Disbelief is a helpful companion on the journey of life.  It is the incredulity that induces awe and the skepticism that provides safety and sometimes truth. It is invaluable as a tool for living.  In the Upper Room, locked in with grief and fear, the disciples knew those moments of disbelief.  Suspended between the rejection of the Pharisees and the tyrannies of Rome, the disciples clung to one another for meaning and purpose, for support in a world where, somehow, the impossible had occurred: the stone of the Tomb rolled away and Jesus nowhere to be found.

It was Thomas who was not there for the appearance; Thomas who navigated his disbelief alone.  He armed himself with critical thought, with rational claims, and he wondered at the understandings of his companions.  He willingly, consciously, wrestled with disbelief.  Living in his own time, he grappled dramatically with discomfort and anxiety; he did it with bravery and determination and respect.

And so he lays out an invitation to future generations:  use your questions and your critical thinking skills,  find the strength to follow through, be determined to confront the issues.  Do not walk away from the challenge.  Instead, aware of vulnerability, trust your instincts and consult with your friends.  Find the path that empowers and invites deeper peace.  Beleive that discernment is necessarily an uncomfortable process, but it possesses the promise of an outcome that is worth far more than the price of the process.  Thomas, in his vulnerability and fear,  invites the movement towards an outcome.

That invite resounds in the contemporary world.  Here, too, the institutions which once provided a coherent and organized structure have all but collapsed for so many.  Navigating the waters of faith demands close scrutiny, weighng the variables and the evidence, the science and the scams.  It also means having the courage to imagine something beyond what is immediately perceivable, opening the psyche to the possiblity of the soul.

In a world of black and white, Pharisees can find the comfort of paths and rules.  In the world of  the Upper Room, when a spectrum of colors replaces the old continuum, there are new possibilities transfiguring old realities.  Reality and perceptions are re-shaped in each generation; there is a life-cycle that belongs to youth and allows for the architecture of their vision and truth.  There are moments when the old order simply fades away as it did around the table in the Upper Room.

That is the moment Thomas lived; it is the moment that each is invited to in the re-telling of the story.  It is the moment when disbelief becomes a strength not because it is stagnant, but because it is openness to a new moment.  Disbelief allows the chance to entertain truths and possibilities, if so allowed.  The grace that Thomas presents is his full embrace of humanity and his example to us to do the same.





Holy Saturday

In the gap between death and memory, emptiness resides with an unwelcome depth and breadth.  It is echoed in the chasm of Holy Saturday, in the wait for Easter Sunday.  The tradition carries an unexpected wisdom:  in so many ways, life means dealing with the reality of loss and brokenness, of grief and sorrows, of regaining balance and footing and coming again face to face with Dawn and Light.

Nestled in the richness of the liturgical calendar and the liturgy itself are practical strategies and structures for helping humans to find life, meaning and purpose, to cope with tangles of emotion and circumstances, to navigate suffering.  It is the invaluable offer of a community to provide the assurance that in those most lonely and painful of moments, no one is actually alone.  There are those who walked the same path before, those who are walking it now, and those who will walk it in times to come.  There are endless variations in context and culture, but an ultimate sameness in simply being human.  Jesus’ first steps and last breaths are evidence of that shared experience.  So are Peter’s and Mary Magadalene’s and yours and mine.

Tonight, the Exsultet will mark the beginning of the Easter Vigil,  slowly dousing that open gap with a generous  light.    The celebrant will raise the cross to the words, “This is the wood of the cross….”  The service begins not with a burst but with a whisper, with three separate acknowledgements of how that cross is a part of life experience.  Darkness is dispelled not by denying the reality of life, but by recognizing it. 

And then, the liturgy, the coming together as a community, a gathering of people each living humanity in the best they can at the moment.  All flawed.  All broken.  All gathered.  All seeking.   And so the celebration opens to the possibility and reality of  mysteries in life.  The Paschal Mystery is really our mystery, the mystery of what being human is all about.  And somehow, the emptiness of grief becomes the joy of a new beginning.

This year,  Easter is celebrated in the ashes of Notre Dame and the generations scarred by the scandals wracking the Catholic church and culture.  Both are reminders of the weight of loss, the consequences of failure, and the need to rebuild.   But the rebuilding, like the resolution of grief, is a personal and individualized experience as well as a communal and public one.  The steps are uncertain and tentative, the path not quite clear, the controversies and conflict endemic.  But the chances are there, the invitations are open.

This Easter offers the chance to actually become those persons who are willing to strive to become better people, to live so as to make a difference in the lives of others, to recall at  once the finiteness of each life and the vast possibility of good available to each one.  Easter is about meeting that awful gap head on and trusting in the Light that surrounds us as well as the Light within us.

New Life

Spring dances with the first tentative greens and the crystal clarity of blue skies.  Palm Sunday is rarely far behind and brings its  rituals:  church for a few, processions and palms for others, family gatherings.  For some, there is a skeptical cynicism and not-so-gentle mocking of all that religion represents.  For others, there is nothing at all save ignorance of the story.

