My friend Bill Nolan, pastoral associate at St. Thomas Apostle church, writes a weekly column for his parish which he also distributes by e-mail.

During his public ministry, Jesus often taught through the use of stories. The Gospels record something in the range of 30 parables he used to teach his followers. Jesus understood something that Bill realized early in his ministry: the power of stories to compel us.

In his weekly column he focused on the stories we hear in Lent. Bill writes:

The liturgical readings of Lent include some of the greatest of all Scripture stories. From the Old Testament, we have the tales of the creation and the fall of humanity; the call of Abram, who became Abraham; the panic and lack of faith shown by the Hebrews in the desert; the call and the anointing of David as King. From the Gospels, we have the stories of the devil’s temptation of Jesus; the Transfiguration; the Samaritan woman at the well; the man born blind; the raising of Lazarus. All incredible stories, filled with wisdom and sources of moral reflection. They are not stories of perfect people, but perfect stories of real people struggling to live the life God calls them to live and trying to overcome the doubts and struggles of faith that all – yes, even Jesus – had to entertain as a part of their human nature.

Stories are teaching tools because, unlike doctrine alone, they are personal. They allow the hearer to go inside the characters and feel their struggles, relate to their questions, identify with their suffering. Stories don’t tell us what to do or not do, they show us people doing and not doing it. Stories don’t warn of consequences for wrong behavior, they illustrate the consequences that characters face as a result of the choices made. Stories do not promise rewards, they invite us to experience the joy that rewards provide by mimicking the good behavior of beloved characters.

Bill encourages his readers to reflect on the stories of Lent. You might want to ask yourself some of the questions he suggests:

Which characters do you most identify with?

Which situations have you experienced in your own life?

Which lessons have you also learned? Which ones do you still need to?

Bill ended his column with a line he uses frequently when talking about the stories we read in the Bible: All of them are true and some them actually happened.

Leaving Egypt

My friend Larry Mitchell, who recently started blogging, wrote a post yesterday reflecting on his impending move back “home” to New York City from Cleveland, where he has been living for the last several years.

Speaking to his rabbi, Larry said that it felt to him as though he were leaving Egypt. The rabbi’s response is that we are always leaving Egypt. Although the rabbi’s comment was addressed in the first instance to the Jews, for whom Egypt “is as much a state of mind as a place,” the reflection the comment prompted in my friend is thought-provoking for everyone, not only those of the Jewish faith.

Larry writes:

And so it is, I learned, that we not only leave Egypt every day, but we also each day incorporate the meaning of our holidays. More than that, we incorporate each one of the 613 mitzvot — each commandment — even those performed only by Kohanim, even only those that are to be performed in the temple in Jerusalem when it existed and when it is rebuilt, even though we might not in fact perform any of them.

And this got me thinking. If all of this is within us every day, then we are, in fact, complete. All of what we are is within us. We are, simply put, our potential. We are always leaving. We are always arriving. We are always becoming…

But your potential is in you. Every day, we are leaving Egypt. And what is the consequence of leaving? Arriving. For every departure there is an arrival. And you can arrive at completion simply by the realization that you are your potential, you are complete. You only need to be mindful of that fact, attentive to your constant state of becoming, aware of your constant departures and arrivals. And, by arriving, you do something. You come out of yourself to engage the world.

All you have to do to achieve your potential is to leave Egypt. I’m on my way.

What does it mean to you to leave Egypt?

Over the course of an academic year, the University of St. Thomas School of law has several Mission Round-Table lunches for students, faculty and staff. Yesterday was one of those, and our invited speaker was the President of the University of St. Thomas, Julie Sullivan, who is nearing the end of her first year of service here.

President Sullivan began by talking about what it means to speak of faith inspired service, suggesting that our faith gives insight into our service potentials, provides the foundation for our service and gives us the enduring strength and perseverance we need to serve. She then spent some sharing her own responses to the three questions she posed for our consideration and discussion at our individual tables: What are you God Given talents? How are you using them in service to others? How does your faith sustain and nurture your service?

In speaking about the first, she shared her own difficulty overcoming a hurdle many people face: an upbringing that warns against boasting and against tooting one’s own horn. She came to realize something we often talk about in the vocation retreats we do with our law students – that there is an enormous difference between boasting and reflection. We have a responsibility to use the gifts we have been given in service of God and others, and we cannot meet that responsibility unless we recognize our talents.

Part of our service to our students is providing ways to help them to recognize their gifts and to discern how they are being called to use those gifts in the world.

The third question she posed recognizes the role of faith in our service and our need to be nurtured by God to be able to effectively use our gifts. President Sullivan observed that different people have various ways they most keenly feel the presence of God. She then shared one of her own practices, which I found very moving. Before giving a big talk or engaging in some major undertaking, she makes sure that she takes some time alone. During that time she holds her arm out, palm facing upward and prays in that position until she feels pressure against her palm.

I love the childlike trust conveyed by that image – holding out one’s hand waiting for God to take it.

How does your faith sustain and nurture your service?

Yesterday was the fourth weekly gathering of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I am offering this year at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Our retreat this year is a truncated version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

During the past two weeks (last week was our Spring Break), participants prayed with materials relating to Week 1 of the Spiritual Exercises which focuses on sin and ourselves as loved sinners. At the beginning of today’s session (as we always do in these retreat in daily living) participants shared in small groups about their prayer experience during the week.

After their sharing, we had a larger group discussion of several issues relating to the prayer material, and spent quite some time talking about the Temptation of Jesus, an event recorded in all three synoptic Gospels. That discussion flowed into my reflection about this week’s prayer, with the result that I did not record my talk.

