At this critical juncture, a war raging in Ukraine, China and Russia maintaining accord, the quakes in Turkey and a world grappling to understand the colliding crises of climate change and economics, Lent has begun. Among many, memories of the failures of Catholics, of the Church and hierarchy, of the schools and the institutions wrestle their way to the forefront of conversation and social exchanges, easily burying so much of the good, of the positive and even of the possible. Today, in a series of exchanges about the ambiguities of faith in our time, of the seismic shifts in social communication and rapid redefinitions of gender, it was easy to forget the essence of faith, of Catholicism. Maybe we, as Catholics, are actually more ignorant of faith and spirituality and the Church itself than we realize.

Sunday Mass is often the touchstone for Catholics, the gathering place and the space for meeting one another and God. It is a handy harbor, a convenient place for making connections with other believers or others who are searching. The Mass itself, though, is a conduit for growth and becoming, a staple with its routine and symbolism, scripture and ritual. It is an opportunity to be part of a wider community.

Faith, though, is not confined to a Sunday morning service or a Saturday night experience. It is what pervades every interaction, choice and breath. Faith is the deep core sense that there is something more than we can see, a dimension of life that is beyond, somehow the intangible in what is so very tangible. Faith animates reason, comes alive in eyes and hearts, in relationships and in communities. Faith provides the sustenance that strengthens and secures in sorrow and certainty, in confusion and tragedy, celebration and humiliation. At every step, faith is the sense of “more”. Faith has the courage to entertain doubt and takes advantage of options. Faith is reconciling the reality of human life with the reality of intangibles and finding a way to live more fully. It is distinct from ritual, from devotions and practice and yet is visible in each. It is what transcends the variety of customs, ethnicities and cultures that form the mosaic that is Catholic.

Faith is the belief in something, someone, bigger than self. Inherently mysterious, it both defies and provides explanation. And in its truest form, faith is deeply personal and powerfully communal. Faith is alive and defined by unique lives in every generation. Today, faith bears the stigma of ignorance, mental illness and marginalization. People of faith bear a scrutiny for hypocrisy and intolerance; people who have rejected faith reprise the breach and injustice that sent them away. Too often, that anger targeted so sharply fails to recognize the reality that underlies all of Catholicism: human nature.

Being Catholic does not call me to perfection, but it does call me to forgiveness. Being Catholic is a reminder that we are all broken to some extent, including the ordained and the religious, and we are here to help each other. Being Catholic is a recognition of incompleteness and a chance to have support in doing the right thing even what that is abominably challenging. It is about the ways we choose to live and grow as human beings, nothing more and nothing less. It is the chance to acknowledge that the sacred and the divine mingle with the ordinary and mundane in daily life. Most of all, it is about discovering your own path, fellow travelers and strength to grow.

Starting Lent

The truth is: life is messy. It is complicated and confusing, and the people who are part of it each bear their own matrix of complications. But the second truth is this: it has always been this way. From the beginning, there has been violence and tragedy, competitions and cruelty, suffering and fear. But there has also been the tenderest of loving, the most patient perseverance, authentic altruism and optimism rooted in hope. So as Lent begins, that time of reflection and conscious recall of the mirrors we can be to one another, maybe remembering what really matters needs time. So what does matter?

The readings for today do not dwell on ritual or practice or judgement. Instead, each focuses on love: God’s love for us, and love for one another, even how to love another. There is the reminder of the presence of God in each of us, the Spirit being with us. That idea intimates more: there is a sacredness in each being whether visible or not; the spark of the divine awaits discovery. There is a clear statement of the stunning duality of avoiding hate and loving your neighbor as yourself. And there is the Gospel’s call to literally “turn the other cheek”. For the first time, I began to think about Lent as a time of deepening respect for relationships and of the practical practice of leaning into love. Without pushing all the complications of life aside, there is a startling simplicity here. Lent is about noticing what is real, seeing what is holy, and embracing a deep and abiding respect for one another. And remarkably, if that is the umbrella, there is room for everyone to find shelter.

Some of us, like Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Nicaragua, confront harsh consequences in the practice of such respect and simplicity. As a critic of the government, his refusal to be exiled resulted in a 26 year prison sentence. But his choice affirms the sacred and stands in solidarity with the suffering. Others recognize the loss of Catholic culture, the failures of a generation that could not have foreseen the extensive cost of social changes which characterize society at every level. Theirs is a different call: rebuild. Discern the new path in all this: see what is real, pursue what is holy, radiate the respect for self and others that the readings invoke. For some, there is what we face and live with every day. Lent affords us the luxury, the chance to choose to be fully present, fully attentive to the persons before us and discover the presence of God in one another and ourselves. And so the umbrella widens to shelter all of us in the storms of simply being human.

Lent starts with the solemnity of ashes, that which reminds us of the fragility of human life, the ubiquitous nature of flaws and foibles, and the reality of limitations. Entering into the season, the readings remind us that we have strong and faithful companions on this journey: the Spirit of God, and one another. Maria Popova in the Marginalian notes that James Baldwin’s thought on love as mirroring one another’s goodness. Lent is like that: finding the wealth of light in the very world we live in and trusting in something far greater than self.

For the Whole

Spring is whispering through the unusual February warmth, a temptress bidding New England to deny winter entirely. And half a world away, a seismic catastrophe has cruelly completed thousands of lives leaving shattered humans behind. Far above the earth, spaceship surveillance has become a reality. Everywhere, there is a sense of confusion, near chaos, and an increasing sense of danger and threats to the familiarity cherished everywhere. Blame and anger boil over and manifest in governments and on sidewalks. Still, our planet spins through its cycles, and each human being is only a visitor in time. How to live with all that means?

Perhaps our life stories, built on memories and hopes, are wrapped around the pillars of how we would like things to be. Perhaps the gossamer threads that lace through the decades have the openness and flexibility that allows us to see the context of our being: the history that surrounds us and the overlapping and intersections of our lives with others. Perhaps it is time that we look at the life that we are living and think carefully about the power and the possibilities that wait for us. And perhaps, in the way that God whispers wisdom through us and in us, simplicity and poverty will speak to some. Perhaps creativity and courage are gifted to others, hope and daring and resilience to still more. Perhaps we are simply a mosaic of goodness waiting to be come together to to confront and resolve the chaos around us.

It would mean displacing both doubt and laziness, adhering to a higher good and daring to believe that there is more to this life than we ever suspected. It would mean suspending the crush of judgement about one another and cultivating an abiding trust in others to choose to search for and then do the right thing. It would demand a trust that challenges the complacent and an honesty that hones the self-indulgent. It would mean engaging in a sense of deep respect for others and for self and daring to choose to acknowledge the myriad connections among us that already exist. In an age of self-defense, it would mean standing together because of, not in spite of, our differences. It would mean stepping far from the memes and the sound bytes and pushing deeper into the spaces where it is possible to see and then connect to define the greater good.

There are many reasons not to bother: personal comfort, perceived injustice, the effort to change and the reasonable chance of failure. Maybe there are more reasons to care: you matter, others matter, and history has left us the pain-filled evolution of governments, economics and technology as well as the struggle for power. The incarnation of power in multiple forms has inevitably cursed some and favored others. Within those realms abides the strength of personal character, integrity and presence. The readings for this Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time are an invitation to consider the roads we choose and the paths not taken, to contemplate at depth what really matters. Most of all, that wisdom that Paul speaks of acknowledges the endlessness of human shortcomings and flaws as well as the enormity of God’s compassion and love. There is a sense of resolve there, that hint that all is not lost. It is time, perhaps, to believe that, to make choices for the whole good, to practice kindness and compassion towards one another, and to trust in a God who still believes in us.

Ordinary Light

Our lives are folded into the pages of history, hidden by the headlines and disappearing as things do before anyone actually realizes. Upstaged by influencers of all sorts, our lives are threaded into the background of every historical tapestry with the patience that belongs to those who lack power and exercise faith, trust in simplicity and practice truthfulness. There are grand edifices, cathedrals and basilicas that are testimony to artists and their patrons and speak across centuries of belief. And behind that grandeur is the simplicity of ordinary lives given to a greater cause; they are nameless, image-less, virtually invisible. But for their dedication, the roles shouldered or thrust upon them, these places could not exist. And the world will not name or remember them yet we know, we see and we live with, their legacy.

Even in this time of social media, the pattern is perpetuated. And the greater truths of what really matters falls to the rhythms of clever TikToks and sharp-edged Instagrams. New forms of etiquette are emerging through its constant navigation. And yet it seems to successfully obscure the ordinary reality of daily human life and experience, the power of human hearts and the invaluable gift of every life. We have mastered the art of paralyzing one another with discrimination, blaming institutions and businesses with angry rebuttals and drinking cynicism and malfeasance as sustenance. We have empowered so many to consider self first, to aspire to so much in careers and finances. We have so encouraged individuation and self-awareness among our young that we have lost that sense of the whole and what it means to be part of something greater than self. We have lost the art of self-sacrifice, of daring to invest in meaningful conversation with suspended judgement, of being able to say, “I can do this for someone else’s benefit rather than my own.”

We have lost sight of the reality that we, the extremely ordinary souls who will never garner accolades or discover ourselves in places of power, we are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. It is the very simplicity of who we are and what we are about that actually makes that possible. Our daily choices, actions and decisions define that light and give taste to that salt. Today’s first reading from Isaiah states,

“Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…”

In the Gospel, Jesus speaks to the simplicity of human generosity and goodness and encourages us to sustain one another with kindness and gentleness born of the Spirit.

“You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”

Even without thousands of followers, there is so much more to us than we actually realize. We are each more than what it seems, and the choices and decisions are ours. We have the responsibility to make this the connection that matters and to trust that ordinary, simple lives are great gifts to be shared and treasured.