Reflections by Fr. David Robinson, S.J.
Resolutions for Joy
As the calendar rolls around once again to the opening of a New Year, there are still many who choose to greet the time with resolutions for being a 'better' person--to lose weight, exercise more, make relationship changes, develop new interests, etc. There is an apparent need in our culture to mark this turn-the-page moment with deliberation and determination. Even for those who do not attempt to formalize their notions for change, there is often a sense of the need to reflect deeply on what the following twelve months might bring to life--within the family, or around the world. Everything from an infant's first words to global weather patterns can become grist for pondering what such portents could signal in the year's unfolding. I do not intend these observations to suggest a criticism of our cultural habits, but rather to take note of the seriousness we can bring to the ticking of a clock that signals, with the passing of a single second, the move from an 'old' to a 'new' year. Moreover, the implication that the new necessarily implies a quantitative change in activity, geography, or circumstances is a further curiosity in our ritual of temporal transition. The seemingly inevitable tendency of our intentions and resolutions to dissolve within a brief period adds another curious wrinkle to the meaning of this annual rite of passage.
Looking back over the past year, I have observed a simple yet powerful influence at play in the world that might point us in another direction. If we were to pose the question, "What person has brought to the global stage a fresh and energizing presence that points to something new, while remaining connected to so many traditional foundations of life?" I suspect a wide-ranging group of individuals would respond, "Pope Francis." Numerous instances of his warmth and human connectedness have become infused into conversations that range very far from the world of Catholicism, or even of Christianity. His emphasis on the power of joy to transform all of life from within, even our profound notions of love as a religious foundation, has illumined perceptions of the day-to-day world for millions, if not billions, of people who seek to live life with meaning, but also with vitality.
When Francis entered into his papal position of leadership, there were many who assumed that he would quickly initiate a number of institutional changes and new policies. The operative notion was that organizational change began with doing before being. From his first official act of bowing to the assembled multitude in St. Peter's Square to ask their blessing before blessing them as their Holy Father, to his 'birthday breakfast' with a group of homeless men and their dog, Francis has radiated newness through the radical joy he experiences and shares in the company of people--all people. As an informed Jesuit, I had a general sense of what he might offer as a path of change for the Church in the twenty-first century--a reasonable and compassionate agenda for institutional reorganization and restructuring. I have never been more grateful to be wrong, because his papacy to this point has proven to be a miraculous unfolding of a life 'surprised by joy' (to borrow a title from CS Lewis). I have ceased looking for concrete action for change, and have begun to cherish the unexpected, delightfully human and loving way he models 'change' for a church and a world so in need of refreshing and inspiring joyfulness. Doing will follow upon being.
As we begin our pilgrimage through 2014, we might want to place our focus on Francis' simple gift of finding joy as and where we are. This does not diminish our consistent hope for fruitful change and growth, at the personal level and beyond. Rather, it helps us to reconnect with the source of our hope--a God who does not ask us for strategies, but for innocent trust ("Unless you change and become as little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God" (Mt. 18:3)). Francis has asked people around the world to reach out to God and one another with the joy that comes from simplicity of heart, not from personal virtue or determination. Indeed, surrendering to the surprise of joy might be the most powerful and enduring New Year's resolution of all.
He Told Me Everything I Have Ever Done
As we begin to navigate the spiritual geography that is Lent, we become aware of a number of cues and moments that draw our attention in a way we often miss in the rush and bustle of 'ordinary' time. We begin to emphasize the importance of silence, of quiet spaces, internal and external, that provide a haven from our usual distractions. We feel invited to focus our attention on matters of prayer, liturgy, and a more meditative walk with God, drawing near to the refreshment of the well of the Spirit, to help us reclaim the vitality of life. It is in the midst of this pilgrimage that we hear, in the gospel of the third Sunday of Lent, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. She is perplexed that Jesus, a Jew, would engage in conversation with a Samaritan, an outcast, even to the point of requesting a drink from her water jug. It is immediately clear that their interaction is about far more than a remedy for physical thirst. Jesus looks into her heart and life, and reveals a source of shame for her--that she is not even married to the man who is her sixth 'husband.'
When she runs to the town to tell her neighbors and kinsfolk that the stranger has "told me everything I have ever done," our first interpretation might incline to the notion that Jesus had some precognitive insight into all the details of her personal history--a journal of events that mapped the course of her life, especially her failings and defects. This might appear rather like the mythic image of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, with the Book of Life, containing the names of those destined for eternal life with God. Of course, it is highly unlikely that Jesus would have engaged in a detailed review of all the particulars of the Samaritan woman's past. Rather, in the mystery of the encounter with him, she found the specific moments of her life embraced within the power of his compassionate love, and thus, individual experiences were 'telescoped' into a comprehensive understanding of her entire life as held within the hands of God.
