The Summer Solstice is past, school is out and graduation parties are subsiding. Summer is officially here! Time for vacations, cookouts, travel, and some kind of break in the normal routine. Even if our personal lives have long been disconnected from the pattern of the school year, there is something about summer that evokes the feeling of being free. Perhaps at some level, we remember what is was like to be kids eagerly counting down the days until school lets out, our calendar having one box excitedly proclaiming, “Last Day of School” followed by multiple exclamation points. Alice Cooper’s classic, “School’s Out” is a timeless anthem to those days.
As we get older it gets harder to plan a summer that keeps that feeling of freedom and leisure alive. In our climate controlled workplaces and cars, we are insulated from the heat that reminds us we are in a different kind time. Our indoor lives disconnect us from the sky staying bright so late into the evening. Many families have been unable to enjoy regular meals altogether, so the extra work of firing up the grill and setting up the outdoor table seems too, well, extra, to do on a regular day, just for the heck of it.
In the US we have turned into one of the most driven and productive work forces in the world. At the same time, we have the least generous vacation allowances in the developed world. Even at that rate, Americans tend to take only about half of the vacation time due to them, essentially giving their employers thousands of dollars of free labor. According to a recent survey, the biggest reason is fear — fear of getting behind in their work, fear that nobody else can do their work while away, fear of being disconnected, fear of not meeting their performance goals, even fear of being fired as more and more workers are “at-will” employees.
What a shame that so many of us are unable simply to kick back and relax! And we clergy and religious are not immune to this, in spite of all our encouragement to others that they make space for leisure, holy or otherwise. We, too, can become susceptible to the vain notion that everything depends on us — which, if it were true, would be a sign that we are not doing our ministry well! It is easy to forget that God also rested. Leisure is part of the created order!
Years ago I had a chance to take a ten-day vacation on the beach across the street from the chapel of a Franciscan mission overseas. Promising to be a “low maintenance” guest among the local friars, I committed to spending each day, all day, on the sandy beach doing beach-things. Each day I planned some kind of beach activity — a couple books to read, a walk to one end of the beach four miles in one direction, another walk three miles in the other direction, snorkeling, napping. On the last full day, as I approached the beach and wondered what to do on my last day, it dawned on me that I really didn’t want to do anything at all. Anything. At. All.
What a strange feeling, spending a whole day not doing anything except sitting and watching the day just pass by. It hit me then — THIS is what it must feel like to be relaxed! It had been so long since I felt that way, I truly didn’t even recognize the feeling for a while. What a gift simply to watch the sun arc across the sky toward its setting, locals strolling by whole hawking fresh fruit, souvenirs, and less licit adventures, the only decision being the right time to switch from ice water to rum drinks.
Years ago I used to take the parish youth group for summer retreat on a river where the swimming and canoeing were great, the fishing less so. Still, we fished. During my own childhood fishing was not part of our summers, so I came upon the sport later in life. I’m still not really good at it, though I very much enjoy being on the river. An older friar once observed, “He who can fish, can pray.” Only later did I discover what he meant. When you fish, you have to trust that there really are fish down there, even if you can’t see them. When you pray, you have to believe there truly is a God to hear you, even if you do not see him. When you fish, you think you are tricking the fish into taking your bait, even though the fish will do what it wants and when it wants. In prayer, we think we are persuading God to change his mind about something, even though God will do what he wants to do when he wants to do it. While fishing, sometimes the point is not so much about catching anything but just to be out fishing. In prayer, sometimes the point of praying is just to be praying.
Maybe that’s why Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen.
So this summer, whatever it takes, give God a chance to break through the stress and busyness of your routine. Take your vacation, get away, relax, spend time doing nothing, even if just for a couple of days. Try to recall the simple childlike freedom of summer. Don’t let the cares of your workplace intrude — don’t EVEN check your email! Go someplace where there is no cell phone service. And if possible, fish.
“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” Jn 14:26
Lawyer jokes are a staple of comedy. People love to poke fun at the perception of lawyers as sneaky, underhanded, power-hungry, greedy, or just plain shifty. But when you need a lawyer for yourself, you definitely want one who will pull out all the stops on your behalf! You want a lawyer who understands all the fine points of the process, how to “play the game,” so to speak. You want a lawyer who has connections with the right people. You want a lawyer who will fight, fight, and fight harder for you. Even if you are in the wrong, you still want to win.
This weekend the church celebrates Pentecost, remembering the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem. This Spirit had been promised by Jesus, described in the Gospel as an “advocate,” from the Greek word “paraclete.” This is taken from common Greek usage describing a defense attorney. In other words, the Holy Spirit is our lawyer.
