If Only You Knew What Makes for Peace

I am at the Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, part of the retreat team for an Ignatian Colleagues Program Retreat. Yesterday, I offered the reflection at our Mass speaking about the reading from Luke’s Gospel where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. Following is a redacted version of my remarks.

In his first public teaching, Jesus included as one of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.  And in today’s Gospel, as he is reaching the end of his public ministry and moving toward his passion and death, Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem, saying “If you only knew what makes for peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

The words that follow (which talk about the coming days when their enemies will smash them) suggest Jesus may have been weeping at the disaster that would befall the city when the Romans destroyed it.  Perhaps he was also weeping at a city that had killed prophets in the past – and that was about to kill him. 

Is Jesus weeping over us today?  Can it be that – despite all of his teaching and despite centuries in which to learn the lesson – we still do not know what makes for peace?

Maybe we should be weeping over ourselves, since sadly, we surely cannot dispute Jesus’ statement.  “If you only knew what makes for peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes.

Five or so years ago, I saw a one-person play titled An Iliad, performed at the Great River Shakespeare Festival.  The play is a revisiting of Homer’s epic tale, distilled by a single character, a war-torn poet.  The most riveting part of the play for me began with the poet saying, almost off-hand “I remember one time, a hot day during the conquest of Suma” – he paused –  “I mean the conquest of Sarna” – another pause – “I mean the Trojan war.” Another pause, at which point he straightened up and looking straight ahead and standing motionless, he somberly began to recite a list of wars.  For well over three minutes, he chillingly listed at an increasingly rapid pace every war that has been fought from ancient Greece through the Crusades through the World Wars and all the conflicts up to the present day.  It took more than three minutes to list them!

I sat in my seat and felt tears begin to well up.  I almost couldn’t breathe at the enormity of what humans have done to each other over and over and over again through the centuries. 

At what we are still doing to each other.  As we sit here today, we are entering the eighth month of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the ongoing civil war in Myanmar is officially the longest civil war in the world.

And that listing I experienced that day – which would take even longer today (each time the play is performed more wars have to be added) – that listing just included outright civil wars or wars between nations.  To that we need to add:

  • The viciousness of our political discourse – which includes demonization and untruths about those with whom we disagree.  That certainly doesn’t make for peace.
  • The callous disregard for the least among us.  Not a prescription for peace.
  • The refusal to acknowledge that we are annihilating the very earth on which we live.  It is impossible to even imagine what conflicts will inevitably arise as increasing parts of our world become uninhabitable.

Blessed are the peacemakers.  If you only knew what makes for peace.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “It is not enough to talk about peace.  One must believe in it.  And it isn’t enough to believe in it.  One must work at it.”  Robert Fulghum once said, “Peace is not something you wish for.  It’s something you make, something you do, something you are, and something you give away.”

We are called by Christ to be people of peace. 

I went on in my reflection to talk about what it means to both believe in the possibility of peace and to live as people of peace. I ended with the Pax Christi Vow of Nonviolence, which you can find here.

Note: Although not the performance I watched, you can watch the portion of An Iliad listing wars here.

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Journeying With God

MysticMag is an online publication covering articles of interest on metaphysical services, holistic health and wellness, and spiritual guidance. They just posted an interview with me, asking questions like who God is for me, how I view my calling, my approach to giving retreats and so on. You can read the full interview here.

Here is how I answered the first question they posed:

Why do you think the quest and understanding of religions and spirituality has been so prominent throughout your life?

My first reaction is to want to turn the question around: How can it be that the quest and understanding of spirituality is not prominent in everyone’s life? But let me try to answer the question in the way you framed it.

From the earliest age, I sensed that there was more than this world, something beyond this human existence; that as wonderful as this world and life could be, it was not enough. In the words of on Hindu writer, worldly pleasure “is essentially private, and the self is too small an object for perpetual enthusiasm.” Augustine expressed something similar in Christian terms, writing in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

It is that sense of something more, something beyond, that had made my spiritual searching so prominent throughout my life. That searching has included studies of many of the world’s major religions as well as a significant period of my life practicing Buddhism before returning to my Christian roots.

