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Posted by on Sep 4, 2022

As Easy as Falling Off a Log?

As Easy as Falling Off a Log?

When we were children, my siblings and I used to enjoy walking along the top edge of logs in the forests and parks we visited. Some logs were small and near the ground. Others were very thick and we might find our heads were as high as our parents’ heads as we walked along, holding tightly to their hands. There was always the very real fact that we might at any moment miss a step and fall off the log. Mom or Dad would help us when we tottered and nearly fell.

As we got older, we got more certain of our footing and walked by ourselves across the logs, arms outstretched to maintain balance. Sometimes we made it across safely. Other times we found ourselves jumping as we fell off. Once in a while, an ankle got twisted or we landed ungracefully on the ground. Most of the time, we simply got up and tried it again.

Even as an adult, it’s fun to walk on a log sometimes. I’ve now been in the position of holding the hands of younger siblings, cousins, my own children, and even my grandchildren as they learned to walk on a log. There’s always the unspoken question, can you do it? Can I still do it? Will we fall off this time?

Falling off the log is much easier than balancing and walking along the top of the log. If the log is a bridge across running water or across a ravine, the stakes are even higher. Falling off can still be easier than getting across.

When the Lord asked Solomon what gift he would like as he began his reign as King of Israel, Solomon asked for the gift of wisdom. He explained, “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends?” (Wis 9:13-18b) It’s hard enough for humans to figure out their own plans. What to do when troubles come? What career to pursue? Where to find food and shelter? Whose respect is worth courting? Solomon rightly notes that the things of heaven are even more important than the concerns of daily life, but they can be even harder to figure out. What is it that God would want us to do in this particular situation? Is it always the same? What might be different this time around?

Yet Solomon trusts that the Lord will send his ”holy spirit from on high” to help those who ask for help in finding the straight path through life. With the help of the spirit of the Holy One, humans can walk across the log of life securely. Finding the ways of heaven is not as easy as falling off a log. But the spirit’s gift of wisdom helps us walk securely across the top of the log – finding the ways of heaven in our lives each day.

Even before Solomon became king, the Hebrew people recognized the hand of the Lord in their daily lives. The psalmist notes, “In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.” (Ps 90) Our lives are short, yet through them we grow in wisdom of heart. We wish for the kindness of the Lord and receive it, as the work of our hands is aided by the Lord. That steadying hand of the Lord helps keep us balanced atop the log we walk!

As Jesus walked along on his way to Jerusalem, great crowds followed him. He was a celebrity and folks wanted to be associated with him. Would there be a miracle worked? Would he notice me and perhaps praise me? Isn’t this exciting?

St. Luke tells us that Jesus wanted folks to understand clearly that simply walking along with him in the midst of a great crowd of excited people was not what it meant to be one of his followers. (Lk 14:25-33) So Jesus turned to the crowd and spoke to them. The words he used sound quite harsh to us today. “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Hating? Just a minute now, you say. Isn’t this supposed to be about loving each other?

When we today speak of hating someone or something, it’s a very negative notion of extreme revulsion, distaste, antipathy, or hostility that may stem from anger or fear, or a sense of having been injured by another person. But in the context of Jesus’ time, it meant something different. Hate is part of a pair of words that describes behavior. It is the opposite of love, which also refers to a specific type of behavior. It’s not a question of emotions. To “hate” a ruler, for example, means to rebel against that ruler. To “love” the ruler means to obey that person. Jesus wanted those following him to know that there would be times in their lives as his disciples in which the choices they would be called to make, the actions they would need to take, would be contrary to those expected of them by their families and friends.

In Jesus’ culture and time, one’s only security came from being part of a large extended family. No one could get along without the support and help of the family. Yet the call to follow as a disciple of Jesus was and is something that is individual. Typically, families did not all pack up everything and follow him. Families were not the individual, nuclear family of a married couple and their children that we experience in the Western world. Families included parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews, and the servants of the family. The preferences of the individual did not matter. The well-being of the family was what mattered. If one person wished to follow Jesus, there could be no certainty that all in the family would do so. Much more commonly, those who followed Jesus’ teaching would be acting on their own, against the wishes of the family. In doing this, they would be perceived as “hating” the family members who did not agree with their decision to live differently. They would be rebelling.

Jesus described the reality of social isolation from the family as carrying one’s own cross. It is very difficult to go against one’s family, friends, and community. It is painful to follow a different path and to experience the hard words and rejection that can entail.

He warned those who were traveling with him in the crowd to weigh carefully what they were doing, just as a builder of a tower or a king going out against an enemy with superior forces must do. Everything is on the line. Can you leave behind the security of family, friends, and property to follow? That’s what is demanded of Jesus’ disciple.

Not at all as easy as falling off a log. It’s much harder to stay on the log …

St. Paul gives us an excellent example of the kind of situation a follower of Jesus might encounter that would be totally contrary to normal social expectations. (Phil 9-10, 12-17) An escaped slave named Onesimus has become a friend and convert to Christianity in Rome when Paul is imprisoned there, awaiting trial before Caesar. Slavery is an accepted reality in society at the time. Complicating matters, Onesimus stole from his former master, so not only is he guilty of running away, he’s also guilty of theft. Both carry heavy penalties.

As if that were not enough, the man from whose household Onesimus has escaped is a friend of Paul who lives in Colossae and is one of the leaders of the Christian community there. Philemon is one of Paul’s converts too.

In a very short private letter to Philemon, Paul asks him as a friend to accept Onesimus as a returning brother in Christ, welcoming and treating him as if he were Paul himself coming to visit. Paul notes that he would like to have Onesimus remain with him, but that would not be right, since legally he belongs to Philemon and the latter has not given permission to his slave to serve Paul instead. Paul suggests that perhaps the underlying reason for Onesimus’ having escaped from slavery to Philemon was so that he could learn of the Lord and become a follower and partner in spreading the Good News. He asks Philemon to welcome his slave as a man who is a brother in the Lord.

In our time, with our understanding of the evils of slavery, it’s easy to say that of course, Philemon should receive Onesimus and give him freedom. In fact, we’d say all the slaves should be freed. But that wasn’t the way things were at the time. Paul’s letter is suggesting a very new approach to human relations, in a specific and very limited situation. The community had not yet realized that Jesus’ second coming would not be in their lifetimes. And there weren’t enough of them to have any significant influence on the laws of the Roman Empire! But they could decide to go against the prevailing custom and forgive a thief and runaway slave.

For Philemon, accepting Onesimus would not have been as easy as falling off a log. It would have taken a major decision to grant the request of his friend and mentor, Paul. The fact that this short letter, of only 25 verses, has come down to us today indicates that it was a beginning of something remarkable within the Christian movement. Slaves could be equals of their masters when they were part of this new family, the Body of Christ, the Church.

