Love is greater than fear

love over fear

I can’t stop thinking about the community of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Their witness to the power of love overcoming fear has filled me with awe.

First, because to the great shame of our nation, and as recent events in other parts of the United States have shown, racism against Black Americans continues to rear its poisonous and malformed face in deadly ways. A fearful, self-protective stance would be the expected response, and yet, this is not what occured. Second,  in this beautiful witness to the power of love I perceive the transformative, life-giving movement of the Spirit of God actively mending their brokenness.

This community, victims of racial terrorism that took the lives of nine members of their congregation, has every reason to become fearful and guarded, angry and vengeful. The details of this story have probably been reported thousands of times since it happened on the evening of June 17, 2015, and they should continue to be repeated, talked about, reflected upon, and remembered. Six women and three men were murdered by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who just moments before opening fire on them had joined the small group for Bible study. Yet, days later at Roof’s hearing, we heard the victim’s family members speaking words of forgiveness to him, and offering prayers for his soul. At that point, my husband turned to me and suggested that the real story is not the one about Dylann Roof. Rather, the real story is the way members of this community have chosen to push back from violence in the most counter-cultural way. Instead of falling into the abyss of fear they seem to be rising up through the pain—indeed, an historic pain—as a new creation that is stronger, more loving, and clearly a reflection of the merciful and forgiving God whom they worship.

“I forgive you.” These words hold all the power. But the ability to forgive the cold-blooded murderer of a loved one is incomprehensible to many. Forgiveness takes time, and healing and courage, and usually requires some sense that the other party is remorseful. Some things, it would seem, simply cannot be forgiven. But the inability to forgive can also perpetuate a sense of powerlessness, of being held hostage by the past. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is not done to relieve the other party. It does not signify coming to terms or pushing one’s suffering to the side. It does not mean the systemic causes leading to the injury escape without correction. In many cases, its strength emerges from the victim’s desire to be free from the prison of hate that caused the pain. Incomprehensible as it seems in cases like this, Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders, and Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor tell us it is possible to forgive. Unburdened, the one who forgives takes on the healing power of love, which is the basis of forgiveness.

The Christian spiritual practice of forgiveness is an expression of God’s love. I sense that for the members of Emanuel AME Church, forgiveness is as foundational a spiritual practice as regular Sunday worship; it nourishes their understanding of the God who saves and who is love. Further, this community’s witness to the power of love overcoming fear seems to point to a particular awareness of the Mystery of God which can be summed up in the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper, “Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain — wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work.” [Kasper, God of Jesus Christ (ch 2 n. 11)]

Because love is—and always be—greater than fear.

No Miracles, Please

remember barsabbas pastel

[When I wrote and scheduled the following post prior to leaving for school two weeks ago, I intended it to be a gentle comment on divine action. Then Dylann Roof happened. And because he wanted to start a race war, he killed nine black men and women who had welcomed him, their killer, to study the bible with them. The subsequent words of forgiveness spoken to Roof by some of the victims’ family members shows in the most heartbreaking, inspiring, and incomprehensible (for most), way that a different kind of miracle is possible. Hating the hater only brings about more hate. These families have shown us another way.]

What I love about the following poem by Ranier Maria Rilke, aside from everything, is his preference for an organic, and generative manifestation of God’s love in the ordinary over a display of divine power in the form of a miracle. It’s true, the fruit of our spiritual ripeness—shown through acts of love for God, neighbor, and all of God’s creation—is capable of generating new and vibrant growth well beyond our own sphere of influence. I know my part is to choose to be a carrier of the law to love God and neighbor, to actively be Christ, and see Christ in each person I meet, to be Eucharist. It’s not easy. Nobody ever said it would be easy. Still, I try.

No Miracles, Please
by Ranier Maria Rilke

I would rather sense you
as the earth senses you.
In my ripening
ripens
what you are.

No miracles, please.
Just let your laws
become clearer
from generation to generation.

