Memorial Day

Today the United States celebrates Memorial Day, a day of remembrance of those who have died while in military service.

I confess that I have mixed feelings about the day. On the one hand, I am grateful to those who keep our country safe and who have given their lives to do so. It is fitting that we keep them in our prayers and our memories.

On the other hand, as a Christian, I am concerned that we also never lose sight of the horror of war and the need to promote peace. I’d feel a lot more comfortable if the sermons we hear on Memorial Day contained at least a reminder of the Catholic just war theory and the fact that some of the wars in which our young men and women have lost their lives can not be justified under principles of Catholic social thought. That takes nothing away from the sacrifice of our military personnel, but it helps ensure that we not forget that our obligations to promote peace and an end to war and violence. Indeed, since those who died for our country believed they were doing so to promote peace and justice, their sacrifice was in vain if we do not take our obligation in this regard seriously.

I am also concerned that we remember that it is not just American service men and women who have lost their lives protecting their countries. Our Mass petitions often include prayers for the safety of our soldiers. I silently at those moments add my prayers for all those of those affected by war – not only our soldiers but those who they fight against, and espeically for the civilians whose lives have been devastated by war.

So by all means let us remember those who have died in service to our country. But let us also pray for peace and remember this day all of those who have suffered the effects of war and armed conflict.


Trinity Sunday

Today is the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is not an easy one for many people. I remember in grade school being taught that there are three Persons in one God, which never really made a whole lot of sense to me or the other students at Sts. Simon and Jude Grammar School.

My friend Amy Uelmen, a member of the Focolare community and director of Fordham’s Institute of Religion, Law, and Lawyer’s Work, has written much about the Trinity. In a piece in America magazine, she once talked about the fact that the life of the Trinity “can serve as a model for social relationships in which ‘true openness does not mean loss of individual identity but profound interpenetration’… As Chiara Lubich described the dynamic, ‘I am myself not when I close myself off from the other, but rather when I give myself, when out of love I lose myself in the other.'”

We are made in the image of a Trinitarian God. Therefore, while we retain an individual identity, we are fundamentally interconnected with each other. We share a “profound interpenetration,” meaning that our relationship to each other is not incidental, but is integral to who we are.

When God the Trinity says in Genesis, “Let us make man in our image,” the image in which we are created is one of a community of love. We know God most fully, we are most fully who we were created to be, when we live in loving communion.

Happy Trinity Sunday.

Small Miracles

My favorite aunt was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November. That is always a scary diagnosis, but for my family the news was a particularly painful blow – that same disease killed her husband in 1998 and my father (her brother) in 2003. So this is a story to which we know the end….and it is not a “they all lived happly ever after” ending.

My aunt has been undergoing chemo and we have been told the best news we can expect from the periodic scans is that the tumor has not grown. Good news is “no change.” That was indeed the news we got from the prior scans. However, when I called her home to find out the result of the latest scan, I got the impossible news that the tumor has shrunk.

I don’t know what name to give it. Miracle? Scientific/medical breakthrough? Luck of the draw? I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve been praying, my family has been praying, our friends have been praying. What I do know is that somehow or another, prayers have been answered.

Will the tumor continue to shrink? Will my aunt live longer than if it has not shrunk? Will the chemo continue to help? I don’t know the answers to these or any other questions that may arise.

But whatever happens, I am enormously grateful for the prayers and support of my friends…and I will be grateful for whatever extra time this may give us with a woman who means so much to so many people, not least of all me.

Thank you, Lord. And thank you to all my friends for your love, your prayers and your support.

Love Intensely

Our first Mass reading all this week has been from the first Letter of St. Peter. In today’s reading, Peter instructs that “above all” we should “let [our] love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.” And so he instructs us, for example, to be hospitable to each other without complaining, to use our gifts for the service and benefit of each other.

Presumably all of us who are walking a spiritual path desire to sin less. And we certainly want to be cognizant of those sins we do commit.

