Life in the Holy Family

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family, usually celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas, but adjusted this year because Christmas Day fell on a Sunday.

I thought it worth sharing today an excerpt from the message Pope Paul VI wrote for this Feast, which suggests what we might learn from this family.

Nazareth is a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like… Here we can observe and ponder the simple appeal of the way God’s Son came to be known, profound yet full of hidden meaning…Here everything speaks to us, everything has meaning. Here we can learn the importance of spiritual discipline for all who wish to follow Christ and to live by the teachings of his Gospel.

How I would like to return to my childhood and attend the simple yet profound school that is Nazareth! How wonderful to be close to Mary, learning again the lesson of the true meaning of life, learning again God’s truths.

First, we learn from its silence. If only we could once again appreciate its great value. The silence of Nazareth should teach us how to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom. Nazareth can teach us the value of study and preparation, of meditation, of a well-ordered personal spiritual life, and of silent prayer that is known only to God.

Second, we learn about family life. May Nazareth serve as a model of what the family should be. May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings; in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children–and for this there is no substitute.

Finally, in Nazareth, the home of a craftsman’s son, we learn about work and the discipline it entails. I would especially like to recognize its value. I would remind everyone that work has its own dignity. On the other hand, it is not an end in itself. Its value and free character, however, derive not only from its place in the economic system, as they say, but rather from the purpose it serves.

Not all of our families look like the that of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. But family – however we define it (and, for some, wherever they find it) is a community of sharing and love.

Blessings on your day, as we continue to bask in the glow of Incarnation.


The Peace Light

Fr. Mark Carr, Executive Director of my “happy place” (the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh), wrote this reflection for the retreat house’s “Monday Moment” weekly reflections. Since I only recently learned about the Peace Light, I thought I’d share his reflection:

Two weeks ago, on behalf of the Jesuit Retreat House, I received the Peace Light, a continuous flame originating in the grotto of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. For almost 40 years, this flame has been shared around the world each December to remind people of Christ’s message of love, peace, friendship, and the deeper meaning of Christmas. It is symbolic of the Light of Christ, promotes peace, harmony, and unity among all people of the world from every race, ethnicity, and creed.

The small ceremony at which I received the Peace Light integrated a line from the Prophet Isaiah and referenced the Gospel of John. It also included the words below. They are words worth reading to our hearts, especially as we approach the celebration of the Incarnation of the Light of the World and Prince of Peace.

This flame is a symbol of peace and friendship. Your faith does not have to be like mine and my faith does not have to be like yours, but the Peace Light reminds us that each of us is free to light our own flame and that we can live and work together in harmony and teach others to do the same. It reminds us that even though there is still much darkness in the world, you and I can overcome that darkness to create a peaceful community.

In the coming Christmas season, let us carry within our hearts the peace and light of Christ!

Blessings to all during these last days of Advent.

Praying the O Antiphons

Somehow it is a week until Christmas! As we enter these final days of Advent, you might consider making the O Antiphons, a part of your daily prayer.

The O Antiphons, which form part of evening prayer during the Octave before Christmas, are familiar to almost everyone in at least one form.  Most people, even if they don’t pray the antiphons in their traditional form, recognizes them from their appearance in a modified form in the popular Advent hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Each of the seven antiphons highlights a different title for the Messiah, each refers to a prophesy of Isaiah and each contains a different petition. (You can find the O Antiphons in their traditional form, with accompanying scriptural texts, here.)

In different Advent retreat settings, I’ve encouraged retreatants to write their own O Antiphons. We live in a different time and place than when the “O” antiphons were composed. In addition, each of us has our own needs and our own issues with God. Writing our own “O” antiphons gives expression to: Who is God for me? How do I name God? And what are my deepest needs? How do I need God to come to me.

