An Unlikely Saint

Though it wasn’t planned that way, I find it particularly apt that the Gospel story of Zacchaeus should have been scheduled close to the celebration of All Saints.

Luke tells us that Jesus was on the road. Jericho was not a stopping point; he had only intended to pass through. Nonetheless, he had attracted a large crowd of residents – among them one of the most hated: the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus. An unexplained curiosity possessed Zacchaeus to try to see this Man of miracles.

Being “short in stature” like Zacchaeus, I know how it is to try to see anything of a parade. Impossible! No one would want to clear a path for this despised man. They would sooner trample over him than make a space for him to see the miracle-worker.

So Zacchaeus improvised.

A grove of sycamore trees was slightly off the path. Since sycamores in that part of the world are rather small, Zacchaeus was able to climb up quite easily to a branch which would give him a good view of the whole event.zacchaeus

The crowd approaches. How does Jesus happen to spot Zacchaeus? My version is that someone in the crowd eyed him perched on a branch and, thinking he looked quite ridiculous, mockingly pointed him out to others in the throng. What thoughts might have entered Zacchaeus’ mind? A rush of shame, possibly, that here he was – wealthy beyond anyone else in this motley crew, but despised and rejected, made out to be a total fool in the presence of this renowned Person.

Instead of joining in the mob’s disdain, Jesus looks up. (Jesus always looks up and beyond our earthbound view.) Jesus calls to Zacchaeus and boldly invites himself to spend the night at this sinner’s home.

Everyone else, the “good” people who do everything right, they’re all irate that this liar, cheat and extortionist, should be the one to be honored. Was this Galilean really a prophet? Then he wouldn’t have wanted to enter the home of a sinner — or would he?

Zacchaeus joyfully scrambles down, instantly converted to full atonement and gratitude. Zacchaeus, like you and me, has been invited to holiness. It’s totally unexpected, totally undeserved. Unlike the righteous many, Jesus does not refer to Zacchaeus as a sinner but as someone lost. Mercy flows so easily, so happily, from Jesus, and into the unlikeliest of persons!

And so does Christ view us. He calls us to his level. He boldly invites himself to enter our home, to be one with us. Once we have enjoyed his companionship, other associations or attachments that lead us away from him are cheerfully abandoned. How can they compare?

This Gospel is the story of all the other saints besides Zacchaeus who are celebrated this week. They all started out as sinners.

Where do I see myself in this picture?

 

More Blessed to Receive?

Once again in this situation I think: Where is God? Can it be that we have this almighty, all-loving Person taking care of us? If so, where is He?

Such a question is so full of doubt, so empty of the total abandonment and trust we’re called to! Mercifully, the Spirit comes to blow these temptations, like chaff, into nothingness, leaving only the positive lesson of the wheat.

It first came to me five years ago as a dear friend was clearly losing her fight against cancer. Yes, for her it was a fight. Though she was a tender soul, it was important for her to show strength against this enemy.

At her request, her husband and I carefully lifted her from the wheel chair into the easy chair in their living room. “I feel so helpless!” she sighed. The Holy Spirit gave me words to hopefully reverse her sense of uselessness.

“But think, Connie,” I said; “you’re giving us this opportunity to show how much we care for you!”

So while I continue even now to plod through this convalescence, I still have these loathsome doubts, these useless fears of losing sight of God. But before this thought is even completed, my phone rings: a friend from the Monastery wants to bring me homemade pasta marinara. Thirty seconds into that call, another flashes across the screen. It’s from a beloved spiritual friend whose conversation alternates between encouraging truths and light-hearted jokes. The next morning I find even more supportive messages from friends and family via email, phone and text. It seems that even technology wants to get into the act!

I remember the words I had been given to say to Connie, and I understand once again that God is right here, hearing me for the umpteenth time, even before I finish saying anything foolish about his absence as I persist in my useless fear.

If I’m going to insist on anything, it ought to be on prayer and trust.

But since God has made me (and the rest of us) as an earthen vessel, since He has given me this disintegrating tent as a temporary dwelling, He knows that doubt and fear are second nature to me — second, mind you, not first. Shaping the clay pot that is my earthly existence, He has infinite patience and knowledge as He chips away and polishes every little out-of-place bump. From my viewpoint, it’s a case of flaws vs. perfection. From God’s point of view, it’s the pleasure of an ongoing creation, pulling me along to join in the exercise, just as a virtuoso musician keeps repeating a phrase until it sounds effortless.

In my human, foolish and childish imagination, I see the Holy Trinity stepping back (metaphorically) every few (metaphorical) minutes, showing me off to One another:

“Look! I think she’s starting to look like what we had in mind! We did a good thing to give her these minor physical and spiritual hardships. Even though we need to give her constant reminders, she has helped us create a situation where others are opened up to receive our Love, because they’ve been open to feeling compassion for her and showing her their love.jesus-at-door

“In their sympathy for her, they’ve opened a door for Us to enter their space and time element. Don’t You wish they would finally understand this? We keep repeating this lesson, and all they see is our absence and not the miraculous presence that this temporary hardship is providing. How much happier they would be if they could see love and grace rushing through that opened door, offering words of comfort, love and thanks from inside out, outside in, and making us all one together in this small trial !”

Maybe sometimes, after all, it is more blessed to receive than to give.


 

Both Arms Raised

I’m just at the beginning of getting over pneumonia. I feel like I’m walking through a heavy fog, uncertain of every step. During these many days – maybe weeks –when I’ve been unable to attend Mass, I try not only to regain physical strength, but also to recapture my relationship with God.

The readings from this past Sunday were very apt. But of course. We’re always given the food and medicine we need through Scripture, events, or the many “coincidences” that flood our God’s communication with us.

