My Beloved is For Me, And I am For My Beloved

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Teresa of Avila. I have always loved Teressa, who displayed a remarkable independence of spirit during a time when the Church was not particularly tolerant of independence of thought or spirit and when no one was tolerant of such a characteristic in a woman. She bent Church rules, she barely survived the Spanish Inquisition, she annoyed many with her reform of both the male and female Carmelite orders, and she did it all while suffering debilitating illness through most of her life.

I first discovered Teresa’s writings after I returned to Christianity after twenty years of practicing Buddhism. Even as she engaged in an amazing amount of active service, she authored a body of written work that many would call the cornerstone of Christian mysticism. (Even today, She is one of the most widely read writers in the Spanish language.

While her prose writings are amazing and deep, I am particularly fond of a lot of Teresa’s poetry. She wrote poems not for their own sake, but rather (in the words of one of her biographers) “as a release for the mystical fire she could no longer contain in her heart.”

For your reflection today, her feast day, here is one of Teresa’s Poems. It is titled On Those Words “Dilectus Meus Mihi”.

Myself surrendered and given,
The exchange is this:
My Beloved is for me,
And I am for my Beloved.

When the Gentle hunter
Wounded and subdued me,
In love’s arms,
My soul fallen;
New life receiving,
Thus did I exchange
My Beloved is for me,
And I am for my Beloved.

The arrow hew drew
Full of love,
My soul was oned
With her Creator.
Other love I want not,
Surrendered now to my God,
That my Beloved is for me,
And I am for my Belove
d.

Our Relationship to All of Creation

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of a saint near and dear to my soul: Francis of Assisi. He was someone I always felt a kinship with, even during the years I practiced Buddhism.

St. Francis has been described as a nature mystic, that is, someone who finds God in the beauty of nature and who sees in nature the gift of God’s creation. In everything in creation, Francis saw the love of God; the world and its beauty were gift from God. In the words of Ilia Delio

Trees, worms, lonely flowers by the side of the road—all were saints gazing up into the face of God. In this way, creation became the place to find God and, in finding God, [Francis] realized his intimate relationship to all of creation.

He did not consider himself at the top of a hierarchy of being nor did he declare himself superior to the non-human creation. Rather, Francis saw himself as part of creation. His spirituality overturned the spirituality of hierarchical ascent and replaced it with a spirituality of descending solidarity between humanity and creation. Instead of using creatures to ascend to God (from earth to heaven), he found God in all creatures and identified with them as brother and sister; that is, he found heaven on earth. By surrendering himself and daring everything for love’s sake, the earth became his home and all creatures his brothers and sisters.

As he continued to move more deeply into the mystery of God through his relationship with Christ, he came to realize his familial relationship to creation. He came to live in peaceful relationships with all creatures. To live in the justice of love is to live in peace. For Francis, justice and peace are related to poverty, compassion, contemplation and on-going conversion by which we realize our familial bonds with all living creatures, joining with them on the journey into God.

For Francis, all of nature was a sacrament. It is said that he could find himself in ecstasy “with eyes raised to heaven while holding a waterfowl I his hands. He could sometimes take this too far – one time refusing to put out the fire when his undergarments caught flame so as not to hurt the fire, and another time washing his hands without treading on the water. But, although extreme, he reminds us that, in Karen Armstrong’s words, nature speaks of God.

One of Francis’ most famous sermons was delivered to birds. He begged them to listen to God’s words. Here is an excerpt:

My brothers, birds, you should praise your Creator very much and always love him; he gave you feathers to clothe you, wins so that you can fly, and whatever else was necessary for you. God made you noble among his creatures, and he gave you a home in the purity of the air; though you neither sow not reap, he nevertheless protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part.

Thomas of Celano writes of this event that the birds stretched their necks and extended their wings as Francis walked among them touching and blessing them.

Francis once even preached to the flowers, inviting them, as one of his biographers observes, to join him in his celebration of God!

For all of us who find God in the beauty of creation, Francis is an inspiration.  Blessings on his day.

My Friend Vincent

Today I join with my friends of the Congregation of the Mission and the entire worldwide Vincentian family in celebration of the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, a saint who occupies a special place in my heart. While my spirituality is thoroughly Ignatian, the Vincent charism is one that has always spoken to me.

