“And a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” -- Luke 2:35
I have a tradition of watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ every year, usually on Good Friday. However, this year I decided to watch it on Ash Wednesday to prepare me for Lent. Every time I watch it, something new stands out to me.
This year, I noticed with particular clarity how Mary follows Jesus throughout every step of His Passion and, more specifically, the effect it has on Our Lord. Whether it be His arrest, scourging, or His walk towards Calvary, every time He locked eyes with Mary, His energy was replenished and His courage renewed.
Granted, this is from a film, but it isn’t that difficult to imagine. The love that Christ had for His mother is beyond anything we can conceptualize. I’ve always found this—and her—to be somewhat mysterious and always a little bit beyond my reach of understanding. But I think reflecting on her title of “Our Lady of Sorrows” can encourage us to suffer well, especially during this Lenten season.
Mary, perfectly united with the will of her Son, was always completely open to His grace and His love. Along with this perfect unity, however, came the most intense and acute suffering ever suffered after Christ Himself. It is said by many saints, including St. Ephrem, St. Ambrose, St. Bridget of Sweden, and St. Alphonsus Liguori, that Mary suffered an interior, emotional crucifixion during the Passion of her son. Additionally, due to her sinless nature, the intensity of her suffering during Christ’s Passion was beyond anything we can imagine. St. Bernardine of Siena once said, “the grief of Mary was so great that, were it divided amongst all men, it would suffice to cause their immediate death.”
This suffering of Our Lady of Sorrows, so beautifully depicted in the film, is ironically comforting. Mary is the ultimate example of not only how to suffer, but also how it can glorify God if fully embraced. She shows us that even through our suffering we can fulfill the will of God. One can argue that much of her life—beginning with the prophecy of Simeon and continuing through the laying of Christ in the tomb—was lived in some degree of suffering, especially knowing what would befall her Son. But because she was completely devoted to the fulfillment of the will of God, her suffering was redeemed in and through the glory of the resurrection of Christ.
The film depiction of Christ looking to His mother is also something we can learn from this Lent. Mary can be a source of strength and encouragement as we continue to do works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving throughout these forty days. Mary suffered quietly and faithfully. She stood with her Son at the cross until the end, knowing in faith that his Passion and death would fulfill God’s plan and bring salvation to mankind.
What can we take from this? Our Lady of Sorrows shows us that suffering well--that is, directed in union with God’s will-- can glorify Him and help us along the path to our salvation. This Lent, as I meditate on her walk with Christ toward Calvary, I am refreshed in the knowledge that our suffering doesn’t need to have a bitter end. If unified with Christ it can, and will, be redeemed in and through Him in eternal life.
How can we make our walk through the desert and toward Calvary this Lent look more like Mary’s?
We often hear that the saints must have been uncomfortable to be around. Their tendency to get straight to the point, to stop in the middle of a conversation to pray, to ask pointed, personal questions, to inquire about your relationship with God, and to be sincere about it all, might cause most people to be uncomfortable. Around these people who are striving to live authentic lives, you might find yourself itching to break eye contact, and to maybe talk about something a little lighter like the new TV show you’re watching or how it is supposed to be sunny all weekend.
Though we may not all have encountered saints, many of us can point to people striving to live authentic lives. These people are often unrelenting. Uninterested in frivolities, they are interested in your soul. They want to get to the real you - the you that God made. The you without all the defenses, insecurities, wounds, and fears. But if they find those things, authentic people are also gentle in dealing with them.
This is why a saint or an authentic person might make us uncomfortable. Truly authentic Christians allow the light of Christ to shine through them. And Christ is in the business of loving people. So when you are around these people, you are facing Christ through them and, all of a sudden, your real self—the one you have been avoiding and hiding—comes to the forefront. And there is a reckoning.
This is what it felt like for me when I watched the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is based on the true story of the journalist Tom Junod (known as Lloyd Vogel in the movie). Lloyd, who is portrayed as a cynical and unkind workaholic, is assigned to profile Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s Mr. Rogers for the magazine Esquire. The relationship that unfolds between them is a beautiful example of what happens when you let an authentic person into your life. I think all of us have at least one of these people in our lives; and if we don’t, we routinely search for, or try to become one.
Throughout the movie, Lloyd, who comes from a broken family, struggles in his job of interviewing Mr. Rogers. Due to his cynical nature and a very strained relationship with his own father, he assumes that Mr. Rogers’s on-screen personality is just an act. He spends most of the movie resisting Mr. Rogers’s probing questions and his father’s attempts at reconciliation. Many of the scenes portray an awkward dialogue, with Lloyd becoming frustrated at Mr. Rogers for asking him so many questions!
