Just Speak to Me

I came across a beautiful invitation to prayer. It is taken from God Delights in You, by John Catoir. The suggestion is to imaging Jesus speaking these words to you:

You don’t have to be clever to please Me. Just speak to Me as you would to anyone who cares about you.

Are there any people you want to pray for? Tell Me their names and ask for as much as you want. I am generous. Trust Me to do what I know is best.

Tell Me about your pride, your touchiness, your self-centeredness, your laziness. I still love you in spite of all your faults. Do not be ashamed in My presence. There were many saints in heaven who had the same faults as you. They prayed, and little by little their faults were corrected.

Do not hesitate to ask for blessings for body and mind, for health, memory and success. I can give everything.

Tell me about your failures, and I will show you the cause of them. What are your worries? Who has caused you pain? Tell Me about it. Forgive them and I will bless you.

Are you afraid of anything? Have you any tormenting, unreasonable fears? Trust yourself to Me. I am here and will not leave you.

Have you no joys to share with Me? Tell Me about them. What has happened since yesterday to cheer your spirit and comfort you? Whatever it was, big or small, remember that I prepared it for you. Show Me your gratitude.

Are there temptations bearing heavily upon you? Yielding to them always disturbs the peace of your soul. Ask Me, and I will help you overcome them.

Well, go along now. Get on with your work or play. Try to be humbler, more submissive, kinder to others. Come back soon and bring Me a more devoted heart. Tomorrow I shall have more blessings for you.

Jesus wants us to share everything with him. Our joys. Our fears. Our needs. Our temptations. All of it. Today. And then again tomorrow. And the next day. Jesus will never get tired of hearing anything and everything we want to share.


Asking the Right Questions of Ourselves

In Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 6:33), Jesus instructs us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” suggesting that if we do that, everything else will fall into place.

I came across a passage from Charles Swindoll’s Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, which provides a good way to think about what that would like in our lives. He writes

If I am to seek first in my life God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, then whatever else I do ought to relate to that goal: where I work, with whom I spend my time. … Every decision I make ought to be filtered through the Matthew 6:33 filter: where I put my money, where and how I spend my time, what I buy, what I sell, what I give away. That means a two-pronged question needs to be asked each time: Is this for His kingdom? Does it relate to His righteousness.

Asking those questions may not help me decide in the morning whether to eat yogurt or cereal for breakfast. But if we could train ourselves to always ask the question, to keep it in the forefront of our minds – no matter how minor the issue seems to be at first blush – I suspect it would have an enormous impact on our decisions about how we spend our time, our money and our talents.

Is it for His kingdom? Does it relate to His righteousness?

The Thing You Can’t Not Do

Some days are just an embarrassment of riches. Yesterday was one of them. At Weekly Manna, our speaker was Rev. Nancy Brantingham, Associate Rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina. Following that was the second part of the two-part program I organized on Interpreting the Bible and Ascertaining Religious Law, which today included a dialogue among Rabbi Norman Cohen (our presenter at the first part of the program two weeks ago), Fr. Dan Griffith, Mark Osler and me.

I’ll doubtless have something to say about the second of those in the coming days, but a few words about Nancy’s talk, which was on the subject of discerning vocation, a subject about which I’ve spoken and written quite a bit.

Nancy said many things about vocation that resonated with me (and used some of the same quotes I use when talking about vocation). But what I really loved was one simple statement she made: One’s vocation is that thing that one can’t not do.

The first thing that came to my mind when she said that was my daughter, Elena, and her singing. When she was in high school and singing with the Minnetonka Chamber Choir, the director once observed that the girls in the choir sing because they can’t not sing. When Elena told me about a particular piece of music she will be singing in a recital toward the end of this school term, she said it wasn’t one that she was originally assigned to do by her voice teacher. But she asked him to play it for her anyway and when he did, her immediate reaction was, I MUST sing this song. As she explains, when she hears a piece of music that touches her like that, she feels she has to sing it.

There are many thing my daughter can do…and do well. She writes. She plays piano. She is a go player, a taekwando black belt, etc. But she can also not do many of the things she is capable of doing well – and still be who she is.

However, she can’t not sing. She couldn’t not sing and still be fully who she is.

If you can picture in yourself or someone else what I can see in the relationship between my daughter and her singing, you can understand that vocation is not just one among many things we could be doing…something we fall into because it is convenient. Vocation is an expression of our deepest self. It is that which we can’t not do.

Last Words of Christ

After an off-week last week due to the law school’s Spring Break, yesterday was the fifth gathering of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living at UST Law School. We began, as always, by giving the participants the opportunity to share in small groups something of their prayer experience over these past two weeks and addressing any questions or issues that arose.

I then gave a reflection on this week’s theme: The Seven Last Words of Christ. Jesus’ final teaching. As I suggested to my friend Mark Osler as I was preparing for this reflection, Jesus’ last words are a bit like a review session before the final exam of a course; taken together, these last words summarize what Jesus was about during his public ministry.

Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.

