Hope for the world

Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. Today, we also commemorate the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

I have often wondered whether those planning the mission of the Enola Gay over Japan had any awareness that they had chosen to carry out this act of mass destruction on the Feast of the Transfiguration. I cannot imagine that they did.

There is an irony here.

The Transfiguration, much like the Feast of our Lord’s baptism (Theophany), is a feast of revelation. To my knowledge, these are the only two occasions recorded in the New Testament in which ordinary people heard the voice of the Father.

The Father thus “reveals” Himself in order to reveal Jesus as His Son, the One with whom He is pleased, the One we should listen to.

The question has been raised as to whether Jesus Himself changed in appearance on Mt. Tabor – or whether Peter, James and John were simply allowed for a moment to see what already was. I suspect, as in most things genuinely spiritual, it was a synergy – a synergy of God’s revealing and humanity’s seeking.

Few people have been permitted to see the Uncreated Light. Some have been saints; others not. But it somehow serves the Divine Purpose that the fullness of light, brighter than the human eye can normally see, is manifest on rare occasions.

It is as though the curtain that separates our side from the Other side has grown thin and tears, creating a rift in the fabric so the Light shines through. Not only does it not kill, despite the Old Testament fears that man would die if he saw God’s face, but it promises Life gloriously beyond life as we know it.

Herein, of course, lies the irony: that on August 6, 1945, a light too bright for human eyes appeared in our world by the will of man. It was a created light so bright that one who did not know better might mistake it for the Uncreated.

Approximately 80,000 people died instantly and the brightness of the light caused temporary or permanent blindness in some of the survivors. Countless numbers of people died from the radiation exposure in the years that followed and there are some still living who continue to suffer from the impact of the radiation.

The fullness of evil, the anti-Christ, revealed on the feast of the fullness of Christ.

Many have argued that the atomic bomb was the only way to bring an end to the horrors of World War II. Historians may analyze this as much as they want but I will never believe that sin saves us from sin.

There is only one Savior, the Sinless One, the God-man, Christ the Lord.

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The times we are living in now are so frightening that it can be hard to feel hope.

A pandemic rages around us, killing hundreds of thousands around the world. As I previously wrote (here), I believe that such lethal viruses are the work of the evil one.

We are in an election year and the incumbent promotes an agenda of denial, so lacking in compassion that he can only say of the pandemic death rate, “it is what it is”.

Subgroups in the population, here and abroad, have returned to racial hatred and violence as a means of silencing protest.

So much that is so wrong has been allowed to continue with impunity that we no longer recognize the country we live in. The checks and balances designed to protect us have failed miserably.

Is there any hope?

It is hard to feel hope. Yet still I am hopeful.

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When I share with you what brings me hope, you will likely think me foolish. That’s okay. Perhaps being a fool for God is the only option left.

One would think that the Scriptures, the eye witness accounts of the Transfiguration, the Father’s voice, the Resurrection, would be enough.

And, of course, they are – they always have been and always will be.

But sometimes I need something revealed to me, something so perfect and so personal that I cannot remain blind. I need an encounter that forces my eyes open to the hope inherent in a creation that could only emerge from an all-powerful and all-loving God.

This has happened before, many times, in fact. But, while memories persist, the sense of Wonder fades with time and the trials of life.

But today was a day of revealing, of transforming.

I was blessed to be able to participate in the Eucharist today for this holy Feast. Not only that, but I was permitted to proclaim God’s word.

During this time when I have sometimes felt half-dead inside, I suddenly felt fully alive again when proclaiming the Word.

It is completely different from reading Scripture privately or listening to a recording of it.

I pray for a moment before I do it because I know that I am nothing. Only if the Spirit is in me can I proclaim Him.

And so it was.

But that is not all.

It was a warm and sunny day and camera had come along for the ride, resting in my car’s trunk while my soul was being renewed.

We have had very few excursions this year. Retreats at the hermitage: not allowed. Trips to California or Minnesota, too risky. Even the garden has seemed strangely empty of its usual pollinating visitors.

