Advent Retreat in Daily Living: Creation and Fall

Yesterday was the first session of the three-session Advent Retreat in Daily Living I am offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law this year. As I’ve shared before, Advent is my favorite time of the liturgical year, and it is an important season that often gets slighted as so many seem to move directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Thus, I always offer some kind of Advent reflection series at the law school, even if it is a busy time of the semester for students. (End of classes, reading period, exams.)

The subject of our first session was Creation and Fall. In my reflection, I talked about the creation story, the entry of sin into the world (including how we might understand the nature of that first sin), and God’s plan for salvation. We ended with a guided meditation on creation.

You can access a recording of my talk, which includes the guided meditation at the end, here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 27:09.) You can find a copy of the prayer materials I distributed to participants here. Note that before I began the recording, I asked the participants to introduce themselves and say a few words about what Advent means to them; that is what I am referring to in the opening lines of the podcast.

I opened the session with Henri Nouwen’s Advent Prayer. Since it is not on the podcast, I share it here:

Lord Jesus,
Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!”


Creation and Fall

Yesterday was the first of a four-session pre-Advent scripture study/prayer I am offering at Our Lady or Lourdes in Minneapolis. The series, titled from Creation to Annunciation is designed to help us prepare for our Christmas celebration of the coming of Christ.

As I observed at the outset of my talk today, the different Gospels begin the story of Jesus in different places. John and Mark begin with the preaching of John the Baptist. Luke begins with the foretelling of the Baptist’s birth. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ, a genealogy that he begins with Abraham. But to understand the full story of Jesus Christ, we have to go back even further – to the story of creation.

Thus, today’s focus was on creation and fall. I began by talking about the Genesis account of creation – and what it reveals about God’s plan. I then spoke about how we might think about the entry of sin into the world. From there I moved on to God’s response to sin – the decision to incarnate.

Following a question and answer period, I described the handout for the series (which I will try to post later this week in an update to this post) and made suggestions for the participants prayer during the week. I then led the group in a guided meditation on creation, after which we had some small group sharing. It was a wonderful start to the series.

You can access a recording of the first part of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:33.) My apologies for the technical error on my part that prevented my recording the part of the session that continued after the brief question and answer session.

Advent Retreat in Daily Living 2012 – Week 1

Although Advent doesn’t begin until Sunday, yesterday was the first gathering of the Advent Retreat in Daily Living at UST Law School. We began by each person sharing a little about their understanding of Advent. I then offered a short reflection about the meaning of Advent and talked about the prayer materials for this first week of prayer.

I began by talking about the story of creation, which helps us understand what we are waiting for in Advent and why.

Our Scriptures open with the story of creation – In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God then created and light and separated it from the darkness. Then God separated the water from dry land. God then brought forth vegetation and then living creatures on the land and in the sea and in the sky. And then “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female – he created them. God blessed them.”

Out of chaos, God creates an orderly universe. The opening lines of Genesis highlight the goodness of creation and God’s desire that human beings share in that goodness.

But something happens to disrupt what God intended. Genesis 2 offers a myth to explain that reality – the story of Adam and Eve eating the apple at the instigation of the serpent. Some people believe the account in Chapter 2 is a literal account. But it is not all the important whether one believes it or not. What is important is the reality the story is designed to convey. Joseph Tetlow, in his contemporary rendition of the prayer exercise in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius dealing with what Ignatius calls the Sin of Adam and Eve puts it this way:

I think about this. Even though I may believe that God brought humankind onto the face of the earth through evolution, I have to believe that 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. They chose to use what was forbidden by their own 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 the misery, wretchedness, evildoing, and death-dealing in the world.

It is not about an apple. Or a serpant. And it doesn’t really matter whether it was a woman or a man. The point is Sin entered the world. And from that first entry of sin into the world, more sin came. And we see the effects of that all around us. Violence. War. Famine. Pollution. Racial and ethnic strife. You see the effect everywhere.

I asked the participants to imagine the heart of God seeing all of this. Seeing much more than we see – we see only a limited piece. God sees all of it – past, present and future – in a single image all of the time. What does that do to the heart of God? To contemplate the goodness of what he created and see this. To see in a single moment: Auschwitz, the sacking of Constantinople, the bombing of Hiroshima, early Christians being fed to the lions in Rome, slavery, child prostitution, the effects of drug abuse. And we can go on and on. God looks out at what he created – what he termed good – and beholds all of that.