This week, participants will pray with episodes from the public life of Jesus, beginning with his Baptism in the Jordan River and ending with Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. I shared with the participants a poem I have shared here before, Roland Flint’s Follow, which asks why the disciples dropped everything to follow Jesus. As I told the participans, that is a question that can only be satisfactorily answered by a personal encounter with Christ. That is what we experience in Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises: a personal encounter with Jesus, who calls us to labor with him. We seek to know this person who call us to labor with him, to so grow in love and desire for him that we can’t imagine being anyplace other than by his side.

You can find the prayer material for this week here.

Although I did not record today’s reflection, you can find a podcast of a talk I gave on Week 2 of the Exercises at a retreat last year here.

Embodied Prayer

The Christian faith is an incarnational faith. We believe God becomes human in Jesus Christ. We express believe in the resurrection of the body. That tells us that there is significance in our physical being, not merely our spiritual being.

A friend forwarded to me a Lenten reflection by Fr. Robert Barron titled Why Your Body Matters for Prayer. In it Fr. Barron provides what strikes me as good advice:

Christian prayer is embodied prayer. In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters we discovered an experienced devil giving lessons to a young temptor. At one point, the veteran orders his young charge to encourage his ‘client,’ a budding Christian, to envision prayer as something very ‘interior’ and ‘mystical,’ having little to do with posture or the position of the body. He wants the poor Christian to think that whether he stands, slouches, sits, or kneels is irrelevant to the quality of his communication with God. This, of course, is the Cartesian voice, the belief that our bodies and souls are independent and have little to do with each other.

But then consider the view of William James. In his Principles of Psychology, James writes that it is not so much sadness that makes us cry as crying that makes us feel sad. The body in a significant sense precedes the mind.

The same dynamic occurs when we pray. It is not so much keen feelings of devotion that force us to our knees as kneeling that gives rise to keen feelings of devotion.

If you’re having difficulty in prayer today, try kneeling, or bowing, or making some sort of reverent gesture. The body often leads the mind into a deeper spiritual space.

The RCIA program at Our Lady of Lourdes includes several talks centering around the Ten Commandments as a means of giving flesh to what it means to live a moral life. Some weeks ago I gave a presentation on the first three commandments (which you can find here). On another occasion the deacon in the parish gave a talk on the commandments having to do with marriage. Yesterday, I talked about the remaining commandments addressing our relationship to one another: Commandments 5, 7, 8 and 10.

I used to think of the Ten Commandments as the “bare minimum” – the minimum conditions for leading a moral life. And, if one approaches them literally, they are no more than that. However, reflecting on the commandments in terms of, not only the literal things they command us to avoid, but in terms of the positive behavior they seek to encourage, suggests a richer and much more challenging set of instructions for the moral life.

In my talk, for each of the Fifth, Seventh and Tenth, and Eighth Commandments, I spoke about the obvious and the not-so-obvious implications of the command. For each, I also included a series of questions one might ask to see how well one is doing in fully living in the spirit of the commandment. We ended with a lively discussion of the challenges, during which the participants found ways to tie in today’s discussion with prior discussions we’ve had about sin and discipleship.

You can listen to the talk I gave yesterday here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 33:48. (I interrupted my talk several times for comments from participants. I tried to hold the recorder in a way that would capture their comments; apologies if there are a places where the audio is unclear.)

In Freedom and Forgiveness: A Fresh Look at the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Fr. Paul Farren suggests that just as there are two great commandments, there are only two great sins – the sin of Adam and Eve and the sin of the Innkeeper – and that all other sins are a manifestation of these two. He describes the sin of Adam and Eve as wanting to be God and not allowing God to be God. The sin may be manifest in many ways, but always involves a failure to accept ourselves as the loved creation of God. Farren describes the sin of the Innkeeper as not having space for the poor and those who are in need, failing to live as a community of love, a community of people in relationship.

Thus, when we are examining our conscience, we are asking where we have failed to live the two great commandments of love – facing those times we have committed the sin of Adam and Eve (breaking the commandment to love God) and the sin of the Innkeeper (breaking the commandment to love our neighbor).

Farren further suggests we might engage in an examination of conscience using as our basis the story of the story of the rich young man in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:17:22). Here is the examination he suggests:

The rich young man knelt before Jesus.
Do I acknowledge Jesus in my life? Do I have space for God?
Do I seek, respect and respond to his Word?

The rich young man wanted to inherit eternal life.
Do I want to be close to Jesus always?
Do I want to do the best I can with the gift of my life?
Do I believe that I can accept the gift of heaven by the way I live on earth?

Jesus asked the rich young man did he keep the Ten Commandments?
Do I keep the Ten Commandments?
Do i realize that rather than stopping me doing things they free me to be myself?
Do I respect myself as the beautiful creation that God made me?

Jesus looked steadily at the rich young man and loved him.
Do I believe that Jesus looks at me and loves me?
Do I believe that Jesus invites me to share in his life?
Do I believe that Jesus believes in me?

Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor.
Do I make space for Jesus in my life through loving and caring for others?
Do I recognize the face of Jesus in those who are marginalized, disrespected, those who live in poverty and those who are vulnerable?
Do I recognize everybody in the world as my sister or brother equal in the eyes of God?

Jesus then told the rich young man to follow Jesus.
Do I believe that Jesus has a plan for my life? Do I make an effort to discover that plan? Do I trust Jesus enough to accept his plan?

The rich young man went away sad.
Do I choose the way of Jesus or do my own thing?
Do I allow God to be God in my life and do I welcome Jesus into my life?

You doubtless have other ways you engage in an examination of conscience, whether in preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation or otherwise. But this struck me as a helpful way of going about the process.


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