To Live in the Light of the Cross

The cross has been an object of veneration in the Christian faith from the time of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, early in the fourth century. Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

Today’s second Mass reading, from the Letter to the Philippians, reminds us that we are called to have the same mindset of Jesus Christ, who

though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.

Veneration of the cross is more than simply gazing on what God has done for us through Jesus. It means more than merely reciting our prayers of adoration before the cross. Truly exalting the cross means putting on the mind of Jesus. It means taking up our own crosses and living lives in imitation of Christ. It means being Christ in the world.

Kneeling in front of the cross or processing with the cross singing praise is the easy part. Living in the light of the cross is the challenge.

Touch the Earth Lightly

Our closing song at Mass today was a fitting one for Environmental Awareness Month, in which environmental organizations come together with a goal to raise awareness about environmental issues that need our attention. The song, not one I was familiar with is titled Touch the Earth Lightly.

The first verse invites us to “touch the earth lightly, [to] use the earth gently, [and to] nourish the life of the world in our care.”

The image of touching the earth lightly was powerful to me, as we do anything but. The second verse of the song is a direct punch:

We who endanger, Who create hunger, Agents of death for all creatures that live, We who would foster clouds of disaster — God of our planet, forestall and forgive!

The climate effects we are experiencing – fires, flooding, drought, and so forth – are not accidental occurrences. They are not just happening. WE are creating them. WE have been ignoring the warnings of scientists about human-induced climate change for almost a quarter of a century. WE are destroying the planet that is our home.

Everything in this world – the planet on which we live, the sun, the rain, the trees, water – everything, is gift from God. We are running out of time to stop misusing those gifts. We must learn to touch the earth lightly…to use the earth gently. And we need to do it now.

It Is OK to Focus on One Fire

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor whose writings and talks I often find beneficial. She is doubtless not everyone’s cup of tea, but then again, none of us are.

She wrote a piece last week (it came out while I was on retreat, hence my delay in getting to it) that I think is a useful one for all of us during this time of heightened anxiety about COVID, the effects of climate change and the various other issues we are bombarded with day after day.

In it, she shared three discernment questions she learned from one of her teachers, Suzanne Stabile (not me, but someone I am sometimes confused with): “(1) What’s MINE to do, and what’s NOT mine to do?; (2) What’s MINE to say and what’s NOT mine to say?; (3) What’s MINE to care about and what’s NOT mine to care about?”

The questions are helpful reminder at a time, as Bolz-Weber suggests, there are so many people suggesting on various social media platforms about one issue or another, “If you don’t care about X, you are part of the problem.” The difficulty is that there are so many X’s that none of us has the bandwith to deal with them all. As she writes, “my emotional circuit breaker keeps overloading because the hardware was built for an older time.”

So she suggests we remember:

1. We are still living through a global pandemic and that means the baseline of anxiety and grief is higher than ever and shared by everyone. 2. The world is on fire literally and metaphorically. But 3. I only have so much water in my bucket to help with the fires. The more exposure I have to the fires I have NO WATER to fight, the more likely I am to get so burned, and inhale so much smoke that I cannot help anymore with the fires close enough to fight once my bucket is full again. 

So I try and tell myself that It’s ok to focus on one fire. 

It’s ok to do what is YOURS to do. Say what’s yours to say. Care about what’s yours to care about. 

So, not an invitation to put one’s head in the sand and do nothing and care about nothing, but to focus on what we can do, as well as to be a bit gentle with ourselves.

I encourage you to read her entire reflection, which is here.

The Ignatian Year XXV: The Contemplatio

Fundamental to Ignatian Spirtiuality is the idea of finding God in all things.  Ignatius brings that home to us by ending his Spirtual Exercises with a contemplation titled the Contemplation for Learning to Love like God, often referred to simply as the Contemplatio.   It is an exercise that invites us to get in touch in a deep way with the reality of God’s love and all of the ways God gifts us with his love.  The exercise is intended by Ignatius to bring the retreatant from the formal structure and discipline of the Spiritual Exercises to the constant finding of God in all the things of daily living – large and small, long and brief, words and actions – everything.

The grace Ignatius encourages us to ask for us when we pray the Contemplatio is (in Tetlow’s framing of it) to gain “an intimate understanding of myself and my life as gift, and all my world as gift, so that I will be incandescent with gratitude, and then go beyond that to love the Giver of all this who loves me vastly in deed and sharing.

