Celebrating Catherine of Siena

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Catherine of Siena, a mystic who was the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church.

When I give programs the center on Christian mystics, Catherine is often included.  (She was one of those we included this year in the monthly “Deepening” series Christine Luna Munger and I have been presenting at St. Catherine’s University this year.

It is said that at age seven, Catherine had a vision of her spiritual marriage to Christ. She records that Jesus told her that he had “determined to celebrate the wedding feast of [her] soul and to espouse [her to him] in faith.” In her vision, Catherine saw Mary placing her (Catherine’s) hand in the hand of Jesus and sealing the marriage with a brilliant ring that only Catherine could see. This was one of Catherine’s key mystical experiences, one that shaped the course of her life. It was a most joyous event and one she considered as a sign that she should consecrate herself solely to Jesus.

Catherine’s visions, many of which are  recorded in her Dialogue, affected her deeply. One particular vision that was instrumental in how Catherine viewed her vocation occurred after she had spent three years in prayerful solitude in a room in her father’s house.  In the vision,  Jesus reminded her of his response when asked what is the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus then told Catherine: “I want you to fulfill both of these commandments. I want you to walk in the way with both your feet. I want you to fly to heaven on two wings.” Jesus assured Catherine that far from her actions in the world taking her away from time with Jesus, they would bring her closer. He told her, “I have no intention whatever of parting you from myself, but rather of making sure to bind you to me all the closer, by the bond of your love for your neighbor.”

Catherine took Jesus’ words to heart.  As one scholar described, “Catherine was a mystic whose plunge into God plunged her deep into the affairs of society.” She offered her services in a local hospital caring for lepars and victims of the plague, baked bread for the poor of Siena, she served as a mediator between feuding families and helped broker a peace agreement between the city of Florence and the government of the papal states. People flocked to her wherever she went. (It is reported that wherever she went, a dozen priests accompanied her to hear the confessions of those whose faith in God she helped reawaken.) Catherine was truly faithful to the command that Jesus had given her.

Catherine is a wonderful model for us, for surely we are also meant to “fly to heaven on two wings.”  For all of us who are Christians, love of God and love of neighbor are bound tightly, two wings of the same bird.



Simone Weil and Love

Tonight was the penultimate gathering of the monthly series I’ve been co-presenting with Christine Luna Munger at St. Catherine’s University on Deepening Our Prayer Experience with Christian Mystics.  In past sessions we’ve considered Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avala, Teresa of Liseaux, Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Our subject this evening was Simone Weil.

For a long time, Weil viewed herself as an agnostic, having concluded that nothing could be known about the existence of God. In the letter that is called her Spiritual Autobiography, she wrote “As soon as I reached adolescence I saw the problem of God as a problem the data of which could not be obtained here below, and I decided that the only way of being sure not to reach a wrong solution, which seemed to me the greatest possible evil, was to leave it alone.” Hence her agnosticism.

What changed her was her encounter with God. She wrote, “In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God. I had vaguely heard tell of things of this kind, but I had never really believed in them.” The experience changed everything.

One of Weil’s deep religious experience was occasioned by her reading of George Herbert’s poem, Love.

Weil was introduced by a young English Catholic to the metaphysical English poets of the seventeenth century, one of whom was George Herbert. She discovered Herbert’s poem, Love, which she learned by heart. She began to use it as a way to deal with the pain of her headaches (from a young age she suffered excruciating migraines), saying it over and over again at the culminating point of a violent headache, concentrating all of her attention on it and clinging to the tenderness in it. She wrote of that experience:

I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it, the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that Christ himself came down and took possession of me….Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.

Getting in touch so deeply with God’s loving presence has consequences for Weil. She realized not only God’s love for her, but that “every existing thing is equally upheld in its existence by God’s creative love.”  Thus she wrote “The friends of God should love him to the point of merging their love into his with regard to all things here below.” I find her description of the consequence of apprehension of God’s love to be beautiful:

When a soul has attained a love filling the whole universe indiscriminately, this love becomes the bird with golden wings that pierces an opening in the egg of the world. After that, such a soul loves the universe, not from within but from without; from the dwelling place of the Wisdom of God, our first-born brother. Such a love does not love beings and things in God, but from the abode of God. Being close to God it views all beings and things from there, and its gaze is merged in the gaze of God.

