Stories in Sepia

The photo is sepia, circa World War II, framed in maple, and the gathered family is somber with one exception. The father sports a full head of think wavy hair and stretches his double breasted jacket; his hands rest on the shoulders of his wife seated before him. Her eyes trained on the camera, her suit modest with a ruffle collared blouse, she grasps the outstretched hand of the pouting three year old girl standing next to her. The tension is palpable, but to their left stands a charming boy of 10 in a sailor suit with a huge smile and, somehow, a twinkle in his eyes. For years, I saw that picture and wondered at the story behind it. Just recently, in an unexpected unfolding, I discovered there was tension: the father was leaving NYC for a World War II project in Hudson Bay. It was an unprecedented opportunity, and the mother was afraid he would not return. The photo was to be both a farewell and a reminder of all he left behind. There are stories buried in every photo, every image, every person. Circumstances may conspire to confine the story, but compassion and empathy can come from its revealing.

Learning the story means gaining an insight into the life of another. And gaining that means discovering the sameness that cements human beings to one another: the father’s hope and ambition, the possibilities; the mother’s fear and uncertainty; the little girl’s resistance and reaction to all the stress; the boy’s go-with-the-flow optimism. There are always ways to connect, to transcend difference and discover again what being human means at this moment, to this person in this place. It means wresting the old labels and learning to sense that we are each part of something greater than self.

“Here there is not Greek and Jew,
circumcision and uncircumcision,
barbarian, Scythian, slave, free;
but Christ is all and in all.


That final line captures of a vision of humanity that defies prejudice and discrimination, invites serious reconsideration of experience and interaction, empowers awareness and enables goodness, kindness, hope and gentleness, ensures a focus on what really matters in life. The Gospel echoes that sense and explores human powerlessness with the parable from Luke and its unremitting focus on the inevitable brevity of human life.

Then he told them a parable. 
“There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. 
He asked himself, ‘What shall I do,
for I do not have space to store my harvest?’
And he said, ‘This is what I shall do:
I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. 
There I shall store all my grain and other goods
and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you,
you have so many good things stored up for many years,
rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’
But God said to him,
‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you;
and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves
but are not rich in what matters to God.”

Luke 12:13-21

The day or the hour is unknown to us, beyond human control; it is a common denominator of human identity. And all the more reason to dare to live what really matters most. Each life unfolds in a story format, and the tapestry of human life and history is shaped by every thread of those stories. Richness surrounds us in one another; living that is about constantly learning and appreciating that everyone is doing the best they can at the moment and there is probably more to the story to be discovered. As for the sepia photograph, the Hudson Bay project fell through, and no further formal portraits were needed.


Summer heat has struck with an intensity beyond conceivable and the orderliness of the world seems to unravel even further with the starkness of shootings, the ravages of war, and the scouring reality of the Jan. 6 riots. And yet, every life story is wrapped in broad socail and historical contexts. Each unfolds in daily increments of time, sorted by ups and downs that generate a narrative of note to be shared. Cradled within those stories are patterns and pathways, messages and hope. So it matters, inestimably, which stories find resonance in being, which provide the pathway to action, and which motivate us to choose to make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. The truth is that the stories are not simply tracked in TikTok or wating for access on YouTube; they are all around us, mirrors waiting to provide reflections.

There is the young immigrant waiter chatting about his children and his longing for his home country, for the lifestyle and the interactions. There is a vision there, a seriousness about his decisions, an acceptance of his past and an openness to the future. His eyes glow describing his girls and his son, gently recounting conversations about his vision and their resistant responses, the children’s expression of identity. His tenderness reflects the Gospel reading, the depth of what it means to care about others and to realize the extent of that commitment.

There is the older fellow, a stroke survivor struggling still for fuller recovery. He has given hours to training as an emergency first responder, his chance to give back. His story, too, carries all the threads of a powerful narrative, but is accompanied by a modest humility that will never find its way to social media outlets. Such stories are everywhere: the dentist who sacrifices scarce free time for emergencies; the contempative who spends hours listening to the narratives of others; the retiree who seeks out old friends and creates opportunities for new memories. Each is invested in a foundational element of human life: building meaningful relationships. Each has found the practice of caring, of acting for others, is more of gift than obligation; each is embracing the paths that are unfilding and daring to do what the Gospel suggests: putting others first, growing personally and sustaining an abiding openness to learning. In fact, that is what the Gospel suggests.

