The day dawned overcast and cold. Snow was expected within a few days and the family had gathered to celebrate the 90th birthday of our mother/grandmother/great-grandmother/sister/aunt. While all were there, a group of the men went outside to do some of the maintenance tasks that require more agility and strength — things like cleaning out gutters, washing windows, and so forth.
I watched from an upstairs bedroom, making beds and tidying up a bit. Some of the men were piling fallen leaves around the bases of the rose bushes in the back yard flower bed. A small child, a bit over 2 years old, was happily playing as the men worked. His father was keeping an eye on him while he worked.
Eventually the child noticed a stack of balanced rocks in the corner of the garden. He came closer to the rocks as I watched, fascinated with the way they were just standing there. I could tell he was going to knock them over by the way he approached and reached out towards them. I thought about opening the window quickly and calling out to him to stop, but I didn’t. I just watched. There would be no serious harm done if the rocks fell over.
Sure enough, the hand stretched out, the rocks were touched, and over they went. The child was a bit surprised. He hadn’t expected that to happen. But he wasn’t frightened or upset, just surprised. His father came over and squatted down beside him. Together they looked at the now fallen rocks and talked about what had happened. Then father picked up the first rock and laid it carefully on top of the larger stone that had been the base of the tower. The child reached to pick up the next one, and father helped him get it up and onto the first one. This continued until the entire stack of rocks had been rebuilt.
I’ve thought quite a bit about what I observed that morning. It could have ended so unhappily if father or anyone else had become upset about the results of the child’s curiosity. But everyone just took it in stride. A child had learned something about the world and gravity. He learned about putting uneven things together so that they stay balanced. And he learned that when he breaks something, he can help put it back together again. All very positive things to learn at a young age.
What did I see and learn?
I saw a beautiful example of how God observes our actions. Sometimes we reach out and touch things that will fall or break or should not be touched for another reason. Sometimes we do it deliberately. Sometimes accidentally. God does not interfere. God keeps watching as we learn what happens when we do that particular thing. God knows that we don’t always foresee the effects our actions will have. But God knows that we have to experience many things in order to learn.
I saw that when things have been broken and are put back together, they don’t always look the same. Sometimes they take a different shape or form. They are still beautiful, but in a different way.
I saw the wisdom of God in giving us family, friends, companions, and other people in this world. Like the father of my great-nephew, other people help us make things right again. They help us pick up the pieces of things that have fallen and maybe even been broken. Their acceptance allows us to learn without carrying a huge load of fear or shame around with us.
I saw a real-life example of reconciliation. Something was broken. Someone offered forgiveness. Together the broken was put back together for the enjoyment of the family community.
Putting the rocks back together in our lives
As we come to the end of our liturgical year and the beginning of a new one, it’s good to remember that our God watches us with great love, sending others to help us along the way. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest acts on behalf of God, offering forgiveness from both God and the community, and helping us find ways to heal and repair what we have broken. In the penitential rite at the beginning of each celebration of Eucharist (Mass), we also ask for and receive God’s forgiveness. We ask each other to pray for us and help us in becoming more loving followers of Our Lord.
May we, like the little child I watched, always be open to learning new things in this coming year, trusting that when we make mistakes, others will help us see what has happened and help us to put things in order again. May we be forgiving of the mistakes of others, and quick to admit our own, asking forgiveness in turn. Together, like the father and son I watched, we journey through life on our way to our Father who watches with a smile as we work together to put the stones back into a new and still lovely order.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Shakespeare wrote. We have a chance to contemplate what that means as we celebrate Jesus’ leave-taking, also known as The Ascension of the Lord. We certainly can relate at this time of year with so many goodbyes happening. Graduates are saying goodbye to the schools that have educated them as they look forward to new and exciting experiences in high school, college, graduate school, or a career. Parents are saying goodbye to the young people they’ve protected, supported, and guided at home, watching them start their own lives.
Each goodnight prayer and kiss is a promise to your children that your love stays with them through the night, just as God’s love stays with them through life. Goodnight and goodbye rituals are important for the development of spiritual strength and faith. They teach us that there is a connection between the loved and lover that doesn’t end when one is invisible to the other.
The words goodbye, adieu, and adios all mean “God be with you.” They are words of blessing that commit another person to the care of God. Jesus exemplifies this power of blessing when he greets his disciples in Galilee after the Resurrection. He assures them of his presence as he directs them to “go and make disciples of all nations.” His final words are clear and powerful: “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Matthew’s Gospel ends with these words.
