Christ in our Midst

I used to live in the city, and would often stop at red lights where homeless persons sometimes aggregated, asking for help. (I can only imagine how now much their numbers will have multiplied today in view of the current economy). I always kept one-dollar bills folded up and at hand to give to them, and I gave to every person I saw. I know—I always knew—that some of them would use the money for things I didn’t want them to use it for, but that was fine: I was giving them a gift, not a bribe. A gift means there are no strings attached. Life is the gift that God has given us, and he lets us make of it what we will: we’re free to, as Richard Bach once wrote, “write lies, or nonsense, or to tear the pages.” So I always gave. And there was always that thought in the back of my mind: any one of these people could be Christ in disguise.

In fact, when one day the light changed before I could hand something to the man with the cardboard sign and I drove on, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. All I could hear were the words of St. Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.”

I turned the car around and went back.

Was it Jesus I gave money to? God reveals himself to us in many ways—and, sometimes, in ways we miss, or almost miss. God is relentless in pursuing us. God is love and, as love, he wants us to know and recognize him, take pleasure and joy in his presence.

The Hebrew Bible shows us that God revealed himself to his chosen people slowly, over time. Throughout our lifetime, also slowly and sometimes in strange ways, God continues to reveal himself to us.

Today’s readings are all about God revealing himself in surprising places (and to surprising people). Philip was minding his own business when the angel told him to go out and address the Ethiopian traveling down the road. This was an important personage—essentially the head of the queen’­s treasury department—and a lesser man than Philip might have been daunted. Seeing the traveler reading from Scripture, Philip went one further and challenged him as to whether or not he understood what he was reading, offering to explain the passage. Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter… “Who could this be?” demanded the Ethiopian. “Who is the prophet referring to?” Philip told him about Jesus, and the Ethiopian, overcome, requested baptism immediately. Would you expect God’s messenger to be someone who stops you on the road and asks you whether or not you know what you’re doing?

In the Gospel, it’s Jesus who is revealing who he is—and not just who he is, but who sent him. Most of the people surrounding Jesus accepted his authority: he was a rabbi, a teacher; he was a prophet; he was clearly a man of God. But now they’re looking at him with fresh eyes: he is not just a man of God, but he is God, God Incarnate, and he is promising eternal life. Would you expect God’s Son to be a man who looks just like everybody else?

God is constantly doing the unexpected, surprising us over and over again with his message of love and these promises of life. In graced moments, the presence of God shines crystal-clear in the midst of the world. In inviting us to be part of the community of faith, Christ draws in the whole world, even those (perhaps especially those) on whom the world has turned its back.

One of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis, writes that “there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” As God reveals himself to us, he is also constantly revealing himself in us. All of us.

The twentieth-century mystic Caryll Houselander  says that “if we see everyone in our life as ‘another Christ,’ we shall treat everyone with the reverence and objectivity that must grow into love (…) once that is understood we can never again feel completely frustrated by anyone, or lose the serenity of our minds by nursing a grievance.”

God is constantly revealing himself and his love, not to people but through them. All we have to do is notice.

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.

How Much is Enough?

I might as well start with an admission: I love English muffins. Give me a toasted English muffin, and I’m happy to put anything on it—honey, cheese, peanut butter, jam, avocado… I’m just happy. English muffins are generally both plentiful and inexpensive, and for years I’ve never given much thought to them as a preference. They just were.

And then the pandemic struck, and the bread aisle at my local supermarket was suddenly denuded; a swarm of locusts couldn’t have done a better job of wiping it out. A couple of packets of hot dog rolls and some suspicious-looking flatbreads were all that were left. I went home with other groceries, of course. I wasn’t close to starving. But I kept going to the refrigerator and reaching for those English muffins and feeling unsatisfied and even bereft when there were none.

Of course, it’s all just a matter of perspective, and if nothing else the pandemic has brought that understanding home to us, too. I might not have my food of choice; but I have enough food. In my community, in your community, throughout the world, there are people who don’t have enough. Children who will go to sleep tonight hungry. Beside that, my preference for English muffins seems a small, entitled thing.

But I think it’s significant that it’s bread I’m missing, the lack of bread that makes my life so incomplete. I was already thinking about that when I opened my missal to today’s Gospel reading, and there it was again. Bread.

Bread is such a basic part of life. Bread represents the most basic of human needs. It’s a fundamental part of the diets of nearly every world culture. It provides nourishment, sustenance, and vitality. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are taught to pray. Why? Because we need it.

Perhaps because of its ubiquity, bread symbolizes our need of sustenance, and so it’s not surprising to find it featuring regularly in Scripture. There are at least seven words referencing bread in the Hebrew-language version of the Old Testament, and three Greek words referring to it in the New Testament. Mentioned at least 492 times in the original languages of the Bible, it is easy to see how important this food was to everyday life.

From the very beginning, God has longed to feed us, care for us, and lift us up to eternal life with him, and he has constantly been at work to fulfill his longing.

Food, and eating food, especially bread, is a theme the New Testament returns to again and again. When Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “I am the bread of life,” it isn’t just a figure of speech. Jesus meant the words literally. At the Last Supper the night before he died, he held bread in his hands and said to his friends, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24). When Jesus called himself the bread of life, his listeners no doubt thought of Moses. Through Moses, God sent down manna, bread from heaven that fed the chosen people for 40 years before they reached the promised land. Jesus explained, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die” (John 6:49-51).

