Sunday, February 22, 2015

Piety and Pity: Pope and “pius” in Paragraph 49

The Pope gives Catholics a new sense of "Sunday Duty"

“Pius Aeneas”, Virgil called him; “Dutiful Aeneas”.  The Latin “pius” meant “duty”, to family, to society, to the gods.  So Aeneas is depicted, fleeing from defeat in the Trojan War, carrying his father and holding the hand of his son.

As the Latin word moved through the flesh and blood of generations, it became two words, “pity” and “piety”. 

I often think that my Catholic churches are mostly inhabited on Sundays by the pious, those fulfilling their duty to their Father in Heaven, with their children in tow.  I was one of those children-in-tow, and one of those parents going and towing.  I continue, in a blend of duty and gratitude toward the God of compassion and mercy I continue to find there, to go to Mass, with no father to carry and my children too distant and grown to tow.

But Pope Francis seems to be calling us not only into church and a sense of dutiful piety, but out of church with a sense of pity, of compassionate response to those on the margins.  In the Gospel of the last Sunday before Lent, Jesus reached out and touched the leper, becoming ritually unclean by doing so. Francis writes, in Paragraph 49 of EvangeliiGaudium”:

49. Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk6:37).

I delight in this Pope’s call not only into my warm Catholic church to be fed at Mass, but out of my warm Catholic church, into the streets, to feed my brothers and sisters who sleep under cold bridges.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Come IN??

The “in”-ness to which this particular writing in Mark’s first chapter – believe in the Good News – calls us to look!

Life lived agape.

Inside a lofty interior, like a cathedral or other public building, our eyes are sometimes drawn upward by the architectural character of the space.  Something happens physically when we look straight up.  (You can try this.)  To look STRAIGHT up, we need to put or head back very far, and if we don’t stop it, our mouth opens to allow that upward turning.  We are literally agape.  Our mouth is a gaping shape from which our natural vocalization would be Ahhhhhh.

When we allow ourselves to stand in the middle of something, we are opening ourselves to Awwwwwwwwe.

Owned or Loaned?

A second thing that happens when we enter a place not our own (which includes any interpersonal relationship) is that we relinquish control.  The word “relinquish” is from the same Norse root as the word “loan.”  When we enter, we discover that something we thought we owned (our control) is only loaned to us.  When in the posting two days ago I mentioned someone swinging the door open and saying “Come IN” when all we wanted to do was drop something off – like “here’s a dinner for you; I gotta go.”  In 2012 I posted the story of a meal in a Migrant Camp in “I’m the 4th of the Magi: Doofus."

Funny.  We glibly say that our children are loaned to us, our life is loaned to us, but when we look at attitudes and behavior, we act as if we own them.  Even in amorous love, we are subliminally guided by syrupy lyrics like “You belong to me” and “Be mine”. 

Restrained or Embraced?

A third thing that happens when come IN to a place or relationship is that we are embraced.  The word “embrace” (in-bras) comes from French embrassier, to hold in the arms.  But it is natural for animals, including humans, to discern whether being held is threatening or loving. 
So Mark’s story of the beginning of the life of this historical character Jesus is the story of a guy who wants to embrace us, or even more quizzically wants us to let his Father, who we can’t see, embrace us. 

But the Good News that he invited us to believe from the inside is the Kingdom that has been promised to the striving, suffering, wandering, failing Jews, now occupied by the Romans.  (He swings the door wide open in a little while, inviting everybody, even the Romans.)  So those listening are looking for shelter from this political storm, a promised paradise, and protecting arms of a strong leader.

Will we let this invisible Father wrap us up and consider it embrace and not restraint?  Will we come in and light, relinquishing our plan made when we thought we owned our time?  Will we allow our emotional and psychological jaws to drop, and limit our language only to awwwwwe and ahhhhhhhhhh?  

Jesus called, in this reading from Mark’s first chapter, the first two of his homies, James and John.  But first he called us.  Will we enter?  Will you?

Next: Kingdom, Free Will, and Kid-Proof Car Doors

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Mirrors and Selfies and Eyes of Love

Courtesy LocalStew 1/22/2015
How many times, I wonder now, had Gary sensed the unasked question in Suzanne’s face: “How do I look?”

How many times did she hear the response in his unspeaking eyes: “You look beautiful.”

The Pope spoke on January 9th about “mirror men and women” who close themselves off from others, building a superficial and fragile sense of self from their image reflected in a mirror.  And research last year spoke of the compulsion to post “Selfies”, our image taken literally from arm’s length.  Francis said that focusing in on ourselves hardens our hearts.  Selfie research considered the need to establish one’s existence by posting evidence of it, kind of a “Posto, ergo sum” corollary of the Cartesian “Cogito ergo sum” premise.

Maybe it’s simpler than that.  Maybe we just look in the mirror or take a selfie to answer an ordinary question: “How do I look?”

