How Do we Honor the Holy Innocents?

The choice of readings for today’s Mass perplexed me. December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, as recounted in Matthew 2:13-18. It’s a grim feast that comes three days after Christmas every year.

On the day we remember the Bethlehem boys aged two-and-under slaughtered by Herod in an unhinged, prophylactic power grab, the Church pairs that account with Psalm 124, beginning with these words:

Had not the LORD been with us,
when people rose against us,
Then they would have swallowed us alive,
for their fury blazed against us.
Then the waters would have engulfed us,
the torrent overwhelmed us.

How is a psalm praising God for rescue appropriate on the day we remember murdered children?  The Matthew account itself cites Jeremiah’s agonizing description of “Rachel weeping for her children,” refusing to be consoled.  No wonder, if this is the thin consolation offered: that someone else’s child was saved. Mary and Joseph’s child, yes, but still a nightmare to the grieving parents.

The psalm smacks us right up against theodicy and the problem of evil.  “Had not the LORD been with us . . .” What does that imply?  Was God not with the toddlers of Bethlehem?  How do we praise God for rescue (which we should, if rescued) without implying that those who perished were somehow abandoned, unworthy?

There’s a song called “I Know Something About God’s Grace” whose theology drives me batty. The lyrics begin:  I know something about God’s grace; I know something about God’s amazing grace.”  So far, so good; then it runs off the rails. “It could have been me with no food to eat; it could have  been me with no place to sleep, if not for the grace of God.”  I know it’s a musical riff on the common expression “There but for the grace of God . . . ” And yet . . . those guys sleeping on the steam vents in downtown Philly—are they devoid of grace?  Or are they wrapped in it?

Maybe the problem is with our casual use of the word “grace.”  Do we believe that God’s unmerited favor comes in the form of this-worldly bonuses like a Christian comp & benefits package?  Or is grace more interior, like a spiritual attitude adjustment?  OR is grace what holds us up every single day, whether we’re aware of it or not?

Today is not the day to figure that out.  Today is the day to admit that our warm language around grace and blessing leaves a lot of people out in the cold.  Today is the day to figure out how to be a touch of grace for someone else.  Today is the day to stand with the innocents (and the not so innocents) who are in the process of being swallowed alive or otherwise engulfed by the storms of life.  

That’s how we honor the Holy Innocents—today and every day.


P.S. If you are similarly intrigued by these questions, I highly recommend an intense little book by Brother Joe Hoover, SJ called O Death Where Is Thy Sting (see my Goodreads review here), as well as the books, blog posts, and podcasts of Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved).

Throw It Aside

During last Sunday’s homily, Fr. Tim Lyons drew my attention to something in Mark’s Gospel that I’d never noticed before.

The healing of Bartimaeus is a deeply familiar tale–despite my having misspelled the man’s name in the manuscript of Finding God Abiding. (Thank God for copy editors!) Until now, however, I’ve always focused more on Jesus than on the man in need of healing.

I love the Lord’s courtesy in this story–asking the blind beggar, “What do you want me to do for you?” as if it’s not obvious. Jesus acknowledges that there could be something Bartimaeus wants more than sight. Maybe his mother is ill and he needs money for her care. Maybe he longs for a special someone to see him and return his affections. Why should we assume we know the deepest desire of his heart, if even Jesus politely asks? For that matter, why should we be so sure we know what anyone needs or wants, if we haven’t bothered to inquire?

That’s not where Fr. Tim went, however. Instead, he focused on the action of Bartimaeus, who “threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.” Taking off his chasuble, Fr. Tim threw it to the ground several feet away, then asked: If you’re a blind man and you throw your cloak aside, how are you going to find it? What are you betting on?

What are you betting on; I love that! When Jesus says, at the end of the story, “Go your way; your faith has saved you,” maybe he’s not just talking about Bartimaeus’ persistent (and, to the crowd, annoying) cries for the Son of David’s attention. Maybe he’s not just praising the man’s willingness to voice his deepest desire and ask the impossible. Instead, maybe Jesus recognizes Bartimaeus’ saving faith in the very moment he throws aside his cloak–betting a true daily double on being given the sight to find it again.

“Master, I want to see,” Bartimaeus exclaims.

Do we? Want to see?

How clear do we want our vision to be? And what are we willing to throw aside to get it?

