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There are many lessons that Pope Francis teaches us, but on this 5th anniversary of his pontificate, I want to focus on how he shows us, by his example, how to create a culture of encounter that can open up for us the grace and power of personal presence.

Transformative encounter is, of course, at the heart of Jesus’s ministry.  Over and over, we see Jesus sharing the love of God in substantive, life-changing moments with others: a man suffering from leprosy in Mark 1; the hemorrhaging woman of Mark 5; the woman with the bent back in Luke 13.  These encounters provide substantive physical healing, but they also communicate graces of emotional, psychological, and social restoration, as the circle of the human community is expanded and those at the margins of society are welcomed into their rightful place.

From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has modeled this instinct (which is both godly and deeply, preciously human) to welcome, to embrace, to restore, and to uplift.  He shows us constantly that, as members of a common human family, we are “in this together”—from the simple act of asking the faithful to bless him before bestowing his first papal blessing five years ago to his first papal visit to Lampedusa both to extend his concern and to make the world more aware of the plight of migrants and refugees.  Each of his formal visits contains some visit to prisons, hospitals, and places of keen need, even despair—and often these encounters, like those of Jesus, happen spontaneously, as needs present themselves.

Stopping at a regional hub for immigrants and refugees during his trip to Bologna on October 1, 2017, he spoke powerfully to the refugees who surrounded him, as well as to the rest of the world, asking us all to open our eyes to truly see one another.

“You only see correctly with closeness and mercy. Without it, the other remains a stranger, even an enemy, and can’t become my neighbor.  Only with mercy can we understand the suffering of others, their problems.  If we don’t see others with mercy, then we run the risk that God won’t look at us with mercy.  I’m here with you because I want to carry your eyes in mine, your hearts in mine.”

“I want to carry your eyes in mine, your hearts in mine.”  We are called to do that, to want that kind of connection with one another; with such radical simplicity Pope Francis teaches us how to live “the mystery of living together, of being a people.” (Joy of the Gospel, paragraph 87)

In a world of chaos and strife we need this graceful reminder that our personal presence to one another can make a critical difference.  What better way to explore this reality than to know one another’s stories, dreams, struggles, hopes and suffering; to learn from them; to respond to the demands of one another’s miseries and to bear them in common as we journey together?  Here “accompaniment”—choosing toward, learning from, and walking with one another—become a single act, a natural expression of our desire to express our common humanity.  Thank you, papa Francesco, for teaching us this!


Over and over again, the gospels show us the richness of encounter with Jesus.  In those encounters, people learn, are healed, are strengthened and affirmed, are given new vision, and are changed.  Because of that encounter they become bearers of light and love.  In today’s gospel we see how much some of the wisest people were willing to give up in order to be faithful to this life-changing encounter with Jesus.  If we today were to learn from the wise leaders, what three gifts might they give us?  I would suggest that they teach us the wisdom of vigilance, receptivity, and the joy of journeying together.

The first gift of the magi is that they show us how to be courageous and dedicated in our vigilance.  We see how they looked around their world with expectation, watching carefully the signs of the times.  They kept themselves ready to do seek and engage encounter with God in their own human circumstances.  They left behind their business affairs and responsibilities in order to seek the light and wisdom of Jesus, they travelled to distant lands, faithful to a long and difficult journey, and they kept their hearts open to allow both the journey and the encounter with the incarnate God to give them new direction.   From this we can learn to be vigilantly on the lookout for encounter with God.  This means being open to the wisdom that will help us truly find Jesus, for Jesus comes to us in many subtle ways.  Sometimes we don’t even see Jesus.  Or we look away.  Or we are unable to recognize the Christ in the ordinariness of our lives.  We will need that kind of dedication and vigilance if we are going to see, recognize, and attune ourselves to the God who, in Christ, has become part of the human family and is here in our world today.

But an encounter with God in our midst is only the first step in a series of spiritual practices.  What do we do when we find God?  Or when God finds us, in the midst of our circumstances?  The magi show us that encounter is about more than searching and finding.  It is also about receiving and being changed.  It is about being with, about lingering, about taking the time to be present to encounters so that the God who is with us in those encounters can truly take hold of us and change us.  That is the receptivity that the Magi model.  Despite the fact that they go bearing gifts to give, the more important part of the exchange is that they receive the light of Christ that gives them wisdom and greater knowledge of what needs to be done in a hard and sometimes treacherous world.  Without receiving that light, we cannot really know how best to order our lives and live toward what God wants for us.

But when we receive that light, we receive a third gift: the gift of joy.  And this is a joy that, at some level, no one can take from us, because it is a joy that comes from constancy and fidelity.  It is not always a flashy joy, full of emotion.  But it is the kind of  joy that gives us peace in our hearts, balance in our lives, and a radiant countenance that is ready to share and willing to work with others toward the common good.  Pope Francis calls this joy one that is “constantly born anew within us” through our contact with Christ; it is a quiet, strengthening joy that gives us the desire to do good and helps us to move outside ourselves.  The knowledge that we are fruitfully  journeying together toward a better world is the light that moves us forward.  That knowledge is the source of our joy, as Pope Francis says in Joy of the Gospel, par 24: when we know that God has loved us first and has so loved us as to share life with us, we know that we too can get involved, can go out to others, seek those who have been trampled down, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast.   As we greet the new year together, let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved; like the wise rulers of today’s gospel, let us bridge distances, live into our encounters, and go forth changed.


Forty years ago, in his Christmas homily, Archbishop Oscar Romero reminded the people of El Salvador that with the birth of Christ, God’s reign is inaugurated in human time.  He told them:

On this night, as we Christians have done every year for twenty centuries, we recall that God’s reign is now in this world and that Christ has inaugurated the fullness of time.  Christ’s birth attests that God is now journeying with us in history, that we do not go alone, and that we can hope and work for peace, for justice, for the reign of divine law, for something holy, because the builder of a reign of justice, of love, and of peace is already in the midst of us. (Christmas Homily, December 25, 1977)

Romero’s homily, written in a time of great personal and social darkness, is an important reminder of where our joy this evening comes from: God has entered human history in order to join us on the journey of life, on a new path that slowly leads toward an enduring peace.

Ever since he became pope, Francis has been encouraging us to “go forth” in faith.  We go forth in imitation of many who have gone before: we imitate the simple faith of shepherds seeking the child Jesus, we imitate the spontaneous generosity of the three kings.  We imitate the quiet courage of Mary and Joseph who went forth in faith despite the forces that threatened the safety and well-being of the child Jesus.  We go forth, to be, as the angels proclaim, ambassadors of God’s peace—to make peace real for the hungry and homeless, for migrants and those seeking safety, for all who have been deprived of their dignity or hope.  We go forth, knowing that we do not walk alone.  We walk with the One whose love gives life and guides our steps as we share the journey toward a more humane way of life, toward a way of being that mirrors God’s own generous self-sharing that we know in the birth of Jesus.

It is the first day of spring, and there is no holding her back!

Despite the fatigue, disillusionment, concern or distress any of us may feel, there is always a divine newness at work under the surface. Look around today, and you will see it, pushing through the soil from the ground of our very being. Pull out a few of the weeds that take up space in your life, and let the new growth have greater sway! Or, as Pope Francis encourages us in Joy of the Gospel, let a renewed encounter with God’s love blossom into an enriching friendship–and see where that friendship takes you!

The Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore invites us to let this gentle stirring move us to scatter heaps of hope. Let his words, beautifully translated by Br. James Talarovic, inspire you over the next weeks:

Today spring is awake at your door.
In your veiled, shy life, please don’t frustrate her.
Open up the petals of your heart today;
pour out your scent in waves into this sky
that is already resounding with songs.
Go off your usual path.
Go to the outside world,
scattering heaps of sweetness everywhere.
Sing the song of the One you seek
in your soul, in your work,
in this fragrance-laden, agitated breeze…
a delightful tune that renews an eager youth within
Today amid the scent
of new mango blossoms,
amid the rustling notes
of fresh stems bursting forth,
under the nectar-sprinkled moon rays
  in the tearful delight of new skies
Let your soul be stirred
  by the gentle touch of love and desire.
Rabindranath Tagore

Love: Besides Being What We Long For, Is It the Only Viable Strategy We Have Left?