In feeding hungry people, Jesus recognized the emptiness inside them: not just the emptiness in their bodies, but in their hearts and souls and spirits. And today, more than two thousand years later, we’re still starving.

One of the many things about Christianity I value is its incarnational aspect. Not only did God become human, he blessed the world through his association with earthly things. He performed his first miracle with wine. He wrote words in the dirt. And he valued bread, the work of human hands. When one day Jesus was teaching in a remote and solitary place and it got late, he multiplied five small loaves of bread into enough to feed five thousand hungry people. Again and again we see him coming back to bread.

In an interview with a French Catholic publication, Mother Teresa once said, “The spiritual poverty of the western world is much greater than the physical poverty of our people. You, in the west, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is. What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God.”

So our souls need him. He is the very food our souls crave. Anyone apart from Christ remains famished and dying. Anything else is just empty calories—junk food. He is the answer to end all our spiritual cravings. He is enough.

I keep coming back to that concept in my thoughts and reflections and prayers, the concept of enough. I used to think of it as not particularly positive. Enough doesn’t sound like what I want; I want more! I want perfection! I want exactly what I want, when I want it! Yet more and more in these days of scarcity and fear, of uncertainty and pain, I’ve come to value the concept of “enough.” Enough isn’t second-best. It isn’t oh-well-better-luck-next-time. It is enough.

We don’t have the world we want. We have lost things we thought we couldn’t live without—jobs, a sense of security, friends and loved ones. We are using food banks and soup kitchens and the kindness of strangers for the bread our bodies need. It’s not perfect. It’s not what we’re accustomed to. But it’s enough.

And one place where we really do have enough is in our invitation to the Banquet of the Lamb, in sharing the true bread of life. We are all invited to be taught, to be fed, and to be one with him, and because of this privilege, we have to be sensitized to the needs of others. At the meals Jesus hosted, there were no guest lists. None was necessary, because everyone was invited. In our sharing of the bread of life, we are called to follow his lead in welcoming everyone to his table—and to our own.

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.

Keeping the Brazier Warm

For most of my life, I never thought much about fishing. I knew I enjoyed eating fish, but I never wondered how they were caught or who caught them. If I gave fishing any time in my head at all, it would have been to imagine a lazy summer afternoon, a line in a river, and a good long wait.

Then I moved to a small town on Cape Cod and—well, you can’t exactly escape thoughts about the ocean when you’re in a place called Land’s End, can you? And my town has a long and rich connection to the sea; once a whaling capital, it transformed into a Portuguese fishing village that, in its heyday, featured forty bustling wharves along the harbor. That’s changed now, of course; the commercial fishing fleet, which once numbered hundreds of vessels, is now down to little more than twenty. But it is still here, and people still make their living that way and believe me when I tell you that it’s absolutely nothing like throwing a line in a river on a hot day in July. 

What fishermen do is hard, and it’s dangerous. If the winds are high and flinging sleet against exposed skin and the temperature hasn’t reached freezing in ten days, they go out. If they’re running a fever and are worried about the sound the motor was making last week, they go out. If they haven’t had a vacation in years and their families want to take off for the weekend, they go out.

Today’s Gospel reading is unusual in many ways, but not, I think, in its portrayal of fishermen. 

I’m imagining the aftermath of the events of Holy Week and Easter. When someone important to us dies, it feels like the earth stands still, doesn’t it? The day after my mother died, I couldn’t believe I had to keep doing all the same things. How could I eat? How could I sleep? How could I go to work? How could I do all the ordinary things in a world that no longer had her in it? There’s a period of shock, a liminal time between Life With Them and Life Without Them.

But then, inevitably and necessarily, life does resume. The world doesn’t stop. You have to pay rent; you have to eat; you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

And that’s where we come upon the disciples. The shock of the crucifixion and the resurrection has worn off, and they have to get back to real life. Life would be different, of course; the three years they’d spent with Jesus, his death and resurrection, would change the world. But not yet. First, they have to find their footing in this new reality, and Peter has an immediate solution: go back home and go out fishing. That’s Peter’s normal.

Because that’s another thing about fishermen, the sea is where they feel they belong, where they’re most comfortable. Their first impulse is to find the waves.

So this group of disciples heads out to fish. To clear their heads. They go back out as if nothing happened. And that’s precisely what does happen: nothing. No fish. It’s not difficult to imagine their frustration as they’re heading back to shore.

Jesus stands there, waiting. His closest friends don’t recognize him, yet when he speaks, extraordinarily, Peter and the others obey a stranger who orders them to do something that makes no sense. 

In my experience, no one can tell a fisherman what to do. The desperately hard lives they lead give them utter self-reliance. It seems to me, in reading this story, that there was something amazing about Jesus, something that deeply affected Peter and the others even when they didn’t recognize him as their Risen Lord. They knew without yet knowing.

The symbolism is there, of course: we’re familiar with what happens next; this passage precedes the one in which Jesus exhorts them to go out and become fishers of men. 

But what strikes me here is the kindness of Jesus. He waits for them to come to shore, the brazier warm, already cooking breakfast for the tired and disheartened men. We—as individuals and as the Church—are called to see Christ in everyone we encounter, and to give Christ to the world. How else can we do that, but through acts of kindness? Jesus’ kindness challenges me, makes me wonder if that’s what I do if I do enough. I know how hard many people’s lives are, the rough seas we all encounter, the poor catches. Do I imitate Christ? Do I keep the brazier warm for others? 

