Here Comes Advent!

As hard as it is for me to believe it (being gone for six weeks on Camino this fall pulled me out of the normal rhythm of time) tomorrow is the beginning of Advent. A time of waiting, a time of preparation, a time for greater self-examination.

Monday will be the first session of the Advent Retreat in Daily Living I will be offering at the law school and, as usual, I will post podcasts of my talks and the weekly prayer material participants will be using. In the past many of you have prayed along with us and I hope you will do so again. Let me here offer some other resources for your Advent practice and prayer:

An Advent Examen – an adaptation of the Ignatian Examen linked to the O Antiphons.

Advent Conspiracy – a resource for worship and giving during Advent.

Advent Resources from Ignatian – video reflections, Advent podcasts, and more.

Birthing the Holy – A Celtic spirituality online retreat.

Ignatian Online Retreat – online Advent retreat based on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

These are just a few of the resources available. I offer them with the hope that, in the midst of the preparation for Christmas and approaching-year-end errands, you might be encouraged to be intentional about taking some additional time for reflection during this Advent season. And, please, if you have some other favorite sites that help your prayer during this season, please feel free to share them in the comments so others may benefit from them.


Forgiving God

I just read Forgiving God, written by John Boyle and one of my dear friends (and inspirations), Jeanne Bishop.

Each of the authors has had good reason to think about the question of whether we need to forgive God for permitting evil. As a young American soldier in World War II, Boyle was among those who helped liberate Dachau. “The sights and smells that engulfed [him] upon entering the camp initially stunned [him] into a stupor of disbelief that anything so horrible, so brutal, so obscene could have happened at all, much less have been perpetrated by human beings upon other human beings. Corpses of inmates of the camp lay strewn on the ground, in railroad boxcars, and stacked helter-skelter in piles. Before [him] in a panoramic display of carnage was bitter proof of the end result of anger, prejudice and hatred, when pushed to their logical conclusion.” Having been profoundly disturbed by my visit to Dachau this past summer, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to see what Boyle saw when he walked in there in 1945.

Jeanne Bishop’s encounter was a more personal one. In 1990, her 25 year-old sister (then three months pregnant) and her husband were murdered. The murdered was waiting for them when they returned home after a family gathering. Jeanne’s brother-in-law was killed first, leaving Jeanne to “imagine [her] sister seeing the horror before her eyes: her husband’s body slumping to the floor, her dream of having children together and growing old dying with him. Then, seeing the gun turned on her. The killer fired into her body twice, in her abdomen and side, and fled.”

Each of the authors describes their experience in greater detail than I have done here in the course of sharing how they have grown and how they have grappled with their pain and anger. There is much in both of their narratives that is worth reflecting on and this is a book I would encourage anyone to read. (I was going to write “anyone who has grappled with the subject of God and evil – but I suspect that is most, if not all, of us at one point or another.)

Let me here just share one of the things each of them writes. John Boyle writes in talking about why even understandable outrage over injustice can become dangerous:

If my outrage or my anger is the only thing I have, am I in danger of becoming the embodiment of the only thing I have? Does it not then become the “god” around which I organize my life? And do we not ultimately become what functionally we worship?

I share it because there are so many circumstances where we persuade ourselves that our anger is justified, allowing us to feed it. I’m not saying anger is never an appropriate response, but anger easily moves from something that can lead to positive action to something that spirals out of control. And many who have endured tremendous suffering (especially at the hand of another) use their anger as a way of coping with their pain. They run great risks in doing so.

Jeanne Bishop shares the first step in getting past her anger with God, what she describes as her starting point. She writes

But all the time I was shaking my fist at God, questioning, I knew three things: first, that God existed; second, that God loved me, loved Nancy and Richard and their baby; and third, that they were somehow safe with God. That was my square one, my starting point.

If that is our starting point, we will be able to get past our anger and do what Jeanne was ultimately able to do: unclench our fists, uncurl our fingers and reach our hands into the “strong, loving hand of God.”

