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The Fire of Pentecost

pentecost-flame2Lake Como, Italy

The Fire Trail, my sixth novel, has now been released into the world to fly on its own, and so we have flown as well, to Lake Como for a time of rest and re-creation. Settling into our hotel, we are recovering from the 20-hour trip, flying San Francisco-Newark-Milan, and the challenge of today’s airports, especially for the frail and elderly.

This morning, from our balcony, I hear the buzz of a weed-cutter clearing the hillside. Swallows chirp in the garden next door where visitors wander neat paths and beyond our terrace steep green-forested mountains descend to the long blue lake. I know, but cannot see from here, snow-capped Alps anchor the northern tip of the finger of water like winter queens on their thrones. Now, in the peace of a northern May morning, I consider yesterday’s Festival of Pentecost, a wondrous holy-day, and all that it means.

The images of Pentecost are powerful, a great distance from the gentle Jesus of mainline Protestantism. As the disciples await their Lord’s Holy Spirit promised at His ascension, they must have been fearful, wondering, and even doubtful. Their human limitations, just like ours, must have shadowed them, as they waited in hiding in Jerusalem.

And then it happened:

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2)

They were transformed. No longer fearful, they left the safety of their Jerusalem room and entered the danger of the Jerusalem streets, no longer in hiding, speaking in other languages of the “wonderful works of God.” Soon they found they had other powers, powers to heal, to endure, to inspire, to give others the power of the Holy Spirit, in a long succession through years and centuries to this day, to this moment, our moment in time, through Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination.

The Feast of Pentecost is the fiat (meaning let it be done) moment for us all, a time we as children of God, say “yes” to Him, let it be done as He wills. For Mary said “yes” and was filled with the Holy Ghost, to nurture and give birth to God’s Son. We too, can say “yes.” We too, can be filled with His fire.

Lately I have been editing the sermons of our dear Bishop Morse, and reflecting from time to time on my last year with him, his last words. When we talked about the turmoil of our world, our church, even our local parishes, I often waited for an answer to why, some explanation for it all, and most of the time he would say, “He (or she) said yes to God. He (or she) didn’t say yes to God. That’s why. They didn’t open the door.” He would raise his brows, shake his head in wonderment, and his eyes would search mine to see if I saw too, if I understood. I did, for when you say yes, you ask that His will become yours. Let it be done. Fiat.

I have often thought of those words and their simplicity, as truth often is, right in front of us, staring at us, waiting for our response.

It is not always easy to say yes, and we often forget once we have said it. The Baptized forget who they are. The Confirmed do not remember. The Ordained look away. But if we have said yes, God will not forsake us. Then swords shall pierce our hearts, and nails shall wound our flesh. We shall know the despair of darkness, rimmed by the hope of light. In those times of terrible twilight and deepest dawn we must remember to breathe “Jesus” in and out, refilling our souls. We must remember to pray the Our Father, holding onto the words that will pull us to shore, that will give us life, that will save us.

Pentecost. They gathered on this Jewish festival day to remember the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai and were given a different kind of knowledge, commandment, and power. The English Church in time came to call Pentecost “Whitsunday,” White Sunday, for it was a traditional day of Confirmation, when the Confirmands wore white. Confirmation, of course, is a renewal, a confirming, of our Baptismal vows (vows of our godparents for us or our own vows) and is another Holy Spirit descent upon us. In Baptism and Confirmation, we say yes to God. We open the door to His will becoming ours. Let it be done. Fiat.

The disciples said yes, and on that day in Jerusalem two thousand years ago they received the Holy Spirit. And so we call this the Birthday of the Church. The Church – the descendants of those disciples – has been saying yes ever since, or at least trying to.

Last night, the evening of Pentecost Sunday, we stood on our balcony overlooking Lake Como. As a half moon rose in a chilly dark sky, fireworks boomed from a barge on the lake. Brilliant light rose and shattered over the waters, drifting down and disappearing like falling stars. The bright diamonds flashed so near I thought I might take them in my hands. But of course it was an illusion, a dream, a longing desire.

But Pentecost fulfills that desire. The Holy Spirit does indeed descend upon us and we can truly open our palms, our hearts, and welcome Him. We can say yes. We can have that desire fulfilled.

Sometimes we say no, even after we said yes, and we must repent. We must turn around, recall our yearning and renew our yes. This chance, a repeated loving chance, is the glorious heart of the Gospel, the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

My little novel, The Fire Trail, draws that crooked line that runs between saying yes and saying no, or even saying maybe. The way of yes is the way of love, of self-sacrifice for our brothers and sisters. The way of no is the way of unlove, of self-gratification. The way of yes is the way of civilization, be it Western, Eastern, Southern, Northern. The way of no is the way of the jungle, barbarism, darkness. Nihilism. Nothing.

I pray, as I watch the clouds gather over the snowy mountains, that I will keep saying yes and that God’s tongues of fire will continue to rebirth His Holy Church, to inflame us all with His will. Let it be done. Fiat.

The Tapestry of Memory

IMG_1326 (5)Perhaps it was the gold vestments against the crimson carpet at St. Peter’s Pro-Cathedral in Oakland that made the Mass of the Holy Ghost one of such deep beauty. Certainly the chanting from the choir loft behind us enhanced this sense of heaven and earth, the light angelic descants swirling over and around our mortal flesh in the weighty oak pews. It was both solemn and joyous, for we were thankful for our archbishop’s careful care over the last year and were happy to witness the installation of our new bishop. 

