Friday, January 16, 2015

Fidelity of God and the Love of My Sisters

I preached this morning for a midday prayer service, and here it is!

Gospel reading: 

Mark 2:1-12

When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,
it became known that he was at home.
Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them,
not even around the door,
and he preached the word to them.
They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him,
“Child, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
“Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming.
Who but God alone can forgive sins?”
Jesus immediately knew in his mind what
they were thinking to themselves,
so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,
‘Your sins are forgiven,’
or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’?
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”
–he said to the paralytic,
“I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”
He rose, picked up his mat at once,
and went away in the sight of everyone.
They were all astounded
and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.”


“Trusting in the fidelity of God and in the love of my sisters, I make these vows.”

I first heard this phrase, really heard it, about six years ago.  It’s part of the vow formula for my congregation.  The first time I heard it, we were celebrating the 40th anniversary of two sisters.  As part of our celebration, one of them reflected with us about what that phrase meant to her, throughout her years in the Society of the Sacred Heart. 

I had just entered the order, and it was the first time that I really took in what “the fidelity of God” means.  God is faithful to us!  I had always thought it was the other way around, that my faith depended on me.  But no, I began to see that God’s fidelity is what counts.  And God isn’t just faithful, God is fidelity.  I must be faithful too, but my doubts and insecurities are just part of what it means to be human.  If I can place my trust, imperfect as it is, in God’s perfect fidelity, then I can be sure of something.  I can rest in it.  God’s fidelity carries with it God’s perfection and strength.  It’s a reminder to me that I am not God, and I do not need to carry every burden on my own shoulders, especially not guilt at imperfection.  As much as I have been trained to rely on myself, trusting in God’s fidelity takes an insupportable weight off my shoulders and places it on one to whom it weighs no more than a feather.

But of course, it doesn’t stop with that—the full line again, “trusting in the fidelity of God and in the love of my sisters.”  When I and my sisters make vows to God, we do it in community.  We are dependent on one another for care, support, help. 

For each one of us, both my sisters and each one of us present here today, we live in multiple communities and depend on many different people for the support we need.  I have been so blessed over the last two and a half years to have this learning community on my side.  I depend on our common direction and goals, our shared prayer and fellowship to encourage me in what I do daily to promote God’s reign here on earth, in our church and our broken world.  We are called into service not alone, but as a community.

Today’s gospel gives us such a colorful scene.  The charisma of Jesus has attracted the crowds, filled the house with those who can’t get enough of what he has to say.  Perhaps he’s speaking of forgiveness, or healing, or God’s love for the little ones.  Into the midst of his preaching, a group of men break through the ceiling so that their friend can receive healing and forgiveness—a spontaneous illustration for Jesus of God’s desire that we know love, forgiveness, and healing.  A demonstration of profound faith, vulnerability, and the reliance we have on our community.

This scene offers us a lesson about trusting in God and relying on one another.  The paralytic can do nothing for himself.  Can you imagine his embarrassment if the healing didn’t work, after he had asked his friends to cut through the roof of someone’s house?  But with both his faith in God and the help of his friends, he is healed.

We all need healing for something, and the last year has given us any number of wounds—from the physical to the emotional and spiritual.  Our Institute has seen changes that may have left us shaken.  Our city and our nation are reeling with the aftermath of Ferguson and generations of racial division and distrust.  Our world suffers from national and religious divisions that have led to widespread violence and popular protest, and that is in addition to worldwide unequal distribution of wealth and destruction of the environment in which we live.  We need healing -- individually, institutionally, culturally, and in the very soil of our world.

Like the paralytic, we trust in God, that no matter how hopeless our world seems to be, God is faithful to creation, to us, and God will come to our aid.  We have to trust in one another, to be faithful to our communal commitments and carry each other through the difficult times. 

Jesus today calls us to greater trust in God’s fidelity, and in the community who supports us.  He shows us that we are forgiven, and that forgiveness heals our woundedness.  God is faithful.  As we begin this new semester, may we place our trust in God’s fidelity to us, relying on one another as we live our mission.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Paul and Pope Francis

Today, once again, I am preaching for mid-day prayer... so here it is:
Reading:  Ephesians  3:2-12
Responsorial Psalm:  You shall draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation. (Isaiah 12)

