Do You Not Yet Have Faith?

Both of today’s Mass readings speak of faith, although they present stark contrasts.  The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the faith of Abraham, who by faith “obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance….soujourned in the promised land as in a foreign country…received power to generate, even though he was past the normal age…[and] when put ot the test, offered up Isaac.”  In contrast, when a storm comes upon the disciples as they “cross to the other side,” they are terrified, fearful that they will perish.  When they awaken Jesus, he calms the winds and the sea and rebukes the disciples.  “Why are you terrified?  Do you not yet have faith?”

Awfully good questions.  Why are you afraid?  Do you not yet have faith?  Over and over again, God shows us that He’s got our back, so to speak.  Constantly, God reassures us of His presence and everlasting love.  He has engraved us in the palm of His hand in a way that makes it impossible for us to be separated from Him. 

For Abraham, God’s promise was enough. God promised Abraham that “through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.” Thus, says the Letter to the Hebrews, Abraham “reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.”

I think that we sometimes (perhaps even lots of the time) are more like the disciples on that boat than like Abraham. Fearful about this. Anxious about that. And there’s God, lovingly shaking His head saying, “Why are you afraid? What will it take? How can I convince you that you have nothing to be afraid of?”

What’s your answer when God puts that question to you?

Examining Our Attitude Towards the “Other”

I gave a mid-day reflection for students at our law school this past Wednesday on the theme: Examining Our Attitude Toward the “Other.” The title refers to our tendancy to form judgments about other persons based on their gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sexually orientation, judgments that often involve a determination that one of a different race, religion, sexual orientation, etc., is, at some fundamental level, “not us” or “not me.” This “othering” is enormously destructive of community, because it allows us to decide that some people (and their needs) are less important than others. The reflection invited participants to consider ways in which we decide that certain people are “not us” and to start to think about how we might relinquish the attitudes that prevent our full loving encounter with Christ disguised as an “other.”

You can find a podcast of the talk I gave here . (The podcast runs for 19:55). The handout I gave for their prayerful reflection during the time we were together, which I reference toward the end of the talk (the podcast ends at the point in our session where the participants spent some time in quiet reflection), along with another handout I distributed for their own subsequent individual prayer, can be found here.

Community

We’ve been reading from the Letter to the Hebrews as the first reading at Mass. In today’s passage, we are told that “[W]e must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another.”

It is good to remind ourselves that we are part of a community. That our faith as Catholics is never just about me and God, but that we live our lives in communion with the living Body of Christ. And that implies that we have obligations beyond ourselves, indeed beyond those within our closest circles of families and friends.

Part of that obligation is the obligation to rouse and encourage one another. This is not an invitation to be on the lookout for every failing of those we come in contact with so that we can point out their imperfections to them. (In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus points out that we tend to be a lot better at seeing the mote in our neighbor’s eye than the beam in our own.) Rather, it is an invitation to help bring out the best in each other, to help build up the Body of Christ. So we should be on the lookout for opportunities to “rouse one another to love and good works.”

St. Thomas Aquinas

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, theologian, philosopher, teacher, pray-er and poet.  One of the books that is never far from my side is a book by Daniel Ladinsky entitled Love Poems from God.  One of the sections contains a number of poems inspired by Aquinas.  I once before posted one of my favorites, Whenever He Looks at You.  Here, in honor of today’s memorial, is another one, a poem that contains a suggestion for how we might live in harmony.  It is called We are Fields Before Each Other.

How is it they live for eons in such harmony–
the billions of stars–

when most men can barely go a minute
without declaring war in their mind against someone they know.

There are wars where no one marches with a flag,
though that does not keep casualties
from mounting.

Out hearts irrigate the earth.
We are fields before
each other.

How can we live in harmony?
First we need to know

we are all madly in love
with the same
God.

Mary, Prophet of Justice

This podcast, titled Mary, Prophet of Justice, is the fifth in a planned series of six podcasts drawn from an 8-day guided retreat I gave in June 2007, on the theme of Embracing Mary. The podcast reflects on Mary’s proclamation of hope expressed in the Magnificat and what that message means for us today.