I engaged in this prayer exercise myself during an Advent Week of Directed Prayer many years ago.  Both the writing of the antiphons and the reflection surrounding the writing was a special time between me and God.  It was powerful because it involved articulating my answers to questions such as those I just posed

I encourage you engage in the same exercise.  As the birth of the Savior draws near, what is the yearning in you this week?  What are the places in your life that cry out for redemption?  Name these.  These are the source of our personal O Antiphons.

I Am No Longer My Own, But Thine

I am leading a contemplative practices group at a Methodist Church in the Twin Cities, part of a Lily Grant funded program administered by St. Catherine University. Last night our theme was Living Authentically – Naming and Releasing Your Attachments: Attachments to the  Past and the Future and Disordered Attachments to the Things of This World.

One of the things I talked about in my presentation was my friend St. Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation, which I’ve discussed here before. Ignatius viewed this consideration, the first thing he invites people making his Spiritual Exercises to pray with, as a fundamental statement of human meaning and purpose.

In David Fleming’s contemporary rendition, the First Principle and Foundation reads:

The goal of our life is to live with God forever. God, who loves us, gave us life. Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit.
All the things in this world are gifts of God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God insofar as they help us develop as loving persons. But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.
In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.

During our break, the pastor of the congregation pulled out for me the Wesley Covenant Prayer, a prayer John Wesley expected Methodists to pray this prayer at the beginning of each new year as a way of remembering and renewing their baptismal covenant. The prayer bears more than a small similarity to Ignatius sentiment. In traditional rendition it reads:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

However one phrases it, we are invited to remember that God is the end. We belong to God.

If Only You Knew What Makes for Peace

I am at the Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, part of the retreat team for an Ignatian Colleagues Program Retreat. Yesterday, I offered the reflection at our Mass speaking about the reading from Luke’s Gospel where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. Following is a redacted version of my remarks.

In his first public teaching, Jesus included as one of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.  And in today’s Gospel, as he is reaching the end of his public ministry and moving toward his passion and death, Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem, saying “If you only knew what makes for peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

The words that follow (which talk about the coming days when their enemies will smash them) suggest Jesus may have been weeping at the disaster that would befall the city when the Romans destroyed it.  Perhaps he was also weeping at a city that had killed prophets in the past – and that was about to kill him. 

Is Jesus weeping over us today?  Can it be that – despite all of his teaching and despite centuries in which to learn the lesson – we still do not know what makes for peace?

Maybe we should be weeping over ourselves, since sadly, we surely cannot dispute Jesus’ statement.  “If you only knew what makes for peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes.

Five or so years ago, I saw a one-person play titled An Iliad, performed at the Great River Shakespeare Festival.  The play is a revisiting of Homer’s epic tale, distilled by a single character, a war-torn poet.  The most riveting part of the play for me began with the poet saying, almost off-hand “I remember one time, a hot day during the conquest of Suma” – he paused –  “I mean the conquest of Sarna” – another pause – “I mean the Trojan war.” Another pause, at which point he straightened up and looking straight ahead and standing motionless, he somberly began to recite a list of wars.  For well over three minutes, he chillingly listed at an increasingly rapid pace every war that has been fought from ancient Greece through the Crusades through the World Wars and all the conflicts up to the present day.  It took more than three minutes to list them!

I sat in my seat and felt tears begin to well up.  I almost couldn’t breathe at the enormity of what humans have done to each other over and over and over again through the centuries. 

At what we are still doing to each other.  As we sit here today, we are entering the eighth month of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the ongoing civil war in Myanmar is officially the longest civil war in the world.

And that listing I experienced that day – which would take even longer today (each time the play is performed more wars have to be added) – that listing just included outright civil wars or wars between nations.  To that we need to add:

  • The viciousness of our political discourse – which includes demonization and untruths about those with whom we disagree.  That certainly doesn’t make for peace.
  • The callous disregard for the least among us.  Not a prescription for peace.
  • The refusal to acknowledge that we are annihilating the very earth on which we live.  It is impossible to even imagine what conflicts will inevitably arise as increasing parts of our world become uninhabitable.