Since reading about the Pope’s Mirror People reference, I’ve reflected on my friends on the street, the ones who live there, without mirrors or selfies to see how they look.  And I shudder to consider that they rely upon our gazes for their sense of self-worth. 

There is a car commercial that shows a pretty plain-looking guy walking unknowingly in front of a good-looking car.  Women look admiringly at the car, but he thinks they are looking alluringly at him.  

Pretty soon his posture and bearing change; he’s feeling pretty darned good about himself.

Cut to a guy in layers of clothes, unshaven and carrying his most essential belongings in a plastic bag. How many looks of disdain or averted eyes does it take before he feels pretty darned bad about himself?  Aversion and disdain are, spiritually speaking, looks that kill.

Yesterday I saw the photo on top that showed me that the opposite is true too.  Looks of love can give life.

Gary Lichtman is a real mensch.  Wikipedia describes that word adeptly as “a person with the qualities one would hope for in a friend or trusted colleague”. For years Gary was a colleague and friend at University of Detroit Mercy.  A few years ago we learned that his wife Suzanne had been diagnosed with cancer, and that the prognosis was not positive.  Yesterday was saw on his Facebook page that Suzanne had passed away.  The photo!  Look at their bright young faces in the lower half of the photo!  I see promise and hope and possibility and potential.  But it is the one on the top half that blows me away, because I see Suzanne’s beauty and the love in Gary’s eyes. 

Suzanne and Gary and their daughter had visited us last year, five years since our retirement had put us across the state from them.  Gary was his usual smiling self, all attention and encouragement and affirmation and gratitude.  So was Suzanne.  I reflected on her freedom to be her best self despite the hair loss and swelling that come with the cancer fight.  After only moments of thinking of their fight with cancer, I was fully drawn into their dance with life, their enjoyment of the moments with us surrounded by the beauty of nature.

How many times, I wonder now, had Gary sensed the unasked question in Suzanne’s face: “How do I look?”

How many times did she hear the response in his unspeaking eyes: “You look beautiful.”

I was just sitting with my writer friend Steve, who is “winter camping” in his van these months.  As we shared an order of toast and a couple of cups of coffee, I shared with him that I was writing this note about Suzanne, and her feeling beautiful because that’s the way she was seen.  And I shared too my fear that those on the street may learn to feel ugly.  He looked at me gently, and said, “For us, it’s all about finding relationships that help us see our value.”

Gary will, I hope, continue the work he does at the university, helping people see our best face, the beautiful things and people at our school.  And I pray that he will see Suzanne just looking at him, from time to time, with the same loving eyes as those with which he looks at us, that tell him he is a beautiful Mensch, that help him know his immeasurable value.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mark 1:14-20…Will you LIGHT for a minute??

I lean into life.  I’m awakened most mornings by the pull of a project, or a task, or a word.  

Meanwhile, my beloved sleeps, in the embrace of Psalm 127’s second verse.

It is vain for you to rise early
and put off your rest at night,
To eat bread earned by hard toil—
all this God gives to his beloved in sleep

Looking it up just now, I discovered that the first verse leads into this morning’s posting perfectly:

Unless the LORD build the house,
they labor in vain who build.
Unless the LORD guard the city,
in vain does the guard keep watch.

Mark’s Gospel leans forward too. 1/3 of the way into the first chapter, Jesus has already been prophesized by John the Baptist, baptized, tempted in the desert, and is into his Galilean ministry.  Mark’s my kind of man.  I recall Gust Kopack sweeping in from the milking barn, jumping out of his coveralls and putting on his fishing gear, calling to my godfather, “Come on, Joe, time’s a-wastin’!”  And off they’d go for our breakfast trout, the sun barely risen.

So it is no surprise that when I anticipated getting into this Sunday’s Gospel, it was all about the call of Jesus.  Drop everything and follow me.  Time’s a-wastin’.

But we’re a third of the way through this Gospel before Jesus calls Zebedee’s boys out of the boat.  His call comes only after he calls all in his earshot to “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Jesus didn’t say “believe the Gospel”.  I was all ready to jump up and go fishin’.  But the word in stopped me cold.  I’d never noticed that little word.  I am inclined to work at believing the Gospel from where I am, outside it.  I pick it up, read and study it, trying to understand it.  But Jesus called me to believe in it.  It was like He was a sweet old lady to whom I wanted to deliver a gift, who when she saw me, swing the door open, smiled and said “Oooo!  Come in!”

Looking at things from the inside is a whole ‘nuther thing than looking at them from the outside.  From the inside of a place or a person or a relationship, our affective faculties – our feelings – join our cognitive faculties – our thoughts – and we are given a three-dimensional picture, a four-dimensional experience. 

Do you lean into life too?  Can you join me for a few mornings in accepting the door-swung-wide-open invitation of Jesus to come in and light for a minute? 

Tomorrow: what it’s like from the inside.

