Advent Retreat In Daily Living: Calls and Responses to Invitations

Yesterday was the final session of the three-session Advent Retreat in Daily Living I offered at the University of St. Thomas School of Law this year. The theme of our first session was Creation and Fall, and in our second session last week we considered Promise in the Old Testament. The subject of today’s session was God’s Invitation and Responses to that Invitation.

After giving the participants time to share about their prayer with the reflection material I had distributed this week, I offered a reflection on God’s invitation for us to participate in his plan for salvation. I talked about God’s calls to Abraham, Moses, and other Old Testament figures. Then I talked about the God’s invitation for human participation in God’s entry into human form, addressing Joseph, Mary and Elizabeth.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 20:59.) You can find a copy of the prayer materials I distributed to participants here.

I hope some of you have been able to participate in our retreat as we have gone along. If not, you can always return to the podcasts and/or the posted prayer material. And remember that if you go to the Podcast link at the top, you can find other Advent podcasts and prayer material.

Many blessings to all during this holy season.


John of the Cross and the Mystery of Love

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of one of its great mystics, St. John of the Cross. John was friend and confidant to another of the great mystics of the Church, Teresa of Avala and, like Teresa and many other mystics, expressed his experience of God in poetry.

One of John’s poems is a beautiful one for us as in this latter part of Advent. It is titled Romances – First Romance: On the Gospel “In principio erat Verbum,” Regarding the Most Blessed Trinity.

In the beginning the Word
was; he lived in God
and possessed in him
his infinite happiness.
That same Word was God,
who is the Beginning;
he was in the beginning
and had no beginning.
He was himself the Beginning
and therefore had no beginning.
The Word is called Son;
he was born of the Beginning
who had always conceived him,
giving of his substance always,
yet always possessing it.
And thus the glory of the Son
was the Father’s glory,
and the Father possessed
all his glory in the Son.
As the lover in the beloved
each lived in the other,
and the Love that unites them
is one with them,
their equal, excellent as
the One and the Other:
Three Persons, and one Beloved
among all three.
One love in them all
makes of them one Lover,
and the Lover is the Beloved
in whom each one lives.
For the being that the three possess
each of them possesses,
and each of them loves
him who bears this being.
Each one is this being,
which alone unites them,
binding them deeply,
one beyond words.
Thus it is a boundless Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
which is their essence;
and the more love is one
the more it is love.

This love of which John speaks is the love into which we are invited by our God. What an invitation!

How Will You Practice Mercy?

Tuesday began the Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. In the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy issued in April, Pope Francis spoke of our need to “gaze ever more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives,” and expressed his desire that “the witness of believers might grow stronger.”

The invitation for each of us to think about how we might make extra efforts to practice mercy during this Jubilee Year.

Loyola Press published some Practical Suggestions for Practicing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. Their suggestions for practicing the corporal work of mercy of feeding the hungry, for example, include

see to the proper nutrition of your loved ones,
support and volunteer for food pantries, soup kitchens, and agencies that feed the
make a few sandwiches to hand out as you walk through areas where you might
encounter people in need;
educate yourself about world hunger;
avoid wasting food;
share your meals with others.

You can also find a list of 56 Ways to be merciful during the Jubilee Year on the Aleteia website. They include, for example,

Resist sarcasm; it is the antithesis of mercy: “Set, O Lord, a guard over my mouth; keep watch, O Lord, at the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141:3).

Pare down possessions: share your things with the needy.

Call someone who you know is lonely, even if you understand why they’re lonely. Especially if you do.

Write a letter of forgiveness to someone. If you cannot send it, sprinkle it with holy water, ask Christ Jesus to have mercy on you both and then burn or bury it.

Learn to say this prayer: “Dear Lord, bless [annoying person’s name] and have mercy on me!”

You can probably think of others on your own. The point is to be intentional – to take the Pope’s invitation and make it your own. Think about how you might use this year to make the practice a mercy a priority.

Merton and Advent

Today, December 10, is the 47th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, poet, peace activist, Trappist monk, prolific writer, mystic, lover of nature, champion of social justice and contemplative.

Merton once wrote, “The Church’s belief in Christ is not a mere static assent to His historical existence, but a dynamic participation in the great cycle of actions which manifest in the world the love of the Father for the ones He has called to union with Himself, in his beloved Son.”

It is a great thought to keep in mind as we approach Christmas.

Our minds fill with images of a young couple who cannot find room in an inn as the woman approaches pregnancy. We focus on a star and shepherds and wise men. We listen to the prophesies of the coming of the Messiah.

And it is right that we celebrate the birth of Jesus into the world. But, even as we do, we need to keep in mind that our faith is about more than the historical existence of a man named Jesus.

Ultimately, it is about the love of God – a God who longs for nothing less than our total union with Him. A God who chooses to become human out of love – to show us what it means to be fully human – and fully divine.

