Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Piano Lessons

My very young student who learns fast is ready , after about six weeks of lessons, to learn how to subdivide a beat. I showed him what eighth notes look like, and taught him to count  them, using the method I was taught. One and two and....We practiced a few times, and then it was time to apply the new concept to a song. After trying it once, I suggested he count out loud with me , to be sure he could do it consistently no matter what kind of notes he found...half notes, whole notes, quarter notes, or eighth notes.

He paused for a minute and I quietly asked, "Is all of this in your brain yet?" (This being our code for whether he understands.)

"Well, it's in my brain, but it's making my stomach upset."

New things aren't always so easy to take in, are they, especially if you are six.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Piano Lessons

"What are these things, Mrs. Marshall?

"Well, they are the pieces to six different three dimensional wooden puzzles all mixed up together. I think it would take a real puzzle genius to put them back together again."

"A genius?", my student asked in a wondering tone. "I don't know any geniuses except Brainy Smurff."

"Who's Brainy Smurff?"

"Who's Brainy Smurff? You mean you don't know who Brainy Smurff is?"

Humbled, I shook my head no.

"He's the smartest Smurff there is."

"Oh, so he could put them back together again."


Why didn't I think of that?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Trinity Sunday

I will admit to feeling a bit of apprehension as Trinity Sunday approaches, and it may not be for the reasons some of you suspect. I am not dreading a homily that mistakes itself for a theological treatise; I can’t remember ever hearing a theological rant on the Trinitarian nature of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or a tirade against various herisies, those that seek to reduce the Trinitarian Godhead to three understandable modes of being, like the three leaves of a shamrock, or those that dismiss the truly divine nature of Jesus altogether.

No, I guess I am dreading another embarressed shuffle up in front of a bemused congregation, followed by that famous disclaimer “I am not a theologian”. And then a few half- hearted words about the topic of the trinity, with maybe a reference to Arianism, or the Logos.

As my daughter would say, I’m not trying to be harsh.

But, really, haven’t we all had enough of “I don’t pretend to understand the trinity and I can’t seem to find a way to preach it?”

Think about this: what was seminary preparation all about? What is this life you, our beloved priests, are leading, if not an expression, however imperfect, of the very life of God, who is by nature three in one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? As you strive to lead souls to heaven, so that we might one day all share in the divine life, aren’t you sharing with us glimmers at least of the holy Trinity?

Maybe it’s a matter of clearing away all the debris left after the study of what the trinity is not; a recognition that once we are able to speak about Father, Son and Holy Spirit without falling into heretical speech, what we have left is the witness of the saints on how to live a holy life. Because if we can speak about holiness, we can speak about the trinity.

God spoke and his words never come back empty. God’s own speech is the demonstration of what love is: it is fruitful, it is self offering, it is tender, it is not about the I but about the you.  Every human life, lived to its fullest, is not about itself but about other human lives. How stunningly beautiful, and how taken for granted those words can be if they are not rooted in the three in one, the God who is trinitarian in nature.

That Jesus who came down from heaven and showed us how to live is not slightly less than God, the Jesus who died for our sins is not a really good person who did some cool things while he was alive, the Holy Spirit who breathes life into our acts of love is not a pale reflection of real divine love. No, Jesus and the Holy Spirit,  together with the Father, are God, God in three persons, blessed trinity. So when we are animated to live for others it is no less than God himself who is living in us and moving us. It is no less than God himself who died on the cross to give us back our lives fully restored to himself after the fall of Adam. 

“If I speak in the tongues of men and angels and have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

If it is not the Holy Spirit, who is God, living is us, then the acts we attempt are nothing, at least as regards holiness. Holiness means that by immense grace, we , God’s creatures, are offered a participation in the divine life. Our actions, feeble enough on their own, are elevated to the dignity of holiness by means of the Holy Spirit, who is no less than God. The divine giving and receiving of love embraces us and draws us into its own dynamic way of living.

Yes, it is difficult to put into words the mystery of the Godhead, three in one. But we do have the creed; we speak about  God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, through him all things were made, for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and by the power of the Holy Spirit was made man.

And we have the saints, who in their extraordinary way of selfless giving, animated always by the divine life show us the path of holiness.

“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Who but God, in his own action of love could make possible this love in us? Who but  the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, united mysteriously into one, yet remaining  three persons, could make possible such flights of beauty that reflect  true love among we who are anything but divine?