As is true of all of those who have had a deep experience of God, this is not “love your neighbor” as an externally imposed rule we must force ourselves to obey. Rather it is love that springs from a union with God, from seeing as God sees.

We end this year’s Deepening series on May 23, when Christine will present on Thomas Merton.

Cultivating Humility

Yesterday was the final Mid-Day Reflection of the academic year at the law school.  The subject was humility.  It seemed to me a fitting topic for students preparing for a profession that is not particularly known for humility, in a world that does not particularly prize it.

The reflection I offered addressed what humility is (and the distinction between true humility and false humility), why humility is an important virtue for us to cultivate, and how we might grow in humility.

In our discussion of different ways to cultivate humility, I offered several suggestions, including practicing gratitude and practicing not always jumping to defend ourselves and the correctness of our position.  I shared with them a story told of St. Thomas Aquinas: One day when Thomas was was reading aloud in the refectory at dinner, he was corrected for mispronouncing a word, and though he knew that he had pronounced it properly, he nevertheless repeated, it in the way he was told.  Afterwards asked by his companions why he had done so, he replied “Because it matters little whether we pronounce a syllable long or short, but it matters very much to be humble and obedient.”

One of the students offered another suggestion: consciously recognizing the gifts of others and helping them to see those gifts.  We had earlier talked about humility as poverty of spirit, as recognizing that all we are and have is gift from God, and about the humility of understanding that it doesn’t always have to be about me.  We had also talked about the need to remember it is God’s plan I am about, not my own, which helps us avoid comparing ourselves with others.

I thought the student’s suggestion was a wonderful one for growing in humility.  Not complimenting people for the sake of complimenting them, or as a tool to get them to do something I want.  But as a way to put the focus on the gifts God has given to each of us so that we each may participate in God’s plan.  And an embodiment of the recognition that we all have  a responsibility to help each other play that part.

Whose gifts have you not noticed recently?

Note: I did not, as I often do, record this talk.  However, you can find a podcast of a talk I gave on this same subject last year at St. Edward’s Catholic Church here.

Empty Chairs

Today is the twenty-first anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.  The event was –  until 9/11 –  the deadliest terrorist act in the United States.

If you visit the memorial built at the site, you will see the Field of Empty Chairs, on which is placed one chair for each person killed, in the approximate position of where the person would have been in the building at the time of the bombing.  Large chairs for the adults and smaller ones for the children.  I could not keep from weeping the day I visited the site and stood facing those small chairs.

And twenty-one years later, children and adults continue to die from terrorist attacks. With Jesus we weep for the empty chairs, wherever they are.  And we pray for the victims of terrorist attacks, and for those who commit them.

Passover 101 and the Awakening of Moses

The Law School Christian Legal Society and Jewish Law Students Association co-sponsored a lunchtime program today to  help Christians better understand the Jewish feast of Passover.  The speaker was my friend and colleague at the law school, Professor Mitchell Gordon.  His talk covered the the historical basis of the celebration as well as  how the holiday is celebrated today.  He also spent a good deal of time talking about the Exodus story, beginning with the Egyptians’ enslavement of the Israelites and going through to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

I’ve been to Passover Seders before and I have a good familiarity with the Exodus story, but that doesn’t prevent learning something new or hearing something in a new and different way.

One of the things Mitchell discussed that I had not focused on before was the sequence in Exodus 2:11-15.  After Moses grows us, he watches his people in their hard labor and one day sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.  (In response, he kills the Egyptian).  The next day, he sees two Hebrews fighting, and questions their behavior.  Hoses then flees Egypt and goes to live in Midian, where he observes shepherds abusing the daughters of a priest of Midian.

Mitchell’s comment was that a true prophet is upset at all injustice, hence Moses’ reaction to the action of the Egyptian against the Hebrews, the infighting of the Hebrews and the abusive behavior of the Midians demonstrates he is a true prophet and worthy of the task God appoints to him.

