Matters of the Heart

ASH WEDNESDAY, February 14th, 2018
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6

I awoke one morning on February 14 from a dream. In the dream Jim was going to give me a pearl necklace for Valentine Day. I told Jim about the dream and asked, “What do you think this means?”  Jim replied, “You will know tonight.” Then he left the house. That night he gave me a small package. With great anticipation I unwrapped it, to find a book … entitled … The Meaning of Dreams. *

Roses are red, ashes are grey.
I’m giving up chocolate.
It’s better that way. *

Yes, Lent begins this year on Valentine Day. What a wonderfully absurd combination, don’t you think? We launch a season of renunciation and prayer on a day which celebrates passion, romantic love and sensual pleasure. Ironic, cause for ridicule and laughter? As in, look at those silly Christians – ashes instead of chocolate (or pearl necklaces!)!

Maybe, and maybe not … Is there really a collision of opposites on this day? What in fact is renunciation and losing ourselves about if not … love? What is self-denial, sacrifice and death really about if not … love? Not the fuzzy type of romantic love but the harsh, stubborn, persistent love that life presses from us in daily trials and challenges?

Love in action is a harsh and fearful thing compared to love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take too long and doesn’t hurt too much.

But love in action, sacrificial love … is indeed a different ball game. Every time I gave birth to one of our children, I was overwhelmed with love, even the romantic type of being a mom. And that’s good, that’s important. But after the first five minutes of fuzzy lovin’ feelings, it became clear that loving children pushes us into sacrificial loving. My own needs – for sleep, for leisure time, for reading, for thinking – were shoved to the sidelines while the new little one made demands 24/7. Flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, we often love our kids more than we love ourselves in ways we did not know possible.

Likewise, the first romantic feelings with our spouse are fundamental to sealing our relationship. However, when life rocks our romantic boat, a deeper loving is pressed from our marital commitment, a loving that requires sacrifice and self-denial, a loving that demands more than a pearl necklace or chocolates on Valentine Day.

All forms of love—friendship, romance, humanitarianism, the love that binds spouses, parents and children—have the capacity to draw us out of ourselves. True love frees us from the tight orbit of self-centredness. True love in its deepest sense grows our hearts ever larger, as a place where there is no longer me and you, and us and them, but only we.

But … such love is neither easy nor painless. Jesus did not lay down his life because suffering is a good thing, or because death and self-destruction are ends in themselves. No, he suffered these as consequences of his life of radical love, a love that baffles, threatens, and offends. The death of Jesus was not an isolated event. It was the culmination of an entire life of making room, welcoming the stranger, crossing boundaries, extending compassion and solidarity, and loving wholeheartedly, foolishly, dangerously.

We here in Saskatchewan, in Canada, have just been offered another painful opportunity to love in a sacrificial, Jesus-like manner, to reach beyond our own self-interest and gain to go beyond our own preconceived notions of those different from us. Regardless of our reaction to last week’s verdict in the murder trial of Colten Boushie, both the Stanley and the Boushie families deserve our compassion, our understanding and our love.

The racial divide in our province (in our country) has once again opened its gaping wound, a wound that still oozes the pain and injustice of colonization. And if we object by saying, “I didn’t do it, it doesn’t affect me,” we are fooling ourselves. There is such a thing as communal, collective behaviour. We who are baptized members of the church, of all people, should know this well and live this reality without hesitation. In the church we call this the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints. Back in the Holy Land, from which I just returned, this notion of communal memory is very alive across past-present-future in ways that we in our individualistic society have largely lost. It is urgent that we recover this communal living and acting for the sake of the future of our children’s children in this beautiful land, Turtle Island. Above all, loving as one Body which includes all nations, all peoples, and all hurting sisters and brothers, is the fullest way to give glory to our God.

Heed the words of the prophet Isaiah today. He cautions us not to serve our own interests this Lenten season:

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high!
… Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Jesus calls us into the wilderness of Lent with him, the wilderness of our own imperfect humanity, the wilderness of racial tensions,the wilderness of alienation and betrayal that can damage even our most intimate relationships. Jesus calls us into places where we would rather not go. Love can hurt – often. A lot even. There are few things as risky as walking into new relational spaces of encounter and compassion. Loving comes with risks and at great cost, sometimes even opening ourselves up to misunderstanding or rejection or loss.