Someone Through Whom We Catch a Glimpse of What God is Like

Today the Catholic Church celebrates All Saints Day, a celebration of all of the Saints

Kenneth Woodward, former Newsweek religions editor, defined a saint as “someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like – and of what we are called to be.”

One could say that we have all we need in Jesus to see what we are called to be.  And there is truth to that: Jesus Christ incarnated was fully human and is, of course, the supreme example of human holiness.  His heart was totally open to the gift of God’s love.

But while Jesus is the ultimate model for our lives, it is too easy for people to say (or at least think even if they don’t say it out loud) – “yeah, well easy for him – he was God after all.  So of course it was easier for him than for me.”  For all that we give lip service to our understanding that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, we all  (at least a little bit) act as thought he had a leg up on us as a human because of his Godhood.

And that is where I think the saints are helpful to us.   They serve as examples about whom we can’t say – oh well, he or she was God.  No:  He or she was human – just like us.  These human beings heard Jesus’ call and followed it.

Saints provide examples to us, models, they can inspire us and give us strength for own journeys. The fact that those we called saints – flesh and blood humans like us –  transcended their weaknesses means we can also.  The idea is not to say, “oh well, she’s a saint – she’s special, not like us.  But instead to say if he or she transcended their weakest parts to allow their better parts to shine, I can too.

But saints do more than model sin transcended.  They also help us understand how God works in the lives of individuals.  James Martin, in his wonderful book My Life with the Saints, writes:

Each saint was holy in his or her unique way, revealing how God celebrates individuality.”  And he cites C.L. Lewis, who wrote in Mere Christianity, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints. This gave me enormous consolation, for I realized that none of us are meant to be Therese of Lisieux or Pope John XXIII or Thomas More.  We’re meant to be ourselves, and meant to allow God to work in and through our own individuality, our own humanity.

Remembering the saints also reminds us that we don’t go it alone, that there are others who have gone before us, who have faced what we face.   Others whose companionship gives us strength for our own journey.  Through the saints we come to meet individuals who had particular strengths we might want to emulate and who also had the same difficulties we struggled with.  And that is a source of encouragement.

Blessings on this All Saints Day.

“I’m Coming, Lord”

Today is the memorial of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez. The following reflection was shared by Fr. Mark Carr, director of my “happy place” (aka the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh. Fr. Mark writes:

Today the Society of Jesus celebrates the memorial of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, SJ (1533-1617). He is most known for his example of humility, kindness, and hospitality. For over forty years he lived the vocation of a Jesuit brother and served as the doorkeeper of the Jesuit college of Montesión in Majorca.

Through a life of simplicity, humility, and dedication to work Alphonsus embodied a life of sanctity through service. Because of Alphonsus and the countless other Jesuit brothers, the Society of Jesus says that in many ways “the religious brother embodies religious life in its essence, and so is able to illustrate that life with particular clarity.”

Whenever the doorbell rang at Montesión, and on the way to greet the arriving visitor, Alphonsus would repeat the words, “I’m coming, Lord!” He met every visitor as though the person was Christ himself. Centuries later, the writer Kathleen Norris’s description of hospitality captured what Alphonsus lived daily: “True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person.”

During his life, Alphonsus came into contact with other saints. As a boy growing up in Segovia, his family hosted the visiting Jesuit preacher, Fr. Peter Favre, SJ, one of St. Ignatius’ first companions! Later in life, his spiritual conversations with Peter Claver, SJ, inspired the young Jesuit scholastic to become a missionary and devote his life to ministry among the slaves arriving in the Americas. Saintliness, holiness, is contagious. Indeed, we’re all called to live lives of holiness and sanctity. As Pope Francis says, “To be a saint is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone.”

Blessings to all of my Jesuit and Ignatian friends on this day!

Vanity of Vanities

I offered the reflection at Mass yesterday, here at the Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House, where I am on the directing team for an 8-day retreat. My focus was on the first Mass reading, from the book of Ecclesiastes, which wearily proclaims, “The sun rises, the sun goes down….  All speech is labored; there is nothing one can say.  The eye is not satisfied with seeing, no is the ear satisfied with hearing. … Nothing is new under the sun.” All in all, pretty depressing sounding.

