First Candle

Advent 2022. Another opportunity to step back, breathe deeply, and re-explore all that has gone before. That is such a different journey for each of us. Children are already heady with excitement over the upcoming holiday, dancing with the mythical magic of Santa Claus. There are young adults learning to be couples and families and singles filled with a swirl of what is known and what could be in the realms of infinite possibility. There are the older adults squirming with being caught between what is known in their own experience and the memories of time past. And there are the seniors among us who waltz through the decades of what has already unfolded for them, what they have made of life and living and the next chapters that will record their final days. It is only now that I have come to realize how Advent belongs to each of us just as we are, where we are and how we are. Advent, after all, is really about love.

The second reading from the letter to the Thessalonians opens with:

May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you, 
so as to strengthen your hearts
….

Maybe Advent is really about the assurance that God’s is an unconditional acceptance of who we are and how we are. Maybe it is the prelude to a deepening sense that each of us is lovable, beloved, and unconditionally connected to something far beyond who we are. Maybe the first flickering flame of an Advent candle warms the cold and darkness of struggle at each stage of life. Maybe it has just enough steady strength to help us find footing in times of uncertainty and confusion and maybe it glows so effortlessly to reassure us that we matter and what we do, how we live, matters. Every year, that first light is the invitation to become that person who lives in certainty with self-confidence and the courage to deal with Life’s inevitable complexities.

This year, as new generations take the reins for the future, there is a singular grace in the length of Advent, the days of reflection stretching into fullness. Perhaps it is the accident of the calendar, but maybe it is something more as well. While the frenetic holiday season devours calm and quiet, the simplicity of candlelight speaks of something so much more. It is an unadorned, quiet invitation. We are free to accept, to embrace that. There is the chance to look past all the stressors and all the layered doubt and fear and know the vividness of a God who dared become man, who dares us to the same, and invites us to share the miracles of being. In the softness of candle light, we have the chance to think deeply about what it means to be human, whole, known and accepted. There is no coercion in the allure of light, but there is the promise. At every stage of life, there is so much more to see. Candlelight illuminates the truth and leads us to more. Happy Advent!

A crisp pink hue layered with baby blue on the horizon as dawn peeked over snow-covered rooftops and hinted at the brilliance of daylight to come. There was a reverence to its drifting over a world not quite awake, and a curiosity about its calm certainty, a confidence in the world it was revealing. And so it is on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, a kind of calm confidence in becoming, in waiting in this present space between past and future. This is, after all, the Feast of Christ the King.

There is a hidden appeal to the very idea of Christ as a King, an implied ordering and a sense of peace. There is the ritual of monarchy that ensures fealty and frames tragedy and celebration. There is a tenor of hope in its very existence, and a purposeful unity in its proclamation. Seeing Christ as King is more than a moment of subservience or mere obedience. It is about realizing that just as a King dazzles an empire with omnipotence and omnipresence, God is wherever we are and whoever we see. It is about a Jesus of flesh and blood who agonized and adapted and wrestled with governmental and legal systems just as we do. It is realizing that this King stretched through challenges as we do, felt for others as we do, and continually strove to do the right thing. Ours is not a king of distance but one of destiny that transcends the clamor of democracies and republics and all other combinations. This is a King who accepts what is and invites each person to think about choice.

There is joy in this holiday, in the realization that God reigns. The feast day places God squarely in the center: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” There is a strength and unity in that that serves all and somehow transcends the other structures like government and economic systems. There is a simplicity in faithfulness, humility in honor and ultimately respect for human life and circumstances. And it comes at the end of the journey through another year, a reminder that whatever happened, however it happened, why and when it happened, there was still, mysteriously, this gentle monarch waiting and watching.

As a child, it all made so much sense to me. If only we could all believe the same things, trust in the same system, wouldn’t there be peace? As an adult, I learned the day was instituted in the 1920’s as a shield against secularism and atheism. And only later did I learn it was twenty years more before it found this place on the liturgical calendar. That came in the midst of a world turned upside down with the destruction of World War II. In an odd way, in these times, in a country gripped by polarities and ambiguities, it might be even more relevant than ever before. And so another day dawns.

