The unspeakable nearness of God

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (B)

Poor Moses never gets to enter the Promised Land. But the wishy-washy, always famished, fickle, forgetful Israelites and foreigners traveling with him do. After all that Moses did to bring these people out of Egypt—including saving their butts from divine fury on multiple occasions—he is now too old and too close to death to continue.

Moses, devoted leader that he was, took the job God called him to do with some reluctance and made no bones about letting God know it. For forty years, he endured the peoples’ appalling lack of gratitude and awareness of the magnitude of what had been done for them, expressed by their hurtful claims of being better off in Egypt.

In one memorable rant, Moses seems close to submitting his resignation. He complains to God for saddling him with this burdensome bunch. He lashes out over his feelings of inadequacy and resentment over being made “a foster father” for the stubborn brood. “Was it I who conceived all this people?” he says. “Or was it I who gave them birth, that you tell me to carry them at my bosom, like a foster father carrying an infant, to the land you have promised under oath to their fathers?” [Numbers 11:11-15]. In the same breath, Moses acknowledges God as Creator, Father, and Promise Keeper. Moses’ relationship with God was like this, he could speak his mind plainly because his awareness of God included trust in God’s Infinite love and fidelity. He knew God would not reject or abandon him.

Much later, on the eve of the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan, Moses gives a lengthy commencement speech in which he reminds the people that God’s love and faithfulness were present in all that they had experienced together—the exodus, the Sinai covenant, and the wilderness wanderings.

He presents a series of rhetorical questions to which there is only one answer. No, never before has anything this great happened, never have a people experienced the action of God on their behalf in such a way. Moses entreats the people to fix God in their hearts and to keep God’s statutes and commandments [Deut 4:32-34, 39-40]. Moses posed the rhetorical questions to the Israelites as if to say “Do you finally realize what this means?

Sometimes out of the blue, a rush of gratitude wells up in me for the simple gift of being, for life’s infinite possibilities, for beauty, for the sweetness of human tenderness, for variety and abundance, and for the self-awareness that permits me to recognize God’s exquisite nearness in all of these things. This is not unusual. I am putting into words the experience of countless others throughout time, inadequate as those words might be.

The writers of Sacred Scripture did their best, but the sense of the divine evades containment. Further, our minds rarely allow us to linger in that space long enough to try. And so, like the Israelites we cross the Jordan knowing there never will be a frame great enough to encompass this experience of God.

What is God’s nearness like? How does it feel, what colors, shapes, textures and images arise? To what relationships can it be compared?

Clear your mind of traditional artistic interpretation, distance yourself from Renaissance portraiture. Our God is not an old man in the sky. No image is adequate. The practice is like a parable in which we identify something that is “like” what we seek to understand, but at the same time that something is also not like it at all.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul names God Abba, a term of endearment meaning Daddy. As children of God we enjoy a closeness that surpasses anything previously imagined [Romans 8:14-17]. Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, found in the final verse of Matthew’s gospel, come with the comforting promise of life-long companionship: “And, behold, I am with you, always, until the end of the age” [Matthew 28:16-20].

Images of Divine Source, Creator, Promise Keeper, Abba, Friend are incomplete, but each nudges us closer to the truth. Our God is a God of incomprehensible proximity. When we take this awareness into the world, we can begin to see it expressed in various ways all around us. Suddenly we “see.”

Our awareness of God cannot be limited to sunny days and good times. Sometimes, when tragedy strikes, we feel abandoned. We cry out, “Where are you?” Others say, “How does your all-powerful, all-loving God permit this unbearable suffering?” Where the Hell is God?

The question of God and suffering is, to my mind, one of the primary causes of disbelief, and a topic for future discussion. But for now, I’d like to take a tentative step into this complicated and dangerous territory of faith to say: Our God is not a remote God. I don’t buy into the finite theology that says God “allows” bad things to happen because we are fragile beings and have free will to choose good over evil. It is true, we are fragile and we do have free will. But what kind of god would step back and actively allow the unspeakably profound human-driven evils and injustices currently happening in our world?

Assertions of God’s victorious nature and the promise of eternal rewards dismiss the ongoing reality that suffering and evil deeds, many fueled by a warped definition of God’s will, continues.

