The “Real Thing”

To love someone is to draw on the well of love received that exists within. To believe that one is lovable, worthy of kindness and gentleness, generosity and truth, is a gift all by itself. Without that conviction, without that sense of self. the path is so much more challenging. To do things to “earn” love, to be a people-pleaser or practice self-deprecation far beyond modesty and humility, is to misunderstand the generosity of spirit that characterizes “the real thing”, love. For Catholics, faith and service go hand in hand; but that can easily distract from one of the most fundamental of teachings. A young priest highlighted that this morning in a short and powerful homily: to love your neighbor as yourself means you must love yourself, believe that you are loved. Otherwise, the well you draw from to love others finds its buckets dry and empty.

And yet, there are thousands of reasons to judge self unlovable, to live without fully trusting another and to cower before the power of bullies who would strip away the essence of human dignity. It can come with childhood trauma, invade the self-confident young adult, paralyze the broken-hearted and punish an erring child. The weight of ordinary mistakes and errors, the unexpected consequences of choices are compounded in actions and behaviors. Fear of further loss lodges beneath ordinary emotions and the cycle only deepens a spiraling discontent and deeper conviction that love is only an elusive gift reserved for those who are deserving, better than this, and simply worthy for unknown reasons.

Love, the real thing, is not like that at all. It is freely given and seeks only the best for other. It is not threatening nor dishonest; it does not contort truth or reality, and it speaks to the heart through words and actions with a consistency far beyond hopes. It is sourced in something other than self. For a Christian, that is God. For a Catholic, the readings of the day are a reminder of that mystery. Love, the real thing, allows for the emtional roller coaster of humanity yet it recognizes the importance of boundaries and limits, embraces well-being and recognizes illness and realizes life journeys are complicated, relationships have beginnngs and endings, hurt and grief are inevitably companions at times, but love itself goes on through it all.

To have even a glimpse of that “real love” is the gift of a lifetime. To be able to live it, to share it, to believe in it, is an even greater wonder. That gift demands stepping away from belittling self or others. It asks for the best of who we are in so many ways, and it enables us to become better than that. It dares us to look beyond the surface, the outside, and clearly see the whole of self and other. Because that is how God looks at us, as cherished treasures, loved beyond understanding and so able to love others and self. That is a well never meant to run dry.

Cadence and Counterpoint

So often, the litany of human cruelties woven into the news and social media, on Twitter and Instagram and FaceBook generates anxiety, anger, frustration and even despair. There is labelling, discrimination, misinformation and judgments made without even a clue of the whole story. It is everywhere: in families and friendships, work places and homes. The volume and cadence can be deafening if permitted. To all that, there is counterpoint, a sense of balance to be afforded to the willing. Silence bathes that darkness in a light that reveals a path beyond despair and loss.

There is a sorry tempation to imagine that ours is the first society ever to suffer so. But that denies the generations of those who have gone before us and grappled with the same issues: we wear the mantle of that same continuum of human interactions. The tensions ripple through the Bible from the battle between Cain and Abel through David and Goliath to the stress in the Gospels and then the chronicles of the Acts of the Apostles. Historians capture the broader context in timelines of conquest in every part of the world, and each is undergird by the suffering of persons whose lives are devoured by time and wrestled into words that seem to hide and even deny their very existence: civil war, Roman Empire, Han Dynasty, Great Depression, the Plague, Reformation, Middle Ages, Age of Exploration. There is more to every story, and for Catholics, there are reminders.

To know loss, to meet death, to grieve: these are challenges of living. To know someone, to find the reality of a home between two souls, this is the gift of a lifetime. The joy of that authentticity is a rare privilege, and it is oddly commensurate with the weight of loss and endings. The light of it glows through the panels of time, meets the inevitable unkindness, the perverse injustice, the blatant cruelty with an undeniable fortitude. Light opens a continuum of possibilities designed to expand the spirit. Daring to respond with kindness, gentleness, truthfulness and honesty is disarming and somehow counters the litany, censures the darkness. It flows from the deepest of certainties that one is deeply known, fully accepted and undeniably loved.