I Give Thanks

As many know, my daily prayer includes an Ignatian Examen, the first step of which is to review the day one has just had giving thanks for each of the gifts of that day. And those who have heard me speak know that I often talk about gratitude. As I told an RCIA group at Our Lady of Lourdes this past Sunday, if the single change we could effect was to replace in each person an attitude of entitlement with one of thanksgiving and gratitude, that itself would change the world immensely.

Thanksgiving Day, offers us a special opportunity to give thanks….for the big graces and the little ones in our lives. And so this day I give thanks…

…that I wake up on these cold mornings in a bed in a heated home.

…that I have enough (indeed, more than enough) food to eat.

…that I have a job at a time when many don’t.

…that I have friends who laugh with me in times of joy and who comfort me in times of grief and sadness, who encourage me, who challenge me, and who love me through it all.

…that my daughter has grown into an amazing young woman and delights me with her gift of song.

…that my husband supports me in all things (including my leaving him for six weeks to walk the Camino).

And on this day I remember in a special way…

…those who go to sleep on an empty stomach and wake up on the cold street.

…those who are jobless or who work two and three jobs and still can not make ends meet.

…those who suffer from physical and mental illnesses and lack the means to get proper treatment for them.

…those who do not experience the loving embrace and support of family and friends.

And on this day I ask God to hold them – and all of us – in God’s loving embrace.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Prayer for The Pilgrims

I remembered this morning that I had placed some prayer cards and other papers in the back sleeve of my prayer journal during my Camino. One of the things I pulled out was the Prayer of the Pilgrims that was prayed at the church in Los Arcos.

As I read the prayer this morning, it struck me as a wonderful prayer for all of us as we continue the pilgrimage that is our life. Here it is, with its single reference to the Camino deleted:

Lord, you who recalled your servant Abraham out of the town Ur in Chaldea and who watched over him during all his wanderings; you who guided the jewish people through the desert; we also ask you to watch [over us].

Be for us,
a companion on our journey
the guide on our intersections
the strengthening during fatigue
the fortress in danger
the resource on our itinerary
the shadow in our heat
the light in our darkness
the consolation during dejection
and the power of our intention

so that we under your guidance, safely and unhurt, may reach the end of our journey and strengthened with gratitude and power, secure and filled with happiness, may join our home. For Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

I pray this prayer this morning for all of us.

No Ordinary Men (or Women, For that Matter)

I just finished reading No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State, by Elizabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern. As the title suggests, the book focuses on the efforts of Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi, as well as others in their circle, to oppose Hitler, efforts that led both men to be executed (shortly before the collapse of the Third Reich).

There is much that moved me in reading this book, but one of the things that touched me most was the incredible strength and faith of so many members of this family as they suffered the consequences of their opposition to Hitler. One of those was Christine Bonhoeffer Dohnanyi (Hans’ wife and Dietrich’s sister), who all along assisted her brother and husband in their efforts.

When Christine was imprisoned, she wrote to her children

Everything is always immediately at hand, for it lies either on the table or in the suitcase. I should like to introduce this at home. And in general one sees how good it is when one has few needs. Remember that. Not for the jail but for life….

Now I want to tell you one more thing. Don’t carry any hate in your heart against the power that has done this to us. Don’t fill your young souls with bitterness; that has its revenge and takes from you the most beautiful thing there is, trust…

Believe me, when one has experienced this, then one knows that it is after all a really small and meager part of the human being that one an put in jail.

After her release from prison, Christine took care of various branches of the Bonhoeffer and von Donnanyi familes, as well as complying as well as she could with requests from Dietrich from prison. After the war, she held out hope for a long time that her husband had survived, a hope that was finally dashed at the end of 1945.

Many of us are familiar with Bohoeffer’s actions during the war, fewer with von Dohnanyi’s. The book does a good job of letting us see how much of a “family affair” was the Bonhoeffer/von Dohnanyi resistance against Hitler.

