The Synagogue

I figured out why I’m so gloomy today. No, it’s not because of the weather which has been overcast and raining for at least 40 days and 40 nights. Because after all, there are at least some colorful autumn leaves gleaming through, seeming all the more brilliant because of their contrast against a perpetually pewter sky.

No, that’s not it.

On my walk today I passed the synagogue that’s just a few steps from my home: Kol Ami, which translates to “All Together.” It was named to represent the merging of two groups of the local Jewish communities. I’d like to think that it also means – or can mean – that we members of different faiths will some day join together.

Maybe what’s made me so gloomy today is the cruel invasion of that holy ground in Pittsburgh: hearing the names and backgrounds of the slaughtered victims; knowing that they were celebrating the naming of a baby – such a sacred and joyful occasion. And I must confess to feeling a gut-wrenching grief for the man who displayed such hatred.

I don’t get the Jew-hating, especially by persons of a Christian persuasion. I don’t know if the killer at the Pittsburgh synagogue lays claim to any particular religious belief, but I know enough world history to realize that one religion has always had an overdose of hostility towards people of a different religion. I also know that there are lots of folks who don’t want to have anything to do with religion for themselves and for their children, because they know too much about the god-awful hatred and cruelty “religious” people have had for others.

I hope the Pittsburgh murderer doesn’t claim to be a Christian, because Christians are the very ones who ought to be thankful to the Jews for having given us Jesus whose family and best friends were Jewish. Jesus was raised in that Faith. His understanding of God came from that Faith. The law of love came from that Faith. He is quoted as having said that “Salvation comes from the Jews.” (John, 4:22) And he was right. Jews are our spiritual parents.

Meanwhile, I’ve returned to re-reading Sunday’s Gospel about Bartimaeus, the blind man who called out to Jesus for help. He persisted in crying out, too, in spite of the crowd’s callous efforts to shut him up. But he wouldn’t shut up.

I used to wonder why Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he wanted. Surely, it was obvious! But Jesus wanted Bartimaeus to know and boldly articulate his desire: That I might see! By recognizing and naming his heart’s desire, Bartimaeus unknowingly gave evidence of his own strength. That’s why Jesus told him, “Your faith has saved you.” Jesus gave him credit for his own cure! All Bartimaeus needed was that bit of encouragement from the Master to realize that his persistence, his refusal to be discouraged, his boldness in speaking out when everyone tried to shut him up – these qualities would bring about the miracle he desired.

So, the connection to the shooting in the synagogue?

Maybe we need to be more bold. Maybe we need to look within ourselves, to overcome our timidity in speaking out – speaking out for our own cure and for the cure of others who let themselves become tools of hatred.

The temptation is to blame others for hatred — perhaps someone in government, or a particular political party. The ugly irony is that we then turn our hatred toward those we blame for hatred, we feed the very hatred we condemn. Obviously, this only perpetuates and deepens hatred in the world.

Only love can defeat hatred. Only love can erect the wall that keeps hatred at bay. And we’re the only ones who can do that.

Where Is God?

Finding a seamless prayer life

As a child in parochial school, I remember being taught basic truths in the Baltimore catechism. Question: “Where is God?” Answer: “God is everywhere.”

Of course, the class smart alecs (mostly the boys) pursued the subject with questions like, Is he inside my desk? In my pocket? On the bookshelf? Et cetera, et cetera.

As with St. Paul, when I was a child I thought as a child, but now as an adult, I ponder the everywhere-ness of God.

When we celebrated Trinity Sunday this year, our homilist offered up the phrase, “In him (God) we live and move and have our being.” So is God in us, or are we in God? And how is this possible?

The difficulty is that our words are so inadequate, so earth-bound: in, everywhere —  words that have to do with location, our physical place in the universe. We exist, we are here. Presence has to do with both time and space: now and here. Since we humans are limited by both time and space, we can’t grasp how we can be in the infinite, eternal and ubiquitous God. What is more, we are taught to pray always.

It’s concerning when someone in spiritual direction tells me how difficult it is to find time for prayer. My first thought is, how wonderful that these folks want to pray, that they feel the need to pray, that they recognize the importance of connecting with this Person we know as God!

I certainly empathize with them. I used to envy monastics who were assured of a regular prayer life, being called to prayer several times during the day for recitation of the Divine Office. My schedule, on the other hand, was always so helter-skelter, so often interrupted by some household emergency or by the need for personal intervention somewhere. It therefore seemed to me that if a person really wanted to be holy, as the Gospel and Vatican II teach, one would have to live in a religious community.

Yes, I truly sympathize with those who experience this spiritual conflict and anxiety. Yet we know that it is prayer that connects us to God, prayer that joins us to the Infinite who is everywhere.

Fortunately, a wise spiritual director guided me to the solution. Not that I was able to arrive there in a single leap, but some books he recommended helped, and I share them with you who read this post.

One was Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk. He describes how irritating situations can be transformed into peaceful acceptance. He speaks of mindfulness which for us translates to awareness of being with Christ, in the Spirit. Hanh writes:

To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. . . Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness become sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane.

For us Christians, sacred awareness is being mindful of God’s presence in and with us.

The second book titled The Practice of the Presence of God, is a short collection of letters by a little-known seventeenth century Carmelite named Brother Lawrence.

Brother Lawrence lived in a Carmelite monastery as a lay brother who lived alongside the monks to provide various services, some of a very humble nature. Wouldn’t you know, he was assigned to a chore that he particularly disliked: washing dishes! A friend recorded Lawrence’s way of prayer in these words:

In his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), he accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of God…  With prayer for His grace to do his work well upon all occasions, he found everything easy during the fifteen years that he had been employed there.

Because Lawrence focused on God present in him while he performed this task, the mundane activity of washing dishes was transformed into an affectionate and personal prayer that connected him to God, more than what might have been accomplished in a mechanical recitation of the Psalms. This simple practice guaranteed that Lawrence would remain in a loving union with the Lord. [Click on this link for some quotes from Brother Lawrence]

10-Laundry 1894
Thérèse doing laundry, 2nd from left

The third book on finding God in the present moment is by a 17th century French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre De Caussade. [Click on the link for more information.] Depending on the translator, it’s titled either The Sacrament of the Present Moment or Abandonment to Divine Providence.

This small but powerful book has long been a favorite of spiritual directors. Its message is profoundly simple: “Embrace the present moment as an ever-flowing source of holiness,” he writes. De Caussade teaches that we don’t have to manufacture penances or even difficult prayer practices. Merely set the eyes of your heart to recognizing every event in your life, both challenges and delights, as gifts from God, as ways of seeing him, accepting and thanking him for all.

These simple prayer practices help us to recognize the constant presence of God in our life and world. God is here; God is in us; God is in others; we are all in God and in one another.

Unity, Not Conformity

One of the things that got me interested in creating a blog was my faithful readership of the “dotMagis” Ignatian blog. Since I love to write, I asked the editor if they published unsolicited articles. The answer was “yes” and I soon received their guidelines. Obviously, they were looking for pieces that had to do with Ignatian spirituality: the examen, finding God in all things, the Ignatian way of meditating, and so forth. They also wanted a few sentences about my background.

The editor seemed rather bemused by my being a Benedictine Oblate, like – What’s a Benedictine doing hanging around with us Ignatians? (Did she mean that I needed to make a decision as to which camp I wanted to be in??) This might explain why, while my articles were accepted, I often had the impression that she thought them a bit, well, different.

Nonetheless, almost every article I submitted over the next six months was accepted until I was told that perhaps I was sending more articles than they needed, and why not start your own blog, Rosalie? (And leave us real Ignatians to focus on that specific spirituality.)

Whatever their motive, it was a good suggestion and voilà! Here I am with my unspecified spirituality blog, no longer trying to find the 22nd way to do the examen.

It is certainly a most human characteristic to want to be with people with whom we have much in common. But we must be clear: we don’t want just anyone new brought into our tight little circle.

“Master!” said John, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow in our company.” ( They’re stealing our thunder!) To which Jesus calmly replies:

“Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50)

Exclusivity. How wonderful! It keeps our family, our school, our race, our religion, PURE, untainted by OTHER.

We have come to know where exclusivity might end: Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans need not apply; persecution of underlings; ethnic cleansing; and even perhaps (I blush to suggest),closing the door of our church to those who are not US.