We cannot simply move from the end of one disaster or atrocity to the next. Victims cannot be expected to forget their history, or bear them alone. I recently overheard someone say of black Americans, “They should move on. Get over the slavery thing!” I have heard others say they avoid Holocaust museums because they don’t want to get depressed. Crimes against humanity must never be dis-remembered. To forget the suffering of the past is to forget the Cross. Shall we say “Oh, Jesus is resurrected, Alleluia”, and forget the crucifixion?

Where is God in all this? God is intimately, incomprehensibly present in our suffering and is the motivator of those who take up the cross to work for justice with a creative, abundant and life-giving response.

God is here, in the midst of it, unfathomably close. Do we realize what this means?

Today’s readings can be found here.

Justice is the indispensable basis for peace: Oscar Romero, Martyr.

Today, with the beatification of Oscar Romero, his life, ministry and martyrdom will be recognized. I think it’s appropriate to reblog this post which I published on March 24 to mark the 35th anniversary of his assassination. The post includes links to all four of Romero’s pastoral letters. When read in order, from the first to the last, the letters give witness Romero’s heroic mission to call out the unjust, inequitable, and inhumane practices of the powerful minority—a mission which ultimately cost him his life. Thank you, Blessed Oscar Romero, for your example of discipleship.

The Good Disciple

Oscar-Romero Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador (Born: August 15, 1917— Assassinated: March 24, 1980)

Today, March 24, 2015, marks the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador, whose martyrdom was a direct result of his outcry for human rights and social justice for the poor, and who is expected to be beatified on May 23, 2015. Regardless of one’s information or misinformation related to Liberation Theology, I believe Romero’s four pastoral letters, written between April, 1977 and August, 1979 should be required reading for anyone who claims to be on the side of social justice. Each letter addresses, defends, and directs the Church’s response to the increasingly grave situation faced by the suffering majority of poor and oppressed—themes which remain profoundly, globally relevant—and shines a light on Romero’s own transformation and conversion.

Last year as part of my graduate studies at CTU (Catholic Theological…

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And the infant church was born.

Pentecost Sunday (B)

“Breathe gently on her face.” This was the advice my sister gave me many years ago when I could not comfort my inconsolable newborn daughter. I did what my sister suggested and was as startled by my baby’s response as she apparently was by my breath. Her crying stopped, and she inhaled, deeply. I might have imagined it, but I recall being rewarded with a squishy little newborn smile. Amazing. The feeling of my breath calmed her. Infants will cry for any and every reason, and even after having every need fulfilled, they. just. cry. Experts say crying is related to the developing central nervous system, but as far as I was concerned my baby girl’s distress was more about her new life outside my womb. From the very start, I carried her in a sling wrapped tightly against my chest, but now it seemed that my breath calmed her as much as the warmth my body and the sound of my heart. I later learned that blowing on an infant’s face is used in many settings. For example, it is one of the techniques used in “water babies” swimming classes to teach infants how to hold their breath underwater. I’m sure there is a physiological reason for this response, but I believe my ability to calm my newborn daughter in this way had less to do with science and more to do with her recognition of me through my breath.

Biblically speaking, the breath and its cosmic cousin, wind, are highly significant symbols. And no day expresses the power of both more than the feast of Pentecost, the day on which Christians celebrate the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit on Jesus’ disciples. The Christian Liturgy for Pentecost includes two distinct accounts: one is dramatic and fiery, and the other is quiet and instructive. The first, from the Acts of the Apostles, occurs on the festival of Shavuot (also known as the Feast of Weeks). Shavuot commemorates Yahweh’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. The second account comes from the Gospel of John and describes the appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples “on the evening of the first day of the week” following his resurrection.

Both texts tell us the disciples were all together in one place. In the first account, the disciples stayed behind in Jerusalem just as they had been instructed to do after witnessing Jesus’ ascension [Acts 1:6-12]. In John’s Gospel, the disciples were hiding in fear for their lives after having witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion just a few days before [John 20:19-23]. We can presume in both instances the disciples were praying. However, in Acts, the appearance of the Holy Spirit is described metaphorically. For example, the disciples experience a noise like a driving wind that filled the house and, what appeared to the disciples to be tongues of fire parting and resting on every person. In John’s Gospel, there is no metaphor. Jesus simply appears. He stands in their midst and says, “Peace be with you,” and after showing them his wounds, Jesus breathes on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The symbols of noise, wind, fire and breath would not have escaped the attention of the disciples. Fire is a Judaic symbol for the Torah, the written law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Also, Rabbinical interpretation of the Moses event describes Yahweh’s voice as looking like a “fiery substance” which then split into seventy languages.[1] Further, a noise like a driving wind recalls the great theophany which announced Yahweh’s appearance to Moses [Exodus 19:16-19]. These shared symbols indicate similarities between the disciples’ Pentecost experience and the Moses event and point to the manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit in a new time and place.

Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in John’s gospel, although quieter, has the same powerful effect. Jesus breathes on them. And with his breath and accompanying words, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus renews, reassures, and empowers his disciples to go out in the world, to do what he had done, and to be what he had been. Even more significantly, he gives them new life in the Spirit. Now recall the second creation story in Genesis where God blows the breath of life (Ruah) into the nostrils of the man [Gen 2:7]. For the disciples, the community for whom Luke wrote, and all Christians, Jesus’ act of breathing mirrors the creation: He gives new life.

In both accounts, the disciples respond with joy and readiness. Acts describes the disciples’ realization they have both the ability and the wisdom to preach the Good News in a manner that transcends language barriers. They go out and “speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” [Acts 2:4]. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ gift of the Spirit sends the disciples, now empowered, out in the world to fulfill the mission for which he chose them. With this, the infant Church was born.

While I was reflecting on these readings, I began to think about spiritual maturity. The early days of faith formation are a kind of infancy during which seekers need to be fed, consoled, taught and reassured. The memory of breathing on my baby’s face led me to wonder what it would be like to have Jesus breathe on mine. I can say with confidence there would be no more tears!

Like those before us, the way in which we respond to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and our ongoing discipleship has everything to do with spiritual maturity. Are we willing to be sent out? Do we recognize the breath of the one who sends us?

Today’s readings can be found here. 


[1] Rabbi Moshe Weissman, author of “The Midrash Says”

Receiving Love, a guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier

In a recent post on the topic of radical and inclusive love, entitled “Who has a problem with inclusiveness?”, I introduced my friend, Fr. Joel Fortier, whose experience of the overwhelming abundance of God’s love has been the driving force behind his 46 years as a priest. Earlier this week Fr. Joel sent me his reflection on the nature of receiving love and has generously given me permission to publish it on The timing of Fr. Joel’s email could not have been better; it just so happens that I am reading Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book “Quest for the Living God” in which Karl Rahner’s treatise on the incomprehensible Holy Mystery of God is explored. As mind-bending as theological studies can be, there is just one thing we really need to get our head around. And that is that God gives love in dizzying abundance. Our response is to receive, and to give, to receive, and to give. Fr. Joel’s reflection is a beautiful expression of this truth:

Copyright 2012 Brad G Smith Photos
Copyright 2012 Brad G Smith Photos

“There is a kind of love we can call “Receiving Love”. It is a little bit different than “Giving Love”. It is the kind of love of God that is wide open to receiving God’s love. It is a wonderful, expectant, exuberant, almost intoxicating love where we experience, and are filled to overflowing of God’s love for us. It is a wonderful joyous reciprocal love of God, which arises out of being so abundantly loved by God. It is an unending overflowing love which makes us not only joyous but profoundly grateful and generously loving.

So often we are focused on “getting”, or “needing” love that we are not open to the abundance of God’s overflowing love already for us and within us. We don’t feel it or know it because we are focused on praying, wishing, hoping, out of our parvity and pain, or what we think is a scarcity of love.

Rather “Receiving Love” is focused on and arises out of a radical openness to God’s love which is already there and constantly available. It is an openness of faith and trust such as Mary had in her acceptance of the favor and grace of God that became incarnate and pregnant in her when she said “Yes” to love; she gave birth to Love!

Such openness of faith and trust is exhilarating and releases in us the love of God that is already there waiting to be tapped. It is as the description Jesus gives us of his life and Spirit, “It shall become a wellspring and fountain of life and love that wells up from within a person as springs and fountains of living water!” The kind of love out of which sprang the Magnificat! And the kind of love we will be drawn into at the hour of our death for all eternity.

An image of it would be to imagine, as in a dream, of the Lord appearing to you, taking your hand and asking if he could fill you up with love and take away all your hurts and pain, and wounds from the lack of love in your life, and you saying “Yes!”, and the Lord doing it, filling you up! And then your love wells up back to the Lord, your divine lover.

