Staying awake

Advent is anticipatory:  the glorious in-between, somehow suggesting the sheer veils that waft between past, present and future.  It is a space for lingering, treading lightly, remembering.  Advent glows with treasure: the tenderness of the waiting and wanting, the cradle of becoming.   Yet, it exists in a frenzied secular structure that obscures Advent’s most meaningful invitations: to quiet reflection and contentment of purpose, focus on meaning.

In the bustle of holiday magic and the pressure of seasonal gatherings, the blur of shopping expeditions and celebrations, and the stressful demands of ordinary life, how can Advent be lived?  What sort of experience can be most meaningful for now?

The readings of the day focus on that very element of uncertainty, on the way to focus on what might seems ambiguous or even meaningless to someone else. The Gospel message in Matthew 24:42  makes that very clear:  “Keep awake…for you do not know on what day the Lord is coming.” To be awake means to be attentive, to be open and to be observant.  As much as Advent is about waiting, it is also about staying awake.  Staying awake means so much more than simply being physically present.

Stayng awake means daring to take a moment to step aside, to breath deeply, to know for a moment the richness of the life we are called to live.  That can happen anywhere: on line in a grocery store waiting at a gas station, struggling with phone features.  It may be a moment unlocked to share with a neighbor, take time with the elderly,  or even allowing a driver to merge ahead of you.

Staying awake means being attuned and honest about the intricacies of self.  It is easy to miss the emotional flailing of the season, the frustration of shopping and the shortness of time.    It is a busy time of year, but if you are stressed, use that bit of knowledge for making choices.    De-stress before anger flares and tension escalates.  If you are weary, try a cat nap.  Put the activities aside, and focus on what matters,   like  health and well-being.   You cannot do for others if you are spent.  So cutting back can be considerate, and begging off can actually be a service to another.

Pressure to produce has its own rewards; there is a thrill to striking through the items on a to-do list.  The pressure to BE may be less visible, but it is no less rewarding if we let it happen.  There are the natural social interactions and exchanges, the unanticipated feedback from folks at the gym or colleagues in a break room.  In the rush of things, those moments are easily lost.  But that may be exactly where goodness is waiting to be shared and exchanged.  That might be a great reason to stay awake.

Staying awake means recognizing those spaces where God is waiting.  It means choosing to do less and be more.  It means allowing days to reveal themselves rather than be buried in the demands of a to-do list that is bursting with good intentions.  These opening days of Advent are an invitation to a new beginning, a way of living that invites both purpose and becoming.  Staying awake is just the start.

 

Christ the King

The Feast of Christ the King is a footnote, an inauspcicious closing to the liturgical year. The wonder of its voice is a whisper of the world past, of the time monarchy actually reigned.  Monarchies rested in the realm of the ideal where the possibility that a leader could be born to practice goodness,  live to become wise and merciful, be willing to sacifice for the benefit of others.  Today, that message makes sense of the life of Jesus and our lives as well.  

The King celebrated today is the one who enchants and enthralls, who tenderly relates to each subject with consciousness of individual paths and the collective whole.  The relationship is two-way, based on the perception that each matters deeply to the other,  and that trust has a fundamental role in being.  There is an intimacy that becomes formative,  that shapes purpose and identity.  There is a sense that at every step, there is learning going on, people becoming better than they were before.  That King who inspires and reimagines reality, that King is named and celebrated today.

There is a whole other dimension to this: this King rests on a throne that is both simple and humble, that intersects vertically and horizontally; it is a humble representation of hope.  And there is the truth that each person is called to.  That intersection itself brings each of us closer, it is a locus point that reminds us of the connection to one another.  This is a King who walked the very ground and being we share, one who was attuned to the rhythms of human existence with both its vagaries and wonders.  This is the King celebrated today.

And so the year closes with a tenderness and a  promise of relationship that goes on and on, both because of and in spite of the humanity shared and honored.  It is representative of lives that change and hope that is endless and reality that shifts.  It is a reminder to come into the quiet, to dare to walk with memories and to find the deeper messages in what is actually happening in the routines and vicissitudes of everyday.

There is fealty involved, the concept of real faithfulness.  Medieval though it might be, there is a nobility in daring to keep discovering who we are.  The relationship between subject and King is something to be lived out in the simplicity of every day.  It is not detached from the realities that we experience: work, family, frustration, learning, tragedies and triumphs.  It is a relationship that undergirds all of that; in its richest form, it is challenging.  For the King to be known, for the Kingdom to be celebrated, each of us must become better than what we are, live better than where we have been, and discover over and again all that we are and all that we can be.

