Resting in God’s Peace

Like Martha in Luke’s Gospel, we worry and fret about so many things. Our minds race for hours on end and we often find ourselves full of anxiety. Worries about so many things, big and small cram our minds. It sometimes seems like our mind is nothing but a mass of anxieties.

And then something – the smile of a friend, the blueness of the sky, the rustle of the leaves of a tree, a piece of music – reminds us that there is something beyond the worry. That there is Someone who holds us and our worries in the palm of His hand. That we are not alone and that, whatever it is, we don’t have to face it all on our own. We’re reminded, and we are able to lift our heads above the suffocating anxieties and rest in God’s peace.

My friend Michael recently posted on Mirror of Justice a poem by Denise Levertov, Primary Wonders, that captures more eloquently than my words something of that peace of God that soothes our souls:

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, and everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

Coincidentally, my friend Richard sent me a poem the other day by Wendell Berry that suggests a simple means of bringing ourselves back from the anxiety into God’s peace. In The Peace of Wild Things, Berry writes:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Good material to pray with.

The Weekly Mass Collection

Each Sunday at Mass, there is a collection during which we make our weekly offering. Many parishes have moved to greater transparency and so the weekly church bulletin often contains a simple financial statement showing parish administrative and other expenses on one side of the ledger and income from weekly offerings and other sources on the other.

At one level the transparency is a good thing; it provides an accountability that benefits everyone. But it also creates a danger of our thinking that the collection at Mass is just about meeting our parish’s financial needs.

More importantly, our offering at Mass each week symbolizes something about our relationship to God and to the goods of this earth. Father Lawrence Mick writes,

It is not just a matter of giving God one or two percent of our income or even of tithing ten percent to God. In biblical times, the Jews made an offering of the first fruit of the harvest. It was a sign of gratitude for the harvest but also a symbol that the whole harvest really belonged to God. What we give in the collection should be a symbol of all that we have. It is a reminder that everything we own is a gift from God. Our gift in the collection is both a sign of our gratitude and a symbol that we will use all of God’s gifts as God wills.

So the practical aspect of keeping our parish running is important. But we should not lose sight of the symbolic element of our offering. As we prepare ourselves to receive the Eucharist, we give back to God some of what God has given us as an expression of our willingness to give ourselves to God.

Ordinary Things

We often use the term ordinary as a way to mark something that doesn’t matter very much. Ordinary things don’t stand out, they don’t attract our attention. We look for things to be special, to be extraordinary.

But for Catholics, ordinary is not something to ignore. As George Weigel wrote in The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored,

In the Catholic imagination, the extraordinary lies just on the far side of the ordinary. Through the ordinary things of this world…God makes himself and his grace available to us in what Catholics call ‘sacraments.’…Inside that distinctive way of looking at things, what the world often things of as ordinary and mundane becomes an experience of the extraordinary and divine.

Water baptizes us into Christ. Bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Through the ordinary we experience the divine.

Our challenge is to recognize the divine through the ordinary. Not just in the bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Christ, but in all of our everyday experiences. We can experience the transcendent in all sorts of ordinary activities. For some it is through music. For others, nature – the ocean, a river, a mountain. It might be seeing the face of a loved one. The important thing is to be open to the fact that we can experience the divine in everything and everywhere, to allow God to breakthrough our everyday, ordinary lives.

Wise Women

I remember when I first read Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as a middle school or high school student. I was awed by the intelligent and cunning way that Portia saves Antonio from losing a pound of flesh to Shylock. It was the first time I remember reading of a woman using her intellectual and verbal skills to achieve an important end.

I thought of Portia in connection with R. Geoffrey Harris’ reminder in Mission in the Gospels of the many “wise women of the Bible who overcome dismissive male attitudes by the use of wit, cunning and intelligence – qualities much admired in the Middle East in Jesus’ time.” In the New Testament, the Syrophoenician woman in Mark’s Gospel overcomes Jesus’ reluctance to heal her daughter since she is not part of the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel. In the Old Testament, Esther uses skill and diplomacy to persuade the king to kill Haman, who has plotted to destroy the Jews in Persia. A woman “maneuvers King David into changing his mind about the banishment of Absolom.” Ruth and Naomi plan and manage Ruth’s future with Boaz. And so on.

We aren’t often enough reminded of these women. But they are there. They are part of our history. We, particularly the women among us, could benefit from remembering their deeds and from remembering that the blood of all the Ruths and Naomis and Esther’s, and all of our soul sisters who have come before us, flows through our veins.

