The Beloved of God

This post channels Bill Nolan channeling me. Bill is the pastoral associate at St. Thomas Apostle parish in Minneapolis. He shared the below in a newsletter to parishioners there. Given recent events, I thought it was worth sharing here as well.

5 years ago, as part of our speaker series celebrating the “Year of Mercy,” my dear friend Susan Stabile spoke on the relationship between wisdom and mercy. Recent events have led me to feel an inexplicable, yet painfully difficult urge to review my notes on that presentation. Mercy has not been the first thing on my moral compass. Justice is what has been called for. Justice. JUSTICE!

But that annoying little voice in my soul wouldn’t give up. So I did a computer file search for “Susan Stabile on Mercy” and there were my notes:

 * Wisdom teaches us that justice – understood as “giving another their due” – is not enough. We are called to temper justice with mercy – giving to another in the spirit of agape love.
* The wisdom that calls us to mercy is not simply understanding, knowledge, or counsel. It is a discernment, a way of coming to experience not only what Christian love is, but how to love rightly. It reminds us that justice is “the right ordering of relationship.”

That would have been plenty. But then, as my notes reminded me, Susan upped the ante. She challenged us to accept that the ultimate correlation between wisdom and mercy lies in always trying to see the other as the beloved of God.

This is hardly a foreign concept in our faith tradition. In the beginning, God made humankind in the divine image, the writer of Genesis tells us. We are the very image of God, in our humanity. Thus, to see the other as also being the image of God ought to be the most authentically human experience in the world.

So…it ought to be an equally authentically human experience to say and believe the following:

Neighbor who fails to clean up what his dog left in my yard, you are the beloved of God… Driver who believes the stop sign at the corner is merely a suggestion, you are the beloved of God… Shopper who takes the last item off the shelf that was my sole purpose for going to the grocery store, you are the beloved of God… So much for the generic ones.

Brianna Taylor, you are the beloved of God… Daunte Wright, you are the beloved of God… George Floyd, you are the beloved of God… So much for the easy ones.

Brett Hankison, you are the beloved of God… Kim Potter, you are the beloved of God… Derek Chauvin, you are the beloved of God…

I have to be honest. I’m having serious trouble saying and believing all those statements. Does this mean I am lacking in the wisdom that leads to mercy? Well…in a word…yes. It does. I am.

But it doesn’t mean I quit trying. It doesn’t mean I give up on trying to separate what a person does from who a person is. The wisdom that leads to mercy does not condone sin; it acknowledges the sinner as beloved of God. The wisdom that leads to mercy does not mean that I should ignore the evil that is done in the world; it calls me to see every human person as capable of redemption, precisely because they are the beloved of God. The wisdom that leads to mercy does not ask me to turn a blind eye; it calls me to turn the other cheek.

Will I one day be able to say and believe all those statements as well? I don’t know. But I have to keep trying. So thank you Susan. And all the other voices that challenge me to love others as I have been loved and to see others the way God sees me. As Beloved.

Love is Patient

I was cleaning out old e-mail files in anticipation of a summer laptop replacement and came across a document I wrote in 2003 describing a prayer experience I had that summer during one of my early 8-day directed retreats. I share it for the benefit of those who perhaps have had the same difficulty I did at the time believing I was “good enough” for Jesus to want to be in relationship with me. Perhaps praying the way I was encouraged to do that day may be a help.

Here is what I wrote:

During the first week of August, I made an eight-day retreat at St. Ignatius Retreat House.  My retreats there are always grace-filled experiences and this one was no exception. 

One of the issues I dealt with during this retreat was my sense of not being worthy, of not being good enough for Jesus.  I tend to impose on myself an impossibly high standard and then beat myself up when I don’t meet it.  I reason, God has been so good to me, I should be better than I am, a line which, if I follow it long enough, leads to How can God possibly love a miserable wretch like me.