Right now, I’m reading Pope Francis’ pandemic-inspired book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. He divides the book into three sections: A Time to See ~ A Time to Choose ~ A Time to Act. In the first section, Francis suggests that there is something we need to do, if we want to see clearly. “You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is,” he insists. “I’ve always thought that the world looks clearer from the periphery, but in these last seven years as Pope, it has really hit home. You have to make for the margins if you want to find a new future” (p. 11).

This echoes something I recently read in Henri Nouwen’s Sabbatical Journey, in which he muses about the “new mysticism” of astronauts witnessing the big blue marble of Earth. “The observations made from outer space seem very similar to those made from ‘inner space.’ They both reveal the precariousness of life, the unity of the human family, and the responsibility of the ‘seer’” (p. 22).

So, how do we make for the margins, the periphery, the edges of existence–assuming we don’t have a spare million in the bank and Jeff Bezos on speed dial?

One way to do it is to peek through windows opened for us by writers, photographers, and journalists–anyone who can bring into clearer focus the reality of life beyond our personal bubble. They, too, can show us the precariousness of life, the unity of the human family, and the responsibility of those with eyes to see.

In just the first chapter of Let Us Dream, for example, Pope Francis takes us to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh and a shanty town in Argentina, to an island in the South Pacific being slowly obliterated by the rising seas of climate change and a small Italian village where fishermen are pulling tons of plastic refuse from the sea. Reading these stories and anticipating more in subsequent chapters I realized that, because Francis is Pope of the whole world, he doesn’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye anywhere. (How does he bear it?)

Where do we find such windows for ourselves? It could be as simple as being mindful about what we read and watch. With a little intentionality, we can resist the “click bait” of stories designed only to intensify our own echo chamber, pausing instead to absorb something that our initial impulse had nudged us to bypass.

Of course, we also make for the margins any time we create space for genuine encounter with someone whose life experience is significantly different from our own. In order to do that, however, we may need to throw some things aside. Preconceived notions. Assumptions of superiority. Any hope of remaining unmoved, unchallenged, unchanged. As I say in Finding God Abiding, “Sight requires proximity, but proximity is not enough. We need insight, and insight requires vulnerability.”

It’s not comfortable. Throw aside the protective cloak of privilege, and we may never find it again.

Or maybe, if we ask God for the grace to see clearly, we won’t need to.

A Different Kind of King

I’m working on a new dramatic monologue, re-telling the “Martha/Mary” incident (Luke 10:38-42) from Mary’s perspective. (I’ve spent the last twenty years channeling Martha; in the second half of life, it’s time to hang out with her sister for a while.) At one point, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him speak, Mary exclaims, “Jesus, I’d love to live in the Kingdom of God!”

Her point is that the kingdom Jesus is describing sounds so much better than the Roman Empire under which they are living. I remember my Scripture professor Hal Taussig explaining that a better translation for “Kingdom” or “Reign” of God would be “God’s Imperial Rule.” In other words, Jesus was being as pointed (and political) as if he showed up in DC talking about “the United States of God.”

Thinking of it that way helps me stop tripping over Jesus’ use of a term both too male and too antiquated for a modern democracy in which kings–and queens–appear mostly as fairy tales or figureheads (or compelling Netflix characters).

This weekend, the Catholic Church celebrated the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, more commonly known as the Feast of Christ the King. This feast was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to what he saw as two worrisome trends: secularism and nationalism.

Ninety-five years later, that still feels spot-on. What better feast to celebrate in the wake of this divisive election season?  The “kingship” of Christ reminds us that, although we must strive to elect leaders who will advance the common good, our buck does not stop at the Oval Office. God’s law of love must reign in our hearts, because our real citizenship is as members of God’s one human family.  As Scripture says, we are “fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19), a household which knows no borders or political parties. 

In my monologue, when Mary exclaims that she wants to live in the Kingdom of God, Jesus takes the conversation in an unnerving new direction by responding: “But you do! We all do. Just look around you; the Kingdom of God is in your midst.  You just have to believe it exists . . . then start acting like one of its very good citizens.”

What does it mean to act like a very good citizen of the Kingdom / Reign / Imperial Rule / United States of God? At a minimum, in this fraught, ongoing election season, it means setting aside partisan bitterness and refusing to label or demonize the other side. And it means going beyond ourselves in practical care for those with whom Jesus identified in today’s Gospel. Can we see and respond to Jesus, for example, in those whose lives are threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic and/or the plague of white supremacy?