Blessed are the peacemakers.  If you only knew what makes for peace.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “It is not enough to talk about peace.  One must believe in it.  And it isn’t enough to believe in it.  One must work at it.”  Robert Fulghum once said, “Peace is not something you wish for.  It’s something you make, something you do, something you are, and something you give away.”

We are called by Christ to be people of peace. 

I went on in my reflection to talk about what it means to both believe in the possibility of peace and to live as people of peace. I ended with the Pax Christi Vow of Nonviolence, which you can find here.

Note: Although not the performance I watched, you can watch the portion of An Iliad listing wars here.

Journeying With God

MysticMag is an online publication covering articles of interest on metaphysical services, holistic health and wellness, and spiritual guidance. They just posted an interview with me, asking questions like who God is for me, how I view my calling, my approach to giving retreats and so on. You can read the full interview here.

Here is how I answered the first question they posed:

Why do you think the quest and understanding of religions and spirituality has been so prominent throughout your life?

My first reaction is to want to turn the question around: How can it be that the quest and understanding of spirituality is not prominent in everyone’s life? But let me try to answer the question in the way you framed it.

From the earliest age, I sensed that there was more than this world, something beyond this human existence; that as wonderful as this world and life could be, it was not enough. In the words of on Hindu writer, worldly pleasure “is essentially private, and the self is too small an object for perpetual enthusiasm.” Augustine expressed something similar in Christian terms, writing in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

It is that sense of something more, something beyond, that had made my spiritual searching so prominent throughout my life. That searching has included studies of many of the world’s major religions as well as a significant period of my life practicing Buddhism before returning to my Christian roots.

Someone Through Whom We Catch a Glimpse of What God is Like

Today the Catholic Church celebrates All Saints Day, a celebration of all of the Saints

Kenneth Woodward, former Newsweek religions editor, defined a saint as “someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like – and of what we are called to be.”

One could say that we have all we need in Jesus to see what we are called to be.  And there is truth to that: Jesus Christ incarnated was fully human and is, of course, the supreme example of human holiness.  His heart was totally open to the gift of God’s love.

But while Jesus is the ultimate model for our lives, it is too easy for people to say (or at least think even if they don’t say it out loud) – “yeah, well easy for him – he was God after all.  So of course it was easier for him than for me.”  For all that we give lip service to our understanding that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, we all  (at least a little bit) act as thought he had a leg up on us as a human because of his Godhood.

And that is where I think the saints are helpful to us.   They serve as examples about whom we can’t say – oh well, he or she was God.  No:  He or she was human – just like us.  These human beings heard Jesus’ call and followed it.

Saints provide examples to us, models, they can inspire us and give us strength for own journeys. The fact that those we called saints – flesh and blood humans like us –  transcended their weaknesses means we can also.  The idea is not to say, “oh well, she’s a saint – she’s special, not like us.  But instead to say if he or she transcended their weakest parts to allow their better parts to shine, I can too.

But saints do more than model sin transcended.  They also help us understand how God works in the lives of individuals.  James Martin, in his wonderful book My Life with the Saints, writes:

Each saint was holy in his or her unique way, revealing how God celebrates individuality.”  And he cites C.L. Lewis, who wrote in Mere Christianity, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints. This gave me enormous consolation, for I realized that none of us are meant to be Therese of Lisieux or Pope John XXIII or Thomas More.  We’re meant to be ourselves, and meant to allow God to work in and through our own individuality, our own humanity.

Remembering the saints also reminds us that we don’t go it alone, that there are others who have gone before us, who have faced what we face.   Others whose companionship gives us strength for our own journey.  Through the saints we come to meet individuals who had particular strengths we might want to emulate and who also had the same difficulties we struggled with.  And that is a source of encouragement.

Blessings on this All Saints Day.

