Years ago, in an inner city classroom, students were poring over the biblical story of Job. The teacher threw out a question, “Have any of you ever felt like Job?” A scrawny freshman responded, “Every day of my life!” The real weight of being, the challenge of being human and simply being who we are is framed in his perception with an unparalleled eloquence. But that weight rests next to the incredible intellectual and emotional strengths and powers that lie within us. Every day, that kid showed up. Every day, he interacted with others and shared his thinking and perspectives. Every day, feeling like Job, he mattered and he managed to make others feel they mattered. He was able to re-frame his Job experiences in a way that made a difference. With strength and courage, he continued to engage in the battle to become the best of who he was and who he could be. And so, even years later, he left a legacy for every person who was in that room that day. He was not trapped in despair and he invited everyone to accept happens and choose to live. He showed us that the redundancy of human experiences, the way we are each caught in circumstances beyond our control, the truth that we live in increments of time can become treasured parts of the frame rather than burdens of brokenness.

What I like about Catholicism is the idea that there is not one frame. There is not a single path or an unquestioned practice. There are lots of models, exemplars, suggestions and possibilities. There are ways to negotiate and discover, and every generation gives birth to new interpretations and expressions of hope and devotion. What seems most consistent to me is the divergence, the room for more, and the confidence that is placed in humans just discovering their own lives every day. Belonging to the human race, to the Catholic tradition, can be a incredibly humbling and awesomely empowering all at once. The task is to discover or design the best frame for all that life offers. Indisputably, it is all about the choices we make on the wild ride that is life. Believing that there is purpose and meaning in what we do and how we live is a primary feature in choosing the style of the frame. But there is another factor: how we assess and choose our sense of belonging in the world, to the human race, and to other human beings.

The readings for today explore that idea of belonging with an uncommon clarity. Belonging is defined by God’s actions and responses, not by human preferences. There is a sense that what matters most is finding that link to the divine in the mystery of being who we are. Those are uncharted waters for each of us in each generation. Always there are precepts and guidelines, rules and commands, but there is more to it. It is about trusting that uncondiitonal love is the Creator’s gift to us. The mire and mystery of life cannot negate or abrogate that, and no human choice can eradicate that covenant. Building a frame boned by that idea guarantees a sense of belonging that can sustain through any curse or crisis, tragedy or triumph. Feeling like Job everyday and continuing to embrace the journey is a gift beyond measure…Frame on! You matter, and so does the next person!

Right time

There is charm in timing, a kind of magic that lets you know when “the right time” arrives and a sort of cloudiness that lets you know it is not quite “the right time”. The trick is to be able to read the signals with confidence and calm, to make the choices that make a difference, to trust intuition and to risk the outcome. There are first dates and marriage proposals, promotions and downsizing and they all involves that same attentiveness to what is happening at the moment. Being self-aware, conscious of stressors and uncertainities, flaws and foibles, is essential. Being able to be totally honest with self is even more important and more challenging.

We are the heroes of our stories, the survivors of the narratives that shape our lives. We live with illusions and delusions, and sometimes we allow that to override the simplicity of truth and the magnitude of real courage. We color our lives with desired design at the intersection of reality and recall. Sometimes, that aptitude enables us to bury the harder truths and pursue illusions about who and what we are, even live there without even a glance at the deeper truths. We dare not linger in the spaces where we can discover that.

Faith asks us for more than that. Faith dares us to recognize the complexity of human circumstance and the simplicity of human life. The Gospel today points that out. While the disciples discuss who is the greatest, they are ashamed to admit that to Jesus. And he provides a poignant reminder:

“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” 
Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

They were dancing with the human hope for status and recognition; He was talking about embracing the ones who appear in our path with affection, respect and love. It means recognizing what is happening at that moment, the wonder and the weight of meeting destiny in the light of a child’s eyes. In subtle phrases, there is the idea that heroes belong to homes, to fragments of time and memory. But we, as human beings, belong entirely to one another with all the richness and brokenness of who we are and who we can be.

We have the capacity to recognize truth in the eyes of another, to find it flailing within ourselves, to share it with love and kindness. When the right time comes, and it is possible, honesty is born, the child of courage who has spoken truth. There is a purity in those moments that mirrors the innocent interactions of children who somehow sense who truly cares and shower affection in response. Home exists in those moments, those “right times” when truth and honesty open the door to love and respect. It is about so much more than being a hero: it is about being a person who is loved and loves without regret or reserve. It is about knowing when is the right time.

The Umbrella

Multiple systems and networks exist under the Catholic umbrella. There are local and global layers to the hierarchy and there are the religious communities of men and women as well. Although the realities maybe invisible to the untutored, the uniqueness of each is emblematic to those who live it out and often challenge pedominant stereotypes. Most importantly, those realities deepen the perception of what it means to be human. Maybe that is best glimpsed from the inside where individual integrity wrestles with institutional precepts and structures. An insitution that has lived through centuries and millenums has done so through persons in each generation; each one has carved meaning from what was and has been to find understanding of what is and move forward to what can be. For example, there are the contemplative houses of women.

