Saints of Color Novena

The Jesuit Post (an online media platform that is a project of Jesuits in formation) began a Saints of Color Novena on February 20. A novena, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a devotion of prayer around a particular theme that runs for nine consecutive days. Hence, this one ends today.

As the Jesuit Post said in its introduction to the Novena, “the Catholic Church is rich with saints and witnesses that inspire us towards holiness, righteousness, and greater charity. These virtuous lives remind us of God’s love and compassion for humanity.”

What is striking is how few of the saints introduced in the Novena were familiar to me. I was already well-acquainted with Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, a couple of whose books I have read and who I have referenced in a number of retreat talks. And, of course, I know Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico. A couple of the other names were ones I know I have heard before (like St. Josephine Bakhita) but knew little about. Others (like Concepcion Cabrera de Armida and Augustus Tolton) were total unknowns to me. Kind of says something about the value of this Novena.

If your visualization of the communion of saints is as homogenous (for lack of a better word) as mine was – or even if not – head over to the Jesuit Post and learn about some of these holy men and women.

Howard Thurman and Sacred Activism

Yesterday morning I participated in an on-line retreat hosted by St. Catherine University for congregations participating in its Initiative for Contemplative Leadership (funded by a Lily Foundation grant). The theme was Contemplative Disciples: Thriving and Leading in Challenging Times. The special guest presenter for the retreat was Lerita Coleman Brown, and she used the writings of Howard Thurman as a way to organize and present the theme.

Part of my interest in participating in the retreat is my own participation in the Initiative; I meet monthly with one of the congregations participating in the initiative, introducing them to different contemplative practices. Another part, though, is my interest in learning more about Howard Thurman, whose writings I have only become familiar with in the last year. (I used two of his meditations in the prayer material I put together for my parish’s Lent Retreat in Daily Living.)

Howard Thurman, who Dr. Brown referred to him as an exemplar of a “contemplative sacred activist mystic, is not as well known in the current day as he should be. While in 1953 Life Magazine named Howard Thurman as one of the twelve “Greatest Preachers of the 20th Century,” and Ebony Magazine designated him as one of the 50 most important figures in African American History, even many of those steeped in spiritual reading and practice are not familiar with him.

There was much I will reflect on from Dr. Brown’s presentation, and much that resonates with my Ignatian spirituality, which invites us to deepen our relationship with God not only for our own personal growth, but so that we may do God’s work in the world. I think particularly valuable for all of us is Brown’s definition of sacred activism. She suggested that social and political activism become sacred activism when the Spirit is invited for guidance, and that social activism without a spiritual basis, that is, without a connection to the Spirit, is not sustainable and cannot lead to real transformation.

Thurman also reminds us of the need to remember our inner authority, to recognize that we have the agency to decide whether to take something in and make it part of who we are or not. That (and this is something else my friend St. Ignatius understood) knowing myself to be the holy child of God stabilizes and helps us ward off negative feedback and treatment, not allowing it to become a source of a feeling of unworthiness. (Among other things Thurman was deeply interested in how he could help young African Americans of his day not be overcome by their circumstances; he did not want the lynchings, Jim Crow laws, etc, to become part of their definition of who they were.)

I can’t really do justice to the morning here, but hopefully you will be tempted to pick up some of Thurman’s writings if you are not already familiar with him. Good places to start are his Meditations of the Heart, Jesus and the Disinherited, and The Inward Journey.

Say Nothing Negative

We are closing in on Lent; Ash Wednesday is only a few days away!

For many people, that means it it time to start considering “what will I give up for Lent.” Many children will be giving up chocolate or sugared cereal. Some adults will be giving up desserts, others wine or beer. Some will be promising to give up Facebook for some other social media during Lent.

Perhaps we can do a bit better than that. As Pope Francis has encouraged, let’s avoid superficial giving up for Lent. Instead, perhaps we can undertaken a discipline that has a better chance of contributing to our spiritual growth than giving up chocolate, wine or Facebook.

Adapting a suggestion made by Elizabeth O’Connor in her book “Our Many Selves”, a discipline for this Lent

might be to say nothing negative about anyone else or about yourself. This will give you more energy for inner work on the subject [self-observation]. If you find it a difficult discipline to keep, do not be discouraged. A discipline is to help us learn, and there is often more learning in failure than in success.

In fact, why wait until next week? Why not start now with that resolve?

Is 30-, 60- or 100-Fold Really Over the Top?

After reading Tuesday’s post on Lohfink’s book on the parables of Jesus, my friend Joe Costantino wrote to me with the question “whether there were one or two interpretations or contextual insights he provided that led you to say: wow, I never thought of that before.”

Had I not read several other books by Lohfink, I would have answered yes to that question as how he interprets the parables. But much of what I read here flows directly from his emphasis in his earlier books on Jesus’ focus on the Kingdom and on the mystery of his own person in that connection. Having said that, I hope I conveyed in my original post that I found his contextual comments on the parables useful.

