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.


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.


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.


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.

On the way

A certain discipline draws me here each week, to the space to reflect, remember, think and write. It was impelling at first, the seed of an idea. Born of life’s experiences and the scurrilous scandals suffered in the church, it was intended to be part narrative and part apologetic . It became a path to wrestling with the realities of human limitations, perspectives on faith’s existence, purpose and impact and the goodness and hope that spills out of individuals everyday. In searching for the relevance of Scripture passages to 21st century thinking and being, in wondering about the ways to practice faith in a world so shifting social norms and ideals, very simple lessons emerged. Life is short, and opportunities are not endless. Kindness is at the heart of Christianity and Catholicism. If we dare believe there is a Creator God, and each of us shares in that mosaic, then we also mirror that to one another. So how do we do it?

Every sunrise is born of darkness; there is a soft and sometimes pounding cadence to the universe of natural life. For human beings, the act of rising, of realizing that we are here (or still here) is a moment of choice. What to do? How to do it? Who and how do we want to be and how do we want to be perceived by others? What is our purpose in each encounter? Can we dare to become better persons? Search for ways to make a difference? Really see the world around us, behold the persons who cross our paths? Do we have the confidence, the strength to move forward? How do we live belief?

I learned that finding a way means recognizing that we are only “on the way”, that there is a real differnece between journey and destination, and that what we say and think and do does matter. It matters ot self and others, and each action is captured in time.

Time is the gift we are given at birth; we can accept it with judgment or gratitude; we can live it with suspicious fears or openness and truth. We can acknowledge moments misspent and time lost, and we can grow. Time is neither enemy nor friend; instead it is the grace that allows us to explore our questions and the curiosities of this world, to find the courage to love and the respect that breaths life into relationships, families and communities.

In essence, that respect for self and others is the cornerstone we build on through the increments of time. It allows us to see one another, famed and flawed such as we are, and it allows us to learn from one another. Respect enables us to capture glimpses of the God who is alive in us, to celebrate all the diversity we possess, and to noursih one another’s needs to grow. Respect allows us to share the intricacies of what it means to be human and to find beauty nestled in every soul. Respect allows, promotes and generates the practice of kindness. And every kindness reveals more and more of the God who is everywhere.

When I started, it was a discipline, writing purposefully practiced. Instead, it became a discovery of the simple truths that sustain the gift of life through increments of time. It opened my eyes to what I see every day, and it taught me to observe differently, to connect fearlessly, to stretch out and reach out, to trust. The discoveries are just beginning.

New beginnings

Bittersweet memories follow the Queen’s casket as it winds through the streets of Edinburgh. Loss and outrage linger together for long moments and still the world spins on. It happens in each of our lives: the specter of death and the divergence of memories and recollections. Still, the world spins on. And sometimes, death has the power to unite as it did on Sept. 11, 2001. Death can somehow deflect the strains of a primarily self-centered world to one where shared grief binds seemingly disparate parts and re-orders the collective sense of who we are and what our priorities can be. Living in the world of “what can be” requires passionate attentiveness to now, to this moment which is somehow carrying us into the next and into the future beyond that. Death then, is inextricably part of life and growth. For all its finality, death is actually the sentinel of new beginnings. That applies not only to monarchs but to each of us exploring the journey. It does not in any way diminish the emotional trauma of mourning, that powerful sense of loss that so clearly haunts the bereaved. New beginnings surround us, beg for time and attention, expose the ironies and the choices that fall within our limited purview.

New beginnings are what life is all about: the rising sun, the birth of a baby, starting school or meeting a roommate. Each signals the loss of what was to the reality of what is. Each opens a plethora of options involving attitude and action. Purpose frames the motivation for decisions, and so there is a keenness to be aware of what matters, to choose wisely. Knowing what really matters as an individual, a member of a family, a team, a community or a nation enables, empowers, those actions, choices and decisions. Life’s circumstances become the backdrop as each person individually navigates that path, defines identity and chooses when and where and how to act. The best part of it is that mistakes are okay; adjustments can be made. Improvements can happen; things can get better. Each of us is a big deal; each of us matters. Each of us can make a difference to somone else.

It is in learning to love one another that we tiptoe on the periphery or somehow stumble into the depths of the love that God has for each one of us. It is not predicated on any action of ours; it is not withdrawn in anger or dissolved by inattentiveness or dissipated by disappointment. Instead, it is constant, consistent, caring and comforting. It embraces the best of who we are and what we decide and choose. It accepts the rest of us, encourages us to become better and more. The profundity of that gracious gift is sometimes lost on us. And yet, Paul’s story and the way he transformed his life speaks through the ages. He wrested goodness from horror as he began to perceive life, the world and its people so differently. He becomes the poster child for transformation, and his journey weaves together those themes of death and life. His was the path of new beginnings. His is also the promise that each of us is forgiven mistakes, can choose differently, and can dare believe in the presence of God. New beginnings are conceivable, possible. “What can be” awaits each of us. Every day.

