St. Ignatius of Loyola

When I visualize the Communion of Saints, there are several saints who stand out front and center. St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis, John the Baptist, to name a few, along with the saint whose memorial we celebrate today, St. Ignatius of Loyola. So it is with particular delight that I find myself on this day at St. Ignatius Retreat House in Manhasset, NY (where I served as a staff associate before our move to the Twin Cities).

St. Ignatius has been a very influential figure in my spiritual growth. His vision is contained in his Spiritual Exercises, which so very many people have done over years, either in the form of a 30-day retreat or in the form of the 19th Annotation (the form in which I did the exercises), which involves a “retreat in daily living” lasting for approximately 9 months.

A foundational element of the Spiritual Exercises is a reflection called the Principle and Foundation, which is prayed with very early in the exercises. I decided there is little better I could offer on this day than an invitation to spend some time reflecting on something Ignatius believed we could profitably spend much time with. Here is David Fleming’s translation of the Principle and Foundation:

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.

All the things in this world are gifts from God,
Presented to us so that we can know God more easily
and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God
Insofar as they help us to develop as loving persons.
But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives,
They displace God
And so hinder our growth toward our goal.

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 a short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
A deeper response to our life in God.

Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better leads
To God’s deepening his life in me.

I’m here at St. Ignatius to give an 8-day guided retreat (The Gift of an Awakened Heart), which begins with dinner this evening. I would be grateful for your prayers for me and my retreatants.


Finding Good in Everyone

Recently, one of cousins posted some old family pictures on Facebook, including one of my great-grandmother, who died when I was about 12 years old. Seeing the picture brought back a flood of memories.

During her lifetime, my great-grandmother was one of my favorite people and I loved visiting my grandmother’s house so I could walk the several blocks from there to the house where my great-grandmother lived, along with one of my great-uncles. (I’d say he took care of her, but until only a year or so before she died, she did the cooking, tended the garden and a whole lot more than she probably should have been doing.) I would happily sit there for as long as possible, talking with her, with her broken English. (She emigrated to the United States from Italy as a young bride.) I still remember how sad I was when she died. She was 93 or 94 at the time, but I was still surprised; I suppose I thought, in the way only children can, that she would always be there.

One of the amazing things about my great-grandmother is that she really believed the old adage, “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything.” She also believed you could find something good to say about everyone, no matter how bad they seemed. If you pushed hard and said, “Well, grandma, what about Hitler,” she’d pause and say, “He had a mother.”

Most of us could learn a lot from my great-grandmother. We are often quick to criticize others, to share some negative thought about someone with another. And we don’t always look very hard to find the good in those people we have difficulty with. It is easy to find the good in those we love. But, as Jesus reminded his followers, even the pagans and tax collectors love those who love them. Seeing my great-grandmother’s picture is a good reminder to try a little harder to see the good in those whose goodness is not immediately apparent to me.

6415_1079637318854_1463922848_30196574_1655009_n (my great-grandmother on the right, along with one of my great-aunts)

St. Martha

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Martha, a women of the New Testament for whom I’ve always had a great deal of affection. Doubtless at least part of it is the vision I have of Martha from Luke’s Gospel (one of the two alternative Gospels for today’s Mass), where she complains to Jesus that Mary is not helping her. I see Martha preparing the meal, cleaning up, that is, like I so often am, doing several things at the same time.

What really draws me to Martha, however, is her expression of faith in the other alternate Gospel reading for today – the scene in John’s Gospel when Jesus shows up after Lazarus has died. Martha had been expecting Jesus to show up earlier to heal Lazarus and is bitterly disappointed and more than a bit upset with Jesus when he finally arrives. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she accuses.

