Friday, November 30, 2018

40 Days (After)

40 Days (Before) 

After forty days of solitude and silence, I was convinced I would leave my hermitage a new man.  What exactly I would look like I wasn’t sure, but at the very least I imagined myself a stronger, wiser and more loving person.  I pictured myself returning home to my community, eager to serve the other brothers, willing to listen to everyone who sought my attention and no longer getting frustrated and annoyed when things did not go my way.   After all, I had just done something I once thought was impossible: I spent forty days alone in a hermitage in the middle of the woods.
On a surface level, my days in hermitage were dreadfully boring.  There were no news flashes, text messages or phone calls bombarding me every minute.  Whether I was eating, praying or walking, I tried to surrender each moment to God by simply saying, “Here I am” (Genesis 22:1, Exodus, 3:4, 1 Samuel 3:4).  Whatever occurred next, whether it was a group of deer running through the woods, a fresh snowfall, or a sensible experience of God’s presence, I was learning a key lesson that solitude teaches: God is always near, but we are far away.
 Providentially, my retreat coincided with Holy Week and Easter, leaving me an ample amount of nourishment in the Liturgy and the Scriptures.  After the beautiful yet somber liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, I spent almost all of Holy Saturday sitting by a lake, allowing these mysteries to sink more deeply into my heart and mind.  As I was preparing to celebrate the Easter Vigil that night, I wanted to send a text message to the entire world reminding them that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16) or run through the nearest town screaming, “This is how much God loves you.”  Fortunately, I didn’t do either, but another important lesson was given to me: life with God is never boring.

Perhaps my most cherished moments of retreat were the hours I was able to spend in silent prayer.  Each day I would spend, on average, three hours in this contemplative posture before God, not speaking to him in words or even using my mind to reflect on him, but just resting in his presence.  Occasionally, when I experienced a brief pause from the thinking, analyzing and worrying that my mind is usually occupied with, there was a profound stillness waiting for me on the other side.

This stillness of course was not just the result of a quieted mind, but an encounter with a presence whose warmth and gentleness no words or thoughts could contain.  If I was ever experiencing any loneliness or fear, these precious hours of prayer had a mysterious way of reminding me that I was not crazy for wanting to make this retreat, as some believed, but that God had led me here.  Hence, another important lesson was given to me: prayer reveals to us, not our desire for God, but God’s desire for us.
Despite the abundant grace that was poured upon me during this time of retreat, I, for the most part, am still the same person.  I remain, at times, selfish, stubborn and lazy.  Even though I have experienced God’s love on such an intimate level, I am still tempted to look elsewhere for consolation, whether through worldly means, human praise or even spiritual applause.  While spending hours in silence and prayer brought deep peace and joy to my soul, it did not remove the wounds, hurts and pains that have accumulated in my heart during the course of my life.  Regardless of my wants, solitude did not eliminate my humanity and my need for redemption.  Oddly enough, it only affirmed its necessity.
Unconsciously, I had hoped this retreat would get rid of all this human stuff, so that I could move on to more “spiritual” things.  Hence, I was caught off guard, when after the retreat was over I felt, not saintly or angelic, but utterly human.  As I was driving home a part of me was tempted to view this retreat as a disappointment, since this retreat had appeared to produce no immediate changes within me.  I had forgotten, rather quickly, another spiritual lesson this retreat revealed to me:  God’s grace at work in a soul is often imperceptible to our human senses.  Therefore, we must always be slow in judging and evaluating God’s work in others and ourselves.

 It would be wrong, of course, to claim that after forty days of solitude and silence nothing has changed.  Transformation has occurred, just not the way I expected it.  I have noticed, since I left the hermitage, that my heart has become more open, less afraid, and more willing to engage the uncomfortable moments of life I once used to flee from.  I am able, thanks to the deepening encounter with God’s love I experienced in solitude, to accept more readily the poverty of my own humanity, which, in turn, helps me to accept more easily the poverty of others.  Finally, I am becoming more aware of God’s presence, not only in the more “spiritual” moments of my life, but in the ordinary, mundane and trivial moments of life in which we all find ourselves.

If someone would have told me forty days ago that this would be the fruit of my time in hermitage, most likely, I would not have been impressed.  These fruits, I would have thought, appear so minor compared to the change I believed I needed.            
As I was walking to my car on the last day of the retreat, I did not feel like a spiritual giant, but more like a spiritual beginner.  Instead of feeling holy and spiritually rejuvenated, I felt weak and vulnerable.  Ironically, this weakness and vulnerability didn’t leave me sad or afraid.  Rather, this realization contained a degree of purity and freshness to them, the way a home appears after it has been thoroughly cleaned.  Perhaps during these forty days of retreat, God’s desire was not necessarily to build a new house, but merely to clean the one he had already built.  

