Fear Not the Broken Heart

detail-treasured-heart-black-bordershellypenko

Image: “Treasured Heart” by Shelly Penko

While we are on the topic of “rending” our hearts this Lent, (or “rend+er-ing” or “sur+rend+er-ing” it, or the many beautiful words we can use to describe those gestures which make us more vulnerable to God’s grace, or open to receive it), I thought once again[1] to share Katherine Mahon’s wonderful essay, Rend Your Hearts: How to Break Your Heart This Lent, which she published on Ash Wednesday 2016 on the always enriching Daily Theology website.

Being a visual person, I tend to draw images, metaphors, analogies—anything that sparks a deeper understanding from whatever it is that I seek to know better.   (more…)

Though I am lost, I will not fear.

Holy Week (C)

A reflection for anxious wanderers at the start of Holy Week.

Instead of writing about one or more of the readings for Palm Sunday I want to share this prayer from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, a book on the solitary life and the need for quiet reflection. You may already be familiar with the prayer and know Merton’s words are a spiritual balm for a wounded world. Apply liberally, and as often as needed.

 “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”[1]

We live in distressing times. It is hard to see the road ahead when dangerous and hateful talk is celebrated by so many and the use of violence so handily defeats dialogue. This is not Godly. None of this is pleasing to God. These are not the actions of people who desire to follow God’s will, no matter what they say to the contrary.

Yet our current chaos is nothing new. These days repeat like a needle stuck in a gouge on the album of human dysfunction. And the reason, Merton concludes, is because we can’t hear.

In the preface to this book Merton writes:

“No amount of technological progress will cure the hatred that eats away the vitals of materialistic society like a spiritual cancer. The only cure is, and must always be, spiritual. There is not much use talking to (people) about God and love if they are not able to listen. The ears with which one hears the message of the Gospel are hidden in (a person’s) heart, and these ears do not hear anything unless they are favored with a certain interior solitude and silence.”[2]

And here we have the challenge of our faith and the meaning behind our Lenten experience: To live in a way that is a true expression of our love for God and for our neighbor requires the ability to listen, as Jesus listened. We know that this is a way which is wrought with peril; it requires an open and vulnerable heart, or more accurately, as writer Katharine Mahon so beautifully put it, a “broken heart made whole by God for the sake of loving the world”[3]. We do this willingly and fearlessly because we trust that God will never leave us to face our perils alone.

Blessings to you and your loved ones as you enter Holy Week.

_______________________

[1] Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, New York, 1956. 79.

[2] Merton. xiii.

[3] Katharine Mahon. “Rend Your Hearts: How to Break your Heart this Lent” Daily Theology, February 10, 2016. http://dailytheology.org/2016/02/10/rend-your-hearts-how-to-break-your-heart-this-lent/ (accessed March 19, 2016).

Return to Me with all your heart

4th Sunday of Lent (C)

You may see some flowers[1] in your church this weekend. Enjoy them while you can, because they’ll be gone again next week. The fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday, is a breather, so to speak, from the rigors of our Lenten fast. Laetare [ley-tahr-ee] is Latin for “Rejoice;” it’s a day of celebration. Hurrah, we’re halfway to Easter! The end, or to be more accurate, the beginning, is in sight!

If you were unaware of the liturgical significance of Laetare Sunday, the sight of fresh flowers on the altar after so many weeks of absence (or their replacement with overturned empty vessels) might feel a little bit like the stunt Old Man Winter often pulls on us Northerners, you know, slipping in a few warm, sunny days so all the people of the world (it seems) can step outside of their stale and germy houses to breathe some air that won’t freeze their faces off, only to resume business as usual the very next day with a record-breaking blizzard or arctic freeze. But in reality, bringing fresh flowers into the desert of our sanctuaries—like an early winter thaw—serves as an aperitif; a reminder of the ultimate Feast we will celebrate with the entire world on Easter.

Speaking of the world, it’s no coincidence that the theme of this weekend’s readings is the joy of Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

Forgiveness is hard work. Reconciliation is hard work. Heck, tolerance is hard work. Pride, legitimate differences, misunderstandings, selfishness, ancient grudges, deep hurts and resentment get in the way of making peace. It seems a particularly daunting task nowadays just to agree to find the common ground required for conciliatory talks to start. No one is listening; everyone is shouting.

