Friday, January 4, 2019

Mistaken Identity

I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but as a young boy I asked myself an important question: who am I? It appeared, at least to me, like a natural question. After all, I thought, what was the point of living if you didn’t know who you are? In my childlike innocence, I assumed everyone was fascinated by this question and that most people were eager to discover the answer. Needless to say, I was thoroughly confused to realize this was not so.
Many people, I learned, lived on the surface of life. They placed their hope in things like social status, athletic ability, physical appearance, etc. to reveal to them who they were. I often heard people say things like, “I am a doctor”, “I am an honor student” or “I am poor,” implying a person’s real identity was something exterior. Ignorant of any other possibilities, it was here that began my own journey of self-discovery.
Almost my entire childhood was consumed by baseball. Every spare moment was spent, either working on my pitching in my backyard, or at batting practice in some field near my house. After experiencing a tiny amount of success, I witnessed a bizarre set of associations begin to unfold: people were identifying me with baseball. I was the pitcher on this team, who helped win this game, who was turning this team around. Somewhat stunned by such dramatic conclusions, I looked past the irrationality of it all and began to digest every word that was spoken about this mysterious person who everyone was identifying as “me.” I was a good pitcher, athletic and helping my team win games, hence, I was a baseball player.
As I entered my teenage years, my identity as a baseball player proved insufficient. My feelings, emotions and even my physical appearance was in a constant state of change. Due to these sudden and often times radical changes occurring both within me and without, I became terribly insecure and afraid. It was during this time of turmoil where I encountered the power of music. I would read the lyrics of different songs, particularly rock songs, and felt understood. I could relate to the singer’s pain, confusion and desire for love.
Within weeks of this new discovery, I was teaching myself how to play guitar. A few months later, much to my surprise, I was playing in a band with three other guys. Before I knew it, we were playing gigs on a regular basis and people had, once again, begun to talk. “I love the lyrics you write,” people would say. “You are a great bass player, how did you get so creative?” Enjoying the way all this sounded I believed them. I was creative, artistic, and a good bass player: hence, I was a musician.

By the time I entered college, baseball and music had become a distant memory. Not content with the notoriety, minimal though it was, that baseball and music had brought me, I began to explore a new world of intrigue: philosophy. I had no desire for a career, an impressive resume or academic honors when I began college. I was genuinely seeking wisdom, yet as more people discovered that I was a philosophy major, another strange occurrence began to ensue: people began to label me as intelligent, wise and even spiritual. Never considering myself as having any of those qualities I began to wonder if maybe these people saw something about me that I didn’t. Since I enjoyed the way these acclamations felt, I decided they were right. I was intelligent, wise and spiritual, hence, I was a philosopher.
To say that I was desperate to find out who I was would be an understatement. This question gnawed at me continually, and like many of us, I looked for the answer in all the wrong places. As good as these things are, I never was, nor will be a baseball player, musician or philosopher. Likewise people are never just their careers, social status, or health. Our identity always transcends the categories of this world. “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Put even more simply the apostle says, “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
St. Paul’s message is clear. We belong to God. All the many roles and functions we might play in this world cannot add to or alter the identity God has imprinted within us. A wealthy man I met during a parish mission expressed it this way: “I am a Christian, but the role I play in this world is that of a doctor.”
Unfortunately, the temptation to find our true identity among the finite things of this world is always present. Often, when children leave home parents can experience an identity crisis since there are no longer any children to care for. After fulfilling such an important role for so many years, it is easy to identify oneself with that role. “I am a parent,” they might say, “what do I do now?” With no children to care for, they are forced to find a deeper answer to the question, “Who am I?”
Even now as a priest I am tempted to find my identity in the things of God rather than God himself. When I was a novice, a wise old priest used to say to us, “don’t inhale.” He was referring, of course, to any praise and admiration we might receive from preaching or by the witness of our religious life. He was reminding us, not that what was said was not true, but it wasn’t a complete picture. The danger is that by inhaling, i.e. believing what was said about us to be a reflection of our true identity, we would run the risk of attempting to solve the mystery of our identity without all the proper pieces. In essence, this priest was reminding us that the finite things of this world, good though they are, are incomplete and unable to reveal to us who we really are.
Over the past several years I have done a considerable amount of preaching, spiritual direction and writing where I have experienced being God’s instrument to bring healing, hope, and to awaken people to God’s love. In the midst of such “success” I am tempted to ignore the truth of God’s grace at work, and take, if not all, at least half the credit. “Yes,” a subtle voice says inside of me, “you are a great preacher, spiritual director and writer. This is who you are.” Thankfully, after so many failed attempts to identify myself among the things of this world, I am able to recognize exactly what this is: simply another case of mistaken identity.

+ Fr Jeremiah, CFR.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

A Prophecy for 2019


Hear a prophetic call for the Church in 2019 based on the Google Year in Search 2018 video. Goodness is worth searching for! We hear the Word of God our Father through the voice of the Church our Mother. Podcast by Fr. Luke Mary Fletcher, CFR. Listen to learn more!



Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Marian Posture

*Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner

 (blog by Fr Jeremiah, CFR)
Many families, at some point in their history, have experienced a certain amount of anxiety due to money. My family, unfortunately, was one of them. When my father was shot in his left shoulder during the Vietnam War, he lost the use of his left arm. Without a college degree and able to use only one arm, the odds of him ever finding a well-paying job were slim.

Throughout most of my childhood, my father usually worked two jobs at a time. The best jobs he could find were as a security guard and janitor. Even though he was grateful for those jobs, both of them only paid him little more than minimum wage. With two young children at home, it was never enough. Money always seemed to disappear before all the bills were paid.

When I was lying in bed at night I would often hear my mother and him discussing financial matters. “How are we going to pay for food this month, their school clothes, doctor visits, etc?” I would often hear them say. At the time, I was too young to comprehend the seriousness of not having food, clothes for school or not being able to go to the doctor’s. What I do remember though, from those conversations, was the anxiety in their voices. Without realizing it, and certainly against the will of my parents, their anxiety found its way into my heart.

Thankfully, I always had food, clothes for school, and was able to go to the doctor’s when needed; however, this early childhood experience left a deep mark within me. Rather than embracing life and looking forward to the future, I grew up afraid of life. The anxiety I encountered from growing up in a poor family convinced me that I was ill prepared for life. I felt alone, scared and lost in a world that, at least from my own experience, appeared to conspire against me.

Whenever I was faced with a challenge, whether it was in school, sports or human relationships, I immediately became anxious. Since I already felt ill-prepared for life, I naturally believed I was incompetent to face all of life’s challenges. This anxiety manifested itself through a series of “what if” questions. “What if I fail this test?” “What if I lose the game?” “What if this person doesn’t like me?” What if…?

Unfortunately, after my return to the Church, this anxiety did not disappear. Not surprisingly, I brought this attitude with me into religious life. Several weeks before I entered the Franciscans I was again plagued with more questions. “What if I can’t live in New York City?” “What if I am called to be a Benedictine monk and not a Franciscan friar?” “What if I am supposed to get married?” These questions, fueled by my inherent anxiety towards life, pestered me throughout my initial stages of formation.

It was during this time that I began to look more deeply at the life of Mary. I found, through the various episodes of Mary’s life portrayed in the Gospels, that she, perhaps more than anyone, had the right to be anxious at times. Whether it was at the Annunciation, the flight into Egypt, or the Crucifixion, Mary was never exempt from the trials and uncertainties of life. In fact, her privileged role in salvation history only thrusts her more deeply into them, as Simeon prophesies to her: “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Lk 2:35).
What struck me most by meditating on Mary was how she responded to life. Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation is essentially the same response she uttered her entire life: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:39). Despite the heartache, confusion and sorrow that accompanied Mary’s life, she said yes to everything that God allowed. Intrigued by Mary’s disposition, I focused my prayer on how Mary said yes to God’s mysterious will.

As I compared my situation to Mary’s, I began to notice a fundamental difference. Due to my tendency towards anxiety, I approached almost every situation by asking “What if…?” “What if I can’t do this? What if these people don’t like me? What if this situation doesn’t work out, etc.?” These questions created more questions, which, incidentally led to greater anxiety, causing me to become paralyzed before much of life. Mary, on the other hand, had an entirely different approach. Even though she may have asked “What if…?” at certain moments in her life, Mary, I believe, moved forward by asking another question: “What is…real?”

By asking the question, “What is real?” Mary rooted herself in reality: the reality of God’s Fatherly care. This question reminded Mary, beyond all the twists and turns of life, beyond the darkness and confusion that we all must face at times, that God, as a loving father, is near, trustworthy, and in control. Regardless of what our minds or our hearts might like us to believe, by asking ourselves “What is real?” we are reminded that the trials and struggles we have to face in this life do not have to cripple us. Faith, as Mary demonstrates, is a light that penetrates through our darkness, revealing to us that we are not alone.

These insights into Mary brought about a radical change in my mind. Instead of being afraid, I attempted to approach life not by asking “what if” to every situation I faced, but, like Mary, reminding myself of what is real: that God is a loving Father whom I can trust. I began to live more in reality as opposed to all the many “what ifs” that don’t exist.

