By Barbara Hughes
Barbara Hughes is an author, retreat facilitator and spiritual guide. She lives in Virginia Beach and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
May 22, 2017
Back to the Future
“During the past week I kept picturing the zany scientist in the film “Back to the Future.”
“Doc,” as he was fondly referred to by Michael J. Fox in the film, had his young protégé bouncing back and forth between the past and the present in order to effect the future. This is exactly what I found myself doing.
During this post-Resurrection season, I have been writing about the Triduum for two separate publications. They will not be in print until March of 2018.
Since publishing houses typically ask for time sensitive articles anywhere from eight months to a full year in advance, this is not unusual, but in the meantime the practice has converted my computer into a sort of time machine.
Every morning during this Easter season, I have been transported back to the Upper Room where the Last Supper was celebrated.
While researching and reflecting on the Passion of Christ, I followed Jesus to Calvary and kept vigil outside the tomb where he was buried.
Then in my mind’s eye, I relived the Easter vigil in triumphant celebration while trying to be mindful of future readers. The challenge has proved enlightening.
The more I juxtaposed events that took place centuries ago with current liturgical practices, the better I understood and appreciated the Jewish roots of the Eucharist.
In a way, it could be said that the Mass itself is an exercise in time travel with rites and language artfully transforming old covenant practices into those of the new covenant.
The Paschal Mystery, which is the centerpiece of the Mass, does not stand alone.
Woven into the very fabric of the celebration are Scripture and ritual action from both the Old and New Testaments. Some threads are obvious, bearing close resemblance to the Passover meal, while others are more subtle.
Words and rituals that were familiar to first century Jews were also radically different.
Some I have only recently discovered while researching the topic.
In his book “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist,” theologian Brant Pitre explains that every Passover meal required four cups of wine.
According to rabbinical tradition, on the eve of Passover the father of the family would pour the first cup of wine ushering in the beginning of the celebration by offering a prayer of praise over the cup.
During the pouring of wine into the second cup, which was called the proclamation cup, the head of the household would tell the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.
Next he would explain the meaning of the lamb, the bread, and bitter herbs, all essential foods to be eaten during the Passover meal in remembrance of what God had done for them.
Only after that the third cup of wine was poured and the blessing said would those present begin to partake of the food.
This third cup was known as the blessing cup. It is the cup Jesus used when he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying “This is my Body. Take and eat.”
Then He did the same with the cup of wine with the words “This is the cup of my blood which is being poured out for many. Take and drink.”
The fourth cup was poured and consumed at the end of the meal, followed by the singing of the Hallel (Psalms 115-118) which concluded the Passover meal.
As Brant Pitre points out, this is significant. According to Luke’s gospel, after Jesus transformed his bread and wine into his Body and Blood, he and the disciples left the Upper Room singing hymns.
Rather than bringing the celebration of the Passover meal to a conclusion at the table, Jesus led the group to the Garden of Olives where his passion was about to begin.
The final Passover would be completed not in the Upper Room, but on Calvary where Jesus, the Paschal lamb, would lay down his life.
The First Eucharist was celebrated in anticipation of the sacrifice that would be offered on the cross as an act of communion that would redeem humankind through the death and resurrection of the Son of God.
The Resurrected Lord, no longer bound by the chains of time, became the “Eternal Now” whose sacrifice on Calvary, though completed once and forever, continues to take place in real time where ever the Eucharist is celebrated.
Four cups are no longer needed because Jesus is the cup of our salvation. And yet, as I reflect on the knitting of the Passover meal with the Christian Passover from death to life, the four stages represented by the four Passover cups seem to be reflected in the Liturgy.
The Introductory Rite of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Dismissal rite appear to coincide with the four cups that were part of every Passover meal.
I believe the correlation, though subtle, is significant because every Eucharistic celebration is an act of remembrance.
The celebration reminds us of our roots, even as it anticipates the eternal banquet where we will gather around the banquet table in the New Jerusalem.
And so it is, that when we enter into communion with Jesus, we celebrate not only the present, but the promise that was made in the Garden of Eden, fulfilled on Calvary and is yet to come.
Now that’s cause for celebration!
May 8, 2017
Just Not Equal
“No one ever said life is fair.”
The familiar saying, which has reverberated in my life in a variety of settings has once again found its way to the forefront of my thinking.
The reason has to do with my Monday morning dates during the past school year, not with my husband, but with first grade students with whom I meet for one-on-one tutoring sessions.
The program was designed for students in the Virginia Beach public schools who were struggling academically as a way to help improve their reading and writing skills.
The first graders who were assigned to me were performing far below grade level and while both started at level two, the disparity in their abilities, progress and attention span was decidedly different.
By February one of the students was reading at level 18 while the other was still at level four.
While one student gained proficiency in sounding out words, the other continued to struggle.
By year’s end, both little boys had made their way into my heart, but as I prepare to bid farewell to them, I realize that one is ready to move on to the next grade level while the other might be repeating first grade.
I can’t help but wonder how this might impact his self-esteem, particularly since towards the end of the year the struggling youth would repeatedly inquire what level his little friend had reached.
Although I couldn’t disclose the information, children are quick to notice when they are not on the same level as their peers and he was no exception.
The tendency to compare ourselves to others seems almost instinctive and begins early in life.
In some cases the tendency may be so deeply seated that it becomes problematic, clouding a person’s ability to recognize and appreciate the unique goodness in themselves and others.
I suspect none of us are entirely free of the tendency to draw comparisons, a practice that has both advantages and disadvantages.
So called societal norms function as standards that can inspire, motivate and encourage competition, but they can also lead to envy, resentment or self-deprecation which hinders appreciation for the unique gifts that each person has been given.
With so much emphasis by our culture on productivity and accomplishment, the tendency to evaluate self-worth based on achievement rather than effort is a continual struggle.
It is not unusual to want to rush in and fix that which is not to our liking both in ourselves and in others, especially when it involves challenges and suffering.
This can be a good thing for we are called to work for justice. Yet, it is important to remember that justice is not the same as equality.
Justice is about working to ensure that each person’s rights are respected and that every person has an equal opportunity to become the person they were created to be. However, it does not mean each person will have the same capabilities.
Whenever I struggle with this seeming lack of fairness, I take comfort in a passage from the “Treatise of Love of God” by St. Frances de Sales who wrote:
“It is not helpful to ask why one person is blessed in a particular way. God’s grace is sufficient for each of us. Why are melons bigger than strawberries? Why do lilies grow taller than violets? Why is rosemary not a rose or dianthus not a marigold? Why is a peacock more glamorous than a bat, a fig sweet and a lemon sour? The beauty of the world depends on variety. Differences and what appear to be inequalities are essential and inescapable.”
And so it is that we are called to look beyond that which is outside our ability to control and know there is a reason for things too great for us to understand. This is why meditating on Scripture is such an important part of the Christian journey.
The Gospels are replete with instructions by Jesus to seek the lowest place because in the kingdom of heaven the last shall be first.
But he also said blessed are the poor, those who hunger and thirst and are persecuted.
This was not meant to glorify suffering, but to understand it too is part of life and at times is beyond our control.
During the Easter season we are continually reminded of the close proximity of the cross with the resurrection. Both remind us that earthly achievements are fleeting. They are a means, not an end.
In the Acts of the Apostles we read accounts of the apostles witnessing and preaching in the temple areas, but we also read accounts of them being imprisoned and persecuted for the faith.
Just as there would have been no Easter Sunday without Good Friday, so we can never separate the cross from life as we know it.
Life may not always seem fair, but the end for each of us is yet to be written.
When the next chapter beckons and we come before God at life’s end, the only performance that will matter is our own, and that includes helping others, especially the young, the poor and the stranger in our midst.
Once again Pope Francis offers a beautiful example of what this looks like in the way he embraces the poor and the marginalized, the sick and disabled, friends and enemies, for all are children of God.
And what better way to evangelize than to let others know that they are loved and that their life matters.
April 24, 2017
Jesus, Master of Disguise
There is something about the post resurrection stories that continue to fascinate me.
Perhaps it’s because they reveal a side of Jesus that we weren’t privy to prior to his death.
In the aftermath of his passion and death, Jesus allowed his followers to experience him in a way they hadn’t seen before. Unbeknown to them, Jesus began engaging them in what I like to refer to as a game of hide and seek.
Beginning with the scene at the gravesite, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene as an ordinary gardener.
Only after Mary asked him if he knew where the body of Jesus had been taken, did he reveal himself.
But did you ever stop to consider what would have happened if she had not bothered to question the gardener because he was just an ordinary workman?
And what about the disciples that Jesus encountered on the road to Emmaus?
What if they had not invited Jesus to stay with them because he appeared to be just another traveler?
Had they said goodbye when they reached their destination, they would have missed an opportunity to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
On each occasion, Jesus revealed himself as the risen Lord only after the others engaged him in conversation.
Mary Magdalene was so distraught that she sought help from a gardener. And the disciples who couldn’t stop talking about the events of the past few days shared their dilemma with a stranger.
In both accounts, Jesus revealed himself when they least expected him. Isn’t that often the way he comes to us?
How often when I feel confused, alone or am searching for direction, the Lord speaks to me through a friend, a book or in the quiet of my heart.
And like Jesus in the post resurrection stories, he transforms what seems like a crisis into a moment of grace, but only when he decides the time is right.
It is easy to forget that God is everywhere and that he comes to us within the context of ordinary human encounters.
And like the early disciples, we often fail to recognize him. This is why their stories are also our stories.
When we reflect on our lives, we can often point to times when we realize that the reason we were able to survive this or that crisis, disappointment or challenge is because Jesus had been there all along.
Like Mary Magdalene and the disciples, we might not have felt his presence or recognized his face, but he was there.
And sooner or later if we take the time to consider subtle ways he has broken into our lives, our hearts overflow with wonder and gratitude.
But since Jesus rarely reveals himself in the way we expect to find him, we are called to trust that at just the right moment when our hearts are ready, he will appear and we will know that God is in our midst.
As a Master of Disguise, Jesus may reveal himself dressed as a street person who blesses us for a donation, as a sunset so radiant that it takes our breath away or in the words of encouragement from a friend just when we are most in need of them.
Jesus may come to us when we are driving a family member to and from the doctor’s office, in the melody of a song bird that awakens us to a new day, or as an unexpected emergency that seemingly spoils our well thought out plans.
We never know when or where Jesus will reveal himself, and often we only recognize him in retrospect.
Like the poem about the footprints in the sand, Jesus carries us when we don’t have the strength to take the next step on our own.
He comes disguised so as not to impede our free will because Jesus never forces himself upon us.
He is neither an appendage to life nor a magician who we can call upon to make our struggles disappear.
He is an integral part of every moment, and our role as disciples is to discover him in the here and now so that we can make his presence known to others.
Note that in the post resurrection stories, there are no accounts of Jesus performing miracles for others, because he wanted his followers to understand that he is the miracle.
He is the reason we are called to trust that he is with us, hiding in plain sight, helping us to see life through the eyes of faith.
His patient presence prepares us so that we can do our part to engage him in our lives.
We need to be vigilant and not simply take things at face value.
If we really believe that the Kingdom of God is in our midst, then we will see beyond the disguise and recognize the Master in our post resurrection story.
When Jesus was on earth, he told us that the Kingdom of God is at hand, but he also told us that it is coming . . and so it is.
The resurrection story was not a once and done event but is ongoing.
We are reminded of this with every sunrise and in the cry of every newborn baby and most especially in the lives of ordinary people who recognize Jesus not only in the breaking of the bread, but in the breaking and transforming of their heart.
April 10, 2017
From Passover to Easter
This year the feast of Passover begins…
…on Monday of Holy Week.
It stands not only as a poignant reminder that our faith is rooted in the Jewish tradition, but that Jesus the Paschal Lamb brought to fruition the message of Moses that God would free his people.
The Israelites were instructed to smear the blood of the lamb over the portal of their doors as they prepared to eat that first Passover meal.
The blood was to serve as a sign for the angel of death to pass over their household and spare their sons, unlike the first born sons of the Egyptians.
It was the event that marked the beginning of the Israelites’ journey from exile to freedom that continues to be memorialized to this day.
The Book of Exodus tells us that when Pharaoh at last freed the Jews, they left the land where they had been enslaved for 400 years singing for joy.
But their joy was short-lived. It didn’t take long for the grumbling to set in.
Fear and anxiety led them to place their trust in a golden calf and as a result they wandered for 40 years in a desert that could have been crossed in less than two weeks.
The story of the Israelites of old is a pithy story that reflects the journey from exile to return that is part of the spiritual life.
The human tendency to make ourselves a god is as old as the story of Adam and Eve and continues to be our story. We see shades of this throughout human history, but nowhere is it played out more dramatically than during the Holy Week liturgies.
On Palm Sunday we remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
The irony that the man who was hailed King of the Jews would enter the city riding on the colt of an ass bears witness to the paradoxical nature of the events that were about to unfold within the coming days.
In fact it took less than five days for cries of “Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” to be drowned in a sea of cries to “Crucify him, crucify him,” thereby setting into motion the death of the Son of God.
During his last discourse, Jesus tried to prepare his followers for the events that were about to take place, but they seemingly fell on deaf ears.
And yet, we can hardly blame them. After all Jesus spoke in veiled language and only after the coming of the Spirit did his followers begin to understand that “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. Instead he emptied himself and took the form of a slave.”
During the holiest week in the Church’s calendar, Christians around the world reflect on the image of Jesus, the God man who took upon himself the sins of humankind.
Only God who created us in his own image and likeness could remedy the death that we brought upon ourselves.
And so it happened that the Father sent his Son into the world to die for people who “know not what they do.”
The words of forgiveness that Jesus uttered from the cross are not only an injunction that we must follow his willingness to forgive, but they serve as an invitation for us to open our minds to the horror of sin so that we will come to know and repent for our role in the events that took place more than 2,000 years ago.
It is impossible for us to fully comprehend the depth of love that is contained in the death of the Lord and so it should come as no surprise that as we move through Holy Week, the events pose more questions than answers.
When Jews celebrate the Passover meal, the youngest child voices the question: “Father, why is this night different from every other night?”
The question is followed by a retelling of the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
As Christians who stand at the precipice of Holy Week, we might pose a similar question. “Why is this week different from every other week?”
In response to the question, the Church retells the story of our exodus from death to life through the sacred liturgies of the Triduum.
We follow Jesus as he passes from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem to his shameful exodus from that same city on Good Friday. It stands not only as an indictment against earthly glory, but as an invitation to carry the crosses of life with the same silent dignity with which Jesus carried his.
We need the events of Holy Week to be played out because like the Israelites who lost sight of the joy they experienced when they left Egypt, we often lose sight of the magnitude of the miracle that takes place when bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus.
We need the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection to be played out every year so that we will never forget why our Passover is unlike any other Passover, our exodus unlike any other exodus.
And because it is unlike any other.
During every Eucharist we remember and celebrate that God loved us to his death, is with us here and will accompany us when we finally pass from this life to the new life that awaits us in the next.
March 27, 2017
My Lenten Christmas Cactus
I am sitting here at my desk…
…staring at the Christmas cactus on my prayer table which I bought two weeks into Advent. At the time it was covered with buds and I had expected it to be in full bloom by the time Christmas arrived, but that was not to be.
Day after day I stood by helplessly as I witnessed every bud on the plant wither and fall to the ground. I thought I had purchased a dud. However, rather than throw it out, I repotted it and continued to nurture it, making sure it was placed by a window that provided direct sunlight.
The result was that by Ash Wednesday, tiny buds began appearing at the end of each leaf. Throughout Lent, the buds have been growing larger and larger and from the way it looks now, my Christmas cactus should be in full bloom by Easter. The fact that the flowers are lily white makes everything about it point to the resurrection story.
As I view my plant in light of its history, it serves as a reminder that life doesn’t always turn out the way we expect it will. Parents are known to bury their children, a young man with a promising future is diagnosed with a life threatening or chronic illness, a faithful employee is passed over for a promotion, and couples who began life filled with hope end up divorcing.
As much as we hate to admit it, suffering is part of life, but when we view it through the lenses of faith, the cross never has the final word. The problem is that when we are in the throes of disappointment, all we notice are the buds that are withering and dying in the very place where we expected flowers to bloom.
This might explain why after Jesus told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die three times, they still clung to the illusion that he and they would be heading for glory.
The fact is: Jesus was and so were they, but not in the way that they had expected. The disciples did not understand that the cross must precede Jesus’ glory, and because they failed to understand this simple truth, they ran away when the storm clouds gathered.
St. Paul called the cross a folly for Greeks and a stumbling blocks for Jews, but we who profess to be Christians should have a different understanding. In theory, I suspect most of us do. But the real test comes when the cross intersects our lives, hijacks our well thought out plans and seemingly throws us a curve ball.
And this is where my Christmas cactus offers a lesson —benign though it may be. Had I thrown it out after it looked as if it was a dud, I would never have experienced the wonder of seeing it bloom out of season. Life, like the cactus that disappointed during Christmas, needs to be nurtured, even in and especially during its darkest hours.
Still, letting go of preconceived notions and expectations is never easy. When everything we thought would happen gets uprooted, it often seems unfair and makes no sense. At such times we need another perspective, not so different from what my little cactus experienced when I transplanted it into a larger container.
While I was uprooting it from the pot that it came in, I wasn’t sure if it could withstand the trauma. But over time I realized that it only needed more time and room to grow. The roots were being stifled, but once they were placed in a new environment, the roots could expand and become the plant it was meant to be all along. Albeit, according to a different timetable.
Locating it to a place where it experienced direct sunlight several hours every day made a huge difference. And so it is with us. When we place ourselves in the direct light of the Son, we find reassurance even during the bleakest of times.
Jesus told us that if we have faith, we can move mountains. When I reflected on these words, I would often wonder why the mountains in my life did not move. Then one day I realized that it may not be my faith that is lacking as much as my sight. When I fail to look at life through a Kingdom perspective, I become short sighted. Perhaps this is why the Gospels are replete with stories of Jesus curing the blind. Like Bartemeus who cried out, “Lord that I may see,” we need to make sure we are standing in the light of Christ. Then and only then will our faith bloom like a cactus in the desert or like my Christmas cactus during Lent.
It is said that into every life a little rain must fall, but sometimes and for some people, rain seems to come in the form of a torrential downpour that washes away hopes and dreams that had beckoned at an earlier time. But when we stand at the foot of the cross, we need to understand that Easter is just around the corner, and we can only get there by means of the crucifixion.
My Christmas cactus has been preparing for Easter throughout the season of Lent. Unbeknown to me, and unseen by the human eye, that which appeared dead has not only come back to life but promises to be quite glorious in another couple of weeks. Therefore, as we continue our Lenten journey may we hold fast to the glory of what is to come, so that we too will bloom on that glorious day.
March 13, 2017
Let it go
We gathered in Florida for the weekend—three generations of the Hughes girls.
The occasion was granddaughter Callie’s Confirmation.
It was a full weekend where cousins who don’t get to see each other on a regular basis had a chance to play together and, as eventually happens, sing.
