Fresh Figs and Unlikely Friendships

One of my Facebook friends posted a picture of her breakfast yesterday morning – fresh figs with yogurt and honey. Whenever I eat or even see a fresh fig, a memory from my childhood comes to mind. I shared it many years ago, and thought I’d share it here again:

The man stood each night in the shadows in the alley between his house and the house next door to his, only about three or four houses from the one we lived in.  An elderly man.  I remember him always wearing a jacket and tie, as well as a hat, but it would seem strange if he wore that during warm weather.

I was nine or 10 years old at the time.  I’d see him every night when I was walking the dog in the evening.  You could easily pass and not see him if you weren’t looking in his direction, he was that still.  Truth be told, I was a bit frightened of this specter as I passed him.  I was not the only one; most of the kids on the block avoided him.

But one night I said hi as I passed him, and after that, greeted him each evening, with a waved hand or a word as I walked past with my dog.  He would respond with a silent movement of his hand in return greeting.

Then one  night he motioned me over.  I was a little leery, but walked a little in his direction.  Right next to him in front of his house was a beautiful rose bush.  He snipped one off and gave it to me.  We exchanged a few words and I went on.  After that, when roses were in season, I’d sometimes get another.  Then one night, when I walked by, he waved me over with a smile and held out a dish that had something on it I had never before seen – a fresh fig.  He apparently had a fig tree in his backyard and it was fig season.

I loved figs the way we always had them at the holidays – dried figs sliced open, with a piece or two of walnut meat inserted and powered sugar dusted on top.  They were really good.  I never thought about what figs looked or tasted like before they were dried.  As good as those holiday figs were, they were nothing compared to the wonder of a fresh fig.

I’ve loved fresh figs ever since; I almost dance with delight when I see them in a store.  And almost every time I eat one, I think of that elderly man, long dead by now.

I think he just appreciated someone saying hello.  And a rose or a fig was his way of saying thank you.

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Summer Worship, Study and Play

I just returned from Synod School, an annual gathering organized by the Lakes and Prairies Synod of the Presbyterian Church. Designed for clergy, individual and families, this is a week of classes for adults and activities for kids, morning and evening worship, and some fun evening activities. I was there teaching a course on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius – which generated a lot of interest. I enjoyed the class I taught, found the evening worship moving, and enjoyed the fellowship (and the games….and tie-dying a T-shirt, a Synod School tradition).

Part of my interest – besides the facts that I’m always happy to introduce folks to St. Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises and that I’d have the opportunity to spend time with some folks I don’t get to see very often – is the fact that many Catholic churches suspend most or all faith formation (adult and child) during the summer. How is it, I wondered, that the Presbyterian church could gather 500-600 folks every summer for a week of deepening faith and fellowship? (There were 548 adults and children there this year; 41 of those adults took the course I taught.)

I think part of it is organization. No Catholic diocese is the size of the Lakes and Prairies Synod, so a gathering like this – offering choice of 70 or so courses divided over four periods in the day, multiple activities for children, art and other activities outside of class, daily convocation talks and worship – would be a massive undertaking not possible for a single diocese. And it is hard to imagine two nearby dioceses working together to do it. In addition, such an undertaking requires a massive financial commitment, including funding a Synod School office that operates year round to organize all of this and other associated costs.

Clearly Synod School is not something that could be replicated by the Catholic Church. Still, it is hard not to wish for more programming that is more than what a single parish can accomplish. (I say that notwithstanding the fact that my own parish offers some great summer faith formation opportunities.). We can do better than we are currently.

Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Mary Magdalene, friend and faithful disciple of Jesus.  We traiditionally referred to this day as her “memorial,” but in 2016, 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 Mary Magdalene’s 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 after 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 she 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 hears the person she has taken for a gardener call her by name, realizing that he 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. May we hear Jesus call each of our names as he called hers.

Being Martha and Mary

I offered the reflection at the Masses at my parish this weekend, when the Gospel reading was Luke’s account of Jesus eating dinner at the home of his friends Mary and Martha.

Most of us are familiar with this story: Jesus is dining at the home of his friends, and while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him talk, Martha is bustling around taking care of cooking and perhaps other chores.  And so Martha complains to Jesus that she is doing all the work while Mary does nothing, probably hoping – maybe even expecting – that Jesus will prod Mary into helping her.  He does not such thing, and instead chides her: “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.”            