This kind of vulnerability can scare us to the core. But following Jesus leaves us little choice because deep down sacrificial love is the most real thing there is. It is love that transforms, heals, cleanses, restores, renews, reconciles, forgives, and binds together. Love gives meaning to that which otherwise seems meaningless. Love drags us beyond our little egos and narrow visions into becoming better versions of ourselves.

So maybe … maybe it’s not so strange and absurd that Lent begins on Valentine Day. In fact, it’s a refreshing reminder that the core of these forty days is not a gloomy spirit mired in rigid self-denial as an end in itself. But rather, the self-examination and sacrifice of the season is to be motivated by love, the divine love that drove Jesus’ entire life and mission; the universal Love of God that forms the rich soil from which our particular love sprouts and grows. Only God’s love has the capacity to transform our shriveled and hurting hearts, our broken and crying hearts, and gently bring healing and reconciliation and justice.

So here we are, setting off on this forty day journey through the wilderness of our lives. We set off individually, communally, and as a nation. We mark the start of this journey with the sign of ashes. But, maybe a really good box of chocolates is not out of place. Given the challenges of loving well, I have a hunch that we’re going to need the consolation and strength that can come from enjoying chocolate.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
AMEN

*  With special thanks to Saint Valentine’s Day by Gerry Turcotte, page 178, Living with Christ February 2018 (Novalis), and Laura Alary’s blog Chocolate and Ashes.

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Leave your Homeland

While the Catholic lectionary featured the Transfiguration Gospel today, other denominations heard this morning the account of Abraham’s call from Genesis and the intriguing conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. The Nicodemus account belongs with the other great Gospel stories for Lent such as the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. Here is my sermon text on the two readings of today:

GENESIS 12:1-4, JOHN 3:1—17
Today’s reading from Genesis tells the story of the call of Abraham to go from his country, his kin, and the house of his father to the land that God would show him. I admit I have a special affinity with this text. This was the first Scripture reading at my wedding, a wedding that took place in the Netherlands. Marrying a Canadian farmer meant that I was leaving my country, my kin, my language, and went to the land that God showed me – the Canadian prairies! (Jim of course left the comfort of a bachelor’s life!). I was probably just as foolish as Abraham was to believe that God called me to this land. 

I’ve often wondered what Sarah thought of it all – after all, she too left behind all that was familiar to her in order to follow a husband who claimed to hear God calling him. I was too young and foolish to know the uncertainties and challenges awaiting me in a prairie farming life that was totally new. My parents did all the worrying for me at that time, probably sharing Sarah’s rolling eyes about her wandering Abraham when I followed my prairie farmer to the other side of “the pond.”

Of course there are many today who are forced to leave behind their country, their kin, and all that is familiar; not because God calls them, but because violence and war are forcing them – that is quite a different reason to pull up stakes. There is a huge difference in freely choosing to change a significant course in life and being forced to do so because of circumstances beyond our control.

Abraham’s call was unique, but there are elements in that story that apply to each of our own lives, even if we have never physically changed countries. And as I was pondering Abraham’s call alongside the story of Nicodemus in today’s Gospel, I began to see a few connections between the two. I will come back to that.

Now Nicodemus is a secret admirer of Jesus. He can’t help but be affected by Jesus’ teaching and healing. But he’s worried about showing that too publicly, so he comes to talk to Jesus at night. And then this unusual conversation happens about being “born again,” being “born of the spirit.” When Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must all be born anew, Nicodemus is confused, and he takes Jesus’ words literally – how can we get back into our mother’s womb? And so Jesus then contrasts life in the flesh with life in the SpiritBut what really is that difference?

Our Evangelical sisters and brothers have made this Scripture text the foundation for their understanding of discipleship. In Evangelical circles you only become a Christian when you have been “born again.” For them this refers to a precise moment in our life when we consciously and wholeheartedly accepted Jesus in our heart as Lord and Saviour.