The contextual insight that stood out for me was his discussion of the parable of the abundant harvest. (Mark 4:3-9). When I’ve talked about this parable of the seed growing on good soil yielding a harvest of thirty or sixty or a hundredfold, I’ve adopted the interpretation of many commentators that this is an obvious exaggeration meant to convey, intended to strike hearers as something that would completely surpass real conditions. (As many others, I have on other occasions invited folks to consider whether they behave like the different types of seeds sown that are described in the parable.)

Lohfink’s book is the first I’ve heard of “tillering,” a process that would make the big quantities in Jesus’ talk completely normal because some of the seeds would “tiller” themselves, that is splitting into several stalks. As Lohfink explains based on his research, a “sprouting seed only produces a single shoot at the outset, but at a very early stage the bottommost node (the so-called “tillering node”), lying far below the surface of the soil, puts out side-shoots” which cause a branching of the principle stem such that there be a next of tillers.

Lohfink opines that Jesus presumed the process of tillering, making his sequence of 36…60…100 immediately plausible to his hearers. Thus, he suggests that “the parable depicts the coming of the reign of God from the first line on. Its coming includes the sowing, the adversaries who do it the utmost damage, and then finally the abundant harvest that stands on the stalk in the end, despite all those who oppose it.” He goes on to say that while the parable speaks first about what God is doing now in Israel, Jesus is also speaking about himself.

He is the sower who sows the word or proclamation. He is also the one who sows people. He has to bear the attacks of his opponents. He experiences how his adversaries frighten people who really want to follow him and try to destroy his mission. And he sees who is seed grows in spite of it all.

You may not find that observation as interesting as I did, but It makes me think differently about the harvest Jesus talks about.

If It is Good Enough for Jesus…

In yesterday’s short Gospel from St. Mark (I’m a bit behind in my scripture prayer), Jesus’ disciples complain to him that they tried to prevent someone who was someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name from doing so “because he does not follow us.” Jesus instructed them not to prevent the person from doing so, for “There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.”

It is a simple but important lesson. We have a tendency to make judgments about who is in and who is out. Who is part of the club. And if we decide someone is not part of the in group, we don’t want them appropriate the benefits of the group. We don’t want to share what we have with the outsiders, whether out of pride, jealousy or insecurity.

Jesus has a much simpler approach. Is he against us? Is he speaking ill of me? Or is he going good deeds in my name? If he is doing good deeds on my name and is not speaking against me, that’s good enough for me, says Jesus.

And if it is good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for us.

And Death Shall Be No More

Barely three weeks ago, I learned of the death of a former student and friend, killed with her husband in a car accident while they were on vacation in Hawaii. A wonderful couple – so loving, so giving, so committed to working for justice and improving the lives of all around them. Along with so many others, I mourned.

Yesterday afternoon, I learned that another friend lost her battle with glioblastoma. (The second of my friends to die of that horrible disease.) She had been diagnosed in September and given a prognosis of 14-18 months. I thought that would be enough time to get in another visit. But, despite her valiant fight, she didn’t get those extra months. Another really good woman who touched the lives of so many. Along with so many others, I mourn.

I never find death easy. The only way through for me is to reach below the tears and the pain to the promise of resurrection. I have to grab onto the security that exists in a place deeper than the grief, that those I love are not gone, but live in Christ.

And so with John Donne, I cry out in a loud voice: Death, be not proud. Death, you do not carry the day.

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

(John Donne)

The Forty Parables of Jesus

I just finished reading Gerhard Lohfink’s most recent book, The Forty Parables of Jesus. Having benefitted from several of Lohfink’s earlier books, I wanted to like this one more than I did. Part of my reaction was my inability to be interested in worrying about whether something should be considered a parable or a metaphor or an allegory. A greater part was my resistance to Lohfink’s insistence that x is the correct reading of a parable, which runs so counter to the sense of parables having multiple layers of meaning.

Having said that, I am not unhappy I read the book. First, even where I have quarrel with his reading of certain parables, Lohfink causes me to think more deeply about a parable. Second (and this is something I appreciated about Amy Jill-Levine’s book on the parables), there is benefit in his exposition of how Jesus’ original audience would have understood what Jesus was saying and understanding what would have been obvious to those listeners. I also enjoyed the first section of the book, where (before tackling Jesus’ parables) Lohfink shares stories from a variety of traditions and sources as a way of talking about how parables work.

What I have always appreciated about Lohfink, and it is central to his treatment of the parables, is his emphasis on the the centrality to Jesus of the “the kingdom of God.” Indeed, Lohfink suggests that all of Jesus’ parables speak directly or indirectly about the reign or kingdom of God. In his preface (and again near the end of the book) he quotes Lutheran theologian Eberhard Jungel: “The parables not only draw us into the center of Jesus’ proclamation; at the same time they point to the person of the proclaimer, the mystery of Jesus himself.”

I do recommend the book to those who are interested in delving more deeply into Jesus’ parables. Lohfink is not always the easiest read (and the book is somewhat scholarly in tone), but it is readable even to those who are not scholars. If someone asked me, I’d probably recommend not to approach the book the way I did – reading it cover to cover. Rather, one might benefit from taking one parable at a time, reading Lohfink’s exposition and then praying with the parable.