My shorthand description for people who know nothing about Vincent is that he really got what Jesus was saying in the judgment passage in Matthew 25. He took to heart Jesus’ message that “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Vincent looked at the faces of the poor and the marginalized and what he saw was the face of Christ. He once observed, “We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ.”

Vincent continued in his work preaching missions and providing relief to the poor until his death at the age of 80 in 1660.

During his lifetime, Vincent founded the Congregation of the Mission in 1625, an order of priests who take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. Today the Vincentian family includes not only priests of the Congregation of the Mission (about 300 Vincentian priests and brothers in the US and about 4000 throughout the world last I checked the numbers), but other religious and lay groups.

Happy Feast Day to all of the members of the Vincentian family.

St. Vincent de Paul, pray for us!

To Live in the Light of the Cross

The cross has been an object of veneration in the Christian faith from the time of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, early in the fourth century. Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

Today’s second Mass reading, from the Letter to the Philippians, reminds us that we are called to have the same mindset of Jesus Christ, who

though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.

Veneration of the cross is more than simply gazing on what God has done for us through Jesus. It means more than merely reciting our prayers of adoration before the cross. Truly exalting the cross means putting on the mind of Jesus. It means taking up our own crosses and living lives in imitation of Christ. It means being Christ in the world.

Kneeling in front of the cross or processing with the cross singing praise is the easy part. Living in the light of the cross is the challenge.

Touch the Earth Lightly

Our closing song at Mass today was a fitting one for Environmental Awareness Month, in which environmental organizations come together with a goal to raise awareness about environmental issues that need our attention. The song, not one I was familiar with is titled Touch the Earth Lightly.

The first verse invites us to “touch the earth lightly, [to] use the earth gently, [and to] nourish the life of the world in our care.”

The image of touching the earth lightly was powerful to me, as we do anything but. The second verse of the song is a direct punch:

We who endanger, Who create hunger, Agents of death for all creatures that live, We who would foster clouds of disaster — God of our planet, forestall and forgive!

The climate effects we are experiencing – fires, flooding, drought, and so forth – are not accidental occurrences. They are not just happening. WE are creating them. WE have been ignoring the warnings of scientists about human-induced climate change for almost a quarter of a century. WE are destroying the planet that is our home.

Everything in this world – the planet on which we live, the sun, the rain, the trees, water – everything, is gift from God. We are running out of time to stop misusing those gifts. We must learn to touch the earth lightly…to use the earth gently. And we need to do it now.

It Is OK to Focus on One Fire

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor whose writings and talks I often find beneficial. She is doubtless not everyone’s cup of tea, but then again, none of us are.

She wrote a piece last week (it came out while I was on retreat, hence my delay in getting to it) that I think is a useful one for all of us during this time of heightened anxiety about COVID, the effects of climate change and the various other issues we are bombarded with day after day.

In it, she shared three discernment questions she learned from one of her teachers, Suzanne Stabile (not me, but someone I am sometimes confused with): “(1) What’s MINE to do, and what’s NOT mine to do?; (2) What’s MINE to say and what’s NOT mine to say?; (3) What’s MINE to care about and what’s NOT mine to care about?”

The questions are helpful reminder at a time, as Bolz-Weber suggests, there are so many people suggesting on various social media platforms about one issue or another, “If you don’t care about X, you are part of the problem.” The difficulty is that there are so many X’s that none of us has the bandwith to deal with them all. As she writes, “my emotional circuit breaker keeps overloading because the hardware was built for an older time.”

So she suggests we remember:

1. We are still living through a global pandemic and that means the baseline of anxiety and grief is higher than ever and shared by everyone. 2. The world is on fire literally and metaphorically. But 3. I only have so much water in my bucket to help with the fires. The more exposure I have to the fires I have NO WATER to fight, the more likely I am to get so burned, and inhale so much smoke that I cannot help anymore with the fires close enough to fight once my bucket is full again. 

So I try and tell myself that It’s ok to focus on one fire. 

It’s ok to do what is YOURS to do. Say what’s yours to say. Care about what’s yours to care about. 

