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The Vocation to Faith in Love

“Miranda,” by John William Waterhouse, 1875

“Each of us is loved by God with a limitless, unconditioned and unconditional love that we can never destroy or even diminish. We are loved into existence; cherished in our existence; affirmed absolutely in death and beyond. This love is independent of our merits or demerits. Nothing whatsoever can separate us from this love. For it is the breadth; it is the length; it is the height and it is the depth — there is nowhere beyond it, above or below it. It is All: the limitless ocean that encompasses our tiny, threatened, fragile yet infinitely precious self. This is not merely impersonal, protective benevolence but a love that gives self, that offers inconceivable intimacy and that seeks reciprocity. We can never define or draw a line around what God will do for each one of us. We are exposed to the infinite. Against this truth what does our sense of impotence matter? In genuine faith — which must, of course, be worked for — and in that surrender of self which is faith in act, we begin to discern that, far from our helplessness being a human misfortune, something that ought not to be, it signals a limitless calling and is the other side of a vocation that goes beyond what can be perceived by mind and sense. To accept it is to assent to our vocation, to becoming who we truly are, to being truly human. We are made for union with the divine, nothing less. We are called to share the life of God. Our restlessness, our insatiable longings, our discontent and  experience of helplessness are to be traced to our divine destiny. Commitment in faith to this truth is to destroy existential anxiety. Faith alone can overcome the world and the threat the world imposes. It does not follow that we lose the feeling of anxiety and fear — we would be the poorer for that — but these now play a role that is creative not destructive. Fear can cripple, paralyze, prompt us to shirk and evade life. Faith enables us to live with reality, braving its challenge.”

— From Essence of Prayer, by Ruth Burrows OCD

Seeds of Grace: Empty Canvas, Revisited

My sorrow, when she’s here with me, thinks these dark days of autumn rain are beautiful as days can be; she loves the bare, the withered tree; she walks the sodden pasture lane.
Robert Frost

As we move in to the months of autumn, I’m beginning to tend to the things that will enable us to settle in for the winter — or at least as much of a winter as we ever get here in Southern California. The days are rapidly shortening and in the last week, the night time temperatures have dropped well into the 40s. This is my signal to take a beauty break, get back out into the garden, and start tidying things up.

For those of you who have been reading here for a few months, you may remember when I posted about starting our garden back in June. I thought it might be fun to share with you what I ended up with.

No matter how many plants and seeds I nurture along, I can never get over the miracle of life in the garden. This year, there were a few surprises. The tomatoes were seedling transplants that took forever to get going. But once they did, as you can see they literally took over the entire plot! I’ve never had such high-maintenace tomatoes in my life! They grew outwards and trailed more like a squash vine than the tall, more bushy tomatoes I am used to. Some of the branches were easily 10 feet long or more. Obviously, they refused to be confined to tomatoe cages or really to be contained at all.  While producing a great deal of fruit, these hardy plants eventually posed a danger to the rest of the garden community by blocking the sun. Thus, the beans and peas died, the basil shrivelled, and the parsley had to fight to stay alive. Today I cut it way back to let in some light and cleared away the not-so-lucky plants who were unable to thrive under the vast tomatoe canopy. 

Two unexpected miracles. . . . this little half-eaten kale plant was started from a tiny seed back in June. It struggled to survive and at one point, I really thought I’d lost it. Suddenly it started growing. After 4 months its still under 6 inches tall and shows continual assault from some unseen pest. But I am hopeful that it’ll survive to provide at least a few meals for us this winter.

The other miracle are the brussels sprouts, also started from seed. The seed which produces this alien-looking plant is quite small, and the gardening catalog I purchased them from emphasized that brussels sprouts are not easy to grow. Ever hopeful, I figured I’d plant them and see what happened. Like the kale, they took forever to sprout and it seemed like they were barely hanging on for months. But in late August, these too took off and have continued to thrive, despite the encroaching tomatoes. Amongst the layers of leaves (which the gardening catalog says to leave on to protect the young stalk) we can see a central stalk forming with the beginnings of the buds that will eventually become the sprouts! These guys still have a long way to go — today I discovered powdery mildew on some of the lower leaves, likely caused by the tomatoes blocking the sun. Still, I’m hopeful. . . .its amazing that, after everything, such a tiny seed can produce such a large plant. (And I know that a lot of people simply despise brussels sprouts, but if these little ones make it, I’ll be sharing a recipe that will convert you, guaranteed!)

As I help the garden move through its final phases, I am reminded that each season in nature symbolizes a corresponding season of human life. As I enter into fall, I am reminded of my aging, of the miles I’ve gone on my journey and those I still have yet to go, and see that in the perhaps not-too-distant future I may enter the winter of illness and death. In her wisdom, the Church seems to be aware that, consciously or unconsciously, we may be having such thoughts about the road we are walking and so she ushers us into the last two months of the year with the great feast of All Saints. 

