Category Archives: Family Spirituality

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Celebrations

At some point, even the most beautiful liturgy and symbol fail to communicate, because God is so much greater than all our efforts. God doesn’t need our feeble attempts in order to communicate God’s self with astonishing clarity. God is greater than Advent wreath and can burst the bonds of any catechism with startling power. But we start with simple, concrete things, because we need to remind ourselves we stand on holy ground. God is revealed in the material, so we look closely: the great unveiling is at hand.

Around the shortest day of the year, December 21, comes radiant illumination: God takes on human sinew and bone, a child’s voice, toenails and wispy hair. No longer is God remote and distant; God bears the human face of Jesus whom we can love. Furthermore, this incarnation makes us all God’s daughters and sons. It’s our birthday too: we are born again and again into a new identity as “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

So our frail Advent candles could also be birthday candles. Furthermore, they hint at larger light: the return of powerful sun, the crashing open of the gates of paradise, spilling wide with voluminous brilliance. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1). God hasn’t forgotten or given up on us, even if everyone else has. Any debt or guilt we may imagine is erased. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her/ that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid” (Isaiah 40:2). What a relief to see the jail door sprung, the prison gate open wide as a grin. And the light within us is even more dazzling.

If we believe that everything in Christ’s life occurs somehow in ours as well, what does God want to bring to birth in us now? If that sounds like a large order, we must remember that for us as for Mary, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (Luke 1:35). God’s elegant initiative, God’s magnificent doing, the creative vitality of One who spun the planets into orbit more than compensates for our limitations.

To those who pooh-pooh Christmas and its attendant commercialism, saying Easter is the greater feast, Richard Rohr counters: “If incarnation is the big thing, then Christmas is bigger than Easter (which it actually is in most Western Christian countries). If God became a human being, then it’s good to be human and incarnation is already redemption. Resurrection is simply incarnation coming to its logical conclusion: we are returning to our original union with God. If God is already in everything, then everything is unto glory!”  (“Incarnation Is Already Redemption,” Friday, June 5, 2015, Center for Action and Contemplation, Cac.org.)

That seems more than enough reason to light all the candles on the Advent wreath.

Third Sunday of Advent: High Expectations

When John the Baptist appeared, “The people were filled with expectation” (Luke  3:15). How splendid if those words could still describe us: open to wonder, chins uplifted, eagerly responding to the words of the Mass, “sursum corda,” “hearts on high!”

This season seems permeated with impossibilities like the dead stump of Jesse budding. Even if we could wrap our minds around the idea of God becoming human, “pitching a tent in us,“ it’s an even longer leap to see ourselves as God’s children, heirs to the divine kingdom. Irish poet John O’Donohue writes of “being betrothed to the unknown.” Christmas means we are also married to the impossible, getting comfortable with the preposterous. It all began with Mary’s vote of confidence: “For nothing is impossible with God.” When we hear Mary’s “Magnificat,” we might remember Elizabeth’s words that precede it: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord will be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).

It’s a good time to ask ourselves, do we let bitterness and cynicism poison our hearts? Ironically, WE are conscious of our own limitations. GOD keeps reminding us of our high calling, royal lineage and a mission so impeccably suited to our talents and abilities, no one else in the world can do it. Again, Mary is the perfect model. She might not understand half the titles given her son in the “Alleluia Chorus” of the “Messiah.” Mighty God? Prince of Peace? Such language is better suited to a royal citadel than a poor village named Nazareth.  While her questions are natural, she never wimps out with “I don’t deserve this honor.” Instead, she rises to the occasion.

What’s become of our great dreams? Have we adjusted wisely to reality, or buried ideals in a tide of cynicism? Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle more with good news than with bad? If these questions make us squirm, perhaps we need the prayer of Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB: “God help me believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.”

Remember that the adult Jesus hung out with some unsavory characters: crooks and curmudgeons, loudmouths and lepers, shady ladies and detested tax guys. In his scheme of things, our virtue trips us up more than our sin. The ugly stain of self-righteousness blocks our path to God more than natural, human failures.  Limited as we know ourselves to be, we might ask ourselves the question raised by novelist Gail Godwin, “who of us can say we’re not in the process of being used right now, this Advent, to fulfill some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it?” (“Genealogy and Grace” in Watch for the Light. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004, 167)

So the “Gaudete” or Joyful Sunday represented by the pink candle invites us to forget our lame excuses (Oh not me! I got C’s in high school, I can’t tweet or sing on key, I’ve always been shy, blah, blah, blah) and come to the feast, join in the dance. To put it in the simple terms of “Happy Talk,” a song from “South Pacific”: “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

Second Sunday of Advent

Our theme for today: Embracing What Comes.

Mary models the perfect response to God’s unexpected, even scandalous intervention in her life. When she told Gabriel, “May it be to me as you have said,” she had no guarantees, no script foretelling the future. All she’d learned was the trust handed on by great great-grandmothers: if it comes from God’s hands, it must be perfectly tailored for me.

In times of central heating and plentiful food supplies, we no longer battle the winter as our ancestors did, finding it a precarious season to stay alive. Isolated from others, running low on resources, great-grandparents endured many cold, gloomy nights. How they must’ve rejoiced at those glints of light in dark forests , when almost imperceptibly, the planet tilted towards spring, and the days became longer.

We too have reasons for despair, crippling fears, anxiety over COVID and an unusual Christmas. If problems are more serious, do we run from them, or lean into them, wondering what they might teach us? Can we befriend our pain, knowing we’re more than its sting? Could we embrace for once an imperfect holiday, not scripted by Martha Stewart, but perhaps closer to the first, where an unmarried couple had to scrounge an inhospitable place to have a baby?

The Mood of Advent

We start Advent not with dread or foreboding, but with joyful anticipation. It’s like welcoming into our homes a dear friend or relative whom we haven’t seen for a while. There’s probably a flurry of cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking—all done with delight. When we look forward to renewing a close relationship, the preparation isn’t a burdensome chore. It may be tiring, but it’s happy.   

Jesus gives the disciples similar advice in today’s gospel: don’t be snoozing when an important visitor arrives. Be alert, awake, watchful as people are at an airport, searching the crowd for a beloved face.

How much more carefully we await the arrival of God. God is already with us, always and everywhere. Our Advent preparations highlight that presence, helping us become more aware. If we are lulled into anesthesia by busy schedules or overfamiliarity, Advent is the wake-up call. Look at what richness surrounds us! See how blessed we are! Do we look for God like the gospel gatekeeper, with a sharp eye? Or do we surrender our spirituality for the ersatz cheer of sales and malls?

One way of marking time that has been honored by Christians for centuries is the Advent wreath. Googling the phrase produces over 100,000 results—ways to buy one, make one, pray with one. This circle of pine with four candles nestled within can become the center for Advent prayer, reflection and song. It reminds us to pause, breathe deeply of its fragrance, remember what distinguishes this time of year.

Thanksgiving: Enhanced Gratitude

A “soulful window” into the lives of those we love comes at the moment just before Thanksgiving dinner when it’s customary in many families to take turns saying one thing they’re grateful for. I’ll always cherish my two-year old granddaughter saying: “I am thank you for the marshmellows!”

But for the jaded who may be tiring of the construction paper turkeys, or even of the cranberry sauce, here’s a way to jump-start Thanksgiving. Robert Emmons’ ground-breaking book, Thanks! (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) alerted us to the multiple benefits of gratitude, which he defines as “a feeling of reverence for what is given.” That attitude accepts good and bad as potential gift. It can focus the lens through which we view life on evidence of abundance, not scarcity. Unsurprisingly, that gives an increased sense of personal worth which can offset anxiety and depression.

Emmons characterizes this attitude as not a “superficial happiology,” but a perspective that has transformative power. His original work alerted us to the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal and expressing thanks regularly through calls, e-mails, texts or letters to those who have done us good. Those are a “booster shot” for relationships, benefiting both giver and receiver.

