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Lent and Listen

Storms swept across the United States this week with destructuve wrath. The metaphorical storm that rages found itself realized in the physical losses and catastrophic destruction. Hopes for a sense of unity have not yet found hearts open and willing; even in the midst of great wanting, the political bickering and social divergences have reigned. And yet, the first Sunday of Lent has found us as we labor with our own angry frustrations, the pandemic and vaccinations, uncertainities and fears. It is time to lay down the armor of anger, the distractions of social media, the attitudes of condescension and self-righteous certainty. It is time to listen.

Sheer delight resides in the idea that civilization can somehow be saved by the whimsical construction of an ark. Animals in magical pairs preserve the living environment, and somehow a mere mortal, Noah, makes it all happen. The first reading is from Genesis, and it is a profound reminder of the risks and joys of being human. The essence of the story is not the construction of the ark itself or even the machinations that Noah went through. If you really listen, you can hear that it is really all about God, the aftermath of the flood, and the promise of a covenant. Instead, it is a covenant offered by God with a sign, the rainbow, of that undying commitment to what has been created. Somehow, the storms subside, and the fidelity of sunrise remains.

There are echoes of that in the second reading from 1 Peter. The flood is interpreted as prefiguring Baptism. But here again, listening opens new doors. Baptism is redefined; it is not about washed clean. Instead, it is about asking God for a clear conscience. Conscience is the gift, the opportunity, to wrestle with the challenges every human being faces every day. It is what enables us to balance the idea of individual identity and the realities of collective identity. It is the place where goodness is empowered and selfishness is recognized and named. Conscience is what enables us to challenge narcissim and fully engage in something greater than self. it is there if we choose to use it, develop it, and share it.

Finally, there is the Gospel of this first Sunday of Lent 2021. There is Jesus, in the midst of the desert, tempted by Satan, fully and gloriously human. But listening to it again tells so much. Jesus survived that hazardous time, the trial and the tribulation. He was cared for by the angels and when he returns, he proclaims that the Kingdom is at hand. Believe in the Gospel! Believe in the Good News.

Listening goes far beyond the hearing of words. Listening allows for the possiblity of learning, of changing, of becoming more than what we are now. But in a world filled with sounds of all sorts, daring to really listen requires more than swiping to a site. It is about allowing the words to find a home within, a cadence that can cultivate conscience and a truth that transcends the terrain of tumult. Lent itself is an invitation to that. There are thousands of reasons to turn away, to stop listening and even hearing, to deny and to denigrate. But even those choices will not compromise the covenant of Noah, permute the promise of Peter or silence the reality of the Spirit.

Lent is the season where it all rests in our hands, our hearts….if only we listen.

Touch

Lent begins this week: Shrove Tuesday and then Ash Wednesday followed by the laborious weeks of Lenten Sundays. But the week itself begins with the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, and the readings point to the essentials of faith and choices. There is the stirring Gospel account of Jesus healing a leper who is asked to tell no one, but who simply cannot contain the joy of the change. There is Paul’s urging to do everything for the glory of God in the second reading from 1 Corinthians. And there is the rebuke of the lepers in the Old testament reading: their task would be to stay away from others for the good of all. So what is it all saying?

Our lives are not lived in isolation: as human beings, we belong to and with one another. We share strengths and flaws, illness and disease, hopes and fears. We act each day, making choices that impact others with or without that recognition or acknowledgement. And what we do, how we do it, matters. Putting others before self is a tall order, yet there is virtue, even nobility, in it. The lepers of the past made that sacrifice in the face of inevitable progressive decline and terrible cost. Consider this, though: who is making that sacrifice today? Who has the courage to deny self in the name of helping and healing others?

Look carefully: they are everywhere. The young mother carrying her child into a clinic. An elderly grandfather shoveling the driveway for his neighbor. The firefighter scooping up a pet. The nurse organizing a family visit. The bride and groom standing outside the nursing home window. The parent driving a clunker so a son has college tuition. The cop who spends free time at a youth center and the teacher who visits students at home. Putting others before self happens every day, and it often goes without credit or accolades. That’s where Paul comes in with a reminder about motivation.

Why we do things matters. 1 Corinthians suggests putting aside personal gain. Do it for the glory of God. Go beyond just doing it. Do it without the expectation of reward, payback or even recognition. Do it because it is the right ting to do, the good thing to do. It is not all about opportunity cost or hidden benefits. It is about making a difference with trust and confidence that you are living as part of soething greater than yourself!

Purpose

New England is riding rough and tumble into Super Bowl celebrations. Rounding out the refreshments and planning for the game are preoccupying householders everywhere. Threats of another storm, COVID vaccine distribution and the arrival of tax season are not derailing the pride and the purpose of Tom Brady’s tenth Super Bowl performance. The pursuit of the exceptional and the promise of excellence are propelling past the mundane realities of February’s fury. Still, eyes and hearts are clinging to comfort in the familiar ritual of football’s Super Bowl. The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time charges us with the same tasks with clarity and direction.

The sorrow of Job’s story seeps from every line in the first reading. He laments the brevity of life, the quickness of loss and the expiration date of happiness. But there is a counterpoint to the anxiety and the depression in the Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 147.

He heals the brokenhearted
    and binds up their wounds.
He tells the number of the stars;
    he calls each by name.

Deftly juxtaposed with Job’s sorrow is the promise of a gentle, loving God who embraces that broken heart and spirit. This is a God who does not wave a magic wand, but a God who tenderly gathers the bruised and the broken and binds wounds just as surely as hearts. This is a God who relates, who touches, who claims, who heals. This is the God who embraces the forlorn Job and makes a difference: a God who actually serves, who meets the needs of the very human persons who are before him.

That image explodes with significance: these are not human beings begging subservience to a higher power, playing with superstitious offerings or searching for symbolic shields. Instead, this is about the reality of relationship between the Creator and the Created. It is born of love, of compassion, and reveals the wholesome nature of the most ordinary of beings. We are each Job; we are each broken and emptied, sorrowful and lost at different times. We are also incredibly loved and cared for by a God of dynamic and imaginative energy who cradles our sorrows and companions us through the storms of our not-quite-as-mundane-as-we-thought-lives.

God as companion is both an enticing and elusive concept. But then there is the Gospel, and clarity arrives:

Rising very early before dawn, he left 
and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.
Simon and those who were with him pursued him
and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.”
He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages
that I may preach there also.
For this purpose have I come
.”

Relationship with God, with that “something greater than self”, is discovered, maintained and nurtured in prayer, in the mystery of Quiet whenever that arrives or is discovered or is chosen. Jesus opens the door to understanding with humble simplicity: his actions model his priorities and then fuel his purpose. Purpose. In this, too, Jesus models a unique and enviable self-awareness. But it is also an invitation to find that same anchor in human life, to discover our personal and unique purpose, to live it to the full.

The Super Bowl is only a sideshow that offers entertainment, connects with pride and shows some living out a sense of purpose. The Gospel invites each person to find the space and the place where living out true purpose is really possible every day of the year.

Treasure

“I should like you to be free of anxieties.” 1 Cor. 7: 32

Those soothing words, laden with hope, live in the vibrance of St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. On this Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, they are nestled in the opening lines of the second reading and hold the wish of a lifetime: freedom from worry, from fear, from distress and stress itself. There is a certain irony in the remainder of the passage: Paul deftly defines all the reasons to worry and to be anxious. The secret to the truth rests in the Gospel, in Jesus’ casting out the unclean spirit, and in the realities of relationship. Relationships defined by love are built on truth and honesty; Jesus’ relationships with the Apostles and then with Paul are rooted in the same. Truth and honesty are rich fibers, threads, that weave mere acquaintances into friends, friends into lovers, lovers into partnerships and families and sponsors of new generations. The stories of each generation are inextricably linked to one another and speak long past individual lifetimes. So it is with the ebb and flow of Scripture: the rocky terrains of the Old Testament sorting through the passions and pleadings of a world beginning and the birth of a Chosen People searching for anchors in the midst of being simply, inevitably human.

2021. Searches are simplified by the magic of Google, but human life is as complex, confusing, and confounding as it was in the time of the prophets, the patriarchs, Esther and Ruth, Judith and Maryam. And then the New Testament beckons with the hope, that sense that in the midst of all that is human and painful, challenging and courageous, that there is something more. Faith is the something more: it resides in the recogntion that there is something other than self, the recognition of God that explodes in the Gospel as the man with the “unclean spirit” address Jesus:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

Jesus demands that the unclean spirits come out of the man, and so it happens. In the same way, there is the promise that faith provides a tool for recognizing and dealing with anxiety. It is not a cure-all, a pacifier or a delusion. Instead, it is about finding a wellspring of support in relationship that empowers a person to deal with the circumstances that circumscribe lifetimes. There are the elements to it: being honest with self, being responsible in choices and building relationships on realities. There is a commitment: it is found in practice, in prayer, in purpose, and in the trust that although human is fraught with failure, God is beyond that. Faith is the secret to survival, to negotiating human life and to discovering the most precious treasure of life: love.

Quiet?

Quiet. Stillness. How it reverberates in the soul, speaks to the moment. In a chaotic human experience, Quiet is the gift of the soul to the clamor of each day. Quiet alone draws the curtains of calm and comfort. Quiet marshalls that strength to a soul that has none, and dances with the real meaning of a moment. Quiet lingers while the waves roar until stillness finally arrives and the surface becomes like glass. Quiet makes all the rest palpable and pertinent and possible. And so Quiet is the most extraordinary of gifts in this Ordinary time. And while the Gospel this week has Jesus calling to his disciples, it is the Old Testament reading about the city of Nineveh and the second readng from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians that shout about Quiet.

Nineveh was a city wracked by lawlessness and self-destruction, divisiveness and degradation. Warned of imminent danger by the prophet Jonah, the city united in reparation, fasting and sackcloth. What would have seemed impossible occurred. And according to the story, the city was thus spared. Then there is 1 Cor 7: time is running out…the world in its present form is passing away. Nineveh’s lifestyle shifted; in the world we live in, lifestyles are shifting. And still, Jesus is calling, inviting his disciples to a new life.

And there rests the link to the Quiet. As humanity wanders through this era of loss and recrimination, the power of social and economic structures, the unfolding calamities can devour well being as well as rational focus. Finding footing while juggling the responsibilities of everyday in a pandemic world is daunting. Add to this the uncertainty of what and who is safe, the sharp divide on mask wearing, the struggles of every family to manage what was once so clear: daycare, school, work, travel, leisure, celebrations and gatherings. The din of confusion easily reaches an overwhelming crescendo.

But there is, in each and every ordinary day, the chance for Quiet, to step away, to indulge in a moment of nothingness. That can occur even in a crowded space, if allowed. There can be those moments of deep breaths to gather thoughts, to relinquish fresh pangs of emotion and find something more. We are, after all, the guardians of our own souls, and most responsible for navigating what life brings. Quiet is a tool to tackle the toll of living. This week, the readings promise the presence and necessity of change throughout life. More importantly, each also promises the Divine presence through all of that.

It may be difficult to discern in contemporary rhetoric or in the hypercriticism aimed at one another that a god could be present. It may be implausible, in a world of heightened anxieties, to shift past the tangible to something deeper. But the message of this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time seems profoundly clear: change is a part of life, possibilities always exist, God is always communicating. A big part of the way that happens is in the Quiet. The Quiet of conversation, of silence, of celebrating the Eucharist, of believing that Something Greater Than Self might just be God. Quiet is the venue of becoming, of believing, of choosing to know life more deeply and love more fully.