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Monday, January 5, 2015

Christmas to Epiphany XII - Tenderness as the Fruit of Patience and Closeness

 On this 12th Day of Christmas, my final entry in response to the question of Fr. Delp – How are things different now that Christ is born – and the three characteristics of God – the Patience of God, the Closeness of God, and the Tenderness of God.

I desire to live a life of tenderness. I have had glimpses of this in relationships with people facing difficulty. 

When my dad was progressively weakening with congestive heart failure, my wife and I would make more and more frequent drives to Chicago, the six hours each way opportunity for preparation and reflection. For those condensed weekends, I was able to focus caring and kindness, knowing that my wife and I would soon be back in our car with time to reflect and recharge our batteries.  An unforgettable experience was that of my dad who was not expressive of his emotions looking into my eyes and saying “Johnny, you’re so kind to me.”

When my friend Fred had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, I had the opportunity in my retirement to sign up to spend time with him once a week.  As with my dad, the focused, short-term time with him allowed me to be very kind and loving.  I was free to be the best of myself.  Fred came to know me at my best, and in his eyes I saw myself at my best as well.

My relationships with people experiencing homelessness has mellowed over time, allowing me to focus on them, help them see their own dignity and value…because I have been blessed to see them as good, as my dad and Fred saw me. 

As I have reflected on these experiences of tenderness, I realize that tenderness is a fruit of patience and closeness.  These times with my dad, with Fred, with my acquaintances on the street are really effortless. The effort that preceded them were being getting past impatience and isolation. 

So today on the 12th Day of Christmas, I’ve outlined what I’ve come to learn about Patience and Closeness, and set out some closing thoughts on Tenderness.

1.    Patience
a.    With myself: allow time to be simply loved by God, to learn God as source of all, and my primary and essential identity as beloved
b.    With others
                                          i.    Grace to keep in mind they will not grow as I think they should
                                         ii.    Grace to keep in mind that they are as imperfect as I am
c.    With God
                                          i.    God as friend – is not made in my image; God’s ways are not my ways. God is perfection, harmony, truth and beauty, goodness…but not as I define or expect.
d.    Withal: nature other than man shows growth as slow, seasonal
1.    Do I accept starts and lags in myself and others as natural, or as failings of consistency and persistence, as imperfection to be grown beyond?
2.    Do I respect the season of my own life (retired and aging)?
2.    Closeness: as night and day guide all of nature to work and rest, closeness to God in solitude and closeness to God in human companionship are gifts in alternation as well as combination.
a.     To others
                                          i.    This Christmas gift of God-as-Love calls me to be accept the gift and share it.  Being drawn into relationships is natural.
                                         ii.     Aversion to others is based on fear of them or of my own inadequacy, each a failure of trust in God’s love.
                                        iii.    Physics and grace consort to draw me to the other.  As I get closer, attraction increases, grace providing what is needed for the relationship.
b.    To myself - sitting with myself, accepting of my imperfection, respecting my own needs, physical and emotional
c.    To God: time for nothing but God, in prayer, liturgy, nature
d.    To all: delight in beauty of nature, including people, without taking responsibility to nurture or change, to remake them according to my preference

3.    Tenderness:  My tenderness has come in focused relationships, condensed periods of time.  I thought momentarily that it was like putting on a costume of kindness and acting out the part.  But I think it was actually removing the shell of my self-doubt and fear and acting as my true self. What difference it makes to me that Christ is born – Fr. Delp’s question – will show in the degree that I am this true self with my wife, my children, my neighbors, those who I see without the gift of preparation and focus.  

But I need to remember that the Pope spoke of these three characteristics as characteristics of God. They will never be mine except through the unearned and freely given gift of GRACE!

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Christmas to Epiphany XI: Step Two, and a Longer Walk

This is the Eleventh Day of Christmas, and Epiphany approaches quickly 

Fr. Delp’s question, how has the birth of Christ changed me, has been playing in my mind – falling asleep, waking, and in moments of quiet that have somehow invaded my busy days.  The question has found paths in my darkness by the light of the three characteristics that Pope Francis says that God is to us, and calls us to be to others – patience, closeness, and tenderness.  I notice now that these paths, having been walked on repeatedly, are becoming easier to recognize, easier to walk.  God’s way is becoming worn in me.

Walking ,walking, walking…this brings me right back to where yesterday’s story left off – my learning from relationships with people living on the street.  Step one was finding a way to actually sit down with them.  Step two is walking the streets with them.

I’d been helped through the first step – sitting down with Malcolm and feeling my kinship to him.  But when our parish’s shelter week was over, I lost the opportunity for a relationship with him.  It was a Warming Center that let me proceed toward God’s call to me to “touch them.”  Sts. Peter and Paul is a parish in downtown Detroit that is staffed by the Jesuits.  With the urban mission of the university and the urban commitment of the Jesuits and the Sisters of Mercy, the parish opened “Sts. Peter and Paul Warming Center”.   Brother Jim was a Jesuit who had started the Warming Center, but led from the rear, empowering those who began as guests to become hosts.  So the luncheon was prepared by those with the gift of feeding, and the speakers were those among them with the gift of words.  The room was filled with people sitting at round tables.  They were law school people on lunch break, parishioners, street people, Jesuits and Mercys, and others who supported the center. 