At a time when acts of kindness are so desperately needed in the world, when our particular rough seas and poor catch take the form of a virus and the loss of work, loss of closeness with others, loss of income, loss of security; at this particular time, keeping that brazier warm—sewing masks, donating to food banks, checking in on others via telephone—is the best way to be Jesus to the world. 

Fishermen are determined to go out, no matter what the weather or the circumstances. We can borrow that same determination to show up for our brothers and sisters, to see Christ in them, and to be Christ to them. Keep that brazier warm.

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.

Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places

I did something difficult this past week: I wrote my will. (Yes, of course, I should have done it ages ago; let’s take that as read.) While I am naturally hoping it won’t come into play in the near future, the truth is I have a significantly increased chance of dying now than I had a month ago. Hence the will.

Not, mind you, that I own a lot. My mortgage company and I co-own my cottage. I have a cat. That’s pretty much it—I thought. And then I got to the page where it discussed intellectual property, and I think I actually exclaimed “whoa!” out loud.

I have intellectual property. I write mystery novels. Not the Great American Novel, not even an ephemeral bestseller or two; but still, I write novels that, I am told, make for satisfying entertainment. On one hand, this doesn’t matter much, since there aren’t torrents of money coming in from them. On the other hand, who do I name as literary executor? Who is the person I trust with all my aspirations and dreams, my mistakes and my successes, my old outdated articles and my not-yet-published potential masterpieces?

Who do I trust?

It’s impossible to reflect on Scripture without seeing it through the lens of the present moment. It’s impossible to hear the word of the Lord and not also hear it echoing through our own lives and our own experiences. So, like everyone reading this, I am aware of the challenges of living and thinking—of everything I do, in fact—in the midst of a global pandemic. How can that not influence how we hear God’s voice? Every Biblical writer looked around themselves and said, “Look at the world! What are you doing? What am I doing?” It’s a cry for the ages.

And we find ourselves taking it up anew today.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is telling us who he is. He emphasizes how the Jews are looking for the meaning of life in the wrong places. Their thinking cannot make the connection between what they know and who they see before them; they lack that light. And the reality that shines through this reading—and to some extent also through the previous readings, the passage from Exodus and the psalm—is that we persist in looking for meaning in the wrong places. It’s the ongoing story of humanity.

Who do we trust? In Exodus and Psalm 106, we trusted a golden calf. In the Gospel, we trust in the things that point toward Jesus—the words of Scripture, the life of Moses, the appearance of John the Baptist—rather than in Jesus himself.

There’s a country song that bemoans the singer’s tendency to be “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Isn’t that what we do when we’re looking everywhere but at God? We look at the divisions and issues in the Church and we accuse God of not taking better care of us. We create pollution in our streams and earth and ask God why he allows children in those polluted areas to die. We listen to the promises of politicians and follow them even when it means moving away from our faith. Why are we looking everywhere but to Christ?

That’s how I resolved my dilemma, by the way. I asked myself where I should be looking. I looked at the people closest to me and asked myself, who loves my work? And once I asked the right question, the answer became immediately clear; I knew right away who it should be. Who I could trust. I had broken the issue down to its most basic reality, stripped it of all the extraneous “stuff” I’d put there. I finally asked the right question, looked in the right direction.

If we ask the question, who loves me? then our answer becomes clear, too. In the words of another song, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Who do I trust? This I know.

It’s so easy in a time of chaos to let fear take the wheel. Fear makes us turn away from the right questions and the right road. Fear sows divisions and hatred among us; it helps us make bad decisions and turn to the darkness. We have to experience fear, but we don’t have to stay there. We can write our wills. We can take health and safety precautions. We can turn away from the golden calf, stop looking for love in all the wrong places, and instead rest in the love of the Lord.

This I know.

An optional prayer over the people from today’s Mass seems a fitting prayer for a time of pandemic:

O God, protector of all who hope in you,
bless your people, keep them safe,
defend them, prepare them,
that, free from sin and safe from the enemy,
they may persevere always in your love.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.

What Would Elisha Do?

We’re probably all dealing with some of the same situations and the same emotions as each other right now. Crowds filling supermarkets and stocking up on bottled water and toilet paper. Yet another bulletin telling us what to do to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 (though I do have to ask why Comcast needed to send me some advice—the cable company now has doctors on staff?). It’s easy to fall into panic mode as a potentially deadly pandemic grips the globe.

And just on cue, we have today’s reading from the Second Book of Kings. If ever there were a time when the horizon of Scriptural text meets the horizon of today, it is this! Today God is giving us for our consideration a story of a disease suffered and cured, and a story of borders and boundaries.

“This delightfully pesky story,” writes Biblical scholar Samuel Giere, “of the healing of Naaman the Aramean by Elisha the prophet of Israel is a story of border-crossings, whereby the Lord works in mysterious ways—unwelcome by anyone, ancient or modern, who wants the Lord to observe humanity’s boundaries, and welcome by those finding themselves at the margins or on the outside.”

I live on Cape Cod, separated from the mainland by two aging bridges. As I write this, there have not yet been any confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in this county. And while it is prudent to take the prescribed precautions—and we are—there’s no need to come to blows over who gets the last packet of frozen vegetables at the supermarket, as a friend of mine observed. Truly situations like this bring out both the best and the worst in human nature.

The thing is, we who live here count on those bridges. We refer to travel to the mainland as “going over the bridge,” and it’s done, frankly, as little as possible. We have the Cape Cod Canal between us and, in a sense, the rest of the world. We live in a place that is desolate and lonely half of the year, and overrun with visitors the other half, and we’ve consequently developed a strong understanding, even with value judgments aside, of “us” as being quite separate from “them.”

