Monthly Archives: May 2013

Carrying God wherever we go

Today we celebrate the encounter of two pregnant women and the children in their wombs, a feast that dates back to the Franciscans in 1263.

Painting in the church of El Sitio, Suchitoto, El Salvador

Painting in the church of El Sitio, Suchitoto, El Salvador

Mary, pregnant with the Word of God made flesh, goes to meet her elderly cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. Who knows why Mary went? Perhaps to help her cousin, perhaps to seek the counsel of an older woman, perhaps to have someone to talk to about the strange things happening in her life.

But Mary goes and brings God with her. And so can we carry God wherever we go.

The reading for Vigils today in Benedictine Daily Prayer, has a marvelous reading from Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of God, which makes just this point:

Sometimes it may seem to us that there is no purpose in our lives, that going day after day to this office or that school or factory is nothing else but waste and weariness. But it may be that God has sent us there because, but for us, Christ would not be there. If our being there means that Christ is there, that alone makes it worth while.

When Mary met Elizabeth, John leaped for joy in her womb – both he and his mother recognized the presence of God in Mary.

But, Houselander insists, this is not something that just happened in the past with Mary. It is something that God can do in our lives.

 If Christ is growing in us, if we are at peace, recollected, because we know that however insignificant our life seems to be, from it he is forming himself; if we go with eager will, in haste, to whatever our circumstances compel us, because we believe that we are driven more and more to act on the impulse of love. And the answer we shall get from others to those impulses will be an awakening into life, or the leap of joy of the already wakened life within them.

So today, let us go wherever we are called, with joy and with love, carrying Christ within us so that those around us will leap with joy, recognizing that God is with us, God has become flesh among us, and God loves us.


The Playfulness of Wisdom

…then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the children of humans.

 The closing verses of today’s first reading from Proverbs 8: 22-31 are about Wisdom – another name for God.

What strikes me is the playfulness of God. Some versions translate this as rejoicing, but I think we need to be playful, as God is playful.

Pope Francis has insisted on the importance of joy in the Christian life. There is a proverb, “A sad saint is a sorry saint” or, in Spanish, “Un santo triste es un triste santo.

Today is the feast of a saint who was far from sad. He was a practical joker, not only to try to prevent people from calling him a saint but to reflect the playfulness of God. He would go around Rome with half his face shaved or in strange costumes. He at times would tweak the ears or nose of friends he met in the street.

Philip Neri, who was born in Florence (and who, by the way, respected the memory of Savonarola), was the apostle in Rome and founder of the Congregation of the Oratory. He was a friend of many saints of his era, including St. Ignatius Loyola and was also a confessor of Palestrina (who, I believe, wrote oratorios for Philip’s Oratory.)

As St. Philip once wrote,

Perfection does not consists in such outward things as shedding tears and the like, but in true and solid virtues, Tears are not a sign that a man is in the grace of God, neither must we infer that one who weeps when he speaks of holy and devout things necessarily lives a holy life. Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life; therefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits. When a man is freed from a temptation or any other distress, let him take great care to show fitting gratitude to God for the benefit he has received.

I have been blessed with a crazy sense of humor – a heritage from my father. This has served me well, for I am less myself when I get too serious. And so I need to pray for playfulness and be grateful for this gift.

Today, may the playfulness of God, who created our world and delights to be with us, nourish our sense of humor, our playfulness.


Let your acquaintances be many,
but one in a thousand your confidant.
Sirach 6: 6

Friendship is the theme of today’s first lectionary reading from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 6: 5-17. Though Jesus ben Sira mostly warns about false friends, he praises real friends as a gift from God, medicine for life:

A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;
whoever finds one finds a treasure.
A faithful friend is beyond price,
no sum can balance the worth of a friend.
A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy…
Sirach 6: 14-16

In this day of “friending” via Facebook (I have 1018) and the sharing there of everything from emotional breakdowns to what we had for lunch, it’s so easy to forget the real worth of friendship.


Give Us This Day shares these poignant words of the medieval Benedictine St. Aelred of Rievaulx on friendship:

Friendship so cushions adversity and chastens prosperity that among mortals almost nothing can be enjoyed without a friend. A friendless person is like an animal, having no one in whom to rejoice in prosperity and grieve in sadness, in whom to confide if the mind suspects some threat and with whom to communicate an unusually sublime or splendid event.

