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.

Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Mary Magdalene, friend and faithful disciple of Jesus.  We traiditionally referred to this day as her “memorial,” but in 2016, Pope Francis elevated the memorial to a feast day, giving her the same level of celebration as the other apostles.

Maligned for centuries, all we know of Mary Magdalene’s origins is that she was a woman “from whom seven demons had gone out.”  What we do know from the Gospels is that she was one of the women who followed Jesus to the cross and who stayed there after the male disciples fled.

We also know that Mary was the first to actually see the risen Jesus, and today’s Gospel recounts that beautiful scene.  What is apparent from the encounter of these two is how much she loved Jesus.  (Father Raymond-Leopold Bruckberger, O.P., once wrote that Mary loved Christ “with all the force of her being.”)  We can see evidence of that love in the grief Mary she outside of the tomb when she discovered Jesus’ body is gone. We see it in her tears and frantic search for any information she can find that will help her find the body. And we see it in her joy when she hears the person she has taken for a gardener call her by name, realizing that he is, in fact, the risen Jesus.

Today’s first Mass reading from the Song of Songs expresses beautifully Mary’s love and longing for her Lord:

On my bed at night I sought him whom my heart loves – I sought him but I did not find him. I will rise then and go about the city; in the streets and crossings I will seek Him whom my heart loves. I sought him but I did not find him. The watchmen came upon me, as they made their rounds of the city: Have you seen him whom my heart loves? I had hardly left them when I found him whom my heart loves.

Blessings on this feast of Mary Magdalene.  May be have her longing for union with God. May we hear Jesus call each of our names as he called hers.

Being Martha and Mary

I offered the reflection at the Masses at my parish this weekend, when the Gospel reading was Luke’s account of Jesus eating dinner at the home of his friends Mary and Martha.

Most of us are familiar with this story: Jesus is dining at the home of his friends, and while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him talk, Martha is bustling around taking care of cooking and perhaps other chores.  And so Martha complains to Jesus that she is doing all the work while Mary does nothing, probably hoping – maybe even expecting – that Jesus will prod Mary into helping her.  He does not such thing, and instead chides her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”            

We meet here two different women, who model two ways of being, but ways I do not believe are meant to be mutually exclusive.  While I used to quip that I’m Martha and want to be Mary, the reality is that (except for those few who are called to a cloistered life) we are all called to both Martha and Mary. And there is much we can learn from each of these women.

Martha illustrates a boldness and honesty that is necessary if we are to grow in our relationship with Jesus.

Here is a woman in a time when women didn’t speak up to men, and they certainly didn’t chastise them.  Yet Martha has the boldness to speak her piece with Jesus.  Many women of her time would have held their tongue.  But Martha spoke what was on her mind, understanding that being in relationship with Jesus means speaking what is actually on our mind and in our heart.  Not saying only what we think we are supposed to say.

We cannot move forward with God unless we are honest about what is troubling us.  It may be that Martha’s point was misplaced; indeed, from Jesus’ reaction we know it was.  But that doesn’t change that had she stayed silent, she would not have learned from Jesus.  Only her honesty and courage in speaking up allowed her to do that.

Martha also illustrates a take-charge organization and efficiency that the world could not operate without.  Someone does have to do the cooking, change the sheets and set the table if Jesus and his friends are going to eat and stay overnight. Someone had to make sure there is enough wine for everyone, and so on.  Someone had to run the household.  Martha, in the words of Joanna Weaver “is an administrator extraordinaire – a whirling dervish of efficiency with a touch of Tasmanian she-devil thrown in to motivate the servants.”

Mary, on the other hand, represents an extravagant worship.  She sits at Jesus feet, not giving in to the tyranny of the urgent.  She will later falls to Jesus’ feet when he arrives at the death of her brother.  And the next time he comes to their home on his final journey to Jerusalem, she will lavish expensive ointment on his feet  – an amount Judas says could have been sold for three hundred days wages.

Mary also represents a receptive availability.  She sits at Jesus feet, just listening, not moving a muscle.  She didn’t try to come up with some clever response.  She simply listens.

The reality is that we need both of their tendencies. I say both because of a conviction that God calls each of us to take our part in his plan of salvation, to use our gifts for the divinization of our world.  And it is God’s plan we are about, not our own.  And that requires not only action, but time with God to discern his plan and our role in that plan.

In Ignatian terms, we speak of being contemplatives in action.  Contemplatives in action unite themselves with God by joining God’s active labor to save and heal the world.  Doing so is not optional.  Contemplatives in action join God’s active labor to heal and save the world from a contemplative stance that requires we take time with God.

Joanna Weaver, in her book Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World speaks of “Kitchen Service resulting from Living Room Intimacy.”  She writes

Because we are his children, Kitchen Service will be the natural result of Living Room Intimacy with God.  Like Jesus, we must be about our Father’s business.  The closer we draw to the heart of the Father, the more we see his heart for the world.  And so we serve, we minister, and we love, knowing that when we do it for the “least of these,” we have done it unto Christ.

When we put work before worship, we put the cart before the horse.  The cart is important; so is the horse.  But the horse must come first, or we end up pulling the cart ourselves.  Frustrated and weary, we can nearly break under the pressure of service, for there is always something that needs to be done.

When we first spend time in his presence – when we take to heart his voice – God provides the horsepower we need to pull the heaviest load.  He saddles up Grace and invites us to take a ride.

So we need both – the boldness and action to help realize God’s plan, but the receptivity and extravagant worship that deepen our relationship with God.  We need to leave the kitchen long enough to experience the intimacy of God in the living room.  We need to know God, to listen to him, so that we know what it is he is asking of us, and have the strength to accomplish it.

