Loss and Love

Loss is multi-faceted. Sometimes named “change” or “transition”, it is also both truth and opportunity. And it is most importantly a critical element of human experience. Every aspect of loss is a reminder of our competencies and capacities as human beings. That is mirrored in all the great literature of the world, in the stories told over firepits in backyards and in the revered books of the Bible. Each of those provides mirrors for what we know and windows to see what we have not yet noticed. Loss is both a mirror and a window when confronted in its reality and when normalized by conversation, by sharing. Silence about loss deepens and multiplies it, enables it to override choice and opportunity. Conversation about loss connects persons and stories and communities, proves that all of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done, and that each of us are far from idealized perfection.

Throughout history, God has been characterized anthropomorphically, understood as human. Authors like Karen Armstrong and Jack Miles have contended with the concept with insight and humor. God emerges through the Old Testament and matures in the New Testament. The full range of human emotions and actions are present: creativity and caring, anger and revenge, compassion and confidence, rescue and abandonment. Always, there is depth and breadth to complicated characters, settings and scenarios. From Moses and Marian to Judith and Holofernes, David and Bathsheba, Peter and Mary Magdalene, there are clear reflections of human hubris and humility, choices and challenges. There is continuity in the sense that there are divergent elements of human nature present in the stories, and there is consistency in both tragedy and triumph as part of human life. God clearly plays a role in personal lives, in relationships both complex and tender. There is Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, Moses and the Promised Land, Jesus in the desert and Paul’s conversion. And somehow, the human understanding of God is shaped by the elements of cultures and time periods. God who is defined as “Other”, is confined to the structures of human intellect. But suppose that thinking finds new ground and interpretation in these times. Suppose that God, more than judge or arbiter, is actually the source and nurturer of love and goodness. Suppose God’s Hand is the gentle one, the kind one. Suppose God is love. How does that change things?

Some phrases like “God loves you” are simple and sometimes trite in usage. But if God is love, then everything from facing loss to celebrating births takes on new meaning. All other boundaries are transcended by that love. With God as a loving companion, loyal and trustworthy, it is humanly possible to do what seemed impossible. Accessing and accepting unadorned truths may not be easily digestible, but with the courage born of knowing love, it is possible. Abandoning delusions and illusions, making honest choices, is entirely possible with confidence in being loved and cared for. Knowing love and acceptance enables ordinary human beings to experience extraordinary moments, days, years and decades. Maybe that is what this week’s readings are really all about. After all, the second reading from James says:

All good giving and every perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. 
He willed to give us birth by the word of truth
that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

To love and be loved

This summer, the specter of death contrasted sharply with the vibrant greens of new life, and the interface of the two opened new spaces for understanding and growth. Questions were raised as well: why are we here? What are we doing? What is our purpose? Why do people hurt each other so much? What is going on? Humbly grasping for answers, or somewhat adequate responses or relevant conjecture, I realized that there is a stark simplicity to life and to purpose: to love and be loved. It was not an insight of my own; it came from an obituary, a testimony to a man whose highest objective was exactly that. It was written by his wife who gracefully blended his life story with the narrative of a truly blended family. It was simple and clear, and it summed up the reasons we are here with a gentle confidence that belongs to those who love and are loved.

Sometimes, in the resevoir of daily events, time trumps relationship and productivity trumps purpose. But there, in black and white, one phrase captured it all. Ironically, the Gospel points in the same direction, but takes it further: Jesus shows the need for grace to meet each moment. “No one can come to me unless the Father draw him”. Grace is what opens eyes to truth and enables honesty and generates choices. Grace is what helps us love and accept love, learn to love and live the letting go that is so much a part of love. But there is more to this trajectory of thought. Just as grace enables us, there is also the reality that each human being lives in a world of complexity and challenge. And so there are rituals, systems, traditions within the church that acknowledge our errors, speak to our failings and enable us to find new pathways.

As a graduate student, I was delighted with the concept of “erroneous conscience”. Then, I looked at it as an “easy out” for errors. From the vantage point of age, there seems so much more. Human beings grow and change everyday, learn more, develop persepctives and shift pathways and keep becoming more. I finally saw that the church is a harbinger for that truth and established customs and rituals to affirm and recognize those emerging persons who dare to change. There is an acceptance of the idea that mistakes are made, that adjustments are possible and becoming more than who we are is a lifelong journey. In other words, life is not “once and done”. It is much more about meeting the world and issues head on and finding the most sacred of truths to live by.

To love and be loved is the most sacred of all human activity, all human purpose. It illuminates the darkest hours and shapes dreams into possibilites. It is interactive, simple and clear. And it is the most demanding of all things because it asks for that truth and honesty, the respect, that make love in every sense come alive. He achieved that, and his wife celebrated it, and we have it to aspire to as we move forward.

Becoming Human

Relationships help us explore the vast resources, gifts, and the limits within each of us. Relationships bring to life the continuum of emotions, the stretch of intellect and the physical dimensions of who we are. It begins at birth with the bonds between parent and child, leans through childhood with extended family and then into puberty and adolescence with explosive growth. The whole process continues in adulthood, multiple times, revealing the essence of being over days and decades. Reality says the essence of who we are continually deepens with every day, every sunrise, every choice.

There are the extraordinary connections that somehow dare us to become more than who we are or who we thought we were. These are the relationships that reveal our capacity for awe and wonder, challenge assumptions and dump illusions and delusions. Raw truths become apparent and our capacity for compassion, love and empathy expand with grace and fortitude. Realistic and humbling perceptions of self are juxtaposed with the mirrored images from those relationships. Honesty with self and others develops a deeper hue and demands a new and genuine fidelity to those deepening truths and perceptions. There is an intellectual harbor for this lifelong exploration, and the articulation of each awareness becomes a precious exchange of the newly discovered insights. The beauty of who we are and who we can be is somehow more palatable and much more real. Actions and behaviors find new purpose and direction, and are founded on truths, not illusions, as relationships develop and deepen. Life-changing, each connection draws out more of who we are and what truths are at home within us. We emerge and re-emerge over time nurtured by friendships and partnerships, connections enabling us to become who we are meant to be. Every nuance of this lifelong journey demands more of us than we imagined possible and grants us the same: gifts and joys we could never have imagined.

In essence, we make one another human. We draw out the best in each other, and sometimes we solicit the worst. Either way, we demonstrate to one another who we are at that moment in every interaction. We impact one another whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not. By existing, we are part of one another’s existence and constitute for one another what goodness looks like and what shapes hurts and fears take. There is this terrifyingly simple truth that we cannot know self without knowing others. And so, with the fresh breath of every sunrise, we continue to make one another more human by stirring and sharing the unknown capacities and the unsuspected gifts each of us has. Genuine gentleness and kindness open the doors to a world where truth and honesty can build love and respect, the kind that leads to sincere awe of the greatness that lives within created beings.

The simplicity and the power of the Magnificat in the Gospel for the celebration of the Assumption of Mary points to that sort of intimacy in relationship, that deep grasp and understanding of Other, and the humble sense of gratitude for the gift of connection.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
        my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
        for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
    From this day all generations will call me blessed:
        the Almighty has done great things for me
        and holy is his Name.
    He has mercy on those who fear him
        in every generation.
    He has shown the strength of his arm,
        and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
    He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
        and has lifted up the lowly.
    He has filled the hungry with good things,
        and the rich he has sent away empty.
    He has come to the help of his servant Israel
        for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
        the promise he made to our fathers,
        to Abraham and his children forever.

While structure and rituals have purpose and meaning within Catholicism, the core of it is all about relationships, definitley about the journey of being flawed and human and always about becoming more than we thought we could be.


He was a parish priest exiled to the edge of the Archdiocese, to a solitary ministry in a lowly village where the sparse population fluctuated only with the arrival of summer residents. Some said he was ghostly with that tuft of white on his crown, that pallid complexion and the black cassock worn to threadbare. He was elderly; time had twisted his fingers and stolen his gait, but his mind was sharp and his eyesight acute. It was as if he could see inside souls and he brooked no judgment in so doing. In short, he was humble man, honest and realistic about the work and the mission, caring and compassionate to the congregation. He knew what it was to be human, and he lived the suffering that meant. It also meant welcoming every single person with a jovial simplicity. After just one conversation, he captured names and faces, tones and nuances, details and auras. And it all would resurface later, sometimes years later, in a casual conversation at the market or within the confines of the confessional. The astonished listener invariably realized here was an extraordinary man in the most ordinary of circumstances. And when age finally forced his retirement, he remained in the rectory under the auspices of a younger and more energetic pastor. On Memorial Day that year, he requested permission from that pastor to march in the annual parade from the baseball field to the center of the town as he always had before. Permission was granted. He marched the whole way, and at the end, he collapsed. Heart attack. And so the community gathered together in his tiny church, in the pews he dusted, amid the candles he trimmed, and they wept together for the angel that had existed among them.

Angels find bearing in so many ways, impact lives with a Tinkerbell touch of joy, and provide some reassurance that even in the worst of times, there is good in the world. Invisible and indomitable, angels rescue the unsuspecting from the exisential dangers that life presents. It might be the anchor of a word or a warning. It might be the pause, the smile, the extra mile that makes a difference in someone’s life. it is the kind word, the gentle approach. Angels are reminders that no matter who we are or where we are, life is something special to be explored and treasured and people, individuals, are what really matters. Traditional definitions offer the explanation that angels are messengers of God, but the term is tied to people, too, of uncommon conduct or virtue. The second reading for the Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time points to that, to kindness and compassion, living in love. Angels do exactly that: in the first reading, Elijah is the beneficiary of an angel’s promptings. And in the Gospel, there is Jesus, the messenger, the guide, more than the angels.

Angels without halos and wings live all around us, prompt us to the next step, the new perspective, the possibilities for life. They are the unsung heroes who assure compassion, comfort and love. Theirs are the hearts that see beyond judgment, that perceive goodness in the worst of us and weaknesses in the best of us. Theirs are the humble hearts that perceive sincerity, remain steadfast in uncertainty and draw the best from the challenges to be handled in life. Angels are the friends, the acquaintances, the family and the strangers who cross our paths. They are quietly dedicated, and often quite invisible. But they are there, waking and urging and helping us become more than who we are as we struggle through the increments of time.