Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Lenten Mercy~Meditation: But Also The Footwashing

The Washing of the Feet ~ Jacopo Tintoretto

Tintoretto painted the Last Supper six times. Here he has depicted Jesus washing the feet of the apostles.  In the middle of the meal Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe and began to wash the feet of the twelve. We see that outer robe awkwardly placed over a wooden box in the foreground. 

It is said that there should have been someone to offer that customary act of foot-washing hospitality, but either the apostles were too poor to pay a slave, or they just didn't get around to it. At any rate, perhaps in Jesus washing all those feet himself, he's saying to the apostles, "You know what, if no one showed up to do the footwashing job, you should have done it for each other. Haven't you learned anything? Now look, this is how it's done." 

Tintoretto has shown us the scene in great intimacy: the room is smaller, the figures are close and Jesus is at the very center of the action. Oh that we would always keep Jesus at the center! Then people would come running! The twelve apostles are present: one is drying his foot on the right, two are taking in the warmth of the fireplace (perhaps discussing what Jesus had just done for them), one is holding a tall candle on the far left. Still others look on as Peter debates with Jesus whether this is really necessary. A mysterious figure above Peter's shoulder is entering the room through a curtain. Maybe a late-comer.

But what does it all mean? On the night of the Last Supper the  bread and the wine were changed. But there is more! We're changed too! With the foot washing, all the I'm-better-than-you-distinctions are washed away. Nothing can ever be the same: married-single, cleric-lay, Christian-Jew-Muslim, rich-poor, gay-straight, black-white, American-Iraqi-Saudi-Iranian, educated-uneducated. All gone! Truth be told, this is galling to not a few Christians.

And just to be sure we really understand this and aren't just making it up - the gospel is most clear: along with John, the friend who rested his head on Jesus and would stay faithful to the end, and Peter, who we call the first pope, Judas, who would betray Jesus that same night, had his feet washed too. No distinctions!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lenten Mercy ~ Meditation: The Peace of Wild Things

The Peace of Wild Things

When the despair for the world grows in me
and I awake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests
in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with the forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world,
and am free.

Wendell Berry

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Maria Skobstova ~ Creative Mercy

Maria Skobstova was born in Latvia in 1891. That would have made her about 26 years of age at the time of the Russian Revolution. She turned to atheism in her teens when her father died prematurely. Moving in literary and intellectual circles, she was drawn to Christianity while reading a book on the humanity of Jesus. Two failed marriages, the death of her daughter, Anastasia, and having to flee to France, via Georgia and Yugoslavia, during the turbulent years of revolution in Russia, informed her theological studies and heightened her sensitivity to suffering.

In France she met Bishop Evlogy, who encouraged her to profess vows as a nun, to which she agreed, provided she would not have to live in the seclusion of a convent. Taking the religious name, Maria, she opened a house of hospitality in Paris for refugees, the destitute, the needy and lonely. At the same time the house became a place of gathering for theological discussion. 

A cigarette smoker, she never fit the bill as a traditional monastic, and one bishop was scandalized when he saw her in a Paris cafe enjoying a beer. It's said that her habit was dirty and paint spotted and that she would leave the liturgy to answer the door. She coined the phrase: The Asceticism of the Open Door.

When Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940 Jews started coming to the house looking to obtain forged baptismal certificates, which Maria's chaplain, Father Dimitri Klepinin issued. The house also served as a temporary shelter for Jews who Maria and Dimitri were helping to escape.

When a sports stadium in Paris was turned into a holding pen for Jews being readied for transport to concentration camps, Maria used her nuns habit as a kind of ticket to get inside with food. Discovered that she was smuggling Jewish children out in trash cans, she was arrested and sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. 

Like Maximilian Kolbe, Maria took the place of another woman and was sent to the gas chambers on Holy Saturday, 1945. She is sometimes called Mother Maria of Paris. Her monastic method was not to disparage traditional religious life but to "push the envelope hard" believing the Church now existed in times of such horror and suffering, that the traditional ritualized and secluded forms had become an unwarranted luxury. One priest said of her, "She lived in the desert of people's hearts."

Mercy-Kindness is creative and active: "Smuggling Jewish children out of the death-stadium in garbage cans to freedom..." That's creative!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: The New Holy Face

A photo appeared in the newspaper of Ayad al-Sirowiy, a twelve-year-old Iraqi boy who had been badly injured by a bomb. Soldiers were giving away money to the families who had lost relatives in the bombing, but this boy was sent away with nothing. His face is covered with a dense mist of ugly blue pockmarks, and his bulging right eye is clouded over. At school the others nicknamed him, "Mr. Gunpowder." The damaged boy is the new Veil of Veronica - the new Holy Face. You understand, yes?

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Intercessions ~ Third Sunday in Lent

" A man had a fig tree..." Luke 13

It is Lent as Spring draws near./ Give us the sustaining grace we need/ not only to survive the upheavals/ but to grow./ Bless those who are despairing./ We pray to the Lord.

Biblically/ the  fig tree is a symbol of the quiet,/ safe and peaceful life./ We pray for those who feel none of this,/ but only upset,/ discord and insecurity./ We pray to the Lord. 

These are days of tremendous and bitter divisions./ Guide this land which calls itself exceptional/ along the path of civility,/ hospitality,/ kindness,/ peaceable justice and love./ We pray to the Lord.

There can be no real renewal of the Church without first a renewal of the clergy./ Give humility to the young priests,/ life and spirit to the demoralized and saddened priests,/ health and joy to the sick priests./ We pray to the Lord. 

