A Place Where God Happens

On Saturday I gave a Day of Reflection for the Twin Cities Ignatian Associates on the theme of Being Church in Today’s World. Our focus was on what it means to be church – both individually and communally – in a fallen world, a world in which our religious leaders, as well as secular ones, are divided and subject to sin, and in which so many people have turned away from God and religion.

I began the day with a look backwards, conveying the reality that the church established by Jesus Christ has, from the beginning, produced struggles as well as harmony, failures as well as successes, sinners as well as saints – a reality that should affect how we look at the church and the world today. I then talked about why the approaches many people take to the challenges we face today are harmful to us communally and individually.

In the afteroon, my focus was on both the communal and individual aspect of being church in the world today, reflecting on how we address our call to (to use the words of Rowan Williams) be a place where God happens. I suggested several different ways we can make ourselves and our communities such a place, which included several suggestions for how we encounter those who differ from us.

You can access a recording of that final talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 30:55.


Feast of the Ascension of our Lord

Where I come from (New York diocese) Ascension was celebrated on Thursday.  But here in the Twin Cities, today is the celebration of the Ascension of the Lord.

In our first Mass reading for this day, we hear the account of Jesus’ Ascension in Acts.  At the end of the reading, two men in white garments come upon the disciples, who are gazing up toward heaven as Jesus ascends.  They ask the disciples, “Why do you stand there looking at the sky?”

I’m not sure the disciples at that point understood the reason Jesus had to ascend.  They were too filled with a sense of his loss to have embraced what he had told them when he said that he had to leave, but that they would receive the power of the Spirit.

In a sermon on the Ascension, Karl Rahner explains it well for us:

Because he wanted to come close to us definitively, he has gone away and taken us with him.  Because he was lifted up (on the cross of death and to the right hand of the Father) he and everything in him have become near.  The reason for this is that his Spirit – the Spirit in whom Christ is near to us, the Spirit upon whom Christ from eternity in eternity bestows the eternal fullness of life from the Father, the Spirit over and above which there is nothing that Christ could give in all eternity – this Spirit is in us now.  He is in us as the basis of the nearness of eternal contemplation, as the basis of the transfiguration of the flesh.  We notice nothing of this, and that is why the Ascension seems to be separation.  But it is separation only for our paltry consciousness.  We must will to believe in such a nearness – in the Holy Spirit…..When we are apparently estranged from the nearness of his earthly flesh, then we are the more united with him…..He takes on our semblance only to give us his own reality – the eternal, inexpressible reality that he received from the Father, that he gives us in his Spirit, and that we can receive because he, returning home with all that is ours, made it possible to share in God’s own life.

Happy feast of the Ascension of our Lord.

Inspiration for Caregivers

Increasing numbers of people find themselves in caregiving roles of various types. Somtimes the assumption of those roles is predictable (the need to care for an aging parent). Other times there is no advance preparation and the need to become a caregiver arises completely unexpectedly.

Being a caregiver can be physically and emotionally exhausting and it is easy for caregivers to feel overwhelmed by the demands on them.

With a desire to provide encoragement and inspiration to caregivers, Lori Hogan, founder of Home Instead Senior Care, wrote Strength for the Moment: Inspiration for Caregivers. I just finished reading the book, which was sent to me by Image/Random House for review.

The book is comprised of a series of 52 stories, each introduced by Hogan, told by caregivers about their caregiving situations, what they learned from it and the emotions they experienced. Although caregiving situations vary – some involving the care of an aging parent, others the care of a special needs child, others persons rendered infirm by accident or illness – there is a lot people entering caregiving situations can learn from the stories and a lot to energize those who have been exhausted by their efforts.

A couple of powerful images in the book stood out for me. One is the image of a two-sided ladder one woman used to view her mother’s Alzheimer’s. Each run on the ladder represented a year. Before her mother’s illness, “Mom advanced in age up one side of the ladder, but with Alzheimer’s she began to move downt he other.” That image helped her as her mother regressed through her illness as she saw the same stages in her one sees in a growiing child – only backwards – from six year old girl behavior, to the three year old needing constant entertainment to the “terrible twos.” Seeing it in these terms helped her to cope with the various stages.