Our liturgical year comes to a close this week, as Ordinary Time gives way to Advent. However exhausted this far-from-ordinary season has left you, I pray that you will be able to move gently into the days ahead, drawing solace and strength from the One to whom we owe our first and final allegiance.

May your Advent days be extraordinarily blessed.

Christine

The Fruits of Autumn

I’ve just returned from a week of silent retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in beautiful Wernersville, PA.  For all the years I worked in higher ed, my retreats had to be in the summer, so this was my first opportunity to soak in the fall foliage of the rolling hills around God’s country house.  It felt fitting, pondering the autumn of my life (early autumn, one hopes) during the autumn of the year, as the fruits of both are similar.

First is the most obvious:  the stunning and particular beauty of this season.  On retreat, I spent hours outside, gazing at the gratuitous blaze of colors all around me, the leaves spiraling down like fiery snowflakes, the kind angle of sunlight turning the afternoons golden.  From the west cloister in the hour before dinner, I could bask in surprising warmth at the end of a clear, brisk day. 

It makes me conscious of the beauty of later life, for those who can embrace it gracefully.  I call to mind the white-haired women I know, the lines in their faces etched by a lifetime of smiles.  I think of the older Jesuits at Wernersville—men I’ve known for decades—joints stiff, shoulders a bit stooped, but their whole being still aflame with a well-tended fire that the Jesuit novices on retreat could only envy. 

Next are the literal fruits (and vegetables) of autumn.  Gone are the tender peaches and snap peas, the bumper crop of fast-growing zucchini; farm stands are full of apples, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes now.  This is the time for hearty produce:  the kind that has taken all season to ripen, that packs in the nutrients, and that can withstand the coming cold.

This is the wisdom of the autumn of life.  There are lessons that only come through time, reflection, and loss.  Certain spiritual insights are visible only from this vantage point, as we look back on our own personal salvation history.  The wisdom of autumn knows there is frost in the forecast, but has the power to nourish us through the dark days ahead.

And finally, there is the gleaning.  During my long walks on retreat, I saw the ground littered with corn cobs, acorns, and fallen apples.  The harvest is over, but there is so much still available to feed the sweet chipmunks, frisky squirrels, and roaming deer.  It reminds me of the Biblical mandate to leave the corners of one’s field unharvested, and not go back to pick any overlooked produce, so that those who are in need may find some sustenance.

Gleaning is all about availability.  We may not have a field to leave unplowed, but the autumn of life may give us a unique opportunity to make ourselves available.  With calendars no longer scheduled to the very edges, we are more free to respond to those in need, whether in our families, neighborhoods, or faith communities.  “Where do you need me today?” we can ask God, and listen for the answer.

And speaking of availability . . . If you can spare two hours on Tuesday, I’m offering a Zoom retreat through St. Placid Priory on the topic “Finding God in Ordinary (and Far-from-Ordinary) Time.”  We’ll explore nature as a way of connecting with God in any season, and consider the wisdom of St. Ignatius Loyola’s First Principle and Foundation.  The retreat will feature mostly presentation, with time for reflection and two brief breakouts.  That’s this Tuesday, October 27, from 12:30 – 2:30 p.m. EASTERN.  Click here to register ($25).

Though we live in fraught times (understatement!), I hope this autumn finds you able to appreciate the beauty, wisdom, and availability that the season evokes in these waning weeks of Ordinary Time.

May your ordinary (and far-from-ordinary) days be extraordinarily blessed!

Christine

P.S. I am offering several Advent retreats in both live and Zoom formats; stay tuned for a newsletter with details in early November, or visit my Speaker page.

In the Upper Room of our Quarantine

            My heart goes out to the people in that upper room in the first chapter of Acts. Once upon a time, they had been capable fishermen, efficient tax collectors, competent homemakers, and women of means.  After meeting Jesus and being swept into his company, they’d had a crash course in discipleship, but they were still a ragtag bunch.  There were the brothers who had quarreled over who was greater, the woman from whom seven demons had gone out, the gaggle who always needed the parables explained, and that blustery fellow who spent an awful lot of time with his sandal in his mouth.  Then tragedy struck, followed by mystery.  And now they were expected to be . . . what?  His “witnesses to the ends of the earth?”  What did that even mean? 

