Beatitudes

Since I was a child, the Beatitudes spoke to me of a world of welsome, where the broken-hearted and the hurt had places of honor. To me, the prose wound around the image of Jesus calling the little children to come to him. There was a heady nobility in the burdens carried, and a strength and honor in accepting the hand that had been dealt. Even more than that, there was dignity riding the waves of indignation that sweep through life. But today, in a church full of families and elderly couples, the passage encompassed even more. For the first time, I wondered if the Beatitudes are rally, simply, about what it means to be human, if Jesus was offering to all of us and each of us a real truth: life is hard, but each of us and all of us are blessed nevertheless.

The Gospel of Luke is unsparing in this:

 “Blessed are you who are poor,
                        for the kingdom of God is yours.
            Blessed are you who are now hungry,
                        for you will be satisfied.
            Blessed are you who are now weeping,
                        for you will laugh.
            Blessed are you when people hate you,
                        and when they exclude and insult you,
                        and denounce your name as evil
                        on account of the Son of Man.”

Luke talks about the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated. Who among us has not known those expereinces, those moments, such as they are? Who has not see others living those moments? And here, Luke invites us to conisder that even all that is part of what it means to be human. Being fully human and fully alive means expereincing all that and knowing physically, emotionally and socially how very difficult and challening it is to be a human creature. No facet of it is easy, actually.

Luke goes on toe excoriate the allusions that distract and deceive and delude human beings. Wealth and status are comforting agents, but they can buffer brokenness in ways that empower us to deny the rich depth of human capacity for empathy, courage, resilience, generosity and hope, even trust. With the startling simplicity that only an evangelist can communicate, Luke’s Beatitudes are inviting us to consider all the layers of what it means to be human. Most of all, he is reassuring about what it means to be alive and to becoming more alive in every human experience.

The Beatitudes are the graceful reminder that life is hard and being human is a challenge as well. But they are also the summons to realize that each of us, as we journey, learn that those very rigorous experiences empower us to empathy, discourage us from judgment and dare us to become kinder human beings. And every step in that direction draws us to what Teresa of Avila proclaimed: “We are the Hands and Heart of Christ.”

Beatitudes

Throughout my life, the Beatitudes captured the essence of what life is all about. I loved the suggestion the word be written as “Be- attitudes” and the idea that life is all about perspectives and positivity. But today, in a church of masked adults and playful children, Luke’s version struck me entirely differently. It struck me for the first time that perhaps the prose that winds through each line is really stripping bare the reality of what it means to be human. Life is hard and presents agonies untold, and sometimes it seems the wealthy and blessed are spared that experience.

Luke’s version, though, portrays the temporality of what looks like success and “the good life”. It is in the preface to that where the evangelist captures the heart of human days…”Blessed are the poor…the ones who are hungry…the ones who are weeping…Blessed are you when people hate you…”. The truth is that is where we live; it is the wanting and needs and the sorrows that visit all of us and each of us. And in spite of that, because of that, each of us is blessed, alive and beloved. That preface actually invites us each to be fully human, to know what it is to be looked down upon, what it is to suffer losses and grief, what it is to want. Those are the bottom lines and it taps into the physical and emotional aspects of what it is to be human. But there is that excoriating piece reminding each of us of the pitfalls of humanity: the allusions and delusions of wealth, the cruelties we are capable of inflicting on others as we celebrate wealth and status, even the way we pursue and embrace the esteem of others. All of that reminds us of the paths we choose as human beings.

Today, Luke proclaimed that our humanity itself is beloved by God, and it is ours to realize that and then share it with one another. Life is terribly hard; in discovering that within, we have the capacity to allow more freedom to others, more recognition, greater validity. Judgment has no place in the message, and deserves no place in interaction. Instead, the recognition that we are who we are can generate an empathy that suspends criticism and offers warmth and understanding born of experience. Life’s challenges abound; choices are made and consequences felt. But the truth is that even those cannot deny the sense that as human beings, creatures, each of us is precious. Above all, the Beatitudes invite is to be the humans we are and to trust that the worst cannot destroy the best of us. The Beatitudes might really be about daring to really be the humans we are!

