Dwelling Places

In today’s Gospel from John, Jesus tells his disciples that “there are many dwelling places” in his father’s house. We typically think of Jesus as referring to heaven when speaking of his father’s house, which doubtless explains why this is a passage sometimes chosen as the Gospel reading for funerals. But as comforting as it is to visualize a heaven of many rooms for all of us, I read a sermon given by an Episcopal priest that suggested a different possible reading to the passage.

The priest pointed out that Jesus generally spoke about the kingdom of God being among us now, focusing on the life and the world in which we currently live. Given the context in which Jesus was speaking – his Last Supper with his disciples – it is possible that that is what he was talking about here. He observed, “[t]he disciples at the last supper when Jesus spoke of the ‘many dwelling places’ didn’t really need to hear about how great life after death was going to be. They needed to hear that it was going to be O.K. right now, that they were going to be able to carry out their mission and ministry even after Jesus ascends to the Father.”

Thus, he suggested, the reference to many dwelling places can be thought of as referring to us: Each of us, every baptized Christian, is “a living stone with which Christ prepares a dwelling place for those who need it here and now, for those who need somewhere that they know they are welcome and safe and loved. As living stones we allow Christ to use us to prepare a place for those who feel estranged and lonely, those who feel different and somehow out of place, those who are hurting and, yes, those who have hurt others.”

We are the living stones. We are the dwelling place of all those who need a stone. It is an image that is more challenging than imagining all those nice rooms in heaven. This one demands something of us.


Image and Likeness of God of a Steadfast God

One of the fundamental messages of Christianity is the proclamation that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God. We know that “image and likeness” means something other than physical image and characteristics and there are different ways to talk about what it does mean.

The way I most commonly think about our being made in the image and likeness of God is to focus on the Trinitarian nature of God. Since God by definition lives in relation, our being made in God’s image and likeness implies that we exist as relational beings, which focuses on our interdependence.

In the course of writing the book I’m currently writing on my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism, I’ve been rereading my journals from various periods. Yesterday afternoon I came across in my reading something that offers another way to think about the meaning of our creation in God’s image. I wrote in my journal about being struck powerfully by a line in a sermon given by my friend John during a weekday Mass. John had said, “It is easlier to be thankful for a steadfast God than to live in the image and likeness of a steadfast God.”

At the time my focus was on the steadfastness of God. I relfected that our reactions to others are often changeable – we like someone, we don’t; we want to be with someone, we don’t. God has none of that changeability. God always loves and God always wants to be with us.

As I looked at the line again yesterday, it struck me as offering a way to think hard about what being made in the image and likeness of God demands of us. When we think of what it is about God we are thankful for – God’s unconditional love…God’s steadfastness…God’s forgiveness, etc. – we find a blueprint for what we should be aspire to as beings who are made in the image and likeness of God.

The gratitude part is easy. But trying to really live as beings made in God’s image and likeness is a worthy challenge. It is who and what we were created to be.

Representations of God

I mentioned in a post last week that I recently attended a program given by Dr. Ana-Maria Rizzuto on Understanding Religious and Spiritual Issues During Psychoanalytic Psychoterapy. I was sufficiently engaged by her talk that I’ve read several articles or book chapters written by her over the last week.

We all have representations (the term Rizzuto uses rather than “images”) of God. Unable to have a direct sensory experience of God, we resort to analogic representations. Children, needing to find some way to give shape to God when they are first told about him, form their first representation of God based on their experience with their parents. Over time, the adolescent disengages with parental representations. Rizzuto writes that “a normal crisis of late adolescence often involves a comparable religious crisis. From that moment on, ever until death, each new major emotional encounter with people contributes to modifications of God representations. Often they are silent and unnoticed; otehr times they appear as profound crises calling for a reorganization of the person’s religious stance.”

