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Gifts of the Spirit

22 May

Each weekday morning at our house progresses remarkably the same. My bleary-eyed sons stumble their way downstairs to cuddle with me for a bit before watching a show of their choice on pbskids.org. The viewing of a television episode insures that I can have approximately twenty-three minutes to myself to shower and get ready for the day. I frequently use this wonderfully quiet alone time to reflect on and mentally work through challenges I am facing: a writing project on which I am blocked, an intractable issue involving my sons for which there seems to be no creative solution, a break in a relationship that seems resistant to mending. Often, as my sons’ refrain of “Is it time for breakfast, mom?” rings in my ears all too soon, the thought upon which my rumination ends is, “I want someone to tell me it is going to be okay.”

It has been interesting to be able to put this refrain into words (perhaps this ability coincides with my children getting old enough to do a bit more for themselves, thus freeing me for more self-care and self-reflection than the first few years of their lives made possible). I think it is a bass note that has been there all along, and it is only now that I am able to hear it more clearly and to think about what it portends. The first part (“I want someone”) indicates a desire for relationship, for companionship, for feeling that I am not alone in the world as I face its prosaic and more extraordinary challenges. The second part (“to tell me it is going to be okay”) means that I do not want people to fix things for me, but rather to assure me that I have the strength to make it through.

via flickr user justinbaeder

via flickr user justinbaeder

In the realm of human relationships, I am beginning to see how this need for a supportive someone in my life says little about the friends and family I already have and everything about me. If I want someone to tell me it is going to be okay, I first have to be willing to tell someone that I am not okay. Sharing my vulnerability, owning up to the times when I feel over my head, and openly expressing my emotions is truly challenging to me. When I do not do these things, I deprive the important people in my life the opportunity to be there for me. If I cannot open up about my weakness, they won’t know to reflect back to me what they see as my power and ability.

This Sunday’s Gospel from John 14 also reminds me that it is not toward human beings alone that I can turn to for the sort of compassionate and encouraging relationship that seems to be a deep necessity in my life right now. Jesus tells his disciples that he will ask the Father and that the Father will send an Advocate to be with them always. And Jesus keeps his word, as we find out later in the Gospel of John. Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection, breathes on them, and tells them to “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Put another way, Jesus insures that his disciples will have the help of the Spirit to assist them as they go into the world to do his work.

As members of the body of Christ, baptized into Jesus’ family, we can trust that the Spirit is with us always as a companion on our spiritual journeys. In fact, I do not need to “want someone to tell me it is going to be okay” when I realize that the Spirit of God is already with me, already empowering me with the gifts of the Spirit that are given us in baptism and that are renewed when we receive Eucharist. These gifts are:

  • Wisdom: the desire to contemplate the things of God
  • Understanding: the ability to comprehend divine truth, especially as revealed through Jesus Christ
  • Counsel: the ability to judge how to act based on faith
  • Fortitude: the courage to follow through on actions suggested by the gift of counsel
  • Knowledge: the ability to see our lives as God sees them
  • Piety: the desire to worship and serve God
  • Fear of the Lord: the desire to act out of hope and out of wonder and awe of God (which is different than acting out of fear of punishment)

When I feel as if I am alone, I need to make my vulnerability known to others and I need to reconnect with the Spirit who is already accompanying and empowering me. I can trust that I am never working alone, and while a problem may feel too big for me, who am I to say what is too big for God?

Living the Easter Message

16 May

Recently, a wise woman pointed out to me that while Catholics tend to spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the season of Lent, we often celebrate Easter Sunday and then forget that we are in the midst of the longest special liturgical season of the church year. The Easter season extends from Easter through Pentecost, which comes fifty days after Easter. On a liturgical calendar, the Easter season is marked in gold, a color of joy and victory, as the Easter season is the time when we celebrate the fulfillment of our faith—the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of new life this brings.

Prayer, fasting and abstinence, and almsgiving are three traditional pillars of practice for Catholics during Lent that help us prepare for Holy Week and the coming of Easter. These practices encourage us to see the world in a different way and to change our way of being in the world by focusing on ideas like penance, sacrifice, and living our baptismal calling. But now that Easter is here—now that Jesus Christ is indeed risen, Alleluia!—what can we do to help us see and engage with the world with an Easter mindset? In other words, how can we live the joy of Easter during this season?