I’d shared that Ignatian Contemplation, inviting us to enter the story, to be there in it, and not just intellectualize, had been a powerful influence on me, driving me to take the first step.  And it was that gift that drew me powerfully to take the second.  The luncheon speaker told us that the Warming Center was special to him and the others who were homeless because it was a place where they were welcomed, not shunned.  He told us something that I never thought about.  While there are numerous places that those on the street can go for lunch and dinner and shelter, the in-between times find them walking from place to place because to stop is to loiter or freeze.  Duck into a restaurant or store to get out of the cold and you are asked to leave.  Sit down and you are dangerously cold…and seen as loitering, being seen as an eyesore or a threat.  So, he said “We walk, as if we had somewhere to go.”

Just as my retreat had “taken me in” – to the story of Jesus and the crowd – His simple mention of “walking as if we had somewhere to go” took me in to life on the street.  As a passionate introvert, I feel capable of being social when there is something that I can do, some use I can fill.  But ask me to simply mix with people and I’m tortured by self-consciousness.  So at conferences when I am presenting or participating in sessions, I’m comfortable.  But put me in a “reception” in a large room full of strangers, and I want to escape.  Since escape was not appropriate, I’d found a way to cope.  I’d walk randomly through the room as if I had somewhere to go.  I’d do this until we were free to sit down for the meal…just like the person on the stage was saying.  So those words “as if I had somewhere to go” transported me into a person on the street doing the same thing.  I was walking to stay warm, self-conscious of the fact that I didn’t belong, averting my eyes, looking at the cracked sidewalk.  And then I realized that I smelled, and that the clothes that I was wearing were not my own. 

My retreat experience of Jesus calling me beyond my revulsion to the crowd was so real that I knew it as truth for me.  And this very real walk on the streets of Detroit in clothes not my own had the same certain truth for me.

I’d been given three gifts.  I knew in my mind what a Warming Center was.  I knew in my mind why they were valued.  But me than anything else, I found that we have something in common, the street people and me.  We have words to speak…and we find similar ways to cope with our gifts being unneeded or undesired.

And three responses emerged. I left the luncheon shocked to know that there were thousands of people on the street in the city I held proudly as my own.  I felt ashamed that I had lived so long and thought of myself as a caring person so deeply, while this went on and I did not feel it.  And I was determined to make this reality a part of my life. 

The story has continued to unfold since that day at Sts’ Peter and Paul.  After becoming deeply engaged with people on the streets in Detroit and those who care about and for them, retirement in Northern Michigan gave me the opportunity to find caring on a smaller and more personal scale. 

See more about this; learn about my developing ministry with Home Sweet Homelessness, a board game designed in a shelter that serves as a learning tool to help close the distance between those with homes and those without.

Tomorrow – Tenderness as the fruit of patient closeness.

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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Christmas to Epiphany X: Getting Closer – the First Step

On this tenth day of Christmas, we continue to reflect on Fr. Alfred Delp’s question, what difference it makes in our lives that Christ is born.  And we return to the model of the good life provided by Pope Francis in his Midnight Mass homily as we look toward Epiphany, the opening to that good life: The patience of God, the closeness of God, the tenderness of God.


Yesterday’s posting began to look at the closeness of God by proposing that being close with another calls us beyond fear and self-doubt through the gift of “actual grace”, a gift given freely to us as we begin to act, to reach out.  And I promised to share the story of my own becoming close with people who are homeless…despite my strong aversion to it!  Here’s the story of the first small step.

In my first 8-day Ignatian retreat, my director had given me a story to enter in prayerful imagination. 

There I was in the crowd as Jesus walked down the road, the crowd attracted by his healing and his speaking. By now I had been on retreat for a few days, and felt very close to the person Jesus.  And as I saw him coming closer to where I was, each of us being moved by the crowd, I felt in myself a desire to walk with him, right next to him, like the white minister I recall walking next to Martin Luther King in a march in the 60’s. 

But the crowd was thick and aggressive, pushing toward Jesus, saying “Touch me, Jesus!” “Love me, Jesus!”  “Heal me, Jesus!” 

I looked at Jesus, flanked by some of his closest followers, who were trying to give him room to walk.  I wanted to be one of them, one of Jesus’ friends.  I found myself next to him, on his left, and as he looked straight ahead, I said “I want to touch you, Jesus.”  “I want to love you.”  I want to heal you!

He looked at me deeply, calmly, and with the pity of someone who loves one who does not understand, and gently said to me, “Don’t touch me, touch them!  Love them! Heal them!”

