective. When Jesus really wants to make a point he tells a parable. Parables are stories that seem to be heading toward a predictable conclusion but then suddenly the rug is pulled out from under the listener. There’s always a surprise ending, and it is often one that takes time to understand, like today’s from Matthew 25:14-30.

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one–to each according to his ability. Then he went away.”

You know the story. The first two servants went out and doubled their investment. They jumped right in. They weren’t afraid, they did not circle their wagons or hide whatever it was under a mattress for safekeeping. They used it in the way it was intended and it increased.

The third servant lacked trust. He did not trust his own ability to make a good choice, he did not trust what the talent might become, and he did not trust the one who gave it to him. The only faith he had was in the status quo. So he kept it to himself. So sad. Choosing to hide what has been entrusted to us because we are afraid does a both disservice to the object and to ourselves. But it mostly offends the one who provided us with the opportunity.

The metaphor of talent as used in the parable can be applied to any number of things: money, skills, intellect, etc. but for the purposes of understanding what it means to be an evangelizing people, it might be helpful to think of Jesus as the talent. By virtue of our baptism we are charged with sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and in action. We are called to invest ourselves in this task to the best of our ability and without fear. This is the story of Christianity and how it grew from a dozen or so believers to what it is today. So share it, increase it, enhance it, supplement it, prove it. Give nothing less than your best for God.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

What’s in a greeting?

One of the most frequent comments I hear from new members of the parish where I work is how truly welcome they feel. They appreciate the cards, calls and welcome messages from the staff, and enjoy the hospitality of welcome dinners.

Each time the assembly draws together for liturgy or another parish activity that sense of belonging is rekindled. We use our words, our smile, and our friendliness, but consider Jesus’ words: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” [MT 18:20].

Christians who live with an awareness of Jesus’ presence naturally become more open to God’s movement in their lives. And at this point, Christian hospitality takes on greater significance.

Might our extension of hospitality throughout our day, at home, at work, and in play emerge from the divine image that dwells in us and in which we were created? “It is so good to see you”  We know God works through us, so is it such a stretch to think that God also speaks through us? “I am so glad we are in this place together.” When we greet a stranger, we do so not knowing who they are, and yet by acknowledging them, we say “I am here.”

And in seeking the face of Christ in each other, the one who meets our eyes says “I know you.”

Have you ever considered the impact your greeting might have on another, or how their greeting might affect you? How do you welcome guests and newcomers to our faith community? Let’s explore this together, please share your impressions and suggestions.

O Lord, Open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise.

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

The first time I learned that evangelizing was part and parcel of being a baptized Catholic my initial reaction was “Nope. Not me.”  I had one just reason to reject this teaching and it emerged from an experience I had of being confronted by an street evangelist who dogged me for two blocks demanding I tell him I was “saved.” This experience was repeated years later at a party attended by people of all faith traditions, including a few non-believers. It was a happy, social occasion that rapidly went down the tubes when one of the guests decided to share the tale of his Christian conversion, a story which included pressuring anyone within earshot to defend their own faith choices. Just like the guests at that party making a mad dash to the exit, I found myself looking for a way to distance myself from anything that even remotely resembled being an evangelist. And who could blame me?

Fast forward many (many) years. Unfortunate examples aside, I now embrace my role as an evangelizer and so should you. Because in the Catholic Church we are evangelizers, not evangelists. That job is taken. The Christian tradition already has four evangelists who gave us the Gospels. And it is on the stories and teachings of Jesus contained in those Gospels that we base our lives. In other words, we evangelize through our example of living the faith.

But what about public evangelization? True, there are settings where giving witness to our beliefs and spreading the Good News in a specific way is required. In his recent exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel) Pope Francis calls this “informal and unexpected preaching,” which means “being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others … in any place, on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey.” The key for us is remembering that evangelization is never an opportunity to “market” Catholicism. Rather, it is a time to truly listen, and if appropriate, to humbly share the message of God’s friendship.  These are times when a spiritual wisdom, such as what God granted to Solomon, is needed. Make this request for spiritual wisdom part of your daily prayer, and don’t be afraid.  Pope Francis assures us with the words of Jesus that we should not lose courage; what we say will be suggested to us by the Holy Spirit [MT 10:16-23].

Today’s readings can be found here. 

The good seed. The good soil.

15th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

“The simple truth is that it all starts with the soil” says Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc., an urban farm and community food center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (www.growingpower.org). As one of the preeminent thinkers of our time on urban agriculture, vertical farming, and food policy, Allen’s organization actually produces the soil it uses. He continues, “without good soil, crops don’t get enough of the nutrients they need to survive and when plants are stressed, they are more prone to disease and pest problems.”

Parables are stories in which the meaning of one thing is explained with something else.  For Jesus, that something else would be an object familiar to certain members of his audience, but not to all: soil, seeds, yeast, pearls, treasure, fishing nets, and so on. The parable of the sower (MT 13:1-23) if read literally reveals both the plight of the farmer and its solution. Obviously, seed crops and yields were not Jesus’ focus, but to continue the soil metaphor it is worth noting that all seeds have within them the capacity for growth, but unless the soil is receptive, stress, disease and pests threaten to destroy what has been sown. The 4th century Theologian, Gregory Nyssa had a less nuanced explanation, “sin is the failure to grow.”

Presuming we all have ears and want to hear, there’s no better time than right now, in the height of the growing season to consider how we are at different times both the seed and the soil. The liturgical calendar also has returned us to ordinary time, which is represented by the color of nature, green. It is in ordinary time that we want the seeds of our faith to germinate. It is during this time that we cultivate the soil of our community garden.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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