Love never ends, and so it must be divine. We will continue to live in Jesus, moved by the Holy Spirit, directed toward the Father, as long as life endures. May the holy trinity be adored and glorified forever!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Time Spent at The Beach and The Mercy of Prayer

One of my favorite memories, from years long past, is the eight week or so period I taught music in Maine, at the Freeport Community Summer Camp. Camp was held at a lovely secluded site that fell back into trees and woodlands on one end, and edged a  beach cove on the other. Because of the daily change in the tides, our camp routine altered a bit accordingly. If swimming was pushed back a few minutes, music and arts and crafts and hiking would follow suit. It was marvellously entertaining, learning to check the schedule, and watch the shoreline, and then plan around what nature was offering for the day. Much of the time we sang and did our activities in sight of the beach, so that the endless movement of the water, in and out along the changing tidal line, was an ever present background.  

From my earliest childhood, playing in the chilly water of the Atlantic Ocean on the edge of a beach was a favorite summer pastime. We usually played and swam a bit further south, along the beaches of Marblehead, but I don't remember the water there being any warmer than it was on the coast of Maine where I spent my college years. It was cold even on the hottest sultry beach days, and I remember the squeals and the running in and out of the water until finally we were acclimated and we could start playing in the waves. Then we would lay on our bellies or on our backs trying to ride them into shore as far as we could before the water would deposit us on some wet squishy sand.   It felt wonderful to be transported by the energy of the moving water. We didn't have play equipment to assist us; it was entirely a physical encounter between floating children and sometimes gentle, sometimes powerful waves pushing and receding in an endless cycle.

I thought of the waves yesterday morning, when I saw another e-mail promising prayer for healing for my cancer. At this time I have Dominicans praying for me, Cistercians, Greek Catholics, priests, lay friends, family, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Jews, and even some agnostics I believe ; I am being carried and supported each day on waves of prayer. And this is what I find so beautiful:  I can sense this movement, this support. I know that without it I would be consumed by worry and fear. Prayer support is as real as the water that flows over beaches along the shore. And to have discovered this about prayer is a wonderful gift.

I had not understood until now how gentle and merciful our Lord is when he gives us the work of prayer. I have prayed often for others, and relied in so doing on the mercy of God to answer those prayers. But to be the one needing prayer is to know mercy in a different way. At least I have experienced it so.

I know now that prayer uplifts, and it carries us closer to God, just as each ocean wave , moving toward high tide, moves closer and closer to the line that divides the wet sand from the dry, the highest point of the tide.

It is good to know that people are praying for me. I understand that the promise of prayer is not a matter of idle speech; the fruits of prayer are tangible even if the exact intention isn't answered. I may not be completely healed from cancer in my lifetime, but my spirit is being mended and strengthened with each prayer that is said on my behalf.

Thank you friends for your prayers. They mean everything to me.  I am relying on them perhaps more than you knew, and being sustained by them more than I ever thought was possible. I am truly blessed. May the Lord be praised!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Loving and Being Countercultural

We have songbirds in the backyard this spring. I saw a pair of cardinals on the gutter, staying only briefly, though later from a more concealed place in our yard I heard them. They and a few other birds I can't identify sing regularly now, and when everything else is quiet I hear them and am arrested.

Hearing them is the point. It occurs to me that birds offer their music unself- consciously (being birds, after all,) and it is up to the listener to stop awhile and be led to the source of the sound: the cardinal, the warbler, the mourning dove, and then to the ultimate source, the Creator himself. To be aware of creation is to fix upon the details, at least that's how it seems to me. To notice variety within a species, variations within a birdsong, colors that mute and conceal or broadcast and parade, feathers that allow wind to lift them and soft down than stays close and warms, all of these distinctions are what lead me to marvel at an intelligence much, much vaster than my own.

We are not, I often think, much good as a culture at admiring distinctions within our own species, particularly if what is different about another is thought to be bad, or underdeveloped, or unenlightened, irritating or frightening. To love one another as other, the definition of love, is hard enough when the people we know are nonthreatening, or appealing in some way. When we truly differ, to love is almost an act of rebellion.

I do not admire all the people I try to love, any more than I admire every bird that dances across my roof or pecks underneath the shrubs. I love the birds that sing and sit with graceful poise and don't try to evict smaller birds from their nests. And I don't feel especially called to love all birds simply because the good God made them, though to protect them and allow them their natural freedom, provided it doesn't upset another species, seems to be called for.

To love other people as other, that is a special calling. It is more than admiration, or contentment or even being moved by some beauty the other posesses. And it doesn't rely on liking or feeling anything much at all other than the awareness that someone is other. It is to will when something deep down says not to, the good that another deserves because they are other, and as other, they are precisely who God made them to be. God gave us variety among ourselves, so much so, that if we come close to finding another person similar to who we imagine ourselves to be, we risk not loving that person at all, but rather  an imitation of ourselves. Differences are what call for love, for the will to overcome dislike or anger or annoyance, or any other barrier to easy acceptance.