As you might know,  I have been utterly captivated by the words of Pope Francis.  Today’s Psalm and the reading from Paul share two of the main themes Pope Francis has focused on:  to preach the gospel to everyone, and to show our joy as Christians.  For Francis, we preach in everything we do, not just by explicitly offering words of the salvation of Christ to those who do not yet know him.  We preach through the care we offer others, whether physical or emotional, through our actions of kindness to our families, communities, and to strangers, and through our open attitudes of joy and hope. We also preach in the more conventional sense, too, by sharing our insights with one another and teaching and learning in the classroom.  To practice what we sometimes call “intellectual charity.”
Paul’s words to the Ephesians have a sense of urgency and conviction to them.  He clearly sees his call as something new, something never heard of before the “now” in which he writes.  Before Jesus came, the Jewish community did not seek converts to their faith, and here Paul finds himself sent to preach to all the world, to non-Jews.  He even states that the Gentiles are part of the same Body of Christ as the Jewish believers—an extraordinary movement of intercultural competency.
Paul calls on the grace he has received.  This message is not his own invention but was revealed to him by the Spirit.  God has deemed that all of the human race is part of the saving reach of Jesus’ act of love.  This is the mystery that is revealed in this time and place; this is the reason for joy.
Francis also speaks to us with an urgency.  Our world 2000 years after Paul is very different, but Pope Francis reminds us that our call is much the same—to preach the gospel to those who need to hear it.  Francis calls us to preach to non-Christians, of course, but also to Christians who have lost their faith or who no longer find it nourishing.  We are called to listen for the wind of the Spirit and to follow it, joyfully sharing what we know, the mysteries God reveals to us every day.
If Paul were with us today, listening to the words of Francis, how would his preaching be shaped?  Who would be the Gentiles he seeks out—would they be former Catholics?  Would he want them to return to the fold, or would he offer comfort and hope to them whereever they are? 
How would our church look to Paul?  Would he feel the need to scold us as he did the Corinthians when they were divided among themselves?
Instead of making us one Body in the Church, would Paul seek to make us One Body of Humanity, through reconciling the divisions in our cities and in our country, the divisions marked by fear of those who seem different, or hatred of those who think differently?
Paul spoke of something radical and new—he was moved to newness by the Holy Spirit.  Are we listening for the Holy Spirit’s cool breeze?  Can we feel the refreshment that it offers us, by opening our hearts and minds to new ways of living our Christian calling?
Maybe our call in this day is to BE that cool and healing breeze in a world that is deeply wounded by war, anger, and division.  Perhaps we can hear the call of God to contemplation, to love, to healing.  Francis directs us to the joy of being Christian, even in the world that is broken in so many ways.  He asks us to bring that joy to others, and joy, then, is the content of our preaching.  We will end where he began his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:  

“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”  

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Symbol of the Heart of Jesus

We had a big meeting of nuns a week ago, and we were asked to bring a small symbol of Jesus' heart with us.  I brought this red heart:

(Actually, to be truthful, I brought both it and the cross because I changed my mind while packing.)

The heart fits in my palm, and it has a lovely tinkly bell inside.  It makes a happy noise!

But I didn't bring it because it sings, or because it's heart-shaped and pretty.  I brought it because of who gave it to me. 

The heart was a gift from my very best friend, and it symbolizes Jesus' heart for me because she's the one person in my life who always knows how I feel by the sound of my voice.  We live far apart, so most of our communication is by cell phone.  And yet she always seems to know whether I'm really happy or just pretending to be.

It makes me think of the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection in the Gospel of John.  She goes to the empty tomb and sits weeping in sorrow for the loss of her dear friend.  And then he's there--but she thinks he's the gardener.  It's only when he says her name that she recognizes him.   She knows him in the sound of his voice, and in the call of her name.

May we all have someone in our lives who can discern the state of our heart by the sound of our voice. 

May I always remember that Jesus always knows the state of my heart and keeps good company with both sorrow and joy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


I'm teaching a course tonight on the Trinity--that great mystery that is at the heart of Christianity and Christian life.  I'm a little nervous because it's hard to talk about something so big and so bound up in the unknown.  But Pseudo-Dionysius helps, with his hymn at the beginning of "The Mystical Theology."
Trinity!!  Higher than any being,
any divinity, any goodness!
Guide of Christians 
in the wisdom of heaven!
Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,
up to the farthest, highest peak
of mystic scripture,
where the mysteries of God's Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
they pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
they completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.
(This translation is from Colm Luibheid, published by Paulist Press in 1987.)

The indentations of the translation I am looking at here are a little more visually pleasing, but I am also pleased by the imagery of the text:  to go "beyond unknowing and light," into God's mysteries "in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence."

The apophatic language of Ps-Dionysius has always touched me deeply, helped me to understand God deep in my heart and being in a way that more concrete language does not.

I tell my students at the beginning of this course on theology that one of the reasons I study theology at all is the depth of mystery--that no matter how much I learn, I will never be able to explore the depths of God.  The desire to learn will never be quenched, will always be a joy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Preaching on the Feast of St. Robert Bellarmine

I'm leading and preaching for mid-day prayer today, and I've chosen to use the first reading for the Feast of St. Robert Bellarmine, rather than tackle either of the mass readings today.  But really, I'm just talking about the saint himself.  Enjoy.