“I’m Coming, Lord”

Today is the memorial of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez. The following reflection was shared by Fr. Mark Carr, director of my “happy place” (aka the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh. Fr. Mark writes:

Today the Society of Jesus celebrates the memorial of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, SJ (1533-1617). He is most known for his example of humility, kindness, and hospitality. For over forty years he lived the vocation of a Jesuit brother and served as the doorkeeper of the Jesuit college of Montesión in Majorca.

Through a life of simplicity, humility, and dedication to work Alphonsus embodied a life of sanctity through service. Because of Alphonsus and the countless other Jesuit brothers, the Society of Jesus says that in many ways “the religious brother embodies religious life in its essence, and so is able to illustrate that life with particular clarity.”

Whenever the doorbell rang at Montesión, and on the way to greet the arriving visitor, Alphonsus would repeat the words, “I’m coming, Lord!” He met every visitor as though the person was Christ himself. Centuries later, the writer Kathleen Norris’s description of hospitality captured what Alphonsus lived daily: “True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person.”

During his life, Alphonsus came into contact with other saints. As a boy growing up in Segovia, his family hosted the visiting Jesuit preacher, Fr. Peter Favre, SJ, one of St. Ignatius’ first companions! Later in life, his spiritual conversations with Peter Claver, SJ, inspired the young Jesuit scholastic to become a missionary and devote his life to ministry among the slaves arriving in the Americas. Saintliness, holiness, is contagious. Indeed, we’re all called to live lives of holiness and sanctity. As Pope Francis says, “To be a saint is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone.”

Blessings to all of my Jesuit and Ignatian friends on this day!

Vanity of Vanities

I offered the reflection at Mass yesterday, here at the Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House, where I am on the directing team for an 8-day retreat. My focus was on the first Mass reading, from the book of Ecclesiastes, which wearily proclaims, “The sun rises, the sun goes down….  All speech is labored; there is nothing one can say.  The eye is not satisfied with seeing, no is the ear satisfied with hearing. … Nothing is new under the sun.” All in all, pretty depressing sounding.

What is the point?  That is the question the Book of Ecclesiastes considers.  What is the purpose and value of human life?

The author of Ecclesiastes (commonly thought to be King Solomon, writing in his advanced years) has sought meaning and happiness through wisdom, through self-indulgence, through success, wealth and honor.  He has pursued all of the treasures of the world, and achieved many of them.  And yet, none of it satisfies.

 “Vanity of vanities,” the reading opens, a superlative expression that seems to denote utter emptiness.  The Hebrew word for “vanity” is hebel (or hevel; I have seen it both was), which literally means “breath” or “vapor” – there is nothing to hold onto in any of these achievements.  They come, they go.

In the verses following this reading, the author expounds on this theme:  he tells us he built houses and vineyards, he constructed woodlands, acquired slaves, amassed silver and gold, brought in singers for entertainment, had many luxuries and so forth.  But he looked at all he did and all he had and still exclaims “behold! All was vanity and a chase after wind, with nothing gained.”

Standing on their own, none of the things of this world – success, wealth, honor, not any of the treasures and gifts of the world, as sparkling and as shiny as they may appear – are sufficient to bring us happiness, to give our life meaning.  They come, they go; they give us nothing that ultimately lasts.  Temporary pleasures all.

What does bring ultimate happiness, ultimate meaning?  St. Augustine put it well: ‘You have made us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless until we rest in you.”  Or as today’s Mass Psalm today puts it: You are our refuge O lord.

 St. Ignatius understood this well, which is why he opens his Spiritual Exercises with a consideration titled the First Principle and Foundation, which Ignatius saw as the key to the spiritual life, a statement of human meaning and purpose.  The opening line (in the literal translation of the consideration) reads: “The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our lord, and in so doing, to save his or her soul.”  Or, as David Fleming puts it in his contemporary rendition: The goal of our life is to live with God forever.  God, who loves us, gave us life.  Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit.”

God is the end; everything else – all of the things of this world are the means by which we grow in relationship with God and each other.  Divorced from God – turned into ends rather than. means, as the author of Ecclesiastes recognized, they profit us nothing.