But is that the only way to understand Jesus’ words to Nicodemus? When I hear the words “life in the flesh” I think of all the ways we allow ourselves to be consumed by the anxieties, challenges and uncertainties of this world. And there is plenty to be anxious about in our world: if we allow those anxieties to rule the day, we could easily find ourselves on the brink of total despair, given the suffering and crises and atrocities that take place every day, whether big and on a world-scale, or small in our own backyards.

So what if a “life in the spirit” might refer to a deeper way of “seeing” and “hearing” and “living” much in the way God/Jesus sees and hears and lives? What if life in the spirit is another term for the ability to find deeper meaning, purpose and mission in events and relationships, experiences and encounters? The ability to see God’s hand in all that happens, not in a doomsday way, but in a redeeming and meaningful way? Remember the last verse in today’s Gospel: God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

But seeing the world, ourselves, events through God’s eyes and ears and heart – as Jesus did – is not our default position. It requires giving up familiar patterns and ways and habits; it means giving up well-traveled road maps … to be free to go to the proverbial new Spirit-filled land that God will show us without knowing how and where and when. After all, the Spirit blows where it wills … said Jesus … 

And here’s a connection with Abraham. I really wonder if we as a universal church family are challenged to pull up stakes from all that has been near and dear to our Christian hearts, in order to go into the new places God will show us. In many ways there are major break-down underway in both the church and the world. Old and familiar structures are crumbling, institutions are distrusted, authority of all kinds is betrayed and questioned. The various ways we’ve organized life-reality no longer hold, no longer express meaning and value.

We are challenged to chart a new course, to risk a new journey, like Abraham, without knowing where and how. While it’s easy to see the break-down in these developments, it’s much harder to see that at the same time there is a breakthrough that is occurring. To notice the breakthrough requires seeing ‘in the spirit.’ Breaking through the crumbling chaos is emerging a deeper universal yearning for equality and communion, for collaboration and unity, for wholeness and mutuality, for intuitive knowing and love. 

There is no doubt that this shift is painful, but it can also be good news! It can hide promises of a hopeful future for our Church and our world, provided we as a family of faith can lean into the winds of change, much like Abraham and Sarah were asked to do.

As a natural part of evolutionary change, the massive changes sweeping through all levels of collective living and knowing right now in no way negates or undervalues what went before. Nor is there reason to fear the massive movements of change swirling around us. Everything is in flux, but we need not fear. We only need to recognize the movement, step into the flow, and be carried by it. Indeed, all creation is groaning in one great act of giving birth. The Spirit of God still hovers over the chaos and blows where it wills. 

And we as a human species are challenged to show our resilience, just like prairie grass that can go a long time without water. The roots of prairie grass are extraordinarily deep. Prairie grass actually enriches the land. It produced the fertile soil of the Great Plains. Its deep roots aerate the soil and decompose into rich, productive earth. And so this Lent we can ask ourselves: how deep are my roots sunk into Jesus?

Ironically, a healthy prairie needs a regular burning. It needs the heat of the fire and the clearing away of the grass itself to bring the nutrients from the deep roots to the surface, supporting new growth. There are trees whose seeds cannot germinate without a forest fire. The intense heat cracks open the seed to allow it to grow. Perhaps with us, too, there are deep parts of ourselves activated only when more shallow layers are stripped away by the fires of diminishment and failure. We are pruned and purified in the dark and painful nights of life, when we find ourselves crawling to Jesus in prayer. Much like the burning of the prairie draws energy from the roots upward and outward, prayer can draw up from within us deeper trust, inner freedom and fruitful action. Prayer can be the seedbed of a new future. Through it, God shapes and strengthens us for what is needed now.

So when we consider the current decline through eyes that see “in the spirit” rather than “in the flesh” maybe our churches are experiencing a prairie grass fire, in order to burn away the excess baggage of history and the counter-witness of our divisions, both of which have obscured the life-giving and liberating Gospel message of Jesus. To look upon our current reality with the imagination of a poet, an artist or a mystic illustrates what Jesus means with the need to be born of the spirit.

