Presence

A friend asked me why I hadn’t posted anything in a while. I squarely put the blame on an absent Muse. I’ve certainly been trying! So she (the Muse) decided to show up today, suggesting a topic that we’ve written about before: Presence.

It all started when a fellow blogger linked his readers to a talk on YouTube given by Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now. When I checked my book-case, that book was still there, but only half read.

I watched a number of Tolle’s brief but substantive talks, covering topics that plague virtually all of us: depression, negativity, anxiety, anger, etc. Difficulties arise when the mind – frequently our own worst enemy – dwells on past hurts, issues, events that disturb our peace. We keep replaying these old news reels, thus keeping them alive to hurt us over and over again. Thoughts about the future can be a joyful exercise but are problematic when they produce anxiety or fear. Tolle proposes that these negative states can be tamed by learning to live in the NOW. The NOW, after all, is the only thing we have: the past is gone; the future is unknowable.Tolle definitely has made a new fan of me.

However, after seeing the Mass readings for today (16th Sunday of Ordinary Time), the reality dawned on me that what Tolle teaches is most helpful, but not really new. This is not to denigrate either Tolle or what he teaches, because we all need to hear the same thing repeated at different times, in different words, to different audiences in different eras. This morning, for example, we heard the stunning passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. He imparts the “mystery hidden from all ages, now, finally revealed to all. This is the mystery of Christ in you.” Christ’s miraculous presence in us.

This is the work of our divinization as we take on the mind and attitude of Christ.

 This is the Presence of grace. Even better: the divine Presence of the Divine Christ.

Some are fortunate to have found this ongoing presence of Christ within, so that everything they do, say, hear, teach, comes from that Presence. Here are just three persons who were given the grace to exemplify what it means to live in the Presence, with Christ in them:

  • St. Ignatius: Ignatian spirituality is rooted in the conviction that God is active, personal, and—above all—present to us. We don’t have to withdraw from the world into a quiet place in order to find God. God’s footprints can be found everywhere—in our work and our relationships, in our family and friends, in our sorrows and joys, in the sublime beauty of nature and in the mundane details of our daily lives. It’s often said that Ignatian spirituality trains us to “find God in all things.”
  • Brother Lawrence, Carmelite monk, Practitioner of God’s presence: “It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”
  • J.P. deCaussade, S.J.: Author of Sacrament of the Present Moment (also known as Abandonment to Divine Providence), and spiritual director to nuns of the Visitation. He counseled them that the smallest deeds, even outside of prayer, were transformative when performed in union with Christ.

Jesus, of course, lets us know how to find peace in all that we do. In today’s Gospel, he tells Martha that her anxiety, not her chores, is what keeps her from finding joy in Christ. Mary, sitting quietly at the feet of her guest, is fully and peacefully connected with him. They are both present to each other. — How easy!

What Is “the Church”?

The current state of the Church is, to put it mildly, troubling. The realization of how sin is possible for even the most devout, has led me to ponder and to examine what is my personal attitude toward what we call “Church.”

For me, answers about the nature of Church have come mostly through the writings of St. Paul. I lean on him since he is responsible for the initial conversion of thousands of gentiles, now grown to billions, as he taught about Jesus and Jesus’ message. He most often refers to him not as “Jesus of Nazareth,” but as the Christ. Surely this is because “Jesus of Nazareth” associates him with only one small community, whereas Christ signifies the one anointed to teach the Gospel of the Kingdom to all people everywhere.

“Church” might be thought of as a building or parish as, for example, “I attend St. Mary’s Church.” Or it might be a kind of organization or institution as, for example, “the Pope is the head of the Church.” I believe these narrow meanings are far from St. Paul’s. He plunges us into his mystical understanding of the word “church” as nothing less than “the body of Christ.” He details this concept especially in his letters quoted below, where we learn that the Church has these spiritual characteristics:

  1. It is one: For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. (1 Cor. 12:13)
  2. It is diverse but egalitarian: Whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, … we were all given to drink of one Spirit.
    Unity does not mean conformity!

    Diversity is necessary to serve a variety of needs, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry  for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God. . . so that living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ. (Ephesians 4:16)
  3. Christ is the head of the Church and our model. His teachings must be at the root of our actions. All authority is his. The rest of us (even the least, even the self-proclaimed greatest) must be servants to one another, and through this service, we “grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ.”
  4. Since St. Paul refers to the Church as the Body of Christ, we know it is neither an institution nor an exclusive organization. We fall in love with a Person, not an institution. The Body, the Person is Christ, Jesus of Nazareth who brought hope to the oppressed and an open invitation to sinners of all stripes; who invited all of us to share a heavenly feast.
  5. Just as a body is a living organism, the Church is a growing entity, changing and developing as the current age needs and understands. It grows and is built up by love. The proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love.
  6. Individual responsibility. The Church is made up of individuals with unique gifts for evangelization. Christ is in each of us. Each of us is, in a way, the Church.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body . . . the church, of which I (individually) am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. . . it is Christ in you. (Colossians 1:24-27)

The Church, Christ’s Body, is composed of individuals. Each of us, no matter what our position or “title,” has a unique responsibility to bring Christ to both believers and non-believers.  I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. We who have been given to know Christ must bring Christ to all. In fact, we must be Christ to all. Each of us claiming to be Christian is uniquely responsible for living the commands of the Kingdom, not just for our own salvation but also for the sake of others.

Just as St. Paul imitated the life of Christ, including his afflictions, so  are we called to do the same. Because Christ lives in us, he is seen through us, and every generation of disciples must re-experience in some way the afflictions of Christ.  

Christ invites us to show others how our life is the continuation of Christ on this earth. He is visible to others only through what our life reveals. This is the mystery of Christ in us as we offer the world its hope for glory.

The Joy of Evangelization

When I was miraculously (yes, miraculously) brought back to the Church, I experienced a sense of what can only be described as true joy.

I know there are many who would be puzzled by this. We’re aware of so many flaws existing in the institutional church. How can one be happy (much less joyful) to be brought back to this historically flawed institution?

Amazing, right? This seems impossible, because we expect perfection in any organization that’s dedicated to the precious person of Christ. These perceptions reflect, I’ve discovered, a serious absence of understanding.

Take this Sunday’s Gospel of Mark (6:1-6a).

Jesus has come back to Nazareth, his native place, intending to teach in the Synagogue. The reaction to him is, in the vernacular, “Who does he think he is? He’s no better than us. He hasn’t had any special instruction, so how can he talk about wisdom? He comes from a common family whom we see every day, and his relatives aren’t that great either.”

Like so many of us, the Nazarenes looked at the messenger and ignored the message. Jesus had something remarkable to teach them, if they had only been open and non-judgmental. He had been given the assignment when he was baptized by John in the Jordan, participating with (let’s not forget) a bunch of sinners. What he heard as he emerged from the waters was the divine call to teach, which is what prophets do. This is my beloved Son; listen to him. Jesus cemented his resolve by spending 40 days in the desert, alone except for beasts and angels: one side against the other, leaving him to discern the message he was to teach: The kingdom of God is near. Indeed it was. It was especially present in this new Prophet from Nazareth.

Unfortunately, many of us have become jaded, unimpressed, empty of wonder at the message of God, delivered through this divine Prophet. Yes, the Church has a history of imperfect behaviors. But what is its message?

Through all its human failings, the Church has continued to deliver the message: God IS; Christ IS; the Gospel IS. There are no teachings that can surpass the one commandment that Jesus constantly repeated as the most important: Love one another. Love covers a multitude of sins.

And there’s St. Paul in this Sunday’s letter, begging God to take all sense of pride and elation from him. Of course Paul was elated to have been allowed to teach the gospel, to Evangelize.

But God knows how to keep us humble as he allows us to struggle against egotism so that we might rely totally on God’s strength and perfection. And so the Church has likewise struggled, and has still been enabled to bring the world that most important message.

The Prophet Ezekiel (first reading) has been sent to speak to a “rebellious house.” And “whether they heed or resist, they shall know that a prophet has been among them.” Again, not because of the prophet/messenger, but because of the message.

True discipleship is to cling to the message of the Gospel, not because the Church is made up of saints, but despite the fact that the Church is made up of imperfect sinners, which includes us along with all the rest.

Most astounding of all is that we imperfect ones are given the same assignment as Christ’s: Teach the Gospel in our native place and elsewhere. Teach it by living Christ’s message, by loving and accepting all the sinful others who share our need for God.

Conversion

I write this on the feast of St. Paul’s conversion, January 25. And what a conversion was that!

It’s my opinion, produced by experience, that I am repeatedly called to conversion. For me, there was one very big one, so big that I remember the date, place and hour. It was October 4, 1998, in Santa Fe (Holy Faith) at the noon Mass being celebrated at the Diocesan cathedral of Saint Francis. It was the fourth centenary of the Franciscans in the New World. The large number of Latinos at this Mass guaranteed that the liturgy’s music would indeed be celebratory. The contagious joy and enthusiasm of the parishioners acted upon me like Paul’s blinding light: powerfully and instantly converting me, bringing me back to the Faith that I had abandoned 21 years earlier.

Let me say it again: we are repeatedly called to conversion — not necessarily in a grand fashion, but in small doses, mini lights that invite us to make Gospel decisions.

  • Shall I respond harshly to this person to let her know I don’t appreciate her criticism of me?
  • Shall I turn a punishing frown at the guy who practically knocks me over with his shopping cart?
  • Shall I get out of bed for weekday Mass, tired as I am from staying up late to watch a movie?
  • Shall I give in to the “sadness of the noonday devil,”* or will I accept the call to bravery in performing those uninspiring tasks that wait for no one but me to finish?

These are the little conversions, the tiny steps that follow at a great distance from the footsteps of Christ. These are the mustard seeds, the tiniest available, that I’m invited to plant and tend carefully and steadily until they explode into trees, housing flocks of birds.

The Gospel call of the Apostles has always intrigued me. I used to lament that I was not around to be called to discipleship (not that as a woman I’d have been called anyway). There was a kind of magnificence to being called, to being lifted out of the drab dullness of daily drudgery to follow this great healer, preacher, teacher; to view the wonderment of the crowds and to be so intimately connected with the greatness of this man! For me, discipleship represented the best kind of greatness.

Before his call, Saul too had a kind of greatness. He was a leader in the gradual but persistent elimination of heretics who arrogantly claimed fellowship with a blasphemous criminal (as if this were something to be proud of!). Saul’s task: bring them back in chains, let them imitate their master, even to submitting to the same end and manner of execution.

Given his powerful personality, this saint-in-the-making required a proportionately powerful show of God’s great mercy. A mere hint or two wouldn’t be enough. Saul needed a blinding light, a certitude that would impel him to undertake the most trying conditions. In spite of all his sufferings – he recounts shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings – he considered them as nothing, and himself as the least of the Apostles. Indeed, his new name – Paul – means poor and small. Only in his acceptance of this smallness and the cross could he find true glory.

No wonder “little” Thérèse’s doctrine set the world on fire. Goodness, even holiness, was now presented to the hoi polloi as readily available even to the least of us. This young woman, formally educated only to the sixth-grade level, was named a Doctor of the Church for having taught this humble approach to God. Her longing to be a missionary, even to be a priest, was far beyond the possibilities of her circumstances. She recognized that all God wanted of her was fidelity to what was right in front of her: undramatic daily chores; crabby people; simple prayer which she often slept through. Each choice brought her one step closer to the One she loved “madly!”

How simple are my choices! Not easy, and certainly no longer grandiose as I grow slowly but surely into the reality of insignificance. All that remains is to be totally focused on the desire for the one thing necessary and a dogged determination to live the Gospel.


acedia.jpg* The “sadness of the noonday devil,” a spiritual condition called acedia is a gloomy combination of weariness, sadness, and a lack of purposefulness. It robs a person of his capacity for joy and leaves him feeling empty, or void of meaning.