As I was in Appleton, Wisconsin this weekend for my daughter’s senior recital (which was lovely; you can watch the video here), I agreed to speak to the Adult Education group at First Presbyterian Church in Neenah Sunday morning.

Afterward, I attended their Sunday service.  I was quite moved by the prayer of confession used.

O God, you are like a weaver in our lives.  Out of the expanding energy of creation you have spun each of us into a unique, colorful strand with our own special hue and texture; you have woven us together into a single family that blankets the globe.  We confess that we have torn the fabric of your design.  We have allowed ourselves to be bound by the narrow contexts of race, age, sex, and ideology.  Open our hearts, so that we may once again celebrate the wonder of the human fabric and dignity of all, in the name of Christ, who lived and died “that all may be one.”

(From Touch Holiness, edited by Ruth C. Duck and Maren C. Tirabassi)

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Catherine of Siena, a mystic who was the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church.

When I give programs the center on Christian mystics, Catherine is often included.  (She was one of those we included this year in the monthly “Deepening” series Christine Luna Munger and I have been presenting at St. Catherine’s University this year.

It is said that at age seven, Catherine had a vision of her spiritual marriage to Christ. She records that Jesus told her that he had “determined to celebrate the wedding feast of [her] soul and to espouse [her to him] in faith.” In her vision, Catherine saw Mary placing her (Catherine’s) hand in the hand of Jesus and sealing the marriage with a brilliant ring that only Catherine could see. This was one of Catherine’s key mystical experiences, one that shaped the course of her life. It was a most joyous event and one she considered as a sign that she should consecrate herself solely to Jesus.

Catherine’s visions, many of which are  recorded in her Dialogue, affected her deeply. One particular vision that was instrumental in how Catherine viewed her vocation occurred after she had spent three years in prayerful solitude in a room in her father’s house.  In the vision,  Jesus reminded her of his response when asked what is the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus then told Catherine: “I want you to fulfill both of these commandments. I want you to walk in the way with both your feet. I want you to fly to heaven on two wings.” Jesus assured Catherine that far from her actions in the world taking her away from time with Jesus, they would bring her closer. He told her, “I have no intention whatever of parting you from myself, but rather of making sure to bind you to me all the closer, by the bond of your love for your neighbor.”

Catherine took Jesus’ words to heart.  As one scholar described, “Catherine was a mystic whose plunge into God plunged her deep into the affairs of society.” She offered her services in a local hospital caring for lepars and victims of the plague, baked bread for the poor of Siena, she served as a mediator between feuding families and helped broker a peace agreement between the city of Florence and the government of the papal states. People flocked to her wherever she went. (It is reported that wherever she went, a dozen priests accompanied her to hear the confessions of those whose faith in God she helped reawaken.) Catherine was truly faithful to the command that Jesus had given her.

Catherine is a wonderful model for us, for surely we are also meant to “fly to heaven on two wings.”  For all of us who are Christians, love of God and love of neighbor are bound tightly, two wings of the same bird.


Tonight was the penultimate gathering of the monthly series I’ve been co-presenting with Christine Luna Munger at St. Catherine’s University on Deepening Our Prayer Experience with Christian Mystics.  In past sessions we’ve considered Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avala, Teresa of Liseaux, Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Our subject this evening was Simone Weil.

For a long time, Weil viewed herself as an agnostic, having concluded that nothing could be known about the existence of God. In the letter that is called her Spiritual Autobiography, she wrote “As soon as I reached adolescence I saw the problem of God as a problem the data of which could not be obtained here below, and I decided that the only way of being sure not to reach a wrong solution, which seemed to me the greatest possible evil, was to leave it alone.” Hence her agnosticism.

What changed her was her encounter with God. She wrote, “In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God. I had vaguely heard tell of things of this kind, but I had never really believed in them.” The experience changed everything.

One of Weil’s deep religious experience was occasioned by her reading of George Herbert’s poem, Love.

Weil was introduced by a young English Catholic to the metaphysical English poets of the seventeenth century, one of whom was George Herbert. She discovered Herbert’s poem, Love, which she learned by heart. She began to use it as a way to deal with the pain of her headaches (from a young age she suffered excruciating migraines), saying it over and over again at the culminating point of a violent headache, concentrating all of her attention on it and clinging to the tenderness in it. She wrote of that experience:

I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it, the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that Christ himself came down and took possession of me….Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.

Getting in touch so deeply with God’s loving presence has consequences for Weil. She realized not only God’s love for her, but that “every existing thing is equally upheld in its existence by God’s creative love.”  Thus she wrote “The friends of God should love him to the point of merging their love into his with regard to all things here below.” I find her description of the consequence of apprehension of God’s love to be beautiful:

When a soul has attained a love filling the whole universe indiscriminately, this love becomes the bird with golden wings that pierces an opening in the egg of the world. After that, such a soul loves the universe, not from within but from without; from the dwelling place of the Wisdom of God, our first-born brother. Such a love does not love beings and things in God, but from the abode of God. Being close to God it views all beings and things from there, and its gaze is merged in the gaze of God.

As is true of all of those who have had a deep experience of God, this is not “love your neighbor” as an externally imposed rule we must force ourselves to obey. Rather it is love that springs from a union with God, from seeing as God sees.

We end this year’s Deepening series on May 23, when Christine will present on Thomas Merton.

