Two Women Meet

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Visitation, and our Gospel reading is St. Luke’s account of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. It is a passage I love to hear proclaimed and that I love to pray with.

One of the things I most love about it is the picture of the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. In the encounter with the Angel Gabriel in which Mary learns that her elderly cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, she gets the far more important news that has “found favor with God” and that she will bear the child who is the Son of God.

What follows after this could have gone in a completely different way. Mary might have gotten all puffed up with pride and said, “If Elizabeth and I are going to see each other, it ought to be her who travels to see me. After all, I’m the one carrying the King.” And Elizabeth, the older of the two, might have been filled with jealousy, thinking “Why does Mary gets to birth the #1 child and I only gets the messenger. Surely I’m at least as good as she is.” We’ve all had enough experience of encounters marred by overinflated or bruised egos to imagine the possibilities.

Instead what happens is that the young woman who has just learned that she is to bear the Christ immediately runs off to be of help to her older cousin who is with child.   And the older woman herself welcomes with joy the younger cousin who has been chosen to bear the more important of the two children.  And although we are told only that Mary remained with Elizabeth for some months, we can imagine what must have transpired between those two women during those months.  Mary helping Elizabeth with chores….Elizabeth counseling the younger woman…the two pregnant women working, sitting, talking, planning together.  Neither pride in the one nor jeolousy in the other.   Just two women each lovingly giving the other what she needs.

It is an incredibly beautiful model of graced human relationship.

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Seeing Beyond the Opposition

A recent Faith in Focus column in America Magazine, suggested that perhaps we ought to

[s]end the Tea Partiers and the folks from Move-On.org apple-picking together with the express understanding that they not discuss sustainable agriculture, global warming or any other “newsy topics” the trip might bring up. Or maybe have a bunch of Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads and the Rachel Maddow crowd take in a movie, preferably a light romantic comedy, and then go out for some ice cream.

While no one, including the author, thinks either suggestion is likely to be taken seriously, there is something to the idea.

As I mentioned in a couple of posts at the time, I recently attended the annual meeting of the Conference of Catholic Legal Thought, a group of scholars all of whom are engaged in an effort to explore what Catholic thought adds to our discussions of law and public policy. There are vast differences among our members. We have varying political and theological views and soemtimes also different notions about what this project entails.

Despite our differences, we can talk to each other, and disagree with each other, without the mean-spiritedness that often accompanies public debates. There is a generosity of spirit in how we are with each other, an effort to give another the benefit of the doubt, to try to see something someone has said in the best possible light rather than the worst. It is true that many of us are friends, but what I’m describing is true of all of our dealings, even with those one or another of us might not label as a friend.

I think some of that, perhaps a large part of it, has to do with the fact that our two and a half day gatherings are not all “work.” In addition to our conference sessions, we celebrate Mass together every day. We also have one session of Spiritual Exercises, giving us time for individual reflection. And (our equivalent of apple-picking and ice-cream) we include plenty of time for fellowship and simply enjoying each other’s company.

All of this contributes to our ability to see past our differences, to see each other as part of the Body of Christ.

The author of the column had a good point.

Do I Give A Reason for the World to Believe?

I’ve mentioned before a wonderful CD by Danielle Rose titled Mysteries. I often listen to it in the car, and yesterday listened to the words to the last song on the 2-CD set.

The opening lines to the song, titled Reason to Believe, ask: “Why should the world believe? Why should the unloved believe in love?”

Those are really good questions. Why should people believe? Why should those who have experienced the tremendous suffering that comes from abusive relationships (of whatever type) or other traumas believe the things that Christians and others who have faith say? When people look around the world and see so much human misery, why should they believe in something good? It is one thing to, as I often do, offer retreats, evenings of prayer, spiritual direction, etc., to help people who already believe to deepen their faith. But why should those who don’t believe in the first place listen?

Words alone won’t do it. The next two lines of Rose’s song ask even more challenging questions: “Am I living a consecrated life to reveal the True Presence to a world that denies it? Do I live a life of such love, so as to be a reason to believe?”

Do I live a life of such love? I’m guessing very few of us can say, “Yep. All the time. Every moment of my existence. I’m a beaming billboard for Christ 24-7.”

What good is the miracle, Rose goes on to ask, if it doesn’t change our life? “Is not the real miracle when you become the living sign?” In a more imperative tone, she says beautifully, “Transubstantiation must occur with each person that I meet.”

So however well we can answer the question now, perhaps we can reflect on ways in which we can better “dare to live a life of such love so as to be a reason to believe.”

Sign Up With Me and be Persecuted

Today’s Gospels is not one of the easier messages of Jesus to hear. Jesus tells his disciples

because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you..If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…And they will do all of these things to you on account of my name.

