There Was Great Calm

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark is one I have prayed with often and that most are familiar with.  The disciples are in a boat with Jesus when a violent storm arises.   The terrified disciples wake the sleeping Jesus asking him to save them.  Jesus replies “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” He then rebukes the wind and the sea “and there was great calm.”

We get so disturbed by so many things, little and big.  When we do, Jesus asks “Do you have faith? …  Do you trust my heavenly father? …  Do you believe I am with you?”  As I sat with the passage what I heard was “By all means, do what you can do to address whatever it is that is disturbing you, whatever the issue is.  BUT do it secure in the knowledge of my presence.  Do it with confidence and love and wisdom.  And do it with my guidance.”

Shortly after I sat reflecting on this morning’s passage, I came down to my computer and saw this picture on my Facebook feed:

Well, Jesus is there all the time to give a hug, acknowledge our difficulties and remind us it is going to be OK.  And the “pearl of great price” he has to offer is way more valuable than chocolate and six million dollars.

The message is the same, over and over again: Be not afraid.  I am with you always.


Is It Really the “Beginning of the End”?

Yesterday the United States Supreme Court held that two people of the same sex have a constitutional right to be married.  The decision, celebrated by many, is a cause for more than a little bit of hand-wringing by others – particularly those who believe that for religious reasons marriage can only mean the indissoluble union between one man and one woman.  Friends I love dearly fall on both sides of that divide.

I’m not interested here in debating the merits of the Supreme Court’s decision, or of same-sex marriage for that matter.  But I would merely share a couple of thoughts with my friends on both sides of the issue.

First, and this is directed to all of us, with respect to the tone with which we continue our conversations on this issue, one of the best things I read yesterday was from Bishop Gregory Hartmayer.  He wrote

This Court action is a decision that confers a civil entitlement to some people who could not claim it before. It does not resolve the moral debate that preceded it and will most certainly continue in its wake.

The moral debate however must also include the way that we treat one another – especially those with whom we may disagree. We are all God’s children and are commanded to love one another. In many respects that moral question is at least as consequential and weighty as is the granting of this civil entitlement.

This decision has offered all of us an opportunity to continue the vitally important dialogue of human encounter especially between those of diametrically differing opinions regarding its outcome.

Second, In the aftermath of the announcement of the Supreme Court’s opinion, the sounds of Chicken Little have been heard across the internet.  To share some of the lines I read: “See you in jail”; “It’s the beginning of the end”; “The sky is falling”; “Same sex marriage is more distressing than terrorism”; and “Persecution is beginning.”

To those who have expressed or harbored such thoughts, I’d suggest a pause and a deep breath.  First, I am reminded when I hear the sounds of doom of the passage in Acts where the Sanhedrin wanted to put Peter and the apostles to death for their preaching. A Pharisee named Gamaliel argued against doing so with this simple claim: “if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.”  I would say something similar here: my faith that God has a plan and that God’s plan will prevail is strong and unshakeable.  This is not the “beginning of the end.”

Second, it may, in fact be, that this decision leads to less protection for religious liberty than many of us would like to see.  Those who stand firm for their religious convictions have faced hardship before and they will do so again.  The test is how the handle themselves, how they witness to their faith, in the fact of such hardship.

To those on the other side of the divide, it is good to remember that those who oppose same-sex marriage do so not out of bigotry or hate, but out of deep-seated religious convictions about the nature of the human person.  Out of the belief that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained by God.  And, that whatever one’s view on the matter, we are all brothers and sisters, children of that God.  One can believe in gay marriage without believing it necessary to force those with religious beliefs to the margins of our society in one way or the other.

Update: Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s statement sounds a similar tone to Bishop Hartmayer’s.  He writes:

This judgment, however, does not absolve either those who may approve or disapprove of this decision from the obligations of civility toward one another. Neither is it a license for more venomous language or vile behavior against those whose opinions continue to differ from our own. It is a decision that confers a civil entitlement to some people who could not claim it before. It does not resolve the moral debate that preceded it and will most certainly continue in its wake.

This moral debate must also include the way that we treat one another – especially those with whom we may disagree. In many respects, the moral question is at least as consequential and weighty as the granting of this civil entitlement. The decision has offered all of us an opportunity to continue the vitally important dialogue of human encounter, especially between those of diametrically differing opinions regarding its outcome.

Dominion Is Not Exploitation

I’ve finally had a chance to dig into Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment that came out while I was on retreat. Others have already written much on the document and provided helpful distillations of the major points (e.g., here), so I will not offer any major summary here, but limit myself to a single observation.

