Saturday, March 15, 2014

Clothed like these


When in graduate business studies, I often pondered what I was doing there.  Then one day a teacher was describing the sort of companies or economic sectors that rise early after an economic downturn.  To visual this phenomena, he gave a poetic reference:  They are as crocus flowers, which thrive in late winter or early spring.  
           

I have two take-aways from that gentle turn of the phrase in a sterile classroom:  (1) I probably would have made a killing on the stock market had I paid attention to his other points that day, and (2) If ever one needs a nudge from nature, these eager green sprouts were made for inspiration.  When the rest of the world is cautious, the crocus is not fearful to break new ground.  This week that second observation was all around campus.  I rarely notice these perennial signs of ancient beauty and toughness, usually too preoccupied or hurried.  But this time it hard to miss; there they were, intrepid flowers cracking out in surprising spots, in some places rising above dirty snow.        

            If you notice these buds long enough, there comes an amazement that goes beyond their pluck:  It is this:  they don’t have to be here.  As the physicist Steven Weinberg wrote, sometimes nature “seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.”   Why is there such a variety?  Why do they have to be so appealing, even in their struggling first days on this earth?   These flowers are a bonus from heaven above.  Their only point is to offer a sign that our Maker is wasteful with loveliness.  This calming truth is good to know at all waking moments, but especially when the mind races too fast and the attention span quickly jumps from trivia to more trivia.  Then it is time to stare at what might be the most religious of all icons: a bouquet, a field of flowers, or any collection of colorful, fragile, windblown signs of divine extravagance.   

            In Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Naval Treaty,” Sherlock Holmes, a character that is supposed to stick with logic in understanding life’s mysteries, spots a rose in an interviewee’s apartment.  This startles him:  “Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.  All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance.  But this rose is an extra.  Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from flowers.”

            There may be right times when even a devout follower can wonder where was God’s charity when tinkering with creation’s mix.  Do we really need, say, ingrown toe nails?  But this doubt cannot to occur when looking at flowers.  Their purpose seems nothing more than to spark awe and comfort, nothing less than to inspire our own small attempts to be careless with goodness, more than is necessary.  How wise that this invite from nature to be lavish with good deeds come in Lent, a word that in Old English was synonymous with “springtime.”  

As we begin again this week with the season of renewal, bringing longer days and more visual poetry, may we let God’s handiwork inspire us, pause us, and remind us again of the holiness of being kinder than we have to be.

Fr. Pat

Monday, March 10, 2014

parched


There was a brief time when I served in Africa, when the well went dry.  All the wells in the village, and those near by had no decent water left.  We began each day with a look to the sky, hoping for some sign, physical or spiritual, that would give us a break.  And when the day came, when the rains broke out from the sky, much longer than we thought our parched spirits and bodies could endure, we know what had to be done.  

Leave the bed, leave the field, leave the pot, leave the school house, leave the market stall, and go.  Go into the center of the village.  Whatever the age, whatever the story, come here.  We have to be together.  We get it that this rain will be sufficient, but it is still so sweet, so much a sign of our hunger.  We know we feel how much we want to live.  We know better now, how we matter to each other.  We have been to that deep down place, and have seen what gives life, and we have learned of things that are so insignificant.

I would like to think that when Jesus stepped out of the forty days in the desert, he had been to that deep down place, that rare spot where he encountered that which formed him from the clay of the ground, and he knew what mattered.  He encountered also the limitations that scar any human life, and he knew what was so insignificant.  When we encounter that truth, we see what has always been in our hearts, and in everyone’s hearts, just as the villagers did.

The most significant words in this gospel, where Jesus comes out of the desert and the devil gets in his face, is when he says, “Get away.”  We have been there.  When the hype from the pitches that bombard us daily that appeal to the quick solution look so foolish, so unconvincing, so odd, we just want to say, “You have no idea of who I am.  You are an annoyance.  You speak to me of taking away discomfort."  We have come to know there is no growth, no serious life without it.  When we gone to the deep down places, one of the hopes is come out more humble.  So we can say with doubt, “No, we are not above temptations to our flesh.  Yes, even on good days we get lured into a lust for power.  Yes, we can be lulled into wanting a faith where angels save us from all agony.