Returning from my morning walk, I heard strains from the Disney movie “Frozen” greeting me before I even reached the front door.
Anyone familiar with the movie will recognize the familiar lyrics “Let it go, let it go” from the song with the same title.
Over the months, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched the movie with our two-year-old granddaughter, but I was somewhat surprised to hear teenagers opining the same lyrics.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, Queen Elsa sings the song when at last she seeks refuge in a self-perpetuated land of ice and snow releasing the full weight of her magical powers that turns everything she touches to ice.
After years of having to restrain her powers by avoiding contact with others, she escapes and finally is able to “Let it go.”
When Elsa’s sister Anna eventually finds her, she is accidently turned to ice, and the only thing that can save her is a kiss from someone who truly loves her.
But unlike most fairytales, the kiss comes not from Prince Charming, but from her sister Elsa.
It is the love between the two sisters that melts Anna and true to Disney style, they all live happily ever after.
It should come as no surprise that the story and the music have captured the hearts of little and not so little girls around the globe.
The power of love to melt hearts is the theme of the movie. And while the initial power of turning everything to ice was viewed as a curse, the final scene shows the entire town skating on an ice rink that Elsa created. Alas, Queen Elsa is able to contain her power and use it for good.
I find there are comparisons that can be drawn with real life. It reminds me that it is often fear that forces us to hold in the gifts we have been given.
Rather than allowing love to transform our thinking, we focus on the negative and in the process we either stifle what has been given to transform the world or we unleash the power by condemning others.
In the movie, love between the sisters conveys a kind of innocence, a selfless unknowing that moves Queen Elsa to embrace her sister, not knowing that the embrace would bring her little sister back to life.
Motivated simply by love, Elsa reached out to her sister in her wounded condition and both are transformed in the process.
It is the story of reconciliation, especially reconciliation between family members.
When St. Mother Teresa was asked how to bring peace to the world, she told those who posed the question “Go home and love your families.”
Some might call her response overly simplistic, but it conveys the understanding that peace begins with each person and with members of their family.
It poses the obvious question: how can we claim to love our neighbor if we cannot love our brothers and sisters, parents and extended family members?
During the presidential campaign, I lost count of the number of people who told me that their adult children refused to speak to one another because of divergent political views. It is but one example of how easily pride can become an obstacle to relationships.
When the need to be right or perhaps self-righteous replaces the commandment to love, we are like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who refused to go into the banquet hall to celebrate his brother’s return.
No one wants to be left on the outside of the banquet hall, and yet old wounds and injuries often prevent family members from asking and granting forgiveness.
Refusing to let go of all that keeps them from being the best version of themselves, keeps them on the outside looking in.
No difference should ever be more important than the people with whom we disagree, which is why Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
As I watched our granddaughters with microphones in hand, and a little help from the karaoke machine, belt out the words to Disney tunes, I thought how easily cousins who are separated by miles can enjoy the pleasure of one another’s company with no memory of past squabbles.
No wonder Jesus told adults that unless we become like little children, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
The season of Lent is traditionally a time for reconciliation, but before we go to the Sacrament, we might also reflect on the words of Jesus who said, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and remember that your brother has anything against you, go reconcile and then bring your gift.”
More than platitudes, these are words we have been given for us to live by. They were given to set us free.
And so as we journey towards Holy Week, we do well to reflect on the areas in our life that keep us in bondage to sin, and ask to be forgiven.
Then when we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, with the help of God’s grace, we too can experience the peace that comes when we “Let it go.”
February 27, 2017
Arise from Your Slumber
As we stand at the threshold…
…of another Lenten season, it helps to consider Lent within the context of the liturgical calendar.
For several weeks we have been journeying in Ordinary Time.
Unfortunately, the very word ordinary can seem routine, ho-hum, even boring.
It certainly lacks the luster of other seasons, and as products – or should I say victims – of a culture that seems to require constant stimulation, the temptation to grow complacent during Ordinary Time can take hold.
Therefore, if you have settled in a bit too comfortably, perhaps even found yourself stifling a yawn or two, then take heart because we are about to be aroused from our slumber.
The season of Lent is upon us and it truly is a time of re-awakening.
Even nature seems to herald the sound of new life. Birds are busy building nests, buds are sprouting on trees that only last week were dormant, and lawns are being transformed from drab to green.
All around us, nature’s symphony is preparing for its annual crescendo of color.
So with all this new life around us, how do we explain the annual Ash Wednesday ritual?
Amid signs of re-birth, Christians around the world will once again step forward to receive on their forehead a reminder they will return to dust.
The fact is Lent is a bit like waking up in the middle of a love story. Somewhere between the Epiphany and Lent Jesus grew to manhood.
In recent weeks Liturgical readings took us from Jesus’ Baptism to his public ministry at near lightning speed amid stories of miraculous healings that became weekly events.
However, in the event that we were less than attentive, the Church takes us back to where it all began, which was with Jesus’ entry into the desert where he faced temptation following his baptism.
Once again we are reminded of the hallmarks of Lent. And although the Church places prayer, fasting and almsgiving on center stage, Jesus reminds us that we are to practice them in secret.
No one likes a boastful person, and it seems neither does God.
Nor are we being asked to simply multiply the number of prayers we say. Not only does Jesus tell us we are to go to our inner room and close the door when we pray, but we are not to ramble on as if it was quantity rather than the quality of our prayer that matters.
St. John Damascene defined prayer as “offering our heart to God.” Now it seems to me that when we offer our heart to God, the first thing we notice is that our heart is rather tainted.
Those thoughtless, unkind words that have a way of making their way to our lips are all of a sudden not so inconsequential.
In fact they reawaken in us the need to fast, not so much from food and drink, but from thoughts, words, and actions that hurt the Body of Christ.
The story is told of a spiritual seeker who told a desert father that when he was tempted to speak ill of another, he bit his tongue until it bled.
To which the desert father responded that only when blood came before he bit his tongue can he know that he has mastered the sin.
The moral of the story, of course, is that sometimes saying nothing is more painful and requires greater self-discipline than being self-righteous or having the last word when opinions differ.
Fasting and acts of self-mortification should be seen as a means and not as an end in themselves.
There is nothing spiritually efficacious about skipping a meal or giving up sweets. Dieters do the same.
However, when we choose to fast as a way to enter into the suffering of others, we become one with the poor and the sick, refugees, victims of war and many more.
Fasting also reminds us of our own emptiness, which can only be filled by God.
When Jesus was tempted in the desert, he admonished Satan by proclaiming, “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Scripture is manna for the soul and in order to be faithful in good times and in bad, we need food for the journey.
It does little good to fast unless we have first feasted on the Word of God.
We might begin by reflecting on the words of Psalm 81: “I am the Lord your God. . . Open wide your mouth and I will fill it. . . I would feed you with finest wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” When we have been filled by the Lord, our heart overflows with gratitude.
When we partake of the bread from heaven and drink from the cup of his blood, the fruits of that heavenly banquet naturally spill over into our daily life.
It should follow then that we will be a bit kinder and more inclined to help others, whose needs we begin to see as our own.
These forty days of Lent invite us to journey with Jesus towards the climax of the greatest love story ever told.
With so much to ponder and pray over, we need to be awake.
Therefore, let us arise from our slumber and eagerly greet the season of Lent, for the day of our salvation is at hand.
February 13, 2017
Happy St. Valentine’s Day
Depending on a person’s age…
…and personal circumstances, Valentine’s Day means different things to different people.
And it can trigger a plethora of responses.
For elementary school children it means exchanging valentines with classmates, maybe even a small party with cupcakes.
If you happen to be a teenager or young adult without a date, February 14 looms overhead like a storm cloud threatening to ruin your life, especially if you have to listen to friends and co-workers gush with feigned surprise when flowers arrive.
Shouldn’t there be a law against such deliveries at work or in school?
On the other hand, jewelers and candy makers welcome the day, which they view through lenses of green, especially when husbands and soon-to-be-husbands scramble to make up for missteps during the past year.
And then there is the mother to whom often falls the task of soothing hearts aching with disappointment in the absence of a boyfriend, perhaps even hiding her own disappointment because her husband forgot that it was Valentine’s Day. Knowing the way to a child’’s and a man’s heart is through their stomach, for Mom Valentine’s Day means planning and preparing a special meal or dessert as her way of letting her family know they will always have her heart.
Okay, so I’m a little biased towards moms, but as the mother of five children, I can speak from experience.
Sorry, Mike, but even the best husbands forget Valentine’s Day every now and then.
Actually, heartaches may actually be more in keeping with Valentine’s Day than we realize. A perfect example is Cupid who aims arrows, not flowers at hearts he is targeting.
And then, of course, there is St. Valentine, a priest who was beheaded because he was marrying two Christians according to the Christian rite in direct violation of Roman law.
While Valentine’s Day can be a day to celebrate love, we can never forget that sooner or later real love involves pain.
It is what distinguishes love from romance, which is all about feeling good.
Authentic love requires sacrifice and commitment in good times and in bad. Given the culture of divorce in our country, we need reminders like this more than we need a box of candy.
This makes Valentine’s Day the perfect day to reflect on John 3:16– “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”
And so I ask: Can anyone look at a crucifix and not understand what true love entails?
The Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary have a special place in Catholic tradition and bear thoughtful reflection on this occasion as well.
The Heart of Jesus is always pictured inflamed with love.
Often it is encircled by a crown of thorns, representative of the ignominy Jesus suffered during his passion.
The piercing of Jesus’ heart is a physical manifestation of the piercing of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who is pictured with a sword passing through her heart.
Prophesied by Simeon when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple, her heart felt her son’s pain as she knelt at the foot of the cross.
For Catholics, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary are emblematic of love, and have inspired devotion through the years.
Some might ask that if this is what real love feels like, why would anyone want it?
It’s a natural response. But when we look at love through the lenses of faith, we understand that because God loved us enough to offer up his only Son. The price of our salvation has already been paid.
We will never have to endure what Jesus did. Yes, suffering will always be part of life, and countless martyrs like St. Valentine have been called to heroic witness.
However, for most Christians, love takes the form of everyday acts of kindness.
It might mean exchanging tickets to a football game for a night at the symphony, filling the car with gas on a cold blustery evening so your spouse won’t have to do it in the morning. It might be taking a turn sitting with a sick child so your spouse can catch a few hours of sleep.
When compared with what some have suffered, such examples seem paltry, and yet those small acts of kindness, when added up, are the crown jewels of authentic love.
As simple as such acts seem, the human tendency to put ourselves and our comfort first will always tempt us to look the other way, missing opportunities to reach out and make God’s love real.
I recently read that Thomas Aquinas defined sloth as sadness about doing a task that is difficult.
That definition alone could be food for a whole other column. But it also makes me wonder how often I take the easy way out rather than do an act of kindness that could lift the spirit of another as well as my own.
Or the times when I am simply oblivious to the needs of others.
In retrospect, Valentine’s Day may not be such a bad idea after all.
It reminds us that acts of kindness and love come in many ways.
A box of candy, a paper heart or an invitation to share a meal can remind others that they are loved, especially when the act is done with love for the sake of Love, who died so we might live.
January 30, 2017
United We Stand
As I write this column I am watching…
…the protests in Washington, D.C. following the inauguration ceremony of President Donald J. Trump.
While the major mood of the inauguration was celebratory during the transfer of power, no one can discount the divisive political rhetoric that has been going on for years.
Perpetrated by people on both sides of the aisle, the division was exacerbated by the 50-plus Congressional leaders who boycotted the ceremony.
Despite this as a backdrop, I remain hopeful, particularly as I reflect on the Ecumenical Prayer Service that was held recently at St. Gregory the Great Church in Virginia Beach marking the 50th Anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Speakers represented four Christian traditions.
St. Gregory the Great Church in Virginia Beach hosted a prayer service entitled “Unity in Diversity” Jan. 19 to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. St. Gregory’s had invited ministers from three other Christian denominations in Virginia Beach to speak on various topics. Parishioners from various Christian denominations in the Tidewater area attended and joined in prayer and song in celebration of the event which was observed throughout the United States. From left are Father John Manuel, of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church; Rev. Dr. Dale Coulter, Church of God and associate dean of the School of Divinity at Regent University; Deacon Darrell Wentworth of St. Gregory the Great, and Rev. Dr. Mark Cartledge, ordained a priest of the Church of England and faculty member of Regent University. A reception with fellowship followed the prayer service.
Rev. John Manuel, a priest from the Greek Orthodox Church, talked about the importance of focusing on the truths which Christians share in common.
Rev. Mark Cartledge, from the Church of England, whose talk was entitled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” traced the high and low points of the years following the Reformation, emphasizing how we have at last learned to work together rather than attack one another.
Rev. Dr. Dale Coulter, Pentecostal Minister of the Church of God, shared how talking about his beliefs with people of other faith traditions helps him better understand his own faith identity.
Deacon Darrell Wentworth from St. Gregory the Great Church talked about how a cloud of witnesses are needed to model Christian values to a secular world, especially when it comes to marriage and family life.
He reminded us that when Christians stand together their voice is heard and we can affect change within our culture.
At the closing of the prayer service, all four clergymen blessed those who had gathered to pray for and in support of Christian unity.
The prayer service at St. Gregory the Great was the first of what hopefully will be an annual tradition, but lest we become too self-congratulatory, I have to remind myself that the Protestant Reformation took place over 500 years ago, not to mention the Great Schism between the Churches of the East and West which dates back to the twelfth century.
For so many centuries, religion divided Christians, but thankfully the Second Vatican Council put much of that to rest. With the help of the Holy Spirit we have been able to set aside our pride and reach across aisles that have divided the people of God for far too many centuries.
The document, Nostra Aetate which came out of the Second Vatican Council, not only opened minds, but doors as well.
Until then, Catholics who attended weddings or funerals of family members when held in other Christian traditions were told they had sinned. How many tears were shed over such rulings we will never know.
But the Holy Spirit always has the last word and so we are finally able to call fellow Christians our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Admittedly, progress has been slow. We have been at it for 50 years now, but we are finally talking with one another, praying together and focusing on common beliefs.
More importantly, we have stopped demonizing one another in the name of religion.
Building bridges is never easy because it requires focusing on the good we see in the other rather than the speck in their eye.
But most importantly it requires humility, a virtue that many saints have claimed is the first rung on the ladder to holiness, but the hardest to live.
We have only to look at our world today with all the wars and conflicts to understand how difficult it is to reconcile differences. This is the reason we come together to pray.
We know we cannot do it alone and only with the help of God’s grace can healings of such magnitude take place.
While we could easily give into despair, committed people and events like the one last evening at St. Gregory’s remind us that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
One of these people is Pope Francis.
The theme for the 50th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was “Christ’s love compels us,” taken from his encyclical “Joy of the Gospel” in which he quotes St. Paul:
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Cor. 5; 14-15)
We are blessed in this country to enjoy religious freedom. Prayer is part of every inaugural ceremony, with people from several Christian denominations and a Jewish Rabbi offering prayers for our country and for the newly elected leaders.
Not all nations are so fortunate. In fact, as was mentioned last evening, more Christians have been persecuted for their faith in this century than ever before, including during the earliest years of Christianity.
We remain one nation under God, and as people of faith we need to bear witness to our belief, and we do that best when we stand united.
This does not mean that we ignore differences, but that we take seriously the mission to work for unity that one day we may realize Jesus’ words “that all may be one.”
January 16, 2017
While shopping for storage containers…
…with one of our daughters, I learned that January was organization month.
That might explain the overabundance of plastic bins of every size and shape filling the aisles in big box stores after Christmas.
And while the notion of organizing closets, pantries and drawers may simply be one more marketing ploy by the retail industry, it does provide an incentive to clean closets, pare down and simplify, which is especially appealing after the holidays when over-abundance seems to be the operative word.
The fact is most of us could do with a whole lot less. I am reminded of this every year when I take down the Christmas decorations.
As much as I enjoy seeing our home aglow with tree lights, holly and wreaths, I find that when the decorations come down and are neatly tucked away for another year, the entire space seems cleaner and more orderly, helping me to appreciate once again that less can be more.
Whenever I think about less being more, I am reminded of St. Francis of Assisi. When one of his friars was making the case for the friars to own a Bible, St. Francis countered with the argument that if they have a Bible, they will need a table or some place to put it.
If they wanted to read at night, they would need a candle, which means they would have to own a candlestick.
And if the candlestick was valuable, someone might try to steal it and then they would have to defend it and they would no longer be free to be simple friars.
The saint’s almost comical approach to poverty may seem extreme, and obviously through the centuries Franciscans have made adjustments to the saint’s rigorous approach to the vow of poverty.
However, one can hardly deny the tendency that St. Francis was trying to address, which is that owning one thing leads to another and another and another.
If you’ve ever replaced an old piece of furniture with a new one, you probably noticed that everything around it all of a sudden seems dated and before you know it you are planning your next purchase.
If home decorating is not your Achilles heel you might consider whether buying a new dress automatically leads to “needing” a new pair of shoes.
The other day I watched a fellow shopper admire a vase and as she did so she turned to me and said, “I need this like a hole in my head.” Then she smiled, said “Oh well” and proceeded to put the vase into her cart.
But women aren’t the only ones who fall prey to consumerism. Consider the big screen TV that has become a must have when guys gather to watch football.
At one time or another, I suspect we have all rationalized purchasing things that we really don’t need, which is why reminders about embracing a more simple life can be helpful.
In a pamphlet entitled “Embracing Simplicity,” Donna Schafer suggests that when we are tempted to buy more and more, we should try countering the impulse by saying “I need less” and “I have plenty.”
To that I would recommend adding a prayer of thanksgiving for what we have and consider what we can do for those who truly are needy.
That may be incentive enough for some to get to work cleaning closets, donating what is no longer needed or worn and then standing back and admiring the neat and tidy space that has just been created.
It’s amazing how such a small act can generate genuine feelings of satisfaction.
When we deliberately choose simplicity we are turning up the volume on our inner voice, the one that re-orders our priorities.
Rather than seeking enjoyment in material things, we become more sensitive to the quiet beauty that surrounds us.
In the absence of external clutter our mind is able to breathe and appreciate little things like quiet moments, curling up with a good book or watching a squirrel scamper up a tree.
Rather than having the external world control us, simplicity allows us to be guided by our inner voice and in so doing we are able to better manage our lives and our time accordingly.
Embracing simplicity is not just about simplifying a physical space, but about simplifying schedules to make time for prayer.
It may require re-organizing our day, but if we are sincere we will find a time, commit to it and allow it to become a habit.
A wise spiritual guide once said “If you are too busy to pray, you are too busy,” which is another way of inviting busy people to re-evaluate priorities.
If our relationship with God is important, we will make prayer a priority.
A dedicated space can help. It can be as small as a quiet corner with a chair and a table.
On the table you might place a Bible, perhaps a religious picture and a candle to set the stage for your daily encounter with God.
It sounds simple and it is. The difficult part is remaining faithful to the practice.
But for those who do, that corner and that time of day will become a favorite space, and a precious time, from which every other moment and activity can and will flow.
And when that happens embracing simplicity becomes as natural as breathing the air around us.
