Feast of the Visitation

Today the Catholic Church celebrates The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

When Mary says yes to the angel Gabriel, she has to live out the months before Jesus’ birth. In St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, when the angel appears to Mary, one of the things he tells her is that her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought to be barren, has conceived a child – the child who we know will be John the Baptist. I’m thinking that Mary, confused and a bit frightened, thinks a visit with her older cousin is a good idea.

So Mary goes off to visit Elizabeth. When Mary enters the house and is greeted by Elizabeth, the baby inside Elizabeth leaps in her womb with joy. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in a loud voice, “Blessed are you, Mary, among all women, and blest is the fruit of your womb.”

And then Elizabeth says something else, making her the first person to designate Mary in this way: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me.” And “Blest is she who trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled.”

In The Hospitality of God, Brendan Byrne, S.J., writes of this scene that Elizabeth

is the first in a long line of characters in this Gospel who give hospitality to Jesus only to find themselves drawn into the hospitality of God.

Elizabeth singles out Mary’s faith as the instrument of her blessedness: “Blessed is she who has believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was promised by the Lord.” Mary believed in the angel’s message concerning herself and, accepting the further assurance concerning her cousin, had set out in faith on her journey. Now, as the older woman recounts what she has just experienced, Mary knows that what she has hitherto held in faith ahs in fact been realized. The two women and the two stories have come together, and faith overflows in knowledge, testimony and celebration. In the meeting of these two women, in the hospitality they exchange, we see the beginnings of the community that will share and celebrate the blessings of salvation.

But there is something more to hospitality in Elizabeth. Think about this encounter, which could have gone completely differently than it did. Mary might have gotten all puffed up with pride and said, “If Elizabeth and I are going to see each other, it ought to be her who travels to see me. After all, I’m the one carrying the King.” And Elizabeth, the older of the two, might have been filled with jealousy, thinking “Why does Mary gets to birth the #1 child and I only gets the messenger. Surely I’m at least as good as she is.” We’ve all had enough experience of encounters marred by overinflated or bruised egos to imagine the possibilities.

Instead what happens is that the young woman who has just learned that she is to bear the Christ immediately runs off to be of help to her older cousin who is with child. And the older woman herself welcomes with joy the younger cousin who has been chosen to bear the more important of the two children. And although we are told only that Mary remained with Elizabeth for some months, we can imagine what must have transpired between those two women during those months. Mary helping Elizabeth with chores….Elizabeth counseling the younger woman…the two pregnant women working, sitting, talking, planning together. Neither pride in the one nor jeolousy in the other. Just two women each lovingly giving the other what she needs.

The Visitation is an incredibly beautiful model of graced human relationship.


An Invitation to Meet Jesus

I love the writing of James Martin, S.J., and have benefitted from each of the books he has written as well as from many of his articles in America and otherwise. This is no less true of his newest book, which I just finished reading: Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

Martin describes his book as “an invitation for you to meet the Jesus I have studied, the Jesus I follow, and the Jesus I met in the Holy Land,” with the aim of prompting readers to explore more about Jesus. He does this through chapters that explore major stories of the Gospels through the lens of his own life and prayer (and Martin’s honesty about his own weaknesses is both admirable and encouraging), stories from his teachers, and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Each chapter ends with the Gospel passage, the story of which was the subject of the chapter, inviting prayerful reflection before moving on.

I should have been writing posts about the content of this book as I read it, because there is way to much to share in a single blog post, although I suppose I could simply say (a) put this on your summer reading list if it is not there already, and (b) Martin’s descriptions of his time in the Holy Land increase my desire to visit there.

But I will share here just three of the things that I found particularly helpful and worth reflecting on. First, in Martin’s discussion of Luke’s account of the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11), Martin zeroes in on Peter’s reaction to the miraculous catch: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Martin suggests we “can try to imagine Peter’s possible frame of mind when he asked Jesus to leave him, but it is just as important to understand why we say to God, ‘Go away from me.'” He spends the next several pages looking at the some possible reasons, discussing our feelings of unworthiness, fear (of God and God’s power), fear of change, and fear of intimacy. He ends this helpful discussion with the reminder of Jesus’ response to Peter’s “Go away” – Jesus does not depart form Peter, but calls him to join him in his mission. Likewise, he does not depart from us when our fears cause us to move away. Continue reading

Maya Angelou: A Woman of Faith

I was saddened yesterday, as were so many others, to learn of the death of Maya Angelou, globally revered poet and civil rights activist.