During one of our morning meetings, my retreat director, an extraordinarily gifted young Jesuit scholastic, suggested that I use one scripture passage for my entire day of prayer.  The passage was St. Paul’s Hymn of Love (1 Corinthians 13).  His instruction to me sounded simple.  The first two times I prayed with the passage, I was replace the word “love” with “Jesus,” and read the passage as though I were speaking it to Jesus.  I was to hear myself saying to Jesus, “Jesus is always patient, Jesus is always kind.  Jesus is never jealous…”, and so on.  The next two times I prayed with the passage, I was to replace the word “love” with “Susan,” and hear Jesus saying to me, “Susan is always patient, Susan is always kind.  Susan is never jealous…” and so on.   I was to say and hear the words over and over again. The grace I was to pray for was the grace of Jesus letting me know my worth in His life.

The first two prayer periods were easy and beautiful.  I started with “Jesus is always patient,” going through my life from my early childhood, seeing all the times Jesus stood patiently waiting for me.  I saw all the various pebbles he dropped alongside me that I might have used as a means of seeing Him, particularly during the period when I had left the Church.  I saw him watching me pass them by, never losing patience.  I watched Him patiently at my side moment after moment as I slowly make my way to a deeper closeness with him. 

I then moved on to “Jesus is always kind,” and saw all the kindnesses Jesus has shown me.  I saw the experiences I have with Him in my prayer periods, reviewing some of the intense experiences of the Nineteenth Annotation (which I had completed not long before this eight-day retreat) – of Jesus laughing with me, hugging me, washing my feet, feeding me Eucharist.  And I saw all the kindnesses He shows me through others, thinking of all the many people who help me in my life and in my spiritual practice.

I continued through the first two prayer periods, focusing on several of the other characteristics in the Hymn of Love – Jesus’ lack of jealousy, Jesus never coming to an end, Jesus not being conceited or boastful.  At the end of the two prayer periods, I asked myself, what does this say about Jesus love?  The strong moment of realization was this: Jesus loves me as a friend.  Yes, he is my teacher.  Yes, he is my guide.  Yes, he is my Lord.  But he chooses me to be his friend.

After lunch and a walk around the garden, I settled down for the second part of the exercise.  I sat down with difficulty – it was only later that I realized I had been delaying this prayer session with any excuse I could come up with.  (I even spent 15 minutes reading the newest St. Ignatius newsletter, which had must been put out that afternoon.)  I opened the passage and started reading, inserting my name in place of “Love.”  In the beginning, I was like a stage actor who had forgotten her lines, despite having the script in hand.  I could barely choke the words out.  As they came, they seemed to be laughing at me.  “Susan is always patient,” and I thought – what a farce.  I’m the furthest thing from patient; lack of patience is one of my great weaknesses.

But then I started reading the words again, slowly, hearing Jesus say them.  And I started to hear the words differently and see myself differently – to see the person Jesus was showing me.  I read, and heard Jesus say: “Susan is always patient.”  What I saw this time, with Jesus, was all the times I am patient: my patience with my daughter when she insists on doing for herself something I could do much more quickly or when she needs to see something for herself rather than taking my word for it; my patience with my seventh grade religious education students, when they ask for the fifteenth time why they won’t receive Confirmation until the ninth grade; my patience when a law student walks in my office during the short period I had allocated to quickly bolting down lunch, asking if I have a few minutes the then opening a notebook full of questions (the first of which goes something like, “I’m not sure I should be here”); my patience in class with my students;’ my patience when spending time in conversation with an old women in our faith community.  With Jesus I saw all the things I never see – the times I display enormous patience in all sorts of circumstances.  As we looked at all these times, Jesus repeated over and over again, “Susan is always patient,” saying – this is what I see when I see you.

Then I realized how differently Jesus and I looked at me.  When I look at myself in connection with “patience,” all I see is the times I fail to live up to the standard of perfection, all I see are the times I am impatient, the times I fail to behave as Jesus would have behaved.   Jesus sees those too (and during part of my prayer period we looked at some of those times and talked about how I might be more patient), but what he focuses on is the times I am patient.  What he sees in the person he loves is the good.       