From the medieval outset, the monasteries of women lead by Clare of Assisi represented an alternative to the patriarchal systems in place. Hundreds of years later, monasteries of contemplative women quietly pursue the life she designed. Medieval roots meet contemporary lifestyles with thoughtful consideration and a clear sense of who they are as believers, women, communities. For instance, the Poor Clares of the Bronx told a wonderful story that exposed both their understanding of communication and people and their awareness of others, their sense of what happens “behind the curtains” of the Church.

The sisters had few days outside the monastery, but attended annual gatherings of Franciscans like picnic celebrations. At one such event on Long Island, a bishop who had attended the papal enclave that elected Pope John Paul was present. He requested a ride back to New York City in their aging station wagon, and volunteered to answer their questions on the trip. The sisters went right to the core of things: “What was the politicking like at the enclave? How did the campaigning for candidates go?” His response was textbook. “Sisters, it is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit.” There was a moment of quiet, and then the burst of laughter that lasted from the Cross Island Parkway and over the Throgs Neck Bridge. Men, of course, are human. And to conceive of a world, a process, a sacred enclave, where there are no touches of humanity was impossible for women who live within the confines of a monastery, practice eight hours of prayer each day, rely on donations to survive finanacially and live a simplicity that environmentalists would love to master. Men are men, after all. Humans are human and created by God who accepts, forgives, encourages and sustains.

The Church provides guidelines and lifelines, but most importantly invites us to be the best of who we are as human. Paths are different and journeys diverse, but everyone has a place. On this 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, nothing could be more true. In the Gospel, Jesus asks the proverbial “Who do you say I am?” and he is identified by the Apostles as the Christ. It is equally important to pose questions like that for ourselves, and to have the courage to answer them. “Who am I? How do I know?” The reading from James is a reminder that we say we believe and what we do, faith and works, are revealing of who we are. The example of women who dedicate their lives to prayer and live out a vow of poverty prove this. Their vision of who we are as human is grasped with a courageous honesty that transcends stereotypes. It enables us to look realistically at the gifts of life and the truths of who we are. Embracing all that is accepting of human characteristics and features, behaviors and choices with understanding and empathy. The umbrella gets bigger with each generation.

Symbols Seen

Symbols carry layers of meaning that are peeled away as strength and insight grow. A crucifix hangs in our parish church, one that shows a corpus nailed to wooden beams. Crowned with thorns and wrapped in a gilded adorning the drape at the waist, the corpus and cross easily dominate the sanctuary. For years,it seemed to me a tender tribute to the Passion story; and then, it simply blended into the familiar and unseen. This week, it spoke of suffering as the cost of unconditional love and then intimates the certainty of God’s love for each of us. To love, then, means to suffer on some level. It implies simultaneously a freedom and a connection. That means sharing respect, empathy and understanding. Unconditional love is priceless; it cannot be bought or negotiated. It simply is. It exists outside the limits of fear and anxiety, spirals deeper than observations or judgement, and dares even the most skeptical to become accepting. It exists independently of actions or reciprocity; it is unearned, freely given, and faithful beyond fault. It is what nurtures human souls and comforts the lost, soothes the broken. It is the sense that in a world mad with circumstance and complexities, there is something, someone, who deeply cares. The cost of that kind of love is the the agony of the cross.

To believe that there is a God who is simply Other is to imagine the tenderness, the reality, of Jesus’ message. In the readings this week, there is the energetic strength of a God enabling the deaf to hear, the blind to see, the mute to speak. That is followed by Letter of James pointing to the need to reach out, to truly see one another as special. The Gospel shows Jesus performng those same miracles and transforming lives, offering hope to those who had none. Each of those persons gains and becomes more whole from a gift freely given, a healing without price or cost. Each of the readings testifies to the ways that God is present in the world. Each also testifies to a deeper truth: none of us is invisible to God. Seen as we are, we are loved and accepted by a God who trusts that we are more than our worst moments and better than our best moments. No matter what we do, that unconditional love is there, waiting.

The implications are profound: for instance, no person can be invisible, unseen or unnoticed. That sense of being unimportant, meaningless, unworthy or unwanted has no traction in this understanding. Every human being matters. Every action makes a difference. Every failure and every hope has a place, can be anchored in human lives without fear of desolation. Because beyond the interactions of flawed human beings, there is an outpouring of encouragement from the source of unconditional love. While that sounds so intangible, there are symbols everywhere waiting to reveal their layers, share their purposes, wanting to be noticed and understood.