You Are Better Than You Think You Are. Courage

Yesterday morning I attended Mass at Christ the King church in Minneapolis, where the presider was Fr. Dale Korogi, pastor of the that parish. The Gospel for the Mass was one I’ve prayed with and spoken about often – Luke’s account of the Annunciation.

Fr. Dale began his sermon by relaying an experience that occurred as he was leaving the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where he had been studying for five years. As he was walking out of the foyer of the building for one of the last times about to return to begin priestly duties in the US, he said to the older priest who had been a mentor of his, “I can’t believe it is over.” The priest turned to him and said, “No it is only beginning. Then this wisdom figure put his hands on Fr. Dale’s shoulders and, looking him in the eyes, said, “You are better than you think you are. Courage!”

Although, as Fr. Dale pointed out, courage is not the word we typically hear when we talk about the Annunciation, courage is something Mary possessed. Called (here he quoted the words of my favorite poem on the Annunciation by Denise Levertov) “to a destiny more momentous than any in all of Time, she did not quail, only asked a simple, ‘How can this be?’ and gravely, courteously, took to heart the angel’s reply perceiving instantly the astounding ministry she was offered,” to bear Christ into the world. Mary was free to choose and she had the courage to say yes.

But it is not enough to stop there – to simply recognize Mary’s courage. For, as Fr. Dale reminded us there are annunciations in all of our lives. Indeed, each day and in so many ways, we are invited to participate in birthing Christ into the world. And, as with Mary, it is always our choice how to respond, our choice whether to believe we are better than we think or to turn away at what sometimes seems like too hard a task. And, indeed, many times those moments of annunciation (he again quoted Levertov’s poem here) “are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief. Ordinary lives continue.”

Earlier this week, I included a quote by Meister Eckhard at the end of a post on the O Antiphons. It is a good quote to pray with in connection with the Annunciation:

“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son is I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”

You have a role to play in the birthing of Christ in the world in our time and in our culture. Will you play it?

You are better than you think you are. Courage.

The Courage and Faith of Ruth

Today’s first Mass reading is from the Book of Ruth, a story of two remarkable women, Ruth and Naomi. Today’s reading invites us to focus on Ruth, the younger of the two women.

Although we rarely hear this book proclaimed at Mass, the story is a familiar one to many people. Ruth, the Moabite, marries one of the sons of Naomi and Elimelech, who had years before fled from Bethlehem to Moab in order to escape famine at home. At some point Elimelech dies. Ten years later, Naomi’s two sons (both of which have married Moabite women) die, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law alone and destitute. Naomi, with no real roots in Moab and no long-time friends to see her through this loss, decides to return to Bethlehem, her homeland. Ruth and Orpah are then faced with a major decision: to let Naomi return to Bethlehem alone or go with her to become foreigners in a new land.

Naomi advises the two young women to go back to the home of their mothers. There is a lot to be said for Naomi’s advice. Ruth and Orpah are both young enough to remarry, to settle down in their own land, to continue doing what their mothers and grandmothers before them have done, generation after generation. We learn in our reading that Orpah takes Naomi’s advice and tearfully says her good-byes. Her choice is an honorable and a safe one. She will surely marry again and live her life as usual.

Ruth makes a much bolder choice, a choice to go with Naomi to a land where she will be an outsider and where the prejudice against Moabites, let alone single Moabite women will be fierce. Worse, this was an environment where interracial marriages were frowned upon and where it was not easy to be a single woman.

Nonetheless, Ruth promises Naomi:

Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

Ruth makes the choice filled with faith, a choice that stretches her. Joan Chittister, in her book about Ruth and Naomi, writes:

Life is not a mystery for those who choose well-worn paths. But life is a reeling, spinning whirligig for those who do not, for those who seek God beyond the boundaries of the past. All the absolutes come into question. All the certainties fade. All the relationships on which they once had based their hopes shudder and strain under the weight of this new woman’s newness of thought and behavior.

Suddenly – it seems to have been, but probably only slowly, one idea at a time – Ruth finds herself at odds with her culture, her country, her religion and her role in life. One by one, she chooses against each of them. A Moabite, she makes the decision to go to the Jewish city of Bethlehem where race and religion will marginalize her forever. A follower of the tribal god Chemosh, she professes faith in the one God, Yahweh. A marriageable young woman, she opts for independence with another woman rather than set about finding a man to care for her. Ruth has discovered what it is to be the self that God made and nourishes and accompanies on the way.

We might reflect today on Ruth as a model of faith and courage.

Martyrdom and Courage

Today the Catholic Chruch recognizes the memorial of St. Augustine Zhao Rong and his companions, Chinese and foreign missionaries to China martyred at various points during the 17th through 20th centuries.