Angelou was a woman of deep faith, and her courage came from that faith. She once said, “I believed that there was a God because I was told it by my grandmother and later by other adults. But when I found that I knew not only that there was God but that I was a child of God, when I understood that, when I comprehended that, more than that, when I internalized that, ingested that, I became courageous.” In words reminiscent of those in the Letter to the Phillippians (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”) she once observed, “When I was asked to do something good, I often say yes, I’ll try, yes, I’ll do my best. And part of that is believing, if God loves me, if God made everything from leaves to seals and oak trees, then what is it I can’t do?”

The voice of this woman will be missed.

I love so much of Angelou’s poetry. Today, in her honor, I share A Brave and Startling Truth, with her reminder that “we are the possible.”

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

To Confess Our National Sins

Yesterday, Professor Robby George of Princeton quoted on his Facebook page a portion of Abraham Lincoln’s March 30, 1863 Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day:

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

Quoting that language, Professor George asked, “151 years later, is it not the case that the very same words could be said, the very same diagnosis offered, the very same remedy prescribed?”

I think there is enormous truth in Lincoln’s words and agree with Robby that the very same words could be said today. We live in a world in which there is an absence of what the Beatitudes term “poverty of spirit” – our recognition of our absolute an utter dependence on God. And we live in a world in which runs rampant not only individual sin, but what in Ignatian terms we call “social sin” – institutional or structural sins. And it does behoove us to humble ourselves in the face of our sinfulness.

The difficulty with Lincoln and Robby’s prescription that we confess our national sins is that we have no widespread agreement as to what those national sins are. (Not that there was any greater agreement on that subject in 1983.) I wonder if Robby and I (or any other two or more people for that matters) were asked to list the top five national sins of the day, how similar or different would our list be? (And I shudder to think how many would not have ever given thought to the question.)

In part this reflects the fact that our definition of social sin in this country is heavily tied to our political leanings, with the result that we don’t have widespread agreement as to what are our national sins. Sadly, however, it also reflects the fact that our list of national sins is quite large.

16.2 million children in America don’t get enough to eat.

Almost two-thirds of all US drone strikes in Pakistan target homes.

More than half a million people in the US are homeless on any given night.

US surveillance practices violate fundamental civil and political rights.

About 10.5 million Americans are working poor, that is people who spent 27 or more weeks of the year in the workforce but whose income still fell below the poverty line.

Our rhetoric on abortion has gotten so vitriolic that it can hardly be termed debate, with the result that seeking common ground seems an impossible task. And the same can be said about the tone of debate about contraception, medical care, climate change, and a host of other issues.

And those are just the things that come to mind off the top of my head.

That doesn’t mean I disagree with indictment or the prescription. I think we take structural sin far less seriously than we ought to. But our inability to agree on what those are (and, increasingly, to demonize those with whom we disagree) is itself part of the problem. And it is a part that is worth thinking about.

Sometimes We Fall

Yesterday Dave and I spent three hours hiking at Lebanon Hills Regional Park, one of my favorite parks within a 30 minute drive from where we now live. Largely dirt paths through forested areas and, once we put some distance between ourselves and the trailhead, very quiet except for the birds in the trees and the ducks on the lake.

Walking over some wet leaves on the path, I tripped over a hidden tree root. Unable to catch my balance, I went sprawling on the ground, my right forearm and hip taking the brunt of the fall. The scrape on my forearm is not a pretty sight. We had water to clean the worst of the debris from the area, but no first aid supplies with us. (And, of course, I fell at the point furthest from the trail head, the point at which the way from which we came and the return route were about equidistant.) It only stung at first, but within a half mile the sting turned to stiffness and pain.