Two thousand years later, we too sometimes find ourselves having to make tough decisions. We are still called as individuals to make life-changing choices. The people we serve, the occupations we enter, the friends with whom we interact, the communities with whom we pray – all reflect the relationship we have with our Lord. When our beliefs and experiences differ from those of our family and friends, it can be hard to remain on good terms with them. Families can be split apart so easily. It takes a conscious decision and lots of patience to get past differences of opinion and keep the love alive.

We each have our own calling and our own part in the Lord’s mission here on earth. How can we help each other to stay up on the log? It’s so easy to fall off.

Jesus knows that it’s much easier to fall off the log than to follow him. That’s why we have each other as a family larger than our own biological family and even our own community. He has given us himself and all the members of his family of followers. We help each other along the way.

So then, here we go. Off to the park. Who’ll get across the log this time without falling off? I’ll help you and I hope you’ll help me too.

Readings for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

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Posted by on Aug 28, 2022

Hard to be Humble?

Hard to be Humble?

Well over forty years ago, my husband and I liked to go square dancing once a week. We were with a club of mostly older couples, though there were a few younger ones too. The caller was an older man, rather small, with plenty of grey hair – truly ancient… As is done in square dancing, he sang the words of the song, as he inserted the instructions telling us all what to do next in the dance.

A new song at that time was It’s Hard to be Humble, by Mac Davis. We all enjoyed it as our caller sang the chorus, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ‘Cause I get better looking each day …” It went on in that vein for several lines, concluding, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, But I’m doing the best that I can!”

Humility, as exemplified in the song, is a tricky thing. There’s the false humility that has a person denying their talents and strengths, because speaking of them has brought, or might bring, charges of boasting. There’s the opposite of humility, in which people consider themselves or their talents to be so much greater than those of their peers that no one can possibly measure up to their standards. Humility does not mean denying one’s gifts and talents. Nevertheless, the fellow boasting of his humility in the song does not particularly impress his listeners as being all that humble.

Part of the challenge with humility is in the multiple meanings of the word when we use it in speaking of our relationships with God and with other humans. Sirach, a Jewish teacher of wisdom around 200 – 175 BC, wrote originally in Hebrew. When it was translated into Greek, the word for humility used is one that can include courtesy, gentleness, and consideration of the feelings of others as part of its meaning. It’s not just knowing one’s own strengths and weakness, it’s also being gentle and careful with the self-image and feelings of others.

Since humility is multifaceted, Sirach presents his insights through a series of proverbs. (Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29) He points out that those who behave with humility will be more loved than those who give a lot of gifts, but do it in a way that makes the recipients feel less worthy. It’s not necessary to seek wisdom in new ways of thinking or in philosophies from other cultures and traditions. Paying attention to the ways God reaches out through the lowly and through the wonders of nature will result in more fruitful growth in humility and wisdom. This is where the humility pleasing to God is to be found, because God is present with the poor. As the Psalmist points out, God is father of orphans, defender of widows, releaser of prisoners, and the one who provides a home for the needy and those who have been driven from their land. (Ps 68) It is with the humble of the earth that the blessings and rewards of humility will be found.

St. Luke presents Jesus speaking of humility in practical terms. (Lk 14:1, 7-14) Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee, an influential man. Everyone is watching him closely to see what he will do. He, in turn, is watching the other guests, observing their efforts to select places of honor at the table. (The table was probably U-shaped, with the places of greatest honor being on the shorter side that joined the two longer sides. The places of lowest honor were at the far ends of the long sides.) As they select their places, Jesus tells them a parable – he presents a picture of a better way to behave both as guests and as hosts.

Imagine a wedding feast to which you have been invited, he tells them. Don’t make the mistake of sitting at the head of the table or other place of honor. If someone more distinguished arrives, you will be told to move to a place of less honor at the table. Do yourself a favor – select a place at the end of the table’s long sides. Then you may be the one instructed to move closer to the wedding party, to the places of honor. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Then Jesus speaks to the host (and to the rest of us). Invite the folks who are normally ignored to celebrate with you at your banquets. They can give you nothing in return, but God will repay you on their behalf, because of the kindness you have shown, the humility of your service.

In all of this, it is God who lifts up and exalts those who act with kindness and compassion, those whose lives demonstrate humility.

The kingdom of God, according to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, will be seen in “the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a) The old law was given to Moses in a terrifying manner at Mt. Sinai – with blazing fire, darkness, storms, and the blast of trumpets. The voice that spoke was terrifying and those who heard begged for it all to stop. But the new covenant is found at Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. Angels are gathered at the festivities. So are those enrolled in heaven through baptism and those whose spirits have been made perfect through the experiences that purify their very lives. All are joined and reunited with God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, whose blood “speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (whose blood shed by his brother cried out to God from the earth).

It’s not easy to be truly humble. Fortunately, we get lots of opportunities to learn humility. As we come down off our pedestals and open our hearts to hear the stories of those around us, we grow closer to our God, who lives intimately with those at the bottom of our human societies. With quiet smiles, gentle words, patient listening, and generous hearts, we meet our God in those whom we encounter on our journey through life. May we be always open to receive God’s smile in return from those whom we serve.

Find the readings for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C.

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Posted by on Jul 31, 2022

Vanities of Vanities – What is Worth Holding On To?

Vanities of Vanities – What is Worth Holding On To?

“Vanity of Vanities, says Qoheleth … All things are vanity!”

Wow! Now isn’t that encouraging and uplifting! No? Well then, let’s see what more might be happening here.

Let’s start with a question. Who is Qoheleth and why is this person quoted in an entire book of the Hebrew Scriptures? Maybe a couple of other questions too. Why such a discouraging/depressing perspective? What does it mean to say something is vanity?

Qoheleth is the pen name of an unknown sage, a person recognized for wisdom. These words were written about 300 years before the birth of Jesus. The text of the book of Ecclesiastes has Qoheleth claiming to be the son of King David, presumably King Solomon, who was known for his wisdom. But in the time these words were recorded, the thoughts of anyone who wrote or taught about or with wisdom might be credited to Solomon. Qoheleth is a name meaning teacher or “speaker in an assembly.” Ecclesiastes is the Latin form of the name.

The word vanity also has a particular meaning. It refers to something that is quickly passing, a vapor or a breath. It’s short-lived, without substance, futile, mysterious, hard to understand.

Qoheleth tells us that everything is short-lived and passing. Things come and go. They flourish and then they are gone. We work hard and prosper, then we die and someone else benefits from our work. We fret and worry, but in the end our worry doesn’t change things. (Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23)

It’s not an easy message to hear, especially for folks, like most of us, whose culture says that if we just work hard enough, we can get ahead in life and have what we dream of having. Qoheleth says that this is just a dream that will certainly pass, regardless of how hard we strive.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a compilation of observations, proverbs, and reflections on the explanations commonly heard as humans try to account for the unpredictable nature of life and existence. The text ends with a repeat of the initial statement. “Vanity of vanities, says Quoheleth, all things are vanity!” Yet this is not the last word in the book. An editor adds a bit of explanation and hope in an Epilogue that follows this statement: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgement every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.”