We are not static beings, set in a permanent mold that prevents us from growing and changing, from becoming holy. So the differences that call forth our love might not be permament traits, but more in the nature of bad habits, some deeply ingrained, others less so. Sinfulness of a more entrenched kind calls for more love, not less. So to acknowledge that God created each one of us as a unique individual is not to reduce that uniqueness to a moment's action, or a slip of the tongue, or a thoughtless word. But those actions still do stem from a history, a history unique to each individual, and they reflect perhaps deeper differences that will endure throughout the movement toward holiness. When we love someone as other we are loving them even as they are caught in a pattern of sinfulness from which they might at any time be freed, or not. We can't know. Sometimes a peson will say of another, "Oh don't be alarmed by that comment, that wasn't the real Henry speaking." But of course that was the real Henry speaking in that moment, even if he spoke in a way that he didn't often allow himself to do. Something about Henry was present that endures and may be hard to distinguish from the sinful ways of being that Henry is trying to abandon.The otherness of another is manifest in speech and actions that change subtly over time, and may be hard to calculate.

But love's job is for one person  to accept another person as other and will his or her good, however that good needs to be worked into the nuances of everyday living.

It is the call of holiness, to love, and it is much harder than loving songbirds and being led to reflect on the creator of the universe by their enchanting music. Still,  birds do in their way remind us of variety, and distinction, and if we are aware , they lead us to ponder the marvellous differences among human beings. It is all a matter of stopping to listen, and watch.

 It takes some effort to stop and think about people as other, and not  simply to react to them when they clutter our own path. And of course it requires divine assistance. I don't think I have ever truly loved another except as the result of grace.

The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it,the world, and those who live in it; (Psalm 24:1)

The earth is the Lord's, and I know that my own way forward toward holiness is to love the people God has put in my way. I will fail, probably often, but it is the only way I know that has any meaning. So with the assistance of the One who is love itself, I will slowly try to love, sometimes against all reason, but surely in the end it will be worthwhile.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Gratitude and Self Knowledge

 "My commandment is this: love one another as I have loved you."

Today's antiphon from Morning Prayer helped to crystallize what should be
for me a daily prayer: Lord, help me love others as you have loved me.

Our pastor recently left for his first assignment as an ordinary; he is now the Bishop of El Paso. Reflecting with friends on what he left as a legacy to our parish, and no doubt to the whole diocese where he has resided for 40 some years , I concluded that his ability and desire to love people, even if they don't love him back, stands alone.

No one is perfect: no pastor, no vicar, no Bishop, no parishioner, and God help me, I am certainly not perfect.

But my weaknesses are magnified when I can't love the people who show me where I fail. I prickle and bristle, and like the three cats who live in our house, I want to hiss when I feel threatened. Or worse. I want to strike back.

But Jesus told us to love one another. Jesus loved until he took his last dying breath; "Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do."

I used to marvel at the way Bishop Mark could do that. And his love for others has at last begun  slowly to illuminate my way. It has been the way of the cross all along, and perhaps I have been avoiding the cross. Bishop Mark once told me that there is never any way around it. He said it calmly and with a smile on his face. And I used to wonder how he could be so calm in the face of daily difficulties.

But lately I have begun to realize that he is right. And the  way to carry the cross of Christ is to begin by praying for those who are the most hurtful, or damaging, patronizing or demeaning. Pray for the ones who use verbal sticks and stones to wound, who devise means of gaining the upper hand or who seek to destroy whomever stands in their way. Pray for the ones who simply don't like you and never will. Pray for the saints and the sinners, for Paul and Peter and Judas Iscariot, for the thief on the cross next to  yours, and ask God to help you if you are too weak to begin.

And then the cross becomes more bearable.

The cross is truly a means to closeness with Jesus.   

I am thankful for those who have been the means of showing me how little I have loved, and I am thankful to our Lord Jesus Christ for showing me how to begin again.

Pray for me, please.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Catholics and Purgatory

From the  Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1030  All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031  The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence (1439) and Trent 1563.) The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.

I had great admiration for purgatory long before I became Catholic. It always seemed to me to be a blessing, a merciful granting of extra time and insight for the spiritually slow (myself being among them!) so that heaven could be entered without snickers from the saints already there.  I figured that if I couldn't be a Mother Theresa while on earth, it was going to take some extra work in purgatory to make me presentable when I finally (I hope) get to meet her.