I looked down, to where my heart sank. I felt revulsion for the crowd. They were dirty.  They smelled, like the baskets of dirty laundry that I remember my grandmother bringing for my mother to wash when I was a small child. I literally sobbed to Jesus, “I don’t want to touch them!  I want to touch you!”  I realized that I was pleading with him.  But he looked again at me, kind but firmly repeating, “Touch them. Love them.  Heal them.”

In my revulsion of the crowd despite Jesus’ clear mandate to me, I knew that my contemplation had taken me to a truth in myself. Where Jesus was calling me to compassion for the crowd, I was stuck with my revulsion, my distaste for them.  I did not come to resolution on this.  I took it home with me.  If one can look at “sin” not as a shameful act deserving punishment, but sin as distance from God, I would say that I went home knowing my sin.  I committed it to prayer, but I did not resolve it.


Some months later I was in the kitchen of our church hall making sandwiches for the guests of our rotating homeless shelter, with other members of my prayer community.  I was concentrating on being productive, spreading the peanut butter and jelly, bagging the sandwiches, there in the clean, bright kitchen, so I could get back to my afternoon’s work across the street at my job on campus.  I was in the huddle of my friends doing something charitable.  Our quiet conversation paused as we realized that the evening’s guests had arrived on their bus, and were walking single file down the hallway outside the kitchen. We could see them through the narrow opening of the door.

Suddenly I was back in that retreat chapel, and they were the crowd, and I knew that Jesus was telling me to touch them, but I was glad to be separated by the kitchen wall.  Again I decided to retreat with my sin in place.  I finished my work and got back to my job.  But I knew that I needed to get past that wall.

The next day I went to the woman coordinating our rotating shelter and told her I’d like to cook and serve a meal. We did not serve the hot breakfast from the kitchen, but from long tables out in the cafeteria.  There was no wall to separate us from the shelter guests.  After serving breakfast on that first morning, I hesitatingly took my own breakfast and as directed joined the guests at table.  They were speaking to each other, and I felt incapable of being of any use to them.  My eyes seemed glued to my plate.  I felt like a failure.  On the second day I took my plate and scanned the room for someone sitting alone.  Malcolm was a slight light-skinned African-American perhaps in his late 30’s.  His eyes were glued to his plate too.  I felt so different from him.  I had no words.  But I told him my name, and he told me his, and despite the fact that no more was said, I felt that I had taken a first step closer.

On the third morning, I watched for Malcolm to come through the line, repeating his name in my head. Malcolm…Malcolm…Malcolm.  I wanted to remember it despite my jangly nerves, feeling so out of place, so ineffective.  It was toward the end of the meal when he did come in, and my heart leapt.  He glanced at me as he held his plate out for the scrambled eggs I was serving.  “Good morning, Malcolm,” I said, smiling.  I weep as I recall the transformation in his face, his slight brightening as he looked at me fully and said, “You remembered my name.”  I told him I’d been looking forward to seeing him, and each of us continued with our tasks – him to getting his breakfast and me to serving others.  I joined him again with my plate.  A third person was at the table, and conversation did not grow much. 

The week ended after a few more mornings.  Malcolm and I said little to each other, but he gave me a gift that took me to more and more steps closer and closer to others who had previously been the crown I’d passively resented as getting in the way of my getting close to Jesus.  Malcolm had let me see his face, and had let me look into his eyes as he looked into mine.

While I felt better about taking that step, I knew it was still about me.  But Malcolm remained with me as a person as real as myself, and his gift of being companion at that breakfast table soon had me taking another big step.

Tomorrow: a next big step closer. my walking the streets in other people’s clothes.

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Friday, January 2, 2015

Christmas to Epiphany IX: The Closeness of God: Gotta Have a WITH-ness!

On this eighth day of Christmas, we continue to reflect on Fr. Alfred Delp’s question, what difference it makes in our lives that Christ is born, through the Pope's three lenses: the patience of God, the closeness of God, the tenderness of God. 

I don’t know what to do with it, I just do with it. My friend said this the other day about moving beyond his reluctance.

Fr. Delp’s question calls us not to answer, but to action, to our letting the birth of Christ make a difference in our lives, to be, as Pope Francis says, the patience, closeness, and tenderness of God in the world, as Jesus was.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.  I have three faults.  I am resistant to patience, closeness, and tenderness. I want to move quickly, which I find easier alone, and find tenderness difficult in light of my perceived masculinity.  Fear and doubt are names I give this resistance in myself.  But Delp’s question calls me to action. And I know that it’s God’s grace that has taught me that action is not only possible, but rewarding.

A lifetime Catholic, I was taught in grammar school that there are two kinds of grace, actual and sanctifying.  I think of sanctifying grace as a something like habit.  Virtuous activity leaves breadcrumbs along its path, making it easier the next time, and eventually a trail is formed in our psyches.  Modern neurology would call this our brain forming neural pathways. 