Another image that struck me as particularly useful for careviging outside of the family was the shift from “project” to “person I love,” one woman used in talking about caregiving for someone in her community. When we think of “project” and “good deeds” we think in terms of “duty.” Everything changes, however, when we see the person served “no longer a ‘project’ but a person I love.”

In addition to the introduction and caregiving story, each chapter contains a verse of scripture for reflection and a short prayer.

If I have a criticism of the book, it is that the stories in each chapter are too truncated. With a couple I was left wondering what the point of the story was. I would have opted for fewer longer stories. Still I believe many will find them inspiring and will learn somrthing from them.

Glory Be to God

I love this time of year. We had the mildest winter since we’ve moved here this year, but still, spring is welcome. Dave has planted the herb and vegetables, flowers have been making their appearance, breezes no longer bring a chill. It is impossible not to smile on days like this.

I’ve mentioned before my love for the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. One of the poem of his that comes to mind on days like this, which I have hanging in my law school office, is Pied Beauty. I offer it as a sweet song of praise this morning.

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Praise God! And blessings on your day!

Bittersweet Partings

Yesterday we had the farewell mass and reception for Tom Mengler, who steps down this month as dean of UST Law School, a position he has held for the last ten years. Tom is leaving to become the President of St. Mary’s University.

Whenever we say good-bye to someone who has been a good friend, a faithful steward, and a strong leader, we have mixed reactions. We are grateful for the time we had and wish him or her the best in their new endeavor, but we are sad to see them depart from our midst. A part of us would like those we love and enjoy working and being with us to always stay with us – particularly those with whom we have been engaged in a joint endeavor.

Yet, if we are a people committed to follow the call of God, wherever that may lead us, we live with the comings and goings. We know that the ultimate endeavor is God’s and that each of us have a role in God’s plan of salvation. So if we stay true to our call, well then, some of us leave New York to move to Minneapolis. Some leave Minneapolis to move to Texas. Some go even further afield…I think of my friends Marcia and Doug, who are spending this year in Rwanda, or my friend Aidan, posted in Bolivia.

The comings and goings can be difficult, but they are made easier by knowing that we are all part of God’s plan, and that in that, we are all united, whether physically proximate or not.

Growing in Love and Wisdom

As I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, I’ve written a book that adapts Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditations for Christians. The book, titled Growing In Love and Wisdom: Tibetan Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation, will be released by Oxford University Press on October 1.

This books has been a real labor of love. As a Christian I continue to benefit much from what I learned during my years as a Buddhist and I am happy to share some of that with others. Here is Oxford’s description of the book:

In Growing in Love and Wisdom, Susan Stabile draws on a unique dual perspective to explore the value of interreligious dialogue, the essential spiritual dynamics that operate across faith traditions, and the many fruitful ways Buddhist meditation practices can deepen Christian prayer.

Raised as a Catholic, Stabile devoted 20 years of her life to practicing Buddhism and was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun before returning to Catholicism in 2001. She begins the book by examining the values and principles shared by the two faith traditions, focusing on the importance of prayer–particularly contemplative prayer–to both Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. Both traditions seek to effect a fundamental transformation in the lives of believers, and both stress the need for experiences that have deep emotional resonance, that go beyond the level of concepts to touch the heart. Stabile illuminates the similarities between Tibetan Buddhist meditations and Christian forms of prayer such as Ignatian Contemplation and Lectio Divina; she explores as well such guided Buddhist practices as Metta and Tonglen, which cultivate compassion and find echoes in Jesus’ teachings about loving one’s enemies and transcending self-cherishing. The heart of the book offers 15 Tibetan Buddhist practices adapted to a contemplative Christian perspective. Stabile provides clear instructions on how to do these meditations as well as helpful commentary on each, explaining its purpose and the relation between the original and her adaptation. Throughout, she highlights the many remarkably close parallels in the teachings of Jesus and Buddha.

Arguing that engagement between religions offers mutual enrichment and greater understanding of both traditions, Growing in Love and Wisdom shows how Buddhist meditation can be fruitfully adapted for Christian prayer.