The Kiss of Peace

I had an interesting experience at Mass this morning. During the Kiss of Peace, the man behind me gripped my hand and, looking me in the eyes, slowly said (these were not his exact words, but close), “Peace be with you. May you experience the peace of Christ through me.” Our encounter lasted about three or four times as long as the usual “Peace of Christ,” which is often accompanied by a brief touch of the hand and little or no eye contact. (The exception to the quick brush is family and friends, who often exchange hugs and loving greetings.) I really felt his attention on me and the sincerity of his words and I was deeply moved.

I know many people are not big fans of the Kiss of Peace. They have varied reasons for finding this element of the Mass uncomfortable or inappropriate.

I’ve never had any discomfort with the ritual; actually I kind of like it. But I wonder what different it might make if, instead of rushing to offer the kiss of peace to as many people as one possibly can reach before the priest begins to recite, or the cantor begins to sing, the “Lamb of God,” we just offered it to one to two as though we really mean it: making eye contact, really touching the other person, saying the words carefully and intentionally.

Just a thought.

The Point of Nothingness in the Center of Our Being

As I was reflecting this morning on today’s Gospel from St. Luke, in which Jesus drives the moneylenders and sellers from the temple, my focus was not on the external temple, but the reality that we are the temple of God.

I was reminded during my reflection of a beautiful passage of Thomas Merton’s:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is in everybody, and if we could see these billions of particles of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely….I have not program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

In the words of 1 Corinthians, “Do you not know tat you are the temple of God and that God dwells within you?

A Prayer Journal

My husband came home from the bookstore the other day with a small gift for me, Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal, which was recently published. (Coincidentally, he came home with it the same day my friend Gerry sent me an e-mail telling me about the book.) Recently discovered among her papers in Georgia, the journal was written between 1946 and 1947, while O’Connor was a student at the University of Iowa.

The journal reveals not only O’Connor’s literary ambitions, but the depth of her relationship with, and her yearning for, God.

The journal opens with an undated entry of honest admission: “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.” Why? Her explanation is beautiful and poetic; she tells God:

You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and myself is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

O’Connor’s prayer is a good one, one we might all pray: “I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me push myself aside.” Help me push my small egoic self aside so that I can see you. So that I can see you in me and in all things.

The Example We Set for the Young

In today’s first reading from the book of Maccabees, Eleazar refuses to eat the meat (pork) of the sacrifice prescribed by the king. Those in charge of the ritual meat, who have taken something of a liking to Eleazar, try to encourage him to pretend to eat the meat of the sacrifice. Bring your own meat, they say, and you can eat that, pretending it is the pork, and thus escape death.

Eleazar refused to do as they asked, making up his mind, “in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood,” to be loyal to God. The primary reason he gives is his concern for the example he would set for young people. “Many young people would think the ninety-year old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. Should I thus pretend for the sake of a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me…Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and generously for the revered and holy laws.”

The reading is a good reminder, especially for those of us who are graying. Our actions impact more than ourselves. What we do is an example to others, especially the young people in our lives. What we model matters. We don’t a choice about whether or not we will be models; that is part of our responsibility of communal living and, in any event, people will look to us whether we want them to or not.

It is a good check on ourselves to ask as I do things, is this the example I want to set? Will my actions model movement toward God or will they lead people astray?

What Do You Want to See?

In today’s Gospel reading from St. Luke, a blind man begs for Jesus to have pity on him. Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the man answers, “Lord, please let me see.”

As I sat with that prayer, “Lord, please let me see,” I heard/felt/sensed Jesus ask me, “What do you want to see?”

A two-fold answer sprang immediately to my mind. Lord, I want to see you in everything and everyone, was the first part of my response. Not just in the things in which it is easy to see God – a beautiful sunset, a beautiful mountain view – but in everything, including the places it is most difficult to recognize the presence of God. I prayed to see the presence of God in everything.

Lord, let me see the needs of others, was the second part of my prayer. Let me see their needs and see how I can help meet that need. Let me really see them.

Seeing both – seeing God in everything and seeing where others have needs I can meet – require mindfulness. Seeing requires that I take time to look. It requires that I am not so distracted by a million things on my mind and a laundry list of things to do that I can’t really see what it there. So I can pray to God to see, but I also have a hand in creating the conditions that allow me to do so.