The Sister of Moses

In today’s first Mass reading, we are introduced the sister of Moses. She appears in several episodes in the Book of Exodus, each of which displays her as someone to be reckoned with.  This is particularly true of today’s reading.

The backdrop to our encounter with her in this reading is that Pharaoh has become worried that the Hebrews in Egypt are multiplying so quickly they could become a potent enemy.  So he decides to enslave them and later decrees the death of all Hebrew baby boys.

To protect Moses, his mother places him in a small basket among the reeds of the Nile.  We meet the young Miriam, introduced not by name but rather as Moses’ sister, when she hides in the reeds to watch the baby.  Soon Pharaoh’s daughter finds the basket with the baby and takes pity on him.  At that moment, Miriam appears.  She asks Pharaoh’s daughter whether she would like a Hebrew nurse for the baby, and the princess agrees.  Miriam brings Moses’ mother to nurse her son, and later the princess adopts Moses.

In a commentary to this passage written by a woman named Marsha Pravder Mirkin, we read

Miriam, no matter how entrenched her faith, did not seem to accept the idea of leaving the situation up to God.  Instead, she developed a partnership with God, believing that “God helps those who help themselves,” as the old adage goes.  She hid near the water, available to take a proactive role if necessary in saving her brother’s life.  From her hiding place, she witnessed the princess coming down to the Nile, the river that was the grave of so many Hebrew baby boys.  She witnessed the princess looking at the baby with pity in her eyes.  And before the princess had a chance to change her mind, Miriam was there, a powerless slave looking at a powerful regent, offering her a way to live by her conscience.  Miriam suggested to the princess that Moses be nursed by a Hebrew slave.  The princess not only allowed Miriam’s mother to nurse the baby, but paid her for doing so.  Miriam’s relational strength permitted her to see the possibility for righteousness even in the daughter of an evil monarch, and then speak up in a voice of faith and love.”

What made Miriam speak up to the princess?  What gave her the courage?  What let her know she might find a sympathetic ear?           

Miriam’s action came from a deep passionate love.  For God?  For her parents? For her brother?  Perhaps all three.  From somewhere, she understood that she had an active part in God’s plan. And she fearlessly took her part.  She inspires us to do the same.

The Ignatian Year XVI: Understanding Active Indifference

I wrote in a prior post about Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation, which invites us to make ourselves “indifferent to all created things” such that we do not seek health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty and so forth.

Indifference is a term people struggle with, doubtless because we think of it in terms of not caring a whole lot about the outcome.  “Where do you want to eat?”  “Wherever.  I’m indifferent.”  “Do you prefer the red or the purple dress?”  “No preference; I’m indifferent.”

Ignatian indifference has a very particular meaning.  As George Ganss explains, indifference means

Undetermined to one thing or option rather than another; impartial; unbiased; with decision suspended until the reasons for a wise choice are learned; still undecided.  In no way does it mean unconcerned or unimportant.  It implies interior freedom from disordered inclinations.

So it is neither devoid of desire or impassive.  Rather, in the words of Dean Brackley it means being so “passionately and single-mindedly committed, so completely in love, that we are willing to sacrifice anything, including our lives, for the ultimate goal.  It means magnanimous generosity, abandonment into God’s hands, availability.  It is not so much detachment from things as ‘detachability.’”

This interior freedom reflected in the phrase active indifference does not mean we are completely without disordered desires.  While we are human, they will always arise.  But it does speak to our ability to learn to overcome those disordered desires when they arise. 

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

The Ignatian Year XV: Making the Spiritual Exercises

Ignatius’ goal in writing his Spiritual Exercises was not to provide people with a nice retreat experience, a chance to get away from their normal lives and relax a bit with God so that they could go back to live the lives they lived before their retreat.  Rather, his aim was precisely that sought by Jesus Christ – a transformation of who we are into the world. The purpose of the Spiritual Exercises – indeed all of Ignatian spirituality – is (in Joseph Tetlow’s words) “to help us find how we are to work along with God to bring the reign of Christ to human life and good order to the natural world – to the everyday world as it now is.”