We have a tendency to think about God’s work in the world in terms of sin and redemption.   But that is only a partial truth and the danger is that thinking in terms of a sin-redemption framework makes us prone to an important error.  That is: if we think of creation in terms of sin and redemption, we tend to think and act as if we initiate the relationship between God and ourselves.  But to say that sin comes first is both blasphemous and spiritually dangerous.

What the Exercises as a whole do – and what this Contemplatio does – is to challenge the sin and redemption model by bringing us into the larger paradigm of continuing creation and salvation.  This is something that functions in each of the Weeks of the Exercises, but finds its culmination in the Contemplatio.

The Contemplatio has four points.  To give a very brief summary:

The first of the four points is God giving all of God’s gifts to me.  Using Fleming’s reading, I recognize that “God creates me out of love and desires nothing more than a return of love on my part.  So much does God love me that even though I turn away and make little response, this Giver of all good gifts continues to be my Savior and Redeemer.”

I take a panoramic view here – a universal, cosmic view, looking at creation, redemption, all of the unique gifts that have been given to me.  I contemplate with great affection God’s gifts to me.

The second is God’s indwelling in all of creation.  God not only gives gifts to me, but literally gifts me with the fullness of divine life in Jesus.  God loves me so much I become a dwelling-place or temple of God.  And not only me, but God dwells in all creatures; Ignatius says: “in creatures, in the elements, iving them being, in the plants vegetating,” and so forth.

I ponder God’s gift of God’s very self to me and God’s gift of self to all of creation.  God in all creatures, in all of creation.  There is nothing in creation that is not permeated with God’s presence – every particle of everything is drenched in the resurrection.  I know here that the Trinity flows through all the world.

Third I ponder God’s labors for me.  I ponder that at this moment God is laboring so that I can take something from this and bring it to the world.  Here Ignatius uses both masculine and feminine images of God demonstrating how God is constantly working in the world to share life and love, how God is laboring always to bring forth life.

Finally I ponder God’s unceasing giving an gifting.  I ponder here God as both giver and gift.  God pours Godself into every gift he gives.  Here we seek to understand that all God-like qualities in us and in the world have their source in God.  All good, truth, beauty in me is God’s goodness, truth beauty.  Just as a ray of light is a part of the sun, so too is my love a share – an extension – of God’s love…my truth a share of God’s truth.

We contemplate these four points and our gratitude brings forth in us the response reflected in Ignatius’ Suscipe – Take Lord and Receive – our commitment to freely offer back for God’s disposition all that God has given me.  The Suscipe says all of me is yours.  I empower God to use me.  All is yours now.  You have given it to me and I return it to you for the life of the world. 

The Contemplatio is a great prayer exercise and I encourage you to try it if you have not prayed with it.

Note that this is a the twenty-fifth (and final) in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

The Ignatian Year XXIV: Walter Ciszek, S.J., and Our Freedom to Choose to Love and Serve

There are any number of people whose lives reflect a deep dedication to the tenets of Ignatian Spirituality.  One of those who I find particularly inspiring is Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit who died in 1984. 

To give a bit of background of Ciszek’s life: In 1929 Pius XI understood that the Russian Orthodox Church was on the brink of annihilation by the Communist regime, evidenced by a decline from over 400,000 priests, monks, deacons, and nuns to an all-time low of 4,000 priests by 1939.  As a result, the pope called upon the Jesuits to go into Russia to aid those who needed their ministry. 

Ciszek was one of the early volunteers to go to Russia.  Since no priest could travel directly into Russia, he was sent to Albertyn, Poland to work for two years teaching ethics to Jesuit seminarians and to be the resident priest.  When Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939, the seminarians were sent home.  And then the Russians invaded from the east.

Ciszek was ultimately captured by the Russian army and convicted of being a Russian spy, resulting in his spending 23 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps in Siberia.  He was long given up for dead by the Jesuits before he was finally released in 1963 as part of a prisoner exchange.

Ciszek’s book, He Leadeth Me, recounts how his faith allowed him to survive his harrowing experience in Russia.  If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it.