Yesterday was an exciting day for me because the book cover image was finally visible on Amazon, Oxford and other sites from which you can pre-order the book.

To my mind, Oxford came up with a perfect book cover and I am grateful to them for their efforts:

Be on the lookout for notices re talks and book signings after the book’s release.

Now that this book is completed (all that is left is my reading of page proofs at the end of this month), I’ve turned my efforts back to the book I’m writing on my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism back to Catholicism.

Following One’s Path

I just finished reading Joan Chittister’s most recent book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy. Both because I have benefitted in the past from Chittister’s writing and because part of my own calling is helping my law students with their efforts to discern vocation, I enthusiastically accepted Image/Random House’s invitation to review the book. My enthusiasm was warranted.

One of the things we always stress to law students and alumni who participate in the semi-annual weekendvocation retreats we offer at UST is that discerning vocation is not a one-shot deal, but that we are called to different things at different times in our lives. Chittister’s book is written with the same understanding that “life is a series of choices”; the book is aimed not only toward young adults determining what to do after they finish school, but to middle-aged people who recognize the need for change in their life and to retirees who no longer have to think in terms of a “job” in ascertaining who they will be in the world. That is does also underscores something else Chittister stresses in the book – it is never too late for us to grow into all we can be.

The assumption – or I should say, truth – underlying the entirety of the book is that “everybody has a call to something.” Whether we call it “the priesthood of believers,” the “will of God for us,” “co-creation” (her examples) or any other name, “[w]e have each been both with particular gifts of mind and soul, of body and brain, of personality and skill that we are meant to use for the greater good. There is no such thing as not having a call.”

There is so much valuable in this book, both for discerning one’s own vocation and for those of us whose ministry involves helping others discern their vocation. I’ll just share a few ideas here, hoping to whet your appetite.

First, in addition to the important distinction between real passion and addiction I wrote about the other day, Chittister also draws a useful distinction between commitment and enthusiasm, which we have a dangerous tendency to confuse – dangerous because mistaking “initial enthusiasm for commitment is exactly what leads so many peple to fall off int he middle of a project.” Enthusiasm is wonderful, but commitment is what we need to forge on when our work ceases to feel good. And her definition of commitment is a good one; she defines it as “that quality of human nature that tells us not to count days or months or years, strugggle or effort or rejection, but simply to go on utnil the work we have come to do is done, whether the need is finally, completely, finished or not.” (That definition itself is good to sit with.)

Second, Chittister addresses the temptation to make choices either too quickly or too slowly. Staying “on roads long gone purposesless” becasue of fear of change and a desire to stay with the familiar is deadening. But equally problematic is being “too quick to leave a road,” simply because the way foward is not clear. Reminding me of much of the thrust of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, she reminds that our search is a continual “process of making spiritual choices between the good and the better, the holy and the mundane, the essence of life and the costmetic” and that the decisions “are hardly ever clear.”

Third, Chittister (who speaks of each of having one call, albeit with different variations) provides a useful elucidation of seven dimensions of authentic call. These provide an important aid – a good outline of things to consider – in any discernment process. When advising people choosing among particular options, I always recommend an Ignatian method of discernment. I will continue to do so, but I will also offer Chittister’s dimensions, which offer a wonderful resource for prayerful discernment of call. In a similar vein, she ends the book with “three clues and three cautions about what it means to discern what we are meant to do in life if we really want to do the will of God.” They are a nice supplement to her dimensions of authentic call.

This is a book I suspect I will both give to others as gifts and come back to frequently myself.

What Would You Lay Down?

Fr. Dale began his homily at Christ the King yesterday by observing that we hear and repeat to ourselves all sorts of affirmations to help us feel good. (You can check any self-help book or advertisement for the sorts of affirmations common in our society.)

Our Mass readings, Fr. Dale suggested, give us three affirmations, which we are invited to embrace – and our embrace of which would make all the difference in the world. The three are: (1) You are loved; (2) You are filled with the Holy Spirit; and (3) You are my (Jesus’) friend.

Jesus received his own affirmation from his Father. We don’t know the content of Jesus’ conversations with his Father, but we do, said Fr. Dale, know that Jesus was filled with and confident of his Father’s love for him. As a result, he was able to extend love freely to all – including the marginalize and the sinners. And he was so filled with love that he had the strength to lay down his life for us.