January 2, 2017
The Gift of the Magi
Who were the Magi?
No Christmas creche would be complete without figures of the three kings, and yet Scripture suggests that Jesus could have been several months, even a year old by the time they arrived.
Although their visitation is recorded only in the Gospel of Matthew, they are part of the infancy narrative and with good reason.
The biblical account of the adoration by the Magi represents three important theological truths: (1) Jesus was the promised Messiah, (2) His kingdom was a threat to the reigning king, who was Herod and (3) His coming was a source of joy and a light to the nations.
Just how the three men happened to set out on their journey is less clear. In the absence of precise information, questions and legends abound.
Who were they?
What was their country of origin and why were they looking to the heavens for a sign?
Glimpses to the answers to some of these questions are offered by historians and theologians who view the visitation of the Magi within a historical context and through a wider cultural lens than is offered by the traditional nativity scene.
The fact that these travelers have been referred to as Magi leads some to believe that they came from the Persia, since the word magi in the Persian language is the equivalent of philosophers.
This also explains why they are referred to as wise men in some translations.
The New American Bible calls them astrologers and while their country or countries of origin is unknown, some scholars speculate they may have come from Babylon since many in Babylon were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures due to the years the Jews were in exile during the Babylonian captivity.
One legend has it that a group of learned men met regularly to discuss the Hebrew Scriptures and the foretelling of the coming of the King of Judah. According to this golden legend, during one such gathering while looking up at the heavens, the men saw a star in the shape of a child. This was the impetus for their journey.
Others believe they came from Iraq or Turkey, which would mean they traveled between 800 and 900 miles to see the King of the Jews.
The conjecture that one was from Africa didn’t come about until centuries later when one of the men was depicted by an artist as having black skin. This gave rise to the notion that each came from a different land and somewhere met along the way as their paths and quest converged.
Another theory offered is that they represent the three sons of Noah who were dispersed after the flood.
However, less important than from where they came is the faith, hope and humility that compelled these men of considerable stature to embark on a journey into the unknown to worship and pay tribute to a newborn babe in a foreign land.
As we look at our world today, the lessons that we can take from this Scripture account are more relevant than ever.
We are all wayfarers on the journey who are seeking God, not only in the Christmas manger but in the people in our lives, and yes, even in the stranger and in people who live in foreign lands.
The journey of the Magi represents nations outside the chosen people of Israel and speaks volumes to us about the inclusivity of the Kingdom of God.
The Magi fell on their knees because they recognized the Christ which begs the question: would they recognize the Christ in me?
Whether the Magi came from Babylon, Iran or Africa is irrelevant.
Inhabitants from these countries were considered pagans and unbelievers by the Jewish people, and yet it was these outsiders who recognized the arrival of the promised one, while the chosen people remained in darkness.
The commemoration of the visitation of the Magi is named the Feast of the Epiphany, which means gift.
But for too long and for too many, the focus of the word gift has been on the gold, frankincense and myrrh that the wise men presented to the Christ child.
However, the real gift that we celebrate on this feast is the gift that the Christ Child is to people of every nation, color and creed.
The Feast of the Epiphany is anathema to the spirit of nationalism that seems to be gripping our country.
It cries out against building walls and turning a blind eye to the plight of innocent victims of war, many of them children.
Pictures of three- and four-year-old children that go viral in minutes must do more than evoke feelings of pity. Unless tears shed for them are supported by real action, we are no different from Jesus’ neighbors, good Jews who did not recognize the long awaited King in their midst because he was poor, homeless, imprisoned by hatred and ignorance and rejected by the powerful.
As the Christmas season draws to a close, let us take time to reflect on the Christ in our communities and in the faces we come to know only through the media.
Let us take ownership of the ways we are called to be a gift to them so that like the Magi of old, they will recognize the Christ who said: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, homeless and you welcomed me. . .”
Well, we know the rest, but it is not enough to know the words. And while no one person can do everything, we can all do something because it is in doing that we will become a light to the nations.
December 19, 2016
Pregnant with God
Over the years I’ve facilitated a number…
…of Advent retreats entitled: Pregnant God. While the title seemed perfectly logical to me, more often than not, I encountered quizzical looks when suggesting the title.
Perhaps, it’s because we have been culturally conditioned to view the Incarnation of the Son of God as a historical event rather than an ongoing reality.
When the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, the Word of God was conceived in her womb in real time and within the context of history.
But as post-resurrection Christians, we have the privilege of knowing the Incarnation was about more than setting into motion the advent of the promised Messiah.
Therefore, Advent reflections should not be limited to an event that took place more than 2,000 years ago. That was only the beginning of God’s ongoing self-revelation to humankind.
When Mary’s womb received the divine seed, it was a miraculous event, but the miracle is continuous.
God’s seed is everywhere; the earth is God’s womb; our soul is the garden in which the divine seed is planted.
The miracle of the Incarnation never ceases, nor does it stop in Bethlehem. It cannot be fully appreciated apart from the teachings of Jesus nor from the Paschal Mystery.
While visiting the Holy Land, I was surprised by the close proximity of Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth to Jerusalem, the place of His death and resurrection.
But even more surreal was the barbed wire fence positioned on top of the wall that surrounded Bethlehem bearing the words “Peace on earth.”
Before approaching the city of Bethlehem, we were required to transfer from an Israeli bus to an Arab-owned vehicle as soldiers armed with automatic rifles looked on. And yet, we believe in peace because the Incarnation is not merely a historical event bound by time or space.
Christians, whose souls have been impregnated with the seed of God, walk by faith. We are a light to the world because Jesus told us we were.
This is what it means to be pregnant with God. When we were baptized, the seed of God was planted in our soul.
At that moment, the Holy Spirit came upon us, the power of the Most High overshadowed us and we were commissioned to bear fruit in the world because the seeds of faith, hope and charity were implanted in our soul.
To the human eye, they were invisible. It appeared as though nothing had changed, especially if we were baptized as infants.
But over time, nourished by the sacraments, and watered by prayer and study, and cultivated by our sisters and brothers in Christ, we embrace the universal call of Christians to be a light in the darkness.
This is our mission, not so different from that of Mary who was called to bring Christ into the world.
Our birthing of Christ is not limited in time or space to the town of Bethlehem. It occurs in our family, our neighborhood, the work place, and in the community where we serve as volunteers and agents of change.
Unlike modern Bethlehem that is surrounded by a concrete wall and barbed wire fence, our world is as open and as large as we allow it to be.
In Luke’s Gospel we read that following the angel’s announcement to Mary, she hurried to the hill country of Jerusalem to aid Elizabeth during the final months of her pregnancy.
Mary’s response to the information was to go forth. And so we are called to respond in a similar manner.
To be pregnant with God means to be filled with God. So how does God fill us?
Simply put, God fills us by expanding our hearts, and when our hearts expand so does our world. This is what Pope Francis meant when he said that building walls is unChristian.
Walls are products of fear, but Scripture tells us over and over “Be not afraid” and Jesus instructed his followers not to fear those who can harm the body but those who can harm the soul.
As pilgrims on the journey, we embrace our calling by allowing God to fill us and give us larger and larger hearts with which to carry his love and light into the world.
This is the real meaning of being pregnant with God. This is the mission to which we have been called.
It is the journey to Bethlehem, the City of Bread that stands in the shadow of the City of Crucifixion because we cannot separate the cross from the crib, as difficult as this may seem.
G. K. Chesterton wrote: “The truth is that the Christian life has largely been found difficult and left untried. And because of that we’ve never actually experienced the fullness of the Christian ideal.”
Chesterton goes on to explain that if we look at the saints, we know that some have fulfilled this mission.
But this is not a mission for only a few privileged souls. We are all called to be saints.
It is neither a right nor a privilege, but a responsibility that accompanies the Sacrament of Baptism to which every Christian has been called.
Therefore, we can rightfully say: we are pregnant with God; our mission is to give birth to the Incarnate Son of God and we trust that one day peace will reign not only in our hearts, but throughout the world.
Come Lord Jesus, Come!
December 5, 2016
Our Mother’s Face
Several decades ago Amy Grant recorded a song…
…entitled, “You Have Your Father’s Eyes.” While I no longer remember the words to the song or even the melody, the title, which provides much food for thought, has stayed with me.
It seems to me that to have our Father’s eyes is to be able to look at the world around us and see people and events through the eyes of God. To some it might seem like the height of presumption, especially when Scripture reminds us that God does not see as man sees. And yet the disparity between God’s way of seeing and our limited vision should not deter us. In fact it should serve as a clarion call for Christians who, through the Sacrament of Baptism have been baptized into the family of God.
However, families are about more than just the father. Therefore, as we journey through Advent and celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception, it seems only natural to ponder the role of Mary within the dynamics of this family unit.
If part of our spiritual DNA involves having our Father’s eyes, clouded though our vision may be, what is it that we have inherited from our mother? As we grapple with such musings, the words of Pope St. John Paul II might shed light on our understanding of the human-divine partnership that began with Mary’s fiat.
In his apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, the saint wrote: “In a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary. It was in her womb that Christ was formed, received from her a human resemblance, which points to an even greater spiritual closeness.”
When Mary consented to be the Mother of God, her human DNA was united with the divine seed. At the moment when the Word of God was made flesh in the womb of Mary, Jesus inherited the physical genes of his mother. Just as children bear the resemblance of their parents, we can be assured that Jesus inherited the physical characteristics of his mother.
The relationship between Jesus and Mary was and remains unique, having both a spiritual and a physical bond. And yet as members of God’s family we share in this bond, at least in a spiritual sense. Since we are recipients of our Father’s spiritual heritage and Mary is our spiritual mother, could we not conclude that like Jesus, we have our mother’s face?
This may explain why during Marian apparitions, Mary takes on the physical characteristics of the visionaries to whom she appears. When Mary appeared at Fatima, Lourdes or Knock, she had the appearance of a European woman. Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in Mexico as a native Indian, Our Lady of Kibeho in Rwanda as an African, and Our Lady of Akita as Japanese.
It seems Mary dons the ethnicity of those to whom she appears because she begins with the obvious. Although she is our spiritual mother, she does not disregard the importance of our physical nature. We are after all physical beings, not angels and so whenever Mary appeared, she came wearing the physical characteristics of those she visited. She spoke the language they would understand. Mary is neither European nor Mexican, African nor Japanese. She is none of them and yet she is all of them. Mary is mother of all people because she is the Mother of God, the one whose body was chosen to house the Son of God, and whose face served as a blueprint for her Son.
As our tainted nature’s solitary boast, Mary’s fiat resounded through the heavens and yet we know so little about her. Among the gospels, only Luke gives an account of the angel’s visit, of Mary’s fiat, the visitation and her Magnificat.
The little we do know about Mary from Scripture amounts to less than the size of a paragraph, and yet her silence speaks volumes about the one who was chosen to give birth to the Son of God.
There was nothing false or duplicitous in Mary. Upon greeting her, the Angel Gabriel declared Mary full of grace. Bishop Robert Morneau wrote that to be full of grace meant that Mary was aware within every fiber of her being what it meant to be loved by God.
Her words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” were less about servanthood than about her self-identity which could not exist apart from God. Rooted in this type of self-awareness, Mary was able to surrender her will to the will of God without hesitation or reservation.
And so it was that the Holy Spirit came upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowed her. In that moment that became forever sacred, the Son of God entered the womb of a young girl in the backwater village of Nazareth.
And so it was that unbeknown to all but her, the world turned anew so that we might see the world through our Father’s eyes and experience redemption through the Son whose likeness bore the resemblance of our mother.
With so much to ponder, may we never grow weary of gazing upon the face of the one who was chosen to be the Mother of God and our mother too.
November 21, 2016
Helen Keller once said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens;
…but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”
Now that the Year of Mercy has officially ended with the closing of the Jubilee Door at the Vatican on the Feast of Christ the King, her words serve as a timely reminder.
Rather than focusing on the closed Door, we do well to direct our gaze toward the reality that God’s mercy is ongoing. Hopefully, the Door of Mercy that marked the past Jubilee Year has served as a gateway to a deeper understanding and appreciation for the never ending mercy of God.
“His mercy is everlasting” chanted the psalmist, a particularly poignant refrain as we stand at the threshold of the season of Advent and begin a new Liturgical Year.
Hope is once again restored as we await with longing, the celebration of one of the greatest Mysteries of our faith.
During the Advent liturgies, we walk in the footsteps of the Israelites who longed to see the face of God. However, our journey is not a re-enactment, but a remembrance of a time when all the earth was groaning under the burden of sin. We recall that when it seemed the world could no longer bear the pain, God broke into human history and forever changed the face of the world.
And so it is that Christians prepare to receive what has already been given.
During the season of Advent, we ponder, we pray and ask: could there be any greater sign of God’s mercy than his becoming one of us?
It seems only fitting that as the door to the Jubilee Year of Mercy closes, the door to the new liturgical cycle opens reminding us once again, of the never ending cycle of Christ past, Christ present and Christ coming at the end of time.
We prepare for his coming with a spirit of hopeful expectation, confident that the cyclical nature of the journey allows us to celebrate each new beginning with a new way of seeing the world through the eyes of ever-deepening faith. Even when it seems that nothing has changed, we are mindful that we are changing.
Life goes on in an endless sequence of explorations, a condition that T.S. Eliot captured in poetic verse when he wrote:
“We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we start And know the place for the first time.”
To arrive where we began may seem as if all our seeking has been in vain, until we take into account all that we have learned along the way.
It speaks to the reality that life is a journey, not a destination and explains why the cyclical nature of the Church’s calendar is an important component of our faith journey.
As one liturgical cycle draws to a close, a new cycle beckons, providing a way for us to mark time, not unlike the mile markers that dot the highways we travel.
As we stand at the threshold of one more liturgical cycle, we look back but we also look to the future.
We might ask: “What has changed in my life during the past year and how will it affect me as I go forward?”
Each new beginning is an opportunity to examine how my relationship with God has changed within the context of those external changes.
So much of life is beyond our control. People come and go, events and circumstances impact our lives in unexpected ways.
All have the potential to form and deform us, but we are not helpless bystanders. We may not be able to control many of the events in our life, but we can control the way we respond to them.
Opportunities for growth are endless. Embedded within the blessings and challenges of life are hidden treasures waiting to be discovered.
And so it is that as one more Advent season beckons, we begin by asking: What was it about last Advent that inspired me and how can I build on it?
What were some of the obstacles that kept me from entering into the spirit of the season?
Was I too caught up in the busyness of doing?
Did I allow sufficient time for prayer, spiritual reading and reflection as a way to prepare for the coming of Christ?
What can I do differently this year and how might I share the spirit of joyful expectation with family and friends?
We may find the answer in the practice of gift-giving since it can tell us a great deal about the value we place on relationships.
We don’t give just any old thing to someone we love. We plan ahead. We imagine what gift would be most pleasing.
We might even begin saving and making sacrifices to buy that special gift.
And so it is with Advent. We have four weeks to think about the gift we will present to Christ on Christmas Day.
This Advent is unlike any other because once again “we are at this place for the first time.”
We will never pass this exact way again. Therefore, as we cross the threshold of yet another Advent season, let us focus on the doors that lead us to the heart of God, whose love and mercy are everlasting.
November 7, 2016
November is a time for remembering.
We began the month by commemorating the lives of those who have gone before us, celebrating the feasts of All Saints and All Souls.
We recall saints we have known who may never be canonized, but who have inspired us on our faith journey, and we honor those whom we know only remotely through our shared membership in the Body of Christ.
However, for many November is a bittersweet time—particularly if someone they love has died during the past year.
To move through life void of the companionship once enjoyed leaves a hole in hearts that at times seems impossible to fill, especially when the holiday season beckons.
Like a pall over the table on Thanksgiving Day, the absence of a family member can trigger tears amid celebrations, but they need not be tears of sorrow if we remember that eulogies should not end at the funeral service.
Telling stories about people who are no longer with us is one way to keep them present, another is to pray for them and pray to them.
People rarely think about praying to family members who have died, but as members of the Body of Christ. Whether they are in the state of ongoing purification or enjoying the fullness of life in God, they remain in communion with us. And while the souls in purgatory, as members of the Church suffering do not pray for themselves, they can intercede for others.
Consider that they are moving towards a perfect union with God, and no longer capable of sinning, which makes them powerful advocates for us.
The belief in purgatory is one of those doctrines that is uniquely Catholic and yet there is a great deal of misunderstanding, even denial surrounding the doctrine of purgatory.
Perhaps it’s because people often think of purgatory as a place rather than a state of being.
But as St. Pope John Paul II pointed out, the notion of an actual place belongs to a temporal concept and purgatory is a spiritual reality.
According to the Catholic Catechism, “Those who find themselves in a condition of being open to God, but still imperfectly, the journey towards full beatitude requires a purification, which the faith of the Church illustrates in the doctrine of ‘Purgatory’” (cf.Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1030-1032).
This is why Masses are offered for the dead and why the deceased are remembered during the Prayers of Intercession and at the Eucharistic prayers during every Liturgy.
As Christians, we are a resurrection people. We look forward with a profound sense of hope and anticipation to a life where we will enjoy perfect union with God.
Our life here on earth is a journey towards that fullness, but only God knows the state of souls when they die.
Some we know for certain are with God, and we trust that all those we know and love are either with or on their way to enjoying the perfect union with God that we were created to live.
Reflecting on his wife’s death, C. S. Lewis wrote, “Today’s sorrow is part of tomorrow’s joy.”
His words serve as a reminder that dual, even conflicting, emotions are part of life and so while we mourn the death of those we love, we also celebrate their entrance into new life.
As people of faith we believe the best is yet to come, though not removed from the way we live our life on earth.
Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of God was in their midst, but that it was also coming. It is made visible with every act of kindness done in the name of God, but that doesn’t mean we have to verbalize every intention.
God knows the genesis of every act within the secret of our heart and rewards us accordingly. Therefore, we do well to move through life with one eye on the here and now and the other on the hereafter.
The Scriptures help us in this regard.
During the month of November they take on an “end times” theme, reminding us to set our sights on higher things. The psalmist laments, “The span of our life is seventy years, or if we are strong, eighty; yet at best it is toil and sorrow, over in a moment, and then we are gone.”
Even nature takes on a somber tone as days grow short and leaves fall gently to the ground. However, November is also a time to remember good things that have come our way.
As family and friends gather around the table on Thanksgiving Day, we give thanks for blessings received; for the joys and yes, even the sorrows, for they too are part of the journey that leads to our heavenly home.
Life indeed is a precious bouquet of both tears and laughter, but as we look beyond the smallness of our world, we can come to appreciate the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who wrote, “Silently one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven, blossomed the lonely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.”
And while there is much about life that we do not understand, when we contemplate divine mysteries, we know that without a doubt, heaven is ours now and forever.
October 24, 2016
A Two-sided Coin
Water is like a two–sided coin.
