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Posted by on Jul 3, 2012

The Seventh Gift: Awe and Wonder (Fear of the Lord)

The Seventh Gift: Awe and Wonder (Fear of the Lord)

Baby Galaxies in the Night Sky

When I stare at the night sky, especially if I am out in the country, I get almost overwhelmed at the immensity of the universe.  I am in awe of the beauty of the stars and then amazed at a God who can create and manage such an enormous and complex reality and yet be with me personally.  One billion galaxies!  Possibly two billion.

Even if a person does not believe in God as the reality defined in traditional religious terms, the beauty of the night sky, the roar of water down a canyon, the amazing chatter of birds and animals can take the breath away — almost bring one to tears.

The gift of AWE AND WONDER helps us to know and to feel that God is the fulfillment of everything we desire.  That there exists  perfect love — perfect knowledge, goodness, power, action, discretion, justice, healing.  With this gift we perceive the mystery that God is.  We realize that there is an aspect of the Sacred, the transcendent, that we cannot know on this side of death, but that we get glimpses of such majesty and glory.  We see that God can know, interact with, and sustain billions of people.   It’s amazing.  You either believe it or you don’t.  If you believe in such a possibility then it is mind blowing.  My particularities matter.  I am fully known.  Nothing is impossible.

In 1974 When Annie Dillard published Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, it made two inaccessible worlds available to an entirely new audience.  The first world was the natural world known in a scientific way.  All of a sudden cells and their biochemistry, ecosystems, the interdependence of species, and the rhythms of nature were explained in lay terms and could be understood and celebrated.  Secondly, this joy and excitement was not just intellectual but also solidly spiritual.  There was no separation of the secular from the sacred.  The world was whole and we felt whole in it.  How nice!  My body and the whole physical realm was God’s love and creativity writ big in the awesome processes of life in mitochondria,  chloroplasts, T cells, blood, genes, the periodic table, and atomic particles.

Dillard took all the lovely words, images and sounds of a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkinsand showed us the genius of God, down to the most minute details.  Hopkins’ dramatic words: grandeur, greatness, ooze, dearest freshness, dappled, brinded, original, spare, and strange now showed the grandeur of God as Dillard explained the incredible scientific reality of ooze and freshness, dappled and brinded.  She also opened up very wide the whole subject of suffering and death and gave the reader a new perspective on the meaning and purposes of both.  As a spiritually anemic graduate student, I soaked up the theology of Dillard’s book and saw for the first time the consistency of God in the natural and supernatural realms.  How could God have a cycle of growth, disintegration and integration in the natural realm and not have one in the spiritual realm?  What was all that talk of planting, pruning, cultivating and harvesting in the Bible all about if God was not also doing it in society and in my soul? And was God a genius in nature and then mindless and distant in the spiritual world?  No, we can and do find God in the wonder of the universe and in the many parallel things we know in our lives.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaks of awe when she says, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees takes off his shoes.”  Having Awe and Wonder is not automatic.  It is a gift.  We can be so over-indulged or over-stimulated that we miss beauty or grandeur.  Last Sunday morning I saw a small fox trot by a glass door of a building where I was in a meeting.  It was very close.  The sun was shining through its translucent tail all colorful and fluffy.  What a pointy nose and whiskers!  Wonderful round dark  eyes.  Such a lovely animal.  So light on its feet.  I couldn’t dismiss it.  It made my day.  God is near.

 

Red Fox

The fox looked back at us as he or she trotted on.  I wanted to go with it as it ran into the woods.  In Psalm 139 it says that we are wonderfully made.  Yes, we are.  Sometimes squirrely and difficult;  other times sleek and dolphin-like.  But we are all wonderfully made, “The work of his hands.”   And, awe, wonder and gratitude are our best response.  Hopefully we can at times “Take off our shoes” at the thought of all this splendor.  Maybe we can shake off the darkness of this world a little as we drink in “all this juice and all this joy”!

 

Image of the fox from wpclipart.com – public domain.
Image of Baby Galaxies from NASA – public domain.

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Posted by on Jun 9, 2012

The Feast of Corpus Christi: Celebrating the Mystery of Divinity Transforming Humanity

The Feast of Corpus Christi: Celebrating the Mystery of Divinity Transforming Humanity

 

Corpus Christi Procession

Known as the solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ and celebrated on the Sunday following Trinity Sunday, the Feast of Corpus Christi has been officially celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church since the mid-thirteenth century. The feast is the result of a series of visions of St. Juliana of Liege, a Belgian canoness regular (a member of an Augustinian order) and a mystic. The visions occurred over a period of more than 20years before she began to understand their meaning. In the vision, she saw a full moon with a dark spot in it. Eventually she came to believe that the dark spot represented the lack of a solemn feast dedicated specifically and exclusively to the Body and Blood of Christ. Working with her confessor and a group of theologians and Dominicans living and working in Liege, she arranged for the feast to be instituted as a local feast of the diocese of Liege in 1246. She and her confessor, Canon John of Lausanne, composed the first music and prayers for the feast. Later, Pope Urban IV commissioned the composition of an office (a ritual of music and prayers)  for the feast by St. Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas’ hymn, Pange Lingua, composed for this feast, expresses the idea of transubstantiation— the doctrine that the substance of the bread and wine offered in the Mass are transformed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ without changing in outer appearance.

