St. Augustine and Brokenness

Today is the memorial of St. Augustine, bishop and doctor of the Church, who one commentator described a “sinner turned saint” (a label we could give to many of those who have been named saints).

Whether one is generally a fan of Augustine or not, his Confessions was very helpful to me at the time of my conversion from Buddhism back to Christianity.  Indeed, I’ve often thought that it would have been a great help for me if someone has suggested that I read that work when I was 17 and engaged in the struggle that resulted in my abandonment of Christianity for over twenty years. Augustine’s humanness and his brokenness are evident in that work, as was his intense sorrow for his sins and his equally intense longing for God. At a time when I was having great difficulty finding my way, the book was a great help to me.

I deeply relate to Augustine’s words to God,

You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you- things which, if they were not in you, were not at all. You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed and shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odors and I drew in breath – and I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

After writing his Confressions, Augustine asked himself whether it was good that he had done so. He wondered: If I’ve come to regret my sinful past and if I believe God has forgiven me, why not simply put my past behind me. Why bother putting all this bad stuff from my past down on paper? His answer to that question was that it was the recognition of his own sinfulness that had led him to recognize the love of God. It was only when he realized the depth and extent of the presence of sin in his life that he was able to see who God is and how God worked in his life. Thus, for Augustine, recalling his sinfulness was a necessary part of his praise of God.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius has something of the same realization.  In Week 1 of the Exercises, we come to see ourselves as “loved sinners.”  We regret the ways we have missed the mark, but we do so confident in the love of our God, opening ourselves to God’s mercy.  Throughout the Exercises, we come more and more to see how God is working in our life.  And we give thanks.

St. Augustine and St. Ignatius, pray for us.


Prayer Makes the World Anew

Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Maximilian Kolbe.  Kolbe was a Franciscan priest who was a missionary in Japan and who established a sodality called the Militia of Mary Immaculate, promoting its growth in Poland. During World War II, he was imprisoned in Auschwitz. On August 14, 1941, he offered his own life in exchange for that of another prisoner who had been selected to die as punishment for the escape of another prisoner.

Kolbe termed prayer “the best way to reestablish peace in our souls, to reach happiness, since it serves to draw us closer to God’s love.” He wrote

Prayer makes the world anew.
Prayer is the necessary condition for the rebirth and life of every soul…
By praying both with our voices and our thoughts, we shall experiences in ourselves how the immaculate gradually takes possession of our souls, how we shall belong to her every day more in every aspect of our lives, how our sins shall disappear and our faults weaken, how smoothly and powerfully we shall be drawn always closer to God.
Our external activity is all right, but, obviously, it is not as important as our spiritual life, our life of recollection, of prayer, of our personal love for God.

Maximilian Kolbe is a reminder of the strength that comes from nourishing the interior live.

What Do You Desire?

We have all heard one or another version of a three wishes story.  In some, a person rubs a lamp and a genie appears offering to fulfill three wishes of the finder.  In others, someone performs some good deed for a disguised fairy and is granted three wishes in return.

Most often in those stories, the person granted the wishes ends up either worse off at the end or back in the same place they started, because they use their wishes foolishly.

“I want a younger more beautiful wife,” says the old man, and when the wish is granted, she leaves him for a younger man.

In one a king asks for the best and biggest beard in the world and ends up surrounded by a beard that fills the whole castle and the countryside.  (He then has to use a second wish to negate the first – a trope that occur frequently in these stories.)

In some a wish is made unthinkingly.  In a Scottish version, a wife uses the first wish asking for a sausage.  The husband is so irritated she only asked for one sausage rather than a life time reply, that he unthinkingly wastes the second wish when he exclaims, “I wish that sausage was stuck on your nose.”  He then has to waste the third getting the sausage off her nose.

If I told you right now you could have anything you wished for – that whatever you expressed a desire for would be immediately given to you, what would you ask for?  What do you desire?

In today’s first Mass reading from the First Book of Kings, Solomon is given a chance to answer that question.  God says, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”

Solomon doesn’t ask for a guarantee he will always defeat his political rivals, or that God smite his enemies.  He doesn’t ask for a long life or six-pack abs.  He doesn’t ask for jewels or a large treasury.  Instead, he asks for wisdom and understanding, pleading for “an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.”  He has been given a big task by God – at a young age succeeding his father David to govern the chosen people.  And his wish it to be given the tools to carry out that task.  And for that he is rewarded, given by God “a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you.”

What is your desire?  What do you want?

St. Ignatius understood very well the importance of knowing our desires.  He instructed people making the Spiritual Exercises to begin every prayer period by communicating their heartfelt desires to God.  “Asking for what I desire”, asking God for the grace I am seeking, is an essential component of Ignatian prayer.

Ignatius is concerned with our deepest desires, the deep longings of our hearts, what we might call our holy desires or our spiritual desires.  When we talk about deepest desires, we are talking about what it deep in the core of our being; that is the part of us where God’s dream for us is shaped.

Getting in touch with our deepest desires requires sifting through the complex desires embedded in our heart.