That work has continued through the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Their website is full of wonderful articles and videos:

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu.

Their research confirms with hard science what our religious traditions or intuitions may have told us about gratitude. For example, Science Director Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., draws on the research of Philip Watkins to show how gratitude amplifies good experiences and counteracts habituation. (The classic example for this human tendency is how the “new car smell”—and the novelty of the car itself–fades over time.) It means that pleasure wanes when repeated. In relationships, it helps explain how the charming, handsome date can become a self-centered, boring husband; the sweet infant can turn into a snarling teenager.

To counter this tendency, gratitude gives a “positivity bias” so we notice and appreciate more. Setting aside the negative experiences, choosing to reframe or not focus on them, gives them less power. (True, too, for negative media and violent movies.) So, savoring positive memories magnifies them, building our psychological immune system to cushion failures and disappointments. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who should’ve known through direct experience in the Nazi concentration camp) said, “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into grateful joy.”

Feast of the Jesuit Martyrs, Elba and Celina Ramos—Nov. 16

On Nov. 16, 1989, military thugs murdered six Jesuits at the University of Central America in El Salvador, along with their cook Elba and her daughter Celina. They all lived during terrible Civil War, when 75,000 Salvadorans were killed. But one martyr, Segundo Montes, SJ dismissed death threats and warnings to leave and return to his native Spain: “God’s grace does not leave, so neither can we.”

For those of us who live in our own tumultuous times (I won’t repeat the familiar litany), the Jesuit model offers a heroic witness that we belong where we are planted now. It’s no accident that we live in 2020, and as Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ said, “As the violence increases, we must think harder.” He also pointed out the starting point for our thinking: “all theology is conditioned by its historical present.”

Although the Jesuits were academics, this story is not primarily about thinking. They could have made their university an ivory tower; instead they made it a  public forum for the voiceless. They drew attention to atrocities perpetrated by the military on vulnerable campesinos. They were close to Elba, their cook who tried to make them birthday cakes, even in an unreliable oven.

The day she died, Elba had given her best dress to a woman displaced by the bombing. Ironically, she thought her daughter would be safer if they stayed on campus the night of the slaughter. The custom of Spanish-speaking peoples is always to bless a child departing—for school, market or playground. When the bodies were found, Elba had flung her leg across her 16-year old Celina. An effort to protect? A final blessing?

We’ll never know, but we DO know that her husband, the gardener at UCA, planted six red rose bushes for the Jesuits, and two yellow ones for his wife and daughter. How true to our tradition: the risen Jesus met Mary Magdalene in a garden. On ground wet with martyrs’ blood, new life flowers.

As our own beloved country endures tumult, we ask God for peace, justice and grace during the transition and in the years ahead.

Feast of Frances Cabrini—Nov. 13

Because she is so burningly relevant to immigration issues today, let’s look at the Italian dynamo who opened 67 charitable institutions and houses in the U.S.  Cabrini’s energy epitomized the zealous, thirsty, upward mobility of every immigrant group. A small orphanage and school begun in 1889 in New York City grew to a national network of educational, medical, and social service institutions. A tough business woman, shrewd about contracts, she outwitted contractors and swindlers trying to cheat nuns. When lawyers were astounded by how astutely she handled a deal, she whispered, “Poor things. They can’t believe we’re able to do a little business.”

Driven by multiple demands, Cabrini could never do enough for Italian immigrants. Her heart went out to the children abandoned when their parents’ hopes of instant wealth in the new country didn’t materialize. There were always too many requests for too few resources. Asked how she managed her huge network, she commented charmingly, “Oh, I put it all in the Sacred Heart and then I don’t get the headache.” She asked God for “a heart as big as the universe;” apparently God replied, “yes.”

Few women traveled as extensively or acted as powerfully in the male-dominated world of her day. With little or no government funding, sisters were financially responsible for all their hospitals, schools, and orphanages. In 1916, Cabrini even tried a little placer mining in Colorado, hoping to finance the Denver orphanage. When skeptics told her “it’d be better to go back home,” it sounds achingly familiar. How often has that taunt been hurled at the immigrants of our day?