The Church’s belief in the Eucharistic transformation of bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood dates to the earliest days of the Christian community. Christians have always gathered to celebrate The Lord’s Supper. The disciples on the road to Emmaus described recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Understanding of the implications of this great gift, however, has developed and deepened over the centuries.

Like many of the mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the mystery of the Eucharist defies easy explanation. That’s part of the nature of mystery: part of the wonder and awe we experience in the face of the great love God has poured out into all of creation and each of us through the life of Jesus and the gifts of their Holy Spirit. As St. Augustine explained it in his Confessions, Christ says to us, “You will not change me into you, but you will be changed into me.”  In the Eucharist, the divine takes over and transforms the profane — the everyday reality we experience. We see and experience no obvious change, yet when we eat the bread and drink the wine that have been transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, we are ourselves transformed into his mystical Body and Blood. Our bodies don’t absorb his; rather his transforms ours and we are strengthened and pulled into his mission of transforming our world into God’s Kingdom.

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Posted by on Jun 6, 2012

The Sixth Gift: Reverence

Reverence is rare in American society yet we love to see it.  We are enthralled by dignity in great people.  We appreciate graciousness and care, attention to detail, kindness to the helpless.  We love to gaze on a photo by Ansel Adams of a ray of sunlight coming down on fern beneath redwood trees and ache to be in that very quiet, quiet place.  Many of us love the scent of incense, the intonation of chant, and bowing before the Blessed Sacrament.  All of us, even non-believers feel humbled by special churches or temples.  If I spy a butterfly up close or gaze on a sleeping baby, I feel taken aback by these, I feel reverence.

Reverence is an attitude and feeling of being in the presence of something bigger and more important than we are.  It is not a feeling of unimportance but rather of an encounter with something one admires and wants to honor and respect.  In order to feel reverence for someone or something, I have to have realized that this reality is special and unique.

St. Ignatius of Loyola speaks of reverence a number of times in relation to God.  He links reverence to honor or service.  He is not referring to the idea that one should honor or serve God as a duty.  Rather he is stating that one wants to honor and serve because God is so amazing and humble with respect to us that we cannot but want to reverence Him.  Teresa of Avila refers to Jesus as the Divine Majesty who desires only one thing — that of humble closeness to us.  Julian of Norwich speaks of Jesus who is so courteous with us that He will not force any aspect of himself on us.

Reverence requires that I am able to be grateful and humble.  All of these are gifts.  It is only by the grace of God that we are not blind and obtuse all the time with respect to what God has done and is doing for us. Reverence implies that I have deference for God, that I acknowledge the majesty and superiority of God and feel deeply thankful for God’s attention to me.

This kind of admiration and gratitude is not automatic.  Our daily lives and problems are so all-encompassing and often overwhelming that we feel little relief.  God does not seem involved.  Where is He?  We have a difficult time finding God in the discomfort.  I often resent the fact that God could eliminate my problems in the wink of an eye if he wanted to.  He could do that.  So why doesn’t God construct a world in which there is no pain and suffering?  He allows the struggle to go on because he envisions a far better outcome for us than we can imagine.  He allows all the challenges to purify us because he is the best possible parent.  He lets us make choices and learn from them.  He lets us live in a world that presents growth possibilities — controversies, complications, tragedies, opportunities.  He loves us enough to risk our hating him.

When I realized that God was calling me, dragging me, carrying me, and letting me be beaten by the most awful forces so that I could be stronger and surer, I began to admire him.  When I watched Jesus in the Gospels be ridiculed, baited, criticized, and threatened, I really grew in respect for what an awesome and holy opponent he was.  Jesus was smart, humble, strategic, direct, disarming, and kind.  What a special person just on the human level! I feel the desire to bow before him any time.

Reverence also extends to  how we feel about other human beings.  This is much harder for us because we have encountered so many who are arrogant and ignorant, childish and irrational.  But, God sees a spark of himself in each one.  We also cannot imagine ourselves being anything less than perfect.   It is so easy to perceive the insensitivities of everyone else.  We do in fact feel the abrasiveness of being in relationships.  People are very hard on each other — demanding.  Real love though is not about enjoying only the pretty parts of people.  Real love is reverent.  It hopes in my potential and that of others.  Real love is not arrogant or overbearing.  God calls us to love each other as we want to be loved.  This is a very hard thing to do.  It means that I wish for the other the joys  and respect that I want for myself.  It also means that I am not superior.

In the past twenty years we have also begun to appreciate the importance of the natural world and our dependence on it.  We no longer take for granted our environment.  We see the beauty and complexity of every scientific process within our bodies and every element of the universe.  While not wanting to cling to physicality in a literal way, we do want to reverence it.  The entire process of living, developing and getting nurturance is an amazing interplay of resources, influences, choices, and challenges.  Our bodies, the solar system, atomic particles, and plants and animals are all amazing.  Learning about these realities should help us to appreciate them and to reverence them — from wanting clean water to finding a cure for malaria.

This humility before God, each other and the universe is reverence and it is a gift.

Two saints to read about in regard to this gift if you have not already done so are St. Peter Claver, S.J. and St. Solanus Casey, O.F.M. Cap.