What came to my mind as Mitchell spoke was the story of Prince Siddhartha, who leaves his palace on successive days and discovered old age, sickness and death, which discoveries set him on his path to Enlightenment.  That is, I heard a story of an awakening.  For me the verses indicate less that Moses actions show him as a true prophet, than that this series of events awakened him, preparing him for God’s call.

Mitchell also had a wonderful discussion of the dialogue between Moses and God at the burning bush, suggesting that even awakened, Moses took a little persuading to undertake the task to which God appointed him.  Not unlike us some of the time.



A Chosen Instrument of Mine

Today’s first Mass reading is one I never tire of hearing or praying with: the conversion of Saul.

You have to admit that if you or I were choosing members for the “good guy” team, Saul would not be high on our list.  This is not someone who is merely harmlessly misguided, not just a slackard with no appetite for serious prayer and deepening his life with God, not just a bumbler who doesn’t have a clear sense of the road forward.

Saul is a murderous persecutor of Christians. He stands by watching Stephen stoned to death because of Stephen’s proclamation of his faith in Christ. At the beginning of today’s first Mass reading from Acts, Saul, “still breathing murderous threats” against Jesus’ disciples, “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might arrest them.

Yet what does God tell the incredulous Ananais, who can’t believe God is asking him to find Saul, lay hands on him and restore his sight?  “This man is a chosen instrument of mine.”

We are constantly reminded in our Scripture that God has plans for everyone.  That God sees in a way we don’t and invites all to participate in his plan for salvation.  His choices sometimes leave people scratching their heads, whether it is the anointing of Jesse’s youngest son David or Jesus’ call of the tax collector Matthew.

No one gets left out of God’s plan.

The question to ask yourself is: what does it mean to me to know I am a chosen instrument of God’s?  What does it feel like to hear God say to you: You are a chosen instrument of mine.


Not As It Should Be

When I arrived at the law school this morning, I stopped, as I do not infrequently, at the office of my friend and colleague Mark Osler.  We caught up on the talks we’ve each given recently, and near the end of our conversation I relayed my experience of being in near total white-out conditions on my drive up to Duluth on Friday morning.  As it is mid-April, as I walked out the door, Mark observed, “that’s just not as it should be.”  And my comment to myself as I walked into the suite in which my office is located was “Yeah, a lot of things are not as they should be.”

My immediate next thought was: who says?  Who says there should not be weather in April that produces white-out conditions?  More generally, how do we decide what should and should not be?

Coincidentally (?) I looked up at that moment to something I have hanging next to my office door.  It is an excerpt from Brandon Bays book “Freedom Is.”  It says

Now what if you discovered that everything is as it is meant to be?  What if you realized that everything that is taking place is happening for a reason and a purpose that you can’t fully understand yet?…What if you were to fully, completely, and utterly just accept what’s here?…

What if it is entirely the will of grace and is out of your hands?…What if there is nothing you can do, should do or ought to do to fix it?…What if you finally felt what it what it feels like to completely and totally relax and accept that what is here is what is meant to be, in this moment?…

How would it feel to rest in an ocean of trust…just being…effortless being?…

Now, I can’t embrace fully what Bays is saying.  That is to say, there are many injustices in this world that I think we can and should work to change.  They do not reflect Kingdom and I do not think we should simply accept them.  And so there is a danger “everything is as it is meant to be” can become an excuse for complacency.

But I do think the comment is a reminder that not everything that is difficult, unpleasant, inconvenient is “not as it should be.”  Many things do happen “for a reason and a purpose [we] can’t fully understand yet.”  And we do need to develop a trust that, as God said to Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

The bottom line is that I think we need to be much more intentional and deliberate about what we label “not as it should be.”  There is real discernment required in distinguishing those things that require our action in the world from those that require our letting go.

On Not Being a Flatleaver

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, about the worst thing you could call someone was a “flat leaver.” The word pretty much conveys the idea. If I’m hanging out with my friend Alice and Patty comes along and invites me (but not Alice) to join her and I go, I’m a flat leaver. If Bob and Jim make plans to go to a movie, but Jim backs out after getting a call from Mike inviting him to come hang out, Jim has left Bob flat.