Many years after Qoheleth’s observations, a family was fighting over an inheritance, according to St. Luke in today’s Gospel. One of them appealed to Jesus to resolve the dispute. But Jesus refused to get into the middle of the conflict. Instead, he warned against putting too much value on riches and possessing them. He told the story of a man whose harvest was greater than expected. The barn was too small to hold it all, so he tore it down and built a bigger one. Then he rejoiced that he would have plenty for many years to come. But, as it turns out, his life was to end that very night! God asked the man, “the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” (Lk 12:13-21) Jesus commented that this will be the result for anyone who holds on to treasure but is “not rich in what matters to God.”

The Psalmist (Ps 90) sings of the relationship between God and humans – the difference in perspective and years as they play out in the relationship. Our days are short. God’s are long – a thousand years are like a watch of the night, a few hours. Yet we are invited and reminded to open our hearts when we hear the voice of the Lord. And we hope and pray that we will be filled with joy and gladness all the days of our lives.

So, if the things we seek and work for are not going to last or bring satisfaction and peace to us, what are we to do? Qoheleth is right. Our time passes quickly. When we are children, time seems to take a long time to pass. As we get older, it seems to speed up every year.

St. Paul reminds the Colossians and all of us that we have been raised to new life in Christ. (Col 3:1-5, 9-11) The things that characterize life without Christ are not to be hallmarks of our lives. No lying, taking advantage of others, running roughshod over our competitors, etc. Our lives are to be based on Christ and his life. That is where and when the difference will truly appear, a perspective foreshadowed in the Epilogue of Ecclesiastes.

What, then, are we to do? All things are passing. No matter how hard we work to get ahead in life, there are no guarantees of fame, long life, health, or comfort. What do we do? Just give up and laze around?

What do we hold on to? How do we hold on? To what do we hold? Many ways to phrase the question, each with a slightly different perspective. Is there a life raft of some sort to which we can cling? What can help us persevere in our lives? What do we value? What gives us hope and strength to continue? Where is the oxygen-mask we can use on this flight?

I enjoy listening to the stories told on The Moth Radio Hour when I’m out on errands in town. Each episode includes four to six stories of true-life experiences, told by the individual to whom they happened. Some are sad, some are happy, many include funny moments, some are incredibly beautiful.

I was out on errands again today and heard three stories. One was about a young man’s very funny experience presenting a science experiment to second graders. Another told of an incident of road rage that turned into a chance to re-evaluate his life and set a new course. One featured a woman injured by prejudice in childhood and the example of her father’s strength that now gives her strength to stand up and protect others today. In each story, there was a gem of wisdom and I found myself nodding and smiling at their insights.

Yes, Qoheleth is right. So is Jesus. Things that we work so hard to get in our lives may not actually be worth all the effort we put into getting them. Whether they are valuable or not, our lives are totally not our own. We cannot control or know how long we will live, when we will depart this window of life, or what will happen after our departure.  All things are Vanity! Ephemeral! Passing! Even the asbestos checks my father used to joke about some people needing to have ready before their deaths probably won’t go very far…

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to hold on to. Many things are worth holding on to – laughter, joy, compassion, courage, hopefulness, community, shared efforts. As followers of Jesus, and hopefully as wise human beings, we reach out to each other. We offer a word of comfort or of hope when things are tough. We tell stories to lighten the mood. We remember the good times and search for seeds of hope in the hard times. We reflect on what we have learned through failure and hold firmly to the hope that we’ll continue to learn as we go along. We share what we have with those whose journey has left them needing the basics for life. We sit in silence with those who just need someone to be with them in time of deep loss. We share what we have learned with the children among us, preferably through stories, encouragement, songs, and humor. (Lectures just get boring…)

Life is not for the fainthearted. But life is good. It’s a marvelous gift overflowing from the great dance of LOVE that is our God. We hold on to the hope and promise of that love through thick and thin. Yes, what we see around us is passing and mysterious. That’s part of what makes it so wonderful. Each moment brings a new door or window opening, giving a glimpse of the underlying meaning of existence.

Here’s hoping you and I are able to hold lightly to the material things we need for our daily lives and keep in perspective the limitations of our efforts. Laugh frequently. Pray confidently. Hold close those with whom we share our lives.

The readings today are from the liturgy for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

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Posted by on Feb 27, 2022

From the Fullness of the Heart

From the Fullness of the Heart

“From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45) 

On this Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the readings remind us that wisdom is not always evident in human affairs. This is a timely reminder as we deal with the reality of war in Ukraine. In the Diocese of Monterey, CA, Bishop Daniel Garcia has asked us to use a different set of Eucharistic prayers this Sunday than the usual ones. There are four ordinary Eucharistic prayers that are typically used on Sunday. But there are others that are for times of special need or celebration. Any of these can be used equally validly for the Mass. The prayers Bishop Garcia has asked be used are for times of war.

Ordinarily, there are readings that are used for each day’s Mass. We have three different sets of readings that are repeated over a period of three years. However, the Masses for special purposes or times may have their own set or sets of readings. I don’t know which ones will be used in parishes around the diocese or around the world today. However, I know which ones are the “usually scheduled” ones and another set that may be used. Fortunately, they have themes that make sense together. So, here are some thoughts about them.

The first of the regular readings is from the Book of Sirach (27:4-7). Sirach is one of the books of Wisdom literature in the Bible. It is not always included in Protestant Bibles. The book includes a collection of proverbs and observations of human behavior and its consequences. These are drawn from events and practices that would have been familiar to the people hearing them. Sirach notes that it is in times of upheaval and trial that strength is developed (as in the firing of pottery). When grain is shaken through a sieve, the grain becomes usable and the husks are removed. The reading concludes with the observation that until a person speaks, there is no way to know their character, so they should never be praised first!

St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15:54-58) continues the contrast of the earthly, mortal, corruptible world (described as clothes) with immortality. We have been hearing about various aspects of this for the past few weeks. It is to the realm of immortality that the promises of God pertain. Death is not the end. It is “swallowed up in victory,” a victory received through Jesus, Our Lord. Therefore, he calls upon his sisters and brothers in faith to be firm and steadfast in the work of the Lord. This labor from the heart will not be in vain.

In the final reading of the regular set, St. Luke continues the Sermon on the Plain (6:39-45). Jesus asks a series of questions of his listeners. “Can a blind person guide a blind person?” “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” He also offers some commonsense observations. “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit…” “People do not pick figs from thorn bushes…”

Jesus concludes this set of observations with the statement, “For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

It seems to me that this is the heart of the matter. When we make choices based on the values of the world around us, we may find some success or admiration, but it will come for the wrong reasons. As we all know, beauty fades, styles change, success eventually ends. What is it that will remain? What will our families and friends remember about us as they prepare to lay us to our final rest?

