The Oldest Advent Hymn

Today’s Gospel from Luke is the song Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed “the oldest Advent hymn” – the Magnificat. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” Mary cries out, going on to express her confidence that God is at work in the midst of a world of struggle and pain. However bleak things might look, God has “remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.”

The Magnificat sings of a future of justice and peace brought about through the mercy of God. The Mary who sings this song, says Bonhoeffer, “is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

I’ve written more than once in recent weeks about hope. I have done so for the same reason we need to listen to the Magnificat: we need to hear over and over again the message that God is still at work, even in the midst of terrorism, poverty, war, suffering and heartache. In the midst of the things that tempt us to hopelessness, we affirm that changes can and will happen through the grace of God. This is the central message of Advent.

Hermitage Time

As important as my annual 8-day retreat is to me, I also find it helpful to find other opportunities to heed Jesus’ invitation to “Come away and rest awhile.”  The hermitages at Wellsprings Farm offer a wonderful opportunity to do just that.

I spent Friday late morning to yesterday late afternoon away from computer, work and conversation.  Prayer, reading, walks on the wooded “Sacred Path,” and labyrinth walks.  Quiet time with God.  It was wonderful.

In the foreground is the hermitage I stayed in – the Dome.  (In the background is what has been referred to as Hermitage #2, although I think it has been named House of Francis.)

There is little I love more than walking in the woods.  As much as I enjoy summer walks when the trees are full, I have always found a special beauty in trees this time of year.  

The labyrinth is unlike any I’ve ever seen.  The path is cut through a large grassy area, so that in some parts you see only the grass around you as you walk it.

A selfie in the early morning on Saturday, when it was still a bit chilly.  As I left the house on Friday, the first hat I saw was one Elena’s then babysitter knit for her when she was eight.  If I looked silly wearing it, there was no one there to tell me so.

I love the “CSR” model the owners of Wellsprings Farm have developed: “Similar to community supported agriculture (CSA), where individuals or organizations purchase a share of produce for a season, annual Community Supported Retreat (CSR) members receive a “share” of overnight stays at Wellsprings Farm.  Like the CSA, the CSR is a creative, local economic model rooted in reciprocity and connection.  In its best form, the Community Supported Retreat (CSR) model allows for more direct and meaningful relationship to the land and to one another.”

I am very grateful to my friend Richard, who told me about Wellsprings in time for me to purchase the last open membership for the year.  And I am looking forward to my next visit!

Wellsprings may be the only CRS model of hermitages, but there are other hermitages out there.  Even for those who can’t get away for a longer retreat, an occasional day of silence, contemplation and just being with God is a wonderful gift to give yourself.

God in the Rain

I awoke this morning to the sound of rain. It turns out the forecast is for rain all day today in the vicinity of the retreat house.

My first thought was one of disappointment that the retreatants would not be able to wander over to the Sacred Heart chapel (one of my favorite spots; I wrote about it here), sit out on the dock that juts into Lake Winnebago, walk on the nature trail, or pray the outdoors stations of the cross.

But then I began to settle into the cocoon of silence the rain enhances. The retreatants are already in the silence of not speaking (and I hope also refraining checking e-mails or surfing the net).

Somehow the rain seems to intensify the silence of my surroundings. As I sit here writing this, the only sounds I hear are the quiet movements of the chefs preparing breakfast (the staff here does a better job of respecting the silence of retreats than any other retreat house I’ve been to) and the rain falling against the window of my room.

I also remind myself that God always gives people on retreat exactly what they need. And that the retreatants can and will find God in the rain just as they would have found God at the lake, the trail, the chapel or the stations.

Please keep me and the retreatants in your prayers.

My Child….Love, Your Dad

One of the women who sees me for spiritual direction was recently away for a weekend retreat. One of the things she shared in our session this week was a prayer experience from the opening evening.

The retreat facilitator read to the retreatants something titled Father’s Love Letter: An Intimate Message from God to You. My directee gave me a copy of the handout which was distributed to them, where the text is in the form of a letter addressed to “My Child” and signed “Love, Your Dad…Almighty God.” The letter is a compilation of a number of paraphrased Bible verses (including from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament).

