And God Rested

The ancients who wrote what we call Scripture perhaps didn’t fully realize the profound truths they were inspired to pass on to us — nor do we! God’s “resting” was not to say that he was “finished,” that his work was done. A human artist may recognize when his opus is finally completed. He  breathes a sigh of relief, walks away from his easel to clean his brushes, and frames his painting. Hopefully, he’ll be able to sell it.

God’s work in his universe, and in each of us, is never finished. Scientists are never finished with their exploration of the universe, and the more they learn the more they discover what is yet to be learned. Scientists are continually searching to understand the present by examining the past. Revolutionary concepts, such as those offered by Copernicus and Galileo, are constantly being overturned and humbly accepted.

In caring for our spiritual life, a most useful exercise is to pause now and then to review this life of ours to see how it has changed (hopefully for the better) since its beginning.

Already I’m at a loss with this question: what is or was my beginning? The writer of Psalm 139 is astonished at his own being, recognizing that God knew how his little self would turn out long before anyone else knew of his existence  — or even cared.

You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me unformed.

My beginning was in my mother’s womb, as her beginning was in her mother’s womb, as her beginning was in her mother’s womb, as her beginning was in her mother’s womb, as her beginning  . . . etc., etc., etc.

This discovery suggests that my being, my essence, began much earlier than I thought.

Where would I be if it were not for the chain of that first creative copulation thousands of years ago? That chain has brought me to this very moment where I’ve been enabled to be aware of it. The traits I have  — physical, intellectual, emotional (and moral?) — didn’t come merely from the two humans through whom I’ve been generated into this short hour of life.

Because life has come from a living chain of other lives, it’s important to look into our own being, looking back at least as far as the few years of our short life, to examine where we’ve been and how we got to what we are now. And if this is beneficial at the materially human level, how much more enlightening would it be to trace the evolution of our spirituality. When we dare to examine our origin and history, our relationship to God and the people in our life, so much of our past is clarified, understood, appreciated, and even forgiven — as long as we approach this special study with the desire and courage to clarify, understand, appreciate and forgive all that has preceded this moment.

God may have rested, but he did not stop altogether. Out of a superabundance of LOVE, God continues to create. Nor can we stop or let go of that creative hand that is leading us carefully toward the end he wishes for us. Our destiny is to co-operate with God, work with him on this project of creating ourselves. Having been made in his image, we have been given all we need. All we need to do now is to accept His invitation to the Feast prepared for us from the beginning.

Van Gogh Rediscovered

Having seen the film, “Lust for Life,” several years ago, I had some familiarity with the life of Vincent Van Gogh. It’s a compelling story and I confess to knowing only the broad strokes (so to speak), the main events of his life. Otherwise, I’ve had only the most elementary appreciation of his style of painting.

As a young adult and son of a minister, Van Gogh made a few tries at different vocations. For a while, his middle-class family financially supported him in these trials. A significant one was his working as a lay preacher, ministering to the very poor miners and peasants of Belgium. Following literally the Gospel, he chose to live in the same squalid conditions of the people he served, illustrated in this somber painting, “The Potato Eaters.”

Ecclesiastical leaders, however, were not pleased, feeling that this life style demeaned his clerical status.

Vincent was rejected from the program. Even at this early part of his life, his father thought he was a lunatic and wanted to put him in an asylum.

Fast-forward to find online a four-part series on his life. Vincent is telling his brother Théo that he now intends to devote his life to painting. Théo angrily asks why Vincent is living once again in the poorest of conditions. “I can understand why you did this as a minister of the Gospel, but now it’s just absurd!” Vincent tries to explain that painting is truly his vocation.

“God is here,” he shouts. “God is everywhere, except in the church and in my bloody family!”

Théo walks away quite defeated, but nevertheless goes on to support his older brother for many years, both financially and emotionally.

What has drawn me to write about Van Gogh this week is his very Ignatian statement about finding God in all things. For me, this explains the vivid character of his art, especially as created in the famous painting, “Starry Night.”Stars are believed to be so steady, so unchanging, that mariners could set their position and destination by them.  But in Van Gogh’s painting they are full of life, energy, movement. This was how Vincent could paint the unpaintable truth that God is the source of all life — not just on our puny planet, but throughout the whole universe.

Once again we discover the creative intuition of an artist. I’m convinced that such artists are given to us to provide an unending stream of  visions of the divine Creator. We cannot yet see the Creator face-to-face, but as in a glass, darkly, as St. Paul reminds us.  “Just show us the Father,” St. Philip asks Jesus, “that will be enough for us.”

Jesus replies, “Who sees me sees the Father.”

All of us, either through art or prayer, have been given the invitation and ability to show others the Father in ourselves; to see him in the created universe and in one another.

Birth of a Post

Since starting my blog almost three years ago, I now arrive at publishing my 105th post. Several more drafts languish in their dusty, segregated folder. Sometimes I hear the question, “How do you decide on a topic?”
First, “decide.” This implies a process something like going through a smorgasbord, looking and sniffing at the most appealing and fragrant food to put on my plate, then happily relaxing and munching away.
How do I decide what to write? Frankly, I don’t. The title of my blog, Spirit as Muse, really says it all. The Muse at work here is none other than the Holy Spirit who, sometimes gently, sometimes urgently, pricks me into action. That is, if the Spirit has found in me a quiet and secluded space in which to act.
There may be some compelling event in the Church, such as the troubling and persistent news about clerical abuse of the innocent, or situations where legalism wins out over Mercy. Or Pope Francis may have made a statement that strikes me, such as, “The Eucharist . . . is not a prize for the perfect, but medicine and nourishment for the weak.” [The Joy of the Gospel] Or some words of Scripture charm me, pushing me to understand and proclaim their reality. Frequently it’s the beauty of art, poetry, music, or the lure of nature that sparks my imagination. Another tease may be the desire to refresh platitudes or rote prayers that have, alas!, lost their true meaning through mindless repetition.
So I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and let the thoughts come as they may. This is the easy part. The work part is trying to clarify the thoughts, to put them all in an order that will make them as understandable and alluring to others as possible.
It’s like seeing a shiny and precious shard, half buried in a littered landscape. Once a topic takes ahold of me, I allow it to go wherever it wants. Soon I rescue it, uncover it, make it my own, and share it with others.
So, pen glides over page, words jump out of the keyboard as my thoughts dance about, poking here, pinching there, scraping away the moldy stuff that’s been hiding some infinitesimally small but precious nugget.
As the digging continues, the treasure grows and grows,

becoming more luminous (I hope!) with every edit. Rearranging the words is like moving around the props on a stage set. They must be placed just so, so that they will give substance to the reality that had been hidden from the audience. More questions arise, playing the part of the lighting director who points the lamps at different angles until the mystery becomes clear at last.
I so often wish I could be visited by Emily Dickinson’s Muse (in addition to the Holy Spirit, of course), so that everyday words would simply fall together to paint something of beauty; where ordinary expressions would swirl about in all their simplicity until the inspiration that started it all shapes the fluttering words into a transcendent reality that will show, at least in part, the emerging face of God.
For God is in all things, even in words – especially in The Word through which God made all things, and finally us in his image and likeness.

Breakfast on the Shore

Third Sunday of Easter. John 21:1-19

Peter and the other Apostles are at the Sea of Tiberias (aka the Sea of Galilee). They are restless, at sixes and sevens without their beloved Master, those wonderful, exciting days with him, soaking up the glory of his presence, his teaching, his miracles.

The risen Christ has appeared to them and to many others, but on a temporary basis only. Time is lying heavy on their empty hands. The glory days are over. What can life have in store for them any more? What will become of them, who have known intimacy with this holy, brilliant, strong and loving man? Are they now to be reduced to virtually nothing?

For nothing of value can come from them without their Lord. He had sent them out on missions of teaching and miracles, having given them the authority to expel evil spirits and to perform acts of healing for those in need. No more, it seems.

Peter, full of pent-up, frustrated energy, announces: “I’m going fishing!” Recognizing his leadership, the other men fall in line: “We’re coming with you.” At last! Something productive to do!

That is, potentially productive, for in fact they never catch even a single smelt all throughout the night.

Dawn breaks. A man is seen standing on the shore. A friendly voice calls out to them: “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” Of course not.

The stranger says, “Cast your net over the right side of the boat and you’ll find something.”

Really? The typical fishing boat of that era was only about two and a half yards wide. (And by the way, this is also the same kind of boat Peter and Andrew, James and John were in when Jesus first called them to become “fishers of people.”

What could be so different between one side of the boat and the other? There is nothing on one side, and seven feet in the other direction is going to be teeming with fish? But instead of laughing at such an absurd suggestion, the men do what is suggested. Voilà! The net is close to breaking from a catch of 153 (they counted them!) fish.

What symbolism! By themselves, the Apostles are restless and unproductive. Besides, all that energy uselessly expended has left them empty and hungry. John, who loved the Lord and whom Jesus loved, is the first one to recognize the voice of his Master.

Why does Peter jump into the sea? Surely the boat can cover those 100 yards to the shore more quickly than a man swimming. But that’s how Peter is: impetuous, competitive, charging ahead, needing to be first.

Arriving at the shore, they find that their Lord-servant has already prepared for them a freshly cooked breakfast of bread and fish. Another example of his tender care.

One would think that the risen Christ might have shown himself to his followers surrounded by brilliant lights, choirs of angels, heavenly hosts — in short, like the vision described by John in today’s reading from Revelation: Jesus, finally receiving all the honor due him.

Not yet. His way of revealing himself while still on earth, is quiet and unexpected: coming into the upper room; walking and chatting with two disappointed disciples; preparing breakfast for his tired and dejected friends.

For now, the ordinary. Splendor will come later.

Who Is This Man?

All through our liturgical year, starting with Advent, marching through Christmas with shepherds and magi — the ignorant and the erudite — we finally arrive at this grim time in his history, witnessing and feeling the last sufferings of Jesus Christ.

Who is this Man who, in three short years, boldly claimed what he could do for us? Even though he described the forgiving and caring nature of God, he did not cringe from boldly assertive “I” phrases such as —

I am the Good Shepherd
I am the vine; you are the branches
I am the bread of life
When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.

Bold teachings, but gently delivered, as Isaiah wrote: A bruised reed he will not break (42:3). The ones he reached out to were the suffering, the ones the higher-ups didn’t care about. Those referred to as the “remnant,” the useless left-overs of society, he approached with loving compassion and new hope.

John the Baptist, seen by many as a holy man, was nearly as bold as the One he announced, as he cried out:

Behold the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world.

These words are so often spoken and heard that they float almost unnoticed through our minds. The sacrificial “Lamb of God” phrase is easy to grasp, but I, for one, struggled with those words about “taking away sin.” A language problem for sure, because for me, “taking away” meant removing. Would that it were so! Obviously, sin is still with us, alive and thriving. This is where Jesus gives us the vision of God’s limitless compassion and how we are its beneficiaries.

Sins forgiven are sins taken away.

If all of us were to practice what Jesus the Christ taught on this earth,  we would surely have entered the Kingdom of God, forgiven for any of our sins, for all of our unloving behaviors. Totally human, Jesus demonstrated perfect holiness by forgiving the cruelty and injustice of his judges and executioners. Such is the holiness we are invited to share with him and our heavenly Father. This is the divinisation spoken of by Saints Athanasius and Augustine. Recall what Jesus said in defense of his status as son of God: Don’t your scriptures say, “You are gods”? (John 10:34)

No wonder legal-minded “spiritual” leaders of his day worried about this Jesus person. They must have thought, “Where will we be if we let him get away with these egotistical pronouncements? Where will we be If he lets these sinners loose, if he lets these polluted people run rampant over our old, time-tested law that’s been holding us together for centuries? Our old dependable law will melt into oblivion. We’ll be lost! How bold, how revolutionary, to teach something so extravagantly new! To sit with sinners, to mingle in friendship with the unclean!”

Oh yes, this was indeed a revolution, an unthinkably dangerous way of treating the riff-raff. Of all things! The playing field would be leveled!

And so we find ourselves this week at the climax of Christ’s Passion in its twofold sense: on fire to draw others into the Kingdom of God; acceptance of suffering to legitimize his message. The command Jesus heard from the Father, and obeyed, has been spoken to us. We too can join Christ as heirs of God.

The way is simple in the sense of uncomplicated, yet accessible even to the un-schooled. Jesus entered the Holy City of Jerusalem as a poor man would, not on a silk-covered chair transported by slaves, and not upon a horse, the symbol of worldly power, wealth, and oppression.

Just days ago we witnessed the near destruction of one of our most cherished cathedrals, Notre Dame of Paris.

What timing! How can we not be reminded of Christ’s audacious claim: Destroy this temple and in three days I will restore it!

When St. Francis of Assisi heard a call to “restore the church,” in his simplicity he thought of the local church building needing repairs. It didn’t take long for him to realize the call was for him to model a return to the humble truths of the Gospel.

Yet even after two thousand years, we are far from practicing what Christ taught, even though he gave his life to prove it, and even though he was resurrected in order to continue his teachings through the many disciples to come.

God is the only One of kingly status. He does not need or ask for palaces, elaborate clothing, elaborate gifts, or complicated directives that only scrupulous, punctilious minds can explain, much less follow.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the ones who mourn, who make peace, who yearn for justice.
My yoke is easy, my burden is light.
Love one another as I have loved you.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Matthew 24:35)

Salvador Dali