One of the chapters of He Leadeth Me is titled Freedom.  What he writes here is, in a sense, a commentary on the opening line (and indeed the final line) of Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation, as well as a way to understand the distinction between Christian freedom and a secular understanding of freedom.  Ciszek writes:

Ultimately, the only absolute freedom we have resides in [human] free will.  And that freedom was given to us by our Creator, essentially, so that we might freely choose to love and serve him.  All other creatures serve him out of exigency; by their very being and existence, they witness his power and his love, or reflect his glory and beauty in some way.  Only to [humans] and the angels has he given the power of freely choosing to love and serve him.  …It is in choosing to serve God, to do his will, that [we] achieve [our] highest and fullest freedom.  It may seem paradoxical to say that our highest and fullest freedom comes when we follow to the least detail the will of another, but it is true nonetheless when the other is God.

Ciszek describes it was abandoning his own will in order to follow the will of God that gave him, during the worst of his prison experience “the greatest sense of freedom, along with peace of soul and an abiding sense of security.”

Note that this is a the twenty-fourth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

Why Celebrate the Assumption?

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnith of Assumption of Mary, a commemoration of the bodily taking up of Mary into heaven at the end of her earthly life.  

What if anything does the Assumption mean for us?

For most of my life, this was a feast I pretty much ignored, deciding it wasn’t something central or even all that important to my faith life.  One of the difficulties for me is that the “Mary, Queen of Heaven” image that tends to be associated with this feast is not an image of Mary I relate to. Images depicting Mary’s Assumption or Mary’s Coronation as Queen of Heaven simply bear no resemblance to the Mary of my prayers: Mary, the woman with the strength to say Yes to what must have seemed an insane and frightening proposition that she give birth to God. Mary, the woman at Cana who told the servants to do as Jesus asked. Mary, who stayed with Jesus til the end and then took the dead body of her son in her arms. Mary, who stayed with the apostles after the death, doubtless comforting them in their loss of Jesus.  

If our picture of the Assumption is of a prone Mary being bodily lifted up by angels into heaven, it doesn’t seem to have much significance for us.  That, after all, is not what happens to the rest of us.

On the other hand, if our focus on the Assumption is on Mary’s experience as an embodiment of the reality of our Resurrection, it becomes something much more meaningful to us. Jesus resurrection is, of course, the true victory over death – that which gives creates the possibility of our own resurrection and ultimate full union with God. But with Jesus there is always the nagging thought, “Well sure, he was God, of course it worked for him. He may have been fully human, but he was also fully divine from the get go.”

But Mary was human, like us. And Mary’s assumption into heaven, body and soul, symbolizes for us the reality of what will happen for all of – resurrection of the body into full union with God. You can phrase it various ways as a matter of dogma. But her experience is, in simplest terms, a foretaste of our own.

Retreat!

I leave this afternoon for my annual retreat, something I always look forward to. I ask for your prayers during this time.

My annual retreat is the one time I totally unplug from cell phone, internet or other computer use; it is my time to simply be with God. However, I have pre-scheduled a couple of posts to come out this week while I am away. I hope you find them fruitful!

Blessings!

How Often Must I Forgive One Who Sins Against Me?

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Peter asks Jesus, “if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?  As many as seven times?”  I suspect Peter thinks he is being magnanimous here, by suggesting is forgive his brother seven times.

But what is Jesus response? Not seven, but seventy-seven times.  In some translations, it is seventy times seven.  Either way, what is intended is not a specific number that limits how often we must forgive, but an effort to convey the sense that forgiveness must be a way of life for us, limitless in the love it offers, abounding in mercy.

And that is not easy!  Forgiveness is something even good people struggle with.  Even with very small matters, we find it so easy to justify our anger and lack of forgiveness.  Our minds run their way through all sorts of thoughts (some irrational) that both justify and fuel our resentments—

            She should have known better

            He shouldn’t have acted that way.

            I deserve better than I got.

            He needs to learn a lesson.

            It will do her good to stew a while.

We have all sorts of “should” and that affect our ability to forgive even slight hurts.  I think this may be why Rembert Weakland suggests that the most difficult aspect of being a Christian disciple is granting forgiveness.

But I think Richard Rohr is right in saying: “If you don’t get forgiveness, you are missing the whole mystery of God.” Rohr explains that by saying that “forgiveness is the great thawing of all logic, reason, and worthiness, and the primary way we move from the economy of merit to the economy of grace.  Forgiveness is a collapsing into the mystery of God as totally unearned love, unmerited grace.  It is the final surrender to the humility and power of a Divine Love and a Divine Lover.”  Without forgiveness, Rohr suggests, we are “still living in a world of meritocracy, of quid-pro-quo thinking, a world of performance and behavior at which none of us succeed, if we are honest.”

