When Todd, Oscar, and I were in Lourdes in 2017, I saw a woman who wasn’t part of our pilgrimage several times throughout the course of the week. She was never in the same place when I saw her, but somehow our paths kept crossing.
I am quite sure it was the same woman, because her face was disfigured and unmistakable. It was mottled, grey and red swirled abstractly among the flesh tones, with several sizable tumors growing from her cheek and along her hairline. It must have been incredibly painful, and I can only imagine how isolating it might be to live with such an obvious and grotesque physical disfigurement.
I smiled at her each time we passed, trying not to stare but not to conspicuously avoid staring. With great effort, I tried to greet her as I might greet any other passing pilgrim. It turns out this is difficult to do gracefully when you are consciously thinking about it.
When I saw her the first time, I thought, “Her suffering must be terrible. My own is… not so bad.”
(That was the first time in very nearly a year, since the day of Oscar’s first seizure, that I had allowed myself to think that my own suffering was “not so bad.”)
When I saw her again, I noticed, “She is smiling. It certainly is a lovely day. Even someone suffering terribly can enjoy a lovely day in Lourdes; the joy in this place is palpable.”
(Again, a novel thought for me. It is possible to suffer, and be joyful at the same time.)
Late in the week, on our way back from visiting the Grotto with Oscar, I found her on a bench beneath the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes; she faced the Rosary Basilica as we crossed the plaza in front of her. Accompanied by a Dame of Malta, she was deep in conversation, laughing, chatting away in a language I didn’t quite get close enough to overhear.
As I passed, the woman with the tumors looked directly at me, nodded slightly, and smiled.
“This is who you have been praying for.”
The words sprang unbidden to my head, though no one had spoken. Along with them, a fully-formed idea materialized: all of my offered suffering and prayers throughout the last year…
They had been for this woman.
He is listening, even when you think He’s not
In some ways, this was the greatest grace of my entire pilgrimage.
I had slogged through an untold number of mechanistically offered prayers during the 365 days since Oscar’s first seizure. I had sighed and whispered the words, “Lord, I offer you this suffering and unite it to yours,” forcing myself to visualize laying it down where the wood of the Cross met the dusty Jerusalem ground.
“Mary, I give you my sadness. Please give the graces to someone who needs them,” I would toss off half-heartedly, lying in bed and crying myself to sleep for the third time in a week.
Even while doing so, I had believed the exercises to be pointless. No one around me seemed to be directly benefiting from my prayers, and I certainly didn’t feel any better. But I knew it was what I was supposed to be doing, so I kept doing it anyway.
And Jesus and Mary accepted those offerings, and used them. Most miraculously of all, they put me and the beneficiary in the same place together and pointed her out to me. They gave a sign back to me, so I could tell you all about it today.
After I heard that voice, and thought that thought, I was skeptical.
“Did you see that woman?” I asked Todd. “The one with all the tumors on her face?” He didn’t know who I was talking about, although by this point I had seen her at least half a dozen times while he walked right next to me, and her face was so unique that if you saw it once, you’d remember it.
She was my prayer partner, not his.
Offer it up
When you hear the phrase “offer it up,” it’s easy to get bogged down in long-winded theological explanations of what that means. And I can give you some of that explanation, in a minute. But what you really need to know, the diamond in the rough, is this:
Whatever you are going through, in any given moment, internally say the words, “I offer this to you.”
That’s literally it.
You can offer your joy, your sorrow, your work, your leisure, your prayer, your pain, your pleasure, your very breath.
You can offer it to God the Father, to Christ Himself, or — my personal favorite — to the Blessed Mother, who will carry it to Christ on your behalf, lending a little of her own beauty and polish to it first.
If you want to get fancy, you can:
- specify a particular intention for each offering
- consciously renew your offering during the consecration prayers at Mass
- make an offering at the beginning of each day
- consecrate yourself entirely to the Blessed Mother
Let’s take it step by step.
Specify an intention
“I offer this stubbed toe to you for the healing of my aunt’s cancer.” There, now you know how to specify an intention.
Take advantage of little sufferings even more than of great ones. God considers not so much what we suffer as how we suffer. . . Turn everything to profit as the grocer does in his shop.