In prayerful solidarity/ we pray for those who are hungry,/ terrified,/ up against every kind of obstacle,/ excluded,/ cast away or imprisoned./ We pray to the Lord. 

The new month of March begins on Tuesday./ We pray for those who celebrate birthdays,/ anniversaries and other days of remembrance,/ asking gifts of health and peace./ We pray to the Lord. 

And we pray gifts of life and peace for those who have died,/ mindful of those around the world who have died in wars,/ gun violence,/ or by hunger or neglect./ And for those who live in sorrow for the dead./ We pray to the Lord.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Lenten Mercy~Meditation: Like the Rain and Snow

Not mine, the Lord says, to think as you think, deal as you deal; by the full height of heaven above earth, my dealings are higher than your dealings, my thoughts than your thoughts. Once fallen from the sky, does rain or snow return to it? Nay, it refreshes earth soaking into it and making it fruitful, to provide the sower with fresh seed, the hungry mouths with bread. So it is with the word by these lips of mine once uttered; it will not come back, an empty echo, the way it went; all my will it carries out, speeds on its errand. Doubt not, then yours shall be a happy departure, a peaceful return; doubt not mountain and hill shall escort you with their praises, and the woods echo their applause. Tall pine-trees shall grow where valerian grew, and myrtles spring from yonder nettle-beds; great glory the Lord shall win, such a blazon as eternity cannot efface.  Isaiah 55:11-13

What a splendid lesson Isaiah offers us. God is saying: "I'm not like you. I don't think the way you think. I don't relate the way you relate. My thoughts and dealings are beyond your imagining. My word is like the rain and snow which doesn't return to me until it has done its seed-making, fruit-making, bread-making work."

But what is that word? It's God's mercy-word: not condemnation, not another expulsion from the garden, but God's heart opened to us like a parent whose child is threatened or fearful; sick or weak. The mercy-word comes down like an enveloping cloud. 

How tenderly this is expressed in the ritual of Confession in the Eastern Church. During the words of absolution the priest puts his stole over the penitent's head - a gesture of God's compassionate forgiveness coming down on us. And the priest is instructed to simultaneously place an arm around the penitent, echoing the Father of the prodigal boy returning home, just a speck at the end of the road. And the father sees his child from a great distance and, making himself look foolish running in robes, he throws his arms around the wastrel, and covering him with kisses calls for a new robe, new ring, new shoes.

Then in the final Isaiah-verse all of creation joins in celebrating the mercy-word: the pine trees, the myrtle, the mountains and hills, even the forest seems to applaud! 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Abba Pemwah Learns Mercy

Abba John told Abba Pemwah in the Egyptian desert, "Take that dry and lifeless stick and plant it in the sand three miles away from our monastery; water it every day". While this required long hours of lugging buckets, Pemwah kept at it. And wondrously, after three years the stick flowered and Abba John called all the brothers together declaring, "Come and see the fruit of obedience." 

Religious people often like the word obedience because it makes for good order. But obedience has to mean more than just: Do what I tell you to do; go where I tell you to go. That kind of obedience can be destructive and a source of evil. "Keep quiet," "Hide this," "Don't report that." That's gotten the Church into big trouble even in our own time. Watch The Nun's Story and see Sister Luke struggling with that kind of obedience. Thomas Merton wondered aloud how many good vocations to the monastic life were lost because of what we call blind obedience.

I would suggest that the Abba Pemwah story is more about mercy than obedience. Maybe Abba John knew that Abba Pemwah needed to learn a new depth of mercy - opening a way for him to learn kindness for all of God's creatures and situations, even those that others would deem hopeless and useless. So he instructed him to undertake the revival of the lifeless stick.

Of course ultimately the story isn't about a dry tree branch. It might rather suggest growing a new attitude towards the adult who can't read, the prisoner back in jail again, the young person with the poor work ethic, the addict who has relapsed, the people we dismiss for a host of reasons, of whom we say, Don't expect much of anything from them. 

A husband on Dr. Phil acknowledged in great humility, that he's not tended to his wife for a very long time, asking how to re-discover her rightly; how to become her friend again. That marriage had become a kind of dried and lifeless stick.That's what the Abba Pemwah story is really about - people and relationships. Maybe ourselves! Any close-to-home ideas or insights?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Monkeying Around With Religion

Here's a well-used and open bible. And that's what we're doing here every few days, moving together through the Gospel of Mark. There's lots of voices out there: alluring, contentious, blaming, threatening. I want to stay on my feet, listening to the Word of Jesus. And here in these few verses Jesus continues speaking to the Pharisees and the doctors of the law. But of course, these high level religious guys are images of what's potentially to be found in any of us:

He also said to them, 'How well you set aside the commandment of God in order to maintain your tradition! Moses said, "Honor your father and your mother", and, "The man who curses his father or other must suffer death." But you hold that if a man says to his father or mother, "Anything of mine which might have been used for your benefit is Corban"' (meaning, set apart for God), he is no longer permitted to do anything for his father or mother. Thus by your own tradition, handed down among you, you make God's word null and void. And many other things that you do are just like that.'  Mark 7: 9-13

In the ancient world there were no nursing homes, no home health aids, no social security, no pensions. And so an elderly parent very much depended upon his/her child (especially the son) to take care in advancing years. This requirement was encoded in religion. 