What is Truth?

The Golden Legend, written by Dominican preacher Jacobus de Voragine, was the first popular compilation of the lives of the saints.  Robert Ellsberg in his Give Us This Day reflection this morning writes:

Drawing on traditional sources, which he freely embellished [and] dwelling on their miraculous deeds, Jacobus helped to elevate the popularity of such all-but-legendary figures as Saints Agnes and Lucy (virgin martyrs), Sebastian (riddled with arrows), Christopher (who carries the Christ child on his back), and George (who battled a dragon) above the cult of such better-attested, if more prosaic, figures as Augustine and Ambrose.

It was this book of saints that my friend St. Ignatius read during his recovery at the family castle in Loyola Spain from a battle injury he sustained defending the fortress of the town of Pamplona.  One of the few books available to him was deVoragine’s.  It was reading about the heroic lives of saints that was the beginning of Ignatius’ transformation into a man who wanted to do great things for God.

Ignatius’ experience is noteworthy, because ultimately The Golden Legend fell into disrepute because of its lack of historical scholarship.  But, as Ellsberg writes, the criticism of the book

failed to appreciate deVoragine’s intention to write a work of spiritual devotion.  He meant to present the holy servants of God as living emblems of the Gospel.

Judged by the experience of St. Ignatius, deVoragine succeeded in his intention.

As I read Ellsberg’s reflection this morning in Give Us This Day, I thought of the related issue with respect to historical accuracy of the Bible.  Someone with whom I once did Adult Faith Formation in a parish used to quip, “Everything in the Bible is true, and some of it actually happened.” 

Who Are the Samaritans to Me?

I was invited by the priest presiding at this morning’s Mass here at the Loyola on the Potomac Jesuit Retreat House to speak briefly at the beginning of Mass to set the stage for the readings.  Since I spoke without notes, I can’t share exactly what I said.  But following is a version of my reflection:

In today’s first reading, Moses exhorts the people to keep God’s commandments written in the book of the law.  And he tells them that what they are to do is not a secret they have to figure out, something they have to look high and low for, but something they already know.  It is already in their hearts.

We see a reflection of this in today’s Gospel, which opens with a “scholar of the law” asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. 

Jesus effectively responds – you already know the answer.  What does your law tell you?

The man responds: Love God with all your heart, soul and strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself – what we refer to as the Great Commandment, but which was already the law known to the Israelite people well before the time of Jesus.

 It is pretty simple.  For all we try to complicate things, to come up with different criteria for who is in and who is out, Jesus says it is quite straightforward:  Love.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.

But the man pushes, asking: But who is my neighbor?  And Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story well known to all of us.

I invited people to reflect, as they listened to the Gospel to ask themselves: What does this parable tell me about who is my neighbor and what it means to love my neighbor?  To jumpstart their reflection on that, I shared two thoughts.

The first is about the Samaritans, who were hated in Jesus’ time.  From the perspective of the man in the ditch, Jesus’ audience would likely have not reacted well to the idea of receiving aid from a Samaritan.  To Jesus’ audience as well as to Luke’s early readers, the idea of a “good Samaritan” would have made no more sense than the idea of a “good rapist” or a “good murderer.”  So to say the neighbor to the injured man was a Samaritan was shocking.

Jesus’ story challenges his listeners to confront their prejudices about others. And in turn that invites us to ask ourselves: Who are today’s Samaritans for me?  Who is it difficult for me to call neighbor? For me to love as neighbor.

For some people it is Muslims.  For some gay or trans persons.  For some it is anyone whose background is strange or different.

And in today’s fractured climate, depending on where you stand, the Samaritan to you may be: Trump supporters or Kamela Harris fans; anti-vaxxers or those insisting on more stringent COVID requirements; Black lives Matters or Blue Lives Matter protesters; in religious terms, those currently referred to as “radtrads” or those with a Pope Francis leaning. And so on and so forth – politically, culturally, or religiously.

The invitation here is clear: to see as neighbor not only those who look like us, think like us, and worship like us, but those in whom we see nothing of ourselves.

Where is the difficulty for you?

The second thing I shared was an experiment I once read about.  A class of seminarians was given the assignment to prepare a sermon on this parable of the Good Samaritan. They were divided into two groups – one group was given two hours to prepare the sermon and the second group was given twenty-four hours. They then left the building. On the stairs of the building lay a man obviously in need of assistance (part of the experiment).

Can you guess the results? Almost none of the seminarians who had been given two hours to prepare their sermon stopped to aid the man as they left the building. Indeed, it was reported that one practically jumped over the man in his haste to get home to get to work on his assignment. (A much higher number of the group given twenty-four hours stopped to give the man assistance.)

Most of us have not jumped over an injured person on the street without giving assistance. But we do – more often than we’d like to admit – behave more like the priest and Levite than like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable:  When we fail to love our neighbor because what we are doing seems too important to recognize someone else’s need.

Ask yourself: Are there times when what I’m doing seems so important that I fail to offer a greeting or even a smile to someone I pass in the hall at work?

Am I so wrapped up in my important task that I fail to even notice that someone is suffering and could use a word of encouragement or a hand on the shoulder from me?

Have I squandered opportunities to offer compassion to another because of my preoccupation with my own projects?

What are the circumstances in which it is difficult for me to show compassion, love?

What do you hear in today’s parable of the Good Samaritan?  Who is your neighbor?  And what does it mean to love your neighbor?