But she doesn’t stop there, adding, “even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” And when Jesus asks if she believes that he is the resurrection and the life, that anyone who lives and believes in him will never die, Martha affirms, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

From where does Martha draw her great faith? In a wonderful selection in Hidden Women of the Gospels, writer Kathy Coffee puts these words in Martha’s mouth:

I don’t know what possessed me to say it. But I suspect that my mouth, which had gotten me into trouble my whole life, had for a stunning second become my glory, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” I affirmed, and I meant every word of it….
I was so outraged at Jesus’ delay that I spewed pure venom when he arrived. ..Folks with better social skills might have welcomed him with, “Thanks for trying,” or even, “Your friend is dead,” but I immediately dumped the guilt trip: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Even though Jesus is used to my outspokenness, the accusation hurt; I would tell by the sadness in his eyes. Still, it didn’t paralyze him; maybe he continued our conversation because he could trust me. I’d just proven that I wouldn’t make the truth. I would look him straight in the eye, without a shred of syrupy politeness. One pressing issue hovered in the air between us: Was he avoiding the tragedy, or coming at it from another angle? Why was he questioning my belief in the afterlife?
“I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”…
So few people understood him; all he wanted was one person to show some inkling.
And I did know who he was. From all the meals we’d eaten together, all the walks we’d taken, all the conversations that stretched late into the night emerged his shining holiness. I couldn’t explain how I knew; I certainly couldn’t tell you what text I’d consulted. But in some quiet, sure place within, I was bedrock certain of his power. So I said it aloud.

In some quiet sure place within, Martha knew exactly who Jesus was and she is the first to proclaim him as the Messiah. She thus gave Jesus affirmation at a time when his heart must have been troubled as he was making his way toward Jerusalem. And so today we honor Martha’s act of faith.

How We Respond to the Wrongful Acts of Others

Let’s start with the given that we are all imperfect. And by that I mean not only that we make inadvertent mistakes, but that we sometimes do things even when we know they are wrong. What Paul says of himself in Romans is sometimes true for all of us: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.”

What I’m struggling a bit with is how we respond, individually and as a collective, when someone who has otherwise made great contributions to the common good engages in a wrong or sinful act. I mean something that was clearly wrong, that was clearly hurtful to others. When that happens, it often seems like that one bad act is enough to wipe from many people’s minds all the good that person has done. The “sinner” become defined by his or her bad act and there is clamor to kick them off the good guy team, so to speak, and write them off.

I’m not saying people should not face the consequences for their sin or wrongdoing, that there shouldn’t be some “punishment” for the wrong. But I do wonder whether we sometimes expect more from each other than we ought to, whether we expect a level of perferce (or near perfect) behavior none of us can live up to. I wonder whether we are sometimes too reluctant to give someone a second chance after they have committed what we consider too grievous a sin…too quick to reject giving someone who has fallen the opportunity to again be “part of the team.” I wonder whether we sometimes forget that justice must be tempered with mercy, and judgment with forgiveness.

It is good to remember that Jesus didn’t take back from Peter the keys to the kingdom after Peter denied Christ (and I think most of us would agree denying Christ three times is pretty high on the list of bad acts). Instead, he still instructs him to feed his sheep. And good also to remember our own human frailty and limitations when we evaluate the frailty and limitations of others.

Yeast and the Kingdom of Heaven

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus gives several images to help his disciples understand how we transform the world to kingdom, how God’s word can spread throughout the world – the growth of the mustard seed and the effect of yeast on flour.

Never having seen a full-grown mustard bush, let alone on in which the “birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches,” it is the second of those images that resonates with me – the yeast that leavens the whole batch of wheat flour.

We periodically bake bread and for me one of the most marvelous parts of that activity is the “magic” of watching the yeast at work. Mix yeast, water and flour, take the little ball that results and put it aside for a few hours. When you come back and look at it, it has doubled or tripled in size. Sometimes even more.

I remember one time when we mixed up a batch, and went out for longer than we expected. When we walked back into the apartment we then lived in, what popped into my head was “The Yeast that Ate Brooklyn Heights” – bread dough had come out of the covered bowl in which it was rising and had spread over the floor in all directions. The dough was everywhere.

