Here’s a comforting thought. When we think of the word “saint” we often expect to read about people who were almost, if not totally, perfectly holy. Today is the feast of St. Jerome, the great scholar and Doctor of the Church who translated most of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin but was known also for his bad temper! Think of that on the days when you feel as if you’ll never make it into the community of saints. Then smile and relax into God’s loving heart.
Psalm 96 greets me this morning, encouraging me to sing, a prodding that will not be difficult to follow as I wake both to memories of yesterday and events of the day to come.
The women I met and interacted with yesterday were so kind, so respectful that I found myself immediately comfortable in their presence and awed by their faith in the power of prayer and the love of Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose intercession with God was a consistent strength in their lives. We had five hours together sharing information and experiences, both serious and lighthearted, and one of the best by-products for me was introducing my own mother to them and feeling her spirit fit in such a wonderful community. And then there was the bonus of driving home along a highway where the trees were brilliantly colored, singing their own song of praise. What a surprise! We are so accustomed to the peak weekend of autumn’s glory being earlier now in October that finding this brilliance just a little north of here was an unexpected delight at this late date. I just had to sing in accompaniment!
Today there will be occasion for our spirits to sing again as we welcome our newest candidate to our religious community for a conversation about what is closest to our hearts. This evening I will join in a prayer service in the style of Taizé with chant and Scripture and shared silence, a fitting conclusion to this Sabbath. What could be better, I ask myself, as I return to the words that prompted this reflection on Psalm 96.
Singing is a form of honoring someone. It is also a form of awakening. In this case both humanity at large and creation as a whole are being brought to wakefulness…Beauty attracts us and God is the ultimate Beauty of the universe. We are invited into that beauty, attracted close and closer, being touched and changed by it. What is there of beauty, reflecting the divine glory, that attracts you? (Ancient Songs Sung Anew, p. 244)
My “homecoming” this past Sunday was truly refreshing. Being able to sleep for a continuous 12 hours (!) and then walk outside around our land in the morning breathing the good country air and catching up with my housemates on the events I missed while I was away felt very, very good. It only lasted for 48 hours, however, as on Tuesday afternoon I was back in the car on my way to Albany to help with a CSJ Community retreat. Today is Thursday and although working and praying with the Sisters is a special privilege I am happy to be heading home again late this afternoon. This time I plan to stay awhile.
I was reflecting on all my travels during July as I read the message about the potter and the clay from the prophet Jeremiah this morning (JER 18: 1-6). Verse 6 has God saying through Jeremiah: Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand. I feel a bit like that clay today, having been shaped by all the various places I have been, the different but related experiences I have had, the conversations that have moved me, the energy that has been shared…I have come to see that every day can add to the shaping of my being if I am awake to the possibility of God’s work in me. It will take awhile to let this extraordinary month settle in its entirety, but what I know now is that nothing happens by chance and everything has its purpose. The most prominent sense that remains with me is gratitude which I intend to carry into the daily routine that will restore a sense of place and familiarity of experience in the days ahead.
May we all be – each and every day – like clay in the hand of the Divine Potter, willing to enter into all the shaping experiences with a recognition of God’s great love and a curiosity about the final shape of us that will emerge in the end.
When I was young I always thought that if I had a son I would name him David. For no logical reason, David was my favorite name. It sounded both strong and gentle to me; I just liked it – not Dave really, but David. And this was before I ever encountered the famous David of the Scriptures.
All the readings for this morning speak of or at least advert to David in some way. The Acts of the Apostles and Psalm 89 name him, while Jesus just speaks of “my chosen.” That got me thinking of what a complex character David was and how wonderful for the rest of us that he was not perfect – at least for those of us who tend to compare ourselves to others (a very bad habit indeed!).
I think of David in the fields tending sheep and wonder if he was sorry to be called away from that duty. Being alone out in nature with the animals – recalcitrant though they might be at times – in the quiet that allows reflection must have had its appeal for him. I can only imagine the shock of hearing when he was summoned into the prophet’s presence that he was to be King of Israel. No one could have predicted that, it seems, but God.