But Jesus knows how we are, and so he offers this image of a fellow who doesn't want to spend a penny on his aging folks and claims that the money which would have been used for his parents in their old age has instead been given to God. It's a sad scene - not only for the parental neglect but also that religion has been exploited as a pretext for failing in such an important obligation. Jesus detests that we invalidate the things of God, playing around and twisting up the things of authentic religion.

And while this may not be news to any of us, what's got my attention this time in reading these verses is the last line where an annoyed Jesus says: "And many other things that you do are just like that." We shouldn't think for a moment that he doesn't have us in mind today. It's fair to ask: "What would Jesus dislike about our religion today?" Maybe:

rigid religion
suspicious religion
excluding religion
use-to-get-elected religion

we've got all the truth religion
argumentative religion
wear-it-on-your-sleeve religion
hate-bearing religion
theatrical, crush spontaneity religion

self-satisfied, just-give-me-that-old-time religion
cheap-grace religion
self-righteous, demonizing religion
life-disconnect religion
quietist (do nothing/just pray) religion

hate-the-evil-culture religion
business as usual religion
twenty minute Mass religion
I'm not into that justice stuff religion
answer for everything religion

no questions allowed religion
no heart, conveyor belt religion
quote the bible condemning religion
money religion
single issue religion

Oh Jesus, 
these little insecure and
and power-crazed Pharisee guys
are lurking inside and all around us. 
Send them packing, please, 
that our hearts and minds
would be fixed on you alone
and that we would be free
to love other people well.

Physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking said, "In the future science will be mysticism and scientists will be mystics." Then the interviewer asked, "Why aren't you religious?" And Mr. Hawkings answered, "Your god is too small." 

Religion has humble work to do, so to free up the God we keep too small. And for Christians that means a serious, non-moralistic, embrace of the Gospels as a transformative spiritual way.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Close to the Broken-hearted

It's easy to become discouraged these days with all the bad news. But the link below to a video about the work of Clowns Without Borders might help to restore a sense of confidence and hope. 

Here's the mission statement for Clowns Without Borders:  CWB is a non-profit organization which offers laughter to relieve the sufferings of all persons, especially children, who live in areas of crisis including refugee camps, conflict zones and other situations of adversity. We help people to forget for a moment the tensions that darken their daily lives...we seek to heighten our society's awareness of effected populations and to promote a spirit of solidarity. Our motto is: No Child Without A Smile.

Tortell Poltrona  founded Clowns Without Borders in 1993. A professional clown from Barcelona, Spain, some school children approached asking for him to visit a refugee camp in Croatia where there were children with whom these Spanish friends had been corresponding.  The Croatian children said the thing they missed the most in their situation was laughter.  So Tortell drove with some of his own clown friends to Croatia not knowing what to expect. Hundreds of children and their families greeted them and the show went on. At the end the children asked, "When will you return?"

These laughter missionaries have performed for children in Mexico, Turkey, Kenya, Greece, Colombia, Nepal, Texas and California. This month they have shows in El Salvador. They've performed at a children's home in San Antonio ~ over 200 young people, infants to age 18, trying to beat death in Guatemala and Honduras and who have crossed the U.S. border.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and, those who are crushed in spirit, he saves. Psalm 34: 18-20

The video below lasts about 16 minutes. Get a cup of tea, give yourself a Sunday rest, and ponder the mercy-kindness of the young people who clown around to help children forget if even for an hour or so.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Little Means A Lot

Two thousand years later and we're still remembering this act of kindness: Veronica consoling Jesus in the drying of his battered and bleeding face? "Little things with great love. It's not how much you do, but how much love you put in the doing," Mother Teresa often said. "It's not how much you give, but how much love you put in the giving." 

Jesus would have celebrated Veronica's little gift. Remember when in another gospel place Jesus said, "Believe me, anyone who gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, just because he is my disciple, will by no means lose his reward." (Matthew 10:42) But I must begin!

Some people dream of doing big things for others. I was chaplain for some years to a school-community for young people who had lost their way. I'd sometimes say to them: Before I will ever go to feed lepers in the Amazon I have to learn to serve the dinner plates here, happily and graciously; take on breakfast cooking with a grateful and kind heart; fold the laundry of my fellows with the same attention I would give to my own; pick up the broom simply because the room needs sweeping! 

Little means a lot to Jesus!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Mercy Means Stopping

During a visit to Calabria, Pope Francis spotted a sign in the roadside crowd that read: Holy Father, please stop for Roberta, this angel who would like to meet you. And so Francis had the motorcade stop, and he got out and walked over to Roberta and her friends. Here's a picture of their short visit. 

In his newly published interview, The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis teaches that mercy is the heart torn open for humanity in its wretchedness. But we must be sure to understand the word: wretchedness refers to humanity in its shame, need, pain, littleness, vulnerability, rejection, nakedness, poverty, fatigue, hunger, fears, tears, hunger, loneliness. Mercy is the heart torn open to the world in all of this. Do you feel it?

Recently I heard about a joint funeral celebration in Ireland for two persons with disabilities: neither ever spoke or walked. Apparently the family of the deceased hadn't been in a church in years. 

After the Funeral Mass, as the hearses carrying the caskets proceeded to the cemetery, they drove past the residence where the two adults had lived for many years. Seeing dozens of residents in wheelchairs lining the road and serving as an honor guard, the parents of the deceased got out of the cars and walked over, stopping to touch and thank each resident personally. 

Mercy means stopping. Mercy means touching. Mercy means comforting. Mercy means gratitude. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sunday Intercessions ~ Second Sunday of Lent

In the Transfiguration/ the Lord gives us a window into his Resurrection,/ but also a vision of ourselves and humanity/ healed and made whole./ We pray to be promoters of that vision by works of mercy this Lent./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for families everywhere/ in all their variety and trouble,/ asking for them to be supported,/ welcomed and loved./ We pray to the Lord.

Pope Francis has returned to Rome after his journey to Mexico./ Guide the people of that wounded and troubled land./ Bless the pope with safety and strength in his global ministry./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for prisoners in every place,/ especially those who are young/ and for their personal growth and the restoration of their dignity./ And for the healing of all who have been victimized by crimes./ We pray to the Lord. 

In an election year we pray for those who seek public office,/ asking for them to be decent and upright servants of the common good./We pray to the Lord. 

In the cold time we pray for those who lack shelter,/ heat,/ right clothing or a job./ We pray as well for those who operate shelters and kitchens to give comfort and support./ We pray to the Lord.

Heal the sick,/ encourage the dis-spirited,/ restore addicts and those with troubled minds./ And lead those who have died to the fullest realization of your mercy./ We pray to the Lord.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Sharing Delight

White Pine trees are common in the North East U.S.A and so they are often over-looked, passed by, taken-for-granted. But last night the falling snow turned to ice causing the branches to bend low, so I could see more closely and take this morning picture to share. Every needle is encased in ice and and drops of water have decorated the needle tips. The surprise didn't last long - within an hour it was all gone.

So perhaps in the Jubilee Year of Mercy (and mercy means kindness) we might do something to surprise and delight someone else. Be creative: like ice forming on pine needles.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: The Bird of Christ

English Robin on Magnolia

This lovely poem, The Bird of Christ, (the English Robin) was written by the 19th century Welsh poet William Sharp. Why he wrote under, and vigorously protected, the pen name of Fiona Macleod  is of no concern. The poet's poems have been called word painting and word  tapestry. 

Holy, holy, holy,
Christ upon the Cross:
My little nest was near,
Hidden in the moss.

Holy, holy, holy,
Come near, O wee brown bird!
Christ spake, and lo, I lighted
Upon the Living Word.

Holy, holy, holy,
I heard the mocking scorn:
But holy, holy, holy
I sang against a thorn!

Holy, holy, holy,
Ah, His brow was bloody:
Holy, holy, holy,
I sang against a thorn!

Holy, holy, holy,
Ah, His brow was bloody:
Holy, holy, holy,
All my breast was ruddy.

Holy, holy, holy,
Christ's Bird shalt thou be:
Thus said Mary Virgin
There on Calvary.

Holy, holy, holy.
A wee brown bird am I;
But my breast is ruddy,
For I saw Christ die....

Holy, holy, holy is of course reminiscent of that part of the Mass which transitions us into the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the song of the angels and all of heaven before God's Presence! The poet is describing a sacred thing, a godly thing: how the robin came to have its bright chest. The little bird sang to console the Crucified Christ - brushing against his thorn-covered head.

But the poet begins with the lovely image of the bird's nest hidden in the moss. This kind of imagery fills Sharp's poetry and prose as his words sing of the wondrous and intimate fellowship we have with all of creation: quaking-grass, trees, stars, ocean tides, lichen, mountains and hills, streams, the woods and birds.

I knew a boy at school who was particularly hard-hearted, nasty and indifferent. When we went on a weekend monastery retreat I discovered that the sisters had planted a long row of rhododendron bushes along the drive. Lacking a sufficiently long hose to water them, the boy and I lugged buckets from the pond up to the bushes, giving each a summer-drink. 

Animals and plants, the soil, the insects, the water, the air - they're all part of our existence to awaken and sensitize our hearts and to teach us kindness and generosity. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Simon Learns Mercy

Here Simon and Jesus meet each other in the Seventh Station of Mel Gibson's film: The Passion of the Christ. Jesus allows himself to be helped as Simon will carry the better part of the weight. And as Jesus is always teaching, even on the way to his death, there is something for me to learn.

Am I teachable? Allowing Simon to help with the cross, Jesus might be saying to me personally:
  • "Maybe you need to learn that you're not invincible." 
  • "Perhaps you need to admit you're having a hard time keeping it all together."
  • "You possibly need to hear yourself thinking: I can  do it all by  myself, thank you."  
  • "You might need to stop trying to be a one man show." 

People who don't allow others to see them as vulnerable and needy are going to have a hard time getting close to God. On this road of sorrows, Jesus models for us our fundamental stance before God. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and those who are crushed in spirit he saves. Psalm 34:19 Jesus isn't a weakling because he accepts help, but he is humble. And humble means: I'm no different, I'm weak and needy, just like everyone else.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: First Sunday of Lent ~ The Wilderness

Israeli Desert

Here's a photo of some brave souls, perhaps they are pilgrims, trudging through the desert Jesus may well have known. It is a fifteen mile stretch of steep ravines and sharp, baked stone. In the ancient world it was believed that the devil and the monsters lived in the desert and so venturing out there was a place of testing. But of course, "desert" is ultimately an inner reality. 

It is said of Osama bin Laden that when he was a young boy he and his father would go out into the desert with only a little water and a few figs or dates and sleep on the cold ground - to grow strong inwardly. What sadness that such strengthening would have been so used for evil. Nevertheless - spiritual contest takes place in the desert where one is stripped down, left vulnerable, the masks and former dependencies abandoned, at least temporarily. 

