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Interdependence

One person’s heart attack, that violent assault, has a tidal wave of impact on others. It changes everything so quickly. For others, the attack can disrupt relationships, challenge assumptions and speak of mortality to the unwilling. Somehow, it is a moment that demands reassessment of what we are all about, how we want to live and spend our time. The Gospel for this Fifth Sunday of Lent juxtaposes with that reality in describing the reaction to the death of Lazarus. But this year, that carries a whole different depth.

As a child, the story of Lazarus was miraculous, and I marveled at Jesus’ skills and intent. Then, as I grew older, it became a story with deeper nuances about friendship and family. I saw the cast of characters in a whole different way: the disciples, the locals, Jesus, Mary and Martha. There were layers of interaction that had eluded me earlier: now I could see the power of death, the weight of grief and grace of being present to one another. As a student, I even glimpsed the science that could explain this miracle. But now, that I have reached a different space, the story is a companion on the road to diminishment, a reminder of what really matters in life. For perhaps the first time, the interdependence of all these characters, the web of relationships and the connectedness spoke so quietly and so firmly of the profound need we each have for one another.

It is tempting to think that we live in isolation in this life. The Gospel is a reminder that we do not. In fact, it clearly establishes a context of human recognition of each other and the roles we play in one another’s lives. The disciples and Mary and Martha see something unique in Jesus and choose one another. They identify and name Him, just as we do for one another. And he interacts with them in a caring and compassionate way. There is no pretext, no indecision. He follows through on the connections and travels to Lazarus’ burial place. And there, He reveals that He is not acting alone either: Jesus calls upon the Father. It is all about the interdependence among us, and a celebration of those connections, a drawing upon one another for strength and for courage, for the next steps.

It was only recently that I discovered another caveat about the story itself. “Lazarus” has multiple meanings. Some sources indicate that it means, “God will help”. “Helpless” is another attributed meaning. There is the intersection with diminishment. In so many ways, we are all helpless at various points, grateful for the support and presence of others. The Gospel affirms that it is definitely okay to be helpless, to have surrendered to what is clearly beyond our control. Mary and Martha do that, Lazarus does that, Jesus does that. It is in those very moments that God meets us…if only we recognize him, name him, turn to him. It turns out that this is not a story about death but about the wonders of life and the glory of interdependence.

Light

Light as a theme in the middle of Lent. Interesting. And deeply personal. A reminder that seeing and vision are far from the same, and knowing who and how to trust are simply part of learning what it really means to see. Embracing reality is a huge part of seeing the light, and realizing that what is seen is not always what it seems. How do we do it? How can we live attentive to the Light?

In so many ways, life is immersed in Light and replete with gifts of light like friends. Friendships, in the deepest and truest sense of the relationship, requires openness and trust, a deeply held confidence in other and a deeply held consciousness of self. Learning to trust can be a lifetime’s task for some; it can be a jagged edge for those who have been hurt and lstill recover. Trust is more than a one-way gift: it is a dynamic give and take between two persons around something held important and in common to both of them. It is a confidence in one another that may either defy the circumstance or situation or define it. It is a choice and can be Light.

The readings for today are poised around themes of seeing, light and trusting. Samuel has the vision to realistically notice each of Jesse’s sons: he calls for anoints David. Seeing is shown to be so meaningful, so purposeful. The responsorial psalm is Psalm 23: the Lord is my shepherd. The tender compassion of the Shepherd and the faithful responses of the sheep coming alive to create that bond, the willingness to go on. And then, the Gospel filled with characters who really are characters in the best sense of the word. Some are ensconced in a reality with such raw and blatant inclusivity and exclusivity, clear ownership of the space. It is not so for the blind man or for Jesus who simply are who they are in the moment. The exchange is simple, really. Disability had been determined as a punishment from God, an explanation for what was so difficult to cope with. Jesus disavows that with saliva and dirt, concocting a muddy ointment and then directing the blind man to wash. In simplicity, the blind man realizes his gratitude to Jesus and learns who Jesus really is. He sees in every sense of the word. It is the Pharisees whose fixed understanding deprives them of that chance.