It’s a dangerous way to look at life.

Let’s step back a moment and look at what’s happening in this story. Naaman is a powerful foreigner, commanding the army of Israel’s enemy Aram. Naaman also has leprosy, and clearly wants to be cured. The captive Israelite slave girl is pivotal in this story of healing: she has come to serve Naaman’s wife, but breaks out of the silence of slavery to direct Naaman to the healing power of the Lord, the God of Israel, by way of Israel’s prophet.

Aram is willing to try anything to see Naaman cured, but rather than approach the prophet, as the Israelite slave counseled, he does the politically expedient thing and instead sends a message—with a hefty bribe—to the king instead: equal speaking to equal in a currency they both understand. But the letter drives Israel’s king into mourning, for he knows that God alone can give life. Elisha hears of the king’s distress and takes over: “Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel.”

Elisha sends word to Naaman of a simple cure: go and wash in the Jordan, you will be cleansed. Instead of being grateful, Naaman is furious. He likes neither the simplicity nor the locality of the prophet’s cure. Just… wash myself? In the Jordan? That’s it? I could have done that at home and spared myself the trip! But calmed by his servant, he follows Elisha’s prescription and is restored. (Do you notice that this story is filled with “lowly” people—the slave girl and the servant—who are more open to God’s voice than is the commander of the army or the king of the country?)

There are a whole lot of boundaries being broken down here, and that makes it, truly, a story for our time. The more we think of the world in terms of “us” and “them,” it then becomes a dangerously small step to “us” versus “them.” We look to borders and boundaries to protect us from a virus that heeds neither, when we should be expanding our sense of “us” to include everyone. We are all, in essence, on the Ark. It’s a good time to think about getting along with everyone on board.

God doesn’t see boundaries. God touches us in the simplest and most direct of ways. “My father,” said Naaman’s servant, “if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it?” We’re all looking for the miracle cure, the razzmatazz, the glitter. We want a big red pill we can take to make this scary situation go away. But it is in simplicity and sharing that we’re going to get through it.

What would Elisha say to our time, to our need for healing? What would Elisha do?

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.

The Road Begins Here

As I’ve probably shared here before, I live in a very small town that has a very big housing problem: second-home owners, seasonal rentals, and gentrification mean that it’s an increasingly expensive place to live. So over the past 10 years I’ve had to downsize my living arrangements more than once.

The first time, I’ll admit, was horrible. (I literally had a room full of books!) I was giving away things I believed had deep meaning to me, things I believed I would miss, things I believed I had to have in order to be me. I was asking difficult questions about what I needed—versus what I merely wanted. I’ve downsized twice since then, and the good news is it gets easier each time.

Maybe I’m finally getting to where I require less stuff in my life. Or perhaps it’s just I’m figuring out there are things that hold far more importance than “stuff.”

I think it’s so wonderfully appropriate that we have today’s gospel reading right at the beginning of Lent. Right here, right at the beginning, when we’re just out of Ash Wednesday, Jesus is clearly and unambiguously telling us the central events of his passion, death, and resurrection—the whole story, in just two verses. The road, he is saying, begins here. From now on, you’re going to have to make changes. Make sacrifices. Do things you don’t want to do. If you want to be part of Jesus’ project to save humanity, it’s going to include a lot of hard things, and it’s probably best to start down this road unencumbered.

If we want to follow Jesus, then there’s a price to be paid. He is willing to pay the price for us, even dying for us; but there’s a cost on our end, as well. We have crosses to take up and carry, pale imitations of his walk to Calvary carrying the instrument of his own torture and death.

The gospel is unequivocal: suffering and self-displacement are the hallmarks of a disciple. The road begins here, the road to being a follower of Jesus, the road to our own death and resurrection as well as his. And the first thing we have to do is give up all that stuff we thought we needed.

There’s a lot in life worth hoarding, but Jesus willingly turns his back on all of it. Why should we do any differently?

De-cluttering has become a fashionable activity, with suggestions arriving daily in our inboxes about how to do more with less. They tell us to use our motor vehicles less and our legs more; how empty surfaces are more appealing than piles of paper; that no one really needs all those pairs of shoes.

But not hoarding goes beyond the things we keep in our homes; it’s about the things we keep in our hearts. Jesus has chosen the way of the cross. He doesn’t hoard his life, even though at the end of the day our lives are all we have to keep or to give. And in this passage, he’s telling us exactly what it is we shouldn’t be hoarding: our selves. We are called not to hoard our lives, but to live generously.

To deny my own self, to reach a point where I am no longer the most important thing in the world, to be happy to listen instead of talking, to accept without resentment the challenges and troubles that come to me through time or circumstances—this is what it means to stop hoarding. That’s an especially troubling thought at the beginning of Lent, when giving up chocolate seems the most demanding thing in the world.

“What profit is there for one to gain the whole world, yet lose or forfeit himself?” What does it matter what I own, how much money I make, what kind of car I drive, indeed how many books I have in my library, if those things are what define me?

This Lent, Jesus is inviting us all to explore what our own individual crosses look like. How they can be the part of the way to redemption, the way to resurrection, the way to the Kingdom. To de-clutter our hearts and our souls and our minds so there’s more space for what he asks of us—sacrifice, generosity of spirit and action, hospitality, sharing, goodness of life, even suffering. This Lent, he’s looking tosee whether we’re willing to do it.