Catholicism, in all its vast dimensions, provides a thousand touchstones to appreciate and nurture, cultivate and develop that idea. Part of the wonder of it is the acknowledgement that the path is wide and windy, different for each one, yet deeply rooted in the sense that the certainty belongs to every human being at each stage of being. In these days after Easter, that point finds exression in the Gospel of John. The analogy is about sheep, but the real message is about an inviolable connection between the Father and the Son, between the Shepherd and the sheep. It is the connection that constitutes hope, generates trust, and empowers faith. That all adds up to resilience, to options and to possibilities. It is all about choice, as it has been for generations, and in lives that will know anonymity in history, it is the assurance that the litany of human cruelites can be met with the best of who we are.

FAITH DIMENSION

Nwe England’s spring is chilly this year, enticing brilliant color from buried bulbs while swathing the earth with crisp clarity. There is an attendant sense of powerlessness just now: economic uncertainty, prospects of war, extremes in weather and politics. What to do? Anything? How to do it? And yet, tomorrow, there will be Communions and Confirmations, Bar Mitzvahs and weddings…all signals of the promise Life presents and a commitment to the surprises it holds. Wrestling with reality from a faith perspective is hardly popular, but it carries definitive positives and accesses a long history of human survival.

History begins much earlier, but the Gospels offer a starting position for understanding. Just after the Resurrection, there is the struggle with comprehending what has happened, grief and mystery: appearances and doubts, moments of recognition, the emptiness of absence. The stories unveil the transition phases of traumatic human experience and are flooded with very human emotions without once mentioning the words. The Gospel depicts frightened Apostles relying on one another, resorting to the familiar, fishing. Jesus appears and the nets are filled to bursting. They eat together, afraid to speak his name but aware he is the Lord. He missions them with gentle directions, “Feed my lambs”. Somehow, the full nets became the focus of the story. But in the quiet re-reading, there is a deeper sense. There is purpose, direction; tenderness and kindness mingle with acceptance of the circumstance, and there is a bonding in the movement forward. Every word in each story implies connections to one another, testitifes to the uniqueness of each person’s journey and the reality of the presence of God in life. Startling or perhaps mysterious, the promise is there. And it is followed by comfort, by caring, and following through. The full nets point to harmony in the universe, an aliveness in realizing the gift of the moment.

In spite of all society’s evolution, those same feelings of loss and uncertainty, powerlessness and fear are haunting. And beyond the Gospel are centuries of stories confronting all the same. Remembering the stories is like pulling a warm comforter around on a cold evening; they are wrapped into history and hold mirrors for reflection. This week, a 14 year old confided her Confirmation name and then her brother’s and others. Hers was Teresa of Avila; his Francis of Assisi. Each bore struggles; each was captured by the circumstances of their time; each lived the continuum of emotion and faced radical decisions and choices. Each cultivated relationships that sustained and thrived, inspired and quieted, enabled and empowered. Like the Gospel, the stories of the saints are the stories of human beings confronted with the dauntingness of a lie journey, discovering the support of community and developing trust and confidence in becoming.

Sometimes what we are looking for is right in front of us, waiting for us to hear and to see and to choose. Catholicism’s heritage has many facets to address the personal and collective challenges of this era. Somehow, Catholicism gives an opportunity for comfort and compromise, choice and sustenance. A faith persepctive can open new dimensions of experience. For that, I am sincerely grateful.

What Matters

Death cast its specter over Easter this year, stealing the brightness of the Resurrection and the ease of celebration. Lives treasured and too brief were captured unexpectedly by Death and so completed the journey. For those left behind, the journey is just beginning. Hollow, tentative steps into Land of the Bereaved lead to the grayness of desolation and despair. Hope and memory are hidden deep within its secret recesses, tenderly awaiting those who dare the journey. That moment of loss becomes a moment of new beginnings, opens to the suffering and difficulties that life is really all about. There is no denying the fact that living life demands suffering and celebration. It is finding solace and balance between the two, how we navigate the heartbreak and the promise that really matters.