The podcast runs for 18:29. You can stream it from the icon below or can download it from here. (Remember that you can now also subscribe to Creo en Dios! podcasts on iTunes.)

How God Speaks to Us

I spent some more time yesterday reflecting on the question of how God speaks to us, which I raised in my post of yesterday, prompted by the story of the conversion of St. Paul. What came out of that reflection is this: While it it true that God does at times intervene to give us some very specific instructions or statement or to answer some immediate need, as He did to Paul and as I’m sure we’ve all experienced at some time in our lives, I think we make a mistake if we expect God to always speak in a way that provides us with a blueprint of specific directions and instructions to follow.

It is true that things would be much easier for us if God always gave us such a clear and direct blueprint for our lives. (It is that desire for the easier path that produces the plea, “just tell me what to do and I’ll do it”). But I don’t think God is very interested in providing that level of direction. Rather, God expects us to use our intellect and our judgement, aided by prayer, Scripture and the advise of spiritual advisers and friends, to discern our path. It is for us to discover which is the more life-giving choice when faced with multiple options, what it is that will lead us to greater faith, hope and love. We are God’s children, yes, but we can’t expect God to just tell us what to do all of the time as if we were children; if He did, we would never grow into a mature relationship with Him. God wants co-creators, not servants who will simply follow direct orders. So if we look for God to always knock us off our horses and just tell us plainly and simply what to do, we will often be disappointed.

It is true that allowing us to discern on our own means that we will occasionally make a choice that is not the best. But as I suspect we’ve also all experienced, God manages somehow make it right. I often repeat the old experession, God writes straight with crooked lines, although I suppose one could also say that when given lemons, God makes lemonade. Somehow God manages to work with what we give him.

The Conversion of St. Paul

Today is the day on which the Catholic Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul. The story is one familiar to all Christians and it is one often referred to by those seeking some clarity from God as they seek to discern their path. Many people express that they experience difficulty hearing God when God tries to speak to them or understanding clearly exactly what it is that God is trying to convey.

Paul (called Saul at the time) had no such problem. On the road to Damascus, a great light suddenly shone on him from the sky, causing him to fall to the ground. Hard to miss that one. When he hears a voice calling him by name, asking “why are you persecuting me,” he asks who is speaking. The reply comes to him, “I am Jesus…Now get up and go into the city where you will be told what you must do.” No lack of clarity there. Nor is there any lack of clarity when God solicits Ananias’ help in Paul’s conversion. It is hard to get much more clear and direct than this; Ananias is told the precise street he is to proceed to: “Get up and go to the street called Straight and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul…”

I’ve sometimes jokingly said, “Just give me the lightening bolt, Lord. Knock me off my horse the way you did Paul and just tell me exactly what you want me to do.” And I’ve heard similar sentiment expressed by those for whom I’ve provided spiritual direction.

As I reflected on the passage this morning, my mind played back over some of my deep religious experiences. As I looked back, what I realized is that, while I’ve never been knocked off my horse, there have, in fact, been occasions where God has spoken to me every bit as clearly and directly as he did to Paul. To be sure, most of the time God’s communication is more subtle…more like the quiet breeze than an earthquake. But at the times when I really needed to hear something – when I needed to discern direction or when I really needed reassurance during a painful period – God made sure I needed to hear what God wanted to communicate to me. It was an incredibly comforting realization, one that provides tremendous consolation, and one for which I am very grateful. Pretty specific direction.

St. Francis de Sales

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Francis de Sales. This Francis was not one with whom I had great familiarity until a priest who meant a lot to me (now deceased) shared with me his devotion to Francis and suggested that I would benefit from reading his Introduction to the Devout Life. The book is considered to be a masterpice of devotional literature and is suitable for everyone, regardless of where they are on the spiritual path.