When we can “see” in the notion of a prairie grass fire a metaphor for the current social, religious and cultural break-downs and then recognize the breakthrough that could well be happening at the same time, then we are living and seeing “in the spirit.” Living “in the spirit” helps us when someone claims, I do not believe in God,” and we can calmly reply, That’s okay, God still believes in you.”

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

This declaration – that the Spirit blows where it will – can give us tremendous trust and freedom when we feel at a loss about how to respond to the challenges and opportunities of our age. Abraham and Sarah experienced the Spirit leading them without knowing where and how and when. In this Lenten season we need to be here for one another to trust that God’s spirit is still hovering over chaos and will lead us to the land that is prepared for us. AMEN

Prairie Encounters

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The Love Potion of the Cross

Many years ago, I worked as editor for a Canadian Catholic family magazine published by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The office was located on one of the Oblates’ lovely farm properties. Most mornings, before entering the building where my office was located, I would take my walk with God through the wooded area on this beautiful slice of creation, stopping at the Marian shrine at the end of a long lane. Some of the rocks at this grotto were formed in the shape of a big cross. I would touch these rocks and pray, offering to Jesus whatever was in my heart at the time.

Every time that cross confronted me. It invited me into love, and in that invitation revealed my own inadequacy to live in this love. Some days this cross seemed to mock me, because of my unwillingness to love generously. Other days I was drawn into a depth of mystery too big for words. Every time I learnt a bit more about that liberating and healing power released when pain, suffering and death are infused with radical and uncompromising love. I would try to take that lesson with me into the day, in particular when encountering pain, conflict and death.

Back in 2002, when the World Youth Day Cross was making its way through Canada in preparation for the great event in Toronto the following year, my own little ritual at the grotto increased in meaning and power. The testimonies of those who received the Cross in their communities revealed profound lessons and experiences in love and reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. On Manitoulin Island, Ontario, the Cross was taken to the native reserve’s cemetery, to the home of a young man murdered a month before and then to all places on the reserve where tragic accidents had occurred. How I wish that the same cross could have been taken through the schools and community of LaLoche recently. The Cross stopped at the site of a former residential school, and “all prayed for forgiveness and healing for former students and staff.” In Whitehorse, Yukon, the Cross was carried to a local food bank, “where it stood inviting all to come and pray, and was a sign of Christ’s love for the poor in our community.” From Amos, Quebec, came the account that the visit of the Cross was “as if Jesus came to visit us in our little village.”The people from Chibougamau exclaimed, “For once, we have not been forgotten!”

Many who encountered the World Youth Day Cross that year reported feeling invited by Jesus to reflect on its meaning and on their own call to Christian love in places of poverty, pain, and suffering. That, in essence, is what the cross is meant to do. There is a big difference between reverence for reasons of idolatry and reverence for reasons of healing, service and love. The first kind regards venerating the cross as an end in itself, with the risk of bordering on superstition; the second kind of reverence lets the meaning of the cross penetrate us in order to change us. The perennial temptation can take us on the path of the former without necessarily touching on the challenge of the latter. Venerating the cross without making connections to our own local realities of suffering, and without committing ourselves to be Christ’s healing love in those realities, necessitates an examination of motives.

One day, a woman poured her heart out to me. Pain, suppressed from a lifetime of abuse, came gushing out so forcefully that she feared for her sanity. I witnessed that pain piercing her body like the nails pierced Christ on the cross. There before me was a contemporary crucifixion complete with the challenge of Jesus to infuse God’s love into this woman through my words and looks, gestures and touch, and ardent prayers. Offering God’s soothing presence in the swirling wind of this emotional hurricane was almost more than I could bear. Yet I knew it was the only power that could redeem her into new life.

Even casualties from war, destruction and terrorism cannot heal through violent retaliations. Even the most evil acts need the power of a forgiving love that will not flinch. An Episcopalian/Anglican writer, Gale D. Webb, caught this aspect of forgiveness when he wrote in his book The Night and Nothing: The only way to conquer evil is to let it be smothered within a willing, living, human being. When it is absorbed there, like blood in a sponge or a spear thrown into one’s heart, it loses its power and goes no further.

M. Scott Peck, a Christian psychiatrist, echoes a similar sentiment in his conclusion to People of the Lie. For the healing of evil, … A willing sacrifice is required…He or she must sacrificially absorb the evil…There is a mysterious alchemy whereby the victim becomes the victor…I do not know how this occurs. But I know that it does…Whenever this happens there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world.

And so in this Lenten season I gaze upon the cross with renewed intensity and yearning. At we are nearing the mid-point of our slow and hopefully prayerful trek towards Holy Week, once again, in my imagination, I touch the rocks at the grotto from those morning walks many years ago and, for a moment, I feel once again the power of love in my bones, a love exploding the destruction of all pain,  suffering and death.

Prairie Encounters

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Fasting and Feasting again

I love being Catholic. And for the most part I have not given up being Catholic in this time of preparing for my formal reception into the Anglican Church at Easter. In fact, I am surprised to learn how Catholic the Anglican expression of Christian discipleship can be. While there are certainly differences in emphasis and perspective, in governance and authority (otherwise we would not still be divided), the bonds of affection between Rome and Canterbury are indeed strong and deep (and they are growing stronger by the day — see today’s story in  The Tablet), especially in times of challenge and tension in either tradition. Just ask Jean Vanier.

Jean Vanier, a life-long Catholic and founder of the international movement of l’Arche communities, was a special guest at the Anglican Primates’ meeting in Canterbury last month. “The big thing is to trust oneself,” Vanier said when addressing those who were praying for the Primates’ meeting. “It’s about listening to the inner voice. Listening to something that’s inside each one of us, which is a compass to make us more human, and more in tune with things of God.”

“The Vatican Council says the dignity of the human being is the personal conscience, which is that secret sanctuary where God speaks with each of us, indicating what is just and true and helping us move away from the opposite.”

“We are in a world where people are not encouraged to listen to the inner voice – what do you think, what do you believe? – we are in a world where people are not encouraged to believe in themselves.” He added: “You are more precious than you dare believe.”

Reflecting on his decades-long experience of living in community with people with disabilities and without, Vanier said communities are “nourishing” because they involve living with people who are very different from ourselves. He said it is good to be surrounded by those who clash with us, because it helps us find “the place of nourishment” and “to discover little by little who am I.” (Vanier, Jan. 15, 2016)

Lent begins today. The traditional summons in these 40 days ahead calls us to step back and examine our lives, to reconnect with our inner voice in that secret sanctuary where God speaks intimately with us. Can we step back from all that dehumanizes us and others in order to step towards all that humanizes and brings wholeness to our world?

Trust Pope Francis to set us in the right spirit. If we’re going to fast from anything this Lent, Pope Francis suggests that even more than candy or alcohol, we fast from indifference towards others: “Indifference to our neighbour and to God represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.”

Describing this phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Pope Francis says that “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” He continues that, “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” (Ten Inspirational Lenten Lessons from Pope Francis, or Pope Francis’ Ten Tips for Lent)

lent-prayer-fasting-giving

As last year I would like to pair my fasting practices with feasting ones. Each year Lent invites us to discover that any depriving becomes richer when paired with a certain type of feasting. The first time I came across this coupling was when I read this Lenten Litany of Fasting and Feasting by William Arthur Ward. So below is this year’s version of my resolve in fasting and feasting. Once again I share it here as a way to encourage myself to truly live this fasting and feasting in the next 40 days leading up to Easter:

Fasting from worldly ambition,
while feasting on God’s faithfulness;
Fasting from indifference and callousness,
while feasting on trust and the blessing of diversity;
Fasting from shallow pleasures,
while feasting on spiritual riches;
Fasting from mundane distractions,
while feasting on meaning, depth and purpose;
Fasting from resentment and irritation,
while feasting on love and mercy;
Fasting from fear and distrust,
while feasting on generosity and hospitality;
Fasting from closed-mindedness,
while feasting on surrender and ongoing conversion;
Fasting from hardness of heart,
while feasting on generosity and joy;
Fasting from rigidity and rash judgment,
while feasting on affection and solidarity;
In my fasting and feasting, may God be praised …

How do you live the three Lenten invitations of fasting, praying and giving? Or if you do not observe Lent, how do you build into your lives seasons or disciplines of stepping back in order to re-align, re-calibrate and re-orient?

