John Paul II was heavily influenced by St. John of the Cross -- the mystic, the doctor of the Church, and the co-renewer of the Carmelite order (with Teresa of Avila). John of the Cross is most famous for his poetry that expresses the depth of human longing for God, poetry that mimics the Song of Songs, and thus invokes the same passionate marital imagery. This depth of longing deeply resonated in John Paul II, not only in his private prayer, but also in his intellectual life. Early in his academic career, John Paul II paired the first chapters of Genesis with this ardent longing that John of the Cross knew. John Paul II began his life-long intellectual exploration of the ache of the human heart, the ache not only to see God himself, but also the heart’s ache to know and be known in personal human relationships. Much of this thought is developed in his earlier work, Love and Responsibility, and of course continues to be explored in the Theology of the Body. I say all of this only because it seems to me that to really know and understand John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, we ought to also know perhaps his biggest personal and academic influence: John of the Cross’ deep, deep ache for God. This piece considers a beautiful poem alongside John of the Cross’ way of prayer, as put forth in Iain Matthew’s book, The Impact of God (an incredibly helpful book on prayer, one that has helped me more than any other).
Let’s start by reading this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
The Good Shepherd, Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1914
John 10: 1-10
“Do you despise the fact that you’re a creature?”
Many of us when faced with this question might quickly answer, “no, of course not. I know I’m a creature.” Hold on for a moment and let the question sink in. Let’s dig a little deeper. I had to face this question a few years ago at a retreat and I ended up spending the entire retreat wrestling with it. When I confronted the question and was in place to be brutally honest with myself, I had to answer “yes.” I despise my own creatureliness.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and many of us might be tempted to stay on the surface as we consider what this means for us. We might be tempted to remain on the pastoral imagery…the grass, the water, or the rolling hills. If this is where the Lord has you in your prayer, then stay there. However, I want to challenge us to go a little bit deeper. When the Lord compares us, his followers, to sheep, I think he was being more literal than we sometimes give him credit for.
You and I are creatures…we are literally made to follow another. In our hyper-individualistic society that prides itself on being self-made and independent men and women, this is a hard pill to swallow. We actually sometimes believe that we can live by the mantra of “you do you, and I’ll do me.” The irony is this is pretty much impossible for us. We may claim to be free of the tyranny of others’ ideas and influences, but we will ultimately end up following something or someone: a new philosophy, self-help guru, political or social ideology, religion…you name it. Just look at social media, which many see as the “great medium” through which we can be whoever we want to be, the space of self-expression. Yes, even here, we “follow” one another: the profiles and posts of friends, pages, groups, politicians, religious figures, and yes, maybe even Dumb Ox Ministries. I’m not passing judgement on the fact that we are followers, my point is that we follow because it’s built into the very fabric of our being. We can’t escape it, and if we dig deeply, we’ll realize that sometimes we don’t like it. Just like our first parents in the Garden of Eden, we have a tendency to rebel against it. We want to grasp at power that isn’t ours to possess, and power that we cannot handle.
What does it mean to be a creature? It means that you and I have been created a certain way, with a certain purpose, for a particular end…and you and I don’t have the power to define these things for ourselves. We can definitely try, but when we rebel against our own creatureliness, we end up at odds with our very nature…at odds with ourselves. Coming to terms with this is a difficult process for all of us, regardless of where we find ourselves on the spectrum of faith. Here’s the GREAT NEWS: in light of the Gospel, embracing our creatureliness in no way inhibits our freedom. Our God is not a tyrant who lords his power over us and forces us into servitude. Our God is good, who promises that if we follow the way marked out for us, it will lead us to the fullness of human flourishing. In other words, we will be full to our capacity and happy beyond our wildest imaginations. Embracing our creatureliness makes us free. Perhaps we're in need of a paradigm shift, and some images can help.
Following Christ is less like this:
...and more like this:
I don’t know about you, but I find tremendous freedom in knowing that there is already a path marked out for me. I don’t have to wander around on an endless search for what will lead to happiness. I’m not left to figure out the meaning of life on my own. I don’t have to feel the pressure to figure out who I am because that was determined long ago when God chose me from all eternity to exist. I find tremendous freedom even in the boundaries set for me because my good God knows what is best for me and what will lead me to authentic happiness…and when I do fall and step out of the boundaries marked out for me, I find tremendous freedom in knowing that I am not powerful enough to mess things up that much. Neither I, nor my sin, have that much power and I thank God for that.