Here and Now

In the havoc of the past week, the temporal world conspired to frighten and scandalize, threaten and undermine all that the US holds sacred. Fractured and violent actions allowed political posturing to steal the stage from the cadence of tradition. There have been frantic searches to resonate with righteousness, to claim victory. The ordinary citizen is left processing what would have seemed all but impossible a generation ago. The United States struggles to find footing in the midst of a global pandemic, philosophical divergence, racial dichotomies and economic collapse. Not yet chastened by the visible issues, even deeper bunkers are being dug. Words are now the tools for labelling and vilifying; only limited glimmers of common ground are visible. And so everywhere people search for ways to grasp the situation, to determine how to live and what to do. Turn off the news, separate from social media, practice acts of kindness, take walks….perhaps there is more.

In this very extraordinary time, the liturgical calendar ironically points to the beginning of Ordinary time. It is the voice from 1 Samuel 3: 3b-10, 19 that speaks to the complexiy of this moment: “Here I am, Lord.” Anchored in the quiet and the familiar, the story itself overflows with a profoundly timely message.

Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD
where the ark of God was.
The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.”
Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am.  You called me.”
“I did not call you, “  Eli said.  “Go back to sleep.”
So he went back to sleep.
Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli.
“Here I am, “ he said.  “You called me.”
But Eli answered, “I did not call you, my son.  Go back to sleep.”

At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD,
because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet.
The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time.
Getting up and going to Eli, he said, “Here I am.  You called me.”
Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth.
So he said to Samuel, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply,
Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”
When Samuel went to sleep in his place,
the LORD came and revealed his presence,
calling out as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him,
not permitting any word of his to be without effect.

Perhaps, in this moment, listening for the voice of God, responding to God, matters more than we realize. Maybe in the midst of all the churning tumult, there is a message being overlooked: maybe this is an opportunity to listen for the deeper meanings, to stand willing to serve with all the learning that implies. It is a moment to step beyond the familiar, to risk believing in something far greater than self. Maybe it is a moment to re-discover what it means to be here, to realize limits and to trust in the wealth of what it is to truly listen to one another.

Unworthy

There he was, on hands and knees, gathering the trash after the Capitol breach. One representative, working methodically and quietly, resanctifying the space he felt to be so sacred. It is, after all, the people’s house. And now, it had been desecrated by the chaotic crowd. One person who put aside the rhetoric, the outrage and the grief. One man doing what needed to be done at the moment. And so in sheer simplicity, he demonstrated what it is to be humble and to do the right thing. In a thousand ways, he was showing what it is to be called to a moment, to a purpose, to a role.

And so it is somewhat ironic and yet terribly appropriate that this Sunday, the Baptism of Jesus is celebrated. This is a launching, a new beginning. And it is John the Baptist who describes himself as “unworthy” in Mark 1:7-11. He understands the “greater than” as well as his own mission. He chooses commitment, purpose. Conscious of who he was, and with a deep appreciation for other, John lives out his birthright. In our world where social media produces influencers without discrimination, such humility is a rare privilege. John the Baptist models a gift that inspires service, the ability to give without credit or recognition, to believe that a sense of purpose makes a difference for self and, more importantly, for others. Humility is born of that sense of knowing self and knowing something greater than self exists.

Acts 10:34-38 explores other dimensions of this. Phrases stand out in support: God is impartial to all, welcoming to all. There is no rigidity, no exclusion, no exception. That openness is there for all. John the Baptist embraced this, and his doing so indicates that opportunity is there for all. And then there is that final fragment: “He went about doing good 
and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him”
. This confides God’s presence with Jesus. Transcending millenia, the words echo the holiday season’s “Emmanuel”, “God with us”. In this very time, in the midst of our unworthiness, God is with us. The passage illustrates Jesus doing good. Good in his own way, just as each of us is called to do.

The Baptism of the Lord is a chance for each of us to re-launch. It is about realizing who we really are, that we, too, are unworthy and yet beloved. We, too, have the presence of God with us. We have the chance to live out role and mission with a clear purpose for the greater good. We, too, can resanctify the space that we are living in. We can choose what appears to be the least of all tasks. And we can be aware that humble service builds for the greater good, brings the touch of God to the messiness of human life and enables us to become more than what we were before. Baptism marks this new beginning; even unworthy as we are, the chance is there.