That is precisely what many people who make the Exercises experience.  Shannon Rupp Barnes writes in her contribution to A New Introduction to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, “Most people who have made the Exercises see more deeply with the ‘eyes’ of faith, develop a fuller appreciation of on-going discernment, and acquire the gift of a discerning heart.  In everyday, ordinary life their questions are ‘What is the most loving thing to do?  How does Jesus want me to be in this situation?’” 

One woman I directed making the Exercises said that the Exercises gave her “greater confidence to live from a center of faith and commitment within a very secular society.”

We are not even midway through the summer, but if you have been reading these posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year (and plan to continue doing so) and have not yet made the Exercises (in one form or another) this is a good time to think about doing so, perhaps starting this fall.  There are so many opportunities to do so.  In my own parish in St. Paul (St. Thomas More), we offer the individually directed 19th Annotation (meeting weekly with a director), an 8-month group experience (meeting every other week), as well as shorter versions in Advent and Lent.  And there are other Jesuit parishes and retreat houses that have numerous offerings.

So consider taking some time prayerfully considering a deeper dive into Ignatius and his Exercises.

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

Joseph and the Famine

We are all familiar with the Genesis story of Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Ultimately, Joseph occupies a high position as governorin Pharaoh’s kingdom in Egypt and is put in charge of feeding the people during the famine.

We tend to look positively on Joseph (perhaps at least in part because of our sympathy for how he was treated by his brothers), and he was certainly a competent administrator. Because our first Mass readings today and in the coming days focus on Joseph’s meeting and reconciliation with his brothers, the Lectionary skips some of the details of how Joseph handled the need of the people for food during the famine.

Walter Brueggemann, in his book Journey to the Common Good, talks in somewhat less than glowing terms about Joseph’s handling of the situation. He writes

Joseph…commits himself to Pharaoh’s food policy. The royal policy is to accomplish a food monopoly. In that ancient world as in any contemporary world, food is a weapon and a tool of control…

The peasants, having no food of their own, come to Joseph, now a high-ranking Egypian, and pay their money in exchange for food, so that the centralized government of Pharaoh achieves even greater wealth. After the money is all taken, the peasants come again and ask for food. This time Jospeh, on behalf of Pharaoh, takes their cattle, which Karl Marx would have termed their “means of production.” In the next year, the third year, the peasants still need food. But they have no money and they have no livestock. In the third year they gladly surrender their freedom in exchange for food…

Slavery in the Old Testament happens because the strong ones work a monopoly over the weak ones, and eventually exercise control over their bodies.

As Brueggemann observes we focus on the exodus deliverance, but “do not take notice that slavery occurred by the manipulation of the economy in the interest of a concentration of wealth and power for the few at the expense of the community.”

There is certainly a lesson for us in that!

The Ignatian Year XIV: Cura Personalis

The Latin phrase cura personalis translates as “care for the entire person.”  And, although we may speak about it less frequently than we do things like finding God in all things and the need for a personal encounter with Christ, cura personalis is an important element of Ignatian spirituality.

The term cura personalis was not used by Ignatius or other early Jesuits.  I read that it was first used in a 1934 letter from the then Superior General of the Society of Jesus in the context of Jesuit higher education, speaking of the need to provide personal care for students that looks beyond intellectual learning to the development of the faculties of the whole person. 

Although early discussion of the phrase seems to have been limited to the context of Jesuit education, in 2007, Superior General Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach gave a speech to an international workshop on Ignatian Spirituality titled Spiritual Accompaniment in the Ignatian Tradition. In that talk he defined cura personalis as not only a central element in Jesuit education, but also as “a characteristic of spiritual accompaniment.” While he may have had in mind the proper relationship between retreatants making the Spiritual Exercises and their spiritual directors, the term has come to be understood more broadly.

Cura personalis thus includes respecting the dignity of each person as a loved child of God and a concern for the personal development and well being of the entire person – mind, body and spirit. This implies a focus on meeting people where they are and giving them what they need.

And, since we are to love others as ourselves, it also means love and care for one’s own well being. Some of us need a reminder that we can’t serve God and others if we don’t also take time for self-care.

