Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Day and the Incarnation

On this Saturday in the Octave of Easter, many people are also observing Earth Day. I like to think of this year's confluence as serendipitous. It reminds me that "God so loved the world that he gave his Only-Begotten Son" to bring about a new heavens and a new earth, a newness that leapt into infinity with the resurrection, but that began with the Incarnation, God becoming one with the works of his hands.
Years (maybe even decades) ago, I was leafing through my Dad's scrapbook. In between his photos from Army days in Germany and newspaper clippings of his speeches as President of the Holy Name Society (local and then national) was a tiny, deeply yellowed bit of newsprint. The headline read: Poetess Edna St Vincent Millay dies in New York. A short obituary followed. It was 1950. (I just looked that up.)

The only poem I ever remember Dad reciting from memory was Robert Frost's famous one about the two roads. Whatever had possessed that shy young JAG officer to save the death notice of this poet? I should have asked him while I could. I myself came across a single line of Millay's just recently that impressed me deeply. Maybe this is what impressed him, too. Maybe it have a similar effect on you.

The first line of God's World speaks to me of the Incarnation, of the sudden and unexpected arrival of Gabriel with a message from the Most High to his tiny earth. It couldn't be more fitting for Earth Day 2017. Here it is, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation:
God's World

Related Poem Content Details

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough! 
   Thy winds, thy wide grey skies! 
   Thy mists, that roll and rise! 
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag 
And all but cry with colour!   That gaunt crag 
To crush!   To lift the lean of that black bluff! 
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough! 

Long have I known a glory in it all, 
         But never knew I this; 
         Here such a passion is 
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear 
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year; 
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall 
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Book Review: People of the Second Chance: A Guide to Bringing Life-Saving Love to the World

Mike Foster

Every once in a while I get a book list with an offer to pick a free book to review. The listing typically features not just my preferred genres (religion, history, biography, cooking!) but business and management type books, celebrity tell-alls, the works. Once in a while a book looks like it will support something I am working on. Right now that would be a series of retreat talks for the sisters (please begin your prayers now). The theme of the retreat is taken right off the walls of our Pauline chapels the world over: Do not fear...Live with a Penitent Heart.
God's repeated call to “repent” means that not all is completely terrific with us. But it also says that we have a chance to get things set aright. We get a do-over. We get a second chance (and a third, and a four-hundredth). I figured that Mike Foster's book would offer me some insight into the practical side of living with a penitent heart, so when the book review freebie list came my way, I requested People of the SecondChance: A Guide to Bringing Life-Saving Love to the World.

When the book came in, its very format told me that it was the kind of book that came from an experience of working with people, lots of people, who may have been tempted to throw in the towel when it comes to getting things right. It turns out, “People of the Second Chance” is a non-profit organization that uses tools of faith, common sense, and a healthy acceptance of imperfection to help people who feel like failures (and whose lives, in some cases, may seem to bear that out). The book's dedication page reads: “For every broken life becoming beautiful again.” The organization offers leadership training and programs for churches, and founder (and book author) Mike Foster is on the speaker circuit with the message, as well.

All that experience comes out in the pages of People of the Second Chance. Foster begins with his own story, the deep roots of his personal feelings of failure. He looks like a guy who has it all completely together, but his ministry draws continually on the kind of honesty that comes from facing unpleasant truths with the powerful help of grace and humor. “God's love gets in through our cracks and breaks.... I may not like the formula, but God sure doesn't seem to mind.” In the chapter “How to Be an Imperfectionist,” Foster assures the reader:
You will be a jerk. You will let others down. You will make lousy decisions. You will hurt others...mess up your children.... have moral failures [and]...horrible rejected...heartbroken. Imperfection is a part of this life. …
So if we're going to make life into God's party, we have to ditch this damaging desire to be flawless.

Foster does not limit himself to Second Chance “in-house” language. He draws from a variety of spiritual writers from different traditions (for example, Ranier Maria Rilke, Thomas Merton, Anne Lamott, and St Teresa of Calcutta).

A frank, conversational tone is consistent throughout the book, and it is a book suffused with hope, starting with the forward by Bob Goff: “see who God is turning us into, rather than overidentifying with who we were”; “Each week...we bring friends to talk about a time when they failed. In fact, experiencing failure has become almost a prerequisite.... people who have failed are more generous with their compassion, more extravagant with their love, and less inhibited in their expressions of both.”