To Dive In or to Wait Things Out, That is the Question

Many years ago, a partner in the law firm I worked for (a very good friend and mentor, now deceased) told me that the difference between me and his wife on the one hand and him on the other is that she and I would see a problem and immediately roll up our sleeves and dive in to handle it. In contrast, his approach was to wait it out a bit, to step back and give things a chance to resolve themselves.

I was reminded of his comment earlier this week, when I got an e-mail from our head of Campus Ministry asking my view on how to resolve a scheduling conflict. No sooner had I read his message than I immediately sent an e-mail out to various parties who had an interest in how the conflict was resolved. Several e-mails (and slight disagreements) later, I suggested a resolution. Shortly thereafter, I received another e-mail from the head of Campus Ministry informing me there had been an error in a schedule he saw and there was, in fact, no conflict.

My first reaction was to jokingly suggest, “Guess I should have procrastinated and ignored the initial message for a few days before bringing everyone else into the loop.” In this case, had I done so, I could have avoided the time both I and others spent discussing the issue.

The problem, of course, is that while sometimes our difficulties (or perceived difficulties) correct themselves and no action is necessary, other times they will not and some action is required. It is not always clear to us which way to respond and how long to wait before we take affirmative action.

That I can’t provide any clear rules for deciding on action vs. inaction and that we can’t approach all situations the same way doesn’t particularly trouble me. For me there is value in simply being reminded that I don’t always have to step in immediately to take charge of a situation. Not every problem (or perceived problem) that arises is one that I have to act to solve. At a minimum this means I need to take a few breaths and to take some time for intentional consideration (including inviting some input from God) about whether immediate action is necessary before I dive in to try to fix things.

The Sin of the Pharisees

In yesterday and today’s Gospels from St. Matthew, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees in fairly harsh terms, calling them hypocrites, blind guides, and worse. Long familiar with these passages, we tend to hold the Pharisees in fairly low regard; Father Simon Tugwell, O.P. suggests that it is “all too easy for us to treat the Pharisees as embodying all that is worst in humankind.”

Tugwell suggests that our view toward the Pharisees is a tad too harsh. The Pharisees were, he writes, “probably the best men of their time, the most religious, the most devoted to the will of God, the most eager to express their loyalty to him in obedience to his every word, the most determined never to compromise with the world around them.”

The real problem with the Pharisees was that they thought they had it made because they were so good at following all of the rules. They had a long checklist of all the things they were supposed to do and they did them all. They did them all really well. They followed that long list of rules to a “T.”

The danger that arises when one thinks it is all about simply following the rules to a “T” is that it is too easy for the rules to become unmoored from what inspired them in the first place. The goal becomes getting a good score on the rules, not the devotion to and love for God that the rules were designed in the first instance to facilitate. When that happens, it is easy for God to get lost in the midst of all the rules.

Studying the Bible

Praying with scripture is something I do with great frequency and I think it is a very powerful form of prayer. But it is also the case that there is value in studying the scripture. At Mass we hear and reflect on short passages of the Bible in isolation and, in my experience, rare is the priest who spends a lot of time in his homily providing the context of a particular reading. (The same is generally true when we pray with scripture – whether we use the daily Mass reading or something else, we are praying with an individual passage.) Therefore, unless we engage in study of the sciripture outside of Mass and our individual prayer, we don’t, for example, see a particular Gospel or another book of the Bible as a whole, or focus very much on how particular themes are treated across different books of the Bible.

Those new (and even those not so new) to Bible study might find useful a book called Learn to Study the Bible, by Andy Deane. The book is subtitled, Forty different step-by-step methods to help you discover, apply, and enjoy God’s Word. I might quibble with the subtitle, in that I found several of the methods in the section of the book providing basic bible study methods close enough to each other that I’m not sure they deserve separate treatment. Nonetheless, there is much to recommend the book.

First, the book does attempt to bridge a divide between prayer and study, by emphasizing the value of prayer for our understanding of the Bible and the inclusion in each of the methods of a step for reflecting on how the subject of our study applies in our individual lives. My criticism of some approaches to Bible study is precisely the failure to include or emphasize what I consider to be an essential part of Bible study: How does this truth appy to my life? And one of the chapters in the initial section of the book on foundations of bible study treats the subject of application in great detail, reminding us that “unless we determine to apply the Scriptures to our lives, we never will.”

Second, several of the methods in the section of the book titled Major Bible Study Methods aim to address some of the issues I raised earlier. One method addresses getting an overview of an entire book, another focuses on characters and what we learn of them throughout different books of the Bible, another focuses on how particular topics are addressed across different books, another on themes. In their individual ways, each provides a method for gaining a broader perspective than we get from reading individual passages.