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Posted by on May 11, 2012

Blessed Julian of Norwich Feast Day — “All is Well”

Blessed Julian of Norwich Feast Day — “All is Well”

 

Julian of Norwich - Stained Glass Window from Church

 

May 13 is the unofficial Feast Day of Julian of Norwich, the English mystic and saint of the Middle Ages.  We cannot be sure of her birth and dates but she lived approximately from 1342-1416.  Her lifespan and location were situated in times of great distress in England.  Three waves of the Black Death had swept over England and Norwich was particularly hard hit as it was a commercial center, especially of the wool-textile trade with the Netherlands, which brought with it the bacteria from the Continent.  Julian was an anchoress at the church of St. Julian.  We have a historical record of people visiting her for advice and prayers.  We do not know why she was not canonized by the Catholic Church.  One reason is likely that she left behind relatively few writings.  Another is likely because her writings contained teachings that would have been considered controversial by some scholars.  Teachings about Christ as mother and that God sees our sins as a way for us to learn about ourselves would have offended or worried many clerics of her day.

In 1373 we read that Julian had 16 visions in which she was saw and heard revelations related to God, creation, evil, sin,  salvation, and the human person. She recorded these revelations at the time and then some 20 years later produced a longer version, called the Long Text, in which she integrated the many thoughts communicated to her by Christ about the meaning of the 16 visions and locutions.

Julian is optimistic in a time of when people questioned the goodness of life and how God regarded them.  She recorded that Christ said to her that “All will be well and all is well.” She explains how all can and will be well. Julian also recounts wonderfully warm images of us and Christ who holds us tenderly and celebrates us as his “crown.”

Another reason to celebrate this great saint is that she is believed to be the first woman to write a book in the English language.  She is also a pioneer, with Chaucer, in creating literature in Middle English.  After many years of Norman control of England, the French and their language were driven out.  The English language had degenerated into a language of the lower classes with a very poor vocabulary.  Julian is responsible for creating many new and very useful words to articulate her scholarly theological presentations and to give colorful descriptions of what she saw in the visions.

Julian’s texts, which she referred to as the “shewings” (Showings in contemporary libraries), are very inspiring and provide satisfying answers to many questions which Christians have.

Image of Stained Glass Window borrowed from Satucket Lectionary entry for the Feast of Julian of Norwich

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Posted by on Apr 20, 2012

How Can God Heal Abuse and Trauma?

How Can God Heal Abuse and Trauma?

A door can still open ...

As we reflect on the Resurrection of Christ we cannot help but wonder how it changed anything.  Christians believe that the triumph of life over death and light over darkness was more than just an isolated event in history.  The Resurrection is understood as a cosmic event in which the entire space-time reality was shot through with God’s presence. The world remained a mix of “wheat and weeds,” but after the Resurrection the indwelling Spirit of God works within that reality to bring about unprecedented healing, growth and holiness.

Abuse and trauma are never acceptable.  I experienced abuse for many years — verbal, physical and sexual.  It hurts and bends the person.  The damage is deep and reaches into all  the dimensions of one’s life.  Psycho-therapeutic experiences are normally necessary for someone to heal from the pain, anger and fear that come from abuse.  Telling the stories of abuse are a key part of healing. Practicing to work with life in new ways in order to avoid negative patterns is also helpful.  Using affirmations to counter self-hatred is important.  Setting boundaries and being firm about values helps the person to feel less vulnerable.

But there is a point when talking it out and new ways of living and communicating fall short of healing.  There is a well of pain that often does not go away.  Underneath all the hard work there is still a raw person who does not feel safe.  It is very hard to trust anyone.

I learned to not-trust any adults.  I also learned not to trust myself because I could not overcome my fear in order to fight back. I learned to criticize everything I thought, said and did.  I betrayed myself over and over out of fear.  What to do?  I knew there was a God out there but was not sure He would be interested in me.  This is a normal reaction from someone who has been regarded as unimportant and worthy of abuse.

If the traumatized person can pray at all, a door can open to safety that starts as the tiniest crack.  Within the mix of inner voices and emotions there is one voice which reaches into the sticky pain and feels or sounds safe.  The traumatized person is uniquely blessed to be able to discern the difference between his own inner voices and the voice of God.  This is because the abused person called out to herself over and over during the horrible times and discovered that at the time she had no power over the abuser.  The personal thoughts and voice of the abused one were complicit with the abuser. The abused person also knows the voice of the culture and the Devil because both of them bring inner chaos, depression and self-abuse.

If such a person can pray, even pray to be able to pray, there will begin the tiniest feeling of longing for love.  This is a miracle, because traumatized people usually do not want to feel anything.  Seeking love and finding authentic love from others and God can heal wounds.   It is a long process, but with the support of a therapist and a spiritual director the person traumatized by abuse can take a chance on attachment.  Abused persons on Ignatian retreats or practicing Ignatian contemplation have experienced amazing experiences of God loving them.  The voice of God within them is telling them that they are his beloved, that they are special.  People who have been abused often do not want to hear that voice because it will open up a floodgate of sadness.  But, after the crying, the voice does not disappear.  They are not talking to themselves.

Contemplative prayer experiences are real.  When Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you,” he meant it.  Taking a chance on God doing something with the pain is worthwhile.  There are forms of injury only he can heal.

 Image by Paolo Neo, public domain

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Posted by on Apr 9, 2012

What is Holiness? Is it Wholeness?