Alternate readings for this day touch on many of the same themes. The story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis (4:3-10) describes the result of envy and anger between two brothers. Both offer gifts to the Lord, but when Abel’s gift is burned the smoke goes up. When Cain’s gift is burned, the smoke goes down. Cain is angry that his gift was not received by the Lord. The Lord warns him about the danger of his anger, but he does not listen. He invites his brother to go out into the field with him. They quarrel and Abel is killed. The Lord comes looking for them and asks Cain where his brother is. Cain responds, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, the Lord already knows. He tells Cain that Abel’s blood cries out from the earth and banishes Cain from the land. Cain must travel to other lands and live among the people there.

(Note: this is not historical writing. This story is to help explain conflict among people and nations. Despite being one of only three sons named as children of Adam and Eve, there are peoples in other nations among whom he is to go to live. Not intended as historical fact! A story to teach us something important. An example of wisdom literature.)

St. James (4:1-10) warns the early Christian community of the dangers of envy and struggles for worldly pleasures. These are the source of anger, fights, quarrels, wars. These are not the signs of God’s friends. Indeed, they are signs of those opposed to God’s ways. “God resists the proud but bestows his favor on the lowly.” James calls the community to turn back to God with prayer and humility – to purify their hearts and be humble. Then the Lord will raise them on high.

Finally, St. Matthew, in his account of the Sermon on the Mount (5:20-24), presents Jesus’ teaching against anger. “You have heard the commandment … ‘You shall not commit murder.’ What I say to you is: everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.”

These are strong words. Those who are angry must reconcile with their opponents, their brothers and sisters, before bringing their gifts to the altar. It’s the reality of what is in our hearts that matters. It is in the heart that the Lord meets us and we meet the Lord.

And so, we return to our beginning verse, “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

May we remember this as we enter into Lent later this week. May we remember this as we watch the war in Ukraine and pray for peace. May we remember this as we deal with the ups and downs of our own lives in community, in family, in work and play.

“From the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” May our words and actions be those of peace.

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Posted by on Jan 16, 2022

Scarcity or Abundance – The Transforming Presence of God

Scarcity or Abundance – The Transforming Presence of God

Exile, triumphant return, wine run out, empty water jars filled,  water changed into wine, brides and bridegrooms, a variety of gifts – many images are presented in the readings for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time.

The readings begin as the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon is drawing to a close. People are beginning to return to Jerusalem and Isaiah speaks the Lord’s words of joyful triumph: “I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, her vindication shines forth like the dawn…” (Is 62:1-5) Jerusalem, the remnant of those exiled to Babylon, will shine again before all the nations. The Lord will bless her with a new name – My Delight. She will be a beautiful crown held by her God. The Lord is as delighted with her as a bridegroom is with his bride. This is all fantastic news to a people who have felt abandoned by God in bitter defeat and exile from their homes and homeland. From the depths of loss to the triumph of the abundant love of God, their return home is filled with reasons for rejoicing. God is again present with the people of Israel and they are home.

We see another case of scarcity transformed to abundance in the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, not too far from Nazareth (Jn 2:1-11). Jesus and his friends have been invited to a wedding feast. His mother is there too. It’s a wonderful party and all are having a great time. All, that is, except the hosts. The wine is running out. Someone miscalculated how much people would drink or how many people would be there, or something. It really didn’t matter. Running out of food or drink at a wedding feast is a terrible issue, a shameful thing, even today.

Jesus’ mother notices the problem. She’s probably been involved in planning many weddings and other parties with family and friends through the years. The families of the couple are friends or relatives. What can anyone do to help in such a situation?

In St. John’s telling of the incident, there is something important that she can do. She can tell her son and in so doing, she nudges him to begin his public life. Jesus essentially asks her, “What am I supposed to do about that?” Yet in John’s Gospel, Jesus is presented as one who is in control of what is happening in his life. He is God become human and very much actively in charge of events. He adds, “My hour has not yet come.” It’s not the point in his teaching and ministry to begin doing extraordinary things and showing forth the glory of God, at least he doesn’t think so. But Mary is not deterred. These people need help and they need it right now. “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servers.

And so, what to do? Jesus looks around and there are six water jugs in the room. These jugs were used for ritual washing ceremonies when people gathered. Jesus, using what was available, directs that the jars be refilled with water. When this has been accomplished, he instructs the servers to take some to the headwaiter. It was now wine. Not just any everyday, watered down wine, but really good wine. Better than what had been served earlier. The headwaiter even sort of scolds the bridegroom for not serving the best wine first. Folks who have been drinking for a while won’t fully appreciate how good this stuff is!

John ends this story with the comment that in this first of the signs of his coming (as the Messiah), Jesus revealed his glory to his disciples and they “began to believe in him.” He became more than someone John the Baptist thought was important. Maybe he really was someone different and important. Maybe the Promised One had come.

Scarcity had been replaced with an abundance of wine, an abundance of life. God’s presence is revealed.

St. Paul presents another image of abundance (1 Cor 12:4-11). He’s dealing with a community in Corinth that was very diverse and whose members didn’t think of themselves as all being equals. There were many divisions in their society and those divisions didn’t go away when they gathered as a community.

Paul reminds them firmly that there are many kinds of gifts, many kinds of service. All come from God. There is only one Lord. There is no need to argue over which gift or which service is more important. None is more important or more valuable than any other. All are important and all are distributed by God. The Spirit’s presence is seen in each person’s gifts as that person uses the gift for the benefit of all.

A list of different gifts is found here. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty deeds, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. All of these are important, but only if they are used on behalf of the community. No one gets a gift because it is earned or deserved. Gifts are only given as they are needed and they are given to the person who will best be able to use them in service. Yet, there is an abundance of gifts within the community when they are all shared.

The key to each of these stories of scarcity and later abundance is the presence of God. We each have known times that are hard. Times when it seems like nothing will ever get easier. Little or no hope is visible, even on the horizon. Yet when we let the Lord into our hearts in those times, hope begins to blossom like a small flame. As we move forward in trust, serving the Lord and our fellow people with the gifts we’ve been given, however small they may seem, that scarcity falls behind us. We begin to see the abundance of love that fills the world, even when it is masked by “ordinariness” in our days.

Today let’s ask ourselves where the Lord is present, transforming the difficulties and challenges of our ordinary human lives into the beauty of new life, of diadems in the hands of God, of new love between bride and bridegroom, of joyful celebrations of love and new beginnings, and of the growth in wisdom, age, and grace to which we are all called in life.

The Lord has come. Where will we meet him today?