Simply human

People have very complicated relationships with the Church and the individuals who chose to be part of the structure, the insitutions and the organizations. It is evident in the stigma currently attached to Catholicism, the denigrating remarks about the Catholic school system and the criticism and cries of hypocrisy. There are ironies embedded in all that: the Catholic school system produced criitcal thinkers who could effectively debate and challenge authority. The culture of Catholicism produced a commitment to compassion that raised the concerns about gender inequalities and blatant injustices that enabled and empowered persons to scrutinize the practices of the Church itself. And in a world characterized by the use of symbols, there was a realization that the very symbols of the Church can be percieved and interpreted as exclusionary and divisive. That’s where it might be time to take a step back. The readings of this week introduce a dimension worth considering: there is Paul from his letter to the Corinthians, and then the Gospel with Jesus encouraging the exhausted fisherman to put nets in the water once more.

In the recounting, both Peter and Paul describe themselves as simply “sinful”, unworthy of the relationship and connection to Jesus. I wonder if today, they might use the word “human” as easily as “sinful” was chosen. Each of these passages describes an individual drawn to God. And the relationship becomes the most central and meaningful experience. It is not about power or rules, status or control. Instead, it is about that connection. Paul references his past and his transformation; Peter is stunned by Jesus’ request and then the catch that defies his imagination. Both Peter and Paul fasten their gaze and attention on Jesus, invest in the connection. And in turn, Jesus’ gaze grasps the reality of the humans beings before him. The connection fascinates and animates, enthuses and empowers. And it leaves them as human…to become even more human and discover all that means through every experience life dares to present: the triumphs and the testing, the failures and the fallacies, the celebrations and the challenges. The connection endures at times in spite of humanity, not because of it.

Sometimes, the story of the institutional structure overpowers the meaning of the personal connection. What is to be sought is the connection; the insitution can enhance that and just as easily obscure it depending on the circumstances. To realize that no one human is perfect is to trust that an institution built by humans will bear foibles and flaws and faults. There is a sense in which expectations of the Church are stereotypically ideal, and sometimes sadly disconnected from an understanding of human abilities and limitations. What matters and what remains esssential is the appreciation of the bond, the conection between God and an individual.

Engulfed by the chaotic uncertainty of our time, by the scandals that have stressed and scourged the Church, the reality of personal connection to God sustains. The two thousand year history of the Church has been punctured by multiple crises generated by the flawed decsions and choices of created beings. And yet, Peter and Paul are reminders that what really matters is that personal connection. In every age, there are those mystical moments when individuals are illuminated by that very connection and it is their light that dispels the darkness.

Faith

When I was a child, the rays of sun gleaming through an array of clouds seemed a miracle beyond measure, a singular experience that whispered of the presence of God. Enthralled, I was shocked when I realized everyone could see it but everyone interpreted it differently. As I grew older, that awareness developed depth: common experiences speak to each of us uniquely. We look at the same things, and we see them in multiple ways. To appreciate that means stepping away from dismissing, judging or stigmatizing another. It means entertaining the existence of an array of realities and perceptions, viewpoints and understandings. In some ways, this is the invitation into a world of gray where sharp edged distinctions are somehow not quite as defining. And now, growing older still and living long in this world of gray, the memory has resurfaced on a snowy winter weekend as an invitation.

Winter roared last night, and there are downed branches and snowy paths to prove it. And the bitter chill cuts quick past warm layers and relentlessly exposes human fragility in the face of Mother Nature’s majesty. It is not much different from the child’s view standing in a lot on a street the Bronx, awed by colors streaking through the sky. But it is far from the same. Decades of living have spilled into this now, and even more is visible.

Beneath this sky, there is room for all of us. And that sense of something greater than self, that faith, can be the key. The Catholicism of my experience allows that, allows and even encourages, the diversity of thought and practice. It opens to every person’s experience of wonder and goodness, and it embraces the discomfort of being uncomfortable. It suspends the cruelty of judgement and enables, even empowers, the forging of better human pathways. Recalling the parting skies and even the winter storm, the truth is that Catholicism rests not on ritual or practice but on that sense of something greater than self that constitutes faith. It transcends the limits of our human thinking and behaviors: it sees past the humanity and human limitations that are woven into the insitutional structure of the church itself. It drills past the surface compliance to the core of the soul. Faith becomes a companion for the journey, and it recognizes and validates other religious traditions and customs and rituals. Faith finds and focuses on the commonalities among us rather than the differences, and so it invites us to be kinder, gentler, more understanding and simply better than we were before. Faith allows us to celebrate the diversity of what it is to be human, and it dares us to be truthful and honest with self and others. Acknowledging that with the whisper of gratitude is hardly enough but it is a beginning, a soft spiraled step towards enriching faith and deepening humanity.

Home

Frigid cold of a New England winter punctuated by the spear of wind chill and the awesome blue of sky. Couples in a coffeehouse nestled together with brilliant smiles and soft, sustaining touch. Forts against the storms of life’s challenges. Respect spelled out in every nuanced glance and conversation wrapped around their truths. Happiness in a world of COVID, inflation, international threats and domestic violence. Gentle realities wound through the sameness and even the scourges life submits. The sense of more. More than now, more than me, more than what was and more than what is. Life affords all that and more, creates more…Last week, a young priest drew laughter from his shivering congregation with his view of the story of the Wedding Feast of Cana. His argument? That first miracle proved Catholics are not as uptight as stereotyped and stigmatized. After all, sharing the wine is what it is all about. It is all about being human and living with the idea that there is a God; there is something more.

I cannot pretend to understand the intricacies of human beings, relationships or decision-making, the rigor of the ideals and rules we set for ourselves, the ideals and expectations and the core of realities we deal with everyday. I have no rational or even plausible expalantion for the extremities of suffering people know physically, emotionally, socially. I am so uncertain as to the wide divides in perceptions and processes, procedures and possibilities. I wonder at the diversities in how we each define justice and fairness for all, equity on personal and communal bases, and how power is wielded and negotiated within interactions between persons and social structures. Somehow, in spite of all that, and living the conviction that life is so very difficult for even the bravest and most savvy among us, it seems to me there is a place in this world for each of us, a home where respect and acceptance are abundant and where there is rest from the infinite rigors of living. Home is the place for healing and hope, honesty and truth. Home is about welcoming the weary and wearing the moment just as it is without embellishment of masks, pretending or omitting, hiding or fearing. It is the ultimate space for recognizing what is and trusting, believing in the more. Home is the more.

Home is not bound to walls or territories, not confined by physical boundaries. It exists within the human spirit and rests richly within fragments of time, standing firm against the cruelty of circumstances and finding a harbor in memory and heart. Life unfolds triumphs and tragedies with an exhiliaration and intensity unimaginable. Home is the place where those are sorted out, reinterpreted, somehow understood and acted upon. Home is what the young priest described with joy in his assessment of Cana; home is what exists between the couples cradling precious moments between them, fashioning one another’s lives with gentleness and the certainty of deeper truths. Home affords us the chance to bundle up against the cold of New England winters and the challenges of life, and it is also the place where we can be most who we are…for self and one another.

Miracles?

“I am not a miracle kind of a guy,” he said. Unapologetic. Direct. Clear. No expectation save reality as it unfolded. And so he waited and waits and deals with things as they come up, confronts the business at hand with an unremitting sense of responsibility and a stubborn desire to make things right. He places no blame save on his own shoulders, allows no pity, accepts consequences and protects privacy. And yet, in the midst of all the life lessons, he is far more than that, far more than the villain and no less the hero. For he practices kindness, lives in compassion and seeks to do the next right thing. Maybe, just maybe, he is the miracle himself in embracing the struggles and challenges and continuing to strive to be better. Maybe, just maybe, miracles are not the superstitious renderings of hope but the actual steps and actions we dare to take in our very messy, very ordinary lives. After all, miracles are the extraordinary, the inexplicable, the mysterious events that change perceptions, events, moments and memories. Miracles are the turning points in lives, the amazing and humbling shifts that seemingly have no real explanation.

