Holy Water

Is it a glitch in technology or does God have something else on mind?  In either case, I can’t get an internet connection on the laptop this morning.  It’s really tedious to write a blog on an iPad but it’s possible to cut and paste.  So what I had intended to write about feeling enthusiastic and hopeful about the future of the church will have to await resolution of my internet connectivity issues.

Maybe God does have other intentions!  Just yesterday my friend Susan Stabile posted something on her blog, Creo en Dios [link] I really liked and actually thought I would want to share.  Greater powers than me seem to have the same idea.  Here is what Susan shared from something that had been posted in a church bulletin:

I accept the Sign of the Cross

…on my forehead – to learn to follow Jesus;

…on my ears – that I may hear the voice of God;

…on my eyes – that I may see the glory of God;

…on my lips – that I may respond to the word of God;

…on my heart – that Christ may dwell there by faith;

…on my shoulders – that I may bear the gentle yoke of Christ;

…on my hands – that Christ may be known in my work;

…on my feet – that I may walk in the way of Christ.

I Make the Sign of the Cross, the promise of eternal life to all who are faithful to Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Although the Pelagian overtones of “the promise…to all who are faithful to Christ” makes me squirm a little, this is a marvelous reminder of our Baptism.  All the more reason we should reclaim the rich symbolism of Holy Water at the entrance to our churches.

And, about those “Pelagian overtones”… our faithfulness does nothing to earn Christ’s promise.  All is gift and all is given!  All God asks is our response in gratitude and love to the utter gift extended to us in Christ.  This is the grace into which we have been baptized.  Thanks be to God!



Gutsy Women

Here’s to strong, gutsy women! One such woman is Catherine of Sienna who died on this day in 1380. Seeing the power she wielded and the impact she made during her short 33 years is nothing short of startling!

Something must have been in the fourteenth century air… Catherine was born in Italy five years after Julian of Norwich was born in England (1342). This was the time of the Black Death, the 100 Years War, and the Avignon papacy. It is estimated that 38% of women would die giving birth. Catherine was the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. Clearly, she is an exemplar of one who achieves greatness in the throes of adversity.

Rather than enter a monastic religious order, Catherine associated herself with the Dominicans and claimed for herself, “My cell will not be one of stone or wood, but of self-knowledge.” Here we must be careful not to interpret this from the post-Enlightenment perspective or the autonomous individualism of 21st century culture! “Self” was clearly understood as relational and imbedded in solidarity with others and with God.

After three years of prayerful turmoil and seclusion, Catherine rejoined her family and began serving her neighbors. She cared for victims of the plague, gathered alms for the poor and ministered to prisoners. She would soon recognize a further call to serve the wider world and press for reform of the church.

Catherine honed her peacemaking skills mediating between feuding families of Sienna. Then, she took on the Pope! With a retinue of companions and with enthusiastic support along the way, Catherine traveled to Avignon in France to mediate the armed conflict between the city-state of Florence and the papacy. There she was blunt and uncompromising in her insistence that Gregory XI return to Rome. The pope complied!

Extraordinary women like Catherine are more numerous than our history books suggest. Thankfully, others like Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) are being rediscovered. Catherine was named a Doctor of the Church in 1970; Hildegard was similarly honored in 2012. Of the 35 so honored, only four are women – Catherine, Hildegard, Teresa of Ávila (1515 -1582) and Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897).

Yes, there is much rediscovery of our full heritage to be made. Thankfully, there are places like the University of Saint Catherine here in Minnesota. More of us need to reclaim the vision, courage and mission of Catherine in empowering strong, gutsy women to lead and reform our church and world.

Many good biographies of Catherine are available on the Web. Again, I am grateful to Robert Ellsberg for his inspiring, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Times (Crossroads, 1999) for his “rediscovery” of an eclectic assortment of great people of faith.

Mercy, Mercy!

Imagine my delight! A long-awaited book has finally arrived. I was quite aware of the block-buster frenzy its release made in 2013. But that was in German and I had to await its release in English. Well, it arrived this weekend!

The book is Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Walter Kasper who served as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 2001-2010. Warning: you will likely be reading more about this book on this blog in the weeks ahead.

