Lessons from the Mist

During my visit to Buffalo to see my friend John, we visited Niagara Falls State Park.  One of the things we did was ride the Maid of the Mist, a boat journey that travels to the Horseshoe Falls.  The boat rides into a space where the falls come down in three directions, creating an enormous mist in the open space inside the three falls.

As the boat comes closer to the falls, the water we traveled through was wild and completely white-capped.  We were all soon soaked (albeit somewhat protected by our rain ponchos).   As we got even closer, we went from being able to see only about 10 feet in front of us to not being able to see anything at all.

It was an intense experience.  It is a bit daunting to be moving forward in a boat when you can’t see what it is in front of you.  It was impossible to tell how close we were to the falls or to any obstructions that might have been in the water.  We had to simply trust that the pilot of the ship knew where he was going. 

I later watched from above the Horseshoe Falls as another boat like the one I had been on took the same trip.  This time, I watched as the boat itself almost diasppeared from view into the mist.  I knew it was there, but I could not see it at all.

You know where I’m going with this…where my thoughts were as I spent time first in and then outside watching that mist.  First, my experience on that boat is a good metaphor for our lack of sight.  So often we can not see the road ahead, we don’t know where the next step will take us.  We go forward anyway, step by step.  Sometimes we are a little fearful and sometimes perhaps more than a little fearful.  Yet we know that we can rest secure in the knowledge that God is our pilot and that even if we can’t see the road ahead, God can.

Not that we can always see God, and that is the second part of the lesson.  Just as I knew that ship was still there even though I could no longer see it in the mist, we can count on God being there even in those moments when we can’t see or feel God’s presence.  We can be as sure of that presence as I was that the boat was still there, simply hidden by the mist.

You can learn a lot watching the mist of a waterfall.


The Need to Look Away From the Ball

Yesterday, my friend John and I spent the morning at Chautauqua Institute, where we attended a program in which Roger Rosenblatt interviewed Jim Lehrer. Although I occasionally watch the MacNeil Lehrer Newshour, I had not realized that Lehrer also writes novels and there was much in his comments about both writing fiction and reporting on the news that I found interesting.

One of the comments made by Rosenblatt in response to a question about reporting on episodic catastrophes vs. important systemic problems had to do with the need to “look away from the ball.” His analogy was to basketball. When we watch a basketball game, the tendency is to keep our eyes always on the ball; that is what is exciting to us to look at. The reality, however, is that most of the action of the game takes place away from the ball – the positioning of players, the defense, etc. Thus, if we want to see a fuller picture, a truer picture, we need to look away from the ball, something that is very hard to do.

I was intrigued by the analogy, which strikes me as a useful one for us to keep in mind. We might ask ourselves: How often do we try to solve a problem by looking at the big manifestation of it, rather than the surrounding circumstances that contribute to it? How much do we focus on one piece of an issue, neglecting the bigger picture?

We tend to think it is always good to keep our eye on the ball. But it is good to be reminded of the value of broadening our vision and making sure our focus on the ball is not keeping us away from where the real action of the game is.

Yes, But = No

At Mass last evening, I was arrested by something the celebrant said in regard to the Gospel reading from St. Luke.  He was commenting on the last part of the Gospel, where Jesus asks several people to follow him.   Each of them thought they were saying yes, that they were accepting Jesus’ invitation.  Yes, said the first, but first let me go bury my father.  Yes, says another, but first let me say farewell to my family. 

Yes…but.  A response, the celebrant offered, that very much describes our normal human tendencies.  We say Yes, Lord, he observed, but then we qualify the yes in such a way that it really isn’t yes anymore.  We say Yes, he continued, but really, we are saying No.

I never quite thought of it that way, never considered that “Yes, but”, really is not all that different from No.  “Yes, but”  inevitably means No to what Jesus is actually asking and Yes to what we would like Jesus to be asking.   