I moved on, in that prayer period and the next, to “Susan is always kind,” and “Susan is never jealous,” and several of the other phrases in the hymn.  The experience was similar with all of them.  Jesus would say the words over and over again, and I would see with him all the things I do that make the words he was saying true.  He said the words over and over again until I saw that what Jesus sees when he sees me is someone worth loving – someone worth being loved by Jesus.  He said the words over and over again until I could see that I am worth being loved by Jesus. 

None of this is to say that Jesus ignores my weaknesses.  We looked at the times I’ve fallen down.  But we looked at them, not with the critical judgment with which I typically beat myself, but with patience and love.  Jesus was completely non-judgmental about my weaknesses.  He looked at them, he showed me how I can be better, but he did not judge me with the harshness with which I judge myself.

It Was With Providence That I Created You

 Today is the memorial of one of the wonderful mystics of the Catholic Church: Catherine of Siena.

Most of what we know about the fruits of Catherine’s prayer life comes from a work titled The Dialogue, which Catherine started writing two years before her death, and which is now considered a classic of Western spirituality. The work records a series of questions she put to God and God’s responses to her.

One of the recurring themes of The Dialogue is God’s deep love for humanity. In words that call to mind the beginning of the Book of Jeremiah in the Hebrew Scriptures, God tells Catherine, “I loved you before you came into being.” Here are the words God spoke to Catherine:

It was with providence that I created you, and when I contemplated my creature in myself I fell in love with the beauty of my creation. It pleased me to create you in my image and likeness with great providence. I provided you with the gift of memory so that you might hold fast my benefit and be made a sharer in my own, the eternal Father’s power. I gave you understanding so that in the wisdom of my only-begotten Son you might comprehend and know what I the eternal Father want, I who gave you graces with such burning love. I gave you a will to love, making you a sharer in the Holy Spirit’s mercy, so that you might love what your understanding sees and knows. All this my gentle providence did, only that you might be capable of understanding and enjoying me and rejoicing in my goodness by seeing me eternally.

All of us are made to rejoice in God’s love forever. And so God’s words are written to each us. As we celebrate the life and death of Catherine of Siena today, give yourself the gift of listening to God speak them to you.

Jesus’ Final Words

Today is Good Friday, the day on which Christians commemorate the death of Jesus on the cross. Many of us will attend services at one of another point during the day. In some churches, people will offer reflections on the words uttered by Jesus as he was dying on the cross.

The final words Jesus is recorded as saying is “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

There is a particular reflection on that line that has always been very powerful to me. It is by John C. Ortberg, and is part of book of meditations on the last words of Christ in a book titled Echoes from Calvary. I share it for your reflection today:

Into your hands….

A two-year- old girl stands by the side of a pool.  “Jump,” her father says.  She is filled with fear.  She is quite certain that if she jumps, she will die.  But she knows these hands.  She trusts these hands.  So she jumps.  She abandons herself to her father.  In between the jumping and the landing, everything in the world depends on these hands.

The history of this earth, in a way we don’t fully understand, comes to this one moment.  A lone figure is stretched out on a cross between heaven and earth, life and death.  All the fear and loneliness of the human race has been somehow poured out on him.  He has been asked by his father to do that which he most dreads.

But he knows these hands.  He trusts these hands.  So he says a prayer.  He says it now because he has said it every day of his life.  It’s not the kind of prayer you hold in reserve. 

Into your hands…

Each of us will stand on that edge one day: in a hospital room, maybe; or a convalescent ward; or some unsuspected place.  We too will taste fear.  None of us knows all about what comes next – not really; we all live between the jumping and the landing.

So Christ invites us to make his prayer our own.  He offers these words as the final gift of his earthly life; the last, best prayer of humankind.

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Blessings on this Good Friday.

Where Do I Stand in the Crowd?

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. It is the day on which we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While Covid precautions mean we won’t march into our churches with our palms as we usually do, still we recall Jesus riding down the street on a donkey, with people shouting “Hosanna” and laying their cloaks and palm branches before his path.

