Small lives

Mine is a small life, one without the play of social media, unfettered by either fame or wealth.  There are moments when I look back, stand on the edge of choices long done, and wondered if it has been enough.  Have I done what I could with what I have?  Should I have pursued more, initiated more, achieved more?  And in those moments, humbled by circumstance and somehow still whole, I know something deeper.

There is a certain truth to the reality of human existence, to who we are as humans.  We exist within a web of connections and synchronicity that binds each one of us to the others in this simultaneously flawed and marvelous state. Even without assent or consciousness, what happens to one influences and impacts others.  To live to the best of self, to struggle with sameness and discover commonality, to be willing to try and to continue in the face of struggle, that is the score that defines even the smallest of lives, like mine.  Because the choices of one of us truly does affect the whole of us.

There is an ambiguity now to the meaning and communication of who we are as human, and it is securely spliced between social media bytes.  That instantaneous gratification of publishing shaves away the need for broader contexts or scenarios and allows for a social construction linked to the transient and the tsunami like waves of information that flow over, above, below and around us.  It even limits the inquisitive, dashes the possibility of the  skeptical.  But even that, while opening up huge opportunities for so many, it also obscures the deeper reflective questioning  that has brought us here to this moment.

Small lives, embedded such as they are in the ordinary and mundane, are no less and no more gifts than those characterized by fortune and fame.  It is that reality that echoes in the pews of a synagogue or the kneelers of a church, in quiet hikes and simple gatherings of friends fully present to one another.  Each of those instances is a reminder of how much each of us matters.  There are so many reasons to dismiss one another today, to corner without compassion, to become judge and jury before becoming friend and family, even before acknowledging the brokenness of all.

The history of Catholicism, the stories, are rich with those who won fame and those who never quite managed.   There is Clare of Assisi and the nearly anonymous women who followed her into the Life…one not existing without the other.  There is the firmness , the conviction, of Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen.  There is the rich assurance that “All shall be well.”  And so, in some way that would undoubtedly be odd to another, that moment of kneeling within a congregation, of exploring small lives and larger-than-life ones, that is the reassurance that we all matter.  That is the sense that each of us cares and is cared for, and that the  possibilities are always continually unfolding.



To see…

There is a stillness in a starry sky, an openness cradled in the darkness, a whisper of something greater than self.  Riveting moments of awareness risk an assent to the reality of that something greater than self, of the soft brush of the divine.  They challenge the mundane routines of daily life, the self-absorption and frenetic pace of 21st century living.

Those moments are everywhere: there is a tenderness in a child clinging to a parent’s  neck; there is a poignance in an adult child helping an elderly parent into a pew.  There is a kindness in the courtesy wave after a difficult highway merge; there is gentleness in the cashier’s patient wait for coupons and a softness in the nurse’s pouring meds.  There is a glow in elderly partners holding hands, and in students reaching a new realization.

In all these moments, the divine and the human linger together, waiting, even wanting, to be seen.  To truly see means putting aside preoccupations, stereotypes, and sometimes even purpose.  It means being willing to discover the something better, something more, than what was there before. It means intentionally choosing to notice where we are when we are there.  It means focusing fully on who is there and why.  It means believing that looking matters and believing that this moment has real meaning.   It means trusting that what is created is actually an invitation to look into the very work of the Creator.

The crack of a baseball bat and the roar of a stadium has a magic of its own, but in between, tucked in there, is the unifying moment of common experience, a thrill that exists in thousands of souls in a single moment.  And so it is that the human and the divine dance together in thousands of instances.  To see it, to know it, is a skill.  But it is also a gift beyond measure.  It is the assurance that no one of us exists alone and that as life unfolds  with its inevitable weights and worries, there is also the miracle of still skies and starry nights, sleeping children and wide open fields.





Institution vs. Faith

He is a writer, a journalist grappling with an investigation of the Roman Catholic Church and the cover-ups and scandals especially in Pennsylvania.  His frustration and anger was palpable, and there were echoes of that everywhere he investigated.  He said he could not find other voices, other perspectives.  A friend gave him my number.

And so we spoke.  He asked about faith, about communication with Catholics leaving the church.  He listened with an artful silence.

It is true that this is a time of controversy in the world and  in the church.  For me, that lies in the reality of social institutions and historical context, the reality of dominant norms in various time periods.  It does not diminish the frustration or anger, but it structures the reality for me in a comprehensible way.   And there is a second truth:  every institution is made of flawed and broken human beings.  This has always been true, and yet somehow at times, there is an expectation that religious persons or the ordained have some additional power or responsibility, some way to avoid being human.
Tempered by age, I have learned from Life that this is an unrealistic expectation; as much as I would like that to be different, the fact of humanity and its limitations remains the same even among the highly esteemed and  the ordained.

Eventually. he asked about faith, that intangible which exists as a gift and is founded on the indefinable.  He wondered what I would say in a conversation with a very angry Catholic or former Catholic.   What can be said in the face of such pain, such suffering or grief?  How can conversation find words in the face of fury?  I slipped back in time to words once spoken to me.  Maybe, I thought, perhaps, if there were any words at all, it would be “God weeps with us in suffering.”

I found myself describing the moments of inspiration that arrive in unexpected encounters.  The student with a t-shirt listing the names Jeanne, Theresa, Clare….a souvenir from a youth conference in Steubenville, OH, and a testimony to her faith.  I spoke about the young woman looking for a community of other young women to share her faith, about the men and women who kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and seek a moment’s clarity.

He spoke about the seeming comfort of faith, but I thought about the challenge of it.  Faith is what invites me to strive to be a better person, more reflective, more conscious of others, more purposeful in choices and more deliberate in commitments.  Faith invites me to acknowledge my smallness and to envision the vastness of the human life, to practice kindness and to try to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  Faith reminds me that I am a flawed and broken person, but one among many, one that can grow and change.  Faith animates human life and enables, even empowers, new possibilities.  Faith is to be nurtured, explored, discovered.  There are moments of comfort, but faith as a challenge is a possibility for all.

Faith, after all, does not depend on the institution itself, on the hierarchy or simply the ordained.  Faith belongs to each of us. to be welcomed or ignored, embraced or rejected.  The institutional church can help, can mediate, can provide resources.  But faith depends not on the institution or its strictures.  Faith depends on the heart and hands; it is reflected in Teresa of Avila’s view that we are the hands and heart of Christ.  This time of scandal and suffering can lead to revitalization and reform in the Church.  The task of the faithful is to demand that change, to trust that direction, to believe in something greater than self.

Extraordinary Ordinary

There is a structure to Catholicism, a hierarchy of swirling intrigue that has spilled scandals through centuries.  And there, far beneath the debates about theology and policy, about finances and philosophy, lies the foundation of the church:  very ordinary people living the fullness of each day fully embedded in diverse cultures all over the world.  The power of the  magisterium is far from unbridled in that world; instead, there is a realistic acknowledgement of the divide that separates the ordained and the lay Catholic.

The life of the church rests not in the pageantry of cardinals or the rhetoric of Rome.  That life surges through the families that kneel in pews, the children that whisper their prayers before bed, the couples that pray grace before meals.  For those persons, who trust there is a God, who find themselves conscious of being part of something greater than self,  who discover a sense of awe in silence and know the power of others’ stories, for those persons, there is a life of faith.

That life is reflected in choices, in behaviors and attitudes.  They are adults who hold their babies over the baptismal font with the keen awareness that faith is a family proposition, and it is their privilege and responsibility to pass on the faith they practice.  They are the elderly who receive a young priest’s homily about his own alcoholism with an understanding born of experience and an affirming round of applause.  They are the young couples who want to begin their lives together in a sacred space and place.  They are the ones who spend time in soup kitchens, in religious ed, in fingering the Rosary and in long conversations about how to become better people.

They live the frailty and the strength that are part of every human being, and they trust that no one among us is perfect.  They are maintenance people, doctors and teachers, clerks and cashiers, firefighters and policemen, nurses and EMT’s, chefs and limo drivers. They are well-educated and not educated, and they sit side by side.  They know the history of the institutional church, and they know the gift of personal faith.  In the midst of scandal, they keep trying to become better people.  Kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament,  realizing the very smallness of every human being in the vast display of the created world, they pursue a life of faith.  For them, it is not about the magisterium, the bishops or the workings of a diocese.  It is about finding the presence of God in the whisper of dawn each morning.  It is knowing that God walks with us through the mysteries of life, weeps with us in suffering and empowers us to goodness.

There is a certain miracle to the awareness that the ordained are mediators of practice, but not necessarily agents of faith.  That extraordinary privilege belongs to the most ordinary of persons.