Foster's book offers sound encouragement to anyone who is appalled by their own past or their propensity for failure--or who find it hard to accept the wayward past (or propensity for failure) of those they live or work with or minister to.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. In addition, I received a review copy of the book mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. I am committed to giving as honest a review as possible, as part of my community's mission of putting media at the service of the truth. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"They have taken away my Lord."

There at the empty tomb, Mary Magdalen could come to only one conclusion: "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they put him." Jesus' body was missing, and since it cannot be that he went away on his own, someone else must be responsible for this loss. "They" did it. ("They" always do.)

That Easter dawn, Mary was acting on a kind of instinct,  trying to figure things out, to find a reasonable explanation and make "sense" of what as going on, even looking for someone to blame. I can't speak for you, but I do this all the time. Things are not as they should be: why not? I expect a bit of order and logic in the way things unfold, after all!

What strikes me this morning is that Mary Magdalen, in her understandably distraught state of mind, failed to take into account a very important piece of information that was being made available to her. She failed to reconsider her logical assumption in the light of the fact that the tomb was not completely empty after all: there were two Angels there, and they had been speaking to her, offering to open up a conversation. A conversation from which she turned away after making her rather blunt reply about the missing Jesus.

Thankfully, the missing person was there all along, recognized only when he addressed her by name. "Mary!"

This Easter day invites me to learn to doubt my logical assumptions, based as they are on the solid evidence of my eyes or the experience of years past, but to keep my ears open. The words of the Eucharistic hymn by St Thomas Aquinas tells me "Sight, taste and touch ... are all deceived. The ear alone most safely is believed."

Sunday, April 16, 2017

He is Risen and with Us Always

It is the Lord!
Blessed Easter!

About The Supper at Emmaus, by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi (Italian, c 1590 - 1625)
Oil on canvas, about 1615 - 1625; 139.7 × 194.9 cm (55 × 76 3/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday

Monday, April 10, 2017

Of Palms and Martyrs

What a charmer, the smiling little boy in his Coptic server's robe, wearing a crown of woven palm and holding a cross of woven palm fronds. Palms, the ancient symbol of victory—and of martyrdom. Initial reports out of Egypt indicated that the child was among the worshipers martyred in yesterday's terrorist attacks against Coptic Christian churches; now there are some reports that he may be alive. So we don't know which side of eternity he is on today, but yesterday he was one of many who processed with us shouting “Hosanna!” to the Christ who is coming.

You know how you can hear a familiar text and then suddenly something new pops out? That's what it was like for me hearing Matthew's account of the entry into Jerusalem. “The crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, 'Hosanna!'”
Fresco above the entrance of the Cathedral of Susa, Italy. Click to see in detail!
Was that always there? 

Crowds before him, and then crowds following behind, like the whole procession of salvation history. There were the generations that came “before him,” preparing the way for the Lord, and then, for two thousand years now, crowds following after him, that smiling child among them like us. All acclaiming him in words we still use to give him thanks and praise, and that will be on our lips when he returns—Blessed is he who comes!

And Jesus is the center of it all. 

May Jesus be the center of your every day this Holy Week.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Second Visit from Sister Death

We were in kitchen doing the supper dishes when Sister Mary Peter came in. "Sister Mary Antoinette just died. Sister Noel and Sister Donna were with her."

This second death in the community this year was pretty much a surprise. Sister had been declining this past week and we knew that there was a possibility that the Lord would come for her relatively soon. That he would come "immediately" had not really been considered. In a way, her surprising departure for eternity was like her unexpected "elopement" for the convent. At least, this is the way I heard about it: unable to secure a full parental blessing to follow her vocation, she up and left as soon as she was of age. It was a bold move, leaving her large, close-knit Italian family like that. And, tough New Yorker that she was, she continued to make bold moves throughout her life.

When I was stationed with her here in the 90's, there was a car (named for her beloved patron saint, St Anthony) reserved for her exclusive use. Nobody else, not even the superior, had her own car. Sister Mary Antoinette was the ultimate errand-runner. She found donations of every kind of material good for us, including elaborate cakes for Profession and Jubilee celebrations. She not only did all the airport runs for the sisters, she ran a Pauline travel agency in the days before the Internet made plane tickets a cinch to buy. Airline staff at Boston Logan knew Sister Mary Antoinette by name, and bent over backwards to accommodate her requests. Once when I was waiting to board a flight to New Orleans, an Eastern Airlines agent came to me. "How is Sister Mary Antoinette?" he asked, and then he slipped me a First Class upgrade (my only experience of First Class travel!). Skycaps would run to help us with our bags, refusing our crinkled dollars: "Sister Mary Antoinette takes care of it with her prayers," they would say.

Handling plane tickets was only one part of the Sister Mary Antoinette Travel Agency. She had a side job at her own Visa and Immigration Services. When I was preparing to go to Italy for a two-year stint and needed a special Visa, Sister Mary Antoinette made all the necessary calls. They were waiting for me at the Italian consulate with everything required for my stay. When sisters (or Pauline priests) from other nations needed to come to the United States for ministry or study, Sister Mary Antoinette handled every last bit of red tape. As her memory began to fade (at this point, taking her many passwords with it), it was a scramble to gather and organize all the information Sister Mary Antoinette had juggled in her once-razor sharp brain.

Sister Mary Antoinette had a heart for women in discernment, and was the first Daughter of St Paul that several of our sisters met, including Sister Donna (in photo), one of the sisters with her at the end. When the nurses were obliged to ask Sister M Antoinette to endure something she really preferred to avoid, often all the superior had to do was suggest, "Offer it up for vocations," and she would surrender. (I am entrusting to her intercession the young women who will participate in our annual Holy Week Discernment Retreat.)

In her declining years, Sister Mary Antoinette remained fairly mobile, thanks to her trusty walker. Sadly, she was often profoundly confused, and might be found in the walk-in refrigerator at night "looking for breakfast," or heading to a dark chapel at 2 a.m. believing she was missing Mass. Over the past month, we were able to get more continuous support for her, and in recent weeks she was much more "present" to the sisters or to the reality around her. In the last few days, she expressed much contentment, affection and grateful love. (She was always effusive with her "Thank you, God bless you!" for the smallest favors.) She kissed the hands of the sisters who visited her, while grasping her crucifix with all her might.

Not knowing what was to come, sisters stayed with Sister Mary Antoinette all day yesterday until finally the Lord himself freed her from the limitations of age and illness to introduce her into the life that awaits us all. She was 93 years old, and a vowed religious for 69 years. May she rest in peace!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

It's Lady Day!

Technically, today's feast is the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. In English tradition, however, it was known as "Lady Day" (as in "Our Lady's Day"). I kind of like that. Everything hinged that day on Mary. St Bernard put it fabulously:
Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.
Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the Desired of all Nations is at your door, knocking to enter....

Right on time, our Sister Laura Rosemarie completed the work on her Annunciation (part of a series she is doing of the Mysteries of the Rosary) and put the canvas on display outside of chapel. Mary is under a fig tree, a place of contemplation and peace, with a scroll in her hand and lilies of the valley just behind her. (For your listening pleasure, here is a fitting song with which you can reflect on today's Gospel of the Annunciation:

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Midway through Lent

We're at the halfway point today: three weeks from Ash Wednesday and three weeks before Spy Wednesday, the final day of Lent (Holy Thursday doesn't count). I am already looking forward to Laetare Sunday; how about you? 

Day keeping good company on my bookshelf.
One of my Lenten heroes is the sometimes crotchety, always honest Dorothy Day. There are some Catholic figures who impress me enough that I look up a book, maybe two, to learn more. Dorothy Day does not fit in that category. I first read her conversion story From Union Square to Rome years ago, following that with The Long Loneliness (a spiritual autobiography). Her Loaves and Fishes (the story of the Catholic Worker movement) led me to another book by the prolific writer, this one on Peter Maurin, the man Dorothy Day credits with being the father (and originator) of the Catholic Worker movement, a man given wholeheartedly to the Gospel and its demands (and, in his focus on the life of the mind and "the clarification of thought," a fine match for Blessed James Alberione).

At that point I found the biography by the excellent Robert Coles (who had spent some time with the Catholic Workers and knew Dorothy in person), and in the Chicago convent library there was a massive (and highly researched) biography of Day by William Miller.

Finally, more of her own writings were edited and released: Her diaries, from the mid-1930s through her last month of life, were released as The Duty of Delight (25 years after her death, as stipulated, I presume, by Dorothy herself). This book is as big as (maybe bigger than) Miller's biography. I couldn't put it down.  (Someone, maybe TH, got me a copy for the first Buy a Nun a Book Day!) And most recently, I read her collected letters in All the Way to Heaven (the title being from a saying of St Catherine of Siena: "All the way to Heaven is Heaven, because Jesus said, 'I am the Way'.")

You would think I had read enough, right?

But just this week Plough Publishing sent me a courtesy copy of The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus from the writings of Dorothy Day. Short selections from Day's biographical writings, from her diaries, from her articles in The Catholic Worker are distributed under several headings: A Way of Faith; A Way of Love; A Way of Prayer; A Way of Life; A Way of Community. It is now my guidebook for the second half of Lent (though I wish I had had this for Ash Wednesday!).

Good News! I have a copy of The Reckless Way of Love to give away.  I want to get it in the mail soon so the lucky recipient can finish Lent with Dorothy (and me). To be entered in for the random drawing, comment here about the Catholic personality who intrigues you the most and then (by Friday) share the link to this blog post on your favorite form of social media with the hashtag #nunblog

Thursday, March 09, 2017

What is Pope Francis up to now? the Catholic Internet was all a-Twitter with the news that Pope Francis, in an interview with a German newspaper, had signaled "openness" to ordaining people the Church refers to as viri probati ("proven" men, typically understood as married men).  Conveniently, the entire interview had not yet been published, only the tantalizing hints. (The full text was scheduled for release today, but since I (a) cannot read German and (b) will not pay to access the "exklusiv" interview in said language I cannot verify anything right now.)

Also conveniently, the Pope has just begun his annual silent retreat (at the Pauline retreat house overlooking Lake Albano) and cannot be reached for clarification.

According to yesterday's Crux summary of the papal interview, the context of the reference to viri probati concerned the diaconate, which seems a bit strange, since the permanent diaconate is already open to married men (even though the permanent diaconate is not as well established worldwide as it is in the US). With regard to the priesthood specifically, the Pope was more circumspect, remarking that a priority should be on helping young men discern the call to priesthood and saying (yet again) that making priestly celibacy optional is not the answer that many people seem to think it is.

The article in Crux and some of the online conversations I saw were quick to affirm that most of the Eastern Churches ordain married men. No one seems to be wondering what the priesthood asks of those married men (and their wives), but Byzantine Father Thomas Loya,  the son and grandson of Byzantine priests, explained in one of our Theology of the Body sessions years ago that in the Eastern Churches, the celebration of the Divine Liturgy involves much more than getting up early on Sunday to preside at a (very long) Liturgy. Following the recommendation of St Paul in 1 Cor 7:5, the priestly couple abstain from the marital embrace in anticipation of the Divine Liturgy, which is the earthly manifestation of the Wedding of the Lamb. Given the mutual sacrifice asked of a priest and his wife, it is easier to understand why daily Mass did not become a staple in the Eastern Churches! Father's own mother and grandmother had been the daughters of priests, so they also grew up with an appreciation of the role of the priest's wife in the life of the Church.

But I digress.

Pope Francis is becoming rather famous for throwing out zingers and then not being around to settle the matter once an uproar starts. I am beginning to think that there is a method here. Among the Pope's most cherished values is that of "dialogue." (Read my 5 Keys e-book; it has been there from the beginning.)

Pope Francis wants us to talk, discuss, respectfully debate. He doesn't mind a dust-up. He seems to believe that the wind of the Holy Spirit breathes among us more fully when the Church is grappling with the Gospel, when our expectations are suspended and our usual reference points temporarily set aside. It isn't comfortable, but maybe that is part of the Pope's method.

I strongly suspect that the Pope is trying to shake us all out of our stolid certainties to awaken us, no matter what "side" of a question we find ourselves on, to the greater grace God may be offering the Church in our day. Any insecurity we feel can be an invitation to trust even more that it is not the Pope, but the Holy Spirit, who is really in charge, and whom we can trust unconditionally.