And the worst thing about couching our response as “Yes, but” is that we invariably convince ourselves that our qualifications are justified, that we have good excuses, good reasons for not doing exactly what Jesus asks us to do.  (They always sound so reasonable to us.)  Since our reasons are so good, we delude ourselves into thinking we are responding to Jesus in a responsible and positive way.   After all, “Yes, but” sounds a whole lot more virtuous than “No and here’s why.”

“Yes, but” fools us into thinking  we are saying yes, when we are really saying no.  It surely doesn’t fool Jesus.

Part of our spiritual growth is growing in our willingness to drop the qualifications.  So let us pray this day to be able to respond to Jesus without any  buts or hesitations, to say simply and fully: Yes.

Note: If you attend Mass today or pray with the scripture readings for today, you will observe that today’s Gospel from Matthew offers a truncated version of the incidents in yesterday’s Gospel from Luke.

Let Me See Only You

As I sat before the Blessed Sacrament in a church the other day, I found myself focusing intently on the monstrance on the altar and praying, “Lord, let me see only You.” For several moments, I, indeed saw only the monstrance, everything else fading into from my vision the way it does when you stare at something intently. When my eyes refocused a few moments later, I saw not only the monstrance, but everything and everyone else between me and it.

“Lord, let me see only You” could mean, let everything else but You fade from my vision. Let it just be me and You. But for Christians, “Lord, let me see only You” must mean let me see You in everything and everyone that I encounter. Not, let everything and everyone else fade from my vision so that it is just You and me having a grand old time together. Rather, let me see it all – but as though it were all You. Let me look upon it and them as I look upon You. Let me behave toward others as I would toward You. Let me love all everyone else as I love You. Let me see You when I see every other person I meet.

That’s not always easy, especially in moments when the other doesn’t look or act very much like we’d expect Jesus to look or act. But those may be the very moments when we need to pray most fervently, “Lord, let me see only You.”

Lord, let me see only You.

A New Kind of Freedom

“Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ,” said St. Jerome. Catholics, as a general matter, spend far too little time in studying and praying with Scripture.

Although Jeff Cavins was not a name familiar to me when I lived on the East Coast, here in Minneapolis (where Cavins currently resides), I have heard his name often from people who have taken his Bible study courses. As a result, I was happy to have a chance to spend some time with one of the books of his Catholic Scripture Study series, Galatians, A New Kind of Freedom Defined, which was sent to me as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program.

The aim of the Scripture Study Series of which this book is a part is to invite readers “on a journey that aims at more than mere knowledge, but transformation.” If we view the study of the Bible as a mere intellectual exercise designed to gather information, we miss that fact that the Bible is intended as living Word, as (in Cavins words) a “love letter” with the “power to transform our lives.”

His approach stresses a number of things that I think are very important aspect of studying and praying with scripture. First, he emphasizes the importance of context – of understanding where the book on which one is focusing fits into the larger scheme and understanding what was its purpose. In the case of Galatians, that means understanding who Paul is talking to and what was the issue the early Church was facing that caused conflict, i.e., the extent to which the Mosaic laws had to be followed by Gentiles. Too often, people pull a quote from one of the books of the Bible without paying attention to what motivated the line and what the author was trying to convey. In order to help readers with that understanding here, the book includes some important interludes from Acts that help set the stage.

Second, there is a focus on understanding how the scripture passage being studied relates to our lives today. One of the criticisms I had of some material I looked at a year or so ago from a Cavins course was that it did not seem to me to view this aspect as critical. But if scripture is going to transform us, we can’t study it as simply a story of some people in a far off time and place. There has to be serious reflection on how this impacts our lives today. I think the questions that are part of each chapter/lesson (the book is divided into 10 lessons) invite serious reflection on our own relation now to each other, to the Church and to God.