The story continues and the climactic scene shows Lloyd and Mr. Rogers in a restaurant, where he asks Lloyd to spend one minute “thinking about all of the people who have loved you into being.” Here, for a full minute, the camera pans to Mr. Rogers’ face, where he’s looking straight at you. For 60 full seconds you feel completely seen and known.
After this moment, Lloyd lets down his guard and lets Mr. Rogers into his family brokenness. He comes to grips with himself, his past, and how all of that will affect his future. What happens is completely transformative. Once he forgives his father, he then accepts his identity as a father himself, and becomes more available to his wife and more supportive to his sister. The film quite beautifully shows that forgiveness has a ripple effect—once you forgive the cause of your largest wound, you experience healing, the people around you are unified, and everyone is able to love others better and more authentically.
Lloyd was able to do this after he came to understand what Mr. Rogers was doing all along: searching for and loving people for who they really are, and engaging with that person, no matter how many walls they put up. Being seen and loved in this way then enables you to forgive quickly, heal faster, and love more. By following the example of Mr. Rogers, we can create families and neighborhoods that are more unified.
Mr. Rogers, a beloved figure in American culture, understood what it meant to see, know, and love people at their very core, just as Christ and the saints did. People felt understood by Mr. Rogers and loved him in return. At the beginning of the movie, Lloyd felt uncomfortable with Mr. Rogers’ piercing gaze, personal questions, and spontaneous prayer; but as a result of Lloyd’s friendship with Mr. Rogers, Lloyd and his entire family came to experience healing and joy. In these ways, Mr. Rogers imitated Christ, who accompanied men and women throughout his ministry and encountered them in the midst of their brokenness and sin. Christ healed others by stepping into their brokenness with a love that inspired them to change and lead lives of holiness themselves.
As we enter into the New Year, what changes can we make to better love our neighbor? How can we follow Christ and the example of Mr. Rogers and see, know, and love people in the midst of their brokenness?
“When I saw the kindness of Jesus, I began to beg His blessing. Immediately Jesus said, For your sake I bless the entire country. And He made a big sign of the cross over our country. Seeing the goodness of God, a great joy filled my soul.” - The Diary of St. Faustina, entry 39
October 5th is the feast day of one of Poland’s great saints: St. Maria Faustina Kowalska. Along with many others, I proudly claim that St. Faustina became my favorite saint after I was introduced to her Diary. Little did I know that this spiritual masterpiece would lead me to fall in love not only with her and the Divine Mercy message, but also with the culture, language, history, and Catholicity of Poland.
Since opening Faustina’s Diary for the first time in 2015, I have traveled to Poland twice and learned about other great Polish Catholics such as Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, Blessed Michal Sopocko, and Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. I’ve gone deeper into the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II and learned about his own devotion to St. Jadwiga, read about the Polish Solidarity Movement and its leader, Lech Walesa, and much more.
I’ve often felt that Poland has its own brand of “Catholic.” There’s the Eastern Rite Catholics, Latin Catholics, and then the Polish Catholics. In the 20th century alone, countless Polish saints have risen from the ashes of two world wars to shine lights of hope, mercy, justice, and love into the world. From its mystics and martyrs to its heroic and internationally beloved pontiff John Paul II, Poland is steeped in Catholicism. You can almost taste it in the air when you hop off the plane at John Paul II Kraków-Balice International Airport or walk the grounds of the Divine Mercy Shrine in Łagiewniki. I strongly hope that future generations treasure Poland’s rich history and the giants that paved the way for them to explore the faith in an incredibly deep and profound way, given the intense historic time periods through which their faith blossomed.
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend’s young Polish au pair that made me wonder if this generation does not recognize the gems earned for them by their spiritual ancestors. As I tend to do when meeting anyone from Poland, I rattled off to this young woman about all of my favorite Polish places, saints, and historical moments. She found my love for Poland surprising, and talked about how many young Poles are trying to come to the United States.
This puzzled me. Understandably, a country’s own citizens are its biggest critics for a variety of legitimate reasons. But as fellow Catholics, I was hoping for a sense of pride, a recognition of the depth of their history and faith. Maybe, like our country and so many others, appreciation for heritage fades with each passing generation. Indeed, today’s Poles are further removed from the wounds of war and communism than their ancestors, and thus it becomes easy to forget what was fought and won before them.