People often think that being whole or holy involves being perfect in some way.  “Perfect” of course is defined in a million ways, but we can construct a picture and list of qualities that might encompass what we assume is the saintly person.  So, we would expect to see on this list:  seldom angry, patient, kind, generous, courageous, truthful, trusting, reverent, hopeful, zealous, loving, etc.  In her final year of life, as she was suffering from tuberculosis, Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote in her diary: ” Never leave a knife near a terminally ill person.”   She was a realistic and honest person.  She was not perfect in many ways, but she was a whole and holy person.  Saint Padre Pio yelled at people frequently and then was very gentle and kind with others.  Saint Ignatius of Loyola had a temper, but normally used it after a process of discernment.  Teresa of Avila talked back to Christ and questioned him often.

Behaving in perfect ways and trying to feel only nice feelings is a complete distraction from the real task of life.  Holiness, or even wholeness in the most secular terms, is very simple.  It is the ability to listen in a productive way.  There are a welter of voices within and around us.  The culture, our egos, our pasts, other people, God and evil, however you understand it, are all part of the mix of voices in our lives.  Within ourselves we have many levels that all have a voice.  We have the imprint of our parents within our memories: ” Stand up straight.”  “Eat everything on your plate.”  “Susan is bright.”  “You’ll never grow up.”  We have a frightened voice: “You can’t do that,” or a confident voice: “That’s easy.”  There are the lists inside: “First, go to the Doctor’s; then go to the Drugstore; then get gas; then get the kids; etc.”  And, there is the emotional and spiritual report: “I’m uncomfortable.” ” I’m aware that I am procrastinating.”  “I really want to quit repeating this pattern.”  A friend many years ago told me that we had to get married by the time we were 25 years old because after that we would be “all washed up.”  I believed her and sped around trying to meet more men!  It caused me to join a lot of organizations and waste a number of Sunday afternoons listening to types of Jazz I did not like, hiking in places I did enjoy, not to mention the unusual experiences I had attending psychological “encounter” groups.

These days it is very un-PC to say this, but I believe in personal evil and prefer to use the Ignatian term for this entity: “The enemy of our human nature.”  When someone is not in a state of negative thinking and has every reason either not to feel bad or to feel happy and a random and destructive thought or feeling enters his or her consciousness and destroys his or her peace, the classic response from the Christian tradition is to interpret this as coming from the Enemy. We may be hearing, remembering or seeing something psychological, but the intrusion is not just random.  We are not always just talking to ourselves.  God is constantly communicating and so are the enemy and the other voices as well.  It’s subtle and not superstition.  Why is this complex communication happening?  What are we supposed to do with this?  What has this got to do with holiness and wholeness?

This life on the Planet is a exercise in growth.  In the process of life we make choices and determine what we value.  We  are determined by certain factors but we also determine some of the conditions of our lives.  The process of becoming holy, the process by which the world gets a St. Francis or a Mother Teresa, is a process in which those people work over and over at hearing the better voices inside.  When a voice said: “Compassion feels better than money,” these people felt drawn to that voice.  When an inner voice said: ” Status is nauseating, phony,” these people felt its authenticity and took a chance on goodness.  When a voice says: “eat right, drink less, watch less television” or “read this book,” holy people obey the voice if it carries a feeling of peace or rightness with it.  Sorting out the voices, listening to the voice of God or one’s true self and then obeying these best voices is what makes people holy and truly whole.  Listening and obeying are not easy.  It takes a commitment to my best interests.  It is in my best interest not to play games.  I can spend the rest of my life procrastinating regarding the things I need to do to be happy.  I can also stay in a perpetual program to be defensive or angry, to punish people that have hurt me, or to prove that I am fine just the way I am.

At some point I may progress beyond that and also see how awesome God is.  The reality we call God is immense in His/Her intellect and in love.  Many modern people cannot stand entertaining the concept of God.  It is so uncool to admit the possibility of such a reality in many circles today.  But, if God exists and I know God does, this reality can get me to an authentic life.  I could end up happy and fully realize who I am.  Taking time and quiet to listen and note the voices within is a decision.  Admitting that I prefer a sleazy voice is okay.  I want any excuse not to be a grown up.  If a voice says that I should not eat something, say something, or go somewhere or that I should go to bed at a certain time, By God, I want to ask that voice: “who do you think you are…..?”

The path to holiness, exceptional living, being special in the best sense is a surrender to the wisest voice inside.  It has taken me many years to accept this fully.  This is far harder than parading around trying to be perfect.  The authentic voice within might ask you to be better than you think you are; the author may believe in you more than you do.

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Posted by on Apr 2, 2012

Providence/Grace and Free Will

We live in a world where we often feel pressured to prove that God exists and then we can be at a loss in explaining where God is.  Out in the world of work, everyone is supposed to pretend that they are very objective and scientific.  But, as we have said, empirical data is only one modality of space-time reality.  Experience is a valid category by which we learn and make decisions.  Following my gut feeling about how to approach a worry or a situation with a person can be very useful.  Trying things like prayer and finding out that something new, unexpected and helpful outside my usual “bag of tricks” is happening, can send me down a good path towards surrender to the ways of God.   No one can define exactly how this universe is set up in terms of cause and effect.  No one philosophy or great intellect can tell us definitively a way to control outcomes.  I can be as intelligent, mature, ethical and unselfish as possible and that will not guarantee certain results.