As a Catholic, I believe that each journey matters. In a created world, each of us has a hand in fashioning the reality of the other, being part of the mosaic and the design. I am conscious that what I do and how I do it has an impact on myself and others; I am aware that in the tiny space of my own world, I am simply one among many orbiting others. And yet, I have both role and responsibility. Interacting with respect, communicating with the grace of understanding, believing and trusting in the inherent goodness of others are essential. The tenets of Catholicism and the attendant stories and Scripture remind me that honoring each journey, embracing each person, is what really matters. No matter how long, our time here is brief, and what we do with it matters.

Catholicism, too, teaches me that suffering and hurt are part of every human experience; life is enormously complex and cannot be codified or simplified into less than that. And yet, there are also marvelous sources of comfort and courage to be found in the richness of the world around us. Catholicism reminds me to be attentive to the wren gliding towards the forsythia, to the stars peeking from an inky sky, to the laughter of children and music drifting from one car to another on the highway. There is a richness in linking hands to pray the Lord’s Prayer, to catch the gaze of a sympathetic friend, to pause to breathe deeply. And there is a bond in sharing the Eucharist together in faith.

Easter reminds us of the joys of life and the suffering of death. Catholicism reminds us that our humanity has meaning and purpose, and that we are all profoundly connected through a God and Providence that transcends the pettiness of differences and the quick assessments and judgements made about one another. Catholicism acknowledges that there are multiple pathways in life and so many possibilities. The prayers of Catholicism offer the condolences demnded in confronting death and the compassion needed to live. There is hope in the emptiness of the tomb for the Catholic; there is journey in every increment of time and there is a community continuallly defining and redefining itself in every age.

Easter 2022

He is 14, concurrently self-confident and cynical, largely dismissive of anyone’s views besides his own. “Maybe,” he said, “Jesus just crawled or tunneled out of the tomb.” While the explanation satisfied him, his classmates responded more to the tone than the substance and linked the mystery of the empty tomb to hope. Hope is the thread that links the wonder of Passover and the celebration of Ramadan and the existence of Easter. It is woven into the fiber of human beings, a buffer against the bastion of challenges that life delivers. And it is the gift that comes just past the forgiveness offered in Jesus’ cross, which comes just past the boundless presence of the Eucharist defined in the Passover sharing.

This year, Easter and these Holy Days have taken on a whole new meaning, almost simplified, and somehow amplified by merely existing. The Triduum, celebrated like a trifecta of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday with its Easter Vigil, are avenues, pathways, mainstays in the long journey that is life. It was as if the world is invited to the Holy Thursday table, each of us invited to look clearly and cleanly at Ukraine and then acknowledge Yemen, the Cameroons, the suffering global community. To become connected to one another, to acknowledge the mutuality and the kindness that is imparted, to share a common experience, that is the nature of Passover and of the Last Supper. There is a new beginning in its promise, in Jesus’ offering of body and blood in broken bread. There is a sense of real togetherness…..and there is the humanity of Judas’ betrayal.

Good Friday is a mirror of a different sort. There is the chance to see the reality that brutality was not confined to the ancients, to realize that is visited upon one another all over the world everyday. But there is also the chance to be touched by and to impart forgiveness in its most genuine form. It is about realizing that Jesus’ sacrifice was one born of the commonality of the human story He shares with us. The elements may not be the same, but the reality of the suffering, the torture humans know at the hands of one another, is undeniable. The mind-blowing dimension of it all is the aura of forgiveness that engulfs the whole scenario. He was teaching us what to expect, to know that life is impossibly difficult but we can manage. We can make choices; we can manage; we can forgive ourselves and one another; we can manage.

It is the quiet of the tomb itself that is humbling. Every life knows loss and grief. Every life knows pain and suffering. But it is in those miraclous moments when the truth of unconditional love is revealed. Jesus could not be with Mary Magadalene, but he would never leave her. He reveals himself to her first, and then to the Apostles. There is that sustaining presence that enables us to enter into the mystery of life: loss and loneliness built on love and longing.

This Easter, we can become lost in the commercialism of a hallmark holiday or even in the strength of familial traditions. Or, we can tap into forgiveness and hope. We can remember that these Holy Days might just enable us to remember a God who never forgets or abandons us. Maybe it is really all about that unconditional love of God for His people. Happy Easter! Amplified!