Returning to God with all our hearts is hard work, too. Alice Camille writes, “The need to forgive so many wrongs in the world “as is” often reaches into the most private sanctuary of all: the relationship between us and our God.”[2] Relinquishing our self-power, recognizing our wrongs and vowing to do better, comprehending our true identity, our interconnectedness with all people and all of creation and our implicit responsibility to care for it all; it’s hard, hard work for human beings.

But Jesus teaches us that, like the son whose father never lost hope in his return [Lk 15:11-32], God is always ready, always waiting for our homecoming.

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. [Lk 15:20b]

I so love to meditate on the image of our creator running to us, embracing us and kissing our faces. (For the record I generally do not anthropomorphize God, in that God is pure spirit, but I find comfort in this image. You may agree.)

The experience of resting in Wholeness is the joy of reconciliation. Whether our reunion is between humans, the earth and its creatures, or with our Creator, re-joining broken pieces is not something we should leave unfinished. But we resist.

Why should we care about reconciliation when it requires so much of us? Because being able to forgive one another, to reconcile ourselves with all of humanity and all of God’s creation is and will always be the greatest accomplishment our species is capable of doing.  You want to see a miracle? We have the power to bring about the reconciliation of the world!

Today is a day to rejoice and continue to work for reconciliation. We began Lent with these words, “Return to Me with all your heart,” [Joel 2:12]. Our faith exhorts us to forgive and ask forgiveness of our brother, our sister, our neighbor, our community, the world, and make amends; start fresh. We are to return to the earth; take off our shoes—it is Holy Ground—reduce our footprint, and steward, rather than exploit creation. Envision wholeness, and restore life to our empty, broken vessels. Return to the Lord, learn what is good, and be strengthened so that tomorrow we can to do it again.

Laetare!

[1] GIRM, 305.

[2] Alice Camille, Paul Boudreau, The Forgiveness Book. ACTA Publications, Skokie, IL, 2008. 16.

Night Skies, Mountaintops, Prayer, Transfiguration, and all the Theophanies Therein

2nd Sunday of Lent (C)

There are pivotal moments, for those who are attentive to them, when God’s presence is indisputable. For many, simply being in a natural setting is enough to attune the senses to a greater awareness of God, and God’s desire for us. Awe opens our hearts to listening and transformation. Prayer takes us there. The readings for the Second week of Lent speak to two of these moments.

First, for those unfamiliar with the word Theophany, it refers to those times in the bible, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures when God makes Godself unmistakably present to human beings, and this divine manifestation leads to callings, covenants, commands, and missions. Modern day people do not experience Theophanies in the same way Scripture tells us Abram, or Moses, or Elijah did. In fact, we get really nervous around people who claim that God literally speaks to them. But, we do experience moments of God’s presence and grace during prayer, in human relationships, and our interactions with nature. Many times these experiences simply affirm our faith, others are transformative and steer us toward making difficult changes or decisions.

The story of Abram’s deepening trust and growing relationship with God leads to a covenant between God and all of Abram’s descendants. Standing in awe beneath the canopy of stars, the elderly and childless Abram puts his trust in God’s promise to bless him with descendants greater in number than the uncountable stars overhead. This remarkable relationship between Abram and God is sealed with a ceremonial pact, like that between friends. God instructs Abram to bring a variety of animals and birds to the ceremony, but the symbolism recedes against the do-or-die oath to which both Abram and God agreed.

Abram’s star-gazing reminds me of the summer of my sixteenth year when I spent a week with my best friend and her family at their lake house on Sodus Bay, NY. We sunbathed, boy-watched, and sailed, but the nights were the best by far. On more than one occasion we ignored the closed gates of the public beach, spread our blankets on the still warm sand and lay beneath the stars, our conversations revolving at first around the things 16 year old girls talk about, but later taking a philosophical turn.