+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR

Monday, November 19, 2018

Outcasts the Movie

For over ten years the legendary filmmakers at Grassroots Films followed the friars and filmed our work with the poor in England, Ireland, Central America, and New York. Now, for the first time, their award winning documentary, OUTCASTS, is available for a limited time On Demand. Click the link to rent and stream the film.
WARNING. Grassroots Films desired to bring to their audience an unsanitized encounter with the real effects of evil and injustice in the world. Due to the graphic nature of the film, it is NOT SUITABLE for children and may be too extreme for some adults as well. Please be prudent in choosing to watch this film.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


Over the years, I have spoken to many people about their relationship with God. Everyone, on some level, desires to know the secret of holiness, even if they don’t use those words. If they are young, they often imagine that holiness involves some magnificent feat of strength or courage, perhaps engaging in disciplined asceticism or undergoing some form of persecution. If they are older, they think that holiness involves hours of undistracted prayer, followed by self-sacrifice devoid of anger or resentment. If the person is a priest or a religious, their standard of holiness is often measured by fidelity to their vocation. If one is faithful to their vows and fulfilling perfectly the rules and norms of their vocation, then holiness is a natural consequence.

After each person has defended his view with sound reasoning, orthodox theology and examples from the lives of the saints, I feel the need to interject.
“Everything you said is true,” I reply, “but you are missing an important point. If you really want to be holy all of the things you mentioned can be helpful, but…they must be authentic. Most importantly, you must be authentic.”
A mixture of surprise and confusion usually begins to appear on their face as they stare at the ground for a few moments.

“What does authenticity have to do with holiness?” they ask sincerely.
“Everything!” I almost shout back at them.

Asceticism, deep prayer and fidelity to one’s vocation are all necessary means to holiness, yet before these aspects of our spiritual life begin, they must be born from an authentic place. Authenticity means, first and foremost, being the person God has created you to be. In order for that to happen, we must always return to the foundational question: who am I before God? In other words, we must consider things like our personality, cultural background, and talents as we attempt to respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship. The reason for this is simple. It is through our own humanity, never somebody else’s, that we will encounter God and be able to respond to him appropriately.

For example, Jesus recommends “prayer and fasting” (Mk 9:29) as a necessary component of our spiritual lives. However, the prayer and fasting of a 20 -year-old is going to look very different from that of a 70-year-old. Likewise, the prayer and fasting of someone who is sick will look different than that of one who is healthy. Which person is praying and faster better? The one who is responding most fully to the grace God is giving him. In other words, the one who is most authentic.

The best examples of authentic holiness can be found, unsurprisingly, in the lives of the saints. Despite the many differences of age, culture, social status, etc. we find in the lives of the saints one common thread: each one of them became the person God intended him to be. St. John Bosco educated and cared for the youth, while St. Benedict become a hermit, and then become the founder of monastic life. St. Teresa of Calcutta served the poorest of the poor in India, while St. Theresa of Lisieux lived a hidden life of silence, solitude and penance in a Carmelite monastery. Because they were authentic, God’s light was able to shine uniquely through each one of them, revealing to the world in greater color the brightness of God’s glory.
Imitating the saints does not mean adopting their way of speaking, thinking or even praying. Nor does it mean going back in history to the time period in which they lived in the hopes of walking in the same footsteps of the saint we admire. Imitating the saints is something much more profound. It means being inspired and enlivened in the way a particular saint has lived his life and using those qualities in our own life to follow Jesus more closely.
When I first discovered St. Francis as a teenager I knew he was the saint for me. Like him, I was restless and eager to experience more from life, yet it wasn’t until my eyes were opened to the beauty of the Gospel that I realized that Jesus was the more I was desiring. Never doing anything in half-measures, I, like St. Francis, threw myself into prayer, work with the poor, preaching and anything else that could further my relationship with Christ. Like St. Francis I wanted to live a deeply contemplative life, yet I also wanted to live and work among the poor. When I discovered the Franciscan way of life a sense of relief overwhelmed me, because I realized that what I desired and felt attracted to already existed. I didn’t have to create something new.
What attracted me to St. Francis was the spirit in which he responded to the Gospel. But I also know that I am not St. Francis, and I cannot and should not imitate all aspects of his personality and temperament. What the Church and the world needs from Franciscans is not another St. Francis, but men and women who, following the path of St. Francis, respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in their own humanity.
The ultimate question each one of us needs to ask is, “What does Jesus Christ look like in me?” Obviously, the answer to that question is going to look different in each person. Whether you are a doctor, a sales clerk, or a student is, in many respects, irrelevant. Being authentic means becoming the person God is calling you to be, not what he called someone else to be. God already has a Francis, a Benedict, and a Teresa. Now he’s waiting for you.