There’s a great quote from Groucho Marx, repeated by Woody Allen: “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” Of course, these two comedians were Jewish and knew whereof they spoke.

Another experience has stuck with me, having to do with a form of exclusivity. After my husband’s death, it was very difficult to attend Mass without him. I followed my spiritual director’s suggestion that I attend Mass at a different church, so I started going to a downtown church. I explained this to an acquaintance who asked why she hadn’t seen me as often as before. Her reaction was very firm: “I would never leave this parish!” My feeling was that every church was my church – and hers – and this was long before the mergers.

Leo Tolstoy (more spiritual than religious) saw exclusivity as the extension of the ego. Ego starts with oneself as an infant, demanding that his parents serve his least need. Eventually this extends to one’s family (my dad can lick your dad); school (our football team is better than yours); then to nationalism, an overweening patriotism which can lead to the extermination of the OTHER.

Such exclusivity is surely representative of the Anti-Christ. After all, Jesus praised foreigners or the unclean as being ready to enter the Kingdom of God before the “chosen” righteous. A few examples: the healing of the Roman Centurion’s son/servant; the parable of the good Samaritan; the Samaritan woman at the well; his acceptance of women as followers and even apostle; and himself as someone good to finally come out of Galilee.

Is it merely snobbery that keeps us from accepting others? Or is it that we have such superior judgment?

Unity: after the Last Supper, Jesus’ fervent prayer was for unity. Each of his apostles was so different from the other, but unity does not require conformity. St. Paul’s teaching on the Mystical Body of Christ is about this unity that transcends differences. Best of all:

Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible.
To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews;
to those under the law I became like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win over those under the law.
To those outside the law I became like one outside the law—though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ—to win over those outside the law.
To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak.
I have become all things to all, to save at least some.
All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.
(1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Need I say more?

Twenty Years Blessed

You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced;
you were too strong for me, and you prevailed. (Jeremiah 20:7a)

 The place was Santa Fe, the city of Holy Faith. It was Sunday morning. I was downtown and wanted to see the interior of the small Spanish style Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, but it was closed. . .

After a Catholic education stretching from Kindergarten through college; after youthful aspirations to be a missionary or a cloistered Carmelite; after a failed marriage and a remarriage to another “lapsed” Catholic, the time had come. In the 21st year of this second marriage outside the Church, as we struggled to adjust to the changes of retirement, I took off on a vacation visit to my daughter in the city of Holy Faith, Santa Fe.

Touring the downtown, I wanted to see the interior of the little Basilica. Finding it closed, I returned a few days later. “Aha!” I thought. “Since it’s Sunday it’ll surely be open.”

cathedral-santa-feI entered just in time for the noon Mass. And what a Mass! It was October 4, 1998 (the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, one of my favorites) and the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan diocese in New Mexico. The Mass was celebrated as only Latinos know how: with exuberant song. I was bowled over. The Lord knows us inside out, and knew I would find this passionate, musical experience totally irresistible. You seduced me, Lord!

I was lifted out of 21 years of secular existence and firmly replanted as a follower of Christ, along with the gift of determination to remain there forever.

When I got home, the biggest surprise was that my husband too had decided come back. Sponsored by my former pastor, I went through the annulment process and we were married in a quiet ceremony in our new Corning parish. The 10 years that followed were by far the happiest in an already good marriage.

I wished I could go out on street corners or in parks — like Hyde Park in London where passionate speakers used to draw crowds to hear their message. I wished I could expound on the beauty of the Gospel! Would I ever be able to do this?

I say I will not mention him, I will no longer speak in his name.
But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding back, I cannot!
       (Jeremiah 20:9)

Like many a new convert, I threw myself wholeheartedly into my restored faith. I volunteered as a lector and Eucharistic minister, and for other parish activities: organized the St. Pat’s celebration; revived a faded ministry to newcomers; set up ministry fairs; served as secretary to the parish council. I also started attending daily Mass.

Step by step, each attempt at outreach finally led to today’s effort to express, through this blog, what God has done for me. That there’s just a handful or possibly a crowd who read these reflections doesn’t really matter. I cannot hold back! The words I’m given do not come from my mind or mouth. Whatever they produce, whatever the result, is not my concern but the Spirit’s, the Muse who moves me to ponder and write.