The road begins here.

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.

The Circus Won’t Be Coming To Town

Recently my small town got very involved in a major brouhaha.

We’re a tourist destination, and most people meet their financial obligations by working in the summertime and then trying to live on what they made for the balance of the year. It’s tricky. It’s also important for us to have continued reasons for tourists to keep coming here, and that’s especially true this year, because it’s the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, and we’re bracing for more people than ever.

Cirque du Soleil is a traveling show offering a unique take on the circus arts: animal-free, striking, dramatic, beautiful, and reflective, it features outrageous costumes, magical lighting, and original music. The organization receives 3,000 requests a year to produce customized shows, of which they only accept twelve worldwide. Some individuals in my town proposed that Cirque produce a show specifically for the 2020 summer celebration, and a long process of negotiations began. They were done perforce under nondisclosure terms, and as the time to announce the show drew near, a reporter overheard something about it and wrote a highly inaccurate scare piece in the local newspaper. Too many people! It will overwhelm the town! It will take away from the artists who already perform here! We’ve never done it before!

The town was in an uproar, fiercely divided over the issue. The producers issued a press release explaining the legalities of why it hadn’t yet been publicized and showing that it would in fact be the jewel of the festival season—but it was too late. Another misleading article was published, and the inevitable happened. Cirque will not be coming.

I’ve been feeling sad about that decision, not only for the lost opportunity but also because it showed how we let fear and ignorance take the driver’s seat in our lives; and then I read today’s Gospel and realized that human nature is exactly the same today as it was in Jesus’ time. I don’t know whether to be relieved or disheartened!

He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.”

We all want to be the first ones to know a secret. From childhood, when we taunt each other with “I know something you don’t know” (best when done in a singsong voice), through the cherished tale-tattling of our adolescence, and finally into adulthood, when being “in the know” indicates access, power, prestige: we want to be first to share the news. Who wants to be the last person in the office to hear that Rosemary was fired? Who wants to learn their best friend in the Mommy Club is seeing a counselor and told with everybody else?

Maybe I’m being too harsh here. Maybe when Jesus admonished people to not talk about his miracles, they disobeyed out of love for their fellow sufferers, so that more people might flock to him, more miraculous cures could happen. Could be. But I don’t think so. I’ve seen too much of “I really shouldn’t tell you this, but…” to think their motives were entirely selfless and pure.

Jesus had good reasons for asking for discretion. He didn’t want people coming to him exclusively for healing; he wanted them to come to him in faith. He was fulfilling his life’s plan and needed to keep the Messianic secret until the end, until his resurrection. But whether or not he had good reasons, the point is that he made the admonishment, and the man he’d healed disobeyed. He just couldn’t help himself. He had to break the news, be the important one, the bearer of the secret.

And when that happens, it always ends badly.

In my example, one could wish the reporter who uncovered the story had done due diligence before printing her piece. It was biased and distorted (and one has to wonder how biased and distorted the cured man’s sharing of his news was, as well!), and perhaps most importantly, she saw her sharing as giving her prestige. Thank goodness for her, she broke the news, she saved everything. And never mind who got hurt in the process.

We all get hurt in the process. We’re supposed to be “the least of these,” but we puff ourselves up and want to be the ones who have all the good stuff, the gossip, the details. “But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.”

And the circus won’t be coming to town.

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.

What Keeps You Up At Night?

Three o’clock. That’s when they usually come, the gremlins that wake me from my sleep and dance around my bed, reminding me of all the things I don’t want to think about. Three o’clock in the morning, and the beautiful wide world has shrunk to this small room and all the voices from my past echoing off its walls.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a terrible person, not in the great scheme of things. I’ve never murdered or stolen or done any of the offenses that society judges as dire; but then again, I have a different judge, don’t I? And at three o’clock, the judgment is pretty grim.

I have on occasion not only hurt someone, but hurt them deliberately. I have failed to listen, to reach out, to be as compassionate as I’m called to be. I’ve missed opportunities to bring the Good News of Christ to someone when those opportunities have presented themselves. I’ve been selfish, vain, and short-sighted. Most of the time I balance all this with the times I have been kind, have gone out of my way to help others, have taken a stand. But not at three o’clock. Only the bad memories, the failures, the transgressions appear at three o’clock.

When I looked up today’s readings, I winced. Oh, no: the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah. I don’t like this story. I want God’s chosen leader to be a good man, a man I can admire and respect, a man of principle and conscience, and instead I see someone willing to kill another human being just so he can essentially take that man’s wife. I’ll write about the Gospel instead, I decided; the parable of the mustard seed is far easier to get behind.

But as I thought about it, I realized God has so much to teach us through this story, and maybe if I’m a little less judgmental I might be able to listen to it—and hear something. The lesson starts in the first few lines: the spring has come, and it’s time to go to war. David’s whole past has been military, ever since as a teenager he killed a giant of a man and secured his fame; but this spring, instead of leading his troops, he sends them out without him. Maybe he was feeling lazy. Maybe it doesn’t matter what he was feeling. I’m the king; I can do whatever I like. But leading his men was his responsibility, and one of the first steps we take away from God is when we shrug off our responsibilities. It’s been said that 80% of life is just showing up, and this spring, David didn’t show up. My middle-of-the-night gremlins are quick to remind me of all the times I haven’t shown up, too. Made excuses; made rationalizations. I’m tired; I’m busy; I can do whatever I like. So far, this story is hitting very close to home.