“You do you, and I’ll do me”… that’s way too much pressure. If we try to live by that mantra, we'll end up getting crushed by the weight of it. We run the risk of being unhappy, bitter, and incapable of joy. We’ll end up chained within the prison of our own ideas and the ideas of whomever we end up following that day. Let’s drop the yoke of self-reliance and self-determination, friends, and let’s put on a new one: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11: 29-30). Let’s surrender to the fact that we are creatures, followers by nature, and let’s not just accept it, but embrace it. Let’s embrace our Creator and the path already marked out for us by Christ. Let’s be sheep, and all will be well.
Emmaus, Janet Brooks-Gerloff, 1992
Luke 24: 13-35
"What is happening, Lord?" I’m sure many of us have been asking this question. I know I have. Things that we used to take for granted are being called into question. The things we would typically find some sense of security in (employment, friendships, family time, future plans) now don’t feel so secure. Conflicting reports abound about the projections of the impact of COVID-19, and everyone has a different option about how to move forward. Rumors abound. Maybe even prayer has been difficult, and God doesn’t even seem to be listening. The hope and assurance of Easter morning may even feel very far away. What is happening, Lord?
As I prayed with today’s Gospel, I was struck by the fact that the disciples on the road to Emmaus were wresting with similar questions. Jesus was dead, that much they knew. The man who they had hoped would redeem and save Israel had been mocked, scorned, and executed. Things felt dark, and perhaps that’s why they were on their way home. After all, with their teacher gone, what were they supposed to do now? Had it all been a lie? Even as they wrestled with these difficult questions, they couldn’t help but remember their first encounters with Jesus. The words he spoke set their hearts on fire as he radically shifted their worldview. He promised that He had the power over sin and death. Jesus preached of hope for a new kingdom, and they knew in their heart of hearts what he was speaking was truth. Jesus spoke of the Father as if He was knew Him, as if they were one. And now there are rumors that the tomb is empty and that some have actually seen him. Could it be true?
As we know, Jesus comes right into the midst of their questions, but he doesn’t reveal himself outright. There is a slow process by which he reveals who he truly is, and even that is wrought with mystery! Maybe you were like me when reading this Gospel, asking yourself: “Why does Jesus have to make it so difficult? Why couldn’t he just reveal himself clearly to them? Why does he hide himself? Why can’t Jesus just appear in all his glory for the entire world to see?” As I was praying with all these questions, I was confronted with another question: “Would it have been better for them if he had made it easier?”
“Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except
through a sincere gift of himself.” Gaudium et Spes 24
One of the core truths of the Theology of the Body is that there is a “spousal” meaning of our bodies, that we are all called to make a gift of ourselves and in this act of giving we truly find ourselves. Gifts come in different shapes and sizes, just as people do. As a unique, unrepeatable human being, the gift I give to the world of my authentic self is completely unique to me and has a unique shape. But what is that shape?
You may have heard it said that there is a God-shaped hole in each one of us that we try and fill with other things but only God can truly satisfy and fill. Most of the cheesy Christian pictures show a heart with a hole in the shape of a cross or something similar. But what if there was a deeper truth to this sentiment? What if there was a unique God-shaped hole in each of us that also denoted the shape of the gift that God has called us to be for the world?
Episode 3 of "Encourage Each Other", a weekly encouragement from Willwoods Community and Dumb Ox Ministries.
John 20: 1-9
He is risen! Alleluia! Happy Easter, everyone!
A few years ago, I had a very good friend share a quick story with me one time that still resonates with me today, and it’s one that I continue to go back to over and over again. My friend had been praying to experience God’s power and glory in a tangible way in her life. She wanted to see signs and wonders that would undeniably reveal God working in her and through her. One day, while attending a conference, she had the opportunity to pray with a woman who was known to have many spiritual gifts. This was her chance! What would God do? What would he reveal? While praying together, the woman, in broken English, yet very clear words, told my friend: “You want the Fourth of July, but God wants to give you Easter morning.” My friend knew exactly what the Lord was telling her.