Sunday’s Gospel teaching is on the necessity of persistence in prayer, as Jesus tells of the stubborn widow who pesters the judge until he gives in and helps her, not because he wants to render justice to the woman, but because he fears for his own safety.

“Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says,” says Jesus. “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones?”

What makes persistence so difficult for us is that it seems as if God has disappeared from view, that He is no longer near. It is only through grace that we can be convinced that he has not gone anywhere, but remains not only near, but within our fragile vessel. The persistent effort to see Him is what strengthens our reliance on Him.

This week, however, the reading from Exodus is even more relevant for me.

Amalek has come to wage war against Israel. Moses tells his general, Joshua, to engage in battle while he, Moses, climbs the mountain overlooking the battle. Moses keeps his hands raised to heaven in prayer and while he does so, the Israelites prevail. But Moses, after all, is merely human. His arms tire and fall to his side, leaving the Israelites to flounder in battle.

Moses’ brother Aaron and his friend Hur come to the rescue. They position themselves on either side of Moses, supporting his raised arms so that they can remain steady until sunset and the successful end of the battle .

moses-and-help

While I may not be waging a death-defying war against the nation’s enemies, I have been waging a personal battle: challenges to my faith; concern about an illness that has so suddenly (even if temporarily) replaced good health; insecurity over the future – all those worries that muscle their way into challenging our faithfulness and spiritual persistence.

But God has given me the equivalent of Aaron and Hur. Family on the one side, friends on the other, these keep my arms lifted up to the source of strength. The fact that I’m able to even write this today (flawed, no doubt) is proof of the strength given to me, flowing directly from God through the supporting love of family and friends, restoring my physical strength but also, mostly, keeping both arms raised high in hope and faith.

Lectio Divina: Holy Reading

What is there about reading Scripture that is so scary for some of us?

One reason, I suspect is because reading Scripture is like reading a foreign language whose vocabulary is unlike the words we use every day.

My first exposure to the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina (Holy Reading) felt like this: foreign and perhaps somewhat regimented. What I was looking for was a way of approaching Scripture that would draw me to a greater intimacy with God in deeper love, understanding and trust.

Traditionally, Lectio consists of four steps: Reading, Pondering, Praying and Contemplation. Depending on the teacher, the number of steps may vary. Some of us (such as the author of this piece!) cringe at the merest suggestion of regimentation where prayer is concerned. However, like learning to play a musical instrument or to master a sport, a certain strictness or method is necessary at the beginning until a degree of comfort or mastery is achieved.

For an example of how to go about this fruitful kind of prayer, let’s study the first part of Psalm 84. I will refer to the writer of the Psalm as a poet, since indeed poetic language is used.

(1) Read (Lectio). We begin by simply reading the verses for their basic meaning.

How lovely your dwelling, O LORD of hosts!

My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and flesh cry out for the living God.

As the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest to settle her young,
My home is by your altars, LORD of hosts, my king and my God!

Blessed are those who dwell in your house! 
They never cease to praise you.

Clearly, the poet is attracted by the beauty of God’s dwelling, and longs to be a part of it.

(2) Ponder (Meditatio).
To enter deeply and prayerfully into this text, we touch and savor each word and even pay attention to what is not said. Strong feelings are expressed in passionate words:  My soul yearns and pines.

Yet even these expressions are too tame for the depth of the poet’s emotions, so his language escalates: My heart and flesh cry out!

As we continue this thoughtful reading, we realize that the poet is not giving us a graphic picture or architectural rendering of the Lord’s house, but is giving us a passionate understanding of the Lord’s own home. The poet accomplishes this by omitting any mention regarding the physical aspects of the place: carved pillars, the luxuriant use of marble, gold,  precious stones and fabrics. Excluding outward descriptions creates a stronger impression that what draws us is not a material building, but God Himself as a place of refuge and love.

(3) Pray (Oratio). We ask God to reveal Himself to us.
How often in our prayer we are led beyond words to an almost desperate feeling of longing! We can’t think of words to say, our feeling is so overpowering. What we sense is an absence, a void that only God can fill, for it is in this emptiness that our prayer is intensified.

(4) Contemplation (Contemplatio). We bask in the insights God has granted us in this Scripture.
The poet’s intention is to describe God’s welcoming and tender nature. He is home to the humble, not a palace limited to the great or mighty who parade inside, laden with costly gifts. No, the poet uses the small and the vulnerable (the sparrow and the swallow with her young) to describe the kind of souls God desires to welcome. God invites us to live in the very shadow of his altars where holy offerings are made daily.

We are there to stay. We are permanent residents in this splendidly humble home of the Lord. Unimportant as we may wrongly think of ourselves, we are blessed and welcomed into the holy presence of God. We are safe, protected, loved, and never cease to thank and praise him for his great love.

Our final graced realization is that this beautiful dwelling where God abides is none other than our very soul, the temple of the Lord.

wild-rose
Photo courtesy of Joyce Medovich

 

Seven Blessings

In the Spirit of St. Francis of Assisi

Blessed are you, brother clouds,
Who cover our modest sister sky —-

clouds

Blessed are you, wind,
Who gently carries leaf and snow to visit me far away —-

Blessed are you, sweet creatures of air and earth,
Who people our lonely places —-

Saint-Francis-preaching-to-the-animals-Hans-StubenrauchTwice blessed are you, furry creatures,

Who companion us in our solitude —-

Blessed are you animate creatures
Who sacrifice your life to feed our hunger:
You are our little Christs who nurture us,
Bringing us strength and life —-

Blessed are you grasses and fruits,
Whose colors entice us, whose sweetness gladdens us —-
grass and fruit

Blessed are you, water and wine, slaking our thirst,

Transforming us for the wedding
of our Soul with Love.

Spiritual union