So how do we see? How do we recognize the Light of the World? How do we walk in the Light? Perhaps the task is more simple than we realize. Maybe we do not need to be judgmental, to hurt one another by discriminating or by failing to really listen for the grains of truth that are the fiber of human experience. Maybe we can take the time to really look at one another and not simply pass by the people in our lives. Maybe that one meaningful glance can be the light, make a connection, share an understanding, be the seed of trust to come. Let go of the prisons of the past, forgive yourself for the blindness and the mistakes. Trust that someone is looking out for you, and that is moving towards the Light.

Meeting

Today, during Mass, I saw two men, entwined, returning from Communion. The younger was red-headed and bearded, his eyes mere slits. The older (by decades) was taller and had his right arm stretched across the other’s back, their hands grasped tightly at his shoulders. The taller one seemed serious, navigating the way with gentle fortitude. The bearded one was accepting the help and gliding through obstacles with a consistent smile. And so it was that the Gospel message took on new and treasured dimension: technically, the blind man was walking first and his helper simply leading from behind. It was a powerful and inspirational lesson to be able to watch them, to see traces of the Samaritan woman’s experience with Jesus.

Today’s Gospel unwinds Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman who suffered the double stigma of being a woman and being a Samaritan. He approaches her, asks for a favor, and she does not immediately comply. Instead, she questions him with an authority and courage that denies both stigmas. For his part, he responds gently, pragmatically, responding as much to the juncture where they stood as to her curiosities. It becomes a Holy Moment, the open door, that she walks through. And it is not about rules or guidelines but relationship, a transformative relationship that alters everything which seemed familiar. God is present to her, and she dares to embrace that with links between the past and present and then becomes the bridge to the future. Lent can be like that: meeting Christ in the eyes of others and listening carefully, one to the other.

In the turmoil and tumultuous shifts in culture as our whole society remoors, it is splendid to think that such moments are possible. It transcends the diatribes of debate over education, gun control, gender and transgender, homophobia and ageism. It sticks to the one-to-one, the personal connection. Anchors like that are freeing: knowing there IS an anchor can enable us to look beyond the present and consider wider circumstance, create new harbors for others. If we are so tied to the minutiae, entangled in the weeds, we can easily miss those moments that are the connection with something so much greater than self.

As human beings humbled by the glories of science and the gifts of technology, it is easy to imagine our own sense of power, control over life. Genetics and cloning have enabled us to strip away the sense of mystery and miracle in daily life and remain allured solely by the richness of all that has become possible for humans. But here we stand, hearing Jesus speak simply of the sacredness of connections and witness to the gentle acts of human beings caring for one another. Words have power as Jesus and the Samaritan woman demonstrate. But being without words like the men walking with each other also has power.

Power’s many incarnations, many purposes and uses, can be overwhelming and confusing. Having power can bring out the worst in us: knowing the weak spots of another can shape an argument; establishing control can become the sole purpose and justify cruelty; simply not saying anything can allow power to deprive people of freedom and life. This Gospel uses words to highlight power, and actions of its participants to highlight its uses. This Sunday marks a moment of using the power of words for good, for connections and purpose. This Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that we all have the chance to be entangled with one another for the good of self and others.

Changing Perceptions

Plump and tiny, that little wren paused for just an instant on the forsythia’s winter-worn branch. Then she slipped away, an ambassador awaiting Spring’s arrival and the end of Winter’s reign. Change is coming. It can surround us and emanate from us. The story of the Transfiguration from Matthew 17 opens that doorway to stronger, more authentic and accurate understandings of the world we live in, to self-awareness and awareness of others as well.

When Jesus invites the disciples to join him, it seems an ordinary moment. But all that changes quickly. “And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.”
They see Moses and Elijah, and then the stunning moment, “then from the cloud came a voice that said,”This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.”
To see and hear things as they are, a greater Truth, is an extraordinary moment in human life. It passes; they move on. But the change is impossible to ignore.

This Gospel invites change and celebrates the courage to accept who we are and to stand together with those we love and care for. It invites consideration of the expansiveness of the human heart and spirit, and it defies the confines of human perception. It intimates how limited we can choose to be, to react, to respond at times, and it provides the reassurance that as human beings, we are more and we can become more. That process begins with perceptions and the realization that there just might be more to each of us than meets the eye, that there might be more to any given circumstance than what we can conceive. In general, the world might be a different place than we have determined it to be.

Change can be for the better: it can deepen our truths, expand our understandings, open new doors. At any age, we can see what is, let go of what was, and move towards what can be. There is a hint of glory in the story of the Transfiguration, of Jesus’ real status in the world; it is a glory that elevates man and shines a light on each of those before him. And so it shines on and in each of us. It is the invitation to become who we are meant to be, to be fearless in that and to trust deeply in God’s love. In other words, to become better people.

We will not be standing on Mt. Tabor anytime soon. But we can pay attention to what is happening around us. We can practice kindness. We can be open-minded and purposeful. We can choose to see the goodness in each other and forgive the flaws, our own and others, as part of a greater whole. We can trust intuition and give credit for synchronicity and bring joy and confidence to one another. We can dare to try. Maybe, like that tiny wren, maybe that is all we are being invited to do.

Faith

At this critical juncture, a war raging in Ukraine, China and Russia maintaining accord, the quakes in Turkey and a world grappling to understand the colliding crises of climate change and economics, Lent has begun. Among many, memories of the failures of Catholics, of the Church and hierarchy, of the schools and the institutions wrestle their way to the forefront of conversation and social exchanges, easily burying so much of the good, of the positive and even of the possible. Today, in a series of exchanges about the ambiguities of faith in our time, of the seismic shifts in social communication and rapid redefinitions of gender, it was easy to forget the essence of faith, of Catholicism. Maybe we, as Catholics, are actually more ignorant of faith and spirituality and the Church itself than we realize.

Sunday Mass is often the touchstone for Catholics, the gathering place and the space for meeting one another and God. It is a handy harbor, a convenient place for making connections with other believers or others who are searching. The Mass itself, though, is a conduit for growth and becoming, a staple with its routine and symbolism, scripture and ritual. It is an opportunity to be part of a wider community.

Faith, though, is not confined to a Sunday morning service or a Saturday night experience. It is what pervades every interaction, choice and breath. Faith is the deep core sense that there is something more than we can see, a dimension of life that is beyond, somehow the intangible in what is so very tangible. Faith animates reason, comes alive in eyes and hearts, in relationships and in communities. Faith provides the sustenance that strengthens and secures in sorrow and certainty, in confusion and tragedy, celebration and humiliation. At every step, faith is the sense of “more”. Faith has the courage to entertain doubt and takes advantage of options. Faith is reconciling the reality of human life with the reality of intangibles and finding a way to live more fully. It is distinct from ritual, from devotions and practice and yet is visible in each. It is what transcends the variety of customs, ethnicities and cultures that form the mosaic that is Catholic.

Faith is the belief in something, someone, bigger than self. Inherently mysterious, it both defies and provides explanation. And in its truest form, faith is deeply personal and powerfully communal. Faith is alive and defined by unique lives in every generation. Today, faith bears the stigma of ignorance, mental illness and marginalization. People of faith bear a scrutiny for hypocrisy and intolerance; people who have rejected faith reprise the breach and injustice that sent them away. Too often, that anger targeted so sharply fails to recognize the reality that underlies all of Catholicism: human nature.

Being Catholic does not call me to perfection, but it does call me to forgiveness. Being Catholic is a reminder that we are all broken to some extent, including the ordained and the religious, and we are here to help each other. Being Catholic is a recognition of incompleteness and a chance to have support in doing the right thing even what that is abominably challenging. It is about the ways we choose to live and grow as human beings, nothing more and nothing less. It is the chance to acknowledge that the sacred and the divine mingle with the ordinary and mundane in daily life. Most of all, it is about discovering your own path, fellow travelers and strength to grow.