+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Surprised By Grace

As soon as the phone rang my heart began to race.  Something told me this would not be a regular phone call.  
“Hello,” I said, hesitantly.  
“Father,” a woman began to speak, “this is a miracle.  My cousin wants to see a priest,” she exclaimed.  “I have been praying for this day for years.  Can you visit him?”  
“Ok,” I said, somewhat cautiously.  “What kind of visit is he looking for?  Does he want to go to confession, is he sick, or does he just want to speak with a priest?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” she said.  “But this is a miracle.”  
“Well then, I would be happy to visit him,” I said, “Where does your cousin live?”           
“Well,” she said, followed by a brief pause, “he is in prison.”
As a priest, I thought, I have seen and heard it all.  After hearing thousands of confessions and spending many hours in spiritual direction with people, I find it difficult to be shocked or surprised by what anyone says or does.  I had recently told a friend, that for me, as a priest, there are no more surprises.  Yet after I hung up the phone with this woman, I began to realize that perhaps I was wrong. 
It is not uncommon of course for a priest to visit people in prison.   However, in my years as a priest, prison had been one of the places I have never been sent before.  Perhaps like most people, I had an image in my mind, not only what prison was like, but what the prisoners themselves were like.  Unfortunately, I imagined prison to be a place filled with hardened criminals who had no concern for people.  I supposed that the majority of the people in prison had little if any faith in God and most, I believed, were not interested in the spiritual life.  There was a part of me, I am ashamed to admit, that was wondering if I was wasting my time by making this visit.     
As I arrived at the prison, I stood outside of my car and stared in wonder at what looked like a giant fortress.   After spending almost thirty minutes trying to find the entrance, I entered the visitor’s section only to spend another thirty minutes going through security.  Finally, I was allowed to enter a large room, which looked like a dining hall, where several other inmates were visiting with their own guests.  At each corner of the room stood several armed guards, surveying the room and checking to see if each visitor was wearing the proper pass that allowed him into the designated area.  
I sat down at the table assigned to me by the guard and waited.  After a long wait, the man I was asked to visit appeared and sat down at my table.  He was not anything like I expected.  Rather than shaking my hand, he immediately hugged me and expressed how grateful he was that I would take the time to visit him.  As he began to speak, I was shocked at his demeanor.  Instead of being angry, rude and tough like I expected, he was quiet, calm and polite. 
“Father,” he said, with a tear beginning to form in his eye, “in prison I met Jesus Christ.”  
He paused, while waiting for me to respond.  “I wasn’t expecting that to be your opening line,” I said, while smiling at him.  We both laughed so hard that we caught the attention of the guards who looked at us with suspicion.  After regaining our composure he spent the next few moments sharing with me how he ended up in prison and all that had occurred to him during his time there.  As he finished, he looked down at the ground for a few seconds and appeared lost in deep thought.  
“Father, I have accepted God’s mercy and I believe in his love for me despite the terrible things I have done.  I am hungry Father and I want to know more.  How do I pray?  Can you teach me about the Bible?  Why are the Sacraments important?  I looked at him in amazement.  Immediately I thought of Jesus’ words to the centurion, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Mt 8:19).  
I spent the next hour attempting to answer his questions.  As I spoke he stared at me in awe, as if his life made sense for the first time.  Occasionally, a tear rolled down his face, forcing me to fight back my own.  Suddenly I realized that the man before me was not the person I had imagined him to be.  Yes, he had done some horrible things and he deserved to be in prison.  But now he was different.  The power of God’s mercy had transformed this man into someone new, someone his friends, and especially those whom he hurt, probably would not recognize.  
As I drove home that afternoon, I reflected on my conversation with this man and thought to myself, “This is what redemption looks like.”  Redemption, after all, is not something we can do.  Despite our good intentions and best efforts we always remain in need of a Savior.  St. Paul reminds us, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…but “they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).  
That man I met in prison is proof that redemption is possible.  For years he had followed his own way, without any regard for a higher law.  Rather than bring him the freedom he desired, his selfishness imprisoned him.  Ironically, it was there, amid such darkness and pain, that the light of God’s mercy opened his eyes, removed his chains, and set him free.

+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR
Monticello, NY
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