In the book, Francis suggests that we begin all prayer by placing ourselves in the presence of God and invoking his assistance (sounding very much like St. Ignatius). He outlines several principal means for placing ourselves in God’s presence and in honor of his memorial I thought I’d share what he says about the value of intentionally reminding ourselves that we are in the presence of God. Francis writes:

God is in all things and all places. There is no place or thing in this world where he is not truly present. Just as wherever birds fly they always encounter the air, so also wherever we go or wherever we are we find God present. Everyone knows this truth but everyone does not try to bring it home to himself. Blind men do not see a prince who is present among them, and therefore do not show him the respect they do after being told of his presence. However, because they do not actually see him they easily forget his presence, and having forgotten it, they still more easily lose the respect and reverence owed to him. Unfortunately, Philothes, we do not see God who is present with us. Although faith assures us of his presence, yet because we do not see him with our eyes we often forget about him and behave as if God were far distant from us. We really know tht he is present in all things, but because we do not reflect on that fact we act as if we did not know it. This is why before praying we must always arouse our souls to explicit thought and consideration of God’s presence.

Expectations in an Imperfect World

There are certain things I don’t handle very well. High on that list is computer problems. The other day we lost all e-mail and internet access at work for several hours in the middle of the day. Yesterday the network connection was there, then it wasn’t, then it was, then it wasn’t, and back and forth. This is in addition to various problems associated with using my laptop on battery. By the time of yesterday afternoon’s network problems, I lost any ability to smile over this situation or even to shrug philosophically and say, oh well, time for a break. I was downright cranky (well, probably worse than cranky) with a colleague who tried to make me feel better. (I later apologized.)

I look back over my behavior and try to determine exactly what causes me to have such difficulty handling computer problems. I suspect at least part of it has to do with commiting myself to such an extent that my day just doesn’t allow for unscheduled work stoppages. Part of it also has to do with having the expectation that things will go exactly as I plan them to, which implies that everything will always work as it should, with no breakdown or delay.

What a completely unrealistic expectation! This is, after all, human existence, which is inherently characterized by imperfection. Machines break, people don’t always do what they are supposed to, etc., etc. and so forth. The two causes are related: If I plan and schedule my life to the max so that I can only get everything done if everything goes exactly according to plan, there is no wiggle room when something goes wrong.

So part of what is necessary is having expectations that are a little more realistic and part is having a little perspective on what really has to get done. That doesn’t mean I don’t get to complain to the IRT folk about my laptop problems. But it does mean not letting the laptop problems disturb my inner calm and being able to accept with a little more grace the problems that arise.

And speaking of grace, I recognize that succeeding here is not simply a question of will. (Simply ordering myself, “You will be more patient next time,” is not a very effective approach.) So I pray today for the grace to better accept things not going the way my plan.

Update: My friend John just reminded me of the value of reflecting on the Serenity Prayer at times of frustration with the world:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

–Reinhold Niebuhr

Seeing God’s Face in the Face of Others

I opened a blessing this morning that read, “May you always seek the face of God, and may you always be blessed with recognizing His face in the faces of your friends and loved ones.”

The blessing, while beautiful as far as it goes, seems to me to leave out the hardest part. Seeing the face of God in the faces of my friends and loved ones is often not all that challenging. To be sure, there are moments when a family member or friend does something that irritates me, in which moments I confess that God is not likely on my mind when I look at them. But generally, the love shared with such people is enough to find the presence of God there.

The reall challenge is seeing the face of God in the faces of those who we don’t label as friends, toward whom our feelings range from indifference at best to hostility or revulsion at worst. Much harder to look at the face of that person and see the face of God. Yet, that is what we are called to do – to look at each person we encounter and to see the face of God there. I think of St. Vincent, who could look at the face of the poor of Paris and see Christ. Or St. Francis, who could look at a leper and see the face of God.

So my blessing for all on this day is this: May you always seek the face of God, and may you always be blessed with recognizing His face in the faces of all those you encounter today.