It is both life-giving and necessary, but it can also be deadly when it reaches a level that threatens survival. Hurricane Matthew was one more reminder that what is a great blessing can also cause destruction and heartache. Nature can be just as treacherous as it is beautiful when its power is unleashed, particularly if you happen to live in one of the poorest nations on earth. We saw it ten years ago when an earthquake devastated Haiti and we are witnessing it once again in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. As it took aim at the tiny island, tin and cardboard dwellings were no defense against the 140 mile an hour winds that took the lives of more than 1000 people. Add to that the outbreak of cholera, and the tragedy continues to escalate. The poor are the most vulnerable members of society. It was the case during the time of Jesus and it is still true today.
People sometimes ask, what kind of God would allow such atrocities to happen? The answer is simple, so simple that it often alludes us. It is the same God who created us in his image and likeness and gave us free will. God created the world, but he gave us dominion over it. Therefore, much of the climate and the culture that we inhabit is of our own making. And while it is easy to look around for a scapegoat, even if it means blaming God, we are called as individuals and as a society to examine the countless ways we contribute to the problems, which over time victimize us.
In order to show us how to live, God became man. The Son of God subjected himself to the wiles of human nature. He pitched his tent among us, was unjustly judged and finally executed by the very people he created. Through the centuries, the evil that began in the Garden of Eden has been perpetrated through ignorance, self-centeredness and bigotry. While we may not be able to control the forces of nature, we have within us, through the grace of God, the potential to control the forces of evil in the world.
There is an intrinsic yearning deep within the human person that longs for a more perfect life. We dream of a better world; we long for a more just society; we envision a world without bombs and bloodshed. Politicians build careers on promising such a world and superheroes capture the hearts of children by magically wiping out crime. But is such a world only mythical reality? Is a world where people of every race, color and creed live side by side beyond our reach? Is it possible to celebrate a kaleidoscope of nations working together instead of demonizing such a reality?
If we look closely at the Gospels, particularly the parables that Jesus told, we begin to see what it would take to create such a world. We hear about the Good Samaritan, a foreigner whose charity put a scholar of the law and a priest to shame. He tells about a man who upon discovering a field that contained a hidden treasure, sold everything he had in order to purchase it. And we hear about the Father who celebrated the return of a prodigal son despite the way the son had treated him. These were not simply stories to entertain the crowds. They are a blueprint for how we are to live, a blueprint which Jesus validated through his own life and death.
Jesus reached out to the blind man whom his disciples were trying to silence. He made it a practice to heal the least and the lowest, to comfort the afflicted and to include the marginalized. When asked by his followers if they should pay taxes, Jesus responded by instructing them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. And this in a culture where the Jews were severely oppressed by Rome.
All this brings us back to the question of the two-sided coin. I suspect that the reason we have so hard a time giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar is because we have a hard time giving to God what is God’s. When St. Ignatius of Loyola developed his rules for discernment, one of the steps he put forth was to imagine that you are advising someone else about a decision because it is much easier to tell others what to do. Perhaps this is why Jesus regularly rebuked the religious leaders of his day.
As a spiritual writer and educator, I find it much easier to break open the Word of God than to follow it, which is why I keep close by me the lament of St. Paul who feared that after preaching to others, he might be lost. Unless those of us who have been blessed with faith are willing to listen to both sides of the coin, we become empty gongs and clanging cymbals or as Sr. Joan, my high school chemistry teacher used to say “Empty tin cans rattle.”
As we look around our world today, it is imperative not only to speak, but to listen to both sides, to ponder in silent prayer and then attend to what God is asking, not of someone else but of me. Jesus never promised us a perfect world; he promised to be with us and he called us to be a light to the world.
October 10, 2016
All God’s people
During recent trips to Washington, D.C.,…
I watched with anticipation as the National Museum of African American History and Culture gradually took shape.
In fact, the edifice was impossible to miss – its color and contour standing in sharp contrast to the white stone structures that surround it on the National Mall.
Like the people whose history it represents, the long-overdue tribute highlights diversity and memorializes a people upon whose backs much of our country was built and prospered.
Hues of brown, black and bronze catch the sun’s rays and reflect the beauty of all God’s people, reminding us to celebrate diversity rather than fear or suppress it.
From the slaves who helped build the White House to the workers in the field, from artists and athletes to professionals and blue collar workers, we are a rich blend of races whose past bears the scars that ignorance, greed, and self-righteousness have inflicted on those who appear different from us.
And so it is with a mixture of sadness and pride that our new national museum acknowledges a race which has risen from the ashes of slavery, yet continues to bear the burdens imposed by generations of prejudice and racial discrimination.
We have only to watch the news unfold to understand the depths of our sinfulness.
As President Obama noted during the dedication of the museum, “A clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable. It will shake us out of familiar narratives.
“It is precisely because of that discomfort that we learn and grow and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect.
“That’s the American story that this museum tells. One of suffering and delight. One of fear but also of hope.”
As I reflect on the words of our president, the line from Scripture, “I no longer call you slaves, I call you friends” (John 15; 15) comes to mind.
It would seem that the words Jesus spoke to his disciples during his last discourse conjure up very different feelings in the lives of African Americans, whose heritage is one of slavery more tthan it does for those of us whose ancestry and skin tone provide us with a birthright to freedom.
To be sure the wheels of history move slowly and growth is often painful.
By our very nature we are destined to grow and not to do so is to be less than human.
Ironically, we grow more often from our mistakes than from our successes.
Admitting past mistakes and listening to the pain of those whom we have hurt is important. Therefore, as Americans we grow when we allow ourselves to learn from the very people we once enslaved.
A perusal of Black Folk Religion in America offers valuable insights. Having been treated as subhuman by slave traders even before they arrived on American soil, African Americans had lost any reason for joy in this world.
As a result, they set their sights on the joy that would be theirs in the next life. Knowingly and perhaps unknowingly, American slaves integrated the religion of their masters into their own culture, and quite naturally identified with the displaced children of Israel who longed for a messiah.
Historians note that Southern slaves saw slavery as the triumph of evil. But by the grace of God, their passive submission to an earthly master was accompanied by an interior knowing that they had another Master, one whom no earthly master could beat into submission.
Courtesy to an earthly master was not so much a sign of submission as it was an act of humility for which the Heavenly Master would reward them.
Their longing for a better life gave voice to songs of deliverance, a cry to which the Emancipation Proclamation must have seemed like an answer to prayer straight from the Psalms that reassured them that God hears the cry of the poor and is close to the broken hearted.
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have all been freed from the bondage of sin, but it is up to us, as individuals and as a society, to break the chains that continue to enslave and divide us.
Yes, we’ve come a long way since 1776, when a courageous group of slaves and a few free blacks secretly gathered under a brush arbor in the woods outside of Williamsburg.
Feeling naturally estranged by Christian churches that continued to assign them a place apart from white congregants, their heart’s deepest longing found expression in the open air cathedral.
And so it happened that strains of their music and prayers moved a Southern white family to offer them a humble wooden structure that became the First Baptist Church in America.
How appropriate that the bell that rang during the dedication of the museum could be traced to those early worshippers, reminding us that we are one nation under God.
As our first African American president said about people of like heritage, “We are not a burden on America or an object of shame and pity for Americans, We are America.”
As we look at our country today and the divisive rhetoric that seems to bring out the worst in people, we are called to make a difference, to change the world.
But change begins with each person who in the end will be held accountable to God for his or her decision to grow or not to grow.
September 26, 2016
God With Us
I’m not sure if life is speeding up or if I’m slowing down.
Even in a semi-retirement mode, it seems there is often more to do than I have time for and so I am learning to be selective.
After a summer of hosting family who were visiting from various parts of the country, and with deadlines looming and multiple talks waiting to be written, I did something that might seem a bit irresponsible.
I booked a flight to St. Paul, Minnesota for a week long retreat. As it turned out it was exactly what I needed.
From the moment the plane left the runway, my attention shifted from doing to simply being. With my lap top at home, the temptation to write one more talk or answer a few e-mails was a non-negotiable. I needed this trip to be a vacation with God, and so it was.
By way of preparation, I brought with me a book I had gotten years ago. It’s one I return to every now and then because it continues to inspire me in new ways.
The book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons‚ is a meditative guide written by Henri Nouwen.
It features four Russian icons, including two that occupy a privileged place in our home office, which also serves as my prayer room.
One of the icons is Andrei Rublev’s portrayal of the Trinity and the other is the Virgin of Vladimir, painted by an anonymous Greek artist in the early12th century, and brought to the Vladimir in 1183.
Over the years I have come to know by heart almost every detail of these images and yet they continue to move me.
In light of this, you can imagine my surprise and delight when upon entering the room assigned to me at the Benedictine monastery, a representation of Rublev’s Trinity hung over my bed and in the adoration chapel, adjacent to the tabernacle was an icon of the Virgin of Vladimir.
As if that wasn’t enough, when I entered the dining room, a life size mural of Rublev’s Trinity greeted me from across the room.
Coincidence or providential? I’ll let you be the judge, but I definitely felt surrounded by love with food for thought everywhere I looked.
I have long been captivated by the mysterious beauty of icons. Unlike the religious paintings by Renaissance artists, whose intent was to inspire devotion, icons invite us to look beyond the physical image.
Their beauty lies not in the attractiveness of the person they represent, but in their ability to draw those who gaze upon them into the mysteries they contain.
In the words of Nouwen, “Icons are like windows looking out upon eternity.”
If it all sounds a bit ominous, I would invite you to spend time praying with these works of art. Hopefully, you too will discover they possess a language all their own, one that speaks to the soul, where the heart of God speaks to the heart of the one who is praying.
Every detail in an icon serves a purpose and signifies a deeper reality.
The use of color is carefully chosen to reveal mysteries hidden within each prayerful stroke of the brush.
The eyes, which typically seem to gaze inward, invite seers to discover the divine within their own soul.
Hands, which often appear disproportionally large, cause us to seek and linger with their larger-than-life meaning.
Each work is a product of selfless humility, inspired by the artist’s prayer, which is why icons were never signed.
To this day many of the greatest works remain anonymous. More than works of art, icons are prayers that have been gifted to the world for the edification of those who have eyes to see.
While Mary is central in the icon of the Virgin of Vladimir, her attention is totally and exclusively for the child in her arms.
Her eyes look inward to the heart of Jesus whom she holds and outward to the heart of the world.
Holding him close, she is consumed by the breath of God for whom she has become the Christ bearer. Rather than contradict her virginity, her motherhood completes it.
Not unlike the icon of the Trinity, the Virgin of Vladimir is a House of Love. The more I pray over these two icons, the more it seems that one completes the other.
The angels representing the Trinity in Rublev’s icon are seated around the altar which signifies the altar of sacrifice that redeemed the world.
The small opening on the front of the altar beneath the chalice represents the narrow gate through which we must enter and while Christ is the way, it is Mary who continually points us to Christ.
As the new Eve, Mary holds a hallowed place among her children and within the heart of God.
Perhaps this is why it is difficult for me to ponder the icon of the Trinity without reflecting on the Virgin of Vladimir.
Having prayed over these icons for almost a week, I returned home ready to embrace the tasks at hand, but in a slower and more intentional manner.
As a result, I continue to be drawn into the mysteries these sacred icons reveal, each one inviting me to dwell in the house of the Lord, which after all is not a physical place, but a way of being with God-with-us.
September 12, 2016
For many families, especially those who have school age children, it seems that the sense of new beginnings is more prominent during September than on the first day of January.
Amid the dog days of summer, students seem to miraculously muster a fresh outlook, despite the tempered enthusiasm of older students who deem grumbling to be more socially acceptable—that is until they are college bound.
And so it happens that every September students, along with parents, become willing participants in the annual ritual of assessing wardrobes in light of growth spurts, purchasing school supplies and gradually adjusting bedtime schedules.
To be sure, nothing quite compares with the aura of excitement that surrounds new beginnings when it comes to reigniting dreams that may have fallen short of the imagined goal during the past school year.
Whether the quest be in pursuit of honor roll status or admission to a varsity sports team, hope for students once again springs eternal.
Add to that the excitement of renewing friendships with classmates they haven’t seen since the dismissal bell in June, along with a cadre of unknowns, and you have a perfect recipe for butterflies-in-the-stomach syndrome that goes hand in hand with venturing into new territory.
By way of an antidote for this gut-wrenching malady, students can take comfort in the fact that admittance to a higher grade level makes them a dubious one year older and, as parents hope, one year wiser.
But to discuss the surge of renewed expectation that accompanies new beginnings in regard to the school year without reflecting on the cyclical nature built into everything from the earth’s rotation around the sun to the rise and fall of the ocean’s tide would be to overlook the reality that every end carries within its bosom the hope of a new beginning.
As the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “To every season there is a time and purpose for everything under the sun.”
The truth of this reality seems to be built not only into nature, but into the very core of human existence. And so I would suggest that we never outgrow the need for new beginnings.
Some new beginnings are by choice, others may be forced upon us by life circumstances, but regardless of the reason, timing is also a factor.
In his Poem, “A New Beginning,” John O’Donohue wrote:
In out-of-the-way places of the heart, Where your thoughts never think to wander, This beginning has been quietly forming, Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For me this poem speaks to the God factor that often goes unnoticed until we look back and see how all the dots of our life have been connected by grace.
From early childhood to adulthood, we have been formed and sometimes deformed by the circumstances of our life, and yet nothing is outside the heart of God.
Often when it seems we are floundering and adrift among a sea of uncertainties, God is forming us, preparing us to take the next step in faith because today, unlike yesterday, we are ready to begin again.
This applies not only to our mental and emotional readiness, but to our spiritual readiness as well.
However, for new beginnings to be truly effective, it is important to pause and reflect on the reason we feel the nudge to begin again.
More often than not it comes when that inner voice we call a conscience suggests we should be living a more God-centered life.
This is where I find the Sacrament of Reconciliation is of great value. Sadly, it is perhaps the most undervalued sacrament for many Catholics and for a myriad of reasons, some valid and others not so much.
From a human perspective, a certain type of discomfort is natural whenever we have to admit our failures.
I admit there are times when the old-butterflies-in-the-stomach syndrome returns when I think about confessing my sins. But then the grace of the sacrament takes over and I am able to leave feeling renewed as once again I understand that God has been waiting for me to emerge, a better version of my former self, one that relies more fully on the mercy of God than on my own lack of resolve.
And so it is, that like students who begin the new school year feeling they have been granted a fresh start, we are able to begin again, taking comfort in God’s reassurance that bygones are indeed bygones.
Recall the words of the prophet Isaiah who said, “The Lord said, ‘I am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more’.” (Is. 43; 25)
We find a similar message in the New Testament in the book of Hebrews where it is written, “For I will forgive their iniquities, and remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:12).
September may not carry with it the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions, but the theme of new beginnings certainly remains culturally prominent.
Therefore, it seems a good time to remember that the time is ripe for us to wander into those out-of-the-way-places of our heart where new beginnings are forever forming. Thankfully we have the perfect reason to begin again because now is the season.
In the spirit of beginning again, I wish to correct an error in my last column. The translation of “Ora et Labora” is Pray and Work, not work and pray, which certainly makes better sense since all good works should flow from prayer.
August 29, 2016
Ora et Labora
Ora et Labora” (work and pray) has been a motto for Benedictines through the…
…centuries and the words are as relevant today as they were 1,500 years ago when the teachings of Benedict of Nursia came of age in the Western Church.
Often referred to as the Father of Western Monasticism, St. Benedict had a keen appreciation for the importance of both work and prayer, a rhythm which he held sacred not only for monks, but for all Christians. Mindful of Benedict’s understanding of labor, I find his insights worthy of reflection as our country turns its attention once again towards the celebration of Labor Day.
Amid a cultural tendency to regard monetary compensation as a barometer to measure the worth of a particular form of labor, we may be at risk of losing sight of the sacredness of work itself.
The beauty of Benedict’s approach to labor is that he was able to integrate the spiritual dimension of work with the external activity that is demanded for a job well done. Like any person of prayer, Benedict understood that prayer is essential if we are to view the work of our hands as holy.
The injunction that our first parents would earn their bread by the sweat of their brow is evident throughout Scripture.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were herdsmen and farmers. Eventually, the Israelites became craftsmen and artisans, putting their skills to use when building the temple, but the work of human hands reached a new dignity when God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who made his living as a carpenter.
When God pitched his tent among us, he entered into our human nature, not as one who dons a costume that he can slip in and out of, but as one who like Adam would earn his living by the sweat of his brow. In so doing, the New Adam took what was once perceived as a punishment and made it forever holy.
Even after he was called to be an apostle for Christ, Paul continued his trade as a tent maker and in his letter to the Thessalonians he chided the early Christians with the words, “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then neither is he to eat” (2 Thess. 10; 3).
Work is about more than simply providing ourselves with a means of livelihood. Through the work of our hands, we enter into the communal dimension that is at the very core of who we are as people of the Covenant, a covenant with God and with one another. Therefore, it can rightly be said that nothing we do is done in isolation. The bread we eat depends upon the supplier, the baker and the farmer not to mention the one who transported the bread to the grocery store where we purchased it. There is nothing that we can touch with our hands that does not have its genesis outside of us. Even our body exists because God through the procreative action of our parents brought us into being. In fact, everything we have is an act of labor either by us or through an act of God who after six days rested from His labor.
From the beginning, the Creator who called us into being commanded that we observe a day of rest, not for the sake of the law, but for our own well-being. This was at the heart of Jesus’ invitation to find our rest in Him, the God man, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
It is with this understanding that we are able to baptize and bless all that we do, thereby, transforming the ordinary into something sacred.
And so it was that St. Benedict was able to counsel his monks “To regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.”
According to Benedict, dealing with tools, handling money, managing property all had to do with God when done well and for the honor and glory of God.
And so it was with saints through the ages. Work was not an exclusion of prayer, but a continuation of prayer. St. Teresa of Avila was known to have told her nuns that God can be found just as surely among the pots and pans as in the chapel. Not unlike the prophecy of Zechariah, who said, “On that day, every cooking pot in Jerusalem will be sacred to the Lord.” (Zech 14; 20 -21), she understood that prayer is not an escape from everyday responsibilities.
Today amid a growing disparity among wage owners, Christians are once again reminded that all work is holy and all who labor deserve a just wage.
Ever mindful that every human talent is a gift from God, we are called to rise above artificial distinctions that award inflated compensations to a few while many work two and three jobs just to put food on the table.
As we gather to pray this Labor Day weekend, may the words of St. Benedict inspire us not only to pray, but to work for a more just distribution of goods so that all may find not only a means of support in their work, but a way to praise and give honor and glory to God.
August 15, 2016
A Russian Folktale
I don’t recall when or where I first came across this particular Russian folktale…
…but as I looked at the calendar and saw that the feast of the Assumption of Mary was upon us, the story about Jakof came to mind.
According to the tale, Jakof was a widower who was left with three young children to raise: 12-year-old Anna, Nikolai who was 7 and 6-year-old Maiya.
Jakof loved his children, but being a poor peasant had little to offer them by way of material possessions.
He worked long hours just to put food on the table, and so much of the care for the younger children fell to Anna.
One day Anna learned of a dance that was to be held in the village and she longed for a new dress to wear for the occasion. But her pleas for one were in vain. Alas, all Jakof could tell her was “no.”
