In the Pews

Black ice coated New England’s windy roads this morning, and the harbinger was not the  ice itself but layers of sand and salt that even the least diligent of drivers would notice.  But the church parking lot was full, and the congregants prepared for the ritual. They gathered quietly, stilled by the morning cold, and stepped into that dimension of life that defies description.  It was the tender expression of a faith that defies conventions of the day and yet dares linger in the present with both past and future in reachable distance. 

The lectionary readings are patterned.  There is the prophecy of promise: from the prophet Isaiah, light for the people who lived in darkness.  Then the New Testament reading, the message of unity, followed by the Gospel story of Jesus’ call of Peter and his brother.   There are murmurs of the mystery this all represents: called to leave family and lifestyle behind to follow, called to resolve differences and find unity, called to understand that the moment is now.  Each passage, embedded as it is in the liturgical readings, speaks with a fullness to the open, the listening. Each passage invites reflection and its more visible companions, choice and action.  

That is what it means to sit in the pews: it is not simply a passive experience; it is all about internal growth in a space with other people who are also somehow seeking, listening, hoping. It is about daring to find meaning in a process and practice that is at once simple and complicated, layered and nuanced.    It is about being willing to realize that all forms of human jaggedness have a home here in the pews. People carry one another and are carried by one another in these pews. Weakness and strength, questions and constancy, caring and disillusionment all have a place here. There is space for the awkward and the doubtful, the disturbed and the growing, the believers and the broken.  Because everyone yeilds to the sense that there is, in fact, something greater than self, something beyond what is currently known or understood.  

Among them, there is the sense that Life itself is sacrament:  sacrament in that it reveals and reveres the divine and the transcendent.  Sacrament in that the incredible and the mundane coexist in every rendering, and each person’s fragment of the truth finds completion in the mosaic of the whole.  Sacrament in the acknowledgement that none of us is whole without each other, that nature itself wraps us in the humility of the divine. Each deep breath begins the journey to believing in the gift that Life is, and the knowledge that the created world is both gift and responsibility. Then, too, there is the reality of uniqueness of each individual, the reality that each carries, projects, some aspect of the divine and transcendent.  Ours is to perceive, to discover or to doubt, to discredit or to embrace.  

Sunday is the space for making it happen, for taking the dare.  There is no pressure save the purpose of becoming fully human, fully alive.   There is no question save whether or not it is worth the commitment to fully exploring what it means to be a human being.



The word “blessings” implies something unwarranted, the unearned gift.  And it leaves dangling deeper questions about the source of such things, the experience of such moments and the possibilities this represents.  There are all kinds of blessings: some are defined by clarity of purpose, some by the miracles that defy common sense and even scientific explanations.  Some are shrouded in the quiet of prayer and others are blasts of energy at the finish line in a tough competition.  Franciscan Benedictions are grounded in what it means to be a human being on the very difficult path of life.  They resonate with the acknowledgement of shortcomings and limited perceptions and the reality of life as a collective experience.  What happens to each of us somehow, incredibly, affects all of us.

The Franciscan Benediction offers particular hopes for humanity:  for discomfort, for anger, for tears and for foolishness.

Francsican Benediction
May God bless you with discomfort…
Discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships,
Discomfort, so that you will live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger…
Anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
Anger, so that you will work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears…
Tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war,
Tears, so that you will reach out to comfort them
And turn their pain into joy.

And, may God bless you with foolishness…
Foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
Foolishness, so that you will do what others claim cannot be done.

 The black bolded words capture what is so much a part of being human; culture and circumstance push discomfort, anger, tears and foolishness away too often.  Each, however,  is essential to realizing a full self.  The green phrases stretch the depth of self into and through the importance of doing.    And it is not about doing for self but about serving others.  Nothing is more Franciscan.

The 12th century Francis is a voice speaking truth to the 21st century.  His was a life that countered the dominant culture, earned him controversy, won him support and broke his heart.  His was a vision that embraced uniqueness, demanded resilience, encouraged becoming and dared fidelity.  He broke boundaries and named new ones: he both embraced and suffered change.  He wandered through human suffering and found solace in silence; he was at home among the brothers and the formidable rocks of LaVerna.  He knew illness and blindness and yet he could see so much of what was most meaningful in life.  In other words, he was very human.  And he was loved.

Francis was also Catholic.  The Voice he heard and trusted was from the cross at San Damiano.  The God he knew revealed his presence in others: in friars and Clare and in the people of Greccio.  The energy he brought to life was about bringing hope and change: initiatives for peace, movements towards safety, encouragement to see the world as the gift it is in the enigmatic “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.”  And yet, blind by the end and suffering disagreements among the friars, Francis left a blessing for all.  It is ours to choose to explore.