A baseline form of obligation for all Catholics is to receive Eucharist at least once during the Easter season. This is sort of like a minimal membership requirement for being Catholic. And while it is important to receive Eucharist, it seems like there is more we can do to celebrate the miracle of Easter that is at the center of our faith. Yet there do not seem to be too many widespread practices associated with the Easter season, something that would be similar to lighting Advent wreaths or abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent. Given that Easter is the greatest feast of the church year, it seems as if there should be more practices in which we could engage so that the celebratory mindset of Easter has more of a chance to take root in our lives.

I read on-line recently that a group of monks answers the phone with the greeting, “Christus resurrexit!” (Christ is risen) during the eight days after Easter. I have to admit that I would be hesitant to answer my own phone this way (or to post this as my status update on Facebook). Yet as I think about my life during this Easter season, it turns out there are already practices I do or could return to that contribute to living with Easter hope and joy.

  • Focusing on joy: When I was finished with my student teaching many years ago, the class of fourth graders gave me a little journal embossed with the title “Claire’s Book of Joy.” The first page had the heading “Things that Bring Me Joy,” and under it was one entry: “Teaching religion to a group of fourth graders who think you are awesome.” Over the years, I have added to this list, entries such as “Hearing the perfect song for your mood on the radio” and “Cuddling with my children on the couch.” To heighten my focus on joy, I could revisit this list, reading through it daily, offering prayers of thanksgiving for the joy that is in my life, and adding to it as I am so moved.
  • Celebrating new life: It might sound cheesy, but I love watching the plants in our yard come back to life each spring, an activity that is made all the more pleasant now that I have two inquisitive little boys with whom to share it. This year we plan to enhance our celebration by planting and tending to our first vegetable garden. We also love to walk to a nearby pond, where we observe the ducks and geese sitting on their nests and try to predict on which day we will first see the ducklings and goslings go for a swim. Together we wonder at the process of learning that takes place as these young animals make their way in the world. We could also celebrate life by making a special effort this Easter season to offer our support (perhaps in the form of homemade meals or baby-sitting time) to friends and family who have recently had children.
  • Giving from Abundance: In our society, it is all too easy to focus on scarcity. We are socialized to hang on to everything we have for ourselves, to “look out for number one,” and to do whatever it takes to get ahead. And yet one lesson of Easter is that God loves and provides for us with gratuitous love that is overflowing and that knows no bounds. When my family lives from a mindset of scarcity, we focus on buying things for ourselves and saving our money to protect against a disaster that may never happen. In contrast, when we remember to live from a sense of abundance, we find many ways that we can give of ourselves, not just in charitable giving but also in giving of our time and talent.
  • Living with hope:There are situations in life that seem hopeless and that cause much despair. For example, I have a relationship with someone important in my life about which I despair; I fear I will never be able to move past how I have been hurt by this person and do not trust that this person will ever be in a position to be his authentic self with me. Living with hope would mean finding a way to change my attitude about and participation in this relationship, which might start with the seemingly small and simple act of praying that one day our relationship is restored to one of mutuality, respect, and love.

Self-sacrifice and Motherhood

8 May

If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps. (1 Peter 2:20B-25)

via flickr user VinothChandar

via flickr user VinothChandar

These lines from this coming Sunday’s second reading jumped out at me this week because this coming Sunday is also Mother’s Day. In the cultural imagination in the United States, this image of patient suffering for the good, of following in Christ’s footsteps of self-sacrifice, of giving of the self to the point of giving the self away for the sake of others is often equated with being a “good” mother. On a more personal level, these are also the images that I have held myself to over the past six years as I have parented my two sons; yet they are images with which I struggle mightily. On the one hand, it is hard to ignore the centrality of self-sacrificial love in the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Certainly patient suffering and giving the self away for the sake of others is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