We can’t stop all our falls. It is true I might have been able to break the fall had I been using my walking poles, but maybe not: two of my three falls on the Camino occurred while I was walking with poles. It is true that mindfulness of our surroundings minimizes the likeliness that we will fall, but I was paying pretty careful attention to the path. Sometimes, no matter how careful and mindful we are, we will fall.

The only question is how do we respond to our falls, physical or otherwise. We can be annoyed with ourselves or the situation. We can feel sorry for ourselves. Or we can pick ourselves up, wipe ourselves off, and keep walking.

We enjoyed the rest of the hike yesterday.

It is true that some of our falls are a lot more serious than a stumble in the park, no matter how much pain that causes. But it is also true that it is always our choice how to respond to our falls.

Fidelity: God’s and Ours

Some years ago, when I was still living in New York, a priest asked the assembly during his homily what the most important attribute of God we learn from the Bible. His answer was: fidelity. God is faithful and loves not for a time, but forever. God is always there, whether we acknowledge it or not and whether we feel it or not.

Like many of the saints and mystics, Saint Philip Neri, whose memorial the Catholic Church celebrates today, had times when he could not feel the presence of God. And, in advice similar to that of St. Ignatius and others, Philip speaks of the need for our own fidelity in times like those. He wrote:

The fervor of spirituality is usually very great in the beginning, but afterwards, the Lord fingit se longius ire, make as though he would go further (Lk 24:28): in such a case we must stand firm and not be disturbed, because God is then withdrawing his most holy Hand of sweetnesses, to see if we are strong; and then, if we resist and overcome those tribulations, and temptations, the sweetnesses and heavenly consolations return.

St. Ignatius also speaks of a sense of absence of God as a sort of test. He said, “We find ourselves tested as to whether we love God or just love the gifts of God, whether we continue to follow God’s loving invitation in darkness and dryness as well as in light and consolation.”

Let’s face it. Prayer, and the Christian life in general, is a lot more fun when I’m in a state of consolation. If I’m feeling the spirit of God so fully and deeply that I can cry out with joy that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God, well it is awfully easy to “follow God’s invitation.” So the test is: can I do it even in period of darkness and dryness, when I can’t see or hear God’s presence.

Mother Teresa felt no presence of God for nearly 50 years. Except for a brief period, she lived in an enduring state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. Yet she continued her ministry. In a similar fashion, I read that Teresa of Avila lacked a felt sense of God for 27 years. This is a woman who was one of the great mystics of the Catholic Church and a woman responsible for great reform of the Carmelite order as well as authoring a body of work many would call the cornerstone of Christian mysticism. Yet she had a long period of darkness. Even Jesus experienced darkness – an inability to feel the presence of his father. Jesus on the cross cries out to his father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (I don’t read that as playacting.) Yet he is able to say, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

The question is: how do we respond when “the Lord fingit se longius ire? Our fidelity to the call of discipleship and to our prayer in times of dryness and darkness imitate God’s fidelity and help us know that we love God and not just the gifts of God.

First Hike of the Season

Yesterday was the first weekend day this year that I was in town, I had a clear morning calendar and the weather was warm and sunny. And that could only mean one thing: my first hike of the season. I dusted off my hiking shoes (the Merrill’s that took me across Spain on my Camino), picked up my friend Dan, and off we went to Fort Snelling State Park.

This is nothing new to people who have been following this blog over the years, but there is little else that is as good for my soul as hiking. It grounds me (no pun intended) in a way nothing else does.

Yesterday we saw an eagle in flight and a deer running through the woods. We stood on a bridge with our eyes closed just listening to the flow of the water underneath. We talked some and walked silently for part of the time. We laughed as we hopscotched our way through the muddy or washed out portions of the path (having ignored the sign that said the Pike Island part of the trail system in the park was closed). And I could feel my body thanking me, especially my legs, which truly were meant for walking. We were only out for about three hours, but it was glorious.

We can experience God everywhere – in the city, in the suburbs, in shopping malls, at the workplace, in our homes and in the homes of our friends. But there is something special about being with God in nature.

I’m planning on plenty of hikes in the coming weeks and months. I hope you get out for some yourself.

