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.

Celebrating Mother Teresa

We always knew Mother Teresa was a saint, but now it’s official. This week Pope Francis, representing the whole Church, formally recognized her life of heroic holiness, through her dedication to the poorest of the poor, the abandoned of Calcutta.

Not long after her death, letters to her spiritual director were published, as required to review her cause for canonization. To those unfamiliar with the journey of the the spirit, it was thought that Teresa had “lost her faith” when she described her experiences of  apparent abandonment. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Her persistent service to the poor, in spite of her lack of inner consolation only served to prove her heroism.

There’s an important trait of Mother Teresa’s that we don’t hear much about, but which is, in my humble opinion, an essential aspect of holiness: a sense of humor, the handmaid of fidelity. This anecdote illustrates Mother Teresa’s ready wit.

About 30 years ago, I was watching newswoman Diane Sawyer interview Mother Teresa on TV. By that time, reports written by journalist Malcolm Muggeridge [author of Something Beautiful for God] had brought Mother Teresa to world wide attention. Diane Sawyer was clearly in awe of her. In quite a breathless voice, she asked this question:

“Mother Teresa, is it true that you talk to God?”

With a chuckle and a big smile, Mother Teresa made the motion of picking up a phone and said, “O yes! I say, ‘Hello, God!”Mother Teresa

Poor Diane! I can’t remember a thing that was said after that exchange. May we always joyfully remember that the Gospel is Good news.

To hear Mother Teresa’s acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, follow the link.

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How to Pray

 we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
(Romans 8:26)

I was sure I didn’t know how to pray. Others described a “method” that I simply couldn’t grasp. This was dreadful! Prayer, after all, is the first essential in how to grow in intimacy with God, how to grow in knowledge of God.

Thank God, I had a spiritual director who rescued and calmed me. He told me how an elderly nun had described her prayer: simple, heartfelt, personal, loving and direct. It was something like this:

No, I don’t know how to pray:
How to sit at attention,
My senses in suspension.

One must not move,
One must not slouch.
Say politely, “I praise you!”

This is God, after all, and not
Your next door neighbor.
He won’t favor a lowly dot
of nothing.

No, I don’t know the words
To that hymn the angels sing
Everlastingly around the throne.

No, we have no words,
And none are even too many!
So we just look,

And smile at each other.

I carry Him,
And He carries me
All day,
All night.

No, I don’t know how to pray:
How to sit at attention,
My senses in suspension.
How to sit still and simply say:

“I love you.”

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.