The Bible is filled with stories and expressions of God's mercy, healing and bringing to wholeness and new life. They form the backdrop for the church teaching on purgatory. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well (John's Gospel, chapter 4: 1 -30.)

The story of the Samaritan woman is rich with meaning, and has threads that can tie together a number of different topics. But I especially appreciate the element of mercy expressed in this story. This mercy is extended toward a woman, a foreign woman, a woman who is a notorious sinner. 

The story begins :  "A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (4:7)

It was FR. Robert Barron ( http://www.wordonfire.org/WOF-Radio/Sermons/Sermon-Archive-for-2012/Sermon-618-A-Tale-of-Two-Widows-32nd-Sunday-in.aspx)  who pointed out, in way that moved me, the implication of these words of Jesus, "Give me a drink."  From our perspective it might seem that Jesus is being a bit imperious here, asking for a favor from a lowly woman, a woman he had never met. The spirited modern woman is likely to say, in response, "Get your own drink!!" 

It reminds me of my very first job, fresh out of college. I worked in the undergraduate library at Cornell University, as the periodicals assistant. The director of the library, on my first day, warned me about keeping the coffee pot nice and clean, when I made the morning coffee, so that it would not taste bitter. "Bah humbug" was my interior response.  "I have a recently acquired BA in music, not in coffee-making, thank you very much. Clean your own coffee pot." Fortunately I was wise enough to keep those thoughts to myself. 

So why is Jesus asking this woman for a drink? Was he a male chauvinist, or perhaps just very very thirsty, or was it the custom of his day, to ask strange women to fetch water?

Fr. Barron puts the question on different footing. Far from being a one-sided request on Jesus' part, a favor asked in order to benefit Jesus, Fr. Barron says  the request is an invitation to the Samaritan woman for her own salvation, an invitation to try a new way of living, a way that is more about giving than receiving. "Give me a drink."

"Do something generous, something sacrificial, something for someone other than yourself, and do it because of me, for I am God himself, here to draw you toward your eternal salvation. Woman, give me a cup of water."

It is an act of mercy to show someone how to love, how to give, how to be deeply happy. Behind each one of God's actions we can find the same great magnanimous, merciful love, a love that calls us out of ourselves.

From a life of adultery, Jesus has called a woman to a life of charity in his name. But it is a life, not an instant make-over.

And that is the sticking point.

For all of us who have somehow, by grace caught a glimmer of the truth revealed in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, there lies ahead a lifetime of learning  how to give cups of water in Jesus' name. It is a slow process, this schooling in sacrificial living. Too many opportunities for self-indulgence await us, our hearts are too often assaulted by pride, or wounded by others. So we stay within the walls of our inner domiciles, tending to our own needs and letting the world go on around us.

But by grace, and this is important, we keep seeing that woman at the well, we keep hearing the call to holiness. We pick ourselves up and crawl slowly outside of our tortoiselike shells trying all over again to live as the saints we are each meant to be.

And in those graced attempts lies our salvation. Because, at the end of the day, at the end of our mortal span, God who knows our hearts, knows our longings says, in effect, "I will not let your failure to be holy be the last word. I will take you  in hand at your day of death and I will cleanse you and purify you and bring you into my eternal rest at last."


It is not the most beautiful sounding word Catholics use, but it is one of the more beautiful teachings.

It is grounded broadly in the entire proclamation of the Gospel, though there are more particular scriptural references.  The Catechism mentions II Maccabees 12:45 (46), and also First Corinthians 3, special emphasis on verse 15, and First Peter, 1:7. 

We are to be tested by fire, but I don't think of that as a kind of horrible pain that will char us. It is rather a fire that shows us through its complete burning away of our need to be selfish how to keep our eyes on God.

Because keeping our eyes on God is the point of heaven.

Heaven is the place where our egos will mercifully let go of their strangle-hold on our wills, where selfishness will give way to charity, where love of God will finally out- do love for ourselves. Heaven is not after all an eternal golf game, an eternity of chocolate, or an eternity of anything that we think is pretty nice to have here on earth. Because, when you think about it, an eternity of anything other than God just isn't all that enticing. In fact an eternity trying to get a small ball into a small cup in the ground from far distances sounds a lot like hell to me... but then again I am no golfer.

No, heaven is all about God, and being in his presence, and if we after all, seek to be with God, then by grace he will see to it that we get there. And he gives us purgatory because he knows a human span is not enough time for most of us to do the job.

Purgatory is God's extra gift of love.

May we all learn to receive it with grateful hearts.