I think of Actual Grace as a cartoon, or a science fiction special effect.  The character stands at a chasm, driven to get to the other side.  Urged by some assuring force, the character steps out in trust, and (cue the special effects) with each step, a bridge forms under the outstretched foot.  The means of crossing is formed as the crossing is made. 

We Make the Road byWalking is the title of a book by Miles Horton and Paolo Freire, two advocates of social change from the 70’s.  Miles Horton came out of undergraduate studies ready to get the poor in Appalachia organized to escape poverty.  But he learned from the people there that change came from something more like a conversation than a lecture.  

Change is something that we do with people.  We change too.  The Samaritan was changed by the man on the side of the road, perhaps more than the man he “helped”.

The bridge that Actual Grace builds across the chasm of fear or doubt has, according to Fr. Howard Gray, S.J., four steps: See, Feel, Help, and Change.  If I allow myself see the person in need, I will feel compassion.  If I allow myself to feel that compassion, I will reach out to help.  If I allow myself to help, I will commit to do all I can to help things (in the world and in myself) to change so that the kind of thing that is hurting that person will not hurt others.

Seeing, feeling, helping, and changing is not a practice of walking a trail alone.  My friend’s comment in our earlier discussion of New Year’s resolutions added a word to the Swoosh brand mantra.  He didn’t say “I just do it.”  He said “I just do with it.”

We make the road by walking with.  And the path is made in us as well as in the world.

For the story of the photo, see this link

Tomorrow – I witness my with-ness and homelessness.

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

Christmas to Epiphany VIII: Vicinanza di Dio (The Closeness of God)

On this seventh day of Christmas, we continue to reflect on Fr. Alfred Delp’s question, what difference it makes in our lives that Christ is born.
And we return to the stable, three-legged base of the good life provided by Pope Francis in his Midnight Mass homily as we look toward Epiphany, the opening to that good life.

Proximity. This is how God works. 

Pazienza di Dio, vicinanza di Dio, tenerezza di Dio:  the patience of God, the closeness of God, the tenderness of God.

This morning we sit at the warming fire of the second characteristic to which we are called, the closeness of God.  This is a morning on which much of Western culture celebrates New Year’s Day…and the Catholic Church celebrates “The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God”. 

Closeness.  What more perfect model than the pregnant mother, in which, as Fr. Delp says, the tension between infinity and temporality is set to rest.  Zero distance.  Being married to a mother for 46 years now, I can assert that the distance between mother and child remains zero in the mother’s heart.  The tension in the mother is caused by the variance between this zero distance and the mathematics of geography.  Geographic distance x maternal love = longing.  Afterbirth: it’s not merely a name for the physical connective tissue called placenta.  It is a lifetime of feeling the pain of separation.

In his description of the closeness of God Pope Francis describes Jesus as an example:  
"He was close to the people. A close God who is able to understand the hearts of the people, the heart of His people. Then he sees that procession, and the Lord drew near. God visits His people in the midst of his people, and draws near to them. Proximity. This is how God works. Then there is an expression that is often repeated in the Bible: 'The Lord was moved with great compassion'. The same compassion which, the Gospel says, that moved Him when he saw so many people like sheep without a shepherd. When God visits His people, He is close to them, He draws near to them and is moved by compassion: He is filled with compassion".

"The Lord is deeply moved, just as He was before the tomb of Lazarus". Just like the Father who was moved "when he saw his prodigal son come home".

Again, the use of maternity to illuminate the idea of the closeness of God.  Jesus restores the zero distance in this story in Luke 7.  Soon afterward he journeyed to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.  As he drew near to the gate of the city, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her.  When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”  He stepped forward and touched the coffin; at this the bearers halted, and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”  The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
 And Francis mentions two examples of male longing, Jesus for Lazarus and the father for the prodigal son.

R. Buckminster Fuller’s OperatingManual for Spaceship Earth defines “synergy” as “behavior of wholes unpredicted by behavior of their parts”.     The scientist too sees that by relationships, the impact of individuals increases.  We do more with others that independently. 
Just as Jesus restored the son to his mother at Nain, Fuller calls us to restore the earth by restoring our relationships.  And Pope Francis, too, reminds us of this in that same homily: 
"Closeness and compassion: this is how the Lord visits His people. And when we want to proclaim the Gospel, to bring forth the word of Jesus, this is the path. The other path is that of the teachers, the preachers of the time: the doctors of the law, the scribes, the Pharisees ... who distanced themselves from the people, with their words ... well: they spoke well. They taught the law, well. But they were distant. And this was not a visit of the Lord: It was something else. The people did not feel this to be a grace, because it lacked that closeness, it lacked compassion, it lacked that essence of suffering with the people".

Tomorrow – more on the compassion through closeness as a mutual restoration of hope

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Christmas to Epiphany VII: Pazienza de Dio (The Patience of God)

The Road (Oh, Hell!) of Good Intentions

On this sixth day of Christmas, we continue to reflect on Fr. Alfred Delp’s question, what difference it makes in our lives that Christ is born.

