Uncomfortable love

It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships
to enter the kingdom of God.
Acts 14:22

I have lived a privileged life – loving and supportive parents, good education, steady work. I even live a privileged life here in Honduras – a nice house, fairly regular water and electricity, wifi, a fairly reliable pick up truck, monthly Social Security support.

So I feel rather uncomfortable reading the words of Paul and Barnabas about undergoing hardships to enter the kingdom of God.

I know others who undergo hardships. There’s the communion minister in the parish who will walk two or three hours to bring communion to a community. There’s the couple who cared for their bed-ridden father for years. There are those who go out to work in the fields for long hours under the burning sun of summer and the cold rains of winter. There are the women who get up early to prepare the tortillas for the family. There are the Dubuque Franciscan sisters I know who have lived amidst poverty and war in Chile and El Salvador and now in Honduras, showing God’s love with the poor.

But what about me?

Perhaps the hardship I most need to undergo is what Jesus calls his disciples to do in today’s Gospel: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Love is not easy. I’d rather stay in my house and read. But the call to be with the people, to let God’s love work through me helps me resist that temptation.

But what I find is that the moments of my life here that give me the most joy are the moments when I am with the people – helping train the catechists, visiting a sick or disconsolate person, talking with a bunch of kids who passed by the house, or just hanging out.

Today’s passage from the Book of Revelation contained one of the phrases of scripture that most consoles and challenges me. The author, citing Isaiah, describes the New Jerusalem, the holy city where God dwells. I do not see this as only Heaven; I believe God is building His City among us and calls us to see His work and share in it.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes… (Revelation 21: 4)

When we wipe the tear-stained faces of others, when we are present with them in their pain and tribulations, God can become present. No, God is present.

In those moments “it’s the end of the world as we know it.” It’s a time when God’s love breaks through.

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Good St. George destroying dragons

In November 2004 I visited the tomb of Saint George in Lydda, in the Holy Land.

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I was visiting the Holy Land with a friend who was volunteering with Bethlehem Lutheran Church. He had invited me to come and so I had an amazing pilgrimage – with a young man, deeply committed to justice and nonviolence, whose mother was a Palestinian who had been born in Lydda. She had been carried out of Lydda when the town was overrun by the Zionist armies and many years later had married an Iowan whom she met in Jordan. Her sons grew up in Iowa but always aware of their Palestinian Christian roots. She died a few years before I visited the Holy Land.

We visited Lydda because it was the anniversary of her birth and my friend wanted to lay flowers at the tomb of St. George and try to visit the land where his grandparents had lived.

We visited the church and the tomb of St. George. Afterwards we found the ancestral land which was now occupied by a Bedouin who warmly welcomed us, gave us tea, and talked. We took some photos underneath one of the olive trees of his grandfather. This visit was one of the most moving parts of my time in the Holy Land.

Lydda, now called Lod and near the Tel Aviv airport in Israel, is the traditional site of the martyrdom of St. George, a saint honored by Christians and Muslims, who call him Al-Khadar, the Green One.

It is a place of sorrow for many who were forced out during the Nakba, the disaster which was the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948.

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Saint George is usually depicted as killing a dragon to protect a town which was about to hand over a maiden to the dragon to be killed.

He is a protector of the innocent against the forces of evil.

In the face of violence, of exile, of poverty, of the sacrificing of men, women, and children in war, Saint George calls us to stand up and rid the world and ourselves of these dragons.

But how?

“Not by force, nor by violence, but by love,” as a hymn we sing here in Honduras says.

We need to root out the fear that keeps us from loving. We need to open up our hearts and imaginations to ways of breaking down walls and of making peace.

This begins in ourselves but cannot remain there. We need to look at our communities and nations to see where we need to uproot the causes of violence, war, and injustice.

May St. George intercede for us – and for all the innocent victims of war and violence.

 

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Orthodox Church of St. George, Lydda, the Holy Land

 

 

Homeless saint Benedict

Today is the feast of St. Benedict-Joseph Labré who died on April 16, 1783, in Rome.

Like the holy fools of Russia, he was for many years a wandering pilgrim – carrying his rosary, a breviary, a New Testament, and the Imitation of Christ. He did not beg but when someone gave him more than he needed he shared it with the poor. He is thus considered the patron saint of the homeless.

He lived many years in Rome, sleeping first in a Coliseum and then in a home when he was ill. He fell mortally ill at the church of Saint Maria dei Monte and died in the nearby house of a butcher who took him in.

When I was in Rome in 2013 I visited the church where his body is buried. No one else was there but I felt a real desire to honor this poor man totally devoted to God.

I noted the image of Mary over the altar but not until this morning did I realize that Mary is flanked by two deacons, Lawrence and Stephen, and Augustine and Francis are kneeling before her. St. Benedict had a great devotion to this image.

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St. Benedict Joseph Labré was rejected by several monasteries but is claimed by the Franciscans since he was a Cord-Bearer, a confraternity connected with the followers of St. Francis.

As I contemplate possible ordination as a deacon, a servant, I think of St. Benedict Joseph Labré and ask for his inspiration. I also look with wonder at the image of Mary and remember the witness of the two deacons – serving God and God’s people, especially the poor – men and women like St. Benedict, men and women whom St. Francis honored.

And I ask for the gifts of generosity and detachment – which is the closest I think I can get to the poverty of St. Benedict and St. Francis.

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Photograph taken February 16, 2013, by author.

 

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Breathing threats or life?

… still breathing murderous threats…
Acts 9:1

The Acts of the Apostles graphically describes Saul in his pursuit of the followers of Christ.

He not only wants to imprison them and get rid of them. He is breathing threats and murder. They have taken over his very being, his very breathing.

These threats of slaughter are not just thoughts, not just ideas. They are part of his being.

Fears, insecurity, competing world visions are not just thoughts that we can get rid of by thinking them through. Sometimes they are so much a part of us that we need to have the breath taken out of us. They are habits of our being that need a radical transformation.

Maybe that’s why the most famous images of the conversion of Saul picture him fallen off a horse, even though there is no horse mentioned in the scriptures.

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Perhaps he needed to be “knocked off his high horse.”

When fear, insecurity, doubts assail us, we sometimes need such a radical push by God.

But there are times when we find ourselves at a turning point, a “tipping point.” We have been moved slowly away from our limited views of God and the world. Suddenly an event pushes us “over the top” and we find ourselves on the verge of a new way of living and thinking. We find ourselves called to a new level of conversion in which we take a new breath and live differently.

Not all of us will experience the sudden conversion of Saul, but God is continuously pushing (and pulling) us toward new life, toward even greater Love. Some of us need to be thrown off our high horses; others need only a little push to begin anew.

But all of us need to learn how to stop breathing murderous threats and start breathing in harmony with all our sisters and brothers.

Public domain The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held byZenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Enfleshing God’s love for the poor

Today is a strange confluence of events and feasts which, for me, show God’s ongoing love for the poor.

Since March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, fell on Good Friday this year, it is celebrated today.

Yes, the Word became Flesh on a specific day; but He continues being made flesh every day – in those who are marginalized, rejected, denied love and life.

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Mosaic in the Filipino style in Nazareth

Today is also the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. I clearly remember the night, staying with my parents. I especially remember the phone call from a former classmate who knew of my concern for civil rights.

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Benedict the Black

Today Franciscans celebrate the death in 1589 of a saint I have revered since grade school – St. Benedict the Moor (il moro), as he was known then.

The son of African parents who had been slaves, St. Benedict was raised in Sicily. After being freed from slavery, he joined a group of hermits and was eventually chosen their superior.

When the pope disbanded all the small groups of hermits, Benedict joined the Franciscans, where he served as cook. He was chosen superior, even though he was illiterate. He was later chosen novice master but he asked to be allowed to return to the kitchen.

His simplicity, his willingness to do whatever for the glory of God, reminds me of this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

Today is also the feast of St. Isidore of Seville, an encyclopedic bishop and teacher, who died in 636. He once wrote these words that reflect God’s love for the poor and mistrust of riches:

“The greater our love for the things we possess, the greater our pain when we lose them.
“Greed is insatiable. The person who is afflicted with it always needs something else; the more he has, the more he wants.
“The powerful are nearly all so inflamed with a mad lust for possessions that they stay well clear of the poor. Small wonder that when they come to die that are condemned to the flames of hell, since they did nothing to put out the flames of greed during their lifetime.”

Strong words that challenge all of us.

The challenge is how to be poor like Jesus, giving ourselves for others; how to be drum majors for justice like Martin Luther King; how to be humble servants like St. Benedict the Black; and how to use our gifts for the poor.

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Image at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 31st Street, NYC

The Great Sabbath – Silence

Holy Saturday is here, an in-between day. Yesterday we lived the Passion and Death of Jesus with Stations of the Cross and the reading of the Passion. Tonight we begin the celebration of His resurrection with light, readings, and baptism.

It is a day of silence. As Pope Francis said earlier this week:

Holy Saturday is the day of the silence of God. Jesus shares with all humanity the drama of death, not leaving any space where the infinite mercy of God does not reach. On this day, love does not doubt, just as Mary, the first believer, did not doubt, but kept silence and hoped. Love hopes confident in the word of the Lord until Christ rises in splendor on the day of the Paschal feast.

It is a day to set aside to watch and wait, preferably in silence.

Father Damasus Winzen, the founder of the primitive Benedictine Mount Saviour Monastery near Elmira, New York, wrote a beautiful little essay on Holy Saturday, entitled “The Great Sabbath Rest.” In this essay he notes the importance of silence:

Next to fasting, silence is the most important means to keep the spirit of Holy Saturday. Turn off the radio and television. Avoid all unnecessary talking. Stop the voice of man that God may have a chance to speak to our heart. “It is good to wait in silence for the salvation of God” [Lamentations 3:26], is one of the verses we hear during Matins of Holy Saturday. Silence is fasting with our tongue. We disclaim the right to make ourselves heard. We take our place among God’s disciples. We are ready to listen. Silence is the external sign of an inner conversion from self-assertion to faith in God’s saving love. “For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel. If you return and be quiet, you shall be saved: in silence and in hope shall your strength be” [Isaiah 30:15]. The silence of Holy Saturday is not only the empty silence of not talking and of stopping all noise. It is an imitation of our Lord’s silence, of the silence of selfless love, which, instead of accusing and defending, covers all sins and carries them in the depth of forgiveness. Therefore, the silence of Holy Saturday should be an inner silence of the heart.

Today I will not be all that silent and restful. The Dulce Nombre choir is supposed to come here to my house for a morning of silent retreat. I will try to lead them into silence.

UPDATE: They cancelled the retreat morning. Someone left a message last night after  had gone to bed. But still, here’s what I had planned.

First we will spend some time quieting ourselves with meditative prayer.

Then I will invite them to walk in silence accompanying Mary, John, Peter, Mary Magdalene, or another of the women who accompanied Jesus to the Cross or another of the apostles who abandoned Him. What did they experience, what did they feel on this day of rest, but also of silence, perhaps filled with a spirit of abandonment.

Finally I will share with them a meditation on the resurrection by Carlo Carretto.

I need this as much as they might to prepare for the Great Vigil where we will celebrate the Light of Christ come into the world – with fire, readings, the waters of baptism, and the Eucharist.

And so I recall the words of Psalm 46:

Be still and know that I am God…

Great advice before the Easter Vigil.

Emptying

Today is Good Friday, recalling and celebrating the death of our Lord Jesus. Today we are also nine months before Christmas, the celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus. If it were not Good Friday, we would be celebrating the Feast of the Annunciation.

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There was among some early Christians the belief that the annunciation and the crucifixion shared the same date.

But there are deeper connections between these two events, these two feasts.

Both teach us that our God is not a God who lords it over us. Our God became flesh and handed himself over even to the point of death.

This is, for me, the point of Philippians 2: 6-7:

[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (μορφὴν δούλου), coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

But there is another connection, one that causes me to ask what I am called to be and to do.

Mary responded to the angel Gabriel, “Behold the slave (δούλη) of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word.”

On the Cross, Jesus cried out, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Both Mary and Jesus handed themselves over to the plans of God, leaving aside their own plans.

Our God is a God who empties Himself, who becomes a slave.

Where do I need to be emptied so that God may come and rise within me?

That is my question for Good Friday this year.

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Photo is of the El Señor de Intibucá.