If one believes that David is the author of all or even a majority of the scriptural Book of Psalms, it’s easy to intuit the ups and downs, the sins and repentance in his life. Noted for expressing every emotion known to humans, they are the perfect witness to his misuse of power, adulterous behavior, deep friendship with and loss of Jonathan and – most of all – his recognition and humble acceptance of God’s deep, all-encompassing love for him. I like to think about David because although he seems in every way larger than life (no event in his life was a small thing) he is also, essentially, like the rest of us: sometimes faith-filled, devoted and well-motivated and sometimes less so. He made big mistakes, was even punished for them, but never gave up on his relationship with God nor did God give up on him. So I sing with the psalmist this morning in gratitude for the example of great love even in imperfection and with confidence that God sees us no differently than this beloved servant.
Your love, O Lord, I will forever sing, your faithful friendship shall be the subject of my song. For I have come to know your love as fountainhead, its ceaseless source not here, but in your high abode. And you yourself have made this oath of faithfulness to us and all of David’s line, a covenant proclaimed to all you chose, a promise made to us that never ends. (Ps. 89:1-4)
Today is the feast of St. Joseph, celebrated by Roman Catholics as the Patron of the Universal Church. For me, and for members of religious orders around the world, this day is one of great rejoicing and devotion. Soon we will be on the road, traveling to our province center for a ceremony honoring those who mark anniversaries of 50, 60, 70, 75 and this year even 80 years in religious life. Taken together these 29 women have given 1,735 years of dedication to God in our religious congregation. In a time of demographic diminishment, we come together to proclaim God’s faithfulness and love that never wanes, a faithful love that is embodied in these women – very diverse though they may be but unified in purpose and perseverance. It is a hopeful day for all of us, a day of joy and a day for all of us to renew our commitment to what we are known to call “the Congregation of the great love of God.”
As always, we are reminded today of Joseph, “the Just Man,” the one who was called to be protector of Mary and Jesus and whom we claim as patron of our community. The americancatholic.org website comments today: “By saying Joseph was ‘just’ the Bible means that he was one who was completely open to all that God wanted to do for him. He became holy by opening himself totally to God.” Whether able to be present in body and spirit on this feast, each of our Sisters is joined today in the desire to imitate Joseph in that openness and we give thanks for the privilege of sharing life under the tutelage of this holy, humble man.
When I was young, if anyone ever defined the word sacrifice as to make holy I missed that lesson. It always denoted something I was supposed to give up, something difficult. In religion class I learned that it did involve God and adding that component made me more willing to do it but it was still hard. And then, I guess, I came to know that if I did all those hard things, I would get to be holy but I didn’t understand that it wasn’t the thing I gave up but the willingness to do the giving that would transform me.
This morning we have the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac as a sign of his fidelity to God. (Genesis 22). There are many things in the Hebrew Scriptures that were part of that era and culture that do not, thankfully, exist in ours. Human sacrifice is one of those. In the end it was Abraham’s willingness that God wanted; that’s what effected his holiness. The covenant (that contract of loving fidelity) that God had made with him was so sacred to Abraham that everything in his life flowed from it. We could wonder at God’s purpose in the story today – or of how Abraham could possibly have been ready to kill his beloved son…I would never presume to explain either except to say that the God I know today would not ask such a thing or that perhaps the story was a metaphor for the lesson of willingness. My point in even considering it is to reflect on my willingness to put myself at God’s service, confident that God’s love is strong enough to see me through the most difficult events, and that holiness is the wholeness that will be the result.
Today’s “Alleluia” verse, which also appears in evening prayer as the antiphon to the Magnificat (Mary’s Song) says O Root of Jesse’s Stem, sign of God’s love for all his people, come to save us without delay!