Despite having been cautioned against it in Deuteronomy, David has also catered to his more carnal side. After a teenage marriage that failed, he started marrying—and also not marrying—quite a substantial number of women. So it’s little surprise that when he watches Bathsheba taking advantage of the coolness of the evening to bathe, he decides he wants her, too; and what the king wants, the king gets.

I’ve also indulged some of my whims. Money that could have gone to help people in dire need has been spent on things I wanted: books, clothing, gadgets, oh and did I mention books? I didn’t need any of it; but I catered to my desires anyway. Don’t be so quick to judge David, the gremlins whisper.

Bathsheba didn’t have much recourse. She’s often cast as a temptress, but it’s hard for me to see her at fault here. The king sends for you; you go. There were a number of possible solutions to this problem that wouldn’t have involved killing anyone, but David’s first thought is to send Uriah into battle—the battle he himself couldn’t be bothered to fight—and make sure he’s killed.

He went for the easiest, most immediate solution. He didn’t take time to think about it, pray about it, get advice. And it’s times like that when my impulses have gotten me into trouble, too. When I’ve panicked and looked for the quick and easy way out. When thoughtful consideration and prayer would have shown me a better solution.

Today’s reading ends with Uriah’s murder. But the untold part of the story, I think, is the most important: David finally got it. He realized the magnitude of what he’d been doing. He became estranged from God and depressed. He later wrote three psalms describing those months out of fellowship with God: Psalms 32, 38 and 51. Read them, and you’ll realize how deeply he got it. He, too, had gremlins haunting him at night.

That brings us to the happy certainty of forgiveness. David will finally acknowledge his sin. His spirit was broken; his heart was contrite. And as a result, he will hear the sweetest, most beautiful, most reassuring, most encouraging words known to humanity: “The Lord has removed your sin” (2 Sam. 12:13).

My gremlins are still there, because I’m a lot slower to forgive myself than God is. I remember once going to confession; at the end, the priest said, “You’re all set.” I loved that phrase and remind myself of it when memories and sadness and fear keep me up at night. You’re all set; the Lord has removed your sin.

 And I pray to be able to take God at his word. To tell the gremlins: You can go away now.

Like everything else in life, that’s a work in progress.

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.

How Quickly We Forget

It’s pretty much a truism that many (if not most) people are quicker to ask for something than they are to be grateful for that thing once it’s given to them. This is nowhere more apparent than in our prayer lives. A good friend of mine sends me an email at the beginning of each month: “What are the prayer intentions I can help you with this month?” And it’s only relatively recently I realized my response, most of the time, was to ask her to join my prayers of petition.

I’ve been painfully—no pun intended, at least not completely—aware of that lack of balance over the past month. Less than a week before Christmas, I fell and broke my arm, a compound fracture that required several hours of surgery and involved more physical pain than I’ve ever had to endure. I spent a lot of sleepless nights, moaning about how much it hurt and asking God to alleviate the pain. “Please, please, please… just one night. Just one day. Just one hour. Please make it go away.”

Eventually I listened to myself, was suitably chastised, and changed my prayer. “Please help me endure it. Please make me stronger.” Steps in the right direction, for sure, but still a request, a plea, still that pesky “please do something for me.”

When we want something, we want it with our whole being. Sometimes we can’t see anything beyond it. This is apparent in daily life: sometimes we see individuals in single-minded pursuit of power, or wealth, or fame; sometimes we see them begging for a cure for a child’s illness, or for forgiveness from someone they’ve wronged, or for a good death. Whatever it is we want, whether the aim is selfish or altruistic, that desire for “something” is somehow stitched into human DNA; only the saints seem able to overcome it.

Once we get whatever it was we wanted so badly, though, it becomes less of an obsession. We’re on to the next big thing. We forget how much we wanted what we prayed for.

Looking through the lens of my own situation, I do compare this desire—and what happens when it is slaked—to pain. As time has passed, my pain has indeed lessened, to the point where now it’s difficult to remember just how excruciating those December nights were. How I begged God for help. And I know I haven’t thanked him enough for this gradual deliverance—certainly not nearly as often as I petitioned him to make it go away.

In today’s Gospel, Mark tells the story of a leper who asks Jesus to deliver him from his disease. I have to think that wasn’t the first time this man asked for deliverance. Perhaps, like me, he lay awake at night, aware only of his sickness and how he wanted God to make it go away. Perhaps he, too, begged, “please… please… please.”

He reaches out to Jesus and is cured. He gets what he wanted.

 The man now can resume the daily life his disease denied him. He can get back to normal. He returns to his village; he shows his priest proof of his cure; he offers initial thanks. But at some level, he has forgotten, already, how absolutely awful it was. He has forgotten what Jesus did for him—at no small personal risk, which we realize as the story unfolds. The man has forgotten the pain of being ostracized, the wounds on his body, the isolation and the fear. And now that he’s back in the social round, despite Jesus having sternly cautioned him not to, he shares his story—with the inevitable result of curtailing Jesus’ ability to move freely and carry on his ministry.

I don’t think this man had evil intentions, or that he wanted to purposely thwart Jesus in any way. I think he was thoughtless, careless, forgetful.

As am I.

Today is my birthday, and I have a great deal to celebrate, a great deal to be grateful for. I had an excellent surgeon. I now have moderately long stretches of time when I am relatively pain-free. I will eventually, like the man in Mark’s story, be able to resume my life much as it was before my fall. Through the grace of God, I will in fact get what I begged him for with such fervor.