I’ve been thinking these past days about the courage and fortitude of those who have been martyred for their faith. Reading some of the homilies of Oscar Romero reminds me of his continued outspokenness against poverty, social injustice and government-sanctioned torture, even when it became clear that his words would lead to his death. It is reported that when his friend, the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande was assassinated, Romero said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'”

Coincidentally, I just read in Brother David Steindl-Rast’s most recent book (Deeper than Words) the story of a priest named Heinrich Maier, who was part of the resistance movement during World War II and who was arrested for his stand against the enslavement and killing of millions by the Germans. Brother David reports that Maier was “tied, naked, to the window grating in prison and tortured; that, even under torture, he did not betray a single one of his co-conspiritors.”

I’m humbled when I think of the Romeros, Maiers, Zhao Rongs, and countless others over the years who were killed as a consequence of their efforts to spread the Gospel – their efforts to live their own lives consistently with the Gospel and to call others to do the same. Most of us will not be asked to face death for our faith. But we are asked to proclaim the Gospel with courage, to live and exhort others to live Christian lives even when it is not easy to do so. And so I pray this day for the strength of the holy martyrs, for the courage to follow Christ faithfully and to proclaim the Gospel to all.

Take Courage…Do Not Be Afraid

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus’ disciples are in a boat “far out on the sea” when a windstorm comes upon them. They then notice Jesus walking on the water toward them, causing them to cry out “terrified,” fearing he was a ghost. Jesus tells them, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!”

How often those words are repeated by Jesus in the Gospels: Do not be afraid. Take courage. I am with you. Do not be afraid.

The disciples, we are told, were astounded, when he got into the boat with them and the wind died down because “[t]hey had not understood the incident of the loaves.”

Standing on this side of Christ’s resurrection, however, we do understand. We understand the body of Christ feeding the multitudes. We understand the body and blood of Christ poured out for us. And, more importantly, we understand that by His death, resurrection and ascension, Christ is always present with us. Physically present in the Eucharist, and always present through the Spirit.

We forget that sometimes. Fear arises, like the wind on the sea and our anxieties can sometimes overwhelm us, blinding us to the reality of Christ’s presence. The key is to open our eyes and our ears. To let ourselves hear Jesus say to us, I’m here…Do not be afraid. To be strengthened by Christ’s presence through everything we face in our lives.

We face nothing alone.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

Today the Catholic Chuch celebrates the memorial of the woman named by Pope Pius XII as the patroness of immigrants, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first United States citizen to be canonized.

Mother Cabrini, as she is often called, was an immigrant to the United States from Italy, although her actual desire was to bring the Gospel to China. She was urged by the bishop of Piacenza that she was more needed in the U.S. given the large number of poor Italian emigrants to the U.S. who had no one to tend to their welfare. She and her sisters settled first settled in New York in 1889, where they taught children and cared for the physical and spiritual needs of the Italian immigrant population. Over time, more of Mother Cabrini’s sisters came from Italy and their work spread across the United States. She herself traveled widely both in the U.S. and in Central and South America.

In Blessed Among All Women, Robert Ellsberg describes Mother Cabrini as never having mastered the English language and being small and unimposing in stature. But, he says, “her indomitable will, her inexhaustible energy, and her willingness to face any challenge made her an irresistible force.”

In the Opening Prayer for today’s Mass, we pray,

God our Father,
you called Frances Xavier Cabrini from Italy
to serve the immigrants of America.
By her example teach us concern for the stranger,
the sick, and the frustrated.
By her prayers help us to see Christ
in all the men and women we meet.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Amen.

Rosa Parks and Fighting Injustice

Today, December 1, is sometimes referred to as Rosa Parks Day. On this day in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus to make room for a white passenger. It was a dangerous act of civil disobedience, and one that launched the modern civil rights movement. Writing about it years later, she said

Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it. I kept thinking about my mother and my grandparents, and how strong they were. I knew there was a possibility of being mistreated, but an opportunity was being given to me to do what I had asked of others.

It takes courage to speak up against injustice. To say, as Rosa Parks did that day, this just isn’t right and I’m not going to accept it. Yet we are called as Christians to promote justice and to advance the dignity of all human persons, even when it is unpopular…even when it is difficult. People like Rosa Parks stand as a shining model for us as we carry out our calling.

Update: My friend Gerry shared with me his favorite Rosa Parks quote, from during the lengthy Montgomery bus boycott: “My feet may be tired, but my soul is rested.”

Raising of Lazarus

The Gospel reading for today was John 11 – the raising of Lazarus, a passage I referred to in a post a couple of days ago.   This is a passage I’ve prayed with on any number of occasions.  Yet something new almost always strikes me.  Although often my focus is on the exchange between Jesus and Martha (and Martha’s affirmation of her belief in the resurrection), sometimes I never get to that point.  One morning, my whole prayer revolved around the second sentence: “…Lazarus who was ill.”

This morning one of the things that struck me with extreme force was Thomas’ statement to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”  Thomas, the one we call Doubting, because of his statement that he would not believe until he stuck his finger in Christ’s wounds.  Thomas has the faith, and the love, to say – perhaps with some resignation – “if he is going to die, let’s go off and die with him.”  

I think we’d all like to think we would have been first in line pushing toward Judea, despite the fear that death would be waiting there.   But would we?  Would I?