Not being a flat leaver is more than just loyalty; the two are obviously related, but the former somehow feels much more elemental than the latter.

I hadn’t consciously thought about flat leaving for a very long time. We are decades away from my youth and I now live in a part of the country where people have never heard the term. But some things get wired into us when we are very young. They may become buried, but they are still there somewhere. (I sometimes joke with people that if you scratch me deep enough, you find a Brooklyn street kid.)  And, while not being a flat leaver is deeper or more elemental than simply being loyal, I note that when we do a values exercise at the vocation retreat weekends we give semi-annual for law students at the University of St. Thomas, loyalty is a value that consistently make the cut of the values most important to me.

I was recently in a situation where I had to choose whether to pursue X or Y. What X and Y were doesn’t really matter; suffice it to say that there were various considerations, some of which leaned in one direction and some in the other. The other night I was sitting in a program unrelated to the two options, not particularly even thinking about them. Yet at some point the thought/feeling/sense arose strongly: “If I choose Y over X, I will feel like a flat leaver. And I’m not a flat leaver.” (I say thought/feeling/sense, because I did hear those words, but I felt it deep in my gut.)

When I sat with the experience the next morning in my prayer, interestingly, I could see examples of other decisions I have made at various times over the years that came from that same place; although that piece was unarticulated at the time, the decisions reflected the sense that I can’t/won’t be a flat leaver.  I realized that in praying over X and Y, it was a piece that had to be part of the equation.

We know that all sorts of things affect our decisionmaking. Part of growth in self-understanding is being able to articulate and evaluate the factors that contribute to the choices we make. So I find experiences like this one extraordinarily helpful.

[Thanks to my friend Mark Osler for encouraging me to share these thoughts in a blog post.  Actually, he told me if I didn’t write a blog post on it, he would.  🙂 ]

Come Dance With Me

I lead weekly morning meditations here at the law school.  The form of meditation varies from week to week; the offerings include centering prayer, lectio, mindfulness, lovingkindness and Taize.

This week was Taize.  I’ve created several playlists for Taize mornings that include mostly traditional Taize chants and similar repetitive chants.  One inclusion not in that category is the setting of some poems of Hafiz, a fourteenth century Persian mystic and poet, against a musical background.

This week’s morning meditation included one of my favorites, a Hafiz poem titled Every Child.

Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does Anything weird,
But the God who knows only four words.
And keeps repeating them, saying:
“Come Dance with Me, come dance.”

Here is the setting we listened to; you can close your eyes and listen:


Looking Through God’s Back

Today it was my privilege to facilitate a lunch time program for clergy and other religious leaders  titled The Face of Mercy: Mercy in the Islamic, Jewish and Christian Traditions.  Inspired by Pope Francis’ declaration of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, the program (co-sponsored by our Office of Mission, Jay-Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning and Muslim Christian Dialogue Center) featured representatives of each of the three Abrahamic traditions to talk about mercy from their faith perspective.

What touched me most deeply in the presentations was something Rabbi Amy Eilberg said with reference to the passage in Exodus where God tells Moses he cannot look upon his face, but only his back.  I have always read that passage as a sign of some distance between God and humans, a separation that prevented Moses from seeing God’s face.  And that is certainly one common and acceptable reading.

Rabbi Amy shared a different reading (one she got from Rabbi Jeff Roth – whose work I am looking forward to checking out).  It conveyed a sense of Moses, rather than looking at God face to face, being invited to look through God’s back – to see what God sees.  I found that extraordinarily powerful.  We often speak of learning to love like God loves, or seeing people like God sees them.  This physical invitation to Moses embodies that idea in a way I never appreciated.

This is an image I want to sit with some more.  But even without a fuller expression of my experience, it seemed to me an image worth sharing.

Note: We will be hosting a more public program on the same theme mercy this evening, so if you are reading this now (i.e., Wednesday afternoon) and are in the Twin Cities area, you still have time to join us at 7:00 in Owen Science Center on the St. Paul campus of the University of St. Thomas.