Saturday’s Mass was one of those moments in history that unites the political and the spiritual. Man has long organized his doings with one another, an activity we call politics, and in this national election year we are keenly aware of this process. We desire freedom and peace, and our national conversations as to how to achieve this in the most equitable manner with the most noble result, occur at set times. We hope and pray that the conversations – the debates, the reportings, and the elections themselves – lead to answers that most of us can live with, peacefully, in community with one another. 

Just so the Church, that Body of Christ on earth, must organize its “political” life within the Church in much the same way. We meet yearly to elect and legislate and found and order anew. But we also protect what has gone on before – those things we have found to be good. We conserve and preserve and build upon the old to create and re-create the new.  

Man is naturally conservative in this sense, that he must build upon his past for good or ill, and that is why change is often difficult, even painful. Instinctively he holds on to his biography, his ancestral beginnings. Intuitively he honors memory, the recording of history whether it be personal, public, or institutional. Today hundreds of years and thousands of photos and documents can be stored in a tiny chip of metal, retrieved with the flick of a finger, so that flexing the memory muscle is not as needed. Or is it? 

It has been observed that we are losing our ability to memorize, losing memory itself, for we have instant access to information. If this is true, then our rituals and storytelling grow even more vital to both nation, church, and temple. Those who have thrown out their past will find their future rootless, their lives or countries or churches built upon sand. 

And so as we convened together in meetings and gathered together for meals this last week, our diocese was charged to remember, to build upon our history as we step into the future. We did this through word and sacrament, prayer and praise. We acted out the great drama of our life together kneeling in pews and sitting on folding chairs. We told our stories, giving life to the memory of who we were and are and who we will be. It was rather like weaving a beautiful tapestry, with each one of us adding a thread to the design. Soon we could see the image we had woven – one of faith, hope, and charity. 

At St. Peter’s on Saturday the archbishop knocked on the narthex doors. The doors flung open, and thirty clergy processed up the red carpet to the altar, two by two, lead by the thurifer, the torchbearers, and the crucifer. The archbishop came last, shepherding his sheep, regal in gold and holding a shepherd’s crook. The gilded robes looked heavy, the miter pressing, and just so his duties must weigh upon his soul, for he must feed and protect his sheep. 

And so the Mass began, and we told our story of God’s great love. We sang our song of confession and absolution, of offering and receiving, of uniting with the eternal in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. We told our story as we recited creed and read scripture, how God took on flesh to become one of us, to die for us, to live again for us and bring us with him. We told the story again and again, and especially on this Saturday morning in the slanting golden light that fell upon the red tabernacle and white altar, as our archbishop installed our newly elected bishop. We told the story as the bishop received the pectoral cross of our late Bishop Morse, a gesture reminding us to remember our journey to this moment. And we told the story as our bishop received his crozier, to remind him to remember that he must protect and feed his sheep. 

As Ruth R. Wisse writes in the Wall Street Journal, “All that has been earned and won cannot be maintained unless it is conserved and reinforced and transmitted and celebrated.” She is speaking of an “optimistic conservatism” seen in the observance of Passover, seen in the American rituals of Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. As individuals, citizens, and believers, we can lose it all if we don’t remember, if we don’t celebrate our stories, if we don’t remember to remember.

Drenched by Christ

Rain on hillsIt’s been raining here in northern California and our happy earth drinks in the spring drenching, this gift from the heavens. Perhaps our rolling greens will not turn to golden browns quite yet.

It is often these quiet things, these gentle tears of the skies, that delight human senses. We pause and watch and listen. We turn off phones and radios and TVs and ponder, seeing new life birthing in buds and babies, feeling our own beating hearts dance to the rhythm of our breathing.

We are beautiful creatures both infinitely complex and varied, composed of miraculous maps within, historical maps, biological maps, genetic maps. We look to the heavens and see the miraculous maps of the universe, God’s stardust. We are small, tiny parts of a whole, and yet we are giants, of tremendous worth to our loving Creator.

As I stepped through the Holy Liturgy in our parish church this morning, I gazed at the high altar covered with white Easter lilies. I was flooded with wonder. There we were, ordinary folks, sailing in this old ark of a church, taking part in eternity intersecting time. With raspy voices we sing our hymns and the organ pumps out jeweled notes. We are an integral part of the great thanksgiving, the Sunday offering, the Divine Liturgy, the “work of the people.” We hear the silence too, moments of prayer, quiet seconds linking words of confession and absolution, sacrament and scripture. We watch tall tapers flame behind white lilies, a garden holding the tabernacle of God’s Real Presence.

I have found that the Eucharistic liturgy is both earthy and heavenly, uniting our two natures. For the duration of this hour our bodies and souls sing as one, married, united by love.

I’ve been typing up my late bishop’s sermons, and when asked to offer word suggestions for a dedication plaque, I thought of the love of God. Our bishop showed us the love of God, that it was real and living, that it was ours for the asking. And of course, when we are showered with such love we can shower others with such love. It is who we are meant to be, why we were created, to love and be loved.

It is all a mystery. St. John writes that God is love: “He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). But love is far more than a feeling, just as God is far more than wishful thinking. Love is complex and simple, demanding and sacrificial. Just like God. 

So God the Father loves us through God the Son, Jesus, whose very name is holy, one to be breathed in and out with a sacred sense of life and living. It is a name beyond all names, and with the naming of God we pull Him into our hearts and minds and souls, enlivening our bodies with His very breath, the breath of His Holy Spirit.