As the disciples ask to learn to pray, Jesus offers the Lord’s Prayer. For generations, the rhythm of those words provided sustenance and was the bedrock for personal relationships with God. Sometimes, the words themselves can be the object of speech and never find translation into action. The very structure of the New Testament story challenges that; it relies on examples to make the point that actions really matter and responding to the needs of another is esential. All around us, that happens every day; sometimes we have the luxury of being the observer while other times we revel as givers and dare empathy in being receivers. The Lord’s Prayer is the reminder that there is something More waiting to accompany each od us on the magical mystery tour of being human.

There is a fullness to humanity that is not dulled by tchnology or social media, that continually finds new ways to connect and weave the fabric of relationships. Even the intimidating plethora of today’s can be stilled by those moments of simplicity and presence that linger for even a moment in love. Super charged with the hope that represents, fears can find realism and practical responses. Daring to believe means hearing the stories, seeing them, reflecting on the meaning, learning and changing, Ours are lives nestled within circumstances often beyond personal control. Even Jesus coped with the realities of Imperial Rome and still he lived. And so we live among these issues in messy realities, realizing the grace of stories is the actually the reality of presence to another and the chance to grow and change.

Genius of Prayer

This morning, an elderly woman swathed in a flowered marmalade scarf fingered her rosary beads throughout the service. All around her, voices joined in other prayers, like the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. And still, the beads slipped through her aged fingers gliding into the next decades. I began to think about prayer and what it can mean in life. But I lingered first with the dominant secularism in a society so heavily invested in what is nondenominationally described as “wellness” and seems to borrow heavily from the practices which evolved through centuries of religious traditions. There seems a hollowness to it, to the absence of belief in something greater than self while wrangling with the rigors and rewards of being humans. And so I wondered about what it is prayer and practice offered to those human beings of past centuries who dared to try it. Not the big names or the famous writers or even the well-known theologians like Bonaventure: the ordinary people who sat in churches and knelt in mosques and met in synagogues and visited temples. Those people. What did they experience? Why did they believe? Is it true it was because they simply “did not know better” as some claim? Or had they stumbled upon something of genius in prayer?

The practice of prayer in various traditions invites a focus upon something other than self while simultaneously inviting a consideration of personal experience. There is a paradox to it and an element of habit, of ritualism. Laying out the offerings before a Hindu shrine or carefully lighting incense in a Buddhist temple are acts of culture and of faith. Celebrating the Bar Mitzvah and receiving First Holy Communion are acts of traditon and identity…and faith. Imagine, though, that prayer from any tradition, allows the processing of life’s turbulence with a compassionate God, with a non-judgmental partner who willingly accepts whatever is offered: the grief, the burden, the concerns and the joys. There are all sorts of prayer: intercessory prayer, centering prayer, the Rosary and Gospel mediation, examinations of conscience….It is all about connecting with God and self. It is about finding a rhythm to wellness with a sense that there is far more to life than we often imagine.

Prayer means acknowledging that no matter what concern you place on the altar, you are no longer alone in that. Contemplative prayer is a sounding board that creates time to reflect and re-imagine next steps. Prayer is not the mere recitation of words, but the sense that someone is listening, not just hearing you. It can allow you to lay bear the secret of your heart, relaease you fro the confines of self-imposed prisons. The ebb and flow of words themselves can become a pathway to step into a deeper awareness of what is real. And “real” is different for everyone, changes through life, and offers a kind of buffer through the process of living. It is the space where truth can be known, understood and acted upon without fear; it is the also the place where fears can be quelled like angry ocean waves made calm and peaceful. Prayer is confidence in a higher being and requires a confidence in being able to share what is happening in living.

The wealth and diversity of types of prayer are on parade in Christian and Catholic traditions: there is the simplicity of Terese of Liseux and her urging to become the plaything of Jesus and the practicality of Teresa of Avila about becoming the hands and heart of Christ for one another. There is the directness of the Serenity Prayer and the trusting words of the Lord’s Prayer, the poetry of the psalms.

Maybe the key to it all is recognizing that there is a certain genius to prayer: it enables us to connect, to be fully present and to be securely attentive to the whisper of God in life. Quiet, silent prayer helps us listen and helps us speak. Community prayer helps us see more clearly who we are as humans and act together with the sense that each one matters. There is a genius to the idea that prayer is a tool there for the using, something fully open to each of us.