            Yet on Pentecost day, Scripture says, devout Jews from every nation under heaven heard them speaking in their own tongues of the mighty acts of God.  The disciples had spent most of their lives knowing how to do one thing, and then they learned to do something else entirely, and then the Holy Spirit came upon them, and then they changed the world. 

            If their transformation seems dizzying, it might help to peek back into the upper room.  Our mental image of that place may be DaVinci’s table-for-thirteen, but Luke tells us there were actually some one hundred and twenty persons gathered there.  What did they do in those ten days between Ascension and Pentecost?  Two things we know:  they devoted themselves to prayer, and they discerned who had the right gifts for the work ahead, adding Matthias to the Eleven in place of Judas.  Although they had no idea what would happen next, they stayed together, they prayed, and they did what they could until the Holy Spirit enabled them to do far more.

That’s a reasonable mandate for us during this Coronavirus crisis.  Stay together (at least in mind and heart).  Pray.  Discern what you can do.  Wait for the Holy Spirit.

What has impressed me most about this time of shutdown is how people are learning to do things they never did before: pastors live-streaming Mass in near-empty churches; classroom teachers giving Zoom lessons from their kitchens; reporters broadcasting from their tidied-up dens.  Much of this is made possible by technology, of course, enabling the self-quarantined to work from home, video chat with grandchildren, even play board games online with friends.  A colleague of mine recently observed that, if this had happened just a decade ago, the entire school year would have been a wash.  No graduations, no promotions to the next grade: just one giant do-over. 

However, what is intriguing right now not just about the technology.  I am so touched by the way people are rummaging around in their hearts and their skill sets, bringing forth whatever is useful for the need at hand.  Makers of quilts are churning out masks.  Performers are finding new ways of getting their art into the world.  Distributors who used to move food from farms to fancy restaurants are packing boxes for hungry families instead.  Of course, these pivots could be short-term strategies—designed to maintain an income stream or a sense of purpose—yet I believe that some of these new endeavors actually hold the seeds of future promise.

And it’s not just about what people are doing, of course; it’s also—and more importantly—about the transformation happening within.  This season has been profoundly jarring, ripping away so much that we used to take for granted.  Perhaps you are on the front lines of the crisis, sacrificing safety at work, peace at home, or financial security.  Perhaps you are grieving the loss of someone dear.  Or perhaps you are among the lucky ones: riding it out quietly, but still having to let go of plans, assumptions, and certainties.  Here you are; here we all are, learning to abide in the unknown.

We are not unlike those early disciples: staying connected; praying in new ways; discerning next steps and waiting for the Holy Spirit to let us out of the room. 

In his book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser describes the tasks required for each stage of the paschal cycle (not only in the Bible, but in the countless dyings and risings of our own lives).  According to Rolheiser, the work from Ascension to Pentecost is this:  let the past ascend and bless you; receive the spirit for the life you are already living. 

We have begun to live into something new, here in the upper room of our quarantine.  It is not clear how much the Coronavirus crisis will yet ask of us, but this has gone on far too long to be just a blip on the radar screen, a ridiculous inconvenience we’ll tell stories about someday.  Now is the time to settle in, to pay attention, to notice the changes within and without. 

How might the Holy Spirit be transforming you?


I was honored to write this reflection as part of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps’ Ascension to Pentecost series, featuring contributions by Fr. Jim Martin, Dan Schutte, and more. If you are not familiar with IVC, check them out: Experience Making a Difference!

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Spiritual Sustenance for the Self-Quarantined

Thank you to everyone who subscribed to this; stay tuned for whatever’s next!

No doubt you have experienced a cascade of cancellations this week, as schools, theaters, and other public venues have shut down to try to contain the Coronavirus.  It has all happened so quickly:  yesterday morning, I was speculating about whether to go forward with next week’s Lenten retreat; by last night, our Archbishop had announced the cancellation of all parish activities.

As a new member of the “gig economy,” my first thought was about all the work I would be missing.  Pretty quickly, however, my mind turned to the countless people who hunger for spiritual sustenance during the season of Lent. So many of you have signed up for retreats, programs, or days of prayer which are now not happening, or rely on the company and inspiration of groups which are now not meeting.  Ironically, such sustenance is needed more than ever in these days of unprecedented uncertainty.

So I’m going to try something new.  Starting next Saturday, March 21, I will release the audio file of one chapter of Finding God in Ordinary Time each day, accompanied by a second file in which I muse a bit on that day’s content.  (Fresh bread!)  Counting the Introduction, that’s 29 days of content, which will take us all the way through the Octave of Easter on Sunday, April 19.  For this, I’m asking just $30. (Those subscribing in Week Two will receive 23 days of content for $20.)