The past two weeks I have experienced what a real friend is. A friend dropped by and we shared pizza and a long conversation over our joys and frustrations. Another friend sent me an e-mail asking me about an aspect of my ministry, which gave me the opportunity to rant about something that has been bugging me for months. And the other day a friend shared with me some of her concerns. (None of these are Facebook friends!)

These encounters are a blessing and help me put my life in perspective – both the joys and the frustrations.

Yesterday, during a retreat morning on peacemaking with some Franciscan friends in Gracias, a word from a text of St. Francis touched me deeply: concordia, concord. It literally means “having a heart with” someone – being of one heart.

As I prayed over the word, I thought of the importance of helping people in conflict see where their hearts are in concord, but also of the importance of having one’s heart in concord with the Lord.

Then we can sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus.”

Savonorala: a martyr?

The Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola and two other Dominicans were hanged and burned on May 23, 1498, in Florence. Though he was a friar and not a Florentine citizen, Savonarola was a major voice in promoting republican values in the city.

Savornarola, in San Marco church, Florence

Savornarola, in San Marco church, Florence

He got into trouble with the Pope because of his critiques of papal corruption and his opposition to papal rule in Italy. Though his followers managed to take control of Florentine politics for a short time, he fell out of favor – possibly because of the rather puritanical practices which he promoted (including the “bonfire of the vanities”), but also because of the vagaries of politics in Florence.

Last January I read an historical novel on Florence in Savonarola’s day and was astounded by the intrigue within the various ruling parties of Florence and also in the Vatican.

But Savonarola, no matter what his faults, sought an end to corruption and championed values of government not beholden to rich families. In his fiery sermons he called on Florence to be an example of a just and holy city. He also called for the reform of the papacy which, at that time, was corrupt, to put it mildly.

His memory is preserved in Florence with a plaque at the site of his execution.

Plaque at the site of execution

Plaque at the site of execution

There is also a statue of Savonarola in the church of San Marco and you can visit his cell in the adjoining San Marco Museum which was the Dominican friary where he lived.

Excommunicated and burned at the stake, he might be considered a martyr to the truth. Who knows?

In the midst of troubled times, he dared to challenge the powers that be – ecclesial, governmental, and economic. Would there were more people willing to speak out.

They, however, might also get “burned.”


Twentieth century martyrs

prepare yourself for trials.
Sirach 2:1

The Son of Man is to be handed over to men
and they will kill him,
and three days after his death
the Son of Man will rise.
Mark 9: 31

The memory of the martyrs reminds us that witnessing to the Truth of God has consequences. The way of following Christ passes through the Cross.

The twentieth century is full of martyrs who died for their faith. The circumstances of their deaths and the reasons why they were killed are many. And some may have died more for reasons of politics than of faith.

Today’s martyrs illustrate the range of martyrs.

Today the Catholic church celebrates Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant who refused to serve in Hitler’s army. He was beheaded by the Nazis on August 9, 1943. Today is the anniversary of his baptism in 1907. His witness of refusal to support Nazism has inspired me and many to oppose war and totalitarian regimes. An article by the Catholic Peace Fellowship can be found here. I wrote about him here and here.

Today is also the feast of St. Cristobal Magallenes and other Mexican Catholics killed in the wake of the Cristero rebellion. Father Cristobal preached against the rebellion but he was arrested and killed, forgiving his enemies.

Today is also the anniversary of the deaths of Trappist Father Christian de Chergé and seven other Trappists in Algeria. Offering a contemplative witness in Algeria which included dialogue with Islam, they were kidnapped and killed by rebels. In a letter written a few years before their death, Père Christian wrote a letter that ended with these moving words to his murderer:

May we be granted to meet each other again, happy thieves, in paradise, should it please God, the Father of both of us. Amen! In sh’Allah!

I wrote about them here.  A short reflection on the film Of Gods and Men is found here.

Today is also the anniversary of the killing in Peru of Australian Sister Irene McCormick by the Sendero Luminoso, a rebel group.

The list can go on of the anniversary of martyrs – including

  • Fr. Pedro Aguilar Santos, killed in El Quiché, Guatemala, in 1981.
  • Norma Coronoa Sapiens, president and founding member of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, killed — death squad style — in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1991.
  • Fr. Carlos Domiak, killed in Bahia Blanca, Argentina, 1975.

It must be noted that most Latin American martyrs of the late twentieth century were not killed by rebels but by government forces or right wing death squads who opposed the church’s defense of the poor. Many of these governments were supported by the US government.

These women and men knew that their Lord did not turn back in the face of persecution. The knew that serving Him and the poor, being witnesses to Love, can lead to one’s death.

The martyrs challenge us but they also offer us a paradoxical confirmation of the closing lines of today’s first reading (Sirach 2: 11)

Compassionate and merciful is the Lord;
he forgives sins, he saves in time of trouble
and he is a protector to all who seek him in truth.

The martyrs die – but they believe that God is with them. God’s protection doesn’t necessarily mean protection from death and suffering. It means a deep peace in the face of the Cross.


The name of Jesus – St. Bernardine

St. Bernardine

St. Bernardine

St. Bernardine of Siena, celebrated today in the Catholic calendar of saints,  is mostly known as the Franciscan who promoted devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus.

He was a famous preacher who could project his voice so well that thousands could hear him, yet, according to one report, he had a ‘defective utterance” when younger,

A few days ago I was speaking with the Dulce Nombre parish council about ministries and was about to state that if someone stutters that person should not be one of those who preach at the Celebrations of the Word. But I stopped, because I know one layman who normally stutters but when he preaches or prays in church, he is remarkably fluent.

God works in strange ways – and we need to be open to God’s use of people who stutter to share with us the Good News.

But then, don’t we all stutter. Don’t we all fall short of speaking the Truth of God.

Maybe it’s for that reason that St. Bernardine promoted devotion to the Holy Name. Supposedly, he was impressed by a dying woman who could only pray the name of Jesus. The Jesus prayer, so important in Eastern Christian spirituality, has many forms, one of which is merely the repetition of the name of “Jesus.”

St. Bernardine, as part of this devotion, displayed a tablet with the first three letters in Greek of the name of Jesus (Ἰησοῦς) in capitals IHS.

When I was in Italy this past February I saw this at least three times –

on the façade of the Jesuit church of the Gesù in Rome,

among the remains of a monastery in Ravenna near the church of San Vitale,

and on the façade of Santa Croce church in Florence.

 The last is ironic. Santa Croce is a church of the Conventual Franciscan friars. St. Bernardine was the first vicar-general of the Observant Friars who broke with the Conventuals, promoting a stricter observance of the Rule of St. Francis.

But then, who I am to deny anyone the blessing of honoring the name of Jesus.


The statue of St. Bernardine is from a side chapel in San Apollinare Nuova in Ravenna.


Saint Isidore and the holiness of manual labor

“…these hands of mine have provided
for both my needs and needs of those with me…
…by working hard one must help the weak…”
Paul’s farewell to the Ephesians
Acts 20: 34-35

In the Western world and in the upper class societies throughout the world there is a prejudice against manual labor. I even saw this in Ames, Iowa, where Iowa State University is the first land-grant college in the US.

Yet even St. Paul is proud that by the work of his hands he cared for himself, his friends, and the poor.

Maria and Isidore (NCRLC image)

Maria and Isidore (NCRLC image)

Today the church celebrates Saint Isidore the Farm Laborer, a Spanish day laborer on a farm near Madrid, who lived from about 1070 to 1130. His wife, St. Toribia or St. Maria de la Cabeza, is celebrated on September 9.

Robert Ellsberg’s remarks on Isidore, in All Saints and in his short biography in the May 2013 Give Us This Day, are telling.

St. Isidore was canonized in 1622 with five great saints of the Counter-Reformation; unlike them, “he accomplished no great deeds (apart from tilling the land). He was, in fact, a simple farmworker.”

Tilling the land should be seen as a great deed, a way to holiness. St. Isidore lived a live of heroic holiness doing what the people here in rural Honduras do everyday – the hard work of tilling, weeding, harvesting.

“[St. Isidore] knew the hardships, the toil, and sorrows of all farmworkers then and since. And he displayed the simple though profound faith so common to campesinos the world over.”

Today I recall all those people who work the land – here and throughout the world. I recall friends in Iowa who are farming, often with little machinery, to provide food for themselves and others. I think of those here in Honduras who are now preparing their lands to plant the corn that is the staple of life.

By the work of their hands they are sanctifying the world and themselves. By farming they are seeking to be saints.


Growing Harmony Farm T-shirt

They may not write great tomes of theology or spirituality (though one of my farmer friends, Gary, is a spiritual director). They may not ever be known outside of their family and friends (though Gary is known throughout central Iowa as the carrot king.)

But their work on the land not only provides food; it is their way of living the Kingdom of God, especially those who use sustainable and organic farming methods. It is their way of trying to be saints.

The last line of Robert Ellsberg’s biography of St. Isidore merits our attention, today and every day:

In the list of canonized saints, his type is surprisingly rare; in heaven, presumably, less so.

Let us today celebrate these saints who became holy by the work of their hands.


Taking the place of Matthias and Isagani Valle

Benedictine Daily Prayer has a reading from a sermon of John Henry Newman for the feast. In the sermon Newman notes “We take the place of others who have gone before us, as Matthias did…”

There are many who have gone before us – some well known, others unknown. They include our family members as well as friends.

Today the Catholic Church celebrates St. Matthias who took over Judas’ place among the apostles. We know almost nothing about him – except that he was chosen by lot over another candidate, both of whom had been with Jesus since the baptism of Jesus by John and were witnesses to the resurrection. (Acts 1: 15-26). All the rest is legend.

Today is also the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the Carmelite seminarian Isagani Valle in Buenavista, Agusan del Norte, Mindanao, the Philippines, while on an immersion in this poor area. Walking with two farmers who may have been members of the guerrilla New Peoples Army, he was shot down by the police.

In one of his study-group reflections he wrote:

We still have to see a theology that proceeds from the people and goes back to the people; a theology which contains the lives and experiences of the masses; a theology that is dialogical. This needs real immersion in the lives, sufferings and struggles of the people. It is being written in the midst of the slums, in dialogue with the poor and their life-situation: It is that place where we, seminarians, have to listen and learn. It will, for sure, be different from a theology written in air-conditioned rooms. We must work and struggle for this theology – liberative and developmental of the people, and transformative of reality.

Who will take the place of people like Isagani, accompanying the poor.  He is unknown to most of us, but he is one who took seriously these words of Jesus in today’s Gospel (John 15:12-13) :

This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

A short biography of Isagani Valle can be found here. (Scroll down to his story.)

The poor in psalm 68

The responsorial psalm in today’s lectionary is Psalm 68. As part of my morning prayer I often read the whole psalm, not just the selected verses.

Often I encounter beautiful verses that speak to my heart.

This morning God’s love for the poor is made very clear in several verses of Psalm 68, as in many other psalms:

6 Father of the orphan, defender of the widow,
such is God in his holy place.
7 God gives the lowly a home to live in;
he leads the prisoners forth in liberty.

10 You poured down, O God, a generous rain;
when your people were starved
you gave them new life.
11 It was there that your people found a home,
prepared in your goodness, O God, for the poor.

Our God has a special place in his heart – and in the Kingdom for the poor.

God gives the poor a home, a place to feel safe and to live in security.

And what are we doing?

The ambiguity of the Ascension

Easter tells us that Jesus is himself the first part of new creation;
his ascension tells us that he is now running it.
N. T. Wright

 The feast of the Ascension of Jesus to heaven is not a very big celebration. Easter and Pentecost seem to make it insignificant.

I wonder if it’s because it’s an ambiguous feast. Jesus is leaving us – again.

In a poem, the sixteenth century Augustinian Friar Luis de Leon expressed this lament:

And you leave your flock, Holy Shepherd,
in this deep and dark valley,
alone and weeping.
And you, bursting the pure air,
go off to immortal security?

A few weeks ago, reading a section of N.T.Wright’s Simply Jesus, I got a new insight into the ascension.

Referring to the public life of Jesus and his resurrection, Wright suggests:

A new power is let loose in the world, the power to remake what was broken, to heal what was diseased, to restore what was lost. The kingdom that Jesus had inaugurated strangely, mysteriously, and partially during his public career through his healings, feastings, and teachings was now unveiled in a totally new dimension.

But what sense is there of Jesus ascending to heaven. We think of heaven as “out there,” above us all, far off.

But Wright reminds us that “heaven is the place from which the world is run. It is the CEO’s office.”

Today, let us remember that Jesus is “in charge,” even though the world is far from being the “Kingdom of God.”

He is already in charge, but all is not yet fulfilled.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will return in the same way as you have seen him go there.” (Acts 1: 11)

Get moving, share the Good News; be witnesses to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1: 8)


The poem of Luis de Leon is found in Orar la Historia y el Conflicto by Jesús Manuel Sariego and José María Tojeira (UCA Editores, 1999):

Y dejas Pastor Santo
tu grey en este valle hondo, oscuro,
con soledad y llanto.
¿Y tú rompiendo el puro
aire, te vas al inmortal seguro?

The quotations from N. T. Wright were found in the excerpt from Simply Jesus in the volume The 10 Best Books to Read for Easter, edited by Fr. James Martin, S.J.