As we take time today to celebrate the ways we have known love in our lives, it seemed appropriate to reflect on some of the qualities of love. I chose to highlight four: love’s transforming energy, love as the context for our journey toward human authenticity, love as a source of profound joy, love as a source of illumination and courage. This blog entry is derived from excerpts from my new book, The Tenderness of God: Reclaiming Our Humanity.

Love is far more than a feeling. It is an energy that reaches us at all levels—our affect and heart, our intellect and mind, our bodies and our souls. Further, it is a source of vitality; it is a transforming power. Perhaps because of its very power to change us, we both long for it and, at times, fear it. What is clear is that we will never tame love’s power, nor fathom all of its mysteries. To me, this suggests that our primary task, as humans, is to learn love, thoroughly and completely, as we create communities of growth, care and mutual belonging.

Love requires honesty. It is a journey toward human authenticity that we share with others. When we recognize our desire for greater meaning, coherence, and purpose in our lives, then, for the very sake of our own well-being, we must engage a genuine process of searching, a journey that leads us to probe what it means to be human and how to be related to others. When we begin to speak more honestly about our longings for fullness of life, we often come to find out that we are not alone in them. (Tenderness of God, pp. 1-2)

Love is a source of profound joy, capable of awakening us to deeper ways of being ourselves. As Henri Nouwen wrote decades ago, “The joy of life comes from the ways in which we live together and the pain of life comes from the many ways we fail to do that well.” (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, p, 90) Both love and joy are phenomena that pull us out of the smallness of the self and invite us to share ourselves, to connect with others, and to expand our personhood. As we choose this new and “wonderfully complicated” way of being, we come to know the power of tenderness and, as Pope Francis as said, “we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, par. 270)

Love illumines; it forges paths and lights the way forward. “Solving our problems requires us to grow beyond the smallnesses of character and vision that plague us, uncovering together a solidarity that dignifies and creates possibilities that, individually, we are unable to create. If love is, in the end, “the only light which ‘can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working,’” (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, paragraph 272) we shall need to allow and enable love to give us the new human intelligence that our species currently requires. For love is not just a transforming power. It is the only viable strategy we have left.” (Tenderness of God, pp. 70-71)

I engage some kind of reflective process at the turn of each year. But the end of 2016 left me craving solitude for a deeper “sifting” of all of the dust, settled and still swirling, all around us. It was a year that convinced me even more of our deep need for spiritual practices that serve authentic identity formation and re-formation. Now is a critical moment to ask ourselves not just “Who are we?” but “Who are we becoming?”

The Ignatian tradition helpfully encourages us to see our lives as being created “momently.” This word suggests that we can live in awareness and participation in all of the “moments” of our lives that shape or form us in some way. When we think about it, our lives are made up of many significant “moments”–moments of decision, moments of joy, moments of loss, moments of quiet victory, moments of longing, moments of peace, moments of connection. We are constantly being created and re-created, by God, by our relationships and by and in the concrete circumstances and choices of our lives. In fact, the fully engaged person can live into each and ever moment as a profound space of encounter and transformation. This is both awesome and, at times, overwhelming.

Yet ultimately there is something very freeing and liberating about the realization that it is never too late for us to change. At the core of our being, we are part of a creative relationship that gives us possibilities that we alone could not even imagine for ourselves. We are here to dream God’s dream into the world, to realize that our deepest longings for peace, fruition, and the flourishing of all creation are but the smallest echo of God’s desires as they filter through God’s own image in us. Imagine what our communities and our world would look like if we lived toward the possibilities that take form and shape as we know ourselves in the light of our relationship with God. These possibilities emerge as a direct result of the choices we make each day.