Once lured back to our spiritual roots, it becomes clear that true conversion doesn’t happen just once. Rather, it leads to continuous conversion, renewed day after day from within the events specific to that day.

This is my hope, my determination and my prayer.

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
(Luke 15:7)

Let the Children Come

(Written on the feast of Thérèse of Lisieux)

“Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

How can children – or the child-like – have such a ready entrance into the Kingdom? To merit the Kingdom, don’t we have to learn countless behaviors, obey countless rules, accept countless beliefs and doctrines? And we understand hardly any of it. This is surely not child’s play!

I’ve been re-reading Michael Casey’s commentary on St. Benedict’s prologue to the Rule, The Road to Eternal Life. [Casey is a Trappist monk who has written several books on Benedictine spirituality.] I read it with a fellow Oblate about a year ago, but many passages strike me as brand new, now that I’m in a different place. Casey writes:

The Gospel is fundamentally a proclamation of the Good News; it is something that excites, motivates, and encourages us. It is more than the dreary listing of a series of moral precepts. It is the promise of power that comes down from on high to give us the wisdom, understanding, and fortitude to put those impossible precepts into practice. . . .

To be guided by the Gospel is to be liberated from the tyranny of law and superego and to allow our lives to be more and more marked by the simplicity of love. It does not mean extracting moral precepts from the words of Jesus and erecting them into a code or canon of behavior. It means living as Jesus lived by moving toward the fullness of self-giving love that he manifested during his time on earth.

The French mystic and poet, Charles Péguy, tells the adult who is satiated with many possessions and opinions: “Go to school, children, and learn to unlearn.”

It is their humble status and attitude of simplicity that Jesus recognizes and loves in children. It is what Thérèse of Lisieux discovered in her “little way:” the child-like acceptance of God’s love as Jesus taught in his Good News. 13-Therese as Joan.jpg

You see, we’ve been taught about all the things we must do to “get into Heaven,” all the prayers we must say, all the rules we must strictly follow, the spiritual and intellectual hoops we must jump through.  Thérèse, doctor of simplicity, was shown a way where one simply goes along with the parent in total trust. It has to be the way to a good place, for where else would a loving parent take him?  The child is happily amazed at everything it sees: it’s all new and splendid! For the child, everything is a kind of mystery, yet not imponderable, for the parent will explain all as they take the same path together, hand-in-hand. Being with the parent “excites, motivates, and encourages” the child. Simply having that loving attention is an incomparable delight.

The spiritual child does not need to understand complex theology that calculates how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; does not need to impose difficult penances on herself; doesn’t fret unendingly on mistakes made; doesn’t need big, impressive words in speaking to the parent.

The child-like simply accepts that there are others on this same path and is happy to take the last place, since it’s by the parent’s side. Let the others run off to chase useless things! The blessed are content to grasp only one thing in their hand: the hand of God.

Yes, we know that this “spiritual” child may be a tad idealized, relative to the children we actually parent. The main point is that the child really has nothing of “value,” by worldly standards, to give the parent. It’s the other way around: the parent (or grandparent) takes delight in spoiling the child with a variety of gifts presented at every opportunity, reasonable or not. When we keep our eyes open and look up at our divine parent with expectation, hope and love, are we ever disappointed?

As years are added to my life-span, I’m taught new things. One gift is to see the importance of receiving. Yes, there are always things we do and give. But then, you see, it’s so easy to feel proud of ourselves. When we allow God to give, every day can be very much like a child’s Christmas. Gifts often come even frequently throughout the day. If now and then we’re given gifts that puzzle us, we’ll certainly be shown how they work and in time will come to appreciate them.

Being at the receiving end is especially important for those of us at the ageing part of life, because doing is getting more and more tricky. We have to learn how to accept help and care from others. We have to learn to ignore their look of exasperation as we ask them the same question for the umpteenth time. And when we tell them the same story for the third time in 10 minutes, maybe they have to learn how to pretend that they’re hearing it for the first time. Compassion is needed now, as those in their second childhood require the same patience we needed with our young ones.

Let all children come to Me.