On the other hand, I have begun to question the wisdom of holding up self-sacrifice as the quintessence of Christian love. This reflection has been spurred by the marked ambivalence I feel as I anticipate the addition of a third child to our family in a few months and the return to the intense care-giving that goes with having an infant. Certainly, I feel blessed that we will welcome a new person into our family, yet alongside this gratitude is no small amount of terror. As I have worked to understand this fear, I realize that a large part of it is related to the ideal of self-sacrifice to which I have held myself during my tenure as a part-time stay-at-home mother to my first two sons. Since I feel fortunate to be in a financial and career situation where I am able to be at home part-time, I keep quiet about how excruciatingly boring this has been at times and how isolated I feel, convincing myself that this is simply the price I have to pay for spending time with my children. Used to being “successful” in the professional realm, I project an image of a successful caretaker, not letting on to the constant questions about doing and being enough for my kids that plague me day in and day out. Another sacrifice for the greater good. Taken in by the idea that mothers are supposed to give everything of themselves to their children, I have ignored my own likes and dislikes and played chess with my three-year-old following the real rules and one-on-one football with my five-year-old, even though I despise these activities enough that I cannot make it through them unless I am accompanied by a pocket full of M & M’s (a sign of an eating disorder that I am just beginning to understand). At base, the trepidation associated with having a third child is grounded in a sense that if I keep sacrificing myself this way, I may completely lose myself and may never be able to get it back.

So how is a good Christian mother, who wants to walk in the footsteps of Jesus without losing herself, supposed to deal with the ideal of self-sacrifice? In her wonderful book Caretakers of Our Common House, Christian educator Carol Lakey Hess offers what I believe is an important proposal: change the ideal and put self-sacrifice in its proper place. Drawing on the work of theologians like Louis Janssens and Don Browning, she argues that rather than self-sacrifice being the essence of Christian love, “Mutuality and equal regard constitute both the essence of love and the ethical vision for community life” (p. 95). Equal regard includes regard for the self and regard for others. If we are called to treat others with respect because they are human beings, made in the image of God, then we are also called to extend the same respect to ourselves. The temptation of sin in a world where equal regard is the ideal is not only that we would operate with inordinate self-regard; it also is that we would operate with inordinate other-regard that risks sliding into unthinking giving that can harm ourselves. As Hess articulates, when mutuality and equal regard are the ideal, self-sacrifice still has a place; it becomes “the extra mile we must travel to help bring a situation of conflict and disharmony into mutuality again” (p. 95). Rather than being constitutive of a relationship, self-sacrifice can be a gracious catalyst for restoring relationships of mutuality, reciprocity, and respect. To bring it closer to home, self-sacrifice should not be the only way in which I relate to my children. More accurately, it is part of a larger vision of harmonious relationships in which all parties, including myself, are treated with respect.

Knowing Jesus

1 May
via flickr user my2cents

via flickr user my2cents

Where do we find Jesus in the post-resurrection time in which we live? For those of us who did not get to know Jesus during his embodiment on earth, how do we now get to know him now? This Sunday’s Gospel, the road to Emmaus story from Luke 24, gives us some important clues to answering these questions.

This Gospel story opens with two of Jesus’ disciples walking toward Emmaus, a village seven miles from Jerusalem. Along the way, their conversation, not surprisingly, turns to the events that had recently transpired involving Jesus’ death and the empty tomb found three days later by some women from their group. We are told they were “conversing and debating,” and we can imagine them trying to make sense of these events that defied all of their expectations about who Jesus was. The one who they had hoped would “redeem Israel” was put to death, along with their hopes that Israel would find political and religious freedom apart from their Roman occupiers.

As the disciples are deep in conversation, a fellow traveler joins them, a man the Gospel reader knows is Jesus but who is unrecognizable to the disciples. We are told that “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him,” but I do not think we need to look to supernatural explanations for their blindness. Post-resurrection, Jesus is no longer human in the same way that he was during his lifetime on earth. If we expect Jesus to look a certain way, or if we place too much importance on what Jesus’ physical visage would have been, we will miss what is crucial about Jesus’ identity, like these disciples who can’t quite wrap their heads around what has happened now that Jesus has turned out to be someone different than who they thought.

In order to join their conversation, Jesus asks them what they have been discussing, and they tell him about what has happened to “Jesus the Nazarene, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” They end their story by relating their own visit to Jesus’ tomb, where they saw indeed that Jesus’ body was gone but did not see Jesus himself or a vision of angels announcing that he was alive, as the group of women had. At this, it seems that Jesus gets a bit fed up with the lack of understanding evidenced by the disciples, and he gives them a scripture lesson as they walk, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” interpreting “to them what referred to him in all the scriptures.”

And even having heard this interpretation from the mouth of the resurrected Jesus himself, the disciples still do not know Jesus. Now certainly gaining this perspective, this knowledge, may open them up to being able to recognize Jesus later in the story. But in and of itself, this cognitive knowledge, this knowing about Jesus, is not sufficient for them to recognize their traveling companion as Jesus, as the one whom they had followed and with whom they had had an intimate relationship. Thus we will not come to know Jesus in a personal, life-changing way if we only know about him. We will not meet Jesus by being able to offer a “correct” interpretation of scripture or by reciting an orthodox set of beliefs about him.

As the traveling group approaches Emmaus, Jesus seems as if he will keep traveling, but the two disciples urge him to stay with them since the day is almost over (perhaps demonstrating in this offer of hospitality that they have not completely missed the message of Jesus’ life). Then the dramatic climax of the story occurs: Jesus sits with them at the table and takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. And they recognize him for who he is in this action, just as he disappears again.

There are at least two aspects of this moment of awakening for the disciples that are instructive to us in our post-resurrection time. The first is that it is in a communal moment that this recognition takes place. Knowing Jesus is not only about an individual’s relationship with Jesus or “accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior,” as common evangelical parlance puts it; rather, knowing Jesus demands participation in a community (Matthew 18:20). Second, it is in doing something that Jesus had done in during his life, in imitating this past action, that the disciples finally awaken to the reality that Jesus has been raised. Thus knowing Jesus is never only about head knowledge; it involves imitating the life of Jesus in our own lives. This begins, of course, with participating in the Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life. But it also involves imitating other aspects of Jesus’ actions on earth: reaching out to those on the margins, speaking as a prophet, and grounding one’s life in adoration of God.

Candy Crush Confessions

24 Apr

“Mom!” At the sound of my four-year-old’s voice, my eyes snapped open. “It’s your turn.” Turns out I had fallen asleep sitting up in the middle of our checker game, in the middle of the living room, in the middle of the day. With an internal promise to allow myself to take a nap once my son went down for his, we finished the checker game (with me struggling to keep my eyes open the whole way), I read him a few books, and then I tucked him in for his nap.

Then, rather than take the nap my almost 30-week pregnant body was craving, I started playing Candy Crush on my husband’s old iPhone, a phone with so many cracks in the face that you sometimes can’t get certain finger swipes to work. At first, I told myself I would play “just one game” before lying down for a nap. Thirty minutes later, I admitted to myself that I would keep playing until the game locked me out for the day and that I would not have time for a nap before we had to pick my older son up from school. Even as I was playing, a line from the book of Romans kept cycling through my brain: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want…”(Romans 7:15).

via flickr user Jhaymesisviphotography

via flickr user Jhaymesisviphotography

I have to admit that I am a bit perplexed by my seeming addiction to Candy Crush, as I have never been a “gamer” in any sense of the word. When my family got our first Nintendo when I was in middle school, I played a few games of Mario and then read a good book. When my girl friends took up Mario Cart in college, I played a few games and then chose to study. When my husband and sons took up Angry Birds, I do not think I even played a game but rather relished the time to do anything but that.

In an attempt to understand myself a bit better, I went to the book of Romans to look up what follows the verse about doing what we do not want to do. Here is what is says a few verses later: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:19-20). Certainly, it might be going a bit far to call an innocuous game like Candy Crush “evil” and to relegate my playing of it to the realm of sin. And yet as I find myself, phone in hand, playing this game when there are other things of a greater good to which I should be attending, I wonder if evil and sin need to be redefined in our time of (addictive) media that allows us to pass the time without truly find enjoyment in our leisure and to avoid parts of our lives (emotions, relationships, arduous tasks) that would be better dealt with now instead of in that ever-receding future of “when I beat the next level” or “finish the next season.”

And yet even as I contemplate kicking the habit for good, I do not want to be too hard on myself. If I have learned anything in my work this past year to heal from an eating disorder, it is that the behaviors that turn out to be maladaptive in the long-term often start as our well-meaning, albeit doomed, attempts to meet our very real needs. So while Candy Crush is now getting in the way of writing projects that are past deadlines and actually connecting with my husband (rather than parallel playing on our respective devices), at the beginning I wanted to be playing it. I was attracted to it for some reason. So what needs did this downloadable phenomenon meet in my life?

I feel more than a bit sheepish admitting this, but the main thing I get out of this game is a sense of accomplishment. I actually feel proud when I get past a level that has been giving me a hard time. Conversely, in my work as a part-time stay-at-home mom and part-time adjunct professor, I very rarely feel accomplished.  Between folding laundry and cooking meals, between grading papers and replying to online discussion boards, there is always work to be done, relatively thankless work which feels mundane enough so as not to elicit any sort of pride on my behalf. So what this Candy Crush-inspired reflection is encouraging me to consider is how can I take more pride in my work. It might involve something as little as taking time to pat myself on the back when I come up with a creative solution to a recurring problem at home, like tonight when I outsmarted the nightly battle of the wills that is getting my sons up to their bedroom by challenging them to a race up the stairs, winner picks the books to read. It might also involve a little more soul searching to think about what aspects of my paid work actually contribute to a positive sense of self, such as writing and leading retreats, and how to make space in my schedule for these things. And it may just happen that as I seek out other ways to feel accomplished, the hold Candy Crush has on me will lessen and eventually fall be the wayside completely.

Holy Week: Standing Things on Their Heads

16 Apr

Lent is a time of conversion, a time for changing ourselves and our actions as we strive to better live into our baptismal vows. Holy Week makes a fitting conclusion to this time of conversion, in that what we celebrate during Holy Week radically challenges the way we see the world, at times standing on its head things we thought we knew.

On Holy Thursday, we remember and celebrate Christ’s institution of the Eucharist meal, that is, Jesus taking bread and wine him during his last supper with his followers and friends and teaching his disciples about how to remember him. A memorable part of the Holy Thursday service is that the priest washes the feet of people from the congregation, mirroring Jesus’ action of washing the feet of his disciples before the meal. We may be so used to observing this foot washing on Holy Thursday that we forget how radical a thing it represents. In Jesus’ time, when sandal-wearing would have been prevalent, foot washing was part of hospitality. A home owner would provide a bowl of water and offer a servant to wash the feet of those who came to visit. Jesus, the son of God and leader of this group, takes the role of a servant, showing hospitality and waiting on his friends. In so doing, Jesus overturns the servant-master hierarchy, becoming the servant himself. In so doing, Jesus demonstrates that central to being a leader is serving others.

While the master-servant hierarchy crucial to the social order of Jesus’ time may seem far from our experiences, there are other hierarchies that mark relationships between people and groups of people in our time as well. Globally, we can witness a hierarchy between so-called First World nations and those nations of the two-thirds world; we also experience a growing gap between the rich and poor, a hierarchy that fed into the Occupy movements and events. What other hierarchies do you experience in your life and what can you do to reverse them? How can you live out the call to provide hospitality and service to others, particularly those who are in the greatest need?

On Good Friday, the focus of the liturgy is the cross. It is a solemn day; the altar is stripped bare and no organ plays, as people reflect on the meaning of the cross. Many churches practice the veneration of the cross, when people come forward to kneel before and touch or kiss the crucifix. Again, when we step back to reflect on this practice, what a seemingly odd thing it is to kiss an instrument of torture and death. Yet we do so not to glorify violence but to remember the cost of what Jesus did because of his love for all humanity. The cross reminds us that following Jesus is a path that requires sacrifice. Loving God and neighbor in a world of violence and sin may sometimes cost us dearly.

Unlike the earliest followers of Jesus, who were afraid for their lives because of their association with this man, in the U.S. today we can claim our Christian identity without fear of being persecuted for it. Or can we? Truly living our Christian identity in the midst of a consumer culture that propagates values at odds with Christian ideas of justice does necessitate sacrifice and may lead, if not to out and out persecution, to a strain in our relationships with those who feel comfortable standing firmly with the values of the broader society. What sacrifices have you made to follow Jesus and to show your love for God and neighbor?

As if the reversing of hierarchies and the call to follow the road of the cross is not enough to make your brain do flips, then comes Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the promise of new life. Death is not the end; raising Jesus from the dead, God shows us that love is stronger than any other force in the world. In our world, it is hard to believe this Easter message, so bombarded are we with images and stories of illness, death, violence, tragedy, and sinful interactions between people. Perhaps the most “Christian” thing we can do in our lives is to try to live not in sadness, hate, and fearfulness, but with bold joy, love, and hope, trusting that God’s love indeed has the power to do all things.

We Are Only Human: An Odd Comfort

9 Apr

There are three scenes in this Sunday’s Gospel that give me an odd sort of comfort. The first scene takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus has gone to pray. We are not told this explicitly, but I get the sense that Jesus just needed to get away from it all at this moment, to be alone, to pray to God before facing what he was about to face. Jesus is honest with his disciplines, explaining to them that his “soul is sorrowful even to death.” Addressing God as Father, a term that was unusual for Jews to use during Jesus’ time, which indicates Jesus’ intimate relationship with God, Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus first asks to be spared, but then in the next breath reaffirms his trust in God, indicating his willingness to follow God’s will and not his own.

via flickr user Solle

via flickr user Solle

This is a Jesus that I can relate to; this is a Jesus I know is there. At the times in my life when I have felt deep sorrow, the sort of sorrow that feels as if it will swallow you whole, I have felt the irresistible urge to be in contact with the ground. Prostrate on the floor, I have cried and prayed, prayed and cried, imagining that Jesus, too, once knelt on the ground in Gethsemane, in touch with the dust out of which human beings are formed and into which they will return. Of course, this does not take away the sorrow, but it helps somehow to know that Jesus felt something similar. It helps somehow to know that even for Jesus is was not always easy to follow God’s will. This Jesus gives me permission to ask God if things might be another way, all the while encouraging me to trust in God.

The second scene is a familiar one involving Peter, who is milling about in the courtyard outside the high priests’ chamber, waiting, we can suppose, for the results of Jesus’ trial with the Sanhedrin. Despite his testimony earlier in the evening that he would never deny Jesus, Peter vehemently argues that he does not know Jesus to not just one, but three different groups of people who ask him if he was been with Jesus the Nazarene. (Interestingly, the first two people to whom Peter makes his denial are a servant woman and a girl, who, because of their social and gender status, likely would not have been in a position to do him harm had he affirmed his relationship with Jesus.)

Unfortunately, this is a disciple that I can relate to all too well. Luckily, I live in a time and a place where I do not have to deny having a relationship with Jesus if I am ever asked about it point blank. And yet I wonder how often my actions speak louder than any words ever could a denial of my identity as a Christian. How often do I fail to extend charity to those who need it most? How hard it is for me to include in my busy schedule time to work for justice and peace in my community? There is an odd sort of comfort in knowing that Peter, someone who actually knew and gave his life to follow Jesus, was not always up to following the call. And Peter’s response when the cock crows offers me a clue as to what I need to do when I realize the ways in which I have not lived as a disciple lives: take time to mourn.

The third scene takes place on the cross. As people are gambling for his garments and taunting him to save himself, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Scripture scholars have spent much ink debating about this cry of Jesus on the cross. From my perspective, it is an authentic cry of anguish. Yes, we know that the end of the story is resurrection, but in that moment, Jesus felt abandoned, alone, angry. And in expressing those emotions, in yelling out to God, Jesus gives us permission to do the same. We are allowed to be angry with God, to yell at God when we do not understand. It is okay because God is God, and God can take it. And again, while this does not take away our anguish, we can take comfort in the fact that Jesus can commiserate with us because he experienced these very same human emotions. This Jesus is not one who shies away from the hard emotions in life. This is a Jesus who walks with us through the valleys of death.

These three scenes could be seen as dark and depressing. Maybe they are dark and depressing for someone who has never felt deep sorrow, deep anguish, deep doubt, or deep fear. But I have felt all these things, and knowing that Jesus felt them and that some of his closest followers felt them makes me feel less alone on my journey of faith. And perhaps most importantly, these three scenes remind me that it is okay to be human because that is what we are. I do not have to be perfect, and I am not expected to happily and unquestioningly follow God’s will. The journey of faith does not only encompass mountain top moments but also valleys of despair and doubt. And Jesus is not only with us looking out at the amazing vistas; he is with us most especially when we cannot see our way forward.

Stations of the Cross

3 Apr
via flickr user MIKECNY

via flickr user MIKECNY

Over the past few weeks, I have been writing about central pillars of Catholic practice during Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This week I consider Stations of the Cross, which, while not a pillar of Lenten practice, is a popular devotional practice among many Catholics. Admittedly, growing up, I was not a big fan of the Stations of the Cross. On a practical level, it seemed long and boring. As I got older, I also objected to the focus on the suffering and death of Jesus. It seemed a bit too macabre for my taste; I preferred to hear about the angry Jesus who overturned tables in the temple, the compassionate Jesus who healed and helped those on the margins of the society, and the resurrected Jesus who appeared to his followers to shore up their strength and commission them to spread his message.

So in the spirit of renewal this Lent, I am trying to think about the Stations of the Cross in a different way. What is a station for? A station is place where you wait, like a train station. So Stations of the Cross are places where we wait, where we take time to reflect on the path of Jesus as he went to the cross. Like other practices of Lent, praying the Stations of the Cross causes us to use our time differently—to slow down and to reflect on distinct moments of Jesus’ journey to the cross—and to think about ourselves and our place in the world differently. What does it mean for my life that Jesus endured suffering, in order that he might die and be resurrected? What does it mean for my life that living as he did resulted in Jesus being crucified on a cross like a common criminal? These are not easy questions to answer, but they are necessary ones as we strive to learn from the mystery of Jesus Christ. In our considering of them, we may find that, like Lazarus in this week’s Gospel, knowing Jesus results in the burial clothes that tie our bodies and shield our eyes as we live in the death of this world are removed so that we can live a new life with Christ.

Stations of the Cross also can be called the Way of the Cross. It is one of the ways that we can fulfill the injunction by Jesus in the Gospels to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him (Mark 8:34, Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23). Walking and praying the Stations of the Cross gives us a chance to go on a pilgrimage without leaving home, as we follow in the steps of Jesus. And while it is not helpful to focus only on the suffering and death of Jesus, neither is it good to completely gloss over the crucifixion and the events that led to it. We all know that there is a dark side in the world (and in ourselves, if we are honest); odd as it may sound, attending to Jesus’ passion can give us hope as we face the darkness in our lives and in our world. It also teaches us lessons about courage, patience, and trusting in a God who promises to deliver us from all evil.

To participate in the Stations of the Cross, individuals or groups remember fourteen scenes from the passion of Christ, that is, the suffering of Christ that ended in his death on the cross. Frequently, these scenes are depicted artistically—carved in stone, painted on wood—and arranged at intervals around a church building. Those praying the stations walk in the steps of Jesus, stopping at each scene to remember what happened to Christ and to say a prayer. There are also various online resources for individuals to use if they want to reflect on the Stations at home; click here for one I really like.

There are three things to remember if you are going to pray the Stations on your own. First, it is important to include a time of meditation at each Station, a time during which you reflect on what happened to Christ. Second, it is important to try to see ourselves mirrored in Christ and to consider how each Station may have application in our own lives. Ask yourself, what might this Station have to teach me today? What is it saying to me? What is it helping me to see or do differently? And finally, there are no set prayers that must be said at each Station. You can use prayers that you are familiar with (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be), prayers someone else has written for reflection on the Stations, or prayers you come up with yourself. This gives you the freedom to interact with the Stations, to make them part of your own prayer practice.

Seeing Anew in Lent

27 Mar

In this week’s Gospel from John 9, we hear the story of the man blind since birth who Jesus heals. Using earthy language that helps us to feel like eyewitnesses to the scene, the gospel writer tells us that Jesus “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes,” then told the man to go wash his eyes in a pool. Once he had done so, the man was able to see for the first time in his life. In the aftermath of this miracle, the man’s neighbors do not believe it is him, and then Pharisees throw him out of the temple, insisting that he still is a sinner (since in Jesus’ time physical impairments like blindness were thought to be the result of sin). Hearing that this has happened to the man, Jesus seeks him out and reveals to him that he is the Son of Man, and the formerly blind man declares his belief in Jesus as Lord.

Art by Sister Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

Art by Sister Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ

In the past two weeks, I have written about two of the three traditional Catholic Lenten practices: fasting and abstinence and almsgiving. As I read this week’s Gospel in light of my attempt to better embrace the season of Lent, I have a new image for the work that engaging in Lenten practices does for our spiritual lives. These practices of fasting and abstinence, almsgiving, and prayer (the third practice of the triad) are like the dirt and saliva mix that enable the blind man to see. Applied to our lives this Lent, these practices help us see anew and continue to support our ability and desire to profess our belief in God our Creator, Jesus our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit our sanctifier.

Here is a simple example: Last Friday, our family was traveling to Iowa to visit relatives. As we prepared to stop for lunch at the place we always stop along our route, a restaurant that specializes in meat, we remembered it was Lent. This led us to ask Siri where we could order a fish sandwich close by. Certainly, this small decision about lunch did not change our lives. However, even this relatively simple process of breaking our normal habit did get me thinking about the easy access to food I usually enjoy and the wide variety of food that I eat. While I was choosing among a plethora of decent options for lunch that day, millions of people in the United States and around the world were going hungry. For people living in poverty, fasting may not be a choice, but rather a forced option. For those living in food deserts, an area in which there is little or no access to affordable, fresh, and healthy food, they may be forced to eat fast food or food from convenience stores (two options that are a treat for me on a road trip, not a necessity) that do not provide proper nutrition. When I voluntarily fast or abstain from meat, it helps me recognize the hunger and suffering of others in a new way and inspires me to search for ways to demonstrate Christ’s love in the world—from donating food to food shelves to writing letters to politicians to support just economic and political structures that enable people to provide food for their families.

Similarly, the practices of almsgiving and prayer also help us see our lives anew in Lent. As we make decisions about where to give our money and how much to give, we may have occasion to examine our finances, to see what heart of our family life is revealed by where our treasure goes. When we give away some of our money, we may better remember that the treasure we accumulate on earth is not what will bring us happiness today, nor what will bring us salvation at the end of our days. When we pray, we recognize that we are not the gods of our own lives and put our trust in the ways in which God cares for us, for all human beings, and the whole of creation. When we pray, we honor God as God and allow ourselves to be open to God’s vision for our lives and for our world.

May it be that this Lent we are willing to get our eyes dirty, as we apply the muddy practices of fasting and abstinence, almsgiving, and prayer to our lives. May it be that when we wash our eyes in the pool of Easter joy, we will realize we have already begun to see anew.

Almsgiving

21 Mar

Last week I wrote about the idea of giving ourselves over to God in fulfillment of our baptismal promises in relation to the Lenten practice of fasting and abstinence. Along with fasting and abstinence, there are two other traditional pillars of Lenten practice for Catholics: prayer and almsgiving. This week I write about almsgiving, an ancient sounding word that may seem far removed from our current social lives.

“Alms” is a word from Old English that refers to something, like food or money, given to the poor. As a practice, almsgiving can include many things, such as making a donation to a charitable organization or tithing to a religious institution (that is, giving one-tenth a part of something). Almsgiving is part of our baptismal calling, as it is one way to take care of our brothers and sisters, both locally and globally, and to provide for the needs of the “least of these.” Small acts of almsgiving help us to grow in charity, leading toward recognition of Jesus Christ in the poor of our world. Almsgiving takes us beyond an attitude of “it’s just me and God,” as we respond to the needs of others, to those who participate in the Body of Christ with us. If Lent is about giving ourselves over to God, almsgiving is one way that we can offer a material sign of our commitment to follow in the steps of Jesus. We put our money where our faith is, giving some of our fortune over to God by giving it to serve the needs of God’s children.

Almsgiving is not just for the rich. In fact, in Mark 12:41-44, Jesus praises a widow who donates two small coins. He even goes so far as to say that she gave more than the rich people, because she gave out of what she needed not out of what she had left over. You do not need to have a lot of money to make a big difference, and you can also get creative and think about how you can give alms and tithe in ways that do not involve money. Might you be able to donate 10% of the clothes you currently have in your closet to a worthy cause? Might you be able to reduce your energy usage by 10% by being more conscious about turning off lights, unplugging unused electronics and appliances, and adjusting your thermostat?

Almsgiving certainly promotes charity, that is, giving to those most in need. Yet reading this Sunday’s gospel from John 4 got me thinking about whether we are called this Lent to match our charity with work for justice. In this gospel, we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. As the woman herself reminds Jesus, these two people should not even be having an encounter, since both her gender and religious identity separate her from Jesus. When she questions whether she can even draw water for him from the well, Jesus mentions “living water,” which causes the woman to ask where a person can get such a thing. Jesus is clear that one who drinks from the well will be thirsty again, but one who drinks the living water Jesus offers will never thirst.

It may be our first tendency to read Jesus’ reply to this woman in a spiritual light, and we would not be wrong to do so. He is telling her in no uncertain terms that the way for a person to be fulfilled, to be satisfied, to have eternal life is through faith in God. But I think we may find here, too, a lesson about charity and justice. We have all likely heard the saying that if you give a person a fish, it feeds them for one day; if you teach that person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. With our charity, we quench people’s thirst in the short-term, which is not an unworthy thing to do. People in crisis need their basic human needs met, and charity helps to insure that this is so. But with our justice, we can help quench people’s thirst for their lifetime. People in crisis also need help dealing with the systemic causes of their suffering. It is worth thinking about how, in addition to our almsgiving this Lent, we can also work for justice in the world.

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