Palm Sunday

Like poetry, the sky unravels the colors of decades in rich full hues traced gently over the horizon. There is an allure, an invitation, to see the difference in a world where beauty has an unrivaled space and truth triumphs over illusions and deceit. And the palms of this Sunday have found their way from replendent greens to the paler hues, still whole and flexible, and now woven into the symbol that ties it all together: the cross. Palm crosses dot the cemeteries, some tall and beribboned, others small and narrow, pinned to lesser graves. In their silence, the symbols speak loudly the simplicity of the Christian message: forgiveness.

The Gospel story shows all the fallacies of human beings, the adulation granted one moment and the mob mentality in another. Overwhelming fears. Power abused and misinformation rampant. Innocence devoured and violence demanded, finally satisfied. But there was so much more: humanity understood, accepted, and in the death of one, the chance for all.

Chronologically and gepgraphically, the story belongs to another time and place. It is aged by the images, even the language. There is so much more embedded in the palm and the branches, the Hosannas and the horror of it. The hopelessness of the crucifixion is not unaccompanied by bonding,community and love. Because the initial part of the story is the celebration of being together to celebrate Passover. There is tenderness in the moments of centuries of practice as the apostles gather with Jesus in the Upper Room, and the conversation rolls through the connections built in the past and alive in the present towards the future: betrayal and angst. The characters are personable, genuine, committed and curious, confused and uncertain, fully human. Celebration of Passover, the breaking of the bread and the institution of the Eucharist are close to overshadowed by Judas’ betrayal and human brutality and bitterness.

In the unimaginable loss of Jesus, a friend and rabbi, a leader and an anchor, those who waved the palms came to quiet, faced the human reality of incomprehensible grief. Each found the power of human reflection, building blocks to realizing the complexities of life and death: to be one among so many others, swept away by circumstance, overwhelmed by the unexpected and drowned by the suddenness. The moment made visible each one’s failings, not to those who heard the story alone, but to each of the characters themselves. It is Jesus whose simplicity in caring for his mother, in acknowledging his thirst, in naming his pain, who mirrors the suffering that life presents. And ultimately, it is how His promise is kept. His cross guarantees forgiveness to each of us, no matter the wrong or the weight, and gives us the chance to live with the certainty of a God who loves our very humanity, its discord and dissonance as well as its goodness and generosity.

His story has been updated and echoed in a thousand versions over the intervening millennia. But it stands still as a foundation for relations between and among human beings. Its very age testifies to the litany of centuries of attempts to find a perfect, narrow path to holiness and wholeness. But the truth of its legacy is so much more: the path is imperfect and far from narrow. Instead, it is wide open and free and empowering the forgiven to forgive and to live fully human and fully alive. The palm, after all, is flexible and easily woven into the symbol of the cross.

Walking

Just a week ago, humbled by the chance, I took a solitary walk along the national Seashore in Cape Cod. Waves crashed onto a storm-battered shoreline ravaged by winter’s rage. Lacy froth licked the sand and a piercing wind turned raindrops into unforgiving pellets. A singular moment on a national beach, a collective far greater than self. As a Catholic, I know that same sense of a solitary path and a uniquely collective one. Hours and days later, with time to reflect and moments to consider the mundane and the profound, the duality makes deeper sense than I ever realized.

Catholicism has been scarred by scandal in recent years. The practices of the past have been found wanting if not downright unjust in the light of a world highly attuned to equality, justice, and the sanctity and respect for life. In every country, this corporate examination of conscience has torn open wounds and illusions, exposing layers of denial and daring that compounded one costly decision after another. History, a relentless taskmaster, reveals a pattern to that; every generation bears flaws and strengths within its context and so there is an ebb and tide to the reputation of the insitution that is borne shaped by the world embracing it. There is a calculated reality to the gap between the life of the institution and the faith of the individual. There is the collective life and the personal life of a Catholic that bears comparison to that walk along the beach.

Catholicism has housed, from the very outset, the flawed and the broken, the human beings we actually are. And from the very outset, it was housed culturally and ethnically by those who chose it or were born into it. It bears distinctively unique chacacteristics in each of its incarnations, and it was never free from the foibles and flaws of those who participated in it. There are those who inspire and those who scandalize; those who unite and those who divide, those who empower and those who devour. It is an institution, as all institutiions are, immersed in the business of humanity and the mulitple persepctives and choices of those who become involved and active in its nuturance and sustain its development. They are neither angels nor gods but human beings doing the best they can with what they have. And so history records failures and faults and shortcomings, and the next generation works to revise and re-engage and improve all while being so terribly human themselves.