So, not an invitation to put one’s head in the sand and do nothing and care about nothing, but to focus on what we can do, as well as to be a bit gentle with ourselves.

I encourage you to read her entire reflection, which is here.

The Ignatian Year XXV: The Contemplatio

Fundamental to Ignatian Spirtiuality is the idea of finding God in all things.  Ignatius brings that home to us by ending his Spirtual Exercises with a contemplation titled the Contemplation for Learning to Love like God, often referred to simply as the Contemplatio.   It is an exercise that invites us to get in touch in a deep way with the reality of God’s love and all of the ways God gifts us with his love.  The exercise is intended by Ignatius to bring the retreatant from the formal structure and discipline of the Spiritual Exercises to the constant finding of God in all the things of daily living – large and small, long and brief, words and actions – everything.

The grace Ignatius encourages us to ask for us when we pray the Contemplatio is (in Tetlow’s framing of it) to gain “an intimate understanding of myself and my life as gift, and all my world as gift, so that I will be incandescent with gratitude, and then go beyond that to love the Giver of all this who loves me vastly in deed and sharing.

We have a tendency to think about God’s work in the world in terms of sin and redemption.   But that is only a partial truth and the danger is that thinking in terms of a sin-redemption framework makes us prone to an important error.  That is: if we think of creation in terms of sin and redemption, we tend to think and act as if we initiate the relationship between God and ourselves.  But to say that sin comes first is both blasphemous and spiritually dangerous.

What the Exercises as a whole do – and what this Contemplatio does – is to challenge the sin and redemption model by bringing us into the larger paradigm of continuing creation and salvation.  This is something that functions in each of the Weeks of the Exercises, but finds its culmination in the Contemplatio.

The Contemplatio has four points.  To give a very brief summary:

The first of the four points is God giving all of God’s gifts to me.  Using Fleming’s reading, I recognize that “God creates me out of love and desires nothing more than a return of love on my part.  So much does God love me that even though I turn away and make little response, this Giver of all good gifts continues to be my Savior and Redeemer.”

I take a panoramic view here – a universal, cosmic view, looking at creation, redemption, all of the unique gifts that have been given to me.  I contemplate with great affection God’s gifts to me.

The second is God’s indwelling in all of creation.  God not only gives gifts to me, but literally gifts me with the fullness of divine life in Jesus.  God loves me so much I become a dwelling-place or temple of God.  And not only me, but God dwells in all creatures; Ignatius says: “in creatures, in the elements, iving them being, in the plants vegetating,” and so forth.

I ponder God’s gift of God’s very self to me and God’s gift of self to all of creation.  God in all creatures, in all of creation.  There is nothing in creation that is not permeated with God’s presence – every particle of everything is drenched in the resurrection.  I know here that the Trinity flows through all the world.

Third I ponder God’s labors for me.  I ponder that at this moment God is laboring so that I can take something from this and bring it to the world.  Here Ignatius uses both masculine and feminine images of God demonstrating how God is constantly working in the world to share life and love, how God is laboring always to bring forth life.

Finally I ponder God’s unceasing giving an gifting.  I ponder here God as both giver and gift.  God pours Godself into every gift he gives.  Here we seek to understand that all God-like qualities in us and in the world have their source in God.  All good, truth, beauty in me is God’s goodness, truth beauty.  Just as a ray of light is a part of the sun, so too is my love a share – an extension – of God’s love…my truth a share of God’s truth.

We contemplate these four points and our gratitude brings forth in us the response reflected in Ignatius’ Suscipe – Take Lord and Receive – our commitment to freely offer back for God’s disposition all that God has given me.  The Suscipe says all of me is yours.  I empower God to use me.  All is yours now.  You have given it to me and I return it to you for the life of the world. 

The Contemplatio is a great prayer exercise and I encourage you to try it if you have not prayed with it.

Note that this is a the twenty-fifth (and final) in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

The Ignatian Year XXIV: Walter Ciszek, S.J., and Our Freedom to Choose to Love and Serve

There are any number of people whose lives reflect a deep dedication to the tenets of Ignatian Spirituality.  One of those who I find particularly inspiring is Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit who died in 1984. 

