Speaking words of encouragement

The Lord has given me the tongue of a disciple
to speak a work of encouragement to the downcast.
Isaiah 50:4

Yesterday I visited the elderly and sick in two villages. What a blessing for me.

It is part of the ministry of the deacon to care for widows, orphans, and the ill. I don’t do as much visiting the homebound as I could, partly because one of the major ministries of our communion ministers is to visit the sick in their communities. I do work with them in their continuing formation but I try not to replace their ministry to the sick.

This Holy Week we have about fifty parishioners in mission to most of our villages, visiting homes and praying with the people there. I’ve come across some who are invigorated by the experience of sharing the Gospel in a simple way with people.

I have also worked with the communion ministers so that we can get communion to the elderly, the sick, and the home-bound during Holy Week. But there were a few villages that were left out – and so I arranged visits in two villages.

So often these visits are a time of grace for me – as I enter the lives of the elderly, the sick, and the poor. Yesterday was such a time of grace.

In the first village I visited a woman about 70 years old who can’t walk to church and so I was glad to share a time of conversation and prayer as well as Communion. She was very up-beat, despite her weakness and aches and pains. Later, in another part of the village, about ten minutes in car from her house, I visited a ninety-two year old man who lives with his evangelical wife and often walks to church. He was much less talkative than the woman, probably partly because he is hard of hearing, but it was a gift to share Communion with him.

Both of these lived in poor houses with dirt floors. But there I found Jesus (and did not merely bring Him there in Communion).

I later went to another village where a young catechist took me around. The four women I visited were all very talkative.

I had visited the first woman a few weeks and go and she was bed-bound at that time. This time she was walking about. We sat down in the kitchen while her daughters and grand-daughters were busy mixing dough to bake bread.

In several places I made a special effort to speak to those who were caring for the elderly, encouraging them and letting them know that their work can be very hard but it is very important. As I speak with them I often tell them how important it was for me to care for my Dad at home in the last years of his life. I feel it is very important to give them “a word that will rouse them.”

This morning, while reading the third Servant Song of Isaiah (50: 4-9), I thought of how visiting the sick and ill has opened up for me a part of myself that I have not really appreciated. I am continually amazed how God’s compassion and God’s words of encouragement pass through me. This has become an important part of my life here and is one of the graces of being a deacon.

Where I got back to Plan Grande I went to the church to put the remaining hosts into the tabernacle. As I walked into the church I was moved by the light falling on the statue of El Nazareno, Jesus carrying his cross, before the altar.

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This helped make sense of my few hours visiting the elderly and the sick.

 

Truth is freeing

“If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples,
and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
John 8: 31-32

Madeleine L’Engle once wrote: “Truth is eternal. Our knowledge of it is changeable. It is disastrous when you confuse the two.”

In our search for God, it is easy to confuse our notions of God with the God who is beyond all words – but who keeps giving us glimpses of the Truth who God is.

Remaining in God’s word, for me, means opening my heart to God and all God’s people so that I can hear God’s call wherever it may lead me.

And so, I continually ask myself, am I a disciple who listens with an open heart or do I think that I know it all?

This is a source of humility and great hope for all of us who seek God.

God of Truth, you show us small signs of the truth which you are, but you are greater than our minds and our hearts.  Keep us open to all these signs and keep us always free of the temptation to think that we have all the truth.


Adapted from my contribution to the Lenten Booklet of the Associates of the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters.

The stench of the tomb

Are we willing to love, facing the stench of the tomb?

This past week I presided at a funeral in a rural village. The wife of a man active in the local church had died, just three weeks after their son had died in an accident.

When I arrived the people were in the small church gathered around the casket.

I walked to the front and as I walked past the casket I sensed a foul odor. I proceeded to the front and prepared for the service. Only occasionally during the service did I smell the odor.

When Jesus tells the men at the tomb of Lazarus to move the stone, Martha objects: “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.”

But Jesus persists: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”

And Lazarus comes forth.

Where is the glory of God manifested in today’s Gospel (John 11: 1-45)?

DSC00526We could easily – and rightly say – it’s in the raising of Lazarus to life. For, as St. Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is the living human being.”

Our God is a God who calls us forth to life – here in this world and in the fulfillment of God’s will in heaven.

But I wonder if the glory of God is not shown when we lovingly confront the stench of death, when we recognize that that stench is not the final word, when we call others to live in the face of death.

Is the glory of God shown in those who are not afraid of death and the stench of death – but lovingly embrace God and all God’s people?


Detail of Lazarus in a painting in the church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

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Scrutinies and courage

This morning I went to a village, El Limón, where we celebrated the Scrutinies for four young men who will, God willing, be baptized in the Easter Village. This afternoon I served as deacon and preached here in Plan Grande where we celebrated the Scrutinies for two young men.

The Scrutinies are special prayers and exorcisms for those preparing for baptism. The community prays for them and they kneel. The priest or deacon lays hands on their heads as they kneel in prayer. We pray that they be freed from the power of the Father of Lies.

For me it was moving to pray silently, laying my hands on the heads of the young men in El Limón. I prayed that God would work through me to give them the strength and courage to continue their journey to baptism. It was also moving because before the celebration we had a discussion because of some problems in the classes they should have been receiving. The community made a decision that allowed these young men to continue toward Baptism. I pray that what we did will help the community grow toward greater unity. But what was important was finding a way to really support and welcome these young people.

In Plan Grande, I was moved when Padre German spoke directly to the two young men calling them to be courageous as the man born blind was courageous.

I preached in both places and one thing that really impressed me was the man born blind in the Gospel (John 9: 1-41) . He comes on the scene as a worthless blind beggar. But cured by Jesus, but with the his own cooperation – going to the pool of Siloam and washing his eyes, he affirms his dignity in the face of people denying that this seeing man was the man born blind. “I am.”

But what really impressed me was how he stood up to the authorities who wanted not only to chastise him as a sinner but wanted, using him, to chastise Jesus and charge Jesus as a sinner.

The man who had been blind stands up to the religious leaders, claiming that Jesus was a prophet. And when they asked him again about the cure, he, probably fed up that they didn’t listen to his explanation he first time, asks them, almost sarcastically, if they want to become disciples of Jesus.

What courage – from a man who had been a useless blind beggar.

And then, when he had been expelled by the religious leaders, Jesus seeks him and reveals Himself to the man who had been blind as the Son of Man.

That is the message for these young people – and others seeking to be baptized.

Jesus is the Son of Man, the Light of the World, who give us the courage, who leads us to see not only the presence of God in our midst but also to see our dignity and gives us the courage to be who we are – children of the Light (Ephesians 5: 8).

Pray for these young men and the more than thirty others who will be baptized in Dulce Nombre at the Easter Vigil.

The angel entered the house

The angel entered where Mary was
Luke 1:28

Most of our images of the Annunciation have Mary in a contemplative state – with arms crossed, kneeling, or – anachronistically reading a book. I especially love Fra Angelico’s fresco in the San Marcos Convent in Florence.

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There is a Byzantine icon of the angel greeting Mary at a well, based on a story in the Protevangelium of James.

But I really wonder if they have all got it wrong.

What would a woman be doing in a house? Most likely, cleaning, washing clothes and dishes, preparing meals, and maybe even sewing, repairing clothes, or spinning wool. But I have seen almost no images with Mary doing any one these things when the angel Gabriel arrives.

There are also a few icons that have Mary with a distaff.

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Coptic icon of teh Annunciation 91995) by Bedour Latif and Yousef Nassief

There is also a painting by JW Waterhouse which has Mary kneeling with what appears to be a spindle on the ground beside her. (But there is also the anachronistic book.)

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Yet the angel entered and found Mary in her house.

The angel found Zacharias in the temple. Angels appeared to Joseph in dreams.  Angels appeared to the women at the tomb of Jesus. But the Angel Gabriel makes a house call to Mary.

I was thinking of this as I prepared to preach this morning in Debajiados. Without conferring beforehand, Padre German mentioned at the beginning of Mass that the angel came into Mary’s house.

We can encounter God – and God’s messengers – anywhere, especially in our daily lives. We don’t have to be praying; we don’t have to be reading a spiritual book; we don’t have to be kneeling or with our arms crossed over our chests. God comes whenever and wherever.

That is part of the message of many saints and mystics, including Brother Lawrence, famous for his Practice of the Presence of God amid the pots and pans.

But a spirituality which doesn’t take the Incarnation seriously makes many think that we have to be pious to hear God. Piety helps, but attentiveness is more important. And perhaps even more important is being open to God who comes in the little things as well as in the great surprises.

And so let us make sure that we are attentive when the angels enter our house.

 

Joseph – just, docile, free

Joseph, the silent actor, was just, docile, and free.

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Today, because March 19 fell on a Sunday, we celebrate the feast of Saint Joseph, the spouse of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Yesterday, however, we celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph in the village of San José Quebraditas, where I preached.

There is very little in the Gospels about Joseph. We never hear a word he might have spoken. He is the silent witness of the Incarnation of the Son of God. But he listens – even to dreams – and acts.

In the Gospel for the feast, Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24a, we hear of a man who is just, docile, and free.

Matthew calls Joseph a “just man” or, as some translations put it, a “righteous man.” Joseph is just with the justice of God – not with a merely human justice.

The merely human justice of the law of his day would have condemned Mary to death by stoning – as an adulteress. But Joseph had already chosen a different kind of justice, the justice of mercy and compassion. He had planned to put her away privately.

But Joseph was also docile to the call of God. In a dream an angel calls him to take Mary as his wife. Joseph had proposed a good thing for Mary, but God calls his to go further. Joseph is open to God’s call; he is docile, teachable, and so takes on his role as guardian of Jesus, the Son of God make flesh. For Joseph, his pray to God is not “my will be done,” but “thy will be done.”

In all this we find a free man. Joseph was not so tied to his own ideas that he could not give them up to the dreams of God. Joseph was not so bound by his own culture or his own plans that he could not let God change his plans and move him to respond in an unexpected, loving, and free way to God’s call to change his plans. Joseph is free. As Father Alfred Delp, SJ, wrote from a Nazi prison, “Without complaint he lets his own plans be set aside.”

We would do well to imitate Joseph – the just, docile, and free person who listens and acts.


The photo was taken on March 19, 2017, in San José Quebraditas, Concepción, Copán, Honduras.

The quote from Father Alfred Delp, SJ, comes from The Prison Meditations of Father Delp  and is also found in Alfred Delp, SJ: Prison Writings,  p. 63.

 

Restoring the Samaritan woman to community

Many people in the world – mostly women – get up early and go to the community well or water spigot to gather water. I remember, when I spent several months in rural El Salvador, Esteban calling out very early, “Get up. It’s time to fetch water.”

Several months later, the community had a common spigot. I remember the first day that water came. People were lined up with their colorful water jugs, waiting in line, at the tap.

Fetching water is a communal event. The people, almost exclusively women, gather at the well or the community spigot in the cool of the morning to fetch water and to share the news (and the gossip) of the community.

Woman at the Well

in the Vatican Museum

And so in today’s Gospel (John 4) it is strange to find the Samaritan woman coming alone in the heat at noon. Something was wrong.

And then she encounters a solitary Jew.

Can you imagine her consternation when he addresses her and asks for water? The Jews despised and looked down on the Samaritans and considered themselves superior in many ways – not least of all in their religion. And he is a man and men do not talk in public to women.

Yet Jesus initiates contact with this woman who was probably alienated from her village. After all she had had five husbands. Perhaps she comes to the well alone and at noon to avoid the condemning looks and the remarks of the other women.

But a Jewish man does not command her to give him water but, as one in need, asks for a drink.

A spirited conversation follows and Jesus offers her living water.

How long had she come alone to fetch water? How long had she endured being marginalized? How long had she felt shame for her situation?

Perhaps she was tired of all this and when Jesus offers her living water, she realizes the deep thirst within her that cannot be sated by coming to the well or by her five former husbands or the man she’s now living with.

Jesus opens her up to her deepest thirst, her deepest desire.

The water Jesus gives her is different. It is the water that quenches our deepest desires, our deepest thirsts. But more than that, Jesus notes

the water I shall give will become in [the person] a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

It is not a water merely from the outside; it is a water that opens up a spring in our very hearts, where we can worship God in spirit and in truth.

And what does this water do for us? Note what this gift of water did for the woman.

She left behind her water jug and goes into town.

She leaves behind the sign of her lonely struggle to satisfy her own thirst on her own terms. She goes and tells the people about the Messiah she has experienced.

She is no longer isolated. She is an apostle, a missionary to her people. The one who had been an outcast becomes the one who brings news of great joy.

And then she returns to the well – not alone but with the people of the village.

A stream of living water is flowing out of her, watering her neighbors who no longer look on her as an outcast, but join her in going out to meet this Jesus, who satisfies our thirsts.

And when they encounter Jesus, they too have their thirsts satisfied and find in themselves springs of that living water.

We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.

May we recognize our thirsts and our ways of trying to satisfy them. Even more let us open our thirst to receive the living water, and let that Living Water of Jesus flood our hearts so that we too may find in ourselves “the spring of living water that wells up to eternal life” and share it with all who thirst for real Water.