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Journey and Aging

Perhaps the cruelties of aging are hidden beneath the images of comfort and well-being or condemned to invisibility by eyes not ready to see. Neither diminished the realities of its demands. Neither leaves life as it was or even as a somewhat familiar path. For aging is deeply embedded in the life process; the challenges of daily living are neither restrained nor obscured by its expanding presence. Aging is embedded in DNA, a rock solid certainty like death and taxes, and its toll is not prepaid and yet is undeniable. Aging recognizes the fierceness of being human and the complex realities of institutions and families, the ways humans interact with one another and the environment that encapsulates the days and hours of lives. For none of us lives free of others and none of us can escape the forces that surround us. Most importantly, aging is understood only as it happens and is what makes it true that each of us lives in our own time.

In its own way, aging is a becoming that is both a beautiful burden and a generous gift. There is the treasure trove of experiences, memories, relationships and learnings. And that is juxtaposed with the physical and emotional expenditure and cost of every single one. Wandering through the desert or waltzing between and among the stars, each of us creates a tapestry of being. The brightest sparkling lights that pierce daily existence with joyful exhiliration can be followed by the devastation of unexpected loss or the monotony of all that is mundane. Every experience finds its way into the physical, traces its legacy in wrinkles and wear. Years slip by and so youth yeilds to what we say is middle and then into the later stages and finally, beyond the senior citiizen discount, the elderly. Aging is always occurring, always beginning again and then beginning agian in another phase.

The richness of how we are and who we can be is the rebirth that characterizes each step of our lives. Resilience enables and empowers each of us to weave that tapestry, to find the inner strength that generates a radiant confidence. And it is discovered in the desert, in the times when heat and thirst and light are unremitting. There, where all things are laid bare and the simplicity of the landscape defies the complications of life, choices are made. We make the choice to listen to heart and to soul…or not. The choice to see what is really there….or not. The choice to know within who we are and act accordingly….or not. And then, when we walk away from the desert, every setting has a fresh and sharpened view. It is not the landscape, but the way it is seen that has changed. Aging is the realization that who we are and who we can be is a gift for everyday that awaits each of us because change and our perspective about that is constantly evolving.

One day, the aging ends. The journey is finally complete.

Choices

Incredibly kind and thoughtful, he was also sincere. He was explaining how very much he believed that organized religion in all its forms is actually responsible for all the ills the world is suffering. But we were on our way to a funeral, a Catholic service. And he pressed on: what do you think? You could not possibly be taking Communion today, will you?

That story, that question, reminded me of two things: how the Church is viewed and known as a monolithic insitution and the reality of personal faith. The latter bears the stigma of centuries of scandal and an image of rules and regulations squired by hypocrites and villains in collars and cossacks. There is an inclusivity to it that makes exclusivity inevitable. There are honeycombs within it of a wide variety of groupings: contemplatives and monasteries, Sisters of Life and Trappist monks. Franciscans and Dominicans, Jesuits and Augustinians, Benedictines and Norbertines. There are missionaries and educators, medical personnel and preachers. They are all different, unique, faithful to their foundings and purpose, nestled into their little space wihin the broader church.

Parishes are like that as well; each one sports a different personality, functions with various strengths, finds want in different needs. But that is actually where Catholicism actually happens. Because there is a complicity in the idea that each of us is only and wholly human. Contrary to common perceptions, each Catholic has latitude and choice, movement and freedom. The structures are there, but so are the choices and the options. How to practice, what to do, which services to access are all within the realm of very ordinary persons.

So the answer to the question above was “yes”. I am receiving Communion. I am not doing it because I am perfect or because I think the scandals are okay or that corruption has a place in the Chruch. Nope. I am taking Communion because I live as part of something greater than myself. I receive because I am far from perfect, and because I need a connection with a goodness greater than my own. I receive because I believe that this little miracle of continuity in the Eucharist connects me to the past, to the bread Jesus shared at Passover and there is nothing that draws me closer to that moment than this celebration. I receive because I believe that I am just a “regular guy”, an ordianry person. but I can become a better person. I am just a regular person, not extraordinary or even special….except for that moment, with the Eucharist resting in the palm of my hand, and I realize for just a second, what it really means, and I am honestly humbled.

Sometimes, to see things more clearly, it takes an unexpected conversation that prompts deeper reflection. Listening to what is said, as well as to what is not said, offers the chance to see what really matters is right in front of us all the time. The choice is ours.

What matters

The spectre of Death hung heavily these last days: car accidents, murders, disease. It lingered and awed even the most confident with cruel ferocity. There was no denying its danger or its glaring demands or the powerlessness beneath its unflinching gaze. And so, the pain of the bereaved knows no boundaries, no limits, and plumbs a depth beyond all imagining. The dullness of awareness eventually appears: life itself, living and breathing, is known in a whole new way, one silhouetted by Death’s theft. Among us, the aging have met Death’s contours before; for them, each loss is met with each of the previous ones, and the moment has a stage of players with patterns and prompts. The young, though, meet the acuteness of agony in unforgettable encounters, thrust into the circle of loss without warning. And so Death has its day and Life, though changed, staggers again to full stature. There, in that unfamilair space, how to live the next hours, days, months and years somehow becomes so much more compelling than ever before.

Luke 6, the Gospel for the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, offers counsel in key phrases.

love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give, and gifts will be given to yo
u..”

Disguised as verbs, the advice is tantamount to actions that dare deepen Life’s meaning and define its purpose: LOVE, DO good, BLESS, PRAY, STOP judging and condemning, FORGIVE, GIVE. Practicing all that, choosing to love and do good, to bless and to pray, means embracing attentiveness to all that exists. It is about interacting with the world around us with authenticity, with honesty and a sense of truth. It is about choosing not to defile the brevity of life by making it even more difficult for self and others. It is about monitoring our lesser selves and striving for a kindness that is not actually beyond our reach. Believing we can be kind and then, simply, doing it makes a difference for self and for others. Our lives, lived as they are in the increments of time, still bear the possibility of becoming more, of being better, of navigating the obstacles with heartfelt intentions and shifting from strength to strength. There is nothing easy about that, nothing at all. But then, Life is complicated and difficult, only punctuated by joy and celebration, and finally humbled by the spectre of Death. Life, in each awakening, in every dawn and sunset, begs us to love, to do good, to bless those who curse us and to pray fro those who mistreat us…to begin to stop judging one another and to forgive, to dare to forgive. Death’s larceny hones a profound understanding of the breviy of Life. No matter how short or how long, what matters is what we do with our lives and how we respect the lives of others.

Beatitudes

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

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

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

Beatitudes

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

The Gospel of Luke is unsparing in this:

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

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

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

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

Beatitudes

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

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

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

Simply human

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

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

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

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

Faith

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

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

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

Home

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

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

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

Miracles?

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

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

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

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