But I don’t want to forget the pain. I don’t want to forget the fear, and the sense of helplessness, and the nights I wanted to die because it hurt so much. They’re already receding, and I don’t want them to. I want to remember them so I can offer thanks as much as I once cried out for help. I want to remember them so I can heed Jesus’ words about how to move forward with my life, and not just run off and do whatever I please because I’ve forgotten.

When my friend emails me in a couple of weeks and asks for my prayer intentions for February, this time around I will have a different response. I want her to echo my gratitude. And I will be doing my very best in the meantime… to not forget.

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.

The Thorn Among the Roses

It hasn’t been a very good year, has it? No matter what one believes politically, there is no Catholic who can feel good about children separated from their parents, put into cages, dying of neglect—or worse. I live in a country that allows this to happen. I am a citizen of a country that considers this an acceptable solution to a problem.

It’s not a comfortable thought.

I want my country to be more compassionate. I want my world to be more compassionate. So I turn to prayer. I ask God why; I ask him where he is when these terrible things are happening. Where is he when families are torn apart, when children are crying in the night?

And I hear his answer. He is here. He is in the camps at the border. He is with them, every day, every moment. He meets them in their pain and suffering. Where is he? He is sitting with the immigrants in their cages. He is holding the solitary frightened  toddler as she cries. He closes the eyes of the young boy who just died.

But, I say to him, it’s not fair! How can you allow this to happen?

And he points me to today’s Gospel, difficult to read at the best of times, excruciating to read here and now in the Year of Our Lord 2019. If the birth of the Christ-Child in Bethlehem that we just celebrated could be considered the roses, then today’s reading surely points to the thorns surrounding them.

A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.

The two themes of today’s Gospel reading have woven together this year in a most terrible way. First, we have a young family coming to the horrifying realization that they won’t be going home with their newborn, after all. That they cannot go home. That home is unsafe. That home means death.

They must leave the only place they’ve ever known, with nothing but the clothes they wear and the baby in their arms, and walk. For days stretching into weeks, they walk until they can enter another country, another culture, one they did not choose but have to embrace… and, somehow, survive there. It’s probable—in view of human nature as we see it around us—that Joseph and Mary, these refugees from Judea, were despised by the citizens of that new country. Viewed as Other. Viewed as Not Quite As Good As Us. Viewed as Them.

The Holy Family didn’t choose to be migrants, any more than many of the people at our borders want to be there. They are escaping—violence, death, starvation. They are there for the same reason the Holy Family was in Egypt: because it was the only option they had.

And then comes the massacre. The three wise men alert Herod—aging, feeling his power slipping from him, paranoid from the palace intrigue raging around him—to the birth of a new king in Bethlehem. Bethlehem at the time doesn’t actually amount to much; it’s a village of about 1,500 residents. Some interesting studies have shown there were probably no more than two dozen babies two years old and under—half of them female.

That’s still twelve to fifteen children murdered. Not enough to register in the mind of Josephus, our primary external source of the time; but enough. Enough for their parents. Enough for their communities. Every child is sacred. Every life is meaningful.

And it’s a number that’s getting dangerously close to the deaths suffered by children in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol.

We celebrate Stephen as the first Christian martyr, but I wonder if we ought not think of those babies in Bethlehem as the first martyrs to Christianity. Innocent. Helpless. Just learning their first words, taking their first tentative steps. Dimples and gurgling and asking for just one more drink of water before they go to sleep. Gone.

And the other Baby, the newborn, living in poverty in Egypt, his family constantly on the move—we have sources for this, how they never stayed more than six months in one place, which can only point to the residents’ treatment of them—survived. God was with his Son, even as he is with all the children of migrants, the castaways, the Other.

It wasn’t a particularly auspicious beginning, was it? Rags and begging and just managing to get through the day. Surely God’s Son deserved better?

Surely everyone does.

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.

Are You Asking the Right Questions?

She always knew the answer before she asked the question. Who tracked the mud in the kitchen? Who ate the last cookie and didn’t get rid of the wrapping? Who left their bookbag in the entry-way?

My mother had an uncanny way of knowing what I was up to even before I was up to anything. Don’t even think of doing that, she’d say, and the action never formed. She knew perfectly well who’d tracked the mud, who hadn’t tossed the package, who’d dropped the bookbag lazily in the front hall. She didn’t accuse; she didn’t have to. She wanted to hear the admission from me.

If I lied about anything, then she really had me. My lies were never fluent or well-thought-through; they were always spur-of-the-moment affairs meant to get me out of the immediate sticky situation. And when I lied, my mother would pounce. She knew where she had me then.

There’s a certain power in that, in putting someone in a corner and forcing them to tell you what you want to hear. It was fairly benign in my mother’s case—she was, after all, trying to raise me to be a thoughtful and tidy person—but it can very quickly get out of hand.

In today’s Gospel, the chief priests and elders are trying—yet again—to box Jesus into that corner. Who said you could do these things? Who told you that you could teach here? They’re not asking because they already know (although one or two of them must have had at least a glimmer of the truth by now) but because they want to trick him, to force him to say something they can use against him. There’s always a kind of Morton’s Fork at work when the authorities deal with Jesus, and they go into it thinking they’ve got him no matter how he answers… and then he delivers something they never saw coming.

