Looking Backward and Forward as We Welcome in the New Year

We’re all familiar with the ritual of New Year’s Resolutions. We vow that we will go on that diet and lose weight. Or we will quit smoking…or get more exercise…or [fill in the blank]. Then the days of the new year start to go by and it is not long before the resolution is forgotten.

Our failure to meet our usually-not-very-well-thought-out New Year’s Resolutions does not mean there is not value in using this transition to take stock. The end of the year is a good time to reflect a bit on where we’ve been and where we are going.

Someone once shared with me some questions for reflection that had been prepared for Elul, the time in the Jewish calendar that is a time of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I share some of those questions because they seem to me to provide a valuable tool for reflection as we prepare to usher in the new year.

What have been the happiest and most gratifying parts of this past year? In what areas have I acted as my best self? Which of my current habits or behaviors to I want to bring with me into the coming year?

What have been the most painful or difficult moments of the past year? When have been the times that I have not acted as I would have hoped? Which of my current habits or behaviors would I like to modify or leave behind in the years to come?

What are the relationships in my life of which I am most proud? The ones that feel most painful? What would it take to create change in these relationships in the coming year? Who are the people that I most need to ask for forgiveness?

You can think of many other questions to add. Unlike tossing off a New Year’s resolution, the idea here is to seriously spend time reflecting on particular things that did or did not go as well with respect to my relationship with others, with God and with myself. And maybe out of this reflection will come one or two concrete directions for change that we might seek God’s help in effectuating during the coming year.

Happy New Year!


The Challenge of Working Out a Synthesis

One of the books I am currently reading is Rembert G. Weakland’s, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop. Weakland was the Archbishop of Milwaukee until his resignation in 2002. (Many will remember the circumstances of his resignation and I won’t repeat them here.)

I can’t make any broad statements about the book yet, since I am only about a third of the way through it. But I have thus found it a compelling read and there are many statements that have caused me to pause and reflect.

Weakland was the beneficiary of some extraordinary teachers during his monastic training. In talking about one older professor, Father Maurice Costello, a psychologist who tutored him in reading the works of Freud, Weakland observed that Costello’s “example taught [him] that one should not be afraid of ideas that at first seem contradictory to one’s traditional religious concepts, but to accept the challenge of working out a synthesis.”

Would that more people were taught this lesson! It has been my experience that far too many people react with what can only be described as fear when faced with something that appears to contradict a traditional concept held by them.

Clearly there are contradictory statements that simply cannot be reconciled, out of which no meaningful synthesis can be worked out. But often, the fear that arises when one is faced with something that challenges a deeply held notion makes one see an irreconcilable contradiction where none exists and prevents both growth in one’s own faith and an opportunity to bridge gaps between apparently divisive views. If more would accept the challenge taught by Weakland’s teacher, we would all be the better for it.

The Love of Friendship

Among the many blessings of this time of year is the ability to take some extra time to spend with family and friends. Many of us have at least a few days off from work around Christmas and New Year (OK – we academics have more days off than do many others), allowing us to visit with friends we might not otherwise be able to see so easily.

Joan Chittister speaks beautifully of the love between friends. She writes:

The love of a friend comes always with a lantern in hand. By love I am not talking about passion, though that will certainly, in one energizing sense or another, be a fortifying dimension of any deep and good relationship. By love I am talking about the process of melting into the life of another in ways that fuse our souls, open our hearts, and stretch our minds, and all the while claiming nothing in return. Friendship is the process of opening ourselves to the care, to the wisdom, of the other. The love of friendship is the love that holds no secrets, has no unasked questions, no unspoken thoughts, no unanswered concerns. Friendship extends us into places we have not gone before and cannot go alone. Friendship may be either ultimate or commonplace, but it is never without the gain of a little more self.

Having spent several hours yesterday with a very dear friend, Chittister’s words resonate easily with me. The love of friendship of which she speaks is a beautiful gift and I rise this day giving thanks for the blessing in my life of those I am privileged to call my friends – those who love me and accept my love, whose lives have melted into my own, and who extend me into places I have not gone before and cannot go alone.

