January 12, 2020

The Witness of Betty Suppes -- farmer from Delta, Colorado

Guest post by Richard Ziegman 

Last Summer our parish of St. Michael's in Delta CO joined the Suppes family in laying their mother, and matriarch, Betty Suppes to rest. She was 90 but everyone was surprised that she died so "young" because she was so full of life, spunk and vigor.  Betty was a local. She was raised by farmers and along with her late husband Lawrence, raised her family by farming.

I only came along eight years ago to Delta from Denver and moved into the same housing complex as Betty, just down the street from St. Michael's.  Being very much a big city boy, small town living and especially a farming community, was very new to me.  Betty, with her outgoing friendliness was just the person to help me make the adjustment. I first met her one day coming home from daily Mass. She waved her cane at me and said something a little bold for a stranger, speaking as if she knew me, and we became fast friends.

Befriending an elderly person wasn't new to me.  It began with one of my grandmothers, Helen, who was very bright and whose knowledge and love for the Church helped me to mature. Something she once said changed, or perhaps awoke my view of the aged, especially Betty. She said, "you know, Richard, on the outside I may be old but inside I dont feel any different than when I was about 35". I never looked at an aging person the same way and have had many of them as friends.  Everyone who knew Betty would say that she was very young on the inside.

In fact, Betty became an important part of my spiritual growth and a real gift from God.  Betty, ever curious, used to knock on my door with what I might call the "question du jour" about some aspect of the faith she found perplexing. I am fortunate to have a very good Catholic education, packing in some extra years in Theology and Philosophy.  Her Catholic generation usually have the articles of the Faith down pat but often desire a fleshing out of the details and finer points.  I was able to do a little of that for her. Over the next few years, question and answer sessions blossomed into a mutual love of things Catholic, old and new.

Besides being a "daily Masser" Betty was also comitted to an hour of Eucharistic Adoration each week and we met there at the same time for about 7 years. And in those times we shared only silence before the Blessed Sacrament, each seeking His presence in our own way.  Sometimes afterwards we would speak but not much was said, nor was it needed. Holy silence engenders holy silence. It is its own reward when it is acquired in the loving presence of God. But, we did often mention to eachother a shared experience, we both realized that we often came out of Adoration different than when we went in, completely changed, peaceful and confident. And, we agreed that it was the work of God. After that we always went to lunch together.

Over the last year Betty's health began to decline enough that she wasn't able to live in her own home anymore. She moved into an assisted living faculity where I continued to visit. She wasn't able to go to Adoration anymore. It took a greater act of faith for her, and for me, to recognize the presence of God. This is when I witnessed what I later realized was to be her last spiritual work.  I believe it to be a great thing in God's eyes.

Betty had been given a difficult neighbor to share living space with by the facility's staff. This was someone who had been moved around the home because apparantly, no one could get along with her.  The situation was no less difficult for Betty. However, over several months, I watched Betty set her personal preferences aside and befrend this troublesome neighbor. I also know, first hand that the neighbor was deeply touched by her kindness. No one knew that Betty would soon die, and what a beautiful, selfless gesture to offer to God at the end of your life than a kindness done selflessly.

In less than a year, everyone was surprised to see Betty decline so quickly. I think her many years of really hard farm life simply wore her out and caught up with her. This is when I believe she gave me a great gift. As Betty's mental capacity faded, It was painful for her to struggle but also for me. She simply wasn't able to engage in conversation anymore. And then, Mother Teresa's famous saying came to me, "this is Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor".  That realization impressed on me the importance of continuing to visit her. I think that it was only the years of shared, silent holy hours between us that allowed me to understand just how necessary Mother Teresa's words were. I came to see Betty, but even more, I came to visit Jesus in Betty and the silence was the same.

The world, especially now, wants us all to believe that at this point a person ought to give up, even to take into one's own hands the power of life and death. But life does not end with the memory, at least the brain's capacity to remember. Life is where God is. And, in my friend Betty's fading memory, Jesus was still very much living. And, what happened soon after was astonishing. 

