The Deepest Desire

We were in Knoxville all of last week to see our daughter Elena perform both in an opera (the role of Countess in Marriage of Figaro) and in her graduate recital.  The recital had three sets, the third of which was a song cycle by Jake Heggie titled The Deepest Desire: Four Meditations on Love.

The composition came out of Heggie’s work on the opera Dead Man Walking, and the time he spent with Sister Helen Prejean while working on the opera.  Heggie was deeply inspired by Sr. Helen’s faith and energy and wanted to explore that musically.  When he asked her about her sense of spirituality, she talked about shedding things she found unnecessary and looking into the deepest core of her being to find her purpose, the “deepest desire of [her] heart.”  Heggie the asked her to write some some thoughts on the subject, in response to which she sent him six meditations.  Heggie arranged and modified them, paring them down to four meditations, forming the text for the song cycle Elena sang in her recital.

The whole cycle is beautiful – both music and words.  The third speaks most directly to Sr. Helen’s movement from school teacher to advocate for those on death row.  The words invite us to explore our own deepest desire.

I thought I knew my heart’s desire:
To love God, To be with God in heaven
A bud unfolding, a dutiful prayerful nun.
I pleased God, I thought by being obedient
It made me feel holy.

But hetting to heaven takes a long time.
And dwelling far below was a voice calling:
“Lose yourself! Lose yourself upon the deeper

Then, I heard cries from the heart of the city: “Is there
life before death?” I saw. I heard. I followed.
I made my way to prison cells.
I made my way to death chambers.
I saw. I heard. I followed; I witnessed.
A desire for justice woke in me.
A fierce desire that will not let go.
The deepest desire.
The deepest desire of my heart.
“Come home!”

Elena fell in love with this music when she heard Joyce DiDonato sing it.  You can listen to the DiDonato recording here.

On an unrelated note: Thank you to the folks who have privately messaged me to check in that all was OK given that it has been several weeks since I have posted here.  I am grateful for the concern, but no worry.  It has just been an extraordinarily crazy month for a variety of reasons.


An Immigration Examen

The October 30 recent issue of America magazine, contains an article titled An Immigration Examen, written by Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu.

Starting from the premise that while Catholics cannot solve questions of immigration policy alone, they are called to be part of the the solution.  “Catholics are called to act and to equip ourselves with truth-telling tools to transform the polemics of immigration into a grace-filled response to human suffering.”

In order to aid in that effort, she offers a three-question examination of conscience on the topic of immigration.  The questions are:

(1) Do I understand who these vulnerable immigrants are and why they are here?

(2) Have I resisted the rhetoric that undocumented people are illegal and criminals?

(3) Have I understood the economics of this issue?

Her discussion of each of these is helpful, and I recommend the article in its entirety.  (You can find it here.)  But even without reading the article, the questions are useful ones to reflect on.

A Glimpse of What We Are Called to Be

Today is All Saints Day in the Catholic Church, so the saint was the topic for the Mid-Day Reflection I offered today at the University of St. Thomas.

I titled the program Don’t Call Me a Saint, a line that comes from Dorothy Day, who is said to have often quipped, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”  She explained that when people call someone a saint, it means they are not to be taken seriously.

Since Day had a deep spiritual relationship with many saints, and she also firmly believed we are all called to be saints, what she was really objecting to in her line was (in the words of Robert Ellsberg) “was being put on a pedestal, fitted to some pre-fab conception of holiness that would strip her of her humanity and, at the same time, dismiss the radical challenge of the Gospel.”  What she wanted to avoid was the implication that the actions in which she engaged – living in poverty, feeding the hungry, going to jail for  the cause of peace – somehow came easily to her and were out of reach of ordinary folks.  As Ellsberg said, “She had no patience for that kind of cop-out.”

Kenneth Woodward, former Newsweek religions editor, once 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 some truth to that.  Jesus Christ incarnated was fully human and is, of course, the supreme example of human holiness, the ultimate model for our lives.  My aim as a Christian disciple is to see as Jesus saw, to love as Jesus loved, to be Christ in the world.  And that is important.  But for all our proclamation of our belief that Jesus was fully human, 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.

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 give us strength for own journeys.

We had a great discussion during the session today about the saints that inspire us.  I shared some of those who stand front in center in my visualization of the communion of saints and then the participants shared theirs.  There were some overlaps, but a lot of different names that came up.

The variety reminds us that the saints help us understand how God works in the lives of individuals.  James Martin, in his 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.”  Martin continues: “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.”

Who stands front and center in your visualization of the communion of saints?  Which saints inspire you.



The Model of Simon and Jude

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of Saints Simon and Jude, two of the apostles about whom we hear very little. Nonetheless, I feel some special connection to them because my childhood parish and grade school in Brooklyn, New York, was Sts. Simon and Jude. I can’t remember receiving any special teaching about these saints in school. All I could ever glean about them was what I learned from the words of the song our music teacher, Sr. Joseph Edward taught us to sing on this feast day.  The first verse of the song was:

Saints Simon and Jude,
chosen friends of the Lord,
Whose spirit and zeal
Sought his undying Word.
Christ’s valiant apostles,
we greet you with love,
O teach us the way,
To the kingdom above.