Reading the letter, I can understand why the woman who shared it with me was so powerfully moved by the experience of hearing God say

You may not know me, but I know everything about you…..In me you live and move and have your being, for you are my offspring. I knew you even before you were conceived. I chose you when I planned creation. You were not a mistake, for all your days are written in my book….It is my desire to lavish my love on you…If you seek me with all your heart, you will find me. Delight in me and I will give you the desires of your heart….Come home and I’ll throw the biggest party heaven has ever seen. I have always been Father and will always be Father. My question is: Will you be my child?

I was able to find a copy of the full letter online, which you can find here. The site has a written, video and audio version of the letter. It includes the various Bible verses from which the lines come.

I encourage you to listen to, rather than read, the letter. To hear God say those words to you. And revel in them.

Love Bade Me Welcome

Flipping through a book of poetry earlier today I came across a poem of George Herbert’s I have always loved.  In some collections is it titled simply Love.  It is a good reminder of God’s constant invitation.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

God Calls Moses

One of the early meditations in Week Two of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is the termed the Call of the King.  The meditation is presented in the form of a parable designed us to get in touch with Christ’s invitation that we labor with him to bring about God’s plan of the world.

God’s call is not a distinctively Christian phenomenon. God has been calling on humans to aid him in his plan for the world from the very beginning.  We hear one of those calls in today’s first Mass reading: God’s call to Moses.

God has heard the cry of his people languishing in slavery in Egypt. At the time Moses is off tending the flock of his father-in-law and as he comes to mount Horeb, he sees fire flaming out of a bush. And God says to Moses, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people….The cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have truly noted that the Egyptians are oppressing them. Come, now! I will send you to Pharoah to lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

As I read the passage, I was struck with the ordinariness with which God makes this request, as though he were asking something on the order of, “run down to the corner store and pick me up a quart of milk.”  No big deal, Moses, just go and lead my people out of Egypt.

Moses’ first reaction is about what you’d expect: Are you serious? How in the world am I supposed to do this? Who am I to go to Pharoah and lead the people to freedom? And what is God’s response: I will be with you.

The conversation goes on after this, as God tells Moses how things will proceed, but Moses still says, “If you please, Lord, send someone else.”

But God will not be thwarted. God doesn’t say, OK, I’ll go ask someone else. Rather God persists, and throughout their conversation, in response to each of Moses’ objections, God promises the gift Moses needs to carry out this task.

And God persists with each of us.  Calling us over and over again for us to take part in God’s plan for the world.

Will you answer the call?

Everything Points to God

I love the poetry of Hafiz.  Here is one for your reflection this morning (with thanks to Inward/Outward).  It is titled Everything Points to God.

Forget every idea of right and wrong

Any classroom ever taught you

Because an empty heart, a tormented mind,
Unkindness, jealousy and fear
Are always the testimony
You have been completely fooled!

Turn your back on those
Who would imprison your wondrous spirit
With deceit and lies.

Come, join the honest company
Of the King’s beggars—
Those gamblers, scoundrels and divine clowns
And those astonishing fair courtesans
Who need Divine Love every night.

Come, join the courageous
Who have no choice
But to bet their entire world
That indeed,
Indeed, God is Real.

I will lead you into the Circle
Of the Beloved’s cunning thieves,
Those playful royal rogues—
The ones you can trust for true guidance—
Who can aid you
In this Blessed Calamity of life.

Lover,
Look at the Perfect One
At the Circle’s Center:

He Spins and Whirls like a Golden Compass,
Beyond all that is Rational,

To show this dear world

That Everything,
Everything in Existence
Does point to God.

If we lose track of the reality that everything points to God, we miss one of, if not the, most fundamental point of all. Sacramentality, writ large.

While You Were Gone…

I was largely “off-grid” for the week of my retreat and am now catching up with the events of the world.  An awful lot happened in that one week!