Many of us have a foretaste of this illuminating connection as we gaze into the eyes of those who have loved us, in their finite capacity, without conditions or demands--parents, spouses, children, friends. In that gaze, we recognize the scope of what we have done, but more importantly, who we truly are--all at once. Our history is telescoped into a vision of a greater horizon, that is our fulfillment in God. Indeed, we are 'told' everything we have ever done, but as a narrative of promise, not of judgment. In the eyes of Jesus, the Samaritan woman could suddenly embrace the connection that enlightened not only her past, but her infinite future.
During the season of Lent, we are invited to find our place of rest at the well with Jesus. We may come tired or preoccupied, perhaps overburdened with our perceived failures and shortcomings. Like the Samaritan woman, we may have few expectations of discovering anything truly new. However, as she was, we may find ourselves unexpectedly surprised by the gaze of those loving eyes that see us with absolute clarity and absolute tenderness. As we return that gaze, suddenly flushed with a sense of possibility, we too can celebrate the one whose promise of living water puts an end to our thirst, and can celebrate the miracle of the one whose vision helps open us to a joyful reception of that truth which tells us "everything we have ever done."
The Day After
The spiritual and liturgical odyssey that is Holy Week captures our hearts and imaginations in varied ways. We enter into the painful complexity that consumes the exuberance of Palm Sunday in the fires of public scourging and crucifixion. The space of desolation and abandonment seems to stretch endlessly before us, as it did in the broken-hearted vistas of the disciples on Good Friday. Then we are met with the liberating brightness of Easter, that wipes away what appeared to be a calamity without solace, and replaces our tragic loss with the vitality of new birth and unbounded hope.
Now we arrive at the 'day after,' like Peter or Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Our anticipations of what life with Jesus would mean had been abruptly displaced by the cynical violence of a world that could not, and would not, allow a saving promise to change its direction. Then Easter, and its exhilarating freshness, stuns us with the sudden affirmation that despair is not the first or the only response to the shadow of death that passes over our lives. We enter the new era of transformation. Our powerful but temporary notions of what Jesus' presence means for the unfolding of life are replaced by an open-ended invitation, and a mandate to surrender to the compelling surprise which is life walked with God, without agenda or self-justification. The Messiah is not our religious or political ally, but our endlessly renewed portal to a life shaped by Spirit, not by strategy--however brilliantly conceived or sincerely initiated.
The 'day after' marks our own resurrection, our re-awakening to the world as God sees it--not as a playground or battleground for our ideas and desires. The truth we embrace must be lived in the tenderness, excitement, and occasional frustration which are part of our new birth to an Easter reality. That may be a major reason why the disciples seem unable to recognize their risen Lord. They are seeking the companion whom they all too often met with their expectations rather than the openness of their souls to a possibility beyond their imagining. On the 'day after,' they will learn again to walk with Jesus, with eyes unclouded and hearts unfettered by religious illusion or spiritual convenience. Theirs is indeed a whole new world.
We are invited to join the Easter walk with them--the journey that has been eluded and engaged for centuries--the threshold crossed into a post-resurrection truth that can manifest the gifts of faith, hope, and love, without the hollow negotiations of minds too focused on being right, rather than being free. Peter is quick to tell Jesus how the messianic saga is supposed to unfold. It is not until he flees into denial, and then stands speechless at the door to the empty tomb, that he begins to recognize the miracle that is discipleship, not a righteousness of action, but a revelation of discovery that is forever new, and healing, and boundless. It is in the dawning of the 'day after' that we come to embody the simplicity of the incarnation, a release from the anxiety of what we must do into an Easter blessing that is realized in the acts of love we share together. It is in love freely given, not measured, that we find the fullness of what Easter has meant all along.
Forty Days, Forty Years
In the lives of many Christians, one of the earliest memories of participation in a common practice of renunciation and self-control can be found in their early experiences of "giving something up for Lent." The practice is meant to help the community recognize its dependence on divine providence, and to remind believers of the need to limit the desires and wants that can lead them away from a focus on God. Giving up chocolate (a truly spiritual sacrifice!) or a favorite television program becomes an annual rite (whose observance is often as short-lived as the proverbial New Year's Resolution). The parallel to the 40-day fast of Jesus in the desert is an obvious one-a willingness to put aside any and all creature comforts to seek God's presence and call in a new, more profound way. This is a noble intention, and one that is intended to help us live out the Ignatian maxim, to "see Thee more clearly; love Thee more dearly; follow Thee more nearly, day by day" (with thanks to Godspell).