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Looking Within

An examination of conscience is a way of holding ourselves accountable before God and each other for the many ways we miss the mark of excellence in life, being honest about the evil we participate in and the good we fail to do. In such an examination we take time to scan our motives, thoughts, and actions to detect our loyalty to or betrayal of the priorities of the reign of God. Twelve-Step programs do this in Step 4 — making a searching and fearless inventory of one’s life. It’s a healthy and necessary discipline for anyone who desires to develop their fullest human potential, to grow ever more fully into the person s/he is created to become, whether the motivation is religious or not.

The delicate and difficult part in this process involves what we hold as our guide for accountability. For centuries the blueprint for good conduct was the list of Ten Commandments, until Jesus proposed a very different set of guidelines with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1- 13). In this season of Lenten observance, with its annual focus on penitence and confession, it continues to amaze me that the Beatitudes, or any of Jesus’ instructions for that matter, are not resorted to in most churches as the standard by which to examine our conscience.

As early as A.D. 150 in a document written by the Shepherd of Hermas, the Beatitudes were accepted as the positive norm of morality for Christians, stressing the ideals of their founder and avoiding the “do nots” of the Decalogue.

What follows is an examination of conscience and consciousness based on the Beatitudes, something I shared with parishioners when I worked in pastoral ministry. If we truly believe that the teachings of Jesus have practical applicability in the world in which we live and breathe, we will find enough power in our fidelity to these counsels to renew the face of the earth.

1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Do I fear being poor, in spirit or otherwise, and prefer to be rich in money, brains, or influence?
Is my desire for poverty of spirit congruent with my lifestyle?
How does the Word of God guide and ground my lifestyle; am I willing to heed God’s Word when it criticizes my lifestyle choices?
Do I cling to my own ideas, opinions and judgments, sometimes to the point of idolatry?
Do I contribute my time, talent and money to the poor of the world?
Do I make it my business to examine the causes of poverty in our world and work to eradicate unjust systems?

2. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Do I grieve over loneliness, despair, guilt and rejection in the lives of others?
Am I willing to admit my own despondencies and need for comfort?
How do I actively extend consolation and healing, or do I blandly encourage people to “have courage,” while avoiding getting too involved?
What am I doing to dry the tears of those who suffer war and poverty, hunger and injustice, illness and loss?

3. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Do I see any value in meekness or nonviolence?
Do I cringe at the thought of being called meek?
How do I use nonviolence as a way to fight evil with good; do I choose to live that way?
How much are intimidation and force affect my own relationships and dealings with people?
Do I work for nonviolent social change?
How do I foster a non-violent and cooperative spirit in my children?

4. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
How do I respond to important current events that are manifestations of injustice?
Are my energies and passions focused on Christ, or are they scattered, disordered, divided?
How do I honestly try to improve the quality of life around me?
How do I try to improve the environment, racial relations, care for the unborn, sexual equality, the lives of the poor and destitute?
What is my commitment to eradicate injustice within my family, my school or workplace, my church, my community, my world?
When does fear keep me silent when I should speak out against prejudice, injustice and violence?

5. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
Do I operate on a double standard of expecting mercy without extending it myself?
Do I prefer the strict law and order approach, or that of mercy, tenderness and compassion?
Are there places and people/relationships who/which are suffering because of me and my unforgiving attitude?
Am I devoid of a merciful spirit toward those I call “enemy”?
What is my attitude toward capital punishment, ex-convicts, sex offenders?

6. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Am I trusting and trustworthy?
Do I value living without pretense and suspicion, or am I constantly fearful that someone will take advantage of me?
Am I open and honest about who I am and what I do?
Do I deflect attention and honour due to God and claim these things for myself?
Have I been untrue to myself, even a little, for advancement, money or good opinion?
Have I failed to take time for prayer, solitude, reflection?

7. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”
Am I eager for reconciliation, or do I antagonize and yearn for revenge?
Do I think apologizing is a sign of weakness?
How do I build bridges of reconciliation in family and community arguments?
Do I enjoy watching violence in films, television and sports?
Have I studied peace and taken initiatives to stop violence and war?
Have I read, and do I support, the many official church statements against the arms race, nuclear weapons, war?
Do I see the Christian vocation as one of peacemaker?
Is my presence a source of peace to those around me?

8. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
Do I criticize or ridicule those who suffer for their beliefs?
Am I embarrassed to step out of the mainstream to stand up for a principle?
Who are my heroes? Are there any among them who gave their lives without vengeance for what is true? Would I do the same?
Do I worship security and fear costly discipleship?
Have I called myself Christian without making my life a witness to the teachings of Jesus?
Have I openly supported those who defend justice and give their lives for peace?

9. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
Do I live confident of the promises of Jesus? Or do I surrender to pessimism and anxiety?
Do I perceive the paradoxical victory in the cross of Jesus that breaks through power structures and conquers in peace and love?
Have I become cynical rather than hopeful?

What else do I need to bring before God in search of divine mercy?

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To die for?

Recently I lead a retreat on the question “What is Truth?” Echoing Pilate’s perennial question to an accused Jesus, we began by exploring the layers of truth in the award-winning, and made into a movie, novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

life-of-pi-poster2Religious belief is one of the most fascinating themes in Life of Pi. Throughout the novel, Pi’s beliefs mature. His introduction to religion comes through befriending his mentors who are a Catholic priest, a Jewish Rabbi and a Muslim Imam. He willingly joins each religion through their various initiation rituals and catechetical instructions. Pi is equally comfortable praying in a church, a mosque or a synagogue. One of the most amusing scenes in the story is the chance encounter on the street between Pi and his three mentors, each “claiming” Pi as their own. However, only when he is on his forced journey at sea, does Pi realize that he truly believes in God. His faith is tested in a way that it was not tested earlier in his life.

Earlier in the novel, Pi notes that religion puts many people off today because they believe it constrains their freedom. He criticizes such people for not realizing that ‘freedom’ outside of safety and comfort, status and order can be incredibly frightening. Pi learns that the stakes at sea are much higher, when there is less order and no comforts of any kind; every day he faces life or death situations. It is his religious faith that gets him through, which is an implicit rebuke to those who believe faith limits freedom.

It is often said that faith grows our best and most enduring qualities in times of trial and hardship. Pi seems to experience exactly that on the open seas; many will resonate with this insight. Faith can deepen in times of suffering. It doesn’t justify the suffering, however — never. And the potential to grow through suffering is only that — a potential. God honours our human freedom like none other. We have to choose the growing. There is good reason why Jesus asked regularly, ‘do you want to be well?’ I am reminded of an especially painful experience when a close friend gently said: “I’m not denying your pain — it is real, it is justified and deserves to be honoured. Take all the time you need to grieve. Just remember that God is eagerly waiting to teach you many things through this hardship.” And so, when I was ready to slow down my weeping and wailing, I asked God to teach me — I willed it. And God did, in ways that far surpassed my expectations and hopes.

Pi’s insights into freedom and his faith development really got me thinking about today’s so-called “secular” culture and Christian faith, including my own. His discovery of false and true freedom helped me understand why our western culture seems so much less inclined to embrace a religious faith, whether traditional or even contemporary. So many of us live comfortable lives cushioned  by material goods and job security (although that’s eroding more and more), by a long-established social order and a taken-for-granted freedom of expression. Who needs religion?

While not necessarily so, such a question could arise from an adolescent-type arrogance. Our so-called post-modern culture not only questions the need for traditional religion, but looks bolstered by a sense of freedom that seems more centered on self than on others and the common good. Interestingly, Pope Francis’ instructions for this year’s Lenten season echo a similar concern: ““Usually when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others; we are unconcerned with their problems, their suffering, and the injustices they endure. Our heart grows cold.” Before we dismiss the need and value of religion, humility and caution would be well-advised lest we risk falling into an outright denial of our origin and daily sustenance of life: if God would ever stop loving us we would cease to exist.