The week Betty died, I felt urged to visit her again. On my way to work I stopped in to see her for the last time. Some of her family was sitting around the bed. When I entered the room, her son, Jake described to me how the night before, Betty had had her last battle. We know that at the end of life, our great Enemy tries one last time to convince a Christian that his or her life was a waste, tempting to despair. During that time our Pastor arrived and gave her the last Sacraments. The battle ended and she began to rest peacefully though unconscious. That day I went in with the intention of praying with and for my friend one last time. So I knelt down and layed my hand on her arm. But, instead of praying, what I felt was that prayer had entered into me. I suddenly had a profound peace and the awareness of the presence of many souls, even angels attending to her. The holiness was so profound that it stayed with me for a long time after leaving her room.

Reflecting on that moment, I can understand that what I was caught up in was a kind of reward, or better, the natural result of many years of having helped each other in growth and maturity in God.  Here I had thought that I was stopping to help my friend Betty in her last struggle but, in fact I was caught up in what was already going on: a holy death, a death in Christ who is our life. Instead, she was helping me.  I consider that gift one of the greatest of my whole life: a gift from God and a gift from God and Betty, born out of a friendship in Christ.

I have a Saint-friend, Elizabeth of the Trinity, whose writings have helped me for 33 years. She is the Saint of friendships, friendships in Christ. In her writings you can find this teaching; when two people in this life have shared a holy friendship and one of the friends dies, when that soul is purified and comes before the face of God, what we call the beatific vision, that soul's vision benefits the friend left behind. This is true because love never ends, it unites and continues to unite souls across the divide until all are united. My friend Betty and I shared our hour before Jesus for many years. And now, we still share his presence but more profoundly than words can tell. Today, I came from Adoration knowing and even feeling that as I was before the Eucharistic Face of Jesus, she was also Adoring Him in Glory.

The Baptism of the Lord

The Savior saves us. Jesus is the One sent by the Father for the salvation of the world.  The Word of the Father -- everything the Father has to say to us, He entrusts to us in His Word. Through His Word, the Father wishes us to know that He loves us and does not want us to perish. His Word is life, and abundance of such life that this present life cannot contain it. Whoever believes in this Word possesses the life that the Father wants us to have.  To be saved is to have this life, a life stronger than death.

Jesus, the Beloved of the Father, unveils a glory that unaided reason cannot see.  To behold this divine beauty is to stand before the source of every noble aspiration, everything worth living for, everything worth dying for.  Joy and sorrow grip the soul all at once, and the heart cannot contain itself.  The fulfillment of every desire and the only place where the heart might finally find its rest, His yearning for us, for all that the Father loves, has summoned us into existence and brought us before His saving gaze.

In His gaze on us, the fullness of life that Christ Jesus gives holds captive every thought and orders all our affection anew - all the self-contradictions that threaten our integrity lose their claim before Him.  He is never passive but tirelessly at work, accomplishing the Father's will, pouring forth salvific goodness in the midst of all the brokenness of the world, transforming everything, leaving nothing as it once was, establishing such peace that no power on earth, below or above can take it away.

As He gazes, He speaks and His voice reverberates with saving harmonies.  This living Word speaks not only with captivating words but mighty deeds -- and by both word and deed, He pierces the heart and saves us from every evil.  Nothing in this world can overcome Him and He has triumphed over all the adversaries and obstacles to human life. Not even the deep waters of death quenched His love for us. Indeed, He freely entered into those waters, obedient to the love of the Father, to save us and bring us home.

The Word has entered the depth of the world to bring us to life.  That we might possess this life, the Word was plunged into the chaotic abyss of human evil and the destructive powers of the cosmos.  He entered not to allow these things to have their sway but to do battle. The suffering that Christ endured for us in this fight for our dignity reveals how much the Father grieves over the burden of guilt under which we struggle and how far God is willing to go that we might be finally free.

The waters that threaten human dignity would drown us in an abyss of misery. No merely cerebral affair or feat of psychological prowess, His movement into the heart unveils hidden motives in which we would otherwise be engulfed.  He climbs down into the gutters of hearts, plunges into the dark waters that have engulfed us, and seeking us, He does not rest until He finds us. He renders vulnerable one's whole being to the truth and baths away every false judgement. He raises up as a new creation every soul that would plunge into the mystery of His death with Him.

We have done nothing to deserve such a gift. The Savior initiates this movement in our own freedom and freely brings it to completion. Through the most gentle immersion into the currents of our hearts, His flesh and blood presence evokes and strengthens this pure gift until it bears the fruit of eternal life.

