The Dreams That Sustain and Provide Us With Energy

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius Loyola, who has been my companion and guide for many years.  Like many of those we now label saints, Ignatius had a wild young life. Born into Basque nobility, he wrote in his autobiography that he wasted his early adult life on “the follies of the world.”  He also wrote that he had a special liking for “warlike sport, with a great and foolish desire to gain fame.”

Here is how God got Ignatius’ attention: He was injured in battle, struck by a cannon ball that wounded one leg and broke the other. When the injury healed, one of his legs was shorter than the other, with a visible lump where a bone protruded. This was completely unacceptable to the ladies’ man: Ignatius considered it a fate worse than death not to be able to wear the long-tight-fitting boots and hose of the courtier. So he told doctors to saw off the knob of bone and lengthen the leg.

During his long recuperation at the family castle in Loyola, Spain, Ignatius did not have the benefit of television, radio or computer games. (No ability to wile away the hours playing Candy Crush Saga or Trivia Crack – or any of the other million games people are always asking me to play on Facebook.)  So he asked for something to read, hoping for some romance novels, which he quite enjoyed reading.  He was told that all that was available were two books, one on the life of Christ and one on the lives of the saints. Probably on little more than the idea that anything was better than nothing, he started to read.  The more he read, the more he came to see that the lives of the saints were worthy of imitating.   He started to ask himself, “What if I should do what St. Francis did, and what St. Dominic did?”, letting his imagination run wile with what that would look like.  But at other times, he continued to daydream of fame and glory, fantasizing about winning the love of beautiful women.

As his cycles of reading and daydreaming went on, Ignatius started to notice something.  Both reading and thinking about the lives of the saints, and daydreaming about his exploits in war and love brought him enjoyment while he was engaged in the activity. But he noticed that after reading and thinking of the saints and of Christ, he continued to experience feelings of peace, well-being and satisfaction. After his daydreams, he felt restless, dry and unsatisfied. This was the beginning of Ignatius’ conversion; he wrote in his autobiography that this turning point transformed him into a man who wanted to do great things for God.

From the standpoint of something so crucial to Ignatian Sprituality, it was also the beginning of Ignatius’ understanding of what we refer to as discernment of spirits.  In the words of Margaret Silf, Ignatius began

to notice which dreams are capable of sustaining him and providing new vision and energy, and which dreams are transitory, leaving him feeling flat and disappointed.  It [was] the start of a personal experience and understanding of the inner movements going on all the time in his mind and heart….[He learned] how to distinguish between his own self-focused fantasies, and the stirring of what we might call the God-dream within him.

And Ignatius wants us to learn to do the same. To learn “which dreams are capable of sustaining [us] and providing new vision and energy.”

On this feast day of his, that is what I pray for all of us.


A Busy July

This morning after Mass, someone came up to me and said they were glad to see me, as she had been worried something was wrong since I’ve posted so little this month.  I was grateful for her concern, but assured her the dearth of posts have been a function of a July with much more traveling than we usually do.  Between a vacation in the Canadian Maritimes, a trip to Fargo to see our nephew wrestle, and a trip to Texas to see Elena perform in the hospital  the month somehow disappeared.

There is much I had hoped to share, especially from our Canadian jaunt – and perhaps some of those thoughts will appear in the coming days.


Martha: Honesty, Boldness and Take-Charge Efficiency

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Martha, friend to Jesus and sister to Lazarus and Mary.

We meet Martha in two primary episodes in the Bible: the first when Jesus is dining at the home of his friends, and the second when Jesus show up after the death of Lazarus.

The first episode is a short one. Luke tells us:

As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feed listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.

It is interesting that when Jesus chides Martha, he didn’t say, “Why can’t you just be like Mary?” (Something more than one parent or teacher has said about a child when comparing the child to a sibling.) I suspect Jesus knew Martha never could be Mary, just as Mary never could be Martha.

We do need to recognize at the outset that we are all different. We possess different gifts and personalities.  The common reaction to this Gospel episode, when Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part is to say what Jesus didn’t say: Silly Martha – she should have been more like her sister Mary.

But we need to remember something. Here is a woman in a time when women didn’t speak up to men, and they certainly didn’t chastise them. Yet Mary has the boldness to speak her piece with Jesus. Many women of her time would have held their tongue. But Martha spoke what was on her mind, understanding that being in relationship with Jesus means speaking what is actually on our mind and in our heart. Not saying only what we think we are supposed to say.

We can’t move forward with God unless we are honest about what is troubling us. It may be that Martha’s point was misplaced; indeed, from Jesus’ reaction we know it was. But that doesn’t change that had she stayed silent, she would not have learned from Jesus. Only her honesty and courage in speaking up allowed her to do that.

So Martha represents honesty and boldness.