St. Louis de Montfort
It may seem at first glance like magical thinking or sleight of hand. Really, though, this is just what we are always doing when we ask other Christians to pray for us, or we offer to pray for them. In the same way that you could offer a prayer — a silent one, an impromptu one, a memorized one — you can offer any other part of your daily living as well.
Be mindful of what you are doing, and think of someone else in that mindful space. Invite God into the middle, and He will take care of the details.
Renew your offering at Mass
You know how sometimes your five year old offers to help in the kitchen, and it’s not really that helpful to you, or even necessary? But you say yes anyway because he loves you and you love him?
This is like that.
As Christians, we are baptized “priest, prophet, and king.” Then again, most of us aren’t ordained priests. So what does our priesthood mean?
The universal sacrifice of the Mass is the same sacrifice that Christ offered on the cross. (If you’re not familiar with this idea, Scott Hahn’s book The Lamb’s Supper is a great place to start.) The ordained priests, through their offering of bread and wine, make Christ’s sacrifice of his body and blood physically present to us on the altar.
“The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value,” the Catechism teaches (1368).
Does Christ’s offering require our additional offering? No.
On the other hand, do our offerings get raised into something much greater than the sum of the parts, when we bring them to the altar with the bread and the wine? Heavens, yes. So whenever you see the bread, wine, and tithe being carried forth to the priest, mentally add your own interior contribution. When the priest lifts the consecrated host, lift your life.
Pray a Morning Offering
Not only can you offer an individual thought, word, or deed for a specific intention, you can do one better and simply hand the entire day over, carte blanche. Here’s the classic Catholic Morning Offering to the Sacred Heart of Jesus:
O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day
for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart,
in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world,
in reparation for my sins,
for the intentions of all my relatives and friends,
and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father.
Right there in the middle, you can see that your offering is in union with the sacrifice of the Mass — every Mass, anywhere, not just the ones you’ve attended. Which is a pretty neat trick!
It’s good practice to pray this or a similar prayer before your feet even hit the ground, to remind you that your day (or rather, your entire life and your very breath) belong to God.
You’re only offering back what is properly His to begin with.
Consecrate yourself to Mary
In the previous prayer, you may have noticed that you offer things to Jesus “through the Immaculate Heart of Mary.” Offering through Mary is my very, very favorite way to offer it up.
This is the BIG GUNS, people.
Christ came to us through Mary, his very cells built out of the most intimate substance of her body. No one loves Jesus better than she does.
When we approach Jesus with our offering through Mary’s intercession, she lends her own perfect graces to our request. And how could He refuse his mother anything, when her will is always perfectly aligned with His?
About ten years ago, I consecrated myself to Mary. What this means is that my offering up is no longer my own at all. I have given myself over completely to her management, and trust that she will take care of my every need. I have handed the Blessed Mother a total offering of every merit and grace I will ever earn, and asked her to use them as she sees fit.
Mary can best determine which people are most in need of our prayers. For instance, seeing some forgotten person in China about to die in despair, Mary can take the grace of our prayers (and “offered up” sufferings) and use it to help that dying person trust in God and his mercy.
Father Michael Gaitley
It turns out, at least during 2016, she was using mine not for someone in China, but for that woman with the tumors on her face, sitting on a bench in front of me in Lourdes that day.
Marian consecration is a lifelong commitment, reconfirmed with a daily prayer and renewed annually. Most people renew on one of the plethora of Marian feast days. If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend Father Gaitley’s book, 33 Days to Morning Glory, as a way to prepare for the initial consecration.
And if you’re worried this is super-fringey, rest assured that no less a saint than Pope St. John Paul II recommended Marian consecration as a sure path to holiness. St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Louis de Montfort… it’s hard to throw a stone without finding a saint who loved the Blessed Mother with total devotion and lived their lives in fidelity to her love, which is the fastest, safest path to the heart of Jesus.
Make it a habit
When you offer your life using any of the methods above, not a single one of your efforts, however small, are wasted. When I talk about the redemption of suffering, offering it up is one of the major vehicles for making that redemption happen.
How have you seen the fruits of this practice in your life? And if you haven’t started yet, I can’t wait to hear how it goes.