Become What You Receive

Last night I attended a talk in my parish by Archbishop Harry Flynn, retired archbishop of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Diocese.  He spoke on the Eucharist and on the centrality of social justice in the lives of Christians.  There are many things I could share, many things that I want to reflect on from his talk.  But I share here one that seems to me central.

The Archbishop observed that when he ate a piece of the lemon square that was served for dessert at the dinner preceding his talk, he changed the food into himself.  In contrast, when we receive Eucharist, we don’t change the Body of Christ into ourselves.  Rather we are changed into the Body of Christ.  We become what we receive.  The Body of Christ doesn’t become Harry Flynn; rather, Harry Flynn becomes the Body of Christ.

I think he right in observing that we don’t always receive the Eucharist with a consciousness of what it means, of what it does for us and to us.  The Eucharist doesn’t just nourish us; it transforms us.  We become Christ.  So there is nothing figurative about saying we are the hands and feet of Christ in the world. 

 Similarly, as I become Christ in the receipt of the Eucharist, so too does everyone else in the assembly.  And I don’t become one Christ and you a different Christ.  Rather, we all become part of the same Christ.  Thus, when we say that we  are many parts but one body, we are not speaking figuratively, but quite literally.

To me this gives a much fuller picture of the meaning of Christ’s words at the Last Supper – do this in memory of me.  If we take seriously this understanding of the Eucharist, the invitation to do this in memory of me is not just an invitation to eat bread and drink wine.  Instead, it is an invitation to eat the Body of Christ so that we can be the Body of Christ in the world.  The “this” in “do this” is not just the eating and drinking, but the being in the world what Christ was when he walked in the world.  That’s a much more demanding invitation – an invitation to become what we receive.

The Power of the Word

At Mass yesterday, Archbishop Harry Flynn, retired Archbishop of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese (who is giving a mission in my parish), spoke about the real presence of Christ not only in the Eucharist, but in the proclamation of the Word during Mass.  I thought about his comment again later in the day when someone explained to me why he does not regularly go to Mass.

We know that God is constantly revealing Godself to us in many varied ways.  Among those ways, God is revealed to us in Scripture, and praying with Scripture is a central prayer practice for many people, including myself.   But I think we miss something if our experience of Scripture is limited to our own individual reading and prayer. 

There is something that happens when the Word is proclaimed at Mass.  I know that when I am a lector at Mass there is something going on that is very different from when I stand in front of a classroom teaching or when I deliver a paper at the conference.  I feel the connection with God – no, more than connection – I feel the power of the Spirit moving through me as I am proclaiming.  And I’ve felt that same presence of God when I’m sitting in the pew and hearing the Word.  I close my eye and “see” and feel as much as hear the words, and I am completely aware of God in the Word.  (Indeed, one of the first steps of my conversion back to Catholicism from Buddhism was my experience in Mass one Sunday hearing the Gospel passage about faith the size of a mustard seed.)  And in a way that I can’t explain , or even understand, in rational or logical terms, I know it has something to do with koinonia  – with the coming together of God’s people to share the Word and the Bread.  God is present in that sharing in an incredibly special way.

So I read the Word and I pray with the Word, but I also know I would be missing something if I didn’t also experience the proclamation of the Word with the community at Mass.

Julian of Norwich

This week, the participants in my Retreat in Daily Living are praying with Julian of Norwich, one of the great mystical writers of the 14th Century. After an illness that almost took her life, Julian had a series of “showings,” dramatic revelations of God’s love. (The book she subsequently wrote elaborating on these “showings” is called Revelation of Love.)

God’s love was not the emphasis of the Church at the time of Julian. Rather, the Church at the time was preaching sin and damnation, viewing the plague as the punishment of an angry God for the evil of the people. In contrast, Julian’s emphasis was on God’s mercy and goodness, on God’s love, because that was her experience of God. In an extraordinarily moving passage that I invited my retreatants to pray with during one of their prayer periods this week, Julian presents to us the fruit of her years of pondering and reflection, writing:

And from the time that it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.

Thus I was taught that love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw quite clearly in this and in all, that before God made us, he loved us, which love was never slaked nor ever shall be. And in this love he has done all his work, and in this love he has made all things profitable to us. And in this love our life is everlasting. In our creation we had a beginning. But the love wherein he made us was in him with no beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end.