The Fourth of July is filled with lights, sounds, and smells…a day filled with sensory experiences…yet it comes and goes quickly. Contrast that with Easter morning. The resurrection on Easter morning happened in secret, and it was revealed slowly over time. Why was the greatest moment in all of human history hidden from human eyes? Why was that moment not big, loud, and flashy for all the world to see? Why did Jesus choose to reveal the glory of His resurrection slowly? Maybe…just maybe…this is the way of things.
I really believe that our hearts, minds, and bodies are not attuned to real power and real glory. We have been conditioned to want God to work like Google. We want an immediate answer, immediate healing, immediate freedom, and immediate peace. We often aren’t willing to cooperate with the process of God’s powerful work in our lives. Where did we get the idea that loudness is more powerful than the quiet, that being fast is more glorious than what happens slowly, or that being seen and heard has more impact on the world than being hidden?
Several years ago, I went with a group of guys to the Grand Canyon. I really wasn’t prepared for what I would see. I had seen it in photos and captured in movies a million times, but when I saw it in person, I was absolutely awestruck. Consider for a moment the processes that created the canyon: It took millions of years for the Colorado River to cut through the rock - inch by inch, and year by year. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t flashy, but look at the end result. We are moved to awe and wonder.
Here’s the deal: God wants to do deep work for you, in you, and through you. Deep healing, deep freedom, and deep intimacy with God isn’t usually forged in a solitary moment accompanied by signs and wonders. Could he do it that way? Yes. Has he done it this way? Yes. Is this always the best way? Only God knows. What we do know is that God is constantly laboring for us. Just like the waters of the Colorado River, God’s persistent movement in your life cuts and reshapes you, and smooths your rough edges to make you the man or woman he has created you to be. God wants to heal you, he wants you to share in His resurrected life, and he wants you to experience his power and glory in a real, tangible, and undeniable way. There is no doubt about this. However, it takes radical trust to surrender to the way He wants to do this in your life. Our task is to surrender to God’s work and not to resist it, to open our hands and hour hearts to Him and resist the temptation to grasp for what, perhaps, isn’t ours…yet.
Maybe there are moments in your life when God feels distant. Perhaps even today, on Easter morning, the resurrection of Christ feels far away from you. Maybe your life doesn’t look very glorious. Take heart in the fact that God is working in you right now. If you are open to Him today, the river of grace made available to you by Christ’s resurrection will flow over your dry bones and bring you new life. There is glory and power in His slow, hidden, and quiet work in you.
On behalf of our entire team, we wish you and your family a GLORIOUS Easter Sunday!
The Ecstasy of the Cross, Caroline Papa
Over the past few years, I have been drawn into the immense beauty of the Cross. Its beauty was something that at first left me second guessing my judgement of beauty. I thought, “Lord, this is pain. This is suffering, and quite frankly a bit gory. How can I be attracted to your wounds?” After stepping into these questions, I came to understand that yes, there is pain and suffering on the cross. In addition to this, covered in the blood of redemption, there is also a Bridegroom. A Bridegroom fully exposed for his beloved. His vulnerability showed the church what a sincere gift looks like.
As I continued to pray about the cross and what this longing was to be near to him, I became inspired to express my prayer artistically. This led to the painting which the Lord prompted me to name, “Ecstasy of the Cross.” When I first felt him whisper the painting’s name I was honestly in shock. I thought, “Lord, that is so intimate!” I felt him tenderly remind me that the reality of the cross is indeed very intimate. It is a place of total self-giving. A sanctuary of love that pours forth openly, without reserve, in gift for the beloved. I began to see at last! “Yes!” I thought. It is no wonder I am so drawn to your wounds. They are the very source of love. The very fountain of mercy, goodness, beauty, truth, and all that is love.
There is still so much mystery to it all, as there always is with Christ, but I think the greatest shock for me was that I came to understand that he too wants me close to his wounds. He too desires my love, my vulnerability, my gift of intimacy with him. That he is longing far greater than I am.