This is not to minimize the spiritual life of the individual, the person aware of who they are and how they are, who finds that something deeper in the liturgy or the quiet, the teachings or a devotion or the celebration of a sacrament, where the individual can find a pace, a space, to enteraitn the idea that there is a God who is other than human and so much more than any or each of us. At the heart of the human experience, there is a core belief that there is something more than who we are to this life. And so we walk, solitary, through the phases of our lives. And when the time comes, we take steps and forays into new aspects of life and experience new purpose and open to new adventures. And when the time comes, we know for sure that we are not winging our way through the human journey on our own: there is Godm and there are so many of us simply searching and discovering. We walk along the beach together because it belongs to all of us, and we celebrate the solitary singularity of that because we trust that God loves each of us.

“Now”

Lent carries so many subtle nuances as Catholics and Christians edge towards Easter. There is a solemnity to it, to the fasting and abstinence, the talk of sin and sacraments, of redemption and resurrection. New England wrestles with winter’s wanting spring. Doubts and ambiguity linger about the interface of secular and spiritual. It all happens at once: upholstered gray skies are the backdrop for one discouraging news report after the other, and social media sources both information and misinformation. The plight of refugees from all over the world and the ravages of war point to an incomprehensible suffering that surges over the practices and customs of Lent with vehemence. And so this is where we are when the Gospel of the Prodigal Son is read again.

When I was a child, my mother made it quite clear that she did not agree with the story’s outcome or message. Her sympathy lay with the elder son, and her disappointment in the father’s actions was palatable. There was, she would say, no way the prodigal was anything but selfish and cruel, even narcissistic in his reappearance and his accpetance of the welcome. She suspected him of even worse, and would note that he is not heard from again in the Gospel. “Probably killed the old man to get the rest of the fortune,” she would grumble. “Maybe knocked off the other brother, too…” So I have listened to the story a thousand times with a dose of cynicism and a hearty skepticism. Until now.

Because in the inevitable way that “now” changes things, the story opens a portal to something I had not realized at first. “Now” has revealed the complexities of human life and systems with an unmitigated relentlessness. Being human is more complicated than suspected for those navigating the storm of it. Motives and morals are elusive pieces in making choices and decisions. Perspectives and possibilities are rooted in time and circumstance and belong to every human of their own accord. Absolutes are imaginary and purposes often obscured. So it is with the Prodigal Son. The story captures a timeline of the Prodigal Son’s choices and actions. But it also conveys the actions of an indulgent father and an elder brother bound by norms and mores that the younger obviously did not share. Contentment eludes ech of them in unique ways and points to the daily challenges of living. There is a restless focus on the future and a lack of attentiveness to the present moment. There is wanting to be liked and to please one another, to be seen and recognized, known and understood, accepted. All three point to this.

In the end, what matters is reconciling, coming together with the impossible puzzle pieces life presents. It is discovering that there is more to be seen, known and understood in each of us. It is about taking the moment to discover what really matters, embracing reality and seeing possibility. It is about living in the now and believing beyond that. It is not about judgment or punishment, condemnation or cruelty but conscious choice, compassion, resilience and hope. It is about action over passivity and promise over loss. It is about realizing that beyond the gray upholstered clouds, there is light. We are ready for “now”, for change, for hope.

Goodness

Tonight, Ukraine is being bombarded by Russia, and the world is watching and waiting, wanting peace and struggling with the unsatisfied need. All over the world, individual stories are folded within conflicts and tragedies, cultures and nations, one more unthinkable than the last. And here, safe and comfortable, the conscience of our country is aroused again around the issues of injustice, violence and inequality. Sensitivity to the realities of global community is a step in empathy, a step towards action. And during the week of the celebration of both St. Joseph and St. Patrick, it seems more than appropriate.