“I am with you always.” This is what a child knows when parent kisses or signs her with a cross at night or when leaving for school. It’s what is understood by a friend’s hug, a blown kiss, or hands waving. One of our family rituals involves standing on the curb waving until the people leaving have disappeared around the corner, taking our blessings and presence with them.
The final blessing at Mass is the liturgy’s goodbye. The words empower us to go forth and make disciples of nations, to be God’s peace in the world, to serve and love one another. The words acknowledge that between the entrance and dismissal rites, God has been present to us in a wonderful and mysterious way, and we are now being commissioned to do what we gathered to do. Poised at the threshold of the church, we are ready to bring Christ into the world. Everything we have experienced at Mass – our gathering, listening to the Word, and coming to the Table – has prepared us for this moment of departure.
Let’s try to acknowledge the importance of those last moments of Mass by paying attention, listening to the words of the final blessing, and taking them into our hearts. Jesus’ promise to his disciples that he would be with them always is our promise too. Let’s receive that promise with gratitude and pass it on to others, letting each “goodbye” become a promise of our love and presence.
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the Christmas season. Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan signaled the formal beginning of His mission.
For today’s gospel scene we see the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in visible form. For the evangelist Luke, contrary to the three other evangelists, the baptism of Jesus is not important in itself, for he does not even describe it. He is more concerned with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus. And after this initial scene, Luke will be at pains to mention the Holy Spirit as often as possible in connection with the ministry of Jesus. Seventeen times in his gospel he will mention the Holy Spirit in connection with Jesus. This is Luke’s way of telling us that Jesus was inspired (inspirited) in all his actions, empowered with his heavenly Father’s energy, enabled always to act as a beloved Son fulfilling a beloved Father’s wishes. And so, it is not a mere coincidence that, with the appearance of the Holy Spirit in this baptism scene, the son-ship of Jesus is emphasized, “You are my beloved Son.” Essentially, Jesus is a Son in his innermost being. And the Holy Spirit is the burning fire of love which unites him to his heavenly Father. For him to receive the spirit is to experience his son-ship at a new depth. It is the Holy Spirit that leads Jesus to accomplish his mission and made the Father say, “with you I am well pleased.”
I remember two years ago, I was on a vacation back home in the Philippines. After celebrating Mass at my home parish, one of my friends from high school came up to me for a small chat. He grew up in a poor family but worked his way to success with sheer talent and perseverance. He is a self-made man. He heads four businesses today that are making good money. “There’s nothing more I can ask for, Father. God is good. He has given me everything that I need and more,” he shared with me. But after a short pause he added, “except that I never knew if my father was proud of what I have accomplished.” His relationship with his father has been strained since after college. After that conversation, it hit me. The human heart is not made for success. It is made for significance.
Success is a matter of doing. Significance is a matter of being. And since we are not human doings but human beings, it makes sense that our heart yearns for something more than just success. It yearns for significance — the significance of meaningful relationships, mission, and yes, affirmation. Success does not always lead to significance, but significance always leads to a deep sense of success. Like the voice from the heavens that affirmed Jesus in His baptism, every human heart longs to hear the words, “in you I am well pleased.”
Isn’t it a wonder that, according to studies, almost eighty percent of substance abusers are successful people, and almost fifty-five percent of these successful people end up committing suicide? Without meaning to pass judgment, could it be that significance was missing on top of their successes?
The Baptism of the Lord reminds us not only about Jesus’ mission, but our very own mission to make a difference, to be a significance in the lives of others by showing them what really matters in our Christian lives. So that like Jesus, the Father would say to all of us, “In you I am well pleased.”
Fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Scrovegni Chapel – 1303
A new year begins. A year that will be filled with grace freely offered, seeking only hearts open to receive it.
People dance in the streets, celebrating this outpouring of divine life into our daily reality. Enemies embrace. The fearful step out with undaunted courage. Young men and women move confidently into their unknown future and old ones see visions of great hope.
What if this were the reality of our transition into this new year? How could it come to be? Dare we ever hope for such a gift? It seems too good to be true, especially as we confront the turmoil and dangers of today’s world.
Yet this is the promise to which we are called. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah (Is 61:1), “I come to bring glad news, ….” He echoes Tobit’s instructions to his son Tobiah (Tob 4:16): “Share your bread, clothe the naked ….” He goes one step further even and tells us that this is the basis on which our faithfulness is to be evaluated. To the degree we do this to the least among us, we do it to him (Mt 25:40).
This is the reality, unseen though it may be, to which we are called. The great mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord has come to pass in our human history. They continue to be a living reality in our Eucharist and in our daily lives. Peter’s words to the crowds on that first Pentecost are a call to each of us. Open your eyes. God is doing something fantastic here. Yes, the empires remain. Yes, powerful people continue to bully and oppress the poor. Yes, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer and greater in number.