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Posted by on Oct 10, 2021

Word and Wisdom – The Depths of the Heart

Word and Wisdom – The Depths of the Heart

Suppose God came to you and instructed you to ask for one gift. What gift would you request? You could have anything at all. Lands, power, wealth, recognition, admiration, skill, fame… What would you request?

Solomon, one of the ancient kings of Israel, was confronted with just this dilemma. His response was to request the gift of wisdom and it was granted to him. He has come down in history and tradition as Solomon the Wise.

The author of the book of Wisdom was writing about 100 years before Jesus was born. As is common in Scripture, the author’s words are ascribed to a well-known and respected figure from the past. In the reading today, the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the figure in question is Solomon. Solomon is praising Wisdom and begins with the story of how Wisdom came to him (Wis 7:7-11).

Solomon declares, “I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded and the spirit of wisdom came to me.” Solomon could have had greater riches, more lands to govern, heaps and heaps of gold and jewels, but he begged for wisdom. And his request was granted. He was not disappointed, nor did he regret his choice. He tells us, “… the splendor of her never yields to sleep.” Wisdom opens the door to appreciation of countless riches that might otherwise be completely overlooked.

Wisdom is personified as a feminine figure in Jewish tradition and is an attribute of God. Wisdom dwells in the heart of women and men. For Jews of this time, the heart was the center of a person, the very core of one’s being. This is where decisions are made and the place from which actions follow. Wisdom is not based in the head. Reason on its own doesn’t lead to wisdom. Wisdom is born from the heart.

The Psalmist asks, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” (Ps 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17) This isn’t a request to have everything go well as a sign of the Lord’s favor. The very next statement is, “Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!” Clearly, things have not always gone well. Yet hope remains and the psalmist asks the Lord to give what might seem a strange gift, “Make us glad, for the days when you afflicted us, for the years when we saw evil.” How can this be? How does this make sense?

One thing I have noticed in my life is that when all is going well, I don’t learn as much about loving, forgiving, and depending on God as when things have been harder. It’s easy to tell others how to live and what they should do when one has never walked in the same shoes, let alone shoes a couple of sizes smaller and tighter. But once having gone through tough times, it’s much easier to react with compassion to the suffering of others.

God’s work shines through our lives, especially if we keep our eyes open to see it. As the Lord is present and our eyes are open to see, we can notice and rejoice in the gifts received. In times of trouble, we can grow in wisdom if we are open to see.

For the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 4:12-13), the same divine wisdom is described as the word of God, which is living and has an effect, reflecting the inmost thoughts of the heart. Again, the heart is the seat of our humanity. The word is alive and active and it comes from God. Nothing can hide from the word of God. The reading is short, but very powerful.

So how are we called to live? What is necessary to “inherit eternal life?” The young man in today’s Gospel runs up to Jesus and respectfully asks just this question (Mk 10:17-30). Jesus reminds him of the Law that has come down through the ages from Moses. We refer to this particular part of the law as the Ten Commandments. The young man is a bit puzzled. “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus can see his goodness and loves this about him. So he offers him one last challenge, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor… then come, follow me.” This the young man could not do. He had many possessions and they held him bound. Jesus watched sadly as the young man walked away.

How tightly do things hold us bound? Jesus speaks of entering the Kingdom of God as being as hard for the rich as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. This was a reference to a very small gate into the city of Jerusalem. Camels were too tall to enter through the gate without getting on their knees and essentially crawling through. The followers of Jesus rightly noted that such conditions for entry to the Kingdom were pretty much impossible to meet. Jesus agreed that in human terms it would be impossible. This is the reason that God’s help is necessary and wisdom springs from the heart. To the extent that we can hold on to things lightly, letting them go and sharing them whenever the need arises, we can become more like generous children and able to see the Kingdom as it is present around us.

Through the eyes of the heart and wisdom, we approach the Kingdom. How do we, you and I, open our eyes, our hearts, and our hands to allow Wisdom, the Word of God, to fill our being and overflow into our world today?

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Posted by on Sep 19, 2021

Wisdom, Justice, and The Just One

Wisdom, Justice, and The Just One

As people who live in a nation that is only a little over 200 years old, we Americans easily forget how long some traditions and histories of peoples actually are. A case in point is the history of the Jewish people. Their story goes back over 4,000 years. Lots of things happen in 4,000 years, including growth and change in understandings of how things are and how they were meant to be from the beginning.

In the past few weeks, we have heard readings from the writings of prophets and holy ones during the invasion of the Assyrians and, many years later, during the exile in Babylonia. The basic theme has been the same: God will protect those who are faithful to the covenant, the Law. When that faithfulness fails, God no longer protects the nation and disaster follows. A remnant of faithful people remain and God protects them and restores them to their land and freedom.

This week, the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we jump much closer to the beginning of our Christian experience. The book of Wisdom was written in Alexandria, Egypt in Greek by an unknown Jewish author who was well-versed in the traditions and literature of his people. It dates to about fifty to one hundred years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. In the approximately 250 years before it was written, the Greeks conquered Israel and attempted to impose their own traditions and religion. It had been a time of great suffering and some heroic witness by faithful Jews. Independence was gained at last and Rome had not yet conquered Israel. At least part of the writings in this work are attributed to King Solomon, a ruler remembered for his great wisdom. Despite being written in Greek, it follows the patterns of Hebrew verse. It also includes a notion of life after death. This is a new idea for the time and not accepted by all the people.

A Call to Justice

The book begins with a call to Justice. Justice is not a question of punishment for misdeeds. In this context, Justice is a moral quality that is universal and refers to the way in which moral conduct relates to Wisdom. When behavior is good and honest, when people care for each other and those who are most vulnerable, then justice is present. Wisdom is also called discipline. All are called to live justly.

But a group of people reject the calls of justice. They basically express the idea stated by folks in another time and culture, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” Why spend our lives looking out for others? We should live happily while we have the chance – get everything we can right now!

The only fly in the ointment is the example of the Just One(s) who try to live by the Law. These folks are also called son of God (child of God), meaning one who is so faithful to God as to be “like God.” They persist in openly living lives of faith and reminding others of the necessity to do so. They were a real pain to “the wicked” who preferred to live for themselves.

It is at this point that today’s reading picks up. (Wis 2:12, 170-20) The wicked ones decide to put the Just One to the test. Accuse him falsely. Torture him. Make fun of him. Condemn him to death. Kill him in the most shameful, personally embarrassing way possible. Find out in this way whether the Just One is truly gentle and patient. Find out also whether God will step in to take care of him!

The early church looked to this reading from Wisdom following Jesus’ death, seeing it as a prophecy of who he would be and what would happen to him. They saw the resurrection as fulfillment of the promise that God would take care of the Just One.