Innocent Victims

Today the Catholic Church remembers the Holy Innocents – the babies of Bethlehem massacred by King Herod in his effort to find and destroy the Christ child. How many were killed in Herod’s determination to kill all who resembled Jesus in gender and age is unknown; the estimate ranges from 10,000 to a few dozen.

The numbers don’t really matter a whole lot. The death of even one innocent child is too many.

Yet, innocent children die every day. From poverty and hunger. From lack of clean drinking water. From their parent’s inability to take them to the doctor when they are ill. From physical abuse and neglect. From abortion. From war. From acts of terror and other acts of violence.

We can argue about the numbers, we can argue about root causes, we can argue about solutions. (And we do.) We can argue ourselves blue (or red) in the face. (And we do.)

But today, on this feast of the Holy Innocents, pehaps we might put aside the arguments and the politics and simply pray for all of the innocent children who die, from whatever causes. And perhaps we might also pray for the wisdom and grace to do a better job of protecting our children. In the words of the morning prayer for this day,

Father, you sent your only Son to die that all the children of this world might live and grow to fullness in the kingdom he proclaimed. Transform in the hearts of all people the forces of violence, cruelty, and destruction into the one saving force of love, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

Temperence is a Virtue

This holiday week, as many of us are surrounded by lots of food and drink and piles of gifts, is a good time to be reminded that temperence is a virtue.

Temperence is one of the four cardinal virtues. It is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in our use and enjoyment of the goods of the world. It helps keep our desires of worldly pleasures within the limits of what might be considered reasonable or honorable.

Temperance does not mean one cannot enjoy oneself and it is not about deprivation. Instead it is about something closer to the Buddhist idea of detachment or a Christian or Hindu notion of renunciation rather than it is to deprivation. A Buddhist Lamas used to tell his followers, by all means, enjoy your ice cream cone. Renunciation doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ice cream; it means you don’t walk around thinking “I have to have the ice cream cone…I need the ice cream cone….If I don’t have the ice cream cone I can’t be happy.” It is not the item that is the problem; it is the attachment to it – the sense that one has to have it – and more and more of it – to be happy.

So temperance is not suppression or repression. (It is not the sisters in the move Babette’s Feast, who Babette cooks for, who rarely laugh, who eat only small amounts of the most basic, bland and tasteless food and never let a drop of alcohol pass their lips.) It is having a different relation to the objects of the world. It stands in sharp contrast to greed and consumerism – the mentality that more is always better. That we cannot be happy unless we have lots and lots of whatever it is we are using as our barometer. It is a quality of being temperate, i.e., exercising moderation and self-restraint; of using what we need and what is helpful.

In its positive, and not its distorted sense, it is a good quality to be reminded of during what can so easily become a time of excess.

The First Martyr

I always find it a bit jarring to wake up the morning after Christmas, open my Magnificat and remember that today is the feast of St. Stephen. Still full of Christmas cheer, we celebrate the the first of the Christian martyrs.

Although it may be a bit jarring, it is also fitting that we follow Christmas by remembering Stephen. In so doing, we remind ourselves that the Incarnation is part of a larger story. The opening act is birth, but the story doesn’t end with the angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” or the wise men bringing their gifts. Instead, birth is followed inexorably by a horrible death and by resurrection, such that Christmas never stands alone, but is always joined inextricably with Good Friday and Easter Sunday. As Thomas Merton once wrote, “Christmas, then, is not just a sweet regression to breast-feeding and infancy. It is a serious and sometimes difficult feast. Difficult especially if, for psychological reasons, we fail to grasp the indestructible kernel of hope that is in it. If we are just looking for a little consolation-we may be disappointed.”

Celebrating Stephen reminds us the the narrative of birth, death and resurrection is not just that of Jesus, but of all of us. In the first reading for Mass today from the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen’s last words before dying recall the words of Christ on the cross: “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit.” And in the Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus promises that those who are persecuted in his name and endure will be saved.

Stephen patterned his life on that of Christ. We are invited to do the same so that we, too, may share in full story of Christ, which ends in resurrection.

Christmas Day

Today we celebrate the audacious reality of God becoming human. The intermingling of divinity and humanity which allow us a share of God’s divine nature.