But do not lose hope! Grace has burst into our world. It flows into each of us and out into that world. So dance with joy. See the sun, the moon, the flowers, the smiles of children and old ones. Smile with the beggars and give thanks to the Lord for sharing his abundant life with us!
Then roll up your sleeves and move out into this wonderful world. Be the eyes and ears, the voice, hands, and feet of the risen Lord, the Word made flesh, God with us. And let’s get busy caring for our sisters and brothers who need a hand, our Earth, our communities, refugees at our borders, and our families. Let’s do it in joy, peace, cooperation, and hope.
Peace be with you, now and always.
Photo: “Plum Flower” by Dario Sabio – Public Domain Images
Archbishop Oscar Romero came from modest circumstances in a village in El Salvador. His family did have somewhat greater financial circumstances than most others, but they were still poor. He attended a school in the village which only went to the third grade and then was tutored at home. During those years he worked as a carpenter with his father who had taught him the trade. After he decided he wanted to be a priest, he went to the seminary from age thirteen on. At one point he left the seminary for three months when his mother became ill. While he was home, Oscar worked in a gold mine with his brothers.
After he was ordained, Fr. Oscar Romero worked in a village parish for 20 years. Eventually his superiors saw his talent with administration and his high level of pastoral care. Ordination to bishop followed and he was the Secretary-General for the Catholic Episcopal Secretariat of Central America. By the time he was appointed as Archbishop of San Salvador, he had had broad exposure to the repressive policies and actions of a number of national governments against the poor. But he remained traditional and conservative.
As Archbishop, Oscar was aware of the poverty and terrorizing of the poor by the military in his country. He was also aware that a number of the priests under him were organizing protests, teaching organizational skills to their parishioners, and some were advocating violence. For a number of years he advocated the unity and interior conversion of all as a way to remedy the injustices and bring forth mercy. Archbishop Romero was well loved by many families of the ruling class. He tried not to “rock the boat.” He was worried that would bring on more repression.
After a close priest friend, Rutilio Grande, was assassinated, Archbishop Romero stepped forward much more strongly. His homilies and weekly radio broadcasts then emphatically identified the marginalization and injustices and even ordered the perpetrators to put down their arms and refuse to take orders from their superiors. Romero visited and ate with both the rich and the poor. He baptized the babies of both social classes, often in the same groups, which infuriated the elite. He had very little support, including from church officials.
He was a loving and very pious man. He wrote in his diary that he examined his conscience every day and strove constantly to be a son of the Church. This was very difficult because many of the church hierarchy were of the wealthy class in power. They knew there was injustice and torture, but the official policy was tolerance. Active mercy was the last thing on their minds.
Archbishop Romero was suspected of being an extremist or at least of backing them. He was no such thing. In fact, he ordered the extremists, priests and laity, not to confront the governmental violence with violence. He further did not subscribe to the Latin American versions of Marxism, although he was accused of this. His entire focus was on the suffering of the poor and the peril of the souls of the perpetrators. On March 24, 1980, after attending a day of recollection for priests, Romero celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel. As he raised the consecrated Host, he was shot.
This was an unlikely man, called to something which was foreign to his background, personality, and his superiors. Romero did not go looking for controversy or seek to be famous. Rather, in his diary he wrote of his desire to follow Jesus and for holiness. He saw Jesus particularly in the faces of those suffering. His willingness to be available to God opened his heart to mercy.
“The Daily Examen is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.”
Prayer of the Examen is characteristic of Ignatian spirituality and is included in the Spiritual Exercises. Members of the Society of Jesus pray this prayer at least twice daily, at noon and at the end of the day.
Steps in praying the Examen include:
1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.
Disney Pixar and Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Development
Discerning God’s Will – God’s dream for us requires an in-depth knowledge of how people grow and develop. In particular, if we are going to understand ourselves, which is our first step in responding to God’s grace, we need to know where we are in our development. We also need to see what went right and what went wrong in our own growth and development.
James Fowler’s Stages of Faith Formation
Our faith also has stages of development based on our human development. Many adults can reject their faith because they don’t realize that their faith formation is still that of a small child. On the other hand, there are many people who are religious churchgoers that are still clinging to a childhood faith for a variety of reasons that are not healthy.
In God’s Presence, Conquering Addiction through Dance is the title of Elizabeth Delancy’s dissertation. It is a study of how black women have surmounted addiction by moving in God’s presence. Although, it is a little technical, it documents how this works. Resolving to do better is the key dynamic of reconciliation. It is the celebration of a brighter future. It is the combination of hope and optimism.
