Smile and laugh.
Say “Thank you.”
Pet and speak to dogs, cats and animals you may come across.
Feed the birds.
Go outside when you can.
Use natural sunlight as much as possible.
Hum or whistle.
Say “yes” when you can, say “no” when it is appropriate.
Make eye contact.
Be curious – ask questions.
Exercise but don’t care about how you look.
Get enough sleep.
Read the Bible and talk with God.
Talk with the elderly, hold babies and play with children.
Plant and tend something.
Notice the poor, care about others and help them as you are able.
Recognize that you are only asked to do what you can and leave the rest to God and others.
In order to love one must be free. Love can neither be forced nor contrived. For love to be authentic it must be freely given and freely received. This is love’s dynamic and yet, just as love depends on freedom love, itself, makes us freer. In John’s first letter we are told that perfect love casts out all fear. Love creates true freedom. In this Sunday’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians we are reminded of this salvific fact. Christ, out of love, took on our sinfulness, “obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.”
In Christ we have been set free but this is not a freedom to do whatever we please. This is not authentic freedom rather; it is a misuse of freedom. The freedom we gain from the love of Christ is the freedom to enter more deeply into honest relationship with God and with one another. This freedom begins in the very knowledge that in Christ we are loved beyond measure – each and every one of us.
The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were many but at the heart of these sins was the abuse of relationship, particularly the abuse of the visitor, the stranger. This sin is brought out all the more in contrast to the passage directly preceding that about Sodom and Gomorrah (last Sunday’s readings). In last Sunday’s passage Abraham welcomes the three visitors, he honors his relationship with them and he treats it as a sacred reality to be respected. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah, on the other hand, do not. Their sin is great and grave.
It is easy to judge Sodom and Gomorrah and hold ourselves superior but I wonder if one of the factors of their sinfulness is a factor also present in our own day and time – a life lived in distraction. John Garvey, in an article he wrote entitled, “A Tree Full of Monkeys: Why the Soul Needs Silence” makes a good observation:
It takes effort to be clear about the moment we are in. It requires taking time … We need, through practice, to be made aware of what is wrong about ordinary waking circumstances; it takes effort to do this … it matters, especially in a time when distraction and ideological reinforcement matter more to the culture than sober clarity does. This inattention disrupts our lives at every level – religious, political, aesthetic … Prayer (silence) can begin to make us feel what is directly underfoot, can help us begin to understand where we really are, in the presence of the sacred…
A life of distraction, a life of inattention inhibits freedom and therefore hinders growth in true love and honest relationship and (if left unchecked both in lives of individuals and of society) can be a contributing factor in the abuse of others – those who are indeed our brothers and our sisters. For this we will each have to give an accounting before the judgment seat of God. To love, one must be free. A distracted life is not a free life.
It is worthy to note that in this Sunday’s gospel (Lk. 11:1-13), after our Lord gives us the Our Father, he goes on to further explain prayer by use of three images specifically based in relationship and attentiveness – the attention of one friend to another in need, the willingness to trust in relationship with God and therefore to ask, to seek, to knock and the attentive love of a father to the needs of a child. Let us not fool ourselves. Love can easily and sadly be compromised on all levels and in many ways. The mind can easily become a “tree full of monkeys”. The soul needs silence and prayer not just for sanity but also to safeguard freedom, honest relationship and attentiveness to the needs of the other.
The disciples’ request, “teach us to pray” is another way of asking, “teach us how to love.”
Lent is not an ordinary time. It is a period in which we are called to reconsider our relationship with God while we go on living our “ordinary” lives. We are asked to fast from ordinary things, to nourish ourselves more from the Gospel, to strengthen our prayer, to intensify our charity towards the weak and to convert our hearts to the Lord just as we also go about the regular routine of our lives these forty days.
In many ways this ordinary extraordinary is given full expression in the story of the Transfiguration (Lk. 9:28b-36). Jesus invites Peter, James and John to journey with him up the mountain to pray and there he is transfigured before them yet they must return back down the mountain when it is all over to the ordinary of their lives. It does raise the question of how much of a separation there really is between the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary” in life – maybe not as much as we often suppose. Today’s Gospel teaches us that the key to life is learning and being enabled to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. In other words; to see with transfigured eyes.
The Catholic Center where I minister is situated in a large and old house. The chapel is located in the basement. A few years back we placed a simple icon of the Transfiguration (pictured) in the stairwell leading down to the chapel. The icon is not there just to fill in a blank wall. It has a purpose. The visual theology of the icon instructs all who enter into the chapel for liturgy and prayer that we are entering into a place of transfiguration. Here, in the Mass and in quiet prayer, Christ is truly present and he reveals himself to us.
There are a number of dynamics present in the movement of Transfiguration. The first and primary movement is that God comes to us. Before Christ takes the three disciples up the mountain to pray, the Son of God who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, … emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… (Philippians 2:6-7). This is always the first move.
The second movement is that Christ tears us away from the selfish and mean habits that keep us so often bound. Christ tears us away from our selfishness and carries us higher. Here, let us avoid the danger of self-congratulatory pop therapeutic lingo which is really just a manifestation of spiritual sloth. Each and every one of us has selfish attitudes which we need to be torn away from. If the very disciples who walked with our Lord in the flesh needed to be pulled away from their selfish and mean habits then so do we. Today’s Gospel says, Jesus took Peter, John and James and went up the mountain to pray. The operative word here is “took”. He did not ask, he did not request. He took.
Every time we gather for the Sunday liturgy, we encounter Christ who takes us from our own little preoccupations, worries and sad divisions and are drawn into the life of Christ himself – his vocation, his mission and his journey! Talk about an adventure! We are drawn into the very life of God and the mission of the Kingdom! This is the third movement.
This brings us to an important point which is so often misunderstood in our day, both by those who have not encountered Christ as well as many who profess Christ. Jesus does not like to walk alone. Jesus does not see himself as the solitary action movie hero, almost condemned to be superior to everyone else. Christ binds himself to that first little group of followers and he kneads his very life into theirs even though he knows they are weak and limited. Throughout history Christ has continued to knead his very life into the life of his Church and he does so today even as he is aware of our weaknesses and limits. Jesus is that true shepherd who never grows tired of his friends and who always takes them with him. When we enter into the Eucharistic celebration not only do we receive the Body and Blood of Christ but we ourselves are also kneaded more deeply into the very life of Christ and into a life of communion with others.
As we live this mystery of the God who comes to us, who tears us away from our selfish and mean habits and who kneads his very life into ours we are brought more into the very Kingdom of God and we begin to recognize that the ordinary and the extraordinary are really not that far apart after all.
I have completed my icon of St. Teresa of Avila and I am pleased with the way it has turned out. Behind the saint is a representation of the Interior Castle – St. Teresa’s image for the stages of prayer and contemplation and how we encounter God through our own thoughts and imaginings and even going beyond these to that still point where we realize all is grace and pure gift from God. St. Teresa has much to teach us.
Recently I picked up a wonderful book on iconography entitled Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography. The book is written by Irina Yazykova and it presents the story of how courageous men and women kept the art and prayer of iconography alive during the years and persecution of the communist Soviet regime.
At one point in the introduction the author shares the description of iconography as being “contemplation in colors”. I think that this is a wonderful description for the work of iconography and I know that it is a description that I will continue to reflect on and draw insight from.
It is always worthy to note that every facet of the gospel is worth reflecting upon and this even applies to space and location within the biblical narrative.
Biblical commentators have noted that in the time of Jesus it was the custom that teachers sat when they gave instruction. In the gospel passage for this Sunday (Jn 6:1-5), John tells us that the Lord sat down with his disciples, he was preparing to teach. But there is also something else worthy of note; Jesus went up on the mountain… Jesus neither remains below – focused solely on his immediate work, living a self-centered existence in the midst of others – nor does he remain on high – seeking to escape reality and others in a one-on-one relationship with God. Jesus ascends the mountain to be just a little bit higher; he needs to encounter God, and from there he can see men and women better.
There is an important teaching here for Christians. Only by living in an ongoing and daily encounter with God and by welcoming God’s compassion in our lives is it possible to look upon people with open eyes and to fully understand their needs. In John’s account of this scene, it is Jesus who first raises his eyes and sees the people coming and who first recognizes that they were hungry and needed food. Jesus then prods his disciples, Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?
Time spent daily in prayer does not remain solely within, maturing our own relationship with God (which is wonderful). Daily prayer also directs our gaze outward – opening our eyes to recognize the needs of others and sharing compassion to help feed their hunger. Prayer helps to mature us within and mature us without through our ability to relate honestly and compassionately with others.
It is in this “sharing compassion” that another miracle takes place. We are told that in the face of this overwhelming crowd and their need, the disciples come to realize that there is one boy with five barley loaves and two fish. (The barley loaf of bread was the food of the poor because it was not the best bread nor the most flavorful.) The disciples, informed more by the sad realism and practicality of our world are ready to give up and wash their hands of the crowd by encouraging that they be sent away. Everyone left to forage on his or her own. But our Lord is formed more by God’s word than this sad realism and he has the people recline on the grass. He blesses the bread and with these five poor loaves he feeds the multitude!
In essence we are all like that young boy. We do not have much and what we do have is often quite poor – the little love and compassion we have, the little time we think we can spare, the little attention we can give, the little desire – yet, if we give it to the Lord then he can take it, bless it and use it to feed a multitude. The key to this equation is our putting the “little” we have into the Lord’s hands and not seeking to hold on to it for ourselves. An often unremarked upon part of this gospel scene is that the young boy did hand over his own meager meal. He could have said, “No. I have mine now you get yours.” but he did not. He handed over the little he did have into the Lord’s hands and the multitude was fed.
Living in a daily encounter with God in prayer and giving over the little that we do have – two good lessons for our reflection on this Sunday.
I have been taught that in iconography you should write the face first. (I must admit that I do not always follow this rule.) But with this icon I did.
I once heard an interview with an artist who said that we are not born with a face; rather we craft our faces over the course of a lifetime of choices, smiles, tears, expressions and struggles. He went on to say that it is really not until our forties that our face begins to be our own – what we have made of it. I like this thought. We grow into and mold our face and therefore our face becomes a true expression of who we are as a person rather than just a mask we wear.
In her reflection on the “Second Dwelling Places” in The Interior Castle Teresa warns about the danger of seeking spiritual consolation too early in the journey of prayer.
Even though I’ve said this at other times, it’s so important that I repeat it here: it is that souls shouldn’t be thinking about consolations at this beginning stage. It would be a very poor way to start building so precious and great an edifice. If the foundation is on sand, the whole building will fall to the ground … It is an amusing thing that even though we still have a thousand impediments and imperfections and our virtues have hardly begun to grow – and please God they may have begun – we are yet not ashamed to seek spiritual delights in prayer and to complain about dryness. May this never happen to you, Sisters. Embrace the cross your Spouse has carried and understand that this must be your task. Let the one who can do so, suffer more for Him; and she will be rewarded that much more. As for other favors, if the Lord should grant you one, thank Him for it as you would for something freely added on.
We like consolation and we like it now! In fact, I know whole ministries that our based on this premise (and they are quite popular). But Teresa’s words of caution are very appropriate here. Just as a human body does not grow and become healthy if its whole diet consists of sweets and desserts so the spiritual person does not mature in his or her faith by seeking consolation after consolation. The cross must be embraced because the truth is that there are a thousand impediments and imperfections within each of us. Lets be honest is this regard.
To return to the thought of the artist – it is in embracing our crosses in hope and in love (and also enjoying the consolations that do come along in God’s time) that we do the work of crafting our faces in order that our face rather than being just a mask might truly come to reveal who we are as a mature human person.
For four years now I have been the primary caregiver for my mom. I have worked to get her settled into her independent living apartment. I have taken her to appointments with her doctors and I have run to the pharmacy for her medicine and to Wal-Mart for the finch socks she likes to hang outside on her porch. I have sat with her many Saturday nights watching Lawrence Welk and the British comedies that she loves. I have also made many trips to the emergency room in the middle of the night when she has struggled for breathe or has fallen. I have watched as her health has continued to ebb away bit by bit.
My mother suffers from COPD brought on by a lifetime of smoking as well as severe arthritis in her back and a scarred artery attached to her heart. I do not fully understand all the complexities of her health situation but I know that all this together is something she can never really recover from and will only get worse over time.
In the past two weeks things have gotten worse.
It began with her falling. One such fall landed her in the ER with a cut on her head and the need to get staples. Not a week later she was back in the hospital due to severe pain. That hospital kept her for a few days and discharged her to a long-term health care facility. Not two days later, mom was back in the emergency room of a different hospital due to extreme pain. It is a hard thing to hear your eighty-four year old mother scream out in pain while powerless to do anything. After a series of tests it was determined that mom had some stones causing blockage in her bile duct. Due to the frailty of her health the doctors decided on a two-step process. For the first step they went in her side and inserted a valve in order to drain out the backed-up fluid. Today, for the second step they went in and dislodged the stones. This second procedure seems to have worked. Hopefully, mom will now begin to improve.
As I reflect on these recent occurrences I have realized that there are some spiritual lessons to be found within the journey of these past two weeks.
1. The beauty of the Jesus Prayer. A number of nights my mother was in severe pain. She had taken some medicine but the pain remained. As a way to ease the pain and also help her breathing we began to say the Jesus Prayer together. Breathing in we would say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God…” and breathing out we would say, “…have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer helped to ease her pain and her fear while also helping to ease her into slumber. The prayer helped to ease my own heart also. One night I continued the prayer for her in her dark room for a good while after she had drifted off. Later when the pain had intensified mom shifted the prayer to, “Thank you Jesus. I love you.” I found this shift to be very meaningful.
2. The beauty of human touch. In the moments of mom’s intense pain one thing that seemed to help ease her was human touch. Whether it was holding hands, rubbing her back or stroking her hair these simple acts brought some needed ease to mom. In the midst of her pain I noticed that mom kept reaching out to grasp the hands of others. There is a comforting power and grace in human touch.
3. The beauty of trusting God. These family emergencies never arrive at a good time. When mom entered the hospital for the second time I was scheduled to attend a national campus ministry conference for which I was part of the presenting team. It worked out that my oldest brother was able to arrange to come home for the week to stay with my mother yet I was still torn in the thought of leaving at such a time. The comment of a friend helped to ease my heart. “Your brother needs this time with your mother.” was what she said. God’s ways are not our ways and God’s Spirit moves as he so chooses. This comment helped me to realize that God is here in the very uncertainty of this situation for my mother, for me and also for my brother. It is important to let God be God and also to let God be God for others as he so chooses and as they need. Sometimes it is just not about me.
4. The beauty of Church. Throughout this experience the beauty and value of Church has been on full display. Prayers being offered from all over the diocese and around the nation … priest friends calling to offer support and visiting my mother … parishioners offering advise and support … parish nurses providing invaluable service and advice … doctors and health-care professionals who happen to be Catholic taking an extra care for mom. Church has been present throughout and has been a great witness to my brothers and I. Church is at its best in moments of pain and comfort and we have seen this.
The journey is not over but it is comforting to know that it is never walked alone and God is present.