This is a cleebration for a King who calls out even today.  It is not about triumphalism or merely vanquishing evil: it is about embracing a King who dares embrace us, such as we are, with every breath in every moment.  No apologies. No mistakes.  Instead, a journey together toward a kingdom where peace and mercy are alive in hearts and spirits. For His is a Kingdom made visible in and through us.

Learning

Wars are raging; politicians are lashing out at one another nationally and globally. Nations are angling for power and undemining one another in ways that generate economic and social turmoil.   Peace is an elusive ideal found only in the most optimistic and perhaps naive hearts.  In the midst of these realities, the Gospel message still speaks: “Love one another as I have loved you.”   These days offer the chance to do that, in even the most timid of ways, to somehow begin to stem the tide of adversity, violence and cruelty that has come to characterize this millennium.

As a Catholic, I remember the stigma that came with family size, family planning and the abortion issue.  And as a Catholic, I remember a singular moment of awareness about how little I understood about the functions of the systems of the Church as an organization or hierarchy and how I knew even less about the actual practice of faith in daily life.  I knew the customs: Mass attendance, the rosary, even scapulars, by name.  But I had not yet found life in those customs.  For me, learning how little I knew opened the door to curiosity and learning more.  It was not strictly through books or research.  It came through people.

There was Charlie, this neighborhood character of a certain age.  I had seen him sorting through trash for bottles to re-cylce for the nickel.  I had seen him work street to street, greeting the elderly, avoiding the landlords and crossing himself every time he passsed the block occupied by the Catholic Church. And I had seen him in church frim time to time, too.   On a warm Sunday afternoon when I was standing on a corner by myself, he approached me.  “I been wathcing you,” he said.  “Don’t be afraid to live your faith.  be true to your call.”  He walked away and I was left to consider whether it was synchronicity in the universe or a moment of craziness.

There were my students.  The school was adjacent to the Cross Bronx Expressway.  In the middle of a lesson, they stood up as one body, all forty of them, and started reciting the Hail Mary. I just watched.  Two days later, the same thing happened.  I asked what they were doing.  “Didn’t you hear the ambulance?” they said incredulously.  “Someone’s in tourble.  It is the least we can do..,”  “We’re better off than they are,” another chimed in.  “We can do a little something…”  I stared at them.  By and large, they were children of the poor, of inmates and tragedies.  I wondered again about synchronicity.

There was a simplicity in those actions, in the interactions, that told me about what really matters in life.  It was never about the Magisterium or its layers of rules.  It was always about having the courage to dare to love on another, to be part of something greater than self, to wonder and wander with people who treasure the concept of a God who dares to journey with us.  There is a stigma to being Catholic.  Embracing it is part of the journey and the learning is just beginning.

 

Spires

The spires that towered over our neighborhood were a comfort to me, a reminder that there was something inspirational and strong beyond the daily struggles.  I liked the simplicity of metal crosses against the city skyline and I defined their message: there is something transcendent, something that at its depth unites rather than divides.  The very height summoned the reality of depth.

Those thoughts, I learned, shape my soul.  But for others, perceptions of those symbols are entirely different.   Spires are cursed by hypocrisy, discrimination and prejudice.  The concept of depth is trapped; stereotypes and ignorance thwart curiosity.  Real discussion or exchange about the symbol, the community or faith are virtually impossible.  And so the symbols that comforted one generation fall into anonymity for the next; the voices are unexamined, the wealth unknown, and the labels heavy burdens preventing movement or growth.

As a Catholic, as a believer, I am conscious of both the wonder of belief  and the uniqueness of that experience in the contemporary world. For me,  mindfulness practices and the proliferation of community groups, online contacts and the endless scrolling through sites speaks of the human need for connection.  But for me, too, the flying buttresses of medieval cathedrals carry the same message:  humans need both place and purpose.  We are evolving new ways of being and becoming.  But we are still, inevitably and purposefully, fully human.  Technology changes and perspectives evolve, but humans remain who we are: searching for meaning, hoping for more, believing in better.

