Category Archives: Family Spirituality

Starting Spring with Flourish

Sometimes my day starts with a Beethoven Overture, because Why Not? The energy fits the mood. Whatever sacred moments and surprises that day holds should be heralded with beauty and vigor. And this seems a particularly serendipitous season, with vaccination abounding and virus declining. As one wag phrased it, “we’ve gone off leash!” The freedom, joyous reunions and socializing of this year contrast starkly with last, when we were frightened, unsure and home-bound.

On the national front, we can rejoice that Biden’s proposed American Jobs and Family Plans could help many who desperately need it. Private agencies haven’t been able to meet massive demand; the government must intervene on a large scale. Of course, the bill will look different after Congress makes adjustments, but hope springs; we could look forward to humane improvements.

Especially heartening is the president’s effort to cut child poverty in half, the only flaw an expiration date of 2025, which Congress can fix by making it permanent.  As Nicholas Kristof reports in the New York Times (3/24/21), American children ages 1 to 19 are 57 percent more likely to die than children in other rich countries. How can we let such a scandal continue, when we know how to correct it?

Other parts of the proposal would offer community college free to everyone, invest in early childhood education, rebuild the infrastructure and convert to alternate energy sources. Yes, it’s ambitious, but many commentators are comparing Biden’s efforts to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

I learned more about Roosevelt from a documentary, “FDR” shown on Kanopy (free through our local library) by David Grubin, narrated by David McCullough, excerpts available at https://youtu.be/RSzGRC-NNgg. When the country was dispirited by the depression and millions were out of work, President Herbert Hoover didn’t have a clue what to do.

Taking office after him, Roosevelt was up for trying anything—and if it didn’t succeed, try something else. He got people back to work and fired up the economy in the way we need again, post-pandemic. His scope was large, his vision broad—and when he died at only 63, citizens of all ethnicities and income levels lined the train route of his funeral cortege to honor his passing. People don’t need official sanction to recognize blessings in their midst.

We have a similar chance now to invest in the people of the US. It’s incomprehensible why people of faith could even consider turning aside.

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Appropriate sarcasm: a Texas judge ruled that the NRA could not evade a law suit by filing for bankruptcy (their leader Wayne LaPierre hid on a yacht after the Sandy Hook and Parkland shootings, a luxury not afforded the parents of victims). The response on Twitter couldn’t have been more fitting: to send the NRA “thoughts and prayers” as meaningless as those offered after killings.

Feast of the Ascension—May 13

Imagine filming this gospel: choosing the music, leading actor, supporting cast, setting. It’s high drama: this invoking of authority in heaven and on earth, commissioning of outreach to the whole world, assurance of divine presence in the task ahead. It is a pivotal moment for Christianity, directing the first followers beyond a small mid-eastern sect to a world-wide religion. But as in Shakespeare, there’s something tucked in for the cheap seats too.

The touching combination of those who worship and those who doubt strikes an earthy, human note. Sometimes we have those extremes within the same family, parish—or even within ourselves. Interestingly, Jesus excludes no one; there is no litmus test for those who join him in this “peak” scene. Nor does he qualify his promise to be with us “all the days”: days of anger and disappointment, days of joy and fulfillment, days of treachery and disease, even days of ordinary routine and boring drudgery.

In How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill describes contemporaries who followed Jesus’ command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”: “…a kindly British orphanage in the grim foothills of Peru, a house for the dying in a back street of Calcutta … an easygoing French medical team at the starving edge of the Sahel.” These unheralded heroes answered the call: not to stare at the sky, but to find the Christ in our midst. 

Book Review: The Boundless Compassion Journal

Full disclosure: Joyce Rupp and I have encouraged and endorsed each other’s work for 25 years. Her Foreword to my first book, Hidden Women of the Gospels, was key to its success. I’m in awe of her prolific writing; one could say of her as the psalmist did of God: “how many are your works!” She has always focused on What Matters, and continues to do so in her newest book.

The bouquet of dandelions, carefully held in two hands on the cover, should signal: you’re in for a treat. Those familiar with Joyce Rupp’s writings will find here her trademarks: practical, uplifting spirituality without being too limited to one religious tradition. Her frame of reference is the natural world, leading to suggestions like “draw your tree of compassion,” then wonder at how it’s grown, or a poem about the giggling of brooks, dance of ocean waves, cracks of glaciers, all “Earth’s melodies.”