We meet here two different women, who model two ways of being, but ways I do not believe are meant to be mutually exclusive.  While I used to quip that I’m Martha and want to be Mary, the reality is that (except for those few who are called to a cloistered life) we are all called to both Martha and Mary. And there is much we can learn from each of these women.

Martha illustrates a boldness and honesty that is necessary if we are to grow in our relationship with Jesus.

Here is a woman in a time when women didn’t speak up to men, and they certainly didn’t chastise them.  Yet Martha 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 cannot 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.

Martha also illustrates a take-charge organization and efficiency that the world could not operate without.  Someone does have to do the cooking, change the sheets and set the table if Jesus and his friends are going to eat and stay overnight. Someone had to make sure there is enough wine for everyone, and so on.  Someone had to run the household.  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.”

Mary, on the other hand, represents an extravagant worship.  She sits at Jesus feet, not giving in to the tyranny of the urgent.  She will later falls to Jesus’ feet when he arrives at the death of her brother.  And the next time he comes to their home on his final journey to Jerusalem, she will lavish expensive ointment on his feet  – an amount Judas says could have been sold for three hundred days wages.

Mary also represents a receptive availability.  She sits at Jesus feet, just listening, not moving a muscle.  She didn’t try to come up with some clever response.  She simply listens.

The reality is that we need both of their tendencies. I say both because of a conviction that God calls each of us to take our part in his plan of salvation, to use our gifts for the divinization of our world.  And it is God’s plan we are about, not our own.  And that requires not only action, but time with God to discern his plan and our role in that plan.

In Ignatian terms, we speak of being contemplatives in action.  Contemplatives in action unite themselves with God by joining God’s active labor to save and heal the world.  Doing so is not optional.  Contemplatives in action join God’s active labor to heal and save the world from a contemplative stance that requires we take time with God.

Joanna Weaver, in her book Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World speaks of “Kitchen Service resulting from Living Room Intimacy.”  She writes

Because we are his children, Kitchen Service will be the natural result of Living Room Intimacy with God.  Like Jesus, we must be about our Father’s business.  The closer we draw to the heart of the Father, the more we see his heart for the world.  And so we serve, we minister, and we love, knowing that when we do it for the “least of these,” we have done it unto Christ.

When we put work before worship, we put the cart before the horse.  The cart is important; so is the horse.  But the horse must come first, or we end up pulling the cart ourselves.  Frustrated and weary, we can nearly break under the pressure of service, for there is always something that needs to be done.

When we first spend time in his presence – when we take to heart his voice – God provides the horsepower we need to pull the heaviest load.  He saddles up Grace and invites us to take a ride.

So we need both – the boldness and action to help realize God’s plan, but the receptivity and extravagant worship that deepen our relationship with God.  We need to leave the kitchen long enough to experience the intimacy of God in the living room.  We need to know God, to listen to him, so that we know what it is he is asking of us, and have the strength to accomplish it.

What is Truth?

The Golden Legend, written by Dominican preacher Jacobus de Voragine, was the first popular compilation of the lives of the saints.  Robert Ellsberg in his Give Us This Day reflection this morning writes:

Drawing on traditional sources, which he freely embellished [and] dwelling on their miraculous deeds, Jacobus helped to elevate the popularity of such all-but-legendary figures as Saints Agnes and Lucy (virgin martyrs), Sebastian (riddled with arrows), Christopher (who carries the Christ child on his back), and George (who battled a dragon) above the cult of such better-attested, if more prosaic, figures as Augustine and Ambrose.

It was this book of saints that my friend St. Ignatius read during his recovery at the family castle in Loyola Spain from a battle injury he sustained defending the fortress of the town of Pamplona.  One of the few books available to him was deVoragine’s.  It was reading about the heroic lives of saints that was the beginning of Ignatius’ transformation into a man who wanted to do great things for God.

Ignatius’ experience is noteworthy, because ultimately The Golden Legend fell into disrepute because of its lack of historical scholarship.  But, as Ellsberg writes, the criticism of the book

failed to appreciate deVoragine’s intention to write a work of spiritual devotion.  He meant to present the holy servants of God as living emblems of the Gospel.