Some of it was exciting: the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment gallops first to mind.  I’ll refrain from any specific comments until I’ve had a chance to read the entire document, but I know there will be much there that can and should affect our relationship with the world.

Some of the news was tragic: the shooting in the Charleston church.  That one broke through my silence – I heard it in the petitions at Mass the morning after it happened.  It remained in my prayers throughout that day.

Some of the news was a source of both sadness and relief: the resignation of the Archbishop of the Minneapolis-St. Paul diocese. I am saddened by so much that has to do with this entire story, but also relieved since I believe it signals the beginning of much needed healing in this diocese.

Through all the news, good and bad, I hear God’s voice: Trust in me.  I am with you always.  Good or bad, do not be afraid.

Contemplation on the Love of God

Last night was the final session of the monthly program Christine Luna Munger and I have been offering through St. Catherine’s University this year, Now What? Deepening Your Ignatian Retreat Experiences.  The program was aimed at people who have had some experience with the Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius through a weekend preached retreat, a retreat in daily living or some other format and designed to – as the title suggests – help them deepen the insights and experiences of those retreats.  Over the year, we’ve reflected on desire, individual and social sin, discernment and some of the core meditations of the Exercises.

Our topic last night was the Contemplation on the Love of God that ends the Spiritual Exercises. The Contemplatio provides what one author called “ in highly condensed form the very kernel of the Exercises,” a “kind of coherent synthesis with, simplified and in a concise form, may be used in daily life as an ideal containing various elements scattered here and there in a hundred and one particular truths.” One author called it not only a summary of the Spiritual Exercises, “but of perfection itself.”

The idea of the Contemplatio is that the culmination of all the divine actions is gift. The culmination of the divine actions lies in the love they draw from humans. Importantly, love cannot be forced. It is not that we can simply tell ourselves to love like God. (We’ve said this before: this is not just a question of will. “Tomorrow I will love like God all day long.” It doesn’t work that way.) Yes, we can work to overcome the challenges that make it hard for us to love like God. But the Contemplatio wants us to realize that love emerges spontaneously from consciousness – one realizes what God is doing to love him or her and that realization itself enables us to do what otherwise would be impossible – to be so caught up in God, to be so attracted and drawn by what God does, that we love. Love is not forced, it is evoked.

I was reminded as I spoke last night of something Archbishop Flynn said at the racism panel at Lourdes on Sunday.  When someone asked what steps one can take to remove racist attitudes, the Archbishop said that the key was more deeply internalizing God’s love for us.  If we truly understand to the depth of our hearts how much God loves us, we will more naturally love others – regardless of their race or other circumstances.  That is precisely what Ignatius is trying to help us understand in this meditation.

You can find an online version of the Contemplation on the Love of God here.

Being Outside

My dear friend Maria Scaperlanda captured beautifully in a blog post my the feelings that overwhelm me, particularly this time of year.  She writes

I simply can’t get enough of being outside.

Sometimes I am in awe at how much nature affects me, how deeply it blesses and renews my spirit. It’s not about just recognizing the beauty in creation—and the hand of the Creator, but about the peace and grace I find just being in it.

I know, I know. Nature can also be fierce, unpredictable, combustible, extreme.  Trust me. I know. I live in Oklahoma!

But no matter what I need, or what emotional state I’m in, or how much anxiety I’m fighting, or what feelings are bubbling from deep inside me, or how dry my prayer life seems… I look at clouds in the sky, or listen to the concert put on by the birds in my backyard, or feel the wind come sweeping down the plains and across my face—and I breathe deeper.

God is here. The Beloved is within me… and I can rest in the Beloved.

When the weather permits, I walk to and from the UST St. Paul campus to take the shuttle to the law school (which is is downtown Minneapolis), rather than have my husband drive me as he often does during inclement weather.  When I do it is my favorite time of the work day.  Especially now.  What new bud has popped open today?  What colors will I see?  What birdsong will I hear?  It is different every day and as I smile my way along the 20-25 minute walk, I breathe deeper.