When Through One Man

“When through one man a little more love and goodness, a little more light of the truth comes into the world, then that man’s life has had meaning.”

My dear friend Maria Scaperlanda posted these words of Fr. Alfred Delp on on her blog yesterday. I smiled when I read them, as I have remembered those lines since they were first written to me as a graduating 8th grader in 1971, but I had never known the source. (I thought them to be the words of the person who wrote them to me.)

Not long after I started writing this blog six years ago, I shared some thoughts about what these words have meant to me. Here they are again:

I still remember the little autograph books we all had at the end of 8th grade, in which we wrote to each other clever little ditties like “Remember A, Remember B, but most of all Remember me.” Or “If in heaven we don’t meet, hand in hand we’ll fight the heat.”

In addition to my schoolmates, I had my autograph book signed by various teachers, family members and other mentors. Some of the messages people wrote to me in that little book have stayed with me all these years. One that comes frequently to mind is this one: “When through one man a little more love and goodness, a little more light of the truth comes into the world, then that man’s life has had meaning.” May your life have meaning.” (Don’t get side-tracked by the gendered language; insert “person” if you want in place of “man.” But this is the way it was written to me in 1971.)

It is a message that helps ground me. Sure I’d love to be able to cure cancer, bring about world peace, completely take away the sufferings of those I love, and a whole lot of other really, really big things. But, if I can spread a little more love…a little more goodness…a little more light…a little more truth…in ways that make some positive difference in the lives of those with whom I come in contact, then that’s good enough.

Of course, no matter how many times the message comes into my head, there are still times when I worry I’m not doing enough. Sometimes there rises in me a fear that I’ll get to the end of my life and feel that there was more I could have done…more I should have done. So my prayer and my hope is that when I reach the end of my human life, I can say, as Thurgood Marshall did when he stepped down from the Supreme Court, “I did the best I could with what I had.”

As I Love You

In today’s Gospel from St. John, Jesus tells his disciples, “love one another as I love you.”

In other words, love others not because they are beautiful or smart. Love them not because they are kind or generous or noble. Love them not because they do nice things for you or because they like you or because they love you.

Love others just because they are. Just because they are loved into being by the same God who loves you into being. Just because they are made in the image of the same God in whose image you are created.

Love others with no expectation of return. Love them without counting the cost. Love them unconditionally. Wholeheartedly. Love them enough to lay down your life for them.

Just love.

That sounds like a tall order. And if it were something I had to do on my own as a solitary act of the will, it seems impossibly difficult.

For me it seems possible only when I remember that I exist as a manifestation of God’s love. That I exist completely surrounded by and filled with God’s love. That I live in a sea of God’s love (the same sea of love in which everyone else lives) and that my love is simply a piece of God’s love.

When I remember that, then my real task is to open myself up to that love of God so that I can be a channel of that love to others.

When I remember that, “love one another as I love you” really means be what God created you to be. Be the manifestations of love you are.

We Do What We Are Called to Do

I get daily reflections from Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation. This morning I opened my e-mail to find this excerpt from Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, a wonderful book I wrote about when I was reading it a year or so ago.

This morning’s excerpt is a succinct exposition of a state we hopefully are all moving toward

In the second half of life, we do not have strong and final opinions about everything, every event, or most people, as much as we allow things and people to delight us, sadden us, and truly influence us. We no longer need to change or adjust other people to be happy ourselves. Ironically we are more than ever before in a position to change people—but we do not need to—and that makes all the difference.

We have moved from doing to being to an utterly new kind of doing that flows almost organically, quietly, and by osmosis. Our actions are less compulsive. We do what we are called to do, and then try to let go of the consequences. We usually cannot do that very well when we are young.

Now we aid and influence people simply by being who we are. Human integrity probably influences and moves people from potency to action more than anything else. An elder’s deep and studied passion carries so much more power than superficial and loudly stated principles. Our peace is needed more than our anger.

Our growth and maturity is not about caring less about the world and those around us. But it is about letting go of the ego, about acting out of love and not compulsion, and about simply being who we are.