Why is that?  From the secular point of view, we come into our lives with many predetermined factors.  Our physical lives, ethnicity, time in history, birth order, family system, religion, and socio-economic situation dictate a great deal of how we will develop.  There will also be many influences along the way.  The choices parents make, teachers we have, opportunities, illnesses, choices we make, etc. will be part of the mix of who we become.  But, from the spiritual point of view, there are other factors that intervene and open up possibilities.  If one has the perspective of faith, one will see the action of God in his life in varying ways.

Why in “varying ways?”  Therese of Lisieux said that “Everything is a grace.”  Ignatius of Loyola said that we can and should “Find God in all things.”  Everyone will observe and interpret the action of God in the external world and the motions of God within ourselves in different ways.  Many people will be very conservative in believing that God is active at all in their lives.  Others will see God and God’s care in many events big and small throughout the day or week.  The most challenging context in which to affirm the presence of God will be in the experience of suffering.  It can be challenging to see God or any value in any experience of pain or difficulty.   Hurt, inconvenience, failure, addiction, and loss can all seem pointless and to be avoided.

How can suffering be okay or how can God allow it?  How could failure be a grace?  Why aren’t resources that I discover just something I did on my part?  And, further, why see God in my circumstances at all?  If my sister dies at a young age, how can that be okay?  If I spill breakfast cereal on my pants, how can that be a good thing?  Didn’t I figure out which graduate school to go to on my own?  Does God do my tax return?  Isn’t it important to take control of my life?  These questions are at the heart of the daily grind of our lives.  If God is here, what is he doing and why or how is this mess of a world okay?

The theology or meaning of Christ on the cross is at the center of this question.  What Christians believe is really strange but poses a answer that confounds all other interpretations of reality.  How can surrender in obedience and helplessness to a divine Father who loves him, be the apex of salvation — THE solution to the problem of evil and suffering?!  Look at the other solutions.   First, if we believe in God, that is a reality which encompasses and surpasses the immensity of the universe by definition.  So, scientific laws are included within the reality of God who is intelligent and complex beyond anything we can understand.  Second, things we think are bad because they feel painful may not be bad in an objective sense.  If my overall desire is to realize my potential fully, I may not even see what that is.  If I have desires to be happy in a certain way, I may not know  how to get there.  I may not see what is in the way.

With faith, one believes in a Sacred Reality that is close but also beyond my limitations.  I believe that this Reality is loving and personal.   At some point I may take a chance on this God and let him guide me.  My life may take me through suffering.  It may be at the hands of crude, misguided people.  I may get beaten up one way or the other.  I may make bad choices too.  With guidance I could learn to discern better decisions.  From the hurt of the past I can gain several things.  I may see that I am compassionate because I know what hurt is.  I may be an exquisitely good at setting limits and yet being generous.  I may know how to express myself clearly because I have had to protect myself.  I may see through the games of others. The suffering was in no way a waste or distraction — it was all good.

This learning, maturity, holiness is not something I can insert into myself.  It is part of a great mystery.  Something greater has made itself available to me.  The key resources are beyond the components of daily life.  I can go to yoga, the chiropractor, analysis, the health food store, school, have a great job and body, and be rich, and still not be on my true path.    If one is a person of religious faith, the only way to real happiness is surrender to God.  It is that blunt and simple.  This is so totally uncool that saying it is like marketing cat poop.   Okay, so we could say “Higher Power” and it might sound less “Churchy.”  The bottom line is that dependence on any authority figure is totally  unacceptable.  We are supposed to grow into greater and greater independence.  God is a weird old guy wearing white gowns who is out of touch and judges people.  So, that’s for later — when we die.  Admitting that I have a relationship with God, experience his presence on a daily basis and make decisions in relation to the inner motions of the heart is unusual for most people.

Yet somehow, a sizable segment of the Catholic/Christian population does have this experience.  They are middle of the road believers who know that they are being guided by God and still have their free will intact.  They surrender their inclination to demand that God explain it all.  They trust the mystery of how providence and freedom work, but they know the balance is real.  They base this trust on experience.  The care and challenge they feel from this divine reality is consistent, rational, reliable, helpful to them, and beyond their own abilities.  They would have abandoned their faith in God a long time ago if the results had been destructive.    They know when they “bump” into someone they need to see, that it is a gift.  They realize that the thought to travel down a certain road helped them avoid a pileup on the freeway.  When they lose a job they eventually see that it moved them out of a situation which was undermining their health.

Mystery, yes.  Surrender, yes.

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Posted by on Mar 24, 2012

Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Martyr in Our Own Time – One of Too Many

Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Martyr in Our Own Time – One of Too Many

March 24 is the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador in 1980. Archbishop Romero for most of his life was a pious, retiring, conservative priest and bishop. Nevertheless, he proved to be a man who could grow in response to the injustice of the social structure of his country, a structure that treated peasants and other poor people as less than human. When his friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande, S.J. was assassinated shortly after Romero had become archbishop, he came to see more clearly the systemic nature of the oppression and to speak on behalf of the voiceless poor. As he said, “A Church that does not unite itself to the poor … is not truly the Church of Jesus Christ.”

Romero’s words and actions on behalf of the poor were not welcomed by many of his friends and colleagues, let alone by the rich and powerful of his nation. In the face of threats against his life, he declared, “If God accepts the sacrifice of  my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty. … A bishop will die, but the church of God — the people — will never die.” Ultimately, a day after his plea to the military, “I  beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression,” he was shot as he celebrated Mass.