The next day, Anna could scarcely hide her tears as she went about the task of fixing breakfast for her sister and brother. To make matters worse, Maiya spilled her milk, and when Anna scolded her, Nikolai yelled at Anna for making their little sister cry.
Hurt and angry, Anna ran out of the house sobbing. Eventually she found herself in the little church around the corner from where they lived where she fell on her knees and wept.
As she looked at the statue of the Virgin Mary, dressed in a beautiful garment with a royal crown on her head, she prayed. “O Mary, you have such a beautiful dress, if only I could be a queen like you. My life here is so difficult. No one cares about me and ever since my mother died, I feel so alone.”
Suddenly, Anna felt herself being transported through the air, and she became one with the statue.
As she looked down at her beautiful dress, she wanted to touch it, but could not. Her arms had become as fixed as the statue. And so it was that she remained there for most of the day.
As she watched people come and go, she felt helpless.
Late in the afternoon, she watched her little brother Nikolai come into the church. He asked Mary to forgive him for yelling at his sister and prayed, “If only she would return, I promise I will be more helpful. I know she works hard to take care of us and I will be kind to her if only you bring her back to us.”
Then Nikolai took his favorite rock from his pocket and placed it at Mary’s feet. “Here, take this rock,” he said. “It doesn’t shine the way it did when Anna would hold it.”
Anna wanted to reach down and put her arms around Nikolai, but her arms could not move.
Next little Maiya came into the church. She was sobbing and she looked frightened.
She told Mary that Anna had run out of the house all because she had spilled her milk. She told Mary that if only her sister would come back, she would be more careful and not act like such a baby.
“I will try to help Anna and not always ask her to help me,”she cried as her tears fell on the feet of the statue of Mary.
Before she left, Maiya placed at the Virgin’s feet a bouquet of wild flowers she had picked on her way to the church. Anna wanted to gather them up, kiss her little sister, and smooth her ruffled hair, but once again, her arms would not move.
Later as the sun began to fade from the sky, the door of the church opened once again and this time it was her father who entered. He was carrying a box and as he knelt before the statue of Mary, he thanked her for giving him extra hours of work so that he could buy Anna a new dress.
He bowed his head and then, just before he was about to leave, he took the cigar from his pocket and laid it at Mary’s feet. With that he promised to quit smoking so that he could afford to buy Anna a pair of shoes to go with her new dress. Then he slipped out of the church.
In an instant, Anna was back in the pew from where she had been transported earlier in the day. Once again she could move her arms and legs, but this time, there were no tears.
Her heart danced with joy as she thanked Mary for giving her such a wonderful family. Anna raced home where she saw her father, Nikolai and Maiya as Mary saw them, and then she knew that she was indeed a queen and this was her heaven on earth.
Like with every good story, numerous lessons can be gleaned from this folktale. We might begin by placing ourselves in the role of each of the characters, and reflect on who best represents who we are.
We might ask ourselves: if I were to leave a gift at Mary’s feet, what would I bring and what wish would I ask Mary to grant me?
I might consider whether I ask Mary to do for me what I am being asked to do?
And finally, does my yearning for heaven above, keep me from seeing the heaven that is mine right here on earth?
And so we pray: Mary, Queen of heaven pray for us that we may better appreciate our role here in this time and in this place.
August 1, 2016
Education, Collaboration and Inspiration
The book entitled “Jesus” arrived in the mail.
I had been told to expect it, but that it was not a gift. The sender was affiliated with a Catholic publishing house and had asked me to read it and offer a professional opinion about the merits of their condensing the work and publishing it as a formation tool.
I was happy to oblige, especially since I was not the only one who was asked to weigh in with an opinion. Asking for input from a variety of professionals is common practice among publishers before they commit to purchasing copyrights to a piece of work. Even magazine articles are reviewed by several editors prior to purchasing a submission, and with good reason.
Despite standard guidelines and objective criteria that are used to evaluate a manuscript or article, one cannot discount the presence of personal limitations or biases regarding any given topic. Rather than a sign of weakness, seeking the opinion of others is a sign of strength, and speaks to the value of collaboration. Most people would agree that a person’s willingness to listen is a sign of wisdom. When we listen to others, not only is our understanding deepened, but our vision is expanded.
However, this is not the same as being swayed by every thought and theory that is espoused or perpetuated by our culture, but about the process of gathering and evaluating information, followed by prayerful discernment.
Every day we are bombarded by messages from the media, politicians, activist groups and organizations, all claiming to advance the best interests of society and the world.
Therefore, as Christians who claim God as our first and most important authority, discernment is an important part of spiritual growth, and should be approached intellectually, collaboratively and prayerfully.
On an intellectual level, the role of education should be obvious, but is it? In order to grow spiritually, more is required than a ten minute homily at Sunday Mass.
With the world and national issues becoming more complex, unless we make an effort to deepen our understanding of Scripture and Church teachings, it is easy to fall prey to a culture that is becoming increasingly more secular.
In today’s rapidly changing world, continuing education is required for almost every job and profession. So why should it be any different in an area as important as our faith life?
Taking a lesson from publishing houses, we do well to consult people in the field when it comes to matters of faith, and it has never been easier.
The availability of CDs and videos on spiritual topics, many offered in conjunction with parish adult education programs, provide Catholics with important tools for spiritual growth.
Catholic magazines and newspapers are another faith formation tool that provide insight and guidance regarding current affairs morality. And, subscriptions to Catholic periodicals make wonderful gifts to give and receive.
Book clubs can be a fun and enlightening way to grow in faith, while learning and being inspired by others—which speaks to the collaborative element of learning. When I listen to what others have to say about a story or from a particular author, my own understanding is broadened.
As I listen to the faith sharing of fellow sojourners in small groups, I am often in awe of the many ways God is working in the lives of ordinary people, and in turn my own faith is enhanced.
When it comes to inspiration, we can find no better source than the inspired Word of God. And so we do well to ask: Do I make an effort to read Scripture every day?
Daily Scripture readings are available online through the USCCB and on many diocesan and parish websites. But it is not enough to simply read a passage – which is why I discourage sandwiching God into your day. Make a date with God, and regard as sacred the time you spend with the greatest Teacher ever. Read the words slowly and thoughtfully, allowing them to sink into the fabric of your soul. You may wish to read a passage two, even three times, as the words move slowly from your head to your heart.
I was reminded of the importance of reading from the heart when I started reading the book “Jesus”. Mindful that I was to offer an opinion, I approached it as an intellectual activity and found it offered nothing new. I was disappointed. Realizing my mistake, I began reading with my heart, thoughtfully and prayerfully and came away with a whole new appreciation for the reign of God present and working in our world, just as it was when Jesus traveled the roads of Galilee.
That’s the amazing thing! Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present here and now—a willing teacher, instructing us in the ways of God. And when we listen, we are rewarded, often in surprising ways.
Hidden graces that seem to come out of nowhere are revealed, sometimes when we least expect them, but more often when we need them most.
July 18, 2016
Little Pieces of Light
The picture had gone viral in a matter of hours.
It was the photograph of a blood-stained running shoe belonging to one of the doctors in the hospital emergency room the night the mass shooting occurred in Orlando.
In his posting, the doctor explained that his shoes were new, but as he began treating victims that were brought into the ER, his shoes were soon covered with blood.
But rather than throw them away, he decided to hang one of the blood stained shoes in his office as a reminder of that night.
When I first heard this, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would want to be reminded of such a horrible night. But then I learned the reason behind his decision, and I was deeply touched.
The physician explained that the shoe would remind him of the many people who came to the hospital to help, some bringing the wounded, many ignoring their own injuries while they cared for those who had more serious wounds.
Although most were strangers until the horrific events of the night began to unfold, the doctor was inspired by their concern for the other and wanted to remember the goodness he witnessed within the context of unbelievable suffering.
As I read the account, I was reminded of a very small book – less than 70 pages in length – written by Joyce Rupp, OSM.
The book entitled “Little Pieces of Light” invites readers to discover what this wise physician was able to glean from a night rife with the cries of pain and anguish. The lesson is that hidden within the darkest of times are little pieces of light.
It is a message that is especially poignant and bears reflection at a time when mass shootings and acts of terrorism have become almost common place.
However, it is not a message to be applied only to events on a national or global stage. Times of darkness invade the life of every human being. As much as we would like to whisk them away or quickly move beyond them, they are fertile ground for transformation.
Let me be clear, I am not referring to sin, acts of evil or illness that triggers the dark times in life.
I am talking about the pain and suffering that accompanies such events, bringing us to a crossroads where we can either choose to accept and befriend the darkness as an opportunity for spiritual growth, or curse it.
Without periods of darkness, transformation would not happen. When darkness seems to shake the very ground upon which we stand, rather than turning our anger outward, we do well to examine it within the context of prayer, trusting that hidden within every moment of pain and suffering is the Light that cannot be extinguished.
When we look closely, we will discover tiny pieces of light shining through, ready to make their way into our heart.
Recognizing such points of light are moments of grace that break through our blindness and allow us to see beyond the sin and pain that unfortunately will always be part of life. But suffering need not remain a negative experience. When we turn to God and open our heart, we will discover that points of light hidden within the darkness become a window for spiritual growth.
There is such a thing as holy darkness, and by that I don’t mean to imply that suffering is good. But when we sit with the unknown and invite the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes, we will begin to glimpse rays of light that gradually transform our heart by imbuing it with deepening faith, hope and charity.
When that happens, we begin to realize that hearts of stone, having been broken, are being transformed into human hearts, hearts that were created to reflect the love of God, the God in whose image we have been created.
The only heart we have control over is our own, but when darkness assails us, the natural tendency is to want to escape the pain by controlling the situation or changing the hearts or those who are responsible for our pain.
But as Joyce Rupp points out, the path of darkness carries within it a not so gentle nudge pushing us towards interior growth.
Therefore, we need to be attentive. We need to look for those little pieces of light, which often come unexpectedly through the concern of family members or a friend.
An insight from a homily or a book, offering insight can break through the darkness of an otherwise cloudy day and are pieces of light.
Be assured their presence is no accident. They are gifts from God who is forever calling us to become the person that he created us to be.
In her book Joyce Rupp shares the comment of a blind friend, who once said “I think we are all little pieces of light for one another.”
That light can come to us in many ways and through many people if we take the time to notice. Then like the doctor in the ER who discovered love in the midst of chaos and darkness, we too will be able to discover within the midst of life’s suffering little pieces of light that guide our feet along the path that will lead us to the Light of the World.
And each time we absorb pieces of his light, we become a little piece of light for those who dwell in darkness.
July 4, 2016
Independence, not individualism
Amid picnics, parades and fireworks, Americans everywhere celebrate the Fourth of July with great festivity.
The United States has long prided itself on its independence and with good reason. The sacrifice and vision of our founding fathers has led not only to declaring our independence from Great Britain, but to forming a Constitution which has set the gold standard for freedom. However, independence is not the same as individualism, something that I fear has escaped the collective mindset of many in our country today.
Individualism is inward looking, concerned with individual rights, whereas the spirit of independence that motivated the early colonists was concern for the common good. The welfare of the citizen body was the motivating factor that led to America’s independence from the oppressive governance of King George. It was a collective view versus one motivated by individual gain, for the welfare of all came at great cost to some.
Centuries before Patrick Henry gave voice to his famous cry, “Give me liberty or give me death,” Thomas Aquinas wrote that a right relationship with God requires commitment to the common good of our neighbors and creation. And long before either of them walked the earth, Aristotle argued, “The good of the community should set the direction for the lives of individuals for it is for a higher or more divine good than the particular good of private persons.”
Nurturing the common good is at the very heart of the principles upon which our country was founded. The United States of America has a long-standing tradition of welcoming the stranger, to which the inscription on the Statue of Liberty attests.
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
They are words every American can be proud of because they echo the compassion of people who knew what it was like to be tired, poor, and oppressed. Obviously the plight of those arriving on our shores was not perfect, nor was it free from difficulty. But what it did offer was hope and through the process of resettlement, our country became a rich melting pot of diversity long before the world became globalized.
It is to our credit that hospitality became a cornerstone of democracy, but even more importantly, hospitality is central to Christian discipleship. Hospitality is a way of overcoming the tension that exists between those who perceive themselves as natives and insiders and those who are looked upon as foreigners and outsiders. Therefore, it is imperative that those of us who are American born remember that unless we are Native-Americans, our ancestors came from distant lands in search of a better life, much like the refuges who are fleeing war and hardship today. And yes, clearly there are also differences. The threat of terrorism is real and our immigration system needs reforming, but the answer to these problems does not lie in hate speech or a spirit of isolationism.
As arguments about immigration and other hot-button issues are waged on the floor of Congress and judicated by the Supreme Court, we do well to reflect on the Scripture passage from Jerimiah. “If you do not oppress the resident alien, the orphan and the widow, if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own harm, I will remain with you in this place, in the land that I gave your fathers long ago.” (Jer. 7;5-7)
As I reflect on this passage, it occurs to me that perhaps what our politicians need is not a recess, but a retreat. Rather than assaulting one another with hateful rhetoric, staging sit-ins or turning their backs on one another, they need time to reflect on the divinely inspired principles upon which our country was founded.
Time and again, I hear politicians say they are doing the will of the people. Perhaps what they need to do is concern themselves with doing the will of God, because only if we love God will we be able to love our neighbor as our self. It is not easy to rise above selfish inclinations that put personal gain above the common good. And so leaders and followers alike need to seek divine wisdom and the strength to overcome the spirit of individualism. That doesn’t mean all need to be Christian. The law of God has been written in the hearts of every person, but how can it be discerned unless each person rises up against the false gods of money and power and places the common good above personal gain?
I find it ironic that religion is often used as a scapegoat, and blamed for wars when the opposite is actually true. Religion binds us to the laws of God, calling us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Individualism seeks personal gain at the expense of the laws of God. As a country, we have been richly blessed and so this Fourth of July, may we never confuse the spirit of independence from oppression with independence from God. May our land continue to welcome strangers, provide for the poor and support life in all its forms from the womb to the tomb, so that we can indeed be a light to the nations.
June 20, 2016
Fatherhood and Divine Providence
By the time this issue of the paper arrives in your mailbox, Father’s Day will have come and gone.
However, given the fact that most fathers don’t receive the same amount of attention that mothers get, I’ve decided the least I could do would be to offer some belated thoughts about fatherhood via this column.
Actually they are not my thoughts, but are reflections from the novel “Home” by Marilynne Robinson. They are for fathers whose children are about to leave or have already left home as young adults, but sooner or later all fathers will be in that position, so her message is worth sharing.
The author compares this stage of the fathers’ journey with Abraham in the Hebrew Scriptures who twice during his lifetime had to trust God during some pretty heart wrenching circumstances.
Most people are familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar to God. It is a Biblical account that most parents, mothers and fathers alike find difficult.
The other account actually happened first, but is less well known and involves Abraham sending his son Ishmael into the desert.
Ishmael you will recall was the son of the union between Abraham and his wife’s maid servant Hagar.
Author Marilynne Robinson makes the point that Abraham was actually called to sacrifice both his sons. Isaac on the altar, and Ishmael by sending him into the wilderness, which would have meant certain death.
But as Robinson points out, in both cases, the Lord sent angels to intervene at critical moments to save each child.
In the case of Ishmael, the angel pointed to a spring of water that staved off death. As we know with Isaac, the angel held back Abraham’s arm just before he was about to plunge the dagger into his son’s chest.
While no father today has, nor probably will be called to, send his son into the desert or to offer him to God on an altar of sacrifice, every father eventually finds himself in the situation where he is sending his child and or children into the wilderness, so to speak, and trust in the providence of God.
We know from the book of Genesis that Abraham himself had been called from his father’s land and sent into the wilderness, trusting only in the providence of God.
Perhaps that made it a bit easier for Abraham to trust God when it came to Ishmael and Isaac, but in a way Abraham’s story is a narrative for every generation.
When fathers have done their best to raise their children according to the faith and equip them with principles and values needed to survive in the world, every parent comes to a time when it is time to let go and entrust their offspring to the providence of God.
That doesn’t mean that fathers will be physically or emotionally separated from them, although that may be the case.
Sadly there are a good many fathers who neglect, abuse or abandon their children. And we need only to watch the news to understand that it is not unusual for young adults to be victims of violence, become seriously ill or make poor choices.
But as Ms. Robinson writes, “They too remain in the providence of God and this is no less true if the angel carries such children home to their faithful and loving Father in heaven than if he opens a spring of water in the desert or stays the knife and lets children live out the sum of their earthly years.”
If ever there was a human personification of trust in God, it can be found in Abraham.
The three Abrahamic religions claim Abraham as father, and although Christians do not claim him in the same sense as Jews and Muslims do, every father can learn from his implicit trust in God during times of difficulty and strife.
The reality is that parents never stop being parents no matter what the age of their children is. But once children reach adulthood, the importance of entrusting them to the care of their heavenly Father through prayer is more important than ever.
Like Abraham of old, we can’t know what the end of their journey will look like. But fathers, and mothers for that matter, should never lose sight of the fact that if we, who love our children so imperfectly, want only what is good for them, their heavenly Father desires it even more.
Every adult male or female at some point leaves their father’s home and enters into the so-called wilderness of the unknown. John the Baptist entered the desert and even Jesus was sent into the wilderness before he began his public ministry.
The wilderness serves as a time of trial, self-examination and discovery. No young person experiences the wilderness or responds to it in the same way.
I suspect that Abraham’s prayers accompanied Ishmael into the desert and no doubt he prayed the whole time he traveled with Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him to the Lord.
Abraham could not know how his prayers would be answered, nor do parents today.
But like Abraham of old, we are called not to ask WHY but to ask HOW to walk faithfully and then pray for the strength to trust in the providence of God, knowing that our children are accompanied by their own special angel God will send to their aid in ways we may never witness nor fully understand.
June 6, 2016
Nature: A Unique Library
As another school year draws to a close, minds, which only yesterday fretted over final exams and grade point averages, happily migrate to images of leisure time and summer travel.
While the annual exodus from all things intellectual could signal a cause for concern, balancing work and play is essential for students, teachers and parents alike.
With life’s seeming demands infringing on personal free time at an increasingly earlier stage of life, the importance of taking time to stop and smell the roses cannot be overestimated.
Unfortunately, with the growing intrusion of technology into the lives of people, less and less time is spent outdoors, which recent studies indicate have a negative effect on children’s development.
Conversely, time spent outdoors has long term positive developmental consequences, which cannot be dismissed.
Some positive results of children spending time with nature include increased cognitive function, greater attention span, better motor coordination, increased social interaction skills and an overall increase in emotional and physical well-being.
To that I would add an increased awareness of the wonder and glory of God, which contributes to their spiritual well-being.
Unlike in decades past, when summer vacation was synonymous with children playing outdoors from early morning until dusk, television and computer screens currently hijack the attention of far too many young people.
Therefore, unless a deliberate effort is made to incorporate outdoor activities into the lives of our children and grandchildren, precious hours that could be spent enjoying the fruits of nature will be lost.