She also represents a take-charge organization and efficiency that the world could not operate without. Someone does have to do the cooking, change the sheets if Jesus and his friends are going to stay overnight. Someone had to make sure there is enough wine for everyone and so on. Martha, in the words of Joanna Weaver “is an administrator extraordinaire – a whirling dervish of efficiency with a touch of Tasmanian she-devil thrown in to motivate the servants.”

So on this day, let us learn from Martha.

Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostle and Woman of Love

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Mary Magdalene, faithful disciple of Christ.  Until last year, we referred to this day as her “memorial,” but Pope Francis elevated the memorial to a feast day, giving her the same level of celebration as the other apostles.

Maligned for centuries, all we know of her origins is that she was a woman “from whom seven demons had gone out.”  What we do know from the Gospels is that she was one of the women who followed Jesus to the cross and who stayed there while the male disciples fled.

We also know that Mary was the first to actually see the risen Jesus, and today’s Gospel recounts that beautiful scene.  What is apparent from the encounter of these two is how much she loved Jesus.  (Father Raymond-Leopold Bruckberger, O.P., once wrote that Mary loved Christ “with all the force of her being.”)  We can see evidence of that love in the grief Mary displays outside of the tomb when she discovered Jesus’ body is gone. We see it in her tears and frantic search for any information she can find that will help her find the body. And we see it in her joy when she realizes that the person she has taken for a gardener is, in fact, the risen Jesus.

Today’s first Mass reading from the Song of Songs expresses beautifully Mary’s love and longing for her Lord:

On my bed at night I sought him whom my heart loves – I sought him but I did not find him. I will rise then and go about the city; in the streets and crossings I will seek Him whom my heart loves. I sought him but I did not find him. The watchmen came upon me, as they made their rounds of the city: Have you seen him whom my heart loves? I had hardly left them when I found him whom my heart loves.

Blessings on this feast of Mary Magdalene.  May be have her longing for union with God.

Being Deeply Listened To

I’ve mentioned several times that I serve on the Board of Directors of City House, a non-profit that works through social service agencies to provide spiritual listening to people on the margins, including those experiencing poverty, addiction and imprisonment.  For many of the people we serve, the experience of having someone listen to them – really listen without judgment – is a new one.  And I know from my own experience as a spiritual director, as well as from the reports of those we serve, how important that is.

I came across this poem by John Fox (from his Finding What You Didn’t Lose) that does a beautiful job of expressing what it means to have someone deeply listen to you.

When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.

When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!

When someone deeply listens to you
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

It takes effort to deeply listen to another person.  But you offer an incredible gift to that person by putting in that effort.

What Troubles Me About Abraham

In today’s first Mass reading, God instructs Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac and offer him up as a burnt offering.

Leave aside for a moment God asking this of Abraham.  It is Abraham’s response that I always wonder about.

Four chapters earlier in Genesis, when God tells Abraham of his plan to destroy the Sodom and Gomorrah because of the extreme sinfulness of the people there, Abraham goes into full advocacy mode.  He challenges God not to “sweep away the innocent with the guilty,” and proceeds to haggle with God. Will you spare the city if you find 50 innocent people there? Great, then will you spare it if you find 45? Terrific, what about 40? Wonderful, do I hear 30? Abraham doesn’t cease his argument until God agrees that if there are ten innocent people in the cities, the cities will not be destroyed.

Abraham puts his all into an argument with God aimed at saving a depraved city, a guilty people.  Yet here, when God instructs Abraham to offer up his son Isaac – the son he loves more than anything and who presumably is innocent of any wrongdoing, Abraham just says Right-O and proceeds to follow the instructions he has been given.  Not a word of protest.  Not any request for explanation.  No effort at persuasion.

How do we explain the difference in Abraham’s behavior? Is it that he knew he was being tested when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac? Did he feel some greater responsibility toward an entire population of people than toward his son? Is there something in how God spoke to him in one instance that is different from the other? Is there something else? And, if Abraham’s behavior in the two situations can not be reconciled, which of them are we to take as the better reaction? Just a few questions to ponder today, along with Caravaggio’s depiction of the scene.

Sacrifice of Isaac


The “United” States

Today the United States celebrates Independence Day, the federal holiday that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 241 years ago on July 4, 1776.

In 1776 the American colonies were united in their opposition to overreaching by the British Government, which taxed them severely while not letting them make their own laws or trade with other countries.  I’m not suggesting the years surrounding 1776 were glory days of unity.  “We the people” largely meant white property-owning men.  But there was a belief that the united colonies stood for something.

What are we as Americans united for or against today?  That shouldn’t be a hard question to answer, but lamentably it is.  What do we as a nation stand for?  I don’t know how to answer that question, and that saddens me.  And it should sadden all of us.

To adapt a portion of Jane Deren’s Prayer for Unity, I pray on this Independence Day that we may “move beyond partisan politics so we may create a vision of the common good so sorely needed for our country.”  That we may practice respect, be grounded in compassion, and work together to rebuild our world.