Year-End Examen

Tomorrow we begin a new year. Even if your daily prayer includes some form of Examen, it is worthwhile to take some time today to reflect back on the events and experiences of this past year. Here are some questions to prompt your reflection:

What have been the most grace-filled moments over the last year? What were the experiences for which you are most grateful?

What have been some of the challenges or causes of tension for you this past year? How good a job did you do facing those challenges?

What is on the horizon that you think requires some particular care and attention?

Pay attention to the feelings that arise in your heart as you review the events of this past year. Perhaps your review of this period has led you to remember an encounter with a colleague or a friend that led you to feel joy or consolation in the recognition that you were in the right place at the right time. Or perhaps you find yourself remembering a conversation or event that left you angry or frustrated. Maybe you experience pain as you remember a messy situation you didn’t handle as well as you might have.

As you review the feelings that surface in your heart during the review of these months: try to identify which of those feelings most catch your attention or stirs your heart most deeply, and ask what is it about the incident that creates such strong feelings. As you reflect on the experience, simply speak the prayer that arises in your heart.


Pope Francis on the Holy Family

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Today’s Gospel is St. Matthew’s narration of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.

Speaking about the Gospel to the pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the Sunday Angelus, Pope Francis said that Joseph, Mary and Jesus lived the dramatic condition of refugees, “marked by fear, uncertainty and difficulties”.

The Pope reminded his audience that today, millions of families suffer the same plight as Jesus, Mary and Joseph did. They “flee hunger, war and other grave dangers, and go in search of security and a dignified life for themselves and their families.” Sadly, he lamented that “not always do refugees and immigrants find a true welcome, respect, and appreciation for the value that they bring. Their legitimate aspirations clash with complex situations and difficulties that sometimes appear unsurmountable.”

Pope Francis invites us, as we contemplate the Holy Family to be mindful “of those migrants and refugees who are victims of rejection and exploitation, who are victims of human trafficking and slave labour.” He also suggested that we “think of those other exiles – I would call them ‘the hidden exiles’ who may be marginalized within their own families – the elderly for example who sometimes are treated like burdens”.

Pope Francis concluded his address with a reminder of three key phrases that promote peace and joy within families. They are: May I?, Thank You, and I’m sorry. Each helps promote love and tenderness, reconciliation and forgiveness, and mutual help.

Herod and the Innocents

To remind us that the Incarnation is inextricably linked with the suffering and death of Jesus, our celebration of Christmas is followed first (one day later) with the martyrdom of Stephen and today (three days later) with the massacre of the Holy Innocents. We remember today those killed by King Herod in his effort to find and destroy the Christ child. How many were killed in Herod’s determination to kill all who resembled Jesus in gender and age is unknown; the estimate ranges from 10,000 to a few dozen.

Herod’s act reminds us of the allure and temptation of the power of this world.

King Herod reigned for 33 years. He was a Jew, so he knew that God promised to send a Messiah. Perhaps there had been a time in his life when that was something he looked forward to, when he waited in joyful hope for the coming of the Messiah.. But by the time the Magi visit him, Herod had gotten pretty comfortable. He was Herod the Great, king of the Jews. He was the most powerful man in his part of the world. People bowed in his presence. He was in complete control. And he grew to like that.

And so Herod took whatever steps he thought were necessary to keep it that way, including killing his brothers and half-brothers – anyone who could have challenged his reign. He would do anything to maintain his position as King of the Jews.

As a result, when Herod hears tell of the birth of a baby who was born King of the Jews, he doesn’t rejoice at the coming of the Messiah, but is threatened. Herod had no intention of giving up his kingship for anyone else. Fearing for his loss of position, he engineers the massacre of the innocents.

Our temptations don’t tend to lead us to actions as depraved as Herod’s. But we are no less susceptible to the temptations of the world than he was. And so the reminder of where that temptation can lead is a good one as we move toward the beginning of a new year.

The Liturgical Season of Christmas

As we are cleaning out the leftovers from the Christmas feasts we enjoyed with our families (and are resolving to exercise more and eat less once the holidays are over), it is good to remind ourselves that the liturgical season of Christmas, that began with the vigil Masses on Christmas Eve, does not conclude until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. We take time during this season to continue our celebration of the birth of Christ into our world and into our hearts, as well as the rest of our slavation story – a story that ends in death and resurrection.

During this Christmas season, I am reminded of these words of Thomas Merton that I put on my website the other day:

The mystery of Christmas lays upon us all a debt and an obligation to the rest of mankind and to the whole created universe. We who have seen the light of Christ are obliged, by the greatness of the grace that has been given us, to make known the presence of the Savior to the ends of the earth. This we will do not by preaching the glad tidings of His coming, but above all by revealing Him in our lives. Christ is born to us today, in order that He may appear to the whole world through us.

Christmas Day is behind us (at least until next year), but our task of making known the presence of Christ continues, not only during this liturgical Christmas season, but every day of the year. And so we need to continually reflect on the question: What am I doing to reveal Christ in my life?