People have been inquiring about an audiobook for some time now, and while the quality won’t be quite as good (no fancy intro music or special effects, though sometimes you might get a free train whistle), I hope that you will enjoy hearing the stories in my own voice.  

And now if you could please say a prayer to the patron saint of technology for me . . .

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Walking Out of the Desert

This reflection may look familiar to my long-time readers, but—since we are back to the “A Cycle” readings—it seemed worth re-posting. It may not be “fresh bread,” but hopefully it still nourishes!

Jesus returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.  -Luke 4:1

We only hear about the 40th day.

What happened during the other 39?

Jesus was propelled out into the desert after his baptism, after he heard those life-changing words: You are my beloved son.  Did it take him that long, perhaps, to figure out what it meant to be God’s son, and what on earth he should do next?

And this “devil” – more appropriately translated “opponent” or “obstructor” – what exactly was he trying to oppose and obstruct?  And how?

I believe that, during those 40 days, Jesus wrestled with his understanding of his mission – not just the “why” and the “what” but especially the “how” of his public ministry.  Opposed and obstructed at every step.

And since the good is often the enemy of the best, I suspect that the great obstructor suggested all sorts of tangential issues to care about, alternate strategies to pursue.  Maybe Jesus needed those 40 days (the Biblical number for “a really long time”) to clear his head of all that rubbish, to be calm and focused and purposeful, to learn exactly how to direct his energy.

Here’s how I picture that final day:

It’s over.

Plans and possibilities have been considered and rejected.  Powers, perhaps, have been explored, and reliance on them restricted.  Hungry, weary, yet resolute, Jesus begins to trudge back towards civilization, leaning on his staff.

He is really hungry.

The stones at his feet shimmer in the heat; squint your eyes and they look like bread.

Then that damn voice again.  “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”  If?  If?  Always if!  The Spirit had said so; hadn’t he heard it?  Hadn’t everyone?  He’d just spent 40 days growing into that identity.  Why was the “if” back?  If you are the Son of God … and not some delusional freak!

Turning the stone to bread; would that silence the “if” for good?  The walk back was so long, and he was so hungry.  This was so hard.  What harm would it do?  Who would know?  What was the use of being God’s son, if you couldn’t feed yourself when you were hungry?

As he leans on his staff, he realizes that hunger and weariness are feeding him insecurity and taking him to the brink of unraveling all the resolutions he made when he was feeling stronger.  Mental note – fatigue and hunger are dangerous.  The strongest resolutions can start to slip away under their siege. He must steel himself against such lapses in logic; he cannot use his “magic powers” for his own comfort or convenience.  (And though he does not know it yet, If he can’t resist making bread when he is hungry, how will he resist the jeers of the crowd telling him to come down off that cross … baiting him with that word “if” again?)

More importantly, he can’t cave to the urge to prove himself for the sake of his pride.  That can’t end well.

Once the first temptation is resisted, the subsequent ones get easier. (Probably a good lesson for the rest of us.)  Though they do have their own specific appeal.

Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.   The devil said to him … all this shall be yours, if you worship me.  (Luke 4:5-7)

Now that is tempting.  All the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.  Just think of all the places he will never visit in his lifetime.  All the places it will take his followers years … decades … even centuries to reach, and how much his message could be warped in transmission!

And yet the devil here has overreached, showed his hand.  He doesn’t have the power.  The kingdoms are not his to give.  Easy to resist.

So the obstructor takes a step back.  Returns to what almost worked the first time.  If you are the Son of God … throw yourself down (from the parapet of the temple).   For he will command his angels to guard you … (Luke 4:9-10).

Again, there is a certain draw.  It would get people’s attention, that’s for sure. He wouldn’t have to struggle against their disbelief in the “carpenter’s son.” Wouldn’t have to take the hard road.  (Might not even wind up on the cross.)

But no.

The devil’s lures are getting tiresome.

This is not the way, and he knows it.  He walks on, feeling stronger, resolute. And so the devil retreats, waiting for Jesus’ defenses to go down again.

To do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason. That’s the challenge that was laid before Jesus, and that lies before each of us every day.

Take Nothing for the Journey?