A young Salvadoran agronomist was living with us at the time. She had been working in the countryside and had had the audacity to believe that peasants were human too. After one of her co-workers had been taken away by the death squads, her parents sent her to the United States, ostensibly to study English, but actually to save her life. When she heard the news of Archbishop Romero’s death, she was astounded and appalled. “If they would do that to the Archbishop, then none of us is safe!”

Blessedly, the civil war in El Salvador came to an end, and the death squads stopped spreading terror. Our friend was able to return home safely and resume her life. However, the oppression of the poor in countries around the world has not ended. The assassinations of Christians who work on behalf of the poor continue. Persecution of believers, not just in Islamic countries, but also in Latin America, Africa, and Asia continues. Real persecution. Not a difference of opinion about social policy and how to implement it. Persecution in which churches are bombed and people are killed. Those doing the “dirty work” are not only religious fanatics, they are representatives of business interests who would prefer not to have to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. Some are drug traffickers who will brook no opposition to their trade. Others are members of religious groups, including Christians, who are convinced theirs is the only true faith — others have no right to their own beliefs or lives.

As Christians, we are called to stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Witnesses such as Archbishop Romero speak to us from the past. Yet the violence continues today. Will we open our eyes and ears to notice it? What will we do to support those against whom it is directed?

For more information on persecution of religious believers in our times, please see this workshop by John Allen, Jr. at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress (2012).

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Posted by on Mar 18, 2012

Asceticism and Mysticism: The Two are Linked

The point of all efforts to change and grow is happiness. Happiness  involves becoming more and more conscious of who we are, what we want and need, and how to get these.   A lot of life is spent exploring all of this. We enjoy ourselves and suffer in the journey to try things out, learn new skills, problem solve, experiment.  We also react to phenomena,and defend and harm ourselves and others at times.  In the midst of this we learn to distinguish between gains and satisfactions that are short term vs. long term and things that may feel good and are helpful and things that feel good and are toxic.  I may love ice cream but if I eat a  lot of it I may trade away my joy because it can make me sick.

Identifying how I feel when I do things is important.  If I feel peaceful when I make a decision, the decision is probably going to be beneficial.  If I feel uncomfortable when I make a decision but decide to do the activity or acquire the commodity anyway, the end will probably be harmful for me.  If I do something out of fear it probably will ultimately harm me – i.e. marrying someone so I will not be alone is  not a good reason to marry someone.   Taking a job one loaths because the money is needed is something one should only do as a last resort.  It would be wise to ransack one’s soul, talk to every friend, pray and brainstorm about any weird angle on jobs before just settling for a terrible job.  It is often the case that our lives are forcing us to look at possibilities that up to this point we have had a closed mind about.  These interior markers are very reliable if one learns the art of discernment and is also given the grace of discernment.  The famous historian of religion, Joseph Campbell, was asked by Bill Moyers if he had a sense that he was guided when he made decisions.  Campbell replied that he felt the helping hands of many beings when he had the courage to do what he knew was right.

So, making a commitment to live an honest, non-addictive life – a life in which I can be my true self – requires the skills to discern the right path for me.  That kind of life is surrendered to the truth.  It is a life that is not grasping, fearful or egotistical.  It can be a life that is loving, just, courageous.  This is not an easy thing.  From the Catholic point of view, it is impossible unless one is empowered by a love that keeps one from despair.  The more one seeks love and justice, the more one also sees insensitivity and selfishness. We also become acutely aware of our own entanglement in fear, loneliness, pain, anger and disappointment.  We want to feel safe but we want to be creative and compassionate.  How to do that?

If people are connected to a reality that is larger than themselves – a community or a transcendent being – that person can go beyond his/her fears and trust.  The ability to do this has to be rooted in experience.  Faith/trust in life cannot be totally blind.  It has to be based on an encounter with goodness/love.  In the Catholic context people have experiences all the time of peace, the presence of the Sacred, being blessed and guided.  No one can prove the existence of God.  Experts of all stripes can reduce religious belief to a projection of one’s neurons or psychology.  The scientific method can be paraded out and empiricism presented as the only acceptable measure of whether the spiritual is real.  In the end all of those super respectable criteria are a chimera.  We don’t have to accept the idea that our reality fits itself into an instrument of measurement that we have created if the reality we want to define is greater than the instrument – i.e. if God is infinite yet personal, that Sacred Reality is well beyond the physics of our situation as we know it.

In the normal committed spiritual life people educate themselves and have important insights and growth.  But, within the context of meditation and a reflected upon life people also have periodic religious experiences.  These experiences sustain and guide them.  They are not addictive but energizing, healing and challenging.  These experiences are not just for the Saints.  And, becoming closer to God is not a “crutch.”  It is a break through to the way reality is.  Asceticism and mysticism are brother and sister.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Posted by on Mar 16, 2012

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with Irish Soda Bread

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with Irish Soda Bread

Irish Soda Bread "Cookies"

One of the great things about being Catholic is getting to celebrate the feasts of those who have gone ahead of us – the saints. There are so many saints to celebrate that every new day could bring with it a reason for a party! Some saints, however, are associated with certain nations or ethnic groups and their feasts get celebrated more widely, even by those who don’t share their faith or ethnicity.

