Gratitude, Awareness, Desire

My friend John shared with me the other day the blessing his family prayed before meals.  They prayed:

Thank you, God
For this food.
Help us.
Make us
Kind and good.

What an extraordinarily simple prayer that says so much in so few words!  I like it for the same reason John told me he does: ” Simple (honest) gratitude. Straight forward awareness that we need help.  And a simple, honest desire to grow in the manifestations of love.”

If this were the heartfelt prayer of all of us, think of what a difference it could make in the world!  Gratitude in place of entitlement.  Recognition of  our need for God’s grace in place of a sense that we can do it all on our own.  Other-directedness in place of self-centeredness.

I’m not sure much else needs to be added.

Repay To God What Belongs to God

I’m home after having given a preached Ignatian retreat at “my happy place” this weekend – the Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago.  It was a grace-filled weekend and I am always filled with gratitude at the end of the retreat.

This morning I preached at the closing Mass of the retreat, the Gospel for which was the scene in Matthew’s Gospel where the Herodians and Pharisees try to trip Jesus up by asking him whether it is lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar.  The question is intended as a no-win one:  If Jesus says yes – he will diminish his standing with the people, who will view him as a Roman sympathizer.  If he says no – he will be accused of sedition or treason against Rome.  Heads they win, tails Jesus loses.

As is invariably the case when people set out to trap him, Jesus knows full well what the Pharisees and Herodians are trying to do are trying to do so – “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?”  He knows sees through their flattery, knowing that what they show on the outside is not what is in their heart.

Shown a coin of the realm, Jesus delivers his response: Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

I suggested in my reflection that it is interesting that Jesus makes his statement based on the image on the coin.  That invites us to ask the question: what image is imprinted on us?  And we know the answer to that – we (all of us, including Caesar) are imprinted with the image of God.  It is in God’s image and likeness that we are made.

And that means that Jesus’ one line answer actually says quite a bit.  It suggests that his followers have a dual allegiance: an allegiance to the teachings and commands of God, and an allegiance to the government under whose flag and laws they live, but it also makes clear the priority of those allegiances.

As Christians, we have duties to both of these realms.  The rub comes when we have to face the question of what Christians should do when the God they serve and the government to which they have sworn allegiances are pulling them into a situation of divided loyalties.  Jesus’ answer makes clear that Christians should render what is due to each entity until they come to the point where obedience to the state leads to a moral conflict with the God’s law, at which point God’s law prevails. We are rightly responsible to civil authority, but that authority itself is under the authority of God.  Our responsibility to God is outside the oversight of the civil authority, and therefore trumps civil authority.   (Today’s first Mass reading from Isaiah is a reminder of that: I am the Lord, there is no other, repeated twice in that reading.  God might well say to the state of Palestine, and the state of Wisconsin and Minnesota and the United States, as Isaiah says: “It is I who arm you, though you know me not.”)

Our issue today is not about taxes.  We pay plenty of them, whether we like it or not.  But there are other levels of government activity that do raise questions about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s:

Should Christians protest the use of torture by their government, even if such practices might provide information that could help in the war on terror?

How should Christians respond to governmental efforts to limit the number of refugees?

How should a Christian respond when state legislatures or courts take action either to support or oppose same-sex marriage?

Should taxpayer money be used to support abortion?

How should a Christian respond to the continued use in many states of the death penalty?

These are the kind of questions that raise the challenge of today’s Gospel.  The question is not whether we should pay taxes, but what do we expect – what do we demand – from a government supported by our tax dollars?  What does conscience demand of Christians when the actions of their government and the teaching of their faith appear to be in conflict?

These are not easy questions, especially since you can find Christians on both sides of some of the examples I gave.  And note Jesus did not answer the question posed to him in a direct way, but answered it in a way that places believers in a position of having to balance their responsibilities to the two realms.  God grants us the dignity and the responsibility to use our conscience to answer the hard questions.