I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise

Woman, behold your son

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me

I am thirsty

It is finished

Father, into your hands, I comment my spirit

Many people spend time on Good Friday (which, amazingly, is a week from Friday!) reflecting on these words. My hope is that my talk, and the prayer material for this week, might aid you in that reflection.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 19:18.) A copy of the prayer material for this week of prayer is here.

Witnessing Christ

I read an advance copy of Archbishop Charles Chaput’s eBook, A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness in the Next Generation, scheduled to be released today. It is a short piece of 24 pages in length that addresses some of the challenges to genuine and effective witness to the Gospel in our society today.

Although I think some of the Archbishop’s statements are overgeneralized (e.g., he lumps all media together, giving the impression there exists a single journalistic orthodoxy intent on presenting religion in a a negative light), I think there is truth to his concern that “The America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past.” That poses a challenge to all Christians, not only Catholics (the locus of his concern).

I also share the Archbishop’s view of the value of strong religious communities in, among other things, preventing notions of freedom of the individual from turning into a “destructive individualism” that turns freedom into a “license for selfishness.” Community helps us develop a sense of morality, helps us discern right and wrong.

Finally, I think Archbishop Chaput is correct that there are many people who call themselves Christian who don’t really believe in the Gospel and don’t live lives reshaped and transformed by Christ. Whether because of embarrassment or because they only “keep their religions for comfort value” it has no effect on them, and therefore no social force.

This little book is intended as a wake-up call to Catholic to renew their efforts to convert the culture in which they live – to be “the kind of witness that sets fire to the human heart,” and he talks about the important role of Catholic higher education in sending out Catholics capable of doing that.

The Archbishop, however does not sufficiently address the difficulty created by the fact that the United States today is more religiously diverse than it had ever been. It may be that the system of government that developed in our country was shaped by a “predominantly Christian inspiration,” but it takes more than assertion to suggest that a Christian worldview should pervade government policy, law and society today. I’m not saying one can’t make that case, merely that it is not attempted in this book. And that is a surprising omission given that the Archbishop acknowledges that “People don’t conform their lives to a message because it is useful. They do so because they believe the message is true and therefore life-giving.” It is one thing to convey the message to other Christians who merely need to be educated about the truths of their faith; it is another to convey it to people who do not share that faith.

To Die So As Not to Die

In yesterday’s Gospel from St. John, Jesus tells his disciples that “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat” and that those who love their lives lose them, but those who hate their lives in this world preserve them.

Or, as Fr. Dale Korogi put it more simply in his homily at Christ the King yesterday: We need to die before we die, so that when we die, we don’t die. Get it?

It is actually quite easy to understand as soon as we realize that the death we are asked to undergo before we die is not a physical sacrifice of our lives like that of Jesus on the cross. Rather, Fr. Dale explained, we are invited to die to our false selves and embrace the poverty of being human.

His explanation reminded me of Thomas Merton’s description of the false self. For Merton, the false self “is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life.” The false self sees itself as separate and apart from others and from God, as a completely self-sufficient unit.

Merton believed that all sin stems from the assumption that this false self “is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” It is this false self that must be abandoned in order to us to live as we are meant to live. It is this false self that we must die to so that we may live fully human lives – and “preserve [our lives] for eternal life” (in the words of the Gospel).

Fr. Dale ended his homily by quoting an excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem, The Gift Outright. The lines he quoted are worthwhile to reflect on in the context of yesterday’s Gospel:

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

How’s Your Lent Going?

As I sent my daughter back to begin her third trimester of college yesterday morning, I told her I’d see her two weekend after Easter (when I have a visit planned to see her at school). My husband observed that was only four weeks away, which brought the shocking realization that a week from tomorrow is the beginning of Holy Week.

Wait! Didn’t Lent just start? Um…no…it is almost over.

I don’t know about you, but I began Lent filled with good intentions about what I’d give up, how often I’d fast, etc. Resolutions of more frequent daily Mass attendance. Going to Stations every Friday night. Etc., etc. and so forth.

I didn’t quite succeed as well as I would have liked. The question is: how will I deal with that realization?

There are two possible responses. One is to sit here and beat myself up about my shortcomings, to give myself a good talking to about all of the things I should have done and didn’t, to fume and feel guilty. The other is to sit with God, acknowledge and express my sorrow for the fact that I haven’t done as much as much as I could and ask for the grace to go through the rest of Lent with greater mindfulness. These are the same two possible responses to every instance of sin and shortcoming in our lives.

The former reaction turns us inward and is completely non-productive. The latter reaction, however, takes us out of ourselves and opens some space for God, opens us to the grace of God.

I think I’ll opt for the latter.

Oscar Romero: Martyr, Friend to the Poor, Prophet of Justice

In 1977, Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador an appointment that pleased the government of that country, but disappointed many priests in El Salvador, especially those openly aligned with Marxism. Romero was somewhat conservative and generally was not a rock the boat kind of guy.

But something happened to change Romero. Only a few months after he became Archbishop, a progressive Jesuit priest named Rutilio Grande, who was a personal friend of Romero and who had been creating self-reliance groups among the poor, was assassinated. His death had a profound impact on Romero, who later stated, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'” Romero asked the government to investigate the death of his friend, but they ignored his request.

From that point on, Romero was a changed man. Rutilio’s death helped Romero grow into his role as a voice for the voiceless. He became a strong voice against the violence and injustice that was being perpetrated on the people of El Salvador.

In one of his sermons, Romero warned, “If you live out a Christianity that is good but that is not sufficient for our times, that doesn’t denounce injustice, that doesn’t proclaim the kingdom of God courageously, that doesn’t reject the sins humankind commits, that consents to the sins of certain classes so as to be accepted by those classes, then you are not doing your duty, you are sinning, you are betraying your mission. The church was put here to convert humankind, not to tell people that everything that they do is all right; and, because of that, naturally, it irritates people. Everything that corrects us irritates us.”

As Romero recognized, “it is easier to preach lies, to conform to the situation so as not to lost your advantages, so that you always have friends that flatter you, so that you have power.” Nonetheless we are called to speak the truth, even when doing so means personal loss. That takes enormous courage and enormous faith, of which Romero is a powerful model.

That kind of courage has consequences. On March 24, 1980, Romeo presided at a special evening mass. That evening he proclaimed from the Gospel of John, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” As he concluded his sermon, which preached the need to give one’s life for others as Christ did, he was shot in the heart and died almost immediately.

Romero was tireless in his call for solidarity with the poor and oppressed, a voice for those who had no voice. He was strident in his denunciation of violence and called for a culture of peace and an end to the killings that were destroying his country.

On this anniversary of his assassination, we remember Oscar Romero, martyr, friend to the poor and prophet of justice.

Faith and The Garden of Delights

I got to talking with my cousin Joe’s friend Ron during dinner one evening while I was in NY for my aunt’s wake and funeral a few weeks ago. Turns out Ron and I like a number of the same spiritual writers and, in the course of our conversation, he asked I had read a book titled Leap, by Terry Tempest Williams, which he said had had a great impact on him. I had neither read nor heard of the book, which sounded interesting from his description.

Within a week after my return to Minnesota, the copy of the book Ron purchased and sent to me arrived at my doorstep and I just finished reading it. The book uses Williams’ multi-year examination of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Delights, as a vehicle for her journey of faith. She explores, examines, and almost moves into, Bosch’s images of Heaven, Hell and Earth and, in the process, probes and deepens her faith as a Mormon.

Her descriptions of Bosch’s work (which I’ve only seen pictures of, never having been to the Prado) are fascinating and there is a ton I really liked about this book. I found particularly powerful her descriptions of Hell. Hell as the “tortured chamber of our own hearts.” Hell as solitary suffering. (“A suffering that cannot be shared is a suffering that cannot be endured.”) Hell as “the Great Forgetting,” an inability to remember what moves us. Hell as an inability to perceive beauty. Her images are much more terrifying that images of burning in flames.

Williams asks a lot of questions during the course of the book. Many are questions that we all ask of ourselves in one way or another. Here are some of them:

Can a painting be a prayer?

What do we choose to preserve?

What am I afraid of? What are we afraid of?

What happens when our institutions no longer serve us, no longer reflect the truth of our own experience?

How do you paint your own conversion?

Where do we hide our passions, our positions of truth, when everything around us lifts a finger to our mouth and says, “Hush, do not disturb the peace”?

What is the principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that means the most to you?

What do I believe?

We all need to figure out what we believe (and what it is about Jesus that means most to us) and Williams’ questions offer a lot to think about.

There is a lot else I noted as I was reading. Her definition of heretic as one who deviates from the consensus, who holds an opinion contrary to generally accepted beliefs. Her pairing of obedience and trust. Her effort to distinguish religion and spirituality (albeit in a way different than I would). I suspect on a second reading I’ll find a lot more.

Discipline and Discipleship

Discipline is in the category of words that don’t necessarily sound great to (at least some of) us. It is one of those words like obedience or renunciation that, at first blush, make us worry we’re about to face some unpleasantness.

Although I can’t remember where I first came across this quote from Henri Nouwen, it is, I think one of the best things I’ve ever read that both defines discipline in a helpful way and helps explain why discipline is so important to the spiritual life. Nouwen writes:

Discipline is the other side of discipleship. Discipleship without discipline is like waiting to run in the marathon without ever practicing. Discipline without discipleship is like always practicing for the marathon but never participating. It is important, however, to realize that discipline in the spiritual life is not the same as discipline in sports. Discipline in sports is the concentrated effort to master the body so that it can obey the mind better. Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God’s guidance.

Thus, discipline is the creation of boundaries that keep time and space open for God. Solitude requires discipline, worship requires discipline, caring for others requires discipline. They all ask us to set apart a time and a place where God’s gracious presence can be acknowledged and responded to.

I read this quote and I think, if that’s discipline, I’ll take more of it. Actually, I suspect most of us can use more discipline.