Yesterday was the final Mid-Day Reflection of the academic year at the law school.  The subject was humility.  It seemed to me a fitting topic for students preparing for a profession that is not particularly known for humility, in a world that does not particularly prize it.

The reflection I offered addressed what humility is (and the distinction between true humility and false humility), why humility is an important virtue for us to cultivate, and how we might grow in humility.

In our discussion of different ways to cultivate humility, I offered several suggestions, including practicing gratitude and practicing not always jumping to defend ourselves and the correctness of our position.  I shared with them a story told of St. Thomas Aquinas: One day when Thomas was was reading aloud in the refectory at dinner, he was corrected for mispronouncing a word, and though he knew that he had pronounced it properly, he nevertheless repeated, it in the way he was told.  Afterwards asked by his companions why he had done so, he replied “Because it matters little whether we pronounce a syllable long or short, but it matters very much to be humble and obedient.”

One of the students offered another suggestion: consciously recognizing the gifts of others and helping them to see those gifts.  We had earlier talked about humility as poverty of spirit, as recognizing that all we are and have is gift from God, and about the humility of understanding that it doesn’t always have to be about me.  We had also talked about the need to remember it is God’s plan I am about, not my own, which helps us avoid comparing ourselves with others.

I thought the student’s suggestion was a wonderful one for growing in humility.  Not complimenting people for the sake of complimenting them, or as a tool to get them to do something I want.  But as a way to put the focus on the gifts God has given to each of us so that we each may participate in God’s plan.  And an embodiment of the recognition that we all have  a responsibility to help each other play that part.

Whose gifts have you not noticed recently?

Note: I did not, as I often do, record this talk.  However, you can find a podcast of a talk I gave on this same subject last year at St. Edward’s Catholic Church here.

Empty Chairs

Today is the twenty-first anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.  The event was –  until 9/11 –  the deadliest terrorist act in the United States.

If you visit the memorial built at the site, you will see the Field of Empty Chairs, on which is placed one chair for each person killed, in the approximate position of where the person would have been in the building at the time of the bombing.  Large chairs for the adults and smaller ones for the children.  I could not keep from weeping the day I visited the site and stood facing those small chairs.

And twenty-one years later, children and adults continue to die from terrorist attacks. With Jesus we weep for the empty chairs, wherever they are.  And we pray for the victims of terrorist attacks, and for those who commit them.

The Law School Christian Legal Society and Jewish Law Students Association co-sponsored a lunchtime program today to  help Christians better understand the Jewish feast of Passover.  The speaker was my friend and colleague at the law school, Professor Mitchell Gordon.  His talk covered the the historical basis of the celebration as well as  how the holiday is celebrated today.  He also spent a good deal of time talking about the Exodus story, beginning with the Egyptians’ enslavement of the Israelites and going through to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

I’ve been to Passover Seders before and I have a good familiarity with the Exodus story, but that doesn’t prevent learning something new or hearing something in a new and different way.

One of the things Mitchell discussed that I had not focused on before was the sequence in Exodus 2:11-15.  After Moses grows us, he watches his people in their hard labor and one day sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.  (In response, he kills the Egyptian).  The next day, he sees two Hebrews fighting, and questions their behavior.  Hoses then flees Egypt and goes to live in Midian, where he observes shepherds abusing the daughters of a priest of Midian.

Mitchell’s comment was that a true prophet is upset at all injustice, hence Moses’ reaction to the action of the Egyptian against the Hebrews, the infighting of the Hebrews and the abusive behavior of the Midians demonstrates he is a true prophet and worthy of the task God appoints to him.

What came to my mind as Mitchell spoke was the story of Prince Siddhartha, who leaves his palace on successive days and discovered old age, sickness and death, which discoveries set him on his path to Enlightenment.  That is, I heard a story of an awakening.  For me the verses indicate less that Moses actions show him as a true prophet, than that this series of events awakened him, preparing him for God’s call.

Mitchell also had a wonderful discussion of the dialogue between Moses and God at the burning bush, suggesting that even awakened, Moses took a little persuading to undertake the task to which God appointed him.  Not unlike us some of the time.



Today’s first Mass reading is one I never tire of hearing or praying with: the conversion of Saul.

You have to admit that if you or I were choosing members for the “good guy” team, Saul would not be high on our list.  This is not someone who is merely harmlessly misguided, not just a slackard with no appetite for serious prayer and deepening his life with God, not just a bumbler who doesn’t have a clear sense of the road forward.

Saul is a murderous persecutor of Christians. He stands by watching Stephen stoned to death because of Stephen’s proclamation of his faith in Christ. At the beginning of today’s first Mass reading from Acts, Saul, “still breathing murderous threats” against Jesus’ disciples, “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might arrest them.

Yet what does God tell the incredulous Ananais, who can’t believe God is asking him to find Saul, lay hands on him and restore his sight?  “This man is a chosen instrument of mine.”

We are constantly reminded in our Scripture that God has plans for everyone.  That God sees in a way we don’t and invites all to participate in his plan for salvation.  His choices sometimes leave people scratching their heads, whether it is the anointing of Jesse’s youngest son David or Jesus’ call of the tax collector Matthew.

No one gets left out of God’s plan.

The question to ask yourself is: what does it mean to me to know I am a chosen instrument of God’s?  What does it feel like to hear God say to you: You are a chosen instrument of mine.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,691 other followers

%d bloggers like this: