Examen

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On this national holiday there is nothing in me that wishes to celebrate. It feels as if we have regressed into an understanding of the gifts given to this country that is very low on the scale of mature response to challenge. It seems that freedom has now devolved into license, an immature “I’ll do what I want” rather than what is best for the common good. We are in danger now, not as much from any foreign enemy as from those previously named “neighbor.” The sadness that arises from these thoughts is profound.

In concert with these feelings I have been hearing a song in my head that is decades old and has not been in my internal Rolodex for sometime now. It was too long to sing during the guitar Masses of the 1960s—8:09 minutes to be exact—but I used to know all the verses anyway because they were (and are) so meaningful. For those of us who were taught to make a daily practice of “examination of conscience”—also known in religious circles simply as “examen”—the song can still be a powerful tool, as relevant today as it was a half-century ago. It will not leave me this morning and even if I only sing the refrain, I believe I will need to pay attention to the lyrics throughout the day.

The song was written and performed by Joe Wise and is called “Lord, Teach Us to Pray.” I would recommend a listen in the quiet moments of this day to ask for willingness when we don’t know how to do anything on our own, because on this day, we ought to understand that we never can.

Our “Faith Quotient”

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Today Christians celebrate the Apostle Thomas. It’s a comforting remembrance for me. When we think of the saints, the list includes theologians and martyrs and people of all manner of greatness. Thomas was one of “The Twelve,” those chosen members of the inner circle of Jesus, the ones who walked with him for the three years of his public ministry, saw the expressions of his power and the depth of his love for people—all kinds of people, especially the most needy. They listened to him preach and saw him go away by himself to pray. They were his closest companions and in the end, most of them died in the service of his mission.

Thomas stands out in one gospel passage. After all that they had experienced with him, they were nevertheless frightened after Christ’s resurrection (as I presume I would have been if I had been there) when he appeared in that “Upper Room” to let them know he was still with them. Thomas was missing from that visitation and therefore had to be told of the event. Clearly, Thomas could be seen as a concrete thinker, willing (able?) to believe only what he could see and hear and touch. And so he became, for all time, the one who is remembered as “doubting Thomas.” He wanted to see Jesus, touch him and feel his wounds to know he was truly the one who had companioned them.

We know the whole story concisely reported in John’s gospel (20: 24-29). I do not believe that Jesus came back to shame Thomas in the midst of his companions. It must have been very hard for Thomas but my hope is that the others were relieved for him, that having seen what he asked for, he could then believe what the others had already experienced. But it seems that this event is for us as well as for Thomas.

Christ asks Thomas a question which I’m sure caused Thomas a lot of deep reflection. (“Have you come to believe because you have seen me?”) Then we are addressed, we who have not seen the Lord “in the flesh.” It is not a question, but rather a hope, a promise—and likely for some a challenge. When you hear the words, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed,” are you a “doubting Thomas” sometimes? Am I?

What, Why and How

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Psalm 19, today’s lectionary psalm, speaks of the divine voice in all of creation. It must be obvious, by how often these blog posts point to the natural world, that I can relate to this theme. My heart soars with the message immediately when I hear the words, “Through all the world their voice resounds and to the ends of the earth their message!” (PS 19: 1) Today, however, my appreciation for this psalm was deepened as only the second part appeared in today’s readings.

Verses 8 to 10 do something different from what we read and experience in the first seven. As we fly with the psalmist throughout the universe (vs. 1-7), the voyage is described: the way we hear it and who (day & night) passes it along as we go. It’s the “how” for the transmission of the message. What I have never seen so clearly, and what appears today, is the content, the characteristics and the effect of God’s voice in the universe. That is to say that we hear the “what” and the “why” of the message. Listen:

The law (content) of the Lord is perfect (characteristic), refreshing the soul; (effect).

The decree of the Lord is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true, all of them just.

And as a finale to the entire recitation, we have a summary statement of what will be the result if we follow all of the above instructions. One might say, if we “taste and see” the goodness of the Lord: They are more precious than gold, than a heap of purest gold; sweeter also than syrup or honey from the comb. (vs. 11)

Out of the Mud

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Here we go again…a new month…..Can we look forward with any sort of optimism, even while predictions of disease become more and more dire? I ask myself that question and then consider the alternative. What would be the result of giving in to pessimism? As I consider that, a stunning image comes to me: a huge line of people sinking into mud – all wearing masks now but continuing to sink – hands at their sides – silently sinking. No one is helping another. No one is speaking to anyone else. Just sinking.

