Rembrandt van Rijn, “The return of the prodigal son”; c.1662
MY time in Rome at the Vatican in October, 2006 was an occasion of great graces. But it was also a time of great trials.
I came as a pilgrim. It was my intention to immerse myself in prayer through the surrounding spiritual and historical edifice of the Vatican. But by the time my 45 minute cab ride from the Airport to St. Peter’s Square was over, I was exhausted. The traffic was unbelievable—the way people drove even more startling; every man for himself!
St. Peter’s Square was not the idealic setting I expected. It is surrounded by main traffic arteries with hundreds of buses, taxis, and cars whizzing by every hour. St. Peter’s Basilica, the central Church of Vatican City and the Roman Catholic Church, is crawling with thousands of tourists. Upon entering the Basilica, one is greeted by pushing bodies, flashing cameras, humourless security guards, beeping cellphones, and the confusion of a myriad of languages. Outside, the sidewalks are lined with shops and carts loaded with rosaries, trinkets, statues, and just about any religious article you can think of. Holy distractions!
When I first entered St. Peter’s, my reaction was not what I expected. The words welled up within me from some other place… “If only My people were as adorned as this church!” I went back to the relative stillness of my hotel room (situated above a noisy Italian side-street), and fell to my knees. “Jesus… have mercy.”
A PRAYER BATTLE
I was in Rome for about a week. The highlight, of course, was the audience with Pope Benedict and the concert the night before (read A Day of Grace). But two days after that precious meeting, I was tired and agitated. I was longing for peace. I had, by then, prayed dozens of Rosaries, Divine Mercy Chaplets, and the Liturgy of the Hours… it was the only way I could stay focused on making this a pilgrimage of prayer. But I could also feel the enemy not far behind, snorting little temptations at me here and there. Sometimes, out of the blue, I would suddenly be immersed into a doubt that God did not even exist. Such were the days… battles between grit and grace.
My last night in Rome, I was nearly asleep, enjoying the novelty of sports on television (something we do not have at home), watching the soccer highlights of the day.
I was about to shut off the TV when I felt the urge to change the channels. As I did, I came across three stations with pornographic-type advertising. I am a red-blooded male and immediately knew I was in for a battle. All kinds of thoughts raced through my head amidst a terrible curiosity. I was horrified and disgusted, while at the same time drawn…
When I eventually shut the television off, I was appalled that I had succumbed to the lure. I fell to my knees in sorrow, and begged God to forgive me. And immediately, the enemy pounced. “How could you do this? You who saw the pope just two days ago. Unbelievable. Unthinkable. Unforgivable.”
I was crushed; the guilt laid upon me like a heavy black garment made of lead. I was duped by the false glamor of sin. “After all these prayers, after all the graces God has given you… how could you? How could you?”
Yet, somehow, I could feel the mercy of God hovering above me, the warmth of His Sacred Heart burning nearby. I was almost frightened by the presence of this Love; I was afraid that I was being presumptuous, and so I chose to listen to the more rational voices… “You deserve the pits of hell… unbelievable, yes, unbelievable. Oh, God will forgive, but whatever graces He had to give you, whatever blessings He was going to pour out on you in the days ahead are gone. This is your punishment, this is your just punishment.”
Indeed, I was planning to spend the next four days in a small village called Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There, allegedly, the Blessed Virgin Mary has been appearing daily to visionaries. cf. On Medjugorje For over twenty years, I had heard miracle after miracle coming from this place, and now I wanted to see for myself what it was all about. I had a great sense of anticipation that God was sending me there for a purpose. “But now that purpose is gone,” said this voice, whether mine or someone else’s I could no longer tell. I went to Confession and Mass the next morning in St. Peter’s, but those words I heard earlier… they felt too much like truth as I boarded the plane for Split.
The two and half hour drive through the mountains to the village of Medjugorje was quiet. My cab driver spoke little English, which was fine. I just wanted to pray. I wanted to cry too, but held it back. I was so ashamed. I had pierced my Lord and failed His trust. “O Jesus, forgive me, Lord. I am so sorry.””
“Yes, you are forgiven. But it’s too late… you should just go home,” said a voice.
The driver dropped me off in the heart of Medjugorje. I was hungry, tired, and my spirit broken. Since it was Friday (and the village there fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays), I began to look for a place where I could buy some bread. I saw a sign outside of a business that said, “Mary’s Meals”, and that they were offering food for fast days. I sat down to some water and bread. But within myself, I was longing for the Bread of Life, the Word of God.
I grabbed my bible and it opened to John 21:1-19. This is the passage where Jesus appears again to the disciples after His resurrection. They are fishing with Simon Peter, and catching absolutely nothing. As He did once before, Jesus, who is standing on the shore, calls to them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. And when they do, it is filled to overflowing. “It is the Lord!” yells John. With that, Peter leaps overboard and swims to shore.
When I read this, my heart nearly stopped as tears began to fill my eyes. This is the first time Jesus appears specifically to Simon Peter after he denied Christ three times. And the first thing the Lord does is fill his net with blessings—not punishment.
I finished my breakfast, trying hard to keep my composure in public. I took the bible in my hands and read on.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep…” And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Jesus didn’t berate Peter. He did not correct, scold, or re-hash the past. He simply asked, “Do you love me?” And I replied, “Yes Jesus! You know I love you. I love you so imperfectly, so poorly… but you know I love you. I’ve given my life for you Lord, and I give it again.”
