The Jesus in Whose Steps We Wish to Walk

Yesterday was the second gathering of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I am offering at UST Law School this Lent. The theme of the retreat this year is Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus.

Last week the retreatants spent the week with prayer material designed to help them get in touch with God’s overwhelming and unconditional love of us. As we typically do, the retreatants spent the first part of our time together sharing in small group something of their prayer experience over the past week. We then addressed any questions or difficulties that may have arisen over the course of the week and also talked about how important the subject of last week’s prayer was to our lives as Christians.

Following that, I gave a reflection on the subject of this week’s prayer: Getting to Know the Jesus in Whose Footsteps We Wish to Follow. As I suggested during my talk, what we are doing during this second week of prayer is a short version of Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, where the focus is on Jesus. Ignatius wants us to know Jesus and fall so deeply in love with Him that we cannot imagine being anyplace other than with Him.

During my talk, I focused on various ways in which Jesus was a model for Christian discipleship, including regarding prayer, compassion, and humility. I also spoke about some of Jesus’ central teachings, including love of enemies, forgiveness and putting God first.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 18:53.) A copy of the prayer material I distributed is here.

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Being Prophets, Not Just Protesters

I’m guest blogger today over at the Center for FaithJustice blog. Given an invitation to write about anything having to so with faith, justice or service, I chose to write about our call to be prophets and about the distinction between being a prophet and merely being a protester.

Here is an excerpt of my post.

Prophets have the ability to look beyond the world as it is and to see what it could be. John Neafsy (in A Sacred Voice is Calling) speaks of a prophetic imagination as one that enables us “to look beyond the world as it is to the world as is could be or should be” – to imagine what God’s kingdom on earth could look like.

That means, by definition, that prophets challenge the patterns of the world in which we live, which means something more than simply criticizing and tearing down. …

[P]rotesters do a good job of standing on the sidelines pointing out the problems, of telling us what is wrong. But they tend not to offer alternatives or solutions.

Pointing out what is wrong is not all that hard. When I was a high school debater, it didn’t take me long to realize that debating the negative side was always easier than debating the affirmative side. It is always easier to tear down than to build up.

That doesn’t mean protest is not useful. The Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, has valuably raised consciousness along several lines, notwithstanding criticism that it lacks a concrete game plan. We need people who point to what is wrong. But protest alone is never enough.

What the world needs – desperately – is people who can point the way to a new reality, to point us toward another future.

That is our call as Christians – to be prophets, not just protesters. Our call is not merely to stand out in the square railing against the world as it exists, but to transform the world into the kingdom of God.

You can read the entirety of my post on the Center for FaithJustice blog here. My invitation is that you sit with the question: am I a prophet or a protester? As I say in the post, my guess is that we are all, at least sometimes, protesters. That means it would be a worthwhile exercise to reflect on the question: in those times when I’ve been a protester, how might I have taken the next step and been a prophet? How do I move from the easier task to the harder one?

Jesus and Acceptance of the Real World

On the plane to and from New York, I was reading Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another, which had been recommended to me some time ago by a friend (and which I had started reading last month and got distracted from). It is a wonderful book that shares with us the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers.

In talking about the importance of stability in practice, Williams recounts advice once given by a nameless elder giving advice to a brother struggling with temptation. He told him, “Go. Sit in your cell and give your body in pledge to the walls.” Explaining the meaning of he advice, Williams offers that one has to promise oneself one’s actual environment as if one were settling a marriage proposal. “You have to ‘espouse’ reality rather than unreality, the actual limits of where and who you are rather than the world in which anything can happen if you want it to.

Williams offers this as a way of understanding the temptation of Jesus to worship Satan in exchange for all of the kingdoms of the world. It is a different take on the temptations that I think is worth reflecting on. He writes:

It’s not as though Satan owns the kingdoms of the real world so as to be able to dispose of them. All the temptations of Jesus seem to be about resorting to magic instead of working with the fabric of the real world. Jesus performs miracles in his ministry, of course, but never as a substitute for the hard material work of changing how people see God and never as a substitute for the bodily cost of love, which reaches its climax on the cross. Satan wants Jesus to join him in the world where cause and effect don’t matter, the world of magic. And Jesus refuses, determined to stay in the desert with its hunger and boredom, to stay in the human world with its conflict and risk. He refuses to compel and manipulate people into faith, because it can only be the act of a person, and persons do not live in the magic world.

Satan preferred an unreal world. Jesus chose the real one. It is out choice which one to accept for ourselves.

Celebrating a Life

Yessterday we buried my Aunt Bunny. After a two-day wake during which family and friends from came from far and wide to pay their respects, we gathered at St. Clare’s Church in Staten Island for the funeral mass, following which a caravan of cars followed the hearse to Resurrection Cemetary, where my aunt was buried alongside her husband (Uncle Blaise). While there, we visited the graves of my father and uncles Bob and Michael, all of whom are buried within about 100 feet of each other.

We then regrouped at the condo Aunt Bunny shared with Aunt Carol, my father’s other sister. Family and friends spent the whole day there, eating, drinking, talking, telling stories and just being together.