Such a travesty affects not only individuals, but society as a whole, for it is a proven fact that those who spend time with nature tend to have a greater concern for the environment.
This year as our nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Parks system, we have a wonderful opportunity to help young people develop an appreciation for the natural treasures that have been bestowed upon us as a nation. Our national parks include 84 million acres of some of the most stunning natural landscapes in the world.
They span the length and width of our country and can be enjoyed even when budgets are limited; some without leaving the state of Virginia.
In a culture that thrives on overstimulation of the senses, why not plan a vacation around a visit to some of our natural wonders?
While the adventure may not receive as enthusiastic a response from children as a trip to an amusement park, the benefits will far outlast the thrills and bragging rights that accompany the latest roller coaster attraction.
Enjoying the sights and sounds of nature can add depth to the soul and change lives in innumerable ways.
The national parks have been called the lungs of America because they connect us to our life source in a tangible way.
In the face of a world that validates one’s worth by possessions, power and prestige, nature lifts us above the false idols of self-aggrandizement and expands our vision beyond mere human capabilities.
Upon returning to society after spending years in the wilderness, John Muir, who is credited with being the father of the national parks system, wrote: “I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men.”
Later while visiting Yellowstone, he wrote, “Take a good look into the grand geological library of the park and see how God writes history.”
“Nature serves as a history book which chronicles the world’s existence, and serves as a window for scientific enlightenment. Its array of colors rival any artist’s palette and as a theology book, nature offers credible testimony for the existence of God.”
I recall while working as the director of the RCIA in a parish, one catechumen told me that although he had not been raised to believe in God nor had ever set foot inside a church as a child, he remembered lying in the grass when he was about ten years old.
He said, “I looked up at the sky, and I knew there was a God.”
The landscape and scenery in nature surpass anything a human artist could reproduce on canvas.
No camera can capture its majesty; no poem its grandeur; no melody do justice to God’s love song.
God spoke the world into being and holds it tenderly in the palm of His hand.
Nature is truly a sacred holding space that reveals the presence of God and the interconnectedness of all things.
It is impregnated with divine kisses that flow from the fountain of the Most High God. Like braided streams, every aspect of nature is one with the river of humankind, recipients of the Father’s overflowing love, divine messengers coursing through the Word into all of creation.
Truly nature is an inexhaustible wonderland.
And yet, with the miracle of creation so readily available, we can become blind to its wonders and dismissive of its ability to renew the spirit.
During these glorious summer months, when we find ourselves moving a bit too quickly or planning one too many activities, we would do well to take time to stop, look and listen for the sights and sounds of the glorious world that God has created for us.
And each time we do, may our hearts give voice to a song of praise and thanksgiving.
Then no matter how the rest of our days go, our summer will be filled with countless God-moments!
May 23, 2016
It has been said that some form of “Fear not” or “Do not be afraid” appears 365 times in Scripture.
While the number is not factual, the injunction appears with greater frequency than any other in the Bible.
Some sources have set the number at 103, while others, which apply a broader version, place the number closer to 500.
But regardless of the exact number of times the message is conveyed, the number 365 has a symbolic value. Since it coincides with the number of days in a year, the number 365 serves as a reminder that we need to place our trust in the Lord every day of the year.
Fear is a human reaction. The first thing that Adam and Eve did when they sinned was to hide from God because they were afraid.
When we come face to face with our own sinfulness, we tremble. Oddly enough, we do the same thing when we come face to face with our own goodness.
When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary with the salutation “Full of grace,” she was told, “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Lk 1; 30).
Life is a journey that is filled with unknowns and conflicting feelings. We look for signs and we seek reassurance because we find it difficult to believe that God could love us.
But when we give in to such thinking, the only thing that remains is fear. Not only is fear anathema to trusting in God, but it gives rise to a culture of pessimism.
There is always a case to be made for pessimism which explains why during the Mass the priest asks God to free us from undue anxiety. Fear and pessimism feed on the negativity and obscure the presence of goodness in the world.
War and violence, poverty and addictions of every kind, a culture of death, even the current state of our political culture —which has sunken to a historical low—have the potential to instill in us a morbid state that regards everything as a moral threat.
While it is natural to become alarmed by the presence of evil in the world, to succumb to fear mongering is an affront to Christian principles. There is nothing prophetic about being a pessimist.
Pessimism is contagious. It suppresses human aspirations for good and depresses a sense of the possible.
The culture of pessimism, which is rampant in our world today, is a direct affront to the Holy Spirit. Rather than holding fast to the gifts of the Spirit, pessimism provides grounds for alarm and collective suspicion that creates hostility and division. Our current political climate is a prime example of what happens when we see only what is wrong with our country and the world in general.
It is part of the human condition to suffer, not because God is a vengeful God, but because life is an ongoing pilgrimage of purification.
Along with his peace, the only thing that Jesus promised his followers in this world was the cross. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Lk 9; 23)
To deny ourselves is to deny the culture of evil that threatens to derail us. It was not easy for Jesus and it will not be easy for us.
The cross no longer stands on Calvary, but is embedded in the challenges and suffering that are part of life. Not knowing what form the cross will take is frightening, which is why Scripture reminds us, not once, but again and again: “Do not be afraid.”
Lest we lose sight of the reality that the cross is also a sign of victory, we are reminded during every Eucharistic celebration that our faith journey does not end with the sacrifice on Calvary, but with our participation in the heavenly banquet, a prototype of what awaits us in the New Jerusalem. Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus promised, “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy from you.” (Jn16; 22)
We need not be afraid because we have been given food for the journey. The awesome reality is that God comes to us because we are created in his own image and likeness and therefore, we are a reflection of God’s own goodness.
We have the potential to do great things, but only if we embrace the grace of optimism. The grace of optimism is not a denial of evil, a pie in the sky kind of faith, or wishful thinking.
Rather it is rooted in the childlike trust that allows us to see beyond the cross because to do otherwise is to deny the presence of God in the world and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Like the apostles of old, who were filled with the Holy Spirit at that first Pentecost, we are called to boldly proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus.
Therefore, let us pray that we do not fall prey to the culture of pessimism that is rampant today, but live each day by placing our trust in the Lord who promised to be with us until the end of the world.
May 9, 2016
Waiting on the Spirit
If you’ve ever placed your hope in someone or something only to have the rug pulled out from under you…
…then you can imagine what it was like for the apostles as they stood on the hill outside of Jerusalem and watched Jesus ascend into heaven.
After his resurrection, they were ecstatic. The reality of Jesus’ death had been reversed. He was alive!
Desolation had been transformed into joy and hope for a messianic kingdom had been restored.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, prior to Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the apostles were still asking, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1; 6)
They continued to believe that the Messiah was going to set them up as earthly leaders. They just didn’t get it, even after Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world.
And yet, we should not be too hard on the apostles. After all, we are very much like them.
How natural it is to seek the first place, to want to be liked and esteemed even though Jesus said the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
Just as the apostles wanted to experience the Kingdom of God as one of power and prestige, we too can fall into the trap of wanting the Kingdom of God on our terms.
In response to the apostles’ questions about restoring Israel to its former glory, Jesus warned them, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority.” (Acts 1; 7)
It has been said that knowledge is power and to know is to be in charge. We are naturally inclined—hard wired, if you will— to seek answers to questions and find solutions to problems.
One of the first questions children pose is: “Why?” Curiosity drives learning and every good journalist approaches a story with the questions: who, what, where, when and why as a backdrop. We live in an age of information, where answers to all kinds of questions are only a click away. Therefore, it can be frustrating when burning questions go unanswered.
Trusting divine providence does not come easily. Jesus knew this and so he promised to send the Holy Spirit as an advocate.
I suspect this was not much of a consolation as the apostles stood on Mount Olivet, watching Jesus disappear behind the clouds.
Who was this Holy Spirit anyway? They wanted Jesus, not some helper. I can almost hear the murmuring as they asked each other “what now?”
According to Scripture, they remained in the upper room where they devoted themselves to prayer.
And so it happened that after nine days, the Holy Spirit transformed a group of deeply flawed men into a bold and prophetic force that would change the world. And herein lies a clue as to how to respond when life throws us a curve ball. Discernment is crucial and requires prayer, patience and waiting on the Spirit.
A wise spiritual guide once said, “When faced with a decision, it is best to do nothing until a particular direction is revealed.”
That nothing, however, does not apply to prayer since when we come to a fork in the road, prayer is the light that guides our path.
What this guide meant was that we are to maintain a posture of patient listening, the direct opposite of following the human inclination to fight or take flight.
For those who tend to be action oriented, a great deal of restraint may be required to not react, by seeking an immediate solution or by rushing in to fix or rescue someone who may be struggling.
For those who tend to take flight, the natural disposition may be to deny problems, turn a blind eye or be paralyzed by the magnitude of the situation. In this case, patient listening requires being actively open to a possible directive that may present itself in time.
I was reminded of this recently when a young woman, who had moved to another part of the country, called to ask me to help her discern whether she should resign from her current position.
She felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the job, and was afraid she could not live up to the expectations of her boss.
After a period of prayerful reflection, we identified how fear impacted her desire to flee. In doing so, she discovered that in the past whenever she changed jobs, she had acted not out of fear, but because she felt called in another direction.
Rather than running away from, she was running to something, and so it seemed best to wait.
A few weeks later, she was offered a job in an area of ministry to which she felt called.
Life is a process. Through prayer we come to a deeper understanding of ourselves, and through discernment of external signs, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit for guidance.
Every decision is a step along the way and even negative experiences can be an opportunity for a new direction in life and spiritual growth.
But to discover the hidden grace within a seeming crisis, we need patience and prayerful listening. And that means waiting on the Holy Spirit, who breathes on us at just the right time because only God knows what the future holds.
April 25, 2016
Finding God in the Verbs
As long as I can remember, I have been an avid reader.
However, with an appetite for books that far exceeded the limits of my pocketbook, I developed a longstanding relationship with the public library that continues to enlighten and challenge me on a regular basis.
Last week while perusing the shelves in the religious book section—one of my favorites— my eyes lit upon a book that immediately captured my attention.
The title: “Finding God in the Verbs” aroused my curiosity. I checked out the book, and happily it did not disappoint.
Over the years, my search for God has led me to find God in nature, in people, in the events of life, and of course in prayer. However, I can honestly say, that even as a writer, it never occurred to me to look for God in verbs.
The book, co-authored by two members of the Quaker religion, J. Brent Bill, a minister and author, and Jennie Isbell, offers a unique perspective, inviting readers to make a list of the verbs used when praying from the heart.
According to the authors, the verbs we choose can provide important insights into our perception of God and the role we ascribe to divine intervention in our life.
Using words such as teach, nourish, enlighten, guide, and help are words that invite God to be actively engaged in our life in a way that involves us. In other words they imply a kind of partnership with God as we move and work through the joys and challenges of life.
On the other hand, words such as change, grant, transform, make or remove may imply that our perception of God is a bit like a divine Santa Claus or Superman whose role is to fix our problems and grant our requests with little effort beyond asking.
The authors make a point of saying that words do matter, pointing to the fact that prayer is the most important conversation we will ever have. However, in keeping with Quaker tradition, they note that as important as words may be, listening is even more important.
It is reminiscent of the words of Teresa of Avila who counseled her nuns about the importance of listening when we are in the presence of someone who is more intelligent than we are. That someone, of course, is God, and listening, I might add, is a verb and a very active one at that.
Listening in prayer does not mean we enter into a position of passive surrender, but that we gaze with affection towards the One to whom we are listening.
Those who have tried this know that active listening requires a great deal of effort. While the practice may invite a renewed appreciation for silence, it is also about entering (another active verb) into that secret room where Jesus instructed his followers to go when they pray.
It is about being quiet so as to hear the voice of God that is described in the Book of Kings as a gentle breeze. Listening to God does not involve so much an audible sound as it does a quiet revelation deep within that makes the Good News of Biblical times forever new.
Perhaps this is best described by the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero who wrote:
“This is the beauty and the prayer of the Christian life; coming to understand that a God who converses with humans has created them and has lifted them up. . . He has lifted us up so that he can talk with us and share his joys, his generosity, his grandeur.”
He goes on to say that God is a God who converses with us and because he converses with us, at least half of our prayer time should involve listening. Archbishop Romero calls human beings God’s other self.
Indeed we have been created in the image and likeness of God and we are called to know God but we can only come to know God if we make time to converse with Him and that kind of conversation requires listening as well as speaking.
Just as Adam and Eve once walked with God, so we are called to walk and talk with God, to listen and to come to know God as truly as another self, for it is in God that we find our truest identity.
During the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor, a cloud overshadowed Peter, James and John and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Beloved Son, listen to Him.”
These words were not meant simply for the three apostles who were privileged to witness the transfiguration. They were meant for all of us.
Like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus was revealed in the breaking of the bread, but Scripture reminds us that their hearts were burning within as he walked and talked with them.
It was in the walking, talking, listening, and remembering the breaking of the bread that led them to recognize Christ in their midst. And so it is with those who walk, talk, listen, revere and consume.
Our God is not a passive God but a God who is forever re-creating the world anew and inviting us to be partners in the process.
What an awesome privilege and responsibility! So let us be attentive and alert, attuned to his every word so we too can find God in the verbs.
April 11, 2016
The Power of Love
The picture of the “Praying Hands” is undoubtedly the most popular work credited to print artist and painter, Albrecht Durer, but few people are familiar with the story behind the painting.
It is a story worth telling because once we understand the noble sacrifice freely offered by the person whose hands inspired the work, we can better appreciate the reality that prayer changes the one who prays.
Durer was one of 18 children born in fifteenth century Germany. Albrecht and one of his brothers dreamed of becoming artists, but the family could only afford to send one of the sons to study art. As the result of a coin toss, Albrecht won the opportunity to study art in Nuremberg.
However, the brothers agreed that once Albrecht completed his studies, he would use the money from the sale of his art work to finance his brother’s dream. Four years later after Albrecht had completed his studies, he returned home to help his brother, but it was too late. During the four years that he was away, his brother had labored in a gold mine, where he had sustained several broken fingers. Pointing to his arthritic hands, the brother explained, with tears in his eyes, that his hands had become too crippled and work-worn to paint.
If the story had ended there it would indeed be a tragedy, but one day while Durer observed his brother in prayer, he was touched by the sight of his twisted hands and decided to paint his hands folded in prayer as a gesture of love and gratitude for his brother’s noble sacrifice. The work when first completed was entitled “Apostles Hands” but through the centuries it has become known simply as “The Praying Hands.”
Although the brother’s dream was never realized in the way he had hoped when he was young, his generosity was rewarded in a most unexpected way. Rather than becoming an artist, his hands have become a work of art, one that has lasted through the centuries. The brother never achieved the fame that was awarded Albrecht. In fact we don’t even know the name of the one who had sacrificed so much. And yet, while many famed paintings by Albrecht Durer hang in art galleries and museums throughout the world, the print of “The Praying Hands” is both profound and ordinary enough to have achieved a place of honor in homes and offices everywhere. It has been replicated as bookends, subjects for needlepoint and stand alone figurines.
I suspect its popularity is due to the fact that more than a work of art, the likeness of “The Praying Hands” serves as an invitation to ponder the transcendent. We can’t know if those hands were offering a prayer of praise and adoration, or if they were pleading or giving thanks. But the fact that they were pointed upward invites all who gaze upon them to look beyond life’s passing realities and recognize the importance of a loving relationship with God. Knowing the story behind this particular work of art, reminds us how God can transform disappointments, suffering, and even lost dreams into a reality we could never have imagined.
Durer’s hands folded in prayer remind us that despite our best efforts, human effort alone is insufficient. Life happens. Things don’t always work out the way we plan, and there are limits as to what any one person can accomplish. But when we offer our meager efforts to God, even when our work is less than perfect, God can do amazing things. Every time we unite our suffering with the suffering of Christ, we experience the Paschal Mystery, not just as a mystery of faith but as a lived experience. When our seeming failures rise from the ashes as a benediction for others, we experience the Resurrection in real time and in a very personal way. Each time we look beyond the crucible and celebrate the presence of God in our midst, we proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In his book “Christian Contemplative Living,” Thomas Santa, C.S.S.R. posits that conversion is more a change of attitude than it is a change of action. He goes on to explain that once we know in our deepest center that we are loved, it is an attitude of being loved that empowers us to change our behavior.
The recent murder of five nuns who were killed by the terrorists is one such example. Yes, their death was a tragedy, but when we view their dying through a transcendent lens, we can celebrate their martyrdom, knowing that while they are enjoying the fullness of glory with God, their blood is seeding the Church for generations to come.
These faith-filled nuns could go to their death because they knew God loved them. Their ministry was one of caring for the elderly in the nursing home where they worked, a ministry that allowed them to return the love that had been theirs. Not unlike Albrecht Durer’s brother, who remained faithful despite the turn his life had taken, the peace and love these nuns had was rooted in their relationship with God, a relationship that not even a group of terrorists could take from them.
March 28, 2016
Back to the Future: A Post Resurrection Story
Have you ever wondered about the women who set out with spices to anoint the body of Jesus on that first Easter morning?
They were the same women who had remained on Calvary and saw Jesus entombed without a proper burial because the Sabbath was fast approaching.
Surely they had witnessed the placing of the huge stone at the entrance of the tomb, and yet it did not deter them from their mission.
How would they gain access to Jesus’ body? Who would roll away the stone?
Did these women possess the combined strength it would take to carry out their task?
Could it be that they were hoping to see some of the apostles there?
As Christians, we know the answer to these questions, but in real time, these bold women of faith were not privy to the Resurrection story. And yet, despite unanswered questions and inconceivable obstacles, they continued the journey. Compelled by love, it seems they could do no less. They continued to believe in Jesus even after witnessing his terrible crucifixion and death.
Their journey from Calvary to the tomb was a journey from faith to faithfulness. As faithful followers of Jesus, their journey took them from witnessing Jesus’ miracles to the scene of his murder.
But their love for him did not end there. Though consumed with grief, they did not allow it to paralyze them. Instead they set out to minster to Jesus even when they thought he was dead.
Unable to quell the desire to serve their Master, they followed their heart’s deepest longing to be near Jesus, no matter that conventional wisdom would deem them foolish.
The determination of these women serves as an ongoing example of what it means to be a disciple of Christ and begs the question: what about us? Do we believe only when things are going our way, or do we remain faithful in the presence of criticism, rejection and obstacles of every kind?
Do we remain faithful disciples in the presence of family discord, illness or financial problems or do we become bitter and cynical or indulge in self-pity?
Do we allow our weaknesses or past failures to stand in the way of a mission that we are being called to embrace?
Like the women at the tomb who were sent to tell the Good News, we are being called to go and tell our brothers and sisters what we have seen. When the apostles heard the testimony of the women, they ran to the tomb half in disbelief, half out of curiosity.
But then isn’t that the way of human beings? We demand proof, we look for signs. It is why we relate so well to Thomas who demanded proof before he would believe that Jesus had risen from the dead despite his witnessing Jesus bring Lazarus back to life.
We don’t know a lot about the women who went to the tomb on that first Easter morning but we do know that one of them was Mary Magdalene from whom seven devils had been cast out.
