That they may be one

The handprint of a ten year old is small, smooth to perfection, and large enough to wrap neatly into larger hands, to be held and guided, nurtured and aligned. Uvlade has resurrected the heartbreak of Sandy Hook and re-opened debates about gun control, safety in schools and the red flags of mental illness. The rhetoric can mask grief and defy fear; after all the incdents of the past ten years, it has not resoluted in effective action. It has not been able to answer the question, “What would work to solve this problem?” or even “What are the causes of this? What is actually happening? How can we change this trajectory?”

A coherent clarity would be more than welcome, and heated debates over the NRA nd gun control suggest that. It is as if resolving the contentious issue would put an end to the tragedies America is enduring. The circumstances are extraordinarily complex and acknowledging that may open unexpected solutions. First, there is the rapid social and technological change that has shaped this millennium and all traversing through it. Social shifts have dislodged a reverence for spaces once considered sacred: churches and schools. Others, once defined by their purpose, have not been inviolate. Movie theaters, concerts and supermarkets,polics stations have become stages for violence rather than venues for entertainment and leisure, sustenance and stability. The shifts reflect the skeptcism of loss of confidence in social insitituions. Language has known shifts as well: once private terms hemming emotions have blasted into routine daily usage. Accompanying the onslaught of acronyms and emoticans has generated divisions between age and interst groups. Vocabulary has grown powerful; even the word “carnage” has crept into the vernacular as mass shootings become more frequent.

These changes have occurred in a time when technology has granted new voice to the marginalized and is postioned to democratize American society. Individuals possess a formerly unattainable measure of influence and/or notoriety. Split seconds separate events from international publicity and highlight the intensity of news events that years ago were buried in newspapers. Spiking anxiety and stress heighten grief and drama, spill into and shape reactions, increase tensions, furstrations and fury.

There are heartbreaking searches for answers. The answers have remained cruelly elusive; perhaps they are hidden in the whole of who we actually are and what is actually happening within lives and culture. There are moments to take that step back, to breath deeply, and to realize that each of us has such a need for the other and others to actually become whole. We need one another. We need to believe in one another, in mutual respect, in the idea that life has real value and thoughtfully living matters. There are those moments when the prayer Jesus uttered, “that they all may be one” , can become real.

The very brevity of life is a keen reminder that time is precious, a commodity and a gift. How we live that time matters. Believing matters. Becoming one matters. It just might make a difference.

Ascension

As a child, I stood in the middle of our Bronx street and stared up at puffy gray clouds sliced by tranluscent spears of light. I imagined the Baby Jesus sliding into the world on one or the other of them giggling and laughing. When I was a little older with a few years of Catholic education under my belt, I noticed it again. This time, I wondered if that was part of what the Apostles saw at the Transfiguration or if, perhaps, Jesus rode the rays of light like an escalator back into heaven during the Ascension. And, finally, just before we moved out of the neighborhood, I wondered if such startling and majestic images were there as reminders that there is something beyond self, that there is a God and there are paths to peace even in the midst of tumultuous days. There are, of course, no answers. But there is a threshold, a beginning, that profers the promise of peace.

The Ascension is a reassurance of “God with us”. It is a recognition of the cycle of life and connections among people, and it is the beginning of new learning for the Apostles and for Christians. There is always more to learn, at every phase of life, and the celebration of the Ascension underlines that. It is both a letting go and a new beginning, a moment fraught with mystery and overflowing with light. Hearing the story in a world of dystopian tastes and the magic of supehrheroes generates anime images that hide the simplicity of the message: “I may not always be with you, but I will never leave you.”

There is a profoundity to such an idea, but it is mirrored in stories of human relationship, of love and loss and grief and being. It is the assertion that our ties are stronger than mere physical bonds, and our capacity for connections and presence to another is not confined to time or space. In other words, there is more to life than what is visible; the Ascension is a moment of pause in the possibility, a moment of grace to see beyond what is to what also is, that which often escapes notice.