Saint Patrick is one of those whose feast has become identified with the people of a nation. St. Patrick is remembered for bringing Christianity to Ireland. Though born in Wales, his feast is marked with great celebration of Irish identity in the United States, not just by those of Irish origin. In typical immigrant fashion, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with greater enthusiasm by the Irish in America than in Ireland. Music speaks of loves lost, homes left behind, and dreams of returning someday. Foods are not necessarily those that were eaten in the homeland, but rather those eaten by immigrants to a new land, with touches of the old ways for comfort.

With all this in mind, making Irish Soda Bread can be a good way to celebrate the life of a man who was taken to another land as a slave, escaped some years later, and then returned to bring the Good News of Jesus to the people of that land.

Here’s a recipe we’ve enjoyed.

Irish Soda Bread

2 cups all-purpose flour *
2 cups white whole wheat flour
2 tbsp baking powder
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 3/4 cups cold buttermilk, shaken **
1 large or extra-large egg, lightly beaten
Zest of one orange
2 tbsp caraway seeds
1 cup dried currants

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or lightly grease a baking pan.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the butter and mix on low speed until the butter is mixed into the flour.

With a fork, lightly beat the buttermilk, egg, and orange zest together in a measuring cup. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture. Combine the currants with 1 tablespoon of flour and mix into the dough. It will be very wet.

Dump the dough onto a well-floured board and knead it a few times into a round loaf. Place the loaf on the prepared sheet pan and lightly cut an X into the top of the bread with a serrated knife. Bake for 50 – 60  minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. When you tap the loaf, it will have a hollow sound.

Cool on a baking rack for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

* You can use 4 cups of all-purpose flour in lieu of white whole wheat. Just omit the baking powder

** No buttermilk? No problem. Measure out 1 2/3 cups of milk and add a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice to bring the mixture to 1 ¾ cups.

Alternate Idea for Shaping:

After kneading the dough, roll it out to about ½ inch thickness. Cut with a shamrock shaped cookie cutter. Bake at 375º for 18-20 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. The biscuits will be lightly browned.

Cool on baking rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

 

 

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Posted by on Mar 14, 2012

Lent: How Could Asceticism Be Helpful to Me?

Catholics who grew up in the 50′s and 60′s and before often heard: “Offer it up!” We might have blown that idea off but we knew it had a deeper meaning. The heart of the maxim was closeness to the person of Christ – with a being of unconditional love and compassion.  No one wants to just torture oneself to rack up a extra “Brownie Points” with God. But, being with Christ and the poor is another thing. Even minor deprivation reminds us of how blessed and addicted we are.  We are all interconnected, in solidarity with every living thing. Knowing we are blessed and not complaining over the inconveniences of life makes us more compassionate. Being grateful can’t help but contribute to a holier world.

Some people  seek ways to actively promote their spiritual growth and more freedom from attachments by simplifying their lives or cultivating an awareness of what is controlling them  One term for this is “asceticism.”

“Asceticism” comes from the Greek words “Ascetikos” and “Askein” which refer to exercise.  It does not have anything to do with inflicting pain or enduring something just to prove that one is committed or is strong. The point of asceticism is to learn to identify one’s unhelpful attachments or addictions and to then learn ways to not have these rule us – to strengthen our ability to make conscious choices.  So, for example, when I eat I can observe what I want to eat the most and then see if that kind of food is good for me.  It is amazing how often or quickly we can see what is in charge of our lives.  I can at times feel an over whelming need to eat something to tamp down upsetting feelings.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola advised retreatants doing the retreat called the Spiritual Exercises to observe their attachment to things that led to unhappiness in their lives in general through the vehicle of observing their desires at a meal.  He pointed out that we usually want what he called “delicacies” rather than the healthier staple foods of the day (curly fries with cheese sauce as opposed to chicken and salad?)  Our desire can be fierce.  He also pointed out that at meals we may not be interested in being present to the other people.  We may converse but we may not be listening or really care what the other is expressing.  All of this is a potential goldmine for growth.  If we desire to know ourselves and to be of service to the world then we can consciously reflect on our attachments, desires and feelings.  In the Christian context, freedom from denial and negative patterns is not achieved by sheer exercise of one’s will.  Deciding to stop doing something does not necessarily change one’s interior life.  So authentic growth is not just on the surface.  Authentic growth in the Christian context is about moving away from something negative because one is moving towards something positive.  In technical terms asceticism cannot be separated from mysticism (meant as religious experience).  So, knowledge of what is going on at the microcosm of the dinner table which might be very self-centered or destructive can be transformed for even the most helplessly addicted foodaholic  into a victory of freedom.  That freedom though will be effected for the Christian by an encounter with the Sacred – a very positive experience of unconditional love.

Okay, but how does one have these experiences?!  (Stay tuned for more!)

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Posted by on Dec 21, 2011

Advice and Encouragement from St. Peter Canisius

Advice and Encouragement from St. Peter Canisius

St. Peter Canisius, S.J.

“If you have too much to do, with God’s help you will find time to do it all.”

St. Peter Canisius, an early Jesuit, lived during the Reformation. He was active in teaching, ministering to the sick and the poor, in addition to being entrusted with implementation of the decrees of the Council of Trent. He was assigned to work in Germany following the Council, teaching and establishing colleges and seminaries. He developed a catechism for ordinary people, one of the first of its kind. He was a popular preacher and prolific writer, who was not afraid to write to Church leaders to encourage them to live up to their calling.

As we approach Christmas, with all the busyness of the season, we could do worse than to remember St. Peter Canisius’ words and ask God to help us do the things we need to do, and to let go those that really don’t matter.

