Taking Stock of Our Appetites

My head hurts, and my patience is wearing thin. I’m about to put my son to bed and the euphoria that descends in these last few hours of fasting is starting to set in. My body feels weak and I only have energy for sweetness. I don’t have the physical energy to be uptight, upset or any sort of way but super chill.

Mona Haydar further summarizes her experience, “So here I am, an hour left in the first day of my fast this month, and boy am I tired.” Yet, she claims, “This weakness is my secret super power right now — a portal to a gentle, calm, serene stillness. This conservation of energy for that which (and especially those who) truly deserves it.”

Fasting is a universally prized spiritual practice in every world religion. My Catholic tradition especially honors this salutary practice during the forty days of Lent. Sometimes I regret that obligatory meatless-Fridays of my youth were made “optional”. Though still encouraged and highly praised, laziness has set in and best intentions never quite get expressed in actual practice.

Ramadan began for our Muslim neighbors on June 6. This must be an especially brutal time for fasting from sun-up to sun-down. Because this “Holy Month” is set according to a more ancient calendar, it can occur at any time of the year. This year it happens to coincide with June 21 — the “longest day of the year” here in Minnesota. For the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world, this is a year when living in the southern hemisphere would be a distinct advantage.

Mona Haydar has some wise counsel to share with all of us who come from a spiritual heritage that honors fasting. What she observes from her Muslim practice offers wise counsel to Christians, Buddhist, Jews, Hindus and each of the great religions:

On the most superficial level, Ramadan is about abstaining from food and drink. Beyond that, however, Ramadan is about remedying my heart and habits and all the parts of myself that need a little cleaning up or loving. It includes abstaining from speech that doesn’t elevate all those involved. It is about reeling in my physical appetites so that I may spend a mere four weeks looking at the appetites of my heart, soul and mind as well.

Though we may not be fasting during this Holy Month of Ramadan, we are still invited to share in its wisdom and grow in understanding, respect, admiration and appreciation for those who do.
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You may read Mona Haydar’s reflection from which her quotes have been taken at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mona-haydar/ramadan-reflections_b_10328784.html?platform=hootsuite

My Lenten Shake-Down

My spiritual foundations are being shaken to their foundations. On a practical level, I’ve presumed that God became human in Jesus because we had screwed things us so badly that God needed to “work our salvation” through the passion, death and resurrection. Today something else seems to be struggling to break through.

Steeped in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, my “fix it” mentality still deeply colors the way I have interpreted Jesus’ Incarnation. Even more, my presumption about the Son’s mission has pretty well determined the way I have “observed” the season of Lent — Jesus came to save us because we had created a mess and couldn’t fix it for ourselves.  We’d do well to realign ourselves with Jesus’ plan of action.

Though this traditional affirmation remains true, it’s not the whole truth. In fact, it’s only a sliver of the truth and can distort and impoverish a fuller understanding of Christ. That’s what seems to be rattling my foundations these days. It’s a work in progress — it’s God’s doing, nothing I can cause, simply a grace I hope to apprehend.

Christopher Pramuk’s Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton has had me captivated for the past while. Masterful. Meant to be savored. Perhaps the most significant book I’ve read in the past five years. Not easy, but solid theology that is also spiritually satisfying. Reading something today caught me off guard and sent my head spinning:

The incarnation … was not an afterthought following a failed creation. Christ is the Word, the uncreated Image of God, who has already decided “from the beginning” to enter fully into humankind.

Okay, so what’s new? We’ve all heard that before. It’s simply another way of saying what Paul writes in his Letter to the Colossians (1:15-17). Yes, I’ve “believed” this. I’ve even parroted it in my own words. Today these former formulations seem conceptual, abstract. True, but cognitive!

Here’s what flipped my apple cart, left my head spinning:

the heart of Christian spirituality [resides in] the discovery of our true selves already resting in Christ, not “out there” as a separate Object, but “as the Reality within our own reality, the Being within our own being, the life of our life.” (Merton, The New Man, p19).

With images of Pope Francis praying at the Mexico/US border yesterday fresh in my mind, Merton’s words stopped me in my tracks: “If we believe in the incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of God.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p296)

The church teaches virtually the same thing: “In Christ, God became not only ‘this’ man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, ‘every man.'” (Gaudium et spies, #22).

Again, I have long ‘believed’ these words. I have often parroted them. But have they really sunk in? Are they deep in my bones such that I see in others — each and every other, especially the poor and marginalized — the human dignity of Christ?

That’s my challenge as we enter this second week of Lent. God did not become human in Jesus as an afterthought due to our having screwed things up! Incarnation leading to salvation has always been God’s intention from the beginning. How do I get that truth in to my bones, give flesh to this “Word” in my life?

Perhaps we need to spend less time in our church pews and more time at border crossings, less time meditating on the crucifix and more time attending to the many forms of personal crucifixion people endure today.

Christmas and Easter are not dualistic polarities on a salvific timeline. They are the self-same singular impulse of a loving God from the very beginning. Don’t know about you, but this pretty well turns the table on many of my traditional Lenten presumptions and practices.

Getting my head and heart around this will take some doing, certainly more than the forty days of Lent.
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Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk. A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN (2009), pp 179-180).

Let the Partying Begin!

God, apparently, loves feasting. Nothing secretive or peaceful about it. A brash new star, exotic foreigners, ec­static shepherds, choirs of angels—not just a quiet messen­ger, but hosts of them, pouring through the night sky singing “Glory.” God chose to celebrate this feast “just at the worst time of the year,” to be a light in the darkness, to comfort us on our lonely road, to prove over and over again that the things of the world are good, that fun is an ethical concept. Perhaps this is what is meant by “blessed are the poor”—they know how to feast.

I wish I were able to feast with this extravagant host. I am appalled by my pusillanimous responses: by the minginess of my imagination. I tend to criticize the menu (“virgin birth­ so out of date”) and carp at the behavior of less refined guests (“oh, not ‘Hark-the Herald’ again”). I wear jeans not my wed­ding garment, and I want the children to “calm down” and not wake up too early in the morning.

Of course they should wake up early, of course they should be overexcited, of course they should run amok and tear open their presents with greedy zeal. This is the feast day of a God who so delights in matter, in the stuff of the universe, in bodies, that he plunges into it all head first, and becomes a child. This is the feast day of a God who rips the invisible membrane between time and eternity so heaven floods the world, in an extravagant and abundant tide of love, and the world laps back, carried undiluted to the everlasting ban­quet. The feast of a God who comes into the cold, the dark, the silence of our prosperity and says, “Let’s party.”

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This is only the conclusion of a marvelous piece that first appeared in Commonweal in 1997 and has been reprinted in the current issue. I encourage you to read the full article [here].

 

A Place to Start

My Dad was active with the St Vincent de Paul Society when I was a kid. He never said much about the folks who were struggling with the basics of life. Perhaps he understood this to be ordinary, common.  But I recall being both proud and intrigued by his visits to families who needed furniture or help paying their bills.

My brother, Jerry was also very involved with the Society’s mission of direct service with the materially poor. So much so, the St. Vincent de Paul Society was one of three organizations his family proposed to receive memorials in his memory when he died.

The most I can claim is that my charity of choice to receive my old clothes (the term is “gently used”) or household items (in working order, please) is the St Vincent de Paul Stores. Perhaps the lesson taught by my Dad’s quiet service and my big brother’s example is simply this: our human dignity is enhanced when we protect the human dignity of others, especially those most at risk.

Susan Stabile shared marvelous reflections about Vincent at the City House retreat on Saturday. On the most basic level, she clarified for me that he started out as a pretty ordinary sixteenth century Frenchman. From all Susan offered, a quote from Vincent reverberates as the focus for my Lenten self-reflection this week:

There are many, who, when outwardly recollected and interiorly filled with lofty thoughts of God, stop there; and when it comes to the point and they find themselves in a position to act, they stop short. Their over-excited imaginations flatter them; they rest content with sweet conversations they have with God in prayer; they even talk about these like angels; but apart from that, when it is a matter of working for God, of suffering, of self-mortification, of instructing the poor, of going out looking for lost sheep, liking it when something is lacking, accepting illness or some other disfavor, alas! then there is no one left, they lack the courage. No, no, we must not deceive ourselves.

Okay, I stand indicted. I am like the one admonished by the black Baptist pastor who warned, “Sometimes we are so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.”

Today, I take consolation and encouragement in something from my much more familiar Ignatian tradition: In God’s eyes, the desire for the desire is sufficient as a starting point.

Enough with Deprivation

Quickly closing in on the age when the Catholic Church excuses me from mandatory fast and abstinence during Lent, I should have something to say after more than six decades of experience. If pressed, it comes down to this: it’s not ultimately about denial and deprivation!

Jeb the Dog often directs me to the edge of Minnehaha Creek where he takes me each day for a walk.  Yeterday Jeb led me to a clump of green spikes audaciously staking their claim amid the crunchy brown stubble of last year’s summer spectacle.  A rippling sheet of water attests to the creek’s insistence on breaking winter’s paralyzing hold. Years of accompanying Jeb instill confidence that watery rapids will soon applaud the canary yellow blossoms atop blades of lavish green.

Chickadees are returning to the still somnolent serviceberries. Yesterday, while positioning bed pillows on the sunny deck for a seasonal airing, two Juncos flashed the white underlying of their slate-colored tails as they vacated the Korean lilac. A matched pair of cardinals more boldly held their positions, staking out their claim with a nearly forgotten song.

In his poem, March, Mark Doty unwittingly expresses the paradox of our Lenten fast and abstinence:

I thought the choice was to love austerity
or not to love at all,

but when I went out to look at the elemental
I found nothing sparse, only this density

and saturation: dusky sedge
at the pond’s rim, thicket and tumble

of violet contradiction, plum stems–
a whole vocabulary of tone and hue, demanding,

a history steeped in the long practice
of luminosity. How difficult

just to say what’s here, in March severity.
Try…

Yes, try! Ultimately, Lent is not about denial and deprivation! No, it is about awakening to all that is quickening in us and in this luminous creation. From her home on the North Dakota prairie Kathleen Norris hints at the salutary motivation for fast and abstinence:

What is enough? As always, it seems that the more I can distinguish between my true needs and my wants, the more I am shocked to realize how little is enough. The trees that fan me are the fruit of others’ labor, planted by an earlier generation of Plains dwellers who longed for trees to shelter them. The land resisted, but let them have these few. I am startled by something flashing through the trees. It is the Pleiades, all seven of them plainly visible to the naked eye. This is another’s work, and a mystery. And it is enough.

Our world is awakening, being renewed, restored, refreshed, redeemed.  Six decades bring more than well-worn duty and rote routine.

Age and experience yields freedom from frozen obligations, yet instills the assurance that we are securely held by Someone more gracious than ourselves. We settle into an audacious confidence that as spent patterns recede, the ultimate vitality of life will not be denied. We conclude that even the smallest of portions is more than enough!
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In addition to Mark Doty’s poem, March, which is from his collection Atlantis published by HarperPerennial, 1995; this reflection was also inspired by my friend Susan Stabile on her blog, Creo in Dios. Susan quoted Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk in beautifully distinguishing the difference between our wants and needs. I recommend her post available [here].

Pure or Poor?

Why do we go to church? What are we looking for? What is it we want from our religious practice? What good is spirituality? These sorts of questions were prompted by a headline that grabbed my attention. Essentially, the article [Link] frames the question whether the church is meant for the “poor” or for the “pure”?

At 48, Las Cruces, NM Bishop Oscar Cantú is the second youngest bishop in the country. He is the son of Mexican immigrants. He is a clear sign of hope as well as an indication of where the church in the US is headed.  This bishop gives me hope — not because he is young, not because he is focused on those securely ensconced within his churches, but because he has laser-beam focus on who the church is for!

In response to self-appointed watchdog groups that claim it causes “scandal” for the church to have any association with organizations that are not in total agreement with Catholic moral teaching on every issue, Cantú worries about who is being left behind.

“The Incarnation is messy,” Cantú reminds us. “There was nothing clean about that stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Sometimes we sterilize the stable, and we lose the mystery of the Incarnation. We can’t be afraid to get our hands dirty. … What about the scandal of not caring for the poor?” he asked. “This is the silent scandal.”

For Cantú, the church already has a clear road map for responding to urgent needs in a messy world. “When we read the Gospel, Jesus goes out to those on the margins.” We can never let “a fear of being contaminated” to allow us to be complacent or distract us from our call now to be Christ’s real presence in our day.

Instead of giving-up desserts or alcohol, in place of resolving to attend daily Mass or a commitment to an exercise routine; what if more of us declared a fast from secure isolation, abstained from passive indifference, gave up a piety of individualism?

What if more of us resolved to spend an hour a week in community service with those who really are “on the edge” in place of going to Mass?

What if we gave heightened attention to the Stations of the Cross being played out in our communities rather than expecting to find them in our sanitized churches at noon on Fridays?

Rather than spending an hour in Eucharistic Adoration, what if we actually were to become the “Real Presence” with someone whose body is broken or who knows what it is to shed blood?

Why do we go to church? What are we looking for? What is it we want from our religious practice? What good is spirituality? Do I go to church to become “pure” or am I sent forth from church to engage with any who are “poor”?

Lent is our invitation to renewal, to return, to finally “turn around,” to be raised from all that is death-dealing in our lives. I am in desperate need of all that Lent has to offer! Even more, our poor broken world is in desperate need for all of us who claim church membership to have a profoundly grace-filled Lent.