Anxiety, unfortunately, was as natural to me as the air, and as I first began attempting to let go of it, I felt felt like I was swimming upstream. As I placed my trust more deeply in God’s care, however, a deep peace began to resonate within my soul. Now, many years later, the grip that anxiety once held on me has loosened. Even though I still have to struggle against it at times, Mary reminds me that life flows most gracefully when we imitate her faith and trust in God.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Seeing Lisa

Lisa and I met in the seventh grade.  Her family had recently moved from Philadelphia into my neighborhood and after talking each morning at the bus stop, we eventually became close friends.  As neighbors who were the same age and in the same grade, we found our lives, without any real planning on our part, becoming closely intertwined.

When Lisa’s first boyfriend suddenly broke up with her in 10th grade she was devastated.   We skipped school and spent the whole day eating ice cream and playing video games.  Despite being a bit upset about Lisa and me skipping school, Lisa’s mother called to thank me for being there for her.  When Lisa was hospitalized a few weeks after our graduation from high school with a mysterious illness, I spent almost everyday at the hospital with her family, just being present to her and helping her in any way I could.
When I was ordained a priest, Lisa, a non-Christian, was sitting in the front row of the cathedral hours before the ordination began, appearing more excited and enthused than many of my devout friends.  Even though she did not understand exactly what was happening, it didn’t matter.  She knew that my ordination was a major moment in my life and that was enough of a reason for her to attend.  Two years later when my mother died, she drove six hours from Washington, D.C. to attend the funeral and spend time with my family as we grieved.
What is unusual about our friendship is that Lisa and I disagree on almost everything, from politics, to social issues, and even religion.  Yet after each conversation, whether it is a friendly one or a heated debate, we always affirm our love for each other.  Genuine love, respect, and friendship, we believe, is always deeper than ideology.  Thankfully, we have never permitted our convictions to disrespect or harm the other.  If either of us would utter a harsh word in the midst of a fiery conversation, both of us, sooner or later, would apologize.  Our differences have stretched both of us to become more patient and better listeners.  We have both learned, much to our own discomfort, that life is not black and white, and that each person is a work in progress.
Every person is made “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1.26).  This statement, found in the very beginning of the Bible, is a reminder that the human person cannot be reduced to merely worldly categories.  Too often we identify people in this world based entirely upon their political persuasions.  Even though these aspects about an individual may be relevant, they are never in and of themselves a complete portrait.  The human person, thank God, is always more than his views and opinions.

A friend of mine recently told me that his family had to cancel Thanksgiving with his relatives this year, because of what he described as “political differences” among various family members.  Both families decided that they couldn’t spend the holidays with each other because of how they voted in the previous election.  Unfortunately, this story is a sad commentary on our highly charged political climate.  What is tragic about this example is not that people believe different things, but that they have allowed those beliefs to create divisions, even among their own family.

Nothing, of course, is as important as our faith.  Yet even when we disagree in religious or theological matters it is important that in the midst of those differences we continue to love the other person as God does.  Over the years, I have spoken to many people about their religious beliefs.  At times, just the mere presence of a Catholic priest can elicit very strong reactions.  Most people, regardless of their experience with Catholicism, are generally respectful, even if they disagree with the tenets of the Church.  However, a few times I have encountered people who have been extremely disrespectful, either by laughing at me, mocking me, and even spitting on me in public.
In these moments, I have tried, though never perfectly, to follow Jesus’ command “to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43).  Even though there is a part of me that wants to lash back at them, judge them and even mock them in return, I realize that that attitude only creates more division, because I have failed to see the other person in his entirety.   Instead, I try as best as I can to listen to them, understand their viewpoint, and pray for them, because despite our differences they, like me, are made in the image and likeness of God.  As radical as this approach might appear in our current culture, this is exactly what Jesus did throughout his public ministry.

I am not, of course, ignoring the real consequences that ideas have, but a person is not an idea.  Often, as the Gospels recounts, Jesus ate with Pharisees, tax collectors, and sinners, three groups that differed widely in thought and action with Jesus.  Rather then seeing these people through the particular labels and worldly categories in which others viewed them, Jesus saw each person as having infinite value, and for whom he would give his life.  Genuine discipleship requires that we at least try to do the same.
Lisa and I continue to live very different lives and believe very different things.  Yet still, after twenty-five years of friendship, these differences have not eliminated our love for one another, nor have they lessened our respect for each other.  We speak each month on the phone, and see each other about once a year, usually around the holidays, regardless of how either one of us has voted.  Despite all the many people who have come and gone in my life, Lisa has remained constant and, I am confident, will remain so my entire life.

In many ways, Lisa has been one of the greatest teachers in my life.  She has forced me to examine my views more thoroughly and see things from a different perspective.  Rather than changing my beliefs, Lisa’s presence and the challenge that she initiates in my life has helped me to love people more deeply. Because of her I try to see people less as the world does, and more from the viewpoint of the Cross.