We have a church conference coming up, an Anglican Synod, and the days together with parishes from many states will be days of mingling the heavenly and the earthly. We shall sit on hard chairs and listen to speeches and reports, but we will also pray together, sing together, and love one another. We shall weave a tapestry of the Body of Christ, so that we may unite as one breath of love, at one in the breathing in and out of the Holy Spirit, the Name of Jesus, to show our world that God is love.

Christ the Good ShepherdToday is called Good Shepherd Sunday. I have a beloved icon that shows Christ in red-and-blue robes carrying a lamb over His shoulders. A wooden crossbeam stretches behind Him. Christ is the Good Shepherd who loves His sheep. He knows them and they know Him. The lamb He carries is like the lamb carried into the temple for sacrifice. We know, of course, that Christ is the sacrificial lamb. He replaces the lamb once sacrificed. For love of us.

I have a recurring nightmare where I am hiking along a steep mountainside in the dusk of evening. I must reach safety before dark and I must watch where I step or I shall fall far into the caverns below. Waking from these nightmares I recall thankfully that Christ will find me wherever I am and bring me safely home with Him. I will not be lost, for not one of His sheep are lost. He is the Good Shepherd.

And because of the Church and its liturgical dance of love, I know His voice when he calls my name. Like Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, I recognize Him by his voice. Like the disciples at Emmaus I see Him in the breaking of the bread. He is real. He is love.

I also have a recurring dream in which I am flying like a bird, low over green hills, arms outstretched like wings. I can sense in the dream that my arms must push downward through the air so that I can rise, as though I am swimming. It is a beautiful dream, a soaring dream, and one beating with love.

And so like these green hills, drenched and quenched by the rain, I am drenched and quenched by Christ. Christ in sacrament and scripture, in song and dance, in the breath of each day. I know that nightmares will be redeemed by dreams, dark terrors turned into bright joys.

As the clergy and acolytes recessed down the red-carpeted aisle toward the open doors of the narthex, the crucifix held high, the torches aflame, we sang the wonderful Hymn #88, “Jesus Lives,” written by German poet Christian Gellert in 1757 and set to the tune “St. Albinus” in the 19th century by Henry Gauntlett. We are instructed in the top left corner of the page to sing joyously and so we do. I particularly like the first and fourth verses, for they sing of the promise of the Good Shepherd:

 Jesus lives! thy terrors now/ Can no longer, death, appall us;/ Jesus lives! by this we know/ Thou, O grave canst not enthrall us. Alleluia!

Jesus lives! our hearts know well/ Naught from us his love shall sever;/ Life, nor death, nor powers of hell/ Tear us from his keeping ever. Alleluia!

Easter Lilies

Easter LiliesIt is a rich and glorious season, this time of Eastertide. 

As I plucked wilting blossoms off my Easter lilies near our front door I inhaled the sweetness of those remaining, taking care to avoid the staining powder of the yellow stamens. I then attended the roses that once sat on my dining table and now are over the kitchen sink. Five buds are left with shorter stems clustered together in a small pitcher between sculpted figures of Mary Magdalene and an angel. As I gaze at these reminders of the season, and especially of Easter Day, I wonder at it all.

The season of Eastertide, the fifty days linking Easter and Pentecost, provide a joyful time of quiet reflection on the meaning of the Resurrection. The immense implications of this historical event, when eternity intersected time, continues to stun me. And the scripture readings assigned for these days reflect as well, considering the meaning of this new world that was created by the empty tomb.

And indeed a new world was created with the death and resurrection of Christ. It is a revolution changing everything. In one of his first resurrection appearances to the disciples Jesus gently explains what has happened. As our preacher said this morning, Christ appears to them in an upper room where the doors have been locked. He has passed through material barriers to be in their midst. He has power over the world of matter in which we live. Is he a ghost? A vision?

St. John’s eyewitness account describes how Christ points to his wounds in his hands and his side as proof he is no ghost or vision. The disciples can see and touch him. He has a material body of flesh and blood. He is real. And yet he has the power to pass through matter.

In much the same way he seeks to enter our hearts, our own bodily chambers, to dwell in us. How does he do this? He gives the apostles power to forgive sins by breathing his spirit upon them. From this time on, the apostles, who give life to the Church, act for God in the forgiveness of sins. Why?

Christ desires clean-swept hearts, hearts of light that have expelled the dark. He can only enter a heart that is full of light, enlightened, clean of sin.

It is a profound mystery and yet it is profoundly simple, just as each of us is a profound mystery and yet profoundly simple. All creation teems with intricate complexity yet delightful simplicity. The day turns to night. The rain falls on the earth. The sun shines. And the layered meanings and conclusions of learned theologians can be summed in one sentence: God is love.

Just as I pluck the dying trumpet blossoms with their staining stamens, I pluck out my own selfishness, greed, envy, pride, my own staining sin. I trundle to Mass and confess. I repent and am forgiven. I can now enter the open doors of the Eucharist through prayer and praise, Creed and Scripture, to meet Christ in the bread and the wine. He enters my body, heart, and soul. I am given life and light and joy, having partaken of the divine.