With the passing of the years, the implicit value of small sacrifices begins to wane, and adults tend to speak more of special practices that help them to grow in their spiritual connection to God. The notion of renouncing television as a sign of devotion begins to seem minimalist. At this stage of life, another parallel begins to present itself: the desert Exodus and journey of the fledgling nation of Israel for 40 years. Their wandering represents far more than a 'season of denial' as a sign of religious loyalty. Their learning is more about the discovery that a life of faith must allow God to be God. Emotional transactions and bargaining-if I do this, I expect to receive that-are gradually relinquished. The Golden Calf certainly proves the human capacity for manipulating the symbolic to achieve selfish ends!
Seen in this light, our Lenten observances can invite us to reflect on a radically different awareness of our life with God. With the passing of the years, we can gradually embrace the knowledge that our spiritual practice is less about the perfecting of our identity and behavior-things that can make us more 'acceptable' as finite, fallible creatures. Instead, we learn to appreciate the ways in which the love of God can liberate us from a perceived need to be 'better.' The wisdom of our years can help us to recognize and cherish that our lives of faith (inside and outside the Lenten season) ultimately help to free us from ourselves. As we age, we can lament the waning of our energy, our strength, our memory, or we can finally acknowledge that what we have held so tightly as the measure of our worth is only a temporary gift that empowers us to cherish life's mystery and beauty. When we no longer hear or see or remember as well those things and people that have brought us joy, we are finally free simply to surrender to gratitude for all that is. We can celebrate our lifelong invitation to live for God alone.
Thus, like the Israelites after their forty years of spiritual pilgrimage, we can finally enter the land of promise, the place we have inhabited all along, 'knowing it for the first time' as T.S. Eliot has so poignantly observed. Lent is no longer our 'fast from chocolate,' but rather our banquet of simple gifts.
From Gratitude to Love
In an ever-present media shower of movies, TV programming, phone pop-ups, novels, and even newspaper features, we are inundated with a blizzard of images and metaphors for that great human mystery we call love. Yet, when we are encouraged to 'love' everyone and everything, from our spouses, children, and friends, to our pets and our iPhone apps, and even our hamburgers and laundry detergents, we can become hard-pressed to clarify to ourselves and others just what love really means. If we say, "I love you" to our dearest companions, and profess our love for a favorite flavor of ice cream, what are we actually expressing? Are we simply bundling all our pleasurable emotions and responses into a single multi-faceted experience we name love? If so, how do we truly give priority to one moment over another, or declare one form of love more important than another? The pleasure principle is certainly a poor measuring stick for what we mean!
When Jesus exhorted his followers to "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34), he wasn't setting up a hierarchy of feelings, an emotional calculus that measures how close we are to perfect love. He was encouraging his friends to find their center for loving as he did--in gratitude to God. We often unreflectively nod in agreement when we hear that everything is a blessing from God. For Jesus, everything is a blessing in God. It is because we have been graced with the capacity to recognize God in all things that we can experience all things in the love of God which they manifest to us. Gratitude is the seed of openness that frees us to be grateful in every place and season. If our joy springs from the first blessing of God within and around us--not a belief, but a way of being alive--then our living becomes an expression of gratefulness. All that we hold dear, enjoy, or are drawn to, becomes part of that first blessing, which is God. Jesus could love freely, because his human affection was a graced fruit of his intimacy with God.
It is no surprise that the children, the outcasts, and the broken in body and spirit found themselves completely at home with Jesus. For him, to love them was not an obligation, but a blessing. There was nothing to measure or negotiate. He was simply thankful for the call of God which he saw in them, and the promise that the love so simply present in him could bring them life, hope, and a home in the world. Love was never merely the byproduct of things, or random sentiment, or personal safety. Love was the freedom to risk all for the Reign of God, which can only be realized in a harvest of what is given freely. Love only endures when it no longer needs to receive love in return. Jesus showed us that we can indeed 'give it all away,' because the giving liberates us from the need to barter our care for others, as if an emotional transaction could feed our deepest freedom to love as he loved/loves.
As we learn to hold the world, and everyone and everything in it, with a blessing love, we embrace each moment and detail of experience, without ever seizing them as our private treasure. We touch the world with wonder, and no longer need to own it. Like Jesus, we can finally hold life as a blessing, and love as a gift made endlessly richer as we surrender it in God. Edna St. Vincent Millay, in a poem of innocent exuberance, captures the gratitude that is our birthright, and the seed of a loving life:
I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.
