“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?
“Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask him; for he desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to him in prayer” -Evagrius Ponticus
There are often times in our lives when God doesn’t seem to be answering our prayers. We pray repeatedly for certain people or intentions, sometimes for days, months—and even years—but our prayers seem to go unanswered. When nothing seems to be happening, it is easy to feel weary and disheartened.
For the past several years, my husband and I have been praying for a specific situation that has only gotten more frustrating and bleak. At Mass during the first week of the Lenten season, I heard the words of Jesus to his disciples, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (emphasis added).
After praying with this reading throughout the week, I heard the following words in my heart: “keep knocking.”
I took this as a reminder to persevere in prayer. Whether or not we think God has answered our prayers does not change the fact of who he is: a good Father who knows what we need. Our intention to pray should not spring solely from the fact that we need something, but from our desire to strengthen our relationship with God and to be transformed and conformed to his will in the process.
The Catechism summarizes it well when it says, “prayer is a battle” (2725). I’ve found this to be true on multiple fronts.
First, it’s a battle to even set apart time to pray each day. It often seems that I don’t have time or that there are so many more important things to do. This year for Lent, I’ve decided to set apart the first 10-15 minutes of my children’s naptime for quiet prayer. This puts to practice a fact I already know intellectually: prayer gives my days purpose and meaning. Another opponent we fight in the battle of prayer is distraction. I often find that as soon as I commit to prayer time, my mind wanders or suddenly races with things to do. It’s normal to experience distraction in prayer. When this happens, simply bring yourself back to the present and don’t give the distraction too much attention. Other times, my prayer life seems dry and dull. It feels hard to pray and I don’t even have words to say. Additionally, we can experience something that might be the hardest of all: seeming silence in response to our prayers.
The Catechism extrapolates, “Our battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness…disappointment over not being heard according to our own will…To overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance” (2728).
Anything of merit is proven in times of hardship: our commitment to marriage, our love for our family, our life of faith, our dedication to a cause or ideal. We are unable to excel in an endeavor if we’ve never practiced. That is why my husband jokes that he will never pray for patience, because he doesn’t want to be presented with opportunities that will invite him to grow in that particular virtue. The Catechism speaks on this as well, “Filial trust is tested - it proves itself - in tribulation” (2734).
Occasionally, we might not receive an answer to prayer immediately because the repeated action of prayer will make us grow in some way: in charity, in perseverance, in faith. The Catechism goes on to ask, “Are we asking God for ‘what is good for us?’ Our Father knows what we need before we ask him, but he awaits our petition because the dignity of his children lies in their freedom. We must pray, then, with his Spirit of freedom, to be able truly to know what he wants.” (2736)
Perhaps we are praying for something that is not good for us. Or, even more likely, for something that is not best for us. Our prayers may be pure, well-intentioned, and holy, but may only partially supply what we, or the people we’re praying for, need. We often can only see part of the whole picture; our ways are not God’s ways.
An example of this can be found in the story of St. Monica, who prayed for her son, Augustine, for 17 years before he was baptized and entered into the Catholic Church. In the midst of her prayers for the conversion of her son, Augustine snuck out of her care and escaped to follow his worldly pursuits in Rome. At the time, this was devastating to Monica, who only saw his continued descent into a life of sin. But it was in Rome that St. Augustine met St. Ambrose—the spirit-filled bishop who was a major catalyst in Augustine’s conversion.
This example shows a good prayer that was seemingly unanswered. God did not seem to be “listening” to Monica’s pleas for her son to stay with her. Instead, he used a hopeless situation to bring about an even more powerful encounter that led to Augustine’s salvation.
God never fails to hear our prayers. Said again, our prayers are always heard. By praying for something repeatedly, we grow in our charity for others, in our perseverance, and in our faith. St. Augustine himself reminds us of this, “God wills that our desire should be exercised in prayer, that we may be able to receive what he is prepared to give.” The more difficult prayer is not to pray for what we want or think we want, but to pray for God’s will to be done, as Jesus teaches us in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The goal of prayer is a deepened relationship with and the love of God. We need prayer because we need God. Prayer is meant to change and transform us to be more like Christ, who lived in complete unity with the will of His Father. As the Catechism reminds us, “Against our dullness and laziness, the battle of prayer is that of humble, trusting, and persevering love” (2742).