All this Christ Jesus taught and showed in his life on earth, as he walked among us. The week before his death he gave us the Holy Supper and showed how he would return among us again and again with each Eucharist. After his resurrection, he gave us the Church and the way to forgiveness. After his ascension he gave us his Holy Spirit to strengthen, to comfort us. All told, Christ Jesus gave us himself, the only path to Heaven – the Way, the Truth, and the Life for, as St. John writes in today’s Epistle,

 “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” (I John 5:4)

Sacred Sanity

Michelangelo CreationI have been typing and saving selections from our late Bishop Morse’s sermons and writings into Word files to be published soon by the American Church Union. As I type, I can see him saying the words, see his gestures, hear his tone and cadence, his deep and sonorous voice as he preached from the central aisle of churches and chapels.

There are several themes emerging from the lined yellow papers, all spinning around and within the Love of God, but the one that I have found especially true in my own life is the sanity of belief, the ordering of chaos, the means to a meaningful life. Sanity is rooted in the Latin sanitas, health. It has come to mean mental health, the ability to reason within the realm of reality. For the bishop, such sanity led to traces of sanctity.

It does strike me as odd and also tragic, as it did Bishop Morse, that so many don’t see what seems so obvious to many a Christian. It is heartbreaking to see hearts so broken and bleeding in our secular culture today. It is, I suppose, the cost of freedom and love and choice, all intrinsic to the whole cloth of Christian belief. But even so, as I journey into Christ I journey deeper into His tears, weeping for those I love, scattered like lost sheep in the deepening dusk at the end of the day.

There is much in the Gospels about seeing and hearing, watching and waiting, seeking and finding, asking and answering. Because these matters matter so much but are also tightly bound to the world of matter, they are often unseen and half-understood. Christ teaches in parables to help us understand how God has acted to redeem us from our selves, our selfishness. He is expressing the inexpressible, so that we can see and choose Him or not. Poets attempt this realm. I have found in the bishop’s sermons many quotes from Christian writers, from T.S. Eliot and St. Augustine, Boris Pasternak and Fyodor Dostoevsky, words that reflect the great themes of St. Paul who also tried to feed his flock in ways they would understand.

Many do not believe in Christ the Son of God because they think His life and death and resurrection unproven, and belief to be irrational and even insane. To me the Resurrection of Christ has been shown to be reasonably and historically true, certainly as true as the grass is green or the sky is blue. That’s enough for me. That’s enough to set me on my journey of faith and see where it leads. I have not been disappointed.

It leads of course to Christ’s Body on earth, the Church. For the Church, in spite of being composed of imperfect human beings, is the best ark we have. Within this sacred vessel bound for Heaven we feed on Scripture and sacrament, prayer and praise. We have mentors to guide us, brothers and sisters whom we love and who love us, each one finding his own unique God-given identity and purpose. Traveling this Way and with this Truth, I will fully know Life. I will learn love’s demands. With this Family of God, this Body of Christ, I will travel into the heart of God, and He into me. 

We are creatures designed to search for meaning. Without meaning we begin a journey into despair, for the path only stretches forward to life or backwards to death. Deep within we know this, and we search for meaning in little isms, so desperate are we to have a sane reason to continue living. Today there is an array of “meaningful” pursuits that don’t involve belief in God or His manifestation on earth among us. Unbelievers, casting about, create their own religions, whether they be of the earth or of man.

But Love demands freedom to choose. So God gives us choices, and some we make are insane and make no sense and some we make are sane and make complete sense. Some choices allow evil to fester and grow. Some choices distort and maim and kill.

As we try to choose sanely what or whom we believe and how we should order our lives, we should consider whether we desire our short spans to make a difference in this world or the next. Anyone can embrace good works without God (although such efforts are often short-lived and disingenuous), but to say yes to Christ, to ask our Creator to guide our choices, is to allow us to become our true selves, the persons we were made to be. So we ask ourselves, are we traveling in the right direction? Are we knowing joy? Can we say that we we are sane or are we living in a fantasy, phantasmal world of our own creation?

The word fantasy has roots in the Latin phantasia, imagination or appearance, and later phantom from phantazein, to make visible. Phantoms made the invisible visible. Today a fantasy is deemed untrue, imagined.

It is crucial to face what Bishop Morse calls “Reality,” to live a life of sanity and in the end, of sanctity. We are challenged to face the fact of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who called himself one with God the Father. We must look with eyes that see regardless of whether current correctness calls such facts fantasy. Have we not eyes and ears? Can we not see and hear? Have we not minds that can reason? And we must be humble enough to seek help from those who have made the journey before us. So much is at stake. We must ignore the phantasmal shapes, beware and be aware of the watering down of history to suit cultural mood and personal need, and steer away from phantasmal ghouls  wailing the sirens’ song.

We must face these truths and choose the path to Heaven. Then and only then can we know sacred sanity and genuine joy, even embrace traces of sanctity. We can, if we choose Love, sculpt our time on earth with magnificent meaning. Life is so short. We don’t want to miss one second on this reason-able pilgrimage into God.

All the Difference

star of bethlehem.jpgThomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution recently wrote about political lies of the last few years: 

“Lies are a wall between us and reality… Reality does not disappear because we don’t see it. It just hits us like a ton of bricks when we least expect it.”

Lies encourage us to deny reality, to “put our heads in the sand” and thus are dangerous. To say the Benghazi terrorist attacks (2012) were a demonstration over an inflammatory video, is a lie told to calm fear. But it invites complacency and so emboldens terrorists, both domestic and international. We have mourned lives lost in subsequent attacks because of this lie. This lie ensured the election of the current president, and a wall rose between our national defense and reality. 