If the metaphor here is that of a legal tribunal in which we stand in need of a good defense lawyer, it is because we have been accused. Who, then, is the accuser? The biblical tradition of both Testaments points to one figure who stands in that role: Satan. “Accuser” is one of the many names associated with the evil one. So is there any basis for his accusations? Of course not, because he is also known by another name, the “father of lies.” In this cosmic drama, we stand accused by a liar, whose untruths are powerful and persuasive.
Finally, of course, this metaphor requires one more figure — the judge. This is Christ, the Just Judge, who came into the world not to condemn us but to save us. This is the one before whose bench we stand, our excellent lawyer pleading our case in the face of the lies spoken against us by our accuser. This excellent lawyer, the Spirit of Truth, knows what is real and what is false. The Spirit, our lawyer, knows we can even be persuaded to believe these untruths about ourselves, so convincing our accuser can be.
Good thing for us the trial is rigged. Yes! The judge and our lawyer are on the same side — “in cahoots” as my mother used to say. We will prevail. Indeed, we already have. The “fix” is in.
Many things in our lives are simply unfair, leaving us hurt and broken. We have been dealt a bad hand, and sometimes we even become victims of our own undoing. Addictive behaviors can lead us to believe wrong things about ourselves, inner voices whispering shame and fear. Our place in our community, indeed the very social fabric itself, leaves us feeling torn away from its living core. We believe the lies of our accuser, who spreads untruths about ourselves and our community, and we fear the judge. We feel disgraced. Dis-graced, removed from grace.
On the first Pentecost, the disciples were huddled in fear. So very many times in scripture we find the believers in this state of fear! Two thousand years later, we still know what fear feels like — as an individual, and as a community. We fear our inner demons. We fear our neighbors. We fear the future. We fear the stranger. We fear for our jobs, our families, the streets of our neighborhoods, our environment. And in this fear, we feel alone, cast adrift with a sense of powerlessness that leads to anger and violence.
Oh, we sure need a good lawyer!
And we have one in the Advocate, the One whose Spirit stands with us, speaks through us, strengthens us to know and proclaim the truth before the world that also stands with us before the same Judge. The truth — that the Judge is merciful, that life and love prevail over death and hate, that we are not alone but radically united, and that peace with God, with others, within ourselves, and with all of creation is a gift already freely given to all who simply open themselves to its eternal possibilities.
As we draw this Easter Season to a close at Pentecost, let us ask again that the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, our lawyer, plead our case so that we can move from whatever makes us afraid and angry — and toward the merciful Judge who is life and love itself.
The parish May Crowning was just around the corner, and a group of parishioners came with a strange request. At the very top of the vaulted ceiling in the massive Gothic church, there was a hook lowered and raised by a cable. Onto it, they wanted to bundle thousands of rose petals and rig them to cascade down the moment the floral crown touched the top of the statue of the Blessed Virgin.
Well, the liberation theologians I’d read a few years before had often said that we need to respect and encourage the religious devotional life expressed in different cultures. But this just seemed way too “schmaltzy,” even for our old, urban, ethnic parish!
Still, there seemed no reason to turn them down as long as they were willing to set the whole thing up. All through the weekend Masses people were staring at the large, light blue bundles gathered 65 feet above the floor. Hundreds of people showed up for the Sunday afternoon May Crowning — the largest crowd we’d seen in years — unsure if it was out of love for Our Lady or curiosity about whether the strange innovation would work!
We started by praying the rosary in different languages, each decade punctuated by a Marian hymn in the language we just prayed. Then each person brought flowers from their gardens (or just purchased from the youth group) and processed up the main aisle, lightly touching the floral crown that would soon be placed upon the head of the statue of Mary. As the faithful placed their flowers into the vases around the statue, they could be seen gently touching the hands, the cheek, the shoulders of the image of our Blessed Mother — bearing not only flowers but certainly also prayers entrusted to the loving and gentle heart of Jesus’ mother.
The line ended with two parishioners — an elderly woman and a new mother with her child — who bore the floral crown forward as we all sang, “Oh Mary we crown thee with blossoms today.” We all knew what was supposed to happen next. And when that crown touched her head…
It worked! Thousands of rose petals gently fluttered below. The sweet aroma was instant throughout the massive church. People gasped. People wept. I did both.
“Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May!”
When the devotion was over, without any prompting the small children gathered petals from the floor to bring to family and friends who couldn’t be there. Elderly women took petals to sprinkle on the graves of loved ones they would visit soon. They just made up a new tradition right in front of us, without any discussion or planning, as if everyone just knew what to do.
With two graduate degrees in theology and ministry from a liberal-ish school, there is a part of me that should be really critical of this kind of piety. But there we were, hundreds of us unwilling to leave the church on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May because we all just told our Mother how much we love her. Sometimes it comes down to this: Catholic devotion in all its free flowing sensuality and emotion. Smell the flowers. Hear the music. Touch the hands. Feel the salty heat rising behind your eyes as they well up, unbidden, with loving tears.
One year, a man in the RCIA was asked what brought him to the Church. He said he had many Catholic coworkers who “had something,” and now he wanted that “something” too. When asked what that “something” is, he paused, then barely whispered — “sweetness.”
We have inherited a philosophical and theological system that is comprehensive, integral, logical, and consequential. We are entrusted with a social ethic that is both welcoming and challenging; a personal morality that is compassionate and also demanding; a liturgy that is ever ancient, ever new; a reverence for the arts, a vigorous defense of human dignity, and a reverence for a culture that is both particular and universal.
But the month of May reminds us that we are also sweet.
St. Francis got this. Perhaps that is one reason why he is beloved so widely and deeply. Sometimes we Franciscans get a little testy when people don’t go beyond the “schmaltzy” or saccharine St. Francis of the garden statue. Fair enough. Yet this is the man who wrote this prayer to the Blessed Virgin, his loving words tripping out of his soul —
Hail, holy Lady, most holy Queen, Mary, Mother of God, ever Virgin! You were chosen by the Most High Father in heaven, consecrated by Him, with His most Holy Beloved Son and the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
On you descended and still remains all the fullness of graceand every good. Hail, His Palace! Hail His Tabernacle! Hail His Robe! Hail His Handmaid!
Hail, His Mother! And Hail, all holy Virtues, who, by graceand inspirationof the Holy Spirit, are poured into the hearts of the faithful so that from their faithless state, they may be made faithful servants of Godthrough you.
Not too long ago I was working with a group of young people in a retreat setting, and I asked them what it is they look for in a friend. What are the qualities of a person that makes someone a good friend, and what are the qualities you think are important for you to bring into the friendship as well? Of course, there were many kinds of responses. They want a friend who is fun to be with, who shares the same interests in music, sports, video games, etc. It is also important that a friend is honest and trustworthy, someone in whom one confides one’s deepest heart.
But there was one phrase that stands out among all of them, a phrase only recently come into use especially among young people. That is, a friend is “there for me.”
This next week the church around the world ritually reenters the journey of our salvation. We enter Jerusalem with Jesus again, we join him at the table of his Banquet of Thanksgiving again, we walk with him on the way to the cross on the hill, we will wait at the empty tomb, and we celebrate new life with Christ who conquers the darkness of death. Of course, this is something that happened historically in time along time ago, but in another sense, it is cosmically eternal. It embraces us every moment. This upcoming week is a special time when we do this in a public prayerful way as a community of believers.
At the same time, this week confronts us with one of the deepest mysteries and puzzles of our faith — the powerlessness of God. We cannot proclaim “Christ is risen!” unless we first acknowledge that “Christ has died.” We need to allow the shock and scandal of that to grasp us again and again. This is what will happen next week if we open ourselves to it.
We live in a world that is attracted to, in awe of, and usually afraid of power. When we think of power, we usually think of an overwhelming strength that conquers. Often we think of destruction, violence, death. When we feel confronted by powers that seek to do us harm or overcome with difficulties, we naturally turn into something that we often call a higher power.
For many of us, that power is God. We frequently want God to come and rearrange things in such a way that our situation changes. We want the bad guy stopped, the disease halted, people to be less unkind.
In our public prayers, we often address God with the phrase, “Almighty and all-powerful God…” Yet this week, we are confronted by a God who seems not to be able to stop something awful from unfolding. What do we do about this?
Let’s start with the observation that perhaps we have it all wrong about what power truly is. A purely human or cultural understanding of power would accept a definition that means the ability to rearrange circumstances and people to be the way we want them to be. But God reveals to us something different.
The power of God is revealed precisely in his free choice to be powerless in order to be with us. Even in death, we are not alone.
People who are in great suffering will often say that the most difficult part is the feeling of being completely alone. No matter how good their friends are, there is a certain level at which nobody really understands what they are going through. They teach us in pastoral counseling that the worst thing you can say to somebody is, “I understand exactly how you feel.” Sometimes they themselves don’t even understand exactly how they feel! How can somebody else?
But Jesus does. In Christ, there is not a single human experience that is untouched by the presence of God. In fact, many people say that they have felt closest to God precisely in those moments of their lives when they were suffering the most.
This week the church will recall, reenact, and celebrate again that Jesus, like a really good friend, is “there for us.” May we also be “there” for him and those others whom he loves as well.
So there was a neighborhood where everyone was Catholic except one guy, who also loved to grill outside every Friday after work. Well, during Lent his Catholic neighbors had to watch him grill delicious meats on Fridays, even though they themselves had to abstain. The aromas of the forbidden meats were so tempting that one day they asked him, “You know, everyone here is Catholic except you, and we can’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Why don’t you go the parish and talk to the priest? He can make you Catholic and we can all observe the same Lent.” So the guy did that.