Humans are wired for compassion; it’s in our DNA. Joyce Rupp helps that natural instinct become more consistent, thoughtful and tender. Her book, The Boundless Compassion Journal comes at a good time in the pandemic lockdown: when we’ve seen so few people outside our small pods, we’ve almost forgotten how to interact well. With practical prompts, relevant questions and inspiring quotes, she helps us be more compassionate. And how many books can boast that?

While much of the work on compassion has been done in the Buddhist tradition, Joyce christens it. This journal can stand alone, or be used with other components of the series, companion resources like Boundless Compassion, the DVD or Prayers of Boundless Compassion.  All of them together make a fragrant bouquet.

Feast of Catherine of Siena—April 29

For starters, she had a vision of hell—and it was empty. She went on to sweetly tell the pope who’d left Rome, “your court stinks of sin.” Nothing intimidated her; she was bold as the red wine of her region. She warmed up by settling feuds in her own town, then resolved the papal schism that had split the church for 68 years. Disliking the typical, cloistered arrangements  for religious women of her day, she launched into streets and prisons.

Stubborn, blunt, outspoken, Catherine of Siena is one of four women doctors in the church. The 24th child in her family, she believed heaven starts on earth, and probably pictured it as her large tribe, who called her “Mama,” laughingly passing pasta and pouring wine. Because she died at 33, Catherine packed a lot of living into a short time.

The fourteenth century was filled with violence, disease, war and deception. Against that background, Catherine stubbornly believed that God is madly in love with humanity, hungry for each person. She saw Jesus warmly as “bath and medicine, food and clothing, and a bed in which we can rest.” Not for her the tidy devotions that can make us feel rather proud of ourselves. She knew the messiness of ordinary lives. God’s words to her should reassure us: “You are never alone. You have me.”  

Third Sunday of Easter

Today’s gospel defies all the self-help books about achieving inner peace. Peace is pure gift, according to Luke. Furthermore, it comes unexpectedly, during confusion, mourning, terror and anxiety. The disciples find it too good to be true.

To alert them to reality, Jesus asks for something to eat. He reminds us of adolescents who are always hungry, or long-awaited guests whom we welcome with a special meal. This touchstone in human nature apparently convinces the skeptical. Wisely, Jesus starts with bodily needs, then “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” (24: 45)

How ironic that he tells the poor, uncertain, wavering crew: “You are witnesses of these things” (48). They are hardly the finest spokespersons, but then, neither are we. We have the same mixture of doubt and certainty, anxiety and joy that they had. Jesus always seems to choose the most unlikely prospects. As Desmond Tutu says, Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine.”

And to all, Jesus extends the same invitation: “touch me and see.” Only by coming dangerously close to this wounded Christ will we too know transformation of our wounds—and resurrection.

The Important Role of Doubt

Where we might have expected glory and trumpets the first Sunday after Easter, instead we get typical, honest, human groping towards truth. A splendid reunion between Jesus and his friends? Not quite. But maybe something better: Jesus’ mercy, meeting them where they (and we) are stumbling, extending his hand in genuine understanding and compassion.

Despite the fact that it has been celebrated for centuries, the quality of mercy remains an abstraction. Today, Jesus gives mercy a human face and touch.

Before we criticize Thomas too much, we should ask what we might do in a similar situation. Would we also be skeptical if our friends told us that someone had returned from death? Wouldn’t we want to see for ourselves? Thomas may simply voice the questions most disciples harbor secretly.

The first disciples, caught in fear and confusion, are hardly the finest spokespersons for the gospel. But then, neither are we. We have the same mixture of doubt and certainty, anxiety and joy that they had.

Jesus responds to us as he did to Thomas—without harsh judgment. He understands our needs for concrete reassurance. After all, God created us with five senses to help us learn. And if Thomas—stubbornly insistent on tangible proof—can believe, maybe there’s hope for us all.

To us as to him, Jesus extends the same merciful invitation: “touch me and see.” Only by coming dangerously close to this wounded Lord will we know transformation of our wounds—and resurrection. Doubt isn’t evil: it’s the entryway to hope.

More Easter, Please

Sometimes I feel like the pathetic child in “Oliver,” holding out his porridge bowl and pleading, “more please?” In this case, more Easter.