January 4, 2020

Epiphanies at Bethlehem, the Jordan, Cana and in our Lives

Epiphany evokes adoration and obedience. This is true whether we adore Christ with the Magi, enter into the Baptism of the Lord with John the Baptist, or obey the Lord with those servants who listened to the "Woman" who dared to approach the Lord. Each epiphany is a manifestation of glory, the unveiling of God's beautiful plan for humanity. Those who through obedience to His Word welcome this manifestation of love invite new astonished wonder into their lives - a mystery too great for this world to contain. Mysteriously, such greatness requires such humility. The only way to welcome the Word made flesh in all His glory, the only way to become obedient to this Word in a way that brings light to the world, is through the prayer of faith.

I write this because some suggest that those who pray are actually avoiding a task at hand. Yet true prayer avoids nothing.  Instead, the one who prays enters the battle between good and evil, and seeking the Lord in the silence of our hearts opens a pathway to victory.  Anyone who ever wants to accomplish anything worthy of being a Christian will never accomplish it if he will not take time for prayer. To behold the splendor of the Lord by faith, to say yes to the challenge that it places before the heart, to welcome all the inconvenience and discomfort that it will cause, this is never easy -- and yet, to become who we are, to discover the truth about the noble purpose for which we are made, we must say "yes" in prayer to the glory revealed by the Son of Mary, that Lamb of God, that Cause of all Joy, Christ the Lord.

Through all the perplexing circumstances of our lives, through all the strife in the world, through all the failures in the Church, the Babe adored by Magi reveals that God is un-thwarted in his purpose. Seemingly as powerless as an infant's cry in the night, He advances His priorities with unyielding determination, and his first priority is our salvation. Homeless, He helps us find our way home when we come to adore Him. He carries us with Himself down into the waters of baptism so that He can restore our integrity and re-establish our dignity - re-establishing it above every self-contradiction and misery that threatens our existence. Making of our concerns His own, He turns water into wine so that, even in the face of humiliation, we might find joy. No matter the cost to Himself, He wants us to know how much we are loved and that we can trust Him.

The Lord of Armies has gone homeless with tireless humility so that we might wake from our proud lethargy, rise up and go to the home of our Father. To say He is homeless is to say that He loves though He is not loved. He has confidence even in the face of our lack of confidence. He is never discouraged by evil, even that evil that haunts our own hearts. Quite the opposite - every evil loses heart before this supreme Lord. No evil can stand before His majesty, and when we cling to His presence by faith, believing in Him more than we believe in our own sinfulness, His kindness purifies us of all that is an obstacle to the goodness that He beholds in us.

Our whole existence as creatures is ordered to adoration of this loving Creator.  To adore means to kiss with the lips of our mouth. Such an action is not simply physical. We are enfleshed spirits - and all that we do with our body bears something spiritual about it. This means that to offer adoration is to give over our very life breath to another, the very spiritual reality of it. God delights in this humble surrender, but the One who created us never keeps our life's breath for Himself.  Instead, the Lord of Life gives breath-spirit back with renewed supernatural vigor - that Holy Spirit who is the Giver of Life.  Adoration, then, is an exchange of kisses - man's life's breath for God's life's breath.

In the shadow of the epiphany of the Lord, we know from our own broken experience that it is possible to adore someone or something other than God. Such was Herod and those who served him. It is indeed possible to give one's life's breath to lesser things. Such things can never give back anything commensurate with such a gift. They offer no new life - only death. That which we trust with our life's breath always takes possession of us until we belong to it. The one to whom we belong is also the one to whom we are subject.  In short, we make ourselves subject to that which we adore. To subject oneself to anything that is less than God means that one is no longer subject to God and therefore, that one belongs to someone else who opposes the life of God. This is why St. John teaches that "whoever sins belongs to the Devil."

The Devil exists, not as a mental construct of man's religious imagination, but as a super-intelligent creature bent on our destruction and so very aware of our foolishness.  The Devil has acted against his own existence from the beginning and so he has rendered himself capable of nothing other than oppression. God, on the contrary, always acts for the sake of those He loves, and in the simplicity of His essence, He only loves. The Devil would rob us of the life that God wants to breathe into us - for no other reason than he envies the particular love that the Lord has for us.  Those who venerate such wickedness are imprisoned by it, locked into fearful calculations and the false sense of security that they offer.