Place and purpose in the world is ours to define, of course.  We can seek sources of wisdom, change directions, scramble for action, and bemoan circumstance.  We can judge one another, deny one viewpoint to choose another, and immerse ourselves in rigorous debate over issues and perspectives.  We grapple with moral choices and the complexities of the universe we are born into.  We do it as so many have before us:  we are living out humanity in the only ways we know how.  But we are doing it in essentially the same ways those who have gone before us; they too  grappled with issues and problems, divergences and truths.  Our tools may be different; our institutions less powerful, but the human journey remains.  Human beings are seekers.  One generation’s findings cannot satisfy the next.   Each life is born to that task; this generation, our generation,  is no different.

To be connected to something greater than self is both gift and responsibility.  Whether it is a network of Instagram users or a potpourri of acquaintances and friends,  presence and nurturing are necessary to sustaining the bonds.  And so it is with the life that I lead and have chosen.  The sustenance is both public and private.  There is communal celebration of the Mass, a weekly opening to learning more about self and one another and others.  And there is the quiet of personal prayer: grace before meals, gratitude prayer in the morning, moments of examining conscience and a final review at the end of the day.  Always,  the hope to become a better person, one who can live the Gospel message, someone who can follow Francis’ admonition, “Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words. ”  The spires remain; the foundations are multi-faceted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imperfect

There she is: 18 months old and tottering into a locker room independently, announcing she is about to swim.  There they are:  the grandma wrapped in a down coat, tiny and dark, with the grandson close to her height grandly pointing out the sights along the road.  There is the couple shuffling down the main aisle, hands held on the walker’s frame. There is the door held open: a teenager waits with as a young mom escorts twins across the threshold.  Goodness surrounds us.  A moment’s glance tells you the world is changing, but goodness and kindness still provide the tempo of being.

Celebrating those moments, even recognizing them, are antidotes to the polarization and stereotyping that has captured the national consciousness.  Beneath the differences, the fears and anxieties, the resentment and blame-placing, there are undeniable similarities among us. To see one another with the awareness that each carries a story,  lives a depth of memory and experience, is to appreciate the essential fact of humanity: existence is complicated for everyone. 

To be Catholic is to trust that humanity is so complicated that there will be moments where understanding self, never mind others, will be virtually impossible.  There will be times when life seems completely unfair, unjust, untenable; to be a Catholic is to know that life is not fair.  But that does not preclude living and loving and enjoying.  To be a Catholic is to believe that on the very complicated journey, there is a very patient and gentle God who companions, encourages, supports and at times guides.

That understanding is captured in the reading from the Book of Wisdom, and reiterated in the story of Zaccheus.  Both Wis 11:22-12:2 and Luke 19:1-10 carry a message deeper than the words themselves.  In both, the essence is about God’s love and care for all creation, the gentle forgiveness for those so loved, and the view that imperfection, fault and flaw, are simply part of what it means to be human.  More importantly, God is with us for the long haul.  Consciousness of the divine in the midst of the human pre-dates Catholicism and the Church.  While new scientific research provides plausible explanations for what was once considered “acts of God”, there is still the human urge to seek and be touched by that divine spark.  Scripture confides the possibility, and human behavior and interaction provide the examples of that.

The Church, vilified as it is today, is actually intent on representing, sharing and providing some of that support.  That is what the sacraments are about; earlier generations saw those sacraments as the escorts through the complications of life, the tangle of choices and decisions.  At every stage of life, the sacraments intimate the idea that as human beings, we need the support of a community with shared values and vision.  It is never simply about one alone.  It is always about all of the imperfect gathered together, offering what we can to each other in that moment,  confident in one another’s support even as limited and imperfect as it is.

To belong means to make the decision to accept the flaws, to trust that change is part of the path and that strength lies in the relationship with God rather than in the exercise of power over one another.  It means believing that the Church itself is an imperfect human mechanism, striving as to become better just as we all do.

Life and faith?

As a Catholic, I am conscious of insitutional weaknesses and failures.  I grasp the horror of it: priests ensconced in scandal, others trapped in addictions and adulterous affairs, and still daring to preach from theoretical and intellectual perspectives.  Childhoods threatened, and no real sense in pursuing patterns or being part of a community that so willingly attempted to protect the organization rather than the persons.  I see it.

I see, too, the historical context of all that, the time periods that birthed it and the dominance of traditional organizational structures  politically and economically.  The individual was expendable: the organization and its preservation appeared to be the key to social stability.  And then came the shift:  individualism  erupted in the 12th century and burst forward in the eclecticism of the twentieth century.  Scienific inquiry partnered with emerging technology and  opened another chapter.

There was the promise of freedom for all voices and the advent of an unprecedented era of personal expression.  It was impossible to chart the consequences: the creation of new and virtual communities and the steady erosion of earlier mainstays.  Change and its accompanying anxieties, adaptation and adjustments were inevitable.  And that is where we live now, in a world re-evaluating meaning, personal choice and decisions, community living and values.  Individuality and individualism have become dominant influences; social and economic structures are adapting and re-defining purpose and meaning.

There is a certain fear factor in the midst of all that, one that echoes the patterns of history.  And there is a reality as well:  the insitution does fail, over and over, but faith somehow remains.  Traditional understandings of faith, expressions of it, can be altered, challenged and rejected.  History shows that the essence of faith itself somehow survives  for  reinterpretation in a new age.   And in this age?

Can there be  such a thing as God?  Can the teachings of religion find a place in a world driven by gigabytes and memes?  Can simplicity find a place in a culture veering towards self-gratification and geared towards consumerism?  When the churches are emptied and the  crosses are known only as symbols of abusive power and destruction, will the shades of gray that mark the delineation of right and wrong, moral and immoral, be any more clear?  But maybe there is another question.

What place is there for faith in God in this world?  Is there, somehow, some other-than-human power? Rejecting the past and the concepts of faith, attached such as they are to the trauma of contenporary memories and the flaws of earlier generations, have allowed the shaping of an emerging social landscape that allows for gender fluidity and equality, the unmasking of bias and a consciousness of the dangers of exploitation and denigration of others.   These goods are not necessarily divorced from a foundation of faith.  Can secrets buried in history that  confide a strength and strategy for  navigation of this new world?

Faith allows for a depth of wonder, a sense of the spectacular that is beyond the scope of human limitation.  Faith allows for a trust that no one person is travelling alone on this journey.  Faith allows that  tragedies are not visited upon us by the punitive force of the universe, but we are not forgotten in the complexity of human suffering.  Faith allows, too, for the sense that something Divine completes the imperfections of humanity.  Faith allows that there is more to self and to this world than what is seen, named and known.  Faith confides the idea that each is  loved in every incarnation of self at every ligfe stage…and so is everyone else.  Essentially, God is completely Other.  The courage to embrace that means daring to see self as part of a flowing mosaic that traverses centuries.

 

 

 

 

Prayer

Fog hovered furtively over every roadway obscuring the brilliance of Autumn and masking the gifts of morning light. But there were cars in the lot when I got there; the service had started by the time I slipped into a back pew and breathed a sigh of relief.

I was surrounded by what is so familiar:  neighbors in front of and behind me, the comfort of music, the altar central and waiting.  A community gathered once again.  A place where each and every one is welcomed in the generosity of quiet.  There is space for presence to one another,  space for each one’s acknowledgment of relationship with each other and relationship with God.  It is not, after all, about just being there.  It is about how those minutes are actually spent.

The leader of prayer focused on the Old Testament reading.   From the graphic description of Joshua’s battle with the Amalkimites, he extracted simple and powerful images that spoke of something entirely different and totally relevant.  He focused on Moses, on the account’s description of  his hands raised in prayer during the battle.  When Moses grew weary, he had assistance; others held up his arms up in prayer.  Further support was literally built by the community.  The emphasis was not on winning or losing, but on the idea of supporting one another, of choosing to reach towards God in prayer such as we are.  The message was clear:  living in realtionship with God is both personal and communal commitment.  Lending support matters; we need each other, even such as we are.

Moments later, as Mass continued, that ring of support became so much more visible and so much more viable.  The person in front, next to, behind: each one matters.  Each has the other’s wellness, goodness, purpose and being in mind.  The very act of kneeling there together is actually a living support, a statment of one for the other.  The reality of the moments are synthesized in lived expression: there are the moments of adoration at the Consecration, of communion in the Sign of Peace, of solidarity in reciting together the Our Father.  These are the foundational points of our Catholic identity, the cornerstones of what it means to be who we are.  It is about living, sharing prayer together.

There is a beauty in it that transcends the razor-sharp points of issues that so easily divide communities and Catholics.  Judgement, fear, threats, malice, the use and abuse of power, have no place here at this table.  Prayer is deeper than all that, traces its paths like a stream that flows below and between  the layers of the earth steadily shaping layered stone.  Inevitably, the surface responds to the shifitng depths.   The consistent, confident strength of that trickling water makes it happen.  So it is with prayer.

After the service, in waves of conversation and laughter, the congregation moved toward the parking lot.  Courageous colors adorned the paths to cars and the world was awash in a gray-skied Autumn morning. The fog had lifted.