New Year’s Resolutions

resolutions-sI was never able to keep New Year’s Resolutions for more moments that it took to speak them.

Much more useful are the resolutions I’ve been making for the last few years, aimed at hopefully nurturing my spiritual life. At my age, I find that the simpler the better, so I limit the number of resolutions to three, and also prefer that they be in the form of ONE word only. Any more than that and I’d tend to forget them. Just three words can be easily remembered and repeated, very much like a mantra.

The three words I chose at the beginning of 2016 are:

  • Silence
  • Mindfulness
  • Trust.

I find these so important and so difficult that I’m keeping them for 2017. Also, as I meditate on these practices to write this Post, I discover how interrelated one is to the other.

Silence.
This doesn’t mean wearing earplugs or keeping the radio off. Actually, listening to music has the effect of shutting off other noise that might be keeping my mind and spirit spinning. By noise, I mean thoughts that whirl around in my head, most often having to do with relationships, such as conversations with others that haven’t gone very well. Or thoughts related to world events that I can’t do anything about – except to pray for the healing of the cruelty, greed and selfishness rampant in the world. I’d do much better to let those prayers enter my head, rather than to continue to want to fix all these problems or to stay angry that I can’t.

Silence also means letting the other person do the talking while I listen. I don’t mean simply nod my head now and then to give the illusion of listening. I mean really listening. I mean not butting in every two sentences to offer my opinion or advice. I mean listening in a supportive way, letting the other person vent, and letting myself be the ventee, rather than the ventor. This practice also serves the Benedictine principle of hospitality, since we are welcoming fully the person speaking to us.

As I practice this kind of Silence, I realize that it is related to No. 2 on the list: Mindfulness.

Mindfulness simply means paying attention to what we’re doing or saying. This includes paying attention to what you’re hearing while you’re being Silent (back to hospitality again). It also means paying full attention to what you’re doing, focusing on each step and not hurrying. Forget about multi-tasking. 

Oddly enough and contrary to what the word seems to say, Mindfulness doesn’t fill our minds. Because it requires focusing on one thing at a time, and that one thing is in the present moment, it results in an emptying of the mind, or at least the removal of mental clutter.

I tried mindfulness recently while I was baking. I had promised to bring two pies and a cake to a family gathering. In the past, I would have scrambled around, concocting all kinds of ways to be most efficient and to finish as quickly as possible. (And by the way, what was I going to do with all the time I saved?? Play computer games?) Scurrying around usually ended in dropping utensils and making a mess that took longer to clean up. This time, practicing mindfulness, I very deliberately completed each step in turn. Though it felt a little like being in a slow motion film, I was actually able  to complete the project in record time and with minimal if any gratuitous mess. Furthermore,  I had been able to remain calm and contented, enjoying the thought of the pleasure I’d be giving to the family.

What does mindful baking have to do with my spiritual life? And why, for heaven’s sake, do I think such tasks are different from my spiritual life? Focusing on the present moment, I am able to keep myself in the presence of God who is present everywhere and in every moment. Thus, even menial activities become prayer, that is, they unite us to God. (For more on this topic, look up the powerful little book by Jean-Pierre de Caussade: The Sacrament of the Present Moment, and Google the Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence whose mindfulness enabled him to remain in the presence of God while performing his kitchen duties. Here’s a link: http://thepracticeofthepresenceofgod.com/onlinetext/)

The practice of Mindfulness is similar to the practice of Silence. Both keep the mind and spirit uncluttered, focused, and more ready to approach everyday tasks in a spirit of prayer. All of us have menial tasks to perform just to get through our days in some kind of order and peacefulness. We frequently complain about them because they’re “boring” and keep us from “prayer time.” Mindfulness allows us not just to perform tasks, but to transform them from the worldly to the transcendent. It allows us to make a prayer of what we thought was just plain boring. Try it. You’ll see what I mean.

The last resolution is perhaps the most difficult: Trust.

Our whole life has been spent trying to increase our mastery over so many things. We work hard to acquire the skills that will give us mastery over an art form, over knowledge and maybe most often, over other people. We even work to gain an illusory  mastery over our prayer life, and try to “do it right,” as if it’s a job and we’re in charge of it.

Trusting in God bolsters our spiritual immune system. Trust is like a spiritual antibiotic: it cures debilitating ills such as fear, anxiety, helplessness, pride, depression, and a whole host of related bad habits. Trust is simply admitting to God that He’s the one in charge, and being thankful that this is so. He’s the only one who knows the true outcome of what we fret over, what we’re afraid might happen. 

It’s very easy to talk about how wonderful Trust is, but quite another thing to practice it continually. This is why I’m keeping Trust on my list for another year. In fact, I need to keep it until death do us part.

Resolutions, like our spiritual life, are unique to each of us. I suggest taking a few quiet moments with the Lord, asking him to help us select a few habits we might want his help in acquiring (or dropping). He loves us, and will love this request. I’m guessing we’ll be given what we need.

Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas!

Christmas is a time that invites nostalgia.
These thoughts come from a Christmas past, shortly after my return to the Faith.

nativityOne of the blessings of having reached a certain age is the ability to look back at the many twists and turns of one’s life. At this holy season of Christmas and especially on this holy day celebrating Christ’s birth, a number of memories fill my mind.

I see myself in a classroom, dressed as an angel – complete with halo – waiting to be called to sing onstage for the grand finale of the Christmas pageant. I fast forward many years to a time where I am directing my four children in decorating Christmas stockings that I’ve sewn. They each choose a liturgical scene appropriate to the season. Or I’m in the kitchen with trays of cut-out cookies that my children “paint” with colored egg yolk. Or I’m in the living room, fragrant with fresh pine, filled with the happy mess of toys.

But none of these Christmases has had the joy of the feast this year.