Starting Lent

The truth is: life is messy. It is complicated and confusing, and the people who are part of it each bear their own matrix of complications. But the second truth is this: it has always been this way. From the beginning, there has been violence and tragedy, competitions and cruelty, suffering and fear. But there has also been the tenderest of loving, the most patient perseverance, authentic altruism and optimism rooted in hope. So as Lent begins, that time of reflection and conscious recall of the mirrors we can be to one another, maybe remembering what really matters needs time. So what does matter?

The readings for today do not dwell on ritual or practice or judgement. Instead, each focuses on love: God’s love for us, and love for one another, even how to love another. There is the reminder of the presence of God in each of us, the Spirit being with us. That idea intimates more: there is a sacredness in each being whether visible or not; the spark of the divine awaits discovery. There is a clear statement of the stunning duality of avoiding hate and loving your neighbor as yourself. And there is the Gospel’s call to literally “turn the other cheek”. For the first time, I began to think about Lent as a time of deepening respect for relationships and of the practical practice of leaning into love. Without pushing all the complications of life aside, there is a startling simplicity here. Lent is about noticing what is real, seeing what is holy, and embracing a deep and abiding respect for one another. And remarkably, if that is the umbrella, there is room for everyone to find shelter.

Some of us, like Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Nicaragua, confront harsh consequences in the practice of such respect and simplicity. As a critic of the government, his refusal to be exiled resulted in a 26 year prison sentence. But his choice affirms the sacred and stands in solidarity with the suffering. Others recognize the loss of Catholic culture, the failures of a generation that could not have foreseen the extensive cost of social changes which characterize society at every level. Theirs is a different call: rebuild. Discern the new path in all this: see what is real, pursue what is holy, radiate the respect for self and others that the readings invoke. For some, there is what we face and live with every day. Lent affords us the luxury, the chance to choose to be fully present, fully attentive to the persons before us and discover the presence of God in one another and ourselves. And so the umbrella widens to shelter all of us in the storms of simply being human.

Lent starts with the solemnity of ashes, that which reminds us of the fragility of human life, the ubiquitous nature of flaws and foibles, and the reality of limitations. Entering into the season, the readings remind us that we have strong and faithful companions on this journey: the Spirit of God, and one another. Maria Popova in the Marginalian notes that James Baldwin’s thought on love as mirroring one another’s goodness. Lent is like that: finding the wealth of light in the very world we live in and trusting in something far greater than self.

For the Whole

Spring is whispering through the unusual February warmth, a temptress bidding New England to deny winter entirely. And half a world away, a seismic catastrophe has cruelly completed thousands of lives leaving shattered humans behind. Far above the earth, spaceship surveillance has become a reality. Everywhere, there is a sense of confusion, near chaos, and an increasing sense of danger and threats to the familiarity cherished everywhere. Blame and anger boil over and manifest in governments and on sidewalks. Still, our planet spins through its cycles, and each human being is only a visitor in time. How to live with all that means?

Perhaps our life stories, built on memories and hopes, are wrapped around the pillars of how we would like things to be. Perhaps the gossamer threads that lace through the decades have the openness and flexibility that allows us to see the context of our being: the history that surrounds us and the overlapping and intersections of our lives with others. Perhaps it is time that we look at the life that we are living and think carefully about the power and the possibilities that wait for us. And perhaps, in the way that God whispers wisdom through us and in us, simplicity and poverty will speak to some. Perhaps creativity and courage are gifted to others, hope and daring and resilience to still more. Perhaps we are simply a mosaic of goodness waiting to be come together to to confront and resolve the chaos around us.

