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Fully human

American culture is reeling: Roe v. Wade has been overturned, gun violence has become a pervasive news item, the war in Ukraine is cranking up shortages and egging on inflation. History has a messge for us in all of this: Americans are as we have always been: restless, contentious, angry and outspoken. There is fervor and ferocity in the ways we are grappling with the polarities among us, and there is an urgency about perceptions, impatience with process and conflicting purposes and perspectives. As a Catholic, living through this and through this tumultuous time period for the insitutional church and its representatives, there is so much to think about, to consider. After all, St.Irenaeus’ ancient intimation about “fully human, fully alive” resonates with relevance.

To be fully human is to experience the full depth and breadth of our selves: the continuum of emotions, the variegated choices, the inevitable flaws and foibles. It demands the fullness of who we are intellectually, socially, spiritually and emotionally, to live with the sense that who we are matters and what we do, how we do it and when we do it makes a difference for self and others. It means recognizing strengths and weaknesses, and discovering over and over that options do exist and choosing wisely actually can happen. Most of all, it means allowing acknowledgement that we are all only human and created of those same fibers of emotion, spirit, heart and intellect. We all live within the frameworks of time and circumstance and struggle to do the best we can with what we have at the moment. To be fully alive, then, is to embrace the wisdom that human experience offers and dare to see with clear vision, to hear less and listen more, to speak with openness and question with a kind curiosity, to touch with tender care and support with trustworthy fortitude.

Facing the floodgates of social change and battling age-old institutional fragilities, to be “fully human, fully alive” is more important than ever. Facing fears, implementing ideas, designing processes and taking steps are viable when we realize that we are called, by virtue of being, to be fully human and fully alive. The two are meant for each of us and all of us; no one is in this alone. We were born for freedom, and the readings for this week point out that we are meant to ¬†serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement,namely,¬†You shall love your neighbor as yourself. In a time quaking with uncertainty and vested in violence, there is also the warning: But if you go on biting and devouring one another,beware that you are not consumed by one another. History captures the stories of those who have been devoured and consumed, made the ultimate sacrifice and suffered the greatest griefs. But there are other threads of history: the triumphs that suggest that the chance to be fully human and fully alive is afforded to each of us. Look around: young mothers pushing baby strollers, fathers fishing with a child, grandparents celebrating new births, mourners finding comfort in the arms of friends, new relationships and shared harmonies, avid discussions, intellectual exchanges, tough questioning, defined ideals and wrestling with the real. We are like the generations before us who dared to bring us to this point. It is ours to recognize our freedom, choose to serve and become fully human, and fully alive.

Something greater

Fathers Day, 2022. Juneteenth. Corpus Christi. And from the shadows of memory comes an unsolicited image from the 1980’s. Philadelphia. The arrival of John Paul II to a outdoor crowd of young people clearly conscious of Catholic identity, bursting with enthusiasm for a youthful pope defined by his embrace of faith and challenge. Energizing and energized by the crowd, he floated like a white vision on a distant stage. Holy Father. Forty years later, an older Jesuit wears the same white garments and has held together a church divided by its brokenness and grapples with a world where Catholic identity is neither well defined nor fashionable and so much is questioned. Still, he bears the title and welcomes the foibles of his own humanity, admitting, “Who am I to judge?” and daring others to the same humility. In a year with a curious intersection of holidays, the images bear a startling relevance in a world of transition.

The role of fathers has changed over the centuries and our understanding of that, our expectations, have also evolved. Shifts in social roles, the success of the feminist movement and emerging economic realities demanded more of persons and new styles of parenting. Fathers, each one shaped with all the features and flaws of every human being, strive to do the impossible in meeting the needs of children, partners, family. There are no handbooks to adequately prepare a person for the role: it simply happens and then unfolds over lifetimes with chains of challenges, wrong turns, victorious laps and unimaginable situations. Even the best of fathers have feet of clay, and the realization of that actually enables their offspring to see the person each father truly is and gradually absorb the wisdom gathered over the decades of his experience. It takes time and generosity to learn to know the person a father is, to see more than the role he plays as parent. How he feels about it, why he does it, what he believes, all that matters, too. There is always room for new understandings of each other, for deeper appreciation, which leads to the celebration of Juneteenth.

Junetenth highlights the ending of an era begun long before. The celebration of it marks a deeper understanding of the conflict that tore the states apart and confounded earlier generations. The celebration evolved to what it is today in a clear sign of a deeper understanding of a collective past, a willingness to revisit the past and highlight a strength in the narrative. It brings together the past and provides a path for the future, in the same way a father carries his past and enters the future with the birth of offspring. Celebrating it now as a national holiday marks a new consciousness, a deeper understanding of the complexity that has brought us to this moment in time. It means learning to see the past differently with grace and openness and embracing the stroy as it evolves. In a sense, it seems closely connected to Corpus Christi, the feast of the Eucharist, the reminder that we are actually all part of something and someone greater than ourselves.

Corpus Christi, to me, is the invitation to transcend differences and judgments, and to see the essentail sameness, the humanity and the suffering and the joys that are part of human life….every human life. It is about looking beyond the parameters of the tiny worlds we often choose to live in day to day. It is about seeing and drawing in deep gulps of the bigger pictures and contexts we each exist in. It is about learning to love as a father is meant to love, without condition, and knowing God’s help is needed for that to happen.

Each of the holidays offers so much to think about, if we take the chance. Each invites us to see that there is always more to the story than what we think we know. Each enables us to become part of something greater than ourselves.

Trinity

Just over a year ago, I lost a world I had just discovered. There was a heart and home where belonging and being were one in the same. Without a doubt, it was the gift of a lifetime, transformative, and empowering. In the loss, I learned so much more about it: for the first time, I knew what it was to be recognized, accepted, trusted, known. It was the safest of all spaces: no need to hide or to protect oneself; words were welcome and moments treasured. Most shocking of all, the gift of that world remained in the weeks and months of wicked grieving. Nothing could have surprised me more. It spoke of dimenstions of love I had never even imagined. And now, humbled by learning I had not once suspected, the experience becomes applicable to other circumstances. Today Catholicism celebrates Trinity Sunday, an unbridled explanation of love and the mysterious three persons in one God.

As a child, the simple three leaf clover was the favored explanation. It was later, as a young adult, that I saw the convergence of persons in God with a skepticism. It sounded like 2 persons and one spirit to me, and nothing quite added up. Some explained the Spirit as the dynamism between Father and Son; some saw the Trinity as an unbreakable form, a tripod of perfection. For me, it remained a mystery. It was encountering Poor Clares that some understanding began to develop.

For monastics, the liturgical calendar complements the secular and spills over with meaning, even lodges collective memory firmly against the vicissitudes of daily living in 2022. And so the saints and the holidays are remembered and observed each year by someone, somewhere, and so the faith goes on. Memory is crafted from experience shaped in its sharing and re-telling; the mystery of the Trinity became a facet of collective identity within the church. Memory can be transformative, and Trinity Sunday highlights that. It is a holiday that invites us to see, to make and to nurture connections. For monastics, that made a lot of sense within the life of the community and within personal relationships with God. And for everyone, it makes so very much sense. Trinity Sunday is the reminder that we are not alone in any sense of the word. There is continuity in the love of God from beginning to end, and the movement of the Spirit is as real as the Eucharistic Presence and the Lord’s Prayer “Father”. The power of that is constantly available, present to us, if only we choose to look and see, hear and listen, know and touch. The mystery of it cannot actually be simplified to that four leaf clover, but it can tie to the idea that as humans we are continually learning about love and loss, grief and growth, what life is really all about. Trinity Sunday is the reminder that love is the constancy that may not have been known or initally understood, but is waiting to be recongized, accessed and enjoyed. Trinity Sunday is the reminder that each of us is accepted, known and understood by God who is simply there, waiting for consciousness of His Presence.

Pentecost and Presence

She was a diminutve Poor Clare, a contemplative Franciscan who lived out her adult life within the physical walls of a monastery. In her 70’s, with snow white hair cropped close and penetrating brown eyes that thoroughly embraced the world, she had a soft Brooklyn accent, a quick laugh, and a keen sensitivity to others. She was the first to challenge me to think about the presence of the Spirit in the world, and she did it with a keen consistency that allowed me to consider the idea that beyond all our human differences, there is a unifying feature. She would say, “if you look long enough, you will always find the common ground…and that is the work of the Spirit.” And she never hesitated to note that perhaps further looking was required, especially for herself. But it was her intense belief that the animation of the world, the source of all synchronicity, was the Spirit. Pentecost, in her world, was the feast that opened that possibility for all. For her, Pentecost was the promise of unending Presence just as surely as the Eucharist was the promise fo unending connection. The very thought could light up her whole being and energize the most passive of moments. And she confided, over truly awful coffee in the confines of a tiny parlor for visitors, that it was that very insight that was so closely connected to her monastic life and to her ability to live within the walls with the sameness of their lives: the same women, the same schdule, the same meals, the same limits and the same hopes, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. It was something bigger than themselves that made each of their unique personalities into a glowing whole of a community. Never one to deny the truth, she was simply realistic about strengths and weaknesses, her own and everyone else’s. But it was the work of every day to make the community work, to be part of this greater whole and to enable each one, every one, to become better. And it was, to her, the movement of the Spirit that made it all possible. It has not occurred to me until recently that her monastic microcosm carries great lessons for the wider world.

In a world where there are so many deep needs and unpredented wants, that tiny Poor Clare stands in her plain brown dress with the simple cord at her waist in silence with a profound message. Life is work, and building community is a significant challenge. it is not all about the wants of one person or another, but about a whole that is greater than self. It is about knowing self and daring to really know others, to be prepared to observe, to listen, to accept and to challenge, and most importantly, to be attuned to the right time for each. The idea that there is something beyond self that can lead, unite, and animate means trusting in the promise of Pentecost and learning to listen to the whisper of God’s voice in every venue of the created world. It is about standing up and speaking out as well as sitting down and listening carefully, gently, with an open heart. And most of all, it is about the ability to discern the difference between the two.

