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“The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change… Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home)

September 1 has been designated as the Universal Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation today. This year’s day of prayer was launched last night with the first annual ecumenical prayer service in Assisi. It was a great honor for me to do two of the readings at last night’s quiet service, held in the side chapel of the Basilica of St. Clare, where the original San Damiano cross hangs. According to tradition, Christ spoke to Francis through this cross, saying, “Francis, go and repair my home. Don’t you see that it is being ruined?” We gathered to remember those words and to hear them anew, as an invitation to us and to all, to restore this earth, our common home. As we reflected together on expressions of care and commitment articulated by various churches throughout the world, we affirmed that our care for creation is a matter of great joy and hope that we would engage even if our common home were not in crisis.

In fact, the entire period from September 1 to August 4 has been designated the “season of creation” where people all over the world will be renewing their commitment to caring for our home and for one another. To connect with a network of people engaging the Season of Creation and to see or notify others of events in your area, please go to http://seasonofcreation.org.

Last night’s prayer service is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONggo3gTODg

Please join me in renewing your commitment to caring for our common home and in extending this invitation to others, so that all of us might commit ourselves more deeply to the work and the joy of making this world a home for all.

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Today is the 503rd birthday of one of history’s remarkable women, Teresa of Avila. Successfully spearheading the reform of the Carmelite order and articulating some of the most profound expressions of the mystical life, despite the inhospitable climate fostered by the Spanish Inquisition, Teresa has much to teach us today. She teaches us the virtue of tenacity, or, as she would put it “una muy determinada determinación.” I think some today express it with the phrase “And still, she persisted.” Moving about Spain by mule to found over a dozen convents, organizing a center for formation for women who would take her reforms into the next generation, and modeling what active, collaborative partnership with God looks like in the real world–in her accomplishments, it is easy to see both the vision and the strength of character and will necessary to bring a vision into being.

Where did all that strategic vision come from? Another thing we can learn from Teresa is how to grow into a functional partnership with the divine. Teresa spent considerable time in prayer, and her prayer took many creative forms. She was not born knowing how to pray, but she, like all of us, was born with an inner instinct toward the divine–an instinct that she re-discovered, as a young adult, because she became deathly ill. As her inner dialogue with God deepened and expanded, new forms of prayer emerged, and gradually she learned to see and listen to the world around her with God, sensitized by the indwelling presence of God that she nurtured and fed with her attention and solicitude. Her writings teach us that all of us have that vocation–a vocation to listen, to be present, to extend love into the world, and to allow God to continually re-create us as our partnership with God grows and bears fruit.

Teresa’s counsel, “The important thing is not to think much but to love much; do, then, what most stirs you to love…” underscores Pope Francis’s clarity in Joy of the Gospel, that we are all called to be “missionary disciples.” We are all “agents of evangelization” as we extend God’s love into a weary world, knowing that a loveless world is not the same as a loving one and acting in the strength of that conviction. “What you have come to realize, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others,” writes Pope Francis. “Our falling short of perfection should be no excuse; on the contrary, mission is a constant stimulus not to remain mired in mediocrity but to continue growing.” (Joy of the Gospel, par. 121) With Teresa’s counsels to guide us, let us aspire to that growth and be visionary agents of change, aware that “whoever does not grow, shrinks” (Teresa, Interior Castle) and that “every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us.” (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, par. 9)

Thirty-eight years ago today Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while offering the Eucharist in the chapel of the Divine Providencia at the hospital where he lived. Many of us know something of his strong desire to ensure that the church express its concern for the poor through more direct accompaniment of them in their needs and by implementing the changes that their cries for justice require. But Romero was not always a prophetic person. He grew into the Christian vocation to be a voice for the voiceless through a genuine conversion—a conversion brought about by his accompaniment of the crucified Christ in the poor of El Salvador. Prior to discovering Jesus in the midst of the suffering poor, no one would have predicted that he would become one of Christianity’s great modern prophets. In fact, Romero was originally named archbishop because he was seen as reserved and introspective. Perhaps the most remarkable element of his Christian witness is its testimony to the God who continually works in and with us, calling us to grow and to change.

Romero grew to understand his pastoral responsibility in very specific ways: he was to listen, to understand the lived experience of his people, to help them to see the Christ in their midst, and to exhort all to fidelity to the gospel’s call to dignity, equality, and love. His homilies became central to the theological, ethical and spiritual formation of the people of El Salvador. He had a keen sense of Christ’s presence in the poor and a profound gift for articulating the demands of the gospel for justice, tenderness and right living. He preached by word and example, listening to the stories of the poor, founding a center for families whose loved ones had been disappeared by paramilitary forces, living simply, and becoming a voice for the voiceless. Romero denounced his country’s social, political and economic injustices, the indifference of so many to those injustices, and the growing spiral of violence intended to maintain the status quo.

Strengthened by his deepening awareness of the presence of God in the community around him, the only way Romero could make sense of the darkness around him was by intensifying his dedication to showing love in action. As I look to his example, I see someone capable of showing us how to see past the darknesses of our days and commit ourselves to bringing greater light and presence into our world.

In his final homily, 38 years ago, Romero spoke of hope as what enlightens all of our longings for justice, peace and well-being:

“We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us… We know that no one can go on forever, but those who have put into their work a sense of very great faith, of love of God, of hope among human beings, find it all results in the splendors of a crown that is the sure reward of those who labor to cultivate truth, justice, love and goodness on earth.”

The recent declaration of Pope Francis that Romero will be canonized this year brings us both joy and an increased responsibility to understand his challenging message for us today.

You can find a wealth of information about Romero, including copies of all of his homilies, in English and Spanish at http://www.romerotrust.org.uk

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.

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