And, as the Merton quote suggests, our realization of this reality demands a response. Not mere a passive enjoyment of that love, but our commitment to “manifest in the world” that love.

As we move through these days of Advent, days in which our world is groaning in suffering, we might ask how we might more fully manifest God’s love in the world.

Advent Retreat in Daily Living: Promise in the Old Testament

Yesterday was the second session of the three-session Advent Retreat in Daily Living I am offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law this year. As always, we began by giving the participants time to share some of the fruits of their prayer this week with the material I distributed after our first session (Creation and Fall).

The subject of this second session was Promise in the Old Testament. In my reflection, I talked about the writings of three of the prophets – Isaiah, Micah and Malachi, although I spent the most time talking about Isaiah, one of the great prophets of Advent.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 20:06.) You can find a copy of the prayer materials I distributed to participants here.

Don’t Forget About Me

A couple of weeks ago, I had to get to the St. Paul campus of St. Thomas University to speak at an evening program. As I knew my friend and colleague Mark Osler also had an evening event on that campus, I asked him for a ride. His response was “Sure, so long as I don’t forget.” To ensure that he didn’t, I grabbed a post-it, wrote a note on it, and stuck it on the outside of his door. When I pointed it out to Mark, he promptly moved it to the inside of the door, reasoning he was more likely to see it there.

Here is the note I wrote:

I was able to photograph it because two weeks later and the note is still on the inside of Mark’s office door. And he has decided to leave it there. It is a good reminder he says, and he is right.

Not a reminder to give me a ride – although it did serve that purpose the evening I wrote it. In the larger scheme of things, however, that was pretty unimportant; if Mark had forgotten me, I would have taken a shuttle door-to-door and been no worse for it (save losing some good conversation with Mark on the ride to St. Paul).

But a reminder that it is cold out there. And that there are many people who are homeless and lack a place to sleep at night. Or who lack warm enough clothing to keep out the cold winds. Or who have a place to sleep, but no heat in their building.

It is all too easy to forget about them. It is good to be reminded not to.

It is cold out there. Don’t forget about the people who need our help.

We Need Advent

Today is the Second Sunday in Advent.

Why do we need Advent? Jesus already came, didn’t he? So why do we need to prepare for His coming each year?

A song we sometimes sing in Mass during the Advent season (and at other times) – God of Day and God of Darkness – helps answer that question. Jesus came – He walked on this earth, he died and he rose, but

Still the nations curse the darkness,
Still the rich oppress the poor;
Still the earth is bruised and broken
By the ones who still want more.

Advent is here again because we desperately need it. Our world desperately needs it. If you have any doubt, read the newspapers. Look at the world around us – a world in desperate need of hope, of new birth.

We need this period of waiting and preparing. Unlike those waiting for the birth of Jesus over two thousand years ago, for us the outcome of Advent is not a surprise. We go into Advent knowing the plot – we know Jesus Christ will be born. Indeed, we know the whole plot – we know that God will become human, live among us, die and then rise. So we wait each year for something we know is coming – the coming of Christmas, and our re-celebration of the birth of Christ and all that we know follows from that.

But we don’t just wait. We prepare ourselves. Advent offers us a chance to assess ourselves, to be sure we are ready to welcome Christ into our hearts, our homes, our world. It allows us to deepen our acceptance of God’s working through us to prepare for Christ’s reign. (Emphasis on “through us” – this is not a sit back and wait for God to make it all right attitude.)

And so as continue through these days of Advent, we might reflect on: What am I doing this Advent to give reality to the rule of Immanuel? How am I helping to birth Christ into the world?

Please Support City House

As we approach year-end, I am writing to ask for you support for a non-profit organization on whose Board of Directors I sit – City House. I wrote about this entity about sixteen months ago, but I do so again in the hope that some of you are still looking for charities to support at this time of year.

The core mission of City House is spiritual conversation with people on the margins – including those experiencing poverty, addiction, and imprisonment. Trained volunteer Spiritual Companions meet one-on-one or in groups with participants at social service agency sites where they live or are receiving services. City House also offers a spiritual friendship program and leadership development for people in the mainstream who want to deepen their relationship with those experiencing life at the margins.

As most of you know, I have been a spiritual director and a retreat leader for a number of years. I have seen the difference it makes in people’s lives – people of all faiths and people of no faith – to have someone to whom they can tell their story, someone who will listen fully to them without judgment and with an open heart.

All the more important is this encounter to the people served by City House. In the words of the director of one of the social service agencies with which we work, “The social service system sees our tenants in terms of their deficits; City House does not do that. City House sees them for what they have to offer, for their innate spirit and for what they can give back to society. Sometimes this is the first time someone has seen them like that.” City House brings non-judgmental, compassionate listening to those who are feeling their brokenness, transmits wisdom across boundaries of culture and economic disparity, and connects people in the mainstream and margin. Among other things, this makes it part of the solution in a culture of polarized viewpoints and demographic segregation.