It’s New Year’s Eve morning as I write.  Tonight my wife and I will go to the traditional New Year’s Eve party at the home of some friends.  Having already eaten too much over Christmas, we will eat too much more.  There will be those among the large gathering, I suspect, who will drink too much, too.  But this excess is very, very good, because it takes us right down the entrance ramp to the American tradition of New Year’s Resolutions.  It’s an enormous highway, a dozen lanes filled bumper-to-bumper…for a few days.  Traffic thins out pretty quickly, and pretty soon lanes merge and then merge again and by the end of the year, the road to good intentions has narrowed to a lightly traveled footpath.

Pazienza di Dio,
vicinanza di Dio,
tenerezza di Dio.

The patience of God,
the closeness of God,
the tenderness of God.

As mentioned in yesterday’s posting, Pope Francis gave us a tricycle to ride, stable and certain transportation.  And how perfect that the first of the three characteristics to which he called us this Christmas season is patience.  It is good, as well, that he calls us not merely to patience, but to the patience of God. 

Our own patience is inadequate.  At an Alanon meeting a few years ago, someone shared a maxim that has stuck with me: expectations are premeditated resentments.  He was speaking of our expectations of others, but I believe that the statement is equally true of our expectations of ourselves.  Remember Francis’s essential premise, that the central meaning of Christmas is not our call to love God, but to accept our smallness and let God love us!

Yesterday morning I had coffee with two close friends, and our conversation began with a query about…New Year’s Resolutions.  A blessing of our threesome is our spectrum of preference and style on many things, even as we share the same values.  The spectrum shown in a rainbow draws us to look at something ordinary – light – opened to expose for a moment its mystery and beauty.  Here are some statements that opened us to a colorful and stimulating conversation about intentions and hopes. As we respect and appreciate each other, we spent some time looking at New Year’s Resolutions from each other’s perspectives.

What do I stand for every day?  What do I stand for any day?  One was inclined to desire consistency and continuity in his life, persistently caring about certain issues or values.  The other was inclined to wake up each day and be present to the specific experiences or awarenesses that emerged that day.  Mission and Mindfulness.

Don’t “should” on me.  I’ve already should on myself.  He might as well have said “’should’ is shit!”  For years I’ve tried to discourage my wife from saying we should do something when what she means is that she’d enjoy us doing something.  But “we should” and “we’ve got to” remains a common phrase.  But when my friend shared this phrase, I realized that the reason that I’m so sensitive to my wife (or anyone else) putting a demand on me is that I’ve already put too many demands on myself.

More – Enough: In our threesome, one of us was quite inclined (driven?) to want to do more, while another was quite content with the desire to reflect on the sense that he has, is, and does enough. 

And this last statement calls me to close.  Among Jesuit-formed people, a name for God is “Magis” – the more. This Jesuit-formed Pope and our Jesuit-formed martyr Fr. Delp call us to know that it is God who is enough.  It is God who calls us to “Basta” – Enough!  We are not called to be Magis; that’s God’s work.  We are called to allow God to love us, and that, sweet Jesus, is enough!

I believe that God calls me not to the ten-lane expressway of New Year’s Resolutions but to walk with Him on the narrow daily path, to experience God’s patient love. 

Should I resolve to take God up on that?  It would, I’m certain, be enough.

Tomorrow – the closeness of God

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmas to Epiphany VI: Becoming the Words

Before watching Pope Francis celebrate Midnight Mass, there were two times when I recall understanding a foreign speaker without knowing his language.  Francis was the third.

Pazienza di Dio,
vicinanza di Dio,
tenerezza di Dio.

On this sixth day of Christmas, we continue to reflect on Fr. Alfred Delp’s question, what difference it makes in our lives that Christ is born.
The first was an Italian, like Francis.  Velio was describing to us the work in his alabaster studio in Volterra, where our students spent their summer.  His whole body spoke, and his old eyes gave off a light that made his words clear.  

He became his words, and to see him was to know what he was saying.  

The second was a priest, like Francis.  In a side chapel that provided intimacy in the cavernous Frankfurt Cathedral, the celebrant’s homily was about the Good Shepherd. 

He became his words, and to see him was to know what he was saying. 

“The Word of God”; that is what John calls Jesus in the first chapter of his Gospel.  There was a point at which Francis illuminated that name without speaking it.  Francis read from his text with bodily gesture and eye contact, tempo and inflection, making the words come to life.  But at one point his eyes paused on the congregation, and he looked intently at them, breaking the cadence of his presentation.  And his words that were born in that silent pause “became flesh.”

Pazienza di Dio,
vicinanza di Dio,
tenerezza di Dio.

The patience of God,
the closeness of God,
the tenderness of God.

Francis became the words – patient, close, and tender with us. 

He became his words, and to see him was to know what he was saying.  

What difference did it make to Pope Francis that Jesus was born?  He was changed by the experience enough to become the words of truth that emerged from his soul, filled to overflowing with awareness of God.