Hope conveys a certain practicality of steps that can be taken to move forward through crisis. Optimism is more expressive of a personality style. It expresses itself in positive emotions and actions. Hope and optimism are key foundations for our internal dialog, the messages we consciously hear and repeat within ourselves. Sacramentality in dance, movement, writing, gesturing, and conversing is fundamental to the reunion of friends, the healing of relationships, and our life in God.
Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.
One of the key challenges in even looking at our behavior and our relationships is not guilt, but shame. Our thoughts and feelings can run off the rails and we think, “I did something bad. That means that I am bad.” Guilt becomes confused with shame. That’s why shame is such a big part of addiction, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and bullying. According to Brene Brown, shame for women is, “Do it all. Do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat.” For men, shame is, “Do not be perceived of as weak.”
Shaming is something we see often with pets. When a dog misbehaves we are tempted to say, “Bad dog!” We don’t say,” You chewed my slipper. You did something wrong, but you are a good dog.” However, that can be very confusing and threatening for the dog. According to animal behavior specialists, it is much clearer if we say, “No chew!” when the dog is chewing a slipper. “Good dog” should be an ongoing message that is conveyed by the way we handle the dog.
Invalidating or shaming others is a fundamentally evil act, since it contravenes God’s view of us and all creation as fundamentally good. For someone to take on the view that they are bad is to identify with evil, to identify with non-being. Some people can reject the notion that they are bad but respond by defining the people who are shaming them as fundamentally bad. Through this fundamental rejection of a person, we make them something completely apart from us. They are the other. This unfortunate behavior in ourselves and other primates makes it possible for us to destroy members of our own species and even our own families. David Eagleman explains in an episode of The Brain how genocide occurs when we turn off our empathy.
Asking for God’s pardon is an acknowledgement that we have not lived up to what we actually are. Yes, we have done something wrong, and we feel bad about what we have done, but we know that we are loved and good because God sees all that he has made and says that it is good.
The important thing in this step is not to get overwhelmed. Pick one area that you would like to work on in consultation with your spiritual director and reflect on it over time – or not.
If I am honest and accountable, I will keep my word and commitments, accepting responsibility for my behavior without trying to justify it based on another’s behavior. It is, of course, appropriate to confront the other’s behavior and to own our feelings about that behavior. It is very different to say, “When I witnessed this behavior, I had this feeling,” than to say, “Your behavior caused me to feel this or caused me to behave in this manner.” Inappropriate behavior is inappropriate. If my boundary system and self-discipline are so poor that I rage, demean, call names, etc., it is my responsibility to protect you from me. My emotional reaction to you or to a situation does not lessen my responsibility to be appropriate. Blaming and whining are close relatives. It is manipulation if I try to affect the outcome by blaming others or by trying to evoke pity so that I am not held accountable and consequences disappear.
Mellody provides a good check list for personal integrity and healthy relationships. Very often it is easy to look at various “failings.” I was rude. I was impatient. I had too many doughnuts. Yet, what is it that gets in the way of my being the person God made me to be? What keeps me from being whole, happy, and healthy?
Most of the time we focus on our individual actions or failures to act. However, the question is really about the nature of my relationship with myself, others, and God. A few of us can behave “perfectly” in terms of our manners and speech. But what is in our hearts?
Sometimes we focus on the notion of sacrificing our self for others. After all, didn’t Jesus do that? Aren’t we supposed to do that? As the Divine Word Made Flesh, Jesus has his being in the healthiest of all relationships – pure relation. Jesus gives of himself by having compassion and empathy and serving others because of their own inherent dignity. He set limits and boundaries. Jesus took time for Himself. Jesus did not try to impress or control others. He was at peace within Himself and had close friends.
If we look carefully, we find that our unhappiness has to do with our relationships. Some types of dysfunctional relationships are called codependence. Mellody describes five symptoms of codepedence. They are signs of these unhealthy ways of relating to other people that keep us from realizing God’s Dream for Us. These types of dysfunction can be very minor in ourselves and our relationships. However, most of our problems in life are all about relationship.
Wait a minute! Shouldn’t I be examining my conscience keeping the Ten Commandments and the Laws of the Church? That’s the big difference between going through a checklist of failings and offenses and understanding how I hang onto sin and misery that are the causes of these “listed” sins. I can focus on bad acts or good things left undone. The only problem with that approach is that I am not working on a healthy relationship with God and people in my life.