In one respect, knowing the succeeding acts in this story as we do, the scene seems like a cruel mockery to us; we know what awaits Jesus. We know that many of the same people who should “Hosanna” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem will, in only a few days, scream out, “Crucify Him.”

This morning, during our Palm Sunday Mass, we will have a chance to reflect on the juxtaposition of these two events. We begin our service recalling the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then, as we will again on Good Friday, we will listen to a gospel account of The Passion of our Lord, in our turn, crying out Crucify Him.

We could treat it all as playacting, with us simply playing the roles of the crowds in the two scenes. Or we could use it for an opportunity for serious reflection, recognizing that our words and deeds always either give glory to Jesus or contribute toward his suffering. Because, make no mistake, we are always doing one or the other.

So we may wish to take some time to reflect on questions such as:

When am I like one or another of those crowds?

Do I recognize and celebrate Jesus when I encounter Him?

Are there times when my words or actions are the equivalent of the crowds crying for Jesus’ crucifixion?

Obstacles and Openness

Today’s first Mass reading is the story of the encounter between the prophet Elisha and Naaman, and Jesus alludes to this passage in today’s Gospel. My friend and colleague Joel Nichols wrote the following reflection as part of daily Lent reflections sponsored by the Office of Spirituality of the University of St. Thomas. The questions he poses at the end are great ones to sit with today. (The following words are all Joel’s, not mine.)

Today’s reading recounts the story of Elisha, the prophet in Israel, and Naaman, an army commander from Israel’s enemy. Naaman has leprosy. The tale comes to its pinnacle as Elisha tells Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman initially objects but then relents and receives healing, declaring: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.” 

Luke’s Gospel reading alludes to this Elisha/Naaman story. Jesus, speaking at his hometown synagogue, pronounces how a prophet is not accepted in his own city, illustrated by how God met the needs of a non-Israelite widow in a famine (through Elijah) and cured the outsider Naaman (through Elisha). Right on cue, the crowd rises up in fury to reject Jesus. 

I am struck at how the Gospel passage seems pointed right at me – one who is an “insider.” Those of us who read these Lenten Reflections, who undertake additional practices, who strive (even in good faith!) to better connect with God – we play the role of insiders in the story. We’re not Naaman – that person who doesn’t listen well at first but eventually responds – but instead seem cast as those who heard Jesus speak and were so put off by Jesus’ words that we lash out. Could this be true? I sure don’t like the idea that I (and you?) might be the one resisting, or the one having trouble hearing the message of Jesus. 

So I’m considering: 

  • What are my obstacles to listening well? 
  • What is God’s message that I resist? 
  • How do I get off track in seeing where God is at work? 
  • Do I struggle to see God acting in ways contrary to my expectations? 

May God give us insight into our obstacles and an openness to see his grace to all.

Loving Our Enemies

Today’s Gospel from Matthew contains a command we are familiar with: Love your enemies. Jesus rejects the old teaching of “love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” in favor of an instruction to love all, in imitation of God, who “makes the sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and unjust.”

It is not an easy command to follow. But I read something this morning on the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s lenten series that helps. Writing on today’s readings, Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos encourages this:

When confronted by an enemy, stand in wonder and curiosity. What is this person trying to express in what I hear as hateful and cruel? What wounds is this person nursing that is causing so much pain that they lash out violently? It takes revolutionary love—that is, grace—to be able to take a posture of wonder and curiosity that makes possible seeing the wounds of another, a seeing that can soften hearts even towards enemies. It is revolutionary love that makes possible the desire to tend their wounds because we remember that we too are wounded. 

When I hear curiosity and wonder, I am reminded of the invitation of Ignatian spirituality to openness and receptivity to another—welcoming who they are in their complexity and brokenness. I am also reminded of the invitation to mercy, because we have been shown mercy and are called to make that mercy present in our compassion, even for our “enemies.”