But give us a minute.  Give us a chance to recall we come from the earth.  Give us a chance to be with those who have been with us on the same journey, who have drawn from the same well.  Give us a chance to go to those deep places where we recall our deepest hungers.  Give us that pause, like forty days, so we can again get grounded in what gives life to our parched spirits. 

We can do this—we can believe that once we get the big picture in our heads again, we can say as clearly as Jesus, “Get away.”   We can say this not because we are above getting lured into the false promises of quick fixes.  We say it because we know the beauty of a life touches us not when we flee our demons, or our limitations, or our challenges.  We see them when struggle to be real with whomever God places before.  We see them when we look up and have no clue what will come, but we move with decency here below.

The point of the story of Jesus in the desert is not that he conquered the devil.  It is that Jesus saw no need to conquer his humanity to feel so elevated, so taken in by God.  It happens even when our wells run dry, even when humanity can seem bone crushing.  Faith comes alive not when we can quote scripture or when we feel complete.  May we never feel complete; then the thirst dies.  Let us have a faith that gives us a hunger for more life, more closeness to the Spirit who leads us, even into the desert. The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote,
“In the torment of all insufficiency of everything attainable, we eventually learn that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.” 

In the insufficiency of everything, we understand that that we need to get back to the places that remind us of our utter love of life, of the grace that brought us here, and the amazement that we are here, taking in the each drop of that comes from the sky as if it is going right to our marrow.

If we don’t, we can still have a glorious life.  But if we don’t occasionally return the deep hungers that ground us, then the hype and the allure of quick fixes and flights away from discomfort will look more and more credible.  They will appear to complete us, to fill us.  And so we will forget what breathed life into our nostrils.  We will find it to be foolish that there is such a thing as an abundance of grace.  We will forget that when the rains come, when the storms pass, that now we must pause, and let our selves come together to be led by the spirit.

May we let these forty days lead us to bring us back to what breathed life into us.


Patrick Malone, SJ
March 9, 2014



Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lead us not


Oscar Wilde wrote: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it... I can resist everything but temptation.”  That approach may offer some relief, but it sells us short.  The idea of always giving in scares me.  I want to believe that the temptations that can confound us are not there to make life difficult, but to make us grow up.  Temptation comes in many flavors, and few us can escape their allure.  Three nasty ones that have dogged me:  procrastination, where finding distractions takes on a high art form when wanting to put off the work that has to be done.  Or, judging harshly, just because it is more satisfying than giving others the benefit of the doubt.  And, getting buried in some intoxicating gratification, just because taking the long view can seem so long.  

Whatever the specific temptation, they have a common purpose:  they help us avoid confronting discomfort.   The more we try to shake loose from discomfort, the more we can get bogged down.  Giving in to temptations is understandable, and not always that destructive.  The challenge is when we use them as a dodge.  When sinking into temptations become the default way to avoid discomfort, then we find it harder to stay with the tough course of living a life that matters. 

When we attempt to rise beyond the temptations that seem so ingrained, so unmovable, we sometimes may have nothing to show.  There may be no change.  But it because of that tough truth that makes the effort to try so rewarding:  sometimes we succeed, and learn again how miracles can be so obvious when we have our eyes open, our hearts ready to receive, and our minds grasping the truth that there is no greater union than divine help and human grit.   Even with this powerful combo, we know the path away from temptations is harsh.  We take the path anyway because we know it is the path we deserve to be on.  

One of the great joys of life comes when we understand that we are worthy of the peace, calling, and friendship that beckons us from a loving God.  Life does not necessarily get easier with that insight—we still need the grit.  It is that life gets holy.  We see how we do indeed want to move from getting lost in a sense of entitlement to getting carried away in a life based in gratitude.  We see how we want to move from a mind filled with self-absorption to one of self-giving.  We see how we do want to advance from a preoccupation with pleasure to a life focused on gaining fulfillment.  

When we stay grounded in those deep yearnings, we get a grip that trying to fight temptations is so much more than stopping bad habits and impulses.  It is saying we will do what it takes for however long it takes to take in the grace that is all around us.   We will do what we can to soak in more of the goodness that comes to us from all places, from all people.  

I would like to imagine if Jesus were to expand on this idea of temptation, he would say:  “you’re welcome to focus on the struggle.  You’re welcome to concentrate on hard it is to get beyond the activities or urges that drag you down, that can hyper-isolate you.  Think about them over and over if you wish.  But that brooding will just become another destructive habit that feeds on itself.  It will feel like there is no other choice.  Here’s another way:  think about how worthy you are of penetrating love, of practical hope, of healing faith.  Think that, as surprising as it sounds, there is something good you can do with discomfort.  With it, you can let your prayer become more honest; you can be more trusting with the people around you; you can be more attentive to the challenges of those who are not around you.  You can see what is sacramental in human life: an abundance of ways to rise to our better selves.  That is the journey of Lent.

Fr. Pat

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Protect us from all distress


“The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present.  Health and hope grew strong in them, and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song.”
                                        -The Fellowship of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

The hobbits drew no attention to themselves, but went about their playful ways always attentive to the world’s grace and violence.  They let the joys and sorrows of those around them seep into their marrow, yet were pleased to be gracious servants in working to bring about a more decent place for all.  Aside from the current bloody movie of Tolkien’s story about hobbits, these humble and settled creatures were to be the carriers of God’s Kingdom.  The great obstacle to living this contentment, and bringing forth this Kingdom:  worrying.

There can be a perverse pleasure in worrying.  It removes the need for accountability, decision, or introspection.  It gives a bit more liberty to annoy others without guilt.  The word sounds more mature than whining.  There is a rightful and under-rated need to be occasionally high-strung, but as a culture we have gone overboard on milking the need to worry.  There is certainly no shortage of reasons to be rightfully spooked about the future.  The same sense of impending doom shrouded over the early church (when this passage was written) when most average peasants lived in terror that the loony emperor Nero would order another massacre.  Jesus’ point was hardly to be blissful to imminent signs of peril.  It was to not let the real dangers of tomorrow lull us into paralysis, gloominess, or self-pity. 

All these response feed our appetite for vanity; none of them will be evident to us until they are entrenched enough as to be the only options.  This happens not when we are overly consumed by the problems of the world—many suffering souls would be so lucky if we were preoccupied with their unrequested misery.  It happens when we are overly consumed with ourselves.  
When worrying seizes our attention, it does little good to say we (or others) will force ourselves to stop.  

We know it corrodes our soul, and that it is unproductive, but awareness of its uselessness is not enough.  What does help is recognizing how worrying diminishes our ability to love.  We are less receptive, more unapproachable.  We cannot connect—whether it is human or divine-- as we long to.  Worrying is our invite to listen.  It reminds us that we apparently have the time and hunger to be more receptive to the people around us.  If we can worry, we need to engage with those who do not have the luxury of worrying, because their lives have drudgery or fear.  It is a wake-up call to take fuller notice of the struggles and hopes of those who have been invisible from us for too long.  

Worrying is an invite to remember three words that the poet Robert Frost says sum up everything he’s learned in life: “Life goes on.”  To become cognizant of our worrying may be, as Jesus suggested in todays’ Gospel, a chance to get out of the shadows, and get into (quickly diminishing) wild fields, where we see the radiance that comes in just living.  Then our future will cease to devour the gratitude that wants to overwhelm our present.

Fr. Pat