Because that is exactly what is already happening and is the reality of our lives. We just have to be WIDE open to and accepting of it, saying yes to it! That is “Receiving Love”; love of the One who loves you. Being in Love with Love..Love following upon Love..a waterwheel of love, a giving and taking of the One Love; what we call the Holy Trinity, the dynamic progression of love into which we are drawn, share, and participate.

It is the posture that is presumed and necessary for us to hear, receive, and understand God’s Word: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that God has loved us…” And the words of Jesus, “I have called you friends…it was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you…to go and bear fruit.” And…”What you have received as a gift, give as a gift.”

And so “Receiving Love” becomes “Giving Love” because it flows from the One divine source of love which is already within us, always Present to us, always with us, always beyond us, God, Emmanuel, the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Such is Receiving Love, drink of it deeply today! Let it fill you up and take away all that is not of you or of God, become Love! Be One with and in Love!”


Born in1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”

Remember Barsabbas?

two choices one path

7th Sunday of Easter (B)

No, I don’t mean Barabbas, the violent criminal who Pontius Pilate released from prison in exchange for Jesus. I mean Justus, a.k.a. Joseph, Barsabbas. He’s the guy who didn’t get chosen to fill the spot left open by Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer. The other unknown disciple, Matthias, got the job, according to the first chapter of The Acts of the Apostles [Acts 1:15-26]. For many readers, this account simply represents the early church getting its house in order before embarking on its evangelical mission. And it does seem to be the entire story; not only is this the first we hear of Matthias and Barsabbas, it is the last. Never again are either of them mentioned in the New Testament.

The girl detective in me has a few questions.

I am the kind of person who searches the background of snapshots for details that have nothing to do with the subject and everything to do with the experience of those who just happened to be standing nearby. Imagining the secret life of bystanders may be the stuff of fiction writers, but in the context of reading scripture, visualizing what the secondary characters in the story might be experiencing helps to further humanize the situation.

Many years ago as part of my theological studies I explored the various forms of prayer attributed to particular religious orders, Franciscan, Augustinian, Ignatian, for example. As a lifelong fan of the Jesuits, I was delighted to discover my preferred method followed the Ignatian way. This contemplative method invites the reader to insert him or herself into the story and attend to the feelings and images that arise. For example, I might imagine the colors and scents of goods being sold on the street, feelings of claustrophobia brought on by narrow and crowded alleyways, the sounds of mothers calling to their children, and the dust working its way between the soles of my feet and my sandals. The method also encourages the reader to dialog with the characters, not as a spectator, but as a participant who is known by the others.

Reading scripture this way is deeply personal and subjective. It is rich, I tell you, rich. Having said this, I am now obliged to make this public service announcement: context is everything. O Lord let not our imagination lead us away from what the text says. Readers must never “proof text,” manipulate, or misuse scripture in order to bolster a personal position.

The writers of sacred Scripture did not include superfluous details. Every chapter, verse, and detail is intentional and complete. That is not to say openings for deeper reflection do not exist. Nor does it suggest scripture is meant to be read literally. Exploring the layers beneath what has been written is fascinating work. Ascertaining the historical context, the literary form, the writer’s intended audience, and the situation being addressed helps readers relate to the text in a way that bridges it to contemporary life. In other words, what does this teaching mean for us today?

And now, back to Barsabbas and Matthias.

The purpose of the election was to restore the number of apostles to twelve by filling the space vacated by Judas. The explanation from Peter, the scriptural citation from the Psalms, and the detailed method are included by the writer (Luke) to show how the early church appointed leaders. The process of selection began with two nominees chosen from a pool of potential candidates. In order to qualify for the role, both Barsabbas and Matthias had to have been followers of Jesus from his baptism by John, through his ministry and then, to his death and resurrection. Following this nomination, the group engaged in communal prayer for Spiritual guidance and later, cast their votes to determine which of the two would share in the ministry of the twelve apostles.