Humility and Empathy

Yesterday, my friend (and University of St. Thomas law school dean) Rob Vischer sent an e-mail to the law school community that he also shared on the Mirror of Justice blog. His message was prompted by a report about the trend of Americans choosing to move to live in places more closely aligned with their political beliefs. That movement is happening at a time when our disagreements about political and social issues “have intensified, widened, and coalesced around shared identities that shape the ways in which we view the world.”  Worse, far too often our “disagreement spirals into dehumanization – i.e., that those who hold different worldviews are not just wrong, but ‘other.'”

Rob sugests an alternative, writing  

There is a better way, and it was modeled 158 years ago by Abraham Lincoln, whom we celebrate tomorrow on Presidents’ Day.  His second inaugural address, delivered near the end of a brutal and bloody war, showed a degree of humility that may not even count as a political virtue in today’s climate.  Lincoln observed that both sides in the Civil War “read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.” This was a simple recognition of our shared humanity and shared faith, even at a time when we were killing each other in a conflict over the deeply immoral practice of slavery.  Lincoln did not accuse those fighting for the Confederacy of not being “real Christians,” he did not claim that God had personally assured him that the Union’s cause was just, and he did not assert that God’s plan for civilization hinged on the outcome of the war. Instead, he recognized that those on the other side were just as sincere in their faith as he was.

Did Lincoln’s humility weaken his resolve to win the war and end slavery? Not at all. Did his empathy for those supporting the Confederacy lead him to look the other way and ignore their support of a deeply unjust institution? Hardly. Humility and empathy shaped the way he engaged his opponents, not his commitment to the moral claims underlying the conflict. 

Rob’s encouragement is that we “reflect on ways we can model Lincoln’s humility: not pulling back from our commitment to justice, but not permitting our commitment to justice to obscure the humanity of those on the other side of the struggle.” It is a good suggestion, one I hope many of us choose to follow.

You can read the entirety of Rob’s post here.

Silence and Mutual Listening

Today is the final day of a Ignatian retreat weekend I have been giving for students of the University of St. Thomas. It is a silent retreat and I have been so pleased with how well the students have embraced the silence.

Silence does not tend to be part of the ordinary days of most people (especially college students). Yet silence is such an important part of staying open to what God wants to reveal to us.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once observed, “By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak…[a] space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible.”

“A space is created for mutual listening.” That mutual listening is something that was important to St. Ignatius.  Ignatius does not believe our prayer should be a one-sided conversation where we do all the talking. (That is the part we tend to be very good at.)   Rather, we want to let God speak to us, and the silence helps that.  The silence allows us to let go of some of the noise and distraction that prevents us from really focusing and hearing what God wants to convey to us.  There is that beautiful passage in the First Book of Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures about God speaking to Elijah: God spoke to Elijah not in the storm, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the quiet gentle whisper which could only be heard in the silence. 

As that suggests, listening is not a passive process. We are not just sitting in a superficial silence. Rather, in the words of Mother Mary Clare, “listening is a conscious, willed action, requiring alertness and vigilance, by which our whole attention is focused and controlled.

I’m enormously grateful the students took the gift of silence this weekend. I hope you will find space for it in your own life.

They Didn’t Get It (But We Don’t Get It All At Once Either)

Today’s Gospel is St. Mark’s account of the transfiguration.  Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him to a high mountain where “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” As thought that weren’t startling enough, Elijah and Moses then appear and begin conversing with Jesus. And finally they voice coming from a cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

You would think that such an experience would clearly mark a clear dividing line between “before” and “after.”  That nothing could possibly be the same for the disciples after an experience like that.  But that isn’t what happens. Even after this, the disciples still don’t understand things, and don’t ask Jesus about what they don’t understand. Even after this, James and John will be worrying about whether they are going to get to sit at Jesus’ right hand, Peter will still deny him and they will all run away when Jesus is crucified.  Somehow, they still don’t quite get it.

I want to shake them and say, “Don’t you get what you just experienced? How could this not change you irrevocably.” And I judge them critically – that is,, until I admit how much we are (or at least I am) just like them.  I’ll go on retreat, have the most incredible experiences of God, marvel at what God has revealed of Godself, feel like nothing could possibly ever be the same. And then, I come home from retreat and I’ll think or do something that seems to me utterly inconsistent with the revelations I’ve experienced.  And I wonder, have I made any progress at all on this spiritual journey?

The best I can say sometimes is that, if I look at my prayer journal and my life now and compare it to my prayer journal and life a year or two years or three years ago, I “get it” more now than I did then.  The image that sometimes comes to me is a spiral – even if I’m sometimes covering the same ground, I’m a little deeper in the spiral than I was before. 

That’s not always satisfying – there is something nice about the idea of a single flash of light changing everything all at once.  But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Our occasional glimpses of Transfiguration do mark us, and they do impel us forward. But we still need work.