So it is with our efforts to spread the Gospel. Whenever we preach the Gospel by our words or deeds, we drop a mustard seed here, a little yeast there. Each of us, spreading seeds of the Kingdom that will grow, “until the whole batch [is] leavened.” It may take some time before we see the effect, but it will happen. Like my dough that went out of control, the Gospel will spread in ways we can’t possible imagine. That’s Jesus’ promise. And that’s pretty exciting.


Sabbath. Day of rest. Day “sanctified to the Lord.” (Exodus) The Lord’s Day. In a first Mass reading earlier this week (Friday), we heard God’s explanation to Moses of keeping holy the Sabbath.

Lamentably, I fear too many of us have lost a sense of Sabbath. Sunday, the day on which we as Christians celebrate the Lord’s Day, is often anything but a day of rest. We use is as a day to catch-up – perhaps to get the grocery shopping done that did not get done on Saturday, to finish up the week’s laundry, to pay the bills. (In the case of this Sabbath, we were up before 4:00 a.m. this morning to get my daughter out the door for her departure on a parish youth mission trip.)

It is true that many people do not have the option to have Sunday free from work. My father was New York City police officer and it was a rare Sunday that he didn’t have to work. The same is true for fire fighters, hospital personnel etc.

But many of us do have a choice and we often fail to use that choice to sanctify the day to God. We fit Mass in and then go about the chores we have assigned for the day.

Pope Benedict XVI has said that “to lose a sense of Sunday as the Lord’s Day, a day to be sanctified, is sympotomatic of the loss of an authentic sense of Christian freedom, the freedom of the children of God.” He callsed Sunday “the primordial holy day, when all believers, wherever they are found, can become heralds and guardians of the true meaning of time. It gives rise to the Christian meaning of life and a new way of experiencingt time, relationships, work, life and death.”

It would be worthwhile to look at how we spend our Sabbath and consider whether we might benefit from some change in how we do so.

St. James and the Camino de Santiago

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of St. James. What always comes first to my mind when I think of James is his ambition. He’s the one that wanted to be head of the class, first in line, seated at the right hand of Jesus in heaven.

But more interesting to me is the traditional assertion that St. James preached the Gospel in Spain. It is also believed that after his execution by Herod, his body was somehow miraculously translated to the northwest of Spain, and later to Compostela, a famous pilgrimage spot – the endpoint of the Camino de Santiago (also known as the Way of St. James).

The authenticity of the relic of St. James in Compostela has been questioned and there seems to be reason to doubt that St. James ever made it to Spain. Still, thousands of people each year make their way along the Camino. My friend Maria has done it; my friend Michael plans to do it this fall and it is one of my great desires is to do the same once my daughter is finished high school and off in college.

What explains that? I don’t think it is at all about St. James and his relics. I don’t think it matters a whole lot to me whether he was in Spain or not or whether his relics are there now.

I think it is more that pilgrims have been making their way along that route for more than 1000 years. I say pilgrims, although many of the people who have walked the route did not set out on a spiritual journey. (Not surprisingly, they say it ended up being a spiritual jouney.) Maybe it goes back to the Exodus metaphor I talked about two days ago – we know we are on a journey and there is something about pilgrimage – about walking a holy trail that others have walked before us that draws us. And so on this feast of St. James, I remind myself that I will walk the Camino

What Bible Verses Should Everyone Know?

If someone asked you what Bible verses everyone should know, what would you answer?

Both because I use scripture a lot in my own prayer and because in providing spiritual direction or giving retreats I often make suggestions of scriptural passages for others to pray with, I was interested to pick up Patrick Madrid’s, 150 Bible Verses Every Catholic Should Know.

Madrid’s aim is to provide 150 verses that are “among the most important passages for daily prayers and devotions, making important life decisions…, dealing successfully with temptations, sorrows, setbacks and surprises, growing in holiness, consoling and counseling others and discussing your Catholic Faith with non-Catholics.” He divides the scriptural passages by topics such as: Salvation, Divine Revelation, The Sacraments, Sanctity of Human Life, Trials and Temptations and The Church. Each topic contains several scripture passages, each followed by some short commentary.