The account of creation in the Book of Genesis (written, as Francis observes in “symbolic and narrative language”) speaks of humans being granted “dominion” over the earth.  Some have always misinterpreted that language as justifying “unbridled exploitation of nature.”  In the encyclical, Francis

forcefully reject[s] the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.  The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world…”Tilling: refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.  This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.  Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.

The earth is not ours to do with as we will.  We are stewards of an earth that belongs to God.

There is much having to do with care of the environment we can argue over – what are the best means go address pollution or climate change, and so forth.  Much that is in the realm of prudential judgment.

But what is not open to debate is our obligation to till and keep – to “protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”  And that is an obligation imposed on us collectively and on each of us individually.

Moving Past the Judgment

One consequence of spending almost three weeks of the month of June in retreat houses – first directing at OshKosh and then doing my own retreat at San Alphonso – was a lot of sacraments (in the capital “S” Catholic meaning of the term).  In addition to daily Mass, in the month of June I’ve had three anointings (one at OshKosh and one at each of the two group retreats that went on at San Alphonso during my week of private retreat) and received the sacrament of reconciliation twice.

You would think that spending so many days in a retreat house would mean little occasion for sin, but I found myself at San Alphonso lining up for confession for the second time in two weeks.

My arrival at San Alphonso coincided with a women’s retreat weekend that included about 120 women.  Because I was doing private retreat, I was fortunately given a room far removed from the rooms occupied by any of the women – “fortunately” because the women almost never maintained any silence.  They chatted seemingly incessantly, even in the chapel and some, even during Adoration.

One of the things I confessed to the priest was my judgment of the women and their failure to keep silence.  I added that I tried to be charitable, that I did realize it was a blessing that some of them were on retreat at all and many were perhaps doing the best they could.  But I could feel the judgment.  (Having the previous day heard about the resignation of the Archbishop of the Twin Cities, I also confessed that I had not always been charitable in my views toward him, but that I had been trying that day to keep him in my prayers.)

What the priest said in reply was perhaps the single most useful thing a confessor has said to me in a long time.  He began by observing that we have been given brains and we will make judgments.  The problem is not the judgment arising, it is not moving past the judgment to prayer (as I had done in the case of the Archbishop) or some other positive response.

Brilliant in its simplicity and so clearly right.  And I know this from my prior years of Buddhist (particularly vipassana) meditation.  We can’t stop or prevent feelings or thoughts from arising – they will rise of their own accord.  What we can control is how we deal with them.  Do we hand onto negative judgments (or e.g. feelings of jealousy or envy, etc.), follow their story line, and allow them to grow in strength until they drive out any space for wisdom.  Or do we move past them.  Any potential “sin” lies not in the judgment, but in what we do with it.

So perhaps the priest said nothing I didn’t already “know” at some level, but what he said had an enormous impact on me.

The Kingdom of God: Here and Now

I spent a good part of one of the days of my retreat praying with Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom, and felt I came away with a much deeper understanding than I had before of some of what Jesus was trying to convey in those parables.  But I also came away with something more than that.

On a walk I took on the beach after some sessions praying with the parables, I started singing the David Haas Blest Are They song that we’ve sometimes sung at Mass.  As I over and over sang “Blest are they” and “the Kingdom of God is theirs”, and as those words melded with my meditations on the parables, I had a deepened realization that Jesus was not giving a promise about the future when he spoke about the Kingdom.  That when he said the Kingdom of God is at hand he was not making a promise about what would happen to us when we die, but was speaking about the here and now.  (Doubtless the strength of the realization was aided by the fact that the book I was reading on retreat in between my meditations on Savary’s New Spiritual Exercises is Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus of Nazareth; I’ll write more about that book at a future time.)

This is something St. Ignatius totally got, hence his stress about being contemplatives in action and on God’s plan for the world.  Ignatius is not about doing some good things here so you can enjoy eternity in God’s kingdom in another world, it is about manifesting God’s kingdom in this world.

Once we understand that we can see that there are two fundamental mistakes people can make.  The first is a non-spiritual view that thinks this life is just about enjoying oneself, getting as much as one can, living only for oneself.

The second is a mistake some religious folks make – to think that that the Kingdom is all about the afterlife (although we will have that also).  That view causes some to think it is an acceptable option to simply write off this world as corrupt and worry about the next one.  But what we do in this life is not simply the price for something that comes after death, but is a fundamental part of God’s plan.