And so too, as individuals, we might choose to believe lies for reasons of comfort. But such lies are dangerous as well, inviting greater suffering and confusion when reality “hits like a ton of bricks.” 

Reality has a way of eventually hitting us, and so too, belief in God and the claims of Christ are worthy of examination as to their truth, their reality. “What difference does it make?” many say, imbibing the lie of our culture that all beliefs are equal, all faiths equally true. While all believers are worthy of respect, how can all faiths be equally true, when one denies the claims of another? Alas, it makes a great deal of difference what a person believes. Living a true life means seeking the truth, embracing reality, sorting fact from fiction and avoiding the ton of bricks. One of the greatest lies of our age is that there is no truth. The truth exists apart from us, whether or not we can grasp it at any particular moment. 

I have long suspected the lie of “closure” in regards to mourning. Stephen J. Forman, a cancer doctor, writes in the Wall Street Journal “how the loss of a loved one is a part of each person’s life forever…. the reality is that closure is a myth.” Grief changes over time, but grief is woven into the weave of our souls, giving us greater compassion, understanding, and empathy. It makes us “wise” or “deep” or simply “good.” Suffering and grief helps us see. To remember at sudden moments, even with tears, those whom we have lost is a good thing, not one to be suppressed: 

“The danger of the idea of closure is that it heightens aloneness, by giving us a false expectation that these experiences should and will at some point end. They won’t… To deny (memories) is to deny precious moments of love, fellowship, gratitude and inspiration… To close the memory does not sustain the healing or help in proceeding with life. Such echoes from the past are voices in the present and are sometimes warmly felt.” 

This can be said of nations as well. To close echoes from the past is to deny who we are, forged by the past in this moment in time. To live only in the present is to force closure on the past, to live a lie, to disavow our nature. Our history is our life story, our identity as Americans. It is a cloak we cannot afford to shed, one our nation must wear in order to survive. 

To find closure after terrorism may for a time ease our national life. We pretend it didn’t happen and we carry on. But it is a lie to say it makes no difference. Of course it makes a difference. Those who died for our country must remind us continually what is real, what is true and what is false in our national narrative, how we face our future and defend our freedoms. 

Children long for boundaries. They beg for limits so that they can see the truth about their world, what is good and what is bad. Good parenting sets limits and teaches the truth, the reality, of forbidden territory. In this way they become responsible adults, for they have learned what is real. They can search for truth and face it. 

And so as we worshiped in church this morning on this First Sunday after Epiphany I gazed at our bishop’s chair, empty. He left us for Heaven, and now, seven months after his parting, his wife has joined him. As I looked upon the chair, I was gifted with a flashing memory of the bishop and his wife, as I knelt on the russet tiles, in the filtered light streaming from clerestory windows, in the singing together the Creed, the Gloria, the Our Father. The bishop and his wife were epiphanies that graced my life and I knew that they would continue to grace my life through the opening of my memory, the refusal of memory’s closure. Their lives were woven into mine, as mine was into theirs, through love, through the grace of God. I consider those memories, even in the depths of loss, to be precious piercings of my heart. These epiphanies, these openings, reweave my heart and soul, adding to the texture. I do not desire or need closure. 

In the Church, the Feast of Epiphany celebrates the coming of the Wise Men from the East who brought the Christ Child gifts. Epiphany means manifestation, the revealing of God in human form in Jesus in Bethlehem. With Epiphany, Christ is now manifested to the world, not just to Israel, not just to God’s chosen ones. The Wise Men follow a star so that the heavens as well take part in this epiphany, this revealing of God. They follow the star to a stable, a hillside cave. The universe shines a beam of light onto a newborn baby in the hay. The Magi, scientists of their time who studied the heavens, kneel before this child. They bring him gold for his kingship, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh for his burial. After this epiphany in their lives, they will never be the same. 

And we will never be the same. Like the Magi, we kneel before Our Lord in our local church. We gather before his tabernacle, his stable, just as the Magi did two thousand years ago. We pray that we be made worthy to receive him through confession and absolution. As we pray, we are changed by the prayer itself, for we enter moments of epiphany, dwelling in time woven with eternity, knowing that God himself is with us and within us. 

To kneel before the manger or before the altar, experiencing such love, and to say it didn’t happen is to deny reality. It is to lie about the greatest truth of all, the greatest reality of all, God dwelling among us. For if God loves us and lives among us and within us, it makes all the difference to our own lives, and to all the world. We can now look truth in the face, even search for it boldly, knowing that we will be wiser, like the Magi on that holy night two thousand years ago. Our lives will never be about closure, but about opening. We will travel, epiphany by epiphany, into the open heart of God.

 

A Light in Time

Advent St. JIt is a season of renewal, a time when we review the old year and make resolutions for the new one. We judge our time, our spending of time, our use or abuse of the year 2015. Each year is a gift. It is a unique segment of our lives, a year we cannot retrieve and a year that will never be repeated. We are given only one chance with our lives, only one chance with the time given.

And so we look back and consider what habits to discard and what to keep, what to repent and what to repeat, what to affirm and what to deny. Sometimes confusion reigns even in hindsight, and the better path not obvious even from this vista point, perched as we are on the cliff at the end of the year, getting ready to jump into 2016, a new segment of time granted to us, this new year. 

“She had the time of her life.” We say this to emphasize a moment of great exuberance and joy, a peak time amidst the other valleys. But all time is of our lives. All time is holy.