Reading: Wisdom 7:7-10, 15-16

            The passage from Wisdom an appropriate introduction to the life of St. Robert Bellarmine, whom the church celebrates today.  Bellarmine was a Jesuit and Cardinal who lived in the late 16th and early 17th century.  He was born shortly after Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus, and the Council of Trent began when he was a child, ending during his philosophy studies in Rome.  His entire theological career was marked by the decisions made by the Council and by the theology of reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli.  In fact, his writings reveal that he read and knew their theology.
            Before doing a little research, I knew only that Bellarmine was a Jesuit and that he must have been involved in education.  My initial impressions of him were of a man who craved black and white answers, and who sought to find them in his theological explorations.  That impression is not far from the truth, and it still makes me a little uncomfortable.  Yet, the more I read about Robert Bellarmine, the more I see him as a good man.
            Bellarmine was certainly brilliant and well-educated.  He entered the Jesuits at age 18, and he quickly became known as a good preacher, even before he was ordained to the priesthood.  He began philosophy studies in Rome in 1560, taught liberal arts from 1563-1567, and then began studying theology.  In 1570 he was ordained and appointed professor at Louvain, where he lectured on the work of Thomas Aquinas.  During his time in Belgium, he began refuting the Protestant errors he saw in the works of his colleagues.  His lectures refuting the teachings of Luther, Calvin and others were published in several volumes.  While many Catholics were arguing against Protestant theology, Bellarmine’s lectures were unique in tone.  Like Thomas Aquinas, he first learned the arguments of his opponents, then refuted them using logic and reason.
            Bellarmine’s genius cannot be denied, and it extends beyond doctrinal issues to canon law, architecture, spirituality, and even science.  Yet, the brilliant mind was found in a man who loved the poor and wanted to provide the best of the reforms Trent promoted.  When he was appointed archbishop of Capua in 1602, Bellarmine personally attended to the needs of those in poverty.  He established a Jesuit college there, which brought with it research and a library.  By living out the Tridentine goal that the bishop reside, work, and preach in his own diocese, Bellarmine lifted up the status of a small, poor town in rural Italy.
            Robert Bellarmine was an unfailing champion of the Roman Catholic Church, a voice necessary for the time in which he lived.  We can learn from him about fidelity, and about careful theological exploration and education.  We learn also that true dialogue requires us to understand positions we may not agree with, and to treat those who hold them with respect.  Most of all, we learn that a good education, and even positions of ecclesial or civil power, do not remove our personal obligation to care for those in need.  In the words of Pope Francis, “Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others.”

Friday, July 18, 2014

A day of contrasts

Today we learned that one of our sisters from Australia was on board the plane that was shot down yesterday over Ukraine.  Her name was Phil (Philomene) Tiernan, and she was much loved by so many.  I had only met her about three weeks ago, and had lovely and meaningful conversations in a very short time.  She will be missed, that is certain.  Her presence on that plane makes the violence of our world more real and personal, too.  (Her story has been picked up by news sites, which include some lovely pictures:  try here, and here, and from our own website.)

On a completely other note, today is the second anniversary of my first vows.  I know I'm in the right place, and that makes me totally content with life right now, and yet life can be a little sad, too.  So, today, as I give thanks for the Society of the Sacred Heart, my own little heart is tenderly holding my sisters and remembering the fragility of all that we have. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Celebrating together a holy life

Life can get going so fast--lately, I've been feeling the need to slow down, to rest and pray, to just be.  On an academic schedule, that peacefulness is what summers are sometimes (definitely not always) about.  I am grateful to have the next four weeks to work on projects that can't get done in the midst of classes, to rest, and to be.

I just got back from a wonderful trip to London, where we celebrated the life of one of our Superiors General, Janet Erskine Stuart, who died 100 years ago this year. While she is not formally canonized in the Catholic Church, her holiness and her writings on education and spirituality are an inspiration to many.  We heard people speak on so many facets of her life, and many of those talks will be made available on the RSCJ England/Wales province website. (I don't think those talks are up yet, but there's lots of good information on Janet Stuart's life there already.)

What I take away most from that experience is the humanness of Janet Stuart, and the reality of the world she lived in, Europe on the brink of the First World War.  I am comforted by the fact that she struggled to bear the responsibilities that were placed on her shoulders, and I am humbled by the fact that she embraced the leadership of the Society so fully, even when she felt it to be a difficult task.  She thought of herself as terribly shy, though we might call her simply very introverted.  Yet, as superior general, she made it her mission to meet and get to know each of the RSCJ around the world.

Her leadership style?  To know and be in relationship with those she was leading.  I am grateful that this is still the spirit of the Society of the Sacred Heart, in which I feel known by those who make decisions for me and for the order as a whole.

A second take-away for me is the internationality of the Society.  I met sisters and laypeople who came from at least thirteen countries to be part of this celebration.  I met people that I had previously only met on Facebook, and people I had only heard about.  What a gift to share our charism of the Heart of God with women and men throughout the world, and a gift to be with representatives from just a few of those places.  I am grateful.

We celebrated together the Feast of the Sacred Heart, when all RSCJ renew their vows. This was our altar, with decorations behind given by the children of the local Sacred Heart school.  On the altar you can see the triangular box which holds the profession cross of Janet Stuart--which was previously worn by Anna du Rousier and St. Philippine Duchesne!  What a surprise.  I think that will have to become the subject of another blog post...