God is in the kindness of others, the love we see, the love we receive.

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Yesterday was my birthday – the best birthday I have ever had.

Each step in the day unfolded as if to say in a plain clear way: Bob, love is here and you are surrounded by it.  A message sometimes illusive in a life, other times forgotten, misplaced amid the swirl of a life and the clash of events – far and near.

Mass in the morning in a small chapel with my former neighbors, who are too kind to me, always welcoming, always thoughtful.  They did not know it was my birthday, they did not need to know to be warm and receptive.  They are just that way.  Evidence of God’s presence in each of them – sharing their love with me.

A quiet conversation with my friend, Mike – about family and about grace.  God’s presence again. Love and friendship shared – real human contact.  Men sharing life.

A lunch with my dear friend Phyllis – just the two of us at her table.  A meal lovingly prepared and offered.  That’s Phyllis – always caring, always sharing, always remembering and reaching out.  Again, God’s presence – so warmly given.

A chance meeting with Mike’s wife Mary Fran – and more purposeful conversation – always concern about family and joy in hearing of their health and success, the growth of children, the twists and turns of our adult children and the friends we share.

Each of these a prelude to the best birthday experience I have had: dinner with my son, his wife, my little month-old grandson Jack and wee Bonnie – a little being in a dog costume.

This was my first ever birthday dinner with a grandchild.  Wonderful.

Last night I saw a family.  I saw what a child does to summon us as one.

I saw my daughter-in-law Mary and the unique being of a woman, a mother – it is as if Jack is part of her.  She handles Jack with a natural comfort and tenderness that says: I am a mother, I love, this is what I do – and it takes no learning.

I saw so clearly that we cannot survive or be complete without a woman being a woman.  I saw how we are designed to be – that it is not right that man might be alone.  I saw that women must be as they are meant to be for us to be well, for our society to be at peace.  I saw that we as men must remember that we are to honor women, treat them with respect and love them for who they are – and what they do so well, so generously.

I saw as well the ease with which my son Jared responded to being “Dad.”  Here in my sight is the little guy I have known and loved who now is a man of achievement, a man who mastered an exceedingly difficult Ph.D. whose range stretches from complexity science to tender-hearted, proud father, thoughtful and loving husband and son.

I saw a family – I saw love, and joy, and the gratefulness that comes from receiving a child as a divine gift.

Yesterday God celebrated my birthday with me.

Shalom.

The person with the sacred mentality … does not feel herself to be the center of the universe.  She considers the Center to be elsewhere and other … she is unlikely to feel lost or insignificant precisely because she draws her significance and meaning from her relationship, her connection, with the center, that Other.

M. Scott Peck, M.D.

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To get a look at the lived nature of secularism in the contemporary culture visit Montgomery Mall in affluent Bethesda as I recently did.  Yikes!

What did I see and experience?  A mammoth mall with “high-end” stores, an orgy of those in search of unnecessary things and passing fancies, a temple for wandering souls.

The affluent mall for the flush-with-cash and credit card collectors is a monument to consumption, a cold cavern – a far cry from the village square.

It is not a peaceful place, rather relentless noisy place, packed with legions of women, young and old, – all loud-talkers who broadcast to all the world in their highest volume at supersonic streams of breathless chatter just about anything that comes to mind – the personal, the mundane, the self-proclaiming, the useless, the trivial, the trendy, the unimportant.  There is, in this, that confirmation that meaningful personal conversation is not conveyed in high octaves, stratospheric pitch and pace.

In such a place you experience a population in constant motion – from legs, to arms, to mouth: a dizzying self-absorption that forecloses any communication, personal contact or intimacy.

The affluent mall is, shall we say, a far distance from humanity and reverence.  It is an odd shrine to secular humanism, the exclusionary variety that exiles both humans and the Divine.

The irony, of course, is how this place measures ultimate success at this time: Christmas. Yet, for all involved in the Mall experience this is Christ-as-transaction, for ’tis the season of the sale.

Christ in consumptive chaos.  Some culture, this secularism.

Christ, contrary to the clamor of the affluent mall, was born in a silence that spoke to the ages.