As we continue to grow in our understanding and practice of prayer this Lent, I invite you to persevere in the “battle” in order to say with Christ, “not as I will, but as you will.”
For more resources on Prayer, please click here.
One of the topics the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment sought to address was the role of mentorship in the development of the spiritual life. In a time when so many of us seek to know more about the faith and struggle to find faithful examples in the world, the topic of mentorship is extraordinarily important in nourishing young Christians in the faith. The Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod, published in March, brings up two major points that address the roles a mentor has today. The first, and most talked about, is that of accompaniment. The other is education, which is especially important in a time when we live in an increasingly secular culture. These two facets of mentorship are different and cannot always be fulfilled by one person. For this reason, the contribution of the community of faith is incredibly important.
In my life, faith education came from many sources, but none was more important than my Confirmation teacher who was also my youth basketball coach and the father of one of my best friends. Throughout my life, my mentor helped me to learn and grow more in my faith by inviting me to events and men’s conferences. In my Confirmation classes, he showed the beauty of the Faith and helped me understand the truth that flows from the Church’s teachings. Like many young people, I didn’t fully take advantage of a great mentor when I had the chance. But his presence in my life continues today, and his example is a continual witness of what it means to be a faithful Christian.
When we look at the life of a saint, we often see the impact other peers, mentors, or saints had in their life. St. Augustine, for example, had two great saintly mentors: St. Monica (his mother) and St. Ambrose. St. Monica, who prayed tirelessly for the conversion of her son, showed the young Augustine an example of the Christian faith in a lived way. Augustine only fully appreciated this until after his conversion. St. Ambrose provided Augustine—who was struggling with his dualist view of the universe—with the truths found in the Christian faith, which strengthened Augustine and propelled him to ultimately become a Doctor of the Church.
In my life, my friends and peers have been incredible examples of accompaniment. An intimate and baseline knowledge about me makes it so much easier for a friend or peer to understand where I am in life and how to proceed. Peer mentorship, in my experience, is only possible because of the tireless effort that my parents, teachers, ministers etc. have put into nurturing me in understanding and action in the Faith. Without those people I wouldn’t have had the faithful and honest advice that is always so valuable to making me a better Catholic. Just as Jesus sent out his Apostles two by two, we share in the Apostles’ mission to evangelize the world and we must rely on those who share our mission for their support in life.
Saints are often friends with other saints. Two men who followed in the footsteps of the Apostles in fraternity and holiness were St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier. In the early days of the Jesuit Order, these saints relied on one another for the strength to persevere in promoting the mission of the Society of Jesus. Roommates at the University of Paris, their friendship was centered around Jesus and informed by their studies in Theology. The union of intimate friendship and a well-formed Christian mind creates incredible fruits, which are seen clearly in the success of the Jesuit Order in the missionary work in Europe and around the world.
A revitalized sense of mentorship among Christians is so necessary in a time when the world directs us away from God and into itself. The responsibility for educating and accompanying young people falls on old and young alike. So many young people search for true meaning. It is our responsibility as Christians to take their hand and walk them closer to faith by showing them the truth in the Church’s teachings.
The 2018 Synod is so important because it refocuses on the universal call to holiness. We are called to invite young people into the fullness of the Faith through mentorship, educating them in the fullness of her truth and accompanying them through their struggles—always striving to bring each other closer to Christ along the way.
Questions for Reflection: Do you have any examples of mentorship in your own life? How can you accompany and educate those around you in the example of Christ?
For more resources on the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, please click here.
When you hear the name St. Augustine, what do you think of? Probably something about the Confessions, arguably his most famous work. Or perhaps you remember that he is one of the first doctors of the Church. But do you know about his spiritual journey from youthful hedonism to prominent theologian?
St. Augustine was born in the mid 300s in North Africa to a Christian mother and a pagan father. Initially educated in rhetoric, as a teenager, Augustine embraced a life of comfortable vices, which he outlines in his autobiographical and philosophical work the Confessions. Eventually, his intellectual pursuits lead him to Europe, into and out of Manicheism (a dualist religion based on pure reason), and back toward the religion of his childhood. Through the evangelizing work of St. Ambrose, Augustine was finally baptized into the Christian faith in his early 30s. He went on to become one of the early Church’s most important philosophers.