Each day we are asked to “choose toward what better leads to God’s deepening life” in ourselves and in our world. This is called “the Principle and Foundation” of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (paragraph 23), and we are asked to make it the principle of our daily lives, both for our own flourishing and for the health and well-being of the world around us. The Principle and Foundation is not simply about our relationship with God, as if that relationship were a private affair. We are meant to diffuse the love of God into the human community, especially in the places where people have been trampled down by neglect, abuse, injustice, and all that disappoints God. How will we attend, momently, to ourselves and to others in ways that contribute to a greater flourishing of the human race?

The knowledge that we are being created momently asks us to take greater care with the momentary details of our lives, the intricacy with which our life is strung together, the causal effects of experiences in our lives, our sense of what those experiences ask of us, and all of the relational implications of our lives. And when we recognize that God is at least as attentive to the details of our lives as we are, we gain a deeper appreciation of God’s love. A beautiful daily reflection for us to engage consists of remembering and honoring the ways that we have felt the tender touch of the divine hand in our lives: have we been kept, somehow, from making a serious mistake? Given an opportunity to contribute to something larger than ourselves? Brought back to our senses with a keen realization or awareness? Stirred to love in a way that surprises us? Such realizations help us to remember that we are cherished and being continually formed through the many moments of our lives. This kind of examen gives us a sense not only of who we are but of who we can become, empowering us to choose toward the fruition of the love that gives life to our world.

I was quite blessed to be on sabbatical this past semester, engaging, reflecting and writing. My travels took me first to England, where I met with clergy gathering for the National Estate Churches Network to facilitate their annual conference, first in London and then in Yorkshire. The day’s topic was “Practical Spirituality.” After spending about a half an hour reclaiming the word “spirituality,” which has suffered near-mortal blows in the past 25 years, our conversations centered around spiritual practices that:

• Sustain our hope, vitality and vision
• Stimulate personal and communal renewal
• Can support recovery and growth after trauma and sustain those who accompany the traumatized
• Help us to take “a long, loving look at the real” and find our place in a world of challenge and possibility
• Enable collaboration in the work of making our world a place we can all call home

We recognized that our communities were incubator spaces for the activity of the Spirit in our lives and spoke of deepening both the partnership with God and the practices of solidarity, collaboration, and cooperation that will enable that Spirit to guide us. We also recognized that, when we are stripped of everything else, all we really have is one another. And the core of the Good News that we embody is that we are not alone as we journey.

The reality that we are not alone is at the heart of all work of accompaniment, and we know that all forms of recovery really start taking off when people know that they are not the only person caught up in challenging circumstances, struggling with a problem, or feeling overwhelmed by the burdens they carry. Therefore, our efforts at accompaniment must be supported and enhanced by being “rooted and grounded in love” (the beautiful phrase from Ephesians 3:17), the love that gives life and that makes us who we are. As we increasingly draw strength from that love, we can orient ourselves to communicating that love through our personal presence, creating communities of deeper care, solidarity, collaboration and growth. We have companions, past and present, who provide models for what this presence looks like and tools to cultivate it in ourselves and our communities. But ultimately a large part of our work consists in how we apply these tools to the complexities of our own times and circumstances–a process that becomes inspiring, enlivening and exciting when we share the experiment of communio in solidarity with those around us.

Slides from the workshop “Practical Spirituality” are available at http://gillianahlgren.com/practicalspirituality/

I am deeply grateful to the National Estate Churches Network Conference planning team and especially to new NECN chair Andy Delmege, outgoing NECN chair Bp. Laurie Green, Jane Winter and Lynne Cullens for their warmth and hospitality.

Jesuit educational institutions are extraordinary places–mainly because of the people they attract, shape, and support. The following presentation is a collage of ideas and themes that can provide a fertile space for conversation with your colleagues as you probe together what it means to be part of Jesuit higher education.

The Christian mystical tradition offers us many practical resources for living today, not just as individuals but also as people who seek to live together in community, to collaborate in the work of making the world a better place. See below for an introductory vision of practical resources for living today.

Pope Francis prepares to light peace candle

Pope Francis prepares to light peace candle

Together we are more than what each of us, individually, can be.  Representatives of the world’s religious traditions collectively lit a candelabra reminding us of this truth.  As we face problems that often overwhelm us with their complexity, it is good to remember that we do not have to solve them alone.  We can seek out others of good will and work together.

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