The gifts presented to the Holy Child were presented to celebrate a deed long-awaited and sought.  A child and gifts given in reverence.  No loud talk.  No mindless chatter. Animals and shepherds assembled in quiet.  A birth in plain sight – under the open night skies, guided by a star.  No sales.  No “high-end” merchandise.  No merchandise at all. Rather, The Perfect Gift … perfection in human form.  Hope eternal – the gift never out of fashion, always in need.

Christmas.  Reverence or not?  Reflection or chatter?  Goods or God?

Where have we come?  How trapped are we?  How easily subverted, captured, impaired?  Do we miss the movie entirely without any notion there is a movie, and we are in it?

I stay here in Bethesda in a friend’s vacant house, stripped of all furniture and adornments – clean and vacant.  A silent place.  I sleep on an air mattress on the floor in a warm, plain sleeping bag.  In this simplicity I am closer to the birth of Christ.  At the mall amid its denizens, I am further from that ancient, long-awaited birth.

Secularism is insidious.  Be careful.  It changes you, reduces you, draws you from yourself, and from God.

Give me the empty house and the sleeping bag.  I’ll be the shepherd resting in quieting silence.

The deals you do not make are most often the best you’ll ever make.

Shalom.

” … I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”

Jn 10:10

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Is it not reasonable to think that these words tell us about what a whole human life is, what it looks like?  After all, Jesus is saying in this statement that he has come to give us a full life.

Well how does one understand this in greater detail?  So that we might know and experience a full life?

Psychologists and psychiatrists tell us that it is not sufficient to have a strong ego, but rather we must also come to know our self and in that come to understand the spiritual content of a human life.

Some identify this as the “hero’s journey” – a process of moving from our youth and its immaturity to adulthood and greater maturity onto a state of spiritual awareness (which supplies meaning and purpose and exceeds what is but material existence and its tasks and ways of being).

The whole human attains both psychological health and spiritual growth.

In the former one addresses life and relationships in a responsible way, with joy and in a manner that is self-fulfilling and satisfying.  The spiritual component of a full life leads to our capacity to affirm life day in and day out.

A full life both handles the task of living in a competent and satisfying way but also declares that life is worth living, a great gift.  A spiritually developed person sees life’s value in all circumstances and brings the joy of life to all things encountered.

To the person with this fullness – unconditional love is the cornerstone.  One who loves freely is one who is generous with their feelings, extends himself or herself to others in a generous way without neglecting their own needs and existence, their identity and responsibilities.

Too often we neglect ourselves in living, are coaxed by others into doing what they want to our detriment.  This is not life in the full, no matter what you give in the process – for no one can ask you to do for them to your own perpetual damage and neglect.

In living life as Jesus describes we are to know the sacred value of our own existence and doing so we find the gateway to the full life, and psychological health.

People, institutions and cultures can deprive us of our psychological welfare, and our spiritual existence as well.

As to the latter, cultures that shun faith are surely depriving the human person of the opportunity to full life.

Those cultures often attempt to substitute material achievement for full life and show themselves a failure in the serious, damaging, costly and dehumanizing personal and interpersonal problems they produce from excessive crime, to suicide, to unhappiness, addictions, broken families, out-of-wedlock births, depression and expanding dependency on the state and others.

Life in the full.  A birthright.

What are you doing to claim it?  What is your culture doing to insure it is accessible?

Shalom.

Prayer Request - Please pray for the Seiler Family of Indianapolis, Indiana, today.  Mom Karen Seiler lost her mother last night and prayers will be very helpful for her, her husband Tim and her son Mark.  Thank you.

It is a healing discovery to know that we are everywhere surrounded by rationally impenetrable mysteries … psychic facts that logic can overlook but cannot eliminate.

Carl Jung, M.D.

+ + +

Dents, bruises, injuries, insults.  Life.  We all find difficulties in life.  Some have a whole blown in the foundation at childhood, others have a multiple cracks in the foundation rendered by a selfish and neglectful family where all things are put before the child as if to say: you do not matter to us more than we matter to ourselves.