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

The Ignatian Year XIII: Responding in Freedom

Our freedom to respond to Christ’s invitation to us to co-labor with him on behalf of his Father’s plan is a central theme for St. Ignatius.  It matters to him that we are responding from a place of freedom, and not compulsion.

When I made the Spiritual Exercises a number of years ago, one of the first issues I had a major struggle with was that of free will.  This was less than two years after my return to Christianity from 20 years of practicing Buddhism, and I was still trying to see where those prior years as a Buddhist fit in with my rediscovered Christianity.  And, like Augustine and Ignatius and so many others when they first got excited about deepening their relationship with God, I started looking back on some of my past choices that seemed somewhat questionable.  As a result, I didn’t have a whole lot of trust in myself. 

Early in the retreat I prayed with the story of Jesus.  You doubtless recall the passage: the man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus’ first answer was that he should obey the commandments.  When the young man says he does all that, Jesus tells him: Sell all you have, give it to the poor and come follow me.  And Matthew tells us “When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

As I prayed with that passage, I was deeply pained that Jesus let the rich young man walk away, that he didn’t try to force him to stay.  Imagining myself in that situation, there was no small a part of me that wanted God to make it easy – to just force me to do what he wanted the way a parent would force a child to eat healthy food.  I experienced frustration, irritation and even anger.  Why give us the choice?  Why give me the choice?  Why doesn’t God just fix it so we make all the right choices?  Sounding like a child, I told my director during one of our early meetings, “I just don’t like the way the whole thing is set up.”

What I really was experiencing was fear – fear that there were choices I was not capable of making (like the rich young man), fear that left to my own devices I would make bad choices.  Looking back over some of my past choices (especially those made in the period between my earlier abandonment of Catholicism and my embrace of Buddhism) made me fearful that I couldn’t be trusted with the power to decide how to respond.

I had to spend a lot of time praying with this issue until I came to see that giving us the freedom to respond was a great gift from God, that our ability to choose is necessary to be fully human, and, ultimately, to reach full union with the divine.  I sometimes joke that God could have populated the world with goldfish – they just swim around in an enclosed space eating and pooping.  They don’t have to make any choices.  Instead, he created us with the ability to exercise choice – and that ability is a fundamental part of our creation in God’s image.  (I also had to admit to myself that had I been forced by God to do what God wanted, I would have felt resentful.  The truth is that am, and always have been, uncomfortable when I feel like someone is trying to force my hand.)

The reality is that we need to discover for ourselves that none of the other things we look to for happiness ultimately will work.  It is not something we can be argued into understanding.  Thus, free choice is the only way we can be fully on board with God.

This freedom to respond to Christ’s invitation is something we see reflected over and over in the Spiritual Exercises.  The First Principle and Foundation ends with the expression that “we ought to desire and choose only that which is more conducive to the end for which we are created.”  In the Kingdom Exercise which opens the Second Week,  we are invited, not forcibly drafted to take part in God’s plan of salvation.  It is for us to decide how to respond to that invitation.   And there is another meditation in the Second Week referred to as the Three Classes of Persons, and in that meditation we pray for the grace “to choose that which is more to the glory of the Divine Majesty.”

Ignatius – and, more to the point God – seeks our willing response.  As we deepen our prayer life with God, hopefully we are more and more able to freely respond as God hopes we will.

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

Take Your Son Isaac

Today’s first Mass reading is one that always caused me some difficulty: the Genesis account of God’s request to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  God says to Abraham “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.”

Several years ago I read Rabbi Marc Gellman’s interpretation of this passage, which I found helpful.  He suggests that one can only understand what happens in this episode by considering what preceded it, that is, Abraham’s response to Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar when Hagar became pregnant. Abraham allows Sarah to mistreat Hagar, causing Hagar to flee into the desert. Rabbi Gellman observes that “God saw how Abraham was willing to abandon Hagar and his future son just because his favored wife was jealous of her new standing in the family. God saw that Abraham was morally blind.” Although Hagar returns and gives birth to Ishmael, after Sara gives birth to Isaac, Sara demands that Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out, a demand Abraham complied with.

Abraham is troubled at what he does, but God tells him, “through Isaac shall your seed be named, and I will also transform the son of the slave woman into a nation, for he is also your seed.”