A Beautiful Balance

Thursday morning the sun was shining, and I was filled with delight as I stood by the Fox River in Appleton watching the water, the trees the birds.  As I stood waiting for my friend John to arrive, it was the birds that really caught my attention.  I watched them alternate between flapping their wings and then simply gliding on current of the wind.  They knew just how long they had to exert their own effort before they could allow themselves to be carried.  Their flight is a beautiful balance between the effort of the birds and the wind.

It is much the same with us.  Poverty of spirit acknowledges our absolute and utter dependence on God, and our need for God’s grace.  But that is not in invitation to sitting back and doing nothing.  Our effort is a key element to the equation.

Our ability to strike the right balance between our effort and our reliance on God’s grace doesn’t always look as effortless as birds in flight.  But perhaps their flight doesn’t seem as effortless to the birds as it does to us.


Dealing With the Tough Stuff

Today was the final session of the five-session series on Discerning My Place in the World that I offered this fall at the University of St. Thomas.  Having looked in our prior sessions at various considerations relevant in discerning our vocation and making decisions in a prayerful way, free from disordered attachments, I decided to end the series by considering the question: What happens when things don’t go the way I thought they would?  By that I mean either that I engaged in a process of discernment that led me to think X (whatever X is) would be the best for me and either (a) I get X and it turns out it is not the right place for me or (b) I don’t to do X.

The reality is that any combination of external and internal factors may contribute to things not going the way we thought they would.  Perhaps I’m not as good as something as I thought I’d be.  Or the job I discerned was the best for me just doesn’t bring me the joy I expected.  In either of those two cases it may be that there was something faulty about my discernment.  The truth is that I can discern carefully, but still make the decision that is not the best one.  Sometimes we miss something.

Even if there is no fault in my discernment process, things happen that are out of our control.  A company that thought a job was available decides not to hire after you decided you would accept their offer.  I get every signal from the people interviewing me that the job is mine, but then someone else comes along that an employer thinks would be a better fit than I would be.  A spouse unexpectedly needs to move and so I can’t stay in a position I wanted to be in.   An illness means I can’t perform something I thought I could.

In my talk, I addressed three of the things one might grapple with in such a situation: disappointment and dejection, loss of confidence, and envy.  Although I typically record my talks during programs like this, I didn’t record this one because I wanted it to be more participatory, inviting the participants to share about their own experiences.  We had a good discussion that harkened back to the opening session of the series about the need to keep clear the distinction between ends and means and to remember that it is God’s plan we are about, not our own.

I am grateful to those who participated in this program.  For those interested who were not able to be with us, you can scroll back for the podcasts and prayer material for the earlier sessions of the series.

Francis and Poverty

Today we celebrate the feast of a saint close to my heart: Francis of Assisi.  We can describe Francis in many ways, but one of the significant element in his spirituality (like that of my friend Vincent dePaul) was a life of poverty and concern for the marginalized.

Francis looked at the Gospels and heard Jesus say, “if you wish to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions, and give to the poor…and come, follow me”.  And  “Take nothing for your journey, neither staff nor knapsack, shoes nor money.”  And “If any will come after me, let them renounce self, take up their cross and follow me.”

Francis read heard Jesus say such words and he took them seriously.  For Francis, poverty was a way both of imitating Christ and of growing in love for his brothers.  It was also a way of avoiding the temptation to sin that exists when one has property.  In the words of Sister Ilia Delio

Just as Francis realized that God humbly bends over in love to embrace us in Jesus Christ, so too he realized that the suffering of humanity and all creation could only be lifted up through solidarity in love.  Francis lived a poor, itinerant life but he wrote very little on poverty. What was important to him was to live—not without possessions—but without possessing (sine proprio). He was keenly aware of the human person as weak and fragile and thus prone to greed, selfishness and power. To be poor is to live without possessing anything that could prevent true human relatedness as a brother.