Many Christmases were spent in distress, in spiritual and personal trials, while love – true  love that is of God – eluded me. Nothing is so empty as the heart that has lost God.

But God does not want to remain lost. In spite of ourselves, he gently pursues us, woos us, seduces us, and sweetly captures us at last.

This year, I have been tutored in the spiritual joys of the holiday. This year, I have been given a deeper grasp of the marvel of Christmas: the gift of Christ Himself.

Christ who came to teach us what true happiness consists of.
Christ in whom all good things exist in a visible, tangible way.
Christ in whom all things were made, and to whom all things ultimately tend.

Christ. The one Word that speaks all to us.
The one Word that contains all that is good:
love, holiness, mercy, compassion, generosity,
forgiveness, kindness, enlightenment, joy, wisdom,
love again,
and yet more love.

And the greatest marvel of all is that he did not come just once at a moment in history that is forever gone. He comes in an unending presence to fill and transform our spirits and, through us, to fill and transform the world. He will never again be absent from our life. While we await a second coming, he is nevertheless here.

christmas-message

Gallery of Photos taken in the Holy Land.

Terrain outside of Bethlehem
Terrain outside of Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity
Church of the Nativity
Christ Child image below altar, Church of the Nativity
Christ Child image below altar, Church of the Nativity
14-point star, signifying generations of families of the House of David
Revered as the site of Jesus’ birth. 14-point star, signifying generations of families from the House of David
Crypt, Church of the Nativity, where St. Jerome lived while translating the Bible
Crypt in the Church of the Nativity, where St. Jerome lived while translating the Bible
“In this place was once St. Jerome, priest and doctor of the Church”

The Word Was Made Flesh

Rejoice!

 

I’ve been struggling to write about the first sentence of John’s Gospel. I started by pointing out how extraordinarily different it is from the other three. Matthew, Mark and Luke all talk about Jesus’ human origins – wonderful, of course. Matthew lists the genealogy so we know that Jesus was indeed descended from King David. Mark recounts the very start of Jesus’ earthly mission as he’s baptized. And of course Luke gives us the most familiar narrative of Jesus’ humble birth in a stable.

But John, that Eagle, soars over these “merely” earthy origins, bypassing them to place Jesus in the very center of the Trinity, creating and enlightening the universe before time!

As I was trying to write  this, the academician in me crept out. It went in different directions – all related to Jesus’ amazing beginning – which was not really a beginning because it was outside of time. Because we, on the other hand, are very much creatures of time. I had opened the proverbial can of worms. How does one wrap one’s head around something that is absolutely impossible to experience? All words fail.

Then I realized: no, one Word does not fail.

           In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

I heard that Word repeated in John’s sentence, and I heard it like a bell ringing three times, once for each person in the Trinity!

 Now I knew I was in trouble, because how do we understand the Trinity? A great mind such as Augustine’s tried to comprehend this inscrutable doctrine. And if God, as Trinity, is so impossible to understand, why do we so insist on it, in our Creed, in our Christian faith?

 Then came the answer: through the Word, the very Wisdom of God. Seeing us in this dark place and time, having pity on us, this great and inscrutable God humbled himself to become human. And the Word was made flesh . . .

 As if this were not enough, the Word, now humanized (so to speak), this Word dwelt among us. Lived with us. Felt like us. Learned as we learn. Hurt as we hurt. Enjoyed as we enjoy. Spoke with words of forgiveness, mercy and unconditional love! The Word spoke the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Son was sent, not as royal ambassador, but as a servant to teach us, to meet evil forces head on for us, to know rejection and exclusion, to welcome us and let each of us know how lovable we are. Who else would do this, but an infinitely loving God?

 And again, as if this were not enough, St. Paul tells us (in his letter to the Colossians) that the mystery of God’s love, hidden for ages, is now ready to be revealed, because Jesus Christ has taught it to us. He lives not only with us but in us. The mystery is little by little revealed in us as the indwelling Christ teaches us to love as he, God, loves.

 Though John tells us the brutally sad truth that his own did not accept him, he does not leave us without hope.

To those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.

How lovely that we truly have reason to rejoice on this Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday! Let this be our joyful and continuing Advent prayer:   Thanks be to God for the Incarnate Word.
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Click on the arrow below to hear Fauré’s choral work, Cantique – To the Word Incarnate

 

I Am the Light of the World

the-light-of-the-world

It’s Advent, and as I write this a few days before the second Sunday, I rejoice to see a pewter sky. Yes, I know most of us prefer a convincing blue that lets us feel that all’s right with the world. But in Advent it’s different. Advent is the season of hope. Overcast, no; pewter, yes.

I am drawn to ponder the readings from this weekday Mass, and other passages from Old and New testaments, dealing with light and blindness.

Out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. (Isaiah 29:18)

Is Isaiah saying that  that even  the blind will be able to see in our dark world, such is the radiance of the Messiah?  If only we could remember from within our gloom that . . .

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9)

Jesus invites us into his light: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

The greater the troubles, the more dazzling the rescue. Advent’s hope seems especially apt for the world’s problems these days – which are certainly no worse than what humanity has been facing for eons. Advent reminds us that Christ’s teachings are his the life-giving light that offers us our only true peace.

In the Gospel, two blind men come to Jesus to be cured. “Do you believe that I can do this?” he asks. So which is it that will heal us: the strength of our faith, or the power of Christ ?

It  it is neither by the one nor the other, but by our working in cooperation with the graces Christ offers.

Patience. Faith. Trust. These are the virtues, the qualities of soul  available to us during this season. Advent ushers in true Joy as we long for Christ to visit and remain in our darkened world.  He wants to cure our blindness and fill every event of our life with the brilliance of his Light.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? . . .
Wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord. (Ps. 27:1, 14)