This is the core of Julian’s teaching: Love was God’s meaning. The message is a timeless one an a crucial one for us to embrace: God’s love is always the meaning.

During our retreat meeting on Tuesday, I recorded my introductory talk on Julian. Although my technical adviser (aka my daughter) is not happy with the sound quality and insists that we re-record a version of the talk, for the time being you can find it here.

St. Vincent dePaul

As I’ve said before, my Ignatian spirituality is informed by a deep commitment to the Vincentian charism. And so it is with special joy that I join with my Vincentian brothers and sisters in today’s celebration of the feast of St. Vincent de Paul.

Vincent looked at the faces of the poor and the marginalized and what he saw was the face of Christ. He completely took to heart Jesus’ teaching that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for Christ (and the corollary that when we ignore their needs, we ignore Christ). He once observed, “We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ.”

Vincent’s heritage is a spirituality committed to uniting contemplation with action. The words of Robert Maloney, C.M., former Superior General of the Vincentians, on the relationship between prayer and action are a good reminder to all of us on this feast day of Vincent. He writes:

Divorced from action, prayer can turn escapist. It can lose itself in fantasy. It can create illusions of holiness. Conversely, service divorced from prayer can become shallow. It can have a “driven” quality to it. It can become an addiction, an intoxicating lure. It can so dominate a person’s psychology that his or her sense of worth depends on being busy.

An apostolic spirituality is at its best when it holds prayer and action in tension with one another. The person who loves God “with the sweat of his brow and the strength of his arms” knows how to distinguish between beautiful theoretical thoughts about an abstract God and real personal contact with the living Lord contemplated and served in his suffering people.

My friend John Freund has collected a number of resources for the feast of St. Vincent on his famvin website here and the Vincentian Wikipedia is a treasure trove of information relating to Vincent and the work of those who follow him.

Update: My friend Gerry just sent me the following message, which it seemed fitting to share:

Happy feast day.

In reading Mark & Louise Zwick, THE CATHOLIC WORKER MOVEMENT: INTELLECTUAL AND SPIRITUAL ORIGINS (NY: Paulist Press, 2005) this week, I was reminded of Dorothy Day’s great love for Monsieur Vincent as reflected in her writings (April 1964 CW):

“The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them, you do for Him. It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love. The mystery of poverty is that by sharing it, making ourselves poor by giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love” (p. 41).

She (along with Peter Maurin, her co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement) understood well the Vincentian concept and charism that one must be prepared to receive the gift of forgiveness from the poor before offering them the gift of bread.

Take My Life, Lord

Every day I pray the Ignatian prayer known as the Suscipe, “Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will — all that I have and call my own. You have given it all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.”

In the process of sharing some thoughts on his prayer with Thomas Merton, my friend Virgil sent me the words of an old Lutheran hymn his reflections brought to mind, Take my Life, O Lord, Renew, by Frances R. Havergal. The lyrics express something of the same longing to turn everything over to God, and the same desire to let God live through us, that I’m so conscious of as I pray the Suscipe each day. It is the long and desire that is awakened in all of us when we have a deep experience of God and that grows in us as we deepen our relationship with God. So I share the lyrics for your reflection.

Take my life, O Lord, renew,
Consecrate my heart to you;
Take my moments and my days;
Let them sing your ceaseless praise.

Take my hands and let them do
Works that show my love for you;
Take my feet and lead their way,
Never let them go astray.
Take my voice and let me sing
Praises to my Savior King,
Take my lips and deep them true,
Filled with messages from you.

Take my silver and my gold,
All is yours a thousand fold;
Take my intellect, and use
Every power as you shall choose.

Make my will your holy shrine,
It shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is your own;
It shall be your royal throne.

Take my love; my Lord, I pour
At your feet its treasure store;
Take my self, Lord, let me be
Yours alone eternally.

God’s Breath

In the midst of almost frenetic activity, I have to remind myself to breathe.  Close my eyes, take a deep breath in, hold, and slowly let it out.  And again.  Maybe a third time.   After a few breaths, time stops.  The craziness of the six things I was trying to do at once in the moment before fades away.  And there is space and calm.  And in that quiet space, the recognition that God is right there, breathing with me, breathing in me.  With that simple reminder, I can turn back to my task, a lot more centered than I was before.

