Beautiful Lessons

Someone sent me a slideshow the other day, titled Beautiful Lessons of Life, which was, indeed, beautiful in many different ways. One of the slides contains the following bits of wisdom, some, but not all, of the lines of which I have heard before. The slide reads:

Work as if you have no need of the money.
Love as if nobody ever made you suffer.
Dance as if nobody is watching.
Sing as if nobody is hearing you.
Live as if the Paradise were on this Earth.

Each line, I think, speaks a valuable truth. Perhaps not surprisingly, the line that most arrested me was the advice to love as if nobody ever made you suffer. Because, of course, being hurt by others does tend to make us wary. The temptation with each hurt is to pull back more – to hold back some of our love, some of ourselves – so as to make ourselves less vulnerable to further hurt. It is actually a rational response at some level.

Nonetheless the advice is sound. It invites us to accept that suffering is part of the cost of love. A spirtiual director once said to me, in the context of my wonder at how much I was grieving a particular death, “You grieve deeply because you love deeply.” Love is not painless. It does hurt sometimes. But to not love fully, is far worse. It prevents us from opening ourselves fully to God…to each other…to who are are meant to be. So: Love as if nobody ever made you suffer.

You can see the Beautiful Lessons of Life slideshow here.


The Beginning of Advent

Today is the First Sunday in Advent, the beginning of my favorite liturgical season. The term “Advent” comes from that Latin “adventus,” which means “coming.” Advent is a period of waiting and expectation and of preparing. For what?

For the Israelites, there was a long Advent preceding the coming of the Messiah. That long waiting, which lasted generations and generations, is chronicled in the Old Testament, as the world and God’s people waited for the coming of Christ.

For us, each year we go through again this period of waiting during the four weeks of Advent. Our waiting is, of course, different from that of the Israelites. We enter Advent each year knowing the plot line. We know that following the end of this Advent period is Christmas morning, when we celebrate anew the birth of Christ, God taking the form of human to become closer to us than we could possibly imagine.

Knowing the plot line is helpful. Knowing it allows us to lay aside the anxiety the Israelites had about whether the Messiah would really come. Without that anxiety, we can use this Advent as a time of active preparation. Not passively waiting, but actively preparing to welcome Christ anew into our hearts and our lives.

And so as we begin Advent, we should be asking ourselves: What will I do during this Advent to give reality to the rule of Immanuel? How will I help birth Christ into the world?

Hidden Jesus

I’m currently reading a small book by Fr. Richard W. Gilsdorf called Go to Joseph, which offers insights into St. Joseph, about whom we are told very little in the Bible. I’ve been reading a chapter every morning as part of my morning prayer period. (This post is not about St. Joseph, by the way.)

In one chapter, Gilsdorf talks about Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. He describes Mary riding astride the donkey “like a living monstrance,” and then talks about their difficulty finding shelter in the evenings.

I was arrested by the designation of Mary as a “living monstrance.” What came to mind as I read the phrase was Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem…Jesus riding astride a donkey, with people spreading their cloaks on the ground before him, waving branches and crying out “Hosanna…Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

It would be easy, wouldn’t it, to recognize Jesus if he came “as himself.” He’d be hard to miss if he appeared in all his kingly glory. That would certainly make it easy for us to recognize him and give him praise and honor.

But most of the time, Jesus comes to us hidden. Comes to us disguised in the form of a “living monstrance.” Comes to us hidden in our co-workers….the man begging on the street corner…the tired pregnant woman who can barely carry her packages…our family members. No outward sign that says “Messiah” or “God.”

Gisldorf says of people who would have passed Mary and Joseph on the road and seeing only a young man and his young pregnant wife, “Who would have dreamed that before their eyes had just passed their Messiah.” Yet, that is exactly what we are asked to do. To look at the faces of all those we come in contact with and see them as living monstrances, to see them as carrying the living Jesus within. That is challenging, but that is the challenge we as Christians are given. To see everyone as carrying Christ within, and treating them accordingly.