After eating Mary’s “first meal,” I went to Mass. Afterward, I sat outside in the sun. I tried to enjoy its heat, but a cool voice began to speak to my heart again… “Why did you do this? Oh, what could have been here! The blessings you are missing!”
“Oh Jesus,” I said, “Please, Lord, have mercy. I am so sorry. I love you, Lord, I love you. You know that I love you…” I was inspired to grab my bible again, and I cracked it open this time to Luke 7:36-50. The title of this section is “A Sinful Woman Forgiven” (RSV). It is the story of a notorious sinner who enters a Pharisee’s house where Jesus was dining.
…standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with an alabaster flask of ointment.
Once again, I felt immersed in the central character of the passage. But it was Christ’s next words, as He spoke to the Pharisee who was disgusted by the woman, that held me rapt.
“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon the Pharisee answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” …Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon… “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Once again, I was overwhelmed as the words of Scripture cut through the chill of accusation in my heart. Somehow, I could sense the love of a Mother behind these words. Yes, another delightful meal of tender truth. And I said, “Yes, Lord, you know everything, you know I love you…”
That night, as I lay in my bed, scriptures continued to come alive. As I look back, it seems as though Mary were there by my bed, caressing my hair, speaking softly to her son. She seemed to be reassuring me… “How do you treat your own children?” she asked. I thought of my own kids and how there were times when I would withhold a treat from them because of bad behavior… but with every intention of still giving it to them, which I did, when I saw their sorrow. “God the Father is no different,” she seemed to say.
Then the story of the Prodigal Son came to mind. This time, the words of the father, after embracing his son, echoed in my soul…
Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. (Luke 15:22-24)
The father was not pining over the past, over lost inheritance, blown opportunities, and rebellion… but bestowing abundant blessings on the guilty son, who stood there with nothing—his pockets emptied of virtue, his soul devoid of dignity, and his well-rehearsed confession barely heard. The fact he was there was enough for the father to celebrate.
“You see,” said this gentle voice to me… (so gentle, it had to be a Mother’s…) “the father did not withhold his blessings, but poured them out—even greater blessings than what the boy had before.“
Yes, the father dressed him in the “best robe.”
MOUNT KRIZEVAC: MOUNT JOY
The next morning, I awoke with peace in my heart. The love of a Mother is hard to refuse, her kisses sweeter than honey itself. But I was still a bit numb, still trying to sort out the mesh of truth and distortions swirling through my mind—two voices, vying for my heart. I was peaceful, but still sad, still partially in the shadows. Once again, I turned to prayer. It is in prayer where we find God… and find out that He’s not so far away. cf. James 4:7-8 I began with Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours:
Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a child has rest in its mother’s arms, even so my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord both now and for ever. (Psalm 131)
Yes, my soul seemed to be in a Mother’s arms. They were familiar arms, and yet, closer and more real than I’d ever experienced.
I was planning to climb Mount Krizevac. There is a cross atop that mountain which holds a relic—a sliver of the real Cross of Christ. That afternoon, I set out alone, climbing the mountain with fervor, stopping every so often at the Stations of the Cross which lined the rugged pathway. It seemed as though the same Mother who journeyed on the way to Calvary was now journeying with me. Another Scripture suddenly filled my mind,
God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
I began to ponder how, at every Mass, Christ’s Sacrifice is truly and actually made present to us through the Eucharist. Jesus does not die again, but His eternal act of love, which is not confined to the boundaries of history, enters time at that moment. That means that He is giving Himself for us while we are still yet sinners.
I once heard that, over 20,000 times a day, Mass is said somewhere in the world. So at each and every hour, Love is laid out upon a Cross precisely for those who are sinners (which is why, when the day comes for the Sacrifice to be abolished, as predicted in Daniel and Revelation, grief will cover the earth).
As hard now as Satan was pressing me to fear God, fear was melting away with each step toward that cross on Krizevac. Love was beginning to cast out fear… cf. 1 John 4:18
After an hour and a half, I finally reached the top. Sweating profusely, I kissed the Cross and then sat down among some rocks. I was struck how the temperature of the air and the breeze was absolutely perfect.
Soon, to my surprise, there was no one on top of the mountain but me, even though there were thousands of pilgrims in the village. I sat there for nearly an hour, pretty much alone, completely still, silent, and at peace… as though a child at rest in his mother’s arms.
The sun was setting… and oh, what a sunset. It was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen… and I love sunsets. I am known to discreetly leave the supper table to watch one as I feel closest to God in nature at that time. I thought to myself, “How lovely it would be to see Mary.” And I heard within me, “I am coming to you in the sunset, as I always do, because you love them so much.” Whatever remnants of accusation melted away: I felt it was the Lord speaking to me now. Yes, Mary had led me to the mountaintop and stood aside as she placed me on the lap of the Father. I understood there and then that His love comes without cost, His blessings are given freely, and that…
…all things work for good for those who love God… (Romans 8:28)
“Oh yes, Lord. You know I love you!”
As the sun descended beyond the horizon toward a new day, I descended the mountain in joy. At last.
The sinner who feels within himself a total deprivation of all that is holy, pure, and solemn because of sin, the sinner who in his own eyes is in utter darkness, severed from the hope of salvation, from the light of life, and from the communion of saints, is himself the friend whom Jesus invited to dinner, the one who was asked to come out from behind the hedges, the one asked to be a partner in His wedding and an heir to God… Whoever is poor, hungry, sinful, fallen or ignorant is the guest of Christ. —Matthew the Poor
He does not treat us according to our sins nor repay us according to our faults. (Psalm 103:10)
Watch Mark tell this story:
First published November 5th, 2006.
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