Ordinary Time

The Baptism of Jesus marks the first Sunday of Ordinary Time.  That is an amazing confluence of circumstance:  a Baptism, a new beginning; and the title, “ordinary” as if every day is the same.  And the truth of that lies in what Baptism is all about: to be loved, and to be accompanied throughout life by that love, that sense that someone cares so deeply.

Liturgically, Ordinary Time is carved into 34 weeks, distinct from Advent and Christmas, separate from Lent and Easter.  It marches through the Old Testament prophecies and the New Testament stories of who Jesus was and how He was and how people intereacted with Him.  The debate about origin of stories, historical accuracy, relevance, does not change the idea that this was a person who believed and saw Himself as so loved, so cared for, in spite of and maybe because of, His human experiences.  There is a strength to be found in that conviction, and in the sense of purpose such a gift inspires: it means we are each MEANT to be here, to be human, and that in and of itself gives each life value.  It definitively alters perceptions about life and humanity, cultures and creation.

In earlier thinking, I saw the tradition of it linking generations and cultures; I saw congegarions living it, and I believed that the strength of those two impelled and empowered touching the future.  Today I saw that the very foundation of Baptism is about becoming connected, consciously choosing to participate in a meaningful way of life and reflective process of being.  It is about taking the moments to consider what that love actually means, trusting its existence and entrusting self to the idea that there is something so much more.

The story does not sparkle with the same glitter as the Christmas story, but it is even more of an invitation to connect in very human ways with one another.  Countless artists have documented the very compelling image of Jesus in the Jordan and his cousin, John, baptizing him.  But to tenderly imagine the scene in the depth of self opens a different portal, one that leads to a land of daring contemplation.  What does the Spirit of God mean?  What does it mean to be chosen?  To be the Beloved?  To be the one in whom God is well-pleased?  To know with certainty that the Spirit is a faithful companion?

As a Catholic, I am conscious that those gifts were given in Baptism to me as well.  The rite was somewhat different; the location and context were well over a thousand years later.  And yet, that sacrament was the first step towards ordinary times.    And it is in the very ordinary times that I discover what it actually means to be human, what kind of person I really am, what needs drive me and what purpose compels me.  When I consider all that, I am conscious that to be Catholic demands personal reflection and thought, consciously connecting with others.  It means going to the river and knowing the sensation of water on my skin, the air pressing against me and the richness of the moment.

Baptism is not a static ceremony: it is something lived, something experienced in the most ordinary of times.  Something that transforms those seemingly ordinary moments into Divine exchanges.


There is a cetain irony about the celebration of the Epiphany this year.  At once, the story is a celebration of the intersection of science and faith and a gentle promise that there is something greater than self.  This year, it is celebrated under a sad mantle of scandals that accounts for empty pews and a decimated hierarchy that has squandered congregational respect.  The irony?  People still come to worship, to celebrate.  And I cannot help but wonder what is it that motivates and inspires seeking and searching and following the star.

On the same day that the Washington Post published a scathing expose of former Cardinal McCarrick’s financial dealings as a cover for his other behaviors, I overheard an elderly woman.  She was non-plussed with the news coverage and strong in her convictions.  Her contention was Catholicism, faith, is all about personal relationship with God. The ordained, she suggested, are just men.  With the lilt of her brogue, she added, “And we all know that has its limits.”  Her little circle of friends exploded with laughter.

Decades ago, I had a similar encounter with a small group of contemplative nuns.  Living as they do, I had expected a particular reverence for the hierarchy.  As conversation veered into papal conclaves and bishops, I was taken aback by their very open and frank description.  The scenario they recalled took place shortly after the election of John Paul II.  The sisters had attended a gathering of religious men and women from a variety of communities.  Afterwards, a bishop who had attended the enclave needed a ride; they had an open seat in the station wagon.  He encouraged the sisters  to ask questions.  There was the slightest hint of his condescension as they described his tone.   The sisters zeroed in on the politics that must take place at an enclave.  He put them off with talk of the Holy Spirit and the movement of the Spirit.  Even in the telling, eyes rolled  and vieled heads shook and there was  audible chuckling.   The man’s explanation was wholly insufficient for these women. They pressed him further and finally  he spoke about private exchanges among the prelates.  The most senior of the contemplative women, seated beside him, wrapped it up with, “Of course…you were human before you were ordained, after all…”  After which he introduced a whole new topic.  

We, of course, are just humans following a star.  The Epiphany is a reminder that there is a wealth in the study of the world, of science and in the wide variety of persons and traditions that exist in this world.  It is also a vivid reminder of the intolerance, indifference and discrimination that human beings can practice, perpetuate and escalate.  Most of all, it is the sense that among the kings, there was a common purpose and understanding.  It was theirs, a vision and an inspiration not shared by all.  They journeyed through it, trusted what was impelling and compelling to each one.  They were mindful of warnings, and they risked trusting one another and others.

Maybe, in the midst of this moment, that is what it means to be sitting in the pews in these early days of 2020.  Maybe it is really all about learning how to see the star and how to follow.