But, in a tiny act of hope, I brought camera along, knowing that there just might be signs of life in an overgrown patch of land at the far end of the church parking lot.

At first, I saw nothing.

But I remembered that hope requires patience – as does the sighting of butterflies.

Soon I saw little flutterings. Skippers – o sweet skippers. Thank you, God.

I walked and waited some more and, from the corner of my eye, I saw something larger sailing past in the distance. A black swallowtail. I have never seen one in this location before – and it was so far away… could we receive its image at such a distance? (We could!)

I was preparing to leave when it occurred to me to check the milkweed growing in this untended land. A modest amount of common milkweed but always worth checking.

A leaf with a hole in it. Hmm… someone must be eating it. There are a number of insects who feed on milkweed. Could it be? They were so tiny they almost escaped my notice.

(Camera really outdid himself today, didn’t he?)

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So I see a couple of butterflies and caterpillars and I’m ready to proclaim hope for the world?

I can only say with St. Paul, “accept me as a fool” (2 Corinthians, 11:16) 🙂

I admit it was the Monarch caterpillars that really put me over the top, that “something so perfect and so personal”, a revealing that unblinds me to what has always been.

It is not just that I have a soft spot for the Monarch butterfly, though we all know that I do. It is the “why” behind that soft spot.

It is their reality amidst all improbability, even apart from the toxic influence of humanity, that proclaims hope, that reminds me that there is a God so very real that nothing is too small for His love.

How can it be that the caterpillars of this one type of butterfly can only feed on one type of plant – and that their mothers manage to find just the right plant while gliding over vast expanses of overgrown land?

How is it that these tiny, soft, squishy little caterpillars ever live long enough (about 13 days) to eat enough to make it to the next stage (about 2000% increase in size)?

How does the mature caterpillar know how and when to create its own chrysalis, the chamber in which its metamorphosis occurs?

And how does that metamorphosis occur, such that the caterpillar’s body parts break down into undifferentiated cells that then re-shape themselves into a creature of totally different form and color than the one that formed the chrysalis?

Emerging at precisely the time of maturity, the new butterfly cannot fly for a couple of hours as its wings dry.

So many things could and sometimes do go wrong. How do they ever survive to adulthood?

And this does not even begin to consider the mystery of their migration. A tiny fragile creature flying over a thousand miles ending up exactly where it is supposed to go as winter approaches.

Such extravagant beauty. Such unnecessary grace. So perfectly planned.

Planned?

Yes, fool that I am, I must say that it was all planned.

But couldn’t this little creature have just evolved, cells knocking into each other for billions of years, the fittest surviving, and so on?

One might question what survival advantage there could possibly be in such a demanding and precarious life cycle for a creature whose span of days is typically measured in weeks (though months for the south-bound migrators).

But, even more compelling is David Bentley Hart’s observation that chaos cannot create order unassisted.

And today, I was given a glimpse of the very orderly unfolding of a few very tiny lives among billions and billions of lives, large and small, all very much planned down to the last detail.

The hope lies not only in this beauty but in something even more mystical: that something (Someone) made me look – directing me to see what I needed to see in that moment.

Something so perfect and so personal that, in that moment, I could not deny Him. I drowned in His love.

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August 6: the Uncreated Light juxtaposed with man’s created light, everlasting life juxtaposed with destruction and death.

One offers us living hope. The other extinguishes it.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” (Matthew 17:5)

Listen… the Word is all around us.

So great a cloud of witnesses…

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

As I indicated in my last post, part of my repentance for the sins of racism, my own and that of my people, is to learn more about Black Catholic saints and to pray for their intercession. I will share here some of what I learn, providing links to full stories when possible. (Rather than posting many new posts, I will edit this article to add new saints as I discover them – so please come back to check them out!)

A cloud of witnesses

6.2.2020 Today, I learned about St. Benedict the African who was born to parents who were slaves, captured in Africa and brought to Italy. Despite being a Black man in 16th century Italy, uneducated and illiterate, he became a Franciscan, occupying roles ranging from cook to Master of the Friary. His story may be found here.