She knew what it was like to be imprisoned by evil and she knew what it was like to be set free.
For the Magdalene, there was no going back. After the others left the tomb site, Mary stayed behind and wept. She could not bear life without Jesus. She even begged the gardener to tell her where Jesus’ body was taken.
In the midst of her grief, Mary didn’t recognize Jesus until he called her by name. And so it is with us.
We have all been called by name but unlike Mary, more often than not, we fail to recognize Jesus who is standing in our midst in the person or situation that needs our attention.
Caught up in the business of our lives, we may turn a deaf ear or fail to see the person of Christ in the person on the street, the cashier who is moving slower than we would like, or in a family member who is in need of a smile or a word of encouragement.
In a recent interview, Pope Francis reminded us that God does not hide himself from us. He dwells among us but his presence cannot be contrived, it must be found.
Numerous saints have proclaimed that God is found in the messiness of everyday life. St. Teresa of Avila told her nuns, they could find him in the pots and pans as surely as in the chapel.
This is not to diminish the importance of prayer, but reminds us that we cannot restrict God’s presence to the Church. Francis of Assisi encountered Jesus in the leper whom he embraced on the road and Mother Teresa found him in the streets of Calcutta.
So where will we find Christ?
Like the women who went to the tomb on Easter Sunday, we are on a journey, but no two journeys are alike. If we take the time to listen, we will hear our name being called, not once but again and again until at life’s end we will hear the words we long to hear, “Well done good and faithful servant, come and share your Master’s happiness.” (Matt. 25; 23)
And then, we too shall rise with Christ and encounter God in the fullness of Divine glory.
March 14, 2016
The Impact of the Irish
It’s the time of year when beer and water fountains are apt to turn green…
…shamrocks decorate napkins and front doors and everyone claims to have a wee bit of the Irish in their family tree. Considering how Irish immigrants were discriminated against when they first arrived on U. S. soil, this is quite an accomplishment. However, it was not only the potato famine that brought Irish citizens to American shores in the 19th century. With seminaries in Ireland overflowing with soon to be ordained priests, and a strong Protestant, anti-Catholic climate in the United States, missionaries from Ireland began arriving in record numbers to what was viewed as fertile ground. The majority of priests were sent either to the Bible belt in the Southern United States or to Boston to minister to thousands of Irish immigrants who were settling there.
With the proliferation of Irish priests in Boston, the city soon became almost synonymous with Irish Catholic and as Irish priests were appointed bishops, their role in the community quickly positioned them as power brokers who enjoyed close ties to politicians. It was in this climate that some would argue, the stage was set for the culture of secrecy that allowed bishops to transfer pedophile priests and for prosecutors to look the other way. Given what we now know about the systemic nature of the handling of abusive priests, we can hardly lay culpability for the decision by some to protect the institutional Church at the expense of victims at the feet of the Irish. However, it does serve as a reminder that unless power is balanced with Gospel values it can easily corrupt.
Having lived in the Deep South during the first 20 years of our marriage, I can attest to the fact that the Irish Catholic landscape of the South maintained its missionary spirit. With the Catholic population remaining anywhere from two to eight percent in most areas, the spirit of elitism that plagued the North was a nonstarter in the South. Irish clergy were rarely well received and even today, many foreign born Irish priests are referred to as FBI, either affectionately or pejoratively, depending on a person’s predisposition towards foreign priests. But rather than allowing the small number of Catholics to become an obstacle, parishes pastored by Irish clergy in the South used the situation to their advantage.
While I was working in parish ministry in Georgia, we combined our vacation Bible school with that of a neighboring Christian church and quickly doubled the numbers of participants. Since the Baptist churches held worship services on Wednesday evenings, and city sports leagues worked around their schedule, we moved Catholic religious education classes to Wednesday evenings as well. And regularly scheduled ministerial luncheons for area clergy of all traditions became sacrosanct for most Catholic priests.
Rather than be outdone by the Baptists or Jehovah Witnesses who went door to door, our Irish pastor in Anniston, Alabama organized a cadre of lay volunteers who accompanied him when he knocked on doors, inviting people to a Town Hall Meeting entitled “Everything You Wanted to Know About the Catholic Church but Were Afraid to Ask.” People were gracious and often invited volunteers in for a cup of coffee so it was no surprise the attendance turned out to be greater than we had imagined. Our beloved pastor, who was no youngster, credited his idea to an Irish Bishop he had worked with in the Diocese of Mobile, who would literally stand on a street corner and preach the Gospel.
I write about all of this because as a Church we owe a lot to the Irish. In addition to the practice of individual confession for all Catholics, Irish monks copied Scripture and other important works during the Dark Ages of Western Europe, thus preserving sacred texts for the Western Church. And after the barbarian invasions, it was the Irish who sent priests to catechize and minister to the remnant church.
February 29, 2016
Necessary, but not Important
Every now and then I hear or come across pithy sayings that not only stay with me, but over time seem to take on a life of their own.
By that I mean that with each recall the meaning seems to expand to a wider appreciation and application within the context of my life.
Since a number of such pearls of wisdom have recently graced my path, I have decided to share a couple of them with you in this column. My hope is that you will find them as thought provoking as I have.
Last month while I was facilitating a weekend retreat in Alabama, the priest who presided at Mass Saturday morning told us, “As Christians we are necessary, but not important.”
It was the feast of one of the early Christian martyrs about whom we know almost nothing except that she died for her faith.
Consequently, the priest concluded that although she had a role to play in the life of the Church, her personal life was not all that important. He went on to compare her with the Apostles about whose lives we also know very little – other than the fact that they preached the Gospel and all but John died for their faith.
We assume almost all were married, but what about their wives? Did they have children and if so, what became of them?
The Apostles were companions of Jesus, but if we look at the Gospels, we learn mostly about their blunders and the fact is: they were necessary to the mission of the church, but the particularities of their lives were not important. Only after the coming of the Holy Spirit did they finally seem to understand what John the Baptist meant when he said, “I must decrease so he can increase.” (John 3:30 in which John is speaking to his own disciples, not Jesus’ disciples.)
The more I reflect on Father John’s theory that we are necessary, but not important, the more I feel a sense of relief and I wasn’t the only one.
As I met privately with retreatants during the weekend, I was impressed with how often that saying was quoted as a take-away phrase.
Perhaps it is because we place too much importance on what we do when all we really need to concern ourselves with is whether we are furthering the mission of Christ. Anything more or less than that is simply a case of ego having its way with us.
Valuing ourselves because of what we have, what we do, worrying about what others think of us or believing that we are indispensable are all part of what Thomas Merton called the false self.
It was the false self that Jesus was referring to when he said, “Those who lose their life will save it.”
The false self is that part of us that must die in order to bear fruit. We are necessary but not important, because it is in our dying with Christ that we will live life to its fullest.
During that same retreat, I met an 88-year-old nun who, in my estimation, characterized the epitome of death to the false self. During each presentation, she sat in the front row directly across from where I was standing, and if ever I saw the face of Christ, it was in her smile.
Later when she came to talk with me, she told me that she had spent 50 years working in Africa in the Cameroon. While there, she had established a hospital for disabled children where more than 3,000 children had been rehabilitated. Despite its success, her order called her back to the United States.
She was devastated and to this day she has never been given the reason for her recall. For the past 18 years, she has been working with the poorest of the poor in Selma, but her heart remains in Africa.
The theme of the retreat was based on Jesus’ question to the apostles, “Who do you say that I am” and my question to each person making the retreat was “How would you answer Jesus’ question?”
During the course of my conversation with this saintly nun, she shared with me that for her Jesus was “The Divine Absence.” Listening to her share her story was like reading the book, “Come Be My Light,” a collection of letters and journal entries written by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
One of my favorite paragraphs in the book is the following journal entry written by the saint: “Lord, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love—and now becomes as the most hated one—the one you have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer. The darkness is so dark and I am alone.”
It seems it is the way of saints to experience the absence as one more purgation, not because they need it, but because their lives reflect ever more deeply the life of the One in whose footsteps they walk— the One who from the cross cried out, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”
It is one more paradox that those most loved should often feel the most abandoned, but it is also in keeping with Jesus’ words, and even more importantly with his life.
Clearly, feelings about the closeness of God are not a good barometer for measuring our relationship with God. Rather it is about allowing ourselves to be part of the mission, because every person is necessary, though not important—at least not in the way the secular world measures importance.
February 15, 2016
Priesthood of the Laity
Send flowers, not chocolates.
We had barely washed the ashes off our forehead when temptation arrived in beautifully embossed heart-shaped boxes. What’s a person to do? It would seem rude not to indulge in at least one of those creamy delights from a well-intentioned giver. But can we eat just one? For some the answer is yes, but for others, tucking the box out of sight for the remaining days of Lent doesn’t necessarily verify, “out of sight out of mind.” Whether your Achilles heel is chocolate or some other means of instant gratification, some temptations are simply harder to resist than others. But if Lent was merely about giving up things we enjoy, we could either throw up our hands and surrender to enticement’s allure or don sack cloth and sit on an ash heap. Neither would be an appropriate choice.
While Valentine’s Day may seem at odds with the season of Lent, a more informed consideration proves otherwise. If the purpose of Valentine’s Day was only about hearts and flowers, candy or even diamonds, the day would be reduced to a celebration of consumerism. And while florist, jewelers and chocolatiers may benefit from the holiday, the real gift is the love that inspires the gift-giving.
Like anything that has a deeper meaning, subjecting Lent to an all or nothing mindset obscures the spiritual profundity of the season. The fact that Lent is inaugurated with a sign that marks our forehead as a reminder of our own mortality is a sobering thought. It invites us to examine our life in terms of Gospel values and to respond to the call to repent. It is the Church’s way of helping us create space in our life to better confront those areas where we fall short. In a spirit of repentance, we enter the desert of our heart to slay our inner demons with Scripture, prayer and fasting, much the way Jesus did when he was tempted. Consider that when Jesus emerged from the desert, he went to the synagogue where both he and his message were rejected. The same is bound to happen to us. So the real test is not about how we are treated but about how we treat others.
Experience has taught me that it is much easier to give up candy than to decide to love when I would rather judge or condemn the actions of those with whom I disagree. Therefore, remaining faithful to the spirit of Lent is not about whether or not we break a self-imposed fast from candy, alcohol or some other source of enjoyment, but about the way we treat the people with whom we share this world. Do we treat family members or co-workers with the same kind of respect that we afford people whom we choose as friends? And how about the poor, the marginalized, prisoners, refugees or victims of war? Although we may not come in close contact with them on a regular basis, do we help them carry their cross? This is where our sacrifices, small though they may be, take on a whole new dimension. When inspired by love and heart-felt concern, prayer becomes a leverage to help those who carry a cross much heavier than ours.
Those of us who have been blessed with a roof over our head and food in the pantry, ought to welcome the opportunity to write a check on behalf of those who lack life’s necessities, keeping in mind that more will be asked of those who receive more. But God’s abundance is never limited to temporal gifts. Being mindful that every moment is full of grace, elevates seemingly insignificant moments. Moments that include standing in line at the grocery store, folding clothes, walking to the car, pumping gas, the list goes on and on. Short phrases like, “My Lord and my God” spoken on behalf of those who turn away from God, or “My Jesus Mercy, save us from sin” for those who are victims and/ or perpetrators of violence become spiritual gifts for the world.
Like Christ who remained silent in the face of persecution and criticism, there may be times when no response is the best response. Holding our tongue when we are criticized, passing on dessert, refraining from a second helping at the dinner table, less dressing on a salad are small ways that when practiced regularly and united with the cross of Jesus lighten the burden of others and transforms the one who is doing the lifting. It is never about the magnitude of the sacrifice, but about the measure of love that unites it with the ongoing love on Calvary.
This is the priesthood of the laity at its finest. It is a vocation we were called to at our Baptism. Just as the ordained priest stands at the altar as mediator between God and the people, so each person is called by virtue of their baptism to stand as mediator between God and those we are called to serve in the marketplace of life, be that through prayer or sacrifice. It is what transforms giving up chocolate for Lent into a sacrifice worthy of our calling. Such sacrifices become small only when we allow them to become more important than the God who transforms them. The God who is working through us even when we give thanks by enjoying a piece of chocolate on Valentine’s Day.
February 1, 2016
God of Surprises
I should know by now that God can use us in unexpected ways, and yet whenever it happens I am pleasantly surprised.
One such occasion occurred a few weeks ago while attending an annual dinner event with my husband. After making the rounds and catching up with people I had not seen since last year, I found myself standing next to a table where a woman whom I had not met was sitting all alone.
Although I knew most of the people at the next table, it would have been rude to join them when we were instructed to take a seat. Consequently, I introduced myself to the woman, sat down and within a few minutes discovered, much to my surprise, we actually had a great deal in common.
She was a nurse and since my first career was in nursing, it was easy to find common ground.
As the evening progressed, she began to ask how I ended up in my current role, and before I knew it she confessed that she was Catholic but had not been to Church since the clergy sexual abuse scandal became public.
She admitted that she missed going to Mass and asked how I could remain in and even work for a church that had failed children in such an egregious manner. Her tone was non-confrontational and I sensed she was genuinely looking for an answer.
I told her that I continue to go to Church because God is so much bigger than our human failings. And that when I go to Mass and receive the Eucharist, I am encountering Christ and no priest or Bishop, no matter what their failings might be, can diminish that reality.
Before I knew it, she was asking me to recommend a Catholic church where she could slip in unnoticed. She said she didn’t want people coming up to her, asking her a lot of questions or inviting her to join this or that organization. This was between her and God.
As I listened I couldn’t help but smile to myself. During the years when I facilitated Parish Council retreats, I would inevitably hear people say they needed to be more welcoming as a parish, and here was a woman saying she wanted to return to the Church, but just wanted to be left alone.
Her comment reminded me of a story I once heard about a little Jewish boy who asked his grandfather why they go to synagogue. The old man thought for a while, scratched his head and proceeded to explain.
“You see people go for all kinds of reasons. Take my friend Jacob. He goes to synagogue to talk to God. And then there is my friend Zeke. He goes to synagogue to talk to Jacob.”
One lesson to take from the story is that we need to be sensitive to where people are. If we tend to be outgoing and a joiner, it is easy to assume everyone is like us. However, the faith journey is as divergent as the people making it. And everyone is at a different place.
Therefore, it is important to meet people where they are, and we can only do that if we pay attention to their body language along with what they are saying. Respectful listening is an essential part of being welcoming when we approach people whom we do not know, especially when it comes to evangelizing.
We never know what they have experienced or the struggles they may have encountered.
The conversation with my dinner partner ended with my recommending a Catholic church that was near her home. I explained that it was very large and assured her that she could easily slip in without being noticed if that was her choice. She said she would try it.
Afterwards I wondered whether I should have offered to go with her, but her return seemed to be something that she needed to do alone.
I admit that with so much emphasis on the role of the laity in evangelizing, there are times when we’re not exactly sure what to say or how to say it, but we can never go wrong if we listen to others respectfully and then simply share our own perspective without telling others what they should think or do.
Lecturing others only diminishes their sense of worth and may antagonize them. It helps to remember what Archbishop Oscar Romero said so eloquently, which is that we are seed planters, not harvest masters.
We plant seeds and then allow God to do the work of transforming hearts. It is liberating to acknowledge this because we never know if our words will fall on rocky soil or fertile ground.
Therefore, it is equally comforting to know that we are not the only person that God can use to change hearts. As part of the Body of Christ, we all have a role to play and if we are attentive to others, those opportunities present themselves and, most often, when we least expect it.
January 18, 2016
Clues or Clueless
The truism that we learn from our mistakes has almost become a cliché.
Nevertheless, I doubt we can overestimate the importance of lessons we learn along the way.
I was reminded of this over the holidays as I was playing a board game that we gave our grandchildren for Christmas. The game was “Clue” and although it has been around for decades, it was new to us and the instructions seemed anything but simple.
By the third re-read, we decided we had enough information for a first attempt, but once into the game, our initial response was “This doesn’t make sense.”
Since tenacity would not allow us to abandon ship, we plodded along and eventually, it paid off. The very issues that had been a stumbling block led us back to the instructions, which now with some on hands experience made perfect sense.
And isn’t that pretty much the way life works?
Too often parents and even grandparents expect those with less life experience to have the kind of insight and wisdom that it takes years to acquire. Consequently, while their gentle, or sometimes not so gentle, advice makes perfect sense to them, until those who are decades younger have had real life experience, they may come across sounding a bit like the adults in a Charlie Brown television special.
No one would deny that trials and tribulations are part of life, but they are also part of the learning curve. While we can appreciate lessons learned the hard way, we instinctively want to spare loved ones from life’s hard knocks.
But that may not always be in their best interest. Part of parenting involves alerting children to the dangers and pitfalls of risky behavior. However, when such warnings go unheeded, standing by with emotional tourniquets as needed goes a long way to ensure understanding at a later time.
Again we can turn to the Gospels for reinforcement of this principle. When Peter bragged that he would follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus warned him that within a few hours he would deny him.
The warning went unheeded and Peter denied the Lord all the same. Afterwards Scripture tells us that Peter deeply regretted his behavior and wept over his sin.
Failure, remorse and return is the way most of us make advances in the spiritual life. Trust does not come easily, especially when life does not go the way we hope or expect it should.
And yet, if we persevere and turn to our loving Father despite our doubts, the very teachings that we questioned earlier eventually make sense.
That may be why we need the Year of Mercy. We have Scripture and the teachings of the Church to guide us along the way and still we stray.
The human tendency to be lured into worshipping the false gods of pleasure, prestige and possessions is universal. Therefore, reading and re-reading the teachings of Jesus alerts us to the fallacy of a cultural doctrine that says we can have it all and right now.
Nothing of worth comes without personal sacrifice, perseverance, and patience, but in a world of fast food, Instagram and credit cards, delaying gratification does not come easily.
Whether we realize it or not, we all struggle with some form of addiction. It need not be alcohol or drugs.
Over indulging in exercise, shopping, social media, television or food – to name a few – can be a way to achieve immediate gratification to soothe an aching or restless heart.
Although these things are good in themselves, we can be lured into believing that they will make us happy. The Beatitudes tell us otherwise and until we have felt the emptiness of passing pleasures, we remain blind to the fact that the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for justice or are persecuted for Jesus’ name are indeed richly blessed.
Only when we experience first hand the disillusionment of what the world calls “Having it all” does the Sermon on the Mount make sense.
I am always amused when our adult children, who are now parents, pass on the very values that as children they questioned or rejected. Obviously adults have a different vantage point than children and the same holds true as we travel the road to Christian maturity.
We grow into our faith one step at a time. Like any good parent, God is patient with us, but we cannot feign ignorance forever.
Life holds plenty of clues. We have Scripture, spiritual books and the lives of the saints to help guide us, but one reading or even two are insufficient.
Several years ago I decided to read the Bible from beginning to end which took more than a year. Now habit, reading it has become a daily practice and I am always surprised by how much escaped me during previous readings.
While Scripture doesn’t change, we do, and so our understanding deepens with life experience.