Third, in a section titled Studying Specific Passages, there are some interesting techniques for some particular topics and/or words used by Jesus or prayers in the Bible as a way to deepen our understanding. While some of the methods in this section are approaches I have engaged in my own study and prayer with scripture, others offered things that had not crossed my mind and that strike me as very useful. There is also a section at the end that provides some methods for scripture study with younger students.

As will be the case with any book of this type, some methods will appeal to some users more than others. But I believe it is a useful reference and I know I will use it both for my own study and in retreats and other programs of spiritual formation that I offer for others.

St. Bartholomew

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Bartholomew. He is not one of the Apostles about whom we know a great deal. We hear his name only when the Gospel lists the names of the twelve apostles and thus get no details about who he is.

Bartholomew traditionally has been identified with Nathaniel, who was brought to Jesus by Philip. Most of us remember his response when Philip tells him he has found the one of whom the prophets spoke: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth.” Talking about Bartholomew/Nathaniel’s reaction, Pope Benedict says,

Nathanael’s protest highlights God’s freedom, which baffles our expectations by causing him to be found in the very place where we least expect him. Nathanael’s reaction suggests another thought to us: in our relationship with Jesus we must not be satisfied with words alone. In his answer, Philip offers Nathanael a meaningful invitation: “Come and See!” Our knowledge of Jesus needs above all a first-hand experience…we ourselves must be personally involved in a close and deep relationship with Jesus.”

Pope Benedict also suggest that very the scarcity of information we have about Bartholomew tells us something important. He suggests that Bartholomew “stands before us to tell us that attachment to Jesus can also be lived and witnessed to without performing sensational deeds.” Comforting.

This Saying is Hard

The passage from St. John’s Gospel that we hear in Mass today comes immediately after Jesus tells the crowds, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (which we heard at Mass last Sunday). Today’s Gospel opens with the disciples murmering about how difficult this teaching is for them to accept.

While we are often quick to criticize the disciples for their slowness at times, their reaction here should not surprise us. Jesus’ disciples are, after all, Jewish. The idea of consuming blood would have been anathema to them. They knew well the teaching of the Book of Leviticus: “If anyone, whether of the house of Israel or of the aliens residing among them, partakes of any blood, I will set myself against that one who partakes of blood and will cut him off from among his people.” So what Jesus says is not just strange, but something that seems to call for a violation of one of their fundamental laws.

Many could not accept the teaching. And so they left. They “returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

I’m not sure which of two aspects is more extraordinary about this passage: the fact that Jesus had the integrity to speak the truth here, knowing how many followers it would cost him, or the fact that the Twelve remained when so many others left. It would have been so easy for Jesus to mince words, to speak in a parable that might mask the shocking reality of what he told them. But he speaks clearly, saying exactly what he means, despite the cost.

And it would have been equally easy for the Twelve to desert him. But Peter answers for all of them (and, in some sense for all of us when the path seems unclear) when Jesus asks if they plan to leave Him also: where else would be go. “To whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

Incompletion

It is easy to be almost addicted to completion. We seem to internalize certain rules and are either unable to break them or, if we do break them, we feel guilty. Don’t leave the movie theater before the film is over. Always finish a book once you start it. We have the idea the if we start something we have to finish it no matter what.

Why? If the movie is bad and I’m not enjoying it, why should I stay and watch it instead of cutting my losses and leaving? (Something I’ve done only twice in my life.) If I’m satisfied by reading part of a book, what does it matter that I haven’t finished it? It is one thing to say, as my father did when I wanted to quit the debate team after the first meeting of freshman year in high school, “Give it a chance before you give up on it.” (I took his advice and spent all of my four years of high school as a quite successful debater.) It is another to demand that we stick with something merely because we started it.

Elevating completion to a goal ignores the fact that the process is often a lot more important than the endpoint. In a wonderful essay titled In Praise of Incompletion, that appeared in Weavings several years ago, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes,

It might be that if we were to go where our curiosities led us, dwell there while authentically engaged, and stop when we had enough, we might, paradoxically, be less inclined to boredom, superficiality, or fickle interests, becuase we might experience in a more authentic way the movement of the Spirit within us that seeks our growth and highest good. Like plants, we seek the sun. Natural creatures tend, unspoiled by cultural pressures, to seek out what they need, take what they need, and stop when they are satisfied. We learn, unlike them, to betray ourselves….Finishing may be beside the point.

So give yourself permission now and then (i.e., not in the middle of a term paper or job-related task you’ve committed to get done for a client) to not finish something…and not to be guilty about it.