City House relies on volunteers for much of its work – including the service by its board members, who receive no compensation for our time. But running it does require funds for paying it small staff, conducting training of its listeners, and paying various costs associated with City House operation and the programs it sponsors.

Many of you have been reading my blog for a number of years and have written to me telling me how much you have benefitted from my posts and podcasts. Many of you have remotely participated in retreats I’ve given, using the prayer material and podcasts I freely make available. Despite repeated suggestions by friends and others that I offer online retreats for a fee, I have never and will never ask for anything for myself in connection with what I offer here and on my website. But, if you have benefitted from anything I’ve posted here, please prayerfully consider making a donation to City House.

You can make a donation on-line or by check. If you prefer an on-line donation, please visit the City House website and click on the Donate button at the bottom of the home page. Alternatively, you can send a check payable to City House and mail it to City House at 1730 New Brighton Blvd #253, Minneapolis MN 55413-1248. A donation in any size would make an enormous difference to the work we can do.

Thank you for considering this.

Hope and Being Part of Hope

Prompted by an e-mail exchange with a Facebook friend of mine, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope during this past week.

As I’ve been sitting in the transition from the end time readings during the last few days of the liturgical year just ended to the Isaiah readings we hear in these days of Advent, I realize anew (and ever more deeply) that I both have hope and I am part of realizing that which I have hope for. And I jotted down in my journal the other morning three related points regarding the relationship between those two. First that hope without working on behalf of its fulfillment is mere wishful thinking. Second, that as hope grows, there is more energy to play my part in its realization. And finally, that the more I play my part, the more my hope grows and the more I help others have hope.

Although I drafted my contribution to the University of St. Thomas Advent and Christmas Meditations two weeks ago, when I re-read it yesterday morning (when it was published), I realized it fit perfectly with my current reflections on hope. Let me share here both my contribution and a comment I received from one of my colleagues.

Today’s first Mass reading includes one of my favorite passages in the Book of Isaiah – Isaiah’s compelling vision that
“the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. The calf and the young lion shall browse together…. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors…. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.”

A wolf the guest of a lamb? Calves browsing with lions? A baby playing in a cobra’s den? Crazy stuff! Impossible, our rational mind insists.

Yet, if I can’t imagine the “Peaceable Kingdom,” it will never exist. The first step toward a better future is imagining it, believing that that the unthinkable is attainable. Who knows what would be possible if we were able to imagine the future described by Isaiah! Palestinians as guests of Israelis. Boko Haram and Christians in Nigeria sharing a meal. Warring ethnic groups in the Sudan living as neighbors.

It is far simpler to dismiss Isaiah’s vision as impossible than to try to make it a reality. But as Pope Francis wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, our challenge is precisely “to discern how wine can come from water and how wheat can grow in the midst of weeds” (neither of which is any less outlandish than a lion hanging out with a lamb or a child playing in a cobra’s den.)

So reflect on Isaiah’s vision for the world. And then recognize that in each moment, you have the ability to be a force for unity or a force for discord. To promote peace or to act against peace. To stir love or hatred. And ask yourself, what can I do to further the beautiful vision of Isaiah?

In response, my friend and colleague Mariana shared with me the following Mayan Proverb:

El que cree crea;
El que crea hace;
El que hace se transforma a sí mismo y a la sociedad en la que vive.

The one that believes creates;
The one that creates acts;
The one that acts transforms him or herself and the society in which he or she lives.

So have hope. And be part of the realization of that hope. Maybe it is by performing some random acts of kindness this Advent. Maybe it is by sharing your hope in song (as my friend who prompted my reflections on hope does). It could be in a million different ways. But don’t just have hope. Work on behalf of hope. Be hope.

ARAKs: Advent Random Acts of Kindness

I already shared this challenge on Facebook, but because there are many readers of this blog who are not on Facebook, or who otherwise might not have seen that post, I’m sharing it here as well. I received it from my friend Lori, who may or may not have been the originator of it:

With all the suffering that is happening in the world today, I would like to challenge everyone on Facebook to do a random act of kindness from now until Christmas. You could shovel a neighbors driveway, pay it forward at your local coffee shop, watch a neighbors children so they can have a night/day out, send a thank you or Christmas card to a service member, purchase a toy for Toys for Tots….be creative! Just think about it, if everyone on Facebook [read: and everyone who reads this blog] did a random act of kindness for 24 days what an amazing Christmas it will be! So consider yourself challenged! Pass it on to all your friends and family! Let the kindness begin!

Let’s make this a challenge for all of us, not only those on Facebook. What do you say?

You might consider writing your acts on little pieces of paper. Then on Christmas morning you can lay a bowl with your collected acts before the creche as your gift to the Christ child. Beats golds, frankincense and myrrh by a mile.

I’m not suggesting this is not in the place of any Advent prayer you may be doing, which I strongly encourage. (And I’ll be posting my Advent retreat/reflection material here and hope you will make use of it.) But it is an invitation to put our prayer into action.