I usually hate to travel during this desert season but I could not resist the temptation to invite myself to the first assembly of 100 Living Waters members and leaders from four robust groups around Poland.
Under the strong leadership of Father Joseph and a national team of clergyman and lay persons, the Poles have taken up this work with an unprecedented focus and strategy. Joseph and tribe translated Living Waters, secured the theological blessing of the Polish bishops for the guidebook, mobilized male and female lay leaders to coordinate the groups, and enlisted Catholic priests—all admitted wounded healers— to work with them from the start. That means these healing groups will have the advocacy of the Church and Her sacramental worship.
Polish St. Faustina and St. John Paul ll must have smiled as I engaged with sinners of many kinds whom Jesus is transforming to take their places as part of His healing army. These sinner/saints embrace strugglers who often have given up on the Church until Jesus encounters them and urges them homeward.
My friend Jacek left the Church to pursue homosexuality and at the nadir of his sensational misery met Jesus in a ‘gay’ bar where Christ audibly asked him: ‘Do you want to belong to Me or not?’ He did, and began his re-engagement with Christ through the Living Waters community. After a history of sexual abuse, many male lovers, and a psychotic break, Karin could not overcome her depression until a friend invited her to the Living Waters pilot group in her city. She found the Man of her dreams who is freeing her from the darkness.
Part of my goal was to instruct all 100 to effectively share how Jesus through His community is satisfying their desires with good things. God confirmed our efforts at our Sunday Mass which featured St. John’s account of the Samaritan woman (JN 4). Jesus encountered one far from God and brought her near to Him through the water that cleanses and the blood that gives new life (‘living water’).
He did so by kindly revealing her false lovers. Jesus loved her thoroughly: exposing her poisoned well in order to satisfy her fully with Himself. Her response was to declare to all who would listen that this Man highlighted her shame in order to surpass it with His glorious love. So we departed Warsaw that weekend, refreshed in the mercy that empowers us to well up like a fountain for all who thirst.
‘Jesus, You are everything to a lonely soul.’ St. Faustina
Mark was among the brightest of Living Waters’ young lights; he faced his same-sex attraction squarely and well with a similarly motivated group of men and women in Los Angeles. He left for China to fulfill God’s call on his life (he had studied Chinese and Asian culture at university). As he was learning Mandarin, Kim from Northern China was majoring in English. She came to the same metropolis in China where Mark had just found a job as an English teacher. They met without sparks at the first Living Waters group run in that city.
Much to my surprise, I reconnected with Mark there; my sister and husband were on job assignment in that city, attended the church sponsoring Living Waters and alerted me to the group starting. I just happened to be elsewhere in Asia and managed to combine a family visit with the launching of the group. Marvelous.
Mark poured himself out in the healing culture of Living Waters but lived and worked far from the sponsor church. In truth, the good news of Living Waters in the city dimmed as he faced what it meant to assimilate into a culture founded on words and habits not yet his own. He had few local friends and frustration with local churches wary of his presence. Lonely and feeling powerless, he descended into Jesus and wondered if He could be everything for him.
Blessed by Living Waters, Kim deepened intimacy with Jesus but remained uncertain about her relational future. She grew up in a household that dishonored women, a theme played out daily in her job with an organization that helped prostitutes get off the streets and into other work.
Mark and Kim met again at the going-away-party of the coordinator of the Living Waters program they had both attended two years earlier. They were different people, Mark humbled by hardship and alive to her beauty, Kim seeing him as the radiant man he is for the first time. They began dating and worshipping together; after two years of falling and rising in love, they discerned their readiness to fuse lives in Chinese, for a people for whom Christ gave all.
I recently reengaged with them a couple months after their wedding. The grace of marriage has enlivened them. Kim said that that she ‘had never imagined how good life could be; Mark honors me, and that gives me hope for all, especially the women I work with.’ Mark: ‘I wake up and feel full. My same-sex attraction has diminished as we go deeper in God together. Rather than fear not being enough for Kim, I have more to give.’ Jesus gives generously through marital love. Who He has joined, let no-one divide.
I ran along the river in old town Kaunas, Lithuania. As I considered the convergence of streams most dear to me, my heart overflowed and I ran with abandon. Surging in me were ‘currents’ of St. John Paul ll and St. Faustina, a European team of wounded healers who heal me, an American team par excellence, and a host of new friends from Poland who gathered to initiate Living Waters there.
Heaven on earth until my foot caught a crack in the path and I dove like a senseless animal into the then not-so-charming cobblestones. ‘Watch your step,’ intoned a still small voice.
I picked myself up, bleeding just a little, and took heed. We faced giants at our first Living Waters Training in Eastern Europe. Poland takes seriously its Catholicism—the authority of the Church, and that means defending the role of ordained priests in absolving sins. Living Waters takes seriously the role of the community in bearing one another’s sins so we can be healed. The priests and parishioners who gathered with us had serious questions about our approach; many also had serious divides in their souls that could only be healed by a band of fellow sinners who fought in merciful humility for their chastity.
I battled confusion and suspicion then rose to testify of both the priestly pillars of forgiveness (on which I depend) and the continuous links of being known daily with my fellow ‘lay priests’ on whom I rely to overcome sin. Jesus forged a way for all concerned to say ‘yes’ to Living Waters for the Polish church; most importantly, sinners were set free by the experience of both priestly absolution and the healing power of the ‘one another.’