What is the point?  That is the question the Book of Ecclesiastes considers.  What is the purpose and value of human life?

The author of Ecclesiastes (commonly thought to be King Solomon, writing in his advanced years) has sought meaning and happiness through wisdom, through self-indulgence, through success, wealth and honor.  He has pursued all of the treasures of the world, and achieved many of them.  And yet, none of it satisfies.

 “Vanity of vanities,” the reading opens, a superlative expression that seems to denote utter emptiness.  The Hebrew word for “vanity” is hebel (or hevel; I have seen it both was), which literally means “breath” or “vapor” – there is nothing to hold onto in any of these achievements.  They come, they go.

In the verses following this reading, the author expounds on this theme:  he tells us he built houses and vineyards, he constructed woodlands, acquired slaves, amassed silver and gold, brought in singers for entertainment, had many luxuries and so forth.  But he looked at all he did and all he had and still exclaims “behold! All was vanity and a chase after wind, with nothing gained.”

Standing on their own, none of the things of this world – success, wealth, honor, not any of the treasures and gifts of the world, as sparkling and as shiny as they may appear – are sufficient to bring us happiness, to give our life meaning.  They come, they go; they give us nothing that ultimately lasts.  Temporary pleasures all.

What does bring ultimate happiness, ultimate meaning?  St. Augustine put it well: ‘You have made us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless until we rest in you.”  Or as today’s Mass Psalm today puts it: You are our refuge O lord.

 St. Ignatius understood this well, which is why he opens his Spiritual Exercises with a consideration titled the First Principle and Foundation, which Ignatius saw as the key to the spiritual life, a statement of human meaning and purpose.  The opening line (in the literal translation of the consideration) reads: “The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our lord, and in so doing, to save his or her soul.”  Or, as David Fleming puts it in his contemporary rendition: The goal of our life is to live with God forever.  God, who loves us, gave us life.  Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit.”

God is the end; everything else – all of the things of this world are the means by which we grow in relationship with God and each other.  Divorced from God – turned into ends rather than. means, as the author of Ecclesiastes recognized, they profit us nothing.

 This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy what we have.  When we make, or someone serves us a tasty meal, by all means enjoy it.  A good book, a walk on the beach, an ice cream cone with your favorite flavor of ice cream.  Whatever it is, enjoy!  But we need to understand that worldly pleasures will never be enough for us.  They will never bring lasting pleasure.

So, the invitation is to hold things lightly.  Appreciate the things of this world, but do not grasp onto them as ends, as things that can bring ultimate pleasure.  In one part of his First Principle and Foundation, Ignatius says:  “In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.”

This is a prescription for spiritual freedom.  Spiritual freedom doesn’t mean I don’t have preferences.  This is not masochism – all other things being equal, I would prefer to be healthy to ill, and I would prefer to have many more years of service to God before I die.  But I recognize that I can find God in all of it.  So I don’t get attached to any of my preferences.

And spiritual freedom does not mean I do not have anything.  (I can still have my iPhone, and my music, and my computer.)  It means there is nothing I cannot give up, nothing I could not give away.  Whatever I have, I can give up.

In the letter to the Philippians Paul says, “I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient.  I know how to live in humble circumstances; I also know how to live in abundance.  In every circumstance and in all things, I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.  I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”

That is the spiritual freedom we seek!

As I suggested in my reflection, this attitude is extremely counter-cultural.  Everything in our culture tries to convince us if we just had more – more money, more power, more things – we would be happy.  And so: politicians lie and scheme to better their position, people destroy their family life trying to climb the corporate ladder, some step over others to secure their own positions, others spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need. Vanity of vanities!

This temptation, or course, is nothing new; the temptation has been there from the very beginning and has always been there.  Today’s short Gospel passage reminds of that – of a king (Herod) who was so greedy and lustful for power and sex that he put to death a man he knew to be holy so as not to look bad in front of his friends and family.  It is a good reminder that failure to have a proper relationship to this world is not just futile, but potentially dangerous.