Herod is a reminder of the oppressiveness of political power that is not submitted to God just as the Magi show us sovereign freedom of kingship submitted to the Lord. To reject the Lord, as did Herod, is to allow false worship to thwart the maturity of one's own humanity. With so much immaturity on display, one does not need to argue that idolatry is alive and well in the 21st Century.

Just as was Herod, there are many people hanging their hats on all kinds of magical thinking. Seduced by the euphoria of spiritual states or the praise of peers or other successes, they are vulnerable to compromising their own integrity.  Even if someone did not believe that power, prestige and pleasure were actual gods, they bow their heads to these powers whenever they put these things before the love owed to God and neighbor. We live at a time when it is common for religious and political leaders to make false deities out of ideologies, causes, political agendas, and public appearance. Going with the flow or simply following the popular conventions, even religious conventions, is inevitably a move to idolatry.

John the Baptist testifies that to accept the love of God, to follow the Lamb of God, is to choose the pathway of righteousness for oneself and to reject every form of idolatry. This baptism into truth requires a hard won decision to go against the flow - the flow in culture and the flow in one's own heart. This is a battle against evil, against every form of compromise, against every enchantment of earthly dreams.  It is to climb uphill against all that is comfortable, familiar and convenient - for love is none of these things.  Only by following this pathway by faith do we find and come into acceptance of the love of God. Once we accept His love, we possess Him and He belongs to us -- and He possess us, and we belong to Him.

Epiphany also reveals that we need the powerful mystery of woman in the plan of salvation. Jesus calls Mary "Woman" at the Wedding Feast of Cana. Woman before the mystery of Christ is as Woman before Adam: the flesh of His flesh and bone of His bones.  The first woman helped Adam realize His place in creation and this new woman is the one who assists the Lord in recognizing his place in humanity.  She does so by a simple prayer - a prayer that simply makes known a need and even suffers what seems to be the rejection of its unspoken request. In the end, Mary's confidence in her Son gives Him the space He needs to manifest the glory of God.

Mary anticipates and animates the prayer of the Church today -- and we need this part of the grace of Epiphany now more than ever.  Everyone is concerned with who has or does not have ecclesial power, whether they are abusing it, whether they are reckless with it. Yet, the most important part of the Church is not its leadership. If the Body of Christ has a head, it also has a heart -- and it is for the Heart that the Head lays down His life.  Without the Heart, the Body is lifeless.  Woman in the Church witnesses to this Heart - this love in the life of the Church.

We need to let the prayer that comes from the heart of the Church be our prayer if the grace of Epiphany is to break upon us.  Those who pray with simple trust will suddenly find that the Wedding Feast of Cana is breaking out around them. The voice of the Church coincides with the voice of Mary in the Church, "Go and do whatever He tells you."  Listening to this counsel frees us to act as good servants of the Lord, servants who listen and respond in prayer. Servants whose listening prayer becomes prayerful action. Conversely, not to listen to the Woman who prays, is to deprive ourselves of this freedom to serve the Lord. The Lord is ready to turn water into wine, but He needs us to believe in Him and fill the jars of our hearts with the water of confidence in His mercy and contrition for our sin. Of this, He makes such joy as the world as never seen before.

The voice of the Church helps us realize we cannot overcome any enemy on our own resources, but instead, only through those gifts that come from the One who has loved us to the end, gifts that He lavishes us with in and through the Church. The Bridegroom has won these gifts for us by what He has suffered, and He trusts his Bride, the Church, to share them with everyone who asks for them. The Church exists to teach us to do whatever Christ's asks of us. Through the obedience of the Church, each soul learns obedience to this Word of the Father, to preach Him to the ends of the earth until the end of time.

Epiphany evokes adoration and obedience. The Lord is ready to breathe his life into us if we will bow ourselves and offer our lives to Him. If we obediently invite Christ into our hearts, though we suffer every torment, we are not without hope and though we die, we are not without life. For His love is our life. His love in us is stronger than death and no matter the power, nothing can overcome the work that He has begun in us. Even Satan and all his evil works are being used by the Lord as providing new ways to unveil the triumph of His love. Christ can do this because He has suffered all our evil unto death but death could not exhaust His love for us. He descended into Hell but Hell could not prevent Him from finding us to take us home.  Ascended into heaven, everything is subject to Him and ordered to Him, and so He orders everything, even the labyrinthian ways of our own hearts, to His love - such is glory that baptizes us if we give ourselves to Him.