There is Always A Story

Someone sent me the link to a blog post that contains a simple message, but one we need to be reminded of.

We often judge another based only on what we observe at first glance – how another behaves or what they say in the present situation. Someone is abrupt with us. Someone behaves insensitively. Someone is irritable. Our tendency is to judge (How rude! What a miserable person! etc), to not even wonder what might have caused that behavior. As the blog writer observes

Time and time again I am discovering that if we wait long enough – underneath appearances – there is a story. There is almost always a story. So many times I have judged another’s behavior, reacting from my assumptions, sometimes even feeling a need to point out the error of their ways and then saying things I have later regretted. Yet when I think about the times when I have behaved badly, often when I am exhausted or worried or just being neurotic about something – how grateful I am when someone has the kindness and insight to just step back, be patient, and give me some slack. Meeting negativity with kindness, even if we don’t know the underlying story but just assuming there probably is one…helps everyone. It certainly has the power to melt through my mindless moments every time, and if works for me it probably works for others.

The author relates a couple of specific instances in her post, which is well worth reading in its entirety. But the point is a simple one: Let’s give each other some slack, withholding judgment based on the limited evidence we have. Meet whatever we are presented with love and compassion, assuming that even if we don’t know is, there is a story there.

And our love and compassion might be just what the other person needs.


Where We Put Ourselves in the Story

My friend and colleague Mark Osler was the speaker at yesterday’s Weekly Manna gathering at the law school. His began his talk with Psalm 8, which Mark suggested invited awe, gratitude and humility.

It was humility that was Mark’s focus, and he shared the story of two of his heroes of humility. What particularly interested me was something he said in describing one of those heroes. He said that one of the difficulties he has with many theologians is that their reading of scripture comes from telling scripture stories in a way that puts themselves in the role of God. He gave the example of the story of Jesus and the woman adulterous woman. For some, that is a story of judgment of the woman by Jesus of her sinful ways; they read the story from the point of view of Jesus (“Go and sin no more”) rather than from the point of view of the Pharisees, the people about to cast stones or the adulterous woman. Mark’s view is that we are meant to see these stories from the perspective that is not God/Jesus. In that story, he said, I am not Jesus and the invitation is to examine how am I like the Phraisees? the people about to cast stones? the woman?

I’m not sure I would go quite as far as Mark. I don’t disagree at all with the centrality of humility; I think it is one of the most important virtues and necessities for spiritual growth. And I agree that the perspective through which we look at a story is important.

But I think we benefit from multiple perspectives. Consider a passage I have prayed with quite often – the story of the Prodigal Son. At various times I have related more to one or the other of the brothers. But relating to the forgiving father – through the eyes of my motherhood of my daughter – has been a way to deepen my apprehension of God’s love and forgiveness.

So I would not conclude, as Mark does, that we are not never meant to put ourselves in the God role in Jesus’ stories. But we do need to be careful about assuming we can fully see things from God’s perspective or assuming we know more about God’s ways than we do or can.

Let Your Seed Enter My Heart

Today’s Gospel reading is St. Mark’s account of the parable of the sower. Some of the sower’s seeds fall on the path, where birds ate it. Some fell on rocky ground, where it withered for lack of roots. Some fell among thorns, that choked the seed. “And some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit. It came up and grew and yielded thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”

We hear that and want to think that we’re always the good soil – that we hear and embrace the Word of God. And, of course, sometimes we do, sometimes God’s Word gets through to us at a deep level and we do manage to live out of it. But, if we at all self-aware and honest with ourselves, we know that there are times we are more like the rocky or thorny soil, and things happen that prevent the Word from “sticking” in a way that makes a difference in our lives. We’ve got patches of each kind of soil in our heart.

Pope Francis spoke about this parable during the Prayer Vigil at World Youth Day this past July. After talking about what kind of ground we are – and what kind of ground we want to be, he invited the youth into prayer with him, a prayer that recognizes the reality of which I just spoke.