As I look back on my year, I do indeed see confusion and chaos. A good friend and mentor left our earthly time and entered eternity, leaving us behind. Another friend is getting ready to leave, in hospice care. Her bags are nearly packed and she is peacefully waiting the chariot.

In the past year there have been many risings to occasions and putting best feet forward and keeping stiff upper lips. There have been duties and responsibilities not always heartfelt, actions ordered by God’s law of love. There have been dark times in shadowy valleys where answers could not be seen, where the fork in the road had no signpost, or the sign had been lost, thrown into the bushes.

And yet looking back at 2015 I also see clarity and order. My good friend and mentor in Heaven left me many gifts that live on bridging our separation, gifts of wisdom and love, ways to see and believe, the necessity of humility and its fruit, repentance. My friend waiting for her journey to Heaven continues to gift me in her last days, but I can see clearly now that her friendship itself was given to me to make sense of my own time.

The risings to occasions, the duties and responsibilities not eagerly engaged, rewove my own heart to be of stronger stuff, not so easily thwarted by dismay and danger, informing my soul again with God’s law of love. The dark times through the journey of 2015 led me to the altar of my local church, pushing me to my knees in penitence and prayer, and when I re-entered the world I found myself on the top of a mountain of light with a clear view of the surrounding countryside.

We do indeed live behind the veil of eternity. Some of us glimpse the brilliant color and catch the fragrance and sensory delight on the other side. Some of us hear the music, the choirs of angels and the songs of the saints. Some of us don’t know how to lift the curtain or even believe that it can be lifted or that it is there at all, thinking this world is all there is.

And so as I stepped through the dark days of Advent, those short wintry days, I watched and I prayed and I worshiped God in his Church, calling for Christ’s coming, singing with his people. Slowly, a light shined in the darkness, revealing my place in the world, my place in my moment of time. I observed the rituals and rites of Christmas with their sacramental signs, knowing they would lead me to the light to see again.

I garlanded the evergreen in our bowed window and strung twinkling lights through the branches. Ornaments from the years of my life were resurrected from tissue nests in boxes, where they had lived since last Christmas. The figurines and balls and tassels hanging from bits of wire released memories from the prison of my mind, giving them air, and a stained-glass gathering of family and children and loved ones crowded happily with one another in my heart.

In the days before Christmas – after the parish pageant on Advent IV – I set up our large crèche figures on the hearth and dangled a golden star from the mantel. Fresh white candles found holders in all the rooms so that I would not forget the great light coming soon to the world to banish the dark, the darkness of winter, the darkness of my soul.

So the confusion of life, after all, I learned once again, can be cleared. There is a way to lighten the darkness, as described by St. John whose feast we celebrate today:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not… That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

John 1+, Gospel reading for Christmas Day

And in one of John’s letters to an early church:

“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”             I John 1+

And so, as my good friend in Heaven taught me, one must walk in the light – that is, penitently – in order to see in the darkness. He also gave me the gift of the Church, the Body of Christ, that leads me to the light. For only by entering the doors of Christ’s Body can we experience clarity amidst confusion. Only by walking up the aisle to kneel at the altar can we know the love of God and his forgiveness. Only by observing our time, each day, hour, minute, within the seasons of the life of the Church, can we find our way forward into the New Year that awaits each of us.

I look back upon 2015 and see a map of love through time. I want to follow that path that journeys with Love incarnate. I look forward to 2016, every minute, every hour, every step of the way, lit by the light and love of Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us.

A Still Small Voice

Elijah in JerusalemI’ve been rereading for review Michael O’Brien’s Elijah in Jerusalem released in August by Ignatius Press. The story has seamlessly woven into my Advent readings from Isaiah and Revelation which focus on similar themes about the End-Times. The tribulations are great, the plagues horrific, death rides the world. In the midst of these apocalyptic themes, we see the Prophet Elijah, returning as one of two last witnesses to warn the Anti-Christ. He is humble. He can hear the still small voice of God.

Today we recall the End-Times and Christ’s Second Coming as we prepare for the celebration of his First Coming at Christmas. In both preparations, we must face judgment. We must clean out our hearts to be worthy to receive him at Christmas and to kneel before him at the Judgment. In both senses, these Advent scrubbings are made easier when we consider Christ is not only judge but loving redeemer, the Way, Truth, and Light. We are moved by love not fear, by the desire to be more like him, more in him, more a part of him.

It is this dependency, this trust, this smallness that is at the heart of confession and absolution. It is in the not-knowing that we find rest, not in the knowing. 

I often wondered about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why were Adam and Eve punished for desiring knowledge of Good and Evil? To be sure, they were disobedient which is reason enough to be sent out of Eden. But why that particular tree? Don’t we want that kind of discernment? 

Our Father Elijah in O’Brien’s novel wrestles with an aspect of this problem. He wants clear instructions. He wants to know. His heart is eager to do God’s will, he fasts, prays, goes without sleep. But there are times when God is silent. Our Father Elijah cannot hear the still small voice that the Prophet Elijah of Scripture had heard on the mountain and Elijah himself had heard earlier. Our Father Elijah becomes despondent. Why has the Spirit left him? What is he to do next? Did he misread his earlier instructions? Wasn’t he supposed to leave Ephesus and journey to Jerusalem to confront a man who many thought the messiah and others thought the Anti-Christ? Weren’t he and Enoch, his companion, to be the two witnesses mentioned in Scripture? Was he having grandiose ideas of their true mission? 