 And so we ask for the grace to hold all that this world has lightly.  I ended my reflection with an excerpt from a reflection titled Let Go of Everything but God, written by Howard Thurman, a prominent religious figure who played a leading role in many social justice movements ad organizations of the twentieth century.  Thurman writes:

I must let go.
For so long I have held to the habit of holding on. Even my muscles
Are tense; deeply fearful are they
Of relaxing lest they fall away from their place.
I cling clutchingly to my friends
Lest I lose them.
I live under the shadow of being supplanted by another.
I cling to my money, not so much by a wise economy and a thoughtful spending
But by a sense of possession that makes me depend on it for strength.
I must let go—deep at the core of me
I must have a sense of freedom— A sure awareness of detachment— of relaxation….

I must relax my hold on everything that dulls my sense of God,
That comes between me and the inner awareness of God’s Presence
Pervading my life and glorifying
All the common ways with wonderful wonder.
“Teach me, O God, how to free myself of dearest possessions,
So that in my trust I shall find restored to me
all I need to walk in Thy path and to fulfill l Thy will.
Let me know Thee for myself that I may not be satisfied
With aught that is less.

Yay, It is Retreat Time

I leave tomorrow morning for my annual retreat. After a busy summer the included giving several retreats at various locations, and teaching course on St. Ignatius at a Presbyterian gathering, not to mention all the prep for various upcoming retreats and programs, I’m ready to have a week away to just be with God. This is the one time I don’t take my computer with me, and don’t deal with e-mails, texts or phone.

I say this every year either at the front end or back end of my retreat, but I can’t encourage enough trying to find an opportunity to make a retreat. Yes, we have our daily prayer practice, and that is of enormous benefit in itself. But there is nothing like going off to take uninterrupted time with God. I recognize it is harder for some people to get away than others, but for those that can do so, you won’t be sorry you did

As I go off, I ask you to keep my in prayer, that I may be open to whatever it is God wishes to reveal during this time. And be assured of my prayers for you as well.

Encountering Mary in Art, Poetry and Music

Today is the final day of a week long retreat I’ve been giving in Covington Kentucky to a group of Sisters of Notre Dame and several of their Associates. The theme was Encountering Mary. My talks over the course of the week considered various aspects of, and ways we relate to, Mary: as Mother of God, Our Lady of Sorrows, Mother of the Church, Prophet of Justice, to name several. Our evening activities included two films (Nativity Story and Song of Bernadette, the latter of which some of the sisters had not seen for several decades), an evening of Taize prayer, a prayer service on the Seven Sorrows of Mary, and a group rosary.

One of the days this week was devoted to encountering Mary in art, poetry and music. I had available multiple images of Mary, a packet of about fifteen Marian themed poems, and a playlist of Marian music that played throughout the day. After a talk in the morning about visio divina, audio divina and the use of poetry in prayer, the retreatants had most of the day to pray with Mary using one of more of these media.

One of the images that one of the sisters prayed with was the below picture of an aged Mary, that was part of my collection of images. We don’t often think of Mary in this way, but seeing her like this reminds us that her life continued after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and that she had many years to continue to “ponder” his presence in her life. And for those who are aging (like the sister who prayed with the image), it makes Mary a continuing model, beyond in the ways we tend to think of her.

Slow Me Down, Lord

We are all busy with so many things, and there never seems to be enough time to get everything done. And while I am looking forward to making my annual retreat later this month, we need to find ways to slow down even when we are not on retreat.

Many years ago I shared a prayer by Wilfred Arlan Peterson, titled Slow Me Down, Lord. While I have sometimes given it to retreatants as a welcome prayer at the beginning of a directed retreat to help them settle into the retreat, it is even more useful in the midst of the craziness of our everyday lives.  So I thought to share it again here:

Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind.  Steady my hurried pace.  Give me, amidst the day’s confusion, the calmness of the everlasting hills.

Break the tension of my nerves and muscles with the soothing music of singing streams that live in my memory.