Here was Pope Francis’ invitation to them, which you might find beneficial as you reflect on this scripture passage today:

In silence, let us all look into our hearts and each one of us tell Jesus that we want to receive the seed of his Word. Say to him: Jesus, look upon the stones, the thorns, and the weeds that I have, but look also upon this small piece of ground that I offer to you so that the seed may enter my heart. In silence, let us allow the seed of Jesus to enter our hearts. Remember this moment. Everyone konws the seed that has ben received. Allow it to grow, and God will nurture it.

Cold, Cold, Cold – And Sunny

This morning is the second in a row with temperatures in the range of 10 below zero, with wind chill of around 35 below. The kind of cold that makes being outside for any length of time very problematic (and potentially dangerous). The kind of weather that makes me understand animal hibernation – curling up in my blanket and not getting up doesn’t seem such a bad thing.

The grace is that we do have sunshine. And while it doesn’t make it any warmer, it does help.

My spirits over the temperature were lifted considerably yesterday when I got a note from my friend and colleague Jennifer, who co-facilitates our vocation retreat weekends. Here is what she wrote to all who attended our last retreat: “I am grateful today for the brilliant sunshine, that seems to make the intense cold a positive thing – not so much the absence of warmth, but a glowing, bracing, glittering experience all its own. Praise God for the incredibly diverse beauty of creation!”

Dress warmly, friends. It’s cold out there. But the forecast also promises “mostly sunny.”

Ashes in the Street

Having thought very highly of Sara Miles’ Take This Bread, I was delighted when I was sent an advance copy of Miles’ latest book, City of God: Faith in the Streets, which will be released on February 4.

Miles was raised as an atheist and became a Christian in her forties. (She tells the story of her conversion in Take this Bread, which I wrote about here.) She now serves as Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

City of God uses a narration of the events of Ash Wednesday 2012 to illustrate the truth that we can find God anywhere and everywhere. On that day, Sarah and others go out into the streets of the San Francisco Mission District to distribute ashes to anyone who wants them. She is very clear that such an action is not “bringing Church to the streets.” Rather, “[w]e’re simply witnessing to the reality that the Church – not the building or tax-exempt legal entities, but the complex, contradictory body of Christ – is already there.”

Christianity can be messy. Fulfilling the command to love our neighbor requires that we come face to face with people we would not necessarily choose to befriend. Many of us (including Miles), at least some of the time, “want the benefits of the Church and the solidarity of a movement, without the costs.” We want “to weasel out of responsibility, hoping to calibrate who, precisely, was my neighbor; how much, exactly, I was required to love which people.” Going out into the street to distribute ashes, put Miles “face to face with all kinds of people – strangers, neighbors, and friends alike – who were not necessarily the ones I chose, but the ones God chose for me.” And, as Miles realizes, we come to learn from all of them; as her friend Paul suggests to her we “understand more and more of God, by opening ourselves to those unlike us.”

City of God reminds us that for Christians there is no part of our lives separate from God, no separation between the spiritual and the physical. “[A] spiritual life is a physical life, shared with other people. And it is not always pretty.

Miles is a beautiful writer and the pictures she paints with her words of the people she works with and meets are compelling. And her discussion of grace and repentance (and death) convey the power and joy of Ash Wednesday to the Christian faith. This would be a great book to read before Lent begins.

What Stops Us From Living Out of an Awakened Heart

Yesterday I gave a retreat day for students and alumni of the Masters of Theology program at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul. About 50 participated and we had a grace-filled day.

The theme of the retreat was The Gift of an Awakened Heart. As I defined it for the retreatants, an awakened heart is a heart alive to the consonence of its beat with the hearbeat of God, a heart nourished and formed by the heart of God.