Signs and symbols of all that “also is” abound. For some, it is the spires of old churches; for others, it is the gift of a gathering of friends or the quiet sacredness of a walk in the woods. The flight of a sparrow, the dart of a blue jay, the sloppy kiss of a pet or the unexpected green light. Familiar lyrics drifting from a car radio, the brush of a breeze against a cheek, the soft and insistent charm of waves lingering at the shaore. Each one speaks of so much more than what it is if only we take the time to notice. The Ascension is all about noticing, acknowledging, and embracing the next phase. It is sunrise after mourning and hope after grieving. It is about becoming more than who we have been, accepting who we are, and trusting who we can become.

The “Real Thing”

To love someone is to draw on the well of love received that exists within. To believe that one is lovable, worthy of kindness and gentleness, generosity and truth, is a gift all by itself. Without that conviction, without that sense of self. the path is so much more challenging. To do things to “earn” love, to be a people-pleaser or practice self-deprecation far beyond modesty and humility, is to misunderstand the generosity of spirit that characterizes “the real thing”, love. For Catholics, faith and service go hand in hand; but that can easily distract from one of the most fundamental of teachings. A young priest highlighted that this morning in a short and powerful homily: to love your neighbor as yourself means you must love yourself, believe that you are loved. Otherwise, the well you draw from to love others finds its buckets dry and empty.

And yet, there are thousands of reasons to judge self unlovable, to live without fully trusting another and to cower before the power of bullies who would strip away the essence of human dignity. It can come with childhood trauma, invade the self-confident young adult, paralyze the broken-hearted and punish an erring child. The weight of ordinary mistakes and errors, the unexpected consequences of choices are compounded in actions and behaviors. Fear of further loss lodges beneath ordinary emotions and the cycle only deepens a spiraling discontent and deeper conviction that love is only an elusive gift reserved for those who are deserving, better than this, and simply worthy for unknown reasons.

Love, the real thing, is not like that at all. It is freely given and seeks only the best for other. It is not threatening nor dishonest; it does not contort truth or reality, and it speaks to the heart through words and actions with a consistency far beyond hopes. It is sourced in something other than self. For a Christian, that is God. For a Catholic, the readings of the day are a reminder of that mystery. Love, the real thing, allows for the emtional roller coaster of humanity yet it recognizes the importance of boundaries and limits, embraces well-being and recognizes illness and realizes life journeys are complicated, relationships have beginnngs and endings, hurt and grief are inevitably companions at times, but love itself goes on through it all.

To have even a glimpse of that “real love” is the gift of a lifetime. To be able to live it, to share it, to believe in it, is an even greater wonder. That gift demands stepping away from belittling self or others. It asks for the best of who we are in so many ways, and it enables us to become better than that. It dares us to look beyond the surface, the outside, and clearly see the whole of self and other. Because that is how God looks at us, as cherished treasures, loved beyond understanding and so able to love others and self. That is a well never meant to run dry.

Cadence and Counterpoint

So often, the litany of human cruelties woven into the news and social media, on Twitter and Instagram and FaceBook generates anxiety, anger, frustration and even despair. There is labelling, discrimination, misinformation and judgments made without even a clue of the whole story. It is everywhere: in families and friendships, work places and homes. The volume and cadence can be deafening if permitted. To all that, there is counterpoint, a sense of balance to be afforded to the willing. Silence bathes that darkness in a light that reveals a path beyond despair and loss.

There is a sorry tempation to imagine that ours is the first society ever to suffer so. But that denies the generations of those who have gone before us and grappled with the same issues: we wear the mantle of that same continuum of human interactions. The tensions ripple through the Bible from the battle between Cain and Abel through David and Goliath to the stress in the Gospels and then the chronicles of the Acts of the Apostles. Historians capture the broader context in timelines of conquest in every part of the world, and each is undergird by the suffering of persons whose lives are devoured by time and wrestled into words that seem to hide and even deny their very existence: civil war, Roman Empire, Han Dynasty, Great Depression, the Plague, Reformation, Middle Ages, Age of Exploration. There is more to every story, and for Catholics, there are reminders.