I bounded out of our retreat center and somehow avoided stabbing my foot on a rusty spike protruding on the path. ‘I know, I know,’ I whispered heavenward: ‘Watch my step.’
The next fight was harder. In preparatory prayer, we discerned that we had to emphasize one plank of Living Waters—breaking the spirit of despair–in these lands trampled by the bloody boots of Russia and Germany then choked by Soviet rule. Our friends had grown up in the shadow of violent inhumanity. Christ Crucified is easy for Eastern Europeans; they must fight to live expectantly in the light of Love, risen and bursting with life.
The Word came in power and delivered many from the spirit of death. Then despair rolled over the team like a fog. We struggled under a stifling heaviness for a few hours. Then we gathered and confessed our affliction to one another; Jesus broke through with hope and joy. Relieved, I ran back to my room and fell promptly into a pothole. I received only a gentle ‘dusting’, no harm whatsoever, as if an unseen being padded my accident. I laughed, brushed myself off, and pledged once more to watch my step.
‘He will command His angels to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.’
(PS 91: 11-13)
‘Divine mercy is the power of God’s love to bring not only good out of evil but the greater good out of evil.’ Fr. Michael E. Gaitley
Several nations gathered in Lithuania last week to enter the ‘Living Waters’ together. Mercy alone transformed bitter cold and wounded hearts into a homecoming for us all. Evenly divided into three cultures, Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians became whole through Jesus’ one broken body. Mercy alone.
Complex tribes and tongues–no match for this foolish American. So God reduced me to mercy. He simply reminded me of my deepest wounds and most stubborn sins and how only ‘living water’ (blood, water, Spirit; essence of Christ Crucified and Raised) set me free. And is setting me free. Settings like this provoke old hurts and sins so I welcomed fresh mercy and gave it away freely. Simple: clever concepts gave way to the river of Almighty mercy.
My friend Abbey Foard sings like a stream of ‘living water’ so she taught us repeatedly the chorus from ‘Good, Good Father’: “You’re a good, good Father: ‘it’s who You are’ (3x), and I’m loved by You, ‘it’s who I am’ (3X).” Simple: He wants His mercy alone to define us. We need to sing the song until it’s our truth.
Then I shared my struggles. I confess the shock of hearing my sins reverberate in three different languages. So be it. I boast of affliction so that His greater grace may rest on me. And them. My wounds are slight in contrast to the historic betrayals of these three nations which endured Soviet rule, especially the Poles who were smashed on every side by German and Russian forces during WWll.
These influences do not end when a treaty is signed and the wall comes down. Cruelties reverberate today throughout fatherless families in myriad abuses and distortions of intimacy. Only mercy. Only the ‘Good, Good Father.’
God kept the flame of mercy and human dignity alive in these nations through His Church and in particular, two saints from Poland: St. Faustina who reminds us constantly of ‘Divine Mercy’ and St. John Paul ll who reminds us of what it means now to be a gendered gift, no matter how broken that gift may be. Mercy alone.
‘The knowledge of my own misery frees me to know the immensity of Your mercy.’ St. Faustina
‘Can you make the guests of the Bridegroom fast while He is with them? But the time will come when the Bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.’ (LK 5: 34, 35)
Those days have come–feasting gives way to fasting for 21st century disciples who long and wait for Jesus. That is the paradox of going without in order to invite Him in. Fasting can be a feast of His Presence. His Spirit broods over persons who lay aside normal fare in order to welcome the unseen reality of Jesus-with-us.
Gerald May says it like this: ‘To experience a little hunger now and then can be a beautiful reminder of the deeper hunger of our souls.’ That hunger is for intimacy. His love for us is deeper than a brother’s, a mother’s, or a spouse’s: no-one loves us the way He does, because no-one has ever suffered for us as HE did (paraphrasing Pascal.) In the words of St. Faustina: ‘If you don’t believe My words, believe My wounds.’
So we choose the weakness, the faintness, the disquieting effect of physical hunger in order to open ourselves to the One who loves us most. In this way, fasting necessitates that we unplug from normal activity a little. Without food, we cannot do what we normally do. We are inclined to recline back on His unseen chest, to listen for the whispers of Him who said that He abides, dwells and lives with persons who partake of Him, the Bread of Life. (JN 6:56)
That means that we must deliberately turn down the roar of our noisy lives and the calories that fuel us into the fray. Start slowly, forsaking a meal but choosing to spend that time with Him. Let fasting quiet, slow and ease you into His Presence; don’t let it drive you mad as you seek to do all things without food. We surrender food in order to sustain deeper intimacy.
‘Be still and know that I am God’ (PS 46:10). Perhaps our resistance to fasting can be attributed to the fact that we cannot be still. We are overly attached to screens and rings, other people’s stories and demands, so much so that spiritual attentiveness becomes painful. But not impossible. Unplug. Fast from food, Facebook, fantastic plotlines that displace the one you are living. Welcome Him.
Keep in mind that this is not St. Benedict writing. I am naturally addictive, more inclined to grasp at sensational things than to ponder spiritual mysteries. I just know that if I want to give people Jesus I need more than my ideals and a strong cup of coffee. I need to sink into the Source and give time and space for Him to be my main meal. That means fasting. I now look forward to slowing down in order to savor the One I love most. I am a glutton for such nourishment. May the Spirit grace you this Holy Week with stillness and hunger for Him.