Lent is a desert-y time. Father Alexander Schmeman, an Eastern Christian theologian, tells of the cover being pulled down and locked over the piano keyboard during the Lent of his boyhood. What would I feel without all the usual fill-ups, distractions, pleasantries, comforts, securities, go-to behaviors for forty days - a long enough time to realize something new about myself: how soft I am, how entitled, how dependent, how needy, how moody. I might have to confront some monster (or demon) within when it's not business as usual. Young Alexander had to ask, "What do I do with my mind when it's not filled with music and distraction?"

~ ~ ~

A final thought. In the Egyptian desert there are monks who with some regularity go out to the edge to write their sins in the sand: "Oh, that new monk from Cairo is so soft from city living." Oh, Brother Cyril doesn't know his way around the kitchen - we're starving from his lousy food." "Oh, Brother Makarios - I can't stand being next to him in chapel and having to listen to his awful voice." "Oh, Brother Stephen is so un-intelligent and without gifts: why did they accept him into this community?" That's how it is in close community. 

Anyway, the monk might be out there for some time doodling away in the desert sand, and then he bows to the ground asking for God's mercy, and when he looks up the wind has blown away all the sandy-sins, and the sand is smooth again, and it is time to return to the brothers and to love them and serve them. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Saturday After Ash Wednesday

A group of Pharisees, with some doctors of the law who had come from Jerusalem, met him and noticed that some of his disciples were eating their food with 'defiled' hands - in other words, without washing them. (For the Pharisees and the Jews in general never eat without washing their hands, in obedience to an old-established tradition; and on coming from the market-place they never eat without first washing. And there are many other points on which they have a traditional rule to maintain, for example, washing of cups and jugs and copper bowls.) Accordingly, these Pharisees and the lawyers asked him, 'Why do your disciples not conform to the ancient tradition, but eat their food with defiled hands?' He answered, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites in these words: 'This people pays me lip-service, but their heart is far from me: their worship of me is in vain, for they teach as doctrines the commandments of men.' You neglect the commandment of God, in order to maintain the tradition of men." Mark 7:1-8

These high-hatted men in the picture above are seen in Piero Pasolini's 1964 film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. They are the investigative Pharisees and doctors of the law who have come from Jerusalem. Reports have reached their ears in headquarters: Is Jesus teaching heresy? Is he following the rules? Is he faithful to the highest religious authority? They are not friends. We will see them again as we get closer to the Good Friday story.  

Pasolini was an atheist, but when he read the four gospels he fell in love with the idea of faithfully presenting Matthew's account in film. Here he has given the Pharisees ridiculously tall and flamboyant hats to wear as a sign that some religious characters can have a sense of themselves that's blown way out of proportion - religious people who have become silly in their power-quest. Every religion has its variety. Someone has referred to them as the brain police. Of course, they can be found outside religion as well.

Then we notice this long parenthesis filling us in on Jewish purification rituals and regulations. But the evangelist is painting with a very broad brush because it's simply not true when he says, "and the Jews in general..." Some Jews followed all these rules and some do today, but it's incorrect to speak so generally. Is the evangelist trying to prejudice his readers? I hope not. Let's just give him the benefit of the doubt.

But often we say things about other people that are simply not so. We generalize and stereotype. We observe it often in the things politicians say. Sometimes our information is sketchy, but we speak as if we were experts. Sometimes we say things that we know aren't true, but we hope no one will realize our inaccuracy. Often times in conversation we could do with a fact check.

At any rate, these brain police are onto Jesus because his disciples apparently don't do the hand washing that I suppose at least they practice. Mind you, Judaism doesn't have a corner on this kind of seemingly petty ritual observance. Before the 1960's all religious orders kept customs books laying out the observances of religious minutiae: how to put the habit on, how to eat certain foods, required permissions, depths of various bows in chapel, regulations about speaking and touching and the pecking order, etc. "Keep the rule and the rule will keep you," so it was said. 

I went to a priest workshop once to learn the traditional Latin Mass which leaves not one second of the ritual unregulated. I gave it up after one brain police lady, who was in attendance at the Mass one morning, commented disapprovingly that the priest made the mistake of stepping up to the altar with his left foot first instead of his right. And at the lunch table with visiting lay people, one man started an argument that I was perhaps not validly ordained because my ordination took place using the New Rite of Ordination in 1979. 

Notice too that Jesus calls these religious lawyers hypocrites, which is a Greek word that means actor: perfecting appearances, the doing of exterior religious things with no interior awareness or heart connection. I don't like the current use of the word orthodox in Catholic circles: "We're an orthodox order of nuns." "This is an orthodox Catholic university." "Our company sells orthodox Catholic literature." "That's an orthodox diocese with an orthodox bishop and an orthodox seminary." Oh my! The word orthodox means right teaching - as if to say: "We're right; you're wrong." I find it to be a contentious word (capital O or small o) and it has nothing to do with heart.

AA warns the people who propose to follow the Twelve Steps: don't just talk the talk. Jesus knows these Pharisee guys won't believe a word he says, so he pulls out the big guns and quotes the Prophet Isaiah: "This people pays me lip-service, but their heart is far from me..." It is a warning for all time: Religion is about the heart or its about nothing, and (here it comes) the heart has its reasons that reason knows not.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Friday After Ash Wednesday

When speaking about God the best we can do is to use metaphors and similes: God is like a mother bird with nestlings under wing. Indeed, the poet who wrote Psalm 90 had that mother bird in mind, shading her chicks from the noon sun with outstretched wings. 