Warning:  this is a LONG rumination!  Read it when you are in the mood for something to chew on.

When I traveled with Maryknoll missionaries to campus ministry sites in Peru and Bolivia in 2001, I felt prepared for anything.  In my suitcase—one of the largest in our group—I had clothes for every climate, remedies for every malady, and even “hostess” gifts for every community:  four one-pound Whitman Sampler boxes!  With difficulty, I dragged that giant bag up and down the stairs of each new residence; with embarrassment, I watched our guides strain to get it to the top of the bus each time we changed cities.  

At the other end of the packing spectrum was Fr. Claude, an older Canadian priest, who carried only a duffel bag.  A smallish duffel bag at that—and it was not full.  He wore the same sweater every day, and washed his socks and underwear in the bathroom sink each night.  My chocolate weighed more than his luggage!  Watching him hop up and down steps and on and off buses with that thing, I experienced a wee bit of judgment (no one was turning to him for Band-Aids or Pepto-Bismol) and a hefty dose of jealousy.  Fr. Claude might not have brought any presents, but he was so unencumbered that he was free to share the gift of his presence everywhere we went.

Fr. Claude might not have brought any presents, but he was so unencumbered that he was free to share the gift of his presence everywhere we went.

That experience, almost twenty years ago, stirred my lasting interest in packing—both logistically and as a metaphor—as it shows up in life, in literature, and even in Scripture.  Cleaning out deceased loved ones’ houses, downsizing, and giving up my office (AKA overflow storage) added a new intensity to my wrestling match with “stuff.”  And now, as I plan for the Ignatian Camino this fall, I realize I will finally be taking a page from Fr. Claude’s book: in Spain, I will be washing my (limited) unmentionables in the sink each night! 

Continue reading

Follow the Thread

“Try to think of it as a long thread,” Jim said.  “Il filo, in Italian.” 

This past Monday night, my church choir was practicing for Christmas, working on a new song that was not yet pretty enough for prime time (AKA Midnight Mass at St. Vincent’s).  Our accompanist, Jim Primosh, was trying to help us sing more smoothly by getting us to think beyond individual words or notes to the “through line” carried on our breath, unbroken and continuous.  He encouraged us to picture il filo—the long thread running through the music.  This image helped our singing a great deal, but what really caught my attention was that it was the second time I’d encountered “following the thread” as an analogy in less than a week. 

The first time was at a mentoring breakfast last Friday.  I was talking with a wonderful young man who had just changed majors, following his passion away from a clear career path.  We were discussing my recent shift from campus ministry to freelance work—also a leap into the less clear.  Andrew observed, “All the things you really loved, you’re still doing—just in a different context.”  The image of the continuous thread came to me (though I hadn’t heard the lovely Italian yet), and I described the things that matter most to me as a thread running through everything I’ve done.  “Find your own thread,” I encouraged Andrew.  “If you can see where it’s been, you can follow it forward.” 

We talked about personal mission, and the concept of a “six word mission statement” from a leadership training session at Gwynedd Mercy University. For a long time, I’ve been using the six-word tag line: Connecting Scripture, Spirituality, and Everyday Life.  Challenged to come up with a more personal motto, however, I found myself drawing on the words of the Baltimore Catechism (which, NO, I am not old enough to remember, but that didn’t stop my mom from teaching it to me).  Why am I here?  Six words:  Help others know / love / serve God.  That’s a clear thread.  The context doesn’t matter nearly as much as making sure whatever I’m doing serves that goal.

Through subsequent conversation with Jim Primosch (who happens to be an acclaimed composer and brilliant pianist as well as a parishioner of St. Vincent’s and an incredibly patient music teacher), I learned that an even more elegant term for il filo is the French la grande ligne, the main or “pure, true line” running through great music.  Jim pointed me to an article that brings together theology and music around this concept of la grande ligne:

“The more that music, however complicated it is internally, gives off a pure, true line, the more intelligible it is—and that’s why nine out of ten developments, which are not integral parts of the form, but some sort of filler for the blank spaces between the essential points, are false and wearisome.” 

(Letter from composer and music teacher Nadia Boulanger, cited in Jeanice Brooks The Musical Work of Nadia Boulanger: Performing Past and Future Between the Wars.)