Later in the afternoon, someone brought out some games and several groups sat at various tables playing cards or scattegories or something else. At one point, Aunt Carol turned to me and said, somewhat troubled, “Why are we doing this? Look people are laughing and having a good time. How can we be doing this today?”

My answer was swift and firm: Because Aunt Bunny would have wanted this. Because she would have been happy to see all of us here together. Because she would have wanted us to celebrate and enjoy our love for her and each other. We are all deeply pained at the loss and we have all cried a lot over the last weeks, and especially the last few days. But she would not have wanted us to sit all day glum and silent; that would have done her no honor.

As I answered her, Aunt Carol nodded her head in agreement. She, who knew her sister better than anyone, knew that Aunt Bunny would have wanted exactly what went on yesterday: the family she loved gathered in love and enjoying each other’s company.

Favorite Saints

As regular (or even occasional) readers of this blog know, the saints occupy an important places in my life. The communion of saints is an important image for me – a reminder that we are never alone in our spiritual journay – and I’ve written here about many individual saints who have been friends, models and companions on my spiritual journey.

Because of my own relationship with some powerful individuals we call saints, I am always interested in other people’s accounts of saints that matter to them. I’ve mentioned before Fr. Jim Martin’s My Life with the Saints as one such account well worth reading. Another that I just finished reading is The Saints in My Life, by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, sent to me by the Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program. Another really good read.

Fr. Groeschel and I share a number of favorites – more than half of the nineteen he incldues in his book would make my “top twenty” list, including Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). But he also introduced me to one saint I knew nothing at all about (Catherine of Genoa) and even with respect to a couple I knew a bit about (e.g. the basic story of St. Catherine Laboure and the Miraculous Medal), he provided some addition details.

Each chapter includes a brief description of the life of the saint in question, explanation of the meaning of the life of the saint for Fr. Groeschel (why they are friends, how they have influenced him, etc.) and, for most some prayer or other piece of writing of that saint.

The descriptions of the saints themselves are very reporter-like. These aren’t stories of the saints, but a factual account of their lives. While interesting and a source of information, more compelling for me were the parts of each chapters that addressed the significance of the saint to the Fr. Groeschel. These were much more personal and gave a more inspiring picture of the saint than the more biographical portions of the chapter did. So together, they make for really good reading.

The book also contains some wonderful reminders and truths about the lives of the saints and how we relate to them. First, to expand a comment Fr. Groeschel makes about Francis: the world often tries to tame saints. In Francis’ case, the tendency is to “reduce him ot the patron saint of birdbaths, to see him as merely a great animal lover or (more fashionably) as an ecologist” and to ignore exactly how radical he was. I think we do that with others as well – we take the nice little pieces of the lives of saints as something to emulate, often at the cost of ignoring their broader message, which often is a much more radical emptying of self for God and others.

Second, he reminds us that shapes come in all saints and sizes and from all walks of life – lay as well as ordained, women as well as male, simple as well as educated, rich as well as poor. God takes us all as he finds us and can work with that, whatever it is. The related point is that our own measure of success in our spiritual lives is not: were we as much Francis as Francis, or as much Thomas More as Thomas More. It is, rather, how did we use the particular gifts God gave us.

Third, with respect to almost all of the saints, Fr. Groeschel talks about some turning point in the life of the saints. Again, for me it is an important reminder that those we call saints weren’t born sinless or perfect. They had points of conversion, incidents or events or circumstances that helped them turn more deeply toward God. And we do as well.

All in all, a nice read that I think many will enjoy.

Abstinence

Fridays in Lent are days of abstinence, which means abstaining from eating meat.

Fasting (required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and abstinence (required on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays during Lent) are penitential practices expected to be observed by healthy Catholic adults.

Neither practice is all that onerous. Fasting in the Catholic tradition (unlike the Buddhist tradition, where fasting means no food at all) means eating only one regular meal and two smaller meals that together are less than a full meal – which one of my friends jokingly referred to as “cutting down.” Abstaining from meat means meat only and does not preclude eating eggs, meat broths and other items that come from animal products.

So if the practice of abstinence is going to be meaningful, it ought to involve some real sacrifice. Thus, eating sushi, my all-time favorite meal, on Fridays during Lent seems to me off the table. Sushi is hardly a sacrifice for me. And for the may people who already eschew meat in favor of fish for health or other reasons, it is no sacrifice.

It is not about complying with the minimum terms of the stated rule, but of engaging in a meaningful penitential practice. That may mean a simple vegetable soup and bread for dinner. Or some rice and beans. I saw a post by someone who said that since he was a vegan, he planned to abstain from soy on Fridays. Whatever it is, make it meaningful for you.

Death and Complicated Feelings

In a couple of hours my husband and I will fly to New York for the wake and funeral of my aunt, who died Tuesday night. I was fortunate enough to spend this past Friday through Monday visiting with her in the hospital in New York – getting to say good-bye and I love you and hear her say she loved me also, and getting a few final doses of her humor in those moments of lucidity.