I’m guessing that if I asked ten serious pray-ers to provide their list of the most important Bible passages, I’d get ten different lists and so I’m reluctant to criticize Madrid’s choices. Still, for me there are some curious omissions. I couldn’t imagine not including on such a list the Genesis account of creation, of God creating the world (however long that actually took) and breathing life into humans. Or Paul’s hymn of Christ’s humility in Philippians. Or the raising of Lazarus and Martha’s beautiful expression of faith that precedes the raising. Also, the author’s heavy use of the Gospels of Matthew and John to the virtual exclusion of Mark and Luke mean that several of my favorite passages (e.g., Emmaus and the Prodigal Son) are not included. That my list is different from his cannot be taken as a criticism of the author. Indeed, if one effect of the book is to cause readers to come up with their own “top 150” list, that would not be a bad thing.

As a spiritual director, I don’t tend toward the same way of categorizing scriptural passages that Madrid uses in the book. I’m more likely to categorize passages in terms of things like helpful passages when one is struggling with faith or trust in God, passages to pray with when one is in need of healing, and the like. But given Madrid’s aims, which as the quote above suggests, go beyond counseling or dealing with individual issues people are facing, his division seems sensible.

One of the things I greatly appreciated was the inclusion of some passages I don’t tend to go to, either in my own prayer or in my recommendations to others. What explains the fact that I never turn to the letters to the Thessalonians for anything? Beats me, but Madrid includes three passages from those two letters and I am happy to be reminded of their existence.

I think the best way to use this book is that way Madrid obviously intends is: not as something to sit and read cover to cover, but as a tool for one’s daily prayer. And I do think it is a very valuable tool for that purpose. So those looking for something to help structure their daily prayer might consider taking a bit of time each day reflecting on one of the passages and the brief commentary.

I read this book as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program.


For the past 10 days or so, the first Mass reading has been from the Book of Exodus and so I’ve been reflecting on and off on the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt. What has most struck me is the extent to which the exodus experience of the Israelites is such a fitting metaphor for our own lives.

While most of us are not physically enslaved to another, all of us are unfree or bound in one way or another. We all have our chains that keep us from being totally free, totally open to God’s gifts for us. Our human journey with God is precisely a path of freedom from that bondage, a path to freedom to be fully human as God intended for us.

God invites us to take that journey and does everything possible to encourage us to make that journey, including sending a Moses to us when we need one to help guide our way.

The path to wholeness and freedom can be difficult. (“Why is this so hard,” I sometimes lament to God.) And, like the Israelites, there are times when we are tempted to turn back, to look back and think maybe the bondage wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe freedom isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Maybe we should just chuck the whole thing and go back to the way things were. But God is there for us in those moments too, helping grow our faith, our trust.

At some point, difficult as the journey is, we realize there is no other path for us than the one we are on, the path toward freedom and fullness of our humanity. That path toward oneness with God.

In the words of one of the intercessions during this period of reading from Exodus, “We are your people, destined for the heavenly Jerusalem, give us strength to go on when we grow weary of the journey.

Mary Magdalene

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of Mary Magdalene. Although it is hard to sort through the various stories one hears about Mary, one thing seems absolutely certain – this was a woman who loved Jesus.

Father Raymond-Leopold Bruckberger, O.P., suggests that Mary loved Christ “with all the force of her being.” We can see evidence of that love in today’s Gospel passage. We see it in the grief Mary displays 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 realizes that the person she has taken for a gardener is, in fact, the risen Jesus.

It is no accident that one of the optional texts for the first Mass reading on this day of Mary Magdalene’s memorial is from the Song of Songs:

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.

A beautiful expression of Mary Magdalene’s longing to find Christ. A beautiful expression of the longing in all of our hearts for union with our God.