For God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

Psalm 90:3,4

To understand the psalm images more fully: the snare of the fowler is a hunter's net to catch birds. Can I name a time in my life when God in his kindness kept me from something that could be described as a net or trap, something intellectually, emotionally, relationally or vocationally capable of my undoing?

Deadly pestilence? I've met more than a few people, mostly teens who'd been living badly, who knew personally that they should be dead for what they'd been doing. But you don't need to be sixteen and living on the wild side to get that.

God covers us with pinions. Pinions are feathers. The tenderness or softness of God! The words themselves feel maternal. The Ronald Knox translation of the psalms, instead of saying we'd find refuge there, says that we would be nestlings under God's wings. Saint Romuald, the founder of the Camaldolese monks, enjoins young monastic trainees to practice what he calls chick theology - the quiet rest of being a nestling, secured under the fold of the divine wing. Try is for five minutes in the morning before the day gets busy; it's very beautiful!

And lastly, that God is faithful with shield and buckler. God is even militant in protecting us, soldier-like, carrying a shield to ward off arrows - flaming darts - that want to take me down. And while buckler is yet another word for shield, it also can refer to any means of protection and defense. So we might think of the long sword a warrior carries - perhaps double-edged: twice the power to protect me.

God's Mercy - God's Kindness. Early in Lent can I name these inner realities which are so personal to each of us?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation ~ Thursday After Ash Wednesday

I didn't plant this little long-needled pine tree; it seeded itself in a perfect spot alongside where the cars part at the retreat house. It's about eight or nine years old now. And it snowed Tuesday night going into Ash Wednesday morning, delightful in white!

Though your sins be like scarlet I will make them white as snow. Though they be red as crimson, I will make them white as wool.
Isaiah 1:18

Scarlet and crimson: the colors of things flaming and molten, the color of a shamed face, of blood. God speaks through the prophet, using the most serious color to talk about the most serious sin. But what sin is that?

Most of us grew up getting ready for First Confession just before First Communion, at about age seven. And so we were given a seven year old Examination of Conscience. I have no recollelction of ever having been given an adult Examination of Conscience - except through so many sermons about sex sins.

I'd venture that most Catholics can say next to nothing about the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church and what sin might be discovered there. National sin. Corporate sin. Ecclesial sin. For adults, it's not about confessing "I missed Mass one Sunday while my family was on vacation and I forgot my prayers, and I had a lusty thought about the waitress in IHOP." Jesus didn't endure and suffer Good Friday for that!

  • Jesus died for the sins of the world's wars no matter how we justify our bombs.
  • Jesus died for the societal sins against children as we fail them.
  • Jesus died for the sins of our idolatrous sports obsession. $$$
  • Jesus died for the sins of political corruption.
  • Jesus died for the sins of nationalism.
  • Jesus died for the sins of tolerating unspeakable poverty - whole cities existing on mountains of garbage.
  • Jesus died for the sins of cultural rancor, contention and hatred.
  • Jesus died for all the lies. One woman told me that in her country when someone is talking, you automatically expect you are being lied to.
  • Jesus died for the plunder-rape of our planet - the exploitation and waste.
  • Jesus died for the idolatrous love of and protection of guns - the new gods of metal. (Leviticus 19:4)
  • Jesus died for the new terrorism - but also for everything that has set it in motion.
  • Jesus died for the sin of rapid extinctions: the animals and plants which were give to us as gifts to be treasured.
  • Jesus died for the sins of religion where it aligns with power.
  • Jesus died for the sins of companies and the thingdom come stores. One British commentator said of his own country: "Britain exists now to go shopping."
  • Jesus died for the sins of power and possession: while some have seemingly everything, and remain dissatisfied, so many more are starved, sick and naked.

God makes these molten, bloody sins white, like the snow on the little tree. This doesn't mean God is saying: "There, there, that's not so bad, everything's all right," because everything's not all right. But rather, "None of this causes me to love you less. I run to you in love as a mother runs to her bruised and anguished toddler who has just fallen flat on her/his face."

An Irish woman confessed to the priest her repentant-sorrow at being part of a nation that aborts. I've confessed that my tax dollar is used for drones and bombs that have killed children sitting at their school desks. The priest tried to excuse me, "Oh your tax dollar is so small compared to the total expenditures of a military budget." Why are we always looking for wiggle room?

And if I can't find my way to the confessional with any of this - either because I don't think I should have to own any part of this scarlet stuff or because I'm afraid the priest won't get it - then at least hold it in your heart - the sickening sadness of it - as Mass begins and there's five seconds before the penitential rite, when so many of us zone out and can't think of a thing. "Don't bother to pray," Archbishop Anthony Bloom writes, "until you feel something." 

Here's a link to Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). It is an excellent read for Lent: to be studied, considered and pondered. Let's skip the TV/Internet news and read this instead. Nothing will have changed when we return to it weeks from now. Maybe print the encyclical (about 40 pages) and high-lite what gets your attention. You'll feel a bright-white transformation come Easter and a tremendous sense of having stepped into the depths of an adult Christianity. And Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Put out into the deep and you will make a catch..." Luke 5:4

Intercessions ~ First Sunday in Lent

Passion Flower

Guide us through Lent as it begins in earnest today./ Bring us to an Easter Spring time of transformation and light./ We pray to the Lord.