Well, that’s inviting, isn’t it? Much easier and more comforting to listen to Jesus say, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Or “I am the good shepherd…I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”

Jesus’ words are neither easy nor comforting. Yet they speak a truth – Christian discipleship is not always easy and remaining true to Jesus will sometimes cause us to persecuted. Oh, no one is likely to bring us into the center of town and stone us or flay us alive. But there will be times when we are ridiculed or when we make people angry by what our faith prompts us to do or say. There is a quote attributed to John Wesley that says,”If I am not run out of town I wonder if I really preached the gospel.” We are asked by Jesus to live with some discomfort.

I think this passage invites us to examine whether there are times we act – or, more likely, fail to act – out of concern for avoiding persecution (whatever form it might take). Do we worry too much about how other people will think about us. Do we refrain from saying or doing something our faith calls us to out of fear we will be ridiculed or thought less of?

One of the things we can draw strength and comfort from the fact that Jesus asks us to suffer nothing he has not already suffered before us. As he says in the Gospel today, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.” And one of the things we can be sure of is that whatever we face, we face with Jesus by our side.

Getting From A to B

Part of spiritual growth is grappling with hard issues. With not simply adopting conclusions thoughtlessly, but thinking hard – about what we believe and about what is right and wrong.

Let me mention two recent experiences I had that suggest people are not always encouraged to engage in that kind of serious grappling.

First, last weekend I attended a Mass at which a visiting priest presided. There was much in his homily that I found very nourishing. But then he got to this. The priest made reference to the line in that Sunday’s Gospel where Jesus says “I am the way and the the truth and the light: and “[n]o one comes to the Father except through me.” He then said (and I’m quoting his words fairly close to verbatim), “Now our Protestant brethren use that line to criticize some of our Catholic views. But we know that saints and Mary and the Rosary are very important.” Full stop. He then moved on to another subject.

Now, I can reconcile for myself Jesus’ words with Catholic views on Mary and the Saints. But it takes some thinking to get from point A to B. Given Jesus’ language, I think one has to do a lot more than say, effectively, “Jesus said x, but people who think he meant x are simply wrong and we are right.” What an opportunity that would have been to actually help people understand WHY devotion to Mary and prayer to saints is not inconsistent with Jesus’ words.

The second experience occurred the week before that. That week I heard a priest comment to a congregation about the US killing of Osama bin Laden that “thankfully Osama bin Laden had been brought to justice.” As I told him afterward, I was very bothered by his making that statement without acknowledging that there are difficult moral issues involved in the question. From a secular standpoint, one can casually make a comment like that, believing as a political matter that bin Laden had to be killed.

From a Christian standpoint, while it may be that one can get to the point of determining that the killing was justified, but it is not a simple matter. Although he was personally convinced the act was morally justified, I believe it was more than a little problematic to present it in a way that gave no hint that there is a difficult moral question here for Christians that requires grappling with.

Adult faith is not simply about accepting a set of conclusions. It requires working things out. It does no one a service to fail to encourage that process.

Love, Simplicity and Joyous Service

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Philip Neri, a saint of the sixteenth century.  I know very little about St. Philip.  What prompts my mention of him today is a single line in the description of him provided before the Mass readings of the day in my Magnificat.

We tend to celebrate people who have done great and glorious deeds.  The flashy.  Those with extraordinary talent who do extraordinary things.

The line in the description of Philip that stuck me was this: “He excelled in his love of neighbor and in evangelical simplicity along with a joyous service to God.”

We can complicate it in many ways. But the description of Philip Neri is a good prescription for us. Love. Simplicity. Joyous service.

In that last aspect, it is worthwhile to emphasize both words of the description. Service, of course. But joyous service. As one commentator observed in writing about Philip, “Many people wrongly feel that such an attractive and jocular personality as Philip cannot be combined with an intense spirituality. Philip’s life melts our rigid, narrow view of piety. His approach to sanctity was truly catholic, all-embracing and accompanied by a good laugh.”

St. Philip, pray for us.

Letting Go and Trusting God

Monday night I went to the last High School choir concert I will ever attend (apart from their Senior Celebration) to hear my daughter sing.  I beamed with pride as Elena was named the female recipient of the Raymond Minkler Outstanding Senior Award, chosen by members of the Minnetonka High School Concert Choir, and was overjoyed watching her happy reaction at being so recognized by her peers.

But the pride and joy were also accompanied by a few tears, as I realized how close we are to her high school graduation and her departure for college.  It is true there is a summer in between graduation and when we help her move into her dorm at school, but her upcoming six weeks at Tanglewood for a voice program followed by a visit to NYC with her best friend, mean that summer will pass all too quickly.

Mixed with the excitement I feel at the prospect of this new and wonderful adventure my daughter is about to embark on is sadness at the loss of her company – I tremendously enjoy our conversations and time together.

Mostly, though, I struggle with anxiety about her going off where I will not be there “just in case.”  (My control issues kicking in.)   When such moments of anxiety arise, I remind myself of an experience I had about six or seven years ago.  One day, I discovered a lump on my breast, which ultimately turned out to be nothing to worry about.  But the three days and four nights between when I discovered the lump and the completion of the various tests that determined there was no cancer were extremely difficult.  Since in my mind I went immediately from lump to death with very little in between, I was filled with anxiety: What will happen to my daughter?  She is too young not to have a mother.  What will happen if I die?