The Miracle at Cana was a bit like that: Jesus rose to the occasion, the best of the wine savored last; his capacities and competencies on full display meant a change in his journey and in the percpetions of others about him. And while the story intimates his hesitancy and his mother’s urgings, it comes in the context of ordinary life events. Miracles are embedded in the ordinary and the familiar. They come in acts of kindness and moments of compassion, in the breathtaking vista and the gentle hands of surgeons, in the tender words of insight exchanged between persons and the strength of those who dare to choose life. Miracles are those instances that somehow make life better, the turning points that enable that to happen and the unexpected gifts that a day can offer. Jesus did that, and so does “I am not a miracle kind of guy” in the way he chooses to live. Miracles are the moments that enable humans to open capacities, experience and share comeptencies that may not have been there before. Sometimes, they will not be there again. But the readings for the day have a way of explaining that. In 1 Cor, the second reading, Paul writes:

To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.
To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom;
to another, the expression of knowledge according to the
same Spirit;
to another, faith by the same Spirit;
to another, gifts of healing by the one Spirit;
to another, mighty deeds;
to another, prophecy;
to another, discernment of spirits;
to another, varieties of tongues;
to another, interpretation of tongues.
But one and the same Spirit produces all of these,
distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.

Gifts given to benefit others. It is far from supersititon, far from wishful thinking or the artistry of illusion. Instead, it is all about the carpentry work on living day to day. The possibilities are there. Maybe the “I am not a miracle kind of a guy” is on to something.

one conversation

His question surprised me. “What kind of Catholic are you?”

But my answer surprised me even more. “I am a Eucharistic Catholic.”

“What does that mean?” He had bent his long frame into a tiny chair in the hotel lobby, and he was genuinely interested. We were on an unlikely educational tour of schools in Beijng and Shanghai, and we had seen the beauty of young faces clamoring in welcome and older children delightedly describing what they hoped to contribute to China. It was Easter Sunday, and we had learned how the private practice of religion was acceptable but public recognition or celebration not possible. It was an Easter of revelation, of whispered greetings in the Shanghai market and reminders from guides not to mention religion. And a conversation that made me think.

I grappled with my response to his inquiry, and lowered my voice. He leaned forward. “I believe in the Eucharistic presence. I believe in the connection to God in that, to the generations of people who believed before me , in the idea that there is a sort of direct line back to the original. I believe that there is something special there, in the reverence and in the handing down. For me, it all speaks of soemthing greater than self…somehow, no matter who we are, we all need the nourishment of that…” I faltered.

“And the rest? The Church and the hierarchy? The rules? The devotions? The corruption? The inequality?”

I remember a half smile and the tone of suffering in his voice. Not really knowing what to say without confessing more of my thinking. Wrestling with the stories we had each already lived, the wholeness and the brokenness, thoughts and frustration, anger and wondering. Long pause. Deep breaths.

“For me,” I said, “it is not about that….it is about being connected to God somehow, and the Eucharist is that possibility, if I am attentive, if I allow that….” It was paltry, empty, it seemed, an unworthy reconciliation of the realities and my own choices. “I did not want to throw out the baby with the bath water…”

He laughed at the odd expression. “I could not live with the hypocrisy. I strive to live a good life…to do the right thing, to accept that suffereing is part of life…” We meandered through his story, into the realms of Buddhism and the tenets that drew him and the choices made. There was a soft regret, a kind of sadness tinging through his words and a deep powerful sense of having done the right things.

We parted,never returned to the conversation, never croseed paths again. For me, he opened up some serious thought about how Catholicism functions, what is given, what is asked, what it means and why it matters. In such a humbling encounter, he was able to invite me to consider what is most essential for each of us. Our paths, our gifts and talents are all unique, and yet we are here together. We have strengths and weaknesses, flaws and facets of darkness and flames of brilliance.