Judged by the experience of St. Ignatius, deVoragine succeeded in his intention.

As I read Ellsberg’s reflection this morning in Give Us This Day, I thought of the related issue with respect to historical accuracy of the Bible.  Someone with whom I once did Adult Faith Formation in a parish used to quip, “Everything in the Bible is true, and some of it actually happened.” 

Who Are the Samaritans to Me?

I was invited by the priest presiding at this morning’s Mass here at the Loyola on the Potomac Jesuit Retreat House to speak briefly at the beginning of Mass to set the stage for the readings.  Since I spoke without notes, I can’t share exactly what I said.  But following is a version of my reflection:

In today’s first reading, Moses exhorts the people to keep God’s commandments written in the book of the law.  And he tells them that what they are to do is not a secret they have to figure out, something they have to look high and low for, but something they already know.  It is already in their hearts.

We see a reflection of this in today’s Gospel, which opens with a “scholar of the law” asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. 

Jesus effectively responds – you already know the answer.  What does your law tell you?

The man responds: Love God with all your heart, soul and strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself – what we refer to as the Great Commandment, but which was already the law known to the Israelite people well before the time of Jesus.

 It is pretty simple.  For all we try to complicate things, to come up with different criteria for who is in and who is out, Jesus says it is quite straightforward:  Love.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.

But the man pushes, asking: But who is my neighbor?  And Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story well known to all of us.

I invited people to reflect, as they listened to the Gospel to ask themselves: What does this parable tell me about who is my neighbor and what it means to love my neighbor?  To jumpstart their reflection on that, I shared two thoughts.

The first is about the Samaritans, who were hated in Jesus’ time.  From the perspective of the man in the ditch, Jesus’ audience would likely have not reacted well to the idea of receiving aid from a Samaritan.  To Jesus’ audience as well as to Luke’s early readers, the idea of a “good Samaritan” would have made no more sense than the idea of a “good rapist” or a “good murderer.”  So to say the neighbor to the injured man was a Samaritan was shocking.

Jesus’ story challenges his listeners to confront their prejudices about others. And in turn that invites us to ask ourselves: Who are today’s Samaritans for me?  Who is it difficult for me to call neighbor? For me to love as neighbor.

For some people it is Muslims.  For some gay or trans persons.  For some it is anyone whose background is strange or different.

And in today’s fractured climate, depending on where you stand, the Samaritan to you may be: Trump supporters or Kamela Harris fans; anti-vaxxers or those insisting on more stringent COVID requirements; Black lives Matters or Blue Lives Matter protesters; in religious terms, those currently referred to as “radtrads” or those with a Pope Francis leaning. And so on and so forth – politically, culturally, or religiously.

The invitation here is clear: to see as neighbor not only those who look like us, think like us, and worship like us, but those in whom we see nothing of ourselves.

Where is the difficulty for you?

The second thing I shared was an experiment I once read about.  A class of seminarians was given the assignment to prepare a sermon on this parable of the Good Samaritan. They were divided into two groups – one group was given two hours to prepare the sermon and the second group was given twenty-four hours. They then left the building. On the stairs of the building lay a man obviously in need of assistance (part of the experiment).

Can you guess the results? Almost none of the seminarians who had been given two hours to prepare their sermon stopped to aid the man as they left the building. Indeed, it was reported that one practically jumped over the man in his haste to get home to get to work on his assignment. (A much higher number of the group given twenty-four hours stopped to give the man assistance.)

Most of us have not jumped over an injured person on the street without giving assistance. But we do – more often than we’d like to admit – behave more like the priest and Levite than like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable:  When we fail to love our neighbor because what we are doing seems too important to recognize someone else’s need.

Ask yourself: Are there times when what I’m doing seems so important that I fail to offer a greeting or even a smile to someone I pass in the hall at work?

Am I so wrapped up in my important task that I fail to even notice that someone is suffering and could use a word of encouragement or a hand on the shoulder from me?

Have I squandered opportunities to offer compassion to another because of my preoccupation with my own projects?

What are the circumstances in which it is difficult for me to show compassion, love?

What do you hear in today’s parable of the Good Samaritan?  Who is your neighbor?  And what does it mean to love your neighbor?