Ian Oliver, in a poem titled, A Christmas Prayer, writes that as a result of this “inexpressible” enclosure of divinity and humanity in the one body of Christ, “to be human was never the same, but forever thereafter, carried a hint of its close encounter with the perfect.”

And that is a central part of the message of Christmas. Not just that Christ was born, but that Christ’s birth means something about who we are – about who we can be. For, as Oliver writes,

If God can lie down in a cattle-trough,
Is any object safe from transformation?
If peasant girls can be mothers to God,
Is any life safe from the invasion of the eternal?
If all this could happen, O God,
What places of darkness on our eath
Are pregnant with light waiting to be born this night?

We know the answer to that question. If God can lie down in a cattle-trough and a peasant girl can be mother of God, then, indeed, God can be everywhere and is everywhere waiting to be born. Waiting for each of us to be the mother of God in the world.

One Day More

Christmas Eve – a sign that the time of waiting is almost at an end. One day more until we again celebrate the coming of the Christ.

Is the waiting easier or harder now that it is coming to an end? Many are still buying last minute gifts, or purchasing the makings of the big family feast. (Alas, with the deaths over the years of the older of my relatives, our Christmas Eve dinner no longer includes the seven fishes.) Many are sitting in airports waiting for flights to take them home to family and friends. Many are at work, stealing glances at their watches, wondering if the workday will ever end.

But hopefully in all of the hustle and bustle of this day, we stop and take a breath, and remember for what and whom it is we are waiting. The Son of God, in the words of Galatians, “born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption.”

So carry on with the shopping, and the food preparation and the travel and the hustle and bustle. But pause now and then, and remember with joy and gladness that our wait is almost at an end.

God Becomes Human

The Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Igantius begins with a beautiful contemplation of the Incarnation. St. Ignatius invites us imagine the Holy Trinity looking out over the world. The Holy Trinity knows the whole world of humankind and sees all of the various ways human beings are suffering and bringing suffering on each other. Ignatius says “they look down upon the whole surface of the earth and behold all nations in great blindness, going down to death and descending into hell.”

Ignatius invites us to enter into the heart of God as God looks at the world. What goes on in the heart of the Trinity as they look at the darkness of the world? Ignatius invites us to feel the Trinity’s love for humanity and their pain at out suffering. And he invites us to see and hear the Trinity’s response to that pain: how out of that incredible love for humanity, out of God’s infinite and eternal love, God thinks, “Let us save all these people.” And Jesus says, “I’ll go.” And so the Father decides to send the Son down to enter into the world, to become human for the sake of our salvation.

A wonderful little book called Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuit, includes a reflection coming out of this prayer exercise by Michael Moynahan, S.J. The reflection, written as a message by the Trinity to us, starts by talking about how little we understood the ways in which God sought to convey God’s love to us, how notwithstanding all God tried to do, we grew distant, deaf and blind to God. It then expresses God’s next move in a simple, homey way:

And so we did
what families do
when confronted with calamity.
We drew straws.
Shorty lost.
He came to share
your plight,
your fight,
your night,
and point you
toward tomorrow.

Christ comes to share everything with us…and to point us toward tomorrow.

What Can I Give Him?

We’ve just finished the Christmas concert season of the various choirs in which my daughter sings. I have delighted over the last few weeks at the sounds of the choirs, admittedly taking particular delight in a solo Elena sang in one of her Chamber Choir songs and in her piano accompaniment of one of the songs for her High School Concert Choir. (It was a piece for four hands on piano and so she provided the second set of hands, playing with the choir’s normal accompanist.) There is something about young voices lifted in song that warms the heart and brings smiles (if not tears) to the face.

One of the songs Elena’s Chamber Choir particularly enjoyed singing this year was In the Bleak Midwinter, the lyrics to which are taken from a poem by the 19th Century English poet, Christina Rosetti. The last verse of the song asks a question we all might be asking in these final days before Christmas – What can I give Him? What gift can I lay before the creche on Christmas morning? The song not only asks the question, but provides perhaps the best answer one can provide to the question:

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him —
Give my heart.

It was only recorded with a flipvideo, so there are some imperfections in the sound, but you can listen to the Minnetonka Chamber Choir singing In the Bleak Midwinter here.