“…and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles.” [Acts 1:26b]

Barsabbas was not chosen. The reason has no bearing on the storyline so it was not given. But I have to wonder, could his name have played a part? A bit too close to Barabbas, perhaps? So, I began researching Barsabbas. But the typically fruitful biblical commentaries, concordances, and dictionaries revealed little to nothing. So, I did what all modern day people do. I Googled his name. Google asked me, “Do you mean Barabbas?” Hmmm. This naming problem can’t be just a modern-day obstacle. I imagined the conversation between Peter, the others, and Barsabbas. It might have sounded something like this. “Say, look here Barsabbas, old chap, you really are a great guy but, we have to go with Matthias. It’s, well, it’s your name. Too close to Barabbas, too confusing. We just can’t do it.” Doubtful, but, possible. Still, if we are to accept that the appointment of Matthias was Spirit led, and that is what the text is telling us, we have to consider another option.

As one who accompanied Jesus and the other disciples, Barsabbas was almost certainly considered a good candidate because he exhibited certain leadership skills and possessed a solid understanding of Jesus’ teaching. While the text is silent on what came next for him, we can presume Barsabbas continued to live the life of a good disciple and worked to spread the gospel message in word and action. He did so as a member of the Christian community, just as we do. And, what about Matthias? Well, as mentioned above, he never reappears in the Scriptures either. This reveals yet another ecclesial reality: the majority of the work of pastoral leaders takes place in the background, quietly, and, for the most part, anonymously. Few disciples, ordained or lay, are recognized, named, or immortalized.

So, in addition to its original intent, this passage is a good reminder for each of us today to carry on, serve others and live out the Gospel in word and action with the utmost humility, just like the many other unknown Barsabbas’s and Matthias’s before us.

Who has a problem with inclusiveness? (Hint: It’s not God)

6th Sunday of Easter (B)

Religious institutions and people of faith often have trouble accepting that God’s lavish expression of love is for everyone. Some believe it is their solemn duty to enforce standards on those they consider, say, not yet ready for full and active participation.

Is it helpful, or even our right, to remind those we deem to be sinners of Jesus’ command to “sin no more” while we half-heartedly obey his command to love one another? What? We are good people! We love our neighbors! All are welcome in our faith communities! It’s just that some are more welcome than others.

We see in the Acts of the Apostles how the early church grew in great numbers despite established religious boundaries and parameters. It became apparent to Peter and the others that the Holy Spirit moved where it willed and that human constructs of cleanliness, worth, nationality, gender or rank were meaningless to God. Consequentially, the young Christian movement reinterpreted itself as universal, or catholic (small c). Peter observed, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” [Acts 10:34b-35]

In the late 1960s, a book entitled “Tough Love” suggested a method of discipline that gave permission to treat others harshly as a means of helping them to conform. The theory goes something like this: If we deprive a person of affection, cease material support, and shun them they will soon realize they have been wrong and return to the fold as a conforming citizen. Although the method has been effective in some cases, it has also been known to be harmful. Many faith communities practice a form of tough love on those standing on the outside who wish to come in. This is not the way Jesus loves us, and it’s not the way the Father loves him. Furthermore, this is not what it means to remain—to be included—in his love. And that’s the point.

Jesus said: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” [John 15:9]

And, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” [John 15:12]

And, “This I command you: love one another.” [John 15:17]

Jesus doesn’t add any exemptions to his instruction. He doesn’t say, “This I command you: love one another, except when they are A, B, or C, in which case you may withhold your love until they comply.” Radical and inclusive love is difficult for a lot of people. Our world is troubled because many of us don’t know how to love others outside of our immediate circle. More fundamentally, we are unwilling to expose ourselves first to the radical love that God showers upon us.

My dear friend, Fr. Joel Fortier, exemplifies what it means to love one another and remain in Jesus’ love. His whole life and ministry are all about facilitating loving human relationships, and I and countless others have experienced God’s love through him. He once told me, “Early in my priesthood, a friend asked me what my priesthood meant to me, and out of my mouth came without any hesitation or forethought, “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”” This statement has become the core of his pastoral plan. It is being love, encountering love and knowing his own belovedness that leads Fr. Joel to act. “It happens with sharing my time and presence in Word, Eucharist, thought, and action. In works of compassion, listening, and material physical help.” It is in the mutual indwelling of God that Fr. Joel finds and shares God’s initiative and grace with others. Being able to do so, he says, “is the joy and the ecstasy of life!”

When we become aware of our “being first loved” by God, just as Jesus was, we can take the first step to loving one another with a radical and inclusive love. Peter gradually came to understood this through his experience of knowing Jesus and was able to recognize it in the emerging Christian community.