—No Miracles, Please. Ranier Maria Rilke, From The Book of Hours II, 15

Everything is Connected

EarthWaterDropI’ve only read a portion of Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment, Laudato Si, and am already blown away. This from chapter 4, for example:

“When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; . Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature” Laudato Si, 4.117

Read Laudato Si.

Interested in studying Laudato Si? The USCCB has prepared an excellent discussion guide for use in small groups. 

Action scene from Pope Francis: The Encyclical

Pope Francis: The Encyclical (coming soon to a theater near you)

I love that Pope Francis elicits such positive humor while being a messenger of the truth. This.is.hilarious. In all seriousness, though, please read Pope Francis’ encyclical, “On Care for our Common Home.” A link is included here: Everything is connected.

Perceive the Imperceptible

11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Imagine a flower in a vase. Simple, right? You see the shape of the vase, a single or multiple stem, a few leaves, and of course, the flower’s color and variety. Now, erase that, and visualize just the space surrounding a flower in a vase. The exercise immediately becomes less concrete. Conjuring the invisible is not as easy. We generally think in terms of positives and tend to start with what is palpable. This is what we understand. But, seeing completely requires perceiving the imperceptible.

This concept was revealed to me as a young art student. I recall my instructor informing the class there were no lines in nature. She said what defines an object is the space that surrounds it. Our assignment was to draw the unknowable space. And, with that, the lens through which my 14-year-old eyes viewed the world changed forever. In the art world, this concept is called negative, or white space.

I once studied yoga with a deeply spiritual Catholic woman whose Shavasana (the final relaxation, and the best part for me) always included a guided meditation on the gaps between our inhalations and exhalations. She encouraged me to linger in the gaps, to pause for a few seconds between breaths and glimpse the pure and silent “God space” that existed there. It occurred to me that the gaps between my breaths shared the same unknowable space that surrounds all that is visible.

John O’Donohue, the late Celtic poet and author, calls the unknown space “the invisible,” saying it “is one of the huge regions in your life.” He says “when you become aware of the invisible as a live background, you notice how your own body is woven around your invisible soul, how the invisible lives behind the faces of those you love, and how it is always there between you. The invisible is one of the most powerful forms of the unknown.”[1] He goes on to say we tend to be uncomfortable with what we cannot know. It’s true. Don’t many of us try to control the invisible and unknowable gaps in our lives by filling them with pointless activities and noise, often interfering with Holy mystery in order to produce something palpable?

To explain “how it is” with the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells a parable about a seed growing itself (Mark 4:26-29). A man scatters seed on the ground and goes about his daily business. A few days later he sees that it has begun to grow, but does not understand how it happened (without his help). Theologian and author, John Shea, retells the story with a modern twist. In this tale, the man who sowed the seed, not wanting to miss a single moment of its germination, went out to the garden every day and uncovered the seeds to see how things were going. As a result, nothing grew.[2]

It’s so easy to fall into the same trap as the man who interfered with the seed, and it’s hard to permit the unknown, to dwell in the gaps, and to trust the invisible. Nicole Gausseron knows something of this subject. Nicole is the director and co-founder of Compagnons du Partage, a homeless shelter for men in Chartes, France, and the author of The Little Notebook: A Journal of a Contemporary Woman’s Encounters with Jesus, During a six-year period of intense work and prayer, Nicole experienced a deeply personal relationship with Jesus which she recorded in several journals. Many of the entries in her journals focus on the need to allow Jesus to work through her, to hand her worries over, and trust that the seeds of her work with the homeless were growing.

We might not always perceive it, but the world is flush with white space, sacred gaps, and the invisible activity of life. Divine activity occurs quietly, mysteriously. Even though we sometimes get in the way and uncover the seeds, or mess up relationships, or clutter our minds with deadlines, fears, and worries for the future—and leave little or no time for prayer and reflection—God’s work continues. It takes root almost imperceptibly, in the quiet, in the unknown spaces. Do you perceive it?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] O’Donohue, John. 2000. Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong. Reprint edition. New York: Harper Perennial. Page 27-28

[2] STD, John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Year B edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 151

Photo: 1 Sunday Morning at the Backyard Photolab. ©2015 Robert Cowlishaw

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John O’Donohue (1956 –2008) was an Irish poet, author, priest, and philosopher. He is best known for his written works on Celtic Spirituality, among them the international bestseller, Anam Cara.