The first meditation I inivited participants to pray with this week asks us to imagine just that. The meditation is that which begins the Second week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Ignatius asks us to “look at all the people of the earth” – the different ethnic, racial and religious groups, some in families, some alone, some young, some old. And to watch God watching all of thie. Then he asks us to see the realities of the world around us – the reality of sin. AND to imagine God looking down on it. To see what it does to the heart of the Trinity to “look down upon the whole surface of the earth, and behold all nations in great blindness, going down to death and descending into heal.” He wants us to feel the Trinity’s love for humanity and their pain at our suffering. And to listen to the thought of the Trinity: This is what we’ll do. We’ll become human and show them the way. It is a powerful meditation.

After that, I talked about the remaining prayer material for the week. Having neglected to check the recorder before I started speaking, I didn’t notice that it was low enough on battery that it stopped recording three minutes into my talk. So I have no podcast of the talk to post this week. However, you can find a copy of the first week of prayer material here.

Let There Be Light

I love the light. I don’t just mean the feel of sunlight on my face, which is wonderful. Or even the brightness of a beautiful sunny day. Or the ability to find my way.

One of the things I love about hiking in the woods is the interplay of light and shade resulting from the way the light comes through the trees or peaks around large rocks. Multiple streams of light in my path. A shady area broken by a sun-lit flower shining brilliantly as though a stage light were pointed at it. Fluttering movements of shade and light as leaves dance the breeze. Absolutely beautiful. A delight to behold.

I commented to my husband as we were walking through all of this yesterday that I realized this is a significant part of why I like Caravaggio and Vermeer so much. Each of them imitates nature to use light – and the contrast of light and shadow – in their painting in such a powerful way.

God said, “Let there be Light” and all of this came into being. The sunlight on my face. Our ability to see. And the beautiful interplay of light and shadow that is such a delight to behold. It is a beautiful world!

Bicycles and Birds

One of the things I love about the Jesuit retreat house in Oshkosh is the availability of bicycles for the use of retreatants. Nothing fancy – just old-fashioned pedal-break bicycles; there is a stand of about 10 of them outside the main entrance of the retreat house to be used at will. I’ve taken one of them for a ride each morning I’ve been here thus far.

Although I have a bicycle at home, the area in the immediate vicinity of my house is pretty hilly, meaning my rides are more exercise than pure enjoyment, and there is a reasonably amount of vehicular traffic making it hard to relax into the ride.

Here, the roads surrounding the road outside the retreat house grounds is reasonably flat (i.e., a gentle incline) and there is very little traffic – most times I can do the length of the road out to a more “main” highway without seeing a car. That means that the ride is pure enjoyment and exhiliration – I love the feel of the wind on my face and the sound it makes as I whoosh by, and I can’t help but smile as God and I tear down the road together. It is nothing but pure fun. It feels a bit like flying.

Speaking of flying, the birds in this area are spectacular. I don’t know anything about birdwatching and beyond my ability to pick a NYC pigeon out of any lineup, I can identify very few birds. But that doesn’t matter. The variety and colors on these birds is amazing. Reds and blues the likes I’ve never seen. Yellows and more blacks than I thought existed. I look and simply marvel.

When I see birds of that beauty and variety, I have the same reaction I do when I see the beauty of different kinds of trees with their variety of color, leaves and so forth – it is impossible for me to not see the hand of God here. No impersonal principle of natuural selection could explain this array of beauty.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God!”

The “Current” of Divine Activity

On the plane ride to New York, I started reading Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, which had been recommenced to me by the assistant rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

The title of the book reflects Williams’ fundamental idea that “Christian belief is really about knowing who and what to trust.” While there are some who think being Christian means accepting a checklist of beliefs, Williams believes that “Christianity asks you to trust the God it talks about before it asks you to sign up to a complete system.”

Early on in the book, in talking about what it means to say that God is the “maker of heaven and earth,” Williams offers what I think is a wonderful image. Rejecting the image of God as a watchmaker who got things started and then sits back and lets it “run,” Williams thinks we better understand how God is in the world by thinking about an electric light burning. He writes

The electric current causes the light to shine, but that doesn’t mean that the electric power is something that was around only at the moment you put the switch on, so that the light itself is a rather distant result. On the contrary, the light is shining here and now because the electric current is flowing here and now. In the same way, it is the “current” of divine activity that is here and now making us real.

This is a good image to sit with. It reminds us that “within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on.” It reminds us that we can never be separated without God, indeed, that nothing can be.

In The Beginning There Was Love

The first Mass readings for yesterday and today were the first creation story in the Book of Genesis. (We heard the account of the first four days of creation yesterday and the last three today.) It is a story we hear proclaimed every year at the Easter Vigil.