First, each man did not confine their definition or understanding of God to what was familiar. Each sensed a direction, a possibility, and moved towards that light, followed that direction. It points to the reality of God’s “messaging”, movement, within each of us. Each bore the consequences of their choices and decisions, and each left a narrative that begs for the illumination of detail and so relevance to our lives. Opening the heart to this means allowing God to be God and permitting ourselves to be the flawed yet beloved humans that we are.

It is easy to confine God to our own worlds and the routes of our brain synapses, to forget the very definiton of God means something quite other than human. But there are a plethora of concepts if we choose to explore them: Dr. Walter Capps of UCSB supposed that God could manifest multiple ways in a variety of cultures yet still be one God and geenrated hours of discussion with students and scholars. There were contemplative monastics who wondered about the emphasis on the priesthood in Catholicism and if perhaps, God’s intent was not as patriarchal since, in fact, both men and women exist and cultural mores may have conspired to subjugate one to the other. Going further, these women wondered if the significance of the sacraments would find strength in sharing. Is not the grace of a sacrament present in sharing with one another? Can we not grant the beauty of grace and kindness,community and forgiveness to one another? Can we not remind one another of Other? Of God?

Isn’t that actually, what Joseph and Patrick were able to do? They found a way to honor the whispered vocie of God, to respond and make a difference in the lives of others. Each broke with convention; each acted with love and blazed an unexpected trail. In different centuries, each embodied an unlikely courage and a conscious fidelity to responding to the impulse of a gentle God. Each provides the example and reassurance that the reality of God does not belong to them alone but to each human being. Goodness is alive in the world; Joseph, Patrick and so many of us can be and are evidence of that.

The destruction of Ukraine and the cruelties visited on so many people in so many parts of the world is not a manifestation of that goodness. Beyond the screech of the missiles and beneath the horror of the rubble are the visible signs of strength and goodness: the kindness of strangers, the welcome of refugees, the courage of those who resist the aggressor.

Looking Up

The flock of small sweet blackbirds swept between great gusts of wind and capricious snow flurries. They discovered shelter nestling in the naked branches of a towering oak, still and silent, melding into leaf-like silhouettes. And then, on cue they swept skyward as one formation and disappeared from sight. And somehow, it is that moment of awe, that strips bare the dimnsions of life we do not always see. There is more to life than we can know, and yet we are surrounded by that splendor in every moment. In the book of Genesis, Abraham is invited to look at the sky, at the stars, and promised descendants as numerous. And later, in the Gospel. the Apostles view of Jesus is transformed: for a moment, they see who and what He was. They could not capture or contain it, and so fell silent. But the phenomenon, the moment of truly seeing, is what brings meaning. Such glimpses remind us of how small we are in the Universe, and how brilliant and brave it is to believe.

The world is watching now as the Ukraine resists the weight of a Russain war machine. There too is the phenomenon of courage, of firm identity and shared purpose. Humbled by the images of courageous men and women standing their ground, battling for their lives and freedom, we are witnessing the transformation of the world we knew. Something that had familiarity and distance suddenly has found center stage and evoked curious conversations about cause and effect, issues and possibilities. It has drawn our attention and underlined the powerlessness of that awareness, evoked the sense that simply watching is all we can do.

The truth, though, is that experiences bring change: change in perspective, in understanding, in choices and in decisions. Looking at the sky is an invitation to see beyond, to look up, to realize where you really are in the world, who you really are. That knowledge, that sense, draws on the past and leads to the future through every moment in the present. It was like that for Abraham, gazing at the sky. It was like that for the Apostles, beginning to understand their common past and catch a glimpse of a still mysterious future while living fully, attentively, in the present. In both cases, it is about beginning to see the bigger picture, the whole of who we are. All of that is affirmed in the reading from the Philippians; “He will change our lowly bodies…” Paul’s life was a testimony to the power of choice and change, to looking up and to believing in what seemed impossible.

Tonight, in the Ukraine, believing in what seems impossible is a testimony to the hope that is born of seeing self as part of a greater whole. Ukraine, transformed now, is inspiring each of us to see more clearly what really matters. Like Abraham and the Apostles, this is a moment to remember the past, live in the present and begin to grasp the future. Looking up means letting go of what was before, breathing deeply in now, and opening to what may have seemed impossible. There is something beyond what is just waiting to be seen and known, embraced and believed.