As a result of my time spent in Poland and my subsequent research, I’ve come to admire that it is a place where national culture, identity, and faith was suppressed—unsuccessfully—over and over for centuries. It is a place whose heritage was preserved with blood, zeal, and grit. A place where Catholicism wasn’t freely available but had to be searched for underground and practiced in secret. Poland had to earn where it is today, and past generations understood the price of defending this heritage. Today, when you walk into a church in Poland, you will see a handful of priests hearing confessions before Mass. You will hear beautiful hymns sung—not with heads down buried in the missals, but eyes forward, sung by heart, and with pride. You will hear piercing silence during the consecration of the Sacred Host. You will find standing room only during Mass. You will not be able to find an open store or restaurant two days leading up to Easter. As an American living in a largely secular society, these observations were refreshing to me.
Ultimately, Poland’s historical example of turning suffering into mercy, justice, and love has much to teach us not only about the value of a life well lived, but about the value of misfortune well-suffered. From the surrender of St. Faustina, an uneducated peasant turned mystic-nun who penned one of our faith’s greatest spiritual works, to the small, frail priest and martyr Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko boldly, bravely, and publicly proclaiming the truth of Christ directly in the face of communist rule, to the quarry worker and poet-turned Pontiff St. John Paul II, and everyone in between, the saints of Poland show us how we can “shine truth through misfortune,” as Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote. Every one of the saints mentioned here overcame significant suffering, but through their surrender to Christ, became who they were meant to be, and “set the world on fire.” (St. Catherine of Siena).
May you have a happy Feast Day! And if you haven’t, I invite you to open up St. Faustina’s Diary. You’ll be glad you did!
Recovering OriginsRead Now
Recently, I went on a powerful retreat put on by the Diocese of Arlington called “Recovering Origins: A Unique Healing Program for Adult Children of Divorce.”
While we are all indeed wounded, this retreat focuses on themes relevant specifically to adult children of divorce and attempts to isolate and work through the particular wounds associated with those who have divorced parents. Feeling ignored for many years due to societal pressures and shifting cultural norms, the group on this retreat seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief: “we are finally being seen.”
It would indeed take many pages to delve into the issues that we as adult children of divorce carry, and there has recently been quite a bit of literature on the subject. While this is not the forum to add to this literature, I will say that this retreat, and those participating, left an incredible impression on me.
This group of people were quite possibly the most sensitive, respectful, empathetic, faithful, and encouraging group of people I have ever encountered. In all of our discussions about the wounds we carry, there was an air of kindness, understanding, and respect. Had I met these people outside of this retreat, I never would have guessed the depths of the wounds they carry.
Through our discussions, one major thing I realized that was common among the group was that they did not recognize in themselves the profound goodness that I saw in them. Through the mess of their parents’ divorces, I sensed a loss of knowledge of their own inherent goodness.
What is important about the word inherent? It is important in that it calls on us to remember our divine filiation; that we are first and foremost adopted children of God and we receive our goodness, identity, and worth through this fact alone. God created us in His goodness, not because He needed us, but because He wanted us. This is what is inherent in each of us— this divine filiation, this belonging to the Creator of all creation. This, indeed, is our core identity—but it often gets lost in a child when their parents go through a divorce. This retreat, I believe, helped us to recover this important fact.
Don’t we all, in some way or another, feel this loss of our identity, of our inherent goodness? I suspect the answer is yes.
If so, how do we move forward?
First, I believe we start by recalling—daily if we have to—that our core identity, goodness, and worth is rooted in Jesus Christ through divine filiation. We can do this through spiritual practices such as quiet prayer, Gospel reading, or Adoration. Second, as I learned on the retreat, we must have mercy on ourselves for how we reacted or behaved during our most painful moments. We must not underestimate ourselves nor our feelings, but rather appropriately grieve through them by allowing the Father to walk with us as we do so. And lastly, it is important to allow the Father to gaze at us with His love, and let that love transform our wounds into strengths. In these ways, you will “recover the origin” of your identity as a son or daughter of God, and live fearless, bold, Christ-centered lives, regardless of whether you are an adult child of divorce or not.
For more information on the Recovering Origins Retreat and the Life-Giving Wounds ministry, please click here.