Today is the Feast of the Bishop-Martyr, Valentine./ Take us beyond sentimentality and romance/ to a new depth of kindness/ for all people/ in all their variety./ We pray to the Lord.

Monday is President's Day in our country./ We pray for our own president/ and for those who seek this high office./ Give us leaders who are servants and peacemakers,/ and gifts of insight and intelligence as we vote this year./ We pray to the Lord.

Make fruitful last Friday's meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Russia./ Bless Mexico and its people as the pope continues his journey./ We pray to the Lord.

Restore families where there is division,/ addiction,/ hurt,/ poverty or sickness./ Bless care providers,/ health professionals and rescuers,/ mindful of those who provide relief where there is the social disruption of natural disaster and war./ We pray to the Lord.

Today there is a new and deeply troubling persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa./ We pray for them and those who burden,/ threaten and trouble them,/ and ask to be healed of our own spiritual mediocrity and indifference./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray too for those who have died,/ and for those who mourn them,/ but also those who die with no prayer,/ family or friendship./ Give to those departed/ whose lives were sad here/ the bright joy of heaven's welcome and fullness of life./ We pray to the Lord. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Ash Wednesday

It's Ash Wednesday in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. The Hebrew word for mercy is Hesed. Perhaps better than translating HESED as mercy ("I could blow you away for what you did to me, but instead I'll have mercy on you," we might use the word kindness.

It's a hard world and there's more than a little to suggest that we're losing touch with each other; becoming strangers to kindness. A flight attendant told me that while he stands inside the door of the plane greeting people as they board, most people don't even look up at him, let alone return the greeting, but are lost in their technology.

Lent is called the Church's Springtime. And with the springtime comes warming. Human beings are programmed to give and receive emotional warmth - we don't do well without it. Indeed, when the life-story is told of so many criminals and murderers, we come to understand that human warmth was often lacking from the start. 

Pietro Ferruci in his book, The Power of Kindness tells of a client who lived in a building with walls thin enough to hear what went on in the apartments on either side of hers. Every night, the parents of a new born would put the baby in to sleep while they retired to the living room to watch television. Unfailingly the baby screamed and cried in the deep anguish of loneliness with the parents failing to respond.

While the woman felt that confronting the parents might make things worse, she also realized that if she could hear the baby's crying that likely the baby would be able to hear her. And so every night when the screams and cries began, the woman would sing lullabies through the wall and talk to the unseen baby softly and tenderly, and the crying stopped. The warmth of sound can alleviate suffering! That's mercy!

Perhaps the best of what it means to be human gives us insight into what God is like. God is kindness. Jesus puts a human face to it: "Little Zacchaeus, come down out of the sycamore leaf-screen where you hide; I want to have dinner with you and your friends tonight." (Luke 19: 1-10)

This Lent: not to bother giving up things that leave us un-transformed, but rather to practice mercy-kindness.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Strengthening in Lent

This photo was taken of ice formed at the bottom of a woodland mountain, where the melt runs off into a tiny stream, which then runs down the mountain into a larger stream, which runs off into the Delaware River over a mile away. But the ice is melting today because the sun is growing stronger. You can feel it, and see it, and even hear it in the ice dripping. The sun is strengthening.

"Look into nature, and then you will understand everything better," Albert Einstein said.

As a young priest I was chaplain to a hospital and often watched babies strengthen in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care. I met other folks strengthen through their struggle with cancer, and family members who fought hard to strengthen emotionally through the serious sickness of loved ones.

We can feel Jesus strengthen in his desert-dialogue with Satan: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,'" and "Again it is written, 'You shall not not tempt the Lord your God,'" and "Begone Satan! for it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'" Matthew 4: 1ff

So maybe Lent's long forty days can be a strengthening time:

That I would be 
strengthened in my prayer through the long forty days,
strengthened in my attentiveness to the Gospels,
strengthened in this relationship - these friendships,
strengthened in my endurance by taking a Lenten walk each day,
strengthened in my lungs as I try to get off these cigarettes,
strengthened in my disposition as I do something kind,
strengthened in my spirit which sometimes suffers weakness,
strengthened in my faith ~ the culture says don't bother.

That I would be 
strong enough to get out of bed each morning,
strong for the long commute, 
strong for the work I don't feel up to,
strong for the surprises and challenges
strong as I'm tempted to give up
strong for those who need me
strong in my most vulnerable place
strong for God's sake (literally)!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Pauca Verba Milestone ~ Community and Thank You!

Kazan Mother of God

Today Pauca Verba (a few words) tipped 250,000 page views. That's a quarter of a million looks since March 2013. Our nation is addicted to numbers: winning numbers, lucky numbers, scores and stats and perhaps especially poll numbers, but that's not what matters here. Some of those page views are faithful followers tuning in, while others might reflect someone's stumbling in while surfing the web. 

Of greater interest is that there is something of a community that checks in here: folks from Germany, France, Russia, Ukraine, Spain, South Korea, Canada, Philippines, India, The United Kingdom. There's even a fellow who writes from Australia and priests in Ireland and Vietnam who use the intercessions at their Sunday Masses. Some catechists use the Rosary Mysteries with their classes. That's all very encouraging and exciting.

I find it particularly gratifying that unlike so many other blogs, this one is essentially free of bitter contention. I've never conceived of myself as a dogmatist, moralist, canon lawyer, theologian or bishop wannabe, just a pointer. Pauca Verba isn't about debating Church related issues but about the Christian interior life in dry and often confounding times. This approach seems to resonate with folks. 