Third, each lesson suggest a particular line for memorization. Memorizing scripture is not somethign we tend to do these days. I think many of us above a certain age recoil against memorization, recalling perhaps aspects of the education on our youth where there was an overemphasis on memorization over understanding. However, the danger in reacting against that overemphasis is forgetting that keeping pieces of scipture close to our heart can provide us with solace, comfort and joy at times when we need them. So the encouragement – not to memorize long passages for its own sake – but to take from each lesson a little snippet to carry around with one, strike me as useful.

This is a book that is useful for individual or for group study. (With respect to the latter, the book includes useful material on how to use the book in groups.) In addition to the questions on the text and questions for reflection, each chapters contains additional “points to ponder” for those wishing do deepen their appreciation of the material as well as references to the catechism and other material one might look to for further study. There is a lot here that will enrich your appreciation of Galatians and that, hopefully, will encourage further study of other books of the Bible.

A Return to a Special Place

I’ve been in New York for several days visiting friends and family. On Wednesday, I planned to go into Manhattan to see the Picasso exhibit at the Metropolitan and to spend some time walking around Central Park. Both were common haunts during the days I lived in Brooklyn Heights.

My day, however, did not go quite as planned. The combination of a long morning phone call followed by an unexpected conversation with another houseguest of the friends I’m staying with meant I got a much later start than I had anticipated. Arriving in Manhattan at 12:05, I walked down 31st street, site of St. Francis Church and got there just in time for the 12:15 Mass.

This was a very special church for me during the time I was struggling with my return from Buddhism to Catholicism. I would get off the Long Island Railroad every day and wander into the church. First, I’d sit alone. Then, after some time, I was able to talk to Francis. Then, finally one day, in that very church, Francis stepped aside and there was God.

I sat in the pew, looking up at the mosaic of Mary above the altar and felt totally at peace. After Mass, I had lunch and walked around a bit (stopping in the main branch of the New York library) and then returned to St. Francis, going downstairs to St. Anthony’s chapel, where I often went for morning prayer in the fall of 2001. I walked in to see that the Blessed Sacrament was exposed for adoration. I knelt and then sat for a while in the quiet, feeling Jesus’ presence more profoundly than I have in a good long while. It was good to be back there.

It was not the way I planned to spend my day. But I have a feeling I spent the day exactly as God wanted me to.

Nativity of John the Baptist

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Nativity of John the Baptist, one of the saints who inspires me tremendously. Although we typically focus on John during the Advent season, we also celebrate his birth. Why?

Father Peter John Cameron, O.P., suggests a number of reasons we celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist. He writes that the nativity is a “sacred reminder” of things that we need born in our lives each day. The items on his list provide some good fruit for reflection. Here are some of the things he lists, along with my suggestion of where you reflection on them might lead you.

Johns birth is a reminder that we need:
“someone who leaps with joy before the presence of the Lord making me want to live my own relationship with Jesus with greater ardor and fervor”
Is my joy in the Jesus evident to others? Do I have sufficient ardor and fervor for God?

“someone who turns my attention away from my distractions and preconceptions so that I will behold the Lamb of God as the true desire of my heart”
Am I distracted in my prayer? What keeps me from recognizing Jesus as the true desire of my heart?

“somone who models for me that there is no greater joy in my life than for Jesus to increase and for me to decrease, especially as regards my self-reliance, my self-assertion, my self-importance”
Am I willing to depend on Jesus rather than on myself? What does it mean to me to die to myself so that I may live in Christ?

“someone so committed to the truth that he is willing to lay down his life for the Truth-made-flesh – witnessing to me that all true happiness comes through self-sacrifice.”
Do I have the faith of John? Would I give up all for the sake of Christ?

Why not take one or more of these in your prayer today as we celebrate John’s nativity.

