Starving

In that conversation the kingdom of God felt further away than ever.

It didn’t feel here, in the present, but somewhere in the distance – a mere dot on the horizon we will never be joined with.

When we speak, we speak not only for ourselves but others, too. And in her voice I heard the voices of a multitude, one as much as alive in Jesus’ lifetime as it is now. Like a game of tug-of-war happening across space and time. Because ignorance and hate don’t have boundaries: they are the same everywhere.

The exact shape may change but the meaning is the same. They can be dressed up and hidden behind jargon that sounds caring or looks good on paper but poison served in fancy cake is still poison.

 

She said why should any of it matter, we’re all humans. As though our shared humanity somehow wipes out everything else. Like cultures and societies and all the systems in them don’t exist; as if we weren’t individuals tangled up in all of this, trying to protect that very same humanity from the divisions that threaten to destroy it.

Knowledge puffs up, writes Paul, love builds up.

But how do you keep an open heart? How do you look at the future with hope?

 

I could have hung up. Could have put down the phone and walked away, from it and her, for good.

The conversation was going in circles and so felt pointless. And yet the fact that we were having this conversation at all means something.

Sometimes the larger picture obscures the details and the events of our everyday lives pass by in seemingly meaningless ways. Could this moment, then, be used for something good? If words can transcend space and time then maybe this small thing, here in the present, will help something larger to grow in the future?

 

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, He said, the smallest of all the earth’s seeds.

What happens now may seem insignificant and yet I can’t help but feel life is progressing towards something. Like human history was always intended for this. All of these moments, all of us, will one day yield a crop of something good and nutritious. And only then will  we realize how starved we once were.

 

 

 

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Travelling Light

Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in? (Job 3:23)

 

Night brings the light from stars already dead and day is but old light too.

And between the dead and the living, a dark expanse which only light can travel.

 

There is a storm outside my window and it has been there for days.

When you live next to a body of water, you can expect months of white and low grey skies. Roads closed in every direction and eventually you start to feel like there’s no way out. Like the earth has conspired to hedge you in.

This isn’t somewhere to be when there’s already a storm inside you too. When there’s churning and cold and you have to squint to see anything at all. It’s dark for days, sometimes weeks. Or longer.

 

No wonder you start to crave light and people are overjoyed when they begin to notice that come mid-afternoon it’s not dark yet. There’s still some light.

I find myself craving it about now. A light eternal, unlike stars or sun. A light without fire that consumes and turns all things to dust but rather encourages new growth. A light you can walk in, even if you only ever see the next step in front of you and not the end of the road.

There is meaning in the Light and I know this and turn toward it.

 

The storm breaks, just briefly, and a light streams in through clear window panes.

I open my palm to it, the cold in my bones dissipates. This Light, which cannot be held yet holds us all, reminds me that the dark is not all there is so long as there is Light to travel with in darkness.

 

 

Vignette: Morning

I left early with the intention of sitting quietly in a back pew, going over my devotional reading for the day. Having been away from the church for the past month, I wanted to get back into the rhythm of morning mass. But more than that, I needed to be in the presence of strangers, to be alone in a community. To feel awed and small and protected. I needed the stone columns and arch ways, to see them holding it all up over us.

I needed to know that there is something larger, more solid than myself right now.

But the doors were locked: closed for construction this week.

Everything had shifted next door to the elementary school but I wouldn’t go in. Today, I needed to see to believe.

And that wasn’t going to happen in a gymnasium.

 

My favourite Franciscan writes that “[w]hen we are nothing we are in a fine position to receive everything from God.

The trick is to keep ourselves open, like cupped hands, ready to receive whatever He gives and when we want to close ourselves up tightly, to protect our vulnerable selves, we must pray that He will teach us how to unclench. To unfold, and allow ourselves to be filled: this is how we learn the habit of grace.

 

Instead, I walked home, taking the long way.

Down the busiest streets where the sound of traffic and tires on wet snow were almost enough drown out His voice in my prayers.

 

Not All, But Closer Than Before

Sitting on the floor of my parent’s living room, rummaging through shelves for something to read. I was looking for something light but found a bible instead.

It was something of a surprise to find a bible amidst old paperbacks, mostly sci-fi, and a few over-sized art books. A scrap of paper was tucked into the opening pages of Leviticus and I remembered that my father had been reading the Old Testament the year he began to convert to Judaism. Neither his conversion nor his reading progressed very far.

Regardless.

I took the bible upstairs, thumbed through it, and stopped at Philippians.

 

The anticipation of Advent had been palpable this year. There was an overwhelming sense of something about to change, a coming of sorts. Something both bigger and smaller than the child in the manger. Bigger because it felt immediate, like something about to enter my everyday life. Yet smaller because what is quite so large or extravagant as the Incarnation?

And then, as sometimes happens, everything began to unravel and all I could do was weep.

And complain. Bitterly.

 

There was no reason why I stopped at this particular letter. It seemed as good a place as any to stop and explore this translation.

Sometimes I want to live, and sometimes I long to go and be with Christ.

Oh.

How had I missed this before?

This short letter, written in Rome, has an honesty that makes me ashamed.

For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith.

Was my complaining, my whining, my seemingly relentless tears testifying to my lack of faith? Sometimes all you can do is lament and that is good and as it should be. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise: the pain is real, uniquely yours, and sacred because of this. Platitudes, like this too shall pass, can devalue what you’re experiencing. But the line between lamentation and whining is sometimes thin and vague.

I am still not all I should be…

Someone recently said they were amenable to the idea of purgatory because it is an opportunity for all that is contrary to what God wants us to be to finally be burned away.

I wonder if maybe, just maybe, there are times when purgatory is here and now. What if those times when the hardships pile up are not tests of faith but moments pregnant with the possibility of transfiguration? Because none of us are all that we should be and why should we wait until we have shuffled out of our skin?

In His time here I see a life lived fully and a life given freely. And I am doing neither. I have closed myself off from the grace and peace here in the present moment. A grace and peace so powerful as to not only forgive but burn away all that you are and are not; all you have done and failed to do. And it’s not available later, or only later, but right now.

The letter writer knew it then and I know it now. 

This is the peace I am clinging to and the grace I am longing to be shaped by.

Lord, I am still not all I should be. Amen.

 

 

Open

What makes a heart open? What light begs its delicate petals to unfurl?

Lately, when I think of my husband, I think of the peony bush by the back door. One day there were small, tightly closed buds and then it was in bloom. It all felt so sudden though I know it didn’t really happen over night -I just didn’t notice until all that beauty was right before me.

So when he said he would like to read that book, the one about God’s relentless love for us, I was shocked. I wanted to ask why and why now but really, it doesn’t matter. Still, I began to reflect on how he’s changed: it’s like there’s more of him give these days. Not just time and money, but himself. That goodness and generosity was always there but like the peony, it seemed smaller, a bit more closed than now.

The book -we’re reading it together. Him, for the first time. Me, for the first time with him. And the conversations are slow, some days we say nothing about the pages read. We talk, instead, about our days and lives together. But this is a start.

 

It was New Year’s Day and we and a friend were out driving. He prompts me suddenly to tell the man sitting behind me about the book and the author and the message of his words, the Word itself. I did not expect to find myself evangelizing but there I was and there we were. Talking about God on the first day of the new year.

Like before, the conversation came in fits. There was utter shock in the voice behind me but also disagreement. Me, a cradle Catholic, now somewhere in the middle. Him, born and raised conservatively, evangelically, and thoroughly Protestant. So it drifted from one thing to another. The book. Scripture. Jesus. And both our pasts and present circumstances affected how we came to it all.

It wasn’t the kind of dialogue you’d hear in a stadium full of people or even on a street corner. But that conversation, like the one before it, was a place to start out from.

 

Sure, you can ask others if they’ve heard or where they’re going after that last breath, the last beat of their fragile hearts. And I can worry that I should be out there, in dusty lands, digging wells and helping the Living Water to flow. But to what end?

I find it almost as unexpectedly, a passage underlined the week before and I remember marking it, not really knowing why.

There, in Mark 7, is a deaf man. “Be opened,” says Jesus and so he was. Ears to hear and a tongue to speak with, plainly. And it didn’t happen in front of a multitude. No stage or lights. No microphone to project. Rather, he took him aside in private, away from the crowd.

This has me considering other ways, quiet ways.
Listening as well as speaking.
Words and silences alike.

Maybe it’s not always about what we say. The conversation in the car was as much about God as when my husband and I discuss our day. Because God’s story is our story. What we talk about when we talk about God is really the story of us wrapped up in Him.

The conversation in the car wasn’t a success any more than our daily conversations are a failure because God isn’t explicitly mentioned.

And all those seemingly mundane things in our lives are important, too. Indeed, our lives may be the greatest testament we ever give.

 

So this is what I’m meditating on and praying over.

That we are opened to God not only through burning bushes and thunderous voices but quiet breezes and wings on air.

That this opening is both private and public because our lives need both witnesses and lonely places in which to grow.

And that we find peace in however, wherever it happens.

 

 

One

We are already one. We just think we are separate.
-Thomas Merton

 

The events of this week, as seen in the media, have left me feeling disappointed and deeply saddened.

And yet I find myself compelled to keep reading, to try to understand thoughts which don’t come naturally to me, beliefs so very different from my own. Because there will never be understanding when we confront hate with hate instead of compassion.

As long as we continue to see some people as Other, there will never be unity and there will never be peace.

The truth is that there is no “us” or “them” but only we.

We were created a little less than divine. We were made out of love and blessed with infinite, relentless grace. And we are commanded to extend that same love and grace to one another.

So let us start now.

The Conversation

I was almost out the door when I read the message: the illness was back, her already weakened immune was being attacked once again. No, this isn’t the end. But it’s tricky. My prayers are full with her lately and I worry. I worry that the life of the woman who gave me life will somehow be cut short by all this.

My throat tightens.

A few moments later, another message. The car had spun out but somehow he regained control and arrived safely at work.What would I do had it happened otherwise? How lost I would be without him, I thought. Still, there is someone, somewhere, who will face this news today and how lost they will be.

In the near empty church, I took a seat and with everything that had happened I sunk deep into prayer.

I sat quietly and gave thanks and soon found myself in silence. There was nothing left which could be said with words. Sometimes, we speak through our actions and other times we speak through our silences. And as time passes, the more I am aware of how God uses both to engage us.

 

It was, as I have come to expect, a disappointing homily that morning. But he had my full attention when he said God had nothing more to say to us, He had said it all through Christ. The final word had been spoken.

How sad it must be to live with the belief that God no longer speaks to us, the conversation having ended nearly two thousand years ago. Since then it has been radio silence, or so he thinks.

I suddenly imagined we were voices in an empty room.

 

He meant well but he was wrong: God is always speaking to us. God, the one who is “Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6) is speaking to us, through us.

YHWH, His name, all aspirated consonants. A name that can only be truly spoken with our breath. We speak His name constantly. But who takes note of their breathing? Only when it is ragged and labored do we pay it any mind. Only when we are gasping do we seem to notice it. We wait until we are breathless.

Through this unconscious process that keeps us alive, we engage with God, always.

 

The irony is that this conversation, which is so often little more than an ongoing whisper, can sometimes be deafening. It rings and echoes in every aspect of my life, my whole being vibrating with the sound, precisely because He is Life itself. He speaks through us and in us and nothing in our lives is outside the bounds of this sacred conversation.

Perhaps if we did away with our expectations we’d realize that God has never stopped speaking. It is only us, through our arbitrarily imposed limits, who has brought the conversation to a halt.

 

 

 

 

An Introvert in Church

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This is the last thing I see of the outside world on the mornings I attend mass. Its size and detail are so overwhelming as to fill my entire gaze. And when I leave all I see is the city stretched out before me. An expansive view, high on the hill -it feels a bit like hovering over the streets.

To be honest, I am surprised at how much I am enjoying this morning ritual. But maybe what surprises me more is how each time I go, I expect to receive some kind of affirmation. To hear my thoughts or beliefs echoed back to me in the homily. Every. Time. And still, it has yet to happen.

 

Like today.

It was a clumsy homily based on today’s reading of Matthew 11:16-19. There were a few starts and stops, a bit of tripping over words, and it all ended rather abruptly with the suggestion that we question the path we’re on.

Most mornings I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing there. Yes, I enjoy it and something in me resonates in response to the mass. Is this the ‘right’ path? I’m still not sure. But I trust I’ve been brought here for a reason, whatever it might be.  

 

With this in mind, I came home and read 1 John even though I had read just a few days ago. It’s a letter I come back to often but somehow, until today, I had missed this: “…what we will be has not yet been revealed.” (3:2)

We are children of God and this is all we really know with any kind of certainty. And our commandment relates directly to this, the one thing He really asks of us: that we love one another, the brothers and sisters we have seen, because the One we have not seen loved us first.

So maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why I find myself during so many mornings these days, kneeling low in the company of strangers. Maybe that’s why I return even after a particularly disappointing homily, even though I know there will be that one woman who insists on shouting the hymns from the back, even if the person beside me speaks during otherwise silent prayers.

Incarnational love, it didn’t just happen once and doesn’t end at the boundaries of ourselves or circles.

Someone, I forget who, said it’s hard to be a Christian alone and I can see now how that’s true. Alone, spiritual practices can become self-indulgent; maybe not always, but sometimes. It’s easy to feel loving and peaceful when you’re praying in a quiet, empty house. It’s easier still to love those already close to you. But what that is new can be born in this closed-off loop of love?

If the lips we use to bless God must also bless each other, than this might be the most challenging spiritual practice of all for an introvert like myself. Faith will ultimately push you to the boundaries of your being and you’ll stretch and be uncomfortable. But the pain is for the growth of something good.

 

Lately I find myself smiling when I hear that off-key singing from the back. And the voice near me, whispering His name, I find myself praying for whoever it is speaking those words.

It’s not easy and some mornings I do better than others. Some mornings I just clench my jaw and wait.

But community is never exactly what you want it to be, and neither is love. Yet somehow it’s always what you need.

So I keep going back.

 

Jacobs

When he said humans were co-creators with God, it felt like coming alive, like live wires sparking. And I looked out the window and thought of all we had made and would make. The world we could shape.

But it isn’t only about what we assemble. Our identity is also a creation and the process is one in which we are intimately engaged with God. This creation -it’s our vocation. It’s the work of our soul and it is only with God and through God that we are ever able to shed the layers and lay bare on the altar.

This is how we engage with the Mystery and this is where I find myself now.

 

For ten years I was absent.

Not once did I attend mass or a service of any kind. Not even for the “big holidays.”

And yet already this week I have gone twice. When it is still dark and the air is sharp, I make my way to the church on the top of hill. It looms over the city and for the years I have lived here, it has loomed over me too.

Opening its doors felt both familiar and strange. The creak of wooden pews, the rustling of pages. The quiet anticipation.

More than once I found myself overwhelmed and in tears. Sure, there was joy and adoration and forgiveness. And the church itself -well, it’s more a cathedral. Who could sit there and not help but feel small? My mind drifted to those peasants, the first to enter the cathedrals of Europe, and I thought myself at that moment a peasant too. The walls, the windows, the light all spoke of God’s grace and magnificence.

I looked down at the dirt on my shoes.

 

As I walked out, that old injury aching in my knee, I felt confused.

Here is the Church I grew up in, the Church that has housed us for generations.

All of the questions and struggles of these past few years and for what? To have come full circle, back to where it all started?

So far I have avoided labeling myself but here I am caught somewhere between Catholic and Protestant. Not really wanting to give up one for the other, unable to reconcile the present with the past.

I felt alone. Lost.

Someone followed me out and I heard their steps behind as I descended the stairs. Me, limping. Him, more spry. And I thought to myself this isn’t unique to you. You aren’t alone in this. Haven’t we all wrestled with God and now walk with holy, clumsy limps? Aren’t we all Jacobs?

 

Our vocation, it’s work. We were never promised it would be easy or that it would come easily to us. Most of the time we aren’t even sure what exactly we’re grappling with. But we wrestle with it all the same because what else can we do? 

If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him…
-Thomas Merton

 

 

 

 

The Question of the Cup

Something is coming.

My awareness is shifting to the arrival of something extraordinary and this moment is blessed with anticipation.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Advent but hasn’t this whole year been a year of holy, grace-filled waiting? Pope Francis called it the Year of Faith and so it was as I became more intentional about my faith, more fully aware and in awe of God’s presence.

So what will come next?

 

The title of the passage is deceiving in its simplicity. “Jesus Prays in Gethsemane.” Sure, he prays. He prays hard for an answer from God, for relief that just won’t come. In the quiet of the garden, he is vulnerable and utterly human. The Son of Man indeed. And knowing that the cup set before him will not pass, Jesus readily drinks from it.

Henri Nouwen wrote a whole book about it, about the question that comes in the shape of a cup. The question with the power to “crack open a hardened heart and lay bare the tendons of the spiritual life.”

So.
Can you drink from the cup?

Jesus asked the disciples and then God asked him and now He asks us.

Can we say yes to life? A life with God and all that it entails?

Because until faith is given hands to work and knees to kneel, we are merely talking about life with God. We are called as we are, where we are, but too often I use this to excuse a lack of action and I lapse into a kind of spiritual apathy. Does this mean packing up and leaving all to fight injustice or feed bodies more dead than alive? No. Still, I must drink from the cup.

And how long has the cup sat before me, patiently waiting for an answer? A whole lifetime? If so, then Brother Lawrence is right: “let us redeem the lost time, for perhaps we have but little left.”

 

The year to come will still be a year of faith but also a year of faith-work.

The cup, the question, it is always being posed to us but we have only so many days to give an answer.

And how else do I answer but through the living itself?

 

Here, the day before the beginning of Advent,  I read it again. How he kneels low in the garden, in the darkest dark. And he trusts what God gives. In this brief scene I see what a life with God can look like, the faith-believing and the faith-doing, and I find myself in Gethsemane too; a moment made eternal by a questioning cup.