Stranger at the Door

“I was a stranger, and you welcomed Me.” (Matt. 25:35)
“Let all guests . . . be received like Christ.”   (Rule 53 of St. Benedict)

When St. Benedict wrote about hospitality 1500 years ago, it was an especially timely virtue, filling a need unique to that era. As a place inhabited by men or women living a life dedicated to the Gospel, the monastery was viewed as a safe haven for travelers. Nowadays, we have an array of motels on brightly lit highways, plus maps, mobile phones and our trusty GPS. In our day, admitting a total stranger into our home obviously defies prudence!

So how can this rule, first voiced by Christ himself, be applied to the Benedictine Oblate and other laity in the 21st century?

There are two tiers to this virtue: the natural (Good) and the grace-filled or supernatural (Best). outdoor-partyWe practice natural hospitality with our friends and neighbors all the time: inviting them in for a chat, offering them something to drink, and so on. This is a good thing to do.

It’s easy to be warm and mushy with our friends. We love them; they love us. We know them. We’ve probably known them for years. We know what to expect from them: their taste in movies, football teams, politics. Disagreements are handled in a joshing, loving way. Mostly, we agree with them and love them because they’re like us, and by golly, we’re just right about everything!

To understand Christian hospitality as a grace-filled virtue, we have to focus on the key words Jesus uses: stranger and welcome.

This level of Christian hospitality must be interpreted as wholeheartedly accepting those who are not a member of our social circle and who might even be at odds with most of my oh-so-correct thinking. This is the Stranger whom Christ tells me to welcome. He tells me to make myself lovingly present to such Strangers, sharing myself with them out of a desire to be Christ for them, especially when they are ignored or cut off from others, or even  if they adhere to a different set of values. We’re not told that we must agree with them, but merely to be open to them!

Jesus was open, as we see in this Gospel passage where John, newly returned from his first mission, complains to Jesus, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow in our company.” (That is, he’s not one of us!) Jesus answers, “Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50)

Jesus cautions us about hosting social events when our motivation is personal gain. (Luke 13:14). A few examples: I give a party because I want to have the favor returned; I want other people to see and admire my home and possessions;  I want to cater to those who can help me get ahead. These are self-centered actions, posing as hospitality.

There are numerous everyday situations where simple welcoming actions go a long way in letting others feel loved. The phone rings. I spot the name of an individual whose typical conversation can be quite dull, needy, or long-winded. I try to remember to connect, listen and respond. The Stranger might be the person new to a social gathering, standing alone with no one to talk to. The space around that person is waiting to be filled — by me and Christ. The most difficult stranger to welcome is the one who (I think) doesn’t love or admire me.

welcome-home-12976716Christianity, after all, is not rocket science. It’s a way of life, a way of being Christ to others; a way to let others see Him in us, which is the only way Christ can be visible in this world.

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

 

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.