The story of the day, however, belongs to each of us.  Buried in its nuances are the foundations of what humans hold in common:  love and loss, prejudice and power, brokenness and belonging.  Just as spring makes itself known, so a story from a millenium past juxtaposes suffering and hope, and breaks open new ways to perceive and live human life.

The story of the day is about Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, his recognition as a celebrity prophet, a hero-prophet of sorts.  There is  his final gathering of friends, and a searing personal betrayal followed by arrest, arraignment, judgment and sentencing.  Finally, there is death and its reverbearting grief.  Captured in different versions in the Gospels, the story is recalled in countless images.  But the truth of it lies in Jesus’ human experience of it all.  At every step, human senses and emotions are actively involved; there are characters to be empathized with, mirrors for the courageous; there are settings framed by the privilieged power-assaulting the vulnerable,  and there is a plot that ebbs and flows with the tragedies of human fault and failure.  Every passsage relentlessly strikes at the core of what it means to be human, to make decisions and live with consequences.

The story is not about the celebrated achievements, accruing wealth or winning admiration.  Instead, it is about the intense work of simply being human, being alive, realizing self within a social context.  There is nothing about that that can easily be dismissed or forgotten.  Everything about that invites deeper reflection and thinking.  It is not simply about where you are in the story, what character you connnect with or what parallel circumstances you have experienced.  It is about learning that all of us, each of us, is somehow caught up in the story somewhere, somehow.  It is about being aware of the contexts in which we are living, the systems we are part of the choices that we are making.

It is about believing that life, such as it is, is challenging and painful.  There is a certain norm to that truth.  While  aspiring  to goodness, we live with illusions and delusions that are hard to detect and yet  somehow rationally justifiable.  Most of all, it is about understanding that no matter where we have been, no matter what has happened, there is always the possibility of beginning again.  And in that new beginning, that flirting with the chance of becoming a better person, there are multiple opportunities to grow as well as to fail.

There is a harsh edge to the story, to the sense of inevitable consequences, the kind we prefer to shield loved ones from, the kind we resist with righteous indignation.  As much as we prepfer to believe otherwise, Life itself  bears harsh realities.  Even as we strive to shape the most comfortable of circumstances, life remains both challenging and difficult.  The Palm Sunday story is the reassurance that Life is meant to be negotiated and lived: it is not a simple seamless path but a series of developments and events that fall within and outside of personal control.  There is always that promise of new life just waiting to be accessed, a lot like watching Spring arrive after the bellows of winter finally subside.





For and With One Another

Decades ago, in a classroom characterized by all the features modernity rejects, we rose as one body at the end of each school day.  The principal’s voice crackled from a state-of-the art intercom system replete with a single speaker.  There was a firm invite  to examine our young consciences.   Then, with firm resolution, she  lead us in a chorus of the Confiteor.  “I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters…”  

At the time, the ritual was just that: a given part of a day’s experience.  It was not until much later that the deeper meaning dawned:  essentially, we were acknowledging that we all make mistakes, but what we do does matter.  We were saying out loud that our flaws are not secrets; they are visible to all, and we know it. Even further, we were saying that we would make a conscious effort to do things differently.  That was a clear commitment to self-improvement and to being able to gift our communities with our best efforts.

Now, as the liturgy opens, there is the same chance to take that moment and admit who we are publicly within a group of people striving, hoping, to do the same.  It is a challenge beyond that of social media scrutiny and hashtag tweets.  Most of all, there is a realistic element to the very human confrontation with self.  There is absolutely no doubt that no one of us is perfect, and no human journey is without either suffering or purpose.  More than anything else, we share a common journey.

And in the acknowledgment of personal responsibility comes the reality of accountability to self and others.  Those few sentences of the Confiteor are deep reminders of the continual need to choose purposefully or wisely within the parameters of each circumstance or context.  They are encouragement to keep trying no matter what happens.  And stuff does happen.

That is why the closing phrases ask for prayer for one another, for support on the journey and strength for the next round of being and living. At Mass, there is that moment of absolution…a moment of  grace for renewed efforts to identify and do the right thing, to become that better person for our own sake and the sake of others. The simple truth  of the whole prayer is that we need not exist in this world alone or nested in only superficial, virtual or artificial realities.  Flawed as we are, we can live with and for one another .

So many of the children of those cladssrooms, who recited those words,  have found grief in the scandals and abuses within the church.  Many have sought alternatives and found comfort in the empirical experience of science and the secular.   Other practices like yoga and fitness, sports and shopping, have won loyalty and the chance to shape lives.  And yet, there are moments when simple words echoing through decades somehow shed light on strategies and ways to negotiate contemporary 21st century lives.


Penitential Act (Confiteor)

I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and
in what I have failed to do,

[Pray while striking the breast three times.]
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;

therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

[At Mass, absolution by the priest follows.
The people reply: Amen.]