The first time we met was in a southern Connecticut on a property tucked snugly along a meandering road. The driveway was a windy, rut-filled trail with the woods as sentinels on either side. At the end, or perhaps the beginning, there was s sun-filled expanse and a simply framed home surrounded by welcoming gardens. Her frame was tall and narrow; snow white, close cropped white hair framed a round face, and her blue eyes popped with mischief and a calm curiosity. She wore a plain brown dress with a white collar and one hand rested in a deep pocket while she fingered the three knots on her cord belt. Hospitality spilled from every word she spoke. For me, there was an irony in her kindness and her unequivocal warmth of welcome. She was, after all, a contemplative, a monastic, and she had chosen a life of living the Gospel in the fullness of the tradition of St. Clare. In my ignorance, warmth and hospitality were not expected at all. The demands of their life, I reasoned, placed limits on such things; it was an unexpected surprise that opened decades of conversation, learning and friendship. And it was the way I learned something about the pervasiveness of stereotypes, the power of narratives, and our human capacity to adapt.

From that initial contact, I realized that stereotypes are not confined to race, class, ethnicity or gender. They apply to religion, to the persons who practice faith, to those who minister, and to those who observe. More importantly, enclosed religious women invited me to see the rich personalities, the deep strengths and the simply human personalities that chracterize all humanity. The monasteries, I learned, are microcosms. Flaws and foibles were as visible as kindness, generosity, compassion and empathy. Above all, there was laughter. Enclosed religious women live and share humanity in simplicity and self-awareness, juggling emotional conflict and rational differences like everyone else. They taught me, a lifetime adventurer in the world outside their own, to see my own world daringly differently, and to trust in the strength of a shifting narrative.

Their narrative, rooted in the hills of Assisi and the centuries of evolution since then, has a startling clarity and an ourageous conviction. There is the palpable Franciscan charism wound through the vision of Clare of Assisi, for women called to lives of prayer and poverty, relying fully on God and gently nurturing one another. Striving to celebrate the presence of God in the world and one another, their individual stories are grafted to one branch of a bigger tree. And they live, thrive, in the sharing and re-telling. In that way, their story inspires others and the tree of stories grows deeper and more intricate roots even as the branches spring with newly born blooms and color. Here, the message, the narrative, derives a multi-layered complexity that mirrors the realities of human life. They steadily gaze into the mirror of eternity and practice the attentiveness to God in hours of prayer and are equally cognizant of the multiple and profound ways God is present to others living outside the monastery. Sharing and gathering stories refines each life; the perspective of the contemplative monastic, the narrative, bears crediblity. Their lives elevate the importance of story and narrative exactly because they live so far outside other stories.

Finally, theirs is not a life of stagnation but one rooted in acute attentiveness to the ebb and flow of life. Repect and trust are fundmental to the life and to the narrative. And for those of us living so distant from that contemplative monastic experience, respect and trust are more than equally necessary. When we first met, when we shared those initial conversations, I had no idea what sharing a story really meant. She taught me it is really about simply being human together; being attentive to the presence of God means being attentive to one another, to those who cross our paths. Kindness shows respect and trust builds over time. Warmth and hospitality on a hot summer day were just the unexpected prelude to a life-changing friendship. The narrative continues.

On the way

A certain discipline draws me here each week, to the space to reflect, remember, think and write. It was impelling at first, the seed of an idea. Born of life’s experiences and the scurrilous scandals suffered in the church, it was intended to be part narrative and part apologetic . It became a path to wrestling with the realities of human limitations, perspectives on faith’s existence, purpose and impact and the goodness and hope that spills out of individuals everyday. In searching for the relevance of Scripture passages to 21st century thinking and being, in wondering about the ways to practice faith in a world so shifting social norms and ideals, very simple lessons emerged. Life is short, and opportunities are not endless. Kindness is at the heart of Christianity and Catholicism. If we dare believe there is a Creator God, and each of us shares in that mosaic, then we also mirror that to one another. So how do we do it?

Every sunrise is born of darkness; there is a soft and sometimes pounding cadence to the universe of natural life. For human beings, the act of rising, of realizing that we are here (or still here) is a moment of choice. What to do? How to do it? Who and how do we want to be and how do we want to be perceived by others? What is our purpose in each encounter? Can we dare to become better persons? Search for ways to make a difference? Really see the world around us, behold the persons who cross our paths? Do we have the confidence, the strength to move forward? How do we live belief?

I learned that finding a way means recognizing that we are only “on the way”, that there is a real differnece between journey and destination, and that what we say and think and do does matter. It matters ot self and others, and each action is captured in time.

Time is the gift we are given at birth; we can accept it with judgment or gratitude; we can live it with suspicious fears or openness and truth. We can acknowledge moments misspent and time lost, and we can grow. Time is neither enemy nor friend; instead it is the grace that allows us to explore our questions and the curiosities of this world, to find the courage to love and the respect that breaths life into relationships, families and communities.

In essence, that respect for self and others is the cornerstone we build on through the increments of time. It allows us to see one another, famed and flawed such as we are, and it allows us to learn from one another. Respect enables us to capture glimpses of the God who is alive in us, to celebrate all the diversity we possess, and to noursih one another’s needs to grow. Respect allows us to share the intricacies of what it means to be human and to find beauty nestled in every soul. Respect allows, promotes and generates the practice of kindness. And every kindness reveals more and more of the God who is everywhere.

When I started, it was a discipline, writing purposefully practiced. Instead, it became a discovery of the simple truths that sustain the gift of life through increments of time. It opened my eyes to what I see every day, and it taught me to observe differently, to connect fearlessly, to stretch out and reach out, to trust. The discoveries are just beginning.

New beginnings

Bittersweet memories follow the Queen’s casket as it winds through the streets of Edinburgh. Loss and outrage linger together for long moments and still the world spins on. It happens in each of our lives: the specter of death and the divergence of memories and recollections. Still, the world spins on. And sometimes, death has the power to unite as it did on Sept. 11, 2001. Death can somehow deflect the strains of a primarily self-centered world to one where shared grief binds seemingly disparate parts and re-orders the collective sense of who we are and what our priorities can be. Living in the world of “what can be” requires passionate attentiveness to now, to this moment which is somehow carrying us into the next and into the future beyond that. Death then, is inextricably part of life and growth. For all its finality, death is actually the sentinel of new beginnings. That applies not only to monarchs but to each of us exploring the journey. It does not in any way diminish the emotional trauma of mourning, that powerful sense of loss that so clearly haunts the bereaved. New beginnings surround us, beg for time and attention, expose the ironies and the choices that fall within our limited purview.

New beginnings are what life is all about: the rising sun, the birth of a baby, starting school or meeting a roommate. Each signals the loss of what was to the reality of what is. Each opens a plethora of options involving attitude and action. Purpose frames the motivation for decisions, and so there is a keenness to be aware of what matters, to choose wisely. Knowing what really matters as an individual, a member of a family, a team, a community or a nation enables, empowers, those actions, choices and decisions. Life’s circumstances become the backdrop as each person individually navigates that path, defines identity and chooses when and where and how to act. The best part of it is that mistakes are okay; adjustments can be made. Improvements can happen; things can get better. Each of us is a big deal; each of us matters. Each of us can make a difference to somone else.

It is in learning to love one another that we tiptoe on the periphery or somehow stumble into the depths of the love that God has for each one of us. It is not predicated on any action of ours; it is not withdrawn in anger or dissolved by inattentiveness or dissipated by disappointment. Instead, it is constant, consistent, caring and comforting. It embraces the best of who we are and what we decide and choose. It accepts the rest of us, encourages us to become better and more. The profundity of that gracious gift is sometimes lost on us. And yet, Paul’s story and the way he transformed his life speaks through the ages. He wrested goodness from horror as he began to perceive life, the world and its people so differently. He becomes the poster child for transformation, and his journey weaves together those themes of death and life. His was the path of new beginnings. His is also the promise that each of us is forgiven mistakes, can choose differently, and can dare believe in the presence of God. New beginnings are conceivable, possible. “What can be” awaits each of us. Every day.

For our time…

Near the front door of the church, there is a simple tribute titled “In Memoriam”. Our pastor’s picture is centered there followed by his date of birth and then date of death, just days ago. The modest simplicity and humble way he wanted it. The backgound is gray, and that too seemed oddly appropriate. He was a person who grasped and then articulated that ours is a time of change with the seemingly black and white certainties of earlier eras finding the reality of gray in every day life. For me, he was a person who evinced real comfort with the conflagrations in community and the church because of a profound faith and a contentment with the sense of being caught in the channels of time. He celebrated the signs of vitality and hope in the current moment, and he subtly invited me to do the same.

I learned from him to notice that in the midst of crisis, there are sprouting seeds of hope and renewal. He could sense the power of losses due to the plague of scandal, and understood the crush of that for both individuals and institutions. Without judgment, he was able to embrace both and determinedly work towards making a difference. He celebrated the creativity and energy of the laity in his parish, and he recognized his own limitations and boundaries. His humility fostered the strength of resilience, of hope, for the parish and for people in general. There is change in the life of the church in the 21st century and he was able to inspire people to trust in the journey that is faith. Catholicism, he taught me, is alive and visible if we choose to notice. And we each bring something unique to the moment; the narrative will be what we make it. In every age, human personalities, cultural practices and economic realities have played a role in generating the narrative. Ours is no different.

Amid discouraging conversations about the collapse of Catholic culture and school systems, the loss of vocations and the gambling, financial, exploitative practices and sexual scandals that have characterized the history of the recent church, his voice was one of simplicity and courage. Catholicism is about faith in a God whose love for each human being is endless. It is about being part of something greater than self and acknowledging the limits of who we are in gracious kindness to one another. It recognizes the uniqueness of each one’s call and our unlimited capacity for fault and failure. It is about knowing that we are stronger together than we are alone and trusting that God’s existence, presence, is the constant in our being. Catholicism invites each of us to carefully consider who we are and what we are about, why we do what we do and how we can become better for our own sake and the sake of others. Faith can open doors.

He knew all that, and he shared it in each of his encounters. He knew and understood that he could not control the reactions or interpretations of others, but he could be faithful in every moment, every encounter and every choice. He knew that his was a temporary presence and one that impacted and affected others. He was humbled by that. In so many ways, he reminded me of the medieval craftsmen who chose not to sign their creations as it was “all for the glory of God”. One life. Well lived. Ended on August 29, the feast of the Passion of John the Baptist. Like John the Baptist, a messenger for our time.