It took me several days of prayer to let go of the fear and anxiety.  To realize – at a deep enough level to bring comfort – that God’s love for my daughter is at least as great as God’s love of me and as my own love for her.  And I could see that no matter what might happen to me, she would still be held in God’s loving hands.  To be sure, she would suffer greatly if I died, but I know that God would be there loving her and taking care of her.

And so now, as she prepares to leave my house and go off on her own, I remind myself that, no matter where she goes, she is held in the hands of our loving God.

Parables for Our Times

I just finished reading The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales, a book of parables by Peter Rollins. Rollins uses the term “tales” rather than “parables” to describe the short stories he presents, each with its own commentary that invites further reflection by the reader.

The invitation to reflection is one that should not be ignored. This is not a book that should be read in one or two sittings. Rather, the idea is to really sit with each tale, exploring what it has to say to one.

Many of the tales are based on actual Gospel accounts and parables – the feeding of the multitude, the Prodigal Son, Jesus’ instruction to go two miles when one is asked to go one mile – but modified in a way to try to bring home some point of Jesus’ teaching in a different manner than the original story.

Thus, for example in Jesus and the Five Thousand (A First-World Translation), Jesus and his disciples, finding only five loaves of bread and two fishes, gather from the people whatever food the crowds had brought to sustain themselves. Then, “Jesus and his friends ate like kings in full view of the starving people” and “when they had finished the massive banquet there were not even enough crumbs left to fill a staving person’s hand.” Rollins clearly wants us to be shocked when we read this – since we know Jesus would never act in this way. Yet, as Rollins suggests in his commentary, we are Christ in the world today. And “if Christ is proclaimed int he life of his followers…then we must stop, draw breath, and ask ourselves whether [this] tale reflects how Christ is presented to the world today, at least in the minds of those who witness the lifestyle of Christians in the West.”

Whether his tales are drawn from the Bible or fully from his imagination, each offers much to think about. Particularly powerful for me were the tales designed to get us to reflect on the radical portrayed by Jesus, an unconditional forgiveness that comes before any act of the sinner. It is precisely our knowledge that Jesus loves and accepts us as we are that allows real conversion to take place in our hearts.

In a related vein, another tale highlights the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation, the latter of which clearly does carry a precondition of an offering of repentance. Rollins’ commentary on that theme in a story titled The Empty Exchange do a better job than many theological explanations of helping one understand the value of the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation.

In one way or another, each of the stories offers a road to deepened discipleship. While Rollins is reluctant to use the term parable to describe his tales, humbling declaring it is not for him to judge whether they succeed in doing the job parables are intended to do, they are, indeed, parables for our time.

A Lesson from the (Not) Rapture

After the time of the predicted Rapture came and went on Saturday, numerous comments flew around the web.  Some just laughed about the fact that we are all still here.  Others either poked fun or expressed sympathy for those who believed in the prediction.  Others are joking about what will be the timing of the next prediction.

This was not the first prediction of the rapture and it won’t be the  last.  There will always be some people predicting that one date or the other will be the end of the world.

Rather than poke fun, we can take something positive from all of this.  If we did know the end was coming on a particular date, how would that affect our behavior?

At some point, we will all stand before our God and give an accounting of ourselves.  Of how we used (or didn’t use) the gifts God has given us.  Of how we did (or did not) share God’s love with those with whom we came in contact.  Of how we lived (or didn’t fully live) this one precious life we have been given.

The failed Rapture predictions should remind us of Jesus’ admonition that we “do not know the day or hour” when we will stand before our God.  So we have no guarantee will will have time to get everything in order.

Perhaps we should heed Jesus advice to “be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

The Grace of the Paschal Mystery

Catching up on some back issue of America magazine, I came across an article titled Holding On, by Vincent J. Miller, a chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton.

Miller beging by referencing moments of suffering that push us to our limits. He correctly observes that there are sufferings that tempt us “to turn away, to wish to be dealt another hand.”

It is always our choice whether to put everything into the reality in which we find ourselves or to try to do anything we can to forget that reality, hoping for something different. To “give ourselves in love to what is” or to “refuse reality.” And so the question in moments of difficulty is will we “embrace the world or flee into fantasy”?

God, of course, modeled for us the reponse God would love to see from us. In Miller’s beautiful words:

When creation was broken by human sinfulness, God did not turn away or reshuffle the cards. The Creator doubled down on creation: insistently loving it, refusing to let it die of its self-inflicted wounds, respecting its finitude by entering into it bodily – becoming subject even to its sin and violence.

We are not God. But God’s incarnation, death and resurrection, gives us the strength to look into the face of whatever is placed before us, the “courage to respond somehow in love.” It is our source of hope, what allow us to “embrace the world [rather than] flee into fantasy.”