In the opening session, I began by talking about the qualities of an awakened heart and then focused on those things that make it difficult for us to live out of an awakened heart, misconceptions that hinder our ability to open ourselves to the gift of an awakened heart. In the two subsequent sessions, I talked about ways we might over come those barriers to more fully live out of an awakened heart.

You can access a recording of the opening talk of yesterday’s retreat day here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 40:25.

God in the Driveway

My friend Jeanne is visiting me this weekend from Chicago. We have been trying to find time to get together for quite some time, so it is a delight to have her here.

As we were driving to my house yesterday afternoon, she talked about an experience with her son. Their next-door neighbors are an elderly couple who can’t anymore manage shoveling snow and similar tasks. Jeanne’s son has taken the job of keeping their driveway and walkway clear of snow. This winter has been a very snowy – and very cold – one in Chicago. So Jeanne has undertaken to get up with her son early in the morningsto shovel snow with him. Because they are bundled up in heavy coats, hats, and mufflers, they can’t talk while they are doing this job, but do their work together in silence. Jeanne herself knows her being present has significance. And, importantly, as Jeanne, observed, her son knows she is there with him, going through with him what he is experiencing. It is still very cold, and the work is still hard, but he is not alone.

As soon as she said that, I observed that this was a beautiful expression of God with us. God’s promise never was that we won’t have difficulties, never that things wouldn’t be hard (or tiring or cold), but that we would not have to go through it alone. That whatever we undertake, God will experience it right along with us. God’s supportive presence is always there. And that is something we can count on.

Jeanne’s experience gives her a glimpse of what that promise it – what it means for God to give it, and the security that it gives us.

If you look back over your own experiences, perhaps you can catch a glimpse of the same.

A Poet’s Life

I was introduced to the poetry of Denise Levertov a number of years ago when a friend sent me her poem, Annunciation during Advent. I found the poem then, and continue now to find it, a powerful piece (both as inspiration and wake-up call). So when my friend Richard (who may have been the one to first send me Annunciation) suggested I add Dana Greene’s biography of Levertov to my reading list, I did so.

Levertov herself was skeptical of biographies, believing an artist’s work should speak for itself and that what she wanted to endure was her poetry. And she left a lot to us – twenty-four volumes of poetry, along with several books of essays and several translations of other works.

Levertov took the work of the poet seriously. She believed that a writer must “take personal and active responsibility for his words, whatever they are, and to acknowledge their potential influence on the lives of others,” recognizing that “when words penetrate deep into us they change the chemistry of the soul, of the imagination.” The role of a poet, she felt was to “translate experience to readers and to transport them to other worlds,” which requires the poet to “being to his work an ‘ecstatic attention’ and an ‘intensity’ that is able to penetrate to the reality of the thing itself.”

Greene’s book reveals a lot about the life and spirituality of Levertov, who one commentator called “the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, the most profound,…and the most moving. Several things stood out for me with respect to her relationship with God.

First is her emphasis on her own experience as a basis for understanding God’s love. Levertov wrote:

I cannot believe in God’s love by looking outside my own experience. That the world – anything – exists at all is matter for wonder but does not prove the love of the Creator. Nature is both beautiful & cruel,…& so no proof of love. The suffering of others, the endless wars & tortures,…(might make us) feel it would be better not to exist…BUT – if I looked at my own life I immediately feel the love of God, who has brought me safely so far. And then all the preceding…is revealed as mere casuistic reasons not to believe. The reality is my own experience, and I suppose it is this that enables theologians & mystics to speak with some confidence; each relies on his or her own experience not on generalities & received knowledge.

Second is Levertov’s recognition that increasing our faith is something that we have to work at. She believed that both prayer and concern for others would strengthen faith, and so she renewed her efforts at prayer and tried to love more lovingly. She also found imagination vital for cultivating faith; for Levertov, imagination was the capacity that allowed the fusing of intellect and feeling.

Third is her understanding of the relationship between hope and solidarity; indeed, the “locus of [her] deepest hope” was those with whom she engaged in social justice efforts. In her poem “For the New Year, 1981”, she wrote

I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams…

I need more.

