Bare trees stand like skeletons against the sharpness of a cloudless blue sky. A blanket of brilliantly colored leaves cradle their roots, and there is a tenderness in that comfort. Shades of colors, muted and outspoken, shriveled and supple, lie still together in one mosaic. And in the clarity of winter’s nearness rests a resolve. These are not skeleton trees; life is winding through them like sap, cycling through the increments of time in in the same mysterious way we live out the seasons of our lives. So much happens around us and so much lies within us. Life is about negotiating the processes and circumstances and bears the surprise and shock of colors, the rhythm of seasons.

The Gospel tells the story of Zaccheus, small of stature, curious and inventive, who climbed the tree to see Jesus. He lived somewhat outside the norms of the community, different in religious tradition, in class and in life choice as a tax collector. Jesus recognizes and invites him forward. And therein, as a priest emphasized today, is the key matter: the man was noticed, recognized, accepted. His focus was relationship with God and his examples pointed to a key element of faith. We provide that recognition, that moment of acceptance for one another. The moment pivots on the truth of the words of Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are His body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

— St. Teresa of Ávila (attributed)

Simplicity lingers in the words. Like the barren trees, the focus is on the body and its parts. Like the blanketed trees, there is a striking sense of gift and of possibility….of being part of something quite a bit greater than self. An endless connection, a capacity for growth, for compassion and goodness, for touching the world with strength and tender humility. Most of all, there is the sense that each of us has the capacity to be both the recognized person, Zaccheus, and to be the presence of God for others. It is about recognition of the soul of a person, of the life pulsating through each moment; it is not about garnering accolades but living in accord, in balance, with the realities of who we are. And so we stand with one another, beholding the earth and its wonders, and we can see and hear and touch one another with compassion and caring. We can surprise one another with kindness, with gentleness, with real recognition. We have the chance to bring to fulfillment every good purpose. Surprise!

Tax collector

Our life spans, brief whatever length they are, are spent in the grand trajectory of historical and social context that brands who we are, why we are here and what should be happening. Wriggling free of all that implies something new founded, broadening while beginning and bleeding some rejuventating life into the worn and weathered. And yet, as we grow old and wisdom’s first embers allure, there is a newer truth: each generation must carve for itself purpose and truth, establish a narrative that justifies and fosters actions and beliefs, defines an identity all its own. And so change is an inevitable part of being human and defining self is at least in part about recognizing and defining differences among persons, their preferences and their patterns. Judgement seems inherent in the process; to be inclusive meaning identifying the exclusive. To be exclusive necessitates inclusivity. The point is not actually about the differences themselves but about the recognition of it, the perceptions that creates and the actions the taken. The Gospel epitomizes this and carries a pithy message to be kept in mind as life churns all about us.

For each generation, there is the stark temptation to embrace a sense of superiority, a consciousness of self that negates and denies others the dignity of their journeys and to fuel an undeniable egotism in the process of living. Jesus encapsulated it in the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee. While the two are often perceived as distinct and separate, there is another inference to be made. At various times in our lives, each of us plays both roles. There are the times when we are honest and brave and see the foibles, flaws and fallacies that characterize each of us. We stand then with the tax collector, conscious of the messy stream of the life we live. Confiding that reality to God, the tax collector seems the unlikely hero of the story and the Pharisee a dishonest villain. The Pharisee might represent the sense of self-satisfaction that can deprive us of vision, of the bigger picture, that sense of accomplishment that might justify emerging superiority, one above others. For there are moments each of us breathes with that Pharisee with the sense of deserving better, deserving more. The parable is a reminder of how complicated it actually is to simply be human. It resounds with the inevitability of perceptions, self-centeredness and circumstances. And it is an invitation to think carefully about who we are and who we want to be before God and before each other.

In a world of jagged edges, the parable reminds us that we are made to be in relationship with others and that it will not be easy. But it is also a stinging reminder that God sees us for who we are, understands why we are and that our purpose in being is hardly self-serving. Despite who we are and what we are, God welcomes ech of us to the temple of being. It is up to us to choose to reflect, to consider actions, to make connections and to dare to see ourselves as we really are, caught in time and yet loved.


It was a breath of a whisper; familiar words rolled so softly into the frigid hospital room. “Hail Mary…” And as they filled the air, her aged features softened, relaxed somehow. I remembered the song, “Jesus take the Wheel….” and then small children uttering the Guardian Angel prayer before a monstrous elementary school assessment. Much later, in the waves of quiet that late Autumn afternoons bring, it began to come together. Those prayers, those measured words and rituals, somehow dispelled the threatening storms of ordinary lives. An element of trust, of consciously facing the moment with a companion, superseded the pain, the fear, the dread. And I wondered if the power of prayer is really in the manifestation of trust in something greater than self. Can prayer be the moment of connection with the God we cannot see or touch? Can prayer bridge the chasms of anxiety and depression? Can prayer help us negotiate the dark and dangerous moments or overcome the challenges?

The term “prayer” seems to bear a connotation tinged with skepticism and tempered by social and political biases. In spite of that, what was once a staple of daily life has a foothold in the quiet practices of so many. There are those who silently offer that moment of thanks before a meal, and there are those who connect virtually through the rhythmic words of a prayer like the Our Father. And there are those whose knees find the floor waiting every night and prayer happens. Every instance is taking the time to build a relationship, to acknowledge human finitude and the vast possibilitities of Providence. Images from all over the world show human beings investing in the effort in honoring those relationships and in making this happen as communities and as persons.

To some, such a practice makes no sense. Others are quick to call out “hypocrisy” or question the rationality of so firm a belief. And yet, in the very smallness of who we are lies the vast essence of who God is: this completely other being, simply not human yet far from inhuman. Postulating that in a traditonal mode often confines understanding to parameters fenced with the barbed wire of institutional structures. Yet millenia and centuries point to the continual evolution of human understanding and purpose, the richness of deepening appreciation for the power of Providence and the inability of human beings to confine the concept of God to the strictures of religious practice. There is always more to be found, to be understood, to be developed and welcomed.

Taking a chance on believing, on deepening a relationship with God, is worth the tenor and the risk. It need not be public; God speaks in the quiet of hearts and the colors of the trees and the stillness of human gaze. Prayer is the chance to listen, to be heard, to be believed…to be loved. Finding faith is beginning to believe that there is more to what was learned in the past, that human beings are full of foibles and flaws and even so are lovable, malleable, and even trustworthy. Prayer, in the context of relationship, opens the possibility of discovering goodness, strength, trust, resilience and hope. It is more than a regimen, more than a ritual: it is daring to live a relationship.

Ordinary Miracles

Small and wiry, sharp-tongued and even more sharp-witted, she gave up a career she loved to care for ailing parents. It was, for her, simply the right thing to do. Swallowed in ten years of family acrimony, she became the sole caregiver for her widowed mother. “Thanks” or accolades were simply not involved in her case; invisibility cloaked her and yet she persevered until the bittersweet parting. There was not a sense of victimhood or of hardship: for her, it simply WAS. And so she cultivated, in the quiet hours of watching and in the frenetic times of emergencies, a prayerful space. It was there she found direction, comfort and sustenance. It was as if she did not realize the deeepened trust in God that she lived. But it was evident to everyone around her, everyone who knew her. “Holy” resides within and around us everyday, and there are countless possibilities to discover it and to bask for just a few moments in what is so far beyond commonplace and yet so very ordinary.

The Gospel story of the lepers echoes the same theme. In the presence of holiness, all were transformed. But it was only one who recognized that, who mirrored that holiness with a sense of purpose and of gratitude. The one who dared to be different and dared to return was able to choose wisely: deeply aware of his own truth, he followed it and expressed his gratitude for what had been unimaginable such a short time before. Perhaps the truth is he was the one who fully embraced who he had been once, who he was at that moment, and who he could be moving forward. There is a pricelessness in that reality that one fo us can transform another, that goodness is contagious and joy is possible. Gratidue animates life with a sincerity and hope that can be ignited in another. Hidden in the lines of the parable rests another point: 9 out of ten missed that magic moment of mirroring holiness. Maybe the Gospel is actually a subtle call to become more aware of what is happening in daily life, and more conscious of the blending of extraordinary with the ordinary. Maybe it is a reminder that there are miracles happening every day and there is so much to be grateful for.

There is the stroke victim who fought his way back to become an ambulance driver. There is the retired teacher who stepped up to a fifth grade math class in the face of a teacher’s emergencey medical leave. There is the high school student who limped up to the podium to talk about Catholic education wearing her school uniform and an enormous cast on her leg at the end of Mass. There is the dentist who treats patients like friends and eases fears. There is the great grandmother who clips coupons for diapers and the grandfather who coasts hours on highways to see one little fellow’s Pop Warner game. Holiness, attentiveness to the moment, to the person, mirrored each time. Holiness is not an “all ot nothing” proposition: it is the awareness of being alive in a world of wonder and expressing gratitude for the opportunity. Maybe holiness is really living the grace of gratitude and ackowledging that there is so much more than self in this world. And maybe that is why Autumn is particularly stirring this year, why its vibrance against the background of drought is a celebration of being to be noticed and appreciated.


Ian ravaged Florida and the South, and now its gray remnants have chilled October’s start in New England. Everywhere, human fragility is on full view: the rescued and the homeless after the storm, gun violence bleeding into shopping centers and the aftermath of football games, assaults on city streets and the omnipresence of physiological trauma. Fragility characterizes human nature and life; what is today may not exist tomorrow. Traversing time without an inkling of that Fragility is hardly possible. In facing that, we meet both Fear and Faith. The first may be crippling and the second somehow comforting. Both come alive in multiple iterations in each life and both rest at the heart of human fragility. Fragility, Fear and Faith are somehow inextricably intertwined.

Paul’s second letter to Timothy offers a passage that speaks to that powerful combination: “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” In the midst of the suffering that inevitably appears, of the failures of relationships, programs, projects and plans, there is the promise that love still exists and that God somehow is present and is offering that strenghtening of Fragility. But the truth is, positing that conviction that God exists and is present in each of us, God’s grace needs the vehicle of humanity to become visible. It is the kind word, the patient resonse, the poverty of waiting and the firmness of action that enables Fragility to slip from the tentacles of Fear to the profundity of Faith. And while a bit of Fear may be healthy and harbor resilience, when Fear conquers Fragility, Faith can slip into the black hole of unknown. Making Faith visible, responsive to Fragility and Fear, belongs to each of us in the tenor of our days and the tightness of our time, in the never-to-be-repeated interactions and in short and long-term connections and interactions. It is about simply being who we are and realizing that is all any of us can be. The Gospel underlines that message today in its steady and simple assertion that humans have responsibilities to one another.

And so it is that there are, even in the midst of calamities, the green shoots of new life peeking from the perilous rubble. Fragility may arouse fear but draws forth Faith as well in those tiny green shoots. The dazzling gift of hope and grace may come in tiny bits of conversation at discount gas pumps over lost family members, in classrooms with high school kids confiding identity, in kitchens and dining room discussions about what’s happening in the world. There is the Cajun Navy coming to the rescue and the volunteer firefighters who keep showing up and the medical teams that leap into action with emergencies. There are the quiet ones who kneel in pews to whisper of the world’s cares and do so with the full acknowledgement of their own fragility. There are the observant ones who silently and simply offer a hand to the overwhelmed and underserved. Each one offers a flicker of the light of Grace in a cold, unwelcoming space. Each is open to fragility in others, in self, in humanity.