Only Sing The Notes You Have

After Mass yesterday, Elena and I were recalling a not very pleasant musical experience we had one Christmas. The singer at the Mass we had attended that year made a valiant effort at singing “O Holy Night,” but listening to her try (and fail) to hit some of the notes was painful. Cringing at the memory, Elena observed, “you shouldn’t sing a high note unless you have one.” Prompting me to add, “Only sing the notes you have.” Elena nodded and we both laughed at the realization of the obviousness of the point – and the frequency with which it is ignored.

Only sing the notes you have. Advice that is not only applicable to singers, but to everyone. Develop the gifts you have and appreciate those. Trying to sing notes we don’t have is a prescription for personal dissatisfaction and deprives the world of what we can best contribute.

I’m not saying we don’t sometimes have to develop our gifts; we don’t always immediately realize what we have, and over time we discover gifts we didn’t know we had. (I remember Elena telling me during her summer voice program at Salzburg that she discovered she has another note at the high end of her range.)

But at some point we need to admit that there are some gifts we don’t have and never will. And that’s OK. And that our task is to sing the notes we have – joyfully and fully.


Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius begins with an exercise Ignatius gives us that is referred to as Contemplating the Incarnation. He invites us to take a step into the heart of the Trinity, from where we overlook the world from the heart of God. We know the whole world is embraced by God and we enter into the heart of God and overlook the whole world.

And what do we see? We see suffering, destruction, sadness, death, birth, life, hope, love. We see both the violence, the pain and the suffering and the job and love – and we see the heart of God holding both. Sin, injustice and war…and also peace, nonviolence and love – all held in the heart of God. We need to understand there is both – the violence and the love.

We see all this from the heart of God, experiencing the passionate love of God. Ignatius wants us to imagine God saying, “What more can I do?” And hear Jesus says, “I’ll go, Father.”

Ignatius wants us to see that, in spite of sin in the world, and my own sin, God loves us so much that he sends the Word into our midst.

Michael Moynahan, S.J. has a poem entitled Incarnation, designed to convey something of this first meditation. Here is how it goes:

We tried in so many ways to communicate our love.
If communication is not what you say but what people hear,
then what we said was warped and wrenched
into distancing prescriptions that had no heart.

You asked for food. We sent manna.
You asked for drink. Water flowed from the rock.
You asked for directions. Moses brought the law.
And on and on.
Still you grew more distant, more deaf, more blind.
Memories dulled. Speech slurred. Dreams dissolved into wander dust.

And so we did what families do when confronted with calamity.
We drew straws. Shorty lost.
He came to share your plight, your fight, your night,
and point you toward tomorrow.

Wishing Christmas blessings to you and your families!

Baby Jesus in the Drawer

I don’t know what your practice is, but in our family, when we set up our Nativity set, my mom always hid infant Jesus until Christmas morning, when he would be brought out and placed in his crib. (I’ll leave out the part about my three siblings and I fighting over who would get to put Jesus in the crib.)

I still do the same. For two weeks, Baby Jesus has been in a drawer in our family room, and Mary, Joseph and the shepherds and animals have been standing guard over, and gazing at, an empty crib.

Last night we arrived in New York, where we will celebrate Christmas with my family. As soon as I walked into my mother’s apartment and saw her Nativity, I exclaimed, “Drats,” although “drats” was not actually the word I used. “I left Baby Jesus in the drawer. Now he’ll be there until after Christmas.”

Fortunately for us, the Incarnation doesn’t depend on my getting Baby Jesus out into his crib on time. Fortunately for us, God doesn’t require that we get it all perfect to manifest in the world. God takes our best efforts and works with them. Unto us, a child is born – even if he is still lying in my drawer.

On this Christmas Eve morning, I leave you with the words of a 15th Century verse titled In the Silent Night, by an unknown author:

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.

Could but thy soul, O man
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.

One Who Leaps with Joy

Today’s Gospel is St. Luke’s account of the birth of John the Baptist. As I read the Gospel I was reminded of a reflection I had once read by Father Peter John Cameron, O.P., who wrote that John’s birth is a “sacred reminder” of things that we need born in our lives each day.

Following are Fr. Cameron’s list of reminders, along with my suggestion of where you reflection on them might lead you as we approach the end of Advent.

Johns birth is a reminder that we need:
“someone who leaps with joy before the presence of the Lord making me want to live my own relationship with Jesus with greater ardor and fervor”
Is my joy in the Jesus evident to others? Do I have sufficient ardor and fervor for God?

“someone who turns my attention away from my distractions and preconceptions so that I will behold the Lamb of God as the true desire of my heart”
Am I distracted in my prayer? What keeps me from recognizing Jesus as the true desire of my heart?

“somone who models for me that there is no greater joy in my life than for Jesus to increase and for me to decrease, especially as regards my self-reliance, my self-assertion, my self-importance”
Am I willing to depend on Jesus rather than on myself? What does it mean to me to die to myself so that I may live in Christ?

“someone so committed to the truth that he is willing to lay down his life for the Truth-made-flesh – witnessing to me that all true happiness comes through self-sacrifice.”
Do I have the faith of John? Would I give up all for the sake of Christ?

