A Welcome to Pope Francis–and a Saintly Crew

For Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S., the church put its best foot forward, flew its “Welcome” banners, extended its finest self. If we consider what makes the church here unique, surely one answer might be its saints. When the Saints Came Marching In addresses the question of what makes “our” saints unique? In what ways, if any, do they differ from the saints of other nations?

One difference is they were primarily people who explored new frontiers. With the fears, hopes, frustrations, longings and failures of ordinary humans, they thought and acted differently. Like those who floated the Mississippi river for the first time, scaled Pike’s Peak, or settled the unknown regions of Kentucky, they tried something new in health care, science, education, race or labor relations. The frontier has always been vital to the North American experience, inviting discovery and preventing stagnation. Knowing more about these explorers should inspire, delight and challenge. It’s not your usual collection of saints…

As Chris Pramuk, theology professor at Xavier University, Cincinnati, writes:

“When the Saints Came Marching In moves seamlessly between past and present, bringing vividly to life a host of ‘spacious souls’ and North American saints proclaimed ‘by acclamation.’ A few widely known and many often overlooked, these are people simply recognized and celebrated by their contemporaries for their goodness of heart, witness to faith, and courage for justice: Pierre Toussaint, Thea Bowman, Rachel Carson, Cesar and Helen Chavez, Mychal Judge, Dorothy Stang, and many others. At a moment in our social history when cynicism seems the norm and acerbic criticism has become all too automatic, Kathy Coffey locates the diamonds in the rough, turning their lives for us in the light with her usual directness, humor and clarity. In the humanity of these variegated saints we see a reflection of our own, and a luminous reflection, as Coffey suggests, of the church Pope Francis calls us to be. I love Coffey’s earthy, expansive, sacramental vision, and I love this book.”

Available from Liturgical Press, 800-858-5450, litpress.org/family

Next week: Newly canonized Junipero Serra

Spiritual Ruts—and Ways Out Part 3

If your routine has been centering prayer, try praying with music for a change. Or set aside your usual devotions and spend a few silent minutes each day simply listening for God’s whisper. Why cling to practices that fail to nurture? The bottom line: if it’s not feeding you, quit doing it, at least for a while. No hard, fast rules restrict how we read, reflect or pray.

One man vowed on his 50th birthday to do something new each day. Such openness, such a spirit of adventure challenges us all. Some days it might be a small thing like flipping to a different radio station or website. Others may be major changes, like not vacationing in the same spot we’ve visited for 20 years, or changing jobs.

The worst mental ruts are those of anxiety, bills, health concerns. These can be so paralyzing that our creative juices—exactly what we need to address problems—freeze. Surely the disciples on the road to Emmaus knew that experience. When a “stranger” (Jesus) joins them, Luke 24:17 records, they stood still. Stuck in the ultimate rut of grief, they don’t start moving again until Jesus encourages them to share their story. Disingenuously, he asks what’s been happening in Jerusalem. Those of us in ruts should take note. Telling Jesus our “stuck” situation in prayer seems to be the first step beyond it.

If we’ve slid into a rut, we nurture our deepest self with whatever we need: a walk, a bike ride or a swim, a latte, a new shirt, a change of routine, time with a friend or a book. Self nurture may seem “selfish,” but we are God’s beloved children, who shouldn’t treat others better than ourselves. God designed the human mind, soul and body exquisitely for stimulation, not stagnation.

God’s creation brims with such beautiful variety, it must disappoint God when we explore only 10% of it. Read the Genesis creation story for the marvelous unspooling of sun, moon, stars, oceans, lakes, rivers, creepy crawlers, chirpy birds, lithe gazelles, and squirmy worms. All this God creates with glee—thousands of kinds of insects, 600 varieties of eucalyptus trees, innumerable shades of green, each flower, snowflake and fingerprint unique. Maybe it’s time to look at the night sky, stroll through a meadow or a Botanic Garden, taste something new in the produce aisle or farmers market. Vive la difference!

Originally published in Everyday Catholic

Spiritual Ruts—and Ways Out Part 2

Many spiritual writers address the problem of apathy. Kathleen Norris has written a whole book on the “noon-day devil,” acedia or sloth: Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. St. Benedict wrote in his Rule, “each day has reasons for joy.” Searching those out could entertain us daily, because each day’s joys are unique and intriguing.

St. Francis’ delight in creation could also bump us out of a rut. In any season, we can find beauty: blue shadows on snow, the first buds tight as fists, the play of light on summer leaves, brassy, autumnal colors of harvest. St. Teresa of Avila once described the spiritual life as dragging buckets to water a garden (remember, she lived in dry Spain). Then, God’s grace comes as rain, disrupting the weary routine.

Paolo Ferucci in What We May Be gives helpful imagery for directing the psychic energies. The psychotherapist asked one client, locked in immobility, to reflect on the concept of risk. It channeled the person’s natural vitality so that he was soon doing small things to jolt him out of his “cocoon”: phoning someone he hadn’t seen in a long time, starting a new hobby, challenging co-workers to ping-pong games.

If we don’t take our routines too seriously, we discover that the world doesn’t end if we shift them a bit. Listen to jazz a lot? Try classical. A stalwart at the 9 am Mass? Try the Saturday afternoon. You may meet old friends you haven’t seen in years. For a wild and crazy break from routine, attend a different parish! (Might make you appreciate your own.) If scripture is growing stale or overly familiar, spend time instead with the marvelous spiritual authors writing now: Rolheiser, Rupp, Livingston, or in a pinch—Coffey (such subtle self-promotion!)

To be continued… Originally published in Everyday Catholic

Spiritual Ruts—and Ways Out Part 1

She was in a rut. As she trudged through the routine, she ticked off the mental litany: get water, wash dishes, do laundry, cook meal.