St. Benedict of Africa, please pray for us that we might develop the humility to seek and find holiness in every person we encounter. May we come to cherish the great gifts God has given the Church through the people of Africa. Amen.

6.3.2020 Today is the feast day of St. Charles Lwanga and companions, a group of 19th century young African men who were martyred in what is now Uganda. Charles was but 26 when he was burned alive at the order of the king of his country. He had been baptized less than a year earlier and yet protected other young men aspiring to the Faith from the ritual sexual abuse the king wanted to inflict on them. (I have chosen to direct you to Wikipedia for his story. Sadly, too many Catholic sites make it sound like Charles was protecting their “chastity” which I think is misleading.) His story may be found here.

Pray for us, O holy Martyrs of Africa, led by Charles Lwanga, that we might have the courage to stand up for what is right and to protect the vulnerable from mistreatment, regardless of the cost to ourselves. You freely followed the way of our Savior in sacrificing yourself out of love for God and your brothers. May we learn from you what it truly means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. Amen.

6.10.2020 I am currently reading a biography of St. Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of Sudan and survivors of human trafficking. She was born in Darfur around 1869 and was kidnapped by Arab slave traders when still a very young child. She experienced great cruelty at the hands of a number of owners and was forcibly converted to Islam. She no longer knew her own given name or native language. She ended up in Italy and, while “temporarily” staying with the Canossian Sisters, she learned of Christianity, embracing the faith and later becoming a member of their community. Those who knew her withnessed her holiness and she was known for her gentleness and calm demeanor. More details of her story may be found here

St. Bakhita, pray for us that we might learn the way of peace, never losing faith in the midst of hardship. Strengthen our resolve to eliminate all that enslaves our brothers and sisters throughout the world, as well as all that enslaves us from within. May our lives reflect the peace that can only come from God. Amen.

 

 

 

Step down, Mr. Trump

Black lives matter.

First and foremost, I must say this. Yes, all lives matter but not all lives have been denied their human dignity in America the way Blacks lives have been.

Starting with the enslavement of Africans by our ancestors to the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, Black lives have born such denigration, insult and disregard that the rage can no longer be contained. Our society is literally exploding before our eyes.

It has been a long time coming.

However, the 2016 Presidential election was a turning point. To all outward appearances, many people were disappointed about the results as always happens with elections. But many of us, of all racial hues, knew in our hearts that something very serious had happened when Donald Trump was deemed the winner of the 2016 election.

We went from having a Black president who was a calm, intelligent and articulate leader to having an openly racist and sexist White man who has no idea how to lead a nation during peaceful times, muchless during times of crisis.

It wasn’t just about whether we had a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. It was a referendum of sorts, a green light to disrespect and degrade people of color with impunity. (Women too, of course, but that is another article).

And it was clear that he had a substantial base of supporters who didn’t simply tolerate this but liked this about him. Humiliated by four years of leadership by an African American president, there was bound to be a backlash.

But it wasn’t just the obvious racists, the skinheads, the KKK, the white supremacy groups that wanted to see white rule restored, but, sadly, a substantial proportion of the Christian community commonly known as the “religious right”.

While many may argue the religious right was drawn to Mr. Trump for other reasons, e.g. his supposed “pro-life” stance, one did not have to look hard to see that candidate Trump did not talk about, much less live, the Christian message about the sanctity of human life.

If not for a conscious or unconscious desire to restore white rule, how could Christians of good faith decide to turn a blind eye to Mr. Trump’s unapologetically sinful ways?

I know that I am chancing offending some of my already small readership by make such a political statement on an otherwise spiritually oriented blog. But I simply cannot remain silent.

Black lives matter.

It is going to take a great deal of change on multiple levels of society to address all of the attitudes, injustices and violence against people of color. It will take even longer for any trust to be rebuilt between people of color and the white people who truly respect and value the diversity of the races.