And so we pray for the grace to offer forgiveness of others, as God forgives us no matter how many times we miss the mark.

The Ignatian Year XXIII: The Joy of the Resurrection

In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the Fourth Week is all about Resurrection, and the grace of that Week is to “feel glad and rejoice intensely because Jesus rises in exultation and in great power and glory.”  We want to experience joy because we are full of Jesus’ joy  – we are participants in the joy of Jesus.  Ignatius suggests, “strive to feel joy and happiness at the great joy and happiness of Christ our Lord.”

Despite the short shrift sometimes given to the Fourth Week, it is imperative that we experience the joy of the Resurrection. Why?  Joseph Tetlow says this:

In his humanness, Jesus triumphed over death. He had embraced everything human without ever acting unfaithful to his Father, to Himself, or to his friends. He had lived his life in uprightness and in joy. Now He is confirmed eternally in His own joy – to be with the children of humankind….

This is the Jesus Christ who lives now.  If you do not come to know Him both full of joy and exuberantly sharing his happiness, then you will not really know Him at all.  You have asked in past days [referring to prayer in the Second and Third Weeks of the Exercises] to know Jesus and to love Him and to follow where he goes.  It is into fullness of life and complete human joy that he goes!  If you do not follow him into his joy, you will ultimately find it hard to believe that you are following him at all.”

As Tetlow’s comments suggest, we cannot be the Resurrection people we are meant to be in the world if we do not internalize that joy. We can’t give what we don’t have.

The joy of the Resurrection is not a bells and whistles frolicy brand of joy.  Having been with Jesus at Calvary, we don’t leave the cross and tomb behind; the risen Jesus carries his physical wombs on his body.  Resurrection is happiness in the midst of the empty tomb, in the midst of grief, loneliness, and the sense that things are not the way we want them to be or think they are supposed to be.

So, as St. Ignatius does, I encourage you to spend time praying with the Gospel accounts of the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ to his friends.  See what it is God wants to reveal to you in doing so. 

Note that this is a the twenty-third in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

The Ignatian Year XXII: St. Francis Xavier – Friend to Ignatius and Model for Us

Francis Xavier was a friend and companion to Ignatius of Loyola and and co-founder of the Society of Jesus.  He was one of the first Jesuits to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. 

Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises had an enormous influence on Francis; made the Exercises under the direction of Ignatius himself.  And it was his experience of the Exercises that so filled him with his zeal and missionary spirit.

Francis’s life reflects an embrace of the recognition that loving God means being men and women for others, being  “contemplatives in action.”  As with all those formed by an Ignatian spirituality, loving God for him meant uniting oneself with God by joining God’s active labor to heal and save the world.

Francis Xavier has been called the greatest missionary in history, second only to St. Paul.  Putting God first for him meant going where he was called, without regard to what his plans had been.  And some of the places he was called were a bit more dangerous than the lives to which most of us are called.  Francis once wrote to a fellow Jesuit, “In this life, we find out greatest comfort living in the midst of danger, that is, if we confront them solely for the love of God.”

One of Francis Xavier’s companions once said of him “Anything he is asked to do, Francis does willingly, simply because he loves everyone.”  Another commentator said that upon his arrival in India, “Xavier’s heart overflowed with love for the poor of the country.  His love knew no bounds.”

Just to give one example, Francis spent two years living among the Pravas, low-caste coastal fisherman in southern India.  Here is what he once wrote about them.

 There is such a great multitude of those who are being converted to the faith of Christ in this land where I am that it frequently happens that my arms become exhausted from baptizing, and I can no longer speak from having recited so often the Creed and the Commandments in their language, and the other prayers, along with an exhortation which I know in their language….  There are days when I baptize an entire village…

Not only did he work beyond exhaustion, but when the ruler of Jaffna on the northern coast of Ceylon physically attacked the Paravas, Francis remained with his flock and assisted them to safety as best as he could.

If we are looking for a model of obedience to Jesus’ command to love God and love one another, Francis Xavier is a good one.

Note that this is a the twenty-second in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.