He was in a rut. He’d learned how to think along straight lines. Follow those direct paths, don’t deviate from safe assumptions, and success was certain.

Then they both got nudged out of the rut and into another world.

Sound familiar? You may know them by other names: the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus.

They may seem like ourselves. The woman approaching the well follows a worn path which continues, even in her thinking, when she’s surprised by a stranger. His request for a drink is preposterous. Orthodox Jews even today don’t share meals or vessels with those whose dietary practices are less strict.

Furthermore, he comes thirsty and tired to a well without a bucket! Even more shocking, he who isn’t supposed to talk publicly with a woman takes a playful, conversational tone with her. Jesus also nudges Nicodemus: for a teacher of Israel, he stays complacently with tired concepts, which Jesus tries to broaden and expand.

From his interactions with these two figures, it appears that Jesus is no lover of ruts. It’s heartening to hear that “in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1: 19). And “from his fullness we have all received: grace in place of grace” (John 1:16). Repeatedly, Jesus reminds he came to bring us abundant life, spilling over any rut.

He entered human life in a totally unexpected way—born in a stable, not a palace, to young peasants, not royalty. He refused to believe the teachers who protested, “but we’ve always done it this way!”

His effect on people seems to be shaking up their comfy grooves. He broke the taboos, he healed and he invited people to more compassionate life. Blind Bartimaeus gladly gave up his begging routine; Matthew abandoned the daily grind of tax collecting. Jesus startled his disciples, upsetting their calcified notions of holiness. And we who follow Christ: what do we do when we’re stuck?

To be continued… Originally published in Everyday Catholic

Ways the Gospel Makes Us Uncomfortable (and Should!) Part 4

The Problem of Jesus’ Humanity

We want him to act like a powerful Messiah, and he overturns that expectation. He’s born as a helpless infant—not a military general, popular hero, or political leader. He eludes people who want to crown him king. He’s accused of being a glutton and drunkard, and annoys both religious and state authorities.

One way scripture scholars know a passage is authentic is the “embarrassment criterion.” In other words, early authors wouldn’t invent an action that casts Jesus in a bad light. (Only the secure parent tells the story of a son’s night in jail or a daughter’s unfortunate maroon hair coloring.)

So if Jesus unnerves us, he’s right on target—the natural consequence of his radical call: Forgive as you’ve been forgiven. Much will be asked of those to whom much has been given. If we’re not squirming, we should be.

Look at those who took it seriously—Francis and Clare of Assisi, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Stang. Their attention to living the gospel made them larger human beings. What matters isn’t our discomfort. What matters is becoming saints like them.

Originally published in Everyday Catholic

Ways the Gospel Makes Us Uncomfortable (and Should!) Part 3

Too Good to be True?

The gospels have been misused to incite guilt. Some may need that stern correction to over-spending or luxuriating while others starve. But many hard-working people are simply trying to survive, raise their families, and do their jobs, while being as generous as they can with time and treasure. They don’t need another guilt trip!

What we may find harder than guilt is the gospel’s insistence on how splendid we are. Jesus walked among people who were probably diseased, smelly and sweaty and assured them that even in poverty, mourning or persecution, they were “blessed”—the kingdom of heaven was theirs. Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle with good news?

Admittedly, the central message is hard to absorb. WE, limited and flawed as we are, are made in the very image of the divine. Furthermore, God continues to dwell and act in us. Jesus once said, “you will do greater things than I have done.”

Throughout the gospel, the message recurs: you are not a slave, but a friend, an adopted child with an eternal inheritance—not condemned to futility or the finality of death. Jesus has sanctified everything human, making us indeed a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).

The implications could be unsettling. God chose each of us for a unique purpose and equips us to get it done. So no whining or stalling—get on with it!

To be continued… Originally published in Everyday Catholic

Ways the Gospel Makes Us Uncomfortable (and Should!) Part 2

The Perils of Storytelling

We may be uncomfortable with the gospel’s storytelling style if we want “just the facts, please.” We might prefer the precise architectural drawing or accounting spreadsheet to what seems rambling or inconsistent. But if we compare the Bible with our own life stories, we grow more comfortable with its mixed genres. For example…

The early years of my parents’ marriage were interrupted by my father’s Navy service during World War II. My college studies were filled with news of the Viet Nam war—and protests against it. My son began graduate school at Georgetown just as the dean of his school, with her family, were killed in a flight from Dulles to Los Angeles and Sydney, where she’d teach at the university there–9/11/01. My friend missed his daughter’s birth, because he’s a Marine in Afghanistan.

Those are a few examples of the stories that nest within stories like a set of Russian dolls. The hinges between levels connect them: my story—our story—The Story. We search for links where the larger Story intersects my personal one.

So when Lent begins, we reflect not only on Jesus’ and the Hebrews’ experience in the desert, but also on ours. Wandering in the wilderness has brought valuable insights we haven’t learned from secure kitchens. We’ve found God in the “spaces between certainties.”

Much as we enjoy the intriguing connections, storytelling has its problems. It’s not scientific, it’s subject to personal interpretation, and sometimes it’s wildly inaccurate. Ask two people about the party Saturday; they might tell radically different accounts.

So too, each gospel writer has a different emphasis. Even within John, there are apparent contradictions: “Jesus was deeply troubled” (13:21) but in the next chapter says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (14:1).

Those who tell stories and enjoy them listen beneath the words, because their primary interest is the meaning stories give our experience. We don’t read the gospels primarily for scientific accuracy or historical fact, but to better follow Jesus.

We read through the lens of a human author, who will sometimes shade, condense or exaggerate. Sometimes we also need to read exegesis or commentary, but most important is our response. It’s an old saying: the gospel gives the chapter headings; we write the texts in our lives.

To be continued… Originally published in Everyday Catholic