Advent Retreat in Daily Living – Our Longing for God

This Sunday is the beginning of Advent, the period during which we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ at Christmas. It is my favorite time in the liturgical calendar. As I did last year, this year I am giving a four week Advent Retreat in Daily Living at the University of St. Thomas School of Law (and also at St. Hubert). During a retreat in daily living, the participants commit to pray each day with material I provide them with and we meet weekly, during which meetings I give a brief talk that relates to the material they will be praying with that week. The participants are also given time during the weekly meeetings to share with each other in small groups their prayer experience from the prior week and we address any questions that have come up in the prayer.

Our first weekly meeting was this week. My talk focused on Advent as a time of longing, our longing for God. The invitation during this first week is for the participants to get in touch with their own longing for God, focusing on what they need for God. The rubric I invited them to use for doing that is the “O” Antiphones, the seven antiphons that are chanted or recited during the octave before Christmas. I talked about both the structural pattern and the content of the antiphons.

You can find the talk I gave here . (The podcast runs for 23:49). The prayer material for this first week of the retreat, which I reference during the talk, can be found here.

We Give Thanks

Today those of us in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving Day. The first national observance of Thanksgiving came at the recommendation of President Washington that the people of the United States observe Thursday, November 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.” Washington’s proclamation asked the American people to “beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.”

Later this morning, we will go to Mass and engage in “public thanksgiving and prayer” with our parish community. But I also rise and begin this day in thanks for so many gifts…

….the gift of friends who love me despite my failings and who support me in times of need,

….the gift of my sixteen-year old daughter, who still likes to hang out with me and who puts up with my bad jokes and worse singing,

….the gift of a husband who accepts my running hither and yon, only sometimes remembering to tell him what I’ve scheduled for me or for us,

….the gift of enough food to eat, a warm bed at night, the ability to see a doctor when I’m sick,

….the gift of God’s love and presence.

And on this Thanksgiving Day when I am so cognizant of the many blessings I have been given, I ask for God’s blessing in a special way for those who feel alone and friendless this day, for those who lack the basic necessities for human flourishing, and especially for those who have trouble finding God in the midst of their suffering. May the Lord bless and keep all of them…all of us…always.

God Has a Cousin

Looking through a pile of books in my study, I came across one I hadn’t looked at in a while – a book of short poems by Cynthia Rylant called God Went to Beauty School. The book consists of a number of short poems that describe God in very human terms. Some would doubtless find the poems a bit irreverent, but they convey God in very real terms and describe a very personal relationship with God.

There are two poems in the collection I particularly like, one of which is titled God Has a Cousin. I think part of the appeal for me is that it invites us to think differently about the extent of the rift between God and Lucifer. But I think part is just that, coming from a large family where family love always ultimately trumps conflict, I completely get “that’s the way it is with family.”

Lucy, or Lucifer,
if you want to be formal.
Everybody called him
Lucy growing up,
which accounts a lot
for how he turned out.
God’s not as made at him
as some people think.
You don’t become God
by holding grudges.
And besides,
Lucy taught Him
how to swing a bat,
though nobody wants
to hear about that.
Living in the same neighborhood,
hanging at the same places,
you get to feeling close,
you know?
Lucy’s one of the few people
left who remember
what it was like
In The Beginning.
Sure, God and he went
their separate ways,
but truth be known,
they’re always asking,
“How’s he doing?” and “How’s He doing?”
That’s the way it is
with family.
God’s still looking
for Lucy to move back.

When Will This Happen?

In these last days of the liturgical year, the Gospel readings have been focusing on the end times. Today, in our Gospel reading from St. Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that there will come a time when all they see will be completely destroyed. However, he warns not to be deceived by those who “will come in [his] name, saying ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.” Do not follow them!”

Good advice as we hear people warning that Armegeddon will come in 2012…as we see more and more websites devoted to the rapture and post-rapture communications to family members and care of pets…as we are warned that the end is almost upon us. There will be many false prophets trying to get our attention…misleading us with their claims that they come in the name of God.

Clearly there is value in recognizing that none of us individually know when our end is coming, an attitude that encourages us to make each moment count…to not assume that there will always be a tomorrow to correct what we fail to deal with today. And there is doubtless value for us a collective to remember that what we know now will not always be.