“I looked into my deepest wound and was dazzled by your glory.” – St. Augustine of Hippo (attributed)
My favorite Gospel passage has always been Mark 3:2-5: “And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come here.’ And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”
Why did Jesus ask this man to stretch out his hand? Didn’t He know there were people around who would be able to see what was probably this man’s greatest insecurity? Didn’t He understand that this man had been judged and ridiculed enough throughout his life? That his deformed hand—and himself—was looked upon with disgust? Why would Jesus ask him to stretch it out, being all the more visible to the crowd around him? Jesus could have easily healed his hand while it was still hidden. Why cause more pain?
Of course, Jesus was aware of the people around him who could see this man’s deformity. In this moment, however, the man with the withered hand probably felt like the only person in the room. What was happening between him and Jesus was the creation of an eternal bond, a divine exchange.
This man wanted to be healed; who wouldn’t want the Divine Healer to rid us of our imperfections? But Christ asks the man to stretch out his hand so that he could participate in his healing. So that, in essence, he would tell Christ, “Here is my wound. I want to be healed.” So that it would be the work of Creator and created, an exchange of love, a sign of trust, a unification of suffering.
Our redemption as Christians is comprised of many things, but the two I see most often are the participation with Christ in our healing by uniting our suffering to His on the Cross and the offering of our suffering for the benefit of another. In each way, we are actively engaging with the Divine Healer to find His strength through our pain and confidence in the midst of our flaws. When we invite God into our wounds, he transforms them. As St. Augustine said in the quote above, we can be dazzled by the glory we find there.
As Catholics, we often hear in regards to suffering the phrase “offer it up.” I think this can sometimes belittle what is truly going on. When we sit before God and say “here are my wounds, here is my pain, hurt, and suffering—heal me,” something supernaturally transformative occurs. We are unifying our wounds to Christ’s wounds on the Cross and, wound for wound, are transforming our suffering into an act that is redemptive. When we participate with Christ in our own healing through suffering, Christ takes that free act of love and can use it to not only heal you, but to transform you to be more like Him and help others to also be transformed.
How can actively participating in your healing transform others and lessen their suffering? Well, I think it is mostly a mystery. But allow me to unpack what I think occurs. Each amount of suffering offered up is like a quarter being placed in a jukebox. Once inserted, it enables the rest of the room to hear the music. The whole room is transformed. So too by offering your suffering to God, your fellow man can receive the sweetness of your pain and be converted by the beauty of your love freely given.
Each contribution to this divine economy enhances the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ. The heavens move, the saints and the angels engage, and the supernatural world comes in contact with the natural, bridging the gap between heaven and earth just a little more. By inviting God into our hurt, giving our suffering to Him for the sake of others, and by showing it boldly like the man with the withered hand, we can participate with our Creator in becoming whole.
This is the beauty of our faith—that our suffering is not our end, but rather the avenue by which we grow closer to Christ.
“God withholds Himself from no one who perseveres.” –St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of Prayer
Perseverance always sounds nice; you hear the word and think “yes--I can do this!” Lately, I’ve been struggling to persevere in prayer. To combat this, I’ve found my American industriousness kicking in—resulting in my desire to impose on myself a strict prayer routine akin to that of St. Teresa’s (“If I just work hard enough, I’ll be levitating like St. Teresa in no time!”) only to wonder why it all seems to fall apart after 2 days. Discouragement soon follows, and I feel like I’m back at the beginning.
I have fallen into this trap several times since I started taking my spiritual life seriously a few years ago. At the beginning, persevering in prayer and good spiritual habits can seem daunting. But the need for perseverance is a normal part of our spiritual journey. Sometimes prayer comes easily, sometimes we struggle to quiet our minds. As St. Josemaria Escriva said, “As the flames of your first enthusiasm die down, it becomes difficult to advance in the dark. —But that progress is all the more reliable for being hard. And then, when you least expect it, the darkness vanishes, and the enthusiasm and light return. Persevere! (Furrow No. 789)”
It wasn’t until I heard the same advice from my spiritual director for the 100th time, combined with many Catholic podcasts and YouTube Videos, advice from friends, and books, that it finally dawned on me: you can and should tailor your spiritual life to fit your state in life and your personality! In doing so, you will find the strength to persevere.
I made the mistake of thinking that the only way to grow in holiness was to follow the exact path of my favorite saints, only to end up frustrated as to why it wasn’t working or giving me any peace. After this struggle, I’ve learned four simple tips that have helped me develop better habits and persevere (and grow!) through a better spiritual routine.
As St. Francis de Sales also said, “Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly.” Get to know yourself, what spirituality works for you, and persevere!
For more resources to deepen your spiritual life, click here.