Then there are the injuries along the way, when we are adults.

Between the gaping holes and the multiple fractures, the fractures seem more challenging.  They make us fragile, and require intricate care, real finesse in dealing with our self and the world.  With the gaping hole, one has a one-stop reality – there is a hole that I must attend to in order to sail on.

In either of the cases – childhood holes or multiple fractures, or the damages of adult injury, what Jung says is a guiding principle and the core of your health: there is an impenetrable center in you that cannot be eliminated.  Your strategy as a consequence: go there, cultivate that center – God at your center where the indestructible dignity of you resides without damage, whole and intact.

With the focus on God in you, Christ in you – you distance yourself from the hurts and those who injured you.  You detach from the event, leave it and defensiveness behind, as well as those who injured you in the past.  You leave the offenders in their destruction where they belong, where they reside as they are.

To do otherwise leaves you in injury and disarray, in a false state, in an untruth – that you are incomplete and perpetually injured.

In contrast, to going to the center proclaims reality, truth: what God has made cannot be broken.

Remember St. Paul in 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, there he acknowledges that he had a “thorn” in his side and sought relief from it and was given this response: God’s grace is sufficient enough for any “thorn” one encounters.

As this response tells us: God alone is all we need.  Your true self is there at that impenetrable center.  Go there, work to get there – that is your journey: a journey from outside to inside, from injury to healing and wholeness.

Our health depends not on miracles, but on seeing fully by going to the center, to God – where we are whole.

Shalom.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church … Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system … a cheap covering for … sins; no contrition required.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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I often observe that the loss of faith in secular culture produces behavior that secularized commentators just do not, by their own admission, understand.  Their puzzlement is amplified by their unfamiliarity with psychology and intellectual history.

Take, for example, the U.S. Senate’s release of their report that is critical of interrogation techniques used on battle field combatants and avowed terrorists captured in our post-9-11 military efforts in the Middle East.

Commentators wonder how it is that the Senate could release such a report, which could have multiple serious negative consequences for those involved in the interrogations, innocent American civilians unconnected to the detentions, our military presently deployed around the world, and our national security.

Why, the commentators ask, would the Senate release something that can be that harmful?

Without passing on the merits of the detention or the interrogations, one thing seems to explain to me why such a report is issued.  Mind you, there may be a number of motivations in releasing the report.  But one thing stands out for me.

It is the notion of “cheap grace” that martyred Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses at the beginning of his book The Cost of Discipleship.

In the book he discusses how people tend to receive the benefits of grace without acknowledging a countervailing obligation of discipleship.  To Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace” is the receipt of an extraordinary benefit without any sense of obligation resulting.

Mind you, I am not saying that our interrogations or detentions were a grace.   But I am saying that the members of the Senate, like all Americans, received some benefit from both the interrogations and detentions.  It is simply impossible to say that there were no benefits derived.  Mind you, as well, that I am not saying that the practices are to be replicated or not.

But I am saying that, in faith, grace is a reciprocal relationship.  There is, as Bonhoeffer would say, no cheap grace.

More to the point I am saying that the Senators who supported the release of this report appear to have missed the idea of reciprocity.  They, like us, were beneficiaries of the interrogations and the detentions.

That said, we cannot wash of hands of either the interrogations or the detentions so we might feel better, cleanse any sense of guilt.

Assuming that the practices were in any part unacceptable, reciprocity would require that having accepted the benefits we not act in a manner that can accrue to the detriment of others, either those who did our bidding or the innocent. Likewise, if there is sin the desire for contrition is necessary.  Public announcement of sin is not, and never has been, contrition.  We cannot feel good at the expense of others.

Shalom.

 

Aloneness is not loneliness.

+ + +

We often develop in life things that we come to depend on, earthly things.

Often it is the need for others, a mate “to complete” our life, or it might be our work, or an institutional life, or a role we have become comfortable with – one that would seem to give us our identity.  Doing this is quite common.

But mates depart, and our work ends.  Institutions die out.  Our role changes. These forms of identity no longer hold.  What then?