Image in the Public Domain – painted in 1699.

 

 

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Posted by on Dec 10, 2011

Blessed Adolph Kolping – Caring for Workers and Families

Blessed Adolph Kolping – Caring for Workers and Families

Blessed Adolph Kolping

“Adolph Kolping gathered skilled workers and factory laborers together. Thus he overcame their isolation and defeatism. A faith society gave them the strength to go out into their everyday lives as Christ’s witnesses before God and the world. To come together, to become strengthened in the assembly, and thus to scatter again is and still remains our duty today. We are not Christians for ourselves alone, but always for others too” (Pope John Paul II, beatification homily).

Adolph Kolping was born the son of a German shepherd in 1813. As a teenager, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker and worked for 10 years at this trade. He had always been a good student, with dreams of continuing his education, and at the age of 23 he began secondary school. At 28, he entered the seminary and was ordained in 1845.

Kolping had expected to live the life of an academic, but during his first assignment he met school teacher Gragor Breuer, founder of an organization for journeymen. Influenced by Breuer, he became involved in ministering to journeymen, young men who worked in the newly industrializing cities of Germany.  He served as the second president of the Catholic Association of Journeymen with the intent of providing social and religious support to these men. Through the remaining years of his life, he worked to coordinate, unite and support associations of journeymen throughout Germany, forming family-like supportive communities.

Today his work continues through the International Kolping Society, with about 5,000 Kolping families in over 60 countries around the world, including the United States. Together, members of Kolping families help each other live as Christians in professions, marriage and families, Church and society, and work to improve and humanize the world in which they live.

 

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Posted by on Nov 26, 2011

Celebrating Feasts With Food – St. Catherine of Alexandria

Celebrating Feasts With Food – St. Catherine of Alexandria

Icon of St. Catherine of Alexandria

 

St. Catherine of Alexandria was born towards the end of the 3rd century. According to legend, she became a Christian at the age of 14 following a vision. She was known for her wisdom and is said to have successfully debated 50 non-Christian philosophers when she was only 18. Responsible for the conversion of hundreds of people, she was eventually martyred (around 310 AD). Condemned to death on the wheel, instead she was beheaded because the wheel broke at her touch. Catherine is remembered since the 14th century as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers saints to whom people prayed especially for healing and protection from diseases.

In the middle ages, a tradition arose of celebrating her feast by visiting neighbors, singing songs requesting food and drink (cakes and breads or apples and beer). I came across this recipe for Catherine’s Cake (Kattern Cakes or Catterning Cakes). It is simple to make and would make a great project to do with children to help make it fun to be Catholic Christians. The detailed recipe on the web is written in metric system, however, there’s a basic description with quantities in the old English system we still use in the United States.

Catherine’s Cake

2 pounds yeast bread dough
2 oz  (1/4 cup) butter
2 oz  (1/4 cup) sugar
1 egg, beaten
A few caraway seeds

Frozen bread dough may be used, or make your own. Soften the butter and mix with sugar, egg, and caraway seeds, then knead into the dough. Allow to rise in a warm place for approximately 2 hours.

Once the dough has risen, either divide it into tennis ball sized loaves or form it into a larger loaf and place on/in a floured baking pan. Allow to rise another 30 minutes. If you have made the smaller loaves, flatten them slightly to make “cakes” for individual servings.

Bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for two hours. (Smaller cakes may require a shorter baking time.)

Invite in the neighbors and enjoy with sparkling cider or other festive drink!

Image in the Public domain –
From St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt

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Posted by on Oct 15, 2011

“… Love calls for love in return.” Teresa of Avila

“… Love calls for love in return.” Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila - by Francois Gerard

The great Carmelite reformer, mystic, and saint, Teresa of Avila, was known for sometimes blunt statements about the spiritual life and life in community. She insisted that the spiritual life was not about being gloomy or depressed. (“God, deliver me from sullen saints.”) Life in community required all to share in the daily work of the community so all might share in the joys of relaxation and the natural world. She knew that the fundamental reality for Christians is the love of Christ, a love that reaches beyond church buildings and monasteries into all of creation.

One of her statements, a sentence from a larger work, struck me today.

“Whenever we think of Christ we should recall the love that led him to bestow on us so many graces and favors, and also the great love God showed in giving us in Christ a pledge of his love; for love calls for love in return.”

What does this mean in my life or in your life? Take some time to reflect on this with me. Be practical. Some might find it means minding a tongue that can speak spitefully or spreading gossip. Some might find it mean patiently reading a story to a small child for the fifth time in one day. For some it might mean getting up and out to door to work. Others might be called to smile at a panhandler and offer a friendly greeting rather than walking past with eyes averted.

Then move to the larger world – regional, national and international concerns. What does love mean in these contexts? How responsible am I for what happens in my city, county, state or nation? Does it matter whether I get involved in political debates or not? Do I have any responsibility to those less well-off than I or to the children of other families? Do we as a nation (community) have responsibilities to protect and support those to whom we are not related by blood? What does love demand of us? What does it mean to love? Can I act in love and still support the national and international status quo?

I don’t have answers to these questions for everyone. I don’t even have answers to all of them for myself. I know I fail all too often to “love in return” in practical ways. Yet I believe these questions must be raised and it seems to me that Teresa of Avila’s reflection on God’s love offers a challenge for us today.

“… love calls for love in return.”

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