The doubts assail him. He doesn’t know what to do. He finally realizes that his demand for answers, his need for control, is in itself the obstacle. His need to know – to eat of that fruit – is preventing him from hearing God’s voice. Only in his humility, his trust, can he hear God’s voice and truly know, so that he can take the next step, do God’s will. 

Father Elijah is a Carmelite monk, an order founded on Mount Carmel, the traditional home of the Prophet Elijah. The Prophet Elijah of the Old Testament retreated to a mountain to pray:

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind n earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.  (I Kings 19:11,12)

Our Father Elijah must learn to hear this still small voice as his namesake had done. He must seek a humility that opens his ears to hear. Being gifted with a keen intellect, the challenge is great to accept this cloud of unknowing, one embraced by Christian mystics going back to St. Augustine of Hippo. 

Unknowing. A difficult desire. I love the old hymn’s refrain: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” I have often thought that the best cure for stress, anxiety, and depression is simply to trust in God. We still must plan, work, learn, organize, and arrange our lives. But at the end of the day, when we have done our perceived duty (the conscience of love), meeting the demands of family, faith, friends, vocation, we can release from prison any anxiety that remains.

We pray the Psalms and read the lessons for Morning and Evening Prayer. We pray an Our Father and a Glory Be. We invoke Our Lady with “Hail Mary, blessed art thou…”, we pray for others by name and intention, and for ourselves that we not lose the humility that will open our ears to God’s voice.  “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We quiet our hearts and minds. We listen to the words of the Creed on our lips, the Te Deum, the Jubilate Deo, the Venite. We then take our rest in the heart of God, in the palm of his hand. All anxiety flees, banished by humility.

On this Third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday (Gow-day-tay Sunday), meaning Rejoice Sunday, we sing an introit of joy: 

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete… Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85 (84):1 

We light the rose candle amidst the purple penitential candles nesting in their Advent greens, and we consider Heaven, having faced Death and Judgment on Advent One and Two. We await Christ’s advent at Christmas, his advent in our hearts and bodies in the Eucharist, and his Second Coming in Judgment. The way to Heaven is narrow we are told, rather like the eye of a needle. We need to be small enough and humble enough to cling to Christ as he rises us up, to enter Heaven with him. 

 And so the Church cradles us through the year, teaching us how to grow toward Heaven, with its seasons of penitence and joy. We are of the world and not of the world, living fully within creation yet knowing we are destined for something even greater and more glorious: Heaven.

And so we do indeed rejoice.

Advent Editing

writingSince signing a contract with eLectio Publishing earlier this week for the publication of my novel, The Fire Trail, to be released May 10, I have been rereading the manuscript, polishing, fine-tuning. Words and phrases are deleted and replaced, sentences are shaved and reshaped, paragraphs and pages and chapters judged as honestly as possible.

It would seem an appropriate work to tackle during Advent, a season of penitence and preparation as we wait for the celebration of Christ’s advent at Christmas. For like the examination of my words, Advent is also a time to examine my heart, to see what should be deleted from my life and replaced, discouraged or encouraged, torn down or shored up, what should be shaved and reshaped, what should be confessed, judged, and absolved. It is a time when we ask that God’s law be written on our hearts.

For Advent is about change, about the editing of our lives.

When I edit a manuscript I measure it against certain standards. I’ve learned and hopefully continue to learn the craft of writing fiction, the structure of the novel, the way words, story, plot, and character weave together. I try to fill my ears and eyes and mind with good writing, to absorb vocabulary and symbols and images, to improve my own attempts to hold my manuscript up to a standard. I listen to language, the rhythm and syntax and flow of dialog and description, attending to the music of words and their dance, be it a minuet or a waltz.

Editing is about choice, choice based on a standard. And for mankind those standards were given to us when God wrote his law on tablets of stone, and Moses carried them down the mountain to God’s chosen ones. That law was fulfilled, filled with fullness, made perfect, when Jesus the Christ was born in a hillside cave outside Bethlehem. That law was fulfilled with his life, his death, and his resurrection from death into life, his shattering of the veil between man and God, his making them at-one, in his Atonement.

In the season of Advent we look to Christmas, to the celebration of the birth of Our Lord. We do this by editing our lives using his standards, his rule of law, his law of love. We want to be ready to receive him into the words and pages of our days, weeks, years, to welcome him to live in our chapters and breathe life into our own stories. To be ready we need to edit ourselves.

Some of us think we have nothing to delete or add to our lives. We are fine the way we are. The problem of sin is for others, not us. It is time then to begin with beginnings: the Ten Commandments. Curiously, they are difficult to keep in today’s culture of distraction. The first four are considered sins against God; the last six are sins against one another. Today we’ll look at the sins against God. These will be challenging enough to suggest a robust humility:

  1. God spake these words: I am the LORD thy God; Thou shalt have none other gods but me.
  1. Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them; for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and show mercy unto thousands in them that love me and keep my commandments.

Do I worship false gods? Do I spend too much time, talent, or treasure on anything that is not to God’s glory, not a part of his plan for me? Has my own selfishness hurt my children, and taught them how to be selfish too, to in turn hurt their children, my grandchildren?

