Home in the Heart of Jesus

I just spent the weekend giving a women’s Lent retreat at St. Ignatius Retreat House, the Jesuit retreat house in New York of which I was a member of the adjunct ministerial staff before my move to the Twin Cities five years ago. Not only was it the hub of my ministry in New York, but also St. Ignatius was my spiritual home for many years. The weekend was a bittersweet occasion – joy in a wonderful time with 45 women, many of whom have come on a number of retreats I’ve given there, and sadness because the retreat house is closing in June and this was my last retreat (and, indeed, last visit) there.

One of the great tensions in my life is that between the desire to be ready to pick up and go wherever I am led by the Spirit (the “life as pilgrimage” part of me) and the desire to feel a sense of home, to feel like I belong somewhere. In most periods of my life I have not felt a sense of home and belonging. Despite having a house and a husband and daughter, both of whom I love dearly, I often experience feelings of rootlessness and homelessness.

St. Ignatius, though, was a place the felt like home to me – my spiritual home for many years, the site of so many of my deepest religious experiences, the place out of which I ministered, a place I felt a sense of belonging.

I shared all of this at the retreat house with Fr. Bill Walsh, formerly my spiritual director and still a trusted friend and advisofr, telling him that with the closing of the retreat house, I felt like the home I had was being taken away from me. I would now be homeless.

Bill’s response was swift and direct (as he has always been with me): “Your home is in the heart of Jesus.” And, through my sadness, I knew he was right. That any other home is only a facsimile of my one true home, the only real home I have and really have ever had, the only home I really need – the heart of Jesus.

St. Ignatius Retreat House was a special place and it will always occupy a treasured place in my heart for all that happened there. But it is not about the physical house – or any physical house. As homelike as it felt, the retreat house was never really my home.


Building From our Weaknesses

In his book Rediscover Catholicism, Matthew Kelly begins his chapter on Confession with an anecdote about Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. According to Kelly, when Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team, he asked the coach why. When told it was because his free throw was weak, Jordan undertook to make (not shoot, but actually make) five hundred free throws a day for ten years. That helped him to make it to college basketball, where he realized the weakness of his fade-away jump shot. He then focused on that until he mastered it. Woods, at a time when many already recognized him as a great, took time off from his pro tour to work on a weakness he had discovered in his swing, the correction of which led him to completely dominate the sport.

What Jordan and Woods had, Kelly suggests, was “an incredible ability to look at their game and identify both their strengths and their weaknesses. Once they have done this, they work tirelessly to make their strengths impenetrable and transform their weaknesses into strengths.”

While identifying our strengths and weaknesses are both part of our spiritual growth, Kelly suggests that the latter are more important than the former.

Your weaknesses are the key to the unimaginable bigger future that God has envisioned for you. Your strengths are probably already bearing all the fruit they can. They will continue to bear those good fruits in your life, but at some point they will begin to plateau. Your richer, more abundant future is intimately linked to your weaknesses.

Kelly uses the analogy of planting a field, where 500 acres are already producing wonderful fruit and an abundant harvest and 500 are completely neglected. Working to improve the first 500 acres may produce some increase in yield, but real growth requires transforming the neglected 500 acres.

I’m not sure I’d use precisely the analogy Kelly does, mostly because I think there are far too few people fully utilizing their strengths, and quite a number who haven’t even fully identified what those strengths are. So I think it is just wrong to say that “your strengths are probably already bearing all the fruit they can.”

But I have no disagreement with his point that we need to focus greater attention on our weaknesses, on those things that hinder us from being all that we can be. I think Kelly is absolutely right that our “abundant future is intimately linked” to recognizing and working to redress our weaknesses.

What It Means to be Rich

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus addresses a parable “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” – the parable of the phraisee and the tax collector.

The parable is one that is familiar to many of us. Two men went to the temple to pray. One, a tax collector, stood in the distance, and humbly and sorrowfully prayed, acknowledging his sins and asking for God’s mercy. The other, a Pharisee stood front and center and “spoke [a] prayer to himself,” a prayer that outlined his strengths and expressed thanks that he was “not like the rest of humanity.”

Jesus’ message from the parable was that it was “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Preaching on this parable, St. Augustine of Hippo held up the tax collector as a model: “He was looking at his own emptiness, but he knew what ample wealth the Lord disposed of. He knew that he was coming thirsty to the fountain,” in asking for God’s mercy. Augustine goes one to say that because of this, the tax collector “was already to some extent rich, since he had the idea of making such a request. After all, if he had been completely poor, where would he have been able to produce these gems of confession from?”