For our time…

Near the front door of the church, there is a simple tribute titled “In Memoriam”. Our pastor’s picture is centered there followed by his date of birth and then date of death, just days ago. The modest simplicity and humble way he wanted it. The backgound is gray, and that too seemed oddly appropriate. He was a person who grasped and then articulated that ours is a time of change with the seemingly black and white certainties of earlier eras finding the reality of gray in every day life. For me, he was a person who evinced real comfort with the conflagrations in community and the church because of a profound faith and a contentment with the sense of being caught in the channels of time. He celebrated the signs of vitality and hope in the current moment, and he subtly invited me to do the same.

I learned from him to notice that in the midst of crisis, there are sprouting seeds of hope and renewal. He could sense the power of losses due to the plague of scandal, and understood the crush of that for both individuals and institutions. Without judgment, he was able to embrace both and determinedly work towards making a difference. He celebrated the creativity and energy of the laity in his parish, and he recognized his own limitations and boundaries. His humility fostered the strength of resilience, of hope, for the parish and for people in general. There is change in the life of the church in the 21st century and he was able to inspire people to trust in the journey that is faith. Catholicism, he taught me, is alive and visible if we choose to notice. And we each bring something unique to the moment; the narrative will be what we make it. In every age, human personalities, cultural practices and economic realities have played a role in generating the narrative. Ours is no different.

Amid discouraging conversations about the collapse of Catholic culture and school systems, the loss of vocations and the gambling, financial, exploitative practices and sexual scandals that have characterized the history of the recent church, his voice was one of simplicity and courage. Catholicism is about faith in a God whose love for each human being is endless. It is about being part of something greater than self and acknowledging the limits of who we are in gracious kindness to one another. It recognizes the uniqueness of each one’s call and our unlimited capacity for fault and failure. It is about knowing that we are stronger together than we are alone and trusting that God’s existence, presence, is the constant in our being. Catholicism invites each of us to carefully consider who we are and what we are about, why we do what we do and how we can become better for our own sake and the sake of others. Faith can open doors.

He knew all that, and he shared it in each of his encounters. He knew and understood that he could not control the reactions or interpretations of others, but he could be faithful in every moment, every encounter and every choice. He knew that his was a temporary presence and one that impacted and affected others. He was humbled by that. In so many ways, he reminded me of the medieval craftsmen who chose not to sign their creations as it was “all for the glory of God”. One life. Well lived. Ended on August 29, the feast of the Passion of John the Baptist. Like John the Baptist, a messenger for our time.

Choosing Kindness

He has a soft voice, an easy demeanor and a welcoming manner. “Kindness,” he said, “takes no effort. Meanness takes planning and choices. If it doesn’t, that is just evil.” He spoke in the softest of tones with an incredulity about the choices made to be mean. He listed them with an alarming rapidity: media posts, distortion of truths, neglect of one another, conscious manipulation of others….And so he invited thinking about the place and practice of kindness in a world coping with change, cruelties, coercion and contradictions. Kindness has no frame save civility and courtesy and has no template save the context of the current moment. And yet, its presence flavors every interaction and somehow spills into the next moment. There are examples everywhere.

The 4 year old who takes a treat and asks for one for her twin. The waiter who graciously rearranges chairs to accommodate a wheelchair. The truck driver who pauses to let a compact car squeeze out of a driveway. The cashier who produces a coupon for just the right product. The neighbor who picks up packages, and that guy who holds the door open. It occurs so often we hardly realize that those little miracle moments are occurring, and the roar of social media highlighting the worst of us so easily overwhelms the best of us. The goodness is there, little reflections of the light of life that glows in each of us. And the truth is that kindness demands an attentiveness to each other and to the needs that exist around us as well as our capacity to respond effectively.

Kindness and humility are at the core of what it means to be Catholic, what it means to be human. Sometimes, both are as elusive as they are needed. Being a Catholic offers encouragement on that pathway to kindness and humility in a meaningful way. The Gospel and readings point to the richness of putting others first and not seeking reward or recognition for self, just making good things happen by being fully present in the moment and responding. Practicing kindness is about becoming who we really are as a person and then as a community. Maybe it is easier than we have thought or imagined. Being able to recognize failing in kindness is actually part of the reflection that empowers the next act of kindness. Ultimately, acts of kindness are the clear statement that it is definitely not all about me. Instead, it is about us and who we can be together. Kindnesses are the gentle acts of recognition that, threaded together, create the image of who we really are as persons and as a society.

While we bemoan the negativity of social media, the bullying and violence erupting all over, the scandal-ridden Church and a polarized society, there is celebration to be found in the reality of contemporary practices. The teenager opening a door at a weekday Mass, the priest who leans over to bless a child, the grandparents who are holding hands….Kindness is everywhere. Choosing to practice it, to create and re-generate it, is the call issued to all Christians.