This is a reference to the verses in the prophet Isaiah which promise (IS 11: 1,10) that the Messiah Israel waited for would be a descendent of Jesse, father of the great King David. This was the lineage of Jesus. When a tree dies and is cut back, there sometimes remains a root that eventually puts out a tender branch. Although it seemed that the ancestral line of King David had disappeared, the prophecy was seen to be fulfilled in a very unexpected way.
For me, this lesson is often manifested in plants which seemingly have fulfilled their lifespan but in the spring put forth a new shoot, an unexpected miracle that reminds me of the creative power of life and the love of God.
When I’m sitting in a plane that has just accelerated for take-off it is my practice to breathe a short prayer and then as a sort of “good luck charm” I add a line from my early convent days. One of the elderly Sisters would always add it as we prayed at the start of a trip in the car. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, although born in Italy, was recognized as the first saint of the United States (not to be confused with Elizabeth Seton, the first American-born saint). At the end of our departure prayer, Sister Jean would pipe up with “Mother Cabrini, take care of us in the machinie.” I have a difficult time now not saying that at the beginning of each flight. It isn’t that I think that will keep the plane from crashing but rather reminds me of Jean and a custom of “real” prayer for safety that is part of my heritage. I would always say I am not afraid to fly. Quite the opposite! I love it! But I would have to admit of a bit of fluttering in my stomach the time we jettisoned most of the remaining fuel because the landing gear was being temperamental (the landing was fine) or on days of high winds when I see the land coming up to meet us on our approach. My faith in God is not shaken at times like these; it’s more my faith in the skill of the pilots and the weather that are at stake.
In today’s gospel (MT 8:23-27) the disciples are in the midst of a violent storm at sea and Jesus appears to be sleeping in the boat in spite of it being “swamped by waves.” They cry out to him to save them and when he responds he appears displeased that they lacked faith in him in a dangerous situation. The end of the section gives the clue that their experience of him is still rather new as they say in amazement (after he has calmed the storm): “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?” I always think of this as rather ironic since they woke him asking him to save them and then are amazed when he does. In some senses I think we are better off since, although we do not have the physical presence of Jesus, the man, with us now in our lives, we do have the consciousness of the power of Christ to keep us safe – in whatever happens. We may even die as a result of a catastrophic event, but we can remain safe nevertheless, because our final goal is the direct presence of God. Thus, having faith transcends what happens to us physically and allows us to rest always in the knowledge that we are never outside of God’s concern and love.
The theme in each of today’s readings, as I see it, is about the familiar Lenten call to “return to the Lord” and counsels humility and honesty as the attitude necessary to accomplish reconciliation. The words of the psalm refrain encourage us that God’s stance regarding our return is: “It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice.” Why would we hesitate to approach this God? As a matter of fact, the prophet Hosea reminds us that it is God who comes to us, longing for us, more than we can imagine. “Let us know, Hosea says, let us strive to know the Lord; as certain as the dawn is his coming, and his judgment shines forth like the light of day! He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth.” Having the confidence that God is always on our side can allow us to approach God, having made an honest assessment of our lives and with a humility that is willing and unafraid to speak the truth to the God of love and understanding. That is the message of the gospel this morning – the familiar story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We have probably all encountered people like the Pharisee who spends time thanking God that he is “not like the rest of humanity.” That arrogance is always off-putting. We hear only one simple sentence from the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” That’s all that is necessary.
A footnote: Many of us grew up interiorizing the notion that we needed to be perfect in order to garner God’s approval, God’s love. One of the best analogies I have found about this is the definition of sin as “missing the mark.” It speaks of the necessity of practice before one is able to hit the bull’s eye; no one expects that this will be the outcome of a first attempt – or of many attempts. It’s the same with us in our living. No matter our intention to “get it right the first time” we most often fail along the way. We need to remember that God is cheering us on from the sidelines and waiting for us to be content with our missteps as long as we keep trying. And God’s mercy, that fierce love that God holds for us, washes over us like rain as soon as we are willing to stand before this God in humility and truth.