We live our lives in increments of time that meld into seasons of lives and societies. There is so much that is so far beyond our control. There is the truth that there are opportunities for choosing wisely, for trusting. Being aware of what is happening in our lives is juxtaposed with a belief in that something larger than ourselves, beyond our understanding. It is not vested in the supersititous but anchored in the idea that there is something divine that can be intuited, discovered and experienced…if we so choose. Somehow, because we simply exist, we are worthy of love and being loved and loving. Finding out what really matters to us and continually seeing the miracles of singular striated sunrises and piercingly beautiful skies and waves thundering to the shore speak to the beauty of the eyes of another, the soft grasp of another’s hand and the warmth of embracing one another. Because, after all, isn’t that what we are reborn into each day? What we have the chance to rediscover? What it means to be who we are?

January 1

January 1. A fourth gray morning in New England with the promise of drizzle and the hooded eyes of sunrise. January 1. Marking of the increments of time lacing hopes and perceptions with the seething truth of reality.

January 1, 2022. Individual stories wrapped tightly, woven into, the broader scope of who and what we are. Increments of time strung together for a past, this present and a future we cannot yet envision.

Covid has made it a season of unanticipated loss and grief. Climate change has brutally raped the forests and starved the rivers and torn apart whole communities. Violence has erupted in shell-shocked pockets and all of it has been front and center in news and media, irreverently dashing certainties and slashing illusions of strength and wholeness. So, January 1, 2022, where do we stand?

We stand on the shoulders of those who have survived calamity before us, the generations who, without our technology, navigated whole lives and managed to leave us the world we live in now. We stand with every genertion who has borne change (and that would be every generation to various extents). We stand with the truth of our human shortcomings, our failings and our flaws and with the concurrent truth that therefore we are stronger and better together. Acknowledging need for one another, believing that we can trust and help one another at every step gives so much more hope. Together. January 1, 2022, looking outward together.

And as we look outward, sharing a common past, an immediate present and a fledgling future, we can remember some of what sustained those earlier generations. There is the reverence of the bow at Japan’s Shinto shrines, the quiet of Buddhist temples, the cadence of Hebrew prayers, and the Muslim adman. And for the Christian, too, there is the reminder that it all rests in hands bigger than ours. Our best efforts in each moment in time, always striving to do the best we can, to suspect if not believe that everyone is doing the best they can at the moment, frees us to manage with what we have and envision stronger and better strategies. It even enables us to realize that those Hands bigger than ours are actually there when we are most human and most vulnerable. It is not magic or an invincible shield; it is not a antidote for all ills. Instead, it is a companion for the journey and enables us to look more deeply at oursleves and one another, to realize that to someone, each of us is incredibly special. And if humanity fails, there are the bigger Hands to hold onto. In the end, it is not about the time that slips by but about the ways we live in our time, the sense we have not only of self but of other and Other.

The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!

January 1, 2022. Looking outward. Confident. Together. Hope-filled. Trusting in the Bigger Hands.

Angels and Shepherds

On a dark Christmas Eve, in a church blended into the New England countryside, a pastor spoke not of the birth of Jesus, or the labor of Mary or the journey to Bethlehem. Instead, he spoke of angels and shepherds. Seated, fingers wrapped tightly around the microphone, chalky white and hairless countenance, he drew deep breaths between paragraphs and then sentences. His voice and face were alive with the image: it was as if he could see those angels, felt that role and knew their mission. But when he turned to the shepherds, it was just the same: he embraced their shock, their humanity and humility, their interface with the divine. He glowed with the sense that God is with us wherever we are, especially in those liminal moments when life changes and things are somehow never the same again. And he was betting those shepherds, whose lives are long lost to history, were deeply impacted. More importantly, fragile but strong, weak but powerful, he was inviting the congregation to do the same: to hear the angels, to allow ourselves to see and experience far more than what we ordinarily grasp. He even challenged and firmly denied the idea that dissatisfaction with life and rejection of faith is the fault of the church. No, he placed the responsibility squarely with the shepherds (and we are all shepherds of sorts), to realize the manifestations of the divine. When he was done, having drawn laughter and provoked thought among the congregation, he stood up slowly, cautiously, graciously, and leaned on the altar for support. A cascade of applause rippled through the pews. He deferred it with a grin, “You might not feel like that after the second collection.” Clapping yeilded to laughter. Seemingly effortlessly, he became a shepherd transformed by angels.