What matters

Calamity engulfs each generation with a relentless, dispassionate cruelty. For each generation, each person, it is something extraordinary, intense, incredible. Now, on the edge of a new liturgical year and in the wake of midterm elections and the global conference on climate change, now is a moment to pause and consider who we are, why we are here and how we proceed. Tucked into the lines of the readings for this Sunday are ideas and points worth notice. The first promises calamity; Psalm 98 promises equity and justice in response, a God who provides that. The letter to the Thessalonians focuses on models, on how to choose to live: to work with dignity, to collaborate with respect, to live with confidence. Luke’s Gospel wrestles again with the suffering that engulfs ordinary lives, allays fear and promotes perseverance. Fast forward two thousand years. Take a deep breath. Dive in!

There is a calming resonance in the echo of this scenario, of the uncertainty inherent in human life. But there is also a fullness to the generosity of the words for they mirror the swirling, changing world we live in and advocate a saving simplicity with the reminder that humans have dealt with this since the beginning of time. Further social and technological evolution does not dissolve the essential fragility and attendant fears that frame human existence. The Elon Musks among us roar with power and influencers shape choices and possibilities, but they too are subject to the whirlwinds of Mother Nature and the whims of Father Time. Nothing changes the fact that life is difficult and so often pain-filled.

Relief is not a secret, and it is not inaccessible. It is about perseverance in being ourselves, in trying to do the right thing. It is about remembering who is really in charge and trusting in the reality of a tender, compassionate God. It is about knowing that change and evolution are inevitable, and what really matters is relationship, purpose, kindness and connections. We become the conduits of a God who cares and we find meaning in being part of something greater than self. Because we ARE part of something greater than self.

So as the liturgical year comes to a close, taking stock of wins and losses, plans and promises, it is also time to look past the calamity to the miracle moments. Those moments are nestled snugly in the brilliance of a shimmering moon, radiating from a child’s infectious laughter, layered in the determined, cane assisted steps of a senior citizen. Simplicity surrounds us, waits for us in unexpected ways and enables us to navigate the calamities with realism, counter the suffering with strength and trust that there is something more to be known and discovered. Faith furnishes some with that comfort and peace. This Sunday invites us to provide that comfort and peace to one another no matter who we are or what we believe. Being human is the common denominator that builds and binds us one to the other; realizing that there is more than we can see and know, that suffering is part of life but not the only part is what frees us. That matters.

Confidence

Confidence is born of conviction; it is empowering to the weak and indispensable to the strong. It is born of a sense of safety in being who and how we are, and it comes alive in the mysterious ways humans believe in and enable one another. The dictionary frames it as a “firm trust”. Life frames it as a sense of trust, a trust that is instilled by the power and presence of acceptance and love. It is alive in self and in interactions with others; confidence is a construct necessary to positive relationships and growth. A lack of confidence can be debilitating for a lifetime and whittle away at pride, purpose, and possibility. Self-confidence, on the other hand, enables a strength, a courage, to effectively journey through the complications and complexities of life.

Jesus is the ultimate example of confidence: he spars with rabbis throughout the Gospels, preaches a seemingly simple message, and defies the rational constructs of his time, culture and religion. In the letters of Paul, that same confidence, a sense of conviction comes across. It is there in so many: in Clare of Assisi and her faith first in the uniqueness of her own call and then the larger call to a life of poverty . And yet she pursued it all the way to the papacy and won women an anchor hold in the life of the Church. There was Francis of Assisi, who blazed his own trail and wove a story of simplicity, strength and trust in a lifetime of companionship and surprises. Centuries burst with their stories and the realities of the confidence they had and shared. From Elizabeth of Hungary to Teresa of Avila and Teresa of Calcutta, there are examples of a radical faith that is born of confidence and trust. Even in our time, there is Carlo Acutis, the teenage computer whiz who lived a life of faith and was recently beatified. And while these are the stand-out stories, there are so many more that rest in our very ordinary lives and intersect with ours on a daily basis. Seeing that confidence in another, that sense of conviction and trust, is meant to inspire and empower others in acts of goodness and courage that lead to more.

There is a way in which each of us walks our own pothole-filled path, discovers strength and weakness, the wealth of humanity and the limits that are inevitably part of that. But deep within us each of us lie the seeds of creation and the possibility of more. Jesus sustained that through relationships, and the words of the Our Father (Mt. 6:9-13) echo that confidence and trust:

 

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,[a]
    but deliver us from the evil one.[b]

These are words of confidence, of relationship and connection, that empower courage, purpose and possibility.They are words of trust in Other and Hope for self. They are words which show confidence makes all the difference. Be confident and unafraid!

Surprise!

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.

Prayer

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.

Fragility

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.

Narratives

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.