If we don’t pay attention to the health of our relationship with God and with others, we can become bitter, resentful, holier-than-thou, or worse. We can become self-satisfied and cut ourselves off from love and happiness. This is what Hell is. In the fire of our pain and hurt which we keep receiving and inflicting, all kinds of problems and addictions are rooted. Tragically, we often do this to our children and perpetuate the cycle. How holy, and righteous am I if I observe all the details of the religious law outwardly but all of my relationships are suffering, and I am cold and alone in my self-satisfaction? I am rejecting Christ.
St. Ignatius talks about temptation in the “guise of good.” In other words, people who are living fairly good lives can be tempted to do things that look good. St. Ignatius always advised moderation and encouraged people to take a closer look at their motivations and the effect of their outcomes. It may look like we are doing something good for someone, but are we really? Dysfunctional behavior can be motivated by the best of conscious intentions, but something else can be at work.
Have an excessive and unhealthy tendency to rescue and take responsibility for other people.
Derive a sense of purpose and boost your self-esteem through extreme self-sacrifice to satisfy the needs of others.
Choose to enter and stay in lengthy high-cost caregiving and rescuing relationships, despite the costs to you or others.
Regularly try to engineer the change of troubled, addicted, or under-functioning people whose problems are far bigger than your abilities to fix them.
Seem to attract low-functioning people looking for someone to take care of them so they can avoid adult responsibility or consequences or attract people in perpetual crisis unwilling to change their lives.
Have a pattern of engaging in well-intentioned but ultimately unproductive, unhealthy helping behaviors, such as enabling. (This means helping people by making it easier or possible for them to engage in harmful behaviors such as helping an alcoholic get liquor.)
Being grateful and spreading the message is the 12th step of recovery. If we look at recovery from addiction in its many forms – drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or work – it seems like starting with gratitude is starting at the end and not the beginning. To the extent that the 12 steps are an ongoing process jumping on the recovery wheel at Step 12 not only represents a transformation but also occasions a deeper one. Gratitude connects us with God directly because we can see beyond the world of “want and need” to the riches around us and in our souls. You can’t be grateful without feeling good to some degree about yourself and your sobriety.
Gratitude is the acceptance and return of love’s expression as complete self-giving. Hip Hop is often a style of dancing that can be foreign and off-putting for older generations and yet it is the common world language of youth culture today. “Clean Love” speaks to the dynamic of Love / Gratitude and Gratitude / Love.
It is easy in some ways, to think of the Examen as something for people who already have things figured out. We can think that the Examen is for people without any problems. They always make good choices and it is merely a question of discerning a better choice. Once we have really entered the presence of God, there can only be gratitude. If there isn’t, there is something between us and God. Clearly, that is why the regular sequence of the 12 steps is necessary. For St. Ignatius Loyola, the key problem or sin is ingratitude toward God. “Godspell” the 70’s musical reflects a take on Love / Gratitude and Gratitude / Love that reflects a divine naivete and fearless authenticity.
Since gratitude is a positive socio-emotional-physical experience, it can heal those deep wounds and injuries from early in our lives that pain us into various methods of non-feeling expressed in addiction. It is important to be grateful for ourselves and our talents. Having appropriate self-esteem is to acknowledge that God gave us certain gifts and talents. This is acknowledging the truth and it can help us to affirm other people in their gifts and talents.
Our thankfulness can take many forms, but it is rooted in God’s love for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and what that means for us. From the earliest times we enter the divine presence in song and dance.
Let them praise His name with dancing and make music to Him with tambourine and harp. For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; – Psalm 149: 3-4
Responding fully to God’s grace is far from intellectual. It requires a joyful choreography of mind, body, and spirit. What is it like to be fully alive, to be an integrated human being, to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord? These young dancers give us a glimpse of what this feels and looks like. We see the person fully alive. A little too “young” for you? Remember, just sitting in your chair and moving with music evokes all of those wonderful physical and emotional movement of the dancers in your own body and soul. This is the basis of culture, society, and dance therapy.
Okay. So how about something more traditional?
Entering God’s presence is not a “head trip.” It is a leap into the profoundly unknown and unknowable. Come, enter the dance!
What a delight it was to chat with you by phone a few minutes ago. I’m very proud of you both and your dear family.”
Armand Nigro, S.J.
Society of Jesus, Northwest Province
January 14, 2008
Theologika is a refreshing stream of faith-full and faithful reflection and renewal.
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There's so much more to say, but I would rather let the silence speak more what can't be spoken. Suffice it to say that for you both, I am grateful.
Two By Two Ministries
January 3, 2009
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