Christmas offers that chance to each of us, to begin to see the world differently, let go of the past, and embrace what is with alacrity and courage. Trusting that miraculous moments unfold everyday means pausing to listen more than simply hear, to truly observe more than see, and to dare to believe in something greater than self. There is the matter of trusting ourselves to be the shepherds, to embrace the surprise, to tell and then re-tell the story, explore and celebrate meaning and purpose, to be sensitive to the element of the divine in the texture of human experiences, to be open to the idea that there is a God who acts for and in and through humanity.

It defies rationality, perhaps. Maybe it defies secularism or minimizes the scientific. But the reality of that possibility was etched in that pastor’s voice, emanated from his person with each word. Maybe, in reminding that there is more to life than we ordinarily see, maybe he was more angel than shepherd that night. Maybe he was reminding us that angels can sing in the voices we hear everyday, in the presence of those who cross our paths and in the quiet rising of the sun. Maybe in the practice of kindness, in the touch of compassion, in the choice of gentleness and the decision to love, we become as he is, able to be both angel and shepherd, a home for wholeness that is alive in holiness.

Forgiveness

The glow of Advent candles is strong with this final weekend before Christmas. Elderly Elizabeth welcomes Mary with open arms and recognizes who the younger woman really is. Freed of convention that would label and judge, moved by the Spirit, Elizabeth sees what IS, that Mary is the mother of God. And so the world is bathed in new light. And the light is all about the presence of God. And the truth is that we all live in the presence of God everyday. Advent is the time ot reflect on HOW we live in that presence. In so many ways, to dare to do that, acceptance of one another with open hearts and welcoming arms is essential. In this world, the flickering flames are showing more and more the need for forgiveness of self and others. Like Mary, we are each all too human.

The implications of that are amazing, and the swift rhythm of Psalm 80 pulls towards that sense of presence. “Lord,make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.” God’s face has billions of facets: each of the faces we encounter is one shimmering glimmer of God. To carry that just a step further and juxtapose it with the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary means looking more deeply at what is before us. To see the face of God, to turn to God, means to know forgiveness, to be able to forgive, to process forgiveness, to enable forgiveness, to be forgiveness for each other. The burdens of guilt and shame are weighty, self-imposed and redefined by the public humiliation that so often accompanies it. Advent and Christianity itself are calls to that reality.

Christmas, often heralded by the brilliance of holiday decoration and spirit, is actually the birth of second chances, of third chances or fourth or even fifth. It is about remembering the planks in our own eyes as well as the eyes of others and re-embracing life and others as tenderly as a newborn is cradled and caressed. It is recognizing that there are times in life when we are all in need of such unbounded love, such acceptance for our fragilities. In Mary, Elizabeth saw what was most real, most honest, and she proclaims that. There is no harshness, no condemnation, but an acceptance of what is.

We are all the owners of clay feet, all more than the images that cast our shadows. There is a simplicity to the reality of life’s brevity, the contours of brokenness and the incomprehensible ways we hurt one another. But there is a boundlessness to infinity and to the thousands of ways forgiveness can be part of the Christmas miracle. It is in this moment that realizing the strength and courage we can give one another is birthed in willingness to see, to accept, to forgive and to live together. Restoration is moments away if we allow that. Advent is leaving behind the layers of wrapping that comprise life and believing again in the beginning, starting over, and making peace possible. It all starts with forgiveness.