However, I think there is soundness to Peter’s advice, that is, in the suggestion that our focus is better put on loving more than on sinning less. If we are so busy loving each other (and I confess I love the phrasing of letting our love for each other be “intense”), it seems to me the sinning less part will take care of itself.

As I’ve suggested before, we have a tendency to make things complicated. Complicated solutions appeal to us. But it really is quite simple – love. Love each other. Love each other intensely.

The Object of Change in Prayer

I’m reading Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. Not surprisingly, Rohr spends time talking about prayer and he says some very useful thing on the subject, with a focus on the importance of prayer as something intended to deeply transform us.

One of his important reminders has to do with the intended object of change in prayer. Rohr writes

Prayer too easily becomes an attempt to change God and aggrandize ourselves instead of what it was meant to be – an interior practice to change the one who is praying, which will always happen if we stand calmly before this uncanny and utterly safe Presence, allowing the Divine Gaze to invade and heal our unconscious, the place where 95 percent of our motivations and reactions come from. All we can really do is return the gaze.

I know the truth of what Rohr says. But I also know that sometimes my prayer is precisly an effort to persuade God of something. The old debater in me comes out and I try to explain to God why God should give me something I want – ranging from the perhaps noble wish for God to grant healing for a sick friend or relative to the selfish prayer that some problem with my computer disappear. I can come up with all sorts of reasons God should do x or y.

So it is good to get the reminder now and then. It is not about God changing. It is about my transformation.

All we can really do is return the gaze.

Joyful Service

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus tells his disciples of the suffering he will face when they go to Jerusalem. What this elicits from James and John (who are clearly not listening all that carefully) is the request that they “sit one at your right and one at your left.” However, Jesus knows that they lack real understanding of what they are asking him and tells them that, in contrast to the way of the world,

whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

We hear not only hear this particular reading often, but Jesus also gives variants of this teaching on more than one occasion, both in his words and in his deeds. Yet, I think it is a teaching too easily forgotten, that we are here to serve.

The saint whose memorial we celebrate today, Philip Neri, was a model of service. Before becoming a priest, he both worked with young people, helping them live a Christian life, and he formed an association to care for the poor. After being ordained a priest, he continued to live a life of humility and simple works. He is described as “excel[ing] in his love of neighbor and in evangelical simplicity along with a joyous service to God.”

I particularly like the description of “joyous” service. Not an attitude of doing what one has to do (grudgingly), but serving with joy. Something worthy of imitation.

Luther and Belief in the Holy Spirit

This weekend my daughter’s choir sang at a service at Immanuel Lutheran Church. I always enjoy when the choir sings at a service of one of the area churches, as it gives me the opportunity to see how others celebrate their Sunday liturgy.

The worship aide distributed for the service included an insert for “Taking Faith Home,” a sheet of recommended readings, discussion questions and suggested devotional practices that tied in with the Sunday service. One of the things included was an excerpt from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.” Explaining the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther writes

I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith. In the same way he calls, gather, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.

The Holy Spirit sometimes gets short shrift from us. But is through the Spirit that we are most deeply united with Christ. As Luther recognizes, our belief in and ability to come to Jesus is not something we can manage on our own. We can respond in faith only because God is already in us. We are already God’s, by the power of the Spirit.

When we affirm in our creed our belief in the Holy Spirit, we should be conscious that, before we do anything on our own, we are already called to God by the Spirit at work within us. We are already marked as belonging to God and we are kept united with and in Christ.

Easier For a Camel to Pass Through the Eye of a Needle

In today’s Gospel, a man asks Jesus what he must do to secure eternal life. When the man assures Jesus that he observes all of the commandments, Jesus tells him is is “lacking in one thing,” instructing him to sell what he has and give it to the poor. When Jesus’ disciples express astonishment at Jesus’ statement tht it is difficult for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God, he tells them that “[i]t is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

What comes to mind when I hear Jesus’ allusion to a camel passing through the eye of a needle is the story sometimes told of a monkey whose hand gets trapped inside a glass jar. The jar has some food or trinket that the monkey is attracted to. The monkey can easily get his open hand into the jar, but once he closes his fist onto the treasure inside the jar, he is stuck, since he can’t pass his closed fist back through the jar opening. Thus, the monkey is trapped. He could easily free himself by simply letting go of what is inside the jar. But he cannot bring himself to give up the treasure.