When I hear some people these days talk about the “Benedict option,” I fear they may suffer from this mistake.  If the Benedict option means withdraw from the mainstream and become a beacon of light for all to see, a model for Kingdom (in the way I think God intended the Israelites to be) that is one thing.  But the way I hear some people talk, it is more about circling the wagons and protecting themselves from the big bad world.  And that option is a fundamental mistake that abandons God’s plan for the world.

All is Already Blessed

At the Mass I attended yesterday morning at St. Thomas More church in St. Paul, a baby was baptized.  As we watched the celebrant bless the water with which the baby would be baptized, I was reminded of an experience I had one day during my retreat.

Earlier in that day, I had been praying with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (itself a powerful prayer experience).  That afternoon, as I was standing on the sand at the ocean’s edge and, reviewing the scene, I said to Jesus, “Baptize me, Lord.”  And I saw Jesus held out his arm over the ocean and said, “I baptize you with the water of my father’s creation.”  And I stood with my eyes closed as the waves rolled in, feeling the spray of the water (and a lot more than spray up to my knees).

In that moment, I had a deep realization that all is blessed.  That all is already holy.  That all of God’s creation is already sanctified by the divine touch, divine breath.

There is no need to bless the water with which we are baptized.  The act of blessing the water that we call “holy water” doesn’t itself bless the water.  The words of blessing are merely an outward sign of the blessing that already exists.

All is blessed by God.


While You Were Gone…

I was largely “off-grid” for the week of my retreat and am now catching up with the events of the world.  An awful lot happened in that one week!

Some of it was exciting: the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment gallops first to mind.  I’ll refrain from any specific comments until I’ve had a chance to read the entire document, but I know there will be much there that can and should affect our relationship with the world.

Some of the news was tragic: the shooting in the Charleston church.  That one broke through my silence – I heard it in the petitions at Mass the morning after it happened.  It remained in my prayers throughout that day.

Some of the news was a source of both sadness and relief: the resignation of the Archbishop of the Minneapolis-St. Paul diocese. I am saddened by so much that has to do with this entire story, but also relieved since I believe it signals the beginning of much needed healing in this diocese.

Through all the news, good and bad, I hear God’s voice: Trust in me.  I am with you always.  Good or bad, do not be afraid.

Thanks Be To God!

I don’t know how many times I said “thank you, God” during my last walk along the beach at San Alphonso this morning.  I didn’t count, but I know it was a lot.  (I also gave thanks for my friend Maria, who recommended this retreat house to me.)

This week of retreat has been filled with so many blessings!  And as is always the case, some I never could have anticipated. 

I will share some reflections from my retreat experience over the coming days. For now it is enough to say: Thanks Be To God!

About My Father’s Business

It was my friend Maria Scaperlanda who recommended San Alphonso retreat house  to me. She also told me about a particular sculpture of Mary and Jesus that she loved and that I should be sure to see.  I am glad she did; the sculpture completely changed how I heard something Jesus says in Luke’s gospel.

First, here is a picture of the sculpture:

 I have no idea what the sculptor’s intent was, but as soon as I saw this, what I heard was Jesus saying to Mary in the temple, “don’t you know I must be about my father’s business.”

In the past, I always heard those words as an admonishment, almost harshly critical of Mary’s lack of understanding. The words were distancing.

But as I stood before the sculpture I heard the words very differently. I heard “don’t you know” the way I might say to Elena when she is hurt, “don’t you know how much I love you” – that is, knowing of course that she does. So what I heard Jesus saying to his mother was “(don’t) you know that I must be about my fathers business. That is exactly what you did when you said yes to my father’s plan. You risked problems with your family, the scorn of friends, even death to be about my father’s business. Surely you – more than anyone else – understand that I must do the same.” (And, although Joseph is not in the sculpture, I heard Jesus’ similar words to him.)

And far from distancing (and I observed that Jesus is not straining against Mary’s arm around him and that while one of his hands points off, the other reaches toward her) I found the words uniting: Jesus says I must be about my father’s business, as must you.

As must we all. As must we all.

I am structuring my retreat time using  Louis Savary’s The  New Spiritual Exercises in the Spirit of Teilhard de Chardin.  My reflection in front of the sculpture is a perfect fit with what God has been doing with me through that vehicle.

Into Your Hands

Here is one of the places I have been spending a lot of time since my arrival here at San Alphonsi Retreat House on Friday.


And also taking long walks along the shore.  It occurred to me that the last time I spent time gazing at the Atlantic Ocean, it was from Finisterre in Spain, at the end of my Camino. It is good to be back at the ocean.


So grateful for this time of retreat. God’s blessings flow.