Well, we learn the difference between loneliness and aloneness.  And, we come to know our true identity.  We come to find that it has been God and us alone all this time – alone together.

Aloneness is not loneliness.

In aloneness there is peace, and quiet.  All the affectations are stripped away.  We take on the dimension we have always had – one of a mortal human with an eternal soul.

In aloneness the world is a monastery and we become monks.

In aloneness we see better, see others better – and we listen better, receive life without the tensions we once knew.

In aloneness, it is no longer our task to save everyone, correct all the ills we see.

In aloneness we trust, trust in God.  In aloneness we spend more quiet and conscious time with God, with those we love who have passed away.  Age notwithstanding, in aloneness we see through the storms of this world, and the wilds of human adversity and turmoil. In aloneness we find tranquility.

In aloneness the contour of rolling hills and expansive farmland silently speak to us, reassure us and the sky smiles while the clouds laugh and sometime turn stern only to laugh again.

In aloneness the mountains sleep in a quiet repose until they dance for our enjoyment.

In aloneness we hear the wind, listen to the trees, and heartbeats become clear and another’s eyes tell a story.

In aloneness God is everywhere and we are with God.

Shalom.

It is the law of the kingdom of God that every man shall participate in the gift which he willingly receives as a gift from God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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We are given gifts so we may use them.  This is intentional.  Know that this is true about you as it is about each and everyone.

Sometimes the gifts are hidden in a struggle, a heartache – other times they are planted right out there in the open – in a beautiful voice, a facility for learning or teaching, a love of children or a desire to help those who need help – or perhaps in a desire to grow in faith and share in deeds and words the fidelity of Christ, the love of others, understanding, forgiveness and mercy, and to make peace from discord.

But gifts they are and freely given, intentionally so.  Before you were the world’s, you were God’s and once in the world you are still God’s just as Jesus was the Christ.

The journey in life is, in large measure, the journey to find what your gifts are and how you are to use them.  In gifts and their use is our identity – a divine identity.

Be patient in pursuit of who you are – life will reveal the gifts and their use in the proper time.

Listen as you journey.  Others tell us of our identity, our gift and our intended role in life.  Be alert to challenges that refine who we are.  Likewise, listen to your heart.  To what does it call you?  To whom are you called?

We do not create who we are but rather discover who we are and been made to be.

To journey is to discover.

We don’t grow older, we grow riper.

Picasso

Shalom.

Note – I am off today to Washington, D.C. where I will meet my new and first Grandchild – Jack Seneca Sylvester. Jack is one month and four days old.  He is a cute little muffin with a little pumpkin head.  He sleeps so peacefully. In my family, we love kids more than any other thing.  This will be a really big moment for me – bringing back all the memories of my mother and uncles and aunts, and grandparents who loved kids and loved me.  I will see in little Jack all the good works of those who loved and taught me, accepted me with open arms and open hearts.

Yes, I will hold Jack and kiss his forehead and probably shed a few tears of happiness.  I can hardly wait to see his little feet that will one day journey as you and I have … and his little blueberry toes.  I just love blueberries and those little toes that so resemble them.  God bless you and your children and little Jack Sylvester – one month and four days old.  Peace be with us all.

The mysteries in religion are measured by the proud according to their own comprehension, by the humble, according to the power of God; the humble glorify God for them, the proud exalt themselves against them.

John Henry Newman

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A child was born to a mother whose husband abandoned her and the child before the child’s birth.  The child, a boy, had little contact with his father.  Indeed, he saw his father twice: once when the man was dying and once when the boy was but four.

As to the latter instance, the father walked by without so much as stopping and stooping to say “hello.”  The boy remembers receding to his darkened room and crying.

The young boy learned from this that what hurts us is, in the end, biography not fate.

The lad never carried a grievance, never let the desertion cripple him, never sought a substitute, never let this fact hold him back.  He became a good father and a successful and contented man.

How does a young boy suffer such a loss yet walk a constructive path – walk without noticeable limp?

Grace.

Thomas Merton tells us that we cannot will our own emptiness – the state of disgorging ourselves of all that is not God to make of us a temple for God.

Mystery.