I have no desire to wade into debates over whether the creation story is poetry (which many argue it cannot be because it doesn’t follow Hebrew poetic form) or parable or anything else. Whatever its form, I love to hear the story proclaimed.

When I hear this reading, I close my eyes and I feel God’s delight as the world fills with the beauty of the stars, the brilliant light of the sun, and the lushness of forests. I feel God’s love as God looks at all that is created and pronounces it good. And I feel that love especailly a I hear God’s plan to make humans in God’s own image (“after our image, after our likeness”), knowing what it implies about human dignity. And I see God look at the humans God has created and pronounce them “very good.”

What I feel when I hear that reading has nothing to do with what name we give to the account or what category we put it in. And I feel what I feel despite the fact that I don’t for a second believe that God literally created the world in seven days. None of that is really important to what the story conveys to me.

The first creation story, whatever other name we give it, is a love story. It is the story of the God who is love, who creates humans in love and gives them the beauty of the earth.

Have you stopped to enjoy that beauty lately? Have you let yourself recognize it as a sign of God’s love?

The Night Before Creation

Sixteen-year old Madison, daughter of my friend Mary Gallardo, was given the assignment in her Hebrew Scripture class to rewrite the creation story. Madison and her partner decided to write their version in the spirit of the present season. With Madison’s permission, I share with you this morning, The Night Before Creation. It presents a beautiful image of God’s love and joy in His creation and offers a wonderful reflection as we continue to celebrate the Incarnation:

T’was the night before creation and all through land
Not a creature was stirring except for God’s hand.
The heavens were waiting high in the sky
In hopes that human beings would soon on earth lie.
God was excited, this he would not dread
Visions of waterfalls danced in his head.
He made female in her kerchief; And male in his cap
And on the 7th day he took a long winter’s nap.
God created space, and it made such a clatter
Things sprang from thin air, and thus there was matter.
Away to the horizon, the water flew like a flash
Formed basins and plateaus and did so in a dash.
The moon with the stars created such a glow
They gave of luster of mid day to objects below.
When what to God’s powerful eye should appear
A sun and some clouds and a calendar year.
Flowers and vegetation grew all around
Mighty trees swayed in the wind without any sound.
More rapid than rapids ideas came to be
And God whistled and shouted and created you and me.
“Now dinos, now kitties, now hippos, and puppies
Now dolphins, now starfish, now turtles, and guppies!”
He sprang back to the heavens with the angels all singing
He saw what he made and with joy he was swinging.
And I heard him exclaim as he flew without strife
“God’s blessings to all and to all a sacred life!”

God’s blessing to all and to all a sacred life!

We are Never Diminished

Sometimes things happen that make us feel diminished. Someone says something belittling or says or does something that hurts our feelings or that otherwise seems like a rejection of us. The causes vary but the result is that we experience a blow to our self-worth. We feel less than what we thought we were.

We forget in such moments that we are made in the image and likeness of God. We forget that we are infinitely loved by this God, who never sees us as other than the beautiful child he created. We forget that our worth, our beauty, comes from our creation in God’s image and there is nothing that can ever diminish that.

I recently read reflection on Silent Insight Daily Catholic Meditation that captured this reality in a way that should be easy for us to relate to.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. Our soul magnifies the magnificence of God. We are God’s work of art. Accept yourself, none of us as humans are perfect. We are of value. Consider the story of the $100 bill – As a brand new $100 bill, it is worth $100. As a crumpled old $100 bill, it is still worth $100.

Your value is never diminished, no matter if you have sinned or if people have hurt your feelings.

We can be bruised. We can even crumple a bit. But our value will never be diminished.

Honoring the Sabbath

Commenting on the Sabbath, Rabbi Jacob Neusner said, “Not working on the Sabbath stands for more than nitpicking ritual. It is a way of imitating God.” Therefore, he suggests that keeping the Sabbath is not just about not doing something, but of celebrating creation.

As I read that line I thought about the episode in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus is in the synagogue on the Sabbath. One of those listening to him teaching was a man with a withered hand. The scribes and Pharisees carefully watch Jesus to see if he would cure the man in violation of the prohibition against working on the Sabbath. Jesus asks the man to stand in front of them and says to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”

That episode helps us to pose the right question, I think. Using Rabbi Nedusner’s language, the question is: does this act honor the Sabbath? Does it imitate God? Does it celebrate creation?

Honoring the Sabbath does not demand that we do nothing, although our Sabbath may surely involve rest. It does require that we lock ourselves indoors, although we may choose to spend some special time at home with our familes. It does require that we keep the day holy, that we do something to celebrate creation.