Lots of us have the kind of surface desires expressed in the three wishes stories.  We might laugh at the king who ended up with a beard that completely surrounded his kingdom, but I have heard more than one young man over the years express the wish that his wispy facial hairs would grow into a full beard.  Or we laugh at the man who wanted a younger wife, but who has not heard an older man or woman wish they were younger.  In these days of pandemic, I really wish I could get a haircut.

Some of our desires are less frivolous.  I really want to walk another Camino while I am still physically able to do so; my first was a wonderful spiritual experience.  We wish our schools will open safely in the fall; the education of our children is important.    We want a friend or relative  who has been looking for employment to get a job.

There is nothing inherently wrong with those kinds of desires, but ultimately even the less frivolous desires, even the most well-meaning ones, are insufficient.

What we need to uncover are our Solomon desires – our deepest, most authentic desires.  And those desires are the ones that help us discern our unique role or calling in life.  Authentic desires spring from our deep longing for God, they move us toward more and more giving ourselves to God, because we know that the source of our deepest desire is God.

Ignatius truly believed that: that our deepest desires, the desires that lead us to become who we truly are, God’s desire for us.  That at the deepest levels, our desires and God’s desires are the same.  That makes desire a key way God’s voice is heard in our lives, an important way that God leads people to discover who they are and what they are meant to do.

What is your deep desire?

[Excerpted from the reflection I gave at Mass this morning at the church of St. Thomas More in St. Paul MN.]

Donatello and Mary Magdalene

Today is the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene, the first person to whom the  resurrected Christ appeared.

One of the first images that comes to my mind when I think of Mary Magdalene is Donatello’s haunting sculpture of her, in Florence.  The statue shows Mary during the 30-year period it is believed she spent fasting and repenting at the end fo her life.  (The myth that she was a prostitute was given up long ago, but – like any of us – she doubtless had things she felt the need of repentance for.)

According to popular biographies of her, Mary Magdalene was said to have renounced material possessions and covered herself only with her long hair. One biographer wrote that she lived without food because she “knew that Jesus wished to sustain her with naught but heavenly meats, allowing her no earthly satisfaction.”

Whatever we do or don’t know about the historical Mary Magdalene herself, Donatello’s sculpture is (in the words of Martha Levine Dunkelman) “one of the most famous expressions of female emotion in the history of Western art. She has become an iconic image of a suffering woman….[and] an example of penitence.” At the same time, the figure shows strength and endurance.

You may find it a good image for meditation on this feast of Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene

A Prayer for Unity

Today the United States celebrates Independence Day, the federal holiday that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 241 years ago on July 4, 1776.

In 1776 the American colonies were united in their opposition to overreaching by the British Government, which taxed them severely while not letting them make their own laws or trade with other countries.  I’m not suggesting the years surrounding 1776 were glory days of unity.  “We the people” largely meant white property-owning men.  But there was a belief that the united colonies stood for something.

What are we as Americans united for or against today?  That shouldn’t be a hard question to answer, but lamentably it is.  What do we as a nation stand for?  I don’t know how to answer that question, and that saddens me.  And it should sadden all of us.

To adapt a portion of Jane Deren’s Prayer for Unity, I pray on this Independence Day that we may “move beyond partisan politics so we may create a vision of the common good so sorely needed for our country.”  That we may practice respect, be grounded in compassion, and work together to rebuild our world.

[Note this is the same post I made three years ago on this day.  When I re-read it, it seems even more appropriate today than it was then]

How Do We Cope When Fear Overcomes Us?

I again offered the reflection at daily Mass at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh, where I am a director for a directed retreat.  I spoke about the Gospel reading for today: Matthew’s account of the storm at sea.

Jesus is asleep in a boat with his disciples when a storm suddenly arises, and the disciples are terrified.

It is not so difficult for me to understand the disciple’s terror as this violent storm comes upon them.

Several years ago, I was kayaking up in boundary waters in Minnesota.  It was a beautiful day – sunshine and not a cloud in the sky and the water was completely calm when my husband and I first entered the water, each in our own one-person kayak.  But at one point, after we were quite far out from where we had started, with no warning, the heavens opened and the wind kicked up as rain furiously beat down.  I frantically began paddling toward shore, while also trying to keep an eye on my husband in his kayak (he is older than I am, and prone to getting tired from paddling much faster).  For a long time, it seemed as though no matter how hard I paddled, I made no headway, and I experienced real fear.

As a result of that experience, when I enter into an Ignatian contemplation of this scene, I have no difficulty imagining the disciples fear as the waves swamped the boat.  The Greek word for the violent storm (megale) suggests a kind of tornado. Continue reading

Only Say the Words

I’m at my happy place – the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh – directing at a silent directed retreat (with lots of bells and whistles due to Covid).

Today I offered the reflection at our daily Mass, at which the Gospel was Matthew’s account of two healings: that of the Centurion’s servant and that of Peter’s mother-in-law.  Both of those Gospels are powerful for me, albeit for different reasons.