It would mean displacing both doubt and laziness, adhering to a higher good and daring to believe that there is more to this life than we ever suspected. It would mean suspending the crush of judgement about one another and cultivating an abiding trust in others to choose to search for and then do the right thing. It would demand a trust that challenges the complacent and an honesty that hones the self-indulgent. It would mean engaging in a sense of deep respect for others and for self and daring to choose to acknowledge the myriad connections among us that already exist. In an age of self-defense, it would mean standing together because of, not in spite of, our differences. It would mean stepping far from the memes and the sound bytes and pushing deeper into the spaces where it is possible to see and then connect to define the greater good.

There are many reasons not to bother: personal comfort, perceived injustice, the effort to change and the reasonable chance of failure. Maybe there are more reasons to care: you matter, others matter, and history has left us the pain-filled evolution of governments, economics and technology as well as the struggle for power. The incarnation of power in multiple forms has inevitably cursed some and favored others. Within those realms abides the strength of personal character, integrity and presence. The readings for this Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time are an invitation to consider the roads we choose and the paths not taken, to contemplate at depth what really matters. Most of all, that wisdom that Paul speaks of acknowledges the endlessness of human shortcomings and flaws as well as the enormity of God’s compassion and love. There is a sense of resolve there, that hint that all is not lost. It is time, perhaps, to believe that, to make choices for the whole good, to practice kindness and compassion towards one another, and to trust in a God who still believes in us.

Ordinary Light

Our lives are folded into the pages of history, hidden by the headlines and disappearing as things do before anyone actually realizes. Upstaged by influencers of all sorts, our lives are threaded into the background of every historical tapestry with the patience that belongs to those who lack power and exercise faith, trust in simplicity and practice truthfulness. There are grand edifices, cathedrals and basilicas that are testimony to artists and their patrons and speak across centuries of belief. And behind that grandeur is the simplicity of ordinary lives given to a greater cause; they are nameless, image-less, virtually invisible. But for their dedication, the roles shouldered or thrust upon them, these places could not exist. And the world will not name or remember them yet we know, we see and we live with, their legacy.

Even in this time of social media, the pattern is perpetuated. And the greater truths of what really matters falls to the rhythms of clever TikToks and sharp-edged Instagrams. New forms of etiquette are emerging through its constant navigation. And yet it seems to successfully obscure the ordinary reality of daily human life and experience, the power of human hearts and the invaluable gift of every life. We have mastered the art of paralyzing one another with discrimination, blaming institutions and businesses with angry rebuttals and drinking cynicism and malfeasance as sustenance. We have empowered so many to consider self first, to aspire to so much in careers and finances. We have so encouraged individuation and self-awareness among our young that we have lost that sense of the whole and what it means to be part of something greater than self. We have lost the art of self-sacrifice, of daring to invest in meaningful conversation with suspended judgement, of being able to say, “I can do this for someone else’s benefit rather than my own.”

We have lost sight of the reality that we, the extremely ordinary souls who will never garner accolades or discover ourselves in places of power, we are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. It is the very simplicity of who we are and what we are about that actually makes that possible. Our daily choices, actions and decisions define that light and give taste to that salt. Today’s first reading from Isaiah states,

“Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…”

In the Gospel, Jesus speaks to the simplicity of human generosity and goodness and encourages us to sustain one another with kindness and gentleness born of the Spirit.

“You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”

Even without thousands of followers, there is so much more to us than we actually realize. We are each more than what it seems, and the choices and decisions are ours. We have the responsibility to make this the connection that matters and to trust that ordinary, simple lives are great gifts to be shared and treasured.

Yours is the Kingdom

Alongside the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes provide a startling and sometimes unsettling contrast. The former lists a series of succinct guidelines for life, the first three being proactive and the rest prohibitions. All apply to individual choices and behaviors which heartily impact the lives of others and so the whole community. Adherence to them allows for a society, a community, to determine just how to manage the mystery of being human. The Beatitudes, on the other hand, have a nearly lyrical tone with an invitation to find within ourselves deep personal empathy, kindness and compassion in looking at self and others.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,
and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven.”