History can be like wandering through the pages of another’s life, finding the secret compatibility of humanity and hope, of tragedies and resilience. And there, embedded in the stories, are the lessons that belong not to the skeletal narrative of an era but to the deep moral lessons that provide tools for the next generation. Listening carefully as stories unfold opens the past to live in the present and build for the future. Those moments speak to the heart of what it means to be the Good Samaritan: to notice and take compassionate action.

In a crowded New York City classroom full of squirming immigrant and first generation third graders, a young religious, encased in an austere black habit and headdress, entered. It was 1919, a year linked inextricably to the first World War. She was just past being a child herself, and tears streamed from her wide eyes. Children crowded around her, begged to know what happened. She gathered them and she spoke the words they carried through decades. “My mother died, and I did get the chance to tell her I loved her. Remember to tell the ones you love.. ” A century later, in recounting the story, a family recalls that morning, that lesson. Her lesson was in her living, her gift in their receving and the way so many passed the story down to their own children. At the edge of violent world conflict, the very simple expression of suffering created an enduring legacy.

Decades later, nestled near the East River and the Throgs Neck Bridge, a parochial elementary school housed hundreds of local students. The 1960’s were volatile, full of domestic protests and polarities, riots and violence to say nothing of the agonies of the Vietnam War. But here, students used readers full of short stories appropriate to each reading and grade level. And within them, lessons and values ensconced on every page. There were the stories about service, about children choosing to help theirparents, to be kind to each other, to support new arrivals and to reach out to one another. Respect for self and one another seeped from every page. Remarkably, at reunions and gatherings, aging adults smiled and recalled those messages, the applications and the way the stories spoke to later decision making and life experience: so many became public servants, nurses, teachers, lawyers. They noticed, remembered and took action.

Good Samaritans are hidden in the pages of history, but theirs are the stories that offer meat to the bones of chronology of any time period. part of the secret is to become the story teller. It is about rememebrring the goodness, the kindness observed in one another and the lessons learned. Today, in the scramble to become better than who we are, the simplicity of stories and the attentiveness to strangers can transform ordinary encounters to extraordianry experiences. We have the chance to remember the past, to notice what is happening and to take kind and life-giving action with quiet resolution. We have the chance to redefine what history will chronicla if we dare begin to live the story that we would want to be remembered. Humanity and hope have the chance to nestle together in our time too. The Gospel of the Good Samaritan shows the power ot story itself and shows that each of us can play a major role in the lives of others if we dare notice and dare take action.

Time and Wine

There is quiet synchroncity to the rhythm of summer vacation days, distance drawn from the drama of daily events that somehow releases a comfort and calm. Even monastics, living such as they are in schedules that demand attentiveness to each increment of time, benefit from “vacation days”, days apart from the usual. And while I was quite surprised when I first heard that from a Poor Clare, I realized she was opening the door to a deeper understanding about time, what it means in our lives and how we live it.

There is an ardent temptation among us to cling to what was known, to a past that was relevant in its own present. And so we hold on to images and customs, stereotypes and patterns of thinking without much consideration of why it was like that and with little conversation about purpose or impact. And there is the opposite inclintion as well: to embrace what is new simply because it is new and so must be better than what was. There too, the shift can come without discussion about purpose or perspective, significance and meaning. Living fully, I learned from the Poor Clares, is choosing to consider time, past and present and beyond, with a real attentiveness, a sense of life and being that intimates each next step with awe and appreciation. Time, after all, is a gift to be relished and shared with the world around us and the persons in that world.

Change occurs over time; it is a force within each of us, sculpting wrinkles and weilding memories and deliberately altering days. Change surrounds us; it inhabits every day, every encounter and every institution and every person. How we deal with that change matters, impacts self and others. The Gospel of Matthew dances with this very human theme of change and time. The passage begins with the questions about fasting but ends with the often quoted, “…they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” Those words can be fastened to a literal image of ancient times; they can apply, too, to the newness each generation brings to their shaping of the time in which they live. But, too, the words speak ot the changes each life meets, and the need for each of us to meet that change, newness, and to grow.

The pace is not as important as the process. The immediate impact here is not as important as the long-term effect. There are beginnings and there are endings, and all of it is happening simultaneously, somewhere and somehow, and we are the witnesses to the wonder of all that if we choose to be. Time allows us the privilege of being and opportunities to be. Ironically, Poor Clares make definitive choices about purpose and lifestyle; for them, there is a fluidity to time, to the process of change and attentiveness to growth. There is new wine every morning, and new wineskins at the ready. Maybe that is a lesson from the contemplative world to those of us who live outside it: that time is a treasure, choices are gifts, and options are always there.