He answers their question with a question, and bases his answer on their answer. For a man with minimal education—he was, after all, a carpenter, someone who worked with his hands—Jesus was thinking (to the minds of the elders, anyway) way above his pay-grade. And he had them in precisely the corner they’d tried to put him into. “Where was John’s baptism from?” he asks them. “Was it of heavenly or human origin?”

The authority figures go into a huddle. He’s got us, they admit. If we say John had heavenly authority, then Jesus has us, because we didn’t give John due respect. If we say John had earthly authority, we’ll be going against popular opinion and none of us wants that—who knows what could happen if the crowd gets riled up! Damn!

Remember, this encounter didn’t come out of the blue. Jesus was no stranger to controversy and conflict with the religious establishment. The priests and elders held a fixed view of how the Messiah should come, and when he doesn’t conform to their expectations, they demand to know the source of his authority… and he leaves them grappling emptily in their stubbornness of heart.

It’s worth noting that this exchange between Jesus indirectly emphasizes and elevates the stature of John the Baptist–and, in consequence, his prophecy about the One Who Is To Come. In today’s first reading, there’s a hint of the prophecy that would blossom with John: “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near. A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.”

But where does that leave us? How often do we split hairs about religion, asking the questions we think will box others into a corner and show how “right” we are? Do we ask questions, not to get answers, but to show ourselves in a good light? If we put ourselves into this scene from Matthew’s Gospel, how do we respond? Do we try to ask questions that limit our faith and that of others, or do we leave ourselves open to divine possibility?

I’m hoping I can answer with the latter. I hope I can ask questions without knowing the answer in advance. I hope I try to accept the mystery without second-guessing it.

My mother was right, most of the time, when she pointed out my shortcomings. But we cannot treat the world as we would a recalcitrant child, and we cannot assume we always know better than others. At the heart of both of today’s readings swirls the incense of mystery, of tentative faith, of possibility.

It’s not a bad image with which to start the new liturgical year.

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.

Seeing is Believing

I have a confession to make: I don’t notice things. I’ll have spent half an hour with someone, and they’ll finally ask, “So what do you think of my new glasses?” I never realized they were wearing new glasses—or a new haircut, or a new dress, or whatever the fairly obvious to anyone but me change might be. A friend of mine drives a bright aqua (i.e., very noticeable) Jeep, and she’ll say, “I drove right by you this morning and waved,” and of course, I’ll have had no idea. I’d like to think it’s because I’m constantly Thinking Deep Thoughts, but I’m afraid that’s not the answer. I just don’t notice things.

That’s not very nice, of course. People like you to notice; noticing shows that you care about them, that you’re paying attention, that they’re important to you. I do care, and so I’ve tried over time to train myself to notice things. And I end up being ridiculous, commenting on a “new chair” that the person in question has had forever and that I’ve probably sat in many times without noticing. Oops.

Seeing is important. Seeing others, really seeing them, is an essential part of living in community. It enables us to transcend differences, to form bonds, to delight in shared values. And despite my apparent inability to notice the world around me, I always feel that the most traumatic loss of a sense would be the loss of sight. It’s difficult enough to navigate life with my eyes open; I can’t imagine doing it were they to be permanently closed.

And that’s where we start with today’s Gospel reading: with a blind man. You’ve probably noticed the number of blind people referenced in Scripture; diseases of the eye leading to blindness were widespread in the ancient world. There was little those afflicted could do by way of work, so most were reduced to begging. And so it was with this fellow—Mark’s Gospel identifies him as Bartimaeus—who is on the roadside outside Jericho. He is poor, he is blind, and he is clearly a nuisance; when he learns that Jesus is passing and calls out, everyone around tells him to shut up.

It’s a small story, this; someone calls upon Jesus for help, shows their faith, and is cured. There are other similar stories scattered like jewels throughout the Gospels. But this one contains more than one simple storyline, and it’s worth taking a second look—noticing—to see what those storylines are.

First, there’s the fact that this blind man, someone who clearly lived on the fringes of society, knew who Jesus was. He’s not stupid; he’s well-informed and attentive. He notices things. He’s noticed the size of the crowd and knows what that means; and when he’s told who is passing, he knows exactly who Jesus is and what he can do.

Second, he is willing to claim his rights. He shouts; the good citizens around him, embarrassed, try to hush him, but he shouts. He’s determined. He doesn’t let them tell him how he should behave. He doesn’t let them make decisions for him.

Third—and this is particularly interesting—Jesus asks him a question. “What do you want me to do for you?” It probably drew some irritation from the people pressing on with Jesus, anxious to get to Jericho, perhaps thinking longingly of a fire and an evening meal. Of course he wants to be cured! What else could he possibly want? Do it and let’s move on!

They’re right, of course; he did ask to be given his sight, and that’s what Jesus did for him. But Jesus didn’t make any assumptions. He let the man choose. He showed this blind beggar the respect no one else had. He treated him as a valued human being.

What do you want me to do for you?

Have we come so very far from the people who told this blind beggar to be quiet? The poor can be a nuisance because they disrupt our comfortable lives. How do we look at people who are poor, people with disabilities? Do we treat them as valued human beings? Do we even notice them?

Seeing them, truly seeing them, is believing they are sacred, special to God. The more we see, the more we will believe and understand that we’re all children of God, beloved by our Creator and worthy of being noticed. When we can ask of others, “What do you want me to do for you?” instead of assuming we know best what someone else needs, then we too will be closer to Jesus—on that road to Jericho, and in our own modern lives.

It really is all about noticing!

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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.