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! 

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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.


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


How Long Does it Take to Change?

This season, I am loving Ann Garrido‘s Lenten devotional “The Living Gospel” from Ave Maria Press.  We’re only five days in, of course, but so far each pithy, insightful observation by the author of Redeeming Conflict and Redeeming Administration has kept me ruminating all day.

On this first Sunday of Lent, Ann wrote about the fact that “These Forty Days of Lent” aren’t actually forty days (go ahead, do the math).  Forty is more of a symbolic number.  I knew that the biblical forty generally stands for “a really long time” (think of the Israelites’ forty years in the desert, or Jesus’ forty days in the desert, or the forty days from Easter to Ascension).  But Ann took it a step farther, explaining that the number forty in the Bible represents “the length of time it takes for a change to be complete and something new to begin.”


Then, at St. Vincent’s this morning, Fr. Tom McKenna preached about “disruption” as a necessary ingredient in change.  When the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert, he suggested, it was more of a “divine shove” than a gentle invitation.

This makes sense to me.  Change does not come easily to most of us.  Often we are pushed into circumstances not of our choosing: the disruption of illness, or trauma, or other external life change.  The internal change (spiritual growth) follows after, if we can open ourselves to the invitation buried in the disruption.  Only then can something new begin.

For many years now, I’ve been encouraging people to “lean into life” during Lent.  “Choose your sacrifices” I say, “but draw close to God in the sacrifices life chooses for you.”  This year, I want to pay attention to disruption: the things that break in and get my attention against my will.  What is God inviting me to through them?   How am I being called to change?  And how long will my forty days be?

The concept of change is something I am itching to explore in a next book (#2 or #3, I’m still not sure). How have I changed over the years?  What made lasting change possible?  Now that I’m less than two weeks out from my editing deadline for Finding God in Ordinary Time, I have this fantasy of having time to re-read the dozens of journals I’ve kept over the years, tracing the origins of what eventually became my firmly held spiritual beliefs.  We shall see.

For now, I just want to keep leaning into life, being present to the demands and disruptions of each day, and marveling at the goodness of God–and other people–in the midst of it all.

And speaking of the goodness of other people . . . thank you to everyone who weighed in last week on my chapter title.  I chose “Finding God in an Outstretched Hand,” in part for the ambiguity of it.  Whose hand are we talking about here?  That of a beggar at the Basilica, or my own?  Or the reader’s?  Thank you to Ann-Therese Ortiz (old friend, spiritual director, and generally wise woman) for the suggestion.  I can’t wait to inscribe your book!

Blessings to all in this holy season.  May each of your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed!

– Christine



Many Paths Up the Mountain

To all who have been waiting for the news (and with apologies for my 24-hour lack of internet access), here it is: Jen Epstein is the winner of Pitch Week X at When Words Count.  Jen’s edgy, insightful, hilarious essays about life as a young(ish) Brooklynite struggling with OCD are collected in her book Don’t Get Too Excited: It’s Just a Pair of Shoes and Other Laments from My Life.  This is an amazing opportunity for Jen, and I’m truly happy for her.

So what about Finding God in Ordinary Time?  

I am excited to announce that I have been offered a publishing contract from Green Writers Press with an anticipated launch next fall!  I’m going to take a beat to ponder and pray, and to consult with people who know the publishing world better than I do.  But I’m thinking that this thing may have God’s fingerprints all over it.  Curious?

Read on . . .

Three summers ago I went on retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA (or God’s country house, as I like to call it).  I spent many hours praying with a book of poetry: Mary Oliver’s Thirst. The poem I savored most is called “Praying;” I even tucked it in at the end of my manuscript as an homage, because it says in just a few precious words (the poet’s gift!) what I have tried to express throughout my book. When I met the judges in August I discovered that Thirst (as well as three of Mary Oliver’s other books) actually had been designed by . . . wait for it . . . Dede Cummings, founder of Green Writers Press and one of the judges for Pitch Week X.

(As I say in the book, I can’t make this stuff up!)

I went into Pitch Week not knowing how it would end but holding the outcome lightly, trusting that good would unfold.  And as I said at the beginning of this journey, there are many roads up the mountain, many paths to God.

Stay tuned!


Help Our Unbelief!

Of all the Gospel stories, none illustrates the poignant chasm between one’s professed and operative theologies better than this Sunday’s account of the raising of Lazarus.

I have been intrigued by those technical terms since grad school.  Professed Theology: that which we say we believe–what we even believe we believe.  And Operative Theology: that which–when push comes to shove–it turns out we actually believe.

Martha, in today’s Gospel, articulates a magnificent professed theology.  Confronting Jesus after the death of her brother, she boldly proclaims, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  Amen, sister; preach!

But as soon as they get to the tomb, she changes her tune.  “Take away the stone,” Jesus instructs.  And Martha protests, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days!”

