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.

Stop the Violence!

2nd Sunday of Lent (B)

To say the story of Abraham and Isaac is difficult is a grave understatement. Abraham was a man whose longstanding personal relationship with Yahweh had developed over time through a series of tests and trials [see Genesis 12-22] and included a promise that he would father a great nation. Abraham had learned that Yahweh was trustworthy and kept promises; therefore he had no reason to doubt. But then he was asked to offer up his firstborn son to prove his worthiness. If a great nation was to come from this one man, his total commitment must be guaranteed. What better test  than to ask for what was most precious to him? Recall that in Abraham’s day human sacrifice was not uncommon. Also, recall that Abraham was prevented at the last minute from carrying out the sacrifice. He had passed the final test and became the father of the Hebrew nation.

Still, that happy ending does not change the fact the entire story line is unsettling and gruesome.  What kind of loving god would ask such a thing as a test of one’s faith? What if Abraham had objected? Maybe he did, but followed through nonetheless. We don’t know because the scripture does not tell us. Verses 3-8 which are omitted from today’s reading render an unemotional narrative of Abraham going through the motions: cutting the wood he would use, locating the place where the sacrifice would take place, arranging for there to be no witnesses, and carrying the fire and the knife that he would use to slaughter his son. Each step of the way the tension mounts, and Isaac’s innocent question about the animal they would sacrifice slowly reveals the horror of what is about to take place. The reader asks, “Is this really going to happen, is this what God wants?

Abraham’s anguish over what he thought he was being asked to do was not as important as his absolute knowledge that God is trustworthy. Surely he was confused and likely devastated by God’s request, but had personal knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness. This is the paradox of faith: the willingness to surrender what is most precious ultimately reveals the  bounty of what has been promised.

What does God expect from us? The the story is telling. At the very last minute Yahweh sends a messenger to stop Abraham, saying, “Do not lay your hand on that boy, do not do the least thing to him.” The message can be understood two ways. First, although we can’t fully understand God’s plan we need to trust that God truly has our best interests in mind. Our faith tells us this is true. Our commitment comes from our willingness to listen and  say “Yes, Lord” especially in times of extreme difficulty. Second, acts of violence are entirely in opposition to God’s plan for creation. God’s message is “Stop the violence!”  Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Synagogue explains: “In reading this story we recognize the critical lesson is that God does not want the death of human beings as a sign of faith and a sign of doing God’s will. Therefore the lesson for this time has got to be, we all have to come together to end war and stop the violence and stop the sacrifice and stop the killing.”

As an evangelizing people our witness to the Good News must reflect both of these points with a trusting commitment to God and an active commitment to peace.

ART: Section from Rembrandt’s The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God. 1635

A Soul’s Legacy

The Otto Raus familyEarly in my marriage, when my husband was in law school, I decided to trace my family history. Stories about stout-hearted immigrant ancestors who scraped together the fare for passage, and willingly left their families and everything they knew for what they hoped was a better life used to break my heart. But those stories also inspired me. These were sturdy and brave souls; braced for whatever awaited them on the distant shore. I felt compelled to know them better because I shared some of those traits.

At that time there were no online immigration records. Research involved letter writing, contacting distant relatives for copies of pictures, marriage licenses, birth certificates, and the hand written details inside the old family bible. It included working with translators who could communicate with village churches in the old country, and countless Saturdays spent in the New York Public Library combing through rolls of microfilm for census records, city directories, and vital records. It involved studying maps and taking road trips. It was a treasure hunt that led me to an amazing discovery.

My research began with my four grandparents, which turned into sixteen extended families. On and on it went. Through the process of collecting and weaving bits of data into family stories I actually developed a relationship with my ancestors. I felt I knew them somehow, and I did. Incredibly, I was able to piece together vignettes of life through historical records: addresses and occupations, the age and number of children, whether they rented or owned, if they lived in a flat, over a store, with other relatives or took in boarders, and whether they had received their sacraments. All of these things plus what was happening locally and globally helped me “know” them. For most, life was difficult. Many were poor. I located news clippings and obituaries for children hit by a streetcar, or runaway horse, or who succumbed to an illness that is no longer a threat. I learned about their neighbors and what part of town they lived in, and if they were active members of their church or community. In addition to facts, my research generated questions that had no answers, like how they spent their day, if they did acts of charity, who were the silent saints among them, and who might have been affected by a simple kindness, or a friendship between neighbors that changed a life for the better.

I discovered a profound level of human connection that revealed our divine union with God. I realized what I was doing was in fact honoring the lives of those who had passed, and ultimately honoring God, of whose great plan they were a part. Were it not for this divine union we would not exist. I honor them with my prayers in a special way on All Souls Day. Remember, the legacy we create begins with living in right relationship; it dwells deeply in the life of every single person with whom we share a moment, a kindness, or a generous act, as well as in the things we do to ensure a future for those souls who are with us and those yet to be born.

Happy All Souls Day.