 This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy what we have.  When we make, or someone serves us a tasty meal, by all means enjoy it.  A good book, a walk on the beach, an ice cream cone with your favorite flavor of ice cream.  Whatever it is, enjoy!  But we need to understand that worldly pleasures will never be enough for us.  They will never bring lasting pleasure.

So, the invitation is to hold things lightly.  Appreciate the things of this world, but do not grasp onto them as ends, as things that can bring ultimate pleasure.  In one part of his First Principle and Foundation, Ignatius says:  “In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.”

This is a prescription for spiritual freedom.  Spiritual freedom doesn’t mean I don’t have preferences.  This is not masochism – all other things being equal, I would prefer to be healthy to ill, and I would prefer to have many more years of service to God before I die.  But I recognize that I can find God in all of it.  So I don’t get attached to any of my preferences.

And spiritual freedom does not mean I do not have anything.  (I can still have my iPhone, and my music, and my computer.)  It means there is nothing I cannot give up, nothing I could not give away.  Whatever I have, I can give up.

In the letter to the Philippians Paul says, “I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient.  I know how to live in humble circumstances; I also know how to live in abundance.  In every circumstance and in all things, I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.  I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”

That is the spiritual freedom we seek!

As I suggested in my reflection, this attitude is extremely counter-cultural.  Everything in our culture tries to convince us if we just had more – more money, more power, more things – we would be happy.  And so: politicians lie and scheme to better their position, people destroy their family life trying to climb the corporate ladder, some step over others to secure their own positions, others spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need. Vanity of vanities!

This temptation, or course, is nothing new; the temptation has been there from the very beginning and has always been there.  Today’s short Gospel passage reminds of that – of a king (Herod) who was so greedy and lustful for power and sex that he put to death a man he knew to be holy so as not to look bad in front of his friends and family.  It is a good reminder that failure to have a proper relationship to this world is not just futile, but potentially dangerous.

 And so we ask for the grace to hold all that this world has lightly.  I ended my reflection with an excerpt from a reflection titled Let Go of Everything but God, written by Howard Thurman, a prominent religious figure who played a leading role in many social justice movements ad organizations of the twentieth century.  Thurman writes:

I must let go.
For so long I have held to the habit of holding on. Even my muscles
Are tense; deeply fearful are they
Of relaxing lest they fall away from their place.
I cling clutchingly to my friends
Lest I lose them.
I live under the shadow of being supplanted by another.
I cling to my money, not so much by a wise economy and a thoughtful spending
But by a sense of possession that makes me depend on it for strength.
I must let go—deep at the core of me
I must have a sense of freedom— A sure awareness of detachment— of relaxation….

I must relax my hold on everything that dulls my sense of God,
That comes between me and the inner awareness of God’s Presence
Pervading my life and glorifying
All the common ways with wonderful wonder.
“Teach me, O God, how to free myself of dearest possessions,
So that in my trust I shall find restored to me
all I need to walk in Thy path and to fulfill l Thy will.
Let me know Thee for myself that I may not be satisfied
With aught that is less.

Yay, It is Retreat Time

I leave tomorrow morning for my annual retreat. After a busy summer the included giving several retreats at various locations, and teaching course on St. Ignatius at a Presbyterian gathering, not to mention all the prep for various upcoming retreats and programs, I’m ready to have a week away to just be with God. This is the one time I don’t take my computer with me, and don’t deal with e-mails, texts or phone.

I say this every year either at the front end or back end of my retreat, but I can’t encourage enough trying to find an opportunity to make a retreat. Yes, we have our daily prayer practice, and that is of enormous benefit in itself. But there is nothing like going off to take uninterrupted time with God. I recognize it is harder for some people to get away than others, but for those that can do so, you won’t be sorry you did

As I go off, I ask you to keep my in prayer, that I may be open to whatever it is God wishes to reveal during this time. And be assured of my prayers for you as well.