Regulars recall my reveling in the linguistic connection between the Hebrew words for mercy and womb. They come from the same root. Those who know Hebrew would immediately catch the connection between God’s mercy and the “womb love” of a mother.

Not having that cognate in English, this understanding and appreciation is lost on many of us. We Anglo-Saxon English-speakers can easily apply juridical connotations when we speak of mercy – unwarranted forgiveness, commutation of punishment due us, sheer gratuity from a just authority. Yes, that’s a part of mercy! But think of how much we miss if translations fail to convey the fullness of meaning.

Well, folks, imagine my delight when the translator’s preface to Kasper’s Mercy makes the very same point – but not in relation to Hebrew but in terms of German. Please bear with a few technicalities… it’s important!

Kasper uses the German words barmherzigkeit and erbarmen to describe God’s “merciful” attitudes and actions.  Here’s the point… the root “barm” implies physical tenderness and concrete action. Erbarmen means literally “to cherish in one’s bosom, press to one’s heart.” A second root in barmherzigkeit is the word for heart, herz. The translator wants the reader to appreciate that this German word suggests that one has his or her heart with those who are poor or in distress.

The translator of Mercy from German into English further emphasizes this critical understanding by drawing the equivalent connection with the Latin, misericordia and the word cor meaning heart.

Womb-love, being cherished in the bosom of another, or a God whose heart is with the distressed and poor is not the first place my thoughts go when the priest says, “Let us call to mind our sins.  Pray for God’s mercy!”

Unfortunately, my old Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic heritage still sends me into a nose-dive of pleading for unwarranted forgiveness, guilty as accused and deserving of punishment by a just authority.

How much more blessed – and accurate – we English speakers would be if the next time we prayed “Lord, have mercy!” we recognized the poverty of our English translation and again got in touch with the richness conveyed in the German, Hebrew and Latin originals.

Lest We Ever Forget

Again, we remember!

Yom Hashoah is observed from sundown this evening through sundown tomorrow, April 28. Although it is a Jewish holiday it is both appropriate and salutary that we all pause to mark this occasion. We commemorate a great horror but also celebrate tremendous heroism.

Yom Hashoah remembers the six million Jews – and millions of others as well – who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany. May we never forget!

Since Yom Hashoah is a relatively new holiday, there are no fixed rules or rituals. Often, Yom Hashoah is observed with candle lighting, speakers, poems, prayers, and singing. This evening at sundown, or anytime before sundown tomorrow, pause…  light a candle… remember!

In the rising of the sun and in its going down,
we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,
we remember them.

In the opening of buds and in the rebirth of spring,
we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer,
we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn,
we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends,
we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength,
we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart,
we remember them.

When we have joys we yearn to share,
we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

— from the Rabbi’s Manual 1988


Okay, so the Catholic world is gathering this weekend in Rome to celebrate the saintliness of two popes. Probably harmless enough. Perhaps even helpful for those of a certain cultural religiosity. Me? I will read/watch the news reports but would rather spend my time enjoying a really beautiful Spring weekend in Minneapolis with family and friends.

Count me among those party-poopers like the highly regarded Vatican-expert Thomas Reese, SJ who believes that “canonizing popes is a dumb idea.” [link] It’s all too politicized from my perspective. Too many want their favorite “made a saint so he can be presented as the ideal pope that future popes should imitate. It is more about church politics than sanctity” according to Reese.

Thank God for Pope Francis! Traditionalist Catholics and Polish nationals adored JPII and began an intense push for immediate sainthood. Although the cardinals and bishops of Vatican II expressed a similar spontaneous call for John XXIII upon the conclusion of the council, his cause languished for fifty years.

Francis has tempered the “political/ideological” fervor with the ingenious pairing of the two. Reese insightfully notes that Pope Francis is fighting the same divisions that Paul faced in Corinth, where some would say, “I belong to Paul,” and others, “I belong to Apollos” or “Cephas.” We are bigger and better than all of that!

That having been said, we must not gloss over genuine concerns and just “make happy”. Count me as well among those who think we have moved way too fast with John Paul II. In no way do I question the man’s global influence, considerable brilliance, obvious holiness and long-suffering virtue. But should we rush to canonize his “saintliness”? More time should have been taken for his full legacy to become known. That sort of patience and forbearance is the wise practice and time-proven tradition of the Church.

Specifically, I am curious about his culpability in the global sex abuse scandal. Sufficient evidence indicates he was apprised of the burgeoning crisis as early as 1984. He consistently defended a model of clericalism, hierarchy, power and prestige of the priesthood that rank and file Catholics recognize as the real source of  the sex abuse crisis.  Thomas P. Doyle has written a blistering critique based on his first hand experience of transmitting information to the Vatican as a staff assistant to U.S. papal nuncio Cardinal Pio Laghi. [link]. 

Ultimately, millions of people coming together to celebrate the holiness of others cannot be a bad thing. What’s going on in Rome will be a memorable moment of grace and religious zeal for those who participate. That’s good! It’s a true blessing.

Then after those of us who actually remember John XXIII and John Paul II pass on to our own heavenly reward, their memories will fade along with that of St. Pius X (1903-14) who ferociously fought the “heresy of Modernism” and went kicking and screaming trying to keep the Catholic church from embracing the 20th century!

Out and About

I’m feeling a little defensive! I know the church celebrates Easter for eight days. My encounter with the Risen One isn’t happening in church. In the past I would have dutifully prayed with the Scriptures assigned for each day of the week in the Lectionary. No more! Regulars here may recognize that this week I could be accused of giving more credence to Earth Day than to Easter. They would be right!

I shouldn’t feel defensive! My Ignatian roots compel me to “Find God in all things.” Christian faith is all about “sacraments” – outward tangible signs, gestures and “stuff” that manifest grace. Earlier this week I referenced the Genesis creation accounts and recalled that Christians profess faith in One so intimate with creation that God becomes incarnate in Jesus to bring all creation to fulfillment in Christ. If any Scripture resonates through my ecological Easter it is Ephesians 8:19-24:

Creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed…. that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.

I guess I’m in good company. Dejected disciples recognized Christ on their trek back home to Emmaus and in the act of sharing bread. The great apostle Paul encountered the Risen One en route to Damascus. Thomas and the rest of the gang come to Easter faith hidden away behind locked doors. And the very first among them all, Mary of Magdala thought she was seeing the gardener.

Why would it be any different for us? As the angel said to those coming to the tomb, “He is not here! He is Risen.” Why do I feel defensive about One who is out and about, showing up in places and with folks we wouldn’t expect (or maybe even approve of), in places we would least expect but where we need Him most!

“Ask the Beasts”

No, Richard! No, you can’t. Not one more! Look at your big stack already.

Ever see something you really want but know you just shouldn’t get it? Well, it’s happened with a new book by one of my favorite theologians, Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ. Regular readers of this blog may recall her from a previous post here in which I wrote about her book, She Who Is in which Johnson reminds us that the Hebrew word for mercy is taken from the root word for womb, rechem. In our prayers for mercy, we actually ask God to express womb-love, to forgive and nurture us the way a mother does the child of her womb. In praying that God have mercy on us we are asking that God “mother-us” back into the fullness of life.

Well, Professor Johnson has done it again! This time she takes on one of the biggest social and cultural divides of our day – the presumed incompatibility of good, hard-core science and a deep, active faith in the God of creation. A huge logjam of argumentative baggage has paralyzed intelligent conversation over the years. In Ask the Beats: Darwin and the God of Love she dispatches the baggage and shows us a way through the logjam.

According to a great review by Melissa Jones, Johnson’s latest book shows that Darwin’s work was never intended to be a direct assault on religion. Instead, Johnson argues that Darwin simply challenged the existing 19th-century scientific concept that each species of life in the world were the result of special acts of creation, with nothing new entering the system. Darwin’s ideas were as offensive to the scientists of his age as they were to the religious thinkers.

Johnson sees no reason to do war with the theory of evolution, but embraces it as a scientific insight that can enhance our faith and inspire care for nature and creation. She would invite us to pray with the 12th chapter of the Book of Job:

Ask the beasts and they will teach you;
The birds of the air,
and they will tell you;
Ask the plants of the earth
and they will teach you;
And the fish of the sea
will declare to you.
Who among these does not know
That the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing,
And the breath of every human being.

Johnson is credited for doing a great job of explaining how we got into the current stand-off between science and religion. Johnson cites the split (mind/matter, body/soul) Christianity absorbed from Greek philosophy as a major culprit. Add to this a heavy dose of “patriarchal androcentrism” – man is the center of the universe and males are at the top of the heap! Modern Western intellectual tradition hasn’t helped either! French philosopher René Descartes’ famous Cogito ergo sum! expresses our dilemma perfectly if we ground our “being” in our “thinking” imagine how distant we have become from God’s creation!

I want to read Johnson’s book because we all know of religion so heavenly-minded it’s no earthly good! Jones’ review praises Johnson for returning us to a solidly Trinitarian faith. The creative Spirit still hovers over the natural world, sustaining and enlivening it. The Son took on material form, embraced and sanctified it. Jesus healed with spit, dirt and touch. Any who have loved a pet, harvested a garden or changed a diaper understand the connection. What else do we need to convince us that the magnificent organism of our natural world is a holy place?


Melissa Jones’ review is available [here].

Earth Day Reprised

Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest.  In addition to sharing one of my personal favorites of his poetry, I also want to remind everyone of a principle set down by Ignatius of Loyola, founder of Hopkins’ religious order: We are to pray as if everything depends on God and we are to work as if everything depends on us!   …wise counsel as we face the life-threatening crisis of climate change!

We should all be concerned and committed to change when credible reports on the climate state that we have only a matter of years, not decades, to dramatically reduce our suicidal alienation from and degradation of the environment.  We need to get our heads out of the sand and stop living in denial  or despair.  To do that we need a healthy dose of hope!  

God’s Grandeur
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Earth Day

The drive from Minneapolis to Omaha is so familiar I intentionally took a different route to and from my sister-in-law’s funeral last week. Despite these logistical adjustments, other factors and forces transformed my view of rural America. Nostalgia was soon replaced with an intensified sense of loss and grief!

About an hour south of the Twin Cities a persistent void began to vie for attention. The April afternoon was picturesque and perfect for travel. Yet, something was different. Absent. What? It took a few more hours to become clear – where are the birds? The turquoise skies were virtually devoid of birds! Even raptors that used to perch as sentinels scouring the roadsides were conspicuous in their absence.

Gone are the fences as cultivation seems to have encroached on highway right-of-ways. Stands of native trees along creek beds have been chopped with remnant stumps and branches bull-dozed high awaiting a “burn permit.” GMO corn stubble is ubiquitous, even on land previously thought too marginal for cultivation.

The farm-house and barns where my father was born have disappeared and a center-pivot irrigation system waters the thirsty land now devoid of family memories. Four humongous grain storage bins that a distant cousin previously used to manage the farmers’ share of the supply/demand cycle have been sold to a conglomerate known to locals only by its initials.

The calendar indicates that its springtime in mid-America.  Yet, nature appears scarred, constrained.  Much has changed in this land that feels like home and is known by heart. Throughout my six days of travel through Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska one persistent mantra tainted every sentimental memory: where are the birds?

Today is Earth Day. Every kid from Nebraska knows that it has its origins in Arbor Day which was the brain-child of J. Sterling Morton – a proud Nebraskan – in 1872 who later served as President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture. Earth Day elicits a spiritual resonance among all people whose faith is grounded in the Genesis creation accounts. Even more, Christians profess faith in One so intimate with creation that God becomes incarnate in Jesus to bring all creation to fulfillment in Christ.

Passionist Father Thomas Berry observes that healing the earth begins by seeing ourselves and all creation as a communion of subjects instead of a collection of objects. Jesuit Joseph P. Carver adapts a popular Ignatian practice for all of us who look to creation as an easy and privileged place for encountering the Holy One.

Although living in Seattle, Carver sounds a lot like someone from Minneapolis describing our experience in Minnesota lake country. Up North we easily celebrate ourselves as creatures in a majestic world.  From the vantage of a cabin, we savor life and are moved to deepen our commitments, to return to daily life with enthusiasm, inspired to transform, heal and recover the natural environment of which we are a part. Carver’s “ecological examen” makes explicit what we are naturally inclined to do:

We begin with thanksgiving and gratitude for all creation, which reflects the beauty and blessing of God’s image.

Second, we ask to have our eyes opened by the Spirit as to how we might protect and care for this magnificent creation.

Third, we ask: How am I drawn closer to God today through creation? How am I being invited to respond to God’s action in creation?

Fourth, we ask for a true and clear awareness of our negligence and failures – whether it be a sense of superiority and arrogance in our relationship to creation or a failure to respond to God in the needs of creation.

Finally, we end in hope asking for the grace to consistently recognize Christ in the dynamic interconnections of all creation and our place in creation — we are moved to action.

What happened to the birds? For Christ’s sake, we need to do something. If not for Christ, then let’s at least do something for our kids!

The reference to Thomas Berry, CP is taken from the America magazine article by Joseph P. Carter, SJ.  You will find a fuller development of his ecological spirituality in that essay [here].

Time to Give It Up!

What did you do for Easter? We had a wedding of dear neighbors on Saturday evening so we missed the Vigil Service. We went to 9 a.m. Mass at Christ the King and then our three generational family gathered at our niece’s house for a dinner of roast lamb and glazed ham. A novel twist to the time-honored Easter egg hunt greeted the kids this year – an age-appropriate math problem was inside each egg and the kids had to solve it before getting their “prize”. It met with mixed reviews!

What did you do for Lent? Perhaps you gave up alcohol, dessert or meat on Fridays. Some try to attend Mass more frequently during the week. Of course, we were conscious of Ash Wednesday and probably willingly wore the ashen smudge on our foreheads. Some of us still have palms, now faded beige and crunchy like pretzels, from little more than a week ago.

Notice how differently we answer the two questions – What did you do for Easter? What did you do for Lent? Mike Jordan Laskey poignantly poses the difference [link] in his posting on the Millennial blog: “‘What are you doing for Lent?’ is a probing spiritual question. It requires a 40-day answer, and implies action and discipline. ‘What are you doing for Easter?’ is a polite piece of small talk. It has to do with a day’s plans. We celebrate well, and then it’s ‘almost summer’ and things begin to wind down.”

Why is this? Why do we feel a religious compulsion to really get-into Lent and so easily slide past the spiritual patrimony of Christ’s resurrection from the dead? I have my opinions, merely a hunch. Seems to me most people are excessively burdened by shame, a pernicious sense of inadequacy or insecurities about self-worth. The rigor of Lent can too easily feed into these attitudes. Easter is about grace, virtue and who we are in the fullness of our human potential – Imagio Dei, created good and intended for intimate relationship with God.

Laskey reminds us – and sadly we do need to be reminded – that Easter is a 50-day season, ten days longer than the Lenten marathon! I would also point out that our celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead is liturgically drawn out over eight full days – recall our Christian roots in the Jewish feast of Passover. Go to church next weekend and it will still be “Easter Sunday”!

Christians by definition are called to “pivot” from death to life! It is as if the Risen One encounters us feeling dejected on our respective way back home to Emmaus or with the persecuting Paul en route to Damascus: “Stop! It’s time to give it up! Let go of your death-dealing and live!” More than any Lenten practice of prayer, almsgiving or fasting perhaps our most urgent human need is to answer the question: “What are you doing for Easter?”

Here are a few ideas to prime the pump:

Paul identified nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  Focus on more fully developing one of them for the 50-days of the Easter season.

Pentecost 2014 will be celebrated on Sunday, June 8 – fix that date in your mind, mark it on your calendar. Actively anticipate the coming of the Spirit by opening yourself more fully to what the Spirit may wish to do with or in you. A fancy spiritual word for this is discernment. Whatever word you use: What does God wish to call forth in you at this time and place in your life?

Integral to Paul’s encounter with the Risen One on the road to Damascus was his blinding recognition that in persecuting others he was persecuting Christ. Where do we see the Body of Christ suffering, persecuted, dying? Will we extend compassion, healing and restore God’s good creation?

It is time to give up shame, sin and self-doubt! Christ is Risen!