Our reactions to death are never simple. My aunt was suffering tremendously near the end from her pancreatic cancer, making it impossible not to pray for a speedy death to put an end to the torment. (As I did when my own father was dying of this disease, I prayed to God to take her quickly.) On the other hand, none of us wanted her to be gone; the idea of not having her around is deeply painful to all of us. Intellectually, it is easy to separate those: to recognize that the relief at the end of her suffering is other-directed and the grief of her absence is about us. But the feelings get all jumbled up inside.

For me, what emerges from the complicated pool of feelings is one simple thought: I believe in the resurrection. My deep consolation is that Jesus’ own resurrection was victory over death for all of us. Our death means resurrection to eternal live.

I’ll miss Aunt Bunny’s humor, her strength, her fierce protectiveness of all those she loved, her storytelling, her instructions for how to cook baccala. (I sure hope I can find the notes I scrawled last time I forgot how she told me to make it.)

I’ll miss a lot. But I can’t begrudge her the joy of eternal life with God. So my tears these upcoming days – and there will be tears – will be mixed with consolation.

Following in the Footsteps of Jesus

Happy Ash Wednesday! Today is the beginning of the 40-day period we call Lent, a penitential season during which we are invited to deepen our conversion in Christ.

Yesterday was the first session of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I am offering at UST Law School. The theme of this retreat is Following in the Footsteps of Jesus. During Lent we will not only walk with Jesus, but see what we can learn from those who walked with him during his time on earth. Some of those people are models of discipleship; others took some missteps (some small and some large) along the way. Both have the ability to help us reflect on our own capacity to be tempted away from true discipleship.

During my talk yesterday, I gave an introduction to the theme and talked about the flow of our weeks together. Then I talked about our focus for the first week of prayer: getting in touch with God’s love. As I’ve said and written before, I believe it is important to begin any period of retreat or intense prayer by focusing on God’s love for us, on getting a deep sense of ourselves as the beloved of God.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 29:51.) A copy of the prayer material I distributed is here. (If there is any flatness or misspeaking in the talk, my apologies; apart from fatigue from having just returned from visiting my dying aunt, I learned moments before going into the session that she was in her final hours.)

The Lenten Invitation to Deepen our Prayer Lives

It is hard to believe it, but Lent begins in a couple of days. I don’t know if it is the mildness of the winter or something else, but the time between Christmas and now has passed like a flash.

Last week, I spoke at St. Edward’s Catholic Church on The Lenten Invitation to Deepen our Prayer Lives. Although I began by talking a little about the Lenten practices of fasting and almsgiving, my focus was on prayer. After talking about prayer as relationship, I talked about some subjects that make for good prayer during Lent.

Although, as anyone who knows me can attest, I’m not the most traditional Catholic around, I think some of our traditional Catholic devotions make for wonderful subjects of prayer during Lent. Thus, I talked about praying with the Seven Sorrows of Mary, with the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and with the Stations of the Cross. During the question and answer period at the end, I also suggested some other material for prayer, including the Seven Last Words of Christ (which will be one of the subjects during the upcoming Lent Retreat in Daily Living I’ll be giving at UST Law School.

Of course, as I said to those who attended my talk, it is less important what people pray with than that they pray. But my hope is that my talk and the prayer material I distributed will be an aid to some people in their Lenten journey.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 55:17.) A copy of the prayer material I distributed is here.

Ready or Not, Here Comes Lent

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day period preceding the death and then resurrection of Christ. For Catholics and many Protestants, Lent is a special time in the liturgical cycle, a a time in which we are invited to focus in a special way on our life with God – to see where we’ve been and to refocus our energies.

For Catholics, the traditional Lenten practices are fasting, almsgiving and prayer. It is not that we don’t engage in these practices at other times; they are all fundamental practices that we engage in always. But during this period, we tend to intensify our efforts.

I thought I’d take this opportunity to list here some resources for your prayer during Lent.

First, here on Creo en Dios!, I’ll be posting each Wednesday podcasts and prayer material from the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering at UST Law School (which will be meeting each Tuesday). And tomorrow I’ll be posting a podcast and materials from a program I gave at St. Edwards on Lenten prayer last weekend. The Lent Retreat in Daily Living will provide you with daily prayer material for the entirety of Lent; the St. Edwards handout has enough material for four or five weeks of daily prayer. Also, if you go to the Podcast page on top of this page, you’ll find links for the podcasts and prayer material from Lent Retreats in Daily Living I’ve offered in prior years.

Second, here are some other resources providing wonderful Lenten material:

The Ignatian Adventure – an adapted version of the Spiritual Exercises for the Lent/Easter season.

Praying Lent – Daily prayers during Lent from Creighton On-line Ministries.

Living Lent Daily – daily prayers, thoughts and other inspirations for Lent from Loyola Press.

Resources for Lent 2012 from the Episcopal Church – a link sent to me by my friend Joshua, containing a number of Lenten practices.

If you have information about other good sources of Lenten prayer, please feel free to share them in the comments to this post.