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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Music Within

Many of us are extremely sensitive to the beauty of music. I can recall listening to certain pieces of music with so much joy that I’d think: I could die happily if this were played for me on my death bed! “Sensitive” doesn’t quite cover that!

People who are visually attuned have the same feeling when they experience the uncountable beauties, sounds and fragrances of nature: the moonlit sky, sunrises, flowers, waterfalls.

So I was surprised and delighted when my spiritual director told me that such moments of – well really, ecstasy – draw us into a prayer that is truly spiritual and that offers us an experience of God and of heaven.

The composer Franz Schubert understood and expressed this when he set his friend’s poem to one of his loveliest songs, “To Music” (An die Musik).

Oh sacred Art, … you have transported me into a better world!”

Such soul-deep experiences of beauty, approached through our senses, become deep experiences of God-in-us and of God-in-the-world.

Going even beyond this, St. Augustine ecstatically wrote of God’s Beauty that surpassed his senses, reaching into his very soul, not through any of his senses, but directly into the depths of his spirit:

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. 
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

This dazzling perception surpassed any knowledge provided by his bodily senses. There was no material sight, sound, fragrance, or touch that Augustine perceived, but only the overwhelming spiritual vision of God’s Beauty. For there is a palpable sense of Beauty in just thinking of God without seeing or hearing any outside stimulus.

If we are not yet ready for Augustine’s mystical revelation, we must nevertheless take time to appreciate the beauty accessible through our senses, for these are the stepping stones that lead us to the inmost temple of our soul where God is found. 

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Take a moment to listen to a beautiful rendition of An die Musik by the late Arleen Auger.

All Things Work Together

. . . for those who love God.


“I worry so about my past life and how many bad judgments I’ve made,” said the young woman sitting in front of me.

     “You know,” I said, “I used to have as neighbor a woman who was very creative in the domestic arts: painting, crafts, needlework. One item she showed me made a lasting impression. She had made a full-size quilt that featured a variety of cloths and designs, each related to an important event in her life. She had a piece from one of the children’s “blankie;” jeans she wore on her first date with her husband, and part of a shirt left in the laundry by her son who had just run away from home.

mixed quilt     “From all these remnants commemorating both happy and catastrophic events, she had made a work of art. Bound together by solid dark blue strips framing each square, she had created a kind of book of her life. It was beautiful! And besides, it served a very useful purpose in her home.”

This is what St. Paul means in his letter to the Romans (8:18): For those who love God, all things work together unto good. To that marvelous statement, St. Augustine added the words … even sin. All events, all actions, thoughts, omissions, whether joyful or sad, whether “productive” or empty – all are, in God’s hands, the stuff of our life, all put to use to ultimately shape us into the image that God has of us.

For there is nothing in our life that God cannot put to good use. Our profound and loving Teacher uses even our “mistakes,” not as stern lectures directed at us, but as gentle reminders of his mercy, as sturdy lengths of thread that draw us to him, binding us to himself into one work of art.