Our Chance for Historic Change

In his book Balaam’s Donkey, Michael Casey, self-described as “Monk of Tarrawarra Abbey,” Australia suggests that those who pontificate (such as meself) should sprinkle their words with a healthy dose of question marks, indicating “I may be wrong.” In that spirit, the Last Election Blog of 2020.

Why sing the same tune? some might ask. My views on the current administration (which America editor Matt Malone, SJ calls “the national nightmare”) are already clear. Perhaps it’s the compulsion to speak while we still have the chance, so we can someday tell our grandchildren, “we tried.” I can’t shake the conviction that this is our moment in history to boldly say the ancient words, “Adsum,” meaning “I am here.” Each person’s choices, actions and vote matter profoundly.

For some who still question how Catholics can support Biden, I’d suggest broadening the concept of “pro life.” Jesus himself set the law within the wider context of God’s compassion. Surely it can’t be construed as “pro life” if:

–50,000 deaths due to COVID could’ve been prevented were it not for Trump’s “colossal failure of leadership,” according to Larry Brilliant, a veteran epidemiologist quoted in the New York Times Oct. 25.

–the dangerous failure to consider the science of climate change and enact policy to prevent environmental destruction “threatens to end the whole of humanity,” Robert W. McElroy, bishop of San Diego says.

–8 million North Americans have slipped into poverty since May, a Columbia University study found.

–1 in 7 households with children told the census: not enough to eat in the last 7 days

–More than 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health, and an addiction program called Provoking Hope estimates that relapses into addiction have increased 50% since the pandemic.

–Lawyers appointed by a federal judge to identify migrant families separated by the Trump administration can’t find the parents of 545 children.  About two-thirds of those parents were deported to Central America without their children, according to NBC news. Heartbreak is intangible, but consider the trauma to even ONE of those children…

–Divisions of race, class and gender have intensified, driven by the president’s hateful rhetoric. As Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer prize winning author writes, “If we learn anything from this sad passage in our history it should be that rage and contempt are a sort of neutron bomb in the marketplace of ideas… This country would do itself a world of good by restoring a sense of the dignity, even the beauty, of individual ethicalism, of self restraint, of courtesy.”

Last November, Catholic bishops wrote in their new introductory letter to Faithful Citizenship:” “To say that abortion is the pre-eminent issue in a particular political season is to reduce the common good, in effect, to one issue. And that’s a distortion of Catholic teaching.” Or, as Nicholas Kristof asked in his column 10/28/20: “Wouldn’t we all be better off if “pro-life” became not just a zealous slogan but a compassionate way of life?”

Feast of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ Martyrs—Oct. 23

For those who are tiring of pre-election blogs, a brief pause. For those who believe that politics and religion are deeply intertwined, the last pre-election column will post next week.

“In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” — Thomas Merton

Their story isn’t well known, but it should be. On Oct. 23, 1992, three Adorers of the Blood of Christ were killed in Liberia, after two others in the order had been shot three days earlier. They were innocent victims caught in the craziness of civil war.

When I gave retreats to this community, both in Ruma, IL and Wichita, KS, I was impressed by a spunky-wonderful bunch of women. As I learned their history, that first impression turned to awe. One background note among many: in 1985, the Adorers of Ruma became the only Catholic organization in the area to defy the law and offer sanctuary in their houses to Cuban and Central American refugees.

In limited space, it’s impossible to write about all the martyrs (see my book, When the Saints Came Marching In for the fuller picture.) But here are brief cameos of two:

Sister Barbara Ann Muttra was a nurse who wasn’t above bribery. At her clinic, she discouraged the common practice of driving off evil spirits by placing pepper in a newborn’s mouth, (which caused blisters) and mud on the umbilical cord, causing tetanus. She encouraged  parents’ cooperation with baby clothes donated by friends in the U.S. Eventually, she cut infant mortality from 80% to 20%, from two deaths a week to two a year.