That they may be one

The handprint of a ten year old is small, smooth to perfection, and large enough to wrap neatly into larger hands, to be held and guided, nurtured and aligned. Uvlade has resurrected the heartbreak of Sandy Hook and re-opened debates about gun control, safety in schools and the red flags of mental illness. The rhetoric can mask grief and defy fear; after all the incdents of the past ten years, it has not resoluted in effective action. It has not been able to answer the question, “What would work to solve this problem?” or even “What are the causes of this? What is actually happening? How can we change this trajectory?”

A coherent clarity would be more than welcome, and heated debates over the NRA nd gun control suggest that. It is as if resolving the contentious issue would put an end to the tragedies America is enduring. The circumstances are extraordinarily complex and acknowledging that may open unexpected solutions. First, there is the rapid social and technological change that has shaped this millennium and all traversing through it. Social shifts have dislodged a reverence for spaces once considered sacred: churches and schools. Others, once defined by their purpose, have not been inviolate. Movie theaters, concerts and supermarkets,polics stations have become stages for violence rather than venues for entertainment and leisure, sustenance and stability. The shifts reflect the skeptcism of loss of confidence in social insitituions. Language has known shifts as well: once private terms hemming emotions have blasted into routine daily usage. Accompanying the onslaught of acronyms and emoticans has generated divisions between age and interst groups. Vocabulary has grown powerful; even the word “carnage” has crept into the vernacular as mass shootings become more frequent.

These changes have occurred in a time when technology has granted new voice to the marginalized and is postioned to democratize American society. Individuals possess a formerly unattainable measure of influence and/or notoriety. Split seconds separate events from international publicity and highlight the intensity of news events that years ago were buried in newspapers. Spiking anxiety and stress heighten grief and drama, spill into and shape reactions, increase tensions, furstrations and fury.

There are heartbreaking searches for answers. The answers have remained cruelly elusive; perhaps they are hidden in the whole of who we actually are and what is actually happening within lives and culture. There are moments to take that step back, to breath deeply, and to realize that each of us has such a need for the other and others to actually become whole. We need one another. We need to believe in one another, in mutual respect, in the idea that life has real value and thoughtfully living matters. There are those moments when the prayer Jesus uttered, “that they all may be one” , can become real.

The very brevity of life is a keen reminder that time is precious, a commodity and a gift. How we live that time matters. Believing matters. Becoming one matters. It just might make a difference.

Ascension

As a child, I stood in the middle of our Bronx street and stared up at puffy gray clouds sliced by tranluscent spears of light. I imagined the Baby Jesus sliding into the world on one or the other of them giggling and laughing. When I was a little older with a few years of Catholic education under my belt, I noticed it again. This time, I wondered if that was part of what the Apostles saw at the Transfiguration or if, perhaps, Jesus rode the rays of light like an escalator back into heaven during the Ascension. And, finally, just before we moved out of the neighborhood, I wondered if such startling and majestic images were there as reminders that there is something beyond self, that there is a God and there are paths to peace even in the midst of tumultuous days. There are, of course, no answers. But there is a threshold, a beginning, that profers the promise of peace.

The Ascension is a reassurance of “God with us”. It is a recognition of the cycle of life and connections among people, and it is the beginning of new learning for the Apostles and for Christians. There is always more to learn, at every phase of life, and the celebration of the Ascension underlines that. It is both a letting go and a new beginning, a moment fraught with mystery and overflowing with light. Hearing the story in a world of dystopian tastes and the magic of supehrheroes generates anime images that hide the simplicity of the message: “I may not always be with you, but I will never leave you.”

There is a profoundity to such an idea, but it is mirrored in stories of human relationship, of love and loss and grief and being. It is the assertion that our ties are stronger than mere physical bonds, and our capacity for connections and presence to another is not confined to time or space. In other words, there is more to life than what is visible; the Ascension is a moment of pause in the possibility, a moment of grace to see beyond what is to what also is, that which often escapes notice.

Signs and symbols of all that “also is” abound. For some, it is the spires of old churches; for others, it is the gift of a gathering of friends or the quiet sacredness of a walk in the woods. The flight of a sparrow, the dart of a blue jay, the sloppy kiss of a pet or the unexpected green light. Familiar lyrics drifting from a car radio, the brush of a breeze against a cheek, the soft and insistent charm of waves lingering at the shaore. Each one speaks of so much more than what it is if only we take the time to notice. The Ascension is all about noticing, acknowledging, and embracing the next phase. It is sunrise after mourning and hope after grieving. It is about becoming more than who we have been, accepting who we are, and trusting who we can become.

The “Real Thing”

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

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

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

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

Cadence and Counterpoint

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

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

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

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

FAITH DIMENSION

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

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

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

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

What Matters

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

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

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

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