Rabbi Gellman then says this:

So Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael, but did he do it because he believed that God would protect both his wives and both his sons, or because this was a good way to get rid of an unwanted wife and unwanted child? There was only one way to know for certain. God would have to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to see if Abraham truly believed in both promises.

If Abraham believed that Ishmael would survive the desert, he would believe that Isaac would survive Mt. Moriah. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael, his least loved son, left God no other choice but to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his best loved son. The story is not about a morally insensitive God, but about a morally insensitive servant of God.

“After these things,” God had no misgivings about choosing Abraham.

“After these things,” Abraham could be the father of two nations because he had learned at last what it meant to be the father of two sons.

“After these things,” Abraham was free.

To Nurture and Be Nurtured

One of the things we did while in Winona for the Great River Shakespeare Festival this weekend was to visit the Minnesota Maritime Art Museum, which (surprisingly to me at least) houses some world-class impressionist and Hudson River School paintings.

I spent some time standing in front of the note accompanying a painting by the American painter Asher Brown Durand, of the Hudson River School. The painting was a beautiful landscape, and the note read that for Durand, nature and beauty were the work of the living God, and that humankind was “here to nurture and be nurtured by the land.”

A simple statement, but one that highlights the intended mutuality of humans and the world God created for us: We take care of it, and it takes care of us.

We, of course, do so much to neglect our part of that arrangement. We take and take from our earth, without anything like sufficient regard, sufficient nurturing, of what we have been given.

As I stood before the painting and the note, my thought was: Will you [God] let us destroy it completely? Will you stand by and allow us to continue to take and take until the earth has no more left to give? Until our home is no longer habitable for humans.

I didn’t hear a clear answer to that question. Or perhaps I did: What came to mind were the words of the last part of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem that I love so well, God’s Grandeur:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

I would like to trust that nature will never be spent…that nothing can destroy that dearest freshness. But I’d rather we do a better job than we are now doing to nurture our land.

The Ignatian Year XII: We are Loved Sinners

In the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius invites retreatants to get in touch with the ways we are in need of God’s healing mercy.  In the context of God’s love, he wants us to come to understand our patterns of unhealthy behavior.  The ways we fail to make a return of God’s love. 

We know there is a tremendous amount of sin in the world.  We see the results of it all around us.  Children starve.  Old people are neglected.  Governments allow torture of dissident groups and prevent aid from getting to their people. Men and women live in poverty.  All around us we see discrimination…violence…hatred.  And Ignatius invites us to use our imagination to really picture this – to get a deep sense and sorrow at the effect of sin in the world.

That raises the question:  How do we explain the existence of sin?  How do we explain the existence of acts that bring about such suffering in the world?  Over the centuries, people have created different narratives to explain the entry of evil and wrongdoing in the world.

One of the things Ignatius invites retreatants to spend time in Week 1 of his Spiritual Exercises is praying with the sin of Adam and Eve – the entry of sin in the human world. Cornell Bradley explains it in traditional biblical terms like this:

Adam and Eve want to be as God is, and so they are described as eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.  Both try to escape the responsibility of the choice which each one has made by trying to shift the blame to someone or something else.  The effect of this one sin is not only the loss of God’s special sharing of divine life for all humankind, but also the continuing flow of evil perpetrated by people upon other people and even the various kinds of destruction inflicted by them upon God’s world.

There are some people believe that the first sin happened exactly like that.  But I can understand the moral, if you will, of this story without believing that the Genesis account is a literal one.  One need not believe that a man and a woman were tempted by a serpent to eat a piece of fruit from something called the Tree of Knowledge to be able to contemplate entry of sin into the world.  So here is Joseph Tetlow’s rendition of the entry of sin into the world.

At some point in time and on some spot on the globe, the earliest humans came into life.  They grew intellectually aware of right and wrong, and some among them – the Church has always believed it was the very first – chose to do evil.  They abused what was given them.  Then chose to use what was forbidden by their consciences.  They decided willfully to make their own value system instead of letting the Spirit of God instruct them.  From that sin came others, more and more.  From that sin came death.  So, from this earliest sin came flooding down all of the misery, wretchedness, evildoing, and death-dealing in the world today.