Sister Shirley Kolmerloved Liberia because the gap between her front teeth was considered a sign of beauty there. A Ph. D. in Math, she taught it at St. Louis University, and first went on a Fulbright to the University of Liberia in 1977-1978. As provincial, her vision was of “loving the comfort, but ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice–women who dream dreams and continue to promise.” In Liberia, Charles Taylor’s rebels had recruited child soldiers as young as 10, and revived ancient practices of torture and mutilation. So Shirley started a counseling program for boys pressed into war, both perpetrators and victims.

Asked, “what made them tick? Why would they return to Liberia after a dangerous escape a year before?” the sisters who knew them well respond: “If there were five martyrs, there were probably eight motives.” The words “pious” or “prissy” never come up. “Bold” and “tenacious” are more likely to surface. They had practical work to do: teaching poor, illiterate, powerless women, staffing medical clinics, counseling, feeding the hungry. (By 1990, 40,000 civilians in Monrovia had died of starvation.) Over and over, one hears of a love for the Liberian people, the drive to meet their needs and share their lot.

Their persistence also characterizes an ASC sister who, as principal of an East St. Louis school, got garbage collection where there had been none, and celebrated as merrily as the neighbors on the day the trash cans arrived. Let’s praise and celebrate and honor women such as these.

 Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015, litpress.org, 1-800-858-5450

Humanity and Vinnie’s Pizzeria

Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York (https://www.vinniesbrooklyn.com) is an inventive place that, among other creative concoctions, features a small, round pepperoni pie served in a square, custom box made out of pizza. But they’ve outdone themselves with their latest innovation, which has made the national news. Kindly, they checked with their delivery staff before offering it. Now, for $1 extra, the pizza delivery person will look the customer straight in the eye and say, “It’s going to be alright. You’re doing the best you can.”  

As a friend pointed out, it echoes the message from 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich: “All will be well.” How desperately we long to hear that now, and how I wish our churches, mosques and synagogues had said it first. Isn’t that our business, to reassure people in the midst of terrible times, which are harder on some than we can even imagine? And why has Vinnie touched a chord, some deep yearning of so many? One answer might be the tone deaf lack of civility, even common courtesy, in the national leadership.  

Another writer who seems to frame this longing is Elayne Griffin Baker. As she wrote in the newsletter of the Charlotte County Democrats 9/23/20
(www.charlottedems.com › no-joy-in-the-white-house)

“There is no literature or poetry in this White House. No music. No Kennedy Center award celebrations. There are no pets in this White House. No loyal man’s best friend. No Socks the family cat. No kids’ science fairs. No times when this president takes off his blue suit-red tie uniform and becomes human, except when he puts on his white shirt-khaki pants uniform and hides from Americans to play golf. There are no images of the first family enjoying themselves together in a moment of relaxation. No Obamas on the beach in Hawaii moments, or Bushes fishing in Kennebunkport, no Reagans on horseback, no Kennedys playing touch football on the Cape.

I was thinking the other day of the summer when George H couldn’t catch a fish and all the grandkids made signs and counted the fish-less days. And somehow, even if you didn’t even like GHB, you got caught up in the joy of a family that loved each other and had fun. Where did that country go? Where did all of the fun and joy and expressions of love and happiness go?

We used to be a country that did the ice bucket challenge and raised millions for charity. We used to have a president that calmed and soothed the nation instead of dividing it. And a First Lady that planted a garden instead of ripping one out. We are rudderless and joyless. We have lost the cultural aspects of society that make America great. We have lost our mojo, our fun, our happiness. The cheering on of others. Gone. The shared experiences of humanity that makes it all worth it. Gone. The challenges AND the triumphs that we shared and celebrated. The unique can-do spirit Americans have always been known for. Gone. We have lost so much in so short a time.”

One of my favorite non-violent acts of resistance was the Australian choir who broke into Parliament as they debated getting embroiled in the Iraq war. The choir sang lamentations. That might be a good choice for us right now.