Understanding this process seems to me useful for two reasons. First, it reminds us that our images or representations of God are precisely that – analogic representations that help us give words and shape to the God who ultimately is mystery, who we can not directly experience with our senses. I think people sometimes forget that the image is image and not definition of God. (I’m thinking, for example, of people who were offended by the author of The Shack portraying God “the Father” as a motherly black woman.) Second, understanding the process helps us understand that it is completely natural that our images or representation of God change over time and there is nothing wrong with the fact that they do.

Wild Geese

I love the poetry of Mary Oliver. Last night, my friend Andy sent me an e-mail with a poem of hers that I like but hadn’t seen in a long time. The poem is Wild Geese and I share it with you since if you are not familiar with Oliver’s poetry you should be.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The Good Shepherd

Yesterday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, was Good Shepherd Sunday. And yesterday, today and tomorrow, our Gospels come from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd.

We listen to this chapter of John on the Good Shepherd after last week listening to the Bread of Life Discourse in Chapter 6 of John. This is no accident. In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict writes that

there is an inner connection bewteen the bread discourse in chapter 6 and the shepherd discourse. In both cases the issue is what man lives on. Philo, the great Jewish philosopher of religion and contemporary of Jesus, said that God, the true Shepherd of his people, had appointed his “firstborn Son,” the Logos, to the office of Shepherd…The Johannine shepherd discourse is not immediately connected with the understanding of Jesus as Logos, and yet – in the specific context of the Gospel of John – the point the discourse is making is that Jesus, being the incarnate Word of God himself, is not just the Shepherd, but also the food, the true “pasture.” He gives life by giving himself, for he is life.

Both the Shepherd and the pasture. The giver of life and life itself. This linkage is implicit in the final line of today’s Gospel. Jesus says, “Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture…I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.

There are some wonderful images of Jesus as the Good Shephard. You might sit with one of those images ini connection with praying with Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel. It offers some powerful images to sit with.

The Flame that Lights the Fire

Yesterday I gave a Day of Reflection for the Twin Cities Ignatian Associates. The theme for the day was The Flame the Lights the Fire, a phrase taken from the second decree of the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, hels in 2008, labeled A Fire that Kindles Other Fires. The thrust of the decree is the Jesuits’s mission is

to keep the fire of its original inspiration alive in a way that offers warmth and light to our contemporaries. It does so by telling a story that has stood the test of time, despite the imperfections of its members and even of the whole body, because of the continued goodness of God, who has never allowed the fire to die.

I think that articulation is a very helpful one for all Catholics today, not only Jesuits and those who follow an Ignatian Spirituality. It is easy to get disgruntled at “the imperfections of [the Church’s] members,” to be disappointed and even angry at so much of what we read today.

It is important that we not let the disgruntlement, the sadness, the disappointment and related emotions to blind us to our fundamental mission as Christians: To proclaim the Gospel. To tell our story To share with the world the story of God loving us so much that God becomes human, dies and then rises. That is the story we need to share in many and different ways. We need to make sure that nothing sidetracks us from that mission.

Transitions and Finding One’s Path

Although I’ve been on research leave this semester, and therefore not subject to the normal flow of the academic calendar, no one can mistake the end of semester feeling around the law school. Classes ended this week and some students will be getting ready for their last exam as law students. Others will soon be off to summer jobs before returning for another year or two of law school. Many of those students are scrambling to get last minute writing projects finished.

I think especially right now of those who will be graduating in a few weeks. (This year’s group of UST graduates holds a special place in my heart, as they and I started at St. Thomas at the same time.)

Periods of transitions are always difficult and leaving school and moving into the work world can be a particularly difficult and stressful change. As I thought about what it is I would want to say to these students, what came to mind were the words Ita Ford, a Maryknoll sister who was murdered in El Salvador in 1980, wrote once to her niece:

I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you. Something worth living for—maybe even worth dying for. Something that energizes you, enthuses you, and enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be – that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking, and support you in the search.

Prayers and Blessings for the UST Law Class of 2010.