I am taking three actions now, small actions because I am but one person with little power or influence.

  1. I just took the first step and sent a message online to Mr. Trump, telling him to step down. (Of course, I don’t believe that he will heed my counsel, but that is no reason to remain silent.)
  2. Tonight I am posting the following sign on my front door to make it clear where I stand:

  1. I am going to pray. I am going to research the Black saints of the Church, especially those who were former slaves, and ask them to pray for us – to pray that, through their intercession and the mercy of Christ our Savior, we might learn to truly repent of our sins against people of color and come to love and respect the goodness inherent in every human life.

Black lives matter.

May God have mercy on us all.

At the tomb…

Although I am posting this late – I had to wait for the paint to dry –  the Eastern Church celebrates today the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women.

In this image, we have (from l. to r.), Mary Magdalene, Johanna and Mary, the holy Mother of God. And then, of course, the angel showing them the empty tomb with the burial cloths that once wrapped the Savior’s body.

You may wonder how I know the names of the women in the icon. I wonder too. I simply recognize them by the expressions of their faces. As I have often not known that I was going to write something, so have I been surprised at times by what my paint brush leaves behind.

Some may also wonder about the presence of the Virgin at the tomb. The western (Catholic) perspective has generally been that we do not know whether Jesus appeared to His mother after the Resurrection but a pious belief is held by some that He appeared to her first.

However, an alternate view is that the Theotokos was indeed at the tomb with the other women who brought spices to finish the burial process. After all, why would she not have gone? Given that Scripture tells us that she stood at the foot of the Cross, we know that there was no physical impediment to her being with the others.

Again the pious notion might be considered that she knew in her heart that death had no power over Him and therefore there was no further need to tend to His body. She did not need to see the empty tomb to believe. If she was there, would not Scripture have told us?

Some have explained this omission by pointing out that the evangelists’ intent was to make known the existence of eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and the testimony of a mother might be regarded with suspicion.

There are many other hypotheses that have been debated through the ages but none of them really interest me.

As I am drawn further into iconography, I am increasingly aware that the truth an icon conveys is not the historicity that preoccupies our world today. Instead, it proclaims a mystical truth, a truth that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Whether or not the Theotokos went to the tomb is not the point. The point is that she, like the other faithful women, knew. She knew and believed that her Son was the Christ, the Anointed One, risen from the dead.

The icon proclaims this with her presence. At the same time, her face portrays her humanity. Tired and worn, she was still a mother who witnessed the brutal execution of her Son.

She is one of us. She knows suffering, she knows death. Her heart is pierced with a sorrow beyond telling.

At the same time, having joined her suffering to that of her Son, she is transformed with Him to know what it means to be fully human, to share in the divine life.

Our world is broken and suffering, now on a scale larger than many of us ever imagined we would see.

Let us stand with our Mother, bringing all of our sorrows and fears.

Together, let us gaze at the empty tomb and believe.

He is risen.

He is risen indeed!

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Remembering (part 1)

Brothers and sisters:
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over,
took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

                                                                 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

The Unlikely Fast

I remember a number of times over the years when a good friend and I had a sort of running joke. It was, at best, a wry humor, but one befitting the season of Lent.

Both of us have always been serious observers of this beautiful season of repentance. However, there were times when enough difficult things occurred unbidden that it was more than enough to get through them without adding some additional act of asceticism. As the saying went, “I didn’t have to go looking for penance; penance came looking for me!”

There was an important lesson that came with this experience: the most profound sacrifices in our lives are not the ones we choose. They are given to us to embrace and offer back to God as gifts born of broken, humbled hearts. These are, of course, the gifts God will never spurn.

Although I have followed the traditional fasting rules of the Church (which are not difficult in the west), I find that the fasts that have been given to me have often been more meaningful. An example from nearly 40 years ago comes to mind.

I was in my mid 20’s and working at an nontraditional community counseling service. In addition to the professional services offered, we had a drop-in lobby with free coffee that was well patronized by the mentally ill of the inner city streets. We had a staff-only area but just a curtain of a door to separate the spaces.