I break off a fragment
to send you.

Please take
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

Greene does not sugercoat Levertov’s weaknesses. Her live was tumultous and her insecurity, need for external approval and her desire to be central to the life of someone could make her difficult and adversely affected many of her relationships. But she was a woman who loved life, and that comes through loud and clear in Greene’s work.

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

After my post of yesterday explaining the origin of the title of my blog, my friend Gerry wrote with the suggestion that I also explain why I chose Fra Angelico’s Annunciation as the banner picture for Creo en Dios! This is another subject I did write about when I first set up the blog. Again, since it was so long ago, here is what I wrote:

When I was setting up this blog, there was no question what picture would appear – Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

The fresco itself is at the top of a flight of stairs in the San Marco in Florence.  You walk halfway up the stairs, turn a corner to continue the rest of the way up, and as you turn, there it is on the wall facing you.  The first time I turned the corner and saw it, it took my breath away.  Each subsequent time I’ve been to Florence, I’ve gone back to the San Marco to see “my Annunciation”, and each time I have the same reaction – I know what is coming as I turn on the landing, but still, it takes my breath away.

As does Mary.  As a child I did all the normal Mary stuff kids in Catholic schools did in the 60s – the crowning of the statue and all the Mary songs, especially in May.  As a young adult, I had no relationship with Mary.  But over the years, she has come to be someone of significance to me.

The moment captured in the Fra Angelico painting is one I go back to again and again in my prayer.  A young girl is given what can only have been astonishing news.  One can only imagine what went through her mind.  What will my parents say?  And Joseph?  And the neighbors and my friends? Who will believe I conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit (whatever that means)?  What will happen to me?  I’m not old enough to raise any child, let alone this special child.  Questions….fears….doubts. 

And despite all the questions, fears and doubts, “Yes,” she says.  I don’t understand all of what you are asking, I can’t see what this is going to look like, but yes.   I am yours, do with me what you will. 

When I want to say yes but have questions and fear, when the ramifications of the yes are not clear, I look to Mary as my model.  And I pray for her strength and her faith.

[Since I wrote that post, back early in 2008, I’ve written and spoken about Mary many times. If you take a look at the podcast page, you’ll find links to several talks about Mary.]

Creo en Dios!

People often ask me why the title of my blog is in Spanish – especially people who know I don’t speak more than about 10 words in that language.

I did explain the origin of the name in a post I did during my first week of blogging, but that was almost six years ago, so I thought I’d share again the answer to that question:

I pondered about what to title this blog.  (Titles have never been my strong point.) I realized I wanted something simple, yet foundational.  And what is more foundational than the first line of the Creed – I believe in God.  Yet what I titled the blog was not the line in my native English, but “Creo en Dios!”, the actual words my lips form every time the priest holds up the cup during the consecration.  They have been forming those words ever since I re-read Thomas Merton’s Seven-Story Mountain about seven years ago. [Seven when I first wrote this – not almost 14.]

In Seven-Story Mountain, Merton describes what is clearly one of his foundational religious experiences.  It occurred while he was attending a Mass in Havana in around 1940.  The rows in the front of the church were filled with children.  At the moment of the consecration, the voices of the children joyfully rang out, “Creo en Dios!”  Hearing that, Merton was struck by a deep realization of what had just taken place on the altar – a realization of God made present.  The realization, he says, was to tangible that it struck him “like a thunderclap.”  He felt as if he “had been suddenly illumined by being blinded by the manifestation of God’s presence.”  His first articulate thought: here is Heaven, right in front of me.

Creo en Dios.  I believe in God.  Not a God way out there somewhere, but God present, right here, right now.

No brief description here can capture Merton’s beautiful telling of this experience. If you don’t own a copy of Seven-Story Mountain, you can read the portion to which I am referring here.