What the Conversion of Paul Teaches Us

The story of the conversion of St. Paul is one I never tire of hearing. Saul, after all, is not just slightly misguided, or weak or lazy. He is not someone who makes a few mistakes along the way. Rather, he is a murderous persecutor of Christians. He stands by watching Stephen stoned to death because of Stephen’s proclamation of his faith in Christ. At the beginning of today’s first Mass reading from Acts, Saul, “still breathing murderous threats” against Jesus’ disciples, “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might arrest them.

Yet, Saul is not beyond salvation. When he encounters Christ on the road to Damascus, he is irrevocably changed. Jesus appears to him, speaks to him, invites him and he becomes a different man. No longer Saul, he is now Paul, “a chosen instrument of [Jesus] to carry [Jesus’] name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel.”

If even someone as seemingly beyond redemption as Saul, can be turned from darkness toward the light, how can we doubt the healing power of Jesus? There are some people who have a tendency to think, “It’s too late for me” or “After what I’ve done, God can’t possibly have any use for me.” The story of the conversion of St. Paul ought convince everyone of the fallicy of such thoughts. It is never too late for any of us.

Ups and Downs

One of the books I’m reading is Andy Andrew’s, The Noticer, which was recommended to me by my friend John. It was sitting on a pile of new arrivals from Amazon and it was the right size to grab on the way out the door the other day when I knew I’d have some waiting time during which I could read. The book tells the story of a drifter named Jones, who has a gift for seeing things differently from most people, and the impact he has on the people with whom he comes in contact. Jones offers each a little “perspective,” he would say, on their situation.

Early in the book, Jones meets the narrator, who at the time is homeless and living under a pier. In trying to give the narrator some perspective, Jones tells him,

Think with me here…everybody wants to be on the mountaintop, but if you’ll remember, mountaintops are rocky and cold. There is no growth on the top of a mountain. Sure, the view is great, but what’s a view for? A view just gives us a glimpse of our next destination – our next target. But to hit that target, we must come off the mountain, go through the valley, and begin to climb the next slope. It is in the valley that we slog through the lush grass and rich soil, learning and becoming what enable us to summit life’s next peak. So, my contention is that you are right where you are supposed to be.

It is not always easy slogging through the valleys. That path is sometimes painful and often difficult. But the difficulties offer us room and opportunity to grow and the occasional views of our “next target” give us the encouragement and impetus to continue along the way, “learning and becoming” what we need to be able to reach that target.

Our Daily Bread

Our Gospel readings this week, from the Bread of Life discourse in John’s Gospel, invite us to reflect on the centrality of the Eucharist in our lives. As I was listening again yesterday to the crowd’s request to Jesus to “give us this bread always,” I was reminded by the request of the Samaritan woman at the well, who asks Jesus to “give me this water.” In both cases, it is clear that Jesus’ listeners knew something extraordinary was before them. They recognized something in Jesus that would change their lives.

I wonder sometimes if we have lost something of the sense of exactly what we are receiving when we receive the Eucharist. I remember reacting very negatively when a former pastor of mine in New York, having decided to eliminate Saturday morning Mass because of a shortage of available priests, said that it was good to be deprived of the Eucharist occasionally because it would make us appreciate it more. His comment suggests the possibility that our easy, reliable access to the Eucharist can result in our taking it for granted. We go to Mass…we receive communion. Ho hum.

I still react negatively to the suggestion that it is “good” to not have the opportunity to receive the Eucharist. But we need to make sure that our easy access doesn’t serve to blind us to the extraordinary nature of what we receive each time we partake of the Eucharist. We receive Christ. We are nourished and transformed. We become part of the Body of Christ. In the words of a song by Danielle Rose, when we receive the Eucharist: “I become His hands, I walk with His feet. Transubstantiation must occur with each person that I meet. They kingdom come and live today in me.”

There’s nothing ho-hum about it.