So thanks to everyone for the interest, suggestions and encouragement you bring and for your good prayer. "May the Lord bring to completion the good thing begun in you." 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Quinquagesima Sunday ~ The Freshening Of Our Personal Atmosphere

Here's a little animated scene of Charlie Brown's friend Pig-pen, who lives perpetually in a cloud of dirt and dust. He even blackens the new snowman, seemingly oblivious, and apparently pleased to be living in a contagious atmosphere of dirt. 

Atmosphere: *the gaseous envelope surrounding the earth. *a pervading influence: environment, e.g. an atmosphere of peace. *the dominant mood or emotional tone of a work of art, as of a play or novel *a distinctive quality as of a place.

But I'd go even further, suggesting that we each carry around with us a personal atmosphere of our own creating. I knew a fellow years ago who lived in such an atmosphere of funny - that he never said anything straight, and so he couldn't be known or trusted. Someone might carry around an atmosphere of doomsday, suspicion, conspiracy or even hate, moral haughtiness or power. Conversely, one might carry an atmosphere of joy, generosity, inner peace, optimism, compassion.

And like Pig-pen we can live in a great dust-up, but of complaint, grumbling and blaming. It's pervasive throughout our first-world culture, revealing a great discontent and ingratitude.We're perhaps not even aware of it within ourselves and might resent having someone point it out. But if we are aware of it, we might step up to this proposed fast (no grumbling, complaining, criticizing) and see if the spell can be broken by Easter. 

I'm acknowledging that this may well present a much greater challenge than the usual candy, music, booze, junk-food abstinence thing. But forty days is the biblical number that simply means a long time. So we have this long time to start something new. And that's what Easter is about, yes? Like the springtime, We can change into, or become, something new.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, scroll down to the posts below for the previous two Sundays titled: Sexagesima and Septuagesima. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

A Lenten Examination of Consciousness for Married People

I like this stained glass window of the Cana Wedding: Jesus and Mary are in a bit of a huddle about the wine problem and the newly weds are looking over, perhaps nervous, expectant, hopeful. Jesus and Mary are helping them to get off to a good start.

Marriage is in trouble, they say. Indeed, in some parts of the world it is predicted that in the not too distant future, marriage will cease to exist. Speaking with a class of about thirty high-schoolers I asked how many of you come from homes where the parents are divorced or separated. All but three or four hands went up. 

Listen in on some Christian conversations and you'd think the greatest threat to married life is gay people and their hopes and dreams or their  radical agenda. But a seasoned husband and father of eight told me, "Marriages fail when someone is selfish."  And the lack of psycho-spiritual support married people receive from their churches is at least sad, if not galling, considering the time, energy and resources the churches otherwise spend on all the Defense of Marriage talk. 

So I've written an Examination of Consciousness for married people. Not an Examination of Conscience (which is looking for sin) but Consciousness: an alert awake-ness, out of which I might know myself better and from that place grow.

"What do you know?" someone might say. I'm a priest nearly thirty seven years; I've seen and heard a lot.

  • Do I consciously pray each day for my spouse?
  • Am I taking care of myself so that I can rightly care for my family? Or am I running on empty?
  • Are we actively building and growing this relationship? Or have we resigned ourselves, even long ago, to living it out in a rut?
  • Have we abandoned the holy project (which is marriage) for other concerns, demands and projects?
  • Do I complain about my spouse to others, even strangers?
  • When did I last say to my spouse, from a deeply felt place "I love you so much," or "I think the world of you."
  • Am I moody or nasty-mouthed with my spouse? Do I belittle her/her? Are we more roommates than spouses?
  • Am I self-pitying? A victim?
  • Do I make threats, "If you don't...I'll..."  "You better...or else..."
  • Do I think it's my job to change my spouse? Am I controlling?
  • Are we an argumentative couple? Do we fight dirty? Do we punish each other with the silent treatment?
  • Do the words, I'm sorry, stick in my throat?
  • Do I burden my spouse in any way?
  • Am I faithful to my spouse?  Is my heart faithful?
  • Do I use sex to manipulate my spouse?
  • Do I actively and stubbornly dis-like my in-laws?
  • Am I a meddler?
  • Do I carry around drama and complaint?
  • Do I shirk responsibility?
  • Do I take my spouse for granted? Do I use my spouse?
  • Am I a blamer?
  • Have I sided with my children over my spouse?
  • Do I use a dirty or cursing mouth against my spouse in anger?
  • Does this marriage need help? Are we in trouble? Do we procrastinate over working on problems?
  • Do I live with a troubling secret to which my spouse has a right to know?
  • Do I lie to and hide things from my spouse?
  • Does alcohol (drugs?) impact the quality of my marriage?
  • Can I say I'm really present to my spouse? Emotionally?
  • Am I cheating my spouse in some way?
  • Do I resent even the simplest requests my spouse makes?
  • Do I go around my spouse being put out?
  • Do I bring negative energy to my relationship?
  • "Pick, pick, pick - you're always picking on him, why don't you leave him alone!" (or HER. From a very funny dinner scene in the Laurel and Hardy short, Twice Two).
  • Is this marriage sacramental? Meaning: I am supposed to be my partner's first encounter with and experience of the love of Christ? 
  • Would I dare to ask my spouse, "What do I need to change about myself to grow this marriage?" And then be still and only listen.