  1. Thou shalt not take the Name of the LORD thy God in vain. 

The everyday use of “OMG” today is astounding. The commandment not to use God’s in vain would seem the easiest of all, and yet saying the name of God frivolously, without meaning or reverence, that is, in vain, is a common transgression. We say it. We hear it. We read it. Bestsellers and mainstream movies use this language liberally without thought to the power of words, whether spoken or written. I can edit my tongue, and edit my reading list, but it is more difficult to edit what I hear. A friend’s solution to this oral pollution was powerful: when someone says “God!” or “Christ!” my friend offers up her own prayer by adding “be praised!” The addition, I’ve found, invites holiness into the moment, making each word spoken precious.

  1. Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath-day.

For Christians, Sunday is the Sabbath, celebrating Christ’s Resurrection. I must confess I don’t always feel like going to church on Sunday, but I’m always glad I went. I’ve found that regular worship edits my soul, fine-tuning it, regulating its rhythms and guiding its dance. What happens in that simple hour of song and Scripture and sacrament is mystifying, miraculous. I am changed. Words do not fully explain it but I’ll try a few: I enter disordered and leave re-ordered, I enter guilty and leave absolved, I enter sorrowful and leave joyful, I enter depressed and leave enlightened, I enter dying and leave reborn. Keeping Sunday holy by uniting with Christ’s Body is crucial to the editing of the soul.

And so the manuscripts of Me and You are works-in-progress, to be published in Heaven, on our personal release dates, our new birth-days. There is, for me, much to work on, many areas to refashion and rebuild. The editing is ongoing, with the help of sacrament and song and Scripture, with the advent of Christ in history in Bethlehem, the advent of Christ today in the Eucharist and his Spirit in daily prayer, and the advent of Christ at the end of time.

Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.

All Hallows

all saintsHallowe’en comes from the contraction of All Hallows Eve. To hallow is to make holy, and October 31 was (and is) the eve before All Hallows Day, or the All the Holy Ones Day, All Saints, honoring Christian saints. The celebration is followed by Allhallowstide, in which all of the Christian dead are remembered. This coming week churches all over world will remember their dead, their loved ones, calling out their names on All Souls Day and, in this ceremony of love, hallowing them. The evening before, Halloween, sees the last of the unfriendly spirits roaming the night, for they are vanquished by the light of Christ in the morning, and fear is vanquished by joy.

Sometimes fear is good. It is an intuitive instinct that signals danger. Gavin de Becker, an expert who evaluates potential threats to famous people, titled his invaluable book on safety, The Gift of Fear. And in this sense, fear is a gift, a survival signal, a warning that lights the dark.

Children are afraid of the dark. And we should be too. Novelist Jake Halpern writes in the Wall Street Journal about fear of the dark:

“Since the dawn of man, night has been a time when we were in danger, when we were vulnerable – to lions, club-toting men and giant chasms into which we could fall… it was evolutionarily advantageous for us to be afraid of the dark. Those of us who feared the night and cowered from its dangers, survived. Those who went for strolls in the dark ended up as snacks for lions.”

Today with electric light we laugh such fears away. Yet we are ambivalent about fear itself, sometimes denying it, sometimes welcoming it. We flirt with it, tease it, to see what happens when it draws near, for we have banished most survival fears from long ago such as hunger, shelter, wild animals. We are curious, enticed by darkness.

A friend of mine once claimed that she liked the feeling of fear, of being on the edge of danger, secondhand fear experienced in a book or movie. There are many words for this feeling of excitement. We shudder and shiver, chilled to the bone. A frisson gives us goosebumps. A ghost walks over our grave. We are on the edge of our seats, waiting to be safe again. What is the lure? Why flirt with the dark, with falling into the abyss? Are we rehearsing our future? Our death?

Halloween has in many ways become a rehearsal as well, as children (and adults) don costumes and pretend to be someone or something else and venture into the dark. For some the choice is innocent role playing, choosing to be princes and princesses, musicians or athletes. Still, others choose to be witches and goblins. Some choose the light and some the dark. Some choose life and some choose death: skeletons, ghosts, and grim reapers, desiring to scare.

Our nation too seems on the edge of darkness, in the dusk of its day, playing dangerous games with life and death, slaughtering generations of unborn innocents. We survivors look away, pass on the other side of the road, just as we do in the world theater of wars and rumors of wars, withdrawing and allowing the dark to swallow the light, whether in Moscow or Tehran or the borderlands of the West.

Light and darkness, life and death. The line between them is not often clear, sometimes smudged into dusk and dawn. And so it is in our hearts, where good sheds light and evil darkens.

And so I’m grateful that the dark of All Hallows’ Eve is banished by the light of All Hallows’ Day and the light of Sunday resurrection. This morning I gazed upon six thick white candles on the stone altar of St. Joseph’s Chapel near U.C. Berkeley. The candles flamed brightly, the fiery wicks drinking in the air above, flickering their tips toward heaven. A roughly carved crucifix rose above the tabernacle, beyond the suspended Sanctus light. We stood and turned toward the entry as five student acolytes processed in, carrying torches and crucifix, followed by the white-robed clergy. The organ bellowed through the vaulted domed space and echoed over the russet-tiled floor as we joined in songs of praise to God for his saints.

Halloween would not exist if it were not for All Saints, the holy-day that gives the costumed evening its name. After the night of darkness, a weak sun broke through this morning and bathed our world in light. We sang as one people, giving thanks for those men and women who chose the light and turned away from the dark. Martyred for their choice, and today still being martyred, we honor them. History has known a world without Christ, a world of impenetrable darkness, one rightly feared. We peer through the dusk of our days, keeping our candles lit, sharing the love of God, the light of Christ, looking to the morning of resurrection.