So which is it, sister?  Do you really believe that God will give Jesus whatever he asks?  Or is the inside of that tomb the last thing you want to see . . . or smell?

There’s nothing like a little genuine distress to bring our operative theology zooming to the surface.  That truth is summed up even more succinctly by the father of a possessed boy in Mark’s Gospel (9:14-29) who cries out “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

Which honestly is okay.

People of faith are supposed to be lifelong learners.  We are taught things, and we memorize things, and we repeat things, and often there is no need to examine whether or not we really believe these things–until there is.  The awful beauty of being backed into a theological corner is that we might need to confront what we really believe for the very first time.  (Hence my trouble with the phrase everything happens for a reason!)

But the good news–for Martha today, for the possessed boy’s father another day, and for us every day–is that God doesn’t need our faith in order to work wonders.  Jesus rolled away the stone despite Martha’s apparent disbelief.  He healed the possessed boy despite his father’s acknowledged disbelief.  And God moves in our lives, no matter how far apart our professed and operative theologies may be.

We do believe, Lord.  Help our unbelief!



Walking Out of the Desert

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.

Is Christ Divided?

On the day after Donald Trump’s Inauguration I cantored for the vigil Mass at my parish, where I was struck by the second reading (1 Cor 1:10-13, 17).   In it we learn that St. Paul is scandalized by rumors of rivalries that have sprung up in the early Christian community.  He hears that people are saying “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”  Outraged, he asks, Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?

We shake our heads.  Silly Corinthians.  Yet the urge to separate and define ourselves by allegiances is persistent and–especially in today’s political climate–downright poisonous.

Remember when Catholics identified most with a particular religious congregation?  As children we were taught by Mercies or Macs or Joes, and if we went on to college we were formed by Jesuits or Augustinians or Christian Brothers (or Mercies or Macs or Joes).  Those charisms do run deep, but they don’t have the sharp edge of rivalry that Paul alludes to (at least not off the basketball court).  Instead it’s more like the beginning of a good-natured insider joke.  A Franciscan, a Benedictine and a Jesuit are talking about what they do with the Sunday collection . . .

But oy, this election season.

I feel blessed to be a member of St. Vincent DePaul parish in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, a church proud to be known as “the social justice parish.” We are a diverse and vibrant community.  At Sunday Mass our General Intercessions (written by a small cadre of parishioners) regularly feature prayers for immigrants, prisoners, and LGBT families.  We have a variety of social outreach ministries.  We are about to bless and display a Black Lives Matter banner in front of the church.  It feels as though we have been of one mind this season, and of one heart, and that heart may be broken, but at least we are together.

Some friends in other churches are not so lucky.  One walked out of her parish in late October, perhaps for good, when the pastor told congregants they would be putting their immortal souls in jeopardy if they voted a certain way in the presidential election.  Some walked out with her.  Yet others gave that same pastor a round of applause at the end of his homily.  Fast forward a few months to January 20; some parishioners probably cried when Obama’s helicopter took off, while others cheered.  They are a divided congregation filled with divided families in a divided nation.   And they are the norm these days.

Two days after the Inauguration I attended a Quaker meeting, where everyone who spoke had participated in one of the women’s marches on Saturday.  One man’s words drove home what had been nagging at me since the Corinthians reading.  He said, “In the course of my life I have seen so much suffering and cruelty inflicted on people and nations because of beliefs.”

We don’t belong to people these days (Paul, Apollos, Cephas or even Bernie, Hillary, or Donald), as much as to convictions and worldviews.  So if we are to learn a lesson from that reading from Corinthians, I think we have to ask ourselves what allegiances St. Paul would be shaking his fist at us for, given the chance.  How might he rewrite that bit of the Epistle now?  As tempting as it is to point the finger at those on the other side of the ecclesial aisle, today let me consider the plank in my own eye.  When I say, “I belong to the social justice parish” or “I belong to a welcoming and inclusive community” or “I belong to a parish where people are passionate about the liturgy” or “I belong to a church with a Black Lives Matter banner out front,” what am I really saying?   Is my attachment to those ways of being Catholic more important to me than the faith itself?

Is Christ divided?

It’s a mess.

I am nowhere near over being baffled by and harboring unkind thoughts toward people who believe differently than I do about our new president.  But I want to hold onto this:  we are each tending the light that we believe has been entrusted to us.  We each bring our raw, wounded, caring, imperfect selves up the aisle each week.  And I can only take responsibility for what I bring to the table.  So, in this moment of national turmoil, I want to try to bring equal measures of humility and charity.  When I get all self-righteous about my brand of Catholicism and all judgy about someone else’s, I’m bringing neither.

“On those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” Isaiah proclaimed in this weekend’s first reading (9:1b).  High time, I say.  Enough with this gloom!

But until that great day comes, maybe it’s enough that we try not to add to the darkness.