I am appalled at this image. As quickly as it appears to me, it disappears. I will not let this sinking be my truth. I reach for Macrina Wiederkehr’s book, sevensacredpauses and determine to keep one or the other of the quotes I find in mind throughout the day. They will be my lifeline to pull me out of the mud. Listen to the voices:

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)

Joy is God in the marrow of our bones. (Eugenia Price)

Joy is the echo of God’s life in you. (Dom Marmion)

To God belongs the East and the West; and wherever you turn, there is the face of God. (The Qur’an, Surah 2)

Look to the Stars

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Last night as I was getting into bed, I looked out my high window that faces to the South. I didn’t have my glasses on but was surprised to see what looked like two very bright lamps shining out brilliantly and a few others just a bit smaller. Often in similar situations – when there is only one very bright light – I watch for a few minutes and see the movement that tells me what I’m seeing is a plane coming in for a landing at our county airport. There was no movement last night. If it hadn’t been just after midnight, I might have grabbed my glasses and gone outside to look. If I had done that, however, I was certain I would be awake much longer and I was already skating on the edge of a short night. I’m regretting the loss now because it’s been awhile since we have had a good night for stargazing.

Synchronistically, Brian Johnson (Optimize.me) wrote this morning, quoting Soren Kierkegaard, the great existentialist philosopher, something that I find helpful and hope to remember in these difficult days. He said:

When the sailor is out on the sea and everything is changing around him, as the waves are continually being born and dying, he does not stare into the depths of these, since they vary. He looks up at the stars. And why? Because they are faithful – as they stand now, they stood for the patriarchs, and will stand for coming generations. By what means then does he conquer changing conditions? Through the eternal: By means of the eternal, one can conquer the future, because the eternal is the foundation of the future.

So I suggest looking up occasionally at night to delight in the splendor. And if there are no stars, wait…Perhaps they will be shining the next time you look up.

Peter and Paul

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Today Christians everywhere are celebrating two of the “founding fathers” of Christianity: Saints Peter and Paul. It’s interesting to note that, being the “stars” of the historical and Scriptural story, they don’t have a feast day of their own, but have to share the spotlight! It isn’t as if they came on the scene together. Paul never met Jesus “in the flesh,” while Peter was one of the original twelve followers of Christ. We know Peter as much for his weaknesses as for his strengths while Paul appears (after his cinematic first appearance on the scriptural stage) to be a staunch follower of Christ throughout.

It’s clear from the lectionary readings that St. Paul never wavered in his faith after his conversion. His testimony (2 TM 4: 6-8. 17-18) is stirring and ultimately gives the credit for everything to Christ who has rescued him from his former life of persecuting Christians. This morning, however, I see just a tinge of the former ranking officer as he says, “I have competed well; I have finished the race…the crown of righteousness awaits me…” (I smile at that, knowing that we never outgrow ourselves totally in our conversions!)

Peter gets the prize today in my estimation, however (if we are to award a prize…). We have a story from the Acts of the Apostles (12: 1-11), a great narration of Peter’s rescue from prison by an angel. More important for us, I think, is the gospel passage from Matthew (16: 13-19), a moment when Jesus asked the disciples about what people were saying about his identity. They reported hearing that he might be a prophet or maybe even the return of John the Baptist. Then comes the question of the day – or of a lifetime: “But who do you say that I am?” We need to remember that this was before the Crucifixion and the Resurrection…somewhere in their travels with this amazing preacher, but not the Christ that we now know. It was Peter who spoke up that day with a faith that carried him through several failures as well as some glorious successes. “You are the Christ, Son of the living God.” I believe that the faith which prompted that response from Peter was grounded in his great love for Jesus, a love that did not necessarily mean perfection in his living, but rather in a willingness to never stop trying.

We can learn a lot from today: the amazing zeal and accomplishment of Paul coupled with the love and steadfastness of Peter can be a source of inspiration and a way to accept our personal manner of Christian living. Whether we have an easy walk or a stone-littered path with Jesus, we can celebrate those models who first encountered Jesus the Christ and who remain for us today.

In and Out

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There are so many people and organizations giving advice daily on television, podcasts and all manner of “advice columns.” I sometimes feel a need to add my voice from my tiny corner of the world but often lately I sense more of a need to just sit quietly and let the silence speak. Nature seems complicit in this feeling this morning and gives me a nudge saying, “Yes, that’s it. Any thoughts you have are unnecessary today. Just listen. That’s what “sabbath” is all about.”

I can be confident in that feeling because here’s what has happened in less than the last hour. Knowing that I had a late start to the morning because of a late start to sleeping last night, I got my coffee and began my sojourn through my regular prompts—Scripture, USCCB notations, Franciscan media, the SSJE Brothers… and had trouble accessing the above mentioned pages or staying on the page when it finally showed up. As I surfed I realized it was getting darker outside and I still had nothing to offer. Suddenly there was a great, yet silent, cloudburst washing the trees with no wind, just a steady, torrential downpour that gave way to a sparkling sunshine and birdsong within minutes of the rain’s conclusion.

Why would I think I need to add to that happening? The silence fills the world with Sabbath beauty and stillness is God’s gift to my soul. May you be similarly blessed with the simple necessity of breathing into the day: in and out…in and out…no distress…only breath…in and out…in and out.

Essential Questions

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It’s 7:11 in the morning – a lucky moment, (high spiritual numbers) if you’re interested in numerology. I just looked at the clock because it seems to be getting darker by the moment outside. After almost a week of glorious weather, punctuated with occasional freshening showers, we are bracing today for serious storms, which will surely darken the mood of most of us.

Things look bleak in the news as well. It could seem to New Yorkers that all our obedient behaviors have been for naught as we hear of soaring death counts in states where it seems that people define “liberty” as synonymous with “do whatever you find convenient” or “hang up your mask and have a party.” It’s true that the huge gatherings of protesters have awakened social consciousness in many but it seems also that the behavioral divide widens as the crisis soars again.

Ironic is the page in Meg Wheatley’s little book, Perseverance, published ten years ago, that states, “We have never been here before in terms of the global nature of our predicament.” As I move down the page, I find that each paragraph is descriptive of the level of upheaval that we are experiencing now. Different circumstances, different level of our own engagement, perhaps, but definitely in the same ballpark of experience. In the end, Wheatley asks three questions that I will leave you to ponder today.

If you reflect on your own life experience, what else have you endured? You’re still here—how did you stay here?

How have you come through rough times before?

What from your own personal history gives you now the capacity to get through this time?

If You Want To…

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The gospel for this day’s lectionary tells a familiar story (MT 8: 1-4). The situation also pops up rather frequently in the gospels, even if is presented in situations that we would call “similar but not matching.” The story today takes place fairly early in Matthew’s gospel and has Jesus coming down from a mountain, one of his favorite places to pray. It would seem, therefore, that he is feeling strong in God’s grace as crowds gather around him and a leper who is ready for him steps forward. Different from most, this person does not ask Jesus to heal him; rather he uses a declarative that indicates his belief – or maybe a challenge. “If you want to,” he says, “you can make me clean.” It is likely that Jesus appreciates this man’s ingenious approach—or else Jesus is just still swimming in the divine light that his sojourn on the mountain afforded him. Whatever the reason, his response to the leper is enthusiastic. “I will do it! Be made clean,” the gospel says, or in my favorite translation: “Of course I want to! Be clean!”)

I know that a different choice of word can impact a situation, as can intonation, cadence, body language…I see Jesus on his way down that mountain, ready for a crowd but maybe not for this one person who challenges rather than pleads. I see a fresh and sunny morning with a tender, refreshing breeze—like today at my home. I can feel the enthusiasm of whatever was the content of the conversation between God and Jesus up on that mountain, allowing Jesus to be about his mission.

It’s a great story of healing, reminding us that we might wish sometimes to be a little more up-front with God in our asking. Our confidence in the “ask” and our willingness to believe that God knows what is best for us at all times might make the outcome the perfect answer—even if it isn’t the one we were expecting!

Close Cousins

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As the Church celebrates the birth of St. John the Baptist, I start thinking about the relationship of John to his cousin, Jesus. I find it hard to talk much about it as there are few mentions in the Scriptures but this morning I decided to use what I have read about them together and go from there.

It doesn’t seem that they were close in childhood, unless Elizabeth and Mary wrote a lot of letters describing their “boys” to one another and sharing them with the kids. It’s so much easier for us in the age of technology. We can watch children grow up in pictures and videos and as soon as they can write, they can enjoy a relationship – if they have the tools. I wonder what the mothers of these two shared, if anything. And what, as they grew, were the stories about them in their neighborhoods?

John certainly knew his place in adulthood. “A voice crying in the desert” is how he described his role and he never seemed to mind that Jesus was “the chosen one” and he the “sidekick,” the associate, the one to do the bidding of God in Jesus. He went to prison because of Jesus. He was beheaded for loving him. It doesn’t seem that they had much time together but when they met it seemed like they knew each other immediately on a deep level. And I’m so glad to know that John had the privilege of baptizing Jesus. What an honor and a humbling event, for sure!

All that makes me think of a David Haas song that speaks of the relationship we might have with Jesus. It’s the words and the music of the refrain that cause a stirring in my heart. And when I think of John the Baptist I can imagine that if he never even met Jesus (although how wonderful for both of them that he did!) he would have sung this refrain.

Without seeing you, we love you. Without touching you, we embrace. Without knowing you, we follow. Without seeing you, we believe.