Hand carved

Roughly carved and painted with the soft strokes of a folk artist’s love, the figures are gentle testimony to the Gospel’s Nativity story. They bear the honest simplicity of faith; there is little adornment and yet no doubt about each character. There is a shepherd, two nuggets of sheep, Joseph and Mary and an inch long manger bearing a smiling child. And then the three kings, gifts and cultures defined by strokes and color. And so they speak in the very silence of their configuration.

Humility emanates from the scene. After all, it is about honoring the miracle of birth, a birth intriguing and even beguiling in implications. Most importantly, each character allows the Infant’s story to supersede and yet become part of their own. That is the shared task for all who dare to kneel before the manger or even fashion such figures. There is a trust in living and a hope in life that defies the complexities of 2020 and the mysteries of this millennium.

Inequalities collapse before this scene: economic class, gender, race, fail to delineate a hierarchy. Instead, it is about a shared vision and view of the world, the beauty of beginning again. The Nativity story invites each to that moment of realization, that here is a chance to begin again wherever we are, whatever the chricumstances are. It invites us to realize the strength and beauty of others, to trust in the goodness that is born in them and the wonder that draws them, too, to the manger.

It is unnerving to dispose of the pretenses that life provides: the roles, the choices, the impressions and even the narratives. But here, before the manger, none of those are needed. To dare to conspire with the divine, the self must dare to be known in every phase of reality. Kneeling there means realizing life is continually exploring the wonder of relationships, of the dance between the human and the divine. It means accepting that life is difficult and challenging, but love sustains and empowers. It means brokenness, imperfection, and confusion are part of what it means to be human. Before the manger, this is known and understood. A handful of tiny, handcarved figures confide greater secrets than we may have imagined, but most importantly, they invite us to a deeper, stronger, epiphany.

“Epiphany” is an insight, a deepened understanding, a recognition of something that always was but now can be seen. In the history of the Church, the three kings arrival is celebrated as the Epiphany. “Epiphany” is so much more: it belongs to everyone who embraces the journey and dares to seek the Child in the manger. Discovering more about who we are and what exactly is “divine” is the chance given to all of us, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the strong and the fearful. Daring to be simple, daring to believe. Daring to hold the hand carved figures and wonder what the message really is for me.

The Mirror and the Manger

Students and colleagues who claim the richness and freedom of aetheism have prompted much thought and consideration. Stepping back, bathing in the technological innovations and scientific shifts of the last decades, excitment and awe cleanse ignorance and embolden possibilities. The very earth quakes with the rapidity of change and the stress of multiple generations caught in the riptide of transition. And so we evolve as human beings, re-creating the world we live in, the communities that shape lives, and the thinking that enables being. Healthy skepticism stalks the stories that offered satisfaction to earlier worlds. Revelation and prophecy have found a home as supposition, lost ground to statistics and data. So where does faith fit? With the Bethlehem Star intersection of Jupiter and Saturn, where does the narrative of the birth of Jesus fit? Has it a place in this new world? What does the Nativity story offer?

As Catholics and Protestants alike recall the birth of Jesus, there is a palpable connection to the reality of human life: family, birth, joy, fear, uncertainty and promise. The story mirrors the most basic facets of human life, and so every incarnation of it that is sculpted by culture bears a depth of validity and holds out an invitation to the rest of the Gospel. Beyond that point is another: a God who chooses human shape, form, interaction, connections. In other words, this is not a God trapped in the myths of pantheons or the statues of artists. This Jesus walks, talks, emotes, provokes, invites, shares and dares to hope. This is a story of layers, textures, woven together as every human story is from a variety of perspectives. And the angels of Luke, the Magi of Matthew, meld together the understandings of generations about an extraordinary life with Jesus’ simple and direct teachings and an extraordinary birth.