Yet no one know when that end will come. And it is not for us to worry about when that day will be. Rather, our task is to live each moment of each day – however many moments and however many days that will be – being Christ to the world. Sharing Christ’s love with all those who we meet. If we can do that, the rest will take care of itself.

Death and Resurrection

One year ago today, a NYC firefighter, lost his life in a house fire. The firefighter wasn’t scheduled to work that night, but he did. It wasn’t the kind of fire you would expect to take a life, but it did. He was my 46-year old cousin, Bobby. My younger cousin, who I grew up with…who I loved.

We expect things to operate according to a story line that makes sense to us. So we say: People shouldn’t die young. They shouldn’t die while their parents are still alive. They shouldn’t die while they still have young children who need them. And they shouldn’t die in horrible accidents that deprive us of an opportunity to say good-bye…to tell them one last time how much we love them.

But they do and he did. And so here we are – my family and I – one year later still feeling the loss. Still mourning his death. Still shedding tears at the empty space he once occupied.

I’ve talked about death before. Death is always hard and the death of a young person even harder. The only thing that makes it possible for me to bear is the certainty of resurrection. My absolute belief in the words Jesus spoke to Martha after the death of her beloved brother Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

And so secure in the knowledge of resurrection, let me share, as I did once before, the words of John Donne in Death Be Not Proud.

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.

Christ the King

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, which, among other things, signals for us that the liturgical year is coming to an end and Advent is almost here. We hear in our first reading the prophesy of Daniel, who saw “one like a Son of man coming” and saw this son of man receive “dominion, glory, and kingship.”

Calling Jesus a king is part of what made some people nervous during his lifetime; it certainly made Pilate nervous. (In today’s Gospel we listen to Pilate question Jesus about being King of the Jews.) Misunderstanding the nature of Christ’s kingship, people like Pilate and Herod saw His being king as a threat to their own power. Misunderstanding the nature of Christ’s kingship, others thought it meant a relationship of subjugation.

But Christ’s kingship is not political. As Pope Benedict explains, Jesus is a new kind of king. “This king does not break the people with an iron rod (cf. Ps 2:9) – he rules form the Cross, and does so in an entirely new way. Universality is achieved through the humility of communion in faith; this king rules by faith and love, and in no other way.”

Thus, today’s feast, in Pope Benedict’s words, “is not a feast of those who are subjugated, but a feast of those who know that they are in the hands of the one who writes straight on crooked lines.”

Happy feast of Christ the King!

At the Resurrection, Whose Wife Will That Woman Be?

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, some Sadducees, “who deny that there is a resurrection,” put a question to Jesus. Citing Moses’ command that a brother must marry the wife of his decesased brother in order to raise descendants for that brother, the Saducees hypothesize a woman who successively marries seven brothers, as each of her husbands die before her. They ask, “at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.”

You can almost see Jesus shaking his head at their confusion in asking the question. He explains that “those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels.”

Although some of the scribes congratulate Jesus for answering well, I’m not entirely sure how much clarity his answer brings about what things look like after the resurrection. I get questioned not infrequently by non-Catholics about what exactly the afterlife will be like. And the truth is that I don’t have a good answer to the question. I pray every week as part of the Creed that “I believe in the resurrection of the Body” but I don’t really know what that looks like. (I’m fairly confident I won’t have the bad knee, heel spurs and other various ailments of this body.) I’m guessing our resurrected bodies will look something like Jesus’ did after his Resurrection, but we don’t really know much about that except that it was hard for people (like Mary Magdalene) to initially recognize him and he could appear inside a locked room. Does that mean it will be hard for us to recognize the resurrected bodies of our loved ones? I don’t know.

For some the uncertainty is a problem. They want to know exactly what it will be (and that it somehow makes sense to them). I’ve decided that this is an area where I can live with not knowing. I dont’ know what life after resurrection looks like, but it is enough for me to know that it means full union with God and others. I don’t know what it will look like, but I trust it will be wonderful.