Light pollution did not exist in those days; the grand homes along the shore were discretely illuminated, unlike the runway lighting that seems to be used today. The beach was dark, optimal for star gazing. As our eyes adjusted we entered the vastness of space. My sight went beyond the sprinkling of the brightest stars, recognizable constellations and occasional meteor shower, through the gossamer folds of the Milky Way, going farther, visually dissecting the darkness in search of the most distant galaxies. More than I could fathom, far more than even young eyes could take in, the light of countless stars surpassed the darkness. Space, my view of infinity and all that was known and yet to be known was radiant, diaphanous, yet somehow opaque. It was like a prayer. It was a prayer. My God! My small, young life lay like a single grain of sand beneath the vastness of the universe and the history of the world. Uncountable. Uncounted, except by my creator, whose illusive existence was gradually concretizing for me. Theophany? Probably not. Grace? Absolutely.

What about Peter, James and John, who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop? Is Luke’s gospel account the story of Jesus’ definitive prayer experience, or the disciples’ comprehension of Jesus’ true identity? Was Jesus the only one who was transfigured?

Jesus went to the mountain to pray; he needed to discern the timing of his final mission. Should he leave Galilee when there was still so much more to do, or should he face the inevitable, prepare his disciples for his departure, and start his death march to Jerusalem? Did Jesus’ decision include turning to his knowledge of the Law and Prophets? The appearance of Moses and Elijah with him on the mountain tells us so.

Both Moses and Elijah experienced theophanies on mountaintops, in fact the same mountain: Mt. Horeb. God spoke to Moses from within thick cloud [Exodus 19:9]; Elijah heard the Lord’s voice in a whisper [1 Kings 19:8-13]. Both men received instructions from God as to what they were to do.

And “while he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” The result of Jesus’ intense prayer was visible clarity.

Peter, James and John, asleep as usual, woke up just in time to witness Jesus’ glory. Groggy but still able to comprehend the magnitude of what was happening Peter tried to make the moment last. But a cloud descended on the mountain, enveloping everyone, Jesus, Moses, Elijah and the terrified Peter, James and John. And God spoke “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

While not in the same league as The Transfiguration of Jesus, there is always something sacred about our literal mountain top experiences. There are certain things that can be seen and understood from the top that cannot be grasped from below.

My husband and I have completed many challenging day hikes in New York State, Vermont, California, and Utah, to name a few locations. And I have had a few of what I might call moments of clarity upon reaching the summits. One memorable example occurred on a perfectly clear summer day at the top of Black Mountain, a modest peak amidst the mighty Adirondacks, but a perfect climb for a young family like ours. If you are familiar with this hike you will recall the moment when at the highest point the trail opens near a fire tower to the north, with a spectacular view of all of Lake George and surrounding mountains up to the southernmost part of Lake Champlain. I remember standing at the summit with my family, my heart pounding, my eyes flooding with tears, a great lump forming in my throat, and the only words I could form were ones of gratitude for the abundant glory of creation and my ability to experience it with my husband and daughters.

God speaks. God is present.

Travel light during Lent

Ash Wednesday

The season of Lent is a journey with a profound destination; it is an adventure through which we can be forever changed. Some travelers go solo and many travel in groups, but only one item is required for passage: the sincere desire and willingness to be transformed.

Think of Lent as a special time to assess the direction of your prayer life. Is it leading you to a deeper realization of who Jesus is? Is it helping you to live in right relationship with others, with all of creation? As Christians, we naturally want to accompany Jesus and become more secure in our belief; we might also find we share many traits with Jesus’ companions. Do we, like they, still not understand? Can we understand?

Look, all spiritual journeys are accompanied by two guides: faith and doubt. Our desire to believe compels us to seek, but the need to comprehend challenges those yearnings. We want to understand, but our tendency to make sense frequently interferes with our ability to experience God’s nearness. Like the father of the boy possessed we cry out to Jesus “I do believe; help my unbelief!” [Mark 9:24].

Travel light. Eliminate distractions. Begin and end each day with a prayer “Lord, is this the path you want me to walk?” and take it from there. Pay close attention. God’s response requires attentive listening. Disciplined, focused, charitable, and prayerful stops along the way will guide your spiritual renewal, to fresh experiences of faith which lead to transformation.

The readings for today can be found here.