The Feast of All Saints reminds me that I am living in the fields of the Lord. Looking to all of the holy men and women who have gone before me, both known and unknown, I am reminded of the fact that, no matter what things may look like on the outside or how much it may feel like I am struggling just to survive or how many pests threaten to devour me, the seed of grace (God’s life in me) which I received at baptism is alive, producing and responding to the tending of the Constant Gardener.

In his book The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol. 1, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Legrange uses the analogy of the seed to explore the truth of the gift of sanctifying grace we are given at our baptism. The invisible seed of grace is in many ways similar to the tiny kale seed, or brussels sprout seed, I planted. It is pure potential. Legrange says that, “The value of a seed can be known only if we have some idea of what should grow from it; for example, in the order of nature, to know the value of the seed contained in an acorn, we must have seen a fully developed oak. In the human order, to know the value of the rational soul which still slumbers in a little child, we must know the normal possibilities of the human soul in the man who has reached his full development. Likewise, we cannot know the value of sanctifying grace, which is in the soul of every baptized infant and in all the just, unless we have considered, at least imperfectly, what the full development of this grace will be in eternity.” The full development of this seed of sanctifying grace can be seen in the lives of the saints, who share with us their experiences on the path to holiness. Just as each acorn contains within it all that is necessary to become a great oak tree, so each of us possessed of sanctifying grace contain everything necessary to become a great saint, however little and unknown we may be.

Typically, people associate the advent of spring with growth, new life, and rebirth and the Church is no different. But the Church encourages us to focus on the opportunities we are given for growth and rebirth throughout the year. At a time during the natural year when many in the secular world may find themselves occupied with thoughts of loss, decay, and death, the Church reminds us through the feast of All Saints, and the commemoration of the Holy Souls, that there hope in new life and that this hope is not seasonal but is rather a daily, year-round truth. God promises us through His Son that He will make all things new.

Entering into autumn through the gateway of remembering our family in heaven reminds me to look again and be grateful for the tiny seed of grace I received at baptism, and to recall that while my own garden might be on its way out, God is still nurturing, planting, pruning, and feeding the garden of my soul where all of the seasons exist simultaneously.

Our Lady of Sorrows

“Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Lk 2:34-35)

O Mary . . . a terrible sword has pierced your holy soul. Except for God, no one knows of your suffering. Your soul does not break; it is brave, because it is with Jesus.  Sweet Mother, unite my soul to Jesus, because it is only then that I will be able to endure all trials and tribulations, and only in union with Jesus will my sacrifices be pleasing to God. Sweetest Mother, continue to teach me about the interior life. May the sword of suffering never break me. O pure Virgin, pour courage into my heart and guard it. –Prayer of St. Faustina to the Sorrowful Mother (Diary 915)

A Meditation on Woman, in Celebration of the Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Edith Stein was a prominent Jewish philosopher, writer, teacher, and professor in pre-WWII Germany. After reading The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, Edith converted to Catholicism and eventually became a Carmelite nun, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She continued to write and study. During the war, Catholics of Jewish heritage were arrested by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps. St. Teresa Benedicta was executed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942. Her feast day is today, August 9.

Much of St. Teresa Benedicta’s work was given to illuminating the role of women and their vocation. She has much to say to us today and deep reading gives echoes of the writings of Blessed John Paul II. The following is taken from “The Ethos of Women’s Professions,” a lecture given by Dr. Stein at a meeting of the Catholic Association of Academics in Salzburg, Austria, on September 1, 1930. The entire text can be found in The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Vol. 2: Essays on Woman.

“Only by the power of grace can nature be liberated from its dross, restored to its purity, and made free to receive divine life. And this divine life itself is the inner driving power from which acts of love come forth. Whoever wants to preserve this life continually within herself must nourish it constantly from the source whence it flows without end — from the holy sacraments, above all from the sacrament of love. To have divine love as its inner form, a woman’s life must be a Eucharistic life. Only in daily, confidential relationship with the Lord in the tabernacle can one forget self, become free of all one’s own wishes and pretensions, and have a heart open to all the needs and wants of others. Whoever seeks to consult with the Eucharistic God in all her concerns, whoever lets herself be purified by the sanctifying power coming from the sacrifice at the altar, offering herself to the Lord in this sacrifice, whoever receives the Lord in her soul’s innermost depth in Holy Communion cannot but be drawn ever more deeply and powerfully into the flow of divine life, incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, her heart converted to the likeness of the divine heart.

Something else is related to this. When we entrust all the troubles of our earthly existence confidently to the divine heart, we are relieved of them. Then our soul is free to participate in the divine life. Then we walk by the side of the Savior on the path that He travelled on this eath during His earthly existence and still travels in the mystical afterlife. Indeed, with the eyes of faith, we penetrate into the secret depths of His hidden life within the pale of the godhead. On the other hand, this participation in the divine life has a liberating power initself; it lessens the weight of our earthly concerns and grants us a bit of eternity even in this finitude, a reflection of beatitude, a transformation into light. But the invitation to the transformation in God’s hand is given to us by God Himself in the liturgy of the Church. Therefore, the life of an authentic Catholic woman is also a liturgical life. Whoever prays together with the Curch in spirit and in truth knows that her whole life must be formed by this life of prayer.”