My own parents embraced this idea that religion was obsolete, but for slightly different reasons. Having grown up themselves in a rather restrictive form of Catholicism as well as in poverty and hardship, they wanted nothing more than to “free” themselves from both these yokes — understandably so. As a result, both of them opted for a non-religious funeral. When I began to immerse myself more deeply into a traditional Catholicism, all they could see was a going “backwards” (their word, not mine) into a thing of the past. Sad, really, as their example of love, service and sacrifice laid strong spiritual foundations for me, but they could not see that.

Have our spiritual needs really changed that much from our ancestors? Is our freedom to “do what we want when we want and with whom we want” an authentic freedom? Or are we suffering a massive dose of collective delusion, lulled asleep by affluence, blissfully sinking into amnesia about the fact that our deepest needs and hungers remain spiritual in nature? Who is really free — those who have everything but still feel empty, or those who have nothing yet burst with joy, generosity and hospitality and those who can sing even as they meet death? Just asking.

A lot of horrific things continue to happen in the world in the name of religion. No rationalization can ever justify that. However, sometimes true inner freedom is on full global display as a fruit of religion. That is what I saw and heard when the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded in Libya last month. Martyred for their faith in Jesus, their witness was immediately elevated to sainthood (incidentally, more Christians have been killed for their faith in the past century than in all previous centuries combined).

The icon above, currently circulating in cyberspace, was written within weeks of their brutal murder by the artist Tony Rezk (Read the artist’s own blog entry here and an interview with him here). It depicts the new martyrs receiving the crown of glory in heaven. Some will consider this image incomprehensible and even outrageous; others see in these 21 Christians a powerful illustration of authentic freedom. I have not watched the beheading-video, and I will not, but I have heard that the sound on the video was praying: “Ya yesua irhammi — Jesus, have mercy on me.”

No matter our feelings about religion, we can honour these 21 new martyrs by showing a personal interest in their stories, by letting our hearts be moved by the unspeakable sorrow of their families. And while we’re at it, may their brutal, innocent death bear fruit in our stopping to reflect: in what or whom is my sense of freedom and faith grounded? Is my freedom a freedom from or a freedom for, born of God and serving my neighbour in need? Is my own faith strong enough to hold me steady in the trials and storms of life, encouraging me to choose life and growth in the midst of the painful seasons of my existence? What or who am I willing, freely, to die for?life of pi4

“If you stumble over believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?” (Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 2001)

“Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud…”  (Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 2001)

For a Lenten reflection related to the above content, read Margery Eagan’s column here.

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Fasting and Feasting

I love being Catholic for many reasons, one of them being that we get to make “New Year’s resolutions” twice: once on January 1 and a second time on Ash Wednesday, when the Church’s 40-day retreat begins. We call it Lent and it began two days ago. In our 24/7 culture, such moments in the Church’s liturgical/ spiritual year help us to take time to pause and take stock of our lives. The traditional summons in these 40 days is to increase giving of our time–talents–treasures, fasting from the things that aren’t good for us, and increasing our intentionality to step back from the bus-y-ness and spend time with God, aka praying. Far from being outdated, these disciplines still contain much practical wisdom in order to help us achieve greater balance and deeper meaning in our lives.lent-prayer-fasting-giving

This year I would like to pair my fasting practices with feasting ones. Yes, you read that correctly. Any depriving becomes richer when paired with a certain type of feasting. The first time I came across this coupling was when I read this Lenten Litany of Fasting and Feasting by William Arthur Ward. So in my quiet prayer hour early this morning, the following litany slowly sprung from my heart. I share it here publicly to inspire others and as a way to encourage myself to truly live this fasting and feasting in the next remaining days leading up to Easter:

Fasting from worldly ambition,
while feasting on God’s faithfulness;
Fasting from shallow pleasures,
while feasting on spiritual riches;
Fasting from mundane distractions,
while feasting on meaning, depth and purpose;
Fasting from resentment and irritation,
while feasting on love and mercy;
Fasting from closed-mindedness,
while feasting on surrender and ongoing conversion;
Fasting from hardness of heart,
while feasting on generosity and joy;
In my fasting and feasting, may God be praised …

How do you live the three Lenten invitations of fasting, praying and giving? Or if you do not observe Lent, how do you build into your lives seasons or disciplines of stepping back in order to re-align, re-calibrate and re-orient?

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