To know loss, to meet death, to grieve: these are challenges of living. To know someone, to find the reality of a home between two souls, this is the gift of a lifetime. The joy of that authentticity is a rare privilege, and it is oddly commensurate with the weight of loss and endings. The light of it glows through the panels of time, meets the inevitable unkindness, the perverse injustice, the blatant cruelty with an undeniable fortitude. Light opens a continuum of possibilities designed to expand the spirit. Daring to respond with kindness, gentleness, truthfulness and honesty is disarming and somehow counters the litany, censures the darkness. It flows from the deepest of certainties that one is deeply known, fully accepted and undeniably loved.

Catholicism, in all its vast dimensions, provides a thousand touchstones to appreciate and nurture, cultivate and develop that idea. Part of the wonder of it is the acknowledgement that the path is wide and windy, different for each one, yet deeply rooted in the sense that the certainty belongs to every human being at each stage of being. In these days after Easter, that point finds exression in the Gospel of John. The analogy is about sheep, but the real message is about an inviolable connection between the Father and the Son, between the Shepherd and the sheep. It is the connection that constitutes hope, generates trust, and empowers faith. That all adds up to resilience, to options and to possibilities. It is all about choice, as it has been for generations, and in lives that will know anonymity in history, it is the assurance that the litany of human cruelites can be met with the best of who we are.

FAITH DIMENSION

Nwe England’s spring is chilly this year, enticing brilliant color from buried bulbs while swathing the earth with crisp clarity. There is an attendant sense of powerlessness just now: economic uncertainty, prospects of war, extremes in weather and politics. What to do? Anything? How to do it? And yet, tomorrow, there will be Communions and Confirmations, Bar Mitzvahs and weddings…all signals of the promise Life presents and a commitment to the surprises it holds. Wrestling with reality from a faith perspective is hardly popular, but it carries definitive positives and accesses a long history of human survival.

History begins much earlier, but the Gospels offer a starting position for understanding. Just after the Resurrection, there is the struggle with comprehending what has happened, grief and mystery: appearances and doubts, moments of recognition, the emptiness of absence. The stories unveil the transition phases of traumatic human experience and are flooded with very human emotions without once mentioning the words. The Gospel depicts frightened Apostles relying on one another, resorting to the familiar, fishing. Jesus appears and the nets are filled to bursting. They eat together, afraid to speak his name but aware he is the Lord. He missions them with gentle directions, “Feed my lambs”. Somehow, the full nets became the focus of the story. But in the quiet re-reading, there is a deeper sense. There is purpose, direction; tenderness and kindness mingle with acceptance of the circumstance, and there is a bonding in the movement forward. Every word in each story implies connections to one another, testitifes to the uniqueness of each person’s journey and the reality of the presence of God in life. Startling or perhaps mysterious, the promise is there. And it is followed by comfort, by caring, and following through. The full nets point to harmony in the universe, an aliveness in realizing the gift of the moment.

In spite of all society’s evolution, those same feelings of loss and uncertainty, powerlessness and fear are haunting. And beyond the Gospel are centuries of stories confronting all the same. Remembering the stories is like pulling a warm comforter around on a cold evening; they are wrapped into history and hold mirrors for reflection. This week, a 14 year old confided her Confirmation name and then her brother’s and others. Hers was Teresa of Avila; his Francis of Assisi. Each bore struggles; each was captured by the circumstances of their time; each lived the continuum of emotion and faced radical decisions and choices. Each cultivated relationships that sustained and thrived, inspired and quieted, enabled and empowered. Like the Gospel, the stories of the saints are the stories of human beings confronted with the dauntingness of a lie journey, discovering the support of community and developing trust and confidence in becoming.

Sometimes what we are looking for is right in front of us, waiting for us to hear and to see and to choose. Catholicism’s heritage has many facets to address the personal and collective challenges of this era. Somehow, Catholicism gives an opportunity for comfort and compromise, choice and sustenance. A faith persepctive can open new dimensions of experience. For that, I am sincerely grateful.