If resurrection means beginning again and again anew, then our best experiences of love or beauty should show us who we most deeply are. We seek these out instinctively, suspecting we’re made for the garden, not the tomb. God’s life penetrates ours, boring through every dark corner.

We Catholics can be a somewhat narrow lot, most of us having had little exposure to the other great traditions. To be fair, fully appreciating Teresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich could be a full-time occupation. But that gap explains why I was so delighted to discover an essay titled “Christ Rising”, by Christoph Blumhardt, a German pastor who lived from 1842-1919.

He points out that because of Christ’s rising we are “of an entirely different order.” Worries and anxieties should mean no more to us than a face cloth or shroud cast aside. Blumhardt says not to focus on the evil, imperfection, or unresolved question. “All that has nothing to do with us.” Instead we simply “ask Jesus to give us more and more of his resurrection, until it runs over, until the extraordinary powers from on high that are within our reach can get down to work on all that we do.”

This year, especially, we are beginning to appreciate many joys after a year when they were restricted. We tell ourselves not to take it for granted—being able to eat in a restaurant, travel, take children to school, hug, shop, see families and friends. What could be more in the spirit of resurrection than this coming-back-to-life again?

Fifth Sunday of Lent

What happens in today’s gospel is not unusual. It continues today. Two moms became friends and discovered that their oldest sons both skied. The next, natural step was taking the boys skiing together. The two became friends, and one’s name was—truly—Andrew. He began to meet the other boy’s friends, and became part of a group from another high school, not easy in adolescent society.

During college, the boys skied, kayaked and mountain biked together. Later, they attended each other’s weddings. When Andrew died suddenly of a staph infection, the friends flew from around the country for his funeral. Each then planted a pine seedling and a packet of wildflowers, signs of hope to honor him.

They probably didn’t say it as they scattered seed, but once again, a grain fell to the ground and died, bearing much fruit. The boys couldn’t ski without remembering Andrew; they consciously tried to bring his fierce delight to all their days.

The ripple effect worked for Jesus. Greeks drawn to him approached him through his friends: Philip to Andrew to Jesus. He saw his coming passion through the metaphor of seed. How could his company of friends, now including us, NOT try to act like him?

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Nicodemus gets a bad rap. He’s criticized for coming to Jesus “by night.” But consider the references to him after today’s gospel. Courageously, he defends Jesus against his angry peers, asking whether their law judges a man who has not had a fair hearing (John 7:50-51). After the crucifixion, he helps embalm and bury Jesus’ body (19:39).

He is an honest seeker, who won’t settle for tried-and-true cliches. His colleagues quickly dismiss anyone with a different angle. Nicodemus, however, explores the new teaching carefully, which takes some time. He questions honestly, and Jesus doesn’t reject him. Instead, Jesus welcomes their discussion and reveals himself magnificently, as light coming into darkness.

Jesus even seems to tease Nicodemus as a teacher who doesn’t “get it” (v. 10). Nicodemus must be overwhelmed: he doesn’t respond.

Or maybe he answers through his life. After an avalanche of ideas, he sifts through them and applies them to daily events. Apparently Jesus’ teaching withstands that reality check; Nicodemus becomes an admirable follower, “his works done in God.”

Do we act like him, or do we stagnate in unexamined prejudices and stale beliefs? Are we open to the Spirit’s unsettling winds?  

Third Sunday of Lent

Those who like their Jesus sweet and pious better skip today’s gospel. Those who want to explore his complex depths should read on.

The scene of driving the sellers and money-changers from the temple can’t be camouflaged by platitudes: it is violent and chaotic. What prompted Jesus to act so dramatically? We have a clue in the way “my Father’s house” is used throughout John’s gospel. “In my Father’s house are many rooms” we read in 14:2. That sounds spacious, but there is no room for greed, betrayal or sacrilege. The merchants have made the “Father’s house a marketplace,” desecrated what is most precious to God; thus, they must be expelled quickly and efficiently. 

In Jesus’ ensuing discussion with the religious authorities, their pride is attacked. Any of us who spent forty-six years on a project might react the same way. As is often the case, they remain on a literal level, seeing the temple as a building. Jesus, however, sees it as an image of the self: beloved of God and incorruptible, transcending the most glorious edifice. As he protected sacred ground, so he fights to preserve God’s children from any who oppress, exploit or harm them. Do we respect each other or ourselves as much as he does?