The next Lent came around, and on the first Friday he fired up his grill and loaded it with delicious beefsteaks. The neighbors all came out and reminded him, “You know, now that you are Catholic like us, you can’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent.” The guy said, “This isn’t meat, it’s fish.” The neighbors answered, “No it’s not, we can see and certainly smell that these are steaks!”
The new Catholic said, “You know, I went to the priest like you asked me. He told me afterward, ‘You were born Baptist, you were raised Baptist, but now you’re Catholic.’ So today when I set up my grill, I said over the food, ‘You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, but now you’re fish!'”
If only transformation were that easy.
The call to conversion that is central to the Lenten season is not about becoming something that you are not. Rather, it is about recovering and renewing your most genuine self. “Become who you are,” as our saintly novice master encouraged us with his occasional Zen-like invocations.
The contemporary mystic Thomas Merton would often refer to the True Self and the False Self, challenging people to look deeply and prayerfully into their own lives and allowing God’s gentle mercy to peel away the layers of pride and defensiveness that insulate us from knowing and loving ourselves the way God knows and loves us — broken, and redeemed.
We are the ones known by God before we were even born, as scriptures remind us, known before anything ever happened to us that has hurt us, angered us, or broken our dreams. We are also the ones who think we can find healing through revenge, isolation, and selfishness. These become like rings of calcium building up around us until they add up to a wall of stone — hiding us from ourselves and from those who loves us, blinding us to the reality of God dwelling deep within. Because when we can’t know and love our truest, deepest selves, then we can’t know and love God — or anyone else for that matter.
Every now and then on my social media feed pops up a photo of a bicycle that had been chained to a tree in a forest decades ago and then forgotten. It must have been a small tree when the bike was abandoned, but now it is large and thick. Over time the tree trunk widened to fill the space within the bike lock and eventually surrounded the bike itself. The widening truck seems to have oozed slowly around and through the bike frame, the spokes of the wheels, the handle bar. It looks as if the bike was stuck into the tree, perhaps as if the tree had become like putty for a moment and the bike had been pushed into it before the tree became hard wood again. Not only did the tree grow into and around the bike, it also grew tall so that this strange morphing of nature and manufacture lifted the implanted bike several feet into the air. Coming upon this sight, one would wonder right away — how did that bike get stuck into that tree so high up like that? And will it ever get out of the tree, or will it be stuck there forever?
Over time we become like that bike, wondering if we will ever be free to be a bike again and do what bikes do, rolling and riding in the wind with delight.
So many times in confession and spiritual direction people describe their situation like this. They feel stuck. They remember vaguely what is was once like to be authentic, to be themselves, to be free, to be happy. Then one day they look at themselves and realize they had lost it. Or it had been taken away. Or they wonder if they ever really had it in the first place, if perhaps happiness and authenticity had just been an illusion all along. Like metallic lead that shields us from radioactivity, these layers of hurt, resentment, pride, and brokenness shield us from the boundlessness of God’s love radiating within and eager to burst forth.
On the Sunday before Palm Sunday the church is presented with the Gospel about the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus is not described as a disciple, but one of Jesus’ friends along with Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary. These sisters are angry, really angry at Jesus for letting their brother die — and boy do they let him know it! “Lord, if you had been there our brother would not have died!”
How many times have we ourselves been drowning in sorrow and anger and wondered the same thing — where were you, Jesus, when all this was happening? But in this Gospel Jesus doesn’t try to explain it all away or tell the sisters it will all work out. He hears their sorrow and anger; they are entitled to it. And, as a friend, he has perhaps the most tender moment we see of the human Jesus, expressed in the shortest verse in the whole Bible: “Jesus wept.”
Of course, the story does not end there. From within his own tears and moved by the sorrow of his friends, Jesus boldly cries out three commands. To the crowds: “Roll away the stone!” To his dead friend: “Lazarus, come out!” And to the sisters: “Untie him and let him go free!”
Lent is a season of preparation toward Easter. For many of us, there is a Lazarus within the tombs of our own making; there is a bike stuck into the tree. Perhaps, in prayer, we might reflect on these powerful words from Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb. What is the stone that keeps us within our tomb? Can we hear Jesus’s command new life in our darkness? Can we long again to be untied and free?
We don’t ask God to make us into something we are not — like the guy who turns his steaks into fish so he feels ok about having them. No, we turn to Jesus, who also sweeps at our having lost ourselves, who also is amazed at how we got stuck and buried. And the same Jesus wants to release us, moving us closer to knowing our true selves, seeing again the face of God, staring at us in the mirror, hearing the voice of God speaking clearly and gently in our hearts.