What difference would it make for us to stand in a posture of curiosity and wonder when faced by an “enemy”, rather than to stand in fear, insecurity and anger? Surely the author is right that giving ourselves the space to see the wounds of another will soften our hearts, allowing the kind of “revolutionary love” Jesus calls us to.

The Choice of Discipleship

One of the great gifts God has given us is free choice. God always invites, and never forces us to act one way or the other. While God has great hopes and desires for us, God always leaves it up to us what path we will choose. 

Both of today’s Mass readings reflect that reality. In the first reading from Deuteronomy, God through Moses, tells the people, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.” 

On its face, that doesn’t seem like such a hard choice. Who among us is going to jump up saying, “I choose death…I choose the curse”? Choosing life seems the obvious choice – love God and obey his commandments. Simple. 

In the Gospel, however, Jesus dispels any thought that this is simple for those of us who call ourselves Christian disciples. He sets out quite starkly the choice we are asked to make. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed that “just as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as a commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross.” 

Christian discipleship is challenging. It means choosing to give up our attachment to honor, approval, and respect of others and to follow the path of Christ even where that requires us to be ignored, dishonored, or perhaps even persecuted.   

Lent offers us the opportunity to reflect on the choice Christ asks us to make and to deepen our commitment to staying wedded to him no matter the cost.

[Cross-posted to University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality Lenten Reflections]

A Time of Restoration and Renewed Direction

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period preceding the death and resurrection of Christ. Lent is a special time in the cycle of the Catholic Church. It is a time in which we are invited to focus in a special way on our life with God, to nurture our relationship with God and to deepen our appreciation for God’s enormous and unconditional love for us.

Joyce Rupp once wrote, “The church is wise in offering us the season of Lent because it can be the very time we need to find what is missing in our lives; it can be the season to deliberately seek what has been tossed away or misplaced or ignored, so that our lives can once again reflect the gospel which Jesus encouraged us to live. Lent can be a searching out and a restoration time and the means for renewed direction.”

The traditional Lenten observances are fasting, almsgiving and prayer. In the words of Father William Joensen, “Each of us is entrusted during Lent with the sacred task of going into the soil of ourselves, inviting the Spirit to help us venture into the inmost recesses of our being: by more persistent prayer, by means of fasting calibrated to the demands and discipline of our personal lives, and by sharing our material, human resources in an intentional, consistent manner.”

It is not that we do these practices at Lent and not at other times. All of them should be part of our lives as a normal matter. However, as the Rupp passage suggests, sometimes the busyness of our lives let us lose track, lose our focus on practices that are fundamental to who we are. So let today be our re-dedication of ourselves, a day on which re-commit ourselves to nurturing our relationship with our God and with each other.

Who Are My Mother and My Brothers?

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, word is sent to Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him. Jesus’ response is sometimes taken as a dis to Mary, for he replies, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then pointing to those around him, he says, “Here is my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

It sounds pretty harsh. But Jesus’ comment is not intended to disparage Mary. Rather, his words simply reveals that, in Jesus’ eyes, discipleship is more important than blood relationship. Mary has both, as in a very real way, she was the first disciple.

In his Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Mary is present in Cana of Galilee as Mother of Jesus, and in a significant way she contributes to the ‘beginning of the signs’ which reveal the messianic power of her Son…At Cana, thanks to the intercession of Mary and the obedience of the servants, Jesus begins ‘his hour.” At Cana, Mary appears as believing in Jesus. Her faith evokes his first ‘sign’ and helps to kindle the faith of the disciples.”

In Mary’s case, being a disciples meant that she said yes to giving birth to Jesus, in spite of being unmarried, in spite of knowing the hardship this would entail and not knowing where it would lead. And we see in her words at Cana (“Do whatever he tells you”) that her discipleship meant believing in the reality of Jesus as God – and the reality that God could do anything – before there was any sign demonstrating that this would be the case. (This is in contrast with the other disciples, who began to believe in Jesus after his first miracle.)

Making the choice of discipleship is at the heart of Mary’s story. She, more than anyone, truly is “brother, and sister, and mother” of Jesus.