I spent some time on my retreat a couple of summers ago praying again with Ignatius’ exercise on the sin of Adam and Eve.  After sitting in my hermitage reflecting on this, I went out onto the lake in a paddleboat.  The day the gorgeous, and after paddling to the middle of the lake, I leaned back and gazed around me – blue sky, wispy clouds, birds singing, tree leaves dancing in the light breeze.  Beautiful.  I was totally content and at peace.

And the thought that then came to mind is (in the framework of the original Genesis story): if Adam and Even had all this (and more) in the Garden of Eden, why look for more?  And the answer that immediately came to me is: Because what we have never seems to be enough and we always want more.

Buddhists explain our always grasping for more as a function of a desire to gain a more solid sense of a self we can’t clearly grasp and therefore feel constant unease.  In Christian terms, it is perhaps best explained by the fact that we sense a hole – a hole that really only God can fill – but that we try to fill with something else.  And that means that until we grasp the depth of God’s love, until we grasp the sense of the final line of Ignatius’ Suscipe prayer – that God’s love and grace is enough of for us – there will be a craving for more, a craving that will ripen on one way or another into what we label sin.

The job of the “enemy spirit”, as Ignatius sometime terms the tempter, is precisely to hinder us from that realization and to tempt us to keep wanting more.  And one way to understand the expulsion from Eden as recounted in Genesis 3 is as a way of expressing what happens when we listen to the voice of the enemy spirit and not the voice of God: When we move away from love, there is an inevitable movement away from God and a loss of intimacy with God.  God is still there, but we experience a movement away from God.

So the question is: What does all of this look like for each of us?

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

How Do We Look Back on the Last 15 Months?

Last night I led an evening of reflection for the Mom’s Group in my parish. We titled the evening Life After COVID (even as we recognize that it is not all over).

We picked the topic because while COVID affected all of us, in many ways mothers – whether of young children or adult children – often bore a particularly heavy load.  Mothers with children at home were dealing not only with their education, but their unhappiness at not being with friends, as well as own anxiety about how this was affecting them. One survey found that, among employed parents who were working from home all or most of the time, mothers were more likely than fathers to say they had a lot of child care responsibilities while working (36% vs. 16%). Working mothers with children younger than 12 at home were also more likely than fathers (57% vs. 47%) to say it had been at least somewhat difficult for them to handle child care responsibilities during the coronavirus outbreak.

I began by leading the participants in a guided meditation that asked them to reflect back over the last year and then ask themselves questions such as

  • What were some of the feelings I experienced over the last year?
  • What did I find most challenging about my experience this past year?
  • How was God with me in those challenges?  (Did I remember to turn to God at my most difficult times?)
  • What did I find most surprising about the last 15 months?
  • Were there ways relationships were weakened or strengthened?
  • What am I most grateful for about the experience of the past year?  Where did I find blessing?
  • Are there some good habits I picked up during the pandemic that it would be good for me to keep?

What I was struck by in the discussion we had following the reflection was how much the women were able to focus on the blessings of the past 15 months. To be sure, there were a lot of difficulties and anxieties (everywhere, but especially here in the Twin Cities as we faced COVID along with the aftermath of the George Floyd murder). But each mom was able to identify positive lessons and blessings from the experience, and there is no question their prayer lives and relationship with God accounted for that.

One of the women participating last night – named Catherine Lindquist – wrote this morning to tell us that the guided reflection mirrored some of the questions she has been asking herself, as she wrote an essay about the experience. In it, she talks about the loss, but also about the hope, the joy, the creativity, and the gratitude. Here is an excerpt from the essay, which I share with her permission:

2020 was also joy. The slower pace of life allowed me to notice the little things— how going outside, even for just five minutes, lightened my children, transforming frowns into smiles and complaints into giggles. Watching the immense joy with which my six-year-old stopped to pick up fallen leaves, kicked at chunks of snow, or jumped in a puddle filled me with joy, too. I found joy in the smiles on my children’s faces while they played, in the compassion they showed to others, and in the happiness with which they experience life, even with all its uncertainty and scariness.

You can read the entirety of Catherine’s essay here.

And if you haven’t reflected on questions like those above, you might consider doing so.