Help me to know the magical, restoring power of sleep.  Teach me the art of taking “minute vacations”…slowing down to look at a flower, to chat with a friend, to read a few lines from a good book.

Remind me of the fable of the hare and the tortoise; that the race is not always to the swift; that there is more to life than measuring the speed. 

Let me look up at the branches of the towering oak and know that it grew slowly and well.  Inspire me to send my own roots down deep into the soil of life’s endearing values…that I may grow toward the stars of my greater destiny.

Slow me down, Lord.

May you take the prayer to heart! May we all do so!

Fresh Figs and Unlikely Friendships

One of my Facebook friends posted a picture of her breakfast yesterday morning – fresh figs with yogurt and honey. Whenever I eat or even see a fresh fig, a memory from my childhood comes to mind. I shared it many years ago, and thought I’d share it here again:

The man stood each night in the shadows in the alley between his house and the house next door to his, only about three or four houses from the one we lived in.  An elderly man.  I remember him always wearing a jacket and tie, as well as a hat, but it would seem strange if he wore that during warm weather.

I was nine or 10 years old at the time.  I’d see him every night when I was walking the dog in the evening.  You could easily pass and not see him if you weren’t looking in his direction, he was that still.  Truth be told, I was a bit frightened of this specter as I passed him.  I was not the only one; most of the kids on the block avoided him.

But one night I said hi as I passed him, and after that, greeted him each evening, with a waved hand or a word as I walked past with my dog.  He would respond with a silent movement of his hand in return greeting.

Then one  night he motioned me over.  I was a little leery, but walked a little in his direction.  Right next to him in front of his house was a beautiful rose bush.  He snipped one off and gave it to me.  We exchanged a few words and I went on.  After that, when roses were in season, I’d sometimes get another.  Then one night, when I walked by, he waved me over with a smile and held out a dish that had something on it I had never before seen – a fresh fig.  He apparently had a fig tree in his backyard and it was fig season.

I loved figs the way we always had them at the holidays – dried figs sliced open, with a piece or two of walnut meat inserted and powered sugar dusted on top.  They were really good.  I never thought about what figs looked or tasted like before they were dried.  As good as those holiday figs were, they were nothing compared to the wonder of a fresh fig.

I’ve loved fresh figs ever since; I almost dance with delight when I see them in a store.  And almost every time I eat one, I think of that elderly man, long dead by now.

I think he just appreciated someone saying hello.  And a rose or a fig was his way of saying thank you.

Summer Worship, Study and Play

I just returned from Synod School, an annual gathering organized by the Lakes and Prairies Synod of the Presbyterian Church. Designed for clergy, individual and families, this is a week of classes for adults and activities for kids, morning and evening worship, and some fun evening activities. I was there teaching a course on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius – which generated a lot of interest. I enjoyed the class I taught, found the evening worship moving, and enjoyed the fellowship (and the games….and tie-dying a T-shirt, a Synod School tradition).

Part of my interest – besides the facts that I’m always happy to introduce folks to St. Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises and that I’d have the opportunity to spend time with some folks I don’t get to see very often – is the fact that many Catholic churches suspend most or all faith formation (adult and child) during the summer. How is it, I wondered, that the Presbyterian church could gather 500-600 folks every summer for a week of deepening faith and fellowship? (There were 548 adults and children there this year; 41 of those adults took the course I taught.)

I think part of it is organization. No Catholic diocese is the size of the Lakes and Prairies Synod, so a gathering like this – offering choice of 70 or so courses divided over four periods in the day, multiple activities for children, art and other activities outside of class, daily convocation talks and worship – would be a massive undertaking not possible for a single diocese. And it is hard to imagine two nearby dioceses working together to do it. In addition, such an undertaking requires a massive financial commitment, including funding a Synod School office that operates year round to organize all of this and other associated costs.

Clearly Synod School is not something that could be replicated by the Catholic Church. Still, it is hard not to wish for more programming that is more than what a single parish can accomplish. (I say that notwithstanding the fact that my own parish offers some great summer faith formation opportunities.). We can do better than we are currently.