John (Jack) Shea is a theologian, storyteller, and prolific author who lectures nationally and internationally on storytelling in world religions, faith-based health care, contemporary spirituality, and the spirit at work movement.

Nicole Gausseron, the director and co-founder of Compagnons du Partage, a homeless shelter for men in Chartes, France, Her first journal was published under the title “The Little Notebook.” Three other journals were later translated and published.

Whose Meal is This, Anyhow?

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood (Corpus Christi) (B)

I went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again
When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name
No one recognized me, I didn’t look the same
–Garden Party ©1972 Words and Music by Rick Nelson

If you are of a certain age you know the words to this song. You may have heard it a thousand times on your Radio Shack™ AM transistor radio which you bought with your babysitting or paper route money. Ricky Nelson, the wildly popular 50s teen idol and co-star of the Ozzie and Harriet TV series, wrote the song in response to an experience he had in 1971 while performing with other musicians at Madison Square Garden. The lyrics describe his sense of being unwelcome in a community to which he thought he still belonged. Although Nelson performed his old hits he was literally booed off the stage because he didn’t fit the clean-cut image the audience expected. His shoulder-length hair, bell-bottom pants, velvet shirt and attempt to perform newer music was more than the audience could stand. He exited the stage and did not come back.(Ironically, “Garden Party” rose to the top of the charts, obviously pleasing a different, more welcoming crowd.)

The boundaries the Church sets up around the Eucharistic table are like a “garden party” experience for many baptized Catholics who share the status of persona non grata. Readers of this blog already know I stand shoulder to shoulder with those who find themselves no longer welcome in the Church of their baptism. Oh sure, they are “welcome.” Anyone is “welcome” so long as they don’t expect to be invited to the table. I am well versed in Church teachings on this subject, but I also have a fair understanding of the Gospel message and feel confident in stating that Jesus would welcome our alienated brothers and sisters.

Much has been written on the topic of Christian hospitality and welcoming. I own several titles related to widening the welcome of the church. The Church absolutely loves the word “Welcome!” We hang banners, we insist “all are welcome” and host welcome events; we train parishioners to greet worshipers on the way in, and invite them to return on the way out. Some churches have marketing committees for the recruitment and retention of parishioners. This is all very sincere and these are very worthwhile efforts. But while the four percent of Catholics cited in a recent CARA survey, considered to be “core members” (and who are likely on the welcoming committee), work tirelessly to build community, church attendance dwindles. It is not just alienated adults leaving the Church, most young people now eschew affiliation with any organized religion. These are our sons and daughters who on their confirmation day were told they were the future of the Church!

As a Eucharistic minister I have looked spiritual hunger in the eye. People come, eyes brimming with tears, their open hands extended. They look at me and say amen! So be it. As Pope Francis says, “Who am I to judge?” We come to the table broken, needy and empty handed. We also come joy-filled, celebratory, and thankful. Above all, we come as sinners. We respond to the invitation simply because our Host loves us and has chosen to share the feast of his life with us.

The meal we share in the Eucharist prepares us to be Christ to the world. “Jesus obviously knew the power of meals,” author John E. Burkhart says, “so he shared them gladly, graciously using them to question and erode the various boundaries religion and society had erected between people.” When the church decides who among all of Jesus’ invited guests can sit at the table and who cannot, it pushes Jesus back into the kitchen and shows his guests to the door. Is it for the sake of the gospel that we reduce the number of seats around the table that Jesus has set?

In the Eucharist, Jesus is both the Host and the meal. It is his meal, and everyone present should remember that the Host knows who has been invited.