Treasuring the Ordinary

Scrapbooks may be becoming a thing of the past. Almost everybody can capture a person or event with their smartphone. These digital pictures will no doubt eventually disappear into cyber-space.

What brought me to dust off the many photo albums on my shelves was to honor the memory of my recently deceased step-son. I wanted to collect some printed photos to send to his children, my grandchildren. I still haven’t finished the task; it was too emotional. The good thing was that the experience became nourishing food for thought.

Here’s the thing about scrapbook photos: they’re taken to memorialize significant celebrations – mostly happy – with friends and family. We’re all together: eating, playing croquet or cards, turning cart-wheels, blowing out birthday candles, sporting a diploma.

I mused: what about the ordinary times? Is there anything memorable about people going about their everyday tasks? For that matter, what about this very moment (already gone!) as I’m able to type these words, encouraged by Beethoven in the background? Such a non-event, we might think, is hardly worthy of being captured and framed.  

Well, perhaps we don’t need to take a picture, but the moment is worth capturing within our spirit. For it is of such moments that a life is made.

If we could only become more aware of what each moment contains! If we could only know that the grace of God is packed into every second of our existence, that it’s all important, even what might at first seem dull, unappealing or difficult.

The ability to see with the eyes of the heart is what St. Ignatius called seeing God in all things. This is what Thérèse of Lisieux meant in her discovery that everything is a grace! These saints – and many others – knew what it was to see behind and beyond the commonplace, and to recognize that the commonplace is no less than the extraordinary  and dazzling presence of God. It’s really all we need.

This moment as I write and as you read, is much more than ordinary. It can be one moment out of many that all together bring us to a greater understanding of how God is acting in our life. This now is a little embellishing grace note in the symphony of our lives: precious, fulfilling, and worthy of being created and noticed.

grace-note

 

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.

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

Taste and See: A Look at Grace.

 As a child, little did I realize how some of my concepts regarding spiritual truths were actually right on target. Grace: what was it? Well, since we prayed, “Pour forth, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts,” I concluded that Grace had the properties of a liquid. But this wouldn’t be just plain old water. It would be sweet to the taste and have some density to make it really important. My conclusion: Grace was something like maple syrup or chocolate fudge. This would ensure that it would be sought after ahot fudge sundaend welcomed by all!

This interpretation was cemented by phrases later learned from the Bible: Taste and see that the Lord is good! (Psalm 34:8) Or,   Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. (Proverbs 16:24 ); and no fewer than 34 biblical references about the chosen people being led into a land flowing with milk and honey. After all, delicious food is what a caring parent provides.

But as we grew into the upper grades, we learned of totally new characteristics. Grace was sanctifying, actual.  or habitual. Furthermore, we earned it by doing good deeds (even though “Grace” means freely given.) What happened to the sweetness? Couldn’t we have graduated to a concept of Grace that, while in a more adult format, might retain its strong allure?

Finally, after reading probably hundreds of pages on the topic, written by theologians, saints and even by your average laity, and aided by graced prayer and meditation, the meaning of Grace started to emerge slightly from the fog of my childish understanding, even though a great deal of mystery remains.

For example, Thérèse of Lisieux exclaimed, “Everything is a grace!” If, then, it is so widely and indiscriminately dispersed, why is it considered so special? If everyone (even those people who spend most of their lives engaged in crime and living in prisons), if ALL of THEM have total access to grace, why should WE have to work work so hard to get it? Why should we spend our days toiling to follow all the commandments and rules of the Church? Why give up Sunday picnics to go to Mass? Why struggle to get our teenagers to go to Holy Week services?

These questions are at the crux of the parable about the prodigal son. Why did that wastrel younger son get the royal treatment, while the faithful and hardworking son hardly ever got a pat on the back, much less rings, robes and feasts? Why bother, for heaven’s sake?

Let’s look closely at these two brothers. The elder brother, toiling away, was apparently never concerned about his missing brother, whereas every day their father kept watch for the returning figure. The elder brother took no joy in his brother’s return to sanity. There was no forgiveness in his heart. (I personally think he was sorry to see the brother come back, because now the father’s wealth would have to be shared.) In his arrogance and self-righteousness, he felt he had earned rewards while his brother ought to have been punished and rejected.

But God prefers to be seen as generous, merciful and forgiving. The greater the sin forgiven, the greater His opportunity for love, both given and received.

That’s Grace. And it’s sweeter than honey.

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