I think that is a good image to keep in mind as we sit with today’s Gospel. It reminds us that it is our attachments that keep us trapped, that prevent us from passing easily “through the eye of a needle.” The subject of the attachment will be different for each of us.For the man who asked Jesus the question, it may have been his attachment to his possessions.

What is it for you? What do you hang onto instead of God? Or phrased in the alternative, what do you need to let go of in order to freely go before God?

Indwelling of the Spirit

Today we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, the culmination and completion of what began with Christ’s Incarnation. Before leaving his disciples, Christ breathed upon them, giving them the Spirit. That same Spirit dwells in each of us.

The Spirit of God dwells in each one of us. If we could remember the reality of what we celebrate on this day, think of how much easier our lives would be.

We would know that we don’t need to go someplace to find God…

We would know that we can’t be separated from our God…

We would know that we are all brothers and sisters, connected at the deepest levels…

We would know that through the power of God working in us we can do so much more than we can imagine.

We would know that though our bodies will one day pass away, we will live in oneness with our God forever.

That seems to me something worth remembering. Blessings on this celebration of Pentecost!

Lack of Formal Theological Education

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness.  I’ve been impressed at videos I’ve seen of Armstrong speaking and have a number of her other books on my bookshelves.  In the process of writing my own book about my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism, I was particularly interested in this book, the story of her difficult adjustment to lay life after leaving a Catholic convent and what she learned about God and herself through her exploration of comparative theology. 

One of the things that caused me some hesitance when I started training as a spiritual director and began giving retreats was my lack of formal theological education.  I had read a lot on my own, but, apart from the basic theology courses I took as an undergraduate at Georgetown, I had not studied theology as an academic discipline.  Those who were mentoring me kept assuring me that I had much to offer and that what I was being called to offer people was not academic theology, but aiding them in deepening their relationship with God.

Thus, I was interested in what Armstrong had to say about her own lack of formal theological training, given the subject of her books.  She writes

I think I was lucky not to have studied theology or comparative religion at university, where I would have had to write clever papers and sit examinations, get high marks, and aim for a good degree. The rhythm of study would have been wrong – at least for me. In theology, I am entirely self-taught, and if that makes me an amateur, that need not necessarily be all bad. After all, an amateur is, literally, “one who loves,” and I was, day by solitary day, hour by silent hour, falling in love with my subject….Occasionally…I would experience miniseconds of transcendence, awe, and wonder that gave me some sense of what had been going on in the mind of the theologian or mystic I was studying. At such a time I would feel stirred deeply within, and taken beyond myself…

I was, moreover, discovering that many of the great theologians and mystics whose work I was studying would have found the idea of a purely academic degree in theology rather odd.

She goes on to explain that in both Islam and Judaism, study was inextricably linked with “a heightened awareness of the divine presence.

Her comments struck a chord with me.  Part of it is my conviction that “head” study divorced from affective experience is of limited value in terms of our spiritual growth.  Hence, the appeal to me of her description of Islamic and Judaic study.  But I also think there is something to the notion of “amateur” that appeals.  And it is not just the idea of the amateur as one who loves, but of a humility that comes from viewing oneself as an amateur.  I would doubtless bring different gifts to the table if I were formally schooled in theology, and it is good that there are people in the world who have such training.  But, like Armstrong, I have come to think that for me, it is not bad that I am self-taught.

Although this book sat in my shelf for a few weeks before I picked it up, once I did start it I couldn’t put it down.  One can learn much by reading of this woman’s spiritual journey.