Cannot something like this be said of grace?  Can we assume that we will always know the instances in which the grace of God visits us?  What equipped the young boy to the wisdom he possessed at four, as a youngster in a world full of boys with fathers?  Grace.  Grace is the answer.

Grace: a mystery within the mystery of God.

We humans like to domesticate God, to cut God down to our size.  In the foolishness of pride we attempt to reduce God to what we can comprehend.  We do this with grace.

We assume that we will know when the grace of God governs us.  Yet does this explain the young boy’s knowledge and reaction to his father despite the hurt he received?  No.

Grace visits without us knowing it, without us earning it.  Thus, too does God.

If we cannot empty ourselves by ourselves, by our own will, why would we expect to know when grace visits us?

Grace, like God, is mystery.  Mystery engages us without our conscious knowledge of its presence.  The same can be said of grace.  You are, in ways not known to you, always swimming in the grace of God.

Take heart.

Shalom.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Cor 12:9

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These are the words attributed to Christ by St. Paul in the Second Letter to the Corinthians.

“My grace is sufficient for you.”

In my conversations with people, I’d say virtually anyone who confers with me about their life and its trials and puzzles, I am struck by how little they account for God’s grace in their lives.

This experience leads me to St. Paul and the words above.

It occurs to me that we are born with grace sufficient to us, sufficient for anything we face: loss, rejection, abandonment, illness, misfortune, poverty, pain and suffering – anything we face.

If this is the case, why would we opt to depend on ourselves, on our power, wisdom, cunning, plans, actions, assets, others, worldly institutions, etc.?

If God’s grace is sufficient unto us and what we encounter are we not making a fundamental mistake to not count on the grace we have been given?

As you go through today ask yourself: Do I rely on God’s sufficient grace to see me through any difficulty that comes my way?

In God’s grace there is no difficulty that is great enough to defeat you.

Shalom.

There was the cat.  Sitting there in the sun with its needs satisfied, for whom one place was the same as any other as long as it was sunny … How can the great suck of self ever hope to be a fat cat dozing in the sun?

Walker Percy

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These are the words given Will Barrett in Percy’s novel The Second Coming.

Yes, indeed – how can “the great suck of self” ever lead us to the contentment of a fat cat dozing in the sun?

Do you recall the story of the woman who suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years?  (Mk 5:25-34)

She had sought the care of many physicians but her bleeding grew worse.  She was desperate.  Having heard of Jesus ability to heal, she worked her way into a large crowd that surrounded Jesus and thought if she simply got close enough to touch his cloak perhaps she too would be healed.

She moved close enough to touch his garment and, when she touched his cloak, her bleeding stopped.

Feeling that touch, Jesus asked who in the crowd had touched his cloak.  Fearful, the woman stepped forward and knelt before him and told him that she did.  His response: “Daughter, your faith has healed you well, go in peace …”

Without attempting to explore the very significant notion of self here, suffice it to say that we all are encased in self and finding a way to understand this, in a way that is healthy and does not present us with Will Barrett’s “great suck of self,” is one of our earthly tasks, a very fundamental earthy task.

How can we find the contentment of a fat cat dozing in the sun?  And can we find it to be a perpetual state here on earth?

Well, it is not the sun that brings contentment, but rather faith – for faith gives us a way of seeing and being – a way of knowing contentment, peace, satisfaction. In faith fully developed there is no “suck of self.”  In faith we are not the center of life.

The hemorrhaging woman sought help for herself, but she sought it through faith.

The help she sought came through her faith, not the sun – for contentment arises from the spirit not the body, from belief not reason.  Does not spirit and belief encompass the body and reason?  Does not God encompass the self?

But what of a perpetual state of dozing in the sun?  That is not to be.  For if contentment were to be perpetual, life on earth would be life in heaven and the two are distinct.

Our time in the mundane is our time to live to glimpse heaven – our dozing in the sun is a foretelling of what is to come.  Our task here is to find faith so the contentment of “dozing in the sun”becomes an eternal reality.

Do not fret or be impatient – seek here what tells of what is to come.

Shalom.

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