During this crazy time in the world I invite you to enter into the mystery of the cross. See what beauty you might find in the midst of suffering. What gift of love is waiting for you. Meditate with his passion. Ponder what is looks like to comfort Jesus on his cross. Ponder what is looks like for Jesus to help you with your own cross! Step into the immense opportunity for love that we have this lent. He is indeed thirsting for you.
“After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said, “I thirst.” John 19:28
Titian, Christ Carrying the Cross, C. 1565
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” I believe there's a lot of wisdom here. What makes deep impressions on us must take some form of expression in our lives, especially when it comes to suffering. For many of us, this season of Lent has been a painful one, and here we are entering into Holy Week still with uncertainty about what the future may hold. We may feel cut off from friends and loved ones, lonely, and isolated. Many of us are struggling with financial insecurity, and to top it all off, the space where many of us found security and consolation (the church, the sacraments, the Eucharist) feels very distant. Perhaps we are even feeling numb to it all, and that unsettles us a bit. Many of us don't know what to do and feel powerless. Wherever you are is the spot where God wants to meet you. One thing can be sure - this Holy Week is going to be a Holy Week like no other if we understand there is deep meaning in it all.
We often get Christianity very wrong. There’s a tendency to reduce discipleship to following a set of moral teachings. While not erroneous, if we reduce our faith to simply following a set of teachings, we are missing the bigger picture. Being Christian means being joined to Jesus Christ in the most radical and intimate way possible. What does this mean? This means that whatever happened to Him, we must also endure. Where he goes, we must also go. When you and I were baptized, we were joined to Christ in his death and resurrection. The rite of baptism is meant to “speak” through visible signs the reality that is taking place. In the early Church, the person to be baptized was stripped of his or her garments and literally walked down into the baptistry and was submerged into the depths. Then they would come up out of the water on the other side and be clothed in white garments while the minister of the sacrament spoke the words of baptism over them. The old self was stripped away, the person entered into Christ’s death and rose to new life clothed in a new garment: Christ, himself. The visible signs showed the reality of going where he went, being joined to him in his passion, death, and resurrection.
Being a disciple means that the mystery of his death and resurrection must take on a real shape in our own lives. This isn’t a pious platitude…this is at the very heart of Christ’s invitation when he says to you and I: “Follow me.” This means that the cross must have its place in our lives. Whenever we let go of the false piety we sometimes carry around, we begin to carry the true piety that comes with the cross and we realize just how difficult this demand of love really is.
But… “the cross” …what is it? I heard a friend say once that the cross you and I carry takes shape in our lives in two ways. It is the place of our unfulfilled desires that we have deep in our hearts that hurts as well as that place in our lives where we come to terms with our radical need for God. It is the place where we come to say, “I can’t do this, Lord. I need you.” What are the unfulfilled desires deep in your heart? What are the circumstances in your life that give you the raw realization of your utter and absolute dependance on him? What makes you cry out in need of a savior? There is your cross.
When we carry our cross - we do not do it alone. Remember, we are joined to him: where he goes, we must go. The cross is meant to draw us into intimacy with him. This is why carrying our cross is redemptive. It brings us close to him, and it makes us like him. It purifies our ability to love like him - to offer ourselves as a pure and authentic gift. For your gift of self to mature, it must weather the storm. Christ’s gift of self on the cross brought life to the world, and so will ours as long as we are with him in it.
Here is the very Good News: Christ has gone before us to prepare a place for us in the Father’s house. The cross, if we say yes, will give way to the new life we were created to experience that is joy and fulfillment beyond our wildest imagination. Where he goes, we will go.
Merry Christmas, friends! Christmas is meant to inspire us with joy, awe, and gratitude for the gift of the Incarnation and all of its amazing ramifications for our lives. However, Christmastime is also notorious for a general uptick of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and isolation, even among the population of faithful Christians. We all deal with this from time to time throughout our lives, and it is easy to get caught up in a culture that promotes the image of a perfect “holiday celebration” including perfect meals, perfect gifts, perfect decorations, all of the perfect Christmas “feelings” and all of the “perfect” people to share it all with. It's easy to get frustrated when our reality does not look like everyone else’s Christmas cards.
We are beyond blessed with an amazing community of teens, young adults, priests, consecrated men and women, and families who are striving to live out Christ's invitation to authentic love and who have gifts to share their journeys through writing.