Thy Kingdom Come

I’ve enjoyed reading several things by the British spiritual writer, Caryll Houselander. I reently came across something she wrote about the notion of Kingdom that relates to what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “Thy Kingdom Come.” Houselander writes

The kingdom is in man’s heart; the patient soul who rules her own heart with an ordered tenderness, pity, and kindness, the mind that keeps the poetry of life in flower, even now, that is the soul who possesses the kindgom of God. But if most Christians, most people, had this inward kingdom, cherished it, then there would also be a visible kingdom, not a kingdom based on materialism, not a kingdom based on power, but conditions of life based on simplicity, brotherly love and sacrifice, which would make it impossible to go to war, impossible to have slums or destitution, impossible to have enmity bewteen countries, classes, or individuls.

What is in your mind when you pray the words, “Thy Kingdom Come”? I suspect that we don’t often contemplate the meaning of the line when we recite the words of the prayer. But we should. And one of the things we need to understand is that there can’t be kingdom outside unless there is kindgom inside.

Houselander continues, “We are told to pray it may come, and come it can and will, first in heart after heart, midn after mind, coming as the growth of love, as a light flooding the mind, until, aware of the wonder of it, we shall dare in Christ’s name either to live for it or die for it.”

St. Thomas More

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Thomas More, who, among other patronages, is the patron saint of lawyers. More was beheaded in 1535 for refusing to sign an oath declaring the king to be the head of the Church in England.

More was a deeply prayerful person and in his writings he encourages others to take time in quiet prayer and meditation. Here is a prayer he wrote while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. It contains some petitions we might all ask our God to grant to us:

Give me the grace, Good Lord
To set the world at naught. To set the mind firmly on You and not to hang upon the words of men’s mouths.
To be content to be solitary. Not to long for worldly pleasures. Little by little utterly to cast off the world and rid my mind of all its business.
Not to long to hear of earthly things, but that the hearing of worldly fancies may be displeasing to me.
Gladly to be thinking of God, piteously to call for His help. To lean into the comfort of God. Busily to labor to love Him.
To know my own vileness and wretchedness. To humble myself under the mighty hand of God. To bewail my sins and, for the purging of them, patiently to suffer adversity.
Gladly to bear my purgatory here. To be joyful in tribulations. To walk the narrow way that leads to life.
To have the last thing in remembrance. To have ever before my eyes my death that is ever at hand. To make death no stranger to me. To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of Hell. To pray for pardon before the judge comes.
To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me. For His benefits unceasingly to give Him thanks.
To buy the time again that I have lost. To abstain from vain conversations. To shun foolish mirth and gladness. To cut off unnecessary recreations.
Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss at naught, for the winning of Christ.
To think my worst enemies my best friends, for the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred.
These minds are more to be desired of every man than all the treasures of all the princes and kings, Christian and heathen, were it gathered and laid together all in one heap.

God in All Things (Even Computers and Iphones)

Making a dent in the pile of unread America magazaines sitting in my study, I came across a column by Peter Schineller, S.J., about recognizing God’s presence in all things. Schineller began by recalling Psalm 148, in which we praise God for all of the thing God created – sun and moon, wild beasts, birds, etc. While Schineller acknowledges that he can easily find God in the birds, grass and the trees as he wanders around Central Park in New York City, he also asks us to consider:

if David or other composers of the psalms were alive today in New York City, what might they pick out to praise the Lord? Skyscrapers or refrigerators? Might they not pray that these manufactured inventions of humankind be seen as praising and serving the Lord?

This is not an outlandish thought. As Schineller observes, Pope Paul VI wrote that “If, in the past, nature was the intermediary bewteen [God] and the human mind, why should not the work of technology be the intermediary today?” And in Gaudium et Spes the bishops of the Second Vatican Council wrote that “the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God’s greatness.”

Clearly it is not either/or. God is everywhere, which means we still all have the ability to find God in nature and all the other traditional places. But we can also find and serve God through the many works of our technological hands. “Instead of distancing or separating us from God or becoming idols, [such objects] play an important role in our journey to God, providing we use them properly.”

To paraphrase Psalm 148: Flip video, bless the Lord. iPod, bless the Lord. Cellphone, bless the Lord. Laptop, bless the Lord.

What are you giving thanks and singing God’s praises for today?