The first couple of lines of the second verse, which neither me nor any of my grade school friends can remember any more of was:

You offered your lives
that we might be free
From Satan’s dark wiles
and from his tyranny….

So all I know about Simon and Jude is (1) they were chosen by Jesus; (2) they had zeal for the task to which they were appointed; (3) they were valiant, a word we don’t tend to use, so I replace it with courage and determination; and (4) they were willing to give all for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

The first of those – being chosen – is true of all of us: we are all called by Christ.

The remaining qualities – zeal, courage, determination, willingness to give all – are what we all might strive for in carrying out our task to build God’s Kingdom.  And so that is my prayer for us on this feast day of Saints Simon and Jude, that we may grow in these qualities.


To Autumn

As the days start to get colder and the leaves, still gorgeous in color, start to fall from the trees, here is John Keats’ poem To Autumn.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


Gratitude, Awareness, Desire

My friend John shared with me the other day the blessing his family prayed before meals.  They prayed:

Thank you, God
For this food.
Help us.
Make us
Kind and good.

What an extraordinarily simple prayer that says so much in so few words!  I like it for the same reason John told me he does: ” Simple (honest) gratitude. Straight forward awareness that we need help.  And a simple, honest desire to grow in the manifestations of love.”

If this were the heartfelt prayer of all of us, think of what a difference it could make in the world!  Gratitude in place of entitlement.  Recognition of  our need for God’s grace in place of a sense that we can do it all on our own.  Other-directedness in place of self-centeredness.

I’m not sure much else needs to be added.

Repay To God What Belongs to God

I’m home after having given a preached Ignatian retreat at “my happy place” this weekend – the Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago.  It was a grace-filled weekend and I am always filled with gratitude at the end of the retreat.

This morning I preached at the closing Mass of the retreat, the Gospel for which was the scene in Matthew’s Gospel where the Herodians and Pharisees try to trip Jesus up by asking him whether it is lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar.  The question is intended as a no-win one:  If Jesus says yes – he will diminish his standing with the people, who will view him as a Roman sympathizer.  If he says no – he will be accused of sedition or treason against Rome.  Heads they win, tails Jesus loses.

As is invariably the case when people set out to trap him, Jesus knows full well what the Pharisees and Herodians are trying to do are trying to do so – “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?”  He knows sees through their flattery, knowing that what they show on the outside is not what is in their heart.

Shown a coin of the realm, Jesus delivers his response: Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

I suggested in my reflection that it is interesting that Jesus makes his statement based on the image on the coin.  That invites us to ask the question: what image is imprinted on us?  And we know the answer to that – we (all of us, including Caesar) are imprinted with the image of God.  It is in God’s image and likeness that we are made.

And that means that Jesus’ one line answer actually says quite a bit.  It suggests that his followers have a dual allegiance: an allegiance to the teachings and commands of God, and an allegiance to the government under whose flag and laws they live, but it also makes clear the priority of those allegiances.

As Christians, we have duties to both of these realms.  The rub comes when we have to face the question of what Christians should do when the God they serve and the government to which they have sworn allegiances are pulling them into a situation of divided loyalties.  Jesus’ answer makes clear that Christians should render what is due to each entity until they come to the point where obedience to the state leads to a moral conflict with the God’s law, at which point God’s law prevails. We are rightly responsible to civil authority, but that authority itself is under the authority of God.  Our responsibility to God is outside the oversight of the civil authority, and therefore trumps civil authority.   (Today’s first Mass reading from Isaiah is a reminder of that: I am the Lord, there is no other, repeated twice in that reading.  God might well say to the state of Palestine, and the state of Wisconsin and Minnesota and the United States, as Isaiah says: “It is I who arm you, though you know me not.”)

Our issue today is not about taxes.  We pay plenty of them, whether we like it or not.  But there are other levels of government activity that do raise questions about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s:

Should Christians protest the use of torture by their government, even if such practices might provide information that could help in the war on terror?

How should Christians respond to governmental efforts to limit the number of refugees?

How should a Christian respond when state legislatures or courts take action either to support or oppose same-sex marriage?

Should taxpayer money be used to support abortion?

How should a Christian respond to the continued use in many states of the death penalty?

These are the kind of questions that raise the challenge of today’s Gospel.  The question is not whether we should pay taxes, but what do we expect – what do we demand – from a government supported by our tax dollars?  What does conscience demand of Christians when the actions of their government and the teaching of their faith appear to be in conflict?

These are not easy questions, especially since you can find Christians on both sides of some of the examples I gave.  And note Jesus did not answer the question posed to him in a direct way, but answered it in a way that places believers in a position of having to balance their responsibilities to the two realms.  God grants us the dignity and the responsibility to use our conscience to answer the hard questions.