ETA: Arrivals

Thanks to my graduate work in French literature, words have grown in importance to me. Though I was unable to reach my original goal – to teach the language and literature at the college level – I’ve never for a moment regretted all the effort, stress and time spent in this study. We had special classes in studying how words were like treasure chests, containing their power and beauty within. I’ve been able to apply this skill to lectio divina, to meditations on Scripture which is usually not merely factual but rich in transcendent spiritual meaning.

On my first trip to France, I remember the glee I felt to see and hear the language all around me. Arrivée! While this was the first word I saw as I came from the plane, it also marked the last part of my air trip. I had arrived!

That word! It meant both the end and a beginning. At that point in my life, I had no idea that in only another two years I would have exited my marriage, launched upon another and, consequently left the Church for almost exactly 21 years. Did I know that Christ would come again – to me, that is?

Arrived. Arrivée. Arrival.

During the early years following my return to the Church (another arrivée) I spent many a moment weeping over 21 years I had judged lost. Another French phrase kept repeating itself to me, a phrase guaranteed to deepen rather than cure regrets: j’ai raté ma vie; or, I’ve wasted my life. The same French word (raté) is used in an expression such as: j’ai raté le train, I missed the train! Something passed me by. Something important.

So I used that phrase as a form of self-flagellation. At that time, all I could see was that I had “wasted” – missed – a great part of my life, that is, 21 years separated from the Sacraments.

I groaned all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength withered as in dry summer heat.

Then I declared my sin to you;
my guilt I did not hide.
I said, “I confess my transgression to the LORD,”
and you took away the guilt of my sin.

It took several more years, plus encouragement from the Holy Spirit by way of a gifted spiritual director, plus the Ignatian exercises, plus the untiring love of God, to help me realize that such a major “mistake” had been an essential part of my life, especially in learning and accepting that God’s love covers all “mistakes.”

Therefore every loyal person should pray to you
in time of distress.
Though flood waters threaten,
they will never reach him.
You are my shelter; you guard me from distress;
with joyful shouts of deliverance you surround me. (Psalm 39)

Looking at the altar before the start of Mass, I see the statue of Christ with arms outstretched – first on the cross, and later at his Resurrection and Ascension. And I realize: We no longer have to wait for him. Jesus Christ, whose coming we celebrate, has already arrived! He physically, divinely, historically has come to teach us the Gospel, the good news of eternal life. He has already come, is here now, and will remain with us forever.

How is it that, since his arrival, it seems nothing in our world has changed? Two thousand years have come and gone since his appearance and since the Gospel was first introduced. How is it that even his “holy” church has so often betrayed his teachings? How is it that we (God help us) have also failed in following the Gospel? How is it that we often feel we’ve raté our lives?

So now, after a lengthy period when my muse has been silent, here I am on Gaudete Sunday, once again being taught how to rejoice from within what seems to be a world of incurable greed, anger, helplessness, godlessness. Taught to rejoice, even as I admit my flaws and how I’ve wronged others. People like me don’t need to pine away, waiting for Christ, counting the days till his arrival, for truly he has already come – and best yet, remains. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

It is not God who is absent, but ourselves. It may seem that we still need to wait for his coming, but instead we need to wake up and rejoice in the reality that he has already arrived. We need to relive and constantly repeat the original lesson: Emmanuel; God is with us!

Goodbye, November!

Reader, be patient; this has a happy ending.

How very appropriate that the end of the liturgical year takes place in November, the end of the calendar year. Our usual weather for most of November is cloudy days. Frankly, the weather and the liturgical year seem well-matched – that is, gloomy.

We start out the month quite happily with All Saints day on the first. But the very next day we’re plunged into All Souls Day. This is not meant to be a day of sadness, but our Spanish-speaking brethren call it the Day of the Dead (Día de los muertos) and that seems to be the major emphasis. When we finally get to the last two Sundays, we are treated to readings from Revelation about the “End Times” with descriptions of unimaginable disasters coming soon to a city near you.

Add to all this the fact that several people I know have passed away this month. (Note the euphemism, in consideration for all those who have a problem with the “d” word).

In our calendar, November has only 30 days, yet it seems to drag on interminably longer. Sometimes I prefer to describe the skies as “pewter” rather than “gray,” as I attempt to inject a positive note of beauty to what might otherwise be merely depressing.

So here we have several ingredients that might drag us down this month: 1) the reminder of dear ones departed — for me, including four people I know who died this month alone; 2) liturgical readings emphasizing disaster, death and judgment; and 3) at least 25 days without sunshine.

But wait! What about the big November holiday, Thanksgiving?

This definitely helps change our perspective – especially if you’re a shopper and jump to take advantage of the many available sales on Black Friday. Alas, even that isn’t enough for someone like me who lacks the shopping gene.

Never mind. For me, the gift of gratitude turns my gloom upside-down, helping me to slowly climb out of that black pit.

But the most effective cure appeared in our Gospel reading the other day. The Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection, question Jesus with a hypothetical situation. A woman is married to, and successively widowed by seven brothers. The quiz: “At the resurrection (if there is one, they probably snicker), whose wife will she be?”

Jesus explains that whereas people these days marry, things will be different in the after-life. He says to them,

“The children of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels. That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called ‘Lord’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. [He] is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive. (Luke 20: 34-38)

In that stunning revelation, Jesus joins us all together, the living as well as those whom we refer to as dead. Thus in our funeral Masses we celebrate that life is changed, not taken away.

This is the Good News that Christ brings us, that we need not dread a separation from loved ones, much less a separation from a life that has been slowly declining.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him,

“I am the way and the truth and the life.”   (John 14:1-6)

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?