In this season of Advent—a time in which we are called to create space for God—I am intrigued by that image of “false and wearisome” things that are just “filler for the blank spaces between essential points.”  It’s like St. Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:10:  May you learn to value the things that really matter, up to the very day of Christ.  (That’s the 1970 NAB, no longer in use liturgically, but gosh, I do love some of the phrasing.)  This is a season for noticing the false and wearisome filler that keeps us from spotting and following the divine thread in our lives.  Instead of filling up the blank spaces with chatter, frittering, or mindless acquisition, can we grow more willing to rest in them?  Can we pause in the darkness long enough to let the essential points of our life come clear? 

This image of il filo or la grande ligne also can help us make sense of our disjointed personal history.  If we’ve been through significant changes, our life narrative can begin to seem more like a collection of short stories than one great mystery novel.  We change schools, jobs, and homes; we find and lose life partners; we are healthy, then we’re not.  In the midst of such flux, it is helpful to remember what is unchanging in our lives.  This includes our deepest passions and convictions, loves that continue beyond the grave, and—at the heart of it all—our relationship with God, described by the Hindu poet Tagore as “the one companion of my endless life, who links my heart with bonds of joy to the unfamiliar.”

That’s the thread. 

In this Advent season, at Christmastime, and always, may you follow it with confidence into the unknown future. 

Stay Awhile

“Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” – Luke 10:42

For many of us, these words of Jesus to Martha do not sit well. “Raise your hand if you feel sorry for Martha,” I often ask. Inevitably, more than three-quarters of the hands in the room go up. The poor woman was just trying to put dinner on the table, for Pete’s sake. (And for James’ sake, and John’s, and Andrew’s . . . . those guys were hungry!)

The “Mary/Martha Incident” is one of my most requested dramatic interpretations, no doubt because it touches into a tension present in church folks everywhere. Call it action vs. contemplation, or doing vs. being. As busy, busy people, deeply involved in families and communities and ministries, we may actually draw our identity from going the extra mile on a regular basis. We don’t want to hear that we’ve missed the mark—that doing better would somehow involve doing less.

Yesterday, the Mary/Martha Gospel was one of the assigned readings for Mass. Today, I want to share one new insight that came as I pondered it with my parish faith-sharing group last week.

The insight came because of the pairing of Luke’s Gospel with the Genesis story of Abraham offering hospitality to three visitors. The Roman Catholic Lectionary is arranged so that the first reading, usually from the Hebrew Scriptures, echoes the theme of the day’s Gospel reading. So, before hearing Jesus chastise Martha for griping about being “burdened with much serving,” we hear Abraham being rewarded for offering lavish hospitality to strangers, who turned out to be God and a couple of angels. (That’s a dramatically over-simplified take on the readings, I know. Hang in there with me.)

One big difference between the two stories, of course, is that Abraham had help. He didn’t make the rolls himself; Sarah did. He didn’t roast the steer himself; his servant did. (I can almost feel Martha rolling her eyes.)

But here’s the new thing that really caught me this week. Running to Sarah, Abraham says, “Quick; three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls.” And then he selects the aforementioned choice steer, and gives it to a servant, who “quickly prepared it.”

I’m sorry; what?

If you’ve ever made bread, you know: if you’re starting with flour, rolls are going to take a while. Like, hours, waiting for the yeast to rise. It also takes hours to make a roast—and that’s when you’re starting with a nice package from the Acme, not a live animal frolicking in your field. The double use of the word “quick” in this story may mean that the characters hastened, but it doesn’t make it a quick visit by any means.

How long did the three visitors sit in the shade of the tree, bathing their feet and sipping a cool drink and chatting with Abraham? What did they talk about? What else might Abraham have had to do that afternoon, that he let go of because being present to these strangers was more important?

“Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.”

Hebrews 13:2

And there’s the rub. For many of us, it is easier to perform quality actions than to pay quality attention. To let the interruption of our day become the substance of our day, without resentment. To take the time–whatever time it takes–to be with those God has placed in our path, entertaining angels knowingly or unknowingly.

I am not always good at this. I empathize with Jesus’ description of Martha in my Spanish Bible: Tu andas preocupada y pierdes en mil cosas. (“You go about worried and lose yourself in a thousand things.”) But I appreciated the reminder, this week, of what I’m called to do.

In the words of Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881):

Life is short,
And we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who
make the journey with us.
So… be swift to love,
and make haste to be kind.
And the blessing of God,
who made us,
who loves us,
and who travels with us
be with you now and forever.

Amen!

As always, may your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed–especially when they are interrupted!

Christine