Forgiveness and Power

In Jesus’ Plan for a New World, Richard Rohr writes:

The mystery of forgiveness is God’s ultimate entry into powerlessness. Look at the times when you have withheld forgiveness. It’s always your final attempt to hold a claim over the one you won’t forgive. It’s the way we finally hold onto power, to seek the moral high ground over another person.

Oh, we do it subtly to maintain our sense of superiority. Non-forgiveness is a form of power over another person, a way to manipulate, shame, control and diminish another. God in Jesus refuses all such power.

I had not before thought of forgiveness in this way, yet I paused when I read these words (quoted in an e-mail sent by my friend Andy) because the words rang so true. I think Rohr is spot on in describing what we are about when we fail to forgive another. And what makes that indictment particularly sobering is the first line of the passage: We withhold our forgiveness to hang onto power over another, yet God never withholds forgiveness; without reservation, he gives that power over completely. Rohr calls it the mystery of forgiveness. I call it mindblowingly amazing.

Update: In an e-mail exchange of correspondance among several people on the topic of forgiveness, my friend Andy wrote the following, which I share with his permission. It makes a powerful statement about something I think we forget sometimes, although it is implicit in God’s constant forgiveness of us – that forgiveness is not about the other persons’s desert. Andy writes:

The question does not concern a supposed “right” that the perpetrator has to my forgiveness. Rather, it concerns my responsibility as a disciple of Jesus Christ to continually offer forgiveness from the depth of my heart. The model, of course, is God himself. God does not offer his forgiveness to us because we have a right to it. He offers it continually out of his infinite love. He offers it continually even to the person who continually rejects his offer. The offer is never taken away. The offer, of course, is itself the act of forgiving, even when it is not welcomed by the perpetrator. Forgiveness is in the heart of the forgiver and does not depend on its acceptance by another. The refusal of forgiveness makes the act of forgiveness ineffective but does not cancel out the existence of the forgiveness.

Patience and Time

Sunday was the beginning of the second phase of my daughter’s preparation for receipt of the sacrament of Confirmation, a six-week program of prayer and reflection on the candidate’s faith lives aimed at deepening their relationship with the Holy Spirit.  One of the elements of Sunday’s session, which included parents, asked parent and child to exchange cards that were attached to prayer medals.  The cards the candidates were asked to fill out and give their parents read “Dear ______, On my journey I am proud to offer my family and community these gifts ________.  Please pray with me about these concerns in my life ____________.”  The card parents were asked to fill out and give their child said, “Dear _______, As you prepare for Confirmation, the gift I ask of the Holy Spirit for you is ________.”

The card I gave my daughter read, “Dear Elena, As you prepare for Confirmation, the gift I ask of the Holy Spirit for you is patience and calmness when things don’t go the way you want them to.”   The card Elena gave me, after identifying the gifts she offers (her singing, her love, her helpfulness), said “Please pray with me about these concerns in my life: finding some way to fit everything I love in my life.”

What struck me just now as I was sitting her looking at her card, which I will keep with me as we walk through these months until her Confirmation, is how both the prayer she asked for herself and the prayer I made for her are things I need as well.  (And I’m probably not the only one: I’m betting at least a few people reading this shook their heads knowingly at one or the other of the prayers, thinking, “Yep, me too.”)

Patience and calmness when things don’t go my way.  The office e-mail goes down.  The doctor keeps me waiting 30 minutes after my appointment time.  My class is unresponsive.  A plane is delayed.  My husband doesn’t do something I asked him to do.  Traffic causes me to be late for a meeting.  How I would love it if I could sit calmly and patiently when such things occur; they are, after all, normal parts of life.  And sometimes I manage.  But other times I can feel my insides churning and the tension mounting.  Lord, help me accept with grace whatever I am faced with.

Finding some way to fit everything I love in my life.  How many times I find myself thinking, “if there were just a few more hours in each day…”  There never seems to be enough time.  I want more time to pray, more time to read, more time to play the accordion, more time to present more retreats or write more articles, more time with my husband and daughter, more time to do nothing more than sit and look at the trees (not to mention some more time to exercise).  At this point in my life (having had a lot more years of trying to fit it all in than my daughter) I realize there just won’t be enough time for everything and perhaps the prayer really needs to be: Let me do what I can, and let me know that is enough.  Maybe the prayer time today was shorter than I would have liked, maybe tomorrow I won’t get the accordion practice done, and maybe I’ll only get to the gym once this week.  But I did what I could and that’s good enough.  And the things I love that I didn’t do today, well, they will have to wait until tomorrow.

Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire: A Message Meant for All

Over the weekend I finished reading an advance copy (courtesy of The Catholic Company) of Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire, by Joseph Langford, which attempts to answer the question, “What hidden inner fire motivated [Mother Teresa] and drew her on, in the most squalid conditions, to become the saint she was?”  It does so in a manner that seeks to transform the reader in much the same way Mother Teresa was transformed by her encounter with Christ.  It is a deeply affecting book that I hope you will consider adding to your “To Read” list.

In one respect, the entire book is a long commentary on Jesus’ words on the cross, “I thirst,” her experience of Jesus’ saying these words to her so profound that Mother Teresa had the words placed on the wall of her chapels throughout the world.  The first part of the book is devoted to how this message of Jesus’ incredible thirst for us changed the life of this extraordinary women.  If that were all the book did, it would be a nice story about the life of a saint and that would be the end of it.

However, understanding what touched Mother Teresa is important not just for what it did for her, but for what it can do for us.  Thus, Langford’s book moves from “information to transformation; from beholding the light that shone in her night, the light that reveals God’s love and draws us to him, to actually meeting the Source of that light and love.” 

Here, Langford’s book is more than simply a discussion about Mother Teresa’s prayer life and how she talked about prayer to her sisters and others, although it contains that.  Instead, his discussions of God’s grace and God’s love and desire for us could be fruit for many days of prayer.  Langford’s discussion of various types of prayer and of the ways in which the evil spirit (to use Ignatius’ term) tries to move us away from God are useful instruction for anyone who is serious about a life of prayer. 

In addition to the textual discussion, the book includes two beautiful meditations as well as appendices containing quotes by Mother Teresa and by other saints and spiritual writers that speak of God’s thirst for us.  Another appendix does a thoughtful job of situating Mother Teresa’s (and Langford’s) understanding of the meaning of Christ’s words, “I thirst,” within the biblical use of the symbolism of thirst.  All of these make for some great prayer material.  Although Mother Teresa is not one of the mystics I’m using for the Praying with the Mystics retreat in daily living I’m currently presenting, I plan to share some of this material with the retreatants.

Langford understands, as did Mother Teresa and the other mystics, something fundamentally important to all of us: the existence of a personal God with whom we exist in a state of relationship.  Langford writes:

Our source of transformation is not some unnamed cosmic energy to be tapped at will, and it is surely not “the universe” (as popular post-Christian literature would suggest).  Instead, it is the dynamic love of a personal God.  Therefore, its bestowal is not something mechanical or automatic, like taking a product from a vending machine, but only given in a state of relationship with him.  Because God is love, he is more than some anonymous force whose principles, once discovered, can be bent to our will, or simply used to “manifest” our desires – God is, rather, an infinite, eternal, and autonomous Person.

God’s Ways

In Isaiah, God says, “my thought are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” a statement well illustrated by today’s Gospel from Matthew. Jesus tells the parable about a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard. He hires some at dawn, hires some more at 9:00 in the morning, hires others at 3:00 in the afternoon and even finds a few more to hire at 5:00. When evening comes and it it sime to settle up, the landowner pays the same “usual daily wage” to each of the workers, even though they worked for wildly different amounts of time.

I’m guessing a lot of people hearing this story have exactly the same reaction as that of the workers hired at dawn: “We worked all day and those guys worked only a couple of hours. It’s not fair to give them the same wages we get. We should get more.” Very human way to look at it – those that work more should get paid more. We analyze things in terms of earnings and desert, and justice, in human terms, means giving people what they deserve.

But God always gives us everything we need, and more, without regard to what we “earned.” God doesn’t apportion his love based on what we deserve. We, each and every one of us, get it all. If we listen to God all the time and constantly try to do God’s will, we get unlimited love. If we listen sometimes and try to follow God sometimes, we get the same unlimited love. If we listen and follow once in a while, we get unlimited love. And if we ignore God completely, we still get the same unlimited love.

It doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense in human terms. But God’s ways are not our ways. Not by a long shot.