In a similar vein,  Steven Clissold writes:

Francis passionately believed that the love of material possessions lay at the root of society’s ills and of man’s estrangement from his maker.  Property implied the needs for arms with which to defend it, and led to the struggle for power and prestige and to the chronic warfare which was the scourge of his times.

Francis felt deep compassion for the poor and the suffering.  One of his biographers writes that he would grieve over those who were poorer than himself and that from a young age he felt a compassion for those less fortunate than himself.

On this day on which we celebrate Francis, we might ask ourselves about our own compassion for the poor and suffering.  Do we, as Francis, grieve over those poorer than ourselves.

How I Approach Decisions

Today was the fourth session of the five-week series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas this fall on Discerning My Place in the World.  In the first session of the series we focused first on God’s invitation to each of us to co-labor with him in the building of Kingdom; on the second, with getting in touch with our deepest desires; and in the third session identifying our gifts.   The theme for today’s session was How I Approach Decisions.

The talk I gave drew from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a wonderful tool for discernment.  I spoke about the context in which we make our decisions, and then shared some tools from the Spiritual Exercises and Ignatian Spirituality that help us discern how to use our gifts to build God’s kingdom.  After my talk, we had a good discussion about letting go of roads not taken and how we receive confirmation of our choices.

You can access a recording of my talk at today’s session here or stream it from the icon below.  (The podcast runs for 27:20.) You can find the prayer material I distributed today here.

Cultivating a Mystical Life

I have appreciated the writing of Carl McColman, so was happy when my friend Richard forwarded to me a post written by McColman about a talk he recently gave in Atlanta.  In the post, he shared his response to a question asked by an audience member about “best practices” for those who want to develop a more mystical spirituality.  His answer is well worth reading in its entirety (which you can do here), but I particularly appreciated McColman’s summary list of “ingredients for a truly mystical life.”  Here is the list and an excerpt of what he said about each item.  You might consider what role each of these has (or could be developed) in your own life.

  • Silence — silence is the foundation of mysticism. We need meaningful amounts of attentive silence, each and every day. …[T]hat’s a necessary first step to finding to limitless silence that expands beyond the “noise” of our thoughts, imaginations and feelings.
  • Liturgy — we need a structured form of daily prayer. … But not everyone needs a daily liturgy as complex as what you’ll find in a monastery. There are other ways to become established in regular prayer. What’s important is that we pray, and that we pray every day. And a daily liturgy, of some form, is an essential tool for keeping such daily prayer alive and real, especially over the long haul.
  • Embodiment — Prayer and silence can sometimes leave us stuck in our heads. The mystical life is a full-bodied life, which pays attention to labor, to rest, to health and even to appropriate ways in which we discipline ourselves (for example, exercising regularly or going on a diet)…. Therefore, our spirituality needs to have a material as well as a psychological component.
  • Community — Christianity is not a do-it-yourself spirituality; neither is Christian mysticism. We need each other. We need to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and we even need to work on loving our enemies. Mysticism often appeals to introverts (I’m one!), and so this is sometimes the hardest part of the spiritual life for us. But Jesus is clear: he said where two or three (or more) are gathered, he is present. Of course he is present with us individually, too. But his point is that we should not neglect intimacy with God found through community.
  • Justice — Again, Jesus is clear. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Feed my sheep.” “Feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, set the prisoners free.” Christianity is clear in its commitment not only to heaven-after-death, but to working for the reign of God (which is to say, the heart of love) here in the present.
  • Interspirituality — not everyone is called to do interfaith dialogue or interspiritual work in a formal way. But we are all called to be  hospitable toward others, and especially in this day and age, “others” includes those who do not share our faith. ..
  • Humility — …Authentic mystical experience tends to increase humility rather than pride: the “experiencer” is often left with a profound sense of unworthiness after having encountered such vast love. Many of us, meanwhile, are called to be mystics of unknowing, where our is faith shaped not by extraordinary experience but by deep faith and lively trust. No matter what our relationship with God may look like, we are all called to walk humbly with God.