For cradle Catholics like me, our faith journeys are nowhere near as dramatic as St. Augustine’s conversion from corrupt youth to doctor of the Church. Nevertheless, there are always opportunities for daily conversion! The teenage Augustine would pray, “Give me chastity and continency, only not yet.” How often do we catch ourselves praying in a similar vein? “Give me temperance—but not until I’ve eaten three packages of Oreos”; “Give me a stronger desire for prayer—but maybe not until next week, after I’m done binge-watching this TV show.” Like Augustine, we often find ourselves wrestling with our human weaknesses and our desire to do things on our own timeline rather than God’s.
But even as we struggle to overcome our personal vices, God draws us closer to Himself, taking our fractured pasts to create a beautiful whole. St. Augustine’s theological and philosophical treatises would perhaps have not been so fervent or persuasive had he not previously so fully embraced bad philosophy before his conversion. His secular education and his training in rhetoric and Platonic philosophy prepared him for his work defending true Christian theology and refining its philosophy—so much so that he is recognized as one of the original doctors of the Church. Long before Augustine had come to fully accept the Christian faith, God was already preparing him for his future role as bishop and philosopher. Likewise, our past does not restrict our future. Choices that ended up leading us seemingly nowhere, periods of doubt or conflict—God can take these moments of human weakness and use them to bring us closer to Him. Like St. Augustine, even a previous decade of promiscuity could remind us of how empty is a life not lived for Christ.
St. Augustine is living proof that no one—no matter how seemingly corrupt, how spiritually lost, or how morally confused—is beyond the power of God’s grace. On St. Augustine’s feast day, let us consider where we are on our faith journeys. Where is there room for daily conversion? How can we learn from our past failures to more fully embrace a future lived with Christ?
Question for Reflection: What failure can I use from my past to build up my relationship with Christ?
In the most beautiful chapter of the best work of one of the greatest Catholic theologians - in my opinion, anyway - Saint Augustine tells the story of his mother, Saint Monica.
Saint Monica was born to a good Christian family but she had little luck in marriage. She was married at a young age to a man named Patricius, and they had three children together. He was a pagan, he was angry, and he was unfaithful. But Monica was patient and merciful. Despite Patricius’s evil ways, she served him with devotion, mercy, and constant prayer. At the end of his life, only one year before he died, her daily prayer and kindness were rewarded and Patricius was baptized into the faith.
But Patricius’s conversion did not end Monica’s sorrow. Augustine was seventeen when Patricius died, and his conduct was worse than his father's. He was brilliant, but lazy. He drank excessively, stole, and lived promiscuously. The year his father died, Augustine fathered a son of his own out of wedlock. Despite Monica’s urging, Augustine refused to settle down and get married. Worse still, Augustine rejected his mother’s faith and joined the Manichean cult.
But Monica never ceased her kindness and prayers. She followed Augustine as his teaching lead him to Carthage, to Rome, and to Milan. In Milan, Monica met Saint Ambrose, then a bishop. In serving in his church, she came to know Ambrose well, and Ambrose came to understand her sorrow for her son. He comforted her, saying, “Surely the son of so many tears will not perish.”
Her prayers were eventually answered. A year before she died, Augustine was baptized. He went on to become one of greatest saints in history. As she lay dying, Monica told her son that her life’s work was complete. “One thing there was, for which I desired to linger a little while in this life, that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. God has granted this to me in more than abundance, for I see you his servant, with even earthly happiness held in contempt. What am I doing here?” (pg 223).
Saint Monica gives us a powerful example of the influence of intercessory prayer (CCC 2634-2636). Monica did not use words to persuade Augustine to convert. Instead she led by example, living with kindness and praying on his behalf. For thirty-two years she patiently prayed for his conversion, and God rewarded his faithful servant. We are called to do the same.
The Letter of James says, “Pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (James 5:16) and Jesus tells us, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.” (John 16:23). We are all sinners and we all need God’s intercession. But we are not alone. God desires us to pray for our own forgiveness and for the forgiveness of others. That is why we pray “forgive us our trespasses” and not “forgive me my trespasses.”
People are difficult. We treat each other with anger, unfaithfulness, and unrepentance. But rather than meet those that harm us with our own shortcomings, let us instead follow Saint Monica’s example and live a life full of kindness and prayer. Pray for God’s help, pray for the forgiveness and conversion of others, and Saint Monica, pray for us.
St. Monica’s feast day is celebrated on Monday, August 27, 2018.