We are unlikely to ever be called upon to lay down our lives for another. However, Fr. Dale suggested that we might profitably ask ourselves what we are prepared to lay down:

Can I lay aside my head: Can I put down the need to have my own opinions prevail where my insistence on them operates to the detriment of peace and love?

Can I lay aside my heart: Can I put aside my desires where those desires don’t contribute to the common good?

Can I lay aside my soul: Can I put aside my own need for the sake of the needs of others?

On my own, the answer to such questions is assuredly No. However, if I embrace the affirmations of today’s readings, if I really believe that I am loved, that I am filled with the Holy Spirit, that I am Jesus’ friend, there might be a different answer to them.

The Love of a Mother

One of the meditations I present in my forthcoming book, Growing in Love and Wisdom, is titled The Kindness of Others. As are the other meditations in the book, it is adapted from a Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditation I learned during my years as a Buddhist.

The meditation on recognizing the kindness of others is premised on the idea that reflecting on the kindness shown us by others can help us develop a universal love and compassion that generates in us the desire to work for more than our own happiness.

Tibetan Buddhists use the mother as the primary object of meditation because the love of a mother for her child is viewed as a key way to understand and to generate universal compassion and loving kindness. The idea is to take the loving and grateful response that spontaneously arises toward this person, who has shown us such unconditional love and cared for us so solicitously, and extend it to all beings.

Just as Tibetan Buddhists view the love of a mother for her child as possessing particular significance, motherly love has a special place for Christians. We have numerous Biblical images of God as mother, as in Isaiah, where God promises that “as one whom a mother comforts, so I will comfort you.” (Is 66:13) We have the image of Mary, Christ’s mother, as our mother and we see numerous artistic representations of Mary cradling the baby Jesus or supporting the crucified Jesus. Oscar Romero observed that, “Mothers are like the sacrament of God’s love. The Arabs say that God, who we are unable to see, created the mother who we are able to see—and in all mothers we see God, we see love, we see tenderness.”

On this Mothers Day, we give special thanks for the love of our mothers. I pray that reflecting on the love we have been shown by our mothers, and all who have cared for us, may help us deepen our own love and compassion for others.

More Benedictine Thoughts

I’m still basking in the glow of my week at St. Benedict’s Monastery. It was a productive week of work on the conversion book and just a wonderfully prayerful time.

As I sat reflecting back on my week there, a couple of things came to mind that I thought I’d share.

The first relates to the end of the Prologue of the Rule of Benedict, which gives a good reminder that how things seem to us at first is not necessarily how they will always seem to us. In the last paragraph of the Prologue, Benedict explains that it was not his intention to impose anything that was harsh or burdensome in the rule. However, he implores

if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14). For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.

Many things that seem difficult at first blush, may not seem so to us as we grow in the faith. It is a good thing to keep in mind both when we look at the behavior of saints, which sometimes seems so impossible for us to emulate, and when we think about practices that might be suggested for our growth in faith.

The second thing that came to my my mind was a comment one of the sisters made at dinner one evening. I was telling her that while I enjoyed participating in the communal prayers and went every day to Morning Prayer and Noon Prayer (and Mass), I almost never made it for Evening Prayer.

The reason is this: Evening Prayer is at 7:00p.m. On most days, Mass is at 4:30, with dinner immediately following. The result is that dinner is finished by 6:10 or so. If I walk back to my office and try to get some work done, no sooner will I get my head wrapped back into my writing than it will be time to walk back for Evening Prayer.

As I said that, the Sister quietly said, “Well, yes, sometimes coming back for prayer is a sacrifice – having to stop our work, but we do it.” She made clear that she had no criticism of my not getting back for Evening Prayer (guests are invited but not expected to attend prayer services), but it was clear she would stop what she was doing to attend.

I thought about the conversation again and wondered, whether I should adopt more the practice of the Sister. Stopping my work to come back for Evening Prayer even if it was inconvenient. Or maybe taking a walk or even just sitting in the chapel or oratory between dinner and prayer. Something to think about for my next visit.