A funny thing happens when someone experiences the expression of God’s lavish initiative through radical and inclusive love. He or she then becomes more capable than ever before to share that love with others. It increases, and it flows into every crevice of human interaction. It’s unstoppable.

With this understanding, who could be left out?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

It’s not enough to bloom

5th Sunday of Easter (B)

Let’s talk about ripeness. And by ripeness I mean age, but I also mean fruitfulness. Surely we have heard people wax poetic about entering the autumn of one’s life, about earning one’s wrinkles, about aging with grace, about the privilege of reaching a ripe old age. You may even be one of them. When she was about 3 years old, my daughter used to say, “I can’t like that!” about many things that she did not want to accept. And while all of the above sentiments about aging are noble and true, I have to say, “I can’t like that!” no matter how I try. But as much as I would like to remain flower fresh all of my days I accept that it’s not enough to bloom. Aging is a lot like ripening. But before ripening can occur there must be fruit. And before fruit: a flower, and before the flower: a vine, a seed, and soil.

In John’s gospel, Jesus analogizes his relationship with the disciples to a vine and branches [John 15:1-8]  As branches, the disciples are nourished by the life-giving sap flowing through the vine. They grow and produce fruit. The fruit of the disciples is their action. They do the work of Christ. They cannot do this work on their own; they cannot leave the vine and survive. A branch that does not produce fruit indicates separation, disease, or the need for hard pruning.

Mystical metaphors such as the vine and the branches powerfully illustrate the mutual abiding between the Father and Jesus, and between Jesus and us. The image portrays Jesus as the conduit of divine direction between the vine grower (God) and the branches (us). Through these metaphors we grasp the reciprocal nature of Jesus’ consciousness and our responsibility to act upon it.

Earlier this month I spent a day tending to the flowering trees and shrubs in my garden. The long and harsh winter left many of them damaged with broken branches. I also noticed suckers and vertical shoots—non-producing growths that divert important nutrients from the healthy branches—emerging from the trunks. I know that carefully pruning away dead and useless growth encourages new growth and increases flowering. I am doing the same thing in my spiritual life: snipping away what does not bloom in order to open new spaces for regrowth.

Sour_cherriesBut it is not enough to bloom, is it? A tree heavy with blossoms may represent the peak of its beauty, but its showy fragrant flowers are designed to produce fruit. In the spiritual life the bloom is the time of conversion, that period of elation that comes with high inner consciousness and spiritual awareness. Neither the flowering tree or the spiritual high of conversion is sustainable; although they return, both must subside. The test of the bloom is the fruit that follows. If a bough of cherry blossoms is cut from the tree and brought inside one’s home, the space fills with fragrance but the blossoms will never produce cherries. If a person experiences a spiritual awakening while on a weekend retreat, yet Monday looks no different from the previous Friday, that person cannot produce fruit. But, let the cherry blossoms remain on the bough, let the petals fall, and let the fruit grow, ripen, and become food. Ripeness is the fulfillment of the bloom. The ability to nourish another is the revelation of its life’s work. This cannot happen unless it remains.

I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” [John 15:5]

We are the branches of the true vine. Conversion and the call to discipleship can, and do, occur again and again if one remains on the vine. But branches don’t simply rest and admire their own glossy leaves and flowers, and neither can we. We are expected to bear fruit. And, we are expected to ripen. It is hard to watch the petals fall. It can be uncomfortable. I can’t like it and I wonder if I ever will, but I do understand.

The poet, Ranier Maria Rilke, describes this necessary discomfort in the following poem:

In the Drawing Room

They are all around us, these lordly men
in courtiers’ attire and ruffled shirts
like an evening sky that gradually
loses its light to the constellations; and these ladies,
delicate, fragile, enlarged by their dresses,
one hand poised on the neck-ribbon of their lapdog.
They are close to each of us, next to the reader,
beside us as we gaze at the objets d’art
they left behind, yet still possess.

Tactful, they leave us undisturbed
to live life as we grasp it
and as they could never comprehend it.
They wanted to bloom
and to bloom is to be beautiful.
But we want to ripen,
and for that we open ourselves to darkness and travail.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

From A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.  1st edition. New York: HarperOne, 2009. p 106.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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