(Afternoon on a Hill)
The Gift and the Giver
Every year the Christmas season invites us to enter into a unique spiritual terrain, an inner geography that is quite different from many other moments in the unfolding year. As our Advent pilgrimage nears the miracle of birth and rebirth in Christ, we find ourselves (when we are not distracted by the consumerist flood of buy, buy, buy!) reflecting on the many facets of what receiving a gift might mean. The disarming simplicity of a miraculous birth in a manger; the ongoing miracle of life and love which we receive anew every day; the gift of promise which is our horizon for all the tomorrows to come - all these 'gifts' of God are held up for us to cherish and appreciate with deep gratitude. We can see with clarity that the reality of 'the gift' is breathtakingly beautiful and as uncomplicated as blinking our eyes.
Then, in less than a week, we move headlong into the New Year, with its introspection and resolutions regarding how we wish to grow and develop in our lives and relationships.
I have found myself searching for a metaphor or story that might highlight that linking together of the gift we have received with the gift we can offer to our own and others' lives. As I sat in a pew listening to a sermon on New Year's weekend, the message was given to me:
A little girl stood outside a small church from which she had been turned away, because the Sunday School class she sought was "too crowded." She cried as she shared this story with the pastor who was passing by. Noticing her unkempt appearance, he surmised the reason for the rejection. He took her hand, brought her inside, and found her a space in Sunday School. The young girl's joy was spontaneous and full. That night she lay in bed, reflecting on the children who had no place to explore their life with Jesus.
Some two years later, the young girl died in one of the town's poor tenements. Her bereaved and impoverished parents turned to the same pastor for help with the funeral. As her little body was being removed, a crumpled red purse was discovered, looking like something rummaged from a trash dump. Inside was a small handful of coins totaling 57 cents, and a note that read: "This is to help build the little church bigger, so more children can go to Sunday School." She had been saving coins for two years to amass that offering of love.
The pastor read the note tearfully. The next Sunday, he took that note and the purse to the pulpit to tell the story of the girl's unselfish love and devotion. He challenged the church deacons to help raise the money for a larger building. A newspaper published news of this story, and a wealthy realtor offered a parcel of land worth thousands of dollars. Upon being told that the church could not afford the price, he offered to sell it for 57 cents.
Church members made large donations, and checks came from far and wide. Within five years, the girl's gift had generated $250,000 (a marvelous sum nearly a century ago!). As a result of this outpouring, Temple Baptist Church, Temple University, and Good Samaritan Hospital flourished, and a large Sunday School building was constructed. Now, no child would be turned away for lack of room. Within one of the school rooms, there is a picture of this little girl whose 57 cents changed a whole community.
As we enter 2016, we face the same question that faced the child so many years ago. We have received a miraculous gift in the wonder of Christmas. Can we set aside our own "57 cents" as we are able, so that others in each new year can find reason for gratitude at the generosity of God, whose gifts to us allow the world we inhabit to flourish through what we can offer in our turn?
Risking Love in Ordinary Time
In very recent days, I joined some thirty seekers for a time of retreat in a place of serene beauty and simplicity. We had come aside to remember and celebrate our common walk with God. Yet, we were less than 24 hours removed from the cruel violence in Orlando. We had been anguished onlookers as the violent fruits of our ecological instability tore through state after state, scattering families and communities like dried leaves in a tempest. We were the distraught witnesses of an electoral cycle that seemed more an exercise in dangerous, adolescent snarkiness than anything of substance. We could hardly be faulted if we only wanted to hide from everything in a mantle of silence. How could we hope to enter into a place of graciousness and rest?
Even the first reading of our opening liturgy pointed to the inescapable weaknesses of ourselves and our world--the narrative of Ahab and Jezebel, and their rapacious killing of Naboth to possess his ancestral vineyard. Was there no respite from human failing? But also nested in the liturgical calendar of the day were the readings from the memorial of Anthony of Padua, the great Franciscan teacher and Doctor of the Church, and there we were reminded of our heritage and our hope as companions of Jesus. We heard the yearning wonder of Isaiah who recognized that he had indeed been anointed by the spirit of God to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, and to announce a year of favor from the Lord. Luke's gospel recalled our missioning to go out to all the people and proclaim "peace to this household," to remind the whole family of God that we are heirs to more than an inheritance of desperation and weakness. We are not simply the voice of a love promised. We are the faces, hands, and hearts of a love that flourishes in the midst of all that is broken, because God's creative passion and healing hope can never be broken.
Then, one by one, and all together we could look one another in the face and begin to share a shy smile of recognition. We were not hiding. We were gathering to affirm our common blessing and the grounding of our lives and our works. These might not be the days of grand events and glorious history-we cannot live Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost every day. We must walk the frequently thorny path of 'ordinary time,' the path that Jesus walked with freedom and compassion, in the midst of realities whose pathos rivaled any of our own. Ours is not a vocation of seclusion or averted eyes. Ours is a hopeful odyssey of everyday love, as simple and magical as sunrise, and our one true and constant calling. Risking love is our birthright and the treasure we bequeath to the world.