As a child, the Beatitudes reminded me that there are heroes everywhere; hidden within blankets of anonymity, they are neither visible and often unappreciated. They are the frantic parents, the Amazon drivers and the cashiers at Kohl’s, the cleaning ladies and the maintenance people, baristas and bus drivers. The Beatitudes taught me that everyone walks a long hard road, and there is more to everyone than I can see. I learned that God embraces each person, most especially those invisible to me. My own misgivings or judgements of others pale in the face of a truth that a generous and gentle God guarantees so much more than what the world can provide. As I grew old with the words, they became so much more.

Decades of seeing and hearing these words from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 5 taught me how challenging and humbling they actually are. They hold a mirror to the breath of human life, and a promise that there is a “more” to what the ordinary days of human lives bring. They intimate that life holds circumstances far beyond human control; suffering is simply part of life. Tragedy, brokenness, weakness need not divorce us from a relationship with God. These words suggest that it is in those very moments that God holds us close, closer than ever. And even more, they whisper of what we are humans are capable of: we can dare to choose goodness, to seek the right, to build peace and we can make mistakes, fail and try again. So much of it is about what we can be within the wonder of who we are and what is happening. In so many ways, these words invite us to look at ourselves and one another with fresh eyes and an openness that defies the smallness of which we are all so capable.

In that light, “rejoice and be glad” takes on a whole new meaning. And from David Hass’ “Blest Are They”, “Rejoice and be glad. Blessed are you, holy are you! Rejoice and be glad, Yours is the kingdom of God.” Yours is the kingdom. Imagine that.

Still alive

We sat in a spacious office with carefully positioned furniture and walls adorned with fragments of color and simple but powerful phrases like “Be still and know that I am God.” The conversation opens with a softball question about spiritual life in a secular world and in a secular institution. And so it all begins: two persons unraveling the mysteries of the decades and journeys they’ve lived. Resting there in the conversation is the most intangible of realities: a respect for the presence of God. Life-giving. Sacred. Quietly sought and gently pursued. Acknowledged.

For both, there is the sense that God, postulated or even mentioned as a word, is far from welcome here. There are rattling conversations among colleagues about the attendant challenges of publicly identifying with a church or a tradition. The complexity of a label or a statement about that is lost in the widespread sense that a term like “Christian” or “Catholic” is an alternative for “bigot”, “ignorant”, “intolerant” or “prejudiced”. Ironically, that is far from the truth; perhaps it is a backlash to shifting cultural norms or a consequence of limited education in a tsunami of information. Nevertheless, so few are the safe spaces for the practice of faith and an attentiveness to something greater than self.

In that office, conversation unfolded the juxtaposition of personal faith and institutional membership, the way the two sustain one another yet still rub against one another in distress. Humanity’s many failings stain the idealized images: institutions have drowned in the cries of “hypocrisy”. It is the personal tie, the relationship with God, that matters. Faith that is alive in the subtleties of living actually challenges the institutional structure to become stronger, better, than it was before. All of that is the process of living, the processes of evolution and change that characterize human life. Wholesale rejection of churches or religious communities is a choice that negates the chance to stumble upon, to seek, to discover, that maybe there is something beyond the rhythms of intellect and something to the concept of soul.

And so it is that the practice of belief becomes deeply personal and hardly public. There are the quiet pauses before eating, a silent grace before a meal offered. There is the daily lighting of a single tea light to remind one of the presence of God, of the holy ground. There is the early morning reading of Scripture, its poetry piercing the hours to come. There is the glance that embraces ordinary scenes as extraordinary gifts. Most of all, there is humility in the realization that in a time celebrating the expanse of scientific and technological understandings, there is so much of life and being that is not known. There is the sense that we are always still learning, still only beginning to see, only starting to really understand. Daring to live out faith in those personal ways, within or outside a broader tradition, takes openness and courage just as surely as it demands humility and attentiveness. It is a recognition that none of us are quite whole.

Still, there is continuity with generations of humans in the readings of the day. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who walked in gloom a light has shone.” Isaiah’s words slip across the centuries and shape a framework for the ways faith, religious communities and lives are still alive.