Jesus was also familiar with this prophecy and its history. He tried to warn his disciples that things were not going to go well for him. The Romans always condemned anyone who was called “messiah” among the people. Anyone who threatened the status quo would be seen as an enemy of Rome. St. Mark (Mk 9:30-37) describes Jesus’ efforts on the journey through Galilee to prepare his disciples for what was coming, but they were afraid to ask too many questions. Only after the resurrection did they begin to understand what he had said.

The inclusion of Jesus’ statement that the “Son of Man” would rise on the third day would not have been understood. “Son of Man” was another title of the coming messiah. The third day figuratively referred to the day when God would come to the rescue and make everything OK again. It was not only a question of a time period between 48 and 72 hours after an event had occurred. It was a much greater promise.

Then there was also the question of what they were discussing as they walked along with him. This was quite embarrassing, because they were doing a very human thing – trying to figure out which one of them was the best among them. Jesus put that to rest quickly. He stated flat out that only the one who was a servant to all, with the same lowly status as a child, could or would be the greatest. So much for worldly power and prestige. The one who receives a child in Jesus’ name receives the One who sent him.

Living in Wisdom and Justice

Early followers of Jesus did not find it easy to live as humbly and lovingly as he did. St. James addressed this problem in his letter (Jas 3:16-4:3). He noted that jealously and ambition are fundamental issues that cause disorder among people. Instead of living with these qualities, he describes wisdom and righteousness from above, which lead to peace. Purity, peaceability, gentleness, mercy, bearing good fruit – these are qualities that lead to peace in the community and within individuals.

St. James similarly describes the basis for wars and other conflicts as due to reliance on one’s passions rather than on wisdom. Those who ask God’s help based on their passions and personal self-interest will not receive a positive answer to their prayer, because they are asking for the wrong thing. The key to answered prayer is to ask for the right thing for the right reason.

Not an easy path … but one that can bring great and very positive change to a world.

How do I live in harmony and wisdom? What qualities do I need to favor in myself, so I can be gentle, merciful, kind, and wise? Where does self-care come into the equation? When must I say “NO” to demands that interfere with my ability to be loving, kind, and considerate?

In these times of great division and challenge, our answers to these questions will without a doubt ripple out into our world. Pray with me for wisdom.

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Posted by on Dec 17, 2013

The Week before Christmas – A Time for Stillness

Please join us in the joyful anticipation of Christmas during this time of stillness and waiting that is Advent. We remind ourselves that the celebration of Christmas begins on the Eve of the Nativity, the 24th. There are two weeks to celebrate this great feast of God with us. Leave the hustle and bustle and share the gift of peace with your loved ones.

The O Antiphons which are sung before the Magnificat at Vespers set the tone for each day of this special week.

December 17 – O Sapientia

“O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.”

 


 

What wisdom is this folly?

That God should come to share our death?

What Word of God, the Fullest Godself Expression on High

That governs all, would come for us in such lowliness?

O Wisdom? O Foolishness of Divine Love,

You seek us out, O Wisdom from on high.

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Posted by on Oct 24, 2013

Seeking God, Decision-Making and the Ignatian Examen

Seeking God, Decision-Making and the Ignatian Examen

three-candles-by Alice Birkin

Finding Peace and Freedom

We cannot find peace if we are arguing with God in whatever form we perceive the sacred. The Divine Reality loves us without reservation. We cannot find happiness and peace in any other place. Even non-believers will only find peace in the Reality that has created the universe and encloses all of it within Itself. God has given everything in the universe love and freedom. God’s love is total. It encompasses everything that promotes our growth and transformation. We have been created for union with this sacred reality, so we learn and experience during all our lives ways to be like God: to be knowing, understanding, wise, discerning, reverent, courageous and in awe of the transcendent. Everything in the universe has degrees of freedom. The nature of everything determines the degrees of freedom. I cannot flap wings and fly. I cannot breathe under water just as I am. I will always be a middle child. But, there are many ways in which I can determine my course in life, work with limitations or with strengths.

As I live my life I have many possibilities before me. I also have a certain amount of freedom. If I believe in the reality of God, I see myself in a relationship with God, a God who is close or distant. All religious and spiritual traditions have concepts of the relationship of human powers and divine powers. These relationships involve change, improvement, decision, freedom, human failure, consequences and divine intervention. The theological terms often used for these phenomena are: conscience or consciousness, grace, nature, discernment, acts, harm or sin and moral good, and judgment or karma.  If I am thinking about getting more money I have a number of reasons as to why I want more money, what I possibly want to do to get money, and what the pros and cons are with various options. I can look at the decision from many angles. I can line up my ideas and come up with what I think will work the best. I can talk to others or read various sources. I can also present this to God in prayer and say: “Please tell me what You see as best for me.”

This is not easy to do because most people feel that God does not think of my little side to things; God is only interested in the Bigger Picture and saints or martyrs. In fact, God is very interested in individuals. God as most Westerners conceive of God is a personal Reality who sees us fully and knows exactly what would make us happy. We are still not too sure about that because it sounds too mature for us. Attending to our health and saving money may sound difficult, so long term happiness planning may seem very hard. I am the first to say that buying something new sounds like fun. But, wanting to surrender to God as our source of wisdom and a guide is the only way to have peace.  We are also very rational in the West and often think God is so intangible or un-provable as to be neither reliable nor a reality with which we can have a two-way communication.

Time for Centering

Taking time each day to practice centering in God for the direction of our day and our lives is necessary. There are many ways to do this: journaling, walking a labyrinth, and having a spiritual counseling session are ways to think and pray through where I am in my life, where I feel drawn, and what God sees in me that I might benefit from.  Another way to have an experience of being counseled by God is the Ignatian Examen.

Very briefly, sit quietly and think of or imagine things you are truly grateful for. They can be big or small: Clean sheets, good food, your dog, ways you have been loved, accomplishments, a family member or friend, your house or job etc.  Tell God what you are grateful for. See, if God has given you things you are grateful for: a rescue in life, money you needed, safety, a trip you took.  Then think of the things in yourself or your life which you have chosen that have harmed you, undermined your well being, or side-tracked you.  These can also be big or small: being resentful, feeling superior, or not being willing to do something new that you need to do. Ask God to help you with these fears or hurts that have held you away from Him. Lastly, ask God how you can spend the next part of your day or life doing what is best.  You will get answers. You can surrender to what is best and see how much more peace-filled you are. I do this every day, sometimes more than once. I act on what I hear and I am much more at peace.

Image: Three Candles by Alice Birkin, public domain

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Posted by on Jul 3, 2012

Seeking God, Decision-Making and the Ignatian Examen

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 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 Jun 2, 2012

The Fifth Gift: Courage

Courage comes from the Latin word for heart cor and the French coeur.  To have the heart for something means to be able to face something difficult or frightening and to persevere.  Courage therefore does not mean not being afraid.  It means to be afraid and go ahead and do the right thing anyway.  Plato, Aristotle and Cicero wrote about this virtue as well as others, just as the authors of the Bible did.  They and later philosophers and theologians recognized the importance of courage for the moral life.  Courage is considered the most important of the virtues by many because without it the others cannot be practiced consistently.