To give a bit of background of Ciszek’s life: In 1929 Pius XI understood that the Russian Orthodox Church was on the brink of annihilation by the Communist regime, evidenced by a decline from over 400,000 priests, monks, deacons, and nuns to an all-time low of 4,000 priests by 1939.  As a result, the pope called upon the Jesuits to go into Russia to aid those who needed their ministry. 

Ciszek was one of the early volunteers to go to Russia.  Since no priest could travel directly into Russia, he was sent to Albertyn, Poland to work for two years teaching ethics to Jesuit seminarians and to be the resident priest.  When Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939, the seminarians were sent home.  And then the Russians invaded from the east.

Ciszek was ultimately captured by the Russian army and convicted of being a Russian spy, resulting in his spending 23 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps in Siberia.  He was long given up for dead by the Jesuits before he was finally released in 1963 as part of a prisoner exchange.

Ciszek’s book, He Leadeth Me, recounts how his faith allowed him to survive his harrowing experience in Russia.  If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it.

One of the chapters of He Leadeth Me is titled Freedom.  What he writes here is, in a sense, a commentary on the opening line (and indeed the final line) of Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation, as well as a way to understand the distinction between Christian freedom and a secular understanding of freedom.  Ciszek writes:

Ultimately, the only absolute freedom we have resides in [human] free will.  And that freedom was given to us by our Creator, essentially, so that we might freely choose to love and serve him.  All other creatures serve him out of exigency; by their very being and existence, they witness his power and his love, or reflect his glory and beauty in some way.  Only to [humans] and the angels has he given the power of freely choosing to love and serve him.  …It is in choosing to serve God, to do his will, that [we] achieve [our] highest and fullest freedom.  It may seem paradoxical to say that our highest and fullest freedom comes when we follow to the least detail the will of another, but it is true nonetheless when the other is God.

Ciszek describes it was abandoning his own will in order to follow the will of God that gave him, during the worst of his prison experience “the greatest sense of freedom, along with peace of soul and an abiding sense of security.”

Note that this is a the twenty-fourth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

Why Celebrate the Assumption?

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnith of Assumption of Mary, a commemoration of the bodily taking up of Mary into heaven at the end of her earthly life.  

What if anything does the Assumption mean for us?

For most of my life, this was a feast I pretty much ignored, deciding it wasn’t something central or even all that important to my faith life.  One of the difficulties for me is that the “Mary, Queen of Heaven” image that tends to be associated with this feast is not an image of Mary I relate to. Images depicting Mary’s Assumption or Mary’s Coronation as Queen of Heaven simply bear no resemblance to the Mary of my prayers: Mary, the woman with the strength to say Yes to what must have seemed an insane and frightening proposition that she give birth to God. Mary, the woman at Cana who told the servants to do as Jesus asked. Mary, who stayed with Jesus til the end and then took the dead body of her son in her arms. Mary, who stayed with the apostles after the death, doubtless comforting them in their loss of Jesus.  

If our picture of the Assumption is of a prone Mary being bodily lifted up by angels into heaven, it doesn’t seem to have much significance for us.  That, after all, is not what happens to the rest of us.

On the other hand, if our focus on the Assumption is on Mary’s experience as an embodiment of the reality of our Resurrection, it becomes something much more meaningful to us. Jesus resurrection is, of course, the true victory over death – that which gives creates the possibility of our own resurrection and ultimate full union with God. But with Jesus there is always the nagging thought, “Well sure, he was God, of course it worked for him. He may have been fully human, but he was also fully divine from the get go.”

But Mary was human, like us. And Mary’s assumption into heaven, body and soul, symbolizes for us the reality of what will happen for all of – resurrection of the body into full union with God. You can phrase it various ways as a matter of dogma. But her experience is, in simplest terms, a foretaste of our own.

Retreat!

I leave this afternoon for my annual retreat, something I always look forward to. I ask for your prayers during this time.

My annual retreat is the one time I totally unplug from cell phone, internet or other computer use; it is my time to simply be with God. However, I have pre-scheduled a couple of posts to come out this week while I am away. I hope you find them fruitful!

Blessings!