The pharisee, in contrast, lacked what the tax collector had: “He was boastful, but it was all hot air, no solid substance. He thought himself rich though he had nothing. The other man admitted he was poor, thought he already had something.”

The tax collector is a wonderful example of poverty of spirit, a poverty that is itself a sign of richness. When we know what we lack, and what we need, we have everything.

Can’t You Trust Him?

This week I attended a beautiful parish penitential service at St. Thomas Apostle church in Minneapolis. I was deeply moved by both the penitential litany that aided in an examination of conscience and the healing laying on of hands that was a central part of the service.

The opening song for the service is one we’ve sung at St. Thomas Apostle during Wednesday evening prayer services during Lent, titled Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door, the text of which comes from an African-American spiritual.

Over and over the songs asks, “O sinner, why don’t you answer? Somebody’s knocking at your door.” The four solo lines introducing the repeated refrain are simple, but they touch me:

Knocks like Jesus, Somebody’s knock-in’at your door.
Can’t you hear him?…
Jesus calls you,…
Can’t you trust him?…

It is the last one that stops me every time we sing the song. “Can’t you trust him?”

It is a good question to sit with.

Jesus is calling. Constantly. Over and over. Wanting us to say yes to deepening our life in him. Wanting us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” as we hear on Ash Wednesday.

What prevents us from answering? Is it a lack of trust?

Don’t you trust him? If yes, what’s stopping you from answering? If not, how do you need God to be with you to increase your trust?

Do You Believe in Hell?

In my talks in various places about Growing in Love and Wisdom, my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism, and the continuing influence of my years as a Buddhist on my Christian prayer practice, there are certain questions that I get with some frequency. One of those questions that I am often asked is, “Do you believe in hell?”

My answer to that question depends on what we mean by hell.

Wen I was a child, the image of hell I had was of a fiery pit with Satan (who in my childhood was red with horns) holding a pitchfork to keep everyone in flames. Hell was an awful place you got locked up forever as punishment if you died with moral sin on your soul.

If that is the Hell someone has in mind when they ask do you believe in Hell, my answer is no. I don’t believe there is a place (or places – Tibetan Buddhist cosmology has a number of hell realms) somewhere where we get locked up to experience torture for all of eternity because of the sins we have committed. But that just says I don’t believe in a grade school or metaphorical understanding of Hell.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hell as “The state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed, reserved for those who refuse by their own free choice to believe and be converted from sin, even to the end of their lives.”

A state of self-exclusion. A state of remaining separated from God forever by our own free choice.

In that sense of hell, the answer to the question is that I believe in hell to the extent that I accept the theoretical possibility that someone could irrevocably reject God and God’s love. I accept the possibility that one could choose separation from God. I have to understand that – because God has given us freedom – it is possible that someone could make that choice.

That is how I answer the question, with this addition: I’d like to think no one inhabits that hell. That because God keeps trying to bring us back, hell is an empty place.

And that is a happy hope: For me, the banquet just won’t be the same if we’re not all there.

My New Slippers

I have a new pair of slippers!

My friend Russ is a multi-talented and very generous person. One of the things he does in his spare time is make doll houses. Incredibly intricately-designed with wallpaper, molding etc. It takes him hundreds and hundreds of hours to make each one – and he has made many (no two alike) for his young relatives and children of friends. He delights in their delight when he gives the houses to them.

Another thing Russ makes is slippers – colorful, handknit, warm slippers. I admired his one day when I was visiting and Russ immediately said, “I’ll make you a pair.” And he did, with beautiful blues and purples.

When they were made, I was invited over to “felt” the slippers with Russ, which involved putting the slippers into a very hot washing machine until the knit both became “felted” and shrunk to the correct size of my feet. This required Russ standing at the washing machine and periodically pulling the slippers out so I could try them on. When they were correctly sized, he stuffed them with newspaper to dry them.

I share all of this, not as a “how-to” for readers who may wish to make slippers, but to share something of the time and energy Russ put into making my slippers for me.

What an amazing gift! The slippers feel wonderful and warm my feet. And I love the colors. But that is really only the secondary part of the gift. The real gift is the love and the labor of my friend. I wear my slippers knowing they are the work of the hands of someone who loves and cares for me. And that is an awfully nice feeling.