There is an interesting and important distinction between the non-Christian and the Christian traditions in the understanding of courage.  The Greeks, Romans, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists and others did not/do not believe in grace. They feel that if someone does not have courage, he or she has not been trained properly, has a psychological problem, has a physical illness or is being compromised or harassed by evil spirits. All or one of these may be true, but at base, Christianity teaches that true courage or heroism, which is not self-seeking, is a gift which builds on the other natural human efforts. Christianity often quotes St.  Thomas Aquinas’ famous teaching that “Grace builds on nature.”

In considering courage, the teachings of Aristotle make sense as a foundation. Courage can be taught to a great extent and moderation is important in exercising it.  A person does not have to take risks all the time or confront every fearful thing in order to be morally strong.  On the other hand, it is good to try new things, to face one’s fears and develop parts of the personality that are underdeveloped.  If I want to be able to dance I can take dancing lessons.  If I would like to be able to do public presentations I can get some personal coaching and feel more comfortable.  From the faith perspective, even these decisions are based on the work of the Spirit.  It is the life of the Spirit, the Paraclete, in the world which calls us and empowers us.

At times I may find truly upsetting or frightening situations in my path.  I may face an illness, the addictions of a child, or the possible loss of my job.  Being at peace or thinking clearly may be beyond me.  I can internalize this crisis and work on it by myself or I can consciously offer it to God and ask for help.  I can practice consciously giving it to God over and over and ask for light on it.

I can also use Discernment to identify if any motions are going on inside me that lead to distress.  These powerful negative thoughts can come from my own psychology but often they come from the Enemy (St. Ignatius of Loyola’s, term for the Devil) who loves to undermine us by introducing negative interpretations and scenarios.  St. Paul confronts these deceptions by reminding us that if at all possible we have to counter anything that does not bring peace.  I might be feeling fairly stable even in the middle of a crisis and all of a sudden a thought comes that is very scary.  The thought says: “This might happen.  That might happen.”  Someone who is seasoned in courage will immediately sweep away speculative frightened thinking.  The only thing that matters in a frightening life or event is the question addressed to God: “What should I be doing right now?”  Cultivating a prayer life all the time goes a long way later on when I need to center myself and ask God for courage.

Courage is a grace.  We get the grace when we need it.  The saints who have done heroic things or died as martyrs were given the grace for that at the time.

Courage also may be needed for non-crisis situations.  It may be needed for a long term commitment to something difficult.  Parents who find that they have given birth to a sick baby may need a lot of courage to live day-to-day with this struggling child.  Courage can be called fortitude or perseverance in this case. Caregivers who take care of a spouse with Alzheimers or any severe condition also have need of great courage in order to live out the other gifts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom.  In both cases,watching another suffer without becoming cynical requires the gift of courage.

It is sometimes startling how far life can challenge and stretch us.  The tragedies, injustice, and atrocities can almost strip us clean of hope and energy. Christ had the courage to take the side of goodness and it cost him his life. We can be called to extend ourselves and donate ourselves for the good of another.  Wisdom and Right Judgement can take us to the point of choice but the Gift of Courage will have to take us across the line.

For an excellent movie on courage rent Of Gods and Men about 7 Cistercian monks in Algeria — good casting — fantastic music.

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Posted by on May 31, 2012

A Fourth Gift of the Holy Spirit: Counsel or Right Judgement

A recent issue of the Costco Magazine, The Costco Connection, included an article on Sir James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson vacuum and an number of other products. The article described the history of the development of the vacuum as a way of also relating the process that Dyson went through in the development of his business and his values.  One of the most compelling aspects of the story was Dyson’s clarity about his decision to produce the best vacuum possible.  Sir James went through 13 years of failures (5,127 prototypes), near bankruptcy, 2 lawsuits, rejections, illicit copycats, and supply problems.  But, in it all he knew his concept was right.  He also did not mind working alone.  Now that his product is a huge success (number one in the UK) he is quite happy to let go of total control of his business to a group of engineers.  He is very involved but not hovering.  Dyson has never been concerned with a certain timeline for getting products from concept to marketing.  He told The Connection, “I don’t care how long things take.”  He also states: “Failure is to be celebrated–That’s how we learn.  I learned from each of my mistakes. That’s how I came up with a solution.  So I don’t mind failure.”  There is not a shred of religious talk in this article but it is in fact full of Gospel values and the basic principles of Right Judgement.

This gift of the Holy Spirit was exclusively referred to as Counsel” until the end of the 20th century.  The more recent use of “Right Judgement”  for this gift points to the balance needed in availing oneself of the gift.  “Counsel” has always emphasized the active need for and role of the Holy Spirit in determining the truth and making decisions.  The term “Right Judgement” emphasizes the role of the person.  In Catholic thinking, both God and the person are involved in the constant process of identifying what is real and what is best and correcting one’s course towards these.  Some religious groups emphasize either the sovereignty of God in the process or the sovereignty of the person. Catholicism holds both in balance.  The Tradition is sufficiently optimistic about humanity to affirm the role of free will and yet well aware enough of human weakness to affirm the need for grace.   Another term for this gift is Discernment.

James Dyson speaks of not being afraid of being alone, of failure, of learning new things, or of long processes.  With these values as his foundation, he is in a perfect place to make good decisions.  The only thing he is missing from this life stance is the place of God in his perceptions and actions.  Why does it matter that God be involved if Dyson is so successful and reportedly happy?

In the article, Sir James reports that he loves to invent and has a passion about setting one goal after another and working toward them.  All of that is fantastic on one level.  On another level, one could ask if a person might let God get a word in edgewise about the over-all direction of his life?  The surrender of that basic orientation of life is incomprehensible  to nonbelievers.  The idea that life is a dance with the Spirit is crazy to the successful person in the normal secular context.  Dyson is happy, so why bother with him?  My inclination is to leave him alone, but a large part of me has had a lot of experience with universal human limitation.  By definition, James Dyson (and all of us), does not have access to the sum of his full potential.  At this point, he is controlling all variables of his life as far as he perceives them.  The idea of consciously referring himself to a high reality is not in his view.