Faith in this Jesus offers a series of lessons. First, we are all simultaenously ordinary and extraordinary. Second, we are not alone; we exist in communities with persons and connections that we both need and contribute to. Third, decisons and choices, purpose and moive truly matter. The Nativity story itself frames each of these, and it invites serious consideraton of the ways in which each of us lives.

We are each the heroes of our own story. The Nativity story is a reminder that is fallacy for everyone plays a role in every story. There is the innkeeper, the shepherds, the angels, Joseph ever so reticent and Mary just barely detailed. Learning from the story means beginning to believe in the magnaminity of a God who cradles each life as extraordinary in the midst of its very ordinariness. It is the chance to begin to believe that each of us is loved, cared for, by the God who dares to provide all this: each life matters. That sense is wound healing; that belief is empowering. It establishes hope and confidence, the kind of love that sustains through crisis, tragedy, and brokennesss. It offers forgiveness, hope and well being. It survives trial and triumph. Most importantly, it is the glimmer of the divine, something beyond what is merely human. It is the gift of unfailing divine love, given to mere mortals to navigate events and relationships. That all echoes the measures of 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.Love never fails.” It provides a pathway for life that is not simply about self. It is a consciousness of who we are and who we can be when we dare to look in the mirror of the manger and know the reality of divine love.

Four Flames

For a week, the fourth candle on the Advent wreath will trace heightened anticipation on the hearts of those who wait. There is a magic to the waiting, even a wanting. For its roots stretch bravely beyond each human heart into the worlds of earlier generations, decades and millenia past. It is the candle, this fourth week, that captures the connections among us all and opens up the possibility of oneness in awe, unity in diversity and freedom in faith. Beyond all the realties of 2020, there is a world waiting for hope and promise. This final week is all about that: discovering what is really there and beginning to believe in what could be more than what should be.

Interpreting Scripture in its most literal sense empowers some sense of clarity and historicity. There is another way: take a step back. Imagine the words leaping into heart and mind. Hear them as part of your own story. Allow yourself to enter the passage, to be David, to be his offspring, to experience the goodness of the Lord, to see Gabriel confiding her future to Mary, to feel the awe and wonder of being connected to something far greater than self. Linger for a moment there. This is far more than virtual reality. It is the openness that characterizes risk, daring, and vision.

In the first reading, David notices the splendor of his own lifestyle versus the treatment of the Ark of the Covenant. The prophet Nathan (2 Sm 7:14a, 16) conveys the real message:

“The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.”

This is not about buildings, monuments; it is about human beings, people connected to one another and to God, conscious of the Divine in the muddle of the mundane. It transcends culture, color, ethnicity and nationality. It is about birth, beginnings and endings, change and continuity…..if we allow it to be. The fourth candle invites us to allow it to be.

There are the tantalizing words form Romans 16:

Brothers and sisters:
To him who can strengthen you,
according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,
according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages
but now manifested through the prophetic writings and,
according to the command of the eternal God,
made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith,
to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ
be glory forever and ever.
Amen.

“To him who can strengthen you” exudes the element of choice, of possibilities. But there is also “the obedience of faith”, words that yeild a wealth of interpretation. Suppose there that unity can be found in the acknowledgement of faith, a sense of the divine. Suppose this is not about rules or laws or rituals, but the ideal of seeing human beings as linked to the divine, the spiritual, a rich and intangible dimension of human existence? That shared understanding enlivens mutial respect, collaboration, purpose and possibilities.

And there, of course, is the Gospel story. Scholars can dance with each phrase and expression; skeptics can slice through with the scientific. Listeners can imagine the scene, the quiet, the flood of emotions, the clash of rational thoughts and an impossible situation. Every one of us has been there; we all cope with the impossible. But here, here are words that impart confidence, strength, without a promised outcome. Luke 1:21-36 invites trust.

“Nothing will be impossible for God…”

Darkness bows before the flames now. The final days before Christmas 2020 unfold in the cold chill of winter air. And here, awash in the light yet resting in the darkness, here we have the chance to see who we are, to choose who we can be, and to become who we are each meant to be. The Mystery continues to unfold in each of us…