+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR

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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Monday, October 22, 2018

A Different Journey

I awoke each morning to the sound of nature. Birds were singing in unison throughout the valley, while squirrels, scurrying through leaves and sticks, chased each other up and down trees. Each morning, elk would visit the river located about five hundred feet from our campsite, while eagles glided overhead.

I was surrounded as far as I could see by enormous snow-capped mountains. Trees, rivers and giant boulders filled the countryside. There was not a trace of civilization anywhere. At times I had to pinch myself to make sure this wasn’t a dream. It was, without a doubt, the most spectacular scenery I had ever witnessed.

We began each day promptly at 7am. The day’s activities included mountain biking, hiking, fishing, rafting, and swimming. If we were lucky, and our guide had the proper equipment, he we would take us rock climbing for a few hours in the late afternoon. Finally, as the sun was beginning to set, we returned to our camp exhausted, only to find a feast prepared over an open fire waiting for us.

A few months earlier, some friends of mine, realizing I needed a break from the city, graciously paid for me to spend a week with them on vacation in Colorado. “It would be rejuvenating,” my friend Mike said, “and refreshing. Besides, I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to spend a week of vacation.” He was right. It was the perfect scenario in the perfect location and yet I was miserable.

Even though I love spending time outdoors and spent many hours mountain biking and swimming, there was something different about this adventure. The difference, I discovered, was me. As a teenager, I would go hiking and camping in the woods because I was naturally attracted to the quiet beauty of nature. Yet on a deeper level, I went to the woods in search of its source. Nature, for me, was a sign pointing beyond itself. Rather than stop at the sign, my entire being yearned for that Reality to which the sign was pointing. If I followed the sign frequently, I reasoned, I would eventually go beyond it.

Once I consciously made the decision to follow Jesus and returned wholeheartedly to the Church, my focus shifted from a purely exterior journey to the discovery of an interior one. Even though I still visited beautiful sites and had fun with friends, I began to spend more time alone in my room, a church, or some other quiet place where I could read, pray and spend time in silence. Suddenly, without going anywhere, I was traveling to much deeper places than I ever thought imaginable.

When I began this vacation in Colorado I had been a Franciscan for twelve years and a priest for three. I was accustomed to several hours of prayer and silence each day. My friends, who had only good intentions, believed I would have more fun if I did more activities. Hence, I had no time, and ironically no space, for prayer. Every morning I celebrated Mass and had about ten minutes of prayer afterwards before the events of the day began.

By late morning, after already hiking and swimming for several hours, all I desired was a few moments of stillness. My heart and my mind were touched deeply by the wonder that surrounded me, yet it wasn’t enough. In order to truly appreciate and experience the beauty of this place, I had to move beyond its signs to its source. Without this deeper contact, the joy that was available in this moment became threatened. Unfortunately, there was no time. The next event was waiting for us.

As evening arrived, even though I was surrounded by friends who loved me, a deep feeling of loneliness overwhelmed me. At camp, my friends sang songs, told jokes and recounted childhood memories. I appreciated their presence and enjoyed listening to them, yet I felt a deep void in our group. Without prayer in my day, I felt alienated, not only from other people, but also from the beauty that surrounded me. Each one of my friends was a devout Christian, yet nobody appeared interested in making space for prayer. Was something wrong with me, I asked myself? Here I am in this beautiful place on a free vacation and I am not happy. Was I not grateful? Was I being selfish? Was I being too religious?

Despite my best efforts to alter my mood, I was unsuccessful. As the days progressed, my sadness only increased. The more activities we did, the worse I felt. On our last morning in Colorado one of my friends suggested we do another long hike before going to the airport. “Please,” I sighed, “I’ve had enough. Can we just go to the airport?”

My friends were shocked by my abrupt response. “Is everything ok?”

“Yes…, I’m sorry. I’m just tired and don’t want to miss my flight,” I said.

As I boarded the plane to fly home, I felt confused and frustrated. Providentially, I had the entire row on the plane to myself. Finally, I thought, space simply to be alone with God. I stared out the window and began to speak to God from the depths of my heart. As I began my evening prayer I felt a deep peace within my soul. “Only in God is my soul at rest” (Psalms 62:1). How often had I prayed those words, yet now they began to hold a deeper meaning for me.

I spent the rest of the flight in silence, reading Scripture, speaking to God and just listening. While we were beginning our descent into Newark airport, I felt a wave of consolation overwhelm me. I wasn’t being ungrateful, I realized, or selfish. I just desired a different journey, one that would take me deeper, to a place beyond this world, where my soul could find the space it needed and the rest it desired. 

+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR