One Who Mentored Christ

Back in more pious, naively idealistic days I chose Joseph as my vow name when professing perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience as a Jesuit. Vow names are somewhat like the name change given to nuns.  But in their case, women were often told what their new name would be. That explains how my first grade teacher went from Mary Ann to Sister Juana.

As an ideal, the new name expresses an intention, at least the hope , that we more fully live out our Baptismal call to become “a new creation in Christ.” (Let’s leave the “bride of Christ” imagery out of this — it always did seem a little weird to me!) My choice of Joseph was a pious act of devotion, not a public announcement or ontological shift! Only my parents would likely be confused when hearing me declare, “I, Richard Joseph…” Having named me Richard Clarence I alerted them ahead of time to what was coming.

I allowed my mother to indulge her pleasant presumption that my choice was in honor of her dad, Joseph Wieseler. It wasn’t. Rather, my choice was inspired by Joseph, husband of Mary. Taking my lead from his “annunciation” in Matthew’s Gospel, I had found consolation in what I thought the angel was saying to him — “Joseph, do not be afraid to espouse all that is incomplete, unknown, unfinished by taking Mary as your wife. It will be precisely in this embrace of her that Christ will be born.”

My naive assumption that virginity was primarily associated with “incompleteness” or being “unknown”, “unfinished” was to be turned on its head! Kathleen Norris has written a marvelous reflection entitled Virgin Martyrs in her masterful book, The Cloister Walk.  Norris observes that first and second century women like Agatha, Perpetua, Felicity, Cecilia, Lucy… those we know as virgin martyrs were anything but incomplete, unfinished or unknown. Quite the opposite!

The brilliance of these women was precisely in their recognition that in their “virginity” they possessed an inherent completeness, wholeness and dignity as a human person.  And all this was theirs separate from any need or dependence upon a man to confer their dignity!

These women recognized that in themselves they held the capacity to manifest the fullness of Christ!  Perhaps this is the most radical and theologically necessary defense for Christians tenaciously holding on to the perpetual virginity of Mary!   On this truth virgin women have staked their lives. In this we recognize the true identity of the virgin martyrs.

Something else about Joseph has been turned on its head since I first professed my association with him — unlike Mary’s one Annunciation, Joseph needs three! Yes, the angel appears to Joseph three times. It is the second that carries the most significance for me now — the one where the angel tells him others are trying to kill the child and they are to flee into exile. They are to become [illegal?] aliens, refugees in an unfriendly land.

Now, having been bruised and bumped around a bit by life, I claim knowledge and hold affinity with Joseph differently. Life may have appeared incomplete, unfinished and unknown decades ago. But it has not evolved at all as I had expected or even could have imagined. Isn’t that the way it is for most of us, certainly those of us in the seventh decade of our lives?

As life unfolds, we certainly know unmerited joy, unimagined happiness and the sheer gratuity of life! We also experience our portion of being Egyptian exiles, too often aliens in an unfriendly world. We learn that life is not fair, bearing far too much heartache for too many others if not for ourselves. By now, some of us have feared for our lives and the lives of those we love. No, life is rarely what we had imagined it would be — for better or for worse!

Today, March 19, is the Feast of St. Joseph. Today I claim his name anew in the hope I may somehow take on more of his identity, character and courage. Older, wiser and — I pray — more humble, I look again and again to the one who cherished Mary and mentored Christ for us!

Gift Given

All is gift; all is given!

In my more naive youth we feigned appreciation as we teased the Jesuit elder with whom this phrase became synonymous.  Only now am I beginning to glean his profound wisdom. Now the chronological age of the one we would taunt, I yearn for a spirituality with a sharper edge, a keener sense of purpose.

The paradox is that so much of the spirituality we inherited from our elders — or what we thought they were passing on — just isn’t cutting it. We forage amid the fragments for something that asks more of us than to sit and listen quietly to someone else telling us how to live.

Yet… it’s all there! …its all gift! …it’s already been given! That’s the paradox of our faith.

Those who read here regularly will recognize the echo of Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark continues to inspire and console me these days. Her profound knowledge ascends to the wisdom of that Jesuit elder from my early formation. Her deep love — perhaps, reverence — for the long tradition of forebears frees her from slipping into idolatry.

BBT presents Moses as one of contemporary significance and offers Gregory of Nyssa as someone relevant today.  In tapping the very sources of Judeo-Christian faith, she masterfully weaves these origins with the mature wisdom of a fourth century Cappadocian monk.  She brilliantly retrieves them for those of us searching for a sharper, keener edge that cuts to the depths of our spiritual yearning.

Apparently, Gregory was the first in the tradition to recognize the Great Lawgiver as the exemplar whose maturation over time came to enflesh that which he was transmitting.  In this Moses’ teaching transcends any literal application of the Law.

Moses’ vision began with light, progressed through clouds and culminated by recognizing God in darkness.  Gregory counsels those who wish to draw close to God to take Moses as our mentor and exemplar.  Don’t be surprised or even disturbed when our vision turns cloudy. Our impulse to take charge will be fearsome. Like our forebears we will be inclined to construct idols.  Our eyes will demand to see.  Our intellect will fight to contain and categorize. Yet, All is gift!

If we resist our impulse to settle-in, settle-down and settle-for-less — if we open ourselves to the gift inviting us to persevere — our wise forebears in faith assure us that all our deepest yearnings will be satiated in the Holy One’s luminous darkness.

Transcending promise, ALL becomes gift given!

See p 48 of Learning to Walk in the Dark for BBT’s reference to Moses and Gregory of Nyssa.

Love’s Yearning

We went to a movie last evening and guests are coming for breakfast — time to resort to yet another “all-time-favorite.” You may recall from a post here on Monday:

“Those from a Sacramental tradition are predisposed to encountering the Holy One in “stuff” like bread, oil, water, wine, food, drink; sensually in touch, smell, taste, sights and sounds.”

Well, here is the iconic prayer poem, The Dark Night by sixteenth century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross. Talk about taking sensual prayer to new heights!!!  They say its even better in the original Spanish!

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.


Translated and edited by E. Allison Peers from the critical edition of P. Silverio de Santa Teresa, C.D.

Warning: Strong Winds Possible

Remember that old, short, fat guy with big ears? His name was Angelo.

Who wouldn’t feel affection for a man who was so comfortable with himself that he constantly made jokes about his physical appearance? When he once met a little boy named Angelo, he exclaimed, “That was my name, too!” And then, conspiratorially, “But then they made me change it!”

Journalists once expressed concern about the many burdens of his office on such an old man — he was seventy-seven when elected!  They asked, “Do worries, stress or anxiety given all you have to face ever keep you awake at night?” He answered, “Not at all! At the end of the day I say, ‘God, this is your church. I’m going to sleep.’”

An experienced diplomat, a veteran of ecumenical dialogue, and a gifted pastor and bishop, John XXIII brought a wealth of experience to the office of pope. Blessed with a sense of humor and innate humility, he managed to escape the Achilles heel of all Catholics – conflating the hierarchy with the church.

When making a pastoral visit to a Roman medical center named the Hospital of the Holy Spirit he was introduced to the nun who was the administrator of the hospital. “Holy Father,” she said, “I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.” “You’re very lucky,” said the pope, delighted. “I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”

Three months after assuming his office, Pope John caught Vatican bureaucrats off guard by casually announcing his intention to convene an ecumenical council. Curial officers, long accustomed to running things, prepared documents simply reiterating tired old “truths” in the moribund language of ecclesial texts. Entrenched bishops were poised to condemn a whole new syllabus of modern errors.

John gave voice to a different agenda. “The church has always opposed … errors. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” He also hoped the church might reclaim its true identity and vocation as a “church of the poor.”

The pope hardly spoke during the opening sessions of the Council. He made one crucial intervention. After the first previously prepared document was rejected by a narrow majority, but not enough to table it definitively, John directed that it be returned for complete revision. That empowered the assembled bishops to set aside the entire set of draft documents and start from scratch.

His role was simply to “open the widows” for the spirit of Vatican II. Terminal cancer would cut short his participation but not his humor: “My bags are packed and I am ready to go.”

Four and a half years after becoming pope, John dictated a final message from his deathbed:

Now, more than ever, certainly more than in the past centuries, our intention is to serve people as such and not only Catholics; to defend above all and everywhere the rights of the human person and not only those of the Catholic Church; it is not the Gospel that changes; it is we who begin to understand it better…. The moment has arrived when we must recognize the signs of the times, seize the opportunity, and look far beyond. 

Sound vaguely familiar? As we approach Pentecost this Sunday we do well to remember that this isn’t the pope’s church, it is God’s! For all who would conflate hierarchy with church, the best we could do would be to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit.  We should all be starting more fires!

Saint John XXIII died on this day in 1963.


I am indebted once again to Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses For Our Times. Crossroads, 1999. p 243-4.

Humor is from James Martin, SJ and more may be enjoyed [here].

Those Who Aren’t, Are!

Often when my mother was about to say something profound, she would preface it with, “You know, life is strange!” Then she would unload some wise bomshell from a lifetime of careful observation. Usually her “truths” disclosed life not always being what it seems or “conventional wisdom” being turned on its head.

Mom’s wisdom came to mind again yesterday when a sister-in-law shared a 90 second video. It was the season premier of Louie, a program unknown to me. The [clip] features an exchange between a bluntly honest single dad and his daughter. After Louie rewards his eldest child for doing her homework with a mango pop, his youngest demands one as well.

With tempered exasperation that can only come from the love of a parent (or a teacher), Louie bluntly confronts his youngest with the fact that life is not fair and she will need “to get used to it.” While everyone is of equal dignity, there is no fundamental human right to equal treatment.  That’s life!

Then with wisdom befitting my own mother, Louie delivers a line we hope would somehow register somewhere in the consciousness of our young children: we are never to look to see if others have more but only to see whether others have enough! Wisdom befitting the Gospels!

It is often stated, and experience seems to prove, that the first and best teachers in the faith are parents. In this, Louie deserves an A+. But you know, life is strange… I think Louie would be the last person to claim that stelar achievement. Life is coming too fast and furious for this single dad to allow time to evaluate how well he is parenting.

In my book, parents like Louie (and many teachers) are literal saints. Jesus always had a predilection for the invisible little guys, those who thought they were nobodies or society ignored. The Louies of the world don’t have the luxury of introspection. They just lay down their lives from some deep inner core of love that elicits selflessness.

I’m only on the cusp of my elder years and have yet to achieve my mother’s wisdom. However, I am ruminating about something that has not yet risen to the status of “truth”. It is this: People who think they are holy typically are not; those who doubt whether they are holy often are! What do you think?

Yes, life is strange!

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.


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!

Day by Day

Everyone of my generation will recognize the song “Day by Day” by Stephen Schwartz. It was made popular in the 1971 musical Godspell:

Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by day.

I was a junior in college and the lilting melody of the tune perfectly expressed the sentiment of the times. I probably hummed along to the melody a thousand times before learning that it came from a prayer attributed to my patron, Saint Richard of Chichester whose feast day is today, April 3.

Richard didn’t have the panache of more famous saints. He was an archbishop in Sussex, England. He broke no glass ceilings like Joan of Arc. Unlike Stephen the Martyr (the name I chose for Confirmation), Richard died of natural causes at age 56 in 1253. He never gained global notoriety as has Dominic who died in 1221 or Francis of Assisi who died in 1223. You will not even find reference to him in the Roman Missal for this date!

Today Richard is really only remembered for the popular prayer ascribed to him:

Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.

Richard is believed to have recited the prayer on his deathbed with the words transcribed, in Latin, by his confessor Ralph Bocking, a Dominican friar.  If you care to know more, Wikipedia is as good of source as any [link]. 

My purpose is simply to share a great prayer in celebration of my feast day. Saints gave kids of my generation our own version of super-heroes! Only quite a while later did I make any association between such characters and the creedal formula about a “communion of saints” which we unreflectively mumble through at church on most Sundays.

I’m not looking for Richard to garner a great cult-following. Sarcastically I’d say, find your own saint! Who do you claim? When is your feast day? Next time you recite the Creed at church, be a bit more intentional when you profess faith in a “communion of saints.” There are so many good reasons to celebrate — day by day!