Understanding the Liturgical Calendar

The liturgical cycle includes three years, (A, B, and C) and a two year weekday cycle (Year I and Year II) during which Ordinary Time, as it is called, stops and starts, before and after the seasons of the year (Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter Time). But don’t be fooled, Ordinary Time is not “ordinary,” or “off-season.” It’s a profound opportunity to slowly absorb the wisdom of the Old and New Testament scriptures and allow it to saturate and transform our day-to-day activities.

On Sundays of ordinary time we read mostly from the particular Gospel for that cycle, (Year A=Matthew, Year B= Mark, Year C=Luke). The Gospel of John is also read at various times throughout the year, primarily during Easter. On weekdays during ordinary time, the Gospel readings cycle first through Mark, then Matthew, and finally Luke.

The liturgical year is made up of six seasons: (click the links for more detailed information from the USCCB, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)

  1. Advent: the four weeks leading up to Christmas
  2. Christmas Time: continues for three Sundays after Christmas (The Feast of the Holy Family, The Epiphany, and Jesus’ baptism)
  3. Lent: a six-week period of penance before Easter; begins with Ash Wednesday
  4. The Triduum– Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday
  5. Easter Time– the 50 days of Easter celebration, which conclude with Pentecost.
  6. Ordinary Time– the “teaching” time of 4-6 weeks between Christmas Time and Lent, and after Pentecost until the end of the calendar year, generally 34 Sundays in total.

Ruined for life.

5th Sunday of Lent (B)

If you want to see Jesus, look for people who commit themselves to serving the poor.

You can see Jesus in the young adults who commit to one or more years with faith-based organizations such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. You will see Jesus in the many men and women who discern a vocation as lay missioners—a choice which leads them far from home and family—in order to improve the lives of the disadvantaged and to create a more peaceful and just world. Maryknoll Lay Missioners is one such organization through which lay persons can live out this calling. You will recognize Jesus in those who even after their time of service has passed make career and life choices that continue to reflect those Gospel values of service, justice, and living in right relationship not only with other humans, but with all of God’s creation.

From the time we are children the world tells us we own our lives, and we go to great lengths to save them. As adults we toil away, lining our nests and filling our storehouses. And when someone from our own family or neighborhood chooses a life of service and simplicity, we find it odd, incomprehensible, even. Our admiration of their “goodness” might be mixed with fear for their safety and, let’s be honest, some suspicion that they are postponing getting a “real job.” It challenges our own beliefs about life and makes us uncomfortable. But isn’t this self-giving, this willingness to lay down one’s life, to let go, and to be the servant precisely what Jesus meant when he said “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”? [John 12:25]

Former Jesuit volunteers will say they are “ruined for life,” meaning there is no return to life as they once knew it. Their eyes have been opened. And once opened, they remain open. They cannot ignore the needs of the world. They have died to themselves, but what comes forth is far greater. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground…” [John 12:24a]

In the nearly five decades since Fr. Jack Morris, SJ started the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, more than “12,000 Jesuit volunteers have served tens of thousands of individuals and families at hundreds of sites around the world” including 38 locations here in the United States. I only wish the number was greater. Is it a luxury for a recent college graduate to be able to volunteer one or two years rather than seek employment? Yes, unfortunately it is. Most students have loans to pay off and don’t have the freedom for full-time volunteerism before entering the workforce. While it is not unheard of for someone to leave a lucrative career for a life of service, it is generally difficult to reverse the career track once it has been started. Still, some adults look for ways to serve in their retirement. I recently heard about a couple who, after the marriage of their youngest child, sold everything they owned and now live as lay missioners overseas. Wow.

Obviously, a sacrifice on this level is not for everyone, nor is it expected. Still, aren’t we are just like the Greeks who asked Phillip “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” But do we understand that to “see” Jesus is to enter into the reality of his life? “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” [John 12:24] In taking on the role of servant in whatever capacity our lives permit, we might be lucky enough to experience the same disastrous outcome as the Jesuit volunteers.

Ruin yourself for life; perhaps someone will see Jesus in you.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

____________________________

For more on the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, visit http://www.jesuitvolunteers.org. And to learn about Maryknoll Lay Missioners, visit http://www.mklm.org.