In seeking Right Judgement, a person first lives a life as open to the truth as possible.  With specific aspects of life, such as job, relationships, health, education, finances, civic involvement, or faith, a person is expected to do as much as possible to grow in knowledge of these things and self-knowledge in relation to these things.  Beyond this, he or she can bring these things to prayer.  Doing a daily exercise of putting different aspects of life or the way the day has gone in front of God can open up a type of detachment in which one can sort through how a specific part of one’s life or the whole day feels.  If I ask for an openness to my finances I may see that I fritter away money on creative projects that I end up not doing, supplies I never use.  If I ask for an openness to the truth of my health and consistently feel a kind of anxiety about how I eat, I can let this commitment to the truth carry me past the desire not to see the truth and ask to see why I am troubled.  I may like to collect things, but I may never face the fact that as long as I am in debt I should not be buying anything unnecessary. In Right Judgement, I learn to identify my feelings when I entertain helpful ideas or unhelpful ideas.

Two days ago I knew I needed to get gasoline for my car because I was going to go on a trip the next day.  As I got off the freeway to go to a store, I approached a gas station I know well and a voice inside me said that I should go in there right now and get gas.  I absolutely, positively did not want to do that.  I was tired and sick of errands and obligations and wanted to continue up the street to the last errand and get that over with.  I would get gas later (in some vague gas station– who knows where?).  This was just a bald case of procrastination.  My brain forced me off the road into the gas station.  I saw an inner vision of a taller me as a parental figure leaning over me saying, “You will be so messed up tomorrow if you don’t get gas today.  You will be yelling at yourself as you pay 20 cents more per gallon for gas in San Francisco!!  Go get the d…n gas and quit whining.  You will feel so much better.”   It is the same inner conversation when calling for a dental appointment, walking the dogs two miles, or setting up my durable power of attorney.  I do not want to deal with complications (as if procrastinating on these things will not create any complications!). Right Judgement helps us identify the feelings around the truth versus the feelings prompted by false reasons to do or not do something. With Right Judgement I ask God to send me whatever imagery or feelings will clarify what is His will and what is best for me.

Right Judgement always involves self knowledge.  We often choose out of very deep desires and fears.  If I recognize that I am in pain over never being noticed in my family, then I will understand why I often get depressed at bigger family gatherings.  I will see that I can be quite happy being in the same room with these insensitive people or on a inner tube in a murky river with them if I bond with someone like my sister-in-law or a cousin.  With Right Judgement I will begin to see if I regularly surrender appropriate control of life to overbearing people.  I might see that I give up on things I want for myself legitimately before I even begin to figure out how I might get them.  I will feel the difference between longings I should pursue and guilt or laziness I should ignore.

We can ask for and receive this inner feedback at any time.  We may not want to hear or feel the motions of the Spirit versus our own appetites or emotions, but they are there all the same.  The more we obey the loving, healthy voice, the easier it gets.  Thanks be to God!

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Posted by on May 27, 2012

The Gift of Wisdom: Ancient but Pertinent?

When I think of Wisdom my mind always throws up pictures of Michelangelo-like figures with ponderous looks on their faces.  The scene is very serious and feels absolutely irrelevant to my life.  A second later I am seeing two figures on a canvas mat  struggling to get control of a situation.   Both images are important and both apply to me.  Living in a wise way is very important and serious and this life skill plays out in my life as a pitched battle between my ego or inner child and God.  We are down on the mat wrestling away all day long.  At times the struggle for me to be wise is funny.  I am the child with a Look or Big Hunk candy bar, covered in chocolate who badly needs a bath.  I am wading through my life with a terrific personal coach whom I would like to ignore.  I would like to lay down in my life and be waited upon.  I would like to wave a magic wand and have all my troubles just go away.  Why not?

Wisdom is a gift from God which empowers us to do what is best.  Wisdom is the opposite of impulsiveness, self-indulgence and short-sightedness. In the secular world, wisdom is doing what is best because of fear or because of personal gain.  In the spiritual world, wisdom is sought because it draws us to growth, generosity, inclusivity, justice, love, and heroism.  Wisdom is what God expresses in the world.  When we exercise wisdom, we rise above what we want to consider what is best.  The two might be the same.  In any case, the activity of considering what is best frees us from the possible deception that can come by just following my feelings.  Wisdom asks if a thought or course of action is taking us to a bad place in life where we have been before or if a decision is taking us to a positive place.

One of the greatest deceptions in life is called the Pleasure Principle.  According to this principle, if something feels good it is good and if something feels bad it is bad.  This line of thinking is fallacious.  Obviously heroin may feel good, but it is horribly destructive.  Telling a lie may feel good right now and yet end up causing harm to me and a lot of pain.  Eating french fries may feel good now but the health results later may feel quite bad.  There are many things in life that feel bad, such as asking forgiveness or  letting someone inconvenience us, that when performed cause us to feel good almost immediately.  People who are wise can distinguish between short and long term results.  They are committed to the truth and to wanting to be joyful, not just comfortable.

Wisdom takes knowledge and uses it in the best possible ways.  It thinks broadly rather than just individualistically.  Wisdom perceives the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything in the world, so that when we have the gift of wisdom, we live with the Earth and all it inhabitants in mind.  We understand that what we do affects everything on the Earth.  My thoughtful and healthy living affects everyone.  Wisdom therefore does have discipline as a skill.  Another word for this is restraint.  It can be fun not to waste.  It can be really exciting not to be driven by addictions and obsessions.  I can and often am driven by food and things to which I am attracted that I want to own.  I love cinnamon rolls and designer fabric.  I cannot eat the first nor afford the second.  It is so lovely to feel free of pining for these.  Wisdom is sinking in and I do not feel the pull or deprivation of these anymore.  Wisdom has gifted me with excitement over better health and a good hold on my budget.  This process is bound up with good Discernment.  I am aware of the difference of quality in feelings between immediate gratification versus inner peace.

Another feature of wisdom worth considering is attachment to outcomes.  A relative recently said that he wanted to help someone but did not want to be attached to the outcome. By this he meant that he did not need to be in control of what was best for someone.  He also did not see any value in feeling bad if the other person decided not to take him up on his offer.  Implied in this was the fact that we cannot change or fix other people.  Only they and God can do that.  Wisdom sees the sense in all this.  When we are wise, we realize that may see someone else’s situation as it really is or we may not.  We know that only God sees the whole picture.  I may want someone to save money or be less depressed, but I inevitably do not have all the facts.   In any course of conversation or action I take, I should first put the situation in God’s hands and wait to see if the various options I have are out of my fears, anxieties, or anger or something that is best for everyone concerned.

I know several people who are very activated emotionally by the suffering of others.  They want to help people with problems or obstacles immediately.  That’s very understandable and usually good.  But, sometimes it is good to not help people.  We should be compassionate but may decide not to step in and do things for people.  If this decision is motivated by wisdom it may not be easy but it may be best.  We do wise things because they are correct, not because we feel guilty or because we want people to be dependent on us or approve of us.

Wisdom is cited throughout the Bible.  There are free online concordances which can lead to all the references to wisdom.  Reading these texts and ruminating on them can lead to important ideas and graces.

A very good book on wisdom from a non-Judeo-Christian perspective is The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz.

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