It may not happen immediately, or even with every re-read. But over time we will find hidden within its pages clues that may have eluded us earlier.
On the other hand, we can adopt a ho-hum attitude, believing we know everything it contains and remain forever clueless. However, if we take on faith that God is present in every aspect of life, perseverance will pay off, our understanding will deepen and we will be better equipped to meet the challenges that are part of every life.
January 4, 2016
Not Politics as Usual
“I know what I don’t know and so I would surround myself with the brightest and most knowledgeable people in the field.”
The honest acknowledgement of his limitations by Jeb Bush during the December 15 Republican debate was a welcome, though admittedly highly unusual tactic.
In the face of other candidates whose bluster would lead us to believe they have all the answers, Bush’s assessment that no one man can know everything came as a refreshingly novel approach.
It was also reminiscent of an exchange between Pope Francis and some reporters in Rome in which the Pontiff said, “A danger for the pope too, you know, is believing that I can answer all your questions. The only one who can answer all your questions is the Lord.”
The irony to all of this is that when we search the Gospels, rather than giving answers, Jesus often addressed his audience by posing questions.
Parables such as the Good Samaritan were followed by the question “who was the good neighbor?”
Or consider the parable of the two sons, after which Jesus asked who was the obedient son. The one who said yes, but never followed through or the son who said no, but later changed his mind and did as the father had asked?
And when the Pharisees asked Jesus by whose authority he cast out demons, he responded with a question of his own, asking them by whose authority John the Baptist preached? When they feigned ignorance, Jesus said “then neither will I tell you by whose authority I cast out demons.”
Even in regard to his identity, Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”
Over and over Jesus reminds his followers that we are part of the process. The Kingdom of God is not some distant faraway place but is in our heart.
It is part of an ongoing journey and each of us has a role to play in bringing it to fruition.
And as much as we may dislike the rhetoric of politicians, they too are part of the process of transforming the world in which we live.
In a recent interview, one political pundit described the Republican debate as a stage of angry players. But neither party is immune from exhibiting negative rhetoric.
As candidates, when both Democrats and Republicans make the case that they are the most qualified person to hold the highest office of our land, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Pope Francis called politics “one of the highest forms of charity” since it seeks the common good.
But he also acknowledged that politics can be “dirty, frustrating and fraught with failure.”
And so, here we are. Entering another election year. Campaigns will get messy, language will get ugly and issues will bring out the best and the worst in people.
The social decorum to avoid discussing religion and politics if you want to remain friends is irrelevant in this day and age. Nevertheless, just as we are to hate the sin but love the sinner, we are called to look for the good in those who have political leanings that are different from our own, and thus avoid turning politics into hate mongering.
What would Jesus do? Actually, the Gospels give us a pretty good idea about not only what Jesus would do, but about what he actually did.
When he began his ministry, he chose a staff not of the brightest and most knowledgeable, but a group of uneducated men. Among them was a tax collector, a doubter, a betrayer and a denier.
Then there was Mary Magdalene from whom he had cast out seven devils. Throughout his ministry Jesus went among the poor, the disabled and the marginalized.
The life and teachings of Jesus remind us that God does not use the same standard for measuring a person’s worth that our culture uses, nor does he give up on people. No matter how far we stray or no matter how long ago we remain outside his loving embrace, God is waiting to take us back.
And so, as we enter into the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we pray that God will transform our hearts so that we can be a transforming influence in our world.
As we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 we do well to remember that we do not have all the answers—only God does. And then reflect on the fact that the only time Jesus was surrounded by wise men, they remained silent in his presence.
They brought the newborn King the best of what they had to offer and knelt in quiet adoration, knowing their wisdom paled in comparison to that of the Babe whose star they had followed.
May we follow their example and continue our journey in faith with our eyes on the Lord so that he may speak to our hearts and grant us the wisdom to acknowledge what we do not know so that the wisdom of God may be revealed to a world that is desperately in need of healing and forgiveness.
December 21, 2015
Jesus, Light for the World
Does it strike you as ironic that amid strains of Silent Night, bombs are exploding in the Middle East and guns are being fired in otherwise peaceful neighborhoods in our own country?
Does it seem implausible that angelic greetings of “Fear not” are being drowned out by politicians using scare tactics to promote a false sense of security? Or how about parents silently weeping at the bedside of a dying child on Christmas Day or the widow who is experiencing her first Christmas without her husband after almost 50 years marriage? Then there is the elderly couple spending Christmas alone because their children live on the other side of the country and they can’t afford a plane ticket to be with them? And what about military families who are spending another Christmas without Mom or Dad because they have been deployed one more time?
When people ask has anything changed since that first Christmas, it might be because we have confused that first Christmas with the Currier and Ives version of Christmas Eve. In our rush to make everything perfect, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that God Incarnate broke into human history in a world that was nothing like the Hallmark images that adorn greeting cards and decorate mantles. Even churches burst with decorations that promote a version of Christmas that the first witnesses of Christ’s birth would not recognize. Beautifully carved statues of the Holy Family in mangers aglow with twinkling lights on artificial greenery have become the norm, when in reality, Mary and Joseph might be better represented by the homeless who huddle by a makeshift fire warming themselves against the cold.
May we never forget that the Son of God came to earth, and was born in a remote village that was under Roman occupation! That during the last month of her pregnancy, Mary traveled to Bethlehem with Joseph in compliance with an order issued by a corrupt demagogue. And that far from the comfort of family and friends, this humble couple from Nazareth presented the Savior to the world in a cave that had been a sheltering place for animals. Then, as if this weren’t scandalous enough, God chose to announce the birth of His Son to shepherds, men whose occupation and reputation placed them among the lowest class of people. How do people of faith reconcile such inconceivable paradoxes?
Amid tidings of great joy, choirs proclaim Jesus, Wonder Counselor, Lord of Lords and King of Kings. So He was, is and will forever be, and by means of our Baptism, Christians have entered into his royal lineage. But, if our King came to us as a humble babe, homeless and having to make do with a feeding trough for a bed, what manner of life could he be calling us to emulate? How we celebrate his birth says a great deal about our perception of the Kingdom of God.
Now I am not advocating that we throw out the Christmas tree and declare a fast on Christmas Day. However, I do believe that every person who bears the name Christian is called to examine popular traditions against what Pope Francis called “spiritual worldliness” in his Apostolic Exhortation: “The Joy of the Gospel”.
“Spiritual worldliness” says the Pope “hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church consisting in seeking not the Lord’s glory, but human glory and personal well-being.” He goes on to say that it wears many faces, one of them being an ostentatious preoccupation with the liturgy, doctrine or the Church’s prestige.
While we can point to angel trees and food baskets as a way that churches provide for the poor during the holiday season, let us not forget that civic organizations, shopping malls and many private businesses do the same. So how are we different? Is our generosity inspired by a need to assuage feelings of guilt or do we see Jesus in the face of poor?
The humble abode that the Son of God chose stands in sharp contrast to what we have made of Christmas. And so I wonder: if our churches were stripped of the myriad of poinsettias and lights, would Christmas liturgies lose their appeal, or would we hear more clearly the gentle cry of the newborn babe making his presence felt from deep within our hearts? Would we see more clearly the heartache of the sick, the poor and the marginalized? And would we hear in the cry to close our borders to immigrants and refugees the innkeepers slamming their doors to Mary and Joseph?
Our world is filled with challenges, but no more so than it was when the Lord of heaven and earth came to us. During his life on earth, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God is here but also that it is coming. It seems an absolute paradox until we understand that the Kingdom of God is within and that it is up to each of us to let it shine. How else will the world come to know Christ if not through us? And so, with these thoughts as a backdrop during this wondrous season, let us pray that the Light of Christ within our heart will be the brightest candle that we light this Christmas.
December 7, 2015
The Face of Mercy
As we cross the threshold to enter the Year of Mercy, I find myself wondering how it will play out for me personally, for the Catholic Church and for the world at large.
Much speculation has already taken place, some of it grounded in fact; some in wishful thinking.
However, whether the Year of Mercy serves as a gateway to affect changes that are beyond the role of the laity to decide is not the issue, because the Year of Mercy has an individual as well as a collective dimension, which is both spiritual and practical. Unless the practice of mercy becomes visible in our lives as Catholics, the year will come and go and little will have changed.
Taking a lesson from the Letter of James, who reminds us that faith without good works is dead, I believe the same holds true when it comes to mercy.
We cannot claim to be people of faith and not show mercy because mercy is woven through Scripture like thread on a weaver’s loom. From the promise of redemption in the Garden of Eden to the promise of paradise to the good thief on Calvary, the mercy of God is on display.
God’s mercy is evident everywhere, but mercy cannot be solely the action of God.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for mercy shall be theirs” and he taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
These words contain not only a promise, but a challenge, and if that wasn’t enough, Jesus left his followers the parable of the unjust steward who owed a vast sum of money to his master.
Filled with compassion, the master cancelled the debt of the steward, who in turn went out and tried to extract full payment from a servant who owed him a much smaller amount.
If listening to the parable leads only to a sense of indignation over the behavior of the unjust steward, we have missed the point. Until we understand that the parable is about every one of us, and that we have been and continue to be the ungrateful steward, nothing will change.
We cannot simply remain on the receiving end of God’s mercy and expect to be saved. We must extend that same kind of mercy to others.
God did not have to die a horrible death in order to save us, but in his great mercy, he became one of us so that we might know what mercy looks like. Jesus became the Mercy of God so that we might see the face of God.
He did this when he healed the sick, forgave the woman caught in adultery, and when he called sinners to be his disciples. Before he died, Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who crucified him, because mercy cannot exist outside of forgiveness.
Even after his resurrection, Jesus continued to be the face of mercy. He showed us the face of mercy when he responded to a doubting Thomas by appearing to him and inviting him to touch his wounded hands and side.
After Peter denied the Master and was nowhere to be seen during the crucifixion, Jesus reciprocated by entrusting him with the Keys to the Kingdom as his Vicar on Earth.
As followers of Christ, we are also called to reveal the God of mercy just as Jesus did. Therefore, mercy must be visible in the way we treat not only our family and friends, but also our enemies and the strangers in our midst.
It must be obvious to all that we are people of mercy by the way we speak, and act and dream. The debt that was owed by humankind was paid by God once and for all, but with every privilege comes responsibility, and so we ask: How am I revealing the mercy of God to those who have justly or unjustly wronged me?
If we are truly honest, we will admit that more often than not, we behave like the unjust steward. Lest we remain forever blind to our sins, let us imitate the blind man on the side of the road who cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Today in the face of terrorist activities, rhetoric to close our borders to refugees cries out to God, and so we must decide if our security should come at the expense of those whose plight is far more desperate than ours.
When fear clouds our vision, we do well to look at Mary, the Mother of Mercy. Consider that after Jesus was tried by the state and executed as a common criminal, Mary remained at the foot of the cross. And when it seemed her heart could bear no more, she embraced as mother the very people who were responsible for the death of her son.
As the Year of Mercy stretches before us, we have twelve months to pray over and ponder how we are called to reveal the face of God’s mercy to the world.
And then, we have a lifetime to put it into practice, knowing that at life’s end, each of us will stand before the God of mercy.
Therefore, let us remain ever mindful of the debt we owe lest we appear before the all-merciful Judge looking more like the unjust steward than the God in whose image we have been created.
November 23, 2015
A Debacle Turned Blessing
Being a gourmet chef has never been a title to which I can lay claim.
Like most non-foody moms I know, putting a meal on the table that is both satisfying and nutritionally sound takes precedence over creativity and exotic presentations. As a result, my culinary skills definitely fall into the category of simple and ordinary. Don’t get me wrong. That’s not a bad thing – after all, few foods say “I love you” like homemade mac and cheese. However, every now and then, the temptation to dazzle people around the dinner table gets the better of me. Perhaps that explains why I find myself scouring cookbooks and online recipes for something beyond the ordinary when planning family celebrations or entertaining dinner guests.
Last week in preparation for a birthday dinner for our son Andrew and his wife Amy, (their birthdays are only 3 days apart) my search led me to a recipe for a pumpkin cheesecake. Recalling that one of the layers on their wedding cake was a cheese cake, I decided it was a perfect choice. Pumpkin cheesecake it would be! After all, how hard could it be? I even had the right kind of cake pan, one I had inherited from my mother-in-law. Decision made, I headed to the grocery store.
Never having made a cheesecake from scratch, I carefully followed directions, keeping a close watch on the oven while the aroma of pumpkin spice filled the kitchen. Once cooled, I carefully released the lock on the side of the pan, placed the cake on a decorative plate, and stood back to admire my work. Yes, I concluded: it would definitely be the star of the show. Little did I realize how that would play out!
Following my satisfyingly simple dinner, and amid lively conversation, I went to the refrigerator to retrieve the cake. And then it happened. In the blink of an eye, my masterpiece went flying off the glass plate and landed face down on the kitchen floor amid a sea of candles and whipped cream. I stood there in disbelief. The cake was definitely a show stopper, but not in the way I had anticipated. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.
Days later, I look back on my cheesecake debacle, and I can laugh about it, but at the time all I could do was apologize. While Andrew and Amy were most gracious, pointing out that they could do without the extra calories, I did learn a few lessons from the experience. First of all, never grab hold of a cake plate by the pedestal, which can tilt all too easily. Secondly, I realized that the celebration was never about the cake, but about spending time together and celebrating the gift of life. Perhaps at an earlier stage, I might have decided the time, effort and cost of the ingredients had been a huge waste, but now I can appreciate that it is not what we do or how well executed our efforts may be that matters, but the love that goes into the effort. Despite the fact that the cake never made it to the table, you can be sure it is one birthday cake Andrew and Amy will long remember. All this got me thinking.
If the intention behind our failures can be appreciated on the human level, imagine how much more God appreciates even our most insignificant efforts when motivated by love. When faith, hope and love become the main ingredients, no effort is without merit and seeming failures become blessings in disguise.
In a few days our family, like so many others, will gather around the Thanksgiving dinner table. My hope is that my recent experience with the cheesecake will serve as a reminder that while food plays an important role in Thanksgiving festivities, what we eat should never overshadow the reason we come together.
I admit that there was a time when hosting Thanksgiving dinner meant I had to do everything. However in recent years, I have learned that when I invite guests to contribute to the meal, not only does it lessen my workload, but everyone feels included. No one person owns the meal, least of all the host and hostess. The gathering truly becomes a communal celebration that reflects and honors the special gifts and talents of the people who gather, not unlike the celebration of the Eucharist.
During Mass faith communities gather to give thanks and to receive the God of heaven and earth under the guise of something as commonplace as bread and wine. All because on the night before he died, Jesus took ordinary bread and wine and made it forever holy. At the time, Jesus’ mission seemed to be failing, but as we know, that was not the end of the story, nor should our seeming failures define who we are.
That being said, as we gather around the Thanksgiving table, let us remember to give thanks, not only for the abundant blessings we have received, but also for life’s disappointments and challenges because they too serve a purpose. They remind us not to sweat the small stuff, to keep our priorities in right order, and to look for the grace hidden in every event. This is not about being a Pollyanna, but about seeing all of life as a gift from God, a gift that continues to surprise and enlighten, and for that we give thanks. Every moment is a precious gift from God, the gift that is at the heart of every Thanksgiving meal, those celebrated in Church and those we share when we go forth.
November 9, 2015
The word test drive took on a whole new meaning when a few months ago my husband and I were deciding whether to fly or drive to my niece’s wedding in Seattle.
As we considered the pros and cons of each option, the phone rang. It was my brother, a retired priest with the Diocese of Green Bay, who was to preside at Matt and Erin’s wedding. During the course of the conversation, he suggested that we travel together, and so began what became our sojourn by car through the great Northwest.
For weeks my husband, who is the consummate planner, busied himself with road maps and surfing the web for places of interest along the way. But first we had to fly to Green Bay to meet up with my brother, David.
What made it all the more interesting was that only weeks before, David had been toying with the idea of escaping Wisconsin’s harsh winters and had just decided to move to Virginia Beach.
With our parents deceased and siblings scattered around the country, moving closer to family seemed a sensible option. Consequently, he would soon be Virginia bound.
And so it was, that as we loaded suitcases into the back of his car, we joked that the upcoming road trip would be a good test drive for our relationship. For the first time since we were kids, we would be living in close proximity, and two weeks in the same car would definitely be a trial run in terms of compatibility.
My husband, who is an only child, has always enjoyed being around the extended family he inherited through marriage. However, in the past, interaction with family had been limited to brief visits. This would definitely be different.
As for me, well, let’s just say I know what it’s like to be one of seven. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to having David close by. His move also serves as a reminder that life is forever changing, a reality that seemed to be mirrored in the landscape as we drove through Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.
From the Badlands to majestic mountains and the great Northern Pines, the wonder and diversity of God’s creation were on display. As sandy mounds, from which prairie dogs peered, gave way to grassy plains where buffalo grazed, contrasting sights provided a new appreciation for the role that every creature, regardless of size or shape, plays in the ecology of creation.
All are part of our extended family and contribute to our well-being regardless of whether or not we are aware of the many ways they enrich our world. Perhaps not so differently than the way extended family enriches our lives.
With the road trip behind us, we found ourselves back in Green Bay, helping David decide what would or would not fit into the apartment we had found for him. Moving into a smaller space definitely required some downsizing.
Confronted with the reality that we tend to accumulate more ‘stuff’ than we actually need, we quickly realized that change can trigger a whole series of events. No doubt about it, change was in the air and it followed us home.
During our absence, the trees had begun to change color. Leaves were falling and the nights were getting longer. Life’s changes seem to be mirrored all around us, challenging us to view life through an ever changing set of lenses.
Even the liturgical readings at Mass remind us that all things are passing. With the season of Advent beckoning and the retail industry cajoling us into thinking that Christmas is just around the corner, life’s repetitive cycle reassures us that new life springs forth as old ways pass away.
Year after year nature echoes the Paschal Mystery, and we take comfort in knowing that each ending signals a new beginning, a new way of valuing life, and a new way of re-ordering priorities.
Advancing years bring more than grey hair and age lines. Somewhere along the way, we discover that accumulating things is less important than relationships and that where we live means little when compared to the people with whom we share our life.
In contrast with Matt and Erin, who are beginning their life together and look forward to buying a new home and accumulating all things deemed necessary to a couple starting out, David is getting rid of things he once thought were needed. It seems to suggest that while our physical eyesight diminishes with age, our interior vision takes on a new clarity, and we are able to see that beauty is present in every stage in life.
During our travels, we visited my uncle in a memory care facility and this evening we will be babysitting our 18-month-old granddaughter.
From nursery to nursing homes, the imprint of God’s handiwork is visible when we have eyes to see.
Our generation has been referred to as the sandwich generation because there are people who preceded and who follow us that still need us. And for that we can give thanks.
There’s no denying that it can be stressful at times, but it is through relationships that the landscape of our soul is reflected. And so, as we travel the highway of life, amid its many changes, may we make time to be astounded by every peak and valley, by the desert as much as by the rain forest.
For God’s presence is everywhere and in everyone, inviting us to embrace change because God alone never changes.