In my reflection, I spoke about both of those healings, but it is the first of those that has
always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Recently my son-in-law came to disconnect the Wii console from our television.  (My daughter had used to use the console for some dance and exercise programs and no one has used it for years.  So it was time to give it away.)  David disconnected several things from the TV and the power socket, and said, “OK, all done.”  “So my TV and Roku are not affected by this, right” I said.  “Right, everything will work fine.” “Wait,” I said, “just let me check to be sure it all works.”  And he waited with a patient smile while I satisfied myself nothing was amiss.

This was not an isolated incident.  Whenever the IT folks at the University of St. Thomas come to fix something on my computer, or perform an upgrade, I hold them hostage in my office until I check to make sure all the major programs that I use are operational, and they didn’t mess anything up.

So while it would be nice to think I’d act just as the Centurion did.  I have to wonder whether I would have been able to walk away from Jesus, secure that Jesus’ merely saying the words would be enough?

If I’m being fully honest with God, I have to admit that I can’t answer yes to that question with certainty.  Given my tendency to want to see things for myself and my frequent habit of double-checking things I’ve asked others to do for me to make sure they are actually done and done right, I kinda know what my tendency would be in the Centurion’s position.  I’d want to take Jesus by the hand and lead him to my house and to the servant, and then to peer over his shoulder until my servant was actually healed from his paralysis and suffering.  Perhaps I’d even want to feel the servant’s muscles, or have him take a few steps, or perform a few tasks until I let Jesus leave my house.

Not the Centurion.  “Only say the word and my servant will be healed.”  I don’t need to see you do this with my own eyes.  I don’t even need you to be in physical proximity to my servant.  Just say a word right here on the road (which may have been miles away, perhaps even a day’s ride away), and I know it will be done.

A degree of faith that amazes even Jesus. “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

I suspect most of us are more like the father of the child in Mark’s Gospel – “I do believe, help my unbelief” – than like this Centurion.  We believe, but we have some cracks in that belief.  We don’t manage 100% of the time to have the solid faith of the Centurion.

So we pray, as did the father in Mark’s Gospel, “Lord, help my unbelief.”  Givbe us the grace to see that God always has our back and will always take care of us.

He Competed Well; He Finished the Race

This morning was the Mass of Christian Burial for Tom Johnson.  As David Lebedoff noted in the eulogy he gave at the service, but for COVID, not even the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis would have been large enough to hold the mourners who would have been there to pay their respects.  (As it was, the Mass was held with a limited number of attendees at Our Lady of Lourdes, and livestreamed for the rest.)

It was my privilege to know Tom, who I met through his wife Victoria and my adult faith formation work at Lourdes.  (Tom came to many of the talks I gave there.)  It was my privilege to talk with him, laugh with him, and to see the love between him and Victoria.

It is impossible to adequately describe his life of public service in a short blog post.  Upon leaning of his death, our Minnesota Governor, Tim Walz called Tom “a voice for the voiceless [and] a passionate pursuer of justice.”

Early in his career, as a member of the Minneapolis City Council, he fought for campaign finance disclosures, expanded anti-discrimination protection, and truth-in-housing inspections, to name a few.  One of his last jobs was serving as clergy abuse ombudsman for the archdiocese here.  Of that work, Archbishop Hebda (who presided at Tom’s funeral mass) wrote that “we are a better church and a better community because of Tom.

In between those two positions, in addition to time spent serving as County Attorney, Tom founded CornerHouse, an advocacy center for children who are victims of sex abuse.  He also founded and sat on the board of the Minnesota Justice Research Center, which seeks fair and humane treatment for those int he criminal justice system.  And much, much more.

Tom battled stage 4 cancer longer than anyone thought possible, several years longer than doctors predicted.  Last Christmas, Tom wrote his own obituary.  Among other things (some lighthearted, some less so), he wrote that  none of his jobs gave him more satisfaction than “calling attention to the unacceptable racial disparities in the justice system and their cost to society.”

The second reading for Tom’s mass this morning was one I love, from Paul’s second letter to Timothy.  There would have been no hubris in Tom penning these words himself.

For I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.
From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me,
which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day,
and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.

Rest in peace, dear Tom.  We shall miss you.  I have no doubt the angels are leading you into paradise even as I write these words.


Our Common Home

May 24 will be the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’s encyclical letter,  Laudato si (On Care for our Common Home).  The Pope invited Catholics around the world to celebrate Laudato si week from May 16 (yesterday) through the anniversary day of May 24.

The message of the Encyclical has continuing importance to our world.  The symptoms of environmental degradation that he outlines in the early part of his encyclical continue to be manifest today.  Indeed, in the United States, the relaxation of pollution standards by the current administration contributes to a worsening of the situation Francis described give years ago.  And the inequalities that he spoke about are more apparent today in light of the pandemic.

In his address to the faithful today, the Pope said that “in this time marked by the pandemic we are more aware of the importance of caring for our common home.” He invited all of us to think about and undertake “a shared commitment to help build and strengthen constructive attitudes aimed at caring for Creation.”

We ignore that invitation at our own peril.  As the Pope remarked in March, when he invited Catholics to take part in Laudato si week, “The cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor cannot continue.”

Note: If you still haven’t read Laudato si, you can read it in full here.  For quicker reference, see this 2015 article from America magazine highlighting the most important takeaways of the document.