Incarnation.  Words becoming flesh.  Velio, the German priest, and Francis call me to the almost irresistible beauty of this incarnation.  Almost.  I will need a lot of grace to pull it off myself, to be the words I’m given, to change into God’s patience, and closeness, and tenderness.

Over the next three days we’ll spend time reflecting and praying with those three words.

Meanwhile, here is a link to Francis’s Midnight Mass homily…inEnglish.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas to Epiphany V: Simeon’s Certainty

"Now you let your servant go in peace." 

Simeon knew.  

He was certain.

On this fifth day of Christmas, we continue to reflect on Fr. Alfred Delp’s question, what difference it makes in our lives that Christ is born.

Yesterday at breakfast, two of our adult children (in their 40’s) were sharing about their visits to church on Christmas.  Both enter church as outsiders, grateful for the way we raised them but not “practicing Catholics”.  That we could have a conversation about their experience was a gift to us.  They noticed things, about the way the priest said and did things.  These ways of expressing the priest’s own faith evokes a sense of the holy in themselves.  They mentioned, too, their sense of freedom to enter, to observe, and not be bound or forced.  And finally they shared that it was interesting to hear the congregation mumble together the Creed.  While the celebrant’s pace and tone and inflection at the Consecration made it apparent that this was a very holy moment, the droning of the Creed seemed to bring into question the reality of their belief.  It seemed merely words.  They agreed with my invitation that they consider the tonal character of Buddhist chants that they have both experienced.

The point was clear.  The reciting of the Creed was hardly convincing.  And that is why Simeon’s certainty meant so much to me.  “Listen” to these words of his as he sees Jesus in the temple where he has served for many years:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.  This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel,* and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord.
He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him,
He took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted
(and you yourself a sword will pierce)* so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

Simeon's certainty brings him peace.  I often suffer indecision which I believe is based on self-doubt.  Fr. Ron Rolheiser wrote of John the Baptist that as he was asked, “Who are you?” he could answer clearly; he knew who he was because he knew who Jesus was.

Like John, Simeon spoke clearly and decisively; one might say prophetically.  I consider again my children’s observations while “visiting” Mass.  The words of the priest were to them more like Simeon, proclamations of their truth.  Prophetic.  Perhaps my own indecisiveness and self-doubt are more like the droning of the congregation reciting the Creed.  More pathetic than prophetic.

What difference does it mean to me that Jesus was born?  I want to be more like Simeon. I want, in believing in Jesus, to allow myself to be loved (as the Pope pleaded in his Christmas homily), and to believe in myself.  I want to know with Simeon’s certainty who I am because I know who Jesus is.  And that means that my self-knowledge is inextricably intertwined in my coming to know Jesus.

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas to Epiphany IV: “God is in love with our smallness”

"Do I allow myself to be taken up by God, to be embraced by him, or do I prevent him from drawing close?" 

Pope Francis asked this in his Midnight Mass homily. "'But I am searching for the Lord' – we could respond. Nevertheless, what is most important is not seeking him, but rather allowing him to find me and caress me with tenderness. The question put to us simply by the Infant’s presence is: do I allow God to love me?”

We look again at Fr. Alfred Delp S.J.’s ultimate question in light of the Christmas event: What difference does it make to me?

Five years ago I was given medical news that made me aware that I could die at any moment. It is the reason I began this blog, and whence its title.  I thought that I’d been given lemons. Everything changed because I saw death for the first time as real and present.  I acted more lovingly and caringly toward my wife.  I didn’t sweat things. I delighted in the present, and was continuously grateful for the past.  My life changed.  But I must confess that my life has mostly changed back.  

What difference does it make to me that I felt death near? I’m ashamed to say, not enough.  I too often fail to delight in things, including my life companion.  A worry about the future, and that worry robs me of the present.  But most of all, I allow my sense of inadequacy to distract me from everything. 

So the Pope’s question, and Delp's rings familiar; it stops me and turns me around.  God is actually in love with the thing about myself that I most reject – my smallness.  Did I earn enough money in my lifetime to enjoy growing old with my wife?  Can I drop my fears about the good that I can do with others based on my reluctance to accept myself, flaws and all?  Can I enjoy the company of others undistracted by my thoughts that I don’t matter to them?

So as we contemplate the Christmas event, as we sit before the image of the manger scene, perhaps you will join me in allowing the story to take me in.  Allow yourself to be lifted up into the story with me.  Will we find ourselves as the babe, feeling the warmth of Mary?  Will we be Mary, or Joseph, or a shepherd, or a sheep? 

Contemplative prayer, like life in the love of God, is something that the Pope reminds us is not doing something, but accepting something.  Being drawn into the presence of God, or for that matter, God in the present, is a gift.  It is a gift already given. It is offered every moment. 

Pope Francis’s question is Delp’s.  Will I let God love me, and experience my life changing?  Will you?

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