Perhaps you might take one of these to prayer today.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Yikes! Is it the Fourth Sunday of Advent already? How did that happen?

What happened to those great plans for daily Mass during Advent? For more sustained prayer? All the preparation that was supposed to happen?

Some of you may be feeling pretty good right now, feeling that Advent has been all you wanted it to be. And that is wonderful.

On the other hand, some of you may be scratching your head and wondering where the time went. And shaking your head, feeling sheepish that you didn’t “do” Advent quite the way you wanted to.

And some of you may have a foot in both camps – feeling like you did a pretty good job, but could have done a bit better.

But here is the great thing about God. When you finally come knocking at the door, God doesn’t say, “Where the hell have you been?” Or “What do you mean showing up here now after being absent for so long.” Or “Too little too late.” Or “Don’t come knocking at my door now.” Or any of the other fearful things your imagination might conjure.

God just opens his arms wide and says, “Come on it. It’s so great to see you. I’m so happy you are here.” And gives you a big hug.

So don’t hang back. Make the most of these final days of Advent!

God Steps In

I love poetry and so am always happy to come across a poet whose work I have not seen before.

Yesterday, the Inward/Outward daily reflection that arrived in my mailbox had a poem by Dorothy Hunt titled Peace is This Moment Without Judgment. The poem rejects the things we think will bring peace, suggesting a very simple understanding of peace:

Peace is this moment without judgement.
That is all.

This moment in the heart-space where everything that is, is welcome.

Peace is this moment without thinking that it should be some other way
That you should feel some other thing
That your life should unfold according to your plans.

Drawn by the simple truth, I checked Hunt’s website. My reactions after reading several of her poems was “Why haven’t I read any of her work before?”

I was particularly drawn to a poem titled The Invitation. It reflects so well what has been my experience and that of many others: if you invite God in, God is not going to stop at the front parlor. Be prepared: if you say yes, God is coming all the way in, and that is going to be uncomfortable. (It will actually be really uncomfortable at times.)

The Invitation seems to me a perfect poem for a late Advent reflection.

When God comes in your house
it is only by your invitation,
but even your invitation is God’s,
for she has always been
landlady and tenant,
windows and walls,
the fire in your hearth
and the cold wind blowing at your door.

At first, her visits seem so welcome.
She brings tea and cookies and loves you
so sweetly inside your own heart.
You keep inviting her back
by your prayers and meditations,
imagining you’ve found the one you always wanted
who will hold you on her endless lap
and take away your pain forever.

But pretty soon, she starts arriving
unexpectedly, at odd hours of the day and night,
and every time she comes,
she takes something away–
a pretty picture here, a bookcase there,
maybe even some trash
you are happy to be rid of
in your basement.

But at some point, it occurs to you
she intends to move in completely.
And now the mind starts backing up:
“Perhaps you could come back another day,
after I’ve worked on my house,
after I’ve bought nicer furniture,
after I’ve finished my fight with evil,
after I’ve planted a peace garden.”

But you must know
that if you invite God in,
sooner or later she will set up house,
and when she does, beware;
for she tosses out every single thing
she does not need, which,
in the case of the personality,
is every single thing you thought you were.

Every thought and cherished belief
she just throws out on the garbage heap;
and that might be fine if she replaced them,
but she never replaces those sacred thoughts;
she utterly destroys them. She strips the coverings
off the walls, and peels the paper from the window glass,
opens the door to invite in the wind,
and every creature you wanted kept out.

Sometimes she cleans your house gently,
dismantling it room by room.
But often, she just comes in with a torch,
and you feel in your gut the fire burn
in the center of your separate comfort,
and you watch the contents of your house
melt and turn to ash,
and the roof blow off.

And just when you think
there is nothing more that she could take,
she opens the ground beneath
the barely intact shell of your house,
and all the levels of your being
fall into the space that has no name;
and you are left alone in all the world,
without a map, without a path, without a point of view.

And you know you are creator of your dreams,
your dreams of mountains and rivers,
calm seas and storm clouds,
crashes of lightning and spacecraft,
beautiful babies asleep at the breast,
joyful dancing and puppies at play,
Spring’s new blossoms,
and the threat of Winter’s war.

And at this point,
what you are inside your house
is simply What is looking out.
Nothing’s left but what is looking,
yet everything you see is you.
Now your life turns inside out.
Your body is the world of being
looking out of Just What Is.

And strange as it seems
to the mind of your memory,
you enjoy each dance of yourself,
even the pains you hoped to be rid of,
you experience fully without regret.
For everywhere your eye may look,
all it sees is infinite love
displaying itself in creation.

And just to be completely honest,
there are times you might be tempted
to rebuild your house of concepts,
for the mind just loves to think;
but the fire of Truth resides within you,
where it always lived before you knew,
and it keeps revealing moment to moment
what is false and what is true.

So what can be said about what happens
when God takes over her house?
She laughs and simply sips her tea,
washes her dishes and sleeps when it’s time,
then goes to find another house
where there has been an invitation,
an invitation to come in
from the deep, deep love of Herself.