One day, I went to retrieve my lunch only to discover that someone had stolen it! And, while it would have been possible to come up with something to eat, I saw it as an opportunity to fast. I had so much and they have so little. What is one lunch not eaten?

Later, John, the prime suspect for the lunch-theft, committed suicide while hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. As I think back on him – for I still remember him – I hope my lunch brought a little comfort to his otherwise tortured life of mental illness and life on the street.

Yesterday, a different sort of fast was asked of me – a fast from my comfort zone. I had to pick up a medication refill at my local pharmacy. More times than not, as I approach the entrance there is someone waiting to ask me if I can spare some change. I confess that I often want to duck and pretend I don’t see them. Yesterday, my unspoken thoughts were, “It’s cold out. I have a migraine. Can’t I just walk into the store without being bothered?”

I fought this temptation as I saw a tall, slender man standing near the door. His clothes were mismatched layers. His braids were unkempt and a remnant of snot was frozen to his nose. When he made the anticipated request, I stopped, introduced myself and asked him his name. “Maurice”, he mumbled. I asked him, as I often ask people, what kind of troubles he was having to be in this position. His response, a single word: schizophrenia.

I could see in his face, in his manner of dress, that he was telling the truth and I gave him something. As I walked into the store, I immediately regretted not having given him more. He had disappeared by the time I left. I can only hope that my little donation to his life eased the pain of his poverty and confusion. I am sorry, Maurice. I should have given you more. I have so much.

So many of these unsought-after fasts are so mundane that they may hardly be noticed as such. Food not eaten because of nausea or work crises that leave no time. Plans cancelled when migraines, patient needs or other unavoidable hassles get in the way. I have even been given fasts from icon painting, as time or energy runs out or God sends me off in another direction.

What seems important is that I recognize these as opportunities to fast, opportunities given to me by God to embrace the way of the Cross, accepting His way over my way. When so embraced, each little sacrifice becomes a gift I can offer my Father, uniting it to the gift of Christ our Savior.

Do I always do this? Do I recognize these opportunities as such? Sadly, most of the time I do not. But I am on a journey and each step offers a lesson. If I miss the message, it will be given again and again until I get it. God sets no limits on His invitations to love.

Amidst these minor challenges, some Lenten seasons I encounter much greater calls to fast, the kind that show me how stingy were the offerings I had chosen for myself.

Lent this year has been one of those times.

Such an unlikely fast. I would never have anticipated being asked to fast from the Sacraments, of all things. Nor would I have guessed that I would be called upon to fast from the company of my community, my colleagues, my friends, from their handshakes and hugs.

Still, unlikely as it seems, each dimension of these restrictions imposed from without are fasting opportunities from God, to be embraced and returned to Him. The evil which is the pandemic is redeemable in my own heart – in all of our hearts – when we embrace this fast out of love for God.

It is easy to forget how many people routinely experience these deprivations when infirmities confine them to private dwellings or nursing homes. Or when they live under oppressive governments that restrict their freedom of movement and worship. Or when war or gang violence makes them refugees, disconnected from any security they ever had.

It is easy to forget the Johns and Maurices of this world and to avoid helping them carry the crosses they never asked for. It is so much easier to choose my own sacrifices, to give up some trifle, to say an extra prayer or read another book.

But it is in the Cross of Christ – and only there – that suffering becomes sacrifice and takes on meaning as an act of love.

His way, the way of the Cross, is not something I can follow only when it is fits into my plans. I do not get to choose my fast, my sacrifice, my cross.

There is but one choice for me to make: will I follow?

As weak and beset by sin as I am, there is only one possible response to this question. This is what it means to be wounded by love (Songs 2:5).

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(Dear Readers, my prayers for your physical, emotional and spiritual health during these difficult times. Prepare for lighter posts from this blog! April is National Poetry Month in the US which means a poetry contest is in the making! No experience or talent required and there will be prizes for all. More to follow.)