Lent Retreat in Daily Living: In the Desert With Jesus – Week 4

Yesterday was the fourth gathering of participants in the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering this year at UST Law School on the theme In the Desert with Jesus.

During the past week, the participants prayed with passages that reveal hints, some well before we get to Jesus’ final trip toward Jerusalem, that being with Jesus is not all wedding feasts and healings and feeding the multitudes. Hints about what Jesus will face – and about the cost of discipleship.

After some sharing about the fruits of their prayer this past week, I gave a reflection on several episodes the participants will pray with this week, as we walk with Jesus on his final steps toward Jerusalem – looking at what happened to him and his followers in the weeks leading up to the entry into Jerusalem. The three episodes I offered some thoughts about are the Cleansing of the Temple, The Raising of Lazarus, and the Anointing at Bethany.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 18:57. You can find the daily prayer material for this week here.

Five Years!

Creo en Dios! is five years old today. It is hard to believe I’ve been posting every day for the last five years! That is a lot of blogging.

Not every post I’ve written has been a “home run” (however one wants to define that). But what I have learned is that you never know when something you write will be exactly what someone else needs to hear. It is impossible to predict which posts those will be. There have been posts I’ve agonized over getting “just right,” some of which have been noticed by others and others of which have not. And some posts I’ve dashed off quickly at 5:00 a.m. that result in grateful e-mails from readers.

Speaking of gratitude, I am enormously thankful for this forum for sharing my reflections and the podcasts from my talks. And, of course, deeply grateful to those of you who read the blog, whether you get it sent to you daily by e-mail or just happen to stumble on it now and then.

My practice of writing at least one blog post a day will be broken this coming fall when I walk the Camino de Santiago. Although I plan to blog as I can, I don’t plan to make it part of my Camino to blog each day.

But, September is many months away and, for now, I’ll be here each day, as I have been each day for the last five years.


What Does it Mean to Speak of Something as a Myth?

For many people, the term “myth” signifies something made up. And indeed, one of the secondary definitions of myth is “an unfounded or ralse notion” or “a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence. But those secondary definitions don’t capture the use or value of myth in the spiritual context.

In catch-up mode on some articles I didn’t get to last week, I just came across a piece from about a week ago in NCR written by Fr. Roger Karban. In it, Fr. Roger provides a very helpful understanding of myth, writing

It’s precisely because [experiences of God] are so important and memorable that our sacred writers frequently employ “mythical” language to describe them. Myth here doesn’t refer to a story or statement that isn’t true, but to an experience so unique and significant that it can only be expressed in symbolic language.

We normally employ myth when we’re talking about the most meaningful events in our lives. For instance, I can ask you three questions about your marriage. You can answer the first two in simple, factual terms; the third always demands some myth. When were you married? Where were you married? What does it mean for you to be married? If you begin your third response with, “It’s like,” or “It reminds me of,” or “Have you ever,” you’re crossing over into myth. You’re reaching into symbolism to connect your experiences with those of the questioner.

In that sense of the term “myth” there is much in the Bible that is mythical. That is not a statement that those things are not true. (As my friend Bill Nolan quips, “Everything in the Bible is true, and some of it actually happened.”) Rather, the truth is conveyed in a symbolic way to make it more understandable.

Hope and the Lengthening of Days

I sometimes joke that my discernment around God’s invitation to move to the Twin Cities took an extra week as I kept asking God, “Are you serious? Minneapolis? I hate the cold; you know that! Are you sure you don’t mean someplace a tad bit warmer?” (And I can almost hear God chuckling.)

I freely admit that I am no fan of winter. Although I did ski a little in my twenties, and ice skated when I was a teen, I get cold very easily and during the winters here I sometimes feel like nothing I go can do will defrost the ice in my veins. I don’t like to hike in the cold; even the walk from the garage to the mailbox sometimes seems too daunting. I really don’t like the cold at all.

As we sit here in the early days of March, it is still cold, BUT BUT BUT, not as cold as even 10 days ago, AND the days are getting longer. A couple of weeks ago I was driving to work in the dark. Now, when I get up at 5:30a.m. and go downstairs to my prayer space, it is no longer completely dark outside. When I drive home at the end of the day, dusk still has not set in.

The days are getting longer, signaling that spring is coming. Oh, not tomorrow or